Everyone, at some point in their lives, wakes up in the middle of the night with the feeling that they are all alone in the world, and that nobody loves them now and that nobody will ever love them, and that they will never have a decent night’s sleep again and will spend their lives wandering blearily around a loveless landscape, hoping desperately that their circumstances will improve, but suspecting, in their heart of hearts, that they will remain unloved forever. The best thing to do in these circumstances is to wake somebody else up, so that they can feel this way, too.
— LEMONY SNICKET
Well, I don’t know a thing about it
All I want is real, real love
— CARLY RAE JEPSEN, REAL LOVE
Hyuijnnnnnnn, begins the first of sixteen new katalk messages on Hyunjin’s phone. Hyujninnn pick up. Oh wiat I forgot to call you lol. Actually can you call me. Hytunjin call me. Hyuinnjinnnnnn wake upl. Helmp my mtouh tastes like carpet. Are you up yet. Hyeujin. Hyenunjin. Hyuijnnnnn
“Not once,” Hyunjin says when the call goes through. “Not once did you get my name right. I’m almost impressed.”
Aeongie hisses from where she’s trying to sleep curled up in a ball on Hyunjin’s stomach. Hyunjin pats her apologetically. She responds by turning away and letting her tail flop across Hyunjin’s face. Rude.
“Hyunjinnn!” Heejin sounds delighted to hear her. She also sounds incredibly drunk. “You called!”
“Yeah,” Hyunjin says through a mouthful of cat fur, “because you asked me to, several times, and also because it’s two in the morning, and again, you won’t stop asking me. There had better be an emergency.”
“There is!” Heejin insists.
“What is it? A stalker? A fire? A spider in the bathroom and you need someone to take it safely outside without killing it? Again?”
“It’s an emergency,” Heejin announces, “in my heart,” and only then does Hyunjin register, with some horror, the suspicious noises in the background on the other end.
“Heejin,” Hyunjin says slowly. “Are you listening to your own album right now?”
“I told you,” Heejin hiccups. “It’s an emergency!”
It isn’t the beloved breakout album Highlight (2019). Or the indie EP White Rabbit (2025), which lives forever on the playlist of every single coffee shop in Seoul. It’s not even the monstrously popular single Run Away (2021) that keeps clawing its way back up the charts whenever there’s so much as a hint of summertime in the air. No. It’s the debut mini Déjà Vu (2016), overlooked prologue to the extensive discography of one Jeon Heejin, idol-slash-actress-slash-model most often remembered as smiling white-toothed and glowing from every TV screen and skincare CF and subway ad, hardly ever remembered as baby-faced and sporting a turquoise bob wig and strumming a sparkly guitar in her first ever music video. And her company would like to keep it that way.
In other words, it really is an emergency. One Heejin goes through about every couple of months or so.
“What did he do,” Hyunjin groans. “Did he dump you? Was he cheating on you? Fuck, I don’t care if he’s got a fanclub the size of a small country, I’ll kill him—”
“No!” Heejin wails, and Hyunjin winces, holding the phone away from her ear. Aeongie hisses again; her tail sweeps off Hyunjin’s face, which is good, but she also starts to move away, which is bad. No no no, Hyunjin mouths, trying to grab her while making coaxing meowing noises, but it’s no use. Aeongie slithers deftly out of her grasp and off her bed, stalks to the other side of her bedroom, and settles under Hyunjin’s chair to glower at her. Damn it.
“He didn’t do any of that,” Heejin’s saying. “Hey, are you listening to me? Stop talking to your cat. He was, can you believe it—” and this Heejin whispers, as though scandalized “—nice.”
Hyunjin resists the urge to suffocate herself with her own pillow. “What?”
“He was nice,” Heejin moans, “and he didn’t even break up with me, we just sat there after dinner scrolling on our phones and then after like twenty minutes I looked up and he looked up and I was like oh god this isn’t working is it and he said yeah I don’t really think so and then he apologized. When he didn’t even do anything!”
“Uh-huh,” Hyunjin says, staring up at the ceiling. She balances her phone on her forehead to see if it’ll stay. It falls onto her mouth. Gross. “And then what happened?”
“And then...” Heejin pauses, like she’s thinking about it. “I think we got dessert?”
Hyunjin starts to gnaw on the corner of her phone so that she doesn’t do something reckless, like yell. Aeongie would not appreciate that. Not at all. “Dessert,” she repeats. “Jeon Heejin, are you kidding me?”
“I’m not gonna say no to dessert, who do you think I am?” Heejin protests. “It was patbingsoo, come on. Anyway, it’s not like we’re not friends anymore, just ’cause we secretly dated for a while. I mean, he’s cool. And he was a good kisser. Like, really good.”
Hyunjin’s phone case is gonna have bite marks on it in the morning. “So why,” she says, trying to keep her voice as neutral as possible, “are you calling me at two AM, drunk out of your mind, listening to your first album and crying about an emergency in your heart.”
“Well, when you say it like that.” There’s a pause. “Sorry, hold on, this is the best part of the song—’CAUSE I WANT SOMEONE TO WANT ME THE WAY I WANT YOUUUUUU—”
Hyunjin hangs up. Heejin calls back thirty seconds later.
“Look,” Heejin slurs into the phone before Hyunjin can say anything. “I know it’s stupid, because it was the best-case scenario that could’ve happened for both of us, and nothing even happened, because nothing ever happens with me. And I know I’m stupid for wanting that, for wanting more, when I’ve already got everything in my perfect little life. But it’s just that when I get home and turn on all the lights in every room and wonder why I’m so bad at this I realize I’m the common denominator in all my failed relationships and also there’s probably just something wrong with me and also I’m gonna be alone forever. You know?”
“You’re not stupid,” Hyunjin says.
Heejin’s got a variety show appearance tomorrow before noon. Then shooting for a fried chicken CF. Then a performance as the last act of a summer song festival. She’s going to get three and a half hours of sleep, if she’s lucky, and she’ll forget all of this by the morning.
“Go to bed, Heejin,” Hyunjin says. “You’re going to be okay.”
Heejin makes a noise that can be best described as hrghghhk and hangs up.
Hyunjin stares at her phone screen long after it goes black, and gets decidedly less than three and a half hours of sleep that night.
“What the fuck happened last night?” Heejin whispers by way of greeting the next morning. “My head feels like it’s been crushed by a steamroller. Did I break up with you-know-who? Fuck, did he break up with me?”
Hyunjin responds by thrusting her iced coffee order at her. Heejin’s face lights up like a Christmas tree, or maybe that’s just the million flashbulbs going off in the crowd clustered around them. “Oh, thank god.”
“Uh, thank me,” Hyunjin says as they walk to the van. Heejin waves for the cameras with the hand that isn’t cradling her iced coffee to her chest like a newborn baby. Hyunjin makes eye contact with as many of the paparazzi as possible, unblinking and immovable: Just try to step a toe over the line, assholes.
“But really,” Heejin says from around her plastic straw. “What happened?”
“It was a mutual breaking-up,” Hyunjin says out of the corner of her mouth, lips barely moving. “You guys got dessert after. Patbingsoo.”
“Damn,” Heejin says, with feeling. “Wish I remembered that part.”
Hyunjin steps on the toe of Heejin’s strappy nude kitten heel as she’s helping her into the van and pretends not to notice, closing the door on her hissed “ow!”.
In the car Heejin checks her makeup in her phone camera and pretends to listen as her manager rattles off her schedule for the day from the front seat. “It’s pretty bad timing, though,” she says to Hyunjin, still peering at her phone screen. “I’m meeting Jiwoo this weekend, and I promised I’d tell her all about my new boyfriend. She’s gonna be so disappointed.”
It would be unprofessional to encourage what Heejin’s manager, marketing team, and CEO would all unanimously call a distraction from her career. But Hyunjin’s been Heejin’s bodyguard for two years now; has seen her drunk, crying, in her underwear, and on some occasions all three at once. They’ve shot professionalism to put it out of its misery by this point, so Hyunjin raises an eyebrow and takes the bait. “And you’re not?”
“Well, maybe I oversold him a little,” Heejin admits. She tucks a loose lock of hair behind her ear, untucks it, tucks it again. “He’s fun to hang out with and all, but I get the feeling that neither of us were what the other’s really looking for. I guess I should’ve seen it coming. He’s been kinda half-hearted about everything lately. Or maybe it’s just the sleep deprivation from his impending comeback?”
“Leave it down,” Hyunjin says.
“Your hair. It looks nice untucked.”
“Oh.” Heejin blinks for a moment, then untucks her hair again, so that it falls down and frames her face. “Still—everything seemed to be going right, at first. He was so sweet when he asked me out. Maybe he wanted someone more innocent?” She squints into her camera, puffs out her cheeks. “Cuter?” She puckers her lips. “Sexier?”
“You don’t have to overanalyze it,” Hyunjin says. “You just weren’t into each other like that. It happens.” She pauses, then adds dryly: “It’s happened, like, ten times by now.”
“Ha, ha,” Heejin says, and that’s all she says, and Hyunjin knows instantly she’s overshot. Shit. Heejin likes to laugh everything off—likes it a concerning amount when the target is herself. But she hasn’t smiled once this morning, not a real one, not yet.
“Hey,” Hyunjin says. “You know what the problem is?”
Heejin shoots her a look. “My expectations are too high and I’ll always be crushingly disappointed because I’m perpetually stuck in a torture device of my own making?”
“No. You just have shitty taste in guys.”
Heejin snorts; the furrow in her brow clears. “Not everyone can be as perfect as you, Kim Hyunjin-ssi,” she says, a teasing glint to her grin. “Some of us have to settle for less.”
She returns her attention to her phone. Hyunjin watches her. The fall of dark hair framing her heart-shaped face. The slight puffiness to her cheeks that even makeup can’t hide in the morning. The twist of her mouth as she tugs at her lower lip between her teeth.
“Stop reading hate comments,” Hyunjin says.
Heejin jerks her head up, guilt written all over her face. “What? I wasn’t!”
“Uh-huh,” Hyunjin says, unimpressed. The van’s pulling to a stop; they’ve arrived. She reaches for her seatbelt. “C’mon, let’s go.”
But Heejin grabs her hand over the buckle of her seatbelt, stilling her. A strangely tentative look upon her face, as she leans in closer to whisper: “Hey. Did I say anything weird last night?”
Hyunjin raises an eyebrow. “When don’t you say anything weird?”
Heejin shoves at her shoulder. “Shut up. You know what I mean. Was it...” She hesitates. “Was it really bad?”
Gently, Hyunjin releases herself from Heejin’s grip. “You were listening to Déjà Vu.”
Heejin’s face falls. “Oh. That bad, huh?”
Outside, through black-tinted windows, everyone’s waiting: Heejin’s manager, her fans lined up around the block with DSLRs, the staff and hosts and guests for the show. Hyunjin unbuckles her seatbelt, climbs out of the car, comes around to slide open Heejin’s door. Part of being a bodyguard is being able to anticipate Heejin’s needs before Heejin herself realizes them. An umbrella for the rain. A bottle of water during a fanmeet. A hand on her arm as she steps out of the car and back onto solid ground; a reassurance, and an answer.
“You’re fine, Jeon Heejin,” Hyunjin says, back turned to the cameras so they don’t catch the words on her lips. “Now go out there and knock ’em dead.”
For a moment something flickers over Heejin’s face, more than just the wind blowing strands of flyaway hair around her. Then she straightens up, intact once more, as though Hyunjin spoke her to life: Jeon Heejin with the billion-won smile, ready to be loved.
“I thought that was your job,” Heejin says with a quirk of her lips, one last line for Hyunjin alone before they walk on, into the fray. Hyunjin keeps pace one step ahead as always, clearing the path for her, shadow falling forward.
Here she is, Hyunjin thinks, and the cameras flash in response, lighting the way.
The company had vetted Hyunjin thoroughly. Extensive background and reference checks, even after the highly-praised recommendation from her agency. Careful evaluation of her qualifications and client history and medical examinations. Then during the interview the woman had looked her in the eye and asked, “Would you consider yourself a fan of Jeon Heejin,” and Hyunjin said, “Who?”
The woman squinted at her as though unsure if Hyunjin was joking. Hyunjin stared back at her blankly.
Eventually Hyunjin must’ve come up clean in the interviewer’s assessment, because she nodded. “Good,” she said, and shuffled her papers, and that was that.
Two days later the assignment came through: Jeon Heejin, age 24, idol and actress under the management of Blockberry Creative. The contract was the thickest package of paper Hyunjin’d ever seen. Security, privacy, and above all professionalism, her manager kept stressing, and Hyunjin nodded as she signed, wondering what the big deal was. She’d had no shortage of celebrity clients before, most of them rich brats getting wasted in smoky nightclubs whose biggest threat was always themselves. Then on her way home she stared at a subway ad for Lotte Mart while waiting for the train and the giant gleaming face of Jeon Heejin stared back.
Oh, she thought. That Jeon Heejin.
It wasn’t that Hyunjin lived under a rock. It was just that she never bothered taking note of anything she wasn’t interested in, and the world of entertainment had not interested her since the day after she flunked her YG audition at the age of eleven and her dad signed her up for hapkido lessons instead. Well, maybe that world wasn’t meant for you, he explained to her, but you don’t need to be a part of it anyway, right? You can do better. He couldn’t have predicted that her new chosen path would bring her back to its periphery in the end as though drawn in unrelenting orbit. Still, she was grateful for those minute degrees of separation; this was as close as she ever wanted to get. Professionalism, her manager reminded her in her head. She’d do her job, and do it well, all while maintaining a healthy distance. Hyunjin eyed the advertisement warily up until the train finally pulled into the station and blocked it from view.
That night, though, Hyunjin couldn’t be blamed for opening her laptop and trawling through the mythology of Jeon Heejin, the nation’s darling—in theory. Sure, Hyunjin knew Jeon Heejin like she knew a vague smiling face on the billboards, an annoying jingle repeating itself on the speakers of a restaurant. More a concept than a name or a person; another figure who had insinuated herself into the general landscape of the city, becoming ubiquitous as a signpost or a street. And yet how harmless her face seemed to appear—no history of scandal, no controversy nor negligence; only a string of pop songs that ranged from inoffensive to worse and, at the very end of Hyunjin’s recommended Youtube videos at one AM: Déjà Vu Official MV, a meager 2.4 million views, released eight years ago. The thumbnail was a shot of Jeon Heejin, South Korea’s favourite polished popstar, clad in a bright turquoise wig and sequined leather leggings.
“Oh, this I have to see,” Hyunjin mumbled aloud to no one but Aeongie, who huffed at her before jumping off the bed and padding away, presumably to somewhere she could sleep in peace. So there were no witnesses for what happened next.
Her first formal meeting with Jeon Heejin was five hours later, when Heejin emerged from the lobby of her swanky apartment and waved her away as she approached. “I’m no longer allowed to talk to fans before I’ve had my morning coffee,” she announced from behind thick shades, though the sun had barely risen, dulled by smog. A couple of businesspeople hurried by in suits and pencil skirts; an old man in a motorized scooter rumbled past. Pigeons pecked lazily at the ground. It was all rather anticlimactic, as far as first meetings went.
Also, she was definitely shorter than Hyunjin was expecting.
“I’m not a fan, Jeon Heejin-ssi,” Hyunjin said with a perfunctory bow. “I’m your new bodyguard. The car’s waiting.”
Heejin made no move to follow, instead raising her sunglasses to squint at her. “You can’t be the new bodyguard. You can’t even be older than I am.”
Hyunjin kept her features blank. “Underestimation is a useful asset in this line of work, Jeon Heejin-ssi.”
Heejin’s eyes went wide. “Whoa, you’re for real. Have you ever killed someone?”
Hyunjin didn’t blink. “That’s classified information. It’s very nice to meet you, Jeon Heejin-ssi.”
“You keep repeating my name. Is that an intimidation tactic?”
“Would you like me to refer to you as something else, Jeon Heejin-ssi?”
And right when Hyunjin thought the dam was going to break, something entirely unexpected happened instead. Heejin blinked at her, and then let out a bark of laughter, too loud for the six AM sun rising over the public street. Hyunjin stared, astonished; the grin lit up her whole face, eyes crinkling, brows slanting. Softer than what Hyunjin would ever assume a idol’s sculpted features to be capable of. There was a word to describe it, a word Hyunjin knew vaguely in the back of her mind but could not pull up to the forefront, not yet.
“I like you,” Heejin said. “That’s good. My last bodyguard was a jerk, so I had to tell my manager to get rid of him.”
“And you always get what you want, don’t you, Heejin-ssi,” Hyunjin said, her tone never straying from the right side of polite.
Heejin looked at her for a moment, long enough that Hyunjin, who had dealt with relentless stalker fans and blackmailing ex-boyfriends and even the occasional real threat, felt an itch on the back of her neck.
“Oh, every once in a while,” Heejin said. “Just often enough to keep things interesting.” And before Hyunjin could figure out what that meant, she dropped her sunglasses back down over her eyes. “Hey, bodyguard-nim. Wanna start by doing your job and protecting me?”
It was Hyunjin’s turn to blink. “What?” She turned to survey the street: a woman hailing a cab, the old man still puttering down the sidewalk in his scooter. “From who? The grandpa?”
“No,” Heejin said, “from those,” and she nodded her chin at none other than the pigeons congregated by a nearby lamppost, strutting about and pecking the pavement and being, well, pigeons.
“You’re not serious,” Hyunjin said, beginning to wonder if this had all just been an elaborate setup by her manager for a prank show. She started looking for hidden cameras as inconspicuously as she could.
“Deadly,” Heejin said, not budging an inch.
Hyunjin stared at her.
Heejin stared back.
The pigeons ruffled their feathers, mostly.
Slowly, Hyunjin raised her foot, and kicked in their direction. “Shoo.”
The pigeons, bobbing their heads obediently, did exactly that, shuffling slow and unhurried over to a lamppost further down in the opposite direction.
“They’re gone,” Hyunjin said, a tad unnecessarily.
Heejin straightened up. She looked—pleased. Like Hyunjin had passed some sort of test. “Excellent work, bodyguard-nim,” she said. There it was again, the smile. The word Hyunjin had been looking for now made itself known in her mind: cute. “Now we can get a move on. The car’s waiting, right?”
It was a respectable beginning to a working relationship. One that would have lasted, too, if not for three days later in a van headed out of the city for a beach photoshoot when Hyunjin dropped her phone on the floor and her earphones came unplugged. The tinny sounds of a crooning voice reverberated all around the car: and I think I’m having déjà vu ’cause I want someone to want me the way I want you...
Hyunjin looked up in horror and made eye contact with Heejin in the seat next to her. Watched the smile dawn slowly over Heejin’s face.
“Bodyguard-nim,” Heejin said, delighted. She was already in makeup for the shoot, thick orange eyeshadow and dewy skin. “Are you listening to my song?”
Hyunjin fumbled madly on the floor of the van for her phone. The music shut off abruptly.
“Bodyguard-nim,” Heejin repeated, and paused. “Kim Hyunjin-ssi.” It was over. “Not just any song. But that one? From ten years ago?”
Eight, Hyunjin thought. “It came up on shuffle,” she said.
Heejin hummed, an innocuous little noise, like she accepted it.
Six minutes later, she said, “It’s my favourite song, too.”
Hyunjin cast a glance at her. Heejin was looking out the window, sun on her upturned face, her long lashes. Freckled with glitter and gold. There was something wistful to her expression, so intensely personal Hyunjin felt as though she were intruding just for having looked upon it. She looked away.
For the first time Hyunjin thought—something about her seemed familiar. A face she knew from somewhere. It took her the rest of the car ride to figure out who it was: the girl from the music video with the eyesore of a guitar and the fluorescent wig and the exuberance on her face bared open and hopeful. Which was curious, because it meant she was still here, alive in more than just glimpses past a blank slate of perfection and projections. She was older, of course; had grown up a little, leaner and sharper and smarter. But it was still her Hyunjin had been talking to all this time, though she only recognized her now that she was looking. Now that she knew what she was missing.
On the ride back from the beach, after the photoshoot, Hyunjin played the song again. This time she kept her earphones unplugged. Heejin glanced at her, quick and unsure, when the sound came on over the speakers. But she didn’t say anything. They got through the whole album like that, letting the long-ago voice fill up the space between them, its presence a living thing in the open light of day.
After that Hyunjin could never get Heejin to call her bodyguard-nim again. It was partly her own fault, though, because she never bothered trying to keep up that pretense of professionalism, the promise she had made in paper. On one hand it seemed an impossible task; on the other, a moot point they had somehow passed. And maybe there was something else, too, something Hyunjin never exactly articulated to herself, though it existed sure as an echo: her own name taking shape on Heejin’s mouth, in a voice that rang out from every taxicab radio and store speaker in Seoul. It was there, it was real. It made a sound.
One month later her service contract expired. It was renewed, and for the month after that, too. Then a new contract was drawn up, for a period of three years. “You can’t blame them for being overly cautious,” Hyunjin’s manager confided in her. “She’s one of the most visible figures of the nation; any member of her team is going to be an investment.”
Was that what she was, Hyunjin wondered. A byproduct of a product, once removed from greatness. Still, she signed her name without resentment, without question. As she was accustomed. Hyunjin knew a good thing when it was being handed to her, and had come this far without regrets. Her entire life had been a string of dependable decisions; surely at this point she could afford a risk, even one as high-profile as a name that splashed the headlines whenever she wore a new brand of necklace or wristwatch. Hadn’t Hyunjin played it too safe, up to now, anyway? Sure, it could end in disaster, in scandal, but hey—the pay was killer.
And then there was the fact that in the three months since Hyunjin had started working as Heejin’s bodyguard, well—nothing, really, had happened. Nothing like the screaming matches between daughters of politicians in a Gangnam alleyway or a five-star hotel lobby in the middle of the night; nothing like the sleazy clients drunkenly flinging their trash at her or telling her to smile or worst of all, placing a hand on her knee in the plush leather backseat of a black van. No confiscated drugs, no abusive exes challenging her to a fistfight, nothing so much as a headache. Only the everlasting crowd of fans she had to steer back into their places like spilled water poured back into its cup, and the bright star that shone at the centre of their love.
That night Hyunjin received a call at three AM. “What,” she said when she finally managed to pick up, hair frazzled and blankets spilling off her bed and Aeongie swatting at her face with her tiny ruthless paws. Her heart racing as though someone had reached into her chest and pulled the fire alarm. This was it, the drop of the coin. It could be a car crash, a kidnapping, a crazed fan snuck through the bedroom window to steal all her used lipsticks.
“I’m gonna die,” Heejin wailed into the phone.
Okay, this was bad, but this was also what Hyunjin was paid for. She stumbled out of bed and to her closet, dislodging a furious Aeongie. “Are you injured? Have you called the police? I’m on my way. Find a weapon, if you can—something sharp, or heavy like a blunt instrument.”
“What are you talking about?” Heejin said, like Hyunjin was the one who’d lost her head. “Are you crazy? What do I need a weapon for?”
“What are you talking about?” Hyunjin said, stopping dead in the middle of putting on the first pair of pants she’d found, phone cradled between her shoulder and the side of her head. “Are you in danger?”
“In danger of dying alone as an old lady with three cats and two dogs, yeah,” Heejin said with a sniffle.
Hyunjin clutched her phone, ratty pair of track pants half-on and forgotten. Oh, no. This was worse than bad. “Heejin-ssi. Are you... are you crying?”
Another sniffle. “I broke up with Younghwan today.”
For a moment there Hyunjin had to pinch her own thigh just to test if she was dreaming. She was not. She double-checked the contact name on the caller ID, in case she’d mistaken the voice of one of her friends for that of a multimillionaire pop idol. She had not. If it had been Jinsol calling her up at three AM to cry over a bad breakup, Hyunjin would’ve told her to get over it, then stayed with her on the line shit-talking her ex all night. But Jeon Heejin was not her friend, not even an acquaintance, but a client, and her only threat right now was a harsh word from Kim Hyunjin’s clumsy mouth. That, and a hangover.
This—whatever this was—felt delicate. Dangerous. Make or break. Stakes higher than a bomb threat called into a concert venue. Hyunjin swallowed, and tried to proceed as lightly as she was able.
“I see,” Hyunjin said. Keeping it vague, and totally useless. “Um. Wow, that sucks.” Even worse. “Are you... okay?”
She winced the moment she said it. But on the other end, Heejin seemed to take it in stride.
“I thought I was,” Heejin said. “But now—now I’m not so sure.”
A shuffle of movement; it sounded like she was rolling over in bed. Was she in bed? Was she in a car on her way home? In a club somewhere, drinking herself to oblivion and wrecking her immaculate image? What was she looking at—the bottom of a bottle? Her ex’s Instagram feed? The moon hanging low in the sky, or the shadows cast from its wan white glow? Hyunjin inched her bare foot towards one of them, toeing the edge of the darkness creeping across her bedroom floor. This hour a lull from the humidity of summer, stale heat and stillness. On her bed, Aeongie stared at her, eyes luminous in the night.
“Was he upset, when you did it?” Hyunjin asked. Her last relationship had ended in a public place. A coffee shop in the morning, over breakfast. She had woken up with a clear dread in the pit of her stomach, an understanding, and knew exactly what she had to do. Her ex was less inclined to agree. What, right here? Right now? God, you’re merciless. She threw her iced Americano in Hyunjin’s face and walked out. Most of the other patrons in the coffee shop pretended not to have seen, averting their gazes; only one young man in an apron rushed forward with napkins. Hyunjin would have preferred if he hadn’t. The earnest pity on his face. The coffee seeping cold down her shirt collar. But that had been years ago now, and she couldn’t pretend that under all that bitter hurt she had not felt relieved.
“I think he was a little disappointed,” Heejin said. “But he took it well. Better than I was expecting him to. I was kinda surprised.”
“That’s good, then,” Hyunjin said, still cautious. “That’s the best you can hope for, isn’t it?”
“Yeah, but—is it? Is it really?”
“Is that really the best I can hope for?” Heejin was no longer wailing. No more dramatics. Voice stripped down to a thin thread of misery, clear without static in this space, hushed and honest. “Thank you, it was nice, goodbye and good luck? It started off so well, and now I’m gonna have to avoid catching his eye whenever we’re backstage at Inkigayo or whatever?”
“I don’t understand,” Hyunjin said slowly. “If you broke up with him, doesn’t that mean you don’t want him?”
“Yeah, but—I mean—what if he’s the best I’m ever gonna get? What if he’s the last? What if he’s the one?”
“There’s no such thing,” Hyunjin said automatically. Shit.
“What?” Heejin sounded scandalized. “Hold on, Hyunjin—are you saying you don’t believe in true love? Soulmates? The stuff they sing about in songs?”
Of all the things to get potentially fired for. Hyunjin rubbed at her temple. “No —that’s not it at all—or, well, not exactly. I just mean that, you know, there’s no such thing as the one or whatever. There’s only people, going around trying not to mess it up, each other’s seconds and thirds and fourths and fifths and so on and forever. That’s all.”
Heejin was silent for a long time. Hyunjin started composing excuses in her head to her manager that conveyed how, exactly, she lost her job as a bodyguard while giving relationship advice at three AM. Well, not quite relationship advice. The opposite of it, really. Relationship discouragement, if that was a thing.
“Well, when you put it that way,” Heejin said eventually. “I guess you’re the seventeenth and hopefully the last isn’t as catchy in a love song.”
“Inspiration for your next album,” Hyunjin suggested.
Heejin laughed. Honest-to-god. Aeongie meowed from the bed, anxious at the weird face Hyunjin was making.
“I guess I’m just being stupid about this,” Heejin said. “I don’t even know why. I didn’t even like the guy. That’s why I broke up with him, duh. I just—I don’t know. I always get so scared when I’m alone.”
It wasn’t a question, but Hyunjin heard exactly what she was asking for.
“It’s okay, Heejin,” Hyunjin said in her voice of gentle authority, the one she put on for well-meaning, ultimately harmless fans who had strayed a bit too far over the line, who lingered by the airport arrivals gate and the exits of broadcasting stations holding perfumed envelopes and flowers, who clung onto Heejin’s hands at a fanmeet for a moment or two past their allotted time. All desperately wanting to keep the impossible dream alive for just a little longer. “You don’t have to be scared. You’re going to be fine.”
“Okay,” Heejin said. A surprising surrender. Like someone else saying it was all she needed to believe it.
“Now go to bed. You need to sleep.”
“Okay,” Heejin repeated, a little more subdued, and then she added, “Good night, Hyunjin.”
Hyunjin blinked down at the screen of her phone. “Right,” she said, a moment late. “Good night.”
But Heejin had already hung up. Leaving Hyunjin standing in the dark in the middle of her room with her pants half-on. She stared at Aeongie.
“Did that just happen?” Hyunjin said.
Aeongie yawned and burrowed deeper into Hyunjin’s pillow.
But even as Hyunjin stepped back out of her track pants and left them in a discarded pile on the floor, even as she flopped back onto her bed and squeezed her arms around a yowling Aeongie, even then Hyunjin knew that she had tapped into something that ran deeper than she could see. Something had changed, and it was not a clause written in small print on a piece of paper, not a distance you could measure and pinpoint on a map. But it was there, steady as her own voice in the intimate quiet of the night, the echo it had left. As a young child Hyunjin had stood before her mirror with a hairbrush for a microphone and dreamed that she could reach an audience of thousands. Tonight she reached only one, and yet it seemed even less believable of a feat. Was it a comfort? she wondered. To a girl who lived on the top of the world, lying open-eyed in her bed, lonely as all the rest of them?
The next morning Hyunjin showed up with two coffees instead of one. “Thought you weren’t a fan,” Heejin said, though she took it gratefully. She couldn’t have had more than a couple hours of sleep, but her made-up face was bare of thick sunglasses, eyes puffy and bright. What did it take, to live out in the open, as though the thought to hide never even arose? Carelessness, or courage?
“No,” Hyunjin said—obviously a lie, but Heejin didn’t give her any shit for it, at least not for another few months. She took a breath, and made a gamble. “But I thought maybe I could be a friend, instead.”
Heejin stilled, straw halfway to her lips. A brief bloom of surprise over her face. For a moment Hyunjin thought she was going to apologize for last night, or even laugh like Hyunjin had made a particularly funny joke. But instead she said, “I’m holding you to that, Kim Hyunjin,” with a smile easy as anything, and Hyunjin felt a jolt in her ribs, the same force of impact as taking a punch. The knockback always lasted only a second, over before it even started, but the lurch before the hard landing that flattened all the breath from your lungs—that was the thrill: where you took the hit, and decided what to do with it. You could use the momentum to roll back up and away, or you could face the violence that got you there.
Or, of course, you could just fall.
Right then, Hyunjin was stuck squarely in that surge of adrenaline, and was staring down the descent.
“Oh, no,” Hyunjin deadpanned, “what have I gotten myself into,” and later that day the fansite ROSY RABBIT ✨ uploaded previews of Heejin pouting and shoving at her shoulder. Hyunjin’s face, of course, was tactfully blurred out. Hyunjin snorted when Heejin sent them to her, but there it was again, that hitch in her chest and swoop of her gut.
“Are you okay?” Heejin said, concerned. “You look like you’re constipated.”
“I am,” Hyunjin said through gritted teeth, because it was better than admitting the other thing.
Over time, though, Hyunjin would learn to acclimate to the rush: no less than what was demanded by a day in the life of Jeon Heejin, and considering the amount of days they’d had, this relentless rollercoaster whirl and spin became expected at some point. Always more to see, further territory to discover, higher left to leap.
As for the fall, she’s still waiting.
But not for long.
The variety program stars three idol guests this morning: all soloists, all female, all in varying stages of their career. There’s Choerry, a fresh face already moving up the charts; there’s Heejin, still rising to her ever-looming peak. And then there’s the notorious Kim Jungeun, better known as Kim Lip, whose claim to fame was a fancam that went viral and elevated her into early stardom, and once her contract ran out after a few years of politely treading the line and winning perfect all-kills and establishing herself as a household name, she parted ways with her agency to start her own entertainment company and—basically—to do whatever the hell she wanted. It’s a strategy that has served her well, if her most recent release is any indication: a thirteen-minute music video that’s more short film than song, containing two dance breaks, a feature from an unknown rapper wearing a butterfly mask credited only as XX, and a scene where Lip bleeds glitter from her eyes and cuts off a guy’s head with a katana. Sure, it’s banned from every television network, but it’s also all anyone is talking about, and that’s a sweeter win than any M!CountDown trophy. In her platinum blond updo and red lipstick, she looks untouchable—and like you would want it to stay that way, so you don’t get caught up in the crossfire.
At least, until she opens her mouth and brays a donkey laugh at something funny Heejin said, dispelling the illusion forever. Hyunjin’s fingers itch for her phone, to text Jinsol guess what, your favourite artist’s a loser! Jinsol’d be delighted; she’s got bad taste like that.
“So, Choerry,” the host says, glancing down at his cards. This is the bearable part of the show, the interview stage before they all have to pretend like they haven’t practiced each other’s choreographies just for this moment or race each other on bouncing exercise balls or bark for treats or whatever, which means most of it will get cut anyway. “Can you tell us a little bit about your new song?”
Choerry nods vigorously, sending her dangling cherry-shaped earrings haywire. “Absolutely! Magnetic is an energetic summer song meant to revitalize tired hearts and bring people closer together. It’s all about letting go of worries and embracing love.” She winks at the camera. “I hope my fans can smile whenever they hear it!”
Only a rookie could deliver that spiel with so much heart. Beside her, Heejin and Kim Lip break into simultaneous applause, and Choerry lets out a laugh, genuine without embarrassment. Heejin honest-to-god clutches a hand to her chest.
“I’m sure our viewers are all smiling right now,” the host agrees. “Say—this is your first time meeting each other, isn’t it?”
“Yes, it is!” Choerry bows her head at Heejin and Kim Lip. “Please take care of me, sunbaes!”
“Of course,” Heejin says, practically cooing. Hyunjin hides a snort in her palm as Heejin grabs Choerry’s hand and laces their fingers together. Leaking affection as usual. Should’ve been in a group, Hyunjin thinks for the thousandth time, with other members to dote on. Then again, she’s done well for herself, better than anyone could have asked for.
On Heejin’s other side, Kim Lip just nods, holding herself regally. Hyunjin still can’t believe this show even managed to book her. Probably the kind of payout Heejin’s company can only dream of. Or maybe blackmail. Hyunjin considers it, shrugs, and turns her attention to the snack spread they’ve got laid out on one of the tables for the staff. Ooh, cookies.
“Now, how about you, Heejin?” The host edges forward on his chair, eager as a dog for a bite. “You wrapped up a drama role a while ago. Do you have an eye on another casting? Or can we expect your next comeback sometime soon?”
Next to Hyunjin, Heejin’s manager makes a throat-slitting gesture. No need. Heejin’s already got a smile on her face, charming and demure and giving nothing away. “Well, for my next comeback I’m looking to show a stronger and better version of myself, so I want to take some more time and work harder. Please wait for me, and look forward to when I return!”
“I see,” the interviewer says, with a look on his face like he isn’t letting it go. “So... you’re on a break, then?”
Heejin opens her mouth—but it’s Kim Lip who speaks. “I remember when I sojourned in Florence for three months,” she muses. “Brilliant architecture, flourishing nightlife, and of course, such a wealth of alluring people. I tried taking pictures at first, but no photograph could capture the precise blue of the sky, the gold warmth of the city, so I threw my camera away.”
Heejin blinks at her. On her other side, Choerry is visibly hanging onto her every word.
“Um,” the interviewer says. “That’s fascinating, but I don’t see what—”
“I wrote an entire album—Fantasy—while I was there,” Lip continues. “I filled up five notebooks’ worth of lyrics and wore out nine pens. You know, articles questioned whether I had quit being an idol and abandoned my fans. But didn’t I come back and win Album of the Year?”
“Uh,” the interviewer says, scratching his head. “Yes?”
“Yes,” Lip agrees serenely. “That period of time taught me so much, but above all, it showed the importance of patience.” And then she winks straight at the interviewer, a saccharine smile on her face. “Good things happen to those who wait. Wouldn’t you agree?”
Choerry looks like she’s frantically committing the entire speech to memory, wide-eyed and brow furrowed in urgency.
The interviewer consults his notes, like they’ll save him. “Yes, of course. Say—I think now would be a good time for a break.” He makes a motion at the cameramen. “Let’s reconvene in five minutes, shall we?”
The cameras stop rolling. The smile drops from Kim Lip’s face, and she resumes her bored expression. Beside her, Heejin looks like she’s witnessed a minor miracle.
The expression only magnifies when she spots the refreshments table. “Snacks snacks snacks,” she chants as she makes her way over to Hyunjin. She reaches for one of the cookies, but her manager stops her hand.
“It’s for the staff only,” her manager says pointedly. “You’re filming for a chicken CF after this, don’t spoil your appetite now.”
Heejin pouts. “But I’m hungry!”
“Yeah, Heejin,” Hyunjin says. “Save your stomach for later.” Then when the manager isn’t looking, she shoves a cookie into Heejin’s hand.
Heejin beams. “My saviour,” she whispers, and then stuffs the whole thing into her mouth in undignified fashion. Hyunjin snickers, and then has to pretend she’s coughing when Heejin’s manager turns to stare.
“Oh, god yes,” comes a new voice, “there’s food.” Hyunjin and Heejin straighten back up as none other than Kim Lip saunters onto the scene, reaching between them for a choco pie. None of her staff, Hyunjin notes, tries to stop her.
“Hey,” Heejin says with a suave nod, smoothing her hair behind her ear. She’s probably peeing her pants right now from nervousness. “How’s it going?”
Lip snorts. “About as well as I expected,” she says. “He’s a bit of a tool, isn’t he?”
Hyunjin raises an eyebrow. She’s right, but still—what a thing to say right here on set, when he’s just across the room getting his hair fixed by a stylist. The tabloid headlines weren’t lying; Kim Lip really has balls of steel. Meanwhile, Heejin is choking on her own spit, or maybe she still hasn’t finished the cookie; nearby, her manager whips her head around suspiciously as though a shark scenting blood in the air.
“Uh,” Heejin says, visibly struggling with her need to keep up a professional image and her desire to make friends with the coolest celebrity in the world. “He certainly is interesting!” Then, glancing around, she lowers her tone, and whispers: “I hope you don’t mind me asking, but if you don’t like him—why did you choose to come onto this show?”
“Oh, I only came here because they said they booked Jeon Heejin,” Kim Lip says airily. “I just wanted to meet you.”
Heejin’s jaw drops. “Me?”
“Yeah,” Kim Lip says, like it’s no big deal. “I’ve been following you since your debut. I used to listen to your stuff on my way to schedules. I know we haven’t officially met until now, but we debuted around the same time, didn’t we? It felt really reassuring to me back then, like we were growing up through the industry together. Also—Yeojin!” She gestures at one of the members of her staff, who rushes over with a cardboard tube in her hands. “I’ve got a friend who’s a huge fan. Would you sign this poster for her?”
Heejin’s eyes are mysteriously shiny. “Would I,” she croaks.
The staff member hands her the poster tube with her head bowed, so they’ve only got a view of the four buns on the top of her head. “Hi I’m a big fan thank you for signing this I love you!” she bursts out, rapid-fire.
“Believe me,” Heejin says as she uncaps the tube, “the pleasure is all mine.” But her eyes are still on Lip as she signs TO YEOJINNIE: SHINE ON! ♡ LOVE, JEON HEEJIN, and Lip is watching her right back.
“Oh, hey,” Lip says, frowning, “you’ve got a crumb right here, let me fix it before the cameras catch it...” She reaches out and sweeps her thumb over the corner of Heejin’s mouth, and it’s only a small thing, so small, but Hyunjin watches it happen, as she has countless times before: Jeon Heejin swan diving inevitably, oh so surely, head over heels into love.
And suddenly there’s a lurch in Hyunjin’s stomach, like the floor’s been yanked right out from under her feet and away. Two years and countless telephone calls past midnight and here is where it hits her, a filming studio crowded with cameramen and technicians and stylists, stunned and powerless against what she never saw coming: the side-swipe turning her world upside down. Not even the fall, but already the crash of impact, sailing straight out of the air and coming back down to the ground.
Here is where the penny drops, and there’s not even any alarm to pull, no time for emergencies, because the director’s already calling for the filming to start, and the cameramen are getting back into position, and when Heejin turns to walk back onto set, Kim Lip puts an arm around her waist, casual as anything, and what’s more, Heejin lets her keep it there.
“Holy shit, did that just happen?” the staff member—Yeojin—says.
Hyunjin blinks at her. “Yes,” she says bleakly.
“This is the best day of my life,” Yeojin says, clasping the poster to her chest. Then she spots the snacks. “Ooh, cookies.”
“And... start,” the shooting director says.
He couldn’t be more wrong. It’s over.
“Hold up,” says Jinsol. “Are you telling me you met the Kim Lip and you didn’t get me a fucking autograph?”
Hyunjin sighs, staring down at her shot glass. “Why do I still hang out with you?”
“Because you have no other friends,” Jinsol says without skipping a beat, “and now I’m thinking of jumping ship, too, ’cause you know full well I’m Kim Lip’s biggest fan and you still let her walk out of that room without signing a CD cover. A piece of paper. A lipstick imprint on a napkin. I’m not picky.”
“That’s just sad.”
“You’re sad,” Jinsol retorts. “I mean, take a look at you.”
There’s a mirror set into the wall of the back of the bar, so Hyunjin can do just that: slide her gaze to the two of them reflected in the dim neon lighting. Jinsol still in her office wear, casually relaxed in a collared blouse and tan slacks and round-rimmed glasses; Hyunjin slumped forward in a thick black sweatshirt, elbows propped up on the bar, chin in her hand. The two of them stick out like sore thumbs in a crowd that skews awfully young and loud, full of sweaty university students jostling each other and getting wasted to compensate for their soul-sucking internships. Even the bar itself has some kind of tacky theme, obnoxious pop art pieces on the walls and flashing neon everywhere.
“This is the last time I’m letting you pick the place,” Hyunjin says; she has to raise her voice to be heard over the din. “I said I wanted to get drunk, not get a headache.”
“Stop trying to change the subject,” Jinsol says, eyeing her up and down. “Why do you look like you’ve just bared your soul in a long, poetic love letter to your middle school crush and got rejected in front of everyone because they were way out of your league in the first place?”
Hyunjin levels her a stare. “That’s... oddly specific.”
Jinsol shrugs. “We’re discussing your traumas, not mine. So spill.”
“Jinsol,” Hyunjin says meaningfully, “you know I can’t.”
“Ohhhhhh,” Jinsol says, nodding her head like it all makes sense now. “So it’s work related.”
Hyunjin squints at her. “What else would it be?”
“You’re not serious,” Jinsol says. “Wait. You’re totally serious. Hold on a second, can you say that again? Let me get out my phone and record Kim Hyunjin admitting the pathetic state of her social life, which is the fact that she has none.”
“I really don’t know why I’m still friends with you.”
Jinsol beams. “’Cause you love me.”
Hyunjin grimaces, because it’s more or less true, and downs her shot glass. Signals for a refill.
“It’s not work,” Hyunjin says. “It’s work-adjacent.”
Jinsol just shakes her head sadly. “Oh, Hyunjin. You’re too far gone.”
But it’s not work, not really, because Hyunjin stopped thinking of Heejin as work two years ago, and also the fact that Heejin and Kim Lip—or as Heejin calls her, Jungeun unnie—are having clandestine meetups to go shopping and eat desserts and make out doesn’t fall anywhere near Hyunjin’s job description. It’s not any of Hyunjin’s business at all, except Heejin won’t stop talking her ear off about how Jungeun unnie’s been to Rome or Jungeun unnie knows all the lyrics to her song or Jungeun unnie bought matching dog sweaters for Nori and Janggun, ugh.
“Ugh,” Hyunjin says.
“It’s called a work-life balance,” Jinsol suggests. “Try it sometime.”
“I used to have that,” Hyunjin says, sliding her face into her palms. “And what did it ever get me?”
Jinsol smiles beatifically. “Me?”
Hyunjin was going to say a string of exes who want to kill me and a headache, but Jinsol has a way of taking all the wind out of one’s puffed-up sails. Even now, her earnest grin is sobering, in the midst of Hyunjin’s determined self-pity. Astonishing, even. Unexpected at her shoulder, just as it was all those years ago, Hyunjin between jobs and getting wasted in a shithole club and latching onto the barfight blooming in the corner like it was a comet that could get her out of there. Anticipation its own glow, strobe lights shimmering, sweat palpable in the air. Hyunjin muscling her way through the periphery straight into the throbbing pulse.
Some asshole was fighting with his girlfriend, it looked like, or the guy with his girlfriend, or was she even his girlfriend? Hyunjin didn’t know the details. They didn’t matter. What mattered was the guy grabbing the girl’s arm with his face twisted into a sneer, and the girl shouting let go, you’re hurting me, and Hyunjin drunk enough to feel invincible. Like she could do anything, in that moment; take anything and everything.
“Let go of her,” Hyunjin managed to say without slurring, and the guy stared at her in disbelief.
“What the fuck did you just say?”
“I said,” Hyunjin began, but before she could finish her sentence a black handbag the approximate size and weight of a brick sailed through the air and collided straight into the guy’s forehead. Needless to say, he let go.
“What the fuck,” he said, and a girl with bright blond hair in a black baseball cap got right up in his face.
“She said let go, asshole!”
He started towards her, but then Hyunjin was there, staring him down.
“And what are you going to do,” he said, raising his arm, and Hyunjin grabbed him by the wrist, and twisted. Hard.
“I’m going to tell you to leave,” Hyunjin said.
The guy sneered. “Or what?”
“Or you can get your ass handed to you by a girl in front of everyone,” Hyunjin said. “It’s up to you.”
And she would have done it, too. Would have taken him down, and herself with him, locked up in an overnight holding station with a permanent mark on her record that barred her from work, if it weren’t for the hand that latched onto hers and led her out of the crowd and into the night as the bartender hollered EVERYBODY OUT OR I’M CALLING THE COPS.
Outside the cool night air hit her in a blast to the face. Hyunjin could hardly see, past her hair flying about in the wind and the blur of strangers on the street and the clatter of their footsteps running pell-mell past all of it. The grip on Hyunjin’s hand tight enough to leave marks. She couldn’t breathe, couldn’t think; could only follow in blind faith and hope she’d end up somewhere.
After what felt both like forever and also thirty seconds the girl stopped. Hyunjin was wrenched out of her grasp and nearly went flying from the whiplash. Neither of them said anything for a long time, both struggling to catch their breath in heaving gasps, bent double by the side of the road. Hyunjin’s eyes were watering, so the lights on the street looked all bright and fuzzy, melting together in a single incandescent stream. In the sudden absence of noise and movement the moment seemed all-encompassing; a golden bubble that might pop at any moment.
“That,” declared Jung Jinsol, “was amazing.”
Hyunjin’s been called a lot of things, in her life: dependable, responsible, professional. Gets the job done without complaint, without hesitation. Bitch won’t let me through, won’t let me pass, come on I just want to get a little bit closer, please just a little bit closer. Not a bad voice, but you can’t be serious—you have to know that you won’t make it with those dancing skills.
Amazing was a first.
“That?” Hyunjin said, with a hiccup; god she was so drunk. “That was nothing—that was stupid, wasn’t anything at all—”
“Are you serious?” The girl stared at her with wide eyes, concerned like Hyunjin’d hit her head or something. “Well, if that was nothing for you, then shit—I’d pay to see what you’re like on a good day.”
She must be really drunk, too, Hyunjin decided. She was talking like she’d seen a superhero whiz through the sky in a cape and everything. That put an awful image in Hyunjin’s head; she would look terrible in spandex. Wait, why was she thinking about this? She stared at the girl. The girl stared back.
A giggle escaped Hyunjin’s throat.
The corner of the girl’s mouth shot up in the biggest shit-eating grin Hyunjin’d ever seen.
Two seconds later they were doubled over again, this time with laughter. Passers-by stared openly at them, at the sight they made, and even then the bubble still didn’t pop. Just glimmered all around like a dream strong enough to hold the both of them.
Then Hyunjin threw up, and blacked out on the taxicab ride before she could tell Jinsol her address, and woke up the next morning in a dorm room with an intimidatingly high-cheekboned stranger eyeing her up from the other bed who said If you puke on the carpet I’m reporting you to the RA and Hyunjin had to spend five minutes explaining she wasn’t a student or even one of her roommate’s one-night-stands before Jinsol finally burst in through the door with a Lotteria take-out bag and shouted, “BREAKFAST!”
But that’s another story, or more specifically, about a hundred other stories.
“You’re an exception,” Hyunjin tells Jinsol now. “A once-in-a-blue-moon event. And never happening again.”
Jinsol puts a hand to her heart. Her sleeves are rolled to her forearms. “Kim Hyunjin,” she says, delighted, “you’re drunk.”
Hyunjin rolls her eyes. “Isn’t that the point?”
Jinsol bobs her head up and down, nodding. “Now you’re finally getting it!” She slaps Hyunjin on the back, a little more enthusiastically than necessary. “Life’s too short to mope about work shit, or work-adjacent shit, whatever. Y’gotta let loose and have fun, you know.” She lifts her glass.
“Fun,” Hyunjin repeats dryly.
“Yeah, you haven’t forgotten what that word means, right? So drink up,” Jinsol says, “and forget everything else.”
Which is when the news announcer on the TV over the bar shuffles his papers and says, “In entertainment news—famous celebrity Kim Lip has been revealed to be dating fellow idol Jeon Heejin, after an incriminating video of the two of them was posted online tonight. The relationship has been confirmed by both their agencies.”
Jinsol spits her drink out all over the bar.
“Oh, shit,” she says.
Hyunjin stares unseeing at the screen.
“Oh, shit,” she agrees, and downs the rest of her glass.
Halfway through the night she wakes up and doesn’t know where she is. Her arm goes flailing, hand fumbling for her phone; she smacks someone in the face.“Shit,” Jinsol says, “what the fuck?”
“Phone,” Hyunjin says. Her lips are numb. “M’phone.”
“Are you serious? Go to sleep.” She’s at Jinsol’s place, in her shitty cramped apartment room, taking up most of the space on Jinsol’s tiny bed, buried under what feels like a million of Jinsol’s sheets even though it’s the summer. She must have gotten really drunk if Jinsol brought her back to hers instead of dropping her off at home; she can still feel the alcohol swimming in her bloodstream. Her head feels so heavy. Jinsol, Hyunjin thinks of saying, whatever happened to that on-again, off-again girlfriend you used to have? I didn’t know you guys broke up again. I didn’t know you were living alone again. I didn’t know.
“My phone,” Hyunjin says instead, because they’re the only words her mouth remembers.
“Oh my god, you—” A noisy fumble in the dark; the shadows shifting. A weight drops onto Hyunjin’s pillow. She turns on the screen. 3:32 AM stares back up at her. No missed calls.
“Hyunjin,” Jinsol says, her voice a touch gentler now. “Go to sleep.”
Hyunjin’s eyes slide closed. She sleeps.
The bright side of Heejin’s dating scandal is that she gets to cancel all her public appearances for the foreseeable future and just stay home, which means Hyunjin gets a bit of an unplanned vacation. The dark side is literally everything else: fans burning her albums and making a dramatic social media spectacle out of it like they haven’t already shelled out their money to buy them in the first place, the launch of a nationwide uproar over whether two women should be allowed to marry or kiss or even hold hands in a non-platonic manner, Hyunjin lying down on Heejin’s expensive bedroom carpet and thudding her head into the floor listening to her go on about Jungeun unnie being all articulate and inspirational or whatever in an interview from this morning that’s been circulating the Internet.
“She’s so brave,” Heejin says, propped up on the pillows of her king-sized bed and scrolling through her phone. “She just doesn’t give a shit what anyone else thinks about her. Remember how she stuck up for me, when the interviewer said I was taking a break?”
“But you are taking a break,” Hyunjin says.
Heejin narrows her eyes. “What? I am not.”
“Heejin,” Hyunjin says flatly. “You’ve delayed your album for over three months past the projected date. You chose a villain role in a low-rated drama over a spring comeback. You got into a lesbian dating scandal.”
“Bisexual,” Heejin says automatically, and then, “hey, that was not planned.” She makes a face. “It figures, though.”
“That this’d be the one relationship that gets out.” Heejin sighs. “I really thought it’d be that one guy who tried throwing rocks at my bedroom window that one time and gave himself a concussion. Remember him?”
“Oh, yes,” Hyunjin says. “That was funny. Ha, ha.”
Heejin shoots her a look, like seriously? Is that the best you can do?
Hey so when were you going to tell me you weren’t straight? Hyunjin wants to scream.
“Hey so how do you feel about being the new poster child for gay rights?” Hyunjin says instead.
“It’s better than being the poster child for Etude House anyway,” Heejin says, straight-faced.
It’s easy. To pretend none of this means anything; to play off her nonchalance as tacit support. Meanwhile, the unsaid burning between them, changing everything. Or maybe just changing Hyunjin.
“Actually it’s a bit of a relief, to be honest,” Heejin says. She’s looking down at her phone screen again, so Hyunjin can’t really tell her expression. “That it’s out there. You know? It’s real. And the world didn’t end or whatever.”
“You didn’t call,” Hyunjin says.
Heejin looks up. “What?”
Hyunjin blinks. Did she say that out loud? “Nothing. I don’t know. You usually call when something happens. But you didn’t, last night. After everything went down.” Hyunjin could’ve been there. She wanted to be. Does Heejin know that? How doesn’t she, by now?
Heejin’s staring at her. “Why would I call? I was in the middle of, like, twelve meetings with management trying not to get my ass fired. And besides, this isn’t like—I’m fine. Really, I’m fine.”
Isn’t like what? “Are you?”
“I’m good,” Heejin says, and the thing is, she actually looks it. Sure, she’s very obviously stress-reading every news article and hashtag and Instagram comment at once, but she’s also sort of smiling and her brow is relaxed, smoothed out in a way Hyunjin rarely ever sees. Hyunjin thinks of a girl in a turquoise wig lip syncing into a rhinestone-studded microphone as she slams on her guitar. There’s something big here, Hyunjin knows, an emotion someone’d sing about in an instrumental stripped bare, a graceful verse about vulnerability and truth and becoming. But Hyunjin isn’t an artist; can’t quite put it into words past the lump in her throat.
“Okay,” Hyunjin says instead. “Then good. That’s good.”
And it really is. After all, this is nothing out of the ordinary—just another one of Heejin’s relationships—and what Hyunjin’s feeling isn’t resentment, isn’t even jealousy. It’s just that watching the shaky video footage of Heejin pressing a kiss to the corner of Jungeun’s mouth turns her insides to water. Takes something Hyunjin had no name for and makes it real.
This is a bad idea, Hyunjin doesn’t say. Because all the rest of them have been bad ideas, Hyunjin doesn’t say. Because what if it isn’t? What if this is finally, exactly what Heejin has been waiting for, all this time? Someone brave enough to want her back, in front of the whole world and everyone?
“I’m happy for you,” Hyunjin says, and Heejin smiles, a flicker over her face; something going slack and sharp in equal measure.
“Thanks,” Heejin says. A pause. “I just wanted to put it all out there on the table, you know. Take the first step.”
“The first step to what?” Hyunjin asks.
Heejin looks her in the eye. “To possibilities,” she says, head tilted slightly. “To whatever the future holds.”
“That sounds very nice,” Hyunjin says after a beat. She even manages to smile back.
Heejin’s still looking at her. Then she huffs out a breath and returns to her phone.
Just Heejin and her whole world, and Hyunjin wretched with love for somebody else.
What starts as a dating-slash-coming-out scandal spirals into something a little bigger, not that Hyunjin’s surprised—she’s always known the kind of momentum Heejin holds to her name. Her agency has finally decided to embrace the wave Heejin’s launched into motion, riding it for all it’s worth. So one day Heejin’s luxuriating in her bed with an organic volcanic clay mask on her face, and the next she’s preparing to headline a benefit concert to raise money for LGBT charities, alongside the smattering of other acts who have decided to show up in support, including Kim Lip, obviously.
“Tickets are selling out really fast,” Heejin says, biting her lip. “I hope it’s, like, real fans, and not scalpers or protesters or whatever.”
“Either way, they already spent the money,” Jungeun points out. “It’s a good thing. Everyone’s talking about it.”
“Everyone had better show up, then,” Hyunjin mutters; it’s lost around her mouthful of cake.
They’re out for lunch, in a café Jungeun bought out for the hour, because Jungeun can just do things like that. Probably Heejin can too, which is an interesting revelation, considering she always makes Hyunjin run out to get her bubble tea or baked goods or fried chicken takeout to avoid getting swarmed by fans. Hyunjin’s never doing that again when Heejin could just buy out the whole restaurant instead, which is way cooler and also probably more efficient; maybe Jungeun’s got the right idea.
Officially, this is a professional meeting sanctioned by their managers, for the purpose of discussing the concert logistics and setlist and collaboration pieces. Unofficially, Hyunjin knows, this is a date and Heejin and Jungeun probably have their ankles hooked together under the table and they’re only not licking the frosting off each other’s lips because Hyunjin’s here, sitting backwards in her chair and shoving cake into her mouth to keep from gagging.
Neither of them seem to notice, though. Heejin’s actually pretty focused on her notes for the concert, absentmindedly pushing her glasses up the bridge of her nose with her palm.
“Oh yeah, and aside from our duet, I’m also going to be performing a duet with one of my friends. She quit the idol scene a while back, but she wanted to support me in this. I asked her to join us for lunch, actually, are you okay with that?”
“Sure,” Jungeun says, and Hyunjin watches her reaction carefully, but she really doesn’t seem to mind. Funny, ’cause if it were Hyunjin getting her date with Heejin crashed by some random friend, she’d mind a whole lot. Then again, maybe the date’s already crashed, what with Hyunjin here and all. She’s not really sorry. It’s her job, okay?
As if on cue, the door bangs open. “Sorry I’m late, Heejin—there’s a literal crowd out there, wow, you really weren’t joking, hahaha—” The girl draws herself up, takes a look at them, and her mouth audibly clacks shut, eyes going wide as saucers beneath her bangs.
“Jungeun?” she says.
Jungeun’s frozen with a forkful of cake halfway to her mouth.
“Jiwoo?” she says, after long enough that Hyunjin begins to worry the cake’s gonna fall into her lap.
Heejin’s staring, too, a bemused expression on her face. “You two know each other?”
Jiwoo recovers first, blinking rapidly, emerging into a smile as she crosses the room towards them. “Uh, yeah. We went to the same high school and graduated together. Hanlim forever, right?”
“Yeah,” Jungeun mumbles; she’s set her fork back down without eating the cake on it. Huh. “It’s been a long time.”
“Wow,” Heejin says, looking owl-eyed behind her glasses. “That’s a hell of a coincidence. Um, Jiwoo, Jungeun’s my girlfriend, the one I told you about?” She says it very meaningfully, waggling her eyebrows for some reason. “I thought you knew it’s her, she’s so famous. And Jungeun—Jiwoo and I know each other from that survival show we were both on all those years ago, though neither of us made it. Uh, we can reschedule this for a later time, d’you guys wanna catch up or something?”
Jiwoo’s hovering at their table, hand on her chair like she meant to pull it out and sit down, but forgot to follow through with the movement. “Um, that’s okay!” she says brightly. “There’s not much to catch up on, hahaha! I always knew Jungeunnie made it big, but I didn’t know she was dating you!”
Jungeun’s grip is still clenched around her fork. “You kept track of me?”
“It wasn’t difficult,” Jiwoo says, “you’re everywhere,” and then she blinks and seems to remember where she is, quickly plopping down into her seat. “Wow, so much cake, haha! I love cake!”
Heejin shoots Hyunjin a look, like, what’s happening right now?
Hyunjin shrugs and takes another bite of cake.
“Right, okay then,” Heejin says slowly. “Anyway, Hyunjin, this is the Jiwoo I keep telling you about. She’s studying acting now instead, but she used to be a trainee, too.”
“Acting,” Jungeun repeats for some reason, looking at Jiwoo, who isn’t looking back.
“And Jiwoo, this is Hyunjin, my bodyguard.”
“Wow, you’re a bodyguard? That’s so cool!” Jiwoo claps her hands together. “Have you ever beaten someone up for Heejin? Is it on video?”
“You’re so lucky, Heejin,” Jungeun says. She smiles at Hyunjin, all teeth; her gaze is considering. “Your bodyguard’s also your best friend. My bodyguard’s waiting outside ’cause like hell I’m gonna invite him in.”
“That must be so hard for you,” Hyunjin says, straight-faced.
Heejin thunks her forehead against the table. “You guys, this concert is in, like, two weeks—”
“Right, well!” Jiwoo slams her hands down. “I know it’s been ages since the last time we performed together, but I was going through your discography and listening to that one album of yours, what’s it called again—”
“Déjà Vu,” Hyunjin says quietly. Heejin looks up at her, eyes narrowed.
Jiwoo snaps her fingers. “Right, that one! And there’s this song on there, Happy Ending? It reminds me of what we used to talk about, when we roomed together during filming for TOP TEN and you showed me those lyrics you were writing. It’s from that, right?”
Heejin blinks a little. “Yeah, it is. Wow, I didn’t even know you remembered that.”
“What are you talking about?” Jiwoo pouts. “Of course I remembered that, our late night chats were like the best thing about that whole experience, I was so excited when I heard your album for the first time. Anyway, I don’t know if the song’s too old for you or whatever, but I was thinking we could maybe duet on that one? I already know the lyrics and you could play guitar, plus it’d be a really nice surprise for your fans, you know, the ones who’ve been there since the very beginning—”
“You always wanted to sing,” Jungeun says out of nowhere.
Everyone’s staring at her. “What?” Jiwoo says.
Jungeun blinks. “Nothing,” she says shortly. “Just—back then. You always wanted to sing.”
Jiwoo’s face is blank, her mouth pressed into a thin line. “That was a long time ago,” she says, and her voice is still bright, but the smile doesn’t reach her eyes. “And I still sing, silly. I just don’t do it on a stage anymore.”
There’s a long silence after that. Heejin is shooting laser beams at Hyunjin with her eyes, all of them blaring SOS SOS SOS.
“Um,” says Hyunjin, around her fork. “Anyone up for seconds?”
When there’s this much at stake, there’s no room for misstep. Everything laid out with picture-perfect precision. The benefit concert is to be held outdoors, in a park; the schedule is from 6-8:30pm on a Friday night; the lineup consists of five different artists, featuring Heejin, Jungeun, Jiwoo, the mysterious rapper known only as XX, and Vivi, a popstar who’d flown all the way from Hong Kong to participate, and who upon arrival clasped Heejin’s hands in hers and said, “This event means a lot to me and my girlfriend; it’s a really great thing you’re doing here” and left her looking shell-shocked and smelling faintly of lavender perfume. There’s a lot riding on this concert, and everything is planned in meticulous detail, from the live broadcast to the banner project to the colour of the confetti that’s going to blast onto the audience during the encore. Everyone is going to be watching, and nothing can go wrong.
So of course, on the day of the concert, it rains.
“We are not postponing it,” Heejin says, the two of them peering out at the downpour from the back of the stage set up in the park. Staff in plastic raincoats are swarming around the venue, but the rest of the park is mostly deserted, aside from a few die-hard fans poised in the front row with their DSLRs in waterproof cases and the trees bent under the onslaught, branches whipping in the storm.
“It’s too late, anyway,” Heejin goes on, tone decisive as if she’s convincing herself more than anyone else. “There’s only, like, hours left until the concert starts, and all the performers are here, and there’s too much riding on this, what we’ve gambled on this, even if no one shows—”
“They’ll show,” Hyunjin says.
Heejin cuts herself off, abrupt. “Yeah,” she says, an echo of relief in her voice. “Yeah, they will, of course they will. What’re they gonna do? Miss the show of the year? I mean, Kim Lip is here, for god’s sake.”
Hyunjin keeps her eyes on the drowning treeline in the distance so she doesn’t have to look at Heejin, or worse, blurt out something like: you’re here, stupid.
“Hard to believe this is really happening,” Heejin says, after a while of silence. “It’s surreal. I never—not even in my wildest fantasies did I think—” She bites her lip; her stylist’s gonna chew her out for it later. “Back when I couldn’t scrape the charts, or when I was on TOP TEN, or when I was auditioning... Even now, it’s always felt a little like—well, it’s my job, you know? I get on stage and sing. And even when I gave my adolescence to it, my whole life and everything, I still held back this part of me, never dreamed of giving it up, and now it’s out there...” Her voice trails off.
Hyunjin doesn’t know the exact weight of what Heejin has to lose. Even after two years she can only glimpse pieces of it, reflections in glass, like the whole thing’s too dangerous to look at in its entirety: a stone-turning gaze, a formless god. All she knows is that it’s what Heejin wants, all of it, the glory and the gleam, and that this is the only way she can get it. Sacrifice burning in the light of the pyre; body and soul on the stage.
Now something else, too: the heart.
“It’s incredible, really,” Heejin’s saying, so easily, like all this is just as painless to give up, words hushed in the deluge. “All these years and only now does it feel like I’m risking all of myself.” She smooths out the skirt of her dress, a gesture more absentminded than nervous. “Only here does it feel like... I’m really all in, now.” She laughs.
On the stage and beyond it, the staff are still working to set everything up. Behind them is an even more frenzied whirlwind of activity, technicians and managers and choreographers all in a rush backstage. Vivi is singing vocal runs as someone applies pink glitter under her eyes; XX is decked out in a black bodysuit and butterfly mask against the pale silver of her hair, talking low to somebody on the phone. Jungeun and Jiwoo are nowhere to be seen, but are no doubt busy with their own preparations. This world set in motion, for a three-hour show, for a single night, for the purpose of building something bigger than each of them on their own.
“Heejin,” Hyunjin says.
Heejin’s looking at her. In her stage makeup, lashes dark, eyes bright. “Yeah?”
The air is cool against the flush of Hyunjin’s cheeks. The rain coming down, waiting for them, out there in the open.
“Don’t worry,” Hyunjin says. “You’re going to be amazing.”
She’s right on both counts. They do show, the rows filling up last minute before the hour, fans sharing heat packs and transparent umbrellas and snacks they’ve smuggled in their purses. Hyunjin, from her position with the rest of the security between the stage and the separating guardrail from the audience, getting steadily drenched through her plastic poncho, has to wonder about the cameras they’ve got pointed at the stage; surely it’s impossible to film anything through this rain. Maybe all the pictures will be ruined, blurred and out of focus, and maybe the cameras will be waterlogged within minutes. Maybe there’ll be no lasting record, no documentation of this event except the evidence in their stiff-frozen limbs, the aftershock ringing echoes in their ears. Crash of comets meeting, once in a lifetime, miracle turning into myth. Hyunjin isn’t even in the crowd, but she can feel it, the energy gathering around them like a long burst of lightning. Only ever striking once.
