Actions

Work Header

give me a tempest

Chapter Text

鸟儿唱歌不是因为它们有了答案,而是因为它们有歌要唱
A bird does not sing because it has an answer. It sings because it has a song.



The good news is Minghao has nabbed his dream job.

 

The bad news is he needs to marry a stranger to keep it.

 

Any minute now. A thick snow blankets the street beyond the clerk’s office windows, where frost blooms over the glass and distorts the view of cars crushed in evening traffic. Maybe his future husband is caught on the road.

 

Minghao doesn’t know much about Kim Mingyu—only that he is a Korean citizen, he’s in dire need of money, and according to Junhui, he’s nice.

 

Minghao laces his fingers together to keep from fidgeting. He never imagined his future spouse would be late to their own wedding. Civil ceremony. Whatever. The heating in this building is weak and he stifles a shiver as the clerk blatantly checks his watch. 

 

Junhui smiles sheepishly and squeezes Minghao’s shoulder. 

 

As their sole witness to the marriage, Junhui is dressed in a sleek navy button-down and slacks fit for the occasion. He looks like his pockets are bottomless, which they are, and his cell phone costs more than Minghao’s ever earned in his whole life, which it does.

 

The situation is frankly ridiculous. Forget cold feet—Minghao has feet frozen solid. He doesn’t want to do this. If there were any other choice, he’d take it happily. But the magazine was very clear: they would hire him as a lead photographer, but they wouldn’t sponsor his visa.

 

Thus the need for an unwed citizen willing to take his hand in marriage for a hefty price.

 

It’s medieval. Probably immoral. Definitely illegal. Minghao bites his lip. He should change his mind while he still can; he can’t marry a literal stranger. No matter how vetted they are by Junhui. 

 

Not to mention they’ll have to fool everyone for months just in case the government comes investigating. Marriage fraud is a criminal act. Minghao will have to start pretending to be in love with whoever the hell shows up at the door, and he won’t be able to stop until their eventual divorce two… maybe three years from now.

 

Honestly, what was he thinking?

 

He opens his mouth to call the whole thing off, but before he can speak, a man walks through the door.

 

“Sorry, am I late?”

 

Minghao looks up. And up. And up.

 

Kim Mingyu is the definition of tall, dark, and handsome. He’s in a black pinstripe blazer with damp spots across the shoulders and when he steps inside, he does a little stomp-stomp to dislodge the snow from his boots. His smile is a total knockout. And he’s drop dead gorgeous.

 

Minghao is so fucked. 

 

He doesn’t realize he’s supposed to speak until Junhui raises his eyebrows significantly.

 

“It’s okay.” Minghao does a little wave. Hopefully his face is neutral and not on fire.

 

“Finally,” the clerk sighs and claps his hands together.

 

A slight widening of his eyes is the only reaction Mingyu has to seeing his new husband-to-be, so either he’s an excellent actor or Junhui had shown his picture beforehand. It must’ve been a difficult negotiation— please marry my family friend from China, he will pay you lots of money and he’s an okay person —so Minghao’s not surprised.

 

Mingyu nods sharply. “Let’s do this, babe.”

 

Then he extends his hand. Minghao takes it.

 

The clerk opens a folder. “Are we ready to begin?”

 

This is truly his last chance to change his mind. Minghao swallows hard, thinks of his dream job waiting across the city, and says, “Yes.”




 

After the rushed ceremony, after the documents have been signed, after their lawyer has explained the normal procedures for marriages involving a foreigner, they congregate in the back parking lot where no one can see them move Minghao’s bags into Mingyu’s car. The snow is falling thicker now. Traffic has dispersed and the sky is dark with dusk. Minghao stands for a moment between the two cars, shivering, taking in the peaceful fields beyond the road. 

 

He’s married and it doesn’t feel real. 

 

“You have a lot of stuff,” Mingyu comments as he’s tossing a bag into his tiny trunk. 

 

Minghao shakes his fringe out of his face and doesn’t reply. He doesn’t know what to say. When he nestles his camera bag on top of his last suitcase, they stand in an awkward semi-circle until Junhui looks up from his phone.

 

“I guess that’s it.” He claps Minghao warmly on the shoulder. “Call me if you guys need help. I have a good feeling about this, though. Don’t screw the interviews and you’ll be fine.”

 

“Thanks, Junhui.” Minghao watches him leave.

 

His last connection to home is driving away, abandoning Minghao with his intermediate Korean, and it stings somewhere in his throat to watch. He won’t cry. This was his choice, and it’ll be worth it after that first shoot with the magazine, he just knows it.

 

He turns back to the car to find Mingyu watching him with raised eyebrows. There’s something annoying about his face. He looks like he wants to say something, mouth hanging open a little, uncertain.

 

“What?” Minghao frowns and brushes past to get into the passenger seat.

 

“Nothing. Um.” Mingyu hurries to the driver’s seat. He sits unmoving for several seconds, eyes wide and blank like he’s forgotten how to hold the steering wheel. “Wow, we’re really married.”

 

“I noticed.”

 

When the car rumbles to life, the radio starts blasting a heavy rap song at full volume, and Minghao flinches so hard that Mingyu scrambles for the volume knob and slams it all the way down. They sit in awkward silence while Minghao sighs.

 

Is this guy trying to be annoying?

 

They drive and don’t speak. The radio remains off.

 

The paperwork rests on the seat divider. Minghao reads it from the corner of his eye—slowly, painstakingly, skipping the advanced vocabulary he doesn’t know—and stops to stare at his printed Korean name. Seo Myungho. It looks different from Xu Minghao. It sounds different from Xu Minghao. He doesn’t know how to feel about it yet. Will he be able to answer to a strange set of syllables? 

 

Apparently Mingyu lives in a less-than-stellar neighborhood just outside the inner city, off subway line #5, between two hills where the apartment buildings are stocky and offer roof access. There’s a nice snow-dusted park across the street.

 

He parks in the structure behind the building and pauses before getting out, hands fidgeting in his lap. Blinking dashboard lights illuminate the graceful angles of his face. He suddenly looks young.

 

“I’m sure Junhui told you, but it’s a one-bedroom. We don’t have to… share the bed or anything. We can just make it look that way when Immigration comes to check.”

 

“Okay.” A drop of tension ebbs away from Minghao’s spine. “That works.”

 

“And no rush on the first monthly payment. I don’t know when your job starts.”

 

Minghao looks up from his boots. “Why do you need the money?”

 

As soon as the words leave his mouth, he knows they were a mistake. But he’s been burning with curiosity since Junhui first claimed to have found someone, a friend even, willing to marry him for 800,000 won a month. Because honestly, what the fuck? Mingyu dresses well, he has a decent car, and apparently makes rent just fine on his own. There’s no obvious sign he’s short on cash.

 

Mingyu’s face goes slack. He runs a hand through his hair, pushing his bangs back and revealing a well-defined face. His attractiveness just adds to the mystery; he could pick up modeling in his spare time with ease.

 

“None of your business.”

 

Minghao rolls his shoulders uncomfortably and mumbles, “Nevermind then.”

 

Shrugging, Mingyu gets out of the car and shuts the door. They unload the bags and drag them to a metal staircase. Minghao wants to ask about an elevator, but he doesn’t know the word in Korean, and figures Mingyu doesn’t hate him enough to subject them both to this physical torture. Yet, anyway.

 

It’s a long-winded struggle to ascend three stories under flickering lights, and Minghao nearly drops his camera bag when a moth flies into his face. He does curse in quiet Mandarin, which makes Mingyu turn around with a surprised Pikachu face, like he somehow forgot that his fake husband would speak a different language.

 

But the expression on Mingyu’s face isn’t exactly negative. He looks… curious. In a warm way. At least until the strap on a duffel bag breaks and Mingyu trips on the penultimate step, latching onto the railing and slamming his knee into the wall.

 

“Fucking ow.” He rubs at the spot tenderly.

 

Minghao bypasses him and waits at the hallway door. 

 

They stop in front of apartment 97, out of breath, until Mingyu unlocks the door with a practiced hand and Minghao steps into his brand new life. 

 

Despite the nightmare living situations Minghao had stressed about in his imagination, the apartment is pretty average. A long navy couch, a tall bookcase, a large window with a small balcony, and an immaculately clean kitchen behind a half wall. Small and cozy. 

 

Mingyu toes off his shoes and stacks them in a neat shelf beside the door. He hangs the key on a hook and drapes his jacket on a tasteful coat rack in the corner. Minghao is starting to think he misjudged this guy and he’s actually a suave business-minded adult—until his eyes roam back to the bookcase and, on closer inspection, he notices the books are all romance mangas.

 

He awkwardly puts away his shoes and jacket. The suitcases take up most of the common area, and Minghao realizes he has to share this tiny living space with a literal stranger. 

 

“So…” Minghao gestures to the couch. “I’ll sleep there. Where should I put my stuff?”

 

Mingyu points to a door beside the balcony window. “That’s the bathroom.” He points to a door off the kitchen. “That’s the bedroom. Not a lot of space, but I bought extra storage. There’s a few empty drawers. Put your stuff wherever.”

 

“Okay.”

 

There’s an awkward pause where Mingyu tries to smile. “Are you hungry?”

 

“Not really.” Minghao’s stomach feels like it might eat itself. He just wants to be alone.

 

“Well, I like cooking,” Mingyu says, crossing into the kitchen and opening the fridge. “So there’s plenty here if you want—oh, do you like Korean food?”

 

Minghao knew what he was getting into when he applied for this job in Seoul. He took a few Korean language classes in college, back when Junhui started talking seriously about moving to another country. He took a vacation to Jeju once. He wouldn’t have moved to a place he disliked, especially their food, knowing he’d have to live there indefinitely. Who doesn’t love kimchi?

 

But lying to Mingyu might be funny.

 

So Minghao lifts his nose and says, “Not really.”

 

It’s definitely funny how Mingyu’s face gets this pinched, stressed look for a moment before he closes the fridge. “Oh.”

 

“I’m gonna start unpacking.”

 

“Okay. I’ll just… be in the room. If you need anything.”

 

So Mingyu disappears into the bedroom, leaving the door cracked open. 

 

Finally he has some space to breathe a little. Minghao puts in his earbuds and blasts the newest release from Bii so loud he can’t hear himself think. Unpacking his toiletries and skincare products is a soothing ritual. Cleanser, toner, moisturizer, sunscreen. He hangs a few coats on the rack, and they blend nicely with Mingyu’s evenly-toned wardrobe. Navy and black and beige and white.

 

There’s space on the bookshelf, below the plants and above the manga, so Minghao cleans his camera lenses and arranges them artfully. They look good enough to be decorative, but any real photographer would see their worth immediately. He spares a quick prayer that Seoul doesn’t have earthquakes. 

 

He sends an email to his new boss verifying that he’ll be in tomorrow morning. While Mingyu emerges from the bedroom and heats up a bowl of what smells like seafood stew, Minghao deliberates over what to wear for his first day, switching his playlist to Tchaikovsky and spreading several shirts over the couch.

 

First impressions are important. He wants his to last.

 

Minghao becomes so absorbed in his task that he doesn’t notice when Mingyu steps outside to the balcony, but he does notice when the glass door slides open and he returns, dragging along the thick smell of cigarette smoke.

 

“You smoke?” Minghao tugs out an earbud and wrinkles his nose.

 

Mingyu looks up, startled like a small animal would be, and goes pink in the face. “Sometimes.”

 

The disgust must be evident on Minghao’s face, because Mingyu continues defensively, “Only outside, never in my apartment.”

 

Minghao makes a noncommittal noise, a neutral hum, that must come out harsher than he intends, because his husband bristles like it’s a sensitive topic. His face scrunches up.

 

"Our apartment,” Minghao corrects, then feels like an asshole.

 

“Right.” Mingyu sighs and deflates. “Well the extra sheets are in the bathroom cupboard. Goodnight.”

 

He shuts the bedroom door hard and Minghao flinches. The camera lenses wobble on the shelf. Instead of knocking and apologizing, like he knows he should, Minghao stubbornly jams his earbud back in and thinks malicious thoughts about his husband. He’s awkward, clumsy, childish—as evidenced by the manga collection—and not someone who has anything in common with Minghao.

 

He won’t let his guard down with this guy. Minghao has good reasons not to trust anyone.

 

Soon enough his visa will arrive, and after enough time they can peacefully divorce and go their separate ways. He just needs to forfeit some independence right now to get what he wants.

 

He heaves a sigh and rubs his palms over his eyes. Dream job, he reminds himself. Dream job.

 

Minghao forgoes sheets and sleeps on the couch bare. When he wakes up, restless and antsy, before his alarm, the bedroom door is cracked open and the key is gone. Whatever Mingyu’s job is, it gets him out of the house before 7 am. How strange.




“We’re glad to have you on the team.” 

 

Seungcheol is an approachable boss with an impeccable eye for design, if his outerwear and office are anything to go by, and Minghao has nervous butterflies just sitting across from him. The office is cramped and lived-in, the desk a brainstorm of several different concepts. A laptop dings in front of Seungcheol once, twice, but he doesn’t even glance at the screen.

 

This man is more powerful than his friendly attitude would have you believe. Seventeen magazine operates on several floors of a downtown high rise with views of the Han river and six different studios, all supervised by Seungcheol as the design head. 

 

One of those studios is about to be Minghao’s.

 

“I’m happy to be here,” Minghao says, and he’s so nervous he stumbles over the words a little bit, so he clears his throat and continues with clearer pronunciation. “I admire the magazine’s work.”

 

“And we admire yours.” Seungcheol smiles and laces his fingers together. “It’s great timing that you moved here. Jeonghan tells me you recently married your long distance partner?”

 

“Oh yes, that’s true.”

 

“Congratulations.” 

 

Minghao starts sweating. Is it normal to congratulate people on a new marriage, or is his boss suspicious of the serendipitous nature of his visa? He straightens up and tries to arrange his face into something lovestruck.

 

“Thanks.” He smiles very big. “I really love him. The whole thing was so... “ Clinical. “Romantic.”

 

He thinks of how Mingyu slammed the door last night but snuck out early this morning without so much as a note. They haven’t even exchanged phone numbers yet.

 

Luckily Seungcheol seems none the wiser, because he nods like he understands the feeling and slides a portfolio across the desk. “That’s great to hear. He’s welcome to visit during your break anytime, Jeonghan’s partner is always stealing our coffee anyway.” He taps the folder. “But let’s talk about your first assignment.”

 

All thoughts of Mingyu and marriage fly out the window. Minghao leans forward. “Yeah, let’s get started.”

 

Seungcheol fastens the button on his blazer and stands up. He’s taller than he appears, broad in the shoulders and with old money posture. He opens the office door for Minghao and follows him into the hallway, calling, “Jeonghan, come meet our new photographer from China. He’s doing your spring spread.”




 

The trouble really starts when Minghao attempts to get home.

 

He doesn’t remember the address of his apartment. This morning, rushing out the door to catch the next bus, he blindly followed the map app into the city center and didn’t pay close attention to his starting point.

 

Minghao retraces his steps to the bus stop. Downtown streets are flooded with people getting off work and they shout plans to one another across the road, heedless of honking traffic. Down a smaller street to his left, a collection of street vendors are grilling beside the patio of a high-class cafe, and he spares them a longing look. He doesn’t have the cash to buy a meal—only enough for the bus—but the smoking meat smells like home.

 

If only he had someone to stop and get dinner with.

 

For the first time since he moved to this country, a whole two days ago, Minghao feels lonely.

 

He has a headache from concentrating on Korean all day. There were several moments he missed a comment from Seungcheol or struggled to answer a direct question and once, memorably, Jeonghan described in explicit detail an outdoorsy concept that could’ve been incredibly sexual if Minghao hadn’t snuck his phone out to search the translation of grasshopper.

 

Minghao waits until a bus comes along going in the right direction and boards. Now he just needs to figure out which stop is Mingyu’s apartment.

 

Near the back of the bus, a window seat is open, and Minghao gratefully shoves his earbuds in and sits down. He leans his head against the window and watches the evening flash by. They drive out of the business district and down a street already choked with nightlife. Neon signs advertise beer, karaoke, dance, and other entertainments too quick to see. Minghao cranes his neck hoping to see a street performer.

 

The neighborhood starts to look familiar. Apartment buildings shrink and grow further apart. Piles of snow are still frozen to the streets in some places due to lack of foot traffic. Anxiously he taps a fingernail against his seat until an elderly lady turns back to glare. Minghao bows his head, stops, and tries to concentrate. His bus stop is directly across from the park beside Mingyu’s apartment. It shouldn’t be hard to find.

 

Except there are a dozen parks in this neighborhood, and by the third one he’s convinced he’s missed it.

 

Minghao jumps out at the next stop. The streets look correct, but they’re unfamiliar, and he finds himself standing in front of an ivory stack of apartments with a narrow dog park and a fountain. Definitely not his place. Fiddling with the strap on his camera bag, he follows the street until it begins narrowing into an alley.

 

Shit. He’s lost. To his left is the backside of a fried chicken restaurant, where a stray dog is gnawing at the edge of a dumpster, and to his right is a small residential street with more fire escapes than actual doorways. It’s crowded and unlike the neat building where Mingyu lives.

 

When Minghao checks his location on his phone, it doesn’t help. He’s still in the right neighborhood—probably—but can’t see his apartment building anywhere.

 

And of course his stomach is growling audibly now.

 

Minghao admits defeat and enters the fried chicken restaurant. He spares a quick glance at the menu—nothing he can afford with the 2,000 won in his pocket—and approaches the man at the cash register with a friendly smile.

 

“Excuse me.” He fiddles with the strap on his bag. “I’m looking for…”

 

Pause. He can’t exactly say he’s looking for his own fucking apartment. 

 

“For my friend’s apartment,” he finishes. “I think I’m lost. Where is the nearest park?”

 

The man, an elderly worker with strong sideburns, points him in a direction and wishes him well. Minghao wanders for another two hours before he finds the right park, and by that point it’s dark, he’s exhausted, he’s starving, and he’s pissed.

 

Mostly at himself for not having the foresight to ask Mingyu’s number or address. But also at Mingyu for not thinking to tell him these things. They’re supposed to be fucking married and Minghao can’t even leave the house properly. By the time he stomps his way upstairs and knocks at room 17, he’s had plenty of time to stew and he blames them both.

 

Mingyu opens the door frowning. He’s in sweatpants—pajamas! He was about to sleep not knowing where Minghao was!—and his bangs are hanging in his face. “Where have you been?”

 

That’s the wrong thing to ask. Minghao shoves past him with a huff. “Great fucking question.”

 

“What does that mean?”

 

“I got lost coming back. You left this morning without giving me your phone number or address, thanks."

 

A flash of something crosses Mingyu’s face before his lips thin. “Oh.”

 

He slides his hands into his pockets and looks deceptively soft in his sleep clothes, which only makes Minghao madder somehow, that Mingyu’s been here for the past several hours relaxing and having a grand ol’ time while Minghao was out there shivering and scared.

 

“I don’t have a spare key yet,” Mingyu admits. 

 

“Whatever.” He doesn’t have the energy to argue. Minghao fishes around in his suitcase for his emergency stash of money. Tomorrow he’ll go to the bank and transfer the last of his savings from Anshan, but for now, he needs to eat. “I’m going out to get dinner. And I’m taking the key.”

 

Mingyu looks like he wants to argue—about the late night wandering or the loss of his only house key, it’s unclear—but he shrugs. “Fine.”

 

The next morning, Minghao finds a yellow sticky note on the fridge with a cell phone number in messy handwriting. To his surprise, there’s a list of Chinese restaurants scribbled underneath, sorted by distance from the apartment. He checks and some are within walking distance. It does a little to ease the ice around Minghao’s chest, but not much.





 

The good parts about moving to a new country and becoming a professional photographer: the excitement, the new foods, the independence, the general thrill of it. Minghao wakes up most mornings feeling like he’s walking on sunshine, living the dream, the whole shebang.

 

He looks over Jeonghan’s preprints of a jungle-themed advertisement for luxury cologne with an eclectic mix of bokeh and oversaturation. He falls asleep brainstorming his next spread and keeps a gorgeous leather notebook on the back of the couch full of half-dreamt ideas. For the first time since diving headfirst into the world of photography, he’s artistically challenged.

 

The bad parts about moving to a new country and starting a brand new job: literally everything else. Minghao is affectionately known at the office as “the new Chinese photographer,” which, while annoying, could be worse. But it feels like an asterisk instead of a fun fact. All small talk around the coffee machine is the same: How’s the food here? Do you miss China? Where exactly are you from? Oh, I’ve never heard of it. Do you like it better in Korea? Haha, just kidding.

 

It’s a little exhausting.

 

And then there’s his husband. Mingyu is loud. He nags him incessantly to clean the couch. Or the bathroom. Or the kitchen. He never stops humming and he has a serious smoking problem. He takes excited phone calls at the dining table, laughing and sometimes speaking too fast to follow, even after Minghao shoves in earbuds and gives him the stink eye, because on top of everything else, Mingyu is deeply uninterested in criticism.

 

One month into their arrangement and Minghao still isn’t sure what his husband does for a living.

 

They have a decent routine now where they’re only in close contact for an hour each day. Early evening, Mingyu’s typically in the kitchen, blasting music or chatting with friends as he cooks, while Minghao’s just gotten back from work and is decompressing. Soon enough Mingyu eats and goes to bed—sometimes offering leftovers to Minghao, sometimes not, or asking him to take out the trash, or just throwing out judgemental glares at the prints spread over the couch and ink-dotted fingers. Really depends on the night.

 

Sometimes they make frosty small talk. Mostly about Minghao’s work or Mingyu’s social circle. But they don’t have to see each other often. It’s like living with a particularly annoying roommate and nothing more.

 

Until Minghao nearly dies. 

 

He’s woken up early on a Sunday morning by the front door slamming shut. Groggy and imagining a burglary, he sits up too fast and makes himself dizzy.

 

Mingyu is toeing off his shoes and nodding his head to whatever inane pop is playing on his headphones, obviously just home from a morning run. Sweat sticks to his collarbones, forehead, the fringe of his hair when it falls loose in his face. He doesn’t even glance at the couch before shutting himself in the bathroom. The shower turns on.

 

Minghao blinks and rubs his eyes. His phone says it’s only 8am. Great.

 

Half-asleep, he makes his way to the kitchen, blinking sunlight from his eyes. It’s clearly gorgeous outside. He entertains the idea of going for a walk himself—he knows the neighborhood much better now, thanks to several hours studying the map, and feels confident he could explore a little without getting lost.

 

Minghao is thinking so intently about his free afternoon that he doesn’t notice his deadly mistake—picking up the tiny glass bottle of honey instead of the tiny glass bottle of agave syrup—and mixes his tea without a care in the world. Mingyu’s parade of succulents on the windowsill smile cheerfully. The room is filled with a sleepy, warm glow.

 

He takes a long sip of tea. The taste is strange and the reaction is immediate. Minghao’s throat twitches once, like he swallowed a chili flake the wrong way, and then ignites into a burning, itching, festering pain. He coughs. His eyes fill with startled tears and he fumbles for the drawer, double-checking the ingredients, because there’s no way that Minghao would’ve made such a stupid mistake, since he’s deathly allergic to honey.

 

The two identical bottles are sitting side-by-side. Fuck. Gasping through a swelling throat, Minghao slams the drawer closed. He grabs the counter for support and accidentally knocks the mug onto the floor, where it shatters, hot coffee bleeding over his bare feet.

 

A confused yell comes from the bathroom, but Minghao’s throat is incapable of shouting back. He throws himself onto his work bag, fumbling with the zipper, his heart a frightened hummingbird. The epipen is stuck on a loose thread. He tugs and tugs, fear like a second rope around his thin windpipes, while dark spots dance in his vision. He’s going into anaphylactic shock.

 

Finally Minghao pulls the epipen free and stabs it into his bare thigh. Hands shaking, he slumps into a limp sitting position and just tries to breathe. Panic only makes it worse, he knows, but god that was close. Too close. Tears sting the corner of his eyes.

 

He doesn’t even notice Mingyu barreling out of the bathroom, hair sopping wet and bare-chested in sweatpants, until he’s standing between Minghao and the kitchen, looking at the destruction with an open-mouthed confusion.

 

“What the hell."

 

Minghao can’t speak yet. He wipes his eyes and curls his knees to his chest.

 

“What did you do?” Mingyu pushes a shard of ceramic with his toe. “Dude, that was my favorite mug.”

 

It was an accident, Minghao wants to scream, but he doesn’t know the Korean word for anaphylactic shock, because he’s not a goddamn thesaurus, so he balls his hands into fists and refuses to speak. His throat is raw and ravaged, but he can breathe comfortably now. He closes his eyes.

 

Apparently that was the wrong move, because he hears an agitated shuffling before Mingyu’s foot prods into his hip. “Minghao. You need to clean this up.”

 

Minghao really tries. He gives it an honest go. He opens his mouth, forms the word honey on his lips, and thinks about pushing air past his vocal chords. Then he gives up. The adrenaline is fading and the shock is setting in—he almost passed out, and he certainly would’ve died, because Mingyu has no idea where the epipen is. He would’ve died sprawled on the floor in his pajamas. 

 

So he screws his eyes shut even tighter and shakes his head.

 

Mingyu snorts. “You’re really unbelievable.”

 

Minghao drops his head into his arms and thinks I hate you, I hate you, I hate you.

 

He locks himself in the bathroom and Mingyu must take pity on him, or something, because when Minghao emerges after a long, hot, steamy shower to clear his sinuses, the mess is gone. Remnants of the mug are stacked hopefully on the counter instead of the trash.

 

Minghao goes for a walk and brings back a bucket of fried chicken in a weird sort of apology. Not that he needs to apologize, because he almost died, but Mingyu doesn’t know that and his stupid mug is broken, so. Fried chicken.

 

Mingyu takes a piece and doesn’t say thanks. 




 

After that, their relationship goes from awkward cohabitation to something more volatile and petty. Minghao trudges home from work to find his leftover jajjangmyeon eaten. His clothes, deliberately scrunched into the back of the drawer. Sometimes, though he has no proof, he’s sure Mingyu starts gaming right as Minghao gets on a videocall with his parents, making the connection falter and fuzz.

 

In retaliation he hides Mingyu’s phone charger in the bottom of the laundry basket. He uses all of Mingyu’s expensive coconut shampoo, even though he has plenty of his own, and deliberately leaves water all over the floor. He smiles when he hears Mingyu curse and nearly slip later that night. The best part is Mingyu always confronts him.

 

Like last night, when Mingyu finally found his phone charger, he stormed up to Minghao reading on the couch and asked, “Did you hide my charger on purpose?”

 

“What charger?” Minghao blinked dumbly.

 

“You did.” Realization like anger crosses his face. He might be intimidating, if he weren’t so soft. “Seriously?” He throws his hands up and returns to the bedroom, mumbling, “What’s the fucking point?”

 

Minghao’s satisfaction, that’s the point. Just like tonight again. He’s left a lake on the bathroom tiles, so much that he considered mopping a little to keep his husband from blowing a goddamn gasket entirely, but. Mingyu’s annoyance is entertaining.

 

“Hey.” Mingyu sticks his head out of the bathroom. His shirtless shoulders peek out. “Clean up the floor next time, seriously. I almost slipped.”

 

Minghao settles into the couch cushions and keeps scrolling through Instagram. “Not my fault you’re clumsy.”

 

“I’m not asking for much.”

 

“I pay all your rent. I can do what I want.”

 

"My name’s on the lease.” 

 

"Our name?” Minghao fires back, just to be contrary, because neither of them opted to change their names and they both know it.

 

But it works, because Mingyu gets that pinched look on his face and retreats, slamming the door for good measure. He’s still murmuring curses, barely audible through the door, until the shower water turns on and a heavy rap song begins playing from the portable speaker on the shelf.

 

Minghao smirks. One point to him. This feels more and more like a game, and more and more like a game he can win. 

 

He needs to keep the upper hand. He needs it to feel secure in this situation where Mingyu has so much power, whether that oblivious asshole knows it or not. Minghao knows how other people are capable of treachery. 




 

The best part of Minghao’s week becomes the semi-regular visits from Jeonghan’s partner.

 

“Hi Minghao,” says the unfamiliar guy pouring himself a cup of coffee one morning. “It’s nice to meet you, I’m Joshua.”

 

Joshua is viciously pretty and the kind of person to smile before 8am, so he’s already perfect in Minghao’s opinion. He’s dressed down in a t-shirt and jeans but could still model for the cover of their magazine. He does a friendly nod, passes over the coffeepot, and takes a seat on their lounge couch, effortlessly looking more comfortable than anyone who actually works here.

 

“Oh, good morning.” Minghao fumbles a greeting, delayed. “You’re Jeonghan’s partner, right?”

 

“Yeah, don’t mind me. I’m just here for the free drinks.”

 

His first meeting isn’t for another twenty-five minutes, so Minghao sits on the couch and strikes up a conversation. Joshua is an excellent conversationalist—engaging, willing to share, patient with Minghao’s once-in-a-while stutter or mispronunciation. 

 

“How do you like Seventeen so far?” Joshua smooths out a wrinkle in his t-shirt. “Jeonghan mentioned you recently moved here from China.”

 

A part of Minghao deflates when the topic moves to himself. Here come the same questions about the same shit. “Seventeen is great,” he says, which is true. “I like it here.”

 

“I remember when I first moved to Korea, I could barely read Hangul. But you already have a job.”

 

"What?"

 

Joshua brushes a wavy fringe out of his eyes. He sips coffee, drawing out the dramatic pause, before he raises both eyebrows. “I’m from America. I grew up speaking Korean but I never learned it in school, so when I moved here to join my band… let’s just say I crashed and burned hard in the first few months. Everyone spoke so fast."

 

“I know exactly what you mean,” Minghao says emphatically.

 

He can’t believe his luck. Setting down his mug, Minghao turns to better face this stranger-turned-ally and, before he knows it, they’re trading embarrassing cultural faux paus and linguistic mishaps. He hasn’t been this honest with someone since he last called Junhui. He hasn’t been this honest with someone he just met in years.

 

Equal parts excited and nervous, he fidgets with his shirtsleeve, twisting his fingers in the fabric rhythmically as they talk. Minghao doesn’t want to mess this up or come on too strong, but he’s surprising himself with how easily he connects with Joshua.

 

Joshua gestures wildly to the window and finishes his story, “But it’s literally translated as seagull meat, why would you call pork that?”

 

“Ridiculous!”

 

“I know.”

 

Minghao covers his giggles with a hand. “I was so nervous flying to Incheon that I drank three glasses of wine on the plane, and I don’t normally drink, so I really felt it, you know? I couldn’t even ask for directions afterward. I just—” He mimics his own awkward attempt at sign language. “—mumbled nonsense and made taxi sounds until a janitor pointed me towards the street exit.”

 

That’s not something he’s told anyone yet, not even Junhui, so he’s relieved when Joshua laughs. Joshua’s voice is soft and his eyes turn upwards into cute crescents when he’s amused, shoulders shaking, reminding Minghao of how it felt to ruin an algebra class with inside jokes between high school friends. His whole body feels loose and energetic. Like talking to Joshua so casually, so happily, has stretched out sore muscles. 

 

Is he making a friend? With his coworker’s partner, no less?

 

Or is this how Joshua acts with everyone he first meets—incredibly kind and welcoming, eagerly responding to everything they say? Of course, that would make more sense. Minghao shouldn’t get ahead of himself. They’ve only been talking for…

 

“Oh, sh—” Minghao springs to his feet. “I have to go, I’m going to be late for a meeting. Sorry Joshua.” He gathers his bag and portfolio in hand, coffee forgotten on the table. Hesitates on the threshold of the door, boots digging into the carpet, because he doesn’t want to end this conversation. “It was really nice meeting you.”

 

“You too.” Joshua smiles like he can see through Minghao’s fancy clothes, his favorite self-defense mechanism, and straight to his lost, lonely heart. It’s a nice smile. “Have a good day, Minghao. I’ll see you around.”

 

The rest of the day, though tiring and redundant at times, passes quickly. When he next returns to the breakroom, it’s late afternoon and Jeonghan is there, typing on his laptop. He’s playing Sims 4. His screen is reflected on the windows well enough that Minghao can see the design of the Sim-mansion perfectly.

 

“I met Joshua this morning.” Minghao organizes the drawer full of mismatched teabags.

 

Jeonghan raises an eyebrow and doesn’t look up from the screen. “Who’s Joshua?”

 

Minghao freezes. Did he have the wrong information? Did he misunderstand someone speaking—be it Seungcheol or Joshua—and make an assumption? Oh, no. These kinds of mistakes always make the workplace uncomfortable. His hands go cold.

 

Shutting his laptop, Jeonghan stands and stretches both arms above his head, revealing a soft line of abdomen above his jeans. He pats Minghao on the shoulder as he passes by. “Just kidding, he told me. Hope you two hit it off.”

 

He disappears into the hallway. Minghao exhales a frustrated sigh. Damn that sneaky Yoon Jeonghan. He wants to play that way, does he? Minghao accidentally slams the drawer and startles himself. Who’s he kidding? Of course he won’t stoop to Jeonghan’s level and play his stupid games. At least not until he’s acclimated to the office a bit more. 

 

The conversation with Joshua lingers under Minghao’s skin. When he boards the bus headed home that evening, he calls Junhui and settles back against his usual seat to watch the city coast by. 

 

Junhui’s soft voice comes over the phone in familiar lilting Mandarin. “Hey, what’s up?”

 

“Hey.” Minghao fiddles with a loose thread of rubber on the windowsill.

 

All the words he wants to say catch in his throat like a bunch of moths, flapping and crazed. He wants to spit them out individually. How did you do it, Junhui? What was it like when you first got here? When did you feel at home? When can I move out and be my own person again?

 

Minghao swallows hard and says, “Just checking in. What’s new at work?”

 

“Oh, we have a big performance coming up that everybody’s practicing for.” There’s a shuffling noise, a distant beat drop, and faraway laughter. He’s probably still at the studio. “How’s the job? How’s—” His voice dips low and teasing. “The husband?"

 

The moths freeze. Minghao’s throat closes up. Suddenly he feels like he might cry, right here on the bus, in front of the knock-off Louis Vuitton purse lady who smells like cats, because he wants to tell Junhui everything. He wants to scream and complain and beg to go home. He wants...

 

Minghao swallows hard. “He’s okay. The job is great. I really love it. My boss is a genius, seriously.”

 

“That’s great. I’ve been meaning to call— Chan, watch the floor, someone spilled water —but. Jeez, we’ve been busy.”

 

“Sounds like it. When’s the performance? Can I come?”

 

“Ahhh,” Junhui sighs. “No, sorry. It’s for a big awards show, we’re only doing backup for a group so we don’t get any guest passes. Next time!”

 

Minghao remembers skipping classes during high school to hop in Junhui’s shitty car and drive two hours to a regional competition, where his best friend would shine onstage and Minghao would struggle to keep up in the background, an ever-lacking shadow. He only started dancing at all because Junhui could make anything look cool.

 

Together they would crank the radio on the drive back and Junhui would say something like I can’t wait to get out of this place and get famous while Minghao, a year his junior, said only Me too, me too.

 

But that was a long time ago. Now dancing is Junhui’s career and Minghao’s errant hobby. Minghao pulls his thoughts away from pointless, nostalgic tangents and refocuses on the Junhui of today. “Wow, a big awards show. What a hotshot. I’ll watch you on TV then.”

 

Junhui laughs and the sound is like sunlight. His voice changes, slipping into a warmer, quieter tone.

 

“Thanks. Are you really okay, little frog?”

 

“Of course,” Minghao murmurs. “I’m still adjusting.”

 

“C’mon, complain to me about something.”

 

“Um… the office is too cold sometimes.”

 

Junhui sighs. “I should’ve known. You were never one to ask for help. I want to visit soon, okay? After the performance.”

 

Minghao smiles. The thought of seeing Junhui face-to-face is enough to relax him fully in his seat, tension he didn’t know he was carrying eeking out from his joints. He feels safe again, his lighthouse friend returned. “Sounds great. I’ll tell Mingyu.”

 

“Let me know if you need anything.”

 

“I’ll be okay,” Minghao says. “Thanks.”

 

I’ll be okay. 

 

He repeats those words to himself long after their phone call is over, long into the cold midnight while he lies awake and stares at the closed bedroom door.

 

 

 

The following morning is Saturday and Minghao feels different when he wakes up. Probably because he opens his eyes at an ungodly 7am and can’t fall back to sleep afterwards, though he tossed and turned last night. Mingyu was out late. Very late. So late that Minghao doesn’t even remember him coming home, though his shoes are stacked near the door now.

 

Minghao rubs sleep from his eyes. The day will be cloudless, he can tell from the strong dawn through the window, and he stretches luxuriously before getting up. Energy buoys his feet. Today he’s going to paint. There’s an art store at the end of the bus line he’s been itching to explore and today, this clear and free Saturday, he will allow himself the indulgence of buying acrylics. 

 

Such a small joy, but he’s thrilled. He hurries through a breakfast of rice and eggs and leaves before Mingyu’s door even opens—which is uncharacteristic. Minghao considers knocking, but if Mingyu is sleeping in for once, he doesn’t want to disturb that.

 

At his destination, he loses himself in the familiar smell of paper, paint, wood shavings, ink, metal. All the necessary parts of an art store. How strange that a generic place feels like a part of his own soul, like walking inside immediately made him more Minghao than he was before. He’d almost forgotten how it felt to hold a tube of sunflower yellow nontoxic paint.

 

When he was much younger, Minghao exclusively painted landscapes. Mostly beaches. Mostly beach houses, where he lost himself in daydreams of living on the shore with his partner and a dog, watching the sun drip like an orange popsicle into the waves every night. He never imagined himself settling down in a city, even one as interesting as Seoul. 

 

Is he happy?   

 

The thought takes him by surprise in the easel aisle. He feels fulfilled and challenged at work. He feels grateful for new experiences, peppered with the joy of discovering new things. Admiration for his co-workers. Pride in himself for getting out of bed every day. But is he happy?

 

Minghao doesn’t know. 

 

I’m not unhappy, he reasons. Is that enough?

 

Swiping that fresh credit card adds another positive emotion to the list: relief. He’s reclaiming himself one hobby at a time. On the bus ride home he cranks up the music in his headphones and thinks of Mingyu.

 

It’s unclear whether or not Mingyu knows the real man he’s married to. Sometimes Minghao feels like Seo Myungho is a stranger and that he’s playing house. Fake it till you make it taken to the extreme degree. How much of himself is lost in translation? Blurred by cultural differences?

 

He tries not to be dramatic about it. Seoul isn’t crazy different from Anshan, it only feels that way when he’s frustrated. Sometimes… he just can’t help but watch Mingyu move around the apartment and wonder what he thinks about everything. 

 

Minghao struggles to unload his goodies at his bus stop. The driver, though unrecognizable, is kind enough to wait. He’s out of breath by the time he lugs all three bags to the door. It’s barely past lunchtime and the light is still good, he can start painting today if he’s efficient…

 

Familiar sounds of clattering pots and running water echo from the kitchen. Minghao kicks off his shoes and carefully sets his things beside the couch. He walks to the kitchen with the intent to warn Mingyu of the painting supplies taking over the corner, but freezes in the threshold of the door.

 

Mingyu looks awful.

 

He’s moving around the kitchen like a sad sloth in sweats. Chin down, eyes puffy, hands slow to adjust the burner. The sight is so unfamiliar and jarring that Minghao stands with his mouth open, unable to think of what he meant to say, for several seconds.

 

“Hey,” he settles with. 

 

“Hi,” Mingyu mumbles, barely glancing up from the stove. He massages his temple with two fingers. “Do you need something?”

 

It’s not the rudest thing they’ve said to each other, but Minghao is still a little thrown off. He’s never seen his husband look this way before. He wants to ask if everything’s okay. He’s concerned.

 

“No,” Minghao says. “Are you okay?”

 

“Fine, just hungover.”

 

Mingyu has never had a sip of alcohol within the walls of this apartment. The idea is so foreign that a hangover didn’t occur to Minghao—he relaxes and leans against the wall with one shoulder, a hint of amusement creeping into his voice as he says, “Oh, hah. No wonder you look like that.”

 

“Don’t speak to me for the rest of the day and you can eat some of this chili.”

 

“Deal.” Minghao turns and almost forgets what he initially entered the kitchen for. “Also—I bought some painting supplies. I won’t make a mess, I’ll keep everything behind the couch. Just so you know.”

 

Mingyu does look up from the pot then. He’s interested, at least, even if there’s a vague cloud of death hanging over his body. Jeez, he looks like he was poisoned last night. Sympathy wars with spiteful enjoyment in Minghao’s conscious, and to his horror, sympathy seems to be winning. 

 

Mingyu shrugs. “That’s fine. Please don’t spill on my carpet.”

 

“Cross my heart.” Minghao makes a mocking X over his heart.

 

Mingyu turns so his tight smile isn’t visible, but Minghao sees the corners of his mouth lift anyway.




 

The next day Mingyu slams a plate of beef and rice onto the dining table and says, “Our lawyer called. The Immigration Bureau is coming next week.”

 

Minghao is sprawled across the couch, laptop open on his chest, eyes dry and ticklish from staring at the screen all afternoon. It’s Sunday, but he’s been editing his latest shots for hours, partly because he wants it finished and partly because he has nothing better to do and no friends to hang out with.

 

He looks over and pulls out an earbud. “Did you say something?”

 

Mingyu repeats himself. Minghao’s heart drops through the floor. Shit—it’s too soon, he forgot, he was lulled into a false sense of security by Seungcheol’s demanding schedules and Mingyu’s obsession with Scrubbing Bubbles. This life has started to feel permanent. Now he’ll have to fight for it.

 

Minghao removes the other earbud. “Oh.”

 

“We need to talk about it.” Mingyu sits and makes an awkward hand motion towards the beef and rice.

 

Minghao takes the hint and sits at the table to serve himself. This is the first meal they’ve eaten together face-to-face—usually their dinners are taken hunched on the couch or on the kitchen counter, respectively, and the silence now is uncomfortably intimate. It stretches on, accented by gentle chewing noises.

 

Minghao looks straight down at the wooden table and worries a thumb over a stain. He doesn’t like when Mingyu cooks for him. It’s happened a few times before, him leaving extra in the fridge with a note that just says eat this, or spooning a bowl of stew and wordlessly balancing it on the arm of the couch. Just recently he bartered chili for Minghao’s silence during his hangover.

 

The food is always spectacular. That’s not the issue. Mingyu is an above-average chef who knows how to season and plate, and sometimes, he’ll leave Iron Chef or Great British Baking Show looped on Netflix while he cooks. He obviously knows what he’s doing.

 

The issue is Minghao can’t figure out why he bothers.

 

They’re not friends. He’s under no obligation to feed Minghao. It would be one thing if he ordered takeout every night and just asked Minghao what he wanted—that would be impersonal, understandable, civil. But on those nights he deliberately makes extra of his home-cooked meals just for Minghao, it feels kind. And they don’t really do kind. Not in this apartment. It’s just a weird thing that keeps happening that he can’t fully explain.

 

“We’re going to fail the test,” Minghao says at the exact time Mingyu says, “You need to move into my bedroom.”

 

Minghao cringes. The realities of fooling an Immigration officer rush inwards and he starts to panic. Sharing a bed is not his favorite thing in the world. He’s tall, thanks very much, and Mingyu even taller. They’ll barely fit. 

 

“Yeah,” he sighs, setting down his fork. “Okay, hold on.”

 

Even though it hurts his soul, Minghap rips two blank pages from his photography notebook and slides one across the table. He tosses over a pen, too, and says, “Don’t lose that. Let’s just get this over with. I’ll search for a cheat sheet online—When’s your birthday?”

 

Mingyu looks surprised. His surprised face is very close to his stupid-comment-incoming face. He’s still wearing a pastel pink apron, which might have something to do with that. 

 

“April 6th, we’re the same age.”

 

Minghao writes it down. “Mine is November 7th.”

 

“I know.” Mingyu shoves a piece of chicken into his mouth. “Junhui told me.”

 

And you bothered to remember? Minghao wants to ask, but doesn’t.

 

So they hash out the fine print of their lives. They exchange photos of family members and hometown friends. Mingyu has one sister, he’s allergic to pollen, he hates mushrooms and he loves dogs. Minghao writes the Chinese characters for his parents’ names and then for his own. He likes cats and he’s a Scorpio and he hates ice cream and—

 

“What’s your job?” Minghao blurts out. “I mean...” He doesn’t want Mingyu to realize how little he knows. “Where do you work?”

 

He’s too obvious. Mingyu squints a little. “Did Junhui not mention it?”

 

“I was busy moving my whole life to another country.”

 

“I’m a teacher.”

 

Minghao almost drops his pen. Of all the odd careers he’s imagined over the past two months—delivery boy, drug runner, nude model—it’s weirdly disappointing to have such a mundane answer. A teacher. He can almost picture it, with Mingyu’s cool-toned jackets and stylish fake specs. Sometimes he looks like a dweeb underneath all those dumb hot boy vibes, though he’s never shown the intellect for it. That does explain the long hours and early mornings.

 

Then Minghao realizes he’s overthinking this and hurriedly writes it down. “What subject?”

 

“A little of everything.” Mingyu almost smiles. “I teach grade one.”

 

“Cool,” Minghao says, without thinking about it, because that’s super cool, he loves kids.

 

Hesitant, Mingyu nods. The chicken is nearly gone but he shoves the final chunks into his mouth, chewing loudly and looking anywhere but across the table. The mood is awkward again. Apparently they’ve got too much baggage between them already to act civil face-to-face. If they’re called to do an interview together, they’ll be caught instantly.

 

“Anyway.” Minghao clears his throat. “I don’t know if this is enough to pass. But we can quiz each other tomorrow, I guess?”

 

“Sure.”

 

“And…” 

 

The idea of sharing a bed is not attractive, but Mingyu was right. They need to make this life believable. That includes projecting the image of a couple who happily cuddle under a single blanket, fall asleep in each other’s arms, fuck on the regular… Oh, god.

 

Minghao rubs his palms over his eyes and doesn’t bother finishing his sentence. He shuts down his train of thought to keep everything PG. It feels unwelcome to picture anything like that with Mingyu when they’re still mostly strangers who don’t like each other. He can’t decide if the idea of getting physical together makes him queasy or nervous or excited or guilty. Probably all of the above.

 

“Let’s not share the bed yet. Tomorrow.” Mingyu stacks the plates and makes a beeline for the kitchen sink, effectively ending the conversation.

 

That sounds just fine to Minghao.  

 

He actually does study the Husband Manifesto—as he’s taken to calling it—in between meetings at work the following day. But one of the other three photographers has fallen ill and Minghao is tasked with taking over her monthly spread, so he’s busy scrambling to pick up her scattered threads and weave a cohesive scene on top of his own work. It’s exciting to have so much responsibility, but the pressure feels like a physical weight hanging around his shoulders.

 

Seungcheol even claps him on the back after a grueling three-hour meeting and says, “Take it easy, kid. You’re doing good work. Don’t burn out on us yet.”

 

Minghao almost falls asleep on the bus home. His head actually hits the window so hard he jerks backward and hisses. The elderly lady behind him snickers.

 

Exhausted but hungry, he stops by the corner grocery and buys ingredients for simple hot pot with sliced beef and extra enoki mushrooms. The apartment is quiet when he lets himself in, all the lights turned off, and he sees why when he stops by the couch—the balcony door is cracked open, Mingyu leaning against the railing with a cigarette in his fingers. He cuts a sharp outline against the evening sky in a pastel shirt and jeans.

 

It would make a stunning photo. 

 

Bested by his artistic eye, Minghao tugs out his camera and snaps a picture of Mingyu’s back, admiring the dark lines of his figure.

 

Distantly, a phone begins buzzing, and he considers knocking on the door to tell Mingyu someone is trying to reach him. But as he watches, Mingyu takes a long drag of the cigarette and scuffs his shoes against the bottom rung of the railing. There’s an intensity to his profile that’s both familiar and unfamiliar. Doesn’t look like he wants to be disturbed.

 

Minghao puts in his earbuds and starts cooking. He’s so tired his actions feel robotic. Pot, stove, broth, meat, vegetables. Stolen bits of kimchi when he’s sure Mingyu isn’t looking. He only cooks half the meat, leaving leftovers for grilling tomorrow, but he’s interrupted by a loud knocking at the door.

 

Mingyu is still a statue on the balcony.

 

Great. No problem. Minghao will just stop eating and get the door. It’s probably a pizza delivery man. Sighing, he turns off the stove, wipes smoke and sweat from his forehead, and shuffles over to the door. He probably smells like meat and bus plastic.

 

“Hi,” Minghao says. 

 

It’s not pizza delivery. A guy with handsome upturned lips and a beanie stands in the hallway, eyes wide behind circular glasses, holding a pink binder. At first he seems like a telemarketer. He looks shocked to see Minghao and hurries into a polite bow. 

 

“Hi,” the man says, and his voice is deeper than expected. “Sorry, is Mingyu home?”

 

Not a telemarketer. Minghao returns the polite bow but turns away, leaving the door hanging open and hollering, “Mingyu, the door.”

 

So much for not bothering Mingyu when he’s in balcony mode.

 

It’s almost funny how quickly Mingyu whips around. He heard that yell, but not the knocking? 

 

He drops his cigarette altogether and bursts into the apartment, one hand raking through his hair, eyes panicking between Minghao and the stranger at the door who is obviously someone comfortable enough to stop by unannounced—but based on Mingyu’s incredibly awkward smile, he isn’t entirely welcome.

 

Interesting. Minghao fades back against the wall to watch.

 

Mingyu jerks the front door halfway closed, obscuring most of the apartment from view, and leans like he thinks he’s being casual.

 

“Hey, Wonwoo.”

 

“Hey, sorry. I called, but...” Wonwoo’s eyes drift back to the corner where Minghao is pretending to inspect his own cuticles. “Didn’t mean to interrupt anything. You left your lesson plans and I know you need them.”

 

Though Minghao can’t see Mingyu’s face from this angle, he can see how his shoulders rise through his shirt. How his knuckles clench on the doorframe. There’s an undeniably tense atmosphere and Minghao gives up pretending not to pay attention, suddenly afraid he’ll have to break up an argument. 

 

Beanie-guy is tall with intimidating cheekbones—but lean. As long as he doesn’t have martial arts training, Minghao can take him. Probably in under a minute. 

 

“That’s—thanks.” Mingyu takes the binder. “You didn’t have to.”

 

Wonwoo shrugs. “It’s no problem.”

 

“I’ll see you tomorrow?”

 

“Yeah.”

 

“Okay.” Mingyu slowly starts closing the door. “Um, thanks again.”

 

“See you.” Wonwoo does a cute little wave.

 

The door shuts. Mingyu leans his forehead against it for a moment, just breathing, all the tension leaving his body in a long exhale. Watching him process that unexpected visitor is somehow more intimate than running into each other bleary and half-asleep in the living room on Saturday mornings.

 

Minghao is dying of curiosity. No one has ever come to the apartment before—which, now that he thinks about it, is definitely strange. Mingyu has friends. Through eavesdropping, Minghao has even learned a few of their names, though he’s never heard a Wonwoo before. Maybe they’re just coworkers. Maybe they’re coworkers who dated.

 

Well that would explain the weird tension.

 

Mingyu strides across the room to toss the binder on the table. Minghao follows, innocently returning to his half-eaten meat, watching his husband from the corner of his eye. “So,” he says, one chopstick pressed thoughtfully against his lips. “Who was that?"

 

“No one.” Mingyu opens the binder and stares blankly at the first page. “Um, one of the other teachers.”

 

“He seems nice.”

 

Mingyu rolls his eyes. Color returns to his cheeks and he actually flips through the binder this time, stopping at a page littered with glossy snowflakes. “Can you let me answer the door next time?”

 

“Why?”

 

“Because no one knows you live here, and you look like—” Mingyu cuts himself off abruptly.

 

“I look like what?” Minghao asks flatly.

 

He’s wearing a totally normal outfit. Shredded jeans, an extra long trench coat half black gingham and half beige, a dangling infinity earring, and a Gucci top from last winter’s collection. He even hung his beret on the coat rack before stepping into the kitchen. Maybe the leather shoes were overkill earlier. But he looks nice, what’s the problem?

 

The first half of Mingyu’s statement sinks in.

 

“Wait.” Minghao sets down his chopsticks and leans over the table. “What do you mean, no one knows I live here?”

 

Mingyu stares stubbornly at the lesson plans and clenches his fingers around the pages. His mouth is twisted, in regret or embarrassment it’s unclear, but he hesitates to respond and something cold tickles down Minghao’s spine. The room feels hostile again. 

 

“I haven’t told anyone yet.”

 

“It’s been a month.”

 

“I said I needed to fumigate for bugs. So they wouldn’t come over.”

 

A thought hits Minghao like a train. “What if Immigration wants to speak to our mutual friends? See pictures of us hanging out? You’re supposed to be telling people so this relationship looks real.”

