(Sequel to What He Sees in the Mirror. Concurrent with Reprieve.)
The words barely penetrated his consciousness. He heard them, of course, and yet, he couldn’t process it. Sick? No, he couldn’t be – he couldn’t believe it! Cancer? Unthinkable, unbelievable. He refused to believe it, simply couldn’t believe it. How? When? Why? Why, why, why, why?
How long had he known? How did it happen? How, out of all people everywhere, was he the one affected? How come he was the one to get such a horrible disease?
When did he find out? When did it all began? When did the secrets, the lies start? When did the illness begin?
Why didn’t he say anything? Why did he get this disease? Why did this happen? Why didn’t he know this was happening? Why, above all others, did he not know?
He heard the other members crying out their anger, their sadness, their fears – mostly, their anger. So much anger coursed through the room it was palpable, like steam, smothering and unbearably suffocating. Then, one voice, a soft voice, spoke out and broke through the fog of his mind,
“If you’re all going to get angry with Kangin hyung, then you have to get mad at me too,” the maknae confessed, “I’ve… I’ve known for a little over a month and I didn’t say anything.”
He looked up then, startled, his heart stopping for the briefest of moments.
Someone else had known? Someone else had known, first? Someone else had known the deepest, darkest secret of Kangin’s?
He pushed away from his spot by the door. Ever silent the entire time the members had gathered in the hospital room since Kangin fainted, collapsed, he moved now; still silent. He strode smoothly, swiftly, weaving through the members easily as he walked up straight to Kyuhyun who stood between Kangin’s bed and the rest of the members who were dispersed through the room. His hand, arm and shoulder moved before the thought was even acknowledged, contemplated. Before his mind could think, his heart acted.
The sound of the slap was loud as a thunderclap in the silent room, the echo bouncing off the walls as if they all stood in a cold cavern. His hand burned from the fierce contact, yet he knew the younger man hurt more. His heart shook violently from the sense of betrayal, yet he knew the younger man hurt more. And as much as he hated the maknae in that moment, he couldn’t help the twinge of regret piercing his heart like a dagger through his ribs, burrowing, burrowing.
He felt slender yet strong fingers wrap around his hand, still raised after his arm followed the course of the strike. Slowly, slowly, his hand was forced down to his side. Hands clamped down on his shoulder, a slim, tall body inserted between his and the maknae’s. He felt a pressure beneath those hands, felt the will of another to force him back. He wanted to walk away, wanted to forget what had just taken place, wanted to run away from the scene of his lowest point as a leader, as a man. At the same time, his anger kept him rooted. His anger kept him still. His anger kept him proud.
Eventually, he was pushed back, the members parting from behind him like the Red Sea. Eventually, he found himself in the hallway standing before the second-eldest.
“Go home, Eeteuk.”
He tried to struggled from the other man’s iron-hold, “Heechul –”
“Go. Home.” Heechul repeated, slowly, steadily, his tone gentle as his grip tightened, “You’re too tense, too angry. Don’t stay while you can still say and do more you’ll regret later.”
“You don’t know how the hell I feel,” Eeteuk spat as he tore his body away from Heechul’s hands, his words like an acid-filled hiss, “Don’t even presume to pretend you understand what I’m going through!”
Heechul raised a perfectly shaped brow, “Go. Home.” With that, he turned on his heel and returned back to the room.
Eeteuk turned and strode towards the hospital elevators, not wanting the members to see him, to talk to him. He didn’t want to see anyone, talk to anyone. He wanted to be alone. If the one closest to him hid secrets from him, then what did anyone else matter? If the one who knew him best still could not trust him fully, then why should he trust anyone else? He swept into an empty elevator the moment the doors parted and he frantically pressed the ‘close’ button.
As the doors slid close, he slowly raised his hands for inspection, palms facing him. It was then that he realized he was shaking. His hands shook like twigs in an earthquake. His limbs, his body shook like a pebble in a hurricane. He was seething with anger. Higher, higher, his temper boiled like water in a kettle. The pressure increased more and more, the steam pushing against the walls trying to escape. Unlike a kettle, he couldn’t let out steam to relieve the pressure.
