Wordcount: 8,815 words
Pairing: Gen, Hakyeon-centric, OT6 friendship
Summary: Maybe it's selfish, but Hakyeon doesn't want to be leader anymore.
Author's Note: So many, many thanks to garowyn, stars_in_love and citrus_sarang, for working through my Hakyeon headcanon with me; the ever amazing Team Spy: Agent Porcupine (horrours) for answering our questions, Agent A (darkyulate), Agent Yuna (mara_ciro), Lone Devil 1 (cassiem312), Danger Eagle 6 (naladot) and Biscuit 007 (kalopsia), for word wars and gentle betaing when I was ready to throw this fic away; jojibear, who brainstormed me out of a hole I'd written myself into; and most especially to alphanumerunes, my biggest cheerleader who patiently held my hand and walked me out of writers' block. This fic would not have been possible without you.
This is probably the fic I've spent the longest amount of time labouring over, because the subject matter (and subject) meant so much to me. I knew at once when I saw the prompts the story that I wanted to tell, and I'm thankful for the chance to tell it. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did writing it.
Written for kpop_olymfics 2015, originally posted here.
Almost three years after their debut, Hakyeon decides to stop.
Not VIXX, of course. He doesn't think he can ever quit VIXX, if only because he's spent so many years wanting it and chasing after it. But carrying the hopes and dreams of five other members on his shoulders is wearying, even if it has become second nature to him.
In his weaker moments, he's admitted it: "VIXX is like heavy jewelry," he said in an interview, as the rest of the members were giving descriptions like family, a safe place, our starting point. The interviewer had looked slightly shocked, and he'd backpedalled obligingly to give her something she could print, adding qualifiers to soften and deflect the truth of his words. Beautiful chains, he'd really wanted to say, shackles of expectations that weighed so heavily on him, he sometimes found it hard to breathe. But there are candid comments and then there are things fans don't actually want to know, no matter what they might claim. So he smiled brightly as the interviewer wrote down his newly print-friendly comments in relief, and they moved on to the next question.
But still, the thought scratched at him like an itch, seeped into his consciousness like a betrayal: Maybe it's selfish, but he doesn't want to be leader anymore.
It takes several meetings with their CEO to finally arrive at a mutual agreement. A hiatus—just from leading, of course; he's still expected to continue activities as a member. Hakyeon accepts it gratefully. It's more than he dared to hope.
So he steps down. Taekwoon does the band greeting instead. Wonshik takes over the role as official spokesman for the group. It's just for a while, they say, just for a while until Hakyeon finds his feet again.
He wonders how long that might take.
The first show they do is a disaster. Taekwoon forgets he's supposed to be doing the opening greeting. Wonshik stumbles over his script, running words together and adding unnecessary fillers in an attempt to sound smooth and rehearsed but ending up talking far too much. Without someone to call on him, Jaehwan fades uncertainly into the background. Hongbin and Sanghyuk play up their pranks and try to entertain, but that distracts the already-nervous Wonshik and falls flat.
Hakyeon steps up instinctively, trying to smooth over the gaps like he's been trained to do, bears the tension and the burden of having to present the group well. He interprets Taekwoon's frown for the audience, complements Wonshik's speeches with his own brand of talkativeness, tugs Jaehwan into the discussion, allows himself to be used as the target of the jokes so Sanghyuk and Hongbin have their turn to talk, to laugh, to be serious.
After the cameras cut and the crew prepares to pack up, the members come up to him, surround him with guilty faces. Wonshik's doing, no doubt.
"Sorry we did such a terrible job, hyung," Wonshik says, speaking up on their behalf. "We were supposed to let you have a break, but you ended up having to do everything on your own again."
Hakyeon takes the bundle of tiredness that has settled on his shoulders again and puts it aside. His members need encouragement right now. So he reaches inside himself for energy, slaps a small smile on his face and prepares to tease.
"Now you know how amazing hyung is," he says boastfully, ruffling Wonshik's hair and making him yelp. "It took you long enough. Are you guys only acknowledging this now?"
The maknaes accept it at face value. Hongbin screws up his nose in mock disgust. Sanghyuk takes the bait. "Just you wait, hyung," he threatens. "We'll show you that we can do just as well without you!"
Hakyeon keeps the smile on his face. It feels tight and a little frozen. Sanghyuk has a tendency to be too blunt in his teasing. It's not his fault, he's still growing.
Taekwoon scrutinises him closely, but then they're being bundled up and shuttled to the next schedule, so Hakyeon avoids any awkward conversation easily enough. He ducks into his customary seat at the front of the car, plugs in his earphones, and shuts his eyes.
It starts when they're trainees.
Hakyeon was one of the first, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, excited about being there, thrilled at finally being given a chance. After thirty failed auditions, it was a massive breakthrough. Even if debut remained elusive, at least his dreams were within reach now.
Over the months, the others came in, until there were seven of them. Seven of them who could possibly be debuting in the boy group Jellyfish was trying out for the first time, or put on the ballad circuit like the other artists on their roster. Ebulliently hopeful at the thought of training beside them, fighting for their dreams together as a team, Hakyeon had welcomed them all with a large smile and a friendly introduction.
The company watched them all with an eagle eye, then picked him up and dusted him off and told him he was to be the leader of the motley crew of trainees. The leadership role wasn't permanent, they were careful to emphasise; they just needed someone to keep things in order as they trained.
Hakyeon still remembered Daewon's face when the announcement was made—hardworking, responsible Daewon who treated training like it was his life—and Nakhun, full of drive and ambition, born just a little too late. It could have been them. They could have been the leader. The four of them, together with Taekwoon, had been splitting roles between themselves for months, long before the company had stepped in.
