Love will find a way.
When Minghao arrives in Anshan, it’s midday and the sun is scorching against his hair.
What he expected from a homecoming, he receives quickly: Mandarin and Cantonese and Hokkien at the airport, all drowned out by the overwhelming familiarity of the Dongbei accent like a balm against his brain. He missed the humidity that tightens his clothes, the birdsong, and the particular smell of the leafy bushes which sprout at every street corner, earthy and strong. Military planes whirl predictably into the Air Base.
What he didn’t expect, he receives slowly.
Textures are raw that weren’t before—the seat of his father’s car, newly cracked, which he slides fingers over until a nail catches in the divet. He loses the will to ask When did this happen? because if he starts that, he’ll never stop. Over and over again. When did this happen?
There are new spaces in the sky where trees used to be. At least he thinks that’s why the street looks off-balance now. His memory flutters.
At home, he’s simply the wrong shape for the rooms. Like he lost vision in one eye and his depth perception is permanently skewed to inflate his own body by a few crucial degrees. He stubs his toe on the doorframe and has to sit down before his smile goes wobbly.
“I can’t believe you’re already here,” his mother says sternly, but there is only softness in the lines of her mouth when they hug. She is seated on the couch, limbs strategically arranged to look like it’s her choice to be there. “You came so quickly, what did your supervisor say?”
“He said it’s fine,” Minghao lies. There has been no reply to his email. “Let me make you tea.”
“No, come sit. Tell me about Seoul.”
So he does. They don’t address his reasons for coming, but his mother’s eyes are creased with exhaustion.
“Show us a picture,” his father calls from the windowsill. He’s cutting the green onion stem protruding from a small cup of water. “What does your apartment look like? Your studio? You only send pictures of the dog.”
“We keep the apartment clean, you’d like it. It’s really modern.” Minghao smiles down at his screen, thumbing through a dozen random shots of Cha Cha, the view from the bus, his #OOTDs, sunsets. Mingyu in the pink apron making a peace sign over a pot of stew.
His mother touches his wrist. “Who’s that ?”
“That’s Mingyu. He’s…” My husband. The guy I’m in love with. Absurdly hot. “My roommate.”
Not technically a lie, right?
It doesn’t matter. Minghao lies more than once that day. Time passes in jerks and stutters. He eats his father’s fried catfish and the food tastes as monotonous as plain rice. One hour’s time difference shouldn’t be so disorienting, but it is, and a jittery jet lag haunts him like a shadow.
An auntie calls.
“Come over next week,” his mother says. “Minghao is back home. No, not tomorrow, we’re so busy here—yes! That’s perfect.”
Minghao watches her hand fiddle with the couch cushion. He makes eye contact with his father in the opposite chair and sees a helpless sort of resignation. The back of his tongue tastes sour. His family have a history of avoiding the heavier topics. Illness, sexuality, money, his aborted attempt at higher education, you name it. They’ve brushed it under the rug. He can’t think about what tomorrow brings. Tomorrow is simply tomorrow.
Minghao does the dishes, insists on driving everyone to the hospital in the morning, and excuses himself for an early bedtime.
In Minghao’s childhood bedroom, everything looks the same except dustier. Several warped boxes are stacked on the floor. His parents have been using this space as a guest bedroom-meets-storage closet since he moved out, but it’s still decently tidy. The ghost of his childhood plays in the corners.
Long gone are the photographs he taped to the windowsill—including the one where he doodled a constellation of mustaches across Junhui’s face.
“I look horrible,” Junhui had whined. “Give me something cool at least! Dragon wings!”
“Hell no. I get the wings,” he’d said, and sketched himself talons.
The fern which hung over the desk is missing, presumably moved to a room where someone would remember to tend it. Alone, facing the mirror with water stains, Minghao takes stock of himself.
His skin looks tight from stress, pale everywhere except for poetic bruising under each eye. He’s emotionally drained. For the first time in a long time he looks it. Minghao faceplants into the dusty sheets and sighs so deeply that his toes tingle.
Horrible circumstances aside, he’s grateful for the opportunity to see his family. What a novelty this is—to share a meal with his parents, rejoin their rhythmic conversations, and lay under his old window, where the security bars slice familiar shadows across his face. He stares at the ceiling for a long time. Sleep is faraway. He feels… he just feels...
Minghao is good at being alone. He doesn’t understand why he feels alone here .
He turns onto his left side. The bed is not only dusty but chilly. With one hand he reaches for the suitcase vomiting all over the floor, grabs the sweater he stole from Mingyu’s side of the closet, and pulls it on. It smells like—Minghao sighs again. He almost thought, it smells like home. But that’s not true. Anshan is home. Seoul is Seoul.
But what makes a home?
He feels guilty immediately. Anshan isn’t up for debate or definition. His family is here, his childhood friends are here—shit, he should probably let them know he’s in town—his chocolate cologne from high school is still here, half-full, tucked in the dresser where he left it years ago.
His ambition is in Seoul. His best friends are in Seoul. If he tried to weigh these two cities against each other, which would tip the scale? Which version of himself is more real? Does it matter?
He fishes his phone out from under the pillow.
Sorry for the late response
I made it here, everything’s fine
The surgery’s at 10am tomorrow
A response comes in seconds.
glad to hear it
tell your parents I said hellooooo
cha cha says hi :)
Attached is a picture of the dog dozing on Mingyu’s chest, her ears splayed open like inside-out pockets. The picture ends at Mingyu’s chin, but he’s shirtless, and his collarbones peek out from underneath Cha Cha’s front paws. Minghao’s heart thump-thumps .
Why is the dog on the bed!! she’s not allowed!!
she got cold
it’s okayyyy I’m doing laundry tomorrow anyway
I know we are!! hahaha
Minghao hides a smile in his pillow. That’s better. He sends Mingyu a smiley face and rolls over, finally, into sleep.
The surgery is successful. In the waiting room afterwards, Minghao takes a full breath for the first time in days and calls Junhui. He’s not expecting an answer, since Junhui should be mid-shift at the studio right now, but the ringing cuts off immediately.
“Xiao Hao,” Junhui answers.
That’s enough to bring a lump to Minghao’s throat. “Everything’s fine,” he says thickly. “They have to do one more screening to make sure they got everything out of her system, but—they said it went really well.”
“Oh, that’s great. Best case scenario? Is she awake yet?”
“No.” Minghao settles back into a plastic chair in the waiting room, the one where his hips have formed their own groove over the past few hours of restless fidgeting. “They said it should be another hour before the anesthesia wears off.”
“How are you feeling?”
Minghao exhales sharply. “Relieved? Still stressed? I don’t know, just shitty.”
His father had to run out for work-related errands as soon as they got news about the surgery. Minghao’s seated in a room of strangers with unfamiliar noises—beeping doorways, clicking pens, the shuffle of plastic over linoleum—and the pervasive smell of lemon cleanser. From here he can’t see the sky.
A muffled noise comes over the line, and Junhui’s static voice switches to Korean. “In a bit, I have to take this. Chan, can you—yeah. Thanks, kid.”
Minghao hears the response clearly. “ I’m not a kid !”
“If you have to go, it’s okay,” he says. There’s nothing more to say anyway. He just wanted the comfort of hearing Junhui’s voice.
“Not yet!” Junhui bursts back into the conversation. “Hey, are you at Central Hospital?”
“Remember when I sprained my ankle during the 18-under showcase? I drove us to Central but it hurt so bad you turned on the radio so I could scream and pretend it was singing.”
Minghao, helplessly, laughs. He tucks his face into the crook of his arm when people turn and look. Fucking Wen Junhui, embarrassing him in public from hundreds of miles away. “Yeah,” he says. “I couldn’t listen to that song afterwards without laughing, what was it—”
“I dunno, something English. Of course I don’t remember. I was too busy screaming .”
“You’re a menace. Anshan is better off without you.”
A heavy rustling comes over the line. “Take that back. Is Starlight Tea still open? I was like, their only customer. I bet they miss me.”
“Haven’t checked.” Minghao picks at a loose thread on his waistband. These jeans need a wash, but he grabbed the first thing on the floor this morning and only barely remembered to change out of Mingyu’s sweater. “I’ll drive by later. Hey, what kind of snacks do you want me to bring back? I’ve got the sweet potato chips, what else?”
There’s a pause that lasts too long. “You’re coming back?”
He hesitates. Though the surgery results were good, it’s too early to say.
“Eventually,” Minghao decides. Even if only to gather his things and say goodbye. “We haven’t… discussed it.”
Junhui doesn’t have the same complicated relationship with his family, but he knows what Minghao means. His voice edges closer to concern. “Mmm. Have you discussed it with Mingyu?”
“That means no, doesn’t it.”
Minghao rips out the loose thread. It unspools over his fingers, slippery and crazed with freedom. He clenches his fist and can’t feel the string. “That means I’ve been busy. I’ll talk to him later.”
“Okay,” Junhui softens up like butter. “Well, I want the sweet potato chips and tanghulu. A fuck ton of tanghulu. Just fill your carryon. I’ll pay the overweight fee.”
“What— no , they’ll disintegrate into mush. That’s so nasty.”
“I’ll still eat them!”
“What if they stop me at security for having a kilo of unidentifiable red substances?”
Junhui cackles. He has the palette of a five-year-old and the sense of humor to match. “Prove you love me,” he demands.
“Fine, just…” He’s cut off by loud voices in the background. This time Minghao can’t pick up on what they’re saying, but Junhui returns quickly. “Call me if you need anything. Or call Mingyu, he’d like that.”
Minghao frowns. “Have you talked to him?”
Obviously he knows Junhui and Mingyu text—sparingly, less since the banquet—but it’s mostly about which nightclubs are getting shut down for health violations. Nothing about Minghao . Not since the first few weeks of this arrangement. Unless Junhui is acting innocent to further his own agenda again.
“Unfortunately,” Junhui mumbles. “Hey. Don’t worry about any other shit. Just focus on yourself and your family. I have to go but pretend I’m hugging you right now, okay? Do you feel it?”
Minghao would roll his eyes if Junhui were here. He would pat him on the back, equal parts soothing and grounding. “Yeah, yeah,” he says. “Thanks.”
They exchange goodbyes. Minghao balances his phone on one knee and considers calling Mingyu.
Before he can, the nurse with lotus earrings returns with an update.
“Congratulations,” she says. “The scan looks exactly how we hoped. With no complications, your mother will be ready for discharge tonight.”
Minghao stands. “Can I see her?”
The nurse checks her clipboard. “You’re her son? Please follow me.”
Later that night, long after his mother has been comfortably settled into bed at home, Minghao goes for a drive.
He passes the noodle shop where he kissed a boy for the first time, in the corner booth under the shadows of dead moths crusted to the lampshade. He passes the local college he enrolled at for a single semester. He passes the wet market, its insidious fish smell reaching inside the car with ease.
He sees the evidence of gentrification in smaller neighborhoods, where a row of shiny new apartment complexes has replaced… well, he doesn’t actually remember what was there before, which makes him almost as angry as the renovation itself.
When the dusk trickles into a navy darkness, Minghao winds through downtown and finds himself at a major intersection. A streetside hawker is shouting discount prices for the fried waffle bits Minghao loved as a child. He rolls down the windows to take a deep, sugar-sweet inhale. He’s been here a hundred times, a thousand.
He wonders how this place looks to an outsider. What would Mingyu say about the beige office buildings, the humdrum and efficient architecture? Are the palm trees surprising? Where would his eyes linger—the bold billboards, or the scraggly undergrowth spilling from the empty lot behind a bank? He has good instincts. He would find a great selfie location, even here.
Again, he considers calling with the good news about his mother. He considers calling just to talk. The light changes. Minghao, for a split second, forgets which direction to turn.
He shudders, drums his fingers against the wheel. Time to head back. The stress is getting to him now, like an afterthought.
On the road home, he plays an old Jason Mraz song and mumbles along, fudging the phonetics, homesick and stuffed with love all at once.
For breakfast Minghao cooks a lake of congee.
He brings a bowl to his mother’s bedside table. She’s nose-deep in a magazine.
“Do you need anything?” Minghao arranges the bowl and spoon within her reach.
He doesn’t bother asking how are you because his mother’s default answer is I’m right as rain, don’t worry. Even during her rare bouts of flu, when Minghao was too small to bring her more than a packet of crackers from the cupboard, she said the same thing.
“Yes! I need a recommendation. I feel like I’ve watched everything on TV a thousand times.” She lets the magazine flop into her lap. The despair is so exaggerated that Minghao knows she’s actually feeling cheerful. “All these CEO dramas, I’m sick of them! I want a good wuxia or something suspenseful.”
Minghao tells her about the show Junhui recommend a while back.
“Feels like I just watched it,” he says, taking a seat on the opposite side of the bed. “But that was weeks ago. It’s the only drama I’ve had time to finish.”
