It’s a painful day for six-year-old Jimin when his parents drive him and his brother to the orphanage.
He isn’t told where he’s going at first; the family of four pile into the car like they would on any other day, the two young boys in the backseats, Jungkook strapped into his childseat and Jimin haltingly reading aloud to him from a book. Their parents sit talking in the front of the car.
Only when they pull in and get out of the car does Jimin first get the feeling that something is wrong. He looks up at the large brick house, shielding his eyes from the sun, and reads the sign at the front. The Choi House, it reads, and then something else that Jimin can’t read, and then For Boys. Four-year-old Jungkook slips his hand into his and looks up at the building, too.
“Daddy?” Jungkook says, turning to their father. “Where are we?”
Their parents smile at them, and Jimin’s mom ruffles his hair—an unfamiliar gesture of affection. Jimin’s young forehead wrinkles.
“This is a museum,” their father tells them. “It’s got lots of cool stuff inside.” Jungkook nods and wows softly, looking back at the massive building. He’s too young to read, even too young to understand what a museum is. “Let’s go in.”
The boys don’t question their father, and the family heads up the stone steps and into the building. The doors swing shut just behind Jimin, and he glances back one last time before they do. Then he turns back around and gazes up at his surroundings.
Dark walls, naked bulbs hanging from the ceiling, wooden stairs down the corridor and a number of doors along the left-hand side of the corridor. Faint yelling from upstairs; children's voices. Pattering footsteps above their heads. Jungkook looks up, big brown eyes starry. Jimin’s staring anxiously at his parents.
A moment later, a lady walks out of one of the doors, smiling warmly. She’s dressed in a starched apron and has her hair loose and tumbling about her shoulders. When she comes to a halt in front of the family, Jungkook shrinks behind Jimin out of habit. Jimin puts an arm around his shoulders and brings him out again. Their parents greet the lady warmly.
“Hello,” they say to her, “you must be—?”
“Mrs Lee,” she replies with a bow to each parent. “I’m glad you could make it.”
The boys stare silently at her; she turns to them and looks down. Jimin’s arm stiffens around Jungkook and he feels his brother tremble slightly. Neither of them are brave enough to say a word to the lady that they don’t know.
“You two,” she says to them, “what are you called?”
Jimin’s the big brother; it’s his responsibility to talk, even if he doesn’t really want to. “I’m Jimin,” he says with all the confidence that a six-year-old can muster.
“I’m Jung’ookie,” Jungkook says, trying to echo his brother’s tone. The lady—Mrs Lee—looks at him with what seems to Jimin like thinly-veiled boredom. It’s a look that he’s used to being given by adults, and he doesn’t like seeing it directed at his baby brother.
Before he can say anything, his mother speaks up.
“Just the older one,” she says softly. Mrs Lee looks over at her with surprise.
“Only him?” she asks, her voice low. “Is the other boy—?”
Their father interrupts. “Not here,” he hisses, a painful smile on his face. “Let’s get the boys upstairs, shall we? If that’s alright, Mrs—Mrs Lee?”
The lady seems to reel herself in rapidly. “Of course,” she says with a smooth nod, and then she reaches out and beckons to Jimin and Jungkook. “Boys, why don’t you come with me?”
Neither one moves. Jimin’s mother grabs him by the arm and pushes him forwards, and then Jungkook comes trotting after him. Jimin blinks back rapidly-welling tears and rubs at his arm.
Perhaps he imagines it, but he thinks that Mrs Lee looks at him with pity as she leads him upstairs. Jungkook follows him naturally, but Jimin reaches for his hand anyway. As much to make himself feel better as to guide his younger brother.
They climb flight after flight of stairs, and after the third flight Jungkook starts whimpering.
“Miss,” Jimin calls, “one second?”
She stops and glances back at the boys. Jimin bends over slightly and Jungkook climbs onto his back, and Jimin grunts and hoists him up. Then he looks up at Mrs Lee. “Jungkookie was getting tired,” he explains. She gives them both a rather bitter smile, but Jimin can’t quite understand it.
