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Guiding Supernova

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Renjun grows up hating Lee Donghyuck.

He grows up despising every detail related to Donghyuck: his name, his bloodline, his power – those little thorns embedded in the crown around Renjun’s head, digging deeper and deeper every day until they become part of him.

Lee Donghyuck isn’t in his life, but at the same time, he’s all Renjun’s life revolves around. From the moment Donghyuck is born, on a spring day that grazes the beginning of summer, Renjun's fate is entangled with his.

It has been decades since the Lees and the Huangs had children in the same year, and when the universe decides to play with their strings, there’s no possible escape.

The Huang family has hatred engraved in their veins, a hatred that has lasted for centuries, a hatred as immense as the love for their own kind. That’s how Renjun learns to love: from hatred. His mom’s tender hands tucking his hair behind his ears at night, before going to sleep, and whispering venom about the Lees, warning him about their youngest son and about all the times Renjun will encounter him when he’s older.

Renjun’s bedtime stories are all about them. It’s them or us, mother says, and Renjun believes her.

“Their words are poison and their hearts are rotten,” his mom repeats, once and again. Every night, as Renjun's eyes drop with the weight of his own exhaustion, those words weave through all the angles of his head, replacing all specks of innocence and gullibility. “Never let him in, no matter how kind, or beautiful, or harmless he seems.”

And, every night, Renjun dreams about Lee Donghyuck.

 

 

 

 

Renjun attends his first charity ball when he’s fifteen.

Old enough to represent his family, father tells him, and Renjun has no option but to agree. Charity balls are nothing but an excuse to make connections and close deals, thus at some point Renjun is expected to move through them like they’re his natural habitat. He’s been raised to master every detail of the protocol, the name of every business body related to his family, and the name of every man who he shouldn’t fraternize with.

Renjun has been ready since he was a kid, and though the world still sees him as such, his family knows better.

After a whole life of hearing about the Lee family, Renjun is beyond curious about them. Reticent, too, because there’s no expectation without reticence. Renjun has been told before that Donghyuck sporadically shows up at balls, so Renjun can’t fall behind. He doesn’t want to: he wants to observe, seize and prepare.

The ball is brimming with people in suits and expensive dresses, and Renjun navigates with a pinch of self-awareness, afraid that he must look like a tiny kid playing to dress and behave like an adult. However, no one questions him: everyone expects him to take on his name as he should. Everyone is wary and observant, because Renjun is new, unknown, and therefore dangerous.

Renjun detaches from his parents just a few minutes into the ball. Other members of his family are there. Sowon, who winks at him when she passes by, is chatting with a woman that looks foreign to Renjun. Minghao, his oldest cousin's husband, is surrounded by a small circle of people while he tells a funny anecdote. Renjun finds Guanheng and Yukhei, his cousins, laughing alone by the bar, the bartender red up to his ears at whatever they're telling him.

It’s not a surprise. Yukhei and Guanheng have always been quite devilish, and the bartender looks young enough – probably nineteen, Renjun estimates – for them to feel safe bothering him. The confidentiality agreement will silence him, and Renjun pities him for having to bear the antics of two bored, rich teenagers. The bartender is doing a good job, however, since he hasn’t served them alcohol even though, evidently, they must have pressured him to do so.

“Cousin,” Yukhei greets him, his breathtaking grin expanding at the sight of Renjun. The first thing that Renjun notices is that he’s not wearing his tie right, but Yukhei has never been the careful type; at sixteen, he’s already the black sheep of the family. No one wastes time correcting him anymore. Renjun’s mom always says that he’ll grow out of that phase, but Renjun doubts his manners can be drastically changed. “They finally brought you to hell.”

Guanheng snorts at that, a form of agreement that Renjun acknowledges with a nod. The bartender looks at Renjun with wide eyes upon recognizing him, back straightening and hands fiddling under the counter, but Renjun shakes his head to indicate that he won’t order a drink.

That’s the cue for the bartender to leave, much to Yukhei’s disappointment, but the bartender takes his chance without looking back. Renjun is glad of pushing Yukhei’s little toy away from him, if just to annoy him or save the bartender’s pride.

“Have you taken a look at the Lees yet?” Guanheng shoots at him as Renjun leans on the bar, making sure that they’re alone beforehand.

The bar zone is usually empty, since staff carries all types of drinks and food on their plates for them to pick up; that makes it the perfect place to talk about other families without worries, but Renjun can’t help his wariness. There are eyes and ears everywhere, where he least expects it, and his parents have taught him to always assume the worst, to believe that every place is a trap until he can prove otherwise.

Faking nonchalance, Renjun shrugs. “Haven’t seen them anywhere.”

“No wonder, they’re surrounded by ass-kissing losers,” Yukhei points out. His gaze roams over the whole lounge, as though he expects to spot them from here. “Lee Taeyong came so he’s the main attraction tonight.”

That piques Renjun’s interest, though he hides it behind a gesture of disgust and his cousins’ smirks.

Lee Taeyong, Donghyuck’s brother, is a celebrity. Not in a metaphoric sense: he’s been an actor since he was a child and all throughout his teenage years. Now that he’s twenty, he’s become one of the highest-paid actors in the country. Having your first child become a celebrity instead of taking on the business might seem a terrible idea, but it was a calculated move that put the Lee family and their business ahead of Renjun’s family. Ahead of everyone else’s business, in reality.

With that pretty face and his natural charm, Taeyong is part of their public representation – the façade of a family that hides dirt underneath: beautiful, smart, created to please. Like all pretty things, that strategy holds a sort of power that the Huang family lacks. When people have beauty in front of them to admire, they tend to overlook other details.

 Renjun is an only child, but his parents like it that way. He prefers to manage his problems on his own, too, to depend on himself and not on siblings that could or could not follow his instructions.

Still, Renjun isn’t immune to his own curiosity. He’s never met Taeyong in flesh and bone, and despite being irrelevant and uninteresting to his life, Renjun wants to discover those enchants that can bewitch anyone.

Under his cousins’ attention, Renjun raises his eyebrows and announces, “I might go take a look.”

While Yukhei doesn’t mind, dismissing him with a shrug, Guanheng pushes his drink away and stands up.

“I’ll go with you,” he says, and then pointing to the bartender with his head, adds, “Yukhei is having too much fun with this boy, anyway.”

As soon as they abandon Yukhei, Renjun realizes that finding Lee Taeyong isn’t going to be that easy. Hand in hand, Guanheng and Renjun attract too much attention themselves, and they constantly get entangled in long, polite conversations and exchanges that lead nowhere. Renjun can distinguish people that failed to connect with his parents and are trying to have a second chance with him; he recognizes their faces and names like they’ve been printed on the back of his hand, and he knows when to give them hope and when to pretend.

After navigating through the protocol for a long time, Renjun and Guanheng manage to sneak out to a clearer zone; that’s where they find him. Lee Taeyong is, indeed, not alone; he could never alone. He’s surrounded by five men and one woman, who Renjun immediately recognizes as his mother – she’s keeping an eye on the strangers that float around Taeyong, just in case. Renjun is sure that’s a necessary measure. Men’s greed knows no limits, and Taeyong is too pretty to be treated as an equal in the business world.

Renjun picks a strategic point from where he can observe the Lees without being spotted. Guanheng follows him between giggles, entertained by Renjun’s seriousness and his determination. It doesn’t offend or diminish Renjun’s pride. He’s sure that his cousins were nervous the first time they had to attend a ball too, and this is what his life will be about, for the rest of his existence, unless he runs away from everyone.

But running away from the Lees implies running away from his own family, and Renjun has no one but them. No friends that he can trust, just a bunch of boys whom he grew up with while estimating what they would require from him in the future, always wondering if they were friends or it was just a chain of power in which Renjun sat at the top.

“He’s beautiful, isn’t he?” Guanheng comments, crossing his arms over his ribs. He reclines on the wall, a gesture that would gain Renjun endless reprimands at home, and concludes, “Money and beauty.”

Renjun doesn’t take his eyes off Taeyong, but he shifts his body towards Guanheng, confused.

“You have them too,” he reminds him.

“It’s not about having them,” Guanheng retorts, nonchalant. Renjun dedicates him a quick glance to read his mood, but Guanheng seems content with this conversation. “It’s about using them. Look at Lee Donghyuck, isn’t he pretty?”

Renjun’s heart flips upside down in his chest, and for a few moments, it feels like he’s being ripped apart from inside. His eyes frenetically look for Donghyuck, panic pulsing in his ears and a voice in his head screaming that he shouldn’t have missed his presence.

And it feels truly ridiculous as his gaze plummets on Donghyuck, because no sane person could overlook someone like that, a boy so different from the pictures and videos Renjun has analyzed a thousand times that his breathing halts and rewinds inside his throat. He has to repress a gasp and the warmth that tickles through his fingertips, but some reactions are unstoppable, and Renjun ends up biting his lip and shoving his hands into his pockets.

Donghyuck is pretty, but it’s not the sort of beauty that would make people look at him in awe. His beauty is concealed under layers of control and determination, under the perfect posture of his body and the calculated shade of kindness in his eyes. His beauty doesn’t induce admiration; it induces fear, the urge to recoil and hide, or to kneel and live.

Donghyuck doesn’t smile at anyone. He speaks with rhythmical cadence and careful pronunciation, and Renjun can tell the difference even from a distance by the way he moves his mouth. Speech lessons, Renjun supposes, that he receives as well. However, Donghyuck’s lips are distracting, too warm in contrast with his stare, and all people around him inevitably stare at his mouth instead of listening to him. No exceptions. Renjun does, too.

Donghyuck reminds Renjun of himself.

“I guess,” is all Renjun answers.

Because he can’t express the words that sweep through him when he observes Donghyuck. Looking at Donghyuck feels like looking in the mirror. In a world where no one will ever understand Renjun – his responsibilities, his aim and his own wishes – Donghyuck rises as the juxtaposing figure.

