“Nor-Ray! Nor-Ray! Nor-Ray!”
(Sometimes life is like a blue, calm ocean…)
“Do you want another song…?”
(Sometimes, everything feels like it is just a repeated cycle.)
“Do you still want more…?”
(Everything just moves in a certain order… Again, and again…)
“Shout ‘encore’ for one more!”
“Encore! Encore! Encore!”
(Until it just becomes so predictable that you can guess what its next direction is.)
“Encore! Encore! Encore!”
“Nor-Ray! Nor-Ray! Nor-Ray!”
The earsplitting sound of the microphone is their signal. The spotlights move. The audience turn on their lightsticks again. It becomes a sea of colorful lights.
He sees Norman moving his left hand behind slightly and wriggle his index and middle fingers subtly. It’s the last signal meant specifically for him. Norman casts a glance at him, breaking his perfectly polished sweet smile for a split second. Ah, he must be really too out of it if Norman could even notices.
He jumps forward to Norman’s side, catching both the audience and Norman himself in surprise. He presses his side into Norman intentionally, circling his hand around the other’s shoulder. Fanservice. Funny, how in their real life, it’s just another of their usual selves. Still, for the fans, this is a picture-worthy moment. He knows it well.
Putting out his best smirk, he shouts.
“Are you READY?”
The music plays. The colors of the spotlights change. Norman unlatches himself from him and begins to run a little to the other side of the stage. Norman’s sweet falsetto echoed in the whole studio. It’s just dawned on him that it’s one of his supposed favorites that’s currently playing.
His mouth moves. His voice comes out in precise tones just as trained in the recording studio. His movement comes out just as the same as the thousand times practiced in the practice hall.
All the echoed fanchants sound like a deafening white noise for a millisecond. For all his singing about passion—the current song playing that’s still about passion—it seems like his own passion has all evaporated in this moment.
He sees Norman jumps a little, improvising his own part of the choreography so that it looks much smoother. Norman flashes out his smile again. To the audience. To the camera. To him. He’s supposed to grin back, he realizes a tad too late.
Sweet, sweet cover magazines smile. He wonders whether the fans would be disappointed to know that the real Norman behind the cameras doesn’t smile as much. Ah, but looking at another Norman’s antic again—the cute poses and high-fives he gives out to the fans—that’s just another part of Norman’s supposed ‘role’ isn’t it?
He has his own role here. His own fabricated personality here.
Somewhere, in the middle of the sea of lights in the audience seats, he sees one light that color mismatched with the rest. It gives him enough amusement for a small burst of energy.
Eyes roaming for a working camera, he gives out his smirk and winks. The audience goes wild.
The noises are deafening again.
(Sometimes life is like a blue, calm ocean. Sometimes, everything feels like it is just a repeated cycle. Everything just moves in a certain order. Again, and again. Until it just becomes so predictable that you can guess what its next direction is.
But sometimes, just sometimes. There would be things that move out of the order. There would be small quakes. The things that move within the calm ocean and build itself into a tsunami. A big storm that could drag everyone in its way into its momentum.
He craves for that thing.)
[ Say “Encore” for One More ]
Ray heaves his breath for the perhaps uncountable time that night. Sweats roll on the side of his face like a second skin. It’s kind of photogenic for those semi-lewd concept album photoshoots, he thinks fleetingly.
A few meters from him, Norman saunters dramatically while playfully flirting with the staffs—probably trying to get his way again into getting more break time again. Ray deadpans.
The door to their dressing room closed behind them and Ray immediately calls shot to the lone sofa chair. Norman scowls annoyedly after him.
“Stop flirting with the staffs. If any press catch you, it’ll be a huge scandal.”
“No press are supposed to have any access here,” Norman waves his words dismissively as he chugs down one of the water bottles on their dressing table. “Besides, wouldn’t it do us good to have any big scandals? It’s like practically booking the media’s attention for the next few months.”
Ray narrows his eyes. “It’s a dangerous bet, Norman. Don’t play with it.”
Norman shrugs. “Well, any scandal long as it doesn’t involve illegal drugs are safe, you know.”
“I’m just saying!”
Ray groans. He reaches for a face towels to wipe out his damp hair. Suddenly, there’s a weight on his lap. Ray groans again.
“Norman! Seriously?! The stage is over! Please stop doing your stupid antics alread– Mmph!”
Norman clamps his palm over Ray’s mouth. Just in time as one of the staff opens their door.
