length→ 10,377 words
summary→ (AU) it’s a small planet, of course the odds of being happy, of staying happy, would always be against them.
# the plot is as well thought out as those amazing ideas and dreams you think of when you’re half-asleep, but realize they’re shit when you wake up. please don't expect too much, i just didn't want my inspiration from the sing for you mv to dry out before i finished it.
# this is also an excuse to include yeoljun angst, however small it is, SORRY NOT SORRY
# bgm music: exo - sing for you.
# not beta-ed, you’ve been warned! sorry for any mistakes or typos I missed.
The envelope looks familiar, an off-putting shade of yellow, closer to brown. Jongin knows he’s seen one before, maybe on TV. The color is disgusting. It reminds him of Chanyeol bent over a trash can, Junmyeon murmuring soothingly while brushing Chanyeol’s sweaty bangs back from his forehead. He tosses it on the entryway table, and it topples over the small pile of spam mail Baekhyun and Jongdae have accumulated from using Kyungsoo’s name to sign up for thirteen different advertising sites at once. Jongin hadn’t noticed the name on the envelope, but it’s probably Kyungsoo too.
“Jongin-ah, is that you? Can you come watch the stove for a second? Chanyeol is calling me and he’s late again!” Junmyeon calls from the kitchen. The house is so small that Jongin feels Junmyeon’s voice floating around in the air, surrounding him. He pushes off his shoes and steps onto the concrete floor, cold traveling up his skin when his bare feet touch it. It’s better than the old house, which had no heater. Junmyeon just doesn’t like turning it on here, though, so it’s not much different. He throws his jacket over Sehun’s on the hallway hangers and continues down to the small kitchen. Junmyeon smiles at him and turns to dash off to the second floor, where his phone is ringing with Chanyeol’s ringtone. Everyone knows Chanyeol’s ringtone; he’d recorded it himself, Before. The older girl he’d recorded it with had been better at rapping and even after a few years, Baekhyun could still bring it up to tease Chanyeol, but Junmyeon had handed over his cell phone the night of the release and asked Chanyeol to set it as his ringtone. It’s always been Chanyeol’s ringtone.
“Chanyeol-ah, you’re late,” Junmyeon’s soft voice floats down the stairs. He’s standing in front of Baekhyun, Jongdae and Chanyeol’s room. It’s right in front of the stairs, the right place for everyone to eavesdrop without Junmyeon knowing, because only Junmyeon doesn’t know how easy it is to hear anyone who talks while standing there. “I told you not to go. The food will get cold. No, the rest of the kids are on their way back. Jongin’s here. What? How long do you need?”
Jongin pulls up his headphones and lets the sound of the home station broadcasting tune Junmyeon’s voice out. “Another batch of nominations have been sent out early this morning. Candidates are expected to report to their assigned stations by the specified date and will be held accountable for any delay. After the failure of mission H5293Z and the loss of contact with missions L4290H and Y11690W, it is expected that the newly chosen candidates will have a higher rate of success after detailed data analysis based on received information. The committee has high hopes for...”
Cold fingers slide under his shirt to caress his back and Jongin jerks, letting go of the wooden spoon he’d been stirring the soup with. He pulls down his headphones and narrows his eyes at Baekhyun, who grabs the spoon and raises it to take a sip of the hot soup. His hair is full of tiny grey snowflakes, glistening in the dim light hanging overhead. “Did Junmyeon hyung make this? It’s gross. Where’s the gochugaru? Kyungsoo nicked some last time, let’s put some in.”
“Don’t come near them, Byun Baekhyun, I’m only telling you nicely once,” Kyungsoo calls from the entryway. Baekhyun is already searching through the cupboards, although he doesn’t get very far before Kyungsoo comes into the kitchen, a small black bag hanging off his wrist. Baekhyun gives a blinding grin that anyone who doesn’t know him would mistake as innocent and dashes off upstairs before Kyungsoo can come closer. Kyungsoo rolls his eyes and brushes snow off his hair with his free hand. “What a brat. Jongin-ah, is Chanyeol late again?”
“Yes, Junmyeon hyung is talking to him right now. How was work?” Jongin asks, stepping back to let Kyungsoo take the spoon and take a sip of the soup. He gives it a quick stir and lowers the heat. The color of the soup reminds Jongin of the envelope with today’s mail. “You have some more spam mail. I left it with the other mail.”
“I’m going to make Jongdae and Baekhyun sort them out soon,” Kyungsoo murmurs, opening the fridge to drop the black bag into the bottom drawer, the one everyone knows never to steal food from. The only other thing there is some fresh vegetables Minseok had picked up yesterday and containers of side dishes that one of Sehun’s female colleagues always sends him off with. He closes the fridge and turns to face Jongin. “Work was fine. Taecyeon hyung didn’t come in today, though, so it was busy. How was your day?”
Like it always is. He’s happy as long as everyone else is. “It was okay. Nothing interesting happened.”
“No news is good news,” Kyungsoo says, giving Jongin a wry smile before he turns and goes upstairs as well. Jongin can’t hear Junmyeon’s voice clearly anymore, only his faint laughter from behind the door of… probably his own room, the one he shared with Jongin and Sehun. Baekhyun’s voice is clearer, right above the kitchen, from Minseok, Yixing and Kyungsoo’s room. He’s singing an English pop song. Jongin can hear Kyungsoo threatening him from the open door of the shared bathroom. The door squeaks open and Jongin goes to turn on the heating when he hears Minseok and Yixing’s voices; it’s Chanyeol’s job, but he’s late and Jongin’s feet are freezing off.
Chanyeol arrives home when only Junmyeon and Jongin are left at the table, singing loudly as he scrambles in. His socks are wet and he’s leaving damp footstep prints all over the floor. Jongin bites his lip to keep from laughing at Kyungsoo’s glare following Chanyeol around as the taller boy starts eating before he even sits down. “I stepped in dirty melted snow! What if it’s getting warmer? Usually it doesn’t melt! Has global warming reached us?”
“Of course you’d be excited about global warming,” Baekhyun says from the living room, where he’s trying to arrange himself in a comfortable position over Sehun. “The correct emotion is concern, Chanyeol.”
“I’m tired of the snow,” Chanyeol says with his mouth full. A mixture of half-chewed soybean sprouts and rice falls out from his mouth onto the table and Kyungsoo makes a noise that is a mix of irritation and disgust, while Junmyeon watches him with a fond smile. Jongin loves Chanyeol, most of the time, but nobody seems to love him as much as Junmyeon does. Junmyeon loves all of them, especially Sehun and Jongin as his maknaes. Chanyeol, though, Chanyeol is different to Junmyeon. Everyone seems to know it, even Junmyeon and Chanyeol, though neither of them want to admit it. Jongin sometimes thinks they must think they’re in some kind of depressing drama, but it’s been awhile since he’s watched a drama. Everything else is depressing enough.