Instead, once the elevator reached the lobby, he escaped the hospital, the distinct smell of sanitizers, of cleaners, of bleach for the cool, refreshing scent of the night. Then, he ran. He ran and ran. He ran until his lungs felt like they would burst, the cold air striking his lungs sharply. He ran until his muscles cried from exertion, burning with pain and fatigue, trembling and threatening to crumble. He ran until he could no longer feel the beating of his heart, the racing of his thoughts, the shaking of his soul. He ran until he felt he could no longer run, until he could no longer escape the memory of that hospital room.
His memory of that moment just a short time ago seeped into his consciousness, crawled closer from the darkness of the night into the darkness of his mind. His memory enraptured his senses and for a moment, one brief, terrifying moment he was back in that hospital room. But, this time, things were different.
In the room it was just him and Kangin. Him standing by the door and Kangin sitting in bed. Him standing with his fists clenched in his pockets, Kangin sitting with his gaze averted to his lap. In the room, there was no one else, nothing else. The room was completely white. White walls, white floors, he could barely even see the details of the bed. It was just him and Kangin.
The words of his illness echoed and it hurt more. He stared – glared? – at the younger man’s bowed head. Silently he willed, begged, Kangin to raise his head, to look up and acknowledge him. He willed, prayed, Kangin to tell him it was all a lie, that he wasn’t sick, that this was some cruel, cruel joke. Not even once did Kangin look up at him, not even once did he flinch, move as if he were meaning to.
Eeteuk knew how vulnerable Kangin was in that moment. Knew that the other man was weighed down physically by his illness, emotionally by the other’s anger and mentally by his own conflicting emotions and beliefs. But, not once did Kangin look at him, try to go to him for help, for support. Not once did Kangin try to rely on him for strength. It was selfish, he knew, but he wanted to be the one that Kangin relied on always, trusted completely. He wanted to be Kangin’s…
But then Kyuhyun appeared in his memory. Kyuhyun appeared and confessed to his knowledge. Kyuhyun was the one who knew. Kyuhyun was the one Kangin had trusted. Kyuhyun, Kyuhyun, Kyuhyun!
Anger filled him anew and he collapsed on the spot.
After that evening, Eeteuk found himself slipping into a state of numbness. He passed each day almost like a sceptre, each moment just a motion of events, of routine, his mind briefly passing over moments and conversations day to day, while all his concentration and effort was focused on the one member in the hospital and how it hurt too much to think about why he was in the hospital.
A few days after that evening, Eeteuk was standing out on the dorm’s balcony. He stared sightlessly at the city, arms crossed overtop the cool, metal railing. The cold wind ruffled his hair, kissed his cheeks, made his eyes water. Then again, perhaps it wasn’t the wind bringing tears to his eyes. He heard, absent-mindedly, the sound of the door sliding open behind him. Soft footsteps announced the arrival of a companion on the balcony as the door sliding close signalled audio privacy from those within the dorm.
“I’m leaving soon for the hospital,” the second-eldest stated as he stepped into Eeteuk’s periphery.
“Why are you telling me this?” Eeteuk asked as he tilted his face towards the peeping sun, closing his eyes to hide the eyes blurred with hot tears,
“Because I do everyday and it’s become habit,” Heechul replied flippantly. When he continued, his voice was soft, almost admonishing, “You should come with me this time, Eeteuk. If you came, all the members would feel better about visiting Kangin. Then I wouldn’t have to work so hard to persuade them one at a time.”
“What you do is your business… what we each do is our own business, completely separate and not associated with the thoughts, feelings and actions of those around us,” Eeteuk replied, “As Kangin and Kyuhyun have demonstrated.”
“You can’t truly believe that,” Heechul insisted,
“I didn’t,” Eeteuk conceded before adding, “But that was before.”
“He messed up, that’s true, but don’t you think this is taking it a little far?” Heechul questioned, “Regardless of Kangin’s – and, yes, Kyuhyun’s – actions, that doesn’t mean he’s no longer Super Junior. That doesn’t mean we can ignore him for the rest of our lives.”
