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maybe we'll take the long way home

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November

In the end, Solar gives them both a gold star for trying.

They try, they really do. The two of them reach and reach and reach, hoping maybe if they strain hard enough they can grasp each other’s hands, but it just doesn’t work. She’s busy and he’s busy and texts go unanswered for days and it’s all okay, because at least they tried.

Well, it’s not okay, but no one needs to know that. Eric’s been distant since their last filming - not out of anything having to do with her, but out of worry for his family in America. There are more important things for him to think about and focus on than giving whatever exists between them a shot.

It falls apart, though. Gradually conversations become further and further apart in the two weeks between their last shooting and the airing of the last episode. Solar’s fine, though. Really, she is. It’s better this way, with no confession out there for her to regret, with nothing going wrong. She should be glad, really, that life getting in the way stopped her from ruining their friendship with dumb unrequited feelings. The fans are happy and she is too, mostly, and no one has to worry about her only being mostly happy, because she doesn’t tell anyone.

They try, and it’s hard, and it falls apart, but she gives them both a gold star anyways, because some things just aren’t meant to be, and neither of them can do anything to change that.

 

 

*.*.*

 

 

The balloons are something dumb he sees online, somewhere in the midst of trying to be in two places at once, of trying to be everywhere for everyone all at one time. Eric sends flowers to his mom and orders a pizza for Teesa and various other things for everyone else, and, when he’s done with all that and it’s three in the morning and he still feels a little nauseous, he sees the balloons.

They haven’t even been virtually divorced for twenty four hours yet when he clicks on the link and orders one Amscam International Wedding Rings Balloon (deflated - so he can save it for later). He doesn’t even know what he’d use it for, except that he needs to have it because it doesn’t feel right to think of all the people in his life who he cares deeply about and not include her anymore.

He still cares about her in the end. No amount of missed calls or unanswered texts is going to change that.

 

 

*.*.*

 

 

“Are you happy you’re done filming We Got Married?”

One of the things people told her, when she told them about the trip, is that the ending would be coming soon. She didn’t need that - she’s seen enough of the show to know the way it all works. The second thing they told her was that the questions are always worse afterwards. Even if you’re lying. Especially if you’re lying.

Solar should be able to answer the question when Moonbyul reads it. She’s practiced the answer, rehearsed it in front of the mirror like a mantra. Still, she can’t quite make the words sound right in her head when she tries to answer. The only thing that sounds okay is honesty.

She stumbles over the truth, the practiced words thumping and bumping around until they fall out of her mouth and shatter on the floor like glass. Even Moonbyul’s careful nudging isn’t enough to save them.

In the end, all that’s left is the truth.

Are you happy you’re done filming We Got Married? “Not at all.”

 

 

 

 

They finish the V-APP. Solar comes away from it feeling like she’s got a swarm of bees in her stomach. It’s probably just a side effect from swallowing the glitter, she tells herself, but she can’t help but feel like maybe something else has something to do with it.

“I’m going for a walk,” she announces, to no one in particular, since Moonbyul is in the other room playing with Jjing Jjing. She doesn’t stick around long enough to see if she says anything in response.

The chill of the November air kind of helps the panic building up inside of her, but not really. Some part of her just feels wrong right now, even past the fact that she’s got a square of sparkly paper inside her stomach. Solar wonders if maybe she swallowed more than just that. Maybe it’s not what she swallowed, but what she just spit out - something to make everyone else happy even when she’s not, because really none of them need to spend more time worrying about her, especially when she just messed everything up earlier that day.

It’s not Moonbyul’s fault for not knowing, really. If she thinks about it, it’s her own. It’s just… things changed so slowly that she really couldn’t be sure enough of anything to explain it to the girls until the end. She never really got the chance to describe to them how she’d slid from not wanting to film to looking forward to it, from being his co-worker to his friend to his best friend to having this terrible new urge to touch his shoulders and arms and face. Solar didn’t even really figure out what that meant until two weeks ago, and, by then, it was far too late to do anything about it.

She pulls out her phone and finds her fingers scrolling through her Twitter feed, smiling at the MooMoos’ comments. She’s glad they got some amount of joy out of her little accident. While she doesn’t always understand their reactions to things - they should be disappointed in her for ruining the taping - Solar’s always enjoyed reading them anyways. It’s why she made this account, after all; because they always make her smile.

She almost doesn’t realize how far she’s scrolled until she gets to a recent tweet from Eric. It’s not even anything she should care about, but she finds herself clicking on the Instagram link anyways, because somewhere along the line some part of her started caring about everything he says and does. That takes her a little further, to his profile, and then to the picture she’s been trying not to think about for two days now.

Thanks to everyone who loved and supported the Ddongie couple for the past 8 months! the caption reads, a feeble reminder that there were people who enjoyed it all as much as she did. Most of the comments are in English, and Solar doesn’t have the energy to try and translate them, but she scrolls through, anyways, searching for the few ones in Hangul. The proof that not everyone was dying to hear her say she was happy to be off the show.

Just, you know, most of them.

Please be real. TT

Mm. It was lovely. TT TT

Don’t break up. You were such a pretty couple who didn’t take too long to care about each other. Solar manages a weak smile at this one. Whoever wrote this is wrong; it definitely took too long on her end. She only really realized the extent of her feelings at the end, when she didn’t have time to do anything about it. They were pretty though, she nods, going back to the photograph of the day they had their wedding. So so pretty.

There’s no one who’s going to understand this weird feeling in her stomach. She’s closed herself off to her members, the MooMoos are celebrating the ending, and even Eun Ah might not realize she’s being serious. So, she’s stuck marching forward, leaves crunching underneath her feet, fighting against the cold all around her.

Another reason she hasn’t told any of them, besides how hard it is to describe her feelings, is because she knows they’re all going to do the right thing and steer her away from him. The details of this feel all too familiar; it’s nearly winter and he’s always flying off on some trip or another, just as flighty as he once was.

