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be mine, starboy

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It’s the tension of the summer heat, Hongjoong tells himself, along with the sludgy, gray reality of living as a working adult that makes him agree to go on a road trip with Seonghwa.  

Seonghwa doesn’t even really ask, they just somehow...end up deciding it together like they do with everything else. No planted seeds of ulterior motives on either end of their relationship, just thoughts and ideas that often end up converging despite how different they are as people.           

“I’m going to drive down to LA to visit some of my university friends next weekend,” Seonghwa says. 

It is nearing ten in the evening, and somehow it is still hot enough indoors that Hongjoong can feel the underarms of his thin t-shirt dampening ever so slightly.  

Both Seonghwa and Hongjoong are on the bed, having slept together a few hours ago. Hongjoong should have left by now, but he’s made a...habit of staying over at Seonghwa’s apartment for dinner and sometimes until the next morning, too. Seonghwa’s bed is large and soft, and its owner is even softer personality wise, so Hongjoong can’t be blamed for wanting to overstay his welcome when Seonghwa is always so accommodating.    

Seonghwa is lying on his stomach as he looks through work emails on his slim, expensive laptop, his long pretty legs out on display because he’s only wearing a t-shirt and briefs, with the sort of naturally smooth, hairless skin that Hongjoong can only obtain if he’s feeling inclined enough to shave and moisturize. Hongjoong is curled up against him in a perpendicular fashion, using the dip of Seonghwa’s lower back as a not so soft pillow while he scrolls through social media on his phone without much of a purpose.   

“Really?” Hongjoong hums. “Sounds fun.”  

“Yeah,” Seonghwa says. “I figured I’d take Monday and Tuesday off, too, to relax for a few days.”    

“What are your plans?” 

“Besides the one day I have reserved to meet up with my friends and get whisked around the city on whatever attractions we didn’t get to visit together as students, not much,” Seonghwa says. “I’ll probably do the same stuff I do here, just in a different city.” 

“Honestly?” Hongjoong says. “That sounds perfect. You’ll have a good time relaxing, too.” 

“...Do you want to come?” Seonghwa asks, and Hongjoong stills. 

“What?” 

Seonghwa clears his throat. “It seems like you’ve been stressed out from work lately. It couldn’t hurt to use some of your free days on a little getaway, right?” 

“I’m fine, I think—” 

“You never let yourself take a break,” Seonghwa says. “Your muscles are probably all knotted up, too.” 

“I think that’s from something else,” Hongjoong jokes, and he laughs when Seonghwa bashfully tells him to shut up. “Wouldn’t I just be a bother? They could want to hang out with you for longer.” 

“Not at all,” Seonghwa says. “They know about you anyways and they’d love to meet you, so why wouldn’t you be able to hang out with us?” 

“That’s…” Hongjoong sits up to look at Seonghwa. “You told your friends about me?” 

“Why wouldn’t I?” Seonghwa says, turning to glance at Hongjoong. “You’re lovely. And we spend so much time together.”  

“Oh my, Seonghwa,” Hongjoong says, with a lightheartedness to his voice that he hopes covers up the familiar tug in his chest he’s been trying to ignore for months. “You’re just full of sweet things to say.” 

“I mean all of them,” is Seonghwa’s reply. He always comes across as genuine, one of the many good traits about his personality that makes it so difficult for Hongjoong to stop spending time with him. “It’d be nice to have you in the car with me while I drive.” 

“You just want someone to keep you company so you don’t fall asleep on the I-5,” Hongjoong says, and Seonghwa smiles at him. 

“That’s a bonus,” Seonghwa says. “I like being around you.” 

“What if I want to listen to noisy music the whole way?” Hongjoong says. “And put my feet up on the dashboard?” 

“The AUX is yours,” Seonghwa says agreeably. “And putting your feet up on the dashboard would be rude to the drivers around us, but if you really wanted to…” 

“Fine, fine, I won’t,” Hongjoong says. “I guess I want to go. Is it really okay?” 

“If it wasn’t, I wouldn’t have offered,” Seonghwa says.  

“You try to feed me all of your food even though you’re hungry, too,” Hongjoong says. “I can’t trust you because you’re too selfless.” 

“That’s different from a road trip,” Seonghwa says, and...well, Hongjoong can’t really argue with that. 

There aren’t many people Hongjoong could see himself sitting in a car with for an entire day. He remembers winter breaks from university where friends and roommates had asked him if he wanted to ride with them in the same car back to their hometown, and how he’d declined every time because he had been more willing to spend the gas money to drive alone in peace. Something about sitting so close in the same car with people he’s not entirely comfortable with has always seemed unbearable until now, and the implication of him anticipating not minding, potentially even enjoying that long of a car ride with Seonghwa is… 

Not going to be dealt with, right now. Hongjoong is simply a man who wants to be in a city of strangers and recklessly put off his deadlines for just a few days before he goes back to being high strung and exhausted from overworking his creative career that non-creatives tend to think runs on purely passion. 

“Okay,” Hongjoong says. “I hope you’re ready for a lot of chaos.” 

“You always say that, but you’re calming to be around most of the time,” Seonghwa says, and Hongjoong runs a hand down the side of Seonghwa’s thigh to distract himself from the way Seonghwa’s voice goes even sweeter than its velvety default. “I’ll let you know the exact schedule when the trip gets closer, okay?”  

“Let me know,” Hongjoong says, agreeing. 

Maybe this is a mistake, he thinks, because he’s never actually been on a road trip with anyone other than his family, but then Seonghwa starts talking about cafes and ice cream shops and potential photo spots he wants to visit if they have the time, and Hongjoong is inevitably pulled into the gentle waves of Seonghwa’s excitement. 

Nothing new, honestly. Hongjoong doesn’t mind matching Seonghwa’s pace when Seonghwa so rarely lets himself have a pace for other people to match, and whatever reservations are lingering in the back of Hongjoong’s mind gradually dwindle down to nothing as the pros of being whisked away on a road trip begin to outweigh the cons. 

Hongjoong has needed a change of scenery for a while, anyways. This is his chance to find some inspiration for his work, as well as indulge in some good old classic escapism.

For the sort of relationship that Hongjoong and Seonghwa have ended up developing, it’s funny that they hadn’t met at a bar, but at a work related event. 

To be more specific, it’d been a networking fair-slash-party that Hongjoong’s boss had “encouraged” (read: forced) him to attend with two of his colleagues, Seoho and Wooyoung, both of whom made the event a little less painful to be at, although all three of them had to peel off to make conversations before they could call it a night and go home. Wooyoung was the social butterfly of their trio, easily charming every single person he met and always ending up with a stack of business cards in his pockets, while Seoho was an introvert who could dig into his battery reserves to put on an energetic front and lure new potential clients in for the future with his eye-smile alone. 

Bored and tired, Hongjoong had been eyeing the last two servings of an appetizer on a tray when he’d heard his name called out to him by an unfamiliar voice. 

“Hongjoong Kim?”

Hongjoong had turned around, then, to locate the owner of that voice, and all he’d thought when he saw the man standing in front of him was…

Unreal.  

The stranger was tall, with a slim build that was perfectly balanced between hard planes and delicate curves. Even through his crisp dress shirt and neat, charcoal colored work slacks, the lines of his silhouette were as pretty as the anatomy studies you’d find from old master drawings, except that those were drawings, perfected through the precise judgment and long accumulated knowledge of artists, while this man just walked around in real time looking like a chiseled sculpture.  

His face, frustratingly enough, was just as gorgeous as the rest of him. Bright, inquisitive eyes stared at Hongjoong with rapt attention, and they were framed by thin, slightly arched eyebrows that made him look a little angry only because they were fuller towards the middle, not because of any genuine displeasure he was expressing towards whoever he was looking at. The line of his nose was strong and defined, as was the shape of his mouth, comprising a pair of thin but pleasantly full lips.      

“I wasn’t sure if it was you because your hair is red now, but I’m glad I recognized you,” the man had said, showing his white teeth in a wide, unassuming smile. Hongjoong had thought the stranger was handsome even before he smiled, but the simple shift in facial expression transformed his features into beauty that was on a completely different level.

“May I know who…” 

“Sorry, I forgot to introduce myself,” the man had said, chuckling. The chuckle had been distinctly nervous, detectable even to Hongjoong’s relatively obtuse sense of other people’s emotions, and Hongjoong had found it difficult to believe he was capable of making someone lose any bit of their composure when they looked the way this man did. “I’m Seonghwa Park. I work with KQ Studios as a recruiter, and I’ve been a fan of your work for a long time.” 

Oh good, Hongjoong had thought dryly, the last potential client to fulfill my outreach quota, but as Seonghwa had drawn him further into conversation, it’d become evident to Hongjoong that Seonghwa’s interest in him as an artist (and a person) hadn’t been just professional. Seonghwa had known too much about Hongjoong’s career timeline for him to merely be good at his research, but he hadn’t tried to talk over Hongjoong like so many other people did, and it had made Hongjoong more open to giving longer explanations about his work because Seonghwa had kept on listening. 

Definitely not professional, Hongjoong had thought absentmindedly to himself an hour later, when he’d ended up in Seonghwa’s apartment, in Seonghwa’s sheets, which were a greenish-gray just like Seonghwa’s fluffy, wavy mop of hair.  

It’d been a rash decision, really, letting Seonghwa take him home instead of a hotel when they were practically strangers, and Hongjoong had kept on waiting for something horrible to happen and for him to have to utilize whatever fighting skills that remained in his muscle memory from his high school years. Perhaps Seonghwa would somehow flip a switch during sex and become an egocentric, violent asshole, or reveal some kink that would leave Hongjoong running and screaming at the top of his lungs. 

There had to be some flaw underneath that airy, benevolent mask that Hongjoong just wasn’t seeing yet, because experience had taught Hongjoong men who looked as good at Seonghwa hardly ever turned out to be the ones worth keeping around. Instead, Seonghwa had just kissed Hongjoong with blueberry minty breath, thoroughly claiming the interior of Hongjoong’s mouth before he’d pulled away and simply let his hands pause at the buttons of Hongjoong’s shirt, waiting. 