“No, you’re the leader, you’re our leader,” Heechul snapped, “Just because one of us makes a mistake does not mean the others abandon them! It doesn’t mean we turn our backs on them! If anything, it should bring us closer together rather than breaking us down! One of our own is out there at his most vulnerable and you’re choosing to ignore him, to take away what support and strength you could provide simply because you’re upset!?”
“He broke my heart when he chose not to confide in me, to not believe in me… in Super Junior,” Eeteuk countered,
“So you break his in retaliation?” Heechul asked incredulously, “Yes, Kangin was selfish in his actions, but this is just cruel!”
Eeteuk heard the door slide open before it was forcibly shut. The silence apart from the city noise signalled his lonely status once more; his alone status. He allowed his eyes to slowly open, the pain of direct sun not even hurting his eyes as much as the burning tears. He blinked in an effort to fight them back, but it only caused them to spill onto his cheeks and run tracks down the sides of his face.
He wanted more than anything to accompany Heechul to the hospital. Had wanted to ever since Heechul first told him days ago. However, when his pain was no longer raw, it was replaced with an acute fear; a fear of seeing Kangin again in the hospital; a fear of seeing Kangin who was always so strong suddenly so vulnerable and weak. A fear of acknowledging the truth and reality of the situation.
No, he couldn’t go to the hospital. It made everything too real and he was afraid of what reality would bring him.
Eleven days after the members had found out about Kangin’s cancer, Eeteuk was once again out on the balcony. Every day one of the other members had accompanied Heechul to visit Kangin in the hospital. The visits were forced in the beginning by the second-oldest, but then, they were anticipated. Even if a member still was angry, Eeteuk knew that the member was excited to visit Kangin. Those visits were therapeutic to the members, to Super Junior. There was less intensity in both dorms. There were less eggshells to walk upon each day. So, on the eleventh day, Eeteuk knew it was to be his turn to visit Kangin in the hospital.
When the door at his back slid open and close, Eeteuk was slightly surprised to see the maknae in his periphery and not Heechul. Kyuhyun had been avoiding Eeteuk since that evening in the hospital. It was just as well considering Eeteuk was avoiding Kyuhyun. He had messed up horribly as a leader, he knew that, all the members knew that, but he couldn’t quite scramble the courage to apologize to Kyuhyun. His anger, his violence, had been aimed at Kangin, not Kyuhyun. Unfortunately for the maknae, he was just a convenient target.
“Are you going today?” Kyuhyun asked tentatively, coming up to the railing beside his hyung,
“I was never angry at you, Kyuhyun,” Eeteuk said then, effectively avoiding the question at hand.
“But… you…” His words trailed off, seemingly unable to vocalize what had transpired between them.
“I was jealous of you,” Eeteuk confessed, his voice low and quiet, riding the cool, winter wind, “I still am.”
“But… Kangin only confided in me because I found out,” Kyuhyun insisted,
“Perhaps, or perhaps he confided in you because it was you,” Eeteuk replied, “Either way, it’s jealousy I have towards you, Kyuhyun, not anger. When I…” He inhaled slowly, deeply, the cold wind like a shock to his system, “When I hit you it was because I was angry at Kangin… Angry he had hidden this from all of us.”
“And from you,” Kyuhyun offered,
“Yes… and from me,” Eeteuk conceded, “Regardless of my anger, I cannot hit a sick person.”
“So, I was just in the wrong place at the wrong time?” Kyuhyun inquired,
“Perhaps a little of my jealousy was in that hit as well,” Eeteuk replied, “But, essentially, yes… it could’ve been anyone I took my anger off on.”
“That’s… a lightening thought,” Kyuhyun murmured,
“I… It’s an explanation but not an excuse,” Eeteuk clarified and, then, said, “I’m so sorry, Kyuhyun.”
“I forgive you,” Kyuhyun replied easily, “I… I understand where you’re coming from but, you’re right, it’s an explanation not an excuse, so I accept your apology.”
The door opened.
“Eeteuk,” Heechul stated, standing in the doorway instead of stepping onto the balcony with the two members, “You’re the last one.’
“No,” Eeteuk said simply as he turned and pushed past Heechul into the dorm, Kyuhyun slowly following him.
