I have to hold back from flinging myself at him. "I wasn't sure you were coming back."
"I just got in." His eyes travel over my team. "What are you doing?"
My face aches from smiling. My heart thumps with a million questions. "A dance. For the talent show."
"Suzy choreographed it," Krystal says.
"It was your idea," I say.
"I'm going to drop off my stuff." He hitches his backpack higher. Runs a hand through his hair, uncharacteristically nervous. "Will you—come by when you're done?"
The girls exchange glances and I pick up a fan off the ground, wanting to hide my face before I give way how nervous he's made me.
I fight to keep my voice casual. "We're still rehearsing. I'll be by in fifteen minutes."
ʕु-̫͡-ʔुྉ*ᴸᵒᵛᵉᵇᵒᵃᵗ✲ﾟⁱⁿ*。⋆ 서울。⋆ *
Seven minutes later, I knock on Joohyuk's door. The door opens with a waft of steam. Joohyuk in blue paid boxers peers out, a white towel over his bare shoulder, hair damp and slick from his shower. My eyes slide down his tanned chest to his muscled midriff—oh my—and shoot back to his brown eyes.
"Sorry," I blurt, flustered. "I couldn't focus. Came earlier."
He's as embarrassed as I am. "No problem. Let me change."
I catch his freshly showered scent as his door closes behind me. I turn my back and face the wood of his door, braid my fingers together. He's back. Of course he's back. He said he'd be. He said he'd talk to me then.
"Why did you go to Busan?" I blurt at his wall. "Why were you gone so long? Was something wrong?"
"Yes and no. All set." His striped T-shirt eases my ability to look at him.
"Was Rosie with you?"
He blinks, surprised. "You heard about that?"
"Kang told me."
Joohyuk frowns. "He must have heard me on the phone with her. Here." He slips a stack of photos into my hand, modestly facedown. "I cleared out the guys' lounge but then everything happened and I didn't get the chance to get these to you. I'm sorry. I should have called to let you know."
"Oh—" My face flames. The edges cut into my palm as I thumb through them—four—then shove them out of sight into my pocket. I'm not sure which is worse—that he's seen all of me, shoulders to toes, or that he's seen all of me and is as indifferent as if I were the Statue of Liberty. My eyes fasten to his knees. "I never meant for them to get out."
"I figured. You okay? Dohyun told you, right?"
"Oh, Dohyun." A laugh bursts from my lips. "He told me just enough to make me paranoid." I clamp my mouth shut—I hadn't meant to admit that. I still can't look at him.
Until he puts his hand under my chin, and lifts my head. In his face, I don't see judgement. Just concern. And a question.
Then he releases me. He picks up his cap and puts it on his head. "Let's go somewhere we can talk. There's a favorite place of mine across the Han River."
My chin still burns from his touch. "I'm not allowed off campus."
Joohyuk glances out his window into the courtyard below. "I'll get you out."
ʕु-̫͡-ʔुྉ*ᴸᵒᵛᵉᵇᵒᵃᵗ✲ﾟⁱⁿ*。⋆ 서울。⋆ *
Insung, the guard in the booth at the top of the driveway, merely winks at Joohyuk as we pass. How easy it must be to walk through life when you're Nam Joohyuk. But I'm no longer irritated. Reputation matters. It can make your life easier or harder. Joohyuk's earned his he good old-fashioned way.
The sun burns overhead as we cross several streets rushing with honking cars and mopeds, and an overpass over the Han River. I fill Joohyuk in on losing Odette, the new dance with my girls, my parents' threat to bring me home, and he goes from pissed at Sohee to sober when I tell him about Seonho.
"If he were still here, he'd have to answer to me." Joohyuk yanks me out of the path of an oncoming scooter. "My family has the worst track record. Half my aunts and uncles have had their marriages blow up because someone cheated or beat on someone. Including my parents. Sohee's, too. Sometimes I wonder if this is how Sohee and I ended up where we did."
"Where you did? What do you mean?"
He glances away. "I'll tell you when we get to where we're going." The traffic thins as he leads me down a sidewalk toward a walled complex, fronted by a Korean-style gate of dark wood beams hung with paper lanterns. The four corners of its roof flare upward in the traditional swallowtail style, muted and elegant in dark brown and cream. "Thanks for taking care of Sohee. I'm glad you"—he hesitates—"and Kang ... were there."
