Still Teen Top
I write about men having sex with other men. You must be eighteen or older to read my fiction. This site is for consenting, responsible adults only.
Content warning for discussion of rape.
Changjo was walking into the practice room when his phone rang. He started the music and then answered. “Ah, hyung?”
“Changjo-ah!” Suho said. “You finally answer?”
He winced a little. He wished that he hadn’t answered at all. “Hi, hyung.”
“How are you? Where are you, I can hardly hear. Turn that music down.”
He wasn’t ready to talk to Suho. “Sorry, hyung, I know it’s loud,” he said, moving closer to the speaker. “I have to go, practice is about to start.”
“Right now? What practice?”
“Sorry, I have to go.”
“Changjo-ah, I know that you’re upset, but-”
“I can’t talk now. Text me later, okay?” He hung up. Uncertain, he looked at his phone for a second. Then he set it down and moved to the middle of the room, warming up.
Sungyeol let Niel into the dorm.
They sat on the couch. Niel seemed kind of subdued. Sungyeol didn’t blame him; who knew how Sungyeol would look and act in his shoes. “You okay?” It was a stupid question, of course he wasn’t okay, but Sungyeol didn’t have a lot of other places to start.
“Mmm?” He scratched the back of his neck. “Yeah.”
“I guess it’s, I mean. Have you talked to him?”
“To - - to who, to-” Niel’s gaze flickered and he shook his head. Tucked his hands between his thighs and licked his lips, looking away. “No, haven’t talked.”
Yeah, this was painfully awkward. Sungyeol shifted to a topic Niel was always interested in. “Want to make out?”
Niel blinked, then nodded. “Yeah, okay.”
But he didn’t move. He didn’t slide closer to Sungyeol on the couch, or go down on his knees, or anything. Sungyeol shifted closer to him, but was he really into this? It seemed like a huge, red, warning sign if Niel, of all people, wasn’t up for some kissing and groping. Shit, things were bad. “I, um. Oh, hey,” he said, suddenly remembering something. “I got a new helicopter, it’s like a drone. Remote controlled, want to see it? It has grabby hands, claws, I’ve been using it to steal things off of Sungjong’s desk. Let me show you.”
They played for a while, and Niel perked up a lot. It was so good to see him laughing and enjoying himself, Sungyeol hugged him like a dozen times that night.
C.A.P. didn’t want any visitors, but he couldn’t leave a hyung standing outside, ignored. He braced himself and opened the door.
Suho’s smile was polite. Then he came inside and closed the door, and the somber empathy in his eyes made C.A.P. want to pull away. “How are you?”
“Fine,” he said automatically. “Changjo’s not here.”
“No, I came to see you.”
Oh. “If it’s about Sehun, I-”
“No, it’s not about that. That’s - - that’s something else altogether, that’s for me to worry about on my own for now. I just came to see you. I thought that we’d go to dinner, if you haven’t eaten.”
He didn’t really want to, but he figured that it wouldn’t hurt. “Yeah, okay.”
Suho must have made arrangements ahead of time. They went to a quiet place and got a private room. If Suho didn’t want to check on Changjo or talk about Sehun, he didn’t know what the point of this was. But the food was good.
They talked about the food for a while, and about Sunggyu, and about everything C.A.P. could think of that wasn’t personal. He was hoping to make it through the meal and get away without talking about L.Joe at all. It wasn’t specific to Suho, he just didn’t want to discuss it.
Suho was a determined, responsible hyung, though, so after a while, he said, “It’s hard. I know it’s been hard on you. And all of the members.”
C.A.P. didn’t have to ask what he was talking about. “Yeah.”
Suho nodded. He stared at a bowl for a minute, unblinking. He looked like he was thinking about something serious, something that weighed heavily on him. Then he shook it off and went back to eating. “I won’t pretend that I know everything you’re going through. But I can tell you…” He sighed. “You’re my sunbae, I’ve looked to you a lot, you’ve set an example. I think that you don’t have any idea how much I’ve learned from you. But in this, when it comes to this, I have more experience than you. If you want to talk to me, you can.”
C.A.P. didn’t really want to talk about it. But it was really good of him to make the offer. C.A.P. didn’t want to be rude to him and shut him down.
For a moment, he wondered what to say. Then he admitted, “This isn’t a club I wanted to join.”
“No?” Suho smiled. “After you go through it the third time, they hand out gold rings.”
Astonished, he laughed. “Hyung! Don’t joke about it!”
“No, no,” Suho said quickly, laughing, putting a hand up to wave the words away.
Shit. Still chuckling, he shook his head. “How can you joke about it?”
“Ah.” With a contemplative smile, Suho fixed his hair. “My members and I have gone through a lot of phases. Separately and together. There are times you can’t joke about it. There are times when you have to joke about it, or you’ll crack. For some feelings, time helps. Months pass, even years pass, and you see it differently. For other sides of it, I still feel the same way I did the first day. It’s different for everybody.”
He nodded. He understood. “It’s been rough. On the members.”
“You’re their leader.” Suho’s expression was solemn and didn’t give him any wiggle room. “It’s not an easy time, but you can’t pull away from them now. You have to be their leader even in this. Especially when it comes to this. They need you.”
Needed him to do what? “We don’t really… What am I supposed to say?”
Suho nodded like it was a smart question and not a sign of the helpless position he was in. “I asked one of my SM sunbaes that, the first time we went through this in EXO. I didn’t know what to say to my members. He told me, ‘If you don’t know what to say, ask them what they need to hear.’”
I’m coming over to see you.
Sorry, can’t have visitors right now.
When can I see you? Tell me a day. A time you won’t cancel.
Really, hyung. I don’t know right now. I’ll get back to you, okay?
I’m coming to see you. You don’t have to talk to me. You don’t even have to look at me. I just want to see you.
Changjo stared at the screen, reading L’s text over and over. He didn’t want to see anybody. But if he didn’t have to talk, it might be okay. He believed L. It wasn’t some ploy to get in front of him and force him to have some discussion of his feelings, or whatever. If L said that he wouldn’t have to talk, then he really wouldn’t have to.
It might be okay.
He shot a crooked photo of the practice room floor, so that L would know where he was, and sent that. Then he went back to work.
A while later, someone came in. He saw it, in his peripheral vision. L, dressed in all black. Those familiar shoulders, that posture and shape he’d recognize anywhere.
L sat down against the wall, behind Changjo. Took off his hat, ruffled his hair this way and that, put it back on.
Changjo could see L in the mirror, could watch, if he felt like looking. Could ignore it and not look if he didn’t feel like paying attention. He danced for a while longer.
L stayed. Quiet, not doing anything, not going anywhere, just being there.
Time passed. Changjo ignored him. Then this impulse took over. Changjo wanted to talk to him. Not about anything specific. Changjo just wanted to talk to him. Wanted to be with him, interact with him. It had been forever since they’d hung out. They didn’t even talk on the phone anymore. Changjo hadn’t asked for a selca in ages.
He wasn’t ready to give in right away, so he held back. He realized that he was testing L, trying to see how long L would stay. He knew that was an unfair, crappy thing to do, and he knew that it might backfire, but he held out anyway, forcing L to wait. Seeing if L would get up and walk out. Seeing if L would force conversation after promising not to.
But L didn’t go anywhere or do anything.
Finally, feeling relieved, feeling wary, Changjo turned the music off. Grabbed a water bottle and walked over to him. Sat down beside him without even looking at him. Pretended that he wasn’t there. Drank. Looked around the room, pretending to be alone.
L just sat there beside him.
“So our couple name’s ruined,” he said. “We’ll have to be something else now.”
“Mmm.” L pulled both knees up, hugging them.
He copied the move, resting his chin on top. “How long can you stay? Do you have to leave?” He didn’t like the way that sounded. Everything had too much significance all of a sudden. Like he was worried about L abandoning him, or something.
“I have to be back in the dorm in an hour. If you come with me, you can spend the night. If you want.”
He wondered if he wanted that. He wondered if L would want sex. Of course L would want sex; L wanted him all of the time. But L wouldn’t expect sex. There would be cuddling, though, all kinds of skinship. “Can we sleep in separate beds?”
His phone was ringing. Suho’s ringtone. “Can’t you tell him to stop calling me?”
Surprised, he actually glanced over. He accidentally met L’s eyes. It was so familiar, to look over and see L beside him, to look at each other, that it sent a jolt of recognition through him. “You didn’t.”
Liar. “What’d he say?”
L smiled ruefully. “He said that he couldn’t stop. He has to keep calling. He tells himself every day to back off and give you space, and then he calls anyway.”
“You told him to stop calling? You call me every day.” He rarely answered, but L called, anyway.
“Oh, yeah. I’m going to keep calling,” L said, like it was all a done deal, like it was just inevitable. “You can’t get away from me, you know that.” He stretched out his legs. “I know that I can’t push you to talk before you’re ready. I know if I push too hard you’ll just get pissed off and take it out on me. So I don’t want to bother you too much. But I have to keep getting in touch, anyway. Just to let you know that I’m here. So when you’re ready, you won’t have to hesitate.”
L knew him better than most people did. He decided that he was okay with that. He liked it. “You stopped sending selcas.”
“I didn’t know if you wanted them. You haven’t sent any, either,” L reminded him. “I miss your face.”
“I love your face.”
He snorted again. Then he stretched his legs out like L had. “Are you going to call Suho hyung and talk about me behind my back?”
“Tell him not to worry. He’s too uptight.”
“He’s not going to let it go until he’s seen you. He wants to talk to you.”
“He wants to be my hyung and have some big talk. I don’t need that. I’m not a kid, I don’t need someone to pat my head and tell me how the world works and explain that sometimes - - that people - - that shit happens.” He sniffed quickly, hoping that L wouldn’t notice, and blinked a couple of times. He wasn’t going to get emotional about it. “People come, people go, nobody stays with you forever. It happens, it’s done, it’s not like I never saw it coming.”
L’s voice was quiet. “Did you see it coming?”
Never, not once.
He got up. “Let’s go to your dorm.”
They went. He took a shower and put on L’s clothes and crawled into L’s bed. L must have talked to Suho while he’d been in the bathroom, because his text messages were full of Suho being soothing and hopeful and scolding and cute.
L got into Sungyeol’s bed.
He kicked his legs out, stretching. He rolled over a hundred times. L’s bed was familiar and comfortable; he should’ve passed out already. He got up and went to the bathroom. He poked around the kitchen. He peeked into rooms and watched L’s members sleep.
They were all there. All seven of them together. He hated them for that.
