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his alarm wakes him, as it does every weekday morning, at four thirty.

 

the small, lavender flip phone resting on the floor by his mattress vibrates diligently as it blasts its happy 8-bit tune. the sound makes him groan, an uncomfortable dread churning in his stomach at the thought of waking up.

 

he doesn’t open his eyes as he stretches a hand out, blindly feeling around for the phone. when he finds it he swiftly flips it open and silences the alarm, eyes still closed.

 

he’d been in the middle of a dream about vacationing at a beach when his alarm rang, and as the morning cold of his studio apartment seeps in through his blanket, the memory of the warmth of his imaginary sun felt particularly bittersweet.

 

it takes him a few long seconds before he manages to force his eyes open, the prospect of staying in bed and getting some much needed rest far too tempting.

 

eyes regretfully open he gazes up at the cracks in the ceiling above him, absent mindedly calculating the pros and cons of not showing up to work. after a few minutes of silent musing, when the morning chill becomes too much to bear, he sighs, resigned to the knowledge that risking losing his weekday job for a couple of hours of extra sleep was hardly a wise decision.

 

with a sleepy, unhappy noise jeonghan sits up, stretching his arms above his head as he does so. he slips out from under his blanket, putting his socked feet in his slippers as he gets up to avoid the chill of the floor.

 

walking the few metres to his kitchen he gets started on breakfast, stomach rumbling in anticipation of food. he’d studied the whole evening last night and skipped dinner, opting for finishing his lab rapport and then going to sleep instead.

 

he pours some oats into a bowl, humming lightly as he does so in an attempt to wake himself up. he washes and dresses while his porridge cooks, it was slowly getting colder outside, and as pretty as the city looked in autumn, jeonghan dreaded the coming chilly days. the building he lived in was old and run down, with thin walls that did little to keep the heat inside.

 

he eats quickly, the plain porridge tastes dreadfully bland, but it brings a welcome warmth to his insides, chasing the lasting chill from his bones. he looks over his chemistry homework as he eats, making sure he didn’t miss anything last night. third year was both a blessing and a curse. with fewer courses, it meant less time spent in class and more time over for work, but the courses he did have were harder than ever, and he’d fought tooth and nail the whole first month of the semester to not fall behind.

 

breakfast eaten and homework checked, jeonghan makes quick work of packing his bag. it’s a well practiced routine, as most of his life is. extra shirt to wear after work, his notebook and pens, wallet, lunchbox, and, finally, his little lavender flip phone.

 

he reaches down to pick his phone up, ready to get going, when he pauses. the day’s date blinking up at him from the little display on the outer side of his phone. 4th of october it reads in small blue letters. he’d completely forgotten today was his birthday.

 

his heart stutters unpleasantly. his birthday was always a bit overwhelming, his friends never listening to him when he insisted he didn’t need any gifts. instead they’d shower him with things he didn’t deserve, and he’d be left feeling bad because he couldn’t afford to be equally generous for their birthdays.

 

he shakes his head and picks up his phone. there was no point in worrying about that now, he had a bus to catch.

  

 

the bus ride to the office where he cleans each weekday morning is long and crowded, the bus always packed with office workers, children going to school and any other person who had reason to leave their neighbourhood in favour for the busier parts of the city.

 

as the bus passes through the streets jeonghan looks through the unread messages on his phone.

 

00:00  seungkwannie
HAPPY BIRTHDAY HYUNG

 

00:00  seungkwannie
I BETTER BE FIRST

 

00:00  seungkwannie
▯▯▯▯▯▯▯▯▯▯

 

he rolls his eyes at seungkwan’s messages, having to arduously tap on each one individually in order to see them. when he gets to the last one, he squints a bit at the row of squares. seungkwan knew his phone didn’t have emojis, yet he insisted on using them.

 

he presses the top right button on his phone’s keypad and taps out a reply.

 

05:22
thank you seungkwannie. and don’t worry, you were first.

 

message sent, he looks through the other two messages. unsurprisingly, one is from seokmin, the other from joshua.

 

00:02 shua
happy bday jeonghan-ah. love u lots, make sure to rest today.

 

00:23  seokminnie
hello hyung!!!!! im sorry im late but happy birthday!!! i love you!!!!

 

he makes quick work of sending out messages thanking his friends for their congratulations. despite his complicated relationship with his birthday, he couldn’t deny the warmth he felt at his friends’ enthusiasm. it made him feel important in a way he hadn’t in a long time.

 

he can’t stop his thoughts from straying to his dad. he missed him, always, but more so on days like this. holidays and birthdays that were supposed to be spent with family were now just him, alone in his studio too exhausted from school and work to host any kind of celebration.

 

at least it was better than the alternative.

 

the ghost of cruel hands and crueller words travel over his skin, making him shudder. he tries not to spare his childhood home any mind, but with thoughts of his father his step-mother is soon to follow.

 

he wonders if she’s still looking for him.

 

the bus rolls to a stop, the quick jerk of the brakes pulling jeonghan out of his thoughts and back into the real world. realising it’s his stop, he hurries up and out through the open back doors, abandoning his memories on the worn out seats of the bus. at least for now.

 

work is, as always, dull.

 

the office is quiet and empty, the only sound coming from jeonghan and his cart of cleaning supplies. he works through the routine on auto-pilot, mind blank as he sweeps, dusts and wipes all empty surfaces on the office floor.

 

he used to have a coworker, a nice older lady who sometimes brought him snacks, but at some point his employers had decided that there was no need for two people per floor, and jeonghan found himself alone in the mornings.

 

once he’s done he makes quick work of parking his cleaning cart in the supply closet and slipping into the bathroom to change. the pale yellow uniform shirt comes off, jeonghan making sure to avoid looking at himself in the mirror. he’d gotten so awfully skinny, ribs sticking out and cheekbones sharp. it made him uncomfortable seeing himself.

 

once he’s changed, now wearing a pale pink oversized dress shirt he’d gotten second hand, he ducks out of the building unnoticed, the few early bird workers paying him no mind.

 

he walks the few blocks to his university, letting the calm of the early morning soothe him. he had work again today after his classes, and as he walks he tries to remember if he’d let his birthday slip to any of his coworkers at the restaurant.

