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I will help you climb

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Namjoon is in the principal’s office awaiting punishment. It’s stuffy and near-silent; the tick of the clock and the occasional rustle of fabric or huff of breath is all the noise in the room, but each tiny movement sounds too loud. The kid next to Namjoon keeps breathing; it is terrible. The fluorescent lights also let off a quiet buzz that Namjoon can hear when he listens hard. It’s bright and sterile. The venetian blinds are drawn tight against the pretty March afternoon, and Namjoon is profoundly uncomfortable.

They’re just waiting for Namjoon’s mom to arrive now; everybody else has been here for twenty minutes. He keeps getting asked when she’ll be here, and he keeps explaining it. She doesn’t drive so she has to walk, but she’s on her way. The principal and even the other kid’s dad don’t stop giving him judgmental looks, as if this is in his power. With every passing minute it gets worse. The principal says it’s okay, but he convinces no one.

She does come in, panting, at last, in a t-shirt and jeans with her hair looking messy. The principal’s eyes widen just a little bit at the sight of her. Namjoon notices, but he doesn’t have time to take issue. He’s so relieved to see her here. Everyone else in this room hates him. The kid he punched is dressed really sharply against Namjoon’s tattered jeans and beanie, which isn’t in uniform and got him a write-up in the hall earlier, but he won’t take it off. He’s expressing himself. The kid’s dad is wearing a nice suit and making the sternest face in the world, which his son is mimicking. Namjoon and his mom look like a couple of ragged delinquents.

“Please, have a seat, Ms. Kim,” says the principal. Namjoon’s mom thanks him and sits next to Namjoon, making a frantic face that asks him to explain himself, but every time he’s opened his mouth since arriving in this office he’s been met with three glares.

“Do you know why you’re here?” asks the principal condescendingly.

Namjoon’s mom nods. “My son got in a fight with another student,” she says.

“There was no fight,” the principal corrects her, like she’s a high schooler and not an adult. “Your son hit the junior class president in the face.”

“Is that so?” she asks, and gives Namjoon a what the fuck are you thinking look.

The uppity kid next to Namjoon adjusts the bloody tissue crammed unattractively up his nose.

“So I’ve called you here to talk about the consequences.”

“We need to suspend the student,” says the kid’s well-dressed dad, before the principal’s even done with his sentence, like he’s in a great hurry. His voice is stale.

Namjoon’s mom rolls her eyes. “And deprive him of days of learning? There are other ways to show a kid consequences. I’ll ground him for a week, how’s that?”

The kid’s dad looks her up and down and scoffs, literally scoffs, which must be why his son grew up to be obnoxious. “How are we supposed to believe you’ll really follow through with that?”

“We’re not here to talk about parenting,” says Namjoon’s mom levelly.

The kid’s dad makes a noise that says he thinks otherwise, but Namjoon’s mom ignores it. “This isn’t a problem, he’s not a bad kid. I’m sure we can come up with a better solution than suspension.”

The principal licks an ugly finger and sheafs through a couple pieces of paper on his shapeless grey desk. He chooses one and picks it up. “It looks like your son has been truant both semesters of this year and is failing most of his classes. And now he’s starting fights with other students? Honestly, Ms. Kim, suspension would be sympathetic. I could expel him with a track record like this.”

“What?” barks his mom, looking between the principal and Namjoon like she doesn’t quite understand. Her wounded gaze settles on Namjoon, and he cringes harder than he’s ever cringed. She turns to to principal and says, “Listen, can I talk to my son outside for a minute?”

The principal exhales slowly. “Make it quick.”

Outside, Namjoon’s mom scream-whispers at him for almost a full minute before she lets him speak. “What the hell?” she says. “You’re truant? What do you do all day? Why aren’t you going to class? Why are you failing? You’re too bright for this. Why is this happening? Why did I not notice? Are you trying to make me out to be the worst mother alive?”

Namjoon takes it stoically. After all, he deserves it. She was bound to find out one way or another, he just sort of hoped he’d be able to weasel his way out of punishment for a while longer. He doesn’t explain himself, though, he just lets her finish berating him and says, “I’m sorry. This school sucks. I hit that kid ‘cause he called me stupid.”

And suddenly, Namjoon’s mother is scream-whispering about something completely different. “What?” she snaps. “He called you stupid? He called my son stupid? What the hell? Does he know who he’s messing with? And they want to suspend you and not him? They don’t have consequences here for bullying? I’d argue that you acted in self defense. Come on, I’m going back in there.”

“Mom, wait.”

What, Namjoon?”

“Take a breath before you go.”

She does, but she’s still on fire as she aggressively sits, fixes a glare on the principal and talks him into changing Namjoon’s sentence. “My son says this child called him stupid,” she says, sitting up straight and pointing at the jerk kid. “I find it interesting that we haven’t spoken of any consequences for that behavior.”

“Is that true, Seokjin?” asks the principal wearily, and the kid’s dad purses his lips like he doesn’t see why it’s a problem for kids to be insulting each other.

The kid heaves a sigh that says he thinks he’s way too good for this conversation, but he says, “Yes, sir.”

“I expect better conduct from the junior class president,” he says, though it’s far less convicted than he was when he told Namjoon’s mom about his truancy problem.

“I’m sorry, sir,” says the kid sternly.

“In light of this,” says the principal, and it’s clear that he really just means in light of being yelled at by Namjoon’s spirited mother, “I think both students should be given detention. One week for Seokjin, two for Namjoon, though if he’s diligent I’ll think about letting him off early.”

“That seems more fair,” says Namjoon’s mom.

“Will this be on my son’s permanent record?” asks the other kid’s awful father.

