The Blind Item

K-pop info and glossary 

Who’s who chart of idols

This story is part of a series.

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.

            Changjo was so used to being grounded, it didn’t bother him anymore.  Now that he knew that everything was okay with L and Suho - - or Suho and L, why would he put them in that order, the right order of importance was Suho first and L second - - he wasn’t as upset about it.  Being isolated would give him time to get over his stupid crush on L, anyway, so maybe being grounded was convenient.

            He and Ricky were playing prisoners in adjoining cells, tapping at each other through the wall.  He was still confined to their room, and Ricky was stuck in Chunji and L.Joe’s room, and everybody else used C.A.P. and Niel’s room.  They were let out of their rooms to do their jobs, but they still didn’t have access to their phones and they weren’t allowed to hang out with other idols in the dressing room.  C.A.P. made them sit side-by-side in silence, and Chunji ordered them to look happy so that no one would think that anything was wrong, so they sat there mutely making goofy faces at each other.  It made Niel crack up.

            L and Suho - - Suho and L - - had apparently decided to make L.Joe their messenger.  Every couple of days he’d catch Changjo in the bathroom and whisper something like, “Suho hyung wants to know how you’re doing.  I told him that you’re okay,” or, “L hyung asked if you’ve been working out.”  Of course he was, he didn’t have any other way to kill time.  Well, there was always masturbation, but he was developing some really intense fantasies about L, and he didn’t want to encourage his brain in that direction.  They were really good fantasies, though.  The one where L started off fellating a microphone backstage and he ended up drilling L onstage while Inspirit cheered him on was really, uh, vivid.  The fact that it was specifically Inspirit, not Angel or a generic crowd, made him wonder about himself.

            One night after his workout, he stripped out of his shirt and dropped down to sit on the floor, collapsing back against the wall.  Catching his breath, he wiped sweat from his face, then glanced down at himself and flexed.  He wondered, not at all for the first time, if L liked guys with defined pecs.  Then he got annoyed with himself for caring.  He rapped his knuckle against the wall twice: hello.  A moment later, Ricky tapped back: hello.  It was kind of nice to have a fellow prisoner.  It was companionable; it made him feel less alone and less picked-on to know that Ricky was going through the same thing.  He tapped back: sex?  Ricky immediately tapped back: yes.  Grinning, he shimmied out of his pants.

            He masturbated slowly, and he used lube, to make things nice and slick and fun.  Closing his eyes, he pressed one ear to the wall.  Immediately, L rose in his thoughts, and he flipped through fantasies and memories until he hit upon L and Hoya against the desk.  Oh, yeah, that was a good one.  He pictured things escalating, pictured Hoya going down on L, pictured L going down on Hoya, fuck, yes, that was so good.  When he heard Ricky’s shaky “huu-unh-uhh” through the wall, he moaned back to let Ricky know that he was feeling it, too.  They kept going on that way, groaning as loudly as they dared, egging each other on, and when he heard Ricky’s soft, excited cry, he got himself off, squirting on Chunji’s T-shirt and moaning so that Ricky could hear him finish.

            He’d started using Chunji’s T-shirt as his cum rag at the beginning of his punishment, because he’d been pissed off and it had made him feel better.  He’d gone through a couple of shirts since then.  Part of his punishment included doing laundry, although it was easier now that he could rotate laundry duty with Ricky.  Whenever he did the wash, he swiped something new to come on.  It seemed rude and juvenile to keep using Chunji’s clothes and not an actual rag, but whatever, Chunji would never know.  Unless Ricky told on him.

            As he got into bed that night - - Ricky’s bed, just to switch things up, since he had the whole room to himself - - he wondered how long this punishment would last.  L had come over to speak up on his behalf, but Chunji didn’t seem swayed by that, and management liked having a whole third of the group docile and controlled.  With the two of them locked down, Niel was self-conscious and well-behaved, aware of his precarious position as the active maknae.  Except for random flare-ups between Chunji and L.Joe, things were pretty peaceful around the dorm.  Peaceful, aside from the sex.  Having to sit around alone and listen to his hyungs go at each other like circus monkeys didn’t make Changjo nostalgic, it just made him horny and frustrated.  At least he knew that Ricky suffered with him.

            The other result of L’s visit was that everyone thought that L and Changjo were screwing.  C.A.P. and Chunji were sure that they were having sex, so now L.Joe and Niel thought so, too.  Ricky didn’t, because he actually trusted Changjo sometimes, but everyone else was suspicious.  C.A.P. had seemed conflicted about it at first, like he didn’t know whether to be jealous or not, but he seemed to be over that.  The problem was, though, that Changjo wasn’t allowed to have sex with other idols without permission, and obviously he’d never gotten permission to screw L.  Whenever C.A.P. mentioned that Changjo had done the right thing in apologizing and that L had asked for leniency, Chunji brought up the point that Changjo had run around behind their backs screwing other idols, and C.A.P. agreed that he needed to be punished for it.  Basically, Changjo was in more trouble because of L’s visit, not less.  But he didn’t really resent L for that, which was proof that his crush wasn’t fading fast enough.

            He was drifting off to sleep when he heard raised voices.  Not moaning or sex talk, L.Joe yelling about something.  He was tempted to ignore it, but he hated being cut off and he wanted to know what was going on.  Getting out of bed in his underwear, he crept over to the door and listened.

            “What does it matter?” Chunji asked.

            “What if people think that it’s us?” L.Joe asked.

            “Why would it be us?” Chunji asked.

            “It says a sunbae group, and there are only so many of those.”

            “You’re paranoid.”

            “Kids, bedtime,” C.A.P. called.

            “Hyung,” L.Joe said.  “Look at this.”

            Look at what?  He had to be on his phone or the computer or something.

            There was silence, and then C.A.P. said, “Eh, you can’t worry about blind items.  They never mean anything.”

            “He’s worried that everyone’s going to think that Group B is Teen Top,” Chunji said.

            “Why?” C.A.P. asked.  “EXO has a lot of sunbaes, it could be anyone.”

            Changjo hated not having access to the Internet.

            Baekhyun walked into Chanyeol’s room and flopped across his bed.  “Have you seen this stuff?”

            “What stuff?” Chanyeol asked, climbing onto the bed on all fours over him.

            “Oh, you’re in here,” Chen said, walking in.

            “It’s a blind item,” Baekhyun said.

            “Oh, no,” Chen said, backing up a few steps, his hands in the air.  “I don’t want to hear it, it’s always too much gossip.  Even if one little part of it’s true, the rest is always completely out of proportion and twisted around.”

            “It’s about us,” Baekhyun said.

            “That’s even worse!”

            Chanyeol took the phone from Baekhyun’s hand, scrolling down.  While he read, Baekhyun explained, “It’s about a super-popular group from a big company that debuted in 2012 and lost members.  So that’s us.”

            “Do you want to call us super-popular with your own mouth?” Chen asked.

            “They didn’t have to mention the former members, that’s rude,” Chanyeol said.

            “They wanted to make sure that everybody knows who Group A is,” Baekhyun said.

            “Then just say EXO,” Chanyeol said.

            “That’s not how blind items work,” Baekhyun said.  “It says that there’s a bad mood between Group A and Group B, and there’s a member of Group B who’s always rude to Group A and snubs them - - us - - whenever he gets the chance.  He’s a sunbae and he resents our success, and he thinks that he’s more important and talented than we are.”

            “Why do people write things like this?” Chen asked, gesturing at the phone.  “It only causes problems.”

            That’s how blind items work,” Baekhyun said.

            “Hey,” Chanyeol said.  “Did you see the last part?  This is talking about how C - - wait, who’s who?  C is in Group B and D is in Group A.”

            “C is some sunbae and D is one of us?” Chen asked.

            “Right.  D cornered C in the bathroom and said a bunch of crap to him.  The two of them have been in a feud ever since.”

            “What?” Chen asked, immediately crossing the room and taking the phone from Chanyeol.  “It says that?”

            “But we’ve never done anything like that,” Chanyeol said.  “Have we?  Who would do that?  We don’t yell at sunbaes.”

            “They yell at us,” Baekhyun pointed out.  “In bathrooms, like it says.”

            “But that’s backward, that’s the opposite of what it says,” Chanyeol said.  “And how would they know about that?”

            “That thing in the bathroom happened right in front of Speed’s manager,” Baekhyun said, scooting around onto his back.  “I think he thought it was one of our managers, I don’t think he knew it was a manager from another company.”

            “How does that make sense?” Chen asked.  “Some jerk goes off on Lay in the bathroom, and now everyone’s going to think that Lay went off on him, instead?”

            “What’s in the comments?” Chanyeol asked.  “Does anybody know that D is Lay?  He’s going to be so embarrassed.”

            “But that’s not how it went!” Chen exclaimed.  “This is so frustrating.  If people figure out that it’s Lay, they’ll think that he went off on a sunbae.”

            “Nobody who’s ever met Lay would think anything like that,” Baekhyun said.  “He’s never rude to sunbaes.  He’s never rude to anybody.  We’re meaner than he is, and I’m a sweet puppy.”  Smiling up at Chanyeol, he framed his face in an angel pose and batted his lashes.  Chanyeol poked him in the nose.

            “Oh, no,” Chen groaned.  “I hate blind items!  Everybody thinks that it’s Infinite.”

            “What?” Baekhyun asked, pushing Chanyeol aside and sitting up.

            “Who’s Infinite, the other group?” Chanyeol asked.

            “This is a mess,” Chen said.  “I think we have to tell Suho hyung.”

            Sungyeol kept an eye on the speculation, hoping that Inspirits would shield Infinite or that interest would die down and everyone would forget about the whole thing.  Apparently, though, the idea of two idols holding a grudge and going off on each other in a bathroom was too juicy to drop.

            In the initial back-and-forth, someone threw in the idea that whoever was feuding with EXO had to come from Infinite.  Not only did Infinite fit the extremely vague criteria of being a sunbae group who happened to be in a public space with EXO sometimes, there was fan footage of Suho, Sehun, and Chanyeol walking into a store and L walking out looking unhappy, there was ending stage footage of Chanyeol greeting Sungjong and Sungjong not looking enthusiastic enough, and there was footage of both groups looking bored during each other’s performances.

            Inspirits responded to the criticism by spamming proof of Suho and L together, Dongwoo and Xiumin together, Sungjong and Kai, Sungyeol and Baekhyun, Woohyun and D.O., Sungyeol and Chen, Woohyun and Chanyeol, and on and on.

            EXO-L struck back by putting the blame on Sunggyu and Hoya.  They argued that if Infinite and EXO were so close, where were the proof shots of Sunggyu and Hoya?  They put up photos of Sunggyu and Hoya looking unhappy and unpleasant.  Sungyeol didn’t think that was fair, though, since that was just how their faces looked.  Baekhyun looked like a miserable jerk when he wasn’t smiling, too, so what did that prove?

            That was when Inspirit started to blow shit up.  They decided that the problematic EXO member was Sehun, and to prove it, they provided evidence that he was rude to other sunbaes outside of Infinite.  They circulated footage of him onstage hugging Ricky in congratulation for an award and then bowing awkwardly to L.Joe.  They passed around someone’s fan account of seeing Teen Top and EXO meet; it described how Sehun was friendly with everyone else but cold and formal with L.Joe, saying “sunbae” with him and “hyung” with the others.

            Angel, furious at being dragged into someone else’s war, posted photos of Suho and Sehun visiting Teen Top’s dorm.  Photos of different outfits on different days, over and over again.  Sungyeol had known that EXO and Teen Top were close, but, damn, were they that close?  And why just Suho and Sehun?  Maybe Suho went to see Changjo, but what was going on with Sehun?

            When Changjo heard the front door open, he scrambled to his feet and pressed his ear against the bedroom door.  He’d been waiting for C.A.P. to come back after being summoned to the TOP Media offices.

            “What?” Chunji demanded.  “What’d they say?”

            “Is it okay?” L.Joe asked.  He sounded anxious, and Changjo didn’t blame him.

            “Someone at SM called them,” C.A.P. said.  “Either we have to shut everybody up and make things look good, or we won’t see EXO anymore.”

            What, won’t see them at all?” L.Joe asked.

            “No more MT for us,” C.A.P. said.  There was a pause, and when he spoke again, he sounded resigned.  “And no more playdates for you.”

            Shit.  Changjo was glad that he wasn’t out there to see L.Joe’s face.

            “What do they want?” Chunji asked.  “How do we fix it?”

            “I don’t know,” C.A.P. said.  “They’re not happy.”

            Suho felt like he was living in a spy novel, but it was more important than ever to take precautions.  They’d arranged to meet at the KBS building.  C.A.P. had shown up hours early, Sunggyu had shown up for a filming, and now Suho was stopping by on some made-up business.  The three of them met in a tiny dressing room upstairs.

            “It’s like a leader’s summit,” C.A.P. said.  They faced each other on folding chairs.

            “I think that we should be quick,” Suho said.  The last thing that he wanted was anyone noticing anything out of the ordinary or becoming suspicious.

            “Okay.  What do you want to do?” C.A.P. asked.

            “What else can we do?” Suho asked.  “We have to stop seeing each other.”

            “That’s not the answer,” Sunggyu said.  Suho was so surprised that he didn’t even bother to school his expression.  “We’ll do what we’ve been doing.  Nothing changes.”

            “Keep seeing each other?” Suho asked.  “While everyone’s watching?  There’s too much attention!  How does it look, everyone meeting up all of the time?  There have been too many visits and too many dates, it’s too obvious.”

            “It’s a bunch of friends,” Sunggyu said.  “People become friends, idols become friends, what’s to worry about?  It looks weird if we’re estranged.”