Eric’s different, though, Solar knows that. The whole situation is different. It’s just… it can be hard to see that at first glance. Sometimes even she is scared the whole thing will turn out the way it did last time, especially when it’s cold like this. She knows all too well how bitter tears feel when they meet the freezing wind.

Her fingers realize the answer to her loneliness before her mind does, pulling up her contacts and hitting the “call” button with a natural sort of ease. It’s only when Solar’s staring at his contact name that she feels that tug in her gut signifying she’s doing the right thing, despite what everyone else would probably think.

“Yongsun-ah,” he answers, after only a few rings, drawing out the ah in a playful way that would make her smile under other circumstances. He sounds… better… than the last time she spoke to him. Of course, that time he’d been especially upset, after their last filming and finding out about the American election… “Hey, how are you? I heard something about glitter...

There’s something comforting about the fact that he’s keeping tabs on her even if she doesn’t always have the courage to contact him now that her feelings have messed everything up. “I’m… okay.” Solar chooses her words carefully. “We had to stop the filming, though, so I could go to the hospital.”

“Is it bad? What happened?” There’s some level of panic in his voice, some kind of caring that Solar can’t quite decipher.

“I went home,” she says, thinking that’s enough of an answer. He knows if it was really bad she would’ve stayed there. “I got to chat with the MooMoos, though, so something good came out of it, I guess.”

Eric makes a noise to let her know he’s listening. She’s always appreciated the way he does that, how he knows just what to do to make her feel heard and still let her talk. So often people end up talking over her.

“Can I ask you a question?” Solar’s not sure if she’s being brave or impulsive. It’s a dumb, reckless thing to ask him - something that might end up hurting her even more - but she has to know if he’s on the same page as her about this, even if she has to dig it out from his voice and inflection. They’re eerily similar in that way; the two of them can’t quite keep their true emotions out of their voices.

“Sure,” his tone is light, but Solar wishes she could see his eyes just to make sure she’s reading him right. “I think you know everything about me already, though.”

She shakes her own words from Dubai out of her head.

“Are you… happy? That it’s over, I mean? Are you excited that we’re not filming anymore?”

Eric’s silent for a moment, and Solar takes that opportunity to sit down on the curb, crunching a leaf in her hand to distract her from the worry that comes with his silence. “I don’t know,” he finally answers. “I mean, I’m glad to be moving forward in my life, and I’m glad you are too. I like that we can both get more sleep now. I don’t exactly miss having all those cameras in my face, and yet…”

He doesn’t need to finish. She knows what he means. There’s that tiny “yet” in the back of her mind, too. It might not be exactly the same for them - her “yet” might involve missing him a lot more than his involves missing her - but it’s similar, in the way that they’re similar.

Solar runs her polka-dotted nails along the concrete of the sidewalk, subconsciously tracing a heart into the surface and then quickly rubbing it away with her palm. “I saw the episode,” she tells him, changing topics. “You told me to call you if I was sad or lonely.”

Eric makes a noise on the other end of the phone, like a shadow of a bitter laugh. “Which one is it?”

“I can’t tell,” she admits. “They feel very similar.” She crunches another leaf. “It all just feels like November. You know the way November feels?”

“Grey and kind of terrible?” Yeah, he understands. Or maybe it’s just that the both of them had to say goodbye at the beginning of the month and it’s stained the rest of it this ashy grey color that smells like burnt cold.

“Exactly,” Solar sighs.

“What are you guys doing right now?” He changes the subject. She doesn’t blame him. It was starting to feel a little too heavy on her shoulders.

“We have a little free time now, but we have a schedule tonight.”

“Mmm.”

“Are you writing right now?” He hasn’t said anything for sure, but Solar’s been suspecting there’s a new album in the works for a while now, especially since, the last few times she saw him, he would see something and just whip out his phone to write it down. She wonders if there’s going to be anything about her on it. It would be dumb of him. And risky. Not that that’s really stopped him before, though.

She can hear the sound of rustling papers over the phone. “Yeah,” Eric answers. “Do you want to hear what I have so far?”

“No,” Solar says.

No?

“I want to be surprised when your album comes out. Besides, you know I think everything sounds better when you sing it.

Okay, Yongsun-ah.”

It’s really hard for her to try and be happy that the show is over when he sings her name like that.

 

 

*.*.*

 

 

Eric blows up the balloons and drops them off at MBC the first day Solar takes him up on his offer and calls him.

It’s dumb, and probably reckless, but he honestly could care less. No one’s going to know, let alone care, except for the people who would be happy about it anyway. And, besides, today he’s not anyone’s husband (not anymore) - he’s just another fan, like he always has been, and no one’s going to turn away a fan.

She’s not there when he drops them off, which was the plan - Eric’s not quite sure what he could say to explain them to her right now. He pads around the white tile of what will be their dressing room and stops to smell that wonderful scent of backstage.

It’s addicting. It’s been addicting since he was small. No matter if it’s the backstage of a first-grade play or of The Show, it always smells like some magical mix of hairspray and disinfectant and hope. It’s that last part of the equation that’s kept him coming back since the beginning.

Even just standing here now, he misses it. If he wasn’t at risk of working himself into an early grave already, it might be enough to make him want to push up the date of his comeback. Still, for now he’s content to just stand in it, with the balloons in one hand and the sound of one of the rookie groups rehearsing flowing through his ears.

When he’s done, he puts the balloons down and walks away.

On the way out, he runs into Moonbyul. It’s an accident, really. The MBC maze of hallways can be confusing even to someone who’s been performing there for years, especially when it comes to finding the bathrooms closest to where they record The Show without actually being a part of the dressing room area.

They greet each other awkwardly, and he tries to find some sort of comfort in the fact that she’s still calling him “Ric-hyung,” even though they finished filming two weeks ago.

When the salutations finish, she shows him the roll of toilet paper in her hand, holding it up like a trophy. “We spilled something in the car,” she says, as if that explanation is enough. “You?”

“Um…” he was hoping it would be a surprise. “The balloons…”

“Ahh.” When she nods her silver hair really looks like moonlight.