“This okay?” he’d asked softly, thumbing at the second highest button because the first one was already undone, and Hongjoong had made his vision re-focus so that he could process what was happening. 

“What?” 

“Are you okay with me continuing?” Seonghwa had asked, gaze steady as he observed Hongjoong’s face. “You seem distracted.” 

“I’m fine,” Hongjoong had said, not exactly wanting to verbalize the crude thought process of just staying alert in case you’re a murderer in case he ended up being right. 

“If you’re not feeling up to it—” 

Hongjoong had put a palm on Seonghwa’s ass, then, before he’d used that as leverage to pull Seonghwa closer. “I’m feeling up to it,” he’d said calmly, as Seonghwa had made a little gasp of surprise at the sudden display of aggressiveness. “I was just wondering if I wasn’t being careful enough.” 

“Careful enough?” Seonghwa had echoed, puzzled. 

“I barely know you,” Hongjoong had said. “And yet…” 

“Oh, you’re right,” Seonghwa had replied, brows furrowing like a puppy who wasn’t sure if he’d done something wrong. “I guess it’s different for me, because I’ve paid attention to you even if it’s always been from a distance.” 

“How creepy,” Hongjoong had remarked, delivering it with substantial sarcasm seeping through the tone of his voice, but Seonghwa had spluttered with so much protest that Hongjoong had already known, by then, that Seonghwa was definitely an outlier of a man in more ways than one. 

With Hongjoong’s dress shirt stripped off properly, Seonghwa had moved on to leaving kisses down the center of Hongjoong’s chest and stomach, although he’d paused and smiled against the soft skin a few inches above Hongjoong’s belly button.  

Confused, Hongjoong had asked, “What?” 

“It feels like I’ve gained forbidden access to a feisty kitten’s stomach,” Seonghwa had said quietly, and Hongjoong had laughed, arousal settling into something steadier, cooler, and less demanding as he’d lazily stared down at Seonghwa.  

“You talk too much,” Hongjoong had said. 

“You were the one who asked me what I was smiling about, though?” 

“It’s normal to be concerned when someone stops in the middle of sex to smile into your nonexistent six pack,” Hongjoong had said, tentatively, and Seonghwa had raised an eyebrow at him. 

“Doesn’t make you any less pretty to look at,” Seonghwa had replied. “Is that the sort of thing your past partner would bring up?”   

Hongjoong’s throat had gone dry, mood souring at the thought of his ex, and he’d just asked Seonghwa to continue, a request that Seonghwa promptly obliged out of the goodness of his heart.  

Seonghwa had fucked Hongjoong the same way he held conversations with him, paying attention to each and every one of Hongjoong’s noises as if he was breaking down each line of Hongjoong’s body language to figure out what he could do better in their next exchange. A good listener, in all aspects. Hongjoong had liked that quality about Seonghwa very much, because Hongjoong was better at being spoiled than he was at taking care of other people, even if he hated directly asking for what he wanted. 

In the morning, Hongjoong had expected Seonghwa to kick him out, had expected for something, anything to go wrong. He was accustomed to being asked to leave by people who’d found him cute in the shadows of the late evening and then regretted sleeping with him in the light of day, and maybe Seonghwa had a pretty little girlfriend who wouldn’t ever find out that he went around fucking men like Hongjoong.   

Hongjoong had sat up to look for his clothes as soon as he’d woken up and remembered where he was, but Seonghwa had trapped him with a slim, wiry arm, asking him, “Where are you going?” 

“Home?” Hongjoong had replied, albeit with some uncertainty now that he was being questioned on a decision he considered logical.  

“On an empty stomach?” Seonghwa had asked, like missing breakfast was a sin, and Hongjoong had almost laughed in disbelief. “Is that because you’re one of those people who throw up if they eat too early in the day, or because you’re too busy to eat breakfast usually?” 

“The latter, I guess,” Hongjoong had said, and Seonghwa had hummed contemplatively. 

“It’s Saturday,” Seonghwa had said after a brief pause. “Do you like pancakes?” His eyes had been sleep-sticky, open at half mast like he was ready to go back to sleep at any moment but somehow desperate for Hongjoong to stay even though their one night together wasn’t supposed to mean anything.  

Hongjoong had always found it easy to say no to people, had never been a fan of agreeing to anything he wasn’t willing to offer in the first place, but Seonghwa had wrapped gentle fingers around his wrist and given him an adorably imploring look, and of course Hongjoong had buckled.  

This doesn’t mean anything, Hongjoong had reminded himself before he’d said, faintly, “Pancakes don’t sound bad,” and then proceeded to ignore the way Seonghwa’s eyes had powered up like a city’s worth of Christmas lights in pure delight at Hongjoong agreeing to stay for breakfast.  

Hongjoong is not sure whether Seonghwa is everything that he tends to dislike in other people, or that it’s just what he’s conditioned himself into disliking so that he has no expectations for the type of love he receives. 

They’re different in so many ways, even if Hongjoong hardly notices it in their conversations. 

Seonghwa likes to organize, and clean, and cook, domestic and admirable in all the ways Hongjoong has never been able to achieve because his heart is never in it. There’s always so much Hongjoong would rather be doing that cleaning and organizing often end up being the last of his priorities, which means they’re tasks that are only completed a few times a year. 

Hongjoong likes family restaurants where he can smell the smoke of grilled meat and order as much food as he wants without having to recalculate the bill to make sure he doesn’t go overboard, while Seonghwa likes expensive rooftop restaurants with nice views and dress codes so formal that Hongjoong feels bad if even one strand of his otherwise perfectly gelled strawberry red hair is out of place. 

Seonghwa adjusts to other people’s energy almost seamlessly, too, so Hongjoong doesn’t notice it until they’re waist deep into whatever this murky pool of a not-relationship is, that Seonghwa doesn’t even like the noisy pop songs Hongjoong gravitates towards, prefers listening to classical and peaceful music that makes Hongjoong personally want to sleep within five seconds of hearing it.  

Worst of all, Seonghwa is frustratingly kind, selfless in all the ways Hongjoong can come across as selfish in that Seonghwa only ever pays attention to other people’s suffering and never his own. Hongjoong doesn’t consider himself someone who deserves that sort of kindness, honestly, especially not as much as Seonghwa, and yet Seonghwa withdraws on himself every time he’s not feeling well, refusing to let Hongjoong comfort him because he would rather be alone. 

This half there, half not kind of distance is confusing for Hongjoong, who decides his likes and dislikes so clearly that they’re almost black and white, although there are plenty of things that fall in the gray area, just not people. Seonghwa wants to cook for him and ruffle his hair and sit through Hongjoong’s favorite tv shows and music videos, but doesn’t ever tell Hongjoong much about himself beyond his day at work or the cute stray cat he’d met during his lunch breaks. 

Hongjoong doesn’t like to play games, especially not invisible mind ones that involve multiple rounds of push and pull until one side gives and the other wins, and there’s only so much of himself he can share before he gets scared and withdraws because Seonghwa isn’t doing the same.

Seonghwa never brings up the topic of dating either, and that’s…

It shouldn’t matter, really, because Hongjoong isn’t great at being tied down anyways. His ex had gotten sick of how busy he was and left him because Hongjoong was “neglectful” and “self-centered” to a fault, even though Hongjoong did his best to make it up to her with bouquets big enough to drown her tiny frame and surprise dates to her favorite destinations. 

Sometimes your best isn’t enough. Hongjoong’s lived long enough to learn that, at least.  

And no matter how much he wants to, Hongjoong never holds onto people who don’t want to stay. Forced love is a wild animal that will always, always try to break out of captivity, and Hongjoong doesn’t have the energy to constantly search for stronger, heavier prisons to chain the people he wants to keep to him for life. Rather than begging and pleading and wheedling, Hongjoong sets himself free and lets his burning hot affection cool from magma into volcanic rock so that the burden of his attachment never traps anyone in its depths.     

There’d been a day where Seonghwa had draped himself all over Hongjoong in a back hug that made Hongjoong feel like he was being covered in a cozy blanket. 

“Can I come to your place?” Seonghwa had asked, and Hongjoong had frowned. Maybe his shoulders had tensed up weirdly, too, because Seonghwa had immediately picked up on Hongjoong’s muscles contracting and asked him if he was against it. 

Hongjoong didn’t like it when people came over because his apartment was always in disarray. A complete 180 from the image he gave off as a person, and Seonghwa wouldn’t like it anyways. Everything was cramped because Hongjoong still hadn’t gotten to the much needed declutter on his belongings that was being pushed back by years rather than months at that point. 

And even if he was reluctant to admit it to himself, Hongjoong hadn’t really wanted to make any memories of Seonghwa in his apartment if he could help it. Knowing what Seonghwa looked like standing in Hongjoong’s apartment, using one of Hongjoong’s favorite mugs or smelling like Hongjoong’s fruity shampoo and conditioner...those would be difficult to let go of for him if they eventually stopped seeing each other. 

Hongjoong liked clean cuts whether they were physical or emotional. It was why the pain of piercings didn’t bother him at all, and also why he ripped off his bandages in one swift motion. Dull, persistent aches were the worst, stretching out into a period of suffering that he could never see a definable end to, while a momentary, intense sting would be gone practically as soon as it arrived.      

“It’s messy,” Hongjoong had said, and Seonghwa had made a vaguely unhappy noise. 

“I don’t mind,” he’d said. 

“I do,” Hongjoong had replied. “I know how you are, and I don’t have time to clean it up to your standards so it’s a hard no.”

“A hard no,” Seonghwa had echoed, voice going flat and then silent for a moment before he’d carefully asked, “Do you live with another person?”

“I live alone.” Hongjoong had paused the game on his phone to look up at Seonghwa, who’d suddenly looked upset. “What’s wrong?” 

“Are you sleeping with anyone else other than me?” 

“No?” Hongjoong had answered, unsure of how the conversation had taken a hard drift into a question he didn’t think Seonghwa would ever ask.  

“Then why…” 

“I don’t have anything to hide from you, Seonghwa,” Hongjoong had said. “If I was sleeping with other people, I’d let you know for your health and safety. It’s just that I don’t want visitors as of right now, okay?” 

