One caramel cappuccino," Ji Ah ordered sullenly, trying to stifle a yawn and failing, "and make it extra strong."
The assistant videographer stood in a quaint little coffee shop located right around the corner of Big Hit's building. The interior exuded a calming feel, the whiff of freshly-brewed coffee soothing Ji Ah's senses as she breathed in deeply. Small round tables were positioned at regular intervals, shelves laden with decorative jars as well as confectionery placed around them, the aroma of which wafted towards her nostrils.
"Rough day ahead?" The cheerful barista, whom Ji Ah had struck up a friendship with, grinned at her brightly, handing over her coffee.
She nodded tersely. "You have no idea." Waving to the sympathetic barista, Ji Ah pattered towards a booth obscured by a tall shelf, hoping for a semblance of privacy before heading over to Big Hit. Her conversation with Mi Na replayed itself over and over again in her head, but Ji Ah refused to let it daunt her.
I won't be swayed by trivial matters under any circumstances, she resolved stubbornly.
But no sooner had the thought sprung into her head when a deep voice roused her out of her turbulent reverie.
"So this is where you get your coffee," Kim Namjoon stated gaily as he slid into the seat across from her.
Ji Ah stared at him openmouthed, drops of coffee dribbling down her chin, her cappuccino forgotten in her hand as she tried to comprehend the sudden appearance of the rapper.
"What are you doing here?" Her voice held a derisive note and Namjoon laughed, raising his cold coffee as Ji Ah wiped her face.
"Same reason as you. I needed my morning coffee," he answered, leaning back and watching Ji Ah's features somewhat relax.
She grinned, her rattled nerves slowly beginning to ease. Ji Ah remembered the implicit warning Mi Na's words had held, but it was so, so easy to let her guard down around Namjoon. She crossed her arms over her chest, regarding him with interest.
"Well, you seem to be much more relaxed around me now from what I can see," she observed and Namjoon merely shrugged. He sipped his coffee, savoring the taste of cocoa blended with chocolate.
"Like I said, I'm not restrained by the past. And I can totally prove to you that I am, indeed, a changed man now," he declared proudly, eliciting a chuckle from his cappuccino-inclined companion.
"So you say. I'm still not convinced, though you do seem to be doing quite a good job of appearing calm and collected," she teased, but Namjoon refused to bite the bait. It was way too early in the morning for a heated confrontation with one of the most obstinate people he knew.
Ji Ah, however, was beginning to see that Namjoon stood a good chance of winning the little bet the pair had made. Just as well, she thought as she watched him fidget with his phone while trying to avoid spilling his coffee, I don't know how long I can keep this up anyway.
Lost in thought, she didn't hear the rapper call out her name, inducing him to wave his palm over her eyes and jerking her to attention. "I was in Ilsan this week," he was saying and Ji Ah nodded, recalling Bang PD's decision to let the boys visit their hometowns.
"How was it?" she inquired, noticing the apprehensive expression which marred Namjoon's features. "What's the matter?"
He forced a smile, wondering if the entrance was close enough to make a run for it if Ji Ah decided to lunge at him for broaching the topic he had been rehearsing for the past few minutes.
"I met your sister."
Namjoon watched the stiffness clutch Ji Ah, her eyes studying him warily. She didn't attack him as he had feared and he heaved a sigh of relief, hoping it was safe to continue. "Ah Ra misses you, Ji Ah. Why aren't you in touch with her at least?"
The assistant videographer's face was a frigid mask as she pondered his question. "Why would I be?"
Namjoon looked at her dubiously, trying to process her indifferent answer. "Because she's your sister? What other reason would you need?"
Ji Ah's eyes roved over to the shelves, her face expressionless. "Since she seems to have confessed her concerns to you, I'm assuming she also told you why I'm estranged from my family."
Namjoon nodded, and Ji Ah sighed, wondering if it would be wise to bare her thoughts to him. She knew he was trustworthy, but their history was tumultuous and the last thing she needed was a revival of unnecessary emotions.
But as Ji Ah met Namjoon's gaze, the worry that shone in his eyes melted her reservations and she couldn't help but tell him what she had been afraid to acknowledge all these years.
