"This is a stupid idea," Amber hisses as Victoria jams a wig onto her head. Sulli ducks closer and motions so that Amber closes her eyes and her make up is done in a minute ten.
"No, it's perfect," Krystal says as she kicks her legs in her seat. "You're going to be a super star and none of us are going to have to do anything!"
"It's not going to work," Amber repeats. "Why the hell would I stand out from all the other guys who can sing, rap and dance better?"
"Because we're going to help you," Luna says, and steps back. They all step back to observe their masterpiece scowling up at them from her chair.
"Oh darling, you're perfect!"
The funny thing is that it actually does work. Some lucrative scheme half boiled whilst Victoria is in her final semester of university, bringing the five of them together to create an idol none of the big entertainment agencies had been able to do.
It works because they've got something SM, JYP, YG and Cube don't -- they've got mystery. An unknown agency with no background information called f(x) suddenly rising to attention with the prestige and wealth Krystal has from her idol sister. And then the small package they brought forth.
'Alex', is what they call Amber and promote her as, because English names are in and the air of mystery that an androgynous name gives just helps all the much more. The mystery isn't who this new celebrity is, though that's a huge part of it, but what. Female or male? Korean or foreign? Real or not?
Despite any misgivings they'd had before, it's been a larger success than any of them had imagined. Every morning they wake to see some news article about Amber splashed across some tabloid, a big question mark next to her head and as Sulli says, "All publicity is good publicity."
By the laws of, well, human relationships, the five of them shouldn't work together as great as they do. Amber, with her never ending stream of complaints and misgivings with insults and sarcasm tacked on to the end, voicing all the doubts that the rest of them don't dare to say aloud; Sulli, whose connections span the greater half of South Korea and then some, as their publicist and Amber's make up artist; Victoria as Amber's dance coach, choreographer and stylist; Luna offering some moral support while crippling Amber's self-esteem with her voice when trying to train her and finally Krystal with her wealth and connections with the rich and the famous population of Seoul, subtly injecting the name 'Alex' when she can and leaving curiosity in her wake and being Amber's Rock.
"You're my Rock," Amber told her seriously.
"I'm your Rock," Krystal repeated as they sat opposite each other on the bed, staring into each other's eyes. Her eyebrows were furrowed.
This was repeated on a weekly basis after a minor freak out on Amber's behalf.
"You keep me steady in the storm and are my comfort in these troubled times."
Amber splayed her right hand on her heart and stared soulfully into Krystal's eyes. Krystal opened her mouth.
"And IIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIII, WILL ALWAYS LOVE YOUUUUUUUUUU-AHHHHHHHHHH WILL ALWAYS LOVE YOUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUU."
"YOU'RE NOT FAT, TAIWANESE, AND YOU DON'T POSSESS A PENIS SO SHUT UP!" Victoria's voice screamed from the living room.
Amber and Krystal traded a look before they burst out laughing, clutching at each other and curling at each other on the comforter. Mostly relief and insanity on Amber's part, but pure enjoyment on Krystal's.
When they'd calmed down, "Seriously, you're my rock."
"Mmhm, okay, Amber, whatever makes sure you don't go crazy onstage."
Amber's debut stage is rocky and far from perfect, but also better than any of them had imagined. There are worries over not enough interest being gained to support at least a minor crowd, or the costume and make up being totally wrong and clearly making Amber out to be a girl. Then there's the standard freak out on Amber's part, forgetting all her lines and choreography, possibly making quacking noises to make up for the silence.
Instead, there's a crowd of a thousand squeezed into the small, rented hall, the subtle lighting and clothing making Amber seem not female, but not male either. Androgynous as a human can be, and she remembers to lower her voice so that her voice range helps with the mystery. She doesn't forget her lines, though she does stumble during her rap twice, only catching herself enough to shoot a smile and a peace sign to the crowd.
"I love life," Amber moans when she collapses on a chair backstage, rubbing her throat. Luna sympathetically passes a water bottle.
Sulli's feverishly checking all the major news sites, clicking f5 as soon as a page loads and tabbing out to the next page, eyes not missing a single word. Twenty minutes later, she encounters something that makes her back track and maximise the page, eyes widening as she clears her throat.
"'Mystery: Alex,'" she reads. "'Who is this mysterious Alex who has already claimed the heart of a thousand fans tonight in Jongno Entertainment Centre? Alex's debut stage was, without a doubt, a hit, as fans cheered their new idol on with the original song, 'Not Unoriginal' and covers of past hits such as TVXQ's 'Hug' and Se7en's 'Passion'. Not only has this new idol shown talent in the singing and dancing department, but also rapping, a rarity to have all three talents so well honed in one individual. Furthermore, the lack of information or even rumours regarding this mysterious Alex has no doubt been noticed. Nothing is known about Alex except for Alex's name, not even his or her gender, birthdate or school. Alex's company, f(x), is also refusing to further comment on Alex's identity, intending to keep Alex's private life as private as possible. No doubt this Alex will create further interest in the Kpop industry, and you can rely on us to follow this new idol closely!'"
