Chapter 1: twenty little tragedies begin
March 7, 1986
There’s a man across the street who’s been looking at Donghyuck for almost 15 minutes now.
This is weird for several reasons.
One: this is a train station. People don’t usually have a tendency to hang around much. Unless, of course, the person in question is selling (or buying) drugs or happens to be waiting for a train that will never come. But that doesn’t seem to be the case.
Two: People don’t hang around street performers. Never. Five minutes tops, but anything beyond that is just a waste of everyone’s time.
Which makes the man across the street a weirdo lunatic in Donghyuck’s eyes. He hasn’t even bothered to give anything, no five pence, no chewing gum wrapper or a torn up shopping list.
Which makes him a cheap weirdo lunatic.
Donghyuck doesn't mind being watched, that's the whole point of this after all – being seen, being noticed and, hopefully, appreciated. But he doesn't like being stared at. The connotations and the feeling are quite different.
It's either that or the wind that's making his skin crawl.
After a few more half-hearted chords enough finally become enough and the pads of his fingers scrape against the strings of his guitar producing a small discordant whine that gets whisked away before it can settle.
"Are you going to give anything or what?"
Donghyuck goes for the antagonistic approach because he didn't give himself enough time to think things through.
The man pushes himself off the wall he'd been leaning against, hands stuffed deep in the pockets of an oversized grey coat. An afterthought of trepidation worms its way to the forefront of Donghyuck's thoughts the closer he gets.
He's taller up close, untidy dark hair framing a strangely familiar face.
When he's just two feet away from Donghyuck he removes one hand from his massive coat and drops a crisp £5 note into Donghyuck's open guitar case.
Donghyuck stares, dumbfounded.
"You're good," the not-so-strange stranger says. He doesn't smile, but it looks like a close call.
"I know," Donghyuck replies, unable to stop himself.
A pair of eyebrows disappears behind a tangled fringe. Pleasantly surprised. "Yeah?"
"I know my own worth," Donghyuck says with a shrug.
Behind them, the five-thirty-five train screeches to a noisy halt. Somewhere down the platform, a toddler starts crying and harried salarymen scuttle past, avoiding Donghyuck's eye like he's sprung out of a bad re-telling of a Greek myth. The snake-haired one with wicked eyes.
"Do I know you?" He finally asks when the worst of the rush has passed.
The stranger snorts. "I was about to ask you the same thing. You seem weirdly familiar."
"This place isn't very big," Donghyuck muses. "Coincidence?"
"I—" the man starts, but gets interrupted by the wailing toddler who pitches up her scream as her mother rolls her pram past them. They wait in a slightly uncomfortable silence until they've rounded the corner and then he tries again. "What school do you go to?"
Squinting up at him Donghyuck says, "Crescent Hill. Wh—"
"Oh—that explains this." He grins, pearly white teeth flashing in the muted afternoon light. "We must've met at some point."
That answers some questions but also makes room for new ones.
"So what do you want?" Donghyuck asks as he starts shaking the feeling back into his legs. His guitar finds a brief resting place on his jacket that he must've taken off at some point during the afternoon while he scrapes the change and the five-pound note out of the case.
"As I said, you're good. Really good."
"Gee," Donghyuck mutters, pulling the e along behind his front teeth, "thanks."
"What's your name, kid?"
Donghyuck bristles at the term and the note crumples between his fingers. "What's yours?" He retaliates antagonism flooding back into his tone.
"Yuta," is the reply, simple and forthcoming and Donghyuck's indignation shrivels a little under its politeness.
"Well," he says, clearing his throat, "I'm Donghyuck."
A pause fills the air between them as Donghyuck starts gathering his things, juggling his wallet, jacket and his nerves with two hands and a few spilt coins later Yuta crouches down to help, holding Donghyuck's jacket as he tries to sort himself out.
Thoughts and things successfully tucked away in his head and jacket pockets Donghyuck straightens up and reaches out for his guitar which Yuta has packed and slung over his shoulder.
He glances down at Donghyuck's outstretched hand and says, "Now, Donghyuck, what sort of music do you listen to?"
May 15, 1986
No abundance of sunlight can irradicate the chilly draught whistling past Donghyuck's ears as he tries to focus on the textbook in front of him.
It's warm, warmer than it has been in weeks. Spring, after dawdling around the Netherlands for too long, has finally decided to cross the Channel and bless the people with malfunctioning air-conditioning, unattractive shirtless men and toddler-infested public swimming pools.
Ads for all-in-one holiday deals are starting to clog up the newspapers and school uniforms are becoming more stifling with every day that drags itself along. The distant, overcrowded beaches of Spain and Italy are calling and Donghyuck would rather be anywhere else.
Anywhere else being anywhere that isn't where he is right now.
He's sitting in a booth in a cafe that's just one failed health and safety inspection away from being shut down. The cracked vinyl seats, sticky floors and bleach-blonde waitress who's noisily flicking through a magazine behind the counter only add to the picture of quiet desolation.
In front of him, William of Orange dies for the 9th unspectacular time in 20 minutes and Donghyuck's patience withers a little more.
Deliverance from the suffocating mixture of doom and boredom comes in the form of Yuta Nakamoto, who bursts into the quiet little cafe in a whirlwind of football shorts, dirt and sweat.
He sinks into the seat opposite Donghyuck, takes one look at the textbooks and pens scattered across the table and snorts. "Well, someone's been busy."
Donghyuck eyes Yuta's scraped elbows and the dirt under his fingernails. "I could say the same thing," he says.
"I honestly can't tell," Yuta says, raising a hand to catch the waitress' attention, "if I'm getting better at football or if the others are just getting worse."
"Who were you playing against? Kindergartners?"
The waitress slouches over, hands stuffed in the pockets of her apron. "What can I get you?" She sighs, skillfully ignoring the grin Yuta flashes her way.
"One cappuccino if it's no trouble—and no, they were primary school age at least."
"Did you win?"
Yuta's sound of indignation is drowned out by the gurgling croak of the coffee machine. "Of course we did," he says, leaning closer to be heard over the noise. There's a smudge of dirt on the bridge of his nose.
Donghyuck snorts. "You say that like I didn't watch you and your mates get absolutely thrashed by a bunch of 13-year-olds last week."
The seat creaks as Yuta leans back again, settling into the cracks as if he belongs there, hands folded across his chest. "That was bad luck. And Dave fucking showed up and Dave's—"
"Dave's an idiot, yeah, I know."
"He was especially moronic last week, seriously it's like he's never even seen a—thank you, thank you."
A steaming cup of something that only vaguely resembles a cup of coffee gets dumped rather unceremoniously on Queen Anne's face and the waitress mutters a vague, "Whatever," before disappearing again in a cloud of cheap perfume and dry-shampoo.
"Aw," Yuta mutters, staring down into the white froth, "she didn't draw me a heart."
"You should be glad she didn't draw a dick."
But even with Yuta's invigorating presence and unhelpful comments, the afternoon remains sluggish at best, dragging its feet as Donghyuck fights an uphill battle with his history textbook. The waitress ignores them from behind a copy of Popular Astronomy and the radio on the counter rattles down the charts with deadened, practised precision.
At some point, when the silence becomes too much to bear, Yuta gets up with a quiet, "Won't be a sec," and disappears into the back of the shop. Donghyuck and the waitress watch suspiciously as he jangles the change in his pockets.
"If he breaks something I'm bannin' you," the waitress threatens after he's vanished in a mysterious back room.
"You can't do that," Donghyuck says, "and even so, he's not my kid. Whatever shit he gets up to has nothing to do with me."
"He's your fuckin' responsibility if you keep bringing him here and anyway" – she preens slightly, tucking a bleached-to-death strand of hair behind her ear – "my dad owns this place, so I can ban whoever the fuck I want."
She's put down her magazine too, which must mean she's getting pretty serious, but Donghyuck has a very selective understanding of body language. Especially when it comes to his own personal safety.
He opens his mouth before he has time to think it through.
"Well, tell your dad that the coffee here is shit and that I saw his daughter do a line the bathroom two weeks ago. How about that?"
A Study of Interplanetary Dust narrowly misses Donghyuck's head and he ducks under the table for cover. Queen Anne and her four doomed successors clatter to the floor behind him.
"Now that," Yuta says, kicking a bit of splintered pavement out onto the street, "was spectacularly stupid."
Donghyuck hugs his bag a bit closer to his chest and runs his tongue over his teeth in an effort to banish the bitter aftertaste of bad coffee into the recesses of his consciousness. It doesn't really work and the taste climbs down his throat and into his stomach, making him feel vaguely sick.
"I didn't think she'd go absolutely mental," he says. A half-hearted defence.
Another chunk of the pavement skitters into the gutter and the late afternoon sun paints warped, shimmering shadows on the careworn walls behind them.
"Her whole fucking family's mental, what did you expect?"
"Well, I didn't expect to get fucking attacked—look!" Donghyuck shifts his rucksack in his arms to hold out his right hand where a two-inch long cut is happily dripping blood down the inside of his wrist. "That's gonna scar," he says, waving the bloody hand in Yuta's face who backs away, disgusted.
"What did you do?"
"I didn't do anything! She went and threw the crockery."
Yuta shakes his head. "You should've said something," he says and gingerly reaches out to pluck the rucksack out of Donghyuck's arms.
"Didn't seem important," Donghyuck mutters, "and anyway, no major artery was hit so I'm not going to die. Sorry to disappoint."
He watches as Yuta steps out into the street, turning on the spot and clearly on the look-out for something.
"Don't be stupid. And anyway—I don't even want to think about what your parents would do to me if you died under my watch. I'm seeing" – he swings the rucksack onto his back and spreads his arms for dramatic effect – "a public execution. High noon, with that brat Park as my executioner."
"You're gonna get your head lobbed off by fourteen-year-old?" Donghyuck asks, following him out into the middle of the street.
"It's what your mother would want," Yuta says trailing off into a nostalgic sort of sigh. Then, squinting against the sun and pointing a bony finger down the length of the street he says, "Ah-ha, here comes the cavalry."
"Is that what you were doing back there? Calling the cavalry?" Donghyuck asks, reluctantly complying when Yuta tries to shove him back onto the pavement.
Yuta gives him a look. "'course it was. Why—what did you think I was doing?"
A swipe of his still bleeding hand is enough to ward off Yuta's attempt to put him in a headlock, but the rush of oxygen against the open cut sends a sharp spike of pain shooting up his arm and into his lungs. He doubles over and Yuta's on him in a heartbeat.
"You're a fucking idiot, d'you know that?"
"Me?" Donghyuck says, slightly breathless with pain. "Never."
They stay awkwardly huddled together until a pale blue Sedan comes to a stop beside them. Yuta detaches himself almost immediately, stomping towards the car and managing to strike a surprisingly menacing figure even when dressed in tiny football shorts and an even tinier shirt.
"I called almost twenty minutes ago. Twenty fucking minutes. Did you take a trip around the moon or what?"
Peering around Yuta's shoulders Donghyuck accidentally makes direct eye contact with the driver of the car who waves and says, "You try driving around here. There's that blasted construction site by the Hillside exit and they've removed all the signposts so no one knows where the fuck they're going."
"We were going in circles for like 15 minutes. Absolute hell," says the guy in the passenger seat and Donghyuck ducks back behind Yuta. "Who's this?"
Donghyuck tries fruitlessly to dodge Yuta's hand as he's dragged off the pavement and into the figurative spotlight.
The guy in the driver's seat waves again, a quiet smile and floppy dark hair at odds with his T-Shirt that has I DON'T GIVE DAM splashed across the front with a rather obscene drawing of a beaver underneath.
It's the T-Shirt that gives him away as Yuta's uni friend Taeil; a pianist and professional baby sitter. Which explains how he's friends with the likes of Yuta.
"This is the kid," Yuta says and the term and the implication that he's been talked about make Donghyuck stop struggling against Yuta's vice-like grip. "The kid who also happens to be an invalid," he adds and yanks up Donghyuck's sluggishly bleeding hand.
"Jesus Christ," the guy in the passenger seat says and before Donghyuck can make up some nonsense about how "it doesn't even hurt that much" he's out of the car, towering over him like a well-meaning, but generally terrifying giant. "Are you okay?"
"This is Johnny, by the way," Yuta stage-whispers unhelpfully and leaves Donghyuck to fend for himself.
Yuta has described and talked about Johnny so often that seeing him in person sort of feels like getting kicked in the face. He's exactly – if not more than – what Donghyuck had conjured up in his head. He's taller definitely.
"Are you okay?" He repeats the question.
Donghyuck stares at him and then his hand. "Er," he starts, "yes?"
"There's a first-aid kit in the boot," Taeil says.
The next thing Donghyuck knows he's squished in the backseat of Taeil's ten-year-old Sedan, sharing the cramped space with Johnny fucking Seo and listening to Yuta trying to out-sing Patti Smith.
He's cradling his still smarting hand to his chest while Johnny rummages around a tiny first-aid kit, distributing most of its contents all over the space between them.
"I think we might have to go to the hospital," he says once he re-emerges with a roll of bandages and disinfectant spray.
"No—I mean, it's fine. It's not as bad as it looks." He avoids the sceptical glance Johnny sends his way and holds out his hand. "Just get it over with."
By now his arm is stained an ugly rust-red and blood is still slowly dripping out of the deepest parts of the cut, accompanied by dull throbbing pain and a numbing sensation that reaches right up to the crook of his elbow. There's blood on his jeans and shoes as well.
"Do you have any tissues?" Johnny asks, leaning around the passenger seat to catch Taeil's attention.
"In the glove compartment," is the reply and seconds later Yuta hurls a half-empty packet into Donghyuck's lap.
"And a bottle of water?"
Yuta groans. "Can't you just ask for everything in one go?"
A bottle with maybe half a dribble of lukewarm water left in the bottom gets thrust unceremoniously into Donghyuck's free hand.
"Welcome, ladies and gentlemen, to Johnny's on-the-road-emergency-room," Johnny sing-songs and Donghyuck cracks his first (reluctant) smile in quite some time.
After some manoeuvring, they manage to displace most of the contents of the first aid kit onto the car floor and rub the worst of the blood off of Donghyuck's wrist and arm. The cut looks worse now that the dried blood's gone. Pink and sore at the edges, blood still oozing lazily into the cracks of his palm.
"Now," Johnny says, armed with the disinfectant spray and a nervous smile, "shout if it hurts too much, alright?"
It does hurt – hurt like fuck actually – but Donghyuck doesn't shout, choosing instead to curse colourfully enough for Yuta to let out a low, impressed whistle.
"I didn't know you could combine that many words with fuck," Johnny says conversationally and dabs gingerly at Donghyuck's palm.
Donghyuck shrugs, modest as can be. "It's a talent of mine."
"He can curse in three languages, you know," Yuta says, twisting around in his seat.
"Yeah?" Johnny and Taeil chorus.
Another modest shrug and then, "I took German as an elective last year and my dad's a bad influence."
"I can only say fuck in French," Taeil mutters, sounding genuinely disappointed.
Then he yanks the car around a hard left turn and Donghyuck, sitting crosslegged and without a seatbelt, lurches into Johnny. His nose connects sharply with Johnny's collar bone and Donghyuck reels backwards, his uninjured hand flying up to his face.
"Watch it!" Johnny shouts, using one hand to brace himself against the car door as he tries to push himself back into an upright position. "Are you alright?"
A bloody handprint sits somewhat haphazardly just under his heart where Donghyuck had caught himself.
"Er," Donghyuck says and sticks out his tongue to catch a stray drop of blood now dripping from his nose.
"Oh, God. Taeil stop the car!"
The car scrapes along the pavement and Yuta's the first one to get out, yanking Donghyuck out into the stuffy, late-afternoon sunlight.
"Were you trying to kill him?" He asks, rounding on Johnny who's in the process of climbing out of the car behind Donghyuck – all impossibly long legs and genuine horror.
"I'm not the one who made that fucking turn," he snaps.
Inside the car, the weather report splutters to a halt as Taeil says, "Oh, so it's my fault?"
"Uh, yeah?" Yuta says, rounding on him instead. "Kind of?"
The bickering continues as Johnny scrapes whatever he kind find of the first aid kit out of the bottom the car. People drive past and gawk at their unusual little congregation but Donghyuck's bloody face and 5-star glares stop them from getting too invested.
"I'm fine by the way," Donghyuck pipes up, patting his freely bleeding nose with a look of vague astonishment.
"Your parents are going to kill me. For fuck's sake—you look like you were in a fight."
Donghyuck hums distractedly. "I've actually been in a fight once, did you know that? I didn't get a bloody nose though."
"Why?" Taeil asks. "Because you beat them?"
Yuta snorts and Donghyuck aims a kick at his unprotected shins.
"Fuck off—and no, he punched me in the mouth. I couldn't talk for a whole week."
"Must've been a dream come true for your paren—ow."
Any further violence is stopped by Johnny who – now with a haphazardly re-assembled first-aid kit – guides Donghyuck down onto the curb.
Donghyuck feels very young as he sits there, bleeding in the afternoon light with one of Johnny's hands splayed out comfortingly on his back and Yuta and Taeil squabbling in the background over the senseless chatter of the radio.
Cars pass in almost rhythmic bursts and somewhere in the distance, an ice-cream van advertises its existence with a cheery, disjointed jingle.
"Why'd you get in a fight?" Johnny asks. He's pulling the remaining tissues out of the packet with only one hand, the other one is rubbing soothing circles between Donghyuck's shoulder blades.
Shrugging Donghyuck starts, "Stupid reason to be honest. It was at school and—"
"Tip your head back."
Donghyuck does as he's told and Johnny hands him the wad of tissues.
"This guy, who was maybe a year above me or something asked me if I was a queer." Johnny glances at him and Donghyuck adds, "That and some other…stuff."
A silence fills the narrow space between them and the hand on Donghyuck's back suddenly feels too warm to be comforting.
"And you punched him?"
"No! No, I—well, I said that he should ask his brother the same thing."
Donghyuck sighs through the blood still dripping past his lips. "Didn't take too kindly to that I can tell you."
More silence and then, "So was he—the brother, I mean—"
Squinting against the fading blue of the sky Donghyuck says, "Dunno. He was just odd, y'know? Great at rugby but refused to play for any teams—that kind of odd. I was just trying to piss this guy off, I didn't really think. Also, I was like eleven at the time. You don't do a lot of thinking when you're eleven."
Johnny actually turns his whole body around to stare at him. "You got punched in the face when you were eleven ?"
"I'm not proud of it," Donghyuck hastens to defend, but the smile pulling at the corners of his mouth makes it feel a bit fake.
"You are a bit," Johnny laughs and Donghyuck looks away, hiding his grin behind the bloodstained tissues.
May 26, 1986
The communal scrape of the pews against the rough, stone floor jerks Donghyuck out of his contemplative doze.
He misses the muttered chorus of "Amen" and rises out of his seat while blinking a tired sort of blurriness out of his eyes. Knots of people are forming, catching up and gathering their things and Donghyuck weaves between them, ducking between their mundane conversations with practised ease.
But he's pulled off course by an arm that suddenly reaches out of the crowd.
"Where are you going?"
His mother looks at him from underneath the rim of her best Sunday hat. She's got one hand on her handbag and the other on Donghyuck's younger sister, Minseo, who's practically vibrating out of skin from having to sit through an almost two-hour long service.
"I—" he dithers slightly under her gaze, trying and failing not to look over the heads of the crowd in search of three, very familiar faces that he swears he saw lurking at the back of the church. "Friends," he finishes lamely.
He's not lying, but he's not exactly telling the truth either. She knows this – has resigned herself to it.
"Just friends," he repeats with more urgency. "I promise."
A lady across the aisle gives them a funny look but turns away quickly when she catches Donghyuck's eye.
"I won't be a second," he adds, in English this time.
"Don't stay out too late."
His mother also knows that seconds sometimes stretch into hours. Especially when you're sixteen and have finally found people worth spending your adolescence with.
After a moment's hesitation Donghyuck presses a hasty kiss on her cheek and hurries off again.
Donghyuck's suspicions are confirmed when he spots Johnny's head floating above the heads of a group of elderly women in similarly garish Sunday dresses and hats. They tut and mutter as he worms his way through their ranks.
"You know I thought you were joking when you said you sang in a church choir."
Yuta pushes past Johnny with a grin and a general wave at the altar and the stained glass window behind it, now glowing red-blue-green in the mid-spring light.
He's not dressed appropriately for church, which doesn't come as much of a surprise but the ratty tweed blazer he's thrown over his even rattier the Grateful Dead T-Shirt at least shows that he made something similar to an effort at looking presentable.
"I didn't know you could enter churches," Donghyuck says, eyeing one particularly horrible hole in the blazer's lapel.
"Oh, trust me—we were waiting for him to burst into flames," Johnny says, dropping an elbow onto Yuta's shoulder. "But he defied the odds."
"One of my many talents," Yuta grins and reaches behind him to pull Taeil, who'd been staring up at a particularly gruesome painting of Jesus' crucifixion, into their little circle. "Isn't that right?"
Taeil shrugs. "If you say so." Then he turns to Donghyuck, says, "Your voice is a gift from God," and holds out a half-finished family-sized packet of pretzel sticks. "Pretzel stick?"
Plunging his hand into the bag Donghyuck says, "I don't think you're so supposed to bring food to church." And judging by the looks that they're collecting he might be right.
"We ate them very quietly," Yuta assures.
"You have to sort of" – Johnny plucks a couple of sticks out of Donghyuck's hand – "let them go soggy in your mouth."
"That way you get the full benefit of the salt," Taeil says and smiles placidly when an old couple gives him a dirty look.
More and more people are starting to flood past them out into the sickly sunny morning.
"Right!" Yuta claps his hands together. "I think it's time we skedaddle because I'm getting the vibe that we're not entirely welcome here." He flashes his teeth at the pastor who'd been shaking hands nearby and laughs openly at the poor man's bewilderment.
And so they skedaddle with Yuta leading the way, hands in his pockets and a swaggering lilt to his walk. Taeil follows, a couple of pretzel sticks clamped between his teeth and Johnny and Donghyuck bring up the rear.
People are milling around in the courtyard as well, little knots of people who turn and stare accusingly as they pass. Donghyuck tries not to shrink under their scrutiny.
"Church-goers seem more judgemental than I remember them being," Johnny mutters under his breath, nudging Donghyuck with a bony elbow. An action which is probably meant to be comforting but only succeeds in making Donghyuck jump.
"When did you ever go to church?"
"Back home" – Johnny glances at him – "you know—the great US of A."
"Oh, right." Donghyuck doesn't know what else to say.
"I used to sing in a choir, too, you know."
Another elbow nudge but this time Donghyuck's ready for it.
"Yeah. Wasn't even half as good as you though. Mostly just went there for something to do."
They walk in silence for a while, occasionally slipping on the loosely strewn gravel as the path slopes downwards. Ahead Yuta has caught Taeil in a one-armed hug and they're tottering along like a pair of blissfully happy drunks.
"So you sing?" Donghyuck asks, allowing himself a quick look at Johnny who has his face turned up to the periwinkle blue sky.
"I guess. I don't do it as much as I used to—Taeil's a better singer than I am and I prefer playing the music anyway."
Donghyuck kicks at a stray pebble and watches it skitter off onto the lawn. "I bet you're a good singer," he says quietly, not quite meaning for Johnny to hear him.
But he does and laughs. "I'm definitely not anywhere near as good as you. Seriously, you outshone every single person in that choir. It was like hearing a fucking angel sing or something—absolutely insane. Like, Yuta said that you were good, but he does talk a lot of shit so I wasn't sure if he was exaggerating or not."
There's a blush creeping up the back of Donghyuck's neck but he stubbornly chooses to blame it on the rising temperatures and not on any of the words that had just come from Johnny's mouth.
Donghyuck does not blush after being complimented. He has some pride, goddammit.
"I'm not that good," he murmurs. "Seriously," he adds when Johnny starts to speak, "I'm not."
Johnny shrugs. "I'd have to politely disagree."
Donghyuck's in the process of coming up with a retort when a shout interrupts him.
"CAN YOU TWO WALK ANY SLOWER?"
Yuta and Taeil are standing at the bottom of the path by a pair of ugly, wrought-iron gates. Taeil's wearing the by now empty pretzel packet on his head and that accompanied by Yuta's everything makes for quite a picture.
"IS THAT A CHALLENGE?" Johnny shouts back and beams when Donghyuck laughs.
The afternoon, like the sky, stretches out before them seemingly endless.
June 2, 1986
Donghyuck lets himself be carried out through the school's courtyard and past the gates in a wave of grey and blue uniforms. People are chattering, bags and shoulders knocking against him as he's buffeted this way and that by their eagerness to get out and away.
Busy with getting his tie undone he doesn't notice Taeil perched on a low, red-brick wall a couple of yards down the street.
He only notices when a well-aimed pebble gets him squarely in the chest.
"Taeil," he says, for once genuinely caught off guard. His tie is still fighting back as he ducks out of the flood of students to where Taeil is kicking his legs against the crumbling brick. The tattered denim jacket and sparkly silver Converse he's wearing only add to the general sense of blitheness that seems to surround everything that Taeil says or does.
He also happens to be one of the few people – maybe even the only one – who can call Donghyuck kid or any variation thereof without inducing Donghyuck's contempt. The lack of condescension in his tone and the fact that they're similarly tall (or short) definitely have something to do with it.
"What are you doing here?"
Taeil shrugs. "Wanted to check up on you, that's all." His gaze drifts to the people still flooding past them. "I see the uniforms haven't changed much."
Strangely touched Donghyuck fumbles a little with his tie. "I—no, no. They haven't, I guess," he says.
"Do you need help with that," Taeil asks, gesturing at the figurative noose around Donghyuck's throat.
"Please," Donghyuck sighs and lets his hands drop in defeat while Taeil unknots the tie with a few expert tugs and pulls.
Then he hops off the wall and stretches, grin and graphic T-Shirt firmly in place. Donghyuck's squints at the red and orange print depicting what kind of looks like—
"Are those two demons having—" He asks, leaning a bit closer.
"Really graphic sex?" Taeil finishes, opening his jacket so that Donghyuck can read the slogan.
SIN IS THE SEXIEST THING SINCE JUDAS
Taeil grimaces slightly when he catches Donghyuck's slightly shell-shocked expression. "Sorry," he says, "I forgot you go to church."
Blinking Donghyuck straightens up and says, "Oh no. No, it's not that. I'm just—how are they—what are they—"
"Oh." Taeil stretches the shirt out to look. "I think," he starts slowly, "I think it's supposed to be, like, humanly impossible. Because that's what makes it more demonic. I think."
They both squint down at the shirt.
"Certainly doesn't look physically possible," Donghyuck says, cocking his head to get a different angle.
"No," Taeil agrees. "Unless, of course, it's from some really fucked up chapter of the Kama Sutra."
"No one should be into that."
Another shrug and Taeil lets go of his shirt. "Takes all sorts, I suppose."
Donghyuck didn't realise how teenager-y his room looked until he saw Taeil standing in the middle of it in all his university-age glory of messy hair and sleep-deprivation. Their age and the gap between them was never really something Donghyuck thought about a lot, but now – when he's standing here four days away from turning 16 with a 22-year-old in his bedroom – this kind of difference becomes almost palpable.
Kicking the door shut behind him he grins a little awkwardly and holds up the tray he's got balanced in one hand. "Tea?"
Taeil's still turning on the spot, glittery trainers replaced by a pair of geometry-inspired socks, but he stops at the sight of the tray piled high with Hobnobs and Custard Creams.
It's stupid really – getting all worked up about the years between them – because Taeil, amongst other things, doesn't seem particularly interested in acting or dressing his age. Whatever that may be. Donghyuck tries to think about that, instead of the underlying sense of inadequacy that goes hand-in-hand with being almost 16.
The tray lands on the middle of Donghyuck's bed and they both follow suit.
"Michael Jackson, huh?" Taeil says, still looking around.
On the wall above Donghyuck's desk, a Thriller-era Michael Jackson stares down at them, red leather jacket, zombies and all.
"He's good," Donghyuck says, a little defensively.
Taeil gives him a steady, impenetrable look. "Didn't say he wasn't. What else do you like?"
He looks around again, trying to gauge Donghyuck's interests from the walls of his bedroom.
Besides the very prominent Michael Jackson poster, there's precious little to go on. Most of Donghyuck's interests have to be kept off his bedroom walls just in case his father suddenly develops any actual interest in him. There's an eccentric collage of newspaper and magazine clippings decorating the inside of his wardrobe but Taeil obviously can't know that.
But what he can see is the record player awkwardly squashed onto Donghyuck's bookshelf and his admittedly rather modest record collection keeping guard beside it.
"Ah-ha," he says through a mouthful of crumbling biscuit and slips off the bed. "Now we shall know."
Donghyuck watches, eyebrows raised, as Taeil flicks through the pile; winking at Michael Jackson's Off The Wall and grinning at the lurid colour scheme of Cyndi Lauper's She's So Unusual.
He pauses a couple of times, once holding up a faded, second-hand Best Of record. "Billie Holiday?" He asks.
"She's an inspiration."
"Minus the liver disease?"
"Minus the liver disease," Donghyuck confirms.
After a couple of minutes, they finally settle on Dusty Springfield and Taeil returns to the bed, cradling the record sleeve to his chest. Most of Donghyuck's initial nerves of having Taeil in his space have worn off by now and the tea, the music and the strangely opaque afternoon light spilling through the window have everything and nothing to do with it.
"Why're you all alone today?" Donghyuck asks, wiping some of the crumbs that are gathering between them onto the floor.
Taeil stretches and leans against the wall. "Well," he starts impressively, "Johnny's buggered back off to London to earn money."
"Right—yeah" – Donghyuck makes a vague gesture at the acoustic guitar by his desk – "session musician. I forgot."
"He did too apparently," Taeil snorts. "He called at like four in the morning saying that he's going back to London because he's running low on cash."
"That was quick," Donghyuck hums.
Taeil sighs and breaks a Custard Cream in half, tossing the bigger half into Donghyuck's waiting palms. "Yeah well, Yuta's an opportunist and Johnny a pushover. This always happens."
"I thought they did some stuff at the Rat & Parrot?"
Another half of a biscuit lands in Donghyuck's hands as Taeil crunches his way through the other. "Yeah, but filling in a lousy slot hardly stands up to an actual salary, y'know?"
He has a point.
"How much do you earn as a session musician?" Donghyuck asks, feigning nonchalance that Taeil sees through quite easily.
"Why?" He grins. "Need something to tell the careers adviser?"
There's a brief tussle that ends relatively abruptly when Taeil presents a peace-offering in the form of a Hobnob and the last Custard Cream. Donghyuck, who is generally harder to appease, complies graciously.
"I'm not sure, to be honest," Taeil says, watching as the Custard Cream disappears. "It's enough for him to make the trip out here and back without too much financial worry."
"No financial worry, huh? Bet you wonder what that's like don't y—"
One of Taeil's geometrically decorated feet gets Donghyuck smartly in the knee and he laughs through watering eyes.
"I'll have you know that babysitting is a very honourable job," Taeil says, his accent heading south while Donghyuck's eyebrows rise to the northern regions of his face.
"Yeah," Donghyuck admits, already scooting out of Taeil's reach, "for a 22-year-old still living with his parents."
There's a ballooning kind of feeling in the centre of Donghyuck's chest, a feeling that's only elevated when Taeil cackles good-naturedly and lobs an empty biscuit bowl at him.
It takes the bowl hitting him squarely on the cheek for him to somewhat dazedly realise that it's happiness.
He blinks at Taeil, who's shoved the three remaining Hobnobs in his mouth and is now chewing them with meditative intensity.
"D'you want to watch a film?"
The sofa in the Lee's living room was built to seat at least four people. Four people who are very particular about personal space. Which is why Donghyuck's stretched himself across most of it with his feet in Taeil's lap.
"We're kind of like them, aren't we," Taeil says, voice slowed down to a lazy drawl.
The whole room glows softly with the contrasting light of the TV and the red-tinted warmth from where the sun is shining through the heavy, maroon curtains. On the screen in front of them, Marty McFly and his inventor friend are suspending their disbelief.
