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summer's tongue

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Ten minutes before it happens, everything is normal.

They’d just stumbled off another set and through another dressing room and into another set of black cars, exhausted and worn thin. Yukhei’s hair is all sweaty and stuck to his forehead. In the car, he tips over into Dejun’s shoulder and doesn’t get pushed off.

They get to the hotel. Yukhei stumbles up to his room and flops flat on his face onto his bed. He’s hungry and restless, like normal, and Sicheng has no interest in ordering food, let alone venturing out to find chicken, like normal. Ten had drawn the highest playing card from a deck and won the solo room, so Yukhei goes to him. Like normal.

Ten opens the door to his hotel room and smiles his happiest smile up at Yukhei. Yukhei beams back ear to ear and goes inside. Normal.

“Aren’t you hot?” Ten asks. “I’m sweltering.” He puts his hand on Yukhei’s forehead and sweeps Yukhei’s hair to the side, his fingers all small and soft on Yukhei’s skin. Cute. Normal. Yukhei captures Ten’s hands in his own and laughs as he squirms. Normal.

Ten wrestles his hands away and goes to the window. It doesn’t open right away and he has to pry it up. While he's busy, Yukhei lays down on Ten’s bed and tugs on the soft thin blankets until they untuck from the bed frame and he can wrap himself up into a cocoon. He feels nice. Happy, comfortable, here with Ten.

The window opens, and Ten turns and sees the disarray Yukhei’s made of his bed. He makes the expression he always makes right before he’s about to start complaining and scolding Yukhei and generally being annoying while making everything hilarious and wonderful.

There’s one more final, lingering moment where everything is normal. And then a gust of wind sweeps into the room. Everything smells sweet and tart all of a sudden, like fruit candy.

Yukhei feels it the moment it hits him.

It slams right into him, a wave of thick, syrupy heat. His body immediately feels unbearable. One instant everything is normal — the next — he doesn’t understand — how can his skin exist — how can things touch it — Yukhei hears himself cry out. He kicks the blankets off frantically, getting tangled and curling up into himself. Then he feels himself freeze, every muscle tensed.

His body doesn’t even know what it’s feeling. It hurts so bad. Why does it hurt so bad.

The heat condenses, drawing into a tight little ball. Yukhei can feel it batter at his skin all over like a dumb moth throwing its body against a lamp. It feels like it’s trying to find a way in. Then it attacks his forehead and — slips right through, the hot glow suddenly passing into him.

The feeling tears through him, temples to fingertips, burning burning, starting on his skin and working its way through until all his blood is made of fire. Once it’s run through his whole body, it draws into a ball again, settling in his chest like he’s swallowed a lump of hot coal.

Yukhei can’t see, brain foggy and hot. And then — he can see, and all he can see is Ten, standing absolutely still by the window.

“Um,” Ten says, and then gasps, like speaking had hurt.

Yukhei is standing. What the fuck. He doesn’t know when that happened. The coal inside him is burning and burning. His skin feels awful, all prickly and uncomfortable and painful.

“Xuxi,” Ten says.

Yukhei is taking a step forward. Ten is standing stock still. His body is silhouetted against the sun. He looks perfect, untouchable and touchable all at once, perfect muscles and perfect skin on top of them and perfect little face looking right at Yukhei.

“What’s happening,” Ten says.

Yukhei is standing right in front of him now. The coal inside him is roaring like a dragon. Touch him, touch him, touch him! it’s saying, or maybe that’s just Yukhei. He can’t think. It hurts.

“I don’t know,” Yukhei manages to say, and then echoes, “what’s happening, what is this, what’s happening.”

Ten’s brow is creased a little, which means that he’s probably hurting very badly. Ten always complains when something hurts a little and never complains when something hurts a lot.

Yukhei reaches out for him. The moment his hand touches Ten’s arm, the dragon thing inside him goes crazy. Nothing matters but touching Ten. The feeling of his skin is a cool balm, the only thing to ease the heat. He grips Ten’s arm with his whole hand, and reaches out for more.

“Xuxi,” Ten says again, looking horribly like he might cry. Then, very suddenly, he surges all the way forward and wraps his arms around Yukhei, pressing his face right into Yukhei’s chest and holding on tight.

“Fuck,” Yukhei says. “What the fuck. Ten, please.”

Ten clutches him tighter. He wraps one of his legs around Yukhei’s and squishes him in chest to chest. It feels better, but no — god — it really doesn’t, it’s worse. It hurts. Yukhei needs more — he needs to touch Ten — he needs to quench this feeling, but every touch only makes it worse.

Then Ten presses his other leg between Yukhei’s thighs and Yukhei realizes with a horrible, humiliating jolt that he’s hard. He’s really hard. Ten gasps into his chest and squirms closer.

“Please,” Yukhei says again, lost. He doesn’t know if he’s pleading with Ten or with the dragon made of coal inside him or what. He’s touching Ten but he needs to touch Ten. He needs-

Ten pulls back. Yukhei cries out a little — fuck, it hurts, Ten can’t go anywhere, it’s so much worse without Ten against him — but then he surges back in and kisses Yukhei, right on the lips, and- yes. Yukhei opens his mouth and kisses Ten back. He pulls Ten as close as he possibly physically can and tries to eat him alive. Ten’s lips are so hungry too, and he’s making these little gasping noises every time he breathes, and Yukhei can taste him.

The fire is still burning, but jesus. Ten feels perfect in his arms. The absolute perfect size for Yukhei to wrap up with his body and hold close. Yukhei grasps at his back, hands sliding down his spine and finding the bottom of his shirt. The first brush of his fingers against the soft bare skin of Ten’s back makes him feel— crazy, just crazy, a man possessed. Yukhei puts his hands under Ten’s shirt and Ten gasps right into his mouth. He slides his fingers back up, feeling all of Ten’s bones and muscles under his skin, hauling him closer and closer even though there’s no closer to go.

“Ten,” Yukhei whispers, needing to say his name.

Ten jerks back out of Yukhei’s grip, so suddenly that Yukhei’s hands are left dangling, still reaching uselessly for him. Ten steps away, separating all of the places that they had been touching. The dragon rears with a vengeance, a wave so hot and painful sweeping through him that Yukhei buckles over, clutching his chest like he’d just been shot.

“No,” Yukhei says. “No, Ten, what- It hurts, where are you going, Ten-”

“Stop,” Ten snaps. “Stop talking. We can’t-” His voice breaks. “We can’t do this. I don’t know what the fuck is happening but-”

Yukhei cries out again as another wave lays him out.

“No,” Ten says, voice all choked and horrible. Yukhei shakily raises his head to look up at him, and Ten’s jaw is clenched and trembling. He’s trembling everywhere, actually, his whole body wracked with shivers of pain, but he’s somehow managing to stay upright. “You have to go, Xuxi, get out of here.”

“I can’t,” Yukhei says. “Ten-”

“No!” Ten says again. “No, we can’t. It’ll stop. It’ll go away, just-”

Ten’s voice gives out and he clenches his eyes shut. He covers his face with his shaking hands.

“Ten, you’re hurting,” Yukhei says plaintively.

Ten’s shoulders heave once.

“Please,” Yukhei says, and something in Ten seems to give in.

Ten drops his hands and takes a breath. “Okay,” he says, and moves forward, and then he’s there, in front of Yukhei, holding Yukhei’s face in his hands and kissing him deeply and desperately. Yukhei grabs at him and manages to hold onto Ten’s hips and pull him in until he’s practically sitting in Yukhei’s lap. Every spot they are pressed together feels fucking electric — sparks meeting sparks, somehow easing the hurt.

“Thank you,” Yukhei breathes into Ten’s mouth. Ten makes a sad little sound and strokes Yukhei’s sweaty hair back from his temple with shaking fingers. His tiny fingers cradle Yukhei’s cheeks, angling his face up to be kissed right. It feels so damn good.

But- it’s not enough. Not nearly. Yukhei can feel the fire, only barely kept at bay. This isn’t going to be enough.

“Can I-” Yukhei says, then loses the rest of his words. He grabs the back of Ten’s thighs and stands, adjusting his grip so he can lift Ten with him and toss him gently onto the bed.

“Sorry,” Yukhei says immediately, but Ten shakes his head and reaches for him. Ten’s face is all red and sweaty, beads of moisture collecting at the edges of his forehead. His legs are sprawled open and his thighs look obscene under his shorts. Yukhei has always loved looking at Ten’s face, with his cute little snowboard jump nose and his sexy sneaky eyes. But now — he looks at Ten’s face and Ten’s body, and the hot dragon thing inside of Yukhei says Take him.

Yukhei puts one knee on the bed and leans over Ten, finding his lips and kissing him slowly. Like this, he can brace his elbows on either side of Ten and cover him with his whole body. Ten kisses like a man starved — or maybe that’s the dragon in Ten and not Ten at all. They’re both ravenous, lips meeting over and over again. Ten’s hands tangle in his hair and draw him down closer.

When he runs out of breath, Yukhei pulls away and gasps for air. Ten moves down to his neck, relentless, lips hot and wet against Yukhei’s skin.

“Fuck-” Yukhei swears, and then he’s unable to take it anymore and he pulls at the bottom of Ten’s shirt, saying desperately, “Off, please, let me touch you.”

Ten rips himself away from Yukhei’s lips to strip his shirt and then Yukhei’s. They keep having to stop and kiss to keep the fire at bay. Yukhei wishes he could detach his lips from his body so he could get his clothes off without having to stop touching and kissing Ten for even a second. But then, finally, Ten’s bare skin is against Yukhei’s bare skin. He could cry. This is what he needed. It feels so good. It feels so good.

They kiss like that, Yukhei’s body on top of Ten’s, pressing him down into the mattress. Yukhei can feel Ten hard against him. Fuck. Thinking about it makes everything in him go wild. Yukhei wants to touch, he wants to have all of Ten.

Eventually, Ten pushes him off. Yukhei is too dizzy to protest.

“This isn’t enough,” Ten says. His lips are all red and swollen. In a haze, Yukhei reaches out and touches them. They’re wet — from Yukhei, from kissing Yukhei, Ten’s soft red lips were just kissing Yukhei. Ten captures Yukhei’s fingers in his own. “Xuxi, it’s not enough.” And then, like it’s costing him everything: “Please.”

Yukhei can’t- he can’t think straight. He can’t think about what they’re doing. It’s wrong, Ten is hurting and Ten should never be hurting — Yukhei is hurting — he can’t think. He just moves, pulls Ten’s shorts off and then his underwear. Ten’s skin is under him; so much of it, now. Yukhei can’t think.

He kisses Ten’s thigh. Ten’s dick is right there, right next to his face. Ten’s thigh looks so good, and Yukhei kisses it again, feels the firm realness of Ten against his lips. He breathes in deeply and smells Ten — it’s the same boyish smell of anyone, but made unbearably sexy. Warm and musky and human. Yukhei pushes his face into Ten’s thigh until he’s not even kissing it anymore, just mouthing at it wetly and trying to get closer. The dragon winds its long burning body all the way around his heart and squeezes.

“Please,” Ten says again. He sounds like he might cry.

Yukhei doesn’t have any idea what he’s doing, but he knows that he needs to keep touching Ten. He wants to make Ten feel better. He wants to ease the fire for Ten, make the pain go away. Yukhei takes Ten’s dick into his hand, feeling it out, feeling the heat beneath his skin.

Ten cries out a little and shakes, writhing in the sheets. He’s covering his face with his hands. Yukhei doesn’t want to see what expression he’s making underneath.

The drag of Yukhei’s hand on Ten’s cock is too dry, so Yukhei takes his hand away and spits into it like he does when he’s jerking off. It’s better after that, moves smoother. Breathing in the smell and the heat of Ten, Yukhei thinks that nothing that has happened in his life, ever, has been sexier or more fucked up than this. Ten feels so good underneath him. It doesn’t make sense, but Yukhei wants more. More of Ten’s skin, more of his dick, more of all of him.

Yukhei can’t see Ten properly like this, with his face pressed into Ten’s thigh, kissing his smooth skin carelessly, and his hand working on Ten’s dick. After a minute, Ten cries out in frustration and says again, “Xuxi. Xuxi, it’s not enough.”

He’s right. It’s not enough. The burning is getting worse. Ten’s skin feels so good, a fucking magic elixir, but it’s not stopping it. The dragon is roaring and shaking, demanding Yukhei’s attention.

Yukhei pulls away. He doesn’t know what to do. Ten takes another deep, shaking breath, hands still over his face, still not looking at Yukhei. He’s so naked — Yukhei’s seen this much of his skin before, but not like this. Not looking straight on, with Ten’s dick hard and red and strangely beautiful right in front of him. Ten’s skin is slick with sweat, flushed all over, even over the stark black lines of the crescent tattoo on his ribs.

Yukhei can’t help himself. He’s all action right now, no mind to speak of. He reaches out and traces over the tattoo, feeling Ten’s chest so alive and perfect under Yukhei’s fingers.

The tattoo feels like Ten distilled. Shameless; undeniable; barely covering up something real while still keeping its shape. Yukhei moves up and presses his lips to the lines of it. One of his hands clutches Ten’s waist, right where it curves all dainty and sexy. He kisses away the sweat, making Ten’s skin wet with his lips instead. Something in him feels it like the craziest adrenaline rush, the most gentle reverence. Like going home, like being on stage.

“Xuxi,” Ten says again, like he’s begging. Yukhei thinks he’s asking for more, but then he says: “Stop, please.”

Oh.

A wave of guilt crashes through him. It feels almost as bad as the fire still burning relentlessly. Yukhei recoils and scrambles back on the bed frantically, horrified by himself. “Sorry,” he says, “sorry, I’m so-”

“Stop,” Ten says again. He looks like he’s about to cry. Because of Yukhei — because Yukhei touched him too tenderly, or because Yukhei touched him at all?

“Can we just-” Ten says, and then his voice breaks and he wraps his arms around himself, clearly feeling a wave of the fire batter at him. “Fuck. Fuck this, here-” Ten pulls himself up and tackles Yukhei. Before Yukhei has time to think or stop him, Ten is pulling his shorts down, barely enough to take out his dick and suck it all the way down.

Jesus. Ten’s mouth is hot and wet and — not nearly enough. It feels like trying to tickle yourself, or scratch an unscratchable itch. He looks so fucking good, his head bobbing up and down as he drools on Yukhei’s dick. If it was up to Yukhei, he would feel this forever, but it’s not enough. It’s not enough. The dragon is clawing relentlessly at him, lashing him with its long serpent-y tail. It’s not enough.

Ten pulls off, wiping his messy mouth with a forearm like it was nothing. “Is it working?” he asks.

Yukhei has no choice but to shake his head no. Ten growls with frustration. His lips are curled a little, the way he gets when he’s really intense or kind of angry. Yukhei can’t stop himself from grabbing Ten and pulling him in and kissing them. It’s the only thing to do.

Ten allows himself to be kissed. Yukhei licks at him until Ten’s mouth yields and he lets Yukhei kiss him deeper. When their lips are together, Yukhei’s mind goes quiet even if the dragon doesn’t. Kissing Ten makes sense to him — it’s real, hot and present and — not enough, but something.

Unthinking, driven by impulse only, Yukhei presses forward and forward until Ten is underneath him again. Take him, take him, have him, the dragon hisses. Ten makes a whimpery little ‘ah’ sound and arches up beneath him. Yukhei wants to eat him up whole. There is not enough room in Yukhei’s body for the depth and wildness of his desire.

Ten pushes at Yukhei’s shoulder until he draws back. Before Yukhei can get a good look at his face, Ten flips over onto his stomach, buries his face in the pillows, and says quietly but with such urgency that Yukhei’s blood boils, “please.”

So much of Ten’s skin is exposed. For Yukhei. The curve of Ten’s back—

It’s sweaty, and Yukhei remembers how Ten’s sweat tastes and, helpless, bends down to lick at Ten’s spine again. He can feel Ten’s bones under his tongue, every knob of his spine. Ten’s bones should be in a museum. A museum that Yukhei owns, so he can look at them every day and no one else can get access.

Yukhei puts his hands on Ten’s skin. He traces his fingertips all the way down from Ten’s shoulders to his thighs. Every inch is fucking perfect.

The dragon roars, so loud that Yukhei can hear it. So loud that the whole hotel must be awake. The dragon roars, and Ten says, again, “please. Please don’t make me wait, please—”

Yukhei pushes his lips into Ten’s hip, searching for a balm. He sucks urgently on Ten’s skin, latched on like it’ll save him. He drags a hand down and feels for where he knows Ten needs him to touch. Where he needs to touch.

Ten’s hole is as soft as the rest of his skin. At the first press, Ten makes a sound like a cut off wail. His thighs are trembling. Yukhei strokes his finger over Ten’s hole, trying desperately to hold back.

“Please, please, please,” Ten chants.

Yukhei’s fingers look so big clutching Ten’s hip. He looks like a beast — he feels like a beast, an animal, a creature made only of want.

“Okay,” Yukhei says. His voice is all kinds of fucked up, almost unrecognizable. He can’t — but he has to — but he wants —

Yukhei shoves his fingers into his own mouth and lets himself drool all over them, then brings them back to Ten’s hole. When his first finger presses just barely in, Ten gasps like he’s been pierced through. Then Ten shoves back, so eagerly that suddenly Yukhei’s finger is in all the way to the knuckle. It has to hurt, but Ten just whines and keeps hitching his hips back in unbearably sexy little grinds.

“More, more,” Ten pants. “More, or I’ll never fucking forgive you, give it to me—”

“I can’t,” Yukhei says frantically. “I can’t, we don’t have—”

Ten’s not listening to him. He’s just pressing back, squirming relentlessly, gasping into the pillows, beads of sweat forming on the long smooth arc of his spine. He’s just— sex, sex personified, a fucking vision.

Yukhei spits on his fingers where they’re pressed up against Ten’s hole, then starts working a second one into Ten’s body. Ten cries out and crushes his forehead deeper into the pillows, but doesn’t complain.

Inside Yukhei’s chest, the dragon is thrashing in glee and desperation. It wants more more more more more. Yukhei’s vision is starting to cloud over. He does his best to curl his fingers inside Ten, feeling the dizzy heat of him, feeling his hole start to give and relax around Yukhei.

“Okay?” Yukhei manages to ask. Ten only whimpers in response, but he presses his hips back again, like he’s giving Yukhei permission to take him. Yukhei can’t imagine resisting. He leans in and licks around his fingers, feeling the slight stretch of Ten’s hole, making it as wet as he can make it, as wet as it needs to be for—

When Yukhei pulls back and pulls his fingers out, Ten loses it. “No, Xuxi, no, please—” Ten sobs in frustration. The side of his face that Yukhei can see is flushed all red and wet. “Give it back, give it back to me—”

“It’s okay,” Yukhei says frantically. “It’s okay, just—” He sits up and manhandles Ten into place, pulling Ten’s hips up from the bed so that he’s balanced on his elbows and knees. “It’s okay, it’s okay,” he tries to reassure Ten. It doesn’t feel okay even a little, it feels like Yukhei’s going to die, it feels like the whole world is going to be eaten up by this fire unless Yukhei gets inside, unless Yukhei manages to climb into Ten’s brain and feel Ten from the inside out.

Barely holding on for dear life, Yukhei takes his dick in his hand and puts a leg over Ten’s hips. He almost keels over from how badly he needs it. He pulls Ten’s cheek to the side to expose his hole (clenching, perfect, perfect, perfect) and spits, again, right on Ten’s hole to make it as wet as it can be. Ten’s body twitches all over.

Yukhei swipes over Ten’s hole with a thumb, pushing in one last time, and then puts the head of his dick against the wet rim of it and presses insistently until, somehow, he’s inside.

The dragon goes fucking wild.

“I’m sorry,” Yukhei gasps. Ten is clutching at the sheets frantically, not making a sound. “I’m sorry.” Yukhei can’t help himself. His hips nudge forward, slowly grinding in deeper and deeper. Ten feels— indescribable, the best thing Yukhei has ever felt, probably the best thing anyone has felt, ever. This is what Yukhei was made for — to be inside Ten, to fill him up and make them both whole.

Yukhei falls forward, catching himself with a hand so that he’s hovering right over Ten’s body. Ten is so — so compact beneath him, so small, covered so entirely by the long length of Yukhei’s body that one would never guess how much space he usually takes up in a room. The side of Ten’s face is pressed into the pillow, his perfect perfect features in flushed profile against the white fabric. Yukhei wants to lick it all over, kiss his nose, kiss his lips, his eyes, kiss away every single bead of sweat, kiss Ten until being kissed is the only thing Ten knows how to do.

He tamps down the impulse and grinds forward again into Ten’s ass. “Ahhhhh,” Ten manages to say.

“Is it—” Yukhei tries to speak. “Can I— I’m sorry, can I—”

“Just—” Ten hisses and rolls his forehead into the pillow, then gets back up onto his elbows and hangs his head down. Neither of them can finish a sentence — it feels like they’re in a dream, a nightmare, a place beyond words or thoughts.

Yukhei means to be gentle. He tries to be gentle. But when he fucks in, when Ten’s body opens for him, it makes him feel like an animal, a beast of lust, like nothing matters except cramming himself as deep into Ten as he can. Yukhei fucks in again, and again, and then — he can’t stop himself — he’s fucking Ten hard, pistoning in as deep and fast as he can while Ten cries out ah, ah, ah and takes it.

Yukhei collapses a little more with each snap of his hips, falling into Ten. The sweat of Ten’s skin is slick and hot beneath him. Yukhei can’t reach it with his mouth like he wants to, so he grabs at Ten’s hip, pressing his fingers into Ten’s soft skin. Ten looks and feels almost delicate beneath him, his hip dwarfed by Yukhei’s huge fingers.

It feels unfair, somehow, that Yukhei can’t have Ten as Ten usually is. Ten shouldn’t be delicate. He never has been before.

Helpless in the face of his lust, Yukhei uses his grip to pull Ten back and slam in harder. Ten takes it so good, his ass clenching on Yukhei’s dick, the slick heat of him drawing Yukhei in and in and in. Every noise Ten makes sounds like it’s been punched out of him. Ten’s head is hanging down still, his hair falling down over his face.

Yukhei wishes — he knows he doesn’t deserve to wish; he doesn’t deserve to love this; he doesn’t deserve to want so badly to never, ever stop, just keep fucking Ten and staring at Ten and having Ten until they fucking — die. But he wishes he could see Ten’s face. Get somehow closer, look at Ten’s eyes, kiss Ten’s wet red mouth while he fucks him. Yukhei has Ten spread out before him like a feast, and still he wishes for more.

Behind his eyes, Yukhei can see the image of his dragon and the dragon he recognizes immediately as belonging to Ten, writhing and spitting and twining together in the air. Beneath him, Ten is alive and hot and real, tense one second and then pliant again for Yukhei to fuck into.

Dimly, Yukhei realizes that Ten has a hand wormed underneath himself, working away at his own cock. The thought makes Yukhei crazy. That’s his job, that’s why Yukhei is here. He needs to make Ten feel good. He needs to pay penance, it feels, give Ten something in return for everything he’s taking.

Yukhei braces himself with a trembling arm next to Ten’s face and reaches down to grasp Ten’s dick in his hand. It disappears entirely in his grip. Yukhei has a split second to feel the slick heat, the delicate hardness of it in his hand, before Ten makes a sound like a sob and shakes all over, spilling over Yukhei’s fingers and onto the bed.

Fire is spitting from the dragon’s maw, running all through Yukhei — Ten just came, and Yukhei did that, he made Ten come. Pride and guilt war inside Yukhei before both are swallowed up again by the roaring desire.

“I’m sorry,” Yukhei gasps again. He re-adjusts, gripping Ten’s hips with both hands, smearing Ten’s come all over his smooth skin, and fucks in harder still, uncontrollably, no rhythm left into him, cramming himself up inside over and over, riding the hot flames of this foreign desire until he’s coming too — inside — he’s coming inside Ten, making Ten wet with him, giving Ten all of him.

Yukhei keeps driving in until he has nothing left to give Ten. With a barely audible little whimper, Ten collapses beneath him, face down on the bed. Yukhei follows him down, unwilling to leave Ten empty. He plasters his whole body against Ten’s back, feeling the slickness of his soft skin all over.

Under him, Ten’s body is heaving, great big breaths like the air could flush out the fire.

The fire. The fire that, Yukhei realizes, has not been extinguished. He thought — if they both came, that would break it, surely, that would be enough.

But — the feeling — it’s creeping in again. The dragon is wound all the way around Yukhei’s heart, making twisting laps through his chest, halfway between gleeful victory and wild craving.

“Ten,” Yukhei says frantically. “Is it — for you, is it over? Are you safe?”

Ten just shakes his head. He’s turned away from Yukhei, face buried fully into the pillows. Yukhei touches his shoulder, trying to get him to look over at Yukhei, but Ten flinches away and shakes his head again.