There's silence for a moment after Sulli's done, all of them not daring to look at each other in case it's a dream or a spell.
"Well," Amber says first, taking off her wig.
"Well, well, well," Luna can't help but say, grinning. They're all grinning, smiles threatening to tear their face.
"This is the start, kiddies," Victoria says, rubbing her hands together.
"Start of a rollercoaster ride."
"No going back now."
"Make it or break it." They all share a wicked grin at that, though Amber's one more scared than any of them.
A year later, still no one has figured out Alex's real identity, and that's got to count for something, though Amber doesn't think so. On top of the university classes she still has to attend, she has a mountain of homework along with finals coming up, and then dance classes that are more like brainstorming sessions with Victoria and whoever she can drag to the studio (the flavour of the week is Han Geng), singing with Luna who likes to stand on her toes to smack her on the head when she goes off, and filming for MVs and photoshoots for her own singles and albums. She supposes that she should count her lucky stars that Sulli and Krystal are intimidating enough that she doesn't get any interviews or photoshoots on top of the absolutely-you-can't-not-do-this ones.
The next one she absolutely-can't-miss-or-I'll-cut-off-yo
When Sulli announces it, there's screaming and wailing from Luna while Krystal looks on in distaste.
"OH MY GOD I AM SO JEALOUS OH MY GOD CAN I BE ALEX FOR A DAY PLEASE OH MY GOD KIM JONGHYUN OH MY GOD AMBER JONGHYUN JONGHYUN JONGHYUN!" she screams in one breath, clutching at Amber's arm and rocking slowly on the spot.
"'Kim Jonghyun, better known singularly as Jonghyun, born April 8, 1990, was raised in Seoul--' okay we don't need to know his personal biography, here '-- wellknown as lead vocalist of SHINee, Jonghyun has also participated in collaborations with Wheesung, TVXQ and SNSD'S Jessica. Also known as Bling Bling Jonghyun for the bright light he shines on all--' what is with his agency?" Sulli closes the webpage with a wrinkled nose and turns in her seat, where Amber is collapsed on the floor with Luna sobbing next to her.
"Kim Jonghyun, you'd know him. He's the one who dyed half his head blond a while ago, the one Luna's obsessed with half the time? Short, kinda cute with high cheekbones. Not model material, but not bad." Sulli tilts her head and studies Luna. "The really good singer?"
The blank face she's met with forces Luna to sob-sing one of SHINee's song, the only one Amber recognises because it's the cool one where they dance with chairs. With chairs.
"OH! The sparkly group... and the short one."
Luna half heartedly pounds her arm.
"Hello beautiful," a silky voice tickles her ear and she refrains from screaming, instead turning on the spot to stare at a boy only a few centimetres taller than her.
"I bet you say it to all them girls," she drawls, and is pleased to find an answering grin.
"Kim Jonghyun," he says, sticking out a hand, which she takes confidently, trying to remember the Manly Handshake Krystal had imprinted in her brain.
"So," he says, tapping his feet on the floor as he looks around.
They're in the waiting room connected to a studio, where they're to record their track. Right now, Amber is so glad she's not with Luna, who'd freak her out with all the gushing and listing of numerous awards SHINee's won, or Victoria, who'd be criticising Amber's choice of clothes, where she thinks that a hoodie and coat are perfectly fine. Still, she has to admit she pales in comparison to Jonghyun's sleek beanie and no doubt branded jacket and skinnies. His legs are thinner than her's.
"How does it feel, dressing up like a guy?"
"Are you implying I'm a girl?"
"Maybe I am."
His eyes sparkle. He really does suit Bling Bling, though Amber can't help but smile at it, still. "Sorry, that's classified information."
"Damn," he swears, but he's smiling. "Was hoping you'd tell me anyway. Next time, then?"
"Don't count on it," she says, before Sulli and Jonghyun's manager beckon them into the next room where they're each given a sheet of music and the background music starts.
Amber is casually minding her own business whilst nursing the forever present paranoia that someone might recognise her as Alex during class, sitting right at the back and clicking her pen. The fear is tripled when she looks to her right and recognises bleached and dyed hair, a smile lolling in her direction accompanied by a friendly wave.
"Hello! Liu, Amber, right?"
Amber jerks her head in a barely passable nod, hoping she'll be able to pass it off as nerves due to meeting an internationally known idol rather than anything else. The space between them is fraught with her nerves, not having been unnecessarily been this close to someone besides her 'agency'.
"I'm Kim Jonghyun, but please don't shout it. I kind of actually want to learn." He winks at her with a sheepish smile, index finger pressed against his grin.