“Okay,” Seonghwa had said, sounding not very okay at all, and then he’d gotten up and left the room to “put away leftovers” he’d forgotten to store in the fridge. 

Hongjoong had frowned at the mysterious change in Seonghwa’s mood, not really coming up with anything he might have done wrong before he’d mumbled to the air of Seonghwa’s empty bedroom, “Why is your owner so upset?”  

When Wooyoung hears about Hongjoong missing two days of work next week, he makes a low whistling noise. “Are you going on a trip with your boyfriend?” 

Hongjoong runs a hand through his hair. “He’s not—”  

“Right, my bad,” Wooyoung says obnoxiously, “I meant your not-boyfriend who stares at you with twinkly eyes and picks you up for lunch every Wednesday like clockwork?”

Seoho sticks his head out of his cubicle, the feline curves of his eyes even more pronounced than usual because he’s narrowed his eyes in curiosity. “Oh? Hongjoong has a trip planned with his not-boyfriend?” 

“Seoho, go back to work,” Hongjoong says.  

“I’m taking my first coffee break of the day, except there is no coffee, just Hongjoong gossip,” Seoho says, with a smirk. “Who’s your not-boyfriend? The pretty supermodel guy with glossy skin who looks at you with heart eyes?” 

“See?” Wooyoung says. “Romance, confirmed by your two best friends in this company.” 

“We’re just driving down to LA to hang out,” Hongjoong says with a sigh. Even as just two people, Seoho and Wooyoung are a pack of wolves waiting to pounce anytime there’s an opportunity to tease Hongjoong. “Don’t make it weird.” 

“It’s not weird,” Wooyoung says, tilting his head as he flutters his eyelashes. “It’s sweet.” 

“You’re driving down?” Seoho says. “Damn. Intimate. That’s six to seven hours of one on one time where you can’t escape each other. Sounds very honeymoon-y.” 

“You don’t get to talk, squirrel boy,” Wooyoung says, and Hongjoong laughs. “Didn’t you go on a week long trip in the woods with that guy who’s always on your social media? Geonhak?” 

Seoho’s ears flush a dull red. “He manhandled me into hiking for five days straight. It was awful.” 

“Did he manhandle you in other ways?” Wooyoung asks, wiggling his eyebrows suggestively, and Seoho scowls. 

“Between the hard steel of your desk and the osseous matter of your delicate skull, which do you think is going to win if I smash your head into your keyboard?” Seoho asks, and Wooyoung makes a squeaky noise that Hongjoong thinks is meant to be interpreted as an apology. 

It’s at that moment that Hongjoong gets a text, and he can’t help smiling when he sees who it’s from and the familiar bear emoji paired with the contact name. Seonghwa doesn’t necessarily look like a bear, but Hongjoong had chosen the emoji to use because it was cute and soothing, much like Seonghwa’s personality.   

Hongjoongggg~ I’ll be outside your building whenever you get on your lunch break. 

Got it, coming down in a few, Hongjoong replies, before sending a follow up message: Ramen? 

Yea. You still down? 

Hongjoong sends a gif of a raccoon dunking its head in a bowl of cereal instead of a simple yes, knowing it’ll make Seonghwa laugh when it loads on his phone, and then he slides his phone in the back pocket of his jeans as he stands up.         

“Not-boyfriend has texted,” Wooyoung says, “judging by the way you have unpricklified yourself in a matter of seconds.”  

“I don’t think that’s a word,” Hongjoong says, and Wooyoung shrugs, while Seoho rolls his chair back towards his computer with an unimpressed look on his face now that he can’t have any more fun at the expense of Hongjoong’s dignity. “See you later, though.” 

“Have fun on your not-date,” Seoho says, and he lets out his characteristic, dulcet giggle when Hongjoong swats lightly at him in half-hearted retaliation before heading toward the elevators. 

The middle of “nowhere” always feels like a milder version of hell. 

“It’s too hot,” Hongjoong says as soon as he gets out of Seonghwa’s car. The cardigan he’s wearing is a light, airy material, but it’s still sticking to parts of his skin, and the only way to beat heat like this is to strip down to nothing which is not an option Hongjoong would resort to even if he was allowed to consider it. 

They’ve stopped at Kettleman City off of exit 309 and State Route 41, in the plaza shared by a McDonalds-slash-convenience-store and a Chevron gas station.  

“It’s to be expected, considering it’s July,” Seonghwa says. As usual, he looks completely unaffected by his environmental conditions, in his starchy, unstained white polo shirt and khaki shorts and slip on Vans sneakers. His comma bangs are still in place while Hongjoong has run his hands through his own hair enough times for him to look like he’d never styled them in the first place. “You’ll feel better once we go inside.” 

“Gross,” Hongjoong says. His jeans are sticking to his thighs, too, and he’s grateful that he chose a pair with generously sized holes in the knees, even if the breeze passing through them is just as hot as everything else. It’s always tricky trying to figure out the perfect outfit for drives across the state, when the start and end points are usually significantly colder than whatever atmosphere oven waits for him in the middle. “I’m going to turn into a puddle. How do you still look so perfect?”

“Why does that sound so accusatory?” Seonghwa says, laughing. “You look cute, anyways. Your cheeks are red, and it matches your hair and clothes and shoes.” 

“Don’t look at me,” Hongjoong says, scrunching his nose while Seonghwa laughs at him and explains that it’s a sign of good health to have such a flushed complexion. Seonghwa pays too much attention to the things that Hongjoong doesn’t want him to see. “Buy me ice cream instead.” 

“Sure,” Seonghwa says. “You want me to see if they have strawberry flavored ice cream so you can eat something that matches the rest of you?” 

“Very funny,” Hongjoong says. “I’m going to drive away in your car without you.”  

“Please don’t,” Seonghwa says. He leans into Hongjoong as they walk into the inner part of the building where the McDonalds ordering counter is located. “I don’t want you to leave me behind.” 

Hongjoong thinks that maybe it’s a mild form of heat exhaustion getting to him that makes him feel lightheaded, but when he gets a strong blast of AC in his direction and the too loud pulse of his blood rushing through his ears doesn’t die down, he knows that the dizziness he feels is more because of Seonghwa than anything else. 

When Hongjoong wordlessly gives Seonghwa his credit card so that Seonghwa can pay, their fingers brush for a moment, and it’s nothing out of the ordinary for them, although Seonghwa’s touch does linger a little longer than necessary. 

“I thought you wanted me to be the one to buy you ice cream.” 

“Figuratively,” Hongjoong says, and Seonghwa blinks at him. “You wouldn’t let me pay for gas, so I can at least cover this, right?”  

“It’s enough that you’re here with me,” Seonghwa says, but he keeps Hongjoong’s card in between his fingers to use as Hongjoong wishes.  

“Soda?” Seonghwa says, when Hongjoong nudges him as he’s paying and asks for the addition to their order. “What size?” 

“Medium,” Hongjoong says to the cashier, and she dutifully adds it before handing Hongjoong the correct cup size.   

“The soda’s for me?” Seonghwa asks, raising his eyebrows when Hongjoong comes back from the drink dispenser area and slides the now full cup over to Seonghwa’s side of the table.     

“Sugar to keep you going for the rest of the drive,” Hongjoong says, while Seonghwa swats at a fly that tries to land on their table, shooing it away gently. 

“I wasn’t having any trouble staying awake,” Seonghwa says. Hongjoong can’t disagree; some of the songs on his playlist had been nothing short of cacophonous, experimental enough that Seonghwa would have probably stayed wide awake even without Hongjoong talking to him. “Did you just want more sugar?” 

“Maybe,” Hongjoong says. He makes a cute V sign with his index and middle fingers, and Seonghwa snorts. “But my intentions are mostly good, and I wanted to share.” 

“Your intentions are always good,” Seonghwa says. His smile is especially devastating today, and Hongjoong isn’t sure why. “Thanks for looking out for me.”  

“I wanted to,” Hongjoong says, and then he’s off to get their order when their number is called. 

Hongjoong’s fingers end up vanilla scented and too sticky for his liking by the time he’s done with his ice cream. He’s uncomfortable, but his predicament apparently brings great amusement to Seonghwa, who laughs at Hongjoong as soon as he looks up from his food and sees the way Hongjoong is trying to separate his fingers from each other. 

“You’re usually a neat eater,” Seonghwa says, delicately ripping and peeling back more of the yellow wrapper on his chicken wrap so that he can take better bites. “What happened?”

“I told you to prepare for chaos,” Hongjoong says, making Seonghwa laugh again. “I just wasn’t expecting this.” 

“Go wash your hands,” Seonghwa says, kindly. “You’re going to drip watery ice cream onto your pretty cardigan if you don’t, and then you’ll have even more complaints.” 

“Be right back,” Hongjoong says, getting out of his seat carefully, and as he makes a beeline for the restroom, he wonders why the words pretty cardigan had tasted so much sweeter coming out of Seonghwa’s mouth than the remnants of ice cream on his own lips.     

Seonghwa’s birthday had been a few months back, on the third of April. Hongjoong hadn’t realized, because his deadlines had been dragging him to hell and back and all he’d wanted when he’d been gifted the rest of his Friday off after a long, painful week, was to sleep. He hadn’t been on Facebook either, only logging in occasionally to see who had messaged him and swiping away any other notifications he found irrelevant. 

So when Seonghwa had called, Hongjoong hadn’t thought to hide the fatigue in his voice or considered the reason behind Seonghwa reaching out. “Seonghwa, what’s up?” 

“Do you have time?”  

“Yes,” Hongjoong had said, the same time Seonghwa had mumbled something that sounded like ah, nevermind. “Why? What?”

“You sound really tired,” Seonghwa had said. “I don’t want to bother you.” 

Hongjoong had shaken his head, then, as if one simple movement would get all the exhaustion out of him. “You’re never a bother to me,” he’d said, and Seonghwa had made a chuckle akin to the one he’d made when they first met at that networking event. Nervous, and Hongjoong had tilted his head as he waited for Seonghwa to divulge the reason behind the call. 

