This story is inspired by the NCT U Without You mv featuring Doyoung (Dongyoung), Jaehyun (Yoonoh) and Taeil, as well as the model Han Kyunghyun (ig). The as-yet-unallocated SMRookie (and future?) NCT subunit member Winwin (Sicheng) also appears in the mv as well as this story. The title of this story is taken from the lyrics of the song.
Without Kyunghyun, Taeil feels incomplete. It’s not that they’re not friends though; there would be a simplicity to that. The fin on the last page of the book before the cover closes. Instead, he just lingers on, close but not close enough. It hurts, watching her, watching Dongyoung. Childhood friends, grown into an uneasy equilibrium, the spinning top just waiting to tip.
“Come on!” she grins, beckoning with a hand, her other fingers wrapped around the controller of the video arcade machine.
“You’re falling behind!” Dongyoung calls, and Taeil looks back at the screen, just in time to see his car crash into the sideboards, metal flying everywhere, like the pieces of his heart fracturing in slow motion.
He remembers the three of them in the attic, playing in the shadows, Kyunghyun leaning forward to whisper in his ear. “Taeil, you have to remember,” she whispers, but he can’t remember how it ends.
He first saw her at hagwon, eyes gritty with exhaustion, but she was smiling behind transparent plastic-rimmed glasses that looked like something he’d dressed up with as a child, pulled from his grandmother’s costume box. Yoonoh blinked. The seat beside her was empty.
“Hi,” she said, shifting her notebooks over to give him some extra space. “I’m Han Kyunghyun.” Yoonoh felt something shifting in his chest, like the beginning of something he couldn’t yet quantify.
“Jung Yoonoh, he replied, nodding his head and pulling notebooks out of his backpack. His maths notebook was open, and Kyunghyun leaned over, exclaiming at the small, carefully written rows of solved problem exercises.
“You’re good at maths!” she exclaimed, turning to meet his gaze, eyes sparkling. Yoonoh gulped.
“I’m okay,” he said modestly, even though it was a bit of an understatement.
“Shut up,” she said, nudging him with her elbow and smothering a laugh as the teacher walked in. “I don’t believe you.”
Even though he was exhausted, Yoonoh managed to stay stay awake for the whole class, making careful notes as Kyunghyun glanced aside ever once in a while when the teacher was particularly obtuse.
“We should meet up some time to study!” she said when the class ended, pulling out her phone. “Dongyoung is pretty bad at differentiation.”
And Yoonoh’s heart, fluttering through his chest, fell like a stone to the ground as he watched her waving, rushing down the steps to catch her bus.
Taeil rides the trail, watching the landscape speeding by, the neon blurs of city lights in the dark.
“What are you going to do?” Sicheng asks, sitting on the seat across from him, the table between. His eyes are dark, shadowed by eyelashes that flutter in the artificial breeze as he watches the city speed by.
“I don’t know,” Taeil says. He thinks about Dongyoung, about Kyunghyun, always running, hand in hand in the wind. He thinks about the way a hand always reaches back for him to take, warm fingers. His and yet not his, intersecting circles.
Sicheng turns his head to meet his eyes, and Taeil notices the small star on his wrist, ink hovering beneath his skin. He can’t remember seeing it before, but it doesn’t look new.
“Do you have anyone you can’t live without?” he asks. Sicheng just looks at him, and doesn’t answer, as Taeil’s stop is called and he gets off. He’s not sure he want’s to know the answer.
Yoonoh rubs his fingers together, tips barely touching, the light contact trailing over his skin. His hands feel so empty. He remembers Kyunghyun that afternoon, fingers wrapped up in Dongyoung’s hand, the way he smiled at her. Fond, Yoonoh could read, the words written all over his face, eyes reflecting Kyunghyun’s smile.
They’d met up to go over some maths homework but it had mostly turned into handing out at the video arcade, playing air hockey and munching snacks, homework forgotten in their backpacks.
“Hi,” Dongyoung had said, and his smile had been authentic. He didn’t seem jealous at all, even though Kyunghyun had invited Yoonoh along on what ended up being a date, and Dongyoung still can’t decide if he likes or dislikes Dongyoung for it.
Likes, because Dongyoung is likeable, everything right there, no darkness hiding in the corners of his eyes. Dislikes, because Dongyoung is that sure about Kyunghyun and him together, the twoness of them wrapped up in a safe package, smiles and handholds and hair blowing in the wind as they said goodbye to Yoonoh, riding their bikes home along the river.
There’s no space for Yoonoh to fit between them, even if he wanted to. Do I want to? He doesn’t know. The dream was already broken before he fell asleep.
Taeil’s working at his part time job, where he goes when he tells his mom he’s going to hagwon, leaving his notebooks in his backpack and pulling an apron on over his head instead, running his hands under the cold water coming from the faucet. He turns away to get more mustard and when he’s back at the counter again he sees Dongyoung and Kyunghyun, standing there, just as surprised to see him as he is to see them. He blinks.
I’m the only one surprised, he realizes, as Dongyoung flashes him a grin and orders a burger, while Kyunghyun hums and bites her lip and finally settles on a smoothie. Taeil’s hands shake a bit when closes the lid of the blender, though he’s not sure why. He’s glad that his friends don’t think it’s strange that he has a part-time job, and he’s knows they’ll never mention it at school.
Watching them walk away, he wonders if it’s the fact that they meet up without him that’s making him feel so strange, even though he’s always known that. That they all have lives of their own, even though they meet up in school everyday; Dongyoung and Kyunghyun go to different hagwons, he goes to his part-time job, they listen to different music when they bend over their textbooks in the dark.
Or maybe Dongyoung and Kyunghyun study together, when it’s not the three of them. Taeil doesn’t know. He takes Dongyoung’s cash, watches Kyunghyun step on his foot for paying first, and waves as they walk away, Kyunghyun flashing a smile back at him before she turns her back.
The lights flicker, or maybe it’s just Taeil blinking. It’s hard to tell.
Yoonoh half expects that mostly-failed study session to be a one-time occurrence, so he’s surprised when Kyunghyun invites him out the next time, emojis sending smiley faces over the phone. Yoonoh stares at the screen, tries to make himself say no. He types in yes anyway, the smiley-face grinning at him from the screen, a lie he wears and pretends is real.
There’s someone else this time, slightly messy hair and eyes that seem to track Kyunghyun’s smile as she waves her arm, beckoning Yoonoh over as he emerges from the subway station, stepping off the escalator.
“This is Moon Taeil,” Dongyoung says, slinging an arm around Taeil’s shoulders. Yoonoh nods.
“Jung Yoonoh,” he says, slinging his bag higher on his shoulder, the emptiness weighing his hands.
He half expects them to end up at the arcade again, but Dongyoung waves them along to a coffee shop, white table tops reflecting the brightly coloured votive candles.
“Do you like coffee?” Kyunghyun asks. Yoonoh shrugs. Taeil passes him a menu and he pretends to read it instead of watching the way his eyes flicker, tracking the trajectory of Kyunghyun’s hands as they flutter through the air, the words of her voice lost in the buzz of his thoughts.
Yoonoh stands up to use the washroom and when he comes back everyone is packing up to leave, his eyes pulled to Kyunghyun saying something to Dongyoung as he stuffs the rest of her notebooks in her bag, but then his attention catches on the way Taeil stands, just a little apart, hands hanging at his sides as he watches the Dongyoung and Kyunghyun.
He looks exactly like Yoonoh feels, and the small weight in his chest sits there as he rides the subway home, standing next to the metal pole as he watches the conversation on their katalk message group fly past. Dongyoung, Kyunghyun and Taeil all go to the same school, they’re childhood friends from what he’s gathered and they all know the same people, so he shouldn’t feel like he and Taeil have something in common.
He does anyway.
“Can you get the Lee Mija record from the attic?” his mom asks, as Taeil is opening the refrigerator for a snack. He pulls out an apple and nods, not bothering to wash it as he takes a bite, skipping away from his mother’s rebuke about germs and pesticides.
Taeil hasn’t been to the attic in years; elementary school is probably the last time he was here, playing amidst the trunks and boxes, Dongyoung flipping through the old records and laughing at their hairstyles, Kyunghyun flapping dust around and watching the golden trails dancing in the sunlight as he rummaged through old boxes until the sky grew dark and they sat with flashlights, pretending not to scared as they waited for Taeil’s mom to find them. He sits on the dusty ground, feeling Kyunghyun whisper in his ear.
“You must remember,” she says, her voice a faded memory in his head as he closes his eyes.
He still can’t remember what she said.
After a while he stands, brushing off his jeans as he pokes through the boxes of records to find the one he wants. His fingers feel dry, the dust like sand on his skin.
Yoonoh lies in bed and can’t sleep. His hands feel so empty and he wishes he had someone to hold his hand; a thought that wouldn't make sense in the daytime but at night things are different. 1:02 the clock on his bedside table says. Yoonoh rubs his eyes, turning as his legs get even more tangled in the sheets, the way he’s getting more and more tangled up with Kyunghyun, Taeil and Dongyoung.
His phone buzzes, and Yoonoh glances over at the screen. It’s a message from Sicheng, his classmate.
I had a feeling
The letters resolve into words as Yoonoh blinks to focus. It’s not hard to press call.
“Can’t sleep?” Sicheng asks over the line. The connection is crackly, and Yoonoh wonders where he is.
“Yeah,” he says, and his voice sounds tired, even to his own ears.
“What’s wrong?” Sicheng asks, and Yoonoh knows he shouldn’t but he tells Sicheng anyway. It’s not like they’re close; they hardly talk in school after all, but sometimes, at night, Sicheng texts and if Yoonoh can’t sleep he takes it as an invitation to call, unburden his chest. It’s easier, somehow, talking in dark to someone he can’t see.