            “I don’t think that you understand,” Suho said.  Sunggyu’s eyebrows went up, and he said, “I’m sorry, hyung, but this is one of my worst nightmares.  Everyone’s examining my members’ behavior too closely.  I can’t afford for anyone to get the wrong idea.”  Or the right idea.

            Sunggyu nodded.  “Then L was right about you.  You really will throw him away any time you want.”

            It was like Sunggyu had just slid a dagger between his ribs.  “It isn’t like that.”  The accusation really hurt; he felt wracked with guilt.  “But what else can I do?  I have to protect my members first, no matter what.”  He’d become too careless, and it had to stop.  Too much damage had already been done.

            “You don’t understand,” Sunggyu said.  “Idols become friends.  That’s how it works.  It makes the fans happy, they like to track who’s close.  There are rumors all of the time, they make up little couples.  You have to learn the difference between interest and gossip and scandal.  Scandal is when you get caught with your cock out.  This is interest, and the best way to handle interest is to keep doing what you were already doing.  If you change, then people wonder why you’ve changed.  It sets off alarms that something’s wrong.  Everybody wants to put me in a couple with Woohyun.  If we act weird around each other, it becomes a problem.  If we stay close, people think, ‘Oh, there’s nothing to hide, they’re members, it’s okay.’  Everybody sees how close Woohyun and Key are, so they don’t break up, they promote an album together.  Everything’s normal, there’s nothing to hide.  If you stop taking Sehun over to Teen Top’s dorm, you’re hiding something.  If you keep doing it, that’s business as usual, and everybody gets used to it.”

            Suho liked the fantasy Sunggyu built, but he couldn’t believe in it.  “I’m sorry, hyung.  Our members have gone too far.  I can’t risk somebody figuring things out.  We have to stop, now, before it gets worse.”

            “It’s too bad for L,” Sunggyu said.  “It’s too bad for Changjo, too.”

            Suho was already tormented enough by his own demons; he didn’t need some hyung hitting him over the head with his mistakes.  “I’m EXO’s guardian.  I have to do what I have to do.”

            “What about Sehun?” Sunggyu asked.

            Suho tensed.  “What about him?”  What did Sunggyu know?  How did Sunggyu know?  Who else knew?  How bad would the fallout be, how could he protect Sehun, what would happen to L.Joe?

            “That,” Sunggyu said, gesturing to him.  “That, whatever you’re doing right now, you have to stop it.  You have to get over it and never do it again.  You give too much away.  You can’t look like your whole world is exploding right in front of you every time someone makes a comment.  You have to do this.”  He pointed to his own face, and his expression went blank, his muscles relaxed, his eyes half-shut.  “Here, like this.”  He turned to C.A.P.  “What about L.Joe?”

            C.A.P. didn’t react for a moment, like he didn’t even need to respond, and then he shrugged.  “He’s great.”

            Suho needed to know exactly why Sunggyu had asked about L.Joe right after asking about Sehun.  How much did Sunggyu know?!

            “You’re doing it again.”  Reaching over, Sunggyu poked at his cheeks with both hands.  “Do you know how to relax?”

            “This isn’t a time to relax!”

            Sunggyu sat back, nodding.  “Ah, it’s a time to yell at hyungs.  I understand.”

            “I’m not-  Suho cut himself off and tried to calm down.  “I’m sorry, hyung, I don’t mean to yell at you.”

            “How many times will you say, ‘I’m sorry, hyung?’  Why do you keep doing things that you need to be sorry for?” Sunggyu asked.  “Maybe you should try something different.”

            “I’m sorry that we’re in this situation, but if I’m sorry that we’re here, then it must have been a mistake to be here,” Suho said.  “Doesn’t that mean that we shouldn’t have done what led us here?  We should stop all of this now, before it gets worse.”

            “Do you pay attention to what people say about our members spending time together?”

            “It’s bad enough to have any attention on it at all,” Suho said.

            “Everyone’s happy that they’re friends.  Everyone’s proud that they’re close.  EXO-L is glad to see their idols so close with successful sunbaes.  Inspirit is glad to see their idols so close with popular hoobaes.  Angel thinks that it’s the greatest thing in the world to see Changjo with his handsome favorite hyungs.  Usually when these things happen, people get mad at each other and accuse idols of using other idols to steal fame, but this time, everybody’s happy and everybody’s getting along.  Everybody getting along is a good thing.”

            Suho couldn’t buy into it.  “I’m sorry, hyung, I don’t think that we can agree.  People paying attention to my members’ private lives and being nosy and speculating and gossiping is my worst nightmare.”

            “You, what do you think?” Sunggyu asked C.A.P.

            C.A.P. shifted in his seat, looking thoughtful.  “I don’t know, I think it’ll be okay.  They’ll find something else to talk about.  I was thinking about the, uh, visits.”  He looked at Suho.  “But I can’t think of a better way to do it that isn’t even more obvious.  I think that Sunggyu hyung’s right, if we change things up, it just draws more attention and makes people wonder.  Keep going on like nothing’s wrong, and they’ll get used to it.  Like Woohyun hyung and Key hyung are friends, that’s just the way things are, everybody knows about it.  Kai and Taemin are friends, nobody questions that.  Everybody’s so used to making couples here and there, it’s like they’re so common, nobody believes any of it’s real anymore.  Name ten couples, five of them are real and five of them aren’t, and the fans can’t tell the difference.”

            “Why did you start all of this to begin with?” Sunggyu asked Suho.  “You’re the one who started it, aren’t you?  You went to C.A.P., you came to me, you set it all up.  You had reasons.  Those reasons don’t exist anymore?  That all disappears?”

            “I have to balance what my members want with what’s best for them,” Suho said.  He couldn’t sacrifice EXO’s reputation for Sehun.  The needs of the group outweighed the needs of one individual member.  He regretted ever setting this debacle in motion.  It would have been better if none of them had ever gotten involved.  He didn’t understand why C.A.P. and Sunggyu didn’t see that.  How had they survived in this industry with this attitude?

            “All right,” Sunggyu said.  “Do what you have to do.  I guess I’ll tell my members to delete EXO numbers from their phones.  I guess that I should tell Woohyun to stay away from Key, too.  No more Toheart.”

            How had Toheart ever come to happen in the first place?  How had their management ever agreed to it?  Woohyun and Key had so much to hide, why would they make their friendship even more public?  He wasn’t even sure how Infinite H had made it, considering that everybody already paired Dongwoo and Hoya up as a couple, and Dongwoo couldn’t keep his hands to himself.  Hadn’t management been terrified that he’d give everything away?

            It was almost like, what was it called?  Hiding in plain sight.  Making the couple so obvious that everyone took it for granted that they were close.  Making it official so that no one noticed anything odd about the two of them pairing up.  Of course they were always together, of course they had skinship, of course they shared private jokes, of course, the whole world knew how close they were.

            Suddenly, Suho understood what Sunggyu had been talking about.

            But it was so risky!  Wasn’t it too risky?  Wasn’t it better to cut things off altogether?  His members would be disappointed, and it would be hard to face Infinite and Teen Top after this, but it was the leader’s job to make tough decisions.  He felt sick about abandoning L and Changjo, but he had to be responsible.  In the long term, it was for their own good.  Sehun would be upset, but he had to protect Sehun, he didn’t have a choice.  He couldn’t even think about L.Joe, the burden was too intense.

            “The kids are going to be pissed,” C.A.P. said.  He took off his hat and ran his hand over his hair.  “I don’t know what I’m going to tell L.Joe.”

            Sunggyu pouted thoughtfully, then crossed his legs.  “He’s older now.  Infinite can help, if you want.”

            C.A.P. raised his eyebrows.  “Would you?”

            “It didn’t seem right before, but maybe now it would be okay, if there’s no other solution.  Woohyun will do it, or I can.  It’s up to L.Joe, if he’s comfortable.”

            C.A.P. sat back, looking relieved.  “I’d be grateful.”

            There was only one way to interpret that conversation.   Sunggyu knew about L.Joe.  All of Infinite knew about L.Joe?  If they knew about L.Joe, then they knew about Sehun; it was only a matter of connecting dots.  If Infinite knew about Sehun, who else knew?  This was completely out of control.  The most private secret Suho had to keep was already out, had been out for who knew how long, was already a known and understood thing.  “Who else knows?” he asked.  He wanted to grab C.A.P. by the throat.  “Who else knows about L.Joe?”  Who else knew about Sehun?!

            “Nobody,” C.A.P. said.  “You and me, Teen Top and EXO.  Andy hyung.  Sunggyu hyung and probably the rest of Infinite.  Whoever you told about Sehun might be able to figure it out.”

            Key knew about Sehun.  That gave Suho pause.  Sunggyu knew about L.Joe, but Key knew about Sehun.  C.A.P. hadn’t been discreet enough, but neither had he.  “Infinite knows?”

            “My members don’t talk about it,” Sunggyu said.

            “But why do you know?” Suho asked.

            “I’m the one who figured it out,” Sunggyu said.  “I’m the one who told C.A.P. and Chunji about it.  L.Joe was a mess and they didn’t understand anything about it.  I couldn’t do anything with him then, he was too young and he was too confused and it wouldn’t have been right.  But he’s more used to it now and he’s more mature.  Infinite might as well help, if EXO won’t.”

            Suho was never going to understand how Sunggyu could so lightly and so openly offer to be someone’s dom.  “He’s not a basketball you pass around for anyone to play with.  This is something too private.  Would he have that kind of relationship with just anybody?”

            “What else is he supposed to do?” Sunggyu asked.  “You’re throwing him away, he doesn’t have any choice.”

            “I don’t have a choice, either,” Suho pointed out.  It wasn’t fair of Sunggyu to blame him like this.  “You always put your members first.  Why is it so bad for me to put mine first?”  He had to stop feeling so guilty.  L.Joe didn’t have a life-threatening illness, only a sexual preference.  And Woohyun was more experienced than Sehun at those things, anyway.  It would probably end up better for everyone this way.  L.Joe would be happier and Sehun would be safer.

            “You’re the leader,” Sunggyu said.  “They put you in charge for a reason, so make the choices you want to make.”  To C.A.P., he said, “L’s available whenever Changjo’s interested.  EXO might be out of the picture, but not everybody has to be abandoned.”

            “Going to make a unit group?” Suho asked, feeling tense and angry.

            Sunggyu laughed.  “What would they do?  L stands there looking good while Changjo dances around him?”

            “About, uh, that,” C.A.P. said.  “Between L and Changjo.  Changjo isn’t supposed to do that.”

            “Do what?” Sunggyu asked.

            “Do that,” C.A.P. said with a quick, significant look.

            Did C.A.P. think-?  “They’re not doing that,” Suho said.  “L and Changjo?”

            “L doesn’t have sex with Changjo,” Sunggyu said.

            “Are you sure?” C.A.P. asked.  “It’s Changjo, so I don’t take those things for granted.”

            “I’ll ask,” Sunggyu said.  Getting up, he went to his phone by the door.

            “I’m sure,” Suho told C.A.P.  “There’s nothing like that between them.”  Well, not nothing at all.  There was interest.  But there was no progress.  They weren’t the most open books, but he was sure that he’d know, one way or another.

            Ya,” Sunggyu said into his phone.  “How is it between you and that kid?  Is it like that?”  He listened.  “You know what I mean.”  He nodded.  “Okay.”  Hanging up, he said, “They haven’t done anything.”

            “That’s a relief,” C.A.P. said, putting his hat back on.  “One less thing to punish him for.”

            “It’s been a long time since our teams worked together,” Sunggyu said, taking his seat again.  “We should do a special stage.  Bring back 2010.”

            “I wouldn’t mind it,” C.A.P. said.

            “Dance battle,” Sunggyu decided.  “Hoya team versus Changjo team.  Hoya and Dongwoo against Changjo and Ricky.”

            “Hoya hyung, Dongwoo hyung, and Woohyun hyung against Changjo, Ricky, and Niel,” C.A.P. said, grinning.

            Sunggyu put his hand out to shake.  “Deal.”

            “Deal,” C.A.P. said, shaking it.

            “I’ll remind my members that your members are off-limits,” Sunggyu said.  “Otherwise you might have trouble when Sungyeol visits rehearsal.”

            Suho couldn’t believe that they were being so light-hearted and cheerful and taking everything so casually when he felt so heavily burdened.  He felt angry and frustrated and sick.  Regret hung over every thought.  What had he done to his members?  Why had he given them something so special to them if he only had to take it away again?  Were they ever going to forgive him?  Could he forgive himself?  He’d needed the reminder to be careful, he’d needed to learn this lesson, but wasn’t the cost too high?  He felt like he was the cause of too much suffering.  Maybe for Infinite, it was just the loss of a little fun on the side, but he knew how much his members had enjoyed becoming close with their sunbaes.  There had been so much fun, so many great memories, so many strong friendships.  It hadn’t only been sex, it had been bonding.  Going on MT had lifted their burdens and eased their stress as if they’d had a month of vacation.  Their lives had been fuller and their hearts had been lighter and their smiles had been brighter since they’d gotten to know Teen Top, and adding Infinite had only made everything better.  He knew that having these friends to rely on had helped them through a lot of trouble.  Especially Xiumin.  What would it have been like for Xiumin, losing Luhan without Dongwoo and Chunji to turn to?

            His members would just have to rely on each other from now on.  It would make them a stronger team.

            Stronger, right.  United in their hatred of him.

            Being the leader meant making hard decisions.  He’d made some wrong ones, and now he had to set everything right.  He only wished that everyone wouldn’t have to pay for his bad choices.