"What? A high-schooler who's friends with an eccentric inventor who could be anywhere between 50 and 100?"
Taeil blinks slowly before saying, "Basically, yeah."
Turning his attention back to the flickering scenes in front of him Donghyuck says, "Well, at least I actually look like I'm high school age. That McFly bloke looks like a real estate agent."
Things get progressively worse as the white-haired inventor is shot and Donghyuck can almost physically sense Taeil's focus drift to more interesting topics.
Topics like: "Wait—how old are you actually?"
"Not real estate agent age," Donghyuck says and almost kicks Taeil in the face when he tries to tickle the truth out of him. "Fine, fine—I'm almost 16. Happy?"
"Four days kind of almost." Donghyuck indicates this with a vague wave at the calendar hanging behind them above the dining table. The 6th of June has an enthusiastic attempt at a birthday cake drawn onto the blank space.
On the screen, things are getting worse for Marty McFly but Taeil's sat up properly now, attention completely diverted. "Why didn't you say anything?" He asks and Donghyuck pulls his feet out of his lap, curling up into a ball of bashfulness in the far corner of the sofa.
"Well," he starts slowly, "we haven't known each other for all that long. I didn't want to presume anything."
Taeil stares at him, genuinely nonplussed. "You didn't want to presume—what? That we're friends?"
Struggling to find a better phrasing Donghyuck gives in. "I—yeah. Yeah. Kind of."
"But we are friends," Taeil says.
And if he says so it must be true so Donghyuck shrugs.
Appeased, Taeil settles back into his corner of the sofa. Time seems to have slowed down considerably since they came downstairs and now with the setting sun making the curtains look like they're on fire it slows down a little more.
It's a welcome bubble of tranquillity.
June 6, 1986
Donghyuck's 16th birthday hits him in a whirlwind of long-distance telephone calls, store-bought cake, too many candles and an awkward but well-meaning hug from his father. Exams are over and the spirit of summer is slowly seeping into the country.
Presents from Yuta and Taeil had come a couple of days early. Taeil visited in person, presenting Donghyuck with a pair of rainbow-themed socks, a box of apple pies from M&S and a hug.
Yuta's, on the other hand, appeared on the doorstep two days before the special day. A thin parcel wrapped in brown paper and string, generally more effort than Donghyuck thought Yuta was capable of. Inside were an inappropriate birthday card and Bronski Beat's debut record: The Age of Consent.
The card that reads "you're generally quite lovely (except for your taste in music. which is frankly pretty shit.) hope this record caters to your (bad) taste. still love ya though! xx" has joined Donghyuck's wardrobe collage.
All in all, not a bad haul and Donghyuck can confidently say that he's had far worse birthdays.
There's no party though. Mostly because his mother would probably rather die than have a bunch of rowdy, uncivilised people trampling around her house and also because of the fact that Donghyuck, although popular at school, isn't popular in a way that warrants parties.
Dinner finished ages ago and the sun's long gone and Donghyuck's sprawled out on his bed, content and freshly showered. Sixteen doesn't feel that different to fifteen, even after you've scrubbed the old age off and down the drain.
A breeze that smells a bit like rain and hot asphalt drifts through the open window and Donghyuck thinks about getting properly dressed. The record he put on before heading into the shower has long since run its course and now he's just listening to the soft crackle that's left after the music stops.
This moment of peace is shortlived, however, when a shout from downstairs has Donghyuck shoot into an upright position.
"HYUCK-AH," his mother shouts, "SOMEONE FROM LONDON FOR YOU."
Donghyuck goes through his very short and not entirely plausible list of people who could be calling him from London as he hastily throws on some clothes. Various banks, health insurances and mystery men come into mind before he lands on the only name it could really be.
He clatters down the stairs and practically rips the phone out of his mother's hands who gives him a look and disappears back into the living room where the rest of the family are gathered around the television.
"Hello?" He says, trying not to sound too breathless.
It's Johnny and Donghyuck's heart swells to about the size of a volleyball.
"Yeah—yeah. Hi." His swollen heart is doing a great job of obstructing his vocal cords and he has to clear his throat a couple of times before he feels capable of speaking properly.
Johnny's tinny laugh echoes around his skull. "Your mum almost hung up on me," he says.
"Oh God, that's—that's embarrassing. Sorry, we just don't get a lot of calls from London."
In the living room, he can see his mother's head cocked subtly to the right, clearly trying to catch every word he's saying, so he clamps the receiver between his jaw and shoulder and tucks the cradle under his arm before slipping into the kitchen and settling himself at the kitchen table, balancing the phone cradle on a stack of outdated newspapers.
"It's no problem," Johnny says while Donghyuck makes himself comfortable, "she was very sweet once I explained myself."
"Ah, she's like that, yeah."
"A tad overprotective?"
Donghyuck snorts. "Just a tad."
A pause and Donghyuck thinks he can hear rustling on the other end of the line.
"It is the 6th, right?" Johnny asks quite abruptly.
"Yeah, it is. Yeah."
More rustling and Donghyuck sits and watches the ceiling while he waits for Johnny to speak again.
When he does it's in a soft sing-song.
"Happy birthday to you—"
A laugh bursts out of Donghyuck before he can stop it. "No, no—don't!" He says, his laughter chopping his protests into little pieces.
"—happy birthday to you. Happy birthday dear Donghyuck, happy birthday to you!"
Donghyuck's collapsed onto the kitchen table, his dopey grin and cheek pressed against the cold wooden surface.
On the other end, Johnny clears his throat and says, "I hope you could tell that I used to sing."
Pressing his free hand over his mouth Donghyuck sits up again. "You sounded wonderful," he says and tries not to sound too sincere. His grin, although not visible to Johnny, is clearly audible in his voice and Johnny laughs.
"You missed my birthday, sadly. But next year I'll make you sing for me."
In the living room, Donghyuck's family explodes with laughter about something on the telly and this brief burst of noise gives him enough to collect himself a little.
"Don't have much of a choice, do I?"
Johnny hums and Donghyuck can just imagine him wandering around his cramped London flat, barefoot and only with the skyline and a record player for company.
"I mean," he starts, hesitating slightly, "you have a bit of a choice."
"Really?" Donghyuck says, closing his eyes against the chatter from the living room.
But Donghyuck's set his mind on hearing something from Johnny. One sentence; just one.
"But you'd like me to sing, wouldn't you?" He says, not even pretending to be subtle.
A pause and Donghyuck waits, fingers clutched white-knuckle-tight around the receiver. He's not entirely sure why this suddenly became so important to him.
"Yes, Donghyuck," Johnny finally says and there's a smile playing around the edges of his tone, "I'd like to hear you sing."
Chapter 2: the railway arch confessional
August 12, 1986
Yuta is practically leaping out of his skin when Donghyuck opens the front door. His messy hair looks messier than usual and the studded leather jacket and torn jeans complete his look; a part-time punk that girls at Donghyuck's school would swoon over.
Behind him, Taeil is rocking backwards and forwards on the heels of his boots. He's dressed more appropriately for the sticky weather – a tight red T-Shirt with Support Your Local Hooker written on it and even tighter blue jeans clinging to his thighs.
But Donghyuck's gaze is drawn – as it has always been for the last couple of months – to Johnny, who's looming behind the other two, dark hair artfully arranged to partially hide the healing black eye he's been sporting since his return from London last week.
"You need to be quiet," he says as he ushers them inside, "my sister's sick."
Whispering and laughing amongst themselves they sneak upstairs while Donghyuck carefully plucks his keys off the sideboard, trying to make as little noise as possible.
When he makes it to his room Yuta's already sprawled across most of his bed with Taeil at the foot, balancing a heavy-looking Tesco's bag on his knees. Johnny's perched on the edge of his desk, idly flicking through one of Donghyuck's many textbooks.
It's quite bizarre seeing them all thrown together in Donghyuck's room like this.
"For starters," Yuta says, clapping his hands together, "you can't go out dressed like that." He stretches out and nudges Taeil with the toe of one of his heavily graffitied Converse. "Right?"
Donghyuck makes a strangled noise of protest. He didn't spend two hours of his life deliberating over what shirt to steal from his mother's wardrobe to be criticised like this.
"What are you talking about? He looks fine," Johnny pipes up, putting down the copy of European History: Grade 10 in favour of striding over to Donghyuck and looping an arm around his shoulders.
Yuta stretches out again and aims a not-so-gentle kick at Taeil's thigh. "Right?" He repeats with more emphasis and another nudge.
"Right," Taeil echoes a little half-heartedly.
Tugging at the hem of the pink, slightly psychedelic-themed shirt that's so worn it's one disastrous wash away from being sheer Donghyuck says, "Seriously? What's wrong with this?" And when Yuta opens his mouth he hastens to add, "And just so you know whatever you say against this shirt is a direct insult at my mum, so be careful."
Yuta closes his mouth again.
"It's the shoes," Taeil says after being kicked in the thigh again.
He makes a fair point because Donghyuck owns exactly four pairs of shoes. One expensive leather pair for church, a pair of ratty old trainers, slippers and a pair of snow boots that have only rarely seen the light of day.
Currently, he's wearing the trainers because if the night were to take a turn for the worse he won't lose his head to his mother's wrath. Something that is pretty likely if he were to wear his church shoes to a place that definitely isn't church.
"What's wrong with them?"
"Well—" Taeil starts, clearly unsure of how to proceed.
"People can be very particular about shoes," Johnny says, saving Taeil from stumbling through an explanation.
Donghyuck would be particular about his shoes too if he weren't 16, poor and living under his mother's very practical thumb.
"Which is why," Yuta jumps in, "we—well, I—got you these."
Fumbling a bit Taeil pulls a rather dusty pair of black brogues out of the bag and Johnny squeezes Donghyuck's shoulder when he makes a sound somewhere between a shocked gasp and a snort.
"Are you serious?"
"Life lesson numero uno," Yuta declares, swinging his legs off the bed, "shoes are important. People who think they're something special will judge you by your footwear."
Donghyuck's only half-listening. "Right," he says, reluctantly tearing his gaze away from the shoes, "but can I just ask how—how you got them? Please tell me you didn't buy them for me because I spent all my savings on stationery and if I have to pay you back for shoes I didn't ask for—by the way—then I'll cry."
"He didn't buy them, don't worry," Taeil says and stands up to hand Donghyuck the shoes. "You might have to wear two pairs of socks though. They're a bit big."
"Did you steal them?" Donghyuck asks and next to him Johnny tries to suppress a laugh, fingers digging in just above Donghyuck's collar bone.
Yuta rolls his eyes and says, "Y'know, I don't actually commit as many crimes as everyone seems to think. I'm actually quite law-abiding—"
He gets cut off by Johnny and Taeil bursting into laughter and Donghyuck's eyebrows rise up towards his hairline.
"So you stole them?" He asks once the others have calmed down a little.
"I borrowed them," Yuta corrects with a glare at Johnny who's pretending to wipe away a tear. "Borrowed," he repeats, "I borrowed them."
More laughter from Taeil but Johnny's got enough of a hold on himself to say, "You tricked—no, you did, don't argue—some poor girl, who was drunk out of her mind, into giving you her shoes."
Taeil has his face in his hands, hunched over his knees and shaking with silent laughter while Donghyuck, on the other hand, has adopted the air of a disappointed parent.
"You're a horrible person," he says, shaking his head.
"In my defence," Yuta says, holding up a hand to quell Taeil's wheezing coughs of laughter, "I've done worse things."
Taeil collapses again and Donghyuck just stares.
"How is that a defence?"
"He's soulless," Johnny says, wiping away a real tear this time, "but he means well."
Getting them back out of the house without his mother knowing ends up being a bit more of a challenge than expected. This is partly because Yuta can't whisper and Johnny's too tall to be quiet.
In the end, they sneak out through the kitchen, out into the garden and down the narrow path that separates the neighbour's house from theirs.
Donghyuck waits for 10 minutes before hurrying downstairs to join them, pausing briefly to shout, "Bye!" down the stairs where his mother is sorting washing in the cellar.
"Don't stay out too late," comes the reply but Donghyuck's already half-way out of the door, not giving himself enough time to feel guilty.
The sun is slowly starting her descent to the West but it's hardly noticeable against the bright blue of the sky which is making the day seem endless. It's a scorching kind of immortality that lends itself to Donghyuck for the evening as he wanders along the pavement and the rows of identical houses in the search of Taeil's old Sedan.
"Took you long enough," Yuta mutters as Donghyuck slides into the car.
"Well, you didn't exactly specify where you parked and this street is a lot longer on foot," Donghyuck argues and jumps slightly when Johnny leans across him to get his seatbelt.
He's been walking in the blistering heat for the last 15 minutes but Johnny's steadying hand on his thigh somehow burns hotter than the sun.
"We don't want a repeat of the May incident," he says with a smile that makes it sound like he's telling a secret.
And then they're off, Taeil's foot on the gas pedal and Yuta whooping in the passenger seat while Iggy Pop provides the perfect soundtrack to the houses and cars blurring into streaks of dusty colour around them.
"What did you tell your mum?" Johnny asks and Donghyuck wonders how he can think it's fair to ask him questions now when he still has a death grip on Donghyuck's thigh
"I, er, I said I was going to a study sleepover," Donghyuck stutters through the white static in his brain.
Johnny laughs and Yuta immediately turns around his seat, unhappy about being left out of the fun. "What did he say?"
"His cover story for tonight is that he's going to a study sleepover," Johnny says.
Yuta's cackling drowns out Donghyuck's half-hearted protests.
"We'll have to be extra careful when we drop you off tomorrow," Yuta says once he's finished laughing over Donghyuck's admittedly rather feeble excuses.
The flow of the conversation is briefly interrupted as they all cling onto something has the car goes hurtling around a tight corner and out into a surprise crossing that would've likely had them killed if it weren't for the fact that Taeil's very existence is infused with dumb luck.
"If we make it that far, you mean," Donghyuck half-shouts over Iggy Pop's raspy attempt at singing.
The downtown streets are crowded and loud with an early-evening kind of fervour. Summer's running out and everyone is trying to cram in fun, memories and bad ideas where they don't really fit anymore.
August – the month of opportunity and last-minute decisions
"Do your parents know about your train station gig?" Taeil asks as they worm their way through the bustling crowd. Above them, the sky has taken on the slightest hint of pink.
They're still in the conversational theme of all the stories Donghyuck's had to cook up to keep his parents off his trail and his general disinterest towards academic success. It's not something he talks about often – or at all, really – guilt and the lingering aftertaste of it make it an unattractive topic to discuss at length.
"They don't, no," he says, hoping his tone hints at his discomfort.
Taeil nods, understanding in a quiet older-brother kind of way that still feels unfamiliar.
The moment is gatecrashed by Yuta who falls between them and catches himself on Taeil's shoulder. "What did you tell them, then?" He asks, blind to Donghyuck's unease.
"I said I'm giving guitar lessons to some kid at school. They haven't really brought it up since."
Yuta laughs and Donghyuck allows himself a sheepish grin
"I can't imagine you teaching," Taeil says before ducking out from underneath Yuta's arm to pull a distracted Johnny back into their path.
"No," Donghyuck agrees, "neither can I."
"Can't imagine him doing what?" Johnny asks, stumbling slightly over the uneven cobblestones when he turns to walk backwards.
A cheer rises up from a knot of people walking in front of them and Yuta joins in just for the sake of making some noise.
"Can you imagine Donghyuck teaching?" Taeil asks over Yuta's racket.
Johnny fixes Donghyuck with a contemplative squint, so piercing and direct that Donghyuck can feel the blood rushing up his neck and into his cheeks and the tips of his ears.
"I don't think I can even imagine him being a student," he finally says after about a minute of rather intense staring.
"That's not fair," Donghyuck says, fighting a losing battle with the blush still sitting high in his cheeks, "I'm a model student."
Yuta's arm lands heavily around his shoulder as he says, "It's okay, Hyuckie—we're not your parents, you can be honest with us."
"Don't be a dick," Taeil cuts in, the placidity of his voice not quite matching the look he shoots over the top of Donghyuck's head at Yuta, who rolls his eyes but doesn't push the subject any further, retracting his arm and filling the slightly awkward silence with a blithe little hum.
A blast of music and hot, damp air suddenly hits them as a loosely organized group of skinheads spills out of an alley to their right. Their jeering shouts and the stomp of their boots blend into the general noise of the street, but otherwise, they stand out – pale in a potentially threatening kind of way against the darkening sky.
A pair of bony hands land heavily on Donghyuck's shoulders and waist and he's yanked sharply onto the opposite side of the street, briefly ducking through a hen party where Taeil snatches a tiara hanging off of one of the girls' handbags.
"Left, left, left— c'mon, I don't fancy getting my head kicked in tonight," Yuta mutters in his ear, fingers digging under Donghyuck's ribs.
Johnny's leading the way, one long stride for every two that the others make. He doesn't look behind him to check if they're still there, just blindly assumes. Bringing up the rear are Donghyuck and Yuta who are stumbling after Taeil who's acting as some kind of homing beacon, hard to miss in his bright red T-Shirt and sparkling tiara.
Soon – under the noise of the chattering Friday crowd around them – there's the distinct rattling scrape of a departing train, echoing through the air with a kind of grating perseverance.
Still weighed down by the weight of Yuta's arm draped over his shoulders Donghyuck looks up, craning his neck to catch sight of the silhouette of the railway bridge spanning across the bruising sky above them. Black and inky blue shadows against a pink and purple sky.
"C'mon," Taeil calls over his shoulder before ducking into the steady stream of people heading for the bridge's roomy underpass. Johnny's already a couple of steps ahead of him, the top of his head visible over the crowd.
"You heard the man," Yuta says, loud in Donghyuck's ear and before he can think of an appropriate retort they're off, dodging between gaggles of skimpily clad girls and harassed businessmen on the search of some relief.
Right, then left, then right again and then they're staggering into a side street lit up by an obnoxiously large neon sign proclaiming the existence and indicating the entrance to the Railway Arch Confessional.
There's confetti stuck in the cracks of the pavement and light the colour of diluted grapefruit juice is spilling out of the open door.
"Welcome, my dear boy," Yuta says, swinging around so that he's framed dramatically against the light, "to our local sanctuary of all things holy and shitty."
"Mostly shitty," Johnny adds, hopping out of the way as a pair of girls in the tightest dresses Donghyuck's ever seen totter past them.
"We're not here for quality—we're here for an experience."
It sounds ominous, but then most things that come out of Yuta's mouth do.
"They're shit," Donghyuck shouts over the racket that the band and the crowd are making.
Squished at the back of the club near the loos means that they only have a limited view of the band on the raised platform at the far end of the room, but Donghyuck's seen enough to be thoroughly unimpressed.
Everything is shrouded in murky red and pink light – made murkier by the smoke clinging to the air. There are mirrors on the ceiling which makes the whole room feel like a smaller part of a bigger and more confusing whole.
Next to Donghyuck Johnny's leaning against the nicotine stained wall, a glass of some unidentifiable amber liquid held loosely in one hand. "I know," he replies with a gleeful grin.
"No, seriously," Donghyuck insists, "they're bad. This isn't good music."
His grin now growing into vaguely manic proportions Johnny leans in and repeats, "I know!"
Donghyuck stares up at him, completely lost. "Why are we here then?"
Out of the corner of his eye, he can see Yuta dancing with no abandon a cigarette hanging from his lips and half an eye on a small, short-haired girl glaring at him from the bar. Taeil, on the other hand, is nowhere to be found.
"Because," Johnny shouts, looming right into Donghyuck's personal space, "think how much better we could be!"
"We?" Donghyuck asks, coughing slightly as the word threatens to get stuck in his throat.
"Us." Johnny swipes the hand holding his drink at the crowd, Yuta and wherever Taeil might be. Some of the stuff inside it sloshes over the rim and a few droplets hit Donghyuck in the face, dripping down his cheeks and nose and into his curiously opened mouth.
"Us," Donghyuck echoes, grimacing slightly at the drink's sweetness and the rather overpowering aftertaste of petrol and lemon.
Johnny's still grinning down at him and in the flickering pink and red light all his edges are softened out and the bruise around his eye looks like nothing more than a faint shadow.
In a fit of courage and a somewhat desperate need not to think, Donghyuck reaches out and plucks the drink out of his hand. Johnny lets him with no protest.
"This tastes horrible," Donghyuck mutters after taking a sip.
Johnny laughs. "I don't think it's the taste what made it popular."
They turn back to watch the band ruin the name of music on stage. The right ideas are there – warped, gritty guitars, a heavy bass and drum track and an eccentric, very wiggly singer. It's just the execution that's the problem.
"How are people dancing to this?" Donghyuck wonders out loud.
"I think they're too drunk to care," Johnny replies and they both watch as Yuta drapes himself over the bar's counter, way too gone for the slightly menacing glint in his eyes to come across as actually threatening.
On her part, the girl he's trying to chat up seems rather underwhelmed by his attempts.
"You should consider it, though. Seriously."
With some reluctance, Donghyuck tears his gaze away from Yuta's drunken attempt at flirting and says, "Consider what?"
"Us—starting a band." The grin on Johnny's face has been replaced by something that looks a whole lot like sincerity in the pulsing pink and red.
But before Donghyuck can swallow the lump in his throat and reply, a cheer rises up from the crowd on the dancefloor as the band slips into a clunky cover of the Kinks' You Really Got Me and Johnny pushes himself off the wall, chucking down the rest of his drink and stretching high enough that his fingertips almost brush the low ceiling.
"Think about it," Johnny shouts over the surge of noise and dives headfirst into the writhing mob on the dancefloor.
Donghyuck sways on the spot for a second, struggling to get free from a lingering, very 16-year-old sense of profound self-consciousness, but its the sight of Yuta with his tongue down the short-haired girl's throat and some of the liquid courage he'd stolen from Johnny that gives him the final push to trip out into the crowd where Johnny's waiting.
August 13, 1986
Waking up with a headache on the floor of what he can only assume is Yuta's living room in the clothes he was wearing last night is somehow both the lowest and highest point of Donghyuck's life so far.
A paradox that has a lot do with an urge to be free and a whole lot of guilt.
He sits up and the dull throb behind his temples is joined by a steady ache in his calves and thighs. It's a good kind of ache though, an ache you can only get if you spend a whole night dancing various troubles away.
Taeil is curled up on the sofa, looking deceptively small and innocent under the massive floral quilt that's been thrown over him. His tiara, Donghyuck notes distractedly, is still firmly in place.
Next to him is Johnny, his end of the quilt pulled up to his chin.
Yuta is nowhere to be found but that's not really a surprise. It's his flat after all.
Struggling a little against the blanket that someone must've been kind enough to provide him with Donghyuck gets to his feet.
There's just enough light filtering through the curtained windows for him to avoid tripping over his shoes. It's a muted, grey-ish kind of light that, combined with the eerie silence, only reinforces the feeling that they're sitting in a pocket of time, separate from the rest of the world.
He's leaning over the sink, trying to scrub off at least some of the glitter that's managed to stick to his hands, neck and face when a creak from the narrow hall leading further into the flat alerts him to someone else's presence.
It's the short-haired girl, barefoot and like most of them apparently also covered in a liberal amount of glitter.
"I think that's a lost cause, love," she whispers and Donghyuck drops the sponge back into the sink with a defeated sigh.
"It was worth a try."
They stand there in silence for a moment or two, the girl self-consciously tugging the shirt, which looks a lot like something Donghyuck's seen Taeil throw over some of his more questionable outfits, tighter around herself.
"Are you hungry?" Donghyuck asks.
"Starving," she says.
And that's how they end up standing in the kitchen sharing a box of Weetabix over one bowl of skimmed milk with the radio quietly discussing the charts and an underwater tunnel between France and the UK in the background.
It's a kind of peace that Donghyuck's never really experienced before.
"I heard that you guys are thinking of starting a band," the girl says, stabbing her spoon at one particularly stubborn biscuit.
Donghyuck chokes slightly. "We—what?"
"A band," she repeats with a raised eyebrow, "or was that just talk?"
"No—no, it's a, er, thing. That we're considering."
"Considering?" She echoes.
"Yeah, well," Donghyuck deliberately delays his reply slightly by shovelling a spoonful of now soggy cereal into his mouth, "I would have to ask my parents."
"That's not very punk-rock of you." She says it with a smile but it still bites and sinks into his skin.
"It's not that simple. I can't just do stuff and expect them to go along with it."
Her smile sours slightly around the edges as she says, "Oh, right—yeah. I guess they want you to become a doctor or something? I have a friend and her parents are from China and she's studying chemistry. Can you imagine?"
"They don't want me to become a doctor," Donghyuck says, trying to keep the defensiveness out of his tone, "they just want me to do well."
"And who says you can't do well in a band?"
Donghyuck stares at her. "Them and probably most people here," he replies.
"Doesn't mean that you shouldn't try," she counters and Donghyuck shoves another spoonful of cereal into his mouth to avoid replying.
August 16, 1986
It's only 10 o'clock in the morning but unusually sticky summer heat is already leaking in through the half-open back door. It spills over the yellowing tiles that Donghyuck's mother is fighting a losing cleaning battle with and further into the house where it'll no doubt stick to the walls until the sun goes down.
Under the gentle rumble of the washing machine and the mundane chatter of the radio, the kitchen is almost unnaturally quiet.
Donghyuck's standing with his back to the kitchen window, leaning against the counter as his mother piles dripping dinner plates and pans on the draining board for him to dry up.
What little of the garden he can see through the grimy glass of the back door is taken up by his little sister who's stretched out on the grass, her pale pink princess get-up marred slightly by grass stains and the muddy brown visage of the neighbour's cat.
The sunny peace of the outside does not quite make it past the threshold.
At the kitchen table, Donghyuck's dad is avoiding conversation from behind a copy of the Times.
But Donghyuck's been sitting on a thought for the last three days and the longer he keeps it to himself the worse the silences between them become. So there's nothing for it but biting the bullet and getting it over with.
"Mum," he says, addressing the parent least likely to make this all blow up in his face, "I've been thinking about something."
It's enough of an invitation for him to continue.
"You know Taeil, right? And Yuta and Johnny?"
The gentle soapy clatter from the sink stops briefly and Donghyuck focuses on the dust floating through a column of light in front of him. "Your…friends, yes? The Japanese boy and the other two?" She says and a dripping saucepan clangs down next to him.
"Yeah. Them—they're very nice, you know," he adds hastily.
"Hm. So I've been told."
Donghyuck sometimes lets himself forget how tight-knit the east Asian community here is. Or how often he's tried to sneak in flattering descriptions of his friends' more academic escapades in the hope that it'll soften their disposition.
He can't tell if it's worked yet.
"Well, yeah. Anyway. Johnny's brought up this idea and I've been thinking about it a lot. He's a session musician, by the way — did you know that? In London. He's really good."
"Get to the point, Hyuck-ah." It's less of a rebuke than a gentle nudge to the end of Donghyuck's nervous rambling.
He picks up another dripping pan to keep his hands occupied as he finally goes in for the figurative kill. "Right, okay. It's just, he's a musician, right? And so is Taeil—I mean, he's literally studying music, you can't get more dedicated than that. And Yuta's a musician too…in some way or another. And Johnny brought up this idea a while ago and I was just wondering…y'know…?"
A rustle alerts Donghyuck to his father who's pretending not to listen.
"What idea, love?"
"He wants to start a band," Donghyuck blurts out. "With me in it. As the singer."
The silence that follows is so pressurised that it almost feels like Donghyuck's lungs are about to collapse. An iron band tightening around his ribcage until —
It was to be expected but that doesn't stop disappointment and hurt hitting Donghyuck with the same sort of effect as getting hit by a train.
"No. No, absolutely not. You're in your final years of school now—the two most important years. The last thing you need is a distraction."
The dishcloth Donghyuck's holding crumples in his fists in an effort to control his voice when he says, "It's not a distraction. It's serious."
She's got her hands on her hips now, garish yellow gloves dripping suds down onto the floor. "No, no—it is a distraction. Don't think we've forgotten your report card, because we haven't."
There's an affirmative rustle from the kitchen table.
"And we haven't been saving money since you were a child just for you to throw it all away for some—some teenage fantasy."
"I can go to university whenever I like, it's not a one chance kind of thing."
"You won't be going anywhere if you throw these two years away."
A lump is building in Donghyuck's throat. "I'm not throwing them away," he argues, a clear note of desperation in his voice now.
"We'll be the judge of that. Or is it really your dream to get out of school and waste years of your life being unemployed?"
"If I go to university right away I'll just be depressed and unemployed with a university degree. Like the rest of the fucking country."
The profanity slips out before he can think and the room drains of light and colour leaving him frozen in place, trapped between the growing heat and his mother's icy gaze.
"No and that's final," she says and her voice is thunderously loud in the otherwise deadly silent kitchen. Then she lifts a slightly trembling hand and points at the door. "Room. Now. And I don't want to hear from you until dinner. Understood?"
"Yes," Donghyuck whispers, the word barely making it past the aching lump in his throat.
He's half-way down the hall when his father speaks up for the first time.
"When school starts I want you to see less of those friends of yours. You've already got enough bad ideas without some Japanese punk trying to worm his way into your head."
Donghyuck closes his eyes against the mixture of anger and bile that suddenly rises in his stomach. "Okay," he says, barely loud enough for him to hear himself over the roaring in his ears.
"Okay," Donghyuck repeats through gritted teeth before storming off upstairs.
August 23, 1986
"I've thought about it," Donghyuck says, twisting the phone cord around his wrist.
He's alone at home for the first time in what feels like years.
Actually, it's only been a week; a week of tense silences and cabin fever. In other words: one of the worst weeks of Donghyuck's still comparatively short life.
"Yeah?" Johnny hums, voice crackling down the line.
Donghyuck doesn't want to read anything into this, not more than he already does, but he knows he's not imagining the hint of something like hope clinging to the edges of Johnny's voice.
"Yeah," he says and then in a firm, no-bullshit voice adds, "I think we should do this—the band thing, I mean."
A loud clatter from the other end of the line has Donghyuck jerking the receiver away from his ear to avoid hearing damage, but seconds later Johnny's already back brushing away the static noise with an incredulous laugh.
"Are you serious?"
"Yes," Donghyuck laughs.
"Seriously? Don't you dare lie to me or I'll have a heart attack."
Tucking the phone cradle more securely under his arm Donghyuck starts waltzing around the kitchen, grinning so hard it's almost painful.
"Why would I lie?"
There's a stunned pause and then, "Fuck—I knew I could count on you. I knew it."
Donghyuck's happiness must be loud enough for Johnny to hear because he lets out another sort of breathless laugh and says, "See? This is why you're my favourite!"
"You're favourite what?" Donghyuck asks, coming to a rather abrupt halt.
"Just—" he can practically see Johnny gesticulating at the ceiling "—person. I don't know."
Light-headed, Donghyuck sinks down onto the floor. "Right," he says, but Johnny's already chasing a different train of thought.
"Okay, okay—we have to tell Yuta, obviously. He's been harping on about this since the dawn of time and he should be around if I'm not mistaken. Right?"
Donghyuck shrugs. "I'm grounded, remember?"
"Oh fuck, yes. Right. Of course. That's no problem I'll try and give him a call later today."
Johnny snorts. "If I tell Yuta then Taeil will definitely hear about it, don't worry."
They both lapse into silence. Donghyuck's mind is still whirling with a mixture of adrenaline, dopamine and all the lies and excuses he's going to have to come up with to keep this from his parents. Any kind of guilt has sunken back into the background noise of his brain.
"Are you sure about this?" Johnny asks, tugging Donghyuck out of his spiralling thoughts.
"Definitely," Donghyuck replies and tries to put his whole heart and soul into it.
After another moment of silence, Johnny says, "It's gonna be great. Trust me."
Donghyuck's back to grinning from ear to ear.
"I know," he says.
It’s a promise.
Chapter 3: burglary and fireworks
September 15, 1986
Sitting on an upturned mop bucket in a draughty garage with his history homework balanced on his knees is not how Donghyuck thought his Saturday would go, yet there he is.