The principal nods. “I’m afraid so, Mr. Kim. We do take bullying very seriously here. Our zero-tolerance policy has been very effective, so I enforce it rigorously. Seokjin will have to think harder about his language in the future.” He says this with no feeling, like he’s had to say it so many times that it’s lost meaning.

There’s an uncannily similar huff and eye roll that boil off Seokjin and his dad, but they accept it, and Namjoon’s mom looks satisfied.

On the walk home, she demands Namjoon explain himself. “Explain to me, son, why you’re truant?”

Namjoon, defeated, speaks quietly. “I don’t know.”

“You don’t know? Sweetheart, there’s only one thing expected of you when you’re your age. You just have to show up. What are you doing all day? Not drugs, right?”

“No, I just walk around.”

“Well, stop walking around and go to class. And don’t fail, you shouldn’t be failing.”

“Alright,” says Namjoon.

“I’m sorry, honey. I know what it’s like. But hitting kids and failing and skipping is just not how I’m going to let my son behave. I’ll have to ground you if you don’t start doing better. I want you to bring your grades up so you don’t fail anything, and no more skipping. You understand me?”

“I understand,” he says. “Sorry.” He means it. He knows he’s disappointing her, even though she’s not really mad. He used to be a really good student. Must suck to have him as a son right now, no matter how laid back she is. “Sorry,” he says again.

“It’s okay, Joonie. It is. But I want you to be better after this.”

“I’ll try.”

“No more skipping.”

“Yeah. Okay.”

 

Detention is a fresh hell. Namjoon’s been ordered to detention before, but he’s never gone, and found, not for the first time in high school, that it’s really easy to get out of things. This time, though, the principal gives him a slip that he needs to get signed and bring to him during advisory period every morning, so he can’t really escape. He thinks about going the first day, memorizing the signature, and forging the rest, but fucking Seokjin will probably tattle on him, the little shit.

Seokjin, by the way, is most of the reason that detention sucks.

The teacher doesn’t really care, she just sits in the back and reads a magazine and makes sure everybody stays quiet and nobody leaves. Namjoon knows a bunch of people in here, mostly pleasant people. One of them is a dude he’s run into off-campus when they should be in class, and though they just hung out once, it was a good time. Another is a girl he’s got math with, who sits in the back and doodles, and once he asked to see and was really impressed. She’s a great artist. There’s also a dude here who hangs out behind the cafeteria and smokes pot all afternoon, and a couple kids he recognizes from classes.

Detention is pretty packed; it’s easy to get in trouble at this school. Not that kids behave worse here, but the school is badly organized and strict. Instead of being helpful or understanding, the school just gives kids detention or suspension, for pretty much any crime. As if that works. Namjoon was actually surprised that, on the day he hit Seokjin, the principal wasn’t already busy reprimanding someone. Seems like he always is. Kids joke that his job title should be changed to Punisher. Namjoon turns his head to check out the rustling across from him, and the kid next to him passes him a note. It’s been most of the way around the room already, people just writing what’s on their mind to pass time. Namjoon reads the whole thing and tries not to laugh at some of the soul-bearing half-anonymous shit scribbled in the margins and corners.

smells like shit in here, wrote the person before him.

like a hot sandwich, agrees Namjoon in messy pen before passing it on.

He notices that Seokjin doesn’t take the note when it comes to him. He refuses to acknowledge it, so the other kid has to reach around him to pass it on, and they almost get caught by the teacher who’s supposed to be supervising them.

“What was that?” she croaks, sounding about as weary as the students in here, and Namjoon wonders if this feels like punishment for her as much as it does for them.

“Dropped my pencil, Miss,” says the kid who just received the note, while Seokjin glares at the wall in front of him. Namjoon wants to hit Seokjin again for being so full of himself. No sense of community at all. He’s looking at the room like he’s above it. If he were so much better than everyone, he’d be in private school or something. But he’s not, he’s in detention just the same as the pot smoking kids and the ones who pick fights.

Namjoon can’t stop looking over at Seokjin. He’s a piece of fucking work, he holds his posture and his face like he’s smelled something terrible through the entire hour. Whenever he huffs or rolls his eyes it makes Namjoon want to scream, but he can’t stop looking. By the time they’re released from detention, Namjoon’s got a tension headache from the effort of keeping his shit together, but at least he can’t imagine it getting any worse.

The second day, however, is worse. It’s not that Seokjin is any different, but that’s really the problem. By now he should have loosened up a little. Namjoon tried to play Seokjin’s behavior off as funny; he and his friends had laughed about it at lunch and his mom had told him not to let it bug him, but it actually made Namjoon so upset that he didn’t sleep well. So, he’s tired and he’s cranky and he really just wants to go home but instead he has to waste an hour in detention and try to ignore fucking Seokjin again.

He can’t, and by the end of the day, he’s so enraged that he doesn’t know what to do. His head hurts, he feels insane and electric, like his body won’t calm down. He settles on two options: explode and die from the rage, or pull Seokjin aside and tell him to calm the fuck down.

So, “Hey, Seokjin,” he says, imitating calmness pretty well.

Seokjin purses his lips but turns around to listen.

“What’s your deal? You know you can relax in there, right?” He’s trying to be cool about it but he’s already losing his resolve, his voice is already getting tight.

“I can’t,” says Seokjin simply, and tries to go.

“You need to. You’re being a dick.”

Seokjin glares and lowers his voice. “That’s rude. But I don’t hit people who smack-talk me.” He’s taunting, he’s so petty. Namjoon could scream.

