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One-Second Genius

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that night, or early morning, considering how late it was after filming ended, you try looking for it – that much-maligned t-shirt from years gone by – but you’re not surprised when it eludes you.  moving dorms, liberal clothes-lending policies, over-packed schedules and performances; any one of those could have led to it having gone missing.

you find the other one easily though, hanging in the closet upon the rack next to your shirts in its own garment bag, the prints still strikingly bright despite being two years old.  somehow you’ve never been able to bring yourself to wear the t-shirt more than a handful of times, preferring to keep it safely in the corner of your wardrobe.

but on this particular night, you unzip the protective cover and slide the t-shirt off its hanger, slipping your arms through the sleeves and tugging the soft folds of material over your head.  it’s a little tight across your shoulders and chest – you’re not as skinny as you used to be – but it feels sort of reassuring, like the t-shirt’s holding you in its embrace.

in the back of your mind you hear someone saying you really are an idiot and you can’t stop yourself from smiling as you climb into bed.


*

(somehow, he’s always managed to make your heart race.)

*



you’re scared stiff the first time you actually meet him, though if donghae anyone confronts you about it now you will avoid, deflect and deny, the way you’ve learnt from the very best.

you’ve heard of him, of course – rumours and speculation fly faster around the dorms and SME offices than at the backstage of a beauty pageant (his unconventional admission into the trainee ranks, his apparently impending debut despite his inability to sing or dance) – and you’ve brushed past each other a few times (he always walks on with his head held high and you’ll be dragging your footsteps a little, trying to sneak another glance over your shoulder).

donghae insists that the arrogant and aloof attitude is just a front and you just have to get to know him better but donghae says that about everyone and you’ve learnt to take these statements with a pinch of salt.  you don’t hold as much hope for people the way donghae does and so you literally freeze when you see him standing outside the dance studio with a half-frown upon his face, at a loss of what to do.

in the end, you hurry past into the room after an awkward mumbled greeting and start warming up.  you fumble some of your moves initially, acutely aware of his presence just by the door, but when you peek at the entrance through the mirror, his head is down and his fingers are flying over the keypad of his phone.

then the insistent bass beat from the next song on the cd player drives you to move, and you’re completely caught up in the rhythm and the flow of the music, forgetting everything else, until donghae’s excited voice calling ‘heechul-hyung!’ cuts into your concentration and you spin around on your knees in time to see heechul’s dark expression dissolve into a smile. you tell yourself that the pounding in your heart is from the dancing and that the sour feeling in your gut you get from watching the two of them isn’t envy.


*

(you’ve never learnt, really, how to turn away.)

*



it’s easier and harder when you get put in the same group with him.

everyone is cramped together – twelve-going-thirteen is a number that can make the largest apartment in the world seem overpopulated – and the lack of space makes you privy to things that previously might have just been exclusive to hankyung and kibum.

like you, he’s a night owl, haunting the deep hours between midnight and dawn – you almost always see the dim light seeping from under his door when you shuffle out to the kitchen for a drink. 

you discover that his flamboyance, all the way down to his underwear, is not so much a front, but an expression of his contradictory nature, his need to be different.

that even though he can be loud and crazy and borderline obnoxious, he needs quiet and space more than most.

that he only ever practices properly when he doesn’t have an audience. 

that he goes into the bathroom to cry when everyone else is bawling together at the latest tearjerker drama, and cheers himself up by dancing spastically to the most depressing ballads. 

that he’s willing to relax his convoluted life rules and concede many things for the people that he likes (but he doesn’t do it for you). 


*

(you pace around in circles even though it may be better to step back.)

*



there is one time you forget and eat something off his plate, and look up to see him staring at you with those large round eyes, dangerously expressionless, and you feel the goosebumps rising upon your flesh even though it is the height of summer. 

then he sets his spoon down and pushes away from the table harder than usual, going into the room he shares with jungsu and slamming the door behind him.  you sit there staring at the forlorn plate of fried rice while youngwoon stands up with an annoyed sigh, going to knock at heechul’s door, and donghae looks torn, sitting between you and that seemingly impenetrable barrier. 

you don’t know how to say the words (you aren’t good at them), and all you can think of is to timidly ask hankyung a couple of days later during a dance practice break if he can teach you how to make the ‘beijing fried rice’ that heechul likes so much. 

you tap upon his door and quietly leave it at the doorway and you don’t stay (you don’t dare) to see whether he comes out to pick it up but when you’re back later, the empty plate has been washed and placed upon the dish rack by the sink (you never figure out if he knew you were the one who’d left it for him).


*

(you dwell too much on things that have probably been forgotten.)