 

he hoped not. he wasn’t particularly close to any of his coworkers, and with his slave driver of a boss he’d rather avoid any kind of birthday talk, much preferring to just get his shift over and done with as quietly and painlessly as possible. he’s got a tired frown on his face as he walks into the lecture hall, still 20 minutes left before his first class.

 

once in his seat he rests his head on his arms on the desk in front of him, savouring the minutes of quiet and letting himself relax a bit, getting ready for the long hours of class ahead of him.


when lunch finally rolls around four hours of classes later he’s grateful. his hand hurts from taking notes, and he’s feeling more sleep deprived than usual, making him look forward to some time to unwind with his friends.

 

he’s the first of their little group to reach the cafeteria, and wastes no time picking out a table, slumping in his seat and lethargically pulling out his lunch box.

 

his hopes for some time to relax is squandered, however, when seungkwan bolts up to him, wide smile on his face and a loud happy birthday jeonghannie-hyung on his lips as he rushes over from one of the cafeteria restaurants. jeonghan’s not proud to say that his birthday had slipped his mind again, too caught up in his tiredness to care about such trivial matters. he musters up the energy for a fond smile, quietly thanking seungkwan, urging him to sit down at the table. seungkwan does so excitedly, his tray clattering noisily as it hits the table.

 

“seungkwan please don’t be so noisy.” he sighs, conscious of the looks of the students around them in the cafeteria.

 

“sorry, hyung.” seungkwan says, very much not meaning it.”i’m just excited.”

 

the younger boy snaps his chopsticks apart and takes an impressive bite of his noodles.

 

‘mshoechidedoryorguf !”

 

jeonghan raises an eyebrow at seungkwan.”what was that?”

 

seungkwan chews hurriedly.

 

“i’m so excited for your gift!”

 

“you didn’t have to get me anything.” he says on reflex, a sharp stab of discomfort in his stomach.

 

“don’t be ridiculous, hyung,” seungkwan rolls his eyes and stuffs a piece of pepper in his mouth.”of course i had to get you something! i’m gonna wait ‘til the others are here to give it to you.”

 

jeonghan doesn’t respond, just forces a smile and bends over his lunchbox to take a bite of the kimbap he’d packed with him.

 

your friends love you , he tells himself, trying to drown out the familiar voice reminding him of his worthlessness. the venomous hiss of his step-mum echoing in his head, making his heartbeat speed up and his arms go numb. it seemed no matter how far he ran, or how well he hid, he couldn’t shake her off.

 

he’s pulled out of his anxiety when seokmin crashes into the seat next to him. he looks up at the younger boy, who simply gives him a wide smile, eyes forming adorable crescents, and, as if sensing his distress, envelops him in a tight hug.

 

“happy birthday, jeonghannie-hyung!” seokmin says and squeezes a little harder. the contact is welcome. seokmin gave the nicest hugs, and something about the younger’s kind aura always helped to soothe jeonghan.

 

joshua, not far behind his boyfriend, sits gracefully in the chair next to seungkwan.

 

“happy twenty-first, jeonghan-ah.” he says simply, an amused smile on his face as he watches them while dividing up the plates on his tray between him and seokmin.

 

once seokmin finally lets him out of his arms and they all turn to their food, seungkwan wastes no time in loudly clearing his throat, demanding their attention.

 

“okay, so,” seungkwan starts, game face on.”who’s gonna go first?”

 

jeonghan furrows his eyebrows and looks to each of his friends, confused. what were they planning?

 

“we’ll go first,” seokmin announces, one arm already stuffed into his backpack, looking for something. when he pulls his arm out, he’s got a small black envelope in his hand. he deposits it on the table between them. the words happy b-day jeonghannie are written in gold on the front of it.

 

“you didn’t have to—”

 

“just open it, jeonghan-ah.” joshua interrupts him, voice leaving no room for argument. feeling mildly chastised, jeonghan does as he’s told.

 

he picks the envelope up and makes careful work of opening it, doing his best not to tear it more than necessary. inside is a gift card from what jeonghan deduces is a hairdresser, judging by the scissors in the logo. he looks up at his friends, confused.

 

“so as you know,” seokmin explains, excited.”my noona finally opened her hair salon,”

 

he’s got one hand resting on the back of jeonghan’s chair, the other gesturing in excitement.”and she said that she’d give me discounts, isn’t she so nice? and because of that me and jisoo-hyung thought it would be nice to get you a makeover!”

 

“we put our money together,” joshua helps explain.”so it should be enough for a cut and dye.”

 

jeonghan looks from the couple, down to the gift card in his hands, and up again.

 

“what’s wrong with my hair?” he says, voice filled with mock offence.

 

joshua looks at him, unimpressed.”nothing’s wrong with it—”

 

“but it might be fun with something new!” seokmin finishes for his boyfriend.

 

he huffs a little and raises a hand to run it through his hair, all for show. it was getting long, reaching just below his ears, and the brown shade he’d dyed it himself on a whim months ago was faded, with stark black roots peeking out. it was a considerate gift, and as long as he didn’t think about what it must have cost he could let himself feel excited about the prospect of a new look.

 

he drops his offended act and gives each of his friends a wide smile.”this is really sweet of you,” he thumbs the paper in his hands.”i’m so grateful.”

 

“happy birthday, hyungie!” seokmin says again, before turning to the plate of food joshua has placed down in front of him.

 

seungkwan, who had been uncharacteristically silent throughout the past few minutes, sits up straight in his chair.

 

“my turn!” he announces, placing both palms on the table, waiting until he’s got all of his friend’s attention before he continues. jeonghan leans back in his chair, the look in seungkwan’s eyes giving away that he harboured big plans.

 

“since i’m a member of the new years masquerade committee, i get a discount on tickets,” the youngest begins, voice grand as he looks around the table.”so when tickets are released, i vow to buy our dear jeonghannie-hyung a ticket.”

 

jeonghan’s face blanks, trying to first take in the words, and then make sense of what he was feeling. on one hand, it wasn’t nearly as outrageous as he’d feared, but on the other hand, jeonghan hardly engaged in any social events, making attending a masquerade something miles out of his comfort zone.

 

seungkwan takes in his face and, apparently displeased by the lack of enthusiasm, calls him out.

 

“oh don’t look at me like that,” he insists.”it’ll be fun!”

 

“you say that, but...” jeonghan states, letting the obvious i’m not a party person go unsaid.

