This time, his phone rings when he’s already up, somewhere after noon.
“Hi… I’d say good morning but it isn’t really morning, is it?” Minho says, lets out a nervous laugh.
Jiyong smiles at his antics. “No, it isn’t exactly morning. Only now getting up?”
There’s silence on their line. Jiyong doesn’t know why Minho called and he seems to have forgotten as well.
“And…?” Jiyong prompts.
“Oh! I called to check up on you.”
Jiyong can’t help but chuckle. “Check up on me?”
“Yes… You know, if you’re hungover or something… I wanted to check if you had a good time and all.”
Jiyong sits back in his chair, the corner of his lips quirked up. “Honestly Minho, I don’t think I’ve ever drank less since I was 17. I’m not hungover at all, in fact I’ve been up and productive.”
“Oh, that’s great! Really… And um, yesterday? Was it okay?”
Jiyong ducks his head, smile widening. “I also haven’t had that much fun since… Well. In a while. Thank you Minho, for inviting me. Your friends are great.”
Minho lets out what must be a sigh of relief. “I’m glad. I was afraid that—”
“No reason to be afraid, Minho. I had a blast. And you?”
“I did, yes. I’m just a little embarrassed about everything that happened by the end… Well, I don’t actually remember it much. Er, at all.” He sighs. “Did I do or say something stupid…?”
It appears as though he’s been thinking about this for a while. Jiyong’s heart tightens in his chest at the thought of Minho overthinking the matter, wondering if he has done something wrong.
“You didn’t,” Jiyong is quick to reassure. “We talked about Paris. It was lovely. I’m happy to have remembered it in a positive light for once.”
Minho doesn’t respond for a second, confused. When he speaks again, familiar relief is in his voice nonetheless. “I’m glad. But I am sorry about everything else, Yoon told me about how you took me back and—”
“Breathe Minho. You’re quite endearing when drunk. Heaven knows my friends carried me home more times than I can count. The last time was only a month ago! So don’t worry. It’s nothing to be ashamed of.”
Minho mutters an “alright,” and then a “thank you.”
“Anytime. Actually, I’d love to go out with you again sometime, if you’ll have me.”
“Of course!” Minho clears his throat. “My friends—we’d love that. Although exam season is approaching so our hangouts might be a little spaced out. I’ll let you know though.”
Jiyong nods to himself. “Thank you. I take it we won’t be seeing each other today?” He adds.
“Oh, um… No, I’m not feeling very well. Is that alright? I can come over if not—”
“It’s fine, Minho. Take care of yourself, okay? We’ll see each other tomorrow if you’re free.”
Minho sighs another relieved breath. “I’m free. Same time?”
“I’ll see you then.”
* * *
Jiyong must admit, he likes work better this way. He likes it better when he isn’t yelling at Minho, chewing him out for things that, in hindsight, were likely the product of his anxious tendencies.
But he’s already apologized and Minho forgave him. Bringing it up again would do neither of them any good.
He likes this.
He’s on the floor, back against the couch, feet on the coffee table and cigarette in hand. Minho is on the couch, sitting on the backrest with his feet on the cushions.
He’s singing, reading his lyrics off a piece of paper.
Jiyong lets his head fall back onto the couch cushions, listening. Minho’s voice is so much more soothing and sweet in real life. He could fall asleep right there and then.
He moves from his previous position to be leaning against the coffee table and facing the couch. “Minho, this is great,” Jiyong says once he finishes.
“Thank you,” he answers bashfully.
“You might just be ready—if you have the time, we could go to the booth right now.”
Minho sinks into his hoodie, trying to hide his smile. “I’d love to, but I do have some plans tonight.” He swallows. “I’m wondering about your content though? Did you manage anything..?”
Jiyong runs his free hand through his hair. Does he want to open that can of worms? Does he want to bare himself like that?
He looks up at Minho through the smoke.
Then again… It might be exactly because they don’t know each other so well that it could possibly be easier to let Minho see his lyrics. It must be harder for someone who experienced that dark time with Jiyong, those two years ago.
Maybe… Maybe Minho should see it.
Jiyong lowers his gaze to the ashtray. He makes the task of putting out his cigarette way too long so that he doesn’t have to look at Minho again.
“I have… something. It’s pretty old. I wrote it right before my last tour.”
“Oh…” Minho mumbles.
“I’ve wanted to put it out, but… I don’t know. I’m not sure I’m ready.” Jiyong sighs.
“You don’t have to show me if you don’t want to,” Minho is quick to say.