“Good how the studio keeps you busy.” She sniffs the congee.
“Between all of the photographers, we do about fifteen shoots a month. I’ve probably edited more than 500 photos since my first day.”
His mother sets down her spoon and looks at Minghao carefully. Her face has not aged a day in the last seven months, and when Minghao looks at her, he sees his own button nose, his own sharp chin, his own sense of ambition and self-reliance.
He has to look away before an uncomfortable feeling—adjacent to tenderness but more raw—threatens to climb up his throat. It’s the realization that when he loses this person, he will be losing a whole version of himself, too. He wants to stay close and marvel at her every move. Look how her hand cups the spoon! Look how quickly she beats the levels at Candy Crush!
She reaches across the duvet to touch Minghao’s wrist. “Do you enjoy your life in Seoul?”
Minghao swallows hard. “I love it.”
“Good. Then you should go back soon.”
“I’m glad you’re here.” She slides her hand down and squeezes his palm. “But you’ve worked hard for what you have there. I don’t want you to throw it away.”
How similar to what his father said over the phone during their initial call. Don’t inconvenience yourself. Be filial but be distant. Prioritize your job, now that you have a real one, and don’t end up a dropout doing freelance again.
Minghao understands. His parents have never quite known what to do with a son who paints in six shades of black and never brings home girls.
Minghao shakes his head. “I’ll stay as long as you need me to.”
Her smile softens. “I’m only saying, go back when you’re needed.” She releases his hand and settles back more comfortably on the pillows. “I won’t complain if you stay longer and cook for me! Ah, you’re so much like your father. Whoever you marry will be lucky, little frog.”
Reflexively Minghao touches the ring finger of his left hand. The skin is exposed and bare. “Yeah, okay,” he mumbles, feeling his ears burn.
They spend the whole day in bed watching dramas. Minghao keeps glancing over. He tells himself it’s to check his mother’s reactions to the plot twists, but really, he’s just staring. Look how her hair falls in the sunlight! Look how she hides laughter in her sleeve!
He looks, because he can.
A buzz disrupts episode seven. His mother is half-asleep on the pillows, her eyes valiantly latched to Wang Zhuocheng onscreen. There’s a new email in Minghao’s inbox, but he only has time to read Re: Emergency Leave before a barrage of messages flood in from WeChat.
From: unknown number
Myungho~ how are you doing in China?
Don’t worry about 17 I’m taking care of things here
Just check your email when you get a chance
It must be Jeonghan. How did he get Minghao’s WeChat? They only exchanged Kakaotalk information. Minghao taps over to the email in a hurry. He skims to see… his last-minute emergency leave was approved for up to three weeks. Big Boss wants to see him ASAP when he returns, but for now he’s in the clear.
Minghao collapses against the bed in relief. He’s not getting fired. He didn’t blow up his whole life in Seoul—he has the option of returning! For several seconds he closes his eyes and basks in that joy.
The email explains that Jeonghan will be taking the reins on one of his winter spreads. It’s still early enough in the month that Minghao might make it back in time for the actual shoot. Poor Jeonghan who loathes the boring scheduling aspects of their job—he deserves a bouquet of candy, or something.
Minghao fires back a polite, grateful email. He sends Jeonghan six hearts in a row.
Minghao spends several slow days helping around the house. Cooking, cleaning, clearing out his old bedroom one memento at a time (the chocolate cologne gets tossed, the forgotten watercolors rescued) and waiting on his mother hand and foot.
She’s an excellent patient. Not one to complain. After a few days she begins shadowing him with slow footsteps, correcting his spice level and critiquing the way he hangs silk out to dry. Her face is pale, but she smiles often.
Several nights are lost to a whirlwind of family friends and neighbors coming to visit. An auntie pinches Minghao’s bicep and says, “You need to eat more! What, don’t they have noodles in Korea?”
“I eat well,” he protests. “My roommate feeds me.”
“Oh? Then I like him,” his mom interjects. “This Kim Mingyu.”
Minghao tries not to react to that. He might fail, based on his mother’s narrowed eyes, but she doesn’t bring it up again. A parade of his father’s friends arrive for beer and mahjong. Very few people notice his mother’s sedentary presence, her quieter remarks, and Minghao is torn between admiration and frustration.
He doesn’t notice how much time has passed, and how much he’s neglected Mingyu, until a full week after the surgery.
Minghao is seated at the table, fresh rice in the cooker, his sketchbook open to a half-completed rendition of the view from his apartment balcony in Seoul. The silhouette of a broccoli-shaped dog toy makes an appearance in the bottom right corner.
“Good morning,” his father says, immediately setting the kettle back to boil. “We’re bringing a delivery to Mrs. Wang later today. The neighbors said they would tend the garden, but can you check while I get ready?”
Minghao is already closing his sketchbook. This routine is familiar—he knows his role as a son, as a resident of this complex, as a part-time helper for his father’s work. He wouldn’t mind a distraction from household chores today.
“Sure.” He stretches his legs underneath the table. Reflexively he holds them a few inches off the ground so he doesn’t kick Cha Cha, then feels dumb and drops them.
“When is your flight back to Seoul?”
Minghao almost chokes on his tea. “I haven’t bought my ticket yet. Maybe next week.”
His father says nothing, but Minghao knows he’s thinking of the Mid-Autumn festival next month. It would be nice to share mooncakes together. Lotus seed and red bean, his mother’s favorite.
There’s no way he can stay that long. His three-week deadline is approaching fast. Minghao finishes his tea and flees back to his bedroom, where early morning sun throws around pleasant light.
He gets dressed. It’s too early in the recovery process to buy a flight back to Seoul—he wants to wait until after his mother’s final check-up in a few days. Waiting will inevitably make the flight more expensive, but he’d rather not be rash.
Maybe he should talk to Mingyu. They haven’t spoken beyond a few stray texts. Mostly Mingyu checks in, Minghao sends confirmation that things are still okay, and that’s it. No more photos of Cha Cha, either. Minghao shoves his phone into his pocket, undecided, and leaves to help his father.
Luckily the day passes quickly. It feels like a giant clock is hanging above his head, and while he can mostly ignore the ticking, he doesn’t stop thinking about the timeline. When Minghao settles in for the night, it’s late evening and he’s doubly exhausted. Triply exhausted. His hands reek of packing peanuts and green, growing things from various assignments within his father’s moving company.
He collapses into bed, back against the wall, and gives in to the yearning ache in the back of his chest—he calls Mingyu.
Minghao can imagine how the apartment looks right now. There’s a blue glow from the TV falling over Mingyu’s face as he plays a game on his phone and ignores whatever drama has earned the late-night slot. Cha Cha is sprawled on the carpet, asleep, or watching gnats fly around the kitchen.
Maybe the neighbors are arguing and the window is cracked… no, Mingyu didn’t like the window open. He would close it with Minghao gone. So it’s warm and a little stuffy. Smells like sesame oil and soap.
The call rings a few times before anyone picks up. “Hello?”
“Hey,” Minghao exhales. Suddenly he’s unsure if a late call is appropriate. “...What’s up?”
But Mingyu slides into this easily. “Hey! Nothing much. I’m getting ready for bed.”
Minghao stretches out both legs until they hang off the long edge of the bed. He has the sudden horrible urge to ask what are you wearing? Stupid. As if he hasn’t seen Mingyu in bed a thousand times.
For a moment, there’s oppressive silence.
Then Mingyu asks, “How was your day? Because mine was wild , if you want a distraction.”
It’s like they’re sitting beside each other on the couch. Minghao stands and paces as they talk. He smiles at the floor and wiggles his toes. When Mingyu explains how the roof partially collapsed at the gym, Minghao is caught between laughter and concern, as he often is with Mingyu.
At the same time, Mingyu’s tinny voice makes Minghao aggressively aware of the physical composition of his bedroom, the raw distance between his body now and where it was last week. He feels displaced. Bereft like those rare occasions he forgets a word in his native language. It’s not unbearable, but it’s uncomfortable.
Eventually the conversation winds toward his situation. There’s a lull where Minghao can hear gentle rustling over the line.
“Are you coming back?” Mingyu’s voice is mousey. “I mean, if you haven’t made a decision yet, that’s okay.”
Minghao tilts his head back to inspect the ceiling. “Yeah, I’m coming back.”
There’s a quiet sigh. Minghao almost thinks he imagines it.
“Oh. Great,” Mingyu says. “Do you know when?”
“I’m buying my ticket soon. Trying to land next Thursday or Friday.”
Minghao rushes through the words because there’s something more important he wants to say—an idea he’s cradled in the back of his mind all day. He doesn’t know how it will feel asking for help, even small favors. He doesn’t have a lot of practice doing so.
Casually he adds, “Will you pick me up from the airport?”
“Of course,” Mingyu says immediately. It’s clear from his voice that he’s smiling. “Just send me the details later.”
“No problem, babe .”
Minghao rolls his eyes. “ Okay ,” he says, infusing as much sarcasm as he possibly can.
“Oh, before I forget, do you know where my black hoodie is?”
Minghao runs a hand through his hair, ruining his neat bangs, and laughs very awkwardly. Ha ha ha. “Probably not. Which one?”
“The nice black one. With the little triangle logo.”
“Hmmm, not sure.”
“...you know which one I’m talking about.”
Damn Kim Mingyu. He can suss out Minghao’s every tell at this point, even over the phone. It’s like trying to keep secrets from Junhui.
Minghao sits petulantly on the edge of the bed. “Fine,” he admits. “I took it.”
Mingyu’s voice returns smug. “That’s what I thought. Might be a little big on you.” A heavy pause. “I kinda miss you… am I allowed to say that?”
Minghao’s heart jumps. “I kinda miss you, too.”
“Cha Cha’s super lonely.”
“Yeah. Here, say hi, she’s with me.”
“On the bed again?” Minghao sighs. “I’m not yelling over the phone to our dog.”
Our dog . Oops. Not necessarily untrue, but that’s language Minghao tries to steer clear of. He’s too tired to care right now—he almost misses Mingyu’s indignant response through a brutal yawn.
“Are you tired?” Mingyu asks. “You should get some sleep.”
“Yeah.” Minghao flops properly on the bed. “You too.”
“Okay. See you soon?”
“See you soon. Goodnight.”
The line stays active for a long moment, quiet except for their measured breathing, before Minghao convinces himself to hang up. He presses his face into the pillow and tries not to dash downstairs, get in the car, and drive back to Seoul right now.
He pulls up the selfie of Mingyu from earlier in the week and stares until his eyes go dry.
The final appointment goes well. His mother will need check-ups every six months indefinitely, but the doctor is pleased. When she’s finished speaking, the room isn’t so heavy on anyone’s shoulders.
Minghao buys his flight to Seoul for one week later and enjoys his final days at home by cooking, visiting a few old friends, stocking his suitcase with chips and pastries and spicy candy and instant tea packets. He and his mother finish the drama. He updates Mingyu and Junhui about his ETA. He throws together a mini variety bag of sweets for Jeonghan and Joshua.
Both of his parents drive him to the airport.
His mother simply hugs him and says, “Call more often. I miss you already. Love you.”
A lump rises in Minghao’s throat. “Love you.”
He turns to give his father the same hug, terribly aware of the kerb space they’re taking up in the waiting zone, but his father grips his shoulders after their tight embrace and doesn’t let go. His deep set eyes are sharp.
“Thank you,” his father says.
Minghao crumples. He pulls his father into another hug, shuddering through a deep inhale, trying not to let that pierce his heart too deeply. No crying at the airport. He can shove those two words in a box to be excavated alone on a canvas.
They separate. Minghao’s father doesn’t say I love you but it’s close enough. Minghao watches the car drive past all the other gates and turn out of sight. Only then does he head inside for check-in.
When the flight lands at Incheon, Minghao stands up in the aisle and realizes he’s currently wearing Mingyu’s sweater. Well, shit. He could strip now, shove the fabric into his shoulder bag where it might fit. Or he could just… wear it. It’s not like Mingyu doesn’t know he has it.
Whatever. They’re married.
Minghao has to keep himself from running through the airport. It’s too early for any crowds, the sun happily rising over the city now, and there’s no reason to rush. His heart pounds anyway. He wipes sweaty palms on his jeans and thinks back to his first time here, when he accidentally got wine drunk on the flight from Anshan and lost his nerve to ask strangers for directions.
How different things are now. He doesn’t need directions when he knows exactly where he’s headed—home. Minghao pulls down his purple cap and walks faster. He beats his flightmates to baggage claim and waits impatiently against the wall.
His bag is the first one spat onto the carousel. Minghao glances up from his phone and lunges to grab the handle, but someone else beats him to it. He looks up straight into the sun—Kim Mingyu.
