Soojung says: “let’s start a band.”
Jongin doesn’t even look up from the bicycle he’s polishing, “okay.”
Taemin does look up from his book. He’s perched on the highest shelf of his grandmother’s shed, and she’s so afraid he’s going to fall, it’s making her heart beat faster. Fast enough that she’s mostly convinced she’s going to be sick all over the pickles drying in the open jars in front of her.
She can smell their tangy, sweet-sour smell from where she’s sitting on the ground. It’s making her hungry.
“A band,” he frowns, his forehead marked by that deep crease it gets when he’s concentrating too hard. He always concentrates too hard.
Her fingers itch to reach up and smooth it out, so she clenches them in a fist by her side.
“A band,” he repeats, and she nods her head, once. “That’ll be difficult, Krys,” he continues mildly, “we’re not qualified.”
She shrugs. “Jongin can dance. You can sing. I can dance, sing, and I’m goddamn gorgeous. The only thing stopping us from being a band is that we don’t call ourselves that.”
Taemin is still frowning, like he’s seriously considering her words. Weighing the pros and cons and doing a complete statistical analysis of the available data or something.
A part of her rolls her eyes. A part of her falls in love all over again.
“Oh, come on, Tae,” Jongin says. When she turn her head just slightly to the left to look at him, he’s still busy with his bicycle, even though she can’t see a single smudge on it anymore. But the corner of his mouth is upturned in that half-smirk that had once made Jinri ask her if Soojung could maybe ask him if they could maybe talk for some time after school. “Krys wants to start a band. So let’s start a band.”
(She’d refused, for what it’s worth. She has no real claim over him, but whatever. He’s Jongin. And she's Soojung. And Soojung is a bitch. It’s a well-known fact around this town.)
Taemin looks over at Jongin’s bent head for longer than seven breaths. She counts it in her head because she doesn’t really have much to do today.
“Okay,” he says finally, going back to his book. “Let’s start a band.”
They don’t start a band.
Honestly, their origin story kind of gets lost along the way.
“How long have you been friends with Jongin and Taemin?” Someone new asks at regular, monotonous intervals.
“Forever,” she replies flippantly, each time. It’s not even a lie. She can’t remember not belonging to them. A time when they didn’t belong to her.
“Forever is a very long time,” Lu Han says, smiling slightly. He’s an outsider, Chinese, and he’s older, so everybody looks at him a little askance, like they’re not sure why he’s here, between them.
(“Goddamn foreigners,” haraboji always used to say. “I remember the war,” he’d said next. She’s read enough of History by now to be able to say “we won because everybody did their part. It wasn’t just us against the world.” But she doesn’t remember the war. And, truth is, she loved her haraboji more than she ever did History, so.)
But, from what she can tell, Lu Han is unfazed, still. Despite the whispers of the other students. Always polite, endlessly charming. It’s fascinating. She’s fascinated, obviously.
That, and he sits in front of her in class. And he speaks Korean with this slight foreign lilt that she sometimes has to strain to catch. And he’s beautiful.
In an instant of boldness she reaches over and taps his nose with one finger. “It’s not over yet.” Then clarifies, “forever— it’s not over yet.”
He only laughs. Doesn’t pull away from her errant hand for two whole seconds before turning back to the board.
When she looks behind her, out of sheer habit, her eyes landing with unerring instinct on the last row, three seats down to the left from the door, Jongin is frowning at Lu Han. Not Taemin’s concentrating-frown, a different one. A darker, angrier frown.
It makes her shiver, just a little, the look on his face. Not from fear. Not at all from fear.
When he shifts his gaze, he catches hers. And before she can, he looks away.
She turns back. She can see the side of Taemin’s head if she sits at the edge of her seat, and looks past the three people between them. He’s staring down at something. Probably engrossed in the math problem they’re supposed to be solving. Something inside her cramps with longing.
She wonders, for a moment, whether he would have frowned too, if he’d only been looking.
Probably not, she decides.
(How did you become friends with Jongin and Taemin? Here’s the thing no one really seems to get; they didn’t become anything. They always have been. Whatever they are, they always have been.)
When she falls off her bike, Taemin is the one who stops first. This would be of no surprise to anyone.
She looks ahead through lidded eyes, half-lying on the grass. Jongin is already far away. He hasn’t yet noticed that he’s won; that she’s out of the race.
Jongin is competitive. He never slows down, never looks back, never lets her win just because she’s a girl, never lets her win just because he sometimes looks at her like he can't look away. Soojung likes that.
For a brief moment, she’s more disappointed about having lost than the pain seeping its way through her bones. She’s competitive too.
“How much does it hurt?” Taemin asks, concerned.
Taemin never races against them. He seems content to follow them at his own pace, reach destinations on his own time. She knows he knows they’ll wait for him. They always do. They always will.
Her leg is twisted at an unnatural angle. And when Taemin slowly takes it in his hands, she bites down on her lip hard enough to draw blood.
“Hey,” Taemin says gently. "Hey, Soojung.” He cups her jaw with a feather-light touch till she unclenches her teeth.
He swipes a thumb across her bottom lip. It comes away bloodstained. He carelessly wipes it on his jeans.
That won’t come off, she tries to say, but can’t.
“You can cry if you want,” he says, quietly.
She doesn’t want, but she can’t help the hot, angry tears. It hurts like hell. She turns her face away to hide.
Taemin sits down and shifts her head from the ground to his lap. His jeans smell like the fabric softener her mother sometimes uses too. She buries her head in it.
He reaches behind her and pulls her hair free from the confines of her rubber-band. She didn't even realize she was uncomfortable till she isn't anymore.
She can make out the clink of his chain, the wheels of his bicycle have an oddly distinct sound, maybe because it costs far more than hers does, and when she looks up next, vision blurred, Jongin is standing over her, inadvertently shading the sun from her eyes. Her head aches less now.
“What the fuck,” he explodes. His gaze is fixed on her leg.
Before she can tell him not to, because she knows him, understands him beyond the stereotype, he’s already taken off the over-shirt he’s wearing. She winces, just a little, at the sound of the fabric tearing. Ahjumma is going to be mad at him.
