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Will We Ever Find Our Neverland?

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一 。

There was a memory that Jisung kept tucked away in a corner of his mind, one that he thought of often.  It was of a day over half a decade ago, when he, Seungmin, and Hyunjin were eleven years old and they ran through the grass, falling and staining their knees and jeans green.  It had been summer then, the sun high in the cerulean blue sky, and they had laughed and fell back, head touching as they stared upward.

He remembered the feeling of pure happiness like it had been yesterday, how Hyunjin had laughed and Seungmin’s eyes crinkled-before Hyunjin had stopped laughing and Seungmin’s eyes became tired and shadowed-and how their small hands had fit together.  Jisung could picture the moving van, and the way they had crowded around each other on the sidewalk and stared at the boy with freckles that were sprinkled like stars over his cheeks, the way he looked right back at them.

Jisung hadn’t known it then, but Lee Felix was like a shooting star that had chosen to land right in their group, and he had shaken their whole world.  He had become the sun they revolved around through middle school, with his easy laugh and his stumbling Korean but impeccable English in an Australian accent that Jisung wanted to listen to whenever he could, how Felix’s mouth formed the words and said them in an almost lilting way, how he laughed when he messed up.

The four of them had fit together so perfectly that it was too good to be true.  Hyunjin and his visuals, his dancing and how willing Felix had been to learn it so they could dance together.  Seungmin and his books, his writing, his art, and how he would teach Felix Korean when he had time, how Felix saved him from drowning in the piles of schoolwork and extra credit and service projects he didn’t need to do.

Then there was Jisung; Jisung and his music, his safe haven.  He could recall the first time Felix had sat beside him and took out one earbud, inserting it in his own ear, in perfect detail.  How Felix had listened without making a sound or movement, but also how Jisung had been unable to keep his eyes off him. He hadn’t commented on the song, it must have been some trashy K-hip hop song at that time, but he kept doing it when Jisung was least expecting him too until it was almost routine.  Just them and whatever song Jisung was obsessed with at the moment, the raps he could recite almost perfectly after a couple listens.

Felix caught him rapping once, his mouth moving along to the words, and Jisung had opened his eyes-he’d closed them to concentrate-to find Felix staring at him intently, so close that Jisung could count each individual freckle.  He loved Felix’s freckles, wiping off the concealer the one time Felix had tried to cover them up in a desperate act of low self esteem. Felix hadn’t said anything, just tilting his head and smiled, and Jisung had smiled back and exhaled.  Still, he made sure he kept his mouth closed after that, only rapping in the quiet of his baren room.

Then they hit high school and everything changed, flipping upside down.  Because while Hyunjin did nothing but rise, bringing Felix with him, Jisung spiraled downwards; leaving Seungmin stranded on the edge of it all, staring straight ahead and standing perfectly still as one wrong step lead to skidding backwards and downwards, while the other would catapult him to a high platform he could never stand.

Jisung was never sure how it happened, but it might have been how sophomore Lee Minho had noticed Hyunjin’s dancing and invited him to join the school’s dance team.  Of course Hyunjin had jumped at the opportunity, but it had hurt Jisung how he hadn’t even told them about this until they had met up to get bubble tea after school, announcing he had made the team with his eyes shining.  A coldness had spread through Jisung at that, the bubble tea looking unappealing suddenly.

It was only natural that Felix had followed him-after all, Felix was a dancer as well, having learned everything from Hyunjin himself-but even though Jisung told himself it was just the dancing, he couldn’t help but notice how Felix looked at Seo Changbin when they talked occasionally.  Changbin was at the top of everything, walking through life in his black hoodie and baseball cap, everyone in awe or afraid of him.

Rumor had it that Changbin was big on the underground rap scene, a supposedly anonymous rapper called SpearB that spit fire and then vanished, taking the invisible crown with him.  They called SpearB the Shadow King, and Jisung couldn’t stop himself from studying Changbin, wondering if the rumors were really true, or if they were just another grapevine gossip made to entertain.

Felix fit in perfectly at the top, his easy manner making him popular, his Australian past making him foreign and interesting.  He made friends and acquaintances quicker than Jisung ever could, charming to the teachers, having an in with juniors and seniors even.  Hyunjin made his own path, using his looks to get him a lot of things. It was another thing that made Jisung’s stomach turn, the fact that Hyunjin had started using himself like that, when he had once spoken in disgust of how people would treat him.  How they would treat him like he was ‘nothing more than just a pretty face’, and how he wished he had been born ugly just to see how people would have reacted then. Still, he was an incredible dancer and charming, and Jisung could only frown as he started making his way down a line of girls with his flirtatious mannerisms and playboy act.

It wasn’t until winter of their sophomore year that Jisung realized just how big the rift between their friendship had become.  It was during a lunch period they all shared, Jisung originally having something to work on in the library, but deciding against it at the last moment and going to the cafeteria to get lunch.  Hyunjin, Felix, Minho, and some others on the dance team had been sitting together, and Jisung had stood in line and watched how Seungmin had walked over, holding his lunch tray.

He felt the horrible feeling in his gut again, the feeling that someone was about to slam something into it, as Seungmin walked over to the empty seat next to Hyunjin and asked in a soft voice; “Hi.  Can I sit here today? My usual table has been overrun.” He smiled at the end of it, a warm and genuine smile, the smile he only ever used around the three of them. They were the the only ones Seungmin ever became vulnerable to, the only ones he would ever break down in front of when he felt like he was choking on anxiety and stress and sometimes constant panic attacks that left him crying for air.

Jisung could only stand and watch as Hyunjin looked up, a fry dangling between his fingers, the friendship bracelet they had all made together with their clumsy fingers hanging off his slim wrist.  They had each chosen a color, light blue from Seungmin, cherry red from Hyunjin, deep purple from Felix, and silvery gray from Jisung, and woven them together, making sure they all had the same pattern.  It had taken hours, restarting and redoing and a couple snack and video game breaks, but they had proudly tied it around each other’s wrists at the end.

“Sorry, that seat’s taken.”  Hyunjin said, his voice frosty but his eyes a tad sympathetic.  Seungmin paused, wavering, looking around as if he could spot the imaginary person who had taken a spot Hyunjin should have told him to sit in, as if wondering if Hyunjin had said the words he should have; Yes, you can sit here.  Guys, this is my friend Seungmin.  We’ve known each other since we were kids.

All Seungmin said was; “Oh.  Okay. I guess I’ll see you later then.”  He turned around and started to walk away, but not before Minho called to his back; “Don’t count on it.  We don’t hang out with the pathetic losers of your type.” Jisung felt the money clench in his hand, bills crumpling even more, as Seungmin paused, shoulders rigid, hands fisted under his ripped, oversized jean jacket.

He looked back once, trying to make eye contact with Hyunjin, but he had already turned away to engage Felix in conversation.  Jisung tried to get one of them, any of them, to look at him, but Felix’s eyes only skimmed over him when he raised them, darting around the cafeteria.  Helplessly, Jisung let himself be shuffled into the kitchen, just catching a glimpse of Seungmin’s back as he left the cafeteria, lunch tossed in the trash.

 

Later, when Jisung was walking towards the bike rack, Felix caught up with him, grabbing his arm.  Jisung jerked in surprise, quickly pulling out his earbuds as he turned to face him. “What do you want?”  He asked emotionlessly, kicking back the kickstand and pulling on his helmet.

“Are you free tonight?”  Felix replied instead of directly answering his question, a fact that annoyed Jisung.  He was already on edge from Hyunjin’s treatment to Seungmin during lunch, how neither Felix or Hyunjin had said anything to Minho’s taunt.  How Felix hadn’t said anything at all.  They were best friends; they weren’t supposed to do that to each other.  Jisung had known that they were slipping apart, he had known as soon as Hyunjin had made the dance team, but he had shoved it down because Hyunjin had looked happy and even as Jisung felt himself losing Hyunjin, he wanted him to be happy.

All Jisung wanted was his friends happiness, so he let Hyunjin go to dance team and become friends with Minho even as Minho pulled him farther and farther away.  Minho was on a different level than the rest of them, a tier in the hierarchy of high school that Jisung couldn’t even dream of reaching, the one where people laid on the floor and let you step on them, the kind where you could command people to do whatever they wanted and they would do it or risk their life becoming a nightmare.

Because Jisung loved his friends, he let Felix go as well, knowing he would have a better life with Hyunjin on the team, with Minho and the mysterious Changbin, who seemed to have his eyes fixated on Felix.  Jisung wondered if Felix noticed, or if maybe Jisung just missed his friends and wanted them back. He wondered if they were even the still friend group they were, or if he had just wanted to be blind up until now, up until Seungmin in the lunchroom and realizing that they had split apart.

Jisung would still do anything for his friends, so he had let himself fall because he still had music and he still had Felix and Hyunjin and Seungmin, even if that became more distant and less in school and then less out of school too.  And, yet, Felix’s hand was warm and Jisung was only fifteen and a half, so he let himself listen and be selfish, to bask in the familiarity and attention, of this moment with Felix.

“I think so.”  Jisung said quietly, fingers twirling his earbud strands.  “Want to come to a party with me?” Felix asked eagerly, and his eyes lit up and sparkled, and Jisung wanted Felix to keep looking like that, so he nodded.  His throat felt dry, swallowing like sandpaper scratching against it. Jisung hated parties, the noise and the sweat and the people, how trapped he felt in a crowd.

It was worth it though, when Felix smiled widely, showing all his teeth.  “Cool” He cried. “Hyunjin will be happy to hear it.” Something about the last sentence made Jisung frown, just the tiniest bit.  Had it been Felix who wanted to invite him, or Hyunjin? “Who else is going to be there?” He inquired, finding his voice, trying to sound only curious and not panicked.

Felix chewed on his lip, thinking.  “Um...the dance team and Minho, Hyunjin, Changbin I think, some of the girls in our gym class.  Oh, and it’s at one of Changbin’s friends house. I think he’s an underground rapper. Hyunjin said that you and I could spend the night at his house afterwards.  His parents are out in Busan.”

Pasting a smile on his face, Jisung nodded, but he felt uneasy.  “What about Seungmin?” He finally said after a long moment, and the grin froze on Felix’s face for a second, something unsure flickering in his eyes.  Jisung knew his answer even before he said it, knew that the words were a lie even as Felix said; “I asked him, but he said he didn’t like parties.” Maybe it had been the way Felix had told him ‘you and I’ as if they had already planned it out, a night for just the three of them.  As if they had already been shoving out Seungmin before this.

Maybe he really had been blind to what had been going on in their little circle.  After all, people grew up and they changed, but Jisung had thought they could survive it.  Even through their differences, they had stuck together and built each other up. Even if they started to crumble in high school, their roots were strong.  If they grew apart, they wouldn’t outright shun each other like Hyunjin had started to do. It was something they just had to work through, Jisung told himself.

“We’ll pick you up at eight.”  Felix said in an excited whisper, leaning in close.  His breath made Jisung’s skin prickle as it ghosted across his neck and earlobe.  “Are you sure you can manage to get past your parents?” He added, leaning back an inch, enough so that Jisung could breathe regularly.  He hadn’t even realized his breath had hitched, becoming shallow, but it must have.

Smiling twistedly, Jisung replied airily; “You know they won’t even notice.”  Felix was silent, light eyes holding Jisung’s own dark ones. “Okay.” He said quietly, and then he hugged Jisung before he could move out of the way; throwing his arms around his neck and leaning forward on his toes.  Jisung froze, not used to being touched by other people. They had done it occasionally in their friend group, but none of them had been particularly into skinship, except for Felix. For his friend’s sake he had managed to curb it when they were alone, but there had still been the occasional cuddle or touch of skin.  It hadn’t happened since they had started high school, though, and Jisung realized he had kind of missed it.

Or perhaps he had just missed Felix.

 

He was waiting by a streetlight in front of his house when the sleek convertible pulled up in front of him, music shaking the whole street.  Felix leaned out of the window in the back, waving at him wildly and motioning for him to sit beside him. Jisung smiled and pulled open the door, sliding in next to Felix, who was beside Hyunjin.  Minho was sitting in the passenger seat with his legs up, one earbud in, and the driver was a boy with dyed blonde hair that Jisung recognized vaguely-he thought that he might be one of the people who hung around the dance team.  

Minho peeked around the edge of the seat, eyeing Jisung.  “You’re Jisung, right?” Jisung nodded, feeling distinctly uncomfortable crammed in the back, the door pressing against his shoulder, Felix’s thigh touching his, and Hyunjin an arms throw away with two strangers in the front.  It was a weird feeling, like he was on the very edge.

“I’m Minho.”  Minho said. “And that’s Woojin; he’s a junior and our designated driver for the night.”  Woojin waved cheerily, but Jisung’s mind was turning over the words ‘designated driver’. Having a designated driver meant that alcohol and drinking were going to be involved.  Jisung glanced worriedly at his friends, then tapped Felix on the shoulder. Felix turned to him questioningly, still laughing from a joke Hyunjin had made that Jisung hadn’t caught.

“Hey, you’re not going to drink, right?”  Jisung whispered, his cheeks heating as he saw the curious eyes turned to the two of them.  Felix glanced at him, looking a mix of startled and unsure. “Um,” He started quietly, glancing over at Hyunjin.  “I don’t know.” He finally said with a shrug, leaning back against the seat. After staying quiet for a while, fiddling with his earbuds, he added; “I mean, it’s not like having alcohol is that bad.  It would only be a couple sips.” Felix’s ears were turning red, and he looked embarrassed.

Jisung frowned.  “Don’t.” He said, frown deepening.  He said it louder than he meant, because Hyunjin peeked around Felix to glance at him, confusion on his face.  “What is it?” He asked. Jisung hugged himself, looking away, as Felix said; “Jisung doesn’t want me to drink.”  Hyunjin blinked. “Why?” He asked, addressing both of them. Jisung shrugged, suddenly feeling small. “You know why.”  He replied in a soft voice, clutching his arms and wishing he could sink into the seat and disappear.

Hyunjin laughed sharply.  “Oh, come on Jisung. Not everyone is going to be like-”  “Just shut up.” Jisung snapped, cutting him off. Hyunjin fell silent, leaning back against the seat, and Jisung rested his cheek against the cool window pane.  It was a weird feeling, being mad at Hyunjin. He couldn’t remember a time they’d ever really fought or been angry, it had always ended as soon as it had begun.

“Well, he’s right.”  Minho said after a moment, startling the backseat out of silence.  “We have a performance on Sunday, and everyone needs to be in top condition.  I don’t want any risk of hungover pains.” Hyunjin opened his eyes, staring at him.  “Hyung!” He whined, but Minho simply raised his eyebrows.

Grumbling, Hyunjin flopped back and let his head fall against the headrest, rolling his eyes.  Jisung sighed quietly. “You know, there used to be a time when you would take my opinion into consideration.”  He told them, avoiding eye contact and staring at the houses rushing past. Felix looked nervously between them, Jisung stubbornly looking out the window and watching Hyunjin in the reflection, sitting forward to really look at him.  Minho and Woojin were pretending they weren’t listening and watching the conversation, but Jisung knew they were.

“Why are you so mad?”  Hyunjin asked, eyebrows furrowed.  Jisung contemplated what to say, then finally decided on; “You didn’t have to do that to Seungmin at lunch.  It was uncalled for.” He looked at Minho too, seeing how the older chewed on his bottom lip, eyes downcast. Hyunjin made a short noise, a sound of disbelief or maybe an almost laugh.

“That’s what you’re so upset about?”  He asked, and when Jisung looked at him, his eyes were glimmering with what looked like a shrewd amusement.  “We’re your friends.” Jisung said defensively, the words coming out sharper than intended. Felix was rubbing his fingers faster and faster over his earbud cords, eyes darting nervously between them.  The front of the car was entirely silent, Woojin keeping his eyes fixed determinedly on the road, and Minho leaning back with his legs still up, watching the two of them quietly.

His response seemed to have thrown Hyunjin, who looked like he was thinking of the best way to say what he wanted to next.  “Well...people change, Jisung. We grow up and we grow apart. Just because we were best friends when we were younger doesn’t mean that’s going to be forever.  Seungmin’s different than us now. We don’t...work together anymore. He doesn’t fit with the rest of us.”

Jisung laughed, a crackling sound that was too high pitched and grating to really be a laugh.  It was all so ridiculous, everything coming out of Hyunjin’s mouth. “‘Us’? What if I’m different than you guys too?  Will you ditch me too?” Hyunjin looked uncomfortable now, face hot. “You’re not.” He said, the words a rush.

“How do you know?”  Jisung stared at him, daring him to say something he could fight back against.  “You just are. Besides, tonight we’ll see for sure.” He immediately looked caught, like he hadn’t meant to let that slip.  “What does that mean?” Jisung asked accusingly, then sat back as the realization flooded over him.

“Oh.  This is some kind of test.”  He said in a monotone voice, noticing how no one would meet his gaze.  Felix cleared his throat, jarring in the tension that had settled in the air.  “I mean, let’s just have fun tonight. It’s our first high school party together-our group of friends!  It’ll be lots of fun!” He was trying to lighten things, but Jisung heard the way he said it ‘our group of friends’.  He hadn’t included Seungmin.

“We’re here!”  Woojin interrupted brightly, pulling over in front of a jam packed house.  Jisung felt the familiar clench in his stomach as he took in the people and the lights and the music, all combining into butterflies making him feel sick.  His hand stalled on the door handle, but Felix was waiting to get out, so he pushed it open and walked out onto the grass. Hyunjin had come around the other side, but he just strode past, grabbing Felix’s hand as he did.

Felix waved at Jisung as he was pulled away.  “I’ll come find you!” He yelled, giggling as they disappeared into the house.  Jisung watched them go, a sadness washing over him as two of his best friends left him together.  Woojin had melted into the crowd as well, but Minho lingered for a moment, thumbs tapping the pockets of his ripped jeans.

“Are you going to bolt?”  He asked Jisung, eyes focused on him.  Jisung glanced back at the car. “I don’t have a ride, or anywhere to go besides home, and I’d rather not go there.”  He said with a small shrug, shrinking under the weight of Minho’s beautiful eyes, the messy golden blonde of his hair.  

“I guess I’ll see you later, then.”  Minho said after a moment, considering Jisung once more.  Jisung didn’t have the courage to say; I hope so, even as the words lingered in his mind as Minho left him, too.

 

He did see Minho later, the junior finding him where he was pressed against the landing in the stairwell, wishing he could fade into the wallpaper.  “Having fun?” Jisung turned his head, seeing Minho standing by him, grinning over the rim of his solo cup. He had unraveled a bit, eyeliner smudged and hair swept up rakishly, shirt hanging off his wiry frame and bracelet half clasped.

Jisung shook his head.  “Not really.” He admitted.  It was exhausting, the music loud and the cheers of people pounding in his head, the smell of alcohol and cheap junk food nauseating.  “Guess I really don’t belong in the same crowd as you guys do.” He said with a small smile, but he couldn’t make it real. Minho leaned against the wall beside him, facing him.  His eyes were curious, completely focused.

“Oh, and, um, thanks for saying that earlier.  For telling Felix and Hyunjin not to drink. I appreciate it.”  He added after thinking for a while. Minho nodded, crushing his cup in his hand.  He must have drunk all of it, but he didn’t look really intoxicated. In fact, his eyes were still bright and alert.  

“You looked worried, like you really cared about them.  I figured I’d help you out.” He said with a shrug. “We really do have a performance on Sunday, but drinking on a Friday night wouldn’t matter that much.”  He caught Jisung’s eyes on his cup, lifting it up. “It’s just juice. I don’t drink either.” Jisung must have looked curious, because Minho continued on. “I don’t like the taste, and I have personal reasons, like it seems you do.”

Looking away, Jisung avoided the way he was silently asking him if he wanted to tell him what they were.  Felix, Hyunjin, and Seungmin were the only ones who understood and knew, and Jisung intended to keep it that way.  He didn’t want to give anyone else ammunition they could use against him, spreading his personal life around like Hyunjin had almost did in the car.  He still couldn’t believe how close Hyunjin had been to saying the words none of them had ever voiced. Maybe they had changed, changed so much that Jisung could hardly recognize them.

“You know,”  Minho started, twirling his bracelet around his wrist.  “I’ve been noticing you, before I knew you were Hyunjin and Felix’s friend.  I think you’re cool.” Jisung tried not to let his utter shock and surprise show on his face as Minho shyly looked down, cheeks a light pink now.  “You’re always walking with your earbuds in like you don’t notice or care about anything else, like you’re in this different world. Kind of like how I feel when I dance, that feeling you want to keep bottled up forever.”

The words washed over Jisung, soft and soothing.  His heart was starting to flutter, pounding faster in his chest.  “You’re brave, courageous-you’re not afraid to stand up for your friends, and you’re loyal to them.  You have morals, and you know them well. The opposite of me, really, but that only makes me admire you more.”

Jisung finally met his gaze, Minho’s eyes kaleidoscoping in the disco lights.  “Really?” He asked, thinking back to the first time he had seen Minho-that day in the hallway when Hyunjin had pointed and told him that was where he wanted to be.  He remembered taking in the soft, wavy brown hair, the slim nose and crinkled eyes as he laughed, how he walked like he was remembering how he danced, holding himself strong.  He remembered thinking, in a mix of disgust and awe, that it was like everything circled around him like he was the sun, people collapsing under that smile. He also remembered the thought he had shoved away, knowing he was staring at the person who was going to take away everything he had-that he wanted that smile to be directed at him, just once.

Minho nodded, and that smile was meant for Jisung, and it made him feel like everything was a little bit better, at least in that moment.  And when Minho leaned forward and kissed him, lips soft, Jisung couldn’t help but return it, feeling everything fade away from him as bare skin brushed his.

Then Minho pulled back, the cup having dropped from his fingers, and his grin was brighter and bigger-more real-than Jisung had ever seen, a genuine one meant just for him, not his school and performance smile that was meant for everyone.  His shirts neckline was a little too wide, slipping towards the edges of his shoulders, and as Jisung drank in the curve of his collarbone, he noticed the edges of a purpling bruise spreading over the back of his shoulder.

“What’s that?”  He asked, moving forward, but Minho turned, adjusting his shirt so that it was covered.  “I made a mistake during dancing and fell, so I hurt it. I didn’t know it was going to bruise that badly.”  He explained, sticking out his tongue the tiniest bit. Jisung nodded, but the magic of the kiss was fading and the uneasy one returning as he thought about it more.

Putting on a smile, his fake one this time, Minho said; “Well, I won’t be all hopeful and say that I’ll see you again, since I doubt things are going to turn out that way, but I do like you, Jisung.  So just remember that, okay?” He tapped Jisung’s temple, quirked an eyebrow, and Jisung managed to nod before he vanished up the stairs.

 

Later, at Hyunjin’s house, Jisung lay on the bed and waited for Felix to come out of the bathroom and turn off the light.  His mind was reeling, the night replaying as he slowly rewound the moments he wished had never happened and the one he wished would happen again.  He regretted everything he had said in the car, how he had pushed it too far, but he couldn’t forget how Hyunjin had responded, how Felix had said nothing.

Then there was Minho and the kiss and what he had said, which made Jisung suppress a smile.  He knew Minho was right when he had said they probably wouldn’t see each other again, but it still made his lips tingle.  Even if half of what he had said were lies; you’re brave and courageous, you’re loyal, like you don’t notice or care about anything; they still made his cheeks flush at the memory.

The bathroom light flicked out, and Jisung stilled as the floorboards creaked, then the bed as Felix settled in next to him.  “Are you still awake?” He whispered, and Jisung turned his head, enough to see how his hair fanned out across the white pillow, his form under the blanket.  “Yeah.” He whispered into the darkness, looking up at the ceiling. This had been always been their room, the room they all slept in when they spent the nights, and they had stuck many glow in the dark stars all over the ceiling.  Jisung could clearly remember how they had stood on the bed and stretched, jumping to stick it and then falling apart in giggles.

It had been Jisung who had caused it, whispering one night that he was scared of the dark and the monsters.  Even as a child, he had meant it in a more literal way than more children did-the monster who would walk beneath him and stop at his door, the monster who smashed plates and screamed at him, but they hadn’t been old enough to really talk about things like that yet.

Seungmin had suggested it, bringing an entire packet of them with him to the next sleepover, proudly thrusting them in his face and announcing he had found a way to keep the monsters at bay.  They had spent the better part of the night figuring out how to arrange them, and even if the pattern was messy, Jisung had still gone to sleep concentrating on those pinpricks of light.

“Can I tell you something?”  Felix asked in a hushed tone, and Jisung nodded, knowing he could barely make him out.  Felix was quiet for a long time, and Jisung began to wonder if he really hadn’t seen him nod, but then he said quietly; “I kissed Hyunjin.”  Jisung’s eyes opened more, and he looked over at him. Of all the things he had been expecting Felix to say, it hadn’t been that.

“Do you...like each other?”  Jisung finally asked, swallowing.  His heart was slamming against his ribcage, and his mouth felt dry.  Felix was quiet still, and Jisung was opening his mouth to apologize, when Felix answered; “Yeah.  I mean, I like him and I think he likes me.” “Oh.” Jisung said, feeling strange inside. “How long?  Have you known, I mean.”

“I don’t know.”  Felix whispered, and Jisung tensed when he felt his fingertips brush his hand, tracing circles.  He had always done that, tracing shapes and patterns when Jisung felt particularly patterned. “A while, I guess.  He’s just amazing, you know?” He smiled, a small but happy smile, and Jisung felt like his throat was closing. “But, um, don’t tell anyone, alright?  Especially not Seungmin.” Jisung didn’t know why he had to add that him, but it felt like another hit.

He took his hand back, turning so that his back was facing Felix.  “Whatever you want, Lee Felix.” He said in a flat voice, feeling an emptiness wash over him.  Then, after a moment, he added; “I guess people really do change, because I don’t know who you are anymore.”  He closed his eyes, willing it all to go away, and he heard Felix turn over too, leaving the words hanging in the empty space between them.

 

The following Monday, Jisung sat with Seungmin at lunch.

Chapter Text

二 。

  

Jisung became a part of the underground rap scene on his sixteenth birthday, the beginning of his junior year of high school.  He had started attending over the summer, watching from the very edge of the crowd as amazing rappers hit the stage and spit fire, cheers flying through the air.  It had a tangible feel to it, like he could reach up and his fingers would touch the energy sparking above him.

But today he was backstage, hands gripping the microphone, baseball cap tugged low over his eyes.  Though he had been coming for almost three months, Jisung had never performed before, too afraid of the stage and its bright lights, no matter how tantalizing they looked, like they were beckoning him to stand upon it.  He had notebooks full of lyrics, crowding the pages in English and Korean, scribbled sideways and upside down, on the lines and off them, in bright colors or blurring ink.

Today, though, he was sixteen years old and there was nothing waiting for him except a reminder of all the friends he had used to have, a voicemail from his mother, his brother’s picture on the dining room table, watching him as he left, and soju bottles scattered across the floor, shattered into pieces and shards of sharp glass.  

“Announcing our newest challenger, J.ONE!”  Jisung straightened his shoulders and stepped out, footsteps echoing on the stage as he walked across it.  The crowd had fallen silent, eyes scanning him and sizing him up, waiting to determine how much he was worth.  Jisung had watched it happen a hundred times, but now, with everything focused on him, all he could do was draw in a shaky breath.  

The choice for his rapper name to be J.ONE was a simple one; J for Jisung, and his last name, Han, meaning one in English.  It sounded like someone else, still, another person he could slip into and leave the torn clothes and secondhand books, the overgrown bangs and ugly cuts, of the Jisung he was behind.  By standing on this stage, clutching the microphone in his trembling hands, staring at his feet, Jisung felt like he was still being dragged backwards by everything-Hyunjin and Felix, the bruises hidden by his clothes, Seungmin’s sad eyes, Minho’s watchful ones that he was still trying to escape.

And then he remembered that he was standing on a stage for a reason, that he was going to rap and show the underground he had something more than that.  That he could also cause fire and energy to filter through the air, that he could spit out words that meant more than what he could ever say.

So Jisung tightened his grip, pulling down his baseball cap a little bit more, took a step back, and lifted the microphone up.  He took a breath, and for a moment everything seemed to freeze, the dust floating around him, the waiting faces beneath him, and Jisung let words pour out.  Not words he had written down, or rehearsed. Not the ones on the crumpled sheet of paper he had shoved in his pocket upon leaving, too nervous to freestyle like he had considered.  No, this was what Jisung couldn’t put in writing. It was everything that was building up inside him and threatening to explode, the emotions too deep inside for him to drag out with pen and paper.

In between the lines were the wordless things he really meant; for the friends he had lost, for the childhood he had thought would last forever, that had been left behind too quickly, for the turmoil that he had been thrown into.  How it all crumbled down, how the walls were starting to break as stones fell. They fell inward, and Jisung had built them so nothing could get in, and yet he found himself also unable to get out. They were all getting crushed, the four of them, and all were trapped in their castles wreathed in thorns, unable to even reach a hand out.

He finished to silence, and then an explosion of noise.  Jisung bowed once, and then exited, nearly dropping the microphone.  Now that the exhilaration and adrenaline had worn off, he felt shaky and a bit terrified, ready to leave.  “Hey, J.ONE!” Someone said behind him, footsteps falling as they ran up to him, touching his shoulder. Jisung spun, nearly tripping.  

Changbin grinned up at him beneath his standard black cap, shoving his hands in his pockets.  “Hi, Jisung.” He said, smiling a smile that was all teeth. Jisung stared at him, unable to say anything else but; “So the rumors are true?  Are you really SpearB?” Changbin raised his eyebrows. “I am if you want me to be.” Jisung smiled at that. It had given him the answer he needed.

“Nice rap.”  Changbin acknowledged, tipping his hat to him.  “Thanks.” Jisung replied quietly, anxious to get home and slip into bed, to put his earbuds in and drown out all the other noise.  “Am I going to be seeing you around more?” He tilted his head to look at him in the eyes, and Jisung felt like the gesture was strangely intimate, so he looked away.  

“I don’t know.”  He admitted. “School’s starting soon.”  Changbin raised his eyebrows. “What does that have to do with anything?”  He asked, and Jisung shrugged again, too tired to explain what could happen, how much harder it would be to slip around unnoticed, to sneak out at night.  

“You know,”  Changbin started, voice gentler than before.  “I liked your rap a lot. The words, they actually meant something, you know?  A lot of kids get up there and spit fire but it’s all meaningless, just words they thought would sound cool.  But you, you got up there and and you gave us a piece of your soul.” He paused. “It’s almost like I found someone who could completely match me.  An equal, you could say.”

Jisung looked at him in surprise.  “Really?” He asked, awe slipping into his voice.  Changbin half smiled half smirked. “Stick around and I guess we’ll find out.”  It didn’t sound like an order or a command, like he was pushing Jisung, but more like a silent promise.  “Okay.” Jisung said in a near whisper.

Changbin nodded at that, dipped his head, and then he disappeared onstage.  Jisung watched his back for a moment, hearing the beginning of his words, but his phone chimed, reminding him that he needed to get back.  Turning on his heel, Jisung left the graffiti covered tunnel and headed away, the words looping in his head.

 

The following week, Jisung came back, and this time Changbin was waiting for him at the entrance. “Come on.”  He said. “A friend of mine wants to meet you.” Jisung followed him through one of the back areas, into a small alcove where another male sat, legs crossed and the glow of the laptop balanced on it illuminating his face.  He looked up at the sound of their entrance, eyes focusing briefly on them before flicking back down to the keyboard his fingers were tapping on in an elegant dance.

Jisung was suddenly reminded of how Seungmin had used to play the piano, his hands blurring as he created music, with Hyunjin and Felix and himself sitting and watching him silently because it was pure magic, those notes floating through the air.  Hyunjin had used to duet with him, until he stopped doing piano and gave it up for dance, and together they sounded all the more beautiful.

