Seoul is bigger than Busan.
It's actually bigger than any place Joon Hee has ever been to before. It's easy to get lost, and sometimes he does. He gets lost each time he moves somewhere new, from med-school to the hospital to the supermarket to the banks of the Han. The truth is, he gets lost a lot.
Tae-woong sunsengnim's face peers from most of the mounted projectors near the malls, announcing his ascent up the political ladder, but even the familiarity is overshadowed by the bright lights across the city, which makes the features behind the glass look smoother, harder than he remembers. Lights criss-crossing in a mesh of color and hard glitter. He thinks he maybe can't exactly remember Shi Won's face because she's brightest in the sunlight, and his recall memory sometimes messes up the color of her hair when he passes by the green strobe.
"You'd think you would know the way home by now, being a genius and all? It's been over a month since we took this place."
Yoon Jae's voice on the other end is a mixture of irritation and exasperation and residual affection, but it's familiar, and the relief that floods through his chest is embarrassing in its intensity. So he ignores that and scoffs silently at genius , thinks of the boy in the first seat next to his second place.
His second thought is: home.
It takes forty seconds for Yoon Jae to cross him by every day, going from the kitchen to his bedroom, his coat unbuttoned, tie always skewered slightly to the left, the first button of the collar popped.
Joon Hee counts another number in his head, for the times he hasn’t reached out and fixed his tie, reached out and touched him reached out and—
Done something. Said something. He’s not sure if it makes him courageous or a coward. Possibly a little bit of both.
What he does is this: in the forty seconds, he picks up the medical journal on the table and reads about a condition that will be on the exam, and doesn't mention anything about why his heart beats at the base of his throat and he can hear the hammering at the back of his head.
The journals don't mention things like that, he's come to realize.
It’s only after the three hundredth and fifty eighth time that it strikes him that this, this thing that he does, it's almost like a countdown. He's counting up, but no one counts up indefinitely. He's waiting to reach ground zero, and if he’s counting down, he’s counting down to—
(The next time, he doesn’t look up. Lets the number go. Fifty eight times later, he’s completely forgotten the count. Honestly.)
Shi Won calls. Shi Won calls often and Very Pointedly Does Not Talk About That Person Whom She Is Not (At All) Talking About.
They talk about her godawful boss, instead, who keeps her on timings that suit only a night watchman, the woman in the next cubicle who clearly hates her for being way more, like, way more, talented than her. They talk about her mother and her father. They talk about H.O.T. They talk a lot about H.O.T.
Some days there are silences and he doesn't rush to fill them because that way, she doesn't ask and he doesn't say, but she knows that the person whom she Doesn't Want To Know Anything About (At All) (Really) is fine, because honestly, it's kind of a task being in love with him, and there's sympathy somewhere in the quiet breathing across the line. Empathy, in fact. Because he thinks they created an understanding out of nothing and somehow it holds during silence and words, and he hopes to god he never has to let it go.
(They talk about: H.O.T. breaking up- the night after night she spent on the ground, backed against the wall, listening to their discography on repeat, mascara running down in uneven streaks. And he doesn't laugh, he doesn't laugh because her voice is raw, and this is heartbreak deeper than he will ever experience, he knows, because he loves in details, and he gears himself for disappointment before trying. He has none of her abandon, her intensity, he doesn't love like her. He is jealous of her heartbreak, but that's a secret.
But there are days and months, and the passage of time does that thing where it lives up to the cliché about wounds, and there is a day when he realizes that he can hear her smile.)
They talk about his internship and she's so enthusiastic about it, it makes him smile. It almost makes it something more glamorous, his name in gold on a plaque on a wooden door, rather than bedpans and a blood-stained lab-coat, and sleepless nights and a perpetual spin-the-wheel on someone's life.
It's odd, but with Shi Won, he always feels just the slightest bit on the north of sanity, displaced, disproportionately hopeful, even if he can never tell what exactly for.
"You could practice it on me," Yoon Jae says casually, as he walks in, and apparently manages to catch the tail end of the conversation. Even though he doesn't know who's on the other line. Or maybe he does, maybe he's always known, and it's just that he doesn't care anymore.