Still, they continue up the stairs, and Jimin starts to struggle around the fourth flight, but then they stop climbing and instead turn down one of the corridors. Jimin tries his best to keep up with Mrs Lee, but it’s tiring on him and he has to keep pausing to breathe. Jungkook kisses him on the cheek.
“Hyungie,” he says directly into his ear, “I can walk. Jung’ookie can walk.”
“You sure?” Jimin huffs. Behind him, Jungkook nods perkily.
With relief, Jimin lets him down, and then motions for him to go ahead after the lady while he catches his breath. Mrs Lee turns around and claps once.
“Hurry up, boys!” she calls. Jimin breaks into a trotting run and manages to catch up, but his side sears with a stitch. He doesn’t want to ask her to slow down, so he just toughs it out.
They come to a door at the very end of the corridor, and both boys look up at the lady questioningly.
“Where?” Jungkook asks softly, pausing to try and figure out how best to order his words, “where—where—umm, we going?”
“Are we going,” Jimin corrects him, “it’s where are we going, Koo.”
Jungkook attempts to copy him. “Where—are we—go.”
Jungkook smiles at him, satisfied. Jimin ruffles his hair, exactly like their mother did to him a little while prior. He thinks that they’ve both forgotten the lady standing there, but they remember her suddenly when she opens the door in front of them and pushes them into the room.
Jimin stumbles; Jungkook grabs him by the back of the t shirt.
“This is a dormitory,” Mrs Lee explains. She speaks loudly and clearly, easy for Jimin to understand. Jungkook nods like he understands too. “This is where lots of children sleep at night. You guys probably have your own rooms, or maybe share a room, right?”
Both boys nod, wide-eyed. They look around the empty room, taking in the large window at the very end, the neat rows of beds, the large curtains and little wardrobes beside each bed.
“Well, here, there will be way more children. At least twenty. Maybe twenty-five or twenty-six.”
Jimin’s eyes widen further at the thought of so many children sleeping in the same place. That’s the size of his entire class. He wonders how anyone can sleep without getting distracted. He knows that he has trouble sleeping with even the sound of Jungkook’s soft breathing, sometimes. A scary thought strikes him: will they have to sleep here?
“Mrs Lee?” he asks timidly, “are me and Jungkook gunna be staying in here?”
Jungkook’s eyebrows pull down and he pouts. “No!” he protests quietly. “Jung’ookie’s and hyung’s, hyung’s room is at home.”
Mrs Lee gives them both a strange look that Jimin can’t understand.
“We’ll see,” she says, and then she stops with her mouth open like she’s about to say something else. Then she shuts it with a snap. “Yes. Well. You two can stay in this room for a while. I’m going to go and chat to mommy and daddy. Don’t leave this room.”
Jimin and Jungkook both nod. “Yes,” they say. She smiles.
“Good boys,” she tells them. Then she promptly steps back out and shuts the door behind her. After a moment, Jimin hears a click, and it sounds like their door at home does. Their mom locks their door; Mrs Lee must have locked the door. Jimin doesn’t quite know why, but it unsettles him. He tries to ignore it and turns instead to his brother, who’s wandered off to explore the rows of beds.
“Jungkookie,” he calls, “come back here! She said don’t wander off!”
Jungkook ignores him. Instead, he climbs onto one of the beds, the fifth one from the door on the right hand side of the room, and immediately snuggles down.
“Jungkookie!” Jimin calls. “That’s someone else’s stuff!”
Jungkook raises his head slightly, wearing an adorable grin. All his milk teeth are on full display. “Hyungie,” he calls across to Jimin, “it smells sweet. Like the thing mommy puts in cakes.”
“What, vanilla?” Jimin asks. He’s curious, now. He joins Jungkook over at the bed and sniffs the covers, and then he straightens up and steps away. “Oh yeah. It does.”
Jungkook peels the covers back from the bed and, after pausing only to kick off his trainers, just climbs in. Jimin gasps.