 

“i think it’s a great idea,” joshua, the traitor, says while he nonchalantly puts more ketchup on his fries.”you could use some fun, jeonghan-ah.”

 

“yeah!” seokmin agrees through a mouthful of food.”we’ll get all dressed up and nice, and you’ll have your new hairstyle! it’ll be so great!”

 

jeonghan’s gut clenches at the thought of dressing up. he could barely afford a new winter coat, there was no way he’d be able to get the money for a suit to a formal ball. he stays quiet for a minute, trying to collect his thoughts under the guise of chewing his food.

 

“what's so fun about a masquerade anyway?” he finally asks, taking another large bite of his kimbap, cheeks puffing out.

 

seungkwan rolls his eyes at him and crosses his arms on the table.”it's romantic , hyung.” he says like it was obvious.”for a night you get to dress up in fancy clothing and pretend you're someone else, someone mysterious and interesting.”

 

jeonghan gives him an unimpressed look.”are you implying i'm not interesting?”

 

none of us are interesting, hyung.” seungkwan insists.”we're all just boring university students trying to pass our classes.”

 

“i think you're interesting, hyung.” comes seokmin's voice, the other boy looking up from his food to flash jeonghan a kind smile. jeonghan coos at him in appreciation, he could always count on seokminnie.

 

“besides,” seungkwan continues, ignoring seokmin.”this is my birthday gift to you: a night of fun where you don't have to worry about anything.”

 

“i can't afford a costume.” he tries, shame colouring his cheeks at the admission.

 

“i know, but you don’t have to worry,” seungkwan is quick to dismiss him, although not unkindly.”we can just borrow something from the theatre department.”

 

“i—”

 

“hyung,” seungkwan cuts him off, voice serious but face kind.”you don’t have to worry about anything, i’ll sort everything out.”

 

jeonghan closes his eyes, breathes deeply through his nose. curse his kind and thoughtful dongsaengs. he opens his eyes and turns to joshua, wearing a pleading look.

 

“tell me you're going too.”

 

joshua looks up from his food and gives him an apologetic smile.”sorry, jeonghan-ah, i’m going home the whole break, remember?”

 

he groans around another bite of kimbap.”i can't believe you're abandoning me for america .”

 

“i'm sorry,” joshua says again, laughing at jeonghan's unhappy face.”but i’m afraid i’m too good of a son to abandon my parents over the holidays.”

 

“i guess.” jeonghan acquises, lips pursed. seokmin’s arm comes to rest around his shoulders.

 

“hyung, we don’t need him,” seokmin hurries to assure him, sticking out his tongue teasingly at his boyfriend.“i’ll be your date!”  

 

joshua gasps, one hand on his chest.”cheating on me, seokmin-ah? and with my best friend?”

 

jeonghan cuddles further into seokmin’s embrace, playing along.

 

“i couldn’t help myself,” seokmin sighs.”he’s just so irresistible, an actual angel.”

 

the words make the whole table both cringe and crack up, jeonghan ducking out from under seokmin’s arm to lean away from him, cackling as he does so. seungkwan groans at the cheesy statement, but is laughing along with the rest of them. joshua does his best to keep up his act, but ultimately breaks down in giggles.

 

once the laughter dies down, a thought enters jeonghan’s head.

 

“what about you, seungkwannie?”

 

seungkwan hums, confused, around his food. jeonghan grins in mischief.

 

“are you planning on confessing to hansollie in time for the masquerade?”

 

seungkwan blanks at the question, his face colouring an adorable red. the youngest hurries to chew, and when he speaks his lips are pursed, face still shining with colour.

 

“that, hyung,” he says, voice regal, no doubt in an attempt to hide his embarrassment. jeonghan holds back a coo at his flustered state.”is none of your business.”

 

jeonghan laughs mercilessly at him.

 

“i don’t understand what either of you are waiting for, honestly,” comes joshua’s collected voice.”you’ve been in love with each other for years.”

 

seungkwan’s got his mouth open, ready to answer, when a ringtone starts blaring from under the table. when seungkwan reaches down to fish his phone out, his hyungs give each other meaningful stares across the table.

 

“shut up,” their youngest hisses before he answers, making the rest of them cackle loudly.”hi hansollie!”

 

jeonghan tunes out his friend’s speaking in favour of chatting with seokmin and joshua, none of them keen on listening to the sugary sweet tone seungkwan’s voice took on whenever he was speaking to hansol. joshua was right in saying it was a long time coming, the two boys had been in perceived unrequited love with each other ever since they started university, neither of the two making a move, no matter how much meddling their friends engaged in.

 

“i have to go,” seungkwan announces once he’s hung up, a whole ten minutes later.”i’m meeting hansol by the library.”

 

“yeah, we gotta get to class,” joshua says, in the process of stacking empty plates back onto his tray.”you’ll walk with me, jeonghan-ah?”

 

“yeah, of course.”

 

they pack up their stuff quickly, all the while giving seungkwan grief about his crush, to the youngest’s growing frustration.

 

the four of them are on their way out of the cafeteria, idly chatting, when something heavy and firm suddenly comes crashing into jeonghan, making him stumble backwards for a few wobbly steps before finally falling to the ground. he lands heavily on his bum and then down on his back, the impact making him wince. the boy who’d been the cause of his fall is on his hands and knees above him, having managed to catch himself before landing on him. jeonghan, despite his woozy state, notes that he’s very handsome, with his dark, disheveled hair and deep, brown eyes.

 

“ah fuck,” the boy curses, moving quickly off from jeonghan.”shit, i’m so sorry, are you okay?”

 

jeonghan lies, still dazed, on the floor of the cafeteria, his brain not yet caught up with what had happened.

 

in the next second hands are on him, pulling him to his feet, and jeonghan can faintly hear both his friends and the stranger who’d run into him ask if he’s alright.

 

he shakes his head in an attempt to clear it, and musters a smile at the stranger and seokmin as they help him to his feet.

 

“i’m fine,” he reassures, despite the aching in his bum.”just caught off guard.”

 

“i’m really so sorry,” the stranger insists once more, big eyes shining with concern.”i wasn’t looking where i was going, are you sure you’re alright?”

 

“don’t worry,” jeonghan chuckles at the regretful face of the stranger.”i’m tougher than i look.”

