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crash (i'm in overdrive)

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Later, Jongseong will ask him, "Do you remember?"

Again and again. Do you remember the first day we met—when you wouldn't stop calling me Jongseong-ssi? Do you remember that week you took off, how I missed you? Do you remember the beach I took us to, the cold wind and our toes in the sand?

A year and a half is a long time to have to just one person, after all.

 

 

The first time Jungwon thinks that Jongseong might be too dependent on him, they're in Seattle. It's 2027: a year into Jongseong's debut, several nights before they conclude the American leg of his world tour. The rain falls against the city in light waves, the sound like a restless tiptoeing, footsteps striking worn-in asphalt.

 

 

That's not where this story starts, though.

 

 

The beginning—of everything, of them, of the end—isn't the day Jungwon graduates high school and decides not to attend university, his grandmother scolding him for three weeks and saying money shouldn't be what holds him back.

The beginning isn't the day Jungwon signs up for training camp, passes his physical exam, and is sent off to the marine corps for eighteen months.

The beginning isn't even the day Jungwon gets discharged, or when he moves into a cramped bedroom with flimsy paper walls on his broke high school-graduate budget a week later. Or all the days he spends afterward, filling out applications he comes across with simple enough qualifications, ones he thinks have a non-zero probability of sparing his sorry excuse for a resume a glance.

No. None of these.

Even if he doesn't know it yet, the ball starts rolling the day he sits down in front of senior idol manager Kim Yonghee and interviews for an entry position.

The interview room Jungwon is led into is really just a long conference table nestled at the center of the fifth floor. No sunlight runs in here, only distracting LED light from panels affixed to the ceiling, diffusing through long slabs of fiberglass walls.

"Have a seat," Yonghee says, so Jungwon does.

Kim Yonghee wears a suit with a kind of grace that is somehow both unfamiliar and effortless, purely unrehearsed. As if he wouldn't usually wear something this ornate, but he just happened to throw it on, and—lo and behold—it fit him perfectly.

Jungwon, on the other hand, wears a suit like he got it wrinkled after he accidentally fell asleep in it eating dinner the day before, and then he had to rush down the street to get it ironed at the nearest dry cleaner. Mostly because he did, and all of this actually happened. He hopes he doesn't look like he's sweating through his undershirt.

It's fine.

Once they've settled in, the first thing Yonghee asks him is, "You can drive, right?"

"Yes," Jungwon assures him, straightening up with a quick nod. "Of course. I got my license as early as I could."

"That's great," replies Yonghee absentmindedly, busy leafing through his papers again. Jungwon graciously refrains from mentioning that his "papers" are just one resume page and an application form, and that there isn't actually anything to leaf through.

Yonghee seems like a nice guy. And Jungwon really needs a job.

After that, Yonghee asks him more questions about his education (Well, I graduated high school…), his background (I part-timed at a convenience store for a year, and then I enlisted), and his time in service (It was fin—I mean, it taught me leadership skills?). Then, as the questioning drags on, what his sleep schedule is like, whether he's adaptable to fast-paced scheduling. What he'd do in this situation, and then that one. How he'd react if a fan were to pose a threat to his designated artist.

When Yonghee stands up and offers Jungwon his hand to shake, his mouth stretches into a polite smile. "Thanks for coming in, Jungwon-ssi. We'll review your materials and get back to you as soon as we can."

"Of course," Jungwon says, bowing quickly. Then he adds another "thank you" for posterity, for what feels like the twentieth time that day.

The interview went all right, he thinks. All things considered. After he leaves the company building, Jungwon pushes his way into a coffee shop a block away through blustery winter air and frantically downs an espresso shot that tastes like death itself. Then he stands up and heads to the subway station to get to his next meeting, feeling more desperate than he ever has in his entire life.

 

 

A week later, Jungwon is hired.

Another week after that, Yonghee calls him into his office and says that they'll both be assigned to a new idol debuting under the label in a month, a man named Park Jongseong. He tells him that Jongseong has been preparing his solo debut for half a year now, but that he was also in an Mnet project group as an independent trainee for three years prior to signing, and has Jungwon ever heard of them before?

"I don't really listen to K-pop," Jungwon admits nervously. He's pretty sure this isn't a fireable offense, since Yonghee had visibly relaxed after Jungwon answered no to the question, Are you an official fan of any idols? They probably background checked for this shit, anyway.

Yonghee waves a reassuring hand and throws him a smile. "Me neither, don't worry. I only knew about them because my younger cousin was a fan." He looks at the laptop he has positioned on his desk and adjusts it slightly, then peers down at whatever is open on the screen. "All right—here's what we've got. We usually have two main managers assigned to our solo idols. I work on the management side too, but if you take this offer you'll have to move in with Jongseong-ssi full-time and do a majority of his scheduling pick-ups and drop-offs. Are you okay with this arrangement?"

Let's see.

Jungwon is twenty-three, straight out of the military, and essentially broke. After his parents' recurring calls failed, his grandmother had insisted he move into her place if he couldn't find a job within the next month, threatening to cook all his favorite dishes every single day as incentive. On a particularly unsuccessful night of job searching, when he'd opened his inbox to not one, not two, but three separate email rejections, he'd actively entertained lying low at her place for a few weeks just so he could scarf down her homemade galbitang for a change of pace.

Anyway. The point is, of course Jungwon is "okay with it."

Okay with free room-and-board and a manageable salary? Okay with getting out of his overpriced one-room to chauffeur some Park Jongseong guy around every morning, buy him food, whatever—tie his shoelaces, if he needs it that badly?

Please.

Jungwon nods his head so enthusiastically Yonghee has to take a minute to stop laughing.

"Here are Jongseong-ssi's files," Yonghee continues once he's sufficiently calmed down, handing Jungwon a thin manila folder. "There should be a review of his upcoming schedules in there, some contact numbers, and a majority of the information you need to know."

"Okay."

Jungwon peels back the flap and looks at the artist photo printed on the first page. The man who stares back at him sports a shock of black hair and awkward bangs that only kind of cover his forehead. It's like he ran his fingers through them one too many times and now has them permanently forced into this unfortunate fixture.

Park Jongseong, Jungwon reads off. Date of birth: 2002.04.20.

So he is older, Jungwon realizes. It isn't much of a surprise, but a part of him had wondered. Maybe they'd wanted a young rookie manager for one of their similarly young rookie idols. A way of breaking them in together.

He flips the page, but before he can read any further Yonghee clears his throat from across him. When Jungwon looks back up, Yonghee is smiling again.

"Take your time with that," he tells him. The edges of his smiles are never unkind, Jungwon thinks, just amused. It's like his face has been blessed with an air of unerring patience. "You can go now, but I'll message you with important move-in details soon. Sound good?"

Jungwon nods, then stands up and spares one last glance at the folder in his hands. The image of the man with his sharp face and stony gaze meet him back at every beat. He lets the flap fall back into place, and then he pushes against the meeting room's leaden door, spilling back into the office hallway.

This moment, then.

When he blinks onto the long stretch of carpet that greets him. When a part of him wonders what, exactly, he's just signed himself up for.

This is the beginning.

 

 

The first time Jungwon meets Park Jongseong—still twenty-five and determined, the type of all-rounder rappersingerdancer idol companies love to boast of so much—he's wearing duck print pajamas and has clearly just woken up.

"Jongseong-ssi," Jungwon greets politely, bowing his head. "I'm Yang Jungwon. Your new manager."

"Huh?" Jongseong says, squinting. Then he registers the person in front of him and quickly brings two hands to his hair, trying to calm the nest sitting atop his head. "Oh, sorry!"

Jungwon bites down a smile. "No, please. You're fine."

"I'm sorry, I just had—late practice—" he starts to explain, eyes flitting toward the bathroom at his left. He grins sheepishly. "Do you mind if I just—? Give me a second, sorry."

Jungwon watches bemusedly as Jongseong shuffles into the bathroom entranceway and shuts the door behind him. He stares down at the suitcase he's just rolled up an unspeakable amount of stairs because the elevator was "under emergency maintenance," which was understandable, but had also—during the stretch of time he'd spent struggling upward and trying to catch his breath—felt just a little bit illegal.

Well, he remembers thinking. He seems interesting.

 

 

Managing an up-and-coming solo artist means being put in the line of scrutiny way more often than he signed up for, even if what Jungwon is subjected to is only a fraction of the attention Jongseong starts to receive. Jungwon will habituate himself to it soon enough: to being caught in the crossfire of fan-taken videos, blurred out from the background of flash-filled fansign footage, stages he'll stand on with his arms thrust full of various stuffed animals and fuzzy headbands, cradled there for safekeeping purposes. He'll familiarize himself with being reduced to a half-turned silhouette in Jongseong's backstage YouTube clips, to watching Jongseong from outside the frame, careful not to speak when the cameras are rolling.

The first few weeks are a slow build-up, though. Two people getting used to sharing the same space, the push-pull of trying to be personable without crossing any boundaries. Jungwon learns to say goodbye to a structured sleep schedule, and he gets thrown in and out of meetings, debut schedulings, introduced to more people than he can keep track of. He has to communicate with Jongseong's music video directors and differentiate all the staff around him. He meets the backup dancers and the stylists and makeup artists, and then the men holding cameras with specific responsibilities he hadn't even known existed before.

Jongseong's primary hair stylist, a man with dyed brown hair named Ahn Seongmin, tuts at him the first time they meet.

"How can you be a manager with a face like that?" he asks, arms akimbo.

"Are managers supposed to be ugly?" Jungwon counters, wry and mystified.

Seongmin shrugs. "You're definitely the cutest one I've met, at least," he says, and then he walks off to grab a bottle of product from his styling bag.

Working isn't bad. Really. It's just unfamiliar, especially in the beginning. One day he falls asleep in the waiting room after having only gotten an hour of sleep prior, and he startles awake to the feeling of someone wrapping a thin blanket around his shoulders. When he opens his eyes he sees Jongseong peering down at him, hands gripping onto one of the car blankets he normally uses.

"Ah!" he blurts, straightening up. "Hello, Jongseong-ssi."

"Sorry, you just looked cold," Jongseong tells him by way of explanation. "Also—what will it take for you to stop calling me Jongseong-ssi?"

Jungwon flushes. "Sorry. Force of habit."

For a second, Jongseong keeps looking at him. Jungwon has been told before that he has unsettlingly round eyes, and he wonders if Jongseong feels the same right now, sees what other people have seen before.

Then Jongseong says, "Let's be comfortable, okay?" And with a nod and a pat on Jungwon's shoulder, he walks away.

Jungwon looks at the clock. He sees that he still has another fifteen minutes of shut-eye left to himself, so he leans back into the blanket and lets himself do just that.

Be comfortable, that is. And warm, too. Maybe a little bit touched.