 

Mingyu looks up. “They wouldn’t interview my friends, that’s too much to ask… right?”

 

Marriage fraud is a felony for which the punishment is 10 years in prison and immediate deportation, respectively. Nothing sounds like too much to ask. Minghao feels like they’ve just looked up through parted clouds to see the long mountainous hike ahead—full of harsh cliffsides and slippery ground all the way to the top. 

 

Why did he agree to this in the first place? He’s such an idiot.

 

“I don’t know.” Minghao laces his fingers together and presses both thumbs into his forehead. "Fuck, I’ll call Junhui.”

 

Whatever stress Mingyu was feeling before, whatever sent him onto the balcony with a cigarette in the first place, is clearly not done filtering through his body, because he looks freaked to the max. He slams the binder closed. He stares at the couch, where Minghao’s entire life is stacked neatly, then at the bedroom door, then back again. Like a tortuously slow ping-pong.

 

It’s a little pitiful.

 

“You should move into my bedroom now.” Mingyu chews on his lower lip. “And we can take a bunch of fake photos tomorrow? If you’re not busy?”

 

Minghao’s first thought is hell fucking no, because why would he waste a second of free time actively hanging out with Mingyu—but he bites his tongue because, unfortunately, Mingyu is right. Tomorrow is Saturday. God knows Minghao hasn’t made a single friend since moving to Korea, so it’s not like he has plans. They need to do this sooner rather than later.

 

Begrudgingly, he nods. “That’s fine.”

 

“What…” Mingyu blinks rapidly. “...do you want to do?”

 

Black out for the entire day. “Um.” 

 

“Have you been to Namsan tower?”

 

(Minghao has a vivid flashback of Jeonghan at his desk, sipping from an extra large Americano, eyes wide behind his side-swept hair and asking, “Your sexy husband’s never taken you to Namsan tower? I’m personally offended. He doesn’t have a single romantic bone in that sexy body.”

 

He had covered his face with both hands and regretted ever showing Mingyu’s Instagram to his coworkers. “Please don’t call him sexy.”

 

“Workplace etiquette,” Seungcheol had said, not looking up from his laptop. “Don’t try empathizing with new guy, Jeonghan.”)

 

Minghao swallows hard. He knows Namsan tower is an excellent choice, popular with couples and apparently a must-do in Seoul, thanks to Jeonghan’s exuberant small talk. So he grits his teeth and says, “No, I haven’t been yet. That’s a good idea.”

 

“Okay, we’ll go.”

 

“Great.”

 

“Great.” Mingyu sighs and gathers the binder into his hands. “Let’s try not to argue the entire time.”

 

He disappears into the bedroom, so he can’t see the way Minghao rolls his eyes. Fat chance.

 

After cleaning up the kitchen and shoving Mingyu’s homemade kimchi stew to the bottom shelf to make room for his leftover meat, Minghao stands in front of the couch and surveys his life’s possessions. Most of his clothes are already in the bedroom closet or the coat rack. His toiletries are stacked neatly in the bathroom. As usual, the apartment is pristine and clean.

 

Logistically, it’s not hard to “move into” the bedroom with Mingyu, the only real change will be his sleeping space.

 

Easy. He folds the sheets and tosses his pillow on Mingyu’s bed. Thank god it’s a queen and they won’t struggle too hard to fit.

 

When Mingyu emerges from the bathroom, a cloud of steam follows. He’s got a towel around his waist and nothing else. He ignores Minghao sitting on a corner of the bed. Minghao tries to ignore him, too, by flicking idly through his emails, but the flexing of Mingyu’s back draws his eyes.

 

The universe is truly unfair to gift Kim Asshole Mingyu with that face and that body. Worse, Minghao hates himself for looking. He does not have permission. He does not want to see shoulders and waist on full display, because it makes him think of how they’re supposed to be getting freaky, which rolls his stomach unpleasantly. 

 

Intimacy, as a concept, is ridiculous. 

 

Mingyu pulls on a soft gray shirt and sweatpants. He turns around and rubs the towel over his damp hair, chasing droplets down his neck to the junction of his collarbones, where Minghao is most definitely not looking.

 

“I’ll take the left side.” Mingyu tosses the towel onto a wicker hamper and crawls into bed.

 

His weight makes the mattress dip and Minghao nearly falls over. “Fine.”

 

Minghao showers, does not think about his husband’s ass in those sweatpants, and prays to a dozen different deities that he and Mingyu don’t murder each other before the Immigration officers even arrive. It’s a monumental task, he thinks, sliding under the sheets beside Mingyu with damp hair. He doesn’t normally sleep in long pants and a shirt, but tonight he will.

 

The bedroom looks different in the dark—intimidating and quiet—punctuated by Mingyu’s steady breathing. He’s either asleep or pretending, which Minghao appreciates, because he’s incredibly uncomfortable sleeping in someone else’s space. He can feel the warmth from Mingyu’s body only inches away from his own. Their feet almost accidentally brush and Minghao recoils. 

 

He gingerly turns onto his back and stares at the ceiling.

 

The worst part is, the bed’s comfortable. Smells nice. Like fresh laundry and florals. Minghao wouldn’t mind sleeping here under different circumstances. Alone, specifically. He chances a sideways glance at Mingyu—a lump under the covers—and sighs.

 

“Stop thinking so damn loud,” Mingyu mumbles. “Go to sleep.”

 

Any tranquility is shattered. Minghao calls him an asshole in Mandarin. Mingyu kicks his knee and says, “Oops.”

 

They fall asleep as far from each other as possible. Minghao’s arm dangles over the side of the bed, face turned towards the window.

 

He doesn’t realize how the couch has been impacting his sleep quality until he wakes up. It happens slowly, a feeling of warm refreshment gathering on his skin. Sunlight streams through the curtains, dribbling gold across the carpet and spearing into his eyes, and Minghao is mindlessly comfortable.

 

Then he feels the arm around his waist.

 

He’s being spooned. There’s steady, warm breathing on the back of his neck. Mingyu is honest to fuck cuddling him right now.

 

Minghao’s body tenses up so fast he almost jolts off the edge of the bed. His heart hammers in his chest. Gently, hoping he won’t wake the octopus behind him, he extracts himself from Mingyu’s arm. He slides free of the sheets. Mingyu readjusts, slipping his hand up to cradle the pillow instead, but his eyelashes don’t even twitch.

 

Mission success. Minghao exhales heavily and resists the urge to slam Mingyu in the face with a pillow.

 

He flees to the bathroom. Full-body adrenaline causes him to start sweating already, despite the early hour and comfortable sheets, and he feels gross on several levels. 

 

How awkward—and even more awkward that Mingyu doesn’t know they woke up in such an uncompromising position. Should he have woken him up, yelled, caused a scene? Because now the cuddling feels like a dirty secret Minghao has to keep when the situation wasn’t even his fault. He’s definitely not the spooning type. Not that he usually stays the night to find out. That was all Mingyu.

 

Minghao wills away the blush on his cheeks and spends extra time on his hair. Whatever, he won’t let the same mistake happen again tomorrow morning. He’ll build a barricade out of pillows and dislike and personal space.

 

When Minghao emerges from the bathroom, in fresh clothes with a fresh face, Mingyu is humming away in the kitchen. The balcony door is thrown open, inviting in cool air and the smell of dew. A thrill-seeking snail moseys across the balcony railing. Springtime on the palette. 

 

“Hey.” Mingyu flips a pancake.

 

“Hey.” Minghao fills the kettle.

 

The morning is calm and domestic. They sit at the table and don’t argue. Mingyu offers a pancake, Minghao accepts and queues up a piano playlist. They eat in peace.

 

Until Mingyu eyes his plate and says, “Have the last pancake.”

 

Minghao shrugs. He drains the tea and carries his dishes to the sink. “No thanks.”

 

“I’m serious, I don’t want it.”

 

“Neither do I.”

 

He jumps when Mingyu comes up behind him. Suddenly they’re standing close, both bent over the sink, up to their wrists in suds, washing dishes together. Mingyu’s hair falls in his eyes, making him look disheveled and soft and distracting. He doesn’t seem to notice how they brush elbows.

 

Mingyu shuts off the water and looks Minghao up and down—waist to chest to face and back. He raises his eyebrows. “You should eat more. You’re really skinny.”

 

Hot under the collar, Minghao turns and grabs a towel. He takes his time drying each finger, thinking of what to say. It’s true he doesn’t eat enough, his mom was always yelling at him for it, and he’s lost a bit of weight from the stress of moving, but so what? He’s still healthy enough to dance every once in a while. He feels fine.

 

Anyway, it’s not Mingyu’s place to judge.

 

“That’s rude,” he mumbles. “Don’t comment on someone else’s body like that.”

 

“I wasn’t trying to—” Mingyu brushes past him and exits the kitchen in a huff. “Nevermind, just starve.”

 

Minghao flinches a little. He folds the towel into a neat square and hangs it above the sink. Those harsh words were probably deserved, but it makes his resentment boil hotter, thinking of Mingyu’s sharp temper and complete lack of tact. He started it. They’d almost had a nice morning together. 

 

Thirty minutes later, the camera is packed with full batteries and an empty SD card. Minghao has a bag of miscellaneous accessories—two berets, two scarves, a collared shirt, and three jackets—thrown over one shoulder, for the purpose of creating different dates that appear to take place over time.

 

Mingyu cleans up nicely in a black turtleneck and denim jacket. He walks into the living room with the Husband Manifesto in one hand, eyes flying over the page. His tongue peeks out, a tic that Minghao’s come to associate with thoughtfulness, and he mouths something from the paper.

 

“I’ll drive.” Mingyu pushes the page at his chest. “Test me on the way.”

 

And so they date. 

 

This is the first time Minghao has seen his husband outside the apartment, interacting with the world, since he first arrived on that snow-bitten evening. A weird sort of energy fills the car. Today the sun is shining weakly over the city. It’s chilly but not unbearable. Mingyu answers every question well and even pronounces his parent’s names with the correct intonation, scribbling the characters on a napkin at a red light to prove he can.

 

They switch papers. Minghao knows all the answers.

 

“We might actually pull this off,” he says, an invisible pressure lifting infinitesimally from his chest.

 

Mingyu glances over from the driver’s seat. “We might.”

 

“Let’s review our relationship. We met on HelloTalk a year and a half ago, when I started studying Korean again, and you were vaguely interested in Chinese. Except I picked up Korean quick and your Chinese was ass so we moved to Kakaotalk—”

 

“That’s not part of the story!”

 

Mingyu is apparently so agitated that he almost runs a late yellow light. He pushes on the brake with a heavy foot and they both wince when the seatbelts cut into their chests with a jerk. Mingyu has the audacity to look sheepish and mumble an apology. 

 

But he immediately continues with, “I can understand some, at least. Don’t make me sound stupid.”

 

“You can understand me right now?” Minghao folds the Husband Manifesto between his palms and switches to his native language. The words roll around in the car, exciting and turbulent, like Minghao’s just thrown peppercorn into the conversation pot.

 

Mingyu turns into a parking structure and answers in confident Mandarin. “Yes, I can.”

 

So Minghao takes a deep breath and says, quick as if he were talking to Junhui, “You’re right then, you’re definitely better at speaking Mandarin than I am at speaking Korean. We should totally change the story and move to Anshan since you’re so fluent. My bad, babe.”

 

The sarcastic endearment—babe—slips out without Minghao thinking about it. It’s weirdly satisfying, to know Mingyu can’t understand the sarcastic barb, and not something he has the courage to repeat in Korean where he could be misunderstood for fond. 

 

Absolute silence reigns in the car. Mingyu bites his lower lip and furrows his brows, processing, eyes roaming over the empty parking spots. He pulls into one and sighs. His fingers drum on the steering wheel. The ring on his left hand catches the light and Minghao stares almost against his will.

 

Mingyu nods his head and admits defeat. “Fine. I need to study more.”

 

Minghao shrugs. “Doesn’t matter. You don’t need to learn Chinese.”

 

“We’re married. Won’t they think it’s suspicious? If I’m not trying to learn your native language?”

 

“No offense.” Minghao gets out of the car and checks his camera bag. He waits until Mingyu gets out to shut his door and add, “But it’s not exactly easy.”

 

And Mingyu, despite being an elementary school teacher, doesn’t seem like the type to study in his free time. Academics are easy to spot—the visitor from last week, Wonwoo, he was definitely the academic type, but not pretty-boy Mingyu. Jock, maybe. One of the popular kids in high school, one of the playboys in college. You know the type.

 

A queue snakes out of the Namsan Tower welcome building, full of people in thin coats enjoying the dawning spring, and tentative buds emerge from the cherry blossom trees dotting the sidewalk. Minghao’s mood lifts just admiring the scene. He regrets not spending more time on tourist destinations—sometimes they’re worth the hype.

 

He fiddles with the camera while they wait in line. This lens is smaller, perfect for close-up portraits, and he takes a few test shots of Mingyu frowning at his phone.

 

“Wait, I wasn’t ready,” he objects, pocketing the phone.

 

“Give me a pose, then.”

 

Mingyu in front of a camera is a rabid creature. He runs a hand through his hair twice, checks his smile in the lens reflection, runs teeth over his lips for a color effect, and breaks into the world’s cheesiest grin. The man knows his angles—he tilts his neck a little so his sharp eyebrows curve pleasantly towards the camera, smolder on full display.

 

If Minghao were anything less than a professional, he would’ve fumbled the camera. But he is. Very professional. So he takes a dozen photos of Mingyu in different poses, one where he’s pretending to eat a brown leaf and the girl behind him watches with distant disgust.

 

“Okay, both of us,” Minghao says as they approach the loading deck. “Selfie time.”

 

“Cheese.”

 

“Don’t blink.”

 

It’s awkward. Of course. They press their faces close together, Mingyu leaning down, and he smells like his bed—fresh and floral and cool. Which is extremely intimate and not something Minghao particularly wants to think about right now, because he feels his smile falter and cheeks flush.

 

But the resulting photo is acceptable. He lets the camera hang loose around his neck as they step up to the desk and buy two tickets for the cable car. Mingyu pays, and Minghao doesn’t realize until after they’re loaded into the cable car that he probably should’ve offered to pay for his own ticket. This isn’t a real date.

 

Too late. He focuses his attention on staring out the window and wiping his sweaty palms on his jeans. Heights are a little nerve-wracking.

 

“Wow,” he says as they climb into the sky. “Wow, it’s—”

 

Gorgeous. Seoul unfurls below them in a hazy, monochrome beauty, looking three-dimensional as they rise above the skyscrapers. It takes his breath away. He’s never lived in a city quite like this, sprawling and well-organized all at once, speckled with trees and modern architecture. Everything crafted in silver and white.

 

Glancing across at Mingyu, he’s expecting to see a similar reaction. But Mingyu is staring at his phone, lower lip caught between his teeth, paying no attention to the stunning landscape below. 

 

Minghao isn’t disappointed. He’s unpleasantly surprised—sure, Mingyu has proven himself to be rude and inconsiderate, but come on. This is beautiful. And he’s not even appreciative. Is he frightened of heights? No, he would've mentioned something like that. Right?

 

Abruptly Minghao crosses onto the opposite bench, squeezing in beside Mingyu, who’s so startled he nearly drops his phone and shoves it into his jacket pocket. Very suspicious. Their knees jostle in the small space and suddenly they’re pressed together at the hip and thigh.

 

“What—“ Mingyu starts. His eyes fall on the camera. “Oh. Selfie again?”

 

“Yeah.” Minghao angles the camera so it will capture the skyline behind them. “Look happy.”

 

When he flips through these photos later, he’ll understand why Junhui suggested Mingyu of all people for this immense con job. Mingyu beams at the camera in every shot, even with his cheeks pressed against Minghao’s, in a genuine expression of joy. His dark eyes curve into crescents. He looks bashful and happy.

 

If nothing else, Mingyu is an excellent actor.

 

They reach the top and are released into a semi-crowded viewing room with an attached gift shop. Minghao buys an ugly green magnet and shakes it at Mingyu. “For our refrigerator.” 

 

Mingyu’s frown of disapproval almost makes him laugh.

 

After several more teeth-clenching selfies, they ask a foreign couple to take a proper portrait of them on the viewing platform. The man is tall and blonde and handles Minghao’s camera with little finesse—he clenches his fist to keep from snatching it back, fearing the worst. That camera is his livelihood. He’s got two others at home, and a small collection of lenses, but this one is his favorite. 

 

If some dolt smashes it during this fake date, he’ll… he’ll just...

 

Mingyu notices his discomfort, if the way he purses his lips is any indication. His eyes dart between the blonde guy and Minghao, back and forth, before he throws his arm around Minghao’s shoulder and melts into one of those hundred-watt smiles.

 

Click. Click. Click. 

 

The first picture is probably terrible because Minghao made a snooty face when Mingyu touched him—he could feel it crawl across his mouth and crinkle his nose before he schooled himself into a semblance of happiness. Lovey-dovey shit. Sure, easy.

 

“Thank you,” Minghao mumbles in English when he takes the camera back unscathed.

 

“Let’s hit the road.” Mingyu glances at his watch. “It’s almost noon, are you hungry?”

 

No, he’s not. Minghao busies himself checking the lens for scratches. An elderly woman squeezes by on her way to the restroom and forces him to cozy up to Mingyu’s side. The denim of his jacket presses against Minghao’s shoulder uncomfortably.

 

The viewing deck is growing more crowded by the minute and it’s hard to hear each other over the excited tourists’ chatterings.

 

Leaving is a great idea. Taking date-like pictures at a cute restaurant is a great idea. He won’t argue—even though putting food in his mouth might make him hurl today. It’s just one of those days.

 

“Sure,” Minghao says, stepping away and reestablishing his personal bubble. “You choose a place.”

 

Mingyu’s face goes blank. “I don’t know any Chinese restaurants around here.”

 

“We don’t have to eat Chinese.”

 

“Yeah, but. You hate Korean food.”

 

Hot shame creeps up Minghao’s neck. That spur-of-the-moment lie keeps coming back to haunt him, and Mingyu’s actually trying to be accommodating, which makes him feel even guiltier. What a petty thing he said. What a dumb, childish lie.

 

But he can’t admit to it now, can he? Weeks have passed and he’s done even dumber, even more childish things since then. Minghao supposes it doesn’t matter. He won’t eat much wherever they go. 

 

He shrugs and mumbles, “Anywhere is fine.”

 

Mingyu leads them back to the cable cars, where no one is waiting to descend and they board immediately. The small space suddenly feels too small sitting across from each other.

 

Minghao allows himself to stare out the windows and imagine he’s in a different situation. On a real date, with someone who actually likes him, who isn’t rude or nagging, and would hold his hand between their thick jackets to keep him warm. The weather is perfect for hot milk tea and strolling through a park with matching caps. If he were in a different situation…

 

This is the root of his problem. This is part of the reason why he can’t relax around Mingyu—besides the lingering, shy scars from his last relationship—because Minghao is a full-blown romantic. Staring at the man sitting across from him just reminds him of every dream he killed for this job.

 

He’s stuck in this fake relationship for at least two years, probably longer. With no prospect of wine-and-dining. No flowers, no dozing off on the couch together, no goodbye kisses, no dancing in the living room. None of the softness that Minghao craves. He’s got a hungry heart, after all. Awkward spooning with his not-husband doesn’t make the cut.

 

Minghao chose his career over love. For that, he may never forgive himself. He may never forgive Mingyu either.

 

They exit the cable car in silence and trek back to the car. Excited couples pass, headed in the opposite direction, falling over each other in giggles and blushing cheeks. Quite the opposite of this married couple. Minghao pulls his coat tighter around himself, self-conscious and desperately lonely.

 

He feels pathetic. Come on. Shake it off. 

 

Mingyu pulls up directions to a nearby soondubu restaurant and starts driving. He rolls down the windows so a heavy breeze whips their hair into a happy frenzy. For lack of anything better to do, Minghao takes a few cell phone shots of his hands on the steering wheel, his side profile brooding over traffic.

 

When Mingyu notices he starts posing. Brows furrowed, lips pouted, full-on model mode activated. Afternoon sun through the window sets his skin to a warm, deep tan. He looks hot, but Minghao snorts and lowers his phone. 

 

“No, keep going.” Mingyu drums his fingers on the steering wheel. “I might as well get a photoshoot out of this.”

 

“My fee is 100,000 won per portrait session.”

 

Mingyu whistles. “You don’t come cheap.” He seems to realize the innuendo too late, his own words echoing back, and his eyes bug out. “I mean.”

 

But Minghao giggles. Mostly at the terrified look on Mingyu’s face—he’ll treasure that one for sure—but also because the fresh air is boosting his mood. He hangs an elbow out the window like a young hotshot, like he might’ve done driving his car back in Anshan, on the way to a club with friends and ready to dance.

 

He tilts his neck back to better feel the sun. His left earring, a pearl on a chain, dangles against his neck and the sensation is heightened by the harsh press of wind. Skyscrapers fly by as they pass through the business district. Minghao feels alive. 

 

Mingyu relaxes after that. He turns up the radio a bit. They pull into a parking structure and this time Minghao gets his card on the dashboard in time to pay for the ticket. The restaurant is located in the bowels of a shopping mall, semi-crowded and beside a fresh-scented Nature Republic. They’re seated immediately.

 

Passing over the menu, Mingyu points to several dishes. “This soup isn’t kimchi-based, maybe you’d like it. Is seafood okay? Pajeon is really good, nice and mild.”

 

Minghao bites his lip. “About that.”

 

“What?”

 

The way Mingyu is looking at him now—wide eyes, lips parted, hair falling into his eyes even though he pushed it back thirty seconds ago—just makes Minghao want to drown himself. He shouldn’t confess. It will only cause problems. But he’s tired of pretending, and it’s not even a big deal, and if he wants the next two years to be civil, then he needs to buck up and try a little harder. 

 

“I lied about not liking Korean food.” Minghao picks at the menu’s laminated edge. “I love it. I eat your kimchi out of the fridge when you’re not around.”

 

Mingyu snorts. A range of expressions pass over his face too quickly to read. “Why’d you lie?”

 

“I don’t know.”

 

The waitress comes by to take their drink orders. They both order water quickly and she leaves. Nearby conversations set the atmosphere abuzz with a comfortable lull, and Minghao feels his muscles relax, relieved at admitting his prior sins. Tension slides out of his knees and hips. 

 

He’s not ready for Mingyu to say, “You’re really bad at this fake marriage.”

 

Minghao’s eyes fly wide. He drops the menu. "I’m bad at this? So are you."

 

“I cook dinner.” Mingyu starts slapping out fingers, counting his good deeds. “I have your picture as my wallpaper. I clean up after you—“

 

That explains the food. It’s performative. Of course. Mingyu is one hell of a method actor. But Minghao crosses his arms and tries to remember the last time he left a mess, aside from the disastrous honey-filled morning, and can’t recall.

 

“When?”

 

“You leave the bathroom soaking wet. You hide my stuff. You leave your dishes out sometimes,” Mingyu says. “And that one time I washed your jeans, remember?”

 

“The laundry was an accident. Besides, you eat my takeout and your friends don’t even know I exist.”

 

“Not my fault no one’s asked about the ring yet.”

 

The waitress clears her throat. She drops off two glasses of ice water and it’s only then Minghao realizes they’d started leaning across the table, elbows propped up, like arguing magnets. He sits back and takes a long sip, hoping to cool his sparking temper. Is he angry? Annoyed? 

 

There’s a part of him enjoying sniping with Mingyu—they’re both satisfyingly good at it. A great way to relieve the tension between them without blowing their cover. Real married couples fight, he saw it all the time growing up.

 

“Do you know what you want to order?” Mingyu’s face is back to being clear and unpassionate. His voice, neutral. 

 

Minghao mumbles, “A kimchijjigae please.”

 

Rolling his eyes, Mingyu passes the menu back to the waiter. “Two kimchijjigae please. Make the second one extra spicy.”

 

She smiles, scribbled on her notepad, and walks away.

 

Mingyu is chewing on his lower lip. It’s morbidly fascinating because he has nice lips, but apparently no qualms about destroying them. Minghao fidgets with his phone. Smooths a hangnail. Makes accidental eye contact with a baby at the next table.

 

Mingyu blurts out, “Hey, I’m sorry.” He exhales and stacks his arms neatly on the table. “About the petty stuff I’ve been doing. I was acting like an asshole—I still am, kinda, but I don’t want you to think I’m a terrible person. I’ll stop.”

 

I don’t think you’re a terrible person, is Minghao’s first thought, but he’s too surprised to speak at first. That apology was obviously spur-of-the-moment, but based on Mingyu’s awkward body language, he’s being genuine. Remorse fills him like an empty cup. Again he thinks of his own childish behavior—the lying, the refusing the speak, the bathroom floor oceans.

 

He’s embarrassed. How did they get to this point? Because Mingyu treated him like an annoying child when Minghao was having a medical emergency that he didn’t know about? Because Minghao is upset about living in a cage of his own design?

 

All at once he realizes how pointless it is. Their stupid rivalry, their stupid nasty comments. Minghao can assert his own independence through other means, can’t he?

 

“I’m sorry too,” he says, after what is probably too long a pause. Mingyu’s eyes lift to his. “For being rude for no reason. I won’t do it anymore.”

 

“It’s okay,” Mingyu says immediately.

 

Silence falls over their table, but it’s less stifling than this morning. He doesn’t know what to say next, if there’s anything to say next at all. Minghao fiddles with his phone before sneaking a few candids of Mingyu chewing his thumbnail and looking over the crowded tables.

 

He gets this look on his face sometimes like he’s thinking of something in a galaxy far, far away… like his thoughts have rocket-blasted away from their surroundings. It’s in contrast to the way Mingyu has a conversation: sharp, present, usually fired up and opinionated.

 

Minghao manages to photograph the space cadet look before Mingyu notices.

 

“So this isn’t your first time in Korea, right?” 

 

The change of topic feels like a fresh breeze.

 

“No.” He shoves his phone into a pocket. “I took a trip to Jeju once with my parents. And I did a summer abroad during high school. That’s when I started learning Korean.”

 

Mingyu nods. “I’ve never left the country. Barely left the city.”

 

“Why did you study Chinese?” Not that you’re very good, Mingyu. But he knows more than nothing, which is in some way comforting.

 

“Elective in college. Foreign languages were required for education majors.”

 

“Oh.” Minghao fiddles with the straw in his water. Condensation collects around the bottom rim and he drags a fingertip through it, relishing the cold, thinking back to his own short-lived college career. Another thing they don’t have in common. 

 

“What did you study at university? Photography?”

 

Minghao shakes his head. Bangs fall in his face and he wastes time arranging the hair to artfully frame his forehead, considering his answer and reminding himself not to lie. There’s no need to lie. He doesn’t care what this man thinks of him. He doesn’t. 

 

He takes a long drink of water and says, “Nothing. I dropped out after a semester.”

 

The waitress interrupts their abrupt return to awkward silence. She deposits two steaming bowls of stew, two bowls of rice, and a plethora of side dishes that make Minghao’s mouth water. Pickled radish, potato salad, fish cake. Some of his favorite banchan. At least they’re getting a good meal out of this date.

 

Mingyu reaches for his chopsticks.

 

“Wait!” Minghao whips out the camera. “Food photo.”

 

“Oh nooooo.” Mingyu settles back against the booth. “You’re one of those people? Kill me.”

 

“With pleasure.”

 

Mingyu’s sigh is audible even against the crowded restaurant. After several photos have been taken, of the food and Mingyu staring into the distance above the food, Minghao picks up his chopsticks and flicks a grain of rice across the table. It lands on Mingyu’s neck and sticks.

 

He slaps a hand over it and glares at Minghao, but there’s no heat behind it. The rice is flicked away and Minghao tries not to snicker; he’s truly feeling like the wicked witch of Anshan today. 

 

They dig into the food with gusto. Mingyu eats in a neat rotation, moving from stew to rice to side dishes and back with rhythm, not unlike the judge of a cooking show taking small, careful bites of each dish. 

 

Minghao doesn’t know why he’s paying such close attention. It’s just kind of a weird way to eat, isn’t it? He ought to think of a question. They’re meant to be getting to know each other today. Watching Mingyu measure out careful spoonfuls of stew, for some reason, makes him remember their conversation over dinner several nights ago.

 

“What did Junhui tell you about me?” Minghao asks suddenly, chopsticks sliding through a cube of tofu. “Before we met.”

 

To his shock, Mingyu looks embarrassed. His lips pull up into a pressed, uncomfortable smile, and his face turns a funny shade of pink underneath that golden tan. Stubborn as ever, he sticks a scoop of rice into his mouth and chews before answering.

 

“Not much. Basic information. He showed me pictures of your work.”

 

That’s a very safe answer. “And that was enough to agree to—” He flutters a hand at the table. “All this.”

 

Mingyu shrugs. “I need the money.”

 

Why? The question almost leaps from Minghao’s mouth. It sits restless on his lips, he’s dying to know. What does a grade one teacher who looks like a model need with an extra 800,000 won a month? Need so badly that he’s willing to risk jail time for it?

 

But no. He won’t ask, not now. They’re just starting to feel each other out the right way, they haven’t seriously argued all morning, and boundaries are important. He already accidentally blurted out that question the day they met. It was uncomfortable and probably contributed to their initial antagonism that’s now taking genuine effort to deconstruct. Right now they’re united under the same quest and Minghao won’t get in the way of that.

 

Mingyu’s shoulders relax when he realizes Minghao isn’t going to hound him with questions. He stretches for the last slice of fishcake and says, “What did Junhui tell you about me?"

 

“Absolutely nothing.”

 

“No way.”

 

“Your name.” Minghao sips his water. It’s been a while since he had so much kimchi, and it’s great, but it burns a little. “That’s it.”

 

Mingyu sets down his spoon in disbelief. His lips are faintly swollen from the extra spicy stew, and shiny from the water he keeps chugging. He looks like he’s on a proper date now, too involved in the conversation to fix his hair every five seconds and endearing in his disarray. Semi-distracting.

 

“I could’ve been a serial killer,” Mingyu muses. “And Junhui would’ve sent you off to your death.”

 

Minghao shrugs and finishes the dregs of his stew. “I was desperate. Honestly I didn’t expect you to be so—” He struggles to think of the best way to say this. “Young? I figured Junhui would find some old widowed Chinese woman.”

 

He doesn’t mention the terrible things he feared she would make him do. He doesn’t mention that a part of him still recoils when Mingyu gets too close because that fear hasn’t entirely gone away. Minghao sold his hand to a stranger, it’s only logical they’d think they have a right to his body. The memory of waking up being cuddled in Mingyu’s bed flashes across his mind’s eye.

 

No, that’s different. He can prevent that. He can take care of himself and Mingyu’s not like that—he can hardly stand Minghao most of the time, he doesn’t want that from him. No one’s taking advantage of Minghao or forcing him into anything. Husband or not. He takes a deep breath.

 

The trajectory of his thoughts must show on his face because Mingyu’s eyes widen. He searches Minghao’s face, looking for who knows what, before scraping his rice bowl clean and setting down his utensils carefully. “Which would you have preferred?”

 

“I don’t know,” he says honestly. “Neither.”

 

Minghao manages to snatch the bill from the waitress and slip his card inside. Mingyu looks like he’s gearing to fight him for it, jaw clenched and ready for rebuttal, but Minghao wags the bill and says, “You paid for the Tower.”

 

Mission success. Mingyu slumps back and nods. 

 

“Where to next?”

 

“The Sky Rose Garden is close.” Mingyu checks his phone. “That’s another really cliche date spot. We can leave the car here and walk.”

 

A walk sounds pleasant. While waiting for the waitress to return with his card, Minghao swiftly looks up pictures of the so-called Sky Garden. This early into spring, there won’t be many blooms, but the views seem nice. Relaxing. Like a place he might bring himself to drink wine and decompress after a long week. 

 

To his surprise, the waitress hands his card back and says shyly, “You two make a handsome couple. Come by again.” 

 

She walks away quickly, one hand over her giggling mouth. Mingyu stares. Minghao stares. Their stares meet in the middle and they exchange a conciliatory we did it! glance. Their arguments, apologies, and stilted conversation shouldn’t have presented the image of a couple, but somehow, they did. Maybe it’s the matching aesthetics.

 

That reminds Minghao. As they stroll down half-empty afternoon streets, he rustles through his bag for a discreet change of clothes. Mingyu leads the charge down wide sidewalks under evergreen trees with needles underfoot, idly kicking pebbles and humming like he does in the shower. The atmosphere between them has relaxed. They’ve buried the misshapen hatchet.  

 

Minghao exchanges his jacket for a cardigan buttoned all the way up and throws on a beret. New outfit for a new date. He holds out a plain black cap to Mingyu, who puts it on wordlessly. With his hair pushed back under the hat, his forehead is on full display, along with his perfect brows and mischievous eye-smile.

 

Unfortunately that’s a great look. 

 

Even more unfortunately, Mingyu knows it. He adjusts the hat as they enter the first floor movie theater, skirt the smelly concessions stand, and slip into the elevator. Winking at his reflection in the glass walls, Mingyu presses the LOFT button and says, “This suits me, doesn’t it?”

 

“I hope that was a rhetorical question.”

 

“I should wear it to school this week. My coworkers might ask and give me a perfect opportunity to say oh yeah, my long distance partner gave me this hat—”

 

“I didn’t.” Minghao rolls his eyes as the elevator arrives at the top floor. He won’t feed Mingyu’s ego and he hates sharing clothes. “Give you the hat, I mean.”

 

Mingyu snaps his fingers. “You’re right, it’s way more romantic if I stole it from your side of the closet.”

 

“I don’t let people borrow my clothes unless it’s an emergency.”

 

“Even better. I’ll be your exception.”

 

They step into a wonderland. Sky Garden is an enormous rooftop botanical art scene, bookended by a coffeeshop meets bar, decorated with snowflake fairy lights and comfortably empty. Skyscrapers rise in front of their eyes. A flock of early sparrows wing towards a spiny tree just beginning to grow back its leaves.

 

The place is gorgeous. Minghao nearly forgets why he’s here, who he’s here with, what’s happening—he just stops in the entryway and takes it all in. He realizes his lips are parted and he’s been staring silently for several moments. 

 

Mingyu presses his mouth into a smug smile. He shoves his hands into his pockets and says, “So you like it?”

 

“Um.” Minghao lays both worshipful hands on his camera. "Yeah."

 

What a perfect place for a shoot. The area rearranges itself in Minghao’s head, accounting for the lighting and composition, so that several key spots jump out. Thoughtlessly he grabs Mingyu’s arm and drags him toward a perfect backdrop, a bush shaped like an ocean wave.

 

Mingyu tugs his arm back when they arrive. There’s something unhappy about his face under the shadows of leaves and Minghao almost apologizes. He shouldn’t have grabbed him—it was rude—but it’s too late to take back the motion now. He spares a thought to how awkward they must look together physically, afraid to touch one another, jerking back from accidental elbows brushing and now this.

 

Minghao just points to the plant. “Stand here.”

 

“Fine.” Mingyu settles in front obediently and strikes a serious pose.

 

Click. Click. 

 

Mingyu drops the pose, stands straight, and throws him a curveball in the shape of a question. “What was your childhood nickname?”

 

Minghao lowers the camera. “What?”

 

“That wasn’t on the cheat sheet, but—it’s something a husband would know.”

 

It’s incredibly embarrassing to translate. Minghao holds the word in his mouth for a second, sucking it between his teeth, hoping to strip some of the intimacy away. But Mingyu is standing there, watching him with an energy close to eagerness. He’s going to laugh. And Minghao’s going to let him.

 

“Little froggy,” he finally says. “But it sounds better in Chinese, I promise.”

 

Mingyu doesn’t laugh. But he does drum his fingers on the bush and watch the leaves tremble. “We should have nicknames for each other.”

 

“No thanks.”

 

“I’m serious, that can be…” Mingyu trails off. His fingers stop moving. “An important part of a relationship.”

 

Minghao recalls earlier that morning, when he sarcastically slipped and called Mingyu babe in Mandarin, how good it felt to mock him with no concern of getting caught. He crosses his arms and makes the conscious effort not to be petty. Time for a new leaf.

 

“Fine. But I’ll only sweet-talk you in Mandarin.”

 

When you can’t understand if I slip up and insult you… just in case.

 

“Deal. What should I call you? Honey? Sweetie? Cutie pie pumpkin—”

 

Minghao pretends to gag. He turns and walks quickly away, focusing on the lights and statues down the path, torn between laughter and disgust. The first thing Mingyu ever said to him, after striding into the clerk’s office, was Sorry, am I late? Let’s do this, babe.  

 

Babe is fine. Anything is fine. He wouldn’t mind a pet name if it were genuine. His friends call him Xiao Hao. Something endearing, something sweet…

 

But this feels very forced. Mingyu doesn’t love him, he shouldn’t have the privilege of a pet name. Not much he can do about it—can’t fight Mingyu’s logic—but that’s how Minghao feels anyway.

 

Mingyu’s footsteps thunder along the rocky path. Minghao is hyper-aware of being followed, pursued like a rabbit running from a mountain lion. When a marble statue of Aphrodite comes into view, he stops. Takes a photo. Allows himself to be caught.

 

Mingyu catches up to stand indignant at his side, cap off-kilter.

 

“You’re a pain in the ass, honestly.” Mingyu sets his hands on his hips and raises both eyebrows.

 

Minghao snorts darkly. “Just call me that.”

 

“What?”

 

It was a joke, but the idea takes shape in Minghao’s mind. He lets the camera fall loose around his neck and turns to inspect Mingyu—head to toe, ignoring his nervous hands fidgeting with the baseball cap—in the strong afternoon sunlight. As usual, he looks boyish and charming. Attractive enough to know it with an ego the size of the Milky Way.

 

“No, it’s perfect,” Minghao realizes. “We can’t fool them into thinking we’re a lovey-dovey, sweet couple because we’re so far from that. Let’s play off our strengths.”

 

Mingyu catches on immediately. “So you’ll be the tsundere ice queen who never shows affection, and I’ll be the charming heartthrob who swept you off your feet against all odds. I can say a bunch of cheesy nonsense, complain about you, yadda yadda, while you answer everything straightforward and deadpan.”

 

“Or you could be the annoying, persistent, conceited loser who wouldn’t leave me alone,” Minghao counters, but he’s smiling. “Sounds great.”

 

Mingyu paces an excited circle around the path and completely ignores the insults. “We’re in control of the narrative. We can spin this dynamic however we want.”

 

“As long as the lawyer believes it.”

 

“Right.”

 

As it turns out, Kim Mingyu with a project is a formidable beast. He revisits the Husband Manifestos and thinks of ways to tell certain stories, creates fake inside jokes, spins a tale of unlikely love built out of two personalities that mirror their own. For the first time Minghao can see the teacher in this man.

 

It’s easier to pretend they’re simply playing two characters—Mingyu and Myungho, long distance lovers finally brought together—rather than living their lives.

 

For his own sanity, he has to shut down some of Mingyu’s more exuberant ideas. They reach the end of the Sky Garden, where it tapers into a glass wall overlooking a street corner leading downtown, and they pause to watch cars scurry like bugs down below.

 

“We did not bond over shitty Western baking shows. I refuse.”

 

“But it’s perfect.” Mingyu’s eyes are wide and emphatic. He leans against the railing and his hair nearly brushes the glass. “I’m a sucker for pretty frosting, and it can be your rare indulgence in my hobbies.”

 

“How about we bonded over you cooking me Chinese food?” Minghao tosses it out like a joke but can hear the tension in his own voice.

 

Because that would be the ultimate way to woo him.

 

Mingyu raises his eyebrows. He stares thoughtfully out the window, tongue barely poking past his teeth like he has a suggestion on the brink of escape, then nods resolutely.

 

“That could work.”

 

“Great.” Minghao pulls the camera off his neck. “Come here, selfie time.”

 

They pose in front of the city view. In front of the bonsai. Beside the arrangement of bottles filled with fairy lights. A half a dozen smiling photos before Mingyu gets bored and starts sticking out his tongue. Minghao switches out his own jacket and moves them into the cafe for a few more photos.

 

Mingyu peers around a fern to read the menu. “Do you want coffee?”

 

“Sure.” Minghao hands over a bill. “I’ll buy.”

 

“Thanks, dear. What do you want?”

 

The term of endearment rolls off Mingyu’s tongue in some horrific mix of genuine and sarcastic that makes them both laugh and cringe. Experimentation failed. Minghao wrinkles his nose into a deep stank face—he can’t help it. “God, that was bad.” He folds the camera strap and putting equipment away. “Just a black tea, please.”

 

“Milk or honey?”

 

"No." The refusal is emphatic. “I’m allergic to honey.”

 

Mingyu is still scanning the menu, but his eyes widen. He starts walking towards the cashier but turns over one shoulder, brows furrowed, to reply. “There’s honey in our cupboard that isn’t labeled. I’ll point it out to you later.”

 

Oh, if only you knew.

 

Minghao still doesn’t know the word for anaphylactic shock. He still doesn’t know how to explain that at his most vulnerable, Mingyu had nudged him with his foot and told him to clean up a mess. That wasn’t Mingyu’s fault, but it still hurt, and the reminder makes an irrational anger tap against his skull. 

 

No. They’ve made progress today. Not only did they apologize, they joked with each other. Minghao won’t screw that up by bringing up their below-the-surface issues—he’ll continue repressing and compartmentalizing, thanks very much. As for Mingyu, ignorance is bliss. It’s simply better this way.

 

Mingyu returns fumbling with change and two to-go cups. He passes over what belongs to Minghao and they begin an amiable walk back to the elevator. The tea is scorching hot against his lips and tongue and Minghao regrets his own impatience. 

 

“Any other allergies I should know about?” Mingyu asks conversationally.

 

“No, how about you?”

 

“Nope. What about things you hate? I know your favorite foods and things, but we should know what we’d rant about.” Mingyu sips his iced latte. “I hate cucumbers, I don’t like beer but sometimes I drink it anyway. My pet peeves are loud chewing and movies without a happy ending.”

 

The elevator dings and they walk once again through the movie theater foyer. Minghao blows on his tea and tries not to laugh. That might come across as insensitive. But seriously, movies without a happy ending? Mingyu is soft.

 

“That’s most movies,” is all he says.

 

“I know. Mostly romance movies without a happy ending. Like The Notebook, that’s so sad, and everybody loves it but I just don’t get it.”

 

Mingyu opens the door for him. They walk side-by-side back to the car as the city darkens. In the dim light of dusk, lights from restaurants and bars begin flickering to neon life, and they pass groups of young people headed for mischief. It makes Minghao feel, suddenly, very old.

 

“I agree,” Minghao says, and realizes it’s true. “That romances should have happy endings.”

 

That’s his bleeding goddamn heart talking, but no one is the wiser. Mingyu throws a warm smile at him, and it’s so real and unexpected that Minghao almost stops walking. What a knockout smile. His heart lurches.

 

“Right? Thank you!” Mingyu uses his hands to emphasize his point. “I don’t like misery porn. None of that angsty stuff.”

 

“I hate cheese on my ramen and I don’t eat sweets. Ignorance makes me angry. I hate those stupid plaid shoes that kids think are trendy now, have you seen them? Fucking ugly.”

 

Mingyu throws his head back and laughs. “Okay, give me more, come on.”

 

“Alcohol is gross and anyone who tells you differently is a masochist. Unless they’re talking about wine, that’s okay.” Minghao starts listing things on his fingers. There’s a lot he hates, he doesn’t want to lose track. “I hate baroque paintings, I hate people who send six texts in a row when you only need one. Unless it's Junhui, he gets a free pass. And—oh my god—naengmyeon is the worst."

 

“I thought you liked Korean food.”

 

“I do! This is just one dish I can’t… I can’t even think about eating.”

 

Minghao doesn’t even notice they’ve arrived at the car until it beeps to signal it’s unlocked. He gets in the passenger seat, fastens his seatbelt, and feels lighter than he has in weeks. Maybe he needed a mini complaining session, hah. How cathartic. 

 

He’s on such a roll, but he doesn’t want to dampen the mood and stray into more serious complaints, of which he has many, like how annoying workplace honorifics can be. Mingyu looks almost cheerful. His face is relaxed when he turns the key and the car whooshes to life. 

 

“Got it,” Mingyu says, craning his neck back to check the street before they depart. “No naengmyeon in the summer, don’t double-text, wine only.”

 

“Now you know my deepest secrets,” Minghao says, and he’s smiling, but it doesn’t feel bitter. It doesn’t feel combative. He’s just talking to Mingyu in the car. Reluctant, married allies against the world.

 

On the drive home he hangs one arm out the side window and lets the night envelop them both.




 

Stress at Seventeen magazine builds like a tsunami after an earthquake—that is, with little forewarning and major damage. Although they’re one of the most widely-read publications in the country, their team is small and overworked and appropriately brilliant. Minghao struggles to keep up on his best days. The days leading up to the Immigration interview are, naturally, not his best days.

 

Seungcheol meets him in Studio 2 with a coffee after the Monday morning shoot. Their client today was an up-and-coming baseball pitcher who wants to break out of athletics and pitch a line of sustainable jockstraps. Admirable work, honestly, but the man refused half of Minghao’s wardrobe options before insulting the assistant stylist, then waxed poetic about talk radio for ten minutes instead of posing with the turf and blue lights like he was told to do.

 

Long morning.

 

Because Seungcheol has been in this line of work a little longer, he sees all this and more on Minghao’s face. The coffee is plain and almost too bitter to take; it feels like battery acid going down. But Minghao sips gratefully.

 

“Thanks.” He sets the coffee on a prop table and leans heavily against the wall. “Is this the part where you tell me to suck it up?”

 

Seungcheol squeezes his shoulder in a friendly way. He’s tired, too, if the eyebags are any indication, but he’s still got a lopsided smile and impeccable suit.

 

“Unfortunately this is the part where I tell you Jeonghan’s out sick this week.”

 

Minghao feels the ground tremble under his feet and wonders, briefly, if he’s about to be sucked down into hell. Or if he’s already there.

 

He rubs both eyes. “No. Oh no. Is he okay? Did he finish the—“

 

“He’s fine, but no.”

 

“Isn’t that due—“

 

“Yes.”

 

This is how Minghao finds himself the only lead photographer at Seventeen magazine less than two months after his hire. For one week, anyway. The responsibility makes him nauseated just thinking about it. Or maybe that’s the coffee.

 

Regardless, it means he has to run home during his lunch break to grab the SD card with his shots from last week, which he hasn’t finished editing and didn’t plan to bring to the office yet, because Seungcheol is flipping the schedule and needs to meet with the editorial department this afternoon.

 

Absolute chaos.

 

Minghao jiggles his knee for the whole bus ride. He’ll have enough time to run in, grab the SD card, inhale his leftover fried rice from last night, and run out. At his stop he jumps from the second step and lands with both boots on the sidewalk. The driver tips his yellowing hat and says, “See you later, boy.”

 

Surprised, Minghao turns back to wave, but the door is already closing. That driver must be the same one he catches on the 5:15pm route. Being recognized does something funny to his heart—he feels seen, acknowledged, looked after. How nice. He’s probably memorable, dressed in high fashion on the public bus system alongside elderly ladies and uptight businessmen.

 

The flowerpots lined up along his apartment building’s foyer are starting to bud. Minghao zooms past, takes the stairs up two at a time, shoves his key into the door, and bursts into his apartment.

 

Which is full of people.

 

Minghao freezes. Two guys are sitting on his couch. A girl in long braids is standing on the balcony. Another guy is sitting at the table, phone in hand, looking as comfortable as can be. Mingyu is frozen in the kitchen holding a casserole. His face says oh fuck but his voice says, in a strange and high tone, “You’re home.”

 

There’s a certain flavor of fear Minghao has come to associate with being thrown into a room of foreign strangers unexpectedly. It’s not quite anxiety, not quite embarrassment, but somewhere on that spectrum of acid-reflux, and he feels it now filling up his guts. All the words he knows in Korean are blown out from his ears like dandelion seeds. 

 

Then Mingyu clears his throat and adds, “Babe.”

 

Minghao snaps back to himself. He’s Seo Myungho in the apartment he shares with his husband. On autopilot he shuts the door behind him and takes off his shoes. All the people in his apartment are staring like he’s the stranger who showed up uninvited. 

 

“I just… came to grab…” He points his thumb towards the bedroom. Probably incriminating himself even further.

 

The guy sitting at the table drops his phone. It clatters against the floor. “Wait, babe? Is this your secret boyfriend?”

 

“Not how I wanted you guys to meet,” Mingyu says between gritted teeth. He hasn’t looked away from Minghao. “But Myungho, these are my friends.”

 

There is no place to escape. Embarrassment burns across his cheeks and Minghao kinda sorta wants to melt through the floor. It’s hard to tell if Mingyu is angry or not—but that doesn’t even matter right now. By opening the front door, Minghao just inadvertently threw down a pop quiz they’re required to pass.

 

The guy sitting at the table jumps up and grabs Minghao’s hand to shake. He’s wearing head-to-toe athleisure and floppy blonde hair falls in his face when he beams.

 

“I fucking knew it! Hi, I’m Soonyoung.” He jabs a finger at the guys sitting on the couch. “And you owe me 20,000 won.”

 

Mingyu makes a confused uhhh noise and sets down the casserole on the table. He’s wearing his pink apron again and he looks endearingly at ease surrounded by friends; some invisible tension loosened around his spine. His hair is neat and there’s a smudge of pink marker on his jaw. 

 

Several things happen at once: the girl on the balcony starts laughing and comes inside, Minghao’s phone rings, and the shorter man on the couch catapults to his feet and says, “Nononono I never agreed to your bet! We all knew Mingyu was acting shady.”

 

“Hey,” Mingyu protests weakly, but no one is paying him any attention.

 

“I’m Seungkwan!” The aforementioned couch-dweller shakes Minghao’s hand just as energetically as Soonyoung. He has friendly pink cheeks and is wearing a pastel peach shirt tucked into dad jeans. A warm face to match a warm aesthetic. “Nice to meet you.”

 

Everyone is smiling except Mingyu, who looks like he’s eaten a lemon by surprise. The colors, the unfamiliar faces, the rapidfire Korean, the shock—it’s overwhelming for Minghao. Sensory overload feels like a heart attack. He reacts without thinking and darts into the bedroom, slamming the door between himself and the chaos of the living room, leaving behind a shout of “Nicetomeetyoubye!”

 

Through the door he can hear laughter and shuffling feet, muffled words and Mingyu’s distinctive voice soothing the situation. Minghao presses his back against the door and lets his socked feet slide until his ass hits the floor. Shit. He probably shouldn’t have run. That was suspicious, right? As Mingyu’s partner, he should be ecstatic to meet the friends he’s heard so much about.

 

Except he doesn’t know much beyond their names. Soonyoung and Seungkwan. The second guy on the couch must’ve been Hansol, and the girl probably Yoohyeon, based on the phone conversations he’s overhead these past few weeks.

 

His phone is still ringing.

 

Numbly, Minghao fishes his phone from his bag and answers without looking at the screen. “Hello?”

 

“You’re answering in Korean already,” his mom says. “Wow, I’m impressed. Are you at work?”

 

“No, I…” He tumbles with relief into Mandarin. “I just came home to grab lunch. How are you?”

 

“I’m okay. The tomato plant started budding this morning, so your father’s excited.” 

 

Her warm voice fills the dark bedroom. Minghao closes his eyes and sinks into the conversation like a fluffy blanket. As usual, she has perfect timing—he didn’t realize he was so homesick until right this minute.

 

They exchange pleasantries until his mother says, “Alright, I don’t want to take up your lunch break. Eat well. Don’t skip meals for work, okay?”

 

“Yes, mom,” he says. “Miss you.”

 

“I miss you. I’ll call you later.”

 

He grips the edge of the dresser and pulls himself to his feet. “Bye.”

 

Minghao takes a deep breath. His backup camera bag is tossed haphazardly on the windowsill and he fishes out the necessary SD card before taking stock of the situation. From here, he can just see a corner of the balcony, where the girl is no longer standing. Everyone must be in the living room, probably eating Mingyu’s casserole and laughing at Minghao’s flight response. 

 

He leans his forehead against the glass, warmed by the sun. He doesn’t want to go back out there. What an embarrassment he is. Minghao can imagine how he comes off to strangers: awkward, cold, unfriendly. That’s how he comes off to people who know him, too. Maybe that’s just who he is. 

 

A cloud of miserable humiliation settles over him. Minghao resigns himself to fumbling through the next twenty minutes in order to eat his leftovers and just hopes that Mingyu comes up with enough excuses for his weird behavior later. 

 

He tells himself he’s just playing the role of dutiful but cold husband Seo Myungho. Following the script written by Mingyu. Doing his best. Then he pockets the SD card and opens the bedroom door.

 

He was right—everyone is seated around the table eating casserole. Seungkwan and his couch friend, the unverified Hansol, are polite enough not to stare. Yoohyeon is in deep conversation with Mingyu.

 

But Soonyoung turns and flaps a hand in the air and says, “Myungho, come join us!”