“Han Jisung.”  The male drawled, looking at him for a bit longer.  He looked like he could be a senior in high school, or maybe a little bit older, because his eyes were heavy and tired.  There was still something fiery sparking in them though, something that spoke of someone who was still fighting and hadn’t backed down yet, wasn’t planning on backing down.  

“I’m Bang Chan, producer, rapper, composer.  Basically, I run this thing from behind the scenes.  Changbin’s been talking about you, and from what I’ve seen, you’ve got talent.  That was an impressive debut performance.” Jisung could only give Changbin a guarded look, before turning back to Chan.  He had messy black hair that looked like the color ‘raven black’ that you found in a dye package, and it was a little long.  His eyes were more gray, but sharp, and he was wearing a dark gray hoodie and sweatpants with rose pink Converse high tops, a splash of color against his otherwise gloomy attire.

“You go to Changbin’s school, right?”  Chan asked next, and Jisung nodded. Chan smiled, a genuine smile that made him seem happier than he looked.  “I graduated from there last year.” He clarified, and Changbin rolled his eyes and breathed out a groan from behind Jisung, making both of them look at him.

“Can we get to the point?”  He asked, leaning back with his hands in his pockets.  He looked at ease, so relaxed and self confident, as if he had all the time in the world and all that time was going to be used how he wanted it to be.  Chan nodded, closing his laptop with a faint click.

“What would you think about doing a collaboration with Changbin and I?  We’ve been doing some mixtapes as a duo, but it doesn’t have the same feel as it would with a trio.  Up until now, we’ve just been looking for the perfect person to complete our triangle.” Jisung was momentarily speechless, looking between the two of them for a few seconds.

Finally, he said; “Mixtapes?”  It was directed at Changbin, who grinned and gave him a small salute.  “I’m SpearB, and he’s CB97. Together, we can do almost anything, and if you agree to do it with us, then we can. ”  His eyes are filled with an almost fevered excitement, and Jisung found himself smiling.  He thought about the loneliness of his days, the afternoons spent curled up on his bed with his earbuds in, or on a park bench with his notebook, wishing the world away so he wouldn’t have to deal and cave because his reality was, at times, unbearable.  Maybe, if he had this, it would be a little less that and a little more brighter, happier if he dared to think like that.

“I could give it a try.”  He said after consideration, and Chan and Changbin exchange a look that Jisung couldn’t quite read, but then they both gave him their numbers and Jisung gave them his.  Changbin walked him out as Chan opened up his laptop again, humming under his breath as music started to flow from the speakers, a blank document in the other window as his fingers hovered over the keys once again.

“I didn’t think you’d agree.”  Changbin admitted, kicking a loose rock.  Jisung shrugged. He and Changbin were about the same height, but Jisung probably had an inch or so on him, with the way Changbin slouched and tugged his baseball caps lower.  “You don’t know me very well.” He replied, knowing that Changbin could very easily repeat the words right back at him if he wanted to.

“Maybe I’d like to.”  Changbin replied softly, expression hidden in the shadows of the night and the brim of his hat.  “Why?” Jisung asked tonelessly, stopping. Changbin walked another pace before facing him, lifting his eyes up.  Jisung found his eyes oddly compelling, the way they reflected the moonlight in the shimmering orbs. He was finding it harder and harder to place this Changbin with SpearB and the one he saw at school, like three different fragments.  There was something in his heart, though, that told him that this was the real Changbin.

At school his eyes were cruel, watchful from the edges of whatever group he was drifting with, filled with mirth and mystery.  He never said anything, but something about his presence made people want to move away. Then, here, on the stage, it was all fire and everything about him was more terrifying, like he was removed from Earth, almost at an idol level.  None of it matched up to this softer version of Changbin, the one with the faded edges and quiet words, how he focused entirely on Jisung, paying more attention to him-seeing through him-more than anyone else had in a long time.

Changbin seemed to be considering the question, still as he thought.  “Because.” He answered. “You’re Han Jisung. Everything about you is a mystery.  You act like nothing can touch you, like nothing matters, like you don’t care. It’s as if you don’t see the real world when you have your music.”  Jisung was struck by dejavu, what Minho had told him on the day that seemed like ages ago, not a couple months. You’re always walking with your earbuds in like you don’t notice or care about anything else, like you’re in this different world.

“Then there’s the fallout between you, Seungmin, Hyunjin, and Felix.  You were so...loyal. You weren’t like anyone else I’d seen, because everyone else-Hyunjin and Felix and Minho-they’d have made the other choice, you know?  I’ve always noticed you, you’ve just never realized it because I haven’t let you see it before.” Jisung nodded along, but now he was thinking about Minho again, of the conversation they had exchanged on that stairwell landing, of how it had felt to kiss him.

There was a beep, and Changbin checked his watch, eyebrows knitting together.  “I have someplace to be.” He said abruptly, pressing a button so that the glow faded away.  Jisung nodded again, unsure what he was feeling. “I’ll see you in school, then.” “Yeah.” Jisung coughed out, his voice slightly raspy.  School had started the day before, and it was already overwhelming, the pressure hitting him like a crushing weight.

So far he had managed to avoid everything that could add onto it; namely Hyunjin and Felix and the dance team, Minho , and his grades and how he already felt like he was being swallowed alive.  They were all already drowning, but now it was more water pressing upon them, someone holding him underwater so he couldn’t come up for hair.  Jisung was scared for the day when he would finally give up and just let himself sink through the murky water, feel his lungs close up as water filled them, the world going dark around him, but not before he saw the drowning bodies of the people he loved and cared about.

“Oh, and since I forgot to say it last time, happy sixteenth.  Jisung.” Changbin smiled as he said his name, and Jisung could only wonder how he knew he had turned sixteen as he ran away, eventually blending into the darkness as if he had vanished.

 

Against what his mind kept telling him, the common sense about how it would all add up, Jisung kept coming back to the underground and, more importantly, Chan and Changbin.  Chan was eighteen and more friendly the more they met, but Jisung could tell he had his loyalties and priorities straight, and while Jisung was growing on him, he would let him go if he became a danger.  Jisung respected that. He didn’t see fierce loyalty like that much anymore.

There was something about standing on the stage and rapping to strangers that stood below his feet and loved every single word of it.  It was how he felt, like he was creating the magic he had watched others before him do, like he was a part of something. It was a feeling he could never get at school, or at home.  Jisung wasn’t sure if had ever felt it, anywhere, but it was a feeling that filled him to the brim with energy.

After performing, the three of them would sit in that small room writing lyrics to new and old tracks Chan kept on his hard drive, sometimes talking, but mostly sitting in a mutual silence as they wrote.  Some days they exchanged lyrics, or didn’t write at all, and just sat around talking. None of them were particularly open or personal about their lives out of the tunnel Jisung felt inexplicably safe in, but that was okay, because they always managed to talk about anything but.

But all good things came to an end, and maybe it was because Jisung felt safe in that tunnel, so he forgot about the reason he tiptoed in and always returned before he was caught.  One night, he stayed a little too late, forgetting to check the time every half hour and so, and he stayed later than usual. By the time he realized it, it was too late to get back home unnoticed, and Jisung walking slowly, trying to enjoy the night air as his insides tumbled around.   And maybe he had stayed late on purpose because he knew the date and he was safe in that tunnel; he could forget reality and everything, push his problems back another night, and pretend that he wasn’t drowning more and more and that he wanted to drown, that a part of him had already given up.  

His house was dark, but his father’s car was in the driveway, and Jisung slowly approached the front door, dreading what was behind it.  When he opened it, turning to knob with a tense hand so it only issued a faint click, he saw Younghyun’s picture on the dining room table, laid out in the expensive gold frame he had hand designed.  Jisung hated that picture, how tired he looked in it. It held nothing of his smile, or his dark dyed hair, or the way he looked in blue and how he taught Jisung how to sing before Jisung figured out that he liked rapping more.  

He could always pick up the phone and call him, but it would always be empty on the other line, and Jisung was only able sob into the receiver.  Looking at the picture for a moment longer, Jisung remembered the date, what he had been avoiding during the night and in school during the day. He looked past the dining room table, to the soju bottles scattered all over the floor.  It was just past midnight, the number displaying a bright 42, and for a minute all Jisung could think of was that number. 42. The answer to the ultimate question of life, the universe, and everything. All it was to Jisung was two digits that couldn’t solve any of the questions he had.

Younghyun had told him that.  He liked telling Jisung different stories about it, what he thought.  But Younghyun wasn’t here anymore, and everything was meaningless, and Jisung guessed 42 didn’t answer Younghyun’s questions and couldn’t solve anything, because in the end Younghyun still left them, left him, with only a picture and the empty ringing.  Jisung didn’t know where Younghyun’s phone was, probably broken, but sometimes he imagined someone else holding it and listening to the endless voicemails he had left.

His father was in the living room, sitting on the couch and staring at the tv with a half full bottle of the alcohol in his hand.  “What, you’re not going to honor your brother?” He asked as Jisung padded past quietly in his socks. Jisung froze, head turning involuntarily back to the picture.  He hated it with a sudden surge. Couldn’t they at least have found a picture where he was smiling, where his cheeks were full and he looked healthy and happy?

“I already did.”  Jisung said, the words a near whisper, and his father stood up and walked over.  Jisung stood perfectly still, knowing he shouldn’t have come home late when it was a hundred times more dangerous on the third year anniversary of Younghyun’s death.  “Didn’t look like it to me.” Jisung cast his eyes to the ground, staring at his worn shoes, the shoes he had been wearing since freshman year even if they pinched his feet because he knew they didn’t have money for anything, much less for a pair of shoes.

“Hey, look at me.”  Jisung’s eyes darted up for a moment, but he couldn’t bear to make eye contact, knowing that would make his father angrier with all the alcohol he had already consumed.  They always had money for alcohol, Jisung noted bitterly. “I said, look at me!” His father yelled, and Jisung flinched back as he threw the soju bottle. It whistled past his head, only inches away, and shattered on the wall behind him, shards of glass hitting him in the back.  

“I’m sorry.”  Jisung said, forcing himself to focus on an aspect of his father’s face.  For a moment they both just stood here, and then Jisung caught the edge of the table as his father slapped him across the face.  It was a sharp crack, and his hand slipped across the picture, sending it crashing to the ground. He watched it fall in slow motion, skittering across the ground as the frame cracked apart, the picture half falling out.

The world seemed to freeze for a split second, his cheek aching, bang blowing in front of his eyes, glass flying up like pieces of crystal, and then his father grabbed his arm and Jisung felt it wrench in a painful way that made tears flood up in his eyes.  He tried to pull himself free, but he was thrown to the ground by the force of it, glass stabbing him painfully. Throwing up his free arm to his father’s blows, Jisung tried to crawl away, abandoning cover for a split second to haul himself to his feet.

He felt air and he ducked, the grab his father had made for him missing.  Scrambling to run, tripping over his own feet, Jisung got to his room at the end of the hallway.  He stumbled inside and slammed the door, locking it and then sliding down against his. He felt his father’s weight slam into it, nearly knocking him down, and he closed his eyes as tears pricked at his eyes.  His arm ached, but Jisung didn’t think his shoulder had been dislocated, and he could feel blood making his jacket stick to him. One of these days the door wouldn’t hold, and then it would really be over, everything, but for now he was safe in his small room, at least until the next time.

 

In the morning, he called Seungmin.  He was still crouched against the door, having stayed petrified until around four a.m., when his father finally went to sleep.  Then he had dozed off for an hour or two, snapping awake when he realized it was six. He knew Seungmin got up at five thirty every morning, showering and then going straight to work on studying or projects, whatever it was that day.

“Jisung!  You’re up early.”  Seungmin said when he answered, sounding distracted, but still happy to hear from him.  Jisung was glad he had picked up, knowing that sometimes Seungmin would ignore everything when he was concentrating.  He had never once ignored one of Jisung’s calls or texts though, even closing the books and coming outside if Jisung wanted him to.

“Yeah.”  Jisung said shakily.  “Actually, can I come over?”  Seungmin sensed that something was wrong, and Jisung could hear the question in his response.  “Of course you can.” Then, in a softer voice; “Are you okay?” They always asked that to each other, not as a way for the other to lie to them, but for the other to admit why they weren’t okay.  If one of them had to ask the question, it was because the other wasn’t okay, and both of them knew it.

“No.  You know first aid, right?”  Jisung asked, biting his lip as he heard Seungmin draw in breath.  “Jisung-” “It’s not bad!” Jisung blurted out. “I don’t need a hospital or anything.  It doesn’t even hurt that much.” He drew in a shaking breath, trying not to cry again. “Jisung…”  Seungmin said again, sounding sad.

“Look, before you come over, you should know that Jeongin’s here also.”  Seungmin told him. Jisung raised his eyebrows, biting back his questions.  He knew Seungmin would tell him later. While Jisung had found Changbin and Chan to help him live a little longer, Seungmin had found Jeongin, a sophomore from Busan with braces and a bright smile.  They had hung out together, the three of them, a fair amount of times, but there was still things that only Seungmin knew, and Jisung wasn’t willing to trust a newcomer easily.

“I’m coming.”  He said softly, murmuring a bye and then hanging out.  Slipping his phone into his pocket and zipping it shut, Jisung stood up, wincing at the sharp pain shooting down his back and his arm, which felt numb.  He trusted that Seungmin would take care of it-the main reason Seungmin had learned extensive first aid and cpr was to take care of him-but he still grimaced as he slid the window open and threw himself over it, landing in a crouch.

The ground was wet with dew, the sun rising on the horizon line.  Pink and golden yellow were starting to streak through the dusky gray of early morning, and Jisung drew in a deep breath of fresh air before pulling his jacket tighter; a difficult feat when doing it one handedly.  Seungmin lived a few blocks over, a distance that would be easier on bike or by car, but Jisung had neither, so he walked briskly, head bent.

Hardly anyone was out at this time, but Jisung avoided the ones that were.  He didn’t know any of his neighbors, his section of the neighborhood being the run down one filled with shady people that kept their windows closed and their secrets closer.  The divide to when it became Seungmin’s half of the neighborhood. The rows of houses became neater and brighter, the lawns trimmed and the houses painted bright shades, with bicycles chained up and nice cars sitting in driveways.

When he was a kid, Jisung had always pictured living here.  Not Hyunjin’s house, which was like a mansion two blocks over, with turrets and old stone making it up.  It had been warm and comforting, but Jisung had always liked how warm and bright Seungmin’s house was. It was smaller but cozy, reminding him of the fairy tales he had read.  He had liked how there was always food to eat there, and the giant plushies in the living room they would sit on.

It had changed over the years, the plushies changed into more sophisticated furniture and the food turning healthier, or disappearing as Seungmin’s parents got busier and busier, but the feeling was still there.  The feeling of home and happiness, as if having all of this was a perfectly normal thing. Jisung had wanted it then, and he wanted it know, the only difference being that now he knew why. As a kid he had only known desire in a way he couldn’t quite place, just knowing he craved this badly.  Now, he knew it by name, and he also know it’s opposite, the voice that told him he was never going to have it because his father had never had it and Younghyun would never have it and why should he deserve it, then?

Wiping his face with his sleeve, Jisung pushed thoughts of Younghyun away.  He had stopped grieving for his brother on the first year anniversary, where he had set up a small shrine and cried, and then his father had hit him and screamed at him and destroyed it all.  He had torn everything into small, unfixable pieces, and Jisung had been left in tears not for Younghyun but at the injustice of it all, how he couldn’t even mourn for his lost brother without doing well, how his hard work could never be repaired.

Seungmin’s house was a two story house painted a dusty blue, with brilliant white shutters.  There were no cars in the driveway, but Seungmin’s bike was chained in the garage. Leaves were starting to fall from the trees, but even the leaves were pretty, red and gold and orange.  The only color the leaves that fell in Jisung’s yard was brown, dull and lifeless, crumbling to pieces upon touch.

Jisung let himself in, knowing it was unlocked.  Seungmin ran down to meet him, socked feet slipping on the stairs.  He was wearing his glasses, the round rims slipping down his nose, brown hair disheveled.  He stopped at the foot, one hand awkwardly carrying his first aid kit, and surveyed him. “Jisung.”  He said softly, and Jisung gave him a tired smile. It felt like Seungmin was always saying his name, as if the bring him  back to reality and him. Jisung was glad he did, because it always made him a little more grounded, a little more like he was alive and not just an outline drawn with smudged pencil on paper, a half finished drawing that someone had forgotten about.

“I told you it wasn’t bad.”  Jisung said with a wane smile that felt a little tight around the edges, as if he couldn’t even manage that.  Seungmin hit him angrily in his arm, mouth wobbling a little bit. “You’re such an idiot. You call a bruised face, a nearly dislocated arm, and blood soaking through your shirt okay?!”  Jisung shrugged. They both knew he had been through worse, but that had been a long time ago, and he knew that neither of them wanted to remember that time.

There was a pattering on the stairs, and Jeongin appeared, halting as he took in the scene.  His eyes widened, but he pressed his lips together and didn’t say anything, coming to help Seungmin.  “Do you think you can take off your coat?” Seungmin asked, moving over to look at his back. From the breath he sucked in between his teeth, Jisung knew it was worse than it looked.  Finally, Seungmin said, voice only a little bit wobbly; “Thank goodness none of it hit near your spine or is too deeply embedded. Then we’d really have to go to the hospital.”

“I’ll take care of your arm first.”  He said. “Jeongin, can you get the sling out?”  Jeongin nodded nervously, opening the kit with minimal difficulty and rooting around in it as Seungmin carefully shrugged the coat off Jisung, who tried to keep perfectly still.  Even so, he couldn’t stop wincing as the fabric pulled at his injured arm, which was at least sprained if not something worse. He was again glad it hadn’t been dislocated-then they would have had to go to the hospital to get it set.

Jisung couldn’t go to the hospital.  Even if it would make him better, or bring him back from death if it was really needed, he didn’t have the money for it.  Worse yet, someone might ask a question about how he had gotten so injured, and Jisung could see how everything would fall down in clouds of dust, leaving him standing there alone with nothing left to hide behind.  Maybe it would be better for him, to be taken away, but Jisung needed to stay to stay alive, even if it killed him. He needed his friends and school and the underground so badly that it hurt him at times.

Seungmin took the ace bandages from Jeongin, leaving the sling, and carefully prodded Jisung’s arm.  “I think it’s only sprained, but it’s going to bruise. You should have put ice on it earlier, so now it’s gotten worse.”  He tsked sharply. “I couldn’t.” Jisung whispered, and Seungmin nodded. “I know.” He replied back, in a whisper as well.  

“Jeongin, can you get ice from the freezer?  Bags are in the second cabinet on the bottom, to your left.”  Seungmin said, not looking up from Jisung’s arm. “I think only the wrist is sprained, but the rest of your arm is going to hurt like heck for a while.”  Jisung nodded again as Jeongin returned with the ice in a bag. He passed it silently to Seungmin, hopping up on the counter to watch.

“Here, put this on your arm so the swelling can go down while I work on your back.  You’ll have to stay standing, though.” Seungmin grimaced as he looked at his back again.  When Jisung shifted, he could feel the glass being driven up in his skin. “S’okay.” He mumbled, resting his arm on the counter with the ice balanced on top.

Seungmin picked up the tweezers, peeling away his shirt.  Cold air touched his back, and he heard Seungmin make a soft noise.  “You’ve been eating, right?” He asked, fingers tracing Jisung’s sharp shoulder blades.  “Yeah. When I can.” Jisung told him quietly, feeling exposed all of the sudden. “A lot during lunch at school.”  It was the only time he could really get a decent meal.

“I wish…”  Seungmin started, then trailed off.  “Nevermind. Make sure not to move, even if it hurts.”  Jisung gave a tiny nod, and Seungmin pressed his hand against Jisung’s shoulder as he knelt, a quick pang of pain coursing through Jisung as he took out the first piece.  He felt more blood trickle down his back, but he made himself stay still as Seungmin continued, biting on his lip to focus on something other than the pain.

Finally, Seungmin stood, putting down the tweezers and picking up gauze and ointment and band aids, some of the bigger ones.  Somehow, they still had smiley faces and stars on them, though it looked silly on such a big bandage. Not like it did on the ones they had stuck all over their knees when they were kids, using more than was needed for their tiny scratches because they liked the bright colors and pictures.

Jisung sighed under his breath as Seungmin cleaned up his back, pressing the band aids over his skin.  When Seungmin was done, he walked over and took the ice off, examining Jisung’s forearm carefully. Then, he wrapped the ace bandage around it carefully and tightly, nearly cutting off Jisung’s circulation.  His whole arm felt numb though, so maybe he had. Seungmin took the sling Jeongin had found, and put it around Jisung, bringing his arm up in front of his chest.

“You should elevate it when you get home.”  Seungmin said, eyeing it. “Actually, can I stay here for a while?”  Jisung asked. Seungmin looked at him. “I meant after tonight, duh.”  And Jisung smiled, because of course Seungmin knew him more than he knew himself, mind always a step ahead of Jisung’s mouth or actions.  “Here, let me go get you a shirt.” He disappeared up the stairs, leaving Jisung shivering in the kitchen.

Jeongin jumped down from the counter, hitting the ground with a thump.  Jisung looked over at him, remembering that he had been there the whole time.  He had been used to it just being Seungmin and himself for so long that, even now, he still sometimes forgot they had a third person to add on.  Third still felt empty, though, and Jisung wondered if he would never feel complete without four in his group, without the specific four he had grown accustomed to.

“Hey, you guys know you can trust me, right?”  Jeongin said suddenly, facing him. His black hair was messy, and Jisung was pretty sure he had Seungmin’s sweatshirt on, one of the oversized ones that swallowed him and his hands alive.  He looked like a kid, despite being almost sixteen-Jisung, Seungmin, and Felix were all on the very end of the line for making it into eleventh grade, if they had been in October they would have been sophomores with him, all innocence and smiles.

Jisung’s first thought was to say ‘we do’, but he bit them back, because they only partially did.  “I’m a foster kid.” Jeongin said after a moment, looking at the refrigerator. Seungmin’s mother had taped up pictures and Seungmin’s drawings and report cards, circling the As in bright colors, covering them with smiley faces.  It was obvious how much she had loved her son, how much both of Seungmin’s parents had loved him. How much they did love him, even though Seungmin was almost certain they had forgotten he existed now.

“I didn’t know.”  Jisung said, but Jeongin waved a hand at him.  “I’m not done.” He said, voice steely, and he looked serious, an emotion Jisung wouldn’t normally have attributed to him.  “My mom wasn’t a suitable parent, and my dad died from cancer when I was a kid. Eventually, one of the neighbors called in when they realized I was still in the house when her car had been gone for almost a week.  I got thrown into social services, and I was tossed around some pretty rough houses where some pretty bad things happened. Now I’m here, and I think I might stay.” He smiled at that, but his eyes were sad. Jisung noticed how he said houses instead of homes.

“What I’m trying to say is that I get it.  I know more than you think I know. I haven’t known you guys for long, I certainly don’t know as much as I should about all the crap that went down with you and your other friends, but I want to try and be a friend to you guys.  Not a replacement, because you don’t want that, but someone new. So I’d appreciate it if you guys would look at me like that, like how I’m trying to be, and accept it? I guess.” He blushed, looking down and away at the ground, foot scuffing the tile.

“We don’t want a replacement.”  A voice interrupted them, and they both looked up to see Seungmin standing on the stairs, a shirt draped over his sweatered arm.  Jeongin looked startled, but Jisung shot them both a smile. “It’s just that Jisung and I-and Hyunjin and Felix, well they used to anyways-we’ve been through a lot together.  We know the other more than we probably know ourselves. But, still, you’re a good friend, Jeongin. We haven’t been meaning to keep things from you intentionally, we’re just used to not trusting outsiders and keeping things to ourselves.”

He looked at Jisung, and Jisung dipped his head at him.  Then he turned to look at Jeongin. “There’s a lot you’ve probably guessed, I know that.  Basically, my dad drinks a lot and he can be abusive at times, which is why I stay away a lot.  Also, today is the anniversary of my brother’s death.” Jisung paused and drew in a deep breath, steeling himself like he had seen Jeongin do.  “He overdosed three years ago. Filled the bathtub to the top, climbed in with his clothes on, took a bunch of pills, and then slipped under. I walked in and found him.”  His words were clipped, and Jisung folded his good hand to keep it from shaking so openly. He’d never said those words aloud to someone other than Seungmin and Hyunjin and Felix, and it kind of felt like throwing up.

It was the truth, too, no matter how Jisung looked at it.  Younghyun had been his hero for forever, standing up and taking his beatings, making sure he was fed and okay and did well in school, had someone to come into in place of their father.  Even when he had still been in high school, Jisung had always come first to him. Then, as the days got longer and both of them older, Younghyun had slowly died out, a candle flame being slowly extinguished.  He had stopped trying, going to his room and Jisung had forced himself to become stronger. Then, eventually, he just gave up, because he hadn’t opened his eyes and seen what his reality could have been, if he’d just given up.  Maybe he had used to be a hero, but that had ended long ago.

Jeongin was quiet, but his eyes looked even sadder now, and he reached over and took Jisung’s hand, unclasping it, and held it, just for a moment, before letting go.  He had ancient eyes, eyes that had seen more than any normal sixteen year old should have. Seungmin cleared his throat, coming forward and helping Jisung put on the loose cotton shirt, using some of Jeongin’s hands as well.

“As for me,”  He started, but was interrupted by his phone ringing.  Seungmin took it out. His eyebrows drew together, and Jisung saw indecision flickering across his face.  He held up the phone for them to see, and Jisung narrowed his eyes. Hyunjin.   “I…”  Seungmin started, then seemed to make up his mind.  “I’ll put him in speakerphone.” He decided firmly, answering the call and holding the phone out in front of him.  

“What is it?”  He asked calmly.  Jisung could hear noise on Hyunjin’s end, the sound of other people moving about and talking to each other.  “Seungmin. Hi. Sorry to call you out of the blue, but I need your help real quick. You’re good at makeup, right?”  Seungmin looked confused and hurt, not sure what to say.

“Why?”  He finally asked, and Jisung could see all the other questions he was holding back.   Why are you calling me and acting like nothing happened between us?  Like you never single handedly ended our friendship? Why are you acting like we’re still on good terms?  Why are you doing this to me?

“We’re going to perform in like twenty minutes, and we need some makeup help, desperately, except none of us are sure how to do it.”  Hyunjin explained, his words a hurried rush. Jisung hated him for calling, but a part of him was happy to hear his voice, his heart starting to race at the prospect of seeing Felix again, maybe, to be close to him, and he hated it, he hated it, he hated it.  

“Why did you call me?  I thought you were the expert at making yourself look pretty.”  Seungmin said savagely, and both Jisung and Hyunjin knew he was talking about how Hyunjin had hated how much people looked at him for his face, and then how he had started using it and became nothing more than a pretty face.  It still made Jisung sick at the thought of it, how he had applied the makeup like a weapon and flirted around and done everything to become the thing he had despised.

“You were always good at covering things up.”  Hyunjin replied, and the implications ran deeper this time, referencing how Seungmin had been the one to use makeup to cover up the multiple bruises they had acquired so other adults wouldn’t ask questions.  It had been for a good cause, for good reasons, but when Hyunjin said it, he made it sound like a dirty secret.

“We’re at the plaza, in room 4C, okay?  See you soon. Bring all your supplies. Please, this is an emergency.”  Hyunjin said curtly, when the silence had hung in the air for a moment too long, and then he hung up with a definite click.  Seungmin stared at the phone, as if he couldn’t believe it had ended that quickly.

“Don’t go.”  Jisung said as soon as he was done being dazed.  “Like you said, they have their own experts. They should know how to apply their own stage makeup.”  Seungmin nodded, but he was thinking hard, and it was almost like he wasn’t hearing what Jisung was saying.  Jeongin nodded. “They messed with you once, you shouldn’t trust them again.” They were thorny words, and Seungmin’s brow crinkled at how true they were.

“I know.”  He said hoarsely.  “But still...he needs me.”  His expression was so raw and open, and Jisung understood him perfectly in that moment.  Even after Hyunjin had messed with him and ditched him like he was trash, Seungmin had never given him up.  A part of him was still waiting for Hyunjin to take him back, for things to revert back to how they had been, and Jisung knew that part as well as he knew himself, because it was a part of him too.

Even after Felix had kissed Hyunjin and told him not to tell, even after he had never spoken up for Seungmin, how he had just stayed silent and done nothing, which was worse than being the one dealing the blows-Jisung still couldn’t let him go.  He still looked for Felix in the hallways and at lunch, even if it was only to see his hand linked in Hyunjin’s, how happy they were together. When Felix had kissed Hyunjin, he had shut the door between them, and shut the words Jisung had said inside so that he could never say them, even after he lost them both.  

It was a sad irony, how Jisung still considered that he had lost them , even if they were the ones who had left and created the rift.  How he still said it like it had been his fault, what the deepest part of his heart felt, the guilt wrapping around it and trapping him.  Sometimes Jisung dreamed of a different outcome, and even if it was a happy one, it was never a fully happy one, because Hyunjin and Felix were still together, even in the dreams.

“It’s your choice.”  Jisung said quietly, and they exchanged a look, Seungmin’s eyes heavy, and Jisung knew he would say yes before he said the words.  “I want to go.” He said them so softly that they were almost a whisper, and Jeongin nodded like he had been expecting that as well.  

And Jisung’s heartbeat quickened a couple of paces.

Chapter Text

三 。

 

The plaza was only a five minute walk, but it took them ten minutes with having to find Seungmin’s makeup bag, and then gaining entrance to the rooms.  Seungmin paused for a moment in front of room 4C, and Jisung saw the indecision flitting across his feet, but then Jeongin reached around him and knocked sharply, three raps one after the other.

The door swung open a second later, Jeongin leaning back, and Hyunjin appeared.  He looked frazzled, though half of it was on purpose for their performance, but his face lit up at the sight of them.  For a moment Jisung was back to two years ago, the door the one to Hyunjin’s house instead of a dressing room, but his expression the same.  Jisung had kind of missed it actually, that ridiculous smile of his.

“Thanks for coming on short notice.”  He said, and he sounded almost shy, a little flustered as well.  Jisung wondered why, but Seungmin was already cooly replying; “I owe you, and I don’t like being in debt.  What do you need?” Jisung was momentarily thrown, but he schooled his expression quickly.

Two could play the game, he supposed.  “Come and see for yourself.” Hyunjin said, expression grim.  Jisung and Seungmin exchanged looks with each other, a slight raise of eyebrows.  Jisung wasn’t used to Hyunjin acting like this; like everything was still okay.

Hyunjin stopped when he saw Jeongin moving forward.  “Just Jisung and Seungmin, if you don’t mind.” There he was, the cold Hyunjin who had left Seungmin standing alone and alienated in the middle of the cafeteria.  It still hurt to realize that wasn’t his Hyunjin anymore, a never ending ache in his heart.

“He’s our friend.”  Seungmin snapped, and maybe it was the way he said our , but Hyunjin paused and looked at Jeongin again, as if taking him in a new light.  Jisung wondered what he saw. Seungmin wasn’t one for making friends easily. In fact, the three of them were the only ones he’d ever had.  Mostly it was because Seungmin never trusted anyone, too wary and too lonely and secluded to be useful to befriend. It was kind of stupid actually, because despite his disbelief, Hyunjin and Felix had still left him in the dust.  The difference between him and Jisung was that Jisung had chosen to stay there with him, a fact that neither forgot.

At first look, Jeongin was nothing but a tenth grader with messy black hair, braces, and a dialect that came from early years in Busan.  It would occasionally slip into his speech, but it was charming. At second glance he was funny and cute and innocent, a mix of qualities that made him a good friend and companion.  And at third glance...well Jisung didn’t know if they would have gotten that far if not for today.

“Fine.”  Hyunjin said, stepping back and ushering them in.  Jisung paused at the entryway, steeling himself at the sound of noise and commotion from inside.  Somewhere, there would be Felix, who Jisung hadn’t seen up close in ages, and they would see each other now, whether it was from across the room or face to face.  

