In Shinwon’s dreams, when he reaches out for Hwitaek’s hands and says “I like you, hyung,” Hwitaek would beam up at him and hold his hand back, lean closer and say “I like you too, Shinwon-ah.” Shinwon has dreamed about that way too much, daydreamed and night-dreamed so much that he can almost feel Hwitaek’s breath against his lips when he says those words, cool and comforting against chapped skin. But his dreams only ever stop at that — Hwitaek’s lips so close but never quite touching his, just a touch, no, a breath, no, a heartbeat away and then Shinwon wakes up.
But dreams are not reality and Shinwon must remember that. Reality never changes just because he daydreams and night-dreams, instead it slaps him across the face, or, maybe, splashes ice cold water at him, like a warning. Wake up wake up wake up, it screams until it leaves Shinwon’s ears ringing, you’re dreaming you’re dreaming you’re dreaming. But it hurts when Shinwon is slapped and his face is numb from the ice so he pretends that he’s too busy healing to hear.
(In reality, when he reaches out for Hwitaek’s hands and says “I like you, hyung”, Hwitaek does hold his hand back. But he doesn’t beam up at him, only grimaces, a bittersweet grin plastered across his cheeks. His smile is shaky as he squeezes Shinwon’s hand once, out of pity, maybe, “You shouldn’t.”)
Shinwon isn’t sure how finding Hwitaek fast asleep in his arms when he stirs awake became a regular thing, and he also can’t decide whether he likes it or not. Hwitaek is small and he fits right into Shinwon’s arms, like the oversized plushies that Hongseok used to give him as a joke, or the ones fans gift them at fansigns, plus he is never not warm to the touch; but at the same time his heart aches a little whenever he looks down at Hwitaek who is snuggled into his chest, because he looks so beautiful it hurts and because it’s a rare sight to see him like that, contently asleep and his head blissfully blank, rid of any worries that usually clog his head up most times of the day. During those times, Shinwon would feel his breath hitch a little and his heart go faster. He wonders if Hwitaek could feel the thumping of Shinwon’s heart, loud and nervous, against his temple. Maybe he could but doesn’t say anything about it. Maybe he’s too tired to notice.
They never talk about it, not even when they wake up in the morning, eyes blurry and limbs tangled. Hwitaek would simply smile at him sleepily, a subtle curl of his lips as he detaches himself from Shinwon, unfazed. Shinwon would say good morning to him nonchalantly and get a hum in response back, and they would walk out the bedroom (usually Hwitaek’s) together. No one blinks an eye, Hongseok and Hyunggu, if they are already awake, barely even notice. Shinwon thinks that, maybe, he is thinking too much about something that is probably insignificant when there are other more important things to focus on.
It’s almost two in the morning when Shinwon knocks on the door of Hwitaek’s studio. There is a faint call of “come in” from Hwitaek, so Shinwon pushes the door open and sits down right onto his futon, a plastic bag in his hands. He shoves it towards Hwitaek’s direction, “You should eat, hyung.”
“What’s that?” Hwitaek peers into the bag before taking it, placing it onto the table. He pulls out the roll of kimbap Shinwon got from the convenience store downstairs and an energy drink, and he smiles up at him in a mellow, tired sort of way, “How did you know I haven’t eaten? Thank you, by the way.”
Shinwon snorts, “It doesn’t take a genius to know that you’re overworking yourself again, hyung. Eat up.”
Hwitaek laughs quietly, already unwrapping the plastic wrapping of his roll of kimbap. He stuffs a piece into his mouth and chews happily even if it’s just shitty kimbap that the convenience store can’t sell out, and offers Shinwon one.
The younger shakes his head and takes Hwitaek’s wrist, pushing it back gently, “I’ve eaten, hyung. It’s all yours.”
“Okay, then,” Hwitaek huffs, frowning to himself. His black hair falls in front of his eyes and the dark circles are hard to not notice, but he still looks unbelievably beautiful in his studio, the only thing lighting the room up being the cheap lamp on his desk. Shinwon doesn’t even realise how much he’s staring until Hwitaek jostles him on the knee, and he looks up, startled.
