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The Fritz

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It isn’t until Chan texts, firm but fondly exasperated, to demand he return to the dorm does he realize quite what how late it is. If Chan is advocating bed time, then it has to be late.

Time had slipped away for a few hours as he hammered out a new bit of lyrics. It’s a rough draft, littered with scratch outs and amendments, but he thinks there’s something promising in there. Maybe he’ll show Chan or Changbin tomorrow and see what they make of it, he thinks, as scoops his stuff into a heap in his bag that will undoubtedly leave crushed corners and irreversible folds. He’s out the door just a minute later, debating whether it’s worth the struggle of untangling his headphones for such a brief walk to the dorm.

“Han-sunbaenim?” He jolts in surprise at the quiet voice. His messenger bag whacks painfully at the back of his thighs as he spins to find a small form only a few feet away at the vending machine. He’d nearly walked right by her without noticing.

“Er, hello?” He squints, taking in the girl’s face and trying to place it. She’s younger than he is by a year or two, with delicate features and a cute bob of black hair. She cradles her bag of biscuits to her chest like Jisung might lunge for them any minute.

“I’m sorry for startling you, I didn’t mean to,” she hurries to say, dipping into a bow. “I just wasn’t expecting to see anyone else here at this time. I’m Kim Jiyun. I just started as a trainee here a few months ago.”

“Oh, well, er, welcome then,” Jisung says awkwardly, rubbing the hem of his shirt back and forth between his fingers. Her eyes are wide in a way Jisung has come to associate with fans meeting them for the first time. It’s wild to think that sort of admiration and excitement can exist for them. Even sunbae is still a strange title to him. Maybe when they’ve got a few years under their belt, when their name is as well-known as their own sunbae’s, it’ll feel a little more real, but for now, there’s still a sense of wonder to it all. Even two years in, it feels like some extended fever dream that could end any moment.

“What are you doing here so late, Jiyun-ah?”

“Ah,” she says, cheeks flaming and eyes darting to the ground. “I stayed after to practice some dance moves more—my first evaluation is in two weeks—and I…” Her eyes flick to his before diving for the ground again. “I must have fallen asleep.”

Aigoo…

A sense of responsibility washes over him. He can’t just leave the poor girl here. She’s probably not even from Seoul and now she’s on her own in a building all but abandoned for the night. The overnight security members rarely come up to the practice rooms this late, instead choosing to circulate the first floor where most of the entrances are.

“Do you know how to get to your dorm?” he asks. There’s a few, but if she’s from one of the girls-only ones rather than a co-ed one…he’s not sure he can help her.

“Sure, I do. Only…well, it’s rather late, you know? And I’m a little scared to walk back by myself. I don’t really know any of the other trainees well, so I’m not sure who to call…”

“I can walk you,” he offers easily. He’ll text Chan to let him know he’s a little behind schedule. Come tomorrow morning he’ll have a great story to tell the guys. Maybe she’ll even tell her fellow trainees what a gentleman Han Jisung is.

“Oh, no, I don’t want to be a burden-”

“No trouble,” he insists, holding out an arm for her to take.

It’s not a far walk, scarcely ten minutes, and they pass the time with amicable small talk. They’re barely a hundred feet from the building before she admits to being a huge fan, face blazing red as she vacillates between gushing over their music and apologizing for seeming over-eager.

“I really can’t thank you enough,” she says as they stop at a keypad-enabled doorway. It’s not far from his own dorm and he can recall a few other female trainees mentioning it as a nice place in good condition. He’s glad.

“It’s really no problem. I hate to think of you walking home alone so late at night. You could try asking one of the security guys to escort you home if you’re ever by yourself.” He means it too. It’s hardly out of his way and, though it’s a nice boost for his reputation, it’d be upsetting if something happened to her when he could have prevented it by going a few blocks extra on his own return. She seems sweet and Jisung imagines she’ll make a good idol one day, easily winning over fans with her big eyes and doleful smile.

“Gosh, why are you so nice,” she whines, burying her smile behind her hands. It’s cute. And it can be hard, he knows, when you’re new to a company and friend groups are already well established. Many are welcoming and nice, but some are hostile to new competition. The burden of being a trainee is immense and overwhelming, especially at the beginning when debut seems a million years away.

Maybe he can take her under his wing a bit. They can exchange numbers and he can help encourage her until she gets a more solid base of friends.

It takes him a second to notice the tremor running through her shoulders.

“Hey, what’s wrong? Don’t cry.” Taking a step closer, he gently pulls her wrists away from her face. Her eyes are red and watery when she looks up, just shy of actual crying.

