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the other end of the line

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‘how did it go?’

‘keep us updated!’

‘good luck!!!’

‘those cupcakes are so cute!! 
(_)

‘tell us how it goes, unni!!’

 

Jugyeong smiles at her screen despite herself. Despite the ache in her chest and the similar one pounding in her temples. Her smile turns into a teary laugh and she shakes her head at the absurdity of her original post. She really thought it would go well. Thought Hyunbin was different, good. 

She clears her throat and wipes the back of her hand over her nose with a sniffle. 

‘Hi, guys!

It didn’t go as well as I expected. He rejected me. To be honest, I was a little delusional and didn’t realize he was out of my league :P but I’m okay! I got new comics on the way home and I’ll post my reviews later this week. Thank you so much for your support and kindness 
(*♡ω♡*) until then!’

She puts her phone down and throws herself back against her pillows, eyes falling shut as she lets out a sigh. Then another. And another. She pulls her glasses off, a tear sliding down the side of her face and sinking into her hair.

Only then does she notice how bone-tired she is. So she turns her back to the door, her phone, and the world altogether.

Jugyeong doesn’t exactly need an alarm when her mom’s disappointment is a thing. The door slams open an hour into her slumber and startles her awake. 

“What are you doing sleeping?!” her mother screams. “Get up! You need to eat then study! Change out of your uniform!”

Jugyeong groans. “Mom. Please lower your voice,” she mumbles. “Waking someone up so abruptly can cause heart attacks you know!” she points an accusatory finger at her.

Her mom rolls her eyes. “Having a daughter like you can cause heart attacks,” she answers on a sigh. “Get up. I made your favorite dish.”

She’s out before Jugyeong can thank her. 

It takes her a few seconds to recall the events of the day, a moment more for her heart to feel heavier, like it might plummet to the pit of her stomach where a coil of dread’s seated. She reaches for her phone and unlocks it. 

‘he’s an idiot!’

‘he’s missing out! He doesn’t deserve your cupcakes or your heart!’

‘aish. I hate men.’

‘sorry, unni! he’s not worth it’

‘all the pretty ones think they’re 
so cool’

The messages cheer her up, always do. Her lips twitch and she runs a thumb over her screen to cherish every message individually. Her anonymity on this site has always given her a sense of security. Made her feel like she fits in. 

There’s a bubble above the private messaging icon with a 1 inside.

“Lim Jugyeong!” her mother hollers from downstairs. “We’re nearly finished eating!”

“Coming!” Jugyeong calls back, clicking her phone off.

She changes into her pyjamas and climbs downstairs to sit down next to Juyoung. He’s quiet today. Doesn’t take it upon himself to tease her or belch in her face like the disgusting little shit he is. There are instances where she feels him look at her from the outskirts of her vision. “What?” she finally blurts. “Why are you looking at me like that?”

Juyoung shrugs, not deigning to answer her question as he goes back to eating. 

She feels okay after a shower, even better when she pulls out a comic she purchased from a shop near her school. People around here don’t rent like Prince used to. 

She’s halfway through the third chapter when her phone dings with a notification. She clicks it open and looks at her lockscreen,

You have 6 new comments and 1 unopened message 

Jugyeong closes the comic, one finger bookmarking where she’s up to as she thumbs her phone open. 

She opens the message, and,

‘are you okay’

It’s one question. One effortless question without even a question mark at the end, but Jugyeong feels like she might crumble any second. There’s always a calmness in reading comics, a sort of enthralling excitement that makes her forget about everything and everyone. Like a cocoon.

The message brings her back to earth so fast her heart feels like it might jump up her throat. 

She stares at the question for a long while. It’s been sitting in her messages for over two hours. Pulling her finger out of the book, she stretches her legs out in front of her and holds her phone in both hands, thumbs hovering indecisively over the keyboard. ‘I’m okay!’ she finally responds, smiling like that’ll give the lie a grain of honesty.

The response is almost immediate.

‘ok.’

Then,

‘he wasn’t out of your league. you just weren’t his type. don’t think about it too much’

There’s so much Jugyeong can say to that. But she’s talking to a stranger and–

She’s a stranger too. To him. It’s an anonymous conversation. She could walk right past this person in the street and not recognize him, and vice versa. 

She takes a breath

‘I’m no one’s type’

It feels pathetic typing it out. And it feels like she’s fishing for compliments and comfort. She doesn’t want the former, but she really wouldn’t mind some consolation right now.

‘it was just really humiliating,’ she adds, an afterthought that’ll hopefully divert the person’s attention from how pitiful she sounds in the first message. 

‘yah. come on now, a lot of people get turned down from time to time. I’m really sexy but I’ve had my fair share of rejections too. that didn’t damage my ego.’

Jugyeong rolls her eyes at her screen. This is definitely a guy. She pushes the book off her lap and rolls onto her stomach.

‘did you get called ugly and have your cupcakes upended on your head while the only person you thought was your friend took a video of you?’

When a minute passes without a response, Jugyeong thinks maybe she’s overshared. What if this guy’s from her school? What if he happened to pass by and saw what happened with Semi and her gang? That means he knows what she looks like and he might expose–

‘who did that?’ 

‘you should go to the school board.’

‘or give me their names. are you okay?’

Being asked that for a second time has tears welling up in Jugyeong’s eyes. She takes a deep breath, the inhalation trembling into her lungs as she lifts a hand to rub at her throat, trying to ease the lump there. 

‘I told you I’m fine! I’m used to it :P’

‘you shouldn’t be used to it. aish, I hate bullies. why don’t you move schools?’

Jugyeong doesn’t really feel like talking anymore. She feels too drained. So she turns her phone off and climbs under her covers.

‘sorry I didn’t reply last night. I fell asleep.’

She puts her phone down and turns in her seat to look at Hyemin. “Hi,” she says quietly.

Hyemin keeps her head down but she lifts her eyes to look at Jugyeong. 

Jugyeong knows how intimidating Semi and her group can be. She knows they probably forced her to do what she did. Hyemin isn’t the type to bully… 

“Do you want to hang out after school?” she asks.

Hyemin shakes her head, no. 

Jugyeong pushes her glasses up the bridge of her nose. “Why not? I know a really cool place–”

“No way,” Semi cuts in, voice laced with a laugh as she approaches Hyemin’s desk. “Yah, Hyemin-ah, are you a turncoat now?”

Hyemin shakes her head rapidly, head still bowed. “No,” she replies in a mutter.

Semi pats her on the head. Good dog. “Good,” she praises. “We’re going to play pool with the guys later, why don’t you come?”

Hyemin looks hesitant, suspicious even. But she nods anyway. 

Jugyeong turns in her seat and plugs her earphones in, pushing down the feeling of betrayal and ostracism. 

Her phone vibrates.

‘it’s ok. I hope you feel better today. if you need me to kick that boy’s ass tell me ;)’

Jugyeong wants to smile. But smiling will get Semi’s attention and the last thing she wants is Semi’s attention.

‘you’d really kick his ass?’

‘just say the word’

Jugyeong grins at her phone, making the froth of her toothpaste drip down her chin.

“Who are you talking to?” Juyoung asks from the toilet. “You’ve been in a good mood the whole day.”

Jugyeong glares at him through the mirror. “Is it a crime to be in a good mood?” she snaps, streaking the mirror with toothpaste. 

She ducks her head to rinse her mouth then splashes water on the mirror. 

“Do you have a boyfriend?!” Juyoung gasps dramatically.

“A boyfriend?” Heekyung strolls into the bathroom and hip checks Jugyeong out of the way, making her stumble. “Is he cute?”

“I don’t have a boyfriend,” Jugyeong deflects, laughing at the absurdity of it as she reaches for the towel. “With a face like this?”