But Korean tradition dictated that the eldest had to lead, to be a role model to the younger ones, and so Hakyeon, the youngest at home for the last twenty years, trembled a little at the news, squared his shoulders, then chose a new name and stepped into the role with fear and trepidation. He started off fearful: too afraid to offend, too anxious about what people might think of him. But then he learned.
He learned how to correct the other trainees with enough steel that they paid attention and gave their best during dance practice. He learned to make up for his sternness with hugs and cuddles afterward, mothering and taking care of them the same way his sisters took care of him at home. It drove him a bit batty, but he couldn't think of any other way to do it—to be the leader who was exacting and ensured that their performance was worthy of the stage, and yet also be a fellow trainee, suffering alongside them on the road to popularity and fame.
He learned to look out for the trainees who needed extra help or encouragement, learned to stay back in the dance studio to help them improve, to assure them that they had this, they could do it. He learned to be moulded into whatever they needed most.
He learned other things as well. He learned to bite back his pain after a prolonged training session because he was the leader; he had to give his best at all times or the rest wouldn't. He learned to manage the expectations of the company, to keep the secret thoughts of the trainees, to expend himself to make sure both sides were still on good terms with each other, still willing to chase their dreams together.
He learned to pour his hopes, dreams and fears into a private journal because it didn't ever strike the others that Hakyeon, always so composed and self-confident, could possibly have worries and insecurities of his own. He learned to struggle silently, so that no one could hear him or watch him fall. He learned to love the others when he had nothing left. He learned not to expect the same kind of encouragement back.
It's almost unheard of, having a leader step down.
Pre-empting the news circuits, Jellyfish introduces the new system of rotating leadership: A strategy to allow Hakyeon to focus on his solo projects as the other members develop leadership qualities in his stead. The new leader is officially announced as Taekwoon, the second eldest, though Wonshik is the default spokesperson for times when they need to give politically correct answers to unexpected questions.
Starlights react with slight bewilderment and confusion, but Taekwoon's fans are loud and numerous enough to influence the sentiments of fandom. Soon enough, Starlights are expressing their unwavering support for the new leader, while extolling Hakyeon's hard work in promoting the group to untapped audiences through his drama and variety show appearances.
It takes a little bit of adjustment. TV and radio hosts are extensively prepped on the change of leaders, but there are occasions when they forget and look expectantly at Hakyeon for the requisite comment on behalf of the group. Wonshik gets better and better at stepping in smoothly to deflect the attention when this happens. And Hakyeon gets better at offering quiet smiles in the background, not drawing any unnecessary attention to himself, dampening the persistent little voice inside that nags at him for not doing more, being more.
But they adapt. Wonshik stops tripping over words like they're part of a particularly hard rap he has to learn. Jaehwan learns to step into his own shoes, to grow in confidence. Taekwoon attempts to smile more, to be more engaged. The maknaes speak more, are more open and carefree.
Hakyeon watches them with pride.
Without the stamp of Leader, Hakyeon finds it more acceptable to blend into the background. To fade away. To fade out. Like he was never there.
Minhyuk calls one day, frustrated by Hakyeon's vague answers in their shared chat.
"What's this I'm hearing about you stepping down as leader?" he demands when Hakyeon picks up the phone. "They're kidding, right? You must have done something wrong."
But for all Minhyuk teases him, he's also a very good listener.
And when they meet up and Hakyeon ends up breaking down like a girl in the secluded park near VIXX's dorm, Minhyuk is there to pat his back gently as his shoulders heave and whisper quiet words to soothe him.
The best thing that happened for him on Romantic and Idol was Minhyuk. It wasn't the awkward conversations he had to have with the girls or those artfully construed dates and tangled mess of love lines. It was finding another same-aged friend who had gone through as much as he had, who had also chosen a different road from his peers and, from time to time, wondered if he had made a mistake deciding to sing and dance on a stage of blistering lights and the searing gazes of fans instead of becoming a professional athlete or dancer.
In a way, Minhyuk represented the life Hakyeon would have had if someone else had stepped in. The second eldest, sheltered by Eunkwang's confidence and initiative, Minhyuk felt no overwhelming urge or responsibility to lead. He was comfortable in his middle role—playing hyung when it served him well (when he got to boss the maknaes around), and slipping easily into straight-faced antics when he was in the mood for fun. Minhyuk looked young, acted younger than he actually was, and was a ball of sarcastic, sardonic joy. He didn't need Hakyeon, not like Hakyeon needed him, but he enjoyed being around him.
On the contrary, Hakyeon needed him, needed him so much.
"Do you ever wonder what you would have done instead? If you hadn't become an idol?" It was one of those nights when they were sitting shoulder to shoulder on Hakyeon's bunk, talking late into the night like they didn't have to wake up for an early filming the next day.
The words had slipped out of Hakyeon's mouth before he'd really thought about them, perhaps drawn by the solemn quiet or entranced by the moonlight creeping slowly into their room.
Minhyuk blinked at him, soft and slow. "I'd probably be living it up in school. This face, you know. It scores me tons of admirers." He leered at Hakyeon.
Hakyeon threw a pillow at him. "No, honestly. Why choose this road when there are so many easier ones?"
Minhyuk turned the question back neatly. "Why did you?"
"I guess I was seduced by the bright lights." He had wanted it as early as he could remember, watching idols dance and sing their hearts out, perfectly in sync, wild and beautiful as the crowd cheered them on. Those stages were larger than any he had ever stood on—larger than their tiny school gymnasiums, or even the slightly larger competition arenas he occasionally visited. Their stage was the world.
"And is it what you thought it would be?"
