Hyerim crosses her legs and leans back as Zhou Mi flails his body in what is a very odd interpretation of the Tell Me dance and sings Sohee’s parts with much aplomb. Beside her Jia is nursing a glass of bright blue liquid with obvious alcoholic properties, clearly wanting to bolt but staying because Zhou Mi is one of her closest friends, and just leaving is a show of disrespect to the deep and meaningful bond they share. Just beyond her Chanyeol has a tambourine in hand, listening to whatever Fei is saying intently.
“I want you to know that I hate all of you,” she leans over to Jia and whispers, “all of you.”
“What, because Donghae oppa invited himself?” Jia whispers back. Hyerim glances over to where Donghae is, laughing and singing along simultaneously, and turns back to glare at Jia, who visibly wilters. At least it works on Jia, she thinks. “I’m sorry!”
“Stop playing dumb,” she growls a little, “if Zhou Mi oppa is just going to hog the mic for the entire night, I’m leaving.”
“No no no, don’t go!” Jia grabs at her arm and Hyerim waits as she kicks at Zhou Mi when the song ends. “Guys, we should totally have a duet up next.”
Donghae hoots in approval, and Zhou Mi, though not looking very delighted at the prospect of putting his microphone down, passes the remote control over. Jia busies herself with flipping through the song system, and Hyerim takes her phone out to scroll through social media again. It’s become more and more of a habit, reading and not posting anything. A bit like stalking, really, except she’s creeping on her own virtual existence and waiting to see if anyone still hates her like they used to—sometimes, sometimes not.
“I’ll do it!” she hears Chanyeol volunteer when she’s nearing the end of her Instagram timeline, and looks up to find Sunmi’s face staring at her on the television screen. It’s a very familiar looking music video, and as soon as the first line drops, everyone starts laughing. Not like he’s doing a bad job or anything, Hyerim thinks, but Chanyeol’s lowered the key of the song so much that she thinks Sunmi may cry if she were here. His singing is decent for a rapper, and the fact that it’s so deep makes it a strangely attractive cover. Hyerim almost starts singing along when Jia stuffs the other microphone into her hand.
“What?” She hisses and Jia motions for her to start rapping. Hyerim glances back at the TV screen and she has about three seconds before the rap portion starts. It’s now or never, and Hyerim mentally curses the entire world, apologises for it, then begins to rap. She’s covered this part before, mainly because Yubin thought her voice was more suitable, and she knows all the lyrics by heart. But it’s still weird, mostly because Chanyeol keeps turning around to look at her and thinking that she can’t see him do that.
“Go Hyerim!” Fei yells, and Chanyeol misses the first beat of Sunmi’s next line. Hyerim blinks at him, and realises belatedly that his ears are so, so red. Well. He wasn’t like that when they were doing the photoshoot and in closer proximity than they are now, with a huge space between the couch and the TV where he’s stationed in front of. Hell, she even had her midriff exposed then, and she’s only wearing an oversized T-shirt and cardigan now. He should have picked a better time to blush, Hyerim thinks, at least when she knows she’s inspiring that sort of blood rush.
They get a dismal score of 75, and Chanyeol turns around so sadly that she for a moment sees their family dog in him, like whenever they deny him ultra-fat pieces of bacon and his ears fold downwards in sheer, utter grief. He troops back to his place, but Jia has already scooted over to where Fei is, still clutching her glass of bright blue booze. So he turns to her, and Hyerim stares at him for a brief moment, before proffering a hand to let him hi-five.
“Thanks,” he does it with so much enthusiasm Hyerim thinks for a moment that this is how their family dog looks like when he does get to eat those bacon strips, “I usually do better, though.”
“Jongdae says not,” she tells him honestly and his imaginary dog ears fold downwards again. Hyerim kind of feels bad, but flirting has never been much of a forte for her. Neither is trusting a member of the biggest boy band around these days. Trust issues she has, like Sunye likes to tell her, but Hyerim thinks it’s always good, always better to be cautious. Especially around kids like Chanyeol. Never before has he have to wade through vicious comments from fans in his life. Hyerim’s been there, done that.
“Jongdae can’t rap,” he says with disdain, and Hyerim finds his expression so funny that she almost laughs. She stops herself in time, though, but not quick enough because he sees it and gives her a little knowing smile. Hyerim has to concentrate very hard not to return it. “I know because he tried and our producer told him to stop.”
“Of course he did,” Hyerim says and picks up her phone when it vibrates. It’s a message from Sohee in their Wonder Girls group chat, and she idly reads through it before going back to Instagram. She gets through a few pictures before she realises that Chanyeol is looking over her shoulder, and she’s not pissed at all.
“We should follow each other,” he grins at her and then the loudest alarm starts going off in Hyerim’s head. “I’ll do it now.”
“Wa—” She reaches for his phone but Chanyeol turns around to the side and types so fast that she cannot possibly stop him in time. An orange notification jumps up at the bottom of her screen, and Hyerim stares at it, frozen in what may be shock. “Did you just—follow me?”
“Yeah,” he says with a satisfied smile and Hyerim keeps her eyes locked on her phone until she feels the sigh go out of her very slowly. “We’re friends, right? I mean, bar the photoshoot, any of Jongdae’s friends are my friends. I mean, of course I want to be your friend, like, friend, but we already are connected through a mutual friend? So we already have some sort of friendship? Anyhow, following you on Instagram is normal. Totally.”
“I think you should check your mentions soon,” she says after a long pause, “because there will be a lot of crying and wailing and confusion.”
Chanyeol keeps grinning at her, and she resists the urge to bury her face in her knees. Reflex action, one that she did most often after her 2 Different Tears performances back in the day. Asked herself why she was here, why she was doing this, why she even agreed to step into the shoes of someone she couldn’t possibly fill in for, one-fifth of a girl group juggernaut. Now, though, she’s strong enough to look him in the eye, at least a little faux-coldly at least.
