He runs into them at the gate to her house. And it’s not like he wants to be that guy, but the sight of them together always makes his blood feel two degrees hotter. He has no claim here, they're not even dating, but he's still trying to get a handle on the feeling.
“Gong Tae Kwang,” he begins, the undertone of warning unmistakable, “you—”
Eun Bi turns first, and it’s only when she smiles, hard lines and mischief, and his heart skips a beat out of sheer habit, that he thinks- oh.
“Long time, Han Yi An,” Eun Byul says.
“Yeah,” he mumbles. Then clears his throat. “I didn’t know you were back.”
Tae Kwang mutters something suspiciously like I wish I still didn’t know, and she reaches out and hits him on the side of his head. Hard. Eun Byul’s never been one to pull any punches, metaphorically, but she’s good with the literalization. She's good with her fists, good with her words. He sometimes thinks he still has scars to the shape of her edges.
He watches them, for a minute. It feels a little like- déjà vu- jamais vu- he's not sure. Strange, and familiar, all at once. A record on repeat, an eternal groundhog day version of last summer, watching Eun Byul and Gong Tae Kwang stand too close. Feeling his hand clench into a fist every time they touched. That hadn't been Eun Byul, of course. He'd only thought it was, his jealousy misplaced. But this is.
"The girl's crazy," Tae Kwang declares, raising a hand to shield himself from further attack.
It feels oddly disjointed- like he’s the third wheel here, like she isn't his- his best friend- so he slings his arm around her shoulder, for familiarity’s sake, “I missed you.”
“Of course you did,” she says, and pushes his arm away. Familiarity, again, still.
When she leans up, he automatically leans down, because she’s still short, no matter how hard she tries, reaching up, standing on her toes, and it pisses her off when she can’t reach him immediately. She’s always been impatient, Eun Byul.
“I’m getting him out of here,” she whispers in his ear, and he thinks he can feel every syllable, every punctuating breath against his skin, then stops thinking, “so go see Eun Bi. And let’s have a good, long conversation about how I’m the greatest friend you’re ever gonna have, and how much you owe me.”
She’s already dragging a protesting Tae Kwang by the hand, before he can reply, which is good. He didn’t have an answer anyway. He doesn’t even know what the question was.
She texts him something like: did you have fun ;)
It's normal, sort of. But it feels strange to talk to her about someone else, when she's always been the only one. He spends longer than necessary stringing the words over and over again in his head, then deleting them. It's a hard habit to break.
do you miss me as much as i-
why the hell wouldn't you tell me you were back, i thought we were still-
i didn't miss you at all the entire time you were gone, i'm over-
i won the 100m freestyle, did you hear, i didn't think of you even onc-
Yeah, he replies, finally. And he doesn't mean to, he honestly doesn't, but he's always been an idiot when it comes to her: did you?
It's a genuine concern, he'd rationalize. Tae Kwang only allowed himself to be led away because he felt that's maybe what Eun Bi wants, this much Yi An's beginning to understand. And Eun Byul- she doesn't like Tae Kwang. She doesn't even know Tae Kwang.
It feels weird to make her be with him just so he and Eun Bi won't end up triangulated. Not that he could ever make Eun Byul do something she didn't want to do. It feels even weirder to think that she maybe wants to do this. That wouldn't make any sense.
She doesn't reply. So maybe that's an answer. Sort of.
Yep, her message reads when he wakes up.
He thinks of all the time he's spent reading her texts, reading her books over her shoulder, reading her, and it feels a little like he's forgotten how to stop reading between the lines, to read more into words she's never even written, words she was never going to say.
Anyway, obviously he doesn't need to be concerned. She had fun. That's definitely an answer.
He doesn't actually realize it's an issue till the fourth time he's with Eun Bi, and accidentally runs into someone he knows, and then gets congratulated for the fourth time. "Slow and steady," grins the ahjusshi down at the street stall, five blocks from his house, eyeing their clasped hands. Hands him an extra fishcake for, like, finally getting the girl or whatever and he takes a moment to consider how openly, pathetically, hopelessly obvious he must have been all this while, that every passerby in the world could tell.
He thought he hid it well, his unrequited love, beneath a veneer of friendship that he'd almost convinced himself was nothing more. Clearly the only one fooled was him.
He has a cold open all ready, like "no, this isn't the girl I've been in love with for the past ten years, this is her twin sister whom I met a couple of months back when she was pretending to be the love of my life because the love of my life was pretending to be dead, so that idiom is absolutely wasted in this situation, how much for the fishcakes again?" but she just squeezes his hand gently, a warning, and he settles for a polite, contracted how much? instead.
"You should have let me explain," he says, afterwards, when they're walking along the bridge. The evening walks are getting to be tradition, even if they're not really together in that way, even if she still doesn't know who she is. He's beginning to think he doesn't either. For most of the town, he's apparently that swimmer in love with Eun Byul. And if he isn't that swimmer anymore, and isn't in love with Eun Byul, then he doesn't know who he is.