Yukhei’s hips are hitching forward again, pressing instinctively into the heat of Ten as deep as he can get. “Please look at me, Ten,” Yukhei begs. “Are you okay, am I hurting you, is this okay? Is it okay?”

Feeling crazier than ever, completely out of control, Yukhei brings a hand up to his mouth and gently presses a kiss into his own palm. He touches it to Ten’s spine, strokes it up to Ten’s shoulder, hopes that Ten can feel it. Yukhei thinks he might be crying, but he can’t tell. His hips are rolling more insistently now, grinding slowly into Ten’s ass, never pulling all the way out.

Ten’s body feels like butter beneath him, melting into the blankets as Yukhei presses him down with every inch of himself. Ten still won’t turn his face, just keeps trembling into the bed.

“Please,” Yukhei says helplessly. “Are you okay? I’m so sorry, Ten, I’m sorry, I—”

Ten’s whole frame tenses, and he lifts his face, finally, to look over his shoulder at Yukhei. He looks destroyed — hair all in his face, tear tracks on his cheeks, flushed and wet all over. “Stop,” Ten spits. “Just— stop apologizing, I can’t take it. I know you—” Ten takes in a breath and collapses again into the bed. “Just stop making this harder,” Ten says. “Just get it over with.”

Yukhei obeys. A kernel of some awful feeling is growing within him — the feeling that he’s made a horrible, horrible mistake. That he’s saying and doing everything wrong. That he should be able to soothe Ten, make this better somehow, make it all okay. That he should be able to stop.

He can’t stop. They can’t stop. Yukhei lays his body on Ten and fucks him into the mattress. There’s no closer to get, but Yukhei keeps trying, weighing Ten all the way down and driving into him. Ten is so slick inside now, and with every thrust, Yukhei feels like he’s fucking his come further into Ten. Getting it so deep inside that Yukhei will have marked him forever.

They can’t stop. It keeps rolling on, wave after wave, and nothing makes it stop except being inside Ten. Ten tries to use his mouth again, looking up at Yukhei with wild eyes and holding onto Yukhei’s ass with his elegant perfect fingers, but it doesn’t work. They have no choice but to keep fucking. Yukhei takes Ten, and takes, and takes.

——

Yukhei doesn’t know how long it goes on for before it’s finally over. He comes one final time, pulsing deep inside Ten’s ass, and falls again over Ten’s body. It takes a long minute before they realize. Yukhei lies on Ten, breathes in time with him, feels his heartbeat go wild. He would be content to lay there forever.

Then Ten lets out a little huff of air beneath him and wriggles back and forth until Yukhei gets the message and heaves himself off of Ten. Yukhei braces for the burning, but it doesn’t come. He closes his eyes and sees only darkness, no phantom dragon roaring into his face.

Ten rolls onto his back and covers his eyes with his hands. His shoulders are rising and falling very, very slowly.

They are both wrecked to hell and back. Yukhei doesn’t even want to think about what he looks like. His body feels like a stranger to him, streaked all over with sweat and come and maybe tears. He feels bruised, almost, sensitive like a frayed wire.

Even though he’s not on fire anymore, something in Yukhei is still calling out for Ten. He wants to — he doesn’t even know. Touch Ten again, lick him clean, make amends.

They lie there in silence. Now, outside of the fire, it feels like they’ve woken from a dream. A dream in which Yukhei fucked Ten, and kissed him, and made him cry. God, Ten was crying. He still is, maybe. Ten had been crying, and Yukhei had just — kept taking.

Yukhei raises a hand to reach over and touch Ten, try to wipe away his tears. He stops himself.

With a final heaving breath, Ten picks himself up. He stands, shakily. He has to hold himself up with the bedside table. Ten turns his back to Yukhei and grabs a towel from the floor, scrubbing the sticky waste of both of them off his skin.

“Go shower,” Ten says.

“I’m so sorry,” Yukhei says. He covers his face with his hands, still lying where Ten left him. “I’m so-”

“We did what we had to,” Ten snaps. “Don’t-”

Yukhei wishes he could look Ten in the eye. He wishes that he could stay here blind to the world for the rest of his life and never ever have to look at Ten again.

Ten takes a loud, shaky breath. He can barely stand, and he’s still handling this better than Yukhei. “Don’t ever talk about this, okay? To me or to anyone. Just — go shower, and forget about it.”

Distantly, Yukhei knows he should want to forget this, but something about the thought makes him feel like he just got socked in the chest.

He looks at Ten. It’s still broad fucking daylight, somehow, and the sun is pooling in through the curtains and painting Ten’s back. Ten is still naked, still all sweaty and flushed, facing resolutely away from Yukhei. He picks up his white shirt and pulls it over his head. Yukhei watches as it falls over Ten’s skin, the black lines of his crescent tattoo disappearing beneath the fabric.

Ten stands and pulls on his shorts. A flinch slips through the mask of his expressionless face. He suddenly looks so beautiful and untouchable, standing in the sunlight. Yukhei looks away.

“Forget it,” Ten says one more time. And then he leaves. Yukhei doesn’t know where he goes.

——

Yukhei showers in Ten’s room. He can’t go back to Sicheng looking like this. The water runs over his skin. Yukhei imagines it hissing when it touches him, evaporating instantly from the fire.

He’s sore all over. He feels a stranger to himself.

Yukhei closes his eyes. He tries to forget.

——

The cracks don’t take long to start to show.

The morning after what happened… happened, they have to fly back to Seoul. Everyone’s energy seems to be flagging. Dejun shows up looking absolutely exhausted, bucket hat pulled low and dark circles under his eyes. Even his cheekbones seem to have deflated somehow. On their way into the plane, Kun grabs Dejun’s arm for balance and Dejun flinches like he’s in pain.

“That hurt, really?” Kun mocks good naturedly.

“Just sore muscles!” Dejun says.

“Ohhh, sore muscles,” Sicheng jokes. “Look at this strong man, did you hit the gym? Did you lift, or just watch yourself in the mirror?”

The kids, for once, don’t join in on mocking him. They’re both twitchy and weirder than usual, sitting next to each other on the plane and whispering aggressively with their heads close together. Hendery keeps trying to get up, gesturing to the section of the plane where the staff are sitting, and Yangyang pulls him back down by the arm. Yukhei can see Yangyang’s fingers wrapped around Hendery’s wrist, gripping too tight. Yangyang leans in to whisper again in Hendery’s ear, rapid fire like he’s rapping.

A little vine of worry starts to creep up in. Where had Ten gone? After — the thing that happened happened. After he pulled on his shirt and covered up all his skin and left Yukhei in his room. Yukhei can’t picture Ten telling Yangyang. Ten doesn’t tell the truth about things that hurt him. But they were… vulnerable, last night. They were fucked up.

If Ten told Yangyang, and Yangyang told Hendery. If the members know already. If they tell the staff, if the staff tell the company- Yukhei can’t think about it.

The plane takes off.

Yukhei sits quietly next to Sicheng on the flight and watches a movie he doesn’t understand. He tries to ignore Yangyang and Hendery, acting squirrely a couple rows ahead. It won’t help him to speculate, just make him sick to his stomach with curdling anxiety for no good reason.

Ten sits across the aisle, drawing intently. He doesn’t look up from his tablet once.

Yukhei only catches a couple glances of Ten’s drawing. It’s a dragon, drawn three times like a triptych. The first one is flying through the air, rearing up to show a valentine-shaped heart on the breast of its long slinky body. On the second, Ten has drawn a feathered arrow piercing the heart, and instead of flying, the dragon is in the middle of plummeting to the ground.

The third is on the ground, pinned down by calculated arrows, kept captive and on display like a butterfly in a case. Its mouth is open too wide. It looks like it’s screaming.

Looking at the black sweeping lines of the third dragon makes Yukhei feel something familiar and awful in the pit of his stomach. Is it about him? About what happened?

Yukhei doesn’t think about it. He tries to forget.

——

This visit to Beijing was their last big schedule for a minute, thank fuck. Yukhei is exhausted. He sleeps for what feels like a week straight. When he wakes up at half past four one afternoon, Yangyang is on his bed, in the middle of stealing Yukhei’s phone charger from the wall.

“Hey,” Yukhei complains sleepily.

“Shh, you’re just dreaming,” Yangyang says, fully climbing over him to unplug Yukhei’s phone.

Yukhei throws him off and turns over, covering his face with the blankets.

“Dude, are you good?” Yangyang asks in English. Then again in Mandarin: “Are you okay? You’ve been even more of a log than usual.”

Yangyang is the very last person Yukhei wants to talk to about his feelings. He draws the blankets tighter around himself and tries to telepathically communicate to Yangyang that he is very cool and fine and normal but also needs to be left alone forever.

Yangyang shakes his shoulder a little. “Xuxi?”

He climbs off the bed. Yukhei can hear him hesitating, but then he leaves. And without Yukhei’s charger, so that’s something.

When Yukhei pulls himself together and stumbles out of his room an hour or so later, the other members are all gathered together, laughing at Dejun doing push-ups on the kitchen floor. Be normal, Yukhei tells himself sternly. What would he normally do? Throw something at someone and start an argument about lunch?

Instead, he sits. Sicheng taps him twice on the shoulder to say hi and then goes back to the webtoon he was reading on his phone.

Ten’s music is playing from the speakers; Lost, the music says, lost in the heat of it all.

“That’s seventy-five, come on!” Kun is saying, egging Dejun on. Hendery and Yangyang are heckling.

Yukhei can feel Ten’s presence in the room like he’s giving off heat, and he looks over to see Ten sitting on the couch, all curled up and resting his chin on his arm. Ten’s face is still in the shape of a smile, but when he sees Yukhei looking, it falls into something flat and stony. Their eyes hold each other for a beat, and then Yukhei feels a little sick again, so he looks away.

“I’m done, I’m done,” Dejun is saying, laying back on the floor and panting. Kun cries out in disbelief and Yangyang crows in triumph.

“What happened to all your bragging, muscle man,” Kun complains. “You’re supposed to be strong! What is this! Keep going!”

“Come on, Kun-ge, pay up, get cooking!” Yangyang says.

“I don’t even have the chicken to make fried chicken!” Kun says. He’s looking a little wild around the eyes and a lot amused, in the way he gets when he can’t believe he’s still willing to have fun with them.

“Well, you should have thought about that before you wagered it.” Yangyang says. He’s vibrating with smug victory, pulling Dejun up to force him into a high five.

Ten is laughing from the couch. He laughs with his whole body, until it looks like he could fall right over the arm of the couch and onto the floor. He looks happy. Yukhei wonders if he’s forgotten about what happened already. Probably a lot of weird and fucked up things happen to Ten, and he just brushes them off and keeps on going, impenetrable and tough as always.

“I bet Xuxi can do a hundred push-ups,” Kun is saying. “Double or nothing, come on.”

“Too easy for Lucas,” Hendery says. “Let’s say… one hundred fifteen. If he can’t do it, you cook us chicken once a day all week, and also you aren’t allowed to get mad at us no matter what we do or tell you.”

“We don’t have time to make fried chicken every day!” Kun yells. “Aren’t you ever on a diet!”

Ten is still laughing. He’s still not looking at Yukhei.

“One fifteen or nothing!” Yangyang says. “One fifteen or Kun-ge goes to the store right now to get chicken!”

Ten grabs onto the couch to stop himself from falling to the ground. From where Yukhei is sitting, he can see the very moment that Ten’s shirt rides up and exposes a small strip of skin. His first thought is that Ten’s skin looks really very smooth and sexy. Then — Yukhei sees, so abruptly and with such horror his mind has to race to process it — a glimpse of a purpling bruise in the shape of Yukhei’s fingers, only just starting to heal.

That was him. Yukhei had been there, in that bright room with Ten, and he had held Ten so hard that he had left an imprint of himself on Ten’s body. And every day since, Ten must have had to wake up and look down and see the evidence of what they had done — what Yukhei had done. Unmistakable and impossible to remove. Like a brand on his skin.

How could Ten forget, with Yukhei’s fingers still on him? Did he shiver with disgust when he saw it? Did he brush it off like nothing? How can Yukhei forget, when he did that, his fingers — his body — Ten’s body — in the bright light-

“Get down on the ground, Yukhei!” Dejun is saying.

Yukhei has stood without even realizing that his body was moving. The room goes a little quieter. Ten looks at him. Yukhei knows that he’s being weird, but he feels transfixed. His body is wracked with waves of a horrible nauseous feeling. He can’t remember how to speak. Ten looks confused. Then, a moment later, he seems to realize where Yukhei is staring, and flushes brightly and tugs his shirt back down.

“You okay?” Kun asks, frowning at him.

“Um,” Yukhei says. Ten’s face looks angry, now. As it should, Yukhei figures. “Yeah, I just- yeah.”

He can’t for the life of him think of an excuse, so he just leaves. They can think something is wrong with him if they want. There is something wrong with him.

——

Yukhei skips the next couple family dinners. He sleeps odd hours, crashing right after rehearsal every day and then stumbling out of bed at two in the morning to make himself ramyun and eat it blearily over the kitchen counter with only Bella for company.

He blanks out everything but his body at dance practice. He feels his muscles move. He hears conversation around him, spirited and happy. None of it registers.

The members are getting worried, he can tell. No one says anything. Yukhei tries to smile as much as he can to let them know that he’s okay. He’s okay, he’s decided. Yukhei walks into rooms, and Ten walks out of them five minutes later for a completely unrelated reason. It’s fine.

Yukhei gets it. Why Ten would want to avoid him. He wouldn’t want to be around himself either, after — what happened.

It’s just that Ten had always… been there, simply and inevitably. Right next to him, easy access to touch or fall into or cuddle a little bit. Easy to turn to, and Yukhei always had. He remembers learning once about how flowers will grow up and up and up and even twist their whole bodies around in extreme slow motion just to face the sun. That’s how he’d been with Ten. Turning to him in slow motion, with so little thought that Yukhei hadn’t even realized it.

The summer heat keeps bearing down on them. The last time it was this hot, they had been in a flurry of comeback shows and promotions, and Ten had been at his side.

Yukhei remembers that summer as mostly stormy and stressful, but the skies had cleared for one perfect day, right after they’d released their first full length album. WayV had hosted a little unofficial celebration party in their dorm.

Yukhei had been drinking Doyoung’s somaek, even though it always made his mouth taste sticky and got him tipsy too fast. Ten had been drinking a complicated American drink he’d bullied Kun into making him from whisky and iced tea and some other stuff, with a little rosemary sprig stuck into it and everything.

Their apartment was fuller than it had ever been since, at least to Yukhei’s memory. It was never quiet, but with that many people, the space came alive, everyone bustling around and trying to have five conversations at once and wiping sweat off each other’s foreheads, laughing at how gross they all got in the humid heat.

Ten had been tucked up against his side through it all. Whispering mean little jokes into his ear at every chance, hanging onto his arm with both hands, making Yukhei hold his glass when he’d finished drinking and was too busy talking to go back to Kun in the kitchen and get another.

Ten made Yukhei take a million pictures of him in the balcony doorway. He’d been lit up by the golden sun. A million pictures with his drink in hand, held gracefully between his elegant fingers, and a million more without for public social media.

Ten draped himself bossily over Yukhei’s shoulder to evaluate them. He leaned on Yukhei with his sharp elbows out until Yukhei had to bend his knees a little to be a good armrest. Ten reached around him and swiped through the photos imperiously.

“One more,” Ten had decided, which meant twenty more. He walked over to pose again. In the bright heat, skin shining, face angled so his pretty nose was perfectly framed against the light, Ten had looked like he could be a painting. Yukhei remembers thinking that.

Yukhei had grinned as he snapped away. “Beautiful!!” he’d called excitedly. “Perfect! These ones are great, Ten.”

“Don’t feed his ego,” Johnny chipped in from next to Yukhei. “He’ll never let you go.”

“I’m already never letting him go,” Ten said smugly. He came back to them and tipped over into Yukhei’s side, knowing Yukhei would catch him. They ended up pressed all up together, Ten nestled right under Yukhei’s arm.

Yukhei showed Ten the last few photos on his phone, swiping through them for him to see. Yukhei felt Ten nodding against his arm. He tipped his head down and saw Ten grinning up at him, all his teeth showing. Ten had looked really happy.

“You gotta stop letting him bully you,” Johnny had said.

“Shh,” Ten said, still looking up at Yukhei. “I’m allowed to bully him. He’s my Instagram boyfriend.” He said the last part in English, in the voice Ten always uses to make a normal phrase sound like a quip.

Yukhei had laughed. After Johnny got pulled away into a playlist debate with Doyoung, Yukhei asked Ten, “What’s Instagram boyfriend?”

Ten giggled at him. “It’s like,” he said. “Ooh, how do I explain. It’s like how it’s your job to hold my drink and take pictures of me and tell me my outfit looks good.”

“Ah!” Yukhei had said. He smiled cheekily down at Ten. “Yes, that’s my job. Am I good at it?”

Ten fell over laughing, still clinging to Yukhei’s arm. “Yes, baby,” he had told Yukhei, “you’re the best at it.”

In the kitchen, Sicheng had been trying to win some kind of argument by aggressively shaking Kun’s cocktail shaker, currently full of rice, right in Renjun’s face. Taeyong had already had two glasses of fruit wine and was wiggling a little dance of his own to the music.

Yukhei remembers thinking how nice it was, the flurry of the dorm when it was full of people. Their WayV family, hosting a party like real people. How nice it had been to be there with Ten by his side, choosing him over everyone else in all these little ways.

Ten, by his side. Yukhei misses it, already. Without him, Yukhei feels like he has nowhere to grow towards. The sun snuffed out.

——

The dorm ahjumma has a night off, and Kun makes hot pot for family dinner. Sicheng comes to shake Yukhei awake.

“Xuxi,” Sicheng says, poking him in the shoulder. “Come on, didi, let’s gooo.”

“I’m not hungry,” Yukhei tells him.

“You’re always hungry, don’t bullshit me.”

“I’m not hungry!” Yukhei insists.

Sicheng sighs at him. “You have five minutes to get out there, or Kun-ge is going to make us all sit down with the company and have a talk about teamwork and family. He’s already threatened twice. He thinks the group is going to start falling apart.”

Yukhei groans. Sicheng pats him understandingly on the back and walks out, leaving the light on and the door wide open so Yukhei has no choice but to get up. He begrudgingly pulls on a pair of sweatpants and stumbles out of their room, rubbing sleep out of his eyes.

The first thing Yukhei sees once he opens his eyes properly is two tiny kittens. They’re chasing each other down the hallway in a big tumble of fur.

“What,” Yukhei says.

One of the kittens turns on the other and they bat at each other with teeny paws for a second. Then they go tearing off again in the direction of the kitchen.

“What!” Yukhei says.

He follows them, a little worried that maybe he’s woken up in an alternate universe. The kittens dash into the kitchen, which is in a typical flurry of noise and cooking, and then immediately lose interest in the race. One of them, the little white one, meows and winds itself around Hendery’s leg.

“And THAT is why Peter Parker has NEVER been done justice by a non-animated movie or television show,” Hendery is saying, brandishing a knife in one hand and gesturing wildly with both hands. He does not react to the strange animal that is in their home.

“Hello, what!!” Yukhei says one more time.

No one responds to him.

“Dejun, could you chop the mushrooms for me?” Kun is yelling, surrounded by a chaotic mess of little bottles of stuff he’s pouring one by one into a bowl to make the dipping sauce.

“Ha!” Ten is yelling over him from his perch on one of the island barstools, holding up his phone to show Kun’s latest selfie on Bubble. “Do you see this? Do you guys see this?”

Yangyang casually picks up the other kitten with one hand and puts it, inexplicably, on his shoulder, where it clings on for dear life. “I mean, really, it’s impossible for a movie to do justice to anything that’s, like, hand-drawn, you know?” He says to Hendery, taking the knife out of Hendery’s hand and passing it to Dejun. Dejun sits down at the other barstool and starts haphazardly chopping the mushrooms.

“Four of them! Oohh, I’m Qian Kun, look at me smolder,” Ten says in Korean, affecting a deep voice. Or what counts as a deep voice for him.

Kun jokingly lunges at Ten from over the counter, trying to hit him with an oven mitt. “Glass houses! Ahh this is Ten~” He says in full aegyo. “I’m so cute! I love you! Camera pout!”

“Camera pout?” Ten laughs.

The kitten on Yangyang’s shoulder meows into his ear. It’s digging its little claws right into his shirt. Yangyang does not blink.

“HELLO!” Yukhei says.

Everyone looks up, including the kittens.

“Hi!” Kun says. “Thank you, Sicheng.”

“Who has to do the dishes now?” Hendery complains. “It’s Sicheng’s turn, he shouldn’t get out of it just for dumping water on Yukhei’s face.”

Sicheng shrugs and sets down on the counter the bowl of water he had indeed been carrying. “Didn’t even use it.”

“Default to rock paper scissors,” Yangyang says. “It’s only fair to throw away the whole clean-up schedule.”

“Beep!!” Hendery interrupts him. “I call foul, Yangyang is next on the rotation. Unfair bias is afoot.”

“It’s objectively FAIR-” Yangyang starts to say.

“Where the fuck did these kittens come from?” Yukhei asks. He feels like it’s a fair question.

Yangyang immediately bursts out laughing. Kun sighs and starts aggressively mincing a clove of garlic. “We are not keeping them.”

“Yangyang and Hendery brought them home today,” Dejun explains.

“We found them trying to smuggle the kittens in inside a bucket hat,” Sicheng elaborates, kicking Dejun off of his barstool and stealing it for himself.

Dejun, unbothered, just stands and keeps chopping away at his mushrooms. “We’re definitely keeping them,” he says, delighted.

“Was the bucket hat on a head?” Ten asks from his barstool.

Yangyang cackles and plucks the kitten off his shoulder, holding it up to Yukhei’s face. “Look at this face!” Yangyang scoops up the second kitten from the floor and cups them together in his palms. Their little faces peer up at Yukhei. They are undeniably cute, one perfectly white and the other black. Their noses are so small it seems impossible that they exist. “This one is Mao Mao, and this one is Bao Bao. They’re girl cats.”

“They have names?” Yukhei strokes a finger over the tiny face of the black one named Bao Bao. She closes her eyes and nudges her wet nose into his hand.

“We named them,” Hendery says proudly.

Kun is shaking his head disapprovingly, but there’s a huge grin on his face like he can’t help himself. They are definitely keeping these kittens.

“Where are our actual cats?” Yukhei asks.

“In me and Ten’s room,” Hendery says. “We did research! Apparently we should be keeping them in the bathroom for the first couple days, but they got out. So we’re just keeping them separate from Louis and Leon for now until we can introduce them gently.”

“I cannot believe you have trapped my babies in cat jail,” Ten says. “And in favour of these new upstarts! Invaders! It’s outrageous.” Ten has not at any point in this conversation looked Yukhei in the eye, but he also hasn’t left the room yet, so.

Instead of rising to the bait, Yangyang giggles and deposits Bao Bao in Ten’s lap. Ten softens immediately, smiling gently down at the kitten and cradling her in the crook of one arm so her claws don’t slip on the fabric of his silky shorts.

“Aww, hi Bao Bao-noona,” Ten says. A breeze comes in through the balcony door and ruffles his hair slightly. His skin — so much of it showing, with his shorts riding up his thighs — is tanned and shining a little with the thin layer of sweat that comes with the humid summer sun. It’s fine.

Kun puts Yukhei to work keeping an eye on the broth, and it soothes him to have a job to do. His members putter around him and yell. Ten ignores Yukhei, dedicated to cooing at the new babies and scrolling endlessly on his phone. It feels normal enough to tame something inside Yukhei, make him feel less frayed. A few loose ends tucked back into him.

They sit down for dinner and do a little roundtable question, What’s the best thing that happened this week.

Yangyang, mouth full, just says, “Kittens.”

“Kittens,” Dejun agrees happily, pouring himself another glass of wine.

Mao Mao has made herself at home on Sicheng’s lap, and he holds her up to cheer “Kittens!”, then gently nestles her back in.

“Kittens, and not even getting in trouble for kittens,” Hendery says.

Ten scrunches up his nose, but then says, “Yeah, okay, kittens.”

“Dejun’s mushrooms!” Kun says. “Look how nicely they’re chopped!” Everyone boos. “Fine, fine, kittens.”

“This, right now,” Yukhei says softly, without really meaning to. The table blows up.

“Nooo,” Yangyang cries. “Don’t be earnest, I can’t take it.”

Yukhei laughs and covers his face with his hands, embarrassed. Sicheng pries one of them away, grinning ear to ear. “We love you, too!” he says, somehow making it sound brutally mocking and also deeply genuine.