He kneels down on the grass before her, and ties a strip inexpertly around her ankle. It’s light, his shirt. She remembers it from last time. When it had rained, and he’d covered them with it, holding it over their heads like an umbrella. It was useless, of course, even under cover. The water from the leaves trailing down, dripping through, till she was numb with the cold. But they were standing too close, and every time Jongin exhaled she could feel the hot air against the hollow of her throat, his arm loosely slung around her shoulder, close enough so she could hear Taemin’s heartbeat- steadfast, even- when he’d turned to smile down at her. And between them, it was warm. Eventually, she’d stopped shivering.
The blood soaks through the stripes, staining it a deep red. He swears again, hand shaking just the slightest bit as he adjusts it. She wouldn’t have noticed if he wasn’t touching her.
“You’re such an idiot,” he whispers fiercely to her, crouching next to Taemin.
She wants to protest, wants to tell him that his stupid, makeshift bandage isn't helping and he's going to be cold soon because it's still early in the summer and evenings always get chilly, and he's so sensitive to the cold. But mostly she wants to reach up and run her fingers through his hair because the sunlight is reflecting off it, turning it a brilliant gold.
Taemin is stroking her head in slow, mechanical movements. It feels oddly calming.
“I’m fucking hurt, you bastard,” she manages, the sullen undertone unmistakable.
She half-expects Taemin to protest. He rarely ever swears. But he doesn’t say a word.
“Don’t fucking get hurt,” Jongin says through gritted teeth. And— well— there’s no real response to that.
Taemin’s hand stills for a moment. But the moment’s passed before she can fully register it, and his hand resumes its slow, even movement.
She closes her eyes.
Jongin is the one who takes her home, both of them crammed on the front seat of his bike, holding on too tightly like he’s afraid she’ll fall if he doesn't, that she won't hold on tight enough herself. This would be of no surprise to anyone.
When her cast finally comes off, Taemin makes her a crown of flowers in celebration. She wants to hate it, but she secretly likes it. Her hair is longer now. Too tangled to pass a comb through. Her mother can’t stand it.
Jongin scoffs, but puts it on for her anyway because he’s the one sitting next to her on the stairs leading to his room, one leg outstretched in familiarity of ownership, almost brushing her clothed knee. After, he keeps glancing at her head, at her copper dress, with this puzzled expression, like he’s seeing her for the first time. She wants to tell him that she didn't want to wear it, the dress, she had to, because her leg still hurts in anything confining. But she doesn't know why she wants to tell him that, it seems like such an odd thing to want to tell anyone. So she doesn't.
"You’re such a woman,” he rolls his eyes.
“Am I a woman to you?” she retorts, and that shuts him up.
Taemin adjusts the flowers in her hair, his hand tangling briefly in the knots, and mock-solemnly salutes her. “You’re a queen now.”
Jongin gets up from the staircase, moves further away, already bored, she can tell. He can never sit still for longer than a few minutes.
She’s been lying on the bed for far too long, she can feel the weeks of pent up energy buzzing under her skin, demanding release.
Maybe that’s what makes her say it; “why? Do you have a kingdom?”
Jongin looks over at her sharply, like maybe her words mean something. Maybe they do. She doesn’t know. They can’t mean more than forever though. That’s the point of forever. She wonders what they did all those days without her.
“No,” Taemin says, straight. “Unfortunately. Jongin does, clearly.”
She leans back against the bannister she’s sitting on, hands clasped over her knees. Jongin’s house is far too big. Fancy staircases and chandeliers. It echoes when they speak.
She likes being in it. It’s emptier without them, she knows. He hates it without them.
Soojung says: “let’s build a kingdom.”
Jongin holds on to the railing. She can touch him if she reaches a hand through the bars. “Okay.”
Taemin mirrors her move from where he's sitting, leaning his back against the step above hers.
“Okay,” he echoes, after a while. No arguments.
She rests her head against the railing. Her leg still hurts sometimes, but it's getting better.
“Okay,” she completes. She already has the structure in her head. It doesn’t have any walls, no people, nothing but long stretches of road, and the sky, and them.
In the summer, she always feels a little bit wilder.
“You’re too old now,” her mother says, once. “To still be running around with those boys.”
Back when her mother could still stand her, she told her the story of Chunhyangga.
Her mother seemed to think the moral was that if you were good, kept your legs tightly shut and remained chaste and virginal till someone married you, eventually, someone would want to marry you.
That’s bullshit, Soojung would have said. The moral is that if you fight for what you want, tooth and knuckle, eventually, you get it.
When they take out their bicycles next, Jongin keeps hovering over her.
“I’m fine,” she bites out, finally. “God, you’d think I walk into walls blind.”
“He’s only concerned,” Taemin lightly admonishes, and Jongin mutters a “like hell I am,” embarrassed at having been caught, and snaps one of Taemin’s suspenders, like that boy who sat behind her in class in the sixth grade used to do to her bra when she first got one.
She says “let’s race,” and Jongin just replies with a stern “no,” in a tone that brooks no arguments, and it’s so strange that she hasn’t really noticed till this moment that he’s grown up.
Taemin turns his head to hide a smile.
“Fuck off,” she mutters, self-consciously. To both, either. She’s not sure.
Not racing was a good idea, is the reluctant conclusion she comes to, when her ankle starts hurting again, and she can barely keep up, let alone overtake them. So when Taemin slows down beside the garden that used to belong to Kibum oppa before he shifted to Japan, she doesn’t protest, even though she knows it’s for her sake, and that is embarrassing.
“Wow,” Taemin says, looking around.
It’s overgrown now, the garden, but when she closes her eyes, she can still remember what it used to look like, once upon a time. When she’d fight with Jongin for her turn on the swing on the front-porch, and Kibum oppa’s mother would bring them lemonade when it was too hot, sour and salty, making her lips pucker, the only taste she really associates with summer. And Taemin would sit on the porch and ask Kibum oppa stuff from his chemistry textbook because he hero-worshipped his hyung and wanted to keep talking to him, wanted Kibum oppa to think he was smart.
When she swallows, she can almost taste the salt at the tip of her tongue. Taste all the summers long since over.
“Wow,” she agrees.
Jongin has his hands in his pockets. “Weird how stuff changes,” he says. He’s not looking at her, not looking at Taemin, but she can feel a frisson of current jolt through her body, like he short-wired something inside, without even touching her.