Most of the usual garage clutter has been moved to the back, piled and stacked up against the wall in untidy heaps but effectively leaving a sizeable gap in the middle where they can all spread out.
Donghyuck for one is sharing his quiet little corner with Taeil, who's sitting on his own bucket, tapping a pencil at his still rather depressively barren notebook.
He's writing – or at least trying to write – lyrics.
Across from them, Yuta has set up camp in a deck chair with his guitar, a battered but clearly well-loved Fender strat, in his lap and a glass of what's mostly orange juice in one hand and a nervously twirling pen in the other.
Johnny's got the other deck chair and he's hunched over the pile of loose papers in his lap, furiously scribbling away while the other three stare blankly into space.
Yuta groans and lobs his pen across the room, narrowly missing Taeil who's staring down at his loosely connected scribbles with a look of vague bemusement.
"This feels like a mock exam," Donghyuck mutters, pulling his own sheet of half-thought-out lyrics out from under his history notes.
"Life is a mock exam. Life is the exam and it's mocking you—oh fuck off, I should've written that down not this" – Yuta waves the offending piece of paper in the air – "drivel."
"What did you write down?"
Shooting a glare at Johnny that would've killed someone less accustomed to Yuta's theatrics he sits up a little straighter and says, "Before I start I have to say that I don't usually write stuff under time pressure. This was supposed to be a song-writing session, not a fucking exam."
"You're ignoring the fact that we are under time pressure. Hyuck needs to be home by six so we're not exactly drowning in infinite time."
"Hey, don't put this on me," Donghyuck interjects.
"We just don't want to blow your cover," Johnny says, softening his tone considerably and making Yuta gag.
Donghyuck, not knowing how to reply, turns back to Yuta. "So what did you write?"
"Something utterly disgusting. Get ready."
They all brace themselves as he straightens out the paper with an unnecessary flourish.
"Honey-sweet," he reads, "filled with your love. Honey-sweet, honey-sweet. Let me hear you m—" he breaks off with a truly obscene moan and any semblance of composure Taeil and Donghyuck might have had disintegrates.
"I'm not done," Yuta calls over the other two's wheezing laughter. "Let me hear you m—my afternoon's are long without you, baby. I'm bouncing off the walls in the search of something to do."
Silence falls before Johnny, with seemingly great reluctance, says, "That's not…so bad…?"
"Do you have a tune for it?" Taeil asks, eyes still sparkling with unshed tears.
"I have like…a drum beat intro—"
"Ah, yes the one thing we still lack," Donghyuck mutters under his breath.
Yuta wraps his knuckles against the wooden armrests of his chair in a stuttering but generally rhythmic beat and starts to hum, nodding his head in encouragement when Johnny picks up his bass and starts plucking along to the beat.
"Obviously," Yuta says once the tune peters out, "I'd have to, y'know, write the rest of the lyrics but I think I'm onto something."
"See! I told you this method would work," Johnny says, tucking his bass between his knees.
"Oh, no, no—if we ever do this again I'll kill you."
"I'd like to see you try. Now, anyway—" Johnny adds, raising his voice a little to drown out Yuta's retort, "Taeil. What have you got?"
"So, er, I had a wet dream recently."
Yuta perks up immediately while Donghyuck ducks down behind his textbook to avoid at least some of the incoming mortification.
After clearing his throat a couple of times Taeil starts, "I'm standing in the pouring rain and I'm wondering: 'How do fish breathe?' It's a half-hour journey to yours and I'm suitably distracted. The fact is that I don't understand." He interrupts himself with a little jaunty hum before continuing. "Do they know top from bottom? The colour of the sky? What's blue to them? What's grey?"
"That's your wet dream?" Donghyuck asks, reappearing to snatch the piece of paper out of Taeil's unresisting hands.
"I was being literal."
"This isn't like a long, drawn-out metaphor for a hidden mermaid fetish is it?" Yuta asks while making grabby hands for the lyric sheet.
Donghyuck hands the paper to Johnny instead.
"If anyone were to write something like that it would be you," he says.
"Yeah," Taeil adds, "I have normal fetishes. Unlike someon—"
"Why didn't you read out the chorus?" Johhny says before the conversation can derail completely.
Taeil doesn't get a chance to reply before he starts reading aloud.
"It's a cold, dark world out there. Cocoon me in your daydreams, trap me in the gulf stream of the things you like. It's a cold, dark world out there. So I think I'll stay here. With you."
"Oh fuck off—that's so sweet," Yuta gurgles through a mouthful of orange juice.
"Who is it about?" Johnny asks, waggling his eyebrows.
Taeil has by now curled up into a little ball of embarrassment, knees pulled up to his chest and with his face hidden behind his hands.
"It's not," he starts, voice muffled by his palms, "like that."
"It's just...someone I used to know when I was in school."
Yuta plucks an aimless, twangy tune into existence and says, "That long ago, huh?"
Taeil, forever the reluctant good sport, just rolls his eyes and turns to Donghyuck.
"What did you write?"
"Okay. So. First off, I'm very sensitive so if you say anything even vaguely critical I will cry. My only demands are that you shower me in compliments and praise."
"Seems reasonable," Taeil says in a tone of voice which makes it quite difficult to tell if he's joking or not.
Donghyuck knows he’s blushing. He can feel it right up to the tips of his ears and down into the marrow of his bones. Every single red blood cell in his body has conspired against him and now he’s sitting here glowing like a dying lightbulb.
“Right. Okay. The working title is My Charlemagne.”
“Ooh, a historical one. Lovely.”
With a quick glare in Yuta’s general direction, Donghyuck starts to read.
“Fell through the cracks into my world. Are you gonna stay? If so, how long? How long can I keep this dream alive?”
Encouraged by the anticipatory silence he continues into the chorus:
“Conquered my heart and my mind in one fell swoop. My Charlemagne stay behind…stay and conquer me again.”
He can feel their gazes burn holes through his chest so he stays doubled over his knees, hunched protectively over where he’s splattered his heart across a wrinkled piece of paper.
Yuta is the first to speak.
“Is our Hyuckie-baby in love?”
“No! No—what? No. Gross.”
“Is it that girl?” Taeil, the one person out of the three of them Donghyuck thought he could trust, asks. “The one who’s into that Zedna thing or something.”
“It’s Zelda and no, it’s not about her.”
“Then who? C’mon, loverboy, crushes are to be overanalysed and agonised over together,” Yuta says and starts playing a slightly wonky rendition of the opening to Michael Jackson’s P.Y.T.
“You can write love songs without being in love,” Donghyuck argues.
“Can you though?”
“Your song—” Donghyuck starts but Yuta interrupts him.
“That wasn’t a love song. I haven’t been in love before so I’ve never written a love song. That drivel was about having a beneficial relationship with someone on a hot summer afternoon.”
“Friends with benefits,” Taeil supplies unhelpfully.
“But—” Donghyuck tries again.
“Ideas for songs don’t just come from nowhere. There has to be some emotional stimulant,” Johnny pipes up. It’s the first thing he’s said since Donghyuck read out is lyrics.
And he’s staring at Donghyuck – or simply looking – Donghyuck’s paranoid and panic-scrambled brain can’t really recognise the difference anymore, but it’s leaving him with the distinctly sickening feeling that Johnny’s seeing right through him, right past his ribs to where is heart is trying to climb out of his throat.
So in a moment of panic-induced brilliance Donghyuck holds up his history textbook and lets it fall open to one of the most heavily bookmarked chapters: Charlemagne and the Saxon Wars.
“I’m sorry boys, but my emotional stimulant isn’t as interesting as you thought,” he says in a very good imitation of someone who’s better at lying than he is.
Taeil’s squinting at a picture of the man himself squished between columns of nonsensical academic text. “Yeah, I’d be pretty disappointed if you had a crush on him.”
“A not-love-song about a Frankish-Germanic king, huh?” Johnny hums. “I don’t think that’s been written before.”
To avoid combusting with pride Donghyuck quickly says, “I don’t think anyone’s written a song about thinking about fish before either.”
It earns him a glowing look from Taeil and an appreciative snort from Yuta.
“Looks like we’re going to have to step up our game, Johnny-boy.”
He raises his glass in a mock-toast and Johnny shrugs and grins, raising an invisible glass in agreement.
Dinner is an awkward affair – it has been since the altercation in the kitchen – but this dinner, in particular, wallows in awkwardness since the youngest of family, the unknowing buffer zone between the other three, isn’t there. Instead, she's spending her time at a friend’s house where she isn’t in charge of filling silences at the dinner table.
The radio plays softly in the background as they all pick at their food. Laid out in front of them is an oddly worldly arrangement of dishes featuring kimchi, mashed potatoes, a slightly English-ified version of Bulgogi and French wine that Donghyuck is only allowed to look at.
“How was your study group?” His mother asks suddenly after about 15 minutes of agonising silence.
Staring down at the rivulets of gravy snaking their way through his mashed potatoes Donghyuck says, “As fun as study groups usually are.”
The icy silence his attempt at light-heartedness gets has him hastening to add, “No, no—it was fine. We did a lot of history revision, because there’s, you know, a lot of it.”
“What exactly did you do?” His father asks, somehow managing to sound like a police interrogator without directly looking Donghyuck in the face.
“European kings of the early middle ages mostly,” Donghyuck answers smoothly.
“Charlemagne, the Carolingian Dynasty—that sort of stuff.”
And with that they fall into silence again, all of them eating as quietly as humanly possible as not to disturb the fragile peace.
Then his mother makes another brave stab at conversation.
“Is that going to be important then? This Charlemagne?”
Donghyuck blinks down at his food, caught off guard by this unintentionally profound question. His mother obviously doesn’t know how profound it is, she doesn’t have the context of spending an afternoon in Taeil’s parents’ garage.
“I—” he starts, “I hope so.”
They start with covers.
Well, technically they start with properly clearing out Taeil’s garage but then when everything’s set up, they start with covers. They try simple stuff at first, some early and not so early Beatles stuff, the Kinks, etc, those sort of things.
It’s an exercise in getting to know each other in a more musical sense; how they play together, what works and what definitely doesn’t.
Jamming together with two guitars (one electric and one acoustic), a bass, a pianist and four relatively competent singers works out pretty great almost immediately. They get the song Taeil’s still working on – the one he’s by now titled Wet Dream, Damp Dream – down almost to the last verse.
But their practice sessions that focus on covers are hampered quite significantly by the fact that they don’t have a drummer, which if you want to start a rock ‘n roll group is quite essential.
September 27, 1986
“What we need is a drummer,” Yuta says, slamming a hand down onto the table and making the plates and cutlery rattle.
All four of them are squished around a table meant for three in a coffee shop that’s decorated in neo-Victorian decay. Grimy arched windows look out onto a quiet side street that in turn looks out onto a bustling high street.
It’s 10 o’clock in the morning on a day where Donghyuck should be in school. But he isn’t.
He was briefly, for assembly. Shouted here for the whole school to hear before disappearing in the boy’s toilets and pealing himself out of his school uniform. Underneath he’s wearing the tightest pair of jeans he owns and a thin, red woolly jumper. The blazer, trousers, shirt and tie all are stuffed out of sight in his rucksack.
“You look like a rent boy, Jesus Christ—c’mere,” was the first thing Yuta said when they all met up at the top of the high street.
Which is why Donghyuck’s sitting next to Taeil, wrapped up in Johnny’s generously loaned suede jacket that looks more like a coat on him.
“I’ve asked around,” Taeil volunteers, “but yeah…it’s not looking good. At least not from the uni standpoint anyway.”
“Yeah—‘I’d like to play for a band, but for a band that’s actually going to go somewhere’. Asshole.” This quote from Johnny comes from one of the few people from Taeil’s classes that they’d managed to rope into at least something resembling a conversation.
Every time to no avail.
“Looks like no one wants to be the only white guy in a band full of Asians,” Donghyuck mutters, plucking a cube of sugar out of the bowl sitting among all their various cups of tea and coffee.
“Cowards,” Yuta mutters under his breath.
They sit and nurse their hot drinks and half-formed ideas in silence for a while.
“We could put up an ad in the newspaper?” Taeil proposes after a while.
Johnny hisses through his teeth. “That’s expensive though. And even if we did, what would we write? Korean-Japanese-English band looking for a drummer?” He slaps a couple of air-quotes around the fictional ad tag-line. “As you said, none of them would want to be the only white guy. They’d be uncomfortable.”
Another bout of thoughtful silence.
“I’m hungry,” Yuta declares suddenly and Donghyuck who’d been busy letting another sugar cube desolve in his mouth sags in relief.
The words are barely out of his mouth and the waitress has already materialised next to their table. Donghyuck stares up at her in blank-faced surprise and so does Yuta.
“Gloria—I didn’t know you worked here,” he says, sounding as stunned as he looks.
It’s the short-haired girl from the Railway Arch Confessional and she’s as short-haired and abrasively pretty as ever, but her glittery silver dress has been replaced by a plain black skirt and blouse and a pair of shoes that look like they could crush a person’s skull with one well-aimed stomp.
“Clearly,” she replies, not entirely unkindly.
“Nice shoes,” Donghyuck blurts out before he can stop himself.
She shoots him a grin and says, “Thank you. They’ve kicked many people.”
To say that Donghyuck’s in awe of her is only a slight understatement.
“Anyway” – she turns back to the rest of the table – “what can I get you?”
“A second chance?” Yuta asks and yelps when Taeil kicks him under the table.
“Another coffee for me please and a…ham and cheese sandwich please,” Johnny says, skillfully ignoring Yuta’s dramatics next to him. “Oh, and a blueberry muffin for the little one,” he adds much to Donghyuck’s mortification.
“Little one?” He hisses indignantly but it only makes Johnny reach across the table and ruffle his hair, leaving him blushing for right and wrong reasons.
“I’ll have a slice of chocolate cake and another cup of tea, thanks,” Taeil says and now Yuta gets his chance to redeem himself.
“I’ll have another cup of coffee and six jam tarts. Please," he adds quickly when her eyebrows start rising towards her hairline.
With their orders scribbled down on her little notebook she disappears again, leaving behind only a puff of dust and the cloying smell of lavender.
“You depress me,” Johnny says the moment she’s gone.
This is directed at Yuta who’s buried his face in his hands.
“I know,” he groans.
“A second chance? What are you—sixteen? No offence, Donghyuck.”
Donghyuck shrugs. “None taken, you were stupid and sixteen once too, remember.”
“I don’t know why I said that,” Yuta whines, reluctantly peaking through his fingers. “Why did you let me say that?”
“Contrary to popular belief I don’t actually know what’s going on in your head. Ever.”
Yuta disappears back behind his hands with a muffled sound of despair. “I’m an idiot,” he says and Taeil laughs, reaching out to pat him on the head.
“Don’t worry. She might think that’s cute.”
Yuta’s noises of despair grow in volume and Donghyuck turns to Taeil.
“You really always know what to say, huh?”
Shrugging with fake modesty Taeil replies in a softly teasing imitation of Donghyuck, “It’s a talent of mine.”
A couple of minutes later Gloria reappears, balancing a ladened tray in the crook of her arm. They watch her approach in expectant silence, like a bunch of hungry baby birds watching one of their parents fly back to the nest.
“A blueberry muffin,” she says and Donghyuck accepts the plate with a quiet nod of thanks.
“Coffee and a ham and cheese sandwich—here you go.” The remainder of the food gets distributed relatively quickly and she’s on her way back to the counter when she’s seemingly hit with a sudden brainwave and turns on her heel.
“You need a drummer, right?”
Yuta chokes on a jam tart and Taeil kicks him again.
Johnny, on the other hand, manages to retain some form of dignity as he stares up at her with big, hopeful eyes. “We do, yes,” he says.
“Well,” she starts, hesitating slightly for the first time, “I know someone who could…try-out for the position. If you wanted?”
“If we wanted?” Yuta chokes. “Are you kidding? We’re desperate.”
She eyes him for a second before saying, “Yeah…I can tell.”
“Who?” Taeil, Johnny and Donghyuck chorus.
Twirling her pen between her fingers she looks each of them directly in the face, a methodical risk assessment, before speaking.
October 1, 1986
Band meeting number whatever-the-fuck is joined by an elephant that takes up so much room Donghyuck’s finding it rather difficult to breathe.
“So let me just…go over that again,” Yuta says, fingertips slowly massaging his temples as if he’s trying to physically extract an oncoming headache. “You can play the drums but you don’t own a drumset? Did I hear that correctly?”
“You did,” Gloria says, nodding.
For once they’re not holding court in Taeil’s increasingly cold garage but in the living room. Autumn is well and truly upon them, winds are whistling through the streets and leaves in various colours of orange and brown are battering against the windows.
The wind comes with a chill that makes the garage almost inhabitable and even the living room has chilly patches that multiply every time anyone moves.
Which is why Donghyuck’s sharing an armchair and body heat with Taeil; curled up on his lap with a cup of lemon fusion tea in his hands and his cheek pressed against the soft material of Taeil’s hoodie that proudly proclaims that: This Dad is BAD!
“But your ex-boyfriend does own a drumset. Yes?"
Yuta caves and puts his whole face in his hands.
“Right,” he says, “okay.”
“Listen,” Taeil interrupts before he can get any further, “I really need the loo so if we could cut this short and all just agree that we’re going to steal her ex-boyfriend’s drumkit, that would be lovely.”
Both Donghyuck and Gloria raise their hands immediately and Taeil extracts his hand from around Donghyuck’s waist to put it up into the air too.
Yuta is still hunched at his end of the sofa looking like the physical embodiment of a headache and Johnny is wearing the expression of the morally conflicted. Sometimes Donghyuck forgets how very American Johnny still is.
Morals—in this day and age?
“If it makes you feel any better,” Gloria says and reaches out to pat Johnny’s knee, “he’s a cokehead and studying art and photography.”
“I don’t know…” Johnny starts but she stops him with a wave of her hand.
“He takes black and white pictures of underage girls and thinks he’s Robert fucking Mapplethorpe or something. Trust me—he’s a piece of shit.”
It’s all the convincing Johnny needs and by this time Yuta’s also managed to expel any of his lingering doubts.
“So we’re in agreement then? We’re going to steal a drumkit?”
“Great, great—” Taeil says and starts untangling himself from Donghyuck before hurrying down the hall to the bathroom.
“Is that why you broke up with him?” Johnny asks and Gloria who’d been distractedly leafing through a copy of the Radio Times blinks up at him in surprise.
“It was that and other stuff, you know? He used to like taking pictures of me when I was asleep after we’d…y’know…and then he went and put those pictures in one of his fucking exhibitions or whatever and I told him to take them down, he wouldn’t and so I went there and defaced them all.”
“Cool,” Donghyuck says.
She sighs. “Yeah, well—he ended up just renaming the exhibition the Mutilation of the Beautiful Unaware and it gained more traction.”
“Oh. I take the cool back.”
“Can we fuck up his flat a bit while we’re there?” Yuta asks.
“Abso-fucking-lutely,” is the firm reply.
October 5, 1986
Donghyuck has learned a lot in the last eight months.
Like that the best time to charm money out of commuters is around 7 o’clock in the evening and that coffee tastes alright when you drink it with people who hate it as much as you do. He’s learned that to avoid getting caught sneaking out he needs to jump over the second-to-last step on the staircase and he’s realised that he’s the only one in his strange little accumulation of friends who thinks one o’clock in the morning is late.
Which is why he’s standing on the corner of Tattam Street shivering in the cold and fighting off yawn after yawn.
It’s a dark, miserable moonless night and Donghyuck has dressed for the occasion: black jeans, black pullover and his school shoes which are the only black shoes that he owns.
The occasion is a burglary. A robbery. A crime. They’re going to commit theft (or larceny if you’re feeling wordy). It turns out the English language has a lot of words for this very specific kind of crime and the longer Donghyuck stands in the cold and thinks about it the louder the buzzing in his ears seems to get.
A distinction has to be made, however, because, although they are committing a crime by stealing this dickhead’s drumkit, they aren’t breaking and entering.
But that’s just because Gloria still has a key to his flat.
He’s just starting to consider dropping down onto the curb to feel properly sorry for himself when headlights flash in the distance and the wind stills, giving Donghyuck a short second of peace before picking up again.
There’s another car behind Taeil’s ugly, old Sedan – a Ford Anglia, glistening cherry red in the streetlights; the picture of subtlety.
“See,” Yuta exclaims as the car pulls up beside him, “I told you he wouldn’t be wearing a jacket.”
“I don’t own a black jacket,” Donghyuck says defensively.
“Your school blazer’s black,” Gloria points out, poking her head out of the open driver’s side window. She, like the rest of them, is also dressed from head to toe in black and in the uneven fluorescent light, even her eyes are black.
“Yeah, but you’d think that the school crest is a bit of a giveaway if we get caught.”
“The little one has a point,” Taeil, who’s going to be shorter than Donghyuck in a couple of months if Donghyuck and his nighttime growth spurts have anything to say about it, says with a grin that tells everyone that he knows what kind of thin ice he's treading on.
“Anyway,” Yuta interrupts, “you’re with Taeil and Johnny, who by the way was considerate enough to bring you something to wear.”
Donghyuck obediently hops off the pavement and clambers into the back of Taeil’s car which has gone through a clean-up and some questionable modifications in anticipation of their drumkit heist.
“Ye of little faith,” he mutters in a suitably sarcasm laced tone to hide the flush in his cheeks when Johnny turns around and passes him a black corduroy jacket with silver buttons that glint happily in the rhythmic flash of the passing streetlights.
The ex-boyfriend’s abode is a dismal little Edwardian terrace house complete with an unruly hedge, a rusty iron fence and gate and a crumbling path that’s slowly being invaded by the surrounding overgrown lawn. It’s truly depressing, a perfect picture of university student life. The bay windows of the living room are dark and curtainless, staring out at them with unmistakable suspicion.
“This is nice,” Taeil whispers before unceremoniously sticking his hand into the hedge. When he removes it again it’s covered a thousand bloody little scratches, some with thorns still sticking in them, and holding half a bird’s nest and a condom wrapper.
“Gross,” Yuta and Donghyuck chorus when Taeil puts the wrapper in his pocket.
“I’m waiting until we’re inside so I can put it in the bin,” he hisses.
“You do realise that littering isn’t actually that big of a problem, right?” Yuta asks.
“It is,” Taeil argues, wincing slightly as Donghyuck starts pulling some of the thorns out of the back of his hand, “they’ve issued leaflets.”
Their quiet bickering goes unnoticed by Gloria and Johnny who are at the front of their little procession, fiddling with a handful of keys under the light of a torch Johnny had been clever enough to bring.
“That’s what they choose to write leaflets about,” Yuta sneers. “Littering. It’s not like there are thousands of people dying every year now—no, it’s fucking littering that’s the real problem.”
“Leaflets don’t do much,” Donghyuck says mildly. “No one reads them.”
“I do,” Taeil says.
“I’m just saying that even though no one reads leaflets it would be good for the government” – he throws a pair of air-quotes around the word – “to release at least something with scientifically approved warnings and help on it so people can stop getting all of their information from the fucking tabloids.”
“They could maybe strong-arm the press into putting actual information into their magazines and stuff,” Donghyuck says in a vague attempt to add something not drenched in pessimism to the conversation.
“As if the Daily Mail would ever be caught dead printing anything genuinely helpful,” Yuta mutters, clearing his throat to continue the rant that he’s now visibly warmed to.
“Got it!” Gloria exclaims in a hoarse stage whisper cutting short whatever else Yuta had to say about their government. The front door swings open with an ominous creak.
The first thing that hits Donghyuck, who’s never really been in many houses that are owned and lived in by other people, is the smell – damp carpet, dust and the lingering bitter tang of sour milk. It’s a combination of smells that sticks to the walls and makes Donghyuck afraid of touching anything. Thankfully the sleeves of his jacket reach all the way past the tips of his fingers which makes steadying himself on a mysteriously cluttered sideboard in the hall a little less traumatising than it could've been.
“Jesus Christ—this place is a dump,” Yuta hisses in something that can barely be categorised as a whisper. “How did you date someone who lives like this?”
They edge further down the hall, past a crooked poster of Che Guevara and a bunch of loosely organised polaroids that cover the faded paisley wallpaper until they reach the door that leads into the living room.
“Let’s not hang around,” Johnny says, giving the barely identifiable mess in the living room a pitying look before turning on his heel and herding them all towards the narrow staircase.
But before they can start making their ascent a creak from the landing above makes them all freeze. Immediately all eyes land on Gloria who mouths a silent, “What the fuck?”
Another creak and then a light flickers to life.
“Who’s there?” A voice calls. “There’s no point in robbing this place. Everyone who lives here is poor.”
Pinching the bridge of her nose Gloria says, “It’s me, Carl. Gloria? Remember?”
A dishevelled, curly-haired head appears around the bannisters and stares down at them in undisguised astonishment. Then the rest of his body slowly becomes visible as he creeps down the stairs before stopping abruptly a couple of steps above them.
“Hi,” Johnny says brightly, rearranging his face into his most American, customer-friendly grin which only succeeds in making Carl take a step back up the stairs, clearly unnerved. After an elbow in the ribs from Taeil Johnny drops the grin and clears his throat.
“Er,” Carl starts, his gaze flickering from Gloria to the others with almost dizzying speed. “Hello.”
“Sorry for waking you,” Taeil says.
“Yeah, we didn’t think anyone would be home,” Yuta adds.
“Is Nick out?” Gloria asks. She’s adopted the tone Donghyuck’s heard kindly police officers on telly use on terrified witnesses when they’re too shaken up to provide any useful information.
“I—yeah. He is.”
“Right,” Gloria says, still in that odd patronising tone. “How out are we talking here? Gone to the shops out or left the country out?”
“The Coventry kind of out,” Carl says and then hastily adds, “I’m sorry, but why—what are you doing here? I thought you and Nick broke up?”
“We never dated per se.”
“Oh?” Yuta pipes up and she rolls her eyes, obviously not too keen on staying on this subject for very long.
“We just—y’know…fucked. A couple of times. A bad idea really—in all possible ways. I mean, fuck, he wasn’t even that good of a lay, you know? The only big thing about him was his ego.”
She says all of this very, very quickly but it doesn’t really matter because Donghyuck hadn’t heard the last bit, too busy trying to pry Yuta’s hands off his ears.
“But why,” Carl says and now he’s the one adopting the patronising police officer voice, “are you here? With these people—who are you, by the way?”
“Friends of Gloria,” Johnny says with a toned-down version of his earlier grin.
“And enemies of Nick,” Donghyuck finishes.
“Look, Carl. If I tell you what we’re about to do will you promise not to tell a soul?”
“I—” Carl stutters but Gloria doesn’t let him finish, taking two steps up the stairs so she’s right in his face.
“Because if you snitch on us I’ll personally make sure you live joyless life for the rest of your time on this miserable excuse of a planet, understood?”
Poor Carl is staring down at her like she’s the physical incarnation of horror and hell, maybe she is – Donghyuck wouldn’t be surprised. The threat works, unsurprisingly, and Carl, in all his wide-eyed, uncombed magnificence stumbles out of her way and flattens himself against the wall.
“I don’t even like Nick,” he says as they march past him up the stairs, “he’s a dick and he never does the dishes.”
In the biggest bedroom of the house, they find the drumset; dusty and a little careworn but all-in-all relatively intact.
“Quite a disproportionate threat you magicked up there considering what we’re about to do,” Johnny says while pacing around the kit with a screwdriver in one hand and his torch in the other.
“There is no time for situationally appropriate threats when there are drumkits to be stolen and music to be made," Yuta sing-songs. Then he clicks his heels, claps his hands together and grabs both Taeil and Donghyuck by the collars of their jackets and says, tone taking a turn for the conspiratorial, "Now, let's commit some crime.”
Chapter 4: paradise syndrome
October 30, 1986
“No, no—stop. Stop!”
Everyone grinds to a reluctant halt for what is probably the fourth time in one very long hour. Taeil’s head thumps down onto his keyboard and the discordant jangle of sounds only adds to the heavy, irritated atmosphere permeating the air.
“God—this again,” Gloria mutters, clambering over the drumkit and dumping her tambourine into an empty guitar case before disappearing into the house, probably in the search of a drink and some much-needed relief.
“What?” Donghyuck snaps, rounding on Yuta who’s trying to school is face into an expression of calm disapproval. It doesn’t seem to be working.
“Would it kill you to sing with a little more enthusiasm,” he says, acid lacing his tone.
“Oh, I’m sorry,” Donghyuck bites back, “just please tell me how I’m supposed to sing this bloody song enthusiastically.”
The strap of Taeil’s Les Paul guitar is digging into his shoulder, an almost painful itch that’s becoming more distracting with every second. That, the building headache just behind his eyes and Yuta’s frequent, and often nonsensical stops are just adding to his foul mood.
“Croon—don’t drawl,” Yuta instructs.
Donghyuck stares at him. “All Lou Reed does is drawl,” he argues.
“Then sing like yourself, not Lou Reed!”
“I can’t. I can’t sing a song like myself – and definitely not enthusiastically – when I don’t like the song."
Behind Yuta Johnny has sunk down onto one of the two amps they’d managed to acquire (steal) with a carefully blank look on his face. It’s not encouragement exactly but it helps Donghyuck stand his ground when Yuta blanches with unmistakable indignance.
“What do you mean you don’t like the song?” He says, apparently genuinely shocked at the idea that someone could not like every damn song the Velvet Underground has ever brought into existence.
“It’s dull,” Donghyuck says, “and it drags on and on.”
“It does not,” Yuta protests and Donghyuck rolls his eyes.
“It’s slow,” he says.
“Not slower than most.”
“Yeah, but not all slow songs charm their listener and singer to sleep, do they?”
“He has a point,” Johnny says quietly and Yuta turns on him, his guitar swinging violently with the force of his movements.
“Do you get some kind of sick kick out of siding with the kid?” He says and the implication, although not serious, makes Donghyuck’s stomach turn.
“No,” Johnny says, calmness layered with exasperation, “I’m just saying that there are more…exciting songs in their discography and if you’re so bent on covering one of them then we should do one of the ones that actually go somewhere.”
“Thank you,” Donghyuck says.
“Pale Blue Eyes is their second most popular song,” Yuta says like that means anything.
“Then let's do their most popular song and sell out,” Taeil suggests, hands folded in his lap and with his forehead still pressed to the keys of his keyboard.
Yuta doesn’t look happy but Johnny’s already back on his feet, marching across the limited space in three large strides to pick up one of the many shoeboxes housing their collective cassette and record collection.
After a thorough peruse of Yuta’s extensive Velvet Underground collection they settle on a song from their fourth album: Oh! Sweet Nuthin’. It’s a slow song, but with a quality that makes Donghyuck sway happily as he reads the lyrics off of the back of the record cover.
When he turns Yuta’s settled back into a nicer version of himself and Johnny is watching him with a smile that has Donghyuck’s gaze dropping down to where his fingers are tapping restlessly against the neck of his bass for a fear of seeing something that isn’t there.
“We can play this one,” Donghyuck decides when the song drifts into silence. “But—”
Yuta’s celebration comes to an abrupt halt.
“I want to sing at least one Dusty Springfield song.”
“It’s a compromise, Yuta,” Donghyuck says. “I’ll tolerate your hard-on for Lou Reed and you will tolerate some music that people can actually dance to.”
“Sounds fair,” Taeil interjects before Yuta can stutter out a retort.
"Does it?” He manages to squawk.
“Have you ever actually listened to a Dusty Springfield record?” Johnny asks.
“No,” Yuta admits somewhat petulantly, “have you?”
Johnny shrugs and his gaze flicks over to Donghyuck as he says, “No, but Donghyuck here always avoids my questions about music so I’m looking forward to finally hearing what he likes.”
“If you don’t like Dusty Springfield then I’m out of the band,” Donghyuck threatens from behind the safety of a well-worn copy of the Rolling Stones’ Sticky Fingers album.
November 4, 1986
A winter chill is starting to set in which is why Donghyuck’s huddled underneath one of Johnny’s roomy jackets and a blanket that smells like cigarettes and the sickly sweetness of fabric softener.