Whether Renjun likes it or not, Donghyuck will always be there, by his side and against him. It’s strange to think that this kid, who still sports round cheeks, whose frame is still child-like, as it is Renjun’s, could be a danger for him. But maybe that’s how he appears in Donghyuck’s eyes as well: too weak to be a menace. Too much preparation, but little raw material.

“You guess,” Guanheng repeats after him, shaking his head. He interprets Renjun’s words as a negative to compliment Donghyuck, which would be the most natural reaction. Renjun is lucky that his mind is an enclosed place. “No one looks at him like they look at his brother, because he’s not been raised to be beautiful. Even if someone tried to treat him like Taeyong, they’d crash against a wall.”

Renjun understands that. His parents never called him pretty, handsome or beautiful, not even once in his life. They called him smart, responsible and tenacious. Only passing strangers had pointed out his appearance before, but Renjun had known from a young age that he was pleasing to the eye. He could tell by the way people’s stares lingered on his face, on his lips, or by the way other students spoke to him – stammering, blushing, nervous.

It was useless power for Renjun. Power that he wasn’t allowed to exert unless he intended to ruin the business with shallow matters. It’s the same narrative for Donghyuck. That task falls on his older brother. He’s not here to be a pretty toy to be played with, but to lead, control and compete.

And still, Donghyuck owns a spark that Taeyong doesn’t. Renjun can’t decipher what it is. It could be malice, or intelligence, or the attitude of someone who has been shaped to stomp on anyone and anything without remorse, or maybe it’s just Renjun’s mind playing tricks on him.

Renjun observes Donghyuck’s innocent face and feels thrilled, purposeful, and a bit less lost in a world where he shall be who he pretends to be. Renjun himself feels rotten for hating him. Like a dirty, forgotten spot in the galaxy that envies the brightest star in the universe.

 

 

 

 

By the time Donghyuck acknowledges his existence, they’re seventeen. And by then, Renjun has lost count of all the balls both of them have attended, of all the girls whom he’s seen Donghyuck dance with, of all the moments their gazes met in silence – over the chattering and the laughter and the loud beating of Renjun’s heart.

Donghyuck likes staring at him.

That becomes clear at every ball, at every charity event, at every business event. Donghyuck always has a second to spare him a look, a pinch of attention that Renjun learns to crave and wait for. Sometimes it’s a judging once-over to examine what Renjun is wearing, how he fixed his hair, or merely to put pressure on him.

But sometimes, when no one is focused on them, a satisfied smile takes over Donghyuck’s expression. Renjun never smiles back at him. It’s too dangerous, too giving, and anyhow Donghyuck doesn’t smile for him, just at him. Renjun knows it well: it’s satisfaction interlaced with contempt, with superiority.

Renjun gets used to it. For two years, all he does is researching Donghyuck’s life to the last detail. It’s easy to find information in legal ways, much easier than it would be to pry into Renjun’s life – perhaps because being the brother of a famous celebrity and the son meant to inherit one-quarter of the Asian market sets him on the spotlight. Donghyuck’s network is completely exposed, while Renjun is a mystery.

That’s how he recognizes Jeno and Jaemin in a ball in December, full of Christmas decorations and lights that hurt Renjun’s eyes. Both of them are rich kids and their families run medium-sized business, but their parents barely take part in events – it’s almost their trademark, and it works well for them. Renjun knows that Jeno and Jaemin have grown up with Donghyuck, attended the same school, had the same private tutors, and will end up in the same university. What Renjun ignores is if Donghyuck considers them his true friends or they’ve merely become two loyal lackeys that stay with him for the symbiosis. Company in exchange for power.

Renjun can’t recognize real friendships, so as he scrutinizes the three of them across the ball, his curiosity swells until it hurts. Tonight, Donghyuck freely laughs with his friends. He ignores the business side of the event to stick to Jeno and Jaemin. There are slight touches here and there, on Donghyuck’s back, on his arms, and even lower. And most importantly, the kindness in his eyes is new, blinding and unreasonable.

It maddens Renjun.

With Jeno and Jaemin around, it’s not about Donghyuck and him anymore. Renjun is incapable of tugging the right reaction out of him; he has no chance to try, since Donghyuck doesn’t even look his way once. Renjun tries to focus on chatting and being polite to other attendants, but Donghyuck is constantly running as a second thought in the back of his mind.

It has to be jealousy, again, in the pit of his stomach. The only logical reason is that Renjun doesn’t have any friends, and until now he hasn’t wished for them.  It bothers him that Donghyuck, in his same position, has managed to have a resemblance of a normal life in certain aspects. More normal than Renjun’s, at least.

Renjun strolls around the place a couple of times. Unfixes his tie, overwhelmed by the sudden pressure around his neck. The suit is too tight on him, or just small, but it was perfect hours ago; it could be because Renjun is sweating underneath, sweating blood and anger through his pores.

His mother catches him in time, her hand encircling his arm in what, from the outside, looks like an affective gesture; but it hurts, her nails dipping in his flesh even through the suit, and Renjun has to make an effort not to wince.

“What the hell are you doing?” she hisses, teeth clenched. Renjun is incapable of drifting all his attention to her, only to the pain and the irrational need of breathing through his mouth, and that’s the last straw for his mom. “Get out.”

So Renjun does, aware that he’s losing his composure, that he’s not allowed to disappoint his family in a public event. He declines a dozen of offers on his way to the back door exit, but that momentary rudeness is better than staying and fucking up.

When he pushes the door open and the cold air of the night brushes the heat of his face away, Renjun feels like he’s found salvation. That relief is short-lived, however, because he’s not the only one who thought about taking the back door.

There are two people in the small hall that marks the beginning of the exit and leads to the street, squashed against one of the tables that must have been discarded as part of the ball’s decoration.

Renjun is too familiar with Donghyuck to not recognize him in the blink of an eye. This isn’t the same Donghyuck who he’s observed for years, though. The dissonances are stark: Donghyuck is leaning against the table, one hand holding a lit cigarette and the other sunk on a girl’s ass, fingertips curled around the edge of her dress, pushing her closer. Both of them are laughing, and the smile that crosses Donghyuck’s face is charged with honesty, but not with endearment – he’s having fun, but like one would have fun in a game.

Shock paralyzes Renjun for one second, two, three, and then the door closes behind him, provoking a clattering noise. Donghyuck’s gaze thunders on him. His grin vanishes, first out of fear of getting caught, just to become something dense, as profound as the dark turmoil twirling in Renjun’s insides.

Donghyuck doesn’t swirl into panic. He scans Renjun from head to toe, searching for his weak points – the sweat in his forehead, his damn crooked tie, the slight disarrange of his suit – and only once he finds his footing, he slowly pushes the girl away from him. Even that turns out to be smooth, delicate, as though Donghyuck can calculate every one of his movements without effort.

“Give us a moment,” Donghyuck tells her. His eyes remain stuck on Renjun, however, as a warning for him not to escape. Or an invitation. The girl’s reticence is palpable, so Donghyuck adds, “Don’t be impatient.”

The coldness in his voice breaks the illusion for the girl, who proudly lifts her chin and tugs her dress down, as if to indicate that Donghyuck won’t be able to have her back. Donghyuck smiles at her, much to Renjun’s confusion, either because he doesn’t care or because he knows that he can have anyone, anytime.

Silence dilates between them as the girl leaves, but Renjun doesn’t break eye contact. At some point, it’s a game of pull and push which both of them are sentenced to lose, and Donghyuck simply rolls the cigarette between his fingers in an attempt to distract Renjun. It doesn’t work. Renjun is too used to looking at Donghyuck’s chiseled face, and it’s the first time he’s had the chance of being so close to him without trivial people to get sidetracked.

“Huang, aren’t you?” Donghyuck fires at him, sucking on the cigarette and then letting it dangle from his lips. It distorts his voice, his pronunciation, and Renjun analyzes him like he’d analyze a wild animal. Donghyuck already knows who he is, thus he doesn’t wait for an answer and fishes a packet of cigarettes out of his pocket. “You smoke?”

Renjun can’t help the twitch of disgust that takes over his lips. “No.”

“Not yet,” Donghyuck corrects him right away, but he hides the packet back into its place. His brown eyes roam over Renjun’s expression as he explains, “It’s social. You will, sooner or later.”

Renjun has never thought about that detail, but he’s not disposed to take lessons from Lee Donghyuck. Smoking and drinking is social, and Renjun won’t partake in any of them in public events; drinking, especially, implies losing control. He can’t afford that.

“This doesn’t seem the right place to do all that,” Renjun retorts.

It’s hard to conceal his disapproval, but even if he repressed it all, someone like Donghyuck would still detect it. Donghyuck seems to be stunned at his reaction for a second, and Renjun basks in that sensation; he hasn’t won any battle, but he’s won the privilege of breaking Donghyuck’s façade.

Donghyuck sends him an amused, unrelenting glare, and points out, “You dance with girls as though you don’t want to touch them.”

It feels like Donghyuck has punched him in the stomach, a blow that leaves Renjun breathless and terrified. Screaming victory was a mistake, because just like Renjun has spent most of the time studying Donghyuck's figure, he’s been the pivot of Donghyuck’s life all this time as well.

Donghyuck is his reflection, but he’s also nothing like him. He chews Renjun’s worst nightmare like it’s meaningless – the secret that no one knows, that no one should have ever noticed. Except for Donghyuck. Donghyuck, who monitors him even when he dances with girls, who can read his body language beyond appearances and calculated moves.

But Renjun isn’t ready to face the implications of Donghyuck’s accusation, and less tonight.

“I don’t want to touch them,” Renjun grunts. He hates that it sounds like an explanation. He shouldn’t be giving into Donghyuck’s antics, but his insinuation can’t be ignored, otherwise he’ll assume it’s true. “I don’t know them.”

Donghyuck smirks at that, knowingly. His gaze drifts away at last to look at the cigarette in his hand instead of Renjun. His smirk doesn’t vanish: cheap excuse, his scorn says. Donghyuck knows all the secrets Renjun hasn’t discovered about himself yet. He’s dedicated more time to Renjun than Renjun dedicated to himself, so it makes sense.