 

“Thanks, but I have leftovers in the fridge.” Minghao bypasses the table and starts arranging his fried rice for the microwave. “I don’t want to interrupt.”

 

“There’s enough food,” Mingyu says quietly. An olive branch. 

 

“I like your boots.” A third voice, unfamiliar, echoes from the table.

 

Minghao glances back to see the unverified Hansol—it has to be Hansol, right? Mingyu doesn’t have that many friends—who is wearing an obnoxious yellow hoodie and bandana. At first glance, he’s striking and handsome. At second glance, he doesn’t quite look Korean, and Minghao almost drops his bowl removing it from the microwave.

 

The chair between Mingyu and Hansol is empty. Minghao tentatively sits with his fried rice and says, “Thanks. They’re vegan leather.”

 

“Sweet.” Hansol nods.

 

Soonyoung dabs his mouth and leans forward with both elbows on the table. “Mingyu says you work for a magazine?”

 

“Yeah, Seventeen.”

 

“My sister loves that magazine.” Hansol takes a bite of casserole. “She spends half her allowance on the online subscription.”

 

Minghao discreetly turns to face him a little more. He likes Hansol’s straightforward and easygoing attitude. They strike up a semi-awkward conversation about last month’s Seventeen release and behind-the-scenes fun facts about Jeonghan’s interview with a prominent actor. He eats as quickly as possible without being rude.

 

He keeps accidentally making eye contact with Mingyu. Minghao can’t even tell who’s looking first—he knows Mingyu is eavesdropping even as Yoohyeon continues their separate conversation—but he finds himself looking over for reassurance every few minutes. A familiar face goes a long way in these situations and Mingyu’s tiny smiles are encouraging.

 

At one point, after Soonyoung and Seungkwan hijack their conversation to ask about Chinese food, Minghao starts to feel overwhelmed. He’s only a couple bites from freedom so he starts choking down the rice in lieu of answering their onslaught of questions about mapo tofu and malatang. His ducks his head and hides behind his bangs.

 

Subtly Mingyu drapes an arm over the back of Minghao’s chair. Minghao sits up straight and feels a palm rest along the back of his neck, a warm anchor. He’s probably doing it for show. It still feels nice. 

 

When the fried rice is gone, Minghao excuses himself and flees to the kitchen, abandoning his Tupperware in the sink. He washes his hands and accidentally uses too much soap, then displaces the hand towel and knocks a poor purple succulent off the windowsill. He rights the plant and guiltily flees the kitchen before he causes more destruction. Typically he’s not the clumsy one in this apartment, but he’s distracted and overwhelmed and nervous.

 

“Here, don’t forget your bag,” Mingyu calls after him unnecessarily. He follows Minghao into the bedroom and shuts the door behind them, creating a much-needed space for them to talk freely. Obnoxious giggles are audible from the living room. 

 

Minghao turns his back on his husband and shoves a hand into his bag to double-check that he has the SD card. He takes a deep breath and screw his eyes shut, hoping he didn’t fuck everything up. “Sorry for interrupting. If I knew I wouldn’t have come back.”

 

“No, it’s fine, I’m sorry I didn’t warn you.” Mingyu pushes his hair back from his face and rests both palms on his head like a sprinter recovering from a race.

 

“I hope they aren’t suspicious.”

 

“I’ve been dropping hints. And before—there was a situation—” He frowns and settles for a quick explanation. “They’ve been expecting a reveal like this, they weren’t too surprised. Just excited. You did fine.”

 

Minghao is a little doubtful, but Mingyu certainly knows his own friends better. His words are reassuring. Things could’ve gone worse. Minghao only stuttered a couple times, and Seungkwan in particular looked endeared by his flustered answers.

 

Hansol was definitely cool. Someone Minghao might like to photograph, given the opportunity, which is a strange thought to have. But the more he considers it the more he likes the idea. Bringing more diversity to Seventeen is one of his major goals, and Hansol has the face to warrant a short-term modeling contract, if Minghao can convince Seungcheol to bring the suggestion to their higher-ups.

 

A loud wolf-whistle interrupts his thoughts. A voice shouts, “We’re still out here guys, give it a rest!”

 

“Oh god,” Mingyu mutters. 

 

He drops his arms and sighs. Though Mingyu is taller, broader, and overall just a larger person than Minghao, he has a funny habit of making himself seem small. He does that now—shoulders hunched, chin down, wrists crossed in front of him. He’s embarrassed again.

 

Realization hits Minghao like a train. “They think—”

 

“Yeah.”

 

“Uh.”

 

Mingyu bites his lip and starts shoving words into the space between them. “We should probably act like we’ve been making out. To avoid suspicion. That’s definitely what Soonyoung thinks. If you’re, um. Okay with that.”

 

Minghao thinks dejectedly of the hairspray in his bangs. He runs an experimental hand through it and winces when the product clings to his fingers like a film. “Fine, but do me a favor and mess up my hair. I don’t want to get my hands dirty.”

 

“Figures,” Mingyu says, but he’s smiling.

 

He approaches Minghao tentatively, hands raised, like he’s waiting to see if the demand will be rescinded. It’s nice how cautious he is. The floorboards make an unhappy creaking noise as he shuffles ever closer. Sleeping habits aside, Mingyu is deeply respectful of Minghao’s space. 

 

His hands are gentle. They card through the hair rhythmically at first, disrupting the base spray, and Minghao closes his eyes to avoid eye contact. Also because the hands in his hair feel good. No one’s touched him like this in months. 

 

No one’s touched him like this since—

 

Mingyu makes a quiet, surprised noise. “Your hair’s really soft.”

 

“Of course it is.”

 

“Now do mine.”

 

Minghao opens his eyes. The hands fall away from his hair and for one long, suspended heartbeat, he misses their comforting touch. Mingyu is staring at him. Awkwardly Minghao looks away, hoping the longing on his face is not legible, and nods. “Lean down a little.”

 

He returns the favor and, unsurprisingly, Mingyu’s hair is also soft. Vaguely he smells like his fancy coconut shampoo. His hair is a solid brown, has been dyed since they met, though black roots are starting to peek through. Minghao runs a hand over his scalp. No product. Smooth hair flows between his fingers.

 

When he stops, Mingyu’s hair is sticking straight up in a truly inspiring defamation of gravity.

 

“Um,” Minghao steps back and bites his lip to keep from laughing. “You’re good. You do have—”

 

He thumbs at the blotch of pink marker on Mingyu’s jaw. 

 

“What?” 

 

“Something pink.”

 

Mingyu snorts. “Oh. The kids were coloring animals today.”

 

Mingyu rubs at the spot absent-mindedly and tosses his apron on the bed. He unbuttons the first three buttons on his shirt, pauses, then re-buttons the lowest. He bites his lips until they’re pink and Minghao does the same, trying not to stare, because he has the sudden urge to giggle. They’re play-acting like teenagers and it’s ridiculous, but it’s also fun. 

 

“I really have to go,” Minghao says. “I’m gonna be late back to work.”

 

“Just run out the door. Act super embarrassed. I’ll handle it.”

 

“Okay.” Minghao feels a giggle rise to the surface. He claps a hand over his mouth and mumbles, “Thanks.”

 

He grabs his bag and bursts out of the bedroom. There’s no doubt he looks a mess—hair disheveled, lips distressed, shirt untucked, still blushing from the skin-to-hair contact. He spares a glance for the startled guests and says very quickly, “I have to go but it was so nice to meet you all see you again soon bye!”

 

Minghao rushes out the front door. He makes it down a whole flight of stairs before the grin overtakes him and he laughs a little, breathlessly, not even sure what’s funny at this point but knowing he feels some type of way. 

 

They were like children sneaking cookies out of the jar, and against all odds, they succeeded.

 

As he jogs to the bus stop, the amusement fades. He remembers the comfortable way Mingyu’s friends moved around his apartment. Their apartment. Minghao knew his husband had friends, had even met one of his coworkers, but watching them interact is a little different.

 

When the adrenaline ebbs, he’s left with a empty sort of jealousy.

 

Mingyu has friends who miss him when he lies about fumigating for bugs, who lounge on his couch and complain about work, who are aggressively kind to the weird foreign kid taking up space in his life, even if they don’t understand how. Mingyu has friends who love him. That was incredibly obvious after only half an hour in their shared presence.

 

Minghao thinks of his coworkers—snarky, fun Jeonghan, steadfast and inspiring Seungcheol, the bright light that is Joshua’s laugh—and wishes he could say the same. He thinks of Junhui’s absentminded phone calls, his when-I-remember texts, how he hasn’t been able to see his oldest friend despite living in the same city again for the first time in three years.

 

No one is to blame. Life’s busy and tough sometimes. But the weird half-happy and half-jealous feeling lingers all day. Through exhausting meetings with corporate and a full inbox of new schedules to manage, the feeling lingers.

 

 

 

When they go to bed that night, Mingyu apologizes again for the incident with his friends. He used to host biweekly Friday lunches, before, and they cornered him this morning via groupchat until Mingyu ran out of excuses. 

 

Minghao isn’t really listening. He wants to ask, Have you ever been so lonely you could die of it?

 

This bed is their compromise. If he’s going to crack open his heart and let the light in, he’s going to do it here with Mingyu’s head on the opposite pillow. He bites his lip and Mingyu’s eyes follow the movement.

 

But what Minghao says is, “You can invite them back.”

 

“My friends?”

 

“They were nice. Just warn me first.”

 

When Mingyu nods, his hair drags against the pillow. He’s a dark shape in a darker room but Minghao can imagine his details anyway—sharp cheekbones, gentle sloping shoulder, one hand tangled under the pillow before it traitorously seeks him out in the trench of sleep.

 

He can’t bridge the distance between them, and part of him—most of him—doesn’t want to, but Minghao closes his eyes anyway so he doesn’t have to look at what he’ll never have.

 

He almost misses Mingyu’s quiet reply.

 

“Thanks,” he whispers, and Minghao plummets into sleep.

Chapter Text

In the final minutes before the interview, Minghao is stressed. 

 

The apartment is spotless. Every shelf is dusted, every window rubbed down. The ugly green magnet Minghao bought from Namsan Tower is on the fridge, pinned beside a Polaroid selfie of the happy couple at Sky Garden. Two strategic plates rest in the sink, to suggest that they dined together for breakfast, but otherwise the kitchen is shining and empty. Even the balcony has been swept.

 

The cleanliness, of course, is thanks to Mingyu’s nervous breakdown thirty minutes earlier.

 

Minghao collapses beside him on the couch. The plan is to queue up a cooking show— anything but Cupcake Wars, please —and cuddle obnoxiously on the couch until the officer from the Immigration Bureau arrives. But he can’t move. His limbs feel like stones. He presses his palms against his eyes and tries to squash the sprouting headache in his forehead.

 

Mingyu sets his laptop on the coffee table and presses play. Yes, they bought a coffee table for this plan, specifically to paint the image of a couple who share frequent couch cuddles. The host’s voice begins introducing the show. Naturally it’s the cupcake shit again.

 

Everything is in place. Twenty-eight minutes on the clock.

 

“You ready?” Mingyu asks quietly.

 

Minghao sits back more comfortably against the cushions. He needs to get in character. “Seo Myungho, at your service.”

 

They’re both tense. It’s taken nearly two months but Minghao is finally starting to read the language of Mingyu’s sighs, the tone of his voice and his body language. Knows different smiles and how they light up his face: wide and happy, lazy and sleepy. He can interpret Mingyu’s moods when they shift like wind over the sea, tracks his schedule better than his own.

 

And he knows they’re in the same boat right now. Scared shitless.

 

Mingyu holds up a tentative arm, an offering like they discussed, and Minghao shuffles into his space. His sweatshirt is warm and he smells familiar. Sweet like his sheets. This is comfortable. They’ve shared a bed enough nights that their bodies are acclimated to one another, and Minghao will on occasion wake up with an arm tossed over his waist and not freak out.

 

It’s not bad. He enjoys it, sometimes. They fit together well when there’s no opportunity to argue. But right now his hands are clammy when he rests one on Mingyu’s knee. Nerves set his heart pounding. 

 

Mingyu swallows hard. “Are you comfortable?”

 

“Yeah.”

 

A pause.

 

Mingyu says, “I can’t focus on cupcakes right now.”

 

Minghao sighs. “Me neither. I hate this show.”

 

“I love this show. It’s my favorite. And it can’t even—I’m just—”

 

“I know.” Minghao leans his head back, expecting it to thunk against the spine of the couch, but instead he meets the soft crook of Mingyu’s elbow. He tries to relax. “But we’re ready. We know our cover.”

 

“What happens if we get caught?”

 

Minghao has one arm bunched in the fabric of Mingyu’s sweater, where it fell naturally when they arranged themselves on the couch. He takes that hand now and quickly squeezes Mingyu’s waist, hoping to give away some comfort or reassurance. As a Korean citizen, Mingyu has more to lose in this situation—up to ten years in jail.

 

“We won’t get caught.”

 

“What if they ask us to kiss?”

 

Minghao makes a face. “Then we kiss.”

 

“But you can’t look like that while we do.” Mingyu sighs and rolls his neck toward Minghao so their faces are close together, and the sudden proximity makes him tense. “This is so awkward. We have to—Can I try something really quick?”

 

“Depends,” he stalls. “On what.”

 

He doesn’t really want to kiss Mingyu. Not that he thinks Mingyu would be bad at kissing, but Minghao in the back of his mind recoils from the thought of kissing anyone who doesn’t have feelings for him. Who doesn’t value him. He would never judge someone for having one night stands or hooking up—that’s been Junhui’s entire adult life—but it’s not his thing, personally.

 

So if the Immigration officer asks him to kiss Mingyu, he’ll do it without hesitation. But it won’t feel right. And he doesn’t want to practice, if that’s what Mingyu is about to suggest.

 

But Mingyu says, “Let’s have a staring contest.”

 

The idea is so ridiculous that Minghao snorts. “Right now? Why the hell would we—“

 

“Hear me out! My students and I were reading a picture book about different types of love, and…” Mingyu’s turning red in the face, but his smile is stubborn and shy. “Apparently holding eye contact with someone can facilitate feelings of closeness and trust. We don’t have to. I just thought it might help, and it’s less awkward than other options.”

 

Like kissing. Well Minghao can’t argue with that. 

 

“Fine,” he says. “But just so you know, I’m going to win.”

 

“Oh, bring it.” Mingyu turns his shoulders so they’re face-to-face, his arm a tether between their bodies. He blinks ferociously. “Starting… now!”

 

Minghao sinks into the competition. When he was a kid, a staring contest would be performed with touching foreheads and a jeering crowd of classmates, so the distance and silence now are somewhat disorienting. It’s just him and Mingyu’s dark eyes flicking between his own.

 

He feels a little naked. After a few seconds his nose scrunches up to keep from laughing the awkwardness away. In his peripherals he can see Mingyu’s mouth clamping down on a smile. At least Mingyu is expressive—his eyes are, for lack of a better word, pretty. They’re not bad to look into. Despite the burning of his own corneas.

 

“Fuck,” Mingyu whispers. His slanted eyebrows twitch.

 

Minghao’s eyes prick with tears. He releases a breath he didn’t realize he was holding. “This was a terrible idea.”

 

“Maybe you’re right,” Mingyu groans. With one flapping hand he waves a breeze at Minghao’s face. The smile breaks free across his cheeks, but it looks pained, and his eyes are taking on a demonic red tinge.

 

Minghao can’t help it. He bursts into real giggles, his eyes scrunched up but not closed, determined to win through the blatant cheating. What an odd way to bond—but he thinks it’s working? The awkwardness is dissipating into mirth and a sweet vulnerability.

 

Finally Mingyu breaks. His eyes spasm shut and he immediately faceplants sideways into the cushion, shouting a muffled Nooooo. Minghao closes his eyes and presses them gently to alleviate the burning pain. Damn stubborn competitors, the both of them. 

 

“It didn’t work,” Minghao says between breathy laughs. “I think I actually hate you now.”

 

Mingyu sits up, rubbing his face, and checks the time on his laptop. “Oh god, it wasn’t even a full minute.”

 

“Felt like thirty years.” 

 

“It hurts,” he whines. “My first graders were doing this for a whole afternoon, what’s wrong with them…”

 

At least they succeeded in lifting the mood. The show finishes out and it feels like no time has passed at all when there’s a knock at the door. Mingyu draws a quick breath and gives Minghao’s shoulder a squeeze. “Here we go.”

 

Minghao, for lack of anything better to do, fluffs the couch pillows. He picks lint off his shirt and thinks of everything he’s given up to be here—his hometown, his family, his freedom, his chances at love for the foreseeable future—and cups those precious memories close. He vows not to screw this up and waste his sacrifices. They can’t screw this up.

 

The Immigration officer, Miss Ri, is a portly woman with silver hair at her temples who smiles at Mingyu like he’s a long-lost son. She invites herself to their dining table and compliments the lay of the apartment.

 

“Thank you!” Mingyu sets the kettle to boil. “Myungho has been helping me redecorate. Doesn’t it look nice?”

 

Minghao in the window-facing seat says, “I have?”

 

The world stops. Miss Ri’s smile falters. Minghao wants to travel back through time to the moment he applied for the Seventeen magazine position and punch himself in the face. How could he be so idiotic already? Now they look like liars right off the bat. He breaks out into a cold sweat and feels his close-mouthed smile twitch against his will.

 

Mingyu joins them at the table. “Give yourself some credit, the lenses look trendy. I never would’ve thought to store them on the shelf.”

 

Miss Ri is looking between them warmly. 

 

“Oh,” Minghao says, slowly relaxing back into his chair. His spike of anxiety and self-loathing passes. “Yeah, I guess—I wouldn’t call that redecorating.”

 

And so the situation is salvaged. He’s about to thank Mingyu for noticing his interior design tactics, or something equally stupid, but remembers his character at the last moment. Seo Myungho. Aloof ice prince who would die for his one true love, the honorable and romantic sweetheart Kim Mingyu. He doesn’t need to be himself.

 

He just needs to shut his mouth, answer direct questions, and let Mingyu do his job.

 

“Well let’s get started then,” Miss Ri says after a short pause. Her lipstick is a flattering peach which matches the laptop she unearths from her bag. “This is your preliminary interview and I do have to record your answers, are you comfortable with that?”

 

“Of course.” Mingyu smiles. 

 

Minghao nods and says nothing.

 

They’re asked to sit together, directly across from the laptop. She sets up a clunky camera attached to the top rim. Mingyu disappears and reappears with three mugs of hojicha tea. Miss Ri positively purrs with delight.

 

“So hospitable.” She beams at Mingyu. “What a gentleman.”

 

Mingyu simply reclaims his seat. His face is an admirable shade of pink. Pretty boys can really flutter their eyelashes and have the world on a silver platter, can’t they? Minghao is struggling to stay in character when he’s torn between laughing and stomping on Mingyu’s foot in an effort to quash his obnoxious ego.

 

But whatever gets them through this.

 

Miss Ri opens a notebook. “Please state your name, birthdate, and social ID number for the record.”

 

“Kim Mingyu, 6 April 1997, 487-6843-7853-32.”

 

“Seo Myungho, 7 November 1997, 996-4980-2031-50.”

 

She adjusts the camera and writes something in the notebook. She couldn’t possibly be making judgements about their compatibility already, could she? What if she’s scribbling down their zodiac signs?

 

Scorpio and Aries are not typically compatible. Minghao knows this offhand for no particular reason. 

 

“Where did you two meet?” Miss Ri asks.

 

Mingyu leans forward like he was waiting for the question. “On a language learning app, actually. We were paired up to practice Mandarin and Korean.”

 

The questions are easy at first. When did your relationship turn romantic? The first time we did a videochat and I realized Myungho had pierced ears. Where was your first date? In person, Namsan Tower. Who proposed to whom? I proposed to him with a ring sent to Anshan in the mail. When did you meet each other’s parents? I did a videochat with his mom maybe two weeks after we started dating. She thinks I’m very handsome.

 

That last question almost makes Minghao lose his cool. His parents don’t even know Mingyu’s name, let alone that their son is married to him for a visa, and he’s planning to keep it that way for as long as possible. Hopefully Miss Ri doesn’t ask to interview their families. Maybe he should’ve lied and said he was estranged.

 

Miss Ri takes a longer pause to make note of that answer. She checks the laptop briefly before continuing. “I see. And Myungho, was your family present at the wedding?”

 

They exchange a glance. Mingyu gives him a little encouraging smile, but the answer is stuck in his throat.

 

“No.” Minghao says. “We didn’t have the money to fly both of my parents to Seoul.” That’s not exactly true but a good excuse—he can tell by the way Mingyu exhales. 

 

“How about you?” Miss Ri turns to Mingyu. “Was your family present?”

 

“My parents passed away when I was young.”

 

Minghao struggles to keep his face neutral as his stomach drops through the floor. Did he know that? He didn’t know that. He should’ve known that, but never thought to ask, because Mingyu always mentioned his sister when the topic of family arose and nothing more. Miss Ri makes a sympathetic face and doesn’t seem to notice anything amiss.

 

“Sorry to hear that,” she says. “What about your honeymoon? Where did you boys go?”

 

They never discussed a honeymoon. From his peripherals, Minghao can see Mingyu blanking out. Tapping his foot, blinking twice. Maybe the question about his family threw him off. Regardless, he looks like a fish out of water right now.

 

Minghao jumps in and says, “We’re saving up to visit Hong Kong.”

 

“Soon,” Mingyu agrees. “We want to go this summer.”

 

Gradually the questions get more specific. Where did your spouse go to college? I always forget, there are so many universities in Seoul… it’s the blue one. Yon-sei? Yonsei. He studied education. Who is your spouse’s employer? Seventeen magazine. What’s your spouse’s best friend’s name? Soonyoung and Seungkwan. Junhui. How do you celebrate holidays? Last Christmas I sent him a bottle of really nice wine.

 

When Miss Ri turns off the camera, Minghao feels a wave of relief crash over his body. His legs are jelly but he stands to clear their mugs anyway as Mingyu thanks her profusely for her time. Clink clink go the mugs in the sink. He wipes sweaty hands on the towel.

 

Miss Ri is all smiles and happy cheeks when she packs up her laptop. “Thank you both for your cooperation. If you’re flagged for a second interview, we’ll give you a call within the next few weeks.”

 

“Second interview?” Mingyu asks.

 

“In cases we suspect a fraudulent marriage has occurred, we’ll arrange an interview with each person separately at the Immigration offices. It’s a common part of the procedure, no need to worry.”

 

“Okay,” Mingyu’s voice comes out fainter than before. “Feel free to call anytime.”

 

He walks Miss Ri to the doorway. They both wave her farewell and shut the door softly when she leaves. They stand together in absolute silence. 

 

“We did it?” Minghao asks, maybe looking for confirmation that it’s really over, that it really happened and they didn’t screw up too badly. Hope is a cautious bloom in his heart.

 

“We did it!”

 

Mingyu turns and it looks like he’s about to hug Minghao, grinning with arms semi-outstretched, but changes his mind at the last second and jerks an arm up for a high-five. Minghao slaps their palms together. They actually pulled it off! At least the first step. 

 

“Wait,” Minghao says as something occurs to him. “She never even checked the apartment.”

 

They look at each other and sigh. Sharing a bed wasn’t necessary after all.

 

“Better safe than sorry,” Mingyu says.

 

It’s too late to change back now, anyway. 

 




There comes a point where Minghao realizes he’s integrated himself into the tide of Seoul.

 

He has the bus schedule memorized. The drivers greet him in the morning and afternoon, and he always greets them back with enthusiasm. The harem of elderly ladies who see him in transit now smile instead of avoiding eye contact—because every day he keeps the same humdrum schedule, which strips him of mystery and intimidation, despite the odd outfits. He smiles back relentlessly.

 

The owner of the chicken restaurant where he first asked for directions all those weeks ago knows his name, face, and order. (Two breasts and rice for himself, a bucket combo meal with rice and fries for Mingyu.) Everyone in the office has migrated beyond calling him “the new Chinese guy” and mostly just call him Myungho now.

 

Jeonghan owes him a favor for picking up his schedule the week he was sick—and that’s a valuable person to have indebted to him. Minghao plans to store that IOU in a drawer, saved for a rainy day. The following week, he even gets Joshua’s number. Sometimes they exchange texts. Simple things like punny memes about the Korean language, or recommendations for Western restaurants, but they’re energetic and fun.

 

Overall it’s an incredibly sweet feeling. Things as simple as being recognized, being acknowledged, can uplift his whole day. This is what he’s excited to tell Junhui about. 

 

Junhui certainly faced the same struggles when he first moved to Korea; more than anyone else, he should understand the work that goes into small victories in a foreign country.

 

So Minghao texts Junhui every day for a week reminding him of their plans: two days after the dance performance, almost two weeks after the Immigration interview, Junhui is coming over for dinner.

 

The only problem is that Minghao needs to cook said dinner.

 

“And they didn’t have Lao Gan Ma, so I have to make it from scratch. It’ll be awful. Junhui will hate it.”

 

“He won’t.”

 

“But he needs to love it.”

 

“Okay,” Mingyu says, not looking up from his phone as he leans against the counter. “Do you want help or not?”

 

Minghao pauses with a semi-crushed raw dumpling in hand. The kitchen is a warzone of ingredients. Ground pork, scallions, and soy sauce sizzle on one pan, while peppercorn and oil commandeer the other. Tongs hang half-heartedly over a pile of limp, steamed shrimp and rice paper. Greasy chopsticks are balanced precariously on a small bowl of water. 

 

Somehow there’s a pile of salt in the sink. He doesn’t even remember using the salt.

 

All he wanted to make was simple homemade dim sum. His pride makes him hesitate—he doesn’t want Mingyu up in his space, Mingyu who will probably lecture him about unsafe culinary practices and try to spoon-feed him extra protein as they go. 

 

But maybe Minghao doesn’t have to do this alone. He’s trying to be more open with Mingyu anyway. They’re no longer quite at odds, and Mingyu has proven himself worthy of trust in most regards, and this is his kitchen. No reason to deny the help.

 

“Fine.” Minghao hands him the tongs. “Watch the beef. Pour it in a bowl when it’s evenly brown.”

 

Mingyu almost drops his phone. He looks pleasantly surprised, like he didn’t expect the offer to be accepted. “Sure.”

 

They work in frantic quiet until Mingyu starts humming. He stirs the meat-and-spice mix, bobbing his head along to the beat. Minghao tries to focus on wrapping the shrimp, being extra careful with his folds, but should’ve expected Mingyu to get chatty.

 

“How long have you and Junhui known each other?”

 

“Since middle school.” Minghao arranges a dozen shumai in the steamer-slash-rice cooker. They don’t have a traditional bamboo steamer, but this will have to do. “He moved to my neighborhood from Shenzhen.” 

 

“So you’re really close.”

 

“Yeah. How did you guys meet?”

 

Mingyu gently pours the meat into a bowl and turns off the burner. He looks a little out of place in the kitchen without his trusty pink apron. He comes to stand next to Minghao and watch as he finishes off the makeshift Lao Gan Ma. “We met through a coworker of mine. Um, you met him, actually.”

 

“Wonwoo?”

 

“Yeah. They were neighbors when Junhui first moved to the city or something. Wonwoo and I tagged along to a few dance troupe parties.”

 

Minghao’s concentrating so hard on stirring with one hand and peeling wrappers with the other that he replies without thinking. “Oh, I didn’t know you and Wonwoo were that close.”

 

He didn’t know Junhui and Wonwoo were that close, either. But it’s not surprising that he never heard Wonwoo’s name before. Junhui monopolizes conversations to complain and compliment his friends from work in equal measure. Wonwoo’s not a coworker, so he’s probably not important enough to be referred to as anything more than “my one friend” or “my neighbor” in a passing story.

 

An awkward silence settles over the kitchen. The steamer-meets-rice cooker bubbles happily away in the corner. Minghao accidentally knocks the chopsticks off the bowl of water as he finishes folding the pork dumplings and he curses in Mandarin. Only then does he take note of Mingyu’s pause. 

 

He looks up, and there must be a question on his face, because Mingyu immediately slouches against the cupboard and tugs on a fake smile. “We used to be close, not so much anymore.”

 

“Did something happen?”

 

Mingyu scratches his neck and looks away. “We kinda dated. Sorta.”

 

Of course. Minghao knew it—he’d suspected it that day Wonwoo dropped by. He remembers Wonwoo as decently attractive, with an appealing and masculine face, so good for Mingyu. But it still feels like there’s something left unsaid.

 

Minghao arranges the dumplings in a row and hurries over to check the shumai. “Awkward,” he comments, and decides to go for honesty. “I had that impression when he came by the apartment, actually.”

 

“Yeah, that was…” Mingyu cringes. “Messy. We stopped seeing each other right before you came. He probably thinks I moved on extremely fast.”

 

Shit, Minghao didn’t even consider the timing. Wonwoo could single-handedly destroy their entire operation. One word from him and the gig would be up—or Mingyu would be labeled a scumbag who cheated on his long-distance fiancée. Either way, the government would seriously doubt the validity of their marriage if they knew.

 

That’s the only reason he’s concerned, he tells himself. Not that he’s curious for details of their relationship. Because that would be nosy.

 

“Have you told him about me?”

 

“I implied… things. We don’t see each much at school, he teaches in the upper class building.”

 

“Still, I can’t believe he hasn’t noticed the ring. It’s so obvious.”

 

Mingyu sighs. The steamer beeps to signal completion and he lifts the lid to check the shumai. “It’s like they’re deliberately not bringing it up,” he says, his voice catching on the beginning of a theatrical whine. “Seulgi got a tattoo on the back of her neck and we talked about it for weeks. Teachers are usually desperate for gossip and they know Wonwoo and I aren’t seeing each other anymore. I don’t get it.”

 

For some reason that surprises Minghao—that teachers, apparently in the general stereotypical sense, love to gossip. He was never a star student and avoided speaking to his teachers after grade school because they ridiculed his in-class doodles. So he can’t imagine Mingyu cozying up with a group of loose-lipped coworkers eating whole apples and exchanging dirty secrets about so-and-so’s homework. Or whatever it is that teachers gossip about.

 

Mingyu wearing nerdy eyeglasses, however? That he can imagine. And promptly needs to stop imagining or risk dropping this dumpling like a hot potato. Mingyu doesn’t need glasses anyway, that’s just another stereotype.

 

“You could make an announcement to your students,” Minghao suggests, taking the empty steamer-meets-rice cooker and filling it with raw dumplings. Time is running out before Junhui arrives and he needs to plate the food. Luckily Junhui has never been on time to anything in his life. “They’ll be thrilled, kids love weddings. They’ll tell the whole school.”

 

Mingyu wraps his hands around the finished plate of shumai and pauses. “Wait. That’s fucking brilliant.” He carries the plate to the table with three sets of chopsticks. “And when Nayeon gets mad that I didn’t tell her, I can blame the kids for ruining the surprise.”

 

Minghao snorts and pours the Lao Gan Ma into three small saucers, which he shoves into Mingyu’s hands. “Take these to the table.”

 

“Gotcha. Anything else?”

 

Luckily the spring rolls and char siu were bought pre-made from the local Chinese grocery (yes he cheated, so what) and the bulk of cooking is finished. Rice is not usually served with dim sum, but he made some for Mingyu anyway. 

 

Minghao wipes sweat, oil, and the smell of shrimp off his hands with a towel. “No, it’s pretty much done.”

 

“Okay.” Mingyu points a thumb at the balcony. “I’m just gonna run out for a quick—”

 

He makes a vague gesture towards his mouth. Minghao makes an affirmative humming noise and tries to keep the judgement off his face. The message is clear: Mingyu needs a smoke.

 

In a few minutes, dinner is ready. Their table looks overly formal with three place settings. Minghao takes a seat, side-eyes Mingyu’s silhouette, and thumbs through his phone while he waits for his guest to arrive. He’s not nervous. This is Junhui, who would never judge him, who would eat every single shumai even if they tasted like dirt and only admit it later.

 

He’s mostly just excited to see his best friend again. So fucking excited.

 

But along with that excitement comes fear that things have changed. In the past few months while he’s adjusted to Seoul, and in the past few years while he adjusted to Junhui’s absence. Long video chats every few months never quite did the trick, especially as Junhui became busier and busier with his dance troupe.

 

At least he’d been happy to help when Minghao asked for a last-minute emergency visa plan. But with the exception of the drive between the airport to the city clerk’s office when Minghao first landed in Seoul, this is the first time they’ve seen each other in person in three years. Minghao would be crushed to find out they’ve grown apart after all. So yes, he’s a little nervous.

 

But their friendship has outlasted school. Survived long distance. And now jumped borders. He straightens a plate and tries not to let insecurity get the best of him.

 

The knock on the door comes only a few minutes later.

 

Minghao goes to answer it and is pulled into a tight hug. Junhui smells the same, like home, like the discount blue poppy shampoo he always used. He’s wearing a thin sweater and designer jeans. When he shuffles through the door and starts talking a mile a minute, Minghao realizes he was silly to worry.

 

“Hey! How are you? Sorry it’s taken me so long to visit—whoa Mingyu has a nice apartment—is that sesame oil? Did you cook for me?” Junhui pulls away to stare at the table, the couch, the balcony on which Mingyu is obliviously leaning over the railing and watching the sunset. His eyes skip over the furniture and return to Minghao. He lights up. “You missed me, huh?”

 

“Maybe a little.” Minghao can’t reign in his fond smile.

 

“I told you to call more.” Junhui smacks his shoulder and takes a seat at the table. “I would’ve been here the first day if we didn’t have the show to worry about.”

 

Minghao raps two knuckles on the glass door to get Mingyu’s attention, who hurries inside, bringing along the lingering smell of smoke, and greets Junhui enthusiastically. They sit around the table together.

 

The atmosphere is comfortable. It’s clear Mingyu and Junhui aren’t close but they’re friendly, and Junhui regales the table with tall tales of his dance partners Chan and Jihoon. Minghao has heard plenty of shit about their antics over the years.

 

Minghao asks after Junhui’s family; they’re doing fine. Junhui’s elderly grandmother finally retired from running their corner store and allowed her daughter to take over. Minghao shares that his own parents are doing well and raising tomatoes.

 

Mingyu asks polite follow-up questions but doesn’t offer any information about his own family. They haven’t discussed his confession about his parents during the interview. Minghao doesn’t know how to bring it up—or if he should—so they’ll cross that bridge before the second interview, if necessary.

 

Minghao leaves the table at one point to crack the kitchen window for a fresh, cool breeze. When he returns they’re discussing the food.

 

“And he’s never cooked for me before. I feel special,” Junhui is saying.

 

“You’re not,” Minghao shuts that down. “I wanted this food. I cooked for myself.”

 

“But that’s not what you said earl—” Mingyu’s sentence ends in a pained huff as Minghao’s foot connects with his exposed calf muscle. “Jeez, ow.”

 

Mingyu has the audacity to kick him back, so Minghao retaliates even harder, and suddenly they’re flapping their feet under the table like a pair of kids on the playground. It’s annoying. He doesn’t know why Mingyu drives him to pettiness sometimes. Their energies always collide in sparks and ruin.

 

“Stop.” Mingyu pouts, his lips honest to god puckered. Pathetic. “Your legs are stronger than mine.”

 

“Tough shit.”

 

Junhui is having a field day. He sits back in his seat cackling. “You love me, little frog,” he says, switching seamlessly to Mandarin. “Just admit it. I’m the best.”

 

Minghao turns on him, too. “You’re insufferable.”

 

“At least wait until I leave the table to talk shit,” Mingyu interjects. “I can’t understand when you go fast.”

 

“No one’s talking shit,” Minghao mumbles in Korean. As the host he’s probably responsible for keeping the peace, or whatever, so he starts stacking their empty plates and adds, “Do you have a recording of the awards show performance, Junhui? I want to watch it again.”

 

“Of course, here!”

 

They queue up the video and cluster around Junhui’s phone. Naturally it’s the latest model. The members of his dance troupe need to be pointed out behind the main singer, an idol soloist, but the camera catches a few close-up shots of Junhui and Jihoon doing gravity-defying jumps. A fierce nostalgia is awakened in Minghao—he misses the days when he’d be onstage with Junhui, or at least watching him in person.

 

It’s also weird to talk to Junhui in Korean. Extremely weird. He doesn’t mind, exactly, because the alternative is leaving Mingyu to pout in the corner like a child, but the words feel more awkward in his mouth than usual.

 

Mingyu whistles. “This is sweet."

 

“We try,” Junhui winks.

 

“What’s Jihoon’s background in?” Minghao leans a little closer to the screen. It presses him against Mingyu at the shoulder, and he ignores the contact, though he catches Mingyu shoot him a glance from the corner of his eye. “He kinda moves like a breakdancer.”

 

“Just hip hop.”

 

“And Chan?”

 

Junhui smirks. “Can you guess?”

 

The video continues to play. Minghao tries to keep his eyes on the shape he thinks is Chan, but the spasmic lighting is not helping. “B-boying?” At Junhui’s nod he adds, “Okay, I have to watch you perform live.”

 

“Next month!” Junhui grabs his forearm. He’s touchy when he’s excited, that hasn’t changed. “We’re having a fundraiser to advertise the studio. It’s a black tie event, super bougie, but I can get you invites this time.”

 

Minghao smiles. “Great, I’ll be there.”

 

“With a huge bouquet.” Junhui turns in his seat and leans his head on Minghao’s chest like a cat rubbing its head on something to claim it. “Right?”

 

“Yeah, yeah.” Minghao pats him. Good ol’ Junhui. He missed this so bad it ached. “I’ll get you nice orchids.”

 

Then he notices the way Mingyu is watching them—with a darkness akin to fascination. He’s staring down at where their bodies connect, forehead to chest, intimate and familiar in a way Minghao’s never acted in front of him before. It must be strange to witness. Minghao wonders, briefly, what he’s thinking.

 

But Mingyu abruptly steps back from their cluster and smiles. “I’ll get started on the dishes.”

 

“No, it’s okay,” Minghao tries to argue. “I’ll do them—”

 

“You cooked.” Mingyu is already walking towards the sink. “It’s no big deal.”

 

Junhui makes an obnoxious awwh noise and latches onto Minghao’s sleeve. “Perfect, we can catch up on the couch.”

 

It does give them a perfect opportunity to switch to Mandarin. Sitting face-to-face with Junhui on the couch—Minghao’s first safe space in Seoul—is cathartic. Rejuvenating. Their ankles touch. Junhui asks him about the city, the job, the homesickness. Things spill out that Minghao has kept inside for weeks.

 

Junhui listens, squeezes his hand, ruffles his hair. He gives advice (“The best Chinese restaurant in Seoul is in Hongdae, I’ll show you.”) and commiserates (“Oh my god—I made the same mistake on the train!”) and shares memories only they can share (“Apparently Miss Lee’s barbeque stand got torn down last week. I know, it’s a travesty.”).

 

If talking to Joshua was a breath of fresh air, this is an oxygen tank. Minghao is flying. An hour passes before he notices the time, and Mingyu has been sitting at the table contentedly scrolling through his phone for a while, but he probably wants to go to bed soon.

 

At the same time, Junhui glances at his Rolex. Before he stands up to leave, though, he shoots a discreet glance at the table and asks, “Be honest. How’s the husband? Are things okay?”

 

“Fine,” Minghao reassures him. “Things were rocky at first, but we’re mostly okay. He’s a decent guy.”

 

He’s expecting Junhui to be satisfied with that. Instead Junhui raises both eyebrows and steals another glance at Mingyu—who’s hopefully given up on trying to parse their rapidfire conversation, as he’s quickly becoming its subject. 

 

“He’s really nice. I wouldn’t shack you up with an asshole.” Junhui represses a smile. That expression never amounts to anything good. “He was such a gentleman to his last boyfriend.”

 

Oh. That’s right. Junhui is friends with Wonwoo. He knows what went down with that relationship and how it ended. Curiosity is a dangerous creature that Minghao has always been weak against.

 

He very casually leans forward and lowers his voice. “So what happened with that, anyway?”

 

“I only know Wonwoo’s side of the story, but things were great until they both started realizing they didn’t have those feelings. Y’know? Like they were friends for a long time, and gave it a try, and it was working until it wasn’t. The breakup was pretty mutual, but Wonwoo's still torn up about it.”

 

For some reason Minghao expected a more dramatic story. “That’s it?”

 

“I guess he —” Junhui tilts his head towards the table in lieu of saying Mingyu’s name, lest it grab his attention. “Said he wasn’t ready for commitment.”

 

Minghao snorts. “That worked out well for him.”

 

“I think it was fate.” Junhui runs a hand through his hair. He dyed it golden blonde for the performance, but it’s already starting to fade into black at the roots. “As soon as you called, I knew he’d be the best choice.”

 

That implies Junhui knows why Mingyu needs the money. Even though Minghao is incredibly tempted to ask about that, too, he forces himself not to. Some conversations need to happen between him and Mingyu. It wouldn’t be fair to cheat. And he does have some modicum of self-control.

 

“It’s so weird how you set me up to marry your friend’s ex and your friend doesn’t even know," Minghao says instead. Poor Wonwoo got the short end of the stick here.

 

Junhui’s smile slips away and for a moment he looks vulnerable, sensitive like he just lost a competition or took a joke too personally. He picks at his watch, a habit he started when he wore plastic knock-offs and kept all these years.

 

Junhui just says, “I had my reasons.”

 

How mysterious. Minghao thinks maybe he should apologize for putting that expression on Junhui’s face, even though he doesn’t understand why, but Junhui senses his hesitation and launches into a story about his neighbor’s vicious lavender plant taking over his high-rise apartment balcony.

 

“Which you’ll have to come visit soon,” he adds. “It’s only three stops on the train from your office. You will love my loft bed.”

 

“Deal.”

 

Soon enough he rises from the couch and attacks Minghao with a tight goodbye hug. “I’ll text you about the tickets,” Junhui says into his shoulder. “Thanks for cooking for me, baby.”

 

“Ugh, don’t call me that,” Minghao says, but he holds on a little tighter, and admits, “I missed you.”

 

“Me too.”

 

Junhui and Mingyu exchange a bro fist bump, which is frankly disturbing, and suddenly Junhui is gone and Minghao is trying to flip his brain back into Korean.

 

Missing home hits hardest after he has a taste of it. Junhui feels like a ghost in the room. His absence is a physical presence that looms over Minghao’s shoulder. He wants to call his best friend back and ask him to stay. But he can’t, because this isn’t really his apartment.

 

Minghao washes his face and changes into sleeping clothes. When he enters the bedroom Mingyu is organizing his school binder on the bed. A page of colorful heart stickers falls out and he shoves it back inside. Cute.

 

“That was pretty nice,” Mingyu says. “I haven’t seen Junhui in a while.”

 

Minghao surrenders to the urge to bury himself under the duvet. He closes his eyes against the fabric and mumbles, “Me neither.”




 

After Jeonghan and Minghao finish the summer spread and email their respective shots to the editorial department, they decide to get piss drunk at a bar after work.

 

Actually Jeonghan decides this. Minghao isn’t the biggest fan of alcohol. He agrees to tag along because Jeonghan is good company and it will be fascinating to watch a senior properly unwind. 

 

Jeonghan toes the line of professionalism in the studio, always sweet-talking Seungcheol into giving him preferred shoots and flouting the schedule when it soils his “creative integrity and genius.” That’s a direct quote. He teases Minghao for wearing dress shoes, for being two minutes late, for forgetting to turn off the lights in the office.

 

But Jeonghan’s also the first to buy more coffee for the break room. The first to thank the lighting assistants, the first to explain a technical term to Minghao in a meeting. He’s excellent with people and fun to be around.

 

So Minghao finds himself sitting at a cozy hole-in-the-wall two streets away from the Seventeen building. The interior is dark wood and deep red, but the barstools are extra cushioned and the music playing overhead is soft rock, nothing stuffy like jazz. Low, chattering conversations make a happy background ambience.

 

He’d suspected Jeonghan to be the uptight five-star restaurant kind of drinker, and he’s pleasantly surprised to be proven wrong.

 

“You like?” Jeonghan notices his gaze trace the records displayed on the far wall. “Take a look at the menu, order anything you want. The appetizers are great, too.”

 

It’s been so long since Minghao went out with anyone who isn’t Mingyu that he doesn’t know how to act. He stares at the menu without reading it. Both hands are sweaty on the plastic. “What are you getting?”

 

“You strike me as a wine man. Red or white? We’ll split a bottle.”

 

Minghao smiles and leans his elbows on the bar. “How did you know?"

 

Naturally Jeonghan just taps his own forehead. “I have a damn good feeling it’s red.”

 

Here is what Minghao learns about his coworker over the next half hour: Yoon Jeonghan is exceptionally observant and not above using dirty tactics to get what he wants. These are obvious traits thrown into highlight by the wine (red and sweet, just how Minghao likes) and comfortable atmosphere.

 

“The first time I invited Seungcheol here he was nervous as fuck. He drank four bottles of soju and puked in the street,” Jeonghan admits with a fry halfway to his mouth.

 

“Oh god no.” Minghao covers his mouth to stop the giggles but they’re a tidal wave. “I can’t—that’s my boss, I have to see him on Monday and not laugh—”

 

Jeonghan steals another fry from their communal, half-finished bucket. “It’s fine, everyone else already knows. The journalism department has pictures on a USB somewhere.”

 

“So do you take all the new hires to this bar?”

 

“Don’t think of it as a hazing ritual. More like a rite of passage.”

 

“That means you approve of me.”

 

Minghao takes a deeper sip of wine. The flavor is exquisite for a relatively cheap bottle. Or maybe he forgot how much he actually likes pinot noir. A pleasant blush is building on his cheeks, he can feel its softness, and he enjoys it. Around them the bar fills slowly with fellow business professionals off a long day at work. They are perfect figures in this scene.

 

When he sets down his glass, Jeonghan is watching him with a more serious expression. A lock of blonde hair falls untucked from behind his ear and casts a shadow across his face. “Of course I approve.”

 

“Oh.” Minghao swirls the wine. Tries to repress his pleased flush before he turns into a lobster. “Good.”

 

“We can see you’re talented and working hard. You’re doing a great job. Everyone approves.”

 

That sets off a complicated series of emotions like a fireworks show in Minghao’s chest. Pride. Doubt. Deep, searing hope. Could that be true? He knows he’s acclimating well; everyone remembers his name and most will greet him good morning or ask after his projects if they’re not directly involved. The words talented and working hard echo over the bar.

 

“I’m glad,” he says simply, avoiding eye contact.

 

But Jeonghan is still watching him with that borderline serious look. His eyebrows can be intimidating. Even though Minghao has literally seen him walk into the office wearing three beanies stacked on top of each other and immediately nap on the couch in the break room. This is a man containing multitudes.

 

“You know, I see flashes of the real Seo Myungho sometimes and I’m determined to lure him out. Joshua seems to think you’re funny."

 

Minghao almost chokes on a laugh. “He’s wrong. I’m hilarious.”

 

“You’re okay," Jeonghan says, but his smile takes over his face.

 

They chat about the baseball game playing on a faraway TV, their childhood pets, the state of the global economy. Jeonghan has the ability to command any conversation on any topic and flits between ideas like a talented pianist. They pour the final two glasses of wine.

 

Jeonghan leans forward and props his chin on one palm. “Tell me more about your sexy husband. To move here from China, you must love him a lot.”

 

“I do,” Minghao says easily. This at least he’s practiced. With Joshua, with Seungcheol, with the elderly lady from the design department who asks too many questions. “He’s great.”

 

“How did you know he was the one?"

 

Minghao blinks. “Well…”

 

He thinks back to his favorite movie for inspiration. In Titanic, when Jack and Rose were swept into their passionate affair, the viewers knew they loved each other in part because of how they looked at one another: starry-eyed, smiling, youthful. Love lived in their eyes and hands. If they weren’t touching, they were reaching out. Connected.

 

“He has expressive eyes,” Minghao begins. He licks his lips when they suddenly feel dry. He tries to think of Leonardo Dicaprio, but Mingyu comes to mind. “Like, you can see his whole personality in his face. So when we did a video chat for the first time and we really looked at each other… I saw exactly what I wanted. From the beginning I just knew I wanted him in my life.”

 

Apparently that’s the right thing to say because Jeonghan practically melts. He pretends to wipe away a tear but he’s still smiling. “Fuck me, that’s sweet,” he says. “You have a soft heart, Myungho.”

 

Minghao scrunches his nose and makes an unhappy face but, well, he’s not wrong. Maybe he revealed too much about himself with that answer, went too overboard pretending to be in love with Mingyu. It sounds like something he would say in reality, though. If it were true. 

 

The conversation shifts to Joshua. “We met at a club,” Jeonghan admits. “But he hates telling people that, says it sounds dirty. I bought him a Mai Tai and he looked so spooked he threw a napkin with his number on it and ran away.”

 

“A Mai Tai?” Minghao giggles. “Dunno if I should be judging his taste or yours.”

 

“His, always.”

 

“We should go out,” Minghao suggests spontaneously. “The four of us, we should get dinner.”

 

Jeonghan taps his fingers on the table thoughtfully. “That might be fun.”

 

More like a potential disaster. Minghao doesn’t know why he said that, maybe it was the wine commandeering his tongue. Spending time with Jeonghan, Joshua, and Mingyu is something he wants but probably can’t have. Too many opportunities for mistakes. He can’t coerce Mingyu into hanging out with his coworkers without a good reason, anyway. That’s extending their arrangement a little too far.

 

But the idea is nice, so he smiles and nods and says something vague about asking for Mingyu’s schedule. Maybe they could spin it like a photo opportunity. As the night winds down Minghao excuses himself to the bathroom and when he returns, the bill has been paid.

 

“You didn’t." He stops Jeonghan from standing with a hand on his arm. “Let me pay for half, c’mon.”

 

“Please,” Jeonghan scoffs. “I ate all the fucking fries. And I’m your senior.”

 

The senior-junior relationship is much more distinct in Korea than China, so Minghao knows he can’t fully argue against that. He sighs and grumbles, but when they walk outside into the fresh air, he turns to Jeonghan and says emphatically, “Thank you for tonight.”

 

“My pleasure.” Jeonghan claps him on the back. “Congratulations to us on finishing the quarter.”

 

“I’ll see you on Monday.” 

 

Minghao waves Jeonghan off toward the train and ambles happily to the bus stop. He’s tipsy enough for a happy social glow, but not drunk enough to worry about his steps or navigation. They’re definitely friends now. Just-coworkers don’t split a bottle of wine after hours. He feels like landing a victory punch to the air because he’s doing it, he’s really doing it, he’s making friends!

 

Minghao settles into a familiar plastic seat after only a few minutes of waiting and starts to untangle his earbuds. When he goes to select a playlist on his phone, a series of messages over the last two hours appear. 

 

From: Mingyu

Hey I’m assuming you’re working late today what time will you be home?

Just let me know

Helloooooo xu minghao is your phone dead

 

And then later, a missed call. Followed by—

 

From: Mingyu

Seriously are you okay??

Call me please

 

It’s been an hour since that last text. Minghao recalls vividly his first day in the apartment, getting lost on his way home with no keys and no contact number. How angry he was, how blasé Mingyu acted. He leans forward with his elbows on his knees and thinks shit, shit, shit.

 

Mingyu probably thinks he’s died by now. Of course he does, it’s not like Minghao ever stays this long after work. 

 

Fingers fumbling over the phone, Minghao calls back. No answer. Luckily he’s only three stops from the apartment. He sits at the edge of his seat with both legs jiggling until the bus arrives. Flying upstairs, he lets himself in with the key Mingyu gave him weeks ago.

 

At first he thinks Mingyu is asleep. The living room is quiet and dark, the bedroom door nearly closed and darker still beyond. There’s a light in the kitchen, though, so he toes off his shoes and hangs his bag on the rack before approaching. 

 

“Hello?” He calls. “Mingyu?”

 

Suddenly Mingyu is there—all six feet of him sliding into the doorway with socked feet, hair wild, mouth set in a firm line. He’s holding a duster in one hand and he twirls it twice before saying, with a touch of coldness, “Hi.”

 

“I’m sorry,” Minghao says immediately. “I just got your messages. I should’ve told you I was going out with a friend.”

 

All the frost thaws from Mingyu’s body language. His eyes go round and soft. It’s hard to tell what he’s feeling exactly, but a guess would be relief, because he steps closer and looks Minghao up and down as if checking for injuries attained at the bar. He really was worried, wasn’t he? Minghao feels a little guilty. A little grateful. An odd mix.

 

“You went out?" Mingyu moves back and tosses the duster into a drawer. The surprise is obvious. “I figured you’d be working. Let me know next time, I thought the bus driver kidnapped you and sold you on the black market.”

 

“I got drinks downtown with one of the other photographers—Jeonghan, I dunno if you remember.”

 

“Yeah, nice,” he mumbles, then yawns. “Well there’s extra pork in the fridge if you’re hungry. I’m headed to bed now.”

 

The implication is clear: I was waiting up for you and now that you’re home, I’m going to sleep.