It’s earlier than you’d think what with dusk already pressing in against the windows and the clock’s slow ticking towards the end of the four hours of peace that Donghyuck allows himself per day.
Yuta and Taeil are quietly waltzing along to the shipping forecast theme in the kitchen while a pan of leftover stew heats through on the stove. The picture perfect example of platonic domesticity.
This illusion of peace Donghyuck’s spying on is interrupted, however, when one of Johnny’s hands lands heavily on Donghyuck’s left knee and he’s wrenched back to the present by the tingling electric shock the unexpected touch sends racing up his spine.
“What you got there, Hyuckie?”
The math textbook slips out of Donghyuck’s grip, landing on the floor with a heavy thunk and they both stare down at the sprawl of notes on analytic geometry that spread out under the coffee table.
“Oh,” is all Johnny says and Donghyuck, who’d been hiding the beginnings of something like a nervous breakdown under either incessant chatter or prolonged periods of silence, makes a tiny helpless noise in the back of his throat. It’s a noise that’s been sitting in his chest for over an hour and now that it’s out he can feel a different kind of pressure building.
“I’m fine,” he says, ducking to pick up his things.
The grip Johnny has on his thigh tightens briefly in a comforting squeeze before disappearing and the pressure behind Donghyuck’s ribcage lessens a little. He can still feel the leftover heat, however, burning right down to the bone.
“D’you remember that song I told you about?”
With some effort, Donghyuck straightens out his face into an expression of polite interest.
“Maybe?” He says, trying for casual and landing somewhere closer to strained. “Why?”
Johnny, unlike Donghyuck, doesn’t bother to disguise the frank confusion on his face, but this frankness only succeeds in hardening Donghyuck’s resolve to hide his – well, whatever it is that’s lurking just beneath the surface of his consciousness.
“I—well, do you want to help?”
Donghyuck blinks. “If—yeah. Sure. Are you sure?”
“I wouldn’t be asking if I wasn’t sure,” Johnny says, exchanging his frown for a smile and Donghyuck hastily looks away.
November 7, 1986
“But what does Waterhouses’ stylistic development in the mid-1880s tell us about the era he was a part of? What sets him apart from the rest of the artists influenced by the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood?”
Hands around Donghyuck shoot up into the air while he, in contrast, hunches down lower towards his desk.
He hasn’t slept – at least not enough – and the beginnings of a cold are making the increasingly lengthy practices in Taeil’s garage seem more like a prolonged form of torture than anything else. The draughty classrooms and halls aren’t helping either and so he’s sitting, squashed in the back of the classroom with a thick, red woolly scarf wrapped around his throat and mouth.
This at least has the effect of the teachers mostly leaving him alone.
On his desk, under the notes about Waterhouse, Millais and Hunt there’s a piece of paper, frayed at the edges and worn thin by use. There Donghyuck’s handwriting is joined by Johnny’s and a doodle from Taeil depicting the Devil as a cat.
“What a shame to waste a pretty sky on an evening like this / Exchange the kiss with a fist and tell me who I’m supposed to be.”
This is written in Johnny’s handwriting and Donghyuck distractedly runs a thumb over the smudged, slanted letters before moving on to where he had squished something resembling a chorus into the margins.
“Drenched in pretty pink / Baby you’re a cotton candy horror show / Scare me to death.”
That’s as far as he’s gotten and underneath that Johnny’s already written out most of the other two verses and the bridge. He’s left the responsibility of a chorus up to Donghyuck which he personally thinks is a bit stupid – who on Earth hands a 16-year-old responsibility?
“That doesn’t look like art history,” a voice whispers almost directly in his ear and Donghyuck flinches, slamming a hand down over the lyric sheet with such force that his whole forearm goes numb, fingers tingling with promises of pain.
The girl next to him – lanky, with unnervingly large dark eyes and cloudy brown hair – quickly pulls herself back to her desk and Donghyuck’s left alone under the sudden scrutiny of the teacher and the rest of students.
“Is there a problem, Mr Lee?”
“I—” he starts, “I’m sorry, there was an insect.”
After a couple of uncomfortable seconds, the teacher relents.
“Try and keep the melodramatics out of my classroom then, alright? It’s an insect, not an enemy government agent.”
Donghyuck shrugs, slowly and inconspicuously crumpling the piece of paper in his fist. “It won’t happen again,” he says.
The lesson picks up again and Donghyuck spends the next 20 minutes studiously ignoring the attempts from the girl next to him as she tries to get his attention. Her name – to most people – is Natalie, but for Taeil she will always be the Zedna Girl who talks the way horses gallop (incredibly fast) and has the brilliant charm that has kept her on the good side of Donghyuck’s parents for almost two years now.
Not that that stops her from being an insufferable twat sometimes.
“So what was that all about? Eh?”
Donghyuck is marching down a crowded hallway lined with heaps of discarded school bags and awkward eighth-year attempts at modern art. He’s expertly dodging the screaming hoards of first year’s and the long, tired looks of his teachers but all of this is useless in the face of Natalie’s sheer tenacity and the fact that she can’t keep her nose out of other people’s business.
“It’s nothing,” he throws over his shoulder and slips around the passionate gesticulating of a group of girls in front of him.
Behind him Natalie unapologetically crashes through the group and makes a wild grab for the back of his coat, fingers digging into his back as she uses the element of surprise to propel herself forward before easily falling into step beside him.
There’s no getting rid of her now and Donghyuck grudgingly accepts his fate.
“So?” She presses. “What was that?”
He gives her a sideways look. “None of your business.”
“Who else are you gonna tell then?”
She has a point.
Avoiding the massive traffic jam that is the main staircase Donghyuck grabs her hand and pulls her along a different hall – this one decorated with enthusiastic but artistically lacking pop art and posters about the plague – and to a narrower and much less crowded flight of stairs.
“If I tell you,” he whispers and she ducks to hear him properly, “do you promise not to tell anyone else?”
That gets him a short but loud laugh and a funny look from a passing fifth-year.
“Who the fuck do you think I would tell?” She asks and again: she has a point.
Both he and Natalie are popular in school the way usefully intelligent kids usually are. On a friendly basis with everyone because you never know when you need to find them to copy their notes or homework. It’s a peaceful if slightly isolating existence, but a step up for Donghyuck who had spent most of his late childhood and early teens antagonising everyone within reach.
Except for Natalie, who was left unimpressed by his attempts and promptly decided to do the obnoxious thing and become his friend.
“Good point,” he concedes.
“So is it for this band you’re in?” She asks.
“What do you think?”
She ooh’s appreciatively, even more wide-eyed than usual and Donghyuck can’t help the slightly smug grin that’s twitching at the corners of his mouth.
“You write your own songs then?”
“Have you written anything?”
He gives her a look. “I wouldn’t be making a big deal out of this if I hadn’t.”
They hop down the final three steps and then duck around a corner and a knot of loudly arguing students, arms linked and their steps synced up in an almost militaristic march.
“This is serious isn’t it?” Natalie asks. “This band thing.”
Donghyuck shrugs. “They’re taking it pretty seriously.”
“And you’re not?”
In the distance, the noise of the school cafeteria is starting to drown out their conversation and Donghyuck has to lean in to be heard.
“I’m just—I’m being cautious.”
Natalie snorts, unimpressed. “That’s a new one,” she says and smartly skips a step when Donghyuck tries to trip her up.
“I can’t just go into this with like—just blind optimism, can I? I have to be sensible.”
Her grip on his arm tightens as she replies, “Sensible-shmensible—look at you! You and your singing and songwriting and your uni friends. This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity so the least you can do is stop being such a miserable prick about it.”
“Encouraging,” Donghyuck says, dry as the desert.
“You’re gonna be famous, compadre.”
And that manages to bring an unabashed grin to Donghyuck’s face and some of the bone-deep fatigue – both physical and in a lesser extent, mental – that had been plaguing him for the last two weeks lifts just a bit; enough for him to take one deep breath and say, “Well—if my parents let me.”
November 10, 1986
“We ‘ave a probl’m,” Yuta mumbles through a disturbingly large bite of a BLT.
It’s a Friday and a surprise bout of icy rain and nasty wind has them holed up in the untidy depths of Yuta’s apartment. They’re all there; Donghyuck and his ever-growing workload, Johnny, Taeil, Gloria, instruments and their amps which have grown into a small group of three. Only one of them was acquired legally but Donghyuck’s been told not to think about that too hard.
“Just the one?” He asks, not looking up from where Shakespeare is currently revolutionising the English language and giving him a headache all across his now quite extensive repertoire of notes.
The flimsy plastic bag from the Morrisons Local that Yuta had been holding gets dumped unceremoniously somewhere near the shoe rack by the door and Taeil proceeds to crawl over on his hands and knees to retrieve something edible and a can of beer.
“Unless you got any to add?” Yuta says. “You’re of the teenage-persuasion, are you not? I’m sure you’ve got enough deeply personal problems to go around.”
“Don’t be a dick,” Donghyuck mutters, keeping his gaze trained on his increasingly cramped handwriting and not on where Johnny’s has taken an interest in their conversation.
“So what problem have you conjured up for us to solve?” Gloria asks.
“Right—right, yeah. So. We’re getting pretty good, aren’t we? We’ve got at least like—what? Three original songs in the bag? And plenty of covers. Right? It's all going pretty well.”
They stare at him and, hesitating slightly, Johnny says, “Right…?”
Yuta waves a hand and they all collectively duck to avoid the bits of lettuce and drops of mayonnaise that go flying through the air. “Aren’t we missing something?”
“Basic decency?” Johnny asks and reaches out to flick some lettuce out of Taeil’s hair.
“A name!” Yuta crows. “A band name! We are nameless.”
He sinks down onto the carpet and shoves the rest of his sandwich into his mouth. Donghyuck watches him in distracted fascination, trying to remember the last time he saw Yuta ingest anything solid.
“Gimme,” he says, bread crumbs flying all over the carpet and his lap and Donghyuck tears out a sheet of paper and hands him a pencil. “So—any ideas?”
A moment of silence and then:
“How about,” Taeil starts and Gloria groans, “the Likely Lads?”
Yuta snorts and writes it down while Johnny and Gloria voice their misgivings about the proposed name.
“I’m American,” Johnny points out, amping up the accent enough to make Donghyuck wince, “I can’t be in a band that has a name with the word lad in it. It’s illegal.”
“And I’m a girl," Gloria adds, forever pointing out the obvious. “So if we’re going to call this band any variation of that it would have to be the Likely Lads AND Lasses.”
“This is stupid,” Donghyuck mutters and Taeil rounds on him.
“Got any better ideas, smarty-pants?”
Methodically twirling his pen between his fingers Donghyuck says, “How about… the Goth Detectives?”
“Fuck off,” Yuta laughs as he writes it down.
“We’re not detectives,” Taeil points out.
“Or goth,” Gloria adds.
“I think it’s funny,” Johnny says, reaching around her to pat Donghyuck on the back.
That’s what they come up with.
It takes at least ten bad joke names, an impassioned speech from Yuta and a not-so-stupid idea from Taeil for them to finally settle on something.
They tear up a piece of paper and write down words; any words, whatever they can think of.
Donghyuck wrote down syndrome along with some other words like culture, science and bliss. He doesn’t know who wrote down paradise but judging by the surprise and reluctant delight on Yuta’s face when he pulled it out of the mixing bowl that they’d dug out of a cupboard just for this then it was clear that it definitely wasn’t him.
November 16, 1986
Donghyuck’s in the middle of trying to herd his demon of a sister out of the bathroom when a shout from downstairs makes him freeze mid-shove and his sister twists free of his grip and slams the bathroom door shut in his face.
He manages to unfreeze just enough to reply, “WHAT?”
“Someone from one of your study groups wants to speak to you,” is the reply, quieter this time and the panic, which had started to pool in the pit of stomach sinks back into the back of his consciousness.
The study groups are, of course, completely made up, so the person his mum is on the phone with is either one of the band, a spy or Natalie and her uncanny knack for prying secrets out of him.
It turns out to be Gloria, out of breath and a little hoarse.
“Donghyuck?” She says, and his name still sounds strange coming from her mouth, no matter how hard he tries to teach her the pronunciation.
He should maybe start considering just shortening it to Hyuck every time he meets someone new, or maybe changing it to something mundane and forgettable like Mark or David or something. Although Mark Lee sounds like the kind of guy who’d have a soul patch and David Lee sounds like the name of a football player and Donghyuck, after further consideration, would frankly rather die than be associated with either.
“Yes—hi? Is everything okay?”
After a moment of more heavy-breathing Gloria finally blurts out, “I got us a gig.”
It takes a second for this to sink in and when it does it’s with a confusing mixture that finally culminates in Donghyuck feeling slightly sick. Giddy—but sick.
“A gig?” He whispers and then louder, “So you want me to look at the potato famine and the mass emigration to the United States?”
The noises in the kitchen pick up again and Donghyuck relaxes against the wall.
“At the Battleship—do you know where that is?”
“No, but I’m guessing you’ll tell me.”
She clears her throat. “It’s where Stoke Common ends and that whole weirdo, pseudo-industrial bit starts—y’know?”
And when Donghyuck makes a vague sound of confusion she adds, “You’ve got Stoke Common Road, right? And then the park and then you turn left into the Homelands with the post-office and that druggie warehouse den and then another left and you’re on Bismarck Street—that’s where the Battleship is.”
“Yeah.” She sighs. “Because of the battleship. Y'know? World War whatever-the-fuck. Or the battleship because of Bismarck. Whatever. Anyway. It’s there.”
Donghyuck has a vague idea of the place she’s describing but the outskirts of their murky little town are murkier than the rest, blurring with the countryside and the surrounding villages and motorway exits, making it a confusing hodgepodge of mock-Tudor buildings with big gardens, warehouses and petrol stations.
“I—” he starts, unsure of how he’s supposed to convey his confusion in a way that won’t make his mother who’s clearly still listening in to his conversation from the kitchen suspicious.
“It’s fine, it’s fine—don’t worry. Johnny’s been talking about borrowing a van from a friend in London so I think he should be able to pick you up if push comes to shove.”
A strangled, “Great,” is the only thing Donghyuck manages to force out of his throat.
The prospect of being in close proximity to Johnny without at least one other person as a buffer zone is frankly terrifying and not really something he had to hear right before going to bed, right when the background noise in his brain get the loudest.
“Great,” he repeats, “great. So when is this gig? Can we practice beforehand? How many people are there going to be there? Are they going to provide some of the equipment—I’m just asking because we only have one mic and the backing vocals–”
“Alright, alright–calm down there poppet. Can you tell me when the Bismarck sank?”
Donghyuck blinks, vision clearing slightly.
“The Bismarck. When did it sink?”
This feels completely out of left-field until Donghyuck’s brought back to the reality of things when his mother waltzes past him into the living room, a steaming cup of coffee in one hand and a copy of Country Life in the other.
“Uh…nineteen—nineteen-forty-one? Or something?”
Gloria snorts. “Yeah, probably. Anyway, the gig starts at ten next Friday, but the guy told me we should show up at least an hour early to set everything up, which, y’know, makes sense.”
“Next Friday,” Donghyuck echoes weakly.
“Is that okay?” Gloria asks, a little concern leaking into her tone and Donghyuck can’t help but laugh.
“Don’t have much of a choice do I?”
“You’ll be fine,” she says and she sounds so confident that Donghyuck almost believes her.
a quote from the big fat quiz in MY fic? more likely than you think!
Chapter 5: speak in secret alphabets
February 5, 1987
Four months. Well, almost four months. Roughly, thereabouts – Donghyuck hasn’t been counting the days, but he knows it’s been around four months.
Four months of this.
“Let me just…re-introduce ourselves to the newcomers I can see arriving in the back there,” Donghyuck says, grinning as said group freezes like a couple of deers caught in metaphorical headlights. “We are Paradise Syndrome and we will be your entertainment for tonight.”
A solid cheer rises up from the crowd directly in front of the tiny stage and scattered applause comes from the people seated at the bar and in the booths further back.
Slightly light-headed Donghyuck turns around to catch Gloria’s eye, who promptly raises her drumsticks and counts them in.
They’ve practised this before, like their covers that still make up a majority of their set, but different. So very, very different.
Adrenaline bursts from the centre of Donghyuck’s chest, hot and all-consuming it courses through his veins until it feels like he’s just one glowing ball of energy.
It’s palpable, visible – it has to be – because the next thing he knows Yuta’s next to him, a grin stretched wide across his face as the song slowly builds, guitars, drums and bass rising together until—
“I’m the bounce in your step, the reason for the smiles and smirks—” Donghyuck sings and Yuta disappears out of his peripheral vision when he turns back to face the crowd, hands coming up to cradle the microphone.
“—and yeah, I know it irks them when I come around. Got them on a round-about around their bad ideals.”
The lights, which had been burning white-ish blue spots onto the back of Donghyuck’s eyelids, flicker from soft yellow to a vibrant, almost garish purple as if in response or anticipation as the song ramps up for the chorus.
“Oh, honey,” Donghyuck drawls, finding a pair of wide eyes in the crowd and grins.
“Oh, honey,” Yuta, Johnny and Taeil echo.
“That is so last century.”
February 6, 1987
Aside from the feeble fluorescent glow of the occasional streetlight the street is dark. A suffocating stillness has filled the van and Donghyuck can feel it start to crawl into the cracks of his thoughts.
“Here we are,” Johnny says into the silence and the van jerks to a halt.
Donghyuck blinks and looks around.
He’s parked the van right in front of Donghyuck’s house, which is generally not something that they risk. But it’s late, dark and they’re the only two left.
“Oh,” he mumbles and stiffens when Johnny leans across the gearshift and his lap to open the passenger door for him. His arm hovers across Donghyuck’s midriff for a couple of seconds too long and Donghyuck practically falls out of his seat and onto the street in his haste to get away.
“Is everything alright?”
Johnny’s face is barely visible, he's consisting of mostly shadow, but there’s real concern in his voice.
“You just seem a bit…off recently.”
Donghyuck could tell the truth. He would if he knew what the truth was. Is everything alright? No, clearly not, but Donghyuck is as in the dark about his mental state as the rest of them so he just shrugs and gestures at the dark sky.
“It’s late,” he says, “I’m tired.”
From what little Donghyuck can see of Johnny’s face he looks like he wants to press the issue, but that’s the last thing Donghyuck wants to do so he moves away, closing the car door with a finality that makes any potential protest from Johnny die in the silence.
“See you,” he says, voice too quiet even for this time of night.
“Take care,” Johnny replies with a wave.
Donghyuck can feel his gaze on the back of his neck all the way up the path to the front door and the weight in his chest only lifts when the door falls shut behind him and he sinks down onto the floor in relief.
February 9, 1987
“Just admit that we’re lost.”
Donghyuck, who had been elbow-deep in a freezer, reappears with a whole frozen chicken in his hands and says, “Well, there’s no wrapping paper here,” and when Taeil starts wandering back down the aisle adds, “Can we get this?”
“No,” Yuta says, waving a distracted hand in Donghyuck’s general direction. “Taeil, help me up. We’ve lost Gloria.”
“They should hand out maps at the entrance,” Taeil grunts as Yuta clambers onto his shoulders to look over the rows upon rows of display freezers.
“Can you see her?”
“No—oh, but I can see the dry food aisles.”
Donghyuck, still cradling his frozen chicken, says, “Wrapping paper isn’t with the dry food.”
“Yeah, but where there’s bread there’s cake. And put that chicken away.”
“Prick,” Donghyuck mutters but does as he’s told.
Yuta slips back down from Taeil’s shoulders and stumbles gracelessly into someone’s abandoned shopping trolley. “Do you even know how to cook a chicken?”
“I took home economics for a year,” Donghyuck replies with a shrug.
Taeil and Yuta stare at him.
They start to make their way to the far end of the frozen food aisle where the cold fades away into the warm, sweetly smell of bread, cereal and other assorted carb-heavy foods.
“So do you know how to cook a chicken?”
As they walk Donghyuck latches onto Taeil and replies, “Nah. I can make mean pancakes though”
“Oh?” Taeil and Yuta chorus, eyebrows raised. The 25th is coming up soon, something that they’re all fully aware of.
Donghyuck grins, lifting his shoulders in a but-who-knows kind of way.
They eventually find Gloria in the sprawling toiletries section glaring at a bottle of laundry detergent and a packet of sanitary pads.
“The wrapping paper is at the entrance,” she says, pulling another bottle of detergent off the shelf. “We walked right past it.”
Donghyuck is entrusted to go find it and to return with a suitably garish and horrible selection. He hops off with a gleeful glint in his eyes and laughs when he hears Yuta say:
“Oh, that was a mistake.”
After another unplanned trip around Sainsbury’s maze-like aisles, they reconvene in a queue at one of the many tills, everyone carrying a lot more stuff than initially expected.
What little money they have left gets pooled and Donghyuck watches with a queasy kind of acceptance as the last of his busking money is blown on an oversized birthday cake, sanitary towels, detergent and a packet of primary colour felt-tip pens.
“Do we really need the pens?” He asks, busy scraping his last pennies out of his pockets.
“Yes,” Taeil says and his tone leaves no room for argument.
The drive back to Yuta’s is hampered slightly by Taeil accidentally running a red light and turning left twice when he should’ve turned right. There’s a lot of screaming from the backseat and a lot of creative swearing from Yuta.
A couple of teeth-rattling turns and near-misses later and they pull up in front of a row of charity shops, but not before narrowly avoiding hitting a gaggle of old women whose insults can’t be heard over the rumble of the engine and T.Rex’s roaring guitars. Taeil is forcibly removed from the driver’s seat and Gloria takes his place, sliding into the worn, grey seat with the air of a martyr.
“Do you even know where I live?” Yuta asks, twisting around in his seat to glare at Taeil now squished in the backseat with Donghyuck and the birthday cake.
“Technically,” he replies with a shrug.
“Technically,” the other three echo, Yuta sounding a fair amount more affronted than Gloria and Donghyuck, the latter of which is hiding a grin behind the oversized sleeve of his coat.
“It’s not my fault your block of flats keeps moving.”
Yuta opens his mouth to argue but Gloria slams her foot down onto the gas pedal and any arguments he might have had end in a strangled croak as his seatbelt digs into his throat.
After a couple of near-death experiences and a perilous shortcut that ages them all by about 10 years, they finally arrive in Yuta’s street and spend another five minutes looking for a parking spot.
It’s Yuta who spots Johnny first, sitting on the curb with half his face hidden in an elaborately patterned muffler, and it’s also Yuta who practically falls out of the car in his haste to trap Johnny in an unexpected hug.
“Whoa—” Johnny grunts, already on his feet and staggering slightly under Yuta’s weight, “—what’s gotten into you?”
“The Christmas spirit,” Gloria deadpans, slamming her car door shut and shooting a suspicious glance up at the steadily darkening sky. The icy blue which had been the dominating view for most of the day is starting to get blocked by heavy, iron-grey clouds rolling in from the west.
“It’s February?” Johnny says, puzzled.
Gloria answers this with a shrug and then adds, “We should get inside,” before looping an arm around Donghyuck’s waist, who’d been awkwardly hovering in the middle of the street, and pulling him along. “C’mon.”
They clatter up four flights of stairs Yuta and Johnny keeping up a steady stream of chatter to fill the gaps the other three are leaving. Their voices echo oddly in the ugly, tiled stairwell and Taeil finally breaks his silence to whistle a jaunty little tune over the bannister down into the dizzying gap that looks all the way down into the cellar.
“Everythin’ okay?” Gloria suddenly whispers in Donghyuck’s ear as the others take up Taeil’s tune on their final push upwards. “You’ve been very quiet.”
This has been happening a lot recently.
“I’m fine,” Donghyuck replies softly, keeping his gaze trained ahead.
Gloria squeezes his waist, pulling him closer.
“Are you sure?”
Donghyuck doesn’t snap at her, but it’s a close thing.
Instead, he shrugs her off and stuffs his hands into his coat pockets, making sure his body language says what he can’t, at least not in the presence of Taeil and Yuta and especially not Johnny.
“I’m just tired is all,” he says, giving her a small smile.
She gives him a look that tells him that she knows that something’s wrong, she might not know what exactly, but the likelihood of her finding out is higher than it is of her not doing so.
Donghyuck would probably tell her about it, or at least about some of it if he could put it into words. Even his thoughts about the whole thing are muddled.
One day when he was five years old a boy in kindergarten pressed a four-leaf-clover into his hands and told him that he was pretty. The boy had big blue eyes and floppy blonde hair.
Donghyuck still knows this because the boy is in his year at school. He has plenty of friends, likes Manchester City and has a nervous twitch that only Donghyuck seems to know about.
They don’t talk.
And Donghyuck doesn’t think about it – hasn’t since he was five – he left the four-leaf-clover at their old house when they moved five years ago; tucked into a crack in the floorboards of his old bedroom.
It was never important. Never something he bothered to give much thought. Not even when the news started talking about people like him, he didn’t consciously think of them as something that he’s a part of.
Because it didn’t matter. There was never anyone he liked, never anything that would force this realisation to the forefront of his mind.
Not until May 1986.
Donghyuck jerks out of his spiralling thoughts when a hand lands on his shoulder, squeezing until it almost hurts.
Blinking rapidly against the grey brightness flooding in through the grimy stairwell windows Donghyuck looks up into Johnny’s face, his eyes wide and filled with concern.
Donghyuck feels sick but manages to hide it under a laugh and a wave of his hand that hides the frantic twist he uses to get out of Johnny’s grip. He can practically feel his fingerprints burning through the padding of his coat.
It hurts more than he thought possible.
“Weirdo,” Yuta mutters, the most unconcerned out of the lot.
His grip on Donghyuck’s shoulder doesn’t burn and with as little visible effort as possible Donghyuck manages to pull himself together; manages to ignore the ghost of Johnny’s hand on him, manages to laugh and joke and characteristically bully Yuta into giving a second slice of cake.
He manages to sound normal and suitably embarrassed when Johnny fixes him with a look that hurts in the same way that most things seem to hurt nowadays. Donghyuck is becoming desensitized.
“You promised,” Johnny practically whines and Donghyuck rolls his eyes.
“Promised what?” He retorts, pretending like that phone call isn’t etched into his memory like a post-code-slash-gang sign carved onto the underside of a school desk.
“That you’d sing,” Johnny says. “Deal’s a deal.”
“Wait—hold on a sec, when was this?” Yuta interrupts.
“None of your business,” Johnny says at the same time as Donghyuck blurts out, “On my birthday. Last year.”
There’s a pause - not exactly awkward but not exactly pleasant either.
Johnny’s still looking at Donghyuck and Donghyuck doesn't know when he started looking or if he ever stopped. And once that thought takes hold it gets harder not to think and notice all the things he's sure that he's imagining.
“Gloria—” he says, not taking his eyes off Johnny because if this – this staring is a contest or a challenge then he’s not backing down. He might be scared and completely out of his depth but he’s not that big of a coward. “—give me a beat.”
February 18, 1987
The cobblestones are uncomfortable but Donghyuck has haunted this exact spot often enough for the discomfort to be only a minor concern. Even the cold – because it is still cold, very fucking cold – can be reduced to nothing but an occupational hazard.
Donghyuck has been sitting in this exact spot for over three hours now, numb both bodily and in spirit.
But he only has about an hour or so to go before the usual daily rush sets in and then hopefully he’s earned enough money to make the looming threat of a head cold or cystitis worth it.
Pressing numb, blue fingers along the neck of his guitar Donghyuck wrenches himself out of his mind and back into the present. He can see a smattering of people, hunched against the cold, coming his way and with some effort he finds his voice again, picking off where he distantly remembers he stopped about 20 minutes ago.
“Got to make it to the next meal—” he sings, loud enough for his voice to carry on the breeze.
“—try to keep up with the turning of the wheel. Mile after mile. Stone after stone. Turn to speak but you’re alone—”
A man hugging an overstuffed briefcase to his chest hurries past, sparing Donghyuck an uncomfortable glance before disappearing up the steps to the train platform.
Unperturbed Donghyuck continues:
“Million miles from home, you’re on your own—”
Most people slither past him, attempting not to catch his eye, but Donghyuck’s very good at catching people’s gazes and no one escapes without looking Donghyuck dead in the eye at least once.
Four out of nine people stop briefly to throw something in the guitar case open at his feet.
“—turn my lead into gold. Cause there’s a chill wind blowing in my soul and I think I’m growing old.”
He’s half-way through the third verse when he notices someone loitering across the street and even though they’re mostly cast in shadow Donghyuck can see the appraising look on their face.
“Someone sent the promised land—” he sings, gaze fixed on a spot just above the stranger’s head, “—and I grabbed it with both hands.”
The person—a rangy white man with square glasses that were last in fashion in the 1960s—scuffs the toe of his boot against the pavement and then starts ambling towards where Donghyuck is sitting.
Donghyuck doesn’t stop singing but warily braces his feet against the pavement, ready to leap up into action at a second’s notice. You can never be too careful.
“Have we met?” The man asks, coming to a stop just a couple of feet away from Donghyuck. He’s rocking back on his heels, eyes narrowed behind the lenses of his glasses.
Donghyuck shrugs. “I don’t think so.”
When the man doesn’t reply he clears his throat and picks up the song again, fingers stumbling slightly on the neck of the guitar.
“Now I’m the man on the inside looking out—”
The man is nodding along to Donghyuck’s singing, brow still furrowed but obviously recognising the tune.
“—hear me shout ‘Come on in! What’s the news and where’ve you been?’”
It’s unnerving having someone stand so close.
“Cause there’s no wind left in my soul and I’ve grown old…”
Donghyuck stops. The song’s run its course and he’s frankly too uncomfortable to think of a new one.
“I’ve seen you somewhere before,” the man insists, still squinting down at Donghyuck like he’s some kind of impossible puzzle.
“I play here a lot,” Donghyuck offers.
“No, no—it’s your voice. And your face, if I’m honest.”
Not the first time Donghyuck’s heard something along those lines so he just shrugs it off with a muttered, “Right.”
They stare at each other for a moment before the man backs down and looks around, apparently weighing out his options.
“Any songs of your own?”
Donghyuck blinks, genuinely surprised.
“Some…” he finally replies, hesitating slightly.
“Well” – the stranger claps his hands together – “let’s hear ‘em.”
After fumbling his guitar back into a more comfortable position in his lap Donghyuck reluctantly strums the opening chords of Pretty In Pink which isn’t technically his song but an amalgamation of Johnny, Yuta and his own songwriting capabilities.
It’s also one of their own songs that gets the biggest reaction when they play it live and Donghyuck is no fool.
“What a shame to waste a pretty sky on an evening like this—”
It’s a song made for clubs and dancefloors and not for acoustic guitars but Donghyuck perseveres, focusing more on the beat than the general melody of the song. He can do that with his voice, anyway.
“—Exchange the kiss with a fist and tell me who I’m supposed to be.”
He’s halfway through the first line of the chorus when the man slaps a hand on his forehead and exclaims, “Fuck—I know where I know you from.”
Donghyuck grinds to halt.
The man is nodding, eyes closed and with a hand still pressed to his forehead.
“It’s” – and then he proceeds to recite the whole chorus of Pretty In Pink to a stunned and speechless Donghyuck – “isn’t it?”
“I—” Donghyuck stammers, but his cognitive functions have blown several fuses and figuring out how to speak seems beyond his capabilities right now. “How— what—I don’t—”
Beaming, the man un-glues his hand from his forehead and says, “My sister dragged me to one of your gigs and listen—I was sceptical at first because she likes Duran Duran but—fuck.”
“Fuck,” Donghyuck echoes, still fighting the feedback lag in the back of his brain. “Fuck.”
“I like that one song—what’s it called?” He hums a slow, meandering sort of tune that Donghyuck belatedly recognises as:
“Honey Sweet. Yeah, that’s a—a good one.”
Underneath the shock, surprise and the elated bubbly kind of feeling that’s making Donghyuck’s skin prickle there’s a distant, aching urge to break down. Not an urge to cry exactly – although knowing himself that’s probably part of the package – but more a feeling of being crushed and uplifted at the same time, like the sky’s falling and pushing him through the earth until he’s floating in the weightlessness of space.