Jiyong shakes his head. “I think… I want you to see it, whether we put it on the album or not.” And with that he finally leaves the of his cigarette and stands up. He ventures to his room to fish out the paper where he’d last seen it. Hidden beneath piles upon piles of other papers and objects in the last drawer of his desk.
He walks back downstairs and gives the paper to Minho, still not looking at him.
It takes three cigarettes until Minho lifts his gaze from the paper and Jiyong isn’t sure whether that’s indicative of Minho’s way too slow reading or Jiyong’s own way too fast smoking.
Minho shakes his head, looking back at the paper. “It’s… It’s amazing. I don’t—” he clears his throat. “I don’t have anything to add… or subtract. It’s… perfect. It’s perfect.”
Jiyong huffs. “You know Minho, you were a rare person in my professional proximity who wasn’t a yes-man. Few are like you, Seunghyun, Youngbae… I was rather hoping you’d be honest.”
Minho looks him dead in the eye. “I was being honest.”
They stare at each other in a silent battle that Jiyong ultimately loses when he gazes down at the new cigarette he is lighting.
“Would you say it’s…” Jiyong pauses to search for the correct word but soon realizes that there is but one, “pathetic?”
“Pathetic? It’s brilliant. Pouring your heart out into a song like this. I wish I could do that.” He shakes his head again. “Crooked too. It’s a completely new style. Like you’re bringing to attention the fact that fame can’t bring you happiness—”
“Yeah,” Jiyong cuts him off. He dislikes the nails Minho is hitting, he dislikes how quick Minho is. “I wanted you to see that. You’re on your way to success…” He shrugs. “I guess I’m just worried. I want you to know what it’s really like.”
“You don’t have to worry about me,” Minho whispers. He opens his mouth to say something else, but decides against it.
And so they sit in silence. Jiyong has nothing else to say. Minho isn’t his responsibility. He hopes to be an example of a person who fell from grace. Who has everything and nothing at the same time.
But still, Minho is not his responsibility.
He shouldn’t care.
Minho is the first to speak, “What really happened in Hong Kong?”
Hong Kong. Everyone with a bit of a brain knew immediately that the story was fabricated. It makes sense that Minho would want closure, especially after what he has just read.
Jiyong shakes his head. “What happened? I overdosed, that’s what happened. Except that I overdosed on acid and speed, not prescribed drugs.”
“Mr. Choi just said that to keep you out of trouble,” Minho mumbles.
Jiyong nods. “Seunghyun just said that to keep me out of trouble.” He watches Minho’s face, attempting to decipher the expression. Shock? Perhaps disbelief. “Everyone knew I was an addict. Is it that surprising?”
“No, but… There was hardly any evidence, unless you were looking. And some of us really hoped it not to be true.”
There’s silence once again.
What did Minho mean by “some of us”? Does Jiyong even want to rack his brains over it now?
No. He doesn’t.
“I need more feedback,” he speaks. “It’s not that you’re not enough, it’s just the subject matter that’s a little…” He sighs. “I need to ask Youngbae and the others.”
Minho perks up. “You haven’t shown them…”
“I haven’t shown anyone.”
Minho frowns, covering his mouth with his hand. His gaze is that of intense contemplation.
* * *
The entire drive there Jiyong is thinking about the last time they all got together.
It was some years ago. Jiyong’s strength was already fading and his health was deteriorating. Everyone at the table had to pretend that they weren’t noticing anything. It was the last time they got together before he started persistently rejecting invites to go out, until they stopped coming.
His heart is tight in his chest as he drives, all the way until he walks in and sees his friends sitting at their old table in the corner by the window. Only then can he sigh a breath of relief, letting the tension ooze out of his system.
He finally gets to watch them again, just chatting with one another. Youngbae and Seunghyun talking about work as always, Chaerin and Daesung discussing the philosophical school of the day. Seunghyun occasionally teasing Daesung, trying to kiss him. Him turning away because he never lets it happen after Seunghyun has smoked.
It’s all like it used to be.
“So why did you call us here?” Chaerin asks and the illusion cracks like a mirror.
Jiyong swallows, pieces of glass stuck in his throat. “I wanted to show you guys something. I need some feedback on a song.” He clears his throat, staring at the ashtray as he shakes off ash from his cigarette. “And I missed—this. All of you.”
There are soft smiles all around the table, but Jiyong doesn’t look. Chaerin squeezes his forearm gently.
“So what’s the song?” Youngbae asks, and Jiyong is infinitely grateful to him for moving the subject along so swiftly.