“Close your mouth while you’re eating,” Junmyeon reprimands gently. He’s still smiling. Jongin takes the last bite of his cold rice and starts to clean up his side of the table. Chanyeol has stopped talking, probably to avoid a beating from Kyungsoo, and is eating quietly for once. Jongin gathers up his chopsticks and spoon as well and heads to the kitchen, leaving Chanyeol and Junmyeon alone at the table. They’re always the last two to finish dinner, anyway, so there’s no use waiting for them to finish.
Jongin knows the winter is coming when it only gets colder every day. They’ve gotten used to the snow when there’s sun to warm it: they’re not used to the bitter cold of the winter that brings with it only darkness and long nights to fill with nothing but thoughts. Junmyeon has a calendar hanging on one wall that he makes Sehun and Jongin use, crossing out each day to remember what day it would be, if it were like Before. Today is Tuesday. Yesterday was Monday. Sometimes Jongin forgets the names of the days, because it doesn’t really matter. Here, they’re happy, they have each other, they have work, they have two days of their choice off every week that they always try to take together. They can make do without naming the weekdays.
“Kyungsoo is going out and he’s taking whoever wants to go along with him!” Jongdae calls from the entryway, where Kyungsoo is putting on his shoes. Jongdae is pulling on one of Kyungsoo’s jackets because Kyungsoo gets cold easily and Junmyeon always makes him buy the warmest jackets. Jongin considers going with them and decides against it. The car isn’t that big and it’s cold outside. Baekhyun pulls Yixing up and leads him to the entryway as well, leaving the rest of the group behind. Jongin is tired of the weather report that isn’t changing on TV. Sehun is busy on his tablet, Junmyeon and Chanyeol are discussing something in hushed whispers that Jongin doesn’t want to interrupt, but Minseok is shuffling through papers he has to go through for his job at the home station. They’re classified, most of the time, but nobody really cares. Jongin moves back until his back is pressing against the couch and leans his head against Minseok’s thigh. “Hyung, I’m tired.”
“We’re all tired, Jonginnie,” Minseok answers absentmindedly, using his free hand to pat Jongin’s head. He starts to run his fingers through Jongin’s hair, scratching his blunt fingernails barely hard enough to be comforting against Jongin’s scalp. It makes Jongin miss his mom, something he hasn’t felt in a while. He ignores it and closes his eyes. Junmyeon and Chanyeol have stopped whispering and Junmyeon’s voice is filled with worry when he leans closer to Jongin. “Jongin-ah, are you okay?”
“Yeah. I’m a bit tired. I might ask for tomorrow off,” Jongin mumbles. Minseok might be transmitting his own calmness to Jongin through his fingers. “There’s a lot of work lately. It’s like they’re preparing for another mission. It hasn’t been long enough.”
Jongin doesn’t open his eyes. He doesn’t want to see his hyungs’ faces. They seem to know better than he does, all the time. They’d known every other time and he doesn’t want to know this time. They’re all silent. He didn’t want to know. Chanyeol laughs awkwardly and Jongin opens his eyes. He’s right: Junmyeon and Minseok’s faces look darker than the night sky outside, Sehun looks upset and Chanyeol looks angry. Junmyeon exchanges a quick glance with Minseok that Jongin doesn’t miss. Minseok lowers his hand to Jongin’s shoulder and massages it a bit roughly. “You shouldn’t worry about these kinds of things, Jonginnie. Go get ready for bed and send a message to request one of your off days tomorrow, alright?”
“Yes, hyung,” Jongin answers. Sehun presses the lock key of his tablet to turn it off and pushes himself up, then holds out a hand to Jongin. Jongin takes it and follows behind Sehun to their room. It’s easier to pretend he doesn’t hear the conversation that starts as soon as they’re on the stairs, urgent and angry.
There’s nobody in the house when Jongin wakes up the next morning. He takes advantage of it, using the last of the hot water to relax his muscles. It turns cold seconds before he turns it off and he wraps Chanyeol’s bathrobe around himself while making the short trip to his room.
The house is uncomfortably silent. Jongin usually asks for off days at the same time as the others, but everyone had been asleep when Jongin had finally decided to send his request. He enjoys it, a little, pretending he lives alone and doesn’t have to bother sharing anything. It gets boring after ten minutes and he turns off the TV to go to the kitchen, where he washes the dishes he hadn’t washed earlier in the morning, then he heads to the entryway. The mess of shoes and boots is too daunting to go through, much more than the pile of Kyungsoo’s spam mail, so Jongin takes those and goes back to the living room.
He puts aside most of them to throw away and keeps the ones he thinks the others might want to see, until he reaches the yellow envelope. He’s surprised that it doesn’t have Kyungsoo’s name on it: “Oh Sehun” is written on a printed label sticker on it. He considers waiting for Sehun or calling him to ask if he can open it. It’ll take too much time, so Jongin rips open the side of the envelope and takes the plain paper out. He unfolds it and starts to read.
Dear esteemed citizen Oh Sehun,
On behalf of the Committee, we call on you to prove your loyalty as a nominated candidate for upcoming station missions. After thorough inspection of your background and current status, you have been matched perfectly for what the department is searching for.
Due to the pressing nature of the missions and their required training, please be informed that you have until midwinter to report to duty. Until then, you may show this letter to the administration of your currently held job to cease attendance, as well as contact the aid department in order to make any necessary arrangements before reporting to duty.
As a nominated candidate, you are entitled to receive the risk compensation package. Please refer to the financial staff of the department at the home station to fill in the needed forms and receive your package.
As always, we wish you health, safety and happiness.
Ahn Chil Hyun
Head of Recruitment
Department of Missions
Jongin drops the letter, shock filling his head with an inexplainable buzz. This can’t happen again. They had chosen it, to run away, they can’t force Sehun, they can’t - Jongin picks up his phone and frantically types in Sehun’s name, presses ‘Call’, and Sehun picks up after two tones. “Jongin? What’s up?”
“You… you must have gotten a text notification,” Jongin says, his throat too tight. His voice sounds thin, choked. Sehun sighs on the other end. “Yes, Jongin, I got it. I saw the envelope, too, but what’s the point of opening it? I know what’s going to happen.”
Jongin breathes in, then out. It still doesn’t make sense. “This isn’t fair. You shouldn’t have to-- let’s hide. Let’s run away.”
Sehun’s harsh laugh makes Jongin sober in an instant. “To where, Jongin? There’s nowhere to go to, unless you’d like to come with me. You should volunteer, you’ll get the risk money, too. It’s more than I thought. I’ll buy you guys a bigger house before I go.”