There were only five or six people on the dance team; Hyunjin, Felix, Minho, Woojin-who was supposed to have graduated, but had had to repeat the year after missing too many days and failing to complete his finals, and Mark and Jackson, two seniors that were attached at the hip.  Now, Minho was slouched in a chair while Mark and Jackson sat on the counter in front of the mirrors, chatting. Woojin was shuffling through his own bag, looking worried, and Felix stood besides him, biting his nails anxiously. Jisung hadn’t seen him do that for a long time, but he remembered how Felix would bite them to the quick so that they bled, until Jisung wrapped his fingers in bandages.

Jisung saw the problem immediately: the bruises scattered across Minho’s face.  He grimaced in pain as Woojin gave him some kind of ointment, shaking his head. Seungmin halted a couple of feet, glancing over at Hyunjin, but his eyes also flickered to Jisung.  “This is your emergency?” He asked, disdain dripping from the words. Jeongin flicked his hand, and Seungmin hissed at him.

“Yeah.  We’re on in ten minutes and we need that;”  He gestured to Minho’s face with a sweep of his hand.  “Fixed before then.” Seungmin eyed Minho distrustfully, setting down his makeup bag.  “He was the one who was careless enough to wreck it, so why are you calling on me? It’s not like we’re friends anymore.”  Jisung thought he saw pain flash across Hyunjin’s expression, but then he remembered the past year and told himself he had imagined it.

“I didn't mean to wreck it.”  Minho mumbled, his eyes focused on the ground, anywhere but his teammates.  “It just happened.” Seungmin rolled his eyes, but he opened his bag anyways, pulling out various tubs.  “Don’t move.” He ordered, and Minho straightened, holding himself perfectly still. Jisung remembered the bruise on his shoulder from the party, and he wondered if maybe Minho and he weren’t so far apart anymore.  Instead of being on the opposite ends of a chasm, maybe they were both on the edge of the cliff.

Jisung walked over to Felix, his arm bumping uncomfortably against his chest.  Felix stopped chewing his nails, letting his hands drop to his sides. Jisung noticed how he curled them into loose fists, nails biting into his palms.  “Hi.” Jisung said in a soft whisper, unsure of what Felix’s response would be.

“Hi.”  Felix responded, but he looked anxious and far away, as if he wasn’t really a part of the conversation.  Jisung allowed himself a wane smile at this. Felix had always been more like a butterfly, flitting around to wherever he wanted, without a care for social status.  Except when it came to talking to Jisung and Seungmin it seemed, the only people that were off limits.

“So, how has it been?”  Jisung asked, feeling strangely formal, like they were strangers.  He supposed that now they sort of were, but he didn’t want it to be like that.  He wanted them to sit down and eat sour and sweet gummy worms, talking for hours, until their tongues were a rainbow of colors.  He wanted to laugh until their sides hurt and they couldn’t breathe, a tangled pile of arms and legs, Felix’s hair brushing his cheeks.  He wanted-Jisung stopped himself, because it was no use to want what was unattainable.

“Fine.”  Felix replied, and Jisung could tell that he was agitated about something, his hands clenching and unclenching.  “How are you and Hyunjin? Are you guys still together? Still happy?” Jisung cursed himself for asking the last question; still happy , because it sounded like he wanted the answer to be no.  Felix looked at him, as if he had snapped out of his daze.  For a moment, Jisung thought he was finally going to make eye contact with him, but his eyes just skipped over him.  Without turning his head, Jisung knew they were focused on Hyunjin.

“We’re good.  Yeah, we’re still together.  He makes me the most happiest person in the world.”  Felix smiled for the first time since their conversation had started, a gummy genuine smile that seemed to make the whole room brighter.  Jisung felt like he was fading away, nothing more than a pencil drawing someone had decided wasn’t good enough, turning the page, leaving it half drawn and half erased.

He wanted to say that he could tell Felix was lying, but he wasn’t , everyone in the room could see it, and that hurt Jisung more than his father ever could.  Jisung had always wanted his friends to be happy, but he had never thought that they could be happy together like this, without needing him, a happiness that was just the two of them in their bubble, pushing everyone else away.

Hyunjin walked over, moving to stand beside Felix, and even if they didn't openly hold hands or anything, it was obvious by how they stood, shoulders touching, that they loved each other.  They looked so relaxed, like they did this usually, without a second thought. Hyunjin smiled at Felix, and it was a smile only for Felix, that made his cheekbones dusted pink. Jisung felt like the ground had broken around him, like he was going to be sick.

“What happened to your arm?”  Hyunjin asked, looking at it. It was strange to see him, to see all of them, in their performance gear: classy ripped jeans, half tucked in shirts, chains and bracelets colored silver and gold, the dangly earrings and sharp makeup, gelled and sprayed hair, rings and expensive shoes.  It was like they had transformed, and with Felix and Hyunjin standing together in front of Jisung, he could picture them on the cover of a magazine with the smiles that had been directed at him, once upon a time.

Sometimes, Jisung felt that the years they had spent together were nothing but a fairy tale, something he had made up to save him from the tower he was locked in.  Nothing but a story that began with once upon a time, but had ended without the happy ending, because people like Jisung didn’t get happy endings. Instead, they got poison and fire and became the person everyone forgot, or the one everyone hated.  No, happy endings were for princes and kings and their queens, for people like Hyunjin and Felix, who deserved it more than anything else.

“I tripped down the stairs.”  Jisung said with a wry smile, hoping they bought it, knowing they wouldn’t even before Hyunjin said; “Did you land on your face?”  It was more cynical, and Jisung knew he said it like that on purpose, to twist the knife even further into Jisung’s heart. “Yeah.”  Jisung answered, but he knew that everyone in the room could tell it was a blatant lie.

Hyunjin was silent for a long time, and Jisung looked around, seeing how Woojin was pretending now to listen, how Seungmin was slowly covering up Minho’s bruises, but had heard every word they said.  Mark and Jackson had disappeared sometime during his talk with Felix, and Jisung was grateful for that. As for Minho, Minho was looking directly at him, eyes curious as they always were. His lips lifted in a short smile, a smile that said he could see right through Jisung.  Sometimes, it felt like everyone else knew what Jisung felt and wanted and needed, everyone except himself. When Jisung tried to pinpoint what he wanted, what he needed, it was only a muddled mess with only the thought to get out clear.

“One day he’s going to kill you.”  Hyunjin finally said, and though he said it in a low voice, it rang out in the room.  Jisung felt everyone go still, Seungmin’s hand hovering with the makeup brush as he turned to look at him, Jeongin’s head snapping up from where he had been studying everyone’s shoes.  The world reeled for a moment, all Jisung was able to hear was his own shallow breathing. All he could think about was Younghyun in the bathroom, his clothes soaked through, the bruised skin under his eyes, the pill bottle still in his hand, pills spilled across the floor.

Felix didn’t say anything, and Jisung knew he thought the same thing, that they all thought the same thing, even Seungmin.  “I’ll be eighteen soon.” Was what he said, but he said it too fast, so that it sounded like he was lying even if it was only a stretched truth.  Jisung knew he could get out when he turned eighteen, he just didn’t know where he would go, where money for college would appear.

“Not if you’re dead.”  Hyunjin snapped, and now Seungmin stood, dropping the brush.  Jisung stared at Hyunjin, how he stood defiantly with his eyes narrowed, how his collarbones were sharper than Jisung remembered, the hatefulness on his face.  Jisung could barely breathe for a moment, breathe coming in short inhales and exhales, like it was the only sound in the room.

“Shut up.”  Seungmin snapped, breaking the spell, and all eyes turned to look at him.  He was angry, hands fisted, and Jisung couldn’t remember the last time Seungmin had been this angry.  Not even when he had been dumped, no, then he had just been sad. Hyunjin looked surprised too, not used to being the reason for Seungmin’s fierce loyalty and seething words.  “I came here because you asked me to, even if I knew that you were just looking for another excuse to trash us, because I wanted-” He stopped suddenly, then regathered his words.  “Nevermind. If you’re going to antagonize us, I’m leaving, no matter how much work there is left to be done.”

Hyunjin stopped, surprise on his face before he could stop it.  It was as if he couldn’t believe Seungmin’s actions, that they were turned on him, how angry he was.  Jisung didn’t know if he was proud or not, but he felt something swell in him. Seungmin wasn’t going to just stand quietly and run to the library anymore, he had grown up in the time they had spent apart.

“You still say us, like you and Jisung are in the same boat.”  Hyunjin finally said in a low voice. “You always forget that Jisung chose it, and he can step out at anytime.”  Jisung could feel more eyes turn to him, Jeongin eyeing him from the corner, sweater covering his hands. He hated that Hyunjin was bringing this up, what he and Seungmin didn’t talk about, the only possible thing that could cause a rift it you toyed with it too much.  That, and the feeling Jisung kept tucked away, the one he tried not to think of, the only one he could think of with Felix inches away.

“And yet, he hasn’t.”  Jeongin interjected, so softly that they could barely catch the words.  “He stayed with his friend when you guys couldn’t, so shouldn’t that say something about loyalty?  You couldn’t really expect him to be as weak as you and choose the easy way out.” He was talking quietly, looking a little embarrassed, but his eyes were level with their own.  Seungmin stepped back, unclenching his fists, looking a little sad as he watched him, and a little something else-the something else Jisung was good at recognizing now.

“Who asked you?”  Hyunjin snapped, but Jisung was tired of it, he was tired of this.  He was tired of Hyunjin picking fights with his sharp words, of Seungmin trying hard not to rise and snap back, to not sure how hurt he was.  He was tired of Felix never saying anything , just standing there like a robot who couldn’t speak, as if he wouldn’t have to take responsibility if he never uttered a word.  As if that made him so much better. Sometimes, when Jisung looked at him, really looked at him, all he saw was a coward, too afraid to speak up.  Too afraid to stand up.

“Do you even know what today is?”  He cut in, and he said it louder than he had intended to, making a hush fall over the room.  Minho looked up from the chair, the first time that he actually showed that he was listening to the conversation.  Hyunjin and Felix looked at each other, Felix snapping a bracelet against his wrist, another habit Jisung had noticed he had started doing recently.

“I-”  Hyunjin started, but he looked lost, confused.  Felix looked at the ground, putting his hands in his pockets deliberately.  He had a red line from the bracelet, encircled around his wrist, like he had been doing this for a while already.  Jisung stared at both of them sadly, feeling his arm against his chest, how every part of him ached and hurt, not just from his father, but because he had really lost them.  His best friends, his four best friends, they didn’t really exist anymore. Not the ones he had known, anyways.

It was a truth Jisung had kept shoving away when it came to confront him, saying that it was wrong, that he still knew them.  But now that small part of him confirmed it, forced to come to terms with the fact. He had Seungmin now, he would have Jeongin soon, and he didn’t have Hyunjin and Felix.  He didn’t have the smiling boys with scraped knees and colored tongues and bright smiles. Instead, he had grown up boys with sparkly makeup and attire, skinny wrists and sharp shoulder blades, laughter and alcohol and dancers.  He didn’t have them at all, not really, now they were just pictures he looked at until the lines got worn.

“Younghyun.”  Seungmin finally said, when it became obvious Jisung had nothing to say.  “It’s the third anniversary, you jerks.” He spat the last part with anger, but his previous anger had sizzled out already, leaving nothing but a hollow shell.  Hyunjin looked away, at the ground with Felix, then they looked at each other. He didn’t say sorry, and Jisung smiled sadly at his feet, knowing that, in a way, he had lost it all.

“It’s okay.”  He said quietly, looking up, making sure his eyes were dry.  He smiled at them, though he knew it was a sad smile, not a happy one, not an okay one.  “It’s not like we’re friends anymore.” It was the first time he had admitted it aloud, directly said it without skirting around it with implications and metaphors.  Felix flinched back, like Jisung had physically hit him with the words. Jisung filed that away in his mind, in the folder he kept for everything Felix did.

Hyunjin looked a mix of stunned and shocked, for once a hat wasn’t covering his eyes and his expression, and Jisung could see it clearly.  He was unsure of how to respond to that, because it was the truth, but it sounded like Jisung was daring him to respond as well. “I-I didn’t…”  Hyunjin started, but he shut his mouth and looked away.

“Thank you.”  A voice interrupted, and they turned at the sound of it.  Minho stood up from the chair, the bruises over his face covered up.  He looked amazingly different with it all on, more catlike, like something wild, a little fairy like, a little maniac.  If Jisung thought about it, he had always looked like that, like this unattainable person, but Jisung could see it more clearly now.  “For coming and patching me up.” He had a tattoo, Jisung saw no, snaking up his neck and down his arms. Curving black lines, dark as ink.

“Now, we’re on in two minutes.  Are you guys staying to watch?” He was smiling the easy and charming smile Jisung remembered oh so well.  The smile he had fallen a little bit in love with, a little bit in love with Minho. Something told him that if he loved Minho, if he really loved Minho, it would be playing with fire and walking on knives.  Knowing that, eventually, he would fall and burn and cut himself and in the end it would be only his fault, only his burden left to live with.

Jisung looked at Seungmin and Jeongin, raising his eyebrows.  Seungmin’s lips were pressed in a thin line, and Jisung knew he wanted to say yes, that he wanted to see Hyunjin dance, but that he had already done too much.  Jeongin gave a half shrug, and Jisung knew he would go along with whatever they wanted. He didn’t understand it well enough to know exactly what to say, what to do.

There was a tug on his wrist, and Jisung looked over to see Felix holding his wrist lightly between his fingers.  “Stay and watch.” He whispered, and for a moment Jisung forgot that there were other people in the room; it was just the two of them and Felix’s skin touching his, and he nodded, because how could he say no when Felix had looked at him like that?   Like he mattered, like Felix needed him to stay.

“Yeah.”  Jisung said aloud, to Minho, and Minho smiled.  “Let’s go.” He said, and Hyunjin, Felix, and Woojin trailed after him, making last minute adjustments to their clothes and hair.  Hyunjin reached over and placed a stray lock of Felix’s hair back in place, tenderly, and Felix moved his choker so that the bead was centered, and his fingers lingered for a moment and they smiled a secret smile at each other.  Jisung wanted in on the secret, a sudden urge, but he sealed it away and hung back to walk next to Seungmin and Jeongin, who weren’t talking to each other. He couldn’t tell if Seungmin was mad or if it was just a mutual silence, but he didn’t say anything just in case.

They watched from half backstage, so that they could see the performance, but apart from the audience.  Jisung watched the stage go dark, and everything seemed to go quiet, like the whole room was holding their breath in anticipation.  He heard Seungmin, or maybe it was Jeongin’s, breath catch as a single light flipped on, and the performance started.

They moved like they were making magic, light footsteps that was half a ballet dance and half a modern dance, in a way that still captivated every single pair of eyes.  Jisung watched how Hyunjin flew through the air in his spins and turns, the graceful way Minho moved that showed he had been dancing for years, and how Felix was a little more awkward, but it only made his charm shine through more.

“Didn’t expect to see you here.”  Someone said, and Jisung jumped, startled.  He turned around to see Chan a couple feet away, smiling sheepishly.  Jisung had gotten so used to seeing him in the tunnel, with his laptop and hoodie, focused and tired, that he had forgotten that Chan was still only eighteen, that he lived above ground as well.  He was still in his gray hoodie, but he had on black jeans and the same rose pink Converse Jisung had gotten used to. His cheeks looked a little more brighter, hair more tousled. Jisung realized it was because his eyes were sparkling, because he looked happier.

“It just turned out that way.”  Jisung said with a shrug. “Why are you here?”  Chan moved to stand beside him, looking out at the performance.  “Woojin.” He said after a moment, simply, and Jisung was confused until he realized that Chan and Woojin would have been in the same year, at least up until now.  

“I didn’t realize you guys knew each other.”  Jisung replied cautiously. Chan gave a cheerful shrug.  “And I didn’t realize you were still on good enough terms to stay and watch Hyunjin and Felix, but I guess there’s a lot of things we don’t know about each other.”  Jisung wrinkled his nose, knowing he was right about both of things. The three of them, Changbin included, never talked about what went on when they disappeared each night.  

“Anyways, Woojin’s my boyfriend.”  Chan said, as if it was the easiest thing in the world to say.  Then his expression darkened. “Or, he was. I’m going to get him back tonight.”  He said cheerily, but Jisung could tell he was nervous. “Why’d you break up?” He asked before he could stop himself, and if Chan was hurt by it, or surprised, he didn’t show it.

“Some stuff happened last year that was hard for both of us to deal with, and Woojin eventually just ended it.  I know he didn’t want to, but he thought he had to. Things are better now, at least a little bit, so I’m going to try again.  I don’t plan on losing him this time.” He said with a grim determination, and Jisung smiled at that, though a feeling of bittersweetness was filling him.  Maybe, if this was how he had acted with Hyunjin and Felix, if he had gotten them back, they wouldn’t be what they were now.

“I’m sorry.”  Jisung said, not sure what else to say.  Chan just leaned against the wall, eyes sharp, and lifted his shoulders half heartedly.  “It’s okay.” He said, but he didn’t look okay, he looked like he was thinking about something that troubled him.  Jisung started to nod, and then he heard Seungmin make a half gasping noise and there was a collective intake from the audience.  He turned, and saw Hyunjin collapsed on the stage, and the world froze and all Jisung could see was Hyunjin, Hyunjin, Hyunjin.

 

Felix explained later, when they were at the hospital, with an iv plugged into Hyunjin’s arm, steadily dripping.  He looked tired, pulling at his bracelet again, hair disheveled after he ran after the ambulance until Woojin pulled him back and made him get into the car.  They had all ridden over together, crammed into the backseat, and Jisung was reminded uncomfortably of the night of the party, riding in this exact same car.

Chan and Woojin hadn’t spoken, but they kept looking at each other when the other wasn’t, and Jisung could tell that both of them were restless to talk, but didn’t want to in front of everybody else.  He wondered why Woojin had missed so much school last year, and whether it corresponded with Chan and his break up. If Jisung had to guess, he would say it did.

“Why is he sick?”  Seungmin asked, looking down at Hyunjin, brown hair spread out across the pillow, makeup still on his face.  Jisung wanted to wipe it off, to look at his friend and really see him, his peaceful expression as he slept, without everything he did to cover up.  Felix swallowed visibly, lower lip jutting out. He had been talking to the nurse for ages, explaining things, but they could only see him, not hear what he was saying through the glass.

“He’s anorexic.”  Felix finally said, hugging himself.  Seungmin made a small noise, but Jisung just looked down at his former friend and remembered how sharp his collar bones had looked, how his clothes had hung off him.  “How long?” He asked in the silence that followed Felix’s words. Felix looked downcast, staring at Hyunjin, face pale.

“Almost a year now, I think.  I didn’t think it was that bad...I mean, I could make him eat during lunch and everything, and I always made sure he was feeling okay during practice, but-but I guess that wasn’t enough.”  Jisung wanted to tell him that of course it hadn’t been enough, that you can’t fix eating disorders without professional health, that you couldn’t change how someone thought of themselves. But he knew it would only make Felix feel worse, so he kept his mouth shut.  What can you say, really? I’m sorry you did everything you could and it still wasn’t enough?

“You should have told someone.”  Seungmin whispered, and Jisung couldn’t tell what he was thinking, eyes dark pools.  “It’s not my secret to tell.” Felix responded flatly. “Sometimes, people need you to tell their secrets because they’re too afraid to speak them out loud.”  Seungmin said, and his voice was shaking. Jisung looked at him, and he saw all the times Seungmin took white pills so that he could go on a little longer, when he could barely stand and almost passed out in school because he had spent too much time on studying.

Seungmin always pushes himself too hard, set himself up against impossible standards.  Jisung wanted to save him, but he knew he couldn’t; that it was habit at this moment. He couldn’t break out, he could only dig himself a deeper hole and study more and slowly kill himself all for the sake of being better.  Sometimes Jisung wondered what he was trying to beat: he was top of their grade, had a perfect GPA, was on the way to Seoul University and onward. Then he figured out that it was Seungmin himself, and he stopped wondering.

“Who are you to know what we need to say and what we need?”  Felix snapped. “You haven’t cared about us for years, and now you don’t even know us.  So don’t say what I should have said, because you don’t know anything.” He clenched his hands, and Jisung knew Seungmin wanted to say that him coming today proved he still cared, but he bit his tongue.

“You were the ones who made that happen.  I held on for as long as could, but in the end you let go.”  Seungmin said sadly, words a whisper. His brow was furrowed, what he did to try and keep his face expressionless.

“Shut up.”  Felix hissed, and the words were filled with venom.  Jisung was used to Hyunjin taking like that, but not Felix.  Felix was never cruel like this, he never spoke with the intention to hurt.   I kissed Hyunjin.   Fifteen year old Felix whispered in is head, but Jisung shoved it away because he knew Felix hadn’t meant to hurt him.

“Don’t look at me like that.”  Felix whispered, and it took Jisung a moment to realize he was talking to him.  “Like what?” He asked, throat dry. They were talking in hoarse whispers, and Felix was looking away like he felt ashamed.  Except that couldn’t be right, not Felix. He wasn’t..like that, scared of words. Or maybe he was, maybe that’s what his silence had been saying all along.

“Like you hate me.”  Felix said in a bare whisper, words disappearing into the air as soon as he said them.  Jisung felt something slam into his chest, something irrational, and maybe that’s why he responded as he did.  Because it felt like Felix was pushing him, like he still couldn’t see, even after all these years.

“Hating you is better than the alternative.”  He said coldly, and he said it for only Felix to hear, but he knew Seungmin caught the words too, because his expression tightened.  It was almost imperceptible, but Jisung knew him well enough by now to know when something bothered him. Felix turned his head, and Jisung looked in the other direction, wondering why he had said it, wondering why he couldn’t have just ignored it.

“I need to get some air.”  He finally said, spinning on his heel and leaving, trying not to look like he was running away.  Jisung knew he was running away, but he made himself walk, trying to control his breathing. In a way, he hadn’t said anything, but in another way, he had said everything, and he couldn’t take it back now.  Even if he could, they knew, both of them knew, and Jisung didn’t want anyone to know. He didn’t want Felix to mention what he had said to Hyunjin, he didn’t want everyone to hate him more-

“Jisung, what’s wrong?”  Jisung stumbled to a stop, realizing he had picked up the pace, panicking too much to care.  Was Seungmin going to hate him now? Would he and Jeongin leave too? Jisung was pretty sure that being in love with former best friends was against some code somewhere, it felt wrong to say it like that, especially with Felix and Hyunjin dating, with everything that had happened between the four of them.

He looked up, seeing Chan staring at him with concern.  They were in a hallway somewhere, Jisung was pretty sure he had turned a corner a little while ago and just kept on going straight.  Jisung realized Woojin was there too, hovering at Chan’s shoulder. His eyes were rimmed red, and there were tear tracks on his face.  

“I’m...okay.”  Jisung managed to say, trying to collect his breath.  His arm hurt from how it had banged against him continuously when he had half ran away.  “I’ll just be going then.” He mumbled, straightening and turning back the way he had come.  “Hey, hey.” Chan said, grabbing his free arm. Jisung turned back to face him. “Are you sure you’re good?”  He asked again.

“How’s Hyunjin?”  Woojin interrupted quietly, and Jisung was almost relieved to have another question to focus on.  “He’s good. They’re giving him an IV and setting up a counseling service or something, I think.” Jisung explained, then wondered if Woojin knew about Hyunjin’s eating disorder, or if it had been only Felix.  A soft sadness washed over him at the thought of Felix having to deal with it alone, always making sure Hyunjin had eaten, than he was still getting by. “For his anorexia.” Jisung clarified, and Woojin nodded slowly.

“That’s good.”  He said, leaning back against the wall.  He looked tired. Jisung had only met Woojin once before, when he had driven them to the party, but he had seen him a couple times since them.  He kept looking worse and worse. “I better get back.” Jisung said apologetically, carefully tugging his arm free from Chan’s hand. Chan looked down, like he hadn’t realized he had still been holding it.  

“Oh, come early in three weeks, okay?”  Chan said, as if he had almost forgotten.  Jisung nodded, knowing he meant the underground.  Usually he came around ten or so, when he felt he could safely sneak out-though he didn’t know if anything was safe now that his father might have figured it out.  “I have something to tell you and Changbin.” Chan was smiling, so Jisung guessed it was good news.

“Why three weeks?”  Jisung asked. “Ah...I’m not going to be there for the next two weeks.”  Chan said sheepishly, running a hand through his hair. The curls bounced back into place as soon as he removed it, floppy and black.  Jisung knew that Changbin came every day, and Chan did too, though he worked most of the time, but Jisung only risked every other day at most.  Still, Friday nights was when the three would work together now that school had started again and schedules had gotten tighter.

Chan never missed a Friday, even if Jisung had to suddenly bail, or if Changbin mysteriously disappeared before an hour had passed.  He never told them where he was going, just checked his watch and then was off. Jisung didn’t mind it much, it reminded him of the Changbin he was used to.  The Changbin who had complimented him rarely returned, but he was more focused on music than he had ever been at school, eyes glinting with determination and iron, and Jisung liked that.

Jisung looked past Chan to where Woojin leaned against the wall, massaging his forehead.  He was sniffling quietly, but Chan seemed unfazed. If Jisung studied him closely though, he could see that his eyes were heavy and sad, like he was holding back tears.  He wondered if Woojin was why Chan was missing their Friday nights twice in a row.

He nodded, then gave them a half bow, turning to leave again.  He walked down the hallway and turned the corner, recognizing the long hallway as the one where Hyunjin’s room was.  As Jisung started to walk down it, rubbing his hands across his pants, feeling clammy, he heard an exclamation behind him.  There was the sound of shoes tapping on the linoleum, and Minho drew up behind him.

The makeup had rubbed off by now, or maybe Minho had taken it off himself, and Jisung was startled once again by his bruises.  They were stark and purple blue, in a way that would be pretty if they weren’t scattered across Minho’s face. “Seungmin was looking for you.  I think you guys are going to leave.” He told him, and Jisung nodded absently, the thoughts rushing back. Had Seungmin told Jeongin? Or maybe they had both ignored it and put it off as one of Jisung’s ramblings and lyrics.  

“What happened to your face to warrant such an emergency?”  Jisung asked. It came out more sarcastic than he had intended, like he was making fun of it.  Minho’s expression turned uncharacteristically somber. “You said you didn’t mean for it to happen.”  He added quietly. A part of Jisung wanted to scream for Minho to tell me, tell me so I can stop guessing.

“I fell down the stairs and landed on my face.”  Minho replied humorously, and it took Jisung a moment to realize that he was quoting the conversation Hyunjin and Jisung had had in the dressing room.  “No, really.” Jisung told him, and Minho sighed, like he had expected that they would eventually get around to talk about this.

“You haven’t guessed?”  He asked tiredly, and Jisung shrugged as well as he could with one of his arms in a cast.  “I don’t know if I’m right.” He said. Minho laughed sharply at that, but it wasn’t the laugh you laughed when you found something funny.  It was more of a self deprecating one.

“Fine.”  Minho waved his hands in the arm with a grand flourish, and Jisung couldn’t tell if he was mad at Jisung or himself, or maybe the world.  “I don’t have an alcoholic dad like you. There, does that answer your questions?” Jisung stared at him for a moment, gaping, not sure if he had really said that.

“Why are you being like this?”  He asked in confusion, because it was like Minho’s personality had flipped around.  “And how do you know that?” Minho’s face softened, as if he had realized how it had all sounded.  He looked down. “Hyunjin and Felix used to talk about it, and I’ve seen your own bruises a couple of times.  It’s not hard to put together.”

Jisung didn’t want to think about Hyunjin and Felix talking about him and his dad like they were just a piece of gossip that was fun to pass on and twist around.  “Loan sharks are after my family. There’s too much borrowed money and too many bills that it can only end in negatives in zeros, and that’s if we’re lucky. My mom...I don’t even know where she is.  She always leaves, but she hasn’t come back in a while.” The sad look on Minho’s face told Jisung that maybe she had been gone longer than just a couple months.

“And I don’t know about my dad.  He just keeps running without actually leaving, and I’m left to take care of it.  When he does come back, it’s too throw things and trash them and act like it’s all because of me, because people hate to blame themselves.  Money doesn’t grow on trees, and I’ll be stuck with this for the rest of my life. I’m going to be eighteen soon, but there’s no escaping with that.  College is still money, even with scholarships, and even if I left, it’d still follow me wherever I go. For now I can dance, but even that won’t last for long.  Everything’s temporary, Jisung, everything.” Minho said in an almost sing song voice, and Jisung smiled sadly. It wasn’t exactly a straight answer, but he knew it was Minho’s way of telling him everything he could.

“Jisung!”  Seungmin called, and Jisung waved at him half heartedly, feeling his stomach drop.  Jeongin was at Seungmin’s side, looking at something on his cracked phone, shoelaces untied.  Jisung wanted to yell at him to tie them so that he wouldn’t trip. They didn’t look like anything was different, so maybe it wasn’t.

“See you later.”  Minho said with a half wave as he started to jog towards where Felix had exited Hyunjin’s room.  Jisung ducked his head quickly, not wanting to make accidental eye contact. “Jisung.” Minho added with his own half smile, the one Jisung felt was just for him.  Then he turned and became dance team Minho. Jisung watched him go, sighing under his breath. His encounters with Minho always left him reeling, always feeling something different, and he didn’t know what to make of it.

“Let’s go.”  Seungmin said when he reached them.  “It’ll be a long walk home.” He sounded irritated, but Jisung couldn’t figure out who it was directed at.  Jeongin looked between the two of them, then looked back at his phone. They left the hospital. It had started to drizzle, and Jisung couldn’t help but think that everything happened when it was raining, everything sad and soft and hurtful.  

They had walked a couple blocks when Jisung finally spoke.  “Are you okay, Seungmin?” Seungmin looked away, and Jisung felt like he was filled with rocks, dragging him down.  He was mad at Jisung, or sad, or disappointed-none of them good emotions. Jeongin dropped back a step, and Jisung knew he was doing it on purpose, to give them room to talk.  “About what I said-” Jisung started.

“What part?”  Seungmin interjected tonelessly, and Jisung swallowed.  “The part where I basically told Felix I was in love with him.”  He finally said, drawing himself up by the shoulders, hoping he looked stronger than he was.  “Oh, really? Are you?” Seungmin raised his eyebrows, lips pressed together. Jisung could see his eyes and how they looked like he was holding back laughter.

“Yes.”  He said coolly, and Seungmin stopped walking, standing stock still.  He turned to look at Jisung, eyes wide and disbelieving. “What?” He asked in a small voice, like he thought he had misheard.  “I’ve been in love with him for years. Since high school started.” Jisung admitted, wishing that Seungmin wouldn’t look like he felt sick, like it was disgusting and unimaginable to him.

Seungmin’s bottom lip trembled, and then he was swiping at tears, shoulders shaking.  “I know.” He finally said. “And I hate it, I hate it so much.” Jisung stared at him, unsure of what to say.  “All this time, I’ve been trying to keep you away because I know you’ll just get hurt, but I guess it’s useless.  You’ll still drop everything for him and do whatever and make excuses.”

“Like you and Hyunjin?”  Jisung asked darkly, and for a moment the sadness disappeared from Seungmin, replaced by a blazing anger.  Jisung shouldn’t have said it, but he was tired of Seungmin’s hatred. And you know he’s right, and you can’t accept that.   The voice in his head whispered, but Jisung shoved it away.

Seungmin sniffled once more, then turned on his heel and half ran down the street, coat flapping behind him.  Jeongin looked up from his phone sharply, glancing at Jisung for a long moment, then jogged after him. Jisung watched the two of them round the corner and leave his line of vision.

He was losing everything, wasn’t he?

Chapter Text

 

“The final showdown is on April 20th.”  Chan announced as soon as Jisung entered their small alcove, sitting down beside Changbin, who was leaning forward attentively.  “What’s the final showdown?” Jisung asked curiously, twisting the sleeves of his jacket. He had been able to ditch the sling last week, but his arm was still wrapped up per Seungmin’s orders.  