She shrugs, takes another bite, "how would you have?"
And when it comes down to it, that's a good question, so he should let it go.
"Still," he argues, which is lame, but it's impossible to leave it like this. These things fester, he knows, then explode. It's what happened to him and Eun Byul after all. You don't ask about the small things, and your best friend, your love of a decade runs away and plays dead. "Don't you mind?"
She appears to consider it seriously. "A little? But I'm here now and soon people will know me for me. Besides, it's not that much of a burden, unni's name. It wasn't that difficult even when Tae Kwang was the only person who knew my real name." She bites her lip, slightly embarrassed, he can tell, at using the other boy's name with him, "it was okay as long as there was at least one person who called me by my name. I didn't feel so lost."
She pauses, and he waits for that familiar dizzying uncertainty whenever she brings him up, but it's more subdued now. This must be what growing up feels like, he decides. With her, he's excited, nervous, comfortable, all at once, like the start of something new, like what love should feel like. Something more even, more adult. Not like being with Eun Byul, a giant roller-coaster of high highs and low lows. Less like his heart's always in his throat, waiting for any little provocation, any far-off, distant sign, to leap out and spill at her feet.
This is better, he tells himself sometimes, definitely better. This is how it's supposed to be.
"Maybe," she admits, "it was a little too easy."
He nods, like he understands, but he doesn't really, for what it's worth. He can't possibly understand what that's like.
"And," she continues, laughing, "after all we did get a free fishcake out of it."
He raises the stick in a mock-toast. She takes his hand again.
It was easiest in the beginning, actually. When he was angry enough, betrayed enough, for it to fuel their distance. And it was easy, still, afterwards, when she was away, across the ocean, across time-zones, and nothing more than a too-late time-stamp in the reply to the messages he sometimes sent, and he could almost convince himself that he'd moved on.
After all, he'd once thought he couldn't live without her. But here she was- gone. And he was living. Still. That had to mean something.
But now she's around again. Just streets away, doors away, minutes away, bus-stops away and it's- not. Not easy.
The awkwardness, he realizes after a while, isn't just a temporary side-effect to moving on. It's more. She walks out when he's walking in, she's downstairs when he calls, she's busy when he has time. He knows Eun Bi doesn't mind, but after a while it just feels strange to call Eun Bi and ask about Eun Byul, so he doesn't.
It pisses him off, for some reason. They were supposed to still be friends. Best friends. They weren't going to drift apart. It wasn't supposed to be an either/or.
"Okay then, princess," is all she says, rolling her eyes, when he corners her at the door to her room- their room. There's mostly a lot of Eun Bi's out and you should call before you land up, and she's just on her way out too, obviously, "you must really be killing the theatre scene these days with that drama gene in overdrive."
He hates this about her, he wants to tell her, the pretence, the bravado. That she's acting like he's stupid, like it's all in his head, as if he hasn't memorized every turn of her body, can't measure the exact distance between them, doesn't know her avoidance intimately. Like he hasn't spend years doing just that.
"Come for a walk," he says, in a tone that brooks no arguments. She doesn't protest. He wants to make some sort of a caustic comment about how she couldn't just have been on her way out, but he's starting to pick his battles wisely.
She walks three steps ahead the entire time, then falls behind at her favorite spot.
"I haven't taken my bike out since last summer." The wistfulness in her tone makes him slow down.
"You were pretending to be dead last summer," he doesn't like this side of himself. The passive-aggressiveness, the constant anxiety in the pit of his stomach, but he can't help it. He just can't help it these days. "It figures you didn't find the time."
She throws a quick glance his way. To assess if he's mad, he knows. But he's not, not about that anyway. Not right now. He doesn't know if she'll ever understand what he'd felt, that time when he thought she was dead. He doesn't know if he'll ever be able to explain that feeling of drowning over and over again. Probably not. Not in words.
"Let's take it out now," he says, appeasing. The urge to make up is always the strongest drive in him when it comes to her, he's learned.
"No," she says, quickly, "it's getting late. Maybe next time"
He glances down at his watch. "It's seven," he teases, ruffling her hair affectionately, his fingers tangling in the uncombed knots, and in some ways, she never changed at all. "Are you afraid of the dark, Go Eun Byul?"
She pulls away from his touch. "It's late," she says, again.
He laughs, low, then cups her jaw gently. "Hey, maybe Dong Hwan ahjusshi's ghost is still haunting that pathway to your house. We never did get round to calling that exorcist after all."
She flinches visibly, his hand catching on her earring as she moves away. He can feel the scratch forming, in some distant, detached corner of his mind, cutting through skin in a straight, red line. It's not deep, when he looks down, barely grazing the surface, barely visible at all. Hurts like hell though, which makes no sense.
"I thought," he says, quietly, "we were still supposed to be friends."
"We are." She's not looking at him. She's started doing that a lot, he's noticed.
He laughs. A mean, unpleasant laugh, even to his own ears. "But I can't touch you."
"Not like that," she says flatly.
"Like what?" he demands.