It doesn’t have to, she wants to say. But then this version of Jongin, the grown-up version, the one that tells her to not race because she has an injured leg and might make it worse, might tell her that yes, it has to.
And she realizes, with something close to surprise, she’s afraid.
“The garden’s changed,” she says instead, defiantly. She doesn’t know what she’s justifying, but everything feels strange. New. Charged, somehow. “But we’re still here. Just like we used to be all those years ago. So obviously we haven’t changed.”
But this time it’s Taemin who murmurs, “when you say it like that, it sounds kind of sad.”
“You can’t,” Taemin challenges. “I’m much bigger now.”
So of course Jongin does, just like he used to all those years ago, and when she looks up, Taemin has an arm around Jongin’s neck to keep himself from falling and Jongin has his hands under Taemin’s knees in an achingly familiar gesture, as he runs with Taemin on his back, and shoots her a look of triumph in the midst of it.
When she catches a glimpse of his face, she thinks she’s never seen Taemin look happier, his eyes fixed on Jongin’s hair, a hand reaching past his shoulders, resting somewhere near Jongin’s heart.
Her leg still hurts, so she lies down on the grass and listens to the sound of their laughter and promises herself that she won’t. She won’t change.
Their laughter grows more distant. She closes her eyes against the sun, blindly swatting at the mosquitoes that settle on her skin at monotonous intervals. And when she shifts, she can feel the dry grass brush against the bare expanse of her leg.
“You’re going out in that?” Her mother had asked. She hadn’t replied.
She’s worn her shortest shorts today, the kind that her mother disapproves of these days. And something deep inside her had thrilled when she’d first come out, and Jongin had stared at her legs for a nanosecond longer than appropriate, his eyes moving up slowly. Before he'd looked away, and she'd watched his knuckles turning white with his grip on the handlebar.
Thrilled too, when Taemin had bent down to check on her now-healed ankle, and the hand that he’d reached out had stopped just shy of her bare skin, like he was uncertain of how to touch her.
(She may already have changed. She doesn’t allow herself to think that.)
The day Sooyeon unni comes home from college with a scar across her cheek, Soojung gets cornered at the back of the building, after school.
“Where are your knights in shining armor today?” Sunyoung sneers, and she has a vague feeling in the pit of her stomach which goes something like oh, this doesn’t end well.
“You’re such a slut,” someone says. They’re so close, she can barely make out any individual features, her vision blurring.
“She’s not even embarrassed,” another voice supplements. It sounds like Jinri, but maybe that’s just because she’s been looking for a reason to hate on Jinri ever since she’d gone ahead and asked Jongin out anyway, when Soojung had refused to do it for her. “I’d be embarrassed if I spent all my waking hours clinging to boys. Or maybe she’s with them in her non-waking hours too. Do you also sleep together, Krys? All three of you? Like a giant, fucked-up family?”
She can feel a headache coming on, so she pinches the bridge of her nose. “Shut up.”
“They’re probably tired of you by now,” a voice sounds. “How many times can you have the same thing over and over before you get sick of it.”
It hits something dark inside her, something hidden, so she reaches out her hand, already clenched, and says again, louder, more vicious. “Shut up.”
Her fist makes contact.
Nothing hurts, she realizes with a sort of belated realization when she’s walking home after, not much anyway. Schools are becoming stricter about bullying, and they’re not stupid, her classmates, the people she could have been friends with, in another life.
So nothing hurts much. Just the cigarette burn somewhere below her collar-bone. But that’s easily hidden. Scars are easily hidden, she’s old enough to know that by now.
She doesn’t parade them around, and asked for them to be kissed anymore. So maybe she’s growing up too.
The police are stationed outside her house when she gets back, and for a wild moment she thinks her mother somehow found out and called them. Then dismisses it, because that would require her mother to care about her.
Which is when she comes across Sooyeon unni. Flanked by Taemin and Jongin, and her mother.
That’s a pity; some distant, detached part of her mind concludes, when she first sees the thin red line on the side of unni’s smooth left cheek. Unni is so very beautiful. It really is a pity. Such a pity, it's probably going to scar.
“It’s an offence,” the imposing man is saying, when she reaches close enough to catch his words. “To try and spread disaffection against the Government, especially at the time of President Carter’s visit. It’s a grievous offence. To let your daughter run around wild like this, in times like these, isn’t a good idea ommoni.”
Unni uses words like comrade a lot, and is passionate about political stuff like the National Security Act and media restrictions or whatever, Soojung knows, and it’s only increased since she went to college. But it’s never come home with her like this, whatever her life is like outside the confines of their house.
Her mother is wringing her hands. “She never used to be like this.” Then turns to Sooyeon unni. “Apologize.”
Soojung can already tell by unni’s defiant stance, the way she's holding her head, that she’s not going to. And she’s maybe going to say something which is the exact opposite of an apology— when Jongin steps in.
She’d almost forgotten about him and Taemin, she realizes, with dull surprise. She doesn’t even know why they’re here at all.
“I can vouch that they’re law-abiding citizens of Daehan Minguk. They’re not associated with any sort of anti-national activities.”
He sounds… he sounds nothing like Jongin. The Jongin she knows. She thought she knew every Jongin he was.
The officer looks mildly amused, “I’m not sure your vouching is of much use when we have banners that she and her friends were displaying outside the American Embassy, son.”
“Stay out of it, Jongin,” Sooyeon unni begins, but he already has a card out and she can guess what it is without looking.
He hates taking it out. He never does it for himself, she knows, any time he gets in trouble. Even when he used to get into trouble a lot.
The officer’s face changes. “You’re Kim Joonghyun’s son?”
Jongin nods. His mouth is set in hard, unfamiliar lines.
Chaebol, she knows, is a fancy word now. But she’s never seen it in action like this, what real, hard power looks like.
“Be careful who you associate with,” one of the junior officers genially whispers to Jongin as they turn to make their way back, with an ominous last warning towards Sooyeon unni, who's still standing with that stubborn arch of her back. “Reputation is key. You don’t keep trash around gold, do you?”
She can see Jongin’s fist clench at his side in preparation, and she almost walks forward to stop him.
She wants to lash out too, but there’s a part of her that’s scared. This is bigger than her, bigger than the cigarette burn beneath her collarbone. Bigger than all of them.