 

Minghao still feels the wine. It’s a pleasant hum in the back of his mind, distracting him from the more rational of thought processes, which is the only excuse for what he does next. He reaches out and grabs Mingyu by the sleeve as he exits the kitchen, tangling his fingers in the soft fabric.

 

“Thank you,” Minghao says with feeling. 

 

He’s not usually so emotive and Mingyu knows that, but the reaction isn’t one of surprise. Mingyu smiles. Slow and subtle and sweet. “No problem.”

 

Then Mingyu’s smile drops. “Just don’t make me worry again, babe."

 

 

 

 

Mingyu acts weird the next day. 

 

It’s the dawn of April and spring is in full swing. Minghao sets up his easel on the balcony and spends the whole morning drinking jasmine tea and painting out his emotions from the last few months. Soft ballads play in the background. 

 

Usually he likes yellows and reds, but this painting emerges in navy blues, beiges, even blacks. They match his mood so he doesn’t question it—though if Junhui saw, he’d be concerned.

 

Meanwhile Mingyu paces. It’s not obvious at first that’s what he’s doing, because his form of pacing includes switching between activities every thirty minutes like a hyper six-year-old. 

 

First it’s playing an RPG game on his laptop. Then it’s baking a sheet of snickerdoodles, which he eats half of as soon as they exit the oven. Next he does crunches in the living room, vacuums the carpet twice, turns on the radio and changes the station three seconds into a song.

 

None of these actions are unusual in isolation. But Mingyu usually isn’t restless enough to juggle all sixteen hobbies at once. When Minghao reaches an acceptable stopping point on the canvas, he comes inside with the intent to wash his brushes and ask Mingyu what the hell is going on.

 

He doesn’t need to work very hard to get his attention. As if he’s bored, Mingyu trails Minghao into the kitchen and watches him rinse the brushes in silence for several seconds.

 

“Can I see your painting?” 

 

“It’s not finished yet.” Minghao bites his tongue to keep from saying hell no and scrapes a tough clump of navy into the garbage disposal. “But I can’t ban you from the balcony.”

 

“Actually I wanted to ask you something.” Mingyu leans his back against the counter and crosses his arms. He looks fit from this angle, triceps accentuated nicely below his shirt. “Before you came I was planning on doing something for my birthday.”

 

“If you want my permission to throw a party, go ahead.” Minghao wraps the brushes in a towel and nudges Mingyu aside to reach the part of the counter attacked by sunlight. “Do whatever you want.”

 

“It’s not that. I was thinking—and it’s okay if you say no but—how do you feel about dogs?”

 

He freezes. “Huh?”

 

“I was planning to adopt,” Mingyu confesses. “There’s a box of toys and a bowl underneath the bed. The day Junhui called me about you, I had an appointment to meet one of the rescues.”

 

Minghao blinks. He fully understands what Mingyu is asking: permission to follow through now and bring a dog into their lives. A tiny furry thing to run around the apartment, bark, poop everywhere, demand attention and walks. 

 

He fully understands this is a big decision and he should 1. Be grateful Mingyu is considerate with his feelings and 2. Take time to deliberate the logistics of having an animal in their space.

 

All that logic flies out the window. What Minghao actually says is, “I love dogs.”

 

“Really?” Mingyu lights up. “So you don’t mind if I adopt one for my birthday?”

 

“No. You should do it. When are you going?”

 

“I haven’t picked a day—”

 

“What about today? I’ll go with you.”

 

Minghao is already thinking ahead. He can leave the easel to dry in the sun and pack it up when they return. There’s plenty of room on the bathroom floor for a puppy pee pad. The balcony railing might need a cover at the bottom. If he wakes up thirty minutes earlier every morning, he can take the dog for a short walk through the park. 

 

Or he can be in charge of night walks. Mingyu probably wants dibs on morning duty.

 

Mingyu clearly wasn’t expecting the enthusiastic support. He gawks for several seconds before visibly coming back to life. “Today works. Yeah.”

 

“Let me grab my wallet.” Minghao hurries into the bedroom. 

 

“That was easy,” he hears mumbled from the kitchen, then louder, “Wait, can you grab my wallet too? It’s in the—“

 

“I’ve got it.”

 

An exciting energy fills the car. Mingyu explains that he’d already asked the principal for permission months ago to bring the dog into school every morning and bring her home during lunch break.

 

“We’re incorporating her into our science lessons about mammals. Way cooler than Nayeon’s classroom pet. She just has beta fish.” Mingyu turns into a suburb with lots of budding trees and white picket fences. “This way the dog will only be alone a few hours a day.”

 

Minghao didn’t know pets were an option in his life until twenty minutes ago, but he’s already brainstorming how to rearrange his entire schedule for this hypothetical dog. If only he could leave work early every once and a while to help ease her transition. But Seungcheol—and more importantly Jeonghan—would be upset.

 

He’d be upset at himself for slacking off work, too. But he’s suddenly, inexplicably desperate to meet Mingyu halfway with this.

 

“I can take her out at night,” Minghao offers, watching the streets zoom by. “I’ll walk her.”

 

“Are you sure? You don’t have to take any responsibility. I know how much work it is.”

 

“Mingyu. I don’t think you understand. I love dogs.”

 

Mingyu laughs, one hand on the steering wheel, one hand running through his hair, looking young and infectiously happy.

 

Minghao is intimately familiar with his own methods of keeping people at a distance, of pushing away those he’s too frightened to get to know. He builds ramparts and digs moats around himself as protection. Friends are easy but best friends are hard, that sort of deal.

 

While his own walls are still in place, he thinks this is the first time he’s seen Mingyu free of reservations. Not posturing for friends or Immigration officers. Not awkward with a stranger who sleeps on his couch—because they know each other a bit better now. He’s just Mingyu, driving his car towards a dream. Smiling.

 

They pull into the decrepit parking lot of a rundown white building. SEULGI’S ANIMAL RESCUE is painted in flaking letters above the wooden door. When they enter, it’s clear the lock is broken, but a pleasant bell chimes their arrival. The air smells like wet dirt and rubber.

 

“We’ll have to buy a leash here,” Mingyu is saying. “I don’t have one because I wasn’t sure what size would be best. Do you have any preference on fur? Long fur tends to get everywhere, it might ruin your clothes.”

 

“It doesn’t matter.” Minghao shrugs. “I’ll be careful. I’m good at keeping my things clean.”

 

If it’s not blatantly clear how excited he is, that would be a dead giveaway—the dog receiving a higher priority than his wardrobe, for fuck’s sake. He’s wanted a pet for years.

 

The receptionist Sohye greets them warmly and leads them to the back room, where cages are lined up down a long outdoor hallway. Mingyu immediately kneels to coo at the first dog he sees, a female mutt with drooping eyes, while Minghao wanders further down.

 

Visiting shelters always makes him distantly sad. It’s how most people must feel when watching an animal in pain—an awful combination of pity and empathy. I see you, he wants to say. I see you in your cage and I understand and I am sorry.

 

One dog in particular catches his eye. She’s just past puppy age, nearly a year old, with long brown fur mottled with white. Maybe a sheepdog mix. When she sees Minghao both ears perk up and she sits straight, head cocked to the side, tongue lolling out. There’s an inquisitive sparkle in her eyes, and oh what beautiful eyes they are. Ice blue. 

 

He kneels and sticks his fingers through the bars. She’s sitting close enough to lean forward and sniff for a long time, judging him intensely. Minghao feels like he’s on trial. 

 

He must pass the smell test because she licks the pad of his thumb. 

 

From behind, Mingyu says, “Oh. She’s pretty.”

 

“I think she likes me.”

 

“Hi, puppy!” Mingyu kneels and copies his position. The dog is even more eager to inspect him, and Mingyu passes the smell test even quicker. “You’re so pretty. Hi, girl.”

 

Minghao isn’t one to babytalk, but it sounds cute when Mingyu does it. The dog looks endeared, anyway. He stands and scans the label beside her cage. Cha Cha, approximately 11 months old, rescued stray. Great with kids and other dogs.

 

“What do you think?” Mingyu looks up.

 

“It’s your choice.”

 

“But I want your opinion.”

 

“I like her.” Minghao smiles at the puppy. He can feel the honey leaking from his eyes. “Obviously. Just look at her.” He would die for her.

 

Mingyu turns back to Cha Cha. “It’s because you’re so pretty, right?” 

 

When they call Sohye back, she gives them a surprised look before unlocking the cage. “We’ll do a meet and greet first to make sure it’s a good fit.”

 

Cha Cha stands up with excitement. At that moment Minghao notices one of her back legs is folded awkwardly. The dog holds it close to her stomach, shielding the appendage like it’s in pain. She hobbles forward on three legs, twirling semi-stumbling circles around Sohye and barking.

 

Oh. He exchanges an uncertain look with Mingyu. Sohye picks up Cha Cha with one arm and leads them toward a caged play area.

 

Mingyu jogs to catch up and walk beside her. “Does she need any special care for her leg?”

 

“Yes.” Sohye places Cha Cha gently on the grass and the dog zooms away. Having less mobility doesn’t seem to impact her speed much. “The ligament in her back leg is torn. It’s a permanent injury she probably won’t recover from, but the treatment requires physical therapy and occasional medication, depending on how comfortable she is.”

 

Minghao kneels in the fake grass. It’s hot against his jeans, must be hotter still against Cha Cha’s paws, but she happily approaches him and proctors the sniff test once more. He passes. She pushes her soft face into his hands. Her nose is wet when she presses it against his palm, like a polite request. There's something very intelligent about the way she communicates.

 

“Is that something we can do ourselves?” Minghao looks up. “The physical therapy.”

 

“Definitely. The leg stretches are pretty easy, I can show you myself. But our policy is to recommend you to a local vet who can demonstrate, too.” Sohye kneels beside him and smiles fondly at the dog. “She seems to like you!”

 

Mingyu stoops to pick up a tennis ball in the corner. “Cha Cha,” he calls. “Fetch!”

 

She sprints after the thrown ball, loses her balance at the catch, and slips onto her butt hard. In a flash she’s back up and returning to Mingyu at full speed. Cha Cha drops the ball at his feet and starts barking complaints when he doesn’t throw it fast enough.

 

Sohye claps. “This is good, usually she’s too shy to play right away.”

 

Minghao can’t keep the smile off his face. He’s so soft for animals, especially those in need of help, and Cha Cha is too cute to deny. He wants her. Whatever special care she needs, he’ll provide. She deserves a home and not a cage.

 

He tries to catch Mingyu’s eye, but Mingyu is throwing himself into the game of fetch whole-heartedly. Hair flops into his eyes when he fakes a throw and Cha Cha goes crazy with frustrated barks.

 

“What do you think?” Minghao calls.

 

Mingyu waggles the ball in her face and she lunges for his hand. He lets her snatch away the toy and says, “She’s perfect.”

 

Sohye brushes fur off her pants. “I’ll get the paperwork.”




 

Bringing home a dog changes the apartment.

 

Cha Cha adapts well. When they open the crate in the center of the living room, she hops out tentatively, nose working hard, eyes scanning the area. Moving slowly, Minghao sets his canvas behind the couch and stores the paints out of reach. Mingyu sits on the carpet and offers organic leaf-shaped treats.

 

In under an hour she’s tearing through the room chasing a tennis ball, having claimed the spot under the table for her mattress. She’s uninterested in the bedroom but sniffs every surface of the bathroom and kitchen. Luckily her hips are too broad to fit through the railing, so they allow her to explore the balcony carefully, which she seems to like.

 

“Oh. My. God.” Mingyu says in a hushed whisper when Cha Cha rolls over to scratch her back on the balcony. “She is so damn cute.”

 

Minghao puts his camera down. They’re lying on their stomachs side by side, facing the open balcony door, afternoon sun in their eyes. He’s taken approximately 13,853 photos of Cha Cha already.

 

“She’s so damn cute,” he agrees.

 

“I’m glad I finally did this.” Mingyu is clearly having trouble holding his happiness inside his body—it hangs around him like a golden cloud—and he reaches over to shake Minghao’s shoulder. “Thank you thank you thank you!”

 

“Stop thanking me.” Minghao shoves him off, but he’s smiling too. “This was your idea.”

 

“A good idea.”

 

“A great idea.”

 

Mingyu perks up under the barest hint of praise. He’s never shy about attention the way Minghao is, which makes him a better actor, if sometimes narcissistic. But who doesn’t love being complimented?

 

“We should sign her up for training lessons next week,” Mingyu says.

 

“No way.” Minghao reverts the camera back to its default indoor settings and turns it off. He screws the lid back onto the lens. “We can train her ourselves.”

 

“It’s done better professionally.”

 

“She’s a dog, she’ll be easy to train.”

 

Thus an argument is borne over the carpet. They go back and forth, stubborn as bulls, until Minghao stikes at the jugular and says, “Dog training is expensive. Do you really want to waste money on something we can easily do at home?”

 

He doesn’t know what Mingyu’s deal with money is yet, but he knows it’s an end-all argument option. Mingyu does not look happy. He studies Cha Cha attempting to eat a beetle. Her little teeth snap energetically, but she's far from the target. Beetle escapes.

 

“I’ll give it a month or so. If she can learn sit, stay, and up before then, I won’t take her to training.”

 

Minghao nods. “That’s a fair compromise.”

 

Drawn by their voices, Cha Cha strolls back inside and starts sniffing around the water bowl in the kitchen. Mingyu had happily excavated all his old purchases from their grave under the bed and set up her toys, water, food bought from the shelter, leash, blanket. Everything she could possibly want.

 

Minghao thinks it’s pretty funny that they started out as partners on a high-stakes project (fake marriage) and are now partners on an even more high-stakes project (dog parenting). Except that Cha Cha is definitively Mingyu’s. He chose to adopt, he signed the paperwork. When Minghao leaves in a year or two, Cha Cha will stay here and he probably won’t see her again.

 

The thought is disheartening, so he resolves not to think about that. The future is far away. He’ll enjoy the time he has with her, even if she’s not really his dog, because she won’t know the difference yet. And he loves dogs.

 

“Sooo anyway.” Mingyu rolls on his side until he’s facing Minghao. He props himself on one elbow like he’s modeling for a Seventeen shoot, except covered in dog fur. He’s never looked better. “Will you do me one more favor?”

 

“What.”

 

“I don’t want to throw a party for my birthday.” He traces a pattern on the carpet and doesn’t look up. “But my friends and I have a tradition of bar-hopping together and they kinda want you to be there. Well, Seungkwan said he demands your presence. On pain of death. My death.”

 

“Do you want me there?”

 

“Only if you’re okay with that. It’s kind of a lot to ask, I just don’t want Seungkwan chewing me out the whole night for being a shady dick.”

 

Minghao rolls onto his back and stares at the ceiling. It’s a popcorn ceiling, outdated and off-white, and he tries to find shapes in the texture while he thinks of what to say. Mostly he wants to say yes—he won’t turn down opportunities to make friends, even if overlapping their social circle is a shitty idea in the long run—but the pressure of acting like Mingyu’s significant other in front of his best friends is daunting.

 

If he goes, he can ask Mingyu for something similar in return. Frame it like a demand in the same way. 

 

“That’s funny,” he says. “Jeonghan said basically the same thing on Friday. He wants to get dinner and do a double date with his partner.” Minghao peers at Mingyu from the corner of his eye to gauge his reaction. “I think people are getting suspicious.”

 

Here he goes again, twisting the truth. At least it’s to get what he wants this time instead of just fucking with Mingyu for the fun of it. Minghao holds his breath and tries not to get his hopes up.

 

Mingyu chews absently on his lower lip, looking more and more like a runaway Abercrombie model. “I don’t mind getting dinner with them.”

 

“I don’t mind going out for your birthday. But I’m not drinking around so many strangers.” 

 

“That’s fine!” Mingyu is quick to say, and Minghao rolls over so they’re facing each other once more. “Don’t feel pressured. Well, Soonyoung will probably pressure you, but I’ll tell them to back off. They’re nice, I promise.”

 

Minghao knows they’re nice. They treated him well during the impromptu lunch, even though the questions were awkward and the vibe somewhat stilted. He remembers how Hansol carried the conversation, cool as a cucumber, and asks, “Will Hansol be there?”

 

“Yeah!”

 

“Good.”

 

A wrinkle appears between Mingyu’s brows. He sits up straight. “What, do you think he’s hot or something? You’ve asked about him a couple times.”

 

Minghao rolls his eyes. “No, he was just nice to me.”

 

“They were all nice to you,” Mingyu objects.

 

“He was extra nice.”

 

“How?”

 

"Fine, he’s hot. Fucking sue me.” Minghao picks himself off the floor, brushing fur off his knees, and stomps after Cha Cha into the kitchen so he doesn’t have to see Mingyu’s smug face. 

 

But he doesn’t need to see Mingyu to hear him laughing. 




 

Minghao’s mother calls while he’s at work that week.

 

He’s in the studio with a lighting assistant—Sehun, two years his senior but just starting out in the industry as a multitalented ex-model—and two of the digital production interns whose names he forgot. Usually the interns hang around the editorial team, or Seungcheol if they demonstrate a particular aptitude for design, but today they’re observing his set up for tomorrow’s shoot with a client advertising for GUCCI. 

 

For this shoot, Minghao is going with a sexy-meets-rustic motorcycle vibe. The products are a mix of clothes from this upcoming fall season, including a mismatched button shirt and a 24k carat gold watch. He and Sehun have been fiddling with the spotlights for half an hour, testing various pieces of gold jewelry under different shades of white, yellow, and orange light.

 

So he doesn’t pick up the call on the first ring. When he does, his mother teases him. “Are you too busy for me?”

 

“Sorry.” He waves Sehun off for a short break. They’ve mostly finalized the lights anyway. “I’m at work. How are you? How are the tomatoes?”

 

“They’re fat now, almost time for plucking. Your father is home sick this week.”

 

“Oh, what happened?”

 

“He has a mild fever. Nothing bad, but with his age, you know, I worry.”

 

Minghao bites his lip and sits heavily on the wooden stage which, tomorrow, will hold a bicycle. His parents are getting older. That’s something he’s terribly aware of. He wishes he could be there to rub out his mother’s sore wrists, because he knows how the bones stiffen up after a long afternoon in the garden.

 

“Do you need extra money?” Minghao doesn’t have much left to send once he pays Mingyu for the third month of marriage, but he can pull something together. Sell an offseason designer top he’s owned for ages, gifted by his old boss. “Let me know, Mom.”

 

“No, don’t worry about us.” Her voice gets more serious. “We are fine here. Enjoy your life in Seoul.”

 

Well that certainly leaves a bad taste in his mouth. He knows when his mother is lying. 

 

“Tell me what’s wrong,” he says.

 

The interns hear the change in his voice and shoot him surprised looks. The shorter one, a girl with gorgeous silver hair, lets her eyes linger until Minghao has to shift his body and turn his shoulder toward them. How uncomfortable. He doesn’t really want to be having this conversation at work, but…

 

“What are you talking about? I just said we’re fine. Tell me about your living space. Is your roommate still clean? Do you get along now?”

 

“Mingyu’s fine,” he says. 

 

“Mingyu. What a nice name. It compliments yours.”

 

If only you knew. He regrets that his mother has a name now because soon she’ll ask for a face. When his parents know Mingyu’s name and face, he’ll feel weird about it. More like he’s lying, more like the situation is real. Somehow both simultaneously. 

 

“Mm-hmm,” is all he says.

 

“How’s Junhui?” 

 

“He’s good. A real cool guy now.”

 

She laughs. She probably remembers him as the skinny Jun who stuffed his cheeks with caramels while doing trigonometry homework on the wicker swing in the garden. A bad influence, she’d called him back then, but it was always fond.

 

Minghao can tell he won’t get any answers from his mother today, so he drops the line of questioning and they make pleasant small talk for a few minutes. When Sehun returns, the interns hurry to his side and Minghao says he needs to end the call.

 

“Miss you,” he says quietly before hanging up.

 

Maybe he’ll send a care package anyway. There are some Korean candies he tried yesterday, stolen from Jeonghan’s drawer, which tasted like a strawberry and peach fusion. His dad would love them.

 

Minghao shelves that thought for later and returns to work.




 

“Holy shit, Junhui, what do I do?"

 

“Relax,” comes Junhui’s voice through the phone. “Turn the camera around, show me what you’re looking at.”

 

Minghao is standing in the leather belt aisle of a high-end downtown boutique. He left the studio five minutes ago and has been fending off a mental breakdown the entire walk here. Junhui’s pixelated face frowns at the accessory exhibit.

 

“What do I buy for my fake husband’s birthday? We’re, like, not even friends." Minghao fiddles with his earring, a simple black stud, twisting it around and around.

 

He hardly knows Mingyu. Well, he knows the character Kim Mingyu he plays, the soft romantic heartthrob. How much overlap is there? Should Minghao know the difference by now?

 

What if he just buys presents for Cha Cha? Mingyu will appreciate that. A dog is far simpler to shop for. The belts stretch in front of him, infinite and torturous, and Minghao feels choked by his own indecision. He works in fashion, for God’s sake. This shouldn’t be so hard.

 

“Does Mingyu even wear belts?” Junhui asks. A yawn takes over his face. He’s clearly in bed, and Minghao would feel bad about bothering him on his day off work, but this is an emergency.

 

“I think so.”

 

“What—you think so? I’m sorry Xu Minghao, who are you? You live with this guy. Pick any article of clothing that would look good on him.”

 

“That’s the problem,” he realizes, running a hand over a brown belt with a classy gold square in the middle. “He looks good in everything.”

 

There’s a long pause while Minghao contemplates how deeply fucked he is. Junhui will never let him live that confession down. He drops the belt and turns resolutely toward the aisle of hats, grabbing the first baseball cap he sees, which is an ugly puke green decorated in fake military stars.

 

When he risks a glance down at the video chat, Junhui is smirking like the cat that got the cream. “Should be an easy purchase then.”

 

“Ugh.” Minghao puts the cap back and scans the area for something nicer. “You’re not helping.”

 

He hangs up the call soon after. Junhui feigns drowsiness but he’s probably going to play games on his phone the whole evening and sleep for 14 hours. Meanwhile Minghao has an hour to find and purchase a gift, run home, shower, take Cha Cha for a walk, and mentally prepare to go bar-hopping with Mingyu and all his friends. Tonight.

 

Screw it. He spots a classic New York Yankees cap, navy blue and stylish, and plucks it off the rack. This will have to do. 

 

After paying an unreasonable amount for a hat, Minghao catches the bus back home and plans what to wear in his head. Bar-hopping isn’t a fancy affair, but he wants to make up for his wishy-washy first impression among Mingyu’s friends. He wants to look good. He’ll wear a statement button-down shirt, fabric covered in a bird of paradise print, with jeans ripped at the knees. 

 

Minghao greets Cha Cha with kisses and immediately takes her outside. “Did you miss me?” He coos. “Good girl, Cha Cha.”

 

She’s been alone for three hours at this point, and guilt makes him linger on their walk, allowing her the happiness of freedom for as long as possible. She romps in the grassy park, sniffs a pinecone, barks at an older couple passing by. No signs of limping or pain in her other legs.

 

Their appointment with the vet is next week, but Sohye made good on her promise to demonstrate the basics of physical therapy. What to look for, what’s an emergency situation. So far Cha Cha has been a breeze to care for, seems to love the apartment. Her happiness in turn makes Minghao happy.

 

“You’re going to be good for us later, right? No trying to eat the houseplants.” Minghao kneels and scratches under her chin. Her breath smells like muddy grass. “We’ll only be gone for a little while.”

 

Cha Cha’s ice-blue eyes gaze at him, adoring and trusting.

 

Minghao and the dog return to the apartment still empty, Mingyu not back from school yet. It’s rare he stays this late. They probably planned a coworker celebration after classes. Maybe Wonwoo is there, with Nayeon and the other teachers, all clustered around a cake with loopy frosting spelling out Mingyu’s name, laughing and carefree. It’s a sweet idea.

 

Minghao rushes through a shower and gets changed into the outfit he selected earlier. Eyeliner? Sure. Jewelry? Only simple pieces, he doesn’t want to attract too much attention. A silver ring and a two-piece triangle necklace over his exposed throat and chest.

 

Finally. Hair still damp from the shower, he inspects himself up and down in the mirror and decides he looks good.  

 

Minghao scribbles over the pricetag on the Yankees cap and arranges it neatly on Mingyu’s pillow.

 

Collapsing on the bed, he closes his eyes and lies spread-eagle, allowing his muscles to relax fully into the mattress. A minute of peace is welcome. He could use the time to meditate, reflect, prepare for the upcoming test. As if on cue, a key jiggles in the lock. Cha Cha runs from beneath the bed and probably crashes headfirst into Mingyu’s thighs. Their reunion is audible with high-pitched babbling noises and excited barking.

 

Minghao represses a smile. He props himself up on one arm to watch Mingyu dump his jacket and bag on the rack. “Happy birthday,” he calls through the open bedroom door, and Mingyu turns in surprise.

 

Mingyu freezes. His lips are parted like he’s about to say thanks but he isn’t moving, just standing with his hips turned toward the bedroom, eyes glued to Minghao in some odd expression of surprise. He swallows hard and his throat bobs. 

 

“Thanks!” Mingyu says, when the silence has dragged on just long enough to be uncomfortable. “You look... ready to go out.”

 

Then he trips over the carpet edge and turns away from Minghao very fast. Mingyu faces the closet and rummages diligently.

 

Is he freaked out by what Minghao’s wearing? The clothes are sexy, sure, but not over-the-top. Minghao was careful. He recalls answering the door for Wonwoo, almost two months ago, and how Mingyu had said and you look like—

 

He never got an explanation for that.

 

But Minghao is confident in his clothing choices, fuck anyone who says differently. He flicks hair out of his eyes and says, “Yep. We’re leaving at seven, right?”

 

“Let me just change first.” Mingyu holds a hanger against his chest like a shield and beelines for the bathroom. 

 

Minghao becomes absorbed in checking his Instagram feed, debating on snapping a quick mirror selfie to post, and doesn’t notice when Mingyu returns until he says, “Is this for me?”

 

He’s standing near the head of the bed, touching the Yankees cap with gentle hands. A tight black V-neck stretches across his chest and narrows at the waist into light wash skinny jeans and Chelsea boots. Hair swept back at the temples, a few stray locks falling in his eyes, he looks up at Minghao and smiles. 

 

Minghao’s heart skips a beat.

 

Fuck, his husband is hot. The truth is that many attractive people walk in and out of Seventeen studios every day. Literal supermodels with whom he’s chatted and shaken hands. Faces he’s stared at for hours while editing green screens. Yet Minghao is still startled into a blush by one club-casual outfit from Kim Mingyu.

 

Ridiculous. He’s seen this guy with crusty eyes after just waking up, pre-caffeinated, face greasy and voice rough. That should cancel everything else out. Unfortunately the two can coexist and Minghao has to accept that Mingyu is, objectively, very attractive.

 

He unsticks his tongue from the roof of his mouth. “Yeah, it’s for you. Happy birthday.”

 

“Thanks!” Mingyu hangs it in his closet. The hat matches his aesthetic well, and Minghao inwardly pats himself on the back. Panic aside, he hasn’t lost his eye. “Are you ready to head out?”

 

“Let’s go.” He hops off the bed. “Remind me again who’s coming. What should I know about them?”

 

They say goodbye to Cha Cha and pour extra kibble into her bowl. They’re taking the train, which Minghao has hardly used, so Mingyu leads the way beneath streetlamps toward the underground station. Several neighbors are out and about walking home, walking their dogs, walking just to walk. Ladies in visors wave at Mingyu. As they walk, he talks.

 

“Seungkwan writes for television, he’s on the script team of a few shows right now. And Soonyoung… well, I don’t really know what he does, but it involves dance and therapy and at-risk youth.”

 

“Cool.” Minghao resists a shiver. The night is chilly and he welcomes the stuffy warmth of the subway station. They take the stairs two at a time and Mingyu swipes for both of them, arriving perfectly to catch a half-empty train. They sit side by side in the metal seats. Though the air is unfiltered and semi-uncomfortable, it doesn't smell as bas ad Minghao imagined. He still prefers the bus, though.

 

“We’re only four stops away,” Mingyu says. “But the people you haven’t met are just Seokmin and Jihyo, they both do finance. Or something.”

 

“What about Hansol?”

 

“Oh, he’s a rapper.”

 

Minghao snorts. He sees the expression on Mingyu’s face and leans back. “Wait, you’re serious? An actual rapper?”

 

“For real. He’s in a band.” Mingyu scratches at his neck with one finger.

 

“Send me his SoundCloud,” Minghao says, but his attention has wandered.

 

A woman on the other side of the train with gorgeous red heels is staring at Mingyu. He’s totally unaware of it. Minghao leans their shoulders together and tugs up his sleeve so the ring on his left hand is visible. It’s so awkward when someone in a relationship is flirted with. That might be a real problem at the club—especially after Mingyu’s had a few drinks and potentially forgets that he’s supposed to be in love with someone else.

 

Oh God, what if Minghao has to pull him off some rando? He can imagine it, Mingyu with pink cheeks and a lazy smile, pressed up close with a faceless hottie. The image stirs up an unhappy mix of guilt, misery, jealousy. Another reminder of what they’re holding each other back from.

 

They really should’ve had an updated discussion of boundaries before this.

 

But Minghao resolves himself to enjoy the night anyway. He can keep Mingyu distracted if necessary. With all his friends around, nothing terrible will happen.

 

“This is our stop.” Mingyu grabs his arm and they exit in a flurry, along with half the people on the train, including the woman in red heels.

 

They emerge aboveground in the center of the party district, or so Minghao has heard. Neon lights illuminate the street, where small crowds are gathered outside fancy restaurants and pairs of exquisitely dressed couples pass by in fits of laughter. The sound of muted conversation and clinking glass rings out from each propped doorway. Mingyu is on a mission headed straight down the sidewalk.

 

Minghao has to take long strides to keep up. “Excited much?”

 

Mingyu ducks his head. “I don’t get out a lot anymore.”

 

That rubs Minghao the wrong way. “Nothing’s stopping you.”

 

“Um.” Mingyu holds up his left hand and waves it obnoxiously in Minghao’s face. The ring glitters like a star on his finger, eye-catching and prettier than a fake should be. “This is? Literally stopping me?”

 

“How does a ring stop you from going to a bar with friends?”

 

“It stops me from doing other fun things at bars.”

 

“Oh, so you only go out looking to get your di—”

 

“Mingyu!” A shout rings out from a small cluster of people under a tree dotted with fairy lights. Soonyoung waves his hand in the air and a muted cheer arises. Hoots and hollers of “The birthday boy!” “Finally, he’s here.” greet their approach.

 

Minghao shuts his mouth so fast his teeth click together. A fake smile is pasted onto his face immediately. He recognizes most of the people in the group—Soonyoung, Seungkwan, Hansol, Yoohyeon—but there’s another girl and guy he doesn’t recognize. They must be the aforementioned finance friends. Seokmin and Jihyo?

 

Of course Mingyu is pulled into a hug that quickly becomes a horizontal dog pile and Minghao is left two steps behind, hesitant, lost in the burst of noise and celebration. Everyone looks incredible. His eyes linger on Hansol’s sheer collared long sleeve, on Jihyo’s tight black pencil skirt. These are good-looking people. Mingyu holds way classier company than he seems to.

 

Seungkwan catches his eye and beams. “Myungho, it’s good to see you again!”

 

“You too.” Minghao gives him a little wave. “Nice kicks.”

 

Seungkwan is wearing beige lace-up boots with leather sides. They’re trendy, and bold, and not usually a nighttime accessory, which is exactly why Minghao likes them. Seungkwan looks pleased as a peach and thanks him.

 

“So this is Myungho!”

 

Suddenly a pair of unfamiliar arms come around Minghao’s waist. He flinched and tenses up, but the warm body against his chest is gone as soon as it barged in. The boy leans back and flashes a thousand teeth. “I’m Seokmin!”

 

Minghao flexes his hands so he doesn’t ball them into fists. Strangers going in for surprise hugs are not typically people he likes to associate with. “Hi, Seokmin. Yeah, I’m—” His birth name almost slips out. “Myungho.”

 

Soonyoung pulls back the offender by his collar and stage-whispers, “Sorry about that, he went hard at the pregame. We told him you were hot.”

 

“Um?” His face is probably red as a rose right now. “It’s okay.”

 

Mingyu must sense the awkwardness happening in the corner because he breaks away from the final hug with Yoohyeon and zips back to Minghao’s side. His dark eyes look over Minghao, quick as lightning, probably trying to gauge exactly how pissed off he is.

 

Mingyu is usually good at figuring out what other people are feeling. He’s intuitive, once he knows someone, as Minghao saw after their first few weeks living together. 

 

So it’s no surprise Mingyu reacts the correct way. He throws a casual arm over Minghao’s shoulders—light, not possessive—and says, “Everybody ready to head in?”

 

He’s answered with resounding affirmations. Minghao squeezes his waist once in thanks and they separate, falling into step with Soonyoung as they flash IDs at the bouncer and pay a meager entrance fee.

 

The bar is unreal. It looks more like the inside of a spaceship than a drinking establishment. White LED lights line the silver walls and the foyer is a sticky black corridor that opens into a crowded floor bracketed by thin metallic staircases. From here the second floor is just visible, strewn with tables and tall stools. People of all kinds, mostly young, are chatting and drinking and dancing their hearts out in small groups.

 

Minghao is weirdly fascinated. He’s never seen this side of Seoul before and it’s exactly like Anshan. Maybe nightlife is just universal. They crowd around an empty table tucked into a corner, waiting for the opportune moment to steal an extra two stools from a neighboring party. 

 

Soonyoung chats his ear off about their fond memories here. “It’s still pretty new,” he says, gesturing to the spotless walls. “But we came a lot last summer. Mingyu used to bring a deck of cards and beg us to play Go Fish: Tequila Version.”

 

“That sounds fun.” Minghao slides into a seat.

 

“Yeah, has Mingyu told you about the time he saw one of his students’ parents at a bar and hid in the bathroom for thirty minutes because he was scared to ruin his image?”

 

“Soonyoung.” He places a hand on his shoulder. “Please, tell me everything.”

 

Soonyoung practically cackles. When he laughs, he throws his head back and blonde hair goes flying. “For fucking sure—“ A commotion at the other end of the table catches his eye. “Wait, we’re ordering? What are you having?”

 

Minghao thinks wildly of an excuse not to drink. He should’ve prepared one, but he was too focused on buying a present.

 

Luckily, again, Mingyu swoops in.

 

He’d disappeared when they snagged the table but now the birthday boy returns with a round of soju shots. Mingyu passes one to everyone except Minghao, and he does it so quickly no one seems to notice. Like a real Vegas dealer. Minghao is appreciative. They launch into a screaming rendition of happy birthday and drink. 

 

Seokmin leans across the table to tap Minghao’s shoulder, squishing Soonyoung into the wall. “Hey,” he says, too loudly even over the music. “You and Mingyu are really cute together!”

 

“Thanks.”

 

“I’m so happy he’s finally—” Seokmin hiccups and sits back, allowing Soonyoung room to breathe. “Finally found someone to be with.”

 

“Give me some space.” Soonyoung pushes him the rest of the way back, until he’s sitting properly. His voice takes on a hilarious crickety posturing, like an elderly grandmother fighting for the last bushel of bananas. “Do you want to take this outside?”

 

Seokmin copies the voice to horrific accuracy. “We just got inside, you cabbage-headed dumbfuck.”

 

“What did you call me, you kimchi-brained asshole?”

 

This must be an inside joke. The situation is so abnormal that Minghao giggles along with their grandmother personas, who have switched from insulting each other to complimenting each other, until they both turn to compliment him.

 

“He’s got a fine nose, doesn’t he? Splendid. A handsome man.”

 

“Look at that elegant neck. In all my years I’ve never seen such grace.“

 

Minghao covers his face with his hands. Maybe a glass of wine will be necessary to get through this night. Soonyoung dissolves into laughter and says, “Aw, he’s shy. Let’s stop.”

 

“You were way less weird when we met before,” Minghao says, peeking through his fingers to glare at Soonyoung, but he’s still smiling so the effect is ruined.

 

Truthfully, Minghao doesn’t mind the teasing. It’s obviously good-natured. Since his social interaction exclusively comes from a professional work environment and Mingyu, he doesn’t get complimented often. Unless Jeonghan wants something from him.

 

“I’m always weird.” Soonyoung exchanges a glance with Seokmin. “Come to the bar with me? I want a beer.”

 

“Yes honey.” Seokmin jumps to his feet and pulls Soonyoung with him. He glances back once to ask Minghao, “You want anything?”

 

Minghao waves them off. “I’ll head up later.”

 

On his other side, Seungkwan and Yoohyeon are discussing international politics over twin glasses of what looks like sangria. At the far end of the table, Mingyu is being handed a shot by Hansol and Jihyo. His hair is already askew and he’s laughing with one hand over his chest like he’s embarrassed, but he looks happy. Really happy.

 

As Minghao watches, Mingyu takes the shot and pulls out his phone. He shows off pictures of Cha Cha in their apartment, eating, playing, barking, sleeping. Casual shots and photos that took half an hour for Minghao to set up. Hansol has great reactions—big smiles, appreciative nods, pointing out particularly cute expressions.

 

Minghao smiles.

 

Eventually Minghao slides into the political conversation, makes a few comments that have Yoohyeon snickering, and waits for the right moment to slip away. He doesn’t need wine. But some water might be nice, along with a minute to breathe away from the party.

 

He doesn’t see Soonyoung or Seokmin in the press of bodies against the bar, so they were probably eaten by the dancefloor at some point. Minghao squeezes into a tiny space between two burly guys who are each curved protectively towards their girlfriends. He tries to catch the bartender’s eye but she’s flirting with a girl at the far end with pigtails and blue eyeliner. This place is a riot, honestly.

 

Suddenly a voice speaks right into his ear. “Are you doing okay?”

 

Minghao almost jumps out of his skin. “Shit, Mingyu.” He slams a palm over his chest to feel his racing heart. “I’m fine. Are you having fun?”

 

“Yeah,” Mingyu says, and smiles so earnestly that it almost hurts.

 

Mingyu’s eyes are still surprisingly clear after however many shots. When he leans over Minghao’s head a little, eyeing the bartender, he smells like cologne, not soju. Fresh sheets and sandalwood. Their proximity is a little too close. Minghao inches away.

 

“I should—” Mingyu starts to say, but he’s cut off by the reappearance of an enthusiastic Soonyoung, followed by Jihyo. They each grab one of his arms.

 

“Let’s dance,” Jihyo says, but it’s not a request. “Seungkwan’s up by the DJ.”

 

“Oh god. Tell me he’s not making requests.” Mingyu stares at her, apparently too horrified to resist as they drag him back step by step towards the dance floor. 

 

It’s kind of amusing how Mingyu is a pushover when it comes to his friends. They could ask to borrow his car for a few years and he’d probably agree without a second thought, which directly opposes his competitive attitude in other areas. Like staring contests.

 

Minghao is alone for about five seconds until a hand lands on his shoulder. Hansol has squeezed himself in beside Minghao and leans closer to say something. Unfortunately the beat drops right as he speaks, cutting off half his sentence and making the rest an unintelligible smash of Korean phonology.

 

Minghao leans closer. “What?”

 

“We should probably follow them before Mingyu trips on his ass again.”

 

“Again?” Minghao must’ve missed it. “Jeez.”

 

Hansol takes his question as agreement and steers them casually away from the bar. Had it been anyone else—literally anyone—Minghao would’ve fought harder. But after digging in his heels unsuccessfully once, he allows Hansol to lead them through the throng of sweaty people. He licks his dry lips. He wanted water, not dancing.

 

But Minghao doesn’t hate dancing. He definitely doesn’t hate Hansol. So… he might as well go with the flow.

 

Seungkwan has indeed commandeered a section of the dance floor in front of the DJ. He’s not really dancing, just moving his arms in a vaguely hip-hop motion, up-down-side-side. But he’s got a huge smile on his face and he guides Yoohyeon, Jihyo, and Mingyu into copying his movements until they form a semi-circle of lame dance moves. Minghao almost expires of secondhand embarrassment on the spot.

 

Hansol is already laughing. He clutches Minghao’s arm for support. “What are you… what…”

 

“Do you know them?” Minghao jabs a thumb in their direction. “I don’t know them.”

 

He’s mostly relieved not to find Mingyu pressed chest-to-chest with a sexy stranger, like his earlier concerns, but that relief is short-lived when Hansol passes him like a potato chip into Mingyu’s hands.

 

“Oh, hi,” Mingyu says, his hands coming up to steady Minghao’s momentum. Minghao tries not to step back so fast that it looks suspicious. But he does step back. 

 

“You’re a shitty dancer,” is what Minghao says. He watches the spark of indignation in Mingyu’s eyes and ignores his immediate, heated protest. “Where are your hips? Use them.”

 

Seungkwan holds out an imaginary microphone. “He’s talking the talk, but can he walk the walk?”

 

“Yeah, you.” Mingyu piggybacks on that energy, still stepping side to side and wiggling his arms like a kid on a sugar rush, not a full-grown adult who should have a full grasp on his own sensuality by now. God, he’s embarrassing. “Show us how it’s done then.”

 

“Fine.”

 

“Okay.”

 

“Oooooh,” Soonyoung cheers, materializing behind Mingyu with both hands in the air. “Get ‘em, tiger!”

 

Minghao is one hundred percent sober. A part of him can’t believe he let himself get dragged into this ridiculous pissing contest, but it’s all in good fun. A bigger part of him is blooming under the attention, feeling confident, high off his social success up until this point. 

 

Look at me, he wants to say. See me, see me, see me.

 

Talking with his body is easy. Easier than forgetting a conjugation in Korean, easier than focusing his entire brain on listening to one person talk over the crowd. It’s muscle memory to sink into a freestyle dance. Pop, lock, outlaw step, sway, grind. The music swells and Soonyoung cheers.

 

Minghao walks around until a circle naturally forms. He throws himself into a windmill, a move he hasn’t done in at least a year and certainly hasn’t been stretching to prepare for… but he nails it. Feels the wind against his hair, hears the screams of his friends—Mingyu’s friends—and he laughs.

 

He finishes out with a neat backflip and ducks his head into a bow. Only then does he glance up at everyone's reactions.

 

Mingyu’s jaw is on the floor. So is Seungkwan’s entire body, one hand clutching the stage, one hand over his chest like he’s having a heart attack. Hansol is in hysterics beside him. The crowd, not paying attention and unhappy with the space they’re taking up, pushes them back into a tight clump. 

 

Minghao finds himself at the center with hands patting him on the back, squeezing his palms, ruffling his hair. He loses most of the comments to the music, but hears someone (Yoohyeon?) call him a machine, and Hansol’s distinct voice repeating awesome, dude, awesome.

 

A little bashful now that the impromptu performance is over, Minghao huddles closer to Mingyu and bobs along diplomatically to the music. “Thanks, it’s really nothing,” he says, nodding and waving off the awed stares.

 

He realizes Mingyu hasn’t said anything. Or closed his mouth.

 

Minghao gives him an incredulous look. “You knew I could dance.”

 

“Not like that." Mingyu shakes his head like a wet dog, sending his hair flying in an attractive wave. He’s sweating at the temples, just enough for a sheen on his skin, and he fans his face briefly for fresh air. “That was…”

 

“Hot!” Soonyoung crowds into their space, jumping on the balls of his feet and shouting, “You kiss that boy right now or I will, Kim Mingyu.”

 

Minghao’s heart stops.

 

“Oh my god, no.” Mingyu shoves Soonyoung away—on beat, impressively—and goes red in the face.

 

Here it comes. The moment Minghao has been dreading for weeks. Someone’s going to make them kiss or call their bluff. He forces himself to laugh but it comes out stilted, grating. Is anyone thrown off by Mingyu’s immediate refusal? Panicking, he wraps an arm gently around Mingyu’s waist and ducks his head, partly to give off the facade of intimacy and partly to hide his own expression—because he’s a god awful actor under pressure. 

 

“Since when are you such a prude,” Seungkwan teases, going for a pinch to Mingyu’s nipple.

 

Luckily it seems like no one else is really paying attention, just the two of them with Soonyoung and Seungkwan in the corner as the others grind happily away to the EDM beat, distracted by Jihyo’s creative hip moves. Minghao thinks of slipping away towards the bathroom, towards the back door, anyplace he can escape.

 

Before he can brainstorm an excuse, Mingyu is tilting up his chin with one hand and pressing a quick, chaste kiss to his forehead. The touch of his lips is warm against Minghao’s skin. The moment’s over so fast he doesn’t even have time to pull away. 

 

Soonyoung and Seungkwan break into applause.

 

Immediately Mingyu cups his hand over Minghao’s ear and moves in close—close enough his lips now touch the shell of his ear, murmuring in a low voice, “I’m really sorry, they wouldn’t have let it go.”

 

To an outsider it would look like an intimate whisper between lovers. Like they were discussing something dark and sexy and alluding to later bedroom activities.

 

Minghao curves his neck to further that agenda. He looks up at Mingyu, makes his eyes go wide, and smiles. He lifts his chin and says, “It’s fine. I think we’re doing good.”

 

Mingyu gives him a thumbs up. He still seems remarkably sober for a birthday celebrant, but just as that thought occurs, Seokmin bursts back into their circle with two fistfuls of precariously-balanced soju shots. 

 

“Cheers!”

 

“Finally,” Yoohyeon takes hers before they even knock glasses.

 

And that’s Minghao’s cue. 

 

He slips away while the group clusters around Seokmin happily. The bar is less crowded now and he’s able to finally get water. Cool, crisp heaven slides down his throat. The glass is empty in seconds. If only he could pour some over his sweaty hair, or where his shirt sticks to his chest.

 

A little uncomfortable and a lot exhausted, Minghao heads out the back door he’d scoped out earlier. It leads into a back alley, exactly as expected, with a bouncer and a few scattered people smoking. That familiar, acrid tinge is enough to make him wrinkle his nose and consider retreating to the bar with his tail between his legs, but. At least it’s quiet out here.

 

Minghao leans against the wall and breathes. He thinks he’s doing a pretty good job. Apart from the minor freak out before Mingyu kissed his forehead—which was a pretty genius move, he has to admit. Not enough PDA to be uncomfortable, but still giving in to his friends’ demands.

 

As chaotic and dumb as this night has been, Minghao’s happy. This group is fun. Dancing is fun. Maybe next time he’ll have a few drinks with them.

 

Maybe next time. What, is he assuming they’ll invite him along every time? Just because he’s tied to Mingyu doesn’t mean they’re a package deal. If he wants to spend time with Seungkwan, Soonyoung, and Hansol, he needs to genuinely befriend them. He needs to work harder.

 

But what if Mingyu doesn’t want them to get closer? It might be awkward later if Minghao still hangs out with his ex-husband’s friends.

 

It really hits Minghao then—how Mingyu opened up his entire life to a stranger. He’s sharing everything. There’s no place for him to hide in this relationship, not when they live together. His friends don’t know the truth, his family doesn’t know the truth, no one in his life knows the truth.

 

At least Minghao has Junhui as a confidante, his parents as an escape.

 

Mingyu can’t run away from him. He just can’t.

 

Minghao never gave it a proper thought before. Right now isn’t a good time for an empathy crisis, though, so he needs to pretend everything’s fine and go back inside. Get ready to dance again. He leans his head against the concrete wall and enjoys his final moments of isolation.

 

“Hey, pretty boy.” 

 

A red-haired guy in a leather jacket strolls towards Minghao from further down the alley. A cigarette hangs loosely from his full lips and he drags his eyes up, down, up Minghao’s body in blatant appreciation. His boots have tacky silver spikes on the side. 

 

Minghao lifts his left hand. “Taken boy,” he corrects.

 

“You sure?” The guy gets closer. Underneath the smoke, he reeks of alcohol. Sharper than soju. Tequila, maybe. It makes nausea rise in Minghao’s stomach. 

 

“Yeah, I’m sure. Not interested.”

 

“Damn.” He leans against the wall beside him anyway, still staring. “Where are you from? I can tell you’re not Korean.”

 

Minghao makes eye contact with the security guard. He’s not afraid of things getting physical because he’s confident he can kick this guy’s ass if necessary, but he wants it on record that he isn’t the instigator. Getting banned from Mingyu’s favorite bar would not be fun.

 

He’d walk away right now, but he doesn’t want to turn his back on an unpredictable stranger. Just in case.

 

Minghao looks straight ahead and doesn’t even look at the red-headed guy when he answers. “Nowhere. Fuck off.”

 

“Okay, okay, chill.” The asshole raises both hands, talks around the cigarette like a kid with a lollipop. “Just making conversation.”

 

He takes a few steps back but hovers.

 

Minghao hesitates, weighing the pros and cons, and decides fuck it. He speedwalks back to the bar, letting the door slam behind him and trying not to glance back. Hopefully the guy doesn’t give chase.

 

No one follows that he can see. Minghao orders another glass of water and downs it.

 

The table is empty besides Jihyo, who’s chatting on the phone, so he wanders onto the dance floor looking for a familiar face. He’s a little jittery, amped up by the almost-confrontation, and wants to stick close to Mingyu.

 

“Hey!” Seungkwan spots him and links their arms together. He’s significantly drunker than he was earlier, if the starry eyes and ruddy cheeks are any indication. “Mingyu was looking for you! We’re over here.”

 

Being welcomed back into their circle is a relief. Mingyu sees the tension on his face and tugs him closer by the elbow, gentle, mouth at his ear to murmur, “Where’d you go?”

 

“Just getting some air.” Minghao peels off Mingyu’s hand, squeezes it once for show and once more, lighter, for himself. “I hope your dancing improved.”

 

“Nope.” Mingyu grins and launches into an enthusiastic noodle jump. 

 

Minghao loses track of time. They dance in a group, tactile and uncoordinated, shouting the lyrics of popular songs. A few times someone disappears with a stranger to test out the waters, presumably, but everyone returns pretty fast. It’s clear that Mingyu is the center of attention tonight. They’re visibly celebrating him, hyping his clumsy but whole-hearted moves. Love is a current between them. Years of familiarity built into affection.

 

It must be an hour or two later—and several shots later—that Mingyu starts looking tired. This is far past his usual bedtime. His eyelids droop and he slings an arm across Soonyoung’s shoulders. Soonyoung is already supporting a half-comatose Seokmin on his other side, so he wobbles under the extra weight.

 

Soonyoung catches his eye. “I think we should head out soon.”

 

Minghao nods emphatically.

 

“Here, help me—you take yours, I’ll take this one.” Soonyoung pushes Mingyu onto Minghao and clutches Seokmin close to his chest.

 

Mingyu is lucid enough to catch himself before falling into Minghao with his full weight, but they still collide chests aggressively. “Sorry,” he mumbles, rubbing his face with one hand. Now he does smell like soju. He yawns and adds, “Yeah, let’s go home soon.”

 

His hair has totally deflated and fallen in his eyes. This night wasn’t quite what Minghao expected—it was better. A rush of fondness, probably brought on by exhaustion and the late hour, makes him want to push Mingyu’s hair back, card his fingers through it like before in their bedroom. Check if the strands are still soft. 

 

Minghao doesn’t, obviously. But he gets caught staring. Mingyu gives him a quizzical look.

 

“Yeah,” Minghao says belatedly. “I’m ready to go.”

 

“Okay! We have to catch a taxi, though, the trains stopped running.”

 

So they regroup on the street a few meters away from the entrance. Hansol and Jihyo took off earlier, citing obligations tomorrow, but the others form a dramatic line for goodbye hugs. Minghao tries to wave instead, but they all hug him, too. Seungkwan squeezes tight and asks for his phone number.

 

His phone number! He glances at Mingyu to check his reaction, but he’s not paying attention, which is a perfect excuse for Minghao to happily exchange contact information without asking permission.

 

Theirs is the last taxi to arrive, so Minghao and Mingyu find themselves alone in front of the bar, surrounded by a few late night stragglers walking home or couples emerging from the dancefloor with sweaty foreheads. The night is cool and peaceful, the streetlamps glittery and bright.

 

“How was it?” Minghao asks. 

 

The question bursts from him. He wants approval, he wants confirmation that Mingyu had a good time. When the evening started, he wasn’t concerned with Mingyu’s feelings—only his own. Alleviating his own awkwardness, his own loneliness, his own feelings of obligation to buy a present. 

 

But after his earlier realization that Mingyu can’t run away from this… Minghao feels a touch more aware. He doesn’t want to fuck up Mingyu’s life. The repercussions would be massive. He wants to make things easy for him. 

 

Mingyu has enough energy to grin. “It was great. Thanks for coming, you didn’t have to.”

 

Minghao shrugs. “I had fun.”

 

“Did you?” His voice drops lower, more serious. Light catches in Mingyu’s eyes and makes him look younger, prettier, unattainable. Someone fit for movie screens, someone perpetually out of reach. His hands are shoved into his pockets, like people do when they want to appear casual.

 

“I did.”

 

“Good.”

 

Minghao is about to say happy birthday again, for the hundredth time, because he’s running out of small talk and his brain is semi-scrambled from exhaustion, but a figure appears in his vision. The redheaded asshole from earlier is walking towards them. He’s got two buddies at his side and they’re ambling slow along the sidewalk.