He cried. He went into the bathroom and ran water in the sink to cover the sound of it. He wasn’t ashamed to cry, he didn’t care if someone knew he’d done it, he just didn’t want someone noticing and trying to help him or comfort him or something.
When he was finished, he dried his face and went back to L’s room. He crawled into Sungyeol’s bed, burrowing in against L, wrapping himself as tightly around L as he could. L’s body and warmth and scent and black T-shirt were so familiar to him, he felt comforted just by being close. Just by reconnecting with someone he loved so much.
L stroked his back and kissed the top of his head and didn’t make him talk about it. And he slept like he hadn’t slept in weeks.
Ricky knew that he should be there for his hyungs, but they wouldn’t let him. They made up excuses to be busy or they just brushed him off. They were upset, but he was upset, too. This was a time when he needed them to be there for him, and they were too worried about themselves to do it.
It only pissed him off more. Shouldn’t they all be there for each other? Wasn’t that the point of sticking together? If they were all only going to look out for themselves, then maybe he should leave, too.
He started doing whatever he wanted. He came and went whenever, wherever he liked. He didn’t tell C.A.P. or ask his manager, he just did it. Took himself to dinner. Went to the movies. Met his friends. Spent a few hours signing autographs for Angels in the park.
He asked Onew to take him out of town for a night. He wanted to get away from the dorm, away from work and pressure and Seoul, away from memories and questions and everything else. He didn’t ask for permission, but Onew got it for him anyway, and they went to the SM house that Onew liked. It was good. It was healing. He could be himself with Onew, so he was. Over the hours that they were together, he was short-tempered, he was selfish, he was adorable, he was careless, he was solicitous, he laughed, he snapped, he was demanding. Onew put up with all of it and followed his lead, adoring him when he was cute, spoiling him when he fussed.
By the end of it, he felt better. He felt more like himself. He felt more sure of himself. He’d needed a break. He’d needed to get away and focus on himself.
When Onew dropped him off, he hugged Onew good-bye for a long time. He was grateful to have someone who loved him so relentlessly, who was always there for him. He went into the dorm feeling stronger.
Chunji was on the couch, stretched from end to end, watching TV. The same place he’d been for too many days in a row. “Hi,” Ricky said carefully, edging towards him.
He grunted and changed the channel.
Ricky sat between his feet and the armrest.
He didn’t say anything.
Ricky didn’t know how to talk to him without starting a fight.
“Oh, hey.” C.A.P. was coming out from the bedrooms. “Didn’t know you were back.”
“How’s Onew hyung?”
C.A.P. kind of glanced down the hallway. “Can I talk to you for a minute?”
Curious, he got up. “Yeah, sure.”
They went into C.A.P.’s room. When they were seated on C.A.P.’s bed, facing each other, C.A.P. reached over and rubbed his thigh. “You doing okay?”
He hadn’t been. He still wasn’t sure. But, “Yeah, I’m okay.” Seeing Onew had helped. Just having C.A.P. pull him aside and ask him the question helped.
Looking into his eyes, checking on him, C.A.P. nodded. “Okay.” C.A.P. squeezed his thigh and let go. “If you’re not, you can tell me. I know things are,” C.A.P. grimaced, “kind of shitty right now. But we’re still members. I’m still your hyung.”
He nodded. It was nice just to have it said.
C.A.P. rubbed his jaw. “Is there anything, you know. Anything you want to talk about? Anything you want me to say?”
Was he trying to get at something specific? “Like what?”
“I don’t know, anything. Like if you want me to tell you that everything’s going to be okay, or if you need me to tell you that it’s okay to be angry, or whatever. Anything you need to hear?”
He was okay on words; he didn’t need to be told anything. But he held out his arms.
C.A.P. grinned a little and hugged him.
He leaned into it, holding on.
C.A.P. chuckled and patted his back. “We’ll be okay.”
Niel was really going through something. He didn’t need a sexy, fun-times hyung, he needed a real hyung, someone who’d stand by him. Sungyeol was totally up to the challenge. A couple of days later, Sungyeol invited him out for coffee. Kept inviting him out after that, too, for lunch, for dinner, for whatever. Just to meet up, just to keep an eye on him, just to check in and make sure that he was okay.
Sungyeol kept things light. Not a too-intense, deliberately whacky kind of light, not proving that nothing was wrong. Just regular light, like things were okay. No pressure.
He never wanted to talk about L.Joe, so Sungyeol hoped that he had someone else he confided in about that. But he was always ready to hang out, always agreed to meet up. Always started out a little uncertain but ended up enjoying himself. And one night, after they got back from karaoke with Dongwoo and Xiumin, they made out in the kitchen for a while. It was really nice, and when he pulled back, he was smiling.
Chunji’s phone rang again. It wasn’t Dongwoo; he’d told Dongwoo that he’d be busy for a while and he couldn’t talk, and Dongwoo just texted him every few days to ask if it was okay to see each other yet. Xiumin texted him every few days, too, to ask if he was still alive; as long as he texted back, “Yes,” Xiumin left him alone.
It was Chen. Chen was weirdly insistent, calling and texting over and over again. He couldn’t figure out what Chen wanted, and he wasn’t interested enough to figure it out, so he ignored it.
He got up and went into the kitchen. There still wasn’t anything to eat. There never was.
He moved to leave the kitchen, but C.A.P. was in his way. He tried to go around.
“Going to leave the dorm sometime?”
“How many days in a row are you going to wear that?”
“Let’s find out.” He tried to get past C.A.P. again.
He didn’t want to hear it. “When are you going to get that extra bed out of my room?”
He took advantage of C.A.P.’s surprise to slip past. “It’s taking up space. Get rid of it.” He went into his room and closed the door.
“…so if there’s anything you want to talk about.” This conversation got a little easier each time. Ricky had made it easy for him; Changjo had just nodded and twitched through it and then immediately gone away. Niel was just listening patiently, respectfully, quietly. “Anything you want me to say.”
Niel nodded, chewing on his lips. He looked thoughtful for a minute, and then he met C.A.P.’s eyes. “Are we all not having sex anymore?”
Surprised, C.A.P. laughed. “What?”
“Sex,” Niel repeated, over-enunciating the word, like maybe C.A.P. hadn’t caught it. “Does that not happen anymore? Nobody’s been doing it. Are we not allowed? Is there a mourning period, do we have to wait so many days before we can start again?”
“No. It’s been a little weird,” C.A.P. admitted. “Nobody’s really seemed to want to. But we can, any time you want. Maybe not Chunji,” he added, and Niel grimaced. “But I’ll do it.”
“Good, that’s good,” Niel said.
C.A.P. leaned towards him.
He leaned uncertainly closer. He seemed tense and his eyes were too wide.
C.A.P. sat back. “You sure?”
“Awkward,” he mumbled. He sat up straighter, ruffling his hair in the back and then smoothing it down again.
“Ricky!” C.A.P. called. No answer. Louder: “Ricky! C’mere!”
He heard movement.
“Make out with Ricky,” he told Niel. Ricky was accommodating enough to do it however Niel was comfortable with. “I’ll get back to you later.”
“What?” Ricky asked, walking in.
Getting off of the bed, C.A.P. clapped a hand on his shoulder and pushed him towards Niel. “Kiss his face and suck his cock.”
“Thank god, it’s been forever,” Ricky said, crawling onto the bed.
C.A.P. stayed for a minute, watching. Not perving on them, just looking. It was good to see them making out again. Good to see his members being close. Things had been so tense lately, they hadn’t been sure how to act around each other. When things got bad, they all had different ways of reacting to it. Lashing out, pulling away, reaching out. Niel needed stability and Ricky needed comfort, but C.A.P. hadn’t known how to give those things. It was his job to figure it out, though.
He had a handle on Ricky and Niel. He’d at least gotten Changjo to stand still long enough to listen to him. But Chunji, damn. He didn’t know how to make things better without making things a hell of a lot worse, first.
Catching his breath, Niel blinked at the ceiling.
Ricky collapsed on top of him, moaning.
Whew. He patted his hand over Ricky’s sweaty back. “Well done. Good job.”
Ricky felt heavy on top of him, but he was used to it. It was nice to feel it again. They’d all been too tentative around each other lately. Giving each other too much space, maybe. This was better. This was normal. It felt really, really good to get back to normal.
Mostly normal. “Ricky-ah.” He ran his thumb across Ricky’s spine. “When did you start screwing so well?”
Ricky chuckled like it was a funny question. “I always could.” He pushed himself up a little, brushing his bangs out of his eyes. “I just don’t, usually. The other hyungs don’t like it. But you seemed like you needed it. It was good, right?”
What was he talking about, the hyungs didn’t like what? Didn’t like being fucked too well? Well, one of the hyungs never bottomed, and one of the hyungs wasn’t an issue anymore, and one of the hyungs was rotting on the couch and not getting laid anyway. “You should do it all of the time from now on. I approve it.”
Ricky smiled and kissed his cheek. “Okay, hyung. Whenever you want it.”
About a dozen times, Sunggyu told Ricky to come over and see him. Every time, Ricky politely brushed him off. He tried asking Ricky out to dinner, instead, and immediately Ricky agreed.
Over dinner, it seemed like nothing was wrong. Ricky was quieter than usual, but he seemed to be handling it okay. Wondering if Ricky would be honest with him, he finally asked, outright, “Are you okay? Are you getting over it?”
Ricky inhaled, looking down at his food. He nodded. “Yeah, I guess.” He ate for a second. “It’s been hard. Angels are upset, and that’s hard. I don’t like seeing them so unhappy, we’re never supposed to hurt our fans. And then, you know, losing fans is scary. It hurts. And I’m callous if I say this, I’m heartless if I think it, but that’s our income, that’s our bottom line, if we lose fans we lose money.”
Sunggyu nodded. He understood. It was a complicated relationship.
“There’s practical stuff, like, we have seven years of performances made for six people, that we have to change and re-learn around five people. What’s that going to be like from now on? We can’t ditch all of our old stuff, we have to keep performing the popular songs that the public likes, but every time now, we’ll remember, and Angel will know, what’s different about it. How it originally went and who’s missing. And then…” He sniffled, not meeting Sunggyu’s eyes. “This is the first time, the first member. Who’s next? How soon will it happen again? How much more time do I have like this, how long can I count on it? What should I do, should I just trust the rest of the members, should I keep counting on them? Should I look out for myself more, should I start lining something up, too? Am I cruel if I look out for myself? Am I stupid if I don’t?”