“Is there something on my face?”
Shinwon shakes his head dismissively, and lies, “I’m just zoning out, I’m kind of tired.”
Hwitaek hums thoughtfully, turning to look at the clock, “I guess it’s kind of late, huh.”
They sit together in Hwitaek’s studio, settling into a comfortable silence. At one point Shinwon dozes off, only that he doesn’t know until Hwitaek is nudging him awake. He blinks as Hwitaek, for once, towers over him, telling him to scoot over. He does, and Hwitaek squeezes in next to him on the futon. It certainly isn’t meant for two grown men but they make do even if it is a tight squeeze, and Shinwon, more out of habit than anything else, throws an arm around Hwitaek’s shoulder, pulling him closer. Hwitaek sighs and snuggles in, and they fall asleep like that.
The next morning, Shinwon wakes up with a crick in his neck and his arm around Hwitaek is numb, but he doesn’t have the heart to complain about it because Hwitaek looks content enough falling asleep in an equally uncomfortable position, and the thought of having him in his arms when he wakes up is enough to make up for the pain anyway. Hwitaek blinks awake after a few minutes, and the first thing he does is to whine about his neck, which apparently hurts a lot. Shinwon barely bites back a laugh.
October goes by like a bittersweet blur, as do all comeback periods do. This time they do particularly well and it is probably sweeter than it is bitter, but certain articles were released on a particular Monday and from then on the thought of Hwitaek leaving keeps looming over Shinwon’s head like a shadow, and it leaves his heart heavy in the hollow of his chest. They’ve worked so hard in the past weeks and finally schedules are slowing down, they have more time to themselves and more time to rest. Shinwon looks out of the car on a particular slow day and realises that the leaves are beginning to fall, which means that autumn is fading away and winter is approaching. He has always liked winters but this time he’s dreading it, and he knows very well why. He wishes he could freeze time and that they could stay in this particular autumn forever, blissfully unaware of and uninterested in what the future holds, prays every night that God would make time pass slower so Hwitaek isn’t leaving (him) anytime soon.
He tells that to Hongseok, when they are crammed in the backseat of their van together. Hwitaek has another schedule to attend to so he isn’t with them, and Hyunggu looks too tired to pay attention to their conversation, plus he has his headphones plugged in, so he couldn’t even hear them if they tried.
It goes like this:
“I wish time could stop,” Shinwon says casually, startling Hongseok from his phone and whatever he’s looking at. Hongseok turns his head to look at him, gentle eyes peeking through dark blue hair, and quirks his lips a little, and it’s almost like he knows.
But he does ask patiently, as if to play along, “Why?”
Shinwon shrugs, “I don’t know. We’ve been very happy lately, and I don’t want that to end, I guess.”
Hongseok laughs, soft and wistful, “Well, I suppose you’re right.”
“Yeah,” Shinwon nods to himself, and Hongseok smiles at him again before turning back to his phone. The conversation ends, just like that, but at one point, towards the end of the ride back to their dorms, Hongseok reaches over to pat him on the knee once, warm and firm as he gives Shinwon another small, knowing smile.
(At this point, Shinwon is convinced that Hongseok knows what he means, and for some twisted reason he’s grateful for that, maybe because it means that someone knows how he is feeling without the need of him articulating it.)
The dressing room is buzzing with gentle white noise, the quiet chatters of the stylists and managers filling out the room. Shinwon is sitting on the couch, next to Hwitaek, waiting for his turn to get his hair fixed. Across them is another couch, where Wooseok and Yuto are squeezed together, impossibly close even if the couch has more than enough space to sit the both of them comfortably and still can occupy one more person without it being too much of a tight squeeze, their hands intertwined. Shinwon watches as Yuto presses a gentle kiss onto Wooseok’s forehead, not trying to be discreet at all, and thinks about how, if Hwitaek actually felt the same, this could be him and Hwitaek too, happily in love and happily loved back.
