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an ethereal abyss

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Yeosang likes to think about what life would be like if San hadn't been kicked out of his home.

It started with him, for the most part. Yeosang was confused for a while, trying to wrap his head around why San had been kicked out. He knows San, probably better than anyone else around him. San is a good guy, from what Yeosang knows about him. When San told him that his parents kicked him out, he never explained why. And Yeosang didn't ask.

That's how San wound up crashing at Wooyoung's place.

Wooyoung, apart from Yeosang, is probably the only other person who knows San. They practically grew up together, from elementary to high school. Yeosang doesn't know how much Wooyoung knows about San. All he knows is that when they're together, they're inseparable. They're the same age, only a couple months apart, both in their last year of high school. Then again, so is Yeosang, though he's older than both of them. He sees them together often, but never hangs out with them as a trio. It's always either San and Yeosang or San and Wooyoung. In fact, Yeosang has never even hung out with Wooyoung before. It's weird.

Yeosang never sees San with anyone else. He wonders if maybe San has other friends outside of school. He would've let San stay with him, if his parents would let him. Which, knowing his parents, they probably wouldn't have. After all, they're under the impression that Yeosang only has one friend, who isn't San.

Yeosang doesn't hate his parents. He doesn't. He thinks his family is pretty typical: a hard-working, strict father who "wants the best for him," and a quick-witted, quick-tempered mother who "just wants him to be happy."

He tries not to interact with them that much, and they try not to interact with him. When they do, it's usually pestering him about schoolwork, asking him how his day went, etc. Yeosang's doing just fine in school, but his parents always find some way to tell him to "do better" even though his report card reads all A's.

He's grateful for them, though. They provide him with food and a roof over his head. They've given him a room to live in, a bed to sleep in, a place to come home to.

He just wishes he could say the same for San.

-

"Hyung."

The voice seems to echo in Yeosang's ears. He can't remember falling asleep.

"Hyung, wake up." There it is again.

His eyes open excruciatingly slow, crusted over with sleep, mucus, and possibly tears. He doesn't really know. He rubs at them and blinks, groaning as he sits up. The room he's in is dimly lit, and vaguely familiar. The sun is peeking through the curtains, producing a streak of gold across one of the loveseats in the room.

Oh. It's his living room.

How could he not recognize it?

"Hyung, come on. I wanna go to the park."

Yeosang stretches his arms above his head, his eyes finally responding to his whims, opening fully to see a gleamy-eyed Jongho staring at him. "What time is it?"

"Six."

"In the morning?"

Jongho nods excitedly. "Yeah. Come on, the sun's already rising!"

Yeosang tips his head back and groans once more, this time in frustration. "You and your fucking sunrises."

"There's going to come a day where I won't be able to see any more sunrises," Jongho says. "I want to watch every single one of them until then. You're lucky I don't bring you to all of them."

Yeosang scoffs, shaking his head. "I don't know how you do it, kid."

"I'm not a kid!" Jongho pouts, crossing his arms. "I'm, what, a year younger than you?"

"A kid," Yeosang reinforces. He stands, though his legs pop a bit and it feels like his feet have gone numb. Sure enough, the digital clock beneath the TV reads six o'clock sharp. It's as if Jongho had been waiting, maybe even calculating when to wake Yeosang up. He can feel Jongho's playful frown as he pushes past him to slip on a pair of sandals.

"Let's go then."

-

Jongho has some weird obsession with sunrises. He insists that they're important, that each one is different and special because each new day is different and special. Yeosang can't understand how he has such a viewpoint, considering that most days are spent in school and not really doing anything worthwhile. At least, for him.

He's pretty sure it's the same way for Jongho, especially since he's a year younger. There's no way someone younger than him could have a more exciting life, especially since they're both still in high school. Neither of them work, so any stories are usually from the events that transpire during the school day, which aren't that exciting to begin with. There's the occasional gossip on other students, but Yeosang doesn't care enough to pay attention.

Jongho usually has stories to tell. Sure, compared to Yeosang's school life, his is more "exciting." He certainly has more friends than him since he's in the athletic program, but other than that, there's nothing really exciting about high school life. It's mundane and repetitive in Yeosang's eyes, but apparently not in Jongho's.

Him and his fucking sunrises.

According to Jongho, he wakes up every morning just to see the sunrise. His favorite place to watch it is a park near his house, atop a grassy hill that offers a beautiful view of the sun spilling over the tops of the trees. He watches it until he has to go to school, which is why he likes weekends the best. Whenever he can, he'll drag Yeosang along, since none of his other friends from school want to watch the sunrises with him.

And honestly, Yeosang doesn't really want to either, but it's endearing, how Jongho finds sunrises to be so metaphorical and significant, so Yeosang indulges in his imagination. There's no harm in watching a sunrise, except for losing some sleep.

Sometimes, the view is worth it. Yeosang likes the more tame sunrises, where the sun's harsh gleam isn't enough to blind him. His favorite kind of sunrise usually happens during the fall, when the sky turns a gentle blue with a hint of pink, sometimes purple. On those days, it's like the sun doesn't even rise.

When they reach the top of the hill, Yeosang is relieved to see that it is indeed one of those sunrises.

"Ah, hyung! It's your favorite kind!" Jongho exclaims, grabbing Yeosang by the forearm and yanking him down to sit next to him. His fingers dig into Yeosang's skin through his jacket unintentionally hard. For someone who acts like a seven-year-old, Jongho has the strength of a professional weightlifter.

Yeosang wishes he were exaggerating.

"Yes." He chuckles lightly, crossing his legs. They can't stay here for long since it is a school day. He hasn't even changed out of his... yesterday's clothes, and he's sure his mother would be furious to know that Jongho had slept over without her permission. Luckily, his parents don't wake up until after he leaves for school, and his mother always leaves his uniform out each morning, cleaned and ironed the previous night.

Somehow, he's never been caught.

He's had Jongho sleep over countless times, on weekdays and on weekends. Sometimes he asks for permission, and his mother usually says yes. His mother knows that he and Jongho are practically best friends. She appreciates Jongho's manners and enthusiasm, although he can be annoying sometimes. But there are nights where Yeosang can't sleep, and he invites Jongho over to ramble on into the night until the sound of his senseless rants lulls him to sleep.

It's not always like that, though. Sometimes Yeosang just feels lonely. It's nice having a friend who lives so close, just a text and a walk away. Whenever there's an opportunity to have Jongho over, he seizes it. He's glad that his parents are out of the house often. It's easy to have Jongho over that way.

"Hyung," Jongho says, "how is San-hyung doing?"

In all honesty, Yeosang has no clue. He actually hasn't talked to San since the day after he'd been kicked out. He continues to see San at school, attached to Wooyoung at the hip. He doesn't bother texting him, since he probably needs some time to himself. Yeosang understands. Or, he tries to, at least.

"He's okay," is what he ends up saying.

"I see him at school. He looks so tired all the time," Jongho says with a sigh. It's sympathetic, Yeosang notes. Because Jongho is just brimming with sympathy, innocence that Yeosang wishes he still had. Jongho has no idea what San's life must be like (neither does Yeosang), and Jongho doesn't even know San, but still asks about him.

Yeosang thinks that Jongho has the purest heart he's ever known in someone. He hopes nothing ruins that for him.

"It's understandable," Yeosang says. "He's going through a tough time."

"He'll get through it, I know it," Jongho says with dreamlike confidence, something straight out of a children's movie, and it makes Yeosang's heart lurch.

If only it were that simple. Jongho doesn't even know that the reason San hasn't been doing well is because he'd been kicked out of his own home.

Yeosang never told him that, though. He wants Jongho to be able to watch the sunrise every morning without having to worry about life going wrong, so that he can continue to live with unconditional positivity and determination, for himself and for others. He wants Jongho to keep on glowing, bright and shining like the sunrises he loves to watch every morning.

Maybe that's why Jongho loves them so much. Perhaps he sees himself in the sun.

-

One hour into the school day and Yeosang already wants to shove himself in a locker and never come out.

He has to admit, though, he has it relatively easy. School comes naturally to him. He's passing all of his classes with flying colors and barely has to study because he just understands everything like it's already in his blood. It's just so boring, having to sit through classes that he gets so easily and learning about topics he can grasp within minutes. He's no genius, but he's far from stupid.

Then there's Jeong Yunho.

Yeosang doesn't know much about him besides he does athletics like Jongho and he's probably one of the stupidest people in the class. Stupid as in, barely passing. Every time the teacher hands back a test, Yeosang sneaks a peek over his shoulder at his score, and it's usually just above failing.

What he lacks in smarts, he makes up for in athletic ability.

He's a star for the school's cross country, swimming, and soccer team. Anything that has to do with aerobic exercise, he can do. He's tall and well-built. Not as strong as Jongho, but fast on his feet, which is something Jongho doesn't have.

Yeosang wonders if there's more to him, if there's a reason why he's flunking the simplest academic classes, or if there's some hidden genius beneath the atrocious test scores and beaten-up sneakers.

Jongho tells him stories about Yunho. Yunho is kind of an idol to him. He often says that he wishes he were as fast as Yunho, that he's jealous because he can't run or swim as fast as him. Yeosang counters with the fact that Jongho is undefeated in the wrestling league and that he could probably knock someone out with the flick of a finger. Jongho just laughs and says it doesn't matter. He still wishes he could be as fast as Jeong Yunho.

Yeosang has attended some of the sports games at their school, mainly because Jongho wanted him to. He's seen the way Yunho moves, and he has the reputation as the fastest student in the whole school, maybe even in the entire district. Watching him is like watching a wild animal in its habitat, doing what it does best.

He's quick on the field, just not quick in the classroom.

Yeosang has biology with him. He's never been partnered with him for a project, thank god, but Yeosang knows that could change quickly. He mentally prepares himself every day just in case that does happen, as he'd probably end up doing all the work. He's okay with it, though. He'll just lie and say on the participation evaluation that Yunho did a good job and contributed to the work. He has it all planned out.

After all, Yunho seems like a nice guy. He deserves a good grade, even if he might not work for it.

Yeosang doesn't get to sit with Jongho at lunch since he has a conflicting schedule. Normally he'd sit with San, but even then, it would only be sometimes. Now that San has a lot more on his plate than just his lunch, Yeosang doesn't want to intrude. So he sits alone.

The lunch tables are long. He sits at one of the very ends, and some students who can't find other places to sit end up sitting at the other end. Yeosang can feel their eyes on him, judging him for taking up an entire end of a lunch table, but it's not like he's doing anything. He's just sitting. People can sit wherever they want, and if it's next to him, then so be it. He doesn't care.

Damn high schoolers.

He doesn't see San or Wooyoung anywhere, which makes him worry a little. He eats quickly, wanting to see if they're out in the courtyard before the lunch period is up, silently hoping that they're not up to any trouble.

When he doesn't see them outside either, he feels a bullet of worry shoot through his stomach. He sees them every day, and that's never changed. He can't think of anywhere else they could be, if they are anywhere else. Did they skip school? Are both of them out sick?

Are they still alive?

Yeosang shudders and pushes the disturbing thought into the back of his mind. Instead, he thinks of Jongho's words, that San will get through whatever he's dealing with. Although he knows that that's not exactly how life works, he can't help but feel a little better. It's Jongho, after all.

-

The last two periods of Yeosang's day are biology and physical education. And today just so happens to be the day he gets partnered up with Jeong Yunho. A twist of fate, if Yeosang's ever known one.

Yunho slides onto the stool next to him and greets him with a warm smile. "Jeong Yunho."

"Kang Yeosang."

And that's that.

The project is simple. So simple that even Yunho should be able to do it without having to try too hard. But as he's reading over the guidelines, his brow is furrowed in what seems to be either concentration or frustration. Yeosang can't tell. The teacher gives the students a couple minutes to talk amongst themselves, to go over the guidelines and plan out an experiment, and this is Yeosang's chance to shine.

"I'll do everything, don't worry about it," he says.

Yunho doesn't look up from the sheet. His eyes continue to scan the paper as he bites back a frown. "No. Let me do something, for once." He says it with spiteful determination, almost intimidating, maybe even threatening.

Yeosang doesn't want to be an asshole. And Yunho sounds like he actually wants to contribute. So he holds back a sigh and says, "Okay."

He lets Yunho read the guidelines in silence. He does the same, although he rereads the same words over and over again, already knowing what he's going to do. He plans for the entire project, however, since he doesn't know if Yunho will really end up doing something.

"I'm gonna be honest and say that I probably won't know what I'm doing, but if you help me and walk me through things, I will contribute," Yunho says.

Yeosang doesn't see a problem with that. As long as he tries. He nods, and Yunho smiles gratefully.

By the end of the class, Yeosang acquires Yunho's number and already has the experiment and report planned out in his head. All that's left is P.E. At least Yunho isn't in that class with him; otherwise, he'd be the one on the other end.

-

Yeosang can do P.E., he just hates it.

For partnered efforts, Yeosang usually teams up with Song Mingi, a tall, crooked-toothed boy with small eyes and an acne-ridden face, whose body stature resembles Yunho's, but is far from athletic. Yeosang knows that no one else wants to partner up with him in fear of looking foolish, but he doesn't think that's fair. He can see how hard Mingi tries. Some people just aren't meant to be athletes, and Mingi is one of those people. The teacher grades based on effort anyway, so people worrying about not getting a good grade because of being partnered with Mingi just makes no sense to Yeosang.

They're playing badminton indoors, which is something that both Yeosang and Mingi are actually decent at. Yeosang has the aim, Mingi has the height. They make a good duo.

At the end of class, when all the students are in the locker rooms to change, Mingi pulls Yeosang aside and says in a hushed voice, "Thank you, Yeosang-ssi."

Yeosang raises an eyebrow. "We're the same age. No need for the honorifics, or titles, even. Yeosang is fine."

"O-oh." Mingi seems to recoil into himself, his shoulders shrinking ever-so-slightly. "Sorry, um, Yeosang."

Honestly, Yeosang doesn't care about honorifics at all. He only lets Jongho call him 'hyung' because the younger insists that it's important. He's gotten so used to it at this point, but anyone else calling him 'hyung' or any other title that implies he holds some sort of authority just makes him feel uncomfortable.

"It's fine," Yeosang says.

"Okay." Mingi offers a tight-lipped smile. Yeosang rarely ever sees him smile with teeth, but when he does, he can see that his two front teeth are disproportionate and his gums pop out. It doesn't matter to Yeosang at all; it's just a mere observation. "But really, thank you. I know I'm not the most skilled student, so you being willing to be my partner really means a lot."

Yeosang nods. "I understand. And it's no problem, really."

He doesn't truly understand, but he tries to. No one goes out of his way to be his partner, but it's not like he cares all that much. He prefers to do most things by himself anyway. But he can tell how much it means to Mingi, to have someone who's there when no one wants to be. He can see the dejection Mingi feels whenever they don't get to pick partners and how the other students sneer at him when he's not looking. He avoids telling Mingi about what he sees. Mingi doesn't have to know. After all, what he doesn't know can't hurt him.

Yeosang saves water at home by showering at school sometimes. It's just a weird thing he likes. He'll shower at the end of P.E., hang out at the school library to do homework, and return home to spend the rest of the night finishing homework or listening to music. He tries not to shower at school often, just so that it doesn't become a routine.

But honestly, it's like everything has become a routine at this point.

Today is different. As he's showering, he hears a noise, something similar to a sniffle. Two showers over, the water turns on, which Yeosang thinks is strange. Whenever he showers at school, he's usually alone unless the sports team comes in, in which case he'll stand in the shower until everyone leaves. But he knows the sports teams don't have practice on Mondays, so whoever is showering two stalls over is definitely intruding on his downtime.

There's another sniffle. The person either has allergies, or is crying.

Yeosang considers speaking up to ask if everything is okay, but this person is probably a complete stranger, and Yeosang doesn't want to intrude on any stranger's personal problems. He's not in any place to help a stranger, especially if he knows nothing about them.

He hears the stranger choke on a sob, and that's when Yeosang realizes he's crying. He can tell the stranger is trying really hard to stay quiet. Perhaps he thinks that the sound of two showerheads running blocks out the sound of his cries, but he's very very wrong in that aspect. He sniffles more and more, his voice occasionally cracking through his silent sobs.

Yeosang waits until the stranger is done, which can't be more than five minutes. When the shower next to him ends, there's one more sniffle before the stranger exits the stall. He disappears further into the locker room, presumably to change, and Yeosang waits until he hears the locker room door close to end his own shower and emerge from the stall. He wraps a towel around his waist and does a quick scan throughout the room. Surely enough, there's no one left.

Out of pure curiosity, he opens the curtain to the stall the stranger had been in. There's no sign that the stranger had been in there besides the water droplets on the showerhead and water puddling at the tiles underneath his feet, but upon closer inspection, he can see a red tint to the water pooling near the drain.

He bends down to get a closer look. His first thought is that they should really unclog the drain, as the water is depleting at a painfully slow rate, and his second thought is that the reddish tint to the water is probably blood.

He's certain that Jongho's first thought would be that the stranger had been crying, as that fact is undeniable, and had wiped his nose to the point of it bleeding. His second thought would be that maybe he'd suffered an injury and was crying because of how much it hurt. But Yeosang knows how naïve Jongho's thought process is, and he knows that the most likely possibility is something that Jongho probably wouldn't even be able to fathom.

He sighs. Jongho's positivity has definitely rubbed off on him, but only in the sense that he can think of other possibilities to the worst situations. He knows very well that the stranger did not have a nose bleed. He knows very well that the stranger had an injury, but he wasn't crying because of how much it hurt.

No. Something else was hurting, and it certainly wasn't his injury.

-

When Yeosang returns home, he sees a text from Yunho.

when do you want to get started on the project?

Sighing, he drags his feet up the stairs to his bedroom, where he tosses his phone on the bed and collapses into his desk chair. Starting the project is not important to him at the moment. There are a lot more important things on his mind, like what happened to San and Wooyoung, how Jongho is doing, et cetera. Not completing a project with an air-headed partner that Yeosang could probably finish within one night by himself.

His phone goes off once more. He's ready to throw his phone back down if it's Yunho again, but he stands up immediately as he sees it's from San.

are u home?

Yeosang types at lightning speed.

yeah, what happened to you today?

meet me at the bridge

Yeosang swallows a dry lump in his throat, shoving his phone in the pocket of his school trousers. He's never moved so quickly in his life, not really caring if his parents scold him for going out without their permission. They're not home yet anyway. If he's back home within the next three hours, he should get off scot-free.

The bridge is a fifteen minute walk, but Yeosang doesn't mind. It actually hovers above the ocean, and it's a spot that San loves to go to when he's sad or just wants to think about things. Sometimes Yeosang would tag along with him, but he can't remember the last time he's gone to the bridge. He only really ever goes with San, and since San has been dealing with his own issues, he hasn't gone to the bridge at all, not even with Jongho. He's sure Jongho would love the spot, though.

What Yeosang likes about the bridge is that it oversees such a small part of the ocean. It's not even part of the highway. It's just there, and Yeosang finds it interesting, how a bridge is so small but sits above the biggest, most unexplored place on Earth. It connects two sections of land that might as well already be one. Though it's not a highway, it is a road that plenty of people travel through, but he's never seen anybody walk the bridge on foot besides daytime joggers.

Upon arriving at one end of the bridge, he can already see San's outline standing at the middle, a large backpack hanging from his shoulders. As he approaches, San remains still, gazing out at the clouds accumulating above the water. It looks like it might rain.

Even when Yeosang arrives at San's side, the younger stays unmoving. "San?"

Yeosang can see the way his shoulders rise and sink with each deep breath, as if he's trying to hold something back. The bridge is completely void of any vehicles, which surprises Yeosang. If San needs to scream, curse, or cry, now is his time to do it, Yeosang thinks.

But he doesn't. Instead, he says, "I'm scared."

Without thinking, Yeosang asks why. It's a dumb question, really. Yeosang knows the answer to it already, but it doesn't hurt to hear it come from the source.

"Wooyoung can't hide me forever," San says. He reaches into his pocket and pulls out a box.

"San..."

Yeosang hates to watch San flick open a lighter and light the end of a cigarette. It's a nasty habit that San had developed not too long ago. Yeosang wonders if smoking was what caused his parents to kick him out of the house, but if that were the case, then Yeosang thinks it's a stupid reason.

"I know you hate it. Everyone does, except Wooyoung." San takes his first drag, exhaling the smoke into the dreary ocean air. The corner of his mouth turns upwards in a smirk. "He's the only one who understands why I do it."

"Why do you do it, then?" Yeosang asks, wanting to understand.

San sighs, flicking his cigarette, letting the ashes fall to the concrete. "It'll kill me faster."

There are so many things Yeosang could say. There are so many things Yeosang wants to say, but he has a feeling that nothing he says will ever get through to San, not when San is too lost in his own head that he can't realize that yes, smoking can shorten the lifespan by a lot, but it doesn't have to.