“You know some of them,” Donghyuck sentences. He’s right, because he knows most of them too. In their circle, they always meet the same people, the same families, and Renjun’s excuse would only apply to a few women every time. “You’ll need a wife, Huang, to continue the legacy.”

Renjun bites the inside of his cheek, suppressing the immediate reply that threatens to come out. Donghyuck is provoking him with the truth, and there’s nothing more effective than that.

“Or won’t you be a good rival for me?” Donghyuck continues. He looks at Renjun through his eyelashes, chin down and pupils up, and revels in the evident traces of frustration in Renjun’s face. “Renouncing your family’s honor just because you can’t touch women… you’re truly not made for this.”

The mention of his family fractures Renjun, his shell replete with thin, long fissures. Donghyuck seems human, until he doesn’t: this is a reminder that he won’t have any mercy on Renjun or on his family, and that once he takes over his father’s position, he’ll be as egoistic and unforgiving as him.

Renjun will be, too. He has to. It’s hard to forget about Donghyuck’s pretty face, the full lips around his cigarette, and the way he’s growing into his body – much faster than Renjun, that’s for sure. Donghyuck, in front of him, almost looks like an adult, and Renjun hasn’t had enough time to catch up.

Still, that’s not a reason to allow Donghyuck to stomp on him tonight. Renjun knows that his mother would despise him if he acted like Donghyuck did tonight – of course his parents will marry him off in the future, but it’s good for his reputation to not play around with women, not even as a façade. It’s not understandable why Donghyuck would want to gain that fame, though it might have a purpose that Renjun can’t figure out.

“You should take a look at yourself first. You’re not clean,” Renjun shoots back. He dismisses Donghyuck’s ill advice, the hovering threat that Donghyuck knows that he doesn’t want women at all, and focuses his energy on shutting Donghyuck’s mouth. “If you think you need a wife, then go get one. Anyone will be willing to marry you.” That makes Donghyuck smile to himself, but he shakes his head, as though Renjun is a fool, as though he’s missing vital information and guiding their conversation to an absurd place. “But this- will bring you trouble.”

Donghyuck doesn't need to be told what Renjun means by this. He's smart and prepared enough to comprehend his mistakes, and getting handsy with a girl of a lower level than him during a ball is straight up foolish.

However, Donghyuck doesn’t find offense in his words. The truth doesn’t hurt him. He puts off the cigarette against the edge of the table, eyebrows raised at Renjun, and then throws it to the floor with a flick of his hand. Bad manners, Renjun notices, only when no one is observing him.

Because that’s who Renjun is to him: nobody. Badmouthing Donghyuck, or merely speaking about what he saw him do tonight, would be unrefined. Renjun has learned that those graceless moves don’t belong to his family; foul play fits the Lees better.

“I love trouble,” Donghyuck spits, his jeering tone disappearing with every word that escapes between his lips. He straightens up at last, and without giving Renjun time to prepare, he closes the distance in a couple of strides. Donghyuck doesn’t face him directly; he bumps his shoulder against Renjun’s, fixing him there, and then turns his head to whisper into his ear, “You can dance with me next time.”

That’s enough to break the schemes Renjun has built for years. Donghyuck’s hot breath dancing on his earlobe, the smell of sweetened cigarettes and his true, native scent underneath; the way his hand lingers on Renjun’s hip for a moment, a superficial touch that makes Renjun’s balance crumble.

Renjun never thought he’d have Donghyuck this close, so close that he can feel the rhythm of his breathing and every atom that vibrates in his body. He never thought he’d feel any man this way.

Renjun wonders what would happen if he gave up right now. If Donghyuck would continue or, on the other hand, would laugh at his innocence.

He wonders and wonders, and then bites out, “In your dreams, Lee.”

And Donghyuck doesn’t miss a beat.

“Yeah,” he admits, shameless. His fingers sink in Renjun’s jacket, and then he lets go altogether, unaware of the pulse of insanity that clamps around Renjun’s heart. “That’s for sure.”

Renjun glances at him, his whole being trembling with excitement – cold, nervous excitement – but Donghyuck has already drawn away from him by then. He’s not sure if Donghyuck is joking, but that admission is dangerous for both of them, for many reasons, and Renjun won’t let it happen. If Donghyuck crumbles under the pressure, he’ll drag Renjun with him, to the pit of hell and shame; that’s certain.

They’re the two sides of the coin, falling where the other falls, melting under the heat of their duties, or becoming as solid as a diamond when they have to.

So Renjun decides to take care of Donghyuck, just to save himself.

 

 

 

 

The feud between their families has always been a mystery for the general public, almost a legend, and in many ways, it’s been exactly that for Renjun as well.

Once upon a time, a Huang fell in love with a Lee. It’s a story that Renjun heard only once in his life, when he was only five years old, but that story remained engraved in his memory like a flame in the darkness.

Hatred always walked hand in hand with love in a circle, changing, deforming. A man, a Lee, had accepted the woman’s advances at first; she was pretty, like all Huangs, and the first precious daughter of the family in decades. The man, however, was barely educated to treat humans as equals. Rumors about his character ran through the town like wildfire, about the manipulative character of his personality and the little empathy he showed.

His looks eclipsed the truth and the woman’s heart. And, at the edge of their wedding, the man confessed all his sins: the cheating, the stealing, the debts, and the three kids that he shared with a prostitute from the town near-by. Overwhelmed by jealousy and betrayal, the Huang had stabbed him in the heart with her kingfisher hairpin.

Some lies couldn't be forgiven, and neither could some murders.

Renjun’s mom had always feared love. It was like a curse that hovered over them: they were so linked and united to the Lees that feelings were a real, plausible problem. His mom had stopped worrying once Renjun grew up, since the Lee family didn’t have any daughter, wouldn’t give birth to a girl around his age, and the rest of the women of the family hadn’t come in contact with him.

Her lack of concern upsets Renjun. He wonders how she can look at Donghyuck and not realize that he’s the true danger, more dangerous than any woman; a danger that will never fade away, that can’t be erased, and that Renjun is incapable of disregarding.

Renjun watches Donghyuck become a man, watches him hit eighteen, nineteen, twenty, and every year their paths meet, interlaced, Renjun feels like Donghyuck is stabbing him instead. His brown irises become golden in Renjun’s eyes. His shoulders expand inside his suits, and so do his legs, so long and elegant that Renjun thinks about them for whole nights. And when Donghyuck’s gaze roams over his body, from the other side of the room, Renjun knows that he’s not alone, depraved or crazy.

Donghyuck is the beginning of Renjun’s death. But, in reality, that’s what Donghyuck has always been meant to be.

 

 

 

 

Renjun starts smoking at twenty-one.

That’s how he meets Dejun and Chenle: in the back of an alley after a boring speech about the fusion of their families’ business. By the big grins on their faces as Renjun slips outside and finds them there, it’s obvious they haven’t listened to a single word of the speech. Both of them are laughing, laughter filled with a sort of freedom that Renjun can’t even picture for himself. They don’t stop smoking or laughing when Renjun spots them, or when he tentatively approaches them, not sure whether he’s welcomed there.

Chenle offers him to smoke, and this time, Renjun accepts it.

Dejun introduces himself at least three times, all different, before giving Renjun the chance to do the same. On the contrary, Chenle merely says his name once and expects Renjun to know everything else about him. He’s right. Renjun doesn’t need anything but a name for the web in his head to rearrange. It’s good to feel that they’re on the same page. Both Dejun and Chenle belong to well-established families, but not enough for them to be a threat. Respectable, Renjun’s father would call them.

“I’m surprised you have the guts to sneak out,” Dejun points out, impressed by Renjun’s careless attitude as he holds the cigarette between his lips. Chenle leans to light it up, an eternal smile on his lips, and Renjun dedicates him a grateful tilt of his head. “But maybe we need someone like you in this world, to balance your family’s power in the opposite direction.”

Renjun snorts at that. If it came from any other person, it would be extremely rude, but Dejun doesn’t seem to hold any malice towards him.

“They would disown me if I let that happen,” Renjun assures them, voice plain, a luxury that he can’t afford in other conversations.

“I bet they would,” Chenle agrees. He seems to find the prospect quite funny, as though Renjun is such a goody two-shoes that he would never fail his legacy. Renjun is the only one who doesn’t think it would be difficult. “You never mingle with us, boy. What changed?”

Renjun’s first impulse is to remind him that, even in this solitary alley, he’s still not mingling with them. They never will, not like Renjun needs, because Chenle and Dejun will never comprehend how endless Renjun’s duties are.

That’s the reason Renjun decides to uncover a bit of truth: because they won’t understand it anyway, and saying it out loud will lift a weight off his shoulders.

“I’m running out of time.”

Instead of drifting to awkwardness, the atmosphere remains untouched, and Dejun nods at him in agreement.

“Because Lee Donghyuck is about to take on the business?” he asks, against all Renjun’s expectations. Too direct. Too raw. The announcement was made only three days ago, but Donghyuck is scheduled to replace his father as early as this year, and Renjun feels like a kid in comparison. “I was shocked too. He’s too young to push his parents away, but-” Dejun laughs to himself, a joke that not even Chenle catches, and adds, “I guess they’ll keep managing it in the shadows while Donghyuck eats all the public shit.”

Renjun has the urge to deviate from the topic, until he ponders about it with perspective. Evaluating Dejun’s semblance, Chenle’s nonchalance, and how little they seem to care about what Renjun might think of them, he concludes that it’s his chance to ask questions that should never come out of his mouth.

With a hint of carefulness, Renjun looks from Chenle to Dejun and back, and says, “What do you know about him?”

“Nothing that you don’t.”

“Not more than you know,” Chenle corrects him, though Renjun can’t pinpoint the difference. It’s disappointing that they don’t have any information to offer, but it’s true that if there’s someone who knows everything about Donghyuck, that’s Renjun himself. It works both ways. “He comes to our parties sometimes. I mean, the private parties.”