With trembling hands Donghyuck slowly puts his guitar down, trying to blink and shake the building ache out of his system.
The guy, thankfully, doesn’t seem to have noticed the state Donghyuck’s currently getting himself into.
“When’s your next gig?”
Taking a deep, shuddering breath that does nothing but make the dizzy feeling worse Donghyuck says, “Next week. There are posters somewhere with the” – he tries to take another deep breath – “with the whole when and where.”
He only distantly registers the tinkling of coins and a distant, “Well, see you next week then!” before the rattling of a train kicks him back into his mind.
Not entirely sure how much time has passed Donghyuck slowly clambers to his feet.
Packing his things and collecting his earning for the day is a slow process, he’s too fuzzy around the edges, too dizzy and his hands won’t stop fucking shaking. He’s cold and numb in every conceivable way.
Something’s happening. Something that Donghyuck had in the last four months not even dared to imagine.
The crushing feeling worsens with every step he takes in the direction of home. He can’t see and he can’t think.
On the corner between Melville Drive and Northgate Way, the weight of the sky and the future become just a bit too much and Donghyuck drops his guitar and rucksack and throws up in someone's well-kept hedgerow.
Something’s definitely happening.
February 20, 1987
Donghyuck flinches and swears softly when a wad of wet paper hits him squarely on the back of the neck. Peeling it off his skin he turns around and flicks it right back, grinning when it hits Natalie on the cheek before dropping into the loosened collar of her shirt.
“Fuck you,” she hisses and Donghyuck does a little mock bow before turning back to face the front of the classroom.
Class ends in a great cacophony of noise; chairs and desks scrape against the ugly mottled tiled floor and complaints about the truly horrendous amount of coursework fill the air. Donghyuck ignores all of it and packs his things in peace.
Once out in the crowded hallway, he turns on the spot twice, suddenly disorientated before getting a face full of Natalie’s hair which she’s pulled into one big poofy bun at the base of her neck. Spluttering indignantly Donghyuck lets himself be pulled through the crowd.
They go up two packed staircases and Donghyuck is panting and sweating slightly by the time they make it to the third-floor girl’s bathroom where Natalie plants a hand between Donghyuck’s shoulder blades and hisses, “Go,” before shoving him inside.
The third-floor girl’s bathroom is both the best and worst place to eat lunch.
It’s the best because they’re completely alone and the worst, because they’re eating lunch sitting on the floor of a disables cubicle, which is both disgusting and morally questionable.
“So?” Natalie asks while fishing a tupperware out of her bag.
They share lunch because Natalie’s mum packs too much and Donghyuck’s mum sensibly assumes that he has his lunch in the school cafeteria and not on the floor of a girl’s bathroom.
On today’s menu is chicken sandwiches – although that’s a pretty liberal description since Natalie’s mother doesn’t think much of British food and generally likes putting her own spin on things – some wedges of grapefruit and a small collection of Cadbury’s favourites.
Donghyuck snatches a couple of bars of Turkish Delight and a Creme Egg out of the pile before Natalie gets a chance to and gets a playful jab in the shin for his trouble.
“Hyuck—” Natalie prompts around a slice of grapefruit clasped in between her teeth. “What did you want to tell me. Earlier. Remember?”
Swallowing a mouthful of soggy white bread and spicy chicken Donghyuck replies, “You know how I go busking down by the train station sometimes?”
“Yeah. Well” – he takes another bite of his sandwich – “I got recognised.”
There’s a pause and Donghyuck chews and studies the stained and suspiciously sticky floor. When he looks up again Natalie is gaping at him, eyes almost comically wide.
“Recognised,” she echoes.
He chews, swallows and then, “Yeah. Recognised.”
They stare at each other.
“Christ—this is—this is a big deal,” she whispers and Donghyuck, even though he’s had a whole weekend to dwell on what happened, sort of wishes she hadn’t said that.
“I mean,” he tries, backpedalling slightly, “not really.”
“Not really?” Natalie squeaks and Donghyuck flinches theatrically. “You got bloody recognised. Because you’re in a band. Because you sing.” She leans back against the cubicle wall and takes a deep breath. “This is mental.”
That at least they can agree on.
February 25, 1987
The Private Place is a dingy little underground club with sticky, badly painted walls and enough flashing neon lights to make you believe you’re somewhere a bit more upmarket.
It’s part of the big three; the big three of clubs in their damp little but not-so-little town. There’s The Railway Arch Confessional, The Battleship and, of course, The Private Place.
The pros of the other two clubs is that they, at least, are above ground, but The Private Place is doing its damned hardest to emulate London’s thriving dance, leather and literal-underground scene, which means that it’s as close to a proper gay club as this town is going to get.
Yuta and Donghyuck have escaped the humid confines of the club’s backstage dressing room in favour of a back-alley that’s almost – if not more – dingy than the place below them. From here they can watch people arriving, a queue slowly forming and drunk, excited chatter filling the icy February air.
It’s technically still too cold to be outside without at least a pullover or a coat, but that hasn’t stopped either Yuta or Donghyuck from standing there in nothing more but – in Yuta’s case – a ratty, hole-riddled T-Shirt that has Werewolf Lovin ’ stamped across his chest and in Donghyuck’s case one of his mother’s faux silk blouses that had survived the 1970s.
Yuta’s on his 4th cigarette and Donghyuck’s head is slowly starting to throb with the distant beginnings of a headache.
“Have you ever smoked?”
Donghyuck snorts and then – after realising Yuta’s asking a serious question – gives him an incredulous look.
“You’ve met my mother, right?”
Grimacing at what they both remember as a painfully awkward 5-minute interaction Yuta flicks some ash off of the end of his cigarette and says, “God—don’t remind me. Do you think she still hates me?”
“I don’t think she hates you,” Donghyuck says, trying for a comforting tone. “I just don’t think she trusts you very much.”
They watch in silence as a gaggle of brightly dressed individuals stagger past the mouth of the alley, arms looped around each other and giggles and the biting stench of cheap alcohol following along behind them.
“I don’t suppose that Black Sabbath shirt helped, did it?”
Donghyuck gives him a look and then laughs, digging the heels of his palms into his eyes. “No,” he mutters, still laughing lightly, “no, I don’t think so.”
“Bet she believes all that crap about Led Zeppelin putting secret satanic messages into their songs.”
“She panics every time Stairway To Heaven plays on the radio,” Donghyuck confirms and then after watching Yuta take a drag from his ever-shortening cigarette holds out a hand.
Yuta’s gaze flickers from his hand to his face and then he laughs, dropping the cigarette and crushing it under the heel of his shoe.
“Oh no, I’m not going to be the one who does that to you.”
Donghyuck is about to speak when the door a couple of very steep and worn-down steps below them bangs open flooding the little alleyway in sticky pink light and the smell of sweat.
“We’ve got 15 minutes,” Gloria says and then her gaze flicks between the two of them and her eyes narrow.
“You’re not corrupting him are you?” She asks, directing her suspicion at Yuta specifically while Donghyuck slips past her back down the stairs and into the narrow passage leading into the back of the club.
“Me?” He hears Yuta saying. “I would never.”
After a horribly long walk through the bowels of the club, they reach the stage and are faced with the reality and the fact that they’re about to play to their biggest crowd yet.
Gloria goes first – bowing somewhat mockingly to their waiting audience – before clambering over her drum kit and into relative, peaceful obscurity. Donghyuck, Taeil and Johnny follow, the latter of which takes on look at the faces turned up towards them and whispers to Donghyuck, “Looks like those posters were worth it, huh?”
“I’ll say,” Donghyuck replies, busying himself with the strap of Taeil’s well-loved cherry red Les Paul guitar.
Yuta is last to arrive and by the time he does whatever music had still been trickling from the club’s sound system has ceased and they’re left alone in an anticipatory silence.
With a nod from Yuta Donghyuck reaches out and grabs the microphone standing in the dead-centre of the stage. He takes his position – the frontman, the lead-singer – and says:
“Ladies, gentlemen and other” – he casts a meaningful glance around the packed space – “desirables—we are Paradise Syndrome and I expect to see you dancing tonight!”
Johnny thrums out a menacing E-flat that fills the room and then they’re off, Yuta’s guitar roars to life and Donghyuck follows his lead with a grin and a little Whoo! that sets the crowd off into a frenzied cheer.
They start off with a slightly more fast-paced version of Pretty In Pink because there’s nothing that will get people dancing and keep the rhythm section happy than a grooving bass and an easy, hypnotic drum line.
Behind Johnny, cocooned in orange light is Taeil; bopping along, fingers skating along the keys of his keyboard, apparently lost in his own world while somehow managing to simultaneously keep up with – and stay ahead of – Yuta and Johnny.
There are more lights in the Private Place and Donghyuck’s attention is split in three – one half on the lyrics, another on keeping Yuta from straying too far from the melody and another focused on keeping his eyes open against the glare of the white, pink and orange light.
“Scare me to death – come on, come on – scare me to death.”
The people are dancing and Donghyuck risks a quick turn away from his mic. He catches the tail-end of Yuta’s grin and walks right into one of Johnny’s and reels back in surprise.
“Come on, come on—” Yuta and Johnny sing, darting forwards to reach their mics in time and whatever moment had been building between Donghyuck and Johnny breaks as the song picks up again.
Donghyuck turns to face the crowd again.
They’re still dancing.
“—make it worth the commotion,” he finishes and the lights flicker red, as if in response to his challenge.
The post-show adrenaline has worn off into a dull throb at the back of Donghyuck’s head, the beat a gentle imitation of the last song they had played. It ebbs and flows comfortingly in the hollow space behind Donghyuck’s eyes and it’s only when the door to the dressing room is flung open that his vision refocuses.
Taeil, who had been nodding off against Donghyuck’s shoulder, lurches upright with a startled little squeak and Donghyuck protectively wraps himself around him before Yuta can start laughing at him for it.
The club’s manager – a broad, balding white man with a taste for Hawaiian shirts – is filling up the doorway and behind him, Donghyuck can just about make out Gloria and Johnny, the latter of which a little preoccupied with fighting off the insistent advances of a very pretty and very drunk girl.
He looks away, stomach clenching unpleasantly.
“Yes, hello,” Yuta drawls, clambering to his feet, “how may we be of assistance?”
The empty beer bottles on the rickety coffee table in the centre of the room clink as he stumbles past.
“I have a proposition,” the manager says, moving out of the way so that Johnny and Gloria can file past.
Johnny sinks down onto the settee – a settee built for two people, no more no less – and it takes every ounce of Donghyuck’s willpower not to flinch away or worse melt against him.
“A proposition?” Yuta says, perching himself on the armrest at Taeil’s side.
The manager clears his throat. “You don’t have a manager, do you?”
“I act as the manager,” Gloria says and cocks her head when the man gives her a sceptical once-over.
“Okay,” he says, “well. If you can do this again – fill up the club, I mean. Then I’d like you all back here next week. Same time, same day.”
“Same price, as well?” Johnny cuts in and the man blinks, clearly taken aback by his frankness.
“If it’s all the same to you,” he replies with a little incline of the head.
“Meaning no disrespect,” Taeil pipes up in a tone that implies that he doesn’t really care if he’s being respectful or not, “but I think we made you a lot more than a hundred pounds tonight.”
Paling considerably the man says, “How much do want?”
“How about,” Gloria says before either Johnny or Yuta can open their mouths, “200 for the gig next week and maybe for the one after that, depending on how well it goes. But if we keep up the draw and the crowd then we’d like 300 pounds.”
“What’s that split between the five of us?” Taeil asks.
There’s a pause and Donghyuck whose eyes had been drooping closed, blinks awake and says, “Don’t look at me. I don’t know.”
Everyone turns to look at Johnny instead.
“If we play for £300 per night that would be £60 each.”
Donghyuck has never thought he’d find mental arithmetic attractive yet here he is, blushing and trying not to show it.
“That’s not bad,” Yuta says with a shrug and turning back to the manager, who’s watching them with furrowed brows, adds, “I guess we have a deal.”
They all hover in uncomfortable silence for a second before the man excuses himself and hurries back off down the hall.
Taeil immediately sags back against Donghyuck’s side and Donghyuck, against all his better judgement, finds himself with his head resting on Johnny’s shoulder, vision unfocused and limbs heavy.
“We should probably get going,” Gloria points out after a couple of minutes.
No one makes any indication of moving until Johnny slowly rouses himself and gets to his feet, wrapping his arms around Donghyuck’s waist to drag him up with him. He’s warm and solid and the soft, worn cotton of his T-Shirt smells like a good night’s sleep and Donghyuck has to physically force himself out of Johnny’s grip before he can do something stupid like burrow his face in his chest.
Then, slowly but surely everyone else starts to wake up a bit.
But what little energy they had left gets drained completely after half an hour of lugging equipment back up the alley and into the van. It’s sweaty, annoying work; work not made easier by unhelpful stragglers asking them about the date of their next gig or their true country of origin.
It’s obnoxious but not something that they haven’t dealt with before and now they have a surprisingly intimidating 5’4 drummer to keep the worst of the worst well away.
Donghyuck’s half-collapsed against the rough brick wall of the club – tired enough to feel mildly delirious – when a shout forcefully yanks him out of his doze.
Natalie is jogging towards him, her face damp with sweat and her grin crooked.
“Nat?” He asks, stunned.
“Hyuck?” She imitates, laughing when Donghyuck can only vaguely reciprocate her hug.
He pulls away and stares at her. Her hair is pulled up into a bushy bun at the top of her head but a few stray curls are fluttering around her face in the breeze and she’s grinning, clearly delighted to have caught Donghyuck by surprise.
“What are you doing here?”
“Black cat in the night,” she starts to sing and Donghyuck groans, letting his head thump down onto her shoulder. “Yellow eyes like the moon—I came to see you, silly.”
“There are posters literally all over town and—and this might surprise you—but I can actually read, you know?”
Donghyuck pulls away to glare at her and says, “Yeah, I know that. I mean: how are you here? It’s quarter past one in the fucking morning. On a school night,” he adds for extra drama.
She rolls her eyes. “I wanted to see what all the fuss was about.”
“And?” Donghyuck asks, trying not to let on how much her opinion really means to him.
Shrugging but with an unmistakable glint in her eye, Natalie says, “Not bad, not bad. You’re no Duran Duran that’s for certain.”
Donghyuck tries to kick her but she just pulls him back into a hug, her grip tightening when he pretends to struggle.
“I didn’t see you,” he mumbles into the wool of her cardigan. “You should’ve said you were coming.”
“Well, I’ll warn you next time, won’t I.”
“Oh, oh, oh—what’s this?”
They break apart and Donghyuck’s faced with one of Yuta’s leering grins and the curiously cocked head of Taeil who’s looking at Natalie with a mixture of surprise and mild interest.
“This is Natalie,” Donghyuck says, holding up her hand and waving it. She lets him with an indulgent smile.
“Zedna,” Taeil says by-way of a greeting and Donghyuck quickly jumps in to translate.
“He means is hello and also that he knows you. Because I told them about you. Video games and all that,” he says and Natalie gives Taeil a quick grin.
“Why’d you tell them about me?”
Donghyuck stares at her, blank.
“You’re interesting? Or should I have kept my only real friend a secret?”
She shrugs. “I was just wondering.”
Yuta’s still grinning at them with the same vaguely manic glint in his eyes and out of the alley behind them Johnny and Gloria suddenly appear, carrying the last of their stuff in their arms.
Donghyuck’s brain, which is by now fine-tuned to literally anything and everything Johnny does, registers his gaze curiously flickering between himself and Natalie and, realising that they’re still holding hands, Donghyuck quickly steps away.
“Who’s this?” Johnny asks, tone neutral enough.
“This,” Yuta says before Donghyuck can even open his mouth, “is Natalie.”
Johnny gives Donghyuck a long, searching look that makes blood rush to the tips of his ears before his expression clears and he turns to give Natalie one of his best, toothy American smiles.
“We’ve heard so much about you.”
Skin itching uncomfortably Donghyuck reaches out and takes Natalie's hand again. He can feel Johnny's gaze following the motion and when he looks up he meets his gaze with something almost like defiance.
sorry for the delay my dears. writer's block and work were kicking my ass (still are technically, but a collection of very sweet and encouraging comments have managed to kick me back into gear)
this by the way is the song donghyuck is covering in the busking scene! it's one of my all-time favourites :'')
Chapter 6: the meeting place
March 1, 1987
Donghyuck is curled up on the far end of the couch with a bowl of Frosties and a badly organised folder of Natalie’s history notes. He’s sharing his space with his little sister, who’s passed out with her face smushed against his shoulder, and his mother who is carefully dividing her attention between the magazine in her lap and the telly.
His father, on the other hand, is staring at the telly with the kind of concentration of someone desperately trying not to give away that they are dead tired. Donghyuck’s keeping himself amused by keeping a tally of how often he nods off and then immediately pretends he didn’t. It’s not the most entertaining thing to do but it’s a lot more interesting than a documentary about frogs.
Donghyuck’s fighting off his 15th yawn by the time David Attenborough’s gets rather abruptly cut off by a man with a strange pseudo-American accent, who then proceeds to segue into the next segments at a speed that leaves them all blinking, dazedly, at the screen.
“—the story of the Mediterranean from its birth to the arrival of man; The First Eden, starting on Sunday at 7:45 on BBC Two. And David Attenborough’s our man in the Med features on the new edition of Radio Times. Don’t miss it!”
A snuffling sound directly in his ear briefly distracts Donghyuck from the going’s on on the telly and he’s half a mind to push his sister off of him when he catches his mother’s eye and decides not to risk it.
“This is BBC One,” a new, more familiarly English voice announces. “Now as part of our week-long examination of the AIDS problem: QED with the help of doctors Julian Price, Graham Garden and Alan Marian Davis presents your biological guide to AIDS.”
Any kind of fatigue is wiped cleanly off of Donghyuck’s mind as the words slowly register and the purple-blue neon of the QED logo flashes across the screen.
“I’ve been meaning to watch this,” Donghyuck’s father mutters, also suddenly a lot more awake than before.
His mother, however, casts a nervous glance at Donghyuck’s sister still peacefully dead to the world.
“Are you sure she’s asleep?”
Donghyuck digs an elbow under her ribs and only gets a muffled grunt and puff of hot, damp air in response.
“She’s asleep, don’t worry.”
His mother looks like she wants to say something, brow still furrowed with concern but the narration from the telly and some frantic shushing from Donghyuck’s father silences her.
“The fear of AIDS has led the Football Association to ban communal baths and to advise against kissing on the pitch—”
Donghyuck watches, frozen, and with a sickening sinking feeling in his gut as different narrators list off things that people’s fear of the disease has led them to do.
“—refuse to drink from the communion chalice—”
“Oh, there are some women at the church here who are like that,” his mother says.
“The fear of AIDS has provoked attacks on perfectly well people–”
Stomach churning Donghyuck slowly puts his unfinished bowl of cereal down onto the coffee table, careful not to dislodge his sister from where she’s clinging onto his right arm.
A newspaper headline reading “Arson attacks on homes of AIDS victims” flashes across the screen and Donghyuck hears his father suck in a breath.
“That hasn’t happened here yet,” he says, turning around in armchair to look at Donghyuck’s mother for confirmation. “Has it?”
She shakes her head.
“Not yet, anyway,” she mutters ominously. “Hyuck-ah, you’ve heard the rumours, right? About that boy who used to go to your school?”
Donghyuck stares at her, nonplussed.
“Rugby player, but he doesn’t play. Tall, broad kind of boy.”
“Oh,” Donghyuck gasps, teeth aching slightly at the memory. “What about him?”
“Well,” she says conspiratorially, leaning closer so that Donghyuck can hear her over the noise of the telly, “you know how he worked at his father’s motorbike shop?”
“Apparently, they had this customer all the way from Cardiff or something, who came in every other day and stayed there chatting for hours—but only talked to him—didn’t seem bothered about anyone else."
"Anyway” – she hisses when Donghyuck’s father pointedly turns up the volume – “they ran away together last Christmas and his father hasn’t heard from him since. Kathrine from number 45 thinks they’ve gone off to Brighton or London, you know, because that’s where they go.”
“So they think he’s dead? Because he ran away with a bloke?”
She waves Donghyuck’s protest away. “No, no—they just… worry.”
“You don’t automatically get AIDS if you’re gay. Plenty of straight people get it,” Donghyuck argues, maybe a little more heatedly than is safe because his father turns the telly back down and says:
“What are you making a fuss about? Why should you care?”
“Shouldn’t I?” Donghyuck says hotly.
“He’s the brother of the boy who almost dislocated your jaw, I just didn’t think you’d be so passionate about defending him.”
“I’m just saying,” Donghyuck starts, louder than intended and he stops abruptly when his sister shifts, mouth thinning into a frown. “I’m just saying,” he tries again, quieter now, “that you don’t get it just from running off to Brighton or something.”
“Then why hasn’t he talked to his father?”
“Maybe he doesn’t want to?”
They fall into a tense silence and Donghyuck – heart still racing with a mixture of anger and a rising wave of panic – turns his attention back onto the telly. Maybe he gave too much away. Maybe he said too much, got too passionate, too defensive.
Maybe they know. Or are starting to suspect. If they didn’t before, they definitely do now.
March 3, 1987
“You wouldn’t do something like that, would you?”
Donghyuck stops, stuck halfway between the sink and the kitchen table. Outside in the hall, his father is trying to usher an agitated Minseo out of the front door while balancing his briefcase and a tray of blueberry muffins in one hand.
There’s a bake sale at her school apparently and Donghyuck already has some of the less successful examples of their mother’s late night baking escapade tucked away in his school bag.
“Do what?” He asks, completely mystified.
She stares at him.
“Go,” she finally says. “Run away. Like that boy from the motorcycle shop.”
He drops his plate in the sink and walks over to her.
The tensions of the last couple of months melt away when he pulls her into a hug and buries his face into the crook of her neck. He’s gotten to be quite a bit taller than her now but she’s still comfortingly mum-shaped and it’s with a belated sort of ache that Donghyuck realises how long it’s really been since he last hugged her.
“You’re not getting rid of me that easily,” he mumbles into the cotton of her blouse.
She pulls him closer. “Why would I ever want to be rid of you?”
Donghyuck doesn’t reply – he doesn’t think he can – just hugs her more firmly and briefly lets himself imagine that he’s still six years old and that his biggest concern is if he’s going to get a vanilla or chocolate cake for his birthday.
March 11, 1987
Donghyuck’s sitting at Taeil’s keyboard, peacefully minding his own business and tinkering around with a tune that’s been rattling around his head for days. What little lyrics he has written down to accompany it can be found on the back of an Indian take-out menu.
“I’m a bad job done worse / If the Louvre won’t have me then neither will you / It’s a fact and a statement in a newspaper column / A painting’s been stolen from a museum / They say Picasso was disappointed by it.”
“So, Duckie—oh, what’s this?”
Donghyuck just about manages to snatch the take-out menu out of Yuta’s hands before he can get a proper look. He knows, if he wants this song to ever really go anywhere he’s going to have to show the lyrics but that time isn’t upon him yet and until then he will be as fiercely protective as he wants.
“Did I see the Louvre on that,” Yuta says, unperturbed by Donghyuck’s caginess. “Do you want to go?”
Tucking the menu safely into his back pocket Donghyuck replies, “If we ever get the chance to, yeah.”
“Yeah?” Yuta looks at him, a smile crinkling the corners of his eyes. “We’ll have to keep that in mind then, eh?”
Whatever he’s about to say next gets cut off by Gloria who until just a couple of seconds ago had been in deep conversation with Taeil, their heads tucked together conspiratorially.
“We’ve had an idea,” she says, flopping down on Yuta’s sofa. “But it’s a big kind of idea, so I need you all to pay attention.”
Yuta, pressing his fingers to his temple in a mock salute, sinks down onto the floor in front of the sofa and gestures for Donghyuck and Johnny, who had been lurking in the kitchen, to join him.
“So what’s this grand idea?” Johnny says and – to Donghyuck’s dismay – glances up to where he’s still hovering uncertainly by the keyboard, shifting slightly to the right so that Donghyuck can squeeze in between him and Yuta.
Trying not to look too visibly uncomfortable Donghyuck sits down next to him.
“We need a demo tape,” Gloria says without preamble.
They stare at her.
“What? Are we just supposed to magick one out of thin air?” Yuta asks, wiggling his fingers dramatically.
She ignores him.
“We’ve got another gig at the Battleship this week and if we pool what we’ve earned then I can get my hands on a 4-track portastudio or something. I know a guy,” she adds at Donghyuck’s quizzical expression.
“If we ever,” Johnny yawns and stretches all the way into Donghyuck's personal space, “get to a point where we actually get to enjoy the money we earn then I will cry of joy.”
“Well, we’re not quite there yet,” Gloria replies briskly. “So, are you all on board with this?”
Donghyuck reflexively puts up his hand.
“Why do we need a demo tape?”
“Excellent question,” Yuta says unnecessarily and grins when everyone glares at him.
“There’s a very popular uni radio station here that has a reach way out of our town. They’re disgustingly popular and Gloria knows one of the DJs,” Taeil explains in that calm, slow way of his. But the excited glint in his eyes betrays his tone and Donghyuck can feel an answering bubble of excitement blossoming somewhere underneath his ribs.
“He owes me a favour,” Gloria says with a shrug, but there’s something in her eyes too. A gleam that’s only slightly infectious.
“So—what? You’re just gonna force him to play some of our songs?” Johnny asks.
“Force is a bit harsh,” she pouts. “I was thinking more along the lines of gently coercing.”
“There is a difference,” Taeil agrees, nodding.
Johnny just shrugs and grins one of his easy, radiant grins and Donghyuck can physically feel it dig its way through his bones and right into his heart where it burrows deep along with all the other smiles and touches Donghyuck has accidentally stored away.
“We’re going up in the world, comrades,” Yuta says and pulls Donghyuck into an affectionate headlock.
March 13, 1987
“What kind of music do you play?”
Yuta makes a vague, flapping hand gesture and says, “What kind of music do you like?”
The girl behind the counter briefly puts her task of shoving over 50 posters into a brown envelope on hold to give him a long, suspicious look.
“I like Fleetwood Mac,” she finally replies. “Billy Joel—that sort of stuff.”
“Then you should definitely come,” Yuta says and both Donghyuck and Johnny who had been lurking near the exit turn to give him an incredulous look.
They leave the shop with their wallets considerably lighter and all of them basking happily in the light of the unexpectedly bright March sun. It hasn’t been warm – properly warm – in months and now they’re all running around with their jackets off.
Yuta is skipping along in front of the other two, surprisingly chipper for a guy who’d been loudly complaining about a nasty hangover not ten minutes ago.
“That’s the woman of my dreams,” he grins, turning around so that he can walk facing Johnny and Donghyuck.
“You hate Billy Joel,” Johnny points out.
“Yeah,” Donghyuck chimes in, “and you say that about pretty much any girl who happens to ask if you’re in a band.”
Yuta spreads his arms triumphantly.
“The perks of being a rockstar, baby.”
Smiling indulgently Johnny gently ushers Donghyuck across the street and says, “We’re not quite there yet, buddy.”
“Yeah, well – while you two are busy hanging up posters” – and both Johnny and Donghyuck stop and stare with a mixture of exasperation and tired acceptance as Yuta makes a dash back across the street and narrowly avoids getting hit by a bus – “I’ll be getting the woman of my dreams and hopefully her number.”
Donghyuck’s chest seizes up at the thought of spending a whole afternoon solely in Johnny’s company. It would just be one horribly prolonged heart-attack.
“Actually,” he shouts maybe a little too loudly because Yuta isn’t the only person who stops and turns around, “I was thinking of doing this poster thing with Natalie! If that’s okay?”
Yuta shrugs. “If that’s what you kids call a date nowadays, sure.”
“It’s not a—” Donghyuck starts loudly and then after accidentally catching Johnny’s eye, finishes quietly, “—it’s not a date.”
He can feel his gaze burning through the skin of his neck and it’s hard not to turn around and flat-out tell him to look somewhere else for God’s sake.
“Have fun with your girlfriend, kiddo!” Yuta calls, clearly not having heard a word of Donghyuck’s half-hearted protest and then he’s off, blithely kicking a stray pebble along the pavement.
Donghyuck stands frozen for a couple of seconds before being rudely brought back to the present by the warm, firm pressure of Johnny’s hand between his shoulder blades, urging him forward.
They walk in uncomfortable silence for a while until Johnny says, “You and Natalie, huh?”
Donghyuck has two options: either lie about the nature of his and Natalie’s relationship or tell the truth.
He picks the third option by making a vague, noncommital noise in the back of his throat, hoping to end this conversation before it can really begin. He doesn’t want to lie, but he also knows a safety blanket when it’s being thrown at him.
“Do you like each other?”
Donghyuck gives him a look.
“No, we absolutely loathe each other.”
Johnny laughs that weird, embarrassed half-laugh and Donghyuck wants to scream. Scream about the unfairness of it all, about lying and the way Johnny’s eyes crinkle when he laughs and smiles.
It’s all just so fucking unfair.
“You two are cute together,” he says, his tone light and encouraging. It’s not the way is voice usually sounds, but more like what people might think a supportive big brother would sound like.
Donghyuck glances at him, quick but not quite quick enough.
“What?” He asks, feeling bold. “Are you going to give me the sex talk, too?”
Johnny’s eyebrows shoot up and there’s that look again. Unreadable, inscrutable, nothing that Donghyuck can do anything with. But it only lasts a second or so and then the weird big brother persona is back, a figurative slap in the face.
“If you want me to,” he grins.
Donghyuck would rather die.
March 26, 1987
Donghyuck’s still dressed in most of his school uniform when he arrives at the Georgian griminess that is the Rat & Parrot with a harrassed-looking Taeil in tow. They hadn’t died on the way over, but it had been a close thing.
“And how old may you be?” The bartender asks, leering over the counter at Donghyuck who scowls and reluctantly comes to a stop.
“I—” he starts, but Taeil grabs him by the elbow and drags him along.
“He’s with me,” he calls over his shoulder.
Out of his peripheral vision Donghyuck catches Taeil roll his eyes before replying, “Yeah—sure. Whatever you like.”
It may be late-March but it’s still not spring enough for there to be a lot of sunlight left in the sky and evenings still start around 5 o’clock in the afternoon. Which is why it takes a fair amount of time for them to navigate their way around the crowded pub, past rowdy tables and tottering drunks.
“Why are we here?” Donghyuck half-shouts over the blare from the telly sat proudly above the bar. There’s a football game on and Donghyuck under different circumstances that would've caught most of his attention.
“Good fucking question,” Taeil grunts, still clearly irritated with how short-notice this meeting is.
They find an unoccupied table near the loos and Taeil flops down with a sigh and a creak that isn’t a product of centuries-old woodwork, but more so of a twenty-something with the bones of a senior citizen.
“You okay there?” Donghyuck asks, gingerly slipping into the chair opposite him.
“I was napping,” Taeil mumbles and lets his head thump down onto the dubiously sticky tabletop. “And now I’m here.”
Peering around at the riotous scenes around them Donghyuck comes to a somewhat reluctant decision. With a heavy and dramatic sigh, he gets up, dumps his school bag in Taeil’s lap and says, “I’ll go look for the others. Don’t move.”
Taeil makes a sound that roughly translates to “do you really think I’ll be moving any time soon?” and, satisfied with this response, Donghyuck disappears into the throng of people.
Donghyuck is used to getting his fair share of funny looks, even in a town with a comparatively large Asian population and even more so since the whole Paradise Syndrome thing, but the looks he gets here are of a whole new calibre.
Growing more and more uncomfortable with every second Donghyuck ducks and worms his way through clumps of people and around overcrowded tables, occasionally slipping in puddles of what he hopes is beer and accidentally catching the eye of some of the less friendly looking patrons, until he finally spots a familiar mop of spiky dark hair loitering near the back exit.
“Gloria,” he exclaims and ducks around someone’s protruding belly to get to her. “What’s this all about I have homew—oh wow. Oh my God—what happened?”