*



it’s a passing thought, but you did wish you could have switched places with hankyung, so that instead of being right in the thick of dancing and rapping, you could have gotten to watch heechul properly during his comeback performance as the screens had pulled away to reveal him upon the tiny platform, glowing with joy and basking in the excited adoration from the audience, fellow idols and fans alike.



you wonder why it’s so easy to slip into effortless banter with him when the cameras are rolling, to sense one another’s cues and play off each other during your impromptu skits, to touch/hug/restrain him, but once the director says ‘cut’, the natural back-and-forth that flows so seamlessly all dries up.

you wrack your brains trying to come up with anything to start the conversation (but it’s like the link between your brain and tongue has been severed), while he sits next to you, texting furiously on his phone, oblivious to your agony.  and when you’re finally ready with your attempt, to go forth and risk his impatient sarcasm and potential irritation at being disturbed, his phone rings.  he answers it with a sudden grin, and a yah, kibummie!, and you slump back, sighing soundlessly and developing a very uncharitable urge to slap kibum about the head.



once, eyes down (you wouldn’t have the courage otherwise) you ask him whether super junior means anything to him at all and he grabs you roughly by the arm and demands look at me I said look at me

so you cautiously lift your gaze to meet his, unbearably fierce and intense, boring into you.  now ask me again, but the words have shrivelled up, scorched away by the unrelenting anger and underneath that (you’ve gotten to know him well enough to realize there’s always an underneath with him) the barely concealed hurt. 

he lets you go after an eternity, pushing you so hard you stumble and fall, but you don’t feel a thing except the rapid thudding of your heart.



there’s a clip from one of the bora sessions in the password-protected folder on your computer (the one that donghae is forever trying to crack into), where he talks about how he made you cry on your birthday.  you only vaguely remember the tears, because it’s completely eclipsed by the incredulous happiness as he barges into the dorm barely two hours later and shoves a plastic bag into your hand, saying here, wear it with an embarrassed expression.

donghee still pokes fun at you for the ‘ridiculous lovestruck grin’ you were unable to erase off your face for the rest of the day (and night).



*

(even if sometimes, most of the time, you don’t understand why you got yourself so attached.)

*



at times you wish you could be more like siwon, so easy with his expressions of affection and hyung don’t you like me better now as much as donghae & kibum what else should I be doing and his unwavering faith that if he keeps on at it, heechul will eventually relent. 

but you’re not like that, you don’t know how to be.  you only know how to help on the sly, like directing everyone’s attention away so heechul will condescend to practice his dancing when no one’s looking at him, or discussing with the choreographer about formations and steps that are simple yet eye-catching, because all he has to do is just stand there and shine.


*

(you can never let go, because you know, somehow, that he also won’t.)

*



he’s the one who’s holding you, when you’re crying (because it feels) like the world is going to end. 

it’s late in the evening on the day after the accident, when kyuhyun’s life is finally out of danger and jungsu remains reluctantly imprisoned in his hospital bed, tethered by intravenous lines and too many drugs. 

the lights in the room you have been warded in with donghee are set to their dimmest, and you can make out donghee’s sleep-slackened features in the bed next to yours.  it is quiet, too very unbearably quiet (donghee isn’t even snoring at all for once) and the silence suddenly feels like an oppressive weight threatening to strangle your breath. 

pushing yourself up, you struggle out of bed and slowly shuffle your way to the intensive care unit, where you press yourself with a slight shiver against cold, cold glass, peering through the window at kyuhyun, shrouded in bandages and face hidden by the oxygen mask.  you are too far away to properly see his chest rise and fall, and so you turn your attention to the monitors by kyuhyun’s bedside, fixating on the regular spike and dip of the line indicating his heartbeat, proclaiming with every beep that yes, he’s alive, thank you lord, he’s alive

someone’s hand falls upon your shoulder, gently turning you around (what are you doing here, you should still be resting yourself, are you an idiot) and you take one look at heechul’s frowning face and start sobbing like there is no tomorrow. 

you remember an awkward arm around your waist, drawing you in, fingers softly pressing your head against his shoulder, and you cry even harder, clutching handfuls of his shirt as you cling to him.  he doesn’t say a word, merely stands there keeping you in his embrace, the hand upon your head slowly stroking your hair in a soothing rhythm as your tears continue to flow.

later he leads you back to your room and helps you get under the covers, staying with you until you finally drift off to the sounds of his restless fidgeting.


*

(you can never be witty the way he is, but when it comes to him, you learn that you do know what it is you want to say.)

 

*



you press the button, stare at the blank intercom screen and its persistent non-responsiveness for five minutes before you press the doorbell again. 

how can it have come to this, and why haven’t you taken notice of it earlier?  But that’s not exactly true – you have noticed (the increasingly brittle and desperate quality of his jokes; the way his energy level plunges and he reverts to the blankness of a doll that he always describes himself as; shutting himself in his room – his manager whispers in worried tones to jungsu about soju and browsing chinese websites and having to literally shake him before he’s willing to crawl out of bed), but you didn’t want to take these changes more seriously, because doing so would be admitting that things were imploding, and so incredibly quickly.

the how’s and why’s are still revolving in your head as you buzz the intercom one more time and bring out both your phones to start ringing heechul as well, on all his different lines.