Don’t mess this up, she prays, silently. Maybe she was never made to be as brave as Sica unni.
She watches, as Taemin reaches out a hand, gripping Jongin by the shoulder, a curious mixture of hard-soft. It seems to calm him down, his rising hand falling limp by his side again. She can feel the relief coursing golden through her veins.
This is why we work, she thinks, openly. This is why we’re meant to be.
She desperately wants to believe that.
“I fucking hate this country.” It’ll be a surprise because Taemin never swears.
They’ll be lying on Jongin’s bed, his parents are never home anyway. She’ll be wearing her shortest shorts again. She’ll have spent twenty minutes on her hair before leaving her house, but hopefully they won’t realize it.
She doesn’t understand herself, why it’s suddenly important.
“I’m going to leave it,” Soojung will vow too, because that’s what they do. Whatever any one of them wants to do. “As soon as I can. I’m going to be far, far away from here.”
Jongin is playing with his father’s name card, she’ll note. Idly flipping it between his finger and thumb, like he can’t feel the deepening paper cut each time he does it. Paper cuts hurt like a bitch, she knows.
She’ll take it from him, eventually. Taemin will look up at him with an expression that’s a curious mixture of resignation and hope. And she won’t even know what for.
“It’s ahjumma’s day off,” is all Jongin will say. “Do you want to order the food?”
Taemin is the one who finds the camera in Jongin’s drawer. There are only two pictures left.
“I’ll take yours,” she suggests, but he waves her off with an easy “you and Jongin look good together. Model for me.”
She wants to say something then, something bordering on that they never look as good without him, but maybe that’s too dramatic, too intense for a regular conversation. It’s stupid the way she’s starting to turn ordinary moments into montages or something.
She’s starting to fumble with her words these days too. This is new.
(If she looks her best when she feels it, she thinks, then she looks her best whenever Taemin smiles at her.)
She’ll remember it later, Taemin’s hands positioning them, as Jongin rolls his eyes, but allows himself to be led, to be placed in just the right poses. She whines about the whole thing, of course, but Taemin had his concentrating-frown on and she’s too distracted by it to be anything more than half-heartedly bitchy.
Taemin’s hands on Jongin are gentle as he carefully tousles his hair- Taemin always needs to do everything perfectly, like it’s the only thing in the moment that matters- and she wonders, for a moment, if Jongin’s ever been touched with that kind of tenderness before. She knows she hasn’t. It’s a bizarre thing to think.
He’s stretched out beside her, when Taemin finally goes back to the camera, his legs resting on the wooden handle of the other end of the sofa. He’s too tall to fit the sofa-frame. It’s much too small for the both of them, she realizes mid-way, her body already beginning to cramp with the effort of not falling off, not touching him. He’s so close beside her she can feel his body-heat even through the fabric of her clothes. Or maybe she made that up in her head too.
She draws her legs up.
Jongin is in a bad mood, she can tell. Dark, sulky, his lips drawn into a pout he doesn’t intend, and she thinks, randomly, she’s never seen him look this good. And when she looks at Taemin, he’s staring at Jongin, his lips half-parted, and she knows, with unmistaken certainty, that he thinks the same. Jongin is beautiful when he’s angry.
Taemin keeps impatiently flicking the hair out of his eyes, because it’s been too long now since he got it cut. Taemin is never impatient.
“Say kimchi,” he prompts, laughing.
Jongin refuses to smile, resting his head on his hands and glaring instead, so she doesn’t either.
Taemin only shakes his head like he doesn’t know what to do with them. But, behind the lens, he’s smiling, still. As if he’s in front of it, with them. Looking at him makes something inside her flare with life, and when the photographs develop, they’re beautiful. They’re beautiful.
(“You look good together,” Taemin says, holding them in his hands, and staring down. The same thing he’d said while taking them. She wonders if he remembers it. She does.
“Wouldn’t have if you weren’t taking it,” she’ll reply, pretend-dismissive. Which may be the nicest thing she’s said to anyone in her entire life. She can’t figure if that means she’s becoming nicer or she’s just a really shitty person in general.
Taemin’s honesty opens up something inside her, she’s come to notice, it makes her want to be honest too. That’s terrifying. She has so much to not be honest about.
“Anybody can take a picture if the models are good,” he protests, skin tinged red with embarrassment. But he’s pleased anyway.
I wouldn’t have looked like that in them, then, she almost says.
Jongin turns his face away.)
She hadn’t gone to her father’s funeral. It’s one of those things that’s engraved in every look her mother has sent her ever after.
“You ungrateful child,” she’d sobbed, then. Soojung’s eyes were dry.
“You should help,” Sooyeon unni had said, once, dully. “There’s a lot of work to be done.” But she hadn’t pushed, when Soojung had turned away, and pulled the covers over her head.
She’s dry-eyed, still, when Taemin and Jongin make their way into her room, two hours later. For the first time since she can remember, they hesitate by the door.
“Hey,” Taemin is the first to break the silence. His voice so quiet, she may have made it up in her head. She feels an inexplicable urge to scream.
“Krys—” Jongin begins, and then trails off. Complete your fucking sentence, she wants to say, don’t leave stuff half-said. You’re going to die someday and it’s going to suck.
They’re better at the everyday, Jongin pulling things from the high shelves that she can’t reach and making fun of her height because he’s so afraid of being thought nice, Taemin patiently helping her with Trig, even when she keeps getting it wrong. They’ll probably be shit at comfort.
It makes her feel oddly good, being vicious. She hates them, hates everything. She’s done being one-third of their dysfunction.
“Soojung.” Jongin begins, again. There’s a long pause. Maybe they’ll leave, she thinks, if she doesn’t say anything ever again.
So, when her bed creaks with their combined weight, she’s too surprised, for a moment, to really protest. They’re still here, a part of her registers. It’s weird that they’re still here.
She’s never even shared a bed with Sica unni, but somehow it doesn’t feel wrong when Jongin rests his head under her chin, somewhere close to her heart. His hair is oddly soft, tickling her face. She wants to run her hand through it. She wonders if he can hear anything.
She thinks, strangely, of a gaping hole. A blank, awful silence where her heartbeat used to be. It makes her want to throw up.
“You’re going to be okay,” Taemin promises quietly, resting his head on her leg, just as Jongin slings an arm across his shoulders, and, for a moment, she feels connected to something other than empty space.
It should sound trite, overused and hollow, but this is Taemin. Taemin never lies. And she’s angry with herself because she almost believes it. Because it’s Taemin.
The silence stretches, but she doesn’t mind, she finds. She thinks she should probably be more conscious that she’s wearing that old, ill-fitting blue dress that appa had got for her, with its childish cut, with its stupid red bow that she’d hated then, hates now. Like he’d forgotten that she was eighteen, not eight. She should be more concerned that they’re inhaling her and she probably smells of stale sweat, and unwashed hair and grief.
But honestly, she doesn’t give a fuck.
They’re a tangle of limbs in just moments. Jongin is heavy on her, her breasts almost painfully sore with his weight. Her leg just starting to fall asleep under Taemin. So it’s strange that she feels oddly light. Lighter than she had before. Before them. Which is ridiculous.
She thinks she hates them for that too.
She goes the next day, when it’s empty and everyone’s gone and all that’s left is endless bouquets of too-bright flowers, already starting to wither, already starting to rot. When she thinks about it, it’s fucking weird that people grieve something as permanent as death with something that temporary. Or maybe that’s the point.
She doesn’t wear mourning black, she wears bright red. She fits in with the flowers, she concludes. She’s decorative too.
His picture is still lying on the raised platform. It’s about to be taken away, she knows, locked behind a glass door on a shelf somewhere with his ashes, in the middle of thousands of others just like it. There’s nothing special about dying.
So it’s stupid, she thinks dully, that she can’t seem to remember to keep breathing. Weird that it seems difficult somehow, like she’s maybe forgotten how to.
When she slides to the ground, back against the hardwood pillar, neither Taemin, nor Jongin try to stop her, to catch her on her way there. She thinks she’s so grateful she could almost cry.
She doesn’t, though.
And sometime in the next few minutes, when she can breathe again, feel again, they’re stretched out on the cold floor, their heads on her lap, asymmetrical, like they personally set out to defy geometry, and they’re tangled with her again. Like they had been yesterday, in her bed. This isn’t her bed. She doesn’t move.
Taemin buys them ice-cream on the way back. It’s nearly July, and try as she might, to lick it all before it does, the ice-cream keeps dribbling over her hands, her fingers sticky-sweet.
And when the last bit of the chocolate part melts too, spilling over her hand, she cries. Cries so hard, she thinks she'll never ever be able to stop, because she really, really likes the chocolate part.
It’s only because Jongin says please with this fake bravado that she can read through, as if he really couldn’t care less about her answer, even though he keeps avoiding her eyes, is why she agrees in the first place. He’ll hate being there, she knows. Without them.
Taemin is busy, and it takes her approximately fifty seven seconds in to realize she doesn’t belong there. Doesn’t belong at this party. The see-through white of the top, the red satin of the skirt of her dress suddenly feels too cheap next to the red of his crisp, expensive, designer shirt.
She’d laughed at the coincidence when she’d first seen him, but here, now, it doesn’t feel funny.
Mr. and Mrs. Kim just give her this polite glance of puzzlement when Jongin introduces her, as if they remember her vaguely from long back, but can’t place from where. As if she hasn’t spent years of her life around their son, every second of every day.
Then they turn back to their guests, with a warning to Jongin to mingle or whatever, and she’s already forgotten.
It’s not the dress, she realizes after a while, after a few more glances from people she doesn’t know, assessing her, calculating. It’s not the dress that’s cheap— she is.
She slips into his room thirty minutes in. It’s out of bounds, the sign says, but she doesn’t really care, and she knows he won’t either. She’s familiar with its diagonals. She doesn’t switch on the light.
It’s another half-hour before he finds her.
“Goddammit,” he swears. She’s sitting on his bed, by the window, the moonlight filtering in, hands clasped over her knees. The music is filtering in, if she only listens hard enough. It’s a jazz piece her mother loves. They’re trash, she thinks caustically, but her mother sure has high tastes. “Why are you here alone, Krys?”
She wants to be mad at him. Tell him that she isn’t a part of this part of his life, and she doesn’t want to be and it’s really fucking outrageous of him to expect her to be, to ask her to be, pretend that she is.
But, when she looks at him, half-shaded by the dim light, he looks just as lost as she feels, so she doesn’t.
“I got bored,” she shrugs.
He isn’t convinced, she can tell, but he’s afraid to push further, because she knows he doesn’t want to hear what she doesn’t want to say.
They screwed each other up, she realizes, with a vague certainty. Her, Jongin and Taemin. They really screwed each other over good.
When he joins her on the bed she doesn’t protest. It’s his bed, after all. Doesn’t tell him to go be a good little host with that passive-aggressiveness that always lies somewhere just beneath the surface of her skin. To go play Kai- his English name, the one his parents use, because it’s who he is to them.
Doesn’t protest even when he rests his head on her lap. She runs her hands through his hair, instead. He closes his eyes.
“I fucking hate—” he begins, then stops. She’s always known this; they have the same hunger for escape within them, and nothing to escape from. They’re not tied down, they’ve never been contained, it makes no sense that they always want to run.
The silence is longer, but more languid somehow. She feels lazy.
“I like your shoes,” he continues next, softer. His hand wraps around her ankle, just above the red satin cover of her shoes, just below the red satin cover of her dress, both of which she knows now are cheap, feels now are cheap.
He draws in a sharp breath. She can hear it over the distant music. She doesn’t remember from her Biology textbook if there’s a pulse somewhere right there at her ankle, right beneath his loose grip, but it jumpstarts. And skyrockets.
She knows what’s going to happen before it does. So when he trails his hand further up her leg, she doesn’t protest. He’s slow, too slow. Jongin’s impatient as a rule. She is too. It’s something else they share.
Sometimes, she’s convinced they’re the same in all their worst traits.
Is this okay, he mumbles when he reaches her knee, and she—she doesn’t want to reply, she wants this to go on, wants him to go on and not have to say anything, not have to give away anything. Plausible deniability unni had called it, when she was explaining government corruption and Chung-hee policies or something. Soojung hadn’t listened then, not fully, but it’s a good term; plausible deniability.
“Is this okay?” he repeats, and stops. She feels the loss almost immediately.
Yes, she reluctantly answers.
Fuck, he says, under his breath, low, hot, urgent, and it breaks something inside her, some kind of filter because she can’t stop saying it now.
Yes, again when he slips a hand inside her underwear- that’s cheap too, she bought it from the cheapest store downtown. Yes again when his fingers stretch her more than her own ever did. His fingers are longer. Yes even though she’s already so wet, already dripping on his bedsheet, like she really is a slut like they’d said. Yes when he asks her if it’s good.
Yes again, at the back of her throat, when his tongue in her mouth mimics the movement of his hand, and it’s crazy intense, more intense that she’d thought it would be from the many paperbacks she'd read behind newspaper covers, terrifying headlines in black-and-white over faded cover-pictures that would have scandalized her mother. She can see in technicolor beneath closed eyelids. The sounds from downstairs punctuate his shallow, uneven breathing, and it’s less embarrassing that her heart is so loud.
Jongin is all fluidity. Jongin is all grace. He’s a dancer, she’s always known, but she feels it now, from the vein in her forehead, the pulse between her legs, down to the arch of her foot. She’s clumsier, by default. But, in a long time, it’s okay, he compensates. In a long time, they’re not the worst parts of each other. They’re good together.
(Thrice, she wishes Taemin was here too, with them, under Jongin. She doesn’t know what that says about her.)
When she comes, the music stops.
“I don’t have a condom,” is all he says when she asks to return the favor, because she has no idea how to deal, and he hates that she said that, she knows. She said it because she knew he would.
She doesn’t know if she needs a condom to blow him, but it feels childish to have to ask. They’re not children. She wants to make a joke about him not having a condom, because she’d heard differently from girls in class, the loud whispers around her, never spoken to her. But that sounds petty and possibly jealousy-laden, which it is, everyone who knows her knows that. (She wants to blow him, blow his mind too. Prove that she can be graceful, she doesn't just always take. She doesn’t want to think that.)
“Well,” she manages, flippant, “you wanna make a baby?”
He shifts his gaze from the window to her, silent, sullen and familiar, and something inside her clicks into place, and something inside her tenses, and she thinks something inadequate like- oh. Realizes she doesn’t want to think beyond that.
Which is why, when he kneels down before her, she thinks of Taemin’s flower crown, and she feels, for a ridiculous moment, like his bedroom is her kingdom, because his reverence is real. It always has been.
And when she’s close, when she’s almost there, he ruins it all, by saying I love you between her open legs. I love you, low, desperate, and she must really be a bitch because a part of her thinks she fucking loves him, has always loved him, and a part of her thinks; that’s inconvenient.
She comes with his name at the tip of her tongue, Taemin’s name at the back of her throat, neither said aloud.
“Don’t run,” he says. When he wipes his mouth, she looks away.
“I’m not,” she answers. It wasn’t even a question.
It’s easy to leave, after; he didn’t take any of her clothes off. And it’s when she opens it that she realizes, they never locked the door.
She reads about the assassination in the papers the next day.
PARK CHUNG-HEE DEAD, the headline announces simply, in bolded black-and-white. Sooyeon unni cuts out all the clippings and posts them on a piece of cardboard, even though Soojung can’t understand why.
She’ll remember the date, she thinks later. She’ll always remember the date now. That’s inconvenient too.
“You’re avoiding Jongin,” Taemin notes. She’s sure his drink is exactly what came out of the can.
“I’m not avoiding Jongin,” she mutters. Her drink isn’t, obviously.
“There’s something different about you,” Taemin’s frowning at her, like he can figure out what through the sheer concentration of will. Like she’s Math or English or Chemistry, or all of those things that he works so hard on, and constantly aces.
She’s not any of those, but he doesn’t need to work hard on her; she’s easy when it comes to him.
Jongin is standing at the end of the table, talking to Jinri, and it makes her insides feel tight. His suit is cut for him, the pinstripes aligning with his body almost obscenely. Her shirt feels even looser on her body, the white lace misaligned, the black dress a terrible fit, the straps falling off. Both of them unni’s. Nothing is made for her.
“Jongin’s drunk,” Taemin shakes his head. She can tell he is too, by the way he’s holding himself, his hand slipping off the counter. Jongin is never anything less than grace, sober.
“Why did we come to this stupid thing anyway?” she complains . “I hate this school on regular days. Coming after hours for a dance seems like fine-tuned Fifth Republic torture. They might as well call it what it is- martial law- and be done with it.”
“That’s melodramatic,” Taemin states. Then laughs, “Sooyeon noona is finally having an effect on you.”
And she’s drunk enough to want to kiss him. She wants to kiss him even when she’s not drunk.
She’s staring at his lips, which is why she doesn’t notice when Jongin comes over, till he reaches out a hand, right past her, to Taemin and says, “dance with me.”
She can’t look behind her, can’t look up at him, so she watches Taemin instead. Watches his hand still for a moment so brief, she thinks she may have imagined it. Before he keeps his glass down, his hand steady.
“Not the best idea,” he says, mildly. Raises his glass again.
“Why not,” Jongin counters. “There’s nobody I want to dance with here. No point in being here. But I do want to dance with you.”
Maybe he’s more drunk than she realized, she thinks. Not that that isn’t the truth, still, there probably is no one Jongin wants to dance with more than he does with Taemin.
There’s a pause.
Taemin shrugs. “Okay.”
He reaches his hand out, and before it touches Jongin’s, there’s hooting from the next table.
“Faggot,” someone shouts, and in the silence, she feels a sickeningly familiar sensation of dread.
Jongin turns, his steadiness is terrifying for some reason, “what did you say?”
“Not you,” the guy dismisses. She doesn’t even remember his name. “Your lover, pretty-boy over there.”
Taemin’s hand clenches around the glass he’d just left. She didn’t even notice he’d left Jongin’s.
“He has the hots for you,” the guy continues, and the silence is replaced by whispers, laughter. “Haven’t you noticed? Or is it your thing? You swing both ways? That girl one night, and pretty boy the next? Or is it some weird threesome shit that you have going on? Not that I blame you, mind, they’re both pretty. I might even choose the boy over the girl.”
Taemin already had a hand out, but Jongin slips out of his grip, his punch landing with unerring accuracy.
And there it is again, a vague feeling in the pit of her stomach which goes something like this doesn’t end well.
She’s half-bowed under his weight. Her heart stops every time she looks at him, face swollen, his eyes blackened. And blood. So much of it.
It’s Taemin’s bicycle they make him sit on, Taemin who rides him home. She just follows. When she catches a glimpse of it next, Taemin’s face is blank.
He’s going to bleed on the carpeting, is her next stupid thought, when they haul him on the sofa, and she thinks, unintentionally of the photographs lying somewhere at the back of her drawer at home. But they can pay someone to take out the blood, she reasons, they’re rich. She doesn’t know why it’s important.
She’s the one to cleans his wounds, trying not to hurt him. She’s not good with it, not good with anything that requires softness. And as he stares up at her, she feels something raw cramp inside her. He’s getting worse at hiding it.
She doesn’t realize Taemin isn’t next to her, till she next looks back and he’s sitting with his hands clasped over his knees, leaning against the wall, his eyes fixed on the carpet. As she shifts, Jongin notices him too.
“Tae.” Jongin says. He attempts to get up; she doesn’t try to stop him. When he walks over on unsteady feet and reaches out a hand, Taemin flinches, hard.
Jongin reels back, like he’s been struck.
“Don’t—” he starts.
“It’s my fault,” Taemin says and forces a smile. It hurts her to look at him.
“How,” Jongin bites, his mouth set, “is it your fault. What is your fault exactly?”
“That I want to kiss you,” Taemin says simply, and her mind blanks for a long moment, because Taemin- Taemin never lies- but sometimes, he doesn’t say anything at all. “That I’m not better at hiding it.”
All of them, she knows, already know this. They really screwed each other over, she thinks again, all of them.
“That’s not—“ Jongin begins.
“Yes,” Taemin says, tightly. “It is.”
Taemin is wrong, this time, she thinks. Maybe they were always meant to be a little bit in love with each other. More than a little bit messed up.
So she isn’t surprised when Jogin says “fuck this,” and leans in.
When Taemin turns his face away, he persists. And there’s a moment when she’s convinced they’re never ever going to get back together, and her heart is in her throat, ready to spill out.
So when Taemin gives in, finally reaches up and gives in, she feels something overwhelmingly close to relief, close to comfort. Electric, like they’ve been this way their whole lives, just fractionally displaced, and he just completed the circuit.
Jongin is unpracticed, different. There’s a clumsiness to his movements, she hasn’t seen before. He’s not hurt, she realizes, he’s nervous. She doesn’t know how she missed it before, how she took in all the silent glances, and added them to nothing.
They’ve never been nothing even without her, she knows that.
Jongin is the one to tear all of Taemin’s buttons off. He’s impatient, even when wounded, even when he can barely fumble his way out of his own coat. Taemin is the one who calls her over, and when he kisses her, sweet and shy, she feels like the last part of chocolate ice-cream. Like she's been waiting for this her whole life.
When his hand reaches out, slips under the waistband of Jongin’s pants, she realizes she’s holding her breath.
Weird threesome shit, she can still hear the boy say. But she doesn't care. Not now. Not just right now.
It’s new, being careful with Jongin. He doesn’t want them to be careful. But, with Taemin, she’s more patient too. He’s the best parts of both of them.
They get suspended for a week. Jongin doesn't. The school administration says it's because he's the victim. His father's name-card probably says otherwise. He stays away anyway.
CHOI KYU-HAH GOVERNMENT FALLS, the underground papers that unni sometimes gets read in the morning, DEFENCE MINISTRY UNDER CHUN DOO-HWAN.
“It’s insane,” Taemin says, slowly, reading over unni’s shoulder. "How fast everything's changing."
But he doesn’t protest when she drags him out instead. “Forget that,” she says. “You’re boring me.”
Then, with hesitant, clumsy seduction, she links her fingers through Taemin's, runs her thumb over his knuckles, "I don't want to be bored."
When she looks over at him, Jongin's eyes are dark.
She jinxed it, she'll think, later. That's the moment she jinxed it. Which is ridiculous, but-
When her world falls apart, it’s kind of ironic it does so with a piece of paper. That’s so undramatic, she’s almost disappointed. She wants it scored, scripted, table-read, performed.
“What is that?” She asks Taemin, casually.
He can’t meet her eyes. Taemin never looks away.
When Jongin comes up behind them, the same piece of mail in his hand, she feels something cold take hold of her heart.
“We’d signed up… together,” Taemin says, gradually, like he’s more afraid of her than he is of whatever the hell happens in the military. She wouldn’t know. She’s not a man. She’s just the girl who’s supposed to sit at home and fucking wait for the man, the men. Her boys. “Long ago. We didn’t know- I didn’t know- it would be this fast- now.”
(“They need more people in the army,” unni will tell her in the evening, her mouth set in a thin, straight line, her eyes darting across the words of the newspaper in her hand. When she pushes her hair away, there's a brown line cutting across her face. It scarred. It was always going to, Soojung knows. “Jong-pil’s side says this is a movement towards militarization. Major General Chun is preparing to declare martial law across the country. They're covering their bases."
She doesn’t know what that means. All she knows is that they’re going to be gone. Taemin and Jongin. She wants to know what the hell that means.
She will pick up the other paper lying on unni’s side, and begin reading.)
“Fuck,” is all Jongin says, but that’s enough. It’s how she feels. Taemin never swears, but she wants to. She wants to hit out at something.
“How long?” Her voice sounds foreign to her. A hard, ugly accent. Nothing like Lu Han’s soft lilt.
Taemin hesitates for a long moment. “Two months.”
You can’t, she wants to say, childishly. We’re meant to be together forever. I already told everyone that. Don’t make me a liar. Forever’s not over yet.
“Whatever,” she says. Turns away.
(Maybe this is how it goes:
“Don’t wait,” Taemin tells her, gently. His hair is cut short. She can’t run her fingers through it anymore, it’s too short. It scrapes against her hand, when she tries.
Jongin wants her to tell her to wait, she knows. Every time he looks at her, like he can’t stop looking at her. She can read him. But he says nothing. He only kisses her, hard, her back scraping against the brick wall of the back of her house; she can feel it bruising through the layer of clothes. Maybe it’ll scar. She thinks: good.
Don’t be a hero, she wants to snap, tell me to wait. That you’re going to come back to me, so I have to. I have to.