 

he’s up on his feet now, standing firmly on the ground, and while seokmin has let go of him, the stranger is still holding a gentle grip on his arm. jeonghan glances down at the hand on him and then up at the stranger.

 

the dark haired man blushes and lets his grip go, one hand coming up to rub at the back of his neck. he’s got his mouth open, looking as if he’s just about to say something, when joshua interrupts them from where he’s standing to the side.

 

“jeonghan, we need to get going.”

 

he nods in acknowledgement, flashes the stranger a smile, and hurries off with his friends.

 

as they exit the cafeteria seungkwan informs them, voice an excited hiss, that the stranger had been the choi seungcheol. jeonghan shares a confused look with seokmin.

 

“what do you mean ‘ the choi seungcheol’?” seokmin asks, voicing their thoughts.

 

“he’s, like,” seungkwan pauses, most likely for dramatic effect.” really popular.”

 

jeonghan rolls his eyes.”and yet i’ve never heard of him.”

 

“all you do is study and work, hyung,” seungkwan is quick to say.”if it wasn’t for me you wouldn’t even know your own exam dates.”

 

jeonghan rolls his eyes but doesn’t protest, instead he resigns himself to listening to seungkwan gush about how cool choi seungcheol was, with his thousands of instagram followers and incredible sports skills, until they make it outside.

 

once out of the cafeteria they split up, seokmin joining seungkwan to the library while jeonghan and joshua go the other way for their classes.

 

they chat idly as they walk, quickly making it to jeonghan’s building. he’s just about to turn right and head through the door, a see you later ready on his lips, when joshua stops him.

 

“jeonghan-ah, wait!” his friend calls before he can walk away.”i haven’t given you your birthday gift yet.”

 

he turns around, a little caught off guard. three gifts on the same birthday, it was more than he was used to, even now. he fidgets as he watches joshua dig through his backpack.

 

“you didn’t have to get me a second gift.” he tries to insist, but joshua just shushes him gently.

 

“it’s no big deal.” he asserts, holding out a hastily wrapped, slightly wonky-looking rectangle.”i wanted to, you deserve it.”

 

trust joshua to always know exactly what jeonghan needed to hear. he takes the offered gift and starts to carefully open it, slowly unveiling a small, purple object and two bundles of white cords. he gapes at it.

 

“it’s an ipod nano,” joshua explains.”it used to be my sisters, but she doesn’t use it, so i asked my mum to ship it over.”

 

jeonghan thumbs the little purple device, the metal cold against his fingers. he doesn’t know what to say, his heart simultaneously feeling like it’s swelling and shrinking in his chest. he looks up at joshua, eyes wide with wonder at the generous gift.

 

“i’ve added all your favourite songs in there,” his best friend explains, a touch of excitement in his voice.”as well as some i think you’d like.”

 

“thank you.” he finally remembers to say, springing forward to wind his arms tightly around his best friend. joshua’s arms come up to embrace him in turn. jeonghan blinks quickly, desperately trying to keep happy tears at bay.

 

almost three years, and being loved still felt so unbelievably foreign.

 

“go on now,” joshua urges and breaks their embrace.”we’ll be late for our classes.”

 

jeonghan nods, carefully putting his gift in the front pocket of his backpack.”thank you so much, shua.”

 

“it’s nothing,” joshua calls as he walks away.”happy birthday, jeonghan-ah!”

 

he spends the rest of his day in a distracted daze, too busy running his fingers over the worn metal of his gift to pay attention to what his lecturers say.


the months leading up to new years pass relatively uneventfully.  the winter is gentler than usual, and jeonghan welcomes the mild temperatures, even if he misses the way the city looks when covered in snow.

 

seungkwan finally confesses to hansol two weeks before exams, making their little group grow from four to five. none of them mind, even if the two new lovers are impossibly clingy and more often than not slip out of their study sessions to get up to no good.

 

jeonghan becomes obsessed with joshua’s gift, the little device raising his quality of life so dramatically that it was probably a little pathetic. he stops dreading the long bus journeys he takes every day, the music giving him a chance to relax and space out, the little device gives him a gentle wake up in the morning, and a calming winding down in the evening. he’s not sure how he’s managed to live without it for so long.

 

every couple of weeks he’ll hog joshua’s laptop, eagerly scouring the internet for pirated audio books and new music to devour. seokmin helps him eagerly, and together they’ll sit bent over joshua’s laptop during lunch, diligently restocking the ipod’s library.

 

once exams are over, a few days before joshua is due to fly home for christmas, he finally goes in for his promised cut and dye. both seokmin and joshua come with him, and seokmin’s noona, small and cute with the same kind manner as her younger brother, convinces him to just let her do whatever she thinks is best.

 

he ends up with hair almost as pale as the snow they’re still waiting for. it’s a stark difference to the dark colour he’s used to, and he’s struck by how much softer it makes him look. the length is cut shorter, but still left long enough to touch his ears

 

the new hair is light and airy, it makes him feel like a new person. for the first time in a long time he looks at himself in the mirror and likes what he sees.

 

he spends most of his break working at the restaurant, his boss electing to force his employees to pick up three times as many shifts over hiring seasonal workers.

 

which is why, unsurprisingly, new years eve finds him at the restaurant. he was supposed to have the day off, but his manager had called him out, demanding that he cover the day shift if he didn’t want to be fired.

 

it’s an exhausting six hours, with far too many rude customers demanding he fulfill their every whim. it’s hectic enough that when he leaves work, tired and starving, he’s forgotten all about the masquerade.

 

he’s on his way to the bus station, ipod already blasting music in his ears, when his phone vibrates in his pocket.

 

17:09  seungkwannie
are u on ur way?????? me hansol n seokmin are waiting by the costume room in the theatre dept ▯▯▯

 

jeonghan stops abruptly, hands clutching his phone, his eyes slipping shut as he fights down a groan. he was so, so tired, bones aching and stomach rumbling, but seungkwan had bought him a ticket. he couldn’t disappoint his friends like that.

 

he takes a deep breath, steels himself, and turns around to head to the bus stop that would take him to campus.