Most of it she watches in the skyward screens hanging above, in overbright fragments blown up beyond the bodies onstage. Kim Lip, beginning the concert with a showstopper, the screams and cheers electric in the air. Jiwoo—readopting her better known stage name, Chuu—grinning bright on the stage like she never left it in her life. XX rapping in an almost hypnotic tone, deeper and more intense than the high pitch with which she’d introduced herself to the audience. Vivi enacting an elaborate dance routine with a chair, never once slipping in her high-heeled boots, kicking up splashes of water from the slick floor. Lip and XX perform their iconic collaboration stage, of course; their morbid act gains a grittier edge in the rain, floodlights reflecting neon in puddles, water running down their faces like tears. There’s even a surprise duet between Lip and Chuu, singing back and forth, eyes on each other the entire time. The song is meant to be sweet, except it’s beat by the storm into something sounding a little more ragged, rough and desperate and bared hoarse, and the crowd goes wild when the last notes fade and they break off into wild heaving breaths.
But by now a palpable tension is building in the air, an almost audible hum. Hunger and expectation on the tongue. Kim Lip winks at the audience and saunters off the stage, and after a beat of unbearable stillness, the stage floor opens and Heejin rises up in smoke, head haloed in technicolour, eyes wide open against the rain.
“This one goes out to the one I love,” Heejin shouts into her microphone, her voice resounding through the storm, and the first notes of Déjà Vu begin to play.
And Hyunjin is rooted to her spot, struck dumb by the golden bolt, when she sees a piece of the crowd detach itself from the mass, climbing deft and swift over the guardrail near her. Someone, face covered by the hood of his raincoat, muttering low under his breath.
“Lying bitch,” he slurs as though drunk, “good-for-nothing fake, all this time,” and there’s a flash of something under his coat, in his hand.
Hyunjin moves forward as though propelled by some force greater than herself, possessed by the intensity and violence of a higher power, a crash of thunder. The echo of the answer. She collides bodily into him, bringing them both down, tumbling headfirst into the grass. At the same time, her grip closes uncompromising around his wrist, stilling the downward arc of the glass bottle clutched in his fist, long-necked and empty, a sheen of silver under the rain.
She twists, feels the give in his bone. The bottle slips out of his hand and onto the ground, and shatters.
More security is upon them now, hauling the man up and away, as the crowd nearest the commotion shouts in anger and confusion. Hyunjin sits on the grass, breath coming back to her in roiling gasps. Heart in her throat, pounding heavy and sick, the lurch of a bass line. Fury and fear still roaring inside: you don’t get to do this, you don’t get to ruin the magic of this day, you don’t get to even touch it—
She looks up. On the stage, Heejin’s eyes are on her as she continues to sing, soaked wet and dripping and never stopping, not once. Only the voice isn’t her own: it resonates tenfold, multiple, infinite, the audience singing the words back to her as one. Residual heat charging a current looped through every body in the crowd, static and shivery. The music a new layer in the air, breath taken into the lungs, searing bone-white from the inside out.
Hyunjin licks the rainwater from her lips. Gets back to her feet; back into position.
Quietly, she joins in singing along, to the words she knows by heart.
The afterparty is in full swing by the time Hyunjin gets back from police questioning and debriefing, and from a lengthy shower. Heejin’s penthouse apartment glows warm yellow against the night skyline, the windows just another set of stars. She loiters for a minute by the elevator, her reflection muddled in the reflective glass. Leans her head against the wall as she waits.
There are three messages on her phone: an uncharacteristically serious Everything okay? followed up a couple hours later by the more concerning jungeun is such a funny drunk hahaaaa and the indecipherable yuojuere rwealhyyhotl. Hyunjin sends ? Lol and then I’m coming up. There’s no reply. The messages are marked as unread.
The elevator ride is oddly subdued on her way up, smooth and noiseless as it is. Silent in the face of all that’s happened today; all that is going to happen. Jittering of uneasy nerves she can’t explain, or maybe just anticipation. Hyunjin shifts from foot to foot, makes faces in the mirror. Sticks her tongue out at herself just as the doors slide open and spill her back out into the world.
Hyunjin’s seen Heejin’s apartment crowded before. With renovators, whenever Heejin watches too many home improvement shows and decides she needs a change of scenery; with takeout bags and trash and crumpled notebook pages, whenever Heejin’s working feverishly into the night on another round of songs that’re gonna end up on the backburner, buried in the dusty recesses of her company’s storage files, waiting for “the right time to expand her image”, as promised by her managers. With boxes, whenever Heejin stays up all night on online shopping sites and ends up with a shoe rack shaped like a flamingo or a life-sized Snorlax plush or a new Ikea table that arrives in two hundred different parts that Hyunjin’s gonna have to spend six hours helping her put together, with most of the time used on searching the carpet for that last tiny screw. Once she even bought Aeongie a bunch of new cat toys, including a giant cat tower. “You never buy me anything,” Hyunjin said after they’d set everything up in her apartment, as they watched Aeongie cast a disinterested eye over her new kingdom, and then crawl into a cardboard box instead. Heejin laughed like it was funny. “Like I could give you anything you want,” she said, and Hyunjin’s still trying to figure out the meaning of the joke.
With people, though, the apartment’s transformed into an entirely different atmosphere, strangers drinking at the bar and dancing on the leopard print rug and making use of Heejin’s singing machine in the living room. Strobe lights pulse over every surface and shadow, and in the flashes Hyunjin can make out faces she doesn’t recognize, or else place without a name—a segment from a TV screen, a music show broadcast, an advertisement. Two girls with bright hair—one orange, one firetruck red—are belting into the mic as another harmonizes along, a thin sparkly barrette clipped into her pink wavy bob. By the bar, a group of guys are huddled with their glasses, talking in low tones and eyeing the rest of the room in either aloof or nervous energy; Hyunjin can’t quite tell. A pink-haired girl sits on the marble counter eating a blue popsicle, laughing at something the girl with space buns and sharp eyeliner leant up next to her is saying.
Then there are the more familiar faces. A few of Heejin’s exes, which is less surprising than it should be; her propensity for amicable breakups is one of her lesser-known superpowers, after all. Vivi is sitting on the couch, flute of champagne in one hand and phone in the other, looking sorely uninterested in anything but the glow of her screen, whoever she’s texting there. Hyunjin doesn’t see XX, but there’s famous idol Go Won—renowned for her delicate image and angelic vocals—standing by the window with a tall, dark-haired girl in a leather jacket. Choerry and Yeojin are in animated discussion, giggling and tipsy and gesticulating with their hands, but there’s no sign of Kim Lip, or for that matter, Heejin.
Hyunjin moves through the crowd like it’s water, aquarium pressure and fishbowl blur, glimmers of light and motion in the blue. A world breaking in through the glass. She needs air. She feels stale.
She bangs open the bathroom door just in time to catch Jungeun and Jiwoo spring apart, Jiwoo’s hand knocking into the clutter of Heejin’s bottles of cleanser and toner and serum on the countertops, clattering into the sink.
Instantly Jiwoo’s a flurry of loud chatter and movement—“oh I’m sorry, I’m so clumsy, let me just get that”—as she scrambles to right the bottles again, making more of a mess than she started with, attracting more attention than necessary. But it’s Jungeun Hyunjin stares at, making steady eye contact over Jiwoo’s flustered form, homing in on the smear of red lipstick on her mouth.
Hyunjin steps inside the bathroom, closes the door behind her. She takes a breath.
“What the fuck are you doing,” she says.
Something icy settles over Jungeun’s face. Hyunjin’s seen this look before, from just about every single one of her music videos. Jiwoo opens her mouth, but Jungeun settles a hand over her wrist, stopping her.
“I don’t see how it’s any of your business,” Jungeun says.
“None of my business?” Hyunjin repeats. Overcome by a sick urge to laugh. Stone cold sober. “Yeah, it’s business. Nothing but business, right? Just doing my job.”
Jungeun and Jiwoo exchange a glance. “Hyunjin,” Jiwoo says, “are you okay?”
“Business, that’s what I’m here for,” Hyunjin says, and smiles, blank. “So where’s Heejin?”
Jungeun gives a one-shouldered shrug. “Um... in her room, I think? Probably waiting for you to get here? Why, what’s wrong?”
She can’t be serious. “What’s wrong?” Hyunjin repeats. “Of all people—of all the days—you’re cheating on Heejin at this point, when she’s just pulled off the biggest, bravest risk of her life? What’s wrong with you?”
It falls flat, into a dead sort of silence that makes her outburst seem childish in retrospect, overly emotional and revealing. Hyunjin has to settle her instincts—fight or flight—back into some semblance of composure, fists unclenching by her side. She takes another breath, steady and measured. Gearing up for the fallout.
But it doesn’t come. Jiwoo’s eyes are wide as saucers. Jungeun blinks—not in anger, or shame, but in slow confusion.
“What are you talking about?” Jungeun says slowly. “Do you seriously not know?”
Hyunjin wets her lips with her tongue, absent-minded. “Know what?”
“Did she seriously not tell you?” And Hyunjin can’t stand that look on Jungeun’s face, that shake of her head, as though it’s dawning upon her now, some understanding Hyunjin hasn’t been allowed, some piece of the picture Hyunjin hasn’t been given. “Wow. I didn’t realize—”
“Tell me what,” Hyunjin says, and her voice does not shake.
Jungeun leans back against the bathroom wall. Looks Hyunjin up and down with an assessing eye.
“Heejin and I broke up,” Jungeun says. Her tone almost apologetic. “A while ago. The time we got caught on video, actually. That’s why we met up that day in the first place—to agree to break it off, since we like being friends better than anything else. But when the news got out, we decided to confirm the dating rumours, so that Heejin’s agency would take it seriously as a real relationship, and also because she wanted to take the opportunity to come out for real. We figured we’d break up officially a little later, after all the initial backlash died down, and it’d leave us free to pursue other relationships. In the meantime—” Jungeun shrugs again, and doesn’t finish the thought.
Jiwoo has quietly resumed righting the bottles by the sink, like it matters that they’re put back neatly the way they’re supposed to be. Hyunjin watches the careful movement of her hands, lining everything back up, back into place.
“So it was a secret,” Hyunjin says, distantly. Schooling herself back into cold professionalism, the safety of middle ground she’s been trained to take. Protecting Heejin and serving Heejin’s best interest—well. It’s her job, after all. “And you’re just here threatening to expose it? Did you think about how this would reflect on Heejin’s image if you got caught? Could you be a little more discreet, a little more considerate—”
“Oh my god,” Jungeun says, “this is unreal, we’re literally in a fucking bathroom right now, we’re not exactly parading ourselves in public. And what would you know about it, anyway?” She narrows her eyes. “When was the last time you risked anything, Kim Hyunjin-ssi?”
“Jungeun,” Jiwoo hisses. “It’s okay. That’s enough.”
But it’s not even the killing blow.
“Anyway, I really thought she would’ve told you,” Jungeun says, shaking her head. “Of all people.”
Hyunjin bangs the bathroom door back open and leaves.
Outside, someone offers her a drink; Hyunjin almost takes it. Stops and walks away instead. Back through the throng of dancers and strangers, through the kaleidoscope of spinning light and colour. She finds her way to the door. Knocks twice, a soft rap of knuckles against wood, and slips inside.
Inside Heejin’s bedroom, the lamp is on. She’s sitting on the edge of her bed, hair dry and makeup re-done and wearing a shimmery blue dress, not a trace or touch of the rain left on her. Her feet are bare. She’s looking down at her phone, but locks eyes with Hyunjin when she enters, mouth going slack with fuzzy surprise, then brightening into a smile.
“Hyunjin! You’re finally here!”
She’s beautiful. She’s drunk. She’s happy, eyes crinkled up and cheeks flushed, and Hyunjin’s throat burns with everything she wants to say, everything she’s never said. She leaves it burning a little longer, to keep that soft look in Heejin’s eyes, that lightweight joy.
“Hey.” Hyunjin sits down next to her. “You did so great.”
“I did great?” Heejin laughs. Shoves her shoulder, playful. “I’m not the one who brought down that guy twice your size in front of everyone like it was nothing! Someone got the whole thing on video. Have you seen the posts about you? They’re calling you the nation’s bodyguard. It’s incredible.”
“It was nothing,” Hyunjin says. She cracks a smile. “I mean, it comes with the job, right?”
“Oh, please—if it had been anyone else—can you imagine? If it were reversed?” Heejin hiccups. “Imagine it—you as the idol, me as your bodyguard.”
“I’d be a goner,” Hyunjin deadpans.
“Or if you were an idol, too. Or if I wasn’t one. If I was just Jeon Heejin, twenty-something nobody in the world, and we were exactly the same.”
Something’s off. The world just ever so slightly off kilter. Lamplight glowing in the periphery of Hyunjin’s vision like its own jewel. Hyunjin no longer knows what to say, when Heejin gets like this. Once it was easy—or, it was a novelty, whispering into the phone in the hush of the night, secret things she had never before given a voice, never even knew lived inside. But now she’s empty and tired and treading so very close to the line.
“It’s a good thing we’re not, then,” Hyunjin says, already knowing it’s the wrong answer.
“Right,” Heejin says, and laughs again, but it’s a brittle sound this time. “You’re right. Good thing—you’re the nation’s bodyguard, and I’m the fuck-up, right?”
Hyunjin stares at her. “Where on earth did you get that from?”
“Nowhere,” Heejin says sulkily.
“Oh, for god’s sake, put down your phone and stop reading whatever you’re reading—isn’t it enough? Isn’t it ever enough for you?” Hyunjin has to physically resist the urge to reach out and touch Heejin’s cheek; ground her here in the present, in the real world. “It’s not like you need the affection of the assholes out there who’re gonna hate you for your sexuality, or for your career, or for anything—any excuse at all. Look at what you did today, and what it meant for all the people out there who look up to you. Heejin...” Hyunjin wishes she’d taken the drink after all. Now she only has herself to go on as she looks Heejin in the eye and says as gently as she can manage: “You’re more than just a celebrity or a star. The work you do matters, okay? Especially now. I’m sure you’ll find that to people out there—you’re a hero.”
Heejin stares at her, pupils blown. She’s silent for so long Hyunjin wonders if she even heard any of it. Then she swallows thickly, and says, voice low: “Yeah. Some hero.”
Hyunjin stares at her. “Excuse me?”
Heejin wipes at her mouth with the back of her hand. “My family won’t speak to me and half the people I thought were my friends asked me if it was a joke and my manager keeps telling me this image is really popular with international audiences right now and that’s the only reason why my contract hasn’t been terminated, never mind the fact that I’m already blacklisted from all mainstream networks anyway. I’m not a hero, Hyunjin—I’m the sucker whose one job is singing love songs at the one person in the world who won’t listen.”
Hyunjin can feel her hands go numb. “What are you talking about?”
There’s a glint in Heejin’s eye. Hyunjin knows better than to think it’s anything other than the sheen of alcohol. “I don’t know, Hyunjin,” Heejin says. “What am I talking about?”
Hyunjin searches for anything that can cut through that haze. She doesn’t have to look very far. “How would I know? Seems like no one tells me anything around here. Like the fact that you and Jungeun broke up.”
Heejin blinks. Her mouth opens and closes, before she swallows. “She told you?”
Hyunjin snorts. “Why wouldn’t she? Because I’m just the bodyguard, right?”
“That’s not—I didn’t—”
“Yeah,” Hyunjin says. “You didn’t.” Something like adrenaline running through her veins. And what for? This is Heejin, the client she works for, the person she calls her friend, and yet somehow the closest thing to danger she’s ever felt, right here, right now. “What, did you think I was gonna spill all your secrets to Dispatch? Sell you out?”
“You never even realized the way you look at her, did you?” Heejin shakes her head. “Like she wasn’t gonna last, like she was just like everyone else who ever thought they saw something in me. Well, maybe you were right, but maybe I didn’t want you to think it was that easy—maybe I wanted you to keep looking—”
“What are you even talking about?” Hyunjin’s starting to wonder if she’s the drunk one, the world spinning further and further away from her. “God, you’re impossible to deal with when you’re like this. What the hell are you so insecure for, Jeon Heejin, you’re loved by every single person you meet and you still think you’re not worth anything. Just wake up already and take a real, long look—”
“Me? I’m impossible? What about you? What about you when you get defensive and shut me out and won’t listen to what I want to say—won’t listen to what I’ve been trying to tell you, all this time—”
“What?” Hyunjin shouts. “What is it you’ve been trying to tell me, then?”
“That it’s okay,” Heejin says, and lunges forward, kisses her in a clumsy knock of teeth.
Hyunjin’s mind empties out. Everything cleared but for the weight of Heejin’s mouth against hers, warm and open and wet. Almost immediately Heejin gentles, soft as though sorry for the rough start, then eager and rushed as though wanting to make up for it. Her hands have come up to cup Hyunjin’s face, tug her closer, fingers curling under her chin, thumb pressing into her cheek. Pinpoint of delicate pressure. She sucks slow on Hyunjin’s lower lip, coaxes her mouth open, and makes a sound like something is breaking.
In Hyunjin’s head, blood pulses and pools. She registers only sensations, vague as though happening to someone else; roaring echoes of a distant commotion. Clap of thunder, or the smash of a chandelier. The crash of desire, old and hollow-tuned and bruised. The burnt taste of alcohol on Heejin’s tongue.
Hyunjin fists her hands in the bedsheets beneath her, and pulls away.
Heejin moves as if to follow, listing forward, her undone hair falling over her face and spilling past her shoulders. She makes a hurt noise, at the sudden lack. Peers up at Hyunjin, head lolling, eyes dark.
“I,” Heejin says. Her mouth reddened and shiny. “Hyunjin?”
The diamonds glitter at her throat.
“Fuck,” Hyunjin says, and watches Heejin flinch. “Fuck,” she says again, and runs.
She wakes up to a familiar apartment and a familiar gaze eyeing her up from the bedroom doorway, though no longer intimidating, no longer a stranger. It really is déjà vu, Hyunjin thinks, and gives in to the awful urge to laugh.
“If you puke on the carpet you’re paying for it,” says Ha Sooyoung, and all they need now is Jinsol to burst in with their breakfast, or with a bomb. Hyunjin thinks the latter’s more appropriate in this situation.
“Not drunk,” Hyunjin says, and sits up to prove it. She smiles, humourless. “So you’re back together again?”
“It’s none of your business,” Sooyoung says all haughty and tight-lipped, like she isn’t wearing Jinsol’s old SNU hoodie and a pair of Jinsol’s ratty sweats. Something itches under Hyunjin’s skin, ugly and inescapable, and for all Sooyoung’s bullshit, she’s an unbearably easy target.
“How long are you two gonna last this time?” Hyunjin props herself up with one hand on the bed and lifts the other to tap a finger against her chin, pretending to consider it. “When the thrill of sneaking around wears off? When you need a boyfriend to bring home to mom and dad? Or maybe when Jinsol slips up and says the l-word again?”
Sooyoung just looks at her, gaze even. Almost pitying. Doesn’t take the bait, however low-hanging Hyunjin’s dangled it.
“Jinsol prepared you breakfast,” she says, voice cold, and walks away, leaving Hyunjin alone with herself.
Eventually Hyunjin gets up out of bed and leaves the room. She has the day off—or more accurately, Heejin does—so she has a lot of time to stare blankly at the walls and not think about anything at all. It’s a good thing, because she can’t exactly call in sick to work with the excuse My client kissed me while wasted as all hell and I let her, or worse, and I liked it. Probably she has to quit. Probably she’s already fired.
Jinsol is on the couch next to Sooyoung, watching something on her laptop. She looks up when Hyunjin enters the room, and smiles.
“Hey,” she says. “You’re up.”
Hyunjin has to lean against the wall for a moment without speaking. The whole scene so normal, so easy, even with Sooyoung giving Hyunjin the evil eye over Jinsol’s shoulder, like this will always be here, like it will always be this way.
“Yeah,” Hyunjin says. She doesn’t meet Sooyoung’s gaze. “I’m up.”
“I went and got some pastries for you from the bakery,” Jinsol says. “There’s juk, too, and leftover rice. Did you drink any water yet?”
There’d been a glass left on the dresser. “Yeah,” Hyunjin says again, and feels like a child. She rubs at her eyes. “Um—thanks for letting me crash last night.”
Jinsol gives her a look like she’s crazy. “Uh, duh?” She pauses, opens her mouth as though to say something else, then pauses again and bites her lip.
Next to her, Sooyoung rolls her eyes. “I’m GOING to the BATHROOM,” she announces pointedly, getting up from the couch.
“Thanks, babe,” Jinsol says. And Hyunjin’ll die before she thanks Ha Sooyoung, but she’s grateful, too, when the bathroom door shuts. Less so when GET AWAY OUT OF MY FACE / DON’T COME ANY CLOSER BOY starts blaring loudly from the other side of it. Hyunjin grimaces at the noise. Jinsol, unfortunately, just looks fond.
“So,” Jinsol says, and she pats impatiently at the couch beside her, gesturing for Hyunjin to sit. “What happened? You looked like—” She bites her lip again. “You looked like something bad had happened. And you wouldn’t tell me a word. I thought you were drunk, but you weren’t, and that was even worse, almost. Are you... Are you okay?”
Hyunjin tugs at the hem of the T-shirt she’s wearing; one of Jinsol’s, baby blue and becoming threadbare. Remembers all the things she said to Heejin over the phone, over the years, late at night like that meant it wasn’t real, wouldn’t be remembered in the morning. How she laid herself bare and still left out the truth of it, the heart. How it’s catching up to her now.
“It’s over,” Hyunjin says. The words come out as a burden, but leave her without relief, only a bitter question in response: Had anything ever really begun in the first place?
Or the more unsettling correction: Could it have?
“Ooo-kay,” Jinsol says. “That’s very dramatic and all, but I still have no idea what you’re talking about. Is it your job?”
Hyunjin thinks about it. “No,” she says slowly. “Yes. Sort of. Not really. Something—bigger than that, I think.”
“Okay,” Jinsol says, nodding like any of that makes any sense. “Listen, I know you signed your terrifying non-disclosure confidentiality contracts and all that, but Hyunjin—you can tell me anything, you know that, right?”
“Yeah, of course I know, it’s not that, it’s just—” The words catch in Hyunjin’s throat. She’s never told Jinsol anything about it, not really, except for whatever she’s let slip while drunk, or sleeptalking, or watching one of Heejin’s videos in public. But there’s a knowing look on Jinsol’s face anyway, which figures. Hyunjin thinks back to Jungeun’s assessing gaze; Heejin listing ever so slightly forward, chasing after her mouth, after what must have been written all over her face. Ever drawn towards the direction of love. How hopelessly obvious Hyunjin must have been all this time, in the unmistakable light. She swallows; feels with some horror the wetness of her eyes, and rapidly blinks it away. “I didn’t want it to happen this way.”
Jinsol is silent for a moment, though she places a hand over Hyunjin’s, squeezes tight. Then, tone prompting: “But you wanted it to happen?”
Hyunjin bites the inside of her cheek until she can pretend she’s forgotten what Heejin’s mouth on hers felt like. “It doesn’t matter,” she says, and huffs out a breath that isn’t really laughter. “Because it can’t happen.”
Jinsol’s head is tilted slightly as she surveys her. “I think it does matter,” she says. “I think it matters a lot.”
“Well, aside from the fact that I’ve probably lost my job, and the fact of what my job is and how many regulations I’ve broken, and the fact that she’s a literal celebrity—aside from everything else, it’s just that she didn’t—she doesn’t even—” Hyunjin closes her eyes. “It didn’t mean anything.”
“Aside from everything else,” Jinsol repeats. “Aside from everything else—what if it did?”
Hyunjin opens her eyes. “What?”
“Well, Hyunjin,” Jinsol says, something tired in her tone, “don’t you think maybe it’s possible that somebody in the world loves you back?”
Jeon Heejin, in love—everyday and ordinary as a shower of rain. Jeon Heejin, in love with her— Hyunjin tries to think about it, Heejin’s gaze focused on her, unyielding and not looking away, a single fixed minute of the sun—
“Who knows. Maybe you are just that lucky.” Jinsol shrugs. “Once in a blue moon, right?”
Hyunjin looks at her. Pajamas slept-in and hair fuzzily sticking up and leant against the back of the couch, soft. Glimmer of a golden bubble over their heads that never popped, only stretched wider and wider to swallow the whole world. Let in as much of it as it could.
“Maybe,” she says.
The bathroom door opens. “Is it all clear, or what?” Sooyoung says, poking her head out.
Hyunjin lets go of Jinsol’s hand and gets up. “Yeah, I gotta go,” she says. Jinsol casts her a questioning look, concerned. “It’s fine—I’m fine. I have to go home and check on Aeongie. I’ll take the bread, though. And I’ll let you know if anything happens, all right?”
“You’d better,” Jinsol says as Sooyoung settles back onto the couch next to her. “Hey—Hyunjin, think about it, okay? Don’t do anything stupid that I would do. You know what I mean.”
“I do,” Hyunjin says. “Don’t worry. I won’t.”
“And say hi to Aeongie for me!” Jinsol’s grinning again, big and bright.
Sooyoung squints at her. “Who the fuck is Aeongie?”
Hyunjin pauses on her way out. There are so many things Hyunjin’s been saving up to say to Sooyoung, varying in levels of pettiness from Jinsol hooked up with this really hot older chick recently, she’s got TATTOOS and a TONGUE PIERCING to Jinsol’s been in love with you since you two were making out in the bathroom in the breaks between your third-year lectures and either you love her back or you let her go, it’s that simple. But maybe it isn’t actually that simple. Maybe the closest thing to it is the easy sling of Sooyoung’s arm around Jinsol’s shoulders, the tenderness with which she tucks a strand of Jinsol’s hair behind her ear. Something so small, so brave it makes Hyunjin’s teeth ache.
“You... you two take care,” Hyunjin mumbles, and makes a break for it so she doesn’t have to see the look of surprise on Sooyoung’s face, or Jinsol’s smile when they kiss.
Outside, the morning is bitingly clear and beautiful, after the storm. She walks all the way home. Aeongie isn’t there to greet her at the door. She finds her on her bed, swaddled in her blankets, looking sullen, almost bereft.
“Yeah, I know,” Hyunjin says, and lies down with her, gathering her into her arms.
There are no new messages on her phone.
In the middle of the night Hyunjin wakes up from a shifting sleep and thinks with a clarity that hasn’t returned to her in years that maybe that dreamlike world of two AM where they could speak to each other without whisper, could take the truth out of its careful confines and leave it there, shining and unsaid and alive—maybe it isn’t real.
But it was still theirs, wasn’t it?
Her phone’s at sixteen percent battery; she forgot to leave it charging. Aeongie makes a muffled noise when the screen lights up in the dark, and Hyunjin reaches out to stroke her fur, gentle.
She presses the sound of the line ringing to her ear and waits.
Not long. The call picks up sooner than she’s ready for, startled breath rushing across the line like static.
“Hyunjin!” Heejin’s voice is loud in the silence, too big for Hyunjin’s bedroom. “You called.”
Hyunjin stares at Aeongie. The stillness of her room. She doesn’t know what to say, then realizes it’s obvious.
“I have to know,” Hyunjin says. “Is this real?”
A pause. “What?”
An awful thought strikes her. “Do you even remember what happened?”
“What—you think—how could I forget?”
“You weren’t exactly in your right mind.”
“I might be a fuck-up but I don’t forget it when I finally kiss the one I’ve been in love with for years.”
Hyunjin sucks in a breath. “Don’t say that.”
“What? The part about being a fuck-up? Or the in love part?”
“The part about the one.”
Silence. The sound of Heejin’s breathing on the other end, coming through in waves.
“But I tried it,” Heejin says, and her voice sounds so small. “I know, Hyunjin, I tried. I tried all the others. But I can’t—you know I can’t get you out of me, out of my head, fuck. You know I just keep on coming back to you.”
Hyunjin’s head spins. All this time—all this long—
“Is that what it was?” Hyunjin breathes a laugh, incredulous. “I have to know, Heejin—is it for real? Or are you just still looking for something you’re not sure even exists? Because how am I supposed to believe—how do you know? How do you know this is it?”
“How else am I supposed to know? I tried to live with it. I tried to look for it in other places, in other people, god, anyone who would look at me twice, anyone who would take me. I tried everything else and now I’m thinking there’s only one thing left to try. One to want. And I don’t think you’d be calling me up at three AM if some part of you didn’t believe it too.” A pause. “Do you?”
Hyunjin opens her mouth, then closes it again. Without hesitation, she reminds herself, but she feels so far away from that self right now, the one who knows what to do in crisis, has all the emergency exits mapped in her head and always, always knows what to say. Suddenly all there is at stake seems a lot more precious; a lot more precarious. “I don’t want to lose you,” she says, and it feels like painting a target on her chest, pressing the first bullet into someone’s palm. Here; here is where to aim, when to shoot.
“But you could have me,” Heejin says, and Hyunjin drops the phone like it’s a live wire.
After a moment she scrambles to find it in the mess of her covers, upsetting a snarling Aeongie, but it accidentally hung up somewhere in the process. She stares down at the screen and thinks, a little hysterical, maybe Heejin won’t remember this in the morning.
But—how funny—it hadn’t sounded like she was drunk at all.
“I’m going crazy,” she tells Aeongie, who yawns and closes her eyes in response.
So much for getting any sleep tonight. Hyunjin considers screaming into her pillow, or calling Jinsol and screaming at her. Instead she goes into the kitchen to make a cup of tea and stress-eat all of the pastries Jinsol got her and stare into space.
Forty-six minutes later there’s a pounding knock on the front door.
Hyunjin nearly spills her tea over herself; it’s long cooled and she forgot to drink it. She’s getting arrested, is her first panicked thought. Then: she’s getting robbed. Or there’s a fire and all the alarms are broken, can’t she smell the smoke?
“HYUNJIN,” comes Heejin’s voice, “I KNOW YOU’RE AWAKE, OPEN THE DOOR BEFORE YOUR NEIGHBOURS CALL THE COPS ON ME.”
Hyunjin opens the door. Heejin’s standing there in a black hoodie and a black baseball cap jammed low over her sunglasses, face mask covering her mouth.
“Um, can I come in?” Heejin says.
“How did you get here?” Hyunjin says stupidly.
“I called a cab and got off three blocks away and walked here from there, and seeing how he didn’t kick me out or overcharge me or call the reporters on me, no, I don’t think he recognized me.”
Hyunjin stares at her.
Heejin takes off her sunglasses. Her eyes are red-rimmed and bare of makeup.
“Hyunjin,” she says. “Please. Can I come in?”
Hyunjin moves aside to let her through the doorway.
Heejin’s been over several times before; somewhere along the way it stopped being weird to have her lining up her shoes by the front of Hyunjin’s door, to see her shuffling around Hyunjin’s kitchen in slippers and sprawled in Hyunjin’s beanbag chair and chasing Aeongie all around the apartment if only because Aeongie secretly loves all the attention. But watching her take off her hood and hat and face mask in Hyunjin’s living room at this hour of night—morning?—when no one else is awake feels so intimate that Hyunjin’s almost sure she’s trespassing, stumbled into someone else’s home by mistake. This doesn’t belong to me, Hyunjin thinks. But that’s her rug Heejin’s standing on, that’s her couch Heejin sinks onto, that’s the ridiculous cat tower Heejin bought for her when she was drunk online shopping at night, that’s Jeon Heejin. The one and only.
“What are you doing here?” Hyunjin says, then, “Um, do you want tea—”
“I want to stop pretending,” Heejin says, cutting her off.
A long pause.
“Good, because the tea was cold anyway,” Hyunjin hears herself say.
Heejin stares at her. “I’m serious.”
“Right,” Hyunjin says. “Quick question—have you lost your mind?”
“No,” Heejin says, looking calm as hell on Hyunjin’s couch, like she isn’t quite done rocking the foundations of Hyunjin’s entire world, not yet. “Yes? Maybe? I’m done with it all, Hyunjin, I’m done pretending. About everything. I’ve been thinking about it for ages, and letting it go in stages, and maybe I’ve ruined everything or maybe I’m finally free. And I don’t know what happens next and I’m so scared but at least I’m not hating myself every day for not being able to say what I really want to say, live how I really want to live, be who I really want to be. And I need you to tell me that everything’s going to be okay. I’m going to be okay.”
“And also I love you.”
They stare at each other for a moment. In the space of that moment Hyunjin is imagining it. All the news articles with their names in the headlines, dissecting every one of their photographs together over the years. Both of them fired; her father’s hand on her shoulder, voice placating—but you don’t really need to be a part of it anyway, right? You can do better. Jungeun’s gaze, assessing and coming up short: when was the last time you ever risked anything? A splash of cold coffee to the face. God, you’re merciless. Leaning closer on the couch, lessening the distance and taking Heejin by the shoulders and saying it back—
“Heejin, we can’t,” Hyunjin says.
Heejin stares back at her. The look on her face—slips a little, that’s all. Just for a moment. She’s so very good at this, after all. One of the best.
“I just,” Heejin says. “I just thought—ah.” Blinking a little too quickly. Her eyelashes are wet. A smile on her face. “I just thought. Okay. That’s okay—”
That’s all it takes before Hyunjin reaches out and takes her hand, and feels Heejin freeze very, very still. She looks at her, the bravest person she’s ever known.
“Sorry,” Hyunjin blurts. “I’m sorry. I could never. I can’t leave you here alone. I can’t do this to you, too.”
Heejin’s mouth opens, then closes again, like she can’t decide how to react. “What are you—what do you mean?”
It’s closer to morning than night. This will all still be here when the sun rises. In the light of day.
“Hyunjin,” Heejin says. Her face crumples. “Don’t—”
To hell with it. Hyunjin lifts her hand, lays her palm on Heejin’s cheek. “It’s real for me,” she says. “It’s always been.”
That’s it. That’s all. Heejin sags a little into Hyunjin’s touch, eyes wide. Something is happening, a strange look coming over her face. It might be amazement.
“Oh,” Heejin says, “you want me.” She’s trembling a little, in Hyunjin’s hold. “You want me,” she repeats, like a revelation, like a relief.
Hyunjin doesn’t reply. She doesn’t have the words. They’re not enough, anyway, to capture all she wants to say. All she wants. She runs her thumb over Heejin’s cheek instead, sweeping under her eye, gentle, and that action comes closer than anything she could tell her. So much—so much, she has left to tell her. Like this.
She leans in, presses a kiss to the corner of Heejin’s mouth.
Heejin reciprocates instantly, arms coming around Hyunjin’s shoulders, hooking behind Hyunjin’s neck and drawing her closer, mouth opening up and letting her in. Hyunjin responds in kind; deepens the kiss, anchors her hand in Heejin’s hair, holds on. Every touch a question: is this it? Am I? Between them the answers lighting up in flashes of heat and teeth and tongue—yes. You. Yes.
Eventually the break for air. The shared glance; the quiet laughter, releasing tension like steam. Hyunjin takes Heejin’s hand in hers, runs her fingers along the lines of her palm.
“Are you scared?” Heejin says, still so close she barely has to speak in more than a murmur, here where Hyunjin can feel Heejin’s words stirring in the air between them, Heejin’s breath against her lips.
“No,” says Hyunjin. “Not a single bit.”
The morning rising all around them. Heejin’s grin, wide and brighter than Hyunjin’s ever seen her.
“Because it’s going to be okay,” Hyunjin says. Thumbing over Heejin’s wrist, the pulse of blood under skin, leap of life and wonder. “We’re going to be okay. And you know what else?”
Veins of sunlight leak through the windowblinds, just barely, still early. Heejin isn’t looking at them. She’s looking at Hyunjin, and only Hyunjin. “What?”
“I think you already know,” Hyunjin tells her, and leans back in to press her into the back of the couch.
The sun rises; the morning comes. The day breaks, and breaks, and does a lot more besides.
After the fifth time Hyunjin looks up to give the cafe a critical once-over Heejin reaches across the table and jabs her shoulder with the handle of her spoon. “Can you chill? This is a Sulbing, not a crisis zone. And you’re not my bodyguard anymore, remember?”
Hyunjin shoots her a look. “It’s more than just a job. You should know that by now.”
“Yeah, yeah,” Heejin says. “Hey, no worries, I hear Jungeun unnie’s got nothing but glowing reviews for you, you’re moving up in the world.”
Hyunjin shoves a spoonful of bingsoo into Heejin’s mouth to shut her up. Heejin makes a great production out of swallowing and licking her lips.
“Thanks, honey,” Heejin says, coquettish smirk on her face, under the brim of her baseball cap. “You’re so sweet.”
Hyunjin has to fight the urge to glance around and make sure no one’s listening. Heejin does have a point, after all; the usually popular dessert spot is emptying out at this time of night, with half an hour to closing. There’s only a group of guys clustered around one of the larger tables, raucous in their laugher, taking up all the attention of the eagle-eyed worker behind the counter. In their secluded corner at the back of the café, Hyunjin and Heejin could be anyone at all. They could be students indulging themselves after exams; office coworkers sharing a treat; idols sneaking out from their dorm. They could be two friends catching up after not seeing each other for a long time. They could be exactly the same.
Which is when the playlist over the cafe speakers transitions into a new song. A familiar bass line; a rising wave of synths. “Oh, wow,” Heejin says, grin spreading over her face, the same time as her voice starts to sing—I FELL ASLEEP LISTENING TO YOUR VOICE AND WOKE UP IN A DREAM... “Who’s this?”
Hyunjin shrugs, spoon in her mouth. “Dunno. Some up-and-coming superstar, I think? Never heard of her.”
“Uh-huh,” Heejin says. “So if I called your phone right now it wouldn’t be your ringtone or anything.”
“Don’t you dare,” Hyunjin says very seriously.
They mostly concentrate on eating—if racing each other to every last strawberry can be called eating—for the next little while; life’s been a whirlwind lately, with Heejin’s long-awaited comeback and Hyunjin accompanying Jungeun on her European tour, and it’s nice to just let it all soak in. It being more than just one thing: the sugar, the end of summer, the date. The fact that they’re still here. A few nights ago Heejin had called Hyunjin. It’s like two AM where you are, Hyunjin said. Sorry, said Heejin, old habits die hard. I was thinking, do you want to get dessert sometime after you come back? I’ve sort of got a craving. And Hyunjin didn’t say—is that all? Is that everything? She said yes because she’d stopped listening after do you want—? and knew what Heejin was really asking anyway.
Heejin’s phone buzzes. While she’s digging it out of her purse Hyunjin takes the opportunity to finish off as much of the rest of the bingsoo as she can. She’s licking her spoon clean when Heejin gasps and thrusts her phone in Hyunjin’s face.
“Look at this!” she says.
Hyunjin goes cross-eyed trying to read. “Secret Underground Rapper Life of Famous Fairy-Dol Revealed—”
“No, no, not that one. The one below it.”
“The Untold Story of Kim Lip and Her High School Sweetheart: Official Dating Announcement Released.” Hyunjin stares at the accompanying photo, dated years ago: a pair of girls in matching school uniform, hair undyed and smiles crooked and faces round-cheeked, young. But even then you could tell the traces of who they would become, in the line of a mouth, the arch of a brow, the glint of an eye. In their hands intertwined between them.
“Did you know about this?” Heejin asks. “Was this planned?”
“No idea,” Hyunjin says, then thinks back to Jiwoo surprising Jungeun on the last date of her tour in Paris, the way Jungeun’d mysteriously disappeared for the rest of the night. The looks on their faces when they first saw each other backstage, which Hyunjin had attributed at the time to post-concert euphoria. “Hmm.”
Heejin is looking back down at her phone, a wistful sort of expression on her face. “Makes you believe anything’s possible,” she says.
Heejin and Jungeun had publicly announced their amicable breakup a couple of months ago, and all Heejin’s activities since have been strictly focused on her music. Still, Hyunjin knows they’re playing with fire. The waitress is making her rounds, politely informing the group at the next table that the café is closing shortly. Their little corner will be next, and they’ll move on and out onto the street, along the lines of shops turning their lights off for the night. And maybe someone will see them, in the dark; maybe someone will want to drag them back out into the limelight. Or maybe no one will ever know. Maybe years from now Heejin will turn to her fans who have followed her this long, this far, and tell them there’s been somebody by her side all this time—and isn’t that a thought: years from now. Years and years to come.
Hyunjin can’t protect her anymore. She can only take the jump with her, all in; share the risk and the reward. What they’ve gambled and what they’ve been given in return. Over the speakers someone is singing about a new day, bridge to final chorus. To the next song, and the next, music playing all the way home.
“It is,” Hyunjin says, and slices the last strawberry in half with her spoon, to split the sweetness between them.