you still keep your impressions from months ago, of foreign skyscrapers gleaming under the blazing sun and sea breezes chasing away the relentless humidity.  you think of eyes dancing with glee as multiple hands capture and toss you into the water, the sound of his laughter ringing out against the others’ cheering and hollering as, in two’s and three’s, the rest of the members tumble into the pool as well.

it has been shamefully easy to get buried under the ever-growing wave of schedules, for sukira, for teukigayo, for ‘dream team’, planning for the year-end music shows and other performances.  you barely see him (always just slipping by each other at the doorways with an occasional hasty greeting) since he’s in the thick of drama-filming as well, and you tell yourself he’s fine, that he’s happy, doing what he’s always wanted. 

but as you watch jungsu and donghae trudge in through the door of the dance studio and start warming up for the practice, defeat lining their shoulders, the vague uneasy churning in your gut that is so much like panic twists itself into a solid knot.  it slowly spreads up and outwards, pressing upon your sternum and making you want to throw up, and you’re striding across the underground parking lot, sungmin’s car keys somehow in your hand. 

when the mild haze of insanity clears, you find that you’ve fetched up against the door to heechul’s apartment (the one he started renting years and years ago when tempers flared nearly every other day and all the younger members stepped through the dorm as though they were navigating land mines) and wonder a little hysterically what you are doing here, finger poised above the doorbell, deluding yourself that you can get through to him after jungsu and even donghae, have been forced to go away, dejected (rejected).

but when the first thing heechul says when the door finally opens is save your breath i’m not going back, the worry and anxiety gnawing at you crystallizes into a rush of fury like you’ve never felt before, and all the words that heechul uses for himself can’t sing can’t dance but no one else can, words nobody ever really dares to use in any manner other than in jest, you fling into his face in deadly earnest.

you wind down from your spiel, survival instincts kicking in again, and now a sense of dread threatens to overwhelm you as you force yourself to meet his expressionless gaze.  you say please hyung, we can’t survive without you, but later when you’re leaning against the side of the elevator, trembling hands shoved firmly in your pockets, you know that what you really meant was i don’t want to be in a super junior that doesn’t have you.


*

(something about him makes you a genius, even if it’s only for that one second.)

*



you bypass the 11th floor when you return to the dorms, heading straight for donghae’s room where you burrow under his covers and tell him, voice cracking, that you probably just made things worse.  jungsu pops his head in but you don’t dare to say anything because you can see he’s straining close to breaking point himself.

the next two hours you spend in restless dozing, fitfully tossing and turning, after which you sneak out of donghae’s room so as not to disturb him even more.  you switch on the television and put it on mute to stare at the flickering images while your mind involuntarily replays the disastrous one-sided dialogue.

that’s why you are the first to respond to the incongruous sound of the door bell ringing at three in the morning.  you rise up, one knee still on the couch, blinking disbelievingly at the image on the intercom even as the tide of hope surges in your chest, and in the next moment, you’re pulling the door back to reveal heechul standing there.

he glances up and through the messy curls obscuring half his face, you glimpse the tear tracks upon his cheeks.  your voice has frozen in your throat and it’s five seconds of eternity until you hear him, even huskier than usual, hyukjae… hyukjae-ah, I’m sorry, i’m sorry, forgive me for making you worry so much.

then heechul is in your arms, tremors running through him from the effort of controlling his emotions.  he buries his face against the side of your neck and you can feel the moisture seeping and trickling along your skin down to your collar bone.  carefully you cradle him closer to you, still marveling at the miracle of his appearance.

you sense movement behind you and realize that the others have woken up, drawn out of their rooms by the slight commotion.  everyone gathers in the living area (you release heechul to the couch semi-unwillingly) where he apologises again and jungsu tries to wipe away his tears even though jungsu’s crying himself.  no one goes back to their respective bedrooms for the rest of the night and you surface from sleep at some juncture to register jungsu’s and heechul’s voices still softly murmuring even as exhaustion overtakes you again.

you wake up the next day to your back screaming revolt because you have subjected it to hours of slouching on the couch, but get distracted from the ache by a weight pressed all along your right side.  blearily you look down to see heechul’s head resting upon your shoulder and his arm loosely curled around yours.  his breath is even in sleep, expression peaceful (almost innocent, your mind supplies, but it’s untrustworthy in instances like these). 

you’re smiling, that dorky gummy one that he says makes you look like a gullible fool, and that’s what greets him when he finally stirs and opens his eyes.  jerking back, he disentangles himself from you and smacks you on the head, yah, are you trying to give me a heart attack the moment i’m back, and he’s standing and swiftly making his way to the bathroom, though not before you catch the hint of a blush staining his cheeks.

you reckon you can laze a little bit more (you don’t have a schedule until afternoon), so you flop back down on the couch and stretch, feeling joints pop and muscles re-align.  from your left, you hear donghae excitedly chattering at heechul through the bathroom door, interspersed here and there with heechul’s snappy retorts. 

when they finally drag you off the couch to join them for breakfast, the smile still hasn’t left your face.