That uncertainty was brutal. Sunggyu shoved napkins across the table at him, wanting him to stop crying and stop looking so lost and stop saying such painful things. Sunggyu couldn’t take it if he kept acting like this. “You know your members. Anything I say about that will be useless. You know them better than I do. You know who you can count on. You know what they stand for.”
Nodding, Ricky sniffled, dabbing at his eyes.
“Your Angels love you. L.Joe’s good with fans, but he’s not Teen Top all by himself. Angels will stay with you. You haven’t done anything wrong. They don’t have any reason to leave you. This isn’t one of those break-ups where all of the members screwed up and everybody looks bad and fans have to walk away. There’s no reason to go anywhere. You’re still Teen Top.”
“I wanted us to last. All six of us, together, like the Shinhwa hyungs. That’s what everybody says, that we want to last a long time like Shinhwa. That’s over for us. It hurts too much to look at Andy hyung now.”
“You didn’t let him down,” Sunggyu said firmly. “It’s not your fault. You shouldn’t feel bad about yourself and you shouldn’t be embarrassed to look at anybody. Maybe you won’t last all together like the Shinhwa sunbaes, but look at the DBSK sunbaes, instead. If you want, you can keep going until it’s just down to two of you. Just you and your maknae, up there on that stage, still holding fan meetings, still together.”
Ricky smiled a little at that, like the idea of it pleased him.
“You know, Shinhwa wasn’t always six. Your Andy hyung left for a while, didn’t he? And they kept going, anyway. They didn’t fall apart. Shinhwa is bigger than one member coming and going. Teen Top is bigger than that, too. Teen Top is whatever Teen Top says it is. If there are still members around, willing to hold hands, then Teen Top can keep going. And as long as there’s Teen Top, there’s going to be Angel. All you have to worry about is you. If you’re committed to Teen Top, and your members can see that, and your fans can see that, that’s all you can do. That’s all you need. If you stick with it, you’ll see who’ll stick with you.”
Ricky nodded. He looked thoughtful, but his expression was clearer now. Not so troubled, not wet with tears. “Onew hyung said. It’s an idol’s job to set a good example.”
“He’s right,” Sunggyu decided. “So do that. Set a good example. You’re an adult now, you have to honor your commitments. You should set a good example for your fans. Take care of them. Take care of your members, too. How are they, are they taking it badly?”
Ricky grimaced. “Everyone’s upset. They’re all a little bit,” he glanced around, lowering his voice, “angry. Nobody wanted it to be like this.”
He nodded. It was rough. “You’re a good kid, you worry about your hyungs. It’s good if you want to comfort them. But it’s their job to look out for you. You’re their dongsaeng, they have responsibilities. You start with the maknae, take care of him first. Then you can reach out to your hyungs if they still need it.”
Ricky’s eyebrows drew together, his face taking on a serious expression. “I’ve given the maknae enough time to himself. He’s had enough time on his own. He’ll have to talk to me now.”
Out of the shower, Changjo went to his room. He was grabbing clothes and halfway dressed when Ricky walked in and said, “Hey.”
He made a sound back, in acknowledgement, and dragged a T-shirt on.
“Have you eaten?”
“We should talk.”
“I’m going out.” He checked his phone and tucked his wallet into his pocket.
Ricky stood between him and the doorway. “Maknae. I’m serious about this, it’s time to talk.”
“I can’t. I’m going out.” He tried to get around.
Ricky shut the door. “You’ve been out, you’ve gone out too much. Sit down for once, I want to talk to you.”
Was he pulling rank or something? Changjo reached past him to get to the doorknob.
Ricky smacked his hand down. “I told you to sit.”
Changjo couldn’t believe this. “You want to fight?”
“Did I say ‘fight?’” Ricky demanded, glaring up at him. “I said that I want to talk. So sit down and we’ll talk.”
He didn’t have time for this. “Talk about what?”
“Are you having trouble sitting down?” Ricky demanded.
He rolled his eyes and sat down. He plopped down on the foot of his bed, leaning back on his hands, and spread his legs. Then he stared at Ricky with wide eyes.
Ricky sat beside him.
“Good talk,” he said, getting up.
Ricky grabbed the back of his shirt and snatched him back. He landed beside Ricky with an oof, laughing. Ricky smacked at him and he flopped on his back, twisting around to wrap his legs around Ricky’s waist. “So annoying,” Ricky complained, relaxing in the hold.
“What are we supposed to talk about? I don’t want to talk.”
“We have to talk. I’m being a good hyung and making sure that you’re okay.”
“You’re not my hyung!”
“You’re not my hyung,” he insisted.
“You’re not my hyung!” he exclaimed.
“Fine! Fine, maknae, okay!” Ricky exclaimed. “I’m being a good friend and making sure that
you’re okay. Is that better? Do you like that?”
“Mmm, we’re friends.” He was okay with that. He laced his fingers across his stomach.
“It’s not three hyungs and three dongsaengs anymore,” Ricky said. “It’s two against two, with Niel hyung in the middle.”
“He’s so weak,” Changjo said. That really made it two against two. “That means you and I are in charge now.”
Ricky’s smile was adorable. “I’m Teen Top’s secret leader now.”
“I’m Teen Top’s secret leader,” he disagreed. But he always had been, really.
“You should stay here more,” Ricky said. “Don’t go out so much. Or don’t go out alone, take us with you. We need to stick together right now.”
“I can’t stay here.” Not with Chunji acting like this. So brittle and bitter, always on the sofa, haunting the dorm like a ghost, like a nightmare.
“Then take members with you. Take me with you. I’m fun to take places, I’m great to have around.”
He grinned. “You’re not bad.”
“I’m great,” Ricky insisted.
Tightening his legs, he squeezed.
“Ow! Ah, ah! Maknae!” Squirming, Ricky smacked at his knees. “Ow!”
Laughing, he relented, relaxing his legs again, reaching down and tousling Ricky’s hair. Ricky sprang at him, and they wrestled across the bed. He was laughing, and Ricky was threatening him but barely fighting back at all, and he ended up on top, smiling from ear to ear, pinning Ricky down underneath him.
“Ah, maknae,” Ricky panted, flushed, eyes bright. It felt good to make him smile, felt good to tease him. This was familiar, this was what he’d been missing, this friendship. He and Ricky had been close for years, relied on each other for years, always gotten along, always understood each other, always been able to turn to each other. He still had this; they still had this.
He loved Ricky. He didn’t feel like saying it, but he couldn’t stop feeling it, anyway. Giving in to that feeling, he leaned down and pressed his lips to Ricky’s.
Ricky kissed him back. Kissed him right back, soft and sweet. “I’m not going anywhere,” Ricky said quietly.
“I know.” He sounded defensive and he couldn’t help it. He kissed Ricky again; he liked that better than talking. “I don’t have abandonment issues.”
“I know you don’t,” Ricky said patiently. Ricky had to get the words out between kisses. Quick, soft kisses. “I’m just saying it. I’m still here.”
“Five out of six.” He pressed his lips together, facing it. He rubbed his thumb at the corner of Ricky’s mouth. “It’s not one hundred percent.”
“But it’s still five. We’re not ‘six guys and one of them has to be named L.Joe,’ we’re Teen Top. We’re still here, and we’re going to keep going.”
Yeah. He got that. “C.A.P. hyung tried to talk to me. Niel hyung did, too, that was weird.”
“They’re worried about you,” Ricky said. “C.A.P. hyung wants to know that you’re going to be okay, and Niel hyung can’t tell what’s going on with you. You’ve been upset, but you can’t be upset all on your own, anymore. It’s time to come back and be a good dongsaeng. We need our maknae back.”
“Back,” he muttered. “I didn’t go anywhere.”
“Good.” Ricky frowned at him, caressing his cheek. “You look bad, you look tired. Sleep here with me tonight.”
“What, I don’t need to sleep in your bed to get good sleep.”
“Does sleeping with me make it worse?” Ricky asked. “Good, then you can sleep with me. Stop being so ornery, maknae.”
“Ornery, I’m not ornery.” He kissed Ricky again. “Want to make out?”
“Okay, but I want to be on top.”
“No, I’m already on top.”
“Maknae! Roll over,” Ricky insisted.
Ah, he was supposed to be a good maknae, right. Trying to hide a smile, he rolled over obediently, settling on his back. When Ricky crawled on top of him, he innocently batted his lashes.
Ricky smiled at him. “Better. This is nice, right?”
When Ricky kissed him, his heart fluttered a little. Yeah. It was nice.
Niel was hanging out in Infinite’s dorm when Chen showed up. It was his first time seeing Chen face-to-face since the news had broken, and everybody seemed to think there was some sort of social obligation to ask a lot of awkward, sympathetic questions. Niel tried to rush through that part of the conversation, because he really didn’t want to go through the whole back-and-forth. But Chen wasn’t just content to hit the highlights; Chen really wanted to get into it. Like, Chen made him sit down and tried to have this long, in-depth conversation about members and what it took to keep a group together and how it was important to be willing to pick up and keep going.
He got where Chen was coming from. The biggest idol company in Korea had set out all of these careful, detailed plans and debuted Chen in EXO-M, and look at how that had gone. Chen knew all about what Niel was going through.
Chen told him a lot about how a dispute between one member and the company wasn’t a dispute between one member and the rest of the members, and how he couldn’t take it personally and he couldn’t blame himself. He got that part of it; he and the members had had that conversation a couple of times. But most of Chen’s advice seemed to boil down to some weird emphasis on loving his members and dating them and making love with them. He understood the part about needing to cement their bond, that made sense, but he wasn’t so sure about the constantly lovemaking-and-dating part. “Do you know C.A.P. hyung?” he asked. “At all?”
“You love C.A.P.,” Chen argued, laughing. “The two of you adore each other, don’t pretend.”
“Adore!” That was a strong word. “We get along. I think we get along,” he mused. “Mostly. Sometimes he gets out of line.”
“What are things that your members like, that you like, too? Something special you can do together. Is there a special memory that you and C.A.P. have, that you can do again? To remind you of what’s so good about your friendship?”
“Um…” He licked his lips, trying to remember something. Most of his memories took him back to the practice room. They’d spent a lot of time in there, bonding, sweating, suffering together. “Games? Meeting Angels? Hitting Ricky?”
“You have to have a good memory that isn’t about beating up other members.”
Did he? He searched his memories. “Gaming… There was that time I got him out of trouble with our manager by blaming the maknae, that made him really happy, he liked me a lot that day.”
“Something more romantic,” Chen said.
He was tempted to ask again, had Chen ever met C.A.P.? Then he remembered something. Oh.
“That,” Chen said quickly, smiling at him. “What are you thinking about?”