“Yah, what’s that supposed to mean?!” Heekyung yells, smacking her on the shoulder before she snatches the towel from her. “You’re pretty! Stop putting yourself down or I’ll put you down, understood?!”

Jugyeong flinches at how loud her sister yells the last word. She scurries out, but not before Heekyung whips her butt with the towel. 

‘don’t be silly. you don’t even know my name’

‘what is it?’

‘your name?’

Jugyeong stops halfway up the stairs.

‘you don’t have to tell me if you don’t want to. mine’s seojun.’

“Seojun,” Jugyeong enunciates, drawing the syllables out. 

‘you can call me jubal :]’

It’s safer like that, keeps a thin wall of obscurity standing. 

‘nice to meet you, jubal.’

‘nice to meet you too, Seojun :D’

Talking to Seojun becomes an everyday thing over the next few weeks. He sends her memes and dad jokes at random times through the day. 

It’s nice. Having a friend. At least a friend who has an answer to her questions other than a shrug or a no

‘why do you follow me on here if you don’t like comics?’

‘my little sister likes comics.’

‘so when she’s feeling down I borrow some for her. last time I got her one I picked out, she called it lame. so I looked up recommendations and found your blog. it turns out you two have similar taste
s.’

Jugyeong softens at the explanation. She thinks of her own brother and curls her lip, internally cursing him for not being half as kind-hearted as Seojun. 

‘that’s so sweet!’

‘how old is she?’

She nibbles on her bottom lip as she waits for an answer. 

‘17. she’s turning 18 this year’

‘got any comic recs? I want to buy her a bunch’

‘nothing 18+ she’s still my baby sister’

Jugyeong chuckles and leans back against the armrest of the couch, throwing her feet on Heekyung’s lap. ‘I’ll send you a list soon if you want. how much older than her are you?’

‘yah, were you just beating around the bush to find out my age?’

‘sneaky’ 

‘I’m turning 19 in October.’

‘remember that.’

‘why?’

‘so you can grant me a wish.’

a wish?

‘a wish?’

‘mm. a wish.’

‘what if your charm wears off by then and we’re not friends?’ 

She’s teasing. Something tells her she won’t be getting sick of him any time soon but messing with someone who has an ego the size of the Hallasan mountain is fun. 

‘trust me, you won’t get bored of me any time soon ;)

‘ok. when’s your birthday?’

‘31st.’

‘31st?! halloween? that’s so cool. I’m jealous :[’

‘do you celebrate?’

maybe I’ll celebrate this year! I heard there’ll be nice celebrations in Itaewon :D’

‘do you?’

‘no
. but I usually take my sister.’

‘what would you dress up as?’

‘mmm… I don’t know. I don’t think I need a costume >.<’

‘yah, jubal
!

He keeps typing so Jugyeong seizes the opportunity to change the subject.

‘by the way, don’t you have school?’

Seojun stops typing for a few seconds, then starts again.

‘no’

She waits for an elaboration, but nothing comes. 

Although they’ve been talking for a while, a part of her is still scared he’s not who he says he is. She sometimes finds herself wondering if he’s one of those old men who are after young meat. Or someone from her class who discovered her blog and is looking to get close and expose all her secrets.

She hesitates before she asks him why.

‘I took a family leave a few months ago.’

‘personal reasons.’

‘ah, sorry for being nosy…’

‘I’m brutally honest. if I was annoyed, I’d make sure you’d know.’
 
Jugyeong smiles to herself. “What has you smiling?” her mother asks.

Jugyeong clears her throat and looks up from her screen, pressing her phone face down to her chest. “Ah, just a video I’m watching,” she lies. 

Her mom wouldn’t be happy knowing she’s talking to a stranger online, especially a guy. She’s not that conservative, but no boys until college was at the very top of her rulebook. 

‘what’s your sister dressing up as?’

‘I don’t know yet. we fought last year over who will dress up as the pirate from that American movie so we ended up not going’

‘youngsters these days! so fussy’

It’s another jab at Jugyeong’s doubt.

‘you’re 18’

‘you think I don’t know that?’

‘she’s 17 but she’s still a baby to me.’

‘do you have any siblings?’

‘two!’

‘aish, I envy your patience. I can’t even take care of one.’

‘it’s not your job to. that’s your parents’ job.’

And then it’s radio silence.

A few hours pass and she gets an itch to message him again. She tamps it down and goes about her day, trying not to overthink it. What if my message was offensive? What if his parents are work-fixated? Or worse, dead?

“Lim Jugyeong, you idiot!” she curses herself, tussling her hair angrily. “Why don’t you think before you talk?!”

A day passes. Then two. Then a week. Then three.

“Did your boyfriend come to his senses and break up with you?!” Juyoung throws her a candy bar and throws himself down on the couch opposite the one she’s sitting on. “Did you you just send him a selfie?” he laughs at his own joke like it’s funny.

“He’s not my boyfriend,” Jugyeong glares at him as she tears the candy wrapper open with her teeth. “Something probably came up,” she mutters, spitting it out.

“He’s ghosting you?” Juyoung sounds all too joyful about it, throwing his head back with a laugh. “Even better! I wanna meet this guy.”

Jugyeong grabs a pillow and throws it at him.

“Yah, Dumpling.”

Jugyeong’s earbuds are ripped out of her ears sudden enough to have her jumping in her seat and looking up. Semi smiles in that fake-sweet way of hers and drops the earphones on Jugyeong’s desk. 

“What do you want?” Jugyeong asks.

“Omo, you’re brave today,” Semi laughs out. Her sidekicks echo her laughter from their place behind her like the good lickspittles they are. “What are you doing after school?”

Jugyeong blinks. “What?”

“After. School,” toady #1 enunciates slowly, as if Jugyeong’s slow on the uptake. “What are you doing after school?” she repeats loud and clear.

Jugyeong feels like it’s a trap. She sucks her bottom lip into her mouth contemplatively. “Why?”

“Don’t look so scared!” Semi tuts, pushing her in the shoulder lightly. Jugyeong would call it playful if she didn’t know what a conniving bitch Semi can be. “We’re going to a beauty salon. I want to redye my roots and they want to,” she waves a hand over her shoulder carelessly, “Whatever they want to do.”

Jugyeong glances at them, then looks back to Semi. “I don’t know…”

“Come on, my treat,” Semi nags. “I want to see if all that ugly can go,” she gestures in circles for Jugyeong’s face.

Jugyeong purses her lips. At least Semi isn’t two-faced and playing kind. She nods. “Ok.”

“Great!” Semi claps her hands and twirls to go to her desk. 

Hanging out with Semi and her gang without being terrorized by them is unfamiliar territory to Jugyeong. But it’s something she can get used to. 

She’s never put makeup on before. Her mom said no. Which is ironic because she owns a small beauty salon. But no makeup until college is another thing on the rulebook, right after no boysThe rulebook’s starting to become a bucket list to Jugyeong. 

She’s suddenly reminded of Seojun.

It’s been a month and two days but it feels like much longer. There was a comfort in talking to him that’s already making her feel nostalgic. She can’t even talk to her siblings as easily as she does to him.

She reaches into her pocket and pulls out her phone to check for…anything. 

“Ah, Lim Jugyeong,” she’s used to dumpling, but her name sounds alien in a good way coming from Semi. “You were always on your phone smiling last month. Are you and Hyunbin going out?!” she has her hands in the pockets of her jacket, so when she pushes her side into Jugyeong’s her elbow digs into her arm.

“Ah? What? No,” Jugyeong shakes her head with a half-laugh. “You saw what he did. You have it on video.”

“Tsk, come on, that was for fun,” Semi rolls her eyes. “Besides, even though you’re a loser, you’re way too cool for him.”

It’s not a compliment per se, but it feels like it when it’s coming from Park Semi of all people.

“So, who is it?!”

“What?”

“Who are you talking to?” Semi pushes, pulling her hand out of her pocket to loop her arm through hers. “Is it a guy? Does he go to our school?”

“No,” Jugyeong shakes her head. “He’s– just a friend.”

“Is he cute?!” toady #1 and #2 exclaim from her other side. 

“I don’t know,” Jugyeong mumbles. “We only talk online and I haven’t seen him.”

“Why not?” Semi pouts. “You seem to like him.”

Jugyeong shakes her head. She’s not sure how to say it feels good having a friend without sounding pathetic. So she lifts a shoulder in a dismissive shrug. 

“It would be so cute!” Semi seems excited about the idea. “Like beauty and the beast but with the roles reversed!”

Jugyeong buries the pang of hurt away for later. 

“We’re here! Come on, I want you to tell me all about him.”

She spends a laughably long time swiping through the pictures she took with Semi and her friends, wishing she naturally looked like she did with a layer of cosmetics caking her face. Wishing she had Heekyung’s beauty and Juyoung’s brains instead of being born with neither.

A notification banner appears at the top of her screen.

hi, how have you been?

Jugyeong’s adamant not to respond. It’s one thing ghosting her out of nowhere, a completely different thing ghosting her then messaging her like nothing happened.

To annoy him further, she posts one of the posts that have been in her drafts for a while now. Responds to every comment she gets.

are you mad at me?

yah, come on. at least let me explain myself!

Jugyeong pointedly ignores the messages.

alright, I won’t push.

Jugyeong sighs out her nose, trying to act resentful.

But she can’t. Not when she’s been friendless for so long. Not when– no. She has Semi now. She doesn’t know if this guy is who he claims he is anyway. She doesn’t need a virtual– but she can’t drop someone like that. She’s not that type of person and she never wants to be.

‘okay, explain’

it’s complicated’

Jugyeong’s about to tell him that’s synonymous with ‘I got bored but I didn’t want to hurt your feelings’, but his next message stops her short.

maybe I can tell you over the phone?

I don’t let just anyone hear my voice so consider this a once in a lifetime opportunity ;)

Jugyeong rolls her eyes, but she can’t fight the treacherous smile blooming on her lips.

It’s another step she’s unsure whether she should take. Another brick being knocked out of the barrier she’s trying to keep between them. But she’s too curious and too naïve. And honestly? She wants to make sure that he’s safe. 

So she sends him her number.

And when her screen lights up with a call, her heart feels like it might beat out of her chest. She chews on her lip but doesn’t give herself time to overthink. Ties her hair back, clears her throat, says her vowels to make sure her voice is acceptable, then accepts the call and waits.

Waits.

Waits.

She doesn’t want to be the first to talk. 

And she feels so gullible as each one of her suspicions comes to mind. What if it’s someone from school playing a prank? What if it’s Semi and that’s why she was so interested today? What if it’s an old pervert who’s after young girls? Or worse, what if it’s Juyoung? 

“Do I always have to start the conversation?”

It’s not an old pervert and definitely not Juyoung. But Jugyeong’s brain lags all the same. The guy’s voice is deep, husky like he’d just woken up, with a matching tone. Lazy. Confident. Undeniably sexy.

Jugyeong opens her mouth but nothing comes out. She clears her throat. “You’re the guy, it’s only polite that you start.”

There’s a beat of silence on the other end of the line where Seojun registers her voice, then there’s a laugh. A breathless chuckle that makes Jugyeong’s cheeks heat up. If he’s half as attractive as his voice, she doesn’t stand a chance. 

Not that she’s thinking about him like that.

“Good point,” he comments. “I’m used to receiving calls, not the other way around.”

The ego on this guy.

“So,” there’s a rustle as Seojun sits more comfortably. “Go on.”

“O?” Jugyeong blinks.

“Interrogate me.”

Interrogate– AhThat. Him ghosting her. It suddenly feels a bit petty that she made such a big deal out of it. “No, it’s okay!” she blurts. “Really, it’s fine. I forgive you.”

“So you don’t want an explanation?” Seojun pushes, sounding more than willing to give her one if she asked. 

Jugyeong shrugs. Because she does want one. She likes that he cares enough to want to justify himself. But he said it was complicated and they’re not at a point in their friendship where she’s allowed to pry into his life. “No,” she answers. “I’m sure you had your reasons.”

“Ok,” the word’s uttered on a breath and Jugyeong feels her cheeks warm again. “Have you been okay?” he questions. “Is that metalhead punk bothering you?”

Jugyeong grins. “No,” she replies, shaking her head to emphasize the negative. “School hasn’t been so bad. Actually, I made friends with my bullies today.”

Seojun tuts his tongue. “They don’t deserve your friendship,” he grouses. “I don’t want to be friends-in-law with them!”

Jugyeong laughs. “Yah, don’t get possessive!”

“I’m not–” Seojun starts. “Aish, forgive a guy for worrying! Bullies don’t have friends; they only have sidekicks and toys. You’re too good to be either.”

Jugyeong’s smile returns, a subtle thing she quickly wipes away.

“Jubal,” Seojun drawls. He’s not calling her. Just trying out the name. “That’s a nickname, right? No parent’s cruel enough to call their kid after a kitchen utensil.”

Another laugh bubbles out of Jugyeong and her eyes quickly dart to the door to make sure no one heard. “You haven’t met my mom,” she quips quietly, hand cupping her phone. “And what’s wrong with Jubal? It’s a nice name!” she adds quickly. She always sounds like she’s angling for pity when it’s just her being honest. 

“What’s your real name?”

Jugyeong goes quiet.

“Forget it,” Seojun says dismissively. “You don’t have to tell me.”

“I will when you earn my trust,” Jugyeong promises, reflexively sticking her little finger up.

“Deal.”

Jugyeong puts her hand down. “I have to go,” she says. “If mom catches me talking to you instead of studying, she’ll hang my noose.”

She’s rewarded with another one of his breathy chuckles. “Alright.”

“Ok.”

She waits for him to hang up.

“Talking like this is easier than messaging,” he remarks instead. There’s a hidden request in there that doesn’t go unnoticed by Jugyeong.

“It is,” she agrees. “Maybe we can do it again?”

“Mm,” Seojun hums. “Take care, Jubal.”

Her birthday feels different this time. It’s only been a week since she became friends with Semi but her life’s been much better. Even her family say so. 

She’s holding the straps of her backpack when she walks into her class. Stops dead in her tracks when she sees the decorations hung up.

For her.

She blinks, looking around slowly to take everything in. The happy birthday graffitied across the board, the party hat propped on its corner, the big cake on her desk.

Then the booming happy birthday! from her classmates who have always looked down on her– not even that. From her classmates who ignored her completely, acted like she didn’t even exist.

She grins and pushes her glasses up her nose. “Thank you,” she says shyly, gripping the straps of her bag a little tighter.

Semi walks over to her. “Yah, don’t thank us! We’re friends now,” she takes a hold of Jugyeong’s hair tie and slides it off. “At least let your hair down today.”

Jugyeong chuckles timidly and nods, nose stringing with emotion. “Thank you,” she repeats.

Semi’s friends sit her down as the class sing her a happy birthday. 

“Wait, wait!” Semi shouts. “Group photo before she slices the cake!”

The class crowds around her and Hyemin stands at the front of class to take the photo.

“Wait,” Jugyeong says quietly. “What about Hyemin?”

“We’ll take one with her later,” Semi responds. “Three, two, one…”

Everyone pulls their jackets open.

Flash. 

Then laughter. Not joy. Just… mockery. 

Jugyeong looks around her. Catches sight of the shirts they’re all wearing. Adam the Beast, but with her face poorly photoshopped onto his.

“What–” Jugyeong cuts herself off and presses her mouth shut. Like beauty and the beast but with the roles reversed!

“Omo, look at her,” Semi cackles, placing a hand over her lips like she’s genuinely concerned.

Jugyeong can hear her heartbeat in her ears, mixed with laughter, then the splatter of her face being shoved into her birthday cake.

The city lights are blurred from where she’s sitting. She smells like the fruit that has her hair stuck in tacky locks framing her face, and the ledge underneath her is as cold as the wet uniform shirt she’s wearing. Where her glasses are hooked.

She’s tired of seeing. Tired of being looked at. Tired of being looked through. Tired of the mirror. 

And she thinks it might be easier. To fall without looking. Because she knows that if she could see the ground from up here, she’d get scared and back down.

Her phone vibrates in her hands and she looks down at it, squints until she can make out the caller ID.

When she brings it to her ear, Seojun’s already yelling. “Yah, Jubal! Why didn’t you tell me it’s your birthday?”

Jugyeong stays quiet.

“I had to find out from the comments on your blog,” Seojun goes on. “Best friends my foot,” he mutters.

Jugyeong knows that she’d laugh if she was okay. But right now–

“Jubal?”

“Mm?” It’s all she can muster right now without her voice giving her away.

“Are you okay?” Seojun’s voice softens. 

And like the first time he messaged her those same words, she feels every single second of the day weigh down on her. Shackle themselves to her ankles. “Yes,” she replies.

“Tsk,” Seojun clucks his tongue. “Let’s try again. What’s wrong?”

Jugyeong’s silent. Then she’s not. She’s embarrassed of how loud she starts crying. And how she tries to explain what happened through body-wracking sobs.

But mostly, she’s embarrassed that Seojun listens. Doesn’t interrupt her once.

Seojun’s quiet for a few breaths after she’s done. Then, “Do you feel better?”

Jugyeong wipes her eyes with her sleeve, then her nose. She sniffles, nods.

“I want you to go home,” Seojun says. “Shower, eat something, and when you’re ready, call me, okay?”

Jugyeong nods. “Ok.”

“Promise?”

Jugyeong nods, hiccupping another affirmative.

She pockets her phone and puts her glasses back on, then climbs off the ledge.

On her way down the building, she knocks into someone. Has his headphones dropping to the floor.

“Sorry,” she quickly exclaims, bowing her apology. She picks the headphones up and dusts them awkwardly before she hands them to the guy.

He nods once and Jugyeong bows another apology before she continues her way down. 

“Do I know you?” 

Jugyeong turns around, looking up the stairs. She inspects him for any familiarity. “Adam the Beast?” she offers, trying for playful. 

The boy looks at her blandly for a few moments, clearly unamused by her attempt at humor, then he turns around and carries on up the stairs. But not before she sees his lips twitch up at one corner.

So the call goes like this,

“Hello?”

“I’m sorry,” Jugyeong blurts.

“How are you?”

“I’m so sorry,” Jugyeong adds.

Seojun laughs. “Why are you sorry?” he asks. His voice, in all its amused glory, is still tinged with concern. 

Jugyeong slumps, looking down at her wiggling toes. She doesn’t say anything so Seojun does. “I want names.”

“O?” Jugyeong perks up.

“Their names,” Seojun fills out. “A whole list, I’ll kill them.”

Jugyeong rubs at her neck, smiling despite herself and despite the clusterfuck she’s in. “Are you secretly a hoodlum, Seojun-ah?”

“Hoodlum?” Seojun echoes, clearly offended. “This is what I get for wanting to protect you?!”

Jugyeong’s smile widens. “Thank you.”

“Thank me when I’m done with them,” Seojun retorts.

“No. Thank you for calling…” Jugyeong starts quietly. “Earlier, on the ledge…”

Seojun sighs his frustration out. “Are you okay?”

“Mm,” Jugyeong nods. “But my eyes are all swollen and I feel so humiliated. I don’t know how I’m going to go to school on Monday.”

“Don’t think about it,” Seojun replies. “Things like that, they wear off once another thing comes up.

“Did you get any presents?”

“Ah, yeah,” Jugyeong looks at the presents in question. “My sister got me a necklace. Dad made me a candle… He’s been learning how to make scented candles as a hobby…” she trails off.

“What’s the scent?”

“Jasmine,” Jugyeong answers. “It’s my favorite flower.”

“Your brother?”

“He’s a prick,” Jugyeong grits out. “He got me a hoodie that says World’s Most Annoying Sister.” 

Seojun laughs at that, something relaxed and pleased that makes Jugyeong lie down on her side and just listen.

“Seojun?”

“What?”

“Thank you,” she whispers. “For being there for me.”

“Yah, stop it,” Seojun mutters. “It’s not a favor. You’re my favorite pastime.”

“Pastime?!” Jugyeong echoes, acting hurt.

But she’s laughing and so is he. And it feels good to have a shoulder to lean on.

“Heekyung! Jugyeong! Juyoung! Family meeting!”

Jugyeong’s not the only one who looks confused as she plods down the stairs and into the living room. Heekyung sits on the armrest of a couch and Juyoung pushes Jugyeong further into the room. “Family meeting?” he asks. “Since when?”

“Since your dad decided it was a good idea to invest all his money in a scam,” she’s smiling but she’s not pleased. “Why don’t you give your children the news, honey?” the last word’s gritted out through clenched teeth.

Jugyeong blinks to her dad, standing guiltily by his wife. 

“We’re moving back to our old house,” he says quietly.

Heekyung’s the first to react, toothbrush in her mouth and bangs pulled up into a fountain at the front of her head. “That’s it?” she muffles. “Our old house is closer to my workplace anyway!” she stands up and walks back into the bathroom.

Juyoung rests his ankle on the opposite thigh, sprawling his arms across the backrest of the couch he’s sitting on. “Wherever we go, I’ll always be the handsomest, smartest guy at school.”

It clicks.

Jugyeong looks back to her parents. “Does that mean I’m moving schools?” she can’t keep the glee from her voice.

“Look at her, happy that we’re poor again,” her mother curls her lip at her. “Yeah! We’ll find a new school!”

Jugyeong’s squeal nearly pierces her own ears.

“It’s a good way to get to know each other!”

“We know enough!”

“Let’s hang up then!”

Seojun groans. “Fine! Fine, let’s play truth like a couple of twelve year olds!”

“Ok! I’ll go first,” Jugyeong grins. “What’s your favorite color?”

“I’m hanging up,” Seojun replies. 

“I’m just kidding,” Jugyeong amends quickly, half-laughing. “Gosh. You have a temper,” she grouses under her breath. “Hm… Is it blue?”

“Jubal!”

“Sorry, sorry,” Jugyeong laughs out. “…Black?”

“Gray,” Seojun sighs. “My turn. Tell me something different that you like about yourself.”

“Something–” Jugyeong halts. “That isn’t a question,” she mumbles. 

She’s never pondered on things she likes about herself. It’s something she needs to think about for at least a week.

“Ah, you’re right,” Seojun replies. What’s something different that you like about yourself?”

Jugyeong has to close her eyes to stop herself from rolling them. “In my appearance?”

“Anything.”

“I like that I read books the old-fashioned way,” Jugyeong asserts. “I like to smell the paper.”

“Cute,” Seojun comments. “Your turn.”

The remark’s offhanded, but the tips of Jugyeong’s ears and the back of her neck feel hot all of a sudden. “Oh…Uh…” she takes a breath to clear her mind before she makes a fool out of herself. “Why did you not reply to me that time…?”

Seojun’s silent on the other end of the line. Jugyeong’s on the verge of apologizing but he talks before she can. “I had to work,” he says faintly. Then harrumphs and goes on in an even tone. “The family leave I took; it was for my mom. I was working to save up for her hospital bills and I was starting to slack off a little until I got a call that day.”

Jugyeong feels an overwhelming guilt gnaw at her from the inside. “Sorry, Seojun-ah…I shouldn’t have–”

“It’s okay.”

“And to think the last message I sent you before then was…” she trails off and knocks a hand on her forehead. 

“It’s okay,” Seojun reaffirms.

“Is she okay now?” Jugyeong questions.

“What?” Seojun responds. “Yeah. She’s still at the hospital but she’s the strongest woman I know so I try not to worry.”

Something about the way Seojun talks about his family makes Jugyeong feel warm.

“What’s a secret you haven’t told your parents?” Seojun suddenly puts forth. 

It’s after midnight, so it’s only natural for Jugyeong to lose her brain to mouth filter and blurt a ‘You’. Her eyes widen at her own slip. “I mean– my parents don’t like the idea of me talking to guys before college.”

Seojun hums a teasing mmhm. “I’m your dirty little secret?”

“Don’t say it like that,” Jugyeong says under her breath, even if she feels a stir in her abdomen at the way he says it. “By the way, I’m moving tomorrow and going to check a new school so we can’t talk.”

“You’re moving to a new school? Which one?”

“Yah. I won’t fall for that,” Jugyeong scolds him quietly. He’s been trying to get her to meet up for weeks now. 

Seojun tuts his tongue. “Was worth the shot,” he sighs. “You should get some rest then.”

“Ok,” Jugyeong’s already pulling her hairband off and adjusting her pillow, phone trapped between her shoulder and ear.

“Take care, Jubal,” Seojun bids farewell. He’s about to hang up but Jugyeong calls his name, half hesitant half eager. 

“Mm?”

Jugyeong bites her bottom lip as she holds her phone again, grip going iron-tight for just a second before she relaxes it. “Jugyeong,” she leaves the name hanging for a second, then, “It’s Jugyeong.”

Seojun seems at a loss for words by the suddenness of it. For a small while, there’s nothing but silence. Then he says her name. Slow and melodious. Splits it into syllables on his tongue. Jugyeong likes it. Likes the way he repeats it a few times like it’s holy and he’s revering it letter by letter. Quietly, and with barely hidden delight, he says, “Good night, Jugyeong.”

She knows deleting the photos from her phone won’t delete the sadness the past few weeks have brought her, but it’s a good start. 

She’s barely recognizable in makeup. Looking at the pictures has deep-rooted nostalgia for something she never even had lodge itself in her chest. 

The car hits a speed bump, bringing her back to earth. She clears her throat, thumb hovering over the delete button.

Why is she hesitating? She should just delete it. Out of sight out of mind, right?

“Who’s that?” Juyoung asks, leaning his head on her shoulder.

“What do you mean who’s that?!” Jugyeong shrugs him off her. “Isn’t it obv–” she puts the brakes on her question and turns to look at him. “You really don’t know?”

“I’m too cool to keep up with girl groups,” Juyoung responds proudly.

Jugyeong blinks. “Girl groups–?” she looks back at her screen. It looks brighter now. A beacon of hope, maybe?

“I knew you couldn’t last a day without talking to me,” Seojun greets the moment he picks up.

“You’re growing an ego,” Jugyeong answers, phone between her ear and shoulder as she holds up a shirt in front of her. She peruses it for a few seconds, then folds it and puts it in its respective pile.

“What do you mean? I’ve always been this arrogant,” Seojun says back.

It makes her laugh.

“Are you still unpacking? Aren’t you tired?”

“Yes and yes,” Jugyeong responds. The second question has her registering just how tired she is. She takes her phone in hand and throws herself back on her bed, revelling in the way her backache starts easing. “Mm. And there are still so many boxes I need to carry in from the car before we sell it.”

“Are they heavy?” Seojun questions. “I could drop by and help.”

Jugyeong takes a deep breath and lets it out on a sigh. “Seojun-ah…”

“Ok, fine. Never mind,” Seojun dismisses, then tuts his tongue. “Forgive me for wanting to be helpful.”

“You just want to meet up,” Jugyeong parries. “Look… I like talking to you, but–”

“You’re not about to break up with me, are you?”

Jugyeong rolls her eyes, a smile small on her lips. “You’re a good friend and I really enjoy our conversations, but I can’t meet you,” she says quietly. “It’s not about you. I trust you.”

“Are you going to give me the it’s not me, it’s you, Jugyeong?” Although there’s a playful edge to his voice, Seojun sounds a lot more serious than he usually does. Or less lighthearted for want of a better wording.

“Be serious, jerk,” Jugyeong groans, drawing a laugh out of him. “But it is me,” she adds after a moment of thought. “I’m scared that once you see me…” she sits up, bringing a hand to her neck to rub at the knot there, like she can manually make way for her words.

“Hey,” Seojun’s voice gentles. “Yah. I’m offended you think so low of me but if staying like this is good for you, then it’s good for me too.”

Jugyeong’s heart does a thing and she quickly drops her hand from her neck to the quickening beat in her chest. Bangs a fist against it like she can stop herself from feeling stuff by hand. Her body hates her today. “Thank you.”

“Besides, you’re the one missing out,” Seojun says nonchalantly. Always one to lighten up the mood. “I’m so sexy I think it’s better you don’t see me. You might go blind. Or worse, you might have a heart attack and–”

“Ok, ok,” Jugyeong interrupts halfway to a laugh. “I get it.”

Seojun laughs, a laugh that dwindles a few moments later and leaves them in silence.

Jugyeong clears her throat. “Seojun?”

“Mm?”

“What do you think of makeup?” Jugyeong’s asking out of pure curiosity, eyes fixed on the pile of makeup she’d splurged on.

Seojun hums thoughtfully for a handful of seconds, then, “Why?”

Jugyeong shrugs. “Just asking…”

“Does it matter?” Seojun quips. “What do you think of makeup?”

Jugyeong falters, biting her lower lip into her mouth. She’s not sure.

“If it makes you happy,” Seojun says when he realizes Jugyeong won’t be answering his question. “And you’re not hurting anyone, go for it, understood?”

“Wise. Were you a thinker in your past life?”

“Yep. I chose looks this time,” Seojun answers smugly. Witty. He sighs wistfully. “We can’t have it all.”

“Yah, Seojun-ah! It’s your turn to do the dishes!”

The voice is unfamiliar, but Jugyeong assumes it’s his sister. The one into comics.

“Can’t you see I’m on the phone!” Seojun yells back. His voice’s a bit muffled, phone-to-chest muffled. “I’ll do the laundry! You do the dishes!”

“You don’t even know how to separate the whites!” his sister snaps back.

Jugyeong presses her lips together to hold back a laugh.

“Then I’ll cook!”

“You never cook!”

“I can try!”

“You’ll just make ramen!”

“What’s wrong with ramen?!”

“Why can’t you just do the dishes? I did them this morning!” his sister yells. She has the same loudness as him. The type that makes Jugyeong smile.

“I had work! And I did them last night, look,” Seojun argues. There are footsteps, then Seojun’s quiet, “Look, my hands are all dry and cracked and– Ow! Yah, Gowoon! Why are you hitting me?! This is child abuse!”

“You’re eighteen,” his sister – Gowoon – snarls. “Animal abuse? Maybe.”

“Art vandalism,” there’s a grin in Seojun’s voice. Then Gowoon’s laugh. “I’ll do the dishes; you do the ramen.”

“Deal.”

Jugyeong’s smiling through the conversation, picking at her thumbnail as she waits.

“Sorry,” Seojun says after a moment. “That was my sister.”

“Ah, it’s okay!” Jugyeong’s voice rises. Lower, she says, “She sounds nice.”

“She is,” Seojun replies, in the same tone he’d called his mother strong.

“You’re a family guy,” It’s not a question. Just an observation.

“Of course. Being the only guy in the family does that.”

Jugyeong opens her mouth to ask, but quickly thinks better of it and snaps it shut.

Seojun hears the question anyway. “He passed away.”

“I’m sorry,” Jugyeong mumbles. She thinks about the amount of times she’d spoken about her own father. The amount of times Seojun just listened. She hates how insensitive–

“Don’t overthink,” Seojun derails her train of thought. “I can hear you thinking from here.”

Jugyeong opens her mouth to lie and say she wasn’t, but her door flies open. “Yah, Jugyeong-ah. I’m exhausted, let’s go have chicken feet,” Heekyung ambles in, rubbing at her neck then swiping the back of her hand over her forehead.

Jugyeong clears her throat. “I’ll talk to you later?”

“Who are you talking to?” Heekyung questions. “The boyfriend?”

Jugyeong’s eyes widen. “NO!” she yells. “No, I don’t have– who told you I have a boyfriend?”

There’s a laugh on the other end of the line. “Do you want to be my girlfriend that badly? How about we just date?”

Jugyeong’s cheeks flush. “Ok, I’ll talk to you later! I’m hanging up first!”

“Tell me about him.”

Heekyung doesn’t even look at her as she speaks, mouth full and eyes fixed on her plate.

“O?”

“The guy. The one who’s making you smile so much.”

“Guy–? No,” Jugyeong laughs. “There’s no guy.”

“No one smiles for no reason in our household,” Heekyung jokes. But there’s some truth to that statement. “Especially not you,” she chews noisily and reaches for her glass of coke with greasy fingers. “Mom treats you the worst.” There’s a lot of truth to that. “Who is he?”

“Just a guy,” Jugyeong relents. “I met online.”

“Online?!” Heekyung shouts.

“You’re always talking to people online while playing those games!”

“But not like that! They don’t have my number!” Heekyung asserts. “What if he was an old sicko!”

“He isn’t, I heard his voice,” Jugyeong rolls her eyes.

“Be careful online,” her sister sighs, sucking her fingers into her mouth. “Is he cute?”

“Who cares?” Jugyeong darts back. At Heekyung’s alarm, she clears her throat. “It’s not like I have the right to pick and choose anyway,” she mutters.

“Stop that,” Heekyung orders calmly. “Look at me.”

Jugyeong looks up at her.

Heekyung studies her closely, then nods. “You just need a dermatologist,” she says. “Finish eating and I’ll take you.”

Jugyeong smiles to herself.

“I just got my pay so we can check out that dress you were looking at too.”

Jugyeong blinks. “What?”

“Your goth phase is the most important part of your life,” Heekyung shrugs. “I’ll buy you the dress if you stop calling yourself ugly.”

Jugyeong’s smile turns a little softer around the edges as she looks at her from across the table.

“Stop looking at me, it’s uncomfortable.”

“Morticia.”

“Hello to you too, Jugyeong.”

Jugyeong grins. “Sorry. Hello.”

“Morticia?” Seojun asks. “What’s that?”

“You haven’t watched The Addams Family?” Jugyeong sounds appalled. “It’s a classic!”

“I’m not into movies,” Seojun sighs.

“That’s because you haven’t watched any good ones!” Jugyeong counters. “I’ll send you a list.”

“Who’s Morticia?”

“Ah, that,” Jugyeong looks at the dress sprawled on her bed. “Do you remember when you asked me who I’m going to be for Halloween?”

“Mm.”

“I’m going as Morticia.”

“Aha. Hold on, let me see who that is,” There’s a long pause, a sucked in breath, then, “Sexy.”

Jugyeong’s eyes widen tenuously, then her cheeks turn hot with embarrassment. “Yah!”

“I’m talking about Morticia!” Seojun yells back at her. “Besides, I’m your boyfriend, remember?”

“I– You– I never said that!” Jugyeong stammers out. “We’re just friends!”

Seojun doesn’t say anything.

Jugyeong clears her throat and pushes her glasses up her nose. “I’m starting school tomorrow.”

“Really?” Seojun perks up. “Good luck. Are you nervous?”

Jugyeong lifts her hand, holding her thumb and index half an inch away from each other. “Just a little.”

“Don’t be,” Seojun says. “You’re going to be great, ok?”

“Ok.”

“Say it.”

Jugyeong ducks her head, nibbling on her lip.

“Jugyeong,” Seojun sing-songs. “Come on, say it.”

“I’m going to be great,” Jugyeong responds, with much less confidence than she should have saying those words.

“That’s my girl,” Seojun extols.

Jugyeong doesn’t bother trying to will her heart down. She’s too far gone.

It’s good. It feels so good to have people look at her with so much awe. To speak to her in reverential voices and anticipate a response like her voice would be a prayer being answered.

It’s good. And it’s foreign. And it’s heartbreaking and heartwarming at once. It’s something she can get used to.

She makes two friends on her first day. That’s two friends more than she’s made throughout her childhood.

“How was it?”

Jugyeong tries to keep the glee out of her voice. “Horrible,” she answers in fake distress.

Seojun takes a deep breath. “Who was it? Just tell me, okay? I won’t– We’re friends, right? Just tell me, Jugyeong.”

“I’m just kidding!” Jugyeong chirps. “It was amazing. I made two friends!”

“Yah, do you think you’re funny?” Seojun’s voice loses all kindness. “But I’m glad it went well. You did great. Those two better be worthy.”

“They are.”

“And don’t forget about me now that you have them.”

Jugyeong wants to say what’s on her mind, wants to say, how can I forget about you when you’re all I think about these days?

Instead, she says, “Is the great Seojun feeling insecure?”

“Me? Insecure? Haah!” Seojun laughs out. Then, “Yes.”

Jugyeong’s smile drops. “Do you think I’d do that?” she questions.

“Maybe,” Seojun replies. “I’m just a faceless voice to you, Jugyeong-ah. I’m glad we’ve been friends for so long,” four months to be exact, “But it’s not the same when you have friends who can,” he pauses, clears his throat, “Hold you when you’re sad. Or take you out to comfort you. It’s different. So don’t forget I exist or I’ll kill you, ok?”

He says the last part like it can nullify everything else.

“Ok,” Jugyeong rasps. “I won’t.”

“Good,” Seojun affirms, back to loud and joyous. “I have to go now. Call me when you’re free?”

“Ok,” Jugyeong nods. “And Seojun?” she pauses, waits for him to hum his question. “You’re my best friend.”

“I’m the best everything,” Seojun brags. He waits for her to laugh before hanging up.

“Lim Jugyeong, my pretty friend!” Sua runs to Jugyeong with her arms spread wide.

Jugyeong hugs back with a laugh. “Stop it,” she says timidly. “I’m not that pretty.”

Sua pulls back, hands holding Jugyeong’s upper arms. “Pretty and humble? If your grades were good, you’d be too good to be real!” she acclaims. “How are you still single? Taehoon has a friend–”

“No,” Jugyeong interrupts abruptly, catching Sua and herself off-guard. She laughs nervously, rubbing the dip beneath her ear. “I’m not interested at the moment.”

Sua’s surprise turns knowing, mouth open, one eye squinted. “Do you like someone?”

“Stop interrogating her.”

Jugyeong looks over Sua’s shoulder. “Sujin-ah!”

“Not everyone wants a boyfriend,” Sujin tells Sua as she links her arm through Jugyeong’s. “Or a relationship as cringe as yours.”