No one should look attractive in the airport baggage claim, slouching under fluorescents, the world reeking of plastic. And yet! Mingyu’s face is an appealing pink from the short, breezy walk inside. When he lifts the suitcase, the tendons in his forearm strain taut. His shoulders flex.
Minghao’s heart skips. He didn’t know how badly he wanted to see Mingyu until right now; the feeling snuck up over days, weeks, months. In that moment he realizes he always wants to see Mingyu. Never wants to look away.
“Hi,” Mingyu says, smiling.
“This one’s yours, right?” Mingyu hefts the suitcase like it doesn’t weigh over 18 kg and sets it on the floor between them. He’s dressed casually in a hoodie and jeans, eyes still puffy from sleep, relaxed and smiley.
Minghao shoves the suitcase away and hugs him. It’s a solid embrace, hurts a little, but not in a bad way. He tucks his chin into Mingyu’s comforting shoulder and breathes deep the smell of his coconut shampoo, their shared sheets. Home.
“You’re early.” Minghao steps back.
“I was tracking the flight!” Mingyu beams. “The new airline app is so cool, here, I’ll show you in the car—“
Mingyu reaches for the suitcase handle. Minghao intercepts and grabs his hand. They link fingers and a thrill runs up Minghao’s spine, a warm little electric fuzz.
“Thank you for picking me up,” Minghao interrupts.
“No problem. How was the flight? Did you sleep?”
“Yeah.” Minghao squeezes his hand for no better reason than because he can . Mingyu’s ring is cool against his knuckle, and without thinking he adds, “Can I have my ring back?”
What a silly, desperate question. The ring should not be his first priority. He isn’t wearing his heart on his sleeve, he’s wearing it pinned all over his goddamn body. Mingyu obviously wouldn’t bring the ring to their airport reunion at the asscrack of dawn.
But Mingyu uses his free hand to lift a silver chain from underneath his sweater. Minghao’s ring is spinning on the chain. He removes it quickly, efficiently, while Minghao stares and tries not to let his jaw physically drop.
“You’ve been wearing it?”
Mingyu avoids eye contact. “I thought I might lose it in the cabinet.”
A half-hearted excuse. Minghao wants to hug him all over again. He puts the ring back where it belongs and they stop holding hands so Minghao can properly grab the suitcase.
Mingyu clears his throat and changes the subject. “Are you hungry? We can stop for croissants.”
“No, I’m okay.”
“Okay. I parked pretty close.”
The car ride is a little strange, a little awkward in ways Minghao wasn’t expecting after that heartfelt reunion. Maybe Mingyu is tired. He cuts glances at Minghao every few minutes, quick, almost panicked. His shoulders are tense. It’s a little nerve-wracking.
Mingyu fills the silence with easy questions. Minghao talks around all the inconsequential details of his visit—the weather, the food, the afternoons spent working.
Arriving back at the apartment is nothing short of a victorious homecoming. The structures of the room are the same. The coffee table is dusted, the shelves are pristine, the plants in their pots are perky.
Minghao makes it half a step over the threshold of the door before Cha Cha throws her entire body into his shins. It doesn’t hurt, but the surprise jolts him fully awake.
“Hi, hello, I missed you too!” He folds down to greet her through happy barks. The rug underneath her wriggling body turns dark in several spots. “What is—did you just pee on my socks?”
Mingyu freezes with the suitcase halfway to the bedroom. “She what .”
He looks so deeply horrified that Minghao laughs and knocks himself off balance. One hand lands firmly in the wet spot and it’s warm . His giggles cut into a high-pitched yell. “Ahh, gross!”
“Cha Cha. You know I just shampooed the rug.” Mingyu stomps over to survey the evidence. “What the fuck .”
Minghao runs into the kitchen and fills his hands with dish soap. Cha Cha, unbothered by Mingyu’s colossal disappointment, follows with her tail whipping back and forth. She only calms down when Minghao again bends over to rub her back, her forehead, her floppy ears.
By the time Minghao changes his socks and rescues the suitcase, Mingyu is on his knees spraying cleaner onto the dark spot. Cha Cha is going feral in the corner with a red tennis ball and paying no attention to Mingyu, who is lecturing her profusely on etiquette.
“...that only puppies pee themselves when they’re excited. I cannot believe you betrayed me like this, personally.” He scrubs vigorously with a sponge. “If you went to obedience school, this would not be happening right now.”
Minghao snatches the tennis ball and hides it behind his back. Cha Cha turns on him with wide eyes.
“Don’t listen to him, it was kinda cute. You miiiiiiissed me,” he coos to the dog. “You missed me, huh. You want the ball? Catch!”
Cha Cha scrambles after the tennis ball, straight into the kitchen, where Minghao hears her crash against the cabinets in excitement. She rushes back with her tongue lolling out around her prize.
Laughing, Minghao slots back into this life like he never left.
Most of the day he wastes unpacking and napping at various intervals. After dinner he sits Mingyu on the bed and fills his lap with souvenirs he brought specifically for him: latiao, jumping sugar, overseasoned popcorn, a box of mung bean milk, and a tiny decorative slab of jade.
“This is beautiful.” Mingyu turns the piece of jade over in his hands. “These characters on the back say Anshan, right?”
“Wow. You remember that from our cheat sheets?”
“You’re good at simplified characters,” Minghao says, resting a hand on Mingyu’s knee.
That gets a reaction. Mingyu huffs a self-conscious laugh, attention focused on how the stone bounces white light off the walls. Minghao draws a breath to tease him, but Mingyu looks up through his lashes and...
Boom. Right there. Something has changed. Mingyu is running on a different wavelength, almost imperceptibly, and Minghao would think it was just a figment of his imagination if not for that look. They’ve shared charged and confusing moments together. But this is the first time Mingyu has stared at him with narrowed, intense eyes.
That’s his project look. And he’s pointing it straight at Minghao.
“Thanks,” Mingyu says.
Minghao pulls his hand away and tries to decide if the heat in his gut is interest or nerves. Maybe both. What happened while he was away?
On Monday morning, Minghao wakes up fully on top of Mingyu.
This is a first. They’re both stomach-down and his chest is against the curve of Mingyu’s back. One of Minghao’s legs is off to the side, but the other is nestled between the backs of Mingyu’s thighs. Both hands are squirreled under the pillow like he tried to bury himself straight through Mingyu’s body into the bed. His cheek is sticky from the mingling of their skin.
Dear god, this can’t get any more humiliating. How can he escape with dignity? At least Minghao’s lower body isn’t awake enough to take interest. One hand at a time, he slides free, excruciatingly aware of Mingyu’s even breathing and how traitorously comfortable he feels. He’s relaxed down to the marrow. As if he slept better last night than ever before. How unfair.
Minghao doesn’t escape unnoticed. His weight has to shift so drastically that Mingyu twitches awake, snuffling into the pillow like a puppy.
“Sorry,” Minghao whispers, scrambling off the bed and fleeing to the bathroom.
The past few days have been unremarkable. He napped on Saturday, recovering from gentle jetlag, and spent all of yesterday doing laundry and unpacking. Nothing to exert himself to the point of sleeping so deeply that he rolls on top of Mingyu.
Everytime he thinks they’ve crossed all boundaries, they cross another. Oh well. He would be stressed out about the intimate cuddling if not for the daunting prospect of returning to work today.
Minghao is deeply nervous for his meeting with the executive head. Not much is known about Mr. Han around the studios—he’s said to be a reclusive and snobbish man, the second son of a wealthy family within one of Seoul’s largest media conglomerates. He attends the triannual overview meetings and no others.
At 8am on the dot, Minghao takes the elevator up three floors above the studios. Here the foyer is impeccable and silent, nothing like the comfortable rush where designers meet photographers meet editors. Minghao walks past posh offices with odd glass fixtures monopolizing desk space, exotic plants on the shelves, even one with a traditional wooden chest that must be a million won at least.
What opulence. Minghao can hardly convince himself to buy designer clothes without feeling a weird guilt. All the expensive pieces from his wardrobe are gifts from past clients. He’s so disconnected from this side of the work, he forgets how much profit Seventeen actually makes. It’s vaguely nauseating.
Minghao knocks on Mr. Han’s door and hears a pleasant, “Come in.”
This office is no exception. An enormous tapestry is strung behind Mr. Han’s desk, depicting a bold series of cultural images. The South Korean flag, a mountain range, a hand fan, a hanok, and Namsan tower, among others. It must have costs hundreds of thousands of won. It’s gorgeous. Minghao bows and sits on the plush leather couch, feeling like a pig being fattened for slaughter.
“Good morning,” Mr. Han begins. “I hope you had safe travels back to Seoul.”
“I did, thank you.”
Mr. Han clasps his fists together and sighs. His disappointment is heavy. “Let’s get right to the heart of things. This is your second warning, Mr. Seo,” he says. “I want you to understand how serious we are. We can’t have employees running back to China for every little thing, I’m sure you understand.”
Oh, so the prejudice is being promoted from subtextual to explicit. Minghao rests his hands politely in his lap and nods. He hopes to present the image of a demure, apologetic employee. In his head he switches to Mandarin and starts cussing. Asshole with no empathy —
“I understand, sir.” Minghao lowers his head respectfully and means to leave it at that.
But… he didn’t speak against Seungcheol during the first complaint. He didn’t defend himself. And he regretted it a little bit, afterwards, when the clouds of his emotions cleared and he could see the situation more objectively. Minghao should’ve tried to defend himself because wasn’t in the wrong then. He isn’t really in the wrong now, either.
So he continues, voice low but steady, “If you don’t mind me explaining, sir. This was a family emergency. I don’t plan on ‘running back to China’ unless necessary. Please don’t worry.”
Minghao is firm and collected and respectful. The statement itself is not incendiary, but the act of speaking fills him with satisfaction. Screw Mr. Han. Minghao would make the same decision again and again for his mother.
Mr. Han does not look amused. He pushes his glasses up by the rim and frowns. “Noted. I hope we don’t have reason to speak again before the quarterly briefings, Mr. Seo. You may return to your studio now.”
Minghao is halfway out the door when Mr. Han calls after him.
“One more thing,” he says. “Whatever you did with the autumn spread? Do it again.”
Minghao blinks. “Yes, sir.”
When he enters the elevator, it’s empty. What a godsend. He exploits the privacy to have a forty-five second mental celebration. Not only did he stand up for himself in front of his boss, he was kinda-sorta complimented afterwards? Minghao fixes his hair and gives his reflection a dizzy little smile. Xu Minghao, first win.
He struts onto the studio floor with a newfound sense of confidence.
Barely three weeks since he’s been gone and there’s a new gray stain on the carpet. Minghao pours himself a cup of coffee and checks his hidden tea stash behind the cutlery in the drawer—still there. Perfect.
Now to find Jeonghan.
Minghao turns with every intention of rushing to Studio 3, where he knows Jeonghan is probably prepping for his upcoming showcase of a small business releasing a new line of pearl jewelry. Three steps into the hallway, Seungcheol catches him first.
“Myungho! Hold on a second.” Seungcheol jogs to his side.
Minghao hurries into a quick bow. “Seungcheol, thank you for accepting my emergency leave.”
“Not a problem. How are you doing?”
“I’m okay,” Minghao says. “Thanks. Ready to be back. What have I missed?”
Seungcheol looks visibly relieved. There’s a tension around his jaw that Minghao usually doesn’t see until a week before deadlines hit. Is this how he looks after three weeks of working alongside Jeonghan with no buffer?
“I’ll catch you up to speed this afternoon. Come to my office at 2.” Seungcheol runs a hand through his hair. “How did the meeting with Mr. Han go?”
Minghao shrugs. “I was given a warning.”
The tone of his voice must reveal everything Seungcheol needs to know. Seungcheol’s job is likely the hardest one on this floor—navigating the uncomfortable space between billionaires and artists under the same umbrella, trying to please both groups and belonging to neither. It’s not a position Minghao would ever want.
“Look, I’m sorry if he said anything…” Seungcheol casts his gaze to the sky. His lashes flutter when he sighs. “Unprofessional. Just a tip, forget the warnings. You’re not getting fired. Not after your last few shoots.”
“Oh,” Minghao says. That’s a relief. “Thanks.”
“Plus, Big Boss still thinks you’re solely responsible for any revenue from China.”
Of course. Because the man doesn’t seem to have a nuanced thought in his brain. Minghao finds it darkly amusing that Seungcheol knows the underlings’ nickname for Mr. Han and uses it, too.
“I’m not doing anything, honestly,” he sighs. “I wish I were and I could take credit for this, but Seventeen is just gaining popularity abroad. He should thank the PR department.”
“About that.” Seungcheol smiles. “I might have an opportunity for you.”
“What is it?”
“Nothing is confirmed yet, but I’m giving you a heads up so you know what to expect. The board is considering a second office.”
Minghao blinks. He has a blinding, hopeful feeling he knows where this is going. “Where?”
“Osaka, at first. Then Qingdao the next quarter.”