 

 

Later, when Jungwon's birthday falls on a bustling day in New York, a day spent backstage and too busy for celebration, Jongseong will ask, Do you remember your last birthday?

Yes. Of course.

You remember the cake, right? The one I decorated myself?

The cake is unnecessary, actually. But Jongseong had apparently insisted.

Jungwon's twenty-third birthday is the same day they prerecord M Countdown, and Jongseong enlists some of the other staff to ambush him in the waiting room with a pink-frosted cake in hand, pastel macarons fashioned around a generic birthday message. Jungwon patiently allows Seongmin to smear a line of frosting across his cheek, then makes a face at Jongseong the moment they exchange eye contact.

"You're only twenty-three once," Jongseong reminds him, handing him a letter. Less than a letter, really: just a single piece of blue paper folded in half, strokes of black ink faintly implied on the other side.

"What's this?" Jungwon asks.

"Read it later," Jongseong says, and then he's being called away by Yonghee.

Jungwon unfolds the paper as Jongseong walks off. It starts with a standard greeting, early well-wishes for the new year and thank-yous for the hard work he's put in so far. Jongseong's writing isn't neat, but it's unquestionably sincere, and there's noticeable thought behind every stroke and letter. Then, scrawled at the bottom, reads:

Call me hyung, okay? :D

Jungwon rolls his eyes. He looks up and sees Jongseong watching him carefully from where he stands across from Yonghee, whose back is to Jungwon. His mouth open ever so slightly, he cocks a head in question. Like a, well, what did you think?

Jungwon thinks of the paper in his hands, the cake sitting on the table. Jongseong hasn't known him for long, but there's still a sense of understanding that has settled between them already. They work in ways he couldn't have predicted. In ways he would have never been able to spell out the day he first met Yonghee and sold himself on a job so deeply out his realm of experience.

Thank you, hyung, he mouths, and he realizes that he means it.

Jongseong's responding grin is blinding.

 

 

The atmosphere for variety shows isn't quite the same as it is with groups, Jongseong explains to him as they drive over to his next schedule. With his earlier group Jongseong could heed control to his groupmates and let their hectic audio and over-the-line gags fill in the ambiguous gaps of screentime. But being solo means he has to bring all the tension, and it's a skill Jongseong is still slowly learning to hone.

The shooting staff all like Jongseong. Because he can be funny, is what Jongseong always says. But Jungwon sees more than just Jongseong's occasional variety breakthroughs, even when he isn't trying to look, even when he isn't making the effort to understand him.

Because you're kind, is what Jungwon keeps to himself. Because—because Jongseong is kind despite appearances. Kind despite his natural introversion, and the way he sits on his words when he thinks speaking up will serve no purpose, holding his tongue with meticulously acquired showbiz know-how and maturity.

"Give me another try!" Jongseong pleads to the writers near the camera. "Listen, how about—what if I beat one of the staff members in a game?"

The writer holding the board considers this, then leans in to discuss with two people sitting cross-legged beside her. After a beat, she uncaps her pen and scrawls out a message.

PICK ONE OF YOUR MANAGERS. 10 POINTS IF YOU WIN AT THIGH WRESTLING.

"Nice," Jongseong cheers. He smiles, giddy, and turns on his heel to face him and Yonghee. Jungwon lifts an eyebrow in response. He's in the middle of thinking, well, if he knew what he were doing, he'd definitely pick Yong— when Jongseong throws a hand out and claps him on the shoulder.

"Jungwon-ah, let's go," he goads.

Jungwon can already imagine this footage playing back. He wonders if Jongseong will go through the trouble of monitoring the episode later, Jungwon's face lazily blurred out, camera angled toward their lower bodies.

Jongseong positions his legs between Jungwon's, staring down at their thighs and smiling lightly to himself.

"Are you ready?" he asks.

Jungwon is ready.

Five seconds later, Jungwon has Jongseong's knees slapping together with a horrifying snapping noise. Jungwon is pretty sure it's impossible to break something via a tragically unbalanced match of thigh wrestling, but for a split second he does wonder.

The uproar and surprised gasps from the staff to the side are nearly deafening, and Jungwon throws his head back to cackle.

"Oh my god, hyung," he gasps. "I don't think we need to check the other way around, right?"

"What—" Jongseong breathes out. He looks at Jungwon with his mouth hung open. "Who are you, you monster?!"

"I did taekwondo for ten years," Jungwon reminds him. "And I finished my military service, and I'm pretty sure I work out more than you do."

(By more, Jungwon really means that he works out semi-occasionally. Jongseong is just weak.)

Jongseong makes a betrayed noise. He stares back at his clasped legs and mutters, "But you're so small," a mournful look playing out on his face.

Cute, Jungwon's mind uselessly offers.

Jungwon knows he must look so stupid right now, with his eyes smiling and grin dimpled. The way he takes in Jongseong's dramatized presentations of misery, the way they endear him, even when none of it makes any sense.

A part of him—a small and tender part, a feeling part, one nestled deep within his chest—realizes he doesn't really care. This, too, will be edited out later. This and the way Jongseong's hand brushes against his thigh as he stands up, the lingering eye contact.

It'll all be cut away. Kept as secret, a revelation held between the two of them.

 

 

Five days later, Jongseong raps a knuckle on Jungwon's door and asks, "Can you drive me to the gym?"

Jungwon throws a glance at the time on his laptop screen, and—yep. That definitely reads 10:48 PM. He turns around and snorts. "The gym?"

"What? Is that funny to you?"

"Nope," Jungwon answers easily. He shuts his laptop closed, slightly lamenting having to pause his drama at the climax of its penultimate episode, and pushes himself out his chair.

On the ride over, Jongseong sits behind him with his arms crossed.

"It's normal for solo artists to start bulking up," Jongseong insists. Perhaps, Jungwon thinks, he feels stifled by the weight of amused judgment settled over the car. "You know, to show off our best image to the fans, and everything."

Jungwon eases off the pedal and slows to a stop at a red light. A gaggle of pedestrians rush forward, obscuring the crosswalk across from him.

"Not saying that I doubt you," he starts, even though he definitely does. "But are you sure this has nothing to do with me beating you at thigh wrestling last week?"

A sigh from the back seat. Jungwon kind of wishes he could catch the sullen look on his face in every detail, the way he must be sulking right now. "Okay, maybe. But do you have to tease me so much?"

Ah. "You're just easy, hyung," Jungwon offers.

"Hey. Show me some respect—I'm still your hyung, aren't I?"

Jongseong's protests are always loud, but the tone of his voice stays light and airy, incapable of piercing. It's one of the most charming things about him, Jungwon realizes. The light flashes green again, and with a quick roll of his eyes he starts to accelerate.

"I'm driving you to the gym at almost-midnight because I bruised your ego. I think I deserve this much at least."

"You didn't bruise my ego. Just—opened my eyes to some things."

"To what things? Like your relative weakness?"

"Well, maybe." Jongseong chuckles, his tone rueful. "I kind of knew you were going to beat me, anyway. I just didn't realize it would be that bad."

Jungwon blinks. "Huh? Why didn't you just pick Yonghee then? He hasn't exercised in five years."

Jungwon knows this because Yonghee had told him as much, the day they'd had to rush back into the company building to grab a forgotten script and Yonghee had panted at the base of the stairs for an entire minute, gone, "I'm literally never doing that again."

Anyway.

Jongseong's ability to put himself through humiliating situations for other people's sake is unparalleled, but even then Jungwon can't find an angle to this that makes sense.

"For the fun of variety?" he asks again. Maybe it's amusing to watch a person fail, after all, even if Jungwon doesn't find the appeal there.

"Oh," breathes Jongseong. "That, you mean." Suddenly he sounds... vaguely shy? Uncertain of himself, maybe? "I mean, yeah. I thought it would be fun."

"Fun?" Jungwon snorts. "You must be a masochist, then."

"Maybe," Jongseong says, voice shaping itself into a shrug. "Or maybe I just like you."

At those words, Jungwon falters.

"Huh?" he asks.

Sometimes Jongseong's way of speaking is infuriating, weirdly casual and earnest and overwhelming at the same time. What was any respectable person meant to say to a statement like that?

"What?" Jongseong counters, and Jungwon squints ahead of him. A car maneuvered by what is clearly a shitty driver swerves into a lane nearby, and the noise of angry honking fills his ears, muted soundwaves seeping through the door seals. A part of him wishes he could have a piece of this chaos, almost. Wishes to have anything other than the awkward silence busy ballooning in here, pushing and pushing against the plush interior of the van, expanding until its invisible weight is pressing into his lungs.

He breathes out. Feels the balloon splutter and wheeze away.

There are conversations not worth continuing, Jungwon decides. He drives into the parkway of their nearby gym, slows to a stop, and looks behind him.

"We're here," is all he says.

 

 

Jungwon doesn't know how they got here. Here, as in this ambiguous place. This stranded island with its strange mundanities and easy-going life and laughter, the rules thrown out to the wind. He imagines Jongseong's name next to a checklist—Park Jongseong: friend, employer, hyung? Every box just checked off with a question mark, the real answer erased from the back of the textbook. Jungwon lives with an idol, for crying out loud. Nothing about his life can be normal.

But, still. It stands that as the months blend into each other, so do the lines between them. The hesitance he'd once felt around Jongseong in the apartment slowly fades away, until the space is both of theirs, until he finds himself confident in his own skin. He leaves his coat draped next to Jongseong's over the upholstery in the living room, microwaves instant rice in the kitchen at two in the morning, lets their skincare get mixed together atop the bathroom counter. Soon enough he finds that he can feel along the buttons on Jongseong's weirdly expensive TV remote in the dark, no longer squinting under his phone flashlight for what he'd been certain was the volume button but had just put him on an unsettlingly outdated channel he'd never seen before.

Sometimes a piece of Jungwon feels like they're playing house.

In a way, it's too easy.

The thing is: Jungwon thrives under shifting routines and fast-paced schedules. He can weather the late nights backstage and having to make sure Jongseong's mic pack is in place and properly labeled, running back and forth between meeting rooms, ensuring Jongseong gets fed during long shooting blocks, that he has an open bottle of water ready in his hand every time he's left heaving after a grueling take.

But it's the downtime, really, that makes him feel raw and exposed.

Jongseong likes to busy himself with cooking when he has time off. Or sometimes he insists on buying them takeout, even though Jungwon always makes sure to tell him that he really doesn't have to, that he can buy his own dinner just fine.

They eat at the kitchen table most of the time, or by the couch in the living room when they want to watch something. Today Jongseong orders them Chinese, and Jungwon sits there stirring his jjajangmyeon with two chopsticks as Jongseong leans back with a groan.

"Everything okay?" Jungwon asks lightly.