“I don’t do notifications,” Chanyeol shrugs, “not anymore.”
In his defense, Chanyeol thinks that his rocky start with Hyerim may have been because of his propensity to do things rashly. But now, as they take a break before the last run-through of their new choreography before the comeback, he’s rather grateful he did that in the first place. Things run like dominoes in their world, and one thing led to another, and three days after that awfully disastrous noraebang group date, Jongdae had come into their room with a very serious look on his face.
“I’m only asking this because she wanted me to,” Jongdae had said and Chanyeol knew without question that the she in question was Liyin, “but seriously, if you want to date Hyerim, you should probably give up.”
“What?” Chanyeol had sputtered in response. “Nothing even happened that day!”
“We all know how you are,” Jongdae said with a roll of his eyes, “and Hyerim is not your type. Dude, if you’re not serious, back off.”
“Why are you being this way?” Chanyeol asked, feeling a little hurt. Why did everyone look at him like he was some indecisive philanderer? It wasn’t fair, to him at least, and to deny him the chance to become friends with someone that he actually liked just because of that was irrationally stupid.
“Because she’s my friend. Also, Liyin likes her.” Jongdae shrugged. “Seriously though, don’t even go there if you’re not sure if you can.”
“I only want to be her friend,” Chanyeol said, and Jongdae nodded like he was telling a very flat joke. “Seriously.”
“I looked at her Instagram comments, dude. That photoshoot with you got her enough dumbass flak already, so your little stunt did not help with anything. Come on, Chanyeol, you know well enough what the fans are capable of.” Jongdae said, looking at him like he was incapable of understanding the severity of his actions.
“I—” Chanyeol wanted to say something in his own defense but really couldn’t. He hadn’t thought that far ahead when he went and followed her—all he wanted was a mutual follow, a little window into her life. “Okay. How do I say sorry?”
Jongdae had stared at him for a long, meaningful moment, before he pulled his phone out and texted a string of numbers to him. “Do it yourself. Call, apologise, and then never be an ass to her again.”
So he did. Surprisingly Hyerim didn’t slam the phone down on him, nor did she swear at him, nor did a combination of the both happen. Instead she just said it was okay, and before he could help himself, he asked too-sincerely if they could be friends. She had paused for so long that he thought she had already cut the line off, before she suddenly spoke again and said a single thing: “Sure.”
Chanyeol has been on multiple coffee outings with her so far, and the fact that she replies to his messages and is willing to even come to a Starbucks that far away from her dorm makes him irrationally stupid. He’s so cheery that even Junmyeon notices, and sometimes he’s on the verge of telling Sehun that hyung’s in so much bliss before he remembers that Sehun tells Donghae everything, and Donghae was that one link to her in the first place, and that’s not going to be good for either of them. So he just plays it cool and goes to their coffee outings that no one knows about.
“If you’re sneaking out again tonight, can you get me a latte? Grande, please.” Kyungsoo says from behind him, and Chanyeol is about to say sure before he really understands what Kyungsoo means.
“Yeah. Grande latte, please.” Kyungsoo repeats, and Jongdae looks over. Chanyeol immediately tamps down on his volume. Elsewhere Sehun and Jongin are engaged in a series of very weird dance moves that everyone else is laughing at. “You go to Starbucks every Wednesday, don’t you?”
“How do you know that?” He hisses and Kyungsoo shrugs. How does Kyungsoo know everything? He’s busy with a drama and an almost-complete movie and a girlfriend that Chanyeol hasn’t even found any dirt on because nobody else seems to know she exists.
“Just don’t get caught. Hyerim is nice.” Kyungsoo pats him on the shoulder and Chanyeol’s jaw slacks. “Also, grande latte. Remember that.”
“Fuck you, Kyungsoo,” he remembers to say a few seconds later and Kyungsoo gives him a serene smile.
“Won’t be you doing it,” Kyungsoo replies and saunters off to where Jongdae is, now stretching his legs out in some attempt to relieve his muscle aches. Chanyeol debates the pros of doing something, anything, to wipe that effortless expression off Kyungsoo’s face, but they go back to practice again. It’s intense enough that even Jongin and Sehun are wiped out at the end, and it gives him sufficient time and space to sneak out without anyone noticing.
Hyerim comes to pick him up in her black Mini Cooper. “My brother usually drives it,” she says simply as an explanation when he’s climbed into the passenger’s seat beside her, pushing his cap down low, “so nobody knows who it actually belongs to.”
“Nice,” he says, and she drives off into the night. They’re near the junction where they should turn right to get to the Starbucks they rotate going to—they have three, one away from his dorm, one away from hers, and one in the middle—but Hyerim signals to go left instead.
“It’s perfect to go driving tonight,” she points out when he asks her why, “we should go to the Han River. With you all bundled up nobody’s going to notice.”
“You know they know how I look like even without a face, right?” Chanyeol says and she shrugs. “It’s creepy sometimes.”
“All the time,” Hyerim replies sagely, “I’ve seen fancams.”
He’s about to ask her why on earth she’s seen potentially embarrassing fancams of him, but she passes him her phone instead. One of the things that has seemed to endear him to her is their shared enjoyment of music. Chanyeol discovers that they have a common love of indie bands, Korean or otherwise, and most of the time when they have nothing else to talk about in Starbucks, someone pulls out their phone and offers an earbud. He scrolls to her Playlist section and finds one labelled “Drive”.
“I love this song,” he declares as the beat of I Feel You starts playing, and Hyerim cracks a small smile. They’re on a highway now, the lights of Seoul scattered around them. He’s seen this too many times before, in a company van or in a business class seat high above the skies of Incheon. Night is the time of the day that suits them best now—good for stealth, good for hanging out with the people he really wants to be with. Hyerim’s singing along to the song, a wisp of hair tickling the edge of her mouth. He doesn’t push it away—it’s too early for that sort of thing.