            “Nothing more to say?” Sunggyu asked, getting up.  “I’ll go, I have a schedule.”

            “Bye,” C.A.P. said, getting up and clasping Sunggyu’s hand again.  “It’s good to see you.”

            Sunggyu went to the door and pocketed his phone.  “What’d Changjo say about this mess with the blind item?”

            “I don’t know,” C.A.P. admitted.  “We don’t talk much lately.  Why?”

            “That kid’s always got an angle on the situation.  Thought he might have a solution.”  He put his hand on the doorknob.  “I guess the blind item’s right.  From now on, it’s going to seem like Infinite and EXO really are estranged.  All of the Inspirits and EXO-Ls who tried to defend us are going to be disappointed.”

            What?  Suho got up, needing to stop him from leaving.  “No, that’s not what I want.”

            “What do you expect?” Sunggyu asked, moving away from the door.  “Someone says that Infinite and EXO are cold to each other and hold grudges over petty things.  Your fans race in and argue and shield you and fight to defend you, they dig around for proof and put up every piece of evidence they can find, they lose sleep and ignore their homework because they have to take care of EXO.  But all of it’s for nothing, because EXO and Infinite aren’t even speaking anymore.  There are no visits, there’s no meeting in restaurants, there’s no going to the movies, there’s not even congratulating each other onstage.  The blind item must be right, after all, and you let your fans make fools of themselves for nothing.”

            “No.”  No, he couldn’t let it be that way.  He couldn’t repay EXO-L’s love like that.  Conflicted, tormented, he gripped the back of an empty chair.  This entire situation was too out of control.  There were no good answers anymore.  No matter which direction he took, it would be the wrong one.

            C.A.P. tilted his head to one side, narrowing his eyes and studying Suho.  “He’s got that look again.”

            How else could he look, in this kind of situation?  What did they expect him to do, stop caring?  It wasn’t his place to question C.A.P.’s approach to leadership, but he couldn’t not care.

            “Kai and Taemin are close, aren’t they?” Sunggyu asked.  “D.O. and Ryeowook hyung.  What do you do when people notice that?  What about Kai and D.O. being so close?  What about those three little beagles you let run around together?  Are you going to push the reset button and go back to the time when everybody kept his hands to himself?  Just in case?  Gotta play it safe?”

            “It’s not playing it safe,” Suho said.  He felt so angry, so desperate, so misunderstood.  Why was Sunggyu being like this?  “It’s not playing anything.  It’s keeping EXO alive.  It’s making sure that we still have a career next month, next year, the year after that.  There’s already too much out in the open.”

            “Do you know how to keep EXO alive?” Sunggyu asked.  “It’s not by alienating your fans.”

            Changjo was tapping at the wall with Ricky, playing a rhythmic “repeat after me” game, when C.A.P. came back.  Scrambling up, he raced to the door, slamming full-body against it and then pressing his ear to the wood, trying to hear.

            “Yeah, give me a minute,” C.A.P. was saying.  All of a sudden the door opened, and Changjo backpedaled and skidded and finally regained his balance.  “Hey.”  C.A.P. leaned against the doorjamb.  “You know about the blind item?”

            He nodded.

            “What would you do about it?  How would you handle it?”

            He didn’t hesitate; he’d already given it thought.  “Leak who it really was.  Give the information to the right people and watch everybody take down the real asshole.”

            C.A.P. crossed his arms over his chest, frowning.  “What if I don’t know who it was, and I can’t ask EXO?”

            Why couldn’t they ask EXO?  “Do you know who does know?”


            “I can find out.  I know who to leak it to, too, if you want.”

            C.A.P. nodded.  “I’ll get your phone.”

            The dorm was so quiet and everyone was so depressed, it was unbearable.  Chanyeol wanted to liven things up, but he couldn’t fix his own mood.  Suho had broken the news that evening, and all of the members were either holed up somewhere trying to deal with it or drifting around listlessly with miserable faces.  No more Infinite.  No more Teen Top.  No more anybody, if Suho could help it.  Chanyeol was relieved that they could still boink each other, but the way Suho was talking, he wasn’t sure how long they’d even be allowed to do that.

            Xiumin had tried to point out that they were adults who could do whatever the hell they wanted, but Suho said that they were idols, so, no, they couldn’t.  Xiumin had tried to argue, and Suho had quoted the morals part of the contract, and the fact that Suho had memorized that part word for word creeped Chanyeol out.

            Sehun had been alone in his room all night.  Every time Chanyeol looked at the closed door, he decided to give Sehun privacy for a little while longer.  He couldn’t imagine what Sehun was going through, or how Sehun was dealing with it.  Xiumin was pissed off, Lay was devastated but trying to be understanding, Baekhyun still seemed shocked, and Chanyeol had found Chen crying, which didn’t even make sense.  But none of it made sense.

            It was his turn for Suho duty.  He wasn’t really in a sexy mood, but he figured that getting intimate and feeling good might be just what they needed.  He knocked at Suho’s door and went in.

            And Suho apologized very solemnly, very firmly, and closed the door in his face.

            Dread settled over him.  He had the feeling that Suho was never going to let anyone in there again.

            Lay sat up straight on the dressing room couch.  “Uh-oh.”  He handed the phone to Xiumin.  “Hyung, is this bad?”

            “What?”  Xiumin ran his eyes over the screen, then frowned and looked at it more closely.

            Curious, and desperate for a distraction from the constant gloom that seemed to haunt EXO’s every move these days, Baekhyun got up and went to sit on Lay’s other side.  “What is it?”

            “Oh,” Xiumin said, his eyes widening.  “Suho, did you know about this?”

            “What is it?” Baekhyun repeated, leaning across Lay’s lap and trying to see.

            “It’s about that article,” Xiumin said as Suho walked over and took the phone.  He glanced at the stylists a few feet away.  “Someone leaked the truth.  About what really happened.

            Staring at the screen, Suho pressed his lips together.  He did that when he was really upset but didn’t want to show it in public.

            “Isn’t it a good thing?” Baekhyun asked tentatively.  “If it’s the truth, then it’s okay?”

            “Now everybody can be pissed off at someone who deserves it, instead of blaming everybody who never did anything,” Xiumin said.

            “I think it’s too obvious that I was involved,” Lay said, looking worried.  “It says ‘foreign member’ and I think everybody knows that’s me.”

            “Hyung, you didn’t do anything wrong,” Baekhyun reassured him, rubbing his arm.  “Somebody cornered you in the bathroom to yell at you.  You’re innocent.  You look like a victim, and now EXO-L gets to rally around and support you and take care of you.  It’ll be nice.”

            “I don’t want them to worry about me,” Lay said.  “But it’ll be good if this brings us closer.”

            “Lay’s closer to the fans, everybody knows who the real jerk is, everybody can stop blaming the wrong people,” Baekhyun said.  “Happy endings, right?”

            “Who told, though?” Lay asked.  “How did it all get out?  I thought we were all going to go to our graves with people blaming Sehun and Hoya for being enemies.”

            “It’s fixed,” Suho said.  “They took care of it.”  He handed the phone back to Lay, and then he bit his lip and looked so serious and hurt and burdened that Baekhyun wanted to shoo all of the stylists out and hug him.  Or just hug him right then and there, but Suho wasn’t in a “hug me in public” mood lately.

            “Who did?” Xiumin asked.

            When Suho didn’t answer, only looked guiltier and unhappier, Baekhyun looked at Xiumin and shrugged.  Management, maybe?  Although why would that make Suho look so upset?  Unless management had only agreed to clear things up if Suho agreed to do something in return, and it was something that Suho really didn’t want to do.

            “Suho hyung,” Chen said, coming over and putting an arm around him.  “I want to show you this game on my phone.”  Chen started to move him across the room.  “And we should pee before we go onstage, right?”  Baekhyun watched Chen guide him toward the bathroom.  Today they had their own private bathroom off of the dressing room.  No sunbaes to harass Lay tonight!

            Baekhyun had to wait until after the show to find out what Chen and Suho had talked about.  He only knew that Suho came out of the bathroom looking determined and Chen came out looking frustrated as hell.  He climbed into EXO-M’s van for the ride to practice so that they could talk about it.

            “It was Changjo,” Chen said.  “Teen Top’s Changjo cleared it up.  Somehow.”

            “We should send him a thank you card,” Lay said.

            “Yeah, if we were allowed to talk to him,” Baekhyun said.  “Why would that upset Suho hyung so much?  Isn’t he glad that it’s all taken care of?  I’m glad that everybody knows what really happened.  Stupid blind items cause too many problems.”

            “He feels horrible about it,” Chen said.  “He hates that his dongsaeng had to take care of him.  He feels like it was his responsibility to fix things, and he failed, and now Changjo’s cleaning up his mess.”

            “Suho hates being a bad hyung,” Lay said.

            “He should worry more about being a bad leader,” Xiumin said.

            Whoa.  “Let’s not go too far,” Baekhyun said.

            “Suho hyung does everything that he can,” Chen said.  “We shouldn’t talk like that.”

            “Suho’s the best leader we can have and the only one I want,” Lay said.

            “Be loyal if you want to,” Xiumin said.  “Do you like being trapped in the dorm like an elementary school student who can’t go where he wants or do what he wants?  I thought that Suho did a really good job of giving us freedom and still protecting our reputations.  I even stopped going out on my own and was okay with just going on MT with everybody else.  Now it’s no going out and no MT and no friends?  I can’t even text Dongwoo?  Am I a criminal, that I can’t even make phone calls?”

            “Suho isn’t glad to be tough on us,” Chen said.  “It’s a difficult situation.  He always does his best.”

            “Being an idol means making sacrifices,” Baekhyun said.  “Everybody knows that.  We have to protect our own reputations, and each other’s.  Suho hyung’s right, we’re lucky that we didn’t get caught.”

            Xiumin shook his head.  “When I signed that contract, I asked about that crappy morality clause.  It’s worded so it can mean a hundred different things, and they wrote it that way on purpose.  They promised me that I could do what I wanted as long as I was discreet.  They promised me that I could meet up with other idols as long as I was careful.  We had a really long, really embarrassing conversation about it, and they told me that I had to sign it because it was a standard part of the contract and they had to be fair, but they said that they weren’t going to hold me to it.  ‘You’re older, Minseok-ah.  We can trust you, Minseok-ah.’  I should get to meet Chunji whenever I want and call Dongwoo whenever I want and host an orgy in MyName’s dorm if I want.  This is bullshit, and Suho knows it.”

            Alone in his room, Suho couldn’t sleep.  He was awake in the dark, on his stomach, staring at the glowing screen of his phone.  Time passed, minutes piling up, his battery slowly draining, but he couldn’t sleep.  He kept composing sentences in his head, only to give up on them.  He kept typing out text messages, only to delete them.

            He couldn’t talk to L or Changjo.  What kind of person was he, if he cut off all contact for everyone else but made an exception for himself?

            But he had to talk to them.  He had to explain.  He had to try to reassure them.

            Would they even want to hear from him anymore?

            If he did have a chance to talk to them, what would he say?  What was there to say, were there any adequate words?

            He felt tormented by his own demons.  By his mistakes.  He was haunted by his failures and by the look he imagined in L’s eyes.  He could see, as clearly as his bright screen, the mask of contempt settling over L’s face.  He’d told L so many things.  “I love you.”  “Trust me.”  “Believe in me.”  What could he say to L now?  “I’m not carelessly throwing you away, it’s only that I have to put everyone else before you?”  Wasn’t the result the same, for L?  Whether he brushed L aside carelessly or turned his back reluctantly, L still ended up alone.

            But L had other hyungs, other friends.  All of Infinite.  L was an adult, L was a sunbae, L would be okay.  Suho tried to convince himself that he was taking too much responsibility, that he was being too hard on himself, that L was too resilient to be injured by this.  But if private things becoming publicly known was Suho’s worst nightmare, wasn’t being abandoned one of L’s?

            He tapped at his screen.  The last five texts that L had sent him had been photos of Changjo.  One a day for five days, tormenting him, haunting him, reminding him of his responsibilities.  Each photo was a damning reminder of his promises.

“I’ve always tried to protect Changjo’s heart.  You know how precious he is to me.”  He’d been so sure of himself when he’d said that.  He’d taken his role for granted.

“Then you won’t have any trouble taking care of him.  Staying beside him like a real hyung.  Not pushing him aside as soon as you decide he’s not worth it anymore.”  The memory of L’s intensity scorched him with shame.  As he stared down at the photos, he felt guilt stab into his heart with agonizing depth.  Changjo gazed up at him with that handsome, mischievous smile he loved so much.  Hadn’t he pledged his heart to this dongsaeng, over and over again?  Hadn’t he promised to be Changjo’s guardian, too?  He’d promised to protect EXO when he’d signed a contract.  For Changjo, he’d engraved it.  Engraved it on a watch and etched it into his heart.

            Changjo would understand.  Both of them would.  They knew how things were.  They knew that his members had to come first.  They knew how the world worked.  At that thought, anguish lanced him.  Yes, L and Changjo knew how the world worked.  His cynical, calculating dongsaengs understood it exactly.  He’d tried to show them a different way and prove that the world was better than that, he’d been so sure that he was better than that.  And all he’d done was turn his back on them and prove them right.

            L’s warning came back to him.

“It will be bad for you, if you hurt him.  You have more to lose than anyone.”

            He felt like he’d already lost it all.

            Onew heard a sound.  Was that his alarm going off?  He hated his alarm.  How long had he been asleep?  It felt like two minutes.