“It’s my birthday,” Seonghwa had said. “I’ve been working all day, and I wanted…” 

“You didn’t take the day off?” Hongjoong had asked as soon as realization had sunk in. “What kind of perfect product of a capitalist society are you to not take your birthday off? Especially on a Friday?” 

“That’s not important,” Seonghwa had said, laughing. “Will you spend the rest of it with me?” 

“Wow, yeah, sure,” Hongjoong had said. Then his mind had started bouncing around, because it’d be just like Seonghwa to come up with a way to surprise Hongjoong with some nice, fancy dinner when it wasn’t even Hongjoong’s birthday. “Do I have to get dressed nicely or something? Do you have reservations for somewhere?” 

“No,” Seonghwa had said. “I’ve had enough of that this month just from work alone, so…” 

“So…?” 

“Just a quiet night in,” Seonghwa had said. “We haven’t seen each other in a while.” 

“Right,” Hongjoong had said. “You don’t have any nice friends to keep you company and buy you fancy cake and drown you in balloons? Shall I do that?” 

“I don’t actually like big parties, and they would have definitely done something dramatic,” Seonghwa had said, with a laugh that was significantly more relaxed now. “I wanted something comfortable. Cozy.” 

“I can do that,” Hongjoong had said. “I’ll be a social chameleon just for you, Seonghwa.” 

“I’m fine with you as you are, Hongjoong,” Seonghwa had said, and it’d been so unfair, that just a few words from him was enough to make Hongjoong’s heart feel like it was squeezing in on itself. Death by suffocation hadn’t seemed so bad if it was in the thick, syrupy sweetness of Seonghwa’s inadvertently meaningful compliments, and Hongjoong had tried to make sense of the way Seonghwa’s presence in his life made him feel like he was both floating away into the sky and stuck in place in a jar of honey. 

Hongjoong had been a little wobbly on his feet when Seonghwa had opened the front door of his apartment. “Was traffic bad...” Seonghwa had asked immediately, before he’d looked down and made a noise of surprise. “You brought so much stuff?!”

“Birthday boy deserves all the gifts,” Hongjoong had said. “It’s really not that much; I only dropped by a bakery and a Korean restaurant.” 

Seonghwa had taken the bags from him and put them on the living room floor a few feet beyond his foyer, then he’d come back to pull Hongjoong fully inside. He’d checked what was inside the bags, making a thoughtful noise when he’d realized Hongjoong had gone out of his way to get cake as well as seaweed soup. 

“The soup is nothing like what your mom makes, probably, or what you can make,” Hongjoong had said, as he’d pulled off his sneakers and set them haphazardly next to Seonghwa’s dress shoes that he wore for work. “But I figured it’s sad to make your own seaweed soup and I can’t really trust my cooking, so this is the next best thing.”  

“You didn’t have to.” Seonghwa had pursed his lips, like he was contemplating something. “It means a lot to me, Hongjoong, that you would...”  

“I wanted to,” Hongjoong had said. “We could have both taken the day off, you know? Birthdays only happen once a year.” 

“That’s reckless.” 

“It’s irresponsible, maybe,” Hongjoong had corrected Seonghwa, smiling. “What I used to consider reckless would probably give you a heart attack.” 

“I’m glad I didn’t meet younger Hongjoong, then,” Seonghwa had said. “I was pretty well behaved for a university student.” 

“Of course you were,” Hongjoong had said snidely, as Seonghwa had pouted at him. “Attended all your classes and stayed on top of your assignments and gave valedictorian speech or something, right?” 

“Shut up,” Seonghwa had said, but he hadn’t denied it, and that alone had been enough to make Hongjoong burst out into laughter. “Didn’t you do well in school, too?” 

“I kept to myself and my GPA wasn’t anything worth looking at even if it was above average,” Hongjoong had said. “Nothing so bright and shiny like Mr. Star Student over here~”  

“No bullying me,” Seonghwa had said. “It’s my birthday, remember?” 

“Hmm,” Hongjoong had said. “I don’t think I do?” But he’d smiled at Seonghwa as Seonghwa had whined in displeasure and said, quietly, “Happy birthday, Seonghwa. Sorry I didn’t have a gift ready for you today. Do you mind getting one later, since I’ll be able to put more effort and time into thinking about it?”       

“It’s okay, thank you,” Seonghwa had said. “The best gift is you being here.” 

“Careful,” Hongjoong had said, and Seonghwa’s smile had gone a little uncertain at the edges, like he wasn’t sure where Hongjoong was planning on leading the conversation. “I’m a cheap friend. Might end up not getting you a gift at all.” 

“That’s fine,” Seonghwa had said, predictably, and there’d been some relief in his voice, too, that had confused Hongjoong because he wasn’t sure what Seonghwa had been nervous about before. “Do you want some cake?” 

Hongjoong had held back on a smirk as he’d asked, “What kind?” 

“There’s only one kind—” Seonghwa had furrowed his brows the moment he’d realized what Hongjoong was aiming at, and he’d said with all the strictness of a schoolteacher, “Hongjoong.”

“I’m sorry,” Hongjoong had said, cackling, and Seonghwa had shoved him in the shoulder, hard enough to make a point but not hard enough to actually cause any pain.  

Full of cake and soup and recent, homemade leftovers from Seonghwa’s refrigerator, Hongjoong had ended up falling asleep with his head resting on Seonghwa’s shoulder, lulled into unconsciousness by the pleasant drone of the narrator’s voiceover in the history documentary Seonghwa had watched with fascination. 

“Boring? Do you want to watch something else?” Seonghwa had asked near Hongjoong’s ear at some point, but Hongjoong had shaken his head. He had liked the thoughtful sounds Seonghwa would make whenever the narrator came back to tie up an incomplete idea or theory, and it had been cute that even on his birthday, at nine at night, Seonghwa was still willingly soaking up knowledge with the appetite of a dry sponge under a running faucet. 

In that sense, he was definitely nothing like Hongjoong, and Hongjoong had mumbled something along the lines of that thought, which Seonghwa ended up catching because they were pressed up so close against each other. 

Seonghwa had carded his fingers through Hongjoong’s hair, lightly tugging when he hit a knot and detangling it with the help of his other hand. “Is there something wrong with us being so different?” 

“...Confuses me,” Hongjoong had said. 

“Why?” 

Hongjoong had exhaled, catching a whiff of frosting from his own breath. “People who are too different aren’t supposed to get along the way we do, and yet…” 

“Wouldn’t we just all hang out with ourselves, then?” Seonghwa had asked. “If what we were striving for in our relationships with other people was similarity?” Hongjoong had only shrugged in response, knowing Seonghwa would be able to feel it through where their bodies were touching.

“That’s a good point,” Hongjoong had said. “But still.” 

“I wouldn’t want you any other way,” Seonghwa had said. It was supposed to be reassuring, but Hongjoong had just held himself back from saying that it didn’t really matter because sometimes, it seemed like Seonghwa didn’t want him at all. 

It’s easy to fall in love with someone for their strengths, for all that they’ve achieved and all that they can offer you, but no one has ever pointed out how dangerously effortless it is to fall in love with the small slivers of someone when they let bits of their inner self slip through the cracks. If you collect enough of those pieces, a stray paperclip here, a spare laundry quarter there...you can put together a portrait that depicts the essence of their being more intimate than anything they could ever say about themselves. 

Seonghwa and Hongjoong take two breaks, their second one at one of the last rest stops on the I-5. Both times, whenever they’re ready to hit the road again, Seonghwa adjusts the little round fluffy bird keychain he has hanging from his rearview mirror.  

“For luck, and safety,” he says when he notices Hongjoong watching him pat down the soft green fuzz of the plushie bird’s neck. 

“That’s cute,” Hongjoong says, and Seonghwa smiles shyly at him. 

While Seonghwa drives, Hongjoong takes the opportunity to make all the observations about the man sitting next to him he usually can’t. Seonghwa has this way of making whoever he’s currently talking to feel like they’re the center of the universe, so it’s difficult to pay attention to what he’s feeling and thinking when he so expertly and ardently manages to direct that attention elsewhere on the regular. 

(Or maybe it’s just that Hongjoong is terrible at multitasking, always one step behind in realizing how much someone is paying attention to him because he’s too preoccupied with other things to pay it back.)       

Seonghwa does like some of the gentler pop songs Hongjoong plays, Hongjoong can tell, because Seonghwa will hum along when the chorus comes up and he knows what the lyrics are the second time around, swaying to the beat of the song and swiveling his head ever so slightly if he particularly enjoys the dip and pull of a specific melody. It makes Hongjoong want to try and lure Seonghwa into dancing with him, maybe not at a noisy club but in the comfort of Seonghwa’s living room, pull Seonghwa into his rhythm and see Seonghwa let go of the walls he always builds just low enough that everyone thinks he’s at ease.  

Air conditioning and sun visors do little to reduce the intensity of the blistering heat and blinding sunshine out on interstate 5, which seep in through the car windows from all directions despite Seonghwa’s efforts to keep it out. Hongjoong’s thighs are so warm to the touch, and he avoids moving too much in case it makes him even hotter. They could probably cook an egg on the dashboard if they really wanted to, but he’s smart enough not to check with his fingertips, and he’s still thinking about whether he’ll end up with square shaped tans on both of his legs because of the rips in his jeans until he catches sight of Seonghwa. 

Underneath such strong, direct lighting, Seonghwa’s skin is even more golden, even more sunkissed, and his irises are almost honey brown as he briefly glances at Hongjoong and sends Hongjoong a small smile. There’s kindness, and affection, and curiosity in that smile, all bundled up and diffusing through the rest of his facial features, too. 

How cruel, Hongjoong thinks to himself, that the universe would be so generous as to give him a taste of Seonghwa Park without letting Hongjoong have even a chance at keeping him. Quite unfair, really.    

“What’s up?” Seonghwa asks, directing his eyes back at the road. “Are you too hot?”   

“I’m fine, just a puddle of goo,” Hongjoong says, closing his eyes. The magic of Seonghwa’s beauty has only dimmed a little, when he opens them again after calming himself. Bites down on the urge to possess what was never his in the first place. “Are you tired?” 