Her first thought is, oh my god, what a dick, followed closely by, I bet that smile's plastic. Still, she automatically smiles and turns back to the front, chin propped comfortably in her cupped hand, and facing the front. A model student.
She doesn't even know why she's so irritated by Jonghyun's attitude and his words -- she's met worse people as Alex, idols who drop their images once the cameras are off and instantly become haughty and impossible. In fact, Jonghyun practically has a right to be a bit confident of his image, if the awards and recognition SHINee have gained in the past few months are anything to go by.
Feeling a bit guilty, Amber sneaks a glance to her right and sees Jonghyun studying her thoughtfully, pen lying flat on his page and not even listening to the professor.
"I thought you were here to study," she says quietly, back to staring at the professor and pointedly taking notes.
Jonghyun's taken back, literally withdrawing a bit before smiling lightly, less show and more real than before, and picking up his pen.
"And so I was." He shoots her another smile, more mischief and less innocence which she catches by accident, seeing it in passing before she hurriedly turns back to her page and starts writing.
To her disappointment and paranoia, Jonghyun attends every one of her Musical Theory classes and sits at the back with her, occasionally asking her mundane questions that often come too close to her other identity.
"Hey, what do you do in your spare time?" Jonghyun asks absent-mindedly, spinning a pen around his fingers. "Sing, maybe? I bet you have a good voice. Or how about dance? No wait, rapping. You look like a rapper."
Apparently satisfied, he sits back in his chair and opens to a new page, clicking his pen and beginning to write. All without Amber saying a word.
It isn't a lie that Amber likes rapping the most -- it isn't hard to read a string of syllables in rhythm to the music. Once she finds the beat of the song, it almost enjoyable. Much easier than endless hours of making her body move in rigid sequences and a billion times easier than trying to sound half as good as Luna.
"Can we just do a 200 pound beauty thing? Can you please just sing for me?" Amber always begs shamelessly, and Luna would just smile serenely before starting the music again.
A month passes with Jonghyun becoming increasingly friendly next to her in class before Sulli slams down a CD and an MV storyboard.
"This," she says grimly, "is the MV you're to shoot with SHINee's Kim Jonghyun."
Amber picks up the storyboard cautiously, eyeing Sulli over the top of it.
It seems pretty standard, though without many dance scenes, or even many scenes with her at all.
"It's been decided that the song you sang with him will be rewritten a bit -- good thing it hasn't been released -- and used in a campaign against teen suicides. There'll be other idols singing and acting in the MV, but you and Jonghyun will have your own storyline. Basically," Sulli flips the sheets until she was at the second last page, "you're Jonghyun's girlfriend, and you're about to jump off a building. Jonghyun finds you and pulls you back. You two talk before you make up and kiss. Questions?"
Amber's mind is still stuck at the world "friend" with a certain prefix.
"You should see what you get to wear," Sulli says, suddenly giddy wih excitement. "Lucky it's still cold, since you'll be trying to look like a girl, while not. Well?"
"Kiss?" Amber echoes fainty, and Sulli has to sense to smack her lightly over the head.
"Is that a problem? Not like you haven't done it before, just not as Alex."
"Right," Amber says weakly as Sulli slots the CD into the stereo. Luna practially runs into the room, a pen stuck in her hair.
"Do I hear a new song?" she asks, and snatches the music from Sulli's hand.
The next week is more awkward than ever with Jonghyun beside her in class.
"You know Alex, that singer?" he asks thoughtfully, and Amber jerks so that her highlighter falls.
"What about her... him?" she replies cautiously as she dives for it.
"You look a bit like Alex, anyone ever told you that?"
A chill spreads from her toes up, her fingertips turning icy with dread, though her cheeks are red and hot.
"Is that your way of paying a compliment?" she asks stiffly as she sits up properly, and Jonghyun laughs.
"Really, no one's told you you guys look alike? It's kind of in the nose and the eyes," he says as he maps out her face. "Maybe your chin too, and cheekbones..."
"At this rate, you might as well say I'm Alex's twin or something."
"Hah! So you admit it!"
Amber rolls her eyes, the banter returning her to normal ground. Forget the sauve and cool Kim Jonghyun of SHINee -- this is the Jonghyun she's come to know, and if she's honest, like.
"Sounds like a load of crap to me either way."
Jonghyun laughs, identity secure behind a scarf and beanie collectively covering 80% of his face. He looks like an abominable snowman, and Amber's sure to tell him as such.
As the lecturer finishes up his lecture, they both stand and accidentally bash heads.
Amber's clutching the crown of her head and Jonghyun, his forehead.
"Sorry," Amber says, even as Jonghyun waves a hand.
"No, my fault, wasn't looking."
His eyes are squinting in pain, and he's prodding the red area carefully.
"Crap, it's not going to bruise, is it?" he asks desperately, and Amber stands on her toes for a better look.