“I said no,” Eeteuk reiterated to the second-eldest, “I’m not going and you can’t make me.”
Heechul grabbed Eeteuk’s shoulder and turned the leader around to face him. His fingers curled into the collar of Eeteuk’s shirt, “How selfish can you be!? How cruel can you continue to be!? Kangin is in the hospital!”
“I said no,” Eeteuk replied slowly, steadily, his tone like steel, his eyes flashing angrily,
“Damn it, Eeteuk, Youngwoon is in the hospital!” Heechul exclaimed, all the other members present in the dorm freezing in their tasks to watch the two.
“You think I don’t know that!?” Eeteuk demanded, shoving Heechul roughly away from him, “You think I haven’t realized that? Why the hell do you think I stay away!?”
“Because you’re too selfish to –”
“Yes, I am selfish. Happy? Yes, I am selfish! I am so selfish that I like to live in the ignorant bliss of pretending he isn’t sick! I like to live in the ignorant bliss of pretending he isn’t in the hospital!” Eeteuk yelled, his voice trembling with anger and fear, his fists clenched at his sides; “I stay away because if I see him like that it makes it all real. It makes it all too real. If I see him there, then I can’t walk away pretending like this is all a dream – no, a horrible nightmare – that I could potentially wake up from.”
Heechul stared at him, bewildered. The leader was crying.
“I stay away because it hurts too damn much to see him like that,” Eeteuk finished, his voice barely above a whisper, tears spilling from his eyes. His hands clutched the front of his own shirt as if trying to claw his heart out of his own chest; “Every time I even think about it a part of me dies, Heechul… So, forgive me if being selfish is the last thing keeping my sanity in one piece.”
Heechul blinked silently at the leader. What could he say? Could he force the leader past his limit? What if he really truly broke and then Super Junior would be without two members.
Kyuhyun, who had hesitantly sidled up to the leader, held up the end of his sleeve towards the leader. When Eeteuk looked at him with wide eyes, confused, Kyuhyun wiped away the tears with his sleeve.
“I’ll… I’ll be on my way then,” Heechul murmured, turning to leave,
“It’s okay,” Heechul interjected, “It’s… it’s okay.”
Eeteuk tried to escape back into the balcony, but Kyuhyun blocked his way. When he tried to step around him, the maknae merely wrapped his long limbs around the leader and held him tight. Eeteuk didn’t even hear the front door close after Heechul while he cried into Kyuhyun’s shoulder.
The next evening, Heechul didn’t come home until long after hospital visiting hours. Eeteuk was sitting in the dark in the living room. He sat with his back against the armrest, legs crossed before him as he held a mug of hot milk on his lap.
He was saturated in silence, in darkness, the cold loneliness penetrating his mind, wrapping him completely. It was like a dark solace as he allowed his thoughts to break free of his control, allowing everything from the past twelve days flow through his mind; flow through him. He should have gone with Heechul the other day. Heck, he should’ve gone with Heechul the very next day after finding out Kangin’s secret. No, no, he should’ve been with Kangin every second after they all found out.
Would it have hurt him? Yes, quite horribly. Would it have slowly killed him? Yes, most definitely. But, in the end, he wasn’t the sick one, right? He wasn’t the one in a hospital, right?
He wasn’t sure what it was that made all these questions suddenly fly through his mind. He wasn’t sure what it was that made him acknowledge all that Heechul had been telling him all these days; all the things the members have been hinting at since they returned from their own visits to Kangin. Perhaps it was the final moment to be alone without the others. Perhaps it was the dark comfort that only came from being alone.
And, maybe, perhaps being away from Kangin hurt far more than his fear of reality.
The front door of the dorm opened and shut quietly. He heard the soft whispers of shoes being slipped off, of a coat being hung in the front closet. The soft shush of socks against waxed, wooden floors and, then, the tall, dark presence of the second-eldest at his shoulder.