“Fuck off, you don’t know me,” Namjoon snaps before he can think. This asshole doesn’t get to act like Namjoon hitting him was some grand indicator of the type of person he is at a basic level. No, Namjoon hit him because he was being a dick, and he’s being a dick now, and just because Seokjin doesn’t hit Namjoon when he’s insulted doesn’t make him any less of a dick. He sucks. He’s the worst person alive.

Seokjin’s pouting something fierce. “I know that you got me in detention for the first time in my life. Maybe you don’t care about this stuff, but I need to get into a good school, and you’re setting me back. I shouldn’t be here.”

“Excuse me? You shouldn’t be here? You called me stupid.”

“You are stupid,” spits Seokjin in this way that’s so high-and-mighty that Namjoon’s ears actually start ringing.

“Fuck you, I’m smarter than you are.” He’s cracking, and he tries to curb it. This isn’t supposed to turn into another fight, but Seokjin makes it so hard. He’s the most self-righteous person ever.

Seokjin laughs. “You don’t even come to class, how can you say that?”

Namjoon scoffs. “Oh, you’re right, Junior Class President. I forgot that attendance is the only indicator of intelligence.” He runs a hand through his hair to give it something to do other than crunching against Seokjin’s constantly upturned nose again. “Anyway,” he says, trying to remember his conflict resolution skills, or whatever, “You’re stuck here. So be normal. You’re making it unbearable.”

“I don’t care if it’s bearable for you,” Seokjin bites out, the twerp.

“You’re such a dick,” says Namjoon with a shaky laugh that bespeaks his barely-contained rage.

“Well, you’re a loser, and you’ll never amount to anything,” says Seokjin bitterly.

So, Namjoon hits him again.

 

This time, Seokjin hits back, and he actually packs a punch even though he’s got weird hands and looks weak. So Seokjin’s got a split lip and Namjoon’s got a black eye. Seokjin only gets the one good hit in, though, before Namjoon shoves him hard against the wall and walks the other way, holding his eye and taking some breaths. The throbbing in his ears goes down and he turns to see Seokjin covering his mouth with huge, terrified eyes and whining about how much trouble he’s going to be in. Namjoon could just walk away, the only reason they got caught last time was because Seokjin tattled, but just as he’s slinging his bag over his shoulder and starting to go, feeling weirdly ashamed of himself, a teacher leaves a classroom across from them. She gives them a once-over, Namjoon clutching his face, Seokjin bleeding from his mouth and sitting against the wall like he might really be in shock, and says, “What happened here?”

 

In the principal’s office, with Namjoon’s deflated looking mom and Seokjin’s angry, rude dad, they’re both sentenced the same without hesitation. Namjoon can imagine how Seokjin feels at the way the principal looks down at him, like he’s lost respect for Seokjin. Namjoon actually doesn’t feel like the most hated person in this room right now.

Their punishment serves two purposes. The first is forcing them to work together to resolve their differences, and the second is embarrassing them so that they never want to hit anyone again. They’re on trash duty for two weeks. That means, every day at lunch and after school, they have to go around campus in hideous neon vests and gloves and pick up all the litter they find on school grounds. They’ve got slips that they have to get signed every afternoon saying that they’ve done a good job. People will see them. People will talk. They’re free from detention, but they probably won’t ever live this down.

Namjoon is still infuriated, and Seokjin looks like he wants to cry.

When Seokjin’s dad leaves and snaps that he’ll wait in the car for him to get his things from his locker, he does cry.

Namjoon’s mom looks at him with sympathy. “Hey,” she says soothingly. “Are you okay?”

Seokjin, leaned over his legs in the waiting room to the office, now empty except for the three of them, mutters, “Yeah, fine, sorry.” He shudders a last breath and then he sits up, wipes his eyes with the back of a hand and slings his messenger bag over his shoulder.

“It’s alright,” she says comfortingly, still seated with Namjoon. “This stuff sucks a lot right now, but it’s not forever. It won’t follow you as closely as your teachers make you think it will.”

“I know,” says Seokjin, dabbing his eyes on his sleeve. “It’s not that. It’s just. It’s fine. I’m gonna go.”

And Seokjin, looking smaller and less haughty than Namjoon’s ever seen him, goes.

“That poor boy,” says Namjoon’s mom when they’re walking home. She’s already given Namjoon the speech that she says she feels obligated as a mother to give, but she also says that the humiliation factor of their new punishment is more than enough comeuppance for fighting.

“You’re on his side now?” Namjoon asks, disbelieving.

His mom shakes her head. “I’m on both of your sides,” she says. “I get that he’s insufferable, he is. But he was just crying in there. His parents must be strict.” She draws out the last word.

Namjoon hadn’t really thought about that. They must be. But it doesn’t matter, a jerk is a jerk. Seokjin just has a punchable face. Namjoon knows that better than anyone.

 

Trash duty is miserable. Seokjin doesn’t even say anything petty, he just glares pointedly every few minutes from wherever he is, usually halfway across the quad even though they’re supposed to stay together. It’s not the job that sucks; they’ve got gloves and even special grabby tools that keep them from having to really touch any of the garbage. The problem lies in the fact that they have to be out in these horrible orange vests carrying around trash bags where all the other students can see them. It’s almost inhumane.

Namjoon has a few friends, but none who he’s very close with. He’s a freshman and he’s been mentally checked out since October, so his embarrassment is surface level. People wonder what he’s doing. Some of them might recognize him. He has an ugly black eye that’s starting to go green around the edges. They know he’s in trouble. It sucks.

Seokjin, on the other hand, is going through something like slow social death. Namjoon hates the guy, and they haven’t spoken a word since their last fight, except for on the second day when Seokjin had condescendingly said “Hello,” and Namjoon had grunted back at him. But for all he hates him, he pities him just a little bit. People keep standing near them and unsubtly huddling and gossiping, and it’s clearly not directed at Namjoon. People know who Seokjin is. He’s the one with a reputation to soil.