“They are cute together, aren’t they?” Hwitaek murmurs into his ear, and Shinwon almost jumps in surprise. He manages to muster out a laugh, casting another look towards Yuto and Wooseok’s direction, before saying, “Yeah. They’re good for each other, I think.”
Hwitaek hums in affirmation, “They are.”
Shinwon tries to ignore the ache that is squeezing at his heart and nods again. For some reason, he tastes bitter on the tip of his tongue and it spreads to his whole mouth, and it tastes just like the beer he pretends to like whenever he goes out drinking, dry and dull and it stings just a bit when it goes down his throat. He licks his chapped lips and stands up, says something about needing lip balm. Hwitaek nods distractedly and Shinwon looks for one of the stylists, who gives him a tube of probably expensive lip balm. When he is done he goes back to the couch and sits back down, and Hwitaek scoots closer almost immediately, half-leaning on Shinwon’s arm but not quite touching, his eyes drooping close.
Shinwon is almost scared of how he responds immediately by sliding down a little so Hwitaek could lean on his shoulder, but the other shakes his head tiredly, “Don’t wanna mess up my hair.”
“Your hair’s gonna be messed up either way,” Shinwon snorts. Hwitaek shoots him an unamused look, but he does lean further into his side, shutting his eyes again. They stay like that until they have to get ready for their stage, Hwitaek taking his nap with Shinwon as his pillow of some sort. Hongseok smirks at him, teasing and wry, when he sees the two of them while a stylist fixes the buttons of his shirt. Shinwon stares back blankly and pretends to not understand.
The promotion period ends. They still have schedules to attend and a concert to rehearse for, but as the days go by Shinwon finds himself counting down the days to Hwitaek’s imminent departure. The more he tells himself not to think about it, the more he gets reminded of it — it could be a call from Jinho from a military camp miles away, a movie night with Hwitaek and Hongseok and Hyunggu which Shinwon realises could be among the last in two years, or just a simple look at Hwitaek, and he will remember how Hwitaek is leaving (him) soon. It reaches to the point where Shinwon would randomly bring it up during a behind-the-scenes video or a radio show, because the weight in his chest and on his tongue is so heavy that it is almost pulling him down. During those times Hwitaek would just laugh it off, an overly stretched grin on his face as he bursts into over-dramatic laughter. But when the cameras are off no one really addresses it, not even Hwitaek himself, so Shinwon chooses to stay quiet and sulks over it on his own.
The thought that Hwitaek is leaving is still foreign in Shinwon’s blurry mind, because when he actually thinks about it, they have never been apart for anything longer than a week for the past six (or even more, days and months and years blur together as time passes) years, and even if realistically Hwitaek isn’t going to be completely detached and away for over a year like Jinho, not being able to see him almost everyday is something that Shinwon doesn’t think he will ever get used to. It leaves an ache in the hollow in his chest, barely-there but it stings a little too much for it to go unnoticed. Shinwon is used to hiding his feelings and covering them up with a smile, because he is never good at expressing himself with words, but he knows that he is easier to read than he cares to admit, that it is written all over his face when he is especially upset. This time round, though, he realises that he shouldn’t be too obvious with his sulking. It is not him who is leaving, after all, it is Hwitaek — and if Hwitaek barely says a word about how he is feeling about leaving, maybe Shinwon shouldn’t too, at least when the cameras are off.
There’s something lingering in the air of the dorm, but Shinwon couldn’t pinpoint what it is. It’s a friday night, Hyunggu is over at dorm B and Hongseok is going home to visit his parents so that leaves Shinwon and Hwitaek alone together for the night. Hwitaek suggested putting on something to watch together so Shinwon had randomly played an episode of a show he likes on Netflix. It is playing on the TV as they sit on the couch, knees touching but not close enough for Hwitaek to lean onto Shinwon like he always does. It is an old episode of an old show, Shinwon has watched it more than he can remember, so he gets distracted pretty quickly, but Hwitaek looks interested enough in the plot for him to keep his eyes on the screen. The dorm would be eerily quiet if not for the loud sounds from the TV, and Shinwon feels like he should say something but he has no idea where to start.
Between the two of them, talking has always been easy. In the first few weeks when Shinwon first joined the company they were awkward because it takes time for Hwitaek to warm up to people, and most of the time he would just smile at him in a detached sort of way as a greeting and respond to Shinwon’s attempts of small talk politely. But they’ve known each other for so long now and they are much closer than they have been, Shinwon defines late night conversations with Hwitaek as comfortable and easy. Both of them are observant and just an exchanged look between them is enough for them to understand what’s going on in each other’s minds, so Shinwon never had trouble with telling Hwitaek his feelings about most things, even if it might not be the case in front of other people.
(But this time, he finds it hard to even look Hwitaek in the eye. When he wonders why, it isn’t difficult to come up with an answer.)
The episode ends, and Shinwon goes to turn off the TV but Hwitaek stops him before he can, fingers locking around his wrist for just a second as he shakes his head.
“Let’s put on another episode,” Hwitaek suggests, but there really is no room for disagreement and it’s not like Shinwon could say no to Hwitaek if he tried anyway, so he just nods wordlessly and lets the next episode play automatically.
Shinwon manages to hold his thoughts in for half the episode until he gets fed up and he is thinking so loud that there is ringing in his ears, so he turns his head to look at Hwitaek, who looks oddly invested into a show that he has never seen in his life and never seemed to have expressed interest in. He speaks up, soft unlike how loud his heart is beating in his chest and in his ears, “Hyung.”
Hwitaek doesn’t seem to hear him, so Shinwon says again, a little louder, “Hyung.”
He is met with silence, but not for long. Hwitaek turns to look at him with a hum, and suddenly he doesn’t seem to be all that interested in the show anymore, “Yeah?”
There was a lot he wanted to say, but he finds himself at a loss of words as soon as Hwitaek is looking at him, so he licks at his chapped lips and tries to quirk his lips up into a small smile, staring at anywhere but the other’s eyes. Hwitaek sits there patiently, and he purses his lips in a gentle way, not quite a smile but urging him to go on.
Shinwon opens his mouth, and closes it. He gathers all the words that are in his head and sitting on his tongue, broken into syllables that only make sense when put together. The episode that is playing on the TV is long forgotten, and Hwitaek is no longer paying attention (or, pretending to pay attention) to it, shifting a little closer to Shinwon.
Two characters are fighting on the TV, and it seems to be a pretty heated argument with a lot of screaming and throwing things around, but it becomes white noise to the two of them, balancing out the eerie silence in the dorm. Hwitaek looks away and diverts his gaze onto a loose thread on his sweatshirt.
“I don’t want you to leave,” Shinwon says finally. Suddenly that something snaps, like a rubber band that is pulled to its limit, or a ruler that finally breaks in half after being bent for so long. Shinwon has been bracing himself for the impact but it is gone as soon as it is here, and the tension dissipates and dissolves into something duller, like a numb pain in his chest that he can’t quite feel unless he really stays still.
Hwitaek’s eyes flicker up at him, bittersweet as he purses his lips, a halfhearted attempt to smile, “I know. But I have to.”
There is a word left unsaid, and maybe that’s the numb pain in his chest. Shinwon wonders if it would be gone once he says it, so he adds, eyeing Hwitaek carefully, “I don’t want you to leave me.”
He is met with silence, and Shinwon doesn’t know what he had expected. Hwitaek looks deep in thought, like he’s speechless and desperately searching for a single word to say in his blank mind, before he looks up at Shinwon again and into his eyes.
“I don’t want to leave you, too.”
Shinwon blinks. The ache in his chest goes away as it is replaced by something else — not hot enough to sting but at the same time too hot to be just warm, like the hot packs he likes to use during the winter that make his palms sweat, only that this time he feels it right where his heart is, loud and beating. Words dry to his tongue, leaving a bitter aftertaste behind. He gulps, chewing on his bottom lip.