“Don’t wait,” Taemin says, again, quietly, like he can read her mind. He reaches out a hand to cup her cheek, so softly, it almost tears open her skin.
She will not fucking wait even if they asked her to, she wants to say, but they’re already gone.)
“You weren’t in school today,” Lu Han notes. “Again.”
When she looks up, he’s slinging his bag higher over his shoulder with one hand. She’s not even sure why he’s here at all. She’s probably a detour he took; maybe this is the way to his house. Or maybe he’s stalking her.
“No,” she answers, agreeably, she’d imagine. It’s an answer, anyway.
She wonders, for a moment, why he hasn’t been called yet. He’s older. Probably because he’s Chinese, she concludes. Well, good for him.
She looks back down.
“What are you doing?” Lu Han’s voice is amused. He often seems to find her amusing, she’s noted. She’s not trying to be, she’s not trying to be anything.
“Waiting,” she says, briefly. Tears off another leaf from the twig in her hand.
She can’t stand to look at either of their faces these days. So she may as well start practicing now.
He doesn’t ask her why. For what. For whom. Maybe he already knows. Maybe he doesn’t care. It’s not like they’re friends.
“Okay,” is all he says. He doesn’t leave, still, which irritates her. But he doesn’t say anything either.
The silence is companionable, she realizes, with mild surprise, a while later, when the last leaf has been plucked, and her hand is covered with sap. Maybe it’s because he can’t speak Korean well that he doesn’t make small talk.
Somehow, the thought pleases her. It’s what makes her ask, “what are you doing?”
She picks up another fallen branch. It has lots of leaves.
“I’m waiting too,” he replies.
She wants to ask for what. And realizes how difficult it must have for him to not to, because she almost can’t stand to not ask. To not know. She’s impatient, by nature. But he didn’t ask.
She likes him, she decides. Even if he’s a Chinese traitor like her haraboji would have said. Even if he’s a vampire, like she’d once heard floating around in class. She likes him even then.
“Okay,” she echoes.
“You know,” he begins slowly, and she strains to hear the foreignness in his syllables, the softness of his accent. He’s getting better at hiding it. It’s a pity. “What’s the best part about waiting?”
Must be the endlessness of it, she wants to reply. It can’t be the part where it feels like she picked a pair of dysfunctional lungs off the market, and she can’t return them. That must the easiest part, then, since everything else sucks worse.
But she doesn’t want to be a bitch, not just yet. “What?”
He’s quiet for so long, she thinks maybe he didn’t hear her. It’s fine, she doesn’t want an answer anyway.
“That you can do it while doing anything else you want to,” he says simply. “You can do it while doing everything else you want to. You never have to stop waiting, no matter what you do, so you can do everything. And you're always still closer to the end of it.”
Her hand stills in the middle of its mechanical moment. She hasn’t, she realizes, thought of it quite like that.
She resumes plucking.
“Okay,” she says.
He smiles down at her, and slings his up bag again to prevent it from slipping. She doesn’t understand why he doesn’t just adjust the straps.
“Okay,” he repeats, this time. And oddly- it doesn’t just sound like something to say. It sounds like a question. Like he’s been asking her that all this while, and she just hasn’t been listening.
He waves at her once, then turns away.
She watches him leave. He passes Kibum oppa’s house in the distance. Someone moved in a week back, unni had told her. Strange, how things change. The flowers are covered to protect them from the frost again now, she notes, it's been so long since they were. The garden will probably bloom again, come summer. How odd.
She gets up only when Lu Han's already turned the corner. The city clock strikes. She’s two hours further away from them, she thinks. Two hours closer to the time they'll have to leave. Then thinks; she’s two hours closer to the next time with them. Two hours closer to when they'll come back to her. Which doesn’t sound much, but it’s something.
“Okay,” she says out loud, more firmly, an answer.
She brushes the leaves off her jeans. Leaves the branch on the ground.
Taemin’s grandmother’s shed is colder in December; she can barely feel her fingers. She doesn’t even know why they’re outside at all.
The jars are empty, it makes her feel a little sad. Stuff changes.
Jongin’s mouth is still swollen. He glances over sometimes, and she can tell he wants to kiss her. But this is new and growing and she knows they don’t have words enough yet. It's good, then, that they’re close enough always to not need words. Words are unnecessary anyway, she's said so many she never meant, never said so many she did.
Taemin is wandering around, touching everything, like he’s lost in his own grandmother’s house, like he’s trying to imprint it in his sense memory, and she feels a strange urge to laugh. So, not everything changes.
They keep glancing at her covertly every few minutes, like she can’t tell. They’re testing the waters, she knows, trying to gauge her mood. It’s not like they have much time left, and she spent ten days of it waiting alone. Waiting for something not yet gone. That, when she thinks about it now, is crazy.
She sits down at the back, furthest from the opening, and tries to remember what Taemin had taught her about Trigonometry. Tries to figure the triangulation, the cartesian coordinates, the tangent and the cosecant, and derive some kind of meaning, some kind of equation that will stay true forever, because it's Math, it's a truth beyond them. but Taemin keeps moving around too much, so, eventually, she gives up.
“You’re annoying me,” Jongin mutters, and finally pulls him down, hard, when Taemin next reaches close to him. Taemin loses his balance, and falls on his lap. Neither of them move. She still can’t derive any sort of equation because now they’re just two points. There’s only one shortest distance between two points, a straight line. There’s no quantifying the blood running gold inside her. They’re golden. They will stay golden, they have to. Unni will tell her that she's stupid, that she doesn’t understand political realities, that she doesn't get the world outside her own head. Nothing gold can stay, her English teacher had read out loud from some poem in class on Thursday, but it's not like she understood most of that, so, whatever.
She’s selfish, she knows, but she wants it all; Jongin’s intensity, Taemin’s endless patience. Even now, even when she can’t stop them leaving, can’t change anything. She’s always wanted everything. Back when she could still stand her, her mother had laughed and said that wanting too much was a sign of being too young. The first sign of growing old, she’d said, is realizing you can’t always get what you want. You have to give up more than you can keep.
Well, she decides, that isn’t a problem for her, because she’s fucking going to be young forever.
She stretches out her legs.
“Let’s start a band,” Soojung says.