“I’m sorry to be such a mess. It’s been a long few months.” She heaves in a breath, wiping harshly at her face. “But you know all about that. I must seem so childish.”

“No, no, it’s alright. It’s hard sometimes. Let me give you my number. You can text me if you need some advice or encouragement.”

“You really don’t have to do that, I’m just being stupid.”

“Hey, stop that.” He nudges her chin up, forcing her to meet his eyes. “Be nice to yourself.”

Later as he all but runs home with the grace of a drunken cow, he wonders if it was his fault. If he said something wrong, held her gaze too long or let a casual familiarity build too quickly. Even with Stray Kids's success, he didn’t feel above helping out a trainee or insisting against an overly formal interaction. It had all felt natural, to be friendly and approachable.

He went in for a hug, determined to raise her spirits before she settled into bed where her thoughts could turn darker. But it wasn’t a hug she returned. With no hesitation, she leans forward as well, pressing her lips to his.

There's nothing forceful about it, but Jisung is too surprised for a moment to react. His back brushes against the brickwork next to the doorway. The breath left him so quickly, his ribs feel like they'll cave in on themselves any second. Her mouth is wet against his and the press of her chest and hands against his body is viciously hot.

Out out out, he needs out and away right now. His body is locked and frozen and the buzz of panic begins to swarm through his mind. Stuck, he's stuck.

Before his mind can really start to run away with itself, Jihyun takes a massive step back, hand flying to her mouth and eyes going wide.

“Oh my god, I’m so sorry! I thought that’s what you wanted, I didn’t mean to…to force anything on you...!”

“No, no, it’s okay,” he says, words tumbling out in a breathy mess. He lays his palms flat against the bricks behind him, rubbing them just slightly and reveling in the stinging sensation it elicits. “I’m sorry if I implied…that’s not what I meant…”

Tears of an entirely different kind rush down her face and guilt blossoms in his chest. It was forward of her certainly, but she’d only been responding to what she thought was his lead. She’d backed off immediately.

It’s fine, you’re okay, he tries to tell his hammering heart. Stop and focus on her. He needs to get her sent on her way so he can get back to his dorm.

“I’m so sorry,” she repeats, burying her face again and sobbing in earnest. “I don’t know what came over me.”

“It’s only an accident.” He takes a tentative step forward, trying to ensure his knees won't give out under him. “I’m not upset, okay?” A lie, but she doesn't need to know that. It's just him, him and the stupid anxiety that niggles through his brain. A moment of panic had unleashed the flood gates. It's his own stupid body overreacting to an innocent mistake. It does not need to be cause for this trainee, already overwhelmed and buried in self-doubt, to writhe in self-hatred and spend days or even weeks beating herself up over it. That certainly wasn’t going to make things better for either of them.

He reaches out but can’t quite bring himself to grab her wrist. Instead, he takes a step around her, removing himself from the space between her and the wall, and pats the back of her coat. “Please stop crying,” he says, hoping it sounds gentle. He feels suddenly exhausted under the weight of her guilt and frankly, he wants nothing more than to shove her in the doorway and let her emotions be someone else’s problems. He can barely keep a thought together in the face of his own settling fight or flight instinct. Soothing someone else feels far beyond his capabilities right now. But what can he do? She already admitted to have no friends in the dorm.

He tries to think of what the other members of the team might do. It gives him a brief moment of strength as he summons to mind the image of the little wrinkle that would appear on Minho’s nose if you thrust a sobbing girl in his direction. Felix and Hyunjin would be fluttering messes of coos and petting. As if summoned by magic, his phone begins vibrating in his pocket. Right. He’d never gotten around to texting Chan. The vibrations are uneven—texts, not a call, but they are insistent.

“It’s alright now, it’s alright. Listen, I’ve got to be getting home, okay?” Hurry up and pull yourself together, he doesn’t say.

“I’m sorry to have kept you so late,” she whispers. Her sobs have subsided to hiccups, but her face is firmly directed at the ground. He wouldn’t be surprise if she awoke with a crick in her neck the next morning.

“Can you show me your face? So I know you’re alright before I go? Because everything’s fine, okay? I promise. You’re not in trouble, I’m not mad. You don’t need to be ashamed or guilty.”

It feels like ten years before she finally disappears through the door with another flurry of bows and apologies.

Got delayed. OMW now.

Chan replies in a matter of seconds, bombarding him with rapid-fire responses ranging from concern to confusion to exasperation. Hyunjin also sends him a text demanding to know why he was awoken by their leader pacing the living room muttering under his breath.