Hakyeon paused. Minhyuk was sitting beside him, warm and lax. His fingers played idly with the bedspread, thinking the same thing as Hakyeon.
"No," he answered finally. "But you already knew that."
"It's more," Minhyuk agreed. "And sometimes, it's too much."
Their dreams were growing bigger and bigger, spiralling out of their control. It was more expansive than either of them had expected, and it demanded so much more than they had to give. Two years to make it or break it. Would they even be here, in two years?
Hakyeon shivered. To lighten the atmosphere, he joked, "We can't keep meeting like this. What would people think?"
"We wouldn't be meeting like this anymore," Minhyuk pointed out practically. "Filming ends next week."
Hakyeon thought of no more late night conversations, no more sharing doubts, sharing Hakyeon, and panicked. "Let's exchange numbers," he said desperately, and made his first idol friend.
When Minhyuk teased him later and called him his girlfriend, Hakyeon bore it with grace.
For a long time after the announcement, Hakyeon can't meet the other leaders' eyes. It's like he's betrayed them. He's sold out, he's given up, when other leaders who have it just as bad—maybe even worse—are still hanging in there.
But when they meet backstage during an overlapping promotion schedule, all Eunkwang says is, "I heard from Minhyuk," and wraps him up in a warm hug.
Hakyeon doesn't realise there are tears prickling at the corners of his eyes until one falls onto the shoulder of Eunkwang's jacket.
Two months before it happens, Hakyeon was busy making the leader circuit. Talking to other leaders and asking them how they did it, how they found the strength to manage both their lives as idols and their role as a leader to another five, six others.
Eunkwang is not someone he might have gone to normally. He's self-deprecating and comical in a way only someone truly comfortable in his skin can be. He's naturally bolder than Hakyeon is, and Hakyeon has always been a little bit intimidated by his loud, confident demeanour.
But Minhyuk dragged him out for dinner with him one day, ostensibly to have a bro's night out, but actually because he knew Hakyeon had questions he couldn't answer, no matter how close they were.
Listening to Eunkwang was a revelation. Hakyeon admires him—his easygoing demeanor, the way he takes everything in his stride, right down to the jokes about his looks, which are par for the course in their job. Eunkwang lets it roll right off his back. Hakyeon—feels it, too much.
"You have to remember that they're still boys. Your maknae is what—four, five years younger than you?" Eunkwang stuffed another lettuce roll into his mouth. Minhyuk took a serene gulp of soju.
"Five," Hakyeon said quietly, forlornly. He pushed the rice around his bowl, not lifting it up, and sighed. "I really don't think I'm leading well." It was exhausting. He was already beginning to feel a little numb.
Eunkwang squinted at him. "And you are basing this on...? How your members respond to you?"
His eyes were far too sharp. Hakyeon avoided his gaze and reached for his drink, buying time.
"I've seen you on broadcast, Hakyeon. Our groups have practically grown up beside each other; I know what your members are like. Don't forget that we're idols. Half the things we do is for the camera, to entertain. It doesn't mean they don't care about you, or they don't need you." More sternly, he added, "And most importantly, it's not a measure of how you're leading. Don't let it be."
"How do you do it?" Hakyeon asked helplessly. "Did you want to lead?"
Eunkwang bared a smile. "Do any of us want this responsibility? If I had a choice, I probably wouldn't have taken it up. Isn't it easier to just worry about your own idol life? But there are rewards to leading, too. And you don't have to do it alone. There are people to shoulder the burden with you."
At that time, he'd thought Eunkwang had meant his friends, like Minhyuk. So he acknowledged it over their dinner of samgyeopsal and soju, thanked Eunkwang at the end of the night, and accepted another overly tight hug from Minhyuk before they parted ways. He didn't exactly feel better about himself, but at least he had someone else to add to his tiny stable of friends. That was a win enough.
In the same way, he doesn't mean to pour his heart out to Ryeowook, but they'd grown close over Hakyeon's regular guest spot on Ryeowook's radio show. One year of shared appearances shouldn't have led to them growing as close as they did, but in an industry where the majority of cross-group interactions fizzle out after the broadcast ends, Hakyeon clings to him as tightly as he had Minhyuk.
Ryeowook is only three years older than him, but he's been active as an idol for almost ten. When he speaks to Hakyeon, it's with the air of someone who has seen and weathered a hundred battles. He imparts the knowledge of a senior. The idol world is like this: It is cruel. It will buoy you up and then throw you down when you make a misstep. You could be riding the crest of the waves in one instant and find yourself drowning in the murky waters of a scandal the very next. This is a fact.
Idol companies are like this: They will wring every last drop out of you. They will book your schedules so packed you will forget what it's like to do something else other than the endless dorm – car – studio – car – dorm chase. On promotional circuits, you will be shuttled from music shows to variety programmes to radio interviews to fan signs to outdoor performances and every chance you have to breathe, you will be practicing your singing and the dance steps you have already rehearsed to exhaustion. You may forget what it was like to sing and dance with passion. This is also a fact.
Disheartened at Ryeowook's matter-of-fact tone, Hakyeon had blurted, "Then how do you keep going?"
Ryeowook had looked back, silent and serious. "You find your own reason. You remember why you chose this in the first place."
But I didn't, Hakyeon wanted to say. I chose performing and singing. Not leading.
"Isn't it all the same?"
At night, Hakyeon dreams of flying, of escaping. He soars in the air, free and unfettered, peeling away from the glittering lights and the searing judgment of a thousand watching eyes.
In the day, he wakes up, gets out of bed, slaps on some perfunctory make-up and his shades and shuttles off obediently to the next schedule.
There are things his members never tell him.