Gloria is standing there in a pair of patched-up jeans that would put even Yuta’s questionable taste to shame and a red velvet shirt the sleeve of her right arm rolled up awkwardly to proudly display—
“So, I broke my arm.”
Yuta, Johnny, Taeil and Donghyuck sit there, stunned into complete and utter silence.
She holds out her right arm, presenting a garish pink cast decorated by a few scattered signatures and Donghyuck’s hand twitches involuntarily with the urge to get a black marker out of his bag and practice his own.
“We have a university gig in two weeks,” Johnny says blankly.
“Yeah,” Gloria replies, pulling her arm away again, “I know.”
“In front of give-or-take 600 people,” Yuta adds, looking as blank as Johnny sounds.
“Yeah. I know.”
Taeil peels his forehead off of the tabletop to say, “I can’t drum by the way.”
They all turn to stare at him.
“What?” Yuta says.
Johnny claps a hand on his shoulder. “No one’s asking you to be our drummer, buddy.”
“No, no—” Taeil insists, waving his reassurance away, “—I’m just saying because I already play the keyboards and rhythm guitar and that’s about as far as my talent goes.”
“I play the guitar too,” Donghyuck mutters a tad petulantly.
“So what now?” Johnny says loudly over the other four who had all started speaking at once. “That gig is important and we need a drummer to record the demo.”
“Well, thank God I’m not a complete idiot,” Gloria says with a pointed glare, “or we’d all be a bit fucked, wouldn’t you say?”
There are mutters of ascent and she nods, satisfied.
“I’ll still be acting as your manager—unless there any objections? No? Okay. So I’ll still be keeping an eye out for gigs and stuff, so you don’t need to worry about that and we’ll get that demo recorded even if it kills me.”
“That’s the spirit,” Yuta cheers meekly.
“And a drum—” Johnny starts, raising his hand as if he’s back in school.
“I’m getting to that bit.”
He puts his hand back down again.
“The radio stuff is as good as in the bag—the only thing we need to do is record the damn thing and then we’ll be set. At least for a while.”
She glares around the table as if daring any one of them to interrupt. “As for the drumming thing—I’ll be out of commission for at least 10 weeks, maybe more depending on if I do anything stupid.”
“But!” She adds hastily when Yuta opens his mouth to speak. “I’ve already got my eye on someone who could fill in for the time being. And hey, if you like him and he does a better job than me which, admittedly, isn’t too much of a challenge he might end up sticking around.”
“If we don’t accidentally manage to chase him off, you mean,” Taeil points out optimistically and gets kicked in the shins by both Yuta and Donghyuck for it.
“Yeah, well—yeah. Don’t do that.”
“So,” Yuta says, bracing his elbows on the table, “what’s he like?”
“He’s your kind of Asian for starters—”
“Our kind of Asian?” Johnny asks, gesturing at himself, Taeil and Donghyuck. “Or his kind of Asian?” He points at Yuta, who winks.
“Er,” Gloria dithers uncertainly for a second before pointing at Johnny, “your kind of Asian. From what I could gather he just came back from four years in the States, which is why you guys didn’t get him back when all this started.”
Taeil pouts. “But where would we be without our hot lady manager and drummer?” And he says it so sincerely that not even Gloria, who seemingly holds an infinite storage of irritation, can fight off a laugh.
“So when will we get to meet him?” Donghyuck asks, bouncing slightly in his seat with barely contained excitement.
“Tomorrow, if you all show up.”
There’s a pause and then Yuta, who had been staring longingly at someone’s freshly drawn pint at the next table over, comes back to Earth and gasps in dramatic outrage.
“What are you looking at me for?”
March 27, 1987
Jaehyun smiles amicably at the four of them, all squished somewhat awkwardly on one side of an absurdly small table.
He’s obnoxiously good-looking and this would almost be a problem for Donghyuck if he weren’t actually sitting in Johnny fucking Seo’s lap and dying very, very slowly.
“So,” Yuta says, putting down his cup with an ominous clatter, “do you think you can learn, er, let’s say… 10 or so original songs and another 12 covers in” – he cocks his head – “two weeks?”
There’s a pause so thick you could’ve smashed your head against it and cracked open your skull.
Jaehyun leans forward, eyes narrowed but still smiling.
“Is that a challenge?”
semi-consistent updates? apparently.
Chapter 7: five imaginary boys
April 9, 1987
According to Taeil, there’s only one group you can conceivably listen to when you’re heading to the biggest gig of you’re admittedly still quite short career.
“Each night as I sleep, into my heart you creep—” three considerably deeper male voices sing while Taeil and Donghyuck soar one or two octaves above them, perfectly in tune with Martha and her Vandellas.
“—I wake up feeling sorry I met you.”
The lyrics – Donghyuck thinks as Johnny takes a sharp left corner with too much enthusiasm – hit just a little too close to home, but that niggling feeling does nothing to stop him from proving just why he’s the lead singer of this band.
“Hoping soon, that I’ll forget you.”
Even Yuta, who is squished on the passenger seat bench with Donghyuck, is singing along, all be it reluctantly and with a lot of judgemental looks into the depths of the van where Taeil and Jaehyun are happily hamming it up.
When the tape somewhat clunkily transitions into Queen’s Sheer Heart Attack Yuta brightens considerably and the nervous twitch in his left hand which Donghyuck – like the good friend he is – had been ignoring for the past five minutes abates slightly.
“I’m picking the next tape,” Donghyuck shouts over the music.
And wisely, no one argues.
The venue – a careworn field with a view of the university campus and the nearby motorway – is already starting to fill up with people by the time Johnny squeezes the van into an impossible parking space between a Ford which looks to be on its last legs and some poor sod’s shitty Volvo.
“AH,” Johnny sighs impressively, stretching his arms above his head, “there’s nothing like a muddy field in the middle of April to remind you why you’re alive.”
“Americans,” Yuta mutters derisively, pushing past him to open the back of the van to let the other two out into the humid and surprisingly warm April afternoon.
Jaehyun clambers out first and immediately gags. “It smells like—”
“Shit?” Donghyuck, who’s got the collar of his T-Shirt pulled over his mouth and nose, finishes. “If I throw up during our set,” he continues while the others start to unload their equipment from the van, “then it’s not my fault.”
“Okay, little one,” Johnny says and starts ushering Donghyuck away from the van while skillfully ignoring Donghyuck’s indignant splutterings. Little one was never a nickname he agreed to. “How about you go find Gloria and the artists' tent?”
The hand he has on Donghyuck's back burns.
“Don’t patronise me,” Donghyuck snaps, shaking him off maybe a tad more aggressively than necessary.
Eyes wide Johnny raises his hands in surrender and steps away, clearly caught off-guard by Donghyuck’s little outburst and Donghyuck has to fight off an embarrassed flush with a scowl.
Moments like this aren’t really doing anything to quell the temperamental teenage image he’s inadvertently starting to cultivate.
He ends up finding Gloria tramping around what is optimistically signposted as the backstage, but mostly just consists of a second, slightly less muddy field and a fuck ton of white tarpaulin tents. The place is teeming with other local bands – most of them Donghyuck notices just a little bitterly are white – engineering students, event managers and other assorted vaguely important-looking people.
Gloria stands out like a sore thumb, wading through the puddles of mud in an impressively floral ankle-length dress, which she’s hiked up to her knees with the help of two strategically placed pegs and a pair of green Wellington boots.
“Took you long enough,” she says, pulling him into a one-armed hug. “I’ve been stuck here for almost an hour.”
“Yeah, sorry—it’s the driving. You know how it is.”
She sighs, unsurprised.
“Where are the others?
“They’re getting our stuff. I was ordered to find you.”
If she takes notice of the slight hint of bitterness in his voice she doesn’t mention it, just pulls him closer as they start wandering back towards the makeshift parking lot.
“Not one for heavy lifting though, are you, love?”
He shrugs. “I suppose not.”
They walk into Jaehyun first, who is dragging along most of his drum kit in a wooden hand cart. The cart which Donghyuck had stealthily removed from the garden shed with just a little reluctant help from Minseo who had acted as a distraction.
It only cost him three cherry ice lollies and some of his pride.
“Where to?” He asks, pausing briefly to shove a precariously placed snare drum into Donghyuck’s arms.
“Straight ahead, right to the back and then turn left. It should be signposted.”
He nods his thanks and they carry on, Donghyuck softly humming under his breath while Gloria directs them around the worst of the mud.
It’s overcast; the sun is hidden behind a light grey bank of clouds that covers everything in an odd, half-brightness that – along with the actual humidity – sticks to everything within sight. They haven’t been here even 20 minutes and Donghyuck’s hands and the back of his neck already feel disgustingly damp, although that might be more due to nerves than the heat.
“Nice outfit,” Yuta says as he walks by, Taeil’s keyboard tucked securely under one arm. “Very punk-rock.”
Gloria dips into a curtsey and Yuta’s responding laugh follows them up the slight incline back to the parking lot where Taeil and Johnny are trying to carry two guitars and a considerably heavier bass without breaking either themselves or the equipment.
“Need some help?” Gloria asks and waves her useless right arm. The pink of her cast clashes quite horribly with the red of her dress.
“Hyuck?” Johnny says, holding up the enthusiastically be-stickered case of Yuta’s Fender guitar.
Donghyuck, still embarrassed about his outburst earlier, wordlessly holds out his hands and with a smile that Donghyuck consciously chooses to interpret as encouraging and not patronising, Johnny throws him the guitar.
“If we ever—and I mean ever—get roadies, I will cry,” Johnny says, hefting his bass guitar into a more secure position in his arms.
Donghyuck looks away.
The weather is too warm and Johnny's shirt is too tight.
“So how did you two even meet?”
They’re sitting in their little tarpaulin tent, sweating in the stifling warmth that builds with every minute. The tent flap door flutters open occasionally bringing in a refreshing gust of comparatively cool air.
Most of them are sitting around a small rickety plastic table, but Johnny’s taken up position on the grass in front of the tent’s opening and Jaehyun’s perched on an upturned bucket.
“Who?” Taeil asks, twisting in his chair to look around at everyone.
Jaehyun points at Johnny and Taeil.
“You two. Yuta said that you have known each other the longest.”
A grin that bodes well for absolutely no one steals across Johnny’s face and Taeil groans, slipping down in his chair until his chin is on the same level as the table.
“Don’t,” he warns.
But that does nothing to deter Johnny who cracks his knuckles and clears his throat before speaking, “It was on a hot summer’s night in our Lord’s year of 1984—”
“Oh—fuck you,” Taeil mutters and disappears under the table.
“—and the Smiths were promoting their self-titled album.”
“Oh my God,” Donghyuck says, sitting up from where he’d been slumped in Yuta’s lap.
“You met at a Smiths concert?” Jaehyun asks, incredulous.
There’s a drawn-out groan from underneath the table and Yuta, who’s clearly heard this story before, cackles gleefully. The other three – Donghyuck, Gloria and Jaehyun – have all straightened up, suddenly alert.
“What were you doing at a Smiths concert?” Donghyuck says, ducking to look underneath the table where Taeil’s got his face in his hands. “I thought you had taste?”
Yuta laughs and pokes him in the ribs. “Not like you can talk about taste Mr Bronski Beat.”
“It was once,” Taeil argues, one wild hand gesture away from sounding desperate. “And I was only there because of a friend. A friend who I have since disposed of, by the way,” he adds empathetically over Yuta's renewed giggles.
“You killed someone because they brought you to a Smiths concert?" Gloria asks, grinning.
Taeil just makes a vague, distressed sound that neither confirms nor denies the potential killing of a friend with questionable taste. He doesn't even attempt to come out from underneath the table until Yuta recovers enough to say:
“It's a wonder he hasn't killed Johnny yet. Or Donghyuck for that matter.”
Both Donghyuck and Johnny splutter indignantly and righteously. Even Gloria looks like she's expecting Johnny throw at least a bit of a fit, but he settles for gasping and slumping dramatically onto the grass, staring up at Taeil, who's still situated under the table, with a look of utter betrayal.
Taeil shrugs, not entirely apologetically, and Donghyuck and Johnny share a look and an eye-roll, the first look not charged with anger on Donghyuck's side and something weird on Johnny's.
Johnny looks away first, head thumping back onto the dried grass with a casualness that makes Donghyuck's skin itch with irritation.
They’re on their way up to the stage when Jaehyun falls into step beside Donghyuck, draping an arm around his shoulders and pulling him close.
“I can’t believe all of this technically started because of the Smiths.”
Donghyuck staggers slightly, laughing but still manages to catch Johnny’s terse, “Hey—be careful.”
But when he looks back Johnny’s got an arm around Gloria’s shoulders and seems busy laughing at something she said.
He turns away again, gritting his teeth.
“Yeah,” he mutters, "a bit of a bad omen, don't you think?”
Jaehyun shrugs, suitably carefree. A stark contrast to Yuta who's walking along in front of them, fingers flexing around the neck of his guitar. The other hand is trembling ever so slightly, and, for Yuta's sake, Donghyuck pretends not to see.
“This will all end in tragedy,” Jaehyun finally sing-songs in a surprisingly good impression of Morrissey, dropping his chin onto Donghyuck's shoulder in the effort of reaching the right timbre.
Behind them, Johnny and Gloria's laughs mingle together and a nerve in Donghyuck's jaw twitches.
“A dreaded sunny day—” he starts, in a similar, but worse Morrissey impression.
Jaehyun beams and carries on: “—so let's go where we're happy—”
“—and I meet you at the cemetery gates.”
April 26, 1987
The weather – after a one-and-a-half week-long identity crisis filled with humid stickiness and endless blue skies – has fallen back into a comfortably familiar damp chill, accompanied by heavy grey clouds and wind.
They were going to be productive today and they were… technically. The goal had been to write and finish at least four songs.
Three songs had been written, two of which had sort of come close to being finished. But in this weather, with only the orange light from the various lamps, the electric fireplace and the flickering glow from the telly for light sources it gets a bit tricky to fight off lethargy.
Which is why they’re all currently scattered across the Moon’s living room in various states of wakefulness.
On the telly, the meteorologist gestures at a grey blob of bad weather advancing from the French coast across the Channel.
Taeil’s curled up on an armchair, nibbling on a pencil and staring into space.
Donghyuck’s on the sofa, sharing the space with Yuta and Jaehyun, who out of all of them seem the most awake. They’re sharing a blanket and a sheet of paper, the white almost completely hidden under numerous scribbles, tea stains and doodles.
“Huh,” Johnny says suddenly, breaking the sleepy silence and making Taeil jerk out of his doze. “I didn’t know they were allowed to film there.”
All their gazes turn to the television where shaky helicopter-filmed footage is flickering across the screen.
“Is that—” Jaehyun starts, sitting up slightly and accidentally dislodging Yuta’s head from his shoulder in the process.
“One year ago today,” Johnny mutters, completely transfixed by the blurry destruction.
“I think it’s old footage,” Donghyuck says, as the camera zooms in on what used to be Reactor Nr. 4, now a gaping, marred maw of death. “There’s no way the Soviets would let the BBC anywhere near this.”
They watch in silence as the camera pans up to the horizon before abruptly cutting back to a clean, pristine television studio.
“Do you think they still have to drink powdered milk back in—where ever it was worst?”
“In the GDR, I think. And Ukraine obviously.”
Taeil glances guiltily at his abandoned bowl of cereal on the coffee table. Yuta, on the other hand, perks up at the mention of Ukraine.
“I had a pen pal from Ukraine,” he says.
Johnny snorts. “And do they live near a volatile nuclear power station?”
“Dunno. Last time I heard from him was in ‘78.” And then at the questioning looks from both Donghyuck and Jaehyun he elaborates, “It was a school-related thing. ‘Friends Beyond the Iron Curtain’ or something. It only lasted a couple of months.”
On the telly, a line of confused and bedraggled sheep from Northern Wales line up to be scanned for radiation and Donghyuck distantly tries to remember if he’s eaten anything with lamb recently.
“Well,” Johnny says in an attempt at sounding cheerful, “it could be worse.”
The scene switches to Southern West Germany where sandboxes in playgrounds are still being tested for radiation levels and piles and piles of lettuce, spinach and other greenery are being stockpiled and destroyed.
“Yeah,” Yuta mutters in a suitably dismal tone to counteract Johnny’s unnatural American positivity, “most things could be worse.”
May 7, 1987
Donghyuck makes the trip from the school gates down to where the band’s van is parked in an inconspicuous and illegal space by a motorway underpass in under 15 minutes; a new personal record.
“Remind me why we’re doing this here and not in someone’s living room or kitchen?” He says as he clambers into the front where Johnny and Taeil are already sitting.
“Better reception,” Johnny replies simply and adds, “And the stunning view,” to make Donghyuck huff out a reluctant laugh.
The view is a muddy, polluted little stream running through the underpass and aggressively graffitied redbrick walls, England at it’s very finest. It's a humid and overcast sort of day that does nothing but enhances the muddy, grey scenery around them.
“—and now for something completely different,” the radio DJ announces in a passable imitation of John Cleese once the Cure peters out into anticipatory silence. Behind them in the back of the van Yuta lets out a rather undignified squeak and quickly presses a hand over his mouth.
“Have you watched that film, Duckie? It’s really fun—ow—that hurt!”
Taeil and Yuta bicker quietly for a few seconds before Johnny and Jaehyun start making aggressive shushing motions, the latter almost taking out one of Yuta’s eyes by accident.
“I was one-years-old when that film came out,” Donghyuck whispers over a Specsavers ad.
Taeil beams and Jaehyun reaches over the back of the front seat to pinch his cheek.
“You’re our baby.”
“Now, 'completely different’ might be the wrong phrasing, however, because if you like the Cure you’ll definitely like this. So, open your ears and open your hearts for this little local treasure I recently discovered. This is a band called Paradise Syndrome and this is their song My Charlemagne. Enjoy!”
They sit there, completely silent as their song, their composition blares from the car’s speakers.
May 22, 1987
“God—I hate this song,” Natalie finally snaps after stewing through two verses and one chorus of the Pet Shop Boys’ It’s A Sin.
She gets up, dropping her biro onto her doodle-riddled biology notes and grabs the portable radio from where it had been precariously perching on the windowsill above the kitchen sink.
Yesterday’s Saturday night fun ended about three hours ago when they woke up the harsh reality of the Sixth Form and the mountains of revision and coursework waiting for them downstairs. Which is why they’re both walking around the house in their pyjamas and with looks of grim determination more suited for action heroes than melodramatic 16-year-olds.
The radio splutters unhappily as she starts switching through frequencies, stopping now and again only to scoff with disgust and carrying on with rising frustration.
Somewhere between the one o’clock news and Edith Piaf Donghyuck lets his head drop down onto his own scattered, barely legible work with a defeated groan.
“—the common folk adore you,” sings a familiar voice through and Natalie freezes, the radio still cradled in her arms.
“—and I’m as common as they come. So come—”
Donghyuck launches himself across the kitchen.
“—come and conquer me again…”
They screech through several frequencies and under the noise Donghyuck hears his mother call from the garden:
“What was that? Donghyuck?”
Natalie’s eyes have gone impossibly round and apologetic and she gently pushes the radio into Donghyuck’s hands.
“Nothing, nothing—just the radio being funny. I’ll have dad look at it later.”
A lengthy weather report fills the silence as they sit back down, Donghyuck pale-faced and with his heart lodged somewhere in his throat. It’s a painful kind of pressure and he only realises that he’s crying when a few salty tears drop onto his notebook, smudging his already illegible scrawl.
“She still doesn’t know,” Natalie whispers, hooking her foot around Donghyuck’s ankle. It's the closest she can get to a comforting gesture without risking getting up again and making it obvious that something is wrong.
Donghyuck shakes his head.
“Do you want to tell her?”
Of course he does.
It’s one of the proudest moments of his life so far – hearing his own voice, his lyrics on the radio – and he can’t even share it with the person who’s opinion means the world to him.
More than he expected.
June 14, 1987
They celebrate Taeil’s 23rd birthday at the Rat & Parrot, not as a musical act just as six normal people getting absolutely shitfaced.
It’s a beautiful, alcohol-infused disaster that ends with all of them tottering along a deserted high street in the dead of night, blessing the darkened shops with slurred renditions of their own songs and one particularly horrible version of Fleetwood Mac’s Everywhere, which Taeil had been playing non-stop since it’s release two months ago.
It’s also the night Donghyuck discovers that – although he can drink it – he doesn’t particularly like beer, so he sticks to stealing sips from whatever revolting concoction Yuta had magicked out of thin air.
The other discovery that he makes is that Johnny, of all fucking people, is an affectionate drunk.
It’s a “Fuck you, specifically” from God.
June 24, 1987
It’s in the hot, sticky pink light of the stage in the Battleship where Donghyuck feels the most at home, caught between the cheers of the crowd and the music.
This is what he’s good at. What he’s meant to do.
The performance ends in a crash of cymbals and guitars and Donghyuck stumbles off the stage in a pile of half-delirious giggles, one arm caught around Jaehyun’s waist who looks almost as out of it as Donghyuck.
“ANYTHING TO DRINK?” Gloria, who’s got Yuta in an affectionate headlock, shouts over the noise.
“I'M ALRIGHT,” Donghyuck replies, detaching himself from Jaehyun as he starts asking about what brands of beer are available.
He finds Taeil trying to make his way through a particularly chatty group of individuals, half of them dressed in sweaters and horn-rimmed glasses and the other half dressed in nothing much at all.
“HAVE YOU—HEY—HAVE YOU SEEN NATALIE?”
Donghyuck has to yell to be heard, dragging Taeil away from that dead-end conversation and right into Johnny’s chest. They both stumble and Taeil sways, giggling slightly before wandering off again.
A familiar sense of dread and light-headedness creeps its way into Donghyuck’s system, as it always does nowadays when he fucks up and accidentally ends up alone with Johnny.
He sees Johnny’s mouth move and his eyebrows scrunch in an inaudible question. All he can hear is the nauseating beat of whatever EDM garbage the speakers were churning out.
Johnny yanks him close enough that Donghyuck’s on eye-level with the fourth button of his shirt which is – to his absolute horror – unbuttoned. He could press his mouth against Johnny’s skin right now. There’s no layer of material stopping him, only fear and the distant feeling of wanting to throw up.
He tries valiantly to twist out of Johnny’s grip, but then he catches sight of the look on Johnny’s face and freezes.
“What—no! No, no. Nothing.” Donghyuck squeaks, trying a little more frantically now, to get away from the suffocating air between them. “Nothing’s wrong,” he says, forcing himself to sound calmer and resigning himself to the hand-shaped bruise he’s sure will be decorating his arm tomorrow.
He also stoutly ignores the little thrill that thought sends through him.
“Nothing?” Johnny repeats, sceptical. “You sure?”
Donghyuck looks around, squinting against the flashing neon. Then he turns to look back up at Johnny and asks:
“Have you seen Natalie? She said she’d come tonight.”
Johnny snatches his hand off of Donghyuck’s arm, expression shuttering. It’s so abrupt Donghyuck actually stumbles, bewildered by the sudden loss of contact.
“I haven’t seen her. Sorry.”
And then he’s gone, disappearing into the ever-shifting throng of people and leaving Donghyuck alone in a patch of neon, tinged green with confusion and hurt. A feeling of complete and utter loneliness hits Donghyuck like a ton of bricks and he doubles over, chest heaving.
June 27, 1987
Donghyuck’s peacefully dozing off on a frankly quite disgusting, beer-stained sofa in the back room which serves as a glorified backstage for whatever local artists the Private Place had managed to drag out of their caves, when the door bangs open and Taeil comes crashing inside.
He’s closely followed by Johnny, Yuta and Gloria who’s trying to shush Johnny and wrestle a suspicious pink drink from Yuta all at the same time.
“Wha—oof,” Jaehyun grunts as Yuta, now relieved of his drink and clearly unhappy about it, drops down into his lap. “What’s going on?” He tries again.
Johnny flops down next to Donghyuck, realises what he’s done and springs back to his feet. He ends up perched on the coffee table, facing away from Donghyuck and nervously tapping on the rim of Jaehyun’s abandoned bottle of beer.
“In five minutes,” Gloria announces in a tone more suited for a battlefield, “we’re going to meet a record producer. And we are in no way, shape or form prepared for this. So I want you all” – she casts a pointed look at Yuta, still sprawled on top of Jaehyun – “to be on your best fucking behaviour. Understood?”
“How do we know he isn’t a scammer?” Donghyuck asks, fear and excitement niggling at his heart.
“He had a card,” Taeil, who’s sitting on the floor by the coatrack, replies.
“And we used the manager’s phone to call the number and it’s all real,” Johnny finishes.
“Fuck,” Jaehyun breathes.
They stare at each other in muted shock before a set of knocks, barely audible over the music from the club, makes them all jump and in Yuta’s case, inelegantly tumble into the space between Jaehyun and Donghyuck with a surprised little yelp.
Gloria pushes off of the wall she’d been leaning against and stalks towards the door, turning one last time and hissing, “Any funny business and I’ll make you regret you were ever born.”
It would be more of a threat if she didn’t look as nervous as they all feel.
“Aye aye, captain,” they chorus quietly, which at least manages to bring a strained half-smile to her face.
She opens the door to a white man who looks to be in his late 20s, early 30s. He’s handsome in a skeletal kind of way, with big unnerving grey eyes and dressed in a carefully nondescript black suit.
Then he grins – easy-going and open – and the resemblance to a hit man or government agent lessens quite a bit. The room relaxes, as one.
“Hi,” he says, “I’m Theodore Meades, but you can call me Theo. I’ve heard quite a lot about you guys and after seeing you play… well, let’s just say I’m glad that your manager is letting me talk to you.”
Out of the corner of his eye Donghyuck catches Yuta pinching himself.
“I’m a producer and, er, co-founder actually, of a label called Full Sun Records and I’d be delighted if we could maybe sit down and have a little chat.”
A stunned silence stretches out until Donghyuck blurts out, “My grandad calls me Full Sun sometimes.”
Johnny actually turns to look at him, eyebrows raised, but Donghyuck ignores him.
The producer – Theo – inclines his head.
“I guess this was meant to be then, right?”
[points at the slow burn tag] i am so sorry, but i'm taking this very seriously
Chapter 8: london calling
July 26, 1987
Quietly – ever, ever so quietly – Donghyuck shuts the front door behind him. In the distance, he can hear the engine of the van revving before speeding off and then he’s alone with his thoughts and the muffled chatter from the telly in the living room.
It’s late, but not late enough for it to be completely dark so he’s standing, bathed in soft blueish light, muted slightly by the milky glass built into the door.
His hands are damp and his heart a painful lump in his throat.
Peaking out from in-between the school things that he has clutched to his chest is a wad of paper, stapled together and crammed, front-to-back with tiny black print.
It’s addressed to him and his legal guardians and it’s the product of almost a month’s worth of meetings, arguments and secret phone calls that have dictated much of Donghyuck’s life for the past couple of weeks.
The summer holidays snuck up on him and suddenly he was left with little to think about that wasn’t the contract negotiations.
Uproarious, pre-recorded laughter pours out of the living room, mingling with the soft chuckle of his father and Donghyuck slowly returns back to planet earth, slipping out of his shoes and arranging his features into something slightly less incriminating.
As he creeps past the open doorway he briefly catches sight of them, framed against the flickering light of the telly. His mother has her head on his father’s shoulder, comfortable and familiar.
He’s up the stairs – contract, racing heart and all – before they can notice him.
Donghyuck’s busy brushing his teeth and thinking about the state of his hair, which had – much to both Donghyuck and his mother’s ire – decided to start curling slightly again. The curls had initially faded away with puberty, but now they’re making a comeback.
A knock on the bathroom door interrupts his glaring and he’s faced with the accusatory stare of his little sister who’s standing, barefoot and in her nightdress, in the hall.
Her hair, Donghyuck notes absently, is a similar mess of dark brown curls.
“Where were you?” She asks, careful to keep her voice low.
Donghyuck cocks his head. “Why do you want to know?”
Minseo shrugs and they glare at each other.
“Natalie’s family left for France three days ago,” she finally says and Donghyuck’s heart sinks. He had completely forgotten that Minseo knows Natalie’s younger brother. “So you weren’t with her.”
“Are you playing detective now—or what is this?” Donghyuck snaps, reflexively going on the defensive.
Minseo stares at him, unimpressed.
“Where do you always go?”
Dropping his toothbrush into the washbasin Donghyuck folds his arms and glares.
“It’s none of your business,” he hisses. “Now get lost.”
For a moment she looks like she wants to argue, like she wants to raise her voice and press the matter until Donghyuck inevitably gives in, but an unrestrained burst of laughter from downstairs makes her mouth snap shut.
“I’m not stupid, you know. I know what you—”
Donghyuck takes an involuntary step forward and she backs away, still glaring.
“Piss off,” he snarls.
She bares her teeth and then stomps off down the hall and into her room, slamming the door shut loud enough for the sound to ring in Donghyuck’s ears.
July 30, 1987
“We’re not exactly drowning in time, Donghyuck.”
Donghyuck says nothing, just keeps on looping the chord of the microphone around his arm until he can feel his fingers starting to go numb.
“Are you listening? Hello?”
The microphone chord unwinds itself from Donghyuck’s arm and he turns to glare at Gloria, who’s standing with her arms crossed in the mouth of the Moon’s garage.
Sunlight – warm, sticky sunlight – is pooling around their feet. It's a stark contrast to their practice sessions back in the Autumn of last year. The whole cramped little space smells like an odd mixture of petrol, sweat and lawn clippings.
“It’s not that simple,” he grits out for what feels like the billionth time. “If it were then we wouldn’t be having this fucking conversation.”
“Just tell them,” Gloria cries out, clearly exasperated. “It’s not rocket science. Show them the bloody contract, explain what’s going on—for Christ’s sake—introduce them to Theo if you have to! Because we don’t have time for you to be pulling shit like this, alright? If you’re not in then this whole thing’s dead in the water.”
The other four have been suspiciously quiet for the entirety of this argument.
Yuta has been in the bathroom for the past 20 minutes, Jaehyun is staring at the ceiling and clearly wishing to be anywhere but here, Taeil’s suddenly become very interested in a colony of ants steadily marching across some tins of old paint and Johnny is methodically tuning and re-tuning his bass with his gaze fixed somewhere to the left of Donghyuck’s head.
“I can’t just tell them! Don’t you understand? I have been lying to them for almost a whole fucking year .”
“Donghyuck—” she starts in a would-be-calm voice, but Donghyuck doesn’t let her get very far.
“You don’t get it, okay? My parents aren’t some ageing hippies who will just let me do whatever the fuck I want. They don’t want me to do this. They didn’t want me to do this a year ago and they certainly won’t want me doing this after finding out I’ve been lying to them. Lying. For a whole. Fucking. Year.”
The lump in his throat is back and it’s a fight to get more words past it.
“They’ll kill me. They’ll never trust me ever again. Do you understand why I’m making such a big fucking deal over this? I never thought this would happen, I never—I thought it would just stop at some point.”
Behind him, the thrum of Johnny’s base peters off into silence.
“I don’t have a contingency plan for this,” Donghyuck says, voice hoarse with the ache stuck in his throat. “I don’t know what to do.”
“That’s enough,” Johnny suddenly interrupts as Gloria opens her mouth to speak.
Donghyuck turns, surprised, but his already blurry vision is filled up by Taeil and Jaehyun who pull him into a slightly uncomfortable, three-way hug. They stay that way for a couple of minutes, Donghyuck pressing his cheek against the soft cotton of Jaehyun’s T-Shirt and forcing himself to get a grip.
Johnny, he notes a little bitterly when they break apart, has stayed a safe distance away, sitting on an upturned mop bucket with a white-knuckled grip around the neck of his bass.
“I want to go home,” Donghyuck announces rather abruptly.
No one tries to coax him into staying, not even Gloria whose lips are pressed together into a thin, disapproving line.
“I’ll drive you,” Johnny says, getting to his feet without waiting for an answer. “Taeil, can I borrow your car?”
Taeil, looking as caught off guard as Donghyuck feels, blinks and nods.