“Nope~” Seonghwa reaches over for the cup of Coke and shakes it a little, the ice cubes inside still solid enough to rattle against the sides of the cup and the straw. Hongjoong is pleasantly surprised that they haven’t melted down and diluted the soda into a watery version of itself. “You got me this, remember?”  

“My acts of kindness are so rare,” Hongjoong says. “How could I forget?” 

Seonghwa laughs. It’s a sweet, delicate sound, and Hongjoong hates that over the few months he’s known Seonghwa, he hasn’t gotten sick of hearing it yet. Just like how he hasn’t gotten sick of Seonghwa worrying over him dressing too thinly, or Seonghwa nagging at him to sleep earlier, or worse, Seonghwa in general. 

“You’re plenty kind, Hongjoong, no matter how much you try and sweep all of your nice gestures under the rug,” Seonghwa says.   

“Doesn’t mean I’ll stop trying,” Hongjoong retorts, and that earns him a loud snort from Seonghwa. 

A little while later, Hongjoong wakes up disoriented, neck sore from having bent it at a weird angle while he fell asleep. 

“Did you drool?” Seonghwa asks playfully, when he hears Hongjoong make a confused noise in the back of his throat. 

Hongjoong wipes at his mouth and his fingertips come back dry. “No?” he says, before narrowing his eyes. “What are you trying to say? Don’t look at people while they’re sleeping, Seonghwa.” 

“You’re always telling me not to look at you,” Seonghwa says, chuckling. “Have you ever stopped to consider that it’s very difficult not to?” 

“How smooth of you, Seonghwa,” Hongjoong says. “You do realize that me agreeing to sit in a hot, burning car for twelve hours with you means that I like you enough already?”

“Doesn’t hurt to try and make you like me some more,” Seonghwa says, and as Hongjoong looks away, he wonders idly how many hearts Seonghwa has broken this way without ever realizing it. Flowery words are dangerous when there’s no definitive intention behind them, like dusted sugar that melts away in seconds to reveal sour candy that stings if you keep chasing the illusion of sweetness.   

“You’re tolerable,” Hongjoong says. “A little likeable, even.” 

“My mom used to tell me, when I was little and we were driving through here, that the mountains were just giant leopards sleeping,” Seonghwa says, changing the subject. 

“Because of the spots?” Hongjoong asks. 

“Yes,” Seonghwa says. “Once I grew up, she started saying that they looked like leopard spots because I wasn’t so easily fooled anymore, and she forgets that she says the exact same sentence every single time we pass through this area.” 

“Parents are like that,” Hongjoong says. His mom does the same thing, tells him whenever he goes home for a visit about how the neighbors two blocks away have renovated their home once again even though Hongjoong had been living at home during the time of those renovations. “Do you get along with your parents?” 

“I think so,” Seonghwa says. “My mom’s more protective. She was the one who defended me when I came out to my family and my dad was upset with me.” 

“Came out?” Hongjoong says. The reveal of information from Seonghwa comes as a surprise, because it’s not necessarily something Hongjoong had been probing for. “Your family knows…?”

“That I’m gay?” Seonghwa says. “Yes. It was a little difficult at first, but I was already living away from home and supporting myself financially, so it was just a matter of my dad coming around and understanding that I wasn’t any less of his son just because I liked men.” 

“Must have been hard,” Hongjoong says, chewing on his bottom lip, and Seonghwa makes a noncommittal noise. 

“Are you out to your family?” Seonghwa says. 

“No,” Hongjoong says. “I get along with them, though.” 

“That’s fine, too,” Seonghwa says. 

“It gets a little tiring when my mom keeps asking about whether I’m considering getting married,” Hongjoong says. “Though my brother’s doing the whole nice wife and solid tech job thing, so there’s not a whole lot of pressure on me to be the successful son.” 

“You are successful,” Seonghwa says, frowning. 

“You know what I mean,” Hongjoong says. 

“The way you say it, though…” Seonghwa pauses, before continuing. “It sounds like you’re bothered by not being able to tell them.” 

“Sometimes I am,” Hongjoong says. “It’s not like I’m only attracted to men, so it seems unnecessary to announce that to my family and give them unnecessary stress. Even if it’s dishonest, even if it’s… like I have to always hold back on a small part of who I am, I don’t have the motivation to deal with a potential fallout over something that was preventable in the first place.” 

“Mmm,” Seonghwa says, before adjusting his grip on the steering wheel. “I understand.” He sounds like he’s been transported somewhere far away, and Hongjoong isn’t sure whether it’s his doing or just that Seonghwa’s own thoughts have wandered off to a destination he doesn’t like. 

“That’s a lot to share, I guess,” Hongjoong says. “Sorry.” 

“I like when you share things about yourself, so don’t apologize,” Seonghwa says. “Isn’t that obvious, by now?” 

“You never…” 

“Never what?” 

“You don’t talk much about yourself, though,” Hongjoong says. “It makes me think…” Hongjoong doesn’t talk much about himself when he doesn’t care about whoever’s at the other end of the conversation, so whenever Seonghwa remains withdrawn, Hongjoong feels like he’s just one person among many vying for a (semi) permanent spot in Seonghwa’s life and failing horribly. 

“I’m not all that good at talking about myself,” Seonghwa says. “What do you want to know?” 

“I’ll give you a laundry list’s worth of questions later, because my brain cells are fizzling from the heat right now,” Hongjoong says, and Seonghwa laughs sweetly. 

“Sure,” Seonghwa says. “I’ll be waiting.”

Prospectively, Hongjoong’s laundry list of questions would look something like this: 

What was your childhood dream? 

What are your love languages?

What are you most afraid of? 

Do you ever sing when there’s no one to hear you? 

What is your favorite season? 

What traits do you find admirable in people? 

And on the back, if Seonghwa ever thought to flip the piece of paper over, he’d find the one question Hongjoong hasn’t gathered the courage to ask despite it being the most important one. 

If I asked you to be mine, would you stay? 

In the comfort of an air conditioned, large hotel room that Hongjoong would have never stepped in if not for Seonghwa, with two double beds and a view that overlooks the city landscape and decor that looks way too expensive to be replaceable, Hongjoong wakes up from the dreamy heat of summer. 

Oh no, he thinks, as Seonghwa comes out from the bathroom, his hair darkened to a charcoal black color because it’s still wet from the shower and his forehead exposed because he’s slicked his damp locks back, there’s been a mistake. 

There’s been more than one mistake when it comes to Seonghwa, if Hongjoong’s being entirely honest with himself. Letting Seonghwa too close, opening up when Hongjoong hardly ever does it to anyone else, behaving as carelessly as he pleases while thinking none of it would catch up with him in the end...

Agreeing to a road trip with just the two of them is not the first mistake, but it is the biggest. How naive of Hongjoong to think that this would offer him escape from all the things in life he wants to run away from on the daily, when in reality it’s only forced him to confront what he really wants and made him consider answering a question that Seonghwa has never come outright and asked him. 

From head to toe, inside and out, Seonghwa is beautiful. He’s always been, always will be no matter how many times Hongjoong tries to convince himself that he holds not even an ounce of attachment to a man he’d never thought of keeping in the first place, and Hongjoong is trying his best to catch his breath every time the self awareness catches up, the realization of love bowling him over like stormy ocean waves hellbent on pulling him down under.   

Love is as freeing as it is restricting, as constructive as it is destructive in the right or wrong situations, and Hongjoong’s insides feel like they’re eating away at him the more he thinks about how he’s ended up here, in a city that’s as much of a stranger to him as his own, overwhelming emotions are.   

“I’m not sure about this,” Hongjoong says, when they’re getting dressed to go have dinner with Seonghwa’s university friends. 

He could explore the city on his own while Seonghwa is catching up with his friends. He could distract himself by drinking something with too much caffeine and too much sugar in it and focus on the way his body threatens to jump out of its own skin at a different sort of poison than the toxic, unwanted thoughts bubbling up the back of his throat, and he could take all the pictures he wants to for inspiration without worrying about wasting anyone else’s time. 

But it’s a ridiculous notion to have, especially now. Seonghwa’s friends are expecting him to attend, and if he begs out of dinner with them, Seonghwa will at the very least want to hear a good explanation for it, or figure out whatever is bothering Hongjoong.   

“Not sure about what?” Seonghwa asks, scanning Hongjoong’s dark wash jeans and brightly colored button up shirt with abstract patches of various prints all over it. “Your outfit? We still have time if you want to change into a different one, but I think it looks nice.”  

“No,” Hongjoong says. He opens his mouth to speak, but nothing coming to mind is worth turning into actual words. “Nevermind.” 

“You sure?” Seonghwa says. “You look…” 

Hongjoong knows Seonghwa’s going to say something like upset or unhappy, so he quickly finishes Seonghwa’s sentence for him in order to diffuse the tension he regrets having created at all. “...Cute?”   

“Always,” Seonghwa says, and Hongjoong’s vision goes a little blurry before it focuses again as he tries to hold onto composure, “but more importantly, like you want to say something.” 

“It was nothing,” Hongjoong says. 

“Okay,” Seonghwa says. He sounds unconvinced, but he doesn’t push. Seonghwa never pushes past a boundary when he thinks something or someone (read: Hongjoong) is going to snap. “Don’t forget your phone and wallet~”

“I have them already.” 

“Good,” Seonghwa says, and Hongjoong exhales, half relieved. “Ready to go?” 

“Sure,” Hongjoong says, hoping Seonghwa doesn’t catch onto how hollow the word comes out of his mouth, all air and no real confidence behind it.  

Seonghwa doesn’t comment on it, but he does reach out to caress Hongjoong’s jaw, and in Seonghwa behavior, that’s practically the same thing even if it’s significantly less intimidating. “Don’t be nervous,” Seonghwa says. “I wasn’t kidding when I said they’re excited to meet you.”  

We’re not even anything to each other, Hongjoong thinks miserably, scrambling to grasp at some semblance of control, but Seonghwa is staring at him with those soft, gentle eyes and remarkably enough, he does start to feel a little less anxious about the whole thing. “How did you…” 

“I’m always paying attention to you,” Seonghwa says. “Ready to go for real?” 