He blushed, biting his lip. “Nothing.” He was just remembering one of his first nights with Chunji. Chunji had been bored and sleepy and in a good mood, hanging out in their hotel room. C.A.P. had wanted to see them together, had coaxed him on top of Chunji, had sat beside them. He still remembered C.A.P.’s hand stroking his side, C.A.P.’s deep voice murmuring, “Yeah, that’s it,” all nice and slow and satisfied. “Yeah, kiss him, yeah, like that.” He’d kissed Chunji before, but they hadn’t really made out, not so much, not like it was the main event. He’d gotten turned on, really turned on, kissing Chunji, pressing all up against Chunji’s body, feeling Chunji up, hearing all of Chunji’s horny, sexy sounds. He remembered Chunji’s hand slipping down the front of his shorts, remembered feeling like nothing would ever be sexier than Chunji fondling his hard-on, remembered C.A.P.’s deep, approving, “Yeah, like that, touch him.”
Chunji had nailed him that night, given it to him deep and hard. He remembered C.A.P. screwing Chunji, C.A.P.’s rough thrusts pushing Chunji deeper into him, all three of them moving together, their bodies in sync. Remembered coming his brains out. God, that had been an amazing night. He still felt hot and shaky, thinking about it.
“That, whatever that is,” Chen said, laughing. “Look at you, you’re bright red! Do that, whatever you’re thinking about, do it again. It’ll be good for you, it’ll bring you and C.A.P. closer together.”
Chunji-ah? It’s been too long. I understand if you don’t want to talk, but you can’t stay silent forever. You’ve asked me to leave you alone for now, and I’ve tried, but do you need me to leave you alone forever? I can’t do that. We’re close, aren’t we? We have a special type of friendship. I’m not the kind of friend who can stay away for this long. What kind of hyung can pretend that nothing is happening? Just because I can’t see your suffering, it doesn’t mean that I can’t feel it.
Chunji texted back, We’ll talk later, and shoved his phone under his mattress.
“So, uh.” Niel drifted between the fridge and the sink, watching C.A.P. peel an orange. “Have you talked to Chen hyung?”
C.A.P. chuckled. “Yeah.” He shook his head. “I thought that Suho hyung had a lot to say!”
“Chen hyung has a lot of weird ideas.” While C.A.P.’s attention was on the orange, Niel watched his face, gauging his mood. “He said some interesting stuff, though.”
C.A.P. grunted, shoving a slice of orange into his mouth. After he swallowed, he said, “He’s been through so much, I don’t know if he really makes sense. But, he’s been through so much, he knows more about it than I do, so.” He shrugged. “Guess what works for him, works for him.”
“It might work for us,” Niel suggested.
C.A.P. grinned at him, eyebrow going up. “You want me to take you out to dinner? Light some candles, pour some wine, propose?”
“Propose! Shit,” Niel said, pushing him away. “I meant the sex part.”
C.A.P. looked interested. “What sex part?”
“The lovemaking. Not each other,” he added quickly. “Ew. I’m not making love to you. But we could do it with the maknaes. Ricky first, then Changjo. Or Changjo, then Ricky.”
“Double team the maknaes,” C.A.P. said.
“Like, slowly. The way Chen hyung likes stuff.”
C.A.P. ate the rest of his orange, thinking about it. He nodded. “So I can watch the maknae slowly, romantically choke you on his big cock?”
“I don’t choke,” Niel said, offended. “There’s no cock I can’t handle, you can’t find one.”
“Ricky tonight,” C.A.P. decided. “Changjo tomorrow.”
“I’ll get it!” On his way through the dorm, Suho paused to be cute for Xiumin and D.O., then scolded Kai about cleaning up. Reaching the door, he checked to see who was out there.
Surprised, he yanked the door open. “Maknae! What are you doing here?” He grabbed Changjo, dragging him in, shoving the door shut. He knew that he was hugging Changjo like he’d just rescued Changjo from being snatched away in a flood, but he couldn’t help it. He hadn’t seen Changjo in person in so long, his heart was pounding at just being together again.
“I should’ve called first,” Changjo said, chin hooking over his shoulder.
“Yes, you should have. Does anyone know that you’re here? What are you doing here? Come in, we’ll talk in my room.” Soothing, scolding, he shooed Changjo into his room. Once he’d established that Changjo did have permission to be there, he shoved clothes off of his bed and sat down, tugging Changjo down beside him. “You’ve put me off for too long! That’s no way to treat a hyung. How are you? You look healthy, have you been taking your vitamins?”
“Yeah, I’m okay.” His smile was bashful and guilty. “I’m really okay. I’m taking my vitamins, yes, I am!” he insisted, when Suho started to reach for a bottle beside the bed. “Stop that, I’m healthy.”
“Are your hyungs taking care of you? You haven’t endured too much on your own?”
“They’re okay. They won’t leave me alone now, it’s annoying. They’re always following me around.”
Suho pushed for details. Made him talk about his health, and how he’d been eating, and how management was treating him, and how he was sleeping, and how things were with L, and whether he was having too much sex or not enough of it or maybe the wrong kind. By the end of their long talk, Suho felt satisfied. Changjo sounded stable. Solid, grounded. Not too emotional, but not pointedly unemotional, either. Not defiant, not erratic. Sad and frustrated and hurt, but also hopeful and thoughtful and forward-thinking. He had a lot to be happy about, and he was focused on those things. They talked about the songs he was working on, and the hairstyles he might try for Teen Top’s comeback, and his gorgeous boyfriend.
Suho was immensely relieved to find him in such a good, solid place. Suho trusted that he was being honest, too, that this wasn’t all a show to convince Suho to back off. “You shouldn’t have waited so long to come and see me.”
“You wanted me to come and cry on your shoulder?” Changjo guessed.
“You’ve been through a lot! I could have helped you. I’m good at helping people!”
“You helped,” Changjo promised. “You’ve taught me a lot and helped me a lot, before. I would’ve had a harder time without my guardian Suho looking over my shoulder.” He rubbed his nose. “The six of us went through a lot. I guess that not everybody wanted to keep going through it together. Maybe it’s easier alone. Maybe that seems like an easier path. Maybe it’s not about us at all, maybe it’s just about management and it has nothing to do with us. Maybe things are so hard it’s easier to get out now. Maybe things are so easy, it seems like one person can do it all by himself and he doesn’t need anybody else’s help. I don’t know. Everybody has ideas about what it’s all for and what it all means and who’s really to blame, but they all seem to like the theory that makes them feel the best, not the one that’s the most honest.”
Suho patted his arm. “Looking back and wondering what you could have differently or what little moments you missed the first time around, it’s not good for you. It’s smart to want to know what went wrong, so you can prevent it from happening again, but you can’t waste all of your time on it. At some point, you have to accept that people are who they are.”
Changjo nodded. “When it first - - when it happened, when he left. I got…” He smiled briefly. “I got angry. I was really upset, and I wanted to do something about it. I had some,” a mischievous grin flashed across his face, a quick spark and then gone, “ideas about what to do. And Chunji hyung said, ‘What’s the point? What’s the fucking point? He wants to go, he made his decision, he wants to go, let him go! Let him fucking go!’ And there was this look on his face, this awful look, and it stopped me.” He swallowed. “It stopped me right there, I couldn’t - - I couldn’t think about anything else. And then I wanted to do things to make everybody pay, to get revenge on everybody for making him look like that. I wanted to hurt the whole world for hurting Chunji hyung. But I knew, in the back of my head, I knew, if I went too far, then Chunji hyung wouldn’t have me, either. I’m proud of myself, I know what to do, I know how not to get caught. But if I did get caught, if I got in trouble - - it wouldn’t be good. It would make things worse for all of the people I don’t want to hurt. Make it worse for all of the people I only want to make things better for. So I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t do it. And not doing it - - not doing it took up all of my time. All day, every day, every second, all I could think about was what I wasn’t doing. The things I could be doing, the things I wanted to do. The people I could hurt and the ways I could get revenge and all of the ways to make them pay. Or things I could do to stop this, to make it so L.Joe hyung couldn’t leave, so he had nowhere else to go. I just, I wanted to hurt everybody, and I knew how to do it, and I couldn’t even see my own hand in front of my face. I only saw revenge.”
“Oh my god,” Suho said, stunned. “Maknae.” He grabbed Changjo’s face in both hands, staring. He felt crushed. And he felt overwhelmingly grateful that Changjo hadn’t gone through with it. Grateful for Changjo’s strength, for the stubborn goodness that had won out. “You did the right thing. You did the right thing,” he repeated earnestly.
Changjo laughed, a tear sliding down his cheek. “See, I knew you’d be like this. You helped me, all of those corny things you’ve said to me, I knew I’d be throwing all of that away if I went too far.” Suho kissed him, hugged him, wrapped him up in a big, tight hug. He hugged Suho back, his embrace solid and comforting. “You don’t have to worry about me.”
Hearing about how close Changjo had come to crossing the line, he knew that a part of him would only worry about Changjo more than ever, from now on. But at the moment, he was practically gasping with relief. “Thank you, thank you.” He sat back, staring into Changjo’s eyes again, both hands on Changjo’s shoulders. “Thank you for not going so far you couldn’t come back. Those things that you thought of doing, those weren’t solutions. You’re right, they wouldn’t have helped Chunji, not at all. They wouldn’t have helped anyone. It’s good that you want to protect your hyungs, it’s good that you want to stand up for Chunji when he’s hurt. But you have to find productive ways to do it. Healthy ways.” Thinking of something, he frowned. “Did you tell L about this?”
Easing out of Suho’s hold, Changjo scratched his temple with one fingertip, his expression innocent. “Tell L hyung that I wanted to do some things? Yeah.”
Suho felt his frown deepen. “What did he say?”
Smiling, Changjo leaned away. “Nothing that you want to hear. You might take it the wrong way. But how have you been, hyung? We’ve talked a lot about me, but I don’t know what you’ve been up to.”
“Oh, uh!” C.A.P. was so close to coming, he felt the deep shocks of it starting in the soles of his feet. “Fuck, oh, oh!”
“Come on, hyung, almost there,” Ricky coaxed, stroking his chest. A quick pinch to his nipple made him shudder, made his hips lurch off-beat, shoving him deeper in Ricky’s body.
“Fuck, oh, oo-hh, oohhh!” He could feel it, god, he was coming, “Oh!” Crying out, he came roughly, helplessly, overwhelmed by the sudden rush of ecstasy, the hot explosion rattling him. Gasping, blitzed, he shot his load in thick, urgent pulses.