Kang. My stomach clenches. Joohyuk seems to be waiting for a response, but I move past him and step over the threshold into the complex.
Carved-wood doors slide open to sunlit grounds like none I've ever seen: a jagged rock labyrinth, arched bridges of redbrick layered on gray stones, a maze of curvy white walls, inset with glassless windows shaped like flowers, pomegranates, clouds, even butterflies. A long, narrow brick mansion lies across the courtyard, with several smaller buildings to the right. A few families stroll the grassy knoll.
"I didn't even know this place was here," I say, awed.
"It's Goo Joonpyo. It's the former residence of an old family named Goo, from the 1700s. I came here when I was a kid." Joohyuk moves toward an asymmetric archway curved like the leg of a harpsichord. "It felt like falling into a Korean Narnia."
"Oh, it totally is!" It's so beautiful, it makes me want to dance.
"I've been coming here to think. It's kind of my secret place."
I follow him over the brick walkways and through circular archways, emerging onto a pond floating with white flowers and lily pads, orange and red carps swimming beneath. Two pavilions, crowned by rusty-brown pagoda roofs, sit on adjacent shorelines. We move into one and I brace against the wooden railing, my feet moving gently to the music of insects, the gurgle of a distant waterfall. Joohyuk stands beside me. Our elbows connect and neither of us pull away.
"Why were you fighting with Kang?" I ask finally.
He drops a pebble into the pond, making ripples that run into the lily pads. A second pebble follows the first. Followed by a third. I wonder how many pebbles it would take to fill this pond, with the things he's deciding not to say.
"First day of Yonsei, Sungwoon was running his mouth about girls in the yearbook, and Kang made it known he was targeting you. In a total way." I feel a stab of anxiousness—I don't want to know what Kang the Player said that made Joohyuk warn me off him, even if that's no longer how I see Kang.
"I'd told him to stay away from you. After Aunty Yumi freaked out about you and him, I went looking for him, but he'd left already, and then I came back to campus and found your pictures everywhere, and when I ran into him—I—I assumed. Then I guess I lost it."
My feet have stilled, rooting themselves to the floorboards.
"But Kang and I—talked. At the nurse's. I saw one of his drawings of you. By accident. And I realized he was your artist. Maybe he was just putting on a show for the guys before. And I guess you probably knew he honestly liked you and you could take care of yourself. And that—" He pauses. "Makes me think better of him."
I can't help cringing as I imagine the conversation: Joohyuk holding an ice pack to Kang's nose. Checking out Kang for me, like the big brother he promised to be.
"You shouldn't have told Aunty Yumi we were pretending," I blurt. "You ruined everything."
"I wasn't about to let the family think things about you that weren't true." He crosses his arms, his brows kneading into a stubborn line. "You were doing me a favor. I was the one too chicken to stand up to them in the first place."
There's truth in that. And I'm relieved Aunty Yumi knows I wasn't cheating on Joohyuk.
"But she must think I cheated on Sohee."
"Sohee ignored Kang all weekend." He frowns. "Anyways, you won over Annie. She was disappointed you didn't take her pet frog with you."
"Her pet?" The ribbiting terror in my shower was a gift.
"But you made it better, too," he continues. "It took standing up for you for me to realize what I wasn't doing for Rosie. What I wasn't willing to do for Rosie. How wrong that was." A fourth pebble follows the others to its watery grave.
"Joohyuk, what happened in Busan?"
His forehead creases into lines. Then he starts from the pavilion, floorboards creaking under his weight. A dragonfly shoots over the grass after him, quick darting movements from flower to flower. I follow him to the mansion and through sliding paneled doors into an inner courtyard, where sunlight spills over scalloped eaves onto a square of dirt floor. More carved, paneled doors on three sides slide open to bedrooms displaying historical Korean furniture. The scents of parched grass and oiled wood float on the wind, but despite the peaceful setting, my mind whirs like the leaves sweeping ahead of us.
Joohyuk pulls me down onto a bench. "All these years, I've stomped all over Rosie. We've done everything I wanted, never anything she wanted."
Honestly, it's what I'd have expected from Wonder Boy, before I met him.
"Did you ask her what she wanted?"
"I tried. She never wanted anything. And me—I guess I want the world."
"And you do for it. And I—" I swallow my pride. "I admire that about you."