“Bet you loved the leotards more,” Hyerim turns slightly to look at him, eyes daring him to say no.
“Loved the guitar,” he says and raises his hands solemnly, “because guitars are hot.”
“Oh, a lot of things are hot to you,” she says with a roll of her eyes, “you’re making the value of my guitar playing drop, come on.”
“Stupid Jongdae,” he grits his teeth and she laughs. Chanyeol can’t even be cool anymore, not in front of her when she has Jongdae for a friend. Jongdae may be an excellent bandmate and a bro to count on, but he’s also crazy about frankness and has an inability to lie about anything and anyone. “Why does he keep making me look bad?”
“He can’t if it’s not true,” Hyerim says and squeals when the next song comes up. Chanyeol taps his fingers to the beat, her voice rapping fast and clear. “I wrote this.”
“Wow,” he nods, and she gives him a smug look that is somehow horrifyingly attractive. He finds the song good too, though as it gets to the middle he realises that it really is an anthem for girls against lousy exes. “Did someone piss you off, though?”
“Yeah, my ex.” She nods and turns off the highway. “He was kind of a dick,” she admits and they move towards what seems to be the Han River. Chanyeol realises that she’s serious about this, and pushes his cap down a little more, before deciding to put his hood over it for an added layer of safety. “Super clingy, and tried making me stay at home all the time. Also, he totally made a pass at Sohee, so.”
“What a tool.” Chanyeol says in outrage and she laughs a little again. Her laugh is girlish, at odds with her now-sleek appearance, but he’s seen enough past photos to know that she wasn’t always the Lim she now presents herself to be. It’s cute though, the way she can’t change her laugh. “Bet he regrets it now. I would so not do that, by the way.”
Hyerim snorts. “Sure,” she says and turns again. They’re near one of the smaller Han River parks now. Their old dorm was further away from the river, but Chanyeol used to go cycling there a lot. Nowadays it’s much more difficult to sneak out, but he’s never thought to actually switch to driving there instead. The thing about him is that he never realises there’s a new route until someone points it out—Kyungsoo constantly says that like it’s an insult, but he thinks otherwise. Why change up something if it works? “We all know about your string of trainee girlfriends who all magically disappeared.”
“If you really have to know, I get dumped most of the time.” He says and makes a face. “Jongdae would have told you that.”
Their car stops in a mostly empty parking lot. It’s a Monday, and Chanyeol realises the significance of coming on a weekday when most people are exhausted from endless work cycles, the same mundane repeating of tasks. Nobody has the strength to drive out all the way to one of these smaller parks—they’re here because they can afford to be. It’s a strange thing to think.
“Is that why you got that tattoo?” She pulls up the handbrake and makes a face in return. “The font’s kind of high school-ish.”
He can feel his face fall, and pulls down at the sleeve of his hoodie that he’d pushed up during the ride here. “No,” he hears himself say weakly, and looks up to see Hyerim’s face uncomfortably awkward, “not really.” Truth is, it’s not far from it. Most people get tattoos to commemorate a particularly bad breakup, and Chanyeol’s not one to stray from the mainstream. He’d asked one of the stylist hyungs for the number of a tattoo place that most of his fellow idols went to, and searched up a meaningful phrase in Latin because it just sounded cooler. Nobody can fault him for wanting to ink himself to try and remind himself that it’s time to leave those who want to leave behind.
“Sorry,” she says, and her voice is a little loud over the Zion.T song that has started playing, “that was mean.”
“Nah,” he waves a hand, “I’ve said meaner things. That’s one of the top reasons why I’ve been dumped, by the way.”
“Because you’re bad at talking?” Hyerim raises an eyebrow. “Welcome to the club.”
“Are you always this prickly?” He asks as he leans back into the leather seat. Hyerim makes a face, and pushes her seat back as well. The park is quiet and dark, a couple snuggling up in the bench in front of them. “I don’t mean that in a bad way.”
The car is silent for a long beat, before she replies. “Sometimes you’re your own knight in shining armour.”
Zion.T keeps crooning. The couple in front of their car are now entwined in the darkness, and Hyerim clears her throat. She doesn’t sound like she’s complaining, or whining, or unhappy. Just very matter-of-factly, like it’s a truth of life and she’s dealing with it. The truths of life seem to differ from person to person, as he realises. Chanyeol’s never had to think this way before, like he’s the only person he can depend on. No matter how much hate is thrown their way—his way—there is always a solid army of fans who hit back before he even gets to read any comments. They guard him, most of the time, but they also trap him.
“You’re not alone,” is all he can offer. His voice is deep alongside Zion.T’s.
She laughs, a short, sweet sound. “That’s not true,” she counters, “we know it. Your exes would know it. How many times did you have to cancel on them because of the greater idol good? ”
Chanyeol glances at the couple in front of them. They’re still making out. “Well, I only really had three girlfriends after debut, but yeah. The last one quit on me via text because she wanted to give me a taste of my own medicine.”
Hyerim shakes her head, and one of their songs start to play. Love Me Right has always been one of his favourite tracks to promote, despite the horrific bleach job, and he starts humming along. Out of the corner of his eye he sees her tap along to the beat.
“Touche.” She says quietly as Sehun raps, syllables rounded. “You are your own best bet. It sounds selfish, but who ever said being an idol meant having to be kind?”
He turns to look at her, but she’s already staring at him. She’s put together, as always, but for once he manages to see the heavy tiredness beneath her eyes, lining the edges of her mouth. Her cheek is pressed against the leather of her seat, like she’s about to fall asleep, but he knows she’s too guarded to do that in his presence. Their relationship is undefined, like groping in the darkness for a safe place to land, but strangely enough Chanyeol’s not afraid. There have been many times in his life—his career, he thinks—that he’s been frightened to the point of no return. He’s thrown up backstage too many times to count, stumble off during the M portion of a song to break out in cold sweat, then return back on to rap and throw his best looks to the camera. Nobody must ever know that you’re not your best, their managers remind and remind, because you’re Exo. His identity is now irrevocably intertwined with that of the group’s, nine as one now, but he’s never felt more unsure of who he really is. The Chanyeol willing to push past the boundaries of a sickness-ravaged body—would he be able to do this, if he were not an idol, to be so unkind to himself so that he could be kind to everyone else?
They listen to Yixing belt a note, Hyerim still tapping out the beat on the gearbox. He stares at her fingers, a fresh manicure, the sheer sense of idol-dom, the need to always stay prim and groomed, and the sudden urge to rub it all off comes too quick to stop. She doesn’t push him away when he picks her hand up, fingers on top of hers. Merely gives him a look, lazy but impossible to read, and lets him push a finger down her finely painted nails. It doesn’t come off, but he doesn’t let go either.
“We don’t have to be kind, but you can be better to yourself,” He says, as Kyungsoo reaches for a high note. She blinks slowly at him, expression in her eyes still unreadable. Is it him, or is it her?
The song comes to an end, and Hyukoh starts playing, but she still doesn’t say anything. Their hands are still clasped together, resting lightly on the gearbox, and Chanyeol knows he should be deathly afraid of Dispatch and their cameras everywhere, but he isn’t. He just can’t find it in himself to be frightened of something he isn’t. Maybe this is being kind to himself.
“Like this?” Her fingers curl tighter around his. Something burns in him. “Do you honestly think this will work out? I’ve seen Jia date people from your company. The ending’s never pretty.”
He moves to imitate her position, cheek pressed against the seat, and looks her squarely in the eyes. She doesn’t shy away, and he holds her hand a little tighter. Suddenly he wonders how it would be like if they did get caught by Dispatch—SM would yell, JYP would be chill, and he would be a little happy, maybe. What about her?
“We’re not them, you know.” He says and she smiles, a little. “I’m stupid sometimes, but I know it when I like someone.”
“I don’t think you would have given me a second glance six years ago,” she points out so frankly it cuts deep, “which is totally okay, by the way.”
“But I’m not who I was six years ago,” he counters, “give twenty-five year old Chanyeol some growing up credit?”
Hyerim looks at him like she never has before, straight in the eyes, something burning in the way her mouth sets in a firm line. “To our credit, we’ve grown because the fans won’t. I know what you see in me,” she says and Chanyeol swallows, “it’s the same thing I see in you. I like the way you look, the lines of your body—if you stop to think about it, is our liking of each other based merely on the physical? Will we ever,” she pauses and does a little shrug, “I don’t know, make it past that point where I want to make out with you because you’re hot?”
He lifts an eyebrow despite the unbecoming flush in his ears. “Seriously?”
“We’re twenty-five,” she deadpans, but her ears are equally red, “way past the age of just holding hands. Half the songs I write are about theoretical sex.”
He shifts and pulls her closer. She doesn’t resist, and comes so near that he can smell the perfume she’s wearing today—it’s different from their last date, and he knows it because he files away arbitrary details about her away in his head. They’re just about the physical? Chanyeol begs to differ.
“Are you proposing we make out now? After multiple dates of doing platonic things like talking and drinking coffee?” He asks, fingers tight around hers.
Hyerim gives him a look, and hmms like she’s actually considering his question. Then she looks up and gives him a solemn little nod. The dashboard lights reflect off her eyes, bright and rocker rabbit round, and he decides that yeah, they’re all about the physical right now. So he bends down, and kisses her.
She tastes of coffee and her perfume, flowery and floaty, and he can feel her fingers strain against his, like she wants to be closer and apart all at the same time. In the darkness, touch is magnified a hundredfold, the outline of her face sharp against the night, and it’s physical—so physical something fills his chest in painfully. She pulls away for a bit, her breath folding in with his, and he leans in again.
When they finally, finally pull apart, he doesn’t let go of her hand. He leans his forehead against hers, and listens to her slow, slightly unsteady breathing. There’s a certain pride to be gained from that, and he likes that she seems to like it. It’s been a long time since the mere act of kissing was enough to make him so painfully satisfied.
“I still don’t think this is a good idea,” she says, her eyes still closed, “but I can’t say I disliked that either.”
“Me too,” is all he can offer, “me too.”
“What if,” she begins, slightly laughing, “we’re being photographed right now, and tomorrow one of your fansites messages you urgently that oppa, we need to tell you that we’re so unwilling to blackmail you, but here we are, blackmailing you?”
“You don’t like our fans,” he observes, and she harrumphs, “not one bit, huh.”
“What is there to like about them?” She asks in return, her weight resting against him. It’s a sweet burden. “Imagine people leaving death threats because your cat appeared in a photo with T—oh. I’m sorry.”
“Don’t worry,” he reassures her, “we don’t like him either.”
“I was talking about the fans,” she says crossly, but doesn’t point out the obvious fact that he’s lying, “but yeah. What would you do? Would you go down the Super Junior route of pretending that the only female presence in your life will be the one taking incessant photos of you, or will you, I don’t know, shock them with the revelation that you want to be making out with a Wonder Girl?”
He opens his eyes, and the couple in front of the car is gone. It’s a good question. “I think,” he says slowly, and she doesn’t say anything, “I don’t have any good answers. I don’t want to pluck them out of the air, because I want them to mean something. I’m serious about this, Hyerim.” He feels her clutch his hand a little tighter. “I want this to work.”
It’s a long silence.
“Okay,” she finally says quietly, the air conditioning humming alongside, “okay.”
When it had come down to picking a travelling companion for a short getaway to Tokyo, it hadn’t been too difficult for Chanyeol. Five minutes after sending a text that sounded more like a statement than a question, Jinho had replied with a quick yes. A few weeks later they were dragging their suitcases through Gimpo Airport—with the usual fans gathering, hovering, but not coming too close for some odd reason—and on the plane. Jinho was excited about the fabled stores of manga goods that supposedly had stacks and stacks of his favourite merchandise available. Chanyeol was just happy to be somewhere without his manager.
They were seated in one of the ramen restaurants that someone from their Japanese staff recommended, waiting for their orders to arrive, when Kyungsoo called from somewhere in Ilsan, asking about how they were doing and if they were going to meet up with Sehun (no, Chanyeol yelled, never). Jinho laughed and asked about his parents. He and Kyungsoo had always been closer, a relationship Chanyeol never understood until the three had upped and left and Kyungsoo had proven to be incredibly perceptive.
“You should have come if you wanted answers,” he snapped into the phone, and Jinho laughed while Kyungsoo swore, “and you could have brought your girlfriend along too!”
Kyungsoo swore again, ignored his repeated question of who his girlfriend actually was, said goodbye to just Jinho, and slammed the phone down. Chanyeol scowled as the restaurant continued buzzing, full of syllables he didn’t really understand even if the company seemed to want and advance in on the Japanese market again. The company’s strategy felt like it was one of making the fans learn their language instead of vice versa. Sometimes he thought it was a lazy method, one that wouldn’t last, but then again, it was also easier on him.
“You know, if he wants you to meet his girlfriend, he’ll let you.” Jinho pointed out wisely as their orders arrived and they dug in. “Kyungsoo’s just a little private.”
“I’m not interested,” Chanyeol said as he jabbed at his noodles, “I just think that there shouldn’t be secrets between people in the same team.”
“Uh,” Jinho narrowed his eyes at him, “remember how you told your ex that you could get her backstage passes to see Kyuhyun hyung because your friend,” he gestured around his face, “was in SM The Ballad and could, I quote, ‘so get stuff done for me’?”
Chanyeol glared at him. “I was eighteen and trying to show off, okay? Cut dumbass teenager Chanyeol some slack.”
Jinho laughed, like he always did. Sometimes Chanyeol wondered if he had any other mode apart from kind and nice. He’d never seen Jinho get angry in his entire life, not even on the day he was announced to have been dropped from the Exo lineup. Not when he still went to see their debut showcase in Seoul, or when the company seemed to have completely forgotten about his existence. Chanyeol wasn’t sure that he could react the same way. Seven years after they’d both first entered SM as trainees, he was now one-tenth of the best-selling boy band in the recent decade, while Jinho was still waiting.
“Then you play nice with Kyungsoo,” Jinho slurped up the rest of his noodles, and the chef across them in the open air bar-style kitchen shot him an approving smile, “so one day, you’ll get to see his super pretty and really nice girlfriend.”
“Whatever.” Chanyeol rolled his eyes and slurped even louder. The chef looked so satisfied now that he couldn’t help giving him a thumbs up. The ramen was delicious. At least the staff member’s recommendation was accurate. “At least we all don’t know how she’s like. Fair enough.”
Jinho raised an eyebrow and reached over to pick his phone up. Chanyeol watched as he pulled up the Instagram app and scrolled. Jinho didn’t use his account as avidly as he did, but Chanyeol had looked at the comments he got sometimes whenever he updated. It was full of fans telling him to debut soon. It wasn’t something that Jinho could control, so Chanyeol never knew whether to feel happy or upset on his behalf. Jinho took a photo of the ramen bowl, and put his phone away again.
“By the way, I’m going to go to university.” He said suddenly, and Chanyeol choked. “Whoa buddy, you okay?”
“No?” Chanyeol coughed, outraged. “You’re going to what?”
“Study music.” Jinho replied, his face very serious. Something went cold in Chanyeol’s chest as his ears burned. “I mean, after I go to the army, of course. I’m just waiting for the letter now. Not going to defer my enlistment any longer.”
“But—” Chanyeol blinked quickly. It was difficult to process everything. Jinho looked at him kindly and waited for him to continue. “But—you’re so close.”
Jinho ate another mouthful of noodles and rested his chopsticks on the table, his expression thoughtful. Chanyeol felt like this was the most ridiculous thing that he’d ever heard, apart from the first time they had listened to the demo track for Wolf. Jinho mulled it over for a while more, before he nodded and shrugged.
“My contract expired last week. I think we all know that if I was close to anything, it was three years ago.” Chanyeol opened his mouth to say something, but Jinho shook his head, and he fell silent. “I don’t blame anybody or anything. I just think it’s time to move on. Serve my country, and then go out into the world to have a look. Doesn’t that sound fun?”
“You can go around the world as an idol,” Chanyeol said, his voice slightly strained, “we do that all the time.”
“That’s not the same,” Jinho said, slightly amused, “you don’t get to go to classes or take public transportation.”
“Junmyeon hyung goes to class,” he tried to point out like it was a valid point, “and he—”
“Junmyeon hyung hasn’t gone to school in ages,” Jinho said gently, and Chanyeol felt the knot in his throat bunch up even more tightly, “it’s okay, Chanyeol. It wasn’t a hard decision to make. You don’t have to comfort me.”
But it wasn’t fair at all. Chanyeol remembered the days of them practicing together into the darkest hours of the morning, of them being put into the same pre-debut team, of Jinho being outstanding and fielded into SM The Ballad. Everybody was envious of him back then, including him, thinking that it was Jinho’s ticket into stardom. But instead it was Chanyeol, propelled into the hearts and minds of millions around the world, while Jinho sat here in a ramen restaurant, talking about his decision to turn his back on idol-hood like it was the easiest thing to do. They had yearned for this together, a fervent wish so strong that he’d seen Jinho run a fever and practice until he’d passed out before finally being sent to the ER. It was this sole desire that kept them running, that kept Chanyeol pushing forward—being an idol was everything to them. But Jinho was giving up now, a decision Chanyeol couldn’t wrap his head around.
“Is it because,” he started again, throat very dry, “is it because they didn’t put you in the Rookies team?”
Jinho shrugged and pushed his empty bowl away. “Not really. I mean I never expected myself to be in the team, ever, but I wasn’t pinning any hopes on it either.” He picked at the edge of the table. “You know, this isn’t the end of the world.”
How was it not? Chanyeol peered at his half-empty cup of tea, and lost all interest in eating. Jinho picked up his chopsticks again and reached for the last piece of fried shrimp. They had fallen into silence, and while it was always an easy, comfortable sort whenever he was around Jinho, this time it wasn’t the same. Something was gnawing at the bottom of his stomach, and he felt sick.
“What can you do now?” He finally asked, and Jinho looked up from his phone, eyes bright. Sometimes he and Kyungsoo looked alike, not because they shared the same eye shape, but because, as Chanyeol realised now, they both seemed to be firmly in charge of their lives. “I mean.”
The look in Jinho’s eyes was frank.
“What can I not do now?”
He said simply, and Chanyeol realised that he didn’t know the answer to that at all.
The Wonder Girls find out because of a mistake that, Hyerim has to admit, could have completely been avoided if they were using Between instead of Kakaotalk to chat. But Chanyeol’s insistence on using stickers to express whatever he wants to say keeps them on Kakaotalk, and on that fateful day, Hyerim accidentally sends a “don’t tell anyone I’m dating you” to the Wonder Girls chatroom. Almost immediately she is bombarded by frantic demands to know what is going on by Yeeun, voice notes of her laughing from Sunmi, three question marks from Sohee, a single picture of a confused Hailey from Sunye, and an entire series of Infinite Challenge stickers that don’t relate to the situation on hand from Yubin.
Hyerim considers this to be the biggest challenge of her life thus far, and so she does the best possible thing—call Chanyeol, and run away. He deals with it by simply laughing, his voice echoing in their dance practice room. Hyerim can hear the stuttering of their comeback song as someone plays and pauses it a few times, Jongdae yelling something, then an entire chorus of voices shouting back. It’s a mess, much like her head. And Chanyeol’s still laughing.
“It’s not even that funny,” she says, and he laughs again, “stop laughing! I swear I’ll tear your head off.”
“No you won’t,” he’s almost giggling now, and Hyerim wants to cut the line, but really he’s the only comrade she has now. “You can do this, though.”
“What,” she rolls her eyes even though he can’t see her, “you’re only saying this because you have a comeback to practice for and you know that even Yeeun unnie doesn’t have the guts to bust into SM and kick your ass.”
“True,” Chanyeol admits and she swears, making him laugh again, “speaking of which, I need to practice. Again. Also Jongdae’s looking my way, which is pretty scary.”
“Jongdae? Do you want to deal with Yeeun unnie?” She sputters, and Chanyeol immediately backtracks. She’s flustered, but the way he’s trying to placate her is still kind of cute. But even that doesn’t erase the fact that she has to face Yeeun sooner or later, which makes her even more reluctant to put the phone down.
“Don’t worry,” he says finally, his comeback song playing in the background again. It’s catchy, very SM, and he’s already shown her enough of the choreography for Hyerim to know that it’ll be another million-seller. “If Yeeun nuna has to kick my ass, so be it. Really gotta go though, love you!”
“Wait, wha—” The line drops before she can finish, and Hyerim stares at her phone for a long while before deciding that if she has to face the music, she’ll damn well do it with flair and style. Then she realises that Chanyeol just dropped the L-bomb, but really, it’s not the time to deal with it yet, not when she has someone like Yeeun on her heels.
Yeeun finds her quickly enough. She’s nestled in a corner of one of their staff members’ mother’s coffee shop, legs pulled up to her chest and texting away to Chanyeol, who somehow magically finds time to reply in the middle of a comeback practice, no less, when Yeeun drops herself into the chair opposite her and folds her arms across her chest.
“Oh my g—” Hyerim squeals, and Yeeun raises an eyebrow, which shuts her up as quickly.
“You,” Yeeun points at her with a threatening finger, “talk. Now.”
Hyerim blinks, her phone buzzing on the table, and wonders if it’s advisable to reach for it and run for her life. But Yeeun has got that covered, stretching her legs across the other chair so that she’s trapped between her and the wall. Yeeun’s good, Hyerim thinks in despair. If only Yubin was here to help her out.
“Yeah, talk.” Yubin appears, a milkshake in hand, amused eyes peering at her over the top of her shades. “We’re really interested in what you have to say.”
“Is Sunmi going to appear next?” Hyerim sticks her head out and tries to scan for her. “Because if we’re going to have a confrontation, the entire crew should be present.”
“Sorry, I was just getting some gelato.” Sunmi pops up from behind Yubin, and Hyerim doesn’t know whether to be happy or bury her face in her hands. But nobody gives her time for that, because very soon they’re all surrounding her and giving her such severe looks that she can almost feel them physically cut her. Yeeun crooks her finger and Hyerim spills.
It’s a long story, but she dutifully begins from the fateful photoshoot, to the disastrous noraebang group date, to their Han River drives and Starbucks outings. Hyerim also conveniently leaves out the more intimate details, because seriously, nobody needs to be discussing those in the middle of a coffee shop owned by the mother of a JYP employee. At the end of the story she pauses to take a sip of her coffee, while everyone else sits in silence. Then Yubin whoops, Sunmi joins in loudly, and Yeeun simply frowns. It’s not like she expected anything else from them, Hyerim thinks as she sips at her iced latte.
“I told you!” Sunmi squeals, hands clutching at nothing mid-air. “I told you she was going to bag one of them cute ones!”
“Bag?” Hyerim gives her a weird look, but everyone ignores her. Yubin and Sunmi begin compiling a list of Exo members by looks (Hyerim catches a “Suho is last, come on”), while Yeeun keeps frowning. Hyerim sighs, and reaches for Yeeun’s hand. She still doesn’t say a word, but Hyerim knows she isn’t angry. Worried, more like it, and she has a good idea why.