            “Unh.”  Somebody was moving around beside him and rubbing up against him.  He rolled away and ran into the wall.  Ow.  “Hello, this is Shinee Onew’s phone, what do you want, do you know what time it is?”  He knew that voice.  Key was on the phone.  Key was calling him.  He should answer.  No, that didn’t seem right.  Somebody was prodding him.  “Hyung.  Onew hyung, wake up.  Guardian Suho wants to talk to you, he’s on the phone.”

            What?  Onew rolled over.  He patted at the air, trying to find his phone without opening his eyes.  Someone pushed it into his hand.  He held it to his face and burrowed in against Key.  “Hello.”  He debated opening his eyes, but it seemed like a bad idea.

            Onew hyung.  It’s Suho.  Is it a bad time?”

            “Yes.  No.  Can we meet later?  Tomorrow, or today, or whichever day it is?”

            “Yes.  Sorry, hyung.  Thank you, hyung.”

            “I’ll text you.”  He hung up and patted his hand over Key’s bare skin.  “Remind me to text Suho when I wake up.”

            “Okay, hyung.”  Key took the phone away and kissed him.  “Go back to sleep.”

            Changjo might have spent longer than usual on his hair.  And he might have spent longer than usual washing up and getting dressed.  And he might have put on a little bit of make-up.  Just concealer and foundation, to even out his skin.  But that was only because he was excited to get out of the dorm and away from his members, for once.  It had nothing to do with the fact that he was meeting L, specifically.  He was just glad to have a social life at all anymore.

            They met at a café, and L looked so happy to see him, he felt all flustered and bashful, which was horrifying.  L hugged him, and he mumbled, “It’s good to see you, hyung,” while he hugged back.  He kept himself from bringing up the stars in L’s eyes, at least.  Thank god for that.

            They talked a little about his punishment, and about the blind item, as much as they could in code.  Then they talked about things anyone could overhear, and drank coffee.  He hadn’t been sure how it would go between them, without Suho.  It went really well, actually.  L seemed to be in a good mood.

            They walked around a little, and ate street food, and signed autographs.  Then they went back to Infinite’s dorm.  He sat on a desk chair, not trusting himself near the bed.  L took the other desk chair, straddling it backward, and rolled it right over to him until they were practically nose-to-nose.

            It wasn’t fair how good L looked like that, one forearm across the top of the chair, head propped on his fist, gazing at Changjo with those charismatic eyes.

            L smiled at him.  “You’re wearing make-up, aren’t you?”

            “I didn’t have a chance to wash it all off.”

            L crossed both arms over the back of the chair and rested his chin on them.  “Do you think Suho hyung’s ever coming back?”

            L made it sound like Suho had moved to another continent.  “I don’t know.”

            L looked away.  “If he did, would you take him back?”

            “I would.”  He licked his lips, feeling kind of awful.  “It’s okay if you don’t want to.  I know how you feel about it.  I just, I don’t have a lot of hyungs like Suho.”  Saying it like that made him feel emotional.

            “I’m glad that I never had sex with him,” L said to the corner of the room.  “If he’s like this.  It would’ve made things worse.”

            “Yeah.”  Changjo kind of felt the opposite way.  “I didn’t have sex with Suho hyung because I didn’t want to ruin things, though.  If it’s ruined anyway, I might as well have gotten laid, you know?  What was I putting it off for?”

            L nodded, and for a moment he just stared intently at the wall, so silent and unmoving that Changjo wondered if he’d gotten stuck.  Then he blinked hard and looked right at Changjo.  “Do you want to have sex?  We can.”

            What?  Yes!  Now?  “You and me?” he asked, to make sure.


            Yes, yes, was he kidding?!  This was a moment Changjo had genuinely thought would never, ever happen.  It-

            Oh, shit.  He wasn’t allowed to do it with L.

            Wait, why should he let that stop him?  So what?  He could just do it anyway.  Who would know?  He wouldn’t get caught.  And if he did, he’d just take the punishment.  It would be worth it.  It would be so, so worth it.  Sex with L?!  L didn’t even have sex with people outside of Infinite anymore.  He’d be the only one allowed onto that gorgeous ground.

            He tried to ignore his conscience.  It had never done him any good before.  But it was nagging at him, poking at him and complaining.  He could practically see Suho’s disappointed face.  He was supposed to act like a mature, responsible adult, and he was supposed to conduct his private business in an ethical and upright manner, and if he didn’t like a situation then he should openly negotiate to rearrange it, not sneakily manipulate it to his advantage.  If he wanted to have sex with L, then the answer was to secure permission to have sex with L, not break the rules.

            He should listen to Suho.

            Why?  Suho wasn’t even around anymore.  He’d never have to see Suho’s disappointed face again.

            He supposed that there was always the point of doing the right thing just because it was the right thing.

            “Is this a one-time offer or a regular thing?”

            L tilted his head to one side, resting his cheek on his crossed arms.  “I don’t know.  One-time, maybe.  Depends how I feel about it later.”

            Changjo was going to hate himself tomorrow.  He was going to hate himself for the rest of his life.  He hated himself right then.  “I can’t.  I’m not allowed.  I can’t do anybody outside of Teen Top right now.  But I can get permission!”

            “It’s okay,” L said.  “It’s probably a bad idea.”

            “The hell it is!” he exclaimed, and L laughed.  “It’s the best idea I’ve ever heard from you.”

            L studied him silently, then asked, “Are you going to leave me, too?”

            His heart broke for L every time he realized that he was the emotionally stable one in the room.  He hurt so much for L, sometimes.  “I hope not.”  He adopted L’s position, mirroring it, scooting his chair forward so that they were nose-to-nose again.  “I really hope not.  I like you a lot, hyung.”

            L smiled a little, and he lightly rubbed the side of Changjo’s neck.  “I like you, too.”

            “So.”  C.A.P. sat forward, clasping his hands together.  “If you want, Woohyun hyung will take care of you.”

            “Or Sunggyu hyung,” Chunji added, leaning against C.A.P.’s armrest.  “Who knew you had so many options, right?”

            Squeezing his eyes shut, L.Joe gripped his head in both hands, trying to keep his brain from exploding.  He was outraged and he was panicking and he couldn’t believe these people, his own members, he wanted to do atrocious and violent things to them.  Sharing the most private things about him with other idols!  Telling anybody they wanted all about him!  Offering him other doms like he could just pick up with any random guy!  “Oh Sehun,” he said, pressing the sides of his head back into place.  “I need Oh Sehun.  It has to be Oh Sehun.”

            “You can’t have Oh Sehun,” C.A.P. said.  “It’s not cool, but I can’t control somebody else’s leader.  We have to deal with it.”

            “Woohyun hyung’s experienced,” Chunji said.  “He’s a really nice hyung, he’ll take good care of you.”

            “And Sunggyu hyung’s hot,” C.A.P. said.  “He’s probably a really good dom.  Master.  Whatever.”

            Owner.  L.Joe needed an owner.  L.Joe had an owner.  He belonged to Sehun.  He belonged with Sehun.  He wasn’t a stray dog who would be happy under anyone’s roof.  He belonged under a very specific roof with a very specific owner who knew exactly how to take care of him better than anyone else ever could.  “Can you just get the hell away from me, please?”

            “We’re trying to help,” Chunji said.  “Maybe if you met them, it wouldn’t be so bad.”

            “The offer’s open,” C.A.P. said.  “Let me know what you want to do.”

            He knew what he had to do.  He had to be with Sehun.

            A few minutes after C.A.P. and Chunji left the room, he started to calm down.  A little.  Letting go of the sides of his head, opening his eyes, he pulled his knees up, hugging them and lowering his face.  He felt like a star-crossed lover, yearning to be with Sehun but fated to be kept apart.  He wondered if he was Romeo or Juliet.  Maybe he should choose an example where somebody stayed alive at the end.

            He had to get to Sehun.  They could meet at EXO’s dorm while Suho was out.  Or they could meet at TOP Media.  Or a hotel.  Anywhere.  Sehun had snuck out to see him that first time, at the practice room.  He hadn’t even been aware of what was happening, but Sehun had wanted to see him.  And had liked him.  It was such an important memory to him, now.  It hadn’t been the first time that they’d met, but it had been the first step in their relationship.  Their important, complicated, perfect relationship.  And he was supposed to start all over again with someone else?

            He couldn’t even imagine what Sehun was going through.  He knew how horrified Sehun was at the idea of him with another dom.  Sex with other guys was fine, Sehun had never cared about that, but watching television?  For Sehun, it was terrifying.  He’d never seen Sehun so upset or worried about anything else.  What if word got back to Sehun?  What if someone said, “Don’t worry, L.Joe’s okay, he’s meeting another dom now.”

            He had to talk to Sehun.  Even if they couldn’t watch television, they had to talk.  He needed to look into Sehun’s eyes and touch Sehun’s hand and be with his owner.  They’d never even had a chance to say good-bye.  He’d had their next playdate written in his calendar.  He was just supposed to let go and never look back?

            Seated on Onew’s bed, Suho told him everything.  About one of his members having a private relationship with another idol, about EXO going on MT with a group outside of the company, about how the blind item had been the jarring wake-up call he’d needed, about how unhappy his members were, about how guilty he felt about everything.

            When he finally ran out of steam, Onew nodded at him.  “It’s difficult.”

            “How do you do it?” he asked.  “How do you live with it?  Things like Key and Woohyun.”

            “I talked to my members,” Onew said.  “We explained everything to each other, and then we took secret votes, and then we made agreements.  We agreed on what we’re willing to risk and what we’re not.”

            Suho didn’t get it.  “What do you mean?”

            Jonghyun wants to have sex with women, but we can’t agree to that, because even with condoms it’s too risky, and we don’t want headlines about Shinee’s baby.  So he doesn’t have sex with women.  Minho wants to have sex with SM sunbaes, and we said okay, because we trust the sunbaes to be discreet.  Key wants to have sex with Woohyun.  We took some time and we got to know Infinite and I talked to Woohyun and I talked to Sunggyu and I said that it seemed okay to me.  Key said that he wanted to have interesting sex with Woohyun, and I said that it was too risky.  We talked a lot about it, and he told us how important it was to him.  We made a lot of arrangements and he agreed to a lot of rules, and we said, okay, it’s important to you, and you’re important to us.  It’s a, what do you call it, a cost benefit analysis?  A risk analysis?  What do you risk and what do you gain and do they balance each other out?  We know that if Key and Woohyun get caught, we’re all at risk, but we agreed to it, so if anything ever happens, we’re all in it together.”

            “But it’s so risky, why didn’t you just tell him no?”  Suho couldn’t comprehend it.

            “It’s important to him,” Onew said.  “And I trust him.  Key put his whole life into Shinee.  He trained for a long time.  He loves Shinee.  He loves the members and he loves Shawol and he works hard.  He takes Shinee seriously enough that he’s not going to get excited and mess up and talk about his sex life in an interview.  He might make a mistake and get caught, but there are a lot of things that can ruin an idol’s career.  He might get in a car accident and hurt someone, he might be overheard cursing about the wrong thing, he might upset the wrong fan.  I could say the wrong thing on TV tomorrow and destroy Shinee just that fast.  We risk Shinee’s reputation every time we get onstage and every time we’re on camera and every time we leave the dorm.  You have to watch your mouth and your hands and your temper.  You have to be humble all of the time and polite and respectful and funny and agreeable and quick-thinking and ready for anything.  You have to wear a smile and stay energetic and say yes to everything anybody asks.  It’s really, really easy to get a bad reputation, just by having the wrong attitude at the wrong time.  It’s scary.  Key gets all of that right, all of the time.  He’s a good idol and a good member and a good dongsaeng.  If I can trust him to do all of that, I can trust him with this, too.”

            Just thinking about all of those things was exhausting.  And that wasn’t even a tenth of what it took to be an idol.

            “You have to trust your members,” Onew said.  “And you have to reward good behavior.  I can’t punish them and treat them like kids forever.  I can’t hold them back when they haven’t done anything wrong.”

            Reward good behavior.  He remembered using that excuse, before.  He’d thought that it was important to treat his members well.  He’d wanted them to lead full, well-rounded lives, as best they could.  Being an idol was incredibly rewarding, but it wasn’t easy, and he’d wanted to make it easier on them if he could.

            Trust his members.  He did trust them, didn’t he?  What if he stepped back and let them hammer out an agreement?  They wouldn’t all of a sudden decide to start doing drugs and robbing banks together.  They were smart; they were level-headed.  And the ones who weren’t would be reined in by the ones who were.

            His talk with Onew gave him a lot to think about.  He wondered, as always, if he was doing the right thing.  He wondered if he was just looking for loopholes and justifications.

            D.O. stood in the middle of the dorm and looked around.

            It had been a long day.  Everyone had been irritable and upset lately.  The members were tense and tempers were short.  They’d gotten stuck in traffic and shown up late to their second schedule.  The PD had scolded them.  There had been a problem with the sound, and their performance hadn’t gone well.  They’d expected to have a day off next week, but suddenly management had decided to schedule a major, multi-location photo shoot.  It had been a stressful day, and all of the members sniping at each other had only made it worse.

            Ordinarily, when they all got back to the dorm, the sex stuff would happen.  Kai and Baekhyun would start making out on the couch.  Lay would stop to watch; Xiumin would join in.  Chen and Chanyeol would flirt in the kitchen, or D.O. would walk into his room to find Sehun and Baekhyun getting naked on his bed, or Lay would ask him if he wanted to kiss for a little bit.  Once all of the sex and flirting was going on, it was almost impossible to stay tense, and everyone would end up relaxed, literally sated, smiling and cuddling.  Before The Incident with the Blind Item, even Suho had been a part of it, lingering here and there, watching the members go down on each other, being very friendly and welcoming to whoever visited at bedtime.

            Not lately.  Not anymore.  Not since The Incident with the Blind Item.  Everyone was too resentful, and staying that way.  Suho’s door stayed shut, the members stayed away from each other, it was like everyone was determined to pretend to live alone.  No sex.  No flirting.  Just silence and irritability.  They weren’t connecting anymore.  Without the nightly sex vacation, their stress built and built and built, tension mounting with no release.

            At the moment, Suho was in his room with the door shut.  Xiumin was in his room with the door shut.  Chanyeol was in his room with the door shut.  Baekhyun and Chen were arguing in the kitchen.  Kai and Sehun were arguing in their room.  Lay was on the couch with headphones on, watching porn and not even jacking off.

            D.O. had found all of the sex self-indulgent.  Fun, sure, but a little over the top.  He hadn’t given it enough credit.  The sex really did help them to bond.  It fostered intimacy and physical connection.  Emotional connection.  Now they were trapped together with no good way to blow off steam.  Their chosen outlet, these days, was fighting.  If that was the alternative, he infinitely preferred the sex.

            Niel blinked at L.Joe, sure that he’d misunderstood.  “You what?”

            “I’m going to see Oh Sehun.”  L.Joe pulled on a jacket.  “You’re coming with me.”

            “Me?”  Niel pointed at himself.  “I don’t think so, hyung.  You should ask someone else.”

            “I asked Changjo, and he said no.  It’s going to be you.”

            “Changjo said no?”  Niel did not find that reassuring.  If Changjo thought that this was a bad idea, then it had to be the worst idea ever.

            “He said that he couldn’t help me, and if I kept bothering him about it, he was going to tell on me.  He told me that I should try to be more responsible and ethical.”

            Niel raised his eyebrows.  Changjo was really weird lately.  He liked the old Changjo better.  “How hard did you punch him?”

            “Pretty hard.”  L.Joe ran his hand through his hair.  “Ready to go?”

            Something was weird.  Chanyeol had just come back from the bathroom, but he looked like he’d come back from an exhilarating crime spree.  He looked really nervous, and he’d greeted seven people in two minutes in a tone of voice that suggested that he was trying really, really hard to seem normal.  D.O. decided to call that breezy desperation.

            Laughing at nothing, Chanyeol backed up a few feet and sat down beside Sehun.  “Ah, maknae.  Ready to go on?”

            Sehun technically made a sound that could’ve been interpreted as a yes.  His lips didn’t move, though.  Ever since Suho had made the big “no sex” announcement, he’d been in the worst mood D.O. had ever seen.  He was sullen all of the time and he was angry about everything.  He never had sex, he barely ate anything, and he’d been crying himself to sleep.  Baekhyun said that if he handled a break-up this badly, then he couldn’t have been mature enough for a relationship in the first place.  Kai said that if that was how Baekhyun thought about it, then Baekhyun was the one who wasn’t ready to be in a relationship.  He also called Baekhyun an unsympathetic jerk.  They were all on edge.

            “Been to the bathroom yet?” Chanyeol asked, prodding Sehun’s stomach.  “You should go now, you don’t want to get caught onstage.”

            Sehun grimaced and twisted, pushing Chanyeol’s hand away, not moving his gaze from whatever piece of the floor he was looking at.

            “When you gotta go, you gotta go,” Chanyeol said.  Swallowing, he glanced over toward where Suho sat reading a script.  “Now would be a good time.”

            Whatever his hyungs were up to, Sehun didn’t care.  If this was a prank, he was going to start punching.  He walked toward the bathroom on auto-pilot, like he did everything else lately.  He greeted a rookie in passing and immediately couldn’t remember who it had been.  He didn’t bother to glance back and check; it didn’t matter.

            Nothing mattered and his life was absolute hell, but at least his hair was perfectly styled at all times.  His world was a bleak landscape of pain, but the investors were happy, and that was what was important, right?  It didn’t matter if his heart was being chewed up and spat out over and over and over again in a living nightmare, he had to plaster on a smile so that the fans wouldn’t worry.  He wished that he could tell the fans exactly what he was going through, because he knew that the ones who really cared about him would tell him to run toward L.Joe and never look back.

            He walked into the bathroom and saw Niel standing there by the sinks, watching the door with a nervous look.

            He took one swift glance at the floor, didn’t see any feet in the stalls, and made a beeline for Niel.  Before he knew what he was doing, he had Niel’s shirtfront in both hands and was bending Niel backward over the sink.

            Wide-eyed, scrabbling at his hands, Niel said, “There, there, in the stall, seriously, I don’t want to die.”

            In the stall?  Dropping Niel, he whirled around and yanked open a stall door.

            The stall was empty.  Betrayed, enraged, he turned-

            -and Niel pointed wildly at the other stall.  “There, there.”

            If this was a prank, he was going to become a violent, screaming beast.  If this was a joke, he was going to draw blood.  He was going to seek vengeance until everyone involved in any way suffered untold goddamned horrors.  With that in mind, he sucked in his breath and opened the stall door.

            Crouched on top of the toilet, L.Joe looked up.

            Hope and relief lit up L.Joe’s face.

            He was the most beautiful thing Sehun had ever seen.

            “In, in, in,” L.Joe whispered hurriedly, waving him onward.

            “Sunbae.”  He stepped forward and latched the door, and then he was in front of L.Joe, the two of them crowded together in that small space.  L.Joe, here, he couldn’t believe it.  He finally understood that saying about a weight being lifted off of his chest.  He felt like a two-ton boulder had been crushing him into the ground ever since Suho’s announcement, and now he could finally breathe again.  “Sunbae,” he whispered again, and he cupped L.Joe’s face in his hands.  God, he’d missed this face.  Those gorgeous eyes and that sexy mouth and the bump in L.Joe’s nose and everything, he’d missed every inch of this face.

            “Television, television,” L.Joe whispered, balling up the front of his shirt in both hands, urging him forward.

            “Hyung,” he said, and then they were kissing, and L.Joe lit up the instant their lips met.  He could feel passion and need in L.Joe’s deep shudder, and the sound of L.Joe’s whimper pushed every last one of his buttons.  Gripping a handful of L.Joe’s hair, he kissed L.Joe hard, controlling the action.  With a ragged, ecstatic moan, L.Joe submitted to him, and he bit at L.Joe’s lower lip just to provoke another happy, grateful sound.

            It was too much, to have this again.  He couldn’t believe that he was kissing this sexy, perfect, pet.  His pet, his cherished pet.  He was kissing L.Joe roughly, sucking hard on L.Joe’s tongue, biting at L.Joe’s lips, dragging L.Joe forward, needing more, more.  L.Joe clawed at the walls and grabbed at him for balance, slipping off of the toilet, whimpering enthusiastically.  He was so excited to be with L.Joe again, so turned on, that he ached all over.  He wanted to eat L.Joe up, wanted to kiss every inch of L.Joe and nuzzle into every crevice and leave his mark everywhere.

            They kissed feverishly, trying to be quiet, burning through precious minutes.  They didn’t have much time, but Sehun couldn’t stop.  He was giving his pet something they both needed him to give, and that was more important than anything else.

            “Ah!  Hello!  Chen hyung!” Niel said loudly.  Sehun froze and L.Joe scrambled back up onto the toilet.  Moving too fast, L.Joe slipped, and one foot plunged into the toilet with a splash.  Sehun clapped his hand over his own mouth, and L.Joe turned a disbelieving, disgusted gaze on him, slowly raising a dripping shoe.

            Niel,” Chen said.  “I mean, sunbaenim, hello.  Oh Sehun, is that you?”

            No, no, he wasn’t ready to go.  Clutching at L.Joe’s arms, he stared into L.Joe’s eyes.  “I can’t take care of you like I want to,” he whispered.  “I’m sorry, I wanted to be good to you, I thought that I could take care of you forever, I’d stay with you if I could, but other people have the final say, I can’t make my own decisions.”

            “Sehun-ah,” L.Joe whispered.

            L.Joe looked miserable.  Those expressive brown eyes pleaded with him.  God, this was the hardest thing he’d ever done, and he couldn’t even do it right.  This was no way to abandon his pet, here in a public bathroom with other people around.  “I’m so sorry, hyung.  I don’t want it to be this way.  You have to look out for yourself, okay?”

            L.Joe shook his head, looking desperate.  “They want to give me to somebody else.  There’s another idol.  I can’t, Sehun-ah, please.”

            It was the worst thing that L.Joe had ever said to him.  He knew that he should be strong and supportive and selfless.  He’d promised to look after L.Joe, and if he wanted to be a good owner, he had to make L.Joe feel good about this, he had to be reassuring and encouraging, he had to make L.Joe feel safe.  But how could he do that when his whole heart was breaking?  “Hyung,” he said helplessly, his voice cracking.  He was holding onto L.Joe’s shoulders, and L.Joe was holding onto his wrists, and they were gripping each other like a hurricane was trying to rip them apart.  All he could think of was that after everything he’d said and every promise he’d made, here he was, letting L.Joe down.  Here he was, making L.Joe feel scared and alone and unsafe.  And someone else was going to take his needy, desperate, abandoned pet and take advantage of L.Joe’s vulnerability and hurt his sweet, perfect, helpless pet.

            “Television.”  Sehun said it in such a shaky whisper, the word barely came out.  He felt like a coward.  He wasn’t a dom at all, he wasn’t fit to be an owner.  He was a weak coward, and he hated himself for ever making L.Joe believe in him.

            “We can figure it out,” L.Joe whispered.  “We can make it work.  I can talk to Suho hyung.”

            The bathroom door opened.  “What are you doing?” Baekhyun asked.  “Where’s the maknae, we have to go.”

            “He’s taking an enormous dump,” Niel said.  “Maybe he’s sick.”

            Niel,” Baekhyun said in surprise.  “Hi?”

            “Please,” L.Joe whispered.  Feeling guilt and regret tear at him, Sehun touched his forehead to L.Joe’s, closing his eyes and running his fingers over L.Joe’s cheekbones.  “Please,” L.Joe whispered again, in that same perfect, begging tone that had pleaded with him so many times before.  God, that voice.  That exquisite, anguished catch.  Being with L.Joe had taught Sehun so many things about himself.  It had solidified his own sense of identity.  It had been the inspiration and fuel he’d developed his maturing sexuality around.  It had added meaning and purpose to his life.  L.Joe had given him so much.  L.Joe had given him everything.  And now it was all falling apart, and he was proving to them both that he’d never deserved any of it.  “Please.”

            That final, barely audible plea shattered Sehun.  “I’m sorry,” he whispered.  Prying L.Joe’s clutching fingers off of him, he backed up.  “I’m sorry, sunbae, I can’t.  I can’t take care of you if my life isn’t mine.  You have to.”  He couldn’t finish it.  He couldn’t say, “You have to look after yourself from now on,” because he couldn’t force the words past the lump of pain lodged in his chest.  Turning his back like a coward, he looked at the latch.  He put his hand on the door and tried to breathe.  Tears were running down his face and his nose was dripping and he couldn’t open the damned door.  He couldn’t bring himself to abandon his pet.  He couldn’t do it.  He didn’t know what might happen to L.Joe next or where L.Joe might end up or what kind of untrustworthy, careless jerk might take advantage of L.Joe’s vulnerability.

            He knew that people switched partners all of the time, but he didn’t care about any of them.  He cared about L.Joe.

            “If we don’t go, Suho hyung’s going to come in here,” Baekhyun said.

            “Shut up,” Chen said.

            Taking a deep breath, Sehun tried to steady himself and stop crying.  It didn’t work.  Slowly, he turned and faced L.Joe again.

            Reaching out, L.Joe grabbed hold of his hand and looked up at him with a dozen desperate questions in those vulnerable, brown eyes.

            “I want to meet him,” Sehun said.  He didn’t even bother to whisper.  “Whoever he is, I want to meet him.  If you have to be with somebody else, then I want to go with you, to make sure that he’s okay.”  It wasn’t his place and it wasn’t his business, he was the worst owner in the world, but he didn’t care.  He had to do this.  He had to know for himself that L.Joe was safe.

            “He won’t be,” L.Joe said.

            If he could keep his promises, he’d be better than Sehun.  “I’m sorry, sunbae.”  It was so hard to look into L.Joe’s face.  He felt rotten the whole way through.  He was human garbage.  “I have to go.”

            Gripping Sehun’s hand tightly, L.Joe brought it to his mouth and pressed a fervent kiss to it, closing his eyes.  Sehun choked on a sob and couldn’t even be quiet about crying anymore.  Finally, too soon, L.Joe let him go.

            Wiping at his face, Sehun tried to get in control of himself.  He could barely manage to get out of the stall, he was so shaken.  As soon as he stumbled out, Chen grabbed him, hugging him.

            “We can’t - - you - - I’ll go tell Suho hyung that you’re sick,” Baekhyun said.

            “It’ll be okay,” Chen said, patting his back.  “It’ll be okay.”  But he recognized empty words when he heard them.  He’d been telling them to L.Joe all of this time.

            Halfway through Sehun’s explanation, Suho sat down on the edge of his bed and put his head in his hands.  Sehun became more and more insistent, and he rubbed at his face, letting the words hammer at his brain.

            He couldn’t let Sehun do this.  He couldn’t let Sehun continue to be tangled up in these self-indulgent kinky sex games.  The maknae of one of SM’s most successful ventures to date, involved in the world of erotic BDSM?  He might as well just go ahead and wave his cock on-camera now, it would be less disastrous.