“Tomorrow’s Kangin’s birthday… I want to come with you tomorrow to visit Kangin,” Eeteuk said into the darkness when Heechul said nothing; “No… I need to come with you. I’ve been so unbelievably stupid and I just –”
Eeteuk stopped speaking when he felt the other’s hand on his shoulder. He looked up through the darkness at him, small beams of moonlight passing into the living room. However, not enough light penetrated the darkness as Heechul spoke,
“Kangin is having surgery tomorrow.”
Eeteuk felt his heart stop beating.
The ride in the van to the hospital was silent. The half of the Super Junior who rode in the van with Eeteuk were all silent with him. He sat in the passenger seat, still and barely breathing. They were all setting out to be there for Kangin before he went for his surgery. They would spend the entire time in the hospital, waiting for him, thinking of him, praying for him. They would stand as Super Junior.
When the van rumbled to a stop in the hospital parking garage, the members quickly left the van. Eeteuk didn’t move.
His door swung open as Heechul, who had ridden in the other van, stood there, staring at him, “Eeteuk –”
“I’m coming,” Eeteuk insisted, “I just… I just need time to… to compose myself.”
“You won’t stay here? You’ll come upstairs?” Heechul questioned suspiciously,
“Yes, of course. I would never… I could never…” Eeteuk turned his head then and locked gazes with the younger man, “I love him,” he said simply.
Heechul stared at him a moment before nodding once; “We’ll see you up there.” He turned and left, leading the members into the hospital. Eeteuk’s confession was proof enough that he would follow.
Eeteuk stared straight ahead sightlessly. Something made him want to run into that building, hold onto his dongsaeng and never let him go. Something made him want to stay in the van and hide from everyone and everything.
He thought of Kangin and all that had happened since that evening just thirteen days before. He thought of Kangin and those thirteen days they had spent apart. He thought of Kangin and, before he realized it, he had leapt from the van and ran. He ran and ran, bursting forth into the hospital in a mad dash. He stumbled, scrambling to regain his balance as he ran on. He ran to the elevators, his fingers trembling as he stabbed at the ‘up’ button. Once he got into the elevator, it couldn’t rise fast enough for him. He jumped from the elevator as soon as the doors had begun to slide open and he ran for Kangin’s room.
He heard the chant of the members as they cried in unison, “Kangin – Fighting!”
“Fighting!” He cried, his exclamation after the others’, echoing like a solo meant only for Kangin. Practically collapsed against the doorframe, Eeteuk raised a fist to his heart as he locked gazes with the younger man, his lungs still heaving from his marathon.
And there he was. Sitting in a wheelchair in the middle of his room dressed in a blue hospital robe was Kangin. He looked thinner now. Thinner than how he had become after months of secretly being sick; thinner than how he appeared thirteen days ago. He looked pale, almost gaunt as his large frame seemed small in the wheelchair. He looked a pale imitation of his usual self and Eeteuk hated himself even more.
How could he have not seen? How could he have not guessed? It was so glaringly obvious now and, yet, he hadn’t known.
“We have to go, Kim-sshi,” the nurse who stood behind the wheelchair said tentatively.
Kangin nodded and the nurse pushed him out the door, but Eeteuk remained at his side. He walked alongside the wheelchair to the elevators, distantly hearing the members following them into the hallway, silent. A few feet away from the elevator, Kangin begged the nurse for a moment alone with his hyung. Eeteuk stared at him, startled, but said nothing as the nurse complied easily and walked ahead of them to the elevators. Eeteuk found himself saying he’d push Kangin the rest of the way.
“Ee… Eeteuk…” Kangin muttered,
It may have been that he spoke first, or it may have been the tone and quality of his voice, but the moment Kangin said his name, Eeteuk was down on his knees beside Kangin, wrapping his arms tightly, firmly, protectively around him.
“Kangin, I’m so sorry,” Eeteuk grounded out, forcing the words past the lump in his throat. He pressed a kiss against Kangin’s shoulder as he hugged him even tighter, “I should’ve came sooner.”
“I don’t care about that anymore,” Kangin insisted, his voice strangled, “Hyung…” his voice broke again and Eeteuk was sure he was trying not to cry, “Hyung, I’m scared.”