It was Changbin who answered, half turning his face to look at him.  “It’s the only official event the underground rap community ever holds.  Scouts, agents, people from all over Seoul come and see who has promise or talent.  It’s auditioning without actually auditioning. Colleges look at it, too. It’s huge.”  Jisung perked up. “Really?” He asked, and Changbin nodded sagely.

“Anyways, I have an idea.”  Chan flipped up the lid of his laptop, eyes glinting in the bright light.  “I figured, that since we’ve been doing this together for a while now, do you guys want to do it together?  I have a bunch of music drafts saved up and a lot of inspiration and ideas-” He stopped, looking up at them when he realized they were still silent, having neither agreed or dissented from it.  “That is, if you guys want to.” Jisung realized that he was nervous, something he didn’t think he had ever seen Chan be.

Changbin shifted, biting his bottom lip.  He seemed to be considering it, and Jisung found that interesting, as he usually jumped at any opportunity.  “I think it’s a good idea. But isn’t that day prom?” Jisung asked, remembering it from one of the flyers plastered around the school.  “Why? Are you going?” Changbin suddenly asked, straightening. Jisung leaned back, startled. “I don’t know.” He mumbled.

He hadn’t been planning on going, since Seungmin was definitely not going, preferring to stay at home and study as usual.  Seungmin was always studying, even now so that midterms were coming up. Jisung hardly saw him, and he knew Jeongin did too, no matter how much the younger acted like it was all fine.  They were both worried, but Jisung had lived through this with Seungmin before, and he knew how to deal with it by now.

Jisung knew that Felix and Hyunjin were going together, he didn’t have to hear a promposal to know that.  He didn’t see the point in going if he was just going to be miserable, but it was prom. They were only juniors, and they still had next year, but Jisung couldn’t deny that he was hoping to catch a glance of the sparkle and shine.  

“Well, it’s around midnight, so you probably won’t miss it if you want to visit prom for a couple hours.  No after parties, though.” Chan warned, looking at both of them seriously. Changbin slouched. “It’s not like I’m going, hyung.”  Chan shrugged, turning the computer around so they could both see.

“This is some of the songs I’ve been working on.  We’ve already recorded some of them, some are drafts.  What do you guys want to perform?” Chan paused, eyes focused somewhere to the left as he thought.  “I mean, you guys did want to do it, right?” He clarified again, and Jisung found himself nodding along with Changbin.  It was impossible to not say yes, he was already trapped here, too enthralled with the music and the dance of it to leave now.  

“I like For You.”  Jisung said, eyes scanning the list intently.  “Placebo and Broken Compass were also hits.” Chan hummed the songs under his breath, then looked at Changbin.  “What about you?” He asked, eyes sharpening as Changbin narrowed his own and peered closer at the list. Jisung sat back a little, trying not to let the disappointment show.  He had noticed that Chan always took Changbin’s opinion more seriously than Jisung’s. Maybe it was because they had been doing this together for longer, or because Changbin was obviously the more talented out of the two of them; knowing more about composition and what sounded good than Jisung did, but it still hurt to notice it.

“Well I personally like WOW.”  Changbin’s mouth quirked, and Chan hit him.  Turning to Jisung, he explained; “WOW is a song Changbin composed.  It’s almost terrible.” He laughed, dimples appearing, as Changbin smacked him back harder.  “Shut up.” He snarled. “In all seriousness, though, I think we should do 42.” Jisung hadn’t heard that name either, but he noticed that Chan immediately frowned.

“Really?  I mean, we have so many good other ones.  P.A.C.E., Hoodie Season, Matryoshka…” He scrolled furiously down the list.  Changbin looked down, lips pressing together. “I mean, 42 is a good one, but I don’t really think it’s performance material.”  Chan stopped, looking up and seeing Changbin’s expression. His hands stilled, his forced smile slipping off his face.

“What’s Start Line?”  Jisung cut in quickly, wrapping his arms around himself anxiously.  “That’s another song I’ve been working on. It’s about growing up and graduating.”  Chan nodded, more to himself than to Jisung. “Why don’t we do that one?” Jisung suggested, wanting to keep the conversation away from a potential fight.  “And then we can perform 42 if we have time, okay? I mean, we’ll be able to perform at least two songs, right?” He looked around worriedly.

Seeming to sense his concern, Changbin eyed Chan and then Jisung himself.  “Works for me.” He finally said gruffly, pulling his cap down. Jisung turned to Chan nervously.  “I guess I can do that.” He told them softly, closing his laptop. It was almost a slam, but he eased up at the last moment, instead making it emit a quiet click as it closed.  

“If that’s all, then I have to leave.”  Changbin said as abruptly as he always did, standing up and dipping his head, and then turning and leaving the room.  Jisung leaned back against the wall, examining the cuffs of his hoodie. They were starting to fall apart from covering his hands so much, constant tugging and pulling and habits all starting to take their toll on it.  He watched Changbin’s shadow until it was just one with the darkness, feeling forlorn and lonesome.

“Chan hyung, why don’t you like 42?”  Jisung asked. Seungmin had once told the three of them-or him, Hyunjin, and Felix, there was no ‘four’ or ‘three of them’ anymore, they were all seperate people now, no longer together-about it once.  It had been after he had read The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and he had excitedly sat them all down and told them how 42 was said to be the Answer to the Ultimate Question of Life, the Universe, and Everything, rambling about what it meant and the symbolism.  Jisung remembered thinking it was silly, to say a number that fell between forty and fifty was worth something that much, but Felix had sat forward and soaked it all in, eyes huge, so Jisung had listened closely anyways.

Even back then, he had wanted to do anything for Felix.  He just hadn’t known why, or even realized, but Jisung could tell if he looked back along their timeline.  “It’s a song Changbin and I wrote last year.” Chan said, closing his eyes, mouth hardly moving. Jisung had to strain to catch the words.  “It’s filled with a lot of stuff that I don’t want to share with the world, no matter how good it is. Maybe Changbin moved on and got over it, but I haven’t yet.  I don’t want everyone to know what the inside of my heart looks like.” He said the last sentence so softly Jisung barely heard it. It made him feel empty, the words true.

Last year had been a bad year for not just him, it seemed.  “What happened with Woojin?” Jisung asked, sliding over so they were sitting next to each other.  He tipped his head back against the the cold stone of the wall, breathing out a sigh. It was cold, and he wished he had a warmer jacket, but there was no money for that.  He had been wearing this hoodie since seventh grade, it having been huge when he first got it for his birthday, and now it was still huge, width wise instead of lengthwise.  Felix had given it to him, Jisung realized, and he didn’t know if he wanted to rip it off or pull it tighter.

Chan drew in a deep breath, letting it out in a sigh.  “He agreed to try it out again, but-” He stopped, voice thick, and Jisung had experienced it enough before to know that it meant Chan was trying not to cry.  Jisung had become good at swallowing back tears, pretending it was okay, running away when he finally couldn’t. So he reached over and took Chan’s hand, rubbing his hands across it to keep it warm.  It was icy cold, and Jisung wondered how long Chan had been holed up working before they had come.

“But it’s hopeless.”  Chan managed. “Woojin has leukemia, and it’s going to take him soon.  He doesn’t think-he practically knows that he’s not beating the odds, we both do.  There’s still some years left, but I don’t want limited time. I just want forever.”  He buried his face in Jisung’s shoulder with a half strangled sob, his whole body shaking.  Jisung let go of his hand to draw him in closer, hugging him tightly. Chan never cried, never showed he was sad or upset, and when he did it was close to heartbreaking.

“Don’t give up yet.”  Jisung whispered in his ear, brushing away curls.  He had never been good at comforting others, not even knowing how to deal with himself, but he would try his best if it made Chan feel better.  “Odds aren’t everything in life. Miracles happen, too.” Jisung had never believed in miracles, realizing early on that shooting stars never came by twice, that magical beings didn’t grant his wishes, that good things happened to everyone except him.

Maybe he didn’t deserve a miracle, maybe that was it.  Maybe that was what the universe had been telling him when they took his mother and his brother and his best friends and everyone he cared about it.  That he didn’t deserve good things and happy endings and granted wishes. Jisung was always going to be the villain who ended up locked in a tower, watching the prince and princess-or the princes-get married and live happily ever after as he wilted away.

There was a story Jisung had read one day in the library, his safe haven when he was younger.  The original tale of Rapunzel, when her suitor was tossed from the tower and hurled into brambles, becoming blind.  He had stumbled around, unsure where to go, until her tears healed him. The witch ended up dead, or maybe she was locked away.  Jisung could recall his thoughts on that: the witch had only been doing what she thought was best for Rapunzel, to try and protect her.

Jisung had always related to that tale the most.  The witch had thought she was doing the best thing, the right thing, the thing that would ensure a happy ending, but she had had it wrong the whole time in Rapunzel’s eyes.  Then she ended up in her own bitter and twisted imprisonment, left with only her thoughts and past mistakes. Jisung remembered hating that story, because Rapunzel had misunderstood.  A prince had caused her to rethink everything, and she had mistakenly assumed her ‘mother’ was the villain.

The witch had never been the villain.  She had just been made into one. Jisung felt like that witch, trapped in the tower made of ivory, with no escape.  He had thought it out before, putting his life into the scenario. In the end, all he could see was himself as the witch, locked away, but sometimes, Jisung wondered which of his friends he had thrown to the thorns below.

 

“What do you think about going to prom?”  Jisung asked, sipping on a juice box that Jeongin had given him as soon as he entered.  Seungmin had one also, apple flavored, but he hadn’t touched it, the straw still in its plastic wrapper.  Jeongin was drinking cranberry juice or something, wide eyed as he watched the two of them.

Seungmin glanced up distractedly, highlighting something and then circling a couple of the words in pen.  “Go if you want.” He murmured, pushing his circular glasses up on his nose and peering down at the page in front of him.  Jisung sighed, swinging his legs. They accidentally hit the cabinets beneath the counter he was perched on, and Seungmin looked up sharply.

“But I don’t want to go alone.”  He whined. “Ask Jeongin.” Seungmin replied, already turning back to his spread of textbooks and papers.  “Jeongin’s a sophomore.” Jisung complained. “Why do you even want to go?” Seungmin squinted up at him, taking off his glasses and folding them up.  Jisung knew he had his attention now.

“I just think it would be fun.  Come on, we haven’t gone to a single dance since high school started.”  Jisung said. He wasn’t sure if he wanted Seungmin to go, but he didn’t want to go alone.  “There’s a reason for that.” Seungmin snapped back, and Jisung could see his patience was already wearing thin.  “It’s because they’re terrible, and neither of us are social people.”

Jisung could have been a social person, and he still was, but when nobody talked back, you eventually stopped trying.  He had been looking forward to high school and new friends, but the only thing that he had accomplished was losing his old ones.  Sometimes, he thought out the alternate realities he could have stepped into if it had been a different life. Maybe he would be at the top, friends with everyone because they wanted to be friends with him, maybe on a sport team.  He would have liked to try soccer, or maybe hockey. Seungmin would be by his side, making sure the four of them were at the tops of their classes and never fell behind even for a moment. Hyunjin would join up and steal their food, hosting the biggest parties and winning award after award.  And Felix would be on his arm-

This was where Jisung always stopped his realities, because it hurt too much, because it tore him apart if he thought about it too long.  Because sometimes he tricked himself into thinking it was real and then the world he was living in right now came crashing down, making him sink a little further, blocking out more of the sun’s rays.

“Still, it’s prom.  If I don’t drag you this year, you won’t ever go, not even next year.”  Jisung pointed out, and Seungmin slowly shook his hat. “Yeah, I’d really love to go to a place that’s most likely going to end with me being humiliated again, but I have work to do.  I have to study so I pass these midterms and stay on top, plus the extra credit classes and the online one...if I fall behind I’m only going to stay behind-”

Jeongin took this opportunity to poke the straw through the juice box and shove it into Seungmin’s face, smiling as Seungmin sputtered and coughed.  He grudgingly took it, taking in a long sip, and then sighed heavily. “Seungmin, you’re still going to be on top. You’re ages ahead of everyone else.”  Jisung pointed out gently as Seungmin drained the rest of the juice. Jeongin threw it in the trash.

“Look at you.  You’re exhausted, dehydrated, stretched, stressed.  You need to take a break and relax. School is not going anywhere.”  Jisung added, and Seungmin rolled his eyes, but he had the start of a smile on his face.  “When I’m done with this, I’ll take a break. Promise.” He held out his pinky, and Jisung locked his own around it.  They shook, like they had done when they were kids.

“But I’m still not going to prom.”  Seungmin added as they pulled apart.  Jisung nodded, having expected that. “I don’t even know if I’m going.  Maybe if someone asked me, which is highly unlikely. It’s not like I have any friends to hang out with.”  He meaningfully looked at Seungmin, who raised an eyebrow judgingly.

Jeongin shoved Jisung over so that he could sit on the counter too, shaking his hair out of his face.  His bangs were starting to get long, hanging into his eyes. Seungmin was constantly telling him he needed to cut it, but Jeongin always jauntily replied that he wasn’t very good at scissors, which would make Seungmin seal his mouth and look downcast.  The exchange always ended in a hug, with Jisung watching his two friends fondly.

“Is something else bothering you?”  He asked carefully, leaning so far that Jisung was afraid he was going to fall.  Reaching out, Jisung tugged him back a few inches, his heart stopping its pounding.  Seungmin looked over at him, eyes dark with something Jisung wasn’t used to seeing on his face and couldn’t pinpoint.

“What else could it be?  It’s like Jisung said, I’m just really stressed.”  Seungmin absently tapped his bright pink highlighter against the open pages of the textbook.  But he said the words too quickly, and Jisung had been friends with Seungmin for at least a decade.  He knew that Seungmin only went into one of his habits when he was nervous about something, like lying.

He and Jeongin exchanged a look, Jeongin’s eyebrows furrowed together.  Jisung didn’t know when Jeongin had learned to read Seungmin that well, or when Seungmin had let Jeongin into his well protected heart, but it felt nice to share a burden that had been his own with someone else.  They had never been made for only two people, a pair, there had always been empty space and heavy hearts. Three was more complete, but Jisung missed four. Maybe three was the way it should have been, though, because four had fallen apart as soon as change had come to them.

Jisung’s phone dinged, and he pulled it out.  It was a reminder-the time was already four, and he needed to get to his part time job.  “I have to go to work.” Jisung announced, hopping off the counter and landing lightly. Jeongin immediately spread out in the space he had left, pulling his knees up.  One of his shoes was untied, dirty pink shoelace hanging down. Everything Jeongin owned was secondhand and threadbare, but he made it work by cutting up things and then putting them together, fashioning things to make him look more eccentric than poor.  Jisung’s clothes had all been with him for years as well, or things he had found in clearance or free bins at stores.

He had gotten a job at a convenience store, the only place that would hire someone who looked like riff raff.  It called for long shifts, tireless wons that bled into night when he should have been sleeping and preparing for school, and annoying customers, but it paid enough for Jisung to at least getting something to eat for dinner if he could manage, so he wouldn’t sleep on an empty stomach.  He still woke up every morning starving, but it was enough, at least for a couple hours.

Seungmin gave him a half hearted wave, and Jisung blew them both a kiss in return, sailing out the door.  He always biked, he could have gotten his license like Seungmin, but there was never time, and he would never have a car to drive anyways.  He got to the store with a couple minutes to spare, trading off with the worker before him, and settled in for a long shift.

For the beginning part of Jisung’s shift, which was six hours, he had hardly any customers, but most came after dinner, on their ways to places.  Mostly, he just smiled and checked them out and waited for people to find money that they might not have. So, it was a surprise, when, halfway through his shift, Jisung’s phone rang.

He took it, glad there was a break in customers.  It was Jeongin. Jisung answered. “What’s up?” He heard shaky breathing, and then Jeongin gasped; “Jisung...you need to come.  I already called 911 but Seungmin…” Jisung didn’t wait to hear the rest, already hanging up and tearing off the jacket they made him wear, rushing towards the door despite the customer coming up to pay.

Jisung ran faster than he ever had.

 

He didn’t bother to knock when he reached Seungmin’s house, just let the door slam against the wall as he ran in.  His feet carried him up the stairs to where Jeongin was futile pounding in the bathroom door, screaming for Seungmin, but it was only a faint echo in Jisung’s head.  His sneakers slammed against the ground, fingers finding the knob. It was locked, but Jisung wound up and kicked at it, jerking and jerking until it fell open.

Blood was roaring in his ears, and for a moment the bathroom was run down with peeling wallpaper and Jisung was tinier and screaming still, straining against the door, wishing his brother would open it and say something Younghyun Younghyun hyung hyung open the door answer me- but it wasn’t Younghyun, it was Seungmin, and Jisung fell as the door opened, hand clawing uselessly at the cabinets.

He scrambled over, cradling Seungmin’s head, trying to make his shaking hand find a pulse.  One beat, two beats, three beats, okay for now. His skin was deathly pale, and Jisung scanned the bathroom, eyes lighting on the open bottle of blue colored pills he had seen Seungmin take before.  He wasn’t sure what they for, some sort of antidepressant or anxiety medicine, and he couldn’t remember how many had been left the last time Seungmin had took one. Now there were only a few left at the bottom, among the dusty remains.

Jeongin’s hand were covering his mouth, phone in one hand, and Seungmin remained perfectly still.  His skin was icy, and Jisung could barely see his chest rise and fall, as if everything had slowed down.  He held Seungmin’s hands and tried to keep the tears from falling, waiting for sirens, wondering why it was taking so long.  It was silent except for Jeongin’s slow gasps, and Jisung tried to focus on them, tried to stay in the present, to remember this was Seungmin and he was sixteen and his brother had been dead for three years.

It was just Jisung in this empty white space, trying not to see his surroundings, trying not to let the old panic slip over him like a suffocating blanket in the middle of summer.  Seungmin was going to be fine, he had always been strong even if no one else had seen it, and he would survive this. He had to survive this, because Jisung couldn’t live if he didn’t.  He wanted to reach over and touch Jeongin lightly, to whisper the words to him, but his mouth wouldn’t move.

There was the sound of sirens, and Jeongin stood, leaving the bathroom with a single backward glance.  And people were rushing back, taking Seungmin as Jisung stumbled back numbly, words about stomach pumpings flowing past him, and he followed the stretcher out, limbs stumbling but still moving.  Jeongin was crying again, and he looked so small in his torn clothes.

“Only one of you can come with us.”  One of the medics told him, and Jisung was moving forward when he remembered Jeongin.  He stopped, turning to the halted boy. “You go.” Jisung told him quietly, even if the words shredded him as they left his mouth.  “No, hyung, you should-” Jeongin started, but Jisung could tell he was already mentally, there.

“I’ll get a ride.”  Jisung said, waving his phone.  “Hurry up, or it’s going to leave.”  Jeongin nodded, frazzled, and he ran.  Jisung stepped back, arms hanging limply at his side as the doors slammed and the ambulance tore away.  He wanted to be there, but he had seen the need in Jeongin’s face, how everything was breaking apart inside of him as well, and Jisung knew that sometimes that destroyed everything else.  So he had let go of Seungmin for those few moments, give him away. Jeongin really was something else. It wasn’t easy to love Seungmin and it wasn’t easy for Seungmin to love people, but they seemed to fit together.

He waited until the ambulance had rounded the corner to scroll through his contacts, finger hovering over Felix’s name, wondering if he should really do this, really call.  Jisung pressed down and watched it ring, hoping he picked up, wishing he wouldn’t. “Why are you calling?” Jisung started as Felix’s deep voice echoed through his speakers, momentarily speechless.

“Um, I need a ride.”  He said quietly. Felix shifted, rustling on the other end of the line.  “Where to? Can’t Seungmin or...Changbin or whatever give you one?” Jisung didn’t know that Felix, or any of his friends, knew that he and Changbin hung out.  He remembered that Changbin had hung out with the dance team for a little while, but he had moved away and paved his own path-not to the top, just in the middle, parting seas still but not destroying them.  

“I need a ride to the hospital.”  Jisung cut in, deciding to move straight towards the point and not get trapped in a conversation that was sure to end in screaming and yelling.  They couldn’t seem to talk anymore, like the past was weighing too heavily on the four of them, trapping them and entangling them until everything was mixed up and twisted.  Felix stilled, and Jisung could hear him snapping his wristband. He wondered when he had gotten into the habit of it. Felix had never had many habits, just habitual things like stealing Jisung’s earbuds and changing the music, easing into things easily, taking fries and food, chewing on his lip, scrunching up his nose when he was confused.  Jisung could list all of the things Felix did regularly without missing a beat. He remembered everything too well, had recited the memories to himself on days when crashing noises and insomnia had kept him from ever closing his eyes.

“Why?”  Felix finally asked, and Jisung knew he was already moving, taking his jacket and his car keys.  His car was a piece of junk-at least he had been able to afford a car, a part of Jisung bitterly thought-but it worked well enough after he had figured out how to fix it.  Jisung had watched him enough to know this, even without Felix telling him a single thing that was going on in his life. When they were kids, Felix had always talked about cars while they raced the ones they did have, trying to make the pieces of metal move a little bit faster.  He had seen so many different cars in Australia, read the magazines his father got. Felix had always wanted it all, and Jisung had always known that one day he was going to get it. Meanwhile, Jisung had only really wanted one thing, and he knew it, or he, was too far away to even consider trying to get,

“I’ll explain in the car.  I’m at Seungmin’s house.” Jisung said, taking a deep breath.  He let it out, watching dead leaves float across the ground. “...Okay.”  Felix said, and Jisung heard mumbled words, signalling that there were other people.  “I’ll wait.” Jisung replied carefully, hanging up and rocking on his heels. There was a text from his boss, telling him he was fired, not bothering to ask for an explanation.  

Jisung wrapped his sweater sleeves around himself, looking at the holes where he had hooked his thumbs through it too many times.  He was freezing, eyes watering from a harsh wind. Jisung waited, and tried not to think about Seungmin’s pale face and his barely there pulse, tried not to think about how much the whole scene had been like when Younghyun-Jisung cut off the thought, because Seungmin was in the hospital and he had been alive-he was alive.  He was going to make it, because he wasn’t Jisung and he wasn’t Younghyun.

He needed to stop thinking.  He needed Felix to be there already, pulling up and sticking

his head out, fading orange blonde hair blowing in the wind, freckles faded but still there.  The block felt empty and deserted, lonely, and Jisung felt like he was part of it. Just one more lost thing, stuck on their island, lonesome.

The loud stereo of a car interrupted it, and Jisung knew it was Felix before he spotted the baby blue car sliding up in front of him.  Felix leaned out the window, like he had in Jisung’s imagination, waving quietly, and gestured to the passenger side door. Jisung climbed in, having to pause for a moment to make his hands stop shaking, and settled in.  He spotted Hyunjin in the backseat, eyeing Felix questioningly.

“If it involves Seungmin, it involves both us.”  Felix told him tightly, making no effort to

keep their conversation private.  Jisung shrugged, pressing his lips together and buckling himself in.  “Thanks for the ride.” He said, looking out the window. Felix nodded, and the movement made Jisung turn his head, immediately abandoning the avoidance he had been planning on.  It was impossible not to look at Felix, not to want to just stare at him and take it all in, every single thing he did. He was always in a bright spotlight, the center of attention, and Jisung couldn’t take his eyes off.

Still, he made himself tear them away, focus on something in front of him.  “You said you would explain what’s going on.” Felix added, voice still tight, like it was about to snap at any moment.  Jisung opened his mouth to form words, but it slipped back into the memory, and he had to pause and shut it all out again, concentrate on the loose strand of Felix’s hair, the friendship bracelet that still fit perfectly.  It hung off Hyunjin’s wrist now, all skin and bones.

“Seungmin had to to go the hospital.  He overdosed on pills. I don’t know if it was intentional or not.”  Saying the last sentence made Jisung feel better, not like Seungmin had really wanted to leave.  Maybe he hadn’t wanted to leave, maybe he had just wanted it to be over, for just a few moments, to stop drowning and float.  Jisung would have done it too, if you thought about it like that.

He twisted in his seat, looking back at Hyunjin.  “I only called Felix, you know. You can’t just invite yourself places.  We’re not friends anymore, as you’re always so eager to remind me, so don’t act like we are.”  Hyunjin glowered at him under his fisherman’s house. “What, I can’t be concerned?” Jisung was starting to hate talking to Hyunjin now, unable to hear any of the soft boy he had once been, only anger and hurt tearing against each other, destroying others.

“It’s awfully hypocritical.”  Jisung told him sweetly, but his heart wasn’t into fighting today.  He was tired and he wanted to go the hospital and hear that Seungmin was going to be okay and everything was going to be okay.  Except it had never been okay, it would never be okay, they had never been okay. They had just been good at pretending like it was, pretending that they were.  Jisung was surrounded by liars and pretenders and fakes and he hid in their shadows and pretending that he wasn’t like them, but that made him worse than them, because even that was a lie.

“Can you two stop fighting for just one minute?”  Felix asked, annoyance plain in his voice. The words had ripped from him with sharp emotion, and Jisung was both surprised and happy.  They had all grown up now, hadn’t they? He turned back properly, facing the road, sealing his mouth. No matter how much he was provoked, he needed to remember why he was going.

“Okay.”  Hyunjin mumbled, sliding down in his seat, and Jisung wondered why they were avoiding each other’s eyes.  He wanted to ask, but something about the hard set of both of their eyes made Jisung wonder if their relationship was okay.  He felt guilty as soon as he said it, knowing he didn’t want them to break apart, knowing that it wouldn’t change anything even if it happened.

“Are you going to prom?”  Felix asked aloud in the silence.  With his hands on the steering wheel, a worn jean jacket with patches of color and flowers, faded jeans with tears at the knees, and a vintage band t-shirt, he suddenly looked grown up, like he was from an old photograph Jisung had found.  He was easy and relaxed, like he had been born like this, like this was the life he had been destined for. He probably had been. Felix was a chameleon, fitting in wherever he went, adopting the style and fashion. Jisung wanted to reach over and tap his fingers against Felix’s hand, lay a hand on his leg, twirl that loose strand of hair that brushed his forehead.  He kept wanting to touch Felix, to be close to him whenever he saw him, more and more now, and it was becoming increasingly more difficult to hold back.

“I might.  I don’t know.”  Jisung replied, instead picking at the torn strands of his own jeans, focusing on them.  If he rubbed them fast enough, his fingers tingled pleasantly. “Are you guys going together?”  Felix looked at Hyunjin in the rearview mirror, something silent exchanged in their heavily weighted gazes.

“Yeah.”  Felix finally said, but he didn’t sound sure, and maybe that was why the words slipped out of Jisung’s mouth next.  “You guys look like you’re fighting.” He said, and the car fell dead silent. Hyunjin coughed in the backseat. He had pulled his legs up, curled up like he was a kid, and it was kind of sad, kind of lonely.  

“Wouldn’t you be glad if we were.”  He sneered, and it was another rock thrown into Jisung’s stomach, making him sink a couple more feet.  “Be quiet.” Felix said tersely, and Jisung wanted to know if he agreed, but he was too afraid to ask. Too afraid that Felix, who almost never lied, would have to nod and say yes, or just avoid the question entirely.  Each would be just as worse as the other, and Jisung already felt terrible just imagining it. Hyunjin shut up, and Jisung thought he saw Hyunjin’s eyes glitter briefly in the reflection of the window. He looked away and pretended he hadn’t seen.

They drove in silence the rest of the way to the hospital, Felix keeping his eyes focused on his road and Hyunjin keeping his focused out the window.  Jisung closed his own and tried to pretend he was trying to rest, even though his heart was beating too fast and his pulse racing. Everything sped up and slowed down, and Jisung could only replay the conversation again and again in silent agony.

“We’re here.”  Felix said quietly, and Jisung looked out the window, seeing the whiteness of the hospital.  “Thank you.” He mumbled, dipping his head and sliding out, nearly catching his leg. He slammed the door as Hyunjin was exiting, and their eyes met for a moment, then Hyunjin ran ahead; towards the doors.  Jisung watched him go, slightly puzzled, unsure if he should wait for Felix or just go on ahead.

“Come on.”  Felix said, drawing up beside him, and Jisung allowed himself a small smile.  It was only a fraction of how happy he felt, but it was enough for now. He let his eyes study Felix a bit more, draw it all in.  Felix walked with his shoulders back now, chin tilted forward, not in a arrogant way, but just in an independent way. He had really grown up, and Jisung still felt like the copy of his childhood self, the eleven year old with scraped knees and wild hair, smiling toothily.  

Felix moved onto his future, and grew outward, and Jisung disappeared onward, stuck in the past.  Still in the clothes from years ago, no goals to write down in bullet lists, nothing that could magically create an escape route no matter how hard he looked.  He felt like reaching out and grabbing Felix’s fingers, physically and metaphorically, holding on tight enough so that Felix couldn’t let go, so they could go on together.

It wasn’t until Jisung felt Felix move beside him that he realized his hand had actually

reached out.  He snatched it back, tucking it in his pocket, avoiding eye contact.  Felix cleared his throat, arm out as a car went in front of them. Their footsteps tapped on the pavement.  “Do you think Seungmin is going to be okay?” He finally asked, kicking a stray leaf. Jisung shrugged.

“I don’t know.”  He responded honestly.  He knew that Seungmin had survived for this long, he could survive a little longer, but he wasn’t sure that Seungmin wanted to.  Jisung thought about all the times Seungmin had brushed Jeongin and himself off because he had to study, all the days he had skipped lunch to go to the library, the A- that he had torn himself up about, the grades that were never enough unless they were one hundred percent.  Everyone had different ways they coped, but Seungmin didn’t want to cope; he wanted to forget and he didn’t care that he was drowning, all he wanted to do was get out.

Jisung didn’t know how much Felix knew about Seungmin’s reason for everything he did, why he worked so hard, why everything had to be perfect.  How Seungmin left up everything his mother and father had pinned to the refrigerator to remind himself in case he ever got tired or thought about taking a break.  Sometimes Jisung wanted to rip it all off, but he knew how much Seungmin needed it, so he bit his tongue and ignored it.

“Can I ask you something?”  Jisung asked suddenly, looking over at Felix.  They were at the hospital entrance, and Jisung took out the text message Jeongin had sent with the room number.  He hadn’t said that Seungmin was okay, but Jisung knew he wasn’t going to physically die. At least not yet. A couple more days, a couple more months.  Seungmin hated to scare them, but sometimes it was all too much.

“Sure.”  Felix replied, glancing down at his watch.  Jisung wondered if he had somewhere to be. “How did...I mean…”  Jisung paused, trying to figure out what he was trying to ask. “Hyunjin.”  He finally said. “Wasn't it hard? How did you deal?” Felix smiled sadly, like he had half known that was what Jisung was trying to ask.  He put his phone away as the doors slid open. They walked over to the elevators side by side, both reaching for the button at the same time.  Jisung took his hand back and let Felix push it.

   Felix waited for the elevator doors to close and for Jisung to push the floor number before starting to talk.  “It was hard.” He admitted, hands tucked loosely into his pockets. “Forcing your best friend to eat, afraid that one day he’s just going to starve to death, hoping he doesn’t collapse.”  He leaned back, looking up at the ceiling.

“For the longest time I didn’t get why, but I think I do now.”  Jisung turned his head, so close to Felix that he could feel it, how his breath ghosted over his face.  “It wasn’t about not being hungry or weight...one time, when it was particularly bad and he fell down, I asked him why he was going this to himself and he said-”  Felix’s voice cracked, and Jisung saw how painful it was to speak the words, how reliving all the memories was like stepping on glass shards. “He said he just wanted to be beautiful.  To look pretty in the world’s eyes. To be perfect.”

He took a deep breath as the doors dinged, stepping out briskly.  Jisung had to walk quickly to catch up. “I told him he already was, but he just said that I would never get it, because I had never cared.”  Felix turned to look at Jisung sadly, swallowing. “It wasn’t about being skinnier and skinnier, it was about fitting impossible standards, getting trapped when you looked in the mirror, unable to see anything except your imperfections.  It wasn’t about beating the status quo, it was about beating himself.”