"We're friends," she says, again. Hesitates, for a moment. He follows the movement of her throat. "Just not friends who might someday be...more."
His mouth feels dry. "That isn't different."
"Yes," she turns away. "It is."
Do you want to come over? Eun Bi texts, is how he ends up back at their house just an hour after he left it.
"Leave immediately after the movie is over, it's late," ahjumma informs him, stern gaze broken by the smile she can't quite hide. She's never been able to keep the strict facade for long, in all the years he's known her.
He gives her a quick two-fingered salute. She laughs.
Eun Byul is out at Song Joo's for the night, he comes to hear, and he wants to ask why she hadn't just asked him to drop her there. Doesn't, though.
"Why didn't you go?" he asks, instead.
Eun Bi shrugs, "I was too tired to. Besides, I'm meeting them for lunch tomorrow."
That's explanation enough. He doesn't push.
"I heard you went for a walk with unni," she continues, "so I shouldn't have called you back, but you were already on your way when I came to know."
"It's okay," he says, immediately, and it's strange, the guilt. "You should have come too."
"I had to ask Tae Kwang for some academy notes," she says, "he's still attending Kim sem's class, though he says he mostly sleeps in them. But they get hand-outs, and I want to brush up on some stuff. It'll be helpful for the entrances, and the application decisions, when the results are out."
"Oh," he says. That sounds inadequate, so he adds, "trust Gong Tae Kwang to pay double the tuition fee to sleep through two sets of classes."
Her mouth curves upwards, "I think he's actually listening, but you know him. That doesn't go with his image."
It's weird, when he thinks about it, but he doesn't actually know Gong Tae Kwang. He hasn't in all the years they've been together. Not in all the time they've sat five feet away, listening to the same lectures. But she does. She clearly does.
"Yeah," he replies.
He doesn't actually remember the movie at all, he's too tired, but it stars that idol who Song Joo keeps talking about. The synopsis is something about unrequited love and it's supposed to be slice-of-life, and well, those all end the same way- giving up. Growing up. Moving on- he's pretty sure he isn't missing much.
"It's hard," Eun Bi says contemplatively, once, in the middle, "being in love with someone in love with someone else."
He struggles to stay awake. "What?"
"Nothing," she laughs, reaching out for the bowl of popcorn she'd made, "sleep. I'll wake you when it's over."
I'm going to end my ten-year-long, one-sided, love for you.
If she'd only-
It isn't planned, he knows, because nobody would plan this, but it kind of ends up that way anyway.
"A tableau fit for the gods," Tae Kwang looks at all of them, then snaps his gum obnoxiously. The only truth-teller in the room.
He almost slides next to Eun Byul in the booth- habit, again, always- but doesn't at the last moment. Nobody misses the movement, but they pretend to, and he's grateful. He really is.
"I thought this was supposed to be a celebration," Tae Kwang complains, "done with the CSAT, last hurrahs, tearful goodbyes, existential crises et cetera. So why am I having lunch with him? The reflex action he inspires in me isn't of the tearful kind, just in case someone was mistaken on that point."
He rolls his eyes. Eun Bi reaches across the table and hits the other guy, just as Eun Byul says "oh, shut up."
Tae Kwang raises his hands in mock-defeat, "you're ganging up on an unarmed man. This is bully-" stops.
"Sorry," he says, sincerely, looking straight at Eun Bi. Softer, younger, more vulnerable than Yi An's ever seen him.
"It's okay." She's softer too.
"Now that we've had one solid round of Gong-Tae-Kwang-Puts-His-Foot-Where-His-Mouth-Is, maybe we can have some food before the next." Eun Byul declares.
They glare at each other over their menus, but he can tell something is different. They're different. It's perfunctory, by now. No real fire behind it. Somehow, they got used to each other.
He only realizes he's gripping the table-napkin far too hard when he feels his nails digging into his palms. Lets it go.
The silence is awkward. He knows there are too many crossed feelings for conversation, so he focuses on the food, instead, and it's only when he's half-way between separating the vegetables that it strikes him-- dammit.
When he looks up, Eun Byul is looking down at his plate, expression unreadable, her vegetables already separated. She doesn't need him, she's never needed him, never needed anyone. Not his Eun Byul.
"You shouldn't be so picky with food, unni," Eun Bi sighs. He can't tell if she hasn't noticed or is pretending not to. "It's not healthy."
Eun Byul srunches up her face in distaste. The same expression she used to wear every time he brought it up. It makes something inside him ache with familiarity.
He looks down again, separates the shell from the meat, this time, and puts it on Eun Bi's plate. She doesn't need him to do this either, but she lets him. She's soft where Eun Byul's unyielding. Warm where Eun Byul's cold. She asks for help, sometimes. Doesn't do everything on her own, just because she can. Doesn't run away every chance she gets. Doesn't leave him feeling like someone messed with the wiring inside his chest and he can't breathe, can't come up for air. Break through the water.