“Oh, yeah, that’s nice,” Ricky murmured, smiling at him. Ricky looked so proud of him, he felt proud of himself, felt bashful. Pinching his ear in a way that sent prickles of heat the whole way down his legs, Ricky tugged him in for a soft, intimate kiss.
He already felt wrung out and raw from the force of his orgasm; kissing so tenderly kind of shook him. But it felt so good, he didn’t really want to stop. He was used to coming hard, used to getting off with his members, but, damn. This was something else.
When Ricky stopped kissing him, he opened his eyes, deprived. Niel had taken over and was kissing Ricky slowly, deeply, really settling in there. He watched for a minute, just enjoying the sight of it, and then he joined in, kissing Niel, kissing Ricky. Sex between them was hotter than ever. More comfortable than ever. Sappier than ever, maybe, but he wasn’t going to call that a bad thing. But definitely hotter than ever. Smoking hot.
“Smoke,” Niel mumbled.
“Yeah,” he said, kissing Ricky again. He wondered how Niel had read his mind.
“Wait, wait,” Ricky said, pushing at his chest. And then the dorm was filled with furious, squealing beeps.
Fire alarm. “Shit!” C.A.P. dove for his pants. The three of them grabbed and pushed at each other, racing out of the room. He zoomed towards the kitchen. Smoke everywhere, thick and stinking. He yanked open the microwave, and Niel already had the fire extinguisher, spraying. Cursing, Ricky turned off the alarm and tried to clear the air.
As soon as the fire was out, C.A.P. stormed into the front room.
No one was there. He could have sworn that he’d raced past Chunji’s still form on the couch, but had that just been his imagination? He checked Chunji’s room, the bathroom: no one.
“He’s gone?” Ricky asked, peering into rooms.
“Maybe it was an accident,” Niel suggested uneasily. C.A.P. could see him trying to convince himself.
“Where’d he go?” Ricky asked.
“At least he’s out of the dorm,” Niel said. “That’s good, right?”
C.A.P. called him.
Ricky pulled his ringing phone out from under the couch.
Niel was glad that he’d taken Chen’s advice. To his surprise, to his relief, it was working. He felt better than he’d thought he could, this soon. Things with the members were really good. Everybody got along, everybody was close, everybody felt comfortable. They hung out all of the time, they went out together, they shared meals, they shared beds. It felt like whatever barriers had been between them before, were all falling away now. They weren’t just getting back to normal, they were improving on it, clearing away old problems, letting go of old hurts.
The weird thing was, the biggest issue in the dorm wasn’t L.Joe. It was Chunji. It was like living with an angry ghost. He’d lie dormant, not doing or saying anything, holding his silent vigil on the couch. Stretched out there, unblinking, for hours, like he was waiting for the TV to spit out some secret signal. And then, out of nowhere, he’d set the kitchen on fire, or flood the laundry room, or set the bedroom on fire, or flood the bathroom, or - - there were a lot of fires and floods, basically. Never at the same time, though; it would’ve been too convenient if they could use the flood to put out the fire.
They started to take turns with him. Guarding him. It was boring, because it meant just sitting there watching him watch TV. Trying to make conversation was a huge mistake. When they kept an eye on him, he didn’t do anything; he only caused fires and floods when they left him alone. C.A.P. said that he probably just didn’t want to get caught; he liked pretending that it had nothing to do with him. Changjo said that he only did it when they were having too much fun, having sex, enjoying dinner, laughing too much or getting off too loudly. Ricky said that he wasn’t upset at being left out, he just didn’t want them - - or anyone - - to have fun. Niel thought that normal groups didn’t have these problems.
So, on one hand, everything was going well. Going surprisingly well, surprisingly easy. Niel felt close to the members, felt confident about moving forward.
And on the other hand, while they were actually getting over losing a core piece of the group, another core piece was turning into a vengeful couch goblin. And he had no idea what to do about that.
“Look, I don’t want to force him,” C.A.P. said.
“You’re going to have to,” Changjo said.
“What if someone else does it?” C.A.P. asked. “Someone he won’t punch in the face?”
“He’ll scratch anybody’s eyes out,” Niel said. “Are we talking about a different Lee Chanhee?”
“You talked to Onew hyung and Sunggyu hyung, and you felt better, right?” C.A.P. asked Ricky.
“Oh, no,” Ricky said, shaking his head.
“This is not a good idea,” Changjo said.
“You talked to Suho hyung and L, and you felt better,” C.A.P. told Changjo.
“It’s not the same,” Changjo said.
Niel didn’t know what C.A.P. was getting at, but if the maknaes were against it this much, he was on their side. “This is a horrible idea,” he told C.A.P. “Whatever it is.”
“If Xiumin hyung and Dongwoo hyung-”
“What?” he demanded. The maknaes were right! This was a terrible idea! “You can’t sic Chunji hyung on Dongwoo hyung!” What was C.A.P. thinking? “It’s like - - it’s like putting a kitten in a blender!”
“Bloody,” Changjo said. “So bloody.”
“Ew, a kitten?” Ricky asked, cringing. He rubbed his arms. “Don’t say things like that.”
“Dongwoo hyung’s not that much of a pushover,” C.A.P. said.
“Chunji hyung is that much of a kitten blender,” Niel said.
“Stop it!” Ricky exclaimed, pushing at him. “I’m getting disturbed, seriously. No more kittens.”
“Chunji’s not that bad,” C.A.P. said. “You’re just afraid of him because he’s your hyung.”
“Afraid, I’m not afraid,” Changjo said.
Niel was. He decided not to say it out loud, though. Too embarrassing.
“Damn. You look like shit.”
Chunji blinked. Xiumin? “What are you doing here?” he asked, sitting up on the couch. The room spun a little. He didn’t think that he’d eaten in a while.
“I thought you were the visual.” Xiumin crouched down in front of him. He felt like he hadn’t seen Xiumin’s familiar, lovely face in a year. The concern in Xiumin’s eyes made him tense up, and when Xiumin reached for his face, he pulled away. “God. I knew you were taking it hard, but what are you doing to yourself?”
“What are you doing here?” he asked again, not liking this at all. Who’d invited him over, let him in? Chunji looked around quickly, but he didn’t see or hear his members.
“You need to get out of here,” Xiumin said, standing up. “Get cleaned up, let’s go for a walk or something.”
He showered and shaved. He threw on some clothes and brushed his hair. After they’d walked for a minute, he suggested that they go to a café he knew Xiumin liked. When he said that they could take the subway, Xiumin said no, so he teased Xiumin about being a celebrity until Xiumin gave in and agreed to go.
At the station, he ditched Xiumin. He rode on his own, got off a few stops later, and checked into a hotel.
A few days later, his room phone rang. Listlessly, he answered.
“Hi, hyung,” Changjo said.
He hung up. He went back to the dorm that night.
“We have to do something,” C.A.P. said.
“I can do something,” Changjo said. “But I don’t want to.”
“Well, you have to,” Ricky said.
“Let’s try Dongwoo hyung,” C.A.P. said.
Niel opened his mouth.
“Don’t! Stop hurting kittens!” Ricky exclaimed.
“What’s your thing?” C.A.P. asked Changjo.
“If he doesn’t want to do it, I don’t want to know anything about it,” Niel said. “If the maknae thinks that it’s a bad idea, then it’s a really bad idea, don’t you know that by now?”
“Call Dongwoo hyung,” Changjo said. “Maybe he’ll fix everything.”
Niel shook his head. He could already see the blood on the walls.
Xiumin had warned him, so Dongwoo knew to expect Chunji to look too thin, too pale. C.A.P. had warned him, so he knew to expect Chunji to be tense and mean. But he hadn’t been prepared for what seeing Chunji like that would do to him.
It was a good visit. Chunji was nice, and funny, and hugged him. But it was a horrible visit, because none of it was real. It wasn’t his Chunji, honest and bright. It was all fake, it was acting, it was Chunji pretending to be okay but suffering badly on the inside. Chunji said all of the right things and showed him all of the right smiles and laughed at all of the right times, but none of it felt honest.
Chunji tried to get rid of him, but he didn’t want to go. Everyone had been telling him that all Chunji did was lay on the couch and watch TV, so he sat on the couch and watched TV. If that was what Chunji liked to do lately, if that was something that made Chunji feel better, then, okay, whatever helped.
Chunji sat beside him. When he put his arm around Chunji, Chunji stiffened up. Feeling terrible, he pulled away again.
After a while, Chunji relaxed against him. During a commercial break, Chunji fell asleep, slumped against his shoulder.
It scared him. It hurt him. It shredded his heart to see Chunji in so much pain.
He came back the next day, and the next. He brought meals. He found lighter, happier shows and movies for Chunji to watch. He cleaned up Teen Top’s dorm and did laundry. He stocked their fridge with things that Chunji liked to eat. He brought nice new throw pillows so Chunji would be more comfortable on the couch.
They didn’t talk much. It was hard not to talk, but it made things easier. Quiet, Chunji seemed more real, more honest. And they didn’t need to use words to communicate everything, anyway. Whenever he sat on the couch, Chunji leaned against him. As soon as he sat down, Chunji gravitated towards him. So he knew that he should stay, and he knew that he should keep coming back.
He talked to Sungyeol to get some ideas, and then he downloaded some new games onto Chunji’s phone. He pulled them up during commercial breaks. When Chunji started playing them, he felt hope beat in his heart. It added variation to Chunji’s day, gave Chunji something else to do, so that had to be good, right?
When he went into Chunji’s room, he could imagine why Chunji didn’t spend much time in there. It was too much the same and too different. Half of the room was completely barren, abandoned, and half of the room was exactly the way it had been before. The room seemed locked in its own time warp.
Dongwoo asked Chunji if he wanted to do something about that, if he wanted to redecorate or switch rooms or get a new roommate, but he just lied about how he didn’t care. Dongwoo asked the other Teen Top members, and they agreed that something had to be done, but they couldn’t agree on what it was. So he took matters into his own hands. The room was set up for two people, so he rearranged it for just one. He moved the furniture around, spread Chunji’s belongings out, let Chunji’s presence take over the room. Clean, colorful sheets, extra room in the closet, artwork spaced out over the walls. He had the extra bed taken out entirely, because Chunji wouldn’t need it, but he left the second dresser to give Chunji more storage space.