 

Maybe he hasn’t noticed Minghao yet. Discreetly he tries to angle himself behind Mingyu, which should theoretically be easy, but Mingyu is sleepy and slouching right now. Not as tall and formidable as usual.

 

Minghao makes eye contact. Shit.

 

The guy leers as they get closer. He elbows one of his friends—a taller man in a beanie whose day job might be bodybuilding—and points. 

 

Mingyu follows his gaze and sees the finger. He looks very confused. “Do you know them?”

 

“No.” Minghao shuffles closer. Their shoulders brush. “Just some dick from the bar.”

 

‘Some dick from the bar’ makes a crude gesture as he and his cronies pass by. “Bye, pretty bitch.” Then he continues walking.

 

All in all, the reunion could’ve been worse, but Minghao’s face is burning. He kinda wants to chase down the guy and punch his throat in. He kinda wants to get in a taxi and pass out and forget it ever happened.

 

Mingyu’s brows are furrowed and his lips are an unhappy line. There’s nothing to be done about the situation, and he’s smart enough to realize that, but he’s obviously upset, too.

 

“What a dick,” he agrees. “Ew. Sorry if you heard any bullshit from him.”

 

“Nothing crazy. It’s fine.”

 

“Creeps are creeps, but you shouldn’t have to deal with them.” Mingyu glances down at his phone. “Oh, our taxi’s here.”

 

At one point in his life, Minghao would’ve hoped for his significant other to physically jump to his defense. To leap out with arms swinging, throwing punches first and listening to apologies later, damning anyone who hurt him. That’s what he thought of love: passionate, destructive when necessary, unforgiving.

 

Minghao climbs into the backseat beside Mingyu, their feet accidentally tangling over the small leather carpet. Maybe this is better, though, he thinks. He relaxes into the seat and watches the city flash by in splashing lights. It would be a waste to see Mingyu’s pretty face take a hit, anyway. 

 

Even though their relationship is nothing like what Minghao imagined—and is painfully, horribly, 100% fake—his life isn’t unpleasant. He touches his forehead, remembering how tenderly Mingyu had kissed him there. No, it’s not unpleasant at all.

Chapter Text

与其诅咒黑暗,不如燃起蜡烛.
Better to light a candle than to curse the darkness.



 

Mingyu and Cha Cha get caught in the rain on Sunday morning.

 

Minghao is sitting on the couch with a book and a pot of tea. Yes, a whole pot, because he doesn’t plan on moving for at least three hours and this book is making his brain hurt. Why does the written Korean language have no spatial awareness? Things he doesn’t have to worry about when speaking, like spelling and punctuation, are such annoying inhibitors when reading. It makes him feel like he’s regressing in terms of linguistic capability, even though that’s objectively not true.

 

So he’s curled resolutely on the couch when he hears deafening footsteps approach the door. The knob looks like it’s being strangled on the opposite side. When the door flies open, Mingyu and Cha Cha tumble inside, drenched to the bone.

 

“What happened?” Minghao folds the corner of his page down. A dumb question, but he hadn’t even noticed it was raining. Spring drizzle is stubborn outside the window.

 

Mingyu’s teeth are chattering. He slides out of his sopping jacket and wrangles both arms around Cha Cha before she can shoot into the kitchen and spray muddy water everywhere. She makes an unhappy growling noise.

 

“Help,” Mingyu wheezes.

 

The sight of a cute, wet, pitiful boy and a cute, wet, pitiful dog does something to Minghao’s heart. He hurries off the couch and snatches towels from the cupboard. First priority is wrapping Cha Cha so she can’t escape, second priority is wrapping Mingyu so he doesn’t drip all over the floor.

 

Two towels aren’t enough. They shuffle into the bathroom as a three-headed beast, with Minghao carrying the dog and trying not to laugh as Mingyu takes deep, shuddering breaths.

 

“Did you get caught in the rain?” Minghao coos to Cha Cha as he rubs down her fur. “Did Mingyu forget to check the weather before he left?”

 

“Not my fault,” Mingyu says through gritted teeth. “It was sunny—before!”

 

Cha Cha decides she is dry and wiggles away from Minghao’s towel-hands. She pushes the door so vigorously on her way out that it bounces off the cupboard and slams shut behind her, leaving the two humans alone, crouched in a burgeoning puddle on the tile.

 

Mingyu gives the door a very mournful look. “She hates me now.”

 

“No she doesn’t.” Minghao flips the towel to the dryer side and beckons Mingyu over. “Come here, you’re still soaking wet.”

 

He’s a little surprised by how quickly Mingyu moves closer. Wet hair dripping in his eyes, he lowers himself to lean on the bathtub and extend his neck toward Minghao in an expression of absolute trust. Harsh goosebumps are raised along his arms. The intimacy of their positions is quick and unexpected.

 

Minghao takes his time. He folds the towel softly around Mingyu’s hair and rubs gently, tenderly, trying not to be harsh against his skull. He’s never done this before. Droplets race down Mingyu’s neck, below his ears, over his forehead, and Minghao sweeps everything away. He loses track of time for a minute. The movements are peaceful and soothing.

 

When Minghao snaps back to himself, Mingyu’s hair is dry and his cheek is leaning on his own arm, eyes closed. As if he drifted off underneath Minghao’s warm ministrations. 

 

Their bodies are curved toward one another like parenthesis, like the mornings Minghao wakes up with his nose almost against Mingyu’s chest by accident. They’re in each other’s space and he’s horrified to discover that he likes it.

 

Mingyu shatters the moment by blurting out, “Hey, are we friends?”

 

Minghao sits back. “What?”

 

“Nevermind, that was stupid.”

 

Opening his eyes slowly, Mingyu moves to stand. His head is lowered in sensitivity or regret, it’s unclear. Minghao is faster. He doesn’t really think about it, just reacts, and shoves Mingyu with an open palm against his chest so he falls back on his butt. Mingyu huffs a disgruntled hey!

 

“Of course we’re friends,” Minghao mumbles. “Stupid.”

 

He understands why Mingyu asked. Relationships aren’t a given. Their fake relationship gets psychoanalyzed in every way, but he shies away from thinking about their literal day-to-day lives because the situation is too complicated. But fine, they’re friends now. Officially. People who share beds, meals, and inside jokes are probably automatically friends.

 

“Oh,” is what Mingyu says. His face goes slack. “Cool. I was just checking. It’s hard to tell ‘cause you’re emotionally stunted sometimes.”

 

“Fuck you too.” Minghao wraps the towel into a whip and snaps it at Mingyu’s abdomen. “Next time dry your own hair.”

 

“Noooo, we’re friends. You can help dry my hair. That’s what friends do.”

 

This is how all their arguments start—Mingyu loading a gun, Minghao plucking it from his fingers and shooting at the sky—so he falls into the familiar bickering rhythm quickly. He opens the door and wanders into the living room, calling over one shoulder, “Then I don’t wanna be friends anymore.”

 

“Technically you’re my employer!” Mingyu yells back.

 

“I hope you get frostbite.”

 

“It’s April.” The door slams closed and the yelling continues, now muffled. “But I’m taking a hot shower. Can you feed Cha Cha?” 

 

Minghao’s hand is already in the cupboard rooting around for her bag of kibble. He smiles. “Yeah, yeah. I’ll do your chores.”

 

A sweet thank youuuuu is what he gets in response. The water turns on. Minghao feeds their excited puppy. He remembers at the last second that her veterinarian appointment is coming up tomorrow—he’d told Mingyu he would be there, even though it wasn’t really necessary, because he was interested in learning the exercises, too.

 

Minghao likes having responsibilities that don’t revolve around his job sometimes. To make sure they don’t forget, he scribbles a reminder on a post-it note and sticks it to the fridge. Then he digs out a pint of pistachio ice cream and settles on the couch. Tea and ice cream? Doesn’t get much better than this.

 

He looks at the book—he really, honestly does—but can’t pick it back up. Instead he opens his laptop to watch an episode of the Chinese drama he’s been catching up on.

 

Junhui recommended it in a 3am text vomit last weekend which started with xiao hao watch this clip NOW OH MY GOOOOD THIS SHOW!!! and ended with ok ok ok we’ll discuss more at the dinner btw I reserved your seats!!! 6pm next friday pls don’t be late!!

 

Since then Minghao has binged seven episodes and can’t slow down.

 

Mingyu emerges from the shower in a fluffy sweater and long sweatpants, steam trailing his feet and skin pink from the water. Somehow he’s still shivering. He lumbers over and collapses next to Minghao, making the couch springs squeak. Cold knees are shoved into Minghao’s side.

 

Mingyu’s goddamn ridiculous proportions take up 80% of the cushions. When he relaxes, he groans pathetically and covers his face with sweater paws. 

 

“I’m still cold,” he says. It’s so bitter that Minghao almost laughs. Almost.

 

“Get a blanket.”

 

“Too lazy.”

 

Minghao pauses the show. He can’t focus when Mingyu is acting like an attention-seeking baby. Dealing with that behavior makes him impatient and curt, usually, but he’s trying to be more generous. So he fetches the duvet from their bed and throws it on Mingyu’s face.

 

Repositioning himself in the couch corner, Minghao presses play. “There, you baby.”

 

He doesn’t look over to see Mingyu’s reaction. He doesn’t. But after several shuffling noises, two cold feet press against his thighs. 

 

Mingyu mumbles, “Thanks.”

 

Minghao shoves the feet away.




 

 

On Tuesday morning, Minghao wakes up in a funk. 

 

He can’t put a finger on what’s wrong. He feels okay. A little off his game, a bit tired. His body doesn’t want to move. He gets out of the shower, dries himself off, and realizes he completely forgot to wash his hair. Then trips over the carpet.

 

While watering the plants, he spills on the couch. A dead fly in the sink makes him teary. On the bus he loses his balance twice and nearly knocks over a little girl who flees to hide in her father’s jacket. Minghao mouths an apology. 

 

What’s wrong with him? Did he walk under a ladder yesterday without noticing? Break a mirror? When he was younger, his mother teased him for being too superstitious. Minghao grew out of hiding from white cats and anything in increments of four. But now he can’t help thinking there’s a sinister explanation.

 

He can’t focus on the music he’s listening to. Everything feels like he’s living behind a glass window, looking out at a distorted and inaccessible world just beyond reach.

 

The office is chaos. 

 

First of all, the lights in the elevator are flickering like an EDM rave. One of the editors slams into Minghao in the hallway, carting her laptop above her head and… is she praying? Loudly, running down the hallway, asking God to save her computer.

 

What a strange day already.

 

Then he sees Jeonghan and Joshua clustered around the coffee machine trading whispers and covert glances. This wouldn’t be out of the ordinary, except Joshua never stops by on Tuesdays, only Thursdays and Fridays.

 

Minghao is glad to see him. He waves as he’s passing by, on a mission to drop off his packed lunch in the fridge. He stole one of Mingyu’s leftover fried fish this morning without asking, but they’d come home from the vet last night and he made six so there’s no reason to feel guilty. Who needs six fried fish? Not Kim Mingyu.

 

Jeonghan waves him over.

 

“What’s up?” Minghao joins them above the coffee machine. It clicks and whirrs and spits out a dark, metallic substance that definitely isn’t coffee.

 

“I broke the machine,” Joshua confesses. “We’re trying to fix it.”

 

Jeonghan is not trying to fix it. Jeonghan is holding a plastic spoon and sniffing the concoction with barely-concealed curiosity. “Mercury’s in retrograde,” he says, as if that explains everything. “What do you think would happen to Seungcheol if he drank this?”

 

Joshua removes the spoon and mug from his hands and passes both to Minghao. “Let’s not find out. I’ll end up in jail for homicide.”

 

“I’d make a fine widow.”

 

“Marry me first.”

 

Minghao turns his laugh into a polite cough and goes to clean out the mug. He can tell Joshua feels genuinely guilty and Jeonghan is just screwing around to make him relax. Their relationship—at least the fleeting glimpses he’s seen—is odd but sweet. Like two prowling jaguars teaming up for a hunt.

 

When he’s finished, Minghao sets the mug to dry and claps Joshua on the shoulder. “We can just pool our money and buy a better one.”

 

“No, I’ll get it. It’s my fault.” Joshua rubs out a wrinkle in his forehead. “We’re getting paid upfront for the gig next week, is it okay to wait until then?”

 

“I’ll spot you,” Minghao offers. 

 

I’ll spot you,” Jeonghan argues.

 

They exchange a delighted glance. “We’ll both spot you,” Jeonghan decides. “I want to pick the model, anyway. Myungho, if you’re free we can go now? There’s a department store on the next block.”

 

He’s about to agree, but the door to the break room opens before he can. Seungcheol sticks his head in. He’s not smiling, which is rare for Seungcheol, and he’s looking straight at Minghao, which is even rarer.

 

“Hey,” he calls. “Myungho, can I speak to you for a minute?”

 

“Of course.”

 

Naturally Minghao’s first thought is that he’s been caught. The gig is up. Someone called Seventeen magazine and left an anonymous tip that their newest foreign photographer is in the country via fraudulent marriage currently under investigation by the federal government, and now his life is over. 

 

Of course that’s not the case. But his palms are sweaty when he sits in front of Seungcheol in the stiff plastic chair usually reserved for clients. There’s a layer of dust on the shelves and the ferns are starting to droop. He hasn’t spent much time in this office since his arrival—or with Seungcheol one-on-one, outside of design meetings—so the aura is disconcerting.

 

Minghao smooths his shirt and smiles.

 

“Is something wrong?” He asks after Seungcheol has been typing away for several seconds.

 

“No, no.” Seungcheol slaps his laptop closed. “Sorry. This is your belated month four check-in. We do them three times a year, I should’ve made that clear.” He smiles. “You’re actually up for a raise.”

 

The words are almost foreign against Minghao’s ears, despite months of professional work. He removes his glasses and rubs them against his shirt. When they’re replaced, he still needs to blink several times. “Really?”

 

“I wanted to be the first to congratulate you. The board approved your hire, and your salary will increase by 5% starting next pay period.”

 

“Wow. Thank you! I’m happy to hear that.”

 

Seventeen magazine has been an overwhelmingly positive experience for him. The people he’s met—Seungcheol, Jeonghan, Sehun, the various interns and lighting assistants and editors, even Joshua—have all made him feel welcomed into this company and, more broadly, this country. Minghao is grateful.

 

But his boss isn’t finished yet.

 

“That being said.” Seungcheol leans back in his chair and sighs. “I’m obligated to tell you about the complaints we received in the last quarter.”

 

“Complaints?” Minghao’s mouth goes dry.

 

“An HR representative asked me to pass this along. There have been complaints…” Here Seungcheol looks distinctly uncomfortable. “About you speaking Mandarin in the office and studio. It’s viewed as aggressive and polarizing to some of the employees.”

 

The words settle heavily across Minghao’s shoulders. Someone complained about him speaking his native language at work? Immediately, he knows that person is overreacting. He can count the number of times he’s spoken Mandarin in this building on one hand. Who would care enough to be bothered? The last time was probably the unexpected phone call with his mom a few weeks ago.

 

Of course. The interns. They had given him such strange looks. Minghao chocked it up to surprise, but the truth might be more sinister. He remembers how sweet they’d been, how soft-spoken.

 

Minghao knows this isn’t right. For once, he’s not blaming himself, because this wasn’t a mistake. Indignation bubbles hot in his chest. There are no proper words to defend himself. He can’t promise to never speak Mandarin at work ever again. That would be ridiculous and unfair. 

 

The heartbreak must be obvious on his face because Seungcheol continues, “I want you to know it’s my personal and professional opinion that those complaints are bullshit. Your work brings a unique perspective and cultural diversity to Seventeen. You’re an asset to have here. Don’t take this too hard, I wouldn’t even be telling you if HR didn’t require an acknowledgement.”

 

Minghao swallows. “Thank you, I appreciate that.” Though it does nothing to change what happened. He laces his fingers in his lap. “Is this considered a warning?”

 

“Unfortunately, yes.” 

 

“I understand.”

 

The whole day passes in a blur. Minghao knows why he woke up feeling unsettled—his body somehow predicted this and braced for impact.

 

He edits, he knows he does, but the photos slide across the screen in quilts of fuzzy pixels. Nothing in focus. He keeps thinking back to that phone call, the tension in his voice as he worried about his mom. The startled looks on the interns’ faces. How could he have handled that situation differently? He couldn’t have. It wasn’t his fault. It was just unfair.

 

After how much he’s worked to integrate—after everything he’s done—

 

This is too hard. He wants to go home. Minghao knows the cultural adjustment process like the back of his hand, has studied the psychology charts during late-night Google sessions and memorized the timeline. Progress isn’t a straight line. But knowing that you’re living through a dip in a chart doesn’t make it less real.

 

And he doesn’t want to do this anymore.

 

All the stupid textbook feelings are hard to step back from and work through when he feels them. Up close and personal, all tangled together like the ugly roots of an ancient, carnivorous tree splitting his heart through the center.

 

Frustration. Homesickness. Anxiety. He’s uncomfortable and lonely and exhausted someplace deep, deep down in his soul which should be soft but right now is just empty. If he’s honest with himself, he knows he’s been struggling for longer. Since before he came to Seoul. Before, when Junhui left him behind with only a half-hearted dream and a half-hearted boyfriend and a camera—

 

No. He can’t think about the past when he’s hardly getting through the present.

 

Mingyu called him emotionally stunted yesterday. Maybe he is. 

 

Minghao doesn’t really wake up until he’s shoving a key into the door and Cha Cha is descending on his boots with unharnessed excitement. He kneels to greet her. “Hi, puppy. How are you?”

 

She’s restless. He can tell immediately; it takes a few full-body pats to calm her excited barking and even then, she’s a wiggling tornado across the room. Minghao still feels numb. He slides from his knees to his butt, then his side, until he’s lying on his back in the entrance to the apartment with Cha Cha doing leaping jumps over his chest.

 

The carpet is soft against his hair. Minghao closes his eyes. 

 

Aggressive and polarizing. Emotionally stunted. This is our new Chinese photographer, everyone say ni hao!

 

“She’s been an absolute menace,” comes Mingyu’s loud voice from the kitchen. There’s the sound of footsteps which stop abruptly. Cha Cha licks Minghao’s ear and he doesn’t bother pushing her away. 

 

Mingyu continues. “Uh, you okay?”

 

“Fine,” Minghao replies reflexively, then decides he doesn’t give a shit. “Not fine. But I don’t really wanna talk about it.”


“Okay.” A foot prods Minghao’s side and when he opens his eyes, Mingyu is extending a hand towards his face. “Then come here. I have to show you something.”

 

There is nothing in Minghao that particularly feels like moving. He’s comfortable, and unhappy, and would be content to sink through this carpet and dissolve into the ground for the foreseeable future. But Cha Cha is pawing at his shoulder now, frustrated at the lack of attention she’s receiving, and that feels like foreshadowing. Puppies don’t like to be ignored.

 

So he accepts Mingyu’s offered hand and stands up. Mingyu is wearing the pink apron. Blue marker stains climb up his forearms, suggesting another arts and crafts day at school. Upon closer inspection, Cha Cha has similar doodles on her collar.

 

“How was your day?” Minghao flicks dog fur off his nice black jeans.

 

“Not bad.” Mingyu leads him into the kitchen. “We had an early release day for the primary students.”

 

Something smells… amazing. Like vinegar and citrus and sesame oil. Like his grandmother’s tiny house with the tin roof and single-hinged wooden doors. The smell is so familiar to Minghao that at first he didn’t clock it—but now he takes a deep breath and steps into the kitchen in confusion. Why does it smell like Chinese food?

 

The kitchen is a mismatched conglomeration of colorful plates. What looks like handmade pork dumplings and shumai are stacked on one side, arranged exactly how he’d done for Junhui. The other side of the counter is a happy mix of broccoli in brown sauce, rice, and mapo tofu. An eclectic mix of cuisine.

 

Mingyu is watching him with an expectant, hopeful face. He’s leaning casually against the fridge, arms crossed over his chest, lips twitching into a smile. He looks like he wants to explode, but he’s patient enough to wait for Minghao’s reaction.

 

The trouble is Minghao’s on the verge of tears.

 

There are no thoughts in his head, only a surrender into shock. He can’t understand what he’s looking at.

 

“How did you make this?” Minghao hears his own voice emerge low and thick.

 

“I mostly copied what you did last month! Except the tofu. I found a recipe online, so I dunno how authentic it is.”

 

Minghao tries to say something—anything—but he’s afraid if he speaks again he might shatter.

 

Luckily Mingyu’s always been a rambler. He starts fiddling with the dishes and explaining his cooking process, gesturing to the stack of pans on the burner and the splashes of oil around the steamer.

 

“I guess it’s a good thing I made this today,” he muses, poking a dumpling with chopsticks to test its plasticity. “Since you never eat when you’re stressed.”

 

“How did you know— “ Minghao’s throat closes.

 

He turns his face away from Mingyu and buries his head in his arms. Fuck. He doesn’t want to break down in the kitchen over some stupid dumplings.

 

Suppressed tears swell in his eyes. Minghao takes a shuddering breath, then another, but. Everything smells right. Fuck. He’s crying.

 

“Whoa, whoa, are you okay? Shit. No, you don’t have to talk about it, sorry.” Mingyu’s voice comes from in front of him, like he ducked around Minghao’s body to be face-to-face despite the effort to hide. “I—what do you need?”

 

But Minghao doesn’t know what he needs. He wants to be alone. He wants to go home. He wants to eat the dumplings and hug the dog and cry into Junhui’s shoulder, but he can’t have all those things at once.

 

So he doesn’t say anything, just shakes his head and hopes Mingyu gets the message. This is the second time he’s cried in front of him and it feels no better than the first. Minghao’s throat is just as raw—this time from stifling tremors instead of drinking honey.

 

For a long moment, he thinks Mingyu will do nothing. That he’s alone. That he should squeeze his shoulders together tighter, compress himself smaller—and he does—so that he won’t make a mess.

 

Mingyu steps forward and hugs him.

 

“It’s okay,” Mingyu says. One gentle arm curves around Minghao’s waist and the other presses into the back of his neck. He guides Minghao’s covered face into his shoulder. “You can cry. It’s okay.”

 

Then he stops talking and just holds Minghao. Tightly. 

 

So Minghao cries.

 

When the clouds clear, several minutes or several decades later, he’s left with simple and straightforward feelings. First, shame. But deeper than that, wider than that—catharsis.

 

Minghao wipes his eyes on his sleeves. They feel puffy and inflamed. He probably looks like a drowned rat at a funeral. He slides out of Mingyu’s hold, ducks his head to avoid eye contact. Sniffles.

 

An apology is on the tip of his tongue. But he’s not sure what exactly he’s apologizing for, and saying sorry might make this even more humiliating, so Minghao just mumbles, “Um, your apron…”

 

It’s wet at the corner. So is Mingyu’s shirt underneath. He doesn’t seem bothered, just shrugs and shifts his weight, hesitant like for once he doesn’t know what to say. The vulnerability feels two-sided. Minghao is reminded of what he said about Mingyu weeks ago, that you could see his whole personality in his face, and he wasn’t wrong. His eyes are dark and gentle and cavernous right now.

 

“Don’t worry about it,” Mingyu says softly. He tries a little smile. “Do you want to judge my cooking?”

 

“Sure.” Minghao takes a deep breath.

 

He tries to describe how correct the smell is, how it plucked him from Seoul and deposited him in Anshan for a moment, but fails to speak. Mingyu hands him a pair of chopsticks.

 

Minghao samples a dumpling, a piece of broccoli, a shumai. They taste exactly like his own cooking from a few weeks ago. Salty. Rich. The flavor palette is authentic, if a bit under-seasoned. 

 

He wants to believe that Mingyu did this just to show off, just because he enjoys cooking and challenges. That’s probably most of his motivation. But part of Mingyu must have known how much this would mean to Minghao, how this action would be received. They’re past olive branches now. This is an act of affection and support. 

 

It’s overwhelming.

 

He meets Mingyu’s expectant eyes. Mingyu raises both eyebrows. “Well?”

 

“It’s really good.” Minghao swallows around the lump in his throat. His nose is still stuffy from crying and he has to stop and blow it before continuing to eat. “Like… really good.”

 

Mingyu makes a cute, surprised oh with his lips before breaking into a smile. He looks delighted, glittering under the compliment. How easy he is to please.

 

“I haven’t tried it yet,” he confesses, gingerly picking up a shumai with his fingers and popping it into his mouth. “Mmmffph. Yours were better.”

 

“I’ve had more practice.”

 

“Next time I’ll try making—what did you get from the restaurant last week? The shrimp?”

 

Minghao thinks back. They ordered takeout recently from one of his favorite local Chinese restaurants, a Fujian specialty spot. He’d eaten a huge bowl of salted shrimps before his fingers started aching from peeling stubborn shells, and Mingyu had praised the seasoning endlessly.

 

But he doesn’t know how to make those dishes. He barely knows how to make dim sum beyond pork dumplings, and it’s because his grandmother worked at a Cantonese restaurant for most of her life. 

 

“I’ll teach you how to make what I know,” Minghao offers. “If you want. Have you ever eaten catfish before?”

 

Mingyu’s eyes go round. “No, is it good?”

 

“My favorite. That and congee.”

 

“I’ve had congee before! It’s really good. Please teach me.”

 

Though Mingyu’s profession is teaching, he makes for an eager and whole-hearted student. Minghao finds himself answering question after question about delicacies in his hometown. They migrate to the table without really thinking about it, plates left empty on the counter. They just talk.

 

They aren’t arguing, they aren’t having a contrived and impersonal game of 20 questions, they aren’t making any lifestyle decisions. They’re just talking.

 

It’s a welcome distraction and does a lot to help Minghao feel back on his feet again after that embarrassing breakdown. Mingyu makes him promise to share his method of making tea eggs and stir-fried eggplant.

 

“I’m gonna take a shower,” Minghao says after an hour has passed of this low-stress chatting. “Just leave the dishes, I’ll do them after. And thanks.” He looks down at the table. “I really appreciate it.”

 

Mingyu has, intentionally or not, become the person who understands and accepts Minghao the most. 

 

And that’s very valuable.

 

Mingyu stands and fetches a tennis ball from beneath the couch. “No problem,” he says, and launches into a game of keep away with Cha Cha. Back to life as usual.




 

 

Things don’t change drastically after Minghao’s breakdown. Personally, he still feels humiliated that he let his emotions get the best of him, but Mingyu handled it well. Really well. The natural peace of mind that arises after crying is almost worth it.

 

So Minghao tip-toes around his husband for a day or two while Mingyu acts totally normal.

 

He feels clear-headed and quicker to laughter. On the phone with his parents, he teases about Anshan’s bad weather and isn’t haunted by an immediate shove of homesickness. They send photos of the neighborhood cats and their takeout lunches. His father has fully recovered, apparently, and that does even more to set his mind at ease.

 

The weekend passes. Minghao finishes binging the Chinese drama. He and Mingyu share dinners and argue about smoking with the door open, about painting at the dining table, about opening the bedroom window while they sleep. Mingyu says no, Minghao says yes. They take Cha Cha to the park together out of sheer boredom when Mingyu’s plans with his friends fall through. 

 

It’s peaceful and domestic and utterly normal.

 

Jeonghan finds out about the complaint, because Jeonghan finds out about everything. He calls Minghao into studio 1 after lunch on a Monday. He’s not shooting anything until the end of the week, so the stage is stripped bare, and their voices echo uncomfortably.

 

“Would you do me a favor?” Jeonghan is sprawled on an empty prop table with his laptop balanced in his lap. 

 

“Sure, what?”

 

The laptop is swiveled to face Minghao. “This entertainment blog wrote a long article about Seventeen in Mandarin. Give me the highlights?”

 

Minghao is put in the odd position of wanting to say no because he isn’t qualified but realizing he can’t turn Jeonghan down. No one else on their staff is Chinese. Almost no one else on their staff is foreign at all—except the very sweet girl in management from Indonesia who speaks Korean like an angel—so there’s no one else to translate. The article is about Jeonghan’s last spread, too. 

 

Reluctantly he sits on the prop table and adjusts the screen for glare. What if it’s a negative article? Minghao loathes being the bearer of bad news. Watching the excitement in someone’s eyes wither into disappointment is one of his least favorite things, he always takes it too personally.

 

Luckily, the article is complimentary. Seventeen magazine is the leading independent publication in Korea, but it has no international partners. This blog criticizes the international fashion world at large for not recognizing Seventeen’s distinct charm and flair for the dramatics.

 

Jeonghan’s work is praised. Specifically his mountain prairie-themed shoot with an elderly makeup artist looking to jump back into the game. He’d outlined the model's frame in gold sheets atop realistic bluegrass from a wide angle. Gorgeous and innovative.

 

Minghao can’t help but smile as he continues reading. He translates the big picture, then stumbles over more specific word-by-word quotations when Jeonghan presses for more information. Languages crest like waves against each other, swallowing and being swallowed, as he tries to tread between the two.

 

“Ah, that’s good to hear.” Jeonghan takes back the laptop. “Thanks for your help, Myungho.”

 

“No problem.” He’s got a spacey sort of headache now, but also a sense of accomplishment. “Call me if you find another article.”

 

And somehow, by the end of the day, everyone has heard the news. Minghao overhears two of the editors discussing international revenue in the breakroom. An intern stops by the studio to thank him for promoting abroad—which he doesn’t—and only smiles when he denies the credit. Popping by Seungcheol’s office to drop off the annotated fall schedule results in a clap on the back.

 

“I’ll make sure the big boss hears about this,” Seungcheol says. “We can discuss potential PR moves at the next meeting. What do you know about advertisements on Weibo?”

 

“Absolutely nothing,” Minghao says desperately. “I think you have the wrong idea. I don’t know who wrote the article, I didn’t do anything, they were praising Jeonghan’s work.”

 

When Seungcheol smiles, both his dimples make a charming appearance. “You translated a valuable review that we otherwise wouldn’t have. That’s doing something.”

 

Well, when he puts it that way. Minghao shrugs. Happiness is a light in his chest that he carries all the way home. He should buy Jeonghan a gift. One tentative translation job and everyone’s extra pleased with him—and all thanks to Jeonghan’s excessive searching of his own name on the internet.

 

Maybe Minghao will make him a personalized painting. Something crimson and delicate.

 

The thought absorbs him until he’s climbing into bed behind Mingyu, not paying attention, and they accidentally knock heads. Hard. Mingyu crumples into the sheets. 

 

“Oww,” he moans.

 

“Fuck.” Minghao’s hands shoot out to cradle his skull. “Sorry, sorry! Are you okay?”

 

He sits up and pats around on Mingyu’s head, feeling for a bump. Look where distraction has gotten them. Injuring Mingyu in their own bed—and not even in a kinky way. Minghao feels awful.

 

Mingyu buries his face in the pillow. “Yeah.”

 

“Sorry.” Minghao retracts his hands and gets under the covers. He stays on the far end of the bed, where he normally lies, but this time he scoots forward so far his knees jut over the edge. He’s embarrassed.

 

A lazy hand emerges from the lump that is Mingyu and pats Minghao’s shoulder consolingly. “No worries,” he slurs, already half-asleep.

 

Minghao waits a few moments. A neighbor’s heater hums through the wall. Across the street, a nightingale—or several—make their song known. The smell of smoked salmon clings to discarded shirts in the hamper. When he hears Mingyu’s breathing fall even and quiet, Minghao rolls over.

 

He leans forward and arranges himself on the pillow so he’s a breath away from Mingyu’s neck. Close enough to relax in the warmth from his body but not close enough to touch him or wake him. Maybe it’s creepy. Maybe it’s breaching privacy.

 

But if Mingyu gets to have subconscious morning cuddles sometimes, then Minghao gets to have tender nighttime almost-cuddles sometimes. It’s only fair. He takes charge of intimacy in stolen moments, where he can close his eyes and not justify this to anyone else, not even himself.




 

 

 

After dinner the following Thursday, Mingyu’s voice comes urgently from the bedroom.

 

“What should I wear tomorrow?”

 

“For what?” Minghao scrubs a stubborn red pepper flake from the bowl. 

 

He’s halfway through dishes and Cha Cha can sense it—she’s lying at his feet impatiently, tail wagging every time he glances down. It’s almost time for her walk. 

 

Mingyu stomps into view, shirtless and disgruntled. “The fundraiser. Did you forget?”

 

“Well don’t go naked.” Minghao flicks water at him and tries not to laugh.

 

Because I definitely can’t stop people from hitting on you with that chest.

 

He hasn’t forgotten the fundraiser. How can he when Junhui sends about 30 excited texts every hour? Minghao already picked out what to wear. 

 

It might be a trick of the light, but Mingyu seems to blush all the way down his shoulders. He puffs out his chest a bit and lifts his nose into a smug angle. It makes for an interesting mix of shy and narcissistic. “Seriously, though. I need fashion advice.”

 

Minghao’s interest is already piqued. He has his husband’s wardrobe memorized by now and has, on slow days, envisioned what he would change if Mingyu fell and hit his head and relinquished all control of his life to Minghao.

 

Quite a few things, he’d change. First to go would be that one ugly sweater vest. Anyway. The fundraiser is a semi-formal event, ties mandatory, so Mingyu doesn’t have many options. The decision should be easy.

 

Minghao dries his hands on a towel. He exchanges a long-suffering look with the dog. “You’re gonna have to wait. Your dad’s having a crisis.”

 

“It’s not a crisis.” Mingyu dramatically throws open the bedroom door. “You make it sound like I’m experimenting with my sexuality or something. It’s just clothes.” He sighs. “They don’t look right. Nothing looks right.”

 

The statement is punctuated by Mingyu faceplanting into the unmade bed, where a pile of shirts is stacked neatly at the foot, suggesting that he’s been on this quest for at least half an hour.

 

It takes Minghao approximately thirty seconds to solve the problem. He plucks an oversized white button down from his own closet—a true act of trust, lending one of his own shirts—and an ash blazer from the bed stack. Both are tossed haphazardly over Mingyu’s bare back.

 

“There,” Minghao says. 

 

Except that leaves him hovering awkwardly behind Mingyu, who is ass-up on their bed with his face buried in the pillows, and for some reason Minghao is having trouble walking back to the kitchen.

 

Dimples are placed evenly at the bottom of his spine. A pleasant swell delineates his thighs. His ass—no, no staring at his ass. Too far. But—

 

Maybe he should’ve sabotaged Mingyu. Given him something godawful to wear and sworn it’s the latest trend. Just so no one will look, admire, interfere. Not that Minghao would be jealous. It would simply make their arrangement uncomfortable if someone got the wrong idea. He was lucky nothing happened in that regard at the bar, no need to push his luck. 

 

But the temptation of having a life-sized Ken doll for a night, especially one as attractive as Mingyu, is too good to pass up. Minghao loves that shit. He’ll dress him well and be proud of the result.

 

Mingyu rolls over and catches him staring. “Thanks, babe.”

 

Minghao walks away. “You know you don’t have to call me that when no one else is around.”

 

“It’s a bad habit.”

 

At that moment Minghao’s phone vibrates. He almost doesn’t bother checking—Junhui is so annoying when he’s excited—but the message isn’t from Junhui.

 

From: Yoon Jeonghan

is your sexy husband free next fri?

let’s get barbecue 

 

Stupid Jeonghan and his stupid nicknames. ‘Sexy husband,’ if only he knew. Minghao rushes through the last few utensils and sets everything out to dry, then sticks his head back into the bedroom.

 

He’s expecting Mingyu to be properly dressed, but instead he’s standing in his underwear in front of the closet with both hands fisted on his hips. His tongue is peeking out in concentration.

 

“Are you still okay with getting dinner with my coworker and his partner? They want to go next week.”

 

Mingyu looks over one shoulder. He needs a haircut soon, his bangs are falling in his eyes. “Yeah, it’s only fair. You came to my birthday party.”

 

“But you’re coming to Junhui’s fundraiser. So that’s two favors for me.”

 

Not to mention the food that Mingyu cooked for him. For them, whatever. Minghao is starting to feel like he’s losing the upper hand. He likes being in control, thanks very much.

 

Mingyu just shrugs and looks back at the closet. “Junhui’s my friend, too. And we don’t have to pretend in front of him. It’s less work.”

 

Well that’s a solid point. Minghao leans against the doorframe. “Except there’s gonna be hundreds of people there we do have to pretend for.”

 

“But they’re strangers! Way easier.” Mingyu pulls out a pair of burgundy slacks. “Would these be too radical with the shirt and blazer?”

 

“Jesus, yes, what’s wrong with you.” Minghao throws the offending pants at the hamper. 

 

It doesn’t occur to him that Mingyu’s joking until he laughs, low and delighted, and Minghao’s stomach swoops at the sound. Oh. 

 

He picks out respectable gray slacks from the bottom of the drawer that match the blazer. They’re a touch high-waisted, which is as cutting edge as Mingyu’s fashion gets, so Minghao is satisfied. If he can get away with it, he’ll suggest a black tie with delicate white lace down the middle seam from his own closet. Subverting Mingyu’s in-your-face masculine energy would be the cherry on top, artistically speaking. 

 

His phone buzzes again, but this time it is Junhui.

 

From: Junhui

hey you remember luhan right
well don’t hate me tomorrow

bc I met my luhan
soooo, sorry in advance

 

Minghao's heart comes to a full and complete stop.

 

What the fuck. What the fuck.

 

Luhan is his ex from three years ago. The one who totaled his car, the one who cheated, the one who broke his heart.

 

Years ago, an older breakdancer had approached Junhui at a competition down south on a sticky summer night. Luhan was older, tougher, louder, hipper, dressed in an oversized navy blazer and fake specs. One glance, he spared for Junhui’s little shadow. One glance and that’s all it took—Xu Minghao went to his knees. 

 

Their relationship was obsessive, punctuated by dramatic late night phone calls and smashed roses. Minghao spent every weekend in Luhan’s bed, spilling dark whiskey on his white sheets, sweating, thinking of getting a tattoo of their names intertwined.

 

He wrapped his heart in gold tinsel and presented it on a chipped platter. Luhan ate with his bare hands.

 

Minghao doesn’t think of Luhan often anymore. Their final breakup was catastrophic and right after Junhui left for Korea. Minghao picked up the pieces of himself slowly, slicing his fingertips, dreaming of love lost. He rebuilt himself with thorns and left no ruins except the tiny window where his bleeding heart could be seen hoping, yearning, waiting. Chewed up.

 

Needless to say it’s a shock to read the name Luhan in Junhui’s message. Why would he bring him up? What's he talking about, found his own Luhan? That sounds like a fucking nightmare. Their relationship was defined by a power imbalance and sexual experimentation. Is this a cry for help? 

 

Cold dread coagulates in Minghao’s stomach. He strides out of the bedroom rather abruptly. When he calls Junhui, there’s no answer.

 

Calls again. No answer.

 

He’ll have to wait for an explanation tomorrow. Fine.

 

While walking the dog, Minghao blasts a Jess Benko song on repeat and daydreams about the upcoming fall spread to distract himself from worrying into a spiral about the past. How funny would it be if he could get Mingyu into the studio as a model? It would never happen, and it’s too unprofessional to even try, but the thought is amusing.

 

A photographer and his model husband. They would sound like a proper rom-com at that point, right? 

 

No way. He’d sooner ask Hansol anyway. 






 

 

Finding a reputable florist in a major city should not be difficult. If you ask Minghao, it should be very, very easy.

 

Alas. This is his second try—a shop which advertised itself as a florist online but only sells singular dried roses—and it’s a bust. He’s standing in the middle of the sidewalk in downtown Seoul, a twenty minute trek from the Seventeen building, with no idea where to go next. Rush hour traffic is molasses on the road. High school students in wrinkled pants rush past, knocking against his elbows, desperate to get home before curfew. He remembers those days.

 

Worst of all, it’s not like he can call Junhui for help. He just knows Junhui is in the middle of his pre-show ritual (drinking three cups of lavender tea, one shot of whiskey) and won’t want to be disturbed.

 

So Minghao thumbs through his meager contact list. Mingyu probably doesn’t know where a florist would be. Seungcheol? No, that’s his boss. Jeonghan? Would sooner know how to locate the black market.

 

Joshua? Minghao’s thumb hovers over the contact before pressing call. He’s got nothing to lose.

 

“Hello? Myungho?”

 

“Hi, sorry to bother you.” Minghao moves off the main thoroughfare. Workers from the nearby industry buildings are just getting off work and adding to the mismatched, moving tide. He presses his back against the wall of a gray government building. “I have a minor emergency. Do you know where I can find a florist downtown?”

 

There’s a pause and some scratching noises over the line. Hopefully Joshua’s not too busy. Hopefully he hasn’t called at the wrong time and fucked their relationship forever, that would be awkward—

 

“Where are you right now?”

 

“Um.” Minghao squints at the street sign and sounds out the letters. He’s never heard of this area before, but he vaguely knows where he is. At least, he could backtrack to Seventeen. 

 

“Oh, that’s near Dahyun’s place. Hold on.” Joshua’s voice gets quieter, talking to someone he’s with. “Okay, if you take a right, there’s an Indian restaurant across from a bookstore, and—“ He curses in English. “Shit, sorry. I’m trying to do my eyeliner at the same time.”

 

The memory slams into Minghao. “Your gig! That’s tonight.”

 

“Yeah! We’re getting ready for soundcheck now, it’s at this stupid nice venue—wait, did you get the directions?”

 

“Take a right, Indian restaurant, bookstore. Is that it?”

 

“Perfect.” There’s muffled laughter and a clanging that sounds like bells. “I really have to go, sorry. But call me if you get lost.”

 

He’s marginally better off now, so Minghao thanks Joshua earnestly before hanging up. Following the pedestrian current in the right direction spits him onto a street corner with exactly what Joshua described. The buildings here are taller and made of predominantly glass, but tucked between a bookstore and a large bank is a tiny green door under an eave that reads FLORAL & FAUNA.

 

The arched doorway is draped in bougainvillea. A bell chimes three times when Minghao steps inside. He takes a deep breath and feels his whole body relax; it smells like he imagines a castle garden would at the height of spring.

 

Soft evening light trickles through layers of leaves. Plants hang from the ceiling, are stacked on shelves, conquer the floor. Flowers everywhere. 

 

“Hi, how can I help you?” A cheerful voice comes from a tucked-away corner where a cash register is balanced on a tome. An elderly lady with long silver hair smiles at him and bows politely. Around her neck hangs a gorgeous white dreamcatcher. 

 

“Do you have any—” Minghao bows back and realizes he doesn’t know the Korean word for orchid. Quickly he searches up a picture on his phone and flips the screen towards her. “Of these?”

 

“Orchid? Of course.” She shuffles toward the back shelves.

 

Minghao repeats the word and she corrects his pronunciation. After a few moments of sliding around vases, she emerges with a cluster of dusty orchids in water. They’re gorgeous. White as pearl on the outside, purple and blue on the inner folds. 

 

“Or-chid,” she repeats, bringing the vase towards the cash register. “Your accent is cute, where are you from?”

 

“China.” Minghao pulls out his wallet. “How much for a bouquet? Half a dozen? With a few of those, too, please.” He points to a display of baby’s breath.

 

All this walking made him sweat a little and he’ll have to shower before the fundraiser. Minghao just wants to get home and get ready. But the woman—her nametag reads Seohyun—is taking her time, punching things into the cash register. She names a price and he pays quickly. 

 

“My granddaughter recently moved to China,” Seohyun says as she’s wrapping the orchids. “She got married.”

 

Minghao smiles humorlessly. “Congratulations to her.”

 

The ring feels heavy on his finger suddenly. He thinks back to the first time he ventured out of the apartment and visited the art store, how long ago that feels in juxtaposition to this excursion. The question he’d asked himself then was, am I happy?

 

He thinks the answer is starting to be yes.

 

Minghao gathers the orchids in his arms and thanks Seohyun for her help. Walking out of the store, he has to pause and blink beneath golden hour’s strong sunlight. 

 

He has multiple friends in his back pocket. An apartment where he can sleep peacefully. A job where, though not everyone is friendly, he’s generally appreciated and challenged. He has Mingyu.

 

Mingyu, both his cheerleader and teammate. Mingyu, who makes him feel safe and forgives him for fucking up. Mingyu who isn't easy to get along with but who makes him laugh easily.

 

This isn’t an uncomplicated happiness. Progress isn’t a straight line. But Minghao knows he’s moving onwards and upwards—excelsior and all that. It’s a very satisfying realization to come to, and it puts a spring in his step on the way home.

 

The bus ride is full of strangers giving him shy, indulgent smiles. They must think the flowers are for him, based on the way he’s cradling them tightly, or maybe that he’s on his way to deliver them to a sweetheart. The truth is far from that, though Junhui is very sweet.

 

Minghao doesn’t beat Mingyu home but he does beat him in rock-paper-scissors to decide who showers first.

 

“Hurry up!” Mingyu pounds his fist against the door as soon as the water shuts off. “You know my hair takes longer.”

 

“Does not, you just can’t stop singing in the shower.”

 

“Rude.” His pout is audible.

 

They switch places. The evening is warm and slightly muggy, the sunlight from earlier overcome by a cloud cover that inspires lethargy. The window is open to tempt a breeze. Minghao could go for a nap. He tugs at his collar and checks his phone.

 

He’s still waiting for an explanation for those cryptic messages from last night. Why did Junhui reference Luhan so suddenly? Why did he make it seem like something bad’s going to happen tonight? He feels like he should warn Mingyu, but he’s not sure what to say.

 

Minghao calls Junhui but there’s no answer, again, so he finishes parting his hair straight down the middle. Bangs fall to each side, framing his eyes. 

 

He’ll have to go in blind. He shoves his phone into a pocket with his wallet and gives up. They need to leave soon if they’re going to be on time. He’s so distracted he doesn’t even give Mingyu a nasty look for bringing the smell of cigarettes into the apartment when he returns from a short stint on the balcony.

 

“You look nice,” Mingyu says.

 

Minghao looks up, a surprised thanks in his mouth. But he stops.

 

He already knows Mingyu cleans up nice. That’s old news. What’s new is seeing him wear clothes that Minghao specifically picked out, which makes his stomach flip in unexpected, primal satisfaction. With no real reason to feel proud, he feels proud. That’s his aesthetic pasted onto Mingyu’s god-like proportions. Even the silk and lace tie—especially the tie.

 

This is a similar feeling to what he gets in the studio sometimes. But different in a confusing way. More serious, more personal. 

 

“So do you,” Minghao says easily. “You’re welcome for the outfit, by the way.”

 

“I like the tie.” Mingyu tugs it. “I’m keeping it.”

 

“No you’re not.”

 

They get into the car and Minghao plugs the address into his GPS. It should be a short drive through the arts district.

 

Right after Mingyu turns his key in the lock, a phone rings. Mingyu curses and almost drops his phone into the crack between the seat. “It’s the lawyer.”

 

Minghao’s heart skips a beat. “Answer it!”

 

Mingyu taps the speakerphone button while he’s fumbling with his seatbelt. “Hello?”

 

“Hello, may I speak to Kim Mingyu?”

 

“Yes, speaking.”

 

“Hi Mingyu, this is Mr. Pyo. You and your husband have been scheduled for a second interview with the Immigration Bureau.”

 

A bubble of frustration pops in Minghao’s gut. He wants to argue, but the lawyer drones on with details—they’re required to attend the appointment in three weeks’ time, so make arrangements with work, bring copies of your documents, yadda yadda. Mr. Pyo reassures Mingyu this is a totally normal step of the procedure and most couples with short engagements participate.

 

Mingyu is clenching his jaw. It’s impossible to tell how upset he is by voice alone. “Great, thank you,” he says at the end of the call. “Yes, okay. Have a great night.”

 

He hangs up. They sit in screaming silence for a few seconds. Mingyu’s hands are tight on the wheel. “Fuck.”

 

“We’ll talk about it later,” Minghao says.

 

Mingyu releases a long sigh. When he blinks his eyelashes flutter like he’s rolling his eyes behind the lids. In a moment of sympathy Minghao squeezes his shoulder.

 

The gesture seems to help. Mingyu lifts his chin. He has a stunning profile, befitting of royalty, which is demonstrated very well in these sharp clothes. He squares his shoulders and puts on his game face.

 

Pulling out of the parking space, Mingyu says, “You’re right. That's a tomorrow problem.”

 

“Exactly.” Minghao smiles.

 

So they drive.

 

Junhui dances for the largest studio in Seoul. He and his team are the most popular members of their staff, the most talented, the most hard-working. Their classes get booked in minutes. They’re hired to perform for idols and foreigners alike. These are facts Minghao has either been told straight up, or gleaned through years of conversations with Junhui.

 

He’s still not ready for the scale of this banquet.

 

Mingyu looks surprised to see a valet service. He hands over the car keys and they exit in front of an enormous three-storey convention center with glass windows and sleek white pillars. It looks like the house of a billionaire actor who throws frequent X-rated parties, but also commissions Michelangelo on the side. 

 

“Whoa,” Minghao says. He’s a little nervous to enter.

 

“Whoa,” Mingyu agrees. A bright smile takes over his face. “It’s beautiful here. I didn’t know Junhui was this cool. Is he famous?”

 

“Please ask him that.” Minghao leads the way inside. “He’ll be so flattered.”

 

High ceilings and a thick burgundy rug welcome them into the foyer. The building is pearlescent, flawless, overwhelming. People of all shapes and sizes, dressed impeccably, flock around tables set with nametags spread before a large and spotlighted stage. A second story balcony reveals more seating, chairs with no tables, and a camera crew set up in the middle.

 

Mingyu points to the pillars on either side of the floor. “Look at that! Neoclassical architecture inside, too. It’s like a museum.”

 

The words are half-gibberish in Minghao’s ears. He looks at the pillars. Of course he doesn’t know how to say pillar in Korean, but those were a lot of words to describe a cylindrical block of stone. He raises an eyebrow at Mingyu.

 

“Sorry, it’s…” Mingyu hesitates, teeth scraping thoughtfully over his bottom lip. “A style of art for buildings that was popular in 18th century Europe.”

 

Oh. So Mingyu is just casually throwing out facts about architecture now? Cool. Minghao can hardly do that in his native language and he’s an artist for a living. He’s torn between feeling impressed and chagrined that he ever thought of Mingyu as nothing more than a dumb pretty boy. 

 

“What’s it called again?”

 

“Neoclassical architecture.” Mingyu pronounces the words carefully.

 

A woman wobbling in black heels passes too close for comfort, trying to squeeze through the crowd toward the front door. Minghao has to lean back to get out of her way and press the bouquet into his armpit. In doing so he bumps into Mingyu’s chest.

 

“Neo-classic-al.” Minghao repeats, stepping away, feeling warmth linger. “Architecture.”

 

Mingyu leans over to whisper in his ear, “Perfect. Now let’s head to the bar.”

 

Minghao bites back a smile and nods.

 

This place is nice. He feels nice, brushing shoulders with Mingyu as they slip through the crowd. Something about the ambient music and clinking glasses is larger than life. Like a fairytale where he and Mingyu are the unlikely heroes in dazzling outfits who draw the attention of everyone in their radius. In a way, isn’t this a ballroom?

 

Minghao is so busy romanticizing the room that he doesn’t look where he’s going. He sticks close to Mingyu’s back as they walk, but his elbow catches on a chair sharply. “Ah,” he mumbles, clutching the joint, eyes dropping from the chandeliers. 

 

The guy sitting in the chair looks up. “Oh my god, Seo Myungho.”

 

Minghao stops dead. “Jeonghan?”

 

He wants to laugh. What kind of fateful coincidence to see his favorite coworker here! Of all places, on the outskirts of the city at a fabulous venue. Jeonghan is holding his phone, wearing a gorgeous black-on-black suit with a red silk bow tie, but he stands with a smile. The seats at his table are empty. All nametags face away. 

 

Jeonghan raises both eyebrows. “What are you doing here?”

 

“I’m here for one of the dancers at the studio. What are you doing here—I thought Joshua had a gig?”

 

“Yeah. This. His band is opening.”

 

How serendipitous. Minghao is about to ask the name of his band, because Junhui surely mentioned that in one of his thousands of texts, but a presence at his shoulder stops him. He looks up. Mingyu is giving Jeonghan a neutral, polite look.

 

Oh, fuck. An unexpected test. They were going to meet Jeonghan next week anyway, but Minghao definitely would’ve appreciated an opportunity to warn Mingyu of Jeonghan’s more… mischievous ways.

 

Not to mention, if anyone would be able to sniff out their lies through sheer luck and force of will, it would be Yoon Jeonghan. Fooling Mingyu’s best friends in the world might be easier than fooling this man.

 

Thinking quickly, Minghao makes a big show of grabbing Mingyu’s hand and lacing their fingers together. They fit well. “This is my husband! Mingyu, meet my coworker Jeonghan.”

 

Mingyu glances down at their hands for a millisecond too long. When he catches his mistake he’s already smiling and extending his other hand. “Nice to meet you. I’ve heard a lot about you.”