Jungkook shoots him a cheeky grin before pulling the covers back over his head so that he’s completely hidden. “Hehe.”
Jimin pulls the covers back to find his brother’s curled up into a tiny ball in the centre of the bed, his thumb in his mouth. He’s biting on the digit gently, his eyes half-shut.
“Jungkookie, you can nap later,” Jimin says, “get up! It isn’t your bed! When we go home you can sleep!”
Jungkook ignores him for a moment, and then opens his eyes fully—only to pat the empty space next to him. “‘S nice in here,” he says softly, “hyungie. Sleep a little.”
And it’s actually rather tempting; the bed does smell lovely, warm and comforting, like baking cakes in the afternoon and sneaking bits of dough out of the bowl and licking them off his fingers before his mom can realise, but— it isn’t his bed, or Jungkook’s. They’ll get in trouble for messing with other children’s things. And Jimin doesn’t like being in trouble; it feels cold and dirty, and Jimin likes feeling warm and loved.
He tries to sound stern, like their mother does when she’s yelling at him. “Jungkook! Out!”
Jungkook just hums sweetly and burrows his head further into the bed. Jimin begins to panic.
“Get out of there right now! Right this very second now this instant!” he says, throwing in every big word that he can remember on the spot. “Koo!”
Jungkook opens one eye and looks up at Jimin almost reproachfully. “Hyungie—” he starts to whine, but he doesn’t get any further than that because the door opens, and he falls silent. A force of habit; their mother never likes it when she comes in and they’re both chatting in bed. She screams, and she hits Jimin. Never Jungkook.
Jimin looks up at the door, thinking that Mrs Lee has come back to get them both so that they can go home, but it isn’t Mrs Lee. It’s another boy. He isn’t looking at them when he first comes in, apparently preoccupied with a wooden box held in his hands, but then he looks up and catches sight of them. His mouth drops open. Jimin feels cold with panic.
“We—” he starts, but he’s cut off. The boy runs over to them and tosses the box down on the pillow, away from Jungkook’s body. Up close, Jimin can see that he’s a quite a bit taller than him, and is pale. His black hair falls into his eyes in that messy, flat way that straight hair does, and he pushes it back off his forehead to see Jimin more clearly.
“Who are you?” he demands, looking from Jimin to Jungkook. “And what are you doing in my bed?”
“We—um,” Jimin stops and looks down at the ground. The boy stares at him for a second before looking down at Jungkook. His angry expression softens out slightly as he takes in the sight of the boy, curled up adorably and blinking. But he won’t be deterred.
“Who are you?” he repeats sharply, looking back at Jimin. “I’m waiting.”
“I’m Jimin,” Jimin says in a small voice. “And that’s my brother Jungkook.”
The boy nods. “Right. So, what are you doing in my bed?”
Jungkook turns his head towards the boy and then slowly uncurls himself, crawls out of the bed and then smooths the covers back into place.
“Jung’ookie’s sorry,” he mumbles, looking up at the older boy. “Your bed smells nice.”
The boy stares at him, seemingly uncomprehendingly. “What?”
“Your bed,” Jungkook says again, this time pointing at the bed to make his point clearer, “and I got in.”
The boy’s eyes narrow. “You got a lighter?”
Jimin blinks. “A what?”
The boy makes a rapid motion with his right hand, flicking his thumb up and down. “Y’know. A lighter. Sets fire to things. You got one?”
Jimin shakes his head. “No,” he mumbles, hanging his head. He isn’t sure of what a lighter really is, but it doesn’t sound good, and the boy sounds angry with him and Jungkook.
“Are you lying?” the boy asks then, very bluntly. It makes Jimin look up in surprise.
“No!” he protests.
The boy tilts his head angrily and puts his hands on his hips, looking between the brothers with his eyes narrowed as though he’s trying to catch one of them in the act of lying.
Jimin bites his lip anxiously. “We’re very sorry,” he says, automatically trying to calm the other boy down. He puts a hand on Jungkook’s shoulder, ready to pull him back if the boy starts getting aggressive. The boy raises his eyebrows, stares at them both for a few more seconds in total silence. Then suddenly, he breaks into a huge smile.