Tae Kwang curses under his breath, then stabs his fork at the centre of Eun Bi's plate. "What is wrong with you? She's allergic to shellfish."
"Oh," he says, inadequately, "I didn't know. Sorry."
Eun Bi smiles, consoling, "it's okay, I've never mentioned it."
"Yeah, well," Tae Kwang mutters, "pay attention."
When he next glances at her, Eun Byul is looking out the window.
So, it kind of makes him a lousy shot at logic and possibly myopic, but honestly, it never really struck him that she'd have to do the moving on thing too. Spend the time she used to spend with him with someone else. Divide it somewhere else. Pass it somehow.
Not that he cares. He does. N't. Doesn't. Wait, what was the question again?
The days are slower after the suneung, when there's nothing but the waiting. He practices every day, multiple times each day. Coach-nim has started expecting something of him again, soon, and it feels...inspiring. Some kind of college application-esque stamp of adversity overcome. His shoulder still hurts, but even he can tell the rehab stint is working, and it feels less like the world is ending. More like he's nineteen and this is just the beginning.
Sometimes Eun Bi comes to watch him, her eyes on him, and he's faster those days. Doesn't stop when his shoulder starts hurting, doesn't pause, and when she smiles at him, wide-eyed, cheers him on even in the intra-team training sessions, he feels like the luckiest guy in the world.
"How's your shoulder?" she asks, often, genuine worry stamped across her forehead.
"Fine," he says, carefully avoiding any sudden movements, and trying to make it seem like that's not what he's doing, "better when you're here," and she blushes.
Sometimes Eun Byul comes and sits in the stands. Bare legs stretched over the railing of the bleachers, resting on the bench before her. Always a book in her hands. She's silent throughout, absorbed in her book, doesn't look at him at all. He knows because he does.
He's even faster, then, the steady pull of the chlorinated water stinging his eyes, and drowning out his thoughts. So tired by the end, he can barely stand, barely think, which suits him fine.
"Why are you here?" he asks, once, sullen, when she's sitting by the poolside, water just up till her knees. His shoulder hurts far too much and he needs to grit his teeth because he might just cry otherwise. "You're not even watching me. Go read in the library."
It sounds childish, even to him, as soon as the words leave his mouth and she rolls her eyes at him. It irritates him in the way everything about her does now; the way she doesn't call, the way she's always out when he comes over, the way her hair goes wild, tangled in the summer humidity, sticking to her skin, and he knows she'll be salty to taste. "You don't own this place you know, Mr. National Gold Medal. I've spent all my summers here too, remember?"
"Of course I remember," he snaps, "I've only been here for all your summers since a decade."
She's startled, he can tell, he never snaps at her. He was always the peace-maker, whenever they fell apart. Clearly, he thinks, he's no longer the same boy she knew when they were kids either.
"Hey," she raises a hand to cup his cheek and he almost leans in to her touch, almost closes his eyes, "Yi An-ah, what's wrong?"
It's her tone, maybe. The soft, rare concern, that always reminds him of the band-aid over his suit, his heart, the girl he fell in love with when he didn't even know what love was. "My shoulder hurts," he's already said, before he can stop himself. He bites his tongue almost immediately after, and pulls away from the warmth of her palm. He's so used to her, he's not getting unused, and this sucks.
She hits him on his other shoulder, and out of sheer habit, he thinks: god, you're beautiful when you're angry. "Yah, why are you running around like an underwater superhero and overdoing it, Han Yi An? Are you seriously out of your mind? This sort of thing is what got you in this shape in the first place."
"I was hit by a car," he reminds her, "not that you were here for it." It's a low blow, but the sliver of hurt in her gaze is gone before he can decide whether he's projecting.
"You said your shoulder started hurting before that," she says, quietly, eyes hard, daring him to disagree, to fight her on this. He can read her tells, she's spoiling for a fight.
And she's right, so he stays silent.
She sighs, stands up, drained somehow, water dripping down her legs, and reaches out a hand, "come on." Adds an idiot under her breath for good measure.
He leans on her with far too much weight. A hand draped over her shoulder, gripping hard. She feels different in his arms than Eun Bi does. Eun Bi feels different in his arms, than she always did. They have different angles, different fissures. It weird, how, when he first saw them together, he could only see the similarities.
She's holding herself stiffly under him, avoiding his gaze, and this- this is different. He tightens his grip.
When it gets too late to keep pretending that he's doing this ending-the-one-sided-love, moving-on thing well and this is not exactly what it is, what he comes to conclude is this: it's the lack of closure pulling him back. All the things he never got to say, like how much he hates her pickiness with food, and that she gets cold so easily and still keeps forgetting to take her scarf with her, and how he spends half his time at any given moment wondering what she's doing, and if she knows how many times he's thought of having sex with her, woken up half-hard and aching from dreams of her, and he can't stop calling it making love in his head like he's thirteen-going-on-trashy-teen-romance-novel.