 

Jeonghan shakes his hand. “The elusive sexy husband! It’s an honor.” His smile changes under the fluorescent lights, transfigures into something sharp as he looks at Minghao. “You weren’t lying. He has very pretty eyes.”

 

Minghao gives a nervous little ha ha ha. Right. He said that. And now it’s coming around to bite him in the ass in front of his very fake significant other.

 

Mingyu shrinks under the compliment. He looks wide-eyed between them, pleased and flustered. “I do?”

 

If only he didn’t respond to praise like that—fakely narcissistic in private and humble to a fault in public, posturing for the fun of it but thrown off by a single genuine compliment. He’s so unassuming. How terribly endearing. 

 

Minghao grips Mingyu’s hand hard enough to hurt, their bones scraping together, and tugs him backwards. He’s trying to send a signal that they should leave now. Before Jeonghan embarrasses him further.

 

“We were just headed to the bar.” Minghao says with a tight smile, inching away. “But you’re sitting here? I’ll swing by after the performance.”

 

“Yes, please do. Let’s surprise Joshua afterwards.” Jeonghan’s smile is devilish. His eyes are knowing.

 

“Okay.” Minghao starts walking, talking over his shoulder, grip firm on Mingyu’s warm hand. He would wave to seal the deal, but his other hand is busy clutching the flowers. “Good to see you!“

 

“See you later!” Mingyu adds. He turns around and jostles their shoulders together. “I like that guy.”

 

The crowd around the bar has thinned. They squeeze past a few more tables and situate themselves at the end, conquering two stools to wait for the bartender’s attention. Minghao doesn’t realize they’re still holding hands until Mingyu has to let go to take out his wallet. 

 

“It’s an open bar,” Minghao reminds him. “We just need to show our IDs.”

 

Mingyu casts his gaze to the heavens. “I love this place.”

 

They set down the flowers and each order a glass of wine—red for Minghao and rosé for Mingyu—to take a moment and observe the room of fanciful guests. On their mobile invitations, it says they’re seated at table 17, but Minghao hasn’t been paying attention to the table numbers at all. He hopes that’s reasonably close to Jeonghan. But not too close.

 

Suddenly Mingyu sets his glass down too hard and says in a desperate voice, “Minghao.”

 

Minghao’s heart stops dead in his chest. That’s an immediate red flag. Mingyu only calls him by his true name when they’re alone in the apartment; in public he’s Myungho or babe. Mingyu has never broken character before. 

 

He leans off his stool and grabs Mingyu’s arm like an anchor. “What?”

 

Mingyu is gripping the underside of the bar tightly with one hand. His eyes are laser-focused on a point across the room, but the sea of people ebbing and flowing obscure the view. What does he see? Minghao squints and cranes.

 

Pressing a fist to his mouth, Mingyu shakes his head. His eyes are bright with… fear? Anger?

 

“My ex is here,” he murmurs. “Wonwoo’s here. And he’s sitting at our table.”

 

“Oh shit.”

 

That can’t be a coincidence. Pieces start falling into place. Junhui’s cryptic messages, his premeditated apology. I found my Luhan. Was that Junhui’s way of saying he has feelings for Wonwoo?

 

But that doesn’t explain why the fuck he invited Wonwoo here without warning Minghao. Wonwoo is the one person who could potentially call their bluff. He’s the most dangerous person in Minghao’s life right now, someone he has every right to fear and avoid. Someone Mingyu does fear and avoid at times.

 

The crowd finally parts and there he is, sitting at an empty table. Handsome Wonwoo in glasses and a tie. He looks even better without the beanie.

 

Minghao steeples his fingers together and presses them to his forehead. He feels like screaming. This was supposed to be a fun and relaxing night out, a chance to see Junhui perform—which he hasn’t had in years—and now anxiety is climbing up his throat. They’ll need to act excruciatingly in love to fool Mingyu’s ex. Or would it be better to avoid the situation entirely and try to switch seats with someone? How does Mingyu want to handle this? 

 

Then he realizes Mingyu isn’t breathing.

 

He returns his grip to Mingyu’s arm. “Hey, it’s okay. We can figure something out.”

 

“It’s not okay.” Mingyu snaps back. “I have to spend several hours sitting between the guy I couldn’t commit to, ruining our friendship, and the guy I fake-married three weeks later. Plus we have to act like we’re in love, and that’s gonna be so uncomfortable for Wonwoo I would rather die. Like, Wen Junhui what the actual fuck—”

 

Minghao panics. He doesn’t know how to comfort a Mingyu on the verge of hyperventilation. He wraps his hand around the back of Mingyu’s neck and forces eye contact. The response is instant; he stops talking and relaxes into the hold.

 

They must paint an uncomfortable picture: two guys huddled close, speaking in intense half-whispers, Minghao the only thing holding Mingyu together. He doesn’t care. His ring presses sharply against the nape of Mingyu’s neck. People can stare all they want.

 

Minghao puts on a reassuring smile. “We don’t have to sit with him. We can walk out right now.”

 

Mingyu blinks and holds his breath for one, two, three, four… exhale. He leans back a little, creating space between them, and sets his eyes on the ceiling. His neck tilts back into Minghao’s hold, resting weight there. Exposing his throat. He still looks overwhelmed, but less so.

 

“We can’t leave. We already ran into your coworker.”

 

“Doesn’t matter.” It definitely does, Jeonghan will have questions if they leave unexpectedly and he knows when everyone is lying. “I’ll make up an excuse.”

 

“But you wanted to see Junhui dance.”

 

“I can watch him on YouTube whenever I want.”

 

“But you went out and bought flowers for this.” Mingyu’s face scrunches. He sits straight, covering Minghao’s hand with his own and moving it into his lap. Instead of letting go he laces their fingers together and clutches on. “Fuck, I don’t want to just leave. It feels like running away. Seeing Wonwoo isn’t that bad. We survive conferences together.”

 

Minghao shakes his head. He should’ve trusted his instincts. Junhui’s going to get a fucking earful after this. “I should’ve known this would happen. No, we didn’t sign up to deal with this. Whatever you want to do is fine, I’m behind you.”

 

“Did you know something was going on?” Mingyu’s voice raises with a pinch of betrayal.

 

“Not really? But Junhui sent a weird text yesterday ‘apologizing in advance.’ It has to be about this, I should’ve guessed.” Minghao stops talking before mentioning Luhan. That’s not a conversation he wants to have right now.

 

Mingyu doesn’t let go of his hand, but his grip loosens. Most of the crowd is settling down at their tables now. Appetizer service is scheduled to begin in five minutes. If they’re going to dip, they need to make a decision soon.

 

“I wish you would’ve told me,” Mingyu says. “We could’ve talked about it.”

 

Minghao’s first reaction is irritation. He didn’t know what was going on. Junhui’s the one at fault here! He thinks to move away and pull his hand back, hide in his own indignance—but stops. Shuts down the childish voice in his head calling for a snappy comeback. Forces himself to look at Mingyu. At the vulnerable set to his shoulders, the waver in his voice.

 

Mingyu is hurting. Does it matter how or why?

 

And maybe he has a point. Minghao did have a bad feeling about tonight. He’s not the one who set up the dominoes or knocked them over, but he knew when they left the apartment that shit would be going down and he didn’t think to warn Mingyu. He kept it that information inside, compartmentalized it, and moved independently like he always does. He’s responsible for that decision.

 

But it’s too late to change the past.

 

They’re left at an unhappy impasse. Minghao takes a long pull from his wine glass and shrugs. “What do you wanna do? It’s now or never.”

 

Mingyu looks forlornly at his own empty glass. “Well I can’t drive yet. I guess we have to stay.”

 

Minghao bites his lip. If he were in Mingyu’s place, he’d probably drive anyway. “I mean, you could still—”

 

“Not risking it.” Mingyu’s eyes dart around the room. They’re one of the last couples at the bar and they’ll need to take their seats soon. Table 17 is near the back in the middle, mostly full except for three empty spaces beside Wonwoo, who looks like he’s fiddling awkwardly with his phone. “Okay, we need a plan of action.”

 

Right. Mingyu needs to turn this into a project. Minghao separates their hands and holds out an open palm. “Give me your ring.”

 

“Huh?”

 

“We’re playing the same roles,” Minghao explains. “But Wonwoo doesn’t need to know we’re married, right? He hasn't seen the ring at work yet, so let’s pretend we’re dating. Casually. Just made it official last month or something. Plenty of time in between.”

 

Mingyu looks at the outstretched hand, the fingers curled like petals, and hesitates. He touches his ring and removes it slowly. Minghao understands—the ring hasn’t budged from his finger since the moment he put it on, mostly out of fear and an abundance of caution. Taking it off for any reason would feel weird.

 

But Mingyu obediently drops the ring into his open palm. Minghao fits it over his own right pointer finger. At too close an inspection, his jewelry looks strange and uneven. Not right. He’s too paranoid to let the ring ride free in a pocket or wallet, though, so his image will need to be sacrificed.

 

“Okay.” Mingyu’s eyes flick up. “Junhui’s at the table now. Let’s go?”

 

He holds out a hand. Minghao grabs him tight and squeezes once, twice. He fluffs the flowers and hoists the bouquet. “We’ve got this.”

 

Mingyu exhales forcefully. “Yeah.”

 

Shoulders squared, stomach a nervous bushel of butterflies, Minghao leads his husband towards the table. This will be endurable. People survive awkward run-ins with exes all the time, though avoiding that scenario is one of the few advantages of leaving home. This is just one guy who looks good in glasses.

 

Junhui looks up as they’re approaching. His eyes flicker to their joined hands, then up again at Minghao, and he smiles. “You’re here!” 

 

Junhui is rarely unprepared for a close-up and tonight is no exception—even his classy plaid tie has been ironed flat and wrinkle-free. His hair is a newly-dyed light brown and his suit a stunning white.

 

Only a trained eye would recognize the cracks in his cheerful exterior. Minghao’s spent years in Junhui’s orbit and can identify with one glance how he’s feeling: sheepish shoulders, cautious eyes, hyper hands drumming on the table. He knows exactly what he’s done by orchestrating this situation, and he’s worried about the consequences.

 

Awareness only makes Minghao angrier. 

 

“We made it,” he says. No smile. He hands over the bouquet of orchids.

 

Junhui was expecting that greeting, obviously. While Mingyu and Wonwoo exchange an awkward nod, he pats the table beside him and says, “Take a seat, the food’s coming soon. Wonwoo, this is my childhood friend—Myungho.”

 

Minghao and Wonwoo repeat the awkward nod-greeting. How much does Wonwoo know already? Lies are like spiderwebs in the air, linking Minghao to four different people in this room, and he clenches his fist under the table to release pent-up stress. Nails dig crescents into his soft palm.

 

They sit in heavy silence, surrounded by the happy murmurings of excited attendees, as a waitress arrives with bowls of salad. Mingyu stares at his bowl with determination. He looks… lost. Minghao unclenches his fist and snakes a hand between them, placing a palm reassuringly on Mingyu’s knee. There is little comfort to be found at this table. It’s the least he can offer.

 

Mingyu visibly draws a breath. His shoulders inch down from around his ears.

 

It’s Wonwoo who speaks first, looking at Mingyu. “How is your class pet project going? My students never shut up about the dog.”

 

“Cha Cha.” Mingyu’s eyes turn up at the corners as he holds back a shy smile. “She’s great.”

 

They exchange polite and deliberately distant small talk about school. Mingyu had mentioned they don’t see each other often, separated by almost an entire campus and the unwillingness to be alone together. The evidence is clear tonight. While they’re semi-distracted, Minghao takes the opportunity to speak quietly to Junhui under his breath.

 

Hopefully Wonwoo doesn’t understand Mandarin. Minghao launches forth with, “So why couldn’t you just tell me you invited my fake husband’s ex-boyfriend?”

 

“I thought you guys wouldn’t come.”

 

“Yeah, probably not.” Minghao stabs his salad with a fork. The lettuce makes a satisfying crunch. 

 

Junhui hasn’t touched his own salad. He folds and refolds the napkin in his lap. “I needed him to see you guys together. I needed him to know—” He struggles not to say Mingyu’s name and jerks his elbow towards Mingyu instead. “That he’s moved on.”

 

“So you can make a move.” Minghao confirms.

 

Because theoretically Mingyu’s moved on from his breakup with Wonwoo and is living a happy life with someone new. So Wonwoo should, too. That’s what Junhui is exploiting them to demonstrate.

 

This shouldn’t come as a surprise. Junhui has always been this way: ambitious and little cutthroat. It’s what made them friends in the first place, placing bets on who could run the track fastest after school, kicking dirt in each others’ eyes. Racing their parents’ cars a few years later, racing their own cars a few after that. It’s what propelled them across the ocean to chase twin dreams and ultimately what allowed them to succeed.

 

He and Junhui are made of the same moving parts, so Minghao does understand.

 

“Yes,” Junhui admits. His eyes are dark and he twirls an olive on his fork. “I’ve never felt this way before, Hao. He is to me what Luhan was to you.”

 

Minghao presses his mouth into a thin line.

 

The thing is, he understands. But he learned from Luhan. They both should’ve learned from that colossal fuck-up. Junhui wasn’t around to see the very end, how Minghao’s devotion led him to slaughter. He only heard about it secondhand. Minghao’s hand tightens thoughtlessly around Mingyu’s knee.

 

“I get that you’re using us as wingmen for your hookup,” he says through gritted teeth. “And for me, it’s not a big deal. But this situation is so uncomfortable for Mingyu, and he’s supposed to be your friend, too.”

 

Minghao realizes his mistake too late. Mingyu’s head shoots up at the sound of his name, destroying the fragile conversation about classes, and he’s looking between them now like a doe caught in the blaze of headlights. Startled and fearful. Tone had clearly carried through the language barrier—Minghao and Junhui were arguing. 

 

A waitress replaces their salad bowls with a grilled chicken entree. The tense moment simmers into silence. They’re just four guys caught in a complicated, emotional square of conflict. Minghao withdraws his hand from Mingyu’s knee, suddenly shy under the weight of everyone’s eyes. He chews his salad furiously and doesn’t look at Junhui.

 

Mingyu drops his phone and they all jump at the loud noise. 

 

Again, surprisingly, it’s Wonwoo who swoops in for a smooth rescue.

 

“What time does the band go on?” Wonwoo asks Junhui diplomatically, dabbing his mouth with a napkin.

 

“Should be twenty minutes.” Junhui’s voice is softer in Korean. He glances at his watch. “Right after dinner.”

 

Mingyu cuts his chicken into tiny pieces and cuts glances at Minghao. Those eyes have a weight against Minghao’s face, a warmth that he can’t reciprocate right now. He knows Mingyu wants to ask about the argument and the use of his name. Minghao just scoops the asparagus off his plate and deposits them on Mingyu’s.

 

“Thanks,” Mingyu says.

 

Gently Minghao jostles their elbows together. Hopefully the message is clear: later.

 

“Myungseo,” Wonwoo says. “What—”

 

“It’s Myungho,” he interrupts.

 

Seriously, the guy can’t even get his name right? From the corner of his eye, Minghao sees Junhui wince.

 

Yeah, that’s right. What did you expect to happen here, Wen Junhui?

 

Wonwoo has no reaction. He’s annoyingly hard to read. He corrects himself and continues smoothly. “Myungho, what do you do?”

 

“I’m a photographer.” Minghao finishes his chicken and stacks his cutlery neatly on the plate. His jaw aches a bit from chewing so vigorously. Let this dinner end soon. He just wants to watch Joshua, watch Junhui, and leave.

 

Mingyu jumps into the conversation with bright eyes. He’s a little too energetic, overcompensating for the mood like he’s prone to do. “Have you heard of Seventeen magazine? He runs one of their studios.”

 

“No,” Wonwoo says. Of course not. “But that sounds amazing.”

 

“Myungho’s very talented.” Junhui murmurs, looking at him with please forgive me eyes. Idiot’s asking the wrong person. 

 

But Minghao’s weak to Junhui—he always fucking has been—and he understands. He understands. He can’t stay angry the whole night regardless of how little he enjoys Wonwoo’s company. He takes a deep breath and resolves himself back to polite small talk.

 

“We have a great team,” he says. “Wonwoo, you teach sixth grade, right? How is that?”

 

“Exciting,” Wonwoo replies drily. “It’s the age where students figure out teachers aren’t infallible.”

 

Junhui laughs. Stars practically fall out of his eyes, it’s quite disgusting. They exchange curt descriptions of work until their plates are whisked away and the light dims. Minghao turns in his seat to better face the stage, where a woman in a gorgeous red dress introduces herself as Wendy and begins the ceremonies. 

 

“That’s my cue.” Junhui grabs the flowers and does a farewell salute to their corner of the table. “We’re up third, look for me in the white.”

 

“Break a leg,” Minghao says.

 

Wonwoo doesn’t say anything. He just exchanges a small smile with Junhui, a private and gentle thing. There could already be something more between them. It’s hard to tell. A weight presses into Minghao’s shoulder and he turns, startled, only to be cheek-to-cheek with Mingyu.

 

Mingyu is resting his chin on Minghao’s shoulder. He had to move his chair sideways to do it, but this position is perfect for whispers that won’t be overheard. His breath ghosts against Minghao’s cheek when he says, “Awkward level 1000. Kill me now.”

 

Wendy drones on about fundraising and the arts and charity organizations, etcetera. Minghao tilts his head closer to Mingyu. A thrill goes up his stomach like a single firework. Hair tickles his temple. 

 

“At least the worst is over,” he murmurs. 

 

Wendy steps aside to mountainous applause after announcing the opening band. 

 

She’s almost cut off by crashing cymbals. Curtains explode outward and a dozen blue and white spotlights scatter like confetti over the stage. Two men step forward holding a guitar while a short-haired girl sits behind a wicked set of drums. The main guitarist is immediately recognizable as Joshua in heavy eyeliner.

 

Minghao rubs his eyes. Twice for good measure. Joshua looks incredible —so good that he misses the first thirty seconds of the song because he’s craning backwards trying to get a glimpse of Jeonghan’s reaction to skintight leather pants. 

 

The song is good. Catchy and upbeat. But Minghao’s trying desperately to think if Joshua ever mentioned what type of music he makes. No. It’s Minghao’s fault entirely for assuming band meant acoustic singer-songwriter ballads, not… this. He sort of expected church music.

 

Mingyu rests his chin back on Minghao’s shoulder. This time he moves his chair closer, inaudible over the music, pressing his chest to Minghao’s back and taking his hand where it rests on his thigh. A jittery swell of emotions follows their fingers tangling together. This is the most contact they’ve had… maybe ever. Minghao’s breath catches.

 

“Wonwoo’s looking,” Mingyu says in his ear.

 

It takes everything in Minghao not to glance over and confirm that. Why would Wonwoo be paying attention to them instead of the band? But Mingyu has no reason to lie. Regardless, his touch is soothing, a tenderness in juxtaposition with the aggressive guitar solo at work onstage.

 

The band—whom Joshua reintroduces in between songs as The Twirling Daffodils—play five songs in total. For most of those Mingyu is pressed against him. When Joshua announces the last song, Mingyu detaches and moves his chair back to its original position.

 

The three bandmates dip into a low bow. Before the audience has stopped clapping, Minghao feels the heavy weight of a hand on his shoulder.

 

Jeonghan squeezes. He’s bent at the waist, courteous of those seated in the back, but his eyes are bright and excited. He must’ve run over before the final song even finished.

 

He grins. “What did you think?”

 

“They’re amazing,” Minghao says. “I like Joshua’s makeup.”

 

“Let’s go surprise him.” Jeonghan turns to Mingyu. “I’m stealing your husband now. Promise to return him in one piece.”

 

The comment is so off-hand, so dry and Jeonghan-like, that Minghao thinks nothing of it. He stands and rearranges his shirt, ready to follow his coworker backstage, and sees Mingyu’s face from the corner of his eye. 

 

Oops. Mingyu is staring wide-eyed at Wonwoo, who looks like he’s just been struck over the head with a frying pan. Husband.

 

Minghao thinks quickly. He stuffs his left hand in his pocket. “Ha ha ha,” he says, faking a laugh for the second time that night. “Ha ha. Funny.”

 

Hopefully that’s enough to diffuse the situation and throw Wonwoo off the trail. He grabs Jeonghan by the tricep and marches them both in a random direction. Startled, Jeonghan allows himself to be tugged like the caboose of a train towards the edge of the room. Minghao does not look back. He wants to. He doesn’t. 

 

Jeonghan’s eyes narrow but he doesn’t question the odd behavior, though he does shoot an inquisitive glance backwards at the table. He reverses their arms so he’s the one leading. The motion is familiar to him, practiced. Wendy begins speaking again, this time about the various charities sponsored by tonight’s funds.

 

“This way, there’s a backstage door.” Jeonghan points. “We have to hurry before the dancers go on.”

 

“Okay.” Minghao discreetly wipes a sweaty palm on his pants. He can only hope Mingyu is handling the situation. “Let’s go. Should I ask Joshua for his autograph?”

 

“Go for it.” Jeonghan snickers.

 

Jeonghan moves with certainty, as he always does, and the security guards allow them passage into a dark corridor after he flashes a yellow badge from his pocket. There are VIP passes at this event? Shouldn’t Minghao have one, too, as the guest of a performer? Maybe Junhui gave his to Wonwoo.

 

Meeting the band is a blur of shocked noises (Joshua), aggressive laughter (Jeonghan), slurping (the other members of the band, presumably dehydrated) and walkie-talkie commands (the staff). The dancers are nowhere to be seen in the cramped dressing room, though Minghao is forced to step over a pile of pointe shoes that must belong to the studio.

 

Joshua is delighted to see him. “Dude!” He pulls Minghao into a sideways hug. “This is so crazy. I never expected you to be here.”

 

“Me neither.” Minghao claps him on the shoulder. “Your music is amazing. Can I buy an album?”

 

Joshua lights up. He has a charming young face, but excitement tips him over the edge into innocence. Minghao wants to squish his cheeks and keep a copy in his pocket forever. 

 

“Of course!” He says. “We’re on most streaming platforms, I can send you a link.”

 

“Okay, later, gotta go.” Jeonghan pushes Minghao back by the shoulders. “Main event’s going on. Can’t miss the dancers. Bye, kid. Good job.”

 

The three of them exchange a confusing series of shouted farewells. Jeonghan relishes in the chaos and takes the opportunity to call Minghao a kid, too. Joshua laughs and blows his boyfriend an over-the-top kiss. Everything is cheerful and fun. Minghao feels included, cherished, in-the-know. Part of the puzzle instead of an onlooker trying to piece things together.

 

He nods at the security guard when they pass through the corridor again, walking fast. Wendy’s speech is coming to an end. Jeonghan’s eyes linger on Mingyu when they pass by the tables.

 

But Jeonghan only smiles at Minghao and says, “See you after.”

 

The mood at the table is hard to read. No one is speaking, mostly because the lights are dimming for the next performance. Mingyu is sitting straight, mouth in a fixed smile. He raises his eyebrows in greeting but returns his focus to the stage, unresponsive to Minghao’s surreptitious look. Did Wonwoo question anything after Jeonghan’s comment?

 

Apparently he’ll find out after. Wendy walks offstage and the curtains open to reveal four dancers in skintight black pants and leather straps across their chests. Jesus, okay. Minghao wasn’t totally prepared for this. The first two performances are from different groups of choreographers at the studio. They’re talented, but personally Minghao thinks they’re no match for Junhui.

 

When Junhui and his troupe come onstage, the audience holds their breath.

 

Watching them dance is almost a spiritual experience.

 

There are many benefits to having a best friend like Junhui. Growing up together allows for an easy sort of intimacy, one that echoes with memories of a hundred meals eaten side-by-side, a thousand shared peals of laughter. Junhui holds the biggest part of Minghao, and vice versa. If they were separated—as they were for several years—they would still carry each other like a phantom presence in their body. Muscle memory and a constant voice in the back of the head. That’s what it means to be best friends for years.

 

Watching Junhui move like water across the stage, though, Minghao starts to think of someone else who has come to hold parts of him. Mingyu.

 

He glances at Mingyu from the corner of his eye. Mingyu is watching the performance with rapt attention, teeth poking out in the preamble of a smile. God, does he look stunning. Like he belongs at these kinds of events, walking the red carpet and dazzling paparazzi, effortless and gorgeous.

 

Minghao has a very intrusive thought about leaning over and kissing Mingyu on the mouth. How he would feel, how he would taste.

 

Holy shit. Where did that come from? He looks away, but it’s too late, he’s blushing, and the imaginary kiss is lighting him up inside. Obviously Minghao is attracted to his husband, but fantasizing about kissing him has never happened so vividly, so casually, so out of his control. He feels simultaneously creepy and elated. 

 

Well, what harm does daydreaming do? Mingyu has a very nice mouth. Soft, probably. Would he use his hands? Where would they go?

 

No, no, that’s so cringey, they’re only friends in a compromising situation—

 

The dance ends. Minghao’s blood runs cold. He wasn’t paying attention to the second half at all. Junhui is breathing hard at centerstage, surrounded by his teammates. He holds a serious pose and an unserious smile. 

 

Minghao is late to start clapping, late to exchange an impressed look with Mingyu, late to act as if he weren’t distracted half the time. Minghao claps so hard his skin tingles with pain. Snap out of it. Pull yourself together. You’re not Seo Myungho.

 

Maybe he’s forgetting that. 

 

Minghao hardly hears it when Mingyu excuses them both from the table. “We have to run,” Mingyu says apologetically, polite to a fault. “The dog, you know. Um. She can’t be alone for too long. It was good to see you, good luck with the geography quizzes.”

 

Wonwoo’s eyes flick between them. If he’s surprised, he doesn’t show it. That annoying neutrality is still at work shrouding his true emotions. Minghao shouldn’t know this man well enough to judge him, but that’s never stopped him before. He doesn’t like Wonwoo.

 

“Have a good one,” Wonwo says simply. 

 

“You too,” Minghao mumbles.

 

Mingyu laces his fingers with Minghao’s. They walk silently from the table and weave through the crowded tables. Chandeliers have returned to their full brilliance, pleasant chattering from guests and clinking glasses fill the air, and the venue once again feels like a ballroom. But the magic is lost on Minghao now.

 

He feels rooted in place. He’s realizing now that he belongs to these places and these people—Junhui, yes, but also Jeonghan and Joshua and Mingyu—and that he’s not immune to attachments. That he maybe cares too much about people he’s lying to. 

 

Minghao cares so much. That’s why he was angry at Junhui, angry at Wonwoo.

 

And he’s not good at being two different people. Seo Myungho and Xu Minghao are not the same person. Mingyu might be the only one who sees that up close but Minghao feels it. For his own sanity Minghao can’t get too attached. Or else the lines will start to blur and he’ll… he doesn’t know. Lose himself, maybe. What happens to secret agents who go undercover for years at a time?

 

How complicated and confusing. 

 

All this because Minghao ran into a coworker at a party and then thought about kissing his husband.

 

Shit, that reminds him. He’ll have to text Jeonghan with the same excuse ASAP.

 

When they emerge from the main doors, the night is cool and not yet dark. This part of the city has aesthetically pleasing streetlamps every few paces. Mingyu sighs and releases Minghao’s hand. He looks drained, shoulders heavier than usual, but better than earlier during his episode of anxiety.

 

Together they stroll slowly toward the valet desk. They both need a second to process, Minghao assumes, so he doesn’t speak. Soon they’re in the car and Mingyu is shuffling through his wallet for a few spare bills to tip the valet.

 

As they pull onto the main street, Minghao asks softly, “How are you doing?”

 

Mingyu’s hands flex on the wheel. “He definitely knows we’re married. He heard Jeonghan, and the look on his face…”

 

“Well,” Minghao struggles to find the bright side. “He was going to find out eventually, right? When you tell your students and they spill the beans.”

 

“Yeah.” Mingyu fiddles with the stereo until soft acoustic is playing in the background. As the twilight darkens, red brake lights monopolize the road ahead. Evening traffic. “He would’ve heard soon anyway, it just—sucks. I didn’t want to see his reaction.”

 

“Do you think he’s moved on?”

 

Mingyu shrugs and twists his mouth. “Most likely. It’s been months at this point.”

 

Have you moved on? Minghao wants to ask, but that’s crossing an invisible line he can feel but not touch. The answer to that might hurt his feelings. He’s hoping Mingyu has moved on, he realizes, and not just because it makes his own life less complicated.

 

Maybe he’s weirdly unsettled by the timeline. Maybe it makes his tiny little heart jealous. To know that Mingyu was loved and loving before he came into the picture, even if it was a flawed love. Minghao was, for a very long time, alone. In a lot of ways, he’s still alone.

 

Either way, the answer is probably yes. Minghao thinks he knows Mingyu well enough—he doesn’t act like he’s hung up on someone. Plus, Mingyu’s the one who allegedly broke things off in the first place.

 

Minghao settles more comfortably against the seat. “What a wild night,” he mutters.

 

“Yeah.” Mingyu exhales. “I should’ve known Junhui was into Wonwoo. They have a weird telepathy thing going on.”

 

“Did it ever make you jealous?” The question springs forth before Minghao can stop it.

 

Mingyu looks at him. “Not really,” he confesses. “I didn’t… care too much about Wonwoo in that way.” He fixes his eyes back on the road. “My heart wasn’t in it.”

 

Well. That’s just kinda sad. Feeling a stratosphere out of place, Minghao just nods to acknowledge the statement. He imagines how lonely it must be, to try and love one of your best friends and never quite get there even when he does.

 

Minghao has never been in that situation. He doesn’t envy either side of the relationship. The rest of the drive passes in silence.




 

 

After such a hectic event, Minghao is overjoyed to find out that Monday is a national holiday. 

 

No one at the office told him—for that he’s a little salty—but Mingyu mentions it on Sunday night and Minghao commits himself to liquifying on the couch for the entire holiday and turning off his phone. There are two texts from his mom he hasn’t responded to, three from Junhui, two from an old coworker in Anshan, and one from Jeonghan.

 

Minghao watched them arrive on his screen one by one yesterday while he painted. Ping, ping, ping! But he couldn’t open them. He doesn’t feel up to it yet.

 

So now he lays against the cushions and slides his phone across the carpet. Cha Cha gives chase until she realizes it’s just a hunk of metal, then shoots him a reproachful look. She hobbles away to nap under the dining table.

 

Mingyu vacuums half the morning away. He’s humming under his breath, something high and melodic, bobbing his head to whatever beat is playing through his headphones. Minghao cracks one eye to watch him for a while. Soft t-shirt, sweatpants, hair still greasy from sleep. He’s one of the few people who sees Mingyu like this—and vice versa. Sometimes he enjoys that, the exclusivity of their situation.

 

Then Mingyu unexpectedly removes his headphones and picks up Minghao’s feet to settle himself on the couch underneath his legs. “We need to talk,” he says. “Again.”

 

There goes Minghao's peaceful day. 

 

Reluctantly he sits up and retracts his legs from Mingyu’s lap. The weather is a touch too warm for fuzzy socks, but he’s wearing them anyways. They drag against the cushions with resistance. “What’s going on?”

 

“The second interview.”

 

Here is the discussion he’s been expecting. Minghao sits straight and folds his hands neutrally in his lap. “Right, yeah.”

 

They sit facing each other on the couch and begin outlining another level of detail to their fake marriage. Truths are pulled often from their real lives. Mingyu shows pictures of his classroom, tells the story of how his teaching assistantship led to a full-time job after graduation, confesses which coworkers he doesn’t like. 

 

In return Minghao opens his photography notebook. Mingyu’s seen it a hundred times, obviously, lying on the spine of the couch and tucked carefully on a shelf. The notebook is never far from Minghao’s hand. Some of his sketches and brainstorms are far more personal than his paintings. He shows them anyway, traces his history through colors and shapes. Here is where my grandfather died of pneumonia. Here is where I got evicted from my first apartment.

 

Mingyu asks few questions. He watches with soft eyes how Minghao’s hand moves over the pages, reverent, respectful of his own emotions in a way he rarely allows himself to be solely because Mingyu’s looking.

 

When Minghao is done, Mingyu nods. This gets easier with time—cracking open their hearts, allowing light to shine on unholy things. But Mingyu takes an unsteady breath and bites his lower lip. Looks to the side. Blinks furiously.

 

“I know I have to tell you about my family now,” he whispers, voice suddenly tiny. “But I really don’t want you to think less of me.”

 

So here is the meat of this conversation. Mingyu was dragging his feet before, reluctant to arrive at this confession. They’ve skirted the topic for weeks. Months.

 

Minghao pats Mingyu’s knee. “I won’t think less of you.”

 

“Yes, you will.”

 

“Shut up. I won’t.” He flicks Mingyu’s ankle hard. Predictably Mingyu gives him a dirty look and swats the hand away. Sitting like this, he looks small again. It’s easy to forget who’s taller here.

 

Mingyu swallows hard. “My parents were not good people,” he begins. “They did bad business, dodged taxes, gambled on weeknights, all that greedy and corrupt shit you hear about on the news. They were filthy rich until I was around… nine years old? Ten? I’m not sure what happened, but they lost a fortune. When they died—when they were killed—I inherited their debt.”

 

“They were killed?” Minghao’s mouth drops open. “I’m… I’m so sorry.”

 

Mingyu shrugs. “It was complicated. My sister and I lived with a great uncle until I turned sixteen and tested into a boarding school. While I was living there…” He hesitates. “People contacted me about my parents. Confessed to their murders. They gave me ten years to pay back what my parents owed, or else my sister would die.”

 

Minghao’s heart plummets. “What?”

 

“It won’t happen!” Mingyu is quick to reassure him with a hand on his knee. “I told the police immediately and they’ve had an open investigation all this time.”

 

“So they’ve caught the people who threatened you?”

 

Mingyu looks away. “Not yet… but they will. Before I have to pay anyone.”

 

Minghao does the math in his head. Over eight years, the police have been searching for the people who murdered Mingyu’s parents. His time is almost up. Another year or so and he’ll owe the money or face the music. The situation is so horrific and bizarre that it sounds unreal. A plot straight out of a Hollywood blockbuster, not someone’s actual life. 

 

“That’s why you agreed to the marriage,” Minghao realizes. “Just in case. You’ll have enough money.”

 

“I’ll never have enough money.” Mingyu shakes his head. A dark look passes over his face. “It’s impossible. I gave up on that. But if I can get close—maybe they won’t—“

 

His face crumples. Minghao moves without thinking, leaning forward to press their knees together and pulling Mingyu’s hand into his lap, twining their fingers. “How much do you need?”

 

“One point two billion won.”

 

An unimaginable amount. How could Mingyu’s parents get caught so far in debt—so far that their lives were worth taking, their fortune already destroyed? Minghao’s heard awful stories about the gangs in Shanghai, in Beijing, but never anticipated the same here in Seoul. Of course not. Who could predict premeditated murder and blackmail?

 

And Mingyu was only a child at the time. He was still growing into a person. So much of his personality rearranges in Minghao’s head—his desire to be liked, his penchant for good food, his restless moods that spring from nowhere and dissipate just as fast. How he’s generous with his time and affections but not his money.

 

It also makes sense why Mingyu wasn’t overly concerned with the legality of their fraudulent marriage in the first place. This information offers a full-picture explanation Minghao didn’t know he was looking for.

 

The bottom line is, money is a wretched thing. Minghao calculates further. Even if he and Mingyu combined their salaries—or what’s leftover beyond groceries, rent, and utilities—they wouldn’t have enough together in the next year. This is a lose-lose scenario.

 

Minghao doesn’t know what to say. This is not something he can solve for Mingyu, not something he can comfort Mingyu through. This is a deep wound. An old wound. 

 

“Maybe you could raise the price on my visa,” Minghao thinks aloud desperately. “How much do you have saved already? I can survive with a little less each month.”

 

Not much, but Mingyu doesn’t need to know that. The recent raise should help a little.

 

Mingyu shakes his head before the offer is even finished. His eyes are serious and distant. “This isn’t your responsibility. We’ll keep to the terms we agreed on.”

 

“No, but—“ A hundred frustrated arguments surge in Minghao’s chest. He wishes this weren’t Mingyu’s reality. “It’s an awful situation. You didn’t do anything wrong.”

 

“Yeah. I know.” He shrugs. “But this is the hand I was dealt.”

 

It’s a remarkably zen approach. Having almost ten years to accept your fate would make any man patient. Funny how that happens sometimes—the ones who never speak of their pain often have the most. Minghao tries to imagine himself in the same situation, how he would feel and react, but the idea is too far-fetched.

 

“So…” Minghao struggles to remember the point of this revelation. Interview. Immigration. Right. “How do you want me to answer questions about this? Do the authorities know everything?”

 

Mingyu nods. “The important parts, yeah. I don’t think you need details, but they’ve definitely run a background check on me by now and they might ask you. So—be honest. Tell them you know the gist of the investigation and don’t look surprised.”

 

“Okay,” Minghao says. “I can do that.”

 

Mingyu leans further away. His eyes are softer than usual this afternoon, tracing Minghao’s profile like he’s looking for something specific. Muffled voices can be heard from their neighbor’s TV. Cha Cha rolls into a more comfortable position underneath the table and sighs.

 

Just like that, the spell is broken. 

 

Mingyu springs up from the couch like they didn’t just reveal each others’ deepest darkest secrets. “Great,” he says simply. “I think we have the rest covered. We’re way less awkward now.”

 

“Yeah.” Minghao says. “Hey. Just to be clear, I don’t think any less of you. Who your family is, isn’t who you are.”

 

Mingyu gives him a close-lipped smile. “Thanks. I appreciate that.”

 

A restless energy itches under Minghao’s skin. He’s thinking… thinking… will be thinking of nothing else for the rest of the day, at least. He needs time to process and accept the fact that he can’t change this situation regardless of his knee-jerk attempt to figure out a solution.

 

Minghao thought his own life was hard? What a wake up call. 

 

Mingyu must be able to sense those tumultuous thoughts—he’s certainly spoken about his past before and expects this sort of response—because he strides into the kitchen and says, “Wanna bake muffins?”

 

“Uh.” Minghao is sufficiently distracted. “Why?”

 

“Why not.”

 

He shrugs. “Sure.”




 

 

 

The week is shockingly dull. 

 

Mingyu has friends over for dinner one night, but otherwise Jeonghan and Seungcheol are away on location scout and Minghao finds himself with multiple whole days of industry research and email inquiries at work. This is not the glamorous, artistic job he envisioned. He’s surprised by how much he likes the chance to slow down.

 

He can take a deep breath and redesign his desk. It’s been painfully bare these last five months, a skeleton unrepresentative of its owner's personality. Minghao brings in a tiny canvas which he painted with a splattered rendition of his mother’s garden. If you squint, you can see a wicker swing in the far right corner. He’s obnoxiously fond of it. 

 

Minghao also prints a few shots from his and Mingyu’s “first date” to pin to his corkboard. It’s what he would do if the relationship were real, and he finds he really likes how they look beside the painting. A clean and crisp present contrasting a messy and emotive past.

 

Lastly, he pots two of the ugliest succulents he’s ever laid eyes on and sets them below his monitor. Perfect. They’re from the cafe two streets down, where Minghao likes to walk during his lunch break for fresh air and hojicha, and he loves them like any man loves an ugly, helpless creature. 

 

Seriously, one of the plants has spikes. He names that one Wonu.

 

Now he’s thinking about the fundraiser again. Stewing in that uncomfortable post-revelation at the table, tugging Jeonghan’s sleeve to leave… the whole night was sort of a disaster. It wasn’t exactly Wonwoo’s fault. But putting aside how he wants to stand up for Mingyu, Minghao just plain dislikes that guy.

 

Wonwoo’s too handsome, too reticent, too tall, too undeserving of the attention he’s received from both Mingyu and Junhui. He holds so much power in his hands and he doesn’t even know. That ignorance is infuriating. He probably has an inkling of Mingyu’s personal situation, since they were friends and coworkers before they dated, but he’s shown no compassion. 

 

Okay, except for bringing Mingyu’s folder to the apartment when it was forgotten. That was compassionate. Fine. But he screwed up Minghao’s Korean name. So no brownie points.

 

He also can’t stop thinking about Mingyu’s family.

 

Minghao dusts the desk. Sweeps the floor. Takes out the trash. Then, staring at his dwindling inbox, he takes the morally questionable next step and Google-stalks Mingyu until he finds an article about the murder of his parents. There must’ve been money involved in the hush-hush process because it takes several pages of digging through a mix of keywords. 

 

A local press wrote a single article about the police report. ‘Reclusive business moguls killed in traffic accident’ reads the title. Mingyu and his sister aren’t mentioned by name, of course, only their ages. No specifications are mentioned in terms of livelihood or funny business. All clean-cut, no investigation. Just an accident.

 

Minghao wonders what the murderers are doing now, shortly before their money is expected. Watching Mingyu from afar? Watching Minghao from afar?

 

No. He can’t think about this. It’s not his business, not his fight, not his fear. But Minghao dwells himself into a less-than-stellar mood when Jeonghan returns to the office.

 

Jeonghan sticks his head into Minghao’s cubicle. “Hey, have you seen the email from Boss?”

 

“Not yet.” Minghao clicks furiously into his email. “I was reading about this eco-friendly clothing brand based in Jeju.”

 

“Oooh. Send me the link.”

 

“Okay, I—” The title of the email makes him stop. “Whoa, we’re hiring freelance?”

 

“For next quarter’s spread.” Jeonghan is practically bouncing on the heels of his feet. His hair is neatly brushed back. He sits on the edge of Minghao’s desk and thumbs away at his phone. “Here.” He turns the screen towards Minghao. “A Vogue editor mentioned how their company has tried to branch out and select more indie talent in recent months. So we’re trying a similar approach. Seungchol didn’t even know, he was as shocked as you are.”

 

“That’s amazing,” Minghao says. He could reach out to any number of diverse models. A mixed-race model. A foreign model. A model outside the gender binary. The possibilities are endless! He breaks into a cold sweat.

 

Jeonghan smiles. “Knew you’d be excited. Pick a good one for us, okay?”

 

“You could find someone, too.” Minghao swivels his chair to better face Jeonghan. “Try street-casting.”

 

“Oh, I’ll look.” Jeonghan has a disinterested expression on his face. “But I have a few more important things on my plate. Number one, figure out how to decapitate Tom Nook in Animal Crossing. Number two, propose to Joshua.”

 

Minghao almost chokes on his own breath. “You’re really going to ask him?”

 

“Soon, yeah.”

 

“Congratulations!”

 

They discuss the plan for the remainder of the work day, which isn’t long, but it sweeps aside Minghao's weird mood. His friends are in love and getting married. Jeez, how exciting. Hopefully Jeonghan doesn’t ask for wedding advice. He doesn’t have much to give. 

 

He’s so excited that he mentions the upcoming proposal to Mingyu when they’re getting ready for dinner with Jeonghan and Joshua that Friday. 

 

“No way!” Mingyu pulls a turtleneck over his head. “Get us an invite. I love weddings.” 

 

“Do you?” Minghao is a little surprised.

 

“Well, I love the open bars at weddings. And charming all the old ladies who cry during the vows.”

 

Ah, that sounds about right.

 

A storm is brewing on the forlorn horizon, obstructing their view of the city. Minghao wraps himself in a thin coat and locks the balcony door. “Don’t mention anything tonight. It’s probably a surprise for Joshua.”

 

Mingyu nods and pulls a treat from his pocket for Cha Cha. He waves it over her head. What a tease. How many does he keep in there? An infinite supply to last the day? Minghao doesn’t really want to know. 

 

The barbecue place that Jeonghan selected is a short distance from the apartment. On the way Mingyu talks about his day. Apparently a student’s younger sister escaped their mother’s car and ran into Mingyu’s classroom, crying for her brother and causing a general ruckus, so Mingyu had to juggle a sobbing three-year-old and twenty-five overexcited first graders armed with colored pencils and the stubborn belief that they alone could stop the crying. 

 

“Luckily my leave was accepted for the interview day,” he adds. “I know that’s not, like, a vacation. But oh my god. I have the summer bug so bad.”

 

Minghao is still trying not to laugh at the idea of an army of snotty, pencil-wielding kids trying to help their beloved teacher and only making things worse. What a metaphor.

 

“What’s the summer bug?”

 

“When you can’t wait for the school year to end. I mean, it’s not serious.” Mingyu slides to a stop at a red light. He checks his hair in the rearview mirror. “Because I know I’ll miss these kids when they move into next year. I just need a break. Teachers get burnt out pretty easily, you know?”

 

“Yeah.” Minghao can imagine. He fiddles with his wedding ring. “So what do you do when there’s no school?”

 

Break must be keyword for side gig. Mingyu can’t sit still for longer than a few hours. That’s just a fact of life. Some people are excellent with constant movement, motion, and change. Minghao is not one of those people; Mingyu is. He probably had to be, growing up.

 

Mingyu waves forward a hesitant pedestrian at the corner of the sidewalk. “A couple different things. I work part-time at a gym owned by a friend from college, mostly just wiping down the weight machines. Sometimes I volunteer. There’s an inner-city orphanage I used to visit three times a week, but luckily they’ve become fully staffed recently and don’t need as much help.”

 

Minghao never did much volunteering himself. Where he’s from it’s seen as a luxury, to have energy to help beyond your immediate family and friends. He rethinks that assumption now. Maybe he has room in his schedule to give back. Shouldn’t he? He should try, at least.

 

“If you keep volunteering, can I go with you?” He twists his ring around, around. “On the weekends, anyway.”

 

“Sure.” Mingyu looks over and smiles. “Are you any good at football?”

 

“Um. Not really. Tell me that’s not a requirement.”

 

Mingyu pulls into a parking garage and parks on the bottom level. His lips are pressed into a thin line, holding back laughter, and that expression is so familiar that it makes Minghao want to laugh, too. Some sort of Pavlovian response. When Mingyu laughs, Minghao laughs. 

 

“For the kids, it totally is.” Mingyu throws the vehicle into park. “You’ll get eaten alive otherwise.”

 

“You know what, nevermind. I suddenly remembered Seungcheol is planning a summer fest—”

 

“Too late! You’re coming.” 

 

They exit the car and Mingyu throws a casual arm over Minghao’s shoulders as they walk, still arguing, into the restaurant. How perfect they ought to look—like a real married couple. 

 

The main dining room is packed and steamy. Jeonghan and Joshua are already sitting at a grill, perusing the menu, matching in pastel button-downs. Jeonghan must feel eyes on the back of his head because he waves them over one-handed without looking up.

 

Joshua offers a bro-handshake to Minghao and Mingyu. They exchange greetings and settle comfortably at the table. Jeonghan flags down a waiter and lists a rapid order of meat, meat, meat, and more meat. Mingyu accidentally knocks over the kimchi dish and everyone laughs, including Mingyu.

 

“I bought your album online,” Minghao says to Joshua. 

 

“What did you think?”

 

“It’s great.”

 

Heavy rock is not Minghao’s usual cup of tea, but he’s not lying. The album is fun and upbeat, full of clever lyrics that leapfrog between Korean and English.

 

“Who does most of the songwriting?” Mingyu asks, pouring water into everyone’s cups. 

 

Oops—that should’ve been Minghao’s job as the youngest at the table, but he wasn’t paying attention. He stammers a quiet thanks to which Mingyu smiles and squeezes his knee under the table. Easy.

 

While Joshua explains the hierarchy of the band, Jeonghan tosses in helpful explanations like, “She was the hot girl on drums at the fundraiser. She’s a genius who graduated early from Seoul National.” The meat arrives. Mingyu and Joshua take charge grilling. 

 

All in all, the vibes are good. The vibes are great, actually, and Minghao finds himself relaxing fully into the booth. He thinks back to the unfortunate lunch between Mingyu and his friends which he walked in on. This is so different. So much better. They’ve come so far together.

 

Aside from Junhui, these three people are his closest friends.

 

That warms Minghao’s heart so much that, without thinking, he calls over the waiter and orders two bottles of peach soju.

 

Mingyu drops the slab of pork belly from his tongs. Meat slaps onto the grill and sends fat splashing onto Joshua’s plate. Mingyu overflows with apologies, Joshua mops his lettuce with a napkin, and Jeonghan watches Minghao with assessing eyes.

 

“You like soju?” Jeonghan asks through the mayhem, but his voice is flat and un-question-like.

 

“Yeah,” Minghao says. “I mean, it’s okay.”

 

He doesn’t love soju. He just got caught up in the excitement of having all his friends together and thought, well, don’t they like to celebrate this way?

 

Subconsciously Minghao looks to Mingyu for backup. He’s never had liquor in front of him, but Mingyu is usually quick to agree with Minghao in public for whatever he needs. Except Mingyu is giggling at something Joshua said and not paying any attention at all.

 

The waiter returns with the order. Around a mouthful of beef bulgogi, Minghao pours the shots himself and hands them out according to age. Except he guesses Jeonghan and Joshua’s age order correctly and they start squabbling like children.

 

“Do I have wrinkles? Is my beauty fading?” Jeonghan clenches a metal knife in one hand like it’s a deadly weapon. “Well you look like an underage twink, I’m surprised the waiter didn’t check your ID.”

 

“Nah.” Joshua chews casually. “Bet you he slips me his number. I’m prettier than you.”

 

Unsatisfied, Jeonghan waves him off. “No no no no. Mingyu. You think I’m pretty, right? Tell Joshua I’m pretty.”

 

Mingyu freezes. He looks at Minghao with help me eyes, but no one escapes Jeonghan’s whims. Minghao shrugs and shoves a cabbage leaf in his mouth. He’s entertained.

 

Mingyu’s eyes narrow in betrayal. He knocks back the shot of soju and smiles, sweet as a peach. “Sorry. Not as pretty as Myungho.”

 

Minghao pretends to retch onto his plate. Oh, god. That was actually ridiculously cute—or it would be, if Mingyu were serious—but no. Please. He has dignity despite the stubborn, secret wash of happiness deep in his gut. Even Mingyu’s fake compliments feel like sunshine against Minghao’s skin, like a caress, like a secret.

 

That’s how far deep they’re in.

 

Joshua has absolutely no reaction. He’s probably staying neutral since they don’t know each other well enough. But Jeonghan’s mouth twists with a mix of disgust and delight, as usual, and starts chattering away about Seventeen magazine and how attractive their workforce is overall. An excellent and unoffensive segue. 

 

Soon enough the soju is gone. Minghao taps out after two shots. Surprise surprise, he can’t stomach any more. Too sickly sweet. Jeonghan and Mingyu order another bottle to split, and that’s when their conversation grows interesting.

 

“I don’t like grape,” Mingyu says.

 

“I don’t like strawberry or original.”

 

“What about apple?”

 

Jeonghan frowns. “You know the healthiest flavor is peach. We should just get that again.”

 

“Really?” Mingyu looks up from the menu. His eyes are already shiny from sharing the first two bottles, a sheen on his lips. “How?”

 

While explaining, Jeonghan waves down a waiter. “A doctoral study at Yonsei ranked all flavors on how healthy they are, you know, based on percentages of high fructose corn syrup and metabolic rates—hi, sir, can we get another peach soju here?—and this one had the fewest calories. So really there’s only one option.”

 

Mingyu closes the menu slowly. “Okay,” he says in defeat.

 

Minghao bursts out laughing. “Is that real? Seriously?”

 

“Absolutely.” Jeonghan isn’t smiling but his eyes are too wide, too earnest. “I read about it.” Joshua coughs and it sounds suspiciously like bullshit, but Jeonghan continues, “Anyway, Mingyu drank the most of the peach. You like it, don’t you?”

 

“Well.” Mingyu blinks. “Yeah, but—”

 

“And I want to make sure you get the flavor you want.” Jeonghan finishes.

 

The bamboozlement is executed so well that Mingyu doesn’t even know what just happened. He nods along and agrees, brows creased in vague confusion but willing to believe the conviction in Jeonghan’s voice. It’s harmless fun, and makes Minghao laugh harder than he has in days, which makes Mingyu look at him with darkening confusion. 

 

Joshua saves the situation by butting in. “Wait, call him back, I want a strawberry flavor.”

 

That’s when Mingyu turns to Minghao and asks, “Do you wanna drive my car home?”

 

An hour later, they say their goodbyes appropriately not-sober and tactile in front of the restaurant. Evening air is fresh and cool, dark with no moon. The calm before the storm. Very few people are out on the streets, though they’re close to the downtown area. Maybe everyone is headed home to their warm beds before the rain begins.

 

Jeonghan pulls Minghao into a tight, smothering hug, patting the top of his head with care. “Be safe driving home. The roads are different here.”

 

“I have a driver’s license,” he argues. “It’s fine.”

 

“Text me when you’re home.”

 

Joshua repeats the sentiments, exchanges another bro-handshake with Mingyu, and links his arm with Jeonghan. The double date splits feeling warm and bubbly. Well, Minghao does feel warm and bubbly, but he’s also yawning and not buoyed by alcohol.

 

Mingyu is way too excited to watch Minghao drive. He’s shifting his weight from foot to foot, making his whole body sway. He whistles a cheerful tune as they stroll into the parking garage. 