On a radio show as the representative maknae of their group, Sanghyuk says, "Just because N-hyung's the leader doesn't mean he's coercive and oppressive. It seems he'd have all the harder and more pitiful times."
In the DVD outtakes for Voodoo Doll, Taekwoon tells the camera, "I know I always push you away, but you're a great help to me. I hope you won't forget that you can always lean on me."
Hongbin, in an interview. "If not for N-hyung, I wouldn't be here. N-hyung made me into the person I am today."
Jaehwan, proudly, "I room with N-hyung and make sure he's happy." A cheeky, suggestive smile. "Shall I show you what makes him happy?"
Wonshik, who knows far more about his doubts and weaknesses than any other member. "N-hyung doesn't just fulfill his role well as the leader, but onstage he's also the key to VIXX's colour."
There are things he wishes they would say.
"You did good."
"We love you."
"You matter to us."
"If it's not you, I can't imagine anyone else leading us."
"I'm here for you."
(But there are things he never tells his members either.
"It's hard, being the leader."
"It's hard wondering if it's worth it."
"I don't know if I can keep on doing this.")
If there's one thing to be said about Hakyeon, it is that he loves VIXX with all his heart and soul. He loves them so much sometimes it feels like his heart could burst out of his chest with all the pride and affection he has.
There had been the time when they weren't sure if they'd make it. VIXX, debuting in the boyband boom of 2012, fighting alongside so many others to leave their mark and make themselves seen. Their debut had been solid, but nothing spectacular. Their follow-up song had been catchy enough, but the other groups were already racing, sprinting ahead of them. Some had the privilege of having senior groups in the same company to promote them. Others kept running, a non-stop frenzy for more comebacks, more promotions, more tours, extending their reach wider and wider.
Hakyeon remembers the tight, pinched look on the faces of the Jelpi executives at that time, the long meetings that extended late into the night. As leader, he'd been called into the conferences before. How much more can the members take? We need to get our name out there. So Hakyeon had volunteered.
His schedules took him out late into the night, working on days the rest didn't have to, using his free time to practice new dances, new talents instead of hanging out with the other. He took every available variety slot, every radio appearance. There were nights when, aching and tired, he would lay himself down for three hours before dragging himself right up again to the next schedule, the next event. But it was necessary. VIXX needed to be known. The alternative was too terrifying to even think about.
Then Sanghyuk had suggested vampires.
What led up to it:
A series of tight international schedules.
Three back-to-back comebacks and album releases.
Drama, variety and radio show duties that ran late into the night.
Dropping from an already underweight 60 kg to 54 kg.
And—falling down, hurting his back, and wondering if he would ever dance again.
Hakyeon is doing what he always does when he's stressed: dancing.
It's late, far later than anyone should be up and awake, but he dials up the volume and loses himself in the beat. Dancing is easy, because he's spent so many years with it being so hard.
And that’s when he feels it—the twinge in his back from practicing his solo Gayo Daejun stage too many times without limbering up properly before that. It had been important, to show the very best of what he had. And he'd done that particular routine so many times before, back when he'd been certain that contemporary dance would be his ticket into the performing world. But admittedly, never before on a back that had yet to fully recover from its first serious fall.
This time, the twinge is sharp and persistent, cutting Hakyeon off mid-turn and tearing an involuntary yelp from his throat. Cold sweat mixes with the perspiration of exertion, along with the creeping fear that he's finally done something irreparable.
He shifts carefully, tests the extent of his movement. Pain flares through his lower back, and he gasps and lays a hand against the mirror, trying to shift the weight off his back. His breath is coming in harsh gulps and his blood thrums loudly in his ears.
Please. Not now. Not again.
"I'm VIXX's leader—" He stops, tries again. The lights blaze brightly on him. The cameras blink red, catching every movement. There's sweat beading on his forehead. He wasn't able to sleep last night, hours ticking away as he stared sightlessly at the ceiling, biting his lip through the pain. "I'm VIXX's N. Please take care of me."
The MCs chuckle appropriately. One of them, used to the labels idols use to differentiate themselves within the group, ventures the follow-up question. "And what are you in charge of? Singing? Visuals?"
"I dance," Hakyeon replies automatically, because that's how he got into the group, after all. But now... He wets his lips, tries to swallow around a dry mouth. He keeps the smile on his face, but there's dread building in him at what is coming next.
The MCs make noises of approval. "Why don't you show us what you've got?"
Gingerly, he rolls his back. He's not sure if it will hold. But... it's just thirty seconds. One minute if they don't get enough footage. He can grit his teeth and hold on for that long.
And there's the other thought, the one at the back of his head he doesn't even dare to voice: If I don't even have dancing, what am I?
It's edging into night when Hakyeon wanders out to the balcony of their apartment. They've been given an unexpected break from their hectic schedule. Having unanimously agreed that nothing is more important than rest, they headed back to their dorm. The lights are winking into existence as dusk falls on the city. It's quiet here. Hakyeon rests his forehead against the railings where he's sitting. His legs dangle into the night air below.
Inside, there's the rhythmic clinking of pots and pans as Hongbin and Sanghyuk attempt to make ramyeon for six starving boys without destroying the kitchen in the process. Wonshik has collapsed on the couch and is out cold, the sound of snoring the only indicator that he is still alive. Jaehwan has seized the shower and is loudly warbling a Park Hyoshin song.
Hakyeon feels oddly numb. He's been diligently cultivating his serious persona on television and he feels stiff, absorbed into himself, too carefully held together. It's like he's been gradually buried under the dust of a slowly accumulating hour glass, filling and filling until there is no more air. He chokes, gasps as the image becomes too real.