(That's not true, but it's no more a lie than any that Joon Hee tells everyday.)
"It's okay," he says, even though it's not okay, and it will never be okay, "I'll manage."
"What are you," Yoon Jae pouts mockingly, and the eighteen-year-old expression makes for an odd contrast in his black, fancy judge's coat- somehow, it's 1997 in the middle of summer, forever- "scared of touching a guy? Think you can't keep it purely professional once you get a taste of this. Man up, dude, you're going to be a doctor. You'll be doing a lot worse than my lips, trust me."
This- this is different, the ease. When Joon Hee thinks about it, he thinks it couldn't always have been there. It's new, the comfort. It's the comfort of making a pot of ramyun together in a kitchen with barely any space to breathe, lying a distance of twenty-five average-sized steps away from someone every night. And it's every night, because Yoon Jae doesn't spend it away, and Joon Hee never leaves, because it would be a betrayal on both counts. It would be the betrayal of a summer long since over.
He's mixing them up, the three of them, he knows, but he has a tendency to do that, he's realized, and he sometimes thinks Yoon Jae must have his own headcount of distances, and how each day away from her has to be a day closer to the next time with her.
Someday; maybe not right now, or tomorrow, or next week, or next year, but still, someday, those two will get it right. This Joon Hee believes.
He gives in eventually, to Yoon Jae's insistence, his obvious need to help him in his work, as an apology for something he probably hasn't fully realized.
Not that day, some other day, in a long list of days, because there just aren't enough excuses that don't sound like excuses, that don't sound like, I'm scared of your heart beating in sync with mine, my lips against yours.
Nothing really sounds like that, but he's had to listen to enough music to sometimes fill in spaces with poetry.
And tries to remember the instructions for CPR, how hard he can't press because that could mean death. Everything, he has come to learn, can mean death, and it's all about degrees and counts and numbers and precision. Details that don't involve the angle of Yoon Jae's tie and the square feet of distance between them.
He can feel the steady heartbeat beneath his hand and it's—
terrifying. Like he's the one drowning.
"I'm done," he mutters, because goddammit, he isn't a professional, he's playing at being one, and this isn't the learning curve, this is the actual test and he thinks he failed it. He thinks he failed it long ago and forgot to look up the scoresheet, failed it all the while back there in the Air Force Academy, and now he's just pretending. Pretending he still deserves the second-place seat, still deserves to be a desk's distance away from this boy.
Yoon Jae lifts his head from the carpet, the frown-line between his eyebrows faintly visible, not deep like it is when he's thinking of her, Joon Hee knows, like a permanent scar, but faint, barely visible, but still there, nonetheless, "I may not be the medical intern here, but I have seen enough television to know that you're supposed to blow air into my mouth. I'm getting the feeling you're leaving me here to choke on the saltwater, sir."
"We don't have to go through the whole routine," his voice is louder than he intends and he consciously lowers it, a decibel level that doesn't hit above the average mark, he lives off averages, "I mean, they have classes for this sort of thing. I don't even know if I accidentally crushed your chest in and you're already dead."
It's not like they don't touch, it's not that, because they do, the house it too small and they crowd it, and sometimes Yoon Jae's voice is too close to his ear, his slow, even breathing heating up the lobe, and sometimes it's the accidental touch of his hand and it's the accidental brush of his body in the doorway and it's-
accidental. It isn't anticipation tying his stomach in hard knots. He can't allow for anticipation, because that messes up the equation, that messes up the randomness of events, and brings an order, it brings the illusion of possibility to an impossibility, and it wouldn't be an accident anymore, one of these days, and the day after that, and every day after that. And Joon Hee- Joon Hee was second place, but Joon Hee was never stupid.
Yoon Jae sits up, "you just didn't want to kiss me. Not so comfortable in your masculinity there, eh, Joon Hee-ya"
The tone is teasing and the next moment he finds himself in a headlock. Manly, friendly, this-is-a-guy-thing headlock. Yoon Jae isn't uncomfortable. Yoon Jae is never uncomfortable. Joon Hee is not in love with Shi Won and Yoon Jae is never uncomfortable anymore.