How he can't get rid of her, no matter how hard he tries, because she's kind of imprinted in his room, his arms, the pool, his photographs, his memories. Like he keeps scrubbing, but she never really comes off his skin. The book that she left still lying in his drawer because he keeps forgetting to give it back, his first medal that still has the mark from the time she broke her tooth on it during her metal-purity test, the band-aid on his heart that left a permanent mark, and every time she smiled at him, and all the times they fought and the time he rammed his fist into the side of his dresser because he was angry with her and chipped the wood right into his skin and then called her to bandage it because he couldn't think of anyone else.
To tell her that yes, yes he liked the "new" Go Eun Byul, but he fucking loved the old Go Eun Byul, and sometimes, these days, he thinks he's drowning in the full weight of the ten years of being in love with her, and she's still the first person he might call for a life-jacket and this is all so goddamn insane, they haven't invented a term for it yet.
"I heard you and unni fought," Eun Bi is playing with the medal she made him, still hanging next to the empty space where his gold medal once was. He wonders where it is, whether she kept it in her box of secret things, or hung it somewhere in her room, or kept it in her desk drawer and forgot about it. Not that it matters at all.
"Not fought, exactly," he deflects, shifting on the bed, trying to get comfortable. This is the fifth time his shoulder's given out during a practice, and the third time Eun Byul's been around for it, more angry each time since the first, and he can't even pretend to be okay because she's good at reading him. He sometimes thinks they screwed each other over good that way. "I'm pretty sure it was an insular, one-way litany to my endless stupidity. I was drugged by then, and probably missed a bunch of interesting insults. Your sister's creative when it comes to stuff like that."
Eun Bi laughs, but it sounds tired, as if she hasn't been sleeping well. "Don't fight with her. I'm the one that has to deal with her temper."
"I dealt with it for ten years," he fires back, and thinks of Eun Byul, her mouth down-turned. The high of making up always worth the days she looked past him. When she next smiled was the time he felt he could breathe again. God, he was stupid in love with her. "I'm passing on the mantle."
"A heavy mantle indeed," Eun Bi says, solemnly, eyes sparkling with laughter.
Her phone rings. She looks at it, then hesitates. He already knows who it'll be before he reads the name on the screen. Gong Tae Kwang flashes across, and he's not surprised. Not even a little bit.
"Take it," he says. Tries to sound even. He does a fairly good job of it, he thinks.
She does. The conversation is short on her side, he doesn't try to strain in to listen. He doesn't have the right. They're not even dating.
She can't look at him squarely, after, and there's a part of him that's resigned to this. He knows what it feels like to try and give yourself to someone when someone else has all the working parts that made the functional whole. He can't blame her for this. That would make him a hypocrite.
"He said-" she begins, slowly, then stops. "He said he wants to be alone."
He's about to scoff at that, but something in her face tells him this isn't the whole story. He doesn't know this language.
"Okay,' he says, neutrally. "Do you have to go?"
She hesitates again, then nods.
"I'm going to sleep anyway," he covers, and there's the part of him that's jealous and self-centered, that wants her to tell him that she'll stay till he does. He remembers, suddenly, Eun Byul taking Tae Kwang's hand, of how he hadn't gone in till they disappeared from sight, then stops. That way lies madness.
Her smile is soft, as she hangs the medal back on the hook, and he thinks, for a brief moment, she looks more awake, more alive, than he's seen her look all evening. He only allows himself the truth in doses, these days.
"Do you-" she begins, turning at the door, then appears to change her mind, "I'll come back tomorrow."
"I'll be fine," he promises.
"Don't fight with unni," she complains lightly, and she's gone.
when is eun bi coming home? is the text he gets an hour later, mom's getting worried, and her phone's discharged or sthing, she's not answering.
He knows if this had been before, any of the times before, she wouldn't have broken the silence first. She'd be too proud, too stubborn to. It's strange seeing her be a sister, to imagine that Eun Bi is more important to her than winning with him. Strange seeing her giving in, openly vulnerable sometimes, unguarded in moments, fierce and protective around So Young. No longer the girl who'd cried when she'd fallen off her bike the first time he taught her how to ride. Or maybe she's still that girl, and the only thing that happened was that she got better at hiding it. It makes him feel oddly protective too, even though they aren't eight anymore, even though he ended his one-sided love, even though she doesn't even want him.
He thinks of lying for a second, but there's no real point to it. She's not with me, he replies, call Tae Kwang.
When his phone pings next, he doesn't look at it for a minute, just to prove he can. It's like he's playing a never-ending game of chance with her, that she doesn't even know about, and he keeps losing anyway. are you okay?
He knows this is more about Tae Kwang, than his shoulder, but he replies with a it's better, thanks, still. She's not good with the emotional confrontations; she's not good when she's caught. She hates being caught. He knows that about her. He knows a lot about her, little details that serve no purpose and clog his memories, and push other things out. Other things he should be remembering, instead of the way the shaft of sunlight lights the left side of her face when she's in her favorite corner in the library. The way she shields her eyes, but never changes corners, because she's as much a creature of habit as he is, just secretly.
Anyway, it is better. He didn't realize it was till he wrote that.