The words sounded achingly familiar, and Jisung had to break eye contact so that Felix wouldn’t see how much they had gotten to him, digging under his skin.  He saw Jeongin up ahead, slumped against the wall, staring blankly at the door. He looked small, sweater swallowing him, jeans rolled up. Jisung wanted to hug him, but he made himself walk evenly.

“You know, I really missed you.”  Felix whispered from behind him, and Jisung almost stopped.  The words circulated through his brain, and all he could think about was that these were the words he had been waiting for for two years, but they weren’t right.  They weren’t in the scenario he had pictured, because Felix still belonged to Hyunjin and dance and everything Jisung had been cut from, and Seungmin still needed Jisung and there was everything new to add in.

Jisung had wanted to hear these words when he was a sophomore asking Hyunjin why he had said that to Seungmin, when he had given Felix so many chances.  Before Felix had told him that he had kissed Hyunjin, before he had fallen and Felix had risen, before hurtful words and sprained arms and everything else that burned and torn and ripped and shredded everything they had built, their unstable house of cards they had thought would last forever.

Nothing lasted forever, they had just been stupid and thought it did, thought stability was something tangible.  Jisung and Hyunjin and Felix and Seungmin had been forever for a time, but there had been an ever and a never, and they had hit that wall and came out divided, with no gray in between.  Just black and white and good and bad and wrong and right and okay and not.

“I wish you wouldn't say that.”  Jisung said, voice hoarse, words coming out softly.  Felix stared at him, hurt flashing over his eyes, and Jisung felt the glass drive itself deeper.  He turned and walked over to Jeongin before Felix could say anything else, too scared that he would fall and let go of the shields he had formed to hold himself together, and then be attacked, helpless as he was.

“How’s Seungmin?”  Jisung asked, crouching.  Jeongin looked up tiredly, giving a half nod.  “Your friend...I mean, Hyunjin, went in there before I could stop him.  I’m sorry.” He looked down, and Jisung pulled him into a half hug, holding him tightly.  “It’s okay.” He whispered, then stood up and walked over to the door, pushing it open a couple inches.

Hyunjin was standing in front of Seungmin’s bed, looking down, and it took Jisung a moment to see that he was talking, voice low.  Seungmin was turned away, eyes focused on the wall, but Jisung knew he was hearing every word. “Seungmin, why would you do that?” Hyunjin was asking, looking like a more slumped and faded version of himself, the lonely one in the car Jisung had glimpsed for just a moment.

“I’m sorry.”  Seungmin whispered, refusing to turn his head, even as Hyunjin knelt, touching his back lightly.  Jisung didn’t like how familiar he was, as if they were used to doing this. Seungmin’s shoulders tensed.  He hated people casually touching him, hugs and pats on the back. Jisung didn’t understand why he was being different for Hyunjin, why he hadn’t screamed and snapped yet.  Or maybe he had, he had said it right to Seungmin’s face once, but just didn’t want to think about that right now.

“No, don’t say that.”  Hyunjin said. “I know you meant it, I just want to know why. ”  Seungmin burrowed into the covers, half bringing his hands to his ears.  “And what I’d like to know is why you suddenly care, when you’ve been gone for over a year.”  His voice was wavering, but it was there, audible. Jisung felt a rush of pride.

Hyunjin stopped for a moment, everything about him unsure.  Finally, he responded with; “You’re still someone I care about, Seungmin.  You know that.” Seungmin rolled his eyes. “You have done nothing to show that so far.”  Hyunjin shook his head slightly, as he couldn’t believe he was doing this. Jisung couldn’t either, but something made him stop with a hand on the doorframe, made him decide to listen a little while longer.

“Look, I regret that so much, but I was so trapped.”  Seungmin scoffed. “I guess you remained trapped for the rest of the year, then.”  Hyunjin frowned. “We’re both so messed up, Seungmin. I think we could help each other be a little bit stronger.  I-I miss you so much. It’s like there’s a hole in my heart that you used to fill. Do you remember the kiss? Because I knew I felt something, and you must have-“

“Can you please just shut up?”  Seungmin cut in, voice pained. He sat up, whipping to face Hyunjin.  There was an IV attached to his wrist, the veins bright and visible against the pale skin of his inner arm.  Jisung could see how exhausted he really was, how dark his eye bags were, the way his mouth turned down. “Everything coming out of your mouth is lies, and I can’t stand it.”  He swallowed, eyes shimmering with a thin veil of unshed tears. Jisung still couldn’t quite understand what he had heard Hyunjin say, and he didn’t really want to, knowing already how it would all crash down once the two of them confronted each other on the topic.

“Seungmin…”  Hyunjin started, but he quieted, slowly rising and sitting on the bed beside Seungmin.  Sighing, he rested his chin on Seungmin’s shoulder. Jisung could see how all the muscles tested, how motionless Seungmin became, but he didn’t make Hyunjin move.  Maybe that alone said more about how he felt then any of the words that had been exchanged over the years. His body was trembling, just the tiniest bit, and Hyunjin took this as an invitation to wrap his arms around Seungmin loosely.

Here was where Seungmin finally pulled away.  “Stop doing that.” He commanded quietly, looking away to avoid Hyunjin’s hurt stare.  “Stop messing with me, acting like this. Like you care, like it’s okay, like you love-“.  Seungmin stopped suddenly, choking on the words. Jisung could fill them in easily; like you love me.   Something flipped inside of him, and Jisung clutched at the wall.

There was quiet as Hyunjin stared at Seungmin for several long minutes, and then he jerked forward, kissing Seungmin.  Jisung couldn’t breathe, only watching as Seungmin pushed him away, his whole body shaking with uncontrollable sobs. “Why do you always do this to me?!”  He screamed, voice tearing.

Hyunjin sat back, hands gripping the knees of his jeans.  He looked at the ground, and Jisung saw the glimmer again, the eyes that were close to tears.  “I’m sorry.” He whispered, voice cracking, and Jisung saw how vulnerable the two of them looked.  Seungmin shook his head, wiping at his eyes with quick slashes.

“It doesn’t matter.”  He said through a half sob.  “You don’t know how much it kills me to see the two of you together, all the time.  I’ve tried to get over it and move on, but I can’t if you keep being like this. We’re poison to each other, Hyunjin, and the more time we spend together, the faster it works.  We can’t, I can’t keep doing this.  I’m just...I’m so tired.”  Seungmin let his head fall back, and Hyunjin stood up, gazing down at him.

“Well, you know how I feel, and I’m not taking that back.”  He said decisively. Something in Seungmin seemed to snap, and his head jerked up.  “Get out!” He yelled, shoving Hyunjin back again, eyes burning. Hyunjin stumbled, feet scuffing against the floor, and then he turned and ran.  Jisung had enough time to back away before he burst out the door, sailing past him. Jeongin shot to his feet as he did, mouth opening to ask something, but Hyunjin was gone before he could.  Jisung saw Felix appear around the corner, but he stopped when he saw Hyunjin, giving only one backward glance before following.

Swallowing, Jisung pushed back open the door of the hospital room, entering it quietly.  Seungmin had lain down and pulled the covers up, turned away from Jisung. His sneakers were loud, slapping against the floor.  “Hi.” Jisung whispered as he drew up beside the bed, standing above Seungmin. Seungmin half turned, giving him a wane smile. It was wobbly.

“You scared me.”  Jisung added, trying to make his hands stop shaking.  “Why did...why would you do that?” To me?   He said in his head, wondering if Seungmin had stopped and considered how he would feel, pushed back into the same scenario of three years ago.  His hands were shaking again, and Jisung clenched them so tightly that he felt his fingernails dig into his skin. Jisung needed to not think about it, he wanted to find Felix and stabilize himself, remember why he had stayed so long.  Why he had endured, more than anything else.

“I didn’t mean to.”  Seungmin said quietly, still turned away.  He looked and sounded fragile, as if he had been stripped down to only skin and bones, a pale outline of his former self.  Jisung hated hospitals. He wanted to leave, to run and run and run until he was far away. “I just...it was just too much.  I saw the picture on the fridge and I just couldn’t anymore, I just...it was all becoming too much and piling up and I couldn’t breathe-”  He made a strangled sound, and Jisung didn’t understand, but maybe he did a little bit.

“It’s okay.”  Jisung said comfortingly, crouching and resting his chin on the line of Seungmin’s back.  “What was that about with you and Hyunjin?” He asked casually, and he felt Seungmin tense, guard flying up.  “How long were you standing there?” Seungmin finally asked, and Jisung shrugged languidly. “Long enough.” The words came out more accusatory than he had meant them too.

Seungmin sighed.  “The makeup incident...that wasn’t the first time he called me.  That was just the first time you were there.” Jisung didn’t know what to say, so he kept quiet, listening, pretending he wasn’t already hurt.  “He just did it sometimes, when he needed somebody. And I always went, even though I knew it was a train wreck just waiting to happen. We didn’t do anything, just sat in silence.  Sometimes he talked to me.”

“I don’t understand.”  Jisung cut in. “If he wanted to be friends with us again, why the whole front?  Why not just apologize?” Seungmin laughed humorously. “There’s more to that than you realize, Jisung.  Hyunjin has his reasons. It’s not like he told us everything.” Jisung felt himself freezing up, becoming defensive.  He didn’t want to fight with Seungmin, but he couldn’t stop himself from responding.

“Well, I know I didn’t realize that, what, you’ve been lying to me for the past year?  Longer than that? I thought we were in this together, but you’ve been...I don’t know, going behind my back with Hyunjin?  Is that it?” The words were full of acid and venom, and Jisung hated them as soon as they left his mouth, but he couldn’t take them back even if he tried his hardest.

“That’s exactly it!”  Seungmin cried. “We were never in this together.  I fell first, and you just climbed in after me with your rope, ready to escape if you needed to, while I was stuck.  You’re a great friend Jisung, and I love you, but you will never understand me fully. Maybe we all have our own issues, but we’re only sixteen.  After my parents…” Seungmin trailed off, the blankets bunched in his hands.

Jisung looked at the ground, knowing the words Seungmin was afraid to voice aloud.  Saying things out loud made them real, and saying his words aloud would make Seungmin virtually nothing.  They never talked about it because Seungmin had made it a forbidden topic, too afraid to face it himself. Jisung knew that Hyunjin had hated that he had, had wanted to scream, and maybe that was part of why they all broke away.

They were sixteen years old and secrets were tearing them apart, yet Jisung wanted to cling onto his own until there were only shreds left.  Everything was being destroyed, and Jisung just sat back and watched it burn. Watched Felix slip through his fingers, and Seungmin disappear in the blue water-the water that had drowned him before, the day they had met, the day Jisung had never forgotten-and everything fall apart.

“What it seems like to me is that Hyunjin is still being a jerk.”  Jisung said softly. “And you’re still falling for his charms.” Seungmin let out a long hiss, hands moving agitatedly.  “You...you just don’t get it.” He said, a single tear sliding down his cheek. Jisung wrapped his arms around himself, left in the silence of the harsh words, spinning around him.  He looked down at his best friend, and wondered where they would be if Jisung had chosen Hyunjin and Felix instead of Seungmin. Seungmin...Seungmin might not even be alive.

“I love you, Jisung,”  Seungmin repeated. “But we’re both blindly in love with our two best friends.”  Jisung noticed that he hadn’t added former for once. He nodded, knowing it was the truth.  Seungmin swallowed and looked down at the rumpled mess of blankets. He looked so faded, so pale, so wispy, like he would blow away if a wind came through.

“In another lifetime, I would have fallen in love with you.”  Seungmin said quietly. Jisung was silent for a long moment, thinking over the words.  “I would have liked that.” He finally said, and Seungmin smiled softly, satisfied. “In another universe.”  He said sadly.

 

Chapter Text

 

It was a warm day in the beginning of April when Minho asked Jisung to prom.  It was the end of the school day, in a crowded hallway as students streamed past, towards the exit.  He had brought flowers, lovely purple ones with wispy and soft petals. He was smiling happily as well, Jisung standing a foot away with his backpack slung over his shoulder when Minho shoved them in his face.

“Will you go to prom with me?”  He asked without further notice.  Jisung stared at him, uncomprehending.  He hadn’t expected to be asked, certainly not be Minho.  “I…” Past Minho, Jisung saw the rest of the dance team. Felix was there, leaning against the wall.  He was looking away, but Jisung couldn’t tell if it was on purpose or not. Hyunjin stared at the scene with narrowed eyes, arms crossed.

“Yes.”  Jisung said after a moment, because he had nothing to lose.  Maybe Hyunjin and Felix would go together, maybe he would see them-he shook his head, and then accepted the flowers Minho was pressing at him.  They felt fragile, like their stems would snap at any moment. He clutched them tightly anyways, standing awkwardly in the hallway. Minho was smiling like that yes had meant the world to him, and it made Jisung a tiny bit happier.  He had always wanted to make people happy, even if it took away his own.

Felix walked away, Hyunjin following, and Jisung felt disappointment spread through him.  Minho walked over, the hallways nearly empty around them. “Thank you for saying yes.” He said.  “I would have been embarrassed if you hadn’t.” Jisung shifted, fingering the petals quietly. “They’re pretty.”  He replied after a minute. “Thank you.” Minho looked a little crestfallen, and Jisung instantly felt bad.

“And thank you for asking me.  I didn’t want to go alone, so it’s a relief.”  Minho smiled and nodded, but his lips were twisted in a sad way, and Jisung wondered what he had really meant.  Did Minho really like him like that? Or had he too just been lonely? Jisung didn’t want Minho to like him, he didn’t want more pressure on his shoulders, more feelings to deal with.  He didn’t even know how to deal with his own, how could he possibly deal with Minho’s?

“Jisung!”  Jeongin ran up beside him, backpack bouncing on his back.  “Hurry up, or we’re going to miss the bus.” Jisung half nodded to him, attention still on Minho.  “Can I have your number?” Minho asked, holding out his phone. “I’ll text you the details.” Jisung nodded, punching his in.  “Text me.” Jisung told him, turning to Jeongin. “Let’s go.”

“Oh, and Jisung!”  Minho called after them.  Jisung stopped his fast walking past, turning around curiously.  “It doesn’t have to be a date if you don’t want it to be.” Minho said quietly, shuffling his feet.  The tips of his ears were pink against his tan skin. “I just wanted to go with you.” He added lamely.  Jisung smiled kindly, walking back and taking his hand.

“Whatever you’re cool with.”  Jisung said, giving his hand a swing.  He wouldn’t have associated shyness with Minho, but liking someone could do crazy things to a person.  Jisung thought that he might have been happy about Minho liking him in a different world, one where he was at a different high school with different friends, and Minho was only a handsome senior on the dance team, not one who had yelled at Jisung’s best friends and kissed him and told him his secrets.

He turned and walked back to Jeongin, the two of them breaking into a run as they saw the first bus pull away through the doors.  “What was that about?” Jeongin shouted when they were out of earshot, and Jisung shook him off, waiting until they were seated on the bus to explain.

“Minho asked me to prom.  I said yes.” Jisung explained simply, and Jeongin’s eyes widened.  “That was why you had a bunch of flowers?” Jisung looked down at the small bouquet, hoping the flowers would last until he got home.  He would keep them in his room, on the dresser, which was otherwise empty. Everything at home was dull and gray and the green of soju bottles, purple would be a nice change for the times he hid in his room, hoping that today wouldn’t be the day the door broke.  

“Yeah.”  Jisung nodded, hoping he hadn’t crushed the stems in his clenched hand.  “But...why?” Jeongin settled back against the seat, still looking shocked.  Jisung shrugged. He didn’t want to tell Jeongin about the kiss, no matter how good of friends they were now.  It felt like something personal, the words Minho had told him kept in a safe corner of his brain with Changbin’s as well-words of people who had been nice to him, for him to revisit when he needed them.  When he felt like everything was worthless, like everything he had endured up until now was pointless, Jisung remembered, and forced himself to open his eyes and get up.

“I don’t know.  I guess he just wanted to.”  Jisung said, looking down, hoping Jeongin would figure out the conversation was over.  Jeongin seemed to take the hint, moving away, and turning his face. Jisung looked out the window at the crowded streets rushing past.  They were going to see Seungmin together today, the two of them. He was out of the hospital, but confined to his home. They went over every day, or at least one of them would, to make sure he was eating, that he was okay, that all the pills were still in their respective bottles.  

Jisung still closed his eyes and remembered it all vividly, even though it had been a month ago.  He didn’t want it to go to the part of his memory were Younghyun was, but it had anyways. Sometimes it was Younghyun with Seungmin’s face in his nightmares, and Jisung would wake up suddenly, trying to muffle his screams and sobs.  He kept them to himself, but his worry for his friend had amped up above normal, almost to the point of anxiety.

He didn’t know how Jeongin was faring, but he could imagine how it must have felt, unable to do anything but uselessly bang on the bathroom door, hands shaking as he called 911, panicking to the point of an almost panic attack, afraid Seungmin would die in there because he wouldn’t get there in time.  Jisung had faced that all, except he had made it in, but he was too late that time.

The bus pulled up at the corner of Seungmin’s street, and Jeongin got up.  Jisung slipped out after him, maneuvering his way down the aisle after him.  They walked down the street side by side, Jeongin bobbing his head to some invisible tune in his head.  Jisung had caught him singing once, his accent slipping into the words, but still beautiful. Jisung had asked why he sung, and Jeongin had told him truthfully that he liked music because it was universal.  It connected everyone, despite their differences. He wanted to spread that, if he ever got the chance. Jisung kept those words in his special box with Minho’s, and whenever lyrics wouldn’t come, he thought of them again.

Seungmin’s house had the blinds down as always, but Jisung turned the knob and let himself in.  Seungmin didn’t lock it when he knew they were coming, but Jisung had a key just in case he needed it one day.  The house was dark, and Seungmin was sitting at the dining room table, staring at the cover of a book. His phone was on top of it, opened to blue text messages Jisung couldn’t read.  He turned it over when they entered, but Jisung could still see that there was no gray. Whoever Seungmin had been texting wasn’t responding. Jisung wondered if it was Hyunjin.

“How are you doing today?”  Jeongin asked softly, dropping his backpack on the ground and walking over.  He draped his arms over Seungmin’s neck, leaning in, and Seungmin smiled, relaxing the tiniest bit.  Jisung could never tell how tense Seungmin was until he relaxed. “I’m fine.” Seungmin replied in his quiet voice, running his fingers over the corners of his book.  It was an English one, The Great Gatsby. Jisung had seen the movie, but he had never read the book itself.

“Did you eat?”  Jisung asked, walking over to the fridge.  It was half empty, food organized in tupperware containers, some juice boxes, a little bit of milk.  Not much, and none of it looked like it had been touched. He pulled out cold jajangmyeon, pulling off the lid and popping it into the microwave.  Seungmin turned his head at the sound.

“I ate.”  He said, and Jisung raised his eyebrows.  “No you didn’t.” Seungmin sighed, slumping back.  “I’m not hungry.” Jisung shook his head. “You know, taking a pill is not going to make your hunger go away.  It’s not going to fix things. If you want to get better, you have to eat.” Seungmin shrugged, looking down.

Jeongin unattached himself, sitting down on the floor beside the chair.  Jisung still couldn’t figure out what he and Seungmin had with each other, even Seungmin hated it when Jisung hugged him, but he would let Jeongin do it whenever, letting him attach himself like a clingy octopus.  Jisung was pretty sure Jeongin at least liked Seungmin, but he seemed perfectly content to have his feelings not reciprocated. As far as Jisung knew, Seungmin was still in love with Hyunjin, but he thought about it sometimes.  He wondered if you could really be in love with two people, if it was even possible to split your heart like that.

The microwave dinged, and Jisung took it out, mixing it together with Seungmin’s pair of chopsticks.  He brought it over to the table, sitting down next to Seungmin. Jeongin hauled himself into the chair on the other side.  Seungmin pushed it away. “I told you, I’m not hungry.” Jisung pushed it back. They had gone through this several times this week already, and he could usually force Seungmin to eat at least a couple bites.  He had lost weight, his hoodie even larger on him than before. Jisung didn’t want him to end up with an eating disorder like Hyunjin, so he came over every day and made sure he was eating. This had happened a couple of times before, at times when Seungmin was particularly stressed or sad, but this time it was lasting a little bit longer than usual.

“And I said you needed to eat to get better.”  Jisung told him firmly. “Maybe I don’t want to get better.”  Seungmin replied stubbornly, crossing his arms. “Maybe I’ll just starve myself to death.”  The words sounded more serious than Jisung wanted them too, but he smiled to cover up how scared Seungmin made him at times, twirling the noodles some more.  

“Can you at least eat one bite, hyung?”  Jeongin interjected, sticking out his bottom lip.  Seungmin glanced at him in annoyance, but he grudgingly took a bite of the noodles, chewing and swallowing.  Jisung sat back, half relieved, half sad. Seungmin wouldn’t do it for him, but he would do it for Jeongin. Maybe it proved how different their friendships were, maybe.

With another look from Jeongin, Seungmin continued to eat, slowly but surely.  He didn’t look like he had been sleeping, but Jisung hadn’t spotted any textbooks lately.  Last time he had checked, they had been piled on his desk. Sometimes he would meticulously flip through the pages, seeing if there were any new notes or highlighting.

“Why do you have flowers?”  Seungmin asked curiously, poking the tops of the petals.  Jisung had forgotten he was holding them. He studied them for a moment, looking at their purple violet color.  “Minho gave them to me.” He paused, then added; “He asked me to prom and I said yes. Will you come, too?” Seungmin stopped eating, staring at him blankly.

“To prom?  Do you even like him?”  His words hurt Jisung, just a little bit.  “I could.” Jisung said finally. “He’s nice to me.  We might be friends, I don't know. I think he likes me.”  Seungmin raised his eyebrows coldly, saying nothing. Jisung rolled his eyes at him.  “I know you don’t like Minho, but he’s been nothing but decent around me.”

“Says you.”  Seungmin slumped in his seat.  “I don’t want to go to prom. I don’t even want to go to school.”  He closed his eyes, tipping his head back, and Jeongin reached forward to tousle his hair lightly, smiling bittersweetly.  Jisung put the flowers down, making sure they were safe.

“When are you going back?”  He asked. “If you miss much more, you won’t be able to finish the year.”  Seungmin nodded tiredly. “I know.” Jisung wondered how much sleep he had been getting, if it was enough.  “I just don’t want to face anyone, not that many people would care, but still.” Jisung knew what he really meant was that he didn’t want to see Hyunjin, to face everything that had happened between him.  Jisung glanced at Jeongin, unsure of how much he knew. He wanted to talk to Seungmin about it, but it was near impossible with Jeongin so close all the time.

“You know, I would go with you to prom if you wanted, hyung.”  Jeongin announced sleepily, twirling a longer strand of Seungmin’s hair around his finger.  He was leaning against Seungmin’s shoulder, somehow having come closer without Jisung noticing.  He eyed the pair of them, noticing that Seungmin’s shoulders were still relaxed.

“Really?”  Seungmin cracked open one of his eyes.  Jeongin nodded enthusiastically. “Sophomores and freshmen can go if they’re invited.”  Seungmin opened both of his eyes now, turning his head slightly. Jisung felt like he was intruding on a private moment suddenly, and he took a step backward.  Seungmin seemed to consider it, looking back at Jisung.

“Are Hyunjin and Felix going together?”  He asked suddenly, and Jisung shrugged. “I mean, probably.”  His heart sank at the thought of watching the two of them dance together, and he wondered if Seungmin was imagining the same things he was.  “Okay.” Seungmin said after a moment. “Let’s go together, Jeongin.” Jeongin’s face lit up, braces glinting. He had bright pink bands on them, matching the color of his sweater.

Jisung wished Seungmin could see how attached Jeongin was to him, and then it occurred to him that maybe Seungmin did and he just hadn’t said anything about it yet.  Seungmin leaned forward to take another bite of the food, then pushed it over to Jeongin. “Here, you can eat the rest of it.” Jeongin started to protest, but Seungmin shushed him.  “You look like you haven’t eaten in a while.” He turned to Jisung. “Has he been eating at lunch?”

“Yeah?”  Jisung said, but he couldn’t quite remember.  He had spent long portions of lunch in the library, reading or listening to music, too mentally tired to even think about the crowded cafeteria.  Jeongin shrugged, looking guilty. “I eat when I have time.” He mumbled around a mouthful of noodles. Seungmin wrinkled his nose, and Jeongin swallowed.  “I just have a lot of projects I have to work on.”

Seungmin nodded along, standing up and padding over to the kitchen.  He was dressed almost entirely in gray, gray sweatpants and black socks, a loose gray t-shirt.  Jisung could see a bruise from the IV, dark against his pale skin. “Does anyone want tea?” He asked, Jeongin shaking his head.  “I’ll take some.” Jisung said, using it as a chance to enter the kitchen next to Seungmin.

“So…”  Jisung started, rifling through the tea bags with Seungmin.  He made sure to keep his voice low, even though Jeongin had become preoccupied with Seungmin’s book, holding it up to the pale light filtering through cracks in the blinds curiously.  “Hyunjin.” Seungmin rolled his eyes, moving to heat the water. Jisung followed him, determined to actually talk about this in a more normal setting, when Seungmin wasn’t as mentally unstable as he had been in the hospital.

“Do you really think he likes you?”  Jisung prodded as Seungmin took his tea bag, putting it in a mug.  “No.” Seungmin replied flatly, voice devoid of any emotion at all.  Jisung could tell that he was trying too hard to act like he didn’t care, meaning he cared about it a lot more than he was letting on.  “He needs me. There’s a difference.” Jisung bit his lip, not sure how much more he could draw out of Seungmin before he snapped.

To Jisung’s surprise, Seungmin continued talking without Jisung needing to say anything more.  “I knew that, of course, but it was hard to remember it when he hugged me or called me, saying he needed me, you saw that I couldn’t resist it even if I wanted to.  He used me, and I knew it, but that didn’t stop me from coming.  It lasted for so long...well, it was happening even before we split, but it wasn’t as serious.  It was more in a friendship way.”

Seungmin swallowed, leaning his head back for a moment.  The water whistled. “And then he called me again, a couple of weeks after he and Felix had started dating.  He was crying a lot, but he wouldn’t tell me why. I think he and Felix fought, or maybe it was something else.  He just wanted to sit and look at the stars like we usually did, or that’s what he said. I was going to yell at him.”  Seungmin added in a soft voice. “But I couldn’t. So I just sat there and let myself forget, for just a little bit.”

“It only happened a couple times, like once a month maybe.  He never really talked to me, but sometimes he would just tell me random things about the stars that he had learned.  Just to fill the silence, I think. Then, one time, a couple of months ago, he kissed me and he told me that he liked me.  After that, he kept being touchy and close-I mean, he had been like that before, but I hadn’t thought much of it.” Seungmin stopped talking, and water splashed over the counter.  Jisung took the tea kettle from his trembling hands, putting one hand on the small of Seungmin’s back to steady him, pouring the tea.

“I still don’t get it, not really.  I mean, I do, but I don’t. I know that he just wanted to forget, to just push it all away, but why me?  I know he must have known that I liked him, it was so obvious looking back-I was so obvious. But I guess I was nothing but a tool to him, and I just can’t stand it, but I can’t push him away.  It’s so pathetic.” Seungmin viciously stirred his drink.

“Hyung, do you really love him?”  Jisung and Seungmin both turned in unison to see Jeongin standing at the edge of the kitchen, looking at the two of them innocently.  Seungmin bit his lip, then nodded. “I know I shouldn’t, but I do.” His eyes were sad, looking too ancient for his years. Jisung understood him, how impossible it was to love their old friends.

“That’s okay.”  Jeongin said, walking over.  He was getting tall, growing up out of his braces and his awkward limbs.  “You don’t choose who you love, it just happens.” He wrapped his arms around Seungmin, snuggling closer.  “And I’ll still be here if you ever need me.” He added in a whisper, Seungmin’s eyes glimmering as he patted his hair.  He gave Jisung a soft smile, but he didn’t look happy, more hurt.

Jisung looked down at Jeongin.  He wondered how he could deal with it, being in love with Seungmin, knowing Seungmin’s heart belonged to someone else.  How content was he with that? Jisung felt like he was constantly getting ripped apart whenever he saw Felix with Hyunjin, wanting him so badly it felt like he couldn’t breathe.  He could only imagine how it must be for Seungmin, to hold someone close and know you would never fully have them, that this was all just pretend to them.

“Why?”  Seungmin whispered, almost inaudible.  Jeongin straightened, but still clung to him.  “Because, Seungmin, if you’re happy, then I don’t need you to like me back.  That’s enough.” He had never called Seungmin just Seungmin before, without the hyung, and he looked serious, eye to eye.  Jisung felt the truth rush through him, and Seungmin sighed deeply, reaching forward and hugging Jeongin tightly.

As he did, Jisung heard him whisper; “I don’t know if I’m happy.”  “Our tea’s ready.” Jisung interrupted, and Seungmin stepped away, turning his head purposefully, casting his eyes in shadow.  Jisung could see that he was upset, but he plastered on a smile and handed Jisung his cup. Jisung sipped the scalding tea, just to have something to do, and Jeongin walked over to the door, picking up his backpack.

“I have to go!”  He announced brightly, putting it on.  His shoelace was untied, as usual. Seungmin looked up in surprise.  “I...okay. Call me later?” He asked nervously, hands clutching his mug.  Jeongin nodded, waving to Jisung. Jisung waved back, feeling vaguely unsettled.  He had never seen Jeongin upset before, and even if he was smiling, it was obvious he hadn’t liked how the whole afternoon had turned out.  Jisung wanted to ask him to stay, but Jeongin was already bounding out the door.

Seungmin sat down his tea, gripping the counter as he swayed suddenly.  Jisung rushed over, not caring that hot liquid sloshed over his fingers.  He grabbed Seungmin urgently. “Are you okay?” Jisung called, helping Seungmin slide down to the floor.  Seungmin shook his head, tears brimming in his eyes. He was shaking with sobs, leaning his head against Jisung’s shoulder.

“What did I do so wrong to have all of this happen to me?”  He asked between cries. “What did I do to deserve this? Why can’t I just have a normal life where depression and anxiety and eating disorders didn’t exist?  Why? Why?!” He screamed the last word, hitting Jisung’s chest repeatedly. Jisung took Seungmin’s fist, closing his hand around it, and Seungmin let it drop, tears dampening Jisung’s shirt.

“Sometimes bad things happen to good people.”  Jisung said into his hair, and Seungmin’s sobs eventually quieted.  Finally, he sat up, brushing the last tears away. “Can you please go now?”  He asked, looking away. His eyes were glassy, a thin sheen over them. Jisung sat for a moment longer, eyes questioning.

“If you want me too.”  He finally said, and Seungmin nodded, turning away.  “Please.” He added, voice husky. Jisung nodded, turning and walking away.  He wanted Seungmin to ask him to stay, but he wasn’t even sure if Seungmin knew how to ask people that, how to hold on.  They were both lost in an endless sea, trying to swim towards each other, but eventually giving up.

Jisung picked up his backpack and left.

 

When Minho pulled up in a slightly rundown on prom night, Jisung was waiting outside in the misty air.  He had borrowed an old suit of Younghyun’s, fingers stuttering right before he pulled it out, but he had managed to put it on.  He had felt a surge or pride, looking at himself in the mirror. As he grew older, he was looking more and more like Younghyun, in face structure, and eyes.  They had their differences, but Jisung found comfort that his brother wasn’t lost entirely.

He had a flower in his hand, a bright yellow flower.  Jisung held it out to Minho when he got out of the car.  Minho looked dashing in a black suit, neat and pressed. “You look beautiful.”  Minho said with a warm smile, trading Jisung’s flower with a dark blue one of his own.  Jisung took it, admiring it once again. Minho had good taste in flowers, and Jisung carefully pinned it to his lapel.  The petals almost blended in with the dark suit.