Seungcheol presses a finger against his own lips, eyes flitting down the hallway to check for eavesdroppers. “They’re still in discussion. But the idea is to bring in more international brands and new designers, while staying within our established aesthetic. I want to put your name forth as a creative liaison abroad, to work with the new team of photographers. If you’re interested.”
Minghao nods before he’s even finished speaking. “Yes. Definitely. Wow, I’d love to—I mean, as long as I can still shoot.”
“You’d have to take a smaller role here,” Seungcheol admits. “At least at the beginning. But yes, you could still do a spread every now and then.”
This is not a career trajectory Minghao could’ve foreseen, but he’s thrilled at the prospect. Collaborating with new artists!? Imagine business trips to Qingdao! Where his background would be an asset, not a reprimand. He wants to shake Seungcheol by the shoulders.
“That sounds amazing,” Minghao says honestly. “Just let me know what I should do.”
Seungcheol nods. There’s a gleam in his eye, like Minghao reacted exactly as he hoped. “For now, just focus on the photography. I’ll let you know if plans go through.” He lowers his voice to a whisper. “Whatever you do, do not tell Jeonghan yet. He knows enough secrets about this damn office.”
Minghao presses the back of his fist over his mouth to hide his smile. “He might already know.”
“I’m going to discipline him one day,” Seungcheol sighs.
“No, you’re not.”
“No, I’m not.”
They share a long-suffering look. Seungcheol insists on sharing his personal number and suggests they get lunch together sometime. Minghao agrees and they part more like friends than a boss and an underling. That’s not something he expected from Seungcheol, who was always detached if warm around the studios, but he won’t complain.
Finally, Minghao sets off to find Jeonghan.
Deep in the cavernous closets of Studio 6, behind a life-sized topiary of an octopus, Jeonghan is standing atop a stack of chairs and rummaging on the top shelf of the back wall. Minghao almost trips over a series of glass lighting sheets in three different shades of purple. His elbow lands hard against a metal storage box and he hisses a curse in Mandarin.
Jeonghan turns to look over one shoulder. “Myungho, you’re back!”
“What the hell are you looking for?” Minghao waves away a plume of dust and coughs. He sets his mug of coffee on a sturdy-looking side table almost entirely covered in bags of feathers.
“The gold mesh background that Sungyeon used in her last shoot.”
This room is a fire hazard waiting to happen. Minghao picks his way carefully to stand at Jeonghan’s waist level. Between all the clutter and props, he wouldn’t be surprised if the mesh background ended up six feet under.
“Where are the interns?”
“Eunwoo is sick and Yerim doesn’t come in on Thursdays.”
Minghao wants to advise him to be realistic and give up now. Unfortunately Jeonghan isn’t one to take no for an answer. Minghao sighs and says, “Fine. I’ll help you look.”
Jeonghan turns fully around, eyes bright, and jumps from the stack of chairs. His boots land with an audible thump that rustles the precarious stacks on the opposite shelves. A few shimmering baubles are knocked askew and Minghao dives to catch them, hands outstretched—
Only to miss.
The first one hits him square in the chest and explodes instantly, dousing him in a thin layer of pink-white glitter. The second and third leave similar scenes of chaos on the floor. The fourth turns out to be a lightbulb that tink-tink- tinks down the side of the shelf and shatters.
“Fuck,” Minghao wheezes. Glitter coagulates on his tongue and tastes like cardboard. He sputters and spits. Some of it lands in his coffee.
Jeonghan keels over laughing. “Oh no,” he says, and tries to speak but loses himself in hysterics. “You—”
Vindictively Minghao blows glitter at him. It’s the most unprofessional thing he’s ever done and it feels incredible . Jeonghan swats him away and leans on the octopus topiary for support, still laughing, except his weight causes the octopus to slide over and collide with the wall, mount-first. A crash echoes through the building, so loud that it rings in his ears afterward.
Someone’s voice calls out hesitantly from the studio. “Everything okay in there?”
Minghao wipes his face with the inside of his shirt and backs away. He sees the look in Jeonghan’s eyes. “No,” he whispers. “This is your mess!”
“Can you get me the editorial interns?” Jeonghan shouts. His voice is still wobbly from laughter and it makes him sound needy, in distress. “Hurry. It’s an emergency.”
“Stop terrorizing the interns.”
“What? It’s not bullying. Learning the inside of a studio closet is valuable experience.”
“I…” Minghao shakes his head and considers eating the souvenir candy he brought for Jeonghan and Joshua. “I cannot believe I missed you.”
Jeonghan flicks his hair back. His smile is different this time, more muted and genuine, as he sacrifices both palms to brush glitter off Minghao’s shoulders and chest.
“But you did,” he coos.
“I did,” Minghao agrees.
A few days pass where Minghao is so busy resettling into Seventeen’s chaos that he doesn’t have time to investigate Mingyu’s strange behavior. He has to review all the set-up Jeonghan has done before their joint shoot next week, which will be three days of back-to-back appointments in two different studios. He’s preemptively exhausted. He’s so happy to be back. Is it weird that he missed the bus , of all things?
On a Thursday, he and Mingyu assemble ingredients for hot pot together in the kitchen. Mingyu is mid-speech about his last day volunteering when Minghao opens the cupboard. Immediately, he notices two things are amiss.
First, the two identical glass bottles where Mingyu stored his honey and agave syrup are both gone. A large bag of all-natural coconut sugar sits in their place. Second, there is a new box of hojicha tea tucked into the back corner. It’s Minghao’s favorite brand, the decaf version he prefers, decorated in green vines and waterfalls.
He realizes it’s been quiet far too long. He missed a response somewhere, and now Mingyu has paused and looked over with curious eyebrows.
Minghao picks up the box. “You don’t drink this.”
“But you bought a new box?”
“Yeah. You like it.”
It feels like something important is shifting right now, the room tilting as Minghao stands perfectly still and stares at the tea. Stares at the total lack of honey in the kitchen. He turns to look at Mingyu. “You didn’t know when I was coming back.”
“I didn’t know if you were coming back,” he corrects. “When I bought that, anyway.”
Minghao is flabbergasted. “Then why…?”
Easily, Mingyu could brush this off. He could say, I wanted to try it. I forgot you were gone.
He doesn’t say those things. Instead he sets down the ladle. He walks over and takes the box from Minghao’s hands, tosses it into the cupboard, and closes the doors. On his face is something wide open and fragile. He crowds into Minghao’s space, slowly, giving him plenty of time to move away. He rests an uncertain hand on the wall beside his hip. Minghao goes very still.
“I think you know why,” Mingyu says softly.
He sways forward, just the slightest bit.
Half an invitation manages to dissolve Minghao’s final inhibitions like cotton candy in water.
Minghao closes the gap. He grabs Mingyu directly by the face and kisses him, tender from the start, chaste and wanting. Months of desire expand into one shining moment. They don’t know each other like this—at first it’s a shock, Minghao not even fully aware he lit the wick before the explosion.
Mingyu slides a hand across his waist, angles their faces differently, and oh , there it is. They melt into something sweet and open-mouthed. Kissing like this is good. Great .
When Minghao’s hand latches onto the back of Mingyu’s neck, they both sway against the cupboard. The hard weight of hips against his own makes Minghao feel secure, a salacious contrast to Mingyu’s plush and yielding mouth. He’s wanted this for so long he can’t keep still. His other hand roams from cheek to jaw to collarbone, where thin fabric separates their skin.
Mingyu’s breath hitches in his throat when Minghao cards a hand through his hair, pushing his bangs back gently. He runs fingernails down Mingyu’s spine and is rewarded with a shiver.
Where they touch skin-to-skin heats up. Minghao chases whatever sunshine taste lives in Mingyu’s mouth, licking deeper. He’s drunk on power, he’s giddy, he’s flying, he feels precious .
The next time Mingyu’s mouth parts, a whisper of teeth scrape against Minghao’s bottom lip. A sound is coaxed low from his throat, involuntary, embarrassing. His knees actually tremble. He can feel the edges of Mingyu’s smile against his own cheeks.
Minghao twitches backward so fast his head slams into the cupboard. “Ah, fuck.”
Mingyu’s hand flies up to cradle his skull. Concerned, even as he smiles. Radiant. Minghao looks at him in a blind daze. Oh, holy shit. They’re making out in the middle of the kitchen on a Thursday night.
As if Mingyu is a mindreader, he says, “Don’t freak out. Let’s talk about this.”
That’s so like him—always wanting to talk. Minghao wants to dump a can of paint over his head and never speak again. “I’m so sorry,” he says, fingers still fisted in Mingyu’s collar. Belatedly he jerks his hand back. “I’m… oh my god, I’m still paying you. I’m taking advantage of you.”
“No, you’re not.”
“I don’t want you to think—fuck, I’m so sorry, Mingyu. You do not owe me this.”
“You’re not paying me anymore,” Mingyu is quick to argue. “The visa is settled, you don’t have to pay me. I won’t accept.”
Minghao has ruined everything. “But you need the money.”
“Listen to me! I don’t care.” Mingyu reaches out and laces their fingers together just like he did at the airport. “Let’s just split the rent. Stay here.”
They’re standing too close for platonic. Too close for casual. Minghao thinks the air must have been sucked out of the room when they kissed, that his heart must have stopped in that moment and it’s just now violently restarting, a jackhammer in his chest. He presses his free palm flat to his ribcage.
Mingyu uses their entwined hands to tug Minghao forward, away from the cupboard, into the living room. He arranges them sitting on the couch face-to-face. Sloshing with hope, Minghao lets himself be led. Mingyu had said stay here.
When Mingyu speaks, he keeps his eyes fixed firmly on their linked hands. “I told myself that if you came back, I’d have to be honest. When I thought you’d stay in Anshan, the way I felt—there’s no pretending that away. There’s no waiting for that to pass.” He draws a deep breath. “I’ve been trying to tell you all week. I have real feelings for you.”
Minghao’s heart flutters into his throat. “Feelings,” he echoes.
“Like, more-than-friends feelings. And before you say anything, I’m sure about it. I’m not confused. I like who you are. Xu Minghao.”
The use of his birth name hits Minghao like a tsunami.
This is not the epic, public declaration of love he daydreamed about during prepubescent math class. This is not the way Luhan pushed a shot of tequila into his hands and said, “Pretty boy’s with me.”
This is not meant for government-approved Seo Myungho and his perfectly orchestrated long distance romance. Mingyu has one leg hanging off the couch. He taps the ball of his foot and fidgets with his ring, a rosey blush across his cheeks, avoiding eye contact.
This is real . This is about them.
Minghao has nothing to say. His mind is a flat yellow, sunshine-yellow, Mingyu-yellow.
Mingyu continues quickly. “Sorry if that makes you uncomfortable. It would make me uncomfortable if I hid this from you. But I’m hoping…”
He looks up through dark lashes. You kissed me goes unspoken. Minghao feels his heart, still kicking, start to slow. The curtains are pushed open somewhere deep and once-dark in his heart.
“I have feelings for you, too,” Minghao says. “Real feelings.”
Mingyu’s expression fissures into soft relief. “Oh.”
Minghao flounders for words. He squeezes Mingyu’s hand, rubs a thumb over the tender skin of his wrist. “So. But. This is kinda fucked up,” he says. “We’re married. And—what do we do now, date? As if we aren’t married?”
“Would it be stupid if I said that I don’t want things to change?” Mingyu licks absently over his bottom lip. Minghao wants to bite it. “I want us to be us , just… for real.”
“So live how we’ve been living, but with more kissing.”
Mingyu ducks his face into the couch cushion to hide his giggles. “I mean, yeah,” he mumbles, shaking off the jittery laughter. “If that’s something you want.”
“Yeah, I want that.”
Minghao brings their interlocked hands up to his mouth. He presses his lips against the back of Mingyu’s hand, thinking fast, taking in how Mingyu’s eyes follow his movement with a dark, familiar interest.
That expression right there—that’s not possible to fake.
“Can I ask, when did it become real for you?” Minghao says quietly.
“No specific moment. When you brought my assignment folder to school, maybe, is when I started thinking about who you are to me.” Mingyu stares at his own hand against Minghao’s mouth. “But I didn’t understand what I wanted until you left.”
How funny. While Minghao was stressed and worried and suffering the strangest identity crisis he’d ever experienced—he had thought of Mingyu often. The reminder of Mingyu kept him grounded in Anshan. Mingyu’s sweater literally kept him warm.
And it turns out that was reciprocated?
“You missed me,” Minghao says like it’s an epiphany.
“Yeah. I told you that already!”
“No, but—“ Minghao struggles to explain the distinction between mutual yearning and what he worried was ambiguous and one-sided. “I missed you, too.”
The smile hasn’t really left Mingyu’s face, but now he brightens with a victorious energy. “I know,” he says cheerfully. “You got so embarrassed when you admitted to stealing my hoodie, it was cute.”