“Ah, hello Miss. Yoona. Do you need anything?”
Norman titles his head. His hair tickling Ray’s cheek. Ray glares behind those white strands.
“E-eh– ah– uhm, n-no. J-just need to inform you there’s an interview s-soon. E-e-enjoyyourbreak!”
The red-faced staff hurriedly rushes away. The door’s closed with a ‘slam’ behind her.
“Seriously?! Even the staffs too?!”
Ray pushes Norman unceremoniously to the ground as soon as Norman’s hand stopped suffocating him. Norman cackles on the floor. Ray glares at him.
“Fujoshi is a popular culture these days, Ray. Stop reading political news sites and pay attention your own fans for once.”
Ray kicks him and continues to scowl. Fanservice are never really his thing. Honestly, it’s not even the public affection thing that weirds him out—he and Norman have been practically brothers they were kids after all. There’s just something about being ‘shipped’ with the person you see as a sibling that feels weird. Not that he hated his fans for it, of course. Mostly.
“Come on, stop being so grumpy. I got both of us the extended break time!”
Ray rolls his eyes. “How do you even know that she’s a fan?”
Norman smirks. “I have my ways. I do some productive things beside only go brooding in the waiting room before every stage event, after all. Unlike some people here.”
“Oh, shut up. Why am I always putting up with you again?”
It’s a rhetorical question. But Ray swears, one of these days Norman’s sole purpose for existing is only to bully him on daily basis.
“That’s because you’re a big softie and you care too much about me,” Norman says cheekily.
Ray stares at him flatly. “No. I hate you.”
“Nope. You love me. You’re the one getting suspended for a week in middle school after picking fight with the gang who bullied me, remember?”
“‘Your welcome’ for that.”
“I never said thanks.”
No. Norman laughed at his face the moment he’s done getting chewed out at the Principal’s office, dumped a bowl of shaved ice on his face which on the defense of helping him with his swollen bruises, and continue to laugh at his swollen eye for a week straight after that. Well, at least his mom was proud instead of angry with him for the incident because she’s an anti-bullying activist herself. Or perhaps because she’s just weird like that. Still, Ray sometimes wonders if his taste in friends is simply sucks.
It brings him back to his previous question: Why does he always put up with Norman again?
The answer to that question comes faster than expected. One moment he was closing his eyes and enjoying the cold dampness of his soaked face towel, and the next moment he opens his eyes, Norman’s body sways in front of him.
He leaps to catch Norman before the other could hit his head onto the dressing table. The forceful yank brings Norman back to his sense. His blue eyes look glassy. His breaths also come out shallow, Ray realizes. But Norman must’ve making a conscious effort to keep it silent—no wonder that no one noticed it thorough the whole performance.
“Ck, save it for later.”
Ray doesn’t really hear Norman’s next words as he dumps the said boy on the sofa chair. He wastes no time and hurriedly rummaging through their shared luggage. Searching through various packages of makeup and skin-care products frantically, Ray heaves his breath shakily when he finally managed to find a small plastic bottle that he’s all too familiar with. A small plastic bottle with bright colored pills inside it. He clenches his fist around it.
“What do you think you’re doing?!” he hissed, turning his head to the guilty culprit.
Norman smiles sheepishly at him. “Well, I—”
“What if you had passed out on the stage?! What if you had an accident or something?! What if you hit your stupid head on something and I wasn’t there and—”
“I don’t get you!”
His breath ragged out. Frustration bubbling inside of him.
Norman sighs, racking his fingers on his hair. Ray realizes he’s been shouting too loud. He takes a deep breath to calm himself down. When he finally unclenches that plastic bottle from his hand, Norman speaks again.
“I won’t have any accident on stage. Or anywhere in public, for that matter. I always make sure of it. I know I’m pushing it, but I’m aware of the limit of my own body.”
Ray grits his teeth. “Still. You could’ve—”
“Ray.” Norman sighs again. The incident coupled with the stress of the tiredness from after-stage is getting into both of them. “It’s not like I skipped my dose. I swear I drink my meds this morning. I always told you, don’t I? I know my own body, Ray. I can manage it myself.”
Ray narrows his eyes, still upset. “You were just about to passed out in front of my eyes a minute ago.”
Norman grins weakly. “But you’re here. I know you’ll always catch me if I fall.”
“Bullshit. Save the sappy stolen quotes for the interviews.”