It gets worse as the days go on, probably as gossip spreads. Kids start walking in clusters to where the two of them stand in their misery, picking up old candy bar wrappers and soda cans. Namjoon wonders how much of the trash he’s had to pick up was dropped by the same inconsiderate people who now stand around gaping at them for picking it up. Namjoon is surprised at how petty and mean people are, and it only gets worse as the days pass. One guy walks by and calls something stupid and inane about how he hopes they’re enjoying themselves, and then, not long after that, somebody throws a carton of milk at Seokjin.

It hits him on the side of his reflective vest with a wet thwack and bursts. Most of the liquid rolls off the vest onto the ground, but there’s some on his pants and a lot of it exploded onto his face and into his hair. It’s dripping. He looks stunned. He stands there like he can’t move for a minute, and then, slowly, pulls off a glove and wipes the spatters off his face with a precise hand. It’s clear that he’s trying hard to look dignified, but it’s pretty much impossible with a bag of other people’s littered garbage in his hand and a faceful of milk.

Namjoon doesn’t know what to do, either. He stands there as agape as Seokjin for a minute, but when Seokjin drops his trash bag right where he stands and turns back toward the nearest building, Namjoon follows him.

He finds him in the bathroom, standing over one of the sinks peeling off his vest and glaring at his reflection in the mirror. He looks up at Namjoon and his expression doesn’t change.

“That sucks,” says Namjoon, trying to extend an olive branch, or at least make this bathroom a safe zone for a minute. It really does suck. Seokjin sucks, but having milk in your hair sucks too.

Seokjin doesn’t say anything, just drops his vest unceremoniously to the ground and presses the lever on the paper towel dispenser aggressively a bunch of times.

“Can I help?” asks Namjoon.

“No,” says Seokjin.

“Okay,” says Namjoon, but he feels weird just standing there so he takes the stack of towels from next to Seokjin and gets it damp for him.

Seokjin takes it from him and mumbles, “Thanks.”

“Yeah,” says Namjoon. Seokjin wipes off his face and hair and the front of his shirt where it’s got milk seeping in the front, and tries his best to get it out of his pants, but it’s already started drying in his jeans and it’s pretty much hopeless. It’s gross and it looks uncomfortable. Seokjin seems unhappy and offended. Then again, when doesn’t he?

Namjoon doesn’t know what else to say. He doesn’t like Seokjin any more than he did before this, and he doesn’t know why he’s feeling so sympathetic when he’s made Seokjin bleed from his face twice in the past week. But when he’d hit Seokjin, it was because he was being a jerk. He wasn’t being a jerk this time. Who just throws shit at someone who’s already being publicly humiliated? Namjoon’s not really sorry for hitting Seokjin. But he wouldn’t be sorry if he hit the guy who threw milk at Seokjin either.

Seokjin finishes trying to get the milk out of his clothes and splashes water on his face before picking up his vest like it’s a dead thing and leaving without saying anything else. It seems, though, like he lingers for Namjoon in the doorway.

 

That afternoon, things start to feel a little different.

Seokjin still looks defeated, and there’s a stain on his shirt and a couple clumps of hair have dried together where he didn’t get the milk out. But he’s dropped a tiny bit of his usual defensiveness. Maybe the set of his shoulders isn’t so tense, maybe he looks like he smelled something that was just sour instead of truly dead and rotten. Maybe it’s that he doesn’t make an incredible effort to stay a mile away from Namjoon. It’s surprising and weird.

Nobody says anything, but the hatred between them seems a little duller.

The next day at lunch, when people start taunting them, Namjoon feels almost a little protective of Seokjin. Really, it’s not that Seokjin deserves better, it’s just that he didn’t do anything wrong! He’s already being punished, that should be enough. It’s cruel, the way some of the students are acting, and nobody’s stopping it. Namjoon hates it when people aren’t considerate.

But he doesn’t try to stop it either. It’s not his place. He’d be hypocritical if he tried to intervene now, and Seokjin hates him anyway. So he lets it happen and keep happening and tries to ignore it and decides that Seokjin’s bigger than him, so he can probably handle himself. In fact, if Namjoon’s sore eye is any indication, Seokjin’s more than capable of handling himself. But the problem is that he won’t.

Namjoon tries to rustle up conversation with Seokjin a few times, just to fill the space, but Seokjin either completely ignores him or answers monosyllabically. At least they’re not fighting, thinks Namjoon. He definitely prefers a quiet Seokjin, keeping to himself for once, to an aggressive one. Even though Namjoon is bored. 

A couple really rude kids start doing this thing where they not-so-subtly litter their lunch trays as they walk by. It starts with just a wrapper here and there, but eventually there are kids dumping their entire lunches out onto the pavement and watching from afar to see how they react. Namjoon puzzles at a soaked burger bun that falls apart when his grabby tool tries to pick it up, and says to Seokjin, “You’d think with so few admins around we’d have gotten away with fighting.”

Seokjin snorts out a laugh. “I don’t get lucky,” he says.

“No?” asks Namjoon, hesitantly, not sure if he should try to turn this into a conversation.

“Nope,” says Seokjin. “It’s a law of the universe. There’s gravity, and there’s pi, and there’s lightspeed, and then there’s Seokjin’s Law which states that if I can get caught doing something incriminating, I will.”

“Heavy burden,” says Namjoon.

Seokjin grunts.

Three kids come by with more trash than they should even be carrying and drop it in front of Seokjin.

Namjoon’s had enough. “Hey, fuck off,” he says, advancing on them.