“Alright,” he says, and sticks his hand out to Jimin. “Hi.”
Jimin flinches back from the hand without realising what he’s doing, and then when the boy’s beaming smile flickers, he winces hard. He isn’t meant to be all twitchy, because someone will find out that his mom hits him and then they’ll all be in trouble. He hopes that the boy just thinks he’s a bit strange.
“Hi,” Jimin echoes shyly, sticking his hand out too. The boy shakes it lightly and then grins brighter, crouches down so that he’s on Jungkook’s level.
“Hey,” he says to Jungkook, sticking his hand out again, “I’m sorry I yelled at you. I wasn’t really angry. I just got a bit shocked, ‘cause, y’know, it’s weird. You walk in and there’s guys in your bed.” He laughs brightly.
Jungkook blinks up at him, eyes large and lips gathered in a pout, and Jimin can see that the boy wants to coo. He feels like doing that a lot of the time, too, so he understands.
The room’s totally empty apart from the three of them, and, looking around, Jimin realises that he wants to go and explore the room—wants to go and look out of that big window—but he doesn’t want to leave Jungkook alone with this boy.
The boy doesn’t seem nasty or scary any more, though. He’s now sitting cross-legged on the floor, showing an eager Jungkook the contents of the wooden box that he’d been holding when he first walked in. Jimin leans over to get a look, too, and the boy looks up at him. Pulling back, Jimin has an apology ready on his lips, but the boy just pushes the box out slightly so that he can see too, and then pats the ground next to him.
“I’ve been collecting these for years,” he tells them both once Jimin sits down, “and I was actually just getting this out of my hiding place!”
“Hiding place?” Jimin echoes. The boy nods.
“Mm. You gotta hide your stuff around here,” he says matter-of-factly. “Else it’ll be gone, won’t it?”
He looks at Jimin like he’s expecting him to agree. Jimin nods hurriedly. “Oh yeah,” he says. “It’ll be gone.”
The boy laughs. “I haven’t introduced myself, have I?”
Both Jimin and Jungkook shake their heads. He isn’t sure about his brother, but Jimin’s feeling confused with all the speedy changes in conversation with the boy. He decides to just go with it. They’ll be out of here in a while, as it is.
“Well, I’m Hoseok,” the boy tells them both, “and I’m eight years old.”
Jungkook’s mouth hangs open. “Wow,” he sighs, filled with wonder at the thought of being so grown-up, “‘m only four.”
The boy—Hoseok—claps. “You’re the cutest little guy ever!” he announces. Then he looks at Jimin. “Permission for me to smooch his cheekies?”
Jimin blinks, feeling overwhelmed. “Uh—yeah,” he says quietly. “Go on.”
Hoseok’s nose scrunches with the force of his grin, and he reaches out to cup Jungkook’s face, his thumbs over Jimin’s brother’s cheeks. He slowly pushes them upwards until Jungkook’s mouth is circular and his cheeks are squished against his eyes and the tip of his nose. Hoseok makes a noise of delight.
Jungkook squirms in his grip and he releases him, leaving his cheeks a faint pink. Jungkook rubs them with another pout and then gets up and sits back down next to Jimin. He snuggles into his lap; Jimin reaches out to stroke his hair absently, gazing into Hoseok’s box of small things. Inside are all similar items—a small tin whistle, something that looks like a kazoo, a harmonica and a little disk of greeny-black stuff that looks like solid jelly. He doesn’t realise that Hoseok’s watching them both until he looks up at the older boy and makes direct eye contact.
“What’s wrong?” he asks. Hoseok shakes his head and looks back down to his wooden box.
“You guys are really close,” he says candidly, “and I’ve just got this stuff. I’m jealous of you two and I’ve only just met you. It makes me feel sad.”
“Oh,” Jimin says in surprise. Hoseok shrugs.