"Yeah, just—" he groans again, one hand reaching back to dig against his shoulder blade. "Just my shoulder acting up again. I think I pushed myself too far in practice."

"How long were you there?" Jungwon asks. He'd woken up to Jongseong already gone to the practice rooms, but he hadn't realized how early he must have slipped out. Jongseong's shoulder has always been especially tender from a bad fall back with his old group, making small injuries recurrent. They've both been tasked with keeping an eye on it.

Jongseong winces. "Nine hours," he admits. Then, "I know, it's stupid. Or it's hard to understand, you know—why would anyone spend that long just dancing. But I lost track of time."

Jungwon has no idea why he says it. Why he goes, "No, I understand."

"Huh?"

Oh, shit.

Jungwon has no idea why he says it, but he still does. Later he'll claim that it was because he was tired. He'd taken a nap near the end of the romcom he and Jongseong watched together earlier, and he was still a little bit groggy, tongue loosened from being freshly woken.

He knows that he can offer any response to this: of course I get it, I'm your manager! I understand you! That there are a myriad of ways around this, shortcuts that won't reveal a piece of himself. Once a secret is out there, after all, it can never be unlearned.

But those quips aren't the truth, and Jongseong has only ever been truthful with him. Maybe Jungwon owes him this much.

Eyes cast toward his bowl, Jungwon admits, "I was a trainee once."

"Huh?" Jongseong says, again, as if he's broken. His eyebrows lift with the shock. "You mean you—"

"At a small company, a long time ago," Jungwon cuts in hastily. "When I was in middle school, and not for very long. So I guess I don't really get it. But in some ways I do. I think."

Jongseong continues to gape at him. Maybe he's trying to reconcile his image of the Yang Jungwon who never listens to K-pop with the Yang Jungwon who had once been an idol trainee, dedicating himself to one day singing those exact songs. "Why did you never tell me?"

Jungwon shrugs. "What good would that do?" he says, voice obvious. "It was—oh, wow. Almost ten years ago. Sometimes I can barely remember myself."

"Were you any good?" Jongseong asks hesitantly. He always looks like he's brimming with curiosity, like he wants to peel back Jungwon's layers against his better judgment, making himself sick with his self-imposed restraint.

Jungwon doesn't mind the probing, though. What scares him more is the ease he feels at answering, at how Jongseong's side feels warm and safe to the touch. At how he unravels at the slightest tug.

He's just tired, Jungwon convinces himself again.

Was he any good?

Jungwon remembers the choreographer noona who had stayed up with him late in the practice rooms going over dance moves, constantly telling him that out of all the trainees, he had the most potential. He remembers the one-hour commute after school and the kids from the dorms who let him sleep over when it was too late to take the train back. Vocal lessons after dinner and hunching over in the hallway to scribble out his math homework when he was fourteen, the way solving for x was the last thing on his mind when he still had an entire choreography to memorize, and how things had felt urgent even then, even when they didn't have to be.

"It doesn't matter if I was good," Jungwon says. He'd only trained a year, then put his head down and forced his way through school. "The company was too small. I couldn't afford the longshot."

"Do you—do you wish you'd continued?"

"No," Jungwon replies honestly. He's too old to be caught up in these fantasies, a childhood dream stamped out before it had even begun. The label he'd trained under had eventually shut down, probably filed for bankruptcy. "We all try out things that don't work out. It's just part of growing up, isn't it?"

Jongseong smiles. "Yeah, true. I guess. I don't know, I'm just trying to imagine you as a trainee now."

"Well—you know," Jungwon starts, "if we had known each other then, I probably would have found you really cool."

"Huh?" Jongseong pouts. "Are you saying you don't find me cool now?"

Jungwon snorts and shakes his head. He leans forward to shovel noodles into his mouth, pauses to chew, and then smiles up at him. "I mean, it's not the same. You're still cool, just in a different way."

"How so?"

"Hm. Let me think. You don't care if I call you uncool, for one. That's a little bit cool."

Jongseong sighs through a mouthful of noodles, cheeks full and ridiculous. Then he laments, "Where did the Jungwon who called me 'Jongseong-ssi' go?"

The day they first met, when Jungwon had walked in on Jongseong in his duck print pajamas, Jongseong had eventually emerged from the bathroom with his hair slightly straightened out. He'd bowed back to Jungwon and called him Jungwon-ssi, too, in his most lilting voice, overly stiff and formal.

Three weeks later, Jungwon had watched the mess in Jongseong's room standardize into his usual disorganization, no longer product of careful deliberation. The façade had slipped away and revealed something a little rough around the edges. Something—someone—a little awkward and caustic, someone undyingly dedicated.

Someone cool, Jungwon will admit. Even in all of his weird and various shades.

"That Jungwon is dead and gone," Jungwon confirms. "And you're the one to blame."

"I'll take responsibility," Jongseong sighs dramatically.

Jungwon wishes the warmth of his gaze didn't make him feel so completely flayed. Something burning toward the sun.

 

 

October is a busy month for idol comebacks: everyone is eager to get their first or second album out of the way before award show deadlines pass, taking hold of the final few weeks and squeezing them into a charting bloodbath.

Jungwon is made acutely aware of this fact the day Yonghee tasks him with handing out Jongseong's second album to the waiting rooms around them and finds them positively overflowing with idols and staff.

A group named TXT is getting ready nearby, in a room where stylists shuffle around frantically. He looks around and counts six men dressed in glittery gold shirts. Two of them standing by the door eye the albums in his arms and stand to attention once they recognize the design.

"Jongseongie!" the man with pink streaks in his hair exclaims. They both have big, kind smiles on their faces, and one of them comes back moments later with their own signed album swiped from one of the waiting room tables.

"Here you go," he says, polite. "Can you tell Jongseong that Taehyun and Wonjin-hyung miss him?"

Maybe they were members of his old group, Jungwon decides, when he's unable to place either of their names or faces. He makes his way out with a bow and then walks to the waiting room over. There he gently thumps a knuckle under the ELLIPSIX sign taped to the door, waiting a polite two beats before he makes his way in. He's careful not to jostle the cardboard box in his arms in the process.

"Oh!" a voice says from somewhere to his left. "Are you Jongseong's manager?"

Jesus, is everyone in this damn building friends with the man?

Jungwon turns and sees someone with wavy silver hair step into view. His long locks are styled down to his nape, and he has impossibly round eyes that belie a sharp face, striking features and unforgiving angles. Jungwon traces the trail of his gaze down to the signed album stacks cradled in his arms.

"Um, yes," Jungwon says, bowing instinctively. He reaches to the top of one stack and pops an album off, extending his arm in a quiet plea to be rid of its weight. "Do you—I mean, I'm distributing these on Jongseong-ssi's behalf. Would you like an album?"

"I—I'm Lee Heeseung," the man blurts. Even standing still as he is, he makes no move to take the album. "It's nice to meet you."

"You too…?" Jungwon tries. He racks his brain for any time Jongseong might have mentioned someone by the name of Heeseung over the last few months and comes up blank. Not that Jongseong has been regaling him with every tale of his intimate idol friendships—as Jungwon has just come to learn—but, still. Nothing.

Heeseung frowns; Jungwon continues to stare. Then, after one beat too long passes, he lets out an "Ah!" and seems to come to his senses, quickly shooting a hand out and graciously accepting the album Jungwon has kept suspended in the air. When he leans back to his full height he looks almost bashful, his cheeks dusted pink.

"Jongseong and I were—" he starts to explain, then falters. "Ah, it's not important, I guess. But thank you for this album."

Seriously, Jungwon despairs. He can't dangle bait this blatant just to pull it back at the most crucial moment. Jungwon is professional, but he isn't a saint. Now I'm curious, you asshole! his brain screams.

"Were you two close?" he tries.

Heeseung looks as if he's been jolted. Cautiously, he asks, "Has he really never mentioned me?"

"I've only been his manager for a few months," Jungwon tries to justify. "I mean, since his solo debut. I'm afraid I'm not too familiar..."

"No, of course. I'm sorry, that was unjust of me." Unjust? Jungwon thinks. The hell? Who was this man?

"Would you like me to get a message back to him, or something?" Jungwon asks. "It seems I've become his personal messenger today."

"No, no," Heeseung rushes out. "It's okay."

The expression on his face is stern, deeply regretful. When he looks back at Jungwon he bites his lip and says, "Can you tell me how he's doing, at least?"

"He's—" Jungwon pauses. He's good, of course. Tired, but when are any of them not? Jungwon doesn't know what he can say that will assuage this man in front of him, this stranger bleeding out in front of him. "He's happy, I think."

"Good," Heeseung breathes out, and then it's like a switch has been flipped, and a mask slips back into place. "Good," he tries again, but with less feeling.

"Have a good day," Jungwon says, feeling vaguely unsettled. Gesturing toward the album in Heeseung's hand, he adds, "And please enjoy the CD."

He walks out the door with his eyes trained on the albums in front of him. Trying to avoid making eye contact with anyone else, the cursive English script that reads Poison Flower over a blood red rosebud, black blood dripping down its stem, suddenly seems like the most interesting thing in the world.

He lets out a breath he hadn't known he was holding when he gets back to Jongseong's waiting room. Yonghee looks at him and immediately mouths a, you okay?, and Jungwon nods back at him on instinct.

But, like. Is he really?

What the hell had all that been about?

 

 

"I met someone today," Jungwon tells Jongseong conversationally on the drive back.

"Who?"

"Someone named Heeseung," he says. "He seemed—upset. Like he missed you?"

Jongseong makes a strange, strangled noise. "Heeseung-hyung? Ellipsix?"

"Yup," Jungwon confirms. "Anything I need to know?"

"I—don't know," Jongseong says, slowly, his voice uncharacteristically haunted.

Well, if not even Jongseong knows, then Jungwon definitely has zero clue what to do with all of this. What to do with the pain in those few words, the weight of his tone.

He hums to himself and drops the conversation.

 

 

October turns to November to December, and late into the year he and Yonghee take turns driving Jongseong to a festival schedule in Busan.

Yonghee hands Jongseong a handheld camera before they step in. Jungwon settles into the passenger seat and watches Jongseong turn it on from his seat mirror, the way he adjusts his hair with one awkward palm laid flat against the side of his head before waving his fingers in greeting.

"...it's been a while since I visited Busan!" Jongseong is saying into the screen. "So I'm really excited. Even if it's going to be a short schedule."

Jungwon leans back, tuning in periodically to the sound of Jongseong's voice mixing with the IU songs they have blaring through the AUX port. The song playing right now isn't recent. Jungwon remembers listening to it in high school, the way the scorned edge of her voice as she crooned I'm sick of your love had felt weighty back then, back when he hadn't known anything about love.

Not that he does now, or anything.