"It's a cliché thing to say, I know." San chuckles dryly. "But it's true. I don't have a home to go back to, no job, and I'm surprised the school hasn't kicked me out yet. Like, I'm pretty sure my parents are still paying for my schooling for some reason. They just can't stand to have me at the house anymore." He scoffs, shoving the cigarette back into his mouth and taking a long drag. Yeosang's lungs hurt just by watching it. "You're probably wondering what would happen if I went back. I'll tell you. When my father shoved me out the door, he pointed at me and said, 'And don't you come back, you worthless piece of shit, or I'll break all of your ribs and then some!'"

His jaw clenches. "And my mother... my mother just stood behind my father like a huge fucking coward. Didn't say a single word. She watched everything, just stood off to the side as her own son was shoved against the walls and threatened to have his ribs broken. What a fucking bitch."

The spiteful words drip out of his mouth like poison, so much that Yeosang can feel his own heart tremble. He's never heard San like this. To him, San had always been a source of mischievous energy, always wanting to go out and break the rules just for the thrills. It's like he had constant adrenaline pumping through his veins, but now it's as if the chemicals in the cigarettes and the harsh words in his brain are eating away at his resolve from the inside out.

And before Yeosang knows it, he's asking why his parents kicked him out. The question that he's been avoiding all this time because he shouldn't feel entitled to know the answer, but he's just so curious.

"I was wondering why you haven't asked me yet," San tells him. Yeosang only shrugs in response. "Well, I'll tell you. My dad told me that all I am is a waste of time and resources. That I probably won't end up doing anything worthwhile so I'd be better off just living the rest of my life out on the streets. We argued a lot, but the night he kicked me out was the worst. He got physical, shoved me up against the wall, slapped me across the face and told me to get my life together. I asked him, 'What the fuck is a broke high schooler supposed to do?' And he slapped me again, opened the front door and pushed me outside."

He pauses to breathe. His voice trembles with each word, getting angrier and angrier before he finally allows a tear to roll down his face as he says, "I don't know, Yeosang. I don't know why they kicked me out." He leans onto the railing of the bridge, resting his forearms against it. Yeosang glances down at the cigarette in his hand and sees that he's starting to squeeze it into his palm.

"San, stop that!" He lunges forward, surprised when San doesn't try to stop him, and forces San's hand open, causing him to drop the remains of the cigarette on the ground. There's a black stain of tar and ashes burned into his palm, his skin slowly turning a harsh red as the heat seeps into it. His fingers are the same way, black and red, bleeding lightly, and all San does is laugh. "San..." Yeosang opens up his hand carefully, assessing the damage. San doesn't even flinch.

"I'm exactly what my father said I was." His words are heavy, his voice bitter. His emotions are teetering between wanting to be angry but truly feeling sad. It shows on his face as well, red and tear-stained. He's doing a good job at masking his conflicting emotions. Yeosang can't tell what in the world he's actually feeling.

"Worthless, Yeosang. I'm worthless." San looks up at him and smiles, his mouth struggling to form one as tears continue to pour down his cheeks.

He doesn't make a sound.

"And all I'm doing is bringing Wooyoung down with me." At the mention of Wooyoung's name, the dam holding back San's emotions finally breaks, and he wails so loudly it echoes. "I'm living at his house when I can. Do you know how pathetic that is? His parents would probably kill the both of us if they knew he was hiding me in his room most days. That's why I actually try to live out on the streets, Yeosang. I hate what I'm doing to Wooyoung. But god, Yeosang, the nights are so fucking cold and all I have is what I'm wearing now, my school uniform, and a jacket that Wooyoung let me borrow."

His hands dig into the fabric of the brown leather jacket, and Yeosang is about to reach out to grab San's injured hand when he falls to his knees, letting the sobs course through his body. "Wooyoung skipped school today for me. He did my laundry, let me take a shower, and just... he stayed with me, Yeosang."

Yeosang kneels as San's body falls against the bridge's barricade, leaning up against it. "I hate it. I hate myself, I hate that I'm making him do all of this shit for me."

"It's not your fault," Yeosang affirms. "And Wooyoung is a great friend. You're not making him do anything. He's doing all of this for you because he cares about you."

San lets out another cry. Yeosang leans forward and places his hand on his shoulder, squeezing gently. "Th-the thing is, I think I know that," San says, "but I can't bring myself to believe it."

Yeosang understands.

He feels as if knowing something and not believing it is a common thing among people. He's certain that he's dealt with that feeling at some point. He's sure that a lot of people have. But he's seeing it firsthand, in front of him in the form of Choi San, homeless, worthless, and broken.

Yeosang wonders how Jongho would react. He thinks back to when Jongho had asked him about San and how he simply said San was okay. It was a lie, fabricated to prevent Jongho from knowing the reality, that no one who is kicked out of their home can truly be "okay." He wants nothing more than for Jongho to remain innocent; he doesn't want him to know about how San crushed a cigarette beneath his fingers and laughed maniacally at the pain of the burn. How he smiled even though he cried, how he sobbed so loudly that his body shook and his face turned red.

Yeosang lets out a breath he didn't know he'd been holding. He can't seem to channel his inner Jongho persona. He can't come up with a positive possibility in this situation, nor can he really think of anything else to say that wouldn't send San into further turmoil. So he stays silent and rubs San's shoulder as he continues to cry, his face now buried in his arms.

And still, not a single car has passed them by.

-

San wanted to buy another pack of cigarettes, and Yeosang wasn't about to leave him alone. Though the sun was close to setting and his parents would be home soon, he wanted to make sure that San would be okay. He'd take the punishment from them if that meant keeping San safe.

They stride down the sidewalk of a dingy part of town where the nearest convenience store is located. "San, you're not even old enough to buy cigarettes," Yeosang points out.

"The guy at the counter doesn't give a shit," San tells him. "I think he's given up on life, too."

Yeosang doesn't press further. He's never been to this convenience store, since he has no need to and his parents go grocery shopping at more... upscale places. But he'll follow San wherever he needs to go, if that means watching over him and making sure he doesn't do anything stupid.

Besides buy cigarettes illegally, at least.

An electronic bell chimes as they enter. It's a typical convenience store, reeking of ramen and candy, brightly lit with narrow aisles of all sorts of snacks and toiletries and other household needs. There doesn't seem to be anybody else, which is a bit surprising to Yeosang. He glances up at the rounded mirror in the corner. Still nobody in sight.

"Back again?" a voice chirps from behind the counter.

"Yup." San approaches the counter with Yeosang following closely behind. "Need another pack."

The guy is short, maybe a little shorter than San, with fiery red hair and multiple ear piercings. His voice is nasally and high-pitched, and Yeosang is pretty sure he's wearing a little bit of makeup. Not that there's any problem with that.

He just looks... small.

"You were here, what, yesterday? Two days ago?" the boy says with a smirk, already retrieving a pack of cigarettes like he already knows what kind San wants.

He must come here more often than Yeosang thought.

San shrugs. "I've been stressed."

That's an understatement, Yeosang thinks.

The redheaded boy hums in understanding and slides the pack of cigarettes to him as San takes out his wallet. "Employee discount. Half off," he says.

"You sure?"

"Mhm." With a defeated sigh, San pays for the cigarettes at half price. "You look like you need them, if I'm being honest."

Yeosang wonders in what universe would that sentence ever be true.

"Thanks, Hongjoong." San laughs, grabbing the pack with his good hand and shoving it in his back pocket. "I owe you."

Redhead, now named Hongjoong, grins in a way that Yeosang can only describe as suggestive. "So how have you been, Joongie?"

As the two make conversation, Yeosang wanders off to where the first aid materials are, thinking that he should probably treat San's hand since he knows San won't. He skims the shelves before picking out two types of gauze, medical tape, and antibacterial ointment. He feels grateful that his parents supply him with enough money in case of emergencies or if he really needs something. The items feel heavy in his hands as he carries them back to the counter, knowing that San can't say the same.

San eyes him as soon as he reaches the counter. Hongjoong, on the other hand, rings out his items without hesitation, like he's running on some sort of motor, but then he says, "Treating your friend's injury, huh? You're nice." He must've noticed.

San scoffs and glares at Yeosang, who shrugs. "I didn't ask him to."

"And yet he's doing this for you," Hongjoong counters, pushing the necessary buttons on the register before pulling up the total. Yeosang hands him the money. "He's got a good heart. Or is just a decent person."

Yeosang likes to think it's both, although he's not sure how "good" his heart really is, or what that could really mean. But he does think he's a decent person. He knows it, and he believes it.

He wishes it were the same for San.

Still, San's expression softens at Hongjoong's remark. "Yeah."

His agreement makes Yeosang smile.

"You should keep people like that in your life, Sannie," Hongjoong says, handing the bag of items to Yeosang. "It's good to know that people care about you."

San glances down at his hands, both of them, the good and the injured. "Yeah," he says again, his voice quieter.

Yeosang knows what he's thinking. San knows Yeosang cares about him; he just doesn't believe it. Yeosang just wishes he knew how to make him believe it.

Hongjoong's eyes meet his, and that's when he notices that his eyes are green. Contacts, Yeosang realizes. This guy is wearing makeup and green contacts and several pieces of jewelry, yet is standing behind the counter of a convenience store.

Just who is this guy? According to San, he'd "given up on life," yet he looks like he could be an idol. Yeosang wonders if this Hongjoong person has some sort of secret life beside being a cashier at a convenience store in a sketchy neighborhood, and honestly, he's almost a hundred percent certain that he does.

On the way out, Hongjoong calls out, "Keep in touch Sannie dear!" San just laughs and shakes his head. Yeosang finds it peculiar, but ignores it.

They stop at a public restroom where Yeosang makes San wash his hands, much to his dismay. Yeosang is gentle with his touches, dabbing the ointment onto the burns with the gauze pads before rolling out the gauze wrap around his hand, sealing it with the tape. It ends up looking like a finger-less glove.

"Try not to move it too much," Yeosang instructs.

"Yes, Mother," San says sarcastically.

Normally, Yeosang would laugh. Normally, San would too. But it's not normal anymore, now that San barely views his mother as an actual mother.

"So how do you know Hongjoong?" Yeosang asks, and he realizes how stupid of a question it is as soon as he says it out loud.

"He's there pretty much every day," San answers anyway. "The first time I tried to buy cigarettes, he looked at my ID, looked back up at me, smiled, and gave them to me. I was honestly surprised, but I've come to learn that Hongjoong likes to help out the unfortunate by giving them what they want."

"What do you mean?"

"I think he could tell how miserable I was. He must share the same misery if he was willing to risk his job for me by selling me cigarettes. And I'm sure I'm not the only one he does it for."

He must really have nothing to lose, Yeosang thinks.

At one point during their walk back to wherever, San pulls out his phone and texts someone, presumably Wooyoung as he says, "Mind walking me back to Wooyoung's?" Of course Yeosang agrees, since he was never planning on leaving San alone in the first place. Now that his hand is protected and he has a place to stay for the night, Yeosang feels a lot more relieved. He hopes that Wooyoung will continue to take good care of him.

San leads the way, since Yeosang has no clue where Wooyoung lives. It's actually quite close, in a semi-familiar neighborhood close to Yeosang's place. The sun is nearly set by the time they arrive, the sky painted a dark gray-blue with the sun barely above the horizon. They stop in front of the driveway where San turns around and attempts to give Yeosang a reassuring smile.

"Will you be okay for the night?" Yeosang asks.

San nods firmly. "I'll see you at school tomorrow, yeah?"

Yeosang nods back. "I gotta get back. My parents are probably gonna—"

'Kill me' is what he's about to say but he stops himself, earning a sympathetic look from San. "Go home, then," he says, smiling warmly, and Yeosang wonders how much strength it took for him to do so.

With one final bow of the head, Yeosang heads in the direction of his house. He leaves the first aid supplies with San, telling him one more time to take good care of his hand. San just nods.

He's several steps in when he mentally slaps himself, turning around quickly, only to see that San is no longer standing where he left him.

Yeosang is tired. All he wants is to go to sleep and forget everything he saw today. He turns back around and strides home in silence, ignoring the itching feeling in his gut telling him that San isn't actually planning on staying at Wooyoung's.

After all, the lights hadn't been on.

-

When Yeosang is walking up his driveway, he pulls his phone out of his pockets to see a bombardment of text messages from his parents and Yunho. Bracing himself, he opens the front door to his house to see his parents at the dinner table, his father's nose buried in a newspaper and his mother's phone clutched in her palm.

"Yeosang! Where in the world have you been?" She stands up immediately, the chair screeching as she does. His father follows suit, setting the newspaper down on the table.

"I'm sorry," Yeosang says. "I'll take whatever punishment you give me."

His parents exchange a worried glance. "You didn't answer the question, son," his father says, his voice surprisingly calm. "Where were you? We were worried sick."

Yeosang can't bring himself to look at his parents. Suddenly he finds himself picturing his father as San's, an absolute lunatic, about to shove his own son out the front door. He can feel his shoulders shrink as he feels tears pricking at the sides of his eyes.

Please don't hit me, he thinks.

"My friend needed me," is what he says.

"You didn't respond to any of my texts! Was it Jongho? What were you two even doing that was so important you couldn't respond to my texts?" his mother exclaims.

At this point, Yeosang can't even tell if she's angry. The tears are threatening to spill over. It's as if her voice is louder than it actually is, and Yeosang doesn't want to think about what would happen if he cried in front of his parents, his father especially.

He doesn't want to think it'll be the same way, but San is a good person. Aside from the smoking, he has good intentions and an intelligent mind. Despite being a respectable human being, his parents still had the lack of a heart to kick him out for absolutely no good reason.

"I'm sorry," Yeosang says again. He tells himself over and over, don't cry no matter what, and he apologizes once more before bolting up the stairs. He expects his parents to yell after him, but he hears nothing of the sort as he hurries into the bathroom and slams the door shut behind him.

He wastes no time in stripping himself of his clothes, tossing them in a corner somewhere, and stepping into a cold shower. He scrubs at his skin until it stings red. The water stays clear underneath his feet, but he can hear the stranger crying, clear as day.

It just sounds a lot like himself.

He stays in the shower until his fingers are pruney and eyes swollen. When he exits the bathroom with a towel around his waist, he's surprised that his parents are nowhere to be seen. He can hear the TV playing downstairs. Sighing, he crosses the hallway into his bedroom, where he throws on a random pair of pajamas and finally collapses onto his bed. It sinks under his weight, cold but so soft, and he curls in on himself, holding his phone tightly in his hand. He finally checks the texts from Yunho.

hey, you around?

i have a couple ideas for the project, but i wanna get your opinion

where do you wanna do this project? we could meet in the library or something

hello?

Yeosang scoffs, typing a single response to multiple questions.

sorry, was busy. talk tomorrow.

With that, he plugs his phone in and tosses it on the ground. He doesn't know if all of his homework is completed, but it doesn't matter too much to him right now. All he can wonder is why, out of all the days he's been in high school, did this one have to be different? A day where he witnessed the remains of a stranger injuring himself in the locker room shower and a good friend fall to his knees in front of him out of sheer brokenness.

The thing is, Yeosang knew these things existed. He was just never prepared for it. He never thought it would happen to him or anyone around him, but maybe life is just cruel like that.

He knew it. Maybe he just refused to believe it.

-

Yeosang expects life to return to its routine when he wakes up. He's glad that Jongho isn't there to wake him up before the sunrise and drag him to the park to watch it. He prepares for the day ahead of him like it's any other, hoping that he sees San and Wooyoung this time around.

His parents aren't awake, but his school uniform is ironed and ready, hung over the railing of the stairs. He can't help but feel a sharp pang of guilt.

Living near the school has its perks. He could take the bus if he wanted to, but there are more stops after him that take longer to get to, and there's no point in sitting twenty minutes in a bus when he can walk ten to get to school. Plus, since Jongho lives about a block down from him, they often walk to school together.

Today isn't any different in that aspect.

"Good morning, hyung!" Jongho calls out from the end of his driveway. Yeosang doesn't stop walking, but he greets Jongho silently with a nod. "Everything okay?"

No, not really. "Yeah, just had a long night," Yeosang replies lowly.

Partnered with Jongho's naivety is his inability to pick up on social cues. "Oh, lots of homework?"

Yeosang chuckles internally. "Yeah. I got partnered with Jeong Yunho for a project, actually."

"Oh my god, really?" Jongho shouts, adding a hop to his step. "You're so lucky, hyung! Yunho-hyung is so cool!"

"He's not really that smart, though," Yeosang says. "He might be a good athlete, but he's definitely not the brightest."

"Oh." It's as if Jongho didn't know that. Which... how does anyone not know that?

Yeosang pushes his thoughts aside as the two continue to walk down the sidewalk together. The morning is particularly cold as winter is fast approaching, so Yeosang has his hands shoved deep in his coat pockets for warmth. He wonders how cold it had been last night, since he was so quick to fall asleep, wrapped up in the safety and warmth of his blankets. With how cold this morning is, he imagines it had been near freezing while he was sleeping.

"How is San-hyung doing?" Jongho asks out of nowhere.

Yeosang shivers involuntarily, and it's not just because of the cold. Lie, he tells himself. Let Jongho keep his innocence. Tell him San is okay. Tell him San doesn't smoke, he didn't crush a cigarette with his bare hand, and he definitely didn't sleep out on the street last night in the freezing cold.

"Better." The word makes his tongue sting and his throat close. He can't keep track of how many lies he's told Jongho, and each one gets more and more difficult to tell. He keeps telling himself that he wants Jongho to remain the way he is, innocent, but deep down he knows that it can't always be that way. Perhaps it's his internal nihilistic dialogue that's telling him this. Perhaps he just wants different for Jongho. Different and better.

After all, what he doesn't know can't hurt him.

"He's still struggling, but he's opening up more." Another lie. "He can't sleep a lot of the time because he has insomnia, so that's why he looks tired. I mean, I feel like none of us get that much sleep to begin with."

Lies lies lies.

Jongho nods in understanding. "Well, if you see him today, tell him I say hi and that I hope he feels better."

"Okay."

Yeosang already knows what he's going to do, and it's not that.

-

All of Yeosang's classes make him want to blow his brains out except for one. He's always been a nerd for history. He loves reading about ancient civilizations and the common human ancestors and all of the battles and wars that led them up to this moment. He likes to ponder the existence of humanity and the Earth itself and how, somewhere along the way, humans managed to fuck it all up for themselves and the planet they walk upon.

Huh. Maybe that's why he feels like such a downer sometimes.

The point is, he enjoys history. However, there's one thing he doesn't like about his history class, and that thing is a student called Park Seonghwa.

Yeosang doesn't know much about him except for the fact that he's filthy rich and extremely pretentious and annoying. It's like he always has something to say, whether that thing has to do with the class or not, and for some goddamn reason, everybody loves him. For his money? His looks? Both? Yeosang doesn't know, but it's probably both.

He's never had a full conversation with Seonghwa, nor does he have any desire to. He hopes that he won't have to be partnered with him like he had been with Yunho, but then again, life has kind of been biting him in the ass lately. At this point, he wouldn't be surprised.

However, today is different, and in a much different way.

When Yeosang enters the classroom, Seonghwa isn't sat on his desk with his back to the front while talking to other students. No, today he's sat facing forward with his textbook placed neatly on his desk, opened up to a page that Yeosang recognizes as last week's lesson. His head is down, made to look like he's reading, but anybody could see that he's sleeping.

He must have had a long night, Yeosang thinks.

Still, it's strange. Yeosang has never seen Seonghwa in such an unprofessional fashion for the whole month he's been in the class with him. He's always chatting and laughing with the other students, being all high and mighty, but class hasn't even started yet. There are plenty of opportunities for Seonghwa to turn it around and revert to being his pompous self, making unnecessary comments and telling overly exaggerated stories and whatnot.

But halfway into the class, Seonghwa hasn't said a word, and for some reason, Yeosang starts to worry. There have been plenty of opportunities for discussion, but Seonghwa hasn't said anything, hasn't even raised his hand. The only time he does is during a silent self-study, to ask if he can use the bathroom. He's quick to get up from his seat, Yeosang notices. He watches as Seonghwa rushes out of the room, and notices that nobody else has looked up from their textbooks.

Reluctantly, he returns his focus to the chapter, even though he's read through the entire thing already, in under ten minutes.

Seonghwa returns to the classroom about ten minutes later. Yeosang knows this because he reads the chapter again.

He quickly glances up from his textbook, his head fixed in its place, and sees that Park Seonghwa's face is riddled with signs that he'd been crying. He keeps his head down as he slides back into his seat and reopens his textbook, probably, no, definitely hoping no one had seen him.

Yeosang doesn't know if anybody else saw him, but he can draw three conclusions.