They run away, giggling about how he’s crazy, but he doesn’t care. He points at another group of people not far off who are trying to look like watching the spectacle isn’t why they’re here, and he says, louder, “You too. Fuck off.”

They do, and Namjoon picks up the trash that Seokjin’s still sort of just blinking at.

“People are so nasty at this school,” he says sympathetically, on hands and knees because it’s easier with this much garbage.

Seokjin doesn’t reply, but he looks at Namjoon with something like apology.

Another few minutes go by, quiet except for the rustling of garbage, and then Seokjin huffs out, “I’m so done picking up trash.”

“I think I’m gonna skip out on it this afternoon,” says Namjoon. “I doubt anyone will notice.”

Seokjin clicks his tongue. “They’ll notice.”

“Seriously,” says Namjoon. “If you’re cool about it, they won’t.”

Seokjin shakes his head as Namjoon stands back up. “If you don’t come, then it’ll just be me, and someone will definitely notice if there’s only one of us.”

“Yeah,” says Namjoon. “So don’t come. I’m serious. Just go home after school. You don’t deserve this.”

Seokjin looks angry with Namjoon again. “You can’t put me in this position.”

Namjoon shrugs.

“If I come then you’ll get in trouble.”

“And if I get in trouble I won’t show up, and if I get in trouble for that I won’t show up for that, and eventually they’ll forget it. Meanwhile you’re getting garbage thrown at you until the end of time. Go home.”

Seokjin frowns deep and looks like he’s thinking it over. He almost seems sold, but then he says, “I can’t go straight home.”

“Oh. Then walk around until you can.”

“Might as well just pick up trash, then.”

“I’ll walk with you,” says Namjoon, and he’s not even sure why. He doesn’t want to, but something about the way Seokjin said that he can’t go home made him feel weird.

Seokjin scoffs. “I don’t want to walk around with you. You hit me every time we talk.”

“We’re talking now,” says Namjoon. “I don’t normally hit people.”

“Could have fooled me,” says Seokjin bitterly.

Namjoon gets serious. “You know how shitty the kid who threw that milk at you was?”

Seokjin groans.

“You were that shitty to me.”

“I wasn’t,” says Seokjin, defensive.

Namjoon tries not to laugh. As soon as he said something that made Seokjin feel threatened, his posture shot up, his stony face came back, and his voice got haughty again. He had started to relax a little. Namjoon consoles him. “Hey, it’s fine,” he says, feeling kind of beyond his anger toward Seokjin right now. “But yeah, you were.” Namjoon had hit Seokjin because the teacher had called on him when he clearly wasn’t listening, just to shame him, and he hadn’t been able to answer the question, and Seokjin had scoffed to his friend that Namjoon was so stupid. And a bunch of people had laughed. It was rude, especially when Namjoon’s ears were already pink with embarrassment. Everyone obviously already thought Namjoon was stupid. Seokjin didn’t have to say it.

So, he’d seethed for the rest of the class period and only gotten more upset, until his head was hot and rage thrummed through his veins. He was so upset that it was hard not to scream, hard not to hit his desk or throw his bag or kick something. He pulled Seokjin aside after class and tried to be calm, tried to just tell him to think before he speaks, but he’d had trouble finding words through the red throbbing in his brain and Seokjin had raised his eyebrows in this piteous sort of way that made Namjoon feel so small, and in that moment there hadn’t been anything else he could do but punch the guy. And he still thinks that Seokjin deserved it.

Seokjin clearly doesn’t think he did anything wrong, and at this point, it doesn’t matter that much. Namjoon maybe shouldn’t have hit him until he bled. The fact remains, they’re here picking up trash and it’s definitely teaching them a lesson. Even if the lesson is that everyone at this school is testing their will to live.

“Anyway,” Namjoon says breathily. “I’m not showing up this afternoon. You can meet me at the exit in the parking lot near the portables if you want to. It’s up to you.”

Seokjin huffs, and Namjoon has no idea if he’ll really see him there.

 

Namjoon waits around for ten minutes or so after school, looking at his phone and leaning against the fence. He wants to give Seokjin a chance to show up if he’s going to, not that he cares.

He’s not that disappointed when Seokjin doesn’t show up, and he turns to walk home.

But, a few minutes later, jogging footsteps come up behind him and slow to a walk at his side.

“Oh, hey,” says Namjoon, looking over to Seokjin, whose chest heaves a little.

“Hi,” says Seokjin quickly.

“You skipped trash duty?”

“I hate trash so much,” says Seokjin. “Littering is a real crime.”

Namjoon nods. “I’m going to be really careful with my trash after this.”

They walk in silence for a couple minutes, and then Seokjin asks, “Where are we going?”

“I don’t know,” says Namjoon. He’s just walking. “Somewhere you wanna go?”

Seokjin makes a noise. “Not really. I’m hungry though. Is there a store around here?”

“Sure,” says Namjoon, and he points vaguely. “Couple blocks that way.”

They don’t talk for another few minutes, adjusting their trajectory to head to the store. Then, Namjoon’s curiosity gets the better of him. “Why can’t you go home?” he asks.

Seokjin heaves a heavy sigh, and there’s real anxiety in it. “My mom expects me to be picking up trash until four, and I’ll get killed if she finds out I’m not.”

“Killed?”

“Really, killed.”

“That’s pretty serious,” says Namjoon gravely, trying to make light of the situation.

Seokjin kicks a leaf on the sidewalk. “Yep,” he says shortly.

“Why did you skip then, if you might get caught and really killed?” Namjoon asks after a silence.

Seokjin shrugs. “I don’t know,” he says. He thinks for a minute and then opens his mouth like he’s got something else to say, but just breathes out again. “I don’t know.”