            When he couldn’t take Sehun’s arguments and demands anymore, he closed his eyes and said, “It’s Woohyun and Sunggyu hyung.  Woohyun and Sunggyu hyung know about L.Joe, they’ve always known, and Sunggyu hyung offered to help, and C.A.P. agreed.  Woohyun will be fine, he’ll know what to do, so you can stop worrying about your own sex life and things you shouldn’t be involved in anyway.”

            “No, I don’t care, I don’t care who it is, I have to be there.  I have to make sure.  You can’t throw any dom and any sub into a room together, the chemistry has to be right.”

            “You don’t have some magical solution that no one else has ever figured out,” Suho said.  He felt exhausted.  He wanted to go to bed and sleep for a thousand years.  He was so drained, and it got worse every day.  “Woohyun and Sunggyu hyung are both more experienced and more mature than you are.  L.Joe’s probably better off with them, anyway.”  He rubbed at his eyes and felt like an ancient, corrupt soul who’d lived countless lifetimes and royally screwed up every one of them.  “Go to your room, we won’t talk about this again.”

            The room was silent.

            He didn’t want to be the leader anymore.  Who had put him in charge of so many other people’s lives?  How had that seemed like such a good idea?  He was fine leading in all of the simple ways.  Staying organized, communicating between the members and management, keeping the members in line and focused on work.  But how was he supposed to decide between a young man’s independence and the good of the team?  Why was it up to him to police a young adult’s sexuality?  How did he know what was healthy and what was good for the team and when those things were in direct conflict?  Was what kept the most members happy the right thing to do?  Could they be trusted to make those decisions for themselves?  What if he looked back in ten years and regretted everything?  How long could he maintain his position as leader if every single one of his members grew to loathe him?

            “It’s a good thing that you don’t have sex anymore,” Sehun said.  He hadn’t realized that Sehun was even still in the room.  “I wouldn’t give you my cock if you were bent over and begging me for it.”  The door slammed.

            This had not been a good day.

            Three days had passed since Sehun had met L.Joe in the bathroom, and things were worse than ever.  For Chen, everything seemed precarious, like with one more blow the whole dorm might collapse in around them.  Everybody was avoiding Suho, no one knew what to do with Sehun, and the air was so tense that Chen felt crowded in his own skin.  No one was happy with anyone else.  The few times he’d tried to have sex last week had seemed either guilty and furtive or strangely frantic, like he was trying to prove something.  He’d stopped having sex altogether; it just didn’t feel right.  It wasn’t what he wanted.

            They were in the dorm, and Chen was on the couch between Xiumin and Kai, when Suho walked across the room and Xiumin said, “Well, look at that.”  He looked at his phone.  “L sunbae and Changjo sunbae are on another date.  Right now.”

            Ssh,” Chen said softly, glancing at Suho’s back.

            “What?” Xiumin asked.  “What’s wrong now?  We’re not even allowed to say their names anymore?  The visual and the main dancer of two different successful groups who debuted in 2010 are on a date.  Is that better?”

            “They’re not dating,” Kai said.

            “How do we know?” Xiumin asked.  “When’s the last time anybody talked to them?  They could be fucking engaged and getting ready to adopt, for all we know, since we’re completely shut out of their lives.”  Suho was in the kitchen.  “They look great!” he called.  “Lots of comments.  ‘Handsome, so handsome, daebak couple,’” he read from the screen.  “Hey, Suho, here’s one about you.  ‘Where is EXO’s guardian leader?  Not here again?  It doesn’t look right without all three.  It feels too much like the dongsaengs miss their hyung.’”

            “It doesn’t say that,” Chen said, reading over Xiumin’s shoulder.  Oh.  It did.  Ouch, what a shame.  It looked like a lot of people were trying to figure out what had happened to turn the three-person friendship into a couple.  “‘Stupid EXO-L roaches worked so hard to defend Joonmyeon,’” he read, amazed.  “‘Did he find another sunbae to latch onto instead?  Couldn’t convert enough Angels and Inspirits and gave up?  SM should have more classes on loyalty and character.  Hope they don’t debut any more pretty-faced, empty-hearted betrayer-dols after this.  EXO is bad enough.’”

            “Holy shit,” Kai said, reading over his shoulder.  “Don’t read the next one, it’s worse.”

            “That’s only a couple of angry antis, though,” Xiumin said.  “We can’t take them seriously.”

            “It’s more than a couple,” Chen said, his heart sinking as he scrolled down the page.

            “This is what people think of us,” Kai said, blinking at the screen like he was trying to absorb the idea.  “This is what our fans think.”

            “It’s not what Teen Top and Infinite think, though, is it?” Chen asked.  “We never got the chance to explain.  But they understand, don’t they?”

            “Chen hyung, our fans!” Kai exclaimed.  “Look at this, our fans think that we’re a bunch of soulless jerks who don’t have any loyalty.  We made friends and then we dropped them without any warning.  I didn’t know that fans noticed so much, I didn’t know that they’d care like this.”

            “Kai, our friends,” Xiumin insisted.  “You get to see Taemin and D.O. whenever you want.  I don’t get to see anyone.  I don’t get to see U-Kiss or MBLAQ or MyName or Speed.  I don’t get to see Chunji.  I don’t get to send a text message to goddamned Jang Dongwoo, one of the most pure-hearted people in this entire industry, because oh no what if someone misunderstands that I’m friends with the same guy I’ve been friends with for years?”

            Chen winced.  It was a rough situation.  He wished that they could all sit down and discuss it, but the conversation wouldn’t go anywhere without Suho, and Suho barely said anything to them unless it was about work.

            “What happens next time Toheart invites me and Dongwoo onstage?” Xiumin asked.  “I say, ‘Sorry, guys, I can’t, I’m not allowed to make eye contact with Teen Top or Infinite members anymore, but good luck with your careers?’”

            Chen didn’t know what to say to that.

            A few minutes later, Suho walked back out of the kitchen.  His nose was red and his eyes looked bloodshot and Chen was sure that he’d been crying in there.  It would’ve been shocking to see Suho cry if the entire team hadn’t been so miserable lately.  “Hyung?” Chen asked, starting to get up, wanting to help.

            “I’m going out,” Suho said.  Pulling on a sweatshirt, he flipped up the hood.  Then he sniffed and wiped at his nose.  “I’ll be back later.  Everyone stay in and follow the rules.”

            “We always fucking do,” Xiumin muttered under his breath.

            “Where are you going?” Kai asked.

            “Are you okay?” Chen asked.

            “It’s not the members’ job to worry about the leader, it’s the leader’s job to worry about the members,” Suho said, and he left.

            Sunggyu walked into the conference room and let the door swing shut behind him.  His hands in the pockets of his baggy sweatshirt, he sat down beside Suho.  “You look like shit.”

            “I feel like shit,” Suho said honestly.  He was so grateful to see Sunggyu, he wished that they could hug.  “Thank you for coming.”

            “I didn’t have anything better to do at two in the morning than dry my cock off, get dressed, and come across town to talk to some neurotic hoobae.”

            Suho had to wonder, “Why did you come?”

            “Because I’m a good hyung and I look after my dongsaengs.  Even the annoying ones.”

            He deserved that.  “I’m sorry.  I’ve been…  Things have been difficult.”

            “You make things difficult.”

            He wanted to argue that everyone else took things too lightly.  He met Sunggyu’s eyes.  “How’s L?”

            “Traumatized over being abandoned and clinging to Changjo.”

            It was exactly what he hadn’t wanted to hear.  Suho studied the surface of the conference table.  “Everyone around me deserves a better Suho than I’ve given them.”  He poked out his lower lip, turning the same, exhausted thoughts over and over in his mind.  “I talked to Onew hyung.  And Leeteuk hyung.  And Key.”

            “Then why did you call me?”

            He turned his eyes on Sunggyu’s face.  “Because you’re from a different company and you have your own way of doing things and you’ve always been direct with me.  And because you make me feel like I can count on you no matter what.”  Sunggyu was a good hyung who looked after his dongsaengs.  Even the annoying ones.  “You’ve been trying to give me advice for a long time now, and I think that I need to listen, for once.”

            Sunggyu nodded.  “Do you want hyung to be gentle with you or strict?”

            “I don’t think that I deserve gentle,” he admitted, his heart weakening at the thought of it.  “But it would be nice.  I’m already strict with myself, and it feels like I haven’t had a friendly moment with anyone lately.”

            Sunggyu nodded again.  “I’ll try.”  He yawned uninhibitedly, then got out of his chair.  He sat on the table itself, facing Suho, his legs dangling.  “It’s not good for you to be this unhappy.  It’s hard on your members and it’s bad for your fans.”

            “No one’s happy.”  He looked up at Sunggyu, and Sunggyu’s expression was so patient and sympathetic that he felt everything pour out of him.  “I tell myself that it’s not my job to make my members happy, it’s my job to protect them and do what’s right, but it can’t be right for them to be so upset.  I feel like I’m trapped.  There’s no safe direction to go in, everything’s a mistake.  Setting rules and managing the members, that’s what I signed up for.  I never agreed to play God with other people’s lives.  I want to keep them safe, I want to protect them from getting hurt and ruining themselves, but everyone treats me like I’m wrong, like I’m the one messing everything up.  Why can’t anyone understand that I’m only looking out for them?”

            “You care a lot about your members.”

            “I love them!  This isn’t only a job to me, EXO is everything.  I didn’t come into this lightly.  This was never a whim, it was never just for fun, it was never just for the money.”  He shifted in his chair, unable to disguise how tense he was, unable to get his shoulders to relax.  “I knew that it was a big responsibility to be leader.”

            “You weren’t the only leader, before.”

            He looked down at his hands.  “A lot of things have changed from the way they were supposed to be.”

            “Maybe you’re trying to do too much all by yourself.  It’s okay to have help.  Leaders need back-up.”  Sunggyu’s fingers brushed at Suho’s bangs, and he froze.  He couldn’t have looked up if he’d wanted to.  Calmly, like it didn’t mean anything, Sunggyu asked, “While you’re taking care of everybody else, who takes care of you?”

            He cleared his throat, choked, and coughed.  His hands were fascinating all of a sudden, and he didn’t want to look away from them.  “I don’t need to be taken care of.  I’m not a kid, I’m not helpless.  They put the leader in charge because he’s the one who can be trusted to look after everyone else and himself at the same time.  Nobody tucks U-Know Yunho in at night.”

            “You’re a good leader,” Sunggyu said.  “You’re one of the leaders I can respect.  But you’re not ready to be compared to U-Know Yunho.”  Sunggyu touched his hair again, and he flinched away.  It was an involuntary reaction, instinctive, and he caught his breath, his hands squeezing down on each other.  He didn’t want to be touched.  Not like that.  Not while they were alone, without witnesses, where anything could happen.  “Who do you talk to?  Is there someone in management that you’re close with?  Is there one of your members that you confide in?  I don’t mean calling Onew once every six months when you need help.  Who do you just talk to about things?”

            No one.  “I used to try to talk to EXO-M’s leader.  After that, I don’t know.  I don’t want to burden my members.  It doesn’t seem right.  And I don’t want to play favorites and make someone my confidant.  Especially if I end up needing to talk about the other members.  I can’t hash out how to handle Sehun with Chen, that’s not right, it’s not fair to either one of them.”  He looked up as far as Sunggyu’s knees.  The right leg of Sunggyu’s pants was ripped, and he could see Sunggyu’s knee.  He could see the bare skin of Sunggyu’s thigh.  Trying to shove the image away, he dropped his gaze again.  This had been a mistake.  Why had he thought that he could confide in this hyung?  What had he been thinking?  “I talked about some things with L.  With L and Changjo.”

            “Changjo doesn’t take care of you, you take care of him,” Sunggyu said.  “You need a friend, Young Money-ah.  You need someone you can relax with and talk to and not worry about.”


            “I said not worry about.”

            He risked a glance up.  Sunggyu looked so normal and ordinary, he felt some of his tension ebb.  He overreacted to everything; he had to stop getting so uptight over every little thing.  “Who do you talk to?”

            “I talk to Woohyun.”  He scratched behind his ear.  “I talk to my CEO.  I talk to Dongwoo if I’m really desperate.  I talk to Onew, too, you’re not the only one.  We’re the same age, and our members are close, so it’s comfortable between us.”

            “I didn’t know that.  That you confided in him like that.”

            Sunggyu nodded.  “He puts up with a lot from his members, but they’re good kids.  Mine are awful.”  He blinked, frowning in distaste.  “Terrible members.”

            He couldn’t take that comment seriously, knowing what he’d heard from L.  “It seems like you have a lot of,” what could he call it, “emotional energy for your members.”

            “I give them so much!  And then they complain and call me lazy.  They’re the ones who exhaust me!”  Sunggyu braced his hands on the table, lightly swinging his feet.  “They’re men now, they have emotional needs and sexual needs and things like that, but they never get to see their families and they aren’t allowed to have a lot of relationships.  They’re under a lot of pressure, they don’t have much time for themselves, all of that.  So I do things for them when I can.  Buy them chicken, get them off, let them hang out with that wicked little Teen Top maknae.”

            Buy them chicken and get them off.  It amazed Suho, how frankly Sunggyu said those things.  As if one didn’t take any more out of him than the other.  “You think that if I have more friendship and support from somewhere else, I’ll have more to give to my members.”

            Sunggyu nodded.  “You can’t give and give and give, only.  You’ll get worn out and stressed out, and you’ll be no good to anybody.  That makes situations like this, where you can’t take care of yourself or your members or anyone else.  You have to find a place where you can let all of the bad out and let all of the good in.  If you don’t want to talk to your members or management, what about Key?”