1. Seonghwa hadn't wanted anybody to see him.

2. Yeosang had seen him.

3. Seonghwa didn't get what he wanted.

-

Luckily, Yeosang does see San in the cafeteria during lunch, but he looks like he's crawled up from the depths of Hell and then some.

Though his uniform is neat and polished, his face says it all. Heavy bags encase his eyes and even from a few feet away, Yeosang can tell his lips are chapped and irritated. He approaches San carefully, who, for some reason, is not accompanied by Wooyoung.

He also notices that the bandages around his hand are gone, but he decides not to question it.

"Hey."

San glances up from his lunch. "Hey."

"How are you doing?" Yeosang sits on the bench next to him.

"Fine."

"No, you're not."

"Then why'd you ask?"

Yeosang bites his lip. "I'm sorry. Um... where's Wooyoung?"

"Bathroom," San answers. He's eating quickly, Yeosang notices. He's glad that San at least has the school food to eat, as he's not certain San can get food anywhere else outside of school.

Yeosang nods. Up close, San looks even worse. The color has begun to drain from his face, leaving him with a grayish face that only accentuates the bags under his eyes and the fine lines beginning to appear beside his nose. It's so noticeable, Yeosang thinks. People have to have noticed.

They just don't care. San is the guy who comes to school smelling like smoke. They don't care.

"You... didn't stay at Wooyoung's place last night, did you?"

San smirks. "You've always been sharp, Yeosangie."

"It wasn't that hard to figure out. You... kinda look like shit."

"I'm aware," San replies, but it's not hostile in any way. If anything, it's as if he says it in complete agreement. "Just... don't tell Wooyoung, okay?"

Yeosang raises an eyebrow. "What do you mean?"

"I... told him I was staying at another friend's house. You, actually," San explains. "So if he asks you about it, just say that I stayed with you, okay? Can you do that for me?"

No. I don't want to tell any more lies. "Okay."

San smiles gratefully, his eyes shining despite the purple bags underneath them. "Thank you."

"I actually try to live out on the streets, Yeosang. I hate what I'm doing to Wooyoung."

"Where did you end up staying?" Yeosang asks.

"The park," San says. He doesn't elaborate on which park, but Yeosang only knows of one within the area.

The thought of him sleeping on a park bench makes Yeosang's back hurt. He wonders if San had watched the sunrise. "Did you sleep at all?"

"As good as one can sleep on a bench," San snorts, shoving another bite of food into his mouth.

Yeosang shuts up at that.

A few good minutes pass, and Wooyoung still hasn't returned to the table. By now, San has finished his lunch. There's a second tray next to him, presumably for Wooyoung, but it's untouched. Lunch period is over in fifteen minutes.

"What's taking Wooyoung so long?" Yeosang asks.

San shrugs. "Might be reapplying his makeup or something."

"What?"

"He hasn't been getting much sleep lately either, but he cares way more about it than I do, so he wears makeup to hide it," San says. "It's probably all because of me, anyway. So I just let him take his time."

Yeosang nods, glancing back down at his now food-less tray. "I can get yours for you," he says, motioning at San's tray. San nods, and Yeosang takes both of them to the drop-off station. When he turns back around, he sees San with his head down on the table.

Before he knows it, he's making a beeline for the bathroom. He does kind of have to go.

The bathroom has several stalls, which are usually unoccupied during lunch for some reason (Yeosang thinks it's because most students use the bathroom during class as an excuse to get out, which makes perfect sense to him). As soon as he steps in, however, the bathroom reeks of a sour scent that Yeosang hasn't had to smell in years.

It's vomit.

Yeosang doesn't mind the smell, but he certainly doesn't like it. The only stall that's occupied is the one at the farthest from the door, so Yeosang settles for the stall nearest. Now, he doesn't have to go number two, but his curiosity is getting the best of him yet again, as his mind wanders back to the previous day.

Another stranger, another stall.

Luckily for Yeosang, he doesn't hear any retching or gagging of any sort. A few seconds after he sits down, the stall opens, and the stranger carries on with washing his hands. He zips by Yeosang's stall, not giving Yeosang any time to identify him through the cracks. The smell of vomit has begun to dissipate, thank god, and Yeosang stands up from the toilet and relieves himself according to his original plan.

When he returns to the cafeteria, Wooyoung has reappeared at San's side in front of his untouched tray of food. "Oh, hey Wooyoung." Yeosang greets him with a smile, which the younger returns.

"Hi Yeosang! Haven't talked you in a while." Wooyoung smiles brightly, his eyes crinkling at the ends. Yeosang sits back down on San's other side.

"Yeah, it has been a while."

"How have you been? Anything new?"

Yeosang quickly glances at San, who's gaze is fixed on the table as he and Wooyoung talk over him. "Got partnered with Jeong Yunho for a project in biology."

That makes San snicker. He finally looks up, giving Yeosang a toothy grin. "Bad luck yesterday, eh?"

Yeosang nods. "A lot of... weird things have happened recently."

"Like what?" Wooyoung questions.

Yeosang hesitates, contemplating on whether he should tell them that he'd heard a stranger who was probably cutting himself and, more recently, saw that Park Seonghwa had been crying in the bathroom during class. Deciding that San and Wooyoung don't care enough to really do anything with that information, he tells them, but he excludes the part about the stranger cutting himself.

They don't need to know that, especially not San.

"Damn," San says in response. "The Park Seonghwa, crying in the bathroom? Something really bad must've happened."

"I was thinking that," Wooyoung agrees. "Maybe it was Seonghwa who was crying yesterday, too."

Yeosang hadn't thought of that. If that's the case...

"Do you know why Seonghwa might've been crying?" Yeosang asks, not really expecting an answer.

San shrugs, but Wooyoung leans in and whispers, "I don't really know anything for sure, but I've heard rumors about him getting into drugs."

"Really? Like what?" San perks up.

"I don't know. Weed, probably, maybe even worse," Wooyoung answers vaguely. "That's just what I've heard, though. It's probably not true. I mean, if he was smoking weed and people knew about it, he'd be outcasted in a second."

San's posture goes rigid. "Shit, I'm—"

"It's fine." San cuts him off. He glances up at the clock. "We don't have that much time left for lunch. You should eat."

Wooyoung glances down at the tray in front of him, biting his lip. "I'm... not that hungry."

"Wooyoung, you need to eat—"

"I'm not hungry."

Wooyoung's sudden harsh tone takes Yeosang aback. He's never heard Wooyoung like this. Granted, he never really talks to Wooyoung, but when he does, he's usually chirpy with a high-pitched voice going on about how good of friends he and San are and whatnot.

"Suit yourself," San says, sounding defeated. He stands up and takes Wooyoung's tray with him. Wooyoung watches as San makes his way to the drop-off station, guilt in his eyes. Yeosang notices that he's still biting his lip, perhaps a nervous habit of his, and he can see the makeup now that he's closer to him. He's done a good job, honestly. From far away, nobody could tell the features he's hiding. Technically, Yeosang can't really tell either since the makeup is near perfect, but he can imagine.

When San returns to the table, he taps Wooyoung's shoulder and he stands up, almost on cue. "We're gonna go walk around. See you, Yeosang."

Yeosang smiles and nods as if sending the two off on their merry way, but it feels as if his heart has dropped into his stomach at the realization that he hadn't seen Wooyoung on his way to the bathroom.

Jongho would probably think that the smell of vomit was from someone who had been there before. If not, then Jongho would probably think the person in the stall hadn't been feeling well. Jongho would probably think that, if Wooyoung was the one who threw up, he wasn't hungry because he'd just thrown up. And, if that were the case, then Wooyoung had thrown up because he wasn't feeling well.

Yeosang can understand all of those possibilities. In this case, all of them are plausible. He hopes, for San's sake, that at least one of them is the truth.

-

As soon as biology class begins, all of the pairs are quick to huddle together to plan out more of the project. Though Yeosang hasn't mapped anything out physically, he already has an amazing outline and experiment planned out in his mind. He wonders if Yunho has anything remotely close to an outline planned out.

"Hey," Yunho says as he sits down at the stool next to him. "I was starting to worry when you weren't replying to my texts. Thought you might've gotten into some trouble, or worse, didn't want to be partners with me anymore." He laughs nervously.

Yeosang tries to avoid rolling his eyes or making a snarky remark. Instead, he just says, "I was just busy with other things. Long day and all."

"I get that." Yunho reaches into his backpack and pulls out his notebook and textbook, both of which are in less-than-ideal condition. "So I was thinking..."

To Yeosang's surprise, Yunho actually has an outline drawn out in his notebook. When Yeosang looks it over, it's actually decent, and, combined with his, could make for an outstanding project. "I'm sorry if it's not that good—"

"No, no, we can actually work with it," Yeosang says quickly. "I didn't write mine out, but I have it all in my head and I can just add on to yours. Sound good?"

Yunho's face seems to brighten at that, his mouth extending into a smile and his eyes glittering with what Yeosang would call pride. He nods enthusiastically, maybe a little too much for Yeosang's taste. But it's nice to see joy instead of disappointment, which is something that Yeosang thinks Yunho must feel a lot.

At least, in the academic department.

In the amount of time they're given, they manage to finish the outline and plan out the experiment. Much of it is done on Yeosang's part and Yunho just nodding along, but Yeosang can tell that Yunho is really trying, and that, despite maybe not understanding all of the words coming out of Yeosang's mouth, Yunho is feeling somewhat accomplished. He actively listens to Yeosang's ideas, asks questions, and writes everything down in his notebook.

Yeosang can't help but feel a little happy for him.

The teacher gives them the entire period to work with their partners, mostly on planning. The experiments start tomorrow, she tells them. Yeosang and Yunho finish the outline and experiment plan with ten minutes to spare.

"So after we do the experiment, we have to do a paper and some kind of presentation on it, right?" Yunho asks.

"Right."

"Okay. I know we're not there yet, but if we need to work on it together sometime, we can do it at the library. I have practice after school on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, so I'll be free the other days."

Yeosang nods. "Okay."

The rest of class is spent in awkward silence, with Yunho reading over the outline and Yeosang getting a head start on the reading from the textbook. When the bell sounds, everyone is quick to gather their things and stampede out of the classroom.

"Thank you a lot, Yeosang-ah," Yunho says gratefully, his eyes shining once more.

"Just Yeosang is fine."

Yunho gives him a confused head tilt. "Okay... Yeosang. Thank you, really. I'll see you tomorrow, yeah?"

Yeosang nods as Yunho exits the classroom along with the rest of the students. He's about to head out too, when he feels a hand on his shoulder. He spins around to see the teacher, a woman in her mid-thirties, smiling at him.

"You're doing really great, Yeosang," she tells him. "Yunho struggles a lot in this class. I could see you two really working together, and I appreciate your patience with him."

Yeosang shrugs. "I'm just doing what I have to do, I guess."

"And I'm sure he greatly appreciates what you're doing for him. I sincerely hope that you two get a good grade on this project. Knowing you, Yeosang, you will."

"Then Yunho—Yunho-hyung would get a good grade too, right?" Honorifics, right.

"That's the hope," she tells him.

Yeosang doesn't understand why he wouldn't, but he nods anyway. With one more pat on the arm, she sends Yeosang off to his next class, being P.E.

At this point, Yeosang really hopes Yunho gets a good grade. He's not worried about himself at all. Still, it's strange to think that, even though the teacher saw how hard they'd been working, she still isn't confident in Yunho's ability to get a good grade on this assignment.

Yeosang sighs to himself as he enters the locker room. He wonders why people don't seem to have any faith anymore.

-

For P.E., they're assigned teams for a casual game of soccer, and Yeosang feels truly worried for Mingi. He can tell how anxious Mingi gets whenever partners or teams are assigned rather than freely chosen, and he's always worried that the kids in the class would snap at him in some way. Luckily, it hasn't happened so far, but the possibility always lingers in Yeosang's mind.

Yeosang ends up on the team opposite Mingi. He can see the disappointment in Mingi's face, along with the disappointment of the other students on Mingi's team. It makes him feel guilty, though he can't really do anything about it. All he can really do is play fairly and put in effort. That way, he'll get a good grade.

Mingi is clumsy on his feet. His long limbs do nothing to help him, unlike Yunho, as he stumbles and sometimes trips over his own two feet. Any attempt to kick the ball results in it traveling in a stray direction, allowing Yeosang's team to get ahold of it. Though there are students in the class who aren't well-versed in athletics, their inability doesn't even come close to Mingi's.

Even the students who aren't the best at P.E. look down on him, and Yeosang doesn't think it's fair. None of it is.

By the end of the class, everyone is sweaty. Though Yeosang knows the cross country team has a meet today, he really wants to stay after to take a shower. Perhaps he'll wait until the team is out of the locker room and then take one. Until then, he can just finish his homework in the library or something.

After P.E., when everyone is gathered in the locker room to change, Yeosang notices Mingi changing in one of the stalls rather than out in the open. He doesn't question it, since a few others do it as well. Still...

"God, why did Mingi have to be on my team today?" one boy, who Yeosang doesn't know the name of, whispers.

"Bad luck, man," another says. "Even Yeosangie here is better than him."

Yeosang turns to him. Now, he doesn't care about honorifics or titles at all, but the fact that this guy, whose name he doesn't know, has the audacity to call him that and talk shit about Mingi makes his blood boil.

"You guys are mean," Yeosang says, feigning a joking attitude.

"Hey, it's true," speaks another, and the three guys laugh with each other.

Airheads, Yeosang thinks as he rolls his eyes. His eyes fall back onto the stall with Mingi in it, and he can only hope that Mingi didn't hear the unkind words spoken about him, but the three boys hadn't even attempted to keep quiet. He's certain Mingi heard.

When Mingi emerges from the stall, he's fully dressed in casual clothes. He wipes at his nose and immediately exits the locker room, not giving Yeosang a chance to catch a glimpse of his face.

But Yeosang isn't stupid or naïve. He feels really bad, though. He's always told himself that what Mingi didn't know couldn't hurt him.

Maybe Yeosang is stupid and naïve. The thing is, Mingi probably knows, and it's probably hurting him.

-

Yeosang is starting to wonder if he really is curious, or just plain nosy.

He's made a conscious effort to wait until the cross country team has left the locker room for practice to take a shower. On one hand, he really does have to shower. On the other, he wants to see if the crying stranger from the day before comes back.

He takes his precious time, too. He stands there for a solid five minutes just to get his hair wet, which usually takes about two. He's about to reach for his shampoo when he hears the locker room door open. Footsteps. He tries to sneak a peek through the small gap in between the curtain and the stall, but the figure passes him by in a blur, and he's not so nosy that he'd actually pull back his curtain to see.

Shit, maybe he actually is quite nosy though.

He carries on with his shower at a normal pace, and sure enough, he hears the sniffles. The choked back sobs. The voice cracks. He considers bending down to see if the water is tinted pink under the stranger's feet, but he then realizes how fucked up that would be.

Curious, nosy, or sadistic? Yeosang doesn't even know anymore.

The thing is, the stranger is in there for a lot longer than he was before. Yeosang's fingers are starting to wrinkle, and though the stranger's cries have gotten quieter, he has a feeling that the stranger is waiting for him to leave this time.

Sighing quietly to himself, he turns the water off. Wrapping a towel around his waist, he exits his stall, leaving the stranger crying two ones over. He's changing when he notices that the crying has gone completely silent, and with one last glance, he can see there's definitely red in the water, this time, much more pronounced.

It makes him wince.

He swings his backpack over his shoulder. The stranger is still in the stall, still standing but still bleeding. Yeosang doesn't know if he's still crying. If he is, he's completely silent.

The thing is, Yeosang could probably peek at who it is through the crack. But the other thing is, Yeosang feels as if he's outstayed his welcome, that this isn't some show that he can sit back and watch. It's not supposed to be a way for Yeosang to quench is curiosity or butt in on drama that he has no business being a part of. This is an actual, living, breathing person. One who is obviously struggling to the point of harming himself.

Yeosang feels sick to his stomach, but he has no one else to blame but himself. Even though he knows that he can't make this his business, he also knows that the longer he stays silent, the longer the stranger will continue to suffer without knowing that someone out there has seen him, and that someone cares.

Because yes, Yeosang does care.

He imagines it being San. San, who had crushed a cigarette between his fingers, leaving scorch marks on his hand. He imagines it being Yunho, broken over getting a bad grade for a project that he deserved an A on. He imagines it being Seonghwa, for whatever reason.

He imagines it being Jongho, completely devoid of innocence, believing that slicing into one's skin is the only way to achieve relief.

He fights back tears as his stomach twists into knots thinking about Jongho in such a state of mind.

"Things are gonna be okay," he says out loud.

He hopes the stranger heard him as he finally walks out of the locker room. He doesn't know why he said what he said, honestly. He could've said something a lot more profound, something a bit more meaningful, but he reminds himself that he doesn't know this stranger or his struggles. Though he knows he could've said more, he feels as if it would be pointless, that no amount of words he said could mean anything to a stranger.

Still, something is better than nothing, he thinks.

On his walk home, Yeosang thinks about San. He wonders what San is up to, if he's eating, if he's warm and comfortable. He wonders if San is actually going to stay with Wooyoung tonight instead of actively seeking a place other than a house to sleep. He wonders if San's hand is healing okay, if he's taking good care of it like he told him to. He wonders if San wants to be alive.

He thinks about Wooyoung. He wonders how Wooyoung truly feels about San's current state. He wonders if Wooyoung even thinks about how San feels, if Wooyoung is smart enough to draw the right conclusions about San's whereabouts. He wonders if Wooyoung was the one who'd thrown up in the bathroom earlier. He wonders why Wooyoung didn't want to eat.

He thinks about Seonghwa. He wonders why Seonghwa had been crying when he normally appears to have a perfect life. He wonders what sorts of things could go wrong for someone like Seonghwa. He wonders if the stranger in the bathroom had been Seonghwa.

He thinks about Hongjoong. He wonders what Hongjoong is like when he's not working behind the counter, if he's out doing bigger and better things. He wonders if Hongjoong has ambitions, rather than having "given up on life." He wonders, if that is the case, what caused Hongjoong to do that.

He thinks about Yunho. He wonders if Yunho had a good practice. He wonders if Yunho will go home and study his ass off for biology and whatever other classes he has. He wonders if Yunho will ever get the grade that he deserves. He wonders how Yunho feels whenever a barely passing grade shows up on his tests.

He thinks about Mingi. He wonders if Mingi truly knows about the nasty words that are said about him behind his back, if he does anything about it. He wonders if Mingi will ever do anything about it. He wonders if his life at home is okay, if his parents can see the things in him that others can't.

And he thinks about Jongho. Jongho, his best friend, who he hasn't seen since the morning. He wonders if Jongho had a good day today. He wonders if Jongho is still innocent in the way he's always known him to be. He wonders if Jongho knows about the cruel things that are happening all around him.

He wonders if Jongho would still like sunrises after learning about all the things he's seen.

When Yeosang gets home, the house is empty, but he feels much emptier. He just wishes he could stop thinking.

"Things are gonna be okay."

Yeosang throws his backpack on the ground as soon as he reaches his room. He'd already finished his homework in the time he'd been waiting for the cross country team to leave the locker room. He just lies there, his phone somewhere off to the side.

He closes his eyes.

"Things are gonna be okay."

The thing is, Yeosang doesn't know it, and he certainly doesn't believe it.

Chapter Text

Things return to normal. Yeosang just wishes they could've been for more than just two days, though.

He wakes up both mornings. His clothes are ironed and splayed out over the railing. He walks to school with Jongho. He sees that Seonghwa has gone back to sitting on his desk with his back turned away from the front, gossiping with other students. He sees San and Wooyoung at lunch. He doesn't talk to either of them. He and Yunho chip away at their project in biology. The experiment goes well over the two-day period, and now all they have to worry about is the paper and presentation, both of which Yeosang is sure he can ace. It's due the next week, and he is certain he can get it done by then. On Tuesday, he partners up with Mingi for another game of badminton. On Wednesday, however, teams are chosen, and Yeosang ends up on the team opposite Mingi once again. It's a game of basketball this time, and despite his height, Mingi still fails at making a single basket. Yeosang's team wins.

He doesn't shower after school on either day. Instead, he and Jongho walk home together, though they part their separate ways. Yeosang retreats back into his bedroom where he spends the rest of the night doing homework and listening to music. He doesn't text anybody. Nobody texts him.

He eats dinner with his family both nights. They sit in silence.

Yeosang's uniform is still ironed and ready on Thursday morning.

-

When Jongho catches up with Yeosang, he's panting. "Hyung! Why didn't you stop?"

Yeosang slows his pace, not registering what Jongho had said until a few seconds after. He faces his younger friend, who's now trotting alongside him, looking slightly betrayed. "Oh. Sorry," he mumbles, face masked by a thick scarf he'd gotten for his birthday a few years back.

