Actions

Work Header

Eighteen

Work Text:

Hey, sorry to cut in already, but I just wanted to write a small disclaimer: firstly this work is purely fiction, and secondly there is a lot of triggering content in this story, especially surrounding child abuse, panic attacks, and eating disorders. Please be safe reading this.

 

 

 

Five.

 

Jeongin can confidently say that the earliest thing he can remember was from when he was five years old. It was nothing special really – just the way the crisp orange September leaves fell from the almost barren trees in the Autumn light.

 

He doesn’t remember where he was, or who he was with – probably some random day-babysitter, but he remembered the way her skinny gloved hand felt warm in his. He remembered the way he caught a falling leaf in the palm of his hand like it had been guided there by the spirits above.

 

It was beautiful – large, perfectly symmetrical, was a golden-orange colour with bright red tips.

 

Jeongin remembers the leaf, but more than the visual image of its delicacy and enchanting colours, he remembers it’s sickening sound as he crushed it, turning his open palm to a fist. The remnants of it fell out of his hands and he had promptly burst into tears, leaving the babysitter to dry his tears as they walked back home.

 

When he had told his eight-year-old brother Jeongsan about it, he had laughed and said; ‘that’s just the way things are.’

 

They had laid together in silence on his and Jeongsan’s shared single bed, as they waited for their parents to get home. Jeongin had thought about how cold it was outside but how it felt colder when his mother came to see him, her face twisted in anger.

 

That was his second earliest memory. The way his mother’s face was distorted in annoyance and scorn as she roughly clasped his hand and dragged him out of bed. His hands weren’t warm from his babysitter’s hands anymore – the one that replaced it was bony with protruding blue veins and cat-like claws.

 

Jeongin wished he could remember why she was so mad, but time seemed to have destroyed that part of his story, just like how he had destroyed that golden-orange leaf.

 

 

 

Seven.

 

As much as he wouldn’t like to admit it, Jeongin wished the seventh year of his life was a part that could just be erased. In complete honesty, most of it was. After learning about it in his Psychology class recently, he discovered that repressed memories due to childhood trauma was a thing that he definitely had.

 

All he remembered from being the age of seven was pain and fear and eventually being taken away. He remembers how on his seventh birthday, his mother hadn’t brought him a cake that he so desperately had wished for, and when he voiced his complaints she had grabbed his arm with her veiny hands and snapped it clean like an ice-cream stick.

 

That had taken some explaining to do at the hospital – he almost laughed at the ridiculous story his mother had forced him to learn to recite to the doctor through his tears. It was about a tree – a large tree with branches reaching the sky – and a tree that Jeongin supposedly went to every day after school. One day, his mother hissed at him, her eyes glowing a fiery amber colour as the lights flickered off her brown orbs, one-day Jeongin had seen a cat in the tree and climbed up to the thin branches to get it, but just as he reached the black cat’s tail, it swiped at him, and it had scared him so much that he fell out of the tree.

 

He could probably recite it perfectly now.

 

He also remembered his father at this time. His Dad often hummed to him and Jeongsan, so quietly as to not wake his mother, but comforting none the less. It was the same tune every time – something that Jeongin had never heard before excepting with the bittersweet tinge of melancholy his father added to it when nights were extremely rough. Jeongin always looked up to his father in some ways. The man always had purple under his eyes, whether from tiredness or bruises, Jeongin didn’t know.

 

However, more than anything, he remembered the countless nights he spent curled up next to his Jeongsan, as his hyung whispered ‘don’t worry JeongJeong, they’ll stop soon’ in his ear and gently played with his hair.

 

That was what he was still doing as Jeongin burrowed his head further into his brother’s chest, but the nickname comforted him; distracted him from the angry yells and screams.

 

As much as he hated to, he looked back towards the fight.

 

His mother now had a large bump on her belly, like someone had stuffed a huge balloon down her shirt. His brother explained that soon Jeongin wouldn’t be the youngest anymore, and Jeongin wasn’t sure how he felt about that.

 

“If Mummy’s too tired to make dinner, how come she can scream and throw things at Daddy all the time?” Jeongin had naively, innocently asked. Jeongsan didn’t seem to have a response for that and just hugged him tighter when a stray plate came their way and exploded into pieces upon its impact of the wall above them.

 

After a while, by the time spring passed, the weather cleared of thunderstorms but the Park household did not. His mother had the baby, who Jeongin immediately adored and promised not to touch in fear of breaking it which his elder brother assured him with a chuckle that he would not.

 

As the sun became hotter though, so did his mother’s temper, which became a fire that burnt him every time he got near. It was also this time that his father, after an extremely loud argument with his Mum and a quick kiss to the top of the heads of his sons, left without coming back. This only made his mother’s temper worse, and now that she didn’t have her husband to lash out at, she shifted it to her children.

 

“You’re all worthless! Ya’ have ruined my life!” she howled, tugging at her thinning hair again.

 

Jeongin stepped backwards, tears already threatening to run down his cheeks as he gripped his first-ever school project. It was a poster about one of South Korea’s most beautiful tourist destinations; the glorious Han River. When he had shown his mother, too excited about completing it to recognise her bad mood, he had asked one simple question; ‘can we go together one day?’’

 

That innocent question was what had destroyed her calm, pushed her off the edge, and now there he was, holding a poster ripped by those heinous cat-like claws.

 

His hard work, his hours at school, his drawing of the river he had made sure not to colour outside of the lines of, was all gone.

 

And it was his fault.

 

“You think we have the money to do that, huh?” she yowled, smashing a soju bottle against the television box and spinning towards him, her wrinkled expression full of rage. “And even if we did, why’d ya think I’d wanna spend it, on’na brat like you!

 

The way the hairs on the back of his neck rose suddenly and warned him of what was about to come and just as Jeongin retreated back quickly, the glass bottle, shining in all of its dangerous daggers, swiped through the air with a ‘swoosh’ just in front of his nose.

 

He gasped in silent shock. If he hadn’t have moved on the time it would have been his face.

 

Jeongin felt the tears well up in his eyes and his bottom lip tremble but he forced himself not to cry – Mummy would just get even more angry.

 

“Don’t touch him!” Jeongsan yelled, holding the baby close to his chest from next to him, but Mother reached out her wrinkled hand again, this time slapping him across his face.

 

“How dare you speak back to me!” she screamed and hit him again. If Jeongin had to remember anything from that day, it was the sound of skin hitting skin, a rough palm colliding with a soft cheek, evil meeting good.

 

“You’re all disgraces! Disgusting, little pieces of shit! Ya’ never thank me for all I’ve done for you!” she screeched, tugging at his thin and unwashed hair. She slapped Jeongsan hard again and Jeongin stood frozen out of fear. The baby fell out of the boy’s hands and tumbled to the hard floor.

 

“No one likes worthless little ungrateful gremlins like you!” she hissed turning to Jeongin. Her eyes were bulging out of her head with anger, her lips were cracked and pale but had lines of drool dribbling down them all the same. Jeongin winced at her ugly image, and more at her words-

 

“No one will love you except me! Do you hear that? No one.

 

No one. Nobody.

 

He recalled crying that day after his mother left the house to get some alcohol, sobbing into Jeongsan’s shoulder again. The thing to shut him up though, was not his mother who usually scolded him for making noise. It was his brother.

 

“Jeongin, please! We’ve had a bad day already, alright? Stop crying and being a baby – we need to look after Jeongwoo and I can’t do that alone!”

 

Jeongin forced the lump down his throat and held Jeongwoo for the first time as Jeongsan went to the bathroom to clean up the gash on his cheek left by their mother’s broken engagement ring.

 

It was time to grow up.

 

When he was seven years old, he promised himself that he would never cry around anyone again.

 

 

Later that year, as winter came, a plump lady and an angry-looking man were at the door when Jeongin answered it. They asked him a lot of questions about his mother which he answered honestly because the man with the thick eyebrows scared him. And the woman at first too, but her face was soft, and her voice was gentle, and when he realised she wasn’t there to hit or scold him he immediately trusted her whole-heartedly.

 

The lady smiled and asked to come inside. Jeongin let her and told her to ignore the empty soju bottles because they were there because he hadn’t cleaned the house yet. She looked around, under the tables, in the empty fridge and the took notes on a clipboard.

 

For the first time in his life, Jeongin felt embarrassed at the poor state of the house! His mother never let his father have guests over, and there was no way Jeongin would be asking her to let one of his school-friends around, so the house looked terrible.

 

Windows that were broken in his mother’s extreme fits of rage were barred up with wooden planks, and apart from a tattered sofa, a bare and unused dining room table and a television, the entry room was almost bare.

 

It was as if empty beer bottles and band-aids were the décor around the house.

 

Still, he had to be a good host (the horror if it was all just a test and his mother hit him for not being good enough!) so he showed the pair to his bedroom.

 

Jeongin tried not to squirm as eyebrow-man sniffed at the bedsheets that he, Jeongsan and Jeongsan and sometimes Jeongwoo, shared on the single bed.

 

“So, you and your bothers all sleep here?” The woman asked softly and Jeongin nodded in affirmation with a smile.

 

“Yeah! My friends at school always talk about sleepovers, so I’m guessing that’s what I have every night! Aren’t I lucky?”

 

The woman chuckled half-heartedly and wrote something down. Jeongin watched as eyebrow-man stepped gingerly to one side of the room and picked up a dirty diaper that Jeongin hadn’t found the strength to clean away last night as his mother was angry again.

 

“Does your father live at home?” the woman asked, her hair bouncing as she spoke and Jeongin couldn’t suppress a giggle at its strange movement.

 

“Yeah” Jeongin shrugged picking at the hem of his short-sleeved shirt. “He sleeps there.”

 

“W-Where?” the woman asked confusedly and Jeongin pointed at her.

 

“There.”

 

The woman shuffled backwards until the direction his skinny finger was pointing was at her feet.

 

Eyebrow-man stifled something like a grunt and Jeongin flinched at the unexpected noise, but quickly recovered himself when the bouncy-haired woman looked at him in something short of perplexment.

 

Appa says he likes it down there so then he can watch out for monsters, like tigers, that live under the bed and if the ones from outside come into our room, he can fend them off and protect us,” Jeongin said, his head high and proud.

 

He crinkled his nose and glared at the floorboards, the unkempt nails poking dangerously into the sole of his shoes.

 

“One time I slept down there, but I hated it, so I made Daddy move there even though his back was all red and sticky” Jeongin laughed at the memory, and at the loud groans his father made all through the night as Jeongin slept in the warm bed, that made his sound like a seal he saw on a documentary. “It was really funny.”

 

“Oh, I see” the woman plainly said, and Jeongin smiled up at her, wondering if he said enough to answer her many questions.

 

She asked where the bruises on his arms were from, but this time, he kept quiet – he didn’t think he could answer that honestly at all.

 

When Jeongsan came back from grocery shopping with Jeongwoo tucked under his arm, he panicked and rushed the nice lady and eyebrow-man out of the house. He yelled at Jeongin to never let strangers in the house again because something really bad could have happened to him.

 

Jeongin didn’t understand why his brother was so angry with him. He thought he had done the right thing? He especially didn’t to get hit by them, so he was hesitant to refuse them….

 

Jeongin went to bed that night, with Jeongsan facing away from him and Jeongwoo close to his chest feeling as confused as ever, but as the months went on, and as it became less weird to wear the coats his mother forced on in the mornings before school to cover his bruises, he completely forgot about it.

 

Two months later, just before his eighth birthday, Jeongin realized why letting them in that day and answering their questions was so wrong.

 

In one day, they had arrested his mother and taken Jeongwoo away from his bed of Jeongsan’s jumper and old newspapers on the floor. The next day the woman came back and told him that ‘everything as going to be okay’ as long as Jeongin followed her.

 

Jeongin had felt his bottom lip tremble as he got into the stranger’s car and buckled his seatbelt. He felt his eyes water when the car drove away from his house, leaving Jeongsan crying, restrained by the eyebrow-man on the doorstep.

 

He was seven, so he didn’t understand.

 

But he knew something was irreversibly and unconditionally wrong.

 

It was evident enough in the way Jeongsan wiped and screamed as he tried to twist out of eyebrow-man’s strong grasp. Jeongin had never seen his brother cry in his life, not when Mother starved them for days on end, not when they were being hit, not when their favourite character died on the movie their mother had let them watch one night.

 

But there he was, as Jeongin was taken away, begging, howling, fighting, sobbing. Jeongin clenched his fists and robotically turned his head away to glare at the driver’s seat in front of him.

 

He had ripped apart his whole family. He had brought his elder brother, the pillar of strength and dependence to a withering mess of snot and tears. He might never see his Mother or Jeongwoo again.

 

He clenched his fists tighter to the point they started to shake violently.

 

He had destroyed everything.

 

 

 

Nine.

 

Three days after his ninth birthday he got herded out of the overcrowded two-to-a-bed orphanage and into the hands of two people with two bright smiles on their face. When they told him the news, Jeongin let a hesitant smile crawl onto his own face.

 

He had gotten adopted.

 

His new parents were nice enough, he’d met them one day when they came into the orphanage, and he decided a few months into the living arrangement (that they promised was permanent unlike the orphanage and past few foster homes, which had only lasted two weeks anyway before they dumped him) that he liked it.

 

They fed him, didn’t yell at him or hit him, gave him a whole entire bedroom (and a bed to himself!), and always made sure he was okay.

 

His room even hard little neon glow-in-the-dark stars on the roof, that his father had put up the first week he had arrived.

 

Are they real?” he had asked, intrigued as they lit up the room despite the cold darkness outside.

 

As real as you want, kiddo” his dad had answered.

 

That was the first time since arriving that Jeongin had smiled.

 

He was, in fact, okay. He was alright – he had started at a new school, made a lot of new friends and even got a gaming console as a six-month anniversary-from-his-arrival present. However, Jeongin sometimes still felt a sadness, so strong that he felt it would rot his heart in his body, but he didn’t know how to describe or put into words.

 

Still, if anything, he was grateful.

 

This new house was far better than his old one. And it was far, far better than the group-home-orphanage he was sent to for a year or any of his short-term foster homes, where they basically treated him like a house slave. The second family even made him sleep in the dog-house one night when he had dropped a plate, then was thrown into a subsequent harrowing flashback, but that didn’t matter anymore.

 

Sometimes he would think about his brothers – he wondered if they were adopted like he was – it was their only option as unfortunately their real dad was fatally injured in a drink-driving accident not long after he left for Seoul.

 

‘It was the guilt’ the social worker had told him, but Jeongin didn’t fully comprehend those words as they were spoken to him. Were they supposed to console him? Or were they supposed to make him feel like everything in his short life was going terribly wrong?

 

That didn’t matter now though, because he would always remain thankful to his new parents for so many reasons, but the main one was the introduction to ‘trot music.’ His adoptive father listened to these trot songs every time he and Jeongin went out in the car, whether to the swimming pool or to school, and it quickly became Jeongin’s first passion.

 

He had sung and sung, and with praise from his new family, he found he had quite the talent for it. It wasn’t long until he discovered the glorious world of KPOP and when he raced home and begged his mother for dancing and vocal lessons she had agreed with a large supportive smile on her face.

 

Before his first performance at the music company’s annual talent show, Jeongin was so pale to the point he was nearly pulled to sit out. He refused though and with shaky knees, he walked onto the stage at the call of his name, his new one with his new family’s surname; Yang.

 

When the music began, the stage’s spotlight hot on his skin, Jeongin almost missed his cue. But after the first new lines, the euphoria of performing spread through his body and lightened his body, to the point he was swaying with the high notes of this trot song and dancing to the low ones.