“When are you going to tell them? When were you going to tell us?” Jongin asks in a whisper. What is the point of a bigger house? He and Junmyeon will have a bigger room to themselves. They don’t need a bigger house, too, to remind them of the empty space Sehun will leave behind.
There’s silence on the other side of the line. Sehun sighs again. “Let’s not talk about this again. Burn my letter. I’ll tell them soon. Don’t think about it until then.”
“Do you think you’re Junmyeon hyung? You’re not this selfless. Why aren’t you… are you really okay with this?” Jongin pleads. He knows Sehun probably only found about it the same day they’d received the letter… when was that? Two days ago? Three? Four? It couldn’t have been long enough for Sehun to accept the decision. He knows Sehun, he knows Sehun won’t have accepted it so readily. “Sehun…”
“You think I’m not angry? You think I’m not scared? Fuck it, Jongin. What’s the point? Nominations are a death sentence. I can’t do shit to change it, might as well accept it and go,” Sehun says, his voice louder than usual. Jongin listens to Sehun’s coughs and knows he’s trying to keep from crying. “I’m hanging up first. Please… just do as I asked. Don’t tell anyone.”
The house already feels lonelier, colder. Midwinter is the only day it snows white, clear, bright white, yet it’d always been a day of misery. Jongin takes a lighter from the kitchen and burns the letter on the dead, snow-covered grass of their tiny backyard, and covers the black ashes with snow. He goes to sleep, dreamless, just this once, and doesn’t wake up until Kyungsoo wakes him for dinner.
It’s hard, to pretend there’s nothing wrong and that Sehun will be gone. Jongin finds himself staring at Sehun, trying to keep every expression of Sehun in his memory, and sharing food he normally wouldn’t with Sehun. Sehun pretends not to notice, even though Jongin knows it’s making him angry. He doesn’t care.
“You’re spoiling Sehunnie a lot lately,” Yixing comments, leaning on the doorway of the bathroom while waiting for his turn after Jongin’s. Jongin spits out the toothpaste foam from his mouth and takes a gulp of water to gargle, using those few seconds to forget the letter, to do what Sehun had asked. He leans down to spit the water out and arrange his face into a curious expression, hopefully convincing enough. He turns to look at Yixing while washing his toothbrush of foam under the stream of water. “What do you mean? It’s Sehun, we all spoil him.”
“No, there’s something… you’re doing it purposely,” Yixing says, choosing his words carefully. Jongin turns off the water and shrugs, putting his toothbrush back. “I’m not doing anything more than usual.”
Yixing silently lets Jongin pass by him to go out into the hallway. Jongin turns to look back before he heads down the hallway and finds Yixing still staring at him. He smiles and turns away, heading to his room before the silence forces him to let everything out.
It’s rare they all get their requests for days off approved together, but for once, only two weeks before midwinter, all of them gather in the living room at late night and show each other their approval messages. Baekhyun suggests a karaoke night and looks excited to pull out Chanyeol and Kyungsoo’s microphones and speakers to hook them up to the TV, but Minseok and Junmyeon immediately reject it, saying the group next door will definitely complain.
“We have to do something!” Baekhyun whines, standing in the middle of the living room, surrounded by everyone else sitting on the couches or the floor. He looks around with narrowed eyes. “We’re going out to Sunkyu noona’s bar. Get yourselves ready within 15 minutes or else.”
His threat is valid enough for all of them to help each other up and go get ready, mostly because their night would go to waste if they stayed home. Sunkyu noona’s bar was a safe haven, one where they could relax and actually enjoy themselves without worrying, and Jongin liked it, even if he didn’t like drinking that much. It gave him headaches he’d rather not deal with the day after.
It doesn’t matter, though. He’s told himself, so many times, that he’s happy if everyone else is. Their quiet moments of happiness might not amount to much, he knows that as well. He likes it, though, when he sees everyone laughing freely, like they really don’t have a worry in life. He likes it when he sees them playing darts and laughing at each other’s bad shots. He likes it when they clink together their bottles and take gulps at the same time, the bitterness of the beer going down his throat feeling a bit like warmth, like contentment. Sehun is laughing obnoxiously at a bad shot of Yixing’s, and for once, doesn’t notice Jongin. He doesn’t want to see Sehun angry, not tonight.
“Jongin-ah, another drink! We’re going all night!” Chanyeol calls, shaking his empty bottle. Jongin smiles and gets up to order all of them another round.
It’s tiring the next day, like Jongin thought it would be. Kyungsoo and Junmyeon have left out water and painkillers on the dresser of every room: Jongin takes two and gulps down a glass of water in one go, then glances at the clock. It’s earlier than the usual time he gets up. He turns off his phone alarm and considers going back to sleep, maybe crawling into Sehun’s bed for warmth, but one look at Sehun curled up in his blankets and sleeping peacefully makes him change his mind. Sehun hadn’t been going into work, saying they were overstaffed, and somehow, everyone believed him. Jongin wonders if they all know, and he was the odd one out who had to find out by accident. He shakes his head and goes out into the hallway to the bathroom to wait his turn after whoever is in the bathroom.
“You know as much as I do that we have to try,” Junmyeon’s loud whisper from the kitchen draws Jongin’s attention to him. He leans over the railing but can’t see Junmyeon and whoever’s with him. He goes down the stairs as slowly and quietly as he can, until he’s close enough to hear anything that goes on in the kitchen without being caught. He stays standing, to pretend he’s just come down if he’s caught, and stands completely still. Junmyeon, or whoever is with him, is pouring water into something, probably the kettle. “Do you really want this to happen again? We knew all those times and we couldn’t do anything. I thought you, of all people, would know how I feel, Chanyeol-ah. Don’t you?”
“Hyung, don’t say something like that,” Chanyeol says. He sounds sad. Jongin wants to go in and interrupt them, because they’ve had enough sadness to last them lifetimes. There’s the sound of footsteps and a shuffle, then Junmyeon’s muffled breath. Jongin can’t see, but it sounds like Junmyeon has been pulled into Chanyeol’s hug. “I know what you feel. I also know what you’re thinking and it’s impossible. I know you want to try, but there’s no way to stop the committee from taking Sehun.”
Jongin’s heart skips a beat and he stumbles down the steps. He can hear Junmyeon and Chanyeol separating right away, and then they’re in front of the stairs looking up at Jongin. They’re both staring at him like they’re trying to figure out what he’s heard and Jongin smiles sleepily, thanks the heavens for actually being sleepy. “Good morning. I thought I heard people downstairs.”
Junmyeon’s face immediately melts into a smile, but Chanyeol still looks a little suspicious. “Good morning, Jongin-ah. Did you wash up yet? Would you like me to make you a cup of tea with me?”