“It’s a nice hoodie! I think I’ll keep it.”
“Fine. Looks better on you anyways.”
Flustered, Minghao laughs. Maybe they’re insane for doing this—dating while married—but he doesn’t care. All the longing, all the loneliness, have led to right now, with the sun casting Mingyu in gold and their hands tightly linked. This might be worth it.
Mingyu says, “I’m gonna kiss you now.”
He does, and the hot pot bubbles over on the stove.
Getting into bed that night is strange. Minghao doesn’t know what’s allowed, doesn’t entirely know what he wants, and it seems Mingyu feels the same way. He’s skittish like a baby rabbit, hopping up because he forgot to plug in his phone, or hopping up to drink water, or hopping up to—
“Chill.” Minghao lowers the book he was trying to read. “Just get in, I’m not gonna jump you.”
“Oh.” Mingyu sits cross-legged on his side of the bed. There’s a tiny smear of toothpaste on his neck. “Not even if I ask nicely?”
Minghao feels the blush explode in the tips of his ears. What a shameless flirt. He throws his book on the floor and rolls over, pulling Mingyu down by the waistband of his sweats.
They kiss like lazy teenagers.
Mingyu treats this like a mission. He is completing the assignment of Minghao’s body, touching him everywhere, finding the cheats. His hands are gentle and famished. Minghao loves it . He reciprocates. His kisses slant sloppy, he tugs Mingyu closer by the waist until they’re wrapped so close together he can reach every part of him.
Which angles make Mingyu sigh? Where on his neck is he most sensitive? How many deep, soul-sucking kisses before he moans? Minghao rolls them over until he’s caging Mingyu in with his knees and elbows. He wants to consume and be consumed.
It shouldn’t be a surprise, but Mingyu is loud. He’s holding himself back, clearly, with bitten-off sighs and tiny stuttering noises in the back of his throat. Minghao chases those sensitive sounds as he draws out the kiss in a way he knows is overwhelming, letting his head go fuzzy, until Mingyu whines and his hips twitch.
When Mingyu scratches lightly down Minghao’s lower back, pressing his nails to bare skin—
“Okay.” Minghao rolls off and throws his head back against the pillow. “Um, we should probably slow down.”
Mingyu stares at the hollow of his throat for a long, wide-eyed moment before speaking. “Yeah, you’re right.”
They rearrange themselves into a more practical sleeping position. Instead of facing outwards, like normal, they face inwards and avoid each others’ eyes. Is this sexy or awkward or maybe both? Minghao is so happy, he can’t believe he’s not bioluminescent by now.
Mingyu licks his lips. “So I... “ He blinks. “Nevermind.”
Minghao pinches his arm lightly. “What?”
“I was thinking. What if it doesn’t work out?”
He waves a hand between their bodies. The words settle over the bed like oil.
In the short, overwhelming time since their conversation earlier, Minghao hasn’t thought about it. What happens if their experimental foray into dating goes down in flames? He can still recall the sting when his last relationship ended, how heartbreak ruined his appetite and tanked his self-esteem. For weeks he wasn’t the same person.
This would be far worse. They know how to hurt each other and they share so much. The apartment, the dog, the friends, the legally binding document… it would be a divorce .
Minghao shrugs. “We made it through the first few weeks,” he says tentatively. “We’d figure something out, I guess.”
“True.” Mingyu cracks a smile. “You were so prickly back then. Remember when you hid my phone charger? I couldn’t find it for two fucking days.”
Thinking back on their volatile beginning makes Minghao cringe. He feels like those were almost different people, strangers to each other and to themselves. Secondhand embarrassment chases him months down the line.
“Yeah, I was an asshole. Sorry.”
“Me too.” Mingyu flicks his shoulder, keeps the atmosphere light. “One time I took the succulents from the kitchen and shook a few rocks into your shoes. Actually, maybe I did that twice.”
“You—oh my god, how petty .”
“I just wanted you to pay attention to me! Because you never did!”
Minghao snorts. He loops an arm around Mingyu’s shoulders, pulling him closer, resting an affectionate palm against the back of his neck in direct opposition to his words. “You were too loud. I ignored you to keep my sanity.”
“It’s called being friendly. Try it sometime.”
That attitude deserves punishment. Minghao is fond of their back-and-forth teasing—and he thinks Mingyu already knows that, the way he starts fires—but to hide his endearment, he pounces on Mingyu’s waist and begins mercilessly tickling him. He doesn’t stop until Mingyu’s eyes are wet from laughter.
Now Mingyu can call for a ceasefire by surging up and kissing him. In a way, they both win.
But it’s a bumpy, awkward road to passion.
Maybe because the boundaries of their relationship were never clear. Maybe because they’re both a touch too inexperienced. Either way, it’s hard to be serious through a major dynamic shift. Minghao will tease and draw back, Mingyu will get shy and quiet. Half of the time Minghao wants to initiate something, he chickens out and peppers the dog with kisses instead. They maintain tentative orbits that rarely collide.
Mingyu wakes early that weekend for a run. Minghao feels him slide out of bed, hears him shuffle around the room. He stretches out a hand to confirm the sheet edges aren’t warm from the sun yet—it’s hardly dawn. Early enough to go back to sleep.
Before he can roll over and succumb to dreams, Minghao feels a light pressure against his cheek.
He opens his eyes and makes an inquisitive noise.
“Um.” Mingyu is frozen above him, lips parted, hair askew. “I don’t know why I did that. Sorry.”
Damn Kim Mingyu for making Minghao use his brain before 8am. He mumbles, “Why are you apologizing for kissing me.” He flops a hand onto Mingyu’s forearm. “That’s cute. Come here.”
Minghao tugs him down into a real kiss. It’s quick, because he hasn’t brushed his teeth, but Mingyu is smiling when they part and… that’s better. They can have this together. Minghao buries his face back in the pillow.
Damn Kim Mingyu for making him blush before 8am.
Minghao has plans with Seungcheol that afternoon (non-work related plans, which is both thrilling and terrifying—he’s getting steaks with his boss for fun !) but later, when the sun is fat and low, he and Mingyu reconvene for a joint trip to the grocery store.
Though it’s a twenty-minute trek, they decide to walk. Summer humidity is finally tapering off into autumn breezes and the weather is gorgeous. Soon their park will need leaf-wrangling, soon their streets will be as snowy as Minghao first saw them. He’s looking forward to that.
Mingyu collects a cart from the entrance and tackles the produce section. “I hope they have the right brand of pickled radish this time.”
“Hopefully,” Minghao agrees. He’s used to this by now, the meticulous and dramatic way Mingyu navigates vegetables.
There’s a stack of on-sale avocados in the corner which Minghao gravitates towards. He holds their green bodies two at a time, feeling for stubbly skin and soft pockets.
Selecting two, he brings them to Mingyu like trophies. “Do you approve?”
Minghao tosses them into the cart.
“While you were in Anshan,” Mingyu says suddenly, poised over a row of cabbage heads. “I cleaned the apartment a little—“
A little? Minghao tries not to laugh.
“—and don’t get mad, but I looked at your paintings behind the couch.”
“That’s okay. I wasn’t hiding them from you.”
Mingyu deftly wraps a head of cabbage, drops it beside the mushrooms, and strolls onward towards the butcher’s section. He’s smiling a little. Like this he looks very soft and ordinary.
“They’re really pretty,” Mingyu says. “The colors are nice.”
“Thanks.” Minghao shoves his hands in his pockets and keeps pace.
“You know the yellow and black one? Like a Jackson Pollock?”
“We should hang it on the wall.”
Minghao stops walking in the middle of the toiletries aisle. On one side are toothbrushes, on the other side are baby diapers, and further down the aisle begins the refrigerated meat. He blinks dumbly.
Mingyu makes it to the end of the row before he notices and stops. He turns around, leaning one elbow on the cart.
“Are you serious?” Minghao asks.
Mingyu nods. “It’s like, the perfect color scheme. And I never knew what to put there. As long as you’re not planning to sell it?”
“No, I just…” Didn’t think it was good enough to hang anywhere.
Well. He wonders when—if—Mingyu will stop surprising him.
Minghao shrugs and says, “You can have it.”
He’s pleased, and Mingyu can tell, and they smile at each other like shy kids on the playground. Minghao has a spring in his step through the whole store. Mingyu likes his art. Not just his photography, but his paintings, which are arguably far less impressive and far more personal.
In the bowels of the frozen foods section, where Mingyu is debating taiyaki or Melona, Minghao studies the innards of their cart. Lots of vegetables, a few slices of beef. Fish balls, apples, instant noodles, those tiny yellow potatoes, a tub of kimchi, soft tofu, a yam. All of their personal selections tossed together like a salad. He tries to read the ingredients list on a box of coconut water and gives up halfway through.
Imagine if he had to navigate Seoul alone from the get-go. If he didn’t have Mingyu or even Junhui guiding his steps, showing him where to go, how to speak, what to eat.
“Hey,” Minghao says spontaneously, setting down the coconut water. “Can you imagine if Seventeen gave me a work visa? We never would’ve met.”
“You think so?” Mingyu glances up from the open freezer, two boxes of popsicles in one hand.
“Not right away. I guess Junhui might’ve thrown me at you eventually. He has a weird theory that we’re similar people.”
Minghao doesn’t say But I would’ve thought you were vapid and not my type. He feels ashamed when he thinks back to his first impression of Mingyu as a dumb pretty boy and how long it took to dismantle those preconceptions.
“Huh,” Mingyu says. “I agree, we match well.” He drops the popsicles in the cart and pushes his hair back. “I don’t think we’d be here, though. If we met differently.”
“Speaking of Junhui, let’s invite him for dinner next week. I want to try your Anshan recipes.”
Minghao bites his cheek to keep from smiling like a clown. “Sure. I’ll teach you how to make lamb skewers, too.”
Mingyu’s mouth falls open. “ Lamb skewers ? You’ve been holding out on me.”
“Never,” Minghao says, and means it.
“God. I can’t wait to cook that for Seungkwan and make him hate me more than he already does.”
“Um,” Minghao laughs. “Good luck?”
At checkout, Minghao’s hand hovers over his wallet uncertainly. Who’s paying? When they’ve gone grocery shopping together in the past, Mingyu paid. But that was before Minghao stopped paying him. How does money factor into their relationship now?
Mingyu nudges Minghao further down the checkout aisle with his hip and inserts his card into the reader. He gives Minghao a sidelong glance. “You can get it next time.”
“Okay,” Minghao says. He has a thousand more questions. “Sure.”
Their products become a long line of tote bags on the counter. Minghao silently bemoans the decision to walk. They load their arms and Mingyu adjusts the egg carton a dozen times before they’re allowed to leave.
“Careful,” he says when Minghao gets fed up and starts walking. He jogs after him, unbalanced with three bags on one side and two on the other. “Careful!”
“I got this. Relax.”
Mingyu makes a little wheezing noise when he trips over a crack in the sidewalk and Minghao teases him about it the whole walk home.
Their neighborhood is lit with heavy, lazy light—long shadows from trees whose leaves are turning yellow-green. Front doors hang open, waiting to swallow children in time for dinner. Somewhere a girl is laughing and the sound echoes down the street. It feels comfortable.
Minghao forgets about the eggs and almost drops the bags right outside their door. Just in time, he sets everything down gently and examines the angry criss-cross pattern across his skin from the fabric digging in. His arms are burning . He can’t feel a single finger.
“Don’t give up,” Mingyu chants as he fumbles the key into the lock. “We made it… almost there…!”
The door clangs open. Cha Cha begins her usual greeting. Minghao shakes out his useless arms before hauling the bags one by one into the kitchen.
“Jeez,” he sighs, leaning against the counter. “We are never walking there again.”
Mingyu laughs. “We’re idiots.”
“We’re gonna be sore for days. Did your popsicles melt?”
“Oh—shit, I hope not.”
As Mingyu rustles through the bags looking for his precious loot, Minghao sees a missed call from his mom. His breath catches in his throat. Did something happen? Eyes glued to the screen, he hurries to the balcony and mumbles to Mingyu, “Sorry, be right back.”
Minghao leans both arms on the railing and hits the green icon. A mosquito buzzes around his elbow. He swats it away, pressing the phone closer to his ear as if that will encourage an answer.
His mother answers on the second ring. “Hello, hello.”
“Hey, sorry, I was walking home and missed your call. Everything okay?”
“Yeah. I feel lucky,” she laughs. “You call back so quickly now!”
“Ahhh, don’t. I’m always quick,” Minghao argues, even as he smiles helplessly into his sleeve. “How are you feeling?”
“I’m right as rain. Don’t worry.”
Of course. He hums a little sound of acknowledgement.
He and his mother trade casual descriptions of their days—the weather, the neighborhood cats, the end of the drama—before he asks for his father.