I'm glad, she replies.
He falls back on the bed, links his hands under his head, and wonders what she's doing, what she's been doing all this time. All the days, the months, he doesn't know about. He always knew everything about her. Wonders, even though he shouldn't, he knows, whether she regrets it- this, them- like she thought she might.
So here's the thing; he kind of thought it would be like making a choice, like he could have chosen in any second of any minute of any of the ten years, and just kept forgetting to. Like he chose to fall in love, chose to keep the hope alive for ten straight years, and he can choose to fall out.
If you'd just held on-- he thinks, which is both stupid and fucking selfish, but he was never a nice guy, not really. He was just nicer by default, in comparison, because she was rude by default, and he was always with her. He's better with her around. And now, she's not next to him, and he's not particularly nice.
He gets stopped by the street stall ahjusshi on his way back home from practice, when he's just about to move on with a polite nod, a first.
"I don't mean to interfere," the man begins slowly, then points a grease-stained finger somewhere to the left of his head, beyond his peripheral vision, "and I understand that this is not my business, but that agasshi you come with sometimes-"
He turns his head, Eun B--yul is standing three stalls away. With Tae Kwang. They look like they're arguing about something as far as he can tell, but most of Eun Byul's conversations are arguments, he knows, so that's no give-away.
He turns back. His smile feels forced, straining his muscles oddly, "we're all together, it's okay."
Street stall ahjusshi looks relieved at that, and it's weird, but it suddenly strikes him that maybe- maybe he's been rooting for him all this while. Rooting for him to get together with Eun Byul. Like all those people in the stands during his competitions rooting for him. Like this is the most important tournament of his life. It unexpectedly warms something inside him.
"You couldn't possibly know it's bad if you've never tried it," she's protesting, when he's close enough to hear, holding up a Jipangi ice-cream, "not so secure in your pretentious masculinity, are you, when it's so threatened by a food product. It's cane shaped, okay."
Tae Kwang glares at her, "if I wanted to suck one of those, I wouldn't be displacing it onto ice cream. I'd get a willing participant and maybe some whipped cream for the real deal."
"Yah, Gong Tae Kwang," she raps her knuckles on his forehead, he doesn't miss her hand lingering for just a nanosecond longer than necessary, "I don't want to know anything about your sexual proclivities."
"My sexual proclivities don't want to know anything about you," the other guy retorts, "and you can have the cane shaped ice-cream. No, really, go ahead. I'm looking forward to it. You've been looking frustrated lately, maybe this will help."
"Hey," he interrupts. Feels an odd urge to shove both his hands in his pockets.
They turn to him. She stops mid-way through a defiant lick, the melted ice still clinging to her bottom lip. He swallows, hard. He can feel his stomach tighten, eyes drawn to her. Sometimes when she's around, it's like there's a homing beacon somewhere inside him, that always comes to rest on her, and it's insane, that all these years later, he's still just fucking easy when it comes to her.
"Hey," she smiles, then tosses her head impatiently. She's taken to doing that again, he's noticed, like she does every time her bangs get too long. He clenches his hands into a fist by his side, before he can do something stupid, like reach out and push them back for her, like he always used to. He can't do that anymore, he shouldn't.
"Great," Tae Kwang mutters, "I was just beginning to fear that nobody would ever come to turn this evening into even more of a giant suckfest. But look, it's Captain Tight-Trunks to the rescue."
Eun Byul ignores him, "how was your..." then pauses, a quick glance at Tae Kwang.
"...date," Tae Kwang finishes, his mouth curling up, a curious mixture of hurt and defiance, the bravado so strong, it's almost an armor, "what, are you Gong-Tae-Kwang-proofing your conversations now? You think I haven't figured a pattern in the times you saddle me with your completely unwarranted presence, ahjumma."
"We're not dating," he mumbles, over Eun Byul's indignation, it's getting to sound more like an excuse the more he says it. "Maybe we'd actually be able to, if you didn't keep telling her you want to be alone, whatever that is fail-code for."
The other boy looks taken aback for a second, before he recovers, almost immediately. Tae Kwang is like Eun Byul that way. He hates himself for thinking that. "Yeah, well, if she wanted to stay with you, pretty boy, she would."
Which is the truth.
"Gong Tae Kwang," Eun Byul hits him again, and Yi An says, "don't touch him," before he's had time to think this out, and- fuck.
"Don't look at her like that," Tae Kwang flares. The unmistakable warning is his this time, "you're with Eun Bi."
"I wasn't-" he begins, and she's not looking at him. Still. He needs her to fucking look at him. To read this right.
"Yes," Tae Kwang interrupts coldly, "you were."
He turns to her, and he doesn't know what to say, a desperate repetition of I tried, okay, I tried so hard not to be in love with you.
"Don't," she says, and turns away. Again.
You break my sister's heart, the texts read, ominously, I'll break you.
The same text from two different people.
He thumbs their names on his screen, and laughs.