“I do love you guys,” Yukhei says. His face is still burning, but he soldiers on. “You’re my family.”

Ten stands. His chair makes a horrible scraping sound against the wood floor as it’s pulled suddenly back from the table. Yukhei looks up.

“Sorry,” Ten says. “Not feeling well.”

“Do you need tea?” Yangyang asks, immediately worried.

“No, no, I just- I’m gonna go lie down.” Ten isn’t even trying to sound like he’s telling the truth. He leaves, shutting the door of him and Hendery’s room behind him with a definitive click.

There’s a feeling somewhere between guilt and rejection rising up in Yukhei’s throat. It feels wildly unfair that Ten gets to ignore him like this. Ten had told him to forget it. He’s trying to forget it.

It’s fine.

The chatter starts up again tentatively, then crescendos again into Kun and Sicheng loudly arguing over vocal drills. It’s fine.

Yangyang takes a picture of Yukhei on the couch with Bella in his lap and the kittens in his arms. Yukhei posts it on his instagram with the caption “Giant baby and medium baby with new babies.” Within thirty minutes, #WayVZoo is trending on Naver in both Korean and English.

Having napped through the early evening, Yukhei has no tiredness in him, and stays up late looking at his phone. At two-thirty in the morning, Ten likes the instagram post.

Yukhei shuts his phone off and drops it gently right onto his own face.

——

The downtime doesn’t last. They have a photoshoot, and then a filmed interview, and then a fun & games variety show thing for YouTube, and then another photoshoot, all shoved between regular practices. Yukhei can’t keep track of what they’re all for — so much happens so far in advance that he never has any idea what they’re recording or when the fans will see it. It goes schedule, schedule, schedule, all the same until the flurry of a comeback or the end of year chaos. You can’t look more than a couple steps ahead, or you start to feel like you’ve fallen right out of time.

Yukhei is paired with Hendery for the photoshoot that starts at 7:30am (too early). They have to sit in a fake kitchen in heavy makeup, staring into the cameras and looking sexy. It’s pretty easy.

Ten is paired with Yangyang. The two of them have to put their heads right next together for some of the shots, cheek to cheek. Ten jokingly cups Yangyang’s chin in his hand and pulls him in so their faces press right together. He squeezes Yangyang’s face so his lips pout out, and laughs big and smug with his cutest smile. There’s no hesitation in his hands. They move like it’s nothing to touch Yangyang, to be so close to him.

After Ten and Yangyang are done, they go and stand next to the cameras and watch Kun’s solo shots. The smile melts off Ten’s face. He looks a little tired and a little sad.

“You look sexy, Kun-ge!” Hendery calls from beside Yukhei. Everyone is being loud, but Yukhei feels just — exhausted. It feels like the energy has been drained out of the room, like there’s a black hole somewhere nearby sucking the laughter right out of him. His face is caked with makeup, and it feels like it’s smothering him.

One of the staff near Yukhei starts up a fan. The first flow of air hits him right in the face — it’s hot and humid, not yet cooled down in the fan blades. For a moment, all he can feel is the heat on the skin of his cheek, just like that day, just like in the Beijing hotel room. A shiver of sheer panic runs through him. It can’t happen again. Not here, fuck, not now.

Yukhei looks to Ten, terrified. He’s standing there with a sheer shirt draping perfectly over his slim muscles. He looks perfect. Oh god. Yukhei squeezes his eyes shut and covers his face with his hands. Maybe if he doesn’t look— Maybe he can stop it. This can’t be happening again. What can he do if it is? Grab Ten by the hand and haul him to a closet somewhere, get through it, deal with the consequences later?

All Yukhei can see behind his eyes is Ten standing by the window in that hotel room. Silhouetted against the hot sun. The way he looked in the light. The way he looked pulling his white shirt back on after, his skin and his tattoo disappearing beneath it.

He remembers the bruises on Ten’s hips. It can’t happen again. Why does Ten look so good?

“Hey, Yukhei,” Hendery says, “Look at Kun-ge’s cape. Doesn’t he look a bit like a dad dressed up as a vampire for Halloween? Hey, are you looking?”

Yukhei opens his eyes and looks at Hendery. The air from the fan is cooling down, he realizes. It’s okay. It’s just a regular day. There is nothing in the air. Ten looks normal.

“Yeah,” Yukhei agrees, a little shakily. “He looks like Dracula’s nephew.”

——

The interview is worse. A makeup noona comes to wipe off all of Yukhei’s makeup and put a layer of new makeup on him. It’s a lighter-coverage foundation, but it still feels heavy and greasy on Yukhei’s face. He wants to splash water all over his skin, or soak in a bath, or — something, anything to get clean.

She blow-dries his hair and restyles it to fall over his forehead. Yukhei sits quietly as she fusses with it, like he’s a dress up doll. Beside him, Yangyang is filming Dejun getting his hair crimped.

“Hello model Xiaojun-ssi,” Yangyang jokes in Korean, then in English, “Hello Mr. K-Pop Idol, sir.”

Dejun giggles and flashes him a little peace sign.

“Give us your sexiest face please, Xiaojun,” Yangyang requests.

“Like this?” Dejun asks. He shields his face with two hands and then parts them to reveal his worst camera-ready smolder, peering over his shoulder a little for good measure.

“Eww!” Yangyang cries, laughing and trying to hold his phone straight to keep filming. “Terrible, turn the cameras off!”

Dejun winks.

“Boo!” Sicheng joins in from the snack table. “He should be fired.”

Yukhei watches them all. He feels like he’s peering in from another universe. Dejun cackles, always happy to be made fun of. The noona working on Dejun’s hair grabs his shoulders to keep him still, and he doesn’t even blink.

Right now, Yukhei feels like he’ll die if someone tries to touch him intimately out of nowhere. The noona’s fingers run through his hair and make him shiver. He’s never felt like this before. It’s always been fun to be dressed up all sexy and told where to go and what to do. Now, he feels claustrophobic, sick to his stomach, filled with restless energy and also numbness all the way down. It would be better to crawl right out of his skin than to keep feeling the strange queasiness in his chest.

“Here,” Sicheng brings over an iced americano from the box on the table and presses it into Yukhei’s hands. “You look tired.”

“Ah,” Yukhei says, embarrassed. “Rude.” He takes it, though, and it does help clear his mind a little after a couple sips. He grins up at Sicheng. “So sweet of you, gege. Thank you!”

Sicheng makes a face like he would rather die than be thanked. “Just perk up, okay? You need to sleep better. Or maybe less.”

His hair’s done, and Yukhei gets up and turns to say a quick “Thank you, you worked hard!” before he’s passed off to the wardrobe noonas.

Yukhei gets put in a shirt that’s a little softer than the photoshoot shirts and has fewer uncomfortable dangly things hanging off it, so that’s something. Then they’re being led into a room, too bright for Yukhei’s eyes, with a white backdrop and a bunch of little stools.

The staff direct Yukhei to a seat right next to Ten. The stools are so small that he can barely fit on his. Yukhei tucks his legs in and rests his feet on the bar so that his knees stick all the way out. He tries not to look at Ten.

“Hello,” Kun is saying, “I’m WayV’s Kun, Qian Kun.”

They’ve put Ten in a patterned button up and really tight jeans. Ten looks good. His hair is falling a little in front of his eyes, and he has blueish contacts in, and a kind of bronze-y eyeshadow brushed around them. It’s a nice contrast. Ten runs his hand absently through his hair, but it falls right back where it was. His skin somehow still looks pretty under these lights, without any distance or filter. It looks so smooth — Yukhei remembers how it felt under the pads of his fingers. So warm and soft.

Yukhei bets that Ten rubs lotion all over his skin to make it so soft, even his neck. Has Yukhei ever seen him put it on? Maybe once or twice, after a face mask. Yukhei imagines Ten in a silky little dressing gown, sitting on his bed, legs tucked under him as he rubs a pretty-smelling lotion into the soft skin of his neck and shoulders. It would probably be fun to kiss his skin after it was all rubbed in, breathe in the smell of him.

Ten had such a specific smell to him, in that hotel room. God, Yukhei had been so fucking creepy, putting his face right on Ten’s thighs and smelling him. But now he knows. What Ten smells like. He’ll know that forever. He wonders if Ten always smells like that, or if it had just been — the thing that happened. Whatever awful thing blew into the room that day. He wonders if Ten smells like that even under the perfumes he wears.

Or right now, in this bright room, after sweating under photoshoot lights all morning. Would the sweat make him smell even more like himself? Did the makeup noonas spray him with something before they came in here? What if Yukhei gave in and leaned over right now, pressed his face into that horrible curve of Ten’s horrible perfect neck. What if-

Kun makes an annoyed sound, and Yukhei jerks his head over to look at him — oh, right. The interviewer, whoever she is, is sitting primly on a stool across the room, staring at Yukhei expectantly. Kun looks exasperated.

“Uh,” Yukhei says eloquently. He can’t even remember if he’s introduced himself yet. Is this interview in Korean or Mandarin? Oh god — is it in English?

“Are you even paying attention?” Yangyang says — in Mandarin, thank god. “Hey! Lucas! Hey! Focus!”

“Uh!” Yukhei says again. The rest of them are joining in on Yangyang’s joke.

“I’m sorry about him,” Hendery says. “He only thinks about food and looking handsome.”

“It’s a medical condition,” Sicheng adds. “His brain is stuck like that, probably forever.”

The interviewer is laughing, which is very gracious of her.

Yukhei blinks away the haze and grins his sweetest grin at her. “I’m sorry! I am not the brains of the group!”

Because she’s good at her job, the next question rolls with it: “Describe your role in the group in four syllables.”

“Puppy… handsome,” Yukhei says for himself.

“Dancer,” Ten says, and then, “Maybe- heart?”

“Ohhh,” the rest of the members say, nodding. Yukhei stays quiet.

He’s a step behind for the rest of the interview. It’s pretty rote, just a typical get-to-know you for this magazine spread, but Yukhei feels dizzy, and dumb. Ten said heart. It reminds him of what Ten was drawing on the plane, the dragon with an arrow through its heart. He imagines himself, possessed by something, having drawn a bow and shot the dragon out of the air.

The next time the interviewer fixes him with her gentle gaze and textbook perfect Mandarin, Yukhei cowers. “How has WayV changed since your debut?”

Yukhei looks to Kun automatically, but Kun just nods at him to say go on.

“Well,” Yukhei says. “I mean, when we debuted — we were still learning, most of us. Yangyang was shy. Now we are… family, together.”

Next to him, Ten shifts in his seat, readjusting in a way that brings his side right up against Yukhei’s for a split second. Without thinking — acting purely on instinct and muscle memory — Yukhei’s hand reaches out, resting on Ten’s thigh to steady his body and steady Yukhei’s nerves.

Ten flinches. Under Yukhei’s hand, he can feel the twitch, the stiffening, the palpable discomfort. He can feel the warmth of Ten even through his jeans, the rightness of how his fingers look on Ten’s thigh. The battling wrongness of making Ten tense and upset.

“Um,” Yukhei says, drawing his hand away quickly. Everyone is still looking at him expectantly. “Yeah,” he fumbles. “We’re — working harder, and-”

“We feel really comfortable together now,” Sicheng swoops in smoothly. “So it’s easy to work hard and make good performances.”

“Also we all speak the same language now,” Hendery adds. “That helps.”

Yukhei keeps quiet for the rest of the interview, and no more questions get directed at him. There’s a tension in the room that never quite dissipates. Ten won’t speak either, or laugh at anyone’s jokes, and the other members struggle to keep things flowing.

After they’re released, they all stand patiently for their mics to be removed and get shuffled back down a hallway to the dressing room. It’s quiet. It feels like no one has any energy left to give.

Before Yukhei can sit down to have his makeup taken off again, Ten springs up by his side and grabs his arm. For a brief moment, in his haze, Yukhei forgets that things are fucked up. He thinks that Ten is going to lean into him, smile up at him, whisper something into his ear.

Then he looks down and sees Ten’s face — flat and expressionless, only a glint of some violent emotion in his eyes.

“Can you come here for a moment?” Ten asks pleasantly. Not waiting for an answer, he pulls Yukhei out of the room and into an empty hallway, then lets go of his arm as if he can’t bear to touch Yukhei for a moment longer than he has to.

“What-” Yukhei starts to say, but then Ten is rounding on him, cornering him against the wall.

What,” Ten hisses, “is your problem?”

“My problem?” Yukhei asks, aghast. “Ten-”

“I told you,” Ten interrupts. “I told you to forget it. You have to stop acting so weird, people are noticing.”

Ten is right in front of him, the closest they’ve been since — what happened. All Yukhei can think to say is, “Sorry.”

Ten looks tired under the fluorescent lights. He breathes out and closes his eyes for a second, as if taken somewhere else. “Don’t apologize,” he says, softer now. “You didn’t do anything wrong, really.”

It sounds like a lie. Yukhei’s chest tightens, something awful growing inside him. Or maybe everything else emptying out.

“Just — be normal, okay?” Ten pleads. “It’s the only way we’re going to get through this.”

“Shouldn’t we- I don’t know,” Yukhei’s voice sounds thin, gutted. “Talk about it? What happened… that wasn’t normal, Ten. What if it happens again?”

Ten looks up at him, eyes numb. His lips are dry, and Yukhei watches them as Ten speaks. “What is there to say?”

“Okay,” Yukhei says weakly.

“Promise you’ll be normal?” Ten asks. He looks desperate.

“Okay,” Yukhei repeats.

Ten nods once. He stares at Yukhei for a moment. It feels like the air around them is still, heat hovering in the space of the white bleak hallway. It feels like there’s something unsaid — a hundred things unsaid.

Ten turns, and leaves.

——

Normal feels like a very distant concept to Yukhei, but he does his best. They have schedules, they come home, they laugh together, they eat together, they play with the kittens.

The other members are babying Yukhei for sure. Sicheng won’t stop giving him things: food, lip balm, one time even a little stuffed rabbit that Yukhei has obediently started sleeping with at night. Every time that Yukhei stays up too late on his phone, looking at pictures that fans have drawn of Ten and deliberating whether it would be super weird or super normal to send them to him, Hendery greets him with extra enthusiasm and an iced americano in the morning like he’s been tipped off by a secret source.

In a blatant attempt to cheer up Yukhei, Kun keeps inviting him to go into the studio and help make music.

“Why don’t you ask Dejun or Ten?” Yukhei asks suspiciously, the first time. “I can’t sing, and I don’t know the first thing about all of your fancy programs.”

“You’re more fun and less annoying,” Kun lies right to his face. “And I want a nice deep voice. It doesn’t have to be good, just a raw vocal track so I can figure out the melody!”

Yukhei goes every time, despite himself. It’s nice to be praised, even if it’s not real, and he needs something to focus on.

It’s calming, sitting in Kun’s cramped studio and listening to him work. Yukhei puts his headphones in when he gets too bored, but that’s surprisingly rare. Kun is good at making songs, and he does it with such confidence and perfectionism that it’s almost always impressive and fun to watch.

Often, Kun runs out of inspiration for new music, and demands Yukhei give him a song name. “Taemin Criminal!” Yukhei will say, and Kun will spend the next hour reverse engineering the song from scratch, layering instruments and beats until all of a sudden Yukhei is listening to Criminal (Rock Ver).

Kun’s original stuff is just as good as his covers. The songs he makes feel more like soundscapes than music as Yukhei is used to music sounding. They feel like something to get lost in. Sometimes, when Yukhei is singing the melody Kun’s played for him, he feels like a real musician. Though when he hears the track played back, he’s reminded that he will never, ever be Byun Baekhyun.

Yukhei’s voice is fine. Barely. Certainly nothing to write home about, certainly not even close to industry standard. But Kun is gentle with him, always absent-mindedly encouraging him while focused on his screen and all his colourful, complicated music programs. Kun never makes him feel embarrassed about it, even though there are probably one hundred people in this building who could do a better job of this than Yukhei.

Sometimes Yukhei makes up lyrics off the top of his head to go with the sounds. Sometimes they’re raps instead of melodies, slow and vibey and contemplative. It’s not what Kun asked him there for, but he doesn’t seem to mind. Kun gets a look on his face when Yukhei starts spitballing, like he’s seeing something that Yukhei can’t. Once, he makes Yukhei repeat the little rap he’d done over and over again, fiddling with his magic keyboard that sounds like a guitar take after take after take until he’s satisfied.

I’m overgrown / I’m alone, Yukhei has to say twelve times in a row, My weakness has been burned through / No weakness left, no strength / No speaking left to speak / No feeling left to feel to.

Yukhei starts bringing snacks — well, Sicheng buys him snacks and leaves them on his bed, and he takes them to the studio with him when they go. They’re always his favourites from home: cheese rings and Mamee Noodles and Want Want spicy crackers and little bags of shrimp crackers.

It’s fun to make something, even when they both know it’ll never see the light of day. And it becomes a good distraction. Yukhei rarely sees Ten at the studio. Whenever he’s not at the studio, Ten is there, always on the other side of the room, always as far away as he can be, always acting perfectly normal.

Kun tries to talk to him about it. It was only a matter of time — Kun is their leader, and Yukhei is out here destroying their whole team dynamic with his feelings.

“You seem low,” Kun says carefully, looking at his monitor screen instead of at Yukhei and clicking away on his mouse.

Yukhei hums noncommittally. He throws a couple shrimp crackers into the air and tries to catch them with his mouth.

“You have to clean those up,” Kun says without turning around. And then, his hand stilled on the mouse now, “Seriously, are you okay? Do you need a break?”

“No, no, no,” Yukhei rushes to say. “Just a little tired these days! I’m fine!” It can’t sound very convincing, but Kun looks over at him and sees his big smile and seems to soften slightly. He holds out a hand for a cracker, and Yukhei dumps a handful into his palm.

“Are you and Ten fighting?” Kun asks. “I know you’re fine, but if you two are fighting, you need to talk about it.”

Yukhei hesitates, his smile flagging. He never learned to lie properly, he’s starting to realize. “We’re fine,” he ends up saying. “We just…had a weird day one day, and I pushed too far. Ten got upset about it. He’ll be fine if I give him a bit of time.”

It’s an awful way to describe what happened. An unnameable, slippery feeling tries to rise up in Yukhei’s throat. He swallows it back down.

“Hmm,” Kun says.

Yukhei smiles and scrunches his eyes at Kun and offers him more crackers. “Can we do rock Cry For Me now?” Yukhei asks, as sweetly as he can make it.

Kun laughs and spins back to his screens. “That could actually be good,” he says, and drops it.

——

Yukhei gets out of a long series of boring meetings late one afternoon. He’s yawning away — he’s still not sleeping right, and whenever he has an early morning, he spends the first few hours of the day feeling like he’s wading through sticky glue.

On his way through the building, Yukhei runs directly into Taeyong on the staircase.

They physically bump into each other, with a big collision like characters in a drama. Yukhei catches himself with his hands behind him and sits there blinking for a moment before he processes and starts laughing.

“Oh no!” Taeyong says. He’s still standing, grinning at him worriedly with his flawless, doll-like face. Yukhei always forgets how distractingly pretty Taeyong is in person when he hasn’t seen him for a minute. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry, my fault.”

Yukhei shakes his head, laughing and trying to stand and mentally readjusting to speaking Korean at the same time, which is three too many things for Yukhei to do at once. “No, no, all me! I’m sorry!” he remembers to tack on at the end, “Hyung!"

“Do you have a schedule?” Taeyong grabs Yukhei’s hand in his own perfectly structured hand and wrenches him upright.

“Not now,” Yukhei tells him, “I was just going to bother Kun-ge, but I could let him work hard and go eat instead.”

“Done!” Taeyong says. “I’ve missed you guys, you never invite us over any more.”

“Ah, our dorm is too full as it is,” Yukhei waves him off. “We run a zoo now, I don’t know if you’ve heard.”

They take a car to a place Taeyong likes that serves good naengmyeon.

“It’s too hot for anything else,” Taeyong says. “And hyung is paying, so you don’t get to argue.”

Yukhei has no arguments. The place is cute, tucked into an alleyway off the river. It’s hot and humid out, and they trip in out of the sun with hats and face masks on and get a table in the back.

Yukhei immediately orders a beer, and Taeyong giggles in that sweet nervous way he has and gets the same. They jokingly clink their glasses together and drink. The foam clings to Yukhei’s lips. He wipes it off and grins widely at Taeyong.

“Thank you for inviting me, hyung!” Yukhei says, chipper. This feels normal, which is what he’s supposed to be trying to be.

“Ah, Lucas-ah, you’re so cute,” Taeyong says. Yukhei wasn’t even doing anything, but he’ll take the compliment.

Taeyong takes his bucket hat off and runs his hand through his hair. It’s a long dark blonde right now, and looks incredible on him, but unstyled like this, Yukhei can see how frayed and damaged the ends are. Taeyong looks tired, but who doesn’t, these days.

“How are your boys?” Yukhei asks.

Taeyong scrunches up his face. “Good! A lot! We just got back from America.”

“Oof,” Yukhei commiserates.

“Yeah,” Taeyong agrees. “I almost missed SuperM. It’s hard to be a leader when you’re busy trying to figure out what everyone is saying.”

Yukhei nods. “I don’t know how Baekhyun-hyung managed.”

Taeyong laughs. “He managed by forcing Mark-ie to answer every question, which I’m too nice to do. Plus I’m not, you know.” Taeyong wrinkles his nose. “All funny and charming, like him.”

“You’re funny, hyung!” Yukhei says, offended. “And charming! And good-looking, and smart, and a good leader.”

Bashful, Taeyong giggles and hides behind his beer. “All that all of a sudden?”

“It’s true,” Yukhei insists. In his opinion, Taeyong is the second-best leader in the industry. No one else slides so effortlessly from onstage intensity to offstage softness to leader sternness. And no one else could wrangle all of NCT when needed, not even Kun.

“Anyways,” Taeyong says. He looks embarrassed, which is cute. “How is WayV? How’s Ten?”

Yukhei is caught off guard by the mention of Ten’s name. The fading bruises on Ten’s hips come to mind against his will. “Uh… I don’t know,” he says without thinking.

Their food comes to the table. Taeyong doesn’t look away from Yukhei, squinting slightly like he’s trying to figure out whether to laugh or frown. “You don’t know?”

“Ah, I mean — we’re fine, he’s fine, I guess.”

It lands on a frown. “Is there something going on? Is Ten doing okay? He’s been worked hard this year.”

Is Ten okay? Yukhei doesn’t know. That morning, Ten had spent a solid hour playing with the kittens and giving Yangyang terrible advice about something. At family breakfast, Yukhei had caught Ten staring at him, and Ten had quickly jerked his gaze away. But other than that he’d been in fine form, tricking Kun into doing aegyo and complimenting the dorm ahjumma profusely on her congee.

Yukhei shoves a big bite of noodles into his mouth and smiles his sweetest smile to reassure Taeyong. “Ah, don’t worry so much, hyung. Ten-ge is okay, we’re all just tired. Adjusting to the new babies in the house, it’s a lot of work.”

The suspicion doesn’t lift entirely, but Taeyong lights up at the mention of the kittens. “The babies! Show me pictures!”

Yukhei ends up dragging his chair around the table and leaning close to show Taeyong the one thousand photos of the kittens on his phone.

“Ahhh,” Taeyong coos at a picture of Bao Bao snuggled up to Leon’s side. “They’ve become friends?”

“Slowly, yes!” Yukhei says. “Bao Bao likes Leon best. She’s so lazy, she just wants to sleep all day. Mao Mao is the problem child, she keeps trying to climb all over Bella and bite her ears.”

He swipes to the next picture. It’s one that Yukhei had taken a few nights before, after they’d gotten home early from a schedule. Ten had put on the most recent Woodz and snuggled up on the couch next to Yangyang. Sicheng had been banging around loudly in the kitchen, reheating some fried rice for Yukhei.

In the photo, Ten is carefully cradling Bao Bao to his chest, gentle fingers supporting her chin. The light is soft and dreamy from the warm sun sneaking in the windows. Yangyang is laughing in the direction of the kitchen, but Ten is looking down at Bao Bao with a soft smile, in a world of his own.

“You should post this one,” Taeyong says. “They look so sweet together!”

Ten does not know that Yukhei had stared across the room and snapped a photo of him. It had been a moment of impulse. Ten had looked so at home, so beautiful in the light. His shirt hanging loosely off his shoulders, the tender skin of his arms on display. Yukhei doesn’t know whether the picture would count as normal, but he’s betting not.

“Maybe,” Yukhei lies. He swipes through the rest of the photos, pretending not to notice Taeyong’s eyes on his face.

Yukhei smiles. He acts normal.

——

Hendery and Yangyang end up being good cat parents, or at least very passionate ones. Mao Mao and Bao Bao are so far completely uninterested in the giant cat playgrounds that Leon and Louis live on. Instead, they’ve committed themselves to clawing up every wood surface in the house with their teeny claws.