After fifteen minutes or so, Jungwon realizes Jongseong's voice behind him has suddenly quieted down, and when he turns back he finds him out cold. They've all been run ragged the entire week, a hectic schedule with no way around it. Jungwon watches the way his chest rises and falls for a moment, mouth open and face peaceful, before he leans over to recoup the camera.

It's still recording. He quietly shuts it off, brain fastforwarding to the way the editors will cut around this moment. Then he moves a hand toward the radio controls and quietly lowers the song volume.

A soft chuckle sounds to his left.

When he looks up, Yonghee has a private smile on his face, corner lifted in a way that vaguely resembles a smirk. Jungwon opens his mouth, but then Yonghee resolutely turns his head away from him, eyes focusing on the road.

"What?" Jungwon demands.

"Nothing," he says. It's in a sing-songy voice.

"No, clearly you—ugh. What?"

"I said it was nothing!" is all Yonghee repeats, still smiling. "Get some rest, Jungwon-ah. We can switch at the next gas stop."

Jungwon feels unsettled—strangely watched, cut open. He wants to say that there's no way he can rest now, not until Yonghee tells him what he saw that was so particularly entertaining. But, just like Jongseong, he can feel the exhaustion deep in his bones. A part of him, the part that eventually wins out, knows he could use the momentary shut-eye.

He wakes up later to the sound of car wheels rolling onto a curb and coming to a smooth stop by the gas tank, right before Yonghee reaches over to shake him awake.

"I'm good," he says, and Yonghee retracts his hand.

The rest of the car ride is smooth and quiet, Jongseong fading in and out of consciousness in the back seat, Yonghee resting his head against the window beside him. Jungwon keeps his focus on the highway signs. The stretch of road ahead.

A part of him does begin to wonder, though.

 

 

"Can I ask you something?"

They're back in the dorms this time. Lights dimmed, two bodies laid back on Jongseong's queen-sized bed. Jungwon hasn't shared a bed with someone in a long, long time, but he'd been pulled here a few weeks ago when Jongseong wanted to watch a movie on his laptop, and now he thinks he's gotten used to having to fit around a single space.

Jongseong makes a consenting noise, so Jungwon folds his hands over his chest and looks up at him out the corner of his eye.

"After your first group disbanded," he asks. "Why did you want to go solo? Couldn't you have joined another agency and debuted in a group?"

There are several unspoken questions, requests, lingering underneath. Like, tell me what happened to you. Tell me the things you aren't sure you can keep holding back. Or, like, who is this Heeseung guy, anyway? What does he even want with you?

"I could have," Jongseong admits. "Do you know anything about my old group?"

"No, not really. Is this—I mean, were those guys I met…" he tries to recall the other names. "Wonjin-ssi?" Then, "Heeseung-ssi?"

Jongseong snorts. "No, I just know Wonjin-hyung from my trainee days. But Heeseung-hyung, yeah. We were on the survival show together."

The survival show! They're finally getting somewhere, he thinks.

Of course, Jungwon knows he could have searched this at any time. That the information was a few keyboard strokes away, the truth of Jongseong's past. But a part of him had never felt right infringing on this piece of him that still seemed to sting, a narrative so irreversible and sore.

Finally, now, Jungwon dares to ask.

"What happened with you two?"

For a pregnant beat, Jongseong stares at a spot in the distance, an indistinct nothingness.

Then he says, "Do you think it's possible to have too much history?"

"I don't know," Jungwon tells him.

It's the truth, because—what can he even say? That, most of the time, he lives too much in the present to let old ghosts haunt him? That he's never known someone long enough to have that kind of history with them, at least no one outside of his own family? He's always pushed forward even at the sacrifice of his friendships, of people who cared.

He isn't proud of it, but it also means he can't pretend to understand.

"Heeseung-hyung was the leader," Jongseong starts, "of my old group. There were nine of us. He was the oldest, and in the end we voted for him even though he didn't really want the position. After our group disbanded, he went back to his label and redebuted under Ellipsix, and I went solo. I guess somewhere along the way we stopped talking."

"That's it?" Jungwon asks. When he had met Heeseung, he'd gotten the impression that there was more to the story. To the way Heeseung had hovered a hand by Jungwon's arm like he was holding back from grabbing at his sleeve, from the way he'd asked, Can you tell me how he's doing, at least?

"Well. A long, long time ago, we trained under the same company together. Bighit."

"Bighit? You mean—BTS Bighit?" Jungwon boggles.

It's the first time he's shown any sign of recognition at one of Jongseong's stories, which is probably why Jongseong snorts at him.

"Yes, exactly. Years ago, though. We were supposed to be in a group together, but they had already debuted another boy group with six members. TXT—that's where I knew Wonjin-hyung from. So the plans for our debut fall apart. They were worried it was too early, and then everything was up in the air, and most of the trainees left the company. Except Heeseung joined his label while I went independent, and then..." He sighs. "I guess the survival show never reunited us the way it was supposed to."

"Because you weren't in the same company anymore?"

"Maybe," he says. "I don't know. I'd known him for so long, but there were times when I felt like I didn't know him at all. Like there was nothing left to balance us out."

Jungwon considers this. The line of Jongseong's frown is angry and pronounced, perplexed. Jungwon wonders if he knows he's making it in the first place. "Do you wish you could have joined a group, though? That you hadn't gone solo?"

For a moment Jongseong just shrugs again, one of his gravest repeated offenses. Jungwon keeps watching him, partly wondering if he should reach over and grab at his hand, give it a reassuring squeeze. Then Jongseong's face clears, and he dons an expression Jungwon has never seen before. One that says: this isn't a thought I've gone over again and again. One that pretends it isn't something he's turned around at every angle and examined in all its gory, painful details. One perfectly normal, assured, even though anyone could take one look at him and insist otherwise.

"Well, now I have to sing the entire song," Jongseong tells him dramatically. "Do you know how much breath control that takes?"

"Oh, you poor thing," Jungwon commiserates. "Are the weekly vocal lessons we provide for you not enough?"

"Okay, ouch. It's not my fault I was a rapper first."

"I think you're a perfectly fine singer," Jungwon assuages. Then, "Why don't you just talk to him?"

"Huh?"

"Heeseung-ssi, I mean. When I spoke to him in the dressing room last time, it seemed like he missed you a lot."

"It's complicated," Jongseong tries.

"Is it?" The face in the waiting room hadn't seemed complicated to him. The openness of his expression had struck Jungwon as fascinatingly simple, actually. A dagger fracturing open what was otherwise—in his eyes—an inspiringly rehearsed idol façade. "Because if it is, I don't think it's on his behalf."

"No, I guess not," Jongseong concedes, biting his lip. "I don't know."

He looks at Jungwon then, and says, "Maybe if we'd had someone like you in the group, it wouldn't have been all that hard."

Jungwon doesn't expect the punch he feels at those words, a blow that hooks in right at the gut and sends him staggering. What the hell is that supposed to mean? Jongseong isn't cruel. Just stupid, and a little soft, and Jungwon unexpectedly sensitive around him. He doesn't know that when he bleeds open like this, it's Jungwon's wounds that end up stinging.

"Don't say that," he insists quietly. "Really, don't."

Jungwon isn't fourteen and panting against the mirrored walls of a basement practice room anymore. Like all his ghosts, he's laid this one to rest. Seen it to the ground and covered its gaping pit with his own pragmatisms. He is fine, and he will always be, and this isn't the hill he'll ever try to die on.

But for just the barest moment, the thought manifests as a ghoulish vision in his brain. It conjures someone like Jungwon, except a funhouse mirror version of him. A Jungwon who is Jongseong's dependable dongsaeng and not his harried manager.

What would that even look like? He hates that on some level, it almost makes sense.

"Oh," Jongseong starts. He sounds apologetic, regretful. "No, I didn't mean… I'm sorry, Jungwon-ah. I just meant that—you're good at mediating, you know?"

"Thank you," he responds reflexively. He doesn't know why his brain is like this, prone to fantasy around Jongseong. It's distinctly unlike him, and it isn't Jongseong's fault he makes him feel this way.

"The next time I see him..." Jongseong tries.

"You'll talk to him?"

"Maybe," Jongseong mumbles.

"Why are you so nervous about this?" Maybe Jungwon doesn't understand how deeply losing a friendship can cut. Or maybe, he starts to think, there's even more beneath the layers of this modern tragedy. "Were you two together, or something?"

Jongseong jolts up in shock, pushing himself up with his palms and staring down at Jungwon with wide eyes. "Huh? What? I don't—what?"

"Remember," he says. "You told me one time that you had a boyfriend last year."

"I did? What, was I drunk?"

"Oh." Jungwon tries to recall the exact incident. "Hm, maybe."

Jongseong flops back down and lets out a loud breath. "God, I really told you about that? That's so embarrassing."

"You did," Jungwon confirms. "How you met backstage and it only lasted two months and he was weirdly intense and then you got creeped out and broke up with him over Katalk, and you had to walk really fast past his group's dressing room at every award show."

"Huh, yeah. Well, I didn't—I didn't even know I liked men back then, so no. We weren't together."

"Ah. So it was just deeply repressed tension, then?"

Jongseong rolls his eyes. "I'm not into Lee Heeseung, Jungwon-ah. Please. We were just friends."

He gets up then and flips his room's light switch on, then leans toward his drawer and pulls a small item out of it. When he makes his way back to the bed, Jungwon sees that it's a thick stack of polaroids held together with a rubber band.

"These are polaroids from my old group," Jongseong says. "Our debut. My first one. I was given an instant camera and swore to keep the photos with me forever, no matter what happened."

The first picture Jongseong shows him is Jongseong in a black leather jacket and a monochrome animal print shirt, excess fabric tucked into a tightly cinched belt. He has an arm thrown around another boy and his lips curved into a smirk.

"We called this style rock chic," he says with a sigh. "No one has ever let me live in my entire life."

"Rock chic?" Jungwon repeats, laughing. He thumbs through some of the other polaroids, Jongseong constantly dressed to the nines, camera-face always overly practiced. "What, were all these pieces sourced from your favorite runway collections?"

Jongseong pouts. "Leave me alone, I have great taste. And look at what you're wearing, coming for me like that!"

Jungwon pinches the front of his sweater with two hands and pulls it forward, in a, What, this thing? motion.

"Don't you know where I got this from?" he says. "Fall '24 collection, very chic. Very expensive."

Is that even how runway collections work? Jungwon refuses to put any more effort into his taunt, so he lets Jongseong do the work for him.

"Oh, really?" Jongseong humors. "Which designer is it from?"

Jungwon lets go of his sweater and feels it fall back into place. "The sale rack at SPAO, actually," he admits eventually, giggling through the confession.

"You're ridiculous," Jongseong says.