 

When the music finished, he was breathless, his heart still hammering in his chest with exhilaration.

 

He looked out to the audience, the sound of their applause the new music to his ears. They beamed at him, their many faces radiating happiness and Jeongin found himself grinning back at them.

 

He smiled because for the first time he had created this emotion, this happiness, rather than destroyed it.

 

 

 

Eleven.

 

He was eleven when he realised that he was one of the lucky ones.

 

It was also at this age he learnt that luck wasn’t just something that helped him win one game of scissors, paper, rock and it wasn’t just the small thing that provided as a factor that he got chosen as class president – luck was far, far bigger and more serious than that.

 

“Jeongin, how do you feel about reconnecting with your family?”

 

The question lingered in the air over the white dining room table and Jeongin stared at his parents blankly, his hands stopping fidgeting with the Rubik’s Cube he loved half to death.

 

“You don’t have to” his father rushed out at Jeongin’s reaction, waving his hands in the air like a mad-man. “It’s just we thought that you are old enough and have settled in well enough here to maybe think about getting in touch with your brothers and your mother.”

 

“Not my Mum” Jeongin chocked out, his voice cracking as he grumbled out his words. “I don’t want to see her.”

 

“Okay that’s okay” his mother reassured him, her voice high and shrill like the sound of air slowly leaking out of a balloon, like that wasn’t really the answer she was looking for. The sound hurt his ears, but he did his best not to wince – she was just trying to help him after all.

 

“What about your brothers?”

 

Jeongin solved the cube, the colours bright and blocky in his hands.

 

“Yeah” he smiled softly. “I’d like that.”

 

 

It turned out that getting in touch with his brothers was not as easy as it seemed. It was three months until he got a reply from Jeongwoo’s new mother and he was shocked when the messages were all sent in English.

 

He was even more confused when the photo of his now two-year-old brother was standing next to a pale and blonde woman.

 

“Why is Jeongwoo’s new mum white?” he asked with disdain and astonishment, puzzled at the photo and unable to translate the English into a language he could understand.

 

“Because Jeongwoo got adopted by American parents” his mother answered breezily, folding the laundry next to her.

 

“But Jeongwoo’s Korean!” Jeongin whined and slammed the phone back on the table.

 

“Hey!” his mother scolded him and Jeongin flinched at the loud and sudden noise. Her face softened immediately. “See how happy Jeongwoo looks in the picture?” she crooned, stopping her chores and walking over to sit beside Jeongin.

 

“Yeah?” Jeongin asked, looking at the attached image again. Jeongwoo did look happy – he was standing up with a bright green shirt on and a huge smile on display.

 

“Then it doesn’t matter whether he lives here or in America. And it says-” she broke off, attempting to decode Jeongwoo’s new mother’s text messages. “- It says here that he has a sister… who is from Africa… and an elder brother from Thailand.” She paused again.

 

“Ah…” she smiled and Jeongin immediately asked a series of ‘What? What?’

 

She turned away from the phone. “They are connecting Jeongwoo to his culture and making sure he learns English and Korean. And they gave him an English name – Jason.”

 

Jason?” Jeongin tested the new name on his tongue. It felt unfamiliar and strange and he quickly decided that he didn’t like it.

 

“Jeongwoo looks happy, Jeonginne” his mother ruffled his hair and returned to care for the laundry at the other side of the table. “That’s the most important thing. Happiness is the most important thing for everyone, Jeongin, remember that.”

 

‘Happiness is the most important thing’ he repeated in his mind again and again as he laid in his bed that night. He tossed and turned but sleep didn’t take him – the glow-in-the-dark stars on his ceiling had dimmed considerably now, making the room look boring and unsettling in the dark.

 

“Happiness is the most important thing,” he said out loud this time, but nothing answered him.

 

If happiness was so vital, then why did the sadness, that rotted him from the inside out plague him? Why did he feel so replaced upon seeing the photos of Jeongwoo’s smiling face, when his younger brother now had a completely new brother from Thailand?

 

Why, even when feeling this sad, couldn’t he cry anymore?

 

 

Meeting Jeongsan again somehow went even worse. Not the actual meeting itself - sure, Jeongin embarrassed himself a bit in trying to act cooler than he was as an undergrown eleven-almost-twelve-year-old, but the sour part of the whole interaction was the after. This was where Jeongin had the epiphany of what luck truly was.

 

He had waited nervously, his fingers fiddling with the hems of his sleeves as they usually did when he was anxious. They were set to meet at the local library and then would be left alone for a few hours until their respective parents picked them up before dinner.

 

‘Jeongsan is coming here all the way from Incheon’ he remembered his mother tell him as they drove to the library. ‘And keep it in mind that he might be nervous at first – he hasn’t been back to Busan since leaving.’

 

Jeongin’s stomach flip-flopped like a pancake as he bounced on the balls of his heels as he thought about everything that could possibly go wrong, but soon it changed to nervous excitement.

 

After three whole years, he was about to reunite with his brother!

 

It happened in a moment –

 

“Jeongin?”

 

He turned and stared in shock.

 

In front of him was a lanky boy, now at the age of fourteen if Jeongin remembered correctly, wearing an American band T-Shirt and dark ‘emo’ ripped jeans. He suddenly felt self-conscious in his baby blue shirt he had picked out last night for the special occasion.

 

His insecurity didn’t last long however as in an instant he was wrapped in Jeongsan’s protective arms. It reminded him of safety. Jeongin inhaled the band t-shirt, tears pricking at his eyes as he hugged his brother back. He still smelt the same.

 

The next two hours went by quickly; they were cordial with each other, asking about school and subjects and reminiscing on old memories. Jeongin told him all about Jeongwoo and how his mother was American and Jeongsan just laughed, if anything with a bitter, hollow sound to it.

 

To fill the time, Jeongin ranted about his passion – music. He told Jeongsan about his performances and his love for trot music, and the way he had actually gotten accepted into a local dance team recently.

 

Jeongsan smiled, but as the sky turned from blue to orange, Jeongin started to realise that it was a bit forced. They walked all over the ‘good’ half of town, from the ice-cream parlour to the bowling alley and cinema.

 

Now Jeongin was walked quickly in his youthful risk-taking on the row of rocks that lined the pavement, with his half-melted chocolate cone ice-cream in hand. He walked precariously as if a gust of wind would threaten his chance to reach the end of the rocks without falling.

 

Jeongsan walked in a much more mature way, his hands deep in his jean pockets. He had already finished his mango gelato after Jeongin had accidentally knocked into him and spilt the mango concoction all down the boy’s sleeves. Jeongin was mortified and apologised quickly with the promise of buying his hyung another one, but Jeongsan just laughed and rolled up his sleeves.

 

When Jeongin saw the small careful lines on Jeongsan’s forearm he didn’t say anything, he didn’t understand what they were or where they were from, but his gut stirred in discomfort, just like it had this morning.

 

But that didn’t matter – he convinced himself it was nothing despite the way the hairs on the back of his neck told him otherwise and kept rambling about music and the idol industry that he wanted to go into. As the sky darkened, Jeongsan became quieter and after another ten minutes of Jeongin’s long-winded tale of how he embarrassed himself in front of his music teacher yesterday, the younger found nothing else to say.

 

He looked at Jeongsan desperately, wishing that he would take the initiative and start a conversation, just like how Jeongin had been doing the whole day. But the elder said nothing, still holding a simple small smile on his face.

 

Jeongin fiddled with his own sleeves, becoming desperate now for what to say as they walked. The line of rocks came to an end and he jumped down to join his brother on the pavement, their shoulders brushing as they walked together. So Jeongin naively asked the only question he could think of.

 

“What are your new parents like?”

 

As Jeongsan’s smile dropped, Jeongin immediately felt his heart freeze over and knew that it was the wrong thing to ask.

 

Silence, for the first time that day created a barrier between the brothers.

 

“I didn’t get adopted.”

 

Jeongin stopped walking. What?

 

“Y-You didn’t get adopted?” he asked incredulously as Jeongsan seemed to hunch into himself at the question. “B-But you’re so cool! And brave!”

 

“Yeah” the elder scoffed, his feet shuffling against the pavement. “I guess no one wanted me though.”

 

Jeongin swallowed. His brother was the best person on the planet! Always protecting him and looking after him… how could no one choose him? “Where do you live now?” he asked softly.

 

“I live in a foster home,” Jeongsan said, his eyes widening at Jeongin’s shocked expression. “It’s not like a group home I have like parents now I guess, it’s just that none of us, there’s four of us there, will get adopted.”

 

“Ever?” Jeongin asked again, his stomach twisting itself in anticipation.

 

“Well it’s like long-term fostering, so I probably won’t get adopted, I’m too old now, but maybe some of the kids will.”

 

Stillness drifted between the pair again but this time it wasn’t awkward, it was almost the sign of acceptance.

 

“I can’t wait till I’m nineteen” the boy sighed and Jeongin looked up in surprise. It was the first thing he had said that whole day without being asked.

 

“Why?” Jeongin furrowed his brows in confusion.

 

“Because then I can make something of myself – I will be a legal adult, and then I can go achieve something in this world, leave everything else behind.”

 

Jeongin didn’t know how to answer that, so he mulled over his words for a second.

 

“Why don’t you just start now?”

 

Jeongsan looked surprised at his question, before rolling down his sleeves and looking away, into the sunset.

 

“You wouldn’t understand JeongJeong, while we’re young we can’t do anything. Trapped by stupid laws and adult’s expectations; we’re basically nothing except study slaves until we turn nineteen.”

 

Jeongin stayed quiet that time, internally disagreeing with what his brother said. The once comforting nickname Jeongsan had given him was now said in a way that made Jeongin just feel dumb.

 

He didn’t hear what Jeongsan said next – probably something about politics, but he heard the underlying message of what his brother said before:

 

You’re too young to understand.

 

At 5:30 p.m. Jeongin’s mother arrived with a bright-eyes and a chocolate bar and teddy-bear for Jeongsan. He accepted them with a smile, but Jeongin now knew that it wasn’t a real one.

 

It was the same one his brother had plastered on his face the whole day.

 

They waited together as a taxi came for Jeongsan to take him to the train station.

 

The brothers hugged goodbyes and exchanged their emails with a promise to keep in touch.

 

As he got back into the car, his warm familiar car, Jeongin wondered how he and his brothers all had different experiences despite coming from the same home, the same bed, the same mother.

 

Jeongwoo was all the way in America. Jeongin realised with a sour taste in his mouth that he probably wouldn’t even be remembered. Jeongwoo would probably think that stupid Thai boy was his only brother the whole time.

 

And Jeongsan… Jeongin didn’t even know what to think about him. He had changed, he was different and not in the good way.

 

And he – he, Yang Jeongin was lucky. He was in adopted, he was in Korea, planning to go to the best middle school in Busan, with a loving family and a new passion.

 

He was lucky and now he wished he wasn’t. How did he deserve it? He wasn’t the baby that was malnourished beyond belief. He wasn’t the brother that protected, cared, fought back and got beaten until he was unrecognisable.

 

In the car-ride home, Jeongin was silent. His mother asked him how he was and Jeongin replied that he was ‘fine.’

 

He didn’t finish his dinner that night – the twist in his stomach wouldn’t allow him.

 

 

 

Thirteen.

 

At thirteen, everything seemed to go wrong.

 

He had transitioned from primary to middle school, he had hit puberty, which was a whole issue in itself, he had two crushes on girls (at the same time) and even one confusing one on his male desk mate, his voice broke which made singing a nightmare, and he was slowly failing all his classes.

 

Great. Just perfect.

 

The only thing that did seem to be going well, was his dancing. He had taken a three-month break from his weekly classes to study for his entrance exam for the prestigious middle school he wanted to attend, which he found he was accepted for, and now he was back into the swing of things.

 

“Great job, Jeonginnie!” one of his dancing hyungs, Byungjun praised him. Jeongin flashed a smile back and adjusted his shirt which was a few shades darker from sweat. Jeongin wrinkled his nose at his reflection in the large mirror. That was another problem with growing up – he had to wear deodorant now, and all his clothes would smell funny and look dirty, especially in the summer heat Korea was trapped in.

 

At that moment he decided he hated summer.

 

The way one of his other dancing hyungs, Jaesook, clapped him in the shoulder snapped Jeongin out of his thoughts, and it took everything he had in him to not let the brief fear at the sudden touch show on his face.

 

“Damn, you are already better than me!” Jaesook laughed, but Jeongin could see that his eyes weren’t crinkled up in crescents like the way they normally when he found something funny.

 

“Don’t be an asshole, Jaesook” Kyunghwa, with her long dyed-blue hair, chided and Jaesook just turned to her with a ‘what the hell did I do?’ expression on his face. Jeongin tensed at the swear word not knowing whether to laugh or feign horror. He was at a strange ‘middle’ age, where he was torn between his innocence of not wanting to curse but also desiring to step out and fit in with his older friends.

 

Swearing sometimes also reminded him of his past, and that wasn’t something he liked to think about.

 

“Don’t worry, noona, Jaesook’s just jealous that at my age he looked like a dying chicken” Jeongin cheekily smiled and received an over-dramatic gasp from Jaesook, who fell to the floor in mock-pain his humour having fully recovered.

 

“My innocent Jeongin just slayed me, Byungjun save me please” he choked out, clutching a hand over his head.

 

“Nope,” Byungjun replied and just gave Jeongin a fist-bump.

 

Jeongin smiled back. He remembered when he first joined, he was intimidated by everyone, as at nine years old he was easily the youngest in the room. But over the years as he got older, he found it easier to talk to people without the underlying fear that he would get yelled at for just moving, and he befriended Byungjun, Jaesook and Kyunghwa.

 

He also loved them because they knew something about him that no one at his school did. They all knew he was adopted, because his dance instructor asked him about it in front of the whole class at his first lesson. Sure, it wasn’t the way Jeongin wanted to let people know, but it lifted the layer of secrecy that he held with other friendships off immediately, and Jeongin was extremely thankful for that.

 

They were all a bit older than him, from fourteen to seventeen years old, but he loved them as they never treated him like he was just a kid. They respected him for his dancing skills, but despite their friendliness, Jeongin sometimes still felt a bitter hint of jealously towards him, mainly from Jaesook.

 

But hey, everyone had their faults. Jeongin definitely did.

 

The most troubling issue for him, apart from his singing which now he refused to do in the car with his father, was the strange attraction he felt towards boys. Surely it was nothing right? Surely it was just because, due to his mother’s neglect, he found it easier to trust men.

 

That’s at least what he had read online, in in ‘private browser mode’ yesterday on his new cell phone he got for his birthday a few months ago. When his dad entered the room to call him downstairs for dinner, Jeongin had quickly clicked the ‘close button’ and threw his phone off the bed, his ears red at being caught.

 

His dad paused, then closed the door and said ‘I’ll give you a few minutes’ effectively making Jeongin’s whole face heat up at what his father thought he was watching.

 

That was an awkward dinner, and from the way his mother avoided all conversations that linked to his phone or his bed, Jeongin knew that his father had told her his suspicions.

 

Jeongin felt his ears redden at the memory and when Byungjun pointed it out he said he was just tired from dance.

 

The four parted their ways; Kyunghwa as the eldest at seventeen, had to study for her final exams, Byungjun had to go look after his grandmother and Jaesook wanted to buy bubble-tea. When invited to go along, Jeongin politely declined – he was never hungry after hours of practise, so he headed on his way home.

