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.
“It’s for Chanyeol-”
“You handle it!” Changjo snapped. “He’s your oppa, not mine!”
If they got any louder, C.A.P. was going to have to tell them to pipe down. But he wasn’t going to interfere if he didn’t have to. So he turned the volume up on the TV and tried to ignore it.
Chunji plopped down beside him on the couch and took the remote.
He took it back.
Chunji sniffed, then leaned against him. “The maknaes are fighting.”
“I know.” Talking about it wasn’t helping him to ignore it.
“I think they mean it.”
“Want me to do something?”
“No,” C.A.P. said. “It’s too-”
“No!” Changjo shouted. “No! Take care of it yourself, handle it yourself. I’m tired of being the bad guy! I’m tired of cleaning up everybody else’s messes!”
“You don’t clean up my messes!” Ricky snapped back. “I don’t make messes!”
Bang! A door slammed.
“-late for that,” he finished. Shit.
Changjo stormed into the kitchen.
A second later, C.A.P. was treated to the familiar sound of glass shattering.
Giving the kitchen a wide berth, Niel came over to the couch. “So, there are some really good hotel rates, if we want to stay somewhere else for a week.”
Fuck, that was tempting. At the sound of another glass, he got up, sighing. “One is an accident, maknae,” he said, raising his voice and heading for the kitchen. “Two is an extra hour of practice.”
Niel strolled into the maknaes’ room. Seated in front of his computer, Ricky was staring intently at the screen, grim-faced. He moved the mouse with precise, aggressive movements.
“Downloading porn?” Niel asked.
He didn’t answer.
Niel stood behind the chair and drummed his fingers on Ricky’s scalp. He deliberately didn’t pay attention to what Ricky was doing on-line; he preferred not knowing.
Ricky ignored him.
Singing to himself, he wandered around the room, tapping at things, being annoying. Exhaling noisily, he sat on Ricky’s bed. “I think Changjo’s mad at you.”
“Changjo can eat my shit,” Ricky said, not looking away from the screen.
Pressing his lips together, Niel nodded. “I don’t like him either,” he said. “He’s so annoying. I’ve always liked you better. But it’s good if we pretend that we all get along. Easier that way. So what if you just pretend to get along for a while, and forget about disagreeing, and act like friends, anyway?”
“Sorry, hyung.” Ricky sounded grim and focused. “Can’t do that.”
He hated pushing this button. He didn’t want to do it. He hated doing it. “Could you do it for me?”
The mouse stopped moving. Ricky blinked once, his expression going from grim to a thoughtful frown. “Maybe,” he finally said, and he went back to whatever he was doing.
Changjo wished that Ricky had more serious relationships outside of the group. That would be a really satisfying place to start fucking up Ricky’s life. He could start with Chanyeol, though, that would at least be something.
Ricky might target L. But that wouldn’t work; L loved Changjo. L knew Changjo. He wouldn’t let Ricky pull them apart. But maybe Changjo should warn him, anyway.
On his stomach on the floor between L.Joe and Chunji’s beds, he picked up his phone, intending to text L. Seeing a text message from Ricky, he frowned. Bracing himself, he decided to read it.
For Niel hyung’s sake. We’re not doing this.
His frown deepened. Was this a game? Was this a trick?
It was a bad time for Niel, though. Starting tomorrow, they were going to be putting in long hours on their comeback choreography. Niel was rehearsing for a musical and filming a few episodes for a variety show. Changjo didn’t think that was worth calling anything off, but - - oh, Niel had to record that feature, too, didn’t he?
Drumming his fingers on the floor, he thought about it.
Hopping up, he went into Niel’s room. He had to make sure that this was genuine, and not just some move on Ricky’s part.
Niel was seated against the headboard, reading a script. When Changjo climbed onto his bed and sat on his lap, he sighed and lowered the script, looking up warily.
“Is this you?” Changjo asked, showing him the text message. “You asked him?”
Niel read it, then nodded at him.
Hmm. “Okay.” Changjo kissed his cheek and got up. “But you owe me.”
“I’m your hyung, I don’t owe you anything.” When Changjo was in the doorway, he muttered, “I probably just saved your life.”
“Saved Ricky’s life, you mean,” Changjo corrected.
“Saved the building from being burnt down,” Niel said. “Now get out, I’m busy.”
Changjo went into his room. Standing directly behind Ricky’s chair, he texted, I still hate you.
Ricky’s phone pinged. He checked his messages. He texted something and went back to what he’d been doing.
Changjo had a new message. Be grateful to Niel hyung.
Smirking, he watched the monitor over Ricky’s shoulder. “I’m not helping you with that.”
“I don’t need your help,” Ricky replied.
“Why can’t Chanyeol hyung get himself out of trouble, anyway? Doesn’t SM protect him?”
“He doesn’t want Suho hyung to know that he messed up.”
“Do you want Suho hyung to know everything that you do? I’ll tell him for you. I know a lot of things about you that he’d be interested to hear about.”
“Shut the fuck up, we’re not fighting.”
“Just trying to help you out with your precious hyung.”
Changjo sat on the foot of his bed. “Do you want a real truce or a fake truce?”
“Real truce if you apologize, fake if you won’t.”
What the hell? “Apologize for what?” he demanded. “I protect everybody, I look out for everybody, I say no to you one time, and-”
“No!” Ricky swung around in the chair, finally looking at him. “You selfish jackass! You do that for you, you do it for other people, and I always help you with it, don’t I? I’m always there for you, I always support you. Who do you rely on more than me? You don’t help me, I help you! And then I ask you for one thing, and you can’t do it for me?”
“I don’t need your goddamned help! I let you help me! You’re a sidekick!”
“Then why do you turn to me every time?!”
“I won’t,” Changjo snarled. “I won’t come to you ever again, then, if it’s such a goddamned burden.”
“Good,” Ricky said, swinging back around and facing his computer. “Fine. Sidekick out.”
L.Joe didn’t know what to expect that morning. He crept out of his room cautiously. Would both maknaes still be there? Would all of Ricky’s clothes be missing? Would Changjo’s side of the bedroom have been switched around into a mirror image of yesterday? Would something be on fire? Would everything be on fire?
Ricky walked past, looking adorable and rumpled, yawning and scratching his head. “Morning, hyung,” he mumbled sleepily.
That was way too normal. Even more tense now, L.Joe crept down the hallway.
Changjo was in the kitchen, dancing idly and eating cereal.
Standing in the doorway, L.Joe watched, feeling cautious, waiting for something to go wrong.
Catching L.Joe staring, Changjo raised his eyebrows. “Want to blow me?”
“Do I look like Niel?”
Changjo snorted. “You wish you were that tall. Hey, hyung,” he said, looking past L.Joe. “Can I go out tonight? After practice?”
“Ask me again after practice,” C.A.P. said.
L.Joe couldn’t take it. “What are you up to?”
Changjo laughed. “Me? I’m not up to anything, hyung, I’m eating breakfast.”
They had to behave normally around Niel, so that Niel could come home and relax without worrying about tension around the dorm. They’d agreed to that, and they honored it. But it was only a fake truce, not a real one, so under the surface, there was tension between them.
Changjo tried to bait Ricky, being in their room all of the time or completely avoiding it, having sex right in his face. But Ricky wasn’t going to let the maknae’s attitude affect his behavior. So he didn’t change it. He did what he wanted. He didn’t avoid their bedroom or make a deliberate point of being in it; he was there when he normally would have been, and he slept in the other members’ beds like he naturally would have, according to the usual routines and behaviors.
Changjo made a point of his relationships with Suho and L, alluding to how much they adored him, how generous they were with him, how often they wanted to see him.
Ricky didn’t care, frankly. But the more Changjo waved high-value hyungs in his face, the more he contemplated outplaying Changjo at that particular game. If that mattered to Changjo, then how would Changjo feel if he landed a bigger fish?
Who would that be? He didn’t want to get ridiculous about it and try to seduce Kangta.
Sunggyu seemed like an obvious choice. Maybe too obvious.
It had to be someone Suho considered a hyung. Someone who called L a hoobae. But still someone valuable, someone everyone would consider out of Ricky’s league. Someone Suho looked up to, someone L wouldn’t criticize. He didn’t need to go for the obvious things, money and looks, that Suho and L superficially had. He needed someone with industry cred. Someone that even other idols still respected, after this long in the game.
Onew frowned at the “out of order” sign on the bathroom door. “We can’t use it?”
“I don’t think so,” Taemin said, adjusting his mike pack. “There’s water on the floor in there, I wouldn’t try it.”
A little disgruntled, he left the dressing room and went down the hallway. When he walked into the bathroom, he heard someone singing from a stall. It was a pretty song, and he hummed softly along as he peed. He went over to wash his hands, and as they reached the chorus, he joined in more strongly, bursting into song.
“Oh, suddenly!” Someone fell out of the stall, looking flustered. “Oh! Sunbaenim!”
Laughing, he saw that it was Teen Top’s Ricky. “Did I scare you?”
“I didn’t know that anyone was in here! Sorry.” Blushing, he tugged at his clothes, making sure that everything was covered.
Aw, he was cute. “You like that song?” Onew asked.
“It’s good, it tells a nice story.”
Curious, he wondered, “Is Teen Top performing today?” He hadn’t seen them on the roster, and Ricky had on street clothes.
“No. I hope not, I’m not ready!” he joked. “No, I came to see Chanyeol hyung.”
“EXO’s Chanyeol? Are you close?”
Ricky nodded, washing his hands. “He’s a good hyung.”
“I should go see EXO, too,” Onew decided.
Ricky grinned at him. “It’s good to check on the hoobaes once in a while.”
Ricky had to make as much progress as he could before anyone realized what he was doing. He wanted to have Onew as locked down as possible before Changjo noticed that anything was happening. So he had to get away on his own to run into Onew without drawing attention to the fact that he was going out. And he had to look good enough to attract Onew’s interest without any of the members catching him trying to look good.
He met Chanyeol at the SM building at times that he knew that Onew would be there. He went out with his other ’95 line friends, one this day, another that day, people he would have met up with anyway, and hung out at Onew’s favorite coffee place at hours Onew regularly stopped by.
D.O. liked him, so D.O. was his line to Kai, who was his line to Taemin, who was his line to Onew. He estimated that getting to Taemin would take longer than it did, but D.O. genuinely liked him, and Kai and Taemin hung out a lot, so the four of them got together multiple times.
The first time they went to Shinee’s dorm, Onew wasn’t there. Minho was, and he already knew and liked Ricky from crap like “Dream Team.” By the end of the night, Minho was all over him.
He considered using Woohyun to get to Key, but Key was too protective. He didn’t want to raise alarms. He hung out with Taemin and Minho a few more times.
Stopping by Infinite’s dressing room and running into Onew there would’ve been convenient, except for L. He didn’t want Changjo to hear about his visit and get suspicious. So he only did it once. And it worked perfectly. He pretended to be there to see Sunggyu, and Sunggyu ate up his flattery, and he pretended to find the news that Shinee was around surprising. “You’re closer with them than we are,” he told Sunggyu. “You and your members are the same age as they are, so it’s more comfortable. With us, we’re younger, so they just seem like big sunbaes. We don’t really talk much.”
“They’re not scary,” Sunggyu said.
He laughed. “Hyung, you don’t think that you’re scary, either.”
Sunggyu acted shocked and offended that Ricky would call him intimidating. Minutes later, they were in Shinee’s dressing room, and he and Sunggyu and Onew were all on the couch together, and Minho came over to join them, and Sunggyu insisted that Onew was harmless. “You’re a sunbae, but you’re a sunbae we can respect, not a sunbae we have to cower in front of.”
“Nobody cowers in front of Onew hyung,” Minho said.
“I think that everyone from our years should be close,” Sunggyu said. “There are too many new debuts and too many rookies these days. It’s up to those of us who debuted before to stand together.”
Ricky laughed. “You make the rookies sound like an invasion!”
“They are!” Sunggyu insisted. “Nugus everywhere, all of these little kids running around, we go to festivals and I don’t know anybody there!”
“Have you seen their stages?” Onew asked. “They sing and dance at the same time. It looks exhausting!”
“Hyung, that’s what we do,” Minho reminded him, laughing.
“I know!” he exclaimed. “That exhausts me, too!”
Onew came back to the dorm to find hoobaes all over his living room. Taemin and Minho were there, and Kai and D.O., and Ricky. He said hi, and they said hi. He hung out with D.O. and Ricky for a little bit, and then he decided to go to bed.
When he walked out of the bathroom, Ricky was in the hallway. “I wondered if I could ask you something.”
“You need to talk?” Was it something serious? “Should we go in my room?”
“It’s just, um. You’re such a good singer, your voice is so good, I’ve really respected you for a long time. I’ve been working on it more lately.” Ricky hesitated, then laughed. “Oh, this is awkward.”
“Do you want to talk about it?” he suggested. “I can listen and maybe I’ll have some tips. Not that I’m so great!” he added quickly, not wanting it to seem like he was boasting. “I still have a lot to learn.”
“I don’t want to ask for too much,” Ricky said. He smiled. “Big sunbae’s always busy!”
He laughed, embarrassed. “Let’s meet sometime and talk about it.”
Ricky’s smile was grateful. “Thanks, hyung.”
Sprawled across his bed, Changjo eyed Ricky. What was he getting dressed for? “Going somewhere?”
“Going out.” He sniffed a T-shirt and put it on.
“I thought that was on Monday.”
“She had to reschedule.”
Hunh. That was true; Ricky’d missed his lesson on Monday. “Have fun.”
He zipped his fly. “Without you there, I always do.”
Ricky had his vocal lesson first. Then he shooed his teacher out and met Onew. Then he went out with one of his friends, since he was already away from the dorm and had the rest of the evening off. It was perfect; the vocal lesson gave him an excuse to get out, and his friend gave him an excuse to stay out, and in between he could see Onew for as long as he wanted. C.A.P. didn’t see anything wrong with it, so he didn’t have any trouble getting permission. It became a regular weekly thing; he just nudged his vocal lessons around a little bit to work with Onew’s timing.
When someone in EXO or Shinee was the friend he was seeing, he met Onew at the SM building or Shinee’s dorm. When it was someone else, he let Onew in through the back or made other arrangements. Onew was surprisingly easygoing about it and didn’t ask a lot of questions when he wanted to meet in MyName or Boyfriend’s practice room.
His main goal was still to make as much progress as possible while staying off of his members’ radar. Staying off the radar was working surprisingly well, but he wasn’t as sure about the progress. Things seemed to have plateaued. He needed to get Onew to make a move.
Part of his problem was that Onew didn’t seem very sexually aggressive. Minho, sure, or Jonghyun; they would have been all over him by now. Everyone knew about Key, and he had some questions about Taemin, so he wondered if maybe Onew’s sexuality went in unexpected directions and he was going to have to delve into kink to make things happen. But when he got EXO to talk to him, it sounded like Onew was fairly normal, sexually. It also sounded like Onew mainly stuck to Shinee and didn’t do all of that much outside the group. Another leader who played it safe. Sungyeol told him that Shinee and Infinite had almost started going on MT together, that Onew had approached Sunggyu about it; so Onew was open to extracurricular activity.
Sexually active, but not aggressive. Mainly screwed around inside Shinee, but was willing to go outside. Normal, but maybe a little bland? Too career-focused to want distractions? Too boring to have a high sex drive? Sexually shy? Onew could get whatever he wanted, or SM could get it for him. If he wasn’t doing much, it was because he didn’t want it. Or because something serious was holding him back.
It was possible that Onew was actually straight. Genuinely straight, and only screwing guys out of convenience.
Ricky wondered about that.
He didn’t foresee it being a huge problem, just something else to navigate. It wasn’t like Onew would be the first straight guy he’d attracted.
In a private restaurant room, Onew checked his watch. “I’d better go.”
“Hot date?” Sunggyu asked.
“Totally,” Jonghyun said, grinning, watching Onew get up from the table. “Onew hyung’s making sweet, sexy vocal love with his new boy toy.”
“That is not what is happening,” Onew said, exasperated, as his members cracked up and Infinite demanded to know what Jonghyun was talking about. “It’s vocal lessons, I’m going to vocal lessons.”
“With a boy toy?” Sungyeol asked, laughing.
“It’s Teen Top’s Ricky,” he explained.
“They meet every week for ‘vocal lessons,’” Jonghyun said, with air quotes and exaggerated eyebrows.
“Can I have these vocal lessons?” Woohyun asked.
“Why are you coaching some other idol?” Sungjong asked. “Doesn’t TOP Media have any trainers?”
Sunggyu reached up, putting his hand on Onew’s wrist. “You do know about Teen Top, don’t you?”
“What about them?”
“They’re a pack of juvenile delinquents,” Key said. “Everybody knows that.”
“They’re not,” Onew said.
“No, they’re too old for that,” Key said. “I guess they’re just criminals, now.”
Onew didn’t get it. He did remember a few things. Only rumors, mostly, and that fight at “Music Bank.” But none of that was recent, and Ricky hadn’t been involved in any of it. “That’s just C.A.P. and Changjo, isn’t it? And Chunji?” He hadn’t heard anything about Ricky specifically, or L.Joe and Niel. And that had been a while ago. If Changjo were still that way, he wouldn’t be so close to Suho.
“Ricky’s not involved in stuff like that,” Minho said.
“I like it,” Jonghyun said, his eyes flashing approval. “They’re tough, they’re smart.”
It was probably people misunderstanding things and getting the wrong impression because Teen Top was so physical with each other. They didn’t have any company sunbaes to stand up for them.
“Should we go to vocal class with him?” Key asked Jonghyun. “Make sure that Ricky’s behaving?”
“Make sure that Onew hyung’s behaving,” Jonghyun teased.
“You don’t have to worry about Ricky,” Minho said. “He’s a good kid.”
When Onew got to the H2Media offices, Chaejin let him in. He said hi and asked how MyName was doing, and then he went to the practice room.
Ricky was seated in front of the keyboard, looking at his phone and singing quietly to himself. With his expression relaxed, he looked serious and innocent, all eyes and ears. “Hi,” Onew said, closing the door. It was good to see him. The first few times they’d met, it had been a little inconvenient; Onew had been in a rush from other schedules, or had wanted to go back to the dorm and pass out, and had been tempted to cancel on him, to be honest.
But every time Onew talked to Suho, the word “Changjo” popped up somewhere in the conversation, and Onew had gone from thinking of Teen Top as just another idol group to thinking of Teen Top as that idol group that Suho was involved with. The idol group that EXO dated and had sex with; the idols that Suho was always telling him were talented and hardworking and precious. He felt kind of brainwashed. But the first few times he’d thought about canceling on Ricky, Suho’s disappointed face had popped up in his mind. And after that, Ricky’s disappointed face had popped up, and that had been even worse. He didn’t think about canceling anymore.
These days, he looked forward to these nights. Ricky was really easy to be with. Really sincere and earnest, when it came to working. Really cute and funny, the rest of the time. This was a fun part of his week, when he could relax and talk about music and spend time with someone who only ever made him smile.
He kind of understood Suho’s impulse to embrace Teen Top. All during his trainee process and debuting and even now, years later, his company sunbaes were a huge part of his life. Having them to talk to and look up to, having them to give him advice and set a good example, meant everything to him. Shinee wouldn’t have accomplished nearly as much without them out in front, paving the way. He’d learned a lot from their guidance, and he’d learned a hell of a lot just by watching them and being around them. He couldn’t imagine the pressure and stress of starting a company and being the flagship group. It seemed really lonely. He was kind of amazed that Teen Top had made it as far as they had.
Ricky smiled at him, then hopped up and bowed. “Hello, Onew sunsaengnim.”
He laughed and sat down. “Sit, sit,” he said, tapping the stool. “How’s it going?”
Taking a seat, Ricky sniffed Onew’s shoulder. It was such a cute little gesture, he leaned in, inviting Ricky to do it again. Then, wondering, he sniffed his armpit. “I smell?”
“You have on your date night cologne. Big evening?” Ricky grinned at him, lashes fluttering. “Do you have a sexy noona to get back to?”
Ricky’s teasing made him laugh. “It was only dinner with some Infinite members.”
“Aw, no sexy noonas?” Ricky looked disappointed in him. “Was it the good Infinite members, like Sunggyu hyung and L hyung, or did you get stuck with Sungyeol hyung and Sungjong hyung?”
“That’s how you talk about your hyungs? It was everybody, almost. L and Dongwoo weren’t there.” He laughed again. “Good members? What are good members, am I one?”
“Shinee only has good members, that’s what makes you Shinee.”
He liked that. “You flatter me well,” he decided, approving. “It’s good.”
“Of course, sunsaengnim.”
They talked about Ricky’s upcoming schedules, and they did some warm-ups. Ricky’s vocal exercises were making a big difference; he sounded stronger these days, and his range was more reliable.
After they finished up and agreed on where to meet next time, they stayed and talked for a while longer. These evenings kept lasting later and later into the night; if he didn’t have to rush away, he lingered, just talking. He hadn’t realized that he’d have so much to talk about with someone younger than Taemin, but it felt really comfortable between them.
He wanted to ask Ricky about some of the rumors about Teen Top, but he didn’t want to bring up what might be a sensitive subject. He wasn’t worried about any of it being true or relevant; he really just wanted to know how Ricky felt about it. Maybe it had made things difficult.
Or maybe Ricky had taken it in stride and brushed it off. So determined and so good-natured, this kid. Onew really admired him for it, more and more.
“Are you between sexy noonas?” Ricky asked. “Or do you have one, and you’re keeping her a secret?” He laughed self-consciously. “Or is that topic off-limits with sunsaengnim?”
He looked really adorable when he laughed. So cute and so happy. “I don’t have anybody like that.” Onew grinned. “If I did, I’d be out with her, not stuck in someone else’s practice room with you.”
Eyes widening, Ricky looked shocked and appalled. Leaning forward, he asked, “You’d abandon me? You’d neglect your faithful student that easily?”
“Yes,” he said, but he didn’t even pretend to mean it. “No, I wouldn’t leave you.”
“That’s good.” Ricky’s smile was so warm and trusting, Onew always pointed back to that moment as the instant that Ricky hooked him for good.
Ricky was in the hallway when his phone rang. Going back to the kitchen to answer it, he said, “Hey, hyung.”
“Ricky-ah,” Sunggyu said. “Are you up to something?”
He didn’t need everyone in the dorm to overhear this conversation, even just his side of it. He went into Niel’s room; Niel wasn’t there, and C.A.P. was asleep. He laughed a little. “No, I’m just finishing dinner.”
“You’ve been meeting that idol?”
“Ah.” He wondered what Sunggyu thought was going on. “It’s only for vocal lessons.”
“You have a vocal trainer.”
“I don’t know about this.”
He didn’t say anything. He wasn’t going to push Sunggyu any harder than he had to.
“You can’t tell me what’s going on?” Sunggyu asked. “I’m your hyung, aren’t I? Isn’t that what we agreed? You should be able to tell me everything.”
There was no one in the world that he told everything. Not anymore. Still, he thought about it. He actually considered it. He didn’t have Changjo in his corner; Onew was a complete secret from all of his members. If this went badly, if it blew up in his face, it might be nice to - - but no, no. He didn’t need back-up; he didn’t make mistakes. “Really, hyung, there’s nothing to tell. It’s just vocal lessons. You don’t understand because you don’t need any.”
“You don’t trust me.” Sunggyu sighed. He sounded genuinely unhappy. “Okay. Come and see me soon. If you don’t come to see me, I’ll have to come to see you.”
“We’re going to Japan, but I’ll call you when I get back. I’ll be glad to meet you, hyung.”
“You can’t learn to trust someone until you give him something to be trusted with,” Sunggyu said.
“That’s good advice, hyung, you’re very wise.”
Sunggyu hung up on him.
He waited to make sure that C.A.P. was still asleep, and then he left the room.
Onew couldn’t stop thinking about Ricky.
It had started with stray thoughts here and there. Calculating how many days until he’d see Ricky again. Noticing a shirt on someone else that Ricky had worn. Mentally making a note to tell Ricky about something later.
Communication escalated slowly. First it was just texting to ask how the vocal exercises were going. Then it was texting to say hi. Then he texted just to get in touch, just to get a response, just to see what Ricky was up to, because Ricky was constantly on his mind and if they couldn’t be together he wanted to know what Ricky was doing and thinking about, at least.
He called Suho on purpose just to bring up Changjo just so he could get Suho on the subject of Teen Top.
He asked Taemin and Minho if they were going to meet up with Ricky soon, if they were going to be bringing Ricky around, if they’d talked to Ricky lately. Ricky, Ricky, Ricky.
He developed a weird fascination with ears. It was very strange and he couldn’t stop it. He noticed everybody’s ears. Before, he’d never noticed ears. They weren’t a focal point; they blended into people’s overall appearance. Now, he couldn’t help but look at everyone’s. His members’, management’s, people on the street. Shawol generally seemed to have nice ears. Suddenly he had a mental catalog he’d never wanted before; he knew who had one ear noticeably higher than the other, or one obviously bigger than the other, or ears rotated weirdly farther than most other people’s.
He sat on the couch one night and touched Minho’s ears. He did it off and on, petting, for a while. Completely unrelated to that, he felt really horny that night, and he went to bed early, and he took Jonghyun with him.
He’d been horny a lot, suddenly.
He couldn’t stop thinking about Ricky, and once he noticed that, he couldn’t become unaware of it. He thought about how he couldn’t stop thinking about Ricky. He thought about how he kept thinking about how he couldn’t stop thinking about Ricky. His brain started bringing up inappropriate ideas about Ricky on purpose, like he was trolling himself.
Really inappropriate ideas.
It was a relief to be around Ricky; at least thinking so much about him when they were together made sense. But then the inappropriate ideas would pop up, and it was really flustering. He started feeling weird and self-conscious; he knocked things over and couldn’t figure out where to put his hands. He tried to focus on the lesson and his voice cracked. He was a horny, embarrassing mess. And Ricky was so friendly and dedicated and sincere and cute beside him, he felt like something had to be really wrong with him, for trying to turn this simple, innocent friendship into something sexual.
He was in bed with Jonghyun one night, side-by-side after some very good sex, when Jonghyun said, “You should go for it.”
“He’s too young for me.” Realizing too late that Jonghyun probably hadn’t been talking about Ricky, since Ricky wasn’t on everybody’s mind every minute of the day, he looked over and asked, “What?”
Jonghyun chuckled, rolling over. “You should go for it.”
Now that he knew what they were talking about, he didn’t want to talk about it, after all. “Go for what?” he asked, trying to seem confused.
Jonghyun gave him a look.
“He’s a guy,” he protested weakly, uncomfortable.
Jonghyun gave him another look. “Do you think of me as a woman?”
That was different. “I have to have sex with you.” They’d agreed to that back in 2008.
“Yes.” Smiling smugly, Jonghyun tapped at Onew’s nose. “Yes, you do. But it’s okay,” he added, sitting up. “You aren’t as straight as you think you are.”
“I am,” he argued. “And he’s not in SM.”
“We’re allowed to have sex outside of the company.”
“We made arrangements for Infinite, but this isn’t like that.”
“What is it like?” Jonghyun asked. He had no idea how to answer that question, so he stared at Jonghyun in pained bafflement. “He has sex with EXO, doesn’t he? Should we ask them what he’s like?”
“That’s not my business,” he protested, embarrassed.
“Do you want me to test drive him for you?”
“I like him,” Jonghyun said. “I think Teen Top’s interesting.” He stretched himself over Onew, gazing fondly down into Onew’s face. “I haven’t seen you this interested in someone in a long time. I think that you should take him on a date and ask him to suck your cock.”
“Minho likes him,” he mumbled, turned on and self-conscious about it. “Let Minho date him.”
There was a big crowd at the airport. More people than usual. Ricky realized, in quick succession: not people, fans. Someone big’s fans.
If Shawol was there, then Shinee was there.
If Shinee was there, then Onew was there.
He’d already mapped out a detailed strategy and various contingency plans for how to juggle Teen Top and Shinee while he was in Japan. He had not planned for this.
His first on-the-fly plan was to hope that no one would notice him. Shinee was already ahead of them, and surrounded by Shawol; no way would Onew be aware of his arrival. Not until they got to the gate or on the plane, so he had time.
Then he saw Onew heading straight for him, looking delighted. “Ricky-ah!”
Smiling like he was thrilled, he hugged Onew. “What are you doing here? I thought that your flight was earlier.”
“It was cancelled, they rebooked us.” Onew’s gaze roamed all over him, darting and curious, eating him up. “Are we on the same plane?”
It was a great, great sign of progress that running into him unexpectedly hit Onew this hard. It was a little difficult to savor this victory with his members closing in around him. “We probably are. Do you want to sit together?” He smiled. “Is that too much to ask?”
Chunji shoved right in against his side, smiling at Onew. “Hi.”
Onew smiled at Chunji. “Hi.” Jonghyun was at Onew’s elbow, grinning and raking his gaze over Ricky, brimming with sexual interest. “I should go through security,” Onew said, gesturing vaguely in that direction. “Yeah, let’s sit together.”
He showed Onew one of his cutest smiles. “I’ll see you on the plane, then.”
Onew looked happy and walked away. Jonghyun gave him a little wave and went with Onew.
Chunji’s arm wrapped him painfully tight. “Ricky-ah.” Breathing in, Chunji gave him a look that told him that he’d be paying for this for a long time. “Ricky-ah, Ricky-ah, Ricky-ah.”
C.A.P. prodded them forward. “Let’s get through security.”
They were in way too public a place for anything else to happen. He went through security last, feeling safer with Angel there to guard him. After that, he dallied as much as he could, stopping in two bathrooms and almost every shop on the way to the gate, lingering until he was almost late.
He was buying drinks and reading newspaper headlines and re-strategizing when C.A.P. moved in really close, nose to nose, and smiled at him, and whispered, “We’re going to talk about this. Tonight.”
He smiled; it was a trained reflex, for the sake of everyone nearby. “Tonight.”
It was the fastest flight Onew had ever been on. It sped right by, like every time Ricky smiled it shaved minutes off of the trip. Being with Ricky in public did something exciting to him. Most of the time they spent together was behind a closed door, just the two of them, but now they were out in the open, up in the air. This wasn’t some closed-off, private thing that he left his dorm and left his members to do all on his own. They were out in the world now, and he hadn’t realized how much that would mean to him until it happened.
Ricky gave him a happy, light feeling. Like being exhilarated. Thrilled to be in the middle of whatever was happening, and a little breathless, and eagerly anticipating what might come next. He was used to getting that feeling more from experiences and situations than from individual people. Why did one person make him feel so good? Why this person?
When the flight was over, he felt a little dizzy. He walked very carefully off of the airplane, making sure that he was steady. He felt like he needed to go lie down somewhere and reorient himself. He had to get some perspective and figure out what the hell he was doing.
Ricky didn’t even get to go to his hotel room first. They went right into C.A.P.’s room, all six of them, and Changjo locked the door.
C.A.P. took his phone from him and sent him into the bathroom.
Alone in there, he thought. If he were Changjo, he’d be taking a shower, or messing with the soaps and lotions, or sabotaging the toilet. But he just sat down and thought.
He thought about how long this false truce with Changjo was lasting. He thought about Sunggyu being unhappy. He thought about Sunggyu offering to be his close hyung in the first place. He thought about Onew.
He ended up thinking about Onew a lot.
C.A.P. opened the door and gestured to him. “Out.”
He got up. Niel and L.Joe were side-by-side on one bed; Chunji was on the other. He sat on the first bed, and C.A.P. rested a knee beside Chunji.
Changjo was on the windowsill, busy, holding both of their phones.
“So,” Chunji said. “You’re dating Onew sunbae.”
He’d tell them what was going on. They were clued in now, and he wasn’t foolish enough to think for one second that he could keep any of the details from Changjo anymore. “It’s not dating. He’s been giving me vocal lessons.”
“Start from the beginning,” C.A.P. said. “What the hell scam are you running?”
“I’m seducing him. It has to be slow, he’s too careful. He’s too big a sunbae, I can’t rush him.”
“Seducing him why, for what?” Chunji asked. “Are there other people involved in this? Are there other parts to this scam that you just don’t want us to know about?”
“Chaejin and the twins helped me, but they don’t know what’s going on, they think that I’m really getting vocal lessons and that it’s really cool that Shinee’s Onew is my teacher. I used D.O. hyung to get in, so I’ve spent time with Taemin hyung and Minho hyung.”
“How far have you gotten?”
“He likes me. We haven’t touched or kissed or shown each other anything, he hasn’t confessed to me, he just likes me. I think that I’m close, I was going to try to get somewhere this weekend.”
“What have you told him?” C.A.P. asked.
“About us? Nothing. Nothing I wouldn’t say on TV.”
C.A.P. crossed his arms over his chest, shifting his weight. “What happened to staying the fuck away from SM and not starting shit with SM sunbaes? You think that just because we’re playing nice with EXO, SM’s a fair target now?” His voice deepened. “We don’t fuck with SM sunbaes!”
Ricky dropped his gaze, inhaling. He blinked a couple of times, pressing his lips together. He’d known that would be a problem. Big companies meant untouchable idols. SM could squash Teen Top like a bug if they wanted to. If he upset Onew, or any of the people around Onew, he could watch his career go up in flames. And he’d take the rest of his members with him. The minute he’d approached Onew, he’d put Teen Top at risk, and his members never would have seen it coming.
“So what has he told you?” Chunji asked, like C.A.P. hadn’t spoken. “What do you have on him?”