Jungwon hums, eyes falling on a polaroid of Jongseong and Heeseung together. It's one of the few of Jongseong that isn't rehearsed, a candid of them eating lunch together. They're bent over the table with their shoulders rounded toward each other, like magnets curled together.

"Thanks for telling me everything," Jungwon exhales. "About—Heeseung, and your group, even though you didn't have to."

Jongseong looks at him consideringly. His pinky reaches over, rustling the covers in the process, and hooks onto Jungwon's.

"Thanks for listening," he says.

 

 

Later, in the car again:

"By the way, hyung."

"Hm?"

"I can't stop thinking about this. Why are they called Ellipsix if there's only five of them?"

Jungwon remembers their faces, vaguely. Heeseung with his silver hair, and another man with scraggly eyebrows named Sunghoon, then the three others he'd never exchanged words with. Altogether, though, it definitely amounted to five. Was there a sixth on hiatus? Or one constantly out to the bathroom, a mysterious entity Jungwon might never get to meet?

Jongseong bursts out laughing. "Jungwon-ah, you're an idol manager. You have to start learning about us at some point."

"What?" he objects. "It's a valid question!"

"It's just a thing," Jongseong smoothly explains. "You know, the sixth member is the fans. How they wouldn't be complete without them."

"That's stupid," he decides. He remembers that time he'd asked Jongseong why he used his real name to promote, and Jongseong had explained that any name the agency tried to come up with sounded like a riff of the existing Jay Park, or Jay-Z, and in the end they'd given up on remarketing him. "I'm so glad you aren't Jay-P."

Jongseong just shudders.

 

 

Nine months into his manager gig, Jungwon starts thinking. He visits his grandmother and finally eats her galbitang, and he thinks about the future, and his job, and what he's supposed to do about Jongseong. About the weird feelings taking root in his chest, and what being twenty-three, soon twenty-four, is supposed to look like.

How it's supposed to feel, this strangely-shaped age of youth. His young years. His years free of enlistment and high school cramming, a time that should so distinctly be his own.

 

 

“Do you remember that time you injured your shoulder again and had to go on hiatus?” Jungwon asks Jongseong one afternoon.

"How could I not," Jongseong says, "you left me for a whole week!"

Jungwon rolls his eyes. "You were fine, though. Weren't you? We cleared your schedules for a month."

"I'm just being dramatic," Jongseong immediately assures. He's always been quick to fill in Jungwon's doubts, a kindness only reserved for the people he cares about. Again: Jungwon doesn't know what to do about being one of those people. He isn't sure he ever will. "You went to visit your grandmother, right?"

"Yeah. It was my first time visiting her since I got discharged."

"I remember, you told me that before you left." He bites his lip. "But I never asked how it went, did I? I should have."

"I don't blame you," Jungwon dismisses. "You had a fucked-up shoulder and were sentenced to medical house arrest. I'm sure my vacation was the last thing on your mind. But, no—I'm just. I've been thinking about it. When I went to her place I slept in the old guest room I used as a kid, and every morning she'd ask me if I was happy. She wanted to know if what I was doing was right for me. Whether I had it in me to keep going like this."

"Like this?"

"You know. I mean, managing. And everything that comes with it." He lets out a small sigh. "Not that it's a bad job, obviously. But I guess in a way it feels like my life isn't really my own. Or that I didn't get to try all the things I should have."

"Like going to school?"

"Yeah. Even more than my parents, my grandmother was the one who wanted me to go to university. Especially since she never did herself."

Jongseong hums. "Last time we talked about it, you said you weren't sure if you wanted to go."

Of course, Jungwon remembers this. How Jongseong had asked, do you not want to go to school? Get a degree, not have to deal with sleep-deprived idols who take up all your time and energy? And Jungwon had teased, Don't flatter yourself, hyung. You really aren't as instrumental to my life as you think you are.

A bold-faced lie. They both knew it, but Jongseong had taken the jab anyway, the way he always did. Then Jungwon had hummed thoughtfully, admitted—"I'm not sure, honestly. I know I can just get an online degree, but maybe I'll go back later."

"I want to go back to school, too. Let's go back in a few years or something. Maybe we can study together after I finish my service."

Jungwon had laughed at that. At Jongseong's sincerity, maybe. At the way he believed everything could be done with time, that pure conviction was all it took. A part of him liked how Jongseong acted as though there was still a path, years down the line, upon which their joint futures could unfurl.

It would never actually work like that, obviously. But the idea was sweet.

"I've been thinking," Jungwon reminds him again. "The money isn't an issue anymore, so I just need the conviction now, I guess."

"Good thing you have that in spades," Jongseong quips back. Infuriating as always, so unfaltering in his belief of Jungwon's capabilities.

Playing house with Jongseong is like that: in a way, Jungwon forgets what it's like to not have someone who believes in him, perpetually, inherently. Someone who only wants to make him better. Who hovers around him like a planet orbiting the sun, scared of letting go.

Jungwon feels like he's going crazy.

"Like this," Jongseong demonstrates, large hand taking hold of Jungwon's. They're in the kitchen. Jungwon's attempt at cooking dinner has just been intercepted by an eagle-eyed Jongseong, and his fingers feel warm and lightly callused. Jungwon lets his own hand soften in his grip. "Keep the fingers on your other hand tucked in first. Then you need to keep doing this forward motion, like—slide it this way, without lifting the knife so much. You get it?"

Jongseong's face is so close to his. Close to the point of his eyelashes coming into focus, Jungwon momentarily distracted by their length and prominence. By the way Jongseong's expression is always so guileless around him, shockingly open.

"Jungwon?" Jongseong prompts.

"I don't like this," Jungwon decides. Mostly because he doesn't want to admit that he wasn't paying attention, and then somewhat because he doesn't actually care about the proper way to slice a green onion. His haphazard chopping has never failed him before, so why fix what isn't broken? He looks back at Jongseong and tries to communicate the most pleading impression he can muster—which, knowing himself, probably isn't that pleading at all. “Can you do it for me?”

Jongseong sighs at him.

"Please?"

"I can't believe you're never going to learn how to slice a green onion," Jongseong says. "I'm telling you, this is a necessary skill."

"What if I injure myself?" Jungwon faux-threatens. "Will you take responsibility for that?"

Jongseong leans back and taps lightly at his hip. "Okay, hand me the damn knife then," he sighs again. Smiling, albeit exasperatedly.

Another win for my irresistible charm! Jungwon doesn't say. Though, really, he'd be lying if he suggested he didn't somewhat enjoy taking advantage of how easily Jongseong bends to his whims.

Jongseong is a man of few words when he cooks. Back bent over the cutting board, the span of it broad and reliable, two hands making quick but careful work. Jungwon leaves him to it.

The tteokbokki Jongseong serves steaming hot to the table later is delicious, Jungwon tells him. Jongseong ruffles his hair and leans against the corner.

"I don't know any other idol who cooks for their manager this much," he challenges, and then he takes out his chopsticks and leans in for a bite.

 

 

Again, Jungwon thinks he becomes irreversibly aware of it in Seattle. It, as in—them, and their finalities. The moving parts that need to be compromised.

The American leg of Jongseong's world tour is especially long. They trek from the East Coast to the South, to what feels like a million different places in California, to finally that lonely last stretch up to Washington, the state with its listless grey expanses of cloudy sky.

Back in his hotel room, Jungwon wakes up to a muffled voice beating against the door.

"Jungwon-ah," Jongseong calls out. "Open up! I want to go out."

Jungwon groans and takes a moment to register his surroundings. He feels, then hears, his back crack as he stretches it out, and he slinks out of the covers to pad over to the source of Jongseong's rhythmic knocking. One hand pulls open the door and lets Jongseong stumble in, and then he makes a beeline for the bathroom, reluctantly pulling out his toiletry bag to brush his teeth.

"I am not driving you downtown again," Jungwon warns him in no uncertain terms, once they're settled by the entryway again and he's slipped his beat-up sneakers on.

(They'd learned their lesson in San Francisco. Jongseong had insisted on visiting antique boutiques for a whole afternoon, which had led Jungwon to throwing frantic looks out the tinted glass window after several futile searches for a parking spot, praying no one would fine him for illegally parking the company rental van. Where the hell did all the garages in these stupid cities go, anyway?)

"No driving!" Jongseong promises. "It's only a few blocks away." He bites his lip, looking unconvinced of his own reassurance. "...I think."

"Okay," Jungwon sighs. "What did you want to do?"

Immediately, Jongseong brightens up at his granted permission. With his black mask pulled down below his chin—his hair mussed up, face bare and swollen from rest—the force of his boyish charm hits Jungwon full-force.

He throws his baseball cap on, tucking stray tufts of hair behind his ears. Jungwon snaps out of it.

"Oh, that," Jongseong says. "Let's get ice cream!"

 

 

"You used to live here?" Jungwon asks, taking it in. The air is crisp and cool, and he tries to imagine a younger Jongseong walking along these sidewalks, along dusty grey gravel littered with browning leaves. A city is a city is a city; nothing here feels too unlike Seoul.

"Not exactly here," Jongseong admits. He leans in as if it's a funny secret. "But in a town outside Seattle, about twenty minutes away."

"Do you remember it well?"

"Kind of," Jongseong laughs. "I remember the path I took to school every day. And my ice cream order at my favorite mall, and some of my classmates, and the grocery store my family always went to. I swear the hot food section sold the best potato wedges of my life."

Jungwon makes a face at him. "Are all of your favorite memories about food?"

"Are yours not?" Jongseong challenges. "It's funny, though. How you can spend years thinking something is home, finding comfort in it, and then you have to leave everyone behind and start over. And then you're alone again, until you aren't."

"Until you aren't," Jungwon echoes quietly. "Yeah."

Home is an ever-shifting thing. He's learned this well enough over the course of his life, from growing up in his grandmothers' arms and the time split between his parents' apartments and the year and a half sequestered on a marine base. Learned this from the room he calls his, back at Jongseong's place, the kitchen they share and their toothbrushes a cup apart, a sort of cohabitation he could have never imagined for himself before.

Jungwon has always been used to being alone, in some sense of the word.

"You aren't now, though. Right?"

"Right," Jongseong agrees.

Even in the buzzing world around them, their smiles feel private.

 

 

To absolutely no one's surprise, they reach a snag about five minutes into their walk. Jungwon stares at the surrounding skyscrapers and their reflective sides, the bony trees littered around in their designated squares on the sidewalks, and lets Jongseong deliberate noisily at his side.

"Isn't it to the left?" Jungwon tries again.

"No," Jongseong insists. He points at his phone screen again. "It says it's this way."

Jungwon squints at the dotted blue line on the application Jongseong has open. "What are you talking about? Stop looking at your stupid GPS, hyung. I think your data is acting up."

"Huh?"