Jiyong pulls out the piece of paper and puts it in the middle of the round table. Seunghyun is the one to take it, and the other three scoot over to be able to see.
The same anxiousness rises from Jiyong’s stomach into his throat like when Minho was reading the lyrics. He waits, smokes through four more cigarettes as he waits for them to finish.
Daesung is blinking, his eyes glisten. Next to the anxiety, nausea starts to rise in Jiyong’s stomach. He did this. He never should have given them the lyrics to read.
“It’s wonderful,” Chaerin shoots. “Heartbreaking, but wonderful.”
“What were you thinking for the melody?” Youngbae questions, returning to his spot.
Jiyong blinks. “Something upbeat. Something like…” He hums the chorus, then shrugs.
Youngbae nods. “That’s it. An amazing contrast, Yong. This will be a great song.”
“When did you write this?” Daesung asks, having cleared his throat.
“Right before my last tour,” Jiyong mutters. Before anyone has the chance to ask, he adds, “I buried it. Didn’t think I was ready to put it out. I’m still not sure…”
“I don’t know about being ready,” Seunghyun hands Jiyong the paper back, “But this is what you need right now. This exactly.” He shakes his head. “Now that you’re back, there will be plenty of time for you to flip off the world—”
“I really like flipping the world off though,” Jiyong says, attempting to joke.
Seunghyun’s smile is weak. “Yes, I can imagine you do. But you’ve done that before, and you’ll do it again. Right now… When you’re returning… This is what you need. Some vulnerability.”
Jiyong is choking. He rubs his chest. “I don’t like being vulnerable. With you, it’s different. I don’t know if I’m ready for the world to hear this.”
Chaerin takes his wrist and pulls his hand away from his chest. She wraps an arm around his shoulders instead. “You’re the only one who can know that.”
Jiyong sniffles pathetically. “I guess so.”
Jiyong has had enough of silences. “We can, uh. We can go back to chatting now.” He throws on a smile.
* * *
Jiyong is hunched over the sink, staring at the whiteness. His own breathing sounds like a storm, his heart beats so fast his chest hurts. He can’t remember any of the breathing exercises, he can’t remember how to calm down.
Soon his knees buckle and he crumbles to the floor, hugging his knees and shoving his head between them.
He hasn’t cried since rehab, since he was in immense pain daily while being forced to get clean.
He wants to bang his head against a wall but he can’t move.
He breathes, he tries to count.
Hours could have passed before Jiyong is breathing again.
He lies on the tiles, letting the cold relax his body.
He stands, slowly. He exits the bathroom quickly, avoiding any encounters with any mirrors.
He goes to his room, grabs his phone, his cigarettes and lighter. From the kitchen he takes an ashtray and he makes his way towards the balcony.
There, Jiyong puts the ashtray on the barrier and dials a number.
“Jiyong! What’s up?”
“Hey, kid. I know you said you had plans tonight, but I wanted to tell you something. Do you have a second?”
“Of course,” Minho says. “I’m just out with some friends. Give me a second.” The noise around him changes as he moves. Instead of being loud, the music becomes background noise on the other line.
Out with his friends, huh… “Did you drink?”
“What? Uh… I did. Is that bad?”
“How drunk are you?”
“Pretty drunk… I’m sorry.”
“Don’t apologize, it’s alright. It’s perfect.”
“Okay… What did you wanna tell me?”
“It’s about the song,” Jiyong says. He pauses, takes a deep breath. “Two years ago, I had everything. I achieved it even before that. But I was ing miserable. I was so unhappy I wanted to die.
“When I was mandatorily seeing a psychiatrist, he told me I was sick. He told me that’s why I was feeling this way. But I can’t help blaming myself for being so damn ungrateful. I have everything, and I’m still miserable.
“Hong Kong… That was unplanned. But I knew something like that would happen, soon. I didn’t want to stop it.”
He takes another shaky breath. “I still wish I hadn’t woken up from that coma. I still…” He gags, unable to keep talking.
“Jiyong…” Minho mumbles. “You just… Maybe you just need some help.”
“No one can help me. Nothing can help me. Nothing can make me that happy, don’t you get it?”
“Maybe so, but… That was false happiness, wasn’t it? You need something real. You can do it. You’re already clean, you already took a big step.”
Jiyong huffs. Once again, his vision blurs with tears. He’s never felt more pathetic in his life, never, save for when he was in rehab. “Thank you, Minho.”
“I’m here for you.”
Jiyong pauses. “I hope you don’t remember this in the morning.” And he hangs up.