Renjun needs to gather all his self-control not to burst into a chain of questions. He didn’t know that. If Donghyuck blends in with people his age, he’s probably been doing it since he was a kid, while Renjun was the only one who set the distance. There’s no wonder Donghyuck is curious about him. Renjun’s life is sealed beyond what Donghyuck can scrutinize with his two eyes, and right now, Renjun is glad it is. That man discovered enough on his own, and Renjun doesn’t intend to give him more advantage.

“You should come sometime, too,” Dejun parrots next, swallowing Renjun's silence as indifference. Renjun is certain that's how he looks from the outside: indifferent. Donghyuck would never buy this act, but he's not here to judge him, and Renjun can fool whoever he wants. “These balls and events are shallow and fake. You’ll need real connections at some point.”

Renjun stalls at that. The taste of the cigarette in his mouth is nasty, but it’s a good distraction from his disjointed thoughts. Perhaps Dejun is right, because Renjun has spent his whole life building polite, innocuous bridges, but apart from his family, no one will ever have his back if he trips and falls. The peak is a lonely place, and he’s making it even lonelier out of fear.

“Private parties, you said?” Renjun repeats, letting a smile flourish on his face. He doesn’t remember the last time he smiled. The apple of his cheek hurts, tiny needles breaking against the surface, and Renjun hides the swat of pain. “How does that work?”

 

 

 

 

However, Renjun can’t release the strings of control.

He was raised to mistrust and analyze, and though he agrees that he needs to connect and create honest relationships with other people, he also needs to play on his own field. A party at someone else’s house, without protocol or vigilance, is dangerous for him – it’s scary, too, because it’s out of his comfort zone.

When Renjun informs his parents that he’ll be throwing a party at home, they don’t oppose it. Both of them will be on a trip by then, and it’s positive that Renjun is showing initiative instead of following his schedule and then enclosing himself in his room to study. He’s not sure that’s exactly what they want from him, but as long as they don’t disapprove, Renjun is fine to continue.

He doesn’t dare to mention that he sent an invitation to the Lees. One for Taeyong and one for Donghyuck, sealed and private, so that they could burn them into oblivion if they wished to.

Deep inside, Renjun wishes they wouldn’t. His strategy must be either clear or suspicious for them, but he doesn’t care about the lack of discretion: he needs to observe how they move in a different ambient, how much of what Renjun has seen is artificial and how much is natural – if there’s something natural at all.

Renjun is smarter than leaving the decision on their hands, though. He tells Dejun and Chenle about the invitation, and given their big mouths, the rumor expands at the speed of light among their same-aged peers. If Donghyuck and Taeyong don’t show up at the party, if they don’t have any excuse to ignore it, they’ll be under everyone’s judgment. They’ll confirm that their grudges against the Huangs are deeper than they seem, and that’s a secret that is reserved only for them.

Renjun knows that they have to make the right decision.

Chenle is the first to arrive, as per Renjun’s request, at the edge of nightfall. The lights of the garden illuminate his figure as he walks the path to the main door, and Renjun limits himself to observing him through the cameras, letting the staff open the door for him. He has the decency of walking downstairs to welcome Chenle, however, but the immediate glare that Chenle sends Renjun’s way insufflates immediate regret, and it just grows worse as Chenle inspects his aspect with picky eyes.

“What are you wearing?” he whines, nose scrunching with disgust. Renjun checks his own clothes, confused, wondering if he forgot something important, until Chenle continues grumbling, “God, I can’t believe you put on a suit. Take that shit off.”

That’s the detail Renjun has missed, the reason Chenle looks strange tonight: his formal clothes are nowhere to be seen, replaced by a long coat and dark jeans. He almost looks like a regular man that Renjun could cross paths with in the street, or for that matter, like a normal twenty-year-old.

“I didn’t know you could be so direct,” Renjun jokes, though it’s impossible to stop the heat that sticks to his cheeks out of embarrassment. “You won’t take me on a date first?”

Instead of responding with repulsion, Chenle wholeheartedly laughs at the insinuation. His reaction shocks Renjun to the core: he expected aversion at the mere thought of dating a man. He knows matter-of-factly that his family would chide him for making such a joke, and maybe it would be the same for Chenle’s family, but they’re not here to condition them. It’s just Renjun and Chenle, and they can tell that silence and dismissal won’t bury the truth.

“Not if you wear that,” Chenle assures him, waving his hand towards the second floor, as if to kick him out. “Go change, that suit alone will ruin the mood. Put on some jeans and a jumper.”

Renjun appreciates the help, but there’s no need for him to thank Chenle. By the time he manages to find a pair of jeans and a top that doesn’t make him feel like he’s taking out the trash, Chenle has allowed at least a dozen people into his house. Renjun scans them one by one, his heart looking for Donghyuck and his head praying for his absence, just to obtain nothing.

Donghyuck is still not there, and as Chenle and Dejun run around the house – choosing the music, their favorite meals, and entangling some of the staff into joining their games – Renjun sits in the living room and stays in silence, wondering if his idea was fatal and unrealistic. Somehow, his efforts will feel worthless if Donghyuck isn’t here, and Renjun isn't ashamed of admitting it: his existence is wired to Donghyuck. Conditioned. It’s a fact that he shouldn’t deny to himself.

But Donghyuck comes, after all, right when the clock of the living room marks quarter past ten. Renjun counts every second until then, even though Dejun and Chenle force him to play a couple of drinking games and then other embarrassing games that Renjun has never heard of before – they would be fun, Renjun thinks, if he learned not to worry, if he didn’t fear tainting his reputation with a wrong word, statement or impression.

All those worries vanish when Donghyuck appears in the hall, already chatting with other guys and slinging his car keys towards the staff. Donghyuck isn’t alone. Taeyong is with him, his hands shoved into his coat and an indifference that he’d never show at a formal event. Both of them strike differently tonight. Renjun hasn’t had enough drinks to afford staring at them without pretenses, but he still does. His gaze inevitably focuses on Donghyuck, disregarding his brother’s presence within a second – Donghyuck is barely recognizable, with black pants and a bomber jacket that, unlike his suits, make him look his age.

He looks too human, so normal that Renjun feels an uncomfortable twist in his guts. This is not a Donghyuck he comprehends. He’s not Renjun’s reflection in the mirror, just a boy that accepts invitations to parties arranged by his nemesis and effortlessly integrates.

Taeyong and Donghyuck part ways without fear, but Renjun latches onto Dejun and Chenle harder, distrustful. The music playing in the speakers becomes choked noise, as loud as people's chattering and laughter, but the wheels turning in his head are noisier than his surroundings. He watches Donghyuck’s movements out of the corner of his eye, impatient. He drinks. Plays. Talks to people with blurry faces and unrecognizable voices. Donghyuck mimics him without sparing him a second of attention.

After half an hour of observing Donghyuck from afar, Dejun leans into Renjun’s personal space and whispers, “Has Donghyuck been here before?”

It seems like a stupid question, out of place, thus Renjun stares into Dejun's eyes to understand him better. While Dejun’s curiosity is superficial, underneath his pupils are filled with mistrust – contagious mistrust that pushes Renjun to turn to Donghyuck, again, to analyze him from head to toe.

“Of course not,” Renjun answers at last, and he doesn’t know why, but he has a hunch that Dejun won’t believe him. “Why?”

Indeed, Dejun’s face is plastered with incredulity. “He moves around the house like he’s been here before.”

Renjun has trouble assimilating the accusation, for it’s as nonsensical as twisted. But the moment his attention trails after Donghyuck, searching for those betraying hints that could give him away, cold sweat transpires through his nape.

Dejun’s observation is beyond accurate. Donghyuck knows where he’s going. Every step, every move is familiar and decisive. He doesn't ask for directions, directions that the rest of the visitors need; he deliberately walks in and out of the kitchen with bottles and glasses, too fast to have received help from the staff. And when he seemingly makes a trip to the bathroom, he disappears into the correct hall without hesitation.

It could be a coincidence, but it’s not. Renjun isn’t that naïve.

“If I don’t come back in five minutes, he probably killed me,” Renjun tells Dejun, who tilts back on the couch and laughs like a madman. They receive a few stares, none of them as judgmental as Dejun’s gaze once Renjun rises to his feet. “You’re in charge meanwhile.”

Renjun’s idea is insane, but in the end Dejun merely shrugs and says, “Good luck. That bitch is tough.”

It’s a symbolic proof of trust, since no one needs to take care of the party – that’s the staff’s job – but also a heads up that Dejun should have his back right now. Renjun needs privacy, a chimera not so easy to achieve with so many eyes and ears around. If Renjun takes too long while dealing with Donghyuck, someone could get worried; Taeyong, for example. But Renjun trusts Dejun’s abilities to distract him.

A hunch runs down Renjun’s spine as he strolls through his house. He has to turn three times to reach the main bathroom. Right, right, left. He lets his steps resonate over the marble, announcing his presence on purpose – though he’s sure that Donghyuck is on the same wavelength, and that Renjun’s arrival won’t take him by the surprise.

Then Renjun spins on his heels one last time, and meets Donghyuck’s dazzling eyes.

Donghyuck isn’t in the bathroom, nor ever had any intention of using it. He’s outside, back against the door and arms crossed over his chest, lips tracing a satisfied smile at Renjun’s arrival. His attitude is the confirmation that Renjun understands him like the back of his hand: he can’t tell why Donghyuck behaves in certain ways, but he can predict them anyway.

“Before you ask,” Donghyuck warns him, serious. “Not here.”

Renjun doesn’t ask any questions.

It’s strange to follow Donghyuck through his own home, but the moment Donghyuck turns around and heads upstairs, Renjun’s logic vanishes. The itch of being alone with Donghyuck is crawling under his skin, and all of sudden Renjun doesn’t care whether Donghyuck intends to hurt him or wants to be amicable. It doesn’t matter. As long as Renjun can have him for himself, as long as he can reclaim the grip of power over him – that unattainable connection that has born between them – he’s disposed to sacrifice his pride for a while.

