It came as no surprise to you that you were ill-prepared for being in love with Jiho. Adaptability at other first-person shooters, a preternatural sense of geography when it came to totally artificial landscapes, and the ability to power through twelve hours of dull repetitive activity, almost 365 days a year—that's what being a progamer had taught you. Nothing about how to appeal to Jiho, how to get him to smile. This you had to learn through trial-and-error. The only luxury Kongdoo ever gave you was time with him.
Mostly you approached being in love with Jiho like trying to tame a skittish, half-domesticated animal. Not a kitten, because he was sure of himself, set in his own ways, but maybe an alley cat, or a fox: waiting for him to come to you, for him to rest his head on your lap and let you play with his coarse hair and the soft skin on the back of his neck. Appearances could be deceiving; Jihyuk gave off the look of something fragile that you had to treat with care, but it turned out that being occasionally rough with him was the way to his affections—it was why he and Dongjun and, lately, Chanhyung were such good friends, the easy roughhousing of young animals and young men. Jiho on the other hand had an infant's love of being attached to another warm body, but he didn't always do it willingly, and when he did it was usually with Byungho or Junwoo, who seemed to handle Jiho with indifferent affection and occasional annoyance, shrugging him off when his hanging-on got too oppressive.
You, maybe you wore it on your face. You were too earnest, and maybe Jiho could tell, was reluctant to cling onto you for too long because of it. Kyomin used to find you amusing together and would watch from the sidelines, mouth curved in that small smile he had that would make him look seven-years-old and just as mischievous. Never the kind to whine about being left out, or really the kind to enjoy prolonged physical contact, the most obnoxious thing he'd do to mess with you would be to stagily catch Jiho's attention and draw him away, asking him to look at some LAN results or wondering out loud what Dongjun was up to, unchecked. It annoyed you, but usually you had your own team to tend to too. That was the problem with being on the sister team. Your pretenses were few, and usually thin, and there were only so many times you could drop in on him while he was streaming.
Sometimes, if you were lucky, you'd karaoke together. Not in a noraebang, because you weren't sure if you could get the coaches to approve your time out, but in the break room after or between scrims, him idly surfing through YouTube while you noodled along, self-conscious and a little embarrassed, on your guitar. Seonghyeon was the first of your team that liked to listen in, just audience enough to keep the whole thing from getting too intimate and awkward. These days, though, it was usually Junwoo, who had over the course of the season picked up Jiho's vocalization and taste in songs. You'd never say these were the height of musical talent, but at least this was a thing you all could do and make together, that wasn't entirely about the team or the game.
"When we get too old for games, let's busk," you joked with Jiho after a particularly silly acoustic rendition of Red Velvet's "Rookie."
"Two old farts begging for money on the street," he grumbled. "We'd get booed. Or worse, robbed."
"Didn't Evermore-hyung meet an idol?" Jihyuk called out from the snack table, where he and Dongjun were scavenging the doughnuts you had brought in that morning for the staff. "Ask him for tips."
"Will he give me tips on how to look younger?" Jiho retorts. "Can't get enough plastic surgery to look eighteen again."
"Kim Sangwoo is older than you!" Dongjun yelled through a mouth full of doughnut.
"Not when he started!"
Bored now that he was no longer streaming, Jiho was occupied with trying to take back the Pikachu wristband that Junwoo had stolen. Junwoo, deadpan, kept hiding his wrist under the table, locked tight between his knees, and you watched, stony-faced, as Jiho's fingers skimmed along Junwoo's legs, perfectly innocent.
You struck a chord to hide your trembling. "You look fine to me," you said, soft so that only Jiho, and Junwoo next to him, could hear you. Junwoo snorted, too embarrassed for you to actually make fun of you, and Jiho matched it with a 'tsk,' forcing out air between his teeth. But he broke into laughter immediately after, and as he did, he punched you on the shoulder, and let his hand slide from it down to the crook of your elbow, resting there for a minute, soft and light, and that was enough.
After APEX Season 2, it was the default assumption that any promotional material your team did would involve him singing. When both the plans for the Pancia fanmeeting and the APEX Season 3 singing contest were finalized at around the same time, he ended up with half a setlist worth of songs he had to practice, which he complained about, only half-jokingly, whenever he saw you with your guitar out. "They're all songs you know already," Junwoo told him, rapping him over the head with his knuckles, "stop putting up an act. We're not going to baby you just because you want us to."
"It's really your own fault," Seonghyun added absently from where he was 1v1ing Dongjun. "You should have pretended to be bad. Then no one would ask you to sing again."
Junwoo snorted. "Is that what you were doing?"
"Yes," Seonghyun said, throwing Junwoo a sleepy smirk. "Pretty convincing, right?"
"You're actually bad though," Jihyuk pointed out, and Dongjun next to him laughed, spraying his keyboard with coffee and immediately dying to a headshot from Seonghyun. "You've always been the worst singer on this team."
"Honestly, do you jokers know how long LW Red's Quatermain practiced for his?" Jiho demanded, adopting his gruffest affect, his back curved like a hissing cat. You resisted the urge to smooth your hand down the back of his head, where his hair was still kinked from waking up this morning. It added to the image, puffed just like a bushy tail.
"Yes," Seonghyeon said, because he knew that despite all appearances he'd never get punished for sassing Jiho, and predictably, Jiho stopped short, at a loss as to where to go next with his rant.
"Oh," he said. "Well."
"Two weeks," Seonghyeon said wickedly, even though you knew that Jihoon had told him personally it had been much longer than that.