The line crackles when he finishes, the silence heavy over the air between them. There’s a garbled sound of an announcer over the line, and Yoonoh realizes that Sicheng is probably on a train. He wonders what the destination is, but he doesn’t ask.
“What do you really want?” Sicheng asks, and his voice isn’t loud but it feels like it anyway. Yoonoh stares up at the ceiling, the shadows from the trees outside tracing lines on the paint.
“I want a hand to hold,” he says, finally. “Someone who’s mine before they’re anyone else’s.” His free hand twists through the sheets but the fabric slips through his fingers, cool against his skin.
“Sometimes you just have to look at what’s right in front of you,” Sicheng says, cryptically. Yoonoh exhales in a loud puff of frustration.
“She’s already dating Dongyoung,” he says, but Sicheng is already disagreeing before he finishes the sentence.
“I wasn’t talking about Kyunghyun,” Sicheng says. There’s rustling, another garbled announcement, and the line hums. “Sorry,” Sicheng says, “I have to go.”
“Thanks,” Yoonoh says, hanging up. He tries to think about what Sicheng is talking about, but his eyes fall shut without him realizing it.
They meet up for another study session on one of Taeil’s off days from his part-time job, Dongyoung, Kyungyhyun and Kyunghyun’s new friend from her hagwon. Taeil doesn’t really have an opinion about Yoonoh. If anyone asked him, he’d tell them Yoonoh is nice, and good at maths, but that’s about all he knows. He doesn’t have space for anyone else, when watching Kyunghyun with Dongyoung is already breaking his heart.
“That sucks,” Dongyoung says, when they meet up in front of the coffee shop they’d planned on studying in, only to find it full. He shrugs though, and Taeil knows he’s not really bothered. Dongyoung is good at figuring things out.
“Let’s have a picnic along the river,” Kyunghyun calls over her shoulder as she takes off running, Dongyoung fast on her feels. Taeil takes a step but his foot lands wrong on the crumbled sidewalk and something twists in his knee; tears come to his eyes before he can catch them, dashing them away with the back of his hand.
“Come on,” Yoonoh says, stepping up beside him and wrapping an arm underneath his. His arm around Taeil’s waist is warm, hand resting lightly on his hip, and feels safe, somehow. Dongyoung and Kyunghyun are far ahead already, racing along the sidewalk, but here with Yoonoh it doesn’t feel as much like he’s being left behind.
“Thanks,” Taeil says, and wraps his own arm around Yoonoh’s shoulders and neck for balance, his fingers falling across Yoonoh’s collarbone. He can feel the hitch in Yoonoh’s breath, feel the skip of his chest against his side as the rhythm of Yoonoh’s breathing steadies again.
“Does it really hurt?” Yoonoh asks, and Taeil grimaces as he takes a step, jostling the joint.
“It’s okay,” he says, but he knows he sounds a little breathless, the tightening of his muscles far too noticeable the way he’s draped over Yoonoh. Yoonoh turns to look at him, and Taeil can’t meet his eyes. Yoonoh sighs, but he doesn’t sound frustrated.
“Come on,” he says, kneeling down on the sidewalk in front of Taeil. “I’ll give you a piggy-back ride.” With Yoonoh turned away from him, there’s no one to see the flush that paints Taeil’s cheeks as he leans over to press himself to Yoonoh’s back, wrapping his arms around Yoonoh’s neck. Yoonoh wraps his arms beneath Taeil’s legs and stands carefully, adjusting Taeil’s position.
“You okay?” he asks, and Taeil hopes it’s not just his imagination, that Yoonoh really does sound a little breathless.
“Yeah,” he says, pressing his face to back of Yoonoh’s neck. His eyes are still a little wet but he feels warm. Yoonoh walks along the sidewalk behind Dongyoung and Kyunghyun who are already far ahead in the distance; he can pick out the shape of their heads as they lead on the railing of an observation platform.
It’s okay. For the first time in a while, Taeil likes where he is.
”Do you think Taeil is okay?” Dongyoung says, his brow furrowed in concern as he looks back along the sidewalk to where they can see Yoonoh, Taeil riding piggy-back. “Maybe we should go back.”
Kyunghyun shakes her head. “He’ll be fine,” she says. “Just leave them alone together for a bit.” She leans a head against Dongyoung’s shoulder, and he reaches up to run fingers through her hair. “I picked Yoonoh out for him anyway.”
Dongyoung glances down at her face, the confusion written across his face smoothing to exasperation as he elbows her affectionately. Kyunghyun sticks out her tongue at him, glancing back at Yoonoh and Taeil who are still making their slow way towards them. She exhales, a tenseness that had lingered around her eyes and mouth smoothing away into laughter.
Remember, she writes with a finger along the guardrail, It’s going to be okay.