 

when he reaches campus he hurries to the theatre building, jogging through the dimly lit corridors. he didn’t spend much time in the theatre department anymore, but during his first semester, when he’d still lived on campus, he’d joined the theatre society to help out backstage, not confident enough to get on stage himself. that’s how he’d met seokmin. kind and sweet, the musical theatre student had always offered to stay and help out when rehearsals were over, despite having an impressive amount of lines to memorise. when he was forced to move out of his dorm, chased out by a humiliating and vicious visit from his step-mum, he no longer had time for extra-curriculars, all his time consumed with work. luckily, seokmin had stuck around, introducing him to seungkwan the following autumn.

 

rounding one last corner, he spots his friends waiting for him by the door to the costume room.

 

hansol and seungkwan are wearing matching dark red suits, and it’s horribly disgusting what a cute couple they make. seokmin is decked out in a bright yellow suit, the colour mirroring his sunshine-y personality. they all look great, and jeonghan feels the insecurity flare up inside him. how was he supposed to measure up to his gorgeous friends?

 

"good, you're here!" is the only greeting he gets from seungkwan, the younger wasting no time turning around and barging into the impressively sized costume closet, the other three scrambling to following his pace. once inside seungkwan turns to seokmin.

 

“i’ll find a costume, you go dig up some masks.”

 

seokmin nods and ducks around a rack of ball gowns. once the other is out of sight, seungkwan gets to work.

 

jeonghan is left standing hesitantly by the entrance to the costume room, watching as seungkwan tears through the many racks of costumes, seemingly randomly picking out different outfits.

 

“are you sure this is okay?” he asks.

 

“don’t worry,” seungkwan dismisses him easily.”as long as we put them back later no one’s going to notice.”

 

he fidgets where he stands, discomfort growing inside him. he looks to the side, makes eye contact with hansol.

 

“i’m sure it’ll be fine, hyung!” the younger reassures him with a smile.”and if anyone gets mad we’ll make seungkwan take the blame.”

 

the statement makes jeonghan crack a smile.”that sounds like a plan.”

 

a few minutes later seungkwan calls him over, holding up two suit jackets against jeonghan’s form, one pale blue, the other an emerald green.

 

seungkwan hums and squints, clearly assessing the jackets on whatever criterias fashionable people judge clothing based on.

 

“do i get to have an opinion?” he jokes as seungkwan is in the middle of comparing the jackets to his skin.

 

“no,” the younger scoffs, before nonchalantly hurling the emerald jacket over his shoulders. jeonghan huffs at the dismissal, rolling his eyes, but ultimately doesn’t protest, knowing seungkwan knew what he was doing.

 

“we’re going with light blue, seokmin!” seungkwan calls off to the side seokmin had disappeared, seokmin responding with a faint got it from where he’s obscured behind racks of costumes.

 

“hold this,” seungkwan orders and deposits the light blue jacket in his arms, abandoning jeonghan to pluck the matching dress pants down from the hanger, then setting off in search for something else.

 

while he waits, jeonghan carefully inspects the jacket in his arms. he runs his fingers over the soft fabric, the light blue colour shining prettily in his hands as it catches the sharp light from overhead. he holds it up again, inspecting the mix of white and pale blue, and decides that seungkwan really did know what he was doing.

 

“okay, i think i have everything,” seungkwan comes back around the corner a few minutes later, now holding a piece of white fabric along with the blue dress pants.”take this and go change, but keep the shoes, they’re fine.”

 

jeonghan raises a hand to his head, does a little slute as seungkwan deposits the rest of his chosen outfit in his arms.”yes, sir!”

 

he hurries off behind a rack of what seems to be animal costumes, and makes quick work of getting into the clothes seungkwan had picked out. the white fabric turns out to be a turtleneck, and jeonghan finds himself appreciating both the thickness of the tall collar, and the way it covers him up. both the trousers and the jacket end up fitting him surprisingly well, the jacket hanging a little oversized over his shoulders. he folds his work outfit and tucks it safely under his arm, making sure to tuck his phone, wallet and ipod into his pockets. hopping back into the black dress shoes he wears for work, he laces them up and trots back around the clothing rack. tugging at the sleeves of the jacket, he asks,

 

“does it look okay?”

 

seungkwan gives him an impressed look, while hansol lets out a low whistle.

 

“you look dashing!” hansol compliments, hands raised to give him two thumbs up.

 

“i have to agree,” seungkwan says, stalking over to adjust the fall of the fabric.”just a little bit of makeup and you’ll be perfect.”

 

the younger blonde pushes him over to the corner into a chair in front of a mirror, and, knowing what’s best for him, jeonghan doesn’t protest.

 

seungkwan takes his folded up outfit out of his hands and throws the clothes at his boyfriend, ignoring jeonghan's squawk.

 

"could you go put this in my locker, babe?"

 

"sure thing!" hansol says, setting off down the corridor.

 

"what am i supposed to wear going home?" jeonghan splutters.

 

"just wear this, we'll pick up your clothes tomorrow."

 

“now close your eyes and let me work.” seungkwan orders as he clips jeonghan’s bangs up and away from his face. jeonghan begrudgingly does as told, trying to stay as still as possible as seungkwan’s nimble hands start applying makeup to his skin.

 

seungkwan is in the middle of smearing something sticky onto his lips when seokmin comes back round the corner.

 

“i found this one,” comes his voice, and jeonghan has to steel himself to not take a peek.”and this one.”

 

“that one,” seungkwan decides quickly.”it matches the outfit better.”

 

jeonghan stays quiet as he hears seokmin walk over, making sure to stay still as he feels seungkwan place the mask over his face and tie the white lace ribbons around his head.

 

“can i look now?”

 

“no.” seungkwan’s hands come up to fiddle with the clips in his hair, carefully arranging his bangs.

 

“are you guys done soon?” comes hansol’s voice from behind them, evidently back from depositing jeonghan's clothes.”we’re technically late.”

 

seungkwan scoffs from up above jeonghan, hands still carefully styling his hair.

 

“it’s a party, hansollie,” he says.”no one cares if we arrive late.”

 

when hansol speaks again, jeonghan doesn’t have to see him to know his face is tilted to the side, face contorted in that cute confused expression that was so very hansol .

 

“but you’re the,” he pauses for a bit, evidently not understanding his boyfriend’s logic.”organiser?”

 

“doesn’t matter,” seungkwan dismisses, hands leaving jeonghan’s hair.”okay, you can look now.”