"You've been acting different lately," Jongho says, finally catching his breath. "Is something wrong?"

Yeosang doesn't know how to answer that question, probably because it's just so vague. Technically, yes, there are a lot of things wrong at the moment. While Yeosang doesn't want to think about those things, they're still drilled into his head. He's been managing to avoid these "wrong" things for two days. He's avoided showering after school in fear that the self-harming stranger would discover his identity, or vice versa. He's avoided interacting with San and Wooyoung in any way in fear of finding out that San could very well be still staying out on the streets. However, Yeosang thinks he might be contradicting himself.

He knows that shoving these scenarios into the depths of his mind won't make them go away. It's still reality. That stranger is probably still cutting himself, and San is probably still trying to live on the streets so Wooyoung doesn't have to take care of him.

"Nothing's wrong. Just haven't been getting much sleep."

It's a half-lie. Yeosang has been getting sufficient sleep. Things are just very, very wrong.

Maybe it's a full lie.

"You might be working too hard, hyung. Do you have a lot of homework? I thought you get it all done early," Jongho continues.

Yeosang shrugs. "I do. Just... haven't been able to think straight lately. Probably because I haven't been sleeping well."

What Yeosang likes about Jongho is that he doesn't ask questions. He doesn't probe with endless questions until he gets an answer he's satisfied with. Yeosang attributes it to his overall naivety and the whole 'not being able to pick up on social cues' thing. Yeosang could look like death and Jongho would still believe him if he said he was okay.

"Well, I hope you catch up on your much-needed rest soon, hyung," Jongho says with a gummy smile.

Yeosang's mind takes that sentence into a dark place. He stays silent for the rest of the walk, and Jongho doesn't say another word.

-

In history class, Seonghwa is still his pretentious, snobby self, but Yeosang can't erase the image of his tear-stained face from his memory. When he sees Seonghwa talking and laughing with the other students, he can't help but wonder if they saw him too. He couldn't have been the only one.

Did people just not care?

Yet here he is, acting as if he hadn't left the classroom just to cry that day. He'd been gone for ten minutes, Yeosang remembers. And now, it's like it never happened. Maybe Yeosang is thinking too hard about it. Maybe Seonghwa was just having a bad day. Maybe his pet died or something. It's normal for people to have off-days. It's normal for people to cry.

It's just not normal for Park Seonghwa to cry.

He's not saying Seonghwa isn't a person. It's quite obvious that he is. But in all of Yeosang's days, even before Seonghwa was in his class, he'd never known Seonghwa to be anything but jubilant. Always charismatic with neverending energy and sweet, sweet arrogance. People fell in love with his charm. Of course, there are people who don't like Seonghwa, but he pays no mind to them. He thrives in the love of the students and faculty who look up to him despite his presumptuous stance.

Yeosang doesn't not like Seonghwa because he doesn't really know him. He just doesn't like how Seonghwa presents himself.

Halfway into the class, Seonghwa has contributed to the class discussion twice. Everything is normal, Yeosang thinks.

During self-study, he's nearly finished with the chapter when there's still half an hour left of class. He glances at the students to either side of him. Both of them are at different pages, neither of them are close to the end. Within the next minute, Yeosang finishes the chapter, notes and all. Not knowing what else to do, he starts the next one.

Head still, his eyes slowly travel to his left where Seonghwa sits two seats down from him. His arms are crossed on his desk as he reads the chapter, poised and confident even though he's literally just reading.

And that's when he notices Seonghwa's phone out.

It's placed in the space between his arms and the edge of the desk in an attempt to shield it from the teacher's view. Though Seonghwa is reading, his phone is right there with him. It's a huge risk, considering that having a just having phone out in sight can result in a pretty harsh punishment. From what Yeosang knows, Seonghwa has a flawless reputation, at least with the school.

He wonders what's so important.

His eyes flick between his textbook and Seonghwa. Sure enough, at one point, Yeosang can see Seonghwa's phone screen light up, unaccompanied by any sort of noise or vibration. Seonghwa's eyes glance around nervously as he keeps his head still and smoothly pushes his phone into his lap with his crossed arms. Yeosang glances up at the teacher, who's face is buried in the latest edition of the school newspaper, completely oblivious to Seonghwa's movements.

Seonghwa asks to use the bathroom.

Only one person is allowed out of the classroom at a time, so Yeosang can't get up and follow him. Not that he wants to. He's really trying to control his curiosity. Actually, he's come to the conclusion that his 'curiosity' has crossed the lines into nosiness. Yes, Yeosang is curious as to why Seonghwa is behaving so out of the ordinary, but the fact that he even has thoughts of finding out why just makes him plain nosy. He's trying really hard not to be.

This time, Yeosang isn't exactly sure how long Seonghwa is gone for. He estimates that it's more than ten minutes this time, and he finds it strange how the teacher doesn't seem to notice or care. When Yeosang glances up, Seonghwa catches him, but doesn't keep eye contact for more than a second before taking a seat back at his desk. Though it wasn't even a second, it was enough time to see that, while it doesn't look like Seonghwa had been crying, he certainly didn't look happy.

Then again, when is anyone ever happy?

Seonghwa had been gone longer than Yeosang thought. Not even a few minutes after Seonghwa had returned, the class ends. Students rush out of the room while Yeosang takes his time gathering his things, mainly so he can watch what Seonghwa does.

It's as if Seonghwa is purposefully avoiding his observance, keeping his head down and eyes averted. Even when he walks past, he doesn't spare a single glance.

Yeosang wonders how people don't notice these things. The teacher, even, who's supposed to keep tabs on his students. The other students, all of whom Seonghwa seems to get along with, hadn't even lifted their heads when Seonghwa left and returned. Was Yeosang seriously the only one who noticed these things?

More importantly, is Seonghwa really suffering in silence?

Yeosang can't help but wonder.

-

At lunch, he doesn't see San or Wooyoung in either the courtyard or cafeteria, and for some reason, he doesn't panic.

Perhaps it's because they're taking another day off like they had back on Monday. Yeosang hopes it doesn't become habitual, since skipping school is definitely frowned upon and quite detrimental to one's grades and academic status. For San, it might not matter, but Yeosang assumes that it matters a lot more for Wooyoung.

He's finished with his lunch twenty minutes before the lunch period ends, and he's about to get up to dispose of his tray when a familiar face sits down across from him.

"Hey."

It's Mingi, of all people.

"Hey," Yeosang responds.

"I'm sorry, if you were, uh, about to get up and leave," Mingi says awkwardly.

"It's fine."

Mingi doesn't have a tray in front of him, meaning either he's not eating or he's done eating. "Did you eat yet?" Yeosang asks.

Mingi nods. "I'm sorry if I'm bothering you."

"It's fine."

It's strange, Yeosang thinks, how physically big but inwardly small he is. He ought to be afraid of Mingi because of his size, but to him, Mingi is nothing short of a coward. He doesn't mean it in an offensive sense. It's just how he thinks. It doesn't mean Mingi is a bad person or anything like that.

He's just... timid. Yeosang doesn't think there's anything wrong with that.

"I didn't know we had the same lunch period," Mingi says.

"Neither did I."

And Yeosang doesn't mean for his responses to be short and seemingly cold. Mingi just isn't making good conversation.

"Ha, yeah, I, um... usually sit in the classroom to eat."

Okay, that puts a dent in Yeosang's heart. He feels kind of bad now.

"I usually just get my lunch and go straight to my math teacher's room," Mingi tells him. "I don't really hang around long enough to know who has this lunch period. Not that I, um... never mind."

Have any other friends to sit with?

Yeosang wishes his brain would shut up sometimes because he's afraid that one day his mouth won't cooperate with it.

He doesn't dislike Mingi. Mingi is somewhat of a gentle giant in Yeosang's eyes. Though on the taller side, he wouldn't be able to hurt a fly. There's no way Mingi could ever get into a fight with someone and win, nor could he defend himself if someone were to initiate an altercation with him. He's too small, too scared.

"I'm usually here alone," Yeosang says, which isn't a lie. "Sometimes my friend San is here with his friend Wooyoung, but they haven't been around recently."

"Oh, I know San-hyung. He's in my math class, actually. And yeah, he's been really off lately, I've noticed."

'Off' is an understatement, Yeosang thinks.

"And, well, don't tell anybody this, but I think something's wrong with Wooyoung."

That makes Yeosang's ears perk up. "What do you mean?"

Mingi glances to his sides before leaning in. "He's very, I don't know, sensitive? Fidgety? I have home ec with him, and he looks really nervous when we talk about most things."

"What things?"

"Um... food. Health. That kinda stuff. I don't know, I don't want to jump to conclusions or anything, but I think something's going on with him."

Yeosang remembers home ec. He'd taken it the previous year. They'd covered topics ranging from home life to health to public safety. There were even some times they got to cook certain recipes for fun. Yeosang quite enjoyed it.

"It's just... I don't know, like I said, I don't want to jump to any conclusions. But with how uncomfortable he gets when we talk about, like, food and stuff, it just makes me worry that he might, y'know... I don't know." Mingi scratches at his head awkwardly.

Yeosang knows what Mingi means. He doesn't need to evaluate further. He simply nods, acknowledging Mingi's concerns. He certainly doesn't want to jump to any conclusions either, but when he thinks about the whole situation in the bathroom three days ago, he finds the concerns to be valid. There was no way of knowing if that person in the bathroom stall had been Wooyoung, but to Yeosang, it's the highest possibility.

"I'm sorry. I don't mean to gossip or anything. I'm just concerned, I guess. Besides, it's not like I have anyone else to tell." Mingi adds a pitiful laugh.

Yeosang understands. For some reason it's a lot easier to make light of things that shouldn't really be made light of. It's as if certain situations lose their significance if it's discussed with a smile or a laugh attached to the end. It makes it less serious.

Except, it doesn't. It just makes it easier to talk about.

"I understand," Yeosang says.

So Mingi has classes with both San and Wooyoung. Yeosang is surprised that he didn't end up in any classes with them, but then again, all of his classes are advanced except for biology, and to Yeosang's knowledge, San and Wooyoung aren't really 'advanced.' He gets an idea, one that he really shouldn't act upon because it involves his weird curiosity versus nosiness ordeal, but like Mingi said, he has no one else to tell.

"Mingi, could I ask a favor?"

Mingi's eyes seem to light up. "What is it?"

"I'm... concerned about San and Wooyoung as well. I don't have any classes with them, and I barely talk to them anymore. If you're willing, would you... keep an eye on them? And maybe tell me if you notice anything about them?"

Yeosang is digging himself a hole and he knows it. He'll just have to wait and see how far he can dig before the ground caves beneath him.

Mingi hesitates, frowning in either disappointment or contemplation. "I mean, I guess. Isn't that kind of a breach of privacy though?"

Yeosang bites his lip. He's already brought it up, and he might as well finish it. He's already begun to dig a shallow grave. There's no turning back now.

"I just don't know how they are outside of when I actually do see them, which isn't that often anymore. And I don't think they really care about interacting with me anymore, but I'm still worried about them. If you don't feel comfortable doing it, you don't have to, really."

There's another pause as Mingi presses his lips into a thin line. Finally, he sighs and says, "Okay. I'll let you know if I notice anything else. But just out of curiosity... why don't you just talk to them yourself? You're friends with San-hyung, right?"

Honestly, Yeosang doesn't even know anymore. He likes to think he is. He likes to think of himself as someone San can rely on, but nowadays it seems like Wooyoung is the only person he's close to because Wooyoung "understands." Yeosang admittedly doesn't, and probably never will unless his parents decide to kick him out too, but he can try.

He's pretty sure all humans can really do is try.

Yeosang can try to understand San's feelings. His heart ached for him when they were on the bridge, when he saw San crush a cigarette in his hand, when he watched San fall to his knees and cry out at the mention of Wooyoung's name. He can imagine the scenario at San's house in his head, but he will never know what the blows felt like, what the slaps and the pushes felt like, how the words attacked him like knives and left emotional scars and tears prickling at the corners of his eyes. He will never know, and therefore, can't understand.

Which makes Yeosang wonder just how Wooyoung understands.

He doesn't think on it further. He's pretty sure it would drive him insane if he does.

"We're not as close as we used to be," Yeosang answers after his brain shuts up, which might have been a solid ten seconds. "I still care about him, though."

Mingi nods, and Yeosang only hopes that he understands, or at least tries to.

"Do you maybe wanna, like, go for a walk?" Mingi asks after a couple more seconds of silence.

Yeosang doesn't see why not. His lunch periods are quite lonely most of the time. He could go for a change of scenery. "Sure."

After disposing of his tray, the two step out onto the school's courtyard with extra seating and a lovely view of the sports fields. Various plant life garnish the sides of the stone pathways, creating a colorful array of life in one of its purest forms. It's a beautiful courtyard, and Yeosang feels lucky that it's a part of his school. However, because it's so lush and beautiful, there are usually plenty of students who take up the extra seating at the picnic tables, so he avoids it at all costs. He knows San and Wooyoung like to spend their time during lunch here, though. They're just nowhere to be seen.

"Did you see San or Wooyoung today?" Yeosang asks Mingi out of curiosity.

"Nope. Neither showed up to class," Mingi tells him.

Yeosang nods. He hadn't been expecting a yes.

"So... I know I've been annoying about telling you how much I appreciate you being my partner in gym class, but I just, like, really hope you know that I really appreciate it."

Yeosang laughs internally at how repetitive that sentence is, but he appreciates it too. "You just seem like a really nice person, Yeosang. You don't care, but in the good way, you know what I mean? Like you don't care about appearances or status or anything like that. I mean, that's how it seems to me, anyway," Mingi continues.

Yeosang can't help the smile that appears on his face. "Thank you, Mingi. I hope you don't mind if I call you just by your first name."

"That's okay. Even the honorifics thing. I was surprised when you told me you don't care for them."

"I just don't see a need for it, honestly. I mean, at least with me. Obviously I'll use them if I'm talking to a stranger or an elder, but I don't really care about having a title, y'know? I just want to be Yeosang. That's it."

"I get that."

They walk side-by-side along the stone pathways, occasionally passing by other students until they stop by the opening to the soccer field, where a couple students are casually tossing around various sports balls. Yeosang doesn't recognize any of them by name, but some of the faces are familiar. Then he sees Yunho, smiling as he kicks around a soccer ball.

Yeosang glances at Mingi, whose eyes are on everything else but the students playing on the fields. They keep walking, circling around the courtyard and through the halls until lunch period ends, and they don't say a word to each other.

Yeosang feels a bit cruel.

They stop in front of the classroom of Yeosang's next period five minutes before lunch ends. "Sorry if I'm boring and all," Mingi says. "I might not have a lot to talk about, but it was nice not spending lunch in my math teacher's room."

"It's okay," Yeosang replies.

"I'll, um, see you later today, then. I hope we don't have teams today."

Yeosang pretends not to notice the dejection in Mingi's voice. "Yeah, see you later."

He feels a bit cold as Mingi is sent away with a tight-lipped smile. He doesn't even watch Mingi leave; he just stands in front of the classroom door for a solid minute, trying to understand Mingi's feelings and overall mannerisms, but Yeosang knows that if he really tried to delve into Mingi's mind, he might get depressed. He wonders if Mingi ever feels depressed, and then a ridiculous thought pops into his head.

If I were him, I'd probably be depressed.

Yeosang doesn't know where the thought comes from. He winces, though he can't tell if it's internal or external or both. He has to remind himself that Mingi is a nice person, just painfully awkward and bad at anything athletic. It's just that knowing about the terrible things people say about Mingi makes Yeosang think that, if he were Mingi, he'd probably hate himself for no good reason, just like the kids in P.E. do.

It breaks Yeosang's heart. He hopes Mingi doesn't hate himself, and in order to hold onto that hope, he shoves the absurd thought far back into his mind, praying that it doesn't resurface for both his sake and Mingi's.

-

When Yunho sits next to Yeosang for biology, Yeosang is a bit taken aback. He hadn't seen it when he saw Yunho at lunch, but there's a deep purple bruise stamped on the side of his face, right next to his left eye.

Yeosang doesn't know how he missed it. It's a pretty sizable bruise, a blooming mixture of purple and blue and black. His actual eye seems to be in okay shape, but Yeosang wonders how in the world Yunho ended up with a bruise that vivid in color.

He doesn't ask. He's sure Yunho would appreciate it if he didn't.

Yunho still smiles at him as he takes his seat. He greets Yeosang with a bow of the head as the teacher begins her opening statement about the assignment and the homework, both of which Yeosang isn't concerned about. Yunho keeps his eyes glued to the front, and Yeosang tries his hardest not to stare at the bruise.

Their teacher tells the class that they can work on the project in the assigned pairs or the paper individually. "What do you wanna do?" Yeosang asks as the class divides.

"Um... I kinda wanna work on the paper, actually. I'm free after school today, so we can meet in the library and work on the project then. Sound okay?"

It's hard to look Yunho in the eye when there's a huge bruise next to it, but Yeosang knows that Yunho will notice if he doesn't look while he's talking to him. Yeosang focuses in on his irises instead, his big brown puppy-like eyes that scream "I'm the kind of guy parents love." They're really nice eyes, actually, but as much as Yeosang tries to pretend like the bruise isn't there, the mark screams much louder than the tenderness in his eyes.

Yeosang nods. "Great! Actually, if you don't mind, I'd also like for you to read over whatever I work on today in class when we meet later. I know you're a lot smarter than me so I'm sure you could help me revise it," Yunho adds with another gentle smile.

The corners of his eyes crinkle. The bruise moves with them.

"Yeah, of course," Yeosang says.

"Thank you so much, Yeosang-ah."

"Just Yeosang is fine," Yeosang mumbles, unsure if Yunho hears him. He's pretty sure he's told Yunho about his distaste for honorifics and titles, but maybe Yunho is just forgetful.

Yunho turns his attention to the notes they took during the experiment. Yeosang diverts his attention to his own, and even though he's sucked into concentrating on writing the paper, the image of the bruise on Yunho's face taunts him, sending pessimistic and borderline revolting thoughts throughout his brain in surges. Somehow, by the end of the period, he's managed to write four full pages in his notebook with Yunho's bruise at the forefront of his mind, and that's when he realizes that his academics have become secondary nature.

At the core of his brain lies everything he's seen in the people he's met, notably their emotions and pain, while the rest of his brain is composed of gray matter and the knack for academics (in the most general sense). He's not even sure if the makeshift paper he managed to pull out of the inner workings of his brain is any good, but he has a feeling it's decent and will be A+ material with some additions and revisions.

He looks over to Yunho's notebook. There's a solid page of writing, and honestly, Yeosang is proud of him.

He hopes Yunho is proud of himself, too.

Just as the teacher begins to announce the end of class, Yeosang flips his notebook closed before Yunho can see. He doesn't want Yunho to compare himself to him because Yeosang knows how dangerous that can be, and he firmly believes that no one can truly be happy if they spend the entirety of their lives comparing themselves to others.

He thinks of Mingi.

Yeosang doesn't see much of Yunho's face as he quietly packs up the rest of his things. The bell rings and students shuffle out of the classroom over the sound of the teacher shouting last minute reminders as usual.

"I'll see you later, then," Yeosang says to Yunho before he leaves.

"Yup."

There's another smile. Yeosang can't tell if it's forced or not. It's so warm and welcoming whenever Yunho smiles, and when he sees it, Yeosang can never tell if Yunho is genuinely content or if he's doing it on autopilot.

It's quite pressing, Yeosang thinks, because he could be suffering and nobody would be able to tell. He smiles even though a sign of struggle rests boldly on his face for everyone to see. He smiles even though he's barely passing his classes. He smiles far too much for his own good.

If tragedy strikes, Yeosang knows he would regret not asking about the bruise.

-

The P.E. teacher ends up being absent, meaning the class is welcome to do whatever the fuck they want because the substitute would be too overwhelmed with having to deal with sweaty teenagers. Most of the class splits up into their designated teams and partners. In Yeosang's case, that means Mingi.

They end up walking laps around the soccer field, as opposed to the majority of the class that spends their time actually on the field, running, kicking soccer balls around, doing whatever just as long as it involves physical activity. The substitute will give everyone A's anyway. Everyone knows that.

At some point, the class starts to run itself, because Yeosang notices that the substitute teacher has disappeared. He chuckles to himself before sitting down on the last row of bleachers, Mingi following suit.

"The teacher is gone," Yeosang says.

"If I were him, I would be too."

The sun is already low in the sky despite it being only late afternoon. A chilly breeze nips at Yeosang's exposed skin, making him wrap his arms around himself for warmth. The rest of the class is too occupied with their own activities to notice him and Mingi sitting down, but it's not like they would care anyway. He thinks it must be a good break for Mingi, not having to do anything that would make him a victim of snide remarks and judgmental stares, but Yeosang knows very well that this is only temporary.