"Breathe," a voice instructs, soft and low. There's a bump against his side, and Taekwoon's solid shape settles down beside him. Hakyeon forces himself to inhale, slowly and steadily. Taekwoon sits silently, waiting for him. "Are you all right?"
"I've been better," Hakyeon rasps.
"You have," Taekwoon agrees unexpectedly. "You've been too quiet lately."
"You're one to talk." Almost instantly, Hakyeon regrets his words, but Taekwoon is inclining his head, acknowledging his comment.
"I've been improving, though."
"You really have, you know." Hakyeon can't contain the burst of pride he feels. "I never would have imagined that four years later, you would be so different from the Taekwoon I first met."
"And what about you? What have you been doing?" It comes out quiet, gentle. It's not in Taekwoon's nature to be angry or challenging. It's not even like him to probe in the first place—something really must be bothering him.
"I've been growing up," Hakyeon says self-deprecatingly, honest because his friend deserves his honesty. "It was long overdue." Fans had been complaining that he was far too lighthearted, far too carefree. It wasn't appropriate, not for a leader. (But he isn't leader anymore.) But it's still important.
"You're not just growing up. You are growing sad."
The words burn into him, settle down somewhere in the pit of his stomach where they bubble, red hot and scalding. Hearing it articulated makes it... real. Uncomfortably real. He looks out unseeingly onto the rush of cars below, caught in the peak hour jam. He feels a bit like that: stuck, trapped, with nowhere to go but forward, one slow inch at a time.
Taekwoon says, "Every day you're losing a bit of your spark, your fire. I feel alive when I stand on stage. But you don't, not anymore."
There's a lump in Hakyeon's throat. "I'll still do what needs to be done."
"You always do," Taekwoon acknowledges. "You're responsible like that. But at what cost?"
"Taek—" I'm afraid. I'm burning down into nothing and I don't know what will be left. "How is it, being leader?" he says instead.
Taekwoon meets his eyes steadily, accepting the change in subject. "I'm leader in name only. You know that." There is no rancour in his voice, just truth.
"You and Wonshik are doing great though," Hakyeon says. His fingers pick restlessly at the bit of paint that's coming off of the railing. "There really is no need for me. And the members... they respect you a lot more." He must fail to keep the wistfulness out of his voice, because Taekwoon's eyes narrow.
"Are you talking about Hongbin and Hyuk? Those two are just troublemakers. If it wasn't you, they'd just find another target. You are too gentle to them."
"I'm an easy target, you mean," Hakyeon says, uncertain. Their jokes have been getting increasingly sharp, and while it started out as a concept for variety shows, it's easy to forget that they don't mean it. Not all the time.
"It's just your style," Taekwoon insists. "Not many leaders can profess to have such a close relationship with their members."
Half to himself, Hakyeon murmurs, "Is it really close, though? I wonder."
He catches the sudden distress on Taekwoon's face, but before he can ask, there's the indistinct sound of hollering from the kitchen followed by a thump as Wonshik falls ungracefully off the couch. Freshly showered, Jaehwan sticks his head out into the balcony. "It's time for dinner."
"Come," Taekwoon says, ignoring Jaehwan's curious glance. "They're waiting for us." He unfolds his long body from his seated position, bracing himself on the balcony rails. Unexpectedly, he extends a hand to Hakyeon, who takes it, surprised.
There's a twinge in his back as Taekwoon hauls him to his feet. Hakyeon freezes but ignores it, smiles through the ache.
He's so tired that it feels like his knees might buckle at any time. It was a particularly draining schedule that day, but it would have been fine if he hadn't needed to swallow painkillers every few hours so he could actually perform on stage. They've worn off now, and his back is a mess.
When they stagger into their dorm, all Hakyeon can do is settle down, very slowly, on the couch, trying not to make sudden jerks. He moves as fluidly as he can, mouth a hard line of determination, but a sharp, stabbing pain spells the end of his movement. With the growing sensation of panic, Hakyeon collapses onto the couch, back a white-hot mass of agony. He's barely able to keep upright. A small groan escapes his mouth and he squeezes his eyes shut, teeth biting down hard to prevent himself from making any more embarrassing noises. His fingers clench the arm of the sofa. But he can't get up after that.
His pale, stricken expression catches the attention of Hongbin, who's the first to finish showering. "Hyung! Is it your back again?" He crowds Hakyeon at the couch, hovering anxiously and looking truly concerned.
"It's just a twinge," he lies. "Think I strained something earlier." Sanghyuk is drawn over by the sudden change in atmosphere, a slight frown on his face as he tries to works out the situation.
Hongbin's forehead furrows. "I don't think it was just—"
Wonshik appears at that point, takes in what's happening. "Sanghyuk, get the deep heat spray." Sanghyuk, all long limbs and worry, bounds to get it. He's back in a flash. Wonshik carefully rucks up Hakyeon's shirt, shakes the bottle and sprays down his bare skin.
Heat suffuses his back. It takes a while, but the tight, angry pain lightens gradually so that he can speak without clenching his teeth. "Thanks, everyone." Hakyeon looks at the anxious, drawn faces around him and feels instantly guilty. "Don't worry, I'm feeling much better now."
"Don't lie to us," Sanghyuk says reprovingly.
"Don't be rude to your hyung," Hakyeon shoots back automatically.
"He must be better if he can sass us."
"He must be."
Hakyeon bares his teeth at the two youngest, gratefully covering up the pain with a play at annoyance. They grin irrepressibly back, relieved to see the apparent return of their N-hyung.
"Why don't you go take a bath?" Wonshik suggests, deflecting the attention away from them. "Jaehwan-hyung is out of the shower now. Can you stand?"
Hakyeon shifts slightly, tests his back. It screams in defiance of the movement. "Maybe I'll go in a little while. I'll just sit here a bit longer first."