 

He was lucky his parents allowed him to travel on public transport by himself – many of his friends at school were forced to stay inside and study all day and were so overprotective and overbearing that they couldn’t even walk to the end of their street alone.

 

He often wondered if his parents were his actual parents, would they treat his differently, harsher, more like the ways his friends described their parents.

 

In complete honesty, he was glad for his freedom, they let him choose what to eat some nights, let him keep his extra-curricular activities (robotics club on Tuesdays and music club on Fridays) and start-up piano lessons despite the heavy workload his school gave him, and they understood if he was having a bad day, or a nervous breakdown, and didn’t make him talk about it if he didn’t want to.

 

One thing he was grateful for is that they never raised either the voices or a hand with him. Probably not to trigger him into an episode or a flashback, but all the same, he was pleased.

 

However, there were still some differences that even four years being with his ‘new’ family couldn’t solve. It was the small things – mainly appearance-wise, like how Jeongin was a few shades paler than his parents, or that none them had the same lip, or eye-shape as him.

 

A flicker of bright green caught his eye, and he paused at a fluorescent poster taped to a streetlight. It was marketing for a new indie idol group, one Jeongin had never heard of – Bangtan Sonyeondan, or Bangtan Boys for short.

 

Despite how ‘fake hip-hop’ the seven members looked, with gangly large chains and bandanas (one of them even had an afro-mohawk!) he saved the name in his phone for future reference.

 

Jeongin ignored some of the wondering stares he got as he stopped so he started moving again, and walked down the crowded streets of Busan, and headed towards the train station, where he was only a few stops away from his home.

 

As he rounded the corner however, he began to hear something, chants and yells and footsteps. Jeongin swung his head around to look behind him, his senses of full alert, but there was nothing there. His heart race accelerated, but everyone around his was acting normally so why was he the only person freaking out? Was the noise all in his head? Was he going insane?

 

“What the hell is going on up there?” he overheard a girl, maybe high-school age, ask her friend and that reassured him a little.

 

The was one question answered; no, he was not in fact crazy, but it left behind another one. What was going on?

 

Now that his fear had subsided, it was replaced with curiosity and he weaved stealthily around the sea of bodies he found himself in, until he reached the front of the crowd.

 

His mouth dried at what he saw.

 

Oh.

 

It was a mass protest, an organised one by the looks of it, as the whole street was sectioned-off with yellow tape to provide the protesters with a place to stand and march.

 

Many of them held signs and megaphones, dressed in all black with no hint of colour.

 

He didn’t know exactly what it all meant, but the faces looked mean and cruel and the yells were unified in hatred in the worst of ways. It was dooming, it was dark and scary, like seeing something on the news that his parents had warned him about, like murder or kidnapping, but witnessing it in real life.

 

It was like a parade of death.

 

Jeongin’s stomach tightened at the words on the signs.

 

‘Homosexuality will destroy South Korea.’

 

‘Reject gay rights and the criminals who call themselves LGBT.’

 

‘Homosexuality is a sin.’

 

‘Death to sinners.’

 

Jeongin turned away, his face pale, and pushed his way out of the crowd. He felt sick to the stomach but continued to walk, then quicken into a sprint to reach the train station. Anything to get away from what he had just seen.

 

His stomach turned as he ran, his breakfast threatening to spill onto the sidewalk.

 

He really wished he had gone with Jaesook and got bubble-tea.

 

Then he could have avoided this whole situation in the first place.

 

 

After three months had passed, Jeongin had accepted it. There was no denying the truth. Yang Jeongin was extremely and unforgivingly the horrid thing everyone despised: a homosexual. Well, half a homosexual. After a few hours of researching, he decided to label himself as bisexual, but he still wasn’t completely sure about it all.

 

He had fought it at first, kept it inside of him until it bubbled up as rage and irritation which he took out on his parents. The sorrow, the pain, the numbness, that he felt listening to his mother scream and claw, and his father, or baby Jeongwoo, or even Jeongsan cry, returned to his on the darkest of nights especially when he thought of the anti-gay parade he witnessed.

 

At first, it made him feel disgusting.

 

But as the weather turned colder, and he matured, he had begun to not embrace, but acknowledge it as a small part of who he was.

 

His grades had done a reversal with his acceptance – slowly they were climbing back into the top spots of the classroom again. Jeongin didn’t know how he got himself back into the swing of studying (maybe the fact that he had worked so hard to get into Busan’s most prestigious middle school in the first place and didn’t want to be kicked out) but whatever it was he was thankful. After all, if he didn’t end up moving to Seoul, the middle school he attended was so high-tier that it gave him a direct path into multiple top high schools – some even with scholarships.

 

On the other hand, his singing was still going poorly; he couldn’t figure out how to reach the high notes he could when he was younger and when his music coach told him that it was natural and something that couldn’t be changed, Jeongin had just scoffed.

 

It wasn’t like singing that high was impossible! The idols he admired so much were older and they could do it so why couldn’t Jeongin? He needed to be able to sing low and high if he wanted to achieve his dream after all.

 

Recently he had started doing some more research into idol agencies, this time leaving his search history out open intentionally so his parents would see it and know that he was interested in joining a company. He dreamed of being accepted into one of the Big Three; YG, JYP or SM, but he knew he had to realistic.

 

Maybe if he didn’t make it as a singer, he could audition as a dancer, but despite how he had been improving recently, he knew it wasn’t enough. Besides singing was his true passion despite how much he loved to dance. He just had to work harder.

 

But working harder was easier said than done. He had just completed some exams and his results were less than spectacular, where spectacular was his past-self. Although they weren’t as bad as at the start of the year, at his early-life crisis with his identity, they still weren’t amazing which prompted a sit-down discussion with his parents about the importance of education which could always be an important back-up plan.

 

Jeongin knew he should listen to them and study harder, but he had bigger problems; his blurry sexuality and now the fat crush he had on one of his best friends; Kim Kyungtae.

 

Another month went by, and his infatuation for Kyungtae only grew larger until it was a balloon waiting to be burst. Besides, Jeongin had some hope – Kyungtae loved to cuddle and hold-hands and he also accepted homosexuals – something rare for the thirteen-year-olds’ at his school who more than often used it as an insult.

 

“My big sister likes girls,” he said plainly as he and Jeongin shared an icy-pole despite the cold autumn weather. “And I like her, so of course I accept her and her people.”

 

Jeongin cringed at the wording, but the boy meant it as a compliment, or something matter-of-fact.

 

Kyungtae scrunched his nose again, a cute trait that Jeongin adored about him. “But she can’t live with us anymore not since she told us last month, my Daddy doesn’t let her.”

 

Jeongin took a bite of the icy-pole, the coldness of the sweet making his tongue numb as he thought about what to say next after that. The question pressed on his mind, and he felt his stomach knot in anxiety, but not the same gut-wrenching fear that made him feel physically sick.

 

This was his chance, his only chance, to ask.

 

“Have you ever liked boys, Kyungtae?” he blurted out and the boy next to him froze and turned to Jeongin with wide brown eyes, before furrowing his thin eyebrows in thought.

 

Jeongin felt his heart race as he waited for his friend’s response.

 

“I don’t know, maybe?” the boy sniffed meekly taking the melting icy-pole from Jeongin’s hand. “If I did though, my Dad would be really angry.”

 

The tension of waiting drained out of his body and immediately he felt a lightness overcome him, radiating from his heart. He beamed at the younger boy and took his hand.

 

“Let’s go to the bowling alley, Kyungie, I want to go play” Jeongin skipped, dragging his friend with him. Jeongin’s heart fluttered excitedly when he felt the boy squeeze back his hand.

 

Maybe everything was going to be okay.

 

 

As Jeongin sat, hidden in the toilet stall with blood spurting out of his nose every time he took a breath, Jeongin knew everything was not going to be okay.

 

They knew. Everyone did.

 

Everyone knew that he, Yang Jeongin was a faggot.

 

At least that was what the middle-school bully, Lee Sangchul called him before driving his fist into his face. Jeongin clenched his fists at his inability to fight back, to stand up for himself, but it was a quality he had never possessed.

 

He had known that since he was seven years old.

 

His lip began to tremble, and he furiously bit down on it hard, until he tasted the tang of iron the was blood. He was not going to let himself cry.

 

He had been through worse than one punch.

 

So why were his eyes filling to the brim with unshed tears?

 

Was it because Kyungtae, who he had trusted wholeheartedly, had sold him out? Or was it because of the flashback he had just had as he was pressed against the wall, with his pencil case thrown at him, the contents exploding all over the floor, just like how plates used to do.

 

“Disgusting!”

 

“Worthless!”

 

“No one will love you, except me. Do you hear that?”

 

“Fuck!” Jeongin growled, rage bubbling up inside of his so much that it made his vision red. He had to let it out he had to- so he pounded his fist as hard as he could on the wall of the bathroom cubicle, and it came back with a satisfying ‘thud.

 

He glared at the spot he had just hit, adrenaline and ager fuelling his rage, the smooth surface of the bathroom stall was dented. Maybe it was the pain in his now aching fist or the realization he had really hit and really broken it, that made him double over and spent the next moments feeling utterly and purely pathetic.

 

The bell to signal the end of lunch sounded over the speakers but Jeongin didn’t move.

 

There was no way he was going to spend another minute putting up with the spit-balls, the taunts, the teasing and the disguised looks from his classmates. It had been happening all day actually, ever since he walked into first period and said hello to his desk-mate, who glared at him, didn’t reply and moved his chair as far away from him as it could possibly go, Jeongin knew something was wrong.

 

But he hadn’t put two and two together, his stupid obliviousness had held him back once again.

 

Besides if he left now, he was sure to run into either a hall-monitor or Sangchul himself, who somehow always avoids getting sent back to class (the rumours say he coerced the teachers to let him free.) Lee Sangchul is the biggest bully Jeongin has ever met, and if it wasn’t for his stupid talent in track and field, he wouldn’t even be allowed into the school with grades like his.

 

Sangchul picked on Jeongin since day one – maybe it was the way he was smaller than the average thirteen-year-old, or maybe it was that he could answer almost every question asked, but whatever it was, he was willing to give it up if that meant Sangchul would just leave him alone.

 

He remembered when the ‘Western’ phase came over Busan Academia Middle School – and of course, Sangchul had a nasty-looking scar just above his right eyebrow. He forced everyone to call him ‘Harry Potter’ in terribly accented English for weeks and he forced Jeongin to dance on the table as if he had been struck by a dancing spell.

 

Jesus, those were bad times.

 

Half an hour into last period, he snuck out of the toilet stall, his throbbing nose stuffed with toilet paper and reached his locker, where ‘disgusting’ was written on it in black permanent marker. He got out his bag, swept all the contents of the box into it, and slammed it shut.

 

No one noticed as he walked out of school. He walked briskly to combat the cold air as it whipped him through his uniform, but it wasn’t enough as he felt himself shiver in the wind. Golden autumn leaves crunched under his feet as they slapped the pavement, but he paid them no notice, he just kept on walking. Past the bowling alley, past the park, past the train stations that would have allowed him to get home sooner, past everything.

 

“Jeongin? You’re home early, is everything-”

 

“I’m never going back to that school ever again!” he screamed, cutting off his mother.

 

“Jeongin!” she turned to scold him but stopped when she saw the tears streaming down his cheeks and his purple and red swollen nose.

 

“I’m not g-going back there” he hiccupped, wiping away his tears angrily as they betrayed the promise he made to himself all those years ago. He threw his heavy backpack on the kitchen tiles. “Please don’t make me go back there, Mama.”

 

Maybe it was the desperation in his eyes or the blood on his uniform but she stiffly nodded and knelt down to pull him into a hug.

 

Jeongin cried harder when she carded her fingers through his hair, just like how Jeongsan used to do.

 

He sat at the dinner table alone, his parents had already called his school to inform them that he would no longer be attending and were making arrangements to enrol him in one where no one knew his name, his face or what he was.

 

When they sat down with him, bags under their eyes and asked him what happened and how he hurt his nose, Jeongin couldn’t answer and just quietly shook his head. He couldn’t tell them – not today at least.

 

They seemed to understand and made him a hot chocolate and tucked him into bed, just like how they used to when he had first arrived at their house. He mustered up a smile, to reassure them that he was going to be okay, but when the door closed, Jeongin let himself be weak again.

 

He rubbed a finger over his bruised knuckles, some split open; red and raw. He stifled another sob.

 

In all his years, he never would have believed it if someone told him he punched a wall so hard it dented, and it split his skin open.

 

He grabbed a tissue and harshly blew his aching nose, a patch of gluggy redness on the white fabric when he drew it back.

 

In all his years, he never thought he would channel his anger through physical violence. He had despised people who did it with a flaming passion.

 

He cried, fat tears running down the sides of his face, his body shaking in effort as he tried to muffle his sobs into the pillow he hugged close to his chest.

 

In his thirteen years of living, never once did he think he would turn into a person like his mother.

 

 

 

Fifteen.

 

One month after his fifteenth birthday he received the news that would change his life.

 

He was accepted into JYP Entertainment as a trainee.

 

The first step to his dream was a success.

 

“Jeonginnie!” his mother squealed with delight, wrapping her arms around his shoulder’s when he received the letter of acceptance. He had stared at it, mouth and eyes wide with shock and it was like the world had slowed down.

 

He had done it.

 

“I’m so proud of you Jeongin, I knew you could do it!” his father smiled, giving him a thumbs up. Jeongin smiled and returned the gesture. He had everything to owe to his father – he was the one that showed him what music was.

 

The first song that his Dad had shown him that day in the car, was the very same song Jeongin used to practice dealing with his ‘new’ lower voice and when he got used to that, used to sing for his audition.

 

He messaged Jeongwoo immediately, at received a ‘Hyung, fighting!’ not five minutes later. Jeongin snorted and wondered what the time was in America if it was already noon in Busan.

 

His finger hesitated over Jeongsan’s name. Unlike his and his younger brother’s messaging, they hadn’t talked to each other in months – a fact Jeongin felt terrible about, it was like the guilt was slowly eating him up, like a worm.

 

No, Jeongin put the phone down. He wouldn’t ruin his good day and take the chance of messaging Jeongsan. His hyung was probably busy anyway.

 

Over the next few weeks, Jeongin prepared to leave for Seoul, where he would be staying in the dormitory to start his intensive training as an idol. He had applied for the School of Performing Arts last autumn and was already accepted to start at the beginning of next year.

 

Everything seemed to be fitting into place.

 

It was like a dream, no, better than a dream, because it was real.

 

He said goodbye to the friends he made at his new school, and they smiled with encouragement as he unpacked his locker and left. Jeongin sometimes regretted not getting closer to any of them: after what happened at his old middle-school (namely Lee Sangchul) he lost a bit of trust in people, but there was nothing he could do now.

 

Another goodbye, more tearful and wrenching than the ones to his school friends were leaving behind Kyunghwa, Byungjun and Jaesook. After six years of dancing together, they had built a friendship stronger than the bass drop in some of the music they freestyled to, and more fluid than the modern choreography they had lamented over.

 

“I promise I’ll keep in touch with you all” he smiled weakly at them as they sat together in the familiar wooden and glass dance studio in an almost cult-like circle.

 

“You better or I’ll come to Seoul myself” Jaesook laughed, tears from his crescent shaped eyes running down his face. Jeongin lightly punched the now eighteen-year-old in the leg. It seemed Jaesook had gotten over his initial jealousy after a few more months together, and now the two were as close as ever.