Mingi is already a victim. It's only a temporary relief.

But a relief nonetheless.

What Yeosang doesn't expect is for Mingi to sniffle.

And cry.

Yeosang is terrified. He's scared to look at Mingi because he doesn't know what he'll see. He doesn't know if he'll see a part of Mingi that he wishes he'd never seen, or if he'll see Mingi for who he truly is, vulnerability upon cowardice, but Yeosang has to remind himself that crying doesn't make Mingi a coward. Vulnerable? Absolutely, especially with potential onlookers in the shape of their P.E. class. But crying does not make one a coward.

If there's one thing his parents taught him that he's grateful for, it's that crying is okay.

He remembers the day very clearly. Six years old at a park in his old town, he'd swung a little too high and jumped off, miscalculating his trajectory and landing on the woodchips with a hard thud. He'd scraped up his hands and knees and began to cry for his parents, who had been watching him from a little ways away. They came rushing to him, his father rubbing comforting circles into his back as his mother assessed the damage. She'd wiped the tears from his face, cradling his cheeks with the most tender touch as she kissed his forehead.

"It's okay, Yeosang," she'd said, pulling him into a tight hug as she petted his hair. "It's okay."

"You're okay, son," his father had added, continuing to rub and pat his back. "Here, why don't we get you some ice cream to cheer you up?"

It made Yeosang smile and stop crying faster, but if there's one thing Yeosang realized as he grew older, it's that neither of his parents told him to stop. Yeosang had had his fair share of emotional moments growing up, most of which were done in the privacy of his own room, but it was never out of fear that his parents would see him. Maybe it was because Yeosang had become much more aware of society standards as a whole, that men aren't supposed to cry or show emotion, but deep down he knows that it's complete and utter bullshit.

Yes, his parents can be strict, cold, and distant at times, but they aren't cruel.

Not like San's.

"Yeosang," Mingi hiccups, "no matter what, don't look like you're trying to comfort me. Just... look ahead."

Yeosang obliges. He's still terrified, though, because as Mingi continues to sniffle with the occasional broken sob, he realizes just how familiar it sounds.

The terror transforms into dread. Panic. Absolute horror. Maybe Yeosang is hearing it wrong. Maybe it's different, not similar, and it's his head betraying him, telling him that it sounds like the stranger from the showers when it's just Mingi. It's just Mingi. It has to be Mingi.

It has to be Mingi.

It's not Mingi.

It can't be Mingi.

"Mingi..."

"Just don't."

Yeosang has never heard Mingi sound so firm.

He's granting Mingi's wish by not looking at him, but he can picture it. He can picture tears just streaming down both of Mingi's cheeks, jaw clenched and lips trembling as he tries to contain the noises threatening to spill out, failing at times but trying nonetheless. He imagines Mingi is sitting up straight with his eyes set dead ahead of him, blinking quickly to get rid of the tears instead of wiping them away. He even thinks Mingi is sitting on his hands to restrict himself from wiping at his tears.

He listens to Mingi's rapid and uneven breathing. Concern bubbles up inside him; he wants to say something, anything, to let Mingi know that he doesn't have to sit in silence, but what the hell can he say? That he's heard Mingi crying before? That it was in the locker room shower? That he'd seen blood coming from that shower?

He doesn't understand, he can't, he doesn't know what to say, and it's killing him.

It must be killing Mingi, too.

"No."

The word exits Yeosang's mouth without any warning from his brain. He doesn't say anything further. He's not even sure how it sounded, but it must have been impactful because within seconds, Mingi breaks.

"You don't even know how it feels," he says, "to get a break from all this bullshit."

And Mingi is right, Yeosang doesn't know. He hasn't had to deal with it because he keeps to his average self. He keeps his composure, and while he might not be good at athletics, his aloof attitude doesn't make him an easy target. It's hard to extract a reaction from him. Mingi, on the other hand, is the complete opposite.

He's small. Too gentle. Reserved and introverted, but not in the same way as Yeosang is. Mingi shows his fear, gives the bullies the exact reaction they want, and that itself makes him an easy target for the repetitive torment, the nasty comments, most of which aren't even said in secret anymore. Though it might not be right to Mingi's face, they're not afraid to say these things when Mingi is around.

Yeosang can't help but wonder if it goes beyond P.E. If it does, then he can't even begin to imagine how Mingi really feels.

"Look at them. All blissful in their own element." The bitterness lingering in Mingi's voice is made up of days, weeks, maybe even months or years of rejection. Yeosang doesn't know for sure. It's so venomous that it makes his skin crawl. He's never heard Mingi so spiteful yet so melancholy at the same time, two dangerous emotions that make for a deadly concoction of thoughts and actions that Yeosang can't even begin to fathom, and the pessimistic section of his brain is telling him that the person in the shower is a prime example of that.

"You know what's shitty, Yeosang? I don't have an element. I'm a nobody. I'm not good at anything. Hell, you a—ah, you're pretty much my only friend at this school."

Yeosang knows what's shitty. What's shitty is that Mingi considers him a friend, but he doesn't consider Mingi one.

It's nothing against Mingi, really. He's already established that Mingi is a nice person, and if he gets to know him more, surely there's a possibility of him considering Mingi as a friend. But for the moment, the only person Yeosang considers a true friend is Jongho.

Mingi doesn't have to know that, though. He knows too much already and it's hurting him. Yeosang figures that one more thing won't matter.

Even so, the darkest part that remains lurking in Yeosang's uncertain mind is the identity of the stranger from the locker room shower, and the fact that it could probably most definitely be Mingi. It's so fucked up, everything is fucked up. Yeosang's head hasn't been this messed up in so long. He can't think straight. All the signs point to Mingi, yet every fiber of his being is blocking him from reaching that conclusion. He knows, he knows that he's trying so desperately hard not to believe it, so hard that he's trying to come up with every possible excuse and explanation, deliberately channeling his inner Jongho instead of doing it subconsciously.

Maybe it's not Mingi. Maybe it's just someone else who sounds like Mingi. You didn't even see who it was! You only heard him. You only saw his legs; how can you tell a person by his legs? Don't worry, it's not Mingi.

"Yeosang, I... I really want things to be okay. I really do."

There it is.

"And, I guess, maybe, for now, things are. Because they're doing their own thing and they can't see me fucking up at sports."

Say something.

"But everything's going to go back to normal. I'm always going to be the laughing stock of this class. Tomorrow, even if we're partners again, they're still going to see me, and they're still going to be the vicious people that they are and always have been."

Say something!

"And if we're assigned teams, it's going to be even worse."

Yeosang, open your fucking mouth! Say something!

"I don't think things are gonna be okay."

Yeosang's head practically whips in Mingi's direction. "Mingi—"

"Don't."

The picture Yeosang had painted of Mingi is displayed right in front of him, down to every last detail except for Mingi's hands. Instead of sitting on his hands, his nails are digging into the skin right above his knees and just below his thighs, so hard that his knuckles are turning white.

He thinks of San.

"Mingi, stop that!"

Without thinking, he grabs both of Mingi's wrists and pulls his hands away from his thighs, and that's when Mingi collapses into him and wails. Yeosang wants nothing more than to hug him tight and tell him that things are going to be okay, but Mingi has already heard that from him, and Mingi doesn't believe it.

Yeosang doesn't believe it either.

When Mingi cries, he does so quietly so that he doesn't draw attention to himself. Yeosang keeps an eye out on the field, making sure that none of his classmates see. Though there's an ample distance between the bleachers and the field, people could definitely see the way Mingi is curled up into Yeosang's chest. Realizing this, Mingi doesn't stay that way for long, and he sits up and quickly swipes the tears from his eyes.

"I'm sorry," Mingi says. The bitterness dissipates from his voice, and all that's left is sadness. "You weren't supposed to... you weren't supposed to see that."

Yeosang doesn't know what Mingi is referring to, but he doesn't want to know. What he does know is that he wishes to be blissfully unaware like Jongho, and maybe then he wouldn't be able to see the immense pain that's surrounding him and every person he seems to come in contact with. Maybe that's why Jongho is his friend. Maybe Jongho is his safe haven, his break from the pain and reality of life, lives that people his age shouldn't be living.

"I know," Yeosang says, and he really does.

-

Yeosang heads straight to the library after P.E. ends without a single word to Mingi. He feels bad, yes, but he can't just abandon Yunho, especially after Yunho asked for his help with the paper. Yeosang worries for Mingi's safety, hoping that Mingi goes home, eats, does his homework, does anything but stay after school, shower, and cut himself.

He's there before Yunho, unsurprisingly, but it only takes about five minutes for Yunho to arrive. Yeosang thinks he was expecting the bruise to somehow magically disappear, but he knows that that can't happen in nature. Maybe he had just been hoping instead.

Yunho greets him with another smile. It makes Yeosang sick to his stomach.

They get started immediately; Yeosang reads over Yunho's one page of a paper. As expected, it's not exactly A material, but it's not bad.

"You need to expand on the topics at hand. You crammed everything we recorded during the experiment into one page. You need to actually explain the observations and add your own input as to why you think the outcome was what it was," Yeosang advises, handing the page back to Yunho.

Yunho nods but stares down at his paper in what Yeosang observes as disappointment. It's no surprise there, honestly, but Yeosang imagines that Yunho might be used to disappointment.

It's just that Yeosang is far from disappointed in Yunho; in fact, he's impressed that Yunho is working this hard and tries to keep an enthusiastic outlook on this project, wanting to contribute and actually receive a good grade, and it makes Yeosang wonder if Yunho has always been like this. Perhaps Yeosang read him wrong. Yunho isn't stupid. He struggles like everyone else does, but in his case it's in the field of academics.

"But other than that, I think this could be a good paper. You just have to work at it," Yeosang adds quickly, attempting to mirror the comforting smile Yunho has seemed to master.

Yunho doesn't look at him. Instead, he continues to frown down at his paper, biting his bottom lip slightly and sighing as he opens his notebook to a fresh page. "Well, I guess we should get started on the project, then."

Yeosang doesn't argue, nor does he try to comment on the paper any further. They work on the project together, though Yeosang must admit that much of it is accredited to him, but he can see how hard Yunho is trying under the circumstances. His intention hadn't been to make Yunho feel bad, but he can't help but feel like he did. The bruise next to his eye is still taunting him, but Yeosang is so invested in the project that he temporarily forgets that it exists.

As the sun descends further into the sky, the harsh light shines in through the unobstructed windows. Yeosang checks the time, it's nearing five in the evening, and he realizes he'd forgotten to text his parents. His phone is riddled with messages, most of which are from his mother and Jongho, but he sees one that catches his eye and makes his blood run cold.

"Do you need to get going?" Yunho asks as Yeosang skims over the text messages on his phone.

"Y-yeah."

yeosang, i need to talk to you. it's urgent.

One hour ago.

"That's okay. I think you basically finished the project anyway. You'd probably just need one more day to finish and perfect it."

Yeosang turns and Yunho is smiling at him, warm and genuine as per usual, but Yeosang can't feel anything but guilt. "It's okay, Yeosang. You can finish it on your own. If I follow your advice and do the paper well, I can probably get a C on the whole thing."

No, Yeosang thinks, he can get an A, hell, he deserves an A, but his mind is racing and as much as he wants to tell Yunho that it's a team effort, that he doesn't have to go off on his own, he doesn't have the mental capacity to form coherent, meaningful words. He's exhausted from everything that he's seen and heard today. He wants to go to sleep, to shut his brain off for a few hours, but one of his friends needs him.

"We'll talk tomorrow, yeah?" Yeosang says, hoping he doesn't sound as panicked as he feels. "If you need anything else, you have my number."

Yunho nods wordlessly as Yeosang packs up the rest of his things, and he exits the library in stride, not even looking back.

He shoots an apologetic text to his mother, saying that he's working on a project with a classmate at the library, even though he's already left and is heading in the direction of the bridge.

san i'm so sorry, i was working on a project for a class. where are you??

Not even ten seconds later, there's a response.

outside the convenience store. don't worry too much, things are okay. i just need to talk to you.

Yeosang doesn't believe it. After everything he's seen today, he knows deep in his gut that nothing is okay with anybody.

-

The part of town where the convenience store is located is intimidating, reeking of a mix between piss and cigarette smoke and who-knows-what-else, and Yeosang is surprised that he remembers where it is despite only having been there once. Perhaps it's because there's no way he can forget the events from three days prior, when he'd seen San at his most vulnerable and met the coyly mysterious cashier Hongjoong; he'd been distressed and intrigued at the same time. Yeosang thinks it a bit inappropriate, but there had been something about Hongjoong that drew him in, and if Yeosang had a reason to visit the convenience store within the past two days, he would have.

Well, now he has a reason.

San is sitting on a bench right outside the door to the store, head tilted back and eyes closed, his expression still troubled. At the sound of Yeosang's approaching footsteps, his eyes fly open, and he sits up. "I'm sorry, San, I was—"

"It's fine, Yeosang," San interrupts. "School is still important for you. Can't say the same about me."

That feels like a knife through the chest. Yeosang hesitantly sits down next to him, thinking about his next words, but San beats him to it. "Wooyoung skipped school again today so he could take care of me. He's suspicious of me."

"What do you mean?"

"I've been telling him that I've been staying at your house, but I think he's beginning to see through that." San chuckles humorlessly. "But no matter what, Yeosang, if he asks you about it, you need to tell him that I've been staying with you, okay?"

Yeosang immediately thinks of what Mingi had told him earlier that day, how he's pretty sure that Wooyoung has secrets of his own of equal or greater concern, but he isn't sure if San has the slightest idea of what Wooyoung does when he isn't looking. Yeosang imagines that Wooyoung wouldn't do such things when San is around, which is why he does it in the confines of a bathroom stall unaccompanied by San, but he wonders if Wooyoung still does those things when he takes the days off to cater to San.

He hopes not.

Even so, he nods in reluctant agreement. He's sure that Wooyoung will somehow find out eventually, so prolonging the ruse is ultimately useless, but in turn, he sees no harm in acceding to San's request. Would it hurt Wooyoung? Yes, Yeosang thinks so. But he's doing it because San wants him to. If he's upset, he can take it up with San.

"Anyway, wanna pay a visit to our dearest Hongjoong?" San asks.

Yeosang is a bit confused. From the text message, he assumed that San had a lot more to talk about, but now he's leisurely suggesting they go make conversation with Hongjoong? It's nearly six o'clock, and his parents are probably going to flip when he gets home.

Still...

"Sure."

The electronic bell goes off as soon as the door opens. Hongjoong is already leaning against the front counter, his chin resting on the palms of his hands as if he'd been awaiting their entrance. "Sannie, I saw you sitting out there for a solid hour! You could've at least said hi while you were waiting for your friend." Hongjoong's eyes meet Yeosang's, this time a deep ocean blue, and he smiles, similar to yet different from Yunho's. Though it's a warm, welcoming smile, there's mischievousness behind the pearly white teeth, perfectly straight and stainless. "Oh, I don't think I ever caught your name, darling."

"It's Yeosang."

Hongjoong's smile widens considerably as if he knows he's making Yeosang's cheeks heat up at the pet name. Never in Yeosang's life has he ever been called "darling" by a stranger, and he feels as if, in any other situation, he'd be offended. He doesn't know Hongjoong, not at all, but it just suits him, and he finds himself not caring if Hongjoong calls him whatever he wants.

"Ah, Yeosang. Pleasure." Hongjoong reaches his hand out for Yeosang to shake. It's soft. "Do you need another pack, Sannie?"

To Yeosang's surprise, San shakes his head. "Just lonely."

"But you've got Yeosangie here, no? And what about that other fellow you've told me about, Wooyoung, was it?"

"I've already taken up enough of Wooyoung's time," San sighs.

"Oh, Sannie, you shouldn't feel that way. If Wooyoung was your friend he would sacrifice all the minutes in his life for you."

Yeosang can't help but agree.

San shrugs. "Anyway, how have you been, Joongie? How's the business been?"

Yeosang wonders how the two of them have grown to call each other by those nicknames, but he doesn't question them.

"Slow, but what else is new? Luckily I've got you and Yeosangie and Mars to keep me company."

San raises an eyebrow at the unfamiliar name. "Mars?"

"Oh, have I not told you about Mars? He's like you, he comes to visit me a lot. An absolute visual, that one. I think he's quite lonely, if I'm being honest, which is why he comes in so often. I'm actually surprised you two haven't crossed paths with how often both of you come in."

"What does he look like?" San asks.

"Hm, how do I describe him? He's a bit taller than me, got a strong jaw, black hair, slightly angled eyebrows... his hair swoops to the side in the most dreamy way, and his eyes, oh boy, his eyes. They're so intense, like they've seen some shit. He wears a hat most of the time, but one day he took it off, and I was blown away." Hongjoong fans himself, swooning over the description of this so-called 'Mars.'

Yeosang sends San a questioning glance, one that San doesn't reciprocate because he's too focused on Hongjoong's explanation, but Yeosang is pretty sure that his question is already answered.

Hongjoong is queer as fuck.

Yeosang doesn't have a problem with that. People can do whatever the hell they want, fuck whoever the hell they want, and who is Yeosang to say it's wrong? He's pretty sure something's going on between San and Wooyoung anyway, but he's never found it to be important. Even so, he's never met someone as bold as Hongjoong.

"Obviously his name isn't Mars," Hongjoong continues. "I'm sure he doesn't want people knowing he's dropping by a dingy convenience store just to see me."

"Just to see you?" San questions.

"Oh absolutely, he doesn't even buy anything half the time. One day he stopped by for a whole thirty minutes just to talk to me. I think he's quite lonely, if you ask me." Hongjoong sighs dramatically and pulls a lollipop out of his pocket, tearing off the wrapper and hastily sticking it in his mouth.

"How old is he?"

Hongjoong smirks around the lollipop in his mouth. "Oh Sannie, is someone jealous?" he teases, making San blush.

"No! I just don't want you to get involved with creepy old men, you know? You're too precious for that."

Yeosang sends San another questionable look, but now isn't the time.

"Oh sweet Sannie, that should be the least of your worries. And to answer your question, I believe he's about you and Yeosang's age. Just a little younger than me."

San finally looks over at Yeosang with an expression that matches his exactly: confused and a bit suspicious. There's an unspoken question between the two of them, that being do we know this person?

"Wait, Hongjoong, how old are you?"

"Twenty. Have I never told you that? My bad."

"Oh."

"Yeah. Don't worry Sannie, I'm legal, but you sure aren't."

San flushes even harder, and Yeosang feels his face heating up too, mostly out of embarrassment. Hongjoong licks around the cherry-red lollipop in his mouth before pulling it out with an exaggerated pop. "I think Mars going through a sexuality crisis or something. I must be his relief from everything since I'm probably the queerest person in this area. Clearly."

"How did you two even start talking?" San asks.

"He used to come in here a lot just to buy food and snacks and stuff. One time he bought a lighter. But every time he came in, I was working, and we just hit it off, I guess." Hongjoong shrugs and sticks the lollipop back in his mouth. "He's quite the mysterious one. I think that's how we get along so well."

Yeosang can totally see that.

"To be quite blunt and a bit morbid, I'm surprised I haven't been jumped. Or shot," Hongjoong says. "But if I'm not around to give people a good ti—conversation, who will be?"

Yeosang isn't sure if he wants to know what Hongjoong means by that, so he doesn't ask. "Here, Sannie, since I'm feeling nice today, you and Yeosangie can go and pick out anything you want and I'll give it to you for free. Nothing too expensive, though! Just, like, a cup ramen or something, okay?"

San grins widely, and Yeosang wonders how much San has been eating lately. He also wonders if Hongjoong knows, and that's why he's offering, but he assumes against it. They disappear farther into the store where the food items are kept and browse the shelves, San doing so more thoroughly, while Yeosang just settles on a chocolate bar.

"Hongjoong's quite the character," he comments.

San snorts but smiles. "Yeah, he is. He's very... flamboyant. I can see why he's surprised that he hasn't been attacked yet, honestly. Like yeah, he's a really nice person, but the country we live in still isn't the most liberal one out there, y'know?"

Yeosang glances around the store, his eyes eventually landing on one of the convex mirrors hung up in the corner that gives a condensed view of the rest of the store. There's nobody else but them, which Yeosang finds to be a bit peculiar, but maybe it's just a slow day.

The electronic bell rings. Yeosang watches a figured clad in all black come in through the door, a baseball cap perched on his head, a long coat that stops at his ankles, sunglasses to shield his eyes, and mask to cover the rest of him. He removes the sunglasses but keeps the mask on.

It must be Mars.

"Oh, if it isn't my favorite customer!" Yeosang hears Hongjoong squeal.

"Is there anyone else here?" Mars asks in a low voice, so low that Yeosang barely registers what he's saying.