It made him feel better to have something to do, to focus on a project. He had a lot of ideas that didn’t work out, but he made good progress. It seemed like an invasion of privacy to go through all of Chunji’s things, but whenever he brought that up, it seemed like Chunji didn’t really care, so maybe it was okay. He was happy to realize that even after digging through every layer of Chunji’s bedroom, he didn’t really learn much. There weren’t surprising new sides to Chunji or new secrets to uncover. Apparently, whatever there was to know about Chunji, he’d already known it. He was really glad for that.
He didn’t want to go so far as to paint the walls or anything; that seemed like too much of a change. He didn’t want to make it unrecognizable, he just wanted to make it more comfortable, more of a space welcoming to Chunji. It took him several days to get everything done, but he didn’t think that Chunji was really aware of all that he was doing. Chunji barely went into the room at all, and wasn’t paying much attention to the world outside the TV.
When the room seemed finished, he waited until Chunji finally got up to go to the bathroom. Then, when Chunji came out of the bathroom, he said, “There’s nothing good on, now. Why don’t you take a shower while I order dinner, and then we can start that other series?”
It was hard to stay away while Chunji showered, because Dongwoo wanted to be close, and they hadn’t made love in a long time. But Dongwoo was working hard to police himself. He knew how he was, he knew that his hands wandered and grabbed, he knew that sometimes he came across as pushy. He didn’t mean to be, and he didn’t want to rush Chunji. So he was holding back. When things were already this bad, the last thing he wanted was to make Chunji feel uncomfortable.
Out of the shower, Chunji went into the bedroom.
Chunji stayed in there for a while.
Wondering, Dongwoo went in.
Chunji was dressed, on the bed. Curled up on one side, fast asleep.
Dongwoo tucked him in.
“Why does he get his own room?” Niel asked. The four of them were eating out. They spent all of their time together these days, and they spent a lot of time out, away from the ghost in the dorm. “I want my own room.”
“If anyone gets his own room, I get my own,” C.A.P. said. “You and Chunji should room together.”
“I’m not rooming with Chunji!”
“He’s too messy, anyway,” Changjo said.
“Yeah, plus there’s that,” Niel said.
“He’s feeling a lot better,” Ricky said.
“He won’t get off of the couch,” C.A.P. said.
“Better is still better,” Ricky said.
“Couch is still couch,” Changjo said.
“Chunji’s still Chunji,” C.A.P. said.
Niel figured that it was his turn. “Teen Top is still Teen Top?”
It didn’t make a lot of sense, but everybody smiled and laughed, anyway, and C.A.P. slung an arm around him, and Changjo ordered more food.
After Dongwoo left, Chunji felt lonely. Restless. He got up and raided the fridge. Kicked bedroom doors open to see what the other members were up to.
Disturbed by the sound, maybe, Niel rolled over in bed, tucking up closer against C.A.P.
In the other room, Ricky barely stirred.
Changjo was still awake, sitting up, texting someone or something. They stared at each other in silence for a minute, and then Chunji lost interest and wandered away. Losing energy as he walked, he went over to the couch. Sinking down, he sighed. He rolled onto his back and let his mind wander. He didn’t like where it went. He rolled onto his side, groping around until he found the remote.
Nothing was on, and he didn’t want to watch the rest of the new drama series until Dongwoo came back. They were kind of binge-watching it together. Ignoring the TV, letting it play in the background, he picked up his phone. Oh, his crops were ready for harvest! He opened his game app and messed around for a minute.
Changjo strolled out and dropped down heavily to sit beside him.
Feeling his hackles rising, he tried to ignore it.
are you doing?” Changjo asked. “This is
boring.” He turned off the TV. “Why are you still up? What are you, these days? A ghost?
A vampire?” Changjo leaned in too
close, eyeballs practically against his cheekbone. “Want to suck my blood?”
“Get the fuck off of me,” he muttered. Without looking, he raised an arm, shoving Changjo away too hard.
Flopping back, Changjo landed against the armrest. He was practically naked, wearing only black boxer-briefs, bare skin in all directions. Stretching out, he tucked an arm behind his head. Swinging one leg up, he tucked his bare foot behind Chunji on the couch. “You’re in such a bad mood all of the time. What’s that about, are you going to be mean from now on? Just a grumpy old man? What are you so upset about, anyway?”
He laughed, and it felt like the sound, the movement of it, shook something loose in his chest, hollowed him out. What was he so upset about? What was he upset about?
“Everybody keeps asking me how I am,” Changjo said. “How are you, are you okay, are you all right, how it’s going, how are you doing? Most of it’s meaningless, I hate it, they’re only asking to get credit for caring, because they’re supposed to, because that’s what nice people do. Or they want to see how I’ll react, they want me to cry a little, bleed a little, they want to see how hurt I am, like they get off on it, it gives them something to think about, something to talk about. Fucking parasites.” He rubbed his chest. “Some people care. They’re worried about me, they want me to be okay. But what am I supposed to say? I can’t tell them what I’m really thinking. I can’t tell them how I really feel. I have so many thoughts,” he said, squirming a little, burrowing his butt deeper into the sofa, tucking his foot under Chunji. “I have so many feelings. So. Many. Fucking. Emotions.”
“Can you get the fuck away from me?” Chunji asked.
“I keep thinking this thing. This thing, it keeps popping up inside my brain and I can’t make it go away. And I can’t talk to anybody about it. It’s not the kind of thing that nice idols talk about, right?”
“Since when are you nice?” Chunji asked. One more minute of this and he was shutting Changjo up, one way or another.
“Can’t tell just anybody. We’re still supposed to keep his secrets, right, we’re can’t let things slip, even now, can’t do that. Can’t tell Niel hyung, he’d get upset, we can’t rattle the talent. Can’t tell Suho hyung, he wouldn’t like it, he’d just get upset that you and C.A.P. hyung let me do it.”
“Is this supposed to be cute?” Chunji asked. “You’re talking about L.Joe, just fucking say it, say his name. If you want to talk about him so much, go find Sehun, I’m sure that he’d fucking love to hear it.”
“Oh Sehun,” Changjo said, drumming his fingers on his thigh. “I wonder if he thinks about it, too. I wonder if it bothers him. It bothers me, it bothers me all of the time. I can’t stop thinking about it. I can’t stop seeing it, I keep hearing it. The way he begged me to stop, he was begging me, over and over, stop, don’t, no, maknae, no, don’t, please, don’t.” Shaken, Chunji blinked, but Changjo kept going, talking to the ceiling now, his voice relentless. “The way I kept going, kept hurting him, I just kept going, and he was fighting me, pushing against my shoulder, trying to get me off of him, begging me to stop it, stop hurting him-”
“God, god, stop it,” Chunji said frantically, phone forgotten, grabbing his hand.
“I keep seeing his face.” There were tears on Changjo’s cheeks, and Chunji’s heart was breaking. “He looked so desperate. He was begging me to stop and I-”
“He wanted it,” Chunji said, the words rushing out of him. “He wanted it, you know he wanted it. You can’t think of it that way, god, maknae, don’t ever think about it that way. You know that’s not what it was like. ”
Changjo’s voice shook, just a little, and the faint tremor ripped apart Chunji’s heart. “I wonder what he thinks of it now. I wonder if he looks back on it, if he, if he-”
“Stop it, stop it.” Chunji was practically crawling on top of him, grabbing at his hands, his chest. “Don’t twist it around, don’t make it something it wasn’t. It was good for him, he wanted it. He loved it, he loved that and he loved it with you, he was hungry for it.”
“Who else knows that?” Changjo asked. “Who knows that but you and me and him? No one else was ever even in the room. And he’s not around anymore. If I tell Suho hyung what I’m scared of, what can he say? If I ask C.A.P. hyung, then what? They’ll tell me that he wanted it, he probably wanted it, everybody knows what he was like, but there’s going to be doubt in their eyes. Nobody knows for sure, nobody can say for sure.”
“I can,” Chunji insisted, gripping him, fingers digging into his chest. “I was there, maknae, I saw everything, I did everything, I helped you. I helped him, it was all for him, everything was for him. He wanted it. Look at me!” He felt scared and furious. “There’s no doubt in my eyes. There’s no doubt anywhere. You weren’t hurting him, you never hurt him. Ask me about it today, or tomorrow, or ten years from now, I’ll say the same thing.”
“Ask who?” Changjo demanded. “I can’t ask you anything if you’re dead on the couch. I can’t ask you anything if all you ever do is tell me go the fuck away. You need to watch TV? I need my hyung!”
Chunji jerked, startled. He felt like he’d been snatched out of a deep sleep, like he was just coming to.
Breathing hard, Changjo swallowed, seeing how he was taking it.
Slowly relaxing his grip, he sank back on his haunches. Hunh.
Eyeing him cautiously, Changjo sat up.
“Shut up for a minute.” He pushed throw pillows aside, getting comfortable, thinking things over. He guessed that he was still Changjo’s hyung. He was still in Teen Top. He still had members to deal with. Dongsaengs he was kind of responsible for.
They didn’t really need him, though. They had their sugar daddies and whatever, they had people looking out for them.
But Suho and L and Onew and whoever else, Sunggyu or whoever, weren’t in Teen Top. Didn’t know as much as he did about L.Joe. Or about Angels, or about their particular brand of practice, or about how to deal with their specific managers, or about the loose tile in the bathroom, or about a hundred other things. And, damn, Changjo was so fucking sensitive, it was probably good if Chunji kept an eye on him. And, god, Ricky definitely needed a keeper, even if everybody was so, so sure that he didn’t. And Niel, they always piled the world on Niel’s shoulders, Chunji should probably make sure that he wasn’t cracking under the pressure. Help him out a little.
Chunji sniffed. “So was this all a set-up, or what?”
“A little bit,” Changjo said. “But not really. It seriously freaks me out, I keep thinking about it. I just can’t tell anybody. Nobody was there, besides you. And him, but.”
“Yeah.” Chunji got it. Giving in, he hugged Changjo. “I love you, you little shit. Don’t worry so much, you think about things too much. What happened was good, it was what he wanted. That’s just how he has sex, it’s his thing, you know that. Don’t get all up in your head about it.”
“You can be a moody asshole if you have to be,” Changjo said. “But Niel hyung and Ricky need us to, you know, hang out and bond and get along and be close for a while. C.A.P. hyung needs it, too, I think, he’s feeling a lot better lately.”
“So just the three of them,” Chunji said, pulling back and eyeing him. “Just they need it, not you.”
“Right,” he said, nodding.
Laughing, Chunji punched his arm. “Liar! God, you’re such an asshole.” Leaning back comfortably, relaxing against the back of the couch, Chunji slung an arm around him, pulling him close. He settled in with his head on Chunji’s shoulder. It had been a while, but Chunji liked this. “This is, god. It’s so shitty. This whole thing.”
Changjo made a quiet sound.
“Are you feeling okay?” he asked. “What’s wrong with you, you haven’t torched our company offices or blackmailed his lawyer or anything. Did you do something and I missed it? Are you working some long game?”
“No. It’s okay.” Changjo shifted, snuggling in closer against him, arm circling his waist. “If he wants to go, it’s already over.”
And he didn’t want revenge? Changjo didn’t feel betrayed and wasn’t out for blood? Chunji didn’t believe that for a second. “If you already did something, if you’re working on it, give me a heads-up before it explodes.” He might be a little more complicated than most guys, but he was one of the most important things in Chunji’s life. “I’ll shield you, however it goes down.”
“I didn’t do anything, really.” Changjo trapped Chunji’s foot between both of his. “I got pretty close, but I didn’t do it.”
Weird to think that he’d held back. Chunji almost wished that he’d done something catastrophic, just to have a crisis to solve.
“We’re both just going to let this happen,” Changjo said. “I thought you’d stop him.”
“I thought you’d stop him.”
“Do you want me to?”
A hell of a lot hung on that question. Chunji knew that if he gave any indication that his answer might be yes, Changjo would handle it for him. But, “No. If he wants to go, let him go.” It wasn’t even bitterness saying that. It was resignation. Fatigue, maybe. “When the song’s over, have the goddamned sense to stop singing.”
Changjo was quiet.
He toyed with Changjo’s hair.
“I didn’t say it back, but I love you.”
“I know you love me.” He yawned, ruffling the maknae’s hair. “I’m going to bed. Come with me, it’s too quiet when I’m in there by myself.”
Niel was alone in his room when Chunji came in. He braced himself, not sure what to expect, not understanding this. Chunji sat on C.A.P.’s bed and looked at him, then laughed. “What? You look so scared!” Smiling, Chunji got up and came even closer, sitting beside him on his bed. “What’s wrong with your face?”
“What’s wrong with your face?” Niel asked, unnerved. “You’re smiling!”
Chunji laughed like that was funny.
Niel drew his legs up, trying to sink lower against the headboard.
Chunji leaned against Niel’s knees. He sniffed and studied Niel with bright, demanding eyes. “How are things, are you okay? Not falling apart or anything?”
“Not falling apart.” He stared at Chunji, still wary. “Are you?”
Chunji snorted and smacked at his chest, then leaned against him again, hugging his knees. “Let’s go out. Dongwoo hyung’s busy, I need someone to have fun with.”
Changjo had told him that Chunji was feeling better. He hadn’t expected it to be this much better, though. Could he trust this? “I can go out.”
Chunji’s smile sparkled. “Great.”
He felt like he’d been waiting for Chunji to smile at him like that, and he hadn’t even known it. He smiled back happily, helplessly. If Chunji was back, if he had his fun, sexy, ridiculous hyung back, things would be so much better. Watching Chunji smile at him, watching Chunji climb off of the bed and head for the doorway, he felt love and hope beat in his heart. “Are you…”
“Hmm?” Chunji turned in the doorway. Spotting a mirror, he fixed his hair, and then he glanced back at Niel expectantly.
“Uh, do you want to invite the maknae?” Maybe, just in case Chunji turned on him, it would help to have someone else along to take the brunt of Chunji’s wrath.
“He’s not - - oh, the other one? Sure. Ricky!” Chunji called.
“What?” Ricky shouted back from another room.
“Come out with us!”
“It doesn’t matter, just say yes!”
“Where do you want to go?” Niel asked, sliding off of his bed.
“Let’s go to a furniture store or a home décor store or something. I need to redecorate.” Chunji grinned at him. “So nice having my own room. So much more space than you have in here. Don’t you feel crowded?”
Chunji was deliberately trying to bait him. Holding back, he smiled politely. “I don’t mind it, I’m used to it.”
“Yeah, but always having a hyung around, having to be quiet whenever he’s napping, aren’t you sick of it?”
Yes. Yes, he’d been sick of it since forever. “I don’t mind it, I’m used to it,” he repeated, but he could hear that he was less convincing this time.
Chunji chuckled at him. “You totally want your own room.”
“Of course I do! I should get one!” he exclaimed. “I deserve my own room more than you do!”
Chunji’s eyes widened; he was loving this, getting off on being argued with. Niel smiled at him, enjoying it, too, and then forced a somber expression, pretending to be frustrated. “Really! You deserve it more than me? Why, I want to hear all about it.”
“I, I’m the, I have more activities! More individual schedules! I have to leave early or come home late, I have to sleep at odd times, I need my own room!”
“I don’t have any schedules? I don’t ever do anything?” Chunji asked.
“I’m going out, working hard, representing Teen Top everywhere I go,” Niel insisted. “How is it fair that I have to get dressed in the dark, I have to be quiet, I have some lazy hyung in the next bed telling me to shut up so he can sleep for another ten hours?”
“Oh, you can’t accommodate our leader?” Chunji asked. “You can’t be respectful of your hyung’s rest? Is that it?”
Ricky walked in, looking disappointed in them. “Hyungs. Are we arguing or are we going out? If we’re just arguing, I don’t have to get dressed.”
“We’re going out,” Niel said.
“We’re ready to go, we’re just waiting for you,” Chunji added. “Why aren’t you dressed already? How long do we have to wait for you?”
“You can’t hurry a little?” Niel asked. “You’re wasting our time, now.”
Ricky looked down at himself, then at them. He had on track pants and an old T-shirt. Chunji had on shorts, a tank top, and a cardigan. Niel had on sweatpants and a T-shirt with a soy sauce stain from earlier. “You don’t want me to make you wait?” he asked.
“Right, you’re only holding us up,” Chunji said. He was so close to laughing that Niel snickered a little. Snorting, he tried to shush Niel, but that just made it funnier.
“Okay, we’ll go, then,” Ricky said. Turning, he walked away.
Wait, what? “Like this?” Niel asked, following him.
“If hyungs are in such a big rush, I don’t want to make you wait,” Ricky said. At the front door, he started putting on shoes.
“Good, let’s go,” Chunji agreed.
“Right,” Niel said. They weren’t really going to go through with it, were they? Oh, god, they were. Keeping up, he shoved his feet into sandals.
“Oh, my phone,” Ricky said, turning away.
“My wallet,” Niel said quickly. He’d just run and grab his wallet. And real pants. And a shirt that wasn’t stained all down the front. The stain seemed bigger and darker every time he looked at it. It hadn’t seemed nearly so bad, earlier, just a few drops, but now his shirt seemed to be more soy sauce than cotton.
“No,” Chunji said, grabbing their arms.
“Hyung, I need my phone,” Ricky said.
“I can’t go without my wallet,” Niel added.
“We’ll use Niel’s phone, and Ricky can pay for everything,” Chunji said.
“I don’t have my phone, either,” Niel said.
“I can’t find my wallet,” Ricky said.
“We don’t need those things,” Chunji said.
“Okay, be serious,” Ricky said. “How can we go shopping without money?”
“We’ll just go out and enjoy the fresh air and the sights of the city,” Chunji said. “When did you become so materialistic?”
“What a shame, kids these days,” Niel said, shaking his head.
“The sights of the city?” Ricky repeated to himself, rubbing his ear.
“Aren’t you proud of your city?” Chunji demanded, laughing.
“I’m proud!” Ricky argued. “Let’s go, then! Let’s go now!”
When Ricky swung around and yanked the front door open, Niel grabbed at the air behind his back, wanting to stop him. Laughing, Chunji strode out with him. Helpless, Niel followed.
In the elevator, they pretended to be confident. Chunji shoved his hands in his pockets and lounged against the wall, looking cool. Ricky tried to fix his hair. Niel struck a chic pose, chin in the air.
Then the elevator doors opened, and an old couple stood there, ancient and respectable, dressed for the opera or something. Stricken, Niel made an inarticulate noise, suddenly humiliated in his old sandals and soy sauce. Chunji grabbed at him and shoved at Ricky, bowing and murmuring polite things. Niel bowed hastily, letting Chunji drag him away.
“Oh, god,” Chunji whispered. Another elevator’s doors were opening, and Chunji crammed them in there, jabbing at the button to close the door.
“I thought we were going out,” Niel said.
“You’re not going anywhere, Stain Boy,” Chunji said.
“Stain Daniel,” Ricky said.
“Our stain vocal,” Chunji said, and all three of them were laughing, leaning against each other, cracking up.
When they got to their floor, they all peered out to make sure that the hallway was clear. Then they scurried towards their apartment, shushing each other, terrified of attracting attention and being caught looking like ragged kids in public. At their door, Niel hurriedly pushed in the unlock code. It didn’t work. He did it again.
“No, no,” Ricky whispered. “The new one.”
The new - - shit! Changjo had changed it. Niel hadn’t memorized it yet, he’d left it in his wallet. “What is it?”
“I don’t know, it’s in my phone,” Ricky whispered. “Why don’t you know?”
“Why’d you leave your phone behind?” he demanded.
“Don’t you know it?” Ricky asked Chunji.
“He doesn’t know anything, he’s been dead on the couch,” Niel said.
“Are we seriously locked out right now?” Chunji demanded.
“What do you want me to do, call the maknae with the phone you wouldn’t let me bring?” Ricky demanded.
Chunji burst into laughter. Sliding down the wall a little, he ran his hands through his hair. “Oh, god. When’s C.A.P. hyung coming home?”
“Sometime?” Niel guessed. “Later?”
“We can go downstairs and ask to use a sasaeng’s phone, we can call Changjo that way,” Ricky suggested.
“Or we could just ask them for the code, they probably have it,” Niel said.
They argued for a little while longer, but it was fun, it was playful. He said foolish things just to make the other members laugh, and it worked; Chunji kept cracking up, leaning against him, bright and happy. They couldn’t get into the apartment, but no one wanted to be the one to venture away from the door. Niel had been seen in public in plenty of embarrassing situations and outfits before, but his hair was a mess and his skin wasn’t great and he was dripping soy sauce all over the place; no way did he want to be seen looking like this.
Giving up, they sat down together to wait. They played games and they held whispered conversations and they placed bets on whether C.A.P. or Changjo would get back first. It was a complete waste of an afternoon, and it should have been boring and tense and regrettable, but it felt like a precious, happy moment, with Chunji laughing so easily and Ricky cuddled cozily against him. Niel was glad that they’d come out together today, even if they’d never left the building.