“Nothing.” That was a good thing; the more dirt he had on Onew, the more Onew or SM would panic if things went badly. If he didn’t know anything incriminating, SM would have less to protect, and the fallout might not be as bad. So far, since they knew about Sehun but SM knew about L.Joe, they were at a kind of careful equilibrium; it wouldn’t be good to upset that balance. “Nothing that could be a scandal. Nothing about his members that I didn’t already know. He doesn’t even make references to Key sunbae, and everybody knows about Key sunbae. He’s implied that he’s straight, but I don’t have any names, and he’s never mentioned being in or having been in a relationship. He might not even realize that I know he has sex with his own members.”
Niel snorted. “Does he think that you’ve never been in the industry before?”
“He thinks that I’m innocent.”
“Tell me everything, take me through it, step by step,” C.A.P. said.
He started from messing up the bathroom in Shinee’s dressing room. He took them through the first few encounters, and how he’d gotten Onew to notice him without really being aware of noticing him. He talked about the vocal lessons. He told them that Onew’s members all knew about him, and what Taemin and Minho thought of him, and that Infinite seemed to know - - maybe based on that one dinner that night - - and that Sunggyu had called to check on him, so at least one person outside of the group knew for sure that he was up to something.
“Sunggyu hyung,” C.A.P. repeated. “Who will tell Woohyun hyung, who will tell Key sunbae, who will tip off Onew sunbae. Sunggyu hyung who will tell his boyfriend, who will go running to Onew sunbae.”
“Why hasn’t Sunggyu hyung said something to them already?” Chunji asked. “If he thinks that you’re up to something, why wouldn’t he warn Onew sunbae? They’re the same age, they talk, their teams are close.”
Ricky sighed. He might as well tell them that, too. “When we went on MT, Sunggyu hyung told me that he wants to be my close hyung. He wants me to trust him and confide in him. He said that we’ll grow close now, and next time we go on MT, he’ll make love to me.”
“Why?” Chunji asked.
“It was after I had sex with Woohyun hyung. I think he thinks that I was getting in over my head, and it made him feel protective. He was worried that I’m too jaded, that I was having all of this sex but none of it meant anything to me. I wanted to know why it should mean something to me if it didn’t mean anything to him. I pushed him into either committing to me or backing off of me, and he made the commitment. He basically told me that I’d be close to him from then on, like Woohyun hyung and Suho hyung are.”
“He named them specifically?” Chunji asked.
C.A.P.’s eyes narrowed.
“I haven’t done it yet. I haven’t really called him or gone to see him like he wants me to. I went to Infinite’s dressing room that time, so he’d get me in to see Shinee, but that’s it. He’s unhappy about it.”
“What else do we need to know?” C.A.P. asked. “About sunbaes, about hyungs, about other idols, about you and what the fuck you’ve been doing.”
“Those are all of the parts of it.”
“Not all of them,” Chunji said, hugging his knee. “You still haven’t told us why you’re doing it. You suddenly fell in love with Onew sunbae and decided that you had to have him?”
“I wanted someone better than Suho hyung and L hyung. So I got one.”
Curling his hands into fists, C.A.P. walked away.
“What?” Chunji stared at him, then laughed. “This is about the maknae? This is all just about trying to one-up Changjo?”
Changjo snorted and didn’t look up.
“You went to all of this trouble, you’ve been dragging this shit out for months, you’re trying to con one of SM’s most successful groups, because you’re trying to prove shit to the maknae?!” Chunji demanded. Fury and disbelief crossed his face, and he tipped across the bed, laughing. “Oh, fuck.”
C.A.P. was somewhere behind Ricky. He decided not to look.
“Oh, god.” Chunji sat up again, staring at him, looking dazed. “Now what the hell do we do?”
“End it,” C.A.P. said tensely.
“He can’t cut it off too fast, it’ll make Onew sunbae suspicious, and that’ll make things messy. If Onew sunbae likes him, it’ll be hard to let go of him, and things’ll drag out. He’ll have to end it gradually,” Chunji said. “With a reason. Something else has to come up. Something that cuts things off, but something Onew sunbae can’t argue with. Onew sunbae has to have a reason to let go.”
“Another guy,” C.A.P. said.
“What, like he’s in love with Chanyeol hyung?” Chunji asked.
“Who would choose Chanyeol hyung over Onew sunbae? That’s not even believable,” Niel said.
“So it’ll be you, then, genius,” Chunji said. “Ricky and Niel, new couple. Onew sunbae can’t argue with that, he knows how close members can get.”
“I don’t want to date Ricky!”
“Not Niel or L.Joe, leave them out of it,” C.A.P. said.
“Changjo already has a boyfriend, and I’m not doing it,” Chunji said. “He can be your boyfriend, people fall in love with their leaders all of the time, it’s like Stockholm Syndrome.”
“Fine,” C.A.P. said. “Start tomorrow, let him see the signs, let him see it coming, and once he starts figuring it out, start canceling vocal lessons to be with me instead. He’ll get the idea and let you go.”
“You’re going to have to be a real couple,” Chunji said. “Suho hyung, Sunggyu hyung, everybody has to think that it’s real.”
Ricky didn’t like it. He didn’t like it for a lot of reasons. He didn’t want to date C.A.P., for one. He wasn’t thrilled about playing some long con trying to convince everyone that he was in love with C.A.P. He didn’t want to hurt Onew. He didn’t want to leave Onew or break things off at all.
His future looked really bleak, all of a sudden. It would be really uncomfortable, slowly pushing Onew away. And then he’d have to play nice with C.A.P. and play romantic with C.A.P. and answer all of EXO’s questions about this sudden romance, and every day of it would only remind him of why he was lying. Would remind him of Onew. And how close he’d been to getting Onew to fall for him.
He didn’t like any of this. He didn’t like the way it made him feel. He just wanted to go back to their last vocal lesson and lock time there for a while.
Onew smiled at him. He liked Onew’s patient, curious expression. Onew always seemed interested in him, in who he was, in what he might say or do next. Interested in what made him tick. “Then we’re both going to Japan?”
“What does Shinee do in Japan?”
Onew laughed. “The same things we do in Seoul. Key goes shopping and I take a nap.”
“Why are leaders always asleep?” he teased.
“You’d be tired, too, if you had to sing and dance for a living.”
“It’s only a short performance. What do you do with the rest of your day?”
“Wash off make-up,” Onew said. “I have three kinds of cleanser and these special cloths, and I still have mascara and eyeliner and things I can’t get off.”
“You don’t use the squeezy pads?”
“What squeezy pads?”
“These squeezy little pads. They come in a green box. I thought that everybody knew about them!”
“What green box?”
“Oh, sunsaengnim, you’ve missed so much,” he lamented. “I’ll bring you a box next time, you’ll see.”
Onew smiled at him. Really smiled, a gentle, warm smile. “A gift for sunsaengnim? Should I bring you something, too?”
“Wait,” Changjo said.
They all looked in Changjo’s direction, Chunji twisting around on the bed.
Changjo read a date and time; it was from the night of the last vocal lesson. “‘Longer than ever, this week. I wonder what they do in there,’” he read from his phone. “‘So-and-so and so-and-so’ - - she’s naming fan sites - - ‘say that it’s vocal lessons, but I still think that it’s more than that. Oppa never looks this happy about his own vocal lessons. He never misses it, so it must be a big commitment. He used to walk out like it was any other schedule, but now he walks out with a big smile, and he waves and greets us very nicely. This is the third night that he’s talked to the Angels and asked them about their health and told them to be careful. He doesn’t say it to the MyGirls or Best Friends or anyone else, only the Angels.’”
“And now Shawol hates us,” Chunji said.
“Hold on,” Changjo said. “‘I haven’t seen oppa like this in a long time. Not since that woman. He smiles so much these days, and his love beams on everyone around him. He’s been trying to look good, doing his hair and wearing lifts and dressing up and things like that. He’s taking care of himself.’ They have proof shots of his jewelry and things. ‘It’s true, it hasn’t been like this since the woman. Is she back? Is YC a cover for her somehow?’”
YC. Yoo Changhyun. Ricky.
“‘It has to be something to do with YC. That’s when oppa shines the brightest. Did the woman break oppa’s heart so that he doesn’t like women at all anymore? I might cry.’ ‘It can’t be what you think. But I acknowledge that vocal lessons aren’t only vocal lessons. Maybe YC is our oppa’s vitamin. No one can deny that oppa’s brightest on lesson nights. I never thought that I’d be so grateful for the Starship offices! YC fighting!’”
“What did you do to him?” Niel asked.
“They have proof shots from today,” Changjo said. “He went into a bakery and ordered something. He arranged to come back and pick it up next week on lesson day. Flavored teas and half-a-dozen big cupcakes. He was asking what time they close, like he doesn’t want to get there too late. They’re trying to figure out what’s going on, since it’s not Ricky’s birthday or an anniversary they know of.”
“I told him not to bring me anything,” Ricky said. His mind wasn’t processing as quickly as it usually did; he felt sluggish, like he’d been stunned stupid.
“They have shots from the airport,” Changjo added. “‘As expected of our Lee-Yoo couple.’ ‘Seeing them together for the first time! Finally!’ ‘Oppa, fighting!’ ‘The hug! Oppa’s skinship never made my heart flutter like this before. His expression tells everything, this is for real.’ ‘Daebak! I have to acknowledge YC’s visuals. Oppa, you chose well!’ ‘If it were another woman, I might have to leave the fandom. I’m sorry, oppa, I can’t go through it again. But if it’s YC, I think that I can stay.’ ‘I’ll share our precious Lee Jinki with you, YC. Protect your hyung’s heart!’”
Chunji, Niel, and L.Joe were staring at Ricky in complete disbelief.
He didn’t know what to say, and he wasn’t used to that. The only times he wasn’t sure what to say were times when he deliberately pretended not to know what to say. This time, he actually had no clue. Perplexed, he scratched his head. Then he shook his head, forcing himself to think. “Shinee’s hardcore fan base, the main Shawols, are forty-year-old women with multiple bank accounts. They don’t call him ‘oppa.’”
Changjo nodded. “I’ll be in their chats by morning.”
“Tell us what they say,” C.A.P. said. “We’ll decide what to do then. Everybody get out, go to bed.” His voice hardened. He was still somewhere behind Ricky, but Ricky knew who he was talking to. “You stay here. You don’t set one foot outside of this room until I tell you to. Changjo, take his phone with you.”
Getting up, Changjo slid Ricky’s phone into his pocket. “Should I reply if Onew sunbae texts?”
“No. We’ll decide everything in the morning.”
“Who’s the woman?” L.Joe asked.
Everyone looked at Ricky. “I don’t know.” He really didn’t.
Changjo told them.
“Shit,” Chunji said.
“After that, he likes Ricky?” L.Joe asked.
Her? Ricky understood how complex human sexuality could be, and how unexpected things could sway the heart, but he didn’t understand how Onew could go from someone so beautiful and accomplished and sought-after, to him.
He was even better at this than he’d realized.
“When was it?” Chunji asked. “Their relationship?”
“Looks like they broke up in 2010,” Changjo said.
It had been that many years? Since Ricky had debuted, Onew had been getting over her? There hadn’t been anyone since? Shawol talked about her like there hadn’t been anyone else significant. “That can’t be right.” If Onew hadn’t been interested in anyone else since 2010, then he couldn’t be serious about Ricky, either. It had to have been more recent.
Shawol was wrong. That was all there was to it. They were getting each other excited and exaggerating things. Onew wasn’t suddenly dressing up and shining brightly just because of him. They were intrigued that Onew had a weekly appointment they didn’t understand, and they were making more of it than they should. It was all simple and boring, but they were reading too much into it to spice things up. And these were young fans, sasaengs, looking for drama. The more stable fans, the middle-aged women, would have a different perspective on it. They were probably laughing at the Oppa-YC romance the foolish kids were inventing, or disgusted, even.
Niel, L.Joe, and Changjo left the room. C.A.P. locked the door. Chunji asked, “Where should we put him? Your bed, mine? Bathroom?”
“Dogs sleep on the floor,” C.A.P. growled.
“Dogs are loyal,” Chunji said. They didn’t say anything else to him for the rest of the night. Ricky slept on a padded chair in the corner.
Onew’s alarm went off.
Burrowing in, he dragged the sheets over his head and tried to ignore it. When that didn’t work, he pawed around the bed until he found his phone and turned the alarm off.
He’d dreamt about Ricky again.
Groaning, he squeezed his eyes shut. Huddled under the covers, he tried to deny reality. It wasn’t morning yet, it wasn’t time to wake up, and he wasn’t harboring some strange, disorienting, obsessive love for Ricky.
His phone rang. He tapped at it just to get it to stop ringing. Faintly, Minho asked, “Are you awake? Hyung?”
Grimacing, he rubbed his forehead. “I need help.”
“Help waking up?”
“I think I accidentally fell in love.”
“Did you say what I think you just said?”
“Yes,” he admitted. “No,” he tried, wishing it were true. “Yes,” he admitted again, dropping his face into his pillow. The pillow was soft. He felt scared and embarrassed and hopeful and really foolish.
“I’ll be right there,” Minho said, and hung up.
Changjo handed his phone to Chunji. “That’s the most important part of it.”
It was hard for Ricky to sit close enough to Chunji on the bed that he could read over Chunji’s shoulder without making contact, but he wasn’t going to risk touching Chunji, so he held himself stiff and tried to make out the chat onscreen.
“Those are the power players,” Changjo said. While Chunji and Ricky skimmed, C.A.P. kept the same grim expression he’d had all morning. “They’re the oldest and they’ve been with Shinee the longest. They’re talking about how they need to start making donations to gay rights causes so that ‘our Jinki’ can come out safely someday. They’re quietly contacting our antis and former Angels so they can find out if there’s anything they need to know about Ricky, in case they need to protect their Jinki. They’ve decided that if they can approve of Ricky long-term, they’ll take care of him from now on, but if something’s wrong with him, they’ll need to make sure that he never gets near their Jinki again. They’re setting up bank accounts they call ‘love funds’ that they’ll use to support Ricky and Teen Top if things go well, and they’re talking about who they need to contact to sink Ricky’s career if they decide it’s a bad match.”
“This isn’t happening,” Chunji said.
No. It was happening.
It had happened.
Ricky had made a mistake.
He’d miscalculated. He’d underestimated his opponent. He’d underestimated the consequences.
He’d made a mistake. The biggest mistake he’d ever made.
He couldn’t dwell on the severity of it. He had to fix it.
He looked Changjo in the eye, directly, fully, for the first time since their last fight. “Help me.”
Changjo glared at him. “I fucking have to, don’t I? We don’t have a choice.”
“Help you?!” Chunji demanded. “I’m going to kill you!”
“What the fuck do you want us to do?” C.A.P. asked. What came after that was very angry and mercilessly cruel, and he deserved every single word of it. Crying, he took it, not arguing back, not saying a word, just absorbing C.A.P.’s wrath and hating himself more than he’d ever hated anyone before.
When C.A.P. finished, he sat there, sniffling. He didn’t know how he’d ever lift his head again. He didn’t know how he’d ever survive this. He’d betrayed Teen Top. It was the only thought on his mind, echoing and throbbing and haunting him from all directions. He’d betrayed Teen Top.
“Nobody tells L.Joe or Niel about this,” Chunji ordered. “They’re not going to know anything about it. Tell them that you couldn’t get into any of the other private chats, and all we have is what we read last night.”
“We might be able to fix it,” Changjo said. “It depends on how Onew sunbae really feels.”
“If he’s really in love?” Chunji asked.
“Right. They’re counting on antis and former Angels, right? I know everything they know. They don’t have any gossip or rumors or material that I don’t already know about. And none of it’s about Ricky. Most of it’s the usual crap about how we’re not talented, or we’re ugly, or we have bad attitudes, or we aren’t grateful enough to our fans, what people say about any idol they don’t like. The worst of it is about something we said on a variety show or how L.Joe sucks up to other idols too much or I’m in some secret gay relationship with Suho hyung. But they don’t have proof of anything, they just have a lot of talking and theories and coincidences. And none of the bad attitude stuff is about Ricky.”
“So they don’t have enough to take us down with.”
“They’re ajummas who want their Jinki to settle down in a nice relationship. They found a nice, harmless guy for him. They don’t want to start problems and break their Jinki’s heart. They want to support him in everything he does, like his comebacks and his concerts and his crappy musicals. If he’s in love, they just want him to be happy. They want back-up plans to protect him, but they don’t want to need those plans.”
Ricky wiped at his tears, sniffling.
“The antis won’t be enough to make Ricky look like an overwhelming threat,” Changjo said. “So we need Onew sunbae to make Ricky seem like something good, like a positive they should try to keep in his life. We need real proof that Onew sunbae’s happy, and in love, and should be in this relationship.”
“Relationship,” C.A.P. repeated. “You want him to keep this up?”
“He has to,” Changjo said. “We have to play this out the whole way. Seduce Onew sunbae, land him, become his boyfriend, get a commitment, all of it. Ricky has to be Onew sunbae’s boyfriend from now on. And no matter what, they cannot break up.”
Ricky was too miserable to think about this, but he didn’t have the luxury of taking time to feel sorry for himself. He had to keep up.
They were turning everything around again. Instead of being C.A.P.’s boyfriend for the foreseeable future, he had to be Onew’s boyfriend for the rest of his life. Or at least for the rest of his career. But if he wanted to have a career, he had to make this work.
He hadn’t planned on a relationship, on a boyfriend romance. This had gone farther than he’d expected. Onew was in deeper than he’d realized or wanted, and now he was in too deep, too.
The prospect of being Onew’s boyfriend felt completely different from being C.A.P.’s. Because a part of him wished that it were real. A part of him wished that he and Onew really did care about each other and really did want to be together and really were building a relationship.
It would be easy to fake.
But it would be fake. And he felt bad about that. He felt guilty. He didn’t want to hurt Onew; he didn’t want to trick Onew, either. Onew deserved better than that. Better than a scam. Better than him.
“You have to get in the right headspace,” Changjo told him. “You have to convince him. You have to lock him in and keep him. And you have to convince everyone who’s watching and protecting him.”
He’d made a mistake. He’d made a mistake and betrayed Teen Top. And now he was in over his head. And all of the members were relying on him. And if he slipped up, even a little, he’d destroy everything they’d worked for. Everything the members had built, everything they’d fought for, everything that Andy had trusted them with. He’d destroy all of it in one second.
He couldn’t afford to feel guilty about what he was doing to Onew. He had to remember what he’d done to Teen Top. That was all that mattered now.
Changjo’s hand was on his knee. Sniffling, he looked down at it. “You can do this,” Changjo said.
He’d do it. He had to.
“Wait, what?” Taemin asked, looking from one face to another. “What, you’re in love? Suddenly?” He laughed, shaking his head. “With Teen Top’s Ricky?”
“Of course it’s love,” Key said, trying on Onew’s shades and admiring himself in the mirror. “It’s been love for weeks now.”
“With a guy?” Taemin asked.
Onew blushed. “It’s not too weird, is it?” It felt weird. Every time he thought about how he shouldn’t be so much in love with someone six years younger, he thought, he also shouldn’t be so attracted to a guy. One was definitely a bigger problem than the other.
“It’s not weird to be in love with a man,” Minho said.
“How’d you know about this already?” Taemin asked Key.
“Look at how he’s been dressing,” Key said. “He looks good for once, like he cares how he looks and isn’t picking up whatever he found on the floor.”
“I knew, too,” Jonghyun said. Beside Onew on the bed, he had his arm around Onew. His smile made Onew embarrassed. “I knew when you started wanting sex all of the time. I knew, something’s up! It had to be Ricky.”
“God, right?” Key asked. “Freaking horndog lately.”
“What are you going to do about it?” Minho asked, coming over to sit on his other side. “Are you going to confess to him?”
“If you have feelings, you have to confess,” Taemin said. “Tell him about it. Ask him out.”
“You’d be cute together,” Jonghyun said.
“Suho says that Ricky’s a good guy, decent, hardworking, someone he’d be happy to have in EXO,” Key said. “L says that Ricky’s harmless. Woohyun says that Ricky’s more than he bargained for, and he’s going wild waiting for their next time together.” Turning to face them, Key slid his sunglasses down his nose. “Those things don’t go together.”
“More than Nam bargained for?” Jonghyun repeated. “Shit, hyung.” He laughed at Onew. “You got a fireball on your hands.”
Now he didn’t know what to think! Groaning, he flopped onto his back. Woohyun had said that about Ricky? His Ricky? Who had he fallen in love with? What had he gotten himself into? He was in so far over his head, he didn’t know what to do. Rolling over, he buried his face in the bed. He’d give up. He’d pretend that he’d never fallen in love at all.
“You have to confess,” Minho said, patting his side.
“Don’t want to,” he told the bed.
“Either he’ll say yes, and you can start dating,” Taemin said. “Or he’ll say no. You want to know now, before you start liking him even more, don’t you? It’ll only get worse if you put it off.”
“What else did Woohyun say?” Jonghyun asked.
“That there’s a lot more to Ricky than you see on the surface,” Key said.
“That’s true of everybody, isn’t it?” Minho asked.
“No,” Key said. “Thank god, simple people make things easier for the rest of us.”
Onew wanted to meet for lunch. Ricky met him in the lobby and hugged him hello like that was something they always did. “You look nice, hyung.”
Onew blushed. “It’s, um, just down the street, a couple of blocks.”
“Okay, we can walk,” Ricky said.
When they left the hotel, they were surrounded by fans and photographers. Ricky moved closer to Onew, taking Onew’s hand like the sudden aggression made him nervous. Onew glanced at him, then gripped his hand more securely and angled in front of him, shielding him as they made their way through the press of people. It was very protective, and even when they were in the clear again, they kept holding hands the whole way to the restaurant.
It was a nice place. Not two hundred dollars a plate nice, but date nice. It was their first deliberate outing, and Ricky treated it as a special time with a close hyung. Conversation was easy, because they’d spent so much time together by now that they had favorite topics and familiar rhythms. They fed each other a few bites here and there, and Ricky made it cute and friendly, not sexual.
When they went back to the hotel, Onew reached for his hand before he ever had to make a move, leading him carefully through the clamor. To anyone else, it would look normal and touching, a hyung’s consideration for a close dongsaeng. But he knew it was something else, knew it from the way Onew’s fingers curled so carefully around his.
“I’ll see you at the venue,” he said when they were on the elevator.
Onew nodded, then smiled at him. “Come to our dressing room?”
He smiled back. “Okay, hyung. That’d be fun.”
When he got back to his hotel room, his members were waiting for him. As soon as he walked in, they peppered him with questions.
Suddenly, he felt all of the stress he’d ignored during lunch. He wanted to cry. He wanted to stop all of this, just quit it, he wanted none of it ever to have happened. He wanted to stop hurting and using Onew. He felt so horrible and burdened and hopeless and miserable, he wanted his members to give him sympathy and support. But he didn’t deserve their sympathy. He’d messed up, and he’d jeopardized everything, and now he had to get through this.
He’d wanted Onew to be his hyung, not his boyfriend. He’d thought that Onew would want to adopt him, like Sunggyu, not fall in love with him. Not this much, not this far.
Rubbing his eyes, he said, “It’s fine, it’s good, he likes me, he wants me to come to his dressing room to hang out with him.”
“Don’t overplay it, but don’t bore him,” Changjo said.
“I know, I won’t.” He grimaced; he shouldn’t say things like “I know” when he’d fucked up so badly. They couldn’t take it for granted that he was capable of this anymore. “I’ll get him to see me privately after the festival, and I’ll get him to kiss me.”
“Do whatever you have to,” C.A.P. said. “Kiss him, go down on him, do farm animal roleplay, whatever keeps him happy.”
He nodded. “I understand.”
Onew really liked having Ricky backstage with him. It was like having a mascot there to raise his spirits. He felt really energetic when he went out onstage; he felt like this wasn’t work, it was a party. He bounced around, grinning from ear to ear, and sang his heart out and felt the crowd’s love pouring over him and returned it one hundred percent.
Shinee closed the show, and when the other idols came out for the goodbye, he clapped for Teen Top. Ricky laughed and bowed to him, ninety degrees. With the MCs and a girl group in the way, they couldn’t touch, but he did a lot of looking, anyway. At vocal lessons, he saw everyday Ricky, not made up onstage Ricky, and he was still getting used to it. Partly, he thought that with styled-up hair and make-up, Ricky looked a little older. And also like a little elf. And also completely the same, like make-up and styling didn’t make much of a difference with someone already so good-looking.
He lost track of Ricky backstage, and when he asked around, it turned out that Teen Top had already gone back to the hotel. His members were talking about going out, getting a late dinner, going to a club, and he wondered if Teen Top was going out, too. He went to dinner with his members, but the whole time he was texting Ricky. Their conversation didn’t really get anywhere until he admitted that he’d rather just hang out with Ricky than go to some club, and right away Ricky said, “Me, too, sunsaengnim, I’d rather see you,” and he felt like his heart was swelling in his chest.
While his members went out, he went back to the hotel. Ricky came up to his room, looking normal and cute with soft, flat hair and an old fan T-shirt and sweatpants. Brushing his fingers through Ricky’s hair, he asked, “Where’d the idol go?”
Ricky did a second of lightning-quick footwork, finishing with a dramatic kick and a wide smile. “He’s in here.”
Laughing, Onew shook his head. “Your feet must hurt every day.”
“I’m used to it.” Ricky wandered across the room, going to the window and peeking out. “Where are your members, they went out?”
“Yeah.” Trailing Ricky around the room, he didn’t know where to put his hands. He wanted to put them on Ricky.
“You’re alone in here?” Ricky asked, sitting on the couch. “I still have to room with the maknae.”
“Don’t you room together at the dorm, too?” he asked. “You never get a break from him?”
“At least it’s just the maknae. Better than always being with a hyung.” He raised his eyebrows at that, grinning, and Ricky laughed, putting a hand up. “I didn’t mean anything by that! Hyungs are the best.”
They sat there and talked for a while, starting with the festival and rambling off to other topics. After he’d yawned and rubbed his eyes a couple of times, Ricky took a close look at him and said, “You really don’t get all of your make-up off, do you?”
Grimacing, he rubbed his eye again. “Is it still there?”
“A little bit.” Ricky smiled at him and patted his thigh. “I’ll be right back. Wait for me!”
Watching Ricky bustle out of the room, he felt really good. Really contented. Being with Ricky made him happy, and waiting for Ricky to come back gave him a hopeful feeling, a light simmering of anticipation.
It hadn’t escaped his attention that they were in a hotel room. A private room with a big, comfortable bed. He really wished that he hadn’t thought about that at all, but with the bed right there, it was kind of hard to forget. He wondered if he could - - if Ricky would - - if maybe? Ricky had sex with guys, he knew that. Maybe Ricky would want to have sex with him? He couldn’t tell if Ricky was attracted to him at all. Fantasizing about making out with Ricky on the couch, about hugging and kissing, about Ricky looking up at him with those elfin brown eyes and breathing, “Oh, it feels so good,” turned him on. Embarrassed, his cock twitching in his pants, he bounded to his feet and walked hurriedly away from the couch.
He was a lot more used to fantasizing about, “Oh, I’m so wet,” than, “Oh, I’m so hard.” He’d had more than enough sex with guys to know what to do, and he was pretty confident about that, but doing things with his body that felt good was different from getting hot and bothered daydreaming about someone he felt so emotional about. This kind of romantic love, this kind of fascinated desire, for a guy? He couldn’t deny that it was happening, but he couldn’t explain it, either.
Ricky came back with a green box. Seeing it, he laughed. “I was going to give you a new box,” Ricky said, “and this one’s a little used already, but I don’t think that we can wait. You need this help right now.”
They went into the bathroom, and he washed his face. Leaning against the sink, watching him with a fond smile, not missing a move, Ricky made him so flustered that he dropped the pad into the sink twice.
He ended up surprised that the pad worked so well. Staring at his clean, bare face, he blinked at his reflection. “This is a miracle,” he said, grabbing the box and reading the label.
“I told you!” Smiling at him, Ricky touched his cheek. “Look, you’re handsome.”
Blushing, he backed up, flustered. Tripping over his own feet, he went down suddenly, landing on the floor. While Ricky burst into laughter, he took a moment to be exasperated with himself, and then he got up, chuckling. “Let’s go in the other room,” he suggested, rubbing his tailbone. “I can land on carpet out there.”
They went back to the couch. Isolated in this room, with no one else around and no interruptions, he felt like they were suspended in a bubble, outside of their real lives. He didn’t know what time it was; he didn’t want time to mean anything here.
He took Ricky’s hand, and then he let go of it, and then he took it again.
Ricky gave his hand a light squeeze.
He took a deep breath and shook his hair out of his eyes. He didn’t know where to start. “Are you gay?”
Ricky hesitated. “Is it okay to say?”
He nodded, shifting closer. “It’s not something I’d spread around.” Even if Ricky rejected him and broke his heart, he still wouldn’t tell anyone.
“I am, I’m gay. I only like men.” A close, searching look. “You, sunsaengnim?”
“I.” He didn’t know how to answer. “I don’t know anymore.” It had never confused him, before. He’d always felt more certain than this. “I must be bi.”
Ricky looked surprised. “I thought that you were straight.”
“So did I,” he admitted.
Ricky nodded. “Until your members?”
He smiled weakly. “Until you.”
Ricky’s lips parted. “Oh.” He blushed, rubbing his ear. “Oh. Sunsaengnim.” He laughed, looking surprised and delighted. “Oh, I see. Is it, is it like that?”
“I like you a lot,” Onew admitted. “I didn’t know that I would.” It was surprisingly easy to say, with Ricky acting so pleased about it. If Ricky had been more shocked, or more smug, he wasn’t sure how he’d feel, but Ricky only seemed happy, and that only made him like Ricky even more. He felt like maybe they could do this? Maybe he could have this? At least a little, at least tonight.
“Have you, um.” Ricky laughed like it was all too good. There was a giddy mood in the room, in Ricky’s eyes, in Onew’s stomach. “Have you done it before? Any of it, with a guy?”
“Yes, I, I’ve…” He couldn’t just list positions and acts with Ricky watching him. “Yes.” That was a clear enough answer.
“I.” Ricky gave him a look that was so hopeful and so mischievous, it captured his heart. “Will it bother you if I’ve had a lot of experience?”
“No. No, of course not, something like that wouldn’t - - how much?”
“I do it a lot with my members,” he admitted. “And there’s been - - well, there were twelve members in EXO when I started, you already know about how close we are with them, right? And then there’s-”
“Okay, okay,” Onew said, getting the idea. Thinking about Ricky screwing all of those hoobaes was really turning him on, and he didn’t know why. He hadn’t given a lot of thought to exactly how experienced Ricky might be, how many partners, how often, but this only made Ricky sexier and sexier. If he had any more details, his hard-on would start showing in his pants. “What about boyfriends, how many boyfriends have you had?”
“Oh, I’ve never had a relationship. We weren’t allowed to date, before. And there was nobody that I was very interested in, anyway.”
Oh. Disappointed, Onew tried not to feel discouraged. If Ricky was already this old and had never been interested, was surrounded by this many idols and had never been that attracted, then he didn’t know what he could offer. “Could you be interested in me?”
Ricky’s bright smile showed off square, white teeth. “I’m already interested. It’s different, with sunsaengnim.”
He was so relieved, he was already moving in. “Different?” he repeated, sliding closer on the couch, leaning in, one hand cupping the side of Ricky’s face.
Gaze dropping to his mouth, Ricky murmured a soft, “Yeah,” and he didn’t know if that was in answer to his question or his touch, but he needed this, now. Moaning, he closed the distance between them, pressing his lips to Ricky’s.
He’d thought about this, about kissing Ricky, so many times, too many times, all of those embarrassing, arousing, shy, hot times, but now he was doing it. Ricky was kissing him back, and it was unbearably sexy, mind-blowingly erotic, the way Ricky’s tongue stroked against his, Ricky’s arm curling around his neck, so simple, so hot. Everything seemed new and shocking, like he’d never realized how sexy kissing could be, like he’d never noticed before exactly how much someone else’s lips pressed against his could turn him on. But it wasn’t just someone, it was Ricky, and that made all of the difference in the world. All of the difference in his pants, fuck, he was hard.
He was so drawn to Ricky, so fascinated, that he slowed down, wanting to experience everything, not wanting to miss a thing. Ricky’s kisses were provocative, coaxing, sometimes meeting him like an equal, sometimes beckoning him onward and letting him lead. Ricky’s boldness turned him on, and Ricky’s encouragement made him feel sexy, like he was getting everything right, like he had something Ricky wanted. Ricky’s quiet moans had him moaning back, echoing the sound, making involuntary noises of pleasure.
Their kissing fell into a rhythm, and then he got excited and pushy, and then they were in rhythm again, and then he got aggressive again, and maybe that was their rhythm, his lust turning demanding, Ricky giving him what he needed, his desires flaring up again. And just when he thought that he had himself under control, just when he was finally starting to get a handle on his responses, Ricky rubbed his chest and murmured, “Mmm, you’re so good at this.”
Those few words, and all of his flustered desires exploded into forceful lust. He groaned, kissing Ricky more aggressively, thrusting his tongue into Ricky’s mouth. His cock throbbed urgently, and he felt thrilled, felt feral with carnal desires, felt overjoyed.
He was so turned on, he needed something to happen; he wanted Ricky so much, he wanted this to be good, wanted Ricky to like it, too, half as much as he did, even half. Ricky’s kisses were soothing him, taming him, softening the edge of his need, but he was still panting and lusting and amazed by every erotic detail. Ricky’s fingers threaded through his hair, fingertips grazing his scalp, and he shuddered, the touch too intimate for him.