After a third strict talking-to, Hendery and Yangyang take it upon themselves to administer the poor babies’ first nail clipping. They pin down Mao Mao, who is busy meowing pitifully, and wield the miniature clippers.

Bella lays across Yukhei’s lap while him and Dejun watch smugly. “I remember when we were new parents,” Yukhei says.

“Keep her still!” Yangyang shouts. “I can’t do this unless she doesn’t move a muscle.”

“Ah, it’s a difficult time for anyone,” Dejun agrees with Yukhei thoughtfully.

“You try keeping her still!” Hendery says. “She’s squirmy! And small! There’s nowhere to grip!”

“If I make her bleed, it will be your fault and I will never forgive you,” Yangyang tells him.

Yukhei pets Bella. “Not every baby can be as perfect as this one, I guess,” he says. “Isn’t that right? Aren’t you perfect? Aren’t you a perfect baby girl?”

“Shut up,” Hendery says.

The two of them end up getting through it. Each of them manages to clip through a single nail at a time before they cry out “SWAP!” and switch places. They both grit their teeth and flinch at each little snip sound. When they finish, Yangyang releases his grip, and Mao Mao springs out of his arms.

She lands on the carpet and gives herself a firm shake all over, then goes immediately to the legs of their nicest chair and starts clawing away.

“Hey!” Yangyang says.

“Just let her,” Hendery says resignedly. “We have to let her leave the nest eventually. She’ll learn the hard way when Kun-ge sees and tells our ahjumma.”

“I can’t believe we made it through that terrible ordeal,” Yangyang says, laying himself out on the floor. “I never want to do that again, we’re sending her to a groomer from now on.”

“Fly away, little bird,” Hendery tells Mao Mao.

“You guys know you have a second cat, right?” Yukhei points out. Bao Bao is currently nestled peacefully in one of Ten’s cast off sweaters, washing herself with her tiny pink tongue.

Hendery and Yangyang cry out in unison and start yelling unintelligibly at Yukhei. “How dare you undermine our victory!” Yangyang accuses. Dejun laughs so hard he leans over into Yukhei’s side. The touch feels foreign, but not terrible. Maybe — maybe even normal.

The front door opens loudly, and Bella jumps off Yukhei’s lap with a woof. Kun bursts in, sweaty from his run. His earbuds are still in and clearly playing music. “I’m exhausted!” Kun bellows. A second later, he notices Yangyang on the floor. “Oh, are we lying down? Great idea.”

Kun collapses next to Yangyang, panting heavily. “I ran twelve kilometers!” he announces.

With a sigh, Yangyang reaches over and takes out one of his earbuds. “I ran twelve kilometers,” Kun informs him.

“Wow, great job,” Yangyang says sarcastically. “Good boy!”

Kun gasps. “That’s no way to speak to your leader! I am putting in a formal complaint with the company.”

“Terrifying,” Hendery laughs.

“The gall!” Kun says. “Once I can walk again-”

“Sorry, sorry, sorry, Kun-ge!” Hendery says with exaggerated deference. “We did not intend to disrespect our gege. We recognize that you are much, much older than us, and have been on this Earth for such a very long time, and therefore deserve respect.”

“I’ll kill you,” Kun says, not moving from the floor. He shuts his eyes and sprawls his arms out. “Xuxi, can you kill them for me, please?”

“Okay,” Yukhei says agreeably. “Later though, I’m tired.”

“You’re tired?” Kun accuses. “I just ran twelve kilometres!”

“I suppose we escape with our lives this time,” Hendery says.

Yangyang sighs deeply. “Disappointing, I wanted to get into a fistfight with Xuxi.”

Once Hendery and Yangyang disappear to their rooms, Kun picks himself up from the floor and fixes Yukhei with an ominous leader-y look.

“Ok, I have to walk Bella now!” Yukhei says quickly.

“I spoke with Taeyong-hyung,” Kun says, too casual.

“Oh, that’s nice,” Yukhei says. “Come on Bella, let’s get your leash.” At the word ‘leash,’ Bella perks right up and barks her sharp bark.

“He said you seemed sad,” Kun says.

That brings Yukhei to a halt. Did he seem sad? He knew he’d been a bit weird, but sad?

“And,” Kun says, “he spoke to Ten.” Yukhei’s heart plummets. “Ten told Taeyong-hyung that he thinks you wouldn’t want to speak to him.”

“Oh,” Yukhei says. What does that mean? Ten’s the one who has been avoiding him, not the other way around. Why would Ten think Yukhei wouldn’t want to talk to him? That’s all Yukhei wants to do.

“We’re worried about you,” Kun says. He scrunches up his nose like it embarrasses him to be so earnest. “I know you said you were fine.” Determinedly refusing to look Yukhei in the eye, he picks up Bao Bao and cuddles her in his arms. “I want to respect your boundaries,” he says, looking down at Bao Bao, “but you can’t keep it inside forever. If you’re sad, you need to feel sad.”

“I-” Yukhei starts, then finds he has nothing to say. He feels something clench in his chest. Something like guilt, or maybe humiliation, or maybe sorrow.

“Sorry,” Kun grimaces. “I know it’s awful, being made to talk about stuff when you’re maybe already feeling vulnerable, or embarrassed. I just-” he takes a deep breath, like he’s out of emotional energy. “I just want you to be okay,” he finishes awkwardly.

“Okay,” Yukhei says back.

“Okay,” Kun meets his eyes for a second, and nods as if to say that’s enough of that for now. “Go walk Bella now. Just- if there’s something wrong, don’t stand in the way of fixing it.”

——

Yukhei passes by the practice room late one afternoon while Ten has it booked for private dance practice. He glances in right as Ten lifts up out of a backbend, curving his body all lithe and slinky. Ten is wearing a loose shirt that flows with his movements, exposing his abs as he levers himself up with incredible strength.

Yukhei should keep walking. He doesn’t. The door is open a crack, and he pushes it gently further open, hovering in the doorway for a second.

It’s only that it’s been so long since he got to watch Ten dance, properly and really. It’s one thing to do their choreo together, all of them sweating and hyper focused on their own reflections in the mirrors. Another beast entirely to watch Ten like this; dancing alone, workshopping each move, slipping seamlessly in and out of the choreo as easy as walking.

Ten jumps, shoulders and legs back and chest out so his body makes a perfect line in the air. He lands and spins on the ball of his foot, twirling through the space. His hands throw out, then up as he pirouettes. It makes Yukhei’s chest ache, how beautiful he is. Ten makes dancing look like it means something. He makes it look like — a poem, or a priceless artifact — something special, something to treasure and keep forever.

The song is in English, but Yukhei can pick up a couple of words from it. I wanna make a billion dollars, the woman sings. She has a voice that sounds like crying. When Ten jumps again, his lines are slightly off, legs bent at an awkward angle. He huffs and jumps again, then again, like he’s trying to hammer the movements into his body. Jump, land, spin — jump, land, spin. What is life, what is love? She asks.

In the dim, too-familiar practice room, Ten’s white clothes look like they’re glowing. He’s giving off light like a star, or the sun itself. Too bright too look at directly. Burning at Yukhei no matter how hard he tries to ignore the heat. Ten’s shirt flies up on his next jump, and Yukhei can see the perfect curve of his waist. Is that where Yukhei’s hands had clutched? If it is, the bruises are faded and gone. There’s nothing left to prove that what happened had happened.

What are lies? What is trust?

Every time Ten jumps, it feels like Yukhei’s heart falls off a rollercoaster. Ten is beautiful. Of course Ten is beautiful. Yukhei doesn’t know why he feels so crazy about it all of a sudden.

I’m running outta patience, I wanna be a great one.

This is a very Ten song, Yukhei thinks. It has a tempo like a heartbeat, like striving for something. Ten has always been more ambitious than Yukhei — he’s never settled for being less than great. It reminds him of New Heroes. The bit about getting through the fears and the sweat to where people scream your name. About keeping on. Yukhei supposes that now he’s probably one of the fears, in Ten’s eyes. Something to keep on through.

What is time? What is choice?

The next time Ten jumps and lands, he spins to a stop looking directly at Yukhei.

“Ah,” Yukhei says in surprise, stumbling back a little.

Ten drops quickly out of his pretty dancer pose. “Oh,” he says back. He looks rattled and maybe a bit embarrassed for a moment, then seems to gather himself and smiles falsely bright. “Sorry if I was taking up the room.” He says it sweetly with daggers in it, like he’d really meant Why the fuck were you watching me.

Yukhei flushes and flounders. “No, no, no, I’m sorry, I-” It’s hard to think when Ten is standing in front of him, all sweaty and breathing hard. Yukhei loves how he looks without any makeup or anything on. Just his loose hair falling all over his face, stiff from all the colouring it’s been through, and his clear cat-like eyes piercing right through everything.

The song is still playing — What is everything? The singer cries, Everything is nothing without you.

“That was beautiful,” Yukhei can’t help but say.

Ten’s smile drops into something smaller. “It’s just practicing.”

“No, it was really-” Yukhei hesitates, not knowing how much he can say without giving himself away.

Ten brushes his hand through the air like swatting away a fly. “Ahh, thank you, no more praise please!”

“It was beautiful,” Yukhei insists.

“So beautiful you had to lurk there watching me?” Ten is still all tense, but he giggles at Yukhei’s dumbstruck face. “You big weirdo. Come on, you must have better things to do.”

Yukhei grins brightly at him. This is good. It feels good to have Ten laugh at him, even if it’s a little mean. Yukhei should count this as a success and go. Instead, he asks, like he can’t stop himself, “What is this song?”

It was, somehow, of course, the wrong thing to say. Ten’s face shuts all the way down. Then he laughs again, but in a slightly desperate, sad way, like it’s being forced out of him. “It’s just a song, I won’t use it for the final dance.” He seems to realize it’s still playing and snatches his phone to turn it off.

Everything is nothing without-

They stand there for a moment staring at each other. “It’s a good song,” Yukhei says dumbly. Why can’t he say anything except stupid compliments, like Ten is a random sunbae and not — Ten? What’s wrong with him?

Ten closes his eyes and takes a little breath like it’s hard for him to even look at Yukhei. “Thanks,” he says. “I have to-”

Without another word, he pushes past Yukhei and leaves, abandoning his stuff strewn around the room.

Normal. Right. Totally.

— —

Summer starts waning, the heat lessening and the heavy rains fewer and further between. Nothing changes. Nothing is normal.

Yukhei is lonely, and also sad. Those are some new feelings that he’s experiencing.

The last time Yukhei saw the company's counselor lady, she’d told him that he needed to work on thinking about what he was feeling. Yukhei was used to just kind of vibing through whatever emotions came along — most of the time, he was simply happy and excited and tired. He loved his members, and his life. Sometimes he was confused. Sometimes he wanted something he couldn’t have. Sometimes he missed his mom. But that was kind of it. Why would he need to think about those feelings? He just felt them.

But this — there’s something different about these new feelings, something that makes him maybe understand a little bit what she meant. She said that Yukhei couldn’t take care of himself unless he understood how he felt. He doesn’t understand these. These feelings are thick, like butter, and every time Yukhei starts to think about them, they melt and bubble and spill over and make him feel sick to his stomach.

He’s lonely. Part of this whole idol thing was that Yukhei had people around him literally all the time, which had always been great. He loved attention, and he loved people. He got to live with a bunch of his friends, and play around all the time, and never had to eat alone.

He’d never had one of his members ignore him before. Not getting to talk to Ten every day felt incredibly unfair. Yukhei used to be able to just reach for him any time he wanted him. He’d reach, and Ten would be there, all annoying and small and sexy like usual, and it was normal.

Yukhei still had people around him all the time. That morning, he’d woken up and realized he’d forgotten that they were filming a little behind the scenes, welcome to the life of WayV thing, and there was already a camera in his face. It used to feel great to have people watching him. But now — now, something in him feels raw, like a skinned knee with little bits of gravel still in it. Now, there is a little voice telling him that he’s done something terrible and everyone watching him can tell, and every time it talks, that buttery feeling comes sneaking in until Yukhei feels like he's going to throw up.

And he’s sad. Yukhei is so fucking sad. He misses Ten. What a sad, stupid feeling. Ten is right there, all the time. But Yukhei still misses him, violently and messily.

He hates missing Ten. He hates having to miss Ten, he hates not being able to touch Ten in the casual thoughtless way he used to. He hates that he knows exactly what Ten looks like naked, exactly what Ten sounds like when Yukhei puts his hands all over Ten’s thighs, he hates knowing it and having to live like this in the same goddamn house as Ten and not be able to do a single thing about it.

Every day, Yukhei wakes up to someone watching him. Every day, he watches Ten. And every day, they don’t talk and they don’t talk and they don’t talk until talking would be stranger than not talking, and Yukhei has to accept that his friend isn’t his friend anymore, he’s just a person that Yukhei fucked and hurt and will never touch again.

——

Yukhei tries his best to stay out of Ten’s way. He tries not to fuck up the group dynamics any worse than he already has. It’s all been taking a toll on Sicheng, he realizes. They’re all exhausted, as always, but Sicheng has spent all summer with one hand on Yukhei’s back, guiding him to where he needs to be. Of course he’s more tired than any of them.

It’s futile to try to make it up to him — the debt that Yukhei owes to Sicheng for his patience and kindness and the way he fills up empty space is infinite and unrepayable. But Yukhei tries to take care of Sicheng in the same little ways that Sicheng takes care of him, keeping an eye out for how much he’s sleeping and making sure he’s well fed and smiling whenever their eyes meet so that Sicheng knows he’s alright.

It helps, a little. Some of the tension seems to drain away. Sicheng sticks close to his side at the dorm, and Yukhei lets himself be calm and playful with him again. Slowly, slowly, Yukhei starts to touch people on purpose again.

They eat well. They work hard.

They stumble home deep in the night after a long, hot day. All of them are exhausted and antsy, restless energy bouncing off one another. Yukhei strips off his outside clothes right away, trading his sweaty jeans for soft shorts and a tanktop.

“If I don’t get some comfort food right now, I’m gonna lose it,” Yangyang says.

Kun already has his phone out, scrolling through the delivery options.

“Oh, Kun-ge is paying, that’s so kind of him!” Sicheng says.

“It is absolutely not my turn,” Kun argues, without any real fire behind it.

“Can we just skip the argument and cut to rock paper scissors?” Dejun asks.

“Not a chance,” Sicheng says. “Not in this house of dirty cheaters.”

The room descends into a long argument. Ten and Yukhei end up losing rock paper scissors, which means that Yukhei has to pay and Ten has to clean up after.

They sit around in the living room with their takeout containers, spread over chairs and the long couch and the floor pillows. Ten bluetooths his phone to the speaker system, and the room fills with chatter and music.

Summer slipped us underneath her tongue, an American singer whispers from the speaker near Yukhei.

Possessed with the need to feel close — feel not alone — Yukhei rests an elbow on Sicheng’s knee and holds up a bite of his jajangmyeon for Sicheng to eat. Sicheng fixes him with an unimpressed look, but then dutifully opens his mouth for Yukhei to feed him.

Mao Mao springs up onto the arm of the couch next to Sicheng and tries to play with his shirt, snagging her claws in the neck of it.

“Ahh, who let this hooligan into our house?” Sicheng complains, batting Mao Mao’s tiny paws away with his chopsticks.

Across the room, Ten is sprawled out on a cushion on the floor, casually stretching his leg all the way up to his head between bites of his food.

“Yangyang,” Ten whines. “My legs are so stiff.”

“That’s nice,” Yangyang says, wolfing down his food.

Yukhei tries not to stare. He’s trying. He looks away and doesn’t look back.

There’s only a scattering of dishes left after they finish eating, and Ten gets forcibly pushed into the kitchen, whining loudly the whole time. He scrunches up his nose at the scraps left in the containers as he scrapes them into the little compost bucket.

“Ughhh, this is so many dishes!!” Ten complains.

Yangyang latches onto his back like a spider monkey. “Can I help? Is this helping?”

“Get off,” Ten laughs, bending forwards so that Yangyang’s feet dangle off the ground.

Yukhei tries not to remember what it was like to touch Ten that easily. He’s trying.

“So cute,” Sicheng coos from beside Yukhei. “Little maknae blanket.”

With an exaggerated huff, Ten straightens up and dumps Yangyang back on his feet. “I’m plenty hot as it is. Come back in winter, little blanket.”

“Cute!?” Yangyang responds to Sicheng, inexplicably offended.

“Cute,” Sicheng confirms. “If you don’t want to be, you should grow faster.”

“Aren’t I sexy too, though?” Yangyang poses, head turned over his shoulder in an exaggerated smolder.

“Hmm,” Sicheng pretends to think about it. “Cute.”

“Dejun!” Yangyang calls.

“What,” Dejun says blearily from where he’d fallen partway asleep on the couch, with Hendery half in his lap and Leon half in Hendery’s lap.

“Make me work out with you!”

“Now?” Dejun asks.

“Obviously, yes,” Yangyang says. “I need Sicheng to think I’m sexy.”

“That is not a normal motive,” Hendery informs him.

Ten is watching them all with an exasperated fondness, like he can’t believe how much he loves them. It makes Yukhei feel crazy to see him like this, in their kitchen with a towel slung over his shoulder. Like Yukhei can see in double vision — the scene in front of him, and then another blurry, nebulous one underneath. Something like this but not like this that he can’t quite even imagine but badly wants. A world where Ten doesn’t hate him, he supposes. He can’t think of anything else to want.

As Yukhei stares, Ten turns right to him. He’s got a look on his face like he’s ready to make relentless fun of their didis. Like he’s about to say something withering and laugh alongside Yukhei with his full-body laugh and clutch Yukhei’s hand to keep upright.

The moment their eyes meet, Ten seems to remember. His face shuts down, smile evaporating. Then it comes back, on purpose this time, with thought instead of appearing naturally.

“Can you believe we have to live with these fools?” Ten asks Yukhei, a note of stiff humour in his voice.

Yukhei just blinks at him for a moment. “Um,” he says.

Ten smiles again and nods once, like he’s done his job for the day. He turns back to the dishwasher, shutting Yukhei back out.

Yukhei tries not to stare.

——

In the middle of a music video shoot, Yangyang is busily seeking out the behind the scenes cameras. “Ten won’t leave me alone, these days,” Yangyang teases. Ten strangles him playfully. “He’s obsessed with me! Never lets me leave his room!”

“No, no, that’s you,” Ten laughs. “Yangyang is always coming into my room and lying all over my bed and getting everything messy,” he tells the camera. “And he never wants to play with my cats! Too distracted by the kittens!”

“Let me tell you something,” Yangyang interrupts Ten, shoving in front of him. “Ten is so obsessed with Mao Mao and Bao Bao, he doesn’t even care about his own cats anymore. Every time we’re in the dorm and they aren’t in the room, he’ll just stand up out of nowhere and go ‘where are the kittens!!!’”

“He’s lying, he’s lying!” Ten says.

“All summer!” Hendery chips in. “All summer, every day! Dead silence, and then ‘where are the kittens!’”

“Can you believe it’s the end of summer already?” Ten laments.

“Time marches endlessly on,” Hendery agrees.

They’ve got this down to a science. Idol faces on in front of the shooting cameras, human faces on in private. Something in between in front of the cameras meant for extra content. It’s a hard line to walk sometimes, being natural without being fully honest. The only way they manage is by having fun, which always comes easy. Or usually comes easy.

It’s hot. While Kun shoots his solo stuff and Yukhei is out of sight of the cameras, he whips off his jacket and overshirt. They’re easy enough to put back on, so he shouldn’t get into too much trouble with the staff.

Yukhei stands with Dejun, chugging water as fast as he can. He’s still sweating, even in just his tank top. In the middle of the little spaceship set that had been built for them, Kun is crouching all cool and sexy, staring right into the camera. Yukhei makes a mental note to tell him how good he looks with his new curly hair.

Yangyang and Hendery run off to bother their manager. By Yukhei’s best guess, he has about twenty minutes before it’s his turn and he has to be an idol again.

It’s fucking hot — Yukhei holds his little handheld fan right up to his face, but it’s barely enough to cut through the haze of heat over him. He grabs the hem of his tank top and pulls it all the way up to wipe the sheen of sweat off his brow. The sweat beading along his abdomen cools immediately without fabric covering it. The shirt comes away maybe a tiny bit makeup-smudged and sweaty, but it’s fine.

Yukhei rolls his shoulders back and stretches his arms out, feeling his muscles tense and then relax. Probably nine hours left of shooting — Yukhei figures he can be on and properly idol-happy for at least seven of them.

When Yukhei turns to exchange his empty water bottle for a full one, he catches Ten, staring right at him. Their eyes hold across the room. Ten’s face looks a little slack, a little out of it. Yukhei hopes he’s okay. They’ve all been busy, but Ten’s been pulled away for some early rehearsals for a new unit song — he must be exhausted.

Yukhei tries to smile at Ten. It’s half instinct, half on purpose. Ten’s face changes immediately. The faraway, slightly glassy look in his eyes vanishes, like he’s come back to himself. His face turns maybe a little angry; maybe a little guilty.

Ten looks away, and doesn’t catch his eye again. He doesn’t even pretend to be nice. When they have to stand next to each other for a group shot, Ten is tense beside him like an elastic band stretched to its limits.

Ten smiles, and it looks like lying.

——

Ten and Yangyang start spending more and more time together. Yukhei tries not to be bitter about it — the two of them had always been close in the group, like real brothers, speaking English to each other and making jokes from the internet that no one else understood. But now Ten has all this Yukhei-free time to spend, and he’s spending it with Yangyang.

They go live together on Weibo one night in Yangyang and Kun and Dejun’s room. Yukhei watches from his bed. There’s only a wall separating him from them, but it feels like it could be acres. They have Bao Bao and Louis with them — Ten brags about Louis’ tricks and they immediately get into a big fight about which cat is smarter. Bao Bao makes an unconvincing argument, curled up in a tiny little ball and refusing to budge.

Most of it is in English. Yukhei watches instead of listening, absorbed in Ten’s toothy grins and the incongruously bashful way he smirks at the camera.

“I’ve been listening to a lot of sad music lately,” Ten tells Yangyang and the million people watching, with the kind of halfway wry tone that makes it impossible to tell how serious he’s being.

“I’ve been listening to Cher,” Yangyang says.

Ten does a double take. “Why??” he asks.

“Why not,” Yangyang says, unruffled. “She’s iconic.”

Yangyang pulls out his phone and scrolls through his music library for the camera to see. It’s all modern American rap and old American pop music in his recently played, with a few Jay Chou songs sprinkled in.

“Kun-ge’s influence,” Yangyang explains.

Ten gets bored of it quickly and pushes Yangyang away from the camera. “Don’t block it, the people want to see Bao Bao.”

Unable to let anything go, ever, Yangyang pushes back.

He shoves hard enough that Ten falls back into the wall, laughing all the way. Yukhei hears the low thump through the wall separating their rooms, then a quiet echo of it through his phone speaker.

“Stop, stop,” Ten cries.

“Oh shh, I’ll give you a hug after,” Yangyang says, like he’s doing Ten a great favour.

“Here,” Ten says, “I have a recommendation, listen.”

Ten types something quickly into Yangyang’s phone one-handed, trying to keep the camera stable with the other. A song starts playing. It’s a Korean-American singer with the kind of aching voice that Ten loves. The sound of it makes Yukhei want to cry.

“Where did you find this?” Yangyang asks.

“Shhhh,” Ten shushes him. His eyes closed, Ten is swaying slightly to the music. I'm tired everyday, I’m thirsty for the rain, the man sings.

Lost in it, Ten mouths along with the words. Oh please, my heart is all for you.

Yangyang is looking at the song on his phone. “Dude, this is from like five years ago.”

“So?” Ten asks, eyes still closed. “We all just saw that you listen to Celine Dion.”

“Yeah, but-” Yangyang starts.

“Listen to the song!” Ten yells. “You’re ruining it, now we have to start over.”

After their live ends, Yukhei goes to Naver and tries to type in the Korean lyrics he remembers. He finds the song on Youtube. It sounds even sadder when listening through his headphones, alone in his bed.

Can I run and hide? I’m stuck inside my memories.

What is Ten thinking about, when he listens to this? What was he thinking about just now, with his eyes closed, while Yukhei was watching silently alongside a million other people?

Just please take care of me. I’m all for you.

Yukhei lies there and plays the song ten times in a row with his headphones at almost full volume, ignoring Sicheng picking around the room getting ready for bed. There’s not a single grain of sleepiness in him.

He pulls his earbuds out and goes to the kitchen. Kun is in the little alcove off the living room working hard with his laptop out and headphones on. Yukhei sits quietly next to him for a bit, watching him click around on his complicated software. It’s one of the songs they’d worked on together, the one Yukhei had done some rapping over, and Kun passes him the headphones so he can hear how it sounds.