Donghyuck is sending him a message: he climbs every step while caressing the embellished banister, tracing the pattern like he has memorized it. He doesn’t glance back at Renjun, but even if he did, he wouldn’t earn a reaction. Renjun subdues his anger under a layer of curiosity, of frustration – because he can’t figure out why Donghyuck is so familiar with his house. Because it should be terrifying, a violation of his privacy, yet it just feels like a provocation to rile him up, a game between them.

When Donghyuck leads the way to his bedroom, Renjun isn’t surprised. He could tug him back and put him in his place, but he’s willing to check how far Donghyuck will go tonight. His door has a private code that only the help know about. Renjun can change the password from inside if he wishes to be locked in – or to lock people out – and that's Donghyuck's final test.

Donghyuck is aware of that, too. He dedicates Renjun an undecipherable look, and without straying his focus away from him, he blindly types the code right on the first try. It’s a small, beautiful threat, supposed to scatter doubts about whether the code is in Donghyuck’s head or in his muscle memory, but Renjun doesn’t fall into his trap.

Renjun lazily grins at his attempt, unrelenting, and Donghyuck’s eyes land on his mouth, tainted with ephemeral confusion and vulnerability. It’s not a good look on Donghyuck, or maybe just not one Renjun is used to.

But then Renjun realizes: Donghyuck has never had the chance to see him smile. He hasn’t seen a real smile, at least. He might have caught a whiff of it at events, but Renjun offers only fabricated gestures of happiness to strangers; the chances are low, and the impact high.

Taking advantage of his momentary befuddlement, Renjun remarks, “You can go in.”

Donghyuck doesn’t need permission.

Even though this is a scheme for Donghyuck to prove that he has information about the most private parts of his life, Renjun doesn't accept that attempt at intimidation. Donghyuck has already poisoned every corner of his mind. In comparison, allowing him into his room should be meaningless.

Donghyuck would never miss the chance to stomp on his privacy, so he pulls the door open and slips inside. Renjun trails behind him without hesitation, closes with his foot, and then prepares for the worst.

Renjun breathes in, breathes out, and then stares into Donghyuck’s eyes.

Donghyuck is a supernova, dying and exploding before Renjun, the ground beneath his feet shaking with the explosion. Donghyuck’s reality unfolds in a matter of seconds, safe in the privacy of Renjun’s room and the company of the only man that can and can’t hurt him at the same time. His façade explodes into a million pieces: his manners, his attitude, his education, his indifference.

The explosion is bright and colorful, and Renjun decides right then and right there that he’s going to let Donghyuck get away with this. With the way he cages Renjun against the door, respecting Renjun’s body but trapping him without any option to escape. With his fingers inputting a new code from inside to confine them together. With Donghyuck's gaze drinking from the emotions on his face, devouring every inch like he can’t tell if Renjun is a dream or reality.

It feels like a dream. A punishable dream that Renjun will have to pay for later. Donghyuck is stunning from this distance. The power in his stare stabs right in Renjun’s guts, but he smells sweet and tender, a reminder that he’s not the monster the Huangs made him out to be.

They’re the monster in each other’s story, anyway, face to face at last. And, against his blood and his legacy, Renjun doesn’t want to fight. He wants to bare his neck and let the monster kill him, but that’s a taste of freedom that he hasn’t earned yet.

Donghyuck slowly sets his hands on the door and leans forward, diluting any personal space between them. Renjun’s heartbeats tear out of control, but he’s sure that Donghyuck can’t notice them: not if Donghyuck's heart runs as fast as his.

And then, Donghyuck asks, “Can I call you Renjun?”

That question is too innocent for Renjun to trust him. Renjun doesn’t know what they’re doing here. Why Donghyuck has him pressed against the cold wood of his bedroom’s door, or why he’s looking at him as though he’ll vanish into thin air if he just says the magical word. A name, Renjun ponders, is more powerful than they thought.

“That’s my name,” Renjun retorts, too nervous to decipher Donghyuck’s question.

“Not for me.” Donghyuck waits, lips parted in expectation, but Renjun doesn’t interrupt him. “You always were just a Huang.”

Donghyuck is just a Lee for him. Should be. Renjun never dwelt on the intimacy of their first names, but it makes sense: in this room they can be Renjun and Donghyuck. They can be whoever they want to be. They don’t have to be a Huang and a Lee, obeying orders and protecting their families’ honor.

Now Renjun’s honor seems insignificant in front of Donghyuck’s sweet mouth.

“Donghyuck,” Renjun tries, tasting his name on his tongue. His voice comes out as a mumble, but when Renjun drifts his gaze downwards, he catches the trail of goosebumps running up Donghyuck’s neck. The urge of tilting his head to observe Donghyuck’'s goosebumps is almost unrestrainable; Renjun is willing to lose himself in Donghyuck’s skin, but it’s too dangerous. Too foolish. Instead he lifts his chin and spats, “How?”

Donghyuck doesn’t seem to enjoy the shift in Renjun’s intentions. There’s no point in battling his stubbornness, however.

“You should have safer contracts for your domestic help,” Donghyuck warns him, though his advice falls in a line between mockery and a kind-hearted warning. He’s choosing to reveal this because he can’t hide it anymore, because it’s not useful for him anymore; all of it was a show for Renjun to know that Donghyuck has him captive in his fist. “Money can buy anyone’s dignity.”

Renjun doesn’t bother to deny it. Both of them have lived long enough to see it with their eyes.

“Why would you want to know about my house?” Renjun challenges him. It doesn’t matter who betrayed his family’s trust: Renjun will discover them sooner or later, and then they’ll regret helping Donghyuck. He’s lucky that Donghyuck doesn’t want to hurt him. “About my bedroom?”

That pulls a shaky scoff out of Donghyuck. It doesn’t fit him: it gives Renjun the impression that he’s nervous, that he doesn’t have the situation under control. But then he inhales, chest inflating until it brushes against Renjun’s, and it’s Renjun who feels maddeningly weak.

“I want to know it all, Renjun.”

Donghyuck’s golden eyes darken tonight, the life in them swirling in front of Renjun. There’s more truth in the words that Donghyuck never gets to share, but Renjun receives them all anyway. He wants it all, too, and all has lived in his head for a while.

Renjun can’t breathe, reason slipping between his fingers, and for a moment that lasts an eternity, he’s about to give him all. But just like he doesn’t have the strength to shove Donghyuck away, he can’t accept defeat.

He reproaches, “You’re completely crazy.”

Donghyuck tightens his jaw, drowning in silence as he studies Renjun’s response. He’s aware that the real answer doesn’t lie in his words, but in his face; Renjun tries to become stone, but it’s impossible. He can’t let Donghyuck leave and assume that he’s alone in this, that Renjun thinks he’s depraved and unworthy.

“Why?” Donghyuck asks him, demanding. His hands slide down the door, a movement that swings him closer, and Renjun is incapable of repressing a gasp. Donghyuck doesn’t focus on that, doesn’t even make fun of his reaction, because his head is fixed on Renjun’s words. “Because I want you?”

The confession runs under Renjun’s skin like a thousand wingless butterflies. Those butterflies that shouldn’t exist at all, and not under his skin, but maybe that's how they ended up in a misplaced space: because if Renjun feels them in his stomach, there won’t be any ticket of return to normalcy. Donghyuck and Renjun, as two entities in the same space, shouldn’t exist either.

“Because you can’t have me,” Renjun concludes, and then he waits and watches his words mold the man before him.

There are many reasons why Donghyuck’s impulses will merely hook them into a disaster, but Renjun can’t sense any hint of fear in Donghyuck’s semblance. That statement, as realistic as heavy, hurts Renjun more than it hurts Donghyuck.

Renjun doesn’t understand why until Donghyuck replies, “I already have you.” And he sounds so sure, so firm, that Renjun believes him. “And that isn’t going to change.”

Biting the inside of his cheek, Renjun finds no words to rebut that. Donghyuck has had him since he was born on a warm day of June, has had him like no one else could ever have him; their interconnected fate doesn’t have to be love, but it’s still special. The way Donghyuck stares at him is proof of it, and Renjun is sure that he looks at Donghyuck with the same fascination.

He hasn’t decided yet if Donghyuck is terrifyingly fascinating or beautifully terrifying. And that becomes an insignificant decision as Donghyuck’s hand hovers over his cheek and his gaze warily inspects the distance between his hand and Renjun’s face, as though reality is thawing under the pressure.

But then Donghyuck looks into his eyes again, slightly disoriented, and mutters, “Can I touch you?”

Renjun finds himself giving him a clear nod, no time to think or consider the consequences.

Donghyuck releases a frail sigh, and then moves. Opposite to Renjun’s prediction, Donghyuck doesn’t go for his face first; his fingers touch the edge of his hairline, as if to make sure that Renjun won’t back out, and then carefully brush through Renjun’s hair.

A mere caress from Donghyuck makes Renjun float, high and away from the floor, every nerve of his body awakening at his touch. He feels like laughing, an absurd attack of laughter that Renjun can’t explain: maybe it’s because no one has ever touched him before. Because Renjun didn’t think that a man would ever touch him this way, but now Donghyuck’s hands are running through his hair and traveling down his nape. And then they dance over his collarbones, and the hem of his jumper, and the pressure against his chest. Donghyuck touches and touches and Renjun just swings his head back, eyes closed to feel him better, wishing this could last forever.

He’s burning from head to toe when Donghyuck presses his body against him, or when he tugs Renjun towards the bed and sits on the edge, bringing Renjun between his legs. Impatient, Renjun waits for more, but Donghyuck holds his hands instead and guides them onto his chest, a message that Renjun wouldn’t miss.

Donghyuck’s gaze is filled with want as he looks up at Renjun, a plea, a question or both. For the first time in his life, Renjun has the sensation that Donghyuck isn’t unbreakable. He wants to be touched, too. And Renjun wishes to comply, but the inevitable truth is that he needs more than touching Donghyuck, more than admiring. He needs to consume him to the last fiber, to the last inch of skin.

A man like Donghyuck has already lived this. It’s not a first for him, and Renjun fears that he’ll be disappointed in what Renjun has to offer him.