“Don’t tell her you saw me.” Eric’s not quite sure why he doesn’t want her to know, except for the fact that it means then she’d know he didn’t feel quite strong enough to talk to her about, well, everything in person today. Some other part of him says it’s because mystery is more romantic. He puts a finger over his lip in a facade of being put-together. “It’s a surprise.”

“You should come by more often,” Moonbyul says, and it’s with the same tone of voice she always uses when she warns him about Solar. “You’re our brother now, after all.”

“How…” he tries to find the right words to explain to her all the reasons why he’s afraid to disrupt their moments together. “How is she?”

Her response is less of an answer and more of a very heavy handed suggestion. “Better when you’re in her life.”

They part ways with a quiet sort of understanding.

 

 

*.*.*

 

 

December

“Did Eric really give you the elephant?”

It’s nearly midnight when the first dance rehearsal for their power vocals gayo performance finishes, and Solar nearly jumps at the sound of Ailee’s voice from her place leaning against the wall of the studio. The older girl takes a sip of water, as if she didn’t just make her jump like she’d seen a ghost.

“What?”

Solar always forgets that all the other foreign-born idols call him by his American name. Eric Nam isn’t a stage name for him the way that Solar is for her; it’s just as much a part of him as Yoondo. There’s no need for him to become anything other than what he is to make it, because every part of him is something perfect. He doesn’t have rumors of a false past trailing his real name like those cans they put on cars after American weddings the way she does.

Ailee puts the water down, holding it in her hand with that same effortless grace she holds her notes; somehow hiding the exhaustion of both of their lives with her cool demeanor. “The elephant. You know… Dumbo? It seemed like he gave it to you, but, you know, you really can’t be sure of anything on television.”

She’s giving her this look that Solar guesses is supposed to mean something. She can’t really read it, though. The question doesn’t feel like something asked in a haze of jealousy, or even on a level of worry; it just seems like something along the lines of curiosity. A smaller way of asking a bigger question that Solar’s not quite sure she’s ready to answer yet.

“Oh, um…” she fiddles with the strings of her hoodie, not quite able to look Ailee in the eyes. “Yes, actually. I have it now. It was a very thoughtful gift.”

The other girl smiles from the her place by the wall, and Solar thinks there might be a special type of camaraderie that comes from sitting, exhausted, on the floor of a studio with someone. “Did he ever tell you why he has this whole thing with elephants in the first place?”

She wracks her brain for an answer, and almost panics at not being able to find one. There are bits and pieces of one, sure, little hints he’d dropped along the way, but she’d never outright asked. It didn’t feel like something that had too much of a history to it: just a piece of him in the same way that a long-unrequited love of cats is a part of Wheein.

“I don’t think so…” Solar hopes she can’t tell how ashamed she is by her answer.

Ailee nods, not seeming to feel too strongly about it one way or another. “You know how his ears kind of stick out a little, right?” The way she says it has this almost loving quality to it, but not in the way that she expects.

She nods her head, and then takes a sip of her own water.

“Well, he used to be bullied for them a lot when he was younger. They used to tease him and call him Dumbo. He kind of turned it around, though, and just started associating himself with the elephants. He’s really good at things like that, you know; making something good out of something bad.” She then leans forward, as if she’s going to let Solar in on a secret, despite the fact that they’re still quite a few feet away from each other. “I think his ears are pretty cute, though, don’t you?”

Solar can’t help but smile thinking about it. She blushes, looking down into her water. “Yeah.”

Ailee laughs, with far too much delight for being in this post-rehearsal daze. “Can I tell him you said that?”

She rests her head against the wall and closes her eyes, finally letting them succumb to the feeling of tiredness that’s been slowly taking over her body since she sat down. Maybe she can squeeze in even just a few minutes of rest before her manager comes to pick her up. “Tell him whatever,” Solar mumbles. “I’m sleeping now.”

It might just be her own muddled brain, but she can almost swear she hears Ailee say something. It almost sounds like “He was right; you are adorable.” It can’t be that, though, because she really is almost asleep. Really. And if it was true she’d never be able to get her mind to slow down enough for even a wink of sleep.

 

 

*.*.*

 

 

If Eric thinks about it hard enough, he can find the anger.

Just because he chooses not to live by it doesn’t mean it’s not there. All the mantras and optimism and constant forward motion in the world can’t get rid of the grains of bitterness that get past his filters and bury themselves in his heart.

He’s angry with the American industry, for all the ways it’s failed people like him. He’s angry with the Korean one, as well, for working people so hard they forget who they are. Both create stars that burn too-bright too-fast. He’s spent enough time working on the press side of the industry to know that.

The anger kind of comes to it’s first boiling point in months when he’s standing on a stage in Los Angeles, a month after filming the last episode, answering fan questions, and someone asks who he’d like to collaborate with. He takes a moment to think about it, running through a list of people he thinks his audience might know. In that moment, someone else answers it for him.

A voice, from somewhere towards the front of the crowd, yells “Mamamoo’s Solar!” Someone screams, and then someone else does, and it ripples through the dark room, only growing louder when the MC repeats the fan’s shouted words.

All other names fly out the window in that moment. It’s the only answer left in his head by the time the crowd settles down again. He’s always regretted them not being able to record something together, or even just work on lyrics. Solar’s voice is powerful and sweet and he knows, from the times they’d just randomly start singing, that their voices sound good together.

“Mamamoo’s Solar,” Eric answers, and can’t stop the smile from spreading on his face. “You all have heard Mamamoo, right?”

He feels bad for the six people in the audience who do not take up the next wave of screams.

It’s only afterwards, when he’s lying in bed in his hotel room, that the whole unfairness of it all really creeps up on him. Everything has to be so secretive in Korea. All he wants to do is shout the way he’s feeling to the world, even if he’s not entirely sure what would come of it. But he can’t.

What he can do is smile in pictures and let the different girl groups who come on the Yang and Nam show compete for his attention with aegyo for the camera and, when asked about Solar in interviews, continue to promote her career, because he has to keep his image. He doesn’t even know how he got that image in the first place - how a good thing spiraled so far out of his control.

They won’t even let her come on the show, though. “You need to distance yourselves from each other,” his manager explained, when Eric asked him why. “You’re not Solar’s husband anymore. Act like it.”

He can’t act like it, though, as much as everyone needs him to right now, because the thing about a virtual marriage is that there’s no real beginning and no real ending. Eric can’t just pull a switch and not care about her anymore. He can’t just turn on a smile and pretend that everything he said and did, even at the end, was all for promotion.

He pulls up the pictures from Dubai, and scrolls through them, ignoring the way his anger makes him want to do something rash, and put another one on his Instagram just to prove that he can. This is what’s real - this photo of her smiling in the desert, flowers around her neck - more real than any of the other promotion-related things he’s posted this week.

She’s a million miles away and he just wants to do something to prove to her that he doesn’t regret it - any of it. He wants to show her, like he showed her that one day, that there are fans who care and people who would support them, and that maybe sometimes it’s okay to put their own happiness first. But he doesn’t, because really, this anger can’t be good for him.

Eric turns onto his side, squeezes his eyes tight, and pushes all that frustration away. He shouldn’t be upset - he has so many good things in his life right now, and she’s one of them. There’s no need to be resentful when he can be grateful.

Still, the wave-like screams of the crowd from earlier stick in his head: a reminder that there’s still room for hope. He just wishes he could find a way to share that hope with her.

 

 

*.*.*

 

 

The first boy Solar ever loved, like really loved, in that way you can only realize was different from the other people you thought you loved in the aftermath, would always leave her breathless.

He held her like the moon holds the seas:, pushing and pulling without ever really touching. He was smart - smarter than her- and seemed to know things about the world that no one else did. He read books from other countries and watched underground movies and would take her to these little hole-in-the-wall restaurants that she hadn’t know even existed until he’d pulled her in by her wrist.

She didn’t ever feel like she could keep up with him. He moved fast, jumping from subject to subject, opinion to opinion, leaving her in the dust with only a half-formed idea of her own stance on a thing by the time it no longer mattered to him. There was nothing he didn’t have his own idea about, and nothing he didn’t change his mind about multiple times.

He loved to hear her sing, though. That never changed. Usually late at night, when they’d been fighting, he would suddenly stop and ask her to sing something. “You sound like an angel,” he would say, and she would feel it then, in that moment, the way she only could when he would tell her. “My pretty angel.”

He was never one for nicknames, but angel stuck, and Solar liked it, for the most part. She’d had so many worse dragon-related nicknames that this one seemed better in comparison. People would ask the reasoning for the nickname, and he would wrap his arm around her and smile. “Have you heard her sing?” he would ask. “She’s an angel. My angel.”

It wasn’t him, really, that made her change her mind about her path in life. He had too many opinions on her destiny for her to really be swayed by any of them. When she came to a date one day, exhausted and feeling torn up inside, and told him she didn’t think she wanted to be a flight attendant anymore, he simply said “Okay,” and that was that. There would be other opinions later - many other ones - but that first reaction was what made her cling to him out of all the other people in her life when her new decision created a terrifying storm. He was the only one who accepted it immediately, without her having to cry or scream or beg him to understand.

Eun Ah never liked him. That should’ve been a tip-off.

Solar began trying to build something in the eye of the hurricane she’d created, trying to ignore the way the rest of her life was falling apart in the winds. She broached the topic of moving in together to him one night, when she was trying to cook for him, and his loud opinions on the subject bounced off the small walls of the kitchen, rattling her so much she told him it was just a joke afterwards.

And then she smiled, and he asked her to sing, because that was what always happened. She sang for him with a plastic smile on her face because she didn’t know how to tell him that she needed some sort of stability from him. Halfway through the song, though, he noticed her frown, and that’s when things got bad.

Solar would say, looking back, that she’d never yelled so loudly before.

The first boy Solar ever ever loved, like really loved, disappeared from her bed one December morning, leaving a vague note about “needing space” on her kitchen counter. She heard later that he’d moved somewhere West. America, maybe. Maybe Europe. Either way, she must have been easily forgotten.

He never knew her as Solar - the girl who would become Solar didn’t exist until a month later, when she was singing in Hongdae and a man in a suit came up to her - and she wonders sometimes, if he would even recognize her now, with her lighter, longer hair and a voice she no longer feels the need to subdue. She wonders if he knows she’s never quite been able to forgive him.

 

 

 

 

Being the group leader, Solar realized fairly early on, means protecting the other girls. More than being taken seriously by them, or having the most lines, or being the one who gives most of their acceptance speeches, it’s about making sure she bears the brunt of the weight.

So, when Hwasa gets her heart broken during their trainee days, Solar’s the one who makes sure she’s still eating. When Wheein runs into an old rival from school, Solar’s the one who pulls her away from a fight. When Moonbyul gets really silent the day it’s leaked that Krystal and Kai are dating, Solar’s the one who stays up all night watching bad movies with her until she feels better.

After they wrap on the last episode, she blinks away her tears and goes over the Decalcomanie choreography in her head until her mind is filled with nothing but claps and steps. She doesn’t meet Eric’s eyes. He steps closer anyways.

“This isn’t an ending,” he says, but there’s no confidence behind the statement. She feels like they’re back in that tower room and he’s using his MC voice to make up for the fact that he doesn’t know what to say.

Solar responds with the same false confidence. “I know.”

“We’ll see each other again.”

“I know.”

She gets the courage to look up, and finds his eyes warm and comforting, but sad. There’s been a sadness behind everything of his today. She supposes she looks the same way.

Eric pulls out his phone. “One last photo for your book?” he asks. “It wouldn’t be a date without it.”

Date. Like all these days together have been something real for him too. Like them meeting up once every two weeks means what it would mean for anyone else. Like this is their last one.

He wraps his arm around her, holding out his phone with his other hand, and she smiles, but she knows it doesn’t reach her eyes. He taps the screen and it clicks and it’s done, but she doesn’t step away from him, instead turning to face him. It’s only after her head makes the journey that she realizes their faces are only inches apart.

“Thank you.” Eric’s words are barely there, and she can feel a blush creep into her cheeks. “Again. For… all of this.”

She licks her lips, whether from the cold air or something else she’s not sure. His eyes glance to her mouth.

Solar’s about to say something, when Eric’s phone buzzes. And then it buzzes again, and again. He doesn’t look at it, keeping his eyes on her face, but she breaks their gaze, and looks down at it.

“Shouldn’t you get that?”

“Oh,” he steps back. “Oh right. Yeah. Sorry, it’ll just be a moment.”

Solar doesn’t need to see the news to know what happened; his face says it all. She pulls her hand away from where it was resting on his arm and takes everything onto her shoulders.

Bearing the weight means letting Eric go so he can be there for his family. Bearing the weight means pushing her own feelings down and giving him a pained smile and not texting him right when she gets home because she’s not important right now; her feelings don’t matter in the long-term.

And, besides, she doesn’t even know what she’d say.

 

 

*.*.*

 

 

Solar’s biggest problem with starting something, he quickly realizes, is the fact that she doesn’t want to disappoint anyone.

Eric learns this piece by piece, which is really how he learns almost everything Kim Yongsun-related. It starts three days before he has to leave LA, when she send him about seven screenshots of various Instagram comments, asking him to translate them for her. She then moves onto the MBC youtube page, and then to twitter, until he’s read and translated and explained a whole lot more of other people’s opinions on their relationship than he ever wanted to.

“It’s hard,” she confesses to him, one night over the phone, and it’s weird because they’re talking about the consequences of having a relationship together despite the fact that neither of them have really talked about their feelings yet. “Because I know them, and I love them, and they love me, more than I could ever possibly love them back, so sometimes I sit here thinking how could they be wrong? But then sometimes they are.”

“Like with Dubai?” he guesses.

“Yes. Like Dubai. Sometimes it’s hard to remember I’m a real person under all of this.” Solar sighs, and it rattles something inside his ribcage. “Solar seems like a cool person. I wish I could get to know her.”

Eric laughs at her statement, purely because it’s such an out-there thing to say, but he understands the confusion in her voice. “You are more than your image,” he tells her, and it’s a mantra he’s repeated to himself time and time again. “But, if it really helps, I can vouch that she’s pretty great.”

“I just don’t want to do something wrong and let them down.” Her voice gets quiet when she gets deep like this, so much so that he might almost forget just how loud she can be. Maybe. If she didn’t usually end up laughing a minute later.

Solar’s not specific about what the something wrong would be, but he knows. He’s known long before they even started looking at what other people say about them together. Something wrong is code for Eric Nam, and it’s not even because they don’t like him (they do; his good image has at the very least made that possible) but because of a whole lot of other things that all boil down to what happens when strangers learn to love you.

He knows, a little bit, from that time before he was asked who he’d like to work with and she popped into his head, what it’s like to look at Solar and not see Kim Yongsun. To kind of fall into her voice and her face and the way she holds herself onstage. Loving an idol isn’t like loving a person, though, because the latter is a lot messier and has none of that weird ownership aspect to it. At least, it shouldn’t.

He’s the something wrong because their relationship began on We Got Married, and they were scared of her getting caught in a scandal from the start. He’s the something wrong because the filming made her work long hours. He’s the something wrong because she drank on camera a few times. He’s the something wrong because accepting a relationship between the two of them means accepting that idols are people, and people sometimes make dumb mistakes like fall in love with each other.

Of course, this is all ridiculous because he doesn’t even know how she feels about him now that the show is over and the dust has settled and everything has cooled down. All he knows is that she needs time to figure everything out, and that he’s willing to give that to her.

After they hang up, Eric pulls out his notebook full of songs, and writes another one that’s probably never going to see the light of day. He titles this one Things You Never Say and then shoves the notebook back in his drawer so he doesn’t have to think about it anymore. This is how it’s been, for the past four months. Every single thought about her that needs an outlet gets put in the notebook and then it disappears forever (with a few exceptions).

He hates that the table of contents has become such an obvious display of his emotions since the Chuseok rally, but at least all of this means he’s been writing a lot. The good songs in here will probably end up scattered through the years so his album isn’t entirely about her, and that means he’s going to have enough shamelessly pining love songs to last the rest of his career.

Oh well, good on him. It’ll take about that long to get over her, anyway. And, best-case-scenario, there won’t be any reason to.

If a small bit of the page with the new lyrics on them ends up on his Snapchat story, it’s an accident. At least, that’s what he’ll tell his manager later, when he’s not tired and worn out and missing her even though he just talked to her. He’s not going to believe him, he knows that, but it’s worth a shot anyways.

 

 

 

 

Eric’s barely been back in Korea an hour when he gets his second distress phone call from Solar.

She sounds drunk, and she doesn’t drink, so that’s how he knows something must be wrong. She’s slurring her words and keeps floating between formal and informal like she’s forgotten there’s even a distinction between the two.

“Yongsun-ah,” he tries to keep his voice as level as possible, as if it’ll balance her out. “I need you to be honest with me.”

Solar sounds like she’s on the verge of passing out when she answers. “Honestyyy. Ho-nest. I will try my very very best.”

“Are you drunk?” The faint imitation of her normally loud laugh answers that for him. “Is someone with you? You shouldn’t be alone.”

“It's just like I told everyone. I want to be alone. That’s what today’s about, right? Alone?” A faint crashing sound comes from the other end of the line, and he’s afraid she’s just stumbled into something.

He thinks of his empty schedule for the day, and pushes away all pre-existing thoughts of sleep. “I’m coming over. You shouldn’t be alone right now.”

Eric takes her silence as agreement.

 

 

 

 

It takes a few tries at the doorbell before Solar actually answers.

When she opens the door, Eric gets the sneaking suspicion that he woke her from a nap. She’s leaning against the doorframe, like she needs the support, and her pretty dark eyes are mostly hidden behind her drooping eyelids.

“Oh,” she says when she sees him, and he can hear the exhaustion in her voice. “I thought I dreamt that.”

Eric holds up the paper bags in his hands and nods his head towards the door. “Can I come in?”

She doesn’t say anything in response, just closes her eyes and acquiesces, like she doesn’t have the energy to say no.

He hasn’t seen her, like really seen her in person, since their last filming. He’s seen pictures, sure - a few promotional stills for Decalcomanie, that picture she posted on the fancafe with the balloons, the selfie she’s in on Ailee’s Instagram - but pictures really don’t do her justice. If they even remotely came close to the real thing, he might be content with the entire folder he has of them on his phone, but they don’t. There’s no way to capture the warmth he feels in his stomach just from being around her, or the way she laughs.

Solar frowns at the bags in his hands as she leads him into her kitchen. There’s a table there with a bottle of wine with about a third of its contents missing. Someone else might look for a hidden bottle of tequila or something to explain her state right now, but Eric knows even that little is enough to do her in. If anything, it’s more than usual.

“It’s a surprise,” he tells her. “For later, when you’re not about to pass out on me.”

Solar’s very appropriate response to that is to trip over one of her rugs. On instinct, Eric drops one of the bags and moves to catch her. Her wrist is small and soft in his hands, and when she collapses into him her head kind of nestles itself in his chest, newly-brown hair sticking to his coat through the static.

It’s then that Eric realises she must’ve been trying to put on an act of relative put-togetherness for him, since she’s obviously about to fall asleep at any second. “Okay, okay,” he says, moving towards her couch, where she can go back to sleep in peace. “Let’s get you to bed.”

The look she gives him is worse torture than that past few weeks have been.

“You know I didn’t mean it like that,” he mutters, and he’s not sure if she can even hear him when she’s underwater like this.

“Why are you here?” Solar asks, when he finally gets her settled on the couch, and he’s about to stand up. One of her hands reaches up and grabs onto the collar of his jacket with a surprising amount of strength for the state she’s in. Her eyes are wide and glassy.

Eric gives her a small smile. “You needed someone,” he answers, simply.

Her grip on his jacket loosens and she closes her eyes, settling into the pillow under her head. “Hmm,” she says, softly. “Usually no one notices.”

It’s quite possibly the most heartbreaking thing she’s ever said to him.

He leaves her there, on the couch, and moves towards the kitchen, feeling kind of helpless. There’s not much he can do for her, he knows that. He can’t undo whatever happened that made her hurt like this. He can’t promise her that the world won’t be cruel again. All he can do is be here, and that hardly feels like enough.

He can also cook, though, he thinks, pulling the things he’d picked up from the store on his way over here out of the brown bags. Her fridge is a mess - filled with takeout leftovers and a few things of kimchi and banana milk and a whole lot of empty space - and it’s the least he can do to fill it with, like, actual food so when she wakes up from sleeping off the alcohol he can make sure she remembers to eat.

Cooking has always been something that relaxes him, ever since he was in college. It’s something easy that he can focus on. There’s freedom in creating something, similar to the way there is when he’s writing a song. It’s simpler, in a way, to infuse something into a song or a dish than to say it out loud, especially when it comes to moments like this. There are no good words to say to her, right now, beyond what he’s already said. All he can do is stand here, and cook for her.

She sleeps longer than he anticipated she would, so instead of one hot meal, she gets three refrigerated ones and one slightly warm one. When Solar pads her way into the kitchen, looking three different shades of embarrassed and regretful, Eric’s labeling all of them with tape and a pen, along with the date, so she’ll be able to tell when they go bad.

“You’re terrible,” she tells him, when she notices the food, and that’s how he knows she’s back to normal.

Eric shoots her a smile, motioning to the plates on the table he’d prepared for her. “Glad to see you’re feeling better.”

Solar takes a seat at the table across from him, and immediately begins to laugh. It bounces off the walls, filling the entire room with her weird, unbridled joy.

“What?” he asks, even though he’s on the verge of laughter as well.

“It’s just… this feels so familiar. You’re not about to propose to me again, are you?”

Well, when she smiles at him like that, it’s hard to resist the urge to. “No,” Eric manages, putting the last box of food in her fridge. “I think your emotions have gone through enough today.”

Her smile fades quickly, as if she just remembered the reason she got drunk in the first place. Solar’s eyes go to the food in front of her, and stay there, even though she doesn’t take a bite.

He walks back to the table and sits in front of her, reaching a hand out to grab one of her fingers. “Do you want to talk about it?”

She swirls around the pasta with a fork for a moment, but doesn’t move her hand away from his. “Who was the first person who broke your heart?” she asks. “Like really really broke it?”

It’s a question that catches him off guard. He’s confused about why it’s on her mind and confused about why she’s bringing it up, but he thinks about the answer anyways.

A month or so after Jeju Island, he’d confessed to her that there really had been someone in Korea. They’d finally rammed past that barrier of awkwardness, and were something on the way to friends, and he felt like he needed her to know the truth. Solar didn’t mind, taking it in stride the way she always does, and told him she understood; they’ve all said things that weren’t quite true in front of the camera.

He didn’t have the courage back then to tell her that it wasn’t just the camera that had made him answer “No.”

Now, though, he doesn’t even hesitate when she asks. They’ve stood, open and raw and honest, in front of each other for so long now that it would feel intrinsically wrong to be anything but.

“She used to go to the same coffee shop as me. Always ordered it black. After it ended I couldn’t step foot in there for two years.”

Solar’s eyes slowly make their way up from his hands to his face as he talks. She gives him this look of deep and incredible understanding that finally makes him realize just what kind of thing would have put her in this state today. There are no tears in her eyes, just the ghosts of ones she must have shed earlier, before he showed up.

She gives him a smile, and squeezes his hand back before she talks. “I know how that feels,” she says. “Four years ago exactly today and I’m still a mess.”

She’s quiet for a moment, and he doesn’t try to fill the void with his own words. The silence feels too thick for that. Then she gives the details he didn’t ask for.

“He left, in the morning. I must have been sleeping. I always end up sleeping through the important things.” Her attempt at a joke doesn’t get either of them laughing. “I needed him, and he knew that. My life was falling apart and I needed him and he just left a note. I guess he didn’t need me back.”

It’s strange, in a way, how Solar talks about it as needing instead of loving. It gives the whole story this sinister edge that riles up something protective inside of him. “Do the girls know?” he asks.

“It was before I was Solar,” she says, as if that answers it. He gives her a look and she crumbles a little bit. “I don’t want to worry them.”

“Well, you can always worry me.”

She eats the rest of her pasta, and he watches her. It’s less weird than one would think. When she’s done, she slumps down on the table, like she’s about to go to sleep again, and looks up at him. “You know, Ailee was right about you.”

“How so?” he asks, slightly amused.

“You really know how to turn something bad into something good.”

“Come on,” Eric teases, trying to dodge the compliment. “All I did was cook for you.”

Solar’s hand finds his again, despite the fact that she’s essentially using her arm as a pillow, and kind of swings it back and forth.

“You did so much more than that.”

 

 

*.*.*

 

 

Somehow, Eric ends up staying the night.

And, no, it’s not like that. Neither of them have a schedule until noon the next day, and she refuses to let him leave until he’s eaten something. Eating turns to talking which turns to Solar dragging him into the living room and pulling up her favorite documentary. She’s fairly sure he’s not watching it, since he seems to spend about half of the movie staring at her, but honestly, she’s not complaining.

Nothing happens between them, and that’s mostly because she’s a mess and he knows that. Still, she rests her head against the arm he has spread over the back of her couch, and doesn’t do anything to stop the careful intertwining of their legs. So, it’s not really nothing, but it’s close enough that there’s nothing for her to blame on the brokenness that’s settled over her every year on this day since she was left alone.

Solar dated people afterwards, but not to the same degree. The feelings refused to flow for a while, and she thought whatever tap they were supposed to come out of was clogged up with her anger. It was always just a few dates, and then she’d find some excuse to call it off.

“I don’t want to drag you into this industry.” Lie.

“My company changed it’s dating rules.” Lie.

“Trust me, you don’t want a girl like me.” Truth.

There’s something about this, though, that feels different. Solar doesn’t need to wonder if he’ll ever understand the pieces of her that she hates the most, because he figured them all out before she ever started loving him. That’s what this is, she’s decided: some weird and dumb form of love that feels different from the last time she felt this intensely because, instead of leaving her breathless, Eric’s finally taught her how to breathe again.

She thinks about kissing him, at about one in the morning, when they suddenly have less than twelve hours left together, and she’s hit with this intense need to make sure that she’s not still sleeping off her alcohol and that all of this is real.

He looks so pretty in the dark, illuminated by just the light of her television. At first, she hadn’t really gotten it, but she gets it now, the whole Eric Nam thing; it’s not that he’s perfect, it’s that he’s real. Anyone could do what he does, but it’s the reasoning behind it that matters. He does it because he sincerely wants to, not because he expects anything from her, and that’s new.

Also, he’s really really pretty. And she can appreciate that now. She can’t do anything about it right now, but she can appreciate it.

Eric wraps one of her curls around his finger. “You know,” he says. “I think somehow you actually got prettier.”

She used to think she hated grease, but she’s come to realize she hates it when it’s fake. Too many people say things they don’t mean, and Solar doesn’t see the point in that. When he says things like this, though, it sounds so honest and earnest that she knows he means it, and that’s what makes her blush. There’s nothing greasy about telling the truth, even if it can’t be the truth because that’s ridiculous. He’s ridiculous.

Solar hits him.

 

 

 

 

She wakes up, for the second time in twenty four hours, to a knock on her door. One of her hands is in her hair, fingers mid-stroke. Eric’s head is resting on the other end of the couch, and his feet are hanging off the front of it, as if he was trying, even after she’d fallen asleep, to make sure she was comfortable.

She has to move out from her position on the inside of the couch, though, to get up, and that involves maybe accidentally kicking him in the face a little bit, but he wakes up laughing, so Solar supposes it isn’t the worst thing she could’ve done.

She’s barefaced and smiling when she answers the door, feeling light and somewhat healed. It’s not anyone important; just someone looking for the guy who lives down the hall, but for a moment she panics about the idea that it might be one of her members.

Is it so bad that she can see it? Him staying the night for an entirely different reason and them getting caught before he can sneak out because Moonbyul has a key and it’s all messy and embarrassing but she kind of wants it.

Solar looks back at him, and gives him a sheepish grin to apologize for waking him up for nothing. He looks good with his hair all messed up like this, staring up at her from his place on the couch like he can’t believe they’re here, in this moment, together. If she’s being honest with herself, she can barely believe it either.

“Good morning,” she tries.

Eric throws one of her pillows at her.

It feels like they’re in Dubai all over again. Like the whole world of schedules and fans and image is something far away and doesn’t have to exist here as long as they stay. It’s just her and him and her apartment, and with it comes this weird promise that it’s always going to be here.

They’ll just have to find their safe spaces, she supposes.

“I’m making breakfast,” Solar announces, and that gets Eric up, because they both know the amount of dishes she can actually cook is limited.

“No,” he insists. “I’ll make breakfast.”

He’s moving towards her and some part of that gives her the impression that, if he gets too close, he’s going to tickle her, which sends her running into the kitchen, and he starts running too. It escalates until Solar’s holding a whisk in her hand and he’s wrapped his arms around her, fighting for it with slow and clumsy movements that make her think this really isn’t about who’s making breakfast.

Not that it ever was on her end, either.

Eric’s hands always seem so big when they’re touching her waist. It’s strange that it would be more noticeable then than when they’re like actually holding hands, but it’s true. That’s the thing about him, though; he’s somehow better up close.

And they’re really close, right now. Solar has the chance to turn her head, and so she does, and then they’re in the same place they were a month ago: only breaths away from each other.