“No, it’s alright, hyung… I wanted to see who was down here, that’s all,” Jongin replies. He waves his hand and takes a step backwards. He’s lucky enough that Kyungsoo, who is in the bathroom, calls out ‘bathroom’s free!’ at that moment. “Oh, I’ll go wash. I’ll try to catch breakfast with you guys if you’re not done by then.”
Junmyeon nods and looks over at Chanyeol, who is still staring at Jongin waiting for him to break. Junmyeon frowns and tugs on Chanyeol’s sleeve, which makes Chanyeol look over at him, and Jongin uses that moment to turn and dash up the stairs. It seems like it’s yet another day of pretending the truth isn’t real.
Six days from midwinter brings with it a sudden warmth, like it wants to give Sehun the last taste of a day without bone-chilling cold. Jongin gets a call on his way home from Jongdae, telling him they’re going out to play some basketball since it’s warm enough. Jongin opens the door to the house and finds Sehun standing in the entryway, staring down at the piles of shoes at his feet. He tells Jongdae to have fun with the others and hangs up. “Sehunnie?”
Sehun snaps out of his trance and turns his eyes to Jongin. He’s taller than Jongin, by a bit. He doesn’t look it now, when he’s looking at Jongin with desperation. “Jongin…”
“What’s wrong? Aren’t you going to play with the others?” Jongin asks as he takes off his shoes. Sehun looks down at his own feet again, his shoes still on. He takes them off as well, slowly. “Sehunnie… are you okay?”
Of course he isn’t. Sehun laughs, weakly, and steps out of the entryway. He’s about to walk away, but Jongin steps out behind him and grabs his arm. “Sehun, I know you said--”
“Chanyeol hyung and Kyungsoo hyung are home, please don’t make a scene,” Sehun whispers. Jongin wants to scream that they should know anyway, there’s no more time left. Sehun isn’t giving them any time to say goodbye. “Thank you for listening to me and doing as I asked. It’s only a little while left, let’s stay this way.”
Sehun pulls his arm away and walks away, hastily, and Jongin wants to go after him. Instead, he stands in the hall and listens to him walk away, to the door closing, to Chanyeol and Kyungsoo’s voices recording a song, to Sehun’s sobs in their room directly above the entryway. There’s nothing he can do. He wants to cry with Sehun, too. He turns, puts on his shoes and leaves the house again.
It’s snowing again the next morning. It’s a dark, gloomy and freezing day, sunlight peeking between the heavy clouds every once in a while, barely long enough to not mistake it for a dream. Jongin wakes up to Sehun climbing into his bed and snaking his thin arms around Jongin’s waist. “Good morning?”
“I couldn’t sleep. Junmyeon hyung woke up earlier than usual and turned off the heating again,” Sehun mumbles. Jongin has the heavier blanket, so he rarely feels cold. Sehun presses his hands against Jongin’s stomach, and they really are cold. Jongin wraps his own fingers around Sehun’s and hums. “Go to sleep, then. I’ll wake you in a bit.”
Sehun is asleep within minutes, his soft snore loud in Jongin’s ears. The snow that is falling outside the window looks almost white today, like it’s been cleansed somehow. Jongin knows it can’t be. He pulls the blanket up and shifts closer to Sehun, slowly falling back into sleep.
Three hours later, it’s too loud and too cold to stay asleep. Jongin wakes up to laughter in the upstairs hallway and loud voices from the kitchen, and Sehun isn’t in bed with him. He pushes back the blanket and stretches his arms, letting the noises filter into his brain. Yixing is speaking Mandarin with Jongdae… Chanyeol and Sehun are also speaking Mandarin to interrupt them, pretending the silly skits they’d memorized Before count as actual Mandarin acquisition… Baekhyun is laughing with Minseok about something else upstairs, their Korean overlapping with the tones of Mandarin from downstairs… Jongin can’t hear Junmyeon and Kyungsoo when he tries to account for them. They usually go out after their early weekend breakfast to grocery shop for the next week, but it’s strange Chanyeol hadn’t tagged along. Maybe Jongin and Sehun hadn’t been the only ones to skip out on Kyungsoo’s early breakfast cooking for a few more hours of warm sleep.
“Someone’s finally out of hibernation,” Baekhyun says when he sees Jongin drag himself to the bathroom. Jongin doesn’t bother to reply, rubbing at his eyes with one hand instead. Baekhyun pinches his ankle when Jongin steps over him and Minseok sitting together in the hallway. The living room gets too noisy sometimes and the upstairs hallway is always an escape. “There’s an important announcement on the news in an hour, you better be fully awake by then.”
“Sure, of course,” Jongin replies. There are always important announcements and they’re never really important. They’re repeats of the same information, the same decisions, over and over. They knew the announcements back and forth; Baekhyun could even imitate all of the committee’s three announcers and all of the announcements perfectly. “My sleep is more important.”
“Don’t say that,” Minseok scolds softly as Jongin closes the bathroom door behind him. It’s too cold to take a shower when he knows the hot water for the day has run out. He sighs and turns on the sink faucet, flinching when the cold water runs over his hands.
The tiny, pretty baby-faced announcer with long dyed blonde hair, who is Baekhyun’s favorite announcer out of the three announcers, is the one on duty today. She looks serious today, dressed in neutral greys. Jongin feels the sandwich he had eaten for breakfast barely ten minutes ago sit heavy in his stomach, like the first signs of illness. The announcers only wear grey when it’s … Jongin sneaks a glance at Sehun, but he’s sitting on the other side of the room beside Jongdae and Chanyeol, face blank.
“Greetings to all esteemed citizens. With the first signs of the dark winter approaching, it is once again time to ask all of you for your support and faith in our committee. As previously announced through various channels, the Department of Missions has announced the new batch of nominated candidates.”
Baekhyun and Yixing had been talking, not really paying attention, but they both fall silent at the tone of the announcer. Jongin takes another glance at Sehun, whose fingers are gripping the fabric of his pants tightly, pulling them up. Chanyeol knows, looking down at them before he grabs Sehun’s hand. Sehun looks surprised when he looks up, his fingers loose enough for Chanyeol to intertwine their fingers, then he schools his expression back to blankness. Jongin looks back to the screen.
“The Department of Missions has been in contact with all the candidates and awaits the start of their training on midwinter day. The aid and financial departments have specially appointed staff to finish all arrangements for candidates before the specified date,” the announcer continues, looking down at her script briefly, before looking back up with a slight frown. “It has been requested by the Department of Missions that the names of the candidates will be read out loud this year, as a sign of gratitude for their loyalty.”
Jongin turns immediately to Sehun, who has let go of Chanyeol’s hand to stand up. It’s now. It’s really now. Jongin’s tears start to fall before Sehun starts to speak. “Everyone, I have something to say.”
The announcer is saying names in order of last names. Jongin recognizes a couple, but ignores them. Everyone but Junmyeon, Chanyeol and Minseok look perplexed at Sehun’s sudden interruption, but they stay silent as they wait for him to continue. Sehun clenches and unclenches his hands, his eyes wandering to look at all of them. “My name is on that list. I’m the last of this batch’s nominations.”
Behind him on the TV, the announcer pauses to clear her throat. “Lastly, but most definitely not least, candidate Oh Sehun.”
There is silence in the room. Jongin doesn’t want to look around at everyone’s faces. This is the last time they will be together, really together, without the memory of this loss. Sehun turns to the TV, watching the announcer talk about the details of the help the aid and financial departments are offering, to hide his own tears. “I report at midwinter. I can go earlier, if… if I have to. Everything is ready. I’ve even gotten my risk package already. I’ve addressed it to Junmyeon hyung.”
“Because they weren’t enough? Now we have to lose you, too?” Jongdae asks, angrily, before he stands up. He stares at Sehun’s back for a moment, then turns and dashes off to the second floor. Everyone else is still staring at the TV.
Sehun lowers himself to sit, his knees weak, right in front of the TV. The announcer seems to be almost staring at him, eyes straight on the camera.
“Today, like always, I wish you health, safety and happiness.”
That night, it’s the coldest Jongin has felt in a while. He can’t sleep. Everyone else had been angry, completely skipping the stage of denial, and they had exchanged hurtful words with each other until Sehun had started crying in earnest and they’d all forgotten about their anger to comfort him. Sehun is sleeping with Yixing, who had taken him upstairs while everyone else stayed downstairs until they separated for the night. Junmyeon hadn’t come up at all.
Jongin pushes away the blanket and opens the door slowly. The lights of all the rooms are turned off, only the hallway light on. He can hear voices from downstairs, so he follows them, letting the darkness hide him. The living room’s door which opens to the backyard is open, Junmyeon and Chanyeol sitting on the floor in front of it to stare out into the black sky. Chanyeol is speaking in a low, comforting voice. “We’ll have to do our best to comfort him. He doesn’t need more anger or fear.”
“That isn’t a solution. Comforting him? They’re sending him off to die. How do you comfort someone who’s been given a death sentence?” Junmyeon snaps. Jongin slowly lowers himself to sit on the floor. Chanyeol slides his hand over Junmyeon’s to squeeze it. Junmyeon lets him. “Chanyeol-ah… we have to hide him. I told you before, he can’t go. I won’t let it happen.”
“What will you do?” Chanyeol asks, turning slightly to look at Junmyeon. Junmyeon threads his fingers in between Chanyeol’s and tugs on it. “Tell me, hyung. What can we do?”
“Nothing,” Jongin says out loud. Junmyeon pulls his hand away from Chanyeol and they both turn to look at Jongin at the same time. “Nothing, Chanyeol hyung. They’re taking Sehun away and we can’t do anything.”
“He’s not going,” Junmyeon says, firmly. Jongin wishes he could have the same kind of faith in his own abilities, enough to make Sehun stay. “I’ll make sure of it.”
“How, hyung? You’re one person. You can’t go against what the Committee has already decided,” Jongin spits out. He’s angry, not at Junmyeon, but at this desolate planet, this dark place, that wouldn’t even let them be happy. He’d been happy, for the shortest while, until now. Every time he's finally happy, they take it away. He remembers Sehun’s words from that phone call. “Let’s all go together with him. That’s the only solution to stay with him.”
“Jongin!” Chanyeol says, half-surprised, half-angry. Junmyeon reaches out to place a hand on his arm and Chanyeol turns to look at him. Junmyeon smiles and Jongin feels angrier. “I’m one person, true, but I can still try. This isn’t Sehun’s choice, so this is the least I can do for him.”
“Good luck with that,” Jongin says. He pushes himself up and heads up the stairs again, his anger being replaced with sadness with every step. He stops at the top of the stairs, the place he knows Junmyeon and Chanyeol will hear him. He swallows and raises his voice, just enough. “I’m sorry, Junmyeon hyung, Chanyeol hyung. Please don’t let Sehun go.”
He doesn’t sleep that night. Sehun spends the entire night with Yixing and Junmyeon doesn’t come up at all. Jongin waits and waits, but everyone has someone, except him. They’re going to be alone, all over again. This is what this place will do to them. He gets out of bed before everyone else, drinks a large mug of coffee and heads to work before everyone else is awake.
The days before midwinter are cold enough that Jongin wishes everyone would pass the stage of anger into depression, but it never comes. Jongin doesn’t talk to anyone, because nobody will talk to him, or each other. They’re still angry. Junmyeon still doesn’t have any solution. Sehun is pretending he isn’t going, even though he sleeps most of his days away. Jongin tries to get them to go to one last time at the bar together, but they’re never all together at the same time, and nobody is even using their allowed days off, anyway. Everyone is never home.
Jongin sees Minseok at the basketball court on his way home, although Minseok doesn’t invite him to play, so he doesn’t join him. Sunkyu noona sends them all messages every night to pick up Baekhyun from the bar, but nobody does and Sunkyu noona’s boyfriend drops him off every night. Finding Baekhyun asleep on the living room couch or with Sehun is no longer strange. Jongin should’ve known it wouldn’t be only Sehun he would lose.
“Please just… don’t go,” Jongin mumbles to Sehun two days before midwinter. Sehun is pulling on a sweater and he pulls it down to look over at Jongin. They haven’t spoken for days. “Junmyeon hyung will hide you. Or Minseok hyung. They’ll do something… just stay.”
Sehun meets Jongin’s eyes for long enough to make Jongin miserably in touch with reality. He’d sounded just as desperate as Junmyeon had. Maybe he was the only one who had progressed into the stage of depression. He’ll stay there, in that stage, because there was no way he could accept the loss of the boy in front of him. “Don’t say anything, Sehun. Just… please.”
“Please, what?” Sehun says as he comes closer to Jongin. He’s standing right in front of Jongin’s bed. Jongin is struck with how much he’ll miss Sehun’s handsome face, his childish voice, his stupid jokes. He grabs Sehun’s arm and pulls him down over him, wrapping his arms around Sehun’s skinny frame. “Please, let me pretend you’re not going.”
Sehun gives him this last wish, being kind enough for just this night. They go to sleep wrapped up in each other’s arms. There’s only three days left until midwinter.
The day of midwinter comes with everyone finally together. They’d all requested the day off and citing Sehun as a reason had been enough for immediate approval. Sehun is standing in the middle of the living room like he had, the day of the announcement, and everyone is standing around him, eyes bright with tears.