"Look," he says. He points at the Starbucks pin by their location marker, its shadow cast along what distinctly feels like the wrong direction. "This Starbucks, you see? We definitely passed that a block ago."

Jongseong makes a frustrated noise. "Huh."

"Just trust me—" Jungwon starts to say, but he's cut off by Jongseong's look, one deeply and unnervingly considering. "Okay, what?"

"How about this," Jongseong offers. "If I'm right, you have to treat me."

Jungwon rolls his eyes. "You're such a child sometimes."

"Well, is that a yes?" he presses.

"So you're saying that if you're wrong, you'll pay?"

"Of course."

Jungwon shrugs. He can't find any reason to draw this out further, and sometimes it's faster to just give into Jongseong's whims. "Okay, then," he says. "Sure. Lead the way, Jongseong-ssi."

"I'm telling you," Jongseong says as they pick up the pace. "I grew up around here! I know where things are."

Jungwon definitely picks up on the probably muttered beneath his breath, but he spares him the acknowledgment. This event seems to be harrowing enough for him as it is, and Jungwon isn't evil.

With their arms lingering lightly against each other, he follows along.

 

 

Of course, Jungwon is right.

The ice cream shop he pulls Jongseong into is quaint and fragrant. Muted Seattle sunlight crawls in through the huge glass panels by the wooden countertops, and the line of rowdy tourists taking pictures of the place at every angle runs nearly out the door. Jongseong pulls up to the register and spits out names Jungwon can't even begin to make out, and for a moment Jungwon casts him a wary glance.

Then, of course, he thinks of the looks he'd get if he tried to go, Yeah, actually, could I have a scoop of My Mom Is An Alien? to an innocent Baskin Robbins employee in America, and he guesses this is just a universal truth of ice cream flavoring.

"Were you really going to pay with your own money?" Jongseong asks him afterward. They're standing by the front door boxed in its weathered wood frame, Jongseong with one of those little tasting spoons hanging out his mouth. He sounds uncharacteristically touched. "I mean, if I had won the bet."

Jungwon just pats at where his wallet sits in his jean pocket and smiles at him. "Of course not. You know they gave me a company card for a reason, right?"

"Ah," Jongseong says, brows lifting. "Of course."

Jongseong goes up to pick their ice cream orders and has them settle by one of the countertops, taking a seat on the spinny black chairs. Jungwon digs in, swallows, and then immediately throws Jongseong a glance.

"Is there cereal in this?" Jungwon asks with a note of surprise.

"Yup," Jongseong confirms. "All the special flavors are seasonal. The ice cream places here are kind of like a fancy Baskin Robbins."

"Huh," he says, then gives it a little nod of approval, polishing off a corner of his cup. A purchase well-spent on Jongseong's behalf, he decides.

After a few minutes of quiet eating, Jongseong leans forward and rests his cheek against his palm. His eyes cast out to the street.

"You know," he says, "it's nice to be able to spend downtime like this. The last time I came to Seattle for a world tour, we barely had time to breathe before we had to be onstage."

"Yeah? You should be grateful the company throws so much money at you, then."

Jongseong glances at him, eyes widening indignantly. "What—I'm the one making that money in the first place!"

"Sure," Jungwon concedes. He laughs when Jongseong's expression morphs into one of hurt, then says, "Well, I'm also glad. Mostly because I get to eat ice cream here instead of tearing my hair out over concert regulations with the Americans like Yonghee-hyung probably is right now."

"Hmm. A lot of words to say that you like spending time with me, Jungwon-ah."

Jungwon snorts. "Oh, please. You really—"

He's just about to offer another quip, say something along the lines of You really think of yourself so highly, huh?, when a gasp from a few feet away interrupts his train of thought.

"Park Jongseong?" a voice calls out. Inquiring, almost reverent.

When Jungwon turns around, he sees a girl with her phone surreptitiously angled toward them. Her expression is dumbfounded and open-mouthed, as if mere moments away from rushing toward them.

"All right," Jungwon says hurriedly. He gets up and throws his finished cup into the compost bin near them, then nudges at Jongseong's side, who is too busy smiling at the fan and waving a hand in greeting to notice. "Shall we go?"

The girl makes a happy noise and starts saying something else in English that Jungwon can't quite catch. Jungwon tugs along at Jongseong's hand, pulling until Jongseong finally follows him out with a small smile, throwing a, "It was nice to meet you!" over his shoulder.

Jungwon forces him to walk-jog to the crosswalk before he lets them catch their breath, their hands still clasped together. He looks around to see that no one has followed them, then leans forward and heaves a relieved sigh.

"Relax," Jongseong laughs. He pats his back, only his left hand is still occupied, so he has to turn toward Jungwon to do this, bringing his right arm around Jungwon's shoulder in the process. "You know it isn't illegal to run into an idol you like at an ice cream shop, right? Stop looking at my fans like they're about to murder me."

"It's my job to mitigate unpredictable situations," Jungwon reminds him, straightening up. "And we're still in public, which means I have to be curt if it's to keep you safe."

"Aw!" Jongseong says, smiling so stupidly Jungwon immediately regrets saying anything. He reaches over to pinch at Jungwon's cheek, except Jungwon kind of lost all his baby fat after months of grueling military training and it honestly just hurts at this point. "Our Jungwonie is so dependable!"

Jungwon should really be more irritated by this than he actually is.

"Let's go back to the hotel," he directs. "You set for tomorrow?"

"Of course, boss," Jongseong quickly says, letting himself be dragged onto another crosswalk.

Neither of them mention their palms still warm against each other, the squeeze of Jongseong's fingers against the back of his hand as they get jostled in the pedestrian bustle. They hold onto each other until they get back to the hotel elevator, until Jungwon presses on the eighth floor button for them, until he lets his arms fall awkwardly down to his side.

 

 

The concert comes and goes.

But another first. An important one this time:

Backstage after the second half, Jongseong runs down the platform with sweat trickling down his forehead, looking euphoric and surreal. His makeup is starting to smudge from the heat of the stage lights and his lipstick has turned a blushy, coral pink. Above all, his eyebrows are dark and striking against the baby softness of his face, and he looks at Jungwon with this expression, one that spells weariness and triumph and exhilaration and adoration all at once. Adoration toward his fans, toward the world, and then toward Jungwon and everyone else around them, every force that has led him here.

Jungwon's stupid brain seizes control.

At that moment, into the searing quiet of his mind, it treacherously supplies, I want to kiss you.

 

 

The truth has probably been there all along. Stubborn and unyielding, he'd only refused to see it.

 

 

The day afterward, they get one final break day. They'll fly out to Europe later, where Jongseong will pull out his French textbooks with their cracked and worn out spines on the plane, books he'd bought years and years ago. Jungwon will watch him read over conversational phrases with mild interest, letting the unfamiliar syllables wash over him as gentle gibberish, and then let his airline mask block out Jongseong's reading light and fall back into a restless sleep.

But for now: Jungwon and Jongseong wake up absurdly early. They have Yonghee drop them off by the ferry, and then they ride all the way to Bainbridge.

"My parents used to bring me here when I was younger," Jongseong explains. They've trekked down to a quiet beach area, sand and pebbles beneath their feet. "During summer break. After school got out we'd always take the morning ferry and my dad would carry me around when I got tired and complained. Back then, with the forest and shoreline and all its endless water, I thought Washington was the most beautiful place there ever was."

He laughs. "Then my dad took us to a seaside resort before we moved to Korea. But the thought was fun while it lasted."

As a person who's never been anywhere more beautiful than the sparkling beaches in Jeju-do, Jungwon can see why Jongseong would think that. He wraps his arms around himself and lets his toes dig into the cool sand.

They spend the next thirty minutes picking out rocks in the open mouths of incoming waves, sidestepping stray logs and letting the wind hold them in its jagged touch. A family of four emerges not too far away from them at some point, and Jungwon watches from the side as the children run into the water screaming, their feet pitter-pattering around. They pull back when the waves turn violent, hair soaking down their necks. Then their parents dry them off in fluorescent rainbow towels, square fluffy things charmingly gauche in design, and force them together to snap a few pictures.

Jungwon tries to think of Jongseong like this as a child. Towel like a cape around his shoulders, fastened on his dad's shoulders, hair in messy waves like the water around him.

His hands are freezing. He pushes them against Jongseong's neck and grins widely when he shouts in surprise at the glacial touch, then leaps back when Jongseong goes to splash water on him in retaliation.

Eventually, they settle down onto one of the towels Jungwon had brought along. They watch the water's rhythm lull and let their knees knock together softly.

"This mini-vacation has been nice," Jongseong offers. "I know you guys were thinking of scheduling me for another radio interview today, so thanks for not doing that."

"Please," Jungwon rolls his eyes. "I hate dealing with those interviews more than you ever could. My English really isn’t up to par for all the pleasantries."

Jongseong laughs, then nudges him goodnaturedly. "What are you talking about? I think your English is great! You were so cool when you ordered us Mcdonald’s last week."

"Can I have two big macs?," Jungwon echoes exaggeratedly, donning the most horrifying American accent he’s ever heard in his entire life. Jongseong's ensuing smile is stupid and big. "Right. Straight from the third year English curriculum."

"They only teach us what really matters," Jongseong says. "That's why I loved school so much."

"You didn't even take the suneung," he accuses.

"One day," Jongseong sighs. "One day, you'll finally let me live."

 

 

Jungwon realizes that his neck is slightly sunburnt the next day. Rubbing aloe vera gel into the smarting skin, he decides that it was still worth it.

 

 

When they hit Europe, it feels like they've been on the move for a million years, even though Jungwon knows that the tour isn't even that long.

In Paris they check into a shockingly nice hotel with one of those grotesque chandeliers and a perfect view of the Eiffel Tower that make Jungwon go, seriously, what was our lodging budget again? Maybe hotels in Paris are just like that, he eventually decides, mostly for his own sanity. Maybe the chandelier is really only cheap plastic. Reflective pieces fashioned into something sparkling, something to hoodwink unsuspecting tourists like them.

The night the concert ends Jongseong invites him to his room and orders room service for dinner, meticulously cutting medium-rare steak into long strips and dipping it into sauce on the side. He grants it hums of approval in the midst of complaining about his muscle aches, and afterward he unveils warm pain au chocolat for dessert, handing over one half to Jungwon. Jungwon feels the flakes stick to his chin for barely a second before Jongseong is grinning at him, hand quickly brandishing a napkin out of nowhere to dab them away.

"One more concert," Jongseong tells him.

Jungwon nods. "Berlin. Are you ready?"

Tomorrow they'll take a plane out at the crack of dawn, when the sky is still streaks of pearly orange and pink and the metal wing glows hazy out the corner of his oval window. Jongseong will perform Poison Flower halfway through the concert and then read off a German ment he'd prepared hours before, his questionably-accented Ich liebe euch ringing through the stadium.