 

“You go find yourself a man, a preferably not one with a name starting with Byung” Kyunghwa crawled over to him and whispered teasingly in his ear, guising it with a hug. Jeongin reddened and jokingly tightened the hug until he was almost strangling her.

 

Kyunghwa was the first and only person he came out to. It was a Saturday night a few months ago, after the boys of their friendship group had left to buy fried chicken from the shop half an hour away, and Jeongin broke down after a bad day of practise where he couldn’t keep up with any of the beats of their complex choreography. She asked him why and he told her that he just couldn’t focus.

 

When she asked why again, her pink-dyed shorter hair shining in the light, he blurted out; ‘how could anyone focus with Byungjun in those tight-ass sweatpants!’

 

She had laughed at first, in such a way that she was pounding her fist into the dance room floor with one hand and clutching her stomach with the other, tears of joy streaming down her face. Jeongin was mortified at what he had just confessed, and he quickly grabbed his bag to run the hell out of there, but she grabbed his hand after she recovered from her laughing fit and stopped him from leaving.

 

“Jeongin-ah,” she had said. “It’s okay, I’m gay as fuck too.”

 

That night before the others returned, they had talked about how amazing it was to be gay (mainly her to be fair), bonded over their struggles, and Jeongin even told her the reason why he so suddenly left his middle school; something he never ended up telling his parents.

 

“I’ll tell you what, I know that sounds really bad, and it was” she clarified before continuing. “But I couldn’t escape from the people who hated me.”

 

Jeongin got quiet at the seriousness turn of the conversation. Kyunghwa looked forlorn, her eyebrows knitting together in a solemnity that Jeongin had never seen on her features before.

 

“My Dad…” she laughed, a wet sound escaping from her throat as she talked. “My Dad, he didn’t accept me when I told him, told me to leave and never come back. I haven’t seen him since.”

 

“When did you leave?” he asked softly.

 

“Two years ago,” she sighed, brushing her hair behind her hair. “I live with my girlfriend and her family now; they are extremely accepting people.” She sniffed and swiped away a tear with her long pastel pink acrylic nails that matched her hair.

 

“I get to see my Mum and little brother though” she scrunched up her nose as she spoke and Jeongin noted that the action looked familiar in a way he hadn’t seen for several years. She laughed and turned to him. “He’s probably around the same age as you now, I guess that’s why I’ve always been so protective of you, huh?”

 

Jeongin laughed gently as the realization dawned on him. It made sense, everything did. From the timeline of their lives and the way the both scrunched up their noses….

 

It had to be, that Kyunghwa was the sister that was disowned. The sister that ‘likes girls.’

 

“Hey! We got the goods!” a yell from outside the door startled Jeongin out of his thoughts and he immediately tensed, despite either voices not being the one of a female.

 

“Come in!” Kyunghwa yelled back, pulling herself with one final sniffle. “It smells so good!”

 

Jeongin could smell that same smell of grease and fried chicken as he sat in the circle and said his goodbye’s.

 

“I’ll miss you Jeonginnie” Byungjun smiled sadly, not noticing the way Jeongin’s cheeks heated up at the nickname.

 

“Yeah” he pushed down his feelings and returned a smile to the elder boy of now sixteen. “I’ll really miss you hyung, thank you all for helping me so much, with choreographies and just life I guess.”

 

“Hey, we’re always here in Busan, dude” Jaesook patted him on the back. The action didn’t scare him like it used to. “We’ll all be stuck in here while you venture out into the big bad streets of Seoul” the boy wiped a fake tear from the corner of his eye dramatically.

 

“Yeah maybe you’ll be stuck here in Busan” Byungjun jabbed. “I’m getting the hell out of here – I’ve already applied for a few universities in Seoul” he said haughtily and smugly, causing Kyunghwa to groan.

 

They had all heard this before.

 

“Hey!” Byungjun defended himself, crossing his arms over his chest and Jeongin laughed at his cute expression, hoping he wasn’t too obvious, but Kyunghwa’s raised eyebrow told him otherwise.

 

The four of them bantered, made jokes, laughed and ate fried chicken from Jeongin’s favourite shop until the night turned to the early hours of morning. Jaesook made his final dramatic departure as the four of them exited the studio, telling Jeongin to ‘go say hi to Jae from DAY6 for me! Tell him I look exactly like him!’ (a running joke in the whole dance studio ever since the band’s debut in 2015, but still, upon further inspection, Jeongin couldn’t deny the resemblance.)

 

Kyunghwa, the only one with a licence, drove them all home and when she dropped Jeongin off last, she gave him one final hug.

 

“Be careful out there Jeonginnie” she warned, her faded pink hair swinging around her shoulders. “Out there, especially in the entertainment industry, being like us isn’t acceptable.”

 

He gulped and nodded in understanding. He knew it was risky, dangerous even, even more so as the whole reason he left his old school was because he was outed as gay. Which he wasn’t really, but details, details.

 

“Love you Jeonginnie, make sure you message us, alright?”

 

Jeongin swallowed and nodded again, not trusting his voice if he spoke. “Bye” he croaked, and she waved him a small goodbye.

 

He turned towards his house and walked up the stairs, holding back tears as he entered it and closed the door.

 

But this time they weren’t tears of sorrow, they were sad, yes, but not of sorrow.

 

So, he smiled.

 

 

“Up, down, spin, step – No goddammit! Trainee thirteen! Step to the left not the right!”

 

Jeongin watched out of the corner of his eye as trainee thirteen, bowed his head and got back into position again. The boy was pretty short compared to the average trainee height (which admittedly, he himself, was still under), had a sharp chin that Jeongin wished he could transplant onto his own face and a dark fringe that hung low over his slanted narrow eyes.

 

Truthfully, he looked intimidating like a gang-member of some sort and he was glad that he wouldn’t have to stand next to him for the duration of the training.

 

Jeongin shivered and turned away. He was on edge, nerves making his body tingle uncomfortably under the room’s hot lights. He was anxious for two reasons: firstly, the woman sounded suspiciously like his mother and secondly there was a nervous energy in the room that was so strong that every trainee, even the confident ones, were quiet.

 

It was the second week of intensive training at JYP, and after returning from SOPA everyday just to do training drills whether in dancing, vocal or even rap, was seriously getting old. It would be a lie if Jeongin said he loved it.

 

“Let’s do that again” the dance instructor yelled, clapping her hands so the sound echoed through the over-crowded room, making him wince. “No mistakes this time! Let’s go!”

 

The music blasted loudly though the speakers at the front of the room and Jeongin bounced on his heels to hype himself up to running through this god-damned sequence for the thirtieth time. The music pounded, his head ached, but Jeongin forced himself to do the series of jumps and steps to the best of his ability – he couldn’t waste his dream just because he was being lazy.

 

When the music cut off, Jeongin rested his hands on his knees, bending over so that the sweat from his forehead dripped to form a puddle on the smooth wooden floor. In his peripheral vision, he could see others around him doing the same.

 

“Trainee Twenty-One!”

 

Jeongin looked for who was about to jump up to get scolded next, but no one moved.

 

He looked down at his shirt to double-check the number taped to his chest.

 

Oh shit-

 

“Yes Instuctor-nim!” he straightened up and snapped his legs together like he was standing in the military. He wondered if there was much difference between this and the army anyway.

 

The dance instructor a woman in her late-twenties glared at him with a beady eye and Jeongin felt his heart stutter in his chest. “You did the best out of everyone on the sequence, good job” he said quickly before turning back to the front to go through it again.

 

Jeongin felt his cheeks flush with pride and he ignored the way the trainee next to him, maybe seventeen years old, glared jealously at him.

 

With the praise, Jeongin felt his whole body refuel and when the music came on again, he didn’t flinch from the sudden noise, but instead embraced it and danced his heart out.

 

 

Jeongin picked at his tray of half-a-meal slowly, wanting to savour every bite he got. It had been almost four months since he arrived at Seoul and he has glad to say the intensive training was slowing down. Now he actually had time to do some homework each night before the older boys in his dorm knocked him off the one desk in the six-person bedroom.

 

And finally, Jeongin didn’t have to attend those stupid rap lessons anymore. After hearing his terrible rap one to many times, the instructors in charge of training the new trainees told him to focus on singing and dancing instead.

 

Hallelujah for that.

 

Jeongin hadn’t made a lot of friends here. It sounded depressing when he was so blunt about it, but it was the truth – he simply didn’t have the time. However, he became close to one of his dorm-mates, Kim Seungmin, who was only one year older than he was, and by extension to that a boy named Hwang Hyunjin.

 

At first Hwang Hyunjin made him uncomfortable as he’d never seen anyone with such an attractive face, but he never once mentioned that as on their third day of knowing each other, Hyunjin broke down and cried about how people only thought he was successful for his looks.

 

Jeongin had done the right thing at the time by assuring him that it wasn’t, but truthfully, that’s also what he thought. It’s what he thought until he saw Hyunjin dance, and his mind was forever changed and he scolded himself for his previous way of thinking.

 

He decided that day to never judge anyone by their looks again.

 

But, right now, Seungmin and Hyunjin were at a late night dance practice that Jeongin wasn’t scheduled for, so he sat and picked at his half bowl of rice and broccoli, wondering how he would survive for the next few years if this was all he got to eat.

 

The food’s scarcity, the health professionals told all the new ‘recruits’ on the first day of training, was so they would all drop to a ‘attractive’ weight. Jeongin had been skeptical at first, but it was definitely working. In just four months he had already lost some of his baby fat with lean muscles replacing it instead.

 

But, Jeongin wasn’t sure how healthy this food program was, so secretly, at school he would eat some extra rice, just to keep him going. Still sometimes the guilt would catch up with him and he would work himself even harder in dance practice or sing even louder which gave him a sense of pride, especially when the instructors praised him.

 

Jeongin chewed his rice slower as a ‘ping’ from his phone distracted him.

 

       >From: Jeongwoo-ie

Hyung!! My mum says that maybe for my tenth birthday I can come to Korea to see you for two weeks! Isn’t that amazing!!!

 

Jeongin felt a smile grace his lips. Of course, the pair sent photos to each other, but Jeongin had never seen his younger brother in real life! Well not since he was a baby, and to him that didn’t really count.

 

       >From: Jeonginnnn

Really!??! That’s great! I might have debuted by then! Then you would be meeting one of Korea’s rising stars and your brother at the same time keke

 

Jeongin typed it with, although the best intensions, a heavy heart. He had only been trained for less than half a year, yet the initial joy was beginning to die down and the fatigue was beginning to settle in. Truthfully, some nights as he lay on his uncomfortable bottom bunk bed, with Seungmin on the top bunk, moving around and making the bed creak, Jeongin thought about what he was really doing.

 

Yes, he was making his dream, his dream since he was nine years old, slowly become a reality, but he underestimated just how hard it was going to be. He was still a kid, really, but he was trying to make it in the world that adults controlled.

 

Sometimes he thought back to what Jeongsan had said to him, on their walk to the park. ‘While we’re young we can’t do anything… we’re basically nothing until we turn nineteen.’

 

That gave him to motivation to keep going. If he debuted when he turned eighteen, the age many others did, then he would prove Jeongsan wrong. He could make something of himself before he turned nineteen, and then he would be a name on people’s tongues all around Korea, and maybe even the world as ‘just a kid.’

 

“Hey, are you Yang Jeongin?”

 

Jeongin flinched as he was taken out of his thoughts so quickly and when he looked towards the direction of voice, he felt his jaw drop.

 

Sitting right next to him was one of the most attractive people Jeongin had ever seen in his life.

 

The boy looked a bit older than that most of the new trainees Jeongin had been rooming with, had frizzy curly hair under a black American-style snap-back cap that was unusual for someone of Asian descent (not the hat, the hair). He wore a black tank top that showed off his muscles (Jeongin felt his cheeks flush at the sight), had a beaten-looking heavy-duty laptop tucked under his arm and deep dimples that appeared on his face as he smiled.

 

Holy shit.

 

“A-Are you talking to me?” Jeongin squeaked, pointing dumbly at himself with his spoon, making the small amount of rice on it fall to the floor.

 

“Yeah” the boy laughed and nodded, and Jeongin felt his ears redden more, not having time to mourn the loss of almost half of his remaining dinner, and he straightened his back in an attempt to look older than he actually was.

 

“Oh. Well how do you know my name?” He said in a faux-deep voice that made him sound manlier.

 

The boy sitting next to him, his legs splayed comfortably that could also be seen as slight disrespect, laughed again and raised his eyebrow, the one with a slit in it, quizzically. “Well, I know this sounds stalker-ish, but I’ve heard a little bit about you, Jeongin”

 

Damn, he would have been creeped out if the boy wasn’t a solid ten-out-of-ten. Jeongin just nodded dumbly, like a goose bobbing its head in a search for food.

 

“My name is Byung Chan and I-”

 

“Byung?” Jeongin screeched, slamming his spoon down. He looked around quickly and saw that everyone was no looking at the pair, more specifically at him.

 

Kyunghwa had warned him to not fall in love with any Byungs’! How could fate be so cruel?

 

“Ah, no” Byungchan-maybe-not-Byungchan said, scratching the back of his neck as he spoke. “It’s Bang Chan.”

 

Jeongin’s shoulder’s drooped in relief, but he quickly regained his composure. His steeled his expression but his professional gaze faltered when two more boys placed their lunch trays, which had slightly more food than Jeongin’s, on the table and sat with him.

 

Jeongin couldn’t stop a frown creeping onto his face as he looked at confusion at three boys who he had never met before who suddenly had approached him and sat with him.

 

One boy, with chubby cheeks and wide eyes smiled at him and the other just nodded stiffly before stuffing some kimchi into his mouth. Jeongin squinted at the second boy, knowing he had seen him from somewhere…

 

“You’re Trainee Thirteen!” Jeongin gasped and covered his open mouth with his hand.

 

“And you’re Twenty One” the boy offered a tight-lipped smile, and suddenly he didn’t seem that scary as Jeongin had once thought him to be.

 

“Y-Yeah that’s me” Jeongin muttered self-consciously and the hairs on the back of his neck prickled in unease, a sign he knew to trust whole-heartedly (it had saved him from many objects being thrown at him in the past) and he slowly turned around.

 

The whole cafeteria was quiet, and the trainees whether female or male, were all staring. At him.

 

“Uhm” Jeongin laughed nervously, turned back to the three boys at his table, a tight smile on his face and his manly façade completely forgotten. “So… what do you guys want?”

 

“Ah, I forgot to introduce myself” the squirrel-looking boy piped up, his voice enthusiastic and high-pitched as he flashed a wide smile. He reached out a hand over the table that Jeongin hesitantly shook. “I’m Han Jisung, or you can call me J.One.”

 

Jeongin stiffened and slid his hand out of the other boy’s grasp.

 

He had heard that name before.

 

He had heard it on one of his first nights at the company, when he was still nervous around everyone, and less-than-eager to sit on his eldest hyung’s, Sungil’s bed while the elder told him and the other newest trainee, a boy named Yoogun, the ‘run-down’ of the company with his bunkmate Wonchul.

 

Seungmin, and the other member of their six-person dorm who Jeongin still didn’t know the name of, were out. He had no idea what his other dormmates was doing, but Seungmin had said he was going ‘special practice’ that night while wiggling his eyebrows, and Jeongin had no idea if that was code for ‘I’m going to sneak out of the company with my friends and watch movies and eat junk food’ or if he was actually going to practice.

 

Jeongin hadn’t questioned it.

 

“I’ve already been training for three years and no one’s even looked my way” Sungil had complained, pulling Jeongin back into the conversation. “There’s this dude from Australia, I think his name’s Kris-ta-fah or something weird like that and he’s the longest-running male trainee at this company though – six years now!”