"Hit me," he says, lying on the grass beside her, the sounds of the evening in the distance, and it's an- admission, confession. He doesn't even know. "Go ahead, as hard as you want."
Eun Bi reaches out, as if she's going to, but only ruffles his hair. "Then you'd have to hit me too," she says, "and those swimmer's arms are no joke."
She's developing a mischievous smile of her own. Not Eun Byul's. Like a boy he knows, with a smile like a clenched fist.
Her phone rings, and this is getting to be tradition too. Maybe they were always going to end up like this.
"Do you have to?" he asks, as Tae Kwang's name flashes across her screen.
"No," she says. A first. Hesitates for a moment. Then louder. "I want to."
He doesn't get up, till after she's long gone. The stars are particularly bright. He waits.
It's another first with Eun Bi, getting drunk. It's a first for him too. A first without Eun Byul. It would be a score on the moving on scale, if that scale wasn't lying somewhere broken and dysfunct by weight of the not moving on.
They both arrive at the same time, and it's ironic in a way, or maybe not. She called Tae Kwang. He called Eun Byul. And maybe that's ironic in a way too. Or maybe not.
"This," Tae Kwang announces in a sports commentator voice, before lapsing back into sullenness, "better be the lowest my life's gonna get. Or I'm planning to jump into the Han tonight and end the vicious cycle. I don't want to live in this world anymore, if I'm the most responsible person in the room."
Eun Byul curses under her breath. "You two really aren't my type at all."
She slings his arm around her shoulder, because Tae Kwang refuses to touch him and takes Eun Bi instead, and she's half bent by his weight in three steps. And he can't stop touching her, because he's drunk enough for her to let him.
"Sorry," he says, which is a semi-coherent response. He's sorry for so, so many things. He thinks, sometimes, that this whole thing is so messed up because he had, somewhere along the way, sometime between Eun Bi and Eun Byul and the confusion, and loving her and hating her with every fibre of his being, convinced himself that she was her own stereotype; rude, mean, careless. Convinced himself that he'd given too much. Convinced himself that he was tired of being in love all by himself. Building and mending bridges she never crossed. Convinced himself that loving Eun Bi would be easier. Convinced himself that he'd fallen in love with the beautiful girl who lived a mile away and sat three desks away from him. Fallen in love with her facts and figures, fallen in love in numbers and statistics. Fallen out when those changed.
Convinced himself that he hadn't fallen in love with her sharp edges, her jagged ends, the walls she's built, the shape of her fist somewhere in the centre of his chest. Like he hadn't gone into this, eyes wide open, and taken the step forward anyway, and fallen.
"Yeah," she mutters through gritted teeth, "you're going to be plenty sorry when I'm done with you."
The house is theirs, he dimly notes, when he half-opens his eyes and it's Tae Kwang, this time, unceremoniously dumping him on the couch. He doesn't remember the car-ride, he doesn't remember much apart from the feel of Eun Byul in his arms again. That much, he remembers.
And she's there then, in front of him, and before he's had time to register it, she's kicked him on the shins.
"Ow," loudly, then muffled through her hand on his mouth to quiet him.
"That's for getting my sister drunk," she whispers fiercely. Then kicks him again, "and that's for being an idiot in general."
He reaches up, and pushes her bangs away from her eyes. She reels back. He cups her face.
"You're with my sister, you jerk," she says, and there's a catch in her voice that lights something inside him. He hasn't been reading this wrong. He can read her tells. He's only ever been doing it for ten years.
In his peripheral vision, he can see Tae Kwang standing by the door to Eun Bi's room, looking in. So openly in love, it actually hurts a little to look at him sometimes.
He wants to be openly in love.
"Your sister," he leans in closer. She draws in a sharp breath, when his breath skates across her skin, and it makes him feel powerful, drunk. More drunk than the soju had. He's had his first taste of alcohol now, but he still can't tell whether it can fill the emptiness inside, like his father had said it could. He's never empty when she's this close. "Has terrible taste in men. You really should talk to her about it."
(She probably doesn't remember this, but she calls him once. Eun Bi and Shi Jin somewhere in the background, the music too loud.
She's drunk, he can tell, her syllables far too stretched over the bright Yi An-ah.
"Don't let me waver, okay," she says, voice small, tired. He has to strain to hear. "Please. Don't let me miss you. This sucks."
He grips his phone tightly, he can feel his knuckles turn white, "Eun Byu-"
"I lost my chance," there's a childish determination to her voice, as the line goes dead. And this is something he never got to say: he's never felt this way before her. And he's never felt this way after her.)
"I thought-" he stops.
"Don't think," Tae Kwang advises, "you need the muscles for those arms."
"I thought," he continues, undeterred, drunk enough for honesty, "I thought she-- liked you. That she was beginning to. Or something."
Tae Kwang laughs. Unguarded, for once. Brutally, uncomfortably honest, and in this moment, he can see why the only two girls he's ever liked like him. It's a weird thing to realize. But there's nothing not weird about sitting in a stall, drinking with the guy he used to hate. "What are you? Blind. She likes you, Aquaman. To think, that rude girl with Mr. Nice Guy, the best argument against evolution I've heard yet."
"Why were you together so much?" he asks, and he shouldn't. He really shouldn't. But he can't bring himself to hide the jealousy anymore, swallow it down like he did all the times before, like he thought he had to because he had ended the one-sided love, because he had convinced himself he had moved on, when all that had happened was he'd become a better liar with age.
Tae Kwang downs what's left of the bottle.
"Maybe," he carelessly wipes his mouth with the back of one hand, "we both have a soft spot in our hearts for cripples, and bastards and broken things."
She's leaning against the shelves of the public library, half in shade, half in light, when he drops down next to the shelf in front of her.
She doesn't look up, flipping another page. "I thought you were bored doing this."
He clasps his hands over one knee, and leans back. "You thought right."
Her hair falls over her face, and he knows she's hiding from him. She hates letting him see her vulnerable. He doesn't need to see her face, he wants to tell her, he can read the curve of her throat, the arch of her back, the tilt of her head. He's spent all his time in the library reading her.
She shades her eyes against the sun, but doesn't move away. "Don't do it for nostalgia."
"Do you know," he says, slowly, "when I last fell for you?"
She pauses, mid-flip. Then turns another page. If he wasn't looking, he'd have missed the slight trembling of her hand. But he doesn't. Because he is. Looking.
"When you screamed at me for forgetting to get the mirin, even though you hadn't written it down, then made me walk all the way back to the square to get it, and then decided not to use it."
He can read the distant confusion in her eyes when she finally looks up, "that was yesterd-" before, the realization creeps in, and she shields her face again, color high. He hadn't even realized he could do this to her, do to her even a fraction of what she did to him. It makes him feel electric, charged somehow. "God, I think I just drowned in the cheese."
He grins. She glares.
"It sounds like a list of complaints," she deflects, still, because it's Go Eun Byul. But it's pointless, he'll tell her someday, because he's used to her, he's used to her latitudes and longitudes and he can always measure her displacement to the last digit, "Go Eun Byul, you're so demanding, you tire me out, you don't think things through, you're so temperamental, you never ask nicely, you're such a-"
"It is," he closes his eyes, rests his head against the hard stack of books behind him, "so exhausting to be in love with you."
He's never said it out loud before. Not like this. Not openly. It feels like he's been underwater for years, and is just breaking the surface, like he can finally breathe in without drowning.
"Then don't be," she says, defiant.
"That," he admits truthfully, "was the most exhausting thing I've ever tried to do."
("What changed?" he'd asked, once, before. They were supposed to be best friends, still. Always.
"Nothing," she'd replied, which was a lie. She can't meet his eyes these days and he thinks of- maybe someday I'll regret it - and don't feel bad, I'll sort it on my own- but he doesn't know if it still counts if he doesn't feel bad. Not one bit. Not at all.)
"So," she says, eyes still on her book, "what now."
He stands up, dusts himself off, "now."
She almost drops the book in surprise, but he traps it between their bodies, mouth clumsy on hers. He can feel the edge of the hard cover dig into his skin near his rib-cage, the hammering in his chest so loud, he's probably breaking the library rule on silence. She's soft and hard and salty when he tastes her. Just like he's always known she could be. But different too. Because he didn't always know she would be.
"This is a library," she whispers, pulling away, sounding scandalized through swollen lips. But the half-formed thought in his head is mostly how the library's always been her, and the water's always been her, and the park has always been her, and all his medals have always been her, and school's always been her, and every street he's walked down has always been her. And he still can't get a hold of enough of her, he never can, she's always slipping away. Just like all the times before. Just like now.
"This is a library," she says again. But then she's reaching up, fisting his collar in her hand, her eyes on his, and he has to pull her to the ground, because there's no way in hell she'll be able to reach otherwise and then she'll be pissed off, because this is Go Eun Byul and he's so in love with her he can't think straight, and every road he chooses seems to end up at her, and it's a fucking disaster. He's a disaster.
But, honestly, he's even more of a tragedy without her. Everyone who knows him knows that. Just ask any guy selling anything within a hundred miles.
"Now," he completes, pulling away slightly, and pushing back her bangs, because he can, because this isn't just habit, because god he really didn't know that being with her was love, not habit, and maybe he really is an idiot like she keeps saying, "you can finish reading. I'll wait."
She laughs quietly. Trails off into silence before: "I didn't think you'd come back."
We've changed too much, I'm not the same girl you used to know.
That's okay, he wants to tell her, go back somehow and tell her. Because he's not the same boy she used to know either. Because it's not the ten years of memories weighing him down, like he'd thought before. It's that, for the long, desperate pause between them, he was terrified he wouldn't make any more.
And that? Sucked. That was the worst his life has ever been.
He leans his head back against the stack, stretches his legs, and settles down to wait. "I'm not sure I ever left."
Summer of 2017 is warmer than it's been in years. He still always keeps a spare scarf with him, just in case.