C.A.P. dropped in the practice room to see what the maknae was up to. They went out for dinner together. They ate a lot, and they talked about music, and the maknae flirted, and it was a good time. In the elevator on the way up to the dorm, they played a little footsie, nudging against each other and giving each other suggestive looks and snickering over how foolish it all was.
When the elevator doors opened, Changjo took off down the hallway, dancing and jogging away. C.A.P. followed more slowly, grooving after him.
Then Changjo rushed back and grabbed at C.A.P., gesturing and shushing. His eyes were wide with mischievous glee, and C.A.P. laughed, pushing him away. “Maknae, what?”
“No, ssshhh, seriously,” he whispered, still shushing, dragging C.A.P. along. “Look, look.”
The other members were seated beside the door. The three of them were tucked together in a line, slumped against each other, fast asleep. Chunji was barely dressed and it looked like Niel hadn’t combed his hair in days. Ricky was snuggled in between them, tipping over, about to fall into Chunji’s lap.
“Were we kicked out?” C.A.P. whispered. “They look homeless.” Or drunk, maybe, were they drunk?
“I changed the code,” Changjo whispered.
Oh, right. C.A.P. held onto the maknae, trying to smother laughter. God, these jerks. “So stupid.”
“Come on,” Changjo whispered. Grinning wickedly, happily, he gestured C.A.P. along, right to the door. Carefully, not disturbing anyone, he unlocked the door and slipped inside.
Crouching down, C.A.P. whispered, “Ya, sexy,” and put a hand over Chunji’s mouth. When Chunji’s eyes opened, he grinned and put his finger to his lips. Raising a fist, ready to slug him, Chunji looked around, checking out the situation. When Chunji relaxed, he lowered his hand, and Chunji did the same. “In,” he mouthed, gesturing to the doorway.
Chunji glanced at Niel, then nudged Ricky.
Head nodding, Ricky almost fell forward. They grabbed at him, pushing him upright, and he blinked at them blearily. Grinning, shushing him, they gestured to Niel, then to the open door.
Face brightening, he nodded. Chunji crept in first, Ricky following. C.A.P. snuck in last and silently pulled the door shut.
It was good teamwork. Good to feel like a team again. He high-fived everyone, and Chunji demanded to know what the code was, and then he and Chunji hung out in the maknaes’ room for a while, joking and talking shit and just relaxing together until the doorbell rang.
Some of the thoughts and feelings Chunji had about L.Joe, he expressed to the other members, because they were the only people in the world who knew L.Joe as well as he did. Some of them he shared with Dongwoo, because they were things he needed to get off of his chest but didn’t necessarily want to say to the members. Some of them he only told Xiumin, because Xiumin had lost members before and understood what he was going through.
He used Xiumin to escape and heal, the way Xiumin had once used him. He was grateful to Dongwoo for loving him and sticking beside him even when he hadn’t done anything to make himself worth the trouble. Dongwoo was so earnest and so understanding, whether he had a good day or a bad day, whether he thought the whole thing was completely behind him or abruptly got caught up in his emotions, he could just be himself and express what he felt, and Dongwoo never judged him for it, never thought that he was having the wrong emotion or moving on too fast or taking too long to get over it or processing it badly. Dongwoo just listened to him and supported him through it and cared about him so much, he couldn’t be jaded. He couldn’t harden his heart and take away grim, painful lessons when someone so pure and so honest was right in front of him, selflessly loving him.
He had some long, dark talks with Changjo, and he had some short, candid talks with C.A.P. He hung out with Niel and he made Ricky sleep with him at night so the room wouldn’t seem so empty.
One evening, they were talking about going out to eat when C.A.P. decided to order dinner, instead. Once it was established that they were staying in, not leaving after all, Chunji deliberately put on ugly, crappy clothing, and Ricky did the same, totally comfortable and not at all presentable. They settled down on the living room floor to eat, and Changjo spilled cola on Niel. “Stain Daniel,” Ricky said, and Chunji cracked up.
C.A.P. waited until they all had their mouths full before he said, “Uh,” and rubbed his nose.
“What?” Chunji said, gaze darting from one member to another.
“Is this a leader talk?” Niel asked.
“I didn’t do it,” Changjo said. “No,” he insisted when they laughed at him. “I had nothing to do with it, I wasn’t even there.”
“No one’s in trouble,” C.A.P. said, knocking Changjo in the side of the head.
“Good,” Niel said. “Too bad,” Chunji said. They froze, then laughed at each other.
“I - - I’m not good at this shit,” C.A.P. said. “I don’t want to make a bunch of big speeches. But you all, you know how it is, right?”
Watching C.A.P., Niel slowly lowered his chopsticks. “No,” he said. “No, we don’t know. You haven’t even said anything yet.”
C.A.P. sighed, looking self-conscious. It was really sweet. “Look, I.” He sighed again and gave up. “I love you, all of you, and I’m still here, all right? I’m not going anywhere. I’m here, and I want you to be here, and I want Angel to be here, and that’s it, that’s what I want.”
He was so earnest and exasperated and bad at this, Chunji smiled, wanting to hug him. “Me, too.”
“You love us?” Niel asked. “So sappy all of a sudden.”
“I love the members,” Ricky said.
“Group hug,” Chunji said, wrapping both arms around Niel. Ricky pushed bowls out of the way and joined them, snuggling in. “What, wait, okay,” Niel was saying. C.A.P. held back for a second, then grinned and piled in, hugging too tightly.
“Maknae,” Ricky said. “Maknae!”
Chunji worked a leg free and kicked his knee. “Maknae!”
Changjo looked up from his noodles. “Oh?” His expression innocent, he wiped his mouth. “Something happening?”
“Get in here!” Ricky exclaimed, laughing.
“Oh!” Changjo blinked, smiling like he was noticing them for the first time. Then, with a playful growl, he flung his arms around them, completing the hug.
“Teen Top fighting,” Ricky said.
“Teen Top fighting!” Chunji agreed.
“This is great, this is how I like to eat dinner, there’s nothing wrong with this,” Niel said, squished in the middle.
“Whose hand is that?” C.A.P. asked, looking down.
“You can’t tell?” Chunji asked. “It’s been too long.”
Things were good. Good between the members. Chunji was happy. Niel was more relaxed, more open, these days. Changjo was in a good mood, playful. It seemed like the five of them were enjoying each other, rediscovering each other.
C.A.P. found Ricky resting in Chunji’s room, alone. He crawled onto the bed and Ricky scooted over, making room. “Hey,” he said, stretching out. He wrapped an arm around Ricky, and Ricky relaxed against him, comfortable there, used to him.
Ricky was texting someone. “Hey,” he said again, softly. Watching Ricky’s face, he brushed his thumb over the corner of Ricky’s eyebrow.
“Hmm.” Ricky was still texting.
Closing his eyes, he brushed his nose against the side of Ricky’s head. “You okay?”
He didn’t mean it. C.A.P. opened his eyes, studying Ricky’s face. “Yeah?”
Ricky nodded without looking at him. “Sure, hyung.”
C.A.P. wanted to believe him. “Things have been hard, right? But you don’t have to worry. We’re still together. You and me and the members. You’ve still got us. You’ve still got Angel. It’ll be okay.”
Lowering his phone, Ricky finally looked at C.A.P. His expression was a little lost around the edges, a little wounded. He twisted towards C.A.P. and, feeling bad for him, C.A.P. hugged him. He hugged back, sighing, and C.A.P. kissed his ear. “We’ll be okay,” C.A.P. promised him. “We’re Teen Top, right? We’ll stick together, we’ll work harder, we’ll make it work.”
“Stick together,” Ricky repeated, snuggling in.
There was a beep. Ricky shifted, checking his phone over C.A.P.’s shoulder. “Baekhyun hyung says that I should say hello for him. Say hello to you. Say it with my mouth.”
C.A.P. chuckled, rolling his eyes. “With your mouth?”
“Yeah, with my mouth. He’s very specific about that.” Ricky shrugged, pulling back and gesturing at C.A.P.’s crotch. “All right, take it out, I’ll get started.”
Chuckling again, C.A.P. tugged on Ricky’s ear, guiding Ricky closer. “Say hello up here,” he said, and pressed his mouth to Ricky’s.
“Mmm.” Ricky eased back for a second, checking his expression, and smiled. “Hello,” Ricky murmured, lashes sweeping down, and kissed him again.
Oh, god, this was hell. Ricky sucked in a deep breath and started again. The five of them had been practicing for hours, and only sheer willpower kept his feet moving.
How many nights had he spent this way over the years? Locked in the practice room, working, learning, retooling, refining. Sweating. So much sweating. Hurting.
He did it for himself, because this was his career. He did it for Angel, so that all of their faith in him would be for something. He did it for his family, with the hope of making their lives easier.
He did it with Teen Top. They were in this together. They were always beside him in this, working hard and sweating just like he was. They practiced together, struggled together, succeeded together, failed together. Fought together, stayed together.
Somehow, in here, with sweat dripping in his eyes and his back killing him and the mirrors reflecting every mistake back to him, he felt like things were really back to normal. There might be five people instead of six in the room, but the fundamentals of what Teen Top was hadn’t changed. This was Teen Top.
He felt like he’d needed this. Needed to come back in here, needed to go back to where Teen Top had been born, needed to see for himself that they still had this. That this was the same. And if this was the same, then their commitment to each other was the same, too.
When the music stopped, he groaned, collapsing. In a lump on the floor, he tried to catch his breath.
Changjo flopped on top of him, heavy and sweaty and smothering him.
“God, maknae, get off,” he moaned, summoning up the strength to shove Changjo but not getting anywhere with it.
“Is this where we go to die?” C.A.P. asked, spreading himself on top of them, weighing them down.
“No, stop! You’re too heavy,” Ricky complained. Changjo squirmed in between them, laughing.
“We’re not heavy,” Chunji argued, crawling across C.A.P.’s back. “Oof!”
“What is this, some new kind of chair?” Niel asked, sitting on top of Chunji.
“Ya!” Laughing, Chunji tried to shoo Niel off.
They all stayed there, trying to get comfortable, teasing each other, until Ricky decided that his lungs couldn’t take anymore. “Ya! I can’t breathe!”
Laughing, giving in, his hyungs relented, getting off of him, Chunji dragging Changjo away across the floor. While Niel stretched and Chunji tried mopping the floor with Changjo, C.A.P. leaned down, reaching out a hand. “You okay?” C.A.P. asked, smiling, helping him up.
Letting C.A.P. pull him up, he smiled back. “Yeah,” he decided, feeling better. Breathing easier, now. “Yeah, I’m okay.”
April 16, 2017
by Matthew Haldeman-Time