Then, once the European leg is over, they'll fly back to Jungwon's worn grey sheets, to a day or two of nasty jet lag, to inexpensive delivery and the jjampong from across the street he's been craving all week. They'll fly home, which for Jungwon is Seoul, and Gangnam, but—more importantly—Jongseong's place. Their place. The apartment building tucked away on the corner of the twelfth floor, with its glass expanses that appear crystalline under afternoon sunlight, its empty kitchen growing restless without use.

"I think I'm itching to go back, just a little bit," Jongseong admits. "But of course I'm ready. Will you complain if I get steak for room service again?"

Jungwon rolls his eyes. "You know I'm not even the one you have to report back to. But, no. Eat whatever will keep your energy up. We're almost there, hyung."

 

 

The truth of it—what it all comes down to—is that what they have between them is purely of circumstance. It hinges on the tragedy of Jongseong's temporary group, and the friendship that had fractured between him and Heeseung, Jongseong running away from the people around him. It hinges on Jungwon and his failed dreams, his tentative steps and leaps, the unsteady strides that had, eventually, brought him to that meeting room with Yonghee and the front door of Jongseong's apartment.

This is all to say: Jungwon knows that if Jongseong had been in a group, they would have never ended up like this.

Close, that is.

Close to the point of the lines blurring. Close to the point of the details in his contract turning hazy and ambiguous, the sides of Jongseong's character shifting into focus above any garbled legalese. If Jungwon had been assigned to a group, then, probably—he'd just be a man to them. A boy set aside.

"Maybe," Jongseong concedes, dubious. "But does it matter? I like you the most now."

 

 

The truth of it is that Jongseong is too nice to him, and Jungwon is still his manager.

When the tour is over and they fly back again, Jongseong throws himself into album preparations. Then he releases his third album. It all feels too real now, too steady and safe. Jungwon is terrified at having gotten so complacent with their arrangement.

On the way to Music Bank, Jongseong makes brief eye contact with him through the car mirror and asks, "Do you think I'll win this time?"

"Probably not," Jungwon tells him frankly. "I mean, not with Ellipsix.”

"Okay," Jongseong says, leaning back slightly. He doesn't sound surprised or particularly upset, not even a little bit strained, the way he usually does when anything involving Heeseung is mentioned. It's the second time their promotions have overlapped now, and Jungwon remembers the promise Jongseong had made him before—next time, I'll try.

It feels like growth. Is growth. At some point, when they're all waiting around backstage, Jongseong slinks away from him, and then Ellipsix get their second win of the week, and when Jongseong reemerges he's smiling. Positively beaming.

"We talked again," he breathes out. "After all this time, we talked. Thank you, Jungwon-ah."

What—him?

Jungwon hadn't done anything but offer Jongseong his own perspective. What role could he have possibly played in a friendship he'd never seen working, only witnessed through its fractured pieces, that one polaroid tucked away in Jongseong's drawer?

"Of course," he says, bemused.

 

 

Something's going to have to change here.

 

 

Artist Park Jongseong
where are you?

Jungwon
i had a scheduling meeting
sorry, did you need me to grab you breakfast?
i didn't realize how much it would run over

Artist Park Jongseong
what??
no i don't need you to get me anything
i was just wondering where you were
what the hell

 

 

Jongseong ambushes him the moment he walks through the door.

“Why are you being so weird?” he demands.

It's eight in the morning. Jungwon really was called into the company for an emergency meeting a few hours before, and he's actually very, very tired, and Jongseong doesn't even have any schedules today, so he'd like to get back into bed. He tells Jongseong as much.

"No, not—I mean, I don't care about that. You've been acting weird all week. All… curt and stuff."

"No I haven't," Jungwon denies, just to be petulant.

"Jungwon. Can you tell me what's going on? Please? I hate feeling like something is wrong here. If it is, then I want to know."

Jungwon feels his whole body sag, any fight he might have had leaving him.

"I can't keep going like this," he admits.

"Like what?"

"Like—fuck, you know what." So this is happening, he supposes. "This, and us. Because I like you and I'm your manager and this can never work, and sometimes you say shit that makes me feel crazy, and I don't know what I'm supposed to do about it."

"You like me?"

"Of course I like you," Jungwon says. "That's so not the point."

"Of course?" Jongseong echoes mutedly. He sounds a little disbelieving, a little awed. "So if you like me, then why—"

"Because we can't be like this, hyung," he repeats, growing impatient. "Because you and I, we don't make sense. I'm your manager." He keeps having to say this, and it's so humiliating, but no one will listen. "Because you're my job, and I'm just a person looking out for you. We're never going to be anything more than that."

Jongseong frowns at him. "A manager is allowed to be close with their idol," he insists. "I mean, isn't it good if they are? It makes all of our lives easier."

"That's not what's going on here," Jungwon sighs. "Obviously. And we both know it."

Jongseong steps in closer to him. There's a storm on his face, something raging and perturbed, conflicted. Eventually, he says, "I'm not going anywhere. If you need space, I can give you that. But I'm not going anywhere, and I'll always be here."

"I don't need space," Jungwon tries. "I—I don't know." There's nothing he can say that's right, because he doesn't actually want Jongseong away from him. He just wants a solution, something that will ease over the pieces of them that don't make sense.

"You said you liked me, right?"

"Yes."

"Then—" Jongseong makes an aborted noise. His eyes train onto Jungwon's face, his eyes. Then lower than that.

Jungwon realizes that Jongseong has zeroed in on his lips at the same time he leans in, at the split second he feels Jongseong's mouth press lightly against his.

It's barely a brush, really. Not even worth calling a kiss. When Jongseong leans back out, his smile looks just as contrite as Jungwon feels.

"You know how I feel, Jungwon-ah," he says.

Jungwon can't take this anymore.

"I'm sorry," he blurts out, and then he's pulling out of Jongseong's hold. Escaping down the corridor and rushing back into the safety of his room, letting the door close behind him, feeling like his insides have just been scraped out. Feeling hollowed and empty, ridiculous and childish at once.

 

 

It's like the guilt is eating him.

He and Jongseong are at an impasse. Even when he can sleep in, his body wakes him up automatically, and it's as if his circadian cycle is actively punishing him for his unsightly feelings toward the man on the other side of his bedroom wall—the man who'd just kissed him on the lips, that slightest peck, and then leaned back with the stupidest expression ever, something horribly sorrowful and complex. An expression Jungwon had wanted to immediately reach back into and kiss away, ensure he never let that sort of pain mar his face again.

He can't, though. He can't, really, really, really can't. Isn't supposed to—

Jungwon feels like he's fifteen again. He needs the diary his older sister used to have in elementary school to spill all his terrible secrets in, the silver thing with a lock on the side. He's pretty sure she used it to write shit like, I hate my brother! He's so annoying and stupid!, which, in this current moment of time, are statements he completely, resoundingly agrees with.

Jungwon thinks that if he could go back in time and tell Yonghee to just fuck off the moment he'd suggested moving in with Jongseong, he would. Even if it meant being pawned off to another random group, or actor, or idol, and missing out on all these moments with Jongseong. Like that day on the beach, the food Jongseong always cooked for him, the takeout they ate in front of romcoms only Jungwon cared about. Do you remember?, and the answer always being yes.

Oh—the realization strikes him from nowhere. Like one-in-a-million odds of lightning. Yonghee.

If anyone would know what to do, he thinks...

Jungwon straightens up. He pulls out his phone with energy he's forgotten he used to have, and then he starts typing.

 

 

"You said this was an emergency."

"It is!" Jungwon insists.

He and Yonghee are sitting in the company café together, tucked away in a corner where no one will see or bother them. Yonghee is looking at him with one of his little looks, like he's holding back from delivering his greatest lecture ever on the intricacies of life and love and interpersonal relationships, and Jungwon better strap in for the ride.

"Jungwon-ah," he starts kindly. "I really don't think this is as big of a deal as you think."

Jungwon resists the urge to throw his hands up in the air. Why is no one taking him seriously? He's sure there's something about this in the contract. Something like, don't have inappropriate relationships with the artist or we'll kill you.

Or, okay—maybe just fire. But the shame would be so strong it would really all amount to the same thing in the end.

"Haven't you heard anything I just told you?" he protests. "Hyung, I—I'm his manager. I actually don't think this could be any more of a big deal!"

"Let me get this straight. You came here because you're worried about dating Jongseong, right?"

"Dat—I—we just kissed!"

"But you're thinking about it."

Jungwon hangs his head with a sigh. "Okay, maybe."

"Okay," Yonghee says. He reaches over to pat Jungwon lightly on the arm and waits for Jungwon to lift his chin up. "I probably shouldn't be telling you this, but I really can't handle how sad you look."

A Yonghee secret?! Clearly the situation is worse than he thought.

"I also joined the company young," Yonghee starts. "Around the age you did. And in my first year, I started dating one of the trainees."

"What!" Jungwon can barely hold back the force of his shock. "What. What? Is he an idol now?"

"No." Yonghee looks at him like it's the funniest question he's ever heard. "He's older than me, and when the debut plans for his boy group fell apart he gave up on being a trainee. He's been working as a producer here for a few years now."

A producer? Jungwon's mind boggles. Not only that, but someone older than Yonghee, someone who used to be a—he can't help the noise he makes when the hints click into place. It's an unidentifiable sound. Could probably be broadcast on a space mission to communicate with extraterrestrial life. "Are you trying to tell me you dated BX PD-nim?"

"Not dated," Yonghee corrects, voice gentle. "Our fourth anniversary is in June. We're just quiet about it."

Jungwon lets out a little "huh" and slumps back consideringly. He could have sworn to anyone that the man was straighter than a ruler, but he supposes there is more to people than what meets the eye.

"But you were never actually his manager, right?" Jungwon continues. "You just met him through the company."

Yonghee looks thoughtful. "Well, that's true. But if that's your main concern—oh my god, wait." He straightens up and interrupts himself with a little gasp, then claps two palms in apparent remembrance. "Actually! Jungwon, I've been meaning to talk to you about this for a while, but I guess now's the right time."

Jungwon won't lie; he feels extremely apprehensive. Most of Yonghee's ideas so far have only landed him in terrible situations. "What is it?"

"There's a new girl group. Six members—we just went over the management talks. They don't want a live-in manager, just someone who'll do morning drop-offs and go to schedules with them. I was thinking you would be a good fit for them."

"Just me?" asks Jungwon.

"No, you and Jaehee. I talked to her earlier this week, and she's going to transfer over from one of our rookie actors. I mean—think it over, obviously. You don't have to answer right now. But if this is what you're torturing yourself over, then I want you to know that there's always another option."

