The call wakes her up about two hours in since she first went to sleep. Which means she has only two more hours left to go and she’s already awake. It makes her irrationally angry.
Actually, she decides, it’s completely rational anger. Irrational- and a few more choice words she can think of- is calling someone at freaking four in the morning.
“Hello,” she snaps, tone decidedly unwelcoming. If it’s Manager Oppa, she’s going to get an earful about Jieun-ah, you’re a public figure. The image is not only a part of you, the image is you. Don't ever forget that.
“Are you dating Baekhyun oppa?” Suzy demands, without preamble.
The voice is far too chirpy for the unearthly time. But she can still feel a reluctant smile ease the creases of her frown, the familiarity settling into her bones, warming her from the inside.
Before the actual statement registers.
"Who's Baekhyun?" she asks, only half-sentient. For a brief moment she thinks back to Good Day. It feels like such a long time ago. She doesn’t even know what Baekhyun oppa is doing right now. Strange, how things change.
Suzy lets out a sigh of frustration. "EXO's Baekhyun, obviously," she emphasizes, with that patented tone she sometimes uses, like she thinks her unni is in dire need of a straightjacket and mental certification.
She runs that through her sleep-addled mind for a moment. EXO's Baekhyun. Byun Baekhyun. She's not sure she's ever really talked to him. She doesn't even know what color his hair is at the moment.
"I'm- what?" There's no real adequate response to this. "Why would I be dating Baekhyun?" That sounds like a fairly informal to refer to someone whom she doesn't even know except vaguely through uncomfortable formal functions and his and his group's face plastered across all available mediums and surfaces in the city. Even though it's only Suzy, it feels weird, intimate somehow, so she adds in a belated "-ssi." Manager Oppa would be so proud.
"Oh," Suzy sounds...disappointed. That makes no sense. This whole thing makes no sense. "I was sort of hoping you were, because that would make it easier, if it was all for love. Then you could have fought the world and they would make a movie on it twenty years later and I could play older-you. I mean, sure, you could play older-you, but that would be confusing. But if it's all a misunderstanding, it's going to be kinda hard to deal with, which sucks. But it's okay, you'll be okay, you'll deal, you're Jieun unni, you're jjang. Unni, fighting!"
"Yah," she begins, trying to assess the situation, and simultaneously come up with a suitable crack about Suzy's own dating life and Minho oppa and the complete inanity of the conversation, and god, seriously, what even is happening and why is it happening at four in the morning. "Yah, what are you-" but the line's already been cut. Trademark Suzy- random, incomprehensible, endlessly bright. It's ridiculous how she's equal parts annoying and endearing, and it's so difficult to be mad at her. Jieun's tried before. And failed. An equal number of times. So, in her studied opinion, backed by years of research, it's pointless trying.
Byun Baekhyun. She tries to visualize him for a moment. Starts from the top, then remembers she has no idea what his hair looks like these days, and gives up.
She falls asleep to the sound of the dial tone.
She understands- more than understands- really, viscerally, horrifically gets everything with an almost painful clarity when Junghyun oppa lands on her doorstep within the next two hours, with what looks like an eleven volume collection of the Constitution, but is really just a print-out of various articles that he must have painstakingly downloaded from the internet, because he's actually the most thorough person she's yet come across... and he clearly doesn't get the archival concept of the internet.
Long story long: she's apparently dating Baekhyun. As in EXO's Baekhyun. As in EXO's '92-line mood-maker Baekhyun. As in crazy-sasaeng-magnet Baekhyun. As in Taeyeon unni's ex Baekhyun.
Long story short: she's kind of screwed.
"That's not Baekhyun," she begins desperately, pointing at the single grainy photograph that graces the left, middle and right columns of most of the articles. "Baekhyun-ssi," she amends, for propriety's sake. "That's just some guy who asked for an autograph."
Junghyun oppa only shakes his head in disappointment like she's being deliberately obtuse, and she knows that look: it doesn't matter what is, it just matters what it looks like. And it looks like she's fisting Byun Baekhyun's shirt and pulling him closer. And it's even more weird, because she knows it's not Baekhyun, but he... actually does look like Baekhyun, that vague, niggling familiarity she'd first felt on seeing the guy concretizing into a much too belated oh, that's who you reminded me of.
She remembers the guy. She doesn't remember everyone who comes up to her, but she remembers him, because he'd been cute and he'd smiled down at her, and she'd shaded her face with her hair while signing his shirt because he was cute, and for a moment she'd felt her heart race, and Jieun was twenty two and this was the beginning of an infatuation.
But then he'd moved on, and the vanity van had come to pick her up, and just like that, the moment was over. Her racing heart already a distant memory, mind preoccupied by the next schedule.
"Code Red II," Junghyun oppa is saying solemnly into his phone, probably directly to Shin daepyonim, when she breaks out of her thoughts, and she feels a strange, hysterical urge to laugh, because, really, do they really need cyber terrorism codes for celebrity scandals?
"Don't leave your house," Junghyun oppa warns her, after, "you had no contractually obligated schedules today, and I cancelled the rest. It's better to lie low. Wait for the first wave to die down. Dispatch hasn’t released anything yet, so it’s just quarantine-period."
She wants to protest because yeah, okay, she has no schedule, but she is still alive, she still has plans, or she should, because she's twenty three and not an automaton. But she's also not a novice, "I will."
Long after Junghyun oppa's gone and she's exhausted all the internet resources on the "scandal" and read countless number of comments with variations on 'slut', 'so disappointed', 'what did you expect' and 'must be a misunderstanding', she lies down on her bed, and tries to imagine him again.
She starts at his feet this time. She only gets a basic silhouette, inexpertly shaded, static, filled in with individual traits from the solo pictures that the articles had used, than any real sense memory. Then overcomes the pesky hair question with a convenient snapback. It's red, for some reason.
She falls asleep again, which is the best part of this insanity, with his face imprinted at the back of her closed eyelids. She doesn't dream of him.
The whole thing blows up in a few days, in a matter of hours, actually. Not that she hasn't been expecting it, she has, but she's also... misjudged the intensity of being the object of minute scrutiny of the national media, as well as being hated by both the EXO-L's and SONEs, not just two fandoms, but two of the biggest fandoms around- she clearly didn't save the country in her past life. It's news not only because she's apparently dating a member of EXO, which, she knows, is news on its own. It's also news because she stole him from a member of SNSD. To make an understatement; it's a mess of biblical proportions.
That is how she ends up in Cheongdam-dong, at the SM Headquarters, shuffling her feet in the waiting room as the Important People file into the conference hall and shut it for some Real Business Talk and the stock market shares or whatever, and she's left outside like a child. And, for a long moment, she feels awkward and lost and hopelessly young.
Till EXO shuffles in in a double chaotic file, skin covered with a fine sheen of sweat and glitter, clearly back from somewhere that she'll probably read about on the internet in minutes. They don't notice her at first, which is even more awkward, so she sits down on the nearest available chair and clasps her hands together, and repeats the names of all the members- present and past, real and stage- in her head as a sort of mantra, and there are so many, that it helps quiet her thoughts down. It's strange, watching them from the outside, without the spotlight and the concept, far too loud and physical and close, the sort of thing she's missed out on because she's never been part of a group. Never been a part of anything bigger than herself.
She stage coughs only when Sehun yells something like fanservice and Jongin grabs a protesting Kyungsoo in a fluid headlock and mockingly brings their mouths closer as Minseok rolls his eyes and Chanyeol takes out his phone far too quickly for this to be a one-off thing.
Joonmyeon is the first to notice her. He stares at her with a half-startled expression, then blinks a few times like maybe there's a her-shaped pattern on the wallpaper that he's mistaking for the real thing. Then his eyes grow wider, and he bangs his fist against the wall, as a sort of warning signal, she presumes. You have an audience, don't get off the stage just yet.
"Sunbaenim," he bows low, and she wants to tell him that they're alone here and god, he doesn't have to do that, but it's easier sometimes, most times, just going along with the rules none of them made. Rebelling takes work, takes effort, takes will, and she's so tired all the time, even without it. So she bows too.
There's a chorus of sunbae's after, with varying degrees of confused head-turns and she spends the next few minutes with her head bent, and eyes on the ground, trying to breathe evenly, as her heart beats in her throat. When she finally looks up, Park Chanyeol is leaning against the wall in her direct line-of-vision, and as she accidentally catches his eyes, he bends his head fractionally, and mumbles something which sounds suspiciously like hyungsoo-nim with a pointed glance in the direction where she'd imagine Baekhyun is standing, and could confirm if she only had courage enough to turn, but Jongdae slaps a hand across his mouth, as Yixing starts humming something loudly, and it's chaos once again, and she can feel her heartbeat slow down, just a little.
"It's been a long time, sunbaenim" Joonmye- Suho-ssi says politely- and it's weird how it's suddenly an issue that she has no idea what she should be calling them, and why is she using their real names in her head, like they're all close, because they're really, really not, and do they ever call her Jieun among themselves, actually do they even talk about her at all, and- dammit, why couldn't she have gotten into this stupid scandal with someone she actually knows, so she could maybe laugh about it and it wouldn't be... this.
Here's the thing: she only really knows them, all of them, through degrees of distance; Minho oppa was a trainee with Suho-ssi, Taeminnie is attached at the hip to Jongin, Sulli once kissed Chanyeol on a dare and he's still her favorite SM guy. Those are the real friendships, she knows, but mostly they're all professionals, this is their job. In the middle of all the frenzy and ideal types and scandals, she just wants to do her job, and maybe sleep for more than four hours at a stretch. IU's only ever defined them by a polite distance, Jieun with an uncertain impression that she gets the appeal, and sometimes she can feel her pulse race when she's sitting next to them at award functions, and they're wearing suits, but she doesn't want to lose to them on any music shows, still.
She stops herself saying that it hasn't really been that long and that they were there when Heart lost to View on Inkigayo, though they hadn't performed and they'd left early, and maybe they hadn't even seen her, but that sounds unnecessarily detailed, and possibly petty. So she just says, "I know," in reply, and smiles.
"Why are you-" Chanyeol begins, and this time Kyungsoo already has a hand up, like he knows he's going to have to cover for whatever the other guy's going to say, but just then Junghyun oppa calls out "Jieun-ah," and she gets up so fast, she's pretty sure she displaces some vital organs from their natural position.
"Goodbye," she says hastily, formally, and bows, and nearly runs out, and she's being melodramatic she knows, but it's such a relief the ordeal is over. And maybe she's weird for feeling this way, but it's kind of hard not to feel it here, amongst all these people who know, really know each other; like an outsider.
Which is obviously when she runs into him, and she knows it's him without looking up, because she'd started at his feet last time, and she recognizes his feet. Which, when she thinks of it like that, sounds fantastically creepy and borderline-sasaeng, and thank god nobody can read her mind.
When she looks up, he's looking down at her, his hands in his pockets, a mirror of her earlier position. There's too much glitter underneath his left eye and it blinds her when he blinks, and it catches the light.
"Sunbae," he acknowledges, and there's a new insolence to his tone, the curve of his lip, something about his glance that reminds her that she may be his sunbae, but he's older. Or maybe it was always there, and she hasn't been looking. Or maybe it isn't there, and she's reading too much into nothing at all.
She nods, once. Then looks away.
Brown, she notes vaguely somewhere at the back of her mind, shutting the door behind her, his hair is currently brown.
Manager Oppa, infuriatingly enough, refuses to divulge any details of the POA, although, she'll later realize, it's mostly because there aren't any. They're literally following a wait-and-watch policy, which doesn't sound so much an Actual Business Decision as it does a We Don't Know What The Fuck To Do.
"I have to drop the files," is all he tells her, "you can wait for me in the car, Jieun-ah."
Human nature, she philosophically concludes, sucks. Seriously, she's not stupid, there are no files. He just wants to walk by the pretty receptionist she'd noticed on her way up, a few times, looking important and busy. She's this close to throwing a Cindy-esque tantrum, but she plasters on a smile instead and says "okay" for what feels like way too many times in far too short a time (- sometimes, these days, she thinks Jieun is much more parts Cindy than she is IU, has always been more Cindy than IU and god, that is terrifying.)
Chanyeol is skulking by the van when she reaches it. There's no other word for it. He's half-leaning again, like he's too tall and it's difficult for him to handle his own body or something, and for a moment she's overcome with this jarring defamiliarization because he's glitter-free and make-up-free, and the wet hair falling over his forehead is dripping water into his eyes, and he impatiently tosses his head about every five seconds, and he's kind of- beautiful.
She knows he's good-looking, obviously, it's sort of hard not to when he makes all the Hottest Male Idols lists these days in the top three, (she's always some twenty five in the female list and it's annoying because most lists don't even have a twenty five, and there’s a part of her that wants to be Top Ten, but there's also a part of her that's confused because come on, how the hell is she possibly twenty five in this industry. She's pretty sure she counted more than twenty five gorgeous women just casually passing through the SM office.)
But he's not idol-beautiful at the moment, he's ordinary-beautiful, regular-guy-beautiful, and it's- strange. Weird. Confusing. Synonyms she's running out of.
She pretends to not see him at first, just in case this is an accident, and he chose some random car to get his GQ on, and it just happens to be hers, but he straightens up when he sees her, and she flushes at the thought that he's maybe waiting for her, and wow, she's such a girl it's ridiculous.
"IU-ssi," he calls, which is new.
"Chanyeol-ssi," she manages guardedly, and thank god he doesn't have a different stage name and she doesn't have to deal with another existential crisis on that point.
"Are you dating Baekhyun?" he inquires bluntly.
"What?" she says reflexively, and that is not at all what she- "why would you even-"
"Because," he continues, interrupting her, "it looks like him."
If his own group members thinks the picture looks like him, is actually him, then she's really way more screwed than she's been giving herself credit for.
"Baek is a secretive bastard when it comes to this stuff," he continues, "and he won't tell any of us either way, but maybe you should know that he's not really over Taeyeon noona and you're going to get hurt, so."
She distantly registers the bastard and a part of her- the idol part of her- is provoked by his audacity to his sunbae. But then again, he's older too, and so maybe it's okay. Everything is weird today. She can't even figure out if she's being insulted here as a mere rebound or warned out of misguided concern. Not that it should matter either way because hey, she's not dating Baekhyun, but it still annoys her, and man, she really, really is Cindy. Maybe she wouldn't have got any praise for her performance if people had realized she wasn't performing at all.
"I'm not-" she begins coldly, and he cuts her off with a "good," and her mouth's just about falling open at his rudeness, when he suddenly leans forward and pushes back a few strands of hair that's escaped her ponytail, tucking it behind her ear with an easy familiarity that is completely unfamiliar.
That is how Baekhyun finds them, and when she leans away from Chanyeol's touch, he's standing a few feet away, looking at them, still with his hands in his pockets, still sparkling every time he breathes.
The awkward silence stretches indefinitely, coextensive with her uneven heartbeat, and she feels oddly embarrassed. Which makes her angry. She is such a mess, this is not even funny. There is no excuse for her allowing them to get to her like this. She's a professional.
"Well," says Baekhyun casually, "looks like the wrong member got into the right scandal."
There is a quick retort at the tip of her tongue, and she can't remember the last time anything, anybody, got her this riled up, but they're not even looking at her, Chanyeol's hand still mid-air, where she last stood, and Baekhyun looking straight at him. It's not- familiarity, she thinks dimly, it's- something else- something like intimacy.
"Have you eaten?" Chanyeol asks Baekhyun unexpectedly, and she shuts her mouth and bites hard on her lip, because this is different.
Baekhyun ignores him. "Maybe we should talk?" he offers, looking at her this time.
"I don't have anything to say," she flares.
"You looking for another heart to break, Baek?" Chanyeol mocks. "A crack to match yours?" And it's an impossibly cheesy thing to say, but his expression is serious, and she can't get rid of the feeling that she's missing something.
Baekhyun reels back for a second, like he's been struck, then regains his composure. It's the first time she's really looking at him, and he looks- exhausted. There's something about him that's... duller now, she registers, than before, all the times she's seen him before. Like he's glittering, but he's not really glittering at all.
"I don't know," he says slowly, and she doesn't even know him, but she wants to tell him to shut up because he's going to regret anything he says next, "I'm pretty sure I completed my quota there, Chan, don't you think?"
Chanyeol flinches, and she almost reaches out her hand to- to what, she has no freaking idea.
But then he turns to her, and he's back to being the guy she vaguely recognizes from award functions and music shows and variety programmes. There's always something manic about him, like he's barely contained chaos.
"Forget what I said before," he says, looking down at her, "don't date him because he's a jackass."
She pointedly turns away by way of reply. "Not even if it gets me the lead in the next Won Bin movie," she mutters. It's weirdly... freeing. Maybe she should be more concerned that being rude is somehow freedom for her. But whatever.
Chanyeol hoots, and Baekhyun says with that slow insolence that she's beginning to associate with him, "I'm starting to like you, sunbae," and she swallows back a smile.
She waves at Junghyun oppa in the distance. He's frowning by the time he reaches them.
"Is it really wise," he begins, glaring at both Baekhyun and Chanyeol, "to be out here in the open together, when both your CEO's are exploding over your scandal?"
It strikes her then that maybe Junghyun oppa- maybe everyone- actually thinks that she really is with Baekhyun, that she's just covering up.
"Did someone tell you Baek was wise, hyung?" Chanyeol asks pleasantly. "I'm afraid you were misinformed."
She laughs. Chanyeol grins at her. Baekhyun just looks at them with that inscrutable expression that induces a strong urge in her to stick her tongue out at him, but she's old enough for it to come off as a come-on, and not dense enough to not know that, so she resists.
When Junghyun oppa finally pulls away from the building, she catches a glimpse of them in the rearview mirror. They're standing shoulder to shoulder, staring at the retreating car, and as she watches, Chanyeol leans down, and shoves Baekhyun with one shoulder, then rests his elbow on Baekhyun’s head. But it's more playful than heated, and Baekhyun just looks up at him with a long-suffering expression.
They're far away by now and she can't really make him out, but for a moment, she's sure he's really glittering.
Back when he'd gotten into trouble over the secret Instagram messages with Taeyeon unni, she'd found it vaguely amusing, fairly creative, and later spared some moments of sympathy for the long-drawn fall-out. She hasn't really thought of him in the what if way- except with Suzy and Jiyeon, where he came up exactly once and Suzy said he was really cute and decided to call him Baekhyun oppa though she'd never talked to him, and Jiyeon had said Chanyeol was cuter and she liked tall guys anyway, and she'd said they were both cute just to balance out the triangulated proposition. She likes their balance.
"I'm sure I heard he likes you somewhere," Jiyeon says decisively when she gives them a short summary of the events over a conference call, leaving out all the awkwardness because it's difficult to liquefy into words, and because it feels like it's not her story to tell.
"That was Joonmyeon oppa," she says, unthinkingly, and Suzy's laughter is sun-bright.
"You're keeping tabs?" she teases.
She can feel herself blushing. "No," she says quickly, "I just-" then ends lamely, "anyway, it's my song, he likes, not me. Joonmyeon oppa, I mean, not Baekhyun."
"You didn't say -ssi," Jiyeon notes, just as she adds in a "-ssi," but it's kind of late, and Jiyeon doesn't let it go for the entire fucking call.
"Just date him," Jiyeon advices, like this is what the conversation had been about in the first place. "Or date Chanyeol, he's hot. We'd go on three-way dates, me and Donggun oppa, Suzy and Minho oppa, and you and Chanbaek or whoever. We'll dominate the news, baby. We'd be pissing off literally everyone. Isn't that a reaction worth going for?"
"They don't like me," she declares, because she's already said she doesn't like them, and there's only so much to go on this path before it circles back.
But Suzy just says sweetly, "who wouldn't like you," and Jiyeon states something about how they must have some real fucked up depth perception and maybe SM should look into medical insurance, and when the call finally ends, she clasps her hands and lays her head down, smiling, and like she always does with them, she feels like a top three.
The scandal quietens some with the perfunctory company statement about the misunderstanding and the Baekhyun doppelgänger narrative, but that's more a result of the passage of time, than because anybody actually believes it, she knows. It does, however, affect the ratings of her next variety appearance, and she could have told them that the first time if they hadn't decided to play ostrich as a containment strategy.
"But then it wouldn't be as much fun," Chanyeol flippantly contends, from where he's sitting on the ground, his back against a step, clearly exhausted from the hours of practice, and she bends down and slaps him on the shoulder, hard, because this isn't fun. But it still somehow comes off as more flirty than anything else, even though she doesn't mean it that way, and he leans back with that awkward, barely-restrained disordered grace he has, and grins. Being near Chanyeol is a little bit addictive. She hasn't yet figured out why.
Shin daepyonim, unlike all the CEO's she's ever seen in dramas, doesn't really care about the inter-company power play as much as he does about just getting things over with, and she finds herself at the SM office more often than she'd like. A lot of it, she knows, also has to do with the fact that the SM management probably took a refresher course on the LOEN handling of the Eunhyuk oppa scandal and promptly initiated a Code Red III. She's almost becoming familiar with the confusing passages, which is awful.
Chanyeol declares they're friends on her seventh visit. Seventh when they're there, her twelfth overall. And she's not sure why she's keeping count at all. He slings an arm around her shoulder with a familiarity that is becoming startlingly familiar, and says, "look Jieunnie's here" and only laughs when she retorts with a haughty, authoritative, "that's sunbaenim to you."
The rest of EXO is interested in her appearances as a novelty the first few times, half wary, half intrigued, sometimes bringing up the scandal with hesitant, uncertain bravado to see how much they can push, but, like all novelty, it wears off eventually, and now they smile at her when she comes, but largely ignore her, and she finds out, strangely enough, that she likes it. Likes not being the center, likes being a part of something bigger than she is.
Baekhyun, when he talks at all, just mutters a closed-off, "oh, you're here," like it's personally affecting his mental peace to have her near, which pisses her off enough for her to bypass her sensibilities and really, actually stick her tongue out at him, which further makes Chanyeol let out a low whistle and breathe a whispered "feisty" somewhere near her ear, because he always bends- to accommodate her, or fluster her- she hasn't yet figured that out, but he's too close and when she next swallows, her throat is dry.
Baekhyun looks at her through half-lidded eyes, fixated, she realizes with the heat curling somewhere low in her stomach, on her mouth, and when she licks her lip, inadvertently, he raises his gaze to meet hers, and for a moment she understands why Chanyeol draws in a sharp breath, because, in her mind, she does the same.
He goes back to his guitar almost immediately, till Chanyeol takes it from him with a mumbled, strangely vulnerable "poser," and then Chanyeol plays, while Baekhyun sings, and the first few times she’s actually sort of irritated because they’re not even trying, and it’s completely unprofessional. But then Baekhyun looks at Chanyeol when he messes up the chords, and actually laughs and suddenly it’s different. She’d forgotten what this feels like; singing with someone, singing with someone and not singing for anything. So, when Joonmyeon oppa tells her to, she joins in. Baekhyun’s voice is throaty, she keeps her notes low.
"You're amazing," Baekhyun says at the end, voice low and serious, and there are far too many people around when she’s done, and she bows with an exaggerated flourish.
And when she sits back, she thinks: that was fun. She hasn’t thought that about music in the longest time.
But it’s still kind of weird that she’s in this scandal with a guy she barely really knows and now she’s getting to know him through it, and that is probably totally not at all what anyone intended. Not that she knows him much, not in the way of dramatic, heartfelt, Han river-side conversations or anything, but knows him anyway. Knows him, at least, outside his variety smile, outside his show-face, and she’s been in the business long enough to know that means something. Means something to watch him pick out all the cucumbers on his plate with such an exaggerated expression of distaste, that it makes her want to pull out her phone and Instagram it, if only she were someone else, they were someone else, this was something else. You'd have already known he hates them if you'd watched us on variety, Chanyeol always says, half amused, half annoyed, and she doesn't reply, because they both know it's not the same thing.
It’s also weird because when she enters one of their many assigned rooms- vocal some days, dance others, hoovering indecisively till Chanyeol pulls her in, there’s a history that goes on without her, that exists even when she’s not there, that she doesn’t fully quite grasp. Some things she understands, even though she’s not a part of them, like the strained silence in the room when the L’Oreal Paris commercial comes on, and Lu Han smiles beatifically for the cameras, and Sehun turns away. Some things she learns about later, like the day Yixing spends banging every door he opens, much too hard, and there’s enough tension in the practice room that she slips out and sits outside the conference hall for the next two hours instead, and only later reads about their Yeol’s Sketchbook appearance and Yixing’s slashed screen-time and the endless comments that SM has given up on EXO-M and is cutting its losses, and thinks: oh.
Some things she never really learns about, like the time Kyungsoo and Jongdae refuse to even look at each other the entire time she’s there. Or the time Joonmyeon inexpertly bandages his ankle, with a constant genial refrain of I’m fine, really, while Jongin stands by, face dark, hands crossed across his chest, and Sehun startles everyone with a frustrated “why do you let them do this to you? Why don’t you ever say anything, hyung? No wonder we keep losing our me-” which Jongin cuts off with a sharp “shut up.”
But there are other days. Days when Minseok super-seriously beats her at arm wrestling, with intense concentration worthy of a greater cause for the two seconds it takes him, and days Kyungsoo loses to her, and it says something about his acting skills, that nobody knows if it’s really on purpose. And other days when they’re far too tired for anything else, they sit around with Chanyeol’s guitar, and she sits on the sidelines, and nobody asks her to critically analyze the performance afterwards, and it feels strange and comfortable.
She brings her guitar along one day, and Baekhyun looks at her longer than usual when she slings it over her shoulder, his gaze travelling slowly from her feet upwards, like maybe he can make her up in his head too. When they sing together, she forgives them their inadvertences, and they forgive her her obsessive need to get every note perfect, her neurotic tendency to take it from the top each time she fumbles the least bit, even when it’s just for fun. Jongdae hides a smile, Baekhyun rolls his eyes but he doesn’t complain, following Chanyeol’s lead when he doesn’t even look up at them and starts strumming from the beginning again, without any prompting, and every time he does, she feels something soft and warm take root inside her.
One time, they run into Taeyeon unni in the corridor and she finds she doesn’t know what to do with her hands. She thinks, stupidly enough, of that comment she’d read sometime ago, something about Baekeun sounding pretty close to Baekyeon and maybe he has a type, which doesn’t even make sense, but still, for a moment, she feels ridiculously guilty.
She hasn’t done anything wrong, she knows, but Taeyeon unni has always been nice to her, the nicest.
“Jieun-ah,” unni exclaims, and she doesn’t miss the quick glance that unni throws somewhere to her left, where she knows Baekhyun is standing.
She bows, “sunbaenim.”
It’s awkward, even over the general post-break-up awkwardness, because Chanyeol’s face is set in hard, unfamiliar lines and he completely ignores his sunbae, despite all of Jieun’s futile kicks to his shin. Taeyeon unni doesn’t look angry, though, mostly resigned, like she’s getting used to this. Maybe already has gotten used to it.
“Baekhyun,” she says, finally.
Baekhyun bows, low, almost at ninety degrees, and says, “sunbaenim.” And there’s something about the exhausted vulnerability in unni’s gaze and the hard unyielding curve of Baekhyun’s back that makes something inside her ache with second-hand unfulfillment. She doesn’t know anything about their love story, but it kind of sucks that everyone ended up hurt.
“Fuck,” Chanyeol says, his knuckles making hard contact with the wall, when unni disappears round the bend. Then louder, “fuck, fuck, f—”
When she reaches out to stop him, her hand wraps around Baekhyun’s instead, and for a moment, she’s startled into synchronicity by the shape of their fists, then lets go. Baekhyun holds on.
“Stop it,” he says quietly.
“No, you stop it,” Chanyeol explodes. “Stop fucking constantly looking like this, asshole. Like you can’t breathe or something, like nobody can fix this, fix you. Who the fuck do you think you are, you basta-”
But when he raises his other hand, she takes it in hers before he can punch anything.
“Stop it,” she says, firmly. His hand is shaking, she grips it tighter.
Chanyeol looks down. His gaze shifting from his hand in Baekhyun’s to his hand in hers. She thinks, oddly enough, of her high-school math teacher whom she hadn’t even particularly liked. Thinks of a lazy afternoon, years back, when she'd almost fallen asleep in class because it was too hot, the middle of an endless summer: a triangle is the most stable of all geometric shapes.
“Okay,” he says, exhaling slowly. She hadn’t even realized he was holding his breath. Maybe he hadn’t either. “Okay.”
It becomes- not a thing exactly- but a truce of sorts, tentative, hesitating. It’s counterintuitive but, in the middle of trying to keep her hands clean and her legs tightly together, Jieun had mostly forgotten how oddly freeing scandals could be, the moment when no one expects anything of her, and she doesn’t have enough schedules to fill every second of every minute, and she can make the music she wants, and she doesn’t have to smile when she doesn’t want to, because everyone hates her anyway. And she’s not the nation’s little sister, she’s not even IU.
Not that it’s fun. She spends far too much of her time reading about how she’s totally done for and a wannabe has-been and I never trusted her anyway, there’s something sly about her and tries to laugh it off, but it sounds all wrong and jaded, and god, she doesn’t want to be jaded at twenty three, that’s not who she planned to grow up to be.
Which Chanyeol decides requires soju because obviously, it's Chanyeol. It feels reckless and teenage and stupid to sit in the dark with contraband alcohol in the minute or so before they have to leave because this isn't a thing, because maybe they'll get caught and this will be a real scandal, but she feels like a superhero and stupidly wild sometimes, and when she gulps down three shots in quick succession, Baekhyun looks at her with this weird, unidentifiable expression and the guy seriously has no regular Happy/Sad filter because he keeps fucking with her head with his goddamn—
“What,” she says, defensive, “you think I can’t drink? Too busy being the nation's uncorrupted little sister. Like what, you think I've never had soju or—”
“You endorse this brand,” he points out mildly, which makes Chanyeol turn his head to hide a smile, and there’s no answer to that, so she downs a fourth and settles for glaring at him.
Then Super Junior goes on Radio Star for their comeback interview and Gura sunbaenim asks Eunhyuk oppa the same questions they’ve been asking since three years and someone writes if we’d punished the bitch enough the first time, she wouldn’t have found the audacity for a second and it’s not even the most upvoted or even the worst of the lot or anything, but it stings something deep inside her.
The voice in her head is Soohyun oppa’s, telling her to not pick arrows on the ground to stab herself with, but it’s difficult, she wants to say, it’s so difficult. It’s so difficult because Cindy- Cindy isn’t real, but Jieun is.
So instead, she clenches her fists and promises herself, like she had, all that time back in the seventh grade, lying on the ground, listening to her uncle tell her aunt she was never going to amount to anything, back when she had no home, nobody to lean on, that she’s going to make it. She’s going to make it through.
Manager oppa worries. But it gets to be a routine, not having a real routine. So she writes a song. It's titled Frustration and it talks about a guy whom she mostly, kind of hates and is sort of hot, but mostly, kind of a jerk. But infuriatingly hot.
It achieves an all-kill within hours. A perfect all-kill soon after.
That’s unexpected, even for her, considering the situation. But there seems to be a grudging acceptance amongst the netizens that she’s a man-eating bitch, so it’s unfortunate that she’s also a good singer and she gets a little bit giddy every time the radio plays it on request. She feels invincible for four straight days.
"You wrote me a song," he notes, the next time she sees him, which isn’t even in the SM office or anything. She’s there for Inna unni’s Volume Up and she already knows, though unni will deny it till her dying day, that she probably called in ten favors at once. And sometimes, Jieun thinks she’s very, very lucky. She doesn’t know why he’s here, probably for yet another variety appearance and she hopes to god his smug face gets stuck that way.
Her mouth falls open in outrage, “I didn't write you a song.”
“Okay,” he amends, “you wrote a song about me. Same difference.”
She’s about to protest, when he starts humming it. And he doesn’t even start at the beginning; he starts straight at bar 16, which is the part about how the girl in the song- who is not her- wants to kiss the guy in the song- who is not him. She flushes, instead, and he laughs, low and full and real, and something inside her fizzes like champagne.
“You didn’t write me a song,” Chanyeol complains, coming up from somewhere behind Baekhyun, Kyungsoo by his side, who throws her a polite smile and a muttered, confused sunbae like he’s kind of puzzled by the lessening degrees of separation between them and has no idea what to do about it. And she wants to tell him that she understands, because honestly, she has no idea what the hell she’s doing either.
Chanyeol’s mouth is downturned when she looks at him. He’s pouting in a way that she’s seen in dozens of variety shows and an infinite number of selcas he’s sent her, but that’s the weird part about spending time with him- she can read between the lines of real and image, which is why, when she gets home, she picks up her guitar and settles down for the night.
She leaves it in a pendrive with their manager about two days later, who throws her a suspicious look like you again? And Junghyun oppa knows her vague “work” at SM is just an excuse, not even a real one, but he plays along anyway because he’s still worried, and she remembers yet again why she resigned to LOEN without the contract fee.
She’s nervous, she realizes on the way back.
He sends her a message at three in the morning in all caps: YOU HAVE TO WATCH THIS as if she wouldn’t have if he hadn’t, but Chanyeol always likes to make himself clear, and she can appreciate that, because she's never been able to do it herself.
When she plays the video, he’s staring into the camera. Only a sliver of light through the window she knows is somewhere six feet diagonally to his right, shading his face. When he sits down and starts playing, it sounds different than it had when she was playing it on her guitar. She can't play the piano, but as she watches his fingers glide across, she feels a strange longing to. There’s no sound that she can make out, not even the hum of the air conditioner. Nothing except the movement of his fingers, and the keys he’s pressing under them.
It only goes higher and higher, she knows, she composed it after all, but he plays it thrice in succession, so it goes from low to high to high and higher and then crashes, and it’s familiar and unfamiliar all at once. He only messes up in five places in the entire thing, even though she just left it with him, and she can make out the soft fuck the fifth time, but he doesn’t stop playing.
When he looks at the camera next, his hair is plastered to his forehead with sweat. When he leans forward to switch off the video-cam, she can make out the sharp line of his collarbone through the open button of his shirt.
Fuck, she thinks, too.
She next runs into Taeyeon unni at Music Bank. And she’s only kind of surprised when unni pulls her to the side at the end.
“Hi,” unni whispers.
“Hi,” she whispers back.
Unni shuffles a bit, then clears her throat, clearly embarrassed, then apparently decides to go all-in, because her next words are “don’t not get into it for my sake.”
That’s kind of…strange. “—what?” And clarifies, just in case, “there’s nothing going on between me and…you know.”
Unni nods. “But,” she says slowly, “if you want to, then don’t not.”
She wants to ask so many things. Like why they broke up when he’s not even a little bit over her, and she clearly likes him at least a little bit too. But, here’s the thing Jieun’s starting to learn: some stuff just doesn’t work out. She’s old enough to understand that by now. Good intentions don’t always make for good results.
She wants to say something about how it’s hardly her decision to make, and she’s not the one broken-hearted here, but that’s unfair, and she knows it, so she doesn’t.
“Okay,” she replies, instead. And smiles.
Unni smiles too. Then takes out her phone. She doesn’t know it then, but that picture will make it to Instagram by the evening. Her and unni, side by side, smiling, and it’ll confuse the hell out of everybody, which is always fun.
Taeyeon unni has always been the nicest to her, she’ll remember.
Baekhyun pulls her almost immediately after unni leaves, and wow, okay, apparently nobody’s even keeping up any pretenses any longer, so maybe she can wave over a few cameras, like here’s your next story, guys, do you want some fries with that.
Something inside her clamps down with the loose grip of his hand over the side of her dress, and she’s about to tell him that this has nothing to do with him, even though it kind of does, but it also kind of doesn’t— it has to do with her and unni, just when he says, carefully— “I heard your composition. The one you made for Chanyeol.”
…which is totally not at all what— “what?”
That’s twice, far too quickly.
“Do you,” Baekhyun begins, and he’s doing this odd maneuvering thing where he’s not actually looking at her, even though he’s taller and she’s almost directly beneath him, because he kind of has her back to the wall, and she’s not sure he’s noticed yet. Which, she imagines, is an accurate summation of the whole unholy mess in three easy steps. “Do you like Chanyeol?”
Her chest feels tight. “What?”
It’s like she’s a broken record. Like she broke something inside without even realizing it and it’s going to be so very expensive to fix.
“Do you—” he begins again, but she cuts him off with a low, “don’t you dare.”
He’s startled, she can tell. Honestly, she is too. Because clearly she’s an idiot, but it’s only just dawning on her that she kind of maybe has this thing for him. And he’s kind of maybe a jackass.
“What?” he says.
“Don’t confirm.” She doesn’t even know what she’s going to say till she’s actually saying it. “Don’t go around confirming everyone’s feelings over and over before making yourself vulnerable. Don’t make everyone else vulnerable first, vulnerable more. That’s an asshole thing to do.”
So yeah, she doesn’t even know if she’s talking about herself or Chanyeol, and she knows he’s caught on because she can see his face visibly darken.
A quick, harsh laugh that doesn’t sound like him. “You even sound like him.”
He's speaking so fast, his voice slips into saturi, and she knows he's noticed it, because he immediately flushes red, the corners of his mouth tightening even more, his lips a thin red slash across taut skin. He hates sounding countrified, hates losing control of his image. “You don’t know me.”
But here’s the thing; she does kind of know him now. That’s the problem.
“I like you,” she says. “And you’re a jackass.”
His ideal type is a woman who doesn’t swear, she knows, because she’d looked it up, and god, why on earth had she looked it up, that’s insane. But anyway, she’s not that woman, Exhibit A. Not meant to be, etc.
He doesn’t try to stop her when she pulls away. But then again, she’d known he wouldn’t.
She’s already planned out an entire album, dramatically titled Lucifer and all about fallen angels and a post-lapsarian universe, with this modern blues-rock soundtrack that is nothing like anything she’s ever done, which is the whole point obviously. It feels Cindy-like, rebellious, all that jazz about stepping into new worlds and what not.
So it’s kind of anticlimactic when the real Not Baekhyun turns up at the LOEN doorstep with a lost expression she’s never associated with Baekhyun, and a confused I think that was me? and she already has a bitchy ya think at the tip of her tongue, but she swallows it back, and smiles brightly, and something slips back into place.
Not Baekhyun gets the full rockstar welcome. SM opens its doors, its contracts, but first, all its studios and there’s pictures of Not Baekhyun with Baekhyun and a grandiose celebrity look-alikes column that makes its way to the internet a few hours later, and the entertainment press the next day. And there’s a lot of coercive coverage with dramatic titles like THE NATION’S LITTLE SISTER WRONGED? And the picture of her with Taeyeon unni gets reposted in the middle of everything, like HEY LOOK, NOTHING WAS EVER WRONG, HAHA. She realizes she doesn't even know how Baekhyun had been dealing, but whatever, they're not friends.
That’s how the scandal ends; not with a bang, but with a whimper. She knows it’s not that people wouldn’t continue believing it was her and Baekhyun, if they wanted to, it’s just that they don’t want to. It’s boring, since she’s already topped the charts again, so there’s no real point in pulling her down.
CeCi, in their next EXO shoot, literally fill two pages with Baekhyun and Not Baekhyun, and when she comes across it, in the light, she thinks, they don’t look anything alike, and it’s weird that she ever thought they did, or maybe she’s grown too used to Baekhyun. It’s a terrifying thought.
What changes: she doesn’t really have excuses to go to SM anymore, which is— okay— completely okay, because there isn’t any need for her to. She’s been playing at… something all summer, a vacation of sorts from functionality, but summer’s almost over and the half-year chart rankings will soon be up, and Shin daepyonim will probably call her one of these days for a kind talk about the stock-share of LOEN Entertainment, and how much they’ve lost.
It’s a lot, she knows, Shin daepyonim lets her do a lot of what she wants, but this isn’t about her, it isn’t about him either, it’s about every single person who goes into making LOEN, and she gets that. She really does. She wouldn’t have re-signed with them, if she didn’t. This is her job.
Did you fight with Baek? Chanyeol texts once, and it sounds so… theatrical. Like her and Baekhyun fighting Means Something. It doesn’t.
No, she replies. And she doesn’t even think she’s lying. They’re not fighting. They’re not particularly anything.
(What doesn’t change: she even kind of misses them messing up in the middle of pretty much every song that isn’t theirs and that is fucked up and she clearly needs some sort of professional help, god.)
Chanyeol pulls her backstage at Inkigayo, in the costume closet- which isn’t really a closet and it’s actually bigger than her room, and why is it even called that serio—
“I miss you,” he says openly.
And she always feels a bit more open with him too, a bit more young and reckless. Like that part of her that is stupid costumes that she doesn’t even like, and the crazy, manic energy that Jiyeon always complains about and that competitive edge, that badly hidden urge of wanting to be good at everything that Jongsuk oppa dislikes about her, is sort of magnified, so she says:
“I miss you too.”
He’s sort of intimidating, like this, in full performance gear. She's always known he was tall, slightly imposing, but he's- different. Distant, untouchable somehow.
But then he bends down and her mouth is already half-parted when he crashes his lips onto hers, half teeth, and she can taste the glitter on his skin on her tongue, and, she realizes, she can touch him. And she thinks something dumb like oh that's why his superpower is fire.
Chanyeol kisses her first, this is not a surprise.
Baekhyun is at the door, some detached part of her mind observes, when Chanyeol pulls back, and her head begins to focus again on something other than Chanyeol’s lips. There’s a part of her mind that's like; this is a real scandal, which is a completely random, crazy thing to think, but Chanyeol does that, she’s noticed, leaves her filter-less. This also happens a lot, them, like this, conveniently. Like they're meant to be triangulated. Like it's badly scripted.
His expression is strained. “I know you told me to wait for you, but I got tired waiting, so I came looking for you.”
Chanyeol grins. “Always so impatient, Baek.”
There’s a suspicion at the back of her mind that’s almost hardening into certainty, and when she looks up at him, he looks back with that slight tilt of his lip that he’s almost perfected, his look of exaggerated innocence and she knows for sure that he planned this.
“I’m beginning to feel used here,” she declares tightly.
The corners of Chanyeol’s mouth turn down, “but I only—”
Which is when Baekhyun steps forward, bypasses her entirely, and when his hand reaches up to cup Chanyeol’s jaw, she grips the hem of her dress, knuckles turning white.
Chanyeol is taken aback, she knows, because she can read between the real and the image by now, and this is not what he’d planned. But none of them had planned for any of it, and maybe that was always going to be the right answer.
The kiss is lazy, she concludes through the white noise clogging her head, slow, building, like they have all the time in the world. Which they probably do. They live together. They're twenty four.
“Sure took your time about it, jackass,” Chanyeol mumbles, the tips of his ears red.
When Chanyeol pushes Baekhyun towards her, which had been his original plan all along, she’s guessing, because Chanyeol watches way too many dramas and gets super invested and is this bizarre mixture of utterly self-involved and completely giving, and wants everyone to have a happy ending, she stares blankly at him for a moment, because god, she was raised well, she was a good girl, the nation’s little sister and she’s pretty sure this is—
Chanyeol wasn’t wrong, she realizes almost immediately because she can almost taste Baekhyun’s impatience when he cups her head and his lips are clumsy on hers. And maybe she actually doesn’t know him, like he’d said, because she hadn’t read any of this desperation.
Chanyeol tastes like sugar. Baekhyun tastes like salt. It’s weird, she thinks, they both leave you thirsty.
The insisting ringing of her phone makes her pull back. It’s Manager Oppa. He’s probably waiting for her and she’s—
“What now?” Baekhyun says. And Chanyeol looks at her like he can’t believe that Baekhyun’s the one asking, and honestly she can’t either.
There's a long, awkward pause, where she takes in the building construction with renewed, manic interest, and in her peripheral vision, Baekhyun and Chanyeol do the same, all of them looking anywhere but at each other. This is so, so awkward, she can't even. It's probably even more awkward that about 76% of her is mostly just thinking about kissing them again, god.
"Okay," Chanyeol says finally, decisively, "let's flip a coin. Heads, you date him," he points at Baekhyun, "tails you date me."
There's no option of him and Baekhyun, she notes distantly. There are only two sides to a coin.
She thinks she should probably be indignant at this division of her choice for her, but there's a far larger part of her that aches with something close to disappointment. Disappointment because then it's real, and contained. And it's crazy, yes, but somewhere, deep inside, she'd come to associate them with freedom, no limits. And maybe it's selfish, it is selfish, but she hates him, a little, for saying it out loud, for making this real, because then someone will have to choose. An either/or.
But when he pulls out a coin from his jeans and tosses it, Baekhyun catches it first, mid-air. And before she can fully register the movement, he's already thrown it somewhere behind them, in the darkest corner of the room, amongst last week's costumes, without even looking. A part of her spills over in confusion, but when she glances over at Chanyeol like what the hell just ha- he's grinning. Real, young, ordinary-beautiful.
And, suddenly, she gets what it was; a trust fall. Baekhyun allowed himself to fall.
"What now?" Baekhyun says, again, quietly.
Chanyeol shrugs, “I don’t know. I can't believe we all lost to Big Bang. Inkigayo sucks. Are the Desperate Housewives reruns still running? When is she going to start calling us ‘oppa’? D’you think Sehun’s already eaten all the peperos? I’m going to duel him to the death if he has. Just because he’s the maknae, he—”
This is weird, she realizes, but good weird. She has no idea what comes next, but that doesn’t seem like… the worst thing ever. She can barely even think beyond the racing of her heart anyway.
“I’m leaving,” she interrupts, before Chanyeol can start on the violent Joseon-era customs for dealing with errant maknaes and they both turn to look at her. She adjusts her shirt to give her hands something to do, which is a stupid idea because now they’re all thinking of sex, she knows.
“Bye,” Baekhyun says, rubbing the back of his head in an awkward gesture, and Chanyeol punches him on the arm, “you’re hopeless.”
"I'll follow you on Instagram," Chanyeol says to her, which is probably his version of a declaration of eternal love or something, she knows.
His second kiss is slow, languorous, and when he pushes her back with a new, barely-contained urgency, she waits for the edge of the table to dig into her side, but she falls on Baekhyun instead. She can recognize his angles, she once made him up inside her head.
And she can feel something melting inside her. Then flare up, sun-hot, like they both actually have those ridiculous, stupid superpowers, like Chanyeol really is heat and Baekhyun really is light, and it's never cold where they are. Like she has all the time in the world too.
She has no idea what the hell is going to happen next. And, for a long moment, making her way out the door, she feels awkward and lost and hopelessly young. Which is okay, she's just twenty three.
When @real_pcy starts following @dlwlrma on Instagram, it causes a mini-scandal on its own. WHAT THE F*CK IS WRONG WITH U? someone writes under what she'd imagined was a fairly blameless picture of the japchae she had on Friday, DO U WANT ALL THE BOYS OR WHAT?
Baekyeol is real, you guys, is the sixth most upvoted comment on Naver, IU thought she could take one without the other, like they aren't a 1+1 free offer. Silly girl.
She grins. Then clears her browser history, and powers off her laptop. Wisely leaves the arrows on the ground.
("You're growing up." On the phone, Chanyeol's voice sound distant and close at the same time. He's taken to doing this, constantly making cracks about her being in the '93-line, like maybe she'll start calling him oppa. More often than not, she pulls rank. Neither of them wins.
"Excuse him," Baekhyun's voice comes through. "He's an idiot when he likes someone. Although, well, he's an idiot when he doesn't like anyone too, so that isn't really-" There's a minor disturbance, the sound of a scuffle. She settles down to wait, the corners of her mouth turning up. It's been a long time since she's had anything worth waiting for.)
Three days later she signs up for weekly piano lessons because she wants to, even though her schedule is full and it takes far too much maneuvering and Junghyun oppa keeps taking her temperature like he's afraid her temporary hiatus maybe gave her a permanent fever.
She listens to the gentle admonitions about wasting time, and how much effort it'll take and how she may never be perfect, and why doesn't she stick to what she knows and is good at and the public likes. Then goes for them anyway.
She'd almost forgotten, she realizes with mild surprise, weeks later, fingers idling on the smooth wood of the cover of the piano, halfway through a simple piece she keeps getting wrong, what it feels like to start and build on something.
In the winter, her hands freeze almost as soon as she takes them out of her gloves, but the keys are still warm, yielding under her fingertips. She finds herself humming sometimes, anticipating the bridges of songs she's never sung. Her first real composition is amateur, clumsy, uncertain. A tentative symphony of heat and light. She titles it Summer.