Namjoon shoves his hands in his pockets. “That’s cool,” he says. Breaking the rules could definitely do Seokjin some good.

 

They don’t skip trash duty the next day at lunch, because Seokjin is willing to leave campus when he’s not legally required to be there, as he explains, but not during school hours. Namjoon says lunch isn’t school hours, it’s lunch, and at a lot of other school kids are allowed to leave and come back. Seokjin hisses, “Not here.”

So they pick up trash, though it’s half-assed. The first couple days they did this chore like it actually mattered, but really, no one is watching them. Seokjin’s still in awe that they didn’t get caught yesterday afternoon, but Namjoon isn’t surprised at all. They don’t have to be doing this. But Seokjin doesn’t know what to do if it’s not what he’s told.

Kids are rude, but Namjoon and Seokjin have almost teamed up against them at this point, and when someone drops their lunch tray near them, they ignore it. Namjoon mutters asshole under his breath and Seokjin says, “True,” and they go to another part of the quad without picking it up.

After school, Seokjin meets up with Namjoon again, and they walk more.

They don’t talk a lot. They’re not friends. They’re just ditching trash duty together. Still, after a week and a half at this, Namjoon pretty much doesn’t hate Seokjin at all anymore. He’s weird and uppity and stoic and quiet and honestly boring, but Namjoon doesn’t hate him. And that makes it a lot easier to spend all this time with him.

On the third afternoon they ditch, Seokjin, out of the blue, says, “Thanks.”

“For what? You’re welcome?”

Seokjin smiles a little to himself, like something’s funny. “For getting me to skip it.”

“Oh, definitely. You’re welcome. This is way better.”

“Yeah. I feel like, powerful about it.”

“Oh?”

Seokjin nods. “Even if I got caught, I think it would be okay. I can do what I want sometimes. It doesn’t really matter, does it? People don’t really care.”

“No, people don’t care at all.”

“Well,” says Seokjin, “I’m glad that they don’t.”

 

On the second Friday, their last day of trash duty, someone actually comes to check on them at lunch. It’s a younger lady, probably some assistant to the principal, and she asks them how they are.

“Fine,” says Seokjin, straightening up in that way he does when he’s got something to prove.

“Good,” she says. “I’ve been sent by the principal to remind you that today is your last day on trash duty and to ask you what you’ve learned.”

Namjoon eyes Seokjin sideways, and Seokjin makes an imploring face; he knows the gist of what Namjoon’s about to say and he wants no part of it. Still, Namjoon speaks his mind, as nonchalantly as anything. “People threw trash at us almost every day,” he starts. “Someone actually threw a carton of milk at Seokjin, and nobody was ever around to stop them. I think half the kids at this school should be on trash duty. Honestly, I’d rather get into fights than drop wet garbage on the pavement just so I can watch somebody else pick it up. Completely disgusting, I can’t believe it. I hate this school.”

The lady looks a little aghast for a minute but composes herself. “I’ll make sure to pass that on,” she says placatingly. She looks down at her clipboard for another cue and asks, “Do you respect each other more now?”

“Sure,” says Namjoon.

“Will you be starting fights with other students any more?”

“No,” says Namjoon, cutting off Seokjin, who’s opened his mouth presumably to sputter out that he doesn’t start fights with other students, which is completely irrelevant right now.

“That’s good,” she says, looking kind of sorry. “Well, after you finish your duty this afternoon, you can bring your vests back to the office and have a quick meeting with the principal. Alright?”

Seokjin says, “Alright. Thank you.”

 

“So, I see you’ve gotten over your differences?” asks the principal that afternoon.

“More or less,” says Seokjin.

The principal nods, full of himself, like his punishment method has been really effective.

“But did your assistant tell you that students were throwing shit at us and dumping their trash the whole time?” says Namjoon.

“No, she didn’t,” says the principal, lying thinly like they’re not smart enough to tell.

Seokjin actually speaks up this time. “This kid threw a full milk carton at me, it was disgusting,” he says.

“Oh, no,” says the principal dryly.

“We got in all this trouble but nobody else was even scolded. I don’t understand how consequences work at this school,” says Seokjin, gaining confidence.

“I’m sorry,” says the principal, clearly disappointed in Seokjin, though Seokjin doesn’t seem to care, “but I think giving a student a black eye is on a different level than littering.”

“Well, if anyone had been there to see it,” says Namjoon. “They’d have been disgusted.”

“That’s not what we’re here to talk about, Mr. Kim,” the Principal says.

Namjoon huffs but doesn’t say anything more. He’s getting really upset and this is not the time. He breathes deeply.

“I’m glad you two have dealt with your differences,” the principal continues. “That’s what I called you here to discuss. No more fighting, right?” he says.

“Sure,” says Namjoon, arms crossed, glaring off to the side.

“Great. Then you can go. I expect not to see either of you here again.”

“Great,” agrees Namjoon sourly, and they go.

Outside, Namjoon growls at Seokjin. “I can’t believe how flippant these people are. Do they not understand that two weeks of trash duty for us isn’t solving anything? Nobody’s any better off.”

Seokjin’s clearly frustrated, but he’s still very mellow. “I don’t know,” he says, almost soothingly. “They don’t get it.”

“You’re the president, can’t you work on this shit?”

Seokjin laughs. “Oh dear, no. We don’t have any say at all.”

“Then why do you exist?” moans Namjoon.

“Because they need someone to plan prom and shit.” The curse sounds foreign on his tongue, and a look of excitement flashes over Seokjin’s face.

At this point they’re outside school grounds and starting to go on the walk that they’ve been on a few times now. It’s green, this neighborhood is pretty, and a little muggy. Namjoon rips off his flannel because he’s hot with frustration as it is and ties it around his waist while stomping a little, walking fast like he’s got to be somewhere.