It’s very good. The piano chords Kun had played on his keyboard are layered with all these other sounds: the lapping of waves, the shattering of glass, the beating wings of a large beast. They come together in a way Yukhei can’t even really process, immersive and beautiful. Coated on top of it all, Yukhei’s shaky voice sounds — sad. He sounds really sad.

After Kun retires to bed, Yukhei lays back and presses play on Ten’s song again. How stupid that Ten’s name is stuck in his head, just like a song. How pointless that Yukhei can’t stop himself turning, growing, moving always in the direction of Ten.

There was a storm earlier that day, and the air coming through the windows is unbearably hot in its wake. Yukhei sits on his bed. All the animals have gathered in his room — Leon curled up next to a sleeping Sicheng, Bella at the foot of the bed, Louis making laps of the room, the kittens hogging his pillow. Even with all of them, Yukhei feels empty. Alone.

He’s not paying attention to his phone, and the next song in the queue comes up — it’s some indie Korean singer named Krr with only a couple thousand views. Yukhei lets it play. It sounds like the song Ten had played, the kind of sad songs that Ten likes when he’s feeling melancholy.

Looking at each other quietly, as if the moment stopped. What are you thinking now?

Yukhei imagines getting up right now, collecting up the cats and bringing them with this song to Ten like a peace offering. Seeing Ten’s smile directed at him. Sitting close, laughing, leaving everything behind.

Then he imagines Ten listening to it and thinking about Yukhei — knowing that Yukhei listened to it and thought of him. Even the idea makes Yukhei bury his warm face in his pillow, feeling all queasy and sticky inside. If Ten heard this, he would know. He’d see right through Yukhei like he always does.

The song gnaws at him. He listens to it again, then again.

You are the starlight full of the night sky. Your scent is the wind of the season. I fall asleep deep in your dreams.

Yukhei wakes up the next morning with the words and Ten’s name still in his head.

I’m thinkin’ bout you.

They have schedules right off the bat. Yukhei stumbles through vocal lessons and two boring meetings, then is sent off to get his hair re-dyed. He slides into the backseat of a car, finds the song on Melon, and listens to it over and over again until they get to the hairdressing place.

Usually, Yukhei likes to chat with the hair noonas there and listen to them gossip, but today their voices sound like white noise buzzing in his ears. I’m thinkin’ bout you, about you. Yukhei slips in an earbud and presses play on the song again and hopes they don’t think he’s too rude. He tips his head back and lets the woman standing over him run her fingers all through his hair, massaging the dye into his scalp. You’re the starlight full of the night sky, a song that flows in the deep night.

It plucks something in him that keeps vibrating once the song ends. Yukhei needs to keep feeling it. He’s not even entirely sure what the feeling is. Just that it aches right in his chest, and it makes him feel less alone. Like this, we will disappear.

That night, Yukhei curls into bed early and lies with Bella, petting slowly over her chest and feeling the softness of her fur. Yukhei can hear his members in the kitchen, clamoring and laughing and talking over each other. He misses them. If he goes in there now… Well. He’ll still be outside of it all. Watching Ten be normal. Watching them all love each other.

If he tried to say something, Ten would freeze and stop smiling. The air would get cold. Yukhei would feel to blame for making things weird even though he’s not being weird, he’s not, he just wants Ten back. Like any normal person would.

The song keeps playing on repeat through his headphones, plucking at him softly.

When Sicheng comes to bed, after the noise has simmered down to just his members’ voices and the clinking of glasses being set down on their big wood table, he hovers over Yukhei for a moment. Yukhei squeezes his eyes closed tight. Sicheng sighs, gives Bella a pat, and turns off the light.

I’m thinkin’ bout you.

——

In the middle of the sadness, Yukhei figures out that he misses his mom. He knows that he’s loved, but it hurts so much right now to be around the members when he can’t really let himself be seen. Something in him craves the unconditional warmth of his mom’s voice and arms.

Yukhei thinks about calling her. He doesn’t talk to her enough — not nearly as often as literally anyone else he knows, other than the Americans.

Instead, late in the evening of a night off, he goes to the empty kitchen and starts pulling stuff off of the shelves to make tom yum goong. They have some shrimp in the fridge, which Yukhei thinks their ahjumma bought for a stir fry, but he’s sure she won’t miss a little bit of it.

It calms him, like cooking always does when he has the motivation for it. Simple actions, easy to do well, no cost to it except cleaning up after. He plays some music on his phone, a beautiful synth-y song that Taeyong recommended to him.

It broke my heart to see you, so tall and ready in the early morning.

Ten walks out of his room and into the kitchen. He freezes when he sees Yukhei.

Not sure what to do, Yukhei just stares back. The soup bubbles away on the stove behind him. It’s hardly surprising at this point, that Ten stiffens in discomfort at the sight of Yukhei, but it still hurts like hell.

Ten looks like he’s going to turn and leave and pretend he was never there, but instead he comes into the kitchen. Yukhei tries to subtly stare at him out of the corner of his eye to figure out what on earth is going on in his head. Ten’s face is set, like he’s really committed to some specific feeling, but Yukhei has absolutely no clue what that feeling could be.

Slow-moving, like he’s being very careful, Ten goes to the fridge. He opens, then closes it. Yukhei turns back to his soup and stirs it a little.

“That smells good,” Ten says out of nowhere.

When Yukhei looks over, Ten is staring at the magnets on the fridge. He’s wearing a loose white shirt, thin enough that Yukhei can see the lines of his waist beneath it. Yukhei looks away.

“Thanks,” Yukhei remembers to say. “My mom sent me her recipe once before, but I couldn’t find it so I just made it up.”

“You just made it up?” Ten repeats. “Xuxi, are you trying to poison yourself?”

Startled, Yukhei giggles. “No, no, it’ll be good, I promise.”

“Is this for anyone else?” Ten asks. “Is this a prank? Are you going to say Kun made it and feed it to Dejun?”

They laugh together. They were never very good at making jokes without ruining them with interrupted laughter. Yukhei likes it like that — it’s funner to laugh all the way through than try to make someone else laugh.

“I remember how she used to make it!” Yukhei says. “I think.”

“You think? Oh my god, what have you put in it?” Ten comes around to the stove and grabs a spoon. Yukhei watches his little tongue flick out to lick up a taste of the soup.

Ten is smiling, like it tastes good, but he says, “Disgusting, I was right.”

Yukhei just watches. He can’t stop looking. Then he says, before he can stop himself, “Can we stop not talking, please?” Ten’s face goes cold again. Yukhei continues, trying desperately to explain. “I hate thinking about what happened all the time. Can I-” Have you back, he almost says, but that’s way too much.

Face still unmoving, Ten puts down the spoon. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“Ten, come on. Don’t-”

Ten interrupts him. “We can’t.” Yukhei has no idea what he means by that. Can’t be friends? Can’t have what they had back? “It’s too hard, okay? Stop- you have to stop making it hard.”

Suddenly, Yukhei wants to cry. He feels helpless. “What am I doing? Whatever it is, I’ll stop, just please tell me-”

“I have to go,” Ten says. “I can’t.”

Ten doesn’t explain. He leaves.

——

Yukhei remembers when this all started. On set for the Dream In A Dream video, the big studio box lit up in all these vibrant colours. Yukhei’s job was to stand around and look mysteriously sexy and watch Ten dance, which was honestly what Yukhei did best back then. At that time, he had been teetering precariously on the line between trainee and no one, and every new development towards his debut felt like a lurch forward on a rollercoaster.

So he watched Ten dance, for hours and hours a day a few days straight. Ten was a whole feast for his eyes, looking beautiful and jumping around in his silky clothes. Yukhei could have stood there forever without getting bored, watching Ten’s body make perfect lines in the air, seeing where it started and stopped.

They didn’t finish until late at night — early morning, really. The director had known exactly what he wanted: Yukhei walking slowly towards Ten, Ten spinning with the dancer lady, Yukhei walking and walking to him but never getting closer. They stayed for hours trying to get it right. Yukhei’s pretty sure those shots ended up getting cut anyways.

On a brief break while the director reviewed the playback, Ten and Yukhei sat against the wall. Ten handed Yukhei a bottle of water. They were sitting close together — Ten was fickle with his physical affection, but that day he’d pressed his wiry sweaty little leg right up against Yukhei’s body and started playing with one of Yukhei’s zippers. Ten had been teasing him right to his face, mean but good-natured.

“Ah, it’s so late,” Yukhei had complained. “Did we come to Korea for this?”

And Ten had huffed a little laugh and said, “Yeah! It’s perfect, isn’t it.”

Yukhei had laughed a little awkwardly, then thought that Ten kind of wasn’t joking. “Do you mean it?” He asked impulsively. He tried to find the right way to say it, thinking through his words carefully. “Do you really love it — all of this? ”

Ten smirked up at him. “I love it all.”

Yukhei couldn’t tell whether or not Ten was kidding. He’d frowned down and tried to read Ten’s face, but couldn’t make heads or tails of it. There were so many parts of this life so far that just objectively sucked — the long days, the lack of freedom, the exhaustion, the language, the loneliness. None of it really bothered Yukhei so much as to make him miserable, he was an easygoing guy, but Ten was — persnickety. He liked things the way he liked them. Did he really love this life enough, Yukhei had wondered? Would he really stay?

“Really? Like- not kidding, really really?” Yukhei had asked, staring right at Ten so he couldn’t lie.

Ten met his gaze for a second, then tipped his head back against the wall and chewed thoughtfully on his bottom lip, still fiddling with Yukhei’s zipper.

“I mean — yeah. It’s what I’ve always wanted, isn’t it?” Something about the way he said it made it sound like a riddle. Ten had looked right up at Yukhei and tugged on the zipper playfully. “What, is this not what you’ve always wanted? Sitting here at one in the morning with me?”

“I guess,” Yukhei had said, ignoring the teasing. He really hadn’t thought about it too much before then. He wanted to be famous, so he went to Korea, and now there he was, almost an SM Rookie. Every day was a new day. It was exciting. But he felt like Ten was talking about something more. Yukhei couldn’t figure out how on Earth to ask about it without sounding crazy, so instead he said: “Is it — you know — worth it? Don’t you think — I dunno. We’ll get tired of it?”

Ten hummed under his breath. His forehead creased a little like he was thinking very hard. He looked small in his baggy clothes in that big room, and Yukhei kind of wanted to tuck him right under his arm and keep him safe. Usually, Ten was so busy being loud and smug and better than everyone at everything that it seemed like nothing could touch him. Right then, there, he looked like a real person to Yukhei for the first time.

“Sorry,” Ten said, “I’m just figuring out how to say this in Korean.” He blew out a tiny huff of air like he was laughing at himself. “I think… the things that I lose by being here are things that I’m willing to lose, for now. I’m happy in my life. Look where we are!” He pointed at the director and cameramen where they were studying the playback and laughed a little. “People are filming us! People want to watch us dance! I wouldn’t get to do this anywhere else, and this is what I want to do. So — yeah. I can give up some…things.” He said the word things like it was a code that Yukhei should know. “It’s worth it. And I can’t imagine getting tired of it.”

Ten peered back up at Yukhei and smiled in a way that might have been fond and might have just been condescending. He reached up and stroked a lock of Yukhei’s hair back behind his ear. Yukhei had flushed and felt a little dizzy. Ten’s moods shifted so quickly that Yukhei couldn’t even keep track. “Why, are you tired, Lucas-ah? Ready to go home?”

Yukhei hadn’t even figured out yet what Ten meant by all the thoughtful things he just said. “Uh- no.”

“Are you sure?” Ten clicked his tongue. “You look so tired! And you’ve just been standing there while I do all the hard work! What’s the point of all those muscles, just your vanity?”

“No!” Yukhei said, “I’m not tired. I’m good at my job.”

Ten laughed at him. “Yes, I know you are,” he said condescendingly.

Yukhei flushed, feeling his face get all hot. Of course, Ten noticed immediately. “Huang Xuxi is blushing!” he crowed, “I made Huang Xuxi blush!”

Embarrassed, Yukhei pushed Ten’s shoulder away. He went easy, tipping all the way to the side but then just levering himself back even closer and snuggling up to Yukhei’s side. “What,” Ten cooed, “Does my dongsaeng like being told he’s doing a good job? As if you don’t hear it enough.”

“Ah, stop,” Yukhei protested weakly. He was giggling despite himself, even though he was still deeply embarrassed. He had always been a little embarrassed around Ten, but in a gentle way that he kind of liked. Sometimes it tipped over the edge and he worried that Ten genuinely thought that he was an idiot baby, but for the most part — Yukhei knew that Ten liked him. They were becoming friends, he thought. It’s nice to be embarrassed by someone that you like.

Ten stroked a little finger over the shell of his ear. “You’re bright red,” he had giggled. “You look sunburned. So cute, our Lucas-ie.”

That day was probably the first time that Ten said anything sincere to him. Was it the last? Had Ten ever looked up at him again and said what he meant? Ten was always, always talking in code — he said things like everyone should know exactly what he meant, but Yukhei almost never did.

Yukhei had thought, somewhere in his brain that he didn’t pay much attention to, that he’d cracked Ten. That sometime in the years since they met, he’d plowed through all of Ten’s walls and climbed up inside of him, learned him inside and out. Learned the language that Ten spoke when he said words like he meant to say other words but couldn’t.

Now — fuck. Yukhei doesn’t know him at all, does he? Yukhei hasn’t climbed inside; he’s been desperately trying to scale an unscalable wall all this time, thinking he was getting somewhere when really he’s just stuck there in one spot, pounding at the doors to Ten and not being let in.

Because Ten doesn’t want to let him in. He didn’t then, and he definitely doesn’t now. Just because Yukhei was there… there in the big studio box when Ten was tired and vulnerable and kind of honest; there in that bright hotel room sweating over Ten’s body — just because it meant — fucking — everything, every scrap of feeling in the world, to Yukhei. That doesn’t mean it meant anything to Ten.

Yukhei’s outside the doors like he always has been. He just didn’t know it could hurt this much.

——

Yukhei ends up calling his mom.

She greets him in Cantonese with a “Yukhei! Have you eaten?” Her voice sounds like home — bustle, warmth, comfort. Whatever the opposite of loneliness is.

After he doesn’t respond to her story about the fantastic fruit she’d found out of season that weekend, she stops talking and a sad silence settles over them.

“Are you ok, Yukhei?” His mom asks.

Yukhei sniffles, a little. God. He knew he was fragile, but he didn’t expect to feel so cracked open like this. “I’m okay, mama,” he tries to say, but his voice is all funny and choked.

“Oh no, baby!” She immediately starts clucking and cooing like he’s a wailing child that needs to be cheered up, and Yukhei smiles, but that only makes him realize that there are wet tears all over his face. “What’s wrong, Yukhei, tell your mama what’s wrong.”

Now that he’s started he can’t fucking stop. The tears are rolling down his cheeks, coming from a deep pool of sadness in his chest. Yukhei knows this pool. He’s so familiar with it now that he doesn’t know how he went so long without knowing it was there.

“It’s just-” Yukhei tries to say, but a terrible ugly sob comes up in his throat and he can’t even finish it. “I miss you, mama.”

“Oh, baby,” His mom says. Yukhei realizes that she’s crying too, and that only makes the guilty buttery feeling worse, like a big tidal wave that he’s been holding back for too long. Everything he does makes him feel it more. He’s starting to think that maybe it’s the only feeling left in the world. “Do you want to come home?”

“No, no, no,” Yukhei says through his tears.

“You know you can, right?” She worries. “Baby, just because you chose that life doesn’t mean you have to keep choosing it.”

“I-” Yukhei takes a heaving breath. He hadn’t known how badly he had wanted to cry. “I want it still, don’t worry.”

“You sound sad.”

Yukhei squeezes his eyes tight. “I am sad,” he admits.

There’s a silence. His mom makes a muffled hitching, crying sound. Yukhei covers his face with his hand, feeling like a monster. “I’m sorry, mama. Don’t worry about me.” The words come out choked and wanting.

“Can I help you?” she asks. “Can we fix it?”

A fresh wave of tears spill over, quick to fall down and right over Yukhei’s chin. They leave his face wet.

“No,” he says quietly. “I don’t think it wants to be fixed.”

——

Family dinner is terrible that night. Ten won’t look at anyone. The members can clearly tell that Yukhei’s been crying, and keep shooting him guilty, searching looks without saying anything.

The dorm ahjumma makes a beautiful meal. No one eats heartily. Yukhei stares down at his plate, numb. He thinks about his mom. He imagines what it would feel like to be wrapped up in a hug by her right now.

Dejun is twitchy and anxious, always sensitive to the emotions in a room. He cracks open a bottle of wine and pours Yukhei a glass. Yukhei drinks it, then another glass, then pours himself a third. Their ahjumma starts washing up.

After dinner, Kun and Sicheng both have evening plans. Sicheng hesitates before he leaves, but Yukhei nods at him to say it’s okay. On his way out, Sicheng puts a gentle hand on Yukhei’s shoulder to say goodbye. The touch makes Yukhei want to weep again.

Hendery and Yangyang end up disappearing into their rooms to spend the rest of the night gaming. On the living room floor, Dejun plays with the kittens, talking to them in English in a baby voice. Yukhei nurses his wine, letting it sink into his bones and make them soft and heavy. In the corner chair, Ten curls up with his phone and doesn’t look up.

Unwilling to leave and be alone, Yukhei stretches himself out on the couch. He wonders what he would have to do to make Ten look at him. He wonders if Ten’s moved on — if he’s forgiven Yukhei. He thinks of Ten’s plastered on smile, his unreadable eyes. We can't. Is that what Yukhei gets now? A facsimile of friendship, in public only? The cruelty of politeness?

He closes his eyes. At some point, Dejun leaves for bed. Half asleep, he’s vaguely aware of Ten standing up from his chair in the corner and moving around the room. The shape of Ten draws near and hovers over him.

A moment passes, long enough that Yukhei thinks he might be dreaming. And then Ten moves — Yukhei can hear him shuffling around. Eyes still closed, Yukhei feels, out of nowhere, the softness of a thin blanket being draped carefully over him. Ten tugs on the end of it so it covers Yukhei’s bare feet. He lingers for a moment. Yukhei can feel him there, giving off warmth, a nebulous shape in the room.

Ten reaches out again. He pulls the blanket up over Yukhei’s shoulders and smooths it down gently, his touch a ghost over Yukhei’s body through the fabric.

Yukhei squeezes his eyes tight. He tries not to cry, not to move even a millimeter. He feels like he’s floating outside of himself, watching a scene from another universe.

“Goodnight, Xuxi,” Ten whispers. His hand hovers over Yukhei’s face for a moment, almost like he wants to touch. He doesn’t touch. He leaves.

——

“Hiii,” Yukhei says in English. The live comments are flicking by in the corner of his phone screen, too fast for him to read, greetings in a handful of different languages. “Hi, hi hi.”

The pillow is hot against his cheek, so Yukhei flips it over and lays back down on the cool side. He looks into his phone camera and his own wide eyes peer back at him. For a moment, Yukhei can’t help but stare at the little mirrored image of himself on his phone screen. He looks undeniably tired.

He feels tired, all the way down. Underneath the tiredness is a strange fear, and then below that the awful buttery feeling of shame, and then below that a longing, and then only more tiredness.

Yukhei smiles at the camera for the people watching. “You’re keeping me company tonight,” he says. The comments keep flicking by — there are so many of them, so many people keeping him company from all over the world, even this late at night. Sicheng still isn’t back, so it’s only Yukhei and all of these people in his room. He tries to tap the screen to make the comments stop so he can talk back to everyone, but half of them are in English and the other half are just greetings.

Some terrible little beast inside him hates that they’re talking to him in a language he doesn’t understand. Yukhei knows it’s not their fault. It’s the only language a lot of people know. “Love you guys,” he says in English instead, since he can say that much. The comments scroll even faster, and the view counter climbs. So many people.

One of the kittens climbs up on his bed, and Yukhei turns the camera so everyone can see. “It’s Mao Mao,” he tells them. Mao Mao clambers up his sleeve, digging her little claws into him, and then lays down awkwardly on his shoulder. It’s still her favourite perch, and somehow she hasn’t grown out of it yet. He giggles and lets her do what she wants.

Yukhei turns his phone back so he and Mao Mao are both in view. Even in the dim light of the room, even from a distance, Yukhei can see how dark his undereyes are and how oily his skin is and how dry his lips are. He blinks, and his eyes blink on the screen. That’s him, alright. The longer he looks at himself, the more strung out and exhausted he thinks he might look.

He musters up another bright smile. “I wish you all luck this week. What will you be doing?” He tries to read fast, catch even one comment.

Xuxi looks fine, stop it.

You people always get so overly concerned kkkk it’s just dark in the room, he looks happy.

Yukhei sits up a bit and frowns at his screen. Mao Mao makes a plaintive little mrow and jumps off of him.

Another comment hovers on the screen long enough for him to read it: Idols are human too he’s allowed to be tired.

“Ah,” he says lowly, “Don’t worry about me, everyone. Don’t worry, don’t worry.” The guilty feeling curls right around his chest again. It makes it hard to think, let alone talk. “I’m just tired, it’s okay. It’s just been — I’m just tired.”

Saying it only makes him feel it more. Yukhei thinks about the past few months — how he keeps sleeping too much or sleeping not enough. His mom’s voice. Ten’s cold face. The song, I’m thinkin’ bout you. The tense air at family dinner. The bruises on Ten’s thighs. The heat. The hotel room. Ten putting his white shirt back on over his tattoo. Ten.

Yukhei squeezes his eyes shut and tries to squish it all down. He tries to smile to show them that he’s okay, but he can see on his phone screen how sad he looks and how quickly the smile goes away. “I’m okay,” Yukhei promises again. “We’ve been busy and I’m sleepy. I’m okay.”

WayV have been weird lately, someone says, they’ve all been super cold.

I think WayV are disbanding, someone else says.

Are you okay??? We love you Lucas!!, someone else says.

“I’m okay,” Yukhei says one more time. His voice cracks a little. “WayV is fine you guys, everyone is happy, we are happy and working hard and can’t wait to show you what we’ve been doing.”

They’re def disbanding, holy crap, this is so sad. I guess it was only a matter of time.

WayV is NOT disbanding can we block the antis please!!

Yukhei tries to breathe. No one is listening to him. The guilt threatens to swallow his whole chest up, heart and lungs and all. It’s his job to make people happy, and instead he’s making them worry about him. “No, no, no.” He can hear his voice, and he sounds like he’s going to cry. He tries to steady it but he can’t. “WayV is happy. It’s only — it’s okay, it’s okay, it’s just me, I’m just—”

Yukhei covers his face with a hand and closes his eyes and tries to pull himself together. He rubs at his eyes and his fingers come away a little wet. He just has to — he has to explain to them what’s been going on, as much as they’d be able to understand, and then everyone will know that they don’t need to worry, and everything will be okay. “It’s been a long few months. We’re all fine and happy. I’m just really really tired. Really tired, and lonely— I mean, not lonely, happy. I’m happy and fine. Just a little… there’s just some stuff— there’s something that I did that I regret. I mean, we all have regrets, you know, it’s fine, we’re human.”

Yukhei can hear how crazy he sounds. He takes another deep breath and runs a hand over his face and tries not to cry for real. How can he say this so that people will understand? “I made a really bad mistake, and I hurt someone—” His voice shakes. “But it’s fine, it’s fine, it’s normal. I’m just sad— I mean I’m just tired— I mean— Fuck.

Yukhei realizes two seconds too late what he said. His eyes go wide on the screen, his mouth open in the little round shape of shock. Panicked, he presses frantically at the end live button. He’s got to stop this. Oh fuck. He cursed, on live, he just told everyone how fucked up he is and then swore, and he can’t take it back. Oh fuck, oh fuck, this is so inescapably, irretrievably bad.

Yukhei’s face hovers in a horrible freeze frame on the screen for a moment, like a still from a horror film. Then his finger finds the off button and the screen goes black.

——

Stepping into the meeting room at SM the next morning is maybe the worst feeling Yukhei has felt, ever, in his life. Worse than sitting in an identical room waiting to hear whether he was going to debut. Worse than when Ten had injured himself, and Yukhei had hugged him before their show and felt Ten’s small body shake with repressed tears in his arms.

Maybe not worse than lying on the bed in Ten’s hotel room watching him leave. Maybe not worse than seeing those bruises — than Ten’s furious face telling him to be normal — than anything, these past few months, this series of feelings so terrible that it would be impossible to line them up and compare them.

Yukhei sits in an uncomfortable white chair. There’s a lot of people there, shuffling around quietly. No one looks him in the eye.

Kun comes in with their manager-gege. They both look exhausted, strung out, stressed like Yukhei has never seen either of them before. The shame inside Yukhei burns.