“Yeah,” he says, sounding even to Jimin like he’s trying hard to sound cheerful, “bit weird, really. Anyway.” He appears to perk back up for real as a new idea comes to him; his eyes light up and his back straightens. “Do you guys wanna play a game? This room’s totally great for hide and seek.”
Jungkook shrieks out a yes, and Jimin’s just about to agree when the dormitory door opens again. All three boys look up and around, to see Mrs Lee standing there, with Jimin and Jungkook’s father. Hoseok nudges Jimin.
“Oi, is that your dad?” he asks in a whisper. “He looks a lot like your brother.”
Jimin nods and stands up, Jungkook going with him like a much cuter shadow.
“Daddy!” Jungkook cries out, reaching for their father with chubby fists. Jimin lets him go this time. Their father sweeps Jungkook up in an embrace and kisses his forehead.
“Hello, Jungkook,” he murmurs to his youngest son, “have you had fun?”
Jungkook nods and wiggles in his father’s grip, pointing at Jimin and Hoseok.
“Hoseok!” he shouts. Jimin watches their father wince slightly with a quietly sinking heart. He doesn’t understand why, but he doesn’t feel good. Next to him, Hoseok’s staring unabashedly at the scene, his mouth slightly open.
“Alright then, Mr Jeon,” Mrs Lee says brusquely, “we’ve got the luggage, and—well, it’s up to you now.”
She promptly leaves. The room goes silent for a moment.
“Daddy?” Jimin says quietly, looking up at his father. He’s ignored. His father busies himself with fussing over Jungkook, smoothing out his hair and straightening his t shirt.
“Are you ready, then, Jungkook?” he asks. Jungkook makes a confused sound.
“Hyungie,” he calls, staring at Jimin with furrowed brows. Jimin doesn’t quite realise what’s going on, but next to him, it sounds like Hoseok does, because he exhales quietly and looks down at his box like it’s suddenly the most interesting thing in the whole world. The tips of his ears are red.
Jimin watches his father hoist Jungkook more securely into his grip and stare determinedly at a point on the boy’s neck. He ignores the fact that his youngest son has started to cry.
“Hyungie,” Jungkook wails, reaching out for Jimin. Jimin’s lower lip trembles. “Hyungie, come here?”
And though he doesn’t expect to be allowed to come—he thinks that he knows now, the way that his father won’t look at him and the luggage and Mrs Lee earlier saying “only one?” all lining up in his mind—but he steps forwards anyway, a single tremulous step.
And, as he knew, he’s stopped by a single harsh word.
“No,” his father says, not looking at him.
Jimin’s ears ring and he freezes. His eyes fill with tears.
“Jimin,” his father continues, “you’re going to be—staying here for a little while. Jungkook’s coming back with your mother and I.”
He turns away. Jungkook starts sobbing, reaching over his shoulder to grab out for Jimin. “Hyung!” he bawls, fighting to get out of their father’s grip.
Jimin’s voice is stuck in his throat, and he wants to ask why they’re leaving him but taking his brother back, but he can’t. He just—cries. Out of the corner of his eye, he sees Hoseok turn around.
“Why?” the boy asks, and Jimin nearly stops crying out of shock. His father half-turns back around.
“Why are you taking the little guy and not him?” Hoseok asks again. He sounds cold and sharp, like he did when the brothers first met him. Jimin’s staring right at Jungkook, because as devastating as it is that his father is telling him that he isn’t wanted—that’s his brother. Jimin loves him more than anyone, and he can’t stop staring at him, with his face scarlet, contorted with sobs, and his little fists trying in vain to make their father let go of him.
Jimin’s father turns back to the door. “We need to sort out some business,” he says flatly, “we’ll be back for Jimin shortly.”
Through the ringing in his ears, Jimin hears Hoseok curse. Not even that makes his father turn around.
But then he starts to walk towards the door, with a firm grip on Jungkook, and Jimin screams out; short and wordless, just a noise of agony.