He doesn’t have much left in him. He sends them both a quick sorry.

Stumbling, he wipes at his eyes, willing them to keep open long enough for him to get home. He’d poured every ounce of strength he had left into Jiyun, willing it to get her upstairs and into bed. Hopefully sleep came quickly to her so she wouldn’t stay awake agonizing.

*

He doesn’t even get into the dorm before the door opens and Chan appears in the doorway. His eyes are wide and frazzled as he rakes over Jisung’s body for any sign of injury.

“Are you okay? What happened? It’s been more than an hour since you texted me to say you were leaving, Jisungie.”

“What’s going on?” Hyunjin mumbles, standing in the hallway, rubbing the sleep from his eyes.

It’s too many questions. His processors are overloaded.

“Hyung,” he whispers. It’s loud enough evidently, as Chan moves forward, pulling Jisung to his chest just in time to keep the latter from dropping to the floor.

“Hey, it’s okay,” Chan says quickly, bringing a hand to the back of Jisung’s head.

“Jisung?” Hyunjin asks, voice far more awake. He rests a hand on Jisung’s shoulder, gently kneading at the tense muscles there. “What happened?”

Jisung’s only aware of how close he is to tears when he can’t get past the sharp pain in his chest enough to answer. “Hyung,” he says again, but it comes out in choppy bits.

“Ah, shh, shh,” Chan hushes, stroking a hand through Jisung’s hair. Before he knows it, the back of his knees hit the couch and the two other members guide him down. His knees draw up immediately and he keeps his face buried in Chan’s shirt. Hyunjin sits on his other side, rubbing a hand up and down his back.

The tears are hot and sluggish and utterly stupid because he’s fine. He got kissed by a girl. He didn’t want it, but that tiny peck could hardly constitute any kind of assault. But for just a second, the tiniest of moments, he wasn’t there. He wasn’t anywhere. He was just wrapped in a sense of panic and terror, knowing only that he was stuck.

He’s fine. He was never in any danger of not being fine. But he was scared, okay? The tremors of it are there, in his hands and shoulders, and his mind brings him back again and again to that single second of feeling trapped and helpless. The senselessness of his reaction only compounds the problem.

“Jisung,” Chan finally says, prodding gently at him until he offers a hum of acknowledgement. “We need to know that you’re not hurt, baby. Can you tell us if you’re hurt or in need of medical attention?”

“I’m okay,” he offers from the confines of the darkness.

“Yeah, you look really okay,” Hyunjin says, but Chan shushes him quickly.

“Okay, that’s good to hear. What do you need right now? It’s pretty late, do you want to sleep?”

He hums an agreement. His tears have stopped, but his face is still hot and swollen feeling. He’ll undoubtedly look a proper mess come morning. Marvelous.

Hyunjin and Chan manage to get him to his feet and frog march him down the hall like a petulant child refusing to use his feet. Honestly he feels like a child. His brain is firmly in off mode. Decisions are beyond him. Coherency is beyond him. Sleep is the only thing he’s capable of. That, and being a wobbly noodle of a human.

Chan wrestles his shoes and pants off as Hyunjin, like the true godsend he is, appears with a warm washcloth for Jisung to wash his face with. Across the room Minho and Jeongin are dead to the world and Jisung hopes to soon join them. If only Jiyun could see him now, he thinks wryly, as two of his teammates all but tuck him into bed in the dim glow of the hallway light. Look at your strong sunbae now.

“Get some sleep, Hannie,” Chan says, hovering in the door way. “But, uh…we’ll have to talk tomorrow, okay? Just a little.”

“Sure, Chan-hyung,” he agrees easily, buoyed by his soft comforter and fresh smelling pillow. Chan leaves with a nod and Hyunjin goes to follow, but Jisung reaches out and snags the edge of his oversized t-shirt, giggling slightly at how far Hyunjin makes it before the stretched fabric stops him. “You’re a good cuddler, Jinnie,” is all he offers when the other stares at him questioningly.

Even with Hyunjin’s ludicrously long limbs koala-ed around him, sleep is surprisingly elusive. Wasn’t he three seconds from hitting the sidewalk a mere thirty minutes ago?

Hyunjin’s breathing is even and slow against Jisung’s clavicle and maybe that's what gives Jisung the courage to whisper into the darkness, “There was this girl, a trainee…”

He’s only a little surprised when Hyunjin hums some sort of encouragement. He takes up Jisung’s fingers in his, toying with them gently.