"Ah Ra was young, too young to understand the conflict between my parents and me. After I received the acceptance letter from the university, they told me that I could forget about ever seeing them again if I so much as stepped out of the house. But I didn't care," she stated unwaveringly and Namjoon was impressed by the composure she radiated. "I wanted to pursue my dream so desperately. Yes, I was worried about Ah Ra, but I was more worried about how she perceived me for what I did, worried how my parents would react if I tried to contact her. So I didn't. I simply couldn't."
Ji Ah looked up, expecting Namjoon's face to be flooded with contempt and disapproval. Instead, all she could read in his eyes was pure, unadulterated understanding.
"I see," he said softly, his eyes never leaving hers. "But Ah Ra doesn't. She's hurt, Ji Ah. And all she wants is to see you, to speak to you, again. That has nothing to do with your parents or your fears. That has to do with the connection between siblings who love each other."
Ji Ah stared at him. When did you become so wise, Joon-ah? she wondered sadly.
"You aren't the leader of Bangtan for nothing I see," she laughed, attempting to dispel the somberness of their conversation. But Namjoon remained unaffected, willing her to understand what he was beginning to understand about her.
The rapper was staring at her with a blinding intensity which flustered Ji Ah and she coughed, scrambling to seek a less controversial subject. "Anyway, you've got less than three weeks until the release of the album! Nervous or excited?"
Namjoon was reluctant to change the topic, knowing he had almost gotten through to her. But he wasn't a fool, and he realized that push any deeper and Ji Ah would snap.
And he didn't want anything to maim the fragile relationship that seemed to be forming between them. Even though he didn't know what to label it just yet.
"Both! Pre-orders begin next week and I wonder how the album will do," he mused out loud and Ji Ah snorted.
"Please. I'm pretty sure the sales are going to be through the roof! You have an actual army supporting you," she asserted seriously and Namjoon couldn't help but laugh at the expression on her face.
Ji Ah grinned too, her sprightly nature beginning to resurface. She was about to say something further when her phone beeped. She glanced at it, inwardly groaning as she realized that she was going to be late for Jae Chan's briefing.
Bidding Namjoon an abrupt goodbye, she jogged out of the café and all the way towards Big Hit. The brunette-haired woman made it just in time for her boss's concluding instructions, taking note of what her job would entail during the album promotions.
As her team exited the room, So Min pulled Ji Ah aside, her face aglow with curiosity. "It's not like you to be late for a briefing."
Her friend sighed deeply, plopping onto one of the chairs in the conference room where the meeting had taken place. "I was held up by an unexpected factor," she said wearily, rubbing her palm over her eyes.
So Min perked up at this, pestering Ji Ah until she had extracted the entire context of her meeting with Namjoon. She whistled loudly when her friend had finished narrating the particulars of her conversation with not only the rapper but also Mi Na. "This certainly complicates matters."
"No kidding! Especially now that Mi Na has strictly forbidden me to engage in any kind of personal interaction with Namjoon. And that rule went down the drain just an hour ago," Ji Ah lamented and So Min squeezed her shoulder.
"How does it matter? Isn't keeping your distance what you wanted anyway?" she asked her troubled colleague who simply shook her head.
How could Ji Ah explain that that was before she could know that her reunion with Namjoon would take such a perplexing turn?
And as Ji Ah and So Min continued their discussion, they failed to hear the slight shuffle outside the door where Jung Hoseok had stood just seconds ago, accidentally overhearing Ji Ah's pained explanation.
"And so, I've organized a company dinner tonight!" Bang PD announced heartily, his beady eyes roaming over the members of Bangtan as well as the videography team. They had gathered in the main lobby of Big Hit where the CEO had informed them of his plans for a joint feast. The members, staff and the videography team had been working relentlessly and this was his way of rewarding them.
"And I would like to insist that the videography team accompany us," he continued, looking in the direction where they had huddled together.
Bangtan looked excited, nudging each other in delight, and Ji Ah couldn't help but notice Hoseok glancing back and forth between her and Namjoon. While the prospect of Korean barbeque sounded inviting, all she wanted was to snuggle under the covers of her bed. But all such notions were extinguished as Jae Chan gratefully accepted the invitation.