"I told you Rosie needs certainty. Stability. I was always off doing crazy things, in her eyes—travelling for games, competitions, championships. Coming here all summer. I made her so nervous and I felt so guilty. All the time."
I'd worried he'd break Rosie. Is he saying he did?
"A year ago, I tried to end things. I told her that in the long run, we'd be better, stronger people apart than together. We were in her kitchen. Cutting a loaf of bread we'd pick up. And she—" He rubs his thumb over those white scars inside his fingers. "She started crying and saying she couldn't anymore, couldn't take her parents, school, life, without me. She grabbed the knife and—"
Oh, no. No.
"I grabbed hold." He opens his palm to sunlight. Under its harsh yellow rays, the four inch-long scars line up in their row.
"Oh, Joohyuk." I press my fingertips to them. Stiff, dense tissue. Cut to bone. I remember of easily he'd pulled the cupcake guy off me at the club. Now I imagine him, terrified, hanging on to the blade with all his strength.
"So you stayed with her."
"I couldn't take the chance she'd eventually go through with it."
"But what if she was just—"
I hate that word. "What if she was just saying it?"
"This probably sounds like I have Stockholm syndrome, but she's not a manipulative person. Not intentionally. She was horrified when I got these." He curls his fingers over the scars. "She's never forgiven herself—just sewed on another big stone to her suit of failures. Part of me thinks maybe she did it because I was there and she knew I'd stop her. Either way. I couldn't risk leaving her."
"And you didn't tell anyone? Not even her parents?"
He hangs his head. "She made me swear. I told everyone it was an accident. We were chopping vegetables. The knife fell and I stupidly grabbed it."
What they've gone through—I can't seem to grasp it. How did she feel in that moment that the line was crossed? How did Joohyuk? Guilt swells in my throat. Joohyuk's whole family—Sohee, even me—have been hating on Rosie, who needs help more than anything. I put a hand on his arm. "Were you angry?"
"More terrified. I stayed, and things got better and she even started volunteering at that horse camp. After a while, in my mind, we were a done deal. We grew up together. We'd been together forever and weirdly enough, the only thing we didn't do was sleep together. Maybe it's the one thing I did right. Even though I thought—I know this sounds insane—but I thought I was going to marry her."
"I pull free. "Omo, what is with your family? Joohyuk, you're eighteen."
"And I've been taking care of my mom and sister since I was fourteen. I opened a bank account before I could drive. I'm the eldest son of an eldest son of an eldest son. You know the last thing my dad said when he left us? He said, 'You'll have to be the man of house now.' I hated him for it. For abandoning my mom when her RA flared out of control and the going got tough. But I took what he said to heart. And I couldn't be like him. Not with Rosie—I couldn't do that to her."
I can't believe how trapped he's been—is—not only by Rosie, but by his own principles, his impossibly high standards for himself, and his integrity. That night on the balcony under the crescent moon—he's been worried about her.
"This is why you're transferring to Williams."
Joohyuk plucks a long blade of grass. Twists it around his finger. The greeny scent of the crushed stem wafts on an uptick of wind.
"Every time I've come here on this trip, I wanted to show this place to you. Because you reminded me of my little sister, I told myself. You getting into one crazy situation after another with me. And out again." His entire finger is a grass tube. He releases the blade, which springs free into a soft coil. "That night on the balcony, when we climbed down the pipe, I—I almost kissed you. I'm sorry I was so rude then—I was mad at myself. I told myself it was because you were so pretty, and I was just a typical .
"But at my aunt's, I finally admitted there was more to it than that. I called Rosie and told her we need to break up." His eyes go strangely blank, as if he's buried away all other feelings trying to bury this one. He pulls out his phone and shows me black-and-white photo of a bird flat on the earth. "She texted me this overnight."
The photo is eerily beautiful: the bird on its side, as if asleep, its tiny beak outlined against the dirt, its feathered wing spread forward to modestly conceal its feet.
My mouth goes dry. "What does it mean?"
"When we were younger, she used to bury every bird we found drowned in the pond behind our houses. She'd mark their grave with a rock and cry over them. She took his photo because she said it looked so peaceful.
"I was terrified she'd do something ... irreversible. And I realized it was stupid to have tried to take of her on my own. I called her mom and told her everything. She had no idea.