All night, his phone had been flooded with messages and missed calls. All of the SuperM members, most of NCT, Yuqi, even GOT7 Jackson. Chenle had sent only a sticker of a dolphin with hearts all around it, then a lion catching a heart out of the air. Yukhei hadn’t responded to any of them. What could he say.

When Sicheng had come home soon after, he’d silently locked the door to their room and thrown a blanket over Yukhei’s face. “Let’s think about it in the morning,” he’d said softly. They’d both lain there awake for a long time. What could they say.

By the time everyone is seated, Yukhei feels like he’s in a cage, being peered at relentlessly but not addressed. Abruptly, he remembers Ten’s drawing on the plane — right after what happened happened. The dragon pinned down by arrows, on display. That’s how he feels.

“Shall we get started?” Someone asks, like this is any other meeting.

Yukhei stares down at the scratched up white table. The untouched cup of iced coffee in front of him has a paper straw in it, sad and sagging.

People start talking. This is a serious situation, they say. Damage control, they say. The fans—inappropriate language—emotionally compromised— they say.

Across the table, Kun keeps trying to meet his eyes. When it’s turn to speak, Kun says, “I understand the gravity of this situation, and what it means to the group and the company. I understand how crucial it is to maintain positivity for the fans, and behave appropriately as representatives of SM. However, I believe that the most important thing right now is Xuxi’s health and safety.”

Kun holds his chin high as he speaks. His shoulders are squared like he is trying very hard to hold himself well; be taken seriously. He looks like a leader. Someone to trust.

Yukhei closes his eyes. Of course it is important to protect our idols, they say. We want to support you in whatever way you need, Lucas-ssi, they say.

It’s gruelling. It goes on and on and on, until Yukhei can barely even focus. His mouth is dry. He wants to go home. He wants for none of this to be happening.

But who is there to blame? He did this. He made this happen — yanked all these people out of bed late last night, probably, tore them away from their lives and families to clean up his mess. It was him who started all this — him in that bright hotel room, begging for Ten. Him unable to be normal, unable to keep it inside. To not let his emotions spill over everything like a wine stain, impossible to take back.

“Lucas-ssi,” a man in a suit says. “Do you agree?”

Yukhei blinks up at him. “Could you repeat the question?” he asks. He tries to smile. He can feel it on his face, a faltering, malformed thing.

Another man clears his throat and shuffles a couple papers in front of him. “At this juncture, we feel the best thing for you and for the fans will be for you to take a brief break from public life.”

Yukhei freezes, from the core of him all the way out to every limb of his body. He feels like he’s stepped into an elevator, but the floor isn’t there and he’s plummeting in freefall all the way down.

The man continues. “As we said, the company is on your side. We care about protecting your interests and your safety. Considering recent events, we feel the best way to move forward will be for you to take a step back and prioritize your health.”

“No-” Yukhei starts. The room goes very still and tense. Everyone is looking right at him. Yukhei takes a breath. “I don’t think that's… necessary. Really. I’m fine.”

The man hmms under his breath and shuffles his papers again. “Lucas-ssi, we have your best interests at heart. We do not think it would be appropriate to have you continue to make public appearances at a time that is clearly… fraught, and potentially difficult for you.”

“I know I messed up,” Yukhei says desperately. “I know — I know. I know I behaved inappropriately. But if I could just apologize to everyone — I’ll be better, I promise, I can be better.”

Across the table, Kun looks like he’s about to crumble. He touches his face in a casual way that Yukhei knows means he’s trying not to cry. Yukhei feels like a monster. He feels so ashamed.

“I can be better,” Yukhei swears.

The men are all looking at each other meaningfully over the table. The first one pipes up again. “We have scheduled twice weekly sessions with your counselor for you, instead of your typical bimonthly talks. We are hopeful that you can quickly resolve your health issues with her guidance, and be able to rejoin NCT and WayV’s regular promotions and public work.”

“No,” Yukhei insists. Tears are threatening his eyes, but he tries hard to hold them back from falling. “I swear — I don’t need a break. I need to keep working, with the group. I can fix it on my own.”

The man sighs. “We have no intention to punish you, Lucas-ssi,” he says. “We want the best for you and for the fans. At this point-”

Yukhei sits. They keep talking. He keeps his face very still. He nods.

Once they’ve talked themselves in circles, he says, quiet, “I am sorry. I want to do well. I never meant to make anyone upset. I can be better.”

“There is still much to discuss,” their manager-gege says. “Nothing is solidified, but we must act quickly. If Lucas-ssi does not take a break from public life-”

The suited man interrupts. “You are correct, we must act quickly. Our next steps-”

Yukhei sits. He tries to listen. He tries not to look at Kun’s face. He tries not to think about how deeply he’s fucked everything up. He tries to keep it together.

——

In the elevator down, Yukhei stands silently with Kun and their manager. The air feels brittle, like the world could snap around him at any moment. The shame inside him burns and burns and burns, sticky and awful.

They don’t speak. What would they say.

——

Back at the dorm, Yukhei drops his face mask and coat at the door and goes straight to his room.

“Xuxi-” Kun calls after him.

Yukhei closes the door behind him with a firm click. He can hear Kun’s footsteps, following him hesitantly. Kun hovers on the other side of the door, clearly unwilling to barge in.

“I’m sorry, Xuxi,” Kun says quietly. Noise has always travelled too well through the dorm. Even when Yukhei throws himself onto his bed and covers himself up, he can hear every word. “I should have done better. I should have-” Kun’s voice is faltering and filled with guilt.

There’s a monster that lives inside Yukhei. There must be. A monster that eats his shame and pain, that thrives when the people he loves hurt. If there’s not, then it’s just him. Hurting people senselessly with his clumsy emotions, his oversized heart.

Kun stops talking, but doesn’t leave. Yukhei can hear him breathing deeply. “You don’t have to talk to me,” Kun says. “You don’t have to talk to anyone, really. But please— please don’t leave us. Please let us help you.”

Yukhei presses his eyes closed and curls into himself. He listens as Kun lets out all his breath and leaves. He listens to the quiet of the dorm. The hot room. His own heartbeat, pulsing through his body, keeping him alive.

The next thing Yukhei hears is a loud crash from somewhere outside his room. He jerks up from his stupor just in time to see Hendery and Yangyang burst through the door, flushed and frantic.

“Have you seen a cat?” Yangyang asks urgently.

“Which one?” Yukhei questions, befuddled.

“Any of them!!” Hendery answers.

Dejun crashes into the room behind them. “Hi, Yukhei!” He says pointedly.

“Oh,” Hendery says.

“Ohhhhh,” Yangyang echoes. “Oh, right. Hello. Hi. Are you okay?”

Yukhei can feel it; the moment that he loses it. Something inside him — the fragile, beaten part of him — just snaps, clean in two. He can feel his face crumble.

“Fuck,” Hendery says. All of them look frantic, like they want to fix everything but don’t know how to start. It only makes Yukhei feel worse.

It’s like he’s lost all control of his body. His shoulders shake, his chest burns, and oh, he’s crying, he’s really crying, big heavy sobs that seize through all of him. Even now that he’s realized, he can’t stop. Yukhei covers his face with his hands, crying desperately into them, feeling the wetness of his tears falling uncontrollably.

“No, no, Yukhei,” Hendery says, fretting around him. Yukhei can feel all of them circling the bed, hands fluttering like they want to reach out but are scared to touch him.

“It’s okay, it’s okay, it’s okay!” Yangyang coos awkwardly.

He hates this. He hates it. He hates making them worry. He hates the wet hot tears on his face. He hates that he can’t stop it — can never stop anything, can never control himself. He feels like he’s a whole forest fire trapped in one small person. Burning through the world, leaving everything messy and scorched in his wake.

“Sorry,” Yukhei gasps. “Sorry, I’m okay, don’t worry.”

“Ahh,” Dejun says helplessly. “Shh, no don’t apologize.

“You can cry! I mean, you don’t have to, but like… you can,” Yangyang offers.

Yukhei tries to laugh, but another wave of sobs pulls him under.

“Please don’t listen to Yangyang,” Hendery says. “Don’t cry, please don’t cry.”

Yukhei nods behind his hands. He tries to wipe his face clean. “Sorry,” he says miserably.

“Are you okay?” Dejun asks softly.

Tired to death of lying, Yukhei shakes his head wordlessly.

“Ahhhhh,” Dejun says again, sitting down on Sicheng’s bed.

“Sorry,” Yukhei repeats, voice all hitching and barely there. He can’t think of anything else to say. Hendery sits down right next to him and places a hand awkwardly on his shoulder. The touch is grounding despite its hesitance.

“Is there something going on?” Hendery asks carefully. “Like — is it just — you know. The stress. Anxiety? Or is there something else? You’ve been. Well. We’ve been worried.”

Yukhei rubs hard at his eyes. He tries to breathe, tries to calm down. Tears keep leaking out anyways. “It’s not the stress,” he admits. “Or maybe it is, but — that never used to bother me, not before-” He cuts himself off, catches the words right before they leave his mouth.

“Before what?” Yangyang prods.

“I can’t-” Yukhei tries to say.

Hendery pats his shoulder twice, deeply clumsy. It occurs to Yukhei that literally no one in this room wants to be doing this, but his members love him enough to try.

“Buck up?” Hendery says, in a way that suggests he has run out of any other ideas of things to say. Then, more genuinely, “You don’t have to tell us, but… maybe it would help. To not keep everything inside.”

Reluctantly, Yukhei nods. He’s tried so hard. He’s failed so hard. Nothing has worked yet. Every attempt to move on — to forget it — to be normal — they all just bring Yukhei back to the same feelings. Hopelessness, shame, loneliness. None of it gets him Ten back. None of it erases what happened. None of it could take back his beastly want or the damage it’s done.

“Okay,” Yukhei gives in. Can he tell them? Is it worth it? Is there any version of what happened that wouldn’t damn him? “Okay. I’ve been messed up.”

“No shit,” Hendery says, not unkindly.

“I’ve-”

“One sec,” Yangyang says. “Wait. You need comfort. Don’t say anything, don’t go anywhere.” He leaves the room, abandoning Yukhei to sit there in silence and suffer Hendery semi-earnestly trying to wipe away his tears.

Yangyang returns with Bella following behind and little Bao Bao bundled in his arms.

“I found the culprit, for what it’s worth,” he tells Hendery and Dejun. He points at Yukhei and says “Up,” and Bella bounds obediently up onto Yukhei’s lap. Bao Bao, when deposited on top of Bella, immediately jumps down, gives Yukhei a look of utter disappointment, and stalks over to a blanket in the corner to curl up on.

Yukhei will take what comfort he can get. He grabs onto Bella for dear life. Hunched over, with her warm weight on his lap, covering her small body with his hands and stroking her soft ears — he starts to feel tentatively calmer.

“You’re useless,” Yangyang tells Bao Bao, then sits down beside Dejun and looks to Yukhei. “OK,” he says in English, “let’s get into it.” And then, more earnestly, “What’s been going on?”

“I-” Yukhei starts. What the fuck can he tell them? Without making them look at him like a monster, and without betraying Ten’s trust. “I did something bad.” He rests a hand on Bella’s side so he can feel her breathing in the calm fast way that little animals do. “I slept with someone I shouldn’t have,” he admits.

There’s no response. Yukhei stares down at Bella and tries not to cry again, determinedly not looking at any of them. It feels like his stomach is curdling. God, this sucks. He should just leave.

“Um,” Dejun says finally, then does not follow that up with anything else. Yukhei chances a glance up. The three of them are staring furiously at one another like they’re trying to invent telepathy. Yangyang gives a pointed jerk of his head, jutting his chin out angrily. Go on, you idiot, he mouths. Hendery shakes his head violently. Yangyang swings around to Dejun and pokes him in the side.

“Uh,” Dejun tries, “I mean.” He looks panicked. “What kind of someone you shouldn’t have slept with?” he manages to ask.

“Did you get someone pregnant?” Yangyang blurts out. “Was it a fan? Is she going to go to Dispatch? Oh my god, are you getting blackmailed?”

“Nothing like that, fuck, Yangyang!” Yukhei says. Jeez. “I just- I shouldn’t have slept with them.” He gasps in a breath. “I didn’t mean to. It was like we couldn’t — I couldn’t help myself.”

“Okay,” Yangyang says slowly. “So you regret it?”

“So I can’t-” Yukhei’s voice breaks embarrassingly. He squeezes Bella and tries to get his shit together. “I can’t stand myself. I can’t — I want — I can’t have what I want. I’ve never felt like this before.” Yukhei laughs a little hysterically. He thinks of Ten’s hips. Yukhei’s fingers pressing into them. “It was like a curse. Like something came in with the wind and made us crazy, and then we fucked, and now everything is messed up and I can’t think straight-”

“Hey,” Dejun says, frowning. His face looks equal parts pretty and annoying, like always, but it’s kind of comforting to look at. There’s no pity, only earnest concern. “Take a deep breath. Give Bella a pet. And try talking in Mandarin, or Yangyang will have no idea what’s going on.”

“Right.” Yukhei hadn’t realized he’d been lapsing between languages. He tries to breathe and pet Bella. Leon wanders into the room and Yangyang jumps up right away to grab him and stick him on the bed next to Yukhei. Leon settles in agreeably, flopping over and sticking out his paws so they press against Yukhei’s thighs. Yukhei laughs shakily. “Thanks.”

Yukhei doesn’t know what else to say. He knows they want to help but like — what could they possibly do to fix this. It’s broken. Yukhei broke something, and it’s never going to be fixed. “Things are just fucked,” he says quietly. “Things have been fucked ever since that day in Beijing, and now the company knows that I’m messed up. And I have to take a leave, and I promised I was okay and I could get my shit together and do better but — I can’t, I’m not okay, and I can’t get my shit together because everything is just… fucked.”

“Wait,” Hendery says suddenly. “Beijing?”

“Yeah,” Yukhei says. “Beijing.”

“Oh no,” Yangyang says, “Beijing… Beijing in that hotel? On our last day there? With the wicked heat?”

Yangyang looks incredibly panicked. Wait a second. Yangyang and Hendery had been sharing a room in that hotel. The room next door to Ten’s. Yukhei remembers — he can’t forget anything about that hotel or that day.

“Hooly shit,” Yukhei hisses. “Did you guys have sex too?”

From the other bed, Dejun gasps so loudly that Leon startles and jumps off, managing to dig his claws into Yukhei’s thigh as he goes.

“NO!” Hendery denies loudly. “No, no no no, no. We did not have sex, please do not think about us having sex.”

“Ahhh,” Yangyang says, presumably in agreement. He falls back on the bed and covers his face with his hands. “This is absolutely the worst day of my life. I should never have come to Korea.”

Yukhei narrows his eyes suspiciously. “If you didn’t fuck, then why are you acting so weird. Why did Beijing matter! What happened in Beijing!”

“Um,” Hendery says. “Nothing?”

Yangyang grabs a pillow and buries his face in it.

“If you don’t tell us, we’re just going to keep thinking that you had sex.” Dejun points out.

“Do not keep thinking that!” Yangyang yells, muffled through the pillow.

“We did not have sex,” Hendery reinforces emphatically. “But… we did something… kinda stupid.” Hendery is looking over at the corner of the room — at Bao Bao, Yukhei realizes.

“Are we seriously going to tell them?” Yangyang sits up.

“If something did happen-” In Yukhei’s lap, Bella huffs and squirms. Yukhei looks down at her so he doesn’t have to look anyone in the eye. He wipes at his face clumsily, feeling it hot from embarrassment. He can’t believe he cried in front of them, shit. Yukhei clears his throat and tries to find his balance. “I need to know, please.”

“Okay,” Hendery says softly. “But it cannot leave this room, understood?” He glares right at Dejun.

“Promise,” Dejun says, looking a little offended.

“Well,” Hendery starts, “we were having a completely normal afternoon. Yangyang had tried to go live, but he’d dropped his phone weird and it wasn’t working, so instead we were competing to see who could fit more cotton balls in their mouth.”

“Normal,” Dejun confirms.

“It was really hot, so we had all the windows open and we were just chilling in our underwear. And then — I don’t know what happened. Something changed. All of a sudden, we were like- high, like we’d done drugs.”

“Which we didn’t,” Yangyang interjects. “Just for the record.”

“We did not,” Hendery agrees. “But it was like — we couldn’t control ourselves. We were like wild animals, possessed by something outside of us.”

“Okay, but what did you do?” Yukhei asks.

“I’m getting to that, don’t interrupt story time,” Hendery scolds. “First, we just went downstairs — Yangyang had the idea to sneak out-”

“Don’t blame it on me!” Yangyang objects.

“Well it was your idea, what do you want me to say! You needed to go out, so we went out. And then — it was like we were being pulled by something huge. Like we were magnetized. All in a haze, we went to this alley beside the hotel.”

“And that’s when we saw them,” Yangyang chimes in.

“Saw who?” Dejun asks.

“The kittens,” Hendery says, like it should be obvious.

“Wait,” Yukhei says. “What?”

“They were like — glowing, it felt like,” Yangyang explains. “We couldn’t help ourselves. They were just sitting there in a little cardboard box in the alley, all curled up, looking perfect. We had to save them — it felt like they were meant to be ours. So we took them up to our room. But it wasn’t over yet.”

“It got a little out of control,” Hendery says. “We were like… crazy cat detectives, all of a sudden.”

“We’d leave the hotel, get pulled into a street, and there would just be a cat there.”

“So we kept collecting them, and bringing them back, and then all of a sudden we were standing there in a room of like- probably ten meowing cats, and, well,” Hendery shrugs. “It was a little bit of a problem.”

“What did you do with them?” Yukhei questions.

“We gave in and went and got the staff,” Yangyang says. “I feel really bad about it. It was probably the worst night of their lives.”

“They yelled at us a bit, but then they collected up all of them and brought them to emergency shelters,” Hendery says. “I’ve never been scolded like that before.”

“Were you in your underwear this whole time?” Dejun thinks to ask.

“I do not think that is relevant to the story,” Hendery says.

“And the kittens?” Yukhei asks. “How did you get them back here? Oh my god, I can’t believe we’ve owned magic kittens this whole time.”

Yangyang waves his hand as if to say no big deal. “We just convinced the staff that we needed to keep them. They were our kittens.”

“They helped us arrange to get them on the plane,” Hendery adds. “And then for a couple days we were trying to keep them secret, but that was super stressful.”

“Yeah, we only managed as long as we did because Ten was out all the time,” Yangyang says. “So we holed up with them in Hendery’s room until we couldn’t stand it anymore, and then we got caught with them on purpose so we could just introduce them to the house.”

“Oh my god,” is all Yukhei can think to say.

“It’s like I don’t even know you,” Dejun agrees with him. “When did you guys get so devious, oh my god.”

“Hey, we’re smart!” Yangyang says, offended.

“So,” Yukhei says, trying to refocus on the important parts of this, “what did it feel like? When you were possessed? Was it hot — like hotter than it should have been?”

Yangyang nods emphatically. “Yeah, just like that.”

“Did it feel like you weren’t in control of your body? Like something in the wind had crawled inside you and taken over?”

“Yes,” Hendery says. “Like a possession!”

“Was it like-” Yukhei tries to think of what it had been — how to even put it into words. “Like a roaring dragon was inside you — and you felt like you would burn alive from the inside out, and the only thing that would soothe the fire was — doing the thing you had to do?”

“Uh,” Yangyang says. “I mean-”

“Sure,” Hendery interrupts, with a look on his face like he’s a little bit scared of Yukhei. “Something like that.”

“Wait!” Dejun says, out of nowhere. They all spin to look at him. “Oh my god, it happened to me too. I didn’t even realize. I also had a weird day that day.”

“What was yours?” Yangyang asks.

“Uhh,” Dejun says, abruptly embarrassed. “I thought I’d just had too much coffee. I was all hyper. Too much energy. And I felt like I needed to work out, so I just did. Aggressively. Like a lot.”

“Are you for real?” Hendery looks at him, exasperated and fond. “Your weird dragon impulse was to do exercise?”

“Yours was to collect stray animals!” Dejun responds. “That’s no better!”

“Did anything happen to Kun?” Yukhei questions.

“Nah, he was napping all afternoon,” Dejun says. “Aw, fuck, I broke so many personal bests that day! Do those not count anymore?”

“It’s just like a magic red bull, whatever,” Yangyang says. “You should still count them, you’ll just never be able to beat them.”

“Can we return to the magic kittens?” Yukhei asks. “Are they, like, okay?”

“Well,” Hendery says. “They’re kind of not growing?”

“Oh my god,” Yukhei says.

“But other than that they seem fine!” Hendery says. “Can we return to you being sad and maybe taking a hiatus?”

Yukhei falls back on the bed, looking absolutely anywhere that won’t make him meet someone’s eyes. “Honestly-” Suddenly he wants to cry again. He remembers — how fucked he is, how little this helps, at the end of the day. “I don’t think I can talk about it anymore. I just- I need to figure out how to fix it.”

“Is it fixable?” Hendery asks quietly. “Can we help fix it?”

Yukhei squeezes his eyes shut and doesn’t answer.

——

On his way out the door, Yangyang hovers awkwardly for a moment, then ends up closing the door again with just the two of them in the room.

“Um,” Yangyang says.

“What?” Yukhei asks, a little snappishly. He’s going to fling himself on a bed of nails if he has to say even one more single word about his emotions today.

“It’s just-” Yangyang hesitates, then seems to make his mind up. “I don’t know if your thing has anything to do with Ten, if you somehow slept with his sister or something-”

Yukhei laughs hysterically and covers his face with a pillow, because it’s the only thing left to do.

“I don’t know if it’s related or separate,” Yangyang plows on, “but he’s said… some stuff. To me. I just really think you should talk to him.”

Yukhei does not move from under the pillow.

“Ugh, dude,” Yangyang says in English, then something that sounds rude and probably is. “You’re useless. Just man up and talk to him.”

Yangyang leaves. Yukhei lays under Bella and his pillow for a long moment, swallowing down the waves of shame and humiliation that threaten to break over him. Some stuff. Ten told Yangyang some stuff. Clearly not everything, because Ten wouldn’t do that to him, but- some stuff. There are a lot of things Ten could say about what happened without telling the whole truth.

And — fuck. What happened. Yukhei’s been trying so hard to forget about it, like Ten told him to. He’s been doing a terrible, terrible job, to be fair, but he’s been trying. Forget about it. Forget about it — just don’t think about it — just forget about it. Be normal.

The problem is that Yukhei can’t bear to go a single second of the day without remembering. He’d liked it so much. He’d liked having Ten — seeing Ten. It wasn’t fair, none of it was fucking fair; what cursed thing did he do in his previous life, or the one before that, to deserve this? To see Ten like that, touch Ten like that, and have it be horrible, guilty, a nightmare of a memory?

Yukhei could have gone the rest of his life not knowing how much he wanted Ten, and been perfectly happy. But to have Ten so intimately, for one awful afternoon, and then have to know forever how much he wanted it again. What an evil curse.

And. That’s the thing, isn’t it. Hendery and Yangyang hadn’t fucked. They’d gone crazy and collected a hoard of illicit kittens. Dejun had just worked out all night. And Yukhei hadn’t known that he’d wanted Ten, but this feeling inside him, one of the ones he can’t get rid of, has been living in him for a long time.

It wasn’t about sex. It was about desire. His desire.

Yukhei had wanted it. Something swept into the room. It happened. It’s a sickeningly easy equation to solve.

——

The day trips by in a haze. Yukhei doesn’t say another word, not out loud. He lies in bed for a long time. He tries to name all the feelings inside him. Loneliness. Sadness. Humiliation. Shame, shame, shame.

It’s closing in on nighttime by the time he gathers the courage to go find Ten. The dorm is quiet and still. Everyone is out, either for schedules or, probably, trying to give him space. The windows are all wide open to try to lessen the heat, but in the evening, it’s not so burning anymore. Dim light filters in through the branches of the trees growing outside.

The thought of talking to Ten makes Yukhei’s stomach curdle. The thought of Ten’s cold face. The thought of Ten knowing, for certain, what a mess Yukhei is and what a mess Yukhei has made. It makes Yukhei feel awful all the way through, guilt and trepidation burning through him.

There’s no choice, though. Now that Yukhei knows that it was his fault — that he made that happen, the thing that he wanted and Ten didn’t — he can’t keep it a secret. He knows, now, what these feelings do to a person. The way that shame eats away at your body like acid, eroding holes in you until you barely recognize yourself.

He can’t rewind. There’s no taking back what happened. Yukhei will always have to live with having left his bruises on Ten’s body. But he owes Ten the truth.