“Do you remember the first time you saw me?” Donghyuck whispers, his voice softening at Renjun’s hesitation. It's a good distraction, but Renjun can’t speak due to the knot in his throat: he sends him another nod, and Donghyuck smiles at him. “The first time I saw you- I knew that you were trouble.” The boy in the mirror, Renjun remembers. The reflection of his own thoughts, fears and wishes. “You looked so innocent back then, but it all was a false shell of yours.”

Renjun breathes in, syncing with the rhythm of Donghyuck’s chest against his palms.

“You don’t have much truth yourself, Donghyuck.”

And Donghyuck’s lips curl up in contentment.

“You took my breath away,” he retorts, as though they’re fighting, as though he can disarm Renjun with compliments. “Not only when we were younger, though. But now, and tomorrow, and the day after tomorrow.”

Words distort in Renjun’s head, and he blinks down at Donghyuck, surprised. They’ve never been alone for real, with the certainty that their confessions would remain secret, and it scares Renjun that Donghyuck isn’t afraid of sharing his most intimate thoughts.

Perhaps Donghyuck has waited for too long to be himself.

Renjun strokes up his chest, to the warmth of Donghyuck’s neck, to find the balance between his cold fingers and the heat of Donghyuck’s skin. Even that has an effect on Donghyuck, who stops swallowing, who stops breathing, and awaits Renjun’s next decision with eagerness.

“You’re chasing the image of me in your head,” Renjun accuses him, slanting forward until he’s touching all of Donghyuck, until Donghyuck’s arms are around him, holding him prisoner of his own paradise.

Donghyuck lifts his chin, to not lose sight of him, and Renjun frames his face in his trembling grasp.

“You know that’s not true,” Donghyuck defends himself. He doesn’t lose his temper: there’s no reason to argue. It’s not a matter of perspective. “There’s no one in this world that knows me better than you do. But it’s the same for you, Renjun. No one will ever understand you,” his breath catches in his throat when Renjun sinks a knee on the mattress, between his legs, and then he finishes with a shaky, “like I do.”

Renjun doesn’t have the courage to dissuade him, to lie while Donghyuck is baring himself without wavering. Donghyuck shouldn’t trust him, but he does. And after all, Donghyuck isn’t the person that knows him the best, but the only person that knows him at all.

Still, Donghyuck must have gone insane. It doesn’t make sense that he’s disposed to throw it all away for Renjun.

“Is this how you want to ruin everything?” Renjun says, and though the question exposes his fears, and even his disposal to follow Donghyuck’s bad ideas, there’s no one to judge him.

Donghyuck makes a noise akin to amusement without opening his mouth. His hands dance on Renjun’s back with desperation, and Renjun breathes into that panic, conscious that he’s never felt an emotion so intense. Negative or positive, only Donghyuck can provoke it.

“I’m not trying to ruin it,” Donghyuck assures him. On his lips, it sounds like a promise. “I've been lying all my life, and so have you. We just have to keep doing it.”

 

 

 

 

Renjun has been lying all his life.

But the moment he has to start to lie about Donghyuck, it becomes a challenge.

The lesson Renjun discovers in the year of his twenty-two birthday is that lying is easy when he doesn’t care. When it’s just about himself. But after Donghyuck has shown him a piece of truth, after Renjun has tried the addicting sensation of freedom, every lie weighs down on him.

It doesn’t feel fair that during events he can’t cross the distance between Donghyuck and him and squeeze his hand. It doesn’t feel fair that when his attention lingers on Donghyuck for too long, his parents, or one of his uncles or aunts, have a threat ready for him. Suddenly the world is too unfair for him to be happy, too unfair because he doesn’t want anyone but Donghyuck, because he hates every one of his own lies.

At first, Donghyuck and he meet in the isolated smoking rooms at balls, or in back alleys, during parties at mansions, feet apart and cigarettes in their hands. Most of the time, neither smoke. It’s an excuse to be together, but to pretend that they’re not together in case someone walks in on them. They keep their distance, since each other’s well-being matters more than giving into their most animal impulses, even though proximity is hard to resist sometimes, when Donghyuck devours Renjun with his eyes alone.

It’s words that unite them. But Renjun and Donghyuck don’t tell their own stories: they tell each other’s stories. Renjun navigates through Donghyuck’s childhood word by word, only stopped when he makes a mistake, a wrong assumption, or makes up something on purpose just to rile Donghyuck up. When it’s Donghyuck’s turn, he sticks to reality to the last detail, and though he knows more than Renjun ever expected, it’s true that Renjun is the bigger mystery between the two.

Donghyuck seems to like it that way. Don’t tell me about other boys, as though there were any boys at all. Don’t tell me about your mom, because he already knows how much she hurt Renjun, and how much Renjun loves her regardless.

It could be a trap, Renjun thinks from time to time. If Donghyuck intended to manipulate him, to enchant him just to destroy him later, he would win the game. A broken heart would be the fastest path to Renjun’s ending. And even if Donghyuck broke his heart, Renjun would still want him.

 

 

 

 

“Sir,” the bartender says, careful, arms trembling as he swipes something over the bar. “I don’t mean to burden you, but someone left this for you.”

Renjun glances up from his drink, confused. The bartender looks a couple of years older than him, blond hair, a blush over his nose and cheeks that betrays his shame. As soon as Renjun meets eyes with him, he hastily breaks the contact, as though he's afraid that Renjun will take offense.

Renjun has never seen this bartender before, but events don’t always hire the same staff. In fact, some families like to rotate the waiters and the bartenders, and even the cooks, to avoid giving them too much information. Rumors spread the fastest from mouth to mouth, and of course, from pocket to pocket.

Under the bartender’s hand, there is a letter. It sports a red seal in the middle, one of those that prevent people from opening it and closing it with discretion. Renjun figures out the owner in the blink of an eye.

Renjun doesn’t accept it. Not yet.

“What was your name again?” he asks the bartender, serious.

Names are important, important enough to give Renjun a sensation of safety, and innocent people wouldn’t have any trouble trading it.

The bartender parts his lips and closes them a couple of times, taken aback, lost, before managing a dry, “Jaehyun, sir.”

Renjun makes sure to remember his name, and then reminds himself that Jaehyun is following orders. He’s not a menace. For him, the letter under his hand is just that: a letter. For someone like Renjun, however, it could mark a difference: a beginning, a downfall, or useless hope.

“I know it’s hard to say no, Jaehyun,” Renjun starts, shaking his head. Despite his words, he seizes the letter and sweeps it into his sleeve, hiding it in one movement. Jaehyun watches the trick with wide eyes, more somber by the second. Renjun’s behavior shows him that this is a secret, that he shouldn’t tell anyone about it, and that if he does, Renjun will know it was him. “But you’ll lose your job if you let other people involve you in their games. Next time, tell him I said no.”

Jaehyun fervently nods at the permission, but Renjun doesn’t quite believe him. No man could deny Donghyuck his wishes, not even Renjun himself, and Jaehyun is susceptible of falling for Donghyuck’s requests again.

Anyhow, Renjun dismisses Jaehyun with a friendly wave of his hand and, once he’s far away, once he’s taking care of other customers, Renjun opens the letter.

He reads it once, the words etching on his memory with fire, before pulling out a lighter from his pocket. On the bar, Donghyuck’s note turns into ashes.

 

 

 

 

The room’s number is 053.

Renjun has never taken such a big risk in his entire life but, despite that, he isn't scared tonight. He's excited, so anxious that the floor tilts from side to side under his feet, but not scared. If Donghyuck brought him here, there's no better place where they could meet.

The hotel is discreet. There’s no regular entrance, just a parking lot with private cubicles and, again, private stairs that lead to the right floor. Renjun doesn’t spot a single soul on the way, doesn’t hear a single sound – rooms must be soundproof – and doesn’t need a receptionist to welcome him. This hotel is designed for people who, like Donghyuck and Renjun, have a secret to hide, and in room 053 lies their secret at last.

There are no keys or cards. Renjun has memorized the code from Donghyuck’s note, and after taking a deep breath, he types it into the door. The click that resonates over the hall is the most frightening part. The rest is easy: Renjun steps in, steps into a peculiar sort of home, and forgets about the outside world.

There, he’s safe. Donghyuck is on the verge of the bed, hands interlaced between his legs and body slouching forward; Renjun can tell that he’s nervous just with one glance. He raises his head like an animal in danger at the sound of the door, and then deflates in relief upon recognizing Renjun by the door.

A smile. Shoulders relaxed. The realization that Renjun didn’t abandon him.

When Donghyuck stands to receive him, Renjun doesn’t approach him. The room seems quite expensive: it has a double bed, a bathroom almost as big, a jacuzzi, and a fake window that creates the illusion that they can look outside. It’s in Renjun’s nature to be mistrustful, thus he walks in with false patience, his gaze analyzing every corner, every wall with a methodical attitude.

Donghyuck’s bewilderment is short-lived, and his expression travels from incredulity to understanding in a matter of seconds.

Inhaling deep, Donghyuck promises him, “It’s not a trap.”

Renjun’s doubts could have hurt him, but as he turns to look at Donghyuck, an amused grin expands on his face. Amused incredulity. Because Donghyuck is so gone, as gone as Renjun is, and he’d never endanger him; losing him means losing the pivot of his life, and Donghyuck hasn’t reached a point of self-punishment yet.

“I’m in a hotel room with you, Renjun,” Donghyuck insists. “I’d be fucking up my reputation too.”

That’s the magical charm that, word by word, untangles Renjun’s logic.

He’s alone with Donghyuck in a hotel room where freedom is the main attraction, and he’s wasting his time looking for the fissure in paradise. The fissures, Renjun realizes, are outside this hotel, in their daily lives, in their lies.

Donghyuck extends his hand, palm open, and whispers, “Come here.”

Renjun obeys, but he doesn’t take his hand. He crashes against Donghyuck, hands gripping his clothes, his hair, any inch of Donghyuck that can keep him in one piece. Donghyuck laughs at his impulsiveness for a second, his laughter muted in Renjun’s hair, before cupping Renjun's jaw and guiding him backward to stare into his eyes. They’ve spent years communicating through gazes and silences, and now both of them know it's the right time to break that last barrier.