"Just my second favorite customer and his friend. Harmless beings, both of them," Hongjoong replies cheerfully.

San and Yeosang exchange amused looks as San stands up, finally having selected a bowl, and they head over to the machine to heat it up as Hongjoong continues to talk to Mars. Yeosang, being the curious-nosy person he is, eavesdrops as they sit down.

He's accepted it at this point.

"How have you been, darling?" Hongjoong asks.

Mars sighs. "It's... complicated. I don't know."

"Aw, you know you can reach out to me whenever you need it, right?" Yeosang can hear the pout in Hongjoong's voice, but there's something else there, something that Yeosang can't put into words, but he can imagine the look on Hongjoong's face.

"I-I know," Mars replies, clearly flustered. "It's just... I miss you, you know?"

Mars says that last part in the quietest voice, so quiet that Yeosang is pretty sure San didn't hear it.

He hears Hongjoong sigh again, and the rest of their conversation is carried out in hushed tones that Yeosang sort of drowns out, focusing on San slurping down the cup ramen in front of him.

"They talk like they're in a relationship or something," Yeosang whispers.

"That'll never be the case," San whispers back. "I'm pretty sure Hongjoong is aromantic."

"What?"

"Aromantic. As in, he doesn't develop romantic feelings for people. I think he brought it up in one of our conversations. Besides, he seems like the kind of person to just fuck around with no strings attached, no offense to him or anything."

Yeosang can definitely see that.

"And like, don't bring this up to him, but..." San leans in, as does Yeosang, and he says in an even quieter voice than Mars's, "I think he's... an escort."

Yeosang's eyes widen as he sits back, his brain trying to process the new information. "An escort?" he mouths silently. San nods and motions his head in Hongjoong's direction with cautious eyes. Yeosang shuts up.

Yeosang leans in again. "Does Mars know?"

"Probably not. Look, I'm not even sure if he is one. I just think he is. There are a lot of signs that point to it, y'know? But I could be totally wrong, and I'm not about to ask him."

Just then, Yeosang hears footsteps approaching their direction. Mars takes slow steps through the aisle closest to them, head turned towards the shelves. Yeosang tries his best to keep his focus on San, greedily slurping away at his noodles, but he angles his head and keeps his eyes on the mysterious customer before...

Yeosang only sees him from the side, but he knows that side profile, because he sees it every day in history class. It's even the same view, to his left, close proximity, with Yeosang's head turned slightly but his gaze focused on none other than Park Seonghwa.

He panics and snaps his head so that it's straight ahead, completely focused on San, and he waits until Seonghwa's back is all he can see before releasing a breath he didn't know he'd been holding. Seonghwa turns the corner, seemingly oblivious.

Things start to seep into place. Though not concrete, a scenario is starting to form in Yeosang's mind, one where Hongjoong is the one Seonghwa has been texting in class, the one that made Seonghwa get up and leave the classroom, and the one who made Seonghwa cry. Yeosang doesn't know why he'd been crying or what Hongjoong could have possibly said that made Seonghwa so emotional, nor can he figure it out.

San must have been able to sense Yeosang's uneasiness as he asks, "What? What's wrong?"

Yeosang bites his lip, contemplating whether he should bring Mars's identity to the surface, but he thinks to himself, does San really have anyone else to tell?

He pulls out his phone, opens his notes, and types out Seonghwa's name.

San gawks at the screen in bewilderment, noodles ridiculously dangling from his mouth before he chomps down on them and whips his head around in the direction Seonghwa had gone, but he's disappeared to a different section of the store.

"Are you sure it's him?" San asks, still keeping his voice down. Yeosang nods confidently. "Shit."

"I'll see you later, Hongjoong."

Both San and Yeosang's heads turn at the sound of Seonghwa's voice, and now that Yeosang knows it's him, he can finally connect the voice to the face. He's surprised he didn't recognize it sooner.

"Leaving so soon?" Hongjoong coos in his usual flirtatious tone.

"Yeah, I've got some work to catch up on."

"Hm. Okay. Feel free to stop by or text me anytime, though. I'll be around if you need me, dear."

Without another word, the bell sounds again.

San quickly downs the rest of his ramen and approaches the counter in stride. "Hongjoong, was that Mars?"

The strawberry-haired man looks amused, taking the white stick of the lollipop out of his mouth, which has been reduced to a sphere that can't be more than two centimeters in diameter. "Isn't it obvious? Of course it was."

San looks at Yeosang nervously. "What? What is it? Oh my god, do you two know him?" Hongjoong asks.

Yeosang has never heard Hongjoong's tone in such an antsy way. He nods hesitantly, fearing Hongjoong's reaction for some reason, despite his seemingly harmless personality. He stares at Yeosang expectantly. "Well? What's his name? Can you tell me?"

"I... I don't think I should tell you," Yeosang says honestly.

Hongjoong's hardened expression seems to soften, though Yeosang can see the slightest amount of disappointment on his porcelain-skinned face. "It's okay. I mean, I should've known. He tries so hard to keep his face hidden, so it only makes sense that he wouldn't want his name spread around."

San looks at him sympathetically. "Sorry, Joongie. If he wants you to know, I'm sure he'll tell you. We're just in no place to say it."

"I understand."

It's probably the most genuine phrase Yeosang has ever heard from Hongjoong's mouth.

With one final thank you, San and Yeosang exit the convenience store, and the bell chimes one last time.

Yeosang knows his parents are going to scold him as soon as he gets home. The sun has almost set completely, the hour nearing seven, and the night sky is beginning to run its course. He's surprised to see that he hasn't received another text from his mother since his last reply, but he's gotten plenty of messages from Jongho, asking where he is. He figures he'll save it for later.

"Where are you going to stay tonight?" Yeosang asks. The two are slowly approaching his house, meaning that they would have to part ways soon.

San shrugs. "The park, most likely."

Yeosang glances down at his feet, smoothly strolling along the sidewalk. San has his hands buried deep in the pockets of the brown leather jacket Wooyoung lent him. Though bulky, Yeosang isn't sure how warm it actually is. He knows that all San has in his backpack are his school clothes, not a blanket, not any food. Yeosang has a fairly thick coat on and he's still cold.

He wonders how on earth San will survive the winter if he continues on like this.

"Who knows, I might go pay Hongjoong another visit. God knows I have nothing better to do."

It's heart-wrenching, seeing San like this. He wishes San would just stay with Wooyoung, because like he said, Wooyoung understands him, comforts him, skips school for him. He's a true friend to San, not like Yeosang. Yeosang finds himself questioning what he really is to San, if he's a friend or simply a means of conversation and a scapegoat to avoid what he's afraid to tell Wooyoung. Yeosang has never seen such friendship and such betrayal in one relationship, but he knows that San isn't the only one keeping secrets.

Say something.

There's a part of Yeosang that's telling him that maybe if he tells San about Wooyoung, he'll go stay with him. In that case, Wooyoung will have supervision, and San will have a roof over his head for the night. Yeosang just doesn't know the risk, doesn't know how Wooyoung's parents would react or how things would turn out. Hell, he doesn't even know if San would go stay with Wooyoung even if he divulges the information.

And Yeosang is pretty damn sure that Wooyoung would want him to keep his secret from San as well.

That's what he is. A bridge. A bridge with a huge wall in the middle, preventing San and Wooyoung from knowing the truth about each other despite them being closer with each other than with him. Maybe he doesn't know for certain about Wooyoung's situation, but he's pretty damn sure.

The worst part? He doesn't mind.

It's not that he doesn't care. He does. He absolutely does. But because he cares, he's willing to assist, he's willing to hold these secrets inside him because he isn't that close with either of them.

He isn't that close with either of them, yet it's still breaking his heart to see them like this. He wants nothing more than for them to just talk, to help each other, but Yeosang wonders how in the world two toxic people could help each other without one of them collapsing.

He doesn't want to think about it.

And on top of that, San drops a bomb on him.

"I'm gonna stop going to school. There's no point in it anymore," San admits. "It's not like my parents are going to notice or care. They'll eventually stop paying for my education and phone service, so I'll just toss it off the bridge one of these days."

"San—"

"It's okay, Yeosang."

Yeosang looks over at him, and he's smiling. His skin is a pale gray with the lack of the sun, but Yeosang imagines that it's also due to exhaustion, so tired from sleeping on benches and avoiding everything that could possibly remind him of the place he used to call home. His voice contains no hope whatsoever. It's all sadness, complete despair. The striking contrast between his words and the tone of his voice makes Yeosang's skin tic and sends his brain into overdrive.

"It's not, San, and you know it," Yeosang says.

Yes, San knows it, and with his whole heart, he believes it.

Yeosang can't help but feel like a hypocrite. Unwilling to tell Hongjoong Mars's real identity, when it shouldn't even matter, yet he's keeping secrets, dark, disturbing secrets from two best friends. Secrets that they should know, because it's important. It's so, so important.

He needs to say it. He needs to say something.

San smiles hopelessly at the sky as they continue walking. Yeosang remains silent.

"Wooyoung is better off without me dragging him down, Yeosang."

That's not true. Wooyoung needs you.

"I just wish... I just wish I had a different life, you know? Why did I have to be born into this one? Why couldn't my parents have just used a fucking condom or something so I didn't have to be brought into this life? Why did they even have me if all they were going to do was throw me out? Just why?"

Yeosang doesn't say anything because he can't. Instead, he lets San shout into the empty night, surrounded by houses that could've been his, if, like he said, he had been born into a different life. Normally, Yeosang wouldn't agree with such a grim statement, but in this case, he does.

"Nothing's going to be okay, Yeosang. I just know it. But maybe... just maybe, I'm holding onto whatever sliver of hope I can because... because of Wooyoung. I love him, okay? I love him."

Yeosang would be lying if he said he was surprised.

"Look at me weird, judge me, do whatever you want, but he's done more for me than anyone else. He's treated me with nothing but love and compassion, and no matter what fucked up things go through my head, it's like... it's like he understands me. It's like he knows my pain, even though he's not going through it. I just... I don't want him to share it with me. He doesn't deserve that. Nobody does."

He's still smiling even as tears begin to roll down his face. It's a sight that Yeosang thinks he should probably get used to.

"I love him so much, Yeosang. I know you're not the kind of person to judge. You're kind, Yeosang. You're so kind to everyone. You just listen and take everything in and... you're just... too good."

If only San knew how wrong that statement is.

He's not. He's not good. He's holding everything in, when he could be saying something. He could come clean about San, about Wooyoung, about Mingi, Seonghwa, Yunho... he feels as if he's holding the secrets of everyone he knows, holding them deep within the pessimistic hole in his brain that tells him the worst possible outcomes if he does say something.

He knows that things may get better if he says something, but he also knows that things could get worse. He knows that things may get better if he stays silent, but he also knows things could get worse. No matter what, there's a chance of things improving, and there's a chance of things worsening.

Yeosang isn't sure what chance he wants to take. So instead of saying something, he leaves it up to the universe.

He doesn't want to play God, and that's what it feels like he's doing.

"I'm going to tell Wooyoung what I told you, but if he does ever ask you, please tell him I'm staying with you. Please."

San looks at him with desperate eyes, and he can only nod.

"Thank you."

Yeosang isn't sure if he's deserving of thanks. After all, he isn't as good as San paints him to be.

-

When Yeosang finally opens the front door to his house, it's dark and empty.

Confused, he flicks on the light in the kitchen, only to see a piece of pastel pink paper lying in the center of the table.

Yeosang,

Your father and I went out to dinner. We figured you'd be out late, possibly hanging out with Jongho or working hard on that project you told me about. There's some food in the fridge if you need it. Text me when you get home, okay? -Mom

The first thing Yeosang does after he reads the note is shower. The second thing he does is collapse on the bed and send a text to his mother.

i'm home.

He doesn't eat.

Right after he hits send, his phone vibrates with a phone call from Jongho. He stares at the screen, Jongho's name displayed brightly in white text at the top with a green and red button at the bottom. He holds the power to open up a line of conversation at his thumbs, but he's done. He's done with having power in his hands. Instead of pressing the green or red button, he throws his phone to the ground, not caring how much damage is done.

And he cries.

He holds his hands tightly at his chest as his body shakes, tears streaming down his face like waterfalls and face hot with the rawest feeling of emptiness, the only word he can think of. He's nothing, just a chute where people toss away their secrets, knowing that they will never have to face them. Instead, Yeosang does; he faces them with a heavy heart and the cruelest version of reality, that nothing is going to be okay, not when there's so much pain, so much suffering surrounding good people.

Yeosang is not good.

He wonders what his parents would think, what they would say, but he knows that if he thinks too much on that subject, he won't be able to stay sane.

He just hopes, prays to whatever God exists, that Mingi isn't cutting himself, that Wooyoung isn't purging or starving himself, that Yunho isn't being beaten, that San is still alive, and that Jongho never has to experience the agony that Yeosang has felt for the past three days, for the rest of his life.

Chapter Text

Yeosang isn't at all surprised when Jongho runs up to him the next morning.

"Hyung! Hyung, you really need to slow down!" the younger calls after him.

"I'm just walking," Yeosang responds, and yes, he is just walking. He just doesn't wait for Jongho, which is why he has to run to catch up.

He can feel Jongho pouting at him. "I called you last night. Why didn't you answer?"

"I was asleep." A perfectly reasonable excuse.

Jongho sighs, his breath forming a small trail of vapor. It's getting colder. "I was worried, hyung. I didn't see you at all yesterday, and you didn't respond to any of my texts. Is everything okay?"

No.

"Yeah, I was just busy with a project for biology and all this other homework I had," Yeosang says.

"Oh yeah! You're partners with Yunho-hyung right? How is he?" Jongho asks excitedly.

It's too early for this shit, Yeosang thinks.

"He's okay, actually. He's working hard and wants to contribute," Yeosang answers honestly.

"Oh, that's good! He's so cool. What about San-hyung? How's he doing?"

Yeosang is about to stop dead in his tracks, but he reminds himself that this is Jongho he's talking to; he can't show him the doubt, the pain and the suffering that he's witnessed from San. He can't tell him that San is dropping out, basically having given up. He can't tell San that he's sleeping out in below-freezing temperatures with just a jacket as a shelter.

"It's... complicated."

"Oh."

They continue to walk in silence.

Even the sun is starting to rise later, Yeosang notices. With how cold it's getting, Yeosang wonders how long it'll take for San to realize that maybe he should seek shelter indoors, where there's warmth. Maybe even try to find a homeless shelter or something. Or, maybe even better, go back to staying with Wooyoung. Yeosang isn't sure about that option though, since Wooyoung isn't in the best of states either, but after hearing San's confession last night, maybe it's a good option.

Or the worst one.

Yeosang needs to talk to Wooyoung. He hopes that he'll show up to school today since skipping two days in a row is really risky. Unless there's a doctor's notice, the school cracks down on students who are absent multiple days within a short amount of time, and it's extremely detrimental to one's grades and reputation among the faculty. Yeosang just hopes Wooyoung isn't doing anything too foolhardy for San, but at the same time, he worries that there's no other way for San to find relief from the hell that he's living.

They arrive to school early as usual with the dangerous thoughts still plaguing Yeosang's mind. He can feel Jongho's worried eyes boring into his skin, but he refuses to even look at the younger boy in fear that he might break down again. The guilt is eating away at him; he knows that Jongho cares deeply for him, and him not responding to Jongho's call must have really hurt. It's as if Jongho is expecting an answer, one that isn't just "I was asleep," because even though it's believable and Jongho is naïve, it's getting harder to hide his true emotions and mental exhaustion.

He wants the best for Jongho, and in order for that to happen, he needs to remain silent.

"Hyung, are you sure everything is okay?" Jongho asks one last time before they part ways.

No. San could very well die on the streets someday. Mingi is cutting himself. I think Yunho is being beaten. I think Wooyoung is making himself vomit.

"Yes, I'm sure," Yeosang says with the most convincing smile he can muster.

His mouth is curved up in a smile, but he's sure his eyes look as dead as they can be. Jongho stares at him, doubtful, but just sighs and says, "Well, I hope you have a good day, hyung. Text me if you need anything, okay?"

Yeosang nods. "Okay."

With one last pained, hesitant smile, Jongho walks off in another direction, probably to meet up with his teammates, leaving Yeosang standing out in the cold. He gazes around, the sun now slightly higher in the sky, casting a harsh gleam from behind the school building. He squints and shields his eyes, glancing up at the national flag that stands tall and proud at the roof of the building, fluttering proudly in the frigid autumn breeze. He wonders how far San has traveled, if he's traveled at all.

Knowing that he won't be San anymore at school is bittersweet, but mostly bitter. At least San won't have an extra burden on his shoulders in the form of homework and assignments, but what else is he going to do? No education, no home, nothing. Yeosang can only that somehow, in some way, things turn around for him.

His skin itches, partially due to the breeze, but mostly due to the haunting premonition that there's no way things will ever get better for San.

-

When Yeosang enters the classroom for history, Seonghwa isn't there.

His first thought is that something happened with Hongjoong, but then he realizes that there must be more to Seonghwa's life than just the cherry-haired boy behind the counter of a shabby convenience store. There are plenty of possibilities. Maybe he's late. Maybe he's in the bathroom.

They're such Jongho thoughts, Yeosang realizes. Completely plausible, and hopelessly optimistic.

Yeosang has come to the conclusion that his brain has started to instantly come to the worst possible conclusions for anything out of the ordinary. He doesn't know exactly what most of the time, but everything in his body screams that there's tragedy at foot, that something is wrong if something is not normal, and Seonghwa not being present, sitting high and mighty on his desk with his back turned away from the front, is definitely not normal.

What if Seonghwa knows that Yeosang had seen and recognized him back at the convenience store? Surely that's no reason to just not show up to class. Is Seonghwa so ashamed that he can't bear to show his face because of it? Yeosang thinks it's quite ridiculous; after all, he has no one to tell.

The last few students enter the classroom, and Seonghwa is among them. Yeosang almost feels relieved, but then he meets Seonghwa's eyes.

They're bitter and lifeless. Threatening, almost. Yeosang can't help but feel fear. He's never seen Seonghwa's eyes so vicious, so venomous that Yeosang feels like Seonghwa could reach over and strangle him to death if he continues to stare at him.

So he looks away. He hopes Seonghwa does too.

Needless to say, Seonghwa doesn't contribute to the class discussion. He doesn't even get up to go to the bathroom during self-study. Yeosang purposefully avoids looking at him, even from the side, in fear that he'll see Seonghwa's eyes shooting daggers into him. He's able to make it through the chapter before class ends, like usual, and that's when he realizes that everything is normal for him, just not for everyone else.

As soon as the class ends, Yeosang gathers his things as quickly as his arms allow, and exits the room without looking back. He doesn't know if Seonghwa is still looking at him as he rushes, but he's not about to look over his shoulder to find out.

Instead, he bursts through the door to the restroom where he takes deep breaths, trying to vanquish the image of Seonghwa's malicious eyes imprinted in his own. Luckily, there's no one else in the restroom to hear his panicked breathing, and he makes his way to one of the sinks to splash some cold water onto his face.

Calm down.

Yeosang never thought a look could make him feel so anxious.

Breathe.

A door opens.

It's going to be okay.

No, it won't.

"Yeosang-ah."

Yeosang feels his heart shrivel. He doesn't want to look up. He lets the water droplets drip from his face. "Yeosang-ah. I need to talk to you."

He gulps down a lump in his dry throat. It's painful. He wants to vomit. He thinks of Wooyoung. He's glad Wooyoung isn't in the restroom this time around. His eyes inadvertently travel to the farthest stall as he remembers.

"Yeosang-ah!" There's a rough hand on his shoulder that spins him around, causing him to cry out in both fear and pain.

He swallows again. "Wh-what?"

Seonghwa is looking at him again, but his eyes aren't the same. They're not filled with vice anymore. Yeosang doesn't think it's compassion, necessarily. Maybe sympathy? An attempt to calm him down? Yeosang doesn't know, but he can still feel himself shaking.

"We need to talk," Seonghwa says firmly.

"What about?" Yeosang asks as Seonghwa releases the grip on his shoulder.

"I think you know what," Seonghwa answers, leaning up against the wall that protrudes outwards, separating the sinks from the door. "I know you saw me yesterday at the convenience store."

There's no use in hiding it, and Yeosang knows it. They hadn't locked eyes, but Yeosang's face was out in the open, a recognizable face with a name. And Seonghwa, though hidden behind a mask, was someone whose side profile is extremely familiar to Yeosang. Of course they would recognize each other.

"Yeah," Yeosang says cautiously.

Seonghwa stares at him expectantly, but what else can Yeosang say? He's not in any place to say anything. He doesn't even know Seonghwa, nor does he have any reason to go around telling people that one of the most popular guys in school is flirting with a frisky cashier from a dingy convenience store. He could go around telling people, but what kind of sadistic fuck would want that kind of attention? Certainly not Yeosang.