"It's pretty red..." she says slowly. "But I don't think it will. Anyway, this should've cushioned it." She pats the beanie as Jonghyun carefully removes his hands, breathing out a sigh of relief.
"Good, otherwise my manager would kill me."
"And the world would mourn the loss of great Kim Jonghyun, lover of all things good and chocolate, protector of all things good and chocolate, and killer of all things bad and not-chocolate," Amber says casually as they pack up their things, Jonghyun laughing hearitly.
When they straighten again, Jonghyun looks over the top of her head.
"How tall are you?"
"Hmm," he says thoughtfully, tapping his fingers against his lips. "You're pretty tall for a girl."
"Or you know, you're pretty short for a guy."
He shoots her another grin as he picks up his bag.
"I'm shooting an MV with Alex tomorrow," he says thoughtfully as he walks towards the door. He glances over his shoulder and smiles at her. "Better tell your twin I'm looking forward to meeting him."
"No, no, no, you're going flat," Luna says, cross as she fires another pillow at Amber.
Amber ducks and rubs her eyes, stifling a yawn. It's nearing 3AM, and she has to get up at seven for the recording of the track, and then go film the MV.
The opening bars start, light and uplifting before one of the other singers, Onew from SHINee, starts singing. They listen before the chorus starts and Luna nods, Amber beginning to harmonise with the rest of the singers.
She stutters to a stop, Taeyeon from SNSD singing next about embracing the moment and making the most of life, before she starts rapping. The rap is a bit slower than what she's used to, and she's meant to soften the words a bit more, but it's easier than the rest of the song. The end is what she dreads, where she's meant to take the last word ("wish") and somehow, by some Luna-esque feat, sustain it as the other singers join. The rest of the song is relatively simple with a few more choruses, half a verse by herself and half a verse harmonising with Jonghyun, and she's done.
Luna checks the clock at half past three, says they'll keep at it for half an hour before she'll permit Amber to sleep for three blissful hours.
By the end of it, Amber earns a pass from Luna and gets tucked into bed, asleep before she can murmur "goodnight."
She wakes up feeling about as fresh as a dead daisy. Her eyes are glued shut, every movement is sluggish and requires twice as much as effort as before, and she swears her arms and legs are made of lead.
"Come on," Luna says at the breakfast table, pushing over a bowl of Coco Pops drowning in milk as a confidence booster.
"She has a test on later today, so I'll be taking you."
Amber eyes Luna critically as she slurps up the milk and stands, wiping her hand across her mouth. Luna winces.
"No wonder no one's suspected you're a girl yet."
They catch one of the cabs to the studio, Amber struggling to straighten her wig and tugging at the thick, unisex coat she has on.
"Studio five," Luna whispers urgently when they get into the lift, pulling at Amber's arm.
They pile into the studio, and Luna's eyes immediately go round and starry eyed at the site of all the professional singers. So this is why she volunteered, Amber thinks, morose, as one of the techies gesture for her to go into the studio.
"First," he says, as he presses a button and his voice booms in the studio. "We'll do a run-through of the whole song, and then record the chorus. Once we're done that, Alex and Jonghyun are going to sing their part since they have to leave first for a filming, and then we'll go on to Onew, Taeyeon..."
Amber zones out, watching Luna in the recording room with the other managers and vocal trainers. She doesn't meet Amber's gaze, but instead watches someone else intently, someone over Amber's left shoulder.
Trying to be inconspiciuous as possible, Amber glances over her left shoulder and only sees Onew in deep conversation with Jonghyun and Taeyeon. Jonghyun sees her and waves, and Amber has to remind herself that right now, she's Alex, not Amber Liu who sits next to him in class and banter-flirts with him the whole lesson.
Amber satisfies herself with a nod back and turns back to the front, where the first strains of the music are audible, and opens her mouth.
When Amber's done her bit -- far from perfect but good enough to get a respectable nod from Luna -- she joins the others in the recording booth as Jonghyun starts recording his lines.
They're watching Jonghyun as he bobs his head in time to the music, their harmony coming to an end. Amber finds her hands clenched tight as they watch him sing, his voice surrounding them and all conversation stopping.
It isn't heart-stoppingly gorgeous, but it's so so close that Amber wants to put her hand to her chest to make sure her heart's still beating. His expression betrays none of the hardships he's been through to make it here, to make it as one of Korea's highest ranked singers with more talent than Amber believes possible.
She lets his voice wash over him as the last few bars of his solo draws to a close, and with a twinge, remembers Luna next to her. The MV filming is next, and she doesn't know if she can convincingly act if Luna's there, watching her, when she knows how Luna feels.
Better to get it over now before she's stuck in a car with the both of them, acting out a scene she wants but doesn't want at the same time.