“Oh, he just got home.” A distant fumbling noise. Shouting. The neighbors must be over, too. “Here.” The voice changes, lower and quieter. “Hello?”
“Hi, it’s me.” Minghao nudges a fallen leaf off the balcony and watches it spiral to the ground. “How is everything?”
“Good, we have two new clients on Haizhou street. You remember Miss Lee lost her barbeque stand? She bought a property there.”
“That’s great. How was the latest doctor’s appointment?”
His father hesitates. Minghao’s heart plummets like the leaf. There were always chances of recovery complications, but he thought—
“Honestly,” his father says. “It went well. They said the recovery was better than expected. Your visit must’ve helped, so come back soon.”
Minghao exhales a relieved laugh. He needs to stop making mountains out of molehills. “Yeah, okay. Maybe I’ll bring my roommate. You’d really like him.”
“For New Years.”
“Okay,” he says. “Sounds good.”
They exchange goodbyes and end the call. Minghao feels more secure than he has in weeks, more certain that he can juggle both Anshan and Seoul at the same time. He can keep his mother’s staticky laugh. He can keep Mingyu’s sweet, leisurely smile. Those don’t need to belong to separate versions of himself.
Through the door left ajar, Cha Cha squeezes outside and joins him on the balcony. Her nails are in need of clipping. She drops a stuffed carrot at Minghao’s feet and pants up at him with imploring eyes.
He takes a moment to enjoy this.
Then Minghao pockets his phone and picks up the carrot. Cha Cha’s ears perk up. He dives inside the apartment and she follows, playing fetch against the soothing background noise of Mingyu humming, cupboards shutting, and the faucet flicking on and off.
Seoul turns up the heat in early August.
Minghao keeps waking up in the hidden hours of nighttime, sweaty and uncomfortable. That could be because Mingyu’s whole torso is pressed against his under the covers. He tells himself it’s only the heatwave, pulls the sheet off their bodies, and doesn’t move away.
During the daytime, Mingyu sulks. He complains about the weather on the phone with Seokmin and Yoohyeon. He comes home from the gym with random pink splotches all over his skin—a weird and persistent heat rash that cools into dry, irritated patches.
“This is so unsexy,” he whines, flat on his stomach on the couch, as Minghao applies aloe lotion to his shoulders and elbows.
“This isn’t not sexy.”
“You’re lying to be nice.”
“No, I’m not.” Minghao leans down and presses his lips to the nape of Mingyu’s neck, letting his breath coast over Mingyu’s ears. “I’m rubbing your shoulders to be nice.”
Mingyu shivers and makes a weird, muffled noise into the cushion. “Mmm. I like it.”
Honestly, I’m learning how to do this from you, Minghao wants to say, but that’s far too embarrassing to admit.
He considers himself to be nice. But Mingyu is kind , and there’s a difference. Minghao is trying to catch up in that regard. He wouldn’t mind spending a long time doing this—trading kindnesses back and forth with Mingyu like a game of catch, building at this cathedral until he runs out of worship.
Minghao kneads his fingers into tight trapezius muscles one more time. He leans down again and kisses the shell of Mingyu’s ear. “Done. You wanna order delivery tonight?”
“Yes. I’m too gravely injured to cook.”
Minghao flicks the back of his head. “Let’s get Chinese food.”
“We always get Chinese food,” he sighs.
The words are still lilted, teasing, but Minghao hesitates. They don’t always order Chinese... right? He sits back on the couch, relinquishing his optimal position straddling the back of Mingyu’s thighs, where the cargo shorts are riding up. He can’t remember. Two weeks ago—no, that was jjampong.
“Do we?” Minghao asks. He really hasn’t noticed.
Mingyu reads into the tone of his voice. “Kinda?” He flips over and sits up, hair wild. “But it doesn’t matter, I like Chinese food. It’s my favorite.”
“I thought your favorite was spicy ramen.”
“Okay, but.” Mingyu grins. “I’m lying to be nice.”
Minghao shoves him. “Well I’m being serious. Tell me if you don’t like something.”
That’s never been a problem before and he’ll be upset if it starts becoming a problem now, after everything. They’re both quick to voice complaints, quicker to lay them to rest. Mingyu’s face goes carefully blank.
“I don’t like that we order Chinese every single week.”
“Okay,” Minghao says, despite the childish hurt he feels. “Fair.”
Mingyu scrunches his nose in a frown. He still reeks like aloe vera. “I don’t wanna be disrespectful. I know it means a lot to you, having familiar things.”
“When it comes to cultural differences, you’re literally the most respectful person in my life.” Minghao pats his knee, thinking of Mr. Han and the interns. “I’ll be honest if you screw up, don’t worry. We can spice up our deliveries.”
“Yeah. Let’s do pizza or ramen or—“
“No, about…” Mingyu straightens up. “Me being the most respectful.”
Minghao settles more comfortably into the couch and considers how to explain his thoughts. From here, he can see through the back door and over the balcony, where the sun is slipping fully behind the trees. The sky is an ombre of lavender and indigo. Days are shrinking into autumn, faster and faster, unspooling from his hands.
“You’ve built me a home,” Minghao says carefully. “And you call me by name here.”
Mingyu’s throat bobs. “ Oh .”
They order ramen and takoyaki. Mingyu watches him through the whole meal, eyes circling his body like a wolf calculating the distance to his jugular. Minghao flushes hot under the attention. When he figures out what’s happening he eats slower, watching the impatience build in Mingyu’s shoulders and mouth.
The moment he stands from the table, dishes in hand, Mingyu sweeps everything into the recycling and kisses him. The kiss is intentional, warm. Ready.
Minghao winds his arms around Mingyu’s shoulders and kisses back, yes .
They have sex often.
There’s a lot of talking at the beginning, and not in a good way.
“Mingyu.” Minghao grits his teeth. “Move down, ow—”
The angle is all wrong. Mingyu above him freezes, moves down so their hips are better aligned and his knee isn’t a shiv in Minghao’s side. He folds himself delicately over Minghao to kiss his cheeks, his jawline. “Sorry, sorry, sorry! Did that hurt?”
“You’re fine,” Minghao says. The pleasure is already returning, it’s just been a while since he’s done this. Mingyu’s mouth slides down his throat. “Mmmh, hold on. Stop sucking my neck. You fucking vampire.”
Mingyu laughs. “But you have pretty collarbones.”
“And I like showing them off. With shirts I can’t wear if you bite...” His words melt into a sigh as Mingyu begins to move again, slowly, pressing open-mouthed kisses to his pulse point. Minghao loops his arms around Mingyu’s neck and forgets what he was saying.
It gets better and better. Like this, it builds.
Until one memorable afternoon when Mingyu goes to his knees on the kitchen floor and looks up with big eyes and says, “Tell me I’m good?”
“Fuck,” is all Minghao can manage at first. “Um. Okay.” He licks his lips and slides one hand into Mingyu’s hair. His jeans get unbuttoned slowly, his voice shakes. “You’re good. You’re so good to me, baby. You’re pretty and you suck me so well—”
Mingyu moans and Minghao’s whole body shakes.
Apparently Mingyu likes being teased in public and praised in private. That, Minghao can do. So the sex gets really good. They learn each other this way, with a fresh intimacy, with eager hands and mouths and a level of trust Minghao has never shared with another partner. In those first few weeks of experimentation, he learns just as much about himself as he learns about Mingyu.
He likes to pull hair. He likes to have a mirror nearby. He likes to be called sweet names, in a certain mood, at a particular time, and after a little while Mingyu can tell exactly when. Their preferences don’t totally match up, but they exploit the overlaps and forge a rhythm that leaves Minghao trembling and breathless.
As it turns out, they’re good at this.
Mingyu looks at him afterwards on the opposite pillow, bottom lip bitten red, chest still heaving, and says, “You’re so hot, holy shit.”
Minghao bursts out laughing. He rolls away and pulls the sheet over his face, sure his ears are lobster-red. “Thanks?”
“You know, half the reason I agreed to the marriage is just because you’re hot. Like, 60% yes for the money, 40% yes for the eye candy.”
“No you did not.”
“Yes I did! Junhui could probably tell, too.” Mingyu reaches under the sheet and snags Minghao’s elbow, draws him closer, kisses his mouth like he can’t get enough. “I wasn’t subtle. I stared at your picture for a long time.”
Minghao smiles into the kiss. Sure, whatever you say. He slides a knee between Mingyu’s legs and feels damp skin. He stops and leans back, debating on whether or not to flip Mingyu onto his stomach and clean him up the sexy way.
Not tonight, he decides. Things might escalate into a messy round 2 they don’t have time for. Mingyu was forged with addictive properties—it’s hard to stop touching him once he’s started.
Minghao tries to bite down on his own devilish smile. “You’re a mess,” he says. “Wanna shower?”
“Only if you wash my hair.”
Mingyu carries him into the bathroom, kicking and laughing and loving all at once.
It takes a few weeks to get Junhui over for dinner, because he and Chan are choreographing for two different idol groups and dancing backup for a soloist at the same time. He arrives at the door in full athletic gear, sweat still drying at his temples, with a rueful little smile.
“I forgot to pick up the wine you asked for.” Junhui slumps inside, leaning his forehead against Minghao’s shoulder. He ignores Cha Cha’s excited barking. “And I ate the last of the tanghulu so I come empty-handed. Forgive me.”
“You’re terrible.” Minghao pats his back consolingly.
What he wants to say is, please don’t work yourself to an early grave . But he’s no hypocrite.
Minghao steers his guest straight to the table. Mingyu’s lamb skewers and pickled cabbage stir fry are cooling in the center, supported by miscellaneous sides that Minghao picked up from the Chinese grocers uptown. Tea eggs, bok choy in black sauce, a hunk of slightly stale cornbread. Everything he saw that specifically reminded him of home.
Mouth falling open, Junhui sits indelicately in one of the chairs. “Oh my god.” He leans forward to sniff the tea eggs and makes an unintelligible happy noise. “Is this—”
“Are these skewers homemade? Xu Minghao, you get better every time. Date me.”
Minghao coughs and pours the tea. “No. Anyway, Mingyu made these.”
Mingyu, who is currently two cigarettes deep on the balcony. He’s having a rough day for reasons unknown.
It didn’t make the evening awkward, because Mingyu—as always—breathes quietly through his hurts. Sometimes, Minghao has learned, he is a type of maudlin that nothing can touch. Minghao shadowed him through the kitchen anyway, coaxing him into relaxed conversation, hoping to help in the most meager of ways.
This is the forecast of caring about someone. Their clouds become your storm, too.
Junhui follows his glance to the balcony. Mingyu’s silhouette is dark against the twilight.
“I’ll be impressed if they taste good.” Junhui deepthroats a skewer and chews so passionately that flecks of wood fall onto his plate. Disgusting. He sways a little with glee. “Oh, fuck, they’re amazing. Nevermind. Mingyu, date me.”
“He’s married, back off,” Minghao says, laughing. “Plus, we’re… trying things out for real.”
Junhui chokes. His eyes go as wide as the moon. “Since when?”
“Since I got back from Anshan.”
“And you didn’t tell me?” Junhui smacks his shoulder. “Congratulations. I’m happy for you, Xiao Hao.”
Minghao busies himself wiping a crumb off the table and trying not to blush. “Yeah. Me too.”
The glass door slides open and Mingyu pokes his head inside, hair rumpled from the breeze. “Hey! Sorry, sorry, I didn’t hear the dog.” He looks at their cooling tea. “How long have you been waiting? You could’ve grabbed me.”
“It’s okay.” Junhui drums all ten fingers against the hot porcelain mug. His voice is sweeter in Korean. “We were just catching up.”
They divebomb into dinner. Mingyu’s dishes are exceptional and he blooms under Junhui’s praise. Junhui is good at that—expressing appreciation. This time it involves moaning semi-sexually around mouthfuls of meat, but, fine.
At one point Minghao starts to say, “How’s—“ Wonwoo ?
He remembers too late that Mingyu is seated at the table, that Mingyu has hardly spoken to Wonwoo since the fundraising dinner. He switches to, “How’s the choreo going?”
Junhui explains the theme of the comeback in vague terms, trying not to give away the company or the number of group members for anonymity’s sake. He doesn’t notice Minghao’s stutter. Neither does Mingyu, who nods along energetically to Junhui’s story.
A cool, pebble-shaped feeling of regret sinks in Minghao’s stomach. He may never have a good relationship with Wonwoo. That doesn’t really matter—Wonwoo at best disinterests him—but for Junhui’s sake, he wishes the four of them could sit comfortably at dinner one day, their strange fateful square.
Minghao always imagined he and Junhui would share their happinesses, so he’s a little sad to accept that’s impossible here. Maybe, perhaps, one day… but not now. Not even soon.
Anyway, Junhui needs to pull his head out of his ass and make a move first.