“Let me do it,” he murmurs, and she’s not sure if he’s still talking about breakfast. “I promise I won’t mess it up. I want to do it.”

Solar smiles. “Okay.”

It’s not a confession, not really, but it’s good enough for now.

He makes fried eggs, and cooks them quietly, while Solar sits on one of her empty counters, watching him. There’s something about the way he keeps looking at her and not at the eggs that makes her giggle. It’s a fluffy kind of feeling, one that she usually doesn’t feel this time of year, and it fills the entire kitchen, from tile to tile, wall to wall.

When he finishes, Eric turns to her, and makes a face, which causes her to laugh a little more, and, before she knows what’s happening, he’s setting the plate of eggs down on the table and walking over to the counter she’s sitting on.

“Why are you smiling so much?” he asks, even though he’s smiling too.

Solar can’t quite articulate the answer. It’s a mix of everything. Him being here, the snow outside her window, the way everything just feels so warm right now. “Breakfast,” she answers, because it’s the simplest thing to say. Also she’s hungry.

They eat and they talk and they drink banana milk. She asks him about his upcoming comeback and he asks her about her recent win on The Show. There’s a moment, about halfway through, where she starts moving her fork to his mouth out of force of habit. They both pause and look at each other, before just continuing with it. It’s something a little different from friendship, but it’s not bad.

It’s actually good. Really really good.

“You know,” Eric starts, mouth full of egg. “It almost feels like nothing’s changed, doesn’t it?”

“Yeah,” she agrees. “Except we don’t have ten other people with cameras around us right now.”

“I think I like it better this way.”

“Me too.”

On her next bite, some egg gets stuck on her lip. Eric reaches over and moves to brush it off before both of them realize exactly what he’s doing and abruptly stop.

Solar exhales, and tries not to freak out about how close he is to her when he leans over the table like that.

“I’m sorry,” he starts, sounding just as breathless as she feels, but he doesn’t move his hand away. “I forgot that I’m not supposed to-”

“I don’t mind.” Her words are rushed, mostly because she’s scared of what will happen if she stays silent. Eric’s eyes get wide, in a way she hasn’t seen them get before, and everything feels like it’s about to tip over into something new.

He doesn’t move his hand. She doesn’t move either.

“I mean…” Solar swallows. “Forever and always, right?”

“Uh huh…” he starts, cautiously. She can’t really blame him for the hesitancy in his voice; she doesn’t even know where she’s going with this. “So you don’t feel like we just got divorced or anything like that?”

She moves her head up to look at him, and that’s a bad idea, because his thumb ends up brushing the crease of her smile. Her mind immediately short-circuits, flooding with every kissing-related thought she’s ever had about him. They’ve been steadily building up since Dubai, flooding her dreams and keeping her up at night.

Their whole theme for Decalcomanie really isn’t helping with that.

Solar closes her eyes when she speaks this time, like maybe she’ll open them and realize she’s dreaming again. “Would you stay, if I asked? If we weren’t idols who met on a television show and whose careers are weird and fun and whose fans are sometimes terrifying. If we were just two people, would you stay?”

But she needs to know, first, if every confident thought she’d had about him before they filmed their last episode is true. It’s all gotten muddled and messed up in the weeks between, lost in dreamland and then found again, in the past twenty-four hours. She needs to make sure that, underneath everything, whatever he feels for her he would feel if she was still who she was four years ago.

Eric’s only barely met that version of her, but she needs to know if he’d be brave enough to stay.

“That’s a lot of hypotheticals,” he begins, and Solar’s heart drops. “But yeah, Yongsun-ah, I’ll stay.”

It’s the now of his statement that really does it for her. He’s not just saying that he would stay, but that he will. That he doesn’t see her as Mamamoo’s leader Solar or his ex-virtual wife or anything like that. He’s seen all of her now, and it’s all of her that he’s saying yes to.

She found it harder to remember if he loved her or not when she wasn’t looking him in the eyes, but now that she is, she can’t remember why it was so hard to figure out. It’s been there for much longer than she’d realized, on both ends. There’s no question about it anymore.

Solar leans over the small table, and tugs on the collar of his shirt. He meets her in the middle, hand sliding up her face and getting lost in her hair.

He kisses her gently, and she lets herself lose herself in it. It’s the high note in the final chorus of a song, tteokbokki at midnight under stars, the rush of a fanmeeting, all piled into one, and when her tongue moves to brush his lips he tastes like morning breath and banana milk and everything wonderful.

When they come up for air, Eric smiles into her mouth.

What?” she whines, because kissing is good and she really wants to get back to that.

“You’ve got so much egg in your hair.” He’s laughing at her, but it’s in the good kind of way. The kind of way that makes her want to kiss him again.

“I really, really don’t care,” Solar says. “No cameras, remember?”

He nods, and then moves to kiss her again. “No cameras.”

 

 

*.*.*

 

 

January

In the end, only half of the album ends up being about her. His title song isn’t, though, so they dodge that very large, very explosive bullet for a little while, since that song was written at least a full year before his stint on We Got Married ever began.

“What is your relationship to Mamamoo’s Solar?” about half of the people who interview him want to know.

Eric sighs, like he always does, and then gives his best smile to the camera. “We’ve been friends for a while,” he says, and leaves it at that, because that’s not technically a lie.

They’re friends. Good friends, who sometimes spend the night at each other’s houses and who buy each other flowers and are currently trying to eat one thing from every country in the world together. They’re friends who kiss.

Friends Who Kiss is also the name of a song on the deluxe version of the album, but no one’s really paying that much attention to it. Except for his girlfriend, who softly beat him with her tiny fists the first time she listened to it in embarrassment.

When the interviewer inevitably tries their best to give him a knowing look, Eric just tells them “I’m pretty sure our relationship hasn’t changed since we last talked about it, but if you want me to call her…”

They always stop bringing it up when he pulls out his phone. The media is funny that way.

Still, he’ll give them a gold star for trying any day.