When Renjun presses his lips against the soft curves of Donghyuck’s mouth, he expects fireworks. He expects to burst with emotions, but that’s not what happens: instead it feels like he’s melting against Donghyuck, like the world around him is disarranging and tilting into Donghyuck’s space to be embraced. Renjun senses his own knees fail, but Donghyuck’s hold on him doesn’t let him fall, and Renjun throws his hands around his neck for support.

Even though they don’t have any intention to stop, they move slowly. Jackets off, shoes off. Donghyuck twirls him around to lay him in bed, stroking his hair out of his face, always making sure that Renjun isn’t scared or overwhelmed. Renjun has never kissed anyone, but when he’s too impatient, when he’s too clumsy, Donghyuck just guides him back into the right rhythm. He smiles against his mouth a thousand times, making fun of Renjun without words, and Renjun shuts him up with kisses every time.

Donghyuck has always been a bit infuriating, and this isn’t any different. He takes endless time to explore Renjun’s mouth and every slope of his lips, with his tongue or softly sinking his teeth in the flesh, until the warmth in Renjun’s mouth extends to the edges of his body. When he touches Donghyuck, both his fingertips and Donghyuck’s skin are burning with fire, but that just makes Renjun wish for more, wish he could feel that sensation on every inch of his body.

Renjun can’t tell if it happens after the whole night or a few hours, but in the end Donghyuck snuggles next to him, swollen lips and semblance filled with contentment and pure calmness. Renjun observes him for a long time, running his hand through Donghyuck’s hair until he gives up, gives up drinking from Renjun's gaze, and closes his eyes.

He’s sure that, like him, Donghyuck won’t fall asleep tonight. He merely keeps his arm around Renjun, legs entangled and head on Renjun's chest. Maybe he’s listening to his heart or just to his breathing, and Renjun tries to keep him close and safe, aware that he wouldn’t do this with anyone but Donghyuck.

For once in his life, Renjun relaxes. The pulse on Donghyuck’s neck throbs against him with a cadence that feels perfect, and he stares at the false window, plagued by stars and an abnormally big moon.

He doesn’t perceive Donghyuck’s attention on him until he murmurs, “Beautiful.”

Renjun shifts to look at him, embarrassed, just to discover that there’s no trace of amusement in Donghyuck’s expression. Somehow, he’s figured out that it’s not a compliment that would fly over Renjun’s head, not a reason to laugh or smile. Donghyuck calls him beautiful because Renjun is beautiful to him, and because he’s the only one who can. Renjun wouldn’t believe anyone else.

“Dream of me, then,” he tells Donghyuck, so sweetly that he breaks into an irremediable smile.

Renjun loves tumbling down Donghyuck’s composure, but when it comes to him, calling victory is always too much of an act of faith.

“I have you here,” Donghyuck retorts, swinging his leg over Renjun’s hips to trap him. Renjun doesn’t bother to fight his own embarrassment, since that’ll just propel Donghyuck to come up with new ideas. “I don’t need to dream you up.”

For Renjun, they live in a limbo between reality and dreams. Donghyuck’s body, pressed against him, feels at the same time unreal and too real. But he’s been conditioned to this since he was a kid: he’s dreamed about Donghyuck for years, more than a whole decade, and it doesn’t matter if it’s a dream or not.

Not anymore.

“Do you think we’ll be happier in another life?” Renjun whispers then, to no one, or to himself, or even to Donghyuck.

Donghyuck doesn’t find the question odd, but responds by propping himself on his elbow to look at Renjun from a better angle. He tucks Renjun’s hair behind his head, careful, and stares at him with marveling eyes, to tug him into his head, to keep him sane and connected.

It’s that same connection that allows Donghyuck to understand his thoughts, to not question why Renjun would wonder about other lives. Their families have always been interlaced, in the good and the bad, and it has become fate to make each other suffer.

Fortune, after they found each other.

“I’ll make you the happiest in this one,” Donghyuck swears, because he knows, too, that they might not have another chance.

 

 

 

 

By the end of the year, half of the Huang’s business has passed to Renjun’s hands.

For the first time, he realizes he’s molding to his family’s expectations. Neither Donghyuck’s parents nor his completely abandon their duties: they’re reticent to cede all the power to their sons at once, so they test the waters to measure if they can truly compete against each other.

It’s too much work, and less time to meet Donghyuck in secret. More calls that interrupt their private moments, more dates that they have to halt to go back to their duties. The long nights at hotels become rare and precious, but Renjun doesn’t surrender.

Donghyuck is his color in a universe of grays.

Sometimes, at their peers’ parties, someone offers them a room without asking questions. Without asking first if they need it. Renjun can’t decipher when their silent gazes and their distance became an obvious tool, a façade, but his sense of danger erodes under Donghyuck’s body.

Trusting Dejun and Chenle with small hints of their secret requires effort and trust, surprisingly more from Renjun than from Donghyuck. Donghyuck has a bad case of feeling invincible, and it rubs off on Renjun as well.

But as Renjun learns, their powerful positions seals mouths, eyes and ears. And if their families suspect, they refuse to acknowledge that they’re communicating at least. Renjun is certain that despite all the proof, his relationship with Donghyuck could be mistaken as a friendship or complicated banter. After all, they’re been shaped to compete against each other, and there are no rules that forbid them to fight behind the scenes.

“If you weren't a Huang and I wasn't a Lee, would it still be that bad?” Donghyuck asks him one night at Dejun's house, where they're spending the night alone.

Dejun promised that he would be out until morning, and a friend's place is always better than a hotel – less risky, a decent cover up. If someone monitored Renjun's moves, he wouldn't have to lie about his location, and the same would apply to Donghyuck.

Renjun stretches over the bed, observing how Donghyuck roams around the room, slipping into his sleeping clothes and fixing his tousled his hair every other second. Even though Renjun has told him before that he doesn't have to look perfect for him, appearances and perfection are engrained in their veins. Donghyuck can't help it.

“That doesn't matter, does it?” Renjun says, because he has no answer for that. Donghyuck is still a man, and his family never contemplated that possibility for their only son. “We can't change it.”

The defiance in Donghyuck’s eyes is always worthy it. He crawls on the bed towards Renjun, pulling at the covers to slip inside with him, and makes a grateful noise when Renjun opens his arms for him. Donghyuck’s embrace feels familiar. His.

“I like thinking that I can change anything,” Donghyuck reminds him. And even though Renjun represses those feelings, dreaming is an illusion they share. “Don’t you want to show me off?”

Anyone would show Donghyuck off; beautiful, smart, powerful, and of a caring nature that their kind lack often. His only flaw is that he loves Renjun. Part of Renjun can’t believe that Donghyuck would even consider revealing their feelings to the outside world; Renjun isn’t so afraid of their families’ reactions as he is of the chance of losing Donghyuck, of irremediably being pulled apart and punished.

“I don’t want your head on a silver platter,” Renjun mutters, pensive. His fingers unconsciously sink harder in Donghyuck’s abdomen, but Donghyuck stays still, observing his semblance as though Renjun is hiding secrets from him.

“You underestimate me if you think I’d be the one dying, not the one doing the killing.” And it’s just a joke, but their death isn’t unimaginable: it would be metaphoric. They’ve witnessed a hundred falls; intelligent, influential families that lost it all for messing with the wrong person. Their families could do the same to their own sons, disowning them, torturing them without a single trace of remorse until they surrendered. “Renjun, they’ll find out, sooner or later.”

Loving each other turns them into traitors. If Renjun loved another man, there would be a chance for his parents to help him hide it from the world, to save his family’s honor with lies and appearances. But not Donghyuck. Renjun is betraying his roots, every generation that suffered because of Donghyuck’s family, and that won’t be forgiven.

“Because they’ll want to marry us off,” Donghyuck continues, chasing Renjun’s eyes. Renjun avoids glancing at him, incapable of contributing or stopping Donghyuck’s fairytales; he despises the future, despises pondering about it, for it leads him to dark places and the prospect of unfixable pain. “And I’ll refuse to marry a woman.”

But he remembers seventeen-year-old Donghyuck, smoking and laughing at him, telling him that he needed a wife to have a normal life. To be worth of the intangible relationship their families had built between them. That boy still holds the truth between his fingers.

Donghyuck lost sight of his aims along the way, lost them in Renjun’s body and in silent kisses in isolated rooms. Renjun isn’t sure he ever had them himself; one look at Donghyuck in their first ball was enough to break his life. But this is Renjun’s fault: Donghyuck wants to ruin his life because Renjun convinced him to do so, because he believes that Renjun is all he needs to continue.

Renjun grabs Donghyuck by the jaw, his tense hold transmitting what his words can’t, and says, “You’ll do whatever you have to do, you hear me?”

It’s hard to recognize his own voice, the cruelty with which Renjun manages to utter those words. Fear swallows him, because he doesn’t want to let go of Donghyuck, but he feels guilty for being loved with so much honesty. Donghyuck deserves better than the life Renjun will give him.

“No,” Donghyuck refuses, confused, a note of panic tinting his eyes. He interprets Renjun’s stubbornness as rejection, and that frightens him to his core. He yanks Renjun’s hand away from his jaw and intertwines their fingers, perhaps to remind him that forcing each other into unhappiness isn’t what they do, and that Renjun can’t take that decision by himself. “You don’t get it.”

“I get it, Donghyuck.”

But Donghyuck shakes his head, gaze shining with the reflection of Renjun’s cowardice. “What’s the point? Do you think I’ll get married and then forget about you? That won’t happen. This doesn’t end, because it’s not supposed to end.”

Believing is fate for children, Renjun’s dad always said. Yet Renjun was never allowed to be a child, with fantasies and imaginary worlds that could protect him from the truth, and this might the universe granting him what he should have experienced.