“Thank you.”  Jisung whispered, smiling.  Minho’s grin was radiant, and he looked so purely happy, that Jisung felt it seep into him as well.  Looping his arm through Jisung’s, Minho led him to the car. It was drizzly outside, mist rising up from the ground, the whole area gray and damp.  Jisung didn’t mind, he liked how quiet it was. The only sunshine Jisung liked was Felix, he was content with rainy skies and soft sunsets and sunrises.

Minho opened the passenger side door for him, and Jisung slid in, suppressing a laugh.  He felt suddenly irrationally happy with everything. He felt normal for once, he was going to prom, and he had a date, and they had exchanged flowers, and he was being treated like the gentleman he had never been.  For a moment, Jisung imagined his alternate reality, and wondered how much this would have mattered. It would probably have been expected then.

Climbing into the driver’s seat, Minho carefully attached Jisung’s yellow flower to the front of his suit jacket.  He patted it, making sure he didn’t crush it when he put on his seatbelt. Jisung smiled at this, giddy with the sudden feelings he was having.  Minho did look handsome, dark brown hair swept up. He had ashy blond highlights under it, fading into the color, and his nose was in a straight line.  His eyes were sparkling, and he had on a golden bracelet and choker. Neat and put together with an edge of wild. Jisung liked it. He found it attractive.  He wished he liked Minho enough to tell him this, but he felt guilty when he opened his mouth. It already felt weird to be going to prom with someone who might like him, especially when Jisung knew he didn’t return the feelings.

It reminded him of Jeongin and Seungmin.  No matter how okay Jeongin said he was with Seungmin liking Hyunjin, he hadn’t gone with Jeongin to see Seungmin at all in the past week.  Jisung had asked Seungmin if he had ever come over, and Seungmin only shook his head, eyes focused on something distant, head somewhere else.  Their days had been quieter, and Seungmin was more subdued. He would only eat a little, shoving food around, and Jisung wasn’t even sure if he did anything except sit all day.

He didn’t know if Seungmin was still going to prom with Jeongin-the one time Jisung had tried to talk to the younger in the cafeteria, Jeongin had been nowhere to be found.  Jisung hoped they were, but he couldn’t guess. Jisung wondered if he was leading Minho on, if Minho was really oblivious, or if he just didn’t care. He was afraid to ask.

“So, do you like to dance?”  Minho asked, steering with a concentrated gaze.  “I studied up on some more traditional dances in case you want to.”  “I’m decent.” Jisung said softly. Minho nodded, then turned to look at him suddenly.  “How come you’re always so quiet around me?” He demanded. “Do you feel uncomfortable?”

Jisung started at the sudden accusation, cheeks flushing with embarrassment.  Minho was wearing eyeliner, eyes outlined with thin pen, and it made his eyes look sharper, pretty.  Minho was very pretty and handsome, like a prince. Like Hyunjin. He shook his head mutedly. “No...I’ve just gotten used to not talking with people who aren’t my close friends.  They usually don’t listen to what I have to say.”

Minho frowned at this.  “Well, I will, for future reference.  You don’t have to shut me out. I know I’ll never be a close friend to you, but can we try?”  Jisung nodded again, feeling timid. “Sorry.” He whispered, but his mind was remembering all the cruel things Minho had said in the past, and he felt even more unsure.  Minho was definitely gray, not just black and white.

They pulled up in front of the school-their school didn’t like to waste money on useless things such as school dances, so it was being held in the gym, entirely student council funded.  Jisung got out before Minho could walk around, looking up at the brightly lit building, twinkling lights strung up and illuminating the pathway. They walked up side by side, but Jisung slipped his hand into his pocket to prevent Minho from grabbing it.  

“Minho!”  A voice called, and Jisung turned to see Hyunjin darting over the stones.  He wasn’t wearing a hat for once, hair in dark waves. He had dyed it a shade darker, or at least that’s what it looked like, and it looked really good on him, a loose curl hanging over his eyes.  He really did look like royalty, in a charcoal suit with silver jewelry, makeup applied, earrings hanging down. They were intricate, thin looping strands of silver and gold standing out against his warm skin.

Hyunjin was rich, so it was really no surprise, but Jisung still felt a twang, especially when he saw Felix looking equally handsome.  His hair was swept up, freckles highlighted in sparkly golden dust, vibrant against his matching suit. He was wearing a watch, and it was an old, expensive one.  Jisung wondered if it had been a gift from his father.

“Jisung, you look nice.”  Felix said, letting his gaze rest for a moment.  It flickered to the flower briefly, his smile slipping for a moment.  “You too, Minho. You’re a cute pair.” Somehow, his words felt fake and sarcastic, even if he had a sincere smile on his face.  Hyunjin nodded, casually looping his arm around Felix’s waist, pulling him in closer.

“Thanks.”  Minho said primly.  “Did you two not exchange flowers?”  Felix and Hyunjin glanced at each other for a long moment, then shook their heads in unison.  “We’re not flower fans.” Hyunjin explained, voice warm and summery. Even without flowers, they still looked perfect, like a photoshoot for a perfect prom, Jisung couldn’t help but note bitterly.  He hated feeling the jealousy writhing in his stomach, but it was so hard to tamp down.

“Shall we go in?”  Felix asked Hyunjin, who laughed and nodded.  They strode ahead of Minho and Jisung, who watched them go.  Minho let out a small sigh. “It’s unfair how good they are together.”  He looked at Jisung, eyes widening. “Your flower!” He exclaimed, and Jisung looked down, realizing he was clutching the flower in his hand.  He quickly let it go, watching the petals that were already falling to the ground.

“Sorry for ruining it.”  He whispered, and Minho’s lips twitched.  He let out a laugh. “Jisung, I could honestly care less.  I just want you to have a good time, okay?” Then, before Jisung could stop him, Minho grabbed his loose hand, swinging it.  “Let’s go in.” He said, transforming into the senior everyone loved, the dance team captain-lifting his chin, eyes going distant, smile for everyone, back and shoulders straight.

The music was already blaring when they entered, people dancing, or just standing around.  Jisung could tell they were somewhat late, even though the time had only been a suggested arrival.  He looked around, stomach dropping at the sight of all the people. There was food and punch, watched by some teacher to make sure no one would spike it.  To his surprise, Jisung caught a flash of braces and black hair.

“Excuse me for a minute.”  He murmured to Minho, untangling their arms, and jobbing over to where Seungmin and Jeongin stood awkwardly, half looking at each other.  “I didn’t know you guys were coming!” Jisung exclaimed, hugging them both before he second guessed himself. Jeongin laughed, surprised but happy.  Jisung hardly hugged people either. He had used to, a lot really, clinging onto one of his friends, but now he protected his heart, knowing that clinging onto people wouldn’t make them stay.

“I wasn’t going to.”  Seungmin finally said, voice clear though somewhat faded.  “But I decided that I should, at least so Jeongin could have an experience.  Since he wanted to go.” Seungmin added awkwardly, shifting feet. He was holding a glass of punch, knuckles white because of how tightly he was holding it.  Seungmin detested crowds, he already had anxiety, and when it was paired with people, he would sometimes have social anxiety so extreme it led to panic attacks.  But Jisung noticed that Jeongin was standing close enough so that their shoulders were touching, and the physical contact seemed to ground Seungmin from slipping into his loop of never ending thoughts.

“Thank you for that.”  Jeongin added. Jisung wondered if it hurt him, being so close and so far away, but he figured that he wasn’t Jeongin.  Maybe he had found some way to deal, some way that Jisung didn’t know. A slow song came on overhead, and Minho appeared beside Jisung, holding out his hand.  

“Care to dance?”  He asked, already taking Jisung’s palm.  Jisung could only shoot one last glance at Seungmin and Jeongin, who had both turned away, before he was dragged to the dance floor.  He didn’t know how to dance, but Minho made it easy to follow the steps with how fluid he was, leading Jisung gently.

“By the way, you need to take me home at eleven.”  Jisung told him, and Minho nodded. “Alright.” He said.  They continued to dance, only passing Hyunjin and Felix once.  Still, Jisung’s eyes kept finding the pair among the crowded dance floor.  They were beautiful when they danced, following the moves but making them look different, like there was a subtle underlying melody that they were listening to.

Jisung had never danced much, but he found he liked doing it, at least with Minho.  There was something about the music sweeping him up, his body moving to it, that he kept wanting to do again, no matter what the tune was, or what dance it was supposed to be.  Maybe that was the magic of prom, making you like things you had never before.

If Jisung hadn’t liked rap so much, he considered that he might have been a dancer.  Maybe he would have joined the dance team, and he and Hyunjin and Felix and Minho would have all hung out together.  He didn’t know if Hyunjin and Felix spent anytime with Minho outside of school, but they looked closer than the rest of the dance team.  Of course, Minho also looked like he was good friends with Woojin.

“You’re good at dancing.”  Minho remarked, and Jisung felt himself blush, heart zooming along with the beat.  He had had some of the punch, and he didn’t know if it was the effect of all the energy in the room, or whatever might have been in punch, but he felt like was flying.  The room rushed past in a blur of colors, Minho his focus point in it all. Jisung liked looking at his face.

“Thank you.”  He replied, happy for the compliment.  Looking around, Jisung couldn’t spot where Seungmin and Jeongin were.  They might have left, or maybe they were just hidden at the corners of the rooms, playing with stray balloons.  What Jisung did see was Felix slipping out the side door, Hyunjin watching him go forlornly.

“Hey, I’m going to get a breath of fresh air, okay?  You should get something to eat and drink.” Jisung said, pulling back from Minho, letting his hands go lightly.  Minho blinked at the sudden intrusion. “Are you sure you don’t want me to go with you?” He asked, and Jisung shook his head.  “I’m just going to take a quick walk, and then I’ll be right back.” Minho nodded, still looking a bit confused, but Jisung just waved and darted to the door Felix had disappeared out of.

It was cool and dark outside, the air smelling like rain.  It looked like the drizzle had stopped, the sky clear and cloudless above them.  Though Seoul was polluted, Jisung could see some stars sparkling tonight, pinpricks of light against the velvety blackness.  Felix was standing at the edge of the sidewalk, hugging himself and shivering. He had left his suit jacket inside, so Jisung wriggled out of his own, walking over and draping it gently around his shoulders.

Felix started, grabbing the edges of the jacket to keep it from falling to the ground.  He looked at Jisung in surprise, and Jisung saw that he had been crying, eyes red, sniffling.  “Are you okay?” Jisung asked, moving forward to put his arms around Felix, then remembering that they weren’t close enough to do that anymore.  He stepped back and pretended he hadn’t been doing anything.

“I want to break up with Hyunjin.”  Felix finally broke the silence, voice thick.  Jisung tried not to let his shock show, quickly making his face as emotionless as possible.  “I know he’s been cheating on me.” Felix added, and Jisung tried to keep a straight face. He didn’t know if it was someone else, or if Felix knew about someone.  He had never thought about it that way before, that Hyunjin had been cheating on Felix by having whatever he did with Seungmin, but now that Felix had said it, Jisung saw it for what it was: ugly.

“But we’ve been dating for so long now and I’m scared.  What would I do without him?” Felix drew in a shaky breath, letting it out in a whoosh.  “What would you do?” Jisung shrugged. “I don’t know.” He admitted. “The person I’m in love with has never loved me back, so I have no experience.”  Felix stiffened beside him, and Jisung froze, knowing it was so obvious. He was so see through, and that was why he got hurt and jealous and hurt again, not knowing how to conceal his emotions, not knowing how to protect his heart.

“Are you in love with me, Jisung?”  Felix asked, voice a whisper, like feathers brushing against him.  Jisung couldn’t breathe for a moment, shallow gasps, and he didn’t know what to say, didn’t know what this meant, what it meant, what it meant….”Yes.”  He said breathlessly, unable to think of a lie, knowing it would be a blatant lie if he said anything else.

Felix looked at him, lower lip sticking out, chin trembling.  “No.” He said sadly, shaking his head. “I know you think you do...but you don’t.”  Jisung stared at him, mind not comprehending the words he was saying. What was this?  Was this some cruel way of letting him know his feelings weren’t reciprocated? “What are you talking about?”  Jisung asked, not quite able to catch enough air. “I know my feelings more than you do, and I am in love with you, you know that.”

Felix shook his head again.  “You don’t even know what love is , Jisung.  Nobody has ever shown you what true love is; not us, not your dad, not Younghyun.  You mistake love as people just being nice to you, because you don’t understand what else it could be.  Your world is so small…” He trailed off, and Jisung felt his nails dig into his skin.

“You’re the one who doesn’t know.  You’ve been so blind, so stupid and dumb and silent this whole time, how can you try and twist my feelings?  I know I’m not in love with Minho or Changbin, I know what the difference is. I’ve felt the way I feel about you for years, even before I met anyone else.  It hasn’t changed. You are and have always been the only person I’m in love with, you idiot.” Jisung said, hurt.

Unblinking, Felix looked at him calmly, shaking his head more, but to himself.  “No…” He said softly. “You will never understand it Jisung. Don’t be in love with me.”  “You can’t make me not be in love with you.” Jisung said, trying to keep his tone even, to stop his emotions from leaking into it.

“You don’t love me.  Please don’t love me.”  Felix said, and Jisung was confused now, because it was different from what Felix had been saying.  It had changed from him not knowing what love was, unable to differentiate, to Felix pleading for Jisung not to love him.  “I do.” Jisung said softly, and then, impulsively, he leaned forward, their lips colliding.

Kissing Felix was everything Jisung had imagined and more, it was constellations and fireworks, the feeling of euphoria and Felix’s lips, how it all crashed down and made it electric, a thousand times more real.  And then Felix was shoving him back, jacket falling from his shoulders, crying harder, and Jisung saw Seungmin and Hyunjin in the hospital room. “I can’t be in love with you, Jisung, so you can’t be in love with me.  This is so unfair-” Felix sobbed, breaking off the end of his words.

Jisung stared at him, stunned and disorientated, and Felix ran inside.  Jisung paused only to pick up his suit jacket, and then followed him in, heart pounding in his chest, wanting to know what Felix meant.  Was he trying to make Jisung not in love with him, was this the point? All the past years were different now, it could have been so different, and Jisung wanted to understand-no, he needed to understand.

“Felix, please!”  He called, throwing open the door, only to skid to a stop, more surprise slamming into him like a brick wall.  Seungmin stood in the middle of the crowded gym, a space around him, punch dripping through his hair, already staining his crisp white shirt.  Hyunjin stood at the other end, an empty glass in his head, breathing hard, and two seniors were holding Jeongin back, who was screaming.

“What?”  Jisung whispered, staggering to a halt, the word feeling too loud in the empty air.  Seungmin swiped at the liquid angrily, his hand shaking. There was blood on it, like he had slashed it with glass.  Jisung wanted to rush forward, but something held him back. “Leave me alone and get the hell out of my life.” Seungmin’s voice rang out, level and calm, the slightest sake to it.  He looked directly at Hyunjin, and Jisung realized he was shaking with anger.

Jeongin broke free, grabbing Seungmin’s wrist, jerking him backward, away from everyone.  The glass dropped from Hyunjin’s hand, shattering, and people leaped back. Felix had reached Hyunjin by now, disheveled, and he flung his arms around him from behind, holding him close and holding him up all in one.

Jisung caught Jeongin as he was leaving.  “Make sure he doesn’t do anything stupid.”  He said. Seungmin didn’t look like he was paying attention at all, eyes glazed over, his whole form quivering.  It was as if actually saying something to Hyunjin in front of everyone had taken it out of him, breaking him down.  Whispers were already spreading around the room, hissed people, and Jeongin grimaced and nodded.

Minho came up beside him, eyes worried, questions filling them.  “Take me home.” Jisung said before he could say anything, and Minho bit back whatever words had been on the tip of his tongue, nodding.  They walked out, side by side, past the twinkling lights. Everything seemed dim, and Jisung was confused, his mind so muddled and filled with thoughts he didn’t know what to do with.

“Jisung!”  Jisung stopped even though he knew who the voice belonged to, looking back at Felix, illuminated in the light of the doorway, looking like an angel like always.  His heart broke again, and Jisung wondered why it had to be like this. “Please don’t go.” Felix begged, and Jisung only shook his head, unable to do anything else.

“Until you know what you want, don’t talk to me.”  Jisung said, resolve wavering at the hurt splashed over Felix’s features, as if he hadn’t expected Jisung to actually turn him down.  Minho was silent, but Jisung knew he had sliced him with the words as well. It turned out that all Jisung knew was how to hurt other people, how to burden them with unnecessary feelings, how to break up relationships.  He really was the villain in the fairytale.

Minho led him to the car, and Jisung shakily got in, legs almost buckling under him.  He grabbed the panic handle, leaning back against the seat, tears sliding down from his closed eyelids.

 

The windows were lit in Jisung’s house when they returned home, and Jisung could already feel a bad feeling settling in his stomach.  “You don’t have to stick around.” He told Minho, eyes still trained on the house. His father was supposed to be out tonight, or if he was home, he was supposed to be asleep, or if he wasn’t working, he was supposed to be drinking at a bar.  The lights should have been off; Jisung had been counting on them being off.

Minho looked at him, concern evident on his features.  “Jisung…” He started, but Jisung shook his head. “Minho, I’m sorry that I don’t like you.”  Jisung whispered instead. It hadn’t been what he had been planning on saying, but the words came anyways.  Minho didn’t look surprised, he just nodded, looking down at his lap.

“Don’t worry about it, and don’t feel sorry.  I knew you were in love with Felix when I first laid eyes on you, but I still fell in love.  We don’t choose who we fall in love with, our heart does. I guess that’s one thing we’re both good at-falling in love with people who won’t love us back.”  Minho stopped, considering his words again. “But Jisung, I think Felix does love you, or at least feels something more for you. You can tell by looking at his eyes.”

Jisung stared at him, the words falling onto everything else that had happened lately.  He didn’t know anymore, he didn’t want to think about it anymore. “I...I don’t know.” He finally whispered, thinking back at all his encounters with Felix.  Maybe it had been different, but he didn’t want to dissect everything.

He got out of the car, Minho leaning and saying through the window; “Hyunjin and Felix are a complicated thing, and the four of you are even more complicated.  There’s a lot of stuff you guys need to go over. And you might not see it, Jisung, but Felix...Felix has loved you for a long time as well.” Jisung shook his head, backing away, nearly tripping on the curb.  He wanted to scream, to trash something, but the thought scared him, because he thought of how his father smashed anything he could, and Jisung didn’t want to be like him. No matter how many people told him just wanting to be angry didn’t mean he was going to turn out his father, it mattered that Jisung himself believed that, and he couldn't yet.  Not when he had survived, not when his brother wouldn’t stay for him.

“You can go.  Please.” Jisung added, clutching his arms tightly.  He started walking away before Minho could say anything more, just wanting to be alone, just wanting to go to the stage and scream his soul out in rap rhythms and words, let it all go, how it all was.  Minho’s headlights swept over his back, and Jisung heard him pull away. He didn’t know if he was relieved or not.

Jisung paused with his hand on the doorknob, telling himself he could go in through the window or the back door, knowing it wouldn’t make a difference either way.  He turned it as quietly as possible, hand tense as the lock clicked. The door scratched across the floor, and Jisung cringed, closing it silently behind him. He walked quickly towards the hall, towards safety.  He wasn’t going to stand and wait tonight, he would just go to his room and get his lyrics and then get out.

“Hey!”  He heard his father call, and Jisung made sure not to run, not wanting to have something thrown and hit his head.  “Stop!” His father yelled, and Jisung ducked his head, rounding the corner-glass shattered at his feet, liquid exploding over his shoes, and Jisung stuttered to a halt before he could help himself.  His breath always stopped, imagining what would have happened if it had been higher and more precise, if glass had actually sliced into his skin brutally.

His father moved forward, slamming Jisung back, and Jisung bit his tongue hard enough to draw blood in order to not cry out.  He saw dizzying stars for a moment, the back of his head throbbing, and he could smell the alcohol on his father’s breath. “You think you can just come and go however you want?  Like I don’t know about your little rap thing and your handsome friend. Is he your boyfriend? HUH?!” Jisung flinched back, but there was no escape. He tried to twist away, only for his father to fling him back against the counter.  The sharp edge dug into his spine, and Jisung grimaced, pushing himself to a standing position as his father advanced. The door to his room was so far away now, his father between him and escape.

“Answer me!”  His father cried, and Jisung shook his head, shaking and afraid, but just wanting to get it over with.  His father hit him, and Jisung felt blood well up on his face. There was glass in his father’s hand, and Jisung felt his heartbeat slow down and then speed up, moving too fast for him to really keep up with.

“I’m sorry, I’ll stop.”  Jisung gasped out, knowing how close to over this could really be.  “You think you can just apologize? Like I’ll believe anything that comes out of that filthy, lying mouth of yours!”  His father hit him again, and Jisung had to grab the counter for balance. He staggered away a few steps, the metallic taste of blood in his mouth.  His head was swimming, his thoughts elusive goldfish in a pond.

He shook his head, trying to show that he was sorry, that could his father please let him off, just this once? Hands grabbed his suit jacket, and Jisung felt his father freeze for a moment, then his grip tightened and he shook Jisung back and forth.  “You stole your brother’s suit now? Who do you think you are?! You don’t deserve to wear this-you should be in the ground instead of him, take it off, take it off!” There were hands over his shoulders, tearing the jacket off, and Jisung tried to keep it on, feeling the seams tearing.  Not Younghyun’s jacket... not Younghyun.

His father threw him to the ground, and Jisung’s head hit the countertop as he fell, slamming against the tile floor.  Feet were kicking him, and Jisung tried to curl up protectively, imagining that he could hear the sound of his ribs breaking, bones cracking apart.  There was something off this time...his head hurt so bad, and when Jisung reached up to touch the back of it, his fingers came away red.  His vision felt blurry now, and he could only let his hand fall limply to the floor, watching the red drip off it.

There was a loud bang, and Jisung saw other feet, flashing lights, and a boy with brown hair in a suit shoving his father off, screaming.  His name was Minho, wasn’t it? He had brought others with him, and Jisung recognized them as well. He saw silver bracelets and bright hair, freckles on a face.  Jisung had something to tell him, but when he opened his mouth, he started choking on his own blood. Hands were shaking him, and Jisung tried to shy away, but they were gentle, not angry.  

“Jisung, keep your eyes open, don’t leave me-”  Someone was saying, a deep voice, and Jisung felt something wet drop on his face.  Tears? What was wrong? And another voice, authoritative; “You’ve been injured. We’re taking you to the hospital.”  They were lifting him up, and Jisung’s mind protested, but his body couldn’t. “Can you tell us your name?”

He knew his name, but his mouth still wouldn’t work properly.  Felix answered for him. That’s right, his name was Felix. Jisung thought he was in love with him, or something like that.  “His name is Han Jisung.” Jisung nodded sleepily to show that it was right, then he closed his eyes and drifted off to sleep.

 

The first time Jisung woke up, he felt like he was floating.  Someone was staring down at him, taking notes, and Jisung saw Chan, talking to someone in an official uniform-a police officer, maybe-expression serious.  Jisung wondered when he had got there; maybe he had been at the house. The memories were all blurring together, but recalling it made Jisung’s head feel like it was splitting open.

He closed his eyes and went back to sleep.

 

The second time Jisung opened his eyes, there was a suit jacket lying across his bed, an empty chair at his bedside.  Jisung’s fingers twitched, the most movement he had been able to do in days, and he brushed the material of the jacket.  It was dark blue; this was Younghyun’s jacket. Jisung could have sworn he’d been wearing it, but when he looked down, he was in a hospital gown.

The door opened, and Jisung flinched back against the pillows.  “Nurse, he’s awake!” Someone called, and Jisung saw another figure rushing past the person standing in the doorway.  He tried to keep his vision focused, but it was blurring. His head hurt, too much, and Jisung let sleep take him once again.

 

The third time Jisung woke up, his vision felt clearer, his head aching a little less, his body a little more grounded.  He moved, only to find a heavy weight on his legs. Turning his head as little as possible, Jisung saw Felix lying asleep across him, his eyes closed.  Reaching down, Jisung allowed himself to run his fingers through Felix’s hair lightly. The suit jacket was no longer draped across him, but rather over the back of the chair.

Felix stirred at this, mouth parted, and Jisung wanted to kiss him again, suddenly.  He opened his eyes blearily, then jerked upward, making Jisung’s hand fall. “You’re awake!”  He cried, lurching forward as if to hug him, but he stopped at the last second, pulling back. “Are you going to fall asleep again?”  He asked seriously, looking at Jisung carefully.

Licking his lips, Jisung swallowed.  It felt like sandpaper scratching his throat.  “I don’t think so.” He said hoarsely. Felix nodded, eyes full of concern.  Jisung scanned his body. He didn’t see any casts, but his arm was wrapped, and it hurt to breathe, rattling in his chest.  Mostly it was his head, aching on and off. He wondered if he was on painkillers, if that was why it didn’t hurt so much at the moment.

“I’m going to get the nurse.”  Felix told him, getting up and walking toward the door.  He had changed into light washed jeans and a red shirt. Jisung didn’t know how many days it had been, or even what time it was.  A glance out of the far window told him that the sky was dark outside. Had more than a day passed? Or was it only early morning?

Felix returned quickly with a nurse in tow, who looked happy but not surprised to see Jisung up and moving.  She walked over, setting down her clipboard and changing his IV. “Do you remember anything?” She asked politely, and Jisung nodded.  “My dad...he beat me up pretty badly.” She nodded sympathetically. “It’s been two days.” Jisung wasn’t that surprised at the news, but it was still shocking.

“And how do you feel?”  Jisung shrugged. “Okay.”  His voice was raspy. “My chest hurts and my head does too.”  The nurse nodded again, walking over to him. “Two of your ribs were broken.  Thankfully your arm was only sprained, as was your ankle. We’ll get you more properly wrapped up when you can move more safely.  Unfortunately, you’ve suffered a head injury that would have been severe if your friend hadn’t notified us so quickly.”

It had been Minho, Jisung realized.  He’d come back, but why? Jisung found that thinking only made his head hurt more.  “What does that mean?” He asked dryly. “Since we got you to surgery, you won’t have much trauma.  Side effects will be occasional but severe migraines at times, as well as stabbing pains at your temples, and problems with your vision.  Of course, these will only happen from time to time. We can get you a prescription to some strong painkillers and other medicine to help with this.”  Jisung nodded, glad he had kept his eyesight and his hearing at least.

“Can I see my friends?”  Jisung managed to say, and the nurse looked down at him curiously.  “I’m sorry, but only family is allowed to visit right now.” Jisung shook his head.  “Felix, Seungmin, and Hyunjin are my family, and I want to see them.” He turned to Felix, who nodded and disappeared.  He returned with Hyunjin and Seungmin, who both smiled at the nurse. She sighed, then said; “Don’t tell my superiors I let you do this.”  All four of them nodded, and then she was gone and it was just the three of them.

Hyunjin and Seungmin immediately separated from each other, and Jisung realized he still needed to ask what had happened at prom night.  The four of them stared at each other, and Jisung pushed himself up on his elbows, clearing his throat as best as best he could. “I realize that things haven’t been the best between us, but I think we all need to talk.  It’s long overdue.”

Felix nodded, looking relieved, but Seungmin only turned his head to the ground, crossing his arms.  Hyunjin just shrugged, looking away as well. “Look,” He finally said, facing the three of them. Jisung watched him curiously, but Seungmin refused to meet Hyunjin’s gaze.  “I know I was a jerk to all of you. I know I ditched you and I hurt every single person here. Especially you, Seungmin.” He grabbed Seungmin’s head slightly, tilting it to face him.  Seungmin shook his hand off, and Jisung could already see tears brimming in his eyes.

“I still don’t understand why.  You never gave me a straight answer, you never gave us a straight answer.”  Seungmin said, hugging himself. Felix worried his lip. Hyunjin frowned. “I just...I was stupid, but honestly?  I was just tired of us, at that time. I thought I needed to change, that I needed to shove you guys away and just branch and prove to myself that I wasn’t dependent.  I convinced myself that you guys were holding me back, so I cut you off.”

“No, you only cut me off.”  Seungmin snapped, and Jisung could see how much he was holding back.  “You gave Jisung and Felix a choice, but I was the one you completely ignored and ditched, publicly.  Why? Was I that much of a terrible, boring, bad, friend and person that you just didn't want to deal with me.”  Hyunjin was the one avoiding his gaze now, looking down at the ground.

“Seungmin, I was fifteen.  I was starting to deal with my anorexia and all the insecurities that were causing it.  You have your own problems, and I didn’t want more burden, more things that people would whisper in my head and would say were my fault.”  Hyunjin laughed bitterly. “It didn’t work, but I was a dumb kid. I’m still a dumb kid, and I’ve messed up so many times. I know I’m the bad guy in this story; it’s obvious whenever I look at the three of you.  I took your happy endings and I turned them into dreams and nightmares, and I’m so, so sorry.”

He was crying silently, tears slipping down his cheeks as he talked, and Felix’s lip was wobbling.  Jisung could tell Felix wanted to move forward and hug Hyunjin, wipe his tears away, but he was holding himself back, making himself stay still.  Seungmin was holding himself back as well, still standing strong, but Jisung could see his walls crumbling. He had never thought of Hyunjin as the villain, but he looked at it again and he could see.

“Yet you still came back to me.  You still acted like you loved me, knowing full well my feelings for you.  You manipulated me, used me as a tool to keep yourself from being lonely and blaming yourself.  You needed me, but you never once wanted to need me.” Seungmin’s voice was teary, and Jisung could see them welling up.  He looked down, hands fisting the hospital sheets, knowing he, too, was close to crying.

Hyunjin was sobbing, tears streaking through his makeup.  He was still dressed up in a silky looking shirt, expensive ripped jeans, but Jisung saw through it now.  Hyunjin was a child playing dress up, trying to hide behind it all, look bigger and better than he was. It was almost pathetic, but Jisung felt a connection to it as well.  He didn’t know what Hyunjin’s struggle over the years had been, but he could imagine how the simplest task of survival had been turned against him, twisting everything.

“I know.”  Hyunjin whispered.  “And, Felix, I did love you, but I was never one for commitment.  I’m sorry I lead you on so I could have a shield, I’m sorry-” Felix held up his hand, cutting Hyunjin off.  His eyes were filled with pain, but his other hand found Jisung’s, squeezing it lightly.

“I know you’re sorry, but we’re still over.  I want to break up. I think that’s the best.  Honestly, I did love you Hyunjin, but it was always more as a friend.  I was your boyfriend because I thought it was what I wanted, but it wasn’t.”  He squeezed Jisung’s hand again, and Jisung’s heart fluttered happily at this.  Hyunjin’s eyes found their interlocked hands, his gaze sharpening, but he just smiled, forcing on something fake.

Felix turned to look at Jisung now.  He was a pretty crier, though his face had tear tracks and his eyes were puffy, they still glimmered prettily.  “Jisung, and Seungmin, I’m sorry for never standing up for you. I’m sorry for knowing what was wrong and right and never speaking up, for keeping my mouth shut and just letting everything happen to you that happened.  I will always be sorry for that, but I hope we can try and at least repair some of what is left of our friendship.”

Jisung was already nodding, too happy to have a chance to let go of everything.  Felix had realized he was wrong, and that was enough for now. Seungmin was considering it, chewing on his bottom lip, and then he gave a short nod.  “I would be willing to try for Jisung’s sake, but I’ve moved on from you two. If there was anything that these past two years taught me, it’s who my true friends are.”  He smiled wanly at Jisung.

“What happened during prom between you two?”  Jisung interjected, too curious to hold it back.  Seungmin stiffened, but he was the one who answered.  “Hyunjin asked me to dance, and I told him to stop, told him to stop using me among other things.  He threw his drink over me when I called him weak.” Seungmin let out a high pitched laugh, and Hyunjin’s mouth curled downwards.