"Then both her parents called me. Her dad was in Busan, so I made arrangements to fly out to meet him in person. Rosie had booked tickets to Seoul, and switched her plan ticket there. I agreed to wait for her, but she didn't end up coming. She tried three times over the week, and just couldn't step onto the plane."
I can't help feeling a swell of compassion for her. I don't know what it means to feel that helpless. That frail.
"I can't believe ... all these weeks, these years." Not the Wonder Boy I'd imagined and hated, but a scared kid, trying to do right. "Did you come to Korea for space?"
His eyes widen. He looks sick. "Sort of horrible, isn't it? She's terrified of flying and so I went where she couldn't. She told me once that I had no soul. Maybe she was right."
I once thought the same thing, and it hames me now. "You stayed with her because you have a soul. More than most. But you never—" I break off. "Dos she have a counselor?"
"She saw one a few times. Hated him."
To struggle with all thi on her own—no wonder she'd clung to Joohyuk. "It takes time to find the right counselor. My dad's a big fan of counseling, maybe because of Sihyeon's dyslexia.
"Her dad said he'd do everything he could to find the best one."
I stand and cross to the doorway, facing the courtyard. The wind sweeps the dry grasses all the way to the jagged rock labyrinth by the entrance. I don't ask why he didn't tell anyone else. I know the philosophy: you don't tell on your family to outsiders. Police and authorities aren't to be trusted—what if they took you away? But he's been so trapped. This is why he was as hell-bent on breaking out as I was.
Rosie wasn't the only one wearing a suit of stones.
I sense rather than hear him approach from behind.
Without turning, I ask, "So you don't think of me ... like a little sister?"
His hand falls on my shoulder and I pivot slowly to face him.
I don't know who moves first. But then I'm in his arms. His finger grip the back of my neck. His other hand fists in the silk at the small of my back and his breath breathes down against my lips.
His kiss hits deep in my chest. The rightness of his lips, his warmth, his arms holding me tight. There's nothing gentle or tender in this kiss—he's strong enough to snap me in half and my fingers slide into his hair as I pull myself to him. He tastes clean, like spring water and mint, and his tongue sweeps my mouth and stirs something deep inside me that I've glimpsed only when I'm lost in a dance. It scares and thrills me.
But at least, we both come up for air. He rests his forehead on mine, holding my gaze. Panting gently, matching me breath for breath. His lips are pink, kiss-swollen. His hands slide to my waist. His brown eyes have darkened with a desire, a hunger that buckles my knees.
"What are you thinking?" I whisper.
"The timing makes no sense." His voice is hoarse. "I shouldn't want to be anybody—after everything—"
His mouth takes mine again. "Mhm." My blood pounds through my veins. I want to slam the doors shut and tackle him to the dirt and let him quench all his hunger on me.
Then I put my hand to his and gently pull free. I shiver in the vacuum left. But I need to say this.
"You just broke up," I say with difficulty. "From a really hard relationship."
His hands return to waist. "I'm not on rebound, Suzy. If I'd never met you, I wouldn't have known, but now I do. I want to be with someone like you. I want to be with you."
I believe him. Wonder Boy always knows what he wants.
"I don't want to lock you into another relationship. You need time."
"It wouldn't be a lock." His grip tightens. "Suzy, I've never felt as free as when I'm with you."
I draw on every ounce of self-control to keep from flinging myself at him. But I can't, I won't.
I pull free of his arms.
"Is it Kang? He was your artist. He—"
I put my finger to Joohyuk's lip, silencing him. "We can hang out, okay? The Touch Korea Tour is in a few days."
Those brows contort with a frown. "So we'll be tour buddies?"
I grimace. "Tour buddies might be worse than Little Sister. But better than Fake Girlfriend, which wins worst idea on the planet."
"It was yours." His half smile almost make me reconsider. A trill in the rafters explodes as two birds swoop down in an effortless dance of flight.
Why am I resisting?
Then it hits me. "I have an idea. I just hope it's not the second worst idea on the planet."
He looks apprehensive, suddenly. "What?"
"How about we be Dance Partners? For my talent show performance."
He wrinkles his nose. "Let me guess. A hippo in a tutu? Fantasia? I'll do it, of course, but I don't want to spoil your show."
I laugh. "No." I let myself hug him, fast, then let go. "Will you do a bo fight with me?"