Wonshik's eyes narrow but he doesn't challenge him. "All right. Sanghyuk, tell Taekwoon-hyung that the bath is free. He's the only one who hasn't showered yet."
"You mean you're done showering already? I didn't even know you'd stepped in." Sanghyuk blinks wide eyes, the very picture of innocence, as though he hadn't just made another potshot at Wonshik's standards of hygiene.
"Go pass the message!" Wonshik orders, whacking at him. He runs away, laughing.
Hongbin, sensing the crisis has been averted, wanders over to the kitchen for a drink. Jaehwan is in their shared room, humming their latest song to the clanking of whatever he's arranging in there. In the bathroom, the shower starts running. Only Wonshik and Hakyeon are left at the couch.
"When did it start?" Wonshik says abruptly, apropos of nothing.
Hakyeon takes a moment to realise he's asking about his injury. "It hasn't ever gone away."
A small frown appears in the middle of Wonshik's forehead. "Since 'Thank You For Being Born'?"
There's the sudden sense memory of missing his footing as the stage expelled him from its depths, falling hard on his back. Hakyeon never even had the chance to stumble; there was no opportunity for his feet to break his fall. As he lay there, shock and immobility seizing his body, all he could think was, Thank God it's just the rehearsal. What would have happened if it had been the live performance? The fans would have been so worried.
His members crowded around him after that, helping him to scramble to his feet. Hakyeon had forced himself to smile and laugh it off. They'd done away with the stage lifts after that, but the damage was done. Hakyeon spent the rest of the fanmeeting stiff and careful, not able to move too much. Every jostle caused a wracking pain. Fans had called him out on being bad-tempered, accusing him of not giving his all. Somehow, that had hurt more than the physical injury.
Wonshik reads his silence. "Don't be irresponsible. You're the one who always tells us not to ignore any pains when we're having our dance practices. What are you doing now?"
It comes out gentle rather than accusatory, and Hakyeon sighs. "I think it's going to be around for a while," he admits.
"Even more reason to take care of it." There is a loaded silence, then Wonshik ventures, "Do you want me to call—"
"No," Hakyeon says immediately. They have a schedule tomorrow. He won't miss that.
"You haven't even heard what I was going to say."
"Manager-hyung, a doctor, it's all the same."
"Maybe I was going to say Minhyuk-hyung," Wonshik counters. Hakyeon knows he's being stubborn. He also knows that Wonshik will give in. Sure enough, Wonshik caves with a sigh. "If you're not feeling up to it, you have to promise you'll stay home."
"Sure," Hakyeon agrees readily. It's just mind over matter, after all.
Wonshik hesitates, seemingly wanting to argue some more. Instead, all he says is, "Your lips are bitten through. They look like they might bruise tomorrow."
Hakyeon fingers the tender flesh at his mouth and winces. It's nothing the coordi noonas can't cover with make-up. That consolation has to be enough.
Taekwoon lets him cuddle up to him that night. That's when he knows it must be truly, really bad.
The worst thing is, it doesn't lighten up at all the next day.
Sanghyuk wakes him up as usual, but this time, watches with concern as he struggles to get out of bed. His back has stiffened in the night, resisting even the simplest of movements.
Firmly, Sanghyuk places a hand on Hakyeon's chest, pushing him down. "Hyung. I think you need to sit out of this schedule."
"It's okay," Hakyeon tries to protest, "I'll just take some painkillers. I can't sit out every single time I don't feel up to it."
They've another variety appearance today, hot on the heels of the last one. Audiences have started to warm up to VIXX and Taekwoon's chic image in particular, but there are times that Taekwoon is too tired and refuses to cooperate in whatever ridiculous mission the PDs have dreamed up that time. There are still too many things that could go wrong, and Hakyeon worries about every single one of them.
Sanghyuk's eyes grow cold. "Hyung. You're not indispensable." And he means it to help, Hakyeon knows, really, but he can't help recoiling at his words.
"Sorry, I'm terrible at this," Sanghyuk apologises, scrubbing his face. "That's not how I meant it. I just—we're all worried about you right now. Don't overdo it. We still need you, you know."
The others amble in, drawn by the commotion. Wonshik sizes up the situation in a flash: Sanghyuk's hand on Hakyeon's chest, the pained grimace on Hakyeon's face. "Go back to sleep, hyung. You agreed, remember? Don't you trust us to fill in your gap? We won't embarrass you. Give us a chance."
"We'll bring back hanwoo for you," Hongbin promises.
Taekwoon watches them, silent and inscrutable. If he hadn't spent the previous night allowing himself to be hugged like a large teddy bear, Hakyeon wouldn't have been able to tell that he's as worried as the rest of them.
"So that's settled," Wonshik says decisively. "I'll let manager-hyung know."
Jaehwan pokes his head in at that point. "Manager-hyung is telling us to go downstairs now. The van is waiting."
"Do well, everyone," is all Hakyeon can say, feeling like the wind has just been taken out of his sails.
There are some encouraging noises and acknowledgement as the rest of the members shuffle out. The commotion shifts to the hall, pauses at the door as they put on their shoes one by one.
Just before he leaves the room to follow them, Wonshik turns back. "We'll do you proud, hyung," he promises, determination on his face. "Just rest."
"There's nothing much else I can do," Hakyeon says blankly. But the room is empty.
There are sounds from the living room when Hakyeon stirs from troubled sleep, bleary and groggy. Automatically, he reaches for his phone. His back gives an unhappy twinge and he freezes, inching his hand out more slowly, relieved when nothing else seems to be protesting.