“No, I mean it. I don’t want you to leave me,” he ends up saying, and Hwitaek blinks back at him, confused but tender.
“I know you mean it. And I mean it too,” Hwitaek tells him, and he shifts even closer that their thighs are almost pressed together, “I don’t want to leave you too, Shinwon-ah.”
They exchange a look, and it’s almost like they understand each other right away again, only that he remembers Hwitaek’s shaky, bittersweet smile when he had decided not to be a coward, and it makes him hesitate. Shinwon looks away from Hwitaek, heaving out a long sigh. He bites at his bottom lip again and tastes metal, so he must have broken skin. He raises a hand to smooth down the rip on his bottom lip and takes a sip of water, before he turns to Hwitaek again, “But—”
“But?” Hwitaek raises an eyebrow, reaching out and settling his hand on Shinwon’s knee. His hand lingers. Shinwon averts his attention to the slit in Hwitaek’s eyebrow, slightly grown out and less clean-cut than it had been during promotions, before he looks back into the other’s eyes again.
Maybe it’s the nervous lump somewhere between his chest and his stomach, bubbling angrily like a kettle of water that had been placed onto a fire for too long, maybe it’s how the night has left him pensive and impatient, longing and aching for something he has wanted for so long, maybe it’s the realisation that there is really no room for regrets, but Shinwon finds a wave of courage surge through him, and he darts forward, pressing his lips onto Hwitaek’s cheekbone, and pulls back right after.
Hwitaek stares up at him, wide-eyed. Then his lips are curling into that shaky, bittersweet smile again, and Shinwon’s heart drops. He tries to move away, thinks of ways to pretend that this never happened, but then Hwitaek reaches out to hold his hand, threading their fingers together. It takes a moment too long for him to speak up, but it is quiet and Shinwon can barely hear him over the loud ringing in his ears, “Shinwon-ah.”
“Yeah?” Shinwon responds, unconsciously holding onto Hwitaek’s hand tighter.
The room buzzes with quiet white noise again. Shinwon notices that the episode that they were ignoring has already ended and there’s nothing to balance out the eerie silence in the dorm anymore, but his heart beats too loudly in his chest so he guesses that can make up for it. He turns back to Hwitaek and the next thing he knows the older is pulling him into a hug, burying his head in the crook of his neck and holding on tightly.
Shinwon hugs him back equally tightly. It is so much like the hugs they are used to sharing but so different at the same time, and a part of him wishes that he has the power to freeze time and take Hwitaek with him, so they can stay in the moment forever.
It is Hwitaek who pulls away, and they exchange another look. Shinwon thinks that, now, he knows what Hwitaek means.
This time, when Shinwon reaches out for Hwitaek’s hands and says “I like you, hyung,” Hwitaek beams up at him and holds his hand back, leans closer and says, “I like you too, Shinwon-ah.” Hwitaek’s breath against his lips when he says those words is cool and comforting against chapped skin, and Shinwon leans even closer, closing the gap between them. Their lips slot together in just the right way and Hwitaek fits right into Shinwon’s arms when he is pulled even closer, and Shinwon can’t help but smile.
“Shinwon-ah,” Hwitaek says again, one point during the night, when the two of them are curled up in bed together, sleep-soft and tired. Shinwon hums, shifting to pull Hwitaek closer.
“Think of me at least once every three days when I’m not here, okay?”
Shinwon laughs, quiet and low. He ducks down to press a kiss into Hwitaek’s hair, and says, “You’d be stupid if you think I’ll only think of you once every three days, hyung. I’ll always think about you.”
Hwitaek laughs too, lets out a little, satisfied hum. He snuggles impossibly closer, and drifts off to sleep. Shinwon takes one last look at the smaller man in his arms, and does the same.
(Before he falls asleep, though, Shinwon realises that, sometimes, dreams and reality blur together, and decides that he kind of likes it when that happens.)