            “We could be closer,” he admitted.  “It’s always so hard with other idols, they’re as busy as I am and we never have time to see each other.”

            “So get several of them.  One from Shinee, one from another team, one from somewhere else.  Key’s a friend, do you have any hyungs in other groups?”

            He shook his head.  “There’s Super Junior, but I don’t want to burden them.  I feel stupid bothering them with little things.”

            “You need someone you can talk to about work and private things, too.  It’s important to be able to tell someone how annoying your members are and how worried you are about your comeback and how great the concert was.  But it’s also important to tell someone about your family and your mood and your cock.  Would it be weird to tell Super Junior about those things?”

            “Yes.”  He loved to be around Super Junior, but he couldn’t imagine confiding in them openly.  Not the way he would to a friend.  He could say a lot of those things to L and Changjo, but he had to worry about them, too.  Sunggyu was right, he needed a close hyung, someone he could open up to but didn’t have to check up on.  Someone he didn’t feel responsible for, the way he felt responsible for his dongsaengs.

            The answer to his problem was literally staring him in the face.  Maybe that was why he had so much trouble maintaining eye contact.  He didn’t want to ask Sunggyu to take on that role in his life.  Sunggyu was too confident and too pushy.  He wanted a hyung, not a leader.  He wanted to confide in someone who would set him in the right direction, not steamroll over him.

            There was also the question of sex.  He’d been attracted to people before.  Like L, who conjured up all kinds of intense desires and fantasies he wasn’t used to, and Changjo, who was an almost irresistible temptation.  But with the two of them, he had reasons to say no.  With Sunggyu, he had trouble putting coherent reasons together.  He got as far as, “That’s a bad idea,” and then he came to the question of why, and he started fumbling.  It was a bad idea because he shouldn’t have sex outside of EXO, and he shouldn’t get involved with other groups, and he couldn’t risk scandal, and it was all of the same tired, worn-out stuff he went over every time the issue of sex came up.  But when he was on MT and everyone else in the house was having as much sex as possible, who did it make a difference to whether he sat alone like a monk or joined in?  Besides his conscience?  He couldn’t have sex with L because their relationship was too important and L was too sensitive and he didn’t want to complicate things.  He couldn’t have sex with Sunggyu, why?  He didn’t need to protect Sunggyu’s heart.  Sunggyu wasn’t invested in him at all and apparently had a habit of having sex with other idols for their own good.

            If he got too close to Sunggyu, he might become one of those idols.  And he wasn’t ready for that.

            He shouldn’t have called Sunggyu tonight.

            He shouldn’t have done a lot of things.

            “I can’t remember the last time a day passed and I didn’t make a mistake,” he admitted, sitting back in his chair.  He looked at the table and messed with his own hair.  “I don’t know what the right thing is, anymore.  All I know is that I’m too terrified of doing the wrong thing.”

            “What did Onew tell you?”

            “To trust my members and let them work it out.”

            “Do you trust them?”

            Yes.  No.  Yes.  It wasn’t that he didn’t trust them.  “It’s easy to make a mistake.  I’m the leader, and I do it all of the time.”

            “Management wants to put everybody in a bubble so we’ll only focus on our careers and never get distracted by anything else,” Sunggyu said.  “Fans want to put us in a bubble so we’ll never mess up and never get hurt.  Parents want to put their kids in bubbles to protect them.  Leaders want to put their members in bubbles.  But I can’t be only a loyal son, I have to grow up and think for myself.  I can’t be only an employee.  I can’t be only an idol.  I’m a human being and I’m not always nice and I’m not always obedient and things aren’t always easy.  Parents have to let their kids grow up sometime, right?  Companies give their employees days off.  You have to give your members a little independence and a little freedom, here and there.  It’s good for them, and it makes them respect your authority the rest of the time.”

            He was worried about that, too.  He was worried that if he became a dictator, his members would stop listening altogether.  How long before Xiumin rebelled?  How long could he keep Sehun’s respect?

            “It’s not easy to let them make mistakes,” Sunggyu admitted.  “Sometimes I give them too much freedom, and sometimes I’m too hard on them.  What do you do with somebody like Sungyeol, who’s so smart he doesn’t realize how stupid he is?  What do you do with somebody like Dongwoo, who never does anything wrong but never has control of himself?  You have to do your best, and you have to be there for them.  And you can’t be there for them if you don’t have anybody to be there for you.”

            Suho envied Sunggyu’s relationship with Woohyun.  He envied Sunggyu’s closeness with Onew.  He couldn’t believe that Sunggyu had such a tight bond with Woollim’s CEO.  He couldn’t imagine opening up like that with SM’s management.

            He’d try to become closer with Key; they didn’t talk often enough.  But who else did he have?  Even if somehow he did try to reconnect with L and Changjo, they wouldn’t want to have anything to do with him.  And he couldn’t blame them.

            But he’d called Sunggyu out of the blue.  And Sunggyu was here.

            “Go back to your members,” Sunggyu said.  “Tell Xiumin that you trust him, and make love to Chen, and relax for once.  Dongwoo always says that everything will look brighter in the morning.”

            Lay felt really uneasy.  All of the members were too tense.  He felt too uncomfortable to go to bed while Suho was out; it seemed like everybody was waiting for Suho to come back.  No one even knew where their leader had gone.

            Sehun and D.O. and Kai were in their room with the door shut, and everything was too quiet.  Chanyeol had made ramen and half of it was still uneaten.  Lay didn’t know what else to do, so he sat on the couch and watched Xiumin play soccer videogames.

            The door finally opened, and Suho came in.  “Oh,” Lay said, relieved.  “Hello.”

            “You’re still up.”  Suho looked around as all three beagles walked in from different rooms.  “You should all be in bed.”

            “Where were you?” Xiumin asked, turning off the TV.

            “Let’s talk about it tomorrow,” Suho said.  “There’s a lot to say, and it’s late.”

            “Let’s talk about it now,” Xiumin said.  “We’re all awake.”

            Suho ran his hand through his hair.  He looked pained, like he was actually hurting somewhere.  “Okay.  We have the morning off.  If everybody wants to talk now, we can do it now, but it has to be all of us, not just some.”

            “Kids,” Chen said, moving toward the maknae’s room.

            Baekhyun came over and sat beside Lay on the couch.  Lay pulled him close and he hesitated, then snuggled in.  It had been so difficult, lately.  Everyone was so unhappy all of the time.  Lay missed the good times.  The members had used to smile more than this, and really mean it.  “I hate that everybody’s so frustrated.  It feels lonely.”  He rubbed Baekhyun’s upper arm.  “I don’t want to feel lonely when I’m with all of you.”

            “Hyung, don’t say things like that,” Baekhyun said, tucked against his shoulder.  “You make me feel worse.”

            The youngest members filed out of their room.  Baekhyun was between Lay and Xiumin on the couch, Chen and Chanyeol were in chairs, Kai and D.O. sat on the floor, and Sehun sat on Xiumin’s other side, slumping back and giving Suho a heavy-lidded, emotionless stare.  The maknae was like that all of the time, lately.

            Suho stood in front of the TV.  “I’ve been wrong about a lot of things.  I’ve made a lot of mistakes.  I tried to correct them and only made more of them.  But we can’t keep going on like this.  Nobody’s happy.  Doing things this way isn’t good for any of us.  I can’t have miserable members and you don’t want a miserable leader.”

            “Where is this going?” Chen asked nervously.

            “I’m apologizing,” Suho said.  “I’m sorry.  I’m sorry, Xiumin hyung.  I went back on our agreement, and I shouldn’t have.  I’m sorry, Lay.  You deserve more trust.  I’m sorry, Baekhyun.  You deserve more freedom.  I’m sorry, Chen.  I haven’t taken care of you.  I’m sorry, Chanyeol.  You should be able to see your friends.  I’m sorry, D.O.  You shouldn’t have to suffer in the middle of everyone else’s problems.  I’m sorry, Kai.  You’ve always been respectable and responsible.  I’m sorry, maknae.  I shouldn’t have taken something so precious away from you and made you break your promises.”

            “It’s okay,” Kai said.

            “It’s not okay,” Sehun snapped.

            “He’s doing his best,” Chen said.

            “Sehun’s right, it’s not okay,” Suho said.  “I’m sorry to all of you.  I took responsibility for leading you, and I led you in the wrong direction.  But I’m going to get out of your way now.  I’m going to step back and let you decide things among yourselves.  I think that it would be good if you all talked together and took responsibility for each other.  I want you to decide, really decide, in detail, how you want things to be, and which risks you want to take, and what’s too far.  Whatever one of us does, it puts everyone else in jeopardy, so we should all agree to take those risks together.  And whatever you decide, however it goes, I’ll agree to it.  That’ll be the way things are from now on.”

            “What do you mean?” Lay asked.

            Xiumin’s eyebrows were up.  “If we all decide that what we want to do is hire strippers every night and start porn careers, you’re going to go along with it?”

            “Yes,” Suho said.  “I trust you.”  He took a step away.  “I’ll be in my room, so you can talk.”

            “No,” Chen said.  “No, hyung, stay.  I think that it’ll be good if we’re all together.  So we all understand.”

            Suho hesitated, looking around.  Lay nodded at him, and he said, “Okay.”

            “What do we do, do we write it down?” Chanyeol asked.

            “Write it down, memorize it, and burn it?” Baekhyun suggested.  “How does it go?  ‘I, Byun Baekhyun, agree to let Sehun play BDSM games with sunbaes whenever he wants?’”

            “Is that - - I don’t get it,” Lay said, unsure.  “Are we allowed to see Teen Top?”

            “That’s what you’re deciding,” Suho said.  “You set the rules.”

            “I vote yes on Teen Top,” Lay said.

            “I vote yes on Infinite,” Chen said.

            “I vote yes on Teen Top and Infinite,” Baekhyun said.  “If they’re still speaking to us.”

            Kai pulled over the coffee table, and Chanyeol got paper, and they started talking.  It was like a negotiation, everybody throwing out ideas.  Then D.O. said, “I just want things to be the way they already were.  I liked it that way.  It was a lot of sex, but it wasn’t too much sex.  It was a lot of risk, but it was risk everybody was willing to take.”

            “Hyung, you’re angry now,” Chen told Xiumin.  “But you don’t really want strippers and a porn career, do you?  I just want what D.O. said, for things to go back to normal.”

            “It seemed like everybody was happy with that,” Kai said.  “We weren’t complaining then.”

            “Okay,” Chanyeol said, making notes.  “What’s the agreement, then?  Group MT with Teen Top.  Group MT with Infinite.  Sehun goes on playdates with L.Joe.”

            “Xiumin gets to meet other idols whenever he wants, to do whatever he wants,” Xiumin said.  “And he can invite Infinite and Teen Top members over.”

            “We don’t get to do anything ‘whenever we want,’” Kai said.  “Sorry, hyung, but if this is in writing, shouldn’t it be clear?  We can do things when we have time and permission.”

            “Okay, let’s word it like this,” Chanyeol suggested.  “If the members have time off to themselves, the mat-hyung can spend his free time with other idols.  So no skipping practice or Mandarin lessons.  If the members are told to spend the night in and get rest, the mat-hyung will abide by the same rules as everyone else.”

            “How is my situation any different from yours, then?” Xiumin asked.

            “It’s different,” Chen said.

            “Yeah, hyung,” Baekhyun said.  “You can get up and say, ‘Bye, catch you later,’ and go off and do whatever you want.  We have to say, ‘Suho hyung, Sungyeol hyung wants to meet, can we go?’  And then we get lectures on being responsible and what not to do and where not to go, and if we actually get permission we still have to spend our whole night being polite.  You get to invite Chunji over to the dorm and have sex.  We have to stay in public and barely get a handshake.”

            “Oh,” Xiumin said.  “I get sex, you get coffee dates.  Okay.”

            “If we can arrange things however we want, can we get sex, too?” Lay asked.

            “No,” D.O. said.

            “Wait, hold on,” Baekhyun said.  “I like Lay hyung’s idea.”

            “I can’t agree to it,” Kai said.  “No offense, but I think that some of you would end up having sex in the wrong place at the wrong time and cause too much trouble.  Xiumin hyung knows when to listen to his hormones and when to listen to his head, and not everybody does.”

            “You’re talking about me, aren’t you?” Baekhyun asked.

            “I think that it’s smart to play it safe,” Chen said.  “We already get to have sex with each other every day and every night.  We get to date other idols pretty often.  And we get to go on MT whenever we can fit it in.  I think it’s a pretty good arrangement.  How much sexual freedom do you really need?”

            “If you’re worried about the wrong place at the wrong time, could we agree on the right place?” Lay asked.  “Can we have sex at Infinite’s dorm?  Teen Top’s dorm?  That’s safe, isn’t it?”

            “I don’t know,” Kai said.  “If we meet out, it’s so public, it seems innocent.  If we’re always going over to their dorms, doesn’t it start to look like too much?  The more we do right out in public, the better.”

            “Says the guy whose boyfriend lives in the same room with him,” Baekhyun said.

            Sehun snorted.  “You do know they barely ever have sex, right?  Living with his boyfriend doesn’t mean he gets laid any more than you do.”

            “Can we agree that the maknae has to have a better attitude?” Baekhyun asked.  He poked Chanyeol.  “Write that down.”

            “What do we have so far?” Chen asked.

            Chanyeol nudged the notebook in his direction.  “Xiumin hyung gets time off all to himself, to do what he wants, including invite Teen Top and Infinite members over.  The rest of us get to meet Teen Top and Infinite members in public with Suho hyung’s permission.  Dorm visits are only when Suho hyung says.  We get to go on MT sometimes.  Sehun gets to meet L.Joe.  The EXO members get to screw like wild rabbits at the dorm.  Baekhyun has to give Chanyeol head once every twenty-four hours.”

            “Cross that out,” Baekhyun said.

            “Cross out ‘Baekhyun’ and put in ‘Lay,’” Lay suggested.

            With a broad smile, Chanyeol wrote it down.

            “What about relationships?” Kai asked.

            “Why, don’t you already have a boyfriend?” Baekhyun asked.

            “You want two?” Chen asked.

            “I’ll take D.O. if you don’t want him,” Chanyeol said.

            D.O. looked at Chanyeol and shook his head.

            “If we’re giving Sehun and Xiumin hyung special consideration for their circumstances, what about if someone wants to be in a relationship?” Kai asked.  “What if Chen hyung gets a boyfriend or somebody falls in love with Lay hyung?”

            “Why can’t I be in this example?” Baekhyun asked.  “What are you trying to say about me?”

            “If we create loopholes for that, people are going to be tempted to say that they’re in a relationship just to get laid more,” Chen said.

            “There could be a trial period,” Lay said.  “You have to date for a while and then if you prove that you’re responsible, you can meet privately.”

            “Ricky and I have been dating this whole time, and we’ve been responsible, so can he come over tomorrow?” Chanyeol asked.

            “Shut up, you’re proving Chen right,” Baekhyun complained.

            “I think that we know each other,” D.O. said.  “I think that we can tell who really has feelings and who just wants to get off.”

            “What are we going to do then, vote on it?” Xiumin asked.

            “That’s not a bad idea,” Chanyeol said.

            “I don’t want everybody voting on whether I can see my boyfriend or not,” Xiumin said.

            “I trust you, though,” Chen said.  “I think that we can trust each other.  If I saw that you had feelings for Dongwoo hyung, I wouldn’t keep you apart just for fun.”

            “Then it’s only about knowing each other and trusting each other,” Lay said.  “That’s okay, then, isn’t it?”

            “Well, if I say no, I’ll feel like an asshole,” Chanyeol said.  “We’ll add that in.”  He started to write.  “If you want to see your boyfriend privately, and make dorm visits, all of the members have to agree.”

            “Luckily for Kai, all of the members agree that he’s in love with D.O.,” Baekhyun said.  “Even if we can’t figure out why.”

            Raising his fist, D.O. leaned toward Baekhyun.

            Yelping, Baekhyun scooted away.

            “These are a lot of rules for the members,” Lay said.  “What about the leader?”

            “He has to follow the same rules as everyone else,” Xiumin said.

            “Why?” Kai asked.  “You don’t.”

            “If Xiumin hyung can do whatever he wants at his own discretion, then Suho should, too,” Lay said.  “Let’s write that down.”

            “Does Suho hyung suddenly have a sex life that I don’t know about?” Baekhyun asked.  “He already does whatever he wants at his own discretion, and he does absolutely nothing.”

            “That’s up to him,” D.O. said.  “He can do what he wants, and he can choose to do nothing.”

            “You never told us where you went,” Sehun said.

            Oh.  Remembering that, Lay looked over at Suho.

            Suho had been standing to one side the whole time, watching them.  Now he put his hands on his hips and looked uneasy.  “I met Sunggyu hyung.  I wanted to talk to someone, and I didn’t know where else to go.”

            “You’re meeting with Infinite now?” Xiumin asked.

            “We met at the SM building.  It was the first time I talked to anyone in Infinite since that other meeting.”

            “I’m glad that you talked to him,” Chen said.  “If this is what you came back with.”

            Onew hyung told me to do this a while ago,” Suho admitted.  “I just wasn’t sure that it was right.  But I should’ve listened.  I should’ve listened to a lot of things.”

            “You should make a note,” Lay told Chanyeol.  “The part about the wild rabbits at the dorm.  That includes all of the EXO members, every single one, whenever they want to.  If it’s a free-for-all, then it should be a real free-for-all, and anybody should be able to join in any way they want to at any time.”

            “Noted,” Chanyeol said, writing it down.

            “That’s a good note,” Chen said.  “I think that it’s best when all of the members participate and all of the members are comfortable and everybody understands that we’re all allowed to join in or watch whenever we feel like it.  It feels the best that way, when nobody’s left out.”

            “Can we sign this thing or burn it or whatever, so I can call L.Joe sunbae?” Sehun asked.

            “What else do we need to add?” Baekhyun asked.

            “The usual rules,” Chen said.  “No sexual activity in the van, in public, or with anyone outside of the dorm, ever.  No taking photos, no phone sex, write all of that stuff down.”

            “Got it,” Chanyeol said, scribbling.

            “How about, instead of being punished for things like being late to practice, we get spanked by Xiumin hyung for being a naughty, naughty boy?” Baekhyun asked.

            “Yes,” Xiumin said.  “Write that down.”

            “Don’t write that down,” Kai said.

            “You don’t let me spank you,” Sehun said.

            “You’re scary,” Baekhyun said.

            “But I could make you come super hard,” Sehun said.

            “I don’t get spanking,” D.O. said.  “I don’t see why it’s sexy.”

            “I just like watching that ass jiggle,” Chanyeol said.

            “Ah, members, focus,” Chen said.  “Do we agree on everything?”

            “We agree that we’re going to make Baekhyun’s ass as jiggly and red as cherry Jell-O tonight,” Xiumin said.

            Ew,” Chen said.

            “That’s so hot,” Lay said.  “I’ll help.”

            “Baekhyun doesn’t have enough ass to jiggle,” Chen said.

            “You do,” Xiumin said, giving him a sexy look.

            Turning red, Chen pulled his shirt down in the back.

            “This is good,” Kai said, reading the agreement.  “Let’s agree to do it again every six months.  So we can review it and revise it if we want to make changes.”

            “Yeah, we might want to add VIXX to the list,” Chanyeol said.

            “Or we might need to take Infinite and Teen Top off because they aren’t speaking to us anymore,” Baekhyun said.

            “Okay, sign it, burn it, done,” Sehun said, getting up.

            “We all agree to be smart, be safe, and make responsible choices,” Chen said.

            “And nail Chunji as often as we’re allowed,” Chanyeol said.

            “Shake on that,” Xiumin said, reaching out.

            Ricky was still awake.  The lamp in the corner was on, and he wanted to turn it off, but he didn’t feel like getting up.

            He’d been asleep until L.Joe had crawled into his bed.  He didn’t know what L.Joe had done with Chunji and Changjo, because C.A.P. had taken him and Niel out to protect their innocence, but there were bite marks on L.Joe’s chest and claw marks all over his skin.  L.Joe hadn’t wanted to do anything with Ricky, just cuddle, and Ricky liked cuddling anyway, so it worked out.

            When L.Joe’s phone rang, Ricky picked it up.  L.Joe’s hand flailed out, and Ricky handed it to him.  Lifting his head, squinting, he grunted and shifted against Ricky, squirming around.  Grimacing, he rubbed at his chest, looking down.  “Shit.”  It was a really, really good thing that they weren’t going to be changing in front of stylists tomorrow.  The phone rang again, and he squinted at the screen some more.

            Then he pawed at the screen and rolled up onto his knees.  “Oh Sehun?”

            Sehun?  That was great!  Except uh-oh.  Weren’t L.Joe and Sehun asking for trouble, sneaking around behind Suho’s back?

            “Oh.”  L.Joe melted forward, curling over and sinking down until his face was buried in the sheets and his arm covered the back of his head.  Ricky sat up, wondering what to do.  There was a lot of silence for a while, and then L.Joe breathed, “Sehun-ah,” like it was the most beautiful word in any language.

            Ricky rubbed his ear, wondering if he should leave.

            Mmmm, yes,” L.Joe moaned.  Melting again, looking boneless, he rolled onto his side.  His expression was dreamy and happier than he’d looked in days.  Weeks.  “Yes, Sehun-ah.”

            Testing, curious, Ricky poked him.

He undulated, squirming around onto his back and making soft, blissful sounds.  “Yes, Sehun-ah, yes.  I’ve waited for you.  I didn’t meet anybody else.”  Bending his knees, he rested his feet on Ricky’s thighs.  “I’d like that so much, Sehun-ah.”

There was more cooing and purring.  Finally, hanging up, L.Joe stretched.  Sitting up, smiling happily, looking cheerful, he tousled his own hair.  “Ah!”  He pinched Ricky, beaming.  “Oh Sehun has permission to meet.  He’s going to text me when we can see each other.”

“Permission from Suho?”  Ricky hadn’t expected that.  No wonder L.Joe was in such a great mood.  The pinching really had to stop, though.  Ricky squirmed away.  “Does everybody have permission, or just Sehun hyung?”

“I don’t know.”

He probably didn’t care.  That was kind of selfish, but it made sense.  L.Joe didn’t care nearly as much about getting to have sex with all of EXO in general as he did getting to see Sehun.  Sex with Sehun was the most important kind of sex there was, to L.Joe.  It was probably more important than sex with Teen Top.

Was that true?  Ricky decided not to ask.  He might not like the answer.

“Oh Sehun.”  L.Joe shook out his hair and grinned at Ricky again.  “He really wants to see me.”

“C.A.P. hyung will be glad,” Ricky said, leaning against the pillow.  “You’ve been awful lately.”

Mmm.”  Still beaming, L.Joe slid in close, dropping kisses all over Ricky’s shoulder.  “I shouldn’t tell Oh Sehun about this.”  He touched the bite marks on his chest, then twisted around to look down his own back.  “He wouldn’t like it.”

“You liked it when it was happening, though, didn’t you?”

Mmm.”  L.Joe kissed him a couple of times, happy little teasing kisses.  “Yes, so much.”  The feel of L.Joe’s hand stroking in between his legs made him squirm.  “Let’s mess around, do you want to?  Pretty, pretty maknae, let hyung make you feel good.”

Wow, L.Joe was in a fantastic mood.  “Yeah,” Ricky said breathlessly, kissing him back.  “Okay.”

            Suho was glad that his members’ moods were brighter.  He was glad that they’d come to an agreement.  He felt a lot of surprise and relief that the arrangement they’d agreed on was what he’d already had set up for them.  Had he been on the right path all along?  Could he trust some of his instincts, after all?

            He owed it to his members to set everything straight again, the best way he could.  Sehun’s gaze was a weight hanging on him even when he was alone in bed.  Sehun, L, Changjo, when would his mistakes stop haunting him?  But he’d been wrong, and he deserved their disappointment and scorn.  He would use it as a reminder to stick to his commitments in the future.  Once he took responsibility for something, it was his, no matter what.

            In the morning, he called C.A.P.  He didn’t get an answer.  He suffered under Sehun’s heavy judgment until noon, when he called again.

            “This is C.A.P.”

            “Sunbaenim, this is EXO’s Suho.”

            “Calling the wrong number?” C.A.P. asked.

            He winced.  “I’m sorry, sunbaenim.  There are things that I need to say, if you and your members will be kind enough to listen.  I’d be grateful if I could meet Teen Top to apologize in person.”

            There was a thud and a yelp in the background.  He’d definitely called Teen Top.  “We’ll be in our practice room later,” C.A.P. said.  “You can stop by, if you want.”

            “I’d be grateful for the chance.  Tonight?”

            Mmm.  Around midnight.”

            “I’ll be there.  Thank you, sunbaenim.”

            Mmm.”  C.A.P. hung up.

            “Whew.”  Chen leaned beside him at the kitchen counter, shoulder to shoulder.  “That was different.  Hearing you speak so formally.”

            “My heart’s very humble right now,” Suho admitted.

            Chen nudged closer in against him.  “Is he angry?”

            “It can be hard to tell with that sunbae,” Suho said.  “But he said that I can go to see them, so I’ll go.”

            “Do you want us to go with you?”

            He wanted to say yes.  “I’d like that, but, no.  I messed up all by myself, so I have to apologize all by myself.”  Then he reconsidered.  “But they’re your friends, aren’t they?”

            “Well.  They were,” Chen said with a small smile.

            He loved Chen so much for being big-hearted enough to tease him about it.  Members like Chen were part of the glue that kept a group together.  “You can all come with me, if you want.  Whoever wants to.  If they accept my apology, you can see your friends.  And if they don’t accept it, you can berate me the whole way home.”  He had to be honest with himself; there was a real possibility that C.A.P. would tell him to get lost.

            “I’d like to see them,” Chen said.  “Even if they aren’t happy to see us.  It was nice, having other idol friends.  I feel bad that things ended so suddenly.  Most of the time when you lose a friend, you fight, or you get to say good-bye.  This way, it all felt unfinished.”

            Suho made a face at the rice cooker.  “I’m the worst leader in the world.”

            “No, don’t say that,” Chen said, putting an arm around him.  “We both know that’s not true.  What about that one sunbae?”

            Oh.  Ugh.  Suho grimaced, then looked at Chen for reassurance.  “I’m not as bad as he is?”

            “Never,” Chen said, the arm around him pulling him closer.  “I wouldn’t trade EXO’s leader with another idol’s in a million years.  I’ll hold onto you, if you’ll hold onto me.”

            “Always,” he promised, hugging Chen.

            “Well, now you have to say it,” Chen said.

            Say what?  One look into Chen’s smiling eyes and he knew.  “EXO,” he said.  “Let’s love.”

            Bursting into laughter, Chen hugged him again.

Series page: "Let's Love"

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Copyright August 23, 2015
by Matthew Haldeman-Time