There are no new messages in their group chat. It's nearing six in the evening, still uncommonly early for anyone to be returning from their schedule for the day. He doesn't remember any variety show ending earlier than the middle of the night.
Yet there is undoubtedly the faint noises of discussion floating into his room. He thinks he can hear Jaehwan's distinctive voice and Wonshik's lower tones saying something in reply. It's odd. It feels like they've returned for some time, but they have yet to unceremoniously clatter their way into his room. By now, Sanghyuk would have taken great joy in pouncing on the bed and shaking him from slumber. They usually aren't so fussed about bothering him. But they're outside, and for all intents and purposes, having some kind of serious conversation.
What's happened? Hakyeon conjures up a million possible explanations as he inches himself gingerly towards the edge of the bed. Maybe Taekwoon annoyed the MCs again—or maybe someone got hurt—
That last thought is enough to propel him off the bed with sheer panic. He realises too late that it's a mistake. His hands flail out in a belated attempt to steady himself on the bedside table, but only succeed in scattering some of its contents on the floor. He topples ungracefully to the floor and lays there, gasping and winded by the pain. He has clearly not thought this through.
Outside, the talking stops, and the door bursts open.
"What's going on?" And, then a horrified cry: "Hyung! Why are you on the floor?"
Careful arms support and brace him so that he can manoeveur himself onto the bed again, movements slow and heavy. Finally, he's lying back on the bed again, braced against the pillows. He's pale and sweating like he's fresh from dance practice, but at least the pressure has been taken off his back. He can almost believe there's nothing wrong.
"I'm still alive," Hakyeon jokes, because he's surrounded by worried faces. They're all still wearing the make-up from their schedule. Hongbin, unusually serious, stoops to pick up the scattered mess of whitening products on the floor. Hakyeon flushes but refuses to be self-conscious. He needs these products.
Taekwoon reappears with a damp towel; Hakyeon didn't even realise he had left to get it. He extends a hand for it but Taekwoon avoids his hand neatly enough and plants the towel gently on his forehead, mopping up some of the cold perspiration.
Jaehwan situates himself on the bed beside him, careful not to jar the mattress. "Is your back still hurting?"
"A little," he confesses. "It's better now that I'm lying down." It's going to need weeks of physical therapy, and even then, it might not be what it used to be. Still, their most recent string of promotions has bought them a few months in the Korean consciousness at least. It's enough for him to get better. It has to be. "You just got back?"
"Some time ago," Wonshik replies, still looking tense. "We were just talking outside."
Hakyeon's brow furrows at the information. "So early? Wasn't it a variety appearance?"
Before Hakyeon can ask more, Jaehwan springs into view and distracts him with aegyo. "How could we have taken our time and let our beloved N-hyung starve?"
"Oh, away with you," Hakyeon mutters, swatting a hand at Jaehwan. Jaehwan catches it and does his best impression of a cat rubbing up against a beloved pole. Hakyeon grumbles but lets him do it. Secretly, he enjoys things like these. His roommate has learned to read him well. "Have you all eaten?"
Jaehwan brightens. "We were thinking we'd order pizza!"
"Pizza?" Hakyeon echoes dubiously. "Don't you want to go out for gopchang? It's still early, you have time for a proper meal."
Hongbin looks confused. "But you don't even like gopchang. You hate the smell."
"I meant you guys could go—"
"Then you'll complain that we left you alone at home again and went to eat something yummy without you."
"But I don't even think it's yummy—"
"Hyung." Sanghyuk looks like he's pulling teeth. "Let us take care of you for once."
"Oh." Hakyeon can't keep the pleased blush from spreading over his face. His members shift uncomfortably. "Well, you know." He clears his throat, embarrassed by how much he's enjoying it. He might have done a happy wiggle.
Hongbin groans, an automatic response by now. Wonshik smacks him and hisses, "Remember what we discussed!" Hongbin immediately looks abashed.
"Oh?" Hakyeon says, pouncing on the information with interest. "You were discussing me? What were you talking about?"
There's an uncomfortable pause. Everyone seems suddenly very interested in their feet or the ceiling.
It's up to Wonshik to clear his throat cautiously. Hakyeon can almost see him fingering the imaginary speech he has written. "We—" Wonshik shoots a sidewise glance at Taekwoon, who stares inscrutably back. Hakyeon watches the exchange in confusion. "We're worried about you."
There's that feeling in that pit of his stomach again: Guilt. Hakyeon opens his mouth automatically to make his apologies (for stepping down, for not being there today, for not being more), but Wonshik is barreling on.
"It isn't just because you're injured now and not letting anyone know—and no," he continues sternly before Hakyeon can interject, "you did not let us know. We had to find out ourselves last night. Which, for your information, is not how I would have chosen to learn this news."
"I—" He glances around at the tense, drawn faces. They are silent, but standing in solidarity. They had been talking about this, thinking about him. They had been worried. It gives him a strange feeling in his stomach. "I... really appreciate it. But it's my burden to carry."
"That's unfair, hyung," Wonshik says, voice unusually tight. "Aren't we one team?"
"It's not fair to ask you to shoulder this as well," Hakyeon says helplessly. "There are already enough things to worry about." The next words are hard to get out. "And I will try my best to get better and not be a burden to the team."
He doesn't expect the shock and the vehemence with which Sanghyuk cuts in. "How could you ever be a burden? Hyung..." and it's an entreaty, "why can't you accept that we do worry about your well-being?"
"And," Taekwoon adds unexpectedly, exchanging a significant look with Wonshik, "it's not just your injury. It's about you leading as well."
Wonshik doesn't miss a beat. "Right now, Taekwoon-hyung and I are sharing the responsibility of leading. And it's not easy, not at all. We aren't doing half the things you used to. It isn't even supposed to be permanent, but the strain is there."