 

“That was fun,” he says.

 

“You liked them?”

 

“Yeah. They’re really cool. We should do that again sometime.”

 

Minghao smiles and unlocks the car. How nice that everyone gets along—despite Jeonghan and Mingyu having different taste in seemingly everything. They had repeated the soju exchange with their last order of meat, then proceeded to good-naturedly disagree over the correct dipping sauces, proximity to the center of the grill, length of time necessary for medium-rare, and so on.

 

Honestly, hilarious.

 

Minghao sits behind the wheel and starts the engine. He hasn’t driven since arriving in Korea. He’s excited; he forgot until this moment how much freedom he can have at his disposal.

 

It’s an act of trust to hand over the keys to your car, but Mingyu is apparently having no second thoughts. He buckles himself into the passenger seat and starts motor-mouthing about the structure of the dashboard.

 

“And that one’s for the windshield wipers.” He points to a switch. “That’s your turn signal. Here’s your volume. Which radio station do you like?”

 

Minghao reaches over to pat Mingyu on the head. “I’ve got it, don’t worry.” He returns both hands to the wheel and pulls out of the parking space effortlessly. A smile breaks over his face. “We’re totally getting ice cream on the way home.”

 

Mingyu cheers. 





 

 

 

In the morning Mingyu is ornery and desperate for caffeine. Minghao is already awake, sitting at the table with his sketchbook, when his husband bustles out of the bedroom and makes grabby-hands at his coffee mug.

 

His eyes are puffy from sleep and there’s a pillow imprint on his cheek. To see him like this is crushingly domestic.

 

“Get your own,” Minghao complains. He slides the mug over anyway.

 

Mostly he gives in for the satisfaction of Mingyu’s horrified face after one singular sip of black coffee. Apparently still beyond words, he groans dramatically and passes back the mug. 

 

Sometime before sunrise, the storm broke. Now wind howls against the window at odd intervals as rain lashes the balcony. Lightning sends sharp shadows over the floor. Cha Cha’s ears twitch every time there’s a peal of thunder, but she’s doing remarkably well by de-stressing with a stuffed broccoli.

 

Peeking through the glass door sets Minghao’s skin crawling; he can’t see a foot beyond the railing, it’s so foggy, and the sight disturbs him. He can’t help the childlike anxiety. Anshan never stormed like this.

 

Mingyu shuffles around the kitchen, making familiar metal-on-metal noises, while Minghao curls further into himself and focuses resolutely on a sketch of a man in a chiffon shirt. He won’t be frightened by a dumb wannabe typhoon. Even if he startles every time there’s a peal of thunder. 

 

Sometime today, Minghao needs to text Junhui back. He’s left him on read for a week now. That’s petty, even for Minghao, but he just didn’t have the energy. Today he needs to buckle up and be an adult. Text his best friend back, get over the awkward dinner, move on, and so forth.

 

Minghao is two-thirds of the way finished with his sketch when a plate lands in front of him. It’s full to the brim with scrambled eggs, strips of bacon, blueberries and raspberries, radish kimchi, a bowl of rice drowning in soybean paste soup. A rainbow of flavors artfully arranged.

 

He can’t process the sight at first. Mingyu doesn’t look much improved—he sits heavily in the opposite chair with his own plate and lights a lavender candle in the center of the table, which is a small comfort in juxtaposition to the storm.

 

“Good morning,” Minghao says, belatedly, pushing the sketchbook aside. “Is this for me?”

 

“Mm-hmm. G’morning, eat well.”

 

“How hungover are you?”

 

Mingyu takes a huge bite of rice. “Twelve outta ten.”

 

The thoughtless consideration of making breakfast for both of them despite being in pain—knowing Minghao struggles to eat sometimes—is breaking him. This is the definition of casual kindness. His heart can’t handle it.

 

Minghao takes a tentative bite of egg. Warm, salty, home-cooked delight. It almost brings grateful tears to his eyes. He glances up at Mingyu, who looks like microwaved death but still cares enough to take care of him, and thinks... oh.

 

Oh. Is this love?

 

Egg goes down the wrong way. He chokes, slaps his own chest, and hacks a serious cough. Mingyu’s forehead creases in concern. “You good?”

 

“Fine.” Minghao mumbles. “Thanks for cooking.”

 

Minghao knows himself to be the hopeless romantic type. He always thought love was about grand gestures, bouquets of flowers, expensive restaurants, public declarations of unending devotion. What the movies always show you. 

 

At least, Minghao used to think that. His younger self with big dreams and high standards thought that. Before he healed from a toxic obsessive love, moved to a new country and broadened his horizons, grew up a little bit, and felt vulnerable in ways he doesn’t have words for. He’s different inside now. Stronger, more independent and capable, resilient. A more authentic version of himself. 

 

And while Minghao has been growing, Mingyu has been there beside him. Usually making a cringey joke or tripping on air—but beside him all the same.

 

Now Minghao is less sure what love looks like. Because as he sits at the table with a fork clenched in one hand, blinking at the food Mingyu carefully prepared for them to eat together, he thinks, This must be it.

 

Of course he likes Mingyu. Really likes him. Mingyu and his floppy hair, Mingyu and his soft smile, Mingyu and his penchant for spicy food. He admires Mingyu personally and professionally, he’s thought about kissing him in public, he is thrown into hysterics by their inside jokes. There is no one he knows better; no one who knows him more intimately, yet still accepts him.

 

How could this be anything but love?

 

The past five months rearrange in his memory until Minghao sets his spoon down too hard and startles himself back to reality. This is unbelievable. He has real feelings for his fake husband. 

 

Oblivious to the apocalyptic realizations taking place across the table, Mingyu rubs his eyes and takes a sip of nearly-white coffee. “No problem. Do you have any painkillers I could borrow? I’m all out.”

 

“I think so. If not I’ll just run to the store,”  Minghao says numbly.

 

Mingyu shakes his head, winces, and stops. “Everything’s closed because of the flood warning.”

 

“Oh, okay.”

 

They’re stuck in the apartment together for the rest of the day. That’s fine. Minghao’s brain is a murky, panicked lake through which he can hear one clear noise: an endless shouting. He finishes his coffee and pours a refill. He’s gonna need it.

 

Suddenly Mingyu sets down his mug too hard. “I forgot to do Cha Cha’s stretches yesterday.”

 

He looks devastated. It adds another layer of pitiful to his hungover aura. Before he thinks about it, Minghao is on his feet and crossing the room towards the dog. “I’ll do it.”

 

“Let me help.” Mingyu follows. 

 

They sit criss-cross facing each other on the carpet, Cha Cha bracketed by their knees. Together they gently stretch her hind leg. Out, in, out. She’s so accustomed to the movements by now that she just lays her head on Mingyu’s calf and dozes off. 

 

Mingyu smiles down at her, lashes casting the hint of a shadow over his cheeks.

 

Minghao is staring. He’s staring and he can’t help it. How far they’ve come, he thinks. This is going to break his heart. He will watch it happen up close. 

 

Because Seo Myungho has Mingyu all to himself, but Xu Minghao does not.

 

 

Chapter Text

Minghao has one foot out the door when he spots something atrociously pink on the dining table.

 

He backtracks and removes his shoes to investigate. Mingyu’s assignment folder is sitting sideways on the table where it must’ve been forgotten, abandoned in the morning rush. Minghao flips to the front page and sees the school’s address written in neat violet calligraphy.

 

For a moment, Minghao considers leaving the folder where it is. But he remembers Wonwoo showing up at the door with this same folder several months ago, kindly bringing it to Mingyu after hours, and sighs. These are important papers. Lesson plans, attendance sheets. Chibi animal stickers!

 

So Minghao calls to give Mingyu a heads up. He’s a little surprised when Mingyu actually answers, since he’s supposed to be in the middle of class. In the background he can hear the high-pitched laughter of children.

 

“Hey,” Mingyu says, audibly out of breath. “Are you okay? What’s up?”

 

“You forgot your folder at home.”

 

A groan. “I know . I’ll just have to rearrange our activities, I’ll pick it up during lunch when I drop off Cha Cha. Thanks for telling me, though.”

 

Minghao bites his lip. “You can’t run back for it?”

 

What a silly question. Of course Mingyu can’t abandon his students without a substitute, even for the twenty minutes it would take to drive home and back to school. That’s not how public education works. 

 

Mingyu confirms that no, he can’t leave, and actually he has to go right now because Chaeun finished copying down the words on the board and is starting to whack Jaehyun over the head with her notebook, bye!

 

The call ends.

 

Okay. So Minghao has two options here: leave the notebook on the table and let Mingyu pick it up when he comes home... or go out of his way and bring the notebook to school now.

 

This is the final week of classes for students. Minghao remembers because the date of their second interview—this week!—lines up perfectly with the first day of summer. Mingyu asked permission to invite his friends over for lunch this weekend to celebrate the conclusion of the school year and, hopefully, the conclusion of the marriage fraud investigation. 

 

The folder is probably vitally important this week. He imagines Mingyu in front of a crowd of rabid seven-year-olds, scrambling to move around the schedule while they call for his decapitation. Kids hate broken promises.

 

Minghao checks the address. The school is actually off his bus route, tucked into the corner of the neighborhood beside downtown, squished between a tiny community center and a series of small grocers. He passes that area every day—how did he never know Mingyu’s school was so close?

 

Well now there’s no excuse. He has to bring it.

 

Minghao carefully puts the notebook in his bag and hurries to catch the bus. He deliberately sits away from the window to avoid direct sunlight, afraid of sweating through his clothes. Maybe he should be more concerned with waltzing into an elementary school wearing heeled boots, fake spectacles, and a leather jacket. Too late now.

 

The school is a plain white building three storeys tall with blue flags hanging from a few bright windows. The front office receptionist gives him a hard stare. She hesitates to hand over a visitor’s sticker and directions to Teacher Kim’s classroom. Naturally his destination is on the third floor, so Minghao hurries up two flights of stairs and tries not to look lost.

 

A student passing by with a hall pass stares openly at Minghao’s clothes. He’s darkly amused. Stare away, kid. This is what it looks like to work in fashion—so stay in school, or else.

 

The door of Mingyu’s classroom is open. His voice echoes passionately down the hallway. Upon closer inspection, he’s waving both arms over the board and his sweater is wrinkled at the bottom, like tiny hands were fisted in its fabric. From this angle Cha Cha’s tail is just visible where she’s sprawled under the desk.

 

“Remember to think of this symbol as a hungry, hungry alligator.” Mingyu makes his hand into the shape of an openmouthed alligator. “So we have 4 on one side and 7 on the other. This alligator is so hungry, he wants to eat as much food as possible. Which side should he eat?”

 

He points to a little girl with pigtails in the front row. She jumps to her feet. “Seven, seven!”

 

“Yes!” Mingyu does the cutest hand-puppet impersonation of an alligator’s jaws closing over the number 7 on the board. “See, the open mouth part of the symbol is facing the bigger number. This will be on the test tomorrow, so don’t forget it.”

 

The lesson is interactive and engaging, fun to watch. Mingyu is more than competent. It's a far cry from the scene of violence he imagined earlier. Minghao hates to step into the doorway and interrupt, but it feels creepy to stand back and watch.

 

He knocks hesitantly on the doorframe. “Teacher Kim?”

 

Mingyu turns around so fast he fumbles his chalk and drops it. A hush settles over the students. A few mouths drop open in shock. Minghao can feel his ears burning, so he clears his throat and adds, “Special delivery?”

 

Mingyu looks at the folder in surprise. “You brought it for me.”

 

For a moment he stares at Minghao oddly—it’s the paradox of looking at someone you know inside-out like they’re brand new. A light dawns across his face. Slowly he breaks into a gorgeous, easy smile. 

 

Retrieving the chalk, Mingyu walks over and says, “Class, please greet Mr. Seo. He was kind enough to bring our assignments today.”

 

In tandem, the students rise and bow. “Good morning Mr. Seo!”

 

How adorable. 

 

A very professional distance is kept between them, but if they weren’t on school grounds, Minghao thinks he might be receiving a bear hug right now. Mingyu looks absolutely delighted. While accepting the folder, their fingers slide over each other. A gentle and understated tenderness passes between them. It makes Minghao’s face go warm. 

 

When Mingyu speaks, his voice is quiet and private. “Thanks. You have no idea how much this is saving me.”

 

“No problem.” Minghao shrugs. “You were on my way.”

 

“Will you be late for work?”

 

“Not too late.”

 

Mingyu is still looking at him like he hung the moon with his bare hands. This face is adjacent to his early morning puppy dog eyes. The students have lost interest and are mostly whispering among themselves. He glances back at the classroom and says, “I was thinking of breaking the news to my students on the last day of school. But we could tell them now if you don’t mind? Since you’re here?”

 

Oh. Mingyu wants to claim him. Right now? Leather jacket and all?

 

The classroom is decorated in a jungle theme. Minghao makes direct eye contact with a cartoon orangutan swinging from the English Language Arts signboard. The wind sends its paper body fluttering and Minghao sees his own panic reflected in those glossy eyes. 

 

His mouth moves against his will. “Okay. Why not.”

 

Mingyu gives him a small, pleased smile, like he can tell how reluctant Minghao is to be shown off in public. Technically this is the privacy of Mingyu’s classroom, where he is king and father and custodian all at once, but Minghao still feels exposed.

 

“Class,” Mingyu calls. “I have a special announcement. I was waiting until after exams to tell you, but since Mr. Seo is here, I’ll spoil the surprise. Are you ready?”

 

Excited whispers erupt. A boy in scuffed shoes stands up and starts break-dancing in the back row, but apparently this is totally normal behavior because his seatmates only slap him back down. Minghao represses a snort.

 

“Well, recently… I got married! Mr. Seo is my husband.” Mingyu does obnoxious jazz hands at Minghao’s general person. “What do you say to us?”

 

The students gasp. A girl in braids screams. For a moment Minghao is paralyzed with fear, that these children could judge their relationship and tarnish it in Mingyu’s eyes. If his students don’t approve, would he let that influence his opinion of their (fake) relationship? No, that would be ridiculous. Minghao still feels like he’s on trial—like the first interview all over again—and subconsciously stands straighter under the pressure.

 

A boy wearing glasses too large for his face stands up. “Congratulations Mr. Kim. Congratulations Mr. Seo.”

 

“Thank you very much.” Mingyu raises his hands like he’s directing an orchestra.

 

The students repeat the words and bow politely. God, they’re cute. Minghao tries to smile at each one individually and gets a few giggles in return. “Nice to meet you,” he says, offering a little wave.

 

“Alright, let’s get back to math.” Mingyu turns to him and his voice goes quiet again, private, meant only for Minghao. The tone change makes Minghao’s stomach feel sunny inside. “Thanks again. I’ll tell you if there's any coworker gossip later.” He hesitates and adds, “See you at home?”

 

Minghao steals one last look at the students, now engaged in mounting whispers about love and marriage, and can understand why Mingyu loves his job. He brushes his fringe out of his eyes. “Yeah. Have a good day, Teacher Kim.”

 

“Have a good day, Mr. Seo.” Mingyu smiles.

 

Minghao forces himself to turn and leave. He wears a smile the whole walk back to the office, where he drops off his visitor’s pass and catches the bus to work. He’s nearly twenty minutes late. No one notices. So worth it.





 

In dim gray light, far before dawn, Minghao wakes up.

 

This isn’t unusual. Naturally he bobs at sleep’s surface throughout the night, especially during storms or stressful weeks, but this time his consciousness feels deliberately disturbed. It’s a struggle to open his eyes and even more of a struggle to focus on the dreamlike quality of the dark room. Distantly he’s aware that today is the final interview, but that information shivers and slides into the back recesses of his mind.

 

Mingyu is twitching. His back is turned toward Minghao and his body is curled into an impossibly small knot of tension. Staggered breathing is bitten into semi-formed words, closer to a mash of consonants than proper sentences, but the emotion behind his involuntary noises is clear: he’s having a nightmare.

 

Stretching out the ghost of a cramp in his neck, Minghao rolls closer. He can’t think of a single thing, in his sleep-heavy brain, to fix the situation. Except cuddles. Except this—his hand in Mingyu’s hair, his thumb stroking the exposed spot where jaw meets neck. 

 

Minghao doesn’t have the energy to make vocalizations, but as his eyes drift shut again he manages a shhh , more exhale than anything else. 

 

He feels it working. Mingyu’s twitching slows. Minghao moves a soothing hand down the back of his neck, over his spine, swooping frontwards toward his chest, where stress is gathered tight like scaffolding around his heart. Tense muscles relax. Their breathing syncs, then slows.

 

Minghao is fully asleep when fingers lace through his own. 

 

Ironically, when the alarm goes off hours later they’re no longer touching. Minghao wakes and remembers immediately what he did last night, the intimacy stolen in a moment of vulnerability. Sure, he was trying to end Mingyu’s nightmare, but did that need to involve non-consensual cuddling? He’s not usually the instigator. A zap of fear and embarrassment locks his muscles rigid on the bed. 

 

“Morning,” Mingyu mumbles, his eyes cracked open and frowning. He flips onto his back. “What time s’it?”

 

“Um.” Minghao reigns in his thoughts about wanting to tackle Mingyu back into the sheets. It felt so nice to hold him close, like Minghao was needed. Appreciated. He physically shakes the thoughts away and rubs his eyes. “Almost eight. I’m gonna shower.”

 

“‘Kay.”

 

No strange reaction. Maybe Mingyu didn’t wake up last night, doesn’t know what happened between the sheets. Hopefully that’s the case. Minghao rushes through his shower, rehearsing under his breath the answers they prepared for the interview, and decides to shelve the event. He needs to be ready for whatever comes next. He towels off his hair.

 

In his haste, Minghao forgot to bring clothes into the bathroom. Awkwardly he shuffles back into the bedroom with nothing but a towel around his waist. Mingyu is sitting against the headboard on his phone, probably playing FIFA.

 

Minghao keeps one paranoid hand wrapped around the towel. Ever since he realized he might have feelings for Mingyu—fine, since he realized he does have feelings—these moments have been tense. Being halfway exposed in front of his husband makes Minghao feel charged and embarrassed and giddy all at once.

 

Mingyu’s tongue is peeking out in concentration. He doesn’t seem to be paying any attention as Minghao fumbles through the drawer for a presentable pair of cotton pants. 

 

Until, that is, Mingyu says, “Hey, for later, I was thinking.”

 

“What?” Minghao gathers his clothes in a bundle and turns to face the bed. 

 

“They’re not really supposed to ask us about physical intimacy. According to the internet, anyway.” Mingyu doesn’t look up from his game, but his words are measured and careful. “But it would really help seal the deal if they saw us, you know? Acting like a couple.”

 

“I guess.”

 

“We could kiss right before going into the interview. Really quick. Make it seem like it’s a routine.”

 

Minghao leans back against the dresser. His hand tightens on the towel. Months ago, he was averse to the thought of kissing Mingyu because this relationship isn’t real. Now he reconsiders—what if this is his only chance to act on his feelings? Mingyu’s offering. It wouldn’t be creepy. Minghao can’t deny that he wants to, that he’s thought about it.

 

Still he hesitates, because there’s a part of him with enough self-preservation skills to think this is a bad idea . What if he only gets more attached? Also, PDA is uncommon in public. It might backfire and draw unwanted attention.

 

Mingyu puts down his phone. He watches Minghao’s changing face and adds, “We don’t have to. Seriously, only if you’re comfortable with that.”

 

“Let’s do it.” Minghao takes the selfish path. “You’re right, it might be a good look.”

 

“Okay.”

 

Before he can overthink what he just agreed to, Minghao flees to the bathroom and gets dressed. Mingyu hops in the shower while Minghao deliberates over every part of his outfit. Would glasses make him look more trustworthy? White socks or black? They split a hasty breakfast together, feed Cha Cha, and walk downstairs to the car. Tension mounts.

 

At the very least, they look compatible today. Mingyu’s wearing a soft black shirt and jeans. Minghao unintentionally matched him with an old black-and-white flannel, too warm for the weather but comforting and familiar. 

 

Mingyu spins the car keys on one finger. “Do you wanna drive?”

 

Minghao’s whole mood lifts. “Really? I mean—yes. Definitely.”

 

“You really like driving.” Mingyu observes. He gets into the passenger seat.

 

This is no less exciting than the first time. Minghao adjusts the mirror a little bit, gets comfortable in the driver’s seat, and starts the engine. When he turns over one shoulder to check his blind spots, he can feel Mingyu watching him.

 

“I like the freedom,” he confesses, rolling down both of their windows. “But, uh. Where am I going?”

 

Mingyu laughs. “I’ll pull up the directions. Just turn left here, get to the main road.”

 

They spend the whole drive bickering over the radio station. Minghao doesn’t like hard rock because it hurts his ears, Mingyu doesn’t want classical because he’ll fall asleep. In a way, it’s relaxing. One last chance to expel their nervous energy before the interview.

 

“Honestly, how the hell do you sleep if your ears are this sensitive,” Mingyu grumbles, settling on the classical station and tapping his hands against the dashboard to stay alert.

 

It’s your fault I woke up last night , Minghao almost says. Thank god their turn appears in the distance. “We’re almost there,” he says instead.

 

“We’re gonna do okay, right?”

 

“Yeah.” Minghao grabs one of Mingyu’s fidgeting hands and brings it to the middle section. “Stop freaking out.”

 

“I’m not.”

 

He is. If this is how Mingyu’s going to spend the entire morning, Minghao needs to take action. He doesn’t usually think of himself as the leader in any situation outside the photography studio—but one long look at Mingyu’s erratic squirming and uneasy smile puts things into perspective.

 

Mingyu is much more nervous than he is right now. Mingyu needs reassurance.

 

“We’re ready for this.” Minghao can see the government building ahead. Gray, imposing, with well-manicured trees at even intervals. “We’ve rehearsed.”

 

“I know,” Mingyu sighs. “But…”

 

Minghao gets it. He lifts their linked fingers and presses a loud, warm kiss against the back of Mingyu’s hand. “We’re in love, remember?” he says, drawing out the vowels. 

 

It’s meant to be comforting and playful. A tease, a tug back into reality. But Mingyu doesn’t laugh. He rolls his eyes and blushes , all the way to his ears, and Minghao blushes right back like a response cycle. Suddenly they’re both sitting shy and quiet in the car, staring out the front window and carefully not making eye contact.

 

Minghao feels a little dumb—judging by the reaction, he’d gone too far and made Mingyu uncomfortable—but they’re supposed to kiss in thirty minutes and make it look natural for strangers. If this is how they react to an obnoxious hand kiss, good fucking luck! Mingyu will tense up and Minghao will blush like a maniac and everyone will know .

 

They pull into a parking space. Mingyu clears his throat and untangles their hands, but when the engine stops, he speaks. 

 

“We should probably not look like strangers when we kiss for the first time.”

 

“Second.”

 

Mingyu’s eyebrows shoot up. “What?”

 

Minghao is steadfast. “We’ve kissed before. At the wedding.”

 

“Oh, yeah.” Mingyu looks troubled. “That doesn’t count.”

 

This won’t really count either—it’s still fake posturing—but Minghao shrugs. He can imagine Mingyu leaning in for the kiss and somehow they miss, or trip over air, or bump their noses. Kisses are like puzzles. So many things could go wrong, especially if Minghao lets his feelings blind him to the necessary pieces: face, lips, hands. 

 

Mingyu starts talking. “It’s just, it’s really hard to fake that sort of thing. What if we screw up in front of the Immigration officers? And what if our lawyer is there? He wasn’t clear. These people are trained to look for issues, they’ll know right away if—”

 

Forget the consequences. Minghao unbuckles his seatbelt and leans right into Mingyu’s space. He kisses him firmly on the lips mid-word, fleeting, just a press of warmth. He leans back like his heart isn’t taking flight in his chest.

 

Mingyu freezes with his lips parted gently. They stare at each other.

 

That’s certainly one way to shut him up.

 

“There,” Minghao says, and luckily his voice comes out evenly. “Easy.”

 

“Well.” Mingyu’s hands flex on the dashboard. White knuckles tremble and release. It seems he’s for once speechless. “When you put it like that .”

 

They move along. After straightening clothes and fixing hair in the mirror, they walk into the check-in office side-by-side. Minghao will have to revisit that moment later, the fallout of the kiss, how Mingyu had blinked several times afterwards and drawn in a long breath. The glossy sheen in his eyes. 

 

In any other circumstance, Minghao would’ve asked permission to kiss someone. He’s not usually bold enough to go for the surprise move. Explicit consent is romantic, as they say.

 

But Mingyu himself suggested a kiss earlier this morning and then spent several minutes worrying out loud about their execution. Hopefully he isn’t angry with Minghao, and if he is, that he’ll be honest about it later. Minghao fiddles with the laminated edge of his temporary visa before handing it to the friendly receptionist. The deed is done, anyway. They’ll repeat the kiss once more and be finished.

 

However that makes him feel, he doesn’t have time to dwell on it.

 

“You’ll be interviewed one at a time, beginning with Mr. Seo.” The receptionist hands back their identification. “Please have a seat in the waiting room. Someone will be with you shortly.”

 

Mingyu smiles and thanks the receptionist. The waiting room is not large but it’s half-full. Most of the other people are foreigners, very few of them are sitting in pairs. They squeeze past an older woman and sit in tough plastic chairs.

 

“Here goes nothing,” Mingyu mutters, tucking away his national ID.

 

As soon as they get comfortable, their number is called. Minghao exchanges a glance with Mingyu. Had they been moved up the list? Or were they simply lucky?

 

A pretty woman in a white polo leads them deeper into the bowels of the building. An elevator takes them down three floors into a section of the basement. Minghao immediately feels claustrophobic. If this is part of their intimidation tactics, it’s working.

 

He takes Mingyu’s hand as they walk in sync down the tiled hallway. Mostly it’s for show, but part of him also seeks the comfort of familiarity. This new area is well-lit and smells gently like lemon cleanser. The lady leads them into another waiting room with rows of chairs and a single desk.

 

Far fewer people are sitting here. All of them are couples.

 

“Please take a seat and we’ll call you one by one for the individual interview,” she says.

 

Mingyu thanks her and they take a seat. Their hands stay intertwined. Minghao hates knowing that he’ll be called first, and he pats the pocket with his visa to check that it’s still here. 

 

He wants the storm to break already. 

 

Soon enough the lady in the white polo returns with two taller men. One holds a clipboard. Minghao can't focus on their faces, he’s too busy standing and bowing and greeting everyone politely. They blur into fearful, intimidating goons. He hears his own voice soften a pronunciation, stutters, and repeats himself.

 

“Mr. Seo, please follow me,” says the man with the clipboard. He has an impeccably groomed mustache.

 

Minghao takes a step forward before he remembers. Mingyu’s hand catches on his sleeve and tugs him to a stop. 

 

“Good luck, babe .” Mingyu tugs him closer and kisses him. Soft and so brief, over in a heartbeat. 

 

“Thanks,” Minghao says. 

 

He removes Mingyu’s hand from his sleeve— so he would use his hands while kissing, look at how he holds tight , his traitorous body is whispering—and follows the clipboard man down a hallway and into an office. Minghao does not look back. He hands over his visa and confirms his personal information. 

 

He takes a deep breath. He banishes thoughts of running back for a second kiss, a third, a fourth. They begin.

 

These questions are next level. They’re difficult, they’re lightning-quick. They leave Minghao tongue-tied and stretching to use words he doesn’t normally need to. He’s overly concerned with his grammar and blushes every time he stammers out an incorrect verb tense or particle. His brain feels like macaroni after only a few minutes.

 

When was the last time you got angry with your spouse? Describe your spouse’s daily routine in detail. Who pays the water bill? Tell me about a recurring argument you two have. Which side of the bed do you sleep on? How do you feel about his friends? Coworkers? Family? Give an example of activities you and your spouse do together.

 

“We like to walk our dog together,” Minghao says, aiming for the most domestic truth he can think of. “She has a bad leg, but she chases the sparrows anyway.”

 

Mustache man makes a note. “Who usually holds the leash?”

 

“Mingyu.” Or is that supposed to be a euphemism? Minghao has the horrible urge to laugh.

 

He answers the questions honestly and to the best of his ability. Some have no easy answer, but the interviews are probably expecting that, and he tries to focus on positives despite the negative prompts. That part is easy. Mingyu makes him laugh more often than not.

 

After he’s finished, the man spends a long time typing on a laptop before he escorts Minghao back to the waiting room. His face is indecipherable and distant. No way to tell if he passed or not. Minghao discreetly wipes sweaty palms on his pants as he and Mingyu switch places.

 

Mingyu’s eyebrow twitches. He wants to know how it went.

 

Minghao offers him a supportive, close-lipped smile.

 

While he waits for Mingyu’s interview to finish, Minghao pretends to read the article his mother sent him on WeChat about drinking hot water with lemon every day to prevent summer colds. He asks after the garden and the restaurant. She says they’re fine. He asks after her joints, and she doesn’t reply. Typical. He shoots off a text to Junhui about a new release from one of their shared favorite bands. Still, he's antsy.

 

Mingyu returns with a perfect poker face. Mustache man explains their next steps. First a team of officers will watch their recorded interviews and make a decision, and in a day or two they’ll receive a call from their lawyer.

 

Option one, they pass and the investigation is over. Option two, they fail and charges will be pressed against both parties. Nothing in this man’s voice gives away which position he’s leaning toward.

 

“Thank you for your time,” Mingyu says as they part. 

 

They walk from the building in silence. It takes several steps into the parking lot for Minghao to realize something is wrong. Creases of worry gather on Mingyu’s forehead. His steps are rushed and heavy.

 

Minghao waits until he’s sitting behind the wheel to ask. “How did it go?”

 

“Awful!” Mingyu bursts. He slides down in the passenger seat, his legs bent into uncomfortable triangles, both hands pressed against his face. “God, they were going so fast and asked about the long distance stuff again and wanted to know the moment I fell in love with you and I couldn’t say that it—I don’t know, I panicked. Sorry.”

 

“It’s okay,” Minghao says. “They have to understand we’re nervous.”

 

He wants to reach over and offer comfort in the form of a shoulder squeeze or knee pat, but Mingyu doesn’t look open to that right now. His tendency to be self-critical is not a side Minghao often gets to see, but it seems to be triggered by anxiety and result in a lot of apologies. 

 

“Sorry, I'm not freaking out. Objectively it was fine.” Mingyu drops his hands and makes a face. “It just... should’ve been better. Good thing we did the kiss, maybe that will save us.”

 

“At least we’re done now.” A lump forms in Minghao’s throat at the reminder of their casual kisses. He clears his throat and starts the engine, sensing it’s better to steer the conversation forward than allow anyone to stew. “Do you want to get lunch?”

 

“You know what? I’d fucking kill for sushi right now.”

 

Minghao smiles. He rolls down both front windows so fresh air can whip through the car as they pull onto the main road. “Sushi it is.” 

 

He misses the grateful smile Mingyu directs at his profile.




 

 

The kissing does not happen again. They don’t speak of it, they don’t allude to it. Minghao mostly prefers this. Compartmentalization! Repression! These are his strengths and he’s glad Mingyu is allowing the final interview, along with its drama, to pass without fanfare. They were only playing their roles, after all.

 

But Minghao does think of the kisses. 

 

Part of him yearns after a nebulous more . He knows a little about Mingyu’s mouth now. He can better imagine how it might feel against his own, soft and yielding. In weaker moments, under the shower’s hot spray or during a mid-commute daydream, the wanting slips through. And he wants, oh how he wants.

 

Combine this burgeoning desire with Minghao’s complicated, growing feelings and you get a masochistic desire to continue play-acting intimacy in public. At least they were kissing, even if it wasn’t real.

 

But that particular fantasy makes Minghao disgusted with himself. He thought he had better principles, more self-respect than falling into a pseudo-relationship where the other party didn’t take joy from his touch. He doesn’t want that. He doesn’t either of them to feel forced.

 

Mingyu just makes him so happy that it’s easy to forget what’s real. That is terrifying. 

 

So Minghao folds his desires into little squares and tucks those into a back drawer in his head, not to be disturbed. He’s only mostly successful. 

 

For their celebratory lunch gathering that weekend, Mingyu breaks out the tabletop grill.

 

Summer is introducing itself with a heavy, humid breeze and cloudless skies. Cha Cha flops in front of the electric fan and refuses to move. The grill is unboxed from the dark corner of a kitchen cupboard, an appliance Mingyu’s apparently owned since college when he charmed the entire first-year dorm into friendship.

 

While Minghao vacuums and dusts and shoves half-finished canvases behind the couch, Mingyu settles the grill on the balcony beside a wobbly speaker. He’s only outside for an hour or so, but he returns a sweaty mess.

 

“I’ll finish setting up.” Minghao waves him off. “Go shower. You smell.”

 

“Yeah, like bananas .” Mingyu lifts the bottom of his shirt to wipe his forehead. “This sunscreen is disgusting, I don’t wanna wear it.”

 

“Too much exposure to…” Minghao thinks of how to translate UV rays and can’t. “The sun is bad for your skin.” 

 

At that Mingyu sighs. “You’re right. Better if I don’t get any tanner.”

 

Minghao tosses the duster on the back of the couch. That’s not what he meant at all! He turns his full attention to where Mingyu is using a towel to wipe away mysterious black stains on his hands, likely from the grill’s underbelly.

 

“Why not?” Minghao is indignant. “That shit doesn’t matter. Your skin is tan and pretty.”

 

“Oh. I thought you meant—”

 

“No. I’m talking about cancer, stupid.”

 

Mingyu drops the towel on the table. It becomes clear that he’s holding in a smile, his cheeks lifting in that cute, squirrely way Minghao has grown fond of. “You think I’m pretty,” Mingyu says.

 

Minghao deadpans, “The prettiest.”

 

He’s not expecting Mingyu to burst into laughter, or lift the bottom of his shirt to wipe sweat along his brow.

 

Mingyu’s stomach has been on full display a hundred times since they met. But right now, chased sunlight, with hair damp at the temples, he looks obscene . Minghao’s eyes catch and slow. He finds it hard to turn away from the tan skin of Mingyu’s waist, the subtle ridges of muscles there, the flashes of hipbone visible before his shirt is dropped.

 

There’s a moment of thick silence. Mingyu has caught Minghao looking, and now he’s looking back. The atmosphere changes. An unstated and heavy pressure makes Minghao’s body pull taut like a wire. Oh, god. He needs to say something, anything, to get Mingyu’s eyes off him or he’s going to explode.

 

A frenzied knocking comes from the door. Cha Cha explodes into agitated barks.

 

The moment slips away. Minghao exhales. Mingyu gives himself a panicked once-over and says desperately, “Can you get that? It’s probably Seungkwan. Sorry, I’ll shower fast!”

 

“No worries.” Minghao shrugs him off. He isn’t intimidated to talk with Seungkwan one-on-one. Not at all. At least he’s the perfect guest for distraction.

 

As expected, Seungkwan makes it easy. He’s dressed casually in a pastel tee and a sunny smile. He’s carrying a bowl of sliced peaches above his head like a trophy and he does an endearing little wormlike wiggle when the door is opened.

 

“Hi, hi, sorry I’m early!” Seungkwan shuffles inside and does the smallest bow he can manage.

 

“It’s good to see you.” Minghao ushers him in, wary of the wobbling bowl suspended high in the air.

 

But Seungkwan is excellent with the dramatics and toes off his shoes to carry the bowl into the kitchen without a hitch. All the while he greets Minghao, compliments the apartment—which certainly looks the same as the last time he was here—and catches his breath from the stairs.

 

“Can I get you anything to drink?” Minghao has the funny feeling that he’s the host, not Mingyu. He likes it. 

 

“Yes please.” Seungkwan plants his hands on his hips. “Does Mingyu have a water filter around here? He should.”

 

“Yeah, attached to the faucet.”

 

“Perfect! Any ice?”

 

Minghao fetches a plastic cup. “We don’t have an ice machine. Cold water is bad for you on a hot day, anyway.”

 

Seungkwan laughs. It’s the kind of laugh which makes everyone feel included in the joke, so Minghao finds himself smiling, too, even if his statement was serious.

 

“Don’t worry, I take supplements. My body is strong. I can handle it.”

 

“Okay.” Minghao hands over a cup of cool, if not cold, water from the tap. Politely he asks, “Which supplements? Are they herbal or vitamins?”

 

“Both! Here, I have pictures, take a look.”

 

They get deep into their discussion. Minghao has zero interest in the topic, but Seungkwan is great at boosting the mood. He’s a little too familiar with Minghao, but not in a sleazy way, and Minghao likes his bright-eyed attention and dry humor.

 

Neither notice when Mingyu appears in the kitchen, hair damp in a tank top, but he groans. “Not the vitamin stuff again. Seungkwan, don’t brainwash him.”

 

“Staying healthy is important,” Minghao says very somberly, just to delight their guest. “He has good advice.”

 

“He always nags me,” Mingyu complains.

 

He stomps over to the counter and starts arranging bags of shrimp crackers and seaweed chips. He’s pouting, it’s obvious even with his back turned, and Minghao takes the opportunity to wrap him in a loose back hug.

 

He hooks his chin over Mingyu’s shoulder. It’s a bit of a stretch, but it mimics their posture from the fundraiser, when Mingyu had pulled his chair right behind Minghao’s and draped himself along Minghao’s back. Comfortable. He smells of vague florals and coconut shampoo. His skin is warm where they touch.

 

“It’s okay, I won’t nag,” Minghao says. 

 

He feels Mingyu inhale sharply. Is it Minghao’s imagination, or is Mingyu leaning back into the embrace? He has no reason to hold on, but doesn’t want to let go. Minghao’s thumb moves gently over the fabric of Mingyu’s shirt, right above his waist, and feels him shiver. 

 

There’s another knock at the door.

 

“I’ll get it!” Seungkwan hollers. 

 

Minghao steps away. They’re alone in the kitchen. Inexplicably he thinks of their surprise kiss in the car last week, the way Mingyu had looked in the few rose-tinted seconds afterward.

 

Now he looks perfectly composed, pouring out the bag of chips into a bowl. He brings them to the table and greets Soonyoung with a hug. Minghao busies himself with sweeping crumbs off the counter and wondering when, exactly, he started to feel on even footing in this apartment. Like he belongs here, too. Enough to touch Mingyu unprompted, enough to care about the presentation of the household when guests are arriving.

 

He enjoys pressing down on something and leaving a mark.

 

Soonyoung is early, too, but they’re nearly ready. Slabs of raw beef and pork are marinating in the fridge. Rice is cooling in the cooker. It’s the perfect day for aloe juice and beer—though not together, that would be disgusting. Seungkwan helps stack the cans in a neat row on the counter.

 

Minghao has an ulterior motive for today. He’s planning to officially ask Hansol to model for Seventeen magazine’s upcoming spread. Last week, discreetly and without permission, he showed Hansol’s Instagram photos to Seungcheol and got preliminary approval. 

 

But he’s nervous. There’s no way to predict how Hansol will react. He might say yes in a heartbeat, he might be freaked out and say never also Mingyu your partner is weird and I’m leaving

 

Should Minghao have asked Mingyu for advice before this? Yes, but it’s too late now. He’s diving in headfirst.

 

The party is close-knit. Hansol and Seokmin arrive together and finish out the group. Small talk is pleasant and tinged with the excitement of summer. They’re still young, most recently out of college, and warm weather reminds everyone of freedom and relaxation.

 

Soonyoung is in the apartment for twenty minutes before he shouts about forgetting something. He panics his way downstairs and returns to shove a bowl of homemade bingsu into Minghao’s hands. “Here, here, from my aunt’s cafe. Let’s eat now before everything melts.”

 

“I’ve never tried it before,” Minghao admits.

 

Soonyoung’s mouth falls open. He pulls spoons from the drawers like he lives here and passes one to each person at the party. When he arrives at Mingyu he jabs the spoon into his shoulder several times. “You haven’t taken Myungho to eat bingsu? Worst. Tour guide. Ever.” 

 

“He’s not a tourist,” Mingyu mumbles. “He lives here now, he knows where to get dessert.”

 

It’s the kind of statement Minghao didn’t quite know he wanted to hear until he heard it. Yes, he does live here now. He isn’t a tourist. That’s a point of pride. 

 

The dessert is good, but nothing he’d purchase on his own, anyway. Soonyoung gives him the address of his aunt’s cafe just in case. 

 

“Come early on a Sunday morning, I’ll give you a free slice of cake.” Soonyoung licks his spoon. “That’s when I help in the kitchen.”

 

“Thanks,” Minghao says. What a sweet offer—no pun intended. “I like cake.”

 

Mingyu fires up the grill and Seokmin loudly volunteers to help cook. Except, so does Soonyoung. And so does Seungkwan. Minghao and Hansol find themselves creeping away from the door as a friendly competition breaks out. Minghao has never seen three guys who want to grill meat together so badly in his life. Is this what a fraternity party is like?

 

“Just let me do it, I’m the best at grilling meat.” Soonyoung places a hand on Seokmin’s shoulder.

 

Seokmin smiles and claps him on the shoulder right back. “Okay then, I trust you.”

 

“Don’t be such a pushover.” Seungkwan slices their arms apart with a karate chop and a huff of air. “Seokmin, fight for what you love. We’ll play rock-paper-scissors.”

 

“It should be me anyway,” Soonyoung says. “I’m Mingyu’s best friend.”

 

Minghao should take this opportunity to lean over and whisper in Hansol’s ear, coax him backwards into the kitchen, where they can talk freely and more privately. They definitely aren’t part of this… whatever this is. Game of friendship chicken. Which seems to have little to do with Mingyu and lots to do with the spirit of competition. Except that Hansol is watching, clearly endeared, and Minghao doesn’t want to disturb that.

 

Mingyu speaks for the first time, not looking up from his slab of beef bulgogi. “All of you shut up. Myungho’s my best friend.”

 

Oh, come on. Minghao almost chokes on his aloe juice. The instigators make a disgusting awwwh noise, Hansol nods and claps, while Mingyu stares resolutely at the meat.

 

It’s clear when Mingyu is dicking around—and he is, he’s definitely poking fun at Soonyoung more than genuinely commenting on his relationship with Minghao—but the swoop in Minghao’s gut is real.

 

Mingyu, his best friend? He hasn’t considered it before. Labels are outdated. But… if anyone were to hold the title, it would be him. When did that even happen?

 

“You’re such a kiss-ass,” Minghao calls, loud enough for everyone to hear. The fond comes through like a second layer of sound. He deflects like a champion. “Be genuine and live righteously, Kim Mingyu.”

 

Seungkwan immediately jumps in. “Don’t act so sweet. No one believes you’re that nice.”

 

“I’m nice!” Mingyu brandishes his tongs like a weapon. “I’m so nice I won’t burn your meat.”

 

The party resumes. There comes a point, after the eating has mostly commenced, where Seokmin asks about the camera supplies artfully arranged on the shelf. Minghao doesn’t hear this. He’s on the couch with Seungkwan, cutting glances to the balcony where Hansol and Soonyoung are playing tug of war with Cha Cha.

 

He does hear when Mingyu says, “Cheese!”

 

The shutter snaps. Minghao would recognize that sound even from beyond the grave. His favorite camera, the Rebel, is pointed at the couch. Seungkwan immediately beams and throws up a peace sign.

 

“What are you doing?” Minghao asks, grabbing the couch arm for support as Soonyoung catapults himself into Seungkwan’s lap for the photobomb.

 

“Making memories.” Mingyu snaps another shot, frowns at the screen, and adds, “Smile, babe.”

 

What a little shit. Minghao gives a small, close-mouthed smile. He’s slightly uncomfortable sitting on the wrong side of the lens and watching an inexperienced hand fiddle with his equipment. Mingyu is prone to accidents, after all. And he needs to adjust the aperture.

 

Seokmin spots the gathering and quickly joins in. The couch is too small to fit everyone, so Minghao finds himself with half of Seokmin’s leg in his lap and someone’s elbow crushing his foot. Mingyu calls Hansol inside. 

 

“You should be in this too,” Minghao says.

 

Seokmin nods so vigorously his leg slips off. He knees an unsuspecting Hansol in the shoulder. “Use the timer!”

 

“Ow, dude.”

 

“Shit! Sorry!”

 

It’s mayhem. Minghao peels himself off the couch, delicately avoiding the tangle of limbs Soonyoung and Seungkwan have become, and goes to fetch his tripod from the bedroom. If they’re doing this, they’re doing it right.

 

He returns to Mingyu’s face furrowed in concentration, his tongue just barely poking past his lips, still trying to locate the self-timer button. If Minghao were a weaker man he would kiss the corner of that mouth right now.

 

But he doesn’t. He swallows hard and sets up the tripod. “Hand it over,” he says, gesturing for the stolen camera.

 

Mingyu has the gall to look sheepish. “I didn’t know it would turn into this. I just wanted a few pictures, I swear.”

 

“I don’t mind.” Minghao hides his smile in the viewfinder. He switches out the lenses with a practiced hand and screws the body of the camera onto the tripod. “Okay, Hansol sit up straight. I can’t see your mouth. Mingyu, get in the middle. We’ll have ten seconds after I press the button. Ready?”

 

Soonyoung cheers. Seungkwan looks spooked. They’re all tipsy enough to find this exciting. Mingyu situates himself on the floor in front of the couch. Everyone looks ready.

 

The very moment Minghao clicks the button, Mingyu bursts forward. “Wait! We forgot Cha Cha!”

 

“Too late! Starting now!”

 

Minghao throws himself into the empty space where Mingyu used to be. The next few seconds are a blur of motion and screaming. Seokmin counts down theatrically, Hansol’s mouth becomes a perfect circle, and at the count of 2 Mingyu slides breathlessly into Minghao’s rib cage with a dog cradled in his arms. They lock eyes.

 

Minghao feels his breath catch. That might’ve been the most heroic thing he’s ever seen. He doesn’t realize he’s laughing until Mingyu laughs, too. The moment breaks. Cha Cha wriggles free, indignant, and returns to her stuffed broccoli on the balcony. Seungkwan leaps up to check the result.

 

“Nice work.” Minghao stands and pulls Mingyu to his feet, too. He brushes dust from Mingyu’s pants. “I didn’t think you’d make it.”

 

“Neither did I,” Mingyu sighs dramatically, out of breath, leaning his forehead on Minghao’s shoulder. “Our dog… needs to lose weight.”

 

“She’s healthy!”

 

“Then you carry her at a full sprint!”

 

“Guys,” Soonyoung interrupts. He's beaming. He points at the camera, careful not to touch the screen. “Look at this.” 

 

The photo is chaotic. Hansol’s hands are blurred by clapping but his face is captured in a perfect smile—and again Minghao’s inner demon thinks he’s photogenic, he’s a natural —while the others are in various states of laughter.

 

Except Minghao and Mingyu.

 

They’re looking at each other like the room is otherwise empty. Mingyu’s edges are blurred slightly. He’s on his knees, nose-to-nose with Minghao, wearing a distinctly vulnerable expression. Hope? Relief? Affection? Minghao doesn’t recall seeing that face at all and certainly not directed at him, so it must’ve only lasted a moment. Minghao allows himself to linger there, searching.

 

Minghao in the photo is sitting on his thighs and outright laughing. With his chin tucked in, it’s clear the laugh has origins of alarm. His hands are outstretched to soften Mingyu’s sliding collision, so it looks like they’re embracing around Cha Cha’s crazed, open jaw.

 

It’s a ridiculously cute capture. Authentic and fun. Like the first page in a scrapbook or a wallet-worthy Polaroid.

 

Soonyoung leans over to whisper something in Mingyu’s ear and gets slapped away for his troubles. Mingyu turns bright red and disappears into the kitchen.

 

Minghao puts the camera away, but spends the next half an hour thinking of nothing else but that photo. He belonged in the midst of that warm chaos. He can’t wait to print and frame it like a trophy, a representation of everything he once wanted from Seoul—friends, a home, a dog. A place to call home. If he looks at it too long he might do something crazy like break into song.

 

Luckily, an opportunity to further his agenda soon presents itself: a lull in conversation, Soonyoung distracted by the bowl of peaches, and Hansol sitting alone on the couch.

 

Minghao sits, too. He’s cradling a beer and half-heartedly sipping every few minutes, trying not to make a face, and it seems Hansol is in a similar position. The couch is a quiet space.

 

“Hey,” Hansol opens politely. “My sister really liked the last issue of the magazine, by the way. I think she bought two copies and used the other for a collage, or something.”

 

“That’s great,” Minghao says. What a perfect segue. “Actually I wanted to ask you about the magazine.” He taps fingers against the cold metal can rhythmically. “Have you ever modeled before?”

 

“No.” Hansol looks surprised. His eyebrows draw together pleasantly, like he’s thinking hard about his past experiences. “I mean, my primary school liked to use me for PR without permission, but… no modeling.”

 

“Would you want to?”

 

To his credit, Hansol thinks it over before giving an answer. He doesn’t fidget the way Mingyu or Junhui do—he sits very still and meditative, posture relaxed. A cheesy and genuine smile spreads across his face.

 

“Yeah, probably,” Hansol says. “Depending on the opportunity. Might be cool.”

 

Minghao better turns to face him on the couch. He abandons his can of beer on the ground and says, very seriously, “Then I have an opportunity for you.”

 

He explains the concept for Seventeen’s winter spread, how they’re looking for independent models, how Minghao himself is looking for someone fresh. 

 

“The brand you’d be representing is from Jeju,” he says, and doesn’t miss how Hansol’s eyes fly to Seungkwan across the room. “They’re new, a start-up combating fast fashion with—” he stumbles over the pronunciation of these words, “sustainability and biodegradable materials.”

 

“I’ll do it.” Hansol is still watching Seungkwan. There’s a smile in his eyes. “Uh, when is it?”

 

The product isn’t arriving until next week and two weeks are needed to finalize the set. At least the interview is already scheduled; one of the editors knocked it out first thing. Minghao guesstimates, “In three weeks or so. Preferably a Thursday or Friday.”

 

“Sure thing. Do I… get paid?”

 

“Of course!”

 

“Should I bring anything? What should I wear?”

 

Minghao considers this. 

 

They’re deep in conversation, beers completely forgotten, when Mingyu interjects. He slams onto the couch next to Minghao and squishes everyone together at the hips. His body weight pushes the couch back and it scrapes against the wall at one corner. Minghao knows without turning around that the paint has been violently peeled at the crash zone, and Hansol’s openmouthed dismay only confirms it.

 

“Oops,” Mingyu says. “I’ll fix that.” Undeterred, he grabs Minghao’s hand and pulls them both to their feet. He accidentally kicks over Hansol’s empty can and it goes rolling across the rug. “Oops, I’ll fix that too. Hold on. Myungho, I have to show you something.”

 

“What are you—oh my god, don’t run into the shelf.” Minghao squeezes his hand hard, like that will subdue Mingyu’s sudden devolution into a hurricane. 

 

Mingyu drags them into the bedroom and shuts the door so they’re alone and face-to-face. Well, the guests definitely think they’re either fucking or fighting right now. What the hell is going on? Minghao crosses his arms and waits for the other shoe to drop. Something awful must’ve happened to warrant this.

 

Instead Mingyu makes two excited, childish fists and leans in closer. “We passed the interview,” he whispers.

 

“What?”

 

“They just called! The investigation is over!” 

 

Minghao drops his arms. “Holy shit. We passed.”

 

Then he throws himself at Mingyu. They laugh into the hug, joyful and relieved. An enormous pressure lifts off Minghao’s chest. He feels almost dizzy with weightlessness, a shocking and instant relief like being plunged into warm water on a freezing night. It’s over! They won!

 

He holds tight to Mingyu’s waist, face tucked into the curve of his throat, and thinks, we did it, we did it, thank you, I love—

 

Well, he can’t say that.

 

“Thank you,” Minghao says instead, lips pressed against Mingyu’s collarbone. “Thank you for helping me.”

 

Mingyu moves one hand up to rest on the back of Minghao’s neck. “No problem.”

 

The hug lasts far longer than it should. Minghao doesn’t realize at first because he’s so confidently, transcendently happy. The heartbeat against his chest is not his own and that’s comforting. In this bedroom they are conquerors, partners in crime who have officially succeeded on their quest, and t his feels like the reward. They have beaten the big boss and opened the treasure chest to discover each other enframed in glass.

 

When they separate, they stay within arm’s reach. Smug happiness radiates from Mingyu. He smells a little like red pepper paste, a little like smoke, and his eyes are very soft looking over Minghao’s face.

 

“We just committed a federal crime together,” Mingyu says slowly, as if coming to this realization for the first time.

 

“Yes.”

 

“That’s… so badass. We’re like Bonnie and Clyde.”

 

“Sure.” Minghao stares at his mouth.

 

Mingyu notices, because Mingyu always notices, and shuffles forward so Minghao has to tilt his chin up to make eye contact. They are close enough for toes to touch. At some point this morning, they started gambling with their proximity and he doesn’t know how to stop, or what the rules are. He wants to kiss and be kissed.

 

But Minghao can’t . Not like this. He flinches and steps backward. His ankle hits the bed frame with a loud noise that breaks the tension. Mingyu looks away. 