"I—" Jungwon trails off. He mumbles a thank you on autopilot, mind spinning through thousands of errant thoughts.

Thoughts like: Leave Jongseong? Move out of his two-bedroom high-rise with its spacious marble flooring and its cityline view, the lush green park outside that the neighborhood kids like to play in? Pack his bags and find another one-room to loiter around in again, one further away from the company?

There are worse fates, obviously. He isn't so blinded by his own biases that he can't see this.

But it's still a lot to take in.

"Think it over," Yonghee repeats, either oblivious to Jungwon's inner turmoil or polite enough to not push it. He lets his hand knock gently against Jungwon's on the table, then rests it about an inch away. "Hey—also. I know this isn't really what it's about, but the job would be less intensive. And I know you've been thinking about going to school eventually, so it could help you find your bearings."

"Oh," Jungwon says. Sometimes he forgets, just a little bit, how much Yonghee looks out for him. He'd talked to Yonghee about his future goals during a company dinner once, nursing his alcohol by Yonghee's side. "You remember that?"

"Of course," Yonghee tells him. He's always stone cold sober at these things, Jungwon thinks, so that makes sense. "And, well. Jongseong talks, too."

Oh.

Jongseong: where it all leads back to.

"I need time to think about it," Jungwon says, as expected.

But, deep down—

No. Forget that. Not even deep down. But in a shallow layer just beneath the surface, close enough to scratch down to...

That part already knows the answer.

 

 

Jungwon breaks the news to Jongseong a week later. He sits him down in one of the kitchen chairs and looks at him with the most serious expression his face can possibly make, eyebrows knitted together.

"Starting next month," he says, "I won't be your manager anymore."

"What?" Jongseong asks, alarmed. "Why not?"

"I'm getting transferred to the new girl group, the one debuting in May. Jaehee and I are going to manage them."

"Oh."

Jongseong breathes out. For a second his brows furrow, and his expression toes the line between pensive and hurt, hits at considering.

Jungwon knows to give him more credit than that.

"That—" he pauses. "You—is this about—do you mean—us?"

Jongseong is a believer in reason and catalyst, in logic and motivation. He's always busy tracing back the sequence of steps that lead to a conclusion, a given outcome. The smile on his face when he looks up at Jungwon is tender and hesitant, just on the edge of warm.

"What do you mean?" Jungwon asks, just to let him squirm a little bit. "I'm getting this job for myself."

Jongseong huffs. "Obviously. Of course. But I mean—is this about. Does this mean that we can finally—"

Jungwon can only take so much of this buffering.

"Yes," he says, more seriously this time. "Hyung, if something is going to happen between us, then I can't be your manager anymore. I know you're a good person, and that—you aren't the type of person to take advantage of others, and that you've only ever been kind to me. But it doesn't matter. I can't be responsible for you in that way and also… like you."

Jongseong is barely moving a muscle. Just staring and fixed still to the spot. Like me, he mumbles so softly Jungwon barely catches it, and Jungwon doesn't understand how these words can still shock him when they've literally "kissed" already. Then, more loudly, he offers a simple, "Yeah."

"So if you… if you still want us to be together—"

"Obviously," he says.

"—then this is how it's going to be."

"Okay."

"Okay?"

Jongseong's smile is so big it looks like it's about to split. "Yeah, okay. Is the job good, though? You'll be moving out, right?"

"Yes," Jungwon says. "The pay is all good, I'll be fine. You will be too, right?"

"Yeah. You know the agency can only pay as much as the artists are worth, right?" Jongseong says smugly, pointing at himself without even an ounce of subtlety. He waggles his eyebrows. "I don't have to say it, but—hey."

He's ridiculous, is what Jungwon knows. He makes sure to tell him as much.

"Seriously," Jungwon starts, pushing at Jongseong's shoulder. The unexpected pressure makes him stumble slightly with a loud oof, chair almost taking him down with the motion. "How do you say shit like this and then wonder why us dating is a colossally terrible idea?"

Jongseong eyes widen in panic.

"Nooo," he pouts. "Wait, I'm sorry! I didn't mean it like that. Go forth—spread your wings out without me, babe. I swear you're worth so much more than the sum of my profits."

Jungwon snorts. "Babe?"

"Give me a second to workshop here, all right? My future boyfriend just got over his stupid moral issues about kissing me."

"I'll show you stupid moral issues," he threatens nonsensically. Clearly he's still feeling a little bit insane, his heart beating erratically against his ribcage.

Jongseong lifts a predictable eyebrow. "I don't know what that means, but please do."

Jungwon tilts his head. Then he performs his best approximation of whatever that might be.

His interpretation entails: fisting a hand into Jongseong's collar, leaning forward slightly. Their hair brushing together, letting their lips meet in the middle, Jongseong's hands gripping tightly onto his arms. The chair threatening to topple backward as Jungwon pushes ahead, him reveling in the way Jongseong smiles into the kiss.

Current boyfriend, Jungwon's brain corrects happily.

 

 

Later on they lie in Jongseong's bed again, this time their hands clasped together with confidence.

"You know, I'd kind of like dating a university student. You could let me wear your letterman jacket and everything. I'd show off your school pride and brag about how studious my boyfriend is. Very chic!"

Rock chic? he almost says, but the taunt is forgotten as he processes literally any other part of that impassioned speech.

"Hyung," Jungwon says, disgusted. "You're twenty-six."

"What?" he protests. "I thought we were supporting unconventional entries into higher education!"

Jungwon just rolls his eyes. "Either way, it wouldn't even fit on you. I haven't grown since I was seventeen."

"Oh no," Jongseong intones, sounding way more gleeful about this fact than he probably should. Seriously, so greasy. Jongseong isn't even all that tall himself. "It's too bad that you're so perfectly short and small."

"Shut up and go to sleep," Jungwon tells him, poking him in the chest. "I'm exhausted by how many emotions I just experienced today."

Jongseong laughs and throws an arm over him. Technically Jungwon is still his manager, but he allows himself this for now. Allows the steady weight against him, the lingering memory of the kiss they'd shared in the kitchen.

It'll all work out.

For now, this feels right. Somehow.

 

 

"So—how are you liking the new manager?"

A month into Jungwon's new position, they've found a routine that mostly works for them. It involves a lot of late-night calls, Jungwon nestled under the covers and letting Jongseong's steady voice wash over him.

"This Woong guy," Jongseong starts heavily. "Well… he's enthusiastic. To say the least."

"Sounds like the perfect fit for you."

"Ha ha. He's nice, though. Gives me space when I need it? And you know, living alone again is actually kind of nice. I've been trying to cook more."

Jungwon hums. "Of course, how could I forget the adventures of Chef Jongseong? The egg roll you showed me yesterday actually looked pretty good."

"What do you mean, 'actually'?!"

"Please, we both know aesthetic presentation isn't your strongest point. I was kind of amazed at how clean the countertops looked, too."

"Oh," breathes Jongseong. Guiltily, he adds, "I might have wiped them down before I took the picture.."

"Of course you did."

"...I still have a reputation to maintain here, you know!"

"You're right, Jongseong-ssi. I'm so sorry."

The sound of Jongseong's low chuckle through the phone speaker is strangely warm, a crackling thing melted into honey.

Jungwon misses hearing his voice. He misses him, full stop, and he misses getting to rib him in person. Misses the weight of Jongseong's hand against the small of his back, and the way he closes his eyes and scrunches his face together when he's embarrassed. How it makes Jungwon want to pull away the shield of his hand and kiss off all of his misplaced bashfulness.

"I'll cook some for you next time you visit," Jongseong is saying, "and you'll see. I swear, I'll blow your mind."

"Okay," Jungwon whispers. Jongseong's food has never really been about the quality itself, but this newfound dedication to improvement touches at some place in his chest anyway.

He lies back and lets an arm drape over his forehead, the back of his hand hanging gently at his temple.

"How are you, though?" Jongseong continues. "How's the girl group?"

"They definitely like Jaehee more," Jungwon laughs. "But I mean—who wouldn't, really."

"I like you more!"

Jungwon feels something warm and ridiculous bloom at Jongseong's reflexive simplicity. "Trust me, hyung," he laughs. "You don't have to reassure me of your affections over something like this. But they're good, really. Except one of the girls is impossible to wake up and I never have the heart to do anything about it, so Jaehee is the one who gets her out of the dorms every morning."

"Ooh," Jongseong taunts. "What's this? Has the notoriously strict Yang Jungwon finally gone soft?"

"When have I ever been known as 'notoriously strict?'" Jungwon probes. "Do you know how many times I let you cheat on your stupid diet? But no. These girls are so young, hyung. She's like sixteen. I literally don't have it in me to yell at any of them."

"They do make them young these days," Jongseong confirms. Jungwon is pretty sure some of Jongseong's old bandmates were probably around the same age when he debuted, but he just smiles and lets him mutter away in the background. "I guess this can be practice for when you finally go off to university, though?"

"What—oh. No," Jungwon groans. "You mean when all my classmates are barely twenty?" He thinks of having to meet clear-eyed first years at orientation, the awkward compromises over whether to refer to him politely. Within his shiny little bubble, population: him, Jongseong, and Yonghee, he'd almost forgotten what it was like to be one of the older ones.

"There, there. You'll get through it."

"You're just saying that because you want a jacket," Jungwon accuses.

"No," Jongseong hums. "I've thought it through. I just want to see you in it."

Jungwon wrinkles his nose. "Oh, gross."

"What? Is it a crime to think my boyfriend is cute?"

"No, it just sounded really cheesy when you said it."

"One day," Jongseong starts again, despairing. They both know Jungwon will never actually let him live.

"Shouldn't have worked so hard getting me to call you hyung," Jungwon reminds him. "Now I'm like this."

"You know what? I think I'll survive."

 

 

There's a video Jungwon still watches sometimes. One from right after the world tour, a video interview from a magazine shoot where Jongseong's hair had been styled into loose waves, and the way his eyebrows were drawn in made his face look unusually soft, open.

"If you could bring one thing to a deserted island, what would it be?" the interviewer asks. Jungwon remembers where he'd stood that day, a few paces away from the camera, watching the two of them converse together.

"I'd bring my manager, so he could fight off bugs for me," Jongseong says. Then he adds, staring into the camera, "And so I wouldn't be lonely."

The interviewer looks a little bit mystified. "That's it?" he says. "No phone, not your family?"

Jongseong cocks his head. "Well, do I get a second thing?"

"No."

"Then, yeah." The pixels on Jungwon's phone screen break into a smile, and Jungwon remembers, again, the way he'd watched back then. Breath caught in his throat at the stupidity of the question, at Jongseong's constant strides toward total honesty.

"I'd bring my manager," he repeats. "He's stronger than me, and he's dependable. Honestly, I couldn't survive a day without him."