His father pauses and turns back around, and Jimin thinks for a second that he’ll say something, but then he just turns back, and walks out of the door. Jungkook’s sobbing screams echo around the room as their father walks away and carries Jimin’s favourite person with him.
Jimin falls to the ground and wails.
Jungkookie, his little brother—he loves him so much that his whole body aches—is gone. And his father, and Jimin knows in the back of his mind that his mother won’t come to say goodbye. Her little head ruffle was her goodbye, all the way back when they first left the car.
The car—! It could be visible from the big window!
Jimin gets up and runs to the window, crying hard. Behind him he thinks that he hears Hoseok follow him, but he doesn’t look back to check. He stands on his tiptoes, craning his neck to try and see their car, but he can only see trees and a brick wall, and the rain that's started up outside. Jimin sinks to the ground at the foot of the window and rests his head against the cool paint on the wall and just cries.
Everywhere hurts. Everywhere. It swallows him whole, like he’s jumped into a boiling swimming pool . Jimin wraps his arms around himself and rocks, trying to hold the pain in, but he screams with agony, over and over again until his throat hurts almost as much as his mind.
He doesn’t know how long he cries for. He passes out from sheer crying at some point, and wakes up with his head in Hoseok’s lap and the older boy singing something softly, carding a hand through his hair and stroking his arm. Jimin rips himself up out of his hold.
“Jungkook,” he gasps, his head aching unbearably. “Jungkookie.”
Hoseok looks at him like he’s trying not to cry himself.
“Jimin,” he says quietly, and then Jimin sees a little scratch going across his cheek, beading fresh; something that he must’ve done as he got up, “Jimin—”
Jimin doesn’t want to listen. He wants to scream himself into nothing again, because this pain is so terrible—so all-consuming—and he can’t even begin to understand it. All he knows is that his brother is gone, he isn’t wanted, and he hurts.
He doesn’t realise that Hoseok’s pulled him back into his lap and is now hugging him tight, pressing him up against his body. He smells the same as his bed does, and Jimin just wants to scream. Hoseok wipes his cheeks and then wipes his wet fingers on his shorts, and then hugs Jimin tighter. He is a boy that Jimin has just met; he is looking after him. But Jimin doesn't want it.
“Jimin,” Hoseok says, the words coming through a fog in Jimin’s mind, “he’s gone.”
Jimin screams again and tries to break out of Hoseok’s hold but the boy’s two years older and a whole lot stronger than him. He holds him as he screams and struggles, arms shaking now and then but always settling back, and Jimin thinks that he starts to cry, too, because at some point, the back of his neck grows wet.
He hasn’t a clue as to how long he spends in Hoseok’s arms, a boy that he’s only just met, but at some point, he stops screaming and just cries. The boy’s t shirt is soaked through and Jimin’s tears are nowhere near done, but Hoseok doesn’t complain, not once.
At some point, the room starts to fill with other children; most of them stop and crowd around Jimin and Hoseok curiously, but Jimin doesn’t care that he’s being watched. He aches terribly. It’s unrelenting and awful, and he just wants to sleep. He wants the hurting to stop, but it won’t. He cries and cries and the pain doesn’t abate.
Hoseok starts to rock him back and forth eventually; Jimin opens his eyes hazily and sees that the room’s almost dark. Hoseok’s almost fallen asleep, leaning against the wall with his arms around Jimin, and Jimin keeps on crying.
He hurts for Jungkook. He wants his brother back, and he wants to hug him and never let go of him again. Jungkook’s screams echo in his mind and he breaks into a fresh round of sobbing that seems to wake Hoseok up, because the older boy immediately makes a hushing noise and starts carding through his hair again.
Jimin has never hurt like this before. Not when he was pushed down the stairs; not when he skinned his knee in the playground; not when he took a bat to the back of the leg. This is a new pain, and an unendurable one.
It must be hours later when Jimin finally passes out again. Just before he does, he hears Hoseok groan and arch his spine a little before settling back into position, hugging Jimin and making random hushing noises.
That night, Jimin goes to sleep drowning in pain for the first time in his six years.