 

Jeongin had felt the air leave his lungs at that. Six whole years! That was a long time – a time that Jeongin didn’t even know if he was committed to spend in the cycle of training, which he was already exhausted from.

 

“Yeah” Wonchul had said, munching on the ‘illegal’ bag of chips he had smuggled into the dorms. “But, he’s actually doing stuff now – he and these two kids, I think Changbin, ya know, the really fast rapper scary-dude, and this other guy… pretty sure his stage name is J.One?” Wonchul stopped to think then had shrugged his shoulders in indifference. “Anyway, they’ve got this whole self-made self-produced rap-trio thing going on, and JYP is even letting them post some of their stuff on YouTube! How unfair is that?”

 

Jeongin, although didn’t voice his opinion at the time, didn’t think that this ‘groups’ ‘success’ was due to fate, like how Wonchul was implying. He had fiddled nervously with his fingers and chewed on his lip as his mind disagreed with what the other boys were saying, but still he kept quiet.

 

“Oh, 3RACHA?” Yoogun had asked inquisitively. “I’ve heard that they are a violent gang that go steal other trainee’s stuff – like they have a weird superiority complex or something.”

 

“Actually?” Jeongin had blurted out talking for the first time that night. Okay, no matter how hard they worked, violence and being mean was never the right option, and their skill in rap or whatever could not justify that.

 

Now, sitting with 3RACHA, who seemingly beat up others and wreaked havoc so they could have the advantage to debut, then sucking up to JYP, Jeongin could only think of one thing: he needed to get the hell out of there before they stole the last scraps of his dinner and then ate him!

 

“Oh!” Jeongin forced a too-wide smile on his face, his eyebrows almost reaching his hairline in surprise and the realization that in an hours-time he could be found dead in a ditch. “You’re 3RACHA right?”

 

The trio just smiled at him.

 

Oh god, he was so utterly fucked. And not even in the there’s-three-hotties-next-to-me sort of way anymore.

 

Jeongin slowly placed his spoon down and tensed his muscles to stand up. “Well” he smiled fake-cheerily, beginning to stand up so he could just get away from these three sycophant-cross-maybe-drug-smugglers (Jeongin wouldn’t be surprised if they were on steroids due to the absolute size of those biceps – holy hell.) “It’s been cool meeting you, but I have a vocal lesson now and I-”

 

“I thought there were no schedules tonight” Jisung interrupted innocently, his eyebrows drawn together in confusion.

 

Jeongin, who was now gripping his dinner-tray tightly and was half-seated-half-standing, started to internally scream.

 

Oh god. They’re going to beat me and cripple me so I can’t dance anymore and then I won’t be competition for them. Oh shit, shoot, shit they’re going to kill me-

 

“Hey Jeongin!”

 

Jeongin almost burst into tears when he heard the voice of Seungmin from behind him, his mind already thanking every ancient and modern god he could think of for Seungmin being his saving grace.

 

“Jeongin!” Hyunjin bounded up to him like a puppy, his dark hair flapping as he skipped towards him until they were shoulder to shoulder.

 

“Ah, I see you’ve already met the guys” Seungmin said.

 

And sat down. Next. To. Them.

 

“W-What?” Jeongin asked, his voice high, dinner-tray still in his hands. Hyunjin’s laugh from next to him made him look away from Seungmin and towards the boy, who was now hitting his knee in hysterics.

 

“You’ve probably heard every tale about these three, huh?”

 

Jeongin reddened at how transparent he was, and he didn’t need to nod to confirm it.

 

“Sit down here, Jeongin” Bang-Chan-not-Byungchan said and Jeongin helplessly obliged, placing his dinner-tray back on the plastic table with a soft ‘thud’, this time beside Bang Chan.

 

“Ah” Trainee Thirteen who Jeongin still didn’t know that actual name of sighed darkly, and Jeongin flinched on instinct.

 

That sound reminded him a lot of his mother.

 

Jeongin watched, hyper focused on the way the scary-looking boy’s hands moved to grab a spoon, and Jeongin instinctively moved closer to the boy next to him, who, if noticed, didn’t say anything.

 

His heart thudded and breath became short and fast as the boy got a heaped spoonful of white rice on his spoon.

 

It came closer to him and Jeongin felt himself freeze, like he had just been transported through time and went back to when he was seven years old.

 

Then it plopped down on his tray.

 

Jeongin blinked as the expected blow didn’t come, and he straightened up quickly, embarrassed at how he had literally curled into Bang Chan’s side until they were touching when they had never had a proper conversation before, and looked up at Trainee Thirteen in surprise.

 

“They seriously don’t feed you enough these days” the boy muttered, then digging his spoon into his own rice and taking a bite of it.

 

Jeongin’s heart swelled at the sight of the new rice on his plate and he awkwardly bowed in politeness. He couldn’t keep the red off his cheeks – for the first time since arriving in Seoul he felt like he was somewhere, that even if for a short time, could call home.

 

 

The day after meeting, Bang Chan had told him that he approached Jeongin in the cafeteria as he actually wanted to ask him if he wanted to join a makeshift team of trainees that he was building. Jeongin said yes immediately a large smile on his face. It seemed like this was another step closer to his dream.

 

Then he was added as the seventh member of the one and only ‘Male Team A.’

 

Over the next few months, ‘Male Team A’ worked hard. They choreographed dances to some of 3RACHA’s music, recorded songs in the low-value recording booth Chan was given on his fifth year of being a trainee, and laughed and ate together.

 

Over that year, Jeongin also came to realise that Trainee Thirteen had a name; Seo Changbin, and definitely wasn’t as scary as he once thought. He felt terrible that despite his promise he made after meeting Hyunjin, he had judged Changbin on the way he looked, and when he confessed it to his teammate, Changbin had just laughed and done some cute aegyo to cheer him up with a quick ‘don’t worry about it, it happens all the time.’

 

He met Woojin, the eldest on the team, with a big voice and an even bigger heart. It was safe to say that Jeongin’s singing improved a lot with his new friend’s guidance and advice.

 

Despite his happiness from being hand-picked by the notorious Bang Chan (who actually wasn’t on steroids) and finally having friends and a place to feel comforted and safe, Jeongin still felt one more insecurity well up inside of him: his age.

 

He had expected that he would be the youngest on the team as, after all, he was younger than the mass majority of JYP trainees, but the reality of the situation made it even worse.

 

He knew his age, the year he was born in, were things that he could not change. But every time Woojin coddled him for being the ‘maknae’ or he had to get the team Iced Americano’s because it was his duty as the youngest, Jeongin felt his age becoming an even bigger part of his life to the point it almost defined him.

 

Of course, he had felt this back in Busan with Jaesook’s initial jealousy, but after another year went by, it didn’t matter to his friends that he was the youngest, they were all equal as they all shared an undying passion for dance.

 

But here it was different. Being the youngest was almost like a burden.

 

Whenever he would hear someone compliment him on how good he was even though he was so young, or how his chubby cheeks made him look like baby, Jeongin could only hear Jeongsan’s voice.

 

“You wouldn’t understand JeongJeong, while we’re young we can’t do anything.”

 

‘You’re too young to understand.’

 

Sometimes Jeongin wished as he lay unsleeping in his bed, that he could have one dongsaeng on the team. Because when he felt young, he felt like he was dumb, and weak, and a burden.

 

He felt like he was seven years old again, needing a new shoulder to cry on as the ‘adults’ screamed around him.

 

 

Two more members joined the team to bring the count up to nine: an ex-BTS back-up dancer called Minho along with a smiley Australian boy with a lot of freckles who didn’t speak a lot of Korean named Felix.

 

His prayers at having someone younger on the team were left unanswered, but as the final two members joined, he couldn’t find himself to care – he was too interested in making new friends!

 

He had easily become friends with Felix, despite the language barrier. He sent messages to Jeongwoo to translate into English so Felix could read them– a learning experience for all three of them. However, when Jeongwoo was asleep or at school, and Jeongin couldn’t be bothered to translate every sentence he wanted to say on the NAVER app, the two of them communicated through dance.

 

Soon enough they were as close as peas in a pod.

 

Minho though, was another story.

 

“That Lee Minho is so up himself just because he danced with Jeon-fucking-Jungkook and is just plain weird!” Sungil had retorted as he stuffed his clothes into his already bursting suitcase. “He’s such a dick, man – one of the reasons I’m getting the hell out of this fucked-up industry!”

 

Jeongin had watched quietly as Sungil stormed out of their dorm. Sungil’s bunkmate, who Jeongin finally learned the name of; Jeon Woong, or Woongie, told him quietly that night that ‘Sungil just wasn’t right for this type of place.’ Jeongin had nodded sadly. Woongie was right – but those three and a half years that the other had trained for, seemed like a bit of a waste if anything. That was what made him sad.

 

What he didn’t expect to find was Woongie, who he had gotten extremely close to, second to Seungmin of course, packing up his bags one week later.

 

“Hyung! This is your dream – don’t leave it all behind!” Jeongin had said with tears in his eyes. Woong had just chuckled and ruffled Jeongin’s hair, which only made his bottom lip tremble harder. “Woongie-hyung – don’t leave me here…”

 

Woongie stiffened – Jeongin could feel it in the way his hand stilled in his hair.

 

“I’m not leaving my dream behind Jeongin, just JYP” he stared off into the distance, a hope in his eyes so rare in so many trainees that Jeongin felt enlightened just be seeing it. “YG offered me a place there, and I want… a change, ya know? Maybe this will be the place I finally debut, but I’ll see you again, I promise, and maybe even in front of a camera.”

 

Jeongin had nodded and given Jeon Woongie one last hug before he let his go. Thinking back on it now, Woongie was right – fate had worked in the most mysterious of ways for them both.

 

But that didn’t matter – the real issue at hand was Lee Minho.

 

Jeongin had been cautious around the older dancer for three main reasons; firstly, he was pretty starstruck at seeing such an amazing dancer who had been dancing with BTS (the actual gods of KPOP!) in the flesh.

 

Secondly, it was the numerous rumours that swirled around Minho wherever he walked. Sungil’s final words echoed in his head any time Jeongin went anywhere too close to the dancer, and that made him hesitant to initiate any form of conversation.

 

And thirdly, as much as his hormone-filled brain didn’t want to admit it: Lee Minho was really fucking hot, and Jeongin couldn’t physically be anywhere near him or his stupid teenage body would act up and leave him ashamed and embarrassed.

 

Jeongin hated to admit that last one. But he couldn’t deny the truth.

 

But, thankfully after another month he got over his weird sexually-fused crush and was finally was able to approach and talk to him. From that moment on, Jeongin learned that Sungil was only right about one of two things he said about Lee Minho. He was not a ‘dick’ but was definitely weird in the best of all ways.

 

 

Jeongin huddled under his duvet cover, curled up comfortably against the cold brick wall next to his bunk bed, waited.

 

His fingers fiddled nervously as he watched the bright phone screen in front of him, stark against the darkness of the room. He had ignored Seungmin’s, who was now snoring peacefully above him, threats that sounded something like ‘if you don’t go to sleep right now Yang Jeongin, I’ll tell Felix not to give you any of his sweets tomorrow.

 

The other had given up when the clock hit ten-forty p.m. if face of Jeongin’s silent steadfastness and now that was and over and hour ago.

 

Jeongin tensed as he watched another minute tick by on the corner of his phone. 11:58 p.m. It was still December the fifth.

 

His eyes burned as he continued to stare at the screen, but he didn’t allow himself to blink. He had to focus – he couldn’t miss it.

 

Another minute passed. 11:59 p.m.

 

He tapped his fingers quickly as he waited, nerves making his body fidgety and his mouth dry. It was almost time. He really wished he had brought his Rubik’s Cube, the one his mother had bought him when he first arrived in her home, with him to Seoul. Having something for his hands to fidget with was always calming to him.

 

It seemed like forever until the clock hit midnight, and when it did, Jeongin turned off his phone and rested his head back on the wall behind him.

 

It was December the sixth now. And that meant one thing.

 

His brother’s dream, his only dream, had come true.

 

Jeongsan had turned nineteen.

 

Jeongin felt a sadness fill him again as he plugged in his phone, the time now at 12:02, and tucked himself into bed. He felt the sadness, for Jeongsan, take over his heart, his body, and his mind, but he didn’t care enough to stop it or to cry.

 

He thought to himself as he laid in his bed, that he truly was lucky. Lucky to have found a passion and have a dream that didn’t rely on the inevitable and unchangeable fact of turning a certain number.

 

 

It seemed, that as Jeongin aged to the end of his fifteenth year everything was going well. He had moved to Seoul to make his dream into a reality, made tons of friends, had teammates who he trained and joked with, and was improving in singing dance (and even in rap when Jisung had spare time!) every day.

 

But nothing ever lasted forever for Yang Jeongin.

 

He had learnt that when his last name was still ‘Park’, when he had broken that beautiful leaf at five and had broken his opposite-of-beautiful family at seven.

 

It all changed with a phone-call.

 

“Hey Jeongin!” Woojin called, from his corner of the practice room. “Your phone’s ringing!”

 

Jeongin wiped the sweat of his forehead and flashed a quick smile of apology at Hyunjin who he had been serving as a pole for the last minute as the elder balanced on his to stretch the front of his thighs.

 

It was the middle of their self-organised dance practice, where the nine of them, booked one of the small dance rooms and used it for a few hours every Saturday night to practice dancing together cohesively as a unified group. 

 

Those were the words Chan always used. ‘Cohesive’ and ‘unified.’ Jeongin always felt the worm of guilt burrow further into his heart when the ‘leader’ of their little team said that and when the other seven nodded understandingly.

 

Despite knowing them for now almost nine months, especially Seungmin and Hyunjin, he had never told them about anything about his past except that he had a younger brother that lived in America. He hadn’t told them anything about his family, or Jeongsan who was now just a forty-minute train-ride away, he hadn’t told them that sometimes he felt a guilt and sadness so strong he thought he might die from it someday.

 

The only people he ever felt truly ‘cohesive’ with were his friends that had known the truth about Yang Jeongin before even talking to him. There was no secrecy, no lies, no judgement, him being adopted was just a part of him like how he had brown eyes, or his favourite colour was pink.

 

And they were all the way back in Busan,

 

He had kept the truth hidden from his new teammates though, even when Felix had once asked why Jeongwoo, or Jason as he now liked to be called, lived in America.

 

“He’s on exchange” Jeongin had lied, but the answer was deemed satisfactory by the other members who nodded like it was something that was obvious the whole time.

 

But Jeongin pushed that all aside as he bounced over to Woojin who was holding out his phone. A series of numbers, not a name, took up the phone’s display and he glared at the unknown number, wondering if he should even bother answering it as Chan would call them all back to start the choreographies all over again in less than a minute.

 

It could be Jeongsan’ his brain hauntingly supplied him with as Jeongin chewed his lip in guilt and indecision. That was the thought that made him grab the phone out of his eldest hyung’s hand and hit ‘answer.’

 

“Hello, this is Yang Jeongin speaking” he chirped into the speaker, giving a thumbs up to Changbin in the mirror when the older questioned what he was doing.

 

There was a beat of silence and Jeongin took the phone away from his ear to see if he recognised the number, but to no avail. Feeling trepidation rise in his stomach, he pressed the phone back to his ear, only to be met with more static-like crackles and the eerie sound of breathing.

 

It was quiet again, but he couldn’t find it in himself to end the call.

 

Jeongin sucked in a breath till it unconsciously matched the person’s on the other end of the line.