“Seungmin, I want to try with you, you know.”  He said. “I know I’m not the best at showing my feelings, but I did feel happier when I was with you and-”  “Just stop.” Seungmin interrupted, hands clenched and eyes blazing. “It’s all about you again, your feelings, what makes you feel good.  Not about me, it was never about me. I am not your plaything!” He practically screamed, and Hyunjin flinched back. He was still so skinny, collarbones hollow indents, wrists thin enough for Jisung to wrap his thumb and pinky around.

“Seungmin, please…”  Hyunjin started, his tone taking on an edge of desperation, but Seungmin just shook his hand.  “You know what, Hyunjin?” Hyunjin was silent, their gazes locked. “I’m tired of giving my everything to someone who will never give it back.”  He stalked away, the door slamming, and Hyunjin looked like he was about to pass out, tears trickling down, tangled in his eyelashes.

“Why…”  He started softly, voice shaking.  “Is it that after everything I’ve done to keep people close to me, I still end up alone?”  It was painful to hear the words, almost heartbreaking, and then Hyunjin ran out of the room as well, sleeve up.  Felix sank into the chair next to Jisung, as if he couldn’t hold himself up anymore. Jisung kept replaying Hyunjin’s words, and he wondered if that had been it, if Hyunjin was really just lonely, unable to deal with it.  

“What did you mean when you said you couldn’t love me?”  Felix smiled weakly, fingers tapping against Jisung’s leg absently.  It was a pleasant feeling, tingly. “I just...you’re Han Jisung and I’m Lee Felix.  I was dating Hwang Hyunjin, and you were at the bottom. It was like everything about you was off limits, something I couldn’t touch.  Everyone told me you’d never get anywhere, so I shouldn’t even try, but I wanted to. I wanted to hold you and kiss you, but it was basically taboo.”

“You make it sound more complicated than it is.”  Jisung joked, but Felix just shook his head. Jisung could tell he hadn’t told him anything, but he didn’t want to press it.  He leaned his head against Felix’s shoulder. “Are you willing to try now though?” Felix smiled, and nodded. “I’ve been waiting for forever.  I want to try and make this work.” Jisung broke into a smile.

“Not as long as I have.”  He leaned in closer, but they were interrupted by a knock on the door.  “Come in!” Jisung called, and it slid open to reveal Chan and Changbin.  Guilt settled in Jisung’s stomach, remembering he had been supposed to perform with them.  His lyrics were probably still in his room.

“I’m glad you’re alright.”  Changbin said, a dark shadow in the white room.  “What happened? Did you guys win?” Jisung asked urgently.  “I’m really sorry I couldn’t make it.” “Shut up, it’s not your fault.  You’re in a freaking hospital bed, so let us be the ones who are sorry.”  Changbin said tersely, and Jisung closed his mouth, allowing himself a small smile, suddenly happy.

“We performed 42.  We won.” Chan announced suddenly.  “I told them I was only interested in being behind the scenes as long as it has my name on it; so you’re looking at your next top star here.”  He jerked his thumb at Changbin, and Jisung applauded, feeling deliriously happy.

“But that’s not the main reason I came.”  Chan said, suddenly serious, and Jisung let his laughter and clapping die out, suddenly nervous.  “I know a friend of Younghyun’s from...well, we room together to put it simply. His name is Jae, and he’s twenty one.  I’ve convinced him to apply for guardian rights of you, and if he wins, then you would move in with us. We live close to school, so don’t worry.  You wouldn’t have to stay there, but Woojin and I would be happy to look after you until you turn eighteen. It would just be your official home, according to papers.”

Jisung was too stunned to say anything, and Chan added; “Of course, that’s assuming you want to bring your father to court.”  He looked suddenly nervous, and Jisung noticed that even Changbin looked concerned, Felix squeezing his hand tighter. “We’re confident we can win the case, Jae knows a really good lawyer who has never lost.”

Swallowing, Jisung crumpled the sheets with his free hand, taking a deep breath.  “Can I press charges?”

 

Senior year passed in a blur.  They won the court case easily, with hardly any backup, and Jisung moved into Chan’s apartment.  It was cozy, and Jisung liked coming home after hanging out with his friends to the smell of an actual dinner, Chan and Woojin cutely cooking together.  Jae was usually strumming his guitar, and Woojin would join him. One other guy lived there, Dowoon, but he was more reclusive. Jae’s lawyer friend, Wonpil, came over often as well, and they had all adopted Jisung into their group, treating him like a little brother.  

Sometimes it reminded Jisung too much of Younghyun that his heart hurt, but he had learned to love it more than hate it and feel guilty.  These people remembered Younghyun, and they were still moving forward. Jisung could do the same, especially with his father in jail with a restraining order for when he got out.

For his seventeenth birthday, Seungmin and Jeongin held a small party.  Felix took him to a movie, kissed him, and then took him to the party. It had been a surprise, but all Jisung’s new roommates plus Changbin and Minho had been there.  No Hyunjin. Felix had said he had invited him, but Hyunjin hadn’t given him an answer.

Minho and Jisung had moved on, or at least Jisung thought that.  Minho hung out with the dance team, which he had left in good hands when he graduated.  He was still looking into colleges, but he had told Jisung he didn’t feel particularly committed to one.  He had auditioned for Seoul Institute of the Arts, and was anxiously awaiting feedback. Jisung personally thought all the judges would be idiots to say no.

Changbin, on the other hand, was still a shadow.  Rumor had it that he hadn’t turned up to graduation.  As far as Jisung knew, he was working hard on music. He’d already released some stuff online, but Chan had told Jisung conspiratorially that he was in the midst of filming an actual music video for an actual debut.  Jisung was excitedly waiting that as well. Changbin himself had told Jisung that he had run into Hyunjin a few times in the agency. They were moving towards being friends, and Jisung was happy for both of them.

Jisung missed Hyunjin, but it wasn't in the way that he wanted to get him back.  Sometimes the past wasn’t enough to hold onto someone; sometimes you had to let them go.  Still, Jisung wanted Hyunjin to have his own version of a happy ending. If he was at the same agency Changbin was, Jisung guessed he was dancing almost professionally.  That was good.

In the end, Seungmin hadn’t transferred high schools, though he had been considering it.  He had stayed for Jeongin and Jisung, or at least that was what he had told them. Jisung was pretty sure he and Jeongin were dating, but they had never explicitly stated it.  Implied, on the other hand, they had done plenty of. Jisung still monitored Seungmin’s pill usage, but Seungmin seemed to have passed on from his extreme period of depression, looking happier.

But there were still times where Jisung had nightmares, and he would never let it go.  He never wanted Seungmin to let go like that again, and he was pretty sure it had been a while.  Seungmin was studying as hard as ever, but it wasn’t life consuming. He made time for his friends, despite wanting to get into Seoul University.  He had said he was considering being a doctor, or a psychologist. Seungmin was smart enough for anything he wanted, if he put his mind to it he could do it.  

Jeongin seemed happy with his current foster parents, and Jisung knew that Chan was already trying to run paperwork to adopt Jeongin himself.  It would take a while, Chan had said, but Jeongin was willing to wait. He had been waiting all his life, a few more months or another year wasn’t that big of a deal.  He was growing up; he had even gotten his braces off. Jeongin still had to wear retainers though, and he hated it with an extreme passion.

Felix had stayed on the dance team, and had taken it over when Minho graduated.  They had a lot of new freshman and sophomore this year. Hyunjin had quit, disappearing off the map.  Now he was what Jisung had used to be except still on top, a shadow coasting through the final year.

For Jisung himself, his head still hurt at times, flashing pain that would make him almost collapse, and he needed glasses at times because his vision problems had worsened to an almost permanent point, but he was alive.  He had recovered, mostly, and that was what mattered. He still held a ritual for his brother, but he wasn’t alone this time.

In the end, Felix and he had both decided that they didn’t think a relationship was right for them.  Jisung hadn’t been ready, especially mentally, for that, and Felix still contained lingering feelings for Hyunjin, even if he insisted he didn’t.  They both loved each other, but it had been a raw love that would only cause collisions. It had torn Jisung apart, but they had found even footing as good friends.

Jisung wasn’t drowning anymore; he had learned to swim.

 

There was a magazine by the cashier, and Jisung picked it up, flipping through it idly.  The headline was big and splashy; Top Idol Star With a Mysterious Face; Who Could He Be?   Jisung smirked at this, laughing to himself, then put the magazine next to his ramen purchases.  He pulled at the edges of his face mask, making sure it was still covering his face.

The cashier moved to grab the items, but their fingers paused, and then; “Jisung?”  Jisung turned his head in surprise, used to hearing Han now. No one called him Jisung anymore, except for Seungmin and Jeongin and Chan.  “Do I know-” He started to ask, but the words trailed off as he looked up.

His hair was dark brown now, dyed back to its original color except a shade darker, and he had gotten his ears triple pierced, crosses dangling.  But otherwise, Jisung recognized Lee Felix immediately. “Felix?” Jisung asked, pulling his mask down around his chin. Felix beamed up at him, and Jisung fell a little more in love again.

“My shift ends in an hour, if you’ve got time.”  Felix said cautiously, and Jisung smiled even wider, pulling out his phone and texting his manager to cancel any appointments he had in the next three hours.  Of course, his manager would get mad when he realized Jisung wasn’t asleep in the dorms like he should have been, but he was willing to risk it for a few more moments with Felix.

“I’ve got time.”  Jisung told him nonchalantly, slipping his phone into his back pocket.  Felix’s freckles were speckled like dark stars across his face, and Jisung wanted to trace them, study them a little longer.  It had been four long years apart, and coming back was everything he had tried to forget. Jisung still fell in love a little too easily, but for Felix, he would never try to fall out.  After all, they were older now.

Shooting stars don’t come around twice, but meteor showers do, and they are a hundred times more precious.

Chapter Text

Seungmin

 

When Seungmin was eight years old, he went swimming in the ocean.  He had taken swim lessons before, in their local community swimming pool, and the instructor had said he had sound breathing and strong strokes.  Seungmin liked being good at things, so he worked harder so that he was able to swim better than all the other kids at the beach.

Kim Seungmin was a good swimmer, but he was still small; easily swept up by the large wave that crashed down over him.  It slammed him under the water, tossing him around like a rag doll. It rushed and churned, throwing him back under when he tried to scramble to his feet; break the surface of the blue water that trapped him.  He tumbled head over heels, disorientated, and then a hand pulled him up, dragging him to safety on the sandy shores.

For his trip, Seungmin’s parents had said he could bring one friend.  Seungmin had brought Hwang Hyunjin, because even back then he had thought Hyunjin’s hair was soft and he had liked how Hyunjin’s eyes crinkled upward when he smiled and laughed.  It took Seungmin a while to realize that the way he thought Hyunjin was pretty wasn’t the way friends usually thought. Especially when he started thinking about the pale rose color of Hyunjin’s lips and how it would feel to kiss them.

Hyunjin had always been better at things than Seungmin was, and somehow he ended up diving into the strong current and pulling Seungmin out.  People said it was a miracle as Seungmin coughed and threw up the salty seawater filling his lungs. Seungmin didn’t feel relieved; he just felt shocked and scared, as if he was still waiting for the wave to come and swallow him up again.  He never forgot the feeling of being kept underwater like that, struggling for a surface he couldn’t even see, looking for air that wasn’t there, only finding water.

Four years later; a year after their group of three became four; the ocean took Seungmin’s mother and his unborn sister.  It was something Seungmin hadn’t seen coming, alone in his house with his father overseas, staring at the ringing phone. For a moment he had let himself believe that she would make it, but the sinking feeling in his chest told him that she was already gone.

Seungmin slipped out of the funeral, only able to stand outside in his new suit and stare at the people waiting to see him and offer condolences he didn’t want.  He didn’t know what to do with words that held no meaning once they had been said. Instead, Seungmin went down to the beaches of Busan and stared at the ocean that hadn’t been able to take him-that hadn’t been satisfied and taken the next best thing.

He had come with every intention to fight it, but in the end Seungmin couldn’t face the waves without feeling like he was choking.  All he could do was scream, soaked up to his thighs, terror paralyzing him from full submersion. In the end, Seungmin had to stumble and crawl us way out into the wet sand, heaving up imaginary water that filled his lungs.  Maybe the ocean had known how much stronger it had and always would be-constantly showing Seungmin how easy it was to beat him.

A hand on his back made Seungmin jerk away and fall back.  He had lost his shoes somewhere, feet covered with sodden socks and grains of sand.  “Are you okay?” Someone younger than Seungmin with wavy inky hair and soft features.  For a moment Seungmin thought it was Hyunjin, but that was impossible. Seungmin hadn’t told his friends, he had just disappeared in the car his father had sent for him.

Shaking his head, Seungmin had stood shakily, hands on his knees.  “That’s okay. I’m not either.” They sat on one of the sand dunes and looked at the stars.  His companion could name every single constellation in the sky, and Seungmin committed it to memory, just to have something good to take back to Seoul with him.

He never saw the boy again-or maybe he did-but Seungmin missed him at times.  He remembered the names of the constellations he kept close to his heart at nights at Hyunjin’s when there was nothing to do but stare at the glow in dark stars speckled across the ceiling as everyone else slept.  Seungmin had never been good at sleeping, too many racing thoughts and worries, but he hadn’t been able to give it the name ‘insomnia’ until years later.

Seungmin had never been athletic, so he threw himself into studying more and more, reading and writing and highlighting and circling, discontent with a ninety.  It was his own way of coping, especially at two a.m. when dreams of drowning kept him from ever closing his eyes. The only thing that kept him from becoming too immersed was Hyunjin and Felix and Jisung.

Jisung and Hyunjin had been there from the beginning; two sunshine’s to Seungmin’s silvery moon.  Back when he was a five year old kid just looking for someone else to share his never ending train of thoughts with, they had been there, willing to listen.  Felix had come later, as bright as the former two combined, bringing more laughter and more happiness.

The three of them were the only people Seungmin allowed himself to rely on, carry his weight when he got tired.  He had always been a private person, but Seungmin found himself telling the things he kept hidden, picking at the worn threads over the holes in his jeans.  It was nice to take a break and remember to breathe, to look at the three of them and remember that this was what normal was.

Seungmin’s only mistake was being stupid enough to think he would have them forever.  He had felt them slipping through his fingertips as soon as high school started, Jisung falling back in silence as Hyunjin rose in a glitter of shining lights, Felix trailing behind him in the wake.  And Seungmin could only stand and watch, because even though he had always been terrified of drowning, with every stop he sunk a little more.

Seungmin was a lot of things, but he wasn’t naive.  He had known for years that he would eventually end like this, but his heart had fought against it, unable to stand the thought of losing what had kept it together until now.  Maybe that was why Seungmin had asked to sit with Hyunjin, a spot normally off limits. Not to prove to his heart that this was inevitable, but for Hyunjin to prove that he still wanted Seungmin.

But all he got were harsh words that hurt more than they should have, following his back as he ran, feet moving without a command.  Seungmin just wanted to get away from everything; wondering what he had did, wondering why it was always him that was left behind. He could never walk away, even when he thought he had steeled his heart, it was still vulnerable and young.

He had thought he would cry, but instead he threw up in the bathroom, dry heaving almost.  Seungmin stood shakily, flushing, looking at himself in the mirror. He was pale, eyes dark and rimmed with shadows, hands shaking.  Sighing, Seungmin wished he had brought his medicine. He could use it right now, to just calm down and relax and get through the test he had next period.

A part of him couldn’t help but whisper in his head; what did I ever do?   But Seungmin made it shut up, too angry and sad and hurt to want to bother with self deprecation and wondering that would lead him down a never ending trail.  Sometimes that would happen, spiralling thoughts he almost couldn’t get out of, would have been stuck in if it had been a little bit worse.

Seungmin was used to being problematic, but he tried not to show it, keeping everything locked inside his head.  He didn’t like having people worried or concerned about him, especially his friends. There was nothing Seungmin hated more than feeling like a burden, like he had given up walking and just let himself be carried, no matter how much his weight crushed others.  He had too much on his shoulders already-he would never give that to another person.

A part of Seungmin wished that Jisung had gone to Hyunjin and Felix, no matter the small pride that had flared in him when Jisung had walked right past their table and sat down across from him, smiling his easy smile.  He didn’t want Jisung to be dragged down with him, even if that too was also inevitable. He wanted Jisung to be smiling and happy for forever, and Seungmin knew that staying with him would make that smile slip off, the laugh die.  He had always had the curse of destroying a part of everything he touched, and Seungmin knew that Jisung would be no exception.

Still, a selfish part of him clung onto Jisung, too scared to see what it would be like if he lost Jisung too, the three of them leaving in a shower of stars while Seungmin spun into a black hole.  He had had them all his life, through his biggest struggles, and a part of him could picture the bleak future that wouldn’t last long without at least one of them by his side.

Felix and Hyunjin started dating, and Seungmin pretended that it hadn’t hit him like a slap to the face, clutching his books and walking faster when he passed them in the hall.  He wasn’t jealous that Felix had gotten Hyunjin, he just wished that he had even had a chance first, to be able to hold Hyunjin’s friend and tell him he looked pretty without worrying about how it would sound, because it would just be natural.

He had known it would be like this; Seungmin was from the darkest of shadows and Hyunjin the brightest of lights, and if he had even dared to touch Hyunjin in a loving way-like tracing the curve of his shoulder or resting his chin on his shoulder or cupping his face-the darkness would crash forward and take everything away, leaving both of them in shreds.

And yet, at night, when Seungmin closed his eyes and tried to will away the nightmares in hopes of getting a couple hours of sleep, it was Hyunjin’s face that helped.

 

Seungmin met Yang Jeongin at the middle of one of his lowest lows, when he felt like the surface had gotten especially far away.  It was the summer before his junior year, and Seungmin had gone down to the beach as he usually did around his time, just watching the waves from a distance, wishing he was brave enough to just dive in and swim against it, to prove that he had become stronger.  Except maybe he hadn’t grown stronger, and that was why he was still stuck on the shore, watching from afar, trying not to be sick at even the sight of it, his lungs filling with the water.

A click of a camera startled him, making Seungmin fall back, almost landing on the sand, if not for the hand that caught him just in time.  Seungmin looked up into crinkly eyes and braces glinting in the sun, an old fashioned but professional camera in the other hand. He had black hair under a white baseball cap and his eyes were pretty; he was pretty even with a torn old sweatshirt and oversized jeans.  It was the second time in Seungmin’s life that he had thought someone was pretty.

“Sorry to startle you.”  The boy apologized. “I’m new here and I was coming down to take pictures of the sunset, except you were a better view.”  He laughed and smiled and Seungmin tentatively smiled back, unsure what to make of him, but already feeling more at ease, more like he could actually breathe.  “I’m Jeongin. I think we go to the same high school.” He put out his hand, and Seungmin shook it. There was something about Jeongin that reminded Seungmin of another boy he had met on a beach in Busan years ago.

That night, his father told him that he was getting remarried.  The woman was an American, and he was going overseas with her to set up a new branch of the company.  It had been almost four years since Seungmin’s mother had died, and a part of him still relieved it everyday.  He didn’t say anything, he just excused himself from the dining table and walked away, trying not to show how upset he was.

He wasn’t sad and hurt because his father had found his happiness.  It had been four years, and sometimes time was all it took to heal. It was the fact that Seungmin hadn’t even known he was dating someone, that his father hardly even came home and cared to begin with and now he was leaving permanently.  It was the fact that he hadn’t asked Seungmin to come with him.

But Seungmin remembered meeting Jeongin and told himself he could hold on for a little bit longer, and he did, at least for a little while more, a couple more days, minute by minute.  

 

Jeongin was interesting and indescribable, friendly and open but still mysterious.  Seungmin didn’t trust easily, but he kept wanting to open his heart to Jeongin, to tell him things.  It wasn’t a feeling Seungmin was used to, so he kept his mouth shut and enjoyed having an almost complete set, having another friend to keep him grounded, to stop him from leaving.

Seungmin knew Jisung was uneasy about welcoming Jeongin into their group, used to keeping his secrets close, almost closer than Seungmin kept his own.  The difference was that Seungmin knew everything about Jisung, but there were still things Seungmin hadn’t told him. Secrets he hadn’t told anyone , locked away in his mind, weighing him down more and more.  Sometimes Seungmin just wanted to scream them out and let the wind swallow them, to have somebody hear it.

Usually he was good at reading people, figuring out what they wanted and what they were hiding and who they wanted, but Seungmin hadn’t known with Jeongin.  Of all the things he had been expecting Jeongin to say, it hadn’t been that. He didn’t even know if Jeongin had been planning to tell him or had meant him to overhear.  Watching the two of his friends in his kitchen, Jisung thin and skinny with hollow cheeks and the white bandages and bruises across Jeongin I clothes that hide his form and the innocent smile, dark eyes suddenly serious and sad.  Seungmin felt like he was trapped behind a wall, watching them, a part of him knowing that this was the part where it all changed. The part where Jisung finally welcomed Jeongin in, the part where they both realized that there was someone else who had stood on the same ground, a connection being built.  

When Seungmin opened his mouth, he almost told them, told him.  The secrets-his father and how he hadn’t called home in a while and the only way Seungmin could tell he still cared was the monthly checks, heavy with money.  How they were all abandoned and lost things still holding out hope that they would be found. About the medication Seungmin was taking that he knew he shouldn’t be, but the pressure was too much and his panic attacks had almost become daily at a point that he’d had no choice but to try and get it under control so that he could focus.  

And then Seungmin’s phone rang and he knew it was Hyunjin before he took it out, like the world was reminding him of why he had stayed quiet for all these years.  He pulled it out and answered it, knowing the judgement that would be in Jisung’s eyes and the confusion in Jeongin’s. He had never really explained everything that had gone down with Hyunjin and Felix, and a part of him wanted to keep it that way.  He wanted to keep them separate, too afraid it would all seep and mix together if he brought them even close to each other.

Yet Seungmin was already saying a silent yes to Hyunjin, and he knew that Hyunjin knew that Seungmin would come despite harsh words falling from his mouth.  Jisung looked sad but Seungmin could tell that he understood too, though he wasn’t happy. Jeongin was unreadable, but his lips were pressed together in a thin line, arms crossed, but Seungmin was already anticipating seeing Hyunjin’s face again without cruel words.

The first time that Hyunjin had called Seungmin, Seungmin had almost ignored it.  He had deleted Hyunjin’s number a while after they had fallen apart, but he still had it memorized.  Seungmin has gone with the intention to yell and scream and be angry, but his heart had wanted more than that, no matter what Seungmin tried to tell it.  It was pathetic how quickly he had gone, with barely a hesitating thought. In the end, Seungmin would always come when Hyunjin called, no matter the circumstances.  He wasn’t strong enough to stand his ground.

When he arrived, though, Seungmin found himself unable to open his mouth when Hyunjin hugged him, throwing his arms around him.  Even when they had been friends, the two of them had rarely hugged, mainly because Seungmin wasn’t a skinship person. He hated people clinging onto him because it made him feel trapped and claustrophobic, as if it’s was a physical representation of all the expectations and pressure.  He would allow little things like touching knees or squeezes of hands, but full on hugging was an almost never. But it was Hyunjin, so Seungmin only stood perfectly still and tried not to flinch away.

“I’m sorry.”  Hyunjin mumbled against his shoulder.  They were about the same height, and Hyunjin’s chin rested comfortably on Seungmin’s collarbone, fitting into the dip and hollow.  Seungmin could tell he had been crying, eyes glossy with unshed tears. Seungmin’s mouth was forming why , but Hyunjin was already pulling back slowly, sitting on the grass dejectedly.  “Look at the stars with me?” He asked, voice almost hopeful, and Seungmin sat on the grass beside him, looking up at the expanse above them.

They had sat in silence after that, Seungmin too afraid to try and make conversation, Hyunjin just looking upward.  They had done this before, at sleepovers when both of them couldn’t sleep-a rare occasion since Hyunjin slept like the dead and Seungmin hardly slept.  It had become more common when high school started, sneaking out windows and back stores in rain and snow, giggling and trying to spot constellations.

Seungmin had always had a fascination with the stars, even before his mother and Busan boy, but more after that.  Now he looked up and wondered if a star up there belonged to his mother, another for the baby sister he never met.  The stars reminded him of his friends, destined for greatness, a life beyond what Seungmin could do. He told himself he stayed for the stars, but he knew that he stayed for Hyunjin, to have something close to what he had always wanted.   Tracing the curve of his shoulder and cupping his face.

So he kept coming back, kept letting himself get into the vicious cycle of love and poison that was Hwang Hyunjin.  This time was no exception, except for Jisung and Jeongin and the things they might figure out and come to know. Seungmin was counting on the fact that they thought this was first time, that Hyunjin would become the icy prince he always was aside from their times together and just pretend.  They were all so freaking good at pretending that it made Seungmin want to be sick.

Sometimes he tricked himself into thinking that he was the only one Hyunjin was vulnerable to.  He knew it was useless grasping for something to prove to himself that he was special to Hyunjin, that he meant something, but Seungmin knew it was really the other way around.  He wore his heart on his sleeve around Hyunjin, knowing that he was the only person who could ever really hurt it.

Still, Seungmin’s breath caught at the sight of Hyunjin in all his wondrous attire, really looking like the prince from the fairytale he had stepped out of.  Glittery eyeshadow and a loose wave of dark hair hanging over his eyes. He had green contacts in, and Seungmin almost couldn’t breathe because of how different and beautiful he was.  Seungmin had become used to messy hair and sleepy eyes and sweatshirts, and he had forgotten that this was who Hyunjin really was; makeup and skinny jeans and silk, the fake stuff that idols were made out of that made people worship the ground they walked on.

“Thank you.”  Hyunjin said. “For coming.” His eyes fell to Seungmin as he said the words, expression unreadable.  He had no choice to cooly reply back, hoping his eyes don’t betray the emotion hidden away, how his hands are shaking as he gripped the makeup bag.  It felt like the two Hyunjin’s he knew were colliding messily, and it was all too sudden. Seungmin had wanted to keep them separate, their nights together a safe haven from the crushing force of school and family and weddings he wasn’t invited to, lives he wasn’t welcomed into.

Seungmin had planned to just stay quiet and do whatever Hyunjin needed, but he can’t stop himself from snapping; “Shut up.”  Maybe it’s worth it for the stunned look on Hyunjin’s face and the proud one on Jeongin’s, but Seungmin was tired of it. He was tired of doing everything Hyunjin said without complaint, even when Hyunjin tried to cut out Jeongin, who was mr Enid a friend than Hyunjin had ever been in the last two years.

He knew he should have kept his mouth shut, because it still hurts like a slap to the face when Hyunjin cruelly reminded him of why Seungmin had been dumped, of how he never had a choice but Jisung did, how Jisung can still walk away but Seungmin would never be able too.  Hyunjin knew that Seungmin was afraid that he was going to lose Jisung one day, whether it was to Felix or college or his music and the community that kept him living. It was why Seungmin had clung so tightly in the first place, knowing that letting go would mean forever, no matter what Jisung said.

He didn’t want to see Hyunjin dance, but the rest of him did, and so Seungmin stayed and watched.  Hyunjin was beautiful and elegant when he danced, slim form moving through the motions line he was born to do them.  Seungmin was lost in the music with him, a ghost of himself following in Hyunjin’s footsteps. It was enchanting and then it smashed down with a crash and cries and all Seungmin could do was stand there quietly and watch people blur past.

 

Seungmin should have known.  He had spent the earliest and latest hours of morning and night with Hyunjin, sat with him and hugged him as he cried.  He had seen the parts of Hyunjin the rest of the world hadn’t. Of course he had noticed that Hyunjin was skinnier and his collarbones sharp, edges that he could cut himself on, but Seungmin hadn’t really noticed.  Or he just hadn’t cared enough, maybe a part of him had wanted Hyunjin to suffer as he had, maybe-

He couldn’t stop talking, struggling to form the words he wanted, hearing the desperation seeping into his voice.  It wasn’t about Hyunjin anymore, it was about Seungmin and all the times he had stared at the ocean and wondered what would happen if he just let the current take him, what would happen if he just downed the whole bottle of pills.  It was just wanting someone to notice and pull him up, stop him from studying harder and getting caught in the circle of just one more chapter and if I study more, maybe dad will come home.

“You haven’t cared about us for years.  You don’t even know us.”  Felix said and Seungmin physically stumbled back, line the words had actually slammed into him like a brick wall.  He wanted to tell Felix everything suddenly, to make him understand how to had been and how it was, but in the end he could only loser us head and whisper out an excuse that sounded pathetic even to his ears.

And then words were flowing from Jisung’s mouth and Seungmin had to leave, had to get hair, had to be away from Hyunjin lying listlessly in the hospital bed.  He felt like it was all crashing down too soon. He wanted to go back to his tower and stay there, even if it meant never going outside again. He was the black raven among white doves peacefully flying until he came and wreaked havoc, destroying their wings and making them fall to the ground.

He had always known that Jisung was as in love with Felix as Seungmin was with Hyunjin.  He just hadn’t been expecting Jisung to say it so bluntly, one more blow knocking him back.  Seungmin hated watching the two of them because it was like looking in a mirror, how eager Jisung became at the prospect of seeing Felix, how willing he was to do anything Felix needed without a second thought.  Jisung wondered if that was what he looked like-no, that was him and Hyunjin, letting himself be played over and over again.  

When Seungmin couldn’t find the words to say what he was thinking, when it began to feel like he was cornered and trapped once again, Seungmin would run, and this time was no exception.  It was as if he was physically trying to outrun everything bearing down on him, but knowing he would have to stop and face it eventually, that he would fall down and be crushed. He had never been good at coping outwardly, never been good at showing and telling people the emotions that were too complicated to even think about at times, and usually they just let him run, partially glad to not have to figure out his inner workings.

This time, Jeongin ran after him, shoes slapping on the pavement, calling his name.  Seungmin didn’t want to stop, knowing he wouldn’t be able to stand there silently anymore, knowing tears were threatening, knowing it would end in confrontation like it always did.  He was always the bad guy in the end, it was always his fault, his words twisted into thorns and piercing him. Maybe Seungmin hadn’t been meant to have friends, maybe he had been destined for this loneliness since the very start and that was why it had all fallen apart.

“Seungmin, Seungmin stop.”  Jeongin said, catching his arm.  Seungmin shook him off, but he was already stopped.  “What.” He finally asked, voice flat. “What’s going on in there?”  Jeongin asked, tapping Seungmin’s temple. He was acting like he was older than Seungmin, despite the year difference.  “Nothing.” Seungmin responded fully, turning his head. Jeongin fidgeted, and Seungmin could tell there was something on his mind.  “What about you?” He asked, tapping Jeongin like Jeongin had hit him.

Jeongin shrugged, looking at the ground.  “It’s just...is being in love really that bad of a thing?  We don’t choose who we fall in love with, it just happens.”  His words were innocent and pure, and Seungmin wondered if Jeongin had ever been in love.  “We accept the love we think we deserve.” Seungmin said softly, thoughts drifting.

“What?”  Jeongin asked in confusion and Seungmin gave a slight wave of his hand.  “It’s just a quote from a a movie I like.” He had the quote posted on his wall, painted in intricate black lettering and surrounded by black and white thorny roses.  It had taken Seungmin a night, a particularly bad night where he hadn’t even tried to go to sleep, pulling out brushes and plugging in music. It had been the day after Hyunjin had called, and Seungmin had been feeling fragile, like he was already made up of a thousand pieces that all belonged to another person, searching for what him himself, the one piece that was his own.

“Hyung, has everything been alright?”  Jeongin asked, and the worry in his voice rang alarm bells in Seungmin’s head.   Don’t let them know about it, don’t burden them more, just keep it to yourself.  He nodded, lips pressed together, knowing that any lie that would slip from them would be see through, that he would collapse in tears again.  “Do you really love him?” Jeongin continued cautiously, and Seungmin loomed up sharply. That was the first time Jeongin had asked Seungmin if he really loved Hyunjin. And he asked it many more times over the remainder of the year, though only one time did he actually say what he wanted to, and by then it was too late.