“Any woman that marries me will know I’m not hers,” Donghyuck sentences. Both of them know that it’ll be almost impossible to find a cover-up, someone that will accept to be their partner in public and no one in private, but Donghyuck’s determination doesn’t dwindle, “and if I have to spend my whole life not sharing my life with anyone, I’ll do it. If it’s just you and I, and a couple of friends, I’m fine with that.”

Renjun’s heart squeezes in his heart. He didn’t imagine that Donghyuck would come up with such a proposal. Living comfortably in their own circle only is strange, but it makes sense. They’ve never needed to be themselves in public.

Renjun rolls on his side and then onto Donghyuck’s abdomen, straddling him. He doesn’t know how to explain how much Donghyuck’s decisions mean to him, so he does what works best for them: he leans down and presses a kiss to Donghyuck’s lips, drowning in his confusion and feeling his panic thaw out. Donghyuck encircles the back of his head, desperately clenching around Renjun’s hair, as though Renjun could change his mind and leave him at any moment.

He stays, however, panting against Donghyuck’s mouth once he’s pulled back. Bravery has vanished into the kiss, and Renjun doesn’t dare to open his eyes; it’s better this way, feeling Donghyuck’s heart under his hand and the erratic cadence of his breathing.

“Don’t be mad at me,” Renjun pleads, afraid that Donghyuck will resent him for trying to renounce him when that would destroy Renjun too.

Donghyuck sighs into his mouth and assures him, “I’m not mad at you. I’m mad at the world. At my family. At yours.”

Renjun is, too. It’s not Donghyuck who frustrates him, but the fact that they can’t be other people, normal.

When Renjun opens his eyes, the expectation in Donghyuck’s gaze is overwhelming. Renjun soothes him by stroking his hair, observing all the details of his face. His eyelashes, softly interlacing with every blink, and his sharp cheekbones that shine even with the little light of the room. The four moles on his cheek, as fascinating as the ones spread over his neck; Renjun traces the path to the one in the middle of his Adam’s apple and when Donghyuck has the nerve of grinning at him – aware of his thoughts – Renjun kisses his mole.

There, against Donghyuck’s throat, Renjun whispers, “I don’t understand how someone can look at you and hate you.”

“That’s funny,” Donghyuck remarks, throat trembling at the sensation of Renjun’s lips. His shiver is so evident that Renjun feels it on his body too. “Have you seen yourself? You look like an angel.”

A scoff pushes past Renjun’s lips, and Donghyuck lets out a small laugh too, satisfied.

“You know I’m no angel, Donghyuck.”

Donghyuck hums in agreement, but his hands rest on Renjun’s lower back, where he pushes to prop Renjun up. That works like a charm to make Renjun look at him,

“Yeah?” Donghyuck asks him, tender lips parting with defiance. Renjun doesn’t hesitate to come closer, a breath away from sealing Donghyuck’s mouth with a kiss after he says, “That just makes me love you more.”

His words are poison. His heart is rotten. And so is Renjun, poisoned and rotten to his bones with every drop of Donghyuck’s existence.

 

 

 

 

Peace, like Donghyuck warned him, has an expiration date.

At first, Renjun’s family introduces him to several women without mentioning their intentions. Even though they’re evident, Renjun refuses to meet these women in formal dates and treats them like he’d treat any other stranger. His strategy is effective until Renjun’s indifference and lack of action force his parents to explicitly ask about his marriage plans. Their questions aren’t mere questions, but advice. Pressure.

But with Donghyuck in mind, no amount of pressure can break Renjun’s determination.

“I don’t want to marry,” he admits one night, after his mother asks for his preferences so that they can set him up with the right person. But a lie is necessary, and Renjun opts for explaining, “No partner will be worthy of our business.”

His decision is dismissed as immaturity, since the concept of having offspring for the good of his legacy has been hammered into his head for years. His parents don’t think he’ll last without wanting children; that, maybe, in a few years he’ll feel lonely without company.

Renjun doesn’t mind being seen as lonely, though that’s a disadvantage for his reputation. He’s still young, but once he passes his twenties, his disinterest in women will mark a difference. It will provoke questions about his character and his personality, at best, and bad rumors at worst.

For once in his life, Renjun doesn’t have a plan.

 

 

 

 

Yukhei gets married the next year, but to everyone’s shock, the Lee family is invited to the event.

His choice becomes the center of attention over the wedding itself, and some family members decline the invitation to send a negative message. Renjun could have, too, but his curiosity is stronger than appearances. His parents, however, refuse to comply – thus sending Renjun as their representation.

Yukhei has never been overly fond of the Lee family either, but Renjun tries to explain his behavior due to his carelessness. Donghyuck and Taeyong have mingled in their parties for years, and Yukhei has had the chance to go beyond shallow conversations with them. That doesn’t mean they’re friends.

Given the danger of attending a wedding out of their comfort zone, Donghyuck and Taeyong are accompanied by security and other cousins. Their manners are flawless, however.

And despite the odd situation, Renjun feels comforted by Donghyuck’s presence. He makes en effort not to stare at him, at his stunning smile and his gait, but the truth is that no one is paying attention to Renjun. Not tonight, at least. Taeyong eclipses the event without any intention to do so, and his chains mean Donghyuck’s freedom.

The banquet is long and tedious, but Renjun gathers patience, intending to escape to the gardens afterwards. When he stands up to go greet Yukhei, Dejun and Chenle tag along, both of them content with the wedding; their happiness is quite contagious, but brittle in Renjun’s hands.

It’s even more brittle when Yukhei asphyxiates him in a hug, his huge frame swallowing him, and whispers into his ear, “I invited him because of you.”

The noise in the banquet is so predominant that it can cancel out Yukhei’s voice. Still, Renjun feels his legs tremble with fear. The song playing in the background engraves in his mind at the rhythm of pure panic, but Yukhei is holding him and Renjun can’t break down.

“What?” he mutters, not sure whether Yukhei catches his response.

“You heard me,” Yukhei retorts, cheeky. He detaches from the hug, but he pats Renjun’s shoulders, eyes crinkled up in happiness. It’s a happy day for him, Renjun supposes, and he’s trying to do the same for Renjun. “So go have fun, cousin. I didn’t make a mess for you to waste the opportunity.”

When Renjun stares up at him, he can’t prevent the surprise from blooming on his face. Yukhei might not know much, but he knows enough – it doesn’t have to be love to him, but he’s detected that there’s a bond between Donghyuck and Renjun.

It’s a bond so big that sometimes Renjun wonders how the rest can’t see it.

“Thank you,” Renjun responds, petrified, just to realize that he’s never thanked anyone with his whole heart. That gratitude explodes from inside his chest, a sensation that he’s never had towards anyone but Donghyuck.

Yukhei doesn’t have any more words for him, just a splendid grin and a last pat on the back. Renjun steps back to let other attendants congratulate him, and when he spins on his heels, his instinct pushes him to scan the whole banquet. He searches for Donghyuck at the table he was at, but he’s not there anymore. Renjun crosses paths with Taeyong a few times, though he doesn’t bother to ask – his brother seems to ignore where Donghyuck went. Donghyuck never grants explanations.

Renjun weaves through the tables, trying not to speed up his pace, but it’s to no avail. Now that the dinner is over and everyone is scattering to speak and dance, it’s the perfect moment to slip to the gardens. Renjun’s steps resonate on the marble as he heads out, but he’s discreet enough to slip out in time; not even the staff around the halls spares him a glance, too busy carrying plates out and into the banquet.

Renjun follows the path marked by the soft light of the bollards, not knowing where to go. As far as he knows, Donghyuck could have left the wedding, though Renjun doubts so. Donghyuck would never leave without gifting Renjun a signal or a gesture.

At Renjun’s right, there’s a considerable pond illuminated by blue lights, but one quick glance shows that its surroundings are empty. At his left, however, there’s a tiny white gazebo and, even from the distance, Renjun can distinguish a figure seated inside.

His heart flips at the sight. He’s so conditioned by Donghyuck that he would never mistake him in the mild darkness of the garden. His first impulse is to run to him, but he remains still for a few seconds, wondering if Donghyuck wants to be alone. If he should be alone.

But that’s the key: except when Donghyuck is with him, he’s always alone. Renjun is the only one who can fix that.

Donghyuck notices him right when he climbs the stairs of the gazebo, his head snapping up as though he’s scared. Renjun imagines why: without protection and being the enemy of the family, facing a Huang is a risk.

“Donghyuck,” Renjun calls him, and Donghyuck relaxes in one blow.

Renjun sits with him, snuggling against his side without shame. Donghyuck throws an arm around his waist and prompts him to lean his head on his shoulder, offering the warmth that they can’t find anywhere else.

“So this is what a Huang’s wedding is like,” Donghyuck sighs, distracted by his own head. “We’d have so much fun.”

For an eternity, Renjun’s world freezes. That’s a dream that they’ll never enjoy, and Donghyuck is planting a seed in his head that will grow and grow without stopping. It’s a forbidden dream in all possible senses, but Donghyuck still wants to dream about it.

“We can still have fun,” Renjun wholeheartedly promises him, but that’s all. He can’t continue without lying to him.

That promise, however, strikes a chord for Donghyuck.

“You’re right,” he says, nodding to himself. He cups the back of Renjun’s head and guides him forward, bright pupils looking for recognition in Renjun’s face. “Do you hear the music?”

Renjun tries to listen to it. In the silence of the garden, the music is barely a mutter, but it’s loud enough for them to feel it in their bones. It reminds Renjun of how Donghyuck makes him feel: always vibrating, always excited.

With a demure smile, Renjun says, “I do.”

Donghyuck’s lips stretch into a sweet smile as well. Renjun observes him – the hope in his eyes, the never-ending eagerness to build bridges between the nothingness and Renjun’s happiness – and understands.

When Donghyuck stands up, it doesn’t catch Renjun off guard. And when he offers Renjun his hand, all he senses is the tickling in his fingertips, urging, impatient.

“Dance with me,” Donghyuck tells him, because that’s what they’ve always wanted to do, since the beginning, to enjoy the normalcy they weren’t allowed to have.

Renjun interlaces their fingers, and that night, Donghyuck dreams for him.