 

“I see you’ve changed your last name now.”

 

Jeongin’s heart stopped.

 

That voice. He knew that voice.

 

He would never forget that voice no matter how many years it had been.

 

It was his living-nightmare. It was the person who had broken apart each person of their family then remade them in whatever way she pleased, using lemon-sherbets, fear, and careless apologies as glue.

 

It was her.

 

It was his mother.

 

Before she had a change to say anything else, Jeongin shakily hung up and threw the mobile phone across the room, it hitting the wall with a loud ‘smack.

 

He stared at the now cracked screen breathless and as white as a sheet.

 

He had broken it, his new, no, his real mother’s first gift to him.

 

It was lying on the floor absolutely ruined.

 

Jeongin had destroyed something again.

 

He was like her again.

 

Suddenly he couldn’t breathe. He couldn’t think, he couldn’t see, he couldn’t smell, he couldn’t feel.

 

Everything was blurry, spinning around him like he was on a scary rollercoaster, but this time it was so much worse because he couldn’t get off.

 

Nausea hit him like a brick and the next thing he knew bile stung in his throat and then he was vomiting his dinner all over the dance room floor.

 

“Jeongin?” He heard someone scream but the sound was distorted in his ears, deep then high, then scratchy like how his mother’s claws felt on his forearms.

 

A hand touched his shoulder and he flinched away, his breathing haggard and heartbeat irregular. “D-Don’t touch me!” he yelped and curled up as small as he could until he was a ball lying in his own vomit.

 

“Jeongsan please come help me” he whispered, tears streaking down his cheeks as the noise around him became louder and louder until it left high-pitched ringing in his ears. He wiped away the snot leaking into his mouth away with the back of his palm. and covered his ears with his hands.

 

The hands that damaged leaves and dented walls. The hands that destroyed all good things.

 

Jeongin dry heaved and felt something dribble down his chin, but he still stayed in his foetal position, blocking out the world, that was shattering, like dinner plates, around him. “Jeongsan p-please come save me, please come save me, please come save me-”

 

Her voice rang in his mind.

 

“Disgusting!”

 

He dug his nails into his scalp to make it stop.

 

“Worthless!”

 

He flinched away from the hand that came out to touch him.

 

“No one will love you, except me. Do you hear that?”

 

The only way to stop hearing it was to be louder than it. So, he started to scream.

 

 

He didn’t know how long his panic attack lasted. He didn’t know how his teammates managed to pull him out of it. He didn’t know who lead him back to his dorm, carefully stripped him off his dirty clothes and tucked him into bed.

 

All he knew, that in the morning when he woke up alone in his dorm, his eyes puffy from crying and throat sore from yelling, was that he really didn’t want to face his team, who he, Yang Jeongin had cried in front of.

 

He’d broken his phone. He had broken his promise.

 

He was broken.

 

So maybe that is why, the image of what he saw when he was eleven, the carefully cut lines on his brother’s arm, came into his mind.

 

He wasn’t young anymore. He was old enough now to understand ‘the where’ and ‘the who’ they came from.

 

Scarily, as he lied in bed with his stomach tensed in a way he hadn’t felt since he witnessed that anti-LGBT march all those years ago, he understood the why.

 

 

 

Seventeen.

 

The year he turned seventeen, despite its ups and downs, was the best year of Jeongin’s life.

 

He stood on stage, his chest heaving from exhaustion which he tried to mask as some ‘daunting’ heavy breathing that they often bullied Jisung about, hand in hand with the other members of the now official and debuted ‘Stray Kids’ with pride devouring his entire body till it trembled in excitement.

 

He had done it. His dream of becoming an idol, a voice that would make others find passion and comfort in times of pure noxious darkness, was a reality.

 

Okay, so that second part wasn’t exactly true yet. The nine of them, after all surviving through JYP’s twisted and morally-questionable ‘Stray Kid’s’ program at the end of last year, were on stage for the first time with their hit debut track ‘District 9.’

 

He had never been so honoured in his whole life. If he told his nine-year-old self at his first talent show where he was now, he was pretty sure the kid-version of himself wouldn’t have believed it.

 

He probably wouldn’t have even thought he would be alive by now.

 

But the thought that made him smile the most was that he had created something of himself two whole years before he turned nineteen. He had just proved that he didn’t have to wait to be recognised by any laws to say he was an adult to change the world and become something great.

 

As the lights dimmed down, the nine teammates walked off stage, trying to retain their ‘badass’ composure, but as soon as they were out of view from the audience and the cameras, they started to squeal like children.

 

“That was the coolest thing ever!” Jisung exclaimed, throwing his head back to look at the ceiling.

 

“Well, that was the best day of my whole entire life” Hyunjin deadpanned, a seriousness present on his features making Woojin laugh gleefully.

 

Jeongin couldn’t ignore the glare that the other rapper sent the older boy. The pair had never clicked as well as they had with everyone else on the team, but the way they treated each other now was far more preferable to the childish way they acted towards each other before and during the program, so who was Jeongin to act as the mediator?

 

“Settle down” Chan laughed, huddling them together again. “We’ve done it,” the now official leader said, his eyes filled with tears. “A-After seven whole years – I had always waited, dreamed, for this day. Thank you all for making that possible, there is no one else I would rather do it with…”

 

As the leader trailed off, his eyes shiny, Woojin jumped in with a ‘Stay Kids, fighting!’ which all the nine members did in a cohesive, unified passion.

 

Past Chan would be proud.

 

Later that night, the nine of them, in their new dorm celebrated heartily. A few including Chan, Changbin, Felix and Hyunjin broke down in tears, with even Woojin shedding a few himself, and Jeongin smiled as he comforted them.

 

Some of the members drunk from an open bottle of soju and when Minho, with Woojin’s permission, offered him one sip Jeongin politely declined, edging away from the bottle like it was a knife. The smell of it just reminded him of her.

 

Speaking of her, no matter how much Jeongin didn’t want to, she had tried to get in contact with him with the email that he had given only to Jeongsan and had even called his adoptive father.

 

Thankfully, she hadn’t been able to directly call him – she never got his new phone number after he had smashed his old phone. His old mobile had not in fact been revivable after his major panic attack, so for his sixteenth, he got a new one and a mint green phone-case that matched with Felix’s yellow and Seungmin’s blue one.

 

However, every time his Dad called and sounded slightly off, Jeongin knew exactly what had happened and it stared the family in the face of his Mother. Seungmin and Jisung were also beginning to catch onto his uneasy mood after each phone call, and when they had questioned him about it, he had brushed them off.

 

He still felt the guilt burrowing into his heart every passing day as he kept his whole childhood, his whole life a huge secret. He felt even worse when the other members opened up to all of the teammates too. It was just like how Jisung told them he felt so hollow sometimes that not even hugs or writing music could fill, or when Felix told them all, tears dripping down his face, how his mother didn’t approve of him being an idol in Korea and now refused to talk to him.

 

Jeongin related to both of them. Well, he was pretty sure if his mother found out what he had been doing for the past ten years of his life she would have a fit and show up from wherever she was hiding and come at the JYP building.

 

She had never been one for the creative arts or music after all. And seeing her was the last thing he wanted.

 

“Jeonginnie!” he heard Hyunjin call, and he cringed at the nickname. That was what his friends and parents back in Busan called him, and there was a small, selfish part of himself that wanted it to stay that way. “Come play Uno with me!”

 

He sighed and let himself be dragged along by Hyunjin to the card game where all the members sat, protectively hiding their cards for each other.

 

“I’ll deal you in,” Changbin offered, already counting out nine cards for the youngest to use.

 

Jeongin sat cross-legged in the circle, a painful reminder of the way he, Byungjun, Jaesook and Kyunghwa used to sit together flashing in the corner of his mind.

 

He forced himself to stay in the present; to not let his memories drag down his mood or the cheerful spirit in the dorm.

 

He smiled to himself when he flipped over his cards. He had one plus two, two plus fours and even a colour-change card.

 

He guessed he was just lucky like that.

 

 

The promotions for ‘I AM: WHO’ was somehow even more difficult than preparing for debut. Now everyone had expectations of him, of all of them, that Jeongin didn’t know how he could even begin to speculate ideas on how to live up to them.

 

The love received from the still-unnamed fandom Stray Kid’s had collected since March, no, since their show, was growing each day, and Jeongin felt like he was drowning in their positivity and love.

 

But one show, one stage performance, changed that.

 

The nine of them were dancing and singing to their last track of the day ‘YAYAYA’ and for the first half of the song, he was fine, he was happy, but as Changbin did his iconic verse, Jeongin suddenly felt the hairs on the back of his neck rise.

 

If anything, he knew to trust that feeling. He was in danger.

 

He tripped while moving into his next position, his legs suddenly turning to jelly beneath him. He passed off with a smile and hoped that neither the hundreds of his fans below him or his members noticed the fear slowly creeping onto his face.

 

As Jisung sang his line, Jeongin felt tension stiffen his muscles, but he had to calm down – his line was next.

 

As he stepped out, every nerve feeling like it was electrified and every hair prickling uncomfortably, he felt his heart drop when everyone turned to him. But this was his chance, to look out into the crowd and see if anyone looked suspicious, but everyone was wearing a facemask which disguised them from Jeongin’s seeking eyes.

 

Then he saw it. A skinny, tall figure wearing all black gender-neutral clothing, a pink baseball cap with white stars on it pulled low over their face. But then they looked up, directly into his eyes and Jeongin missed a beat, freezing as they connected. It was like there was no one else in the crowd – only that one single person.

 

He didn’t know how it happened, they were standing far apart after all, but it was like he could see everything through HD binoculars.

 

He knew those eyes.

 

They were the same shape, colour and dulled from trauma as his.

 

He stepped back into his formation as Woojin began to sing, but his heart wouldn’t stop pounding, the sound overtaking the heavy bass of the music being blasted over the loudspeakers.

 

His hands started to shake, and his stomach furled itself into a tight ball.

 

What if they were a saesang fan that somehow stole his face? Or someone with a grudge against him or any other of the members? What if something terrible was about to happen?

 

His eyes darted around the crowd again, the dark figure now out of view.

 

Who was that? They looked older than high-school-age and weren’t screaming or chanting with the other fans. What if they were one of the member’s exes looking for revenge. Or maybe a psychopath wanting to destroy Stray Kids before they even began?

 

What if it was his mother?

 

He didn’t hear when the music ended, and he stood as motionless and expressionless as a statue as Chan said his speech to the hundreds of fans who came out to support them.

 

“You okay, Innie? You look pretty pale,” Seungmin asked when they got off stage and Jeongin brushed him off with a wave of his hand.

 

“I don’t think I drank enough water today, hyung” Jeongin said feverishly, quickly grabbing Hyunjin’s water-bottle from the backstage table and taking several large gulps. The water just upset his stomach more, but it seemed to satisfy Seungmin, so that was good enough.

 

That night, he laid in his bed unsleeping. It was three a.m. now if Jeongin read Changbin’s alarm clock correctly, but he still couldn’t sleep.

 

Because every time he tried to, he saw those eyes, his own too-bright-to-be-real-happiness eyes, staring back at him.

 

 

       <Jeongin has such chubby cheeks! I just want to squish them>

 

       <I.N is such a babbyyy – He’s so younggg and successful– I’m wasting my life away lol>

 

       <Ew Jeongin looks so chubby. Everyone else looks so handsome just not him.>

 

He scrolled down the comments on the ‘My Pace’ Music Video that had just been released yesterday on August the sixth and felt his heart drop. Every comment about his was about how chubby or young he looked – two things he couldn’t escape no matter how much he tried.

 

Well, the young part was what he couldn’t change. Maybe he could do something about the baby fat – losing it would make him look older after all.

 

He could kill two birds with one stone. Some extra exercise could never be a bad thing – the other members would actually encourage it.

 

Besides, after ‘My Pace’ was an even bigger success than ‘District 9’, there was even more pressure on the nine of them to do better than before. He had to look good for their next comeback, I AM: YOU planned in a few months, he decided as he laid in bed after his vocal lesson, waiting as Woojin and Minho cooked dinner. (Hyunjin and Changbin usually offered to help the older members, but they, with Chan, had both been barred from the kitchen.)

 

That night, he set out a plan. Just do one-thousand skips per night, then some arm, leg and abdominal exercises, and eat healthily. Surely it wasn’t going to be that hard.

 

As he ate dinner with the other members, he replaced most of his rice with vegetables and quickly slid one piece of his beef onto Jisung’s plate. No one noticed. This was going to be easier than he thought.

 

He did his exercises while the other members cleaned up, claiming that he had a test to study for.

 

Then as dusk turned to night, he laid in bed and he started to think. He wasn’t hungry – he hadn’t cut down his dinner by a lot, but his fingers were fiddling nervously with his sheet cover at his new, slightly terrifying but intriguing mindset. One part of him knew that any drastic change in his diet would lead to severe consequences, so he didn’t want to do anything rash, but he wanted results fast and soon.

 

He didn’t want to be defined by his age; he felt so trapped by it for all his childhood, and now was his chance to leave everything behind. Just by losing a little bit of weight.

 

He made up his mind. When he was sure everybody in his room was asleep, he got up, climbed down the bunk-bed ladder, laid on the floor and started on his one-thousand sit-ups, alone in the dark and secrecy of night.

 

He didn’t eat breakfast that morning when he woke up. No one noticed.

 

It made him feel like he had won.

 

 

“We’re just doing a check-up on all your physical health” the man, pacing around the room with a stereotypical white lab coat on said to the nine members of Stray Kids in front of him. “-Just to make sure everything’s okay and you are all on track to be looking your best before promotions for I AM: YOU begin.”

 

He smiled and stopped pacing. “Let’s start with the youngest, why don’t we?”

 

The eager grin Jeongin had perched on his face slid off in an instant but he quickly recovered it at Changbin’s inquisitive stare.

 

That word again. Young. That word made the effort he had been putting in for the last couple of months seem like it was nothing.

 

But that didn’t matter. He wasn’t nothing. His change wasn’t nothing.

 

He could see how he had improved when he looked in the bathroom mirror, or at his reflection after a long dance practice. His face was slimmer, having lost most of its ‘baby fat’ that Jeongin had always despised. His body had grown taller, but skinner. His shoulders and abdomen had become firmer and more pronounced. He had done it all by himself.

 

“Alright Jeongin-ssi, step up onto the scale when you’re ready.”

 

He got up off his chair and onto the scale nervously, his body trembling from nerves and excitement. And also, the fact that he hadn’t eaten since last night’s dinner and it was now three in the afternoon, but he was sure that wasn’t important.

 

To keep him awake and alive instead, he had resorted to something he had never thought he would rely on; caffeine. He had it in his coffees (which were obviously straight black with no milk or sugar) that he drank every morning and whenever he was feeling like he needed a boost.

 

“You’ve lost a bit of weight Jeongin-ssi… was that a part of your diet plan?”

 

Slightly dizzy from the gravity change, he just nodded, wanting his vision to get back to normal as quickly as possible so he would actually be able to make out the numbers on the scale.

 

However, as the doctor lightly pushed him back to indicate he could step down, Jeongin almost tripped and faceplanted in front of the man, the three nurses and his members. He blushed in embarrassment and brushed off his member’s warning to be more careful.

 

When he looked down again with his vision clearer, the number of his weight had already disappeared.

 

How unfortunate.

 

“Please make your way to the nurses standing over there and they will just verify your medical information and your doctor history, okay?”

 

Jeongin nodded and moved aside so Seungmin could weigh himself and trotted towards the nurses, who were standing on the other side of the room.