“I’m not Jia, you know.” She says in a low voice, and Yeeun looks at her for an extended beat before sighing herself. “I know how to protect myself.”
“I’m not worried about you,” Yeeun says a little crossly, “I’m worried about him. Just—do you think he deserves you?”
“Unnie!” Sunmi cuts in, slightly outraged. “Don’t say that, what if the barista likes them?”
Yeeun rolls her eyes and the both of them engage in a debate over whether it’s safe to insult Exo in public. Hyerim watches them and wonders why she’s not surprised Yeeun asked her that. It is the exact same question she’s asked herself, except inverted—it’s not something she has the answer to. The jobs they hold dictate that they are somehow answerable for their decisions to people that have completely no say in those. Hyerim doesn’t see how that makes sense, but then again, the job scope of an idol isn’t logical either.
Jia’s past experiences have widened their scope, wide enough that none of them have dated within the industry ever since 2010. Yeeun’s heart got broken so badly that her entire solo debut album was about the guy, but nobody has managed to find out who he is. Sunmi’s last relationship was with someone from her university (that she no longer goes to, because reasons), and Yubin’s always been about the sound engineers, at least when she’s not going on-off-on with Taecyeon. And Hyerim—the last time she had a boyfriend he tried to hit on Sohee, but at least he was a grad student from the States that had no access to legions of girls with enough money to do anything and everything. So she knows exactly what Yeeun is talking about. It’s just difficult to say if she has a good answer to it, or not.
“Exo can sell millions of albums,” Yubin begins, voice so quiet that only Hyerim can hear her, “but that doesn’t offer Park Chanyeol an automatic ticket into your life. He has you at your best now, but will he want you at your worst? Would you want him at his worst?”
“Yubin unnie…” Hyerim trails off, and Yubin reaches for her hand. It’s warm and comforting.
“I’m not saying that you shouldn’t live in the now,” Yubin makes a face, and Hyerim smiles a little, “but I want to make sure that he’s planning ahead because of you too.”
“We’re not going to get married or anything,” she sputters a bit, but Yeeun and Sunmi are too absorbed in their sparring to hear her choke. Yubin grins and Hyerim feels like a hole opening beneath her right now would be nice.
“I know, but which normal dude has a fanclub of close to a million prepubescent kids?” Yubin says. It’s something she can’t deny, so Hyerim sits and looks at her glumly. Yubin reaches over to pinch her on the cheek, grinning still. “So a meeting with us is in order. We’ll look him over once, and then you can bring him to your brother. Deal?”
There is no other option. The night ends with a phone call to Chanyeol, and she ends up having to redial four times before he finally picks up. Sunmi squeals so loudly that everyone looks their way when he answers with a “Hi baby?”, and Hyerim actually congratulates herself internally on being able to steel her nerves and finish whatever she has to say. Yeeun cuts in halfway when she’s explaining that he doesn’t have to worry because it’s just a dinner, and tells him that he’d better be on time or else. Yubin finishes smoothly by saying that there is no need to bring any presents, and that the Wonder Girls are all looking forward to meeting him, and she is the one who cuts the line. It’s all over before Hyerim realises that she only managed to say two lines to her own boyfriend.
She’s still not over it, not even when they’re on their way to Sohee’s place, where the dinner is to take place. Chanyeol’s driving and he keeps sneaking looks at her at red lights, so much so that she has to ask him to stop because safe driving is essential, especially at night, and they’re only this lucky that nobody has discovered them yet.
“Why are you still so hung up over the call?” Chanyeol asks as they drive towards one of the Han River bridges. “Because if I don’t remember wrongly, I was the one on the receiving end.”
“Who do you think they got your number from?” Hyerim says, picking at the tassels of her crossbody. “I just—do you think we can turn back now? They totally do not have to know.”
“Uh, baby, I think they will.” He points out quite kindly, and Hyerim sinks in her seat glumly. She’s not unwilling to let them meet him, not one bit, but Yubin’s words keep ringing in her head, and she has no idea how to answer them at all. It’s been two weeks, and she hasn’t had the courage to ask him yet. Maybe it’s because she’s still Past Hyerim, deep down inside, scared of the way words can cut and leave scars so deep they never really heal over despite the ugly scabs.
“Would you want me at my worst?” The words tumble out before she realises it. Chanyeol glances at her, before he turns back to the road and signals to make a left turn. It takes a minute or two, and Hyerim realises that they’re back at the little Han River park where they first decided that it was okay to date. And make out in cars. Chanyeol parks and pulls up the handbrake, before he takes off his seatbelt, turns to her, and then kisses her.
It feels strangely a little like that one dark night again, but he’s definitely more well practiced now. She’s also used to him now, the way he smells, the angle his nose presses into her cheek, the sensation of his lips on hers. It takes a long while, but then he finally pulls away and rests his forehead on hers. Between the both of them he’s always been the one more privy to sudden kisses, but today she doesn’t want him to stop. She’s about to kiss him again when he speaks.
“Yes. Best, worst, in between—I want to be there for you. I can’t promise that I will be perfect, but I promise that I will try, and only my best.”
“You sound like a drama character,” she says after a long silence, and he laughs, his breath warm on her nose. “The really cheesy sort.”
“I might have filched a couple of words from Kyungsoo’s script,” he admits, and kisses her on the nose. It’s a nice, snuggly kind of kiss. So she releases her seatbelt and hugs him as tightly as she can, her chin resting on his shoulder. Next to him she’s always small, but loved. Wanted. And Hyerim thinks, as he holds her closer, that’s more than enough.
“Ready to go get kicked in the ass?” She asks as she pulls away, and he makes a face as he considers. “I promise I will try, and only my best, to protect you from Yeeun unnie.”
Chanyeol’s ears turn very red and he pinches her lightly on the cheek. Hyerim keeps grinning, and he gives her a look, tousles her hair, and starts the car up again. As he finishes reversing and switches to drive, he suddenly stops again and Hyerim looks curiously at him. Chanyeol stares at her for a moment, then pulls her over for another kiss.
“I mean it.” He says after a long while. “I really, really mean it.”
Hyerim looks at him, heart a puddle, and smiles.
“I still can’t believe you’re in the States!”
Hyerim picked up their order buzzer and shook her head as Jisoo went off on one of her moony-eyed speeches again. It had been close to a year since she was shipped off to the States as a replacement for Sunmi, the Wonder Girl who was so exhausted with the life of a star that she needed to come home and recuperate. And, Hyerim sometimes thought it was ridiculous, they thought that she was the perfect person to slot in.
Even sometimes she still felt like her being in JYP was a dream, one that would break apart like a soap bubble if someone so much as touched it lightly with a finger. Every time she woke up she wondered if she was still at home in Hong Kong, a teenage girl with a wild star dream, but someone would shuffle to the bathroom outside, the non-stomping footsteps that didn’t belong to her brother, and she would know that she was really in the States. A Wonder Girl. It was a twist of events that she didn’t see coming, but Hyerim was someone that took everything life threw at her, and kept going.
“New York is cold,” she said as they slid into a booth, “and you wouldn’t be able to survive.”
“Why?” Jisoo asked, her face still red from the cold. It was the dead of winter, and they were at a coffee shop near the JYP office. This place was popular with trainees from the Big Three, all located in the same area, but Hyerim wasn’t here to people watch. She was home only for a very limited amount of time, before they would fly off to the U.S. for their tour of conquering again.
“No rice,” she laughed, and Jisoo’s face fell. Their buzzer then buzzed violently, and Jisoo took the chance to go grab their drinks. Hyerim glanced around as she ran off. If she observed seriously, it was easy to identify who the trainees were and where they were from. In the corner she spotted two who were obviously from YG. Somewhere in front of them were two boys from JYP, who caught her eye and nodded in greeting. Then to the right, two tall boys hunched over a table, beanies pulled low, but it was easy to see that they were SM. One of them looked her way, big eyes and ears, and she immediately looked away. Hyerim wasn’t used to attention yet, though he didn’t seem to be interested in giving her any either.
“Here you go!” Jisoo returned shortly with two huge mugs, and Hyerim took one gratefully. Above Jisoo’s head she could see the two SM boys conversing, and then the one with the big eyes (and ears) laughing. He had nice teeth. She didn’t realise that she was staring until Jisoo waved a hand in front of her face. “Hyerim unnie. Unnie!”
“Oh. Hey, sorry. Wait, what were you saying again?” Hyerim blinked, and Jisoo turned around to see what she was looking at, before turning back around with a very sly look on her face. “Jisoo, don’t even—”
“Oh it’s totally okay,” Jisoo smiled and wiggled her eyebrows. “We talk about the SM trainees all the time! I mean, they are the most pleasing to the eyes.”
“Jisoo.” Hyerim deadpanned, but Jisoo kept up the whole wiggly eyebrow act. She turned around for another look again, so naturally that Hyerim suspected that she did do this on a frequent basis. Jisoo frowned, like she was searching her mental database for who these two SM trainees were, and Hyerim sipped at her latte. She wasn’t going to admit that she was curious to know who they were—after all, they were potential juniors.
“I don’t know who’s the super thin one, but the guy with big ears?” Jisoo leaned over conspiratorially, and Hyerim found herself shifting forward. “That’s the guy featured in the new Japanese Girls’ Generation music video.”
“And you know this because?” Hyerim asked without meaning to. Jisoo shook her head slowly, as if berating her for not keeping up with the times. It wasn’t really her fault—their team of staff members encouraged them to focus on the future instead of the past. So that meant not looking at Naver, and definitely not at anything to do with Girls’ Generation. Their rivalry was mostly in the heads of the fans, but JYP wanted them to have only one rival: themselves. So Hyerim read articles about Taylor Swift instead, and imagined opening for her one day.
“Word gets around quickly amongst us trainees,” Jisoo replied, slightly smug. Hyerim reached over and messed her hair up. Jisoo had been training for even longer than she had, a little girl growing up within JYP. Of course she would know everything. “And he’s one of the good-looking ones. So news about him is lightspeed, basically. Unnie, are you interested?”
“What? No way.” Hyerim shook her head so fast that she swore she saw stars for a moment. “I don’t even have time for myself.”
“I think he could be interested in you,” Jisoo opined, taking a sip of her drink, “you’re so pretty.”
“Jisoo, dear, love goes way beyond that.” Hyerim put her mug down and said very seriously. It was true. She knew that her physical looks were never her strongest points, her figure or her voice either, so she wanted someone who wanted her simply because she was Hyerim. Not because she was good-looking or had a fabulous body, but because she liked organising and using PowerPoint. “They have to like you because you’re you.”
“He might like you because you’re you?” Jisoo said a little too hopefully. “If not now, maybe in the future?”
Hyerim took another look at their table. They were now standing and putting their coats on. He looked around in her direction one more time, and she wondered if he actually did managed to see her or otherwise. He still was very good-looking, even unpolished in the rough as a trainee. She watched as they walked out of the coffee shop, tall and thin, poised to be the next stars of their burgeoning industry. Maybe one day she would land in Incheon and see their faces plastered all over duty-free. But whatever Jisoo saying just sounded ridiculous anyway.
“I don’t think so. Never going to happen. Ever.” She said, and Jisoo made a face. “Come on, we have to get back before they go crazy looking for us.”
“But what if it really does?” Jisoo insisted. “My mom says you can’t be too sure about things like this.”
“I really don’t think so, Jisoo.” Hyerim laughed and rapped her fingers on the table. “Come on, let’s go.”
Very much later she realised that Jisoo never told her what his name was. But New York City awaited, and it was never going to happen anyway. So Hyerim filed it away in the back of her mind, and decided that if she were meant to find out who he really was, she would, someday.