“She was scared to walk home, so I walked her back to her dorms. It felt good, you know? To be helpful. Like a proper sunbae. But…I guess I misled her by accident because when we got to her dorm…”

He stops. It’s too pathetic to admit this whole breakdown has been about a kiss. Not even anything aggressive, she wasn’t gnawing on his lip and holding his shoulders down. It was an innocent thing, barely more than a peck, brought on by an overabundance of emotion and a need for companionship.

“Jisung?” Hyunjin prompts. His voice is clear. He’s more awake than Jisung thought. “What happened at her dorm?” There’s a tinge of fear there. It makes sense, given Jisung’s massively overblown reaction, to think that something really awful might have happened. He has to tell him, so Hyunjin doesn’t get too far in his own imagination. Spit it out, he insists.

“She kissed me.”

“She forced you?” a third voice snarls, causing both Jisung and Hyunjin to whip around. Minho’s propped up on his elbows, barely visible in the city glow edging around the curtains. There’s no trace of drowsiness on his face and his lips are flat and urgent.

“No, no,” Jisung whispers as soon as his wits catch back up with him. “It’s not like that. It was a misunderstanding. She backed off immediately.” There’s a lot of feelings in him, tugging and pinching and generally demanding his attention, but there’s not a shred of anger at the girl. The last thing he needs is Minho out for heads on some misguided vendetta. “I was…I was just being stupid.” He can’t help it, he presses back against Hyunjin’s chest, wishing more than anything that he could rewind the whole evening. Instead of panic and fear, he’d have gently pushed her back with a conciliatory smile. Sorry, but I think you’ve misunderstood. Maybe some embarrassed laughter on behalf of both parties and she’d have been on her way, maybe still with his number so she could have a friend.

“You’re not being stupid,” Minho says, rather harshly, and Hyunjin’s arm comes over Jisung’s shoulder to tuck him in more comfortably.

“Yeah, baby, if you’re this upset, then it can’t be stupid,” Hyunjin offers, his whisper ghosting over Jisung’s shoulder.

“It’s not like…It’s not…” He huffs. The words are hard. “I’m not, like, a flustered maiden. It’s just that…I wasn't thinking about that sort of thing at all and it caught me off guard. My mind sort of went blank and I felt really trapped, which, yeah, obviously not. ‘Cause she was tiny and she wasn’t being forceful or anything, a tap on her shoulder probably would have been enough.”

Hyunjin hums as he shifts around until he can bury his nose in the back of Jisung’s t-shirt. His presence is warm and firm at his back, keeping him grounded. It feels miles away, that moment of terror, and it’s not so much stupid as it is silly. Down the road it’ll be a story for a variety show or a late night pizza binge – remember that time Jisung was so surprised by a girl kissing him that he made her cry??

“The mind’s like that sometimes,” Minho says with a little shrug as he finally lays back down. He rolls his head to the side so he can keep Jisung’s gaze. “An anxiety thing, you know. Or maybe stress. Sometimes it just, you know, goes on the fritz a bit. I wouldn’t read too much into it.” Turning to face the bottom of Jeongin’s top bunk, he continues, “We don’t have time to worry about romance anyway, so put a stop to whatever sexuality crisis you’ve got brewing in there.”

Some sort of squawk tumbles from his lips and Hyunjin groans as he’s jerked backwards from Jisung’s startle.

“I am not having a sexuality crisis.” Honestly, it hadn’t even crossed his mind in all the chaos. Part of him is eager for the excuse, especially something he’s already pondered in bits and pieces before, but part of him is wary of a quick explanation. His mind is a mess of anxiety and energy and happiness on a regular day. It probably doesn’t need much of an excuse to go on the fritz.

“Hyungs,” Jeongin moans, half-asleep face appearing over the rail of the top bunk. One tuft of hair is sticking straight up while another, stuck in his lashes, twitches every time he blinks. “Can you have this not-a-sexuality-crisis more quietly? Some of us care about our sleep.” Without waiting for a reply, he slithers out of a view like a grumpy dragon receding into its cave.

“He says that now but you know he’ll be pissy in the morning if he’s not in on our juicy late night discussion,” Minho whispers. He barely pulls back in time to dodge the plushie that comes careening into his bunk from above.

Jisung yawns, surprised to find a warm exhaustion creeping up on him again. It’s not like that demanding weariness of before. This is softer. A hot chocolate and bonfires sort of exhaustion. A friends on all sides sort of exhaustion.

“Sleep,” Hyunjin says, settling back in. “We’ll talk more tomorrow.”

Across the way Minho winks at him and Jisung blows a kiss back, already half asleep.