Hongjoong nods, and he lets Seonghwa hold onto his hand as they leave their hotel room and head for the elevators, using the warmth of Seonghwa’s fingers tightening around his own as an anchor to calm his rapidly beating heart.   

The relentless heat, in some ways, provides Hongjoong with a dulled lens of emotional perception, and he’s grateful for that even if he’s stretching its limits as an excuse at this point. It’s a curse, because it makes him less inhibited, and he wonders what it is about fuschia and lavender sunsets and warm pavement that makes it so easy to slip on a mask thick enough to even convince himself he’ll get through this whole trip without buckling underneath the pressure of his own unresolved feelings. 

Dinner with Seonghwa’s friends is...nice. Pleasant. Hongjoong doesn’t know why he expected any less, when Seonghwa’s personality is what it is, and it’s logical that his friends are just as nice as he is. Hongjoong only feels mildly uncomfortable during introductions since he knows there’s an air of uncertainty for who he is to Seonghwa until Seonghwa goes for the simplest route and says, “This is Hongjoong,” with an arm around Hongjoong’s shoulder. 

All of Seonghwa’s friends immediately coo at Hongjoong as soon as they’ve finished introducing themselves, jumping straight to questions and compliments about his hair, where he shops for his clothes to be so unique, and whether he’s ever visited this area before. 

Surprisingly, they don’t ask about the details of his relationship to Seonghwa, and Hongjoong doesn’t think much of it because he just assumes that Seonghwa had told them beforehand a friend of his was going to join them for their get together. It makes sense, too, because Seonghwa is the main attraction and primary reason for everyone being here, and Hongjoong lets himself mellow out as the conversation between everyone flows like soft waves around him.  

That is, until Seonghwa gets a call he has to take and steps out of the restaurant for a few minutes, and Hongjoong is left alone with a group of people he’s only just met a little more than an hour ago. Hongjoong crosses his legs, fiddling with his earrings and waiting for everyone else to talk among themselves and continue where they left off, but they all turn to look at him.

Hongjoong clears his throat quietly, fiddles a bit with his glass of water. “Is there something…”   

“I’ve heard a lot about you, Hongjoong,” Yunho says, making Mingi laugh and everyone else smile. 

“Seonghwa said not to be intimidating,” Seungwan says, reaching over to pinch Yunho’s arm with the hand that isn’t holding chopsticks, and Yunho gives her a look that says he doesn’t think he’s doing anything wrong. 

“I’m being friendly, polite, and well behaved,” Yunho says. “I have no idea what you’re talking about.” 

“Hongjoong looks like he wants to melt into his chair,” Serim says with a gentle laugh, brushing her blonde hair over her shoulder so that it’s no longer in her face. 

“We were really surprised to hear that Seonghwa would be bringing a friend down to LA with him,” Yeosang says. All of Seonghwa’s friends are good looking, but Yeosang has an air about him that makes Hongjoong feel as if Yeosang’s more fairy than human, especially underneath those careful, calm eyes and slight curve of a smile that seems painted on. “Seonghwa doesn’t usually get close to a lot of people, so you must be really special.”  

Hongjoong doesn’t know where to look, and he can tell his cheeks are starting to flush pink. Living up to his strawberry look as usual. “Hardly.”  

“We’ll see about that,” Yeosang says, chuckling.  

“When I first met Seonghwa,” Hongjoong says, rolling his bottom lip underneath his top teeth as he considers the memory of watching Seonghwa smile for the first time, “he was really friendly. With his job, I thought he would be the type to befriend practically anyone who comes in his path.” 

“Nah,” Yunho says. “He’s a bit of a lone wolf when it comes to anything outside of his work. He only keeps in touch with us because we pester him to no end and we all went to university together.” 

“He’s good with people, that’s true,” Yeosang says, resting his cheek in the palm of his hand, “but it’s difficult to reach out to him if he’s not intending to receive it.” 

“He’s been really happy ever since he met you, though,” Mingi says. It’s cute, how Mingi pouts a little whenever he’s curious about something and the youthful curl of his monolids makes for an amusing contrast with how tall and broad he is in build. “He told us he was a fan of your work?” 

“Yes,” Hongjoong says. “I’m grateful for his support.” 

“Actually, I’m a fan now, too,” Serim says. “Not to freak you out or anything, but I visited your website after he told us who you were, and I love all of your work.” 

“Thank you,” Hongjoong says, blinking slowly. He’d expected Seonghwa’s friends to be civil, at most, not genuinely interested in him, and it takes him by surprise as he gradually realizes how much they care about Seonghwa and how much they’re extending that care towards him, too. “That’s…” 

“We know that you make him happy, but does he make you happy?” Yunho says, and Seungwan swats at him again. “What? Seonghwa’s still outside talking to God knows who, it’s a free-for-all.” 

“That’s not how it works,” Seungwan says, laughing. Then she turns to Hongjoong. “Don’t mind Yunho, he just likes stirring the pot and causing people distress.” 

“I do not—” 

“You don’t have speaking rights anymore,” Seungwan says and Yunho makes an affronted splutter in her direction. “If Hongjoong was a cat, he’d be hiding under a couch somewhere right now because you’re a giant dog who doesn’t know when to stop sniffing.” 

Yunho says, “Hongjoong’s an interesting, cool person, and I know I won’t get to talk to him because Seonghwa’s going to come back soon from his phone call and furrow his brows at us every time we look in Hongjoong’s direction for too long.” 

“I don’t mind it,” Hongjoong says, forcing himself not to read into Yunho’s words too much because he’s in deep enough without the arbitrary source of hope. 

Both Yunho and Seungwan gape at Hongjoong, though for seemingly different reasons. 

“Oh no,” Seungwan says. “Hongjoong, you’ve unlocked a new hell.” 

“Maybe,” Hongjoong says, not denying it.  

“I’m allowed to keep sniffing, is what Hongjoong’s saying,” Yunho says, while Seungwan groans and leans back in her chair like she’s decided to give up on going against Yunho’s dogged attempts at conversation with Hongjoong. Her reaction makes Hongjoong laugh, and he’s not sure what he’s getting himself into but he’s going to try and enjoy himself anyways. “Now tell me, Hongjoong, do you believe in fate?” 

“You’re a heartbreaker, aren’t you?” Hongjoong had once asked Seonghwa, during an impromptu coffee “date” after he’d watched Seonghwa smile at the girl taking their coffee orders and she’d looked ready to sell her soul to him. 

Hongjoong had meant it as a joke, and Seonghwa had seemed to take it as one, laughing it off before telling Hongjoong not to be mean. 

Later, though, he’d said to Hongjoong, “Aren’t you a heartbreaker, too?”

Seonghwa’d fidgeted and messed with the collar of his fancy suede coat, and Hongjoong had stared at the chipped nail polish on his right pinky nail, figuring out how to reply as soon as possible but in a way that didn’t leave him feeling more vulnerable than he needed to be.  

“Me?” Hongjoong had laughed, not wanting to tell Seonghwa he was always the one getting his heart stepped on by people who kept proving that Hongjoong wasn’t worth cherishing. It would have dampened the atmosphere, and Hongjoong hadn’t felt it necessary to bring something so negative up when he was lucky enough to have someone as kind as Seonghwa in his life. “No. Never.” 

“Sometimes you’re really perceptive,” Seonghwa had said, letting out what sounded like a fraction of the sigh he’d really wanted to release. “But other times you’re…” 

“Horribly dense?” Hongjoong had suggested, and Seonghwa had laughed in half agreement, half denial.  

“I can’t tell whether it’s on purpose.” 

“What is?” 

“It’s not that you don’t think people care.” Seonghwa had stared into his iced coffee, like it would potentially offer him the proper words to convey what he was trying to say. “But you do this thing, where it seems like you underestimate how much people want you around.” 

“I think I make fairly accurate judgments on how much people want me around,” Hongjoong had said. “It’s dangerous, anyways, to overestimate.” 

“So it’s better to do the opposite?” Seonghwa had asked, challenged Hongjoong. “I don’t know about that.”  

“You don’t know what it’s like—” Hongjoong had stopped himself before he could accidentally overshare in attempts to prove a point that didn’t need to be proven to Seonghwa. Seonghwa had stared at him as if waiting for Hongjoong to finish, and Hongjoong had shaken his head, settling on something more concise, less drawn out to make Seonghwa take on as little of an emotional burden as possible. “I don’t break people’s hearts. They break mine, in big or small ways, and it’s better to only give what people want to take, so that no one’s heart is broken in the end.” 

“There are exceptions,” Seonghwa had said. “Don’t you…want more? Sometimes?” 

“Maybe,” Hongjoong had replied, and Seonghwa’s gaze had shuttered enough at the answer that it made Hongjoong dare to hope, before he’d thought better of it and cut that hope right off before it bloomed into something terribly large and all too overwhelming. “But I’m not willing to take the risks anymore.” 

Greed is not something Hongjoong is used to feeling towards people. 

He’s greedy for acknowledgement, greedy to become the best at whatever he pursues, but he’s never been greedy for anyone until that anyone became a someone and that someone solidified in his mind as Seonghwa for real. 

I won’t want this forever, Hongjoong tells himself when they’re back at the hotel. Seonghwa is telling him a heartwarming anecdote about Yunho from their college days, and Hongjoong is listening as much as he isn’t. He’s hearing the individual words, tasting how they feel and sound like they make up a cookie melting down and disintegrating into crumbs on the heat of his tongue, but he doesn’t actually know what the story is up to this point. He hopes that Seonghwa forgives him, if he ever realizes Hongjoong hasn’t comprehensively heard anything Seonghwa has said in the last ten minutes. 

This is just to get him out of my system, is his next thought, and he’s the one to shove Seonghwa onto one of the double beds as soon as they’re within the private space of their locked hotel room. Seonghwa yields to Hongjoong as Hongjoong climbs on top of him, Seonghwa’s hands reaching out to rest at either side of Hongjoong’s waist as he lets Hongjoong kiss him hard enough to knock into teeth and draw blood if they’re not careful. 