“Oh my god,” says Namjoon. “I can’t believe this. I want to be homeschooled.”

Seokjin looks at Namjoon dead in the face and says, “No, you don’t.”

Namjoon laughs, bitterly but not without mirth. “How do you know?” Seokjin wrings his hands, looking uncomfortable, and says, “I was homeschooled before high school.”

“Oh, yuck,” says Namjoon.

“Hey,” says Seokjin.

“Not you,” amends Namjoon. “Just, not to be weird, but your dad seemed rude.”

“Well, it was my mom who taught me,” says Seokjin. “My dad works all the time. That’s why he was so rude at those meetings with the principal. He was busy. I interrupted.”

Namjoon understands, but, “Why didn’t your mom come, then?”

“Because my dad handles that stuff.”

Namjoon doesn’t know what that stuff is or why it matters who handles it, but he doesn’t have a dad, so sometimes he gets confused. He changes the subject. “Do you like being homeschooled better, or going to our shitty school?”

“I hate both,” says Seokjin honestly. “I think if I had to pick one, though, I prefer school.”

“Why?”

“Because being around other people is enlightening.”

Namjoon nods. He can’t imagine being homeschooled, he’d probably have gone insane and run away or something, even though he likes his mom a lot. Having people around is good for him, as much as he dislikes everyone sometimes. Then again, if he were homeschooled, maybe his work ethic would be better. Oh well, can’t win them all.

He doesn’t know Seokjin’s parents, but he thinks he doesn’t like them, and he can’t imagine being homeschooled by them. “I’m glad you get to go to school, then,” he says.

“Same here,” says Seokjin. Then he inhales quickly and says, “Do you want to hang out more after this?”

Namjoon shrugs. He still pretty adamantly thinks Seokjin is weird and lame, but, if he’s being honest, he sort of does want to hang out more after this. “Okay,” he says. “You can come to my house sometime.”

Seokjin nods. “That would be nice. My parents might want to meet yours first.”

Namjoon says, “That’s fine.” That should not be a problem. His mom is cool.

“They’ll have to make a good impression since my dad thinks you and your mom are low class.”

Namjoon snorts. “Okay, I’ll rent a tuxedo and my mom can wear a fur coat. Will that help?”

“Definitely. And if you don’t have a crystal chandelier, please get one. It’s the only way.”

“Well, if it’s the only way,” agrees Namjoon.

 

It’s Saturday, and Seokjin’s coming over. The pageantry is hilarious, both to Namjoon and his mom. Seokjin’s mom and dad are both bringing him over, like it’s a really big deal to let him out of their sight. In reality, what Seokjin said was that as soon as he mentioned the idea to his parents, they thought he meant it like some kind of peace offering or diplomatic engagement. They thought he wanted to go to Namjoon's house to finalize some peace treaty between them. They couldn't understand that maybe they just legitimately wanted to hang out. 

Namjoon and his mom very gravely decided to get some cleaning done beforehand, had gotten rid of the Christmas decorations that were still up just because, changed the tablecloth and dusted the bookshelves. Namjoon’s put something on with no tears or stains (harder to find than he expected it would be), and his mom’s wearing her business clothes, the ones she wears when she goes to meet clients. She thinks it’s great that Namjoon and Seokjin are reconciling their differences, but she also thinks this is oddly like a church gathering or a playdate between very young children. Namjoon doesn’t even really think he wants to do this anymore. There’s a lot of pressure. He hasn’t had to deal with this much parental involvement in a long time. His mom’s always been sort of hands-off, and his friends are the same way. He just texts her if he’s going to be late from school, usually has to be home by dark, and sometimes she’ll confirm plans with his friends’ parents on the phone. However, from the sound of it, Mr. and Mrs. Kim are going to want to sit down with Namjoon’s mom and have a talk with her. Namjoon doesn’t really know how to do this, and neither does his mom. They’re stiff. Namjoon keeps laughing nervously.

Seokjin and his parents arrive three minutes before two. Namjoon’s mom has snacks laid out and has made lemonade. She laughs to herself about it, but will do anything to help Namjoon. When Seokjin’s parents knock, she opens the door and welcomes them in.

“Please, have a seat,” she offers, gesturing to the couch in the living room through the kitchen.

“Oh, we’ll only be a moment,” say Seokjin’s mom, a thin and opulently-dressed woman who is a lot better looking than Seokjin’s father. Namjoon sees a lot of her in him, actually, though the way Seokjin almost cowers behind them has none of the confidence that both of his parents embody. “We just wanted to come in and say hello.” She smiles at Namjoon’s mom like she’s trying to be warm.

Namjoon’s mom takes it in stride. “Hello!” she beams, and Namjoon is impressed with her acting. “We’re so glad to have Seokjin over.”

“Is the man of the house around?” she asks, her voice high and tight like she is trying so hard to pretend to be friendly.

Namjoon’s mom snorts and covers it by coughing. She pours herself a glass of lemonade and takes a drink. “He’s not,” she finally says.

How awkward. Seokjin looks at Namjoon sympathetically. Seokjin’s dad looks around the house like he’s inspecting it for sharp things that could hurt his child. “Well, we should get going,” he says to his wife. “I’m glad you boys have worked it out between you. Enjoy yourselves this afternoon.”

Seokjin’s mom says, “We’ll be back after our other boy’s soccer practice. Five o’clock. You boys have fun.”

“Be polite,” says Seokjin’s dad, “don’t leave this house, answer your phone if I call you.” These would all normally be alright things to say to someone, but the way he says them comes off like he’s just trying to remind Seokjin that he’s in charge.