 

“Would you like to do this here or in private?” The shortest nurse, who seemingly had his medical files, said quietly and Jeongin replied with a quick ‘here is fine.’ In all honestly, he just wanted this to all be over quickly; he never liked going to the doctors and now he was starting to feel a bit light-headed.

 

“Okay,” she cleared her throat and spoke louder so that Jeongin could hear her clearly. “So, you are Park Jeongin, yes?”

 

He almost tripped over then and there. He hadn’t heard that name in years.

 

“Wait, your last name is Park?” he heard Jisung ask absurdly from behind him.

 

Oh shit. Everyone heard that and it wasn’t just Jeongin imagining things.

 

He coughed and tried to shake the eight pairs of eyes on him. “A-Are you sure it says that?” he asked quietly, and the nurse replied with a confused nod.

 

“Yes, we always use your biological surname in medical records.”

 

“Oh” Jeongin said simply. Now he could hear the members talking in confusion behind him and the room was seriously starting to spin. “Yeah, I uh- got my name changed a while ago… Do you mind changing that actually? Everything has been processed that my last name is Yang now.”

 

“We’ll get that done for you immediately” the nurse bowed quickly and handed him a bright orange clipboard with a ton of papers. “You just need to verify that this is all correct and then you’re done.”

 

He nodded, his mouth feeling dry and he dragged his feet back to his members.

 

“Was your last name really Park?” Hyunjin asked, shock written all over his face. “That just sounds so… weird. Like Park Jeongin. Park Jeongin, Park Jeongin-

 

“I got it changed to my Mother’s surname” Jeongin snapped, a bit more forcefully than he intended, to cut his hyung off from saying that awful name again. “It’s not a big deal.”

 

That seemed to close all discussion about his name. Maybe it was his tone of voice, the unusually dark expression on his face or how his hand shook ever so slightly as he signed that papers that made them stop talking, but whatever it was, Jeongin was thankful for it.

 

“Wow, that list of doctor and hospital records sure is long” he heard Woojin murmur questioningly from over his shoulder. Jeongin forced himself to not instinctively hide the pages of his medical check-ups and hospital visits.

 

It was so long for two reasons really; the first being whenever he, his siblings, or his father before he left got hurt and the second was when his mother drank too much and fell over. Jeongsan had always sighed and called one of the neighbours to drive them to the hospital, as sometimes she fell so hard, she hit her head.

 

“Yeah, my school did a lot of check-ups – some sort of health precaution.”

 

“Really?” Minho asked, peering at his documents with narrowed thoughtful eyes. Jeongin felt the back of his neck prickle in unease as he felt Minho’s cat-like eyes observe the papers. “For everyone or just you?”

 

Jeongin frowned and shifted the clipboard to the side. He didn’t really know how to answer that so instead he occupied himself with signing his papers.

 

“Hey, I didn’t know you broke your arm!” the Australian snatched one of the hospital records and Jeongin bit his tongue before he could defensively demand it back. “How come you never told us?” Felix asked in horror like a broken bone was the most terrifying thought.

 

“Ah, yeah” Jeongin scratched his neck with his left arm, the one he had broken in fact, sheepishly and handed his papers back to one of the nurses. “I guess I just thought it wasn’t that important.”

 

“How’d you do it?” Chan asked from his place on the scales and Jeongin looked up at the elder’s ripped body before snapping his gaze down to his clipboard.

 

Jeongin used the excuse he used all those years ago, the same one he told the doctors, his teachers, his friends at school and his curious neighbours.

 

Before he had told them all about the story of the tree and the cat, and now, ten years later, he was doing the exact same thing.

 

It was like nothing had changed at all.

 

Like he was still that seven-year-old boy scared of his mother.

 

 

As promotions ended and the weather became colder, Jeongin kept training. He kept studying. He kept dreaming. He kept not getting milk or sugar in his coffee. He kept doing his every night extra exercises. He kept trying.

 

Stray Kids were set to go on tour in early 2019 – from Bangkok to Jakarta to Australia, and if anything he was one of Minho’s bundles of tension and euphoria.

 

But, more than their first worldwide tour, he was anticipating the day in early November. The day that Jeongwoo would arrive in South Korea.

 

He had told his members of course; not the whole truth about why Jeongwoo was actually in Los Angeles, of course, but had chattered excitedly about how he would be seeing his little brother again all the same.

 

“He’s ten now!” Jeongin had exclaimed to Changbin a week before the plane was set to arrive in South Korea. “That’s like… so old!”

 

Jeongin fiddled with his paper sign nervously as he waited for his brother and Jeongwoo’s family to come out of customs and formally arrive. The whole family was coming along, as Jeongwoo told him when the tickets were booked a few months ago. ‘You’ll get to meet my sister Aaliyah and my older brother Marcus!’

 

Jeongin did know that, and the bitterness he felt when he first learned about Jeongwoo, or Jason’s new family settled back into his heart. But he was older now – he couldn’t just mindlessly hate someone on the basis of family.

 

“Innie, is that them?” Chan pointed towards a family, coming down an escalator that were all skin tones from pale to dark, looking extremely incongruent in the setting of an Asian-dominated airport. Jeongin felt his heart leap into his throat. He had been so caught up in seeing his brother again, that he hadn’t even thought about meeting the rest of Jeongwoo’s family!

 

He eyes the blonde woman, who looked a bit older than Jeongin remembered seeing in her photos, but still conventionally good-looking holding tightly onto Jeongwoo’s hand as they got off the escalator.

 

The nerve-riddled smile slipped off his face in an instant and he narrowed his eyes. Wasn’t she holding too tight? Was she hurting him? Was his only younger brother in danger again?

 

“Don’t be nervous, Jeonginnie,” his mother crooned taking his own sweaty palm. Jeongin reassured her with a smile. His own family was here – his mother and father with the addition of Chan who would serve as some sort of translator between the two languages, but Jeongin still considered him family, nonetheless.

 

He tensed when the boy, with square glasses on his face, holding onto the hand of a white woman, pointed at him and let go of his suitcase to run at him.

 

When Jeongin saw him, those eyes the same as his, the same as everyone in their biological family, soft and gleeful, Jeongin felt all fear wash out of him.

 

He fell to his knees, not caring if anyone saw him.

 

And as Jeongwoo jumped into his arms and laughed, the sound so innocent, so young, Jeongin hugged him back.

 

They stayed like that, on the dirty floor of Seoul International airport, while the families introduced themselves around the, but Jeongin didn’t bother to listen to it. When he finally got to his feet, with Jeongwoo still hanging around his waist, he smiled. This is what family felt like.

 

But of course, as soon as the happiness came, nerves soon started to eat away at it.

 

He glanced away from Jeongwoo and towards the younger’s family, and frowned when he saw Jeongwoo’s adoptive mother talking to Chan. He blanched a pale white when he started to listen and understand parts of their conversation.

 

“Yes, I’m Jason’s mother…Ah, you’re Australian?” Jeongin heard Jeongwoo’s mother say in English then look puzzled again. “So, are you Jeongin’s brother?”

 

Jeongin tensed. Ah shit. He looked at his mother wide-eyed in panic who immediately understood.

 

Chan had no idea that he was adopted, and today was not the day he wanted him to find out.

 

He turned to Chan and watched the elder’s mind reel in confusion at the woman’s words. Jeongin felt his throat dry, and he tried to think of an excuse or anything he could say to make this-

 

“No, Mom! That’s Byungchan! In Jeongin’s KPOP group, remember? I quizzed you about it on the plane ride!” Jeongwoo jumped in, pouting.

 

If Jeongin’s stomach didn’t feel so tight, he would have laughed at the mispronunciation of the leader’s name – Jeongin had made the same mistake all those years ago.

 

In his relief, he looked away from Jeongwoo to find himself staring directly into the tall Thai boy, presumably Jeongwoo’s adoptive brother’s eyes.

 

They were soft too. Jeongin felt himself smile at the similarly aged boy, his twisted resentment he felt when he was younger drain away. The taller boy, was it, Mark? Maxis? smiled back.

 

“Well, let’s get food?” His father said in heavily accented English. “You must feel – feel very tired, yes?

 

As they walked out of the meeting area, Jeongin gave the sign to Jeongwoo and took the younger’s bright blue suitcase instead. He gave a reassuring smile to Chan, who still looked bewildered at the whole interaction, but Jeongin thanked the gods for giving the elder the trait of obliviousness.

 

He felt Jeongwoo’s hand slip into his own. Jeongin squeezed it back.

 

 

The time Jeongwoo and his family stayed was short, but heavenly.

 

The pair of brothers had done everything together, went shopping, went to arcades, popular tourist locations such as the beautiful Han River (Jeongin’s heart ached at the sudden memory of his first-ever school project) and made up for their lost years of time in the time-span of two weeks.

 

Jeongin had always felt guilt; guilt for not being a better brother when he was younger, and only ever holding Jeongwoo when Jeongsan needed him too, eat him up his whole life, But when he saw his younger brother again, always with a smile on his face, Jeongin found possible to forgive himself.

 

“I can’t believe I’m going home tomorrow” Jeongwoo sulked, mixing his milkshake around with its red-and-white paper straw. Jeongin sipped on his bitter coffee and urged the younger to eat more of the cake slice they had bought to share.

 

Maybe if Jeongin just sipped his drink, Jeongwoo wouldn’t even notice he hadn’t eaten any of it.

 

“I’ll really going to miss you, hyung” he heard Jeongwoo say quietly.

 

Jeongin felt a smile grow on his face. He couldn’t remember the last time anyone called him that.

 

“I know, Jeongwoo, but we can message every day” Jeongin tried to reassure the younger but that didn’t stop the other from pouting.

 

“Hyung?” Jeongwoo started tentatively and Jeongin felt his goosebumps crawl up his arm at the quietness of his younger brother’s voice. “Before I got here, I thought I would see you and… you and Jeongsan-hyung.

 

The coffee he was drinking suddenly tasted even more bitter.

 

“-I just thought, ya know, I would be able to meet him too, but I guess it’s too late now…”

 

“It’s never too late” Jeongin started cautiously, trying to embody the way Jisung, Chan, or Woojin were so perfectly amazing at these deep conversations. “It might be for this trip, but maybe next time you come out, I can try to get a hold of him for you.”

 

“Yeah maybe,” Jeongwoo said and stuffed the last piece of cheesecake into his mouth. “I just wish mph-” he stopped talking to swallow the last bit of cake. “I just wish I could see him and… I don’t know… thank him.

 

Jeongin dug his fingernails into his palm. A single question formed on the tip of his tongue.

 

He had to ask it.

 

“Jeongwoo… you don’t… remember anything do you?”

 

The younger put his fork down on his plate and the sound was overlapped by the sound of chatter from the surrounding tables at the café.

 

“No, I don’t, but sometimes I wish I did.”

 

Just as Jeongin was about to open his mouth and tell him that, he was glad the younger didn’t, Jeongwoo started to speak again.

 

“-My social worker… she told me what happened when I lived in Korea when I asked her and stuff, and she always said that you and Jeongsan-hyung always protected me and looked after me.” He stopped and stirred his milkshake, the whipped cream melting as it was untouched. “I’ll always be grateful for that, grateful for you too hyung. Do… Do you remember it?”

 

Jeongwoo’s face held a youth, so innocent that it reminded him of his old self. Jeongin promised to never break that innocence – he would make Jeongwoo a better, brighter person than he or Jeongsan would ever be.

 

Jeongin nodded stiffly in response and dug his fingernails into his palm harder. He remembered that he had done nothing to help Jeongsan. All he had done was cry and eventually destroy.

 

But now wasn’t the time to say that, and maybe it never would be. Some things, like his mother’s angry face and claws, the staining smell of sour soju, the sound of screams and plates shattering, and Jeongin’s cowardness in the times of need were things that just shouldn’t be remembered.

 

 

As spring turned to winter it became more socially acceptable for Jeongin to go to meetings or outside bundled up in coats and scarves and he tried to push down the déjà vu that accompanied the morning ritual. It reminded him of how his mother used to carelessly twist his arms into too-tight sleeves of coats when he was little, and although now it was for entirely different reasons, they were both to hide an unfathomable secret.

 

As much as he hated it, he really wished summer would return – although it brought stink and sweat it also brought warmth and that was something that Jeongin was increasingly finding harder to find.

 

He was just cold’ is what he told himself and the other members when they asked why he was wearing hoodies to dance practice, and he ignored the inkling in the back of his mind that told him it was due to his eating habits.

 

He had lost a lot of weight, a scary amount for the few months he had stuck to his self-given eating and exercise plan and the members were definitely beginning to notice.

 

It was dropping off his bones like wool when a sheep was being sheared for two reasons; firstly, he had amped up his exercise to three a.m. runs through the pitch-black streets if the voice was particularly loud, on top of all his dancing, skipping he did religiously and his thousands of abdominal workouts. Secondly, and probably the biggest contributor, was his eating.

 

One night he had gotten interested and researched ways to lose weight faster, and better ways to hide it. The first search result had been an eating disorder specialist clinic with two words in bold; ‘get help.

 

Jeongin had almost laughed. Help. What a terrifying word, what a frightening thing. For once his biological mother was right; he could only rely on himself, getting ‘help’ would only mean he would have to stop, and then he’d just gain back weight.

 

Help is for the weak anyway.

 

“Jeongin, have some of the chicken, it’s really good,” Jisung said, his mouth stuffed, and cheeks puffed out like a squirrel’s.

 

“No thanks, hyung, I’m good” Jeongin replied, digging into his boiled (no oil, no fat) vegetables.

 

Minho, who was sitting to the left of him, didn’t seem very happy with that response though.

 

“C’mon, Innie. You need to eat more than that-”

 

“Yeah, it looks like the meal I got when my Mum was mad at me” Seungmin said plainly then said ‘what?’’ at Woojin’s concerned and slightly bewildered glance.

 

Jeongin shivered, unbeknownst whether it was from the cold he was always feeling or the reminder of how he used to live. Back then, if he got any meal it was a good day, so as some sort of tribute to his past self, he reluctantly started to eat.

 

“Jeongin” Chan said with his leader voice and Jeongin suppressed the urge to roll his eyes. His attitude was always shorter these days. “You have to eat more than that.”

 

“Just some chicken?” Hyunjin asked him with his stupid aegyo and Jeongin snatched the smallest piece of the poultry on the plate and shoved into his mouth.

 

“Happy now?” he grumbled passive-aggressively, and no one answered, the dinner swiftly from pleasant to hostile. Jeongin stabbed a vegetable harshly to break the silence. “Felix isn’t even eating anything this is so unfair.

 

The freckled boy snapped towards him. “Don’t act like a child, Jeongin” Felix bit back, his plate empty and arms crossed defensively over his chest.

 

Jeongin felt his temper flare in an instant – he hated being reminded of his age - and he glared at the Australian from across the table, who ignored him and reassured to Changbin that he was fine and ‘just wasn’t hungry.

 

Jeongin didn’t buy that for a minute, but with a headache coming on, he didn’t bother keeping up the argument. His stomach grumbled angrily when he stopped eating and left a few vegetables on his plate. Woojin looked at him with a raised eyebrow but Jeongin pretended he didn’t see it. He knew he really should eat more – his face had slimmed down so much since debut, but there was something inside him that kept track of everything he ate, like it was dictating him.

 

Over the next few days leading up to Christmas, his mood improved as he slowly started to eat a little more - he couldn’t stand his member’s worried gazes or the dizziness and constant shake of his hands.