"Do you... mind me kissing Jonghyun?" Amber asks, nervous for reasons she can't place. Or rather, doesn't want to place. Her heart thuds loudly and she winces as Luna coolly snaps her phone shut, frowning.
"Don't be stupid, what makes you think I'd mind?" Luna looks more insulted than anything, and that, in turns, makes Amber feel insulted.
"Don't you like him?" Amber says in a whisper, and eyes round.
"Jonghyun? No way. Onew on the other hand..." Luna acquires the look she has when she daydreams about becoming a singing sensation before she snaps out of it. "You should introduce us."
"What?" Amber jerks and her elbow hits the ledge. She rubs it, frowning.
"Yessss, introduce me to Onew! He's so cute and he sings so well..." Luna sighs dreamily before the studio door opens and Jonghyun slips in, heading to his manager.
"Shall we go?" his manager says politely and Luna snaps out of it, nodding professionally.
They all board Jonghyun's posh BMW, an inconspicuous black but still silently screaming wealth and prestige. Amber internally groans.
When they actually stop at one of the highest buildings in Seoul, Amber valiantly resists the urge to swear.
"I thought they were going to CGI it," Amber says to herself.
She turns to check if anyone heard and sees Jonghyun's cocky smile.
"What, scared of heights? The almighty Alex is scared of heights?" he drawls, and Amber really wants to break his perfect, maybe plastic, nose with her fist.
"No, but I thought they'd value their precious idol's life more than this."
They catch the lift up to the roof, and the stuntmen and techies show Amber how they'll both be harnessed to the railings, and in the unlikely chance of an emergency, a net will be below Amber, ready to catch her with an ambulance on stand-by.
Amber swallows. She doesn't know if she really wants to thrust her life into the hands of a bit of wire and some netting.
They wait around for dusk, reading the scripts as the technicians run around, fixing lighting and cameras, double and triple checking the wire that'll keep them safe.
Finally, the sun starts to set, a few inches off the horizon when the techies geture to Amber and Jonghyun, pulling at the wires and harnesses.
"This will be fine," Jonghyun reassures her, and Amber tentatively allows herself to be buckled in as a techie hurries over.
"Ready?" he asks, and Amber nods.
She climbs over the handrail, knuckles white on the rusting metal. A deep breath steadies her even as she sways and shuts her eyes.
Soft music starts, and she belatedly realises it's the section of the song which she and Jonghyun sing.
Another breath steadies her even as she cracks open her eyes and sees the dizzying drop, tears stinging her eyes. She isn't even acting at this point, the terror honest and true as she stares at the distance between her and hard concrete, imagining her death.
The music swells behind her, and she knows it's reaching the few lines she and Jonghyun share.
His quiet voice makes her turn, hands slippery with sweat as she looks at him.
It's a cliche, but it feels like an eternity as she studies his face -- his pleading expression, messy hair and very breakable, but attractive, nose.
"Come here," he says tenderly, and Amber feels twelve again, heart pounding as she slowly climbs over the railing, falling into Jonghyun's safe, secure arms.
In the back of her mind, she knows that the kiss is coming up and she wants it more than anything, her skin feverish despite the cold wind and her heart pounding. She wants nothing more to kiss Jonghyun, right here in front of her, but even if she kisses him, he'll be kissing Alex.
When she kisses him, he won't be kissing Amber Liu, fellow Musical Theory classmate, tomboy and lover of chocolate; he'll be kissing Alex, Korean idol sensation, singer-rapper-dancer extraordinaire and effortlessly awesome. He'll be kissing a lie.
With a push that surprises all of them, she shoves Jonghyun away from her, stumbling back from the force of it.
"Alex?" he asks uncertainly when the cameras flick off and the director walks over.
"Sorry, I'm sorry," Amber says immediately, appalled at herself. "I'm really sorry, I don't know what came over me, I'm really sorry."
"Are you okay?" the director asks in a surprisingly kind voice, and Amber looks up to see a young girl, maybe her age.
"I'm fine," Amber says unsteadily, drying her tears with the heel of her hand. "I'm sorry for being so unprofessional."
The director smiles, and Jonghyun retreats silently.
"It's okay. It was all great until you pushed Jonghyun. We'll take a break and then just record the kiss, okay?"
Amber nods, breath still stuttering as the director calls out for the rest.
Luna immediately rushes over, forehead creased with worry, Krystal trailing behind reluctantly.
"Are you okay? Is something wrong?"
Amber laughs a bit breathlessly as she waves a hand, trying for carefree.
"I'm fine, I don't know what happened. But I'm fine. It'll be fine."
"Are you sure?" Luna asks as Krystal pushes a bottle of water into Amber's hands, scrutinising her.
"Yeah, I'm sure. I'll just have to kiss him and then we'll be done." Amber heart lurches at her own words, and she takes a gulp of water to steady herself.