Norman laughs a little and raises his hands in mock defeat. “Okay, okay. I’m sor—”
“I don’t need your apology.” Ray pauses, staring at the bottle intently, then looks up at Norman with just the same scrutinizing gaze. “You say you already took your dose. But it’s only half of it, right?”
Norman winces and widens his eyes a bit. That gives it away more than anything.
“You know I can’t take a full dose before performances. It’ll make me too drowsy to—”
“Or,” Ray cuts, “you could’ve just told me, told the staff, told anyone that you’re not feeling well enough today to—”
“That’s not an option.”
Norman’s tone doesn’t give any space to argue. Ray hates it when he’s using that tone.
“You know it too, Ray. We can’t afford to do any half-assed show this month. Not if we’re still aiming for a shot at the End Year’s.”
Ray bites his tongue. Of course. He knows that. The Annual End of Year Concert performance. The chance every singer and musician—both idols, bands, and soloists—across the country set their eyes for. The chance every entertainment agency fights for to send their artists to. The once in a year chance to catch the eyes of not only national audience, but also international ones.
Of course. He knows that. With the continuous success they’ve had this year, it’s their last step, their golden key to establish their influence in the national entertainment industry. Or in just simpler terms, it’s their chance to get an income raise.
Ray pursed his lips flatly. “You’re doing this for me.”
It wasn’t a question.
Norman shrugs. “Technically, I’m a part of our duo. So, I’m doing this for myself too.”
“Technically,” Ray echoes bitterly. “But you don’t actually need to do it, don’t you? You don’t– you don’t even really need to do any of this, honestly! It’s all—”
“Can you just stop?” Norman cuts him up, beginning to get equally frustrated.
Ray heaves out a long sigh again, and Norman continues, “I’ll get an equal benefit from it too, Ray. And you understand it well yourself. This is our– your best chance.”
Of course. His best chance to earn more. To save up for college next year. Contrary to popular belief, not so many celebrities earn enough income to their bank accounts to afford branded fashion and other fancy things. He’s still barely able to pay up his monthly bills, along with his school tuitions. Every branded shirt he wears for stages and photoshoots are rented by their agency. If they could do a successful performance in the End Year’s, they could land on bigger gigs. Which means he could also save up more to get into his dream college. But still—
“I’m not doing anything if it’s at your expense, and that’s final.”
Norman sighs. “Stubborn, aren’t you? And people say I’m the difficult one.”
“I’ll– find another way.” Probably. He’s not good at being an optimist, but finding a solution to a problem is usually one of his best fortes.
Ray throws the medicine bottle at Norman, who catches it with an unreadable stare.
“For now, just take another dose that you’re supposed to take. Also take the supplement ones. And drink a lot of water. I’ll go fetch us some energy drinks and whatever foods I can get my hand on from the vending machine. And for God’s sake, don’t flirt with any staffs that come here while I’m gone—that includes giving out some misleading innuendos information!”
Norman laughs at that.
“Hey! I’m serious about the last one! The last thing I need is for any staff giving me a weird stare whenever I’m doing practice or anything with you!”
“Got it! Got it!” Norman’s still laughing. “And geez, stop acting like my mom, Ray.”
Ray stares at him flatly. “Norman. Your mother is a pile of skull and bones two meters deep into the ground inside her grave.”
“Skull and bones. Aren’t those just the things that fit your emo aesthetic?”
Ray chooses wisely to flip him off and stomps his way outside.
Still buzzing with after-stage clean-up works, the hallways in the building is kind of crowded. Ray tugs his face mask up again. Truthfully, the face mask is kind of unneeded. The people in the building are mostly just staffs, TV crews, performers themselves and their personal managers. But of course, with being an “idol” as your job, you could never be more careful. All the press and media are living out of delivering the hottest news to people. They’re always watching for a scandal at every corner like a hawk.
Finally arriving at the vending machine, Ray curses himself when he realizes that he stupidly forgot to bring any cash with him.
‘Good thing I’m going alone. Norman would make fun of me for at least a week if he knows.’
Ray grimaces behind his mask.
Pulling out his wallet and stifling through various cards in it, he’s glad when he finds out that he’s at least carrying his debit card in it. That doesn’t really make it better though, since it means now he has to go outside to the convenience store down the street.
Ray sighs. ‘Well, now it’s just inevitable,’ he muses internally.
Through the walk his mind reeling back to the earlier conversation again.
‘What should I do now?’ he asks to himself with much displeasure.