 

with permission, jeonghan flutters his eyes open, taking in seungkwan’s handiwork.

 

his hair is laid fluffy and wavy over the mask, the white plastic covering his face all the way from his forehead to his cheeks. the mask is eggshell white, the only decoration being a pair of thin eyebrows and a big, black teardrop on the right cheek. the only real colour on his face comes from the sticky, glittery pink gloss decorating his small lips, and it leaves a stark expression. he tilts his head from side to side, impressed by seungkwan’s work.

 

“i like it.” he decides. he looks up at seungkwan and seokmin.”you did a good job, especially considering the material you had to work with.”

 

"oh shut up," seungkwan rolls his eyes at his self-deprecating quip."we all know you're gorgeous." 

 

“you look like an angel, hyung!” seokmin is quick to complement, reaching out to touch his hair, but is stopped in his motion when seungkwan slaps his hand away.

 

“c’mon, cinderella,” seungkwan urges and drags jeonghan out of the chair and off to the door, grabbing hansol as he passes him.”gotta get you to the ball.”

 

the walk from the theatre department to the building where the masquerade is hosted takes only a few minutes, and as they come closer and closer jeonghan can feel the apprehension take over inside him.

 

he pauses at the top of the stairs in front of the double doors, his friends already making their way into the party, blood rushing in his ears as he watches the crowd through the arches of the doorway.

 

it’s hansol, of all people, that notices his distress. the younger boy turns around, seemingly for no reason, and before he knows it the younger has placed his hands on his shoulders, eyes locking with jeonghan’s with a gravity that throws the older off.

 

“hyung.”

 

“yes?” jeonghan’s voice is pitched and confused, he has no idea where this is going.

 

“death is inevitable,” hansol says, and despite his sober mannerism jeonghan can’t help but wonder if hansol’s already had a few. he nods in acknowledgement, nonetheless.

 

hansol grins and leans closer to him.”so let’s fucking party.”

 

he can’t help it, he laughs. his friends were strange and maybe a little dumb, but they also had this uncanny ability of effortlessly talking him down from whatever precipice of worry he was on.

 

“yeah,” he agrees and lets hansol guide him into the low light of the masquerade hall with a hand on his back.”let’s fucking party.”

 

 

retrospectively, jeonghan should have known better than to let seungkwan, hansol and seokmin each buy him a drink, and then downing those drinks on an empty stomach after only getting four hours of sleep.

 

as it is, he’s doing his best to stay upright on the dancefloor, trying to find his friends through his blurry vision. he’s not sure how long he’s been alone, but as the crowd of drunk dancers shove him back and forth, the touch of foreign bodies making him feel hot and uncomfortable, it feels like an eternity. the panic is climbing up his throat and his heart is steadily picking up pace.

 

the ballroom is dark, the pretty fairy lights and lanterns used for decoration only providing minimal lighting, but jeonghan manages to push his way through the crowd and find support against a wall.

 

he breathes deeply, trying to calm his rapidly beating heart, back pressed against the wall. the masquerade mask feels uncomfortable against his skin, but he can’t find the energy to take it off, all focus on making sure he doesn’t collapse.

 

it takes him a good few minutes, but he finally manages to get his breathing under control. pushing himself off from the wall he’s leaning on, he only manages a couple of steps before a heavy body tumbles into him, his still unsteady limbs giving in from the impact, making him flop heavily to the floor.

 

he watches the man who ran into him disappear into the crowd, desperately trying to get his limbs to push himself up before he gets trampled. he tries to muster the strength to move, but his body won’t cooperate, legs feeling like jelly where he lies on the marble floor.

 

“hey, you okay?” comes a kind voice, just barely audible over the music, and jeonghan feels gentle hands under his arms, helping him to his feet. he tries to focus, tries to form the words i’m fine , but his mouth won’t cooperate.

 

”c’mon, let’s get you some air.” the voice says, close to his ear. he feels a strong arm slip around his waist, while another lifts his arm over a pair broad shoulders, supporting him as they walk toward the back exit.

 

“sit here, ‘kay?” the man says as he gently places him on a bench outside the busy hall. jeonghan’s got his eyes closed, the winter air feeling divine against his heated skin, even with the mask still on.”i’m gonna get you some water.”

 

jeonghan nods absently, more focused on getting the anxious buzz in his chest to calm down.

 

his ears are ringing, the after effects of the loud music of the party adding to his disoriented state. he rubs his hands up and down his thighs, mind slowly working its way through his body, starting from his toes and moving up, taking account of where he is and how he’s feeling. as he moves up to his waist, feeling the way his empty stomach rumbles and the way his chest rises and falls with his breathing, he feels his nerves slowly settle, the cool night air chasing the thickest of the drunkenness from his mind.

 

he is present. he is safe. no one is going to hurt him.

 

he hears footsteps approaching, and when he looks up the man who helped him is making his way back, bottle of water in hand.

 

“here you go.” he says kindly as he passes jeonghan the water, attentive eyes heavy on him as he opens the bottle and brings it to his lips.

 

the water is cold as it travels down his throat, bringing some calm to his churning stomach.

 

jeonghan studies the man in front of him as he drinks, taking in his appearance. he’s got dark hair swept up and away from his forehead, and despite much of his face being covered by a gold and black masquerade mask, he can tell he’s handsome, with a strong jawline, plush lips, and big, brown eyes peeking out from the holes in his mask. 

 

“who’re you?” he mumbles out, taking another sip of water.

 

the other man smiles down at him, playful.”call me prince charming.”

 

jeonghan musters up enough energy to roll his eyes.

 

“thank you for helping me, prince charming.” he humours him, and his prince’s grin widens at the words.

 

“just doing my princely duty.” his prince says, regal look on his face as he fiddles with one of his cufflinks for show. he’s wearing a dark suit jacket, pieces of gold lace decorating it, matching his masquerade mask.

 

jeonghan chuckles at the silly display of formality.

 

“you feeling okay?” his prince asks, and jeonghan can’t see his eyebrows, but imagines they’re furrowed in concern. the worry is touching, coming from a stranger.”you seem a bit out of it, did someone—” he pauses, seemingly gauging jeonghan’s state by the way his eyes travel up and down his figure. jeonghan tilts his head in question.”do you think someone put something in your drink?”