"Are you sure you can do that?" Krystal asks suddenly in a low voice.
"Yes. Well, I'll have to do it either way." Amber estimates her heart has sunk to her appendix.
"Look, if you don't want to, I'm sure that I can talk the director out of it and she won't mind. If you're this uncomfortable with it --" Krystal says fiercely before Luna jabs an elbow into her side.
"Speak of the devil."
Jonghyun approaches them cautiously, an unsure smile on his ips.
"Alex, can I have a moment?"
The name sends her heart even further down, but she nods and follows as he leads her back to the set.
"I'm sorry if I did something to warrant that," he begins uncertainly, pulling at his collar. Amber's eyes widen. "But I'd like to film this, if that's alright with you, and I need your co-operation. But if kissing me, a guy, makes you uncomfortable, then I'll talk to the director or something, and I'm sure we can work something out. I mean, she seems pretty laid back, so --"
"Stop," Amber says, and she's smiling. Blabbering Jonghyun, talking a mile a minute. This is familiar, and the sight grounds her, even as the word registers and she's dimly aware that he's implying she's male and homophobic.
"...Are you okay with this, then?" he asks uncertainly.
"Yeah. I'll be fine."
He gives her a sudden, kiddish grin.
"That's good, then. For a moment I thought you were going to wuss out and act like, like a girl."
Amber's smile turns sour.
"Would there be anything wrong if I was a girl?" she replies coolly, and he scrambles back.
"No! Not at all! I'm sorry if I implied that!"
Her grin returns in full force, and Jonghyun shuts up as he straightens. She copies him.
"How tall are you?" he asks, curious as he tentatively places a hand on her head. Her brain panics as he intrudes into her personal space. "170?"
"Yeah pretty much." She wishes she was wearing shoe lifts.
"You're pretty short for a guy," he says grinning.
"Well then, so are you," she snaps, but rearranges her face into a polite expression as the director nears.
"The sun's almost gone. Can we proceed?" the girl asks briskly. They nod in reply and she retreats back to her chair. "Places! And, action!"
The pose feels ten times more awkward without the lead up, but she's in Jonghyun's arms again and he's already leaning closer and closer. The music's continuing onto, as she well knows, Jonghyun's solo and she can imagine his voice sliding effortlessly over the notes, soaring higher and higher until he sustains it beautifully, perfectly, and she wishes he knew Alex was her, stupid, tomboy Amber Liu, but he's whispering in her ear now, a smile in his voice.
"Imagine I'm someone else, if that helps," he says as she desperate thinks, I don't want to. "That's what I'm doing."
Her shock overrides the logical part of her brain informing her that he's kissing her, kissing Alex, super star Alex, but he's thinking of someone else, and the hopeful part of her questions if he's thinking of Amber Liu. Then all else is wiped form her mind as she kisses him back.
They're sitting together, knees touching as they wait for the okay from their director. This pose feels even more intimate than the kiss, the casual friendship Alex and Jonghyun already having reached the knee touching level.
"So who were you thinking of?" Amber asks nonchalantly, heart pounding but Alex-esque smirk in place.
"No one," Jonghyun mumbles, cheeks pink.
"Come on, as if I'll tell anyone. As if I know them."
Jonghyun actually considers it, Amber waiting with her breath held. Her wig itches -- she wants to tear it off.
"Just some girl I know."
"So superstar Jonghyun has a girl he likes," Amber drawls, suddenly feeling powerful in her disguise as Alex.
"Well, what about you!" Jonghyun cries, suddenly turning on her. "Tell me if you like anyone."
"Wha -- yes, I do." Amber wants to cut her tongue off as the truth comes out. Jonghyun smiles, triumphant.
"Who is it?"
"I'm not tell you that."
"Aw, come on. If I tell you who I like, will you tell me who you like?"
Oh my god, I feel twelve again, Amber thinks as Jonghyun tugs at her arm.
"No way," she says firmly, and Jonghyun pouts.
"Surely superstar Alex, mysterious, elusive Alex whose real-gender-isn't-even-known, can tell me?"
Amber feels icy dread again, along her veins before it settles, comfortable, in her chest.
"No I don't," she says firmly, and something in her tone must've clicked because Jonghyun drops her arm as if it's infectious and plasters on his TV-smile.
"Of course, my mistake and apologies. It was rude of me to bother you like that and I apologise. Just... you reminded me of someone I know, but that's no excuse for my behaviour. I'm sorry."
He actually bows his head, his fringe tickling her arm as she watches.
"Right, um, there's no need to apologise. It's fine."
He looks up at her through his fringe, eyes cool and indifferent as she stares back, off balance and taken back.
"Jonghyun, Alex, you're free to go," the director calls out happily as she motions for the crew to begin packing up.
The two hold the gaze a moment longer before Jonghyun stands up and greets his manager quietly. Amber follows his example as Luna and Krystal come over.