Eeteuk hugged him even harder, his hands gripping so hard that his knuckles whitened, “I am too,” he confessed, not caring that his own tears now wetted Kangin’s shoulder, “But… but it’ll be okay,” he insisted, not knowing if he believed the words himself. But he had to say the words and he had to believe them because he was the leader of Super Junior and that’s what a leader did.
Eeteuk stood, but kept his arms around Kangin, “You’ll go in for surgery and… and you’ll come back to me.” Kangin let out a small cry, but Eeteuk forged on, “You… you have to come back to me because… because if you don’t…” Eeteuk took a deep, steadying breath knowing that if he didn’t say it now, he may never get the chance ever again, “If you don’t come back to me I won’t have anyone to love anymore.”
Kangin twisted in the wheelchair so he could hug Eeteuk back properly, his arms wrapped as tight as possible around the leader’s waist. Eeteuk, his arms still wrapped around the younger man’s shoulders, pressed a kiss to the top of Kangin’s head as he repeated his words over and over again.
The ding of the elevator rang, signalling its arrival, the doors opening. The nurse looked over at them just as Eeteuk raised his head to look at her. He found the strength to slowly straighten his posture and slipped from Kangin’s embrace, going to his back. Gripping the handles of the wheelchair with a strength he didn’t feel, he slowly pushed the wheelchair closer to the waiting elevator and nurse. Slowly, slowly, he pushed Kangin closer. Once there, the nurse took over the wheelchair and Eeteuk stepped to the side, his eyes locked with his dongsaeng’s.
Before Kangin was pushed into the elevator, he grabbed Eeteuk’s hand, tugging him down. Before he could wonder what the younger man was doing, his lips were pressed against Kangin’s in a desperate kiss. It was hard yet soft, urgent yet sweet and Eeteuk could only wish that the kiss could continue for eternity. It was Kangin who broke the kiss. Eeteuk straightened again, but kept a firm hold of Kangin’s hand.
Kangin gazed up at him with tear-filled eyes. He brought Eeteuk’s hand to his lips, dropping a kiss to his palm, “I have loved you every day I have known you… I love you, Jungsu.”
Eeteuk had to cover his mouth with his hand to forcibly stop himself from crying out. He was startled to feel a hand at his shoulder. Eeteuk looked back to find Heechul standing there. The other members had drawn closer, gathering around them at the elevator doors. Eeteuk looked at them, his gaze touching each of theirs briefly before he nodded.
He looked back at Kangin and gave his dongsaeng’s hand one last, firm squeeze before allowing his fingers to slip away. Eeteuk stepped back beside the other members as the nurse and Kangin entered the elevator. The doors closed between them and the last Eeteuk saw of Kangin was his best, brave smile.
An hour later, the twelve Super Junior members entered the now empty operating room. The doctor who had come to Kangin’s hospital room to tell them the sordid news waited outside of the operating room allowing them their privacy. His parents, who had already said their goodbyes to their son, were out in the hallway in inconsolable grief.
They approached the covered body in the middle of the room and, with a shaking hand and a courage he pretended to possess, Eeteuk reached out and pulled the sheet down to reveal Kangin’s face, already pale and cold. The room erupted into soul-wrenching sobs and heart-breaking cries as each and every member broke down, giving themselves up to their sadness and tears.
It was Eeteuk alone who did not cry out. Instead, he stood there quietly, tears streaming down his face. His hand affectionately holding the side of Kangin’s face, he gazed down at his beloved dongsaeng who appeared almost as if he were sleeping.
How could he have lost so much time with him? His own selfish fears had chained him, keeping him imprisoned away from where he wanted to be, from who he wanted to be with the most.
How could he have lost him? It was a possibility they had all known, of course, but he had still said encouraging words, had still forced himself to believe in those words just an hour ago. But those were the words of a responsible leader who had to keep the group together, to keep the group strong.
But now he stood with one of the members fallen, gone. Now he stood with one of the members who had been the strongest. Now, he could not play the role of strong, responsible leader. Rather, he was the man who lost the love of his life. If only he could turn back the hands of time. If only he could have thirteen more days with him.
He lowered his head. His lips met Kangin’s cold, dry mouth as he murmured his final farewell: