Jaehwan and Hakyeon were waiting for her outside her locker the next day before school, Jaehwan yawning behind her hand. She wasn’t a morning person either and clearly they had been there a while to make sure they didn’t miss her. Her droopiness wasn’t unusual per se. What was unusual was that Hakyeon didn’t look bright and perky like she always did in the mornings; she was wearing jeans, and her hair was pulled back with a tie. The last time Taekwoon had seen her wear this look, her grandmother had gone into hospital with a broken hip.
Taekwoon squinted at them. Jaehwan, huddled in her sheepskin lined denim jacket, shifted away so that she could get to her locker. “Can we talk?” Hakyeon asked, already sounding wobbly and wet.
Taekwoon, who had never met a conversation that she wanted to be part of, stuck her head into her locker and spoke from in there. “Do we have to?”
“We wanted to explain,” Hakyeon said, “and just, say sorry, for not telling you, we didn’t mean to—”
Taekwoon removed her head from her locker and sighed. “I’m not mad,” she said softly, which made Hakyeon slam her mouth shut, and Jaehwan’s eyebrows rise. “I mean, I guess— you guys could have told me, you know? I’m not— it doesn’t upset me.”
They glanced at each other. “There’s not really that much to tell,” said Jaehwan. “It’s just sex.”
Hakyeon smacked her, hard enough that Taekwoon winced.
“What! We’re not together, we’re not a couple.”
Hakyeon sighed. “Much as it pains me to admit it, she’s right. But we still should have told you. You’re really not mad? You ran out so quickly yesterday.”
Taekwoon stared at her. “Of course I ran out quickly, you had your hand up Jaehwan’s shirt.”
Hakyeon flinched. Jaehwan asked, “you mean you didn’t want to see my wonderful nipples?”
“No,” said Taekwoon. “No, I did not.”
“You wound me.”
“I just— I can’t believe you two are—”
“Believe me,” said Hakyeon with a long-suffering sigh. “I am as surprised as you are.”
Jaehwan grinned and slid her hand around Taekwoon’s elbow. “Now that’s all done and dusted, are you going to tell us what happened yesterday at the basketball game?”
“What makes you think anything happened?”
“The fact that you came to Hakyeon’s house before the game had even ended?” Jaehwan snapped her fingers in front of her face. “Come on, spill.”
In fits and starts, in a quiet undertone that both Jaehwan and Hakyeon had to lean in to hear, Taekwoon told them everything that had happened at the game. Well, almost everything; she missed out some of the finer details of how it had made her feel to watch him play. She wasn’t like Jaehwan, she couldn’t overshare everything.
She said enough that both of them understood what she was missing out, and when she got to their conversation on the bleachers, they exchanged looks. “Oh my god,” said Hakyeon in a rush. “He flirted with you and you flirted back.”
Taekwoon pressed her face against the door of her locker, trying to cool her hot face down. “Don’t remind me.”
“This is fascinating,” said Jaehwan. “I never thought this would happen.”
Taekwoon titled her head so she could glare at Jaehwan out of the corner of her eye. “What, that a guy would— flirt with me?”
“No,” said Jaehwan scornfully. “That you’d flirt back with Sanghyuk. He peed in my inflatable pool when he was four. I’ve never forgiven or forgotten.”
Taekwoon pressed her lips together to keep herself from laughing. Hakyeon didn’t even bother. “What happened after that?” she asked. “You did leave the game early.”
“I. um.” She hunched her shoulders in anticipation. “He said he’d see me after the game but I was so freaked out I left.”
“Oh,” said Jaehwan. “I wondered.”
“Well, he came to my house last night,” she said carefully. “He asked for your phone number. He seemed kind of— upset, I guess. But I told him I was busy, because I was freaking out about you too, and shut the door in his face.”
“You’re going to talk to him, right?” Hakyeon asked, sounding as distraught by the thought of Sanghyuk being upset as Taekwoon had expected. “He must have been so sad when you just left!”
“Talking isn’t exactly what I was thinking,” Taekwoon muttered. Jaehwan waggled her eyebrows. Taekwoon glared at her. “That’s not what I meant.”
“You can’t just ignore him,” Hakyeon said.
“Watch me,” said Taekwoon.
She managed up until lunch, which sounded impressive until their widely different class schedules were taken into account. When she turned into the hallway where her locker was, he was leaning up against it, one foot propped up against the row of lockers. His arms were folded across his chest. She would have run away but he’d already seen her— actually she would have run anyway, but she needed her calculus textbook.
He moved when she got closer, shuffling to the side so she could get into her locker, but he didn’t leave. He looked mad when she glanced at him so she didn’t look at him any more. “Taekwoon,” he said.
She hunched her shoulders. She wanted to reply to him but found that she couldn’t; she opened her mouth and then shut it again.
“You left last night,” he said. “I thought maybe you’d just gone to the bathroom but then you didn’t come back.” She stared into her locker, eyes half-closed. “Taekwoon, could you at least look at me.”
It took her a moment but she managed it. He looked frustrated; he’d clearly pushed a hand through his hair while he was talking and now it stood up in places. This was why she hadn’t wanted to get her hopes up. Nothing had even started and she’d already blown it. She knew she would.
“Why did you leave?” he asked.
How to explain the tangle of emotions inside her, the way fear and anxiety had created a mess of nonsense inside her that she couldn’t articulate, could only run from. “I don’t know,” she said.
His brow crumpled. “I was really upset,” he said.
Her chest hitched. “I’m sorry.”
He watched her for a moment, mouth moving like he was chewing the inside of it. Then he said, with a note of resigned finality, “Do you like me? Or do you hate me?”
She gaped at him. Her face felt so hot that she suspected she could fry an egg on it. His eyes stayed on her face, waiting for an answer, drilling into her with an intensity that made her anxiety rise up in her like a tidal wave. She looked away from his eyes, at his jaw, which was painful too, then his arms, then down to the floor, which felt safe and neutral.
“Well?” he asked, voice demanding.
She put her shoulder against the row of lockers and planted her feet on the floor. “I… I don’t not... like you.”
She felt proud of herself for getting the words out, but when she risked a glance up at his face, he was frowning, confused. She set her eyes on him for a minute, waiting until he looked back at her and their eyes met. She forced herself to hold his gaze for a moment and then looked back at the floor.
“I’m— okay.” The first bell for the end of lunch rang over their heads. “Okay,” he repeated. She closed her locker. He scrubbed a hand through his hair. “Okay,” he said for the third time. Then he turned around and strode away, the line of his spine tense.
She took a few deep breaths. Then she walked to class. She’d blown it, she knew, but it was going to be fine. There hadn’t been anything to blow, after all.
“Hakyeon? It’s me, Sanghyuk.”
“...How the hell did you get my number?”
“Jaehwan gave it to me.”
“Oh my god. She owes me like fifty— never mind. What is it?”
“I wanted to talk about Taekwoon?”
“And why can’t you talk to Taekwoon?”
“I tried that, at lunch. It didn’t work out. And Jaehwan wouldn’t give me Taekwoon’s number. She said I’d have to work for it and I didn’t trust what she’d make me do.”
“You’re smarter than I realised— wait, you spoke to Taekwoon today? She never told me.”
“Yeah, we uh. I wanted to know why she left last night. She said she didn’t know? And when I asked if she liked me or disliked me, she said she didn’t not like me. Like, what the crap am I supposed to even do with that.”
“That is major progress.”
“Are you being sarcastic?”
“Of course not. Do you even realise how difficult it is to get Taekwoon to confess to basic human emotions? If you asked her, she might not even be able to admit to liking me out loud, and we’ve been best friends for years.”
“You’re kidding me. How am I supposed to— what am I supposed to do here?”
“Do you want to date her?”
“Then ask her out, and get used to interpreting her emotions.”
“Ask her out? Don’t you think she’ll say no?”
“Text her, I’ll give you her number. Don’t ask her to say yes out loud and she’s more likely to say yes. But until she has more of a commitment from you, she’s not going to open up anymore than she already has done.”
“...She’s a hard person to know, isn’t she?”
“Yes. But I think you’re already learning that it’s worth it.”
Taekwoon said yes.
She said yes to Sanghyuk’s request to meet up at the weekend, after she’d yelled at Hakyeon over Facebook messenger for giving him her number. He’d used the word date, which she tried to not think too hard about. People used date for things all the time without meaning date. As a result she’d spent a full day trying to work out what to wear, but had refused to let Hakyeon or Jaehwan come over to help her get ready. They would have brought their whole collection of make-up with them and made her into someone she wasn’t.
She tugged on the hem of the sweater she’d settled on, a grey knitted one that looked good, but was soft and flopped over her wrists and hands like she liked and found comforting. She’d tried on the skinniest pair of jeans she owned, spent half an hour looking in the mirror at her legs, then switched them for the next skinniest. With her black combat boots and a purse she’d stolen from Hakyeon’s room at their impromptu meeting on Friday night (“Taekwoon has a date, we need to talk strategy” “Hakyeon it’s not really a date”), she’d thought she looked passable, if not fancy.
Judging by the surprised but pleased way her mom’s eyebrows had risen when she’d seen her before leaving the house, it was a good look.
She tried not to think about that, in the same way she was trying not to think about whether she should get bangs, and how all the pinterest pages for “park picnic” had shown pretty girls in dresses. It was too late to worry about any of it, although it was still there, in the back of her mind, niggling.
Sanghyuk arrived just at the moment that she began to fear he wouldn’t turn up at all, walking forwards her with a pleased smile. “You came!” he said, in the same way he’d done at the basketball game, like her showing was a genuine surprise.
She made a noise of acknowledgement. He looked nicer than he did at school, like he too had made some sort of an effort, which was kind of nice to know. His black jeans looked about as tight as hers, and he wore a red-and-black checkered shirt with a black leather jacket that she suspected she’d once eyed up in a store.
“You look nice,” he said. “I like your hair.”
She touched her hair, done in a french braid, the only fancy thing she knew how to do with her hair. “Um. Thanks. I like your jacket.” By which she meant she wanted his jacket but that might have been weird to say.
Not that this wasn’t already weird. The confusion of the situation was tying her tongue up again. It felt bizarre, to be out like this with Han Sanghyuk, to be listening to compliments and trying to accept them without rejection. He didn’t seem to notice it. He just smiled and said, “Walk with me? We can get ice cream.”
She nodded and fell into stop with him as he started down the path through the park. She’d been here a couple of times, but it was closer to Jaehwan’s house, and therefore Sanghyuk’s, than it was to her own. It was large enough to hold a skateboarding rink and a small lake with row boats that could be rented by the hour. Even though the weather was a little cold, there were still plenty of people around, families with their children playing on the swings, teenagers skating, one or two boats out on the water.
She didn’t know what to say, so she didn’t say anything until they reached the stall which sold ice cream and soda and bottles of water. She asked for vanilla and was handed a cone which Sanghyuk paid for before she could even dig her wallet out of her purse. She looked at him hard but he affected not to notice as he handed the money over to the amused looking cashier at the stall.
“I used to go skateboarding all the time when I was younger,” he said, turning away in the direction of the skateboarding area. He looked at her out of the corner of his eye. “Why aren’t you eating? It’ll melt.”
She licked at it obediently, even as she narrowed her eyes at him. He smiled winningly. There was a silence, in which he continued walking and she followed, before he said, “I used to be quite good at it.” Another pause. “Skateboarding, I mean.”
Taekwoon could see it. He was a little too tall for it now, she imagined, puberty would have messed up that particular balance equilibrium, but he had the same approach to sports and active things that she did: you worked at it until you were good. It was what Jaehwan hated most.
“I would come here every weekend with my dad. Before my parents split up, I mean.” He paused again, like he was waiting for something. She didn’t know what so she stayed silent again. “He moved to Los Angeles after that, but it’s okay. I see him during the summer, and my step-dad is cool.”
It took her a moment but she said, “Your mom is pregnant?”
“Yeah,” he said. He sounded bolstered and she didn’t know why. “I’m going to have a baby brother pretty soon.”
She nodded. Even though he was talking so much, he’d finished his ice cream and tossed the napkin that had been wrapped around the cone into the trash. She was still finishing hers up when he said, into the quiet, “You want to go on the row boats?”
He sounded frustrated again, like he had done the day in school by her locker. She glanced across at him and found him watching her with a frown, jaw pinched tight. If going on the row boats would take that away, she’d go on the row boats. She nodded and he relaxed a little, but not enough.
The man who ran the boats was a small man with a cap which looked like it hadn’t been washed in thirty years. Sanghyuk seemed kind of fascinated by him and Taekwoon tried not to look at him as they climbed into one of the small rowing boats around the edge of the lake. Even though she was perfectly capable of rowing, and kind of wanted to, Sanghyuk sat in that position and took the rows. It was the kind of chivalrous gesture she’d always wanted a guy to use on her but now that he had it didn’t really make her feel much.
She should have suspected something was up when he rowed them straight into the middle of the lake and then pulled the oars into the boat. The realisation that she was trapped on a boat with him came upon her like she imagined the knowledge of certain death came upon a person in a horror movie.
“Okay,” Sanghyuk said. “Now we can talk.”
In desperation she grabbed one of the oars and stuck it out of the boat and tried to paddle for shore. Sanghyuk grabbed the other one and immediately started paddling in the opposite direction, so that they just went around in circles for a few moments.
“Taekwoon,” he said, sounding equal parts like he wanted to laugh and cry, “stop it. This is a date. We need to talk.”
She dropped the oar back into the boat with a thud. He did the same, calmly, though he watched her warily. She eyed the water for a moment. It had taken her a long time to decide on her outfit and she wasn’t sure she wanted to ruin it by going for a swim, but desperate times—
Sanghyuk seemed to realise where her thoughts were going and he lunged across the boat with his hands gripping the edges. “Taekwoon,” he said. “Don’t— don’t throw yourself out— Christ. I just want to talk. Is that really so horrifying?”
Taekwoon swallowed. “Yes,” she whispered.
He pressed his lips together for a moment. “Is it me?” he asked softly. She shook her head in a barely there motion. “What is it then?”
She forced the words out of her mouth. “You might ask me something I don’t know how to answer.”
“If you can’t answer then just tell me,” he said. “I’m not going to force you to do something you don’t want to do.”
She looked around them pointedly. “You kidnapped me,” she hissed.
He smiled. “This isn’t kidnapping. I just thought this way you couldn’t run away from it like you have every other time. I should have expected you’d think of a way.”
“I don’t know what you want to talk about,” she said. “I might say something wrong.”
He reached across and laid his hand across hers. “I want to talk about us,” he said. “You can’t say anything wrong.”
“Us,” she repeated flatly. She edged her hand away.
“Yes, us. The two of us.” He motioned between them. “Me and you.”
She scowled. “I knew what you meant.”
“Did you? Sometimes I don’t think you know what I’m trying to say at all.”
“I’m not stupid,” she said, stung.
“No, Taekwoon—” Carefully, he moved forward on the boat until he was sitting right opposite her, their knees banging together. There wasn’t enough space, but that seemed to be the point. Everywhere she looked, she could see him. She looked down instead. “That wasn’t what I meant. It just feels like sometimes you’re willfully misunderstanding me or thinking the worst of me. And I don’t know why.”
“It’s—” She wet her lips, taking a moment. “It’s not personal.”
“What is it, then?”
She looked up at him. The boat had turned gently on the water until the sun lit his face from the side, so that half of it was washed out bright and the other was in shadows. She met his eyes for a moment and then looked away again, only for her gaze to be arrested by the way he pulled his bottom lip between his teeth, a nervous gesture that her brain got stuck on. She looked away again quickly but she heard him exhale as she did so. The sound had a curious note to it.
“Taekwoon,” he said. His hand landed on her knee and even though he didn’t move quickly, she still felt stuck in place as he leaned across the space between them and kissed the corner of her mouth, as close as he could get at that angle. Then he pulled away and looked at her anxiously.
After a moment he seized hold of her wrist. “Don’t jump,” he said.
It was probably just as well, she reflected. She really had been about to do just that.
Her breath came in hard won splutters, her chest rising and falling erratically. She stared at him unable to believe what had just happened. She was blushing, she knew, but for once it felt almost like an afterthought, irrelevant compared to the bigger problem at hand. When she found her voice, it squeaked. “Take me back!”
He was quiet as he put the oars back out and rowed them back to the shore. The man in the dirty hat seemed surprised to see them so quickly, but Taekwoon clambered out before he could say anything about it. Sanghyuk followed her, saying something to the man that she didn’t hear; she was already walking away up the hill that led down to the lake.
“Fuck,” she whispered. “Fuck, fuck, fuck—” The klaxon was back, drowning out all other thought. She could hear Sanghyuk’s footsteps behind her, but he didn’t catch up to her until they were at the top of the hill, looking down on the swing set on one side, the lake where he had kissed her on the other.
“Taekwoon?” Sanghyuk asked quietly. She whirled on him. He had his hands in his pocket and scuffed the toe of his sneaker into the dirt. “I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have— I just thought—” He fell silent again.
“Wait,” she said. “Just let me.” She walked in a little circle, trying to get her thoughts in a line. Then she said, after a moment of unsure hesitation, “Do you… really like me?”
He stared at her. Then it exploded out of him: “Oh my god. Oh my god, Taekwoon. Yes! I like you! We’re on a date! Why did you think I’d asked you out?”
“I don’t know,” she said. “I didn’t know if it was really a date.”
“I’m going to throw myself into the lake.”
“It’s just—” She shook her head, dislodging strands of hair from the braid. “Guys don’t like me, they don’t want to take me on dates, they certainly don’t want to— what you did.”
“Kiss you?” He shook his head in despair. “Well this boy wants to do all those things, very much. If I kiss you again, do you promise not to freak out?”
Even just hearing about it freaked her out. “I’ve never—” She couldn’t say it.
“You’ve never been kissed?” He didn’t sound surprised, which was equal parts reassuring and offensive.
“I might explode,” she told him, matter-of-factly.
He smiled. “I’m not that good.”
She stared at him. He took her wrist, which made her start, and then tugged her gently to the nearest cluster of trees, out of the line of sight of both the lake and the children playing. “Come here,” he said. “Come here, just, god, just come here.”
She went; it was impossible not to, as his hands pulled her closer to his body, one against her waist, the other moving from her wrist to her shoulder to her jaw, like he couldn’t figure out what to do with it, until it came to a rest on her cheek, his thumb brushing softly against her cheekbone. Her own arms hung at her sides. She couldn’t think, couldn’t breathe. She had been right; she was going to explode.
When he kissed her, it was soft and close-mouthed, barely more than a brush of lips. Her heart stopped and then stuttered back on. He pressed in again, his touch firmer this time but the intent still soft. She brought a hand up and touched his shoulder. She meant to hold him there but before she could do that, he pulled away.
“What?” he asked, looking at her hand. “Did I— do you want me to stop?”
Very deliberately, Taekwoon wrapped her fingers around the curve of his shoulder, a move that was almost possessive. He looked at it and then back to her face. “Oh,” he said. Then he grinned. “You didn’t explode.”
“It was a close thing,” she informed him.
He laughed, the most delighted sound she’d heard out of him thus far. It was kind of stupid, which made her smile. She put her other hand against his chest and spread her fingers against his shirt. When he stepped back in to kiss her again, it got trapped between their bodies, but that was okay. She didn’t really mind.
The Sunday study table had grown quite a bit by the time the end of the semester grew nearer, thanks to Sanghyuk’s addition of Wonshik, and Wonshik’s addition of Hongbin, who Taekwoon liked a lot and whose presence she couldn’t resent, although she questioned her choice in boyfriend sometimes. She never expressed that though because she questioned her own choice sometimes.
Jaehwan arrived, stomping off the snow that had started falling the night before and still fell in large, soft flakes. She was cursing under her breath as she made her way to the table, Wonshik and Hongbin following in her wake, having spent the morning taking photographs in the park. Wonshik looked frozen through but he dutifully went to the counter and ordered Hongbin’s hot chocolate and his own coffee.
“I hate the snow,” Jaehwan said, throwing herself sulkily in her seat. “I hate it. I hate cold weather, I hate church, I hate having to wear pantyhose, I hate having to wear jeans.” She stamped her foot to punctuate the sentiment.
“Hmm,” said Hongbin. She turned and yelled at Wonshik. “Get Jaehwan a hot chocolate too! With marshmallows and whipped cream!” Wonshik saluted her across the room. “Chocolate makes everything better,” she said to Jaehwan.
“I hate chocolate,” said Jaehwan half-heartedly, shivering.
Sanghyuk, who had been sitting with his shoulder resting against Taekwoon’s chair, leaned in the opposite direction, offering Jaehwan his body heat. She stripped out of her giant coat and practically climbed into his lap. He looked shocked for a moment and then started rubbing her arms to warm her up. “You’re worse than my baby brother,” he said.
“She’s certainly not as cute that your baby brother,” Taekwoon said. She poked Jaehwan with a finger. “Do that to Hakyeon.”
“Hard pass,” said Hakyeon, frowning at her laptop through a pair of glasses her mom had made her buy this past week.
“Stop it,” said Jaehwan. “Leave me alone. I had to sit in a drafty church in a dress all morning while the preacher droned on about the homosexuals. Be kind to me.”
Wonshik put the cups on the table and took his own seat. He didn’t look overly surprised to see Jaehwan snuggled so close to Sanghyuk. “Want to tag me in?” he asked. “She whined about the cold all the way here.”
“Yeah, Jaehwan,” said Hongbin, motioning at Wonshik. “He burns hot, you should use him as your furnace.”
Jaehwan jumped away from Sanghyuk and plastered herself along Wonshik’s side. He put his arm around her shoulders. “Holy shit, you’re right,” said Jaehwan. “This is wonderful.”
Sanghyuk slid his eyes across to Taekwoon. “You jealous?”
She stared at him as if to say, Does that sound like me?
He smirked. “I thought so.” He turned back to his geometry homework, which he was struggling with, no matter how often she explained it to him. It’s not that difficult, she’d said, and he’d said, I’m not smart like you, and she’d tried to do his inaccurate buzzer noise at him but he’d kissed her quickly and the noise had died in her throat.
She looked down at her own homework and let the wave of noise wash over her; the bickering of Jaehwan and Hakyeon, Hongbin’s quiet mutterings to Wonshik, the sound of the coffee machines, and Sanghyuk’s pencil against his paper as he messed up yet another answer to a question that she’d already explained to him and which she’d have to go through all over again.
After a moment, he hooked their ankles together underneath the table. She smiled, and didn’t move away.