End Year’s is a big deal. A grand concert. A strenuous event. Even though they could manage to land a shot at it, nothing can guarantee Norman can put himself through the whole process. The boy may say it now that it’s fine, but Ray has known him better for years. That idiot is too stubborn and prideful to let his limit getting in his way.
If there’s any chance Norman would collapse and he’d have to perform alone, then it’s certainly better to just back off from the very first. Delivering a messy performance at it would be way worse than not getting an invitation in the first place. Besides, the other possibility is Norman being able to pull himself through it only to land himself on hospital the day after.
‘Not again,’ he thinks grimly.
That’s not an option.
But now on to the second problem. If he doesn’t find out a solution for his money problem other than rely on getting the End Year’s soon, Norman would certainly go out of his way to secure an invitation. That idiot is annoyingly stubborn like that. If Norman has set his mind on something, nothing anyone say will ever render his resolve. And that’s a scenario he’d like to very much avoid this time.
His mind is so clouded that he barely registers anything as he goes through the store shelves picking out random canned drinks and foods and paying it to the cashier.
But he’s suddenly pulled out of his trance when he collides with someone just outside of the store.
The other person yelps. From the feminine tone, it sounds like a girl.
“Watch where you’re going,” he grumbles.
Ray looks up and finds his hand stained with something that looks like a chocolate cream.
“You’re the one who just crashed into me!” the other person protests.
He turns his eyes to the offended person. As he guessed, it’s a girl. She wears fancy colored shirt and has short curly orange hair that bounces to every direction. There’s some weird sprinkle on her face and hair, he realizes. It looks as if the girl just took a shower bath in glitter.
There’s big chocolate stain on her shirt too. Bits of something that looks like some sort of a cake stuck into the side her face. Which is………partly his fault, he admits.
Ray suppresses a sigh.
“Sorry,” he mumbles, not interested in getting into a fight with some random girl when his schedule already packed tight for the day.
He moves to continue his way to get back to the show building, but he halts his step again when he hears the girl clacking her tongue annoyedly.
“What a self-centered jerk.”
Ray grits his teeth. He turns around back to the girl.
“What do you want, Miss?” he bites out.
The girl scowls. “Nothing. I’m only saying that you’re a self-centered jerk. Just who walks in public with your head down like that? And only giving out half-assed apology after you’re ruining my shirt and my choco pie! You must be some big head who only drowns in his own problems and never appreciate the things around you. Eww, you must be having a miserably boring life with that attitude. Poor you. Jerk.”
The girl snarls at him one last time before she stomps away.
But Ray is still standing there, stunned by her speech.
‘Having a miserably boring life… Not appreciate things enough around me?’
Then he notices something shiny on the ground. He walks over and bends down to pick it up. It turns out to be a button pin. A merch button pin, with chibi styled picture of that girl’s face and a curvy name “Emma” written on it. Now that he thinks back again, her face does look familiar.
He pockets in the pin and brings it with him.
“Hi! Took you long enough,” Norman says as a way of greeting back. One of his hand is pressing a mute button on his phone. He was taking a call, Ray realizes.
He shakes his head. “Changed my mind. Vending machine foods are shit. I went to the convenience store.”
Norman rolls his eyes, not believing his words. But he’s back speaking to whoever it was on his phone again.
From the sound of it, Norman seems like speaking to one of their managers. But Ray doesn’t pay any mind to it. Pulling out the pin from his front pocket, his mind reeling back to the unexpected encounter.
He’s certain he has heard that name somewhere. It’s not really that long ago, he’s sure. Maybe from one of their performance in the last few months?
“Hey, Ray. Where’s the energy bars? You bought it, right? Hurry up! They said the press are already filling out the conference room. Ugh, where’s the questions list paper again? I’ve made sure to request to exclude any questions about End Year’s, at least for this time. Ah, I’m still a bit dizzy. Don’t worry, I’m carrying some Advil pills with me. Though I’m just hoping this one wouldn’t last more than an hour again.”
Norman pauses when Ray doesn’t say anything back. He sees Ray’s stare is stuck on a bright colored button pin on his palm.
Norman goes over and waves his hand in front of him.
“Hey? Hello? Earth to Ray? Knock-knock? Don’t go spacing out on me now! We’re having an interview in like five min—”
Ray blinks himself out of his stupor and reflexively catches Norman’s wrist. The phone drops onto the floor between them.
“Say, Norman… What do you know about Emma?”