"Let's go home," she says wearily and they do.
She doesn't look forward to their next class together and contemplates pulling a sickie before Victoria screams at her and she shuffles off obediently.
Jonghyun's the exact same he's always been; cheerful and playful as he pokes at her weakness and badges her with insults.
"Is something bothering you?" he asks quietly during a particularly boring stretch of the lecture.
"Just tired," she says immediately, and he gets it, changing the subject.
"Do you think Alex is a girl or boy?" he asks, and she almost spits out her gum.
"Um, why ask me?" she asks desperately, and he stares into space.
"Well, we were filming a music video and we had to, um, kiss, and the way she acted... I don't know. Alex just seems like a girl to me," he finishes lamely, frowning.
"Well, I think he's a guy," she says and prompts her brain for some reasoning.
"Yeah," Jonghyun says, still frowning. "That's what Kibum said -- I mean Key. How she stands or something seems guy-ish to him, and Minho thinks so too, by the way she dresses, but Jinki -- Onew -- and Taemin agree with me. Even with how she walks and talks, there's something in her face that screams girl."
Amber wipes her palms on her jeans, trying to appear interested instead of somebody save me.
"His voice is pretty deep for a girl, too, and most rappers are guys," she says, and he suddenly grins.
"Ah, but you're a girl and you like rapping, don't you?"
"Yeah, but all the other rappers I know are guys, right?" Panic flairs in her chest as Jonghyun stares at her critically before flopping over his desk.
"I give up, whatever. Alex can be an alien for all I care."
He sticks his pen in his mouth and munches on it as he stares at the lecturer in a dead stare, not even listening.
"You're right, our education is important," Amber says seriously, and Jonghyun grins.
Musical Theory turns decent again as Amber stops stressing about the music video and starts looking forward to the lectures, the mere thought of Jonghyun brightening her day.
For once, she's alone in her dressing room. Luna and Krystal are cramming their asses off, Sulli having wandered off to get her out of next week's performance and Victoria's watching other idols perform.
Her notes for her philosophy class are in front of her, neat and detailed, but they can't keep her attention. She's studying her reflection -- bright red hair that maybe two people in K-pop history have pulled off, heavy eyeliner that she longs to wipe off along with the showy, bronze eye shadow and her lips coloured nude. The reflection looks nothing like Amber Liu, and she supposes she should be grateful.
She's studying her neck, wondering if there's a way to conjure an Adam's apple with make up when the door opens. She turns, expecting Sulli with good news, but her face freezes when she realises she's staring at Jonghyun, with the rest of SHINee behind him.
It's okay, I'm in disguise, she tells herself, a strand of red hair in her eyesight.
Jonghyun's gaze, however glances down to her chest and she subconsciously crosses her arms. With mild to extreme panic, she realises she's still in her tank top, not dressed for stage yet, and it's blindingly obvious she's a girl, even with her rather flat chest.
"Jonghyun?" a voice calls from behind him. "You got the wrong room." The rest of them laugh and begin shuffling off.
"We'll see you in our room!"
The door creaks shut behind Jonghyun as they continue trading horrified stares, before Jonghyun turns to the side.
"Maybe the boobs are fake and I'm just imagining this. Maybe I'm dreaming right now and--"
"I have boobs, thank you very much!" she screams, indignant as she throws her favourite hoodie to cover his face and quickly pulls on her stage-shirt. Before he can remove the hoodie, she slips on jeans and the unisex coat, ready for business.
Jonghyun slowly removes the offending piece of clothing, looking sheepish.
"I'm sorry for walking in like that -- I thought this was our room and, uh--"
"Because 'Alex' really looks like 'SHINee'," she says flatly, and Sulli bursts in.
"Am -- what're you doing here?" Sulli says in a tone that recognises as I hope you spontaneously combust. It's good to be on the other end.
"Nevermind," Sulli says, brushing him aside. "Alex, you're on in ten, you better go to the waiting room now, go flirt with SNSD or something. Shoo!"
Sulli ushers her out, but not before Amber glares at Jonghyun. He better not tell.
The music video's released and it's perfect.
All the other couple's moments build up to Jonghyun and Amber's, and she has to hide her face behind a pillow as the apartment erupts in catcalls and wolf whistles.
"No need to make out on screen," Sulli says as she rewinds and plays the twenty second kiss, shot from ten different angles.
"Is he a good kisser?" Luna pokes Amber, and she wriggles away.
"Don't ask me," she replies, face still hidden.
"I bet he is," Victoria grins, watching the kiss again.
"Oh my god, turn it off."
Amber lunges for the laptop but misses as Krystal holds it aloft, grinning in a way that can't mean anything good.
"I can't wait to see the articles that'll crop up."
The articles that appear are interesting in all the wrong ways, but as Sulli reiterates, "All publicity is good publicity."