 

it makes jeonghan laugh, caught off guard by the severity of the question.

 

“no,” he shakes his head.”i didn’t have a lot to eat today.” he explains.

 

his prince seems to relax a bit, smile coming back to his face.

 

“oh,” he sits down on the bench next to jeonghan.”that’s good then. not that it’s good that you haven’t eaten! but it’s good that nothing bad happened to you!”

 

jeonghan watches as the prince stumbles over his words, a hint of red spreading on his cheeks, peeking out from under the gold mask. it makes jeonghan laugh again, throwing his head back in a loud cackle at his flustered state.

 

“i appreciate the concern, prince.”

 

his prince smiles proudly, despite jeonghan laughing at him.“you’re sure you feel okay?” he asks, one more time.

 

“yes, i promise, i feel much better.” jeonghan takes another gulp of water, fiddling with the bottle in his hands. as he speaks the prince next to him starts digging in one of his pockets, procuring a small protein bar.

 

“you should eat this.” he says with a decisive nod in his head. jeonghan looks at him, confused.

 

“why do you have a protein bar in your pocket?”

 

his prince shrugs.”i'm an exercise and sports studies major.”

 

jeonghan snorts.

 

”explains the guns,” he mumbles before he can stop himself. he flushes as soon as the words leave his mouth, ripping the offered protein bar out of his prince’s hand and turning away. he was evidently still tipsier than he'd thought. his prince, unsurprisingly, laughs loudly at his slip of the tongue.

 

“thanks,” he says, just shy of cocky.”i’m happy you noticed.”

 

jeonghan hums noncommittally in response, too embarrassed to speak.

 

as his embarrassment subsides he eyes the prince where he sits next to him on the bench, now distractedly munching on the protein bar. it had a strange texture, and the taste wasn’t very good, but for some reason he didn’t want to disappoint the man by not eating the treat when he’d so generously given it to him.

 

“don’t you have anyone you need to get back to?” he finally asks.”your friends? a date?”

 

his prince shrugs, reclining on the bench.”nah, i’d much rather talk to you some more.”

 

the casual way he says it has jeonghan fighting down a blush, grateful for the mask on his face hiding his flustered expression. the thought that some handsome stranger wanted to spend his night sitting out on a bench with him instead of dancing inside at the ball makes his heart speed up again, but this time it’s a rush of pleasant nerves that makes his breathing stutter.

 

“what should i call you?” comes his companion’s soft voice after a short silence, his eyes shining with curiosity behind the mask.

 

“i’m—” he cuts himself off before he says his name, seungkwan’s words suddenly rising to the front of his mind. the chance to be someone else, he thinks, someone mysterious and interesting. someone who isn’t yoon jeonghan.

 

“angel.” he settles for. he nods once, satisfied with himself.”you can call me angel.”

 

his prince nods a few times, clearly amused.”okay, angel,” he rises from his seat, one arm placed behind his back, the other held up in front of him as he bows slightly.”how would you feel about joining me for a stroll through the gardens this lovely evening?”

 

jeonghan looks at him, mouth hanging open, for a few short seconds, before he smiles.”sounds delightful.”

 

he gets up from his seat, not quite brave enough to take the hand his prince had offered. but if his prince was put off by the rejection, he doesn’t let it show, instead he just motions in front of them, encouraging jeonghan to follow his lead.

 

they walk slowly, talking pleasantly as they go. his prince leads them around the courtyard of their university, the mild chill of the winter night making them stay close together, and each time their shoulders brush as they walk, jeonghan feels the blush grow warmer on his skin.

 

it’s when he’s in the middle of retelling the story of the worst customer he’s ever had when jeonghan catches his prince stealing curious glances at him, his eyes a lot heavier than a silly story about work warrants. the attention flusters him enough that he interrupts his story.

 

“what?” he asks, fiddling with the sleeves of his suit jacket.

 

“have we, uh— have we met before?”

 

jeonghan frowns behind his mask.”how am i supposed to know? i don’t know who you are.”

 

his prince lets out a chuckle, one hand coming up to scratch at his neck.”right, forgot about that.”

 

“it’s just,” he starts again, eyes trained on jeonghan.”you feel so familiar.”

 

“well,” jeonghan shrugs, running a hand through his blonde locks.”we’re both students, maybe we’ve just seen each other around.”

 

suddenly his prince’s embarrassed grin freezes, concern now hinting underneath the mask. before jeonghan has a chance to react his prince’s fingers are up by his head, thumbing at his ear.

 

“what happened to your ear?” he’s got a concerned pout on his face that would be adorable if it wasn’t for the question that had just left his lips.

 

jeonghan prides himself on only freezing up for a split second, making sure to keep careful control over his hands, not letting the anxious numbness take over as his mind flashes with memories.

 

rough claws tugging cruelly at his long locks. the sound of scissors. the dread and fear that kept him captive as large chunks of his hair fell down over his figure, landing dead and severed on the floor.

 

the warm blood dripping down his neck after the blades of the scissors nipped his ear.

 

the overwhelming feeling of shame whenever he looked at himself in the mirror the months after, his long, pretty hair now replaced by uneven and broken tufts of hair.

 

he forces a smile to reassure his prince, lie falling easy from his lips.”my earring got torn out during p.e.”

 

“ah damn,” his prince says, voice sympathetic.”that must have hurt.”

 

jeonghan barks out a laugh.

 

”don’t worry, it wasn’t that bad.” he manages to unscrew the cap on the bottle still in his hand and raises it to his lips, taking a few gulps to distract himself from the buzzing in his body. he wrenches his eyes shut, willing himself out of the spiral.

 

he can still feel his prince touching the little jack in his ear, the pads of his fingers feeling a little rough, but his touch is impossibly gentle. the touch comforting in its delicateness in a way he isn’t used to. suddenly, the fingers leave his skin, but jeonghan only gets a split second to mourn the loss, before there’s a quick press of lips against the scar.

 

jeonghan lets out a pathetic squeal at the sudden contact, hand flying up to cover his ear.

 

beside him, his prince is giggling, clearly proud of himself.

 

jeonghan turns to him, face glowing red under his mask. would he ever stop blushing?

 

“did you just—”

 

“i might have.” his prince shrugs, failing at looking nonchalant about what he’d just done.