“Er—yeah. Yeah, sure. The keys are in the hall.”
Not even 10 minutes later and Donghyuck’s sitting in the passenger seat of Taeil’s shitty blue Sedan, still a little too close to flat out bursting into tears for this to be a good idea.
But if Johnny notices the wetness of Donghyuck’s and the suspicious, unhappy flush in his cheeks he doesn’t mention it; just asks what music Donghyuck wants to listen to even though it’s just a 15-minute drive and helps him with the seatbelt when it tries to fight back.
They drive past an ice cream van and hoards of children, past people lounging out in their gardens and more inflatable pools than Donghyuck can count all the while being accompanied by the Style Council’s You’re The Best Thing and Johnny’s soft humming.
“Is everything alright?”
Donghyuck thinks of all the other times Johnny has asked that exact question and all the times Donghyuck replied with a lie and a shrug.
He’s done enough lying to last him a lifetime.
Mutely, Donghyuck shakes his head.
“No. No, not really.”
This is the first time they’ve been alone – properly alone – since the incident at the Battleship that still haunts Donghyuck’s consciousness. Johnny’s whole demeanour has changed since they got into the car, softened. And when he takes one hand off of the steering wheel to put it on Donghyuck’s thigh it hurts.
Not literally – his grip is firm and comforting – but figuratively.
Because it’s all so fucking unfair.
“Want to talk about it?”
Again, Donghyuck shakes his head and Johnny nods, grip tightening into something a little more protective.
August 5, 1987
Donghyuck’s sitting on a bench in the park near the Homelands, eating ice cream and generally minding his own business when a familiar screech of tyres against asphalt makes him turn around.
Yuta’s leaning out of the driver’s side window like a dog enjoying the breeze.
“WHAT ARE YOU DOING HERE?”
Shoving the ice cream wrapper into his jeans pocket Donghyuck gets to his feet.
“I COULD ASK YOU THE SAME THING,” he replies and starts jogging across the stretch of grass to where Yuta’s haphazardly parked on the curb. “Why do you have Taeil’s car? Where are the others?”
Yuta gestures at the backseat which is overflowing with shopping.
“I was sent out on errands.” He reaches out and plucks Donghyuck’s ice cream out of his hand and grins. “Do you want a lift home?”
After a quick stop at the ice cream parlour so that Yuta can get his own ice cream and stop demolishing Donghyuck’s, they’re off on some extensive short cut.
They get stuck in traffic heading out of town 10 minutes into their little escapade and Donghyuck slumps, defeated, into his seat. It’s way, way too warm to be stuck in traffic and the passenger side window is jammed at the half-way point, letting in hot air but no refreshing breeze.
“So,” Yuta starts, sounding incredibly and incriminatingly casual, “how’s that thing with your parents going?”
Donghyuck glances at him, eyebrows raised.
“Badly,” he says. “Why?”
“Well” – Yuta gestures vaguely – “I just—I’m the one who got you into this mess in the first place so I thought—I don’t know—that I’d help you out of it too. It’s only fair.”
“Are you kicking me out of the band?” Donghyuck asks, only half-joking.
“No! No, no—what the fuck?”
Donghyuck quickly raises his hands in surrender. “Sorry, sorry—I was just making sure.”
The traffic edges forward an inch or two and Yuta sighs.
“Look—I was going to make like a big... hint game out of this or something, but it’s too fucking warm and honestly I’m not entirely sure you’d get the hint so—”
“Gee,” Donghyuck mutters, “thanks.”
“Donghyuck, listen to me,” Yuta orders, suddenly sounding absolutely serious.
Serious enough for Donghyuck to blink and turn to look at him. It’s not a tone that sounds entirely normal or familiar coming from someone like Yuta, so on the rare occasions where does sound serious, it’s almost like talking to a different person altogether.
“You do realise that you could just… fake your parents' signatures on the contract, right?”
Somewhere in the distance, a passage unblocks and the traffic slowly starts to rumble back into motion.
August 12, 1987
The idea Yuta brought up isn’t entirely new to Donghyuck, who had reluctantly played with it after the fourth failed attempt at bringing up the contract issue with his parents.
But it’s still a whole different thing when he’s sitting at the dinner table on a pretty pink and gold evening with his family, eating apple crumble and talking about a potential camping holiday in Devon.
The practice sheets with his mother’s elegant, loopy signature and his father illegible scrawl that he’s hidden under his mattress sit heavily in the back of his mind.
“It would be nice to go back,” his mother says, smiling. “Now that everyone knows how to swim.”
Minseo starts to protest about how her irrational fear of the open ocean wasn’t her fault and more a product of the arsenal of ocean-related horror stories their father had in store.
Summer ‘76 is only a distant, sea-salt and sunburn-riddled memory to Donghyuck, mostly pieced together from the pictures decorating the mantlepiece. Red swim shorts, lemon drop sores on the roof of his mouth and a leaky blue tent that their father had inherited from his father.
Donghyuck’s heart seizes painfully.
“I think it’s a brilliant idea,” he says and his mother beams triumphantly.
August 14, 1987
Theo looks as hollow-cheeked and bright-eyed as ever when Donghyuck finds him in the depths of this town’s only record shop.
He grins – clearly genuinely delighted – when Donghyuck presents him with the contract, which is sufficiently signed, dog-eared and highlighted in all the right places.
“Finally got them to come around, eh?”
Donghyuck grins a grin that feels more like a grimace and shrugs.
Theo laughs and tucks the stapled wad of paper under his arm before saying, “And they’ve given you the go-ahead for London?”
“Yeah—yes. Yes, they have.”
The lie tastes like battery acid.
“Lovely! Oh, this is great. I’ll have to call in later. You’ll love London, trust me. It’s like a whole different world. Especially compared to here—no offence.”
The reality of what Donghyuck’s done – of what he’s going to do – is setting in hard and fast, faster than he can think of countermeasures, but the laugh that bursts out of his chest isn’t faked. The delight and anticipation are all real.
“None taken,” he says, grinning.
But in the end, he declines Theo’s offer of a quick lift back home.
Instead, he wanders the streets of his dismal little town, counting potholes and the clouds racing each other across the periwinkle blue sky and when the evening starts to set in and he can hear the distant rumble of the motorway he turns around again, heading home with a heavy heart and a head full of contradictions.
August 24, 1987
Ten days later and they’re officially-officially signed to Full Sun Records.
It’s almost like Donghyuck’s been living in a fever dream for the last couple of days, numbly going through the motions of normality so that his mother - who’s full of holiday spirits – doesn’t get suspicious.
Then on one especially sweltering morning, Donghyuck wakes up early and slips downstairs to the sound of his mother making coffee in the kitchen. It’s a quiet, sun-soaked kind of day and she greets him with a kiss and question about the shadows under his eyes.
“Have you seen my red hoodie?” Donghyuck asks while he waits for his tea to stew.
She shrugs. “I think Minie might have left it in the car.”
Sighing dramatically Donghyuck drags himself out of the kitchen.
“Can you check the post while you’re at it? Apparently one of your cousins—the handsome one—got arrested back in June.”
Donghyuck does as he’s told, retrieving his hoodie which has a stain on the right sleeve that definitely wasn’t there a couple of days ago and then digging the post out of the postbox.
He dumps his loot on the kitchen table and starts sifting through the bills and ads until he finds a thick, cream-coloured envelope with his aunt’s shaky writing and a collection of stamps decorating the front.
“Why was he arrested?” He asks as he continues his sorting.
“Oh, he wasn’t the only one. Last thing I heard he and half his friend group got locked up. It was completely random too—they just grabbed whoever was near and showing signs of resistance.”
Donghyuck hums distractedly and dumps an assortment of charity letters onto the floor.
“She’s been in hysterics for almost two months,” his mother sighs, thumbing through the two-page-long letter with a look of practised resignation that only older sisters can wear. “Understandable, really. It’s not like the police back there has a particularly good track record.”
Then she sighs and tucks the letter into one of the pockets of her dressing gown.
“I’ll have to call her today.”
Mumbling something unintelligible around a mouthful of tea Donghyuck separates the last piece of post from where it had gotten stuck to an electricity bill.
It’s what looks like a homemade postcard of some unidentifiable summery, European place with long white beaches but no palm trees. The glossiness of the picture is what throws Donghyuck off and he turns it around.
There’s no stamp, only Donghyuck’s home address carefully squished into one corner. The rest of the “postcard” is taken up by what Donghyuck belatedly recognises as Johnny’s familiar, tidy and round writing.
London is calling!!! We (Taeil, Yuta, Jaehyun and me) are heading off today (August 23). Theo said that you’re coming as well, but we didn’t want to blow your cover so here’s £20 for the train ticket and some food or whatever else you’ll need on the way.
We’ll be staying at my apartment: Upper Ryle Street, 98 (4th floor, ap. 11) but only for a couple of days because I’ve already managed to scout out this place a bit further out that has more room, so try to make it here before September 10, okay?
I miss you and see you soon!
Folded into the right-hand corner of the postcard is a twenty-pound note, secured to the paper by a truly astounding amount of sellotape.
The ‘I miss you’ taunts Donghyuck until he has to put the card down, his heart once again climbing up to its familiar spot in his throat. He doesn’t understand – or doesn’t want to understand – why it says I instead of we. It feels like a slap in the face.
His mother’s voice jerks him out of his spiralling thoughts and he has to blink the blurriness out of his vision before replying, “Oh, just a postcard from Natalie. They’re staying in San Tropez, you know.”
That sets her off onto a rant about his father skimping on holidays and Donghyuck fades back into the white noise of his own thoughts.
August 31, 1987
The sun has barely started her ascent into the sky when Donghyuck silently shuts his bedroom door behind him, rucksack in one hand a note that he’s agonised over for almost a week in the other. It’s a note he’s written and re-written more times than he cares to remember, full of apologies, explanations and promises.
Shouldering his rucksack he pads down the hall, pausing briefly to drop the note at the top of the stairs where it’s immediately visible to anyone coming out of his parent’s bedroom.
Then he hurries down the stairs and into the kitchen before any traitorous leanings of his heart can stop him.
Outside the air is still fresh and cool and he takes a deep breath, allowing himself one last look back before pushing the gate open and starting his journey.
At nine o’clock he’s already far away, an hour away from London and dozing in a window seat with only the steadily rising sun, a British Rail brochure and a half-eaten sandwich for company.
His heart is still lagging behind somewhat, stuck somewhere between the controlled chaos of his childhood home’s back garden and the railway station.
as someone who's very close to their family (my mother in particular) this was not easy to write TT
Chapter 9: lost in magic city
September 15, 1987
“It’s kind of sad, really,” Yuta says as the last of their stuff is loaded into the van, “that we have this little shit between us all.”
This is coming from the person who had sat out most of the heavy lifting citing a bad back and a hangover, which is also the reason as to why he’s walking around in the early morning fogginess of central London with a pair of sunglasses perched on his nose.
“Do you—are you serious? I thought that was more than enough,” Jaehyun pants while pushing his sweat-damp hair out of his eyes. He, along with Johnny and Taeil had done most of the hard work.
“We’ll probably collect tons more shit,” Johnny says cheerfully and slams the van doors shut. “So the next time we move it’ll be a real doozy. For all of us.”
“Doozy,” Taeil repeats under his breath, probably stowing it away in the back of his mind for future use.
“How can you be this American at 5 o’clock in the morning?” Donghyuck mutters as they all start piling into the van. “Doesn’t it take energy?”
Johnny, while successfully warding Yuta away from the passenger seat, says, “I was born this way, baby,” with a grin and a wink.
It’s been a tough couple of days, to say the least. Johnny’s flat is small – way too small for five people – and Donghyuck, who’s suffering under a combination of cabin fever, lack of sleep and homesickness, is feeling as grumpy and unreasonable as a toddler.
The fact that London is as loud and chaotic as he’d imagined, isn’t helping. Always just one push away from becoming too much.
Yuta plants a hand between Donghyuck’s shoulder blades and pushes him up into the front seats. “Get a move on, little one. We want to get there before the traffic sets in.”
“There’s always traffic,” Donghyuck complains but complies when Yuta’s pushing gets more incessant.
“Yeah, but there’ll be more traffic later,” Yuta says.
It takes Johnny forcing the seatbelt across Donghyuck’s midriff for him to stop putting up a fuss but he does take care to sulk very obviously for the rest of the half-hour drive. Not even Best of 60s Soul can break him out of it.
Their new home is a narrow, run-down Georgian thing sitting halfway up a steeply sloping street amongst at least 20 other identical-looking houses. It’s not pretty. It’s not even ugly in a quaint sort of way.
It’s just depressing.
The whole thing comes with a patch of dry grass, a set of bins that look like they’ve been through economic hardship and come out on the other side decidedly worse for wear and a tiny wrought iron fence and gate that are covered in rust and something Donghyuck desperately hopes is moss.
“We’re going to die here,” he announces, peering up at the curtainless windows.
Jaehyun materialises next to him and asks, “How?” because if there’s one thing Jung Jaehyun isn’t above doing it’s tempting fate.
“Asbestos, lead piping, dry rot” – Donghyuck glances around the dilapidated street – “and general… murdery things. It’s quite an extensive list.”
“You can’t die of dry rot,” Yuta says bracingly, but Donghyuck doesn’t miss the uneasy look he casts the rusty gate and the door beyond it, complete with peeling blue paint and a letter flap that’s been crudely boarded up.
“Yeah,” Donghyuck admits, “but you can die of a house collapsing in on you.”
Whatever Yuta’s reply was going to be gets cut short by Johnny pushing past them, twirling the house key around his finger. He pauses on the doorstep and looks back at the other four still huddled on the pavement outside the gate.
“It’ll be an adventure,” he says, grinning in that toothy and horrifyingly sincere way of his.
September 16, 1987
Donghyuck ends up getting a room that Johnny calls “cosy” and Taeil more accurately describes as titchy. The room comes with a rickety chest of drawers, an iron bedstead that looks like someone nicked it from a psychiatric ward and a layer of dust, almost an inch thick.
"How charming," Donghyuck deadpans, nudging a clump of dust and dirt with the toe of his shoe.
The walls are an unflattering industrial grey and the floorboards are splintered and swollen, quietly daring anyone to be stupid enough to walk around barefoot. Donghyuck spots a damp patch in the right-hand-corner of the improbably high ceiling and is just turning around to complain when a large, warm hand lands on the small of his back and gently urges him further into the room.
"You've got a better view than us," Johnny says, ignoring Donghyuck's undignified squeak of surprise. "Look..."
It's difficult to see much out of the window, which is covered in a thick layer of grime, but Donghyuck can just about make out a patio and a long stretch of overgrown grass that ends in a thicket of brambles, an out-of-place willow and a weatherbeaten shed.
"It's quaint," Johnny says, smiling down at their bad excuse of a back garden.
His hand is still resting lightly on Donghyuck's back, almost as if he'd forgotten it was there and it takes a great deal of mental effort on Donghyuck's part to pull away, lest he do something stupid like confess his stupid teenage crush and ruin everything. He misses Johnny's expression souring, too busy trying to dislodge the lump from his throat.
"Do Americans have a different definition for the word 'quaint'? Because this" – he gestures at the grimy window and the unkempt garden beyond it – "isn't what we'd generally call quaint."
Johnny hitches a smile back onto his face and says, "It's got charm. Don't you think?"
"A thatched cottage in Sussex has charm. This is," Donghyuck clears his throat and in his best, most nasally American accent, says, "this place is a dump."
And just to prove his point he lands a well-aimed kick at the wall and they both freeze as the house creaks loudly and dust rains down from the ceiling. Johnny fixes Donghyuck with a look, one eyebrow raised as if he's daring Donghyuck to do it again.
"Don't be mean to the house, Duckie."
The moment breaks and both Donghyuck and Johnny turn to find Yuta hovering in the doorway, holding a piece of metal piping in his hands.
"This came off in the bathroom," he says, "but we don't know what it does. Did, I mean."
A loud clank echoes from the hall, followed by a burst of laughter from Taeil and a selection of curses from Jaehyun.
"What are they doing?" Johnny asks, in a tone that suggests he isn't all that keen on knowing the answer and Yuta, clearly picking up on this, shrugs.
"We can use that for when we get robbed," Donghyuck says, striding across the room to Yuta in an attempt to get away from Johnny, who promptly follows.
Feeling a little caged in Donghyuck plucks the metal pipe out of Yuta's grip and points the jagged end of it at Johnny in a playful fencing gesture that goes sideways when Johnny grabs it and yanks him closer, smoothly trapping Donghyuck by his side.
"If we get robbed, you mean," he says, apparently unaware of Yuta's gaze trailing from his hand on Donghyuck's shoulder to Donghyuck's face, which has turned a traitorous shade of pink.
"No," Donghyuck says, twisting out of Johnny's hold for a second time, "I mean when."
Then – heart and mind racing – he darts past Yuta, shoving the metal pipe back into his arms, and into the hall to find a distraction in whatever mess Taeil and Jaehyun have undoubtedly created.
He can feel Johnny's gaze on the back of his neck.
September 21, 1987
The offices of FSR are a set of extremely cramped rooms in a flat right above a very popular Chinese restaurant and it takes some awkward manoeuvring around a pair of industrial-sized bins and Taeil getting distracted by a stray cat for them to make it upstairs.
There they knock and wait, casting nervous glances around the landing with its aged grey carpet and splintering bannisters. It's quite late – the October sun has already disappeared behind the towering office buildings and construction sites that decorate the impressive London skyline – and the landing is almost completely dark, safe from the muted light a grimy window in the stairwell is letting through.
Yuta, who's thrown a patchy denim jacket over his work uniform – an ill-fitting white shirt and astonishingly tight black jeans – still smells strongly of coffee grounds and cigarette smoke and he's bouncing nervously on the balls of his feet.
The whole landing seems to rock along with him and at some point Donghyuck grabs his hand to make him stop.
Then the door in front of them suddenly bursts open and they're greeted by the sight of Theo, dressed in one of his greyest suits and wearing one of his most vibrant, toothy grins that stretches from ear to ear.
"You made it!" He beams, spreading his arms wide.
Yuta's shoulders relax and Donghyuck lets go of his hand, but not before giving it one last reassuring squeeze.
"Only just," Yuta says, teeth on full display. "Traffic and all. You know."
"Of course, of course," Theo mutters, still beaming.
They're ushered into a tiny and badly lit 'entrance hall' if it could be called that. Cluttered with an odd combination of Wellington boots, umbrellas, coats, empty cardboard boxes and something that looks suspiciously like a disassembled pram the whole room is no bigger than a roomy lift.
"You can put your stuff here for now," Theo says, gesturing at one of the coat racks, which is missing most of its hooks.
No one moves, mostly because there isn't enough room and Theo, still smiling, says, "Alright then," and shoulders open the door that leads further into the office.
One blinding burst of light later and they're standing in what would've been a relatively large room if it weren't for the two massive desks and cardboard boxes taking up most of the space.
It's cluttered but clearly well-loved.
The parts of the walls that aren't hidden behind bookshelves and filing cabinets are covered in a colourful array of newspaper clippings, posters and postcards. The smell of dust, mothballs and damp carpet hangs heavily on the air.
Donghyuck stares at the small busk of Darth Vader sitting on the desk to their left and then at the occupant of the desk – a short white woman with a round face and sharp pale blue eyes that look a little out-of-place there. They share a look over the top of Darth Vader's helmet and she grins.
"This is—" Theo starts as she rises out of her chair, but he gets cut off by the door at the far end of the room banging open to admit a fresh wave of people.
At the front of the small crowd and baring down on them at an alarming pace is a stocky white man with an impressive five o'clock shadow and a wild mane of ruddy brown hair. He reaches out and pulls Taeil, who happens to be standing closest, into what looks like a truly bone-breaking hug.
"Look at you!" He says, holding Taeil at arm's length to give him a proper once-over. Taeil takes the inspection with as much dignity as he can muster.
"That," Theo says, sounding more than a little exasperated, "is Ian. He runs this shitshow of a company."
Donghyuck shoots him a quizzical look. "I thought you ran this?"
"He's damage control," Ian says delightedly.
Then he pounces and the next thing Donghyuck knows he's caught in a suffocating hug and trying not to breathe in too deeply. Ian's flannel shirt smells like tangy cologne, lavender soap and cheap cigarettes.
He goes limp in the hope that that will make Ian – whom he barely knows – let him go and when he does Donghyuck ducks away quickly, finding sanctuary behind Johnny who subtly shuffles to the left, partially hiding Donghyuck from view.
It's subtle but not subtle enough. Donghyuck catches the look Yuta sends their way and a weight – about as big and heavy as a medicine ball – drops into the pit of Donghyuck's stomach. His mind is spinning, tripping over itself with memories of all the times Donghyuck might've given himself away.
At the front of their little congregation, Theo's still introducing people.
They've met Ian Fellows, the head and founder or Full Sun Records, but Theo takes his time to point out the others as well. Edith Huckley, for example, who's still hovering somewhat nervously behind her desk and a man with a handsome Roman nose and bad enough posture to make up for the fact that he's at least 6'4.
He towers over the rest of them and waves a little awkwardly from his position at the back of the crowd when Theo introduces him as Illya Karenin – producer wunderkind and sound engineer from the USSR. Jaehyun opens his mouth, probably to ask something vaguely inappropriate, but snaps it shut again when Yuta steps on his foot.
Then there's Madison Golding, a black woman about Donghyuck's height who is beaming at them over Ian Fellows left shoulder, loose black curls bouncing as she waves and a tired shadow of a man who corrects Theo's introduction of 'Joseph' into a more simple 'Joe'.
They're both sound and mixing engineers, both working two or more jobs to keep themselves and this fledgeling record company afloat.
"It's really great to meet you all," Johnny says once Theo's stream of introductions has petered off into silence. His accent – softened from almost four years living in the UK – still manages to stand out.
The other four hasten to agree; nodding and smiling eagerly.
"Well, follow me," Ian says, turning on his heel and pushing past Illya, Madison and Joe who are all still staring at them with looks of amazement. Donghyuck can't help but wonder how long it took for them to find someone to sign.
They're lead into another, slightly narrower room where Joe points out the balcony and the view beyond it. Not that there is much of a view at the moment. Dusk is settling over the city in earnest now and the grimy black and grey line of towering buildings is almost indistinguishable from the sooty grey and purple of the sky.
From there they're ushered into another hallway and then into the largest room so far, complete with a miserable view of the neighbouring building, one threadbare sofa and a large dining table that's obviously been repurposed to be a conference table.
"Everything's still a bit all over the place," Theo explains, looking a little embarrassed.
"Mate, you haven't seen our place. This is practically spotless in comparison," Yuta says.
With a little manoeuvring, they manage to squeeze around the table and when they start running out of chairs Donghyuck takes a seat on Taeil's lap and Joe pulls himself up onto the windowsill with his feet resting on the back of Edith's chair.
After Ian digs a fork out of a pile of loose papers and taps it against a half-empty glass, silence falls.
"So," he says, grinning around at them all, "let's talk business, shall we?"
October 5, 1987
Donghyuck feels incredibly stupid sitting there with one of Taeil's grey pinstripe shirts tucked haphazardly into his trousers and what little remains of his integrity clutched to his chest. He feels young. Young and foolish and horribly out-of-place.
The woman – the district manager, apparently – eyes Donghyuck's application with a look of critical blankness. There's no real emotion, no clue to what she might be thinking clearly visible on her face and Donghyuck knows if he keeps staring she'll think he's unhinged or crazy or something worse.
He looks away, focusing, instead, on the curtainless window and the dismally grey morning outside.
It does little to lift his mood and in the end, he just keeps his gaze trained on a stain some errant cup of coffee must have left a couple of decades ago.
"Born here, were you?" The lady asks, a little aggressively.
Donghyuck blinks and looks at her, slightly taken aback by her tone.
"Yes," he answers shortly. And then, not wanting to be rude, adds, "But we moved shortly afterwards."
He shrugs. "Work, I suppose. And my mum doesn't think London is a good place to raise a child. Too many fumes, nowhere to play."
The woman – Ms Jones, according to the pin on her blouse Donghyuck had only just spotted – frowns, but can't seem to think of anything negative to say. Her eyes flickers down his CV again, narrowing ever so slightly. Then she says:
Although Donghyuck had been expecting this, he still can't fight off the way his shoulders tense. He nods slowly, thinking over what Jaehyun – who also has no A-Levels – had drilled into his brain the previous night.
"My school recommended that I take a gap year of sorts," he says smoothly. "Or learn a trade and then go back to college later."
The line between Ms Jones' eyebrows deepens as she turns to the second page of his application and says, "But your grades—they're fine. You would've had no difficulty—none at all."
"Yes—well," Donghyuck struggles briefly to remember the second part of Jaehyun's script, "I suffered from somewhat of a, er, psychological burnout. Academic pressures and other things got a little overwhelming at the end and yeah…" he trails off and bites his lip.
But Ms Jones is nodding sympathetically. "Yes, yes. I've heard that Asian parents can be a bit overbearing."
Hating himself, Donghyuck forces his face into a smile of downtrodden acceptance and shrugs. He hopes all of this projects an air of helpless niceness that might awake some of her more maternal instincts because Donghyuck needs this job and he's willing to stab his parents and the general East Asian community of Britain in the back to get it.
"1969... what a year," Ms Jones hums, staring thoughtfully down at the paper.
A good thing too, because the way Donghyuck jerked out of his helpless, downtrodden act would've certainly given him away.
"Very eventful, yeah," he agrees vaguely.
Ms Jones sits in silence for a couple of seconds, apparently lost in thought, before coming back to herself with a start. She puts the papers down, knits her fingers together and fixes Donghyuck with a hard, but not entirely unkind stare.
"So obviously WHSmith is a bit more than just a newsagent's shop. I mean, we sell more books for a start." Her eyes narrow. "Do you read much?"
"Yeah, love it," Donghyuck lies, steadily meeting her gaze.
Thinking of the book he'd had spotted on the kitchen table that morning Donghyuck says, "Pet Sematary," and silently prays that she doesn't ask any questions about the plot or characters. It's a book Taeil had found in some questionable second-hand bookshop.
She stares at him for a second, then her face relaxes into a smile.
"Stephen King," she nods, "very popular these days. Writes a book every bloody month apparently."
Donghyuck shrugs in an agreeing sort of way.
"Ever done any kind of retail work before?"
There had been a greengrocer back home and he and Natalie had spent a vaguely eventful summer back in '84 where they did some technically illegal restocking for three pounds an hour. That had to count in some way or another.
"Sort of..." he says, slowly, "there was a greengrocer back home. I helped out a bit."
"Did you like it?"
Now was the opportunity for him to lie through his teeth like all the teachers in career advice had told him to do, but, instead, he says:
"It wasn't the worst thing I ever did."
It's the truth. Donghyuck isn't about to pretend he's absolutely mad for retail work. He needs the job, but he's not a suck-up.
"This'll be very different, you know," Ms Jones says, smiling slightly and Donghyuck blinks.
Her smile widens. "We'll give you notice in a week's time. Do you have a telephone at your house? Student residences can be a bit funny."
Still feeling a bit wrong-footed Donghyuck nods and then says, "Yeah. I mean—yes. Yes, we have a telephone."
"Lovely. Then just leave your number here, alright?"
October 6, 1987
"Sounds like it went well," Jaehyun says around a slightly burnt piece of toast.
Donghyuck sinks lower into his chair, feeling decidedly uneasy now having recounted the story in as much detail as possible. There so much that could've gone better, that he could've said better.
But Jaehyun looks unhelpfully cheerful, slowly chewing his toast and watching Yuta race up and down the stairs frantically searching for an umbrella that hasn't collapsed under the pressures of their new, decidedly stressful London lifestyle.
Outside rain lashes against the windows. Sunrise is another hour away and the street outside is blue with darkness and rain.
"I don't know…" Donghyuck mumbles. "Maybe I was too honest?"
Jaehyun shakes his head. "People like that value honesty, Duckie. And it sounded like she liked you." And after taking in the look on Donghyuck's face he adds, "Just believe me, okay?"
To avoid answering Donghyuck puts his face in his hands and sighs a heavy, dejected sigh.
He's jerked out of a vivid re-living of yesterday morning's events by a firm, comforting hand on his shoulder.
"You've got this one in the bag, poppet," Johnny says in a passable imitation of Gloria.
The rain carries on for the whole day, only occasionally petering off into a pathetic drizzle, but the warmth of Johnny's hand stays with Donghyuck throughout it all.
Throughout all the chores, the dismal trip down to the local Morrison's and Boots and the aimless pottering around the house Donghyuck tends to do when the day starts drawing to a close and his mind is too busy with the coming events of the evening.
A different kind of warmth surges and is quickly stifled when Johnny comes crashing through the front door, soaked to the bone, completely exhausted and with an idea for a song ready on his lips.
Donghyuck keeps those twenty minutes where it's just them huddled in their spartan living room in a private little corner of his heart.
By order of their record label, all of them had been put on a strict diet of something Yuta summed up as: Wake up-Eat-Work-Gig-Sleep.
It dictates their lives.
Donghyuck complains, mainly because that's sort of what's expected of him. And also because it's easy. Complaining has always come easy for him and it's not often that he misses an opportunity to do it.
But as much as he complains he can't help but be glad that they have this tiring, all-consuming schedule.
He isn't entirely sure what he would do if he had too much time on his hands. Too much time to think, too much time to doubt.
It gets worse, but also better when Ms Jones catches him on the phone on a miserable Tuesday afternoon and tells him that (if he wanted to) the job at WHSmith is all his and that (if he were to accept) he would be starting this Friday at six AM sharp.
Now three of the seven days Donghyuck had up until now spent aimlessly wandering around London trying desperately not to feel too sorry for himself were spent in the stuffy confines of a surprisingly large WHSmith. There he doesn't have the luxury to mope and Jesus Christ is he thankful.
He gets up with the others, leaves with them, works, comes home, eats and then they squeeze in a few hours of practice before they're off to whatever pub, club or bar Theo or Tommy (FSR's – which means – their publicist) had organised for them. And then they stay a little longer; three hours, sometimes more. Talking, drinking – Yuta and Jaehyun often taking the brunt of that task – making connections, making friends.
When he comes home he's too exhausted to think, let alone dwell on things like the way Johnny had smiled at him that day or how much he misses his little sister and how warm his bedroom at home was.
No, he falls into bed and wakes up five minutes later, ready to do the whole thing again.
November 17, 1987
"You look ill," Taeil says rather abruptly, peering at Donghyuck over the rim of his cup of peppermint tea. The rising steam clings to his eyelashes and he blinks five-six times in short succession before setting the cup back down again.
It's a bit rich coming from him. He's lost almost as much weight as Donghyuck in the last month.
"Yeah—well…" Donghyuck trails off. "Been a long month, hasn't it."
Deciding between having lunch or taking the easy way home is still something that Donghyuck's struggling to get used to. He spent four years of his life sharing lunches on the floor of a girl's bathroom and now, working five or six hours on nothing more than a fun-sized packet of M&Ms, a bottle of coke and whatever adrenaline his body can drag up from the pits of hell is starting to take a toll on him.
Not that the others are faring any better.
They've all got the same look, the skin around their eyes blue and thin with exhaustion.
"And it's about to get longer," Jaehyun interrupts.
The floorboards creak as he gets to his feet. They don't have a sofa so he'd been sitting on a pile of motheaten blankets and pillows and now he's hobbling over to the kitchen table with one of the blankets still wrapped securely around his shoulders.
"What d'you mean?" Taeil asks before quickly pulling up a chair so that Jaehyun doesn't break his neck in the attempt of doing it himself.
"This," Jaehyun says triumphantly and slams down a well-worn piece of paper, covered on each side with blue and red scribbles that seem to be at war with each other.
Donghyuck squints at the heading, written in Jaehyun's sprawling hand.
"Who's Madeline and Lola?" He asks.
"They're not real," Jaehyun says quickly. "At least I think so."
There's a beat of silence as Taeil and Donghyuck work through the warring mess of blue and red. The blue writing is clearly Yuta's judging by the fact that it's legible, tidy and smudged in odd places and the red bits are edits made by Jaehyun. Petty things like correcting spelling mistakes, but also more useful things.