 

It leaves a hollow sort of hurt behind. There’s discomfort in the downward pull of Mingyu’s mouth for a moment before he straightens and puts himself neatly back together. How awful. He really is an incredible actor—if Minghao didn’t know better, he’d think the moment was made up entirely in his own head, but Mingyu was affected.

 

Something almost just happened.

 

Maybe he should’ve let things escalate. Maybe Mingyu had been on the same wavelength, had wanted to kiss him. That’s... a possibility. Minghao would be stupid not to consider that Mingyu might be attracted to him. But what if Mingyu is just getting restless after a few months without sex? What if Minghao is just the most convenient option?

 

The problem is, he doesn’t know what’s real.

 

Mingyu looks just past him, towards the door. His eyes are distant. “Do you want more meat? I think I’ll grill the rest of the pork now.”

 

He brushes past Minghao and exits the room. Politely, he closes the door and offers an illusion of privacy amidst the party. Minghao sits on the edge of the bed and drops his head into his hands. He’s so fucked.





 

Summer brings along a new routine for the apartment. Things settle into normalcy. Mingyu volunteers once a week, works at the gym three days a week, and spends a lot of time reconnecting with friends one-on-one. He returns home with engaging stories about his day. Minghao comes to know the regular gym patrons like he came to know Mingyu’s students. 

 

A few weeks after the end of the school year, at the end of a grueling shoot which Minghao had jumped into as a second photographer, Minghao receives three texts.

 

From: Mingyu

hey just a heads up my sister is at the apartment
idk how long she’s staying

From: Minghao

Is it okay if I come home? Or should I hide out somewhere

 

From: Mingyu

no it’s fine!!
but you might prefer to avoid the drama hahaha

 

From: Minghao

I’ll be there in ~30 minutes 

 

Minghao pockets his phone. He knows next to nothing about Mingyu’s sister, only her name and that she was threatened by bad men nearly ten years ago. They don’t have a great relationship—that’s obvious from context clues—but just how rare is a visit from Minseo? Sibling relationships are mind-boggling to Minghao. He is, for better or worse, horribly curious.

 

So he doesn’t hesitate to return to the apartment. He does pick up dinner, as he’s prone to do on Wednesday nights when he knows Mingyu has spent the day volunteering, but this time he also stops by the florist near Seventeen and arranges a simple bouquet of gladiolas and peonies. Just to be nice. 

 

And maybe to make a good impression on Minseo.

 

The elderly cashier, Seohyun, remembers him. “You’re the orchid boy,” she says.

 

There are worse ways to be labeled. Minghao nods. “I enjoyed the flowers last time, thank you.”

 

“Your Korean has improved already,” she says. “You must have a good teacher.”

 

Minghao doesn’t want to explain that his language skills most benefit from arguments with Mingyu. He smiles and thanks Seohyun. She has that twinkle in her eye that older people sometimes do, when they notice a familiarity, which makes Minghao wonder how universal his experiences are. Maybe someone else out there once led a very similar life.

 

He likes the idea. 

 

Clutching an enormous bag of takeout chicken in one hand and flowers in the other, Minghao hurries up the steps to the apartment. He has to set the chicken down to unlock the door. He doesn’t hear screaming yet, so that’s a good sign…

 

Mingyu is sitting alone at the table. There is no one else in the apartment. 

 

“Hey.” Minghao pats Cha Cha and sets the takeout bag on the table. “Is she still…?”

 

Looking up, Mingyu takes a deep breath as if waking from a long sleep. He shakes his head. “No, Minseo left.” His voice is flat and sharp. Then he sees the flowers and his whole face softens. Like ice cupped in a palm. “Did you get those?”

 

“Yeah, I thought—” Truthfully Minghao was thinking only humiliating things. “I wanted to make a good impression, I guess.”

 

Mingyu takes the flowers and puts them in a vase. He moves like he developed arthritis this afternoon, like his body hurts down to the soul. It’s awful to watch. Minghao has seen Mingyu distressed a dozen different ways, but never like this. He should’ve come back sooner. Maybe he could’ve prevented this somehow.

 

While Mingyu takes a moment to bury his face in the flowers, Minghao unboxes their chicken. There’s an extra pair of drumsticks, meant for Minseo but now meant for leftovers, that he packs into the fridge wordlessly.

 

Only when they’re sitting at the table together does Minghao poke at his rice and tentatively ask, “How did it go?”

 

“She’s pissed at me,” Mingyu shrugs. He peels the skin from his chicken but doesn’t eat it. “Obviously we don’t—we’re not close. But it still sucks.”

 

“If you want to talk about it, I’m here.”

 

“I’ll tell you about her.” Mingyu stops fiddling with his chopsticks. His bottom lip is already chewed to hell and back, but he begins rubbing his teeth along it as he speaks. “We fought a lot as kids. Our parents made us compete for everything. But when they died, we only had each other, so things got better for a while. We were friendly, at least. The police told me to distance myself when the threat came. They’re hoping the murderers will think we’re estranged from each other and that she’s not viable leverage.”

 

Minghao doesn’t know what to say. Each layer of this situation gets more complicated and heart-wrenching. Again he thinks of how lonely Mingyu’s life story seems, though you’d never guess from the way he carries himself.

 

“So we don’t talk,” Mingyu continues. “I try to keep us in contact with a few texts or messages on social media, but she blames me for the way things turned out and she holds a grudge. Tonight—she saw the ring and—”

 

Mingyu’s face crumples. Instead of crying he starts vigorously eating his chicken, chewing with a forced exaggeration, effectively ending his explanation. If he sniffles while eating, he doesn’t acknowledge it.

 

But Minghao can’t eat. He feels sick. If Minseo doesn’t know about the threat and the money, from her perspective it would seem that Mingyu suddenly shut her out at age 16 and never looked back. She thinks her brother abandoned her after the most difficult period of their shared lives. She blames him when nothing is Mingyu’s fault.

 

An irrational anger rises in Minghao. He wants to jump to Mingyu’s defense, but he knows he has no place meddling with family business, so he shuts himself up with rice. 

 

When Mingyu stops to take a breather, his eyes are red-rimmed but dry. He glances at Minghao and tacks onto the end of his story, almost like an afterthought, “She’s the reason I started smoking, actually.”

 

“Really?”

 

“My parents smoked all the time. I always liked the smell, and they told me it was an adult way of relieving stress. So after Minseo and I fell out…” He shrugs. “I picked it up. It’s a bad habit, yeah, but it still feels good.”

 

Minghao has been very clear about how much he loathes smoking. The smell, the sight. He hates it all. But even this—Mingyu’s most intolerable trait—looks different when he understands its origins better. It’s a coping mechanism. He softens.

 

“Sorry for giving you so much shit,” he says.

 

“No, it’s okay.” Mingyu half-laughs and busies his chopsticks with carving a mountain of rice. “Keep doing it, maybe I’ll quit one day.”

 

“That’s your decision to make. I’ll support you either way,” Minghao says with feeling. “I don’t want to dictate how you live just because we live together. It’s hard enough you can’t tell anyone the truth about…” He waves a hand at the general world. “This.”

 

You’re boxed into enough corners, he thinks. And I never want you to resent me .

 

Minghao hadn’t meant to say all that. Nonetheless, it’s true.

 

Mingyu gives up on what’s left of his meal and closes the box. “Thanks,” he says, keeping his eyes firmly on the table. “But that’s not true.”

 

“What do you mean?”

 

“I told Soonyoung,” he says. There’s a tremor in his voice when he continues. “A couple months ago. He knows about the payments, the visa, the interviews. Everything.”

 

“Oh.” Minghao sits back. “Why did you tell him?”

 

He tries to reconcile this knowledge with what he knows of Soonyoung. Energetic, charismatic, inclusive and welcoming. All of Mingyu’s friends have been kind to him and Soonyoung is no exception. He hasn’t once treated Minghao with distrust or suspicion.

 

“It wasn’t on purpose. He’s known me the longest and after a few pointed questions he just figured it out, basically.”

 

“Did he tell anyone?”

 

“No! No way.” Mingyu brushes his fringe out of his eyes. His words come faster, spilling over one another like he’s afraid Minghao will walk away before he can offer an explanation. “He would never do that, I promise. He laughed his ass off when I admitted the truth, but... He understands why we’re both doing this.”

 

That settles something unquiet in Minghao’s chest. Honestly, it’s no a surprise that Mingyu got caught by at least one friend, and at least this way he has a confidante. 

 

Their conversation is interrupted by Cha Cha, who has grown bored of not being the center of attention. She barks at Mingyu, tail wagging, until he’s forced to his feet. He sweeps Cha Cha into his arms and bounces her a few times, to which she looks mollified. Needy bastard—Minghao likes her so much.

 

Mingyu looks over at him. “Are you mad?”

 

“Nah.” Minghao stretches both arms above his head. Actually, he’s feeling extra relaxed. Like they cleared the air a bit, released some hidden tension. “Someone was bound to find out, it’s okay.”

 

Mingyu’s relief is palpable. He swings Cha Cha in a few energetic circles and makes kissy noises in her ear. His earlier sister-induced stress seems to be melting away, and once again Minghao finds himself admiring Mingyu’s resiliency. He wants to be the kind of person who comes home after a hard day armed with only cuddles and honesty. 

 

“Okay,” Mingyu says. He stares off into the kitchen for a few long moments and Minghao follows his gaze to the flowers. “I think I’ll take her for a walk soon. She’s getting all riled up.”

 

“I’ll come with you.” Minghao moves to stack their styrofoam for the fridge.

 

Mingyu gives him a very soft smile. “Tell me about your day now. Bet it wasn’t as exciting as mine.”

 

“Hell no, it wasn’t,” Minghao snorts. 

 

His day was neutral, boring until he came home. They strap a leash onto Cha Cha and walk leisurely to the park. Minghao talks through the update on his latest project, Jeonghan’s antics to escape the dreaded company party next month, the cashier at the flower shop. Mingyu is content to listen. 

 

Later Minghao finds the vase moved into their bedroom. It dominates the bedside table where Mingyu’s phone usually charges. He catches Mingyu touching the flowers several times before they go to sleep, and each time his gaze is too remote to understand, like this thoughts are floating in a pink-hued universe far, far away.







The afternoon that Hansol is scheduled to shoot, it rains.

 

Minghao doesn’t notice. He’s been in the studio all morning, putting finishing touches on the set and listening to last-minute updates from Seungcheol about the post-production schedule. Rain is no deterrent for an indoor session.

 

Bad weather is, however, terrible for traffic.

 

Hansol calls twenty minutes before go-time. The designers from Jeju are already here, two tall and gorgeous women with a short-haired assistant, setting up on a rack in the corner and chatting with the editor who interviewed their CEO earlier this month. They do not look particularly flexible.

 

“I’m so, so sorry,” Hansol says. “I’m gonna be late. Not long, just twenty minutes maybe. There was minor flooding on the train tracks.”

 

“No problem,” Minghao says, even though it is most definitely a problem. He grits his teeth. “Hey, just stay safe and let me know when you’re almost here.”

 

After months of climbing the ladder at Seventeen magazine, Minghao has reached a comfortable position above foreign newbie and just below respected artist that he isn’t keen on losing. Twenty minutes is no small delay when the studio is only scheduled for a 90-minute session. If word gets out about his independent model failing to be on time, it will reflect badly on him.

 

People gossip here. Minghao learned that after Jeonghan’s brilliant reverse smear campaign. He needs a distraction and he needs one fast.

 

Think, Minghao, think.

 

He hurries over to the product table. Away from the spotlights, he can wipe nervous sweat from his temples and make cheerful small talk with the designers. Maybe they’ll mention an imperfection in the clothing. He can offer to stall for their sake—which is perfectly respectable and professional and not his fault .

 

Unfortunately the clothes are immaculate.

 

Five minutes before they’re meant to begin shooting, the studio doors burst open. Jeonghan and two giggling interns sweep inside. Though he’s wearing a very nice suit, Jeonghan is uncharacteristically disheveled, hair askew, and carrying a cardboard box. He almost forgets to bow to the designers before making a beeline straight for Minghao. There’s a manic gleam in his eyes.

 

You ,” he says in lieu of a greeting. “The shoot hasn’t started yet, right?”

 

Oh no. Is Minghao about to get in trouble? With his favorite coworker? He shakes his head, scrambling for an excuse. “No, but—”

 

“Perfect. I’m borrowing you for a minute. Friend emergency.”

 

Friend emergency. Not coworker emergency. Minghao perks up a little, agrees, and excuses himself to the designers. He trusts the favor won’t take too long and at least this way, any initial delay in the shoot won’t be Minghao’s model’s fault. It will be Jeonghan’s fault. Jeonghan who is once again coming to his rescue, albeit unknowingly.

 

They hurry to the elevator. An intern in a bowtie takes the box from Jeonghan so he can answer his vibrating phone and jab the first floor button incessantly. “Hello?” He holds the phone with his neck and shoulder. “You’re not coming. Yeah, I figured. It’s fine. I replaced you with someone more handsome anyway.” He looks significantly at Minghao.

 

Minghao’s face must be a storm of confusion, because the ponytail intern—Eunwoo! He remembers in a flash—leans closer and whispers, “He’s proposing to his partner.”

 

“Right now?” The elevator jolts to a stop and Minghao almost falls over. His hand lands hard on the box and one flap opens to reveal hundreds and hundreds of red rose petals. “Yoon Jeonghan, what the…”

 

The lobby of their building is bisected by a wandering trail of rose petals across the carpet. Passerbys in business suits, likely on their way to the floors hosting law firms and corporate offices, politely step over the trail. It leads to the service elevator. 

 

Jeonghan hangs up the phone, points at Minghao, and says. “Please wait here for Joshua. His bandmate was supposed to come but she bailed and I need your help. Just take him up the service elevator to studio 6 and knock 3 times, I’ll be there to answer.”

 

“Wait. You’re really doing this?” Minghao isn’t prepared to suddenly play a vital role in his friend’s proposal. He’s wearing… well, actually, he’s wearing Balenciaga. Could be worse.

 

Eunwoo nods emphatically. “Seungcheol gave us permission.”

 

“Ah, Myungho.” Jeonghan claps him on the shoulder. “Always in a tizzy about the rules. Don’t worry. He’ll be here any second, you won’t be late. But if something happens call me . I need to run back upstairs. Good luck. And—don’t tell him anything! No matter what he asks!”

 

As quickly as he appeared, Jeonghan leaves, bundling the interns away with a sweep of his sleeve. Minghao is left bereft in the lobby. The security guard makes eye contact with him and chuckles. 

 

What will he do if Joshua’s running late? He doesn’t know Joshua to be a tardy person, but the rain is steadily picking up. Condensation runs down the tinted glass doors. Minghao wanders closer to peer outside at the roiling sky. Is this meant to be a surprise despite the very obvious rose petals? Jeonghan’s master plan eludes him. Minghao has no idea what to do. It’s hilarious.

 

At least he doesn’t have to wait long. The door opens, an umbrella closes, and Minghao comes face-to-face with Joshua in a nice blue button-down.

 

“Oh!” Joshua’s surprise warms into a smile. “Hey, Myungho.”

 

“Hey!” Minghao’s voice comes out too cheerful and high-pitched. His heart thuds in his chest, suddenly afraid he’s going to send this proposal crashing and burning by blurting out something stupid. He’s not an actor, dammit. “What a surprise. You’re heading upstairs?”

 

“Yep, just on my way to steal coffee.”

 

“I’ll walk with you.” Minghao shoves his hands in his pockets and follows the trail of rose petals, which, if Joshua notices, he doesn’t point out. 

 

Before they can reach the service elevator, a familiar voice calls him back. “Myungho!” 

 

Hansol is jogging across the lobby. He’s out of breath, his hair and shoulders are soaking wet, but he aims a bright, gummy smile in their direction. The security guard gives Minghao a very dubious look. Well, the timing for all this could be better.

 

“Sorry I’m late.” Hansol shakes out his hair and pants. He’s like a puppy returning from the puddle. “I ran the last few stops.”

 

“You’re fine, don’t worry.” Minghao feels like there’s a ticking time bomb screwed into his brain. “Join us, we’re headed upstairs now. We’ll get started.”

 

He introduces Joshua and Hansol as quickly and politely as he can. Joshua looks a little confused when they press the button for the service elevator, and for the first time his eyes drop to the flower petals. They narrow. His eyebrows furrow. His lips part around the beginning of a question and...

 

“Hey, Joshua,” Minghao says in a rush. “You’re fluent in English, right? So is Hansol.”

 

Immediately Hansol asks him a question in English. It’s a perfect distraction. They start chattering away and Minghao lets the unfamiliar sounds rush past his ears. A row of flickering LED candles are waiting in the elevator, because of fucking course they are , but both guests are too preoccupied to spare more than a confused glance. Button for the correct floor: pushed. Questions: avoided. Minghao takes a deep breath. He’s doing it!

 

When they arrive, Joshua looks a little lost, like he doesn’t know where the breakroom is from the service section of the hallway. That was probably exactly Jeonghan’s intention, hence the need for a guide who could lead him towards the surprise.

 

“Let me show you the studio first,” Minghao says, interrupting their slowpoke English conversation. He walks quickly in the opposite direction from the coffee and doesn’t give Joshua a chance to answer. 

 

But Joshua stays firm and still. “Sorry, I’ve only got a second. Next time?”

 

“This time?” Minghao puts on his best cute smile. 

 

“I really need to see Jeonghan…”

 

“We’ll be quick, I promise.”

 

His stomach curdles with guilt when Joshua reluctantly nods. It’s not me, he wants to explain. I’m not being an inflexible dick on purpose!

 

Minghao gathers his flock of two and heads for studio 6. A vaguely familiar executive with killer eyeliner passes by and gives Hansol an appraising look, which might actually be approval. Some of the tightness in his chest lifts away.

 

The massive doors at studio 6 are shut. Minghao knocks three times, slowly, and steps back. Hansol looks impressed, Joshua looks politely distracted. One thumb fiddles with his front right pocket.

 

The doors open slowly. A row of gentle spotlights click on. The first thing Minghao sees is a red carpet scattered with rose petals. Faint music—heavy metal, if he’s not mistaken—is playing in the background. Jeonghan stands several meters from the door, hands behind his back, a twinkle in his eye, looking extraordinarily put-together in juxtaposition to his earlier mess. He smiles.

 

“Hi,” Jeonghan calls. He sticks out one hand and wiggles his fingers like come here, come on over . “Joshie.”

 

Eunwoo is set up with a single camera at the edge of the carpet. Suddenly Minghao understands why all of this was necessary. Jeonghan not only has a flair for the dramatic, but also a desire to capture the most intimate moments in his life with images, like most photographers do. Minghao included. The studio, thought an unorthodox proposal location, is a perfect mix of creativity and privacy.

 

This is really happening. Joshua steps forward, sways a little like he’s half-surprised out of his own body, and continues with quick steps. They whisper something to each other, too low to hear. Sweet smiles are traded like secrets between them. 

 

Then Joshua gets on one knee. He pulls a little box from his front pocket.

 

“No way,” Hansol mumbles into Minghao’s shoulder, a hand coming up to cover his mouth. 

 

Holy shit. Minghao might actually cry at work . He presses a clenched fist against his lips, but it’s no use. Tears burn at the corners of his eyes. The way Joshua and Jeonghan look at each other is soft and familiar, well-worn with an affection that speaks to years of companionship. Watching them now feels like being dropped into the climax of a romcom, but he can’t tear himself away.

 

Joshua’s words aren’t audible from this distance. But Jeonghan suddenly shouts, “Yes, yes! My turn!” and throws himself on his knees so they’re sitting on the floor together, holding twin boxes and surrounded by flower petals.

 

Now it’s clearly time to go. Minghao backs away slowly, leaving the couple to their semi-privacy, gesturing for Hansol to follow. They walk the hallway in silence until Hansol turns and says, “Wow. Is it always this exciting here?”

 

Minghao laughs. It sounds a little hysterical and watery. “Oh yeah, we get a proposal every day.”

 

“Sweet.”

 

They’re only ten minutes late to the shoot. Apparently word has already spread of “the studio 6 proposal” from Sehun, and the Jeju designers aren’t bothered in the slightest. Whatever remained of Minghao’s stress floats away. He sprint-blinks and pulls himself back into professionalism. He gets behind the camera.

 

Hansol emerges from the changing room with a timid smile, only to be barraged with compliments from everyone in the room. 

 

It’s nice to watch him bloom under the spotlight. Minghao was right—Hansol is a natural. Even Sehun looks impressed, and Sehun usually maintains an air of aloof neutrality.

 

All Hansol has to do is focus both eyes on the distant horizon, tilt his jaw a certain way, and…

 

“There,” Minghao calls. “Perfect. Don’t move.”

 

Click click.

 

He overhears a designer’s soft voice. “He’s really handsome, isn’t he? We should contact his agent.”

 

Minghao resists a smile. Checkmate. If he can promote diversity and kickstart a friend’s potential career, he’ll be very happy. He makes a mental note to ask permission to pass along Hansol’s information. The executive from earlier might be interested, too. She likely has better connections than Minghao or even Seungcheol. 

 

When the shoot is completed, Hansol tries to return the clothing, but the designers are so happy with the preliminary shots that they insist he keep the clothes. 

 

“Don’t worry, that’s pretty common on the modeling side. By wearing their clothes around with your face, they’re hoping you become a casual brand ambassador,” Minghao explains as he pack ups his equipment. “Like an Instagram influencer.”

 

“Take it as a compliment,” Sehun adds, clapping Hansol’s shoulder with one hand.

 

Hansol still looks lost, holding the folded clothes like they’re spun from gold, and Minghao suddenly remembers that Hansol is younger than him. He’s struck by fondness.

 

“Hey,” Minghao says, folding the last tripod with one hand. “If you want to hang out for another thirty minutes, I’ll buy you dinner.”

 

Hansol’s eyebrows shoot up his forehead. He clearly wasn’t expecting an invitation like that, but he fumbles the clothes delicately into his bag and agrees. 

 

Minghao hurries to close up the studio. He feels like he’s channeling his inner Jeonghan—or worse, his inner Junhui—when he leads Hansol down crowded streets towards the closest cafe. He hasn’t had the opportunity to be a mentor-figure in a long time. Settling into that position again, he realizes how much he’s missed it.

 

Even better—he can actually do it. He’s established enough within the company, within the city, to offer decent advice. 

 

“...which is why I prefer indoor shoots,” Minghao says, opening the door for Hansol. A berry-scented wave of cold air greets their arrival. “I have no idea what the models prefer. If there’s a consensus or not.”

 

“Wow.” Hansol nods. “Maybe indoor. Just for temperature regulation, you know?”

 

“Oh—good point.”

 

Minghao shares anecdotes about the fashion industry. Hansol has excellent questions which prove he’s thinking seriously about pursuing modeling.

 

Talking one-on-one, Minghao can better appreciate Hansol’s steady personality and how he is almost certainly the lynchpin in Mingyu’s friend group. Since he’s surrounded by so many louder, stronger personalities, Hansol probably does a lot of background work to mediate the atmosphere. Like Minghao enjoys doing. He feels a weird camaraderie between them—he can’t wait to tell Mingyu about it later.

 

As they chat over salads and noodles, Hansol admits, “My sister is really the one encouraging me to go for it. I said today would be my trial run, and honestly, it was fun.”

 

“I’m glad you liked it!”

 

“Yeah. I’ll probably look into getting an agent or signing with a company, I guess.” Hansol looks preemptively fatigued, his eyes going heavy above his steaming bowl of udon. “I’ve already made more money as a model than a rapper. Hah.”

 

Minghao sips at his soup. “Let me know where I can buy your music. I’d love to support you.”

 

Maybe that’s coming on too strong, but Minghao as an artist has many thoughts about supporting other artists—it’s a moral obligation. Hansol does look surprised, but the type of resigned surprise where he’s learning that he can’t escape Minghao’s deliberate support. 

 

Minghao feels more and more like Jeonghan every minute.

 

Hansol’s grin is a little wry. “Sure. But you don’t have to be so nice to me, Myungho. We like you already. Our friend group, I mean.”

 

“Oh.” Is that what he thinks this is? Currying favor with his partner’s friends? “No, that’s not…”

 

“Pretty sure Soonyoung’s exact words were like, Mingyu finally exhibits half an ounce of taste ,” Hansol says in a funny, fast-paced impersonation. “Also… with the promise rings. It’s kinda obvious.”

 

Minghao’s heart flips. “What’s obvious?”

 

“That you’re serious about each other. Mingyu’s never been into jewelry before. So, obviously, we support that. ”

 

It’s fake , he wants to say. It’s fake! We’re lying to your faces! Soonyoung knows better than anyone!

 

What he actually says is, “Shame. He looks good in gold.”

 

Hansol laughs. The show goes on.




 

 

Later, he gets a short text from Jeonghan that just says Thanks for your help xx. A photo is attached, clearly one of the preliminary shots from Eunwoo’s camera, of Joshua and Jeonghan kneeling on the carpet together. They’re so sticky with love. It fills him with an uncomfortable, reluctant jealousy. No one has ever looked at him like that

 

Luhan used to call him toasty , for the way Minghao’s palms would spread over his skin, gentle and warm. A ridiculous pet name. But Minghao was weirdly fond—proud—of hearing that he could make someone happy with only his touch. What if he never finds that with anyone again? What if love is so unrecognizable from relationship to relationship that he misses the signs, like he almost did with his feelings for Mingyu?

 

He settles deeper into the couch cushions and closes the message.

 

This text has arrived during a disagreement on which art movement has the most impact on modern internet memes. Minghao is insisting on Dadaism but Mingyu says Conceptualism and he’s got receipts . They’re evenly matched between Minghao’s more experienced eye (working in tandem with his Korean dictionary app) and Mingyu’s surprising and thorough knowledge of art history. It’s the most fun he’s had in ages and he doesn't want to ruin it by getting distracted.

 

In the background, a rerun of Knowing Brothers plays on TV.

 

Minghao passes over the bowl of chips and returns to the problem at hand. It takes a second of quick thinking to rewind the conversation in his brain. “Haven’t you seen entire conversations of people online where it’s just crying cat image followed by demonic cryptid eye photo followed by gif of boy shrugging . That’s art. That’s the definition of nonsensical, it’s avant garde. It’s Dadaism.”

 

“Demonic cryptid eye photo?” Mingyu echoes. His face scrunches together in frustration and he shoves a too-large chip in his mouth. “I don’t think so. Memes have been around forever as a means of communication, they’re just more accessible now online. It’s more like Conceptualism. Even when they’re ridiculous they still have meaning .”

 

The bowl starts to tip. Minghao lunges forward to catch it and ends up halfway on top of Mingyu, who doesn’t seem to notice or mind, so he stays tucked under his arm for better access to the snacks.

 

“Dadaist art has meaning, too,” Minghao says, mostly just to be contrary.

 

“Definitely. But the purpose of the meme, as an art form, is to convey a message. Conceptualism fits that better.” Mingyu is half-paying attention to the TV, glancing between Minghao and Hodong every few seconds, but his words are still passionate. “Dadaism is way too specific to have that much influence. It plays a secondary role, if anything. Like Minimalism.” 

 

“I think we’re both right in different ways.”

 

That makes Mingyu turn and grin. “You just don’t wanna admit you’re wrong.”

 

This is true. “Ask a neutral third party. We need another opinion.”

 

He scoffs. “Like we could have this conversation with anyone else? Seokmin doesn’t know where the color orange comes from.”

 

“You’re welcome for bringing culture and spice into your life,” Minghao says, jabbing a finger into Mingyu’s side. “Seriously, what did you do all day before me and Cha Cha? Clean?”

 

Mingyu jerks like a man under a defibrillator once, violently, and shoves Minghao’s hand away. 

 

“Oh my god, you’re ticklish,” Minghao gasps. “How did I not know this! Prime embarrassing material. This is going in the Husband Manifesto.”

 

“You have enough embarrassing material on me.” Mingyu cards a hand through his bangs. The edges of his voice catch on a drowsy wine. “Leave me aloooone.”

 

Minghao does not leave him alone. Partly because he’s bored and nostalgic, partly because this is fun. He continues to poke at Mingyu’s ribcage, sleuthing across that vulnerable geography, until he hits a spot high on Mingyu’s side that makes him squeak .

 

Minghao almost tumbles off the couch laughing.

 

Although his face is flushed, Mingyu is laughing too. Helpless tiny giggles. He swats Minghao away for good, using force this time, and they settle onto separate cushions with the chips balanced in between.

 

“You’re so mean to me,” Mingyu says, but it’s painfully fond. A smattering of applause comes from the TV as a line of women in fashionable school uniforms enter the stage. Mingyu refocuses on the screen and brightens. “Look, it’s that girl group Seungkwan likes.”

 

“Which one?”

 

Minghao had been using Mingyu’s distraction to stare openly—he wasn’t ready to suddenly be face-to-face when Mingyu turns back to him. The world goes rushing away. Serrated blue light from the TV cuts across Mingyu’s lips, shiny and smiling. There is space between them now, but moments ago they were tucked together like teenagers huddled in the back of the theater. It would be so easy to overbalance and tip forward, a butterfly to a dewdrop…

 

Oh, how Minghao wants. He’s never wanted like this before, panning at the river of Mingyu’s affection.

 

He almost does it—what he didn’t have the courage to do during the barbecue party—he almost tackles Mingyu back into the couch and showers him with kisses from forehead to cheeks to collarbones. He imagines the whole scene in a heartbeat, how Mingyu’s nose would scrunch in a smile. How he’d laugh, how he’d squirm.

 

What stops Minghao is looking over the cliffside and knowing that one move would change everything. They would never be able to walk backwards and return to this uncomplicated, couch-cushion affection. If he kisses Mingyu right here and now, he’s laying all his cards on the table, and he’s not sure he has a winning hand.

 

He wouldn’t be able to endure feeling nostalgic for this moment. He just wouldn’t.

 

Onscreen, someone falls out of their chair laughing. The sound is enough distraction for Minghao to break eye contact. His ears are hot and he struggles to take a deep breath. Have you ever been so in love you could die of it?

 

Mingyu swallows hard. Whatever he was thinking during that mini staring contest, he doesn’t voice. They turn their attentions to the TV and maintain their fragile equilibrium. 





 

 

A few days later, Minghao’s phone buzzes while he’s on the bus. Before he even flips it over to check, he knows it’s his father.

 

He stares petulantly at the screen. It’s an innocuous follow-up to his father’s earlier question about how to reset the internet router. Hello ??? Three question marks, just like that.

 

Ignoring a text is rude. Ignoring a double-text from one of his parents is plain disrespectful. But he can’t help it—lately the phone has become an annoying reminder that they can’t be together.

 

Texting wouldn’t be necessary if Minghao could just open his bedroom door and engage in conversation. Pressing the button on the right back side of the router is simple, he’s shown his dad a hundred times, and things would be easier if they were sharing the same space.

 

The homesickness is making him weirdly resentful. Sometimes he lets the phone die so he’s unreachable. Sometimes Mingyu, looking vaguely puzzled, will approach him on the couch, hand over the phone, and say, “Hey, you left this in the kitchen.” 

 

Minghao will pretend to be glad it’s returned.

 

Today, at least, he has an excuse. He’s busy; the bus is currently three stops beyond the Seventeen building. Emerging on the following block is Junhui’s apartment building. He flips the phone over and vows to reply in a few hours.

 

It’s mid-June and Junhui has finally invited him over for an apartment tour, which Minghao is commandeering and turning into a small birthday celebration. He’s carrying a wrapped pair of white wool shoes from the Jeju company’s sustainable collection and a bag of summer cherries that were on sale at the corner market.

 

One thing Minghao failed to consider is that Junhui’s apartment is gorgeous .

 

He almost misses a step entering the lobby. Everything is sleek and silver. A mermaid fountain stands 3 meters tall, ringed by leather couches. There’s a doorman. He takes a long elevator ride to the 17th floor, where he knocks and enters a bona fide paradise. Floor-to-ceiling windows, a loft above the kitchen, a refrigerator taller than Minghao’s body.

 

It is the definition of luxury.

 

“I can’t believe you live like this.” Minghao turns in a circle in the middle of the living room. “I’m like, obligated to constantly remind you of your humiliating past. Remember when you forgot to pay for that milk tea and got chased down the street?”

 

Junhui is already busy leaning against the kitchen counter and shoving fresh cherries into his mouth. He’s wearing silk pajamas, which makes the whole scene even funnier.

 

“Shut up,” he mumbles around three pits. 

 

“When are you throwing a rager?” Minghao remembers the bacchanal Junhui organized after high school graduation. It was a night of legend and illegal substances. Not something he’d like to repeat, but with this environment, Junhui could throw some truly classy dinner parties.

 

Junhui sighs. “That’s on the agenda. Maybe after we finish recording for this company.”

 

Minghao makes a noise of assent and crosses the room. “You have a gaming computer.” He peers at the bulky, unfamiliar mechanics on the desk. “You don’t even game.”

 

“Wonwoo’s teaching me.”

 

“Oh, huh. How’s that going?” He doesn’t mean the gaming.

 

Of course Junhui understands. Gracefully he pushes off from the counter and floats across the living room. When Junhui stands here, the room suddenly makes sense. Decadence and class fit his face, his lithe hips, his regal neck. Once upon a time he’d told Minghao his goal in life was to be a beautiful thing surrounded by other beautiful things, and it looks like he’s made it.

 

Junhui pauses before answering. “I don’t think I’m ready yet.”

 

This is unimaginable. After what Junhui put Minghao and Mingyu through, there should be no hesitation. Minghao crosses his arms and asks, “Why not ?”

 

“It needs to happen the right way. Wonwoo deserves…” He bites his lip. “Better than dancing at a club for our first date. I need... I don’t fucking know, a fancy restaurant and an expensive watch.”

 

Minghao can’t believe what he’s hearing. It’s as if he and Junhui had switched hearts sometime in the last few months and they were only figuring it out now. Those words are something he would’ve said oh, maybe last year, while Junhui laughed and selected a pretty face for his nightly adventure.

 

“You don’t need that.” Minghao scratches at his hairline and tries not to think of Mingyu. “If it’s the right person… those things won’t matter.”

 

“What if he’s not the right person, and I just want him to be?”

 

Minghao crosses the room to latch onto Junhui’s elbow. “Then it’s better to try with your heart than your wallet.”

 

Junhui snorts. His eyes are faraway, his mouth a twisted and humorless smile. These thoughts have obviously been plaguing him for a while now. Thinking fast, feeling pressured to cheer Junhui up on his birthday celebration of all times, Minghao keeps talking.

 

“Look, I don’t know what kind of relationship you have,” he says. “But if I’ve learned anything since moving to Seoul it’s that you have to let go of expectations. If you haven’t asked Wonwoo what he wants, you can’t assume he’d like being treated that way.”

 

“I just want to treat him right ,” Junhui despairs. “I’ve never taken things seriously before.”

 

“I know. But maybe Wonwoo likes staying in and having tickle fights on the couch—” Okay, getting too specific. “Or some casual shit. There are a hundred million ways to show someone you love them, is what I’m saying. Your job isn’t to figure out the best way, it’s to figure out Wonwoo’s favorite way.”

 

Junhui looks at him in surprise. He covers Minghao’s hand on his arm and squeezes, tactile and warm. “That actually makes sense, little frog. When did you get good at love? You’ve only dated one person.”

 

He’s joking, but Minghao can’t lie to his best friend for anything. The moment stretches and snaps. He doesn’t know what his face is doing right now, but his traitorous brain is rewinding through a montage of soft moments with Mingyu and how the question of love hovers around his lips.

 

Junhui tilts his head down like he’s looking over a pair of glasses for the full inquisitive stare.

 

Minghao steps back and busies himself by stealing a cherry from the bag. “I’ve just been thinking lately.”

 

“About Luhan?”

 

“No.” The answer is so quick and emphatic he doesn’t have a safe explanation. Mingyu Mingyu Mingyu, his heart cries out. He bites his tongue. “Just about love, I guess.”

 

“I see.” Junhui nods. “You’ve caught feelings.”

 

Here is where Minghao makes his mistake: he tries to play it too cool. “No, who would I even have feelings for?”

 

Junhui smiles like the cat who got the cream. “Hah! You’re so defensive! It’s Mingyu, I fucking knew this would happen. As soon as I got to know him, he reminded me of you.”

 

Abruptly Minghao abandons all pretenses of nonchalance. He is wildly indignant that Mingyu could leave a first impression similar to his own. “But we’re so different!”

 

“Yeah, at first. There was something beneath, though.” Junhui shrugs. “I’m not surprised you get along well, that’s all. What about him? Are you guys making the relationship real?”

 

“God, no way. We haven’t even...” Minghao trails off and shudders, thinking of the kisses again. He’s accepted his own feelings, but he's no closer to conveying them to Mingyu. The maybe-almost-something more moments don’t mean anything without actual conversations. “I don’t know how he feels. The situation is complicated.”

 

“No shit. You’re married.”

 

Minghao throws an overripe cherry at Junhui’s neck. When it bounces onto the floor, Junhui pouts and rescues it and eats the cherry. Like a caveman. Disgusting. Minghao pretends to gag and Junhui laughs.

 

“So what will you do?” Junhui presses.

 

“I haven’t decided yet,” he says, even as he thinks try to survive and try to enjoy it at the same time. 

 

Minghao will continue thinking about kisses like fireflies, a flash and then gone, that he stole over the dashboard. He will continue turning away from Mingyu when he laughs, lest his heart dive bomb from his chest and splatter all over the floor between them. He will continue soothing nightmares and sharing chicken takeout.

 

Eventually something will break. Mingyu will figure out that Minghao has real feelings, or the marriage will end and they’ll go their separate ways for better or worse. He isn’t naive, he knows this is a temporary middleground. Minghao is only riding the waves.

 

Junhui seems unconcerned with his indecision. He throws an arm over Minghao’s shoulders, shoving two cherries into his own mouth and mumbling around the stems, “Okay. Come look at my sound system.”

 

“I bet you play LION at full volume.”

 

“Maybe.”

 

“I bet your neighbors hate you.”

 

“Maybe!” Junhui taps his chin. “You know what, I’ll just seduce Wonwoo and leave the feelings for later.”

 

For that Minghao throws two cherries. It becomes a competition of who can catch more in their mouth, which Junhui wins, because he has otherworldly body control and a total lack of inhibitions. They order jajjangmyeon delivery and joke the evening away.




 

 

What shatters this pseudo-domestic life is not the government. Not Wonwoo. Not the people who murdered Mingyu’s parents. What brings reality crashing down on Minghao is a phone call after work one night, when he and Mingyu are sitting on the balcony tossing a tennis ball between them as Cha Cha races back and forth.

 

The sky is the color of bruised peaches. Minghao answers the phone with one hand and tosses the tennis ball a final time. Mingyu takes charge and waves the toy in front of Cha Cha’s crazed, panting jaw. He leads the dog inside.

 

“Hello?” Minghao stands up for better reception and leans against the railing. “Dad?”

 

“Hi there. How’s work?” 

 

“It’s going well. We have a deadline coming up soon.”

 

“That’s good, that’s good.” There’s a pause over the line. It’s rare that Minghao’s father calls first. He’s not the talkative type, preferring to send short voice messages about the neighborhood drama or photos of the garden. His father continues, “I just wanted to check in. I hope you’re trying hard at the office.”

 

Minghao smiles, even though his father can’t see. “Always. Where’s Mom?”

 

The answer comes rushed. “She can’t talk right now.”

 

“Oh.” Surprise hardens into dread. He wraps a hand around the railing and looks over the neighborhood, but he sees the inside of his childhood home, imagines where his father is sitting on the chair by the TV. “Is everything okay?”

 

“Nothing to worry about,” his father says, which is obviously a lie.

 

Minghao is incapable of convincing his mother to tell him anything. His father, on the other hand, will cave after a few well-timed questions. This isn’t something he can do often—it feels disrespectful in some ways—but he has a bad feeling and he wants to know what’s really going on.

 

Casually he asks, “Actually, I had a question for her about frying fish. Is she sleeping?”

 

“No, she’s out.”

 

“Okay, then I’ll just call her now.”

 

His father sighs. “Don’t, she’s—” There’s the sound of shuffling. "Alright. She doesn’t want you to know this. But she’s at the hospital getting ready for surgery in two days. It’s better not to interrupt.”

 

The balcony seems to drop from beneath his feet. Surgery in two days? His mother? Questions pour forth and his father struggles to answer each one, punctuating his explanations with, “Don’t tell your aunt. Don’t tell your grandmother.”

 

Minghao puts the phone on speaker so he can look up the type of surgery and ask questions at the same time. It’s an oncology procedure with a list of associated risks. The situation is serious , dammit, and they weren’t even going to tell him about it. He’s angry. Even though he doesn’t vocalize it, his father knows.

 

“Her affairs are in order,” his father says. “There is nothing to worry about. We can only wait.”

 

Minghao closes his eyes. His mother prepared a will and testament. That means she has thought deeply about her own mortality, about what will happen if she doesn’t survive this surgery. There is a chance she won’t. Minghao tries to think about that and lasts zero seconds. 

 

He takes the phone off speaker and presses it tightly to his ear. “I’m coming home.”

 

“You shouldn’t miss work.” His father argues but it’s weak—he wants to see Minghao. “She doesn’t want you to worry. There’s nothing you can do here to help us.”

 

“I’m coming home,” Minghao repeats.

 

“Okay,” his father says softly. “Okay.”

 

The surgery is in two days. Minghao bids his father farewell and looks up flight information with shaking hands. He’s still leaning on the railing, heavily now, the cold metal jutting into his gut. Flights are expensive, but there’s one leaving at the crack of dawn tomorrow morning. He needs to get home. 

 

He’s filling out his passport information when Mingyu steps back onto the balcony. “Hey,” he says, face outlined in gold from the setting sun. “Everything okay?”

 

Minghao feels a tight pressure in his chest. He shakes his head. “I have to go back to Anshan.”

 

Minghao turns to face him, leaning his back against the railing instead. The words process slowly for Mingyu—his brows scrunch together, his mouth parts like he’s about to argue, then he settles and bites his lip. 

 

“What?”

 

“My mother’s having surgery in two days.”

 

48 hours. The urgency hits him like a locomotive to the chest. Minghao doesn’t have time to explain himself. Gently he pushes past Mingyu and fetches his suitcase from behind the couch, where it’s been gathering dust.

 

Mingyu trails behind him. “I’m so sorry, is she okay?”

 

“I don’t know.”

 

“Wait,” he says, and it’s unclear if he’s speaking to himself or Minghao. “Wait, okay, have you told your boss? Is this allowed with your type of visa?”

 

“Yeah, it’s allowed. I haven’t told anyone, I just found out.”

 

In the early days of this arrangement, one particular night when Minghao was lying on the couch feeling sorry for himself, he read the fine print about his visa. He could leave the country anytime he wanted as long as the trip didn’t exceed three weeks. He’d held that knowledge close to his chest for a while—until it didn’t matter anymore. Until he stopped feeling homesick so often and started deliberately spending time with Mingyu.

 

Minghao drags the suitcase into the bedroom. He tosses his phone on the bed, plane ticket half-purchased. 

 

“Hold on.” Mingyu follows him again, hands dragging through his hair. “Slow down. You have to get Seungcheol’s permission before buying a flight. That’s—that’s how things work, even in emergencies. Do you want me to email him right now?”

 

Deep down, beneath the panic and shock and fear, he knows Mingyu is trying to be helpful. But ever since his father ended the call, Minghao has been in survival mode. Act first, think later. Get home. That’s all he can focus on, like his thoughts are a staccato rainfall drumming against the top of his head and soaking his whole body. Get home, get home.

 

“It’s fine, I can do it myself,” he mutters, throwing open the drawers and pulling out whatever of his own clothes he can see. Doesn’t matter.

 

Mingyu starts pacing the length of the bed. “How long will you be gone?”

 

“I don’t know.”

 

“When are you leaving?”

 

Panic bites at Minghao’s heels. He blows his fringe out of his face and moves faster, shoving socks into the suitcase. “Tonight, later. I don’t know.”

 

“Let me drive you to the airport.”

 

“I’ll call a taxi.”

 

Mingyu stops walking. “Minghao, talk to me .”

 

The earnest plea gets through to Minghao. His hands settle quietly over the suitcase zipper. He sits on the carpet and looks up, through the storm in his heart, at Mingyu’s crossed arms and concerned face.

 

Mingyu continues. “Should I go with you?”

 

Minghao frowns. “ Why ?”

 

The very idea of Mingyu accompanying him home to Anshan is too much . It’s not a concept Minghao can fit into his brain right now, it would need preparation. He resumes frantically packing. He moves to the closet and dumps practically everything he owns into the suitcase. Clothes are piling up haphazardly and wrinkling as they speak, but he doesn’t care.

 

“To keep up appearances. I don’t know, we’re supposed to be—to be—” Mingyu fumbles his words. “Would it be suspicious if I stayed here? I can come along if you want, it’s no trouble.”

 

That stings. How Mingyu is willing to drop everything and follow Minghao to another country, just to keep their sham marriage intact. He doesn’t want that. He would want a homecoming like that to be real . Minghao’s heart is beating too fast, from the adrenaline or the shock, he doesn’t know. What he does know is that he can’t deal with this right now. 

 

“The investigation is over.” Minghao tucks his camera bag into a corner of the suitcase, then wraps it with a few thick shirts. “We don’t have to pretend to like each other anymore.”

 

He meant in a more-than-friendly way, but that’s not how the words are taken, he can tell, because Mingyu laughs. It’s a breathy, hurt laugh. More disbelief than humor. 

 

“Right,” Mingyu says. “Okay, nevermind.”

 

Shit. No, he can’t let that slide away unacknowledged. Minghao knows what happens to people who get on planes with miscommunication in their pockets and he doesn’t want that extra baggage. He wrangles the inner hurricane and bites his lip so hard it hurts.

 

“I'm sorry,” he says. “That’s not what I meant.”

 

Mingyu sits on the edge of the bed. “It’s okay.” There remains a dark look on his face that he needs to physically shake away, sending his hair flying in a sideways wave. He fiddles with one sleeve. “Just let me know if you need anything, I guess. Situations like this are…”

 

The thought doesn’t need completion. Situations like this are unexpected but always dreaded. And if there’s one thing Mingyu hates, it’s feeling useless. Minghao tries to center himself and remember that.

 

“I have to go home.” Minghao zips the suitcase with finality. “I don’t know when I’ll be back. There’s nothing you can do, so don’t feel bad. Or, actually—could you just—“

 

There is one thing Mingyu can do for him right now.

 

Unfortunately Minghao doesn’t know how to ask for this yet. He has just enough confidence to step forward and take it. He manages a single, trembling step and half-collapses into Mingyu’s chest, dragging him close, wrapping tight arms around his waist. Mingyu softens into the embrace like he was hoping for it. They cling to each other, off-balance, on the edge of their bed. 

 

Minghao adjusts so he’s not quite straddling Mingyu, but doesn’t let go. He rests his chin comfortably on Mingyu’s shoulder, breathes deeply. Things will be okay. He strokes Mingyu’s hair, gently tangling his fingers in the short strands at the back of his neck.

 

“Will you hold on to the ring for me?”

 

“Of course.” The answer is accompanied by a pleasant tickling sensation. They’re pressed so close together that Minghao can feel it in his own chest when Mingyu speaks.

 

When they pull apart, Mingyu offers him a tight smile. Nothing is fixed. Unfortunately a good hug can’t solve all of his problems. But! Minghao does feel better. Tenderly he squeezes the sensitive spot he’s taken to touching, where Mingyu’s shoulders meet his neck. He twists off his wedding ring and folds it into Mingyu's soft hands.

 

“Thanks,” Minghao says. He sighs. “Okay. I need to get ready.”

 

So he buys a ticket. Singular.

 

He finishes packing the suitcase. He leaves the drawers half-empty and riotous. Mingyu follows in his wake, tidying the space, hovering like he doesn’t know what to do with his hands.

 

Minghao sends a long email to the big boss, then forwards it to Seungcheol and Jeonghan with an extra apology attached. He sits on the couch because he can’t stand to look at the bed right now. Mingyu disappears into the kitchen, presumably to force him into eating before calling a taxi to the airport.

 

Leaving this life behind is a strange thing to consider. Minghao went to sleep last night with no thoughts of going home, no intentions of giving up. A small part of him is rejoicing at the prospect of seeing his family, his hometown, but it’s bittersweet. 

 

Sometimes life throws a wrench the shape of a diagnosis into your plans. He thinks he must return to Seoul eventually—he can’t quit his job—but the future feels like a frightening dark fog descending around him.

 

The worst part is Minghao has no control. The next few days will be made of simply waiting. Waiting for the flight, waiting for his mother’s surgery, waiting to hear back about Seventeen’s emergency leave policy. 

 

There is a chance he could be fired for not filing the correct paperwork on time. He doesn’t know. He skimmed that section of the employee handbook.

 

At the last minute, while Mingyu is still puttering around the kitchen, Minghao throws open the closet doors and takes a sweater that doesn’t belong to him. It’s black and simple and soft. Too hot to wear now, but he’s familiar with the cold nights of Anshan when the sun goes down, and he’ll want comfort. He doesn’t care what Mingyu will think when he sees it missing. 

 

It turns out he doesn’t have enough time to eat a full meal. His phone dings with a notification from the taxi app.

 

Mingyu shovels rice and pickled vegetables into a bowl anyway, puts the chopsticks in Minghao’s hands with an annoying urgency. “How long until the car is here? Eat faster.”

 

Minghao grumbles out an approximation of, “Fifteen minutes. Fucking relax, I’m already stressed out.” Then he sighs and course-corrects. “Thank you for the food.”

 

Carrying his bowl into the living room, he fishes out the key from his wallet and places it on the table. He doesn’t know when he’ll be back and Mingyu often needs a spare. For a moment it feels like the wrong decision—because when he sees Mingyu’s face, the hurt is obvious.

 

“I’ll text you when I board,” Minghao says. Obediently he eats some rice.

 

“And when you land, please.” Mingyu’s mouth is thin.

 

“I’ll keep you updated.”

 

The car arrives. This time Mingyu pulls him into a hug first and presses his lips tenderly to Minghao’s forehead. It’s definitely not a kiss.  But when Mingyu moves back, his lips drag deliberately upwards and tingle against sensitive skin. His affection is bold and distinctly romantic. Minghao's heart is dead in the water.

 

“Take care,” Mingyu says.

 

They linger in the doorway. In Minghao’s stuttering, hopeful eyes, this isn’t a goodbye. But god, does it feel like one.

 

So he draws away and doesn’t meet Mingyu’s gaze. “I’ll call you,” he chokes out, suddenly overcome with a dizzying grief, afraid he’s losing something irreplaceable. 

 

He turns and walks robotically down the stairs, greets the driver, and loads his suitcase in the trunk.

 

The drive is unfamiliar and speckled with the cheerful colors of summer. Downtown revelry is kicking off with outdoor barbecues, fairy lights, flashes of an indoor pool full to bursting. Windows are thrown open so the night is rich with pop music and laughter. As much as he doesn’t want to admit it, these could be his last moments in Seoul, so Minghao leans his head out the window and drinks in the sensations. They’re a welcome distraction from the home he just left behind and the home he’s unwillingly hurtling towards. Their separation has never felt so distinct before.

 

Sometimes irreconcilable things happen. Disaster strikes. What matters right now is getting home to see his family and everything beyond that is negotiable. Even his job. Even his marriage.

 

Minghao laces his fingers in his lap and doesn’t cry, even when the plane takes off. 

Chapter Text

有情人终成眷属 

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. 

 

To: Mingyu

Sorry for the late response
I made it here, everything’s fine

The surgery’s at 10am tomorrow

 

A response comes in seconds.

 

To: Minghao

glad to hear it
tell your parents I said hellooooo
and fighting!!

[...]

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 .

 

To: Mingyu

Why is the dog on the bed!! she’s not allowed!!

...Cute tho

 

To: Minghao

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?”

 

“Yeah.”

 

“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?”

 

“A bit.”

 

“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. 

 

“I don’t.”

 

“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.”

 

“What?”

 

“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.”

 

“Me too.”

 

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.”

 

“Thanks.”

 

“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.”

 

“Is she?” 

 

“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.”

 

“Night, Minghao.”

 

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.

 

“Hi.”

 

“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?”

 

Mingyu shrugs.

 

“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.”

 

“Wow. That’s—bold.”

 

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.”

 

“Nope.”

 

“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?”

 

“Perfect.”

 

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?”

 

“Yeah.”

 

“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.”

 

“Exactly.”

 

“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.”

 

“Really?” 

 

“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.”

 

“...Fine.”

 

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—”

 

“Yep.”

 

“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.”

 

“You’re sure?”

 

“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…”

 

“Cuddle?”

 

“Mmhmm.”

 

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 ?”

 

“Yeah. Why?”

 

“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. Hey.”

 

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.”

 

“Oh.”

 

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.”

 

“Okay.”

 

“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.”

 

“Right now?”

 

“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.