“Is it okay?” he asked, rubbing between Ricky’s thighs. The sweatpants were soft, and Ricky was hard underneath, and the proof of Ricky’s arousal was right there against his palm. He was going too fast, but he had to get Ricky off, he really had to, he was convinced that it would be hotter and more satisfying than any of his own climaxes.
“Oh, oh.” Ricky shivered, pressing closer against him, practically in his lap now. “Yes, okay.”
He slid his hand right inside Ricky’s sweatpants, inside Ricky’s underwear, grasping that hardness. Ricky’s cock was stiffening, lengthening, and Ricky’s soft, excited moans sent his temperature soaring. He felt hot, fever-hot, lust making everything seem urgent. Needing to look, to see, he grabbed a handful of fabric and pulled everything down, exposing Ricky’s groin.
Ricky was really good-looking down there. He watched his hand roam over Ricky’s cock, amazed by the sight of it, his own hand on that smooth, hard cock. Plump, pink balls, so tidy in their soft pouch. He’d seen plenty of cocks before, but when Ricky moaned, “Ooouuh, more, more,” and kissed his neck, fondling Ricky’s erection became impossibly, scandalously sexy. Ricky was halfway in his lap and writhing against him and pressing soft, sucking kisses to his neck, and the satiny slide of Ricky’s hot cock in his hand was unbearably erotic. “I need this, I need it,” he whispered, rubbing his cheek against Ricky’s, moaning, eyes closing as he breathed Ricky in. Soft, powdery scent, so light, so wholesome. “I need you,” he realized, and it felt so right, so true, it was like the final puzzle piece had finally locked into place. “I need you,” he whispered again, and Ricky came in his hand, tensing against him, making a hot, shivery sound right in his ear.
Wow. Oh, god, wow. Panting, Onew tried to slow down his heart, but it kept racing, fluttering, banging around in his chest. He’d just jacked off a hoobae. A male hoobae from outside the company. And he felt more sexually alive, more emotionally and carnally awake, than he’d been in years. It was like he’d gone along all of this time thinking that he was just any old boring fence, and then Ricky had come along and flipped a switch, and whoosh, just like that, it turned out that he was electric after all.
“Sunsaengnim,” Ricky breathed, looking up at him with big, elfin eyes.
Oh, yes, okay, he was definitely in love. Staring into Ricky’s handsome, flushed face, he didn’t have any doubts about that anymore. They kissed, and it was perfect, it felt perfect, they fit together perfectly.
“What do you want?” Ricky whispered against his mouth. Ricky’s hand stole over his thigh, and he groaned, shifting, his hard-on straining against his fly. “If you’re not too used to guys, what do you like?”
“I like you,” he said, kissing Ricky again.
“Mmm, I like you, too,” Ricky murmured, and Ricky’s hand slid into his lap, rubbed right over his cock, and he groaned again, pretty sure that he might come just from this. “I’ll go down on you, that’s, oh, sunsaengnim.” Ricky’s tone was so appreciative that he felt scandalized. “I didn’t know that you were hung.”
“It’s not handsome down there, not like yours,” he confessed.
Ricky smiled at him, raising one devilish eyebrow. “Mine’s nice, right?” Laughing and moaning all at once, he slumped back while Ricky undid his fly. Sucking in air, trying to catch his breath, he watched Ricky, captivated by the fading red of Ricky’s ears. He brushed his fingers through Ricky’s hair. So soft.
When his cock was free, he moaned, relieved. He wasn’t perfectly proportioned and well-shaped like Ricky was, so handsome and sexy. His cock veered off to the right like it had somewhere to go, his balls were all low and sloppy, and his shaft looked unwieldy, thick with an extra bulge in the middle. He waited for Ricky to comment on it - - everybody who got a look at it had something to say - - but Ricky only said, “Damn, okay,” and kissed him, and whispered, “Don’t worry, sunsaengnim, I’m up to the challenge.” His heart pounded, and by the time he got his eyes open again, Ricky was sliding off of his lap to kneel on the floor.
Ricky took him in hand, and he realized that this was not going to be one of those blowjobs where he could lean back and close his eyes and just enjoy the sensation. No, desire was pounding through him and he couldn’t take eyes off of Ricky and he was way too invested in this moment to take it for granted. Ricky mouthed his cock, and he moaned, a loud, drawn-out sound, pleasure echoing in his bones. Damn, oh, he felt incredibly sensitive, every kiss and every lick making his whole body throb. “Oohhh, unnhhh, huuuunngh.” He grabbed at the armrest, clutching at it, while deep, animal sounds rose out of him. “Hunnnnn, ooohhh.”
Eyes closing, long lashes black against his cheeks, Ricky started sucking on Onew’s cock. His head bobbing, he only took the top few inches at first, his hand jacking the rest. Then he took the whole thing in one smooth slide, swallowing it down, and Onew’s jaw dropped. God, he’d really meant it, he knew exactly what he was doing.
Then he slid off of it, murmured, “Oh, that’s nice,” and went back for more.
Onew stared. “Ooh-oh-nnngh, oh, hunnngh, oh.” This was really happening, Ricky was blowing him. It felt so incredible, he was hard as a rock. And it looked, god, unbelievable. Kneeling in front of him like this, Ricky looked too neat, too polite, so handsome. The erection in Ricky’s mouth looked really lewd in contrast. And whenever Ricky slid upward, raising his head from the base, Onew’s shaft widened, and his lips spread wide around that fat thickness right in the middle, and his pretty, pink mouth disgorging that meaty girth looked gorgeously obscene. He started going faster, like he knew that Onew loved watching him and he wanted to give Onew plenty to see, and he sucked harder, when Onew’s knees were already shaking. His tight, demanding suction had every part of Onew, every cell, every atom, throbbing, pleasure hot as a bonfire, burning, intensifying. Meaning to say, “I’m coming,” Onew just moaned like a lusty animal again. Ricky’s mouth sealed around the head of his erection, and he came forcefully, staring down at Ricky’s flushed cheeks. “Hauunnngh, oh, oh, nnneuuhh.”
Up to the challenge, damn. Floored, Onew drank him in. All of that experience wasn’t a joke. He, he - - what else did he know how to do?
Eyebrows quirking, Ricky lifted his head, licking his lips. He gave Onew’s cock an assessing look, like it had done some interesting trick.
Loving him, completely loving him, Onew leaned forward, cupping the back of his head and kissing him. “Stay tonight.” Onew felt enraptured, felt intensely determined and easily crushed, would have done anything to be with him, would be shattered if he refused. “You can stay for one night?”
Returning his kisses, Ricky made a quiet, sexy sound into his mouth, like a purring moan. “Yes, yes.”
Changjo checked the time and texted C.A.P. He’s still out. I don’t think he’s coming back until morning.
Hearing a knock at the door, he looked up. He didn’t know that knock. A sasaeng? A hotel employee? He rolled out of bed and silently, on light feet, went to the door.
He peered through the peephole.
Standing there in the hallway, unmistakable, was Key.
He considered his options, weighed the possible outcomes, and didn’t open the door.
Key knocked again, then pulled out a phone.
Immediately, he silenced his phone.
Key called him. There was no telltale ring from his side of the door.
Looking irritated, Key made another call.
The room phone rang.
He texted the other members to warn them.
Key walked away.
Onew’s phone was ringing.
Burying his face in his pillow, he ignored it until it stopped.
His first conscious thought was: Ricky.
Suddenly, he wanted to wake up. His heart pounding, he felt foolishly, goofily happy; his smile stretched the whole way across his face. Flinging the covers aside, he sat up. He shoved his bangs out of his eyes, looking around eagerly for Ricky.
Then he found Ricky, and his heart seized up in his chest.
Red eyes, wet cheeks, Ricky was crying. Seated on the couch, Ricky wiped hastily at his face, trying to smile bravely, trying to pretend that nothing was wrong. “Sunsaengnim.” His voice had a tremor in it, and he cleared his throat. “You woke up.”
He crossed the room, out of the bed and to the couch in record time, flying over there like he was throwing himself between Ricky and immediate danger. Of course since he wasn’t awake enough to be even partially coordinated, he tripped and fell, landing in front of the couch, but he didn’t care about that; he stayed there, grabbing at Ricky, worried. Whatever was wrong, he’d fix it, he’d take care of it, he’d solve things. “You aren’t happy?” Was he the problem? Had he done something or not done something or done something the wrong way?
“It’s okay, I’m fine.” Wiping wetness from his eyes, Ricky smiled down at Onew in such a sweet, charming way that Onew felt captivated by him all over again. “How about you? You can’t keep falling like this, sunsaengnim.”
“Is it about last night? You have regrets?”
Ricky shook his head. “No, I don’t regret it.” His smile was watery this time. “I don’t regret you.” Blinking rapidly, he tilted his head back, like he was trying to force his tears away. Taking a deep breath, he smiled at Onew again, looking determined. “I should go. I just - - I didn’t want to leave before you woke up, it seems rude.”
“You can’t go like this.” Onew couldn’t stand seeing him so unhappy. “Did you get bad news?”
He nodded, and his face crumpled, and it felt like someone was jabbing daggers into Onew’s chest. “No one knew where I went, I didn’t tell them that I was with you, I knew that I wouldn’t have permission for it but I wanted to be with you anyway, I knew that I’d get in trouble but I could take it, it’s okay if it’s for you. I have these texts from C.A.P. hyung, from my members, they’re so pissed off and worried, so I texted back, I told them that I was with you and I’d explain later, and…” He swallowed, wiped his hand under his nose, and tried to keep going, his voice shaking, his words bumbling into each other. He was trying so hard to be strong and mature, it made Onew want to fight for him even more. “I’m not allowed to date or have sex like this, I don’t have permission, but it’s not just anybody, you’re from such a big company, the biggest company, and it’s not just that, you’re a big sunbae, too, and - - oh, sunsaengnim, I messed everything up.”
“It’s just because I’m from SM?” he asked, trying to understand. “Ricky-ah, EXO’s from SM, too, it’s okay. I’m only a two year sunbae, that’s not so much, is it?”
Ricky looked miserably into his eyes. “I wasn’t supposed to see you at all. Nobody knew. I had to sneak out every time, I lied about what I was doing. I knew that I couldn’t make it last, but you’re so handsome and you’re so sexy and you made me feel so good, I liked it so much when I was with you, I just wanted to see you a little bit more.”
Astounded, Onew felt his eyes widen. “You mean our lessons? The vocal lessons?”
Pressing his lips together, Ricky nodded.
Ricky had been attracted to him? Enough to lie and sneak around to see him every week? Setting up the lessons in the first place? Gobsmacked, Onew ran his hand through his hair. It was a completely different version of events than he’d realized was going on. He felt like he was seeing their relationship for the first time.
“Who knew that you were going to like me?” Ricky asked. “I thought that I was lucky, just getting to see you so often. I thought that it was special, just singing with you and talking to you. But nobody knew, and then when you saw me at the airport, and you were so friendly, my hyungs wanted explanations, and I didn’t know what to say.” He rubbed his eyebrow, looking down. “They told me to stay away from you from now on, they warned me not to see you ever again. They talked about your company squishing us like a bug.”
“That’s not going to happen.” Onew spoke to him firmly and patiently, rubbing his calf. “Nothing like that’s going to happen. I’ll talk to your hyungs, I’ll explain everything. There are companies I have to stay away from, but you’re Andy hyung’s kids. It’ll be okay.”
Sniffling, Ricky wiped at his nose again. “It’s not only your company.” Sighing, rubbing at his wet eyes, he curled his legs up, tucking into himself. Feeling bereft, wanting to be close to him, Onew got up and sat beside him on the couch. “It’s your fans. My hyungs said that they’re already making trouble. They know how often we’ve seen each other, and I guess you looked too happy to see me in the airport, and now they’re…” He blinked desperately, taking in shuddering breaths. “They.” He swallowed, trying to gain control of himself, and Onew was practically crawling on top of him, needing to hear the rest. “They’re talking to our antis, digging up dirt. They want to get rid of me, get me away from you, and they’re going to hurt my members to do it, they’re going to-” He burst into tears.
Onew felt torn. He had to protect Ricky; he wanted to defend his fans. “Not Shawol,” he said, putting his hand on Ricky’s shaking shoulder. “Ricky-ah, not my Shawol.”
“What am I going to do without Teen Top?” Ricky asked, tears streaming down his face. His eyes looked huge, his cheeks red. He was so lost and desperate, Onew hugged him, pulling him close. “I ruined everything, I didn’t know, I messed it all up,” he sobbed. “My members, Teen Top, oh, Teen Top.”
“Teen Top’s not going anywhere,” Onew said. Ricky’s distress hit him in a very deep place. He knew exactly how it felt to have so much of his life and identity hinge on his group, his members, that one entity. Knowing how much Shinee meant to him, he’d never take another team lightly.
“I just wanted to see you,” Ricky said. “I liked you and I wanted to keep meeting you. I didn’t know that any of this would happen. I’m so scared, I’m scared that you like me too much, and I’m scared that you don’t like me enough. I’m scared about what your company’s going to do and I’m scared about Shawol hurting my members. I’m scared about losing Teen Top, I’m scared about disappointing Andy hyung. I didn’t think that you were going to like me so much, I didn’t think that Shawol would hate me so much, I don’t know why it has to be like this. What’s going to happen to my hyungs, what are they going to do if Shawol destroys us? I need Teen Top, I need my members, I don’t know how to be anybody else besides Teen Top’s Ricky.” His arms were tight around Onew, his tears drenching Onew’s shirt. “I just wanted to perform, I wanted to make money for my family, I don’t know how things ended up like this.”
He was so distraught and so overwhelmed, Onew just held him for a while, patting his back. “It’s okay, Ricky-ah. It’s okay.” He was so upset, he was blowing everything out of proportion. And it sounded like he was upset about so many things, he was letting his anxiety about his feelings for Onew inflate his anxiety about Shawol’s reaction.
He was more precious to Onew than ever, now. He’d had feelings before Onew had ever felt those vivid stirrings of desire. He’d arranged all of this, and lied to his members for weeks, months. No wonder the place they met had kept changing. No wonder he’d asked Onew to sneak in the back at TOP Media. No wonder L.Joe and Niel had looked so stunned when Onew had said hi at the airport.
He’d known that he wouldn’t be allowed to keep seeing Onew if anyone knew about it, so he’d kept it a secret. A stressful secret, over so much time. No wonder he was so upset; his nerves were probably shot.
Ricky sniffed, trying to pull away, but he hugged Ricky to his chest again. “You want to keep seeing me,” he said. “And I want to keep seeing you.” He rubbed Ricky’s back. “So I’ll take care of it. I’ll talk to your hyungs, and I’ll talk to your managers myself. I’ll talk to Andy hyung if you want me to.”
Ricky’s voice was quiet. “What about Shawol?”
“I’ll talk to them, too.”
Incrementally, Ricky relaxed against him.
He petted Ricky, resting his chin on Ricky’s shoulder. He hadn’t seen any of it coming, but that didn’t matter. His heart was Ricky’s now, and he wasn’t going to hold back. “I love you,” he said quietly. “I’ll shield Teen Top for you. You don’t have to worry about any of it anymore.”
Chunji’s phone pinged. Splayed across his bed, watching TV, he scratched his neck and checked his messages.
A group text from Ricky. Five minutes max, big sunbae’s on the way.
Oh, shit. Hopping up, Chunji whapped his pillow across C.A.P. “Up, up, get up, Shinee’s leader hyung is coming to have the big talk, wake your ass up.”
Stepping off of the elevator, Onew smiled at a passing idol group. They bowed to him and to Ricky, murmuring politely, and he gave them a little encouraging wave.
As the elevator doors closed again, Ricky rubbed at his face. “I’m so freaking red and puffy, I’m all swollen. Everybody for miles can tell I was sobbing my face off.”
“You look fine.” Onew grinned, nudging him. “Maybe a little puffy.”
He tried to pretend to be offended, then laughed.
He hadn’t said that he was in love with Onew. Strangely, Onew was okay with that. Onew was realizing, the closer they grew, how little they knew each other. It was a fascinating puzzle, how the more intimate they were, the more he saw that he had to learn. Maybe he was already in love, or maybe he’d be in love later, or maybe it would never happen. Onew was ready to accept all of it.
“Which room?” Onew asked as they walked down the hallway.
“That one,” Ricky said, pointing down to the exit.
“Which one is C.A.P. in?”
Silently, Ricky gestured. Then he whispered, “If he’s mean, don’t take it personally.”
“Mean to me?” Onew asked. Ricky nodded. Hmm. Onew knocked.
There was a pause. Ricky took a deep breath, straightening his shoulders and lifting his chin. Onew took a moment to admire his determination, and the door opened.
Changjo looked surprised to see them, a lollipop falling out of his mouth and into his hand. Then, staring at Ricky, he whispered, “Go, get out, you can’t be here right now,” and tried to shoo Ricky away.
“Who is it?” The voice’s depth, its heavy weight, its anger, its forceful authority, registered first. Then Onew realized that it must be C.A.P.
Changjo’s eyes widened; he was trying to shoot Ricky significant messages in silence, or just trying to force Ricky to flee with the power of his stare.
“C.A.P.?” Onew asked, nudging Changjo out of the way. “It’s Shinee leader Onew.”
A quick glance told Onew that there were no managers in the room, only Chunji, standing near the bathroom, and C.A.P., glaring at Ricky, jaw set.
“Sunbae,” Chunji said, shooting C.A.P. a nervous look.
“Thanks for bringing him back,” C.A.P. said.
Onew glanced at Changjo. “Close the door.”
Changjo raised his eyebrows, then closed the door.
C.A.P.’s expression was grim. He opened his mouth, but Onew said, “If it’s okay, I’ll say everything first. I just learned it all this morning. I didn’t know before that Ricky was lying to anyone or sneaking out. I’m sorry, I’ll take responsibility for that. It’s my fault, I should have made sure. I became so used to seeing him that I forgot that he doesn’t exist in this world on his own. I’ll check in with you from now on.”
C.A.P.’s expression wasn’t any better.
“I’d like your permission to keep seeing Ricky. If you’re worried about my company, that’s not necessary. I debuted a long time ago, and they trust me to make my own decisions. I can see anyone I want and judge things for myself, they won’t cause any problems. If you’re worried about my fans, that’s not necessary, either. I have a good relationship with them, and I’ll clear everything up so that they understand.” He put his hand on Ricky’s shoulder. “If you’re worried about me, that’s not necessary, either. I’m in love with Ricky, and I’m going to look out for him. There won’t be any problems, and if there are, they won’t come from me.”
“There are already problems,” C.A.P. said. He moved in, nose to nose, his posture threatening. “It’s been nothing but problems, from the beginning. Lying, sneaking around, dragging other companies and other idols into this. You’ve been running around with my dongsaeng for months and you never thought to say shit to me about it? I’ve got promises from you that your company won’t be on my back, but what’s your word supposed to mean to me? How am I supposed to take that, should I be grateful for it? You’re also telling me that you’ll handle things with Shawol, while they’re going around digging up every anti and variety show clip they can find, ready to bring Teen Top down. Teen Top is my life, Teen Top is my world, and it’s about to come crashing down around my ears. If you love Ricky so much, what the fuck are you going to do about it?”
C.A.P.’s seething rage and barely leashed violence were intense, oppressive. Onew breathed evenly and held his gaze. “Back up.”
C.A.P.’s laughter sounded like a snarl. “When it comes to Teen Top, I don’t back up.”
He didn’t hesitate. “When it comes to Ricky, neither do I.”
They stared at each other. Onew didn’t blink.
C.A.P. took one slow step back, still threateningly close but not breathing on him anymore. “Tell me how you see this going. What I see is, you found an easy hoobae to screw. You get off a few times, you walk away, and Shawol gets to have their fun tearing apart their oppa’s trash.”
“You’re not going to call him trash again,” Onew said. “Not in front of me.”
“I’ll call him whatever I want until you convince me why I should give a fuck what you think.”
He should have given more thought to Ricky’s warning in the hallway. He should have listened when Sunggyu had asked, “You do know about Teen Top, don’t you?” No, he hadn’t known. At least he’d be prepared for next time. “You don’t want to make enemies, so make a friend. If you’re afraid of what I might do to you, think about what I can do for you. If you’re worried about standing onstage while Shawol turns the whole stadium black, think about standing onstage while those pearl aqua lights come on, just for you. If you’re worried about Angel being dragged into a terrible fight, think about Shawols coming into comment threads just to back Angel up. Think about them holding hands and working together. If you’re worried about hate mail and funeral wreaths, think about comeback gifts and supportive notes and a room filled to the ceiling with presents on Ricky’s birthday. If you’re worried about my company turning against you, think about my company turning to you. Maybe I can’t do a radio interview that day, but I know who the station could ask instead. Maybe I’d be glad to be on a variety show, and I wonder if they’ve filled all of their other guest spots yet. Maybe I need to bring someone with me to feature on ‘Immortal Song,’ and it’s so tacky to bring someone else from my company, I’ll invite another idol.” He smiled. “You see how it would go.”
“That’s a nice story, but we’ve been close to Suho hyung and EXO for a long time, and I haven’t seen any of it,” C.A.P. said.
Onew nodded. Inhaling, he took a step back, rubbing his chin. “EXO. Good-looking kids, but there’s always a lot of drama with them, have you noticed? Problems, scandals.” He smiled again, letting it hit his eyes this time. “Shinee doesn’t do that. Shinee is stable. Our company knows it. The industry knows it. EXO’s exciting, but Shinee is Shinee.”
“What do you want with Ricky?” C.A.P. asked. He was still tense, still visibly on edge, but some of the ferocity had faded. Onew wondered how often he was like this, and what it was like for Ricky to live with it. The other members were keeping their distance, Chunji and Changjo both hanging back on opposite sides of the room.
“I’m going to see him whenever I can, whenever he’s willing. If I can love him, if he’ll be my dongsaeng, my boyfriend, that’s what I want. Dates. He’s welcome in my dorm any time that I’m there, and I’ll want him to spend the night. I won’t expose him to scandal. I won’t hit him,” he added, since he was increasingly sure that C.A.P. did.
C.A.P. inhaled. “I’ll get back to you.”
C.A.P. bared his teeth. “You’ll know when you hear from me.”
“Do it soon,” he said. “I’ll wait for your decision before I talk to Shawol.” He relaxed, turning and rubbing Ricky’s shoulder. “I don’t regret anything.”
Silently, Ricky nodded. It was impossible to do or say anything in front of C.A.P., with that tense, angry mood in the room. But Onew didn’t want to leave without reassuring Ricky, without letting Ricky know that he’d do whatever it took until things were okay. “I won’t give up on you,” he promised. “I’ll look out for you no matter what happens, Ricky-ah.”
A tiny, worried smile. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to screw everything up.”
“I’m not sorry,” he said. Tearing his gaze away from Ricky, he nodded at C.A.P. and left.
As soon as the door closed, Changjo locked it.
“Got it?” C.A.P. asked, holding up his phone.
“Audio,” Chunji said, holding up his phone.
“Video,” Changjo said, holding up his.
“Did Onew sunbae just turn on Suho hyung like that?” Chunji asked.
“If we release that, ‘EXO’s exciting, but Shinee is Shinee’ part, we could start a fucking EXO-L versus Shawol war,” Changjo said.
C.A.P. clasped Ricky’s shoulder, looking into his eyes. “You okay?”
“No,” Ricky said.
C.A.P. nodded. “Go take a bath and order room service. We don’t have to be anywhere for a few hours, take a break.”
Ricky nodded and trudged out of the room. Changjo went with him.
Onew’s head was full of Ricky and C.A.P. and more Ricky. When he got off of the elevator, he almost didn’t notice Key.
“Hyung! Where have you been?” Key demanded, lowering his voice halfway through the question and glancing around for eavesdroppers.
“Talking.” He went into his room.
Key followed him in and closed the door. “Are you okay? You look like shit.”
“I think that Teen Top’s leader is secretly a gangster.” He crawled onto his bed, lost momentum halfway through, and slumped across it.
“Not so secretly. You know we have to meet the stylists in half an hour, right?”
“I know.” He’d get up then.
“Do you want me to leave you alone?”
“Yes.” The bed muffled his voice.
“Too bad, I can’t.” Key sat down beside him. “Were you talking to C.A.P.?”
“He’s worse than Sunggyu,” he mumbled.
“No, he’s not.”
“He’s worse than Taeyeon.”
Key snorted. “Stop lying.”
He sighed. He wondered what he was going to do if C.A.P. refused to let him see Ricky. Keep fighting, he guessed. He couldn’t give up unless Ricky wanted him to, and as long as he still had a chance, he couldn’t let go.
“C.A.P. worked out some kind of deal for Changjo and Suho,” Key said. “And something for Changjo and L. Unless Changjo has something special going on, I don’t see why you can’t get the same deal for Ricky.” He patted Onew’s back. “I tried to talk to Teen Top last night, but nobody was around. I don’t know if they were all asleep or avoiding me or what. So I talked to Suho instead, and he said that C.A.P.’s tough but fair. He gets protective, he’ll do anything for Teen Top, but if you’re loyal to him, he’ll be fair with you.”
How could he prove that he was loyal to Ricky?
“Suho knows that he and Changjo aren’t boyfriends, doesn’t he?” Key asked. “I hope that Sunggyu hyung knows that Young Money’s completely freaking obsessed with other guys besides him.”
Young Money. Onew snickered.
Key stroked his hair. “What’d C.A.P. say? He’s not stupid enough to punch sunbaes, is he?”
“No.” Lifting his head, Onew propped his chin on his hand. “How do street gangs prove their loyalty?”
“Beat up rival gangs for each other?” Key guessed. “I don’t know, do I look like a criminal to you?”
Beat up rival gangs. Onew thought about that.
If there was anything to be thankful for, it was Changjo. Ricky was grateful that they were talking again. While he sat in the tub, he told Changjo about Onew, and about last night, and about Onew’s cock, and about how Onew had slept curled around him, and about how hard he’d cried.
“You cried for real?” Changjo asked.
He nodded. He knew how to make himself cry for effect, but it had been easy to cry honestly, that morning. “I’m really fucked up right now.”
“Because you like him,” Changjo said, trailing a finger through the bubbles in his bath.
“I didn’t think I would,” he admitted, not happy about it.
“It’s okay. He’s in love with you.”
“He doesn’t love me. He doesn’t even know me.”
“God, Myungsoo hyung, get over it,” Changjo said. “You’re not cosplaying some completely different person. He knows you, he likes you, it’s all you. Just different parts of you.”
“What about the other parts he doesn’t know about?”
Changjo shrugged and grinned at him. “That’ll just be an interesting surprise for later.”
They ordered room service and ate everything. Then they had slow, lazy sex. It had been months since they’d done any of this, since they’d touched or kissed or any of it, but it seemed like it had been just yesterday. Everything was so comfortable and familiar that when it was over, Ricky felt like himself again. Felt like himself for the first time in a long time.
“I hate it when we fight,” he said, on his back beside Changjo in bed, satisfied and whole.
“Yeah.” Changjo rolled onto his side, resting his head on his hand. “You know I only got so pissed off because it seemed like you were taking me for granted.”
“I know. That’s why I was angry at you, too.”
“I do a lot for you,” Changjo said. “But you do a lot for me, too, so.”
“L.Joe hyung’s the real problem,” Ricky said. “Selfish jerk.”
“Useless,” Changjo muttered, and they grinned at each other. “Are we okay? Truce?”
“Truce,” Ricky agreed, and they shook hands formally.
“I can’t believe you started a whole fucking relationship behind my back,” Changjo said. “With a big sunbae like Shinee’s Onew! What the hell!”
“I totally fucked up.” He still couldn’t believe it. He didn’t know what was wrong with him.
“You should’ve worked with me on it,” Changjo said.
Maybe that was where he’d gone wrong. “I really got in over my head.”
“Who knew he’d fall in love with you?” Changjo asked. “I didn’t know that such a big sunbae would have such terrible taste.”
To be fair, “Most big sunbaes have awful taste.”
“Mmm.” Changjo nodded, acknowledging it. Then he grinned.
The sparkle in his eyes was way too gleeful. “What?” Ricky asked.
“You never guessed, did you? We totally made it up. All of that stuff I said this morning from the ajummas’ chats? I made it all up. We decided it last night while you were in the bathroom. Niel hyung and L.Joe hyung helped me come up with what to say after we left you. I was up all goddamned night faking the chat logs.”
What. What. “What?!” he shouted, shoving Changjo off of the bed.
“You lied to us!” Changjo exclaimed, pouncing right back onto the bed. “You lied for months! You fucking lying jackass, you think I’m going to let you get away with it?!”
“You made it all up?!” he demanded. He was so furious and so relieved, he pounded on Changjo’s chest. “I was fucking terrified!”
“You should’ve seen your face! You looked like the whole world was ending!”
“Ow, ow.” Changjo turned away, rolling off of the bed. “Don’t hit me forever.”
“You fucking asshole!” he shouted, hurling every pillow in sight.
“It was great, right? We tried to make it convincing! I looked up what the ajummas were really saying, but mostly they’re just biding their time, waiting to see where it goes, wanting to see if their precious Lee Jinki will give them some kind of a sign. They can’t get flustered over every guy he hangs out with, they want to see how serious he is first. They really do have love funds set aside, and they’re trying to figure out what your sizes are and which designers and things you like, in case he gives them the go-ahead or whatever. But they’re not talking to our antis, they don’t give a crap about that. They trust their Jinki’s judgment, they aren’t worried about what anybody else thinks. They’re really laid-back, it’s great. No one’s trying to kick us out of the industry, are you paranoid?”
He couldn’t believe this. He’d been sick, he’d felt guilty and horrible and ill, his irreversible mistake had been a burden weighing on every step, every breath. He’d thought that he’d brought Teen Top to the edge of destruction. “I hate you,” he said, staring at Changjo. “You’re the most evil person in the world, and I hate you.”
“Don’t lie to me next time,” Changjo said.
“We were feuding!”
“I forgive you, but Chunji hyung’s super pissed off,” Changjo said, sitting on the other bed. “C.A.P. hyung is, too. You weren’t feuding with them, you don’t have an excuse.”
“I couldn’t tell them, they’d tell you.”
“What’s this thing with Sunggyu hyung? Is he trying to adopt you?”
“Why are you being so weird about it?”
“I don’t know if I want it.”
“Of course you want it.”
“I don’t need some hyung checking up on me.”
“You’re as bad as L hyung. Let new people in sometime.”
“He already knows more about me than I want.”
“But he still wants to be your hyung,” Changjo pointed out. “That’s a good thing.”
He wasn’t so sure about that. “What if he tries to change me? Suho hyung’s always trying to teach you how to be a better person.”
“But you’re already a good person, so what are you worried about?”
He gave Changjo a flat look.
Changjo got up and sat beside him again.
He sighed and leaned against Changjo’s shoulder.
“I missed you,” Changjo said. “Kind of.”
“Do you think that Onew sunbae’s full of shit, or does he really think that he can pull strings like that?”
“I think he meant every word of it.”
“Did you see his face when C.A.P. hyung called you trash? I thought that flames were going to shoot out of his eyes.”
“I think that I underestimated him.”
Changjo prodded him. “You really gotta research your targets first.”
He sighed. “I know.”
“I still can’t believe that he said that crap about EXO.”
“Don’t tell Suho hyung. It’ll only cause problems.”
“I like causing problems,” Changjo said.
He smiled, lifting his head and kissing Changjo. “I know.”
It was a long flight back. Onew slouched in his seat and watched the clouds through the window. It felt like they’d never get back to Seoul. Like he’d never be home again. Never be with Ricky again.
Back on Korean soil, Niel climbed into his seat in the van. He gave the fans a wave and closed the door.
L.Joe yanked the door open, glared at him, and climbed in.
He smiled at the fans.
L.Joe waved to them, closed the door, and punched him.
Rubbing his arm, he sneered at the side of L.Joe’s head.
“Take me home,” Chunji said in Japanese. “Wow.”
“Tired?” Niel guessed in Korean.
“I guess so.” Yawning, Chunji stretched in his seat, obnoxiously swinging his arms everywhere and making everybody duck. “What are we doing this week?”
“Everything we went over on the plane,” C.A.P. said. “Like an hour ago.”
“Got a new schedule,” their manager said. “Got a call about the big festival at Lotte World. Need you to do five songs and close the show.”
“That’s this week,” Niel said, surprised.
“Close the show?” Changjo asked.
“What’s with the short notice?” C.A.P. asked.
“They’re not going with the big act they had lined up,” their manager said. “Some kind of conflict. Bad news for them, good news for you, that’s how it goes.”
C.A.P. was right, it was short notice. But their manager was right, it was good news. Great news. They were getting a fantastic spot on a really good night. Niel loved closing the show, it made him feel like H.O.T. or somebody.
In the practice room, they discussed which songs to perform at the festival. L.Joe and Chunji got into an argument over it, until C.A.P. made the final decision and they both backed off.
They were finishing that up when Ricky’s phone rang. “Big sunbae?” C.A.P. asked.
“Sunggyu hyung,” Ricky said, ignoring the call.
“Why are you so popular all of a sudden?” Niel asked.
“I’ve always been popular.”
“Well, you wanted to outdo the maknae,” Chunji said. “Is Sunggyu hyung better than Suho hyung and L hyung?”
“Yes, obviously,” Niel said.
“No way,” Changjo said.
“What do you want to do about Onew sunbae?” C.A.P. asked.
Ricky tugged at his ear, feeling uncertain. He hated feeling unsure. “I don’t know.”
“Date him, don’t date him? See him, don’t see him? Sex, no sex?” Chunji asked.
“Self-interested perspective, he’s a good ally, keep him,” Changjo said, ticking off points on his fingers. “Sexual perspective, I want to see that cock.” Niel nodded. “Personal perspective, he’s in love with you and you like him.”