"I think this goes without saying, but you can't tell anybody," Seonghwa says, and it's not as vicious as his stare at been earlier. Instead, it sounds incredibly worried, panicked, even. "Seriously, Yeosang-ah. You can't tell anybody."

Yeosang nods. "Okay."

A look of betrayal crosses Seonghwa's face, confusing Yeosang. "I'm serious. I can't afford to have people finding out about Hongjoong. Please, you can't say anything."

Never once in Yeosang's school career did he ever think he'd hear Park Seonghwa beg.

"Seonghwa... hyung, I promise I won't tell anybody." He tries to convey the message through his eyes, though he knows that sincerity can be hard to deliver, but he hopes Seonghwa somehow senses it. "Besides, I don't really have anyone to tell," he adds.

Seonghwa's shoulders seem to relax a bit. "Look, I'm really sorry that I have to put this on you. I never... I never expected to see anyone from our school in that part of town. Just, no matter what, please don't tell anyone. And please, tell your friend the same, too. I can't have anyone finding out."

Does Seonghwa not know San?

"Okay," Yeosang says with a firm nod.

Seonghwa lets out an exhausted sigh as he reciprocates a nod of understanding. "Thank you. Really. And please... don't ask me about Hongjoong. It's a very personal matter."

Yeosang can imagine. "Okay."

With a final bow of the head, Seonghwa disappears, and Yeosang is left alone in the restroom with a damp face, fear in his bones, and another secret to keep.

-

At lunch, Yeosang finds Wooyoung out in the courtyard. He's sitting alone at one of the picnic tables, nose buried in one of his textbooks. Of course, San isn't glued to his side, which is an uncommon and almost terrifying sight, especially now that Yeosang knows the reality of where San is.

"Hey," Yeosang greets, standing to Wooyoung's side.

"Oh, hi, Yeosang," Wooyoung replies quietly as he looks up from his textbook. "Wanna sit?"

Yeosang nods, sliding onto the bench next to him. "So I'm guessing San told you," Wooyoung says, to Yeosang's surprise.

"Yeah."

Wooyoung sighs as he closes his textbook and crosses his arms over it. "I guess I should've seen it coming. You can't be homeless and go to school at the same time."

Silence.

Yeosang needs to say something. His body tenses up as his mind starts to race, much like it did when he had been sitting next to Mingi on the bleachers, trying his damn hardest not to watch him cry at his request. The difference is that Mingi probably had some sense of what Yeosang knew, while Wooyoung hasn't a clue.

"I know he's not staying with you, Yeosang."

Yeosang breaks his deliberate blank stare at the tree ahead of him, immediately turning towards the younger. "Wooyoung—"

"Come on, Yeosang. I've known him since we were little. I know that he has too much pride to ask you for a place to sleep. And, like, no offense, but I don't think he feels that close enough to you where he'd feel okay with staying at your house, especially with your parents still around and stuff."

Yeosang kind of agrees.

"So... you know he's been sleeping outside on the streets? In the cold?" he questions, suspicion growing.

"He's not," Wooyoung says matter-of-factly. "He's staying with the convenience store owner."

Owner?

"I thought... I thought Hongjoong was just an employee there."

Wooyoung chuckles and shakes his head. "Well, not the owner owner. Tell me, when have you ever seen another soul in that place?"

"I've only been there twice, and... well, yeah, I didn't see anybody either time." He leaves Mars, Seonghwa, out of it.

Wooyoung nods in confirmation. "Yeah. Exactly. Come on, Yeosang. Don't be so naïve."

It's still not clicking. Yeosang doesn't understand what Wooyoung is trying to insinuate, if anything. He simply stares at Wooyoung curiously until he rolls his eyes. "Yeosang, did San tell you that that place is an escort business?"

Yeosang's eyes widen. "What?"

San had mentioned the possibility of Hongjoong being an escort. The possibility. He remembers San's exact words, how he said he thinks he is one but isn't certain. And now Wooyoung is telling him that San knew all along?

"You've met Hongjoong, right?" Wooyoung asks.

"Yeah... wait, how do you even know I've been there?"

"San tells me everything," Wooyoung says, twiddling his thumbs. A sudden breeze blows his jet black hair back, sprouting goosebumps all over Yeosang's skin despite wearing a thick coat. Wooyoung doesn't even flinch. "And I don't think he knows that I can tell when he's lying. I know for sure he's not staying with you."

Yeosang has been keeping a secret that isn't even a secret. "Then... how do you know he's staying with Hongjoong?"

"San might be reckless and proud, but he's not an idiot," Wooyoung says. "He knows he'd freeze to death if he slept out on the streets. Hongjoong is the only other person who would offer him shelter."

"How do you even know that Hongjoong is an escort?"

Wooyoung chuckles and shakes his head. "It's a long story. You sure you wanna hear it?"

Yeosang nods without hesitation.

"San and I were kinda drunk one night while we were hanging out in a really sketchy part of town. It was near the convenience store, actually, but it was closed at the time. We rounded a corner to see a really pretty boy with red hair just standing, wearing a fucking fur coat of all things, and we just look at each other and go, 'Yeah, that guy's a hooker.' He saw us and winked, and since we were drunk, we were like, 'Ha, let's go talk to him!' So we approached him and started asking all sorts of stupid questions, and he just looked at us all amused and shit. He told us that yeah, he was the queerest hooker in this part of town but not to tell a soul. And, get this, he hands me a fucking card for an escort business. That convenience store? Yeah, it's an escort hideout. Run by Hongjoong himself."

It's starting to make sense. Yeosang's been having a lot of revelation moments like this, he realizes.

Though Yeosang doesn't know the true purpose behind Seonghwa being there, he knows why now.

"He's an escort himself but runs the business?" Yeosang questions.

Wooyoung nods. "Yeah. It's very hush-hush. I'm sure there are other people, escorts, involved, but as far as I know, he's the head of it all. He runs the convenience store and the escort hideout."

"Wait, I'm so confused. Does that mean there's some sort of hidden chamber in the convenience store where—"

"No," Wooyoung interrupts. "The convenience store is where negotiations are carried out. It's so that Hongjoong doesn't have to stand out on the street and make it super obvious that he's a prostitute."

"How does... how does Hongjoong run the convenience store? Like, it's an actual store, isn't it?"

"Of course it is. You can't have a store like that with all the products and shit," Wooyoung says. "But the reason why Hongjoong practically runs the place is because the real owner of the store is one of his regulars."

Oh.

"So... he doesn't own the convenience store."

"Right."

"But he runs it along with the escort service."

"Yes."

"Where is the convenience store owner in all of this?"

Wooyoung shrugs. "Don't know. It wasn't one of the questions we asked during our drunken stupor."

Yeosang's brain feels like an overflowing sponge. He's trying so hard to connect all the dots and possibilities while still trying to keep sane, and honestly, he's surprise that he still has the mental capacity to get through a school day.

"Here's what I think: the owner of the convenience store is basically Hongjoong's sugar daddy. Lets him run his escort business through the store and keeps him paid and hidden away, for the most part. I'm certain that Hongjoong has his own place, which is where San is staying."

Wooyoung sounds so confident. Yeosang wonders how much of it is actually true, but he can honestly see all of it being reality.

"San isn't... right?"

Wooyoung shakes his head vigorously. "Absolutely not. He knows that's taking it way too far. Plus, Hongjoong has enough money from his sugar daddy and more to support the two of them. He's in good hands."

Is he really?

"If he's... 'in good hands,' why was he telling you that he was staying with me and telling me that he was sleeping on the streets?" Yeosang asks.

Wooyoung's lips curve into a tiny smile. "Like I said, he has too much pride. I don't think he wanted either of us to know that he's staying with a prostitute. He must think that it's a pretty low thing to do, but as long as he's warm and has a place to sleep, I'm happy."

Are you really?

"I know what he's thinking. He thinks that he's a burden on me and doesn't want to bring me down. And here's the thing, I could tell him over and over again that he's no burden, that he could never be one to me, and that I would do absolutely anything for him, and he would still find a way to blame himself for any misfortune that comes my way." Wooyoung is still smiling as he glances up at the almost leaf-less tree towering over them. "I try to see him during the day when my parents aren't home, which is why I've been skipping school, but now that he's getting rid of his phone, I won't even be able to stay in contact with him."

"Couldn't you stay in contact with Hongjoong?"

"Well yeah, but neither of them know what I know," Wooyoung says. Yeosang nods in understanding.

"San... he doesn't want to bring me down, but I don't want to bring him down either," he continues.

"What do you mean?" Yeosang asks, and that's when a light bulb goes off in his head.

He wonders if Wooyoung knows what he knows. He wonders if San knows, though he doubts it. Even though things are a little more clear now, there are new lies, new secrets that have been built upon and updated, but not once has the subject of Wooyoung making himself throw up come up in any conversation.

Wooyoung chuckles bitterly. "Well, we all have our demons, don't we?"

It's not necessarily a confession, but it's something. Yeosang wonders if Wooyoung will ever tell him, or if he has to find out the hard way. He really hopes it isn't either, that Wooyoung is fine, that he's not starving himself or purging or hating the way his body looks in the mirror. But like he said, everyone has their demons.

It's not a confession, but it is.

Yeosang wonders if Wooyoung knows that San loves him.

"San needs you," he finds himself saying. "He tells me all the time that you're the only one who understands him."

Wooyoung's smile widens. "I guess that's true."

"Are you gonna stop seeing him?"

Wooyoung shakes his head. "Of course not. He's my best friend, after all."

"Then how are you going to see him if you can't get in contact with him?"

"I have my ways."

Yeosang doesn't question it further.

"Tell me, Yeosang. I know you're friends with Jongho-ah, right?" Wooyoung asks, to which Yeosang nods. "I don't know how close you are with him, but I know you two are friends. Would you say he's your closest friend?"

Yeosang nods without a doubt. "Would you do anything for him, even if it might not be the right thing?"

Yeosang's breath gets caught in his throat. It closes in on him. It feels like someone has knocked all the oxygen out of his lungs as the air thickens around him, and he suddenly finds black spots beginning to appear at the sides of his vision as his brain is sent into overdrive. He wonders if Wooyoung is some kind of psychic who's filing through all of the secrets, all of the lies Yeosang has told Jongho just to keep the younger from knowing the harsh reality of things going on around him. There's no way Wooyoung knows, obviously, but it's enough to send Yeosang into an internal frenzy.

He knows the answer has to be yes, because he's already doing it. He nods again.

"You see, that's how I feel about San," Wooyoung says. "I could tell him that I know the truth, that he's been staying with Hongjoong, but... I want him to hold onto his pride. It's the one thing that he's always had, and I don't want him to lose it."

"But... he has you. You mean so much to him," Yeosang adds, his voice barely above a whisper, not wanting to think about it.

Wooyoung sighs and smiles again, eerily similar to the one Yeosang had seen on San's face on the bridge. "There's not much of me left anyway."

Yeosang hasn't a clue as to what exactly Wooyoung means by that, but that's when he really gets a look at the raven-haired boy's face. He sees it, even through the makeup so intricately placed to conceal the signs of his weariness; his sunken eyes, the way his cheeks seem to sag with lack of sleep, how the fine lines of the corners of his mouth poke through. He can see the way the muscles and veins in Wooyoung's neck stick out more than a normal human's would. Though he can't see below his neck due to the design of their uniforms, Yeosang can only imagine.

He glances down at Wooyoung's textbook. There's no lunch. No snack. Not a single morsel of food to be seen.

"Don't worry, Yeosang," Wooyoung says. "I'm not going to stop seeing San."

Yeosang doesn't know if that's a good or bad thing.

"Anyway, I'm gonna go see one of my teachers. I have to... catch up on the work I missed."

"Oh, okay."

Wooyoung gives Yeosang one last smile before standing up from the picnic table and walking back into the school building. Yeosang watches him all the way there.

The pit in his stomach keeps growing. He still has biology and P.E. to get through, where two more secrets are being kept in the forms of Jeong Yunho and Song Mingi, and he just wishes that the pit would somehow transform into a black hole and swallow him entirely.

-

Yeosang immediately gets the feeling something is wrong as soon as Yunho takes his seat next to him. There's no warm smile or greeting, just the same purple bruise and a dull, neutral expression. Yeosang even says hi, to which he responds with a slight bob of the head. Luckily, the bruise hasn't gotten any bigger and there don't seem to be any new ones, but that's only from what Yeosang can see.

The teacher signals the beginning of class and everyone starts chattering, all except for Yeosang and Yunho. Yeosang tries to make himself look busy by taking out his notebook and reading over the essay he's written, but Yunho doesn't move an inch.

"Yunho," Yeosang says. "Yunho, we need to work."

Yunho looks over at him, almost like he'd been snapped out of a trance, and nods. "I know." He lets out a heavy sigh before leaning down to grab his notebook from his backpack when Yeosang notices the way his face twists in discomfort when he does so.

"Everything okay?" Yeosang asks as Yunho drops his notebook down onto the lab table.

"Yeah. Just a bit sore."

It's such a stupid question, and Yeosang knows it. Of course nothing is okay, and of course Yunho would say it is.

"Did you, um, get any further into the essay?" Yeosang asks.

Yunho shakes his head, opening his notebook to the single-page essay he'd written during the previous class. They'd almost finished the project, a presentation, but the essay is just as important. It's also due the following Wednesday, meaning that if Yunho doesn't get cracking on this paper, his grade would probably drop to a D, maybe a C at best. "We could meet up at the library after school on Monday so I can help you write the rest of it. Or you could stop by my house over the weekend and work on it there."

"You'd really help me write the rest of my essay? It's literally one page in writing. I haven't even typed it out. How long does it have to be again?"

"It's a lab report, so it only has to be four pages typed," Yeosang tells him. He can see Yunho's eyes widen slightly.

"Shit."

"It's okay, Yunho," Yeosang reassures him. "I'll help you write the rest of it. Obviously, I won't write it for you, but I can point you in the write direction and tell you what you can write about."

"What about your paper?" Yunho asks.

"I've... almost finished it," Yeosang says, which is a half-truth. He's written four pages, which would easily equate to three typed, and all he really needs to do is add a few things and revise. He could also easily finish up the rest of the presentation to take the load off of Yunho's shoulders. It would take him a solid three hours to do all of it.

He's not going to tell Yunho that, though. He doesn't have to know.

Yunho sighs again, biting his lip as he glances down at his work. "I have practice after school today and something going on tomorrow and Monday after school. Tuesday I have practice again. Would Sunday work for you?"

Yeosang nods. "Yeah, definitely."

He can see the tiniest of smiles appear on Yunho's face, and though it's smaller, it's just as warm and even a little grateful. "Well, for now you could write even more of that essay to get even further, and if you have any questions, feel free to ask me," Yeosang offers, trying to mirror Yunho's warm smile.

"Thank you, Yeosang."

His voice is smooth like velvet, a genuine gratefulness that Yeosang has never heard directed towards him his entire life. He can feel Yunho's appreciation, but it's tinged with guilt as he gets to work on his own essay because as soon as he starts writing, he realizes it'll take him a lot less time to finish than he thought.

He occasionally glances over at Yunho just to monitor his progress. By the end of the class, Yunho's got another page down, and Yeosang is finished with six total pages in his notebook, revisions, a probably a solid five pages typed, and a finished presentation saved onto his tablet.

"I don't know how you do it, Yeosang," Yunho tells him as they're packing up. "How is everything so easy for you?"

"It's not," Yeosang says instinctively, only to realize that Yunho probably meant just academics.

Yunho's eyebrows knit together as he crosses his arms. A smirk appears on his face. "Don't try to be modest. You finished both your essay and the presentation from what I saw. It's like your a human computer."

"Okay, that's definitely an exaggeration," Yeosang says with a chuckle.

Yunho laughs too, and Yeosang tries his hardest not to watch the bruise move with his eyes. While it's pleasant to see Yunho smiling and laughing, Yeosang knows that there's something behind it all, and he can only wonder how the hell Yunho is so good at making it seem like nothing is wrong.

Yeosang had seen that moment of weakness, though. He'd seen the lost, blank expression on Yunho's face and knew something was wrong as soon as he didn't greet him with a smile. Yet somehow, Yunho's smile in this moment is able to make him forget about that. It's like his smile is literally the sun, blinding Yeosang from the clouds he had seen earlier.

"Maybe, but you're pretty damn smart. I wish I was," Yunho says, still smiling, but it changes. It's not warm. It's cold, almost like the smiles he'd seen from both San and Wooyoung, a tragic smile overshadowed by tragedy and anguish. It's envious, but not threatening. It's just... sad. A sad smile that is trying its hardest to appear happy.

"You are, Yunho," Yeosang says confidently. It's real. He means it, because he knows that while Yunho may not be academic smart, there's a good chance he's street smart, common sense smart, and he's definitely an ace when it comes to athletics. "There are so many different ways to be smart. It doesn't have to be in the classroom."

"Thank you so much, Yeosang," Yunho says, his smile turning upwards a little. "It... it really means a lot, knowing that someone has faith in me."

Yeosang hopes he means it in one sense, the academic sense, because if no one else has faith in him, even in the athletic realm, then what has this world come to?

Yunho seems like the kind of guy who never backs out, never backs down. Just his smile can light up an entire room, and Yeosang isn't even that close with him to truly know what he's like. He's just so radiant, like a sunrise, but Yeosang knows that all sunrises end, and sometimes it rains.

The bell rings, and Yunho smiles at him one more time before heading out.

Yeosang feels rained on.

He trudges out of the classroom, wondering just how Yunho seems to shine through everything, even that revolting bruise on his face. He feels betrayed somehow, like Yunho's smile is both warm and unintentionally cunning at the same time, deceiving him and everyone else around him to make it look like that bruise doesn't exist. Yeosang has to remind himself that it does, but Yunho's smile, that goddamn smile, makes it impossible to even think about the possibilities behind it.

But Yunho's smile is the last thing on his mind as he pushes through the rest of his classes before P.E. Now that Yunho isn't present and the smile is just a picture in his brain, the possibilities come forward from the pessimistic core, and even though Yeosang already has his assumptions, it doesn't stop him from worrying.

Not when Yeosang remembers how Yunho bent over in pain. Not when he remembers Yunho's face, eyes squeezed shut in discomfort just to pick a notebook out of his backpack.

It's more than just his face now. Yeosang can make all the assumptions he wants about how Yunho got the bruise on his face, but whatever caused that bruise was probably what caused Yunho to be hunched over in pain.

Whatever caused the bruise on Yunho's face probably caused even more. Yet Yunho said everything was fine.

Yunho must think Yeosang is an idiot for asking such a question. Yeosang thinks so too.

And what's more, Yeosang isn't as smart as Yunho paints him to be.

-

Yeosang is worried when Mingi doesn't show up to P.E.

Perhaps it's for the best, since today ends up being a team day. Yeosang is placed on a team with decent people, though pretty much everyone gives Mingi shit, so he tosses the word "decent" out the window and replaces it with "tolerable."

His athletic abilities certainly aren't the best, but they're not the worst. He can play a decent game of soccer, which is what they do, and he thinks it's his off-putting attitude that prevents people from wanting to talk shit about him.

Well, except for today.

"—the hell does he think he is?" he hears as he nears a corner of the locker room.

"Dude, chill. He's done nothing wrong."

"He's so irritating. Like why the fuck does he even bother with that Mingi dude?"

"Don't know. He probably just pities the guy or something."

Yeosang scoffs as he makes his way into the room where three of the classmates are changing. "Lovely to hear that you care enough to talk about me," he says.

The three of them look at each other, expecting someone to say something, but Yeosang doesn't give him the chance. "So you're perfectly okay with talking shit about me behind my back, yet can't bring yourself to say anything to my face?"

Still nothing.

Yeosang has to admit he's surprised. He sees this in movies a lot, where someone decides to stick up for themselves but ends up getting punched by the bullies just so the bullies can prove their worth. But it's not happening.

"Mingi is a nice person," Yeosang continues. "He's shit at sports, I'll give you that, but that doesn't make him weak or a pussy or whatever other names you probably call him. If you seriously think that someone's athletic ability determines their worth, I seriously suggest you hop off your own dicks and read a fucking book."

He storms out.

His heart is racing as he makes giant strides back to his house, not even caring about the wind pricking at his face. His body is on high alert, expecting the boys to come after him and jump him or something, but it doesn't happen. He makes it home, slams the door shut behind him, and practically bolts up the stairs.

With his mind cluttered by all sorts of thoughts, he does what comes as second nature to him: schoolwork.

He scans the next three chapters of his history book like he's a computer, taking in all the words and information and storing it somewhere deep in his brain. He knows he won't forget it, because he can't seem to forget things no matter how hard he tries, even if it's about school. He types out his lab report at a hundred words a minute, even making more revisions as he goes, and he ends up with seven pages instead of four. He polishes the presentation until it's spotless and A+ worthy, and only stops when he realizes that he's deleted some of Yunho's contributions.