"Okay, let's all stop picking on Wakawaka-seonsu. It's not fair to bully such an easy target," you said in your best older brother voice. Junwoo gave you a look but said nothing, whiffing the top of Jiho's head with his palm and patting the back of his chair to get him to turn towards you. You were sitting cross-legged on the floor by the wheels of Jiho's chair, guitar on your lap, and when Jiho scooted closer, you folded your arms on his lap, pulling him a little closer. He let you bury your fingers into his thick grey sweatshirt as you tried to tickle him and pressed his lips together, tight in that almost embarrassed smile he had when he was trying not to laugh.
"About the setlist for the fanmeeting, though," you said, once he'd pulled your hands away from his torso and was instead intently cracking each of your knuckles. "Can't you pick one song that's not depressing? You know the other duo are doing 'Oh I love you thank you.' Do we have to do a sad ballad?"
"I'm only good at sad ballads," he said, a hint of a whine in his voice.
"Jiho-yah," you sang out, holding him by the wrists, "twenty-two isn't even that old. Why do you always have to be pretend to have one foot in the grave?"
"I want you to feel your age too," he joked, and you slapped him on his knee, then dug your fingers back into his stomach ruthlessly until he gasped, "You said no more bullying!"
"You deserved it this time," you told him and bared your teeth, triumphant, when Junwoo agreed off to one side.
"Well if you have so many big ideas," Jiho said, after he gave Junwoo the stink-eye, "what do you suggest? I'm not doing Red Velvet no matter how much you beg."
"Can't we compromise?" Your voice, weak and pitchy, was no great prize, but you sang along as you strummed out the opening chords to Eddy Kim's "The Manual." Softly, with mood, you sang, warmly, tightly hug her.
He laughed, almost sliding off the chair in surprise. "No way. Who do you think I am? I can't pull this off."
"Also this is the opposite of my range," he continued. "This has Bdosin all over it. Think of my image," he said, a phrase he'd recently learned from Dongjun and now used all the time.
"Get up first in the morning," you serenaded, and he, relenting, sang with you, turning on jazz, gentle kiss, I'll look at you.
"Horrible," Junwoo muttered, one side of his mouth twitching.
"I told you," Jiho grouched, crossing his arms and glaring at you like a petulant child. But, still, as you kept playing, he kept singing, as if compelled, and you thrilled at it, this way of coaxing him that you alone had power to exercise. Sometimes, kiss her without a plan, you sang, brave because you knew, for this moment at least, you were safe to look him in the eye and say, just like the day I fell for you without reason. Knowing, for this moment at least, that he, eyes clear, heart pure, would sing it back to you.
Weeks later, you watched from the sidelines as Kongdoo Panthera lost to Lunatic-Hai. He held back tears on stage, stoically and unnoticed with all the attention on Lunatic-Hai and Jehong, who sobbed openly with happiness into his bouquet of flowers. Afterwards, as the two Kongdoo team coalesced into one grieving entity, he told you, "I didn't cry, it was all Jihyuk," chin thrust out like he was daring you to tell him otherwise. You nodded, waiting patiently, hands to yourself until he circled around behind you, pressing his face into your back. His arms, hesitant at first, eventually made their way around you, and you held him there, tracing nonsense patterns into the backs of his hands and saying nothing as you felt the hot, dry heat of his skin against the thin fabric of your white polo.
When the rest of the team turned their attention back to the two of you, he'd already slipped away, standing near you but not touching. His eyes were glassy, red-rimmed, and you fretted silently as he comforted Junwoo and you Jihyuk, torn by your desire to make it better for him somehow and knowing, too, that there was nothing you could do to comfort him, that this loss had no salve but future victory. You were bad at love, paralyzed as you sometimes were at clutch moments with the fear of making the wrong move, and it was compounded all the time by all the ways the two of you were the same. That was why you were always waiting for him to make the first move, you knew; you attached gravity to those moments because it shielded you from your own failure to do anything for him, your failure of imagination to even know what you should do for him.
In the car on the way back, he sat next to you, one elbow linked in yours as he and Seonghyeon discussed what kind of delivery they should order. While Seonghyeon and Chanhyung squabbled about whether Chanhyung should treat them to the fried chicken he'd won as a prize during the APEX singing contest, he turned to you, idly patting your bicep with one hand. "Give me the other earbud," he said, gesturing to the one you already had in. You marveled as, instead of reaching out a hand, he lowered his head for you, letting you put the earbud directly in his ear. Roy Kim sang throatily to both of you, don't worry about me, I just need you to be okay.
He grinned. "Practicing even now?"
"At least we can say we'll always win against Lunatic-Hai when it comes to singing," you joked.
You were afraid for a moment that it was too soon, too tender to joke about, but he nodded, putting his head on your shoulder as if suddenly very tired. You lifted your shoulder under him, jostling him, and he ground the back of his head sharply against you, ordering you to stay still. Safe now that he was looking away from you, your eyes traced the soft slope of his nose and cheek, the way he breathed slowly as he tapped his fingers against your arm in time with the song. When I hear your footsteps, you watched him mouth, greeting you with a smile.
You were bad at love. He let his hand fall from your upper arm so that he could squeeze your fingers, feeling along the edges for the calluses from your guitar, and just that small gesture was enough to overcome you with a happiness so intense that it was almost heartbreak. When your heart is aching, when no one is there for you, you mouthed back at him, knowing he couldn't see. Hoping that one day, tomorrow maybe, or a week later while the two of you were alone onstage, he'd glance at you shyly the way he would before you start playing, and hoping that you could tell him then, and mean it, just come here.