“What do you mean, you like him?” Niel asked.
“Ricky has feelings,” Changjo said.
“What, real feelings?” L.Joe asked, looking confused.
“Since when?” Niel asked.
“What’s wrong with you?” Chunji asked. “You’re pissing off Sunggyu hyung and running away from Onew sunbae.”
“Yeah, and you’re pissing him off for no reason,” L.Joe said.
“I don’t even know you anymore,” Niel said, lifting his hands.
Ricky knew what he had to do. He just didn’t want to do it. “Is this going to be worth it?” he asked Changjo. “Having more hyungs bothering me, scolding me and pushing me around?”
Changjo smiled at him. “It’s the best.”
He took his shoe off and rubbed his toes. “I’m going to tell them the truth. Both of them. About what I did, and why.”
“You’re going to tell Onew hyung that you were trying to reel him in like a fish just to one-up the maknae?” Niel asked.
“Good luck,” Chunji said.
“If they still like me so much after it, okay,” Ricky said. “If they don’t.” He shrugged. “I’ll still have you.”
Chunji slung an arm around him, smiling. “You’ll always have us.”
“Unfortunately,” L.Joe said, and C.A.P. punched him.
Sunggyu leaned back in his desk chair, staring at Ricky.
On his bed, Ricky sighed and looked away.
“Ricky-ah. You can’t be like this.” He didn’t know what to do with this kid. “You can’t go around taking advantage of good people. Onew doesn’t deserve any of that!”
“I miscalculated,” Ricky said, frowning. “I didn’t think that he’d like me so much.”
“Since when?” Sunggyu demanded. “That’s what you do, that’s your concept, all you do is make people like you, and no one ever sees it coming. This time you didn’t see it coming?” He glared at Ricky. “What are you going to do about it? How are you going to fix it?”
“I’ll tell him this, what I just told you. I’ll explain it all. And then he won’t like me anymore, and it’ll be over.”
“He’s in love with you,” Sunggyu reminded him. “Love isn’t always so simple, it’s not only an on-off button. You didn’t know that you were turning it on in the first place, and you can’t just turn it off so easily.”
“He won’t still want to see me,” Ricky said, shaking his head. “He’ll feel betrayed, he’ll feel like he never really knew me at all. It’s… It’s alienating.” He frowned, and Sunggyu saw regret on his face. “He won’t want to see me anymore,” he said, like that was the end of it.
Ever since MT, Ricky had been more complex. More openly mature. It was good that he was willing to show Sunggyu these other sides of himself, but it was a challenge, too. The more complex Ricky came with more complex problems, and Sunggyu didn’t have easy solutions to give him. “It’s good that you want to come clean. That’s what a man should do. You’re upset, but that’s good, too. You’re hurting someone good, someone who only cares about you, and that should make you feel bad.”
“Did you know about his last relationship?”
Sunggyu nodded. “It ended before we were close, but I know about it.”
“Was it really over back in 2010?” When Sunggyu nodded, Ricky frowned, his eyebrows unhappy and dramatic. “But why was it so long ago? What’s he been doing since then, hibernating?”
“Working,” Sunggyu said. It sounded like a flip answer, but it wasn’t. “That’s what he cares about, that’s what matters. His career, Shinee. He’s seen someone here and someone there, but it hasn’t been serious. It hasn’t meant anything.”
“Then I can’t mean anything, either.”
Sunggyu shook his head. “That’s not what Key says.”
A while later, when they’d finished talking, Sunggyu rolled his desk chair closer to the bed and took hold of Ricky’s hand. He looked right into Ricky’s eyes when he spoke, wanting the words to sink in. “I’m glad that you came to see me, Ricky-ah. I’m glad that you trust me with this much. I don’t know what Onew will say. But you can always come back here and see me again. If you’re hurt, hyung will comfort you. You don’t have to be strong only on your own.”
Every time Onew’s phone rang, he scrambled for it, hope in his heart. Would it be Ricky? Maybe it would be Ricky! It might even be Ricky!
He felt haunted. Every time he left the dorm, he thought that he saw Ricky out of the corner of his eye. He’d turn his head, and it would be someone else entirely, or no one at all. He’d stand in the middle of the kitchen and forget what he was doing there and daydream about kissing on the couch. He did the vocal exercises they’d worked on together and missed the sound of Ricky’s voice blending with his. One time he woke up and thought that he heard Ricky crying. He went about his day and he smiled and he met his responsibilities, but his heart was always somewhere else, yearning.
Their next vocal lesson drew nearer and nearer, and he didn’t hear anything. He knew that he should call the bakery to cancel his order, but he couldn’t bring himself to do it.
He didn’t hear from C.A.P. When Ricky contacted him, it was a text. Sunsaengnim, are you well? About our vocal lesson, I’m sorry, I’m not up to it tonight. Could we meet at your place?
Hurriedly, he texted back. Ricky-ah. Yes, yes, come here. Are you all right, is everything okay?
There’s a lot to say. I’ll talk to you in person.
He’d learned how things worked in Teen Top, so he immediately called C.A.P. He’d gotten the number from Suho, looking forward to C.A.P. contacting him; he hadn’t wanted to assume that it was a stranger or a stalker and miss the call. He’d resisted the urge to call before, telling himself that he’d wait, that he’d give C.A.P. time.
C.A.P. answered. “Yeah?”
“It’s Shinee’s Onew. I’m meeting Ricky tonight. It’s all right with you?”
“Yeah. Talk to him tonight, and we’ll talk tomorrow.”
“Okay.” There was something ominous in this emphasis on tonight’s conversation, but he didn’t let it rattle him. Ricky was coming over; this was his chance to resolve everything, to clear up all of the pain and confusion and set them on the right course. He went to the bakery to pick up his cupcakes and teas in person. Then he tried to clean up the dorm and kick his members out so he’d have some privacy. Minho went down on him, and it felt so good, he closed his eyes and pictured Ricky down there, Ricky’s mouth sliding up and down his hard, aching cock. He came hard and then just kind of collapsed, smiling and blissful.
He told the doorman to let Ricky in, and he finally got rid of his members, and he changed his shirt, and as long as he was changing his shirt he might as well change his pants, too, and maybe it was time for a haircut.
The doorbell rang.
Ricky! He rushed over to - - augh, god damn it, the floorboards were uneven there, he was sure of it! Dusting himself off, he opened the door. He was smiling from ear to ear and his breath was quick, shallow, excited. “Ricky-ah.”
Ricky looked glad to see him, smiling a little, one of those mild, handsome smiles that made his heart flutter. “Sunsaengnim.” Ricky bowed.
“Come in.” He wanted to pull Ricky physically, drag Ricky into his arms. When Ricky walked in, he was so distracted by Ricky’s nearness, so busy devouring every part of Ricky with his eyes, that it took him two tries to get the door shut.
An upward drift of Ricky’s eyebrows. “Date night cologne? You went out to dinner again?”
“No, it’s just for now.” He brushed his fingers through Ricky’s hair. “Have you eaten? Is everything all right?”
“I’m okay.” He looked so solemn and unhappy that Onew wanted to make everything good for him. “I should talk to you before anything else.”
“Okay.” They went over to the couch, and they sat, and he couldn’t relax when Ricky looked so unhappy.
“I’ll start at the beginning.” Ricky rubbed his hands over his thighs and looked just below Onew’s eyes, not quite making contact. “Changjo and I had a fight. A few months ago. I wanted to get to him, wanted to piss him off. He’s really smug about Suho hyung and L hyung, and how much they love him, and how close they are. So I thought that if I could one-up him and get a better hyung, he wouldn’t like that.” He rubbed his eyebrow, and then kept talking, looking tense and determined. “So I decided on you. Shinee’s leader, that’s an upgrade. I couldn’t rush it, because you’re a big sunbae, I had to be careful. So I started gradually, getting you more used to seeing me around. It started with the bathroom, I don’t know if you even remember it-”
“I remember,” he said, needing to interrupt, needing Ricky to stop talking.
Ricky nodded, still not fully meeting his eyes. “It wasn’t an accident, I made it look like your bathroom was out of order on purpose, and then I waited for you. I got D.O. hyung to get Kai hyung to get me around Taemin hyung, and then I used Minho hyung, too. They like me, it was easy. And Sunggyu hyung, and Chanyeol hyung. When I’d seen you enough times that you were used to me, I made my move, I asked about the vocal lessons. So you’d have a reason to keep seeing me, over and over again, but alone, just the two of us. Vocal lessons seemed good, it was flattering for you, and it would put you in the position of helping me, encouraging me, taking on that kind of role in my life.”
It had been calculated. All of it. Every step. Every conversation. It was all part of a carefully mapped strategy. To get back at someone he never thought of, for a fight he’d never known about. Sunggyu reached up, putting his hand on Onew’s wrist. “You do know about Teen Top, don’t you?” Ricky was a sociopath. “No,” he said to himself, mumbling, dazed. “I didn’t know about Teen Top.”
Ricky kept going. It was worse with every minute, and he didn’t want to hear any of it, but Ricky wouldn’t stop. “I thought that I’d get you to like me, and then I’d have you for a hyung, like Changjo has Suho hyung. I thought that you’d be attracted to me, and want to pet me and protect me, like Suho hyung does for Changjo. I kept it all a secret from my members for as long as I could, and that took some coordination, and I had a couple of close calls, but it went pretty smoothly. You stopped getting closer to me, though, it was like I hit a wall, this close and no closer, so I thought, okay, we’re both going to Japan, I’ll make my move there. I was ready. And then, in the airport, you greeted me in front of everybody, and everything went wrong from there. The whole thing, it exploded.”
“I need you to leave,” Onew said.
“I have to finish, I need you to hear all of it.” Ricky took a determined breath, and pressed his lips together. “I don’t make mistakes. My members will tell you, Ricky, he doesn’t make mistakes. I do my own thing, I handle it, they don’t need to check up on me, I don’t need supervision. Changjo gambles, he takes risks, I don’t take risks. He messes with people, he provokes them just to see what they’ll do, what’ll happen, how they’ll react. I give them what they want, I say what they want to hear, I do what they expect me to do. Make them happy, and they’ll leave you alone, that’s how life works. But I made a mistake this time. I misread you. I underestimated you.” He rubbed his hands together and tucked them between his thighs. “I didn’t think that you’d fall in love with me. Not that way. I just wanted you to like me and care about me and try to take care of me, like a close dongsaeng. Sunggyu hyung’s trying to adopt me, I thought that you would, too.” His frown deepened. “I don’t know why you fell in love, you weren’t supposed to, I never…” His voice trailed off.
Onew couldn’t take any more of this. He was in love with someone who’d never existed. He was in love with someone he’d never met after all. “Get out, I need you to get out.”
“We don’t mess with our SM sunbaes,” Ricky said. “My hyungs were furious with me for going behind their backs and for doing it with a big sunbae on top of that. I really fucked up. Changjo went on-line and found all of these Shawol posts about how happy you were lately and how it seemed like I was responsible for it. I meant more to you than I’d realized. My hyungs told me to cut it off, to get out before things got worse, but we had to do it without upsetting you, we can’t afford to have Shinee’s leader upset with us. We have too much to lose, and you’ll never lose anything. So we were going to pretend that I was in love with C.A.P. hyung, and you’d see that I was happy with someone else, and you’d let me go, and it would all be over.”
It was all so convoluted. Lies on top of lies. Play-acting, making up the script as they went along, causing problems and then adapting. Staring at Ricky and not recognizing him at all, Onew felt sick.
“Then Changjo found this group chat of important Shawols, the head ajummas, and they were talking about how they were digging up dirt on me, and if I wasn’t good for you they were going to destroy Teen Top. I thought that I was going to lose everything, I thought that I’d ruined my whole life. My members’ lives. My hyungs said that I had to keep you happy no matter what. If you were in love with me, then I had to keep you in love with me, I had to do whatever it took, I had to be your boyfriend for the rest of my life if you wanted it. I’d never wanted you to be in love with me in the first place, and now I had to be your boyfriend. It shouldn’t have been hard, it’s just keeping a hyung happy, that’s what I do, it’s nothing to me. But I felt bad. I was using you, and I was hurting you even if you didn’t know it. I wanted to stop, and I couldn’t.”
“So you blew me and cried on my shoulder.” They could fast-forward through that part of it, at least, couldn’t they? He needed this to be over, he needed Ricky to shut up and leave. Disappear into nothingness, like someone who’d never existed, like the Ricky he’d fallen in love with.
Ricky nodded, looking grim. “I was so upset, I cried for real. I don’t usually cry for real, but I didn’t have to fake it. And it worked, you said that you loved me, you were ready to commit to me. And C.A.P. hyung pushed you into making a deal.” Ricky rubbed at his ear, exhaling heavily. “And then I found out that my members had lied to me to get back at me. They made up the ajumma posts, they made me think that it was all worse than it was on purpose, to scare me. It was never as bad as I thought that it was.”
The lies piled on top of each other, one after another. Teen Top played fast and loose with the truth. Played with reality like it was only a game. Betrayal, manipulation, other people’s emotions were toys and targets for them.
“I made a mistake,” Ricky said. “I made a lot of mistakes. But I’m finished now.” Finished with what, he didn’t say. Onew didn’t ask. Onew just wanted him to leave. He finally met Onew’s eyes, and it didn’t feel like anything. Ricky wasn’t in there anymore. Never had been in there at all. Ricky wasn’t real. Onew had no idea who this facsimile of a human being sitting on the couch was, and didn’t want to find out any more about him. “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have used you. You never deserved it. I like you a lot. I don’t expect it to make a difference, but if you know the rest of it, I’ll tell you that, too. I honestly like you, and I wish that we could be close. I wish that - - you don’t believe me,” he realized.
No. No, Onew didn’t believe a word out of his mouth. If everything was a game, then this was, too. Nothing was real, nothing was honest. Ricky tainted everything that he touched.
Ricky nodded grimly. “I understand.” Moving slowly, he got up. “I’ll go, then.”
“I don’t ever want to see you again.” He needed that to be clear. He didn’t want Ricky to try to contact him. He didn’t want Ricky to show up in his dressing room or stop by his dorm. He didn’t want to walk into the SM building and see Ricky there flirting with Chanyeol.
Ricky stopped moving. “What will you do to Teen Top to make sure you don’t have to see me?”
“I don’t give a fuck about Teen Top,” he said. “Sink or swim on your own.”
Ricky stood there for another moment, and then left.
Onew didn’t move for a while. He didn’t have anywhere to go. His problem was Ricky, and Ricky was gone. His problem was in himself, in his head and his heart, and he couldn’t get away.
He was furious. He felt sick. He felt gutted. He cried, a deep, ugly cry. He’d lost something he’d never had, and he didn’t know how to cope with that. He couldn’t mourn for someone who’d never lived, but he was grieving, anyway.
He walked into the kitchen and saw the cupcakes sitting there on the table. So perfect, with their thick frosting and their wholesome crown of berries. They were lovely and pure, like his Ricky. He had visions of crushing them in his hands and shoving them down the disposal. He couldn’t bring himself to touch them. He just stood over them, staring down at them, crying, grieving, hating. No one was going to eat them now.
Ricky curled up in C.A.P.’s bed and cried.
Taemin came home and found Onew sitting on the kitchen floor, slumped back against the cabinets, dressed for a date and staring at nothing. “Hyung,” he said, baffled. Was Onew sick? Hurt? “Are you okay?”
He wasn’t moving. At all. “What’s wrong?” Taemin asked cautiously, watching him. “Were you crying?”
“Can you eat those for me?”
Taemin glanced around to see what he might be talking about. “Oh, these?” There were cupcakes on the counter. They looked delicious. “What are they for?”
“I think that Teen Top would call them a mistake,” Onew said tonelessly, rubbing his eyes. “Eat them. I want someone good to have them. I want them to be enjoyed by a beautiful dongsaeng I love.”
This wasn’t the strangest Taemin’s hyungs had ever been, but it was pretty far, for Onew. Taemin sat on the floor with him and ate two of the cupcakes. He didn’t want to talk about whatever was wrong, and he wouldn’t talk about Ricky, so Taemin just sat with him. The rest of the members came home, and they finished the cupcakes, and when the last one was finally gone, Onew got up.
“I guess they broke up,” Taemin said, watching Onew shuffle away.
“Why would Ricky want to break up?” Minho asked.
“Onew hyung loves him, but no one ever said that Ricky loved him back,” Taemin pointed out.
“Maybe C.A.P. decided to break them up,” Jonghyun said. “It sounded like he was pretty pissed off about it.”
“Teen Top can date Infinite and EXO, but not us?” Key asked. “That doesn’t make sense.”
“Is something wrong with us?” Minho asked.
Key nudged Taemin. “Go sleep with Onew hyung, it’ll make him feel better.”
Okay, but, “What if he starts crying again?”
“Then hug him, what do you think?” Jonghyun asked, pushing him towards the bedroom.
“I made a mistake.”
Onew felt like he was going through half of the stages of grief, all at once, along with a few other things that weren’t in the manual.
He couldn’t stop thinking about Ricky. That wasn’t new; he hadn’t been able to get Ricky off of his mind for a long time now. But these days, it wasn’t only his cute, handsome, charming Ricky. It wasn’t only his obsession and his love and his desire. Now, there were other Rickys inside his head, occupying his memories, taunting him, betraying him, lying to him while wearing his Ricky’s smile.
Sometimes he felt numb. Sometimes he felt apathetic. He knew that he should react more, or care more, but he didn’t have access to the same range of emotion he’d used to. His heart had been so full, before, but without Ricky, he couldn’t summon up that same sense of emotional vibrancy. His joy was gone.
Sometimes he felt furious. His moral outrage was intense. At other times, he could only summon up a sense of baffled disbelief. Who behaved that way? Who the hell was Teen Top, and why did they act like that? What was wrong with them? Why did they think that any of it was okay? Who else had they hurt? Where the hell were their parents? Did Andy know about this?
He listened to Seo Taiji’s “Human Dream” over and over and over, so much that sometimes the lyrics seemed utterly profound, so much that sometimes it all sounded like gibberish.
His temper would flare up at meaningless times; he was taking a shower and he ran out of body wash and he savagely destroyed the bottle, beating it against the wall until his whole body went limp.
He started to make himself lunch, got lost in the middle of it, couldn’t figure out what the point was anymore, and walked away with food all over the counter.
He started to masturbate, and he wanted Ricky so much that he ached, and he missed Ricky so much that he cried, and he just rolled over in bed and sobbed.
His members tried to comfort him, and encourage him, and help him to get over it. But he couldn’t get over it. He felt lost in his grief. He couldn’t stop loving Ricky. He couldn’t stop yearning for what he’d never really had.
He wished that Ricky had never told him the truth. He wished that Ricky were still with him. Even if it had to be a game, even if it was all acting, even if none of it was real. It had been better than this.
Dongsaengs all over his dorm. Half of the Infinite and Teen Top members were eating and playing cards, and the rest were having sex in one of the bedrooms. Crouching down, Sunggyu palmed Ricky’s head, tipping his face up and looking into his eyes. “You okay?”
Chewing, Ricky blinked at him innocently. “Sure, hyung.” A warm, adorable smile. “How are you?”
He cornered L.Joe and Niel. They got flustered, but they said that Ricky seemed fine to them. Chunji laughed and pretended not to have any idea what he was talking about. C.A.P. said, “If he says that he’s fine, then he’s fine.” Changjo dodged and evaded and refused to answer the question one way or another.
He wondered if his problem was trying to talk to Ricky in front of other people. So he dragged Ricky into his room and closed the door, and he asked again.
Ricky swallowed and met his eyes uneasily. “Have you talked to Onew sunbae?”
“He’s not taking a lot of calls right now.” He’d texted, “I should have listened to you,” over and over again for a while, but when Sunggyu had tried to talk to him about Ricky, he’d muttered something about mistakes and hung up. “He’s having a hard time.”
“I can’t do anything, can I?” Ricky looked like he was having trouble coming to terms with it. “I can’t fix this.”
“This has been rough on you?” Sunggyu asked. “You feel bad for hurting a good man?”
Ricky nodded and sat down, tucking his hands under his thighs. “I can’t complain, it isn’t right for me to feel sorry for myself, I should only reflect on what I did wrong. But it’s been difficult.”
“Difficult now, but you’ll get over it.”
“But I’m not getting over it,” Ricky said. “It’s not getting any better. I still feel as awful today as I did when I talked to him. I have so many regrets, I keep seeing his face. The way he looked at me, like he’d expected to recognize me but he didn’t and it was freaking him out. Like if you run up to someone on the street and you’re like, ‘Ah, it’s you!’ and then the person turns around and it’s not them at all and you’re disoriented, like that, he looked at me like, like, ‘Who are you, after all?’ I knew he would, I’ve seen it before, but I didn’t think that it would be so bad.”
“People have looked at you like that before?”
He shook his head. “No, not me, but I’ve seen it happen to Changjo.” His eyebrows drew together. “No wonder he hates it so much, it’s horrible.”
“What do you want to fix?” Sunggyu asked, sitting beside him.
He rubbed his ear, grimacing thoughtfully. “I want Onew sunbae to like me again. I want us to be close.” Tears leaked from his eyes and he wiped them away like they didn’t mean anything. “I like him. I want him to be in love with me like he was before. He talked about me like I was valuable to him. He stood up for me like I was worth everything. I want to make him smile, he has the biggest, happiest smiles. He kissed me like I was the best turn-on in the world, but it wasn’t only lust.” He wiped away more tears. “He was in love with me. I want that back. I want it to be real between us.”
“Do you cry over a lot of hyungs?”
He frowned. “No.” He rubbed at the moisture on his fingertips. “This is annoying, it keeps happening.”
“Why do you like Onew all of a sudden? Because he kisses you nicely and has a lot of money?”
“If I want kisses and money, I can just hang out with you,” Ricky said.
“You can’t have my money.”
“You’d give it to me if I asked for it.” Ricky said it like it was a plain fact. “I like Onew sunbae because he’s so good. He’s stronger than I thought. He’s deeper than I thought, he takes things seriously. He was ready to commit to me, he was ready to take care of me, he was ready to do anything for me, he didn’t hesitate, and he didn’t take any of it lightly. He’s serious about his responsibilities. He’s sexy, I didn’t think that he’d be that sexy. And he’s funny, he’s goofy, he’s fun to be around. I like being with him, I like talking to him, it felt so good to be together.” He crossed his ankles. “I’m in love with him, I just don’t like to admit it. I can’t do anything about it. I already fucked up too much.”
“Giving up?” Sunggyu asked.
He nodded. “Yeah.” He wiped at the last of the tears drying on his cheeks. “I’m letting him go. I already made enough mistakes.”
“I didn’t think that Teen Top gave up.”
Ricky sighed. “What do you want? You want me to go back to him and apologize and convince him to give me a second chance? You want me to send him flowers and facial cleanser and tell him that I’m in love with him? It’s over, hyung. Let it go.”
“He doesn’t know that you’re in love with him, does he?”
Ricky shook his head. “I tried to tell him that I like him, but he didn’t believe me. He’s not going to believe anything that I say. He can’t trust me anymore.”
Sunggyu mulled it over, all of it. “I don’t like you like this,” he decided.
“You dragged me in here and asked all of these questions,” Ricky pointed out. “Don’t push for the truth if you don’t want to hear it.” He didn’t sound bitter, only instructional. “I told you that I was fine, you should have left it alone.” He looked away and calmly added, “Everyone else does.”
This dongsaeng creeped Sunggyu out sometimes. “I’m going to interfere. You won’t like it, but it’s for your own good.”
“Only happy when you’re running everyone else’s life,” Ricky said.
“I’m happy when I don’t have to interfere at all, but you all keep screwing everything up, so somebody with some sense has to step in. I’ll talk to Onew. I’ll see what I can do.”
Ricky looked at him. “I can’t stop you.”
“No, you can’t.”
Thoughtfully, Ricky quirked his eyebrows. “I could make you pay for it.”
“Teen Top and Infinite are close,” Sunggyu said firmly. “We look out for each other. That’s the deal.”
Ricky nodded. His shoulders slumped a little, and he admitted, “I don’t want to hurt you. I don’t want to hurt anybody, anymore.” His laugh was short and pained. “I didn’t want to hurt Onew sunbae to begin with. None of it was supposed to go like this.”
He looked so miserable, Sunggyu hugged him. “Hyung’s got you,” Sunggyu promised. “Hyung will take care of it.”
Suho smiled when Taemin opened the door. “Surprise.”
“Hyung.” Taemin let him in. “What are you doing here? Hyungs! Suho’s here!”
“Is everyone busy?” Suho asked, taking off his shoes. “I don’t want to bother the whole dorm, I just wanted to talk to Onew hyung for a minute.”
“Hi!” Minho came over and hugged him. “I think he’s in his room, he’s probably asleep by now. Come on.”
Onew’s room was a mess. He was slumped in a chair in the corner, a book in his lap. Music was playing, an old Seo Taiji song. He was staring at the wall like he’d forgotten the book was there at all.
“Hey, hyung,” Minho said, gently and cheerfully, ushering Suho into the room and turning off the music. “Suho came to see you.” It was like being taken in to see an invalid.
Onew blinked at them, then said, “Oh,” and got up. The book fell on the floor and he gave it a perplexed look like he’d never seen it before. Stepping over it, he pushed his hair out of his face. “Hi. How’s Changjo?”
Not, “How are you?” Not, “How’s EXO?” No, right to: “How’s Changjo?” “He’s fine,” Suho said, hugging Onew. “I haven’t seen you in a while, so I thought that I’d come over.”
“Does it bother you?” Onew asked. “When he lies to you?”
That was a strange question. “Of course it does.” But then he had to reconsider. It bothered him when anyone lied to him. His friends, his members, management, anyone. But it was different with Changjo. “No. It would bother me if he lied to me maliciously, and I don’t approve of it when he lies to other people. But when he’s lying to me, and I know that he’s lying, I don’t know. I guess that I’m used to it.” He smiled. “Honestly, sometimes it’s cute.”
“You make it sound like he lies so much,” Minho said.
“It’s part of his personality,” Suho said. “He says things that he doesn’t mean. He says it because it entertains him, or to see how I’ll react, or to distract me and change the subject. It’s not malicious, it’s just.” How could he phrase it? “It’s just one of the ways that he communicates. He’s playful. I don’t know, if he knows that I know that he’s lying, is it really lying at all?”
“Life is a game to them.” Onew said it a little distantly, like it was something that he was so used to thinking about, the words came out on their own.
“To them who?” Suho asked.
“Teen Top.” Onew rubbed his elbow and looked at Suho like he couldn’t figure out what Suho was doing there. Then he visibly pulled himself together and smiled. “You wanted to see me? How’s filming been going?”
He’d put on his public face so well, Suho might have believed him if he hadn’t been so strange a second ago. “Filming’s okay. But it seems like you aren’t doing too well.” He sat on the edge of the bed, carefully pulling Onew down beside him.
“No, I’m okay,” Onew said.
“You’re not, really,” Minho said, sitting on the chair. He leaned forward with his elbows on his knees, his hands clasped, his expression earnest. “You’re having a lot of trouble lately. Don’t pretend that it’s normal to spend five hours staring at a box of cleansing pads.”
“Five hours?” Suho asked, surprised.
“I don’t know what to do with them,” Onew said. “I can’t throw them away, but I don’t want to use them.”
“Are they special cleansers?” Suho asked, hoping to understand.
“Ricky gave them to him,” Minho said.
Oh. Getting it now, Suho felt bad. “You still have such strong feelings for him?”
“I feel sorry for those people they do specials on,” Onew said. “You know those people who watch TV too much and become obsessed with TV characters? They think that the people they see on TV are sending them personal messages and in a secret relationship with them. I feel like I fell in love with someone on TV. And then I met the actress, and I thought that we had this special bond, and she’d never met me before. I fell in love with somebody who never existed at all. It was just a character he was playing.”
“That happens a lot with idols, doesn’t it?” Minho asked. “People see us on TV and onstage, and they like us, but it’s disillusioning when they meet us and learn what we’re really like.”
“You think that Ricky wasn’t himself with you?” Suho asked.
“He told me so,” Onew said. “He sat out there and he told me that it was all a game he was playing to get back at Changjo.” He tucked his bangs behind his ear. “I hate that couch. Key won’t let me buy a new one.”
“You’re hyung, buy what you want,” Suho said.
“Do you let Xiumin hyung decide on your couches?” Minho asked.
Suho rethought that. “You’re the leader, buy what you want.” While Minho chuckled, he squeezed Onew’s knee. “What do you mean, it was all a game?”
Onew told him.
“God, these kids,” he said, rubbing his hands over his face. He could see how it had happened. He could see how it had started, and he could see how it had spun out of control. “Why did they have to make everything worse by lying about Shawol? Lying to Ricky like that just to get back at him, that wasn’t right.”
“You feel bad that they lied to Ricky?” Minho demanded. “Fuck, Suho, whose side are you on?” To Onew, he said, “I’m sorry, hyung, I had no idea. Why didn’t you tell us? We’ve been trying to figure out what went so wrong, but I never knew that it ended up like that.”
“I’m on Onew hyung’s side,” Suho said. “But… You have to know them better to understand them.”
“Changjo has you right where he wants you, doesn’t he?” Minho asked. “He played the same scam on you that Ricky played on Onew hyung, but it worked. Scam,” he repeated, spitting the word like it was filthy. “That’s how they live?”
Suho knew that Minho was upset for Onew’s sake, but he didn’t appreciate being talked to this way. “Changjo doesn’t have me anywhere,” he said firmly. “I’m sorry,” he told Onew. “You’ve been through a lot more than I realized. But I think that you misunderstood a few things, maybe.”
“Like what?” Minho demanded.
Onew looked tired but patient. “Like what?” he repeated without Minho’s hostility.
Suho looked at Minho, trying to figure out how to ask his sunbae to leave the room.
Minho glared at him, sitting back in the chair, feet deliberately set apart, arms spread, taking up more space. Sunbae wasn’t going anywhere.
Resigned, Suho turned his attention back to Onew. “Ricky is a chameleon. He adapts to his environment, he fits in. He shows you what you want to see. Changjo pokes at people to see how they’ll react, but Ricky pleases people. It works, so he keeps doing it. Everyone gets along with him. No one has a problem with him. I think that it’s a survival strategy. Figure out how to blend in, don’t make waves. Whatever keeps the people in charge happy. He started in this industry when he was only a little boy, you know that. If he’s cute and he smiles, it keeps the adults happy. If he figures out how to give people what they want, they won’t be annoyed with him. If he works hard, he can prove himself.”
“He’s not a little kid anymore,” Minho said. “You don’t have to make excuses for him.”
“He only wanted to perform,” Onew said quietly. “He only wanted to make some money for his parents.”
“Like all of us,” Suho said. “He just tries to fit in, he tries to give people what they want. He doesn’t mean any harm by it. It’s not a sinister plot.” He thought of Onew smiling and asking about filming. “The public face you put on in front of the cameras, it’s like that. It just doesn’t stop when the camera’s off.”
“So he’s never himself,” Minho said.
“I’m sure that he is, when he’s alone with his members,” Suho said. “But I’m never around to see it. He’s not that comfortable with me, yet.”
“What about the rest of them?” Onew asked. “Changjo and C.A.P., is it always an act?”
“C.A.P. is goofy,” Suho said. “He’s a big goofball, he just has to act hard and tough. He’ll do anything to protect his members. Changjo’s himself with me all of the time, he’s just a complex guy, and there are a lot of different sides to him. He’s probably never been himself in front of you, because you’ve never earned it.”
“Earned it,” Minho repeated. “Is anyone in Teen Top normal?”
“Normal, I don’t know,” Suho said. “L.Joe and Niel are always themselves, though. They don’t have any other way to be. But none of them are malicious. They’re not bad kids. They just have a lot of energy and a lot of self-defense mechanisms. It makes me want to help them, but I don’t blame them for it.”
“Why are you so close with Changjo?” Onew asked. “Why not,” he hesitated, and then he stuttered slightly over the name, “R-ricky?” He’d managed not to say it at all before then, Suho realized.
“Changjo needed me more,” Suho said. “And he trusted me sooner. It takes Ricky a long, long time to open up.”
Minho gave him a disapproving look. “Did you come over here just to get us to feel sorry for a bunch of idols?”
“I came to see Onew hyung,” Suho said. “I heard that you were feeling bad, and I regretted not doing more to stay in touch. And Sunggyu hyung asked me to come to see you. He said that if you were struggling with Teen Top, no one’s a better ambassador than I am.”
“Yes?” Minho asked, disbelieving. “Your answer’s actually yes? You came over here just to read us TOP Media’s propaganda?”
“I’m close with them, and I’ve been close with you for a long time,” Suho said, starting to lose his patience. “If I can help, shouldn’t I? Isn’t it my responsibility?”
“It sounds like your responsibility is to kiss Changjo’s ass,” Minho said.
“Ya, enough,” Onew said. He looked at Suho like he was struggling to understand. “I don’t know if you’re making everything better or worse. Should I feel sorry for them? Is that what you want?”
“What they did wasn’t right,” Suho said firmly. “I can’t defend it. Ricky was wrong from the beginning. But I don’t think that he ever meant to hurt anyone. I don’t think that he realized that it would take all of the turns that it did. It snowballed into something he didn’t predict and couldn’t control. He’s not a bad guy, he’s not vicious. He was just selfish and too confident in himself.”
“I can’t believe this is all the same guy,” Minho said. “I thought that he was such a great kid. He had me smiling every time I saw him, glad to see him whenever he showed up.”
