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Cross My Conscience

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It’s definitely the worst day of Jinho’s life.

 

He leans his right cheek onto his hand, only to wince as the heated skin comes into contact with warm flesh. He keeps forgetting the tender patch of skin is still sensitive, barely an hour free from his mother’s slap.

 

In some ways, he’s thankful for her outright response to his request of moving to Seoul to fulfill his gaming dreams. Saved him from having to deal with the wishy-washy response of a parent beating around the bush, trying to find the best way to refuse their child.

 

Jinho’s mother has never been the type to do so, anyway – to beat around the bush. Maybe that’s where he got his hard-headedness from.

 

The game plays on and Jinho’s character stays standing in the middle of the battlefield like an idiot, completely open to any type of enemy attack and totally vulnerable. But he knows the game is a lost cause anyway. They’ve been slow to advance from the start, and now his team is on the brink of an embarrassing defeat – their opponents are simply stretching the game on for their own pleasure. He starts to get cussed at by his teammates in the chat, yet he can’t bring himself to care right now. He quickly presses the escape button, and before he can change his mind, quits the game in a moment of fury.

 

For once, his bodily functions act faster than his mind. A new pop-up message appears, and Jinho feels his heart drop faster than his finger on the left-click of the mouse.

 

You have just quit a game. You are now banned for 24 hours from StarCraft.

 

“No, no, please, no,” he groans to no one in particular before feeling something wet running down his cheeks at an alarmingly fast rate.

 

Realising what it was and consequently embarrassed, he decides to bury his hand in the crook of his arm, thinking it’d stop his tears as well, but they only come out faster. Kicked out of home, and now he’s even being shut out of the game he has given up his entire life for. If there’s one thing he hates, Jinho abhors the sour taste betrayal leaves behind.

 

“Uh… are you okay?”

 

Jinho sniffs, keeps his head down for a few moments until his hiccups have subdued. No doubt his nose and eyes are still puffy red, but he really can’t give a crap right now.

 

He looks up to see a slightly taller boy than him, stick-thin and face weighed down by the massive glasses frames he dons. His hair falls onto his forehead and nearly reaches his collar, but the boy doesn’t seem all that bothered by it, his fists clenched by his side and the only sign of him being human – as opposed to a very life-like statue – is the way he’s shifting from one foot to the other and his eyes darting around the room, landing on anything but Jinho’s face.

 

The boy reminds Jinho of the wimps back in middle school, so he calls him exactly that.

 

“What is it, wimp?”

 

Unfortunately, his pronunciation must be ten times worse while he’s crying, because the boy blinks in confusion.

 

“Uh, I don’t know what an ‘itirmb’, is. I’m sorry. I don’t think it’s a code. I’m not sure. I haven’t studied much of it.” His eyes are unfocused for a while, and the boy’s voice trails off. “But may I ask why you look so sad?”

 

Jinho shakes his head and shrugs, too spent to even try and tell the boy to go away – his tongue would just fail him again.

 

The boy hesitates, before peeking over his shoulder at the PC screen. “Is it because you’re banned from the game?”

 

Since it is partly the reason for his misery and might just get the wimp to leave him alone as quickly as possible, Jinho slowly nods.

 

“Well… um. I’m kind of good… with programs and – and codes, and everything. So it’s – I can help – you? If… you want?”

 

The second the boy finishes speaking, he lets out a heavy sigh like he’s been holding his breath the entire time, and starts to blink rapidly.

 

“Are you okay?”

 

“Huh?”

 

“Nothing,” Jinho mutters, deciding he shouldn’t take such unnecessary interest in people he doesn’t know. “But how would you help with the ban?”

 

“I can unban you by inserting a code in your account’s system. I’ve done it with my friends who play StarCraft before.”

 

Swiveling his chair around, Jinho eyes the boy skeptically, running his gaze up and down. “You’re not tricking me so you can steal my ramen, are you?”

 

The boy laughs openly, looking the most relaxed since the start of the conversation. “Of course not. You know, this PC bang has way better snacks than ramen.”

 

“Hm-Hmmm. What’s your name?”

 

“Doohee. Lee Doohee.”

 

“Well, o- okay Doohee.” Jinho finds himself making space for the boy before his brain can even protest, wiping his eyes of any remaining signs of tears. “Show me how it’s done.”

 

Doohee practically leaps at the chance, pulling up another chair and vacating the spot Jinho has just freed up. He cracks his fingers, a sudden glint settling in his eyes.

 

“It won’t take long, promise.”

 

Jinho watches Doohee’s fingers typing away at the keyboard at lightning speed – probably almost on par with his StarCraft combos. Some black screens pop up and Jinho is suddenly consumed by different coloured letters and numbers he understands zilch about, let alone try to figure out what Doohee is doing with them.

 

And just as quick as it has started, the windows close in on themselves and StarCraft’s homepage comes into view – everything has ended.

 

“You’re free to play again,” Doohee grins, letting go of the mouse and wiping the perspiration on his hand on his jeans. “Now you can ragequit anytime you want. If you need me to unban you again, I can – well. Maybe I can give you my address or –“

 

“I’ll be here all the time,” Jinho mutters, hoping Doohee doesn’t ask why because Jinho really doesn’t want to go into details about how he got kicked out.

 

Thankfully, Doohee pauses, seems to ponder over this before replying, “Alright then. It’ll be easier for me to assist you if ever need be. Until then…”

 

“Jinho. Hong Jinho.”

 

Kong Jinho?”

 

Jinho huffs in frustration, and is about to correct Doohee when he laughs.

 

“I heard you the first time, don’t worry. You don’t have to repeat it.” Doohee gives him a nervous, small wave. “See you, then.”

 

Before Doohee gets to walk away, Jinho calls him back.

 

“Um,” he stammers, seeing Doohee’s expectant face. “You… you better show me the snacks that taste better than ramen.”

 

Doohee laughs again, a contagious sound that makes Jongin’s own mouth curve into a smile. He nods in affirmation before disappearing round the door of the PC Bang like thin air, probably sprinting off to the end of the street.

 

Jinho turns back to his computer and turns on a Lim Chang Jung song. He’s not about to sleep on a loss, and it’s only 7pm anyway.

 

He clicks on Create A New Game.

 

 

-

 

 

Jinho rotates his shoulders once again, still waiting for his game to load up. Spending the night on a swivel chair has not been his best sleepover experience as the space provided him with next to no choice for comfortable sleeping positions. But the owner of the PC Bang had been kind enough to let him sleep there to avoid having to spend the night outside, not even accepting what remains of his 100 free hours in the PC Bang as a repayment – Jinho is, after all, their most frequent customer.

 

The booth Jinho currently sits at hasn’t seen a rotation of occupier for ages either. Even when he leaves to drop by the grocery next door for another cup of ramen – and, if he feels spoilt, a bottle of water – nobody ever vacates his booth. It seems that it’s an unspoken, in that PC Bang, that the space belongs to Hong Jinho, the consecutive winner of StarCraft tournaments.

 

It must look a bit pathetic to people, the way the long-standing champion is scarfing down instant noodles like he hasn’t seen food in two years. Looks have been thrown his way, but Jinho doesn’t remember keeping an ‘image’ being a part of the package on his noble quest to become a pro-gamer. So he happily wolfs down his cheap food anyway.

 

“Eat slowly. You’ll enjoy it more that way.”

 

Jinho huffs, putting down his chopsticks impatiently. He’s about to tell the person to go away when he meets Doohee’s passive face, his hand coming up to nudge his glasses higher up his nose bridge.

 

“You still haven’t told me which snacks are better than this,” he gestures to the cup ramen.

 

Doohee stares back at him, his face not changing. He simply blinks, then says quietly, “Can you repeat what you said?” At Jinho’s confused face, he continues embarrassedly, still averting Jinho’s eye contact, “you kind of spoke really fast.”

 

“I’ll repeat it,” says Jinho slowly, “if you try and look at me in the eyes when you’re talking.”

 

Not many people have ever told Doohee outright, it seems, about his tendency to avoid direct eye contact, because the second Jinho says it Doohee bites on his bottom lip and ducks his head sheepishly.

 

“Okay. You don’t have to repeat it, then.”

 

Jinho could’ve left the conversation at that. Could’ve made up some excuse to get Doohee to leave him with his game alone in peace, or maybe proffered a final sentence that seals their small chat off with an air of finality. Jinho could do that – he might have a short tongue, but he can be good with words when he wants to. After all, winning people over with words is exactly like trying to win a game – there’s always a strategy.

 

So he surprises himself when he pulls up another chair beside his and nods at the empty seat. “Want to watch me play a game?”

 

Doohee lowers himself onto the plush chair slowly, like he’s unsure of Jinho’s motives, but the game starting up on the screen seems to pique his interest enough. “Are you any good at it?”

 

Jinho smirks at the question. “This time, you watch and learn.”

 

Once the game has started, Jinho forgets that he’s supposed to impress Doohee – that there’s even an audience watching his plays. It’s always like this, whether he’s playing at home or in the regional matches he practically dominates in. The crowd’s cries of encouragement and, at times, profanities, never deter him in the slightest. His teammates have pointed this out with a slight twinge of envy in their voices, saying Jinho should really be thankful he could single out his concentration without even trying.

 

Fingers flying across the keyboard and clicking the mouse relentlessly comes as natural as breathing to Jinho now. He’s so absorbed in matching his colony to his enemy’s stronger, but slower developments. This is why he likes playing the Zergs – this way, he’s able to produce infrastructures faster and cheaper. All he needs to do is keep up the pace he’s building them at, and he’ll succeed. In many ways, he feels like the game is the only single entity that understands how Jinho’s mind processes information; impulsively, and quickly.

 

His enemy is on the brink of being overwhelmed and all Jinho needs to do is keep the pressure he has on them. He amps his speed up, spamming the keyboard buttons until he feels a cramp coming and suddenly he feels a tap on his shoulder – why now out of all the timings –

 

“Why don’t you play this species?” Doohee’s small voice comes, and a finger suddenly points at the screen, obstructing Jinho’s view. “Their machinery and technology seems to be more robust.”

 

The sound of enemies attacking his colony and destroying his resources starts to intensify. Jinho panics, desperately swaying to and fro to see between Doohee’s hand.

 

“Wait – Doohee – move your hand, please –“

 

“And yours seem to be more frail, so you have to keep rebuilding them since you rely so much on quantity –“

 

“Yes, I know – but Doohee, please – wait –“

 

“Don’t you think that gets a little tiring?”

 

Almost as quick as Jinho had dominated the game, his colony disappears in a matter of seconds, and the screen blacks out for a moment before moving off to the screen Jinho hates the most.

 

Defeat!

 

“Noooooo,” Jinho groans, not even daring to see the scores because there are only two alternatives – either very close, or very far apart. And neither sound particularly enticing at the moment.

 

He mournfully closes the window, before slowly turning to Doohee beside him, who still has his hand on the screen with a stunned expression on his face.

 

“Did I just… The game… What did I –“

 

“This, Doohee,” Jinho says, dispirited, “Is what you call a strategy. You have good things and bad things about each species, and you make those negatives work. You strategise.” Jinho puts emphasis on the word.

 

Only realising his mistake, Doohee quickly retracts his hand from the screen and scrunches up his face in shame. “Oh my god – I’m so sorry, I didn’t know, I was just trying to help. Well, obviously it didn’t help, but I mean –“

 

Jinho sighs, reaching over to pat his shoulder. The act startles Doohee, who jolts out of his seat a little, but Jinho just shrugs. “Nah. No big deal. Not like it was a serious competition or anything.” When Doohee is about to reply, Jinho interrupts, “you can make up for it by getting me some snacks.”

 

The offer still doesn’t thoroughly convince Doohee of his innocence. “Are you sure? I mean, that loss could have been worth than a few snacks…”

 

“Nah, I can always redeem my pride later on. They were noobs anyway.” Jinho laughs, thinking a little opponent-shaming can help ease the guilt in Doohee’s face.

 

It seems to work because Doohee finally nods, pushing back his chair. “Okay then. I’ll go to the shop and get you some… stuff.”

 

“No, no,” Jinho gets up from his own chair and stretches his arms out. “We’re going together.”

 

Doohee shrugs with an air of nonchalance, but a small smile plays across his lips. “If it suits you.”

 

 

-

 

 

“I don’t know if you’ve ever felt like this, but… sometimes I feel like studying really isn’t my kind of thing.” Jinho chews on the seasoned laver. It really does taste better than ramen. “And not just in the I-hate-studying kind of way. I really think I’m not meant to excel in… well, anything academic.”

 

“Same.” Doohee reaches around the booth for another piece of snack without looking away from his screen. “It’s weird.”

 

“Why do you think it’s weird?”

 

After spending more time with Doohee, Jinho feels an odd sense of attachment to the boy. He’s not the most interesting person, and is certainly not the most talkative, but he comes to Jinho like a series of puzzles. Solving riddles is Jinho’s second nature – and hence, so does solving Doohee.

 

By now, he knows a little bit more about Doohee’s mannerisms – enough to know that the boy needs prompting in conversations. His answers are usually vague and short; the perfect recipe for awkward silences, leaving conversations hanging by a lilt. Jinho intends to gently steer him in the right directions, sort of like a fisherman steering his boat against the waves.

 

“Hmm,” Jinho can picture Doohee’s thinking face. “It feels weird because everyone else at school is bending over backwards trying to outdo each other in exams. And then there’s me… just sitting and scribbling possible codes onto a piece of paper.”

 

Jinho chuckles, imagining Doohee in the corner of his classroom, head ducked and pencil in hand. A very fitting image, he decides.

 

“That really sounds like you.”

 

“Uh. Thanks, I guess.”

 

“Do your parents get on your nerves about it?”

 

“Not really,” Doohee replies airily. “My parents – how do I put this? My parents don’t come from an, uh, academic background?” The sound of a chair creaking can be heard. “So they never really pester me about grades. I used to be really good in middle school though.”

 

“Really?”

 

“Yeah. But for some reason, subjects in high school just don’t interest me anymore.” Doohee pokes his head over the booth, staring at the side of Jinho’s face. “What about you?”

 

“Me?”

 

“Mmm,” Doohee says as he stares at Jinho’s gameplay. “Do you get nagged a lot about school?”

 

“My mother, yeah.” Jinho mutters. “She’s the type to bring my weak performance in school as a counterargument against everything.”

 

Doohee laughs. “Mums.”

 

“Yeah. I know right?”

 

They quickly get reabsorbed into their own digital world – Jinho back to his StarCraft universe and Doohee fixated on the black screen of the programming software. Before long, customers from the lunch rush start pouring in – something Jinho still doesn’t understand. Do people really take time off their jobs to play at some random PC Bangs? Whatever the reason, soon the place is teeming with not just adults, but students who seem to have skipped class for a few stolen minutes in front of a PC. Jinho doesn’t blame them.

 

He’s in the middle of completely destroying his opponent’s team when he hears a series of laughter get closer, finally stopping by the booth right beside him.

 

“Hey, twink, what the hell do you think you’re doing?”

 

Jinho’s usually impenetrable concentration is broken the moment he hears Doohee stuttering in reply.

 

“I’m – I’m inserting codes. To, you know – tweak softwares and servers here and there.”

 

“Pay them no attention,” hisses out Jinho, but his whisper is drowned out by the sound of more boisterous laughter.

 

He eyes the four boys – highschoolers like he is – who have now crowded around Doohee’s booth, cornering him like a pack of hyenas. Doohee simply blinks furiously at his screen, trying hard not to cave in.

 

“Codes, huh? You think this is some kind of a game?”

 

“Well, uh, not exactly – that’s why I’m not playing with them, I’m simply inserting –“

 

“Don’t talk back, twink.” The biggest boy knocks the mouse out of Doohee’s hand, who jumps in his chair in alarm. “This is a PC Bang.”

 

“I know that.”

 

Another boy steps up, looking like he’s about to land a punch on Doohee’s jaw – but the older boys holds him back before Jinho could react, shaking his head.

 

“Then you should know what they’re for.”

 

When Doohee looks up Jinho has to hold back an excited, albeit a little horrified, cry – because Doohee is staring right into the bully’s eyes.

 

“To use a PC when you don’t have one?”

 

“No,” the bully enunciates every syllable. “This PC Bang is only for StarCraft players. Players who are training for the next regional tournament – just like us. So,” the boy kicks Doohee’s swivel chair back until he’s rolling a good distance away from his booth. Jinho sees him gulp. “Would you rather we show you the way out, or you show yourself?”

 

“He’s smart enough to know where the exit is,” Jinho finds himself speaking before he could think twice about abandoning his game. “And he’s also smart enough to know he doesn’t have to go there.”

 

“And who are you?”

 

“Hong Jinho.”

 

A gasp comes from within the boy’s group of friends, followed by a series of panicked whispers. Jinho just manages to catch frightened snippets of: “He’s the ‘YellOw’ everyone keeps talking about” and “He’s been unbeatable so far.”

 

“Yep. That’s me,” replies Jinho, rolling his shoulders back. It’s about time he gets some recognition for his hard work and contribution to the game. “And I don’t appreciate you messing with my friend here.”

 

“So you’re the long-standing champion, huh?” The boy eyes Jinho up and down. “Huh. For such a legend, you don’t look like much.”

 

“But you admit I’m a legend.” Jinho teases, watching in glee as the boy fumes. He definitely doesn’t mind the topic of conversation being steered his way.

 

“Since you want to protect the twink here, why don’t we have a little match?”

 

“Oooh, confident, are we?”

 

“Loser’s got to buy the winner a free 10-hour voucher and scram.”

 

Jinho frowns at this bet – the chances of him losing are pretty low, but he also has no money. If the worst case scenario happens, then he’d have no way of purchasing the voucher.

 

There’s a tug on Jinho’s sleeve. “You don’t have to do this,” whispers Doohee. But his pitiful request only solidifies Jinho’s decision for him.

 

“Okay,” he says resolutely. He offers his right hand as the boy in front of him slowly breaks out into a sly grin. “You’ve got yourself a deal.”

 

 

-

 

 

Jinho ends up losing the game.

 

He doesn’t know how it happened because he had everything in place perfectly; his strategy was flawless, he was playing in his comfort zone and he had a plan not to just win, but to completely humiliate Doohee’s bully to the ends of the world. He voices this out, ranting incessantly to a quiet Doohee as they walk down the street of the PC Bang, kicking at dropped garbage as they go.

 

“How did he beat me? Was his play better than mine? Or did I use the wrong strategy? No, I used the exact same one I usually use when going against…”

 

“Against who?” Doohee asks, voice lilting in question. “Against weaker opponents? Jinho, I think you kind of underestimated him.”

 

“I didn’t! Maybe I let my guard down a little, but that doesn’t mean –” At Doohee’s raised eyebrow, Jinho gives in and sighs in defeat. He whines, kicking at another innocent pebble. “You make it sound almost villainous.”

 

“Well, not to that extent – but it’s never good to underestimate your enemies, regardless of the situation.”

 

Hearing this, and thinking back to how Doohee had attempted to stand up for himself back in the PC Bang without even expecting Jinho for help makes Jinho realise that he has a newfound respect for the boy, despite his first impressions.

 

“Sorry for calling you a wimp. That first day we met,” Jinho clears his throat, embarrassed.

 

Doohee looks surprised – but pleasantly so. He smiles. “It’s okay. I’m used to it. But,” he hesitates, “did you really mean what you said back then?”

 

“Which part?”

 

Doohee blinks furiously behind his glasses. “The part where you called me your friend.”

 

Doohee’s hesitation and uncertainty comes off as amusing to Jinho – who can’t, for the love of everything digital, think of why anyone would hate Doohee – and he finds himself throwing an arm across Doohee’s shoulders. He shakes the slightly taller boy a little, trying to get him to relax.

 

“Of course. That’s what we are, right?”

 

“Even if I got us kicked out of the PC Bang you always go to?”

 

Jinho shrugs nonchalantly. “It’s not the only PC Bang around. We can always find another one.”

 

A smile spreads across Doohee’s lips, and he ducks his head down even more. “Okay.”

 

“Lim Yohwan,” Jinho grits his teeth, fists clenching into tight balls. “I’ll get him one day.”

 

 

-

 

 

They end up in another PC Bang about five minutes’ walk from the one they’ve been ejected from – which Jinho is thankful for.

 

“I don’t like to waste time by getting from one place to another,” he explains to Doohee. “That’s not very efficient practice.”

 

Of course, being pretty much alienated from his mother means that Jinho has been living off of his free PC Bang hours vouchers and the kindness of the owner – and migrating to a new setting initially has Doohee brainstorming for ways to earn money for Jinho on the way there, with activities ranging from street performing to attempting stuns in mainstream Hollywood action movies.

 

But the dilemma has proven to be unnecessary, because at the mention of ‘Hong Jinho’, the PC Bang owner has lit up cheerfully and ushered the two inside, saying they could spend as much time at the place and, if they needed anything, to simply ‘wave and demand’.

 

“You must have made a hell of a name for yourself,” marvels Doohee, who’s busy inspecting the computer in front of him. “You’re practically a god.”

 

“Only around this area,” shrugs Jinho, although he can’t help but feel a sense of pride swelling in his chest.

 

“And don’t tell the owner of the previous PC Bang but,” Doohee whispers, “they have better PCs here.”

 

They stay up well into the night, and the owner even entrusts the two with the place long after he retires to his bed upstairs. Jinho means to play right up until Doohee decides to call it a day (even though it’s far past 12AM) despite the games being pretty monotonous and boring by now.

 

Yet his friend makes no sign to move, glued to his seat and PC like he’s part of the consoles.

 

“Hey,” rasps Jinho out sleepily. “When are you going to go home?”

 

A brief moment of silence passes before Doohee replies quietly, “I don’t really feel like going home today.”

 

“Oh,” Jinho says, a little confused. But he knows he shouldn’t force Doohee to divulge any further. “Well. Okay then. We can just pull up a few more chairs and –“

 

“Hey, Jinho,” Doohee spins his chair around, facing him and looking right into his eyes. His gaze falters a few times, but he holds on determinedly. “Were you really crying because you were banned from the game?”

 

Jinho sighs. Not this again. He considers lying to Doohee, just so he doesn’t have to recount that dreadful day and relive it all over again – but one look at Doohee’s expectant face and Jinho knows he can’t lie to his friend. Not now, and probably never.

 

“Well, I guess it was part of the reason why.”

 

“But it wasn’t the main reason, right? There was something else?”

 

“You asked a question, let me answer,” chides Jinho. “But yeah, you’re right. I was frustrated that day at school, because they gave back our subject marks – no, I actually did really well. But that’s when I knew I didn’t enjoy studying, and I had something else I wanted to do. I wasn’t really –“

 

“I’m sorry,” interrupts Doohee quietly, “but can you please talk a bit slower?”

 

Jinho sighs, but complies with his request. “I wasn’t really thinking straight when I told my mum I wanted to go to Seoul to pursue my gaming career. It’s not exactly a secret in the household, me being a gamer – not with me winning tournaments often. I was frustrated and confused, and I wanted reassurance.” At this, Jinho laughs. “Don’t ask me why I thought my mum would give me any. The second she heard that, she slapped me right across the cheek.”

 

Doohee winces when Jinho mimics the motion, making a loud clapping sound with his other hand. He rubs his right cheek, even though the physical pain has long since gone. “She screamed at me, said ‘you want to go all the way to Seoul just to play games?’ She scared my little brother, but she practically traumatised me. I didn’t expect such a harsh response, so when she told me to get out of the house if I don’t change my mind soon I did exactly that.” Jinho sighs. “So I wasn’t having the best of days, you see.”

 

Doohee looks like he’s trying to absorb everything as he nods silently, staring at the spot where Jinho is tapping his shoe onto the ground repeatedly.

 

“Do you hate your mum?”

 

“Of course not. I mean, what else would you do?” Jinho laughs mirthlessly, looking into Doohee’s eyes sadly. His smile is harder to keep up this time. “What else would you do when your eldest son tells you he’ll be dropping out of school to become a pro-gamer?”

 

 

-

 

 

Honestly, regional tournaments are no big deal for Jinho. Most of the participants are newbies, only dipping their toes into the nature of the game. Hence, their strategies are usually still in their simplest forms – easy to see through and easy to sabotage. Jinho uses his winnings to cover his living necessities; anything from free hours in the PC Bang to packs of ramyun, and once even a small puppy from a sponsored pet shop. Jinho declines this particular prize – he can barely take care of himself, let alone another breathing, living thing.

 

With the frequency of his matches increasing, he sees less of Doohee in return. Although the hectic schedule isn’t a one-sided affair – Doohee still has school, after all – Jinho feels bad all the same. He’s not sure what Doohee is really like at school, but from what he’s been told the boy doesn’t have many friends either.

 

 

-

 

 

 

This particular regional tournament has been sponsored by a nearby noraebang, and upon winning the tournament – it was actually a close call this time – Jinho gets two free tickets for a night of karaoke.

 

Jinho scratches his head, confused as to who he should invite. Of course Jinho has a few friends from school, but he doesn’t really want to call up any of them right now. Seeing them would just remind him of the obligations he’s been avoiding. His head is still a web of thoughts and questions as he walks through the PC Bang doors, where Doohee sits at a nearby computer. He waves as soon as he sees Jinho.

 

“Hey! Heard you won – again. Not even a surprise anymore. Congrats!”

 

Jinho stops short. Of course. How could he forget.

 

“Thanks.” Lifting his hand up, he waves the two tickets in the air. “How about we go celebrate?”

 

“What are those?”

 

Jinho gives him a pained smile. “Something I hope we can enjoy together.”

 

 

-

 

 

The thing with Jinho is not that he’s antisocial to the point of awkwardness – he just doesn’t sing very often. Almost never, if you don’t count the short imitations of opera singers he sometimes breaks out into during classes. He feels slightly uncomfortable when asking for a room in the noraebang – especially as they’re going as just two skimpy teenage boys – but he manages to pull through it, smiling tightly all the way.

 

Doohee is a completely different story. He completely freezes over as soon as they step into the threshold of the building, and doesn’t even answer when asked short questions by the receptionist, forcing Jinho to answer for him instead. He walks like he’s trying to pick up after himself on the way to the room, and even jogs a little when their room is pointed out like he’s been waiting to escape the presence of another human being.

 

“Just relax, Doohee, this is supposed to be fun.” Jinho means it to come off as a chiding, but he ends up sounding like he’s trying to convince himself.

 

“I’ve never been to a noraebang before,” Doohee mutters. “Aren’t you supposed to go as a group, though?”

 

“What’s wrong with it just being the two of us?”

 

Doohee shifts in his seat. “It’s awkward…”

 

“Well, the organisers only provided two tickets as the prize. Maybe they were meaning to give it to a couple or something.”

 

The silence that follows is so thick that it makes Jinho swallow, and he glances back from where he’s picking out a song to see Doohee with his fingers on his temples.

 

“You’re not helping the situation…”

 

“Okay, okay, sorry. Let’s just – let’s just get this over with, okay?”

 

Jinho quickly punches the number into the machine, waiting for the screen to light up. He attempts to spin the microphone in his hand like he usually does with pencils, but the size obviously doesn’t accommodate such activities as it promptly falls to the ground.

 

“What song did you pick?” Doohee asks. “A Lim Chung Jung song?”

 

Jinho whips his head around. “How do you know I like him?”

 

“You have a playlist you always open whenever you’re playing a game. There seems to be an awful lot of his songs there,” Doohee shrugs, a glint of pride in his eyes.

 

“Well, yeah. It’s called ‘I Know’. It’s a beautiful song.” Jinho lifts the microphone up and clears his throat. “Listen.”

 

 

-

 

 

“I think my eardrums are damaged now.” Doohee taps on the side of his head.

 

“Whaaat—you sayinn Toohey?”

 

“Yup. They’re definitely damaged.” Doohee sighs, nudging Jinho who’s draped over his shoulders. “You really shouldn’t have accepted that drink. You’re inexperienced and, moreover, underaged.”

 

“Live a liiiitlee,” Jinho waves his arms around. “Reaaaach for your dreaaams, the sky’s the limit – that’s what they say right?”

 

“Mhmm.”

 

“Well it’s a lie.” Jinho’s arm movements start to intensify, his voice growing in volume by the moment. “It’s a damn lie – meant to give false hopes to children, adults, grandparents, cats, dogs…”

 

Doohee gives him a sidelong glance. “Why do you think so?”

 

“’Cause if ‘twas true, then my limit wouldn’t be just this damn neighbourhood.” Jinho’s voice quivers, his fists clenching. “It’s unfair – unfair that I’m stuck here.”

 

Doohee pulls the drunk Jinho closer and racks his brain for an answer, even if Jinho would forget this whole conversation by morning.

 

“There’s always a way. Maybe you’ll have to fight for it, use a strategy. Just like a game.” Doohee is panting now, Jinho’s weight heavy on his shoulders. “I mean, you don’t know where the StarCraft universe ends right? Then how would you know where this one ends?”

 

For a while all Doohee can hear is the regular breathing on his neck, and soon he figures Jinho must have fallen asleep. He doesn’t bother checking though, because his back is starting to ache and he just wants to get to the PC Bang as soon as possible.

 

“Thanks for a fun night, though, friend,” he whispers to Jinho anyway, just for the sake of it.

 

 

-

 

 

“I got accepted into Seoul University.”

 

Jinho chokes on his hot tea, sputtering across the PC screen. He spins his chair around to eye Doohee’s slightly hunched form, looking like he’s trying very hard to drown himself in his uniform blazer. A spark ignites inside of Jinho, very much like the feeling of betrayal once again.

 

“What? You told me you felt like studying wasn’t for you!”

 

“Jinho, that was nearly a year ago,” sighs Doohee exasperatedly, and for a moment this little fact surprises Jinho.

 

Frankly, he can’t believe it’s been almost a year since they met, almost a year since Jinho has been kicked out of home – which makes it about almost 8 months since he has made up with his mother. But it makes sense; Jinho has been earning a lot from tournaments, winning here and there and slowly accumulating a pretty impressive amount of savings.

 

“How could you have made up for the slacking off in a year, though?”

 

“I studied like I was about to die the next day, that’s how!” This is the first time Jinho has seen Doohee raising his voice to anyone – and truthfully, it scares Jinho a little.

 

Doohee huffs, blowing a piece of fringe out of his eyes and says in a much quieter voice, “You know, I thought you’d actually be at least a bit excited for me. It wasn’t easy getting in.”

 

And this hits Jinho right in the chest, because there is absolutely no fault in what Doohee is saying. He’s suddenly overcome with a wave of guilt. Is he not Doohee’s closest friend? Possibly his only friend? Why couldn’t have Jinho’s reaction been akin to pleasantly surprised and supportive? Doohee has decided to become more studious. What’s so wrong about that? If anything, Jinho should be incredibly proud of him. Seoul Univesity is the most prestigious in the whole country, and it must have been hell trying to get in.

 

“I’m sorry,” Jinho says finally. “I didn’t even say congratulations. I’m a horrible friend – I’m so, so, sorry –“

 

“No, don’t, I’m,” Doohee takes a deep breath. “It’s fine, I should be saying sorry. I shouldn’t have demanded anything.”

 

“It’s not even demanding because it’s common sense. I’m sorry, I really don’t know where my head is right now.”

 

Doohee smiles wryly at Jinho, who seems to be pulling at the hair strands from his scalp.

 

“Congratulations. Seriously, you’re – you’re amazing. Are you even for real?” Jinho laughs, feeling his head clear a little. “Half a year of studying and you get into Seoul University. I’m jealous.”

 

“I’ve been a geek my whole life, to be honest,” Dohee shrugs. “I kind of just had that fluke of bad decisions one time. Rebellious days.”

 

“And you met me. What a coincidence,” Jinho grins. “And don’t think your rebellious days are over. You’ll find yourself as the leader of some university gang before you know it.”

 

“Do university gangs even exist? It’s not high school anymore.”

 

“Who knows?”

 

With his shoulders lowered, Doohee looks visibly more relaxed. “Thanks. How about we play a game to celebrate?”

 

Jinho lifts an eyebrow. “And you know how to play since…?”

 

“My friend showed me the basics of the game. I can only play at an amateur level, of course. So go easy on me, champ.”

 

“You have friends other than me?” Jinho jokes, laughing as Doohee slaps him lightly across his shoulder. He presses a few keys on the keyboard to bring the PC back to life. “You got it.”

 

 

-

 

 

“There’s a reason why I chose to go to Seoul University, you know.”

 

“Other than it being the best university in the country?”

 

“Mhmm.”

 

“What is it?”

 

“Remember you said you’d have to move to Seoul to start your career as a pro-gamer? Well, I don’t know. I just thought no 19-year-old should try to restart their whole life all alone.”

 

 

-

 

 

For the next few weeks Jinho does something he has barely done in his entire life; he works his ass off.

 

On a day-to-day basis, Jinho would simply work his brain until it practically screams surrender, but this time he figures he should get off of the PC Bang swivel chair and do something for once. Something that would change not only his, but possibly Doohee’s life as well.

 

The fruits of his labour appear about three days before Doohee is scheduled to move out of his small apartment, and Jinho practically barges straight into Doohee’s living room without so much as a knock – he knows Doohee would be alone anyway.

 

Doohee stops mid-way of placing his stack of books into a small box and stares wide-eyed at Jinho panting in the doorway.

 

“What the –“

 

“Doohee,” Jinho interrupts, holding up the piece of paper, which unfortunately has a font too small for Doohee to read from this distance. “I did it.”

 

“What did you do?”

 

Jinho beams. “I got scouted by KT Rolster.”

 

Doohee gasps, dropping the books in his hands and scrambling to take a look at the paper. “No way. KT Rolster?”

 

“Yes!” Whooped Jinho. “I did it! I’m moving to Seoul, Doohee – I can escape this hell of a school! We can be roommates, housemates – whatever! And everyone better keep an eye out,” Jinho hops onto one of Doohee’s sofa and starts jumping, not having even a modicum of embarrassment. “Because this little guy is going to take over Seoul! And – and the StarCraft universe!”

 

To his surprise, Doohee steps up beside Jinho and starts hopping as well, cheeks flushed a pleasant shade of pink. He bellows at the top of his voice, “And Yellow will have his awesome sidekick Doohee734 with him, to cement his place as the ‘Storm Zerg’! No Protoss or Terrans would be able to beat him!”

 

“Yeah! That’s right!”

 

They yell and cheer and shout incoherently as they continue the sabotage of Doohee’s only sofa, elated by the thought of sharing a future together despite the converging paths. Even when the objectives they’re working towards are by no means common, the two best friends end up breathless just at the prospect of living alone in a big city like Seoul anyway.

 

“This feels surreal,” whispers Jinho once they’re sprawled across the ground. It has taken them a good five mutes of Sofa Mutilating before they’re drained of their energy, exhaustion finally taking over.

 

“I know,” Doohee whispers back. “It’s going to be a challenge.”

 

“Have you ever turned a challenge down, though?” Jinho says, grinning sideways, and Doohee heaves a satisfied sigh.

 

“You’re right. Neither of us has.”

 

“It’s almost as if we always go look for them instead.”

 

“That was super poetic. What a visionary.” Doohee says, and Jinho laughs in reply.

 

Doohee tells Jinho that his parents and siblings have all gone to his grandparents’ for the weekend, leaving him behind so he could finish his packing before his departure. At Doohee’s persistent whining, Jinho agrees to spend the night, and they lay side by side in Doohee’s living room, wrapped comfortably in their own futons.

 

Just before Jinho manages to slip into a state of unconsciousness, Doohee’s words pull him back in.

 

“And that, Jinho,” Doohee whispers, voice barely audible, “is how a ‘supportive friend’ should act.”

 

Jinho elbows Doohee in the ribs and huffs in annoyance when he hears a cackle in reply, but he doesn’t forget to whisper a goodnight before they both fall asleep.

 

 

-

 

(Many years later.)

 

 

“Who did you invite?”

 

Heechul looks up from his modest cup of soju with a look of faux-confusion.

 

Jinho and Doohee had met Heechul a few months ago through League of Legends, a venture Doohee had forced Jinho into after his abrupt retirement from the world of StarCraft. After meeting each other in real life, the friendship had kicked off seamlessly albeit its rather unconventional start.

 

“What?” Heechul rolls his eyes. “You told me you don’t hold any grudges against him anymore.”

 

“I was being polite – of course I still hold grudges against Lim Yohwan,” groans Jinho, forehead landing on the table with a dull thud.

 

“Oh, come on. 22 matches, that’s all there is to it – get over yourself.”

 

“That’s insensitive to say as a fellow gamer,” murmurs Jinho.

 

Doohee clears his throat, blinking rapidly. He’s still not used to the new contact lenses he purchased in lieu of his usual specs. “Besides, he and Yohwan go way back. I mean, way before Jinho was even a pro-gamer. Not unusual that he’s still sour about a few…things.”

 

At this, Heechul’s eyebrows shoot up behind his neatly-cut fringe, a sign that he’s ready to hear some juicy gossip. “Really now? And you’ve been hiding this from me all this time?”

 

“Well…” Doohee’s about to bullshit his way out of recounting their whole childhood encounter when someone walks into the bar, his coat a little on the short side for his tall stature.

 

“Yohwan hyung!” Heechul greets enthusiastically at the sight of him, scooting up the bench to make space.

 

“Sorry I’m late. Got caught up with my girlfriend – as usual.”

 

Jinho laughs bitterly. Something else Yohwan has one-up over him.

 

“Not a problem.” Heechul’s tone sounds ominous, and before Jinho could send him body-language signals, he sing-songs, “So, Doohee here told me you and Jinho go way back. Mind telling me how that happened?”

 

Simultaneously, Jinho and Doohee groan.

 

“Time to get drunk,” says Jinho mournfully, raising his cup in Doohee’s direction, “in hopes that we forget everything in the morning.”

 

“Let’s.”