He rejoins the conversation when Junhui flips the question around to his work. Junhui’s delighted by The Glitter Debacle, as he’s taken to calling it, and Mingyu’s face goes all soft and fond. The food is demolished happily.
Junhui has one long final string of bok choy between his chopsticks when he says, “So, what are you guys doing about the money?”
Moment, ruined. Goddamn Wen Jenhui.
Minghao spares him a murderous eyeroll before he risks checking Mingyu’s reaction. They haven’t discussed this since his initial confession, and it’s been lurking in the dark corners of their conversations for a few weeks. Minghao has been too cowardly to broach the subject.
Tonight is not the night. Mingyu hesitates. He’s probably not in the mood.
Junhui sets down his chopsticks with an audible click. His smile disappears and he switches to Mandarin. “Minghao, tell me you’re not still paying him.”
“I’m not,” Minghao rushes to say. “That’s over, it’s fine.”
“Does he know that?”
“Yes. We talked about it. Chill.”
“I’m still here.” Mingyu gestures to himself with a dramatic flair of his hands. His lips are thin with unhappiness. “Not understanding.”
Minghao opens his mouth to do damage control, but Junhui beats him to the punch. “Sorry,” he says in Korean again, sipping his tea. “Just checking on him. Whose decision was it, to stop the payments?”
“Mine. The money is my responsibility.” Mingyu sits back, unhappy, abandoning a plate hardly touched. “Things have changed since I told you the full story, Junhui.”
This is news to Minghao, too. At least, he thinks it is. What could’ve changed? Minseo’s uncomfortable visit was the last time Mingyu mentioned his family—and Minghao was a little preoccupied with his own. He wraps both hands around his mug, comforted by warmth.
“Last time I met with the investigators,” Mingyu begins. “They told me there’s a chance these people aren’t even alive anymore. I’ve heard nothing from them since the original threat. Considering the type of work they do, it wouldn’t be a surprise if karma came around full circle. I have the funds I have. It’s more than I ever thought was possible to raise. So I’m done. No more money is going to the savings account.”
Minghao tries to speak, but his mouth is mochi-sticky with surprise. “I…” A lump rises in his throat. “I’m sorry for making you choose. I didn’t know you made that decision.”
“You didn’t make me choose.” Mingyu shakes his head. “I needed this. I realized that refusing to commit to anything because I’m scared of the future is literally robbing myself of my future. Anyway, I wouldn’t meet their demands even if we kept our deal until the deadline. Mathematically it’s impossible.”
“What about your sister?”
“I have to trust that things will work out. I’ve done everything I can to make sure she’s safe and I will keep doing that, but I just want—” Mingyu looks at him, really looks. “I want one uncomplicated thing.”
The room hangs in silence. Minghao feels a little choked up. He wants to wrap Mingyu in a blanket but also yank off his clothes and make him cry. Is that how love is supposed to feel? Like your heart is constantly balancing on a tightrope and singing at the sky?
Junhui gently clears his throat. “Well, too late for that. This is pretty complicated.”
Tension floods away. The moment dries up. Minghao draws a deep breath and rips his eyes away from Mingyu, Mingyu’s mouth, Mingyu’s throat. This is a serious conversation and he shouldn’t get worked up. But that conclusion sounded a lot like— I want you .
Mingyu makes a humored little noise and hides behind his tea, blushing.
Minghao directs a very bleak stare at his best friend that hopefully conveys I will break into your fancy apartment and smother you with a pair of your own underwear tonight if you don’t leave right now.
Junhui chases the dregs of his tea, sets down an empty mug, and makes innocent eyes. Sure, Minghao has him to thank for every aspect of his life in Seoul, but. Junhui’s still a demon.
“I should get going,” Junhui says loudly. “I have to sleep well tonight, rehearsal at six tomorrow.” He stands and opens his arms. “Thanks for having me over!”
“No problem.” Mingyu stands and pulls him into a back-thumping hug. “Come by anytime, we’ll feed you.”
Junhui carries his dishes to the sink despite Mingyu’s protests. Standing in the kitchen, he looks between them with a funny, faraway expression. His mouth is tight in a way he rarely shows. Minghao rises from his chair, tense, half-expecting to hear last minute bad news.
“I’m glad you have each other,” Junhui says softly. His eyes flick between them, settle on Minghao. “It took me a long time to adjust here. You did better.”
Minghao’s stomach drops. “Only because I had you.”
Junhui’s smile returns in full force. “I know.” He pats Minghao’s head. “Trust me. Okay, I’ll head out now! Next time I’ll bring sachima and wine!”
Mingyu cocks his head at sachima. Junhui hugs Minghao tight and hurries out the door. Minghao feels like something is left unsaid, like that conversation should’ve been longer—
But he can ask tomorrow after Junhui’s had a full night’s rest. Maybe send a few carefully selected cat videos. He’s probably exhausted and just needs a friendly face to sit beside—Minghao knows how to be that person for Junhui.
He goes to sit on the couch and stare at the blank television, marinating in his emotions, while Mingyu finishes shoving the dishes into the sink for later.
Mingyu comes to join him on the adjacent cushion. “We okay?”
“Yeah,” Minghao says, half-surprised. “Of course.”
Only then does he notice Mingyu is holding himself back—balanced carefully on the couch, not touching Minghao—and when he speaks Mingyu tilts forward and nuzzles into Minghao’s shoulder like a kitten. Like he was waiting for permission.
When he sighs, his whole body melts like taffy against Minghao’s side.
Minghao returns the question. “Are you okay?”
“Yeah,” Mingyu mumbles. “Just a long day. It’s my sister’s birthday and she left me on read. Do you mind if we just…”
Minghao wraps an arm around Mingyu’s broader shoulders, tucking him more securely into his body, and leans back. The TV is on but muted. He props socked feet on the coffee table. The neighbors are overexerting their air conditioner again and it hums like white noise in the background.
Minghao is comfortable. They’ve gotten better at communicating like this. He kisses the top of Mingyu’s head, letting his lips linger against soft hair. “Junhui loved your stir fry, by the way. He said you made it perfectly.”
He can feel Mingyu’s smile warm the room. That’s better.
“Niiiice,” Mingyu mumbles.
“You’re definitely the best cook he knows.”
Mingyu lifts his head a little. Already he looks more relaxed, the tension he was holding throughout dinner sucked away by Minghao’s proximity. It makes Minghao feel like a fucking superhero. He put that lazy, content expression on Mingyu’s face. He wants to keep it there forever.
“Don’t sell yourself short,” Mingyu smiles. “You’re an okay cook.”
Minghao makes an ugly, reproachful face at him. Mingyu hides back in his shoulder.
The atmosphere isn’t exactly happy—in the aftertaste of such an emotional conversation, Minghao is tired —but they’re okay. Mingyu’s okay. Junhui will be okay. That’s what matters.
Towards the end of August, a week after the start of the school year, Seventeen magazine hosts their annual company party. It’s mostly a night of investor seductions and business deals with up-and-coming designers. Jeonghan has been concocting excuses to bail for two months, including the wild claim that a much younger ex-boyfriend burned all of his suits in a fit of jealousy.
At crunch time, he caves in.
“Joshua wants to go,” he explains at the coffee machine two days before the party. “He fell in love with the nachos last year. The nachos, Myungho, I wish I was fucking joking. You’ll be there, right?”
“Yeah,” Minghao says. He’s already asked Mingyu. This will be their first public outing as a real couple, not that anyone will know. “But I’m not looking forward to kissing Mr. Han’s ass all night. Seungcheol promised free champagne.”
“He misled you. We’re discouraged from drinking.”
Minghao tilts his head back and sighs. “Mingyu is very tall. If I happen to stand behind him and sample the expensive, once-in-a-lifetime champagne... no one will notice.”
“Are you suggesting we network drunk?” Jeonghan smirks.
“As if you’re gonna sweet-talk the executives for longer than thirty seconds.”
“Absolutely not. I’m praised for my results, not my methods.” Jeonghan sips his coffee. “Maybe I’ll find myself standing behind your sexy husband, too.”
He cuts a glance to the analog clock on the wall of the breakroom. Minghao follows his eyes and almost drops his mug—he’s got a phone call scheduled in ten minutes with the design head of a luxury sunglasses manufacturer.
“Okay, see you there,” Minghao says. “Or—see you tomorrow, text me what you’re wearing I don’t want to be underdressed and also what Joshua’s wearing just in case—“
“Go take your phone call.” Jeonghan pushes him towards the door.
Minghao gets the deal with the manufacturer.
Two nights later, he and Mingyu stand in front of the closet in their underwear deciding what to wear to the stupid company party.
Minghao selects a soft pearl turtleneck and dark navy slacks. He might be a touch too cold later, now that autumn brings regular frost, but he looks good in turtlenecks.
Mingyu looks up from where he’s crouched elbow-deep in a drawer. “You’re wearing that ?”
“And today’s Friday. You won’t see anyone from work again until Monday?”
Minghao grows suspicious. “Yes... why?”
“Oh, good.” Mingyu throws his phone on the bedside table with a clatter. He gets up and snatches the turtleneck-and-jeans to carefully fold them back into the closet.
Minghao watches with something like bewildered fascination as Mingyu crowds him against the bed, so close that Minghao has no choice but to sit. He props himself on both elbows, feeling pinned by Mingyu’s dark eyes. The tension in the room changes, heightens.
Outside the window, clouds twitch. Rain begins to tap tenderly against the glass.
Mingyu dips his head and says, “Because I’m gonna bite the shit out of your neck.”
Minghao laughs so hard he sees stars. Then he sees stars for an entirely different reason.
They’re not late to the company party, because they are adults and this is technically a work event. But Minghao is still lit up with a tender glow inside when they leave the apartment. He drives, Mingyu lectures him about not laughing when I’m trying to be sexy next time please , and the rain strengthens.
Minghao’s hand wanders to his throat at an intersection. Mingyu didn’t leave many marks, but one in particular still stings in the best way. He presses down, releases. He wonders if his lips would feel the same if he pinched them right now, pink and kiss-puffy.
Mingyu notices. He stops in the middle of a diatribe on aphrodisiacs. He catches Minghao’s hand and brings it down to the middle divider, where he squeezes firmly.
“Too much?” he asks quietly.
Minghao tries not to smile. “Nah. I just love you.”
He almost rails the car into a tree. Oh, fuck. Did he actually say—did he just say—Minghao turns into a rock. He can’t look over at Mingyu. He just said I love you in a moving vehicle after a month and a half of official married-dating. No lead-up, no candles, no roses, no nothing. Oh, god.
It was an honest mistake! He wasn’t thinking, the words just slipped out—but fuck, Minghao won’t be able to lie and say they aren’t true. Mingyu will know. Mingyu always knows when he’s faking.
Minghao takes a deep breath and tries not to throw up on the wheel. They reach a red light and Mingyu says his name. Then again, when he doesn’t get an answer.
Minghao shakes his head.
“Seo Myungho, look at me right now,” Mingyu says, and the surprise is enough for Minghao’s head to snap towards him automatically.
Mingyu’s eyes are wide. He’s turned fully in his seat, the strap stretched tight and wrinkling his nice shirt. “Minghao,” he repeats urgently. An awful wetness sits in his voice. “I love you.”
So maybe they’re a little late to the company party. They refuse valet service and park down the street, equidistant between two streetlamps, so they can kiss in the dark for ten or twenty minutes. Clothes stay on. Minghao’s turtleneck gets wrinkled.
They huddle under one umbrella and race for the lobby doors. This venue is nothing like the ostentatious seat of Junhui’s fundraiser—the building is modern and plain. They’ve rented the penthouse for a pseudo-gallery space where copies of Seventeen’s most popular spreads are blown up on the walls for crowds of suited men to gawk at.
A wondrous look grows on Mingyu’s face as they stroll. He’s never been inside the studios, only casually flicked through the final product of Seventeen magazine when a copy arrives in the mail. This is different. Under dramatic spotlights, Minghao’s photography looks powerful. Striking.
“Oh my god.” Mingyu wheezes a laugh. “Look at Hansol. He’s so sexy.”
“I know. That’s why I asked him to model.”
“Look at his hands.”
“What do you mean, his hands—look at his face !”
They find Jeonghan and Joshua at the appetizer table. Joshua waves them over with a plate of nachos in one hand.
Standing in the middle of the company party, his husband on one arm, Minghao is suddenly struck by his own age. How strange—he and Mingyu are married-people with (almost) married-people friends. He doesn’t feel like a proper adult. Earlier this week, Junhui made him laugh so hard he snorted milk tea all over the car upholstery.
“What’s up?” Joshua holds out a hand for a bro-shake and dispels Minghao’s thoughts.
Minghao pulls him in for a hug. It’s been a while since Joshua stopped by the office. They catch up with happy greetings until Jeonghan elbows his way into their side of the conversation.