(Maybe sometimes, but only sometimes, he wishes Yoon Jae was. Uncomfortable. That he knew. Not knew, exactly, but felt. The atmosphere. Or something. Not enough to make him run, but enough to make him stand just a little further away, so maybe Joon Hee can fall outside the field of his gravity. It's impossible to make meaning from comfort.)
He doesn't know why they still buy the soju when they're both unable to wake up the day after and it twists his nerve endings in an endless waiting, and loosens his tongue to the point where he thinks it may just fall off, or somehow imprint all his secrets onto the smooth skin of Yoon Jae's back, and he doesn't know which would be worse.
It still feels a little wrong, to nod his head when Yoon Jae slurs something like, "unrequited love sucks", like it's bonding over the realization of a universal knowledge between friends, and then watch him unconsciously finger the chain around his neck, the one that he knows she gave him once, when he'd asked for a real gift in exchange for a Grant-A-Wish coupon.
Joon Hee thinks it's plain leather, probably torn from one of her mother's handbags, tied with a string and two holes imperfectly made that always make one side higher than the other. It's isn't precise.
"But think of it this way," Yoon Jae says, conspiratorially, leaning forward, too close, these days he measures distances in ‘too close’ and ‘not close enough’ and maybe it’s on the same count, "if it didn't- exist, half the film industry- and practically all of the music industry would be- gone. Which would also suck. So it's kind of a- zero sum game. You know?"
He nods, because. Because it's always a zero sum game. That's kind of the secret.
"But then again, ridiculous bands like- H.O.T. would be- gone too, them and their Goodbye for the Last and It's Been Raining Since You Left Me and their As Much As I Loved You."
There's silence, for just a moment, but Joon Hee wants to say something then, say something about how a love lost isn't the same as a love unrequited. Just the sheer possibility of love isn’t to be compared to the impossibility of love.
But maybe, that's all just semantics, and he lost the plot four pages ago and is floundering in the details instead of the plot. But he doesn't. Say something. Anything. There is no courage to be had in liquid form, it has to be solid. Real.
Yoon Jae's snort is derisive, strangely empty of real emotion, "so maybe it's a fucking good thing after all."
There are pauses in the conversation, sure, and days in between, but it doesn't really end, he knows that. Unrequited love sucks like that.
"I bet she cried," Yoon Jae says simply, eyes still closed, slumped against the leg of the couch, "I bet she cried for days. The stupid, silly, child."
Joon Hee doesn't nod this time. Doesn't need to.
The next time- there's always a next time- even after the splitting headaches and the dry throats- there's always the next time.
The bottle is empty; it seems to drain faster each time. He thinks he's breaking the pattern between the two of them, drinking more each time.
"I'm glad you're here," Yoon Jae stops mid-stride to his room, footsteps faltering as he stumbles his way back, his tie still slightly to the left, and Joon Hee's hand itches to set it straight, and he doesn't count anymore so he doesn't know if it's the five hundredth and third time or the five hundredth and fourth, "you could get lost in a place like this. I'm glad you're here."
A reversal from the trajectory to the closed door and an arm draped hard around his shoulder, Yoon Jae is not as drunk tonight, but mostly he's- comfortable.
"I love you," Joon Hee says, consonants hard. And this time he is. Drunk. On alcohol, mostly. But, for a moment, for that moment, he thinks his courage is solid.
Yoon Jae smiles, wide, "I love you too, man." and then "you're wasted."
(Yoon Jae is the one to drag him to bed, the lingering affection of not being alone and lost and alone- because that sucks, that sucks more than unrequited love and impossible first loves and the importance of being earnest and the difficulty of being good- probably making for the blanket and the hair pushed off his forehead and the body next to his, like the time in a room, long ago, in the middle of a forever summer in 1997.
It's not- the story, an arc of fulfillment, Joon Hee knows, but maybe there's something, sometimes, to be said for comfort.)