"Don't do it all alone," Hongbin translates. "You've been pretending you're fine and enduring it all for us, but we know it's hard. Let us share it with you."
Something burns its way up his throat and makes it hard to speak. Taking advantage of the silence, Jaehwan twines his fingers through his. "You don't have to feel like it's all or nothing, you know. You don't have to feel like you're the only one who cares about VIXX. We know we've been a bit slow on the uptake, but we promise we'll catch up."
"Hyung. Let us help you."
Hakyeon must be imagining the ball in his throat that makes it hard to breathe, and most definitely the sudden hot tears that slip down his cheeks.
Taekwoon shifts his fingers to mop them up matter-of-factly. "It's okay," he says simply, patting Hakyeon's cheek gently. "It's okay."
Embarrassed, Hakyeon covers his face with his hand and waits for his shoulders to stop heaving. A slight movement shifts the matters beside him, and then Jaehwan is clutching him tightly, as though he can impart strength through his grip. The members kindly don't tease him for his show of weakness, but there are fingers running lightly through his hair and hands patting him gently and Hakyeon allows himself to feel loved.
Maybe it shouldn't surprise him as much as it does, but it turns out that his members would order pizza so that they can stay home and eat in bed with him instead of go out for their favourite gopchang. Hakyeon tries to rally and head out with them for galbi as a compromise, but Wonshik insists that he's in no state to be moving around, and he has to reluctantly agree.
Hongbin complains and calls all of them slobs when the tomato sauce from the pizza ends up on his pillow and Sanghyuk somehow manages to fuse a glob of cheese irreparably to the mattress, but Hakyeon's too happy to care. Sanghyuk doesn't really say much during the dinner, just watches him somewhat protectively. But he passes him the extra sweet potato sticks, and Hakyeon accepts them around the warmth bubbling in his chest.
Minutes later, when the food is gone, they're situated around the bed and doing rock-paper-scissors to see who has to clean up and who gets to shower first. Taekwoon wins the shower and Sanghyuk gets stuck with cleaning duty. Hongbin insists that they change the bed sheets and drags Wonshik out with him.
Hakyeon lies somewhat contentedly against Jaehwan, both avoiding the brown splotch in the middle of the bed. (Sanghyuk swears it wasn't him who spilled the cola.)
"Hyung," Jaehwan says, snuggling into him. "It's been lonely without you."
Affectionately, Hakyeon pats his head. Jaehwan always knows what to say to make him smile. "What are you saying? I've only missed one schedule."
Jaehwan squirms and shifts so that he's at eye level with Hakyeon. Very seriously, Jaehwan places both hands on the sides of Hakyeon's face and studies his expression as Hakyeon looks back, confused. "You've been missing here. Inside." Jaehwan drops his hands, looking satisfied. "But you're coming back."
"Am I?" Hakyeon asks, amused.
"When you're ready." Jaehwan regards him solemnly. "You will be back, won't you? To lead us? VIXX isn't the same without you."
There is nothing left to do but to acknowledge it.
"I will," Hakyeon promises, and is surprised to find that he means it. Jaehwan beams and tucks himself carefully against him. The answering warmth is all Hakyeon's.
There are things that make Cha Hakyeon sad.
When he approaches his members and none of them respond to him. When they tease him too much and cross the line. When he wonders if he's leading the group to the ground. When he spends weeks imagining and re-imagining himself: What should he be for the members? What do the fans want? What does the company want?
When his members are hurting and he can't do anything for them but hold them or sit beside them and let them know that he's there.
When his back is hurting and he wonders if he'll ever be able to dance like he used to. On nights when it's especially bad, Hakyeon lies in bed with his injury making itself known through small, persistent stabs of pain, and wonders if any of this is worth it.
"I can't do this anymore," he gasps, but Taekwoon's hands are holding him, warm and comforting as he murmurs, "You can, you can."
And then there are things that make Cha Hakyeon happy.
Ramyeon cooked by Taekwoon when he stumbles back late from a filming schedule, eyes bleary and stomach growling. "You've missed dinner again, haven't you?" Hakyeon has to blink back startled tears at being cared for so much.
Jaehwan, staying up late into the night, waiting for him to return so that he can ask Hakyeon how his schedules went. Giving him piggybacks and telling him jokes to make him laugh.
Sanghyuk, stepping in to defend his honour to other groups. The rare occasions when he quietly slips up beside Hakyeon to give him a massage when he's tired and aching.
Hongbin, gentle at heart and in spirit, who looks up to him and worries about him far more than he could ever know.
Wonshik, who never fails to sit beside him and hold his hand when things get tough. "You can lean on me, Hakyeon-ah."
His members aren't naturally demonstrative in their affection, not the way Hakyeon is. They feel uncomfortable when they have to talk about feelings and don't express themselves well. But when he needs them, they allow themselves to be held and cuddled and even willingly give some of that touch back.
The fans. For every person who says ugly words about him, criticising every misstep, there are ten more fans who love and believe in him, sending him encouraging messages and inquiring after his well-being. "Are you resting well, Hakyeon-oppa?" "Remember to take care of your health!" "Dress warmly, it's cold!"
Minhyuk. Ryeowook. Eunkwang. All the friends he's managed to pick up on this idol journey, and hopefully, to keep. All the people who have passed by, who have left a little bit of themselves in his life. People who remind him that he's treasured, loved, and worth something. People who give him the strength to continue.
The mantle of a leader is cold, hard and often lonely. Hakyeon thinks of his members, thinks of the empty hole that he's left. Grasps it and puts it on.
Sometimes, breathing is enough. He can do it for another day.
( Read on AO3 )