“So happy to be here,” he’s in the middle of saying. “How about you?”
“Oh this is great.” Minghao makes eyes at him. Where’s the champagne? “Such a great event.”
Jeonghan twitches his elbow to point behind the enormous bowl of nachos, where four innocuous glasses are hidden from view. Two are already empty. Mingyu turns his laugh into a cough. Minghao checks their surroundings, but the tide of passersby flow innocently along, and neither Mr. Han nor the board members are in sight.
He snatches a glass and downs it in one go.
Mingyu can’t hold in his laughter this time. He ducks his face into Minghao’s shoulder, giggling, as Joshua’s eyes go wide.
Jeonghan clinks their empty glasses together. “Cheers.”
“Okay, that’s better.” Minghao makes an ugly face. “Seungcheol told me to to find a Mr. Miyamoto, have you seen him?”
“Summer issue, middle section. He’s the one in the red bowtie and hoop earrings.”
“Perfect, thank you.” Minghao squeezes Mingyu’s hand. “Do you want to come along or stay here?”
It’s funny how Mingyu joked about eye candy a few weeks ago. That’s exactly what he is right now—a prop on Minghao’s arm, the prettiest thing in this room. Minghao would feel guilty for dragging him along to a boring work function, except he’s selfishly happy to have three allies in this shark tank.
Joshua interjects. “Please stay. Help me guard the nachos.”
Mingyu untangles their fingers. “Duty calls. I’ll help you eat—oh shit, is that kimbap with caviar?” He leans over the table and accidentally knocks over a small standee of chopsticks. Without missing a beat he grabs the mess in one hand and flashes Minghao a smile. “Go ahead, I’ll see you later. Have fun.”
Minghao doesn’t. Networking makes him want to smash his forehead against a brick wall. Investors are boring people with no artistic eye who begin smalltalk by immediately critiquing the nearest photo, which happens to be one of Minghao’s most treasured pieces.
Life sucks. He runs out of steam cycling through a dozen people identical to Mr. Miyamoto, half of whom are clearly high on amphetamines.
A man with a salt-and-pepper undercut and sleepy eyes approaches Minghao while he’s taking a breather near the corner. He’s handsome, in an unattainable sort of way, and he holds out a fresh glass of champagne in welcome.
“You are one of the photographers, correct?” He speaks with a crisp accent, his vowels fronted. “You are very handsome.”
Of course. Minghao takes a deep breath and leans back slightly. This happens so rarely—the ring usually dissuades people—and he hates the pressure of being polite. He’s reminded vividly of the asshole from the bar on Mingyu’s birthday.
“Thank you.” He waves a small refusal at the champagne. “But, um, my husband is over there.”
Karma must be looking out for him, because the crowd parts in perfect tandem to his pointing finger, like Minghao is parting the Red Sea. Mingyu and Joshua are chatting exactly where he left them forty minutes ago. The kimbap and nachos are nearly gone.
The older man—who never even introduced himself, how awkward, Minghao is crossing his fingers that this guy isn’t, like, a major shareholder—just smiles.
“Sorry,” the man says amicably. “I had to try.”
In one smooth motion, he sips from both glasses of champagne and melts back into the crowd. Minghao regroups in the fancy gold-toned bathroom. He spends a long minute letting hot water scald his palms. He fixes his hair in the mirror, wishing he could leave. It’s so dumb he has to waste time here when Mingyu just said he loves him for the first time.
That’s right, he forgot for a moment. Mingyu loves him. How wild, how intense. They love each other. How stupid! How amazing!
Minghao dries his hands and resolves to blast through the final hour of the evening so he can go home and show Mingyu how he feels. Telling him isn’t enough. Now that the truth is out—he should keep proving it, shouldn’t he?
An hour later, after three pit stops at the appetizer table to hide his face in Mingyu’s chest and bemoan the condescension of rich people, Minghao catches Seungcheol’s eye across a group of women dressed in warm tones. Seungcheol doesn’t have a hair out of place, naturally. He’s in a navy suit with a Dior brooch that looks suspiciously like something Jeonghan would own.
Minghao offers him a smile they both know is fake.
Seungcheol frowns and maneuvers skillfully around the group to lean into Minghao’s side. “Go home,” he says quietly. “You did your part. Big Boss left a few minutes ago, so we’re an hour out from the end.”
“Are you sure?”
“Yeah, yeah. Get out of here. If anyone asks I’ll cover for you.”
Minghao claps Seungcheol on the shoulder. “Thank you.”
It takes him a few minutes to find Mingyu and Joshua. They’ve abandoned the demolished appetizers and are chatting with a girl in gorgeous lavender satin and silver hair. She introduces herself as Gowon, and happily continues the conversation with Joshua when Minghao tugs his husband away.
Déjà vu as they leave a function early without telling Jeonghan. This time Minghao spares a farewell wave for Joshua and says, “Tell Jeonghan we’re dipping out?”
Joshua quirks an eyebrow. Is it a trick of the light, or does he glance down at the infinitesimal wrinkles in Minghao’s shirt? “Have a good night,” he says.
Oh, they will. Minghao wastes no time. He wants out. He clutches tight to Mingyu’s hand as they pass through the tile foyer… down the elevator… through the lobby… into the crisp night. Finally.
“We’re free.” Minghao sags against Mingyu’s shoulder as they stand motionless on the sidewalk. “God, that sucked.”
Mingyu pats his own stomach and steers them down the sidewalk. “I had fun.”
“Thanks for coming.”
“You better bring me again next year. Joshua said last time they had a chocolate fountain and three different flavors of marshmallows.”
Minghao’s mouth twists. He steps wide to avoid a dark puddle on the sidewalk. “Sounds disgusting.”
“He also said they’re planning for a spring wedding.”
“Oh, I know! Jeonghan won’t stop talking floral arrangements . I feel like an honorary groomsman with how much I have to listen to his analyses.”
A breeze blasts around the street corner and makes Minghao shiver. The rain has stopped, but the evening is cold enough to watch his own breath billow into steam. Mingyu slings an arm over his shoulders. When they arrive at the car, he deftly hooks the car keys out of Minghao’s front pocket.
Minghao looks over in surprise. “I can drive. I didn’t have anything after that first glass.”
“Nope. I’m driving.”
“Are you tired?”
Minghao considers this as they sit. “No…”
“Great. Then we’re going out.”
“I don’t really feel like clubbing right now.” Minghao glances down at his nice leather shoes, which wouldn’t look good coated with beer or rum and coke. “Maybe next time?”
“We’re not going clubbing.” Mingyu starts the engine and points one finger at Minghao’s chest. “It’s a surprise. But, I’ll hold you to that. Seungkwan wants to go dancing again.”
Minghao stretches both arms above his head, feeling the last stress of the party ebb away under Mingyu’s voice. Dark roads lit by stoplights and neon signs, Mingyu in the driver’s seat with both hands on the wheel—this is familiar. He can imagine a routine like this stretching years into the future.
“Okay,” he agrees easily. “Let’s take Seungkwan out soon.”
They drive familiar streets to an unfamiliar corner, where the car is squeezed into the last available parking space on the kerb. A few people are strolling the sidewalk, clearly on their way to the restaurants downtown, or slipping into the dim doorways of pubs and billiard halls. Underneath the fresh smell of rain, cigarette smoke and beer linger.
Minghao gets out of the car and searches for a landmark. “Where are we?”
“Soonyoung’s family’s cafe.” Mingyu twirls the keys on one hand. They go flying into the gutter and he retrieves them with a sheepish smile. “I’m taking you on a date.”
“Yeah. Why not. We’re dressed to the fucking nines.”
Laughter tumbles out of Minghao. Sure, why not.
Mingyu leads the way toward the well-lit glass panelling of Amour Sans Fin. The bakery is full of warm, woodsy decorations and soft yellow lighting. Tables and booths are stacked close together for a homey atmosphere. When Mingyu holds the door open, the heady smell of fresh pastries pours onto the street.
Even this late at night, the bakery is crowded with students on laptops, couples on dates, grandparents on babysitting duty with sleepy lapfuls of children. Minghao steps inside and immediately never wants to leave.
Mingyu gets a tray and waits eagerly at the display. “Alright. The egg tarts are amazing.” He starts pointing like a madman. “So are the blueberry muffins and the little bouncy cheesecakes, those are Soonyoung’s favorite. I know you don’t like sweets but they have these yakult smoothies—do you like yakult? We should split one. Banana is the best but I’m fine with strawberry, too.”
With tongs, Minghao selects one of each item Mingyu recommends. Their tray is full by the time they reach the cashier, a kid probably fresh out of high school in a wide-brimmed cap.
“Anything else for you today?” He rings up their pastries.
Mingyu peers obnoxiously past the boy into the back kitchen. “Is Mrs. Kwon still here?”
“Uh, she just went home. You wanna leave a message or something?”
“Nah. Thank you though.” Mingyu shoves a bill into the tip jar.
Minghao picks up the tray before Mingyu can. He doesn’t want to tempt fate and spill yakult smoothie all over his nice leather shoes. They snag a circular booth where the air is a little musty from dust. At the next table, a young couple are spoon-feeding cream to their fat tabby cat.
“I love this place,” Minghao announces.
“You haven’t even tried the food yet.”
“Don’t care. I would eat cardboard to come here.”
Mingyu giggles. Minghao whips out his phone to take a food photo, then a photo of Mingyu leaning over the cheesecake and throwing out a peace sign.
“You know what’s weird?” Mingyu looks down at the phone. “I don’t have a single picture of you on Instagram. Not that I use it much, but… that might’ve been suspicious. If the investigators bothered to check. Soonyoung definitely thought it was suspicious.”
Minghao slides across sticky black leather. He leans his head against Mingyu’s shoulder, smiles, and takes a few selfies. No peace signs, no pseudo-frown to look cool. Just two happy faces. When he lifts his head, Mingyu presses a lightning-quick kiss against his temple.
“Fine, post that ,” Minghao says. “I’m eating this cheesecake now.”
“Try to cut a perfect slice,” Mingyu challenges. “If you can do it I’ll give you 20,000 won.”
Minghao fails when the cheesecake turns to goop under his knife. He flicks whipped cream onto Mingyu’s face. The flavors all blend together—sweet, fresh strawberry over smooth creamy cake, the gentle tang of egg tart, a palette party that leaves fingertips sticky. Mingyu posts the selfie on his story.
They get home long past midnight, semi-hysterical from lack of sleep, laughing themselves into stitches when a stupid song comes on the radio and Mingyu tries seated breakdancing. He fumbles the keys trying to unlock the apartment door because they’re too busy kissing, impatient, spurred on by the lingering and muted taste of sugar.
Minghao’s turtleneck ends up draped over the coffee table. It shrouds the remote and a tennis ball.
When Minghao wakes up the next morning and frees himself from a cuddly arm, he’s distantly sore and still smells like Mingyu’s shampoo. He plods into the kitchen to make tea and blearily notes that the post-it note from so, so long ago is still taped to the fridge. The note where Mingyu wrote his phone number and a list of nearby Chinese restaurants. Back before they were friends, before they were even on speaking terms.
Despite its neon yellow color, the note has completely blended into the geography of the kitchen. Minghao barely notices it anymore. When the kettle whistles, he startles, and acknowledges that he’s been staring at a piece of paper for several sleepy minutes.
Minghao pours himself a cup of black tea. Then he takes a pen from the bottom drawer and draws three stylized little hearts at the bottom of the note. Not for any particular reason—he just feels like it.
The mandatory visa reapplication arrives in the mail a year and a half after Minghao first moved to Seoul. He submits everything two months early and receives an all-clear extension. It’s valid for five years. He gathers the paperwork in hand at dinnertime and presents it shyly to Mingyu. This opens up their options and presents the logical final decision—when should they get divorced?
Mingyu looks at the papers and taps his chopsticks against the side of his bowl. His tongue peeks out thoughtfully. “You know...”
Minghao raises both eyebrows.
“Filing taxes as a single person is more difficult,” Mingyu says.
“Are you asking us to stay married?”
“I’m just saying, it’s more convenient.”
Minghao scoots his chair over so he can rest a hand on the back of Mingyu’s neck. They’re eating, but he doesn’t really care—he leans over and presses a kiss against the corner of his mouth anyway. Feather-light, like the very first kiss stolen in the car.
“Okay,” he says.
Their relationship never feels rom-com right, but it always feels real. Minghao will keep choosing this for as long as he can.
Mingyu has a grain of rice stuck to his shirt. He smiles as their ankles knock together and segues into a story about the first graders spilling fingerpaint all over the new carpet this morning. Minghao can tell it rained earlier because Mingyu’s hair is frizzy at the ends, curling playfully around his ears like it’s wont to do on humid summer evenings.
Minghao looks at him and thinks…
Yeah. This is happy.