“Have you been in love, Jeongin?”  Seungmin asked instead, and Jeongin nodded sadly, and Seungmin could see they were in the same place, in love with someone who would never give it back.  “Then you know how I feel.” Seungmin whispered. “How it feels, watching others fall.” Jeongin bite his lip, and then he reached forward with one arm and pulled Seungmin in close.  Seungmin stumbled forward the steps separating them, falling against Jeongin’s chest.

Neither of them said anything, and Jeongin didn’t remove his arm either, Seungmin swallowing as he ran his fingers through his hair.  He didn’t know and didn’t understand what was happening and why, but he felt safe, held close and tightly.

 

“Seungmin, can I see you for a moment?”  Seungmin looked up from where he was packing up his supplies, the bell having just rung.  An uneasy feeling settled in his gut, but Seungmin smiled and nodded despite it, walking over.  His bag bumped against his hip, pencils clattering around inside. He needed to organize it, color code and put in an order...the spirals of his notebooks dig into his leg.

“What is it, sir?”  Seungmin asked, unsure of what it could be.  He had turned in all his assignments in time and even done the extra parts.  Maybe it was another extra credit project-his teachers would offer him opportunities like that at times since Seungmin was usually so on top and ahead of the rest of the classes, despite doing APs.  His teacher, Mr. Park, was shuffling through sheafs of paper, finding the one he wanted and pulling it out. He pushed it across the desk so that Seungmin could see it. It was the creative writing piece Seungmin had submitted for their midterm assessment grade.

There was a bright red F circled several time at the top, and Seungmin stopped breathing for a moment, unable to comprehend it.  “Sir.” He said, swallowing back against the lump in his throat. He felt like he was spiralling downwards again, the paper impossible and yet not, because it was there, right in front of him.  Seungmin had never, never , gotten an F before, or anything less than an eighty since high school had started; that was why he studied and worked so hard, to maintain a perfect grade average, to avoid a single blemish on his record.  

“Why...what did I do wrong?”  Seungmin finally asked, at a loss for other words, too unsure.  Mr. Park looked up at him sympathetically, shaking his head slowly.  “You have a wonderful talent Seungmin, but this...this is such a poor display of it.  The assignment was to write from the view of an unreliable narrator, craft a short story around it.”  Seungmin nodded slowly, panic mixing in his insides.

“I did as the assignment said.”  Seungmin cleared his throat, trying to make his voice strong.  Mr. Park smiled. “I’m not saying your work was bad, it was just less than I had expected.  It would have earned an A for any other assignment, but not this one. This story...it’s almost concerning.  It’s full of violence and has several dark themes. It’s messy, all over the place, there’s almost no plot. It’s just a mess of words and thoughts, it’s very confusing and seems to veer in every direction.”

As Mr. Park stated out the facts, Seungmin could now see it all clearly, how much he had messed up when writing this.  He had written it in the span of one sitting, another sleepless night when the words just came and didn’t stop. “I understand how it technically might be considered bad in terms of the writing, but I did follow the assignment.”  Seungmin straightened his shoulders, one part of him wondering what he was doing when he should just take it and rewrite it, but the other determined to prove he had deserved a higher grade.

“My narrator is schizophrenic.”  Seungmin explained. “If you knew what that was, you would see that the narrator has convinced himself that he needs to find the murderer of his parents without seeing that it was he himself who killed them.  Due to his loose grasp on reality, he is vague in descriptions. It seems normal if you read it at first, but at the end you see how it was all really twisted around-he was trapped the whole time.”

Mr. Park sighed.  “Still, I can’t give you a pass on this Seungmin.  I’m sorry, but your grade is already dropping as it is.  Has everything been okay?” Seungmin wanted to laugh at the absurdity of it all, let out a wild sound.  He had a ninety five in the class, it had only dropped two percents, and Seungmin was angry at Mr. Park but disappointed at himself for having let his maintenance drop.

“May I have the story?”  Seungmin finally asked, holding out his hand.  Mr. Park gave it to him, and Seungmin took it stiffly.  “And everything is fine.” He added, bowing and then turning and walking out of the classroom.  He stared at the papers clutched in his hand, and then he threw them into the nearest trash can, crumpling and crushing them.  

He had put his everything into the work-everything he had felt, how he felt like he didn’t know himself, the confusion, the hurt and pain, how it felt to wake up and open his eyes to everything around him-only to have it thrown back in his face, rejected.  Seungmin hadn’t tried hard enough, he concluded, he should have fought more and reread it and edited and made sure it was absolutely perfect even it if wasn’t what he wanted.

If he let his grade slip now, it would only slip more and more, and everything else would plummet with it.  He’d have to make sure he scored perfectly on the rest of the tests and assignments this year, work to be above and beyond.  He had to separate himself from his inner self and his outer self, stop letting them bleed together because it was dangerous, because things like this happened, because it was self destruction.  Because who he really was didn’t fit there, and never would.

Seungmin had tried to be a part of the world, but the world rejected him instead.

 

Hyunjin called him that night, and Seungmin said yes without a second thought.

 

It was different, the two of them sitting on the grass among the beautiful flowers Hyunjin’s mother grew, staring into each other’s eyes.  Hyunjin hadn’t looked away, so Seungmin didn’t either. The air was tangible, a cool breeze ruffling Hyunjin’s hair. His eyes were intense, and Seungmin’s breath was coming out in short breaths.  His heart was beating fast, but he also felt strangely calm, as if the world was slowing down around him.

“Seungmin,”  Hyunjin whispered, and suddenly he was closer, his slender fingers touching Seungmin’s chin, tilting it slightly, his grasp gentle.  Seungmin remained perfectly still. “I think I like you.” Hyunjin said, and when he leaned forward and kissed Seungmin, it was as if everything came into focus; sharpening from the bluriness it had been.  He didn’t pull back, but he didn’t lean into the kiss either, just remained still.

He knew it was a lie, another desperate act, but Seungmin wanted the words to be true so badly that he shoved the sensible side away.  Hyunjin pulled back, his cheeks flushed and lips swollen in a way that made Seungmin want to kiss him back. “Why?” He finally made himself ask, and Hyunjin shrugged.  “Do you need to have a reason to like someone?” Seungmin made no movement, but he wanted to shake his head, nod and tell Hyunjin there had never been a reason for Seungmin liking him, it had just happened.

They had started as best friends, but by the time Seungmin had hit middle school he was already thinking about Hyunjin differently.  He was noticing how pretty Hyunjin was, with his model like features and how silly his hair was, making Seungmin want to run his fingers through it.  He was noticing how Hyunjin’s laugh was contagious, how his smile made Seungmin want to smile too, to stare into his eyes and just be happy. Seungmin had stopped being happy around that time too, with his mother gone and it all starting to collapse-having to live in a house that was almost always empty, with no one asking if he was okay, his father forgetting to call to check on him-but his time with Hyunjin made him forget it all for a little bit, bottle up the small happy moments while they lasted.

Hyunjin had been kind back then, self aware and brimming with wanting to help, believing in justice and loyalty and honesty.  Seungmin had respected him so much, and he still couldn’t figure out what had changed to make Hyunjin so different, the opposite of what he had been.  Watching him speak calmly and stand up to bullies was something that never failed to leave Seungmin in awe. Hyunjin had used to play the piano, lessons forced on him by his mother, and he had been good, more than good at it.

Seungmin would sit on the floor while he was practicing, under the pretense of doing homework, but he would always end up drawing, lost in Hyunjin.  He had drawn Hyunjin a lot back then, his posture and the graceful way his fingers moved, body half swaying. Hyunjin had loved the piano, but never in the way that he had loved dancing.  Piano had just been a hobby to distract him from life, but dancing had become a lifestyle. It was a shame, because Seungmin had loved when Hyunjin had played; it had been beautiful and magical and whimsical, and he missed the days they had spent in the living room with no noise other than the piano keys.

When he was younger, Seungmin had entertained dreams of becoming an artist and a writer.  It was easier to dream, though, when people told you too, told you that you were good and could make it, before you grew up and realized you were ordinary compared to everyone else, surrounded by exceptional people.  Now, especially with the earlier events of the day, Seungmin had decided that there was no place for dreams like becoming an artist or a writer. The world didn’t want his work and his emotions either, and he wouldn’t make the same mistake of showing his heart only to have it hurt more and more.

Hyunjin took his hand now, leaning against Seungmin’s shoulder.  He looked content and happier than he had in a while, peaceful. “You okay, Minnie?”  He asked with his eyes closed, tilting his head in the direction of Seungmin’s face. He looked so relaxed and chill, as if he was forgetting and letting go of everything tying him down for these short moments.  Seungmin smiled now and allowed himself to indulge in the act of running his fingers through Hyunjin’s hair. He did it slowly, the silkiness slipping through his fingers. Seungmin knew this would be the only time he would ever be allowed to do this.  Hyunjin hadn’t called him Minnie in years, a childhood nickname from the times when they had been Jinnie and Minnie, the inseparable two. Seungmin missed those times.

For a second, Seungmin considered telling Hyunjin everything-how he felt like he was drownings now schoolwork and his mind, how sometimes he looked down at the water on the bathtub and considered drowning himself, just slipping under and never coming back up.  How he wanted to sleep forever at times, how he was sacred to go asleep and then scared to open his eyes. The phone calls Seungmin would wait for in vain; they never came, only checks in the mail. Seungmin had never wanted money, he had just wanted his father to act like one.  He wanted to tell Hyunjin about the anxiety and the depression and the little white and blue pills he couldn’t live without. They did everything he needed-helped him calm down a little, made th headaches go away, helped him stay up a little bit longer-and they made Seungmin be able to keep up the pretense of being fine a little while longer each time.  He wanted to tell Hyunjin about the panic attacks that were becoming more and more frequent, leaving Seungmin in bathroom stalls with his heartbeat accelerating in his ears as he struggled for breathe, vision blurring.

In the end, all Seungmin did was hum quietly, knowing Hyunjin would take that as a yes because he would never want to believe that Seungmin was anything less than okay.  Seungmin ran his fingers through Hyunjin’s hair again, dew seeping through his jeans as morning glories bloomed around them, the sun rising quietly. No matter how much Hyunjin leaned on him, Seungmin would never be able to lean back.

 

Truthfully, Seungmin was tired.  He had become like a zombie, moving through schoolwork mechanically, too tired to socialize with his friends yet too wired to fall asleep, even as exhaustion pulled at his eyelids.  He was spending the nights drawing by his window, letting dark pencils create messy sketches and bright paints paintings so beautiful they were almost horrific-petals spilling from lips and mouths swallowing butterflies, empty and desolate eyes, boy with a hair made of words, but at a closer look they were all cruel, self hating thoughts.

He didn’t want to go to prom, he didn’t want to see Hyunjin, and he didn’t want to face it all.  He was keeping how bad it was all getting from Jeongin and Jisung so far, but he knew it wouldn’t last, knew that one day they would catch him trying hard to breathe when he just couldn’t.  Knew that Jisung already knew that he was taking too many pills than he should be taking, his eyes watchful on Seungmin’s back. It wouldn’t last forever, but Seungmin clung desperately to the hope that it would.

Maybe he was completely see through after all, or maybe Jisung was just saying what he saw when he told Seungmin how bad he looked.  And then he was gone, leaving Seungmin clutching his pencil tightly, wishing things didn’t feel so tense between the two of them, wishing he could go back and fix things.  

“I need to use the restroom.”  Seungmin mumbled, sliding out of his chair and past Jeongin, who was watching him while exuding an almost nervous energy.  He felt eyes following him up the stairs and hoped he looked normal enough, nothing more than just tired and worn out, like a wrung rag left out to dry.  Forgotten on the clothesline, at the mercy of the wind.

He closed and locked the door behind him, glad the lock was strong and worked.  Looking at himself in the mirror, Seungmin tried to see what everyone else saw. A tired boy, dark shadows under his eyes, shirt hanging off his almost skeletal structure, eyes empty and hollow.  He really did look like a zombie, someone who shouldn’t be alive, someone who had barely survived this long.

Seungmin looked at himself and he saw someone who had given up already, and it scared him a little bit, even as his hands started to tremble and his shoulders shake.  He tried to make himself breathe, tell himself that this was ridiculous, that he needed to breathe, but it was all crashing down again, in the form of ocean waves coming to take him and sweep him away.  His hands scrambled for the pill bottle he always kept in reach, and he dumped them into his hand, swallowing whatever was there, not bothering to count.

Maybe he just didn’t want to count, maybe it was time to give up, even if he hadn’t meant to.  Seungmin slid down to the floor, feeling like he had lost all his energy. At least he lost sight of himself, and it was an almost welcome relief, as if maybe that person hadn’t been him anymore.  Seungmin remembered how he had looked as a kid, with rosy cheeks and tousled hair, cute and maybe even handsome as he had grown, but not anymore.

Now he was just a charcoal drawing on a piece of paper, angry and disgusting with each pencil stroke, creating a monster.  The tile was cold, and Seungmin fell against it, laying his cheek down. He knew that he was dying, but he couldn’t feel anything at all, just a calm emptiness.  He vaguely heard pounding on the door, screaming, and he wanted to open his mouth and tell Jeongin not to bother, to just let him lie here peacefully until it was all over.

He didn’t know if he wanted to die, but he wasn’t going to stop it now that it was happening.  Apathetic, that was the word. He was apathetic about his own life; he just didn’t care anymore.  There was nothing to really live for and nothing to really die for, but maybe dying really was better, even if he went to hell.  At least there he wouldn’t be dealing with this depression and anxiety and friends who weren’t his anymore and feeling aimless, drawing and writing the only way to let it out and now even that was gone, leaving him with crumpled paper and destroyed pages.

Seungmin closed his eyes and saw his mother’s face.

 

When he opened his eyes it hurt, and Seungmin could only blurrily see the room around him, feel the pressure of a hand in his.  He closed his eyes and tried to drift back into the blissful unconsciousness that had claimed him earlier. He guessed he was alive, and he didn’t particularly care.  It would just be another repetition of life, everything moving forward as if it was the same with Seungmin staying back, wishing that it would be different.

“You’re awake.”  Jeongin murmured sleepily, and Seungmin tried to smile, but he felt too numb to really feel anything at all.  He tried to nod, but he couldn’t move either, even though there was nothing holding him down. Then again, there had always been something holding him down, hadn’t there been?  He had just told himself that he could never lift it off even if he tried, so he had never tried, and just let it pile on.

The more Seungmin thought about it, the more he hated himself.  Every voice in his head had been right, he was weak and pathetic and submissive and terrible and monstrous and unwanted for good reasons, alone because he never bothered to not be, quiet because he never opened his mouth to speak, only to end up feeling suffocated.  Abandoned because there was nothing about him that made people want to say, both his father and Hyunjin and Felix, his mother too because she had let the ocean take her. Maybe Seungmin shouldn’t have fought back in the ocean that day, maybe he should have made Hyunjin let go of his hand.  Maybe he should have dived in on the day of his mother’s funeral, before the worst had started, and maybe he would have been happy then.

He was smiling down at Seungmin, an Seungmin smiled back, only to hear the door bang open and look up to see Hyunjin appear as if he had been summoned, eyes focused on him.  “Get out.” He snapped at Jeongin, who stumbled back, surprise etched all over his face as Hyunjin practically shoved him out the door. Seungmin wanted to call for him to stay, but he still felt like his mouth was sealed shut.

Hyunjin walked over to where Seungmin lay on the bed, and for a moment Seungmin wondered if he was angry, because his eyes were glinting with dark emotion.  “You’re so dumb.” Hyunjin hissed, and even if he was trying to sound angry, Seungmin could hear how frightened he was behind it all. “Why would you do that?”  He asked, and Seungmin turned his head away, swallowing.

“I’m sorry.”  He whispered, but he wasn’t really.  Hyunjin deserved to be scared from time to time, to know that nothing he held onto was permanent, that it could still slip through his fingertips like sand.  Seungmin was an hourglass, the sand running too quickly to the bottom, settling and sinking in a blink of an eye. Hyunjin knelt beside him, and Seungmin turned away, not wanting to be reminded of how close they were.  He felt a hand on his back, and he wanted to throw it off, but he made himself keep still. Get away, his mind whispered.   Don’t touch me.   But he couldn’t make himself say it.

“You’re not.”  Hyunjin murmured.  “But why? Why do you want to die, Seungmin?”  Seungmin felt spite rise in him, words quick and lashing.  “Because of you. Because of everything. Why do you care, anyways?  Wouldn’t it be better for you if I was dead and gone? Oh wait, you wouldn’t have anyone to cry to then.  What a loss.” His voice was quiet, but Seungmin made sure to make his sentences as angry and hurtful as possible.  Still, his heart felt twisted, why do you want to die ringing in his ears.  It was too hard to explain, but the words still hurt him, and he wondered why was that such a bad thing, just wanting to be somewhere else.

“I do.”  Hyunjin said, sounding close to crying, and Seungmin felt the tiniest bit bad.  “You have never done anything to show that.” He whispered in response, and Hyunjin was silent for such a long time that Seungmin began to think that he was going to give up and leave, let Seungmin close his eyes and fall asleep again, in a world where he didn’t get hurt, up there in the clouds with his dreams.

“I was trapped.”  Hyunjin said, and Seungmin wanted to scream at him.  He was the one trapped? Seungmin had been trapped for years, trapped in expectations and schoolwork and his own mind, except he hadn’t realized it until he looked up and saw the top of his gilded cage.  Once he had seen it, it had only gotten closer and closer, smaller and smaller, suffocating him until he was only a curled ball struggling to breathe.

“You never tried to break out.”  Seungmin stated, and Hyunjin sighed.  “I was trapped in my sickness and how the world viewed him, up to high to even think about getting down, held up by people who wouldn’t let go.  I know you’ve felt-you feel-the same way, so can’t you understand? We’re messed up, but I still want you. I know you felt something, that you’ve always felt something, when we kissed-”

“Shut up.”  Seungmin snarled as softly as possible.  “Please.” He turned around, seeing how close Hyunjin was, and he closed his eyes for a brief second to orient himself, to not get lost in Hyunjin’s eyes.  He hated how Hyunjin was comparing him, how everything felt like it was breaking apart all over again, how he was mentioning what Seungmin already regretted.  “Stop lying. All you ever do is lie!” He screamed the last part, and then lowered his voice. Hyunjin was looking at the floor. “We were only ever friends, and you shouldn’t have, I shouldn’t have, taken that step and done that...you shouldn’t have clung to me when one hand had already let go.  Stop trying to take it back, because that doesn’t fix anything.”

Hyunjin stood suddenly, rigid in posture, looking above Seungmin’s head vacantly.  Seungmin wanted him to look at him suddenly, just to show that he had heard, but when he did, Seungmin couldn’t read his expression.  A part of him was scared, because they were alone, because Hyunjin could do anything he wanted and be gone before people came. He didn’t want Hyunjin to kiss him, but Hyunjin did suddenly, and Seungmin shoved him back, a small satisfaction filling him when Hyunjin nearly fell.

“I said stop, so just leave me alone and get out and don’t act like that ever again!”  Seungmin screamed, voice raw, the words scraping against it. Hyunjin looked frightened then, like Seungmin was the scary one, and maybe he was, a monster hiding under a mask.  Bringing out his claws to hurt people with, except they came in the form of words that he couldn’t stop coming from his mouth, just piling on more and more.

Turning around, Hyunjin ran out the door, and Seungmin wished he had asked him to stay, just a little bit.

 

Jeongin liked him.  He had this whole time, and Seungmin had been too caught up in Hyunjin to realize it.  His hand was shaking, Seungmin realized, tea sloshing over the sides. He still felt weak, like he was broken in a million pieces.  He hadn’t meant to collapse in front of Jisung like that, but the anger had been building up in him, the hurt and discomfort and hate just mixing together until Seungmin just needed to really scream and let it all out.

There were days Seungmin wished he had never been born.  Everything would have been easier then. Maybe his little sister would have lived, as his mother, and she would have grown up happy and healthy with nothing he had, with everything he didn’t.  He let himself get lost in the dream for a moment, a little girl with pigtails growing into a woman with long brown hair and an elegant figure, an erratic artist who never let a boy play her; one who played them instead.  Seungmin would have been proud and happy to have a sister like that.

His sketchbook lay in front of him, and Seungmin idly flipped through the pages, allowing himself to drink in the pictures of Hyunjin, the ones of the four of them from before, and the ones of after.  The after ones were all dark colors, shadowy figures tearing each other apart, walking away, leaving others behind. Seungmin had painted them at times when he had particularly wished for a different outcome, when he hated how things had become.

He hated a lot of things, self hatred that just built up and spilled out on the page when Seungmin was too afraid to take it out on himself, too afraid that it would be too noticeable.  Cuts and slashes were something Jisung would see, but the inner damage of pills wasn’t. Jeongin liked him and he was happy if Seungmin was happy, but Seungmin hadn’t been happy in a long time.  The last time he had been happy was when he was thirteen years old, sitting in the sun on a grassy lawn, watching people play in the pool from far above.

“Want some company?”  Hyunjin sat down next to him, lemonade in his hand.  He offered the other one he was holding to Seungmin, who examined the nutrition label, a habit he had started to make sure they were actually eating food when he and his father ate together.  Hyunjin laughed, unscrewing his own cap and downing half of it. He was sweaty; he must have been playing a soccer game. Seungmin had heard people mentioning it earlier. No one had invited him to come.  No one had invited him to this party, it had just been a given that he would come since Hyunjin, Felix, and Jisung were coming.

Satisfied, Seungmin took a careful sip.  It was sour, and Seungmin wrinkled his nose.  He liked the sweeter lemonade, but he guessed it would have to do.  Hyunjin laughed. “If you don’t want it, I’ll drink it.” Seungmin shook his head, quickly drinking a couple more sips, trying not show his distaste at it.  Hyunjin smiled, eyes crinkling, and Seungmin felt his heart swell a little bit. He wasn’t in love then, he was just with his friend and it made him happy.

“You wanna ditch this thing?”  Hyunjin asked, finishing his drink and throwing it at a trash can.  It made it in, like things always did. The seas had always parted for Hyunjin, then closed back up for Seungmin.  Seungmin looked at him curiously, the sun beating down on his back. “We could watch a movie. Get ice cream. Go to the park.  Ride around on our bikes. Just not this. It feels...so fake.” Hyunjin laughed, but Seungmin could tell he was being serious. Hyunjin hated liars and fake people, shallow people who only saw his face and nothing else.  How ironic that he had become just like them.

“Just us?”  Seungmin asked cautiously, and Hyunjin nodded.  “Felix and Jisung are swimming. I texted them.”  Seungmin let himself smile. “Then I guess I have no choice but to leave with you.”  Hyunjin nodded, standing up and offering Seungmin a hand, which he took. He hadn’t finished his lemonade, but when he threw it, it landed in the trash can.  The sun shone a little bit brighter.

In the end, they had done a little bit of everything.  Rode their bike to get ice cream and then tried to smuggle it into the theater, only to get kicked out.  Then they had sat on a bench at the park and eaten it. Seungmin could remember every detail exactly, like it had been yesterday, not almost four years ago.  He had been happy, so euphorically happy.

His phone dinged with an incoming text, and Seungmin’s pulse sped up when he saw it was from Jeongin.   I’ll still go to prom with you hyung.   Seungmin smiled, turning off his phone, knowing he didn’t need to respond.  He closed his sketchbook. He didn’t feel like he was sitting darkness anymore; a door had opened and let in a little light.

 

Seungmin stared up at the doors of the high school, wondering if he really wanted to go in and face everything all mixed together, the different parts of his life.  He heard the sound of people chattering, heels clacking, and then someone flew at him, attaching themself to Seungmin’s arm. Jolting, Seungmin relaxed when he saw it was just Jeongin, grinning wildly.  His braces were neon blue, blinding just like his smile.

“Let’s go in.”  Jeongin said decisively, not giving Seungmin a chance to argue or stumble, just yanking him inside.  Seungmin felt a wash of fondness for the younger, tugging him along as if he didn’t have a care in the world, brightening up Seungmin’s darkness one step at a time.  Jeongin did make Seungmin happy, but he wasn’t sure if it was in the way Seungmin made Jeongin happy, and he regretted that, because Jeongin deserved to be happy. Seungmin wanted to be his happiness, but he wasn’t sure if he could ever be that for somebody.  There was too much darkness, too many shadows inside of him. He didn’t want to hurt Jeongin’s sunshine with it, make him a gray outline instead of a bursting golden ball of energy. Still, there was something that felt right about Jeongin’s hand in his, dragging him through it all.

It was crowded inside, and Seungmin instinctively went to the edge of it all, standing near the walls.  Being at the center, or even vaguely surrounded by people made him uncomfortable. He tugged at the cuffs of his jacket, wondering why it seemed so hot.  “We don’t have to stay the whole time.” Jeongin mumbled beside him. “I know this makes you feel uncomfortable.” Seungmin flushed, embarrassed at how noticeable it was.

“It’s okay.”  Seungmin told him, eyes scanning the room.  He spotted Jisung heading towards them through the crowd, and then he was in front of them, hugging them both.  Seungmin was surprised; Jisung wasn’t the clingy type either. Maybe he would have been if he had been given more of a chance, but Jisung had always been kept at an arm's length.

“I didn’t know you were coming!”  Jisung exclaimed. He seemed delighted that they had, and Seungmin felt a little bit better.  “I wasn’t going to, but Jeongin still wanted to, so I decided to go for him.” Seungmin explained as best as he could, still feeling tense and on edge.  Over Jisung’s shoulder, he spotted Minho, Felix, and Hyunjin. Hyunjin was laughed, tossing a loose wave out of his eye. He was sparkling head to toe, green contacts in, glittery eyeshadow, diamonds in a short pattern in his jacket.  He looked like he was from another world, one where rich people drank champagne from tall glasses and discarded them when they were full, and it served as a reminder as to how far away Seungmin was, how lonely he was and would always be.

“Thank you for that.”  Jeongin added softly. He had snuck closer without Seungmin noticing, shoulders bumping together.  Seungmin wanted to move away, but at the same time it was strangely comforting, a different reminder that he wasn’t completely alone, even if he was lonely.  Minho came up behind Jisung, and then the two of them were whisked away into the crowd. A slow song was playing, and Seungmin felt Jeongin glance at him almost nervously, and Seungmin moved over, suddenly afraid that he would want to dance as well.

“Do you want more to drink?”  Jeongin asked instead, grabbing Seungmin’s empty glass and disappearing through the crowd.  Seungmin leaned against the wall, taking a deep breath. He was doing okay so far, and his breath hadn’t become staticky yet, but it didn’t matter.  A moment was nothing, because the next could be in the form of a panic attack. Seungmin closed his eyes, shaky suddenly. He felt almost sick.

The song changed, and Seungmin felt someone come to a stop in front of him.  He opened his eyes, expecting to see Jeongin, but it was Hyunjin instead, looking even more dashing and daring, like the prince he probably was in another lifetime.  “What do you want?” Seungmin asked. He was tired, drained from the energy it was taking to be around so many people with music pounding unpleasantly in his head.

“Dance with me?”  He asked, holding out a hand formally.  He would have looked good with gloves on, even more regal, Seungmin thought vaguely to himself.  Seungmin looked down at Hyunjin’s hand, then back up at him himself. “No thanks.” He said coldly, leaning back, wishing Jeongin would return already.  Hyunjin was carrying punch in a glass in his other hand, and he took a delicate sip of it.

“Humor me?”  Hyunjin asked again, and Seungmin shook his head.  “I’ve told you to stop so many time I’ve given up counting.  I’m not a toy whose strings you can just pull and make do whatever you want.  Do you know how weak it makes you-” Liquid splashed over him, soaking the front of his shirt, making Seungmin flinch back.  His eyes burned, and he was disorientated for a while, mind reeling.

There was a crunching sound, and Seungmin forced his eyes open to see Hyunjin standing further away from him, crowds of students having formed a circle around them.  Felix was tugging at his arm, and Seungmin saw that he had crushed the glass in his hand, blood seeping over it. His first instinct was to move forward and bandage it, but Seungmin made himself straighten and hold his head high.

“Leave me alone and get the hell out of my life.”  He said, words clear and ringing. His body had started shaking somehow, and Seungmin spun on his heel and left the gym, night air hitting him full force.  He didn’t look back, not to see what Hyunjin’s face was, not to see if Jeongin was following. He didn’t want to need to anymore. There was nobody but him.

 

When Seungmin left the hospital room, the fact that Hyunjin didn’t follow him spoke for itself.  They were never made to go together.

 

“It’s beautiful.”  Jeongin said, stepping up next to Seungmin.  He was wearing a suit, and Seungmin was pretty sure his shoulders had gotten wider.  The years apart had been kind to him, turning him into a grown up before Seungmin’s own eyes.  He had gone overseas for college, and maybe it had been an escape as well after Seungmin had told him that he didn’t want a relationship-at least not for a long time.

“Jisung said he would stop by later.  He’s got a showcase, so he’ll probably be later than expected.”  Seungmin smiled. “That’s okay.” He said, putting his hands in his pockets.  “Do you want to take a tour?” He asked, looking around the small room. “Sure.”  Jeongin replied. It occured to Seungmin that he had probably just turned twenty one now, an adult.  Seungmin’s twenty second had passed last month, the crispness of fall filling the air.

He led Jeongin around the gallery, showing off the sketches and paintings filling the walls.  Many people had told Seungmin he would be good at being a doctor or an psychologist, and Seungmin had minored in psychology, but he had never wanted to make a career out of it.  It had always been art, the pages turning from white to color filled. He knew artists didn’t really make it, and Seungmin had been prepared, but somewhere along the way people had wanted to see more and buy.  

Money had never been the goal, it had been showing people his artwork, and it had worked.  People had come up to Seungmin to tell him it was like he knew what they were thinking, that he expressed what couldn’t be put into words.  It made him happy, happier. And here he was now, at an art opening gallery in Seoul with people lined up outside, waiting for the chance to come in.  It was more than Seungmin could ever have imagined.

“Oh?  There’s somebody else here?”  Jeongin asked, pointing to the far end, where someone in a somber black suit stood.  Seungmin squinted in confusion. “Nobody else should be here...give me a second.” Jeongin nodded, and Seungmin walked down the hallway to the piece the stranger was looking at it.  It was one of the gray ones, black and white and everything in between. Four shadows stood, but only one was facing the viewers, and he was the darkest of them all, more darkness separating him from the other three.

“Excuse me, sir, but no one is allowed to be here…”  Seungmin trailed off as the man turned to face him, pulling down a face mask around his chin.  He had never expected to see Hwang Hyunjin again, but here he was. “Shouldn’t you not be here?”  Seungmin asked after a long pause, and Hyunjin shrugged. “I have a little time before anyone notices.  Besides, I wanted to see your exhibition without the crowd.”

Seungmin forced a smile on his face.  “Do you like it?” He asked, and Hyunjin nodded, reaching forward as if he wanted to touch it.  “Did you really feel so lonely?” He asked sadly, and Seungmin nodded. “I’ve always been alone.”  He said simply, stating a fact. It was how it was always meant to be; Seungmin against the world with no one to back him up, just to stand beside him.

“You don’t have to be.”  Hyunjin replied softly, and Seungmin shook his head.  “Yes, I do.” He looked at Hyunjin for a long moment, taking in his face and how different he looked.  Older, thinner, still handsome but more tired. Seungmin wanted to ask if he was eating, but he bit the question back.  He didn’t want an answer he wouldn’t want to here, one that would make him worry and obsess even more. He was past Hwang Hyunjin, past that stage, onto a new one.

“You should go.”  Seungmin told him stiffly, and Hyunjin nodded, walking past him.  “It was nice seeing you again, Seungmin.” He added over his shoulder, and Seungmin didn’t bother to smile and agree, because it really hadn’t been for him.  He watched Hyunjin leave, a silhouette in a charcoal suit, pulling his face mask up around his mouth and nose.

If this is fate, we’ll meet again.   Seungmin allowed himself to think, but only for a moment, and then it was gone, and he was left standing with his paintings.