Ten and Hendery’s room is empty when Yukhei steps in. He hasn’t been in it for a long time, trying to give Ten all of the endless space he wanted. Ten’s cat playground has grown even more elaborate, taking up most of the room. The window here is cracked open too, and there’s a tiny plant and a watering can on the windowsill. On Ten’s bed rests a little stuffed cat, identical to the rabbit Sicheng had given to Yukhei.

Ten must be out, Yukhei figures. He doesn’t remember hearing anything about Ten having a schedule, but who knows. Maybe he’s with a friend. Maybe he’s avoiding Yukhei again. Maybe he’ll never come back.

Just as Yukhei is turning to leave and go back to his room and wait for Ten to come home or the world to end, he hears the loud noise of their front door banging open. Then the scuffling of someone throwing off their shoes, then footsteps, striding angrily across the dorm. Another door slams open, then shut.

Tentative, Yukhei steps back out of Ten and Hendery’s room. Ten is whirling away from the door to Yukhei’s room, swinging his gaze around the dorm. He turns and sees Yukhei standing there.

“Ten?” Yukhei asks. “Is everything… okay?”

Ten flinches back a step when he sees Yukhei. Yukhei wonders if it’s obvious that he’s been crying. For his part, Ten looks — bad. His face is flushed red, his eyes narrowed. He looks angry, Yukhei realizes.

“What the hell,” Ten says. He’s moving again, advancing on Yukhei.

“Ten?” Yukhei asks again, confused.

Ten reaches him and doesn’t stop walking. Yukhei stumbles back into the room, and Ten pushes the door shut behind them.

“What were you thinking? Getting yourself in trouble like that? For what?” Ten says all at once.

“Wait, you’re mad at me? Seriously?” Yukhei asks.

“I’m not mad!” Ten says.

“Well, you seem mad.”

“Oh my god, can you not be like this right now?” Ten pushes his hair back away from his face. His eyes look almost wet, definitely wild. He breathes, visibly trying to calm himself down. “I just — I don’t understand."

"Understand?" Yukhei asks.

"I mean, I get that you regret it." Ten's face twists, like bitterness. "It probably makes you sick to think about it, I fucking get it.”

“That’s not-”

Ten won’t let him get a word out. “But I’ve been normal! I’ve been fine. So what right do you have to ruin your whole life over this?”

“Normal?” Yukhei says incredulously. “You think you’ve been normal? Ten, you haven’t looked me in the eye in a long fucking time. You don’t talk to me, you don’t touch me — you pretend I don’t exist, and that’s supposed to be normal?”

Ten scoffs. “Oh, I’m sorry for not finding it easy to be around you, when-” he catches himself and takes a big breath. “It’s different, for me. You have to understand — ugh.” Ten shakes his head angrily. “This isn’t the point. You can’t ruin your life, Xuxi.”

“What does any of that mean?” Yukhei asks. He’s so fucking tired of pretending to understand. Of desperately wondering what Ten is thinking. He can’t hold it in any longer. “Can you just — say what you mean, for once? How is it different? Stop talking in circles.”

“You’re really going to make me say it?” Ten’s cheeks are bright red. His eyes are furious. Yukhei’s seen Ten like this before, but never about anything that really matters. “Really? I’m- you know! You know what I am! You know how hard I’ve had to work to get here. How much I’ve had to lose, how much I’ve had to ignore.” Ten takes a deep, deep breath. “You have to see how it would be hard for me to see you — you know. Be like that, around me, after what happened.”

The shame in Yukhei’s chest feels like it’s leaked right into his heart. Like it’s being pumped into his bloodstream with every pulse.

“I can keep a lot inside,” Ten says. “I have to, being who I am. But this...”

“Right,” Yukhei says hollowly. “No, I get it.” He does get it. Yukhei wanted it, Ten — Ten didn’t. Ten likes men, and Ten doesn’t get to have sex with men, not easily. Yukhei’s spent the past few months staring at Ten, wanting him so blatantly, reminding him of what happened. Of course it’s been hard for Ten. Yukhei can’t blame him.

All of Yukhei’s anger drains away, leaving him with only the shame and the emptiness. “I’m sorry,” Yukhei says softly. “That’s what I came in here to say. I’m so, so sorry.”

Ten drags a hand over his face. “Don’t fucking apologize. What is that going to do. It’s no one’s fault.”

“No.” Yukhei does not want to keep talking, but he has to. He has to. “It is my fault. It was because of me.”

“Please, Xuxi-” Ten starts, but Yukhei speaks over him, determined to get it all out.

“I made it happen because I wanted it too bad,” he confesses. “I didn’t know, I swear. I didn’t want it to happen like that, I never would have wished for that. But — I wanted it, and that’s why it happened.” Yukhei feels like he’s cracking. Right down the middle. Exposing all of the ugly brutish things inside of him. “I’m so sorry.”

Ten is quiet for a moment. “You what?” he asks, barely more than a whisper. “You wanted it? You wanted me?”

“I’ll get over it, I promise,” Yukhei swears. “And for now — I’ll take a break, I’ll go home. I’ll leave the group if you want me to, even. I don’t want-” his voice breaks. He’s so tired of crying, but he can’t fucking stop — there are tears running down his face against his will, again. “I don’t want to haunt you. I don’t want to make you hurt.”

Ten’s face is impassive, still like the water of a lake. If it’s saying anything, it’s not in a language Yukhei understands. “I don’t understand,” he says.

“Sorry,” Yukhei says again, helplessly. “I know you don’t want me to ruin my life, but it’s better than ruining yours. After what I did — you probably never want to see me again.”

“But you hated it,” Ten says suddenly.

“What?” Yukhei asks.

“You hated it. You — you didn’t want it.”

“What are you talking about?” Yukhei says, annoyed. “I was saying something important.”

Ten shakes his head, stepping forward. Something unidentifiable has shifted in his face. His eyes look — alive, all of a sudden, bright and wet and desperate. “You didn’t want it. I saw you — your face, after we came back to Seoul, when you saw-” he gestures vaguely at his hips. Oh. The bruises. “You were disgusted,” Ten insists.

“No,” Yukhei says. He can feel his heart pounding. A thread of crisp air comes in through the window. Ten had thought— “No, I wasn’t.”

They’re standing so close. Ten won’t look away from his eyes. “You cried,” he says, in a funny measured voice like he’s repeating something he’s said countless times before. “You cried, and you said sorry — you were imagining it was someone else, you-”

You cried,” Yukhei argues, on principle, and then realizes — what he just said — “Ten,” Yukhei says urgently. “Ten, tell me. Ten, did you like it? Did you want it?”

Ten blinks away the wetness in his eyes and nods once. Yukhei feels like he’s collapsing from the inside out, everything falling like dominos. “You wanted it,” Yukhei repeats dumbly.

“I thought you knew — how much I liked it.”

Yukhei can’t help but laugh a little, through the tears on his face. “How? How would I have known that? You wouldn’t look at me.”

Ten shrugs helplessly. “I couldn’t look at you, it was too-”

They stare at each other. “Too what?” Yukhei whispers.

“Can I-” Ten asks unintelligibly. “Xuxi?”

“Yes,” Yukhei says. He doesn’t know what Ten is asking for, but his answer is always yes.

Ten crosses the distance between them and falls forward into Yukhei, winding his arms around Yukhei’s back and pressing his face into Yukhei’s chest. It hits Yukhei like a storm, the feeling of him. Like relief, like the ease of a pain so relentless and gnawing and unending that Yukhei hadn’t fully known it was there. Yukhei clutches Ten tight against him, his arms wrapped all the way around Ten’s awful, untouchable, slinky little body.

He can feel the tender skin of Ten’s wrists against his back. Ten’s warm breath on his shoulders. Ten, here, real, with him, not hating him. Touching him.

A sob escapes Yukhei, his chest heaving under Ten’s weight.

“Oh, Xuxi.” Ten pulls back a little to look up at Yukhei. He brings his small hand up to Yukhei’s face and wipes away a tear with the pad of his thumb. “You’re touching me, Xuxi,” Ten tells him.

Yukhei just nods.

“You want to touch me? You want me?” Ten’s pretty eyes are looking up directly into Yukhei’s. The questions come out earnest and persistent — like Ten knows, but he needs to hear it.

“Yes,” Yukhei whispers. “I want you so bad. Ten, I’ve wanted-” His voice fails him.

“Shh,” Ten says, still staring at him. He starts walking Yukhei backwards, until Yukhei’s knees hit the bed and he sits heavily, unable to look away from Ten. All his tears have slipped down his face now, but Ten keeps stroking his thumb over the soft skin under Yukhei’s eye. “I’m sorry.” Ten says it like it pains him greatly.

“No,” Yukhei shakes his head. “It was me, I made it happen, it was all me.”

“It was me, too,” Ten says emphatically. “If it was because you wanted me — then it was because I wanted you too.”

Yukhei can’t quite breathe right. He reaches out and pulls Ten down to him, insistently enough that Ten climbs up onto the bed with him, one knee on either side of Yukhei’s body.

“I don’t take responsibility for things,” Ten reminds him. “If I say it was me, it was me. It was both of us.”

The words feel like a balm to deep wounds. Getting all the way inside of him, filling up the empty space. Yukhei wipes vaguely at the wetness on his face and smiles shakily up at Ten.

“Ah,” Ten gasps. “I can’t remember the last time I saw you smile for real.” He touches his fingers to Yukhei’s lips. “My fault,” he whispers.

“No,” Yukhei argues.

“Yes,” Ten says. “I thought you were — well. I thought you were freaked out by me. It hurt my feelings.” He shakes his head. “It doesn’t matter now. I shouldn’t have left you so lonely.” With that, he dips down and kisses Yukhei’s lips, over his own fingers. Yukhei feels the press of Ten’s touch, the warmth of his lips hinting through them.

Ten pulls back as swiftly as he’d come. “Sorry,” he says quickly. “Sorry, I couldn’t help myself.”

Yukhei reaches for him wordlessly, tugging him back down with more strength than he meant to. Ten ends up falling into him, straddling his lap. Ten takes it as the permission it is and dives in, pressing his mouth over Yukhei’s lips. They kiss, and kiss — every press of their lips feels like benediction, like forgiveness, like saying ok, that’s enough, no more hurting.

Every time their lips part, Ten makes this tiny whimpery noise that drives Yukhei nuts. Ten kisses like he wants to climb inside of Yukhei. He nips at Yukhei’s lips with his perfect sharp little teeth. It hurts, but in a way that makes Yukhei want more and more and more.

“God,” Ten whispers into Yukhei’s mouth, “you have no idea how bad I wanted this.”

Yukhei nudges forward to capture Ten’s lips again. His perfect lips. They feel so soft — it’s a simple, good feeling, so novel after so much time feeling guilty and lonely and sad that Yukhei could die from it.

Ten presses Yukhei back until he’s lying back on the bed and clambers further on top of him. Yukhei lets him — he would let Ten do anything — this is his job now, to lie here in this room and give Ten anything he wants. He grasps blindly for Ten’s hand so he can thread their fingers together and hold on tight.

Ten brings his other hand to Yukhei’s face and strokes his cheek, somewhere between joking and squirmingly sincere. “So bad. I wanted this so bad.”

“Me too,” Yukhei says, so quiet it feels like a breath leaving him. He feels something well up in him like he might start crying again, so he pulls Ten back down. Ten kisses and kisses and kisses him, hard and emphatic. His hand is still cradling Yukhei’s cheek. It’s so gently demanding; so perfect that Yukhei can’t stand it. He feels like he’s getting swept away in Ten’s storm of kisses. He’s never been kissed like this before. He didn’t really know kissing like this existed.

Ten breaks away from Yukhei’s mouth, breathing in little gasps like he just came off stage. His hair is all ruffled and hanging down over his face — it looks like it was styled to look like that, unfairly. It’s never been fair, how beautiful Ten is. Yukhei had tried so hard, over these months, not to notice. Not to stare. Now, with Ten so close, Yukhei can’t help but look at him, stare and stare and fuck the consequences.

“Why are you looking at me like that?” Ten asks, smiling a little bashfully and a little smirkingly.

“I-” Yukhei says, but can’t find the words and just shakes his head.

“What, do you think I’m pretty?” Ten teases.

“Yes,” Yukhei says without hesitation. He flushes but doesn’t break Ten’s gaze. Ten laughs a little, surprised. He sounds happy about it. Yukhei hasn’t made Ten happy in such a long time — it fills him with a secondhand joy so sheer and bubbly he could float away on it.

Yukhei lifts a hand to touch Ten’s face too. They are being outrageously sappy, aren’t they, holding hands and stroking each other’s faces, but he feels too muddled and dizzy from Ten’s kisses to care.

It feels like he’s in a dream — but a good one this time, not an awful nightmare. An in-between floaty place where nothing can touch them. Nothing terrible can happen here — or, it can, Ten can shove him off and laugh at him and tell him to get out, but — Ten won’t do that, he doesn’t think. Ten can be mean, and the past few months have been so brutally lonely that Yukhei feels like Ten being mean might kill him, but. Ten wants him. He said it, and Yukhei believes it. He has to believe it, there’s no other version of reality he can live in now.

He strokes a finger down Ten’s curvy little nose. “Perfect,” Yukhei whispers. He taps the tip of it twice, then brushes down to his mouth and runs his finger over Ten’s lips. His hand looks so big against Ten’s face. Yukhei had thought that last time, and hated himself for loving it. Now-

Now, Ten flicks his tongue out like a cat and licks his finger. Ten has a look on his face like Look at me, aren’t I outrageously funny and also sexy? Yukhei growls a little in response, and Ten grins down at him and dives in for more kissing.

The window is still open, and the crisp light casts shadows all over the room. The bed feels cool and safe underneath Yukhei. With every kiss, Yukhei feels like his chest fills and grows, whole and healthy again.

Ten’s sloppy, searching kisses get even messier, until he’s just mouthing over Yukhei’s jaw and chin. Ten kisses his way down Yukhei’s throat, licking out his little tongue as he goes. Every press of his lips leaves wet warm smudges on Yukhei’s skin that instantly cool when he moves on. Yukhei shivers all over.

When he gets to the crook of Yukhei’s neck, he nuzzles into Yukhei’s skin mouth-first. He sucks on the delicate skin there, hard, then bites down.

“Ah, be gentle!”

“No,” Ten says. He noses along to Yukhei’s collarbone and bites again, harder.

Yukhei whimpers a little. It hurts, but in a way that makes him feel real and raw and open. His skin, Ten’s sharp teeth, the wet bruises Ten is leaving on him. It’s real.

All Yukhei’s limbs feel like they could soak right into the mattress. His body is heavy with pleasure, flooded right through.

“God,” Ten says, pulling away with a gasp. “Look at you.” Ten’s lips are so red, his eyes so dark. “You make me so — crazy.”

“Me??” Yukhei asks incredulously.

“You,” Ten says like an accusation, and swoops in to kiss him stupid again.

Ten keeps shifting in these fluid little squirms, like he’s feeling too much to stay still but doesn’t want to move to take more yet. Yukhei is happy to lay back and get what he gets when Ten is willing to give it. Something deep down in him is scared, a little — like if he touches too much, Ten will spook — or worse, like they’ll lose control again. He wants you, Yukhei reminds himself.

“Okay,” Ten says into Yukhei’s mouth. He draws back, breathing heavily. “Okay, stay right here, don’t fucking move.”

By the time Yukhei blinks his eyes open, Ten is up off of him and off the bed. “Wait,” he says. “Where are you going? Ten?”

Ten sees the look on his face and comes back to kiss him once more, unbearably gentle. “Don’t worry, I’m not leaving.” He pulls back and fixes Yukhei with his sharp gaze. “You want it?” he confirms.

“Yes,” Yukhei tells him fervently.

“Okay,” Ten says quietly, then smiles. “Then wait here, give me just a second, okay? One second.”

Ten disappears into the bathroom. Resigned, Yukhei lays back with a huff and tries to ignore the pressing need gnawing at him. He finds his phone to play a song on the little speaker in the corner of the room.

Ten wants him. Ten wanted him. Yukhei closes his eyes and thinks again of Ten pulling his shirt on in that hot bright room. He imagines rewinding — reaching out for Ten, telling him how bad Yukhei wanted it, how much he liked it. He imagines the scene in reverse. Ten pulling off his shirt, revealing himself to Yukhei, letting Yukhei touch him.

The shower turns on in the bathroom, but only for a minute. When Ten comes out, his hair is dry but his skin is damp and flushed. He has a little bottle of something in his hand.

“Okay!” Ten says. He flings the bottle onto the bed and climbs back on top of Yukhei, then pauses. “What is this song?” he asks.

“Oh,” Yukhei says bashfully. “It’s just — a song I like.”

You’re the starlight full of the night sky, a song that flows in the deep night.

Ten looks at him searchingly. When Yukhei turns his face into the pillow, embarrassed, Ten catches his chin in his tiny hands and says, “Oh, baby.”

Stay right now, in the silence of the night.

With great care, Ten leans in and kisses him again.

I’ll always be there. I’ll always be there. You, you, you, you. I’m thinkin’ bout you.

Ten pulls away to yank off his shirt and pants, and then Yukhei’s. Every part of Yukhei needs them both to be naked, but he still whimpers a little at the loss.

“Shh,” Ten shushes him, tugging Yukhei’s sweatpants over his feet and flinging them away. Yukhei’s fingers fly to Ten’s ribs, unconsciously seeking out the black lines of his tattoo. Caressing the warm skin there, Yukhei can feel the raised edges of Ten’s scar. He can feel Ten’s breath, in and out. Real, real, real.

Slowly, Ten leans back in. His lithe body bends gracefully, moving over Yukhei’s body like it was meant to be there. His thigh presses between Yukhei’s legs for just a second, bare skin sliding over his dick, and Yukhei jerks up into it, crazy with want.

Ten laughs at him. “Be patient.”

Yukhei pouts.

“Ah,” Ten says, “I know, you’ve been so patient already.” He combs a hand through Yukhei’s hair, brushing it back off his forehead. His touches are so quick and gentle. So intimate, so close, so real.

Ten dives back in and licks his mouth, literally, laving over Yukhei’s lips. It should be disgusting, but Yukhei hitches in a breath and opens his mouth for Ten’s tongue. Ten licks over his teeth, the corners of his mouth. It’s so warm and wet, Ten giving Yukhei his every breath.

A string of spit connects their mouths the next time Ten pulls back. Yukhei whines and tries to follow him, but Ten keeps him down with a hand on his shoulder.

“What, you want it?” Ten asks smirkingly.

Yukhei shivers and nods. The answer is yes, yes, yes, he wants everything.

Ten’s smile softens, his pretty eyes piercing right through Yukhei and seeing it all. “Oh, you really want it, don’t you?” He leans right over Yukhei, trapping him in place. “Don’t worry, I’ll give you what you want.”

Ten hooks two fingers in Yukhei’s mouth and pulls, and Yukhei opens obediently. There’s a beat where Ten just looks at him, eyes searching for something. Yukhei waits patiently, mouth open, ready for anything Ten is willing to give him. Then Ten spits, right into his mouth.

It’s so fucking hot that Yukhei’s brain goes right offline for a second. Wet, warm, given right from the inside of Ten to the inside of him. His hips twitch, like his body is searching for Ten’s body on its own. Ten puts his fingers under Yukhei’s jaw and closes his mouth for him. He taps twice on Yukhei’s lips, and Yukhei swallows. Ten smiles with his whole face, his whole body. “So good,” he whispers, leaning down to kiss Yukhei’s wet lips. “My good Xuxi.”

Yukhei closes his eyes and is kissed. Ten’s lips move on from his mouth — he presses them to Yukhei’s cheekbones, then the tip of his nose, then each of his eyelids.

Lying there, being kissed, Yukhei feels like he’s floating in a pool of pleasure. A rainstorm of care.

He reaches out blindly, feeling along Ten’s sides to clutch his hips. Ten pulls back from Yukhei’s face with a sharp inhale, shifting into Yukhei’s touch. Alive to what Ten needs — what he needs — Yukhei keeps touching, stroking down over the black fabric covering Ten’s ass. He slides his fingers under the waistband, searching for more skin to touch.

“Off,” Ten whispers, and Yukhei obeys, tugging them down Ten’s thighs and watching as Ten rises up to kick them off. Ten comes right back, like he’s magnetized, and grabs Yukhei’s hands demandingly to place them back on his own hips.

Yukhei giggles a little. Ten smiles bashfully and smacks his shoulder in reprimand for making fun. The smile disappears after a split second — Ten’s face falls back into something intent and wanting, and he braces himself with two hands on either side of Yukhei’s shoulders. Yukhei stares up at Ten as he retraces the path of his hands, feeling back over the soft skin of Ten’s ass.

“What are you thinking?” Yukhei asks. He flushes immediately after the words leave his mouth, feeling unsteady and too-needy.

Ten just dips down to capture Yukhei’s lips and lick into his mouth for a brief taste. “Thinking that I want you to fuck me,” Ten whispers into his mouth.

Yukhei shivers, swallowing heavily. “Are you sure?”

Ten frowns down at him. This close, Yukhei can see every line where Ten’s face creases — every expression that flits across Ten’s face. Every little shiny patch of his skin. All of Ten. “I want it,” Ten promises seriously. “I’ll be mad if you don’t give it to me.”

Yukhei huffs a little laugh. One of his hands skates back around Ten’s hip and reaches down to clasp Ten’s dick. Ten gasps and twitches on top of Yukhei, dropping down to rest on his elbows. “Sorry,” Yukhei apologizes, a hint of a laugh in his voice. He strokes Ten’s dick in the small space between them, entranced by the way it disappears into his hand.

It’s thrilling, the way Ten reacts. The way it makes him squirm when Yukhei runs his fingers over the head of Ten’s cock and feels out the wetness there. The hot skin of him. Yukhei imagines taking Ten’s dick into his mouth, licking up the wetness, sucking until Ten comes in his mouth and lets him swallow it all. Yukhei imagines — he wonders — would Ten let him take it inside him, someday? Would Ten give it to him, get deep inside, come there instead?

“Please,” Ten begs. Right — Yukhei has a job to do.

Yukhei doesn’t let go of Ten’s dick, but he pets over Ten’s skin with his other hand until he’s clutching at the soft give of his ass. He presses his fingers into it, just a quick squeeze. Ten yelps. Satisfied, Yukhei grins up at him and gives his dick a matching little squeeze. It jerks in his hand.

“You’re awful,” Ten says, his hips grinding forward into Yukhei’s grip in fluid little rolls. Without stopping or breaking his gaze from Yukhei’s face, he reaches blindly out and pats at the blankets.

It’s such a relief, looking at Ten. Looking right into his bright, searching eyes. Yukhei wants to kiss them. He wants everything, everything, everything.

“Ha!” Ten plucks the little bottle out from the sheets and holds it up triumphantly, beaming down at Yukhei. “Here, here, here.”

Reluctantly, Yukhei gives Ten’s dick one final firm stroke and lets go of it. Ten jerks just a little at the loss, pressing his hips close and rubbing his dick up against Yukhei’s belly. He drops the bottle — lube, obviously, which Yukhei probably should have realized earlier — on Yukhei’s chest and collapses back on his elbows to grant Yukhei a few indulgent kisses.

“Come on,” Ten whines into his mouth. “Let’s go, let’s go, give it to me.”

“Oh my god, be patient,” Yukhei laughs.

Ten shakes his head exaggeratedly. “I can’t, I can’t. Take me, please?” He rolls his whole body along the length of Yukhei’s body, arching his back all lithe and slinky.

Yukhei acknowledges that he is probably not going to survive this. Shaky, trying to hurry, he grabs for the lube and blindly uncaps it. He pours some over his fingers and starts to carefully reach back down, trying not to get Ten’s skin too wet. Ten doesn’t seem to care — impatient, he grabs Yukhei’s wrist and twists to guide it where he wants it, pulling so quickly that Yukhei’s fingers bump up against his ribs and smear the wetness everywhere.

Hovering for a moment, Yukhei confirms, “You want it?”

Above him, Ten is smiling, so fully that his eyes disappear. “I want it, I want it, I want it,” he says like a chant, equal parts laughter and desperation in his voice.

“Okay,” Yukhei whispers. He grabs Ten’s ass with one hand to spread him open, and touches the fingers of the other to Ten’s hole, feeling over it.

Ten’s face goes slack immediately — the shadow of a smile still there, but swallowed most of the way up by pleasure. Yukhei rubs around his hole, making it wet. The angle is awkward, but he doesn’t want to move. He wants this, exactly: Ten above him, engulfing him, letting Yukhei drown in him.

As gently as he can, Yukhei slides a finger inside, feeling out the tight hotness of Ten’s body. Ten makes a little ah sound and swoops down to kiss Yukhei again, shuddering over him.

It’s overwhelming, the feelings washing over Yukhei. He feels almost battered by them, caught in them like getting caught in a heavy rain. Ten’s lips bruising his own. The heat of Ten’s body — Yukhei’s finger pressing into him over and over again, stretching him out.