“This is all wrong,” Yixing starts to say, but Minseok stops him with a look. Baekhyun steps up to Sehun and pulls him in his arms, tightly hugging him. Sehun looks like he’s ready to cry, but his eyes are too dry. Jongin hates it. Junmyeon and Chanyeol are standing at opposite sides of the room. Junmyeon looks angry, his hands trembling, even when he has them clenched.
“You said you’d do something, didn’t you?” Jongdae yells abruptly, turning to Minseok. Minseok lowers his eyes to the floor before looking over at Sehun. Jongdae steps forward and pulls Minseok forward from his collar. Sehun lets go of Baekhyun to hold onto Jongdae from the back. “You said you’d do it! You said you’d get them to remove his name! You and Junmyeon hyung always let this happen. Is it that easy to give up on your promises?!”
“Hyung! Stop it!” Sehun pleads, struggling to keep Jongdae from jumping on Minseok. Junmyeon pulls Minseok back and Chanyeol steps in between the two sides. Baekhyun and Yixing pull Jongdae back and Sehun lets his arms fall to his sides, looking back and forth at Jongdae and Minseok. “It was like this all the other times too. No wonder they wanted to leave.”
Sehun grabs his phone and the duffel bag he’d prepared for the week of training, face red and wet with tears. Kyungsoo pulls away the duffel bag and holds onto Sehun’s arm, pulling him back. “You’re not going like this.”
“I might as well, not like it’ll make any difference how I leave,” Sehun says, grabbing the handle of the duffel bag to pull it back. Kyungsoo pulls it away roughly and tosses it to the other side of the room. Sehun looks a little surprised. “What are you doing?”
“We’re all angry, were you expecting a peaceful send off? Were you waiting for us to smile and wish you all the best?” Kyungsoo says, signaling the others with a wide swing of his arm. His eyes are dark. Sehun steps back and looks around the room. “You should know we’re angry because we can’t do anything, no matter how much we want to. I’m sorry you have to see it, but there’s no other way we’re going to let you go. We’re angry now because we have all the time in the world to be sad later.”
Everyone seems to turn dark at Kyungsoo’s words. Jongin is caught in the middle of all of it, the promise Junmyeon hadn’t been able to keep, the anger turning the air red, and the sadness changing it back to grey. Sehun starts to cry, again, and Jongin reaches out for him the same time everyone else does.
He still leaves, twenty minutes later when all their tears have dried. Everyone separates as soon as he does, divided around the house, already. Kyungsoo leaves with Sehun to drive him to the station. Jongin goes to his room and stares out the window at the white snow falling down on Sehun, covering his shoulders and hair with a coat of white. He looks so young. Kyungsoo drives the car up to the sidewalk and Sehun turns, drinking in the last time he’ll see the house, before turning back and getting into the front passenger seat.
Jongin pulls down the curtains and calls BoA noona about renting the room she’d offered him near the testing facility.
The room is so lonely and suffocating when Jongin knows his family is only minutes away. He can’t hear anything here, not laughter, not singing, nothing. He can’t hear the late-night impromptu recording sessions, the soft tinkering and footsteps in the morning, the conversations scattered around the house, the presence of someone sharing this vast space with him. He wants to go home every day, not in this space that had been someone else’s, with nothing of his except the bed sheets, a blanket and some clothes hanging on the rack. Everything else belongs to whoever lived here before him, probably someone BoA noona knew. She’d looked sad when she told him the guy had also left by choice, like they had. Jongin doesn’t feel sad for him, for them, anymore.
The blanket is Sehun’s. Jongin wonders if Junmyeon noticed it’s gone. He doesn’t think so, because everyone didn’t object when he’d said he’s going to move out. They’d let him go, finally moving to depression and letting the anger evaporate. He had to do it before everyone else did, because he couldn’t be left behind, not again. They’d left behind memories in the old house and now he’d left everything behind, not just memories, in the new one.
He doesn’t sleep any better, though. He wakes up expecting cold, expecting voices. There are none, because he has control over his own heating and there’s no neighbours. Nobody shares his bathroom with him, either. He gets to work on time every day.
Junmyeon goes out to the home station the day of Sehun’s deployment day. Minseok had found it out and told him, knowing he’d want to know. He knows Chanyeol is following him, the taller boy’s steps too clumsy to hide.
He stands outside the missions building for hours, waiting for the shuttle take-off. It happens an hour before midnight. He sees Sehun in the suit, walking in the glass bridge, to the inside of the cockpit. He sees the young boy he’d lived through endless years with, heading off to die in infinite darkness. He watches the bridge being retracted, the door closing, and then there’s the countdown of the shuttle. 3, 2, 1, and then there’s the loudest explosion of noise, the brightest light, and the shuttle is light years away. It’s so anticlimactic, in a way. He’s standing here and Sehun isn’t, and that’s all there is to it.
He stands for another hour, watching the faint light of the shuttle get further and further away until he can’t see it, until he can’t see the last glimpses of Sehun’s existence in his life. He’d cried enough when nothing he’d done amounted to anything, when all the upper management he’d begged to cancel Sehun’s nomination had turned him away without an ounce of sympathy. He wants to keep crying, but he’s too numb. He’d lived through this too many times to cry like he wants to.
“Let’s go back,” Chanyeol says, dropping his coat over Junmyeon’s shoulders. Junmyeon hadn’t even realized he feels cold until Chanyeol’s warm coat is on him and he tugs it tighter around him. “He’ll come back, hyung.”
“Don’t make yourself feel better by lying,” Junmyeon says bitterly. He slides his arms into the sleeves that are too big for him and turns to face Chanyeol. “We all know how that works out.”
Chanyeol doesn’t reply. Junmyeon wishes he would, so he could have a reason to yell and curse at him. Chanyeol slings his arm over Junmyeon’s shoulders and starts to lead him home. Junmyeon looks over his shoulder and doesn’t see anything at all in the dark sky.
Sometimes when he has his headphones on and he’s walking without thinking, Jongin’s feet lead him straight to home. He wants to go in and call out that he’s home, hear everyone’s voices and feel warm again. He can see it, if he stepped in, who would be in the kitchen, who would be upstairs changing their clothes, who would be in the living room whining about being hungry. Sometimes, he’ll turn around and wait, long enough to see those who would be coming home from their jobs late, without them seeing him. He’s seen Minseok and Yixing twice, Chanyeol three, and strangely, Junmyeon, once. Junmyeon had seen him, too, but Jongin hadn’t waited for Junmyeon to come close enough to talk. He’s too afraid of what will happen if he’s convinced to go back home and to stay in his room again, without Sehun.
He’ll stay in his lonely little room that isn’t really his until he can breathe without remembering Sehun. He takes up reading to have something to fill up the time. He has so much time without anyone to talk to. He’s finished most of the books on the shelves of his little room, many of them turning out to be merely decorational. Sehun would have made fun of how many romance novels Jongin had read during the days after he’d gone.
The book for tonight has a minimalistic illustration of a large whale on a blue background on the front. Jongin prepares himself for a children’s story, and he’s not very far off. He loses himself in the simple phrases of the story of a whale that travels the oceans, vast and free, completely alone while singing a solitary song no other whales can hear. The author writes about scientists who paint the whale’s story as merely odd, about the people who fell for the whale’s sorrow regardless of whether it was odd or truly sad. Jongin stares at the ceiling after finishing the book and wonders if people felt that way because so many people felt like the whale must feel, unable to find companions in a world that was so big.
Jongin wonders if Sehun feels that way now, surrounded by silence and stars.
Junmyeon goes back to the home station every day, watching the skies in the empty field surrounding the building, snow falling lightly. No mission has ever been successfully completed. He knows it, he knows Sehun isn’t coming back, yet he’d let himself believe Chanyeol’s stupid, silly lie.
The skies are always empty, no matter how long Junmyeon searches and waits.
“Hyung, you can’t keep doing this,” Chanyeol says from a few steps behind him. Junmyeon tries to ignore him. He had been so close to believing he really couldn’t have done anything for them, they had wanted to go, but Sehun didn’t want to go. Sehun wanted to stay. Junmyeon wanted Sehun to stay. Why would Chanyeol lie like that, even if Junmyeon knows it’s to make him feel better? Junmyeon knows Chanyeol doesn’t want anything except to make him forget. He can’t, so he turns around. Chanyeol looks cold, his coat a bit too light. He looks like he’s come straight from work. “Let’s stop coming here, hyung.”
“‘He’ll come back, hyung,’ right? If you believed that, you wouldn’t tell me to stop coming here,” Junmyeon says, mockingly. Chanyeol’s every emotion shows on his face and he’s struggling to hide his hurt now. Junmyeon takes a step forward and places his hands in the middle of Chanyeol’s chest, resists the urge to pull him close, and pushes him back instead, making him stumble and fall onto the ground. Junmyeon’s anger keeps him warm, running through his blood, as he turns and starts to walk home. He’s had enough of hoping for something that won’t happen. Back then too, with them, Chanyeol had kept Junmyeon sane enough to realize his anger was temporary, but now, Junmyeon is angry at everyone, he doesn’t care if it’s temporary or not.
“Hyung! Wait!” Chanyeol calls out to him. Junmyeon can hear him scrambling up and he turns at the first hint of touch, pulling back his arm and fisting his hand tightly to punch Chanyeol straight on the jaw. Chanyeol tries to grab Junmyeon’s wrist, but Junmyeon is already pulling back for another punch. It’s a first, maybe, that Junmyeon has seen Chanyeol’s anger directed towards him, but when Chanyeol punches him back, Junmyeon’s anger flares and turns blue, or maybe it’s just sadness. He punches Chanyeol again, gets punched back, back and forth so many times that he doesn’t even feel satisfied anymore when his fist meets Chanyeol’s face, and doesn’t care about his cut lip or the bruises that will show on his skin later. Chanyeol is crying, although noiselessly, and Junmyeon is slow enough that Chanyeol manages to grab his clothes and shake him wildly, eyes wide and bright with heartache. It reminds him of the days after they’d left, because Chanyeol had been sad then, too, yet had still managed to help draw Junmyeon away from the anger of loss, betrayal and heartbreak. Chanyeol is yelling, his voice thick with tears. “Stop it! Stop it right now!”
“I can’t! I can’t!” Junmyeon yells back, grabbing Chanyeol’s shirt with both hands. Holding onto Chanyeol brings Junmyeon back to solid ground and empties the anger from his fingertips, dripping it out as Chanyeol lowers himself to his knees in front of Junmyeon. He’s looking up at Junmyeon with the same big eyes, for once, looking like he’s his age, still holding onto Junmyeon. He hasn’t let go of Junmyeon once. Junmyeon doesn’t understand why Chanyeol is still here, their eyes locked, and he lets out a sob, sliding his hand up to grip Chanyeol’s shoulder and falling down to his knees, forward into Chanyeol’s chest, Chanyeol’s arms, Chanyeol, Chanyeol. “I can’t, Chanyeol-ah, help me…”
Chanyeol is still crying, even when he pulls Junmyeon close, and Junmyeon knows he can’t stay with Chanyeol. He wants to. Chanyeol can help him, he always has. Junmyeon wants to help him, too, but the only thing he can offer is even more hurt for Chanyeol. Junmyeon allows himself a moment of security, a moment of having Chanyeol for himself, then pushes him back and stumbles back. Chanyeol watches him like he understands, knows Junmyeon is closing himself off from right then. “Let’s stay away from each other, please. I can’t hurt you any more than this.”
“Hyung, don’t…” Chanyeol breathes out, hopelessly. He knows it’s useless. Junmyeon doesn’t allow himself to look back when he turns and walks away, leaving Chanyeol alone in the empty field. He’ll lose one more person he loves from his life, one more to add to the list of those lost. It doesn’t make a difference.
He goes back when Chanyeol doesn’t come home hours later, after a good scolding from Minseok and Jongdae and the realization that he couldn’t give up more than he already had, especially if it meant giving up Chanyeol. He could give Chanyeol so much more than hurt, if he really, really tried. He really, really wants to try. He finds Chanyeol, laying on his back, asleep on the snow, dried blood and cuts all over his face. Junmyeon wants to kick him awake, tell him he should be ashamed for loving someone so weak-willed that he’d go back on words he’d said mere hours ago, but he stands and watches the snow fall on Chanyeol’s eyelashes and cheeks and nose and melt, all while Chanyeol sleeps peacefully.
“He’ll come back, right? Like I came back to you?” Junmyeon asks the sleeping Chanyeol, repeats it to the dark skies. Everything is quiet and there is no sign, no answer. Snow continues to fall. Chanyeol continues to sleep. Junmyeon knows it’s so stupid to stay here when it’s so cold, especially while they’re not wearing enough to shield them from the cold. He’d expected to drag Chanyeol back and they could warm up at home. Instead, he sits down on the freezing ground and lies down beside Chanyeol, reaching for Chanyeol’s hands and taking his hand like Chanyeol had taken his hundreds of times. He opens his eyes and stares at the endless sky. There’s a shimmer of blue, or maybe grey, or something in between, in the faraway sky, and Junmyeon closes his eyes for a moment before opening them. The sky is once again completely dark, no colors, stars or lights in it, and Junmyeon closes his tired eyes again. Chanyeol’s hand is warm and Junmyeon is weary, emotions having sucked his body dry, and he sleeps, safe and healthy, and maybe a short way from happiness.
Space is endless, the true meaning of infinity. Sehun had thought, once upon a time, so many forevers ago, that nothing is endless. Everything ends.
Space does not.
The signal he’d had, the comforting voice of the station responders relaying his position and received data, and sometimes even Minseok singing him sweet lullabies, has disappeared. He’d expected it, known it would happen, though it makes it no less terrifying to be alone in vast space.
He presses the radio key and breathes out. There isn’t even any static anymore, only silence like the black around him. “Home station, mission S41294O reporting. Please respond.”
There is no response, of course.
Sehun closes his eyes and imagines home. It could be his room. It’s too quiet, sure. He’ll pretend he’s home alone. He doesn’t know what it sounds like to be home alone. Probably something like it does now, noiseless. He’s going to go crazy. He opens his eyes again, sick of his own mind, and inhales a breath of shock.
There’s a fucking whale in front of him, swimming smoothly in the airless space as if it’s in water. He stares up at it, contemplating his own sanity. He must be insane for sure. He was ready to die, now. He wants to go before it gets any worse.
The whale does a wide turn and faces him, like it’s staring at him. Whales do not magically appear in space, Sehun tells himself. He wishes he could touch it, marvel at the intricacies of his own brain’s imagination. He doesn’t even know what kind of whale it is, but his mind still made up this huge creature in front of him. It’s still staring at him and Sehun stares back. If he could go back, he’d tell everyone about this and they’d laugh at him and Chanyeol would probably break a rib or two laughing at him.
As if it could read his mind, the whale swims closer and Sehun feels like he’s stuck underwater when it comes close enough for him to run his hand over it. Feeling something solid under his hand, for the first time in so long, makes him want to cry. He fights back the tears, too aware of his arduous training, and the whale moves forward while his hand slides over its’ body. He wishes, so badly, crazily, a dying wish, that somehow, it could lead him back home, so that he could die there, happy and warm and surrounded by love, and not alone and crazy and so lonely. He closes his eyes again and breathes out, along with any hope of his wish coming true.
The TV is at its’ loudest volume, but Jongin still can’t hear it, with everyone talking and laughing over each other. He takes the remote and tries to raise the volume more, even though he knows he can’t, and he drops it again. Minseok laughs when he notices it and leans over. “They’ll be quiet when it’s time for the announcement. Taeyeon is announcing today, Baekhyun will quiet them down.”
Jongin smiles back and nods. He lets his eyes wander all over the bar, to Minseok across from him, the other hyungs drinking their beer and laughing over Baekhyun and Chanyeol’s bickering, the way Chanyeol’s eyes keep flickering to Junmyeon fondly, like he wanted to make sure Junmyeon was really there, to the rest of them stealing darts from each other. It’d been a while. They’d all been busy and it had been tough.
“It’s the announcement time! I’m going to die! It’s Taeyeon noona! Be quiet, all of you peasants who don’t understand her otherworldly beauty!” Chanyeol calls in a high-pitched imitation of Baekhyun’s voice. Baekhyun pushes him hard enough to make him nearly fall out of his chair before turning back to stare up at the TV with a wide smile. Taeyeon’s hair is a different shade of blonde today, slightly wavy, and she’s wearing white and a bright smile.
“Greetings to all esteemed citizens. After the end of another long, difficult winter, the committee thanks every citizen for their ongoing efforts to keep our community as a place to call home. Thanks to the sacrifices of our citizens and their faith in the committee, we have reached stages we once could have never dreamed of. Although known through limited release of information, the Department of Missions in particular would like to extend their thanks and gratitude to all previously nominated candidates who have shown extraordinary courage to prove their loyalty in our committee. Although we have sadly lost contact with many of our nominated candidates, the success of mission S41294O has provided the Department with valuable data for the continued research of the Department and its’ goals of exploration and documentation.”
Jongin looks away from the TV, lowering his eyes to Sehun, who is pink-faced with pride and embarrassment. Everyone else is also looking at Sehun, ignoring the rest of the announcement, as if to make sure he really is here. Jongin laughs when Sehun hides his face with one hand and whines, waving his other hand, and everyone else laughs as well. Jongdae pinches Sehun’s waist and he squeaks and everyone laughs louder, a sound Jongin sinks himself in, and looks around again, at everyone’s happy faces, at Sehun trying to steal the darts from Jongdae to stab him with them, at Kyungsoo opening more bottles of beer for them, at Chanyeol and Junmyeon laughing with each other, their hands brushing on the bar counter, and he takes his beer and takes a gulp of it, bitter, warm and definitely a taste of happiness.
Days after Sehun’s return and Jongin bringing his things back to the room, Sehun discovers the story book about the whale that Jongin had brought back with him by accident. Jongin makes a mental note to apologize to BoA noona when he sees Sehun pick it up and flip through it. “What is this about? A whale?”
“It’s a whale that made calls at a much higher frequency than any other species of whales, so he wasn’t able to join any group or mate at all,” Jongin explains as he changes into his sleep wear. Sehun looks… sad, staring down at the cover of the book, when Jongin looks over his shoulder while hanging his work clothes. “Before, they recorded its’ call every year, and every year, it was still alone. Scientists said it’s weird, not tragic, because it’s maturing and living alright, but I think it’s sad.”
Jongin turns and is surprised to see Sehun staring up at him with intense sadness. He’s holding the book tightly. “It was probably really, really lonely.”
Sehun hadn’t talked about what had happened while he was in space, or how he’d gotten back to the shuttle and back home. Junmyeon had tried asking him, more than once, concerned, like only Junmyeon could be, about any post-traumatic stress. Sehun had said saying it once to the Department was enough. Jongin wants to know, but he doesn’t want to press Sehun. If space is anything like he imagines, Sehun must’ve been even lonelier than the whale. Jongin doesn’t move from his spot. “Was it lonely?”
“More than you could ever imagine,” Sehun answers, painfully honest. He puts the book back on the bedside table between their beds and laughs, but it’s sad. Jongin hates when Sehun laughs like that. “I probably understand that whale better than anyone else in the entire world.”
Jongin thinks so, too. He goes to sit on his own bed, facing Sehun, and smiles when Sehun meets his eyes. Sehun’s eyes are filled with tears and he looks so sad. “It must have found a companion, eventually, like you found your way back. You don’t have to be lonely anymore.”
Sehun’s crying, but he smiles, a sincere smile. Jongin reaches out and pats Sehun’s cheeks. Sehun shakes his head and brushes his own tears roughly, nodding with conviction, before he smiles again. “Yeah, I think. It must have.”