If Amber hadn't been Alex, she'd be reading them aloud every Musical Theory lesson to Jonghyun, watching him squirm in discomfort. Instead, it's the other way 'round.
"Listen to this one," Jonghyun says excitedly, holding one of the more infamous gossip magazines. "'The Mystery Remains! As recently witnessed in the new music video, 'Who We Are,' fans worldwide witnessed SHINee's Jonghyun lock lips with the famous Alex. A year ago, there would have been no doubt that this was the sign that Alex is a girl, but following Super Junior's Heechul's famous kiss onstage with fellow band member Sungmin and Siwon, along with The TRAX's Jungmo, the public is still in doubt. Is Alex a girl? Or is Alex not adverse to kissing people of the same gender? Is Alex the next Kim Heechul? Stay tuned as we work harder to uncover the truth and reveal all next issue!'"
"I am so embarrassed for you," Amber mutters from underneath her arms.
"Alex has GOT to be a girl," Jonghyun says, fierce pride colouring his tone. He had been right.
"Why," she moans.
"Just a feeling."
It's with some satisfaction she notes that he doesn't spill the truth, that he had actually seen her.
"This one's good too!" Jonghyun says after a brief silence. "'Alex: fact or fiction? As no doubt--'"
"Oh my god, shut up, you narcissist!"
That shuts him up.
She peers through her arms to see him scrutinising her. He has the weirdest expression on, like he's trying to pick out the perfect bouquet of roses.
"Can you do me a favour and meet me in the quad about two hours after class ends?" he says seriously, all emotion gone from his face but determination.
"Sure," she says, surprising herself. "But what for?"
"You'll see." He flashes her a grin and stuffs the magazines away before taking out some notes.
"Did you forget we have exams?"
She shakes her head, dumbfounded, before turning back to her book, pen poised but not listening.
What could he be up to?
The quadrangle is Amber's favourite place in the whole university, some distance away from the main buildings and peaceful. Most of the students sit around in groups or play around with a happy sack, wasting away their time between classes and relishing the fresh air and sunshine. Amber isn't adverse to studying here, underneath the trees with the sounds of other people actually enjoying themselves.
She's waiting along the edge of the footpath, underneath one of the larger trees when Jonghyun approaches her, dropping down onto the grass.
He looks the exact same he did a few hours ago and every other time she's seen him in class. To be honest, Amber doesn't find him attractive in the strictest sense -- his nostrils look like train tunnels and when he smiles, it's usually cocky and insincere. The way he dresses doesn't help; with the awareness every idol seems to possess but herself, and how every article of clothing has to work together to create a harmonious, wonderful image.
But she has to be fair, and Jonghyun -- there's something magnetic about his personality and how charisma drips from him even when he tries to blend in. He draws you in and his honesty and easy measure of trusting her in that first class... Honesty is irreplaceable in Amber's book, and there's something attractive in the sure way he holds himself. And his face isn't bad, aside from the gaping nostrils.
When she meets his gaze, it's different from what she used to as both Amber and Alex. The joking, quick-to-laughter expression he usually has on in class and the respectful, aloft one he reserves for Alex is gone for this tender look, unmistakable in meaning.
Never has Amber experienced it before, and she's taken back by the intensity of it. She remembers one of their conversations when they had been talking about their ideal types.
"Someone who's honest and not afraid to have fun. Someone who can make me laugh," she had said.
"I'd like someone who wouldn't want me because I'm an idol, or in spite of it, but just acknowledge that it's part of me. Someone who can make me laugh," he had agreed.
It unnerves her until he smiles, a bit too brightly to be completely real.
"So," she prompts. "Why'd you call me here?"
At this, he immediately grows nervous, eyeing his own foot and tearing at the grass. She stops him.
"Are you okay?"
"Fine," he manages, taking a breath. A deep one, and another after that, before he smiles a bit unsurely. Amber is freaking out.
The scenarios running through her brain are growing stupider and more ridiculous by the second. She's imagining that he's telling her he has cancer and he has a week to live, that he's in debt and the mafia is after him, or that he knows she's Alex.
Now she's seriously freaking out, heart pounding and staring at Jonghyun as his smile drops and he tears at grass again.
"I like you," he says softly. He fingers a blade of grass, shyly glancing up at her. "I like you a lot. More than I think I can put into words, and you know all the love songs I sing? About falling in love for the first time, about trying hard for your love, about forsaking love but never giving up on love? About how love feels and how wonderful it is? That's how I feel about you. I would sing every love song I know if I could, just to try express to you how I feel."
It's the corniest, cheesiest but most wonderful thing anyone's ever said to her, and she immediately starts crying. She hasn't cried in so long that it's cathartic, and she feels grateful at his arms slowly enclose her, hugging her gently.
"I like you too," she manages before he slowly tilts her chin up and kisses her.