Seokjin nods, lips tight, looking humiliated, and lets his father pat him condescendingly on the shoulder and his mother say “Bye, sweetie,” before they leave and Seokjin visibly relaxes.

“You want some snacks?” asks Namjoon’s mom, obviously startled and apprehensive.

“Sorry,” Seokjin mutters.

“For what?” asks Namjoon’s mom. “You’re fine.” She emphasizes you. “Anyway, you two can run off, just don’t get into trouble and be ready to go when your parents get back.”

Namjoon nods. “You want a tour?” he asks sheepishly.

“Sure,” says Seokjin.

So Namjoon leads him from room to room in his modest house, shows him where the bathroom is and the living room, gestures to the plants that sit in the windowsill and hang from the ceiling in the kitchen and the dining room, shows him the closed doors to his mom’s room and her office, and finally takes him down the hall to the corner where his room is.

“So this is where I live,” he says, leading Seokjin inside.

It’s not a big room, and it’s not particularly clean, but it’s homey. Everything’s sort of monochromatically blue, the walls are lighter blue and the comforter on the bed is a deep navy, and the bookshelf and desk are black. The windows, on two sides, let in comforting natural light. Instead of turning on the overhead light, Namjoon goes to where a floor lamp stands near the desk and clicks that on. There’s a laptop closed and plugged in on his desk, a poster of someone Seokjin doesn’t recognize on one wall, a couple little trophies and medals arranged on top of his bookcase, but the main thing about Namjoon’s room is that there are books littered sort of everywhere. There’s a stack on the desk, and two glossy hardcovers lay open there. They look like reference books. More are crammed into a basket on the nightstand and there’s one on Namjoon’s pillow; those ones are mostly paperbacks. He’s also got two tall stacks in front of the bookshelf: overflow, because the shelf is crammed as creatively as possible already. Seokjin doesn’t snoop, but he does say, “Lots of books in here.”

“Oh, yeah, I don’t know,” says Namjoon.

Seokjin is awkward and they both clearly feel weird about being here, but Seokjin presses through the heaviness that’s making it hard for them to talk to each other. “Do you read a lot?”

Namjoon hums a yes and grabs the book off his pillow, hands it to Seokjin. “Here’s what I’m reading now,” he says. “It’s really good.”

Seokjin looks at the cover for a minute, taking it in, and then reads the back. It honestly seems sort of boring, a fictionalized account of an actual shipwreck, or something.

“It’s about this poet that I like,” Namjoon says. “He’s this guy who keeps turning up in my life, even though nobody knows who he is. I just keep seeing him around. He has this poem I love about being like, acidic, and dirty, and wanting to fling himself off a cliff.”

“That’s heavy,” says Seokjin.

“Well, it’s relatable,” says Namjoon. “Anyway, I saw this at the bookstore a couple weeks ago. I guess this book was super limited release because nobody cared about it. But who would take this one random thing that happened to this one random poet and write a book about it? This author must be the only other fan in the world.”

“Do you have any of his poetry here?”

Namjoon’s already on his knees rifling through his bookshelf. “Mhmm,” he says, sliding one of the overflow stacks out of the way and finally finding what he’s looking for.

He leafs through it until he finds a poem that he likes and hands it to Seokjin, who reads it, and doesn’t really get it, but Namjoon’s going, “Isn’t it so good?” and practically bouncing on his heels as he reads it over Seokjin’s shoulder and responds appropriately to every line, reciting a few choice bits emotively. Seokjin can’t help but get a little excited about it, just because he’s never seen Namjoon so engaged with something before and it’s pretty cool.

They go to the kitchen again after a few minutes and have some of the snacks his mom left out. She’s nowhere to be found, probably working in her office, and Namjoon, with a mouth full of food, asks Seokjin if he wants to go on a walk.

He does, and they do. They talk and they laugh like there’s some wall palpably breaking down between them. Namjoon shows him his favorite house in the neighborhood, yard overgrown with almost too many plants. Seokjin doesn’t talk much about himself, but they do talk about school.

“I keep forgetting you’re a freshman,” Seokjin says.

“Yeah,” Namjoon says.

“Why are you in precalc?”

Namjoon shrugs. He is failing precalc.

They’re back at 4:30, cheeks pink from laughing at each other. They’d been working on their impressions of the principal, offering critique, and had both gotten very good. Seokjin’s is better, though. Once he got the sort of wet sound to his voice, the rest was smooth sailing. Though, Seokjin concedes, Namjoon’s isn’t so bad either. He’s got the wooden posture and the frown down-pat.

They walk into the house ready to eat more. The lemonade is suddenly really appealing, also, and they each suck down big glasses. Namjoon’s mom hears them and comes out from her office, no longer in her business clothes.

“Have fun?” she asks.

Namjoon nods, smiling so that he gets dimples, and Seokjin says, “Yep.”

After Seokjin leaves, Namjoon’s mom nods at him resolutely. “Well, I’m glad you two had a nice time,” she says.

“We did, actually,” he says, like he’s confirming that to himself.

“He seems like a nice kid,” she says. “His parents are a nightmare, but I think it’s good that you’re talking to him.”

Namjoon agrees. He doesn’t think he and Seokjin can ever be close, exactly, but he actually doesn’t mind the guy. He’s got a very different way of behaving when nobody else is watching. Seokjin works hard to impress everyone, to come off a certain way, like he’s mature and stoic and smart, but increasingly when he’s with Namjoon he drops that act and just seems like a person. Namjoon almost feels lucky that he’s getting to see that side of him. He hates the kid he punched, he hates the junior class president, the kid who walks around school with other prim kids and buddies up with all his teachers. But, Namjoon’s not sure he really hates Seokjin.