 

jeonghan narrows his eyes and raises a hand to poke him hard in the stomach. his prince doubles over, hands trying to shield himself from jeonghan’s fingers.

 

“how dare you!” jeonghan continues his assault on his prince’s stomach and sides. he doesn’t miss taking note of the feeling of firm muscle hiding under his prince’s suit, and while he should probably feel embarrassed about the fact, it only serves to further his infatuation.

 

they play around for a bit more, until his prince eventually admits defeat and begs for jeonghan to have mercy on him.

 

when his prince is upright again jeonghan gives him a playful glare.

 

“you better watch it!”

 

“sorry, angel.” is his companion’s reply, wide grin still on his face, looking the very opposite of sorry."i couldn't help myself."


 jeonghan rolls his eyes playfully, and as they start walking again, he resumes his story about the restaurant guest from hell.

 

they’re outside a side door leading into the masquerade hall when they stop, they’re not alone in the corridor, stray party-goers having spilled out from the masquerade and into the dim hallway. they come to rest against the wall, shoulder to shoulder as they look out through the large windows on the other side of the corridor, looking over the courtyard of their university.

 

“hey, angel?”

 

jeonghan hums distractedly in reply, busy admiring the way the moon looked through the large window in front of them. it was an almost perfect half circle, as if the moon herself was grinning down at the two of them. as if she was happy for him.

 

“do you want to dance?”

 

he turns his head, a smile already spreading on his lips. from the open doors to the ball a song is spilling out, slow and soothing. he doesn’t have to think about his answer.

 

“sure, prince.” he rises from his position against the wall, his prince following eagerly.

 

his prince places one hand between his shoulder blades, warm and sturdy, while the other comes out to hover to their side, waiting for jeonghan’s hand. jeonghan follows his princes lead, letting one hand come up to rest on his partner’s shoulder, the other fitting perfectly into his hand.

 

they sway to the music, jeonghan doing his best to ignore the excited giggling coming from the two drunk girls off to the side of them. he looks into the eyes of his prince as they dance, reveling in the romance of the moment.

 

everything feels unreal, as if he’s going to wake up at any moment. but, he thinks, if this was a dream, surely he’d be freed from the little discomforts of real life; his hands wouldn’t feel this sweaty, and he wouldn’t be growing so uncomfortable in his mask.

 

it had to be real. his prince had to be real.

 

the thought births dozens of butterflies in his stomach, the fluttering tickling a little giggle out of him.

 

“what is it?” his prince grins at him.

 

“this is just so—” he snickers again.”cheesy.”

 

his prince hums in thought, suddenly tugging jeonghan firmer against him and bringing them into a twirl, jeonghan only barely managing to keep up, an unattractive, choked noise spilling from his lips as they move. when they’re back to their gentle swaying, his prince speaks again.

 

“is cheesy bad?”

 

jeonghan purses his lips, pretends to contemplate the question. instead of answering he pushes his prince out of his grip, only keeping their hands joined, and forces him to twirl under their joined arms.

 

his prince, to his credit, only stumbles a little as he’s twirled, and when he’s made it back around he’s quick to pull jeonghan back to him.

 

“cheesy is good.” jeonghan says with a cheeky smile. his prince only chuckles in response, once more leading them in a quiet, gentle sway to the music.

 

“it’s almost midnight,” his dance partner breaks their silence, not knowing where this is going, jeonghan stays quiet.

 

“how about—,” his prince pauses, licks his lips in thought. jeonghan hums in encouragement.”when midnight hits, we take off our masks.”

 

the butterflies in jeonghan’s stomach flutter even more eagerly, his heart stuttering in his chest.

 

“introduce ourselves properly.” his prince’s eyes shine with hope.

 

“yeah,” jeonghan agrees, holding onto his prince’s shoulder a little harder, to keep himself from floating away in his excitement.”i’d love that.”

 

“good, uh—” his prince nods a few times, goofy grin on his lips.”that’s great!”

 

they keep swaying to the music, enjoying each other’s company for the last few beats of the song. once the song fades out, they come to a stop, arms still around each other.

 

“you ready?”

 

jeonghan nods, his breathing thin with excitement and nerves.”i’m ready.”

 

his prince smiles, gums on display. his prince takes his hand off jeonghan’s back and raises it to his mask, getting ready.

 

jeonghan is just about to do the same, fingers gripping the silk ribbons of his mask, when a laugh echoes from down the hall.

 

his body grows cold.

 

he’d know that laugh anywhere.

 

his breathing catches in his throat, blood rushing in his ears and heart once again pounding painfully in his chest. the fear grows thick and heavy in him at the thought of his step-brother. what was he doing here? did he know jeonghan was here? was he going to tell her ?

 

his prince’s eyes are shining with concern, picking up on jeonghan’s change in mood. jeonghan can faintly hear him call for him, but the sound is drowned out by his panic.

 

around them people start counting down enthusiastically. a grand chorus of voices ready to cheer for the new year.

 

10, 9, 8...

 

“are you okay?” his prince’s words sound so, so far away, drowned out by the laugh now playing on repeat in his head. he was going to be found out. she was going to find again. she was going to drag him back into her clutches. this time she’d never let him go.

 

he couldn’t stay here. it wasn’t safe.

 

“i’m sorry.” he breathes out, slipping out of his prince’s grip, turning around to bolt down the hallway.

 

7, 6, 5...

 

he rounds a corner, ignoring the confused call of angel behind him. ducks his head as he rushes past the group of people standing huddled to the side, hiding his face from the ghost from his childhood.

 

4, 3, 2...

 

when the new year comes jeonghan is running through the doors of his university, eyes wide with panic and chest numb with fear.

 

 

at 00:22 he’s stepping on a bus, masquerade mask in his trembling hands and a faint happy new years on his lips. as the bus travels through the dark streets he watches the crowds of people milling about. all the happy smiles leaving him feeling hollow and disappointed.

 

he moves his hand to his pocket, making to take out his ipod and drown out his feelings with music, but finds it empty. he groans, head thumping against the window.

 

he spends the long journey home in uneventful silence.



on the first day of the new year jeonghan dyes his hair back to brown, the pretty paleness of blonde feeling too eye-catching. too attention seeking. too easy to recognise. when his friends ask why, he claims it wasn’t really me . none of them believe him, but, thankfully, they don’t question it.