It's Donghyuck who looks up first, fatigue momentarily forgotten.
"Hey—this is good."
Jaehyun's eyes narrow. "Cheers, mate," he mutters sarcastically.
Then Taeil's suddenly on his feet, the sheet of paper clutched in his hands and a look of intense concentration on his face and whatever retort Donghyuck had ready on his lips dies in an instant.
"Wha—" Jaehyun starts, but Donghyuck reaches across the table and claps a hand over his mouth.
They watch in silence as Taeil sits down at his keyboard.
More silence. Donghyuck can feel Jaehyun's breath fogging up the palm of his hand and with one last warning look, he pulls it away and wipes it very obviously on his jeans just for Jaehyun's exasperated eye-roll.
An experimental tinkle from Taeil's keyboard makes them both jump. Taeil is hunched over the black and white keys, his face an unhealthy shade of grey in the dim light from the kitchen and his eyes unnaturally bright. They only get bright like that when a really, really good idea has wormed its way to the forefront of his mind.
He turns to look at them.
"I think I've got something."
November 18, 1987
Donghyuck's barely awake as he stumbles through the ticket barriers and towards the escalators.
He registers bumping into someone and mutters an apology and he registers a policeman lurking near the escalators for the Piccadilly line, but then the song that's been clanging around his skull since last night pitches in volume and he loses interest.
Halfway down the escalator, some commotion in the ticket hall above makes him and several other people turn around.
"What's happened?" Asks an elderly woman a few steps down from Donghyuck.
Some prick on the opposing escalator shouts, "It's the IRA!" and several people tell him to fuck off.
More people crane their necks to catch a glimpse of the going's on further up and a spike of unease pierces through the fog in Donghyuck's brain, distracting him from the headache throbbing at the back of his head which had recently redoubled its efforts to make his life even more miserable.
A swell of people suddenly appears at the top of the escalator and as they file past – all of them looking tired and disgruntled – more shouts of, "Hey—what's going on?" start coming from all sides.
"Someone pulled the emergency stop for Piccadilly," says a man, hurrying past to get down onto the platform. "There's a fire or something, so they're closing off the escalators."
Donghyuck almost trips over his own feet as the platform appears suddenly and he staggers off, glancing nervously over his shoulder as more and more people start to fill the platform. Victoria line has always been busy but now there's a sense of muted agitation in the air.
"We apologise for the delay."
Groaning, Donghyuck lets his chin thump down onto his chest. This is just what he needed.
"They're evacuating upstairs," a woman whispers. She looks flushed, her face glistening with sweat under the buzzing fluorescent lights and clutching what looks to be an unhealthy amount of Christmas shopping to her chest. The people she had said this to turn and glance nervously towards the escalators and ever-growing crowd.
But the few policemen scattered around the foot of the escalators look calm – almost bored – and Donghyuck redirects his attention to the platform display.
"I can smell smoke…" a girl says to her friend. They're right behind Donghyuck and he tries not to eavesdrop.
Her friend snorts. "Don't be ridiculous."
"Didn't you see—"
But whatever the girl wanted to say is drowned out by an announcement declaring the delayed arrival of the train heading for Seven Sisters and Walthamstow Central.
Glancing at his watch and thinking longingly of his bed Donghyuck tries to move out of the way as more people fill the platform. The smell of smoke and low-level panic is undeniable now and the sour, biting tang of it clings to the inside of Donghyuck's throat.
He's trying to move closer towards the wall when a blast and an earsplitting roar shakes the ground under his feet making him lurch into a group of terrified shoppers who had been huddled near the staircase leading up to the Piccadilly line.
Ears ringing loudly Donghyuck tries to find his bearings.
Then he sees it.
Smoke – thick, black, suffocating smoke – is pouring down the escalator shaft, forcing the terror-stricken crowd back down the platform.
It's the heat that hits him first. Then the smoke. It presses in on him, making his throat burn as if he's been screaming. Hands scrabbling for purchase he manages to drag the collar of his pullover over his mouth and nose and when his hearing comes back, when the ringing and the static fades away he can't help but wish it hadn't.
People are screaming.
Terrified, hysterical screams and Donghyuck wants to scream as well; scream at them to keep their damn mouths shut. Because beyond the noise directly around him, beyond all the smoke and panic, there's a second, more horrifying layer of something.
The ticket hall above is on fire.
He can see the glow of it through the smoke still pouring down from the escalator shaft. And now, without shock making him deaf, he can hear the screams of those trapped in the inferno.
Dizzy and sick he stumbles forward, blindly trying to find a way out.
He can't think, can't see, he can't even breathe – smoke and hysteria are clogging up his lungs.
Then a fresh roar of noise joins the chaos. But it's a familiar roar that comes with a whining squeal of breaks and suddenly two beams of light cut through the smog. Bright and yellow, the headlights of the train heading for Seven Sisters and Walthamstow Central has arrived.
Donghyuck starts forward, only to get knocked to the side by one of the remaining policemen who runs to the edge of the platform and starts waving frantically.
The train screeches to a halt.
Donghyuck doesn't realise he's crying until someone – a young man with a curly mop of what would've been blonde hair if it weren't covered in soot and ash – pushes a packet of tissues and a half-empty bottle of water into his hands.
The water clears his head a little, but can't rid him of the painful lump still sitting in his throat. With every shuddering breath he takes, fresh hot tears spill onto his soot-covered face. The carriage around him is both loud and deadly quiet.
When the train pulls into Euston tube station Donghyuck is guided to his feet and gently ushered onto the crowded platform.
"There are paramedics in the station," a woman says as they file past.
Outside the freezing November air bites at Donghyuck's face and hands and he barely registers the disposable cup of water a woman dressed in bright yellow and green presses into his hand. He doesn't register the wide-eyed, horrified looks of the people crowded along the walls of the station. He only thinks of getting home.
"No, no—I want to go home," he mumbles when his curly-haired companion tries to steer him towards one of the waiting ambulances where a paramedic is handing out cups of tea and space blankets that glint and shine in the light of the street lights.
With some effort, Donghyuck manages to extract himself.
What he needs is a phone and then he needs to go home. He needs to shower and eat and practice because they have a gig this Friday and if he doesn't practice the gig will be a disaster and then all of this – all this stress and anxiety – will have been for nothing.
A few passersby turn to watch as he blunders through the streets, peering around helplessly in the search of a phone box.
"You alright, love?" Asks a young woman with frizzy red hair and glitter on her eyelids.
Squinting through watering eyes Donghyuck says, "Phone—I need a phone. Please."
She directs him towards a Barclays bank and watches, obviously concerned, as he hurries off. Sirens – police, ambulance, fire brigade – wail in the distance, a constant companion as Donghyuck heads for the calming blue glow of the Barclays branch just visible behind a row of slightly misshapen Ash trees.
There are two phone boxes waiting for him, sitting slightly removed from the bustle and orange glow of the street. He picks the one that looks less like someone's done heroin and other similarly nasty things inside it.
But the moment he steps inside the box and shuts the door behind him, muffling the noise from the city outside, the panic, which had faded to the back of his mind throughout his walk from the station comes crashing down on him again. It's enough to make him have to brace himself against the graffitied walls of the box, gasping for air that doesn't seem to be there.
The smell of smoke, ash and the distinct scent of human fear is still clinging to him.
Donghyuck has to fight to make himself focus on other things; things like the suspicious stickiness of the floor beneath his feet or the stench of beer, sweat and piss that's doing an admirable job of drowning out the smoke caught in Donghyuck's clothes and hair.
He gets a hold of himself and – still panting slightly – manages to force his trembling fingers into scraping whatever change he has out of his pockets.
The sound of the dial tone brings about a fresh spike of panic. What if no one's home? How will he get back? What will he do—
Donghyuck's breath leaves him in one long, shuddering gasp.
"Johnny," Donghyuck chokes, then catches himself and says, "Johnny—it's me. I'm—"
"Hyuck?" Johnny interrupts. "Fuck, fuck—are you alright? I've been trying to reach you—fuck—I called at work, but they said you already left and then the news... are you alright?"
"I was, I was on the platform when it—a train came and I—we—got out."
There's a frantic sort of urgency in Johnny's voice when he says, "Christ, fuck, shit—are you okay, Donghyuck?"
"I'm," Donghyuck tries to find a word to describe how he's feeling, but nothing comes to mind. "I'm fine," he finishes lamely.
"Fine," Johnny echoes disbelievingly. "You're fine."
The painful lump in Donghyuck's throat swells and forces back a vaguely hysterical sob.
"I just—I want to go home, Johnny. I want to go home."
Outside sirens are still screaming themselves hoarse and inside the little phone box, the smell of smoke and panic is becoming overwhelming. Donghyuck can feel his heart in his throat and in his fingertips.
Johnny sounds sure now, in control, something that would've annoyed Donghyuck under different circumstances. But his head is heavy and his chest feels tight and he's too tired to put up anything even similar to a fight when Johnny orders him to, "—stay put, alright? Where are you right now?"
"Near Euston tube station. The train was a Walthamstow one, so I'm, I'm here. There's a Barclays bank. Big building—you can't miss it."
Donghyuck says all of this very quickly. The weight in his chest is finally lifting somewhat, now that he knows someone's coming to get him. A different weight, which Donghyuck has been carrying around for a lot longer lifts with it at the knowledge that it's Johnny who's coming to get him. The mixture of relief and shame isn't a pleasant one and Donghyuck tries to ignore it.
"Okay, okay," Johnny mutters distractedly. "Okay. Don't move. Stay exactly where you are, understood?"
"Yes. Yes, understood."
"Got it? Okay." There's a loud clatter on Johnny's end and then, "Just sit tight, Hyuck. Okay? I won't be a minute."
Frantically blinking a fresh, bewildering wave of tears out of eyes Donghyuck nods and, remembering that Johnny can't see him, croaks a hasty, "Yeah—yeah, I know. Thank you."
Donghyuck spends ten minutes pacing up and down in front of the Barclays bank, head turning this way and that and flinching at every noise louder than a door slamming shut before finally surrendering to exhaustion and sinking down onto the freezing pavement.
There he sits, chewing his tongue anxiously and trying desperately not to think too much.
People pass around him; some casting sympathetic glances at his sooty, shaken appearance, but no one stops to talk. Not that Donghyuck minds. He's pretty sure if he opened his mouth now he'd break down again.
So he just sits and waits.
He's almost frozen to the bone by the time a shout tears through the frigid night air and a familiar tall, broad-shouldered figure cuts a path through the last stragglers of the evening rush-hour. Warmth wells up inside Donghyuck as he struggles to his feet. His whole body seems to be trembling from a combination of cold, shock and a latent wave of adrenaline that makes his head spin.
Some people turn to watch as Johnny sprints down the length of the street and Donghyuck stumbles forward to meet him.
He only realises he's crying again when Johnny cups his face in his hands and says, "You're crying," in a stunned and mildly horrified voice.
Donghyuck manages a shaky laugh in response and lets Johnny turn his face and tug at his coat and pullover – apparently checking for injuries – without complaint. His hands are warm, dry and rough. The skin on the back of his hands is reddened and inflamed around the knuckles and his fingertips are calloused from years and years of practice.
"I want to go home," Donghyuck whispers plaintively.
Steadfastly ignoring the looks they're getting Johnny runs his thumbs along Donghyuck's sooty and tearstained cheeks, apparently too appalled to reply to Donghyuck's plea.
"Johnny," Donghyuck pushes, "please. I want to go home."
The please is what does it and Johnny blinks. Then, mouth thinning into a resolute line, he pulls Donghyuck into a hug.
What remaining energy Donghyuck had left drains out of him in an instant and crumples against Johnny, chest heaving as the true and full weight of the night's events hit him. Johnny's pullover smells like coffee and ginger and his heartbeat is loud in Donghyuck's ear and for a moment he can't smell the smoke or hear the terrified screams. Just for a moment.
"Let's get you home," Johnny says, a little hoarsely.
November 23, 1987
The offices of FSR are blissfully warm and cosy. Still as cramped and cluttered as ever, but it's warm and that's what counts. It's definitely more than can be said for their own dismal little domain on Madeline Close, which had been last renovated shortly before the war. The absence of a central heating system is now more noticeable than ever.
"—and we'll be heading into the studio hopefully sometime before Christmas, if everything goes to plan, that is."
Donghyuck starts out of his doze and looks around wildly.
"Before Christmas?" Yuta says, looking as bewildered as Donghyuck feels.
The others are staring at Ian and the bright green tufts of hair of their publicist, Tommy, who's conveniently disappeared behind a copy of The Big Milly-Molly-Mandy Storybook, which judging by the stains, has been used as a tea tray.
"How," Jaehyun asks blankly, "on earth did you do that?"
"Loan," Tommy replies evasively from behind his book. He's sunk low into his chair and very much looks like he would rather be talking about anything else.
Ian beams and nods, opening his mouth to speak and change the subject but Johnny interrupts him.
"What kind of loan?"
The smile on Ian's face takes on a slightly strained quality and he says, "Nothing to worry your pretty little heads about."
In the beat of silence that follows Jaehyun and Donghyuck share a look and Yuta sits up in his chair, bristling at Ian brushing Johnny off in such a patronising manner. Even Taeil, who had been half-asleep for most of the meeting, is eyeing Ian with a look of guarded distrust.
Johnny, on the other hand, settles back into his chair and hitches one of his most American smiles onto his face.
It's as unsettling as it always is, and even more so when he says, "Well, I'm glad you've got it all under control and we don't have to worry. Such a relief."
"I don't even want to think about how much money we're gonna owe them at the end of all this," Yuta says, hopping from one foot to the other as they wait for Jaehyun to retie his bootlace.
There's a surprisingly icy wind whistling through the streets making the usually relatively mild English November feel more like January. It's late as well and with no feeble wintry sunlight to lend them a bit of warmth it's become truly frigid.
"Yeah," Taeil mutters, looking unnaturally grim, "whatever money we will make in the next couple of years I doubt we'll see much—if any—of it. I mean, even the money from the gigs and the tapes is going straight to them. This is just foreplay for the real shit show later, mark my words."
Both Yuta and Johnny had shot Taeil scandalised looks the moment the word foreplay was even half-way out of his mouth.
He now surveys them with a kind of look of mild indignance and says, "What? Oh, come off it—he's seventeen, he's heard a lot worse."
"But—" Yuta starts.
"OKAY," Jaehyun interrupts, a lot louder than absolutely necessary, "we can go now."
Half-way down the steps to the underground Yuta catches up with Donghyuck, who had been up until this point very successfully pretending he didn't know any of them, and, in a harsh stage-whisper that carries to the others a couple of steps above them, asks, "Do you know what foreplay is?"
"Mate," Donghyuck says, "we've done gigs in pseudo-BDSM clubs. You'd be surprised at what I know."
Sadly, instead of having the desired effect of shutting Yuta up, this statement starts an interrogation from four different parties that lasts all the way back home and through dinner.
They only shut up when Donghyuck threatens to do some very creative murdering with their assortment of manky butterknives.
November 27, 1987
It's pitch black when Donghyuck is wrenched awake by nothing more threatening than his own frantically beating heart.
He can't breathe, can't see and for one brief terrifying moment, he doesn't know where he is. What little he can see of the room he's in is wrong. Too long, too narrow, too dark and unfamiliar.
When the realisation creeps into his mind he feels stupid. So, so stupid. He still can't breathe and his dream is still plastered in vivid, dreadful colours across his eyelids. Every time he blinks flashes of fire and smoke force themselves onto him, impossible to ignore.
They are scenes that Donghyuck didn't really get to see, but has lodged in his brain thanks to a combination of a hyperactive imagination and the thoroughness and morbid fascination with tragedy of the 8 o'clock evening news.
Donghyuck has not slept peacefully since November 18.
He sits up – chest still heaving as he sucks in lungfuls of air that do nothing but make his head spin – and reaches up a trembling hand to push his sweat-soaked hair out of his eyes. Then, carefully, he swings his legs over the edge of the bed and gets to his feet, swaying briefly before regaining his balance.
The window is a grey square in otherwise complete darkness and he staggers towards it.
After fumbling the newly installed curtains out of the way he manages to force the window open and gasps as the night air hits him like a bucket of icy water.
He stands there, dragging in lungfuls of the night and staring unseeingly to the back of the garden where the willow is swaying gently against the muted orange of the polluted London sky. Minutes stretch on for an eternity until the angry yowl of a cat jerks Donghyuck out of it.
Shaking from the cold and not panic he shuts the window, draws the curtains and clambers back into bed.
There he lies, wide-awake, and waits for the house around him to start stirring.
December 1, 1987
As disproportionately large as their house may be and as much time they all spend at their respective jobs it's not often that any of them gets much alone time. So when Donghyuck gets up one morning with the house completely to himself for a couple of hours he doesn't really know what to do with himself.
He doesn't like being alone in this house. It lets loud, incessant thoughts and the achingly familiar feeling of homesickness crawl back into the forefront of his thoughts.
In an effort to distract himself he clears up the kitchen and when that doesn't help he puts on some music.
It's a tape Yuta and Jaehyun helped him make and when Bronski Beat's Smalltown Boy starts echoing through the cavernous kitchen Donghyuck's heartbeat trips on something he hadn't allowed himself to think about for months.
"You leave in the morning with everything you own in a little black case, alone on a platform, the wind and the rain on a sad and lonely face—" Jimmy Somerville's voice is loud and clear in the suddenly quiet kitchen.
Donghyuck is frozen on the spot, his heart lodged somewhere in the hollow space of his throat.
"Mother will never understand why you had to leave, but the answers you seek will never be found at home. The love that you need will never be found at home—"
It's been almost exactly four months since he left.
And he's been good about it, ignored the weight in his chest and threw himself into his new life here in London. But the guilt is as present as ever if he ignores it or not. There's the guilt of leaving and lying and the other kind of guilt he feels when he's on stage, glowing from the inside out and more alive than he's ever felt before.
Their audiences are growing, there are more and more new and familiar faces in the crowds they attract and it's similar to what happened at home but different. There's a kind of electricity behind it all that keeps Donghyuck going.
But the guilt doesn't leave, no matter what he does and yes, he's learned to live with it, but the itch is still there.
When he was little his mother used to sit with him at the kitchen table to help him with his homework, even though her English was worse than his. And when he was older she'd ask him to help prepare tea or supper and listen as he ranted about school, teachers and classmates.
Always there, always understanding, always encouraging him to do better, to grow and learn.
And now he just wants to talk to her. He can feel all that he wants to say lurking just beneath the surface, threatening to rise and spill over his lips at any minute.
Mum, I think I can do this. I like doing this. Mum, our audiences are getting bigger.
There are fanzines and people waiting for us backstage.
The telephone sits on a little table in the hall with a phonebook, a London A-Z and a tottering stack of takeaway menus.
Mum, I'm really tired. I can't sleep and I don't know what I'm doing. We're going to start recording an album soon.
Mum, I don't know what I'm doing.
Donghyuck shivers as he steps into the hall. Not even his two pairs of socks can do much against the freezing tiled floor.
But I like it here. Really, I do. It's all I've wanted. I'm tired, but I don't want to stop, because we're getting somewhere. I can feel it. Mum, believe me, please.
He isn't entirely sure how he's suddenly standing here, receiver clutched in his hands and staring down at the dial as if it's going to do the hardest job for him. When he reaches out he realises his hand is shaking slightly, either from the chill or nerves. Probably both.
Mum, there was a fire in King's Cross. You probably saw it on the news. Mum, I was there. I heard people die. I can't breathe properly anymore and I haven't slept over three hours for over two weeks. I can't sleep, mum. I'm tired. I heard people burn to death.
The dial tone yanks him back out of his thoughts. He looks around, desperately searching for a distraction and his gaze falls on a note stuck to one of the Indian takeaway menus. It's in Johnny's handwriting telling them to leave out some food for a pregnant stray cat he'd seen lurking around their house recently.
Mum, I'm only seventeen and I've never been in love before, but I think I'm in love. You've met him once or twice. He's the tall one. Black hair, broad shoulders. American.
And I've never been in love before so I don't have any reference and I really, really don't know what I'm doing.
"Lee residence. Hello?"
Her voice, although tinny through the phone, sends a jolt through him.
"Hello? Who's there?"
Donghyuck slams the receiver back down into its cradle and backs away as if burnt. In the kitchen, the tape's gotten stuck on The Beatles' Help! and Donghyuck feels sick; as if the universe's playing some kind of a cruel trick.
December 6, 1987
"You should leave the window open."
Donghyuck leaps about a foot into the air and the cup of water which he had been in the process of draining slips from his fingers and clatters noisily onto the bathroom floor. It's too dark to see properly, but that problem is soon lifted as click cuts through the silence and the small flame of what Donghyuck recognises as Jaehyun silver Zippo lighter flickers to life.
But the face lit up by the orange glow isn't Jaehyun's.
"What are you doing here?" Donghyuck hisses.
Johnny shrugs. "I could ask you the same thing."
Donghyuck gestures at the cup, which has rolled past Johnny and out onto the landing. It momentarily distracts Johnny and Donghyuck tries to shift away from the light. He can see his reflection in the mirror over the washbasin and he looks pale and ill.
"Why don't you leave the window open. At night, I mean."
The look on Johnny's face is unreadable, especially in the unsteady light of the little flame between them. But there's something in his voice that makes Donghyuck straighten up, wondering how much Johnny knows – or suspects.
"I'll freeze to death," he replies shortly.
Donghyuck can sleep. He can sleep downstairs in the living room when the others are clattering around in the kitchen and there's enough light coming in from the windows for him to know where he is and that he's safe when he wakes up. It's the darkness and isolation of his room that help feed the nightmares and Donghyuck can't help but feel that Johnny knows this.
"It's cold enough as it is," he adds when Johnny's gaze doesn't waver.
There's an awkward pause where Johnny keeps looking at him. Donghyuck shifts nervously.
"Look—" he starts unsure of where he's going with this. The band around his chest, which has been his constant companion ever since the 18th of November, tightens considerably and he sucks in a surprised breath that makes Johnny start forward.
"You should leave the window open," he says, stopping short of sounding like he's giving Donghyuck an order.
"It's cold," Donghyuck snaps, not too fond of being cornered in the bathroom at 3 o'clock in the morning.
He tries to edge around Johnny, but he's doing a good job of blocking the whole doorway and, defeated, Donghyuck falls back. His breathing is getting worse again, more erratic, and he knows Johnny's picked up on it.
"I can," he pauses for a second and fixes Donghyuck with a look that makes his insides twist, "I can stay—if you want."
"Stay?" Donghyuck echoes weakly.
Johnny nods slowly, carefully, as if he's afraid of startling Donghyuck.
"I—no. No, no, I'm fine."
Something in Johnny's face twists for a second, but then it's gone and he's looking at Donghyuck with that same unreadable expression that makes Donghyuck want to scream with frustration.
He moves aside and presses the lighter into Donghyuck's hand as he hastens to get past.
"The carpet's a bit loose by the stairs," he says unhelpfully as if Donghyuck hasn't been living here for the last four-ish months. "So just—be careful, okay?"
Donghyuck can feel Johnny's gaze burning the back of his neck all the way across the landing and when he finally lets his bedroom door fall shut behind him he can't even convince himself that his sudden shortness of breath has anything to do with King's Cross.
Morning creeps along the horizon and Donghyuck lies awake because of a different kind of fire.
A fire that burns low and constant in the pit of his stomach.
December 11, 1987
Donghyuck is sitting on the floor backstage, thoroughly exhausted and soaked with sweat.
There are people all around him; familiar faces, but a whole lot of strangers too and everyone – including himself – is dressed in a strange amalgamation of second-hand club gear and an array of Christmas decorations. Yuta's in the corner, entertaining a group of people dressed in the varying stages of holiday cheer, while he himself has adorned himself with a pair of reindeer antlers.
Reaching up Donghyuck selfconsciously adjusts his own crown of tinsel.
The fairy lights that had been wrapped around his mic stand only about 20 minutes ago have somehow found themselves delicately draped around Taeil's shoulders, who's drifting around the room looking like a sentient Christmas tree.
He's closely followed by Jaehyun who's resigned himself to making sure Taeil doesn't trip and electrocute himself.
He, in turn, is being followed around by a group of four or so girls, who keep putting themselves between Jaehyun and Taeil and staring appreciatively whenever he bends over to untangle some of the wires from Taeil's feet.
There are some people sitting around Donghyuck as well, but he was thankfully rescued from the tiring task of making small talk and explaining where exactly he's from by Johnny who promptly plopped himself down on the nearby sofa and drew most of the attention onto himself and away from Donghyuck.
So he sits in his corner and nurses the sparkly pink drink Yuta had magicked out of thin air for him.
The music's loud, people are talking, it's bright and Donghyuck is just buzzed enough to peacefully drift off when a figure in the hall outside catches his eye and he jerks back into full consciousness.
There's a girl outside the door with her back turned to the room. She's tall – taller than Donghyuck, but not by much – dressed in blue overalls and with a wreath of tinsel tied around her waist. Her hair is dark and stubbornly curly in the same way Natalie's is, pulled into a bushy bun at the top of her head.
Donghyuck stares at her.
Then she turns around and although Donghyuck logically had known that it wasn't Natalie is heart still sinks.
Under his mattress back home there's an unfinished letter to her. It's squidged somewhere between his last remaining stash of money and a few, sentimental things from home that he's too embarrassed to have to lay around in the open.
Still staring at the girl who's now eyeing the drinks lined up on the coffee table in the middle of the room Donghyuck decides that now, after almost four months of radio silence, he needs to call Natalie. He needs to talk to someone who isn't doing something stupid like trying to become famous.
He needs to talk to her.
December 13, 1987
The dial tone rings dully in Donghyuck's ear as he bounces on the heels of his feet, nervously glancing over his shoulder at the doorway leading further into the house. From there he can hear Johnny trying to convince Taeil that they need Cocoa Puffs and not more Weetabix.
He's not sure why he picked now of all times to call Natalie, but the urge had suddenly overcome him while he was putting on his shoes and now here he is, one arm through his coat and his left shoe still untied.
In the kitchen, the argument pitches up in volume and Donghyuck presses the receiver harder against his ear.
"Please leave a message after the tone," a calm female voice says before Donghyuck can register what's going on and he gapes, completely nonplussed, at the peeling wallpaper as a high-pitched beep fills his head.
It's followed by a stretch of silence and then Donghyuck says, "Er, hi. It's, it's me. Donghyuck Lee, I was just calling to speak to Natalie, but she doesn't seem to be in so...er, yeah. Sorry. But she can call me back at this number if she wants, so yeah—thanks. Bye-bye."
He hangs up, utterly mortified.
"We're leaving," Taeil says as he stomps out of the living room.
Donghyuck blinks then nods.
"Right. Right, yeah. Just—just gimme a sec, alright?"
Taeil waves him off with a grunt, which Donghyuck takes as permission and he quickly darts through the living room and into the kitchen where he just catches the tail-end of Yuta warbling Joy To The World as he disappears up the stairs.
"Don't let Taeil buy anymore Weetabix," Johnny says, appearing from behind the counter like some kind of overgrown jack-in-a-box and making Donghyuck jump.
Nodding distractedly, but not really listening Donghyuck pulls on the rest of his coat and when he's stalled long enough blurts out, "Can you do me a favour?"
Johnny's eyebrows shoot up.
"I, I tried calling Natalie just now, but no one picked up," Donghyuck says, the words practically stumbling over each other in their haste to get out, "and I was wondering if you or anyone else could—if she calls back while I'm gone—take a message and tell her I'll call back either tomorrow or the day after next. Please?"
Upstairs Yuta smoothly transitions into a quite horrible rendition of O Come, All Ye Faithful while here, downstairs, Johnny stares at Donghyuck like he's trying to see if he's pulling some kind of practical joke.
"Please, Johnny," Donghyuck says, trying not to sound too desperate.
That seems to do the trick, however, because Johnny blinks out of whatever train of thought he'd been on and gives Donghyuck a jerky little nod.
"Yeah—yeah, sure. No problem." There's an awkward pause where they just sort of stare at each other. Then Johnny, apparently unable to help himself, asks, "Why'd you call her?"
It's a stupid question and Donghyuck has to bite his tongue not to say so.
Instead, he says, "Well, because I missed her."
December 14, 1987
"Did she call?" Donghyuck asks over breakfast.
Johnny doesn't look up from where he's methodically greasing his second-hand Barbour jacket.
"No," he says, finally looking up at Donghyuck who's sitting there with a spoonful of cereal halfway to his mouth. "Sorry," he adds.
December 20, 1987
Five days pass by in a blur of meetings, gigs and work and Donghyuck forgets to ask if Natalie called, naively assuming that Johnny would tell him if she did.
He doesn't even meet Donghyuck's eye properly and Donghyuck tries not to think about it too much. Even though ignoring his heart is getting harder with every day and having Johnny's gaze slip over him as if he's not really there hurts more than he'd like to admit.
So when the telephone rings, late in the evening, four days before Christmas it's Donghyuck, who springs to his feet. Shaking off the miserable cloud that had been following him around for almost a week and dashing off into the hall.
The others clang and crash to a halt as he snatches up the receiver and says:
He knows that voice.
What he means to say is: Hello, I missed you so much. I'm sorry for being a dick and not calling. I missed you. I'm sorry.
But what comes out instead is a blank, "Oh my God."
Natalie snorts unattractively and says, "It's just me, sorry."
"Oh my God," Donghyuck says again, but with a different more exasperated intonation.
"Dickhead," he hears her mutter fondly and a grin so wide it hurts tugs at the corners of his mouth.
"Missed you too," he laughs. "Now hold on a sec."
Then, picking the telephone up and tucking it under his arm he marches back into the living room and announces, "Natalie called."
"Well, there goes this practice session," Yuta says, dropping his guitar onto their manky old sofa with a look of mock anger. Then he catches Donghyuck's eye and his face splits into a grin.
"Well, fuck off then, twerp" he laughs, hopping over where Jaehyun's lain down on the floor to adjust something at his bass drum, and making as if to usher Donghyuck back out into the hall and up the stairs.
Donghyuck gladly fucks off, grinning all the way.
"I've been trying to call you for days," Natalie says after she's summed up the goings-on her end and listened to Donghyuck rant about a colleague at work called Alfie who's about as moronic as they come. He also manages to squeeze in a brief rant about wet towels of which he spotted quite a few lying around on the bathroom floor on his way to his room.
"Yeah… it was really weird. People kept saying you weren't home, but I mean, you can't always be out."
A strange icy feeling blooms somewhere under his ribs and he sits up.
"I am out a fair bit," he admits.
"That's as may be, but it was getting a bit excessive. I don't doubt your busy, but Christ, the guy made it out as if you barely lived here."
The icy feeling spikes and Donghyuck shivers involuntarily. "Who," he asks, hesitating slightly, "who did you talk to?"
There's a pause as Natalie thinks.
"Er, Taeil once, I think. And then the tall one a bunch of times."
Icy, white-hot and freezing all at the same time, is slowly burning its way through his veins to pool like a molten block of something at the centre of his chest, right beneath his heart. Distantly he registers the feeling as anger, but it feels misplaced somehow. Wrong.
But then Johnny's face swims into focus, the look on his face when Donghyuck told him what he'd done. Who he had called.
Rage rears its ugly head with a sudden roar and Donghyuck has to dig his fingernails into his thigh to stop himself from doing something incredibly stupid like hurl the telephone across the room.
Clenching his jaw and squeezing his eyes shut Donghyuck forces his anger back down his throat and traps it in a little space under his ribs.
But he can feel it simmering, raging to be let out.
what happened on november 18 did really happen btw! it's known as the king's cross fire and it killed 31 people and injured around a hundred. it's the worst thing to happen on the london underground since the moorgate disaster.
ANYWAY! if you liked the chapter let me know! i know it's a long one (i am so sorry, i was joking when i said it would be over than 10k and then suddenly it wasn't a joke anymore) and if you made it through in one piece i applaud you.
thank you for reading (ง ˃ ³ ˂)ว ⁼³₌₃⁼³