“Think about how great that feels,” Suho said. “If he knows how to do that, why wouldn’t he keep doing it?”
“It’s an idol’s job, we all do it,” Minho said. “To the public, not to each other! You have to turn it off sometime.”
“It must be exhausting,” Onew said quietly. “Being on all of the time. Treating every face like another camera, another fan, another PD. Trying to please everybody. A performance that never stops. I couldn’t do it, I’d be so tired, I’d be so drained, I…”
“It sounds horrible, when you put it that way,” Suho admitted. “You make it sound like he’s trapped in some acting role. I’d start hating everyone, I’d feel desperate to get away.”
“He’s not trapped,” Minho said. “He can stop it whenever he wants.”
“He might feel like he can’t,” Suho said. “Everyone likes the Ricky they already know, it works. What if they’re disappointed in him? What if no one likes him anymore?”
Onew spent a lot of time by himself in the dorm, these days.
He’d stayed in for a while because he hadn’t wanted to go out, or see anyone, or do anything. Then his members had gotten worried about him and not wanted to leave him alone anymore. They’d encouraged him to go out, and when he’d insisted on staying in, they’d made sure that one of them was around to baby-sit him. But he didn’t like that. His new routine was to put forth the effort to go out, and convince everyone that he’d be okay on his own, and then spend half an hour or so wandering around a store. And then he’d go back to the dorm and be alone to grieve, like he’d originally wanted to, anyway. Occasionally he bought something meaningless while he was out, to show his members that he was engaging in everyday activities like anyone else. He had a stash of unwanted purchases in his closet, crap he’d never wanted in the first place and couldn’t imagine what he’d ever do with, all still in the original bags.
He’d started to be more interested in his fake excursions, though. Because the last three times he’d gone out, he’d bought something for Ricky. One of those yellow cartoon figures, first, because he knew that Ricky liked them, and he knew that Angel had showered Ricky in them, before. He’d seen a plush doll, bright yellow and big-eyed, sitting on the counter. He’d looked at it for a while. And then he’d bought it. Because it reminded him of Ricky.
Looking at it didn’t make him angry. He didn’t know why not.
The time he went out after that, he bought a pair of silver earrings. Ricky’s ears were pierced. Ricky wore silver earrings. He loved Ricky’s ears. He missed Ricky’s ears. He’d seen Chanyeol again the other day, and he’d hated the sight of Chanyeol, and he’d thought, I hate him because he’s so close to Ricky, and then he’d thought, No, I just hate his ears, I can’t fucking stand his ears, he has the worst ears in the world, and then he’d realized that he was being completely irrational, and his problem wasn’t Chanyeol, it was Ricky, he missed Ricky, he couldn’t have Ricky, he needed to be with Ricky. He wanted to see Ricky again.
The third time he went out, he bought a watch. Suho had bought Changjo a watch. Suho had never mentioned it, but Ricky had told him about it.
Ricky had wanted a close hyung, someone to play Suho for him. Suho but better. Shinee’s leader, that’s an upgrade. Suho had bought Changjo a watch. So Onew bought a watch. The most handsome, tasteful, expensive watch in the store. When the clerk asked him, “Is it a gift? Would you like it engraved?” he stared at her in alarm and stammered, “N-no. I don’t know. No.” Was it a gift? It wasn’t for him, it was for someone else, but he didn’t know who that someone else was.
The three most recent purchases weren’t shoved into his closet. They sat together on the top of his dresser. The plush toy and two jewelry boxes. He spent a lot of time looking at them, his small but growing collection.
It would be strange to take them to Boyfriend’s practice room and place them there as a memorial gift. It would seem bizarre to everyone else. And it would be morbid. Ricky wasn’t dead. And part of him thought, No, he just never existed. And part of him thought, He’s alive, and if he’s alive, I can be with him. But the Ricky he’d be with wasn’t someone he wanted to know.
The question of what to engrave on the watch nagged at him. He went into Jonghyun’s room and sat on the floor, pulling books of poetry off of the shelves. Nothing that he read was what he wanted at all. And a lot of it was erotic. It filled his mind with images of Ricky’s soft skin and pink lips. He thought of the delicate sensation of Ricky’s breath against his neck. The thatch of hair between Ricky’s legs.
“Hyung. Hyung.” The interruption disoriented him. Taemin was in the doorway. “Sunggyu hyung’s here.”
Kim Sunggyu? Why would Sunggyu be there? And what did that have to do with him? Onew got up.
“I’m not cleaning that up,” Taemin said.
Onew glanced at the books on the floor. “I’ll get them later.” They were completely useless to him. He wondered why he’d thought that they’d have any answers.
Sunggyu took one look at him and nodded. “Ah, the class of SM’s casting. Everyone says that you’re losing it, and you still look this handsome.”
“Everyone who?” he asked.
“Key, Minho, Suho, Heechul hyung.”
That’s what he needed, Heechul getting involved in his private life. Dragging his hand through his hair, he led Sunggyu into his room. “You’re here to bother me?” he guessed, sitting on his bed. “Sending your boyfriend after me wasn’t enough?”
“He was your dongsaeng before he was ever my boyfriend. He worries about you.” Sunggyu walked over to the dresser.
Onew didn’t want Sunggyu looking at his gifts, but they’d already been seen, and he couldn’t do anything about it now. Annoyed, resigned, he waited.
Sunggyu crossed his arms over his chest, gazing at the plush toy and nodding to himself. “Going to send them, or give them to him in person?”
“I’m not giving them to anyone.”
“No? Bought them for yourself?”
He sighed. “If I tell you that they’re for Minho, will you leave it alone?”
“I won’t believe you.” Sunggyu poked at one of the boxes. “Can I open?”
He supposed that it wasn’t worth getting upset about. Rubbing his arm, he nodded.
Sunggyu opened both boxes, picking them up and peering at their contents. “Oh, nice. You should buy more things for me, these earrings would look good on me.” He studied the watch. “You’re already spoiling him too much. Someone so young shouldn’t have something so nice. L.Joe will kick him and he’ll land wrong and break it.” Sunggyu closed the boxes. “You know Changjo’s is engraved.”
It was hard to get anything past Sunggyu. “With what?”
“Something embarrassing, a romantic play on Suho and Changjo’s names, something about protecting the beautiful creation.” Sunggyu sat beside him on the bed. “I guess you’ll have to put something about being gentle and lovely.”
“Lovely?” he asked.
“You don’t know about lovely Ricky?” Sunggyu asked. “Ah, you should pay more attention to your hoobaes, you’re neglectful. When Teen Top debuted, they had their identities. Like lovely Ricky and dancing boy Changjo.”
“Dancing boy,” he repeated.
“You think that Taemin’s the only dancer in the whole industry, don’t you?”
He smiled at that. “Lovely Ricky,” he said to himself, absorbing it. Another layer of Ricky’s identity. There were too many layers, segmented and overlapping, contradicting each other and incomplete. “Who is Ricky?”
“Who did he tell you that he is?”
He snorted, but it was such a difficult question and it brought up so much pain that he winced, rubbing his nose. “He told me a lot of things, but I don’t know what I know about him. I keep going over and over everything that he said, in my head, everything that he said to me. I don’t know what was made up on the spot and what was true and what was something he’d been,” it was hard to say it, “scheming and plotting to slip into the conversation for weeks.” Listening to himself, he shook his head. “Listen to that, I sound delusional. No one acts like that, we don’t live inside of a movie, scheming and conniving. Not everything he said was a lie, not everything. Some of it had to be true. But I can’t tell which parts are which. I don’t know if he’d really never been to that restaurant before or if he just said it. I don’t know if he really likes ballads. I don’t even know if he really likes Chaejin. I don’t know what’s important to him. If he’s crying when he says it, does that make it any more true?”
“If you want to know what’s important to him, start with Teen Top,” Sunggyu said. “His members are important to him. His career. His fans.”
His members, his career, his fans. It was a generic answer; anyone would say that about any idol. But it was true of Onew, too. And for Onew, it wasn’t just an easy cover.
He couldn’t separate Ricky from Teen Top, could he? They were linked. He hadn’t realized how true that was, because he’d spent time with just Ricky, only Ricky. They’d talked about Teen Top, because the members were an ongoing part of Ricky’s life, and it was hard for an idol to hold hours and hours of conversation without making some reference to one of his members now and then. But they’d been vague to Onew, about as significant as the Jo twins who greeted him at the door and bowed respectfully when he left. Sure, he knew who Teen Top was, they’d been around for years, but he’d never been close with them.
But in Japan, they’d kept coming up. Ricky had been terrified of losing them, and he’d promised to take care of them. It had been a solemn vow. Loving Ricky and protecting Ricky had meant also protecting Teen Top.
He met Sunggyu’s eyes. “What don’t I know about Teen Top?”
Between schedules, C.A.P. checked his phone. Sunggyu had texted. I’m stopping by practice later. He wanted to ask why, but he just sent, Sure, hyung, we’ll be glad to have you.
Teen Top’s manager let them into the building. Onew was used to coming in the back, but this visit was disorientingly familiar, like visiting somewhere he’d only ever been in a dream. He knew this place, but everything he’d experienced here had been fake.
He’d recognized a couple of the fans outside. He’d looked at the rest of them closely, curious, wondering which were C.A.P.’s fans, which were Niel’s. Why they’d chosen to be Angels and not Inspirits or Starlights or Best Friends.
They went up to the second floor. The music was loud and quick, and he didn’t recognize it. Did that mean that it was something they hadn’t released yet, or just something that he didn’t know? He hadn’t paid attention to their albums. He knew the popular singles, especially the ones they’d released when they’d all promoted at the same time. But he didn’t have time to keep up with every deep track from every idol out there. Before the vocal lessons, he couldn’t have said what Ricky sounded like.
He expected Sunggyu to open the door or knock, but instead Sunggyu gestured to him, beckoning him to the window. He braced himself, and then he looked through, into the room.
They were dancing. It was quick and precise, and it took so much energy that it almost his knees hurt. They were in a ragtag assortment of mismatched clothes, but he found Ricky, in gray sweatpants and a blue T-shirt. Even in practice, with no staff to supervise, Ricky seemed to be giving it everything, dancing vigorously, concentrating. He stood there for a long time, watching Ricky’s busy feet and focused expression, Ricky’s black hair bouncing, eyebrows determined.
When he felt ready, he took a step back and nodded. Sunggyu knocked.
A couple more bars, and then the music was abruptly silenced. L.Joe opened the door, tiny and sweaty, flipping his hair out of his face. He smiled at Sunggyu, and then he stared at Onew. Suddenly, he said, “Sunbaenim,” and bowed, and then he cast a shocked, helpless look over his shoulder.
“Sunbae, hyung,” Chunji said, joining him at the door, bowing and then giving Sunggyu a pointed look. “I didn’t know you were bringing company.”
“My friend and I were - - we’re friends, right?” Sunggyu asked.
“Yes,” Onew said.
“My friend and I,” Sunggyu began again. “We were in the area, we wanted to stop by. We won’t interrupt,” he added, nudging L.Joe out of his way and walking right in. “Don’t bother with us, we’ll just stand over here and watch. Go ahead,” he said, gesturing around the room. “Do your practicing.”
Following Sunggyu to the back of the room, Onew didn’t look at anything. Once he was there, by the wall, he finally looked.
L.Joe was still by the door, looking uncertain and wary. Chunji was having a silent conversation with C.A.P., the two of them at opposite ends of the room and sending each other looks Onew couldn’t read. Niel looked at Sunggyu and Onew, and then around at his members, and then at the two of them again. Like he had to say something if no one else would, he asked, “You only came over to watch us practice?”
“Aren’t there practice videos on-line?”
“Do I seem like a fan who sits around all day looking you up on YouTube?” Sunggyu asked. “I don’t know what you post on-line, I don’t spend my nights on Naver, searching for updates. Hyung came to support you and watch you practice, you should be grateful.”
Raising his eyebrows, Niel gave them a disbelieving, uncertain stare. “Thanks?” he guessed.
Ricky was standing still, his head down. Changjo’s head was bent to his; hands on his sides, Changjo was whispering to him. Conspiring? Reassuring him? Onew could only begin to guess. Changjo was doing all of the talking.
“L.Joe, close the door,” C.A.P. said. “The sooner we finish practice, the sooner we can get out of here and eat something.”
“God, I’m starving,” Chunji said.
“Whoever messes up first has to buy,” Niel said quickly.
“Oh, good, I like spending L.Joe’s money,” Chunji said.
“Hey!” L.Joe looked surprised, and then he laughed, shoving Chunji. Laughing, Chunji shoved him right back.
“Right, let’s do it,” Changjo said, stepping away from Ricky, suddenly all business. Briskly, he gestured to his members, and everyone moved right into place. Onew was surprised by how quick the transition was; no one dawdled, no one seemed reluctant. When the music started, they leapt right into the choreography, moving as one.
It was like that for the next hour. They were focused and disciplined; no laziness, no distractions. Changjo was clearly in charge; everyone obeyed him as if he were a legitimate authority figure, just as everyone deferred to C.A.P. He took the responsibility seriously, but he didn’t seem to abuse the role to punish or mock his hyungs.
They were all obviously close. Whenever they paused to grab a drink of water or wipe up sweat, they were full of comments and banter and inside jokes. They seemed to get along very well, in their own way; they seemed to find nothing more fun than getting a rise out of each other, and despite all of the punching, it seemed good-natured. There was a lot of punching. But it all seemed like happy punching; even the various members being attacked laughed just as cheerfully as everyone else.
Chunji messed up first, although Onew wouldn’t have noticed it. Niel suddenly pointed at him and said, “Hey!” Changjo moved in quickly, but L.Joe got there first, hurling himself at Chunji in violent glee. There was a flurry of punching and kicking, and Chunji ended up limp on the floor, cradling his ribs and laughing. “Okay, okay,” he said. “I’ll pay.” He got up as if none of it had hurt him at all, and added, “But you’re all only eating ramen tonight.” Laughing and threatening, his protesting members descended on him again.
Maybe it was all an act, designed for Onew’s observation. Maybe they really were a close-knit team who played hard and worked harder. What he’d seen before when he’d looked through the window and what he saw now matched perfectly; they weren’t putting in this effort to impress him, they’d been just as precise and lifted their knees just as high before he’d walked in. Unless their manager had texted them behind his back to warn them. Unless Sunggyu was in on it, too, and had warned them.
He didn’t know whether he was paranoid or not. He didn’t understand how Sunggyu and Suho dealt with these people. Did they just wing it? Did they just trust what they could and hope for the best? It would have been nice if he’d been able to believe in what he saw right in front of him. Superficially, Teen Top was great, a bunch of fun kids. Rowdier than he ever would’ve permitted Shinee to be, but really appealing.
He paid as little attention to Ricky as he could. He observed the other members, instead. But Ricky was always there, on the edges of his vision, disciplined and cooperative, full of effort and good humor.
He was watching Niel, forgetting to observe Teen Top’s dynamic and just admiring Niel’s actual talent, when Sunggyu nudged him. “Want to ask for anything?”
Ask for what? “They take requests?”
“You’re sunbae,” Sunggyu said. “They’ll do whatever you want.”
He didn’t know enough about their catalog to know what to ask for. “What does Suho like?”
Sunggyu grimaced. “You don’t want that one.”
Curious, he said, “Yes, I do.” When Sunggyu tried to ignore him, he tapped Sunggyu and gestured towards Teen Top with a silent “do it” in his eyes.
Another disgusted look, but when the music stopped, Sunggyu said, “Ya, do ‘Snow Kiss.’”
“Do what?” Chunji asked.
“Is it Christmas time?” Niel asked. “Is it snowing?”
“Ricky doesn’t know that one,” L.Joe said.
“Yes, I do,” Ricky insisted, looking embarrassed.
“No, you don’t,” Changjo said.
Ricky shot Changjo a defiant look. “Then let’s do it!”
“If Ricky messes up, he pays for drinks,” Chunji said.
“We’re drinking?” L.Joe asked, perking up.
“You don’t have to look so eager about it,” Niel said, laughing. “Embarrassing.”
Changjo went to start the music, and Ricky said a determined, “Let’s go!”
“Over there, fool,” C.A.P. said, shoving him out of the way.
Getting into his stance in a completely different spot, he tried again. “Let’s go!”
“Snow Kiss” was an upbeat, light song, its choreography full of footwork and aegyo, the members blowing kisses. Ricky spent so much time watching the other members, Onew realized that they hadn’t glanced at each other for cues during any of the other songs. Chunji was so interested in watching Ricky keep up, he was the one who messed up, forgetting to change positions and then bumping into C.A.P. when he scrambled to his new spot.
When the song ended, Ricky pumped his fist into the air. “Got it!”
“Chunji hyung pays for drinks?” Changjo suggested.
“Yes,” Niel said immediately.
“Thanks, Chunji hyung,” Ricky said.
“Want to see anything else?” Sunggyu asked Onew.
“What do you like?” he asked.
Sunggyu gestured to Teen Top. “Do ‘Supa Luv’ and you can go.”
“Is this Sunggyu hyung’s personal random dance play?” Niel asked his members.
“Can we do something else?” C.A.P. asked.
“You can do ‘Replay,’” Sunggyu suggested.
Changjo started doing the actual “Replay” choreography. Laughing, L.Joe and Chunji pushed him off-balance. “Show-off!” Chuckling, he went over to the stereo.
“Dancing boy?” Onew asked Sunggyu.
Sunggyu nodded. “Dancing boy.”
“Five seconds to complain,” Changjo said.
Immediately, the room was filled with complaints. “I hate this song.” “Can we quit, I’m starving.” “L.Joe hyung’s sweaty and he bumped into me and I’m covered in hyung sweat and I’ve never felt so gross.” “Do we have to do this, my back hurts, this song is going to kill me.” “I’m tired.” “I’m more tired than you are!” Changjo stood there, listening, waiting, then said, “Okay,” and everyone shut up, getting into position. Despite himself, Onew was intrigued; he wondered if he should do that during practice once in a while, too. When the music started, Teen Top jumped right into the choreography, focused and energetic. They did a lot of jumps and robotic moves. Onew remembered this one, and he watched Ricky.
This wasn’t his Ricky, but it looked and acted like his Ricky. Now that they were in the same room again, he didn’t want to go back to his dorm alone. As the song came to an end, he nudged Sunggyu and said, “Pay for dinner.”
“What?” Sunggyu asked, looking horribly put upon.
“Tell them that you’ll pay for dinner,” he said, giving Sunggyu a significant look.
“Are you going to pay me back later?” Sunggyu asked. “Or are you too broke now that you’ve spent all of your money on fancy earrings?”
“Those are for Minho.”
“Are Minho’s ears even pierced?”
“Just say it!”
Teen Top was standing around, openly watching. Sunggyu asked, “Finished with practice? Let’s eat, hyung will buy. But go wash up first, I can’t eat if everyone smells like L.Joe’s sweat.”
“How is it my sweat?” L.Joe demanded. “I sweat less than anybody!”
“We’ll go to the dorm and meet you,” C.A.P. said.
“Bring everybody,” Sunggyu said. “I’m paying to eat with Teen Top, not random members.”
“It’s more fun if we leave Niel at home,” Chunji said.
“Hey, I’m eating,” Niel said. “I’ve worked hard, I deserve a good meal.”
“Don’t worry,” Chunji said, grinning. “You’ll get plenty of meat back at the dorm.”
Niel gasped, his eyes widening. Looking horrified and scandalized, he gestured in Onew’s direction. “What are you saying in front of our sunbae?”
“Is it a secret?” Chunji asked. “We all do the same things with EXO and with Infinite. If we’ve all gotten it from Woohyun hyung and porked Baekhyun hyung, I think there’s not much to be shy about.”
“Porked,” Changjo repeated, snickering.
“I haven’t porked any Baekhyun anybody, and I don’t want to hear about you doing it, either,” Sunggyu said. “Get out of here, I want to eat.”
Joking and jostling, the Teen Top members left the room. Changjo was the last one out, turning with a sudden, graceful pivot to smile at Sunggyu and Onew, walking backwards and waving good-bye.
The room seemed a lot emptier without them in it. Quieter, obviously, but bigger, too.
Onew wondered what Ricky was thinking about.
He wondered if he’d ever know.
As soon as the van door closed, Niel demanded, “What is happening?”
“Big sunbae isn’t over Ricky,” Chunji said.
“Did he buy Ricky earrings?” Changjo asked.
“Totally,” Chunji said.
“What?” L.Joe asked.
“Shut up, grown-ups are talking,” Chunji said.
“You - - he’s the freaking maknae!” L.Joe exclaimed.
“I think you should switch,” Chunji said frankly, looking L.Joe up and down.
“Permanent yaja time,” Changjo said, grinning.
“You will literally have to kill me first,” Niel said. “I wouldn’t let you be my hyung if it were your last wish.”
“If you’re dying, isn’t it your last wish?” L.Joe asked.
“Why do you even speak?” Chunji asked L.Joe. “Say something smart. Now. Just try it.”
“What?” L.Joe asked, looking confused.
Ignoring all of that, C.A.P. leaned forward and asked Ricky, “Are you okay?”
“No,” Ricky said.
L.Joe and Chunji were hitting each other. C.A.P. ducked once, then glared and punched both of them into submission. Refocusing his attention on Ricky, he said, “We can cancel dinner. We can go without you.”
“No,” Ricky said. “No, it’s okay. Just do whatever he wants.”
“Why does he want to take us to dinner?” Niel asked.
“Why did he want to watch us practice?” Chunji asked.
“Whose idea was it, Sunggyu hyung’s or Onew sunbae’s?” Niel asked.
Changjo drummed his fingers on his knee. “I need to be closer to Woohyun hyung,” he said. “I need to be closer to Key sunbae.”
“Oh, god, no,” Niel said.
“Don’t even think about it,” C.A.P. said.
“Too late,” Changjo said.
Sunggyu asked Onew where he wanted to eat. He didn’t care.
They ate in a casual place, in a private room. Sunggyu ordered too much food, and Teen Top ate everything in sight. Onew sat at a corner of the table, Ricky at the opposite corner. Niel sat beside Onew, and he wondered whose idea that had been, what their plan was. He didn’t talk much; he was there to watch. He wanted to observe Teen Top’s dynamic, but his attention was on Ricky. Ricky chewing. Ricky laughing and scolding C.A.P. for stealing food. The gray sweatpants and blue T-shirt had been traded for jeans and a black-and-white T-shirt.
Chunji fed Ricky a couple of bites now and then, and he chewed and nodded and smiled and said how delicious it was, and Chunji smiled at him and petted him, stroking his hair. Adoring him? Rewarding him for good behavior? He reacted to Chunji feeding him the same way that he’d reacted to Onew feeding him, in Japan. Was that just his standard response to a hyung feeding him? Like it was programmed. Input, interaction with hyung, feeding: cue the smile, pretend to like it. Or had he genuinely liked it when Onew had fed him? Or was his response to Chunji genuine, and his response to Onew was fake? For all Onew knew, it was the other way around.
Without any other context, Chunji’s treatment of Ricky looked adoring. It mirrored a hundred of Onew’s interactions with Taemin. But Onew had other context.
L.Joe got up to go to the bathroom, and C.A.P. sent Ricky with him. “Don’t let him drunk text anyone embarrassing.”
“Okay, hyung.” Ricky guided L.Joe out of the room.
Onew wanted to go after him.
“Not eating?” Changjo asked.
He’d thought that he’d finished eating, but there was still food in front of him. He ate. Without Ricky there, he spared a glance for the others.
He noticed the watch on Changjo’s wrist.
He didn’t have to ask if it was the right one. That was definitely something Suho would have bought. “Let me see that.”
Changjo gave him a questioning look. “Sure, sunbaenim.” Slipping it off, Changjo handed it over.
“He doesn’t buy things like that for me,” Sunggyu complained.
“Aren’t you his hyung?” Changjo asked. “Shouldn’t you buy things like that for him?”
“We aren’t that close,” Sunggyu decided, and went back to eating. Changjo laughed.
Onew read the engraving and passed it back.
Changjo put it back on. “Thinking about buying one?”
“I already own a watch,” Onew said.
A smile flirted with the corners of Changjo’s mouth. “Maybe you could buy one for Minho sunbae.”
He remembered Suho telling him that Changjo liked to provoke people. “It’s just one of the ways that he communicates. He’s playful.” He smiled at Changjo. “Minho can take care of himself.”
“This one,” C.A.P. smacked Changjo upside the head, “can take care of himself, too. He just likes to pretend he’s innocent so that Suho hyung will spoil him.”
“Ow,” Changjo said, laughing and scooting away.
“I like Minho sunbae,” Niel said.
“Thanks,” Onew said, since Niel was looking at him. “Me, too.”
“What’s he like?” Niel asked. “Really like, you know, in private?”
“Forget it,” Sunggyu said. “It’s not true.”
“What’s not true?” Onew asked.
“It’s normal, it’s average,” Sunggyu said. “Don’t expect greatness.”
Average? Were they talking about-
“Are you making assumptions?” Niel asked, turning red. “That’s not all I care about! Maybe I had other things in mind!”
“So you want to know all about how Minho arranges his socks and fixes breakfast?” Sunggyu asked. “Those private details?”
“Yes!” Niel turned back to Onew. “Yes, yes I do. Please, sunbaenim, tell me all about Minho sunbaenim’s sock habits.”
Onew had the strange impulse to defend Minho. “It’s not small.”
“Normal, I said normal,” Sunggyu said. “Within the average range of - - you know what average is!”
“But the way you said, ‘Don’t expect greatness,’” Onew said. “It sounds…” He laughed. Why was he having this conversation? He didn’t want to linger on this point, of all things!
“Average and greatness, of course there’s a difference,” Sunggyu said. “It’s not an insult. Average is average, it’s fine, why are we still talking about Minho’s socks?”
“Well, what do you consider great socks?” Chunji asked, setting his chopsticks down.
“I don’t know, there’s great and then there’s great,” Niel said.
“You’ll wear any socks you can find,” Chunji told him.
“You wear socks all of the time!” Niel said. “You’ve worn every single sock I’ve put on, so who doesn’t like socks around here?”
“Okay, but,” Changjo said. “What you’re really saying is, I wear better socks than Shinee Minho sunbaenim.”
“Don’t assume that you’re so great, either,” Sunggyu scolded.
Ricky and L.Joe walked in, and as they sat, L.Joe looked around and asked, “What are we talking about?”
“Socks,” Niel said. “You and Choi Minho sunbae wear the same size.”
“That’s just wrong,” Chunji said. “I’m going to pretend that I don’t know that, that just makes me uncomfortable.”
Ricky was grateful to his members for providing a buffer. With them between him and Onew, and with Onew never speaking to him, he could almost pretend that Onew wasn’t there at all. That it was just like any other dinner with his hyungs. He enjoyed the food, and he teased C.A.P., and he was thankful for Chunji’s affection. It had been hard on him, seeing Onew so unexpectedly, and it was hard for him, too, having Onew there, watching, studying them like they were a strange kind of idol no one had ever seen before. Having his members close made it easier.
After dinner, Onew still didn’t speak to him, just left the restaurant and watched Sunggyu say good-bye to them. During the good-byes, Ricky asked C.A.P., “Can we swing by the practice room? I forgot something.”
“Drop us off at the dorm first,” C.A.P. said. “Then you can go.”
“Okay, thanks.” He was glad that C.A.P. knew him so well, that C.A.P. didn’t ask questions or shut him down. Maybe his members still trusted him, even after he’d made such a huge mess.
He didn’t trust himself as completely as he’d used to. He didn’t know if he’d read the situation right. When he went back into the building, he wondered if Onew had even thought about coming to meet him at all.
He wandered upstairs. Touching the walls, he remembered all of his vocal lessons. All of the nights he’d spent here with Onew. All of the long hours they’d been together, getting to know each other, growing closer. He swallowed. Sunggyu had told him that he was too old never to have been through anything like this before; that it was good for him, normal, to fall for someone and have it end badly. It didn’t feel healthy at all.
He went back downstairs. Everything was dark and quiet. Still. Wondering, he opened the back door.
Onew was waiting for him.
It was so exactly like before, Onew’s heart fell completely under Ricky’s spell. Logic, reason, anger, fear, trauma, none of it mattered. This was Ricky, and Onew was in love with him.
They were in a narrow back hallway, half-lit. Onew touched Ricky, needing to know that he was real, needing to prove that something about this was a fact. Physically, tangibly, Ricky was here. His cheek was smooth, and he looked at Onew with calm, guileless eyes.
“Ricky-ah.” Lovely. They were right, he was lovely. Onew caressed the shell of one elfin ear.
“I missed you,” Ricky said quietly. His voice was so solemn and trusting, with just the barest thread of hurt, that it made Onew’s breath catch. If any part of Onew had held back, all of those defenses were down, now.
His Ricky had missed him. He felt like he’d stayed away for too long, like he was to blame for abandoning his beloved Ricky, like Ricky had been standing here, waiting for him, all of this time. “I’m sorry,” he said. “I should have been here before.”
Ricky hesitated for a second, then said, “It’s okay.” Ricky hugged him, arms closing snugly around him. “I’m just glad that you’re here now.”
Embracing Ricky, he closed his eyes. “I still love you.” It was a relief to say it. It was a relief to tell someone. He couldn’t tell anyone else; who could understand it, when he didn’t understand it, himself?
“It’s okay,” Ricky said again. His voice was reassuring. “I still love you, too.”
It was perfect. It was so perfect, he wanted the world to stop so that nothing else would ever happen, so that he could hold onto this beautiful moment forever.
Ricky was in love with him.
“We don’t have to do lessons, do we?” Ricky was still in his arms, hugging him, letting him hold on for a little while longer. Giving him what he needed, like always. “I just want to talk.”
That was perfect, too. He was grateful to Ricky for doing this for him, for making everything so easy. “Yeah,” he said, and he eased back, trusting that Ricky wouldn’t leave him just yet. “Yeah, we can talk.”
They went into a room he hadn’t visited before, a small, anonymous office. The couch was old and green and not very comfortable, so it wasn’t anything like the couch Onew and Ricky had shared in Japan, where they’d kissed, where Ricky had cried. But they were seated together, close, in a small room, with the door closed and no one else around, and they seemed insulated, private.
Onew asked about how Ricky had been. Ricky talked about how annoying Changjo had been lately, and how he and Niel had gone shopping, and how they’d had a great time performing at the Lotte World festival. He seemed happy. It wasn’t a forced happiness, showy or manic; it was natural, comfortable, like he was simply glad to be with Onew, like he’d be satisfied to sit and talk all night if Onew stayed.
Gradually, Onew moved closer and closer to him, touching him more and more, drawn to him, cherishing him. He seemed unbearably precious. It was like being visited by a lovely, rare butterfly that might flutter away at any moment. He might vanish; the illusion might burst. Onew wanted to keep him there for as long as possible and soak him up.
Onew’s attraction to him and the compulsion to cherish him intensified into sexual desire, and he seemed so comfortable with being touched, so receptive to Onew’s attention, that Onew kissed him. Sliding his hand into Onew’s hair, gazing at Onew’s mouth, he whispered, “Sunsaengnim. Are you sure that you want to?”
Onew needed him. “Yes.” Onew kissed him again. He was an erotic fantasy. Onew had expected never to have this again, had thought that this was out of reach, and Onew treasured his sexy, beckoning kisses and his soothing, rewarding caresses. Every stroke and lick of his tongue turned up Onew’s pleasure, and his soft, panting breaths were deliciously erotic.
“Oh,” Ricky breathed, leaning back slightly, tugging Onew just a little bit forward, and that tiny shift made Onew groan, made Onew want to be on top of him. “Do you want to get me off?”
“Yes, yes.” He wanted it so badly, he was already reaching for Ricky’s fly before the word was out of his mouth. He couldn’t recreate that one, memorable night, but he needed this, he needed Ricky.
“You like it, don’t you?” Ricky whispered, sweet and tempting, hips lifting against his hand. “You like touching me, it feels good.”
“Yes,” he admitted, lusting and unashamed. “You feel incredible, you’re perfect,” he said, kissing Ricky again. Irresistible, Ricky was irresistible. “I love you,” he whispered, his mouth against Ricky’s as he stroked Ricky’s cock.
“I love you, too,” Ricky whispered, and moaned, hand rubbing over his chest. “Oh, ohh-hh-hh, Onew sunsaengnim, ooohhh.”
“Lovely Ricky,” he breathed, rubbing his forehead against Ricky’s cheek, his hand working slowly over Ricky’s cock. “Tell me it feels good, tell me you like it.”
“You touch me just right, so right,” Ricky panted, nails dragging over his pec. Ricky was fully erect but Onew was aching, moaning, treasuring every word and touch. “I’m so hard, oouuunh, you’re going to make me come like this.”
“Ooohh, god, yes.” Onew’s hand sped up on his cock, the need to pleasure him overwhelming now. Groaning, Onew kissed his earlobe, tongue flicking against it. “Yes, yes.” The erotic tension mounting in Onew was incredible, and everything that Ricky said only fueled his passion.
“Oh, oh.” Ricky’s face rubbed against his, nuzzling, so sexy, so intimate, making his cock throb, making his heart ache, and they kissed, perfect, provocative kisses that kept him coming back for more. “Unnh, oh, oh,” Ricky moaned, spurting into his hand, tensing against him. “Ah-hh-ahh, I came, I came.”
“So good,” Onew moaned, kissing him, relishing his ecstasy. “It’s so good.” Shuddering, groaning, he curled his arm around Onew’s shoulders, and Onew’s touch drifted up his side, under his shirt. His skin was hot, and Onew needed him, needed to love him, needed to be inside of him.
“Sunsaengnim,” Ricky whispered, and there was a subtle note of uncertainty in his voice, a tiny quaver on the first syllable, a question on the last syllable so faint that Onew might have imagined it.
Immediately, Onew felt protective. “It’s okay,” he said, and he slowly withdrew his hand from under Ricky’s shirt, slowly broke that precious contact with Ricky’s hot, sweet skin. He kissed Ricky gently, reassuringly, planting delicate kisses on Ricky’s lips. “It’s all right.” If Ricky wasn’t sure, then he wouldn’t push. He’d already had more than he’d expected, more than he’d dreamt that he’d ever have again. He caressed the side of Ricky’s face, then stole one last kiss. “This is all I need,” he said softly, his forehead against Ricky’s, his eyes closing. Simply being with Ricky soothed all of his pain. “Just talk to me.” Talk to him. Stay with him. For a little while longer.
Relaxing against him, a perfect weight against his chest, solid and comforting, Ricky stayed. Enthralled, feeling protective, Onew stroked his hair. This fragile, precious time with him was everything that Onew had yearned for, everything that Onew had mourned. What they talked about didn’t matter; all that was important was that they were together, that Onew hadn’t lost all of him, forever.
Ricky wasn’t the one who ended things. Onew was; his phone’s loud ringing interrupted, reality intruding. It was a call he couldn’t ignore, his manager warning him to respond no matter what. He texted back a hasty reply to say that he’d call in a minute, and then he stroked Ricky’s cheek. “I have to go.”
Ricky lifted his head from Onew’s shoulder, unhurried and forgiving, and they kissed. “Okay,” he said, gazing into Onew’s eyes with perfect understanding.
“If I need to see you again.” That wasn’t right. “I’ll need to see you again.”
Ricky’s smile was warm and pleased, like Onew had just given him a present that he’d been hoping for. “I’m glad, I’d like that.”
“I’ll call you.”
“Mmm. Okay.” Ricky kissed him, then slid off of the couch, getting up and offering him a hand.
He took Ricky’s hand, grateful for the contact. Together, they left the office and walked down the dimly lit hallway. At the back door, Ricky hugged him. “Your hair’s getting so long,” Ricky said, tucking it behind his ear. “I like it.” Ricky’s smile was satisfied. “My sunsaengnim’s so handsome.”
Wrapping his arm around Ricky, he kissed Ricky’s cheek. His heart was so full, and his throat was so tight, he didn’t trust himself to speak. It came out anyway, a low, choked, “I love you.” And then he met Ricky’s eyes one last time, and he left.
The sun was rising; it was dawn already. He took a deep breath, steadying himself. “You shouldn’t stay out so late,” he told his fans. “What will I do if you’re not well? You have to take care of yourselves.”
“Oppa,” one of them said, as the others took photos. “How were lessons tonight? You stayed for a long time.”
He smiled at her, tucking his hair behind his ear, feeling an echo of Ricky’s touch. “It didn’t seem so long. It felt just right.”
The door fell shut.
Ricky closed his eyes.
His shoulders slumping, he rubbed his hand through his hair. He wanted to lean back against the wall, to let it take some of his weight, but he thought that if he did, he’d never be able to straighten up again. This was a burden that he couldn’t put down and couldn’t share.
One foot in front of the other. Making himself move, he trudged forward. There was cum on his shirt; he’d have to clean that up before anyone saw him.
Onew was onstage, rehearsing, when he saw someone out of the corner of his eye. Foolishly, nonsensically, his heart leapt: Ricky? But it wasn’t, of course it wasn’t, it was someone else altogether.
In that instant, he was so disoriented, he crashed right into Minho. He went down hard, feet flying out from under him. On the ground, stunned, he wondered what the hell he was doing. What in the world was he doing? What had he done all last night? Spent hours cuddling up on some strange, ugly couch with - - with who, anyway? Someone who’d only ever lied to him. Someone who’d betrayed him.
The music stopped. His members, used to him getting back up faster than this, were gathering around him, peering down at him. “Okay?” Jonghyun asked, crouching down.
“Mistake,” he said. “I made a mistake.” He let them help him up. “Okay, I’m okay,” he said, and he apologized to the crew, and Key dusted him off, and he got back to work.
Ricky didn’t know if Onew would contact him or not. He checked his phone regularly, just in case, and he told himself not to worry about it, otherwise. He’d already decided to let go. On his side, it was all over; he wouldn’t try to hold onto Onew. He’d already made enough mistakes; he’d already made things difficult enough. Now it was just time to wait, and eventually Onew would be ready to let go, too.
Onew sat in the stylist’s chair. “I want a haircut.”
“Cut?” she repeated, plucking at it. “How much?”
“Short.” He felt very, very sure about this. “You can cut all of it.”
“It’ll be a big change,” she warned him. “If you cut it now, you’ll have fewer options when it’s time for your comeback.”
“I’m ready to cut it now, please. I don’t want to wait.”
“Okay. It’s your head. Oh?” she asked, turning to speak to someone else.
While she and another stylist conferred, Onew studied his reflection. Ricky claimed to like his hair, and that made him want to cut it. To prove to Ricky that he wasn’t going to be jerked around anymore. He wasn’t only cutting his hair, he was cutting Ricky’s hold on him. He had to do it. If he left his hair long, he’d wonder if, subconsciously, he was doing it for Ricky. This way, it would be clear, to both of them, that he didn’t care what Ricky thought.
What Ricky thought? What Ricky pretended to think. For all he knew, Ricky had said it on purpose. Maybe it was a test of Ricky’s influence over him.
Maybe he was paranoid.
Maybe Ricky had only said it to flatter him, a meaningless compliment.
Maybe Ricky had meant it.
That wasn’t possible. And it shouldn’t have mattered. But all of a sudden, he couldn’t shake the idea. What if Ricky had meant it? What if, somewhere in there, in that whirring robotic brain, behind those guileless eyes, the real Ricky actually liked his hair like this?
Onew was already getting out of the chair when the stylist turned around. “Oh,” she said, taking a step back, and he smiled at her, bowing apologetically. “I’m sorry, I’ve already changed my mind. I shouldn’t have wasted your time.”
“You don’t want a haircut after all? We could just do a trim, if you don’t want a big change.”
“No, thank you. I’ll keep it like this for a while,” he said. “My dongsaeng thinks that it looks good.”
“Well, Key does have good taste,” she said. “Let me know when you do want a cut, we can talk about the style.”
“I’ll look forward to it,” he said. “Thanks.”
Ricky turned off the shower. Wiping water from his face, he wondered if there was anything good in the fridge. The good news was that whatever he found in there would be fresh, not six months old and gross with mold. Sehun had L.Joe cleaning out the fridge all of the time; it seemed like one of their favorite over-the-phone tasks. L.Joe was really thorough about it, and didn’t skip a single corner, no matter how often Sehun made him do it.
Realizing that he heard Shinee, Ricky looked up. His phone was ringing! Shocked, he ran for it, snatching it up from where he’d left it on the sink. “Hello?”
“Why don’t you know ‘Snow Kiss?’”
It really was Onew. Calling him on purpose. “Sunsaengnim?” he asked, not sure why Onew was asking.
“At practice that time, your members said that you didn’t know ‘Snow Kiss.’ Why?”
Onew’s tone was conversational, so Ricky could relax a little. “I had other schedules then. I missed some of the rehearsals and things.” He smiled so that Onew would hear it in his voice. “But I didn’t do so badly, right?”
“You did well,” Onew agreed, and he sounded like he wanted to laugh. “Your members should have more faith in you.”
They talked for a while. Onew sounded more relaxed and more affectionate the longer the conversation lasted, so Ricky got comfortable with him, keeping the mood light, making him laugh.
Not wanting to stand naked in the middle of the bathroom forever, Ricky took his phone into his room. When he walked in talking, Changjo looked up. Ricky gestured for him to leave, but he wanted to stay and eavesdrop, so Ricky grabbed him by the hair, dragged him across the room, and threw him out. After firmly closing the door, Ricky settled across the bed, getting comfortable.
They’d been talking for a long time when Onew said, “I miss you.”
He rolled onto his stomach. “I miss you, too.” He had to encourage Onew to let him go, so he couldn’t dwell on that too much. He didn’t want to be cruel and force Onew away, but maybe he could nudge. “But you’re close with a lot of people, you have a lot of hoobaes and trainees, you don’t have to worry about me.”
“It’s not the same.” There was a pause, and Ricky was about to reply when Onew said, “Ricky-ah. What are you wearing?”
He burst into laughter. “Sunsaengnim! What are you asking me?” He rolled onto his back, smiling. “I’m wearing what I always wear when I do the thing I was doing when you called.”
“And what were you doing?” Onew’s voice was mostly normal, a little bit shy. There was a hint of breathless urgency in it, but he didn’t sound creepy or seductive.
“I was busy when you called,” Ricky told him. “You interrupted my shower.”
It was quiet for a moment, and he wondered if this was why Onew had called. Onew was very attracted to him, and got kind of fixated on him when they were together. Onew didn’t touch him in a, “Yeah, sex is hot,” way. It was a, “Yeah, you’re hot,” way. Focused first on his pleasure, on Onew’s second. Onew might be having more of a sexual crisis than an emotional one, at this point, having trouble letting go of the relationship because of having trouble letting go of the sex.
“I need to see you. I’m going to need to see you,” Onew said. “In person.”
“Okay,” Ricky said. “Why don’t you think about it, and call me later to let me know when?” That would give Onew a chance to cool off, to back up. To regret calling him now and decide not to do it again.
“I.” Onew fell silent. “Damn you,” he said, and he hung up.
Ricky set his phone aside. “Right,” he said to himself, rubbing his face. He stayed there for a moment, too burdened to move. Then, “Right,” he said again, forcing energy into his voice. Unforgiving, he pushed himself into motion, making himself get up. He put clothes on, went to clean up the bathroom before he got yelled at, went to get something to eat. He didn’t let himself think about the phone call again until later, when a little time had passed and he could consider it more clearly, when he wasn’t so hurt and drained and self-loathing.
The idea of Ricky naked, completely naked, haunted Onew.
He knew that Ricky had probably been dressed in something completely boring. His rational mind understood that the shower had been a lie, designed to titillate him, and that Ricky had probably been eating, or coming back from practice, or taking a leak when he’d called.
But his mind conjured up images of Ricky in the shower, anyway.
He’d never even seen Ricky naked, not completely. But he had very vivid memories of the sight of Ricky’s groin. Of the tempting pink balls nestled between Ricky’s thighs. Of the turgid hardness of Ricky’s erection.
He wanted to be there to pleasure Ricky himself, personally, to revisit the intense ecstasy of bringing Ricky to climax. But if he couldn’t be there…
Onew fantasized about it. About Ricky fondling himself. About his hand playing over his cock. How did he rub himself? Was it slow and sensual, the way Onew wanted to make it for him? Was it more matter-of-fact, with quick little tugs? Did he take the time to admire his own prettiness, take the time to savor how hard and responsive his cock was? Onew wanted to linger over him. Not tease him, just coax him through higher and higher planes of pleasure until he hit an ecstatic, memorable peak. His members didn’t appreciate him, Onew was sure of it. Took him for granted, were careless with him. Onew wanted to-
-to what? Make love to him? That was hilarious. It was mortifying. Who, exactly, would Onew be having sex with? What, exactly? A sociopath? A robot? A con artist? Some experienced hoobae who’d had sex with at least two dozen guys over the course of, what, one year, two? And maybe more than thirty guys, probably twice that, especially if he was so willing to screw around to get what he wanted. Which he’d had no trouble doing so far, with Onew.
Sex with him didn’t mean anything to Ricky. It wasn’t a unique, bonding experience. It wasn’t even memorable. It was a tool. A con man’s ploy. He had rich, blissful, heartbreaking fantasies about being intimate with Ricky, but what did Ricky have? “Let him grope you” and “blow him” were probably somewhere between “smile a lot so he’ll think that you like him” and “muster up a few tears” on a mental list of tricks to win him over.
He needed to see Ricky again. He needed to kiss Ricky again, and feel the alluring warmth of Ricky’s bare skin, and bring Ricky to perfect, erotic climax. It was an obsession, a compulsion. But he had to put it off for as long as he could. He had to hold back. He had to snap whichever last threads still tied them. This relationship wasn’t healthy, and it wasn’t smart. It wasn’t even a relationship. It was just a pathetic attempt to recreate a dream, with an amoral actor in place of his love interest. It had to stop.
After filming, Niel hung out in the green room, waiting for his manager to drop off the other members and pick him up. When Minho came over to him, he bowed a little from his seat and said, “You worked hard.”
Minho’s expression was serious, and when he sat down, Niel felt apprehensive. They’d been friendly during filming, but it looked like things might not be so friendly anymore. “Your dongsaeng.” Minho rubbed his nose and glanced towards the door. “He has plenty of friends, right?”
“Which dongsaeng?” Niel asked, like he didn’t know what was going on.
Minho looked at him.
“Ah.” Dropping his gaze, Niel pretended to find very interesting dust on his jeans. “Friends, yeah, he has some.”
“Maybe he should stick to them for now,” Minho said.
“Okay.” Warily, Niel met Minho’s eyes again, hoping that the conversation could be over now.
Bleah. That had not been fun. Niel sighed wistfully. He wished that he were in one of those normal groups where people just did their jobs and got along and the other members weren’t all so weird and dramatic and creepy. Like - - no, or like - - maybe - - well, yeah, there was always that group, but then he wouldn’t get any sex, either. Mmm, no. No, Niel needed his meat.
Onew went with Jonghyun to pick up a cake for a staff member’s birthday. While he was in the bakery and Jonghyun was talking to the clerk, he drifted down the counter. Through the glass, into the case, he stared down at a tray of cupcakes.
Perfect cupcakes with immaculate, thick frosting. White frosting, and pink, and baby blue. Sweet, and innocent, and appealing. Slowly, he blinked, but unlike Ricky, they weren’t a carefully crafted illusion. They were real.
A clerk hovered on the other side of the case. “I’d like this, please,” he said slowly, not taking his eyes off of the cupcakes. “I’d like four.”
He cradled the box carefully and carried it home. That night, he asked his members to eat them. He watched Taemin’s every bite. “Okay?” Jonghyun asked, patting his back.
“Yeah.” It wasn’t exactly what he needed, but he couldn’t have what he needed, and this was the best he was going to get.
L.Joe walked off of the set and saw Shinee’s Jonghyun lounging there in the hallway. Surprised, he bowed. He intended to keep going, but Jonghyun stepped in front of him. “Let’s talk for a while.”
Um. “Sure, sunbaenim.” Jonghyun put an arm around him, not quite touching him, guiding him along the hallway. “About what?” he asked, laughing nervously.
“You’re close with EXO, aren’t you?”
Jonghyun’s tone was conversational and friendly. Maybe he didn’t need to feel nervous? “Yeah.”
“Ah, we can talk in here.” Jonghyun ushered him into a small, empty dressing room and closed the door. “Now.” Facing him, Jonghyun smiled. It was such a nice smile that he smiled back, uncertain but hopeful. This was probably about Ricky and Onew - - he couldn’t think of anything else it could be about - - but it wasn’t like Jonghyun was upset and threatening him. “I think that we have a lot in common, right? You love your members, I love my Shinee. You love your dongsaengs, I love mine. We only want everyone to be happy, don’t we?”
L.Joe nodded. “Yes, I’d like that.”
Jonghyun’s smile grew. “Good.” He put his hand on L.Joe’s shoulder, not squeezing, not intimidating, only resting it there, companionable and supportive. “I’d like for everyone to get along. Onew hyung’s been a good leader and a good hyung to me, and it’s important to me that he’s happy. He deserves to live a good life.” His smile turned self-deprecating. “Ah, it’s difficult. I was trying to decide what to say to you and how to convince you to get your dongsaeng to leave Onew hyung alone. Should I threaten your career?” he asked, tilting his head to one side. “No, that seems mean. Should I rough you up a little bit? No, things don’t need to be violent. Maybe I could mention that tall, pretty hoobae you like so much?”
Sehun? L.Joe froze.
Jonghyun smiled at him. “No, we don’t need to drag him into it, do we?”
But he just had. L.Joe breathed carefully, resisting the urge to bite his lip, not wanting to look nervous.
“No, let’s be friendly about this.” One hand on each shoulder, Jonghyun looked directly into his face. “We all want the same things. Good careers, happy members, and good music. Let’s leave each other alone, and stay out of each other’s way, and just enjoy what we have. All right?” Jonghyun gave him a reassuring smile and patted his shoulder. “All right.” Jonghyun took a step back, hands dropping. “Teen Top fighting!”
Biting his lip, L.Joe texted C.A.P. Then he texted Sehun, needing a hit, needing to connect, to reassure himself. When he sent, “Sehun-ah,” and Sehun immediately texted back, “Yes, hyung?” he felt like he could breathe right again.
Ricky was leaving the TOP Media offices when one of the secretaries said, “Ricky-ah,” and gestured him over.
“Yes?” He was horny and Niel had been hot for him all day; he wanted to get back to the dorm.
“This came for you.” She handed him a gift bag. “One of SM’s messengers brought it over.”
“SM?” He opened it and looked inside. A yellow plush toy. Aw, it was cute. Smiling, he rubbed it. It must be from someone in EXO. Was Chanyeol this thoughtful? “No note?” he asked, not seeing a card or anything.
“I only know that it’s from SM.”
Hunh. “Well, thanks.”
Outside, the fans squealed, “Oh, cute!” and photographed him with the toy. He waved and got into the van. During the ride, Niel texted him, telling him to hurry the hell up and get to the dorm. He was texting back when a new message popped up from a fan. “Oppa! You got your hyung’s gift! Why did it take so long? He bought it so many weeks ago!”
He wondered who she meant. “Hyung” could be anybody. When he got to the dorm, he had sex with Niel. He thought about asking Chanyeol about the toy, but it seemed easier just to ask Changjo, so he asked Changjo who in EXO had bought it for him. Then he nailed Niel again, and it was really good. Sated, he was relaxing in Niel’s bed when Changjo crawled on top of him. “Look.”
A photo on Changjo’s phone. A fan photo through a store window.
Onew. Buying a cartoon toy. The exact same one currently sitting in his room.
“He sent it today?” Changjo asked. “He’s still in love with you.”
No. “He can’t be,” Ricky said, trying to deny it.
Changjo patted his chest and got off of him. “You don’t understand love very well.”
“Thanks,” Chunji said, picking up his coffee. Taking a sip, he turned to go.
“Teen Top’s Chunji,” someone called.
Turning, he scanned the café. And saw Key seated at a table in the corner. Wary, curious, he walked over. This was bound to be interesting. “Sunbaenim. I didn’t see you.”
Key tapped at a chair with his toes, nudging it away from the table. “Have a seat.”
All right. “Good to see you,” he said, sitting down. “How’ve you been?”
“I’ve been just fine,” Key said, stirring his coffee. “Just fine.” His smile was as fake as Chunji’s blond hair. “This hyung of mine keeps saying the same word, lately. ‘Mistake.’ He says, ‘It was a mistake, I made a mistake.’ You don’t make too many mistakes, do you? You and your members?”
“More onstage than off,” he said. “That’s a nice shirt, sunbae.” It was literally the ugliest shirt he’d ever seen.
“No drugs, that’s good. No pregnant sasaengs, that’s good. You’re all ugly, but you’re not too plastic, so it seems wholesome, at least.”
Chunji laughed. “Thanks.”
“What do you do for fun?” Key asked. “Ever go out, go to a club, catch a movie? Maybe a magic show? You like magic?”
Chunji sniffed, setting down his cup. He hoped that Key didn’t think that he was going to get flustered this easily. “Magic shows? Kind of old-fashioned, aren’t they? I’m boring, I like staying home.”
“Do your hyungs know you well?” Key asked. “Your close hyungs? You think they’d be surprised to learn things about you?”
He chuckled. “What is there to know? I’m an idol, my whole life is public.” Looking over his shoulder, he waved at the fans outside. Immediately, cameras flashed. Smiling, he leaned back in his seat and met Key’s eyes. “No surprises here.”
“It’s rough sometimes, don’t you think? Not everyone has a long career. This group, that group. Cameramen. Even PD’s. They come and go.” Key took a long sip of his drink, then studied Chunji. “Seems like around you, a lot of them go.”
He didn’t blink. “Maybe they make more mistakes than I do.”
“That photographer Teen Top worked with before. Kim Jae something. Whatever happened to him?
“I don’t know,” Chunji said. “Maybe he took photos somebody didn’t like.”
“I’d be interested to see those.”
Chunji smiled. “They were probably destroyed, don’t you think? If someone didn’t like them enough.”
“But you wouldn’t know anything about that, for sure.”
“How could I?” he asked, chuckling.
“Right.” Key got up, so Chunji stood up, too. “Well, I’ll be leaving. Tell that dongsaeng of yours to live quietly from now on, and delete any old numbers from his phone. It’ll be better for him only to take vocal lessons from TOP Media’s trainers, and nobody else. Meeting strange teachers could be bad for him.”
Chunji really, really wanted to trip him on the way by.
“What do they want me to do?” Ricky asked.
“Stop answering when he calls,” Niel said. “We just explained that. Didn’t we just explain that?”
“He hasn’t been calling. He only sent me a present, but he didn’t even tell me that he sent it, and I didn’t say anything to him about it on purpose. Why are they running all over Seoul bothering my hyungs when I’m not even doing anything?”
“Oh, is life unfair, now?” Chunji asked. “Shit, when did that happen? Let’s call the news, this is huge.”
“Just keep your head down and don’t worry about it,” C.A.P. said. “No one’s talking to me, just these assholes.”
“Excuse me,” Niel said, looking offended and disgusted.
“These handsome, cool guys,” C.A.P. said. Changjo laughed. “They’re just upset about their hyung. They’ll get over it. If they were serious, they’d come to me or to you, not screw around bothering random members they find in the street.”
“I don’t like them talking about Oh Sehun,” L.Joe said.
“Oh, please, it was Kim Jonghyun,” Chunji said. “He was talking about a tall, handsome hoobae? Who isn’t tall to him? He probably meant Suho hyung.”
Taemin walked into the practice room and found Teen Top’s Changjo in there. “You can get out,” he said, setting down his bag.
“It’s our turn, isn’t it?” Changjo asked, stepping away from the wall. “Your hyung met my hyung, your other hyung met my other hyung, your other hyung met my other hyung. I thought that you and I must be next.” Smiling, he crossed his arms over his chest. “So let’s talk, maknae to maknae.”
“Sure, let’s talk.” Taemin smiled at him. “Sunbae to hoobae.”
Changjo chuckled. “Yes, Taemin sunbaenim.”
“What’s up with your friend?” Taemin asked conversationally, tilting his head to one side.
“What’s up with your hyung?” Changjo asked.
“Whichever one cares about my friend.”
Cute. “Who let you in here?”
“I don’t remember.”
He thought about calling security. He glanced down at his hand, calculating how many days before his next schedule. Then he punched Changjo.
Changjo leapt back, and he missed. Shit. Undaunted, he threw another punch. “Are you freaking kidding?” Changjo demanded, ducking. “Fuck! Sunbae!” He landed a solid blow to Changjo’s gut. “Ugh! Shit! Stop, stop!”
“Quit running,” he ordered, hitting Changjo again.
“Who knew you were like this?” Changjo demanded. “Sunbae! Stop!” Changjo took a few more hits, but it wasn’t satisfying if he wouldn’t fight back or defend himself, so Taemin aimed for his face.
That worked immediately. Unfortunately, it worked too well, and a second later, Taemin was pinned to the wall, arm wrenched behind his back. “Sunbae,” Changjo panted, forcing him against the wall. “Stop it.”
“Get off of me,” he snapped, furious.
“I can’t if you’re just going to hit me again. What is this, you’re a member of SM’s fight club?”
“Get off of me!” When he felt Changjo’s grip relax, he shoved himself free and whirled around. “I don’t care about you, I don’t care what you do, but tell that Ricky to leave Onew hyung alone. Stop fucking with him.”
“No one’s fucking with him,” Changjo said. “Ricky hasn’t talked to him. Hasn’t even texted him. He sent a present and Ricky didn’t even thank him for it, they’re not in contact. Did you not know? Do you think that Ricky’s still bothering him?”
What? But if Ricky wasn’t still jerking him around, why was he still so weird? If Ricky wasn’t still bothering him, shouldn’t he be over it by now?
“Who taught you to fight? That was embarrassing. You’re a dancer, sunbae, you should move better than that.”
Taemin swung for his face. Fuck, it missed. He moved too fast!
“Okay, okay,” Changjo said, ducking again and jogging backwards. “I’ll go, I’m leaving now, okay? No more hitting.” He laughed, reaching the door. “Who knew Shinee was so violent?”
“If I see you in this building again, I’m calling security,” Taemin warned him.
“I hope they’re more coordinated than you, or this place isn’t very safe,” Changjo said, and left.
Onew couldn’t figure out why there wasn’t anything to eat. He was looking right into the fridge, and there was food all over the shelves, but none of it was real food. It was all Minho’s healthy crap and - - and that wasn’t even edible, that was one of Key’s do-it-yourself experiments. Frowning, he studied condiment bottles. Maybe he’d just order something.
“Hmm?” He picked up a sports drink and put it back. He opened a container, gave its contents a doubtful look, and put it back, too.
“Have you talked to anyone in Teen Top lately?”
“You haven’t been talking to Ricky?”
Ricky. He closed the fridge. “No.” But he didn’t know how long he could hold out. Taking it one day at a time was working, but not very well. He’d managed not to call Ricky, managed not to text Ricky, managed not to run across the city to Teen Top’s dorm, but he hadn’t managed to do much else. He showered and he spoke pleasantly to people and he showed up on time when he had to be somewhere. But he was only going through the motions. His heart was somewhere else entirely. How many times had he labeled Ricky a robot, a shell of a person, but he didn’t feel human anymore, himself. Whatever made him human, his heart, his soul, his feelings, his emotional core, it was gone. It was back in Japan, in a hotel bed, curled around his lovely Ricky.
Ricky had slept so comfortably in his arms. He’d cherished it so much. But he hadn’t cherished it enough. He hadn’t realized, then, that it would be the last time.
Ricky stared at his caller ID.
Uncertain, he hesitated. Silently cursing himself, he answered. “Hello?”
“I need to see you.”
Shit, shit. Scrubbing his hand through his hair, he grimaced. “I don’t think that your members would like that very much.”
“Come to my dorm. Come tonight, come now.”
“I can’t,” he lied. “I have practice.”
“Then I’ll come to see you.”
Shit, that wouldn’t be good. “I’ll come. I’ll come tonight. But I can’t stay long.”
“I’ll be waiting.” Onew hung up.
Now what was he going to do?
It was like a dream. An oasis. Being with Ricky again made Onew feel enchanted. He felt like he was back in time and nothing had ever gone wrong.
He smiled a lot, and he meant it. They talked like they’d always been close and nothing had ever kept them apart. When he realized that Ricky hadn’t eaten, he immediately ordered too much food, and they ate together, and it felt really good to provide for Ricky, to see his…
His what? His student? His lover? His dongsaeng? He’d wanted Ricky to be his boyfriend, before. Now Ricky was more like a fantasy than anything else.
Ricky thanked him for sending the toy, and he was glad that he’d sent it. He wanted to take Ricky out, to go shopping together, to go to the movies, to walk the streets hand-in-hand. He wanted to make love to Ricky and buy Ricky cupcakes. Standing by the sink, he caressed Ricky’s cheek. “Come back tomorrow, stay the night.”
Ricky chuckled. “How would that work? You just told me that you’re flying out tomorrow.”
He’d forgotten all about that. It wasn’t like him. “When I come back. Meet me somewhere. We’ll go away for a night, just the two of us.” He needed to sleep with Ricky in his arms again. He needed time with Ricky, time together. He hadn’t had enough of it.
Ricky hesitated. “Sunsaengnim…” He looked reluctant, uncertain.
Pain tore through Onew’s chest. He couldn’t have this? Not even this? Ricky had lied to him and used him and betrayed him, and now that he was trying to salvage something from the wreckage, now that he was trying to save one little piece of his heart, Ricky was refusing him that, too? He wanted to be furious, outraged, but he could only summon up pain, and frustration, and hurt.
“Okay,” Ricky said, and hugged him. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry. Okay, I’ll meet you. I’d like to,” Ricky whispered against his shoulder. “I get scared sometimes, sunsaengnim, I get worried about things between us.”
Onew embraced him, treasuring his solidity, his realness. Just holding onto him, breathing in his scent, eyes closed, Onew let his presence ease the pain. It was so good, to be with him, so soothing to Onew’s bruised heart. He smelled fresh and light, like powder. “We’ll go to a place I know outside the city. I’ll pick you up and we’ll go together. We can spend the night.” Maybe that was part of Ricky’s reluctance. “I won’t expect anything from you. It doesn’t have to be - - I won’t insist on anything you don’t want to do.”
“I’m not worried. You’ve always been good to me.” Ricky looked into his eyes. “You’ve always taken care of me, I feel safe with you.”
It was good to hear. “I want to treat you well,” he confessed. He ran his thumb lightly over Ricky’s eyebrow and down one cheek. “I want you to feel like you can come to me for anything.” When he leaned in, Ricky’s lips parted, and desire burned in him like a fever. When their mouths met, Ricky’s arm coiled around his neck, and he groaned, tilting Ricky back against the counter. “Uuuooohh, Ricky-ah.” He was so turned on that he ached, and when Ricky’s hand slid into his hair, he couldn’t have been more grateful that he hadn’t cut it. He felt horny, passionate, but he couldn’t rush this, he had to savor it, every erotic-
“Oh, sunsaengnim,” Ricky said suddenly, letting go of him.
For an instant he was disoriented, surprised, but then he heard, “What the fuck are you doing here?” Turning, he saw Taemin coming into the kitchen, glaring at Ricky, outraged.
“Get out,” Onew said, keeping Ricky between himself and the sink, his arm around Ricky. Taemin wasn’t a threat to Ricky, but reality was a threat to his fantasy, and he’d vowed to protect Ricky, and that promise, that instinct, still meant something to him.
“You’re not in contact anymore? Not talking to each other?” Taemin demanded. Reaching past Onew, he grabbed Ricky’s shirt collar. “You-”
“I said, get out!” Onew snapped, shoving Taemin’s shoulder, pushing Taemin away.
Taemin’s eyes widened in shock. “Hyung!”
“It’s okay,” Ricky said, pushing gently at Onew’s chest. “I’ll go, I should go.”
For an instant, Onew didn’t know what to do. It was morally incomprehensible for him to choose Ricky over Taemin, but in that moment, he couldn’t imagine doing anything else. He was ashamed of himself, ashamed to have been caught like this, furious with Taemin for intruding. He wasn’t ready to let go yet, he wasn’t ready to say good-bye, he needed more time with Ricky, just a little more time.
“You should talk to Taemin sunbae, and spend time with him, now that he’s home,” Ricky said, easing very carefully out of his grasp. “You’ll be so busy for the next few days, you won’t have much time for me, right? But Shawol needs you, and your members need you, and I’ll be all right.”
Ricky would be all right without him. But he couldn’t get himself to be all right without Ricky. It just wasn’t working. “What we agreed on. It’s still happening.” Their night away. Now that Ricky had committed to it, he had to have it. It meant too much to him.
Ricky nodded at him. “Okay. Later, when you get back, if you’re still sure, if you have time.” Ricky bowed. “I’ll let myself out.”
“Hyung,” Taemin said, but Onew brushed him aside and followed Ricky. Trailed behind, watching, the whole way to the door. Opened the door again after Ricky had closed it and watched Ricky walk away, down the hallway.
Ricky pushed the elevator button. Stepped on and disappeared.
Onew closed the door. He wanted to be upset with Taemin for chasing Ricky away, but he knew that didn’t make sense, he knew that wouldn’t be right. “You came back early,” he said. He sounded tired.
Taemin followed him back to the kitchen. “I thought that you weren’t seeing him anymore. I thought that you weren’t talking.”
“And he showed up here?”
“I called him.” He didn’t know what he was doing in the kitchen. “I told him to come over. He didn’t want to, he tried to get out of it.” Ricky was trying to stay away from him. He knew that, he could see it, and it bothered him. It bothered him that Ricky would try to deny him; a tiny, mean, miserable part of him felt like Ricky owed him. And it bothered him that Ricky was smart enough and strong enough to try to cut things off, when he wasn’t. And it bothered him that Ricky didn’t like him and didn’t want to see him and didn’t want to be around him. And it bothered him that Ricky didn’t want to have anything to do with him anymore but still played the part so well.
Taemin looked upset with him. “You-”
“I shouldn’t have called him, I shouldn’t have seen him, I shouldn’t - - I know,” he said. He didn’t want to do this anymore, any of it. He walked away. “I know, I know. It was a mistake. I made a bad mistake.”
Ricky rubbed his thumb over his phone’s screen.
He wanted to call Sunggyu. To ask Sunggyu to help him. Sunggyu could talk to Onew, make some sense, get Onew to move on. They were friends, Sunggyu had a forceful personality, Onew would listen.
He could ask Suho? He’d tell Suho that he felt bad for leading Onew on, but that he hadn’t ever expected Onew to fall for him and that he couldn’t return those feelings. Suho would try to let Onew down gently.
He could refuse to answer Onew’s calls ever again. Ignore the texts. Block the number. Onew would get over him. He wasn’t so great; Onew would move on.
He hated hurting Onew. It got to him. He wished that it didn’t.
“Ricky’s bad for him,” Minho said. “Bad news, period. I want them to stay the hell away from each other.”
doesn’t matter what we think,” Key said.
The four of them were in Taemin’s hotel room. “It’s not up for a vote. Onew hyung can do whatever he wants.”
“If it’s this hard for them to be apart, maybe they should just be together,” Jonghyun said.
“What?” Minho asked, looking shocked. “How can you say that?”
“Hard on who?” Taemin asked. “It’s hard on Onew hyung. Nobody ever said that it was hard on Ricky.”
“But we don’t know, do we?” Jonghyun asked. “We’ve never talked to him about it.”
“It’s been a long time since Onew hyung fell for anybody,” Key said. “Like, a really long time. I was getting worried about him.”
“Maybe he needs someone in his life,” Jonghyun said, “someone new, someone to love.”
not Ricky,” Minho said. “Anyone else, but not Ricky.”
“Great, so, who?” Key asked.
“What are you going to do, go out and find him a girlfriend?” Taemin asked.
“A boyfriend?” Jonghyun suggested.
Key shrugged. “I’ll give it some thought.”
As soon as he was back in Seoul, Onew straightened out his schedule. Then he called C.A.P.
“It’s Shinee’s Onew. I’d like to see Ricky. Take him out of town for a night.”
C.A.P. grunted. A few seconds passed. Onew told himself to relax. He couldn’t. “Yeah, it’s okay with me if it’s okay with him,” C.A.P. said. “Which night are you thinking of?”
“This Monday. I’ll bring him back on Tuesday.”
“Monday. Yeah, that should be okay, if you don’t need him until ten that night.”
It wasn’t soon enough, but, “Yes, that’s fine. I’ll pick him up at your dorm.”
“How about he meets you there? More discreet.”
“I’ll pick him up at your dorm,” Onew repeated. “Thanks.” He hung up. Then he texted Ricky. “Let’s go away. Monday night? I’ll pick you up at ten.”
Moments later, Ricky texted back. “Monday at ten! I’ll look forward to it.”
It was only a simple message, but he stared at it for a while, reading and rereading it. He was glad that Ricky hadn’t tried to back out of it. Grateful that Ricky was letting him have this.
“You can’t do this,” Minho said, following Onew from one room to another.
“I’m doing it,” he said. He shoved a pair of underwear into his bag.
“Hyung, he’s not good for you. He’s not a good person.”
Onew kept packing. It was only an overnight trip, so it wasn’t like he’d need much. He put the jewelry boxes into his bag: the earrings, the watch. He didn’t know if he’d give them or not, but he wanted to have them with him. In case.
“He’s going to hurt you!” Minho exclaimed.
He zipped his bag shut. “He already has.” Turning to face Minho, he tucked his hair behind his ear. “Anything else?”
Onew would be there soon to pick him up. Ricky was trying to get his head in the right space, but it was difficult.
A night off. Like going on MT with a close hyung. Just the two of them. A mini vacation, a happy adventure. He should be in a great mood, looking forward to it. Excited. It was a treat, a night out with a big sunbae. He knew exactly what his mindset should be and how he should act.
But he was having trouble getting into it.
He was worried. He felt guilty, burdened by a growing list of regrets. He wanted to apologize. He wanted to beg Onew not to make him do this. But it didn’t matter if he suffered. He’d been wrong in the first place; he’d caused all of this. The least he could do was stick it out for Onew’s sake.
His phone rang.
He could do this. He closed his eyes, took quick, deep breaths, and answered. “Sunsaengnim?”
“I’m here,” Onew said. “Should I come up?”
“Here already! No, I’ll come down,” he said cheerfully. “Where are we going, anyway?”
It was perfect. Seeing Ricky was like falling into a fantasy.
They fell asleep in the back of the van on the way out of the city. Ricky went first, dozing off on his shoulder, as comfortable against him as one of his own members.
They slept enough that when they got to the house, they were awake again. The first thing they did was raid the fridge. Then they collapsed on the couch and watched a terrible movie. Then they did karaoke, singing ballads and duets together. He ate up every moment. No interruptions, no intrusions, only the two of them, together.
Out on the back porch, Ricky found the fire pit and insisted that they use it for something. They sat there and roasted marshmallows, and he fed Ricky by hand, sweet stickiness on his fingers.
“We should get some more sleep, you have to perform tomorrow night,” Ricky said.
He didn’t want to think about having to say good-bye. He didn’t want to think about this not lasting forever. “Will you sleep with me?”
“I’d like to,” Ricky said, scanning his face. “If it won’t bother you if I don’t want to do everything while I’m there.”
He felt a pang of regret, but he nodded. “It’s okay.” He needed to be with Ricky any way that he could, and if he could have this much of Ricky, he wouldn’t complain that there wasn’t more.
They went into the master bedroom, and when Onew stripped down to his T-shirt and underwear, Ricky did the same. Taking off everything seemed unwise; he didn’t want to give his body a lot of signals that it might get something it couldn’t have. Once they were on the bed, he kissed Ricky, and Ricky moved right into his arms, affectionate and responsive. It had been too long since they’d had a chance to do this right, and he took his time, indulging in long, erotic kisses. Ricky kissed back sweetly, lazily, murmuring, “Oh, sunsaengnim,” and, “It’s okay, you can touch me.”
He wanted to touch everywhere. He needed to explore every inch of Ricky, every part. He kissed Ricky’s neck and rubbed Ricky’s firm, round ass. He licked Ricky’s ears and rubbed Ricky’s thighs. He ran his hands under Ricky’s shirt, kissed Ricky’s collarbone, nuzzled Ricky’s hair. Ricky was an erotic wonderland, turning him on with every response, moans luring him on, breath warm against his skin. He felt greedy, his lust increasing with each kiss. Ricky wasn’t shy about any of it, kissing him back, grinding against his cock. He was desperately hard, achingly erect, but his own arousal was second to Ricky’s pleasure.
He had Ricky’s shirt pushed up, his hands stroking over Ricky’s chest and back, caressing soft skin and flexing muscle. Ricky twisted against him, pulling the shirt off, and he drank in the sight of Ricky’s body, so smooth, so pale, his eyes as fascinated as his hands. Drawn to the pink of Ricky’s nipples, he lowered his head, putting his mouth to one.
“Mmm, yeah, okay,” Ricky breathed, arching against him, fingers sliding through his hair. “Oh…”
So little, so pink, so sensitive. Onew licked at Ricky’s nipples, sucked on them, flicked his tongue against them until Ricky moaned. The way Ricky’s hips rolled, so sexy, so sinuous, beckoned him downward, and he kissed a path down Ricky’s body. Nuzzling the subtle black fuzz of Ricky’s treasure trail, he licked his way into Ricky’s groin, peeling away Ricky’s underwear as he went.
“Oh, yeah, god,” Ricky panted, hips lifting. “Oh, I’m so hard.”
He didn’t need any more enticement than that. Stroking Ricky’s smooth, handsome erection, he sucked the head into his mouth. Making a breathless, “Oooh-hh-ohh,” sound, Ricky tugged on his hair, and he sucked harder, turned on. His desire for Ricky and his need to pleasure Ricky intensified with every moan and every undulation, and he bobbed his head quickly, his mouth and hand working together. “I, I, oh, s-s-s-sunsaengnim.” Ricky kept pulling on his hair, light little tugs that he wanted more of. “I’m going to come, you’re making me come.”
Moaning, he raised his head, his lips slick and dripping. Watching avidly, he jacked Ricky off, bringing Ricky to climax with his hand.
“Ahh-hhuh, oh, unh, unh, oh!” Shuddering, Ricky came, features pinched. He gasped, a soft and exultant sound, his mouth falling open, cum splattering onto his stomach. “Oh, ooohhh, mmmm, oh, that’s good.” Smiling blissfully, he gazed up at Onew, sleepy and dreamy. “You’re better at that than I thought you’d be.”
He smiled. “Thanks.” He planted a few soft kisses on the black thatch of hair between Ricky’s legs, inhaling the subtle sweetness of Ricky’s musk. Dropping more kisses along the way, he crawled up to Ricky’s mouth. Meeting him with a contented, pleased moan, Ricky kissed him back, hands sliding over his waist and pulling him close. When his throbbing cock brushed against Ricky, he groaned, shoving his underwear down, aching. “Oh, oh, it’s so hard,” Ricky whispered, writhing against him, rubbing right against his erection, wicked torment. Groaning, he rocked against Ricky, not sure that he could take this, pleasure hitting a fever pitch. “Mmm, yeah, feels so good,” Ricky breathed, kissing him, pulling his shirt up, grinding against him. The rhythmic, sinuous way Ricky’s hips pushed against his cock turned him on so much he couldn’t hold back anymore, and he groaned, kissing Ricky passionately, gripping Ricky’s ass and thrusting, driving his hips against Ricky urgently. “Oh, oh,” Ricky gasped, legs wrapping around him, and he came. Ecstasy rocked him, and he cried out, shoving against Ricky a few more times, spurting hard. “Oh, oh, you came,” Ricky said, and he moaned, burying his face against Ricky’s neck, shuddering again. God, he’d needed that.
Breathing hard, he clutched Ricky to himself, not ready to let go, not ready to separate. Ricky caressed him, stroking his back, his shoulders, his hair. It felt so good, he felt even less inclined to move, and he relaxed there, letting himself enjoy the moment, basking in this quiet, dreamy pleasure.
“You have a way hotter body than I expected,” Ricky said, rubbing his back. “Seriously, who knew?”
He chuckled at that and kissed Ricky’s neck. Finally peeling himself away, he sat up. Taking his shirt the rest of the way off, he wiped them both up with it, then tossed it aside. “Should we sleep?”
Ricky nodded, then smiled. “You want to be the big spoon?”
Ricky rolled onto his side, and Onew slid in behind him, wrapping an arm around him. Kissing his shoulder, Onew stroked his chest, treasuring him. They hadn’t been naked together last time, and there was so much more of him to touch now, his bare skin against Onew’s lips, his back against Onew’s chest. Onew held him snugly, ass to groin, legs twining together. He fell asleep long before Onew did.
Ricky got up to pee and didn’t want to get back into bed.
He seriously considered running for it. He couldn’t just walk back to Seoul, and it wasn’t like he could ask Onew’s manager for a ride, but he could call a cab. Call a cab and take it back, or have it drop him off somewhere and get his manager to pick him up.
He didn’t want to get back into that bed. This thing between him and Onew was too fucked up, it was going too far. It hurt too much to go through the motions of a relationship he wanted but couldn’t actually have. He wanted to crawl back into bed and snuggle up; he wanted to be welcome there in Onew’s bed, in Onew’s embrace, cuddled close to Onew’s sexy, handsome, naked body. He wanted Onew to wake up just enough to kiss him and then go back to sleep. He wanted to sleep there and know that Onew would be glad to see him when they woke up.
He could do those things right now, but it wouldn’t be real. Onew’s pain and anger, those were real. Those other feelings Onew had, this relationship they were role-playing, it was all confused and fake. Whoever Onew was so very much in love with, it wasn’t Ricky. It was someone who always smiled and always agreed. He didn’t mind being constantly accommodating when it came to PD’s and writers and hosts and sunbaes, but he wanted to be himself with Onew. He wanted a real relationship, one where there could be friction and disappointments and pointless disagreements, one where he could be honest and Onew would still love him.
But he’d ruined all of his chances for that. So he was stuck here. In love with someone who didn’t want to know him. Loved by a man who looked into his eyes and wanted to see someone else. All of that love, all of that desire, Onew’s intense need to protect him and make him happy, it wasn’t for him at all. No matter how much he loved Onew; no matter what he would have done to make even a little of this real.
He felt like the weight of his regrets was crushing him, slowly grinding him into death.
He stood there beside the bed for a while. Then he forced himself forward. He crawled back into bed.
“You came back,” Onew said softly, stroking his back and pulling him close.
His breath caught; he’d thought that Onew was asleep. “Of course I came back.”
“I missed you.” Onew’s voice was low, and he closed his eyes, rubbing his nose to Ricky’s. “I always miss you so much.”
“I’m right here,” he promised, hugging Onew. “It’s okay, I’ll stay with you.” God. What had he done?
Usually, it was hard for Onew to wake up, and when he did, he felt miserable about it. When he woke up that day, he didn’t regret it at all. He was glad to be awake, and he was thrilled to have Ricky there, in his bed, in his arms. “My lovely Ricky,” he murmured, enchanted. Naked, hair mussed, frowning a little in sleep, Ricky fascinated him. He caressed the faint growth of stubble on Ricky’s chin, and Ricky’s expression relaxed. “Ricky-ah, wake up.”
They made out, and he came in Ricky’s hand, thrusting eagerly into Ricky’s fist. He went down on Ricky after that, and he took his time with it, living out his fantasies, Ricky writhing and pulling his hair and begging for more.
It was hard to leave the bedroom, because it meant the beginning of the end. When he grabbed clean underwear from his bag, he saw the jewelry boxes. He hesitated, because it didn’t feel like the right time, but when would the right time be?
When Ricky was in the bathroom, he snuck the box of earrings into Ricky’s bag.
At the door, before they left the house, left their private paradise, he kissed Ricky. They kissed for a long time, standing there, holding each other. He kissed Ricky tenderly, again and again, and passionately, and he whispered, “I love you, I want to be with you,” and when Ricky nuzzled his cheek and whispered, “Oh, sunsaengnim, I love you, too,” it was so perfect, in that moment, he believed it.
Ricky carried his overnight bag to the laundry room. Unzipping it, his mind on other things, he dumped his dirty clothes into a hamper. There was something in with them, something hard and rectangular, a box. A jewelry box? He didn’t recognize it, didn’t know-
It was from Onew, wasn’t it?
He stared at the box.
He didn’t want to open it. He felt like he was trapped in some horrible nightmare. He’d gone too far and made a mockery of Onew, and now his life was making a mockery of him, taunting him. He wanted to throw the box away and pretend that he’d never seen it.
There was a slim chance that it wasn’t a gift from Onew, that it had ended up in his bag some other way, that there was a mistake. “Changjo. Changjo! Changjo!” he shouted, his volume escalating with his emotions.
“What, what, are you on fire?” Changjo asked, jogging into the room.
“Did Onew sunbae buy me jewelry? Here, this, from this store,” he said, showing the box.
“Mmm, give me a minute.” Changjo jogged away.
He set the box on top of the washing machine. Rubbing his temples, he stared at it.
What was he supposed to do? Why had Onew put the box in his bag instead of giving it to him more directly? Was this a test? No, Onew wasn’t that kind of person. Should it be like the plush toy, where he stayed completely silent and didn’t encourage the attention, not mentioning it until they were actually together again? If he thanked Onew for it now, he’d be making contact first, reaching out, and he didn’t do that, that went against the rules.
Partially, he did it because he didn’t want to encourage Onew. Partially, he did it because he was afraid of how Onew might react. He didn’t want Onew to yell at him, to hate him, to curse him out and hang up on him. It might be for the best, long-term; actively rejecting him might help Onew to break things off entirely. But it would hurt a hell of a lot, and he was already going through enough shit as it was.
“He shops at that store,” Changjo reported, walking back in. “The last time he was there was the day after he bought you the last thing. So it was a while ago, but, yeah.” Standing behind him, Changjo looked over his shoulder, prodding him in the back. “What is it, let me see it.”
He opened the box. Silver earrings.
“Yeah.” They were great. He loved them. He hated them. “Now what the fuck do I do?”
“What do you do when someone gives you a gift?” Changjo asked. “Say thank you. God, have some manners.”
“How was it?” Key asked. He and Jonghyun were on the couch when Onew walked in.
“Oh, hey, hyung,” Jonghyun said, leaning back over the armrest, looking at Onew upside-down. “How’s Ricky?”
It wasn’t something he could talk about so casually. “Fine,” he mumbled, heading for his room.
“How was the sex?” Jonghyun called after him. “Bone him yet?”
God, he wished. “No,” he said. Rubbing himself through his pants, he set his bag on the chair. “Key, are you busy?”
He fucked Key hard, urgently, thrusting for a long time, rocking in over and over again, thinking about Ricky and moaning, fantasizing about Ricky and aching, god, he needed it, he needed it so badly. Key responded well to it, arching under him, demanding more, nails in his back, and when Key said, “Yeah, sunsaengnim, I love it, give it to me,” he thrust in fast, crying out, suddenly climaxing. Shit.
Ashamed of himself, he tried to climb off of Key, but Key tugged him back in, chuckling. “Ya, don’t run, I earned my post-sex cuddle.”
“I’m sorry,” he said, making himself meet Key’s eyes.
“For what? I got off, it was great.”
He stayed there for a while, and Key settled in, head on his shoulder. He closed his eyes and wished that he could will himself to sleep, but he couldn’t turn his brain off, and anyway they had to get ready to go soon. “I can’t keep living like this.”
“Then what’s the solution?” Key asked. “See him more or see him less?”
“Less.” More? That was impossible. “I can’t see him more.” He wasn’t even a real person.
“You used to see him every week.”
“He lied to me every week.” He couldn’t even muster up any righteous indignation. It was just a fact, now, a roadblock. Ricky had lied to him and couldn’t be trusted.
His phone beeped. Key reached over and picked it up. “Guess who texted you.” He frowned; Key couldn’t mean Ricky. “‘Thank you, sunsaengnim! You surprised me! Many many thanks!’” Wanting to see it for himself, he reached for the phone. “‘Pretty, right?’” Key showed him the screen.
He grabbed it from Key’s hand. A photo of Ricky smiled at him. His beautiful Ricky, black hair falling into big brown eyes, black lashes long and thick, mouth a tempting, kissable pink. The earrings he’d bought gleamed a bright silver in Ricky’s elfin ears. He stared at his phone, his heart pounding. He couldn’t quite believe that this instant of lovely perfection was for him.
“I know that he broke your heart, and you really, really shouldn’t have anything to do with him ever again,” Key said. “But, come on, hyung, look at this. You can’t turn that down. You’re going to leave him around for Park Chanyeol to pick up?”
The idea jolted him. He couldn’t stand the idea of someone else with his Ricky. Some other guy hitting on Ricky, taking Ricky for granted, cancelling dates and forgetting birthdays and breaking Ricky’s heart.
But Ricky wasn’t real. Did the sociopathic robot do relationships? Did he really like anyone? Who was his type, who was he into? Would he actually date someone like Chanyeol? Chaejin? The Jo twins? Sunggyu? Onew couldn’t imagine. Was he into status, looks?
“Woohyun says that he’s a firecracker in bed,” Key said, studying the photo. “I’d love to see that.”
Onew frowned. He felt protective; he wanted to defend Ricky’s virtue. But that was a ludicrous instinct. Ricky had put out for dozens of guys, and Onew had almost no idea what he did with them. If he took the same approach to sex that he did to the rest of life, then he did whatever people wanted, whatever made them happy.
Onew thought about that for a while. About what that meant. The slutty, obscene acts and positions involved. What a roomful of horny guys might do to, or expect from, someone who did anything to make them happy. It wasn’t the actual mechanics of sex or amount of sex that bothered him; he loved and respected and admired his own members unequivocally, and they were a walking sex carnival. But the reason behind the sex, the mentality, bothered him the more he thought about it. Horrified him. Doing what they wanted just to keep them happy? He felt sick, he felt outraged, he wanted to drag Ricky to safety.
But Ricky was an adult who made his own choices and had his own ideas. If he didn’t like it, he’d just say no.
He said no to Onew repeatedly. He set boundaries ahead of time, and he set boundaries while they were intimate, in the moment.
It was wrong to feel entitled to sex with Ricky, he knew that. That was a messed up way of thinking. But why did Ricky refuse him? Why did Chanyeol get it, and he didn’t? Because Ricky liked and wanted Chanyeol, and didn’t like or want him? Or maybe he was wrong about all of the sex Ricky had; maybe Ricky stopped other guys at handjobs, too. Maybe all of that pleasing and accommodating only went so far.
Was Ricky a tease, stringing guys along, making them think that they stood a chance when they didn’t? Was that one of his ways of keeping them happy without really committing?
Was Ricky desperate to please, giving people the use of his body in ways he didn’t genuinely want, crying himself to sleep at night?
Was he calculating and cold, using sex as a tool and a weapon, seducing for his own purposes but never emotionally involved?
Tease. Robot. Victim. Who the hell was Ricky?
Was the truth somewhere in between?
Getting dressed to go, Ricky looked at the jewelry box on his dresser.
He hesitated. Fingered his earlobes. Reached for the box. Dropped his hand.
Oh, hell. They were a gift, right? He could do whatever he wanted with them. He put them on.
Curled up in bed at night, Onew gazed at the photo on his phone. He smiled at it, love filling his heart. His beautiful Ricky. “Yes,” he texted back. “Very, very pretty.”
“Hey,” Chanyeol said, walking into Onew’s bedroom. “You wanted to see me?”
“Oh, yes.” Getting up from his chair, Onew shook his hair out of his eyes. “It won’t take long, but I wanted to say it in person.”
“Okay,” Chanyeol said, curious. “Shoot.”
Onew held his gaze very seriously. “It’s none of my business what you do with your sex life. It’s none of my business what you do with Teen Top’s Ricky. I don’t have any reason to know or to have any say in it. So I won’t say anything else.” Onew’s gaze hardened. “But if you ever touch him again, I hope that it’s only in ways that please him, in places that he’s enthusiastic about, and that you give him the time of his life. Otherwise, I don’t want you to go near him at all.”
What was happening here? “Hyung?” Chanyeol asked, very unsure about this. “Are you asking me not to see Ricky anymore?”
“Tell your members what I said,” he said.
“We, but, we’re going on MT next week,” Chanyeol said. “I can’t just, I mean, he does it the way I like it, it’s better than anything, I can’t even get Sehun to do it anymore but he does it every time, it’s freaking amazing.”
For a second he thought that Onew was going to murder him. Scared, he took a step back.
He left as fast as he could.
Ricky was in the practice room with Changjo when C.A.P. walked in. “You talked to big sunbae lately?”
Glancing over at C.A.P., feet still moving, Ricky shook his head.
“He’s called me three times today. Every time I answer, he hangs up.”
“He doesn’t say anything?” Changjo asked. Frowning, Ricky stopped dancing.
C.A.P. shrugged. “First two times, he just hung up. Last time, he said, ‘Uh,’ and that was it.”
“Maybe you should call him,” Changjo told Ricky. C.A.P.’s phone rang. “Big sunbae?” he asked, interested.
“Small guardian,” C.A.P. said, and answered it. “Hyung?”
Ricky wondered if it was about going on MT. He hoped that EXO wasn’t cancelling. He was really looking forward to going. It would be a good break, a good mini-vacation. He needed to relax and let go and feel good and get out of his head.
C.A.P. was frowning a lot, which wasn’t a good sign. “What’s wrong?” Changjo whispered, and C.A.P. waved them away.
“Mmm, yeah, I don’t know,” C.A.P. finally said. “Yeah. No, I get it, I’ll tell him. Okay. Yeah.” He hung up. He took his hat off, scratched his head, put it back on, and squinted at Ricky. “Big sunbae summoned Chanyeol and said that he doesn’t want Chanyeol taking you lightly when he nails you. He said that Chanyeol should tell everyone else the same thing.”
“What?” Changjo asked.
“What?” Ricky asked.
“Suho hyung said that it’s up to you, it’s your life and your body, you can do what you want. But no one in EXO wants you to come on MT, they’re terrified that big sunbae’s going to get upset if they touch you.”
Changjo burst into laughter.
“It’s not funny,” Ricky scolded, pushing him away. “He wouldn’t tell them that.”
“He would if he’s jealous and cock-blocking,” C.A.P. said.
“But he wouldn’t,” Ricky said. “He either hates me and doesn’t give a fuck what I do and probably wants me to be treated badly. Or he’s in love with me and he wants to shield me, but he also wants me to be happy and have anything that I want. If I want Chanyeol hyung’s cock, he wouldn’t get in my way.” He tried to remember C.A.P.’s exact wording. “He doesn’t want them to treat me lightly? That’s the thing, that’s the point, isn’t it? Not that he doesn’t want them to screw me, that he wants them to treat me right when they do it.”
“Aw, EXO is a bunch of good boys, they won’t do anything weird to you,” Changjo said. “Especially not now when we’re all close.”
“He’s trying to protect me,” Ricky said. “He’s looking out for me.” It was mystifying. He couldn’t figure out why Onew would go so far for his sake.
“I guess he heard about the MT and started thinking about you under a pile of horny hoobaes,” C.A.P. said.
“I love piles of horny hoobaes,” Changjo said.
“Who doesn’t?” C.A.P. asked.
Ricky scratched behind his ear. Onew felt strongly enough about it to involve EXO. To speak directly to Chanyeol.
“So you’re still coming on MT, right?” Changjo asked.
Changjo gasped and pushed him. “You’re not coming?! Shit, are you kidding? Just because big sunbae doesn’t like it?”
“I said that I’m going!” he insisted, defensive.
“You were lying,” C.A.P. said.
“Not necessarily! I might go!” But he wasn’t sure.
“Hyung,” Minho said, suddenly in the bathroom doorway.
“Hmm?” Onew spat toothpaste into the sink.
“Are you kidding me?” Minho demanded. “Are you trying to freak us out?”
Finished rinsing his mouth, he looked over at Minho. “I don’t think that clean teeth should frighten you.”
“There’s a selca of Teen Top’s Ricky in your bedroom!” Minho exclaimed, gesturing in that direction. “You hung a framed selca on your wall!”
“He’s cute,” Onew said. “Don’t people hang you on their walls, too?”
“I’m not an asshole who toys with people and breaks their hearts!”
“It’s my room,” he said firmly. “It’s my wall.”
Minho didn’t say anything else about it. Taemin didn’t mention it; Jonghyun said that it was cute. Key moved it so that he faced it during sex, so that he could look right at it. He didn’t move it back. He had a lot of sex with Key that week.
D.O. stared flatly at Ricky. “You want me to what.”
“It’s not difficult,” Ricky said, laughing. “Just take a selca of us. I’ll take it if you want. Just text it to Shinee’s leader and tell him that you’re taking care of me.”
“Because he’s worried about me, and I don’t want him to be.”
He was a little surprised that Ricky was there at all. Well, it was MT, and Ricky wasn’t the kind of guy who ever missed a sexual orgy. But Chanyeol had come home terrified that Onew would be upset with them if they ever laid a hand on Ricky again. Ricky didn’t seem nearly as worried about it as Chanyeol did, though.
He took the phone and stepped closer to Ricky.
“Smile,” Ricky said, leaning close.
He considered it. He put his arm around Ricky and raised the phone. Ricky smiled, and he smiled, too, and just when he pushed the button, he kissed Ricky’s cheek.
Ricky hugged him. “Thanks, hyung. Suho hyung’s going to hate it.”
“So don’t tell him.” He texted Onew. Having a good day off with a good dongsaeng. I’ll look after him well! With the text sent, he touched Ricky’s cheek. “Can you, do you want to, I,” he said, and he kissed Ricky, and it felt great.
When the staff meeting broke up and people started straggling out of the room, Onew checked his phone. He had a text from D.O.
Surprised, he quickly closed the message. Pretending that everything was normal, he casually lowered his phone. He said a few more friendly words to the others and waited until the last staff member was gone. When he was alone with his members, he looked at his phone again.
Onscreen, Ricky smiled at him, looking happy and healthy and loving, filling up his heart.
D.O. hugged Ricky, looking happy and planting a kiss on his cheek.
He read the message a few times until it sank in, until he was sure that he was okay with it. D.O. was a good kid. D.O. would treat Ricky well. He couldn’t picture D.O. coercing anyone into unwanted sex.
D.O. hadn’t sent this to him just for fun. It was a very deliberate message. Maybe Chanyeol or Suho had designed it, to reassure him. But he didn’t think so. No. Ricky was reassuring him.
Maybe Ricky cared about him and wanted him to feel comfortable. Maybe, even in the middle of a sexual orgy, Ricky had considered him and his feelings.
Maybe Ricky was just jerking him around, stringing him along, toying with him.
Maybe the truth was somewhere in between.
Jonghyun stood behind him, looking over his shoulder. “Not bad, hyung. Not many guys can stand beside D.O. and not come out looking like a squid.”
“Excuse me, speak for yourself,” Key said.
“Are we all okay with this?” Minho asked. “Why are you encouraging him?”
“It’s not up to us to be okay with it or not,” Key said.
“Then we just let it keep going on?” Minho demanded. “I can’t keep watching some kid break Onew hyung’s heart over and over again.”
“Shit, privacy,” Taemin said, closing the door.
While his members talked around him, Onew frowned, running his thumb along the edge of his phone. Ricky hadn’t broken his heart over and over again. Ricky had lied to him and used him for months, in the beginning. But Ricky had only broken his heart once. Everything after that, he’d done to himself. Ricky had played along, but he’d made all of the decisions, he’d pulled the strings.
Pulled the strings. Like Ricky was his puppet. He’d only been continuing what Ricky had started; Ricky could have stopped cooperating at any time.
But Ricky had tried to stop cooperating. Hadn’t contacted him or reached out to him for a long time. Had tried to push him away, told him to focus on work and other people, encouraged him to reconsider. He’d kept insisting on more. He’d needed it. And that tiny, mean part of him had felt like he was owed it.
He was using Ricky. He shouldn’t feel bad about that, but he did.
Ricky crawled onto Sunggyu’s bed. He wouldn’t sleep, he’d just close his eyes for a second. Yawning, he let his eyes drift shut.
A smack on his ass startled him. “Don’t,” he said, rolling away. He was still a little sensitive back there, from MT. Xiumin had spanked him good and hard. It had been terrific.
“Who said that you could be in my bed?” Sunggyu asked, standing over him.
“I’m your dongsaeng, I’m allowed.”
“That’s not in the rules.”
“There aren’t any rules.”
Sunggyu sat on the edge of the bed. “You okay?”
He nodded. Dropping his cheek to the pillow again, he tucked his knees up, resting his shins against Sunggyu’s butt. “I don’t know what to do about Onew sunbae. I don’t know if I want to ask you to help or not. I don’t know if I’m making things better or worse. I can’t tell if time is helping him to heal or if I’m just hurting him even more.”
“Are you healing?”
“No.” He didn’t want sympathy for it, though. “I don’t think that I deserve to heal, anyway, if Onew sunbae’s still suffering. I’ll focus on him first.”
“Does he know that it’s been hard on you, too?”
“No. Does it matter? If I punch you, do you care that my knuckles hurt?”
“You think that he’s in love with you and he doesn’t care that you’re this miserable?”
“The guy he’s in love with isn’t unhappy, though.”
“Does that make sense?” Sunggyu demanded. “He’s in love with you, it’s all you. Ricky is Ricky, Yoo Changhyun is Yoo Changhyun, Ricky is Yoo Changhyun, Yoo Changhyun is Ricky, who else do you think is involved, here? Who is he in love with, Chunji?”
He tried to explain it but gave up before he got a word out. Sunggyu knew what he meant, but he knew what Sunggyu meant, too. “It’s complicated.”
“It’s simple,” Sunggyu said. “He fell in love with you and you hurt him. Now you feel bad about it and he doesn’t know what to do. Either be an adult about it and face him, or be a coward about it and run away.”
Ricky wasn’t thrilled about either of those plans. “I should’ve chosen someone else to be my close hyung. Sungyeol hyung wouldn’t talk to me like this.”
“Too bad, you’re stuck with me.”
Sunggyu nudged him over and laid down with him. Curled up on their sides, they faced each other. “You didn’t make this mess on purpose. But you can’t sit around in it forever. It’s best if you clean it up responsibly. Or you can walk away and leave it behind. But you can’t keep wallowing in it. Understand?”
He nodded. “I get it. Now stop lecturing me.”
Sunggyu kissed him and stroked his hair. “I’ll stop this time. You can sleep for a little bit, it’s okay.”
He fell asleep while Sunggyu was still petting him.
It was useless to puzzle over half-remembered fragments of conversation. It was meaningless to try to sift through stacks of lies, searching for a kernel of truth. But in the van going from one schedule to another, in the salon each morning, in bed at night, Onew’s thoughts drifted to Ricky, and everything that Ricky had said to him, and he tried to piece all of the disconnected Rickys that he knew into one whole.
What was true? Was it true that Ricky thought that he was handsome? He wasn’t as grotesque as his antis liked to say, but he wasn’t an undeniable visual, either, so it could be true, could be a lie, could be anything.
Was it true that Ricky was gay? Maybe.
Was it true that Ricky had thought that he was straight? No, probably not.
He kept thinking back to the moment that Ricky gave him that hopeful, mischievous look and asked, “Will it bother you if I’ve had a lot of experience?” He couldn’t figure out why Ricky had chosen to take that approach. Had Ricky thought that being experienced would seem sexier, that he’d be impressed? It seemed like an odd choice; the rest of Ricky’s approach had set him up to see Ricky as more innocent, hadn’t it? Had Ricky not felt confident about pulling off an innocent image when it came to sex? But Ricky hadn’t pulled out a lot of mind-blowing tricks. He’d found everything incredibly, meltingly erotic, because he’d been completely in love and aroused by every move, every detail, every second they were together. But why would Ricky play up the experienced angle and then not follow up with some fancy seduction? Was the blowjob the big move? It had been one hell of a blowjob. Was Ricky not actually that experienced or that seductive, and overestimating himself? Had that actually been a real question to gauge his genuine reaction? And when he’d asked “how much,” Ricky had guessed that he was put off, and had toned it down? He couldn’t make heads or tails of the whole thing.
Was it true that he’d never had a relationship before? It seemed true; at least Suho and Sunggyu didn’t seem to know anything about one. Because of the dating ban? Or because, as he said, he’d never been interested in anyone, anyway? How could that possibly be true?