Ten makes a frustrated noise after a while and pulls away. Yukhei draws his finger out immediately, fluttering his hands about worriedly. “Are you okay? Was I doing something wrong?”

“No, no, baby,” Ten reassures him. “Just- here.” He rolls off Yukhei and onto his back on the bed, then bends his knees and brings them up and up and up, spreading his legs, opening himself up for Yukhei to see. Yukhei hears static.

Clumsy, absolutely wild with desire, Yukhei pulls himself up to kneel in front of Ten’s splayed legs and runs his hand over one of them. Ten’s legs look and feel unreal — warm skin over tightly corded muscle, elegant and perfect.

Ten kicks his feet a little, prodding Yukhei on. Yukhei cups Ten’s knee, feeling the sharp bones of it, and then strokes his hand down over the inside of Ten’s thigh. Against Ten’s body, his fingers look so big. He loves how it looks. With his other hand, Yukhei fumbles with the bottle again, trying to uncap it one handed with slippery fingers.

Yukhei smooths his hand down and down, cupping Ten’s dick in his hand quickly before he moves down further, to Ten’s ass, pulling him open again. Ten squirms and grabs onto his own knees, keeping himself splayed and ready.

Nothing has ever been as important as making Ten feel good. Yukhei wants to just — lay himself out like a buffet, tell Ten to take whatever he wants. Ten wiggles again, shifting his legs even further apart as if to say You know what I want.

Yukhei pours the lube right over Ten’s hole and watches it drip over the tender skin. “Ahh, Xuxi!” Ten complains. “That feels weird.”

“Sorry,” Yukhei says, contrite. Hoping to make it up to him, Yukhei presses back in, with two fingers now. Ten gasps loudly and melts beneath him. Yukhei curls his fingers, feeling around, spreading them a little and watching as Ten’s hole stretches and swallows them up.

“Oh my god,” Ten chokes out. “Oh my god, Xuxi, please.”

It’s so wet — so wet that it makes a soft sucking sound every time that Yukhei’s fingers drive back in. After a while, once Ten’s hole starts to give easily, Yukhei grabs for the bottle again and pours a little more over where his fingers are working in, then slips in a third.

“Fuck, Xuxi-” Ten is making all sorts of incredible noises, keening and whining and whimpering. “Enough, enough, give it to me now, let me take it.”

“Are you sure?” Yukhei asks worriedly. He spreads his fingers as much as he can, testing the stretch. Ten chokes. Then he kicks his leg out and hooks it around Yukhei’s ass, pulling him forward insistently. “Okay, okay!” Yukhei giggles and pulls his fingers out carefully, pressing around Ten’s hole so he doesn’t feel too empty too suddenly.

“In, put it in me,” Ten demands. Yukhei dives in to kiss him deep and thorough one more time before the angle will make it impossible. Ten licks into Yukhei’s mouth, getting his lips all wet again. “I want it,” Ten whispers. “I promise.”

Trembling and shaky, Yukhei strips off his underwear. He drips more lube onto his dick, shocking a little at the coldness, stroking it quickly to get it all slick.

Yukhei takes hold of one of Ten’s knees, pressing it back until it’s right up by his shoulders — Ten is so bendy — and takes his dick in his other hand to bring it to Ten’s hole. It looks — obscene, the head of his flushed dick bumping up against Ten’s wet hole. There’s so much lube, smeared all over Ten’s skin in slippery streaks.

When Yukhei slides carefully in — fuck. Nothing has ever felt like this. It’s crazy, it’s beyond anything he could have imagined. So different from that day in that hotel room with the fire and the shame in his blood. So different from any sexual experience he’d ever had. Yukhei had thought he knew what sex was. He knew it would be different to fuck a man, different when he was lucid enough to know what was going on. But this — being inside Ten, Ten. It’s unreal. Slipping so easily into the hot center of Ten; his body and Ten’s body accepting each other like this; falling into Ten and knowing he’ll be caught safely.

It feels like becoming whole. Like all these long months, Yukhei had been needing to be close like this without even properly knowing it. Ten’s eyes are wet, but bright with love. His mouth is open just a little, gasping. He looks whole, too.

“Okay?” Yukhei whispers.

Ten nods, wordless. Yukhei rolls his hips once, grinding deeper into Ten. Ten throws his head back, mouth falling open further. He’s so wet inside, so slick that Yukhei’s dick almost slips out with every roll of his hips.

Yukhei wants — deeper, he wants to get all the way inside and never leave. Here in this space, floating in this room, drowning in Ten. It feels like all Yukhei wants forever, like he could be happy rolling his hips slowly and ceaselessly into Ten until the world ends around them.

Ten is panting, his face and chest flushed and sweaty all over. His dark nipples — the smoothness of his belly — god. His dick is hard and straining, and his hips keep hitching up as if searching for contact. Yukhei wants to touch it, but his hands are both busy holding Ten’s knees up and angling Ten’s hips so he can fuck in with slipping out.

“I want to touch you,” Yukhei whines.

Ten giggles unsteadily, mostly out of breath. “So needy. Here-” He pushes bossily at Yukhei’s hips with a foot until Yukhei gets the message and reluctantly pulls out.

Agile even while he’s gasping and half-wrecked, Ten stretches his legs out and untangles himself from Yukhei. He turns onto his side and looks back over his shoulder at Yukhei, angling his hips invitingly. “Like this?” Ten suggests.

Yukhei wants to eat him. Breathless, he throws himself back over Ten as a response. Ten’s body shakes with laughter against him. Yukhei spoons up behind him and pulls his ass cheek to the side so he can slip back inside.

Like this, Yukhei can touch him all over. One of his arms is braced beneath Ten’s body, but the other is free to run all over his skin. Yukhei can’t stay still — he wants to touch everything — he grabs at Ten’s shoulders, feels down his ribs and touches every bone, strokes over his nipples, delights in the thin hair between his legs — takes hold, finally, of Ten’s dick. Ten is so responsive in his arms, whining away.

Yukhei tries to keep the motion of his hips measured, but there’s so much to distract him. Every time that his rhythm falters, Ten takes over and fucks himself on Yukhei’s dick, rolling his ass back over and over.

It’s so much. Yukhei presses his face into Ten’s hair, kissing it. He strokes Ten’s dick slow and firm, trying to match the indulgent pace of their fucking. Ten is shuddering, losing it.

“Xuxi-” Ten keeps saying, like he needs to remind them both that it’s them, really them doing this, that they both want it. “Xuxi, Xuxi, baby.”

“Ten,” Yukhei says back. “You feel so good. You’re perfect, it’s perfect.”

Ten makes a tortured, whimpering sound — in Yukhei’s hand, his dick jerks, and he shudders through his orgasm. Yukhei tries to keep stroking him through it, tries to keep pressing his dick gently into Ten’s ass, even though he feels so overcome by it all he’s fast losing control of his body. The wetness of Ten’s come coats his hand, gets everywhere. It’ll undoubtedly be disgusting very quickly, but right now — god, it’s so hot, Ten is so hot, Ten just came, Ten wants him.

“Give it to me, quick,” Ten gasps. “Come on, Xuxi, let’s go.” He presses his ass back insistently, trying to get Yukhei to speed up. Yukhei obeys, fucking into Ten as hard as he can at this angle, driving his hips in and in and in to the slick heat of him. Ten’s body jerks a little with every thrust. Yukhei traps him against his own body with an arm across Ten’s chest and presses blind kisses into his hair.

“Yeah,” Ten says, barely a breath. “Good, like that.” He takes Yukhei’s hand in his and pulls it off his chest. He threads their fingers together for a second and then brings Yukhei’s hand to his own throat and lets go. Yukhei gasps and holds on gently, cupping Ten’s throat. He can feel the sweat coating it, all the muscles and tendons and the skin on top.

The feeling of it — Ten trusting him so quietly and surely — Ten giving him everything, and taking everything back until they may as well live in each other’s bodies now — it all pushes Yukhei over the edge. He crams himself as deep in Ten as he can and comes, shaking and shaking and holding on to Ten for dear life.

“Yes,” Ten says again. “Mine.”

——

Yukhei stays inside for as long as he can, before Ten squirms and whines and pushes him off. The bed is, inevitably, disgusting, and Yukhei stumbles quickly to the bathroom to get a cloth. When he returns, Ten is lying on his stomach, head pillowed in his arms, looking irresponsibly perfect.

“Why are you so big,” Ten whines. “I think you broke me.”

“Ah,” Yukhei says, embarrassed. “Don’t say things like that.”

Ten looks up at him and smirks. He looks like he wants to say something mean, but Yukhei reaches him before he can and captures his lips in a kiss. Ten hums and softens immediately. “My giant baby,” he says teasingly.

“Yours,” Yukhei whispers, then regrets it instantly and pulls away, busying himself with the cloth.

“Hey,” Ten says, grabbing Yukhei’s hand and pulling him back in for another kiss. When they part, Ten scrunches up his face like he’s embarrassed. “I want it still, okay? I want you.”

Yukhei has a feeling that he knows what Ten means. This is crazy, what they’re doing. What they just did. But they want each other. Yukhei scrunches his nose back at Ten and grins.

Ten takes that for the answer it is and flops back down onto his stomach. “Okay, clean me up now.”

Yukhei obeys, diligently running the cloth all over Ten’s body to wipe away the lube and come and sweat. When he gets to Ten’s ass, he takes a minute to look, admiring the way his come is still dripping out.

Always too perceptive, Ten kicks him gently. “You’re so gross,” Ten scolds. “I told you to clean me up, not stare at what you did to me.”

Once Yukhei’s finished cleaning them as best he can, and then stripped the blankets off the bed until it’s mostly okay to lay on again, they end up face to face on the sheets. It’s gotten late — the crisp light has faded into the cool blue of after dusk. Yukhei can’t stop kissing Ten. Quick, searching kisses, like double checking.

“I’m sorry,” Yukhei whispers. “I’ve been such a mess. I missed you so bad.”

Ten holds onto both his hands and shakes his head into the sheets. “No apologizing,” he says softly. “I’m sorry. Okay, now no apologizing.”

They whisper at each other until they fall asleep. Neither of them say anything about the company, or the live, or what’s going to happen next. Here, in this dream room, it feels like everything heavy can wait for the morning. The weight of the feeling between them is heavy enough on it’s own, flooding the room.

Yukhei gets hard again — he can’t help himself, Ten is so sexy and so close, biting at Yukhei’s shoulders whenever he wants to.

“Really? Oh my god, to be so young,” Ten teases, but then jerks him off, his skilled hands working Yukhei over until he falls apart.

Yukhei falls asleep in Ten’s bed. He wakes up in the middle of the night to the feeling of Ten’s smooth shoulder against his lips. For some reason, Hendery’s bed is still empty, so Yukhei nuzzles back into Ten and goes back to sleep. He allows himself to drink in the foreign comfort of having Ten with him. Against his side. All his.

——

When Yukhei wakes again, it’s morning. The sun is sneaking in through the open window, bright but mild. They’ve rolled apart in their sleep, the sheets twisted between them.

Yukhei rubs at his eyes until he can see properly. His body feels achy and yet so alive, caught in the cool sheets. He can feel his lips, bruised and swollen from all the kissing he and Ten had done last night. The feeling makes something swell in his chest, a fresh pale green like the newly grown leaves of a houseplant. It’s evidence that he’s real — a person with a body, who was kissed by another person last night.

Ten is sleeping on his side, turned away from Yukhei. The blankets have pooled at his waist. The morning sun is falling right across Ten’s shoulders, lighting up a strip of him all golden and perfect.

Yukhei lets it sink into him, this feeling. The knowledge that it’s Ten’s body warming the bed, so close that Yukhei can feel all the beginnings and endings of his form. He feels like there’s a soft light beginning to glow from within him to match the sun — something nurturing and loving instead of burning.

There’s a fear there, too, nestled in the middle of the light. It takes Yukhei a moment to recognize it. There’s nothing scary here, in this warm golden bed, but there is something fearful. He can feel it, like a tangible thing, not blocking the light but certainly getting in its way.

Yukhei shifts closer to Ten and wraps an arm around his chest. Still fast asleep, Ten doesn’t stir. Ten promised that he wanted Yukhei. Does he still, in the light of the morning? Would he tomorrow?

There’s a lot left to fix. Yukhei thinks of the stoic, intense eyes of the men in their suits. Kun’s face. How it felt to cry in front of his friends, make them worry so much. Yukhei lets himself feel the fear. He feels rubbed raw, from everything. All of the loneliness and longing not yet fully purged out of him. All of the love flooding in.

The sound of a thump somewhere in the dorm startles him. With this much light, the early risers are probably getting moving soon. They got lucky that Hendery never came to bed and saw them curled up in each other — it wouldn’t do to end up getting caught leaving the same room, not before they can figure out how to explain that the anger and hurt between them has been healed.

Yukhei presses a careful kiss to the spot between Ten’s shoulderblades. Ten huffs and shifts in his sleep. He looks really beautiful when he sleeps, with his ruffled hair and his pretty upturned nose. His face looks so calm, for once. Not shielding or deflecting anything, just being. Yukhei can’t believe he gets to look at him.

Yukhei pulls himself reluctantly out of the pool of light on the bed and pulls on his sweatpants from the day before. He stumbles out into the kitchen. No one else is up yet, but there’s enough movement and noise in the dorm that they should be there soon.

The humiliation from yesterday tries to clamp down on Yukhei at the thought of facing them, but he breathes through it. His members love him unconditionally. He knows this. He knows already that he will be given their forgiveness.

Mao Mao stalks into the room and sits by his feet, staring up at him with her tiny clever eyes. Yukhei picks her up and kisses her cheek. She mrows a complaint, but then settles into his arms like she has no intention of ever leaving. She really is so little. Yukhei kind of hopes she never ends up growing, even if that would look weird from outside. It would be a fun secret to keep — WayV’s magic kittens.

Shifting her to cuddle into his chest with one hand, Yukhei makes himself a coffee one-handed and pours it over ice. He’s sitting on one of the barstools to drink it when Kun comes out of his room and to the kitchen. Kun stops short when he sees Yukhei sitting there, peacefully petting a kitten and sipping his morning coffee.

“Morning,” Kun says carefully.

Yukhei can’t help himself — he beams up at Kun, excited to see Kun seeing him be happy. “Good morning!”

Kun smiles back, as if on instinct, and walks into the kitchen. “Do you want breakfast?”

Yukhei laughs and nods. “If Kun-ge is making it, yes!”

Kun fries up some rice that their ahjumma had prepped and starts cutting little slices of fish. He passes Yukhei a cutting board and a knife and a bundle of scallions, and Yukhei dutifully deposits Mao Mao on the ground and starts chopping. Bao Bao races into the room all zoomy, and the two of them take off on one of their kitten games.

Sicheng comes and joins them. He stands right next to Yukhei, as if giving him permission to tug him in, and Yukhei does. He puts his arms around Sicheng’s waist and hugs him like that. Sicheng stands still like he’s only tolerating it, but after a couple seconds he puts a hand in Yukhei’s hair and ruffles it a little.

“You’re okay?” Sicheng asks.

Yukhei nods, knowing he’ll feel it against his side. “I’m okay.”

“We have another meeting today,” Kun says. “They’ll probably lay out whatever plan they’ve come up with to — you know. Damage control.” Kun winces after he says it, like he’s worried it’ll hurt Yukhei.

“I’m sorry for making you all worry,” Yukhei tells him. “I know you’ve had to tread really carefully around me. I’m sorry for not talking to you.”

“Ah, Xuxi, don’t apologize,” Kun says, looking very embarrassed.

Yukhei lets go of Sicheng’s waist so Sicheng can go pour himself a coffee and get some strawberries out from the fridge. “Okay,” he agrees easily. “No apologizing. I’m scared about this meeting. Do you think they’ll take my phone away? Will they let me go to the fansign next week?”

“I don’t know,” Kun says. “I’m on your side though. If you need me to talk for you, I will. You didn’t do anything wrong.”

Didn’t he? Yukhei supposes that being sad isn’t a crime. It’s hard not to think about how it all looks, to people outside the little bubble of their family. What do the fans think? Are they worried? Are they angry? What will this do to their numbers next comeback? Is there any way to measure it, the damage Yukhei has caused?

“I feel,” Yukhei says slowly, trying to be honest, “like I’ll be okay with whatever they think is the best way to fix it. But I wish I could talk to the fans first, on my own terms.”

Kun nods, thoughtful. Before he can speak, Yangyang tumbles into the room.

“Breakfast?” Yangyang asks. His hair is too long, all in his eyes like an overgrown sheepdog.

“Five minutes,” Kun promises him.

Yangyang gets in behind the counter and steals some of Sicheng’s coffee. “I’m so sleepy,” he whines.

“It is absolutely his own fault,” Kun tells Yukhei and Sicheng. “The kids were all up late gaming.”

“It’s Bella’s fault for waking me up,” Yangyang says. “Otherwise I would have slept all day and been perfectly fine.”

Just when Kun is getting started spooning rice into their shallow blue bowls, Ten comes out of his room. He’s clearly just woken up, moving all languid and drowsy and still rubbing the sleep out of his eyes.

There’s a moment where all Yukhei can feel is fear. Like yesterday was a dream, and Ten still hates him. Like Ten’s changed his mind, and doesn’t want him after all. Like Ten wants him, but is about to pretend that he doesn’t, and Yukhei will have to keep on loving him forever without ever saying it.

Instead, Ten comes to Yukhei like he’s magnetized. It just flows, like water, like something natural and inevitable. Ten walks into the room and walks up behind Yukhei and puts a hand right on his shoulder, squeezing to say hello.

“Did you make me coffee, Cas-ah?” Ten asks. Yukhei holds up his own coffee so Ten can take a sip out of the metal straw in it. “Mmmm,” Ten says as thank you. Both his hands rub at Yukhei’s shoulders, small fingers digging in hard to give them a little massage. The feeling is familiar from the hundred times Ten has done this before. Yukhei hums and rolls his muscles back into the touch.

“Um?” Yangyang asks.

“Oh, morning!” Ten says to the room. He doesn’t take his hands off Yukhei’s shoulders, keeps them right where they’re supposed to be. “Did Kun-ge make breakfast?”

“Fried rice!” Kun says from the stove. His eyes land on Ten and Yukhei, then move along quickly.

“Ah, please marry me,” Ten says. “Please cook for me every day until I die.”

Kun laughs. “Give me two minutes to finish serving this and then I’ll give you my answer.”

“So long to wait!” Ten whines.

Sicheng offers him a strawberry, deadpan. “To tide you over?”

Ten genuinely winces, then facetiously ducks behind Yukhei as if using him as a shield. “Lucas-ah, please save me! I am your damsel in distress! I’ll marry you instead if you rescue me from this attack!”

Delighted, Yukhei giggles helplessly and grabs a roll of paper towel to swordfight Sicheng with. They dance around the kitchen, getting in Kun’s way and tripping over teetering stacks of ramyun packages. Ten yells at them from his perch on the kitchen counter, cheerleading for whoever is winning.

Once breakfast is fully ready, they all stand or sit wherever they can around the kitchen island and eat. It’s simple and delicious, and everyone showers Kun with praise until he’s red in the face and can’t stop smiling. Ten bluetooths his phone to the speakers. Yukhei can feel Ten’s gaze on his face. Yukhei doesn’t dare turn to look back for fear that he’ll never be able to look away.

The song starts playing.

Oh, I wanna know just how to love you, the jewel of California.

Yukhei can’t help himself. He looks over, across the kitchen. Ten is kitty corner to him, backlit by the light that comes in through the balcony windows. Kun and Yangyang are fighting about something, each working the other up in between bites of rice.

Oh, I wanna skip stones on your skin, boy, and drown me in your water.

When their eyes catch, Ten smiles. Not a little smile, a big one with all his teeth. It looks like he can’t help himself, like so much joy is flooding through him that it needs to have somewhere to go.

Yukhei feels the same. He smiles back, with all his own teeth, giddy with it.

Tell me all the ways to love you.

——

Like that, things change. It’s like there’s a current between him and Ten, invisible but always alive. A tangible awareness. A want.

Yukhei’s phone gets taken away, as predicted. When he gets back to the dorm after the meeting, Ten pulls him into an empty room and presses him right against the door and kisses him wild.

“Sorry,” Ten tries to gasp when he pulls away, and Yukhei yanks him right back in and keeps kissing him until neither of them can talk.

After, they lie together again, nose to nose. “I don’t like it,” Ten tells him. “It’s not like you hurt anyone. You were just sad. It’s okay that you were sad.”

“You were mad, though, before,” Yukhei says.

“No I wasn’t,” Ten says, a blatant lie. Yukhei lets him get away with it. “You’re allowed to be sad. You don’t have to be happy all the time.”

Yukhei scrunches up his nose and shifts even closer, so he’s too near to have to look Ten in the eye. “I know. But I did fuck up. I didn’t know how to talk about it. I barely knew how to feel it, and then whenever someone was there all the bad stuff spilled out. Like a pot boiling over. Maybe it’s okay to be sad, but I shouldn’t have said it all so publicly like that.”

Ten makes a little huffing sound like he’s annoyed that Yukhei’s right. “Still, you should be able to just say something to them. Like, the fans who care. Apologize, and then move on.”

Yukhei ducks in to sneak a kiss. He threads his fingers into Ten’s hair and feels the beautiful coarse strands of it. “Would you be mad if I did something that would maybe get me into more trouble, but would make me feel better?”

“I think you should do exactly what will make you feel better,” Ten says. He props himself up on his elbow so he’s hovering above Yukhei. He kisses Yukhei’s nose, then each of his cheeks. “Baby,” Ten tells him.

Pleased, Yukhei smiles. He can feel his face getting all flushed and happy. “Yep,” he says, nodding. “That’s me.

When Ten laughs, he laughs with his whole body. He falls right onto Yukhei, and Yukhei puts his hands on his waist to steady him, and they laugh like that so the vibrations run through both their bodies, like the laughter is shared between them.

——

Yukhei figures out what he wants to say. He goes to Kun first. Sicheng helps him write it, and then Ten helps him translate it into Korean and English.

When Kun puts the song they’d made together on Soundcloud, Yukhei uses Ten’s phone to post the writing in tandem. It’s scary. Knowing that his sad voice will be heard.

In Yukhei’s bed, once it’s done and can’t be taken back, Ten asks him, “Are you scared?”

Yukhei nods.

“Are you scared of this?” Ten asks. He doesn’t meet Yukhei’s eyes.

“Yes,” Yukhei says. “But I want it.”

——

Like that, things keep changing. They’re magnets, the current drawing them together ceaselessly. They sit across the table from each other at family dinner and Ten smiles whenever their eyes meet. Sometimes beaming, full of joy. Sometimes small and hinting, a silent promise that they’ll be alone together again soon.

It feels normal, immediately. An animal pees on Dejun’s bed, and he whines nonstop. Hendery yells at all the babies out of fairness, since Dejun can’t figure out who did it and none of them are willing to come forward.

After dinner, Yangyang tackles Yukhei for fun and they tumble around on the rug and knock over two racks of clothing. Yukhei laughs, like happiness is spilling out of him, and can’t stop once he’s started.

Ten holds out a hand to pull him up once he and Yangyang are both tired out, laughing with them. Yukhei takes Ten’s small hand in his own. He feels the muscles in it. The warm skin. This body of this person who Yukhei wants, who wants him.

It’s loud. The rooms all feel full — of bodies and animals and laughter and crisp golden light.

And in the middle of it, Yukhei and Ten. Wanting each other.

——

When I became an idol, it was because I wanted to be an entertainer. I saw Shinee-sunbaenims dance, and I thought I want to do that, exactly. I thought of it as something uncomplicated, maybe even something selfish. But very quickly, as a member of NCT and WayV and SuperM, I realized the joy that we can bring people. I realized how meaningful that joy can be — the way that with positivity and love, we can brighten the world.

I have been so focused on joy that I have tried very hard not to bring any other emotions to the world. I have not wanted to show you my sadness, pain, loneliness, shame. I have not even named them in myself.

What I’ve realized is that in hiding away those parts of myself, I was trapping myself in them. I locked myself in a box with a fire and let it burn me up.

The things that cause you pain will ease. Rain will come and douse the fire eventually. A gentler sun will rise for us all. But if you are in that box right now, please unlock it. Look for joy, but also look for comfort, and love, and the words to say what you feel out loud.

I still wish to bring you all joy. I wish for you to only see the best parts of me. I will never be able to show you all of me — there is some of me that is only for some people, and some of me that is only for myself.

But please know that I will try hard to make my pain something that does not burn through me. I will try to create art and content for you, through it all and about it all. I will try to be a person worthy of love.

From a person who feels and who is alive — Xuxi