"But I don't have a suitable outfit," Ji Ah called out, indicating her ruined shirt owing to the coffee she had spilt on it a while ago. "You guys can go ahead and I'll-"
"I'm sure one of the stylists can lend you something," Namjoon countered, willing her to rise to the challenge.
Ji Ah couldn't understand what the rapper was trying to do. And he was the one who preferred not to interact with me at all, she thought, nonplussed by his sudden amicability.
"Of course!" Bang PD agreed enthusiastically, signaling for one of the stylists to lend her some fresh clothes.
"C'mon, it'll be fun," Namjoon whispered, suddenly materialising at her side. Ji Ah jumped back in fright, their proximity disarming her.
"Kim Namjoon," she whispered back irritated, "you better not be planning something stupid."
The rapper held up his palms in a placating gesture as Ji Ah was whisked away by one of the staff members towards the changing rooms. The dimly lit space was empty save for a couple of outfits that the stylist had draped over the dresser for Ji Ah's approval.
After a minute of fuming at the absurd state of affairs, she finally picked flared black pants, pairing them with a blue shirt consisting of a zipper which ran all the way down her spine to her waist. The stylist exited the room to provide Ji Ah some privacy as she quickly changed into the outfit.
She had donned the pants, attempting to pull the zipper when a few raps sounded on the door. She froze as Namjoon's voice floated through its crevice.
"Hey! Are you done? Everyone's already left and I was asked to come get you," he said, knocking a few more times. Ji Ah struggled but realized that she wouldn't be able to pull the zipper up on her own.
"Are any of the female staff out there?" she asked and her hopes sank when Namjoon answered in the negative, informing her that they had all been summoned by the Head stylist, currently engrossed in assessing Bangtan's wardrobe for the album.
Talk about a cliché, Ji Ah thought as she scoffed in disbelief. Reduced to laughter at her ridiculously desperate situation, she slowly unlocked the door and met Namjoon's eyes, hoping that the rapper wouldn't misread the request she was about to put to him. "So, I need your help with something."
Namjoon flushed a deep tint of red as he heard Ji Ah's appeal. Shaking his head vigorously, he attempted to back away when she reached out and lugged him in. The door slammed shut with a resounding finality and Namjoon instantly shut his eyes.
Ji Ah laughed inspite of herself. "I'm not naked, you know. I just need you to pull the zipper up."
Namjoon flailed his arms about and Ji Ah sighed at his clumsiness, guiding his hands to her back. She shivered when his skin came in contact with hers, an action emulated by the rapper who hurriedly tried to pull the zipper up.
"Shouldn't you be able to do this by yourself?" he muttered and Ji Ah could feel his acute nervousness.
Namjoon's fingers fumbled, his eyes opening a fraction and he regretted it instantly as they explored the small of her exposed back, travelling over the nape of her neck, tattooed wings engraved on it. Thin scars, evidence of intense self-defense training, marked her flesh, and Namjoon was tempted to trace them. He shook his head violently and Ji Ah chuckled.
"Aren't you too bashful for someone who claims to have watched porn in elementary school?" she asked him, all her anxiety at having him there replaced by amusement at the rapper's agitated state.
"That was by accident!" Namjoon defended himself, his jaw clenching and his fingers clutching the zipper tightly. "And this is not the same thing!"
Ji Ah laughed and Namjoon admonished her, asking her to stay still for both their sakes. Because every time she moved, his fingers brushed against her skin, and the sensation evoked feelings in him which he couldn't explain.
A sudden knock on the door startled them and Namjoon frantically tried to carry out the task assigned to him. But the zipper wouldn't budge despite the rapper's tireless endeavours.
But when it finally did, the door swung open and the pair went still, their gazes locking with those of the intruders whose mouths were agape with shock at catching them in what appeared to be a very compromising position. Ji Ah and Namjoon sprang apart but it was too late.
Standing in the doorway, their eyes wide with disbelief were Hoseok and Jungkook.
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