 

It seemed like his attitude had changed in the matter of a week; at the start of it he was gloomy and frustrated, but now the Christmas spirit had filled him, and he was as bright and bubbly as ever. The nine members had a rare two weeks off before they had to start travelling, so Jeongin went shopping and sent a large package to Jeongwoo and his family filled with Korean sweets that they could enjoy in America.

 

“Jeongin we can’t just watch the first movie without the second one!” Hyunjin whined, hitting his shoulder lightly. “We have time until dinner! And Seungmin can come watch it too!”

 

“Yeah, let’s get Minnie” Felix agreed with a yawn from the left of Jeongin and in a matter seconds the four youngest members were cuddled together on the same couch watching a movie.

 

None of them took notice when Woojin entered the living room and started dinner, singing under his breath melodic and sweet so it calmed Jeongin. He burrowed into Hyunjin’s side further and slowly felt his eyes droop with tiredness despite the intense scene of the movie in front of him.

 

He focussed on the sound coming from the kitchen; Woojin’s gentle singing rather than the noise emanating from the screen.

 

The tune Woojin was now humming sounded familiar, almost as if Jeongin was ought to know it but couldn’t quite place his thumb on it. Maybe he could get a few minutes of sleep, but he furrowed his brows and tried to think of the song – it sounded old… was it one of the folk tunes his Dad played in the car?

 

And then it hit him.

 

Jeongin jumped so high with the realisation that he fell off the couch, his body connecting with the edge of the coffee table and his foot with Seungmin’s face.

 

“Ow! What the hell Jeongin?!” Seungmin quickly covered his now bleeding nose, but Jeongin sat paralysed on the floor.

 

His hands felt clammy and hot against the cold floor. His chest started to hurt. His heart fluttered in its place like a bird trying to escape the cage of his body.

 

He knew that tune.

 

 

Jeongin burrowed further into Jeongsan’s side, dried tears making his face feel tight and icky. Mummy was asleep now, but her destruction reigned heavily in the stuffy walls of the cage called a home.

 

A hand ran through his hair and he forced his swollen eyes open.

 

He saw his father’s face – a blur of purple, red, black and blue.

 

“Thank you for helping me, Appa” he murmured, before closing his eyes again.

 

His father didn’t reply. But the tune, the familiar, familiar tune coming from the depths of his throat, filled with raw pain and melancholy, served as enough comfort.

 

The hums almost seemed to block out Jeongwoo’s cries as he was left unattended, all four of the other family members too tired, or too unconscious to move. The soothing sound almost seemed to block out his mother’s words, that even while she was asleep, Jeongin could still hear ringing in his mind.

 

 

He knew that tune. It was coming back to remind him – to haunt him.

 

“What is going on in here?” Woojin said with a fatherly smile, drying one of the glass plates in his hand.

 

“H-Hyung?” Jeongin choked out, his chest beginning to heave with effort.

 

“Innie are you alright?” Felix started, but Jeongin was already off the ground and sprinting clumsily towards Woojin.

 

“Hyung!” he yelled, his eyes bulging and heartbeat in his ears.

 

When he reached the elder, he slammed into his arm, making the plate shatter to the ground.

 

He yelped like a dog at the familiar noise and jumped to the side, but his socks slipped on the cold tiles and he crashed into the ground again.

 

“Jeongin! Calm down! It’s okay-” Woojin stepped backwards but the younger wrapped himself around the elder’s leg, looking insane.

 

“N-No hyung! What song was that! The o-one you were humming just then!” Jeongin spluttered out frantically. “Woojin-hyung y-you have to tell me-”

 

“Yes, yes I will okay” Woojin shushed, bending down to comfortingly rub Jeongin’s back. “I’ll find the name of it for you okay?”

 

Jeongin nodded, but his hyung’s comfort still couldn’t soothe his throbbing mind

 

When the other members all arrived home, Jeongin was still ‘out of it’ as Hyunjin had deemed. He didn’t eat dinner, and no one questioned him about it. That night he fell asleep with the sound of his father’s sorrowful hums echoing in his ears.

 

This time it couldn’t block out, the pain Jeongin felt in his heart.

 

 

When the weather turned colder, Jeongin feared he might freeze. Or get hypothermia and die. These days he was just so damn cold. After some extensive research online and just one look at his bare body in the mirror, he knew it was because of his weight loss.

 

And more worryingly, he knew the other members knew it too – but this time Jeongin knew that they are really starting to get scared.

 

They were especially fearful now, more than before, because last week Felix had fallen over. Every member tripped in dance practice every once in a while, but what happened was something else.

 

Jisung, for the first time in forever, hadn’t had a smile on his face. Changbin had started to cry when Felix didn’t wake up after they called his name and jostled his shoulder again.

 

Chan rang the emergency services when he couldn’t feel Felix’s pulse anymore.

 

That’s when Hyunjin had started running to get a manager.

 

That was when Jeongin’s stomach twisted itself in a knot. That’s when he knew something was dangerously and utterly wrong.

 

Hours later, as the eight members had sat in a hospital waiting room, Jeongin’s stomach still hadn’t settled down.

 

He’s alive but he’s severely undernourished. We suspect it has something to do with irregular eating habits. Do you know when the last time he ate a proper meal was?’’

 

Jeongin had felt guilt settle on his heart when he saw Chan’s façade, that the leader had been keeping up to support the other members, fall when he shook his head.

 

Changbin had just sobbed harder into Minho’s shoulder.

 

When Felix came home with them that night, after another hour hooked up to an IV drip, Jeongin and Seungmin were sent out of the living room to let the older members talk.

 

As the two cuddled together on Seungmin’s bed, hearing to strangled screams of Felix and Hyunjin, who were presumably fighting, and the others firm but scared sounding yells of ‘back it up!’ or ‘Felix, stop! ‘through the dorm’s thin walls, Seungmin also began to cry.

 

You need to eat more, Innie – we all know what’s going on. Please, do it for me – I – all of us - couldn’t bear it if something happened to you. Please promise hyung you will try?’’

 

Jeongin had just nodded numbly and let Seungmin cry into his shoulder.

 

It was just another promise he couldn’t keep.

 

He knew that even now, a week later, as he drank from his straight black no-milk-no-cream-no-sugar iced coffee. If he could truly live up to that promise, he would be indulging in one of the milkshakes the rest of his friends were having.

 

But he guessed it was a routine of his just to destroy and break his promises.

 

Jeongin sipped his coffee, sitting next to Woojin and Chan in the small café’s booth, and ignored the sounds of Jisung trying to do aegyo to distract Felix from the hundreds of calories that Jeongin and Felix both knew were in that strawberry milkshake (‘four-hundred-and-seventy-eight, plus sixty-eight calories for all that whipped cream’ the voice in the back of his head provided).

 

Jeongin felt like he would vomit if he drank that – the last thing he needed to do was get all that fat back on his body and face after he had fought so hard to get it off.

 

“Jeongin, have some cookie” Woojin passed the white chocolate and macadamia biscuit towards the youngest. His initial reaction was to refuse, but when he felt Minho’s cat-like eyes pierce onto him, he forced himself to break off a tiny amount and pop it into his mouth.

 

As soon as he tasted it, he regretted it.

 

Not because it was horrible, rather the opposite actually, and he wasn’t sure if the true bliss melting on his tongue, and the otherworldly brilliant taste was due to it being the best-made cookie he had ever tasted, or if it was because he had starved himself of sweet luxuries for so long, but he didn’t care. It tasted like heaven in his mouth, the white chocolate slightly gooey, the macadamia crisp, the batter the perfect amount of sugary delight and still warm, fresh of an oven tray.

 

It was one of the best things he had ever tasted.

 

And maybe it was so good, only because it was limited – there was no way he could allow himself to indulge in cookies; not when it would ruin his hard-earned progress.

 

“It’s really good, hyung” Jeongin forced a grin and sipped his bitter coffee to fight the urge to grab more of Woojin’s perfect dessert.

 

“I’ll make some of these for Christmas then,” the eldest smiled and nibbled on the cookie, before turning to Jeongin. “You’ll have some right?”

 

Jeongin kept the same sickly-sweet smile plastered on his face and tried his hardest to ignore Minho’s blank expression staring at him from the other side of the café’s table. “Yeah, hyung, I will.”

 

Strangely enough, Jeongin didn’t break this promise. In the Stray Kid’s dorm, all nine of them were dowsed with jovial festivities as they sit and unwrap the presents’ they all bought each other. The smell of white chocolate macadamia nut cookies, as well as the custodial ginger-bread-men swirled celebratory in the air as they baked.

 

For the first time in a long time Jeongin felt truly happy.

 

Maybe it’s the food Chan’s parents sent to them from Australia, or maybe it was the news that his own package he sent weeks ago arrived in America safely, either-or, he was happy.

 

He felt so bright that he doesn’t even consider the number of calories he’d been consuming as he stuffed his second helping of kimchi into his mouth. He felt so joyful that he even put milk and cream and sugar in his coffee that he had that morning. He felt so alive that he took a whole white choc-chip macadamia cookie that Woojin had slaved on, rather than breaking it in half.

 

The ‘ding’ from his phone made him look away from the table and the hot-chocolate (a whole hot chocolate with milk and marshmallows!) he was sipping on and at his phone instead.

 

       >From: Kyunghwa

Jeonginnie!!! Merry Christmas!!! Come back to Busan soon, we all miss your dancing. Life’s all good up here – sorry I haven’t messaged in a while. Jaesook broke his phone and his parents aren’t getting him a new one so he feels bad he can’t contact you. Hey guess what!! Byungjun actually got into that university he applied for, so he’ll probs see you soon lol. My family all good up here – my Dad even messaged me this morning. Your mum sent me cookies :( I love her istg. Xxxx

 

Jeongin chuckled under his breath. Even after all these years, he kept in contact with Kyunghwa the most out of his other friends. There was a connection between them – maybe it was because she was the only person he had come out to, but whatever it was, Jeongin was glad he had it.

 

“Who’s that Innie?”

 

Jeongin looked up at the nickname and meet the eyes of Changbin across the table who was now tilting his head in the direction of Jeongin’s phone.

 

“Just one of my old friends from Busan” Jeongin shrugged, speaking a rare truth. Huh, maybe honesty was a part of the festive spirit.

 

“Make sure you keep in touch with them” Felix piped up from behind him from his place on the couch next to Chan. Jeongin turned to face the older, who was digging into a salad – a slight improvement from what he usually ate – or didn’t eat – from a month before. “When I came here, I didn’t message or call any of my friends, and now that’s something I regret.”

 

“Yeah” Jeongin nodded, the bitter reminder of Jeongsan returning to his mind. “I understand.”

 

“Do you miss your family, Lix?” Changbin’s voice, soft and unsure filled the air, and the question made Jeongin put his phone down and turn to the Australian in quiet piqued interest.

 

The mood between the four of them changed, the once happy Christmas mood shifted into one that reflected nothing short of melancholy. It had always been some sort of unspoken-rule to not ask the Australian pair about their families as none of the other seven wanted to trigger a bout of homesickness. But if anything, Christmas was a time for family, and despite the nine of them being one, sometimes it was cathartic to just talk.

 

“I don’t miss my Mum” Felix laughed hollowly, the light catching his glossy eyes. “But yeah, I miss my Dad and my sisters a lot…”

 

Yeah, I feel you man” was the part of Chan’s response that Jeongin could translate into Korean.

 

Jeongin watched silently from his place as Chan and Felix snuggled closer together. He felt almost out of place watching the interaction like it was something that he shouldn’t be allowed to see. He turned away and met the eyes of Changbin again.

 

He felt a wave wash over him – not one of shame or guilt but want. He felt the urge to just confide in someone and say something – something truthful.

 

“I miss my family too,” he said sadly, and immediately Chan and Felix stopped whispering. He felt his members turn towards him in surprise.

 

“Do you miss Jeongwoo?” Chan asked, the question lingering in the air.

 

“Yeah” Jeongin’s voice broke and he cleared his throat in embarrassment. He didn’t know why, but he suddenly remembered that one Christmas where all he had gotten from his mother was a piece of stale bread. It smelled pungent and tasted worse. Despite it, Jeongsan had given him his own present – a bruised apple. Jeongin had eaten the whole thing without a second thought.

 

Jeongin laughed sourly as he recalled how sweet the apple tasted on his cracked lips. “Yeah but I miss Jeongsan too.”

 

There was silence at that. Until Chan (of course it was Chan) spoke up.

 

“Um…Who’s Jeongsan?”

 

Jeongin pushed his hot-chocolate away, the sugary taste making him feel sick. The urge to confess had left as soon as it had arrived, and he found himself wishing he had just stayed quiet.

 

“He’s my brother” he still said, despite the knot in his stomach telling him not to. “He was my brother.”

 

Before anyone could say anything to that, Jeongin picked up his mug and took it to the kitchen to dump the sugary beverage down the drain.

 

He felt three pairs of eyes on his back as he left.

 

 

As Christmas passed and the New Year approached, the festive spirit didn’t seem to leave the dorm. With it, stayed Jeongin’s thoughts about family, more specifically his biological one.

 

He often found himself wondering where Jeongsan was – whether he was still just one hour away in Incheon or whether he was one the other side of the world. His mind drifted to his mother, but he quickly closed that path off before his thoughts could turn dark with memories.

 

He could message Jeongwoo whenever he pleased; the same for his adoptive family who he definitely preferred over his ‘real’ one, so they weren’t in his thoughts as much.

 

But there was still one person who lingered in the corner of his brain, someone who even if he wanted to would never be able to speak to: his father.

 

Ever since Woojin had hummed that damned tune, intrusive flashbacks of the aftermath of his mother’s breakdowns plagued him, whether he was in the middle of a vocal lesson or at dinner. Every time he was dragged into the past he would freeze as if he was being transported back in time, and even if it was only for one second, Minho or Jisung or Changbin would notice.

 

Those three always noticed. And now Seungmin and Woojin were beginning to pick up on it too.

 

As if Jeongin needed any more issues in his life.

 

 

He woke up with the feeling of broken plate shards pricking his skin and a scream clogged at the base of his throat.

 

It happened again.

 

He had just woken from another flashback, the same ones he had been having since he had heard Woojin singing that fateful afternoon. It was two a.m. according to Changbin’s alarm clock, and Jeongin rolled over in bed, wrinkling his nose as the sweat that made his bedsheets damp, the scent of soju still hanging in the air.

 

He grabbed his laptop, that was sitting delicately on the end of his bunk bed with a sigh. There was no way he was going to be able to fall back asleep without binge-watching some Naruto episodes or a Korean Drama.

 

However, as he opened Google and clicked on the search bar to type in his definitely-not-illegal streaming site, he paused, his fingers hovering over the keys.

 

It was like there was a voice, at the back of his head – different from the one that counted his calories, but different to any other one he had heard before. It was deep, but not haunting, stern, but not strict.

 

‘Find the truth’ it said. So, Jeongin followed

 

He started by typing in ‘man killed drunk-driving car crash Seoul 2008.

 

What came up were thousands of links, websites, images and news articles, and when he found a library record archive, he started his search.

 

Quietly, as to not wake his other three roommates, he clicked on ‘Park’ as a last name, then ‘2008.’

 

There were hundreds of links.

 

It would probably have been easier if he knew his father’s first name, a more exact location of death than ‘Seoul’, and a better time-frame than three-hundred-and-sixty-six days (it was a leap year, he checked.)

 

Better get started then.

 

As his eyes drooped as he clicked again, and again, the motion becoming repetitive, he wondered what the hell he was doