Actually, you said: love, for you, is larger than the usual romantic love.
It’s like a religion. It’s terrifying. No one will ever want to sleep with you.
When she continues staring to the left of his head, in the space between him and Youngbae, thirty seconds in, is when he realizes she’s kind of avoiding them. That it’s A Thing and not just that she has an incredibly long focus-time, and should maybe look up some good ophthalmologists. He can recommend some; he knows one just five miles away from the shoot location.
Not that he doesn't get the why of it. When everyone's waiting for a soundbyte on her playing the third-wheel in a Youngbae, Hyorin triangle and she'll have to publicly get over someone she never even had. He gets it. These days, he can't not get it. He’s the poster child for a twenty first century break-up.
The sun is in his eyes, it makes his head hurt. Or maybe that’s the scotch from last night. He shifts restlessly.
“Sunbae-deul,” she says politely, eventually, her head bowed, and he remembers all over again, the low register of her voice, at jarring dissonance with that high, slightly manic pitch her image demands, the one he’s heard so many times, accidentally, on variety, on music shows, in the space between picking up the remote and changing the channel.
He forgets, sometimes, most times, what she really sounds like. Or doesn’t think about it. Whichever.
He lets his eyes linger on her legs in the time she sneaks a glance at Youngbae when the other guy isn’t looking. It’s always amusing, this. Good thing he’s in the mood to be amused.
She’s getting better, he thinks, with a distant sense of pride, the kind he sometimes feels when he looks down at a paper, fingers smeared with ink, and doesn’t loathe the words penned down. Like she’s his personal creation. He’s been through years of her sneaking glances some forty degrees to his left, and she’s getting better. He almost wouldn’t have caught it if he wasn’t looking. Problem is, of course, they’re all looking.
She looks away quickly. He looks up slower. Traces the seams of her short shorts almost cutting into the smooth skin of her thighs. He wonders if they’ll leave a mark when she takes them off. Then feels vaguely dirty. He can’t remember right now exactly how old she is, but old enough, right? She’s been through a sex scandal, he remembers, and that was a while back. Definitely old enough. That’s okay, then.
She’s looking at him this time, when his eyes finally make their way to her face. For a moment, he feels oddly apologetic. He’s seen her around since she was fifteen or something, awkward and coltish and disturbingly cheerful, with a voice too big for a fifteen-year-old to hold. She’s older now. But still, weird.
The beginnings of a frown line mar the center of her forehead as she stares at him. His fingers itch to smooth it out, so he clenches them in a loose fist by his side. Imperfection disturbs him, disturbs him more in the sunlight. He stares back, waiting. He doesn’t exactly know what for. But, still, waiting. It kind of feels like he’s done nothing but fucking wait the entire week, month. A fucking lifetime. Wait for Kiko to just fucking say so—
Then, her eyes wander down. A slow, deliberate once-over, matching his in scale. Her frame still poised in that polite half-supplication that defines her public relationship to them, her eyes defiant as they rise to meet his again.
When he moves closer, just slightly intimidating, just slightly in persona, she stands her ground. He almost feels tall. She’s shorter than Kiko in her platforms. Why the fuck did he just think that.
“Jieun-ah,” he begins cheerily, with a familiarity he knows he’s not entitled to. It makes it more fun.
Seunghyun, he knows, would call this his post break-up lust spiral, low, drawling. He doesn’t know why he even lets Seunghyun be the voice in his head. That was never a good idea. He’s not even attracted to her, not really. He’s all for cute, but sex scandal or no, she has too much of that infuriatingly virtuous, untouched vibe that gets to him, she wears too much white.
“Let’s do well,” he completes. Youngbae just smiles at her, holding himself with that unconscious stiffness that Jiyong remembers from their previous interactions. Youngbae has never quite known what to do with her. Her high energy, her starry-eyed enthusiasm, her open declarations of love. But he can’t shake off the feeling that there’s— something—about her that is more muted now. Less bright. Like she closed up something inside herself, locked in that openness. Jiyong doesn’t know if he likes it.
She nods her head in acknowledgment again, her forehead smoothening out. Then glances between them, like she’s already forgotten she’d decided on the avoidance route. He unclenches his fist.
“Yes, sunbaenim,” she says dutifully. It’s strange, when he looks closer, how she seems almost as restless as he feels.
She shuffles slightly to the left, moving her weight from one foot to the other, blocks out the sun.
Breaking up is hard to dooooo, Seungri’s taken to singing in the shower, because he’s an ass at the best of times.
“You’re going to get back together,” Daesung says, consoling. Not that Jiyong doesn’t get why, he does; they’ve been crying wolf too long. So loud, they made the headlines for the ending of a relationship that was never even supposed to have been. And maybe he’s stupidly hopeful, or just plain stupid, but he can’t find it in himself to set Daesung right on this one, even though he knows himself, and he knows Kiko, and they’re never ever getting back together. He can quote Taylor Swift on it.
“Is this the seventh time?” Seunghyun asks unhelpfully, without bothering to turn away from the mirror as he sets his hair, and Jiyong scowls at his back.
He takes to drinking a lot more than average, sitting on the ground, head resting against the wall, the blue glow of his laptop the only light in the room. It seems dramatic enough, in-character enough, till Youngbae, instead of discouraging him, decides to join him, and then he has to stop on principle because there’s a crazy high possibility that Youngbae may just burn the building down, all the while angrily insisting he’s not even drunk and why isn’t he fucking getting drunk and why does he even drink if he doesn’t fucking get drunk. And Jiyong’s too fast to live, yeah, but he’s still too young to die.
(“That was once,” Youngbae protests, when Daesung reminds him of the ashtray and the stove.
“You mean only once that Seungri actually told everyone about,” Daesung hints meaningfully.
Seunghyun just shakes his head.)
“How is IUUUU,” Seungri sing-songs, and Jiyong is just grateful to not be the center anymore. Grateful that Seungri sometimes takes his maknae role seriously enough for it to be a distraction just when he needs one. After all these years, he still can’t tell if it’s practiced. But he’s grateful anyway. “Is she jealous of Hyorin noona? Is Hyorin noona jealous of her? She recognized you in seconds, even with a mask on, huh? Juuust by the movement of your body. Those are my life goals, hyung. The nation’s little sister recognizing me just by the movement of my body.”
“Shut up,” Youngbae mutters, and Seungri lets out a hoot of laughter. Then turns to him.
“How does it feel to be the regular, neighborhood oppa for once, GD-ssi?” he asks, mock-seriously, in his best sports commentator tone, shaping his hand into a mike.
“Breaks my heart,” Jiyong answers, equally solemn.
Youngbae punches him on the side of his arm. It actually hurts a little. The routine calms something inside him. He bites back a smile.
After, Seungri stops deliberately riling him up, just to get him to do something, do anything. Switches to singing I Know in the shower, almost unconsciously.
(He’s worried, Daesung had said knowingly, before.
The snide not my problem was just on the tip of his tongue, but he’d stayed silent.)
That’s when he’d first started dating Kiko, Jiyong thinks, randomly, when their duet was released. Seungri and IU’s. IU’s cheeks were fuller then, that’s how he remembers her most times, all soft eyes and high, childish ponytails and embarrassed laughter and none of the guardedness he’s starting to sense now. And Kiko— Kiko was the most fucking gorgeous creature on the face of the earth and he was so painfully in love sometimes he couldn’t breathe, and he’d made up his mind he was going to hold his breath for as long as possible, as long as it took.
Now I want to wake up every day with you, Seungri’s voice floats, loud, open. He sings all of Jie— IU’s— parts in this high falsetto that sounds nothing like him or her. Gri never makes any efforts to contain himself. It’s irritating, some days. Some days, it’s familiarity. Comfort before he knows he needs it.
Jiyong finds himself humming along, sometimes, these days, legs stretched out on the couch, hands clasped beneath his head. A magazine lying upside down on his stomach, forgotten, as he strains to remember the next verse, his eyes on the ceiling, mind blank. It’s catchy.
We can’t even understand each other, she’d said in broken Korean.
He’d shrugged, shoving his hands in his pockets. Words are unnecessary, he’d replied and kissed her, open-mouthed, reaching. His Japanese sounded rusty, even to him.
Kiko just shook her head, pulling back. Liar, she’d said in English. But she was smiling.
Hwang Kwanghee is genuinely a mystery to him. There are very few people he can’t get an immediate read on, but Kwanghee is one of them.
Kwanghee’s energy level rivals the head-rush he’d felt during the MADE tour. A performance high. Like he’s constantly on one. Constantly performing. He’s exhausting, Jiyong thinks on occasion, watching him; half-annoying half-intriguing.
He remembers the low better. Post-performance. Crawling into his bed after a concert, the screams amplified in his mind, the sweat and glitter drying on his skin, and a hollow emptiness in the pit of his stomach. Like something had passed and he couldn’t go back to the moments before. This is the oldest he’s ever been. He would never be this young again.
(Is that so bad, Seungyun had said, when he’d knocked on his door, a bottle of wine in each hand.
Jiyong had locked the door in his face.)
“We’re going to win this,” Kwanghee says with determination, and there’s something about the other boy’s open adulation, his certainty that Jiyong will somehow pull through, that’s pure secondhand intoxication. An odd vacuum where he can’t feel it, but he remembers what it feels like.
“IU is our biggest competition,” Kwanghee mutters under his breath, and he looks over at the girl sitting on the other end of the room, her hands clasped together.
She’s drawing into herself, he notes vaguely, laughing at the right cues, never speaking unless spoken to, and thinks, in abrupt realization: she’s trying to be less. Everyone in the room is trying to be more, but she’s trying to be less than she is. He doesn’t even know what the fuck that means.
He takes out his phone and discreetly opens Instagram instead. The Dreamers still the first thing on his page. The girl looks like Kiko, someone had said. Come on, someone else had written, have you even seen the movie, obviously nyongtory lives. Hours later, the comments still come faster than he can scroll, each drowned by the next. He doesn’t linger.
He first takes to watching her out of boredom. Infinity Challenge isn’t boring, exactly, it’s just…there are way too many people vying for the screen-time in the group meets, and he can either up his performance ante, and be ridiculously funny, ridiculously cool, ridiculously over-the-top desirable, the 3D animated version of himself, and get more than his share— or he can just sit back get the share he knows he’s going to get anyway because he’s G-Dragon of Big Bang.
It’s mildly interesting, in a low-key sort-of way, to watch her be the focal point of all the testosterone in the room. She’s uncomfortable with the attention, it’s easy to tell, she sits slightly hunched into herself, her legs tightly pressed together, with someone’s jacket modestly draped over her thighs, focused on her work, responding to all the reactions, the loud claps, the hooting, the intense scrutiny of everything she does with a variety smile and a distance so subtle, he wouldn’t have caught it if he wasn’t looking.
There are far too many things about her that are possible to miss if you’re not looking, he decides. For what it’s worth, he’s mostly looking, though.
Don’t get into a scandal, he imagines her CEO telling her. Zion T. Oh Hyuk. Kwanghee. Taeyang. GD. Maybe one of the older guys. He wouldn’t put it past JYP. So many potentials to make the gossip columns with. So many ways to lose the title. Don’t get into a scandal, Jieun-ah, you’ve been doing so well. Her CEO sounds like Seunghyun in his head. Everyone sounds like Seunghyun in his head.
“IU should challenge herself more,” Park Myungsoo is telling them, and he doesn’t know if he’ll get into trouble for this, but, whatever, he rolls his eyes anyway. PMS’s obsession with EDM is starting to border on the pathological, he almost says. Doesn’t, though. He doesn’t have cred enough to constantly act out, he knows. Not anymore. And he’s already taken one of his episodic cracks at PMS for this shoot.
“We all know you’re good at what you do,” Park Jinyoung accedes kindly, “the best. So this is your opportunity to show everyone what else you can do. Your song is excellent as it is, but I personally think the EDM makes it sound more festive. And since this is a festival—”
He thinks of the nights after night after night he’s spent with a beat in his head, trying to make it into something real, something beyond words strung together on paper to form readable sentences, every nerve exposed, scraping against rough surfaces of his room, the sharp edges of the expectations, the flow and the rhythm, trying to get it just fucking right. That’s not challenge enough. It’s not up for public consumption.
There’s a lot of nodding around the room, a silent chorus of acquiesce on IU pushing herself. Don’t stick to what you already know. Where’s the variety in that?
Her smile falters. He traces the curve of her lips with his eyes, trying to get the angle right. Before the corners of her mouth lift up again, and she laughs in a determined sort of way and everyone smiles alongside, relieved that she gets it.
When she loses the voting, it’s not a surprise. He remains seated, as Youngbae and Kwanghee make their way to the other side. He runs a casual glance around his side. Oh Hyuk is half in love with her, he’s convinced, but he’s a damn good musician and it’s worth most of the others to have him on this side.
She struggles with the smile, but manages to keep it on somehow and he’s kind of impressed. But he’s heard she’s been doing well in dramas these days, so.
“I understand,” she says, to yet another member reassuring her that it wasn’t that her song wasn’t good, just maybe not good enough, bowing her head slightly. She’s also one of the youngest in this group, he realizes distantly, they treat her like a child, not a veteran.
He would have lashed out. Kiko would have lashed out. And they’d worn each other down eventually by always wanting whatever they wanted equally hard. They were more alike than they were different. Maybe that was always their problem.
“Definitely our IU,” Jaesuk sunbaenim says, giving her a thumbs up. She smiles, her long, straight hair half covering her face, as she bows again.
That’s why he likes girls with short hair; he thinks carelessly, they can hide less.
And, for an entire roomful of people focused on just her, he wonders how it feels to have everyone look through her.
He leans back. Shifts his gaze to the cameras instead.
(If you could stay like this forever, Kiko had asked, once, his head between her thighs, and he’d already said yes before she’d finished.Yes, fuck, yes.
If you could stay this way forever, she’d begun again, eyes dark. She was close he knew, he could read all her tells. If you couldn’t do anything else—couldn’t sing, compose, perform— just stay this way forever, would you?)
He catalogues all sorts of mundane facts, gestures, in his head. IU prefers being on the sides to the middle. She can’t dance. She can’t rap. She’s terrible at aegyo (he can’t figure that one out, he’s pretty certain her entire image is aegyo). She gets embarrassed easily. Her clothes belong to no label that he can recognize. She has a soft spot for indie acts. She wears thrift store shoes. She gets her way without letting anyone know she’s demanding anything at all. She’s good at keeping distance without making it obvious. She’s a good sport. She’s aggressively competitive. She sometimes forgets she’s on camera. She hates losing. She’s funny, in a smart, incisive, understated way, almost secretly. When she’s really laughing, she has an ahjumma laugh. She’s a wide range of contradictory facts and figures that still don’t add up to anything.
It’s fascinating. He’s wide open for fascination.
But still: she looks over at hi— Youngbae— sometimes, her eyes wandering over to their side— casually or fake-casually, he hasn’t yet figured out. He doesn’t know her that well— and flushes each time she gets caught. Not everything changes.
“Kwanghee says,” Youngbae will tell him in the evening, carefully casual— which is useless, because he doesn’t know IU, but he does know Youngbae— “that you should probably tone down on how much you look at IU-ssi.”
He pauses in the middle of folding his laundry. Then resumes.
“Kwanghee wants you to tell me that,” he says slowly. He’s pretty sure the black cups, tins & paddles shirt is Seunghyun’s, but he’s going to keep it anyway.
He can almost palpably feel Youngbae’s hesitation looming in the space between them.
“You’re—” Youngbae begins, then appears to rethink it. “Nothing.”
—projecting, he finishes, in his head. Getting yourself in too deep. Side-effects of too long an acquaintance. It fucks with you.
Youngbae has his headphones around neck, he’s humming Mapsosa. Without the accompaniment, the Bang Bang Bang legacy is even more obvious. Yang Hyun Suk made him write every night since he was twelve. He never stops writing, he’s never blocked. Nothing competes with habit.
All creation is part imitation; Daesung always says philosophically when he’s just a little buzzed. But here’s the truth; it doesn’t mean he’s writing anything good— he’s not creating at all, he’s recycling.
He unfolds the shirt— the edges are misaligned— then folds it again.
You should probably tone down on how much you look at IU-ssi, he thinks, Youngbae’s voice converting to Seunghyun’s in his head. He hadn’t realized he was obvious about it. He can’t bring himself to care.
The next time she looks over, he’s directly beside Youngbae. Like every single time before. He thinks, some days, it’s a deliberate production choice; he’s the buffer between them, the media distraction from the media distraction.
Her eyes meet his. He raises an eyebrow in a mock-question, feeling the corner of his mouth lift just slightly, genuinely entertained, as she quickly looks down. It’s so vanilla, it almost leaves an aftertaste in his mouth.
It’s odd, he’ll think later, that still, neither of them pretend they’re not looking.
The first whole-scale English sentences he’d broken his accent on were all cheesy, aegyo-filled, lines of love and longing, back when they were still trying to decide on a common ground of communication. Those were all he really needed to know anyway; for the fan-service, for her.
Kiko found it amusing.
“Weird, isn’t it?” she’d said, half-raising herself up on her elbows, legs covered in sand. The sea breeze was salty, it clung to his skin, to hers, he could taste it when he kissed her. “An entire language where you can’t do anything but love. You can never be angry, sad, disappointed, resentful. Never be anything other than happy, you have no words for anything but being in love.”
He’d licked his lips, dry from the salt, tasting grit on his tongue. “Sounds nice.”
She’d dug her toes into the sand. “Sounds contained.”
(I can’t fucking do this anymore, he’d say four years later. No trace of a Korean accent.
Kiko was always a patient teacher.)
She catches up with him after the cameras stop rolling for the day. There’s a hesitant pull on his too-long sleeve and he can tell it’s her before he turns around. Her heels make a distinct sound on the smooth floor. It’s a weird thing to have noticed, but he likes being thorough.
Her eyes first focus on the left side of his neck, where the makeup’s beginning to come off, he knows. The VIII of his tattoo nearly visible. Almost as a reflex, he raises his jaw a little, and clenches his teeth, it stands out more that way.
It’s the gesture in response that seems to startle her. She takes a step back, her eyes widening. For a brief moment, he remembers her debut stage. He didn’t actually see it, he saw it much later on video, but he remembers it. Visibly nervous, gawky, no makings of an idol, a song too old for her, and a voice that had resonated in his head for days. He couldn’t add her up to anything finite, map her trajectory.
She’s more polished now, he can tell. He has a sudden urge to reach down and scrape it off of her. He’s clearly losing his goddamn mind.
He has a hoobae-friendly, inappropriate Jieunnie all ready, with a backslap maybe, he always wants to mess with her a little bit for some reason, maybe because she’s started looking so put-together, but something about the way she’s holding herself stops him.
There’s a long pause.
“Thank you,” she says sincerely. "For what you said. About the flow of the song."
He has no idea how to respond to sincerity.
“Too bad it wasn’t Taeyang, though, huh?” That comes out less playful than he intends. He doesn’t intend it at all in the first place. What the actual fuck is he saying.
She makes a low, choked sound at the back of her throat, and fuck, if he made the Nation’s Little Sister fucking cry, he’s so—
But when he looks down at her, her lip is caught between her bottom teeth; she’s trying not to laugh.
“Too bad,” she says agreeably. Then, again, “but thank you.”
He shuffles uncomfortably, and pulls his sleeves over his hands. “Whatever,” he mumbles, finally. The regret is almost immediate, though. That’s such a goddamn high school response he doesn’t even know what the hell he’s thinking. He’s G-Dragon. He’s about to turn twenty eight next month, not twelve.
She seems unfazed, though. Probably because she’s just out of high school herself, he thinks sardonically.
“How much did it hurt?” She asks. The non-sequitur makes him pause for a bit. She pauses too, like she regrets it too, like he’s not the only one saying things he doesn’t mean to.
He watches her link her fingers together in what he’s beginning to notice is a nervous gesture. What? He’s about to ask, but follows her gaze instead. It’s fixated on his neck again. Her lips parted slightly as she stares. He can feel the beginnings of a familiar heat curl low in his stomach, and can’t decide if he’s on the rebound, or just fucking easy.
“Not at all,” he begins. Then changes his mind, drops the smirk. “Enough.” Sincerity.
She nods, turning away, one final absorbed glance at the inked skin.
“IU,” he calls after her. When she half-turns towards him, he figures he should have probably thought of something to say before doing that. He’s the leader, yeah, but he’s not the mentor type. He never has been. He’s the demanding type. And Big Bang is used to him demanding. To delivering on demand. For all that he never wanted to be part of a group, he got really lucky.
He doesn’t know whether he has that claim anymore, to demand, when he’s like this. “Don’t let anyone mess with your song.”
The smile she gives him is impish, real, her lips curving in a way that make him want to shape his mouth against the outline of hers. “I never do.”
He’s been misreading her, he realizes unexpectedly, as she walks away, heels loud, sure, against the white noise of the packing up. For all his assessing and categorizing and labelling, somehow, he’s been getting her wrong.
(“If you won’t tell me,” he’d choked, “if you won’t fucking tell me what’s wrong—”
Kiko haphazardly folds her skirt, before keeping it on top of her book. She’s a messy packer. It disturbs him. He resists the urge to tell her he’ll do it. Pack her bags for her so she can leave him faster. That would be insane.
“Nothing’s wrong,” she says. She sounds tired. He doesn’t know how he hadn’t seen it.
“Nothing’s wrong,” she says, again, looking around for anything that she’s missed. Her toothbrush is in the bathroom, he wants to tell her. Doesn’t, though. It’s petty, but he’s no saint. That’s never been in dispute. “Isn’t that sad?”
That was the fifth time.)
The call is short. He sits with his phone in his hands and thinks: we’re screwed.
That’s an exaggeration, he knows, paper flowers and the inaugural performance of the entire fucking IC festival aren’t the end of the world, even if their performance is the exact opposite of whatever the hell paper flowers are supposed to symbolize to an audience. But whatever, he was built to be exaggerated. He wouldn’t be G-Dragon if he wasn’t.
Hours later, he calls Youngbae again.
“What,” Youngbae says, in what is definitely not his variety voice. So the cameras are off. These days, it feels like they never are. The YG cameras. the Infinity Challenge cameras. The flashbulbs the moment he steps out, covered with a hat too wide, a mask too big, like he’s constantly running from something.
“What did IU get?” he says.
“What?” Youngbae asks again, neutrally. Not like he didn’t hear, but like he’s giving Jiyong another chance to change what he did hear.
He licks his lips. He can taste the makeup at the back of his throat. These days he follows instructions. When the Art Director says jump, he jumps. The music video will probably come out well.
“What did Jieun get,” he enunciates each word clearly. Wraps her name around his tongue like a cherry stem. Decides he likes the way it sounds.
Youngbae is silent for a moment, “why do you care?”
“Of course he cares. She’s our biggest competitor,” Kwanghee whines audibly from behind Youngbae somewhere. “Maybe you should care a little more too, Youngbae-ah.”
He settles down into his seat. The humidity makes the leather of his pants stick uncomfortably to his legs.
“She’s our biggest competitor,” he parrots irreverently. “Of course I care.” He can be a dick, he knows.
Youngbae doesn’t sound convinced. Jiyong thinks he’d maybe have been disappointed if Youngbae had sounded convinced. “A lift.”
He rolls his eyes, even though Youngbae can’t see him and the gesture is wasted, “I meant position.”
“Oh,” Youngbae says. “Second.”
She must have lost too then, he thinks, disconnecting, idly rotates his phone in one hand. She probably hated that. She hates losing.
It’s raining outside, when he finally finishes recording. He wraps his coat tighter around himself, once he’s in the van. Writes his name with one finger on the fogged-up window. Wonders what she’s doing.
He slings an arm around her shoulder. She leans in, for a split second, before moving away. He doesn't miss it. She doesn't look at Youngbae as often, these days. He knows because he still is.
("I think you're using her," Youngbae will say on Thursday. You're being a dick about it, Jiyong had spat, half angry. "You have your charm on in full force. You want her to be a replacement. You're not allowing her in, you're just substituting; you don't want to fall in love, you want an emergency landing space."
He reels back, defensive, "that's not-"
He eventually ends up asking Oh Hyuk. Kwanghee has it too, he knows, they’re friends or something. But Kwanghee would inevitably tell Youngbae who would tell Daesung who would tell Seunghyun, who would stage an intervention, after which Seungri would probably broadcast it in their next variety appearance.
Oh Hyuk sounds mildly suspicious, but he’s new enough in the field to be unsure of the etiquette and social dynamics between a ranking idol group leader and a ranking solo singer, to work in his favor. And he does give it to him eventually, so there’s that.
She picks up on the sixth ring. Her voice huskier than usual, like maybe she’d been asleep. There’s a rollercoaster somewhere in his chest. A cosine waves of pitfalls. His boredom has always been dangerous.
“Jieun-ah,” he says, and it sounds overly bright, harsh sunlight. He almost wants to shade his eyes. “It’s Jiyong oppa.”
He can hear her breathe. Imagines her opening her eyes, trying to get a bearing. He didn’t mean to wake her up, for what it’s worth. He doesn’t even know what the time is.
“Sunbaenim?” she says, instead, pointedly, a question in each syllable. It’s as good a diss as any he’s heard before. He’s almost impressed. Then. “Sunbaenim, hello.”
If he was, he thinks, a regular guy, calling a regular girl, at an irregular hour, she’d have asked where he got her number from. That would be the beginning of the conversation. But he’s not. They’re not. So she’s not going to.
What are you doing? he doesn’t say. It’s been driving me crazy all day. Because that would be fucking weird.
“Myungsoo sunbae told me we should perform I Had An Affair at the festival.” he does say, which is mostly true. “He asked me to ask you if you’ll do Bomi’s part.” Which is not true at all.
“Oh,” she says. And he knows she’s wondering why Myungsoo sunbae wouldn’t have told her himself, when they’d spent the day together. He also knows she won’t ask him that. He wants her to, he wants her to ask whatever the fuck she wants to ask. And he’ll be honest, then.
“We’ll break the industry,” he says, flippant. “It’s you and me. You should do it.”
She laughs, low, warm, the sound reverberating around the shell of his ear. “You’re confident.” It’s the first thing he can remember her saying recently that doesn’t sound like she picked it up from a How To manual.
“Aren’t you?” he asks. “What can you do better than you can sing?”
She appears to consider that seriously for a moment. He settles down on his bed. “Nothing,” she admits, eventually.
“How can you not be confident about the thing you can do best?” He thinks he dreamed about her yesterday, in black and white. When he was almost half-conscious, his hand at the base of her neck, her eyes wide-set as she leaned down and he woke up.
“You’re getting another call, sunabe,” she says, breaking through, the waiting signal belatedly registering in his ear as he inventories the dropping of the nim.
He looks down at his screen. Her hair is longer now, he knows, but it’s still short in the caller ID picture. When she’d just gotten a haircut and he’d clicked it the first time he’d messed it up at night, before she could put on any make-up, and he can make out the light dusting of freckles across her nose each time he leans in closer.
“Fuck,” he says. Something inside him crashes, hard, fast, panicked. Like he was badly put together at the seams all this while, and just didn’t realize it till the first stitch came off. “Fuck. Fuck. Fuck. Fu—”
The edges of his room blur into bokeh. All he can make out with unerring accuracy is that chip in the wall where he’d banged his foot in the dark. They never painted over it.
Breathe, someone says. And it takes him a long moment to register it’s Jieun. Her voice even, calming. Just breathe, okay. Listen to me.
“I’m—” he begins, and he’s fucking terrified for no good reason, and she keeps saying you’re okay, you’re okay, over and over, till it loses all meaning, till he can’t distinguish the letters anymore, till it feels like he could be.
He closes his eyes. The signal stops.
(The first time he said it, he’d said it in Korean. It was the only language the words fit in in his head, in the moment, desperate, consuming, slipping mid-way through a sentence into his native tongue.
I love you. I love you. I’ll hold my breath as long as it takes, he’d thought, hadn’t said out loud.
The first time she’d said it, she’d said it in Korean too. The words didn’t fit in her mouth. He didn’t mind, though, not then.)
Sorry, he texts, way too late. Or way too early, depending. Manager hyung would have a fit. He’s starting to look haggard, which is not a fashion statement, as much as he tries to pass it off as one.
The truth; he doesn’t know what to say about it. Sorry, I’m such a fucking mess, a simple phone-call from my ex-girlfriend is enough to turn me into a complete basket-case. Or maybe: sorry I’m hung up on her and I’m still dreaming about you with clothes off, and isn’t that absolutely, insanely selfish.
She probably thinks he was drunk, he decides. Or coked up. On a bad trip. If she’s been on Naver recently.
He wakes up to it: please don’t be.
He absently thumbs the words, the fingerprints on his screen stark against the cover. It’s appropriate, he knows, for who they are, where they’re at. Nothing profound, not deep in the least, no hint of wistful.
She’d be really, really easy to fall in love with, he thinks, for the first time. That’s terrifying, too.
“Soonho hyung cancelled your schedules for the day,” Youngbae tells him judiciously.
There’s a split second’s pause before he tries to adjust his eyes to the afternoon sun. There’s something unavoidable about Youngbae’s searching gaze.
“Jieun told you,” he says flatly. It’s almost comical, how betrayed he feels. That she’d call up Youngbae, and tell him what he never said to her. That he’s not fine. He’s not fucking fine.
Youngbae looks surprised, which surprises him, before schooling his face into nonchalance. “Actually no. Seungri heard you, yesterday. He said you sounded, kind of…out of it. That, and you consumed your body weight in alcohol if the magically empty fridge is any indication to go by. I don’t know what IU has to do with anything.”
If Seungri heard him, he wouldn’t have come in, Jiyong knows. He lashes out each time they do, hates the concern. They’re used to it. Maybe someday they’ll get really, really tired of him.
He leans back, the pillow moulding itself to his back. He can feel his pulse racing at seven distinct points, matching the hammering in his head. “I’m fine.”
Youngbae shuts the curtains a little, the room half in shade. “You have no schedules today either way, so you can be fine or not be fine, it doesn't really matter.”
“Well aren’t you just the fucking MVP of long-term friends,” he mutters, but Youngbae only shrugs.
“Seungri doesn’t have anything scheduled till the evening so he’s going to—”
“Babysit me,” Jiyong interrupts.
“—keep you company,” Youngbae finishes, calmly, ignoring him.
He’s about to protest again, say something for the heck of it, but it seems like a waste of energy, so he lets Seungri pull him in front of the television instead and wrap him in a blanket. Seungri always wants to rescue him.
“Queen Seonduk reruns?” the other guy suggests. “I’ve had the entire thing taped for you ever since you and K—”
“No,” he says, shortly.
“Only because you know you’re going to cry.” Seungri says audibly under his breath and Jiyong flips him off.
“Infinity Challenge broadcasts?” Seungri suggests next, and there’s this underlying oddness to his tone that makes Jiyong look over sharply. “You haven’t seen those yet.”
“Whatever,” he says eventually. "You're the babysitter, Victory-ssi, you get priority of decision." He wants to be as unhelpful as possible. He also wants to watch those. And he wants to not make that obvious, even though clearly there’s nothing he’s not obvious about. Maybe it’s all that wanting messing with him. The Rolling Stones have a song about it and everything.
“Okay,” Seungri says. “Whatever it is, then.”
The editing makes it more, he knows, when the track starts playing. The captions, the soundtrack, the reaction shots, nothing that he can actually remember from the set.
There are other moments, still. Moments he never captured himself, where he raps and the camera focuses on her, her eyes wide, just impressed enough for him to feel that frisson under his skin, the kind that he accidentally does when she looks over at Youngbae and he intercepts her gaze.
“IU would make a good producer,” Seungri says casually.
He watches her gently convince Park Myungsoo to do it again, over and over till she’s satisfied. PMS’s producer is clearly half in love with her. Just like Oh Hyuk. They’re all, the broadcast would suggest, half in love with her. He’s clearly nothing special. He’s not even in the running in the media listing, considering he’s rarely in the framing of reaction shots for her. Which, he’d imagine, is a small mercy, because he really would have been screwed over otherwise. He hasn’t been trying not to be.
“Yeah,” he says, because it’s the truth. She would. They’re both far too invested in competence, he knows, it’s an odd trait to share. “Yeah.”
Next, when she looks over, she looks at him, not through. She still looks down, when he turns, color high.
The guilt is uncomfortable. He doesn't even know what he feels guilty about.
She stands looking at the piano for almost as long as she’d stood looking up at Dolce Vita. Almost as long as he himself had stood looking at it when he’d first bought it, the interior already decorated in his mind, the rooms named with every song he’s ever written. A legacy.
“It’s beautiful,” she says, eventually. She’s wearing a snapback and overalls that he’s pretty sure she picked up from a thrift store somewhere. He doesn’t know if it’s an image thing or she’s just trying to be one of the guys, like she’s been doing ever since their first shoot, or maybe this is who she is outside the camera lights.
“It’s not meant to be beautiful,” he says unpleasantly, “it’s meant to be played.”
He’s embarrassed. He didn’t realize how much till she was standing in front of him and he remembered his pathetic breakdown. It’s making him angry at her, for having been there, for having stayed on the line, for making him want her to save him or whatever, because that is completely and utterly rational. But then again, rationality has never been his USP.
If she’s fazed by his rudeness in any way, she doesn’t show it. “I don’t know how to.”
But she wants to know how to, he can tell, by the way her eyes trace the keys and he thinks— because he’s clearly fucking certifiable— she would’ve said no. She wouldn’t have wanted to stay that way forever and never do anything else. She was made for music.
He waits for her to ask if he can, but she doesn’t. It’s oddly disappointing.
“Where is Park sunbae,” he complains distinctly. “This was his idea in the first place.” This isn’t a shoot, there are no cameras set up. The performance is supposed to be a surprise, a crowd-pleaser, they don’t want it to be leaked beforehand, even though he’s been in the showbiz long enough to know it will somehow be leaked beforehand anyway.
Her manager shoots him a glare. He’s being a brat he knows. He can’t look at her.
He follows her hands instead. She’s absently tracing the want you back of the I just want you back that he’d graffitied on the piano, long before Kiko, long before Who You, long before he even really understood the words outside a Korean-to-English Dictionary.
He’s so absorbed, when his phone rings, he’s as startled as she is.
“Finally,” he says, fumbling.
She’s looking at the screen. She’s the closest to it anyway, he’d left it on the piano when they’d first entered. And when she turns to him, he knows with absolute certainty; it’s not Park Myungsoo.
“Um,” she says.
He waits for that ever-present panic to take hold of him, to drown him, but it’s muted now, days later, in the sunlight. She’s staring at him with uncomfortably wide-set eyes, like she’s twelve, like he might just lose it on her. And dimly, it strikes him, somewhere at the back of his mind; she’d known what this was about. Somehow.
“Let’s begin practice anyway,” he says. His voice sounds rough with disuse. He clears his throat. “Looks like PMS lost sense of the time-zone.”
Her hand is in his, before he fully realizes what he’s doing. She gives the all-clear to her manager, just as he pulls her into the next room.
He half expects her to protest, but she follows him. The phone ringing behind her. His caller-tune is set to her song. Her and Seungri’s. Your existence is like water to me. You’d need to be thirsty first, Seungri had said.
The Crayon room is open to the public now. It’s their most sought after room, but he still thinks of it as his. He clearly has prolonged issues with letting go.
“Don’t switch on the lights,” he says.
Her hand hesitates by the switchboard, her fingers drumming against in a staccato beat of uncertainty.
“Please,” he adds. Then tries to swallow back, but it’s too late, because she leaves the lights off.
There’s dead silence in the room. It’s empty, since his parents first shifted the furniture into the other rooms. Left it bare. You can dance here, his mother had said smiling. Don’t hurt yourself. Maybe he’d have had more of an excuse if he had a childhood sob-story, and not two parents who worshipped him like he was the second coming. Maybe that’s what ruined him.
It’s too hot, he realizes belatedly. The air conditioning of this quarter was messed up, which is why they’d stopped the bookings in the first place. He’d completely forgotten about that.
She takes off her cap. There’s a fine sheen of sweat on her skin now, her hair sticking to her damp forehead. He hasn’t felt that guttural, immediate longing in so long; he almost can’t tell what it is. He wonders how she’ll react right now if he tells her to lock the door. Lock the door and come over to him.
“You should stop looking at me like that.” There’s an edge to her tone. It’s only half a reprimand.
He readjusts his world-view; this is not an idol-thing. He isn’t used to her being blunt. “Like what.”
“I don’t know,” she says, “like that.”
He looks at the wall instead. The silence grows.
“I’m sorry,” she says, suddenly,
“About what?” he asks, even though he’s fairly sure he knows the answer. It’s in the way she’s looking at him. But you can't give your heart to a wild thing. Kiko had loved that book. He only ever saw the movie.
“About,” she shifts, “you know, your break-up. And that you’re hurt.”
“You’ve been on Instagram lately,” he says derisively, and he hates himself like this. “Good job. It’s a good platform for fan-communication.”
Her gaze doesn’t change. Changmin hyung had once said it was impossible to keep looking into her eyes. That you had to look away first. It grates on him, the earnestness. It’s what makes him walk over towards her, caution sidelined.
The tips of his shoes touch hers, he stops.
“So, Ms. Lee, do you have any equally valuable insights on why I can’t stop looking at you?”
He means it to be a curveball. Suggestive even, fluster her a little. It comes out angry instead. He doesn’t even know what he’s mad at.
“Because I’m around,” her voice is even. He still doesn’t remember exactly how old she is, but clearly old enough to be jaded.
“You mean I’m naturally an unconscionable playboy,” he says flatly.
She looks down at their shoes. The point of contact is off-centre. He wonders if it bothers her like it does him. “I think,” she says carefully, her head still bent, “you want me to be your band-aid. And I’m not an adhesive.”
“Wow,” he snaps, because fuck, he knows he hasn’t tried not to be obvious, but he hadn’t realized he was that obvious, that openly sad. And by sad, he means lame, obviously. “You really carried that metaphor through.”
She’s quiet for a while. Her hair curtaining her face. It drains the fight out of him.
“What do you know,” he says dully, a strange exhaustion settling in his veins. Like he’s been running the entire time. “You look like you’ve never had your heart broken.”
He thinks, sometimes, when he’s honest, that was always part of the fascination.
She raises her head at that. Then moves closer, no longer leaning against the door. His hand reflexively encircles itself around her, just in case she falls. She meticulously tucks her hair behind her ears, and meets his eyes.
She’s so close, he can almost trace the veins beneath hers eyes, the shadows the makeup doesn’t do a good job of hiding. She’s exhausted too.
“How about now?” she says.
(“I booked you a taxi,” he’d said, mind preoccupied. They were due to leave for Guangzhou the next day for the China leg of the MADE World Tour, and he just couldn’t remember if he’d packed the right colors. Hyunsuk daepyo had told him to pack red. It was his favorite color anyway, he wasn’t going to argue on the cliché of it.
She’d nodded. “I’ll tell Seungho to pick up my clothes later.”
When she slung her bag over her shoulder, he’d kissed her. “I’ll see you soon,” she’d said.
He gets the message in Shenzhen: I think you wanted it to be easy. I'm so, so sorry.
That was the last time.)
The next silence is awkward. Her eyes shift to the opening of his shirt. He can feel the beads of sweat trickling down his neck. “You have a thing for collarbones,” his voice comes out lower than usual.
She’s startled by that, he can tell. Sometimes, he thinks he’s building up an assortment of reaction shots. He can’t stop wanting to make her react. “How do you—”
“Daesung,” he says, by way of explanation, his heart pounding in his throat. And he can’t seem to swallow it down. Can’t stop wanting even though The Rolling Stones have a song about it. “You said it to Daesung once. Or on his show. Or something.”
“Oh,” she says.
“Do you know,” he begins, “how hard I got hit on Weekly Idol because of you? Hyungdon hyung said he couldn’t play favorites when he’d hit you so hard before.”
She seems confused at the non-sequitur. Then just a little amused. He fucking loves making her smile, he decides. Love should be florescent, he remembers he’d said once.He was stupid back then. “Sorry that my head nearly being bashed in caused you pain.”
“If you’re that sorry” he says, mock-solemn, “you should do something about it.”
She’s serious when she says: “what do you want me to do?”
“What do you want to do?” he counters.
He watches her swallow. His pulse stutters.
He leans in on instinct. Just as she moves back. His lips land on her jaw instead. He can trace the bone underneath the skin.
“Sorry,” she says, “sorry,” and he says, “sorry,” and he’s confused too now, with the conversation. She’s pinning his hand to the door, he distantly realizes. It doesn’t seem to matter much.
“I could hug you,” she says, tentatively. An answer.
He thinks of all the ideal types he’s listed through the years. Vague, uncertain, half-thought descriptions of traits and features thrown in for good measure. She doesn’t fit any of them. Kiko had been a checklist. “Okay,” he says.
Her arms come around him, still with that tentative uncertainty, her fingers barely touching his shirt. It's unfamiliar, awkward. He can feel the indent of each finger burning through his skin.
The distant sound of her song pierces through the door. His phone is ringing.
The silence stretches. They're both waiting for him to- something. He doesn't know what.He doesn't know her well enough for that, doesn't understand himself well enough for that these days. But, still, something.
“I like that song,” he says, slowly, finally.
She looks at him, serious and unreadable, “I like yours too.”
“Which one,” he asks, just as she starts humming: let’s not fall in love, we don’t know each other very well yet.
He bites back a smile. He's looking at her, this time. “God, you’re difficult.”
(So here's the thing; he's been looking at her the entire time, and he kind of hadn't even realized he was getting her wrong because he wasn't looking at her, he was looking through. All this while, he's been looking through.)
He resists the urge to lean his forehead against hers. He doesn’t know what this is, what she means this to be. Maybe it’s comfort, for now. Maybe they’ll end up here again, and he can lock the door. “Why didn’t you ask me if I can play the piano?”
It’s a stupid thing to be hung up on, he knows, but he hasn’t exactly been making the class list for subtlety.
She laughs, unguarded, real, he can feel it down to the tips of his toes inside his shoes, just where they meet hers. “I already know. I’m a fan, remember?”
“Seungho couldn’t get the dress,” Kiko will say, when he calls her back in the evening. Won’t ask him why he didn’t pick up the times before. There’s an understanding, he knows, that doesn’t end with the expiry date of a love affair.
“It’s okay,” he’ll say, “I’ll send it over.”
“Thanks,” she’ll say. After: “are you…?”
He’s fine, he’ll think. Mostly. He will be, anyway. Weird, that. “Yeah.”
“Good,” she’ll say. She’s fine too. They’re both okay.
"I think you want it to be be hard," Jieun will say, six months later. Her voice slow, measured. "You think love should be hard, it should be difficult, you should have to fight with everything you have. It's not love if it doesn't leave you unable to function, to write, to think. It isn't love if it doesn't leave you drained."
"And," she'll say, "I don't know how to make it any harder for you when it's not. I don't know how to make it your obstacle race for the prize. I'm not the prize. This is not a race."
She'll almost be out the door, before he'll pull her back in. And lock the door. She'll let him, he wants to believe.
"You're too young to be that wise," he'll say, like he's not shaking.
She'll look at him with those wide-set eyes that he knows her best friend makes fun of her for, because she told him that once. "But right now is the oldest I've ever been."
He won't be soft with his lips, his teeth, he decides, she's not breakable, he knows her enough to know that. He won't be contained with his words. He'll let her trace the shades of ink on his skin; she has a thing for collarbones.
'When I'm in love," she'll whisper, like it's a secret, "I sing more."
And, for that moment, at least, it will be easy.)
But, now: then why didn’t you just call me, Park sunbae will ask, irritated.
And, well, there’s no good answer to that.
We’re having an affair tonight, he finishes.
He’s nervous throughout. Awkward as hell, the moment she comes on stage. It’s been a long time since he’s felt that. Like an amateur, like he still has so far to go, so much to do. He doesn’t hate the feeling, he decides.
He bows down to her, at the end. She bows in return. This will make the papers, he knows.
“Now’s the real battle,” he whispers, still half-bent. Nobody would hear him even if he screamed it, but it feels too new, too tenous. “You’re going to lose.”
She snorts. “Not with my song, I won’t.”
“You’re confident,” he raises an eyebrow. His back is beginning to cramp. This feels like an affair too, racing, potent, and he’s never even kissed her.
She just shrugs, her shoulder-blades shifting under the strap of her white dress. He thinks he could cut himself on them. “Of course I’m confident, what can I do better than sing?” But she’s smiling.
The chanting hits him like a wall as he straightens, deafening. A mixture of their names, a string of meaningless sounds, and everything he’s ever wanted to be, ever wanted to do.
He breathes in the stale air, the bright lights, the theatrical fog. He’ll never be this young again, he thinks. Is that so bad? He stands for a moment longer than necessary, runs his eyes through the screaming crowds, soaks it up.
He’ll never be this young again. He closes his eyes.
When he opens them again, the stage light is blinding. I think you want me to be your band-aid. He’s been holding his breath for too long, he realizes, suffocating everyone he comes in contact with.
He'll never be this young again. He's this young right now, though. It’s a sort of weird realization to come to here, now.
She leans slightly against him, her shoulder barely touching his, as she waves to the crowd. His entire nerve centre relocates.
Then: “I don’t like losing,” she admits, under her breath, without turning, half-shy, like it’s a secret. The first time.
(“You can’t be scared of falling in love,” Seunghyun had said, once, unimpressed by his rant. “What will you write songs about.”)
Slowly, he breathes out.
We can do anything. It’s not because our hearts are large, they’re not,
it’s what we struggle with. The attempt to say: come over.