The room is stuffy. It almost feels like Hongjoong can’t breathe, but he’s not sure whether it’s just a side effect of how desperate, how broken down he feels even as Seonghwa is holding onto him to keep him from falling. Hongjoong is a lost ship at sea, with no real home unless he settles for a watery death at the ocean floor. He’s not himself, and his heart’s running at overcapacity with affection for a star that glows too brightly in the night sky for Hongjoong to even dream of taking home because he’ll only burn himself trying to clutch at something so hot in temperature.  

“Is this what you meant by nothing when you were trying to tell me something before dinner?” Seonghwa asks. “This isn’t why I brought you here, you know that, right?” 

“I know,” Hongjoong says. “You’d never do anything like that without telling me beforehand.”  

“So what’s wrong?” Seonghwa asks. “Talk to me.”

“Talk to you?” Hongjoong says.

“Yes,” Seonghwa says. “If you would like.” 

“What if I don’t want to talk?” 

“You always want to talk, Hongjoong,” Seonghwa says, and Hongjoong laughs because Seonghwa isn’t wrong. “Just not about certain things.” 

“You don’t want to talk about anything,” Hongjoong says, and that makes Seonghwa sigh quietly. 

“Are we going to toss observations about each other’s personalities back and forth or are you going to tell me what’s really bothering you?” he asks.   

“I find it very easy to avoid getting attached to people,” Hongjoong says. 

“I’ve noticed,” Seonghwa says, and he’s biting at his bottom lip. 

For a moment, Hongjoong’s thrown off tempo. He’d thought the sigh, along with the change in Seonghwa’s tone of voice was stemming from impatience, but now he realizes it’s something else. The uncertainty in Seonghwa’s gaze mirrors his own, and Hongjoong doesn’t expect it at all because Seonghwa’s in a city he knows well even if he hasn’t lived here for a few years, and just an hour ago, he’d been surrounded by old friends at dinner. Hongjoong is the outsider, and Seonghwa is in his element, so…

“You’ve noticed?” 

“Yes,” Seonghwa says, and then he pinches Hongjoong’s thigh. “Don’t change the subject. What are you upset about?” 

“I wasn’t trying to change the subject,” Hongjoong says, squirming, and Seonghwa eases the sting with careful strokes up the side of Hongjoong’s thigh in a nonverbal apology. 

“Did something upset you at dinner?” Seonghwa asks. 

“No,” Hongjoong says. He’s not sure how truthful that answer is, because the dinner and the implications of what Seonghwa’s friends were saying had made something dangerous stir in his chest, and he wants... “I just...didn’t realize how difficult it was to leave you.” 

Seonghwa’s eyes widen, and his fingers curl into the material of Hongjoong’s shirt. “Why are you trying to…” 

“I kept hoping I’d find some horrible flaw in your personality,” Hongjoong says, pressing kisses into the side of Seonghwa’s neck so that he doesn’t have to look at Seonghwa’s face as he finally lets himself admit out loud what he’s been suppressing ever since that morning Seonghwa offered him pancakes and stole the first piece of Hongjoong’s heart. Since then, Seonghwa has stolen more and more, until Hongjoong wasn’t sure that he had any pieces of his own heart left in his possession at all. “But the more I got to know you, the stickier the webs around me got.”   

Seonghwa makes a noise of bewilderment. “What do you mean?” 

“You keep breaking my heart on accident,” Hongjoong says. He thinks about dates that Seonghwa never calls dates, the things that Seonghwa never tells Hongjoong about himself that all of his close friends seem to know, the way Seonghwa fucks him like he’s in love with Hongjoong but acts nothing like it the rest of their time together. It makes Hongjoong suspect Seonghwa knows Hongjoong is in love with him and that Seonghwa has just been humoring him this whole time. “Your kindness hurts deeper because it’s just as cruel as it is generous.” 

Understanding begins to trickle into the edges of Seonghwa’s voice. “Hongjoong?” 

“You’re not in love with me,” Hongjoong says, and he feels Seonghwa freeze against him. “And I want too much, now, to pretend I’m okay with being no one to you.” He can feel Seonghwa trying to push up on his arms so that he can see Hongjoong’s face, but Hongjoong simply tucks his face deeper into Seonghwa’s neck, refusing to let Seonghwa see him at his most vulnerable.  

“Hongjoong,” Seonghwa says, brushing his fingers against Hongjoong’s hair. “Look at me.” 

“I don’t want to,” Hongjoong says.   

“When have you ever been no one to me?” Seonghwa asks. “Let me see your face.” 

Hongjoong sits up. His eyes are dry and he’s not crying, but he feels shaky, and it’s a good thing that Seonghwa is still holding onto him because Hongjoong feels like a precariously balanced sculpture made of pebbles that aren’t connected to each other with anything other than gravity and luck. One tiny puff of wind is enough to topple him over, and Hongjoong might not be able to put himself back together if that happens. 

“Look at me,” Seonghwa says. “Explain why you would think something like that.” 

“You always ask me to spend time with you, and we sleep together, and you treat me like you’d treat someone you were dating, but you never brought it up to me.” 

Seonghwa’s fingers tighten around Hongjoong’s arms. “Brought what up?” 

“Dating,” Hongjoong says. 

Seonghwa’s eyes widen, and then after a long pause, he frowns. 

“Hongjoong, that’s… it’s because I didn’t want to overstep my boundaries,” he says, and Hongjoong stares at him, not really daring to process what Seonghwa’s words mean. “I didn’t think it was something you were interested in, and I figured you would ask if you really wanted to keep me around.” 

Hongjoong croaks out, “What?” 

“Yes,” Seonghwa says.  

“Why did you think I wasn’t interested?” Hongjoong asks. “Who wouldn’t be interested in keeping you?” 

Seonghwa sends him a wry smile. “You don’t know how you come off, Hongjoong.” He pauses, before adding, “Do you remember how you told me you didn’t like it when people made rash declarations or acted too close with you too quickly?” 

“That wasn’t directed at you,” Hongjoong says faintly. “That wasn’t…”  

“You tried to leave as soon as you woke up the morning after the first time we had sex,” Seonghwa says. 

“I didn’t think that it meant anything to you, or that it needed to mean anything to you,” Hongjoong says, and Seonghwa flinches, which makes Hongjoong feel so... 

Despite how caring Seonghwa was, Hongjoong also knew not to take that nurturing aspect of Seonghwa’s personality at face value because he’d met plenty of “nice,” non-confrontational people who didn’t know how to be anything other than agreeable even if they wanted to change. He’s learned to pretend people don’t mean it when they’re kind because he’s met too many people who’ve hurt him in their attempts not to, dragging out conversations that should have occurred so much earlier than they actually did and inflicting the long term ache on Hongjoong that Hongjoong hated so much instead of that momentary sting he preferred. 

“Have you seen yourself?” Hongjoong asks, which earns him a noise of disbelief from Seonghwa. Hongjoong laughs brokenly, having expected to brace himself for rejection in all its potential forms and suddenly wanting to collapse at the fact that there is no rejection waiting for him, in the end. “You live up to your name, you know? A star too far for me to reach, for me to try and bring home.” 

“I should be saying that to you, Hongjoong,” Seonghwa asks. “Gorgeous, talented, so funny and charming. You’re so full of life, so full of passion for the things you’re pursuing and want to pursue, and I didn’t think I could measure up to that as a partner for you.” 

“What do you—” Hongjoong says. “In what universe would you not be good enough for me? I was so...I thought that how different I was from you was what drove you away.”  

“What differences?” Seonghwa asks. 

“I ramble, and I like noisy music, and I like cheap restaurants,” Hongjoong says. He’s all the colors that are high impact, full saturation and no subtlety, and Seonghwa is muted, sophisticated, digestible. “I like bright, colorful things, and I’m messy when it comes to anything I do. I’m not neat and composed like you are.” 

“You’re lively,” Seonghwa says. “And I love everything that you love, even if I don’t necessarily gravitate towards it on my own. You’ve taught me how to open up, and that it’s okay for me to have emotions that aren’t positive because it allows me to better understand myself and what hurts me.” 

“Lively?” Hongjoong echoes. “I don’t…”  

“Yes,” Seonghwa says, and the earnestness in his gaze makes Hongjoong frown and wonder why he’d never noticed it before. “You’re...no one’s perfect, but you’re so bright and captivating. You could make up a whole world, a whole solar system, a whole galaxy with how much presence you have, yet always be at the center, and… I just hoped that no one better than me would come along so that you wouldn’t leave me behind.” 

“Don’t say that about yourself, Seonghwa,” Hongjoong says. His heart feels too full. “How could I ever…”  

“The fact that you were willing to stay at all, that first day, and all those other times...it was too scary to ask whether it was because I was comfortable for you or it was because you would choose me above other people.”  

“I would always choose you,” Hongjoong says. “It’s not just that you’re comfortable, Seonghwa.” 

“And when I asked if I could come over to your place,” Seonghwa says, “you were so against it. It made me think that…” 

“Because I didn’t want to have memories of you in it,” Hongjoong says, and Seonghwa averts his gaze, looking down. 

“How do you think that made me feel, then?” Seonghwa asks. “Did you think I wouldn’t get attached to you, or something? With all those memories of you in my apartment?” 

Hongjoong had never thought that far, had never thought that the effects of his own fears would add to Seonghwa’s own insecurities and make both of them withdraw from each other, but the potential losses had been too great for Hongjoong to take the risks earlier. 

“People like you don’t usually…” Hongjoong says. “I’m not used to being irreplaceable when it comes to love.” 

“Hongjoong,” Seonghwa says. 

“I’m busy, and obsessive, and I don’t take care of myself how an adult my age should. I’m reckless, and I don’t…” Hongjoong says. “How could I allow myself to want someone like you for keeps when it was good enough that I got to have you even once?” 

“You’re allowed,” Seonghwa says. “Couldn’t you tell I wanted you from the beginning, Hongjoong?”  

“I’m going to kiss you,” Hongjoong says, and Seonghwa laughs, letting Hongjoong follow through with that statement. “You know, I was ready to get on a plane and fly back home tomorrow morning.” 

Seonghwa makes a quiet, confused noise as Hongjoong sucks on his lower lip. “What?” 

“I didn’t expect you to be in love with me back,” Hongjoong says. “We have two more days of this trip left, remember? Imagine trying to live through a mini vacation with someone who rejected me.” 

“Oh,” Seonghwa says. “How long have you…” He lets out a shuddering sigh. “I really didn’t expect this.” 

“Expect what?” Hongjoong asks. 

“Even on the drive down, you mentioned that you weren’t only attracted to men, so it seemed like you meant that you might end up marrying a nice girl or something,” Seonghwa says. 

“That was just…I didn’t know what the future might hold, that’s all,” Hongjoong says, realizing now that Seonghwa must have misunderstood him. “I’m not the type of person who’d marry a woman just to please my parents, Seonghwa, you do realize that?” 

“I know,” Seonghwa says. “I just...I’ve been with people who promised me the same thing and then changed their mind when circumstances changed, and the breakups were rough for me.” 

Seonghwa’s lower lip is trembling, now that Hongjoong has the courage to look at him fully, and it makes Hongjoong feel like his heart is breaking all over again, except it’s not about his own pain, but the pain that Seonghwa must have endured by extending his heart to people who didn’t cherish him as they should have.

“Then I won’t make any promises for now,” Hongjoong says, and Seonghwa blinks at him, surprised. “I’m not fully out, yet, at least not to my family, but I’ll do my best to make sure you never feel unwanted again, using my actions and not just empty words.”  

“I love you,” Seonghwa says, voice going a little strained. “I love you, Hongjoong.” 

“I love you, too. You’re a wonderful person,” Hongjoong says, and that earns him a teary smile from the man underneath him. “Anyways, whoever treated you like shit made the biggest mistake of their life by leaving you, but their poor judgment also means I got lucky.” 

“I got lucky with you, too,” Seonghwa says. “You’re so caring. I’ve never felt so important with anyone else.”

Hongjoong hums, letting his hand drag down Seonghwa’s chest and the side of Seonghwa’s waist. He’s finally caught the star he’s yearned to capture for so long, and it doesn’t burn him to hold it in the palms of his hands. 

“You’re about to get luckier,” he says, and Seonghwa lets out a breathless laugh as Hongjoong pushes Seonghwa’s shirt up, not bothering to undo the buttons as he begins leaving a trail of kisses from the center of Seonghwa’s chest down to the soft hairs disappearing below the waistband of Seonghwa’s skin tight jeans. Hongjoong tugs at one of the belt loops before he’s undoing the button with one hand, watching the way Seonghwa’s ears flush red at the loud, telling sound of his own zipper being unzipped. “Lift your hips so I can get you out of these.”

“You took too many pictures of me, Hongjoong,” Seonghwa complains, looking through his camera roll on his phone. “We’re here for the view.” 

“You are the view,” Hongjoong says, winking. 

“Don’t—” Seonghwa makes a noise that’s conflicted, because he likes being complimented by Hongjoong but Hongjoong’s flirting also detracts from Seonghwa’s point. “Hongjoong.” 

Hongjoong lets his limbs sprawl out as he sits down on the beach towel they’ve laid down on the sand. It’s getting late enough that the beach is no longer swarming with people, but even when the sun had been higher in the sky, Hongjoong had barely paid any attention to other people. The only person that mattered was the man standing in front of him, who Hongjoong was now allowed to call his boyfriend. 

“That is my name, yes,” Hongjoong says. “What’s up?” 

Seonghwa gives Hongjoong a withering look. “Thank you for thinking I’m the view, but—”  

“I took plenty of pictures of just the ocean and the sunset for you. Don’t you know they did a study that said we tend to take the best picture on the first try?”  

“What?” Seonghwa says. “That sounds fake.” 

“That’s because it is,” Hongjoong says, and he laughs as Seonghwa grabs him. “Aren’t we supposed to be enjoying the experience anyways? Rather than working so hard to document it for later?”   

“Take a picture with me,” Seonghwa says, relinquishing his grip on Hongjoong and settling down next to him. Seonghwa’s gotten more tanned from all the time they’ve been spending walking around outside, and despite how far he’s already fallen, Hongjoong falls deeper every time he looks at Seonghwa and realizes Seonghwa has become even more radiant than before, both inside and out. “There are only individual photos of us, but none where we’re together.” 

“Are we that close to take a photo together?” Hongjoong asks, shrieking and giggling when Seonghwa shoves him. 

“Be nice to me,” Seonghwa says. 

“You make it so difficult,” Hongjoong says. “I don’t like being nice to handsome men, after all.” 

“Not even one who’s your boyfriend?” Seonghwa asks. “What if he gives you kisses?” He puts his hand on Hongjoong’s thigh to balance himself as he leans in. 

“Okay, fine, photo time. Photo time as you wanted, Seonghwa,” Hongjoong says, scrambling to avoid Seonghwa kissing him, and he squeaks when Seonghwa catches him with an affectionate peck on the cheek. 

Seonghwa takes what feels like a million selfies of the two of them with their cheeks pressed to each other’s, some with alternating poses and even a few where he leaves wet, puppy like kisses on Hongjoong’s cheeks. In reality he only takes about twenty photos before he’s satisfied enough to let go of Hongjoong and look through the results of his efforts. 

“I like this one,” Seonghwa says, holding out his phone screen for Hongjoong to see. 

In this selfie, Seonghwa’s eyes are sparkly and filled with adoration that’s all directed at Hongjoong. His lips are puckered against the softness of Hongjoong’s cheek, and Hongjoong is grimacing with one eye squeezed shut, teeth showing in a reluctantly fond smile. There’s a zit on Hongjoong’s temple, and his black roots are growing into his cherry red hair, some strands brushing against Seonghwa’s face. 

None of those imperfections matter though, because all Hongjoong can focus on is how happy they look, and it’s impactful in the fact that it’s more than he’d ever expected to have with Seonghwa. 

“I like it, too,” Hongjoong says, and Seonghwa beams at him. “Do you want to post it?” 

Seonghwa’s eyes widen. “Can I?” 

“I don’t mind,” Hongjoong says. “Seeing as I plan on keeping you around for a long time—” 

Seonghwa puts his phone down, and it makes Hongjoong think that maybe Seonghwa doesn’t want to post it after all, but Seonghwa curls fingers around the back of Hongjoong’s neck and kisses Hongjoong on the mouth instead. They’d had chicken for dinner and then mango ice cream afterwards, which is what Hongjoong tastes when he parts his lips for Seonghwa, along with the intensity of Seonghwa’s eagerness and delight spilling into him and throughout his whole body.    

“There are still people around,” Hongjoong says, after he’s pushed at Seonghwa’s shoulder enough times for Seonghwa to take a hint and give him space to breathe. He means for his voice to come off reprimanding, but it’s difficult when Seonghwa looks so happy and Hongjoong knows for a fact that he’s the one who’s made Seonghwa that happy. 

“Should I care?” Seonghwa asks. “It’s almost dark anyways.” 

“How scandalous of you,” Hongjoong says, and Seonghwa gapes at him. 

“Me?! Scandalous? I’m not the one who tried to have sex in the hotel pool last night,” Seonghwa says indignantly.  

“Suddenly I can’t hear,” Hongjoong says. It’s not like he can be blamed anyways, when Seonghwa looks the way he does with his hair slicked back and water droplets perched delicately on his collarbones. No one else had been in the pool, either, so in Hongjoong’s humble opinion, Seonghwa missed out on a good opportunity. “How was I supposed to resist when you were so pretty?” 

“That’s not...that’s not an excuse to break the law and engage in indecent exposure,” Seonghwa says, stumbling over his words. Hongjoong can’t tell if Seonghwa is blushing from how dim it’s getting, but judging based on the way his voice cracks a tiny bit, he mostly likely is. 

“You sure?” Hongjoong says. “Sometimes I look at you and think it’s illegal for someone like you to exist.” 

“The flirting is a lot more dangerous when I know you mean it,” Seonghwa says. 

“I’ve always meant it,” Hongjoong says. “What you should be worried about now is being ambushed at any given time of the day.” 

“What a horrible predicament to be in,” Seonghwa deadpans, and Hongjoong grins at him.         

Tomorrow, they’re going to Disneyland. It’s been years since Hongjoong has had the time to visit an amusement park, and although he’s not as excited as Seonghwa for the long but fun day waiting for them, he’s still looking forward to fulfilling the loose set of plans Seonghwa has described here and there. They’ll go on as many rides as possible, and Hongjoong will wear whatever set of Mickey Mouse ears Seonghwa wants him, so hopefully Seonghwa picks something that matches his hair. They’ll eat overpriced Dole Whip and clam chowder and churros, take photos with all the mascots and classic Disney characters, and maybe catch some of the night time festivities if they still have energy by the end of the day. 

Hongjoong is going to have to take a deep breath tomorrow morning before they head out, but he thinks the fatigue will be worth it just to see Seonghwa smiling even more than he is now, for hours on end. 

Besides, happiness comes in different forms for different people. For Hongjoong, it’s being able to dedicate a whole day to something Seonghwa wants to do because Seonghwa so rarely lets himself indulge in a little bit of selfishness without prioritizing other people’s desires first. Hongjoong hopes he can continue to do that for Seonghwa, let Seonghwa feel safe being selfish about what he wants even after they’re back in town from their road trip and they have to resume their work and daily routines. It doesn’t seem too unrealistic of a wish, because Seonghwa is already starting to understand that Hongjoong means it when he wants Seonghwa to have equal input in what they do with their time together.  

“Will you let me make you happy, starboy?” Hongjoong asks as he stares out at the ocean, sun slowly slipping below the horizon. Seonghwa looks up from his phone, presumably in the middle of editing their selfie together. 

Evening is descending upon them, but Seonghwa’s eyes are so bright. “Starboy?” he repeats, unsure. A smile is starting to pull at the corners of his mouth, though.  

“Yes,” Hongjoong says, feeling a smile start to break out on his own face as well.  

“You already do,” Seonghwa says genuinely, grinning big and wide, and Hongjoong thinks to himself, even if the weather gets chillier day by day in the upcoming months ahead of them, the strawberry heat of summer inside of his too full heart will never really end as long as he has Seonghwa by his side.