Sua scowls. “Jugyeong’s only been here for a week and you’re already ganging up on me,” she mumbles, linking her arm through Jugyeong’s other one.

“Put some aloe vera on it, okay?”

Seojun continues hissing over the line. “It burns so much I think I might die.”

“Don’t be dramatic,” Jugyeong tuts. “How did you spill coffee on yourself anyway?” she puts her pen down and leans back in her chair, balancing it on its hind legs.

“I’m at work,” Seojun replies. “Night shift.”

“You’re a barista?” Jugyeong perks up. “Is it fun?”

“I get free coffee and the uniform’s sexy,” Seojun answers. “Want a pic?”

Jugyeong lags. “Of– Of you?”

“No, silly,” Seojun laughs. “Of the uniform.”

“Ah…” Jugyeong knows that if she says yes she’d probably end up finding out the name of the café he works at. And Jugyeong’s curiosity’s always taken the best of her. “No thank you.”

Seojun laughs again, in surprise this time. She can hear him uncap a bottle and squeeze some aloe on his burn.

“Seojun-ah…” Jugyeong chews her bottom lip into her mouth. “Can I ask you something?”

“Mm,” Seojun answers distractedly. She can hear him moving around.

“Why do you hate bullies so much?”

The moving stops.

“Everyone hates bullies,” he says after a devastatingly long second.

“I know,” Jugyeong replies. “But you were willing to put mine in their place without even knowing me. Not everyone’s like that,” she pauses. “You don’t have to answer if you don’t want to.”

Seojun sighs. He sounds tired. Jugyeong’s about to apologize. “Hold on. Let me ask for a break, okay?” he relents.

“You don’t have to!” Jugyeong hurries to clear up.

“I know,” a beat, a door opens, “Yah! Someone take my place; I’m taking a break!” he closes the door again and it’s quiet. It feels like she’s in the room with him, tucked away from the world. “Do you know Yoon Seyeon?”

“The idol?” Jugyeong questions. “The one who…”

“Mm,” Seojun answers. “He was my friend.”

That’s the last thing Jugyeong had in mind. “What?”

“He was…” Seojun takes a shaky breathy. “A good person. Always happy and charismatic. The only time I saw him cry was when his pet hamster passed away.

“When he debuted, people at school started spreading rumors. That he was a bully. Netizens started criticizing him,” Seojun stops to take another breath. “He was strong, but even he had a limit to how much he can handle.”

“Seojun…” Jugyeong trails off. She’s not sure what to say. “Thank you for trusting me with this.”

Seojun sniffles, then clears his throat. “There’s only one thing I hate in the world more than bullies.”

“What is it?”

“Pineapple on pizza.”

A laugh bubbles out of Jugyeong. “Yah, this is serious.”

Seojun chuckles. “I know. But he wouldn’t want me to be sad,” he says, only half-amused. “What are you doing?”

“Studying,” Jugyeong groans, dropping her forehead on her books. “If I don’t get a good grade I’m dead.”

“Don’t be hard on yourself,” Seojun orders her. “Take breaks, ok? I have to go before my co-worker kills me.”

“Ok,” Jugyeong grumbles. “Can we still talk later?”

“Is talking to me that addictive?” Seojun boasts.

“Mmhm,” Jugyeong hums, burnt out and ready to drop.

“Get some rest, Jugyeong,” Seojun sounds pleased with the confession. “Sweet dreams.”

“Twenty questions is boring and your mind’s always in the gutter.”

Seojun guffaws, loud and hearty and so so good. Jugyeong feels like she can’t breathe. “Ok, ok. How about two truths and a lie?”

Jugyeong rolls onto her stomach, legs kicking in the air. “Ok, you start this time.”

“I’m a great guy,” Seojun begins. “I look good in leather,” he pauses for theatrics, “The sky is green.”

“I’m hanging up,” Jugyeong responds. “The first two are truths, the last is a lie.”

“Correct. Your go.”

“I’m a cat person,” Jugyeong starts. “I like metal,” she hums, squinting an eye, “I have pink nail polish on right now.”

“Metal’s just screaming.”

“Yah!” Jugyeong yells.

“Aha! Got you. You’re a cat person and you like metal. The last one’s a lie.”

“Jerk,” Jugyeong curls her lip. “You’re right. How’d you know I’m a cat person?”

“Everyone’s a cat person.”

Good point.

“Let’s see… I went to school with Nam Dareum,” Seojun says. “I’m bad at math,” he adds slowly. “And I want to be a singer.”

“That’s hard,” Jugyeong complains. “You’re definitely bad at math,” she pointedly ignores Seojun’s protests. “But Dareum? You want to be a singer? I didn’t know you can sing.”

“Can’t you tell?” Seojun questions. “I have the voice of an idol.”

She can’t deny that. She can’t go a day without listening to him talk. She doesn’t think she can survive him singing.

“I can swim,” she affirms. “Tteokbokki is my favorite meal. When I was a kid, I wanted to be a princess.”

“You can’t swim.”

“How did you know that? What if I wanted to be a doctor?!”

“Everyone wanted to be a princess!” Seojun argues back. Makes them both laugh. “Ok, last one.”

Jugyeong waits.

“I ride a motorcycle,” Seojun says, calculative and slow. “My toothbrush is blue,” he goes on. There’s a long interval before he says, “I like you.”

Jugyeong’s kicking comes to a stop, stomach churning. She feels sick. Feels like a joke. Or like maybe Seojun thinks it’s fine to say things like that in jest.

They’re both silent. Not moving. Or talking. Not even breathing.

Eventually, when Jugyeong decides it’s enough, she huffs. Light and exasperated and with thinly-veiled hurt. “That one’s obvious.”

“Is it?” Seojun questions. And then, “Tell me.”

The words hang, heavy and potent between them. Jugyeong can hear his lips part slickly, for just a second. As if he can swallow them back in. Gulp down the past two minutes and lick the seconds clean.

“The first two are truths,” Jugyeong says in a level tone. “Ah. My parents are calling me down,” she sits up to slide her feet into her slippers. “I’ve got to go!”

She hangs up before he can gather enough mind to answer.

In hindsight, avoiding him isn’t the best idea. Not when she feels what she feels and not when she hasn’t given him an explanation.

But how does she explain herself to him without giving too much away? Ah by the way, Seojun-ah. I like you so when you jokingly said you liked me, I felt pathetic and delusional and it felt like I was talking to Hyunbin all over again.

No. She doesn’t want to paint herself as some delicate-petaled flower. And she doesn’t want to make him out to be a bad guy. Hyunbin turning out to be a jerk doesn’t give her the right to paint Seojun with the same brush.

He’s nothing like him.

And Seojun’s being patient. He called her twice after their stupid game of two truths and a lie, both calls to which she did not respond. When she posted on her blog, he took the hint. Understood. He’s nothing if not understanding. He didn’t get mad or clingy.

A part of Jugyeong wished he had. So she can stop feeling what she’s feeling. She wants to find a crack in the pristine crystal he’s sculpted out of. Wants to drill down to his depth just to find something that can serve as a kiss of death to everything she likes about him.

It’s been nine days and she’s not feeling any better. Not feeling any less, either.

So she sends a text.

‘are you up?’

Seojun’s patient. That doesn’t make him any less eager. He gives space, but when she takes the initiative, he’s. There. Shamelessly wholehearted.

She’s not surprised when he answers less than a minute later.

‘yes’

She’s learnt his typing style by rote. Knows when he’s being dry towards her.

‘ah okay’

‘I’m sorry’

‘for?’

‘not talking to you sooner’

‘and shunning you’

Nothing.

‘are you mad at me?’

‘do you not want to be friends with me anymore?’

‘can I call you?’

He calls her a few minutes after she responds with a yes.

She feels too embarrassed to say anything, so she lets him do the talking.

“Talk, Jugyeong.”

Jugyeong opens her mouth, then scowls and looks down, the hair framing her face hanging loose. “Are you mad?”

“Yes,” Seojun replies simply.

“Do you not want to be my friend anymore?” she recites her text.

Seojun breathes out his nose. “No,” he answers, outright and cruel.

Jugyeong nods to herself. It’s been a long time coming. An imminent thing that Jugyeong stashed away two months into their friendship and hoped would never come. But.

“My turn?” Seojun asks. He doesn’t wait for her answer. “My toothbrush is purple.”

Jugyeong’s eyes were shut tightly, a buffer against whatever he was going to say. Upon hearing his words, she frowns. Nearly laughs. “What?”

“My toothbrush isn’t blue,” Seojun spells out.

Jugyeong’s about to ask him what that has to do with this. She stops once the words sink in.

I ride a motorcycle. My toothbrush is blue. I like you.

“I can’t stand you, Jugyeong,” Seojun sighs. “You’re driving me crazy. I can’t stop thinking about you.”

Jugyeong presses her lips together, hand necklacing her throat.

“I don’t want to be friends,” he concludes. “I’m telling you how I feel but you’re free to do with it what you like,” he goes on, blithe and cool. “I shouldn’t get greedy, right?”

Jugyeong can’t bring herself to talk. There are very rare times where she wishes her family were home. There’s a grounding quality to their loudness. But her parents and Heekyung are off in the countryside to see her grandparents and Juyoung’s asleep downstairs.

“Don’t tell me you fell asleep,” Seojun sighs. “I’m pouring my heart and soul out here!”

“I like you too,” There’s a ringing silence right after the last syllable leaves her lips.

“Why?” Seojun asks. “Tell me exactly what you like about me.”

Jugyeong curls her lip at his obvious effort to have her stroke his ego. “You have a nice voice,” she says it like she hates admitting it. “And I think about you a lot.”

“Yah, cheat! Get your own confession. Why are you repeating mine?!”

Jugyeong smiles, exhaling a laugh from her nose.

“When do you like it most?” Seojun questions.

“O?”

“My voice. You said you like my voice. So tell me when you like it most,” Seojun elaborates. “When it’s like this?” his voice drops low in a way that has Jugyeong swallowing thickly. “Or maybe like this?” there’s a breathless sharpness to his words, drawled and gravelly. “Come on, don’t be shy, Jugyeong.”

Jugyeong’s breath catches, then she pushes it out slowly to not sound affected. The wobble in it brings Seojun’s laugh to a stop. There’s a pulse of nothing before he chortles again, as breathless as she feels, always quick to catch on. “Aah…” he says slowly, shamelessly amused and bold about it. “Am I exciting you?” It’s rhetorical. He’s smug enough to know the answer already. “Does my voice do it for you, Jugyeong?”

Jugyeong swallows, eyes flickering to the door like someone might barge in any second. “Seojun-ah…”

“Jugyeong,” his shortness of breath isn’t for show anymore. “Are you…Are you alone?”

“I’m not letting you come over,” Jugyeong’s voice cracks midsentence, waning to a feeble whisper.

“I know,” Seojun scoffs. “I want to ask you about the second half of your confession. You said you think about me a lot.”

Jugyeong has a feeling she knows where this is going.

“Do you think about me touching you?”

He’s breathing heavy into the receiver. Jugyeong wonders. If he thinks about touching her. How long he’s been wanting her. It feels shameful, it should be shameful, to admit that she’s thought about him like that before. Imagined him. Vague. Faceless. Whispering filth into her ear.

And when he’d sent her a picture of his morning coffee, hand wrapped around it. All veins and tendons and slim fingers. She’d thought about those too.

She used to feel ashamed. Because they were friends and she believed her feelings were unrequited.

But now?

“Yes,” she admits.

“How?” Seojun whispers, voice rough as sand.

“I–” Jugyeong cuts herself off, shaking her head.

“Don’t tell me,” Seojun says before she can try again. “Are you…?”

Turned on. Wet. She’s not sure what the rest of the question is, but a yes falls from her lips unprompted.

“Can you touch yourself for me?” Seojun asks. He sounds like he can barely keep his hunger at bay. “Can you touch yourself the way you imagine me touching you?”

She does. She bites back her moans until Seojun tuts, tells her to let him hear her. She parts her legs when he tells her it’ll feel better that way. Thumbs over her nub when he asks her to.

She can barely keep a steady grip on her phone as he talks her through it. Pleasure flows scorching hot through her body when he tells her she looks good like this; tells her he wants to touch and kiss every inch of her body. “How does it feel?” he husks. Right into her ear. “How do I feel, Jugyeong?”

Jugyeong keens, eyes clenching shut as she bears down on her fingers. “Seojun-ah…” his name leaves her like a prayer. Panted like a plea.

“Right here,” Seojun responds. “Right here. Come on. You’re so good for me. So good, baby.”

The praise does it for her. Has her arching her back off her bed, her grip on the phone turning white-knuckled as she falls apart. Her body feels too small for the pleasure she feels, every muscle drawn taut as she moans his name over and over, has her name echoed back.

Her body slackens and she sags into her mattress.

“Good girl,” Seojun remarks. He’s teasing. Now that he knows praise gets her off.

The afterglow’s quieter. Calm. Jugyeong still feels hazy as she comes back down.

“So,” Seojun begins. “You like my voice.”

“Shut up,” Jugyeong groans. She feels overheated but her cheeks still manage to get hotter. “Arrogant asshole.”

Seojun chuckles. He sounds different. Tense. “I need to…” he trails off, hoping he can get his point across.

Jugyeong opens her mouth. “Ah! Right. Yes,” she can’t help the swell of pride at the idea of turning him on. It makes her feel good. “I need to shower anyway…”

“Then have some rest, ok?” Seojun answers. “I start school tomorrow too.”

“You’re going back to school?” Jugyeong perks up.

“Mm. You’d know if you weren’t ignoring me for the past week.”

“Sorry,” Jugyeong mumbles.

‘Yah. I’m just teasing,” Seojun chastises her calmly. “We’ll talk tomorrow.”

“Ok! And Seojun?”

“Mm?”

Jugyeong bites her bottom lip for a few seconds. Shakes her head. “Nothing. Take care of yourself.”

“About to,” Seojun puns.

“Seojun!” Jugyeong calls out just as he’s going to disconnect.

“Yes?”

It’s ironic how shy she suddenly is even with what they were just up to. But it’s different when she’s not clouded by arousal.

“Think of me…” she doesn’t mean to sound so self-conscious.

She waits for her words to get through.

Seojun chortles, amused with the implication. “Oh, I will,” he purrs back.

Don’t get her wrong, Jugyeong loves Mr. Junwoo. He’s the best homeroom teacher she could ask for.

But she’s bored out of her mind and his motivational quotes are doing nothing to quench her boredom.

She draws moustaches and eyeliner on people in her textbook. Practices her signature. Doodles. She considers a nap at some point but decides against it.

When she tunes back in, Junwoo’s calmly reprimanding someone. She looks up. Then sits up.

The guy standing in front of the classroom looks about done with everyone and everything. He shifts his weight, looking to the side as his tongue pokes the inside of his cheek.

“Now why don’t you stand straight?”

The guy throws his head back and sighs at the ceiling before he stands upright.

“And introduce yourself!”

“Yah! Han seun-sengnim!” the newcomer yells. “Everybody already knows who I am! Why would I introduce myself again?”

Jugyeong falters upon hearing his voice, recognition dawning on her like a bucket of freezing water.

Fuck.