He swallows hard before he pushes his laptop away from him. He stares at it until his eyes go numb, blinking constantly to rid them of tears before pulling his laptop back and adding back Yunho's work.

"I'm sorry," he mumbles to himself. To Yunho.

He types. "I'm sorry, I'm so sorry. I didn't mean to."

He types and types and types.

When he's finished, he saves the project and closes it, closes his laptop, and cries.

It's the second time he's cried in a week. Yeosang is pretty sure he's gone without crying for a year before. He just wonders, out of all the times this could've happened, why now?

Why, at the peak of their youth, are so many terrible things happening to his friends?

Friends. The word resonates in Yeosang's mind. He's been telling himself all along that he's not friends with Yunho or Mingi or Wooyoung, that he's maybe friends with San. Yet he can't even come up with another word to describe his relationships with them.

Acquaintances? Yeosang is pretty sure he knows too much about them to be considered "acquaintances." He's just not sure if they know what he knows.

Classmates? Yeosang scraps the thought immediately.

Friends. It's the only word he can think of.

Though not as close to him as Jongho is, they still rely on him because he has their secrets. He holds so much power over them because he knows too much, yet no one, not even him, is saying anything. However, Yeosang is pretty sure that no one has to say anything, because to him, all of it is pretty fucking obvious.

And what's worst of all? They think he has faith in them when he doesn't. Not one ounce.

It's nothing personal with any of them. It's not situational, it's not anything like that.

Yeosang just thinks that things won't get better. Not when he's at the center of it all. Part of him wishes that these secrets would just drown so that he wouldn't have to keep them anymore. Ideally, he'd want them to not exist at all, but that's the reality. As long as he's the vessel, the one thing that ties everything together, nothing will get better because he can't say anything.

His phone rings.

It's an unknown number, and though Yeosang doesn't normally pick up random numbers, his common sense is kind of nonexistent at the moment, so he answers.

"Hello?"

"Oh, hi! Can you hear me? Yeosangie?"

Yeosang shoots up in his desk chair. "Hongjoong?"

"Of course it's me, who else sounds like me and would call you?" Hongjoong laughs, sounding as ridiculous as ever.

"How did you get my number?" Yeosang asks.

"Sannie, of course! He gave me your number because he decided to chuck his off a bridge."

An alarm goes off in Yeosang's head. He can't believe how casual Hongjoong sounds. "Hongjoong, where is he?"

"Dunno. He left a little while ago. He just stopped in to give me your number. Oh, and he told me to tell you not to worry about him."

Yeah, like that's gonna prevent him from worrying.

"Anyway, you should stop by! I kind of miss seeing your pretty face."

Yeosang rolls his eyes, wiping the remnants of his tears away. "You saw me literally yesterday."

"What can I say? I'm attached."

"Hongjoong, in case you've forgotten, I'm still in high school and I live with my parents. I don't think they'd be happy with me going out again. And no, don't try to convince me and tell me that 'they don't have to know.'"

Hongjoong giggles. "Sweetie, I wasn't going to tell you that. It was merely a suggestion. Just know that you're always welcome to stop in."

"Yeah, okay." Yeosang can't help but feel a little more lighthearted.

"But Yeosangie," Hongjoong says, sounding surprisingly serious, "just know that San is going to be okay. He's safe. He might not be able to get into contact with you or Wooyoung over the phone anymore, but this isn't the last you'll see of him."

Yeosang finds himself standing up but nearly toppling over. His legs have gone numb from sitting for so long and his chest feels frozen as he shudders with realization. "Wait, Hongjoong, how do you know—" He searches for the right question to ask.

"How do you know about... that?"

Hongjoong just giggles again. "Oh, Yeosangie. I know a lot more than you think. I know all about Wooyoung, I know that San is homeless, and I know that you know a lot more than you put on. For example, I'm sure you know that San is staying with me."

"Hongjoong, how do you know all of that?" Yeosang exclaims, his chest now burning with something that he can only describe as betrayal.

"When you've got nothing to lose, you spill a lot of secrets," Hongjoong tells him. "Don't take this the wrong way though, Yeosang. That last part about you knowing a lot more than you put on? That's just my assumption. You seem like quite the mysterious type. Here, if you stop in, I'll gladly discuss everything with you. When or if you do is up to you."

Yeosang can feel his blood boiling, surging through his veins as he hangs up, maybe a little aggressively, before throwing on his coat and stepping back outside into the cold. He can't feel it this time around. Everything in his body is screaming, telling him that this is really not a good idea, not when he hasn't even seen his parents in a matter over the past two days.

Still, he can't bring himself to care.

It's his curiosity. His nosiness. Whatever is kicking in right now. Yeosang doesn't care.

He just has to know.

-

"Oh, would you look at that?" Hongjoong quips as soon as Yeosang opens the door to the store. "You decided to pay me a visit after all, hm?"

Yeosang doesn't say anything as he approaches the counter. It's nearing seven, meaning his parents are probably almost home. He sent them a text saying he was going to hang out with Jongho at the cinema, hoping that it was a believable lie and that they wouldn't try to find out if it was one.

"Hongjoong," he says, out of breath.

Just then, Hongjoong smiles sympathetically at him and sighs. What he does next surprises Yeosang; he steps out from behind the counter and flips the 'open' sign to 'closed.' "Let's go for a walk, shall we?"

Yeosang knows that he shouldn't, but every part of his body is telling him to go because Hongjoong knows. What exactly he knows, Yeosang isn't sure of, but he's completely given into his curiosity, nosiness, whatever. He just wants to know.

Hongjoong takes him out through the back entrance, shutting off all the lights before they leave. "Don't worry, babe. I practically own the place; I can shut it down whenever I want."

Yeosang wasn't even going to say anything about it, but he nods anyway.

Hongjoong takes him through what Yeosang assumes are the backstreets, where they don't see a single soul pass by. It's all run-down brick buildings and stray telephone wires, garbage heaps and the undeniable stench of weed and urine. Honestly, Yeosang is surprised that they haven't passed anybody by yet, but in turn, is very, very relieved.

"I know it looks bad now, but it won't for long," Hongjoong says.

Surely enough, as soon as they round a corner a few minutes later, the stench disappears and the crowded alleyways diverge into open spaces and streets. Hongjoong leads him down one of them, lined by what looks to be luxury apartment complexes.

Yeosang has a feeling about where this is going.

"I'm sure you know that San is staying with me," Hongjoong says out of the blue. "Unfortunately, he only sleeps at my place, so you won't see him."

Yeosang bites his lip, reluctantly yet enthusiastically following Hongjoong to the driveway of one of the complexes. Hongjoong takes out his wallet, which Yeosang notices is stuffed, and pulls out a key card.

The apartment complexes have fucking key-card activated locks. Go figure.

As soon as Yeosang steps inside, he's overwhelmed with an artificial citrus scent. There's something else there that he can't quite put his finger on, but he has no desire to find out what it is. He glances around at his surroundings.

It's a very modern, sleek apartment, garnished with marble countertops and golden hardwood flooring, all polished and contemporary. It's definitely something a convenience store employee wouldn't be able to afford, but then again, Yeosang knows Hongjoong isn't a convenience store employee.

It's mesmerizing.

"Make yourself at home, dear. Do you drink?" Hongjoong asks.

Yeosang shakes his head. "Well, that's alright. You can have a seat on the sofa, get comfortable and all."

The sofa is a gray nine-person sectional, much too big for someone who lives alone. Yeosang sits down awkwardly, taking note of how soft the suede of it is, as Hongjoong pours himself a glass of wine.

"So, Yeosangie. I know I sounded quite cryptic over the phone, but I'll cut straight to the chase." Hongjoong sits beside him, but still puts enough distance between them for Yeosang to feel a little more comfortable. "I'm sure you know who I really am by now. Or rather, what I am."

Yeosang nods, unable to find words. "And trust me, Yeosangie. I'm not worried at all. I don't care that you know. But at the same time, there are some things I'd like to clarify. Is that okay?"

Yeosang nods again.

"Good. Now, San is staying with me, but only at night. I gave him a key, so he can come and go as he pleases. There are nights where I don't come back here, so I leave it up to San, whether he wants to come here or not. Are you following me?"

Another nod.

"I know it sounds... wrong, but I have no control over what San does, and I don't want to. When San told me about his situation, I offered my place to him, and he graciously accepted it. I'm quite sure that he does come here to sleep at night, so there isn't much to worry about there."

Yeosang wonders what Hongjoong means by 'not wanting to have control over what San does,' but he doesn't question it. If anything, it reminds him a little bit of himself.

"I also trust that you will not tell people all willy-nilly about who I am and what I do. I run a tight ship, and while I might not be the most subtle person in the world, I still can't have authorities busting down the door and arresting me. Although... one of my clients is a cop." Hongjoong giggles to himself, taking another sip of his wine. "Anyway, promise me that you won't tell people about me? Please?" He pouts as he holds his pinky finger out.

Yeosang sends him an 'are you serious' look, but he keeps his pinky out, and Yeosang just rolls his eyes and hooks his with Hongjoong's. "Lovely! Now that that's out of the way, I'm sure you want to know more about San and Wooyoung's situation, right?"

Yeosang glances down at his hands, which are placed crossed on his lap. "It's okay, darling," Hongjoong says comfortingly, resting a hand on Yeosang's knee. "You're allowed to be curious, especially if you're concerned. You are concerned, aren't you?"

Yeosang doesn't know how much truth he finds in that statement, but he nods anyway.

"Okay. So this is what happened. San came to me the day after you came into the shop with him. He told me he was homeless, that his parents kicked him out for some weird and stupid reason, and that he'd slept out in the cold the night before. I offered him my place, and though he was hesitant, he accepted. Now, I have spent the past few nights here just to keep an eye on him, give him some support and talk with him about things. He told me that he's dropped out and threw his phone off a bridge. You knew about that, right?"

"Yeah. He told me yesterday after we stopped in."

"Good. At least he told you that. Look, Yeosangie, I might be telling you things that you might not even know, that San may or may not want you to know, but you deserve to know. You care about San, right?"

Yeosang bites his lip nervously. "Yeah, of course."

He just doesn't want to think about it right now.

"Did he tell you how he feels about Wooyoung?"

Yeosang nods. "Yeah, he told me that yesterday too."

Hongjoong smirks, amused. "Looks like he dropped the same bomb on us. Well, let me ask you something, Yeosang. You see Wooyoung at school, right?" Yeosang nods in confirmation. "How close are you with him?"

"Not very," Yeosang says.

"Hm. Do you see him often?"

"Not really."

"I see. Well, don't take my word for this, but I don't think things are going to end well for them."

Yeosang feels his heart drop into his stomach. "Who knows? Things could turn around for them. But from what San's told me about Wooyoung, and from what I noticed when I first met them, they're going to destroy each other," Hongjoong continues.

Yeosang can feel his blood thinning, running cold. He's had enough worrying for today. He shouldn't be in the living room of a luxury apartment belonging to an escort with who-knows-how-many sugar daddies who provide for him; he should be at home, in his bed, listening to music and waiting for his parents to come home. Instead, he's doing just that, and his parents are probably already home and are probably going to ground him as soon as he gets back.

He feels like throwing up.

"I don't know if either of them told you when I first met them, but here's how it went. I was standing out on the corner waiting for one of my clients to pick me up when those two drunk bastards decided it would be a good idea to play twenty questions with me. It was honestly kind of amusing, so I decided to indulge in their little stupid game. They seemed so happy, like fools in love, you know? And that's what they are. They're fools in love. They were so busy laughing and being all giddy together that they didn't notice how I was staring them down, observing them, I guess, and I noticed how awful they looked. They looked so tired, especially Wooyoung. Now, I didn't know either of their names at the time, and I didn't learn them until San stopped by the store, but... if I had to guess, I'd say there are a lot of dark things behind that relationship."

Yeosang gulps down the secrets that are threatening to pour out of his mouth. Hongjoong is absolutely right, but he doesn't know the half of it; he doesn't know what Yeosang has observed himself or what his assumptions are. If Hongjoong were to hear them, he'd certainly agree.

In the end, he's unable to control himself. Though he's already cried today, he feels tears pooling at the corners of his eyes, threatening to fall. "He... Wooyoung, he's—" Yeosang is unable to stop the first tear, and the second, and what feels like a million spilling over at once. "I-I think he's... I think he's starving himself. And making himself throw up."

Hongjoong's eyebrows furrow as he recoils backwards. "What makes you think that?"

"At lunch one day, San was eating and I asked him where Wooyoung was, and he said he was in the bathroom, but he was taking a while. I got up to go to the bathroom, and when I went inside, it smelled like puke and there was someone in the stall furthest away from the door."

He pauses, recollecting the memory as he remembers it, but now, all he can picture is Wooyoung heaving over the toilet with his fingers shoved down his throat. He winces as a strangled sob makes its way out of his mouth. He feels a comforting arm around his shoulders, rocking him gently as more tears fall and more sobs force their way out of his body. "It's okay, Yeosangie."

"It's not okay!" Yeosang snaps, his voice cracking. "Wooyoung, he... I didn't see who it was, but when I was doing my business, the person walked out, and when I got back to San's table, Wooyoung was there, and then San told him to eat and he said he wasn't hungry in the most hostile tone and..."

Hongjoong wraps another arm around him, enveloping his trembling shoulders in a tight embrace. "It was him. I can't... I can't think of any other possibility. It's been killing me, knowing that it had to be him."

Yeosang feels Hongjoong nod even though his body is curled up in his arms. "I understand, Yeosang. Even though you didn't see his face, all signs point to him."

"Yes." Hearing Hongjoong speak the words that have been tormenting his mind for the past few days makes him feel a little less... crazy.

His Jongho persona disappears.

"It was him, I'm sure of it," Yeosang mumbles, still trying to steady his breathing. "I'm so, so sick of trying to convince myself it was someone else."

Hongjoong nods again. "I get it, Yeosang. I'm so sorry you've been feeling like this. When people aren't certain of things, they try their best to make assumptions, and sometimes those assumptions are completely reasonable. We just don't want to believe the worst ones, so we try to convince ourselves of other, better ones when deep down, we know the truth."

Yeosang has never heard Hongjoong like this. He's never heard him so calm, so... gentle and comforting. Hongjoong has always presented himself as flighty and playful, never so serious and always so flamboyant, but seeing a new side of him is almost refreshing to Yeosang.

Hongjoong just seems a little more human this way.

"I want to tell San so bad," Yeosang murmurs. "He... he deserves to know. That Wooyoung is doing this to himself."

Hongjoong sighs and releases Yeosang from his arms. "Yeosang, I don't think that's a good idea. San's got a lot going on right now, and they're already so dangerous for each other. If you tell San about Wooyoung, it's definitely not going to end well for either of them. Plus, San has no way of getting in contact with Wooyoung now that he doesn't have a phone, so—"

"You could stay in contact with Wooyoung for San, right?"

Hongjoong's facial expression tenses. "Yeosang, I'm not a matchmaker. I am not going to be a means of communication between two people I don't believe should be together in the first place," he says rigidly. 

Yeosang wishes he had a resolve like Hongjoong. What Hongjoong said he wouldn't be, Yeosang already is.

"We can't stop San from being with Wooyoung," Hongjoong says. "Trying to intervene would only make things worse. I think it would be best for them and for us if they work things out themselves. Do you understand?"

Yeosang nods, but he isn't sure if he does.

"Good."

What bothers Yeosang the most is that while Hongjoong helped, he didn't at all. It's comforting knowing that now he isn't the only one keeping secrets, but they're still there, contained within the confines of his poor, cynical excuse for a brain. And there they will stay, untouched and unsaid to the people who need them most. While Hongjoong is keeping them now, he won't do anything with them, nor does he seem to care. Yeosang isn't all that surprised, however. Though Hongjoong is kind, he is free, and wants to remain that way.

Yeosang wishes he was too.

-

When Yeosang returns home, it's dark, and it's empty.

Confused, he checks the table for a note, but there ends up not being one. He checks his phone, and there are no messages, not even from Jongho. Absolutely nothing.

He fixes himself a plate of leftovers that he hadn't eaten the previous night. As he fills his stomach, it churns with the thought of Wooyoung forcing his empty. He manages to force down half the plate before discarding the rest. With heavy feet, he heads upstairs to the refuge of his bedroom, where he plops down on his bed, wishing that the past week never happened.

He lies there, staring blankly at the ceiling for a long, long time.

When he finally hears a car pull into his driveway, it's nearing ten o'clock. He's not sure what time he got home, but he's sure it was at least two hours ago. He stands up abruptly, ignoring the dizziness that came with it, and carefully steps down the staircase.

"Oh, Yeosang! You're home!" his mother cries, surprisingly enthusiastically, before attacking him with a tight hug. "Did you eat?"

Yeosang nods as she pulls away. "Good," she says, grinning.

His father appears behind her shortly afterwards holding a couple grocery bags, and Yeosang takes a couple steps backwards to make room. "Son! Good to see you're still alive!"

Yeosang tries to hide his confusion. He's never heard his parents speak in this manner to him, and he was certain that they'd flip out on him for being home late, but then he realizes they probably didn't know. Maybe it had been his anxious brain fucking with him again.

"We've got some exciting news, Yeosang," his mother tells him, ushering him into the kitchen.

Yeosang can feel the apprehension creeping up on him again. For the past few days, tensions between him and his family have been high, and now they're acting celebratory? And for what?

His mother motions for him to have a seat at the table where she sits across from him. His father puts the grocery bags down on one of the counters before joining the rest of his family, a wide smile plastered on his face. "So, son, your mother and I have been invited to a very important business meeting in Japan." His parents turn to look at each other, both smiling triumphantly. "And if we go, there's a good chance I could get promoted!"

Yeosang tries his best to mimic their happiness. He really does. There are just so many other things built up inside him, and none of it is good, not a single thing even comes close to resembling happiness. His parents don't seem to notice though, lost in their own elation. His mother squeals, clapping her hands together in excitement. "Your father has a very high chance of getting promoted, Yeosang. It would be so great for this family."

What family? There's only me.

"I'm glad," Yeosang says. "You work hard, Dad."

"Thank you, son," his father says with a warm smile that reminds him of Yunho's for some reason.

"So, here comes the hard part," his mother says with a sigh. "This business trip is going to last two weeks. Will you be okay being home alone for that long?"

While Yeosang does think he'd be okay, he's the last of his worries. So he nods. "We'll give you money for food and anything else you might need for entertainment. It should be enough to last you a month, actually. Just don't go spending it on ridiculous and unnecessary things, okay?" his mother asks.

He nods again.

"If you want to go over Jongho's or you want him to come here, that's perfectly fine with us. Just try not to make a mess, okay?"

"Of course," he says.

"Your father and I were actually at a party for one of his coworkers. That's why we got home so late. I hope we didn't worry you," his mother tells him, placing a comforting hand on his shoulder.

I hope I didn't worry you.

"No, it's okay. You didn't."

His mother sighs happily, smiling again at her husband before dropping her hand from Yeosang's shoulder. "When do you leave?" he asks.

"Tomorrow morning," she says. "Early. We'll probably end up getting only a few hours of sleep tonight, and we might not see you before we leave. In that case, we'll give you a call once we've landed, okay?"

"Okay."

Yeosang swears he's never seen his parents smile this much in his life. Despite everything that's been happening, he has to admit, it's a bit relieving to see that at least some of the people he cares about are thriving. His own parents.

He feels guilty. He doesn't know why. He knows he should be happy for them, but maybe it's that one night he came home late. The way he'd retreated to his room without an explanation. The way it was never mentioned again. The way Yeosang had been worried that his father would hit him, all because of the pain San had felt, that he is now feeling.

He's sick of crying. He steels himself, telling himself that these are his parents, that they're happy and excited, and that he should be too.

He should be. He just isn't.

He tries to sleep that night. He really does. He loses track of time, however, and by the time he thinks he's asleep, his parents are causing a ruckus downstairs as they struggle to get all of their things out the door and into the car. He can hear it all, but he doesn't try to get up from his bed. He simply lays there with his eyes closed but his brain wide awake, as he waits for the sunrise to pry his eyes open. Secretly, he waits for Jongho to come knocking on his door, to tell him to get his ass up so they can watch a brand new day, but nothing like that happens.

The sun rises, and the only time Yeosang gets up is to draw the curtains closed. He crawls straight back into bed and closes his eyes once more.

The sun rises, a new day begins, and Yeosang wishes the sun would stop trying to remind him that time doesn't freeze for anybody. That his friends will only to continue to suffer, his family will continue to thrive, and life will continue on.

The sun rises. Yeosang wishes it didn't.