He’d said that he was interested in Onew because Onew was different. “It’s different, with sunsaengnim.” That couldn’t be true, either. Onew was some prize, some tool, a way to show up Changjo. Ricky had also said, “I like you.” And then, later, Ricky had said, “I love you.” Onew would never forget it, there in the dark hallway. “It’s okay. I still love you, too.” But none of that was true. Ricky had chosen him to one-up Changjo. “Shinee’s leader, that’s an upgrade.” If they happened to get along, if their personalities happened to mesh in any way, that was only a coincidence, a convenience that made Ricky’s job easier. Even if they’d never gotten along at all, Ricky would have forged ahead anyway. Or would Ricky have dropped him for someone else, a different upgrade? He didn’t know. Ricky had seemed pretty dedicated to winning him over.
From that entire night in his hotel room, their whole first sexual encounter, if he had to choose one true moment, one thing that Ricky had said and might have genuinely meant, it would be when Ricky sucked his cock, said, “Oh, that’s nice,” and went back to it. That might have been sincere. Maybe not. But it hinted at a frankly sexual side of Ricky that he didn’t think was fake. If it were scripted, wouldn’t Ricky have played it up more, showed off more? Or maybe not; maybe subtle, realistic notes were Ricky’s forte.
The crying had been staged. Ricky’s uncertainty, Ricky’s fear, Ricky’s tears and claims to be scared, it had all been an act. Ricky claimed that the tears had been real, that some of the anxiety and emotion had been sincere, but it had all been concocted, planned, Ricky’s most masterful moment. The only bits of truth woven into it were planted there to add realism. Like using live plants instead of plastic ones in set dressing.
Ricky’s big, final confession to him, admitting to lying to him, laying out the whole step-by-step plan, that was supposed to have been honest. It had been presented to him as if Ricky were finally coming clean. But how honest had it really been? Ricky had claimed only to want to con him so far. It had sounded like the plan had been to win him over, but only to a certain extent, like he’d been the one who’d ruined everything by falling in love, like it was actually his fault that things had gone wrong.
Ricky had claimed to feel bad about hurting him. How bad? The guy sitting there on his couch explaining the whole plot hadn’t cried, hadn’t showered him in profuse apologies. Ricky had actually had a quiet stubbornness, insisting on telling him everything, continuing relentlessly even when he’d wanted it to stop. What had been the point of that? Why drag it all out, why crush his heart so mercilessly? For the pleasure of damaging him? Was Ricky that much of a sociopath?
If everything Ricky did was for effect, then what had the desired effect of that speech been? Honesty for honesty’s sake? Honesty didn’t seem to be one of Ricky’s guiding principles. If it wasn’t to get a kick out of traumatizing him, then what had the effect been? It had only alienated him more and more, each sentence driving a new wedge between them. Had that been the point? To get rid of him? That didn’t make sense, that couldn’t be right.
But Ricky had kept on trying to get rid of him, after that. Subtly discouraging him.
Ricky had wanted to drive him away? Why go to so much trouble to win him over, and then alienate him? None of it made any sense. In a way, he understood why Ricky had wanted to use him against Changjo in the first place, fucked up as it was. But once he’d been on the hook, why deliberately shake him loose?
Ricky answered just before the call went to voicemail. Still not sure how to play this, aware that he had to break things off but reluctant to hurt Onew any worse, he said, “Sunsaengnim.”
“This isn’t your sunsaengnim,” Onew said. “This is your sunbae. I’m coming over tonight. Clear it with your leader.”
Startled, Ricky said the only thing he could say. “Yes, sunbaenim.” He couldn’t imagine how this was going to go, but it wouldn’t go well. “What time?”
“Eleven. You’ll be there.”
It wasn’t a question. “Yes, sunbaenim, I’ll be here.”
Onew hung up on him.
He’d better go and tell C.A.P.
Onew showed up almost an hour early on purpose, wanting to take them by surprise. He didn’t want to talk to their manager any more than he had to, so he’d asked Sunggyu for their apartment number. When he got to their door, he rang the bell. He didn’t bother to arrange his face into a smile or fix his hair.
Chunji opened the door. “Onew sunbaenim.” Chunji looked wary. “You’re early.”
“Am I?” He walked in without being invited. “Where’s Ricky?”
“He’s taking a leak, we just got here a second ago.”
“You’re here.” Ricky crept into the room cautiously. He had on jeans, a T-shirt, and a hoodie, casual but not sloppy; he was still wearing eyeliner, like he really had just gotten in. He glanced at Chunji, and Onew remembered standing in their practice room and noticing how much Teen Top’s members could communicate to each other in a silent look.
“Is anyone else here?” Onew asked.
“No,” Chunji said. “Just the two of us.”
“We’ll talk in your room,” he told Ricky.
“Okay.” It was quiet and cautious. Not exactly subdued, not quite. It didn’t have any of the usual cuteness, the charming energy Ricky usually showed him.
It was a messy, crowded room. Too many clothes. Lots of fan art. “Which one’s yours?” he asked, looking at the unmade beds.
“Mine, Changjo’s,” Ricky said, pointing each one out.
Ricky sat on the edge of his bed.
Onew stood over him. His hoodie was slightly askew, starting to slip off one shoulder. It was a struggle not to fix it for him, to zip it up and set it straight. But this wasn’t Taemin. “Do you like cupcakes?”
“I love them,” he said immediately. “I’m not allowed to eat them. I have diet restrictions. But I love them.”
“Are you capable of telling the complete truth, and not turning it into something else? The plain truth, whether or not it’s what I want to hear?”
Ricky frowned at him. “That’s what you think of me.” Before he had to repeat the question, Ricky said, “Yes.”
“Then tell me the truth now. The complete truth, all of it. Why did you show up at my dorm just to tell me that you’d been using me the whole time?”
“Why,” Ricky repeated, like it was a strange question. There was a subtle flatness to Ricky’s tone that he wasn’t used to. It wasn’t very different from his Ricky, but it wasn’t the same, either. Ricky looked up at him, then sighed.
Rubbing his ear, Ricky looked resigned. He scooted back a little bit and hunched his shoulders, putting his elbows on his knees. “You deserved to know the truth. You’re a good guy, and I didn’t want to hurt you anymore.”
“Then just stop seeing me. Why’d you tell me everything, every step, from meeting me in the bathroom and all of the rest of it? I wanted you to stop talking and you wouldn’t shut up.”
He nodded to himself, clasping his hands together. “I thought that if you heard all of it, if you really understood it, you wouldn’t want to see me anymore,” he told Onew’s knees. “I thought that if I gave you any room, you’d make excuses for me or try to forgive me. I wanted…” He took a deep breath. “You were in love with me, and I wanted to kill it. I wanted you to stop loving me and forget all about me and move on.” He scratched behind his ear. “I fucked that up, too.”
There was something familiar about this side of Ricky. It reminded him of the Ricky who’d cried in his hotel room. Trying to be strong, trying to get through a difficult moment. There was a strength, a determination in Ricky that didn’t waver from one version to the next. He wondered if that was an actual, fundamental part of who Ricky was.
Intrigued, feeling drawn back in despite himself, he slowly sat on the edge of Changjo’s bed, putting them face to face.
Ricky kept looking at his knees.
“Why’d you want me to stop loving you? You had me right where you wanted me, didn’t you?”
“It wasn’t so bad when we were just getting close. When we just liked each other. It wasn’t that hard. But if you were in love with me, it was different. All of a sudden I was being a lot more cruel to you than I’d planned to be. And then I realized that I had feelings for you, too, and that made it a lot harder. Everything was all wrong, it was all screwed around. I thought that if I told you the truth, you’d…” He rubbed his eyebrow. “It was like shoving someone off a sinking ship. I just wanted you to be free and get away and rescue yourself. I wanted you to abandon me and not look back. I’d already hurt you and you didn’t even know about it, I was using you. I wanted, what is it, a clean break. Rip off the Band-Aid. Get it all over with at once.” He pressed his lips together. Grimly, he asked Onew’s knees, “Are you sure that you want the complete truth? You aren’t going to like it.”
“All of it,” he said firmly. He had to know.
“I was in love with you. And I kind of hoped that if I told you everything, you’d still love me, and we could figure it out. We could still be together, anyway.” He looked down at his hands. “It didn’t work that way.”
In love with him. A part of him couldn’t believe that Ricky was still pushing that lie. A part of him…simply…believed. His heart felt like it was bursting and dying, all at once. “You were in love with me.”
“Was. Am. Am in love with you.”
He couldn’t remember what else he’d wanted to ask. He couldn’t remember what else he’d wanted to know. If he knew this, suddenly the rest of it didn’t matter anymore, anyway. But he didn’t know this. He’d heard it, but he didn’t know what to do with it. Accept it? Embrace it? Reject it? Hope and doubt? “Who else have you told that you’re in love with?”
Ricky met his eyes like surprise had broken the barrier between them. “No one. Nobody but my members.”
“It’s not usually part of your con?” He needed to know.
“No. God, sunbaenim. I know why you think these things about me, but I’m not like that. I wouldn’t lie to someone about that. You don’t lie about love, that’s cruel.”
“What are you using Sunggyu for?”
Ricky’s expression went grim again, his mouth a flat line. “At first, I thought that he’d be a good ally. A good hyung to keep in my pocket. We wanted our groups to be close, and I thought that if I kept him close to me, kept him happy, we’d get good things out of it. Sex, protection. Like Changjo has Suho hyung, and that ties our teams together. But it’s not the same anymore, it’s not like that now. It’s real now, it’s just the two of us, it’s not about using him. He’s serious about committing to me, and I… I can be myself with him, I can talk to him. Really talk to him, like I talk to my hyungs.”
“What are you using Chanyeol for?”
“Sex. And he’s fun, I have a good time with EXO, we’re close.”
“But you aren’t yourself with him.”
“You try to keep him happy.”
Holding his gaze, Ricky nodded.
“Does it bother you?” Onew asked. “Is it a burden, is it rough on you, only ever keeping everyone happy? Do you hate it? Is it fun, is it a game, do you like it?”
“It makes things easier. For me and for them.” He blinked, looking thoughtful. “I’m used to it. Most of the time I don’t even think about it. It’s like talking to people, you automatically switch from speaking formally to this person and informally to that one, it’s not deliberate and significant in every single conversation. It’s like putting on pants. You put them on and forget that they’re there, you take them for granted. Sometimes I’m really glad to come home and take my pants off, and sometimes I just leave them on for a while. Sometimes they itch and pinch and I can’t wait to get them off. You see?”
He made it sound normal. Natural. A habit so fully ingrained that it was simply how he was by now. “How far does it go? What about sex? Do you have sex with people just to keep them happy?”
“No.” He said it so seriously that Onew knew it had come up before. “No,” he said more calmly, “but when I do have sex, sometimes I do it the way my partners want it. Like with Chanyeol hyung, or D.O. hyung, or whoever. Dongwoo hyung. They like a different mood, and it’s fun to do it. I like giving them what they want, and it’s interesting, trying it different ways. Plus, if I do it their way, they like me, and I get laid more often. I get way, way more sex with D.O. hyung than Changjo does.”
Was he using people? Accommodating them? Manipulating them? Was it a win-win? A pretty simple part of having sex was figuring out how to work with a partner’s desires. Onew personally had way more anal sex than he’d ever planned to have, because none of his members came equipped with vaginas. Jonghyun bottomed for him because he was into topping, and there weren’t a lot of complex motivations behind it every time, it was just what they’d worked out between themselves. So if D.O. had certain preferences, and Ricky went along with that, it wasn’t necessarily some sinister con. A lot of sex was about coordination and cooperation, anyway.
“Do you want to have sex with me?” Onew asked.
“That’s not a yes or no question,” Ricky said. “I want to have sex with you, but only if it’s not going to make things worse. If you’re going to hate me for it and regret it, no. If you only want to have sex with my body and talk about love, but you’re talking to some other guy who lives inside your head and not me, no. If you’re going to hate-fuck me, no. If everything changes and suddenly you see me when you look at me, and you want to have sex with me, yes. I haven’t been saying no and turning you down because I don’t want you, I’ve been saying it because you don’t want me. Not really.”
Ricky was more mature than he seemed. Onew studied him.
“What do I have to do to get rid of you?” Ricky asked. “Tell me, please, sunbae, tell me what I can do to stop this? I don’t want to do it anymore.”
He’d felt the same way for a long time now. “I don’t think that you can get rid of me. I think that we’re stuck like this.”
Onew could see it sink in. Saw Ricky grow resigned to it. He shrank into himself slightly, his shoulders hunching. He lowered his gaze to Onew’s knees again, and his eyes went hollow.
“You really want to take these pants off, don’t you?” he realized. “It’s painful for you to keep me happy.”
“Yeah.” Ricky’s voice was dull. “It’s not easy.” Blinking a couple of times, he seemed to rouse himself. “But I’ll keep doing it for you. If it’s what you need. I made the mess, I have to take care of it now.”
This situation was killing both of them. It wasn’t good for Onew, but it might actually be even worse for Ricky. “You tried to be strong and let me go,” Onew said. “Maybe it’s my turn to be strong and let you go.”
Ricky shook his head, not looking up. “I don’t deserve it. It’s okay. I can do it, if it’s for you.”
They sat there like that for a long time. Inwardly, Onew was resolving to do what he’d said, to set Ricky free, to let one of them out of this strange hell. They didn’t both have to suffer, not anymore. They’d put each other through enough.
But he didn’t want to stop seeing Ricky. He just wanted to stop hurting Ricky. Seeing him, itself, wasn’t the problem. It was playing the role for him that hurt. Finally, he asked, “What if you’re yourself with me from now on? What if you talk to me however you want to talk to me? What if you wear pants or shorts or no pants at all and it’s all okay? Like I’m Sunggyu or, you’re that way with your members?”
Ricky shook his head. “You wouldn’t like it. That’s not what you want.”
“I want to try it. We’ve tried a lot of things that haven’t worked. We’ll do this one, too.”
“You don’t trust me.”
“Then be yourself with me every day, and maybe I’ll learn how to trust you. Be yourself, and maybe I’ll like you, or maybe I won’t, but it can’t be worse than this.”
A small nod. Ricky looked thoughtful, his gaze flicking here and there. After a moment, he met Onew’s eyes again. “If it’s what you want, we can try it.” He stuck out his hand.
Onew considered it. Then he grasped Ricky’s hand and shook it.
“Anything else you want to know?”
He reached over and straightened Ricky’s hoodie, adjusting the zipper. So cute. So much better. “How many people have you had sex with?”
“Teen Top, Infinite, and EXO. Minus somebody here and there, but close enough.”
“Oh. And you.” Ricky held his gaze frankly.
“That’s it?” he repeated.
Ricky glanced down at his own lap like it might have stories that it hadn’t told him. “Who else are you thinking of?”
“Chaejin, the Boyfriend twins, anybody else, I don’t know.”
He shook his head. “Do you know how many people it takes to arrange sex dates and give me permission? C.A.P. hyung, management, it’s not easy. I can do whatever I want with my members whenever I want it - - or whenever they want it, I guess - - but for anyone outside of Teen Top, I need permission. I’ve only ever had permission with Infinite and EXO. You’re the first person I was going to do without talking to C.A.P. hyung, and by the time I did it I had permission from him anyway.”
“He told you to blow me?”
“He said to do whatever it takes to make you happy.” He licked his lips. “That was the first time he ever said that to me. It didn’t feel good.”
Onew could tell that was an understatement. He felt sick. “I don’t think that I can forgive him for doing that to you. If I’d known, I never would have touched you.”
“No, it… It’s okay. What I did, I wanted to do. It was really complicated, I was so upset and scared about so many things, but I knew that you cared about me. That made it worse, in some ways, but it made it a lot easier, too.”
Onew had no idea how sex would factor into this new relationship between them. His desire for Ricky was intense, and his need to pleasure Ricky, to be intimate, only ever seemed to grow. But this new Ricky wasn’t a puppet designed to please him. This new Ricky had his own opinions and ideas and desires. He wasn’t going to assume that his attention would be welcome in the same way, or even at all. “What do you like to do with guys? When it’s totally up to you?”
“Oh, lots of things. Anal, both ways. Oral, both ways. I really like making out. I like it now more than I used to. When I first started having sex, I couldn’t wait to get right into it, but now that I can get laid all of the time, I’m getting into the rest of it.” He studied Onew seriously. “You want to hear everything?”
“All of it.” Onew had no idea what he was in for, but he wanted honesty. Raw honesty.
“I like being spanked. It’s not a hard fetish, but it turns me on.”
Onew felt his eyes widen. What? “Who spanks you?” he demanded.
“I don’t know if I’m allowed to tell you that.”
It seemed like an honest answer, not coyness.
“You look too shocked for someone who lives with Key sunbae.”
“Don’t make assumptions about Key,” he said automatically. “It’s just not something that I thought about you before.”
“What do you like to do with guys?” Ricky asked.
“Making out is good. I’m a top. I get a lot more blowjobs than I give,” he admitted, tucking his hair behind his ear, a little embarrassed about it. “For a while, it was something that I only did for my members’ sake, for their pleasure. I never understood how someone could do it and still have a hard-on, I didn’t get what about doing it turned him on so much. But I’ve been doing it for years now, so I’m more used to it, I understand it better.” If he was going to insist on complete honesty from Ricky, then he had to be able to give it, too. “Doing that for you turned me on so much, I loved everything about it.”
A smile twitched at the corners of Ricky’s mouth. “I noticed.”
Onew blushed, and it was a nice moment, a flicker of a connection.
Ricky looked at him directly, looking serious and a little sad. “I’m really sorry, sunbae. I never should have done any of it. And I never meant to hurt you at all, I never guessed that any of it would go like this. I’ll spend the rest of my life regretting it, and I won’t be so careless again. Not with you or with anybody else.”
It was such a heartfelt apology, he was glad to hear it. The other time Ricky had apologized to him, he’d been stunned and furious and too hurt to give the words a chance. This time, he felt like Ricky’s sincerity went a small way towards healing his wounds. “We’ve both had a bad time. I don’t want to punish you, I just want you to be honest. I want you to be happy,” he admitted. “That’s what matters the most to me now.”
Ricky didn’t seem to know what to say to that. “Love is really strange,” he finally said.
Onew laughed, and it was a relief to be able to laugh about it, it felt good. “Yeah, it really is.”
They said good-bye right in front of Chunji. He could tell that Onew wanted to hug him, but he didn’t know how he felt about that, so they shook hands. When Onew was gone, he hugged Chunji, though.
A little bit later, after he’d talked to Chunji and the other members were on their way, he texted Onew. “I’m glad that we talked. Thank you for giving me a chance.”
Onew texted back, “It’ll be difficult. But I’m glad, too. Sleep well, I want you to be healthy.”
It was strange to him that Onew still felt that protective instinct when it came to him. It seemed like something that Onew just couldn’t shake. He guessed that maybe he was just stuck in Onew’s heart now, whether or not either of them wanted him there. It was like Onew had said: “I don’t think that you can get rid of me. I think that we’re stuck like this.”
So they’d just have to make the best of it. Okay. That, Ricky understood.
Onew wanted to get to know Ricky slowly. He didn’t want to fall into all of the same old patterns, and he didn’t want to make assumptions and fill in the gaps in his knowledge with what he knew about previous versions of Ricky.
But his love was too intense. His habit of disbelieving every word out of Ricky’s mouth, he could get over. He could learn to take Ricky at face value. But his habit of adoring Ricky was a hell of a lot more stubborn. Now that they were being honest with each other, he was almost too honest. He was embarrassingly open about how much he wanted to see Ricky, and things like, “Are you eating enough?” and, “Are you getting enough rest?” and, “Don’t let your hyungs bother you too much,” kept falling out of his mouth.
They texted regularly. They talked on the phone almost every night; sometimes he called, and sometimes Ricky called, and hearing Ricky’s ringtone always made his pulse jump. It was set to Teen Top’s latest single. He’d finally bought all of their albums, and was working his way through them over and over again.
When they talked, it was about simple things. Have you eaten, how was your day, why is the weather like this? It was so much like their old conversations after vocal lessons that it was almost too easy, almost too comfortable.
A couple of times when he called, Ricky was too busy to talk, or didn’t answer at all and called him back later. A couple of times, Ricky wasn’t in a great mood, and sounded kind of irritable, and paused mid-conversation to scold Changjo. He liked it. He really, really liked seeing this new side of Ricky. Grumpy Ricky. Grouchy Ricky. Short-tempered Ricky! It made Ricky more real to him; it fleshed Ricky out. This was someone who scolded dongsaengs. Someone who wasn’t always thrilled to hear from him. In their own way, those were some of their best phone calls. Ricky’s bad moods put him in a great mood. He hung up, and Key asked, “How’s lovely Ricky?” and he said, “Exhausted and sore and pissed off,” and he was smiling.
In the van on the way to the festival, Ricky answered his phone. “Sunbaenim?”
“I miss you, I want to see you,” Onew said. “I thought that you’d be here by now.”
He smiled. “You shouldn’t even be there yet, it’s too early.”
“We ended our last schedule on time and ended up here.”
“Ended on time?” he repeated. “You must not be an idol, we’re never on time.”
Onew laughed. “Hurry up and come, my dressing room’s lonely without you. Or should I go to yours?”
It was their first in-person meeting since they’d agreed to be honest with each other. They’d spent time on the phone, and they’d gotten used to each other that way, but being in person, in public, seemed like a big step. “Will Minho sunbaenim let me into your dressing room?”
“You don’t understand Shinee very well if you think that Minho’s in charge.”
“Ah, I see.” He smiled. “Will Taemin sunbaenim let me in?”
Onew burst into laughter.
Onew wasn’t patient enough to wait. He went to Teen Top’s dressing room. All of the other members greeted him politely, watching him with interested, curious expressions. Ricky laughed at him. “Sunbaenim! What are you wearing?”
“What?” he asked, looking down at himself. “It’s trendy.”
“I hope it’s not a trend,” Ricky said frankly. “I don’t want to have to wear something like that next month.”
L.Joe pushed him. “Don’t be rude.”
“It’s okay if he’s rude,” Onew said, stroking Ricky’s hair. He’d barely been in the room for a full minute and he was already touching. It was too soon, but he couldn’t help himself. “I like hearing what Ricky’s really thinking.”
“God, I don’t,” Chunji said, relaxing on the couch. “Kids should be seen and not heard.”
“Great, okay, right,” Niel said. “You don’t want to hear me. So I won’t open my mouth for the rest of the day. Hyungs can cover my parts, right?”
“Totally,” C.A.P. said, grinning. “I got this.”
Onew followed Ricky over to the stylist’s chair. “What do you think?” Ricky asked, taking a seat. “Hair up, hair down?”
Running his fingers through it, Onew leaned against the counter. “Put it up.” He greeted the stylist and then, curious, he asked her, “How is it, working with our Ricky-goon?”
Ricky smiled at her, a smile so cute and so charming that Onew’s heart pounded, a smile so effortless and so natural that no one would ever think twice about it. “You only have good things to say, right?”
Seeing him turn it on like that pulled Onew’s feelings in a dozen directions. Settling on annoyance, Onew flicked his arm, not too hard.
He winced. “Ow.” Rubbing his arm, he shot Onew an apologetic look. “Sorry, it’s a reflex.”
The stylist probably thought that he was referring to the “ow,” but Onew knew otherwise.
“He’s always been terrific,” the stylist said, lightly touching the top of his head. “It’s nice to work with someone so polite and handsome. The members are all good kids. They can be a little noisy,” she added, smiling. “But they’re quiet when they’re away from each other in the chair.”
Onew watched the stylist work. Fascinated, he couldn’t take his eyes off of Ricky. He’d never liked having his hair fussed over and his make-up done; it was just one of those parts of the job that he put up with for the sake of everything else. But watching now, it seemed like an unbearably intimate act. She had complete access to Ricky’s face; Ricky sat there, trusting and patient, and let her work. Onew wanted to know the planes and contours of Ricky’s face as well as she did. The details of Ricky’s face enchanted him. The curves of Ricky’s nose. Those dramatic eyebrows, he couldn’t get over them. He wished that he had hours to curl up in bed and just gaze at Ricky’s face. Caress it, kiss it.
He didn’t have permission to touch. He needed to touch, but he wanted express consent. This was their first time face-to-face with this new, tentative balance between them, and he wanted to get things right this time. For the first time. Being so cute made Ricky seem eminently touchable, but accommodating people and putting up with their grabby ways wasn’t the same thing as preferring to be touched.
When the stylist moved away for a moment, Onew leaned in, one hand on the arm of Ricky’s chair. “Ricky-goon,” he whispered, and Ricky looked into his eyes. It wasn’t the sweet, trusting gaze from his fantasies; it was calm and direct. The real Ricky was far more mature than he’d ever realized, and looking into this adult Ricky’s eyes made his heart pound. This Ricky was more real and more challenging, and he loved it. “Is it all right if there’s skinship between us?”
Ricky nodded. He smiled a little, the corners of his mouth turning up. It wasn’t his adorable, endearing, “Of course, sunsaengnim,” like it had been foolish of Onew to ask, smile. It was just a smile, pleased and handsome. “I know you like it, but I like it, too.”
It was a little embarrassing that Ricky knew how intense his desire was. But he’d never hidden it well. Or at all. Gazing at Ricky’s face now, he felt the pull of that attraction. Ricky watched him, holding still, looking wary but interested. He didn’t want to ruin the stylist’s work, but he brushed his thumb over a cheekbone.
He needed Ricky. He needed to kiss Ricky. He needed to keep Ricky in his life. He needed to stroke between Ricky’s thighs at night and wake up with Ricky in his bed in the morning. Lost in Ricky’s eyes, he-
“So, sunbaenim,” Changjo said suddenly, hopping up to sit on the counter. “What are you performing tonight?”
The interruption annoyed him, intruding on his reverie, but it was a smart interruption, well-timed. He was too much in love with Ricky to control himself the way that he should, and their future together was so uncertain that he greedily devoured every second with Ricky that he could get. Maybe it was only a coincidence, but maybe Changjo had invaded on purpose. Begrudgingly, he was grateful.
“What do you think they’re performing?” Ricky asked. “A U-Kiss medley? They’re performing their promotional singles.”
“I don’t know,” Changjo said. “Maybe they get to do three songs, or four. Big sunbaes get a lot of time.”
“We’re filling our time with our favorite U-Kiss medley,” Onew said, nodding. “I’ll do Soohyun’s parts, and Jonghyun’s covering Kevin.”
“Wait, but is that right?” Changjo asked. “I thought that Jonghyun sunbaenim was Shinee’s main vocal, so he should do Soohyun sunbaenim’s parts.”
Onew smiled at him, not showing annoyance or amusement, just patience. “High notes, Jonghyun’s specialty is high notes.”
Changjo grinned at him. “What’s Key sunbaenim’s specialty?”
He knew exactly what hoobaes were referring to when they smiled like that and asked about Key, and it wasn’t anything that happened onstage. “Go away,” he said patiently.
Ricky punched Changjo, and he skittered away.
“Should I not use words next time?” Onew wondered. “Just hit him?”
“If you really want him to leave, you can’t sound so nice,” Ricky said. “It can’t be, ‘Go away, maknae.’” He imitated a nurturing, paternal tone. “It has to be, ‘Get out of here, maknae!’” He said it more vehemently, his tone sharp, his hand raised. Then he smiled at Onew. “Otherwise he’ll ignore it and just hang around anyway.”
“If he doesn’t respond to niceness, how does Suho deal with him?”
Ricky chuckled. “I don’t think that Suho hyung ever tells him to go away.”
The last time that Onew had been with Ricky before going onstage had been in Japan, and Ricky’s presence had completely energized him, infusing him with joy.
That night, to his surprise, it was the same. He was so happy to be with Ricky again, and so full of love, that he took all of those emotions onstage with him. His bliss and his hope and even the sexual desire running through his veins infected his performance. He sang his heart out, he danced energetically, he connected with the crowd, and he was so thrilled to share all of it with his members that he hugged Minho between songs.
As soon as they all got offstage after the ending good-bye, he hugged Ricky. He was sweaty as hell and he was still miked up and there were people everywhere, and it was a glorious, exceptional, fantastic hug. It turned all of his emotions up to eleven, but it also told him that it was okay to feel this way. Embracing Ricky soothed the hungry, needy beast inside of him; Ricky was real, and solid, and they were together, and he could handle anything if those things were true. Ricky hugged him tightly, gripping him.
Not a robot. Not a sociopath. Not a fantasy. Ricky was real and flawed and human, and this might be the best version of Ricky he’d ever met. He couldn’t wait to learn more.
Onew wanted to see him a lot.
Ricky preferred phone calls, because it meant time together, it meant talking to Onew, it meant hearing his voice and making him laugh and all of those great things. Being in person was more complicated. A lot of positives, but complicated positives. Like Onew constantly touching him. And staring at him way too intently. And giving him those “uh-huh, I saw that” looks whenever he talked to somebody else. It wasn’t jealous or discouraging, it wasn’t even judgmental, it was just knowing. Didn’t stop him from doing it, though. Although sometimes Onew flicked him for it, and damn, Onew flicked hard.
He wanted to be with Onew in person, because it was great, and he was in love, and making Onew smile in person was a hundred times better than making it happen over the phone, because he could see it himself, those big, happy smiles that lit up Onew’s whole face. But they were still getting used to each other, and they were still figuring out how to act around each other, and it was just easier over the phone.
But Onew wanted to see him a lot. He was honest about it; he said yes when he wanted to, and sometimes he said no, because he just wasn’t up to it. And most of the time he had to say no, anyway, because their schedules didn’t coordinate. Once, he already had plans with Sunggyu, and that turned into the three of them going out together, and that was kind of a horrible, amazing night.
He and Onew met in public places, with other people around. Dressing rooms, practice rooms, restaurants, the park. Karaoke with Suho and Changjo, which turned out to be one embarrassing moment after another. He couldn’t even label the most embarrassing part. When Suho and Onew sat together and watched him and Changjo sing and talked about how hardworking and good-looking they were, or when Changjo smugly ate up Suho’s affection and encouraged more, or when Suho pulled Ricky aside for a talk about Onew and his intentions. All of his memories of that night made him cringe.
He’d committed to being himself with Onew. So he tried not to turn on the aegyo. Except that aegyo was part of who he was, and if he denied that, then he wasn’t being himself. So he turned it on sometimes, and let Onew deal with it. He did it when he was comfortable with it, and when it came naturally. Asking him not to be cute was like asking L.Joe not to be anxious or asking Suho not to be awkward; it was who he was, he couldn’t help it.
The first few times he directed it at Onew, Onew didn’t seem to know how to take it. Like it was too good to be true, but it would be wrong to enjoy it. Onew reached for him but didn’t make contact, like he might disappear if he were touched. But it came up naturally a few more times, and Onew seemed to get more used to it. And that was good. If Onew wanted him to be himself, then he was going to be his full self, not only the parts that Onew wanted to see this time around.
Sex was still kind of a weird topic between them. When he mentioned having been to EXO’s dorm, Onew’s attention became hyper-focused. Onew didn’t seem tense, really, but it was like he’d just said something incredibly significant, and whatever happened next in their conversation would be very important.
“You…” Onew’s gaze drifted over the restaurant, checking out the tables nearby. Looking at Ricky again, he asked, “You had a good time with them?”
They needed a code word for sex if they were going to keep meeting in public. He nodded. “It was nice.”
Onew studied him closely. “They treated you well? Were they kind to you?”
Kind to him? He didn’t know if the way that Kai fucked him could really be described as “kind.” He didn’t have a word to sum up the slow, lingering way D.O. kissed him that also described the sexy, needy way Lay moved against him and encompassed the way Xiumin rubbed that hard cock in his face. “Kind” definitely wasn’t it. “Yes. I had a lot of fun, it was great.”
Onew’s expression was serious. “I only ever want you to have good things. I only ever want it to be good for you. If they’re having too much fun, and they forget themselves and take you lightly, I don’t know what I’d do.”
He nodded, processing that. “I think that you worry too much,” he said honestly. “I go because I want it. I like it. And I can take care of myself.” He wondered about Onew’s perception of what went on between their teams, sexually. “You know EXO, you know what they’re like, don’t you? They’ve gone on MT with you and your members.”
“We’re sunbaes,” Onew said. “It’s different.”
He could only guess how different it was. “You don’t like to talk about your members’ private lives, do you?”
Onew shook his head. “What’s private is private.”
Ricky coughed, almost choking on his food.
Onew had the night off and the dorm to himself. As soon as Jonghyun left, he called Ricky.
He was used to a more cheerful greeting. Or at least an interested one. Ricky sounded quietly aggravated, like he’d called at a bad time. “Are you all right?”
“Yeah, I…” Ricky exhaled. “It’s nothing.”
He wanted to fix it. He wanted to solve whatever was wrong. “Can you come over, can I see you?”
There was a pause. He waited. “It’s not a good night. I won’t be good company.”
“I don’t want good company. I want you.”
Another pause. He needed Ricky to say yes. He needed it to be okay between them for Ricky to have a bad day and unwind with him. Finally, “Yeah,” Ricky said. “Yeah, let me just, it’ll be about an hour.”
“Okay,” he said quickly, his tone calm. He wanted to celebrate. He tried a couple of dance moves, lost his balance, and caught himself against the wall. Hugging the wall for balance, he smiled. “Okay, I’ll see you then.”
He used his hour to tidy up his room and call a delivery service. When the doorbell rang, he suddenly realized that he looked ridiculous; Key had braided his hair to get it out of his face. Hurriedly pulling the braids apart, he went to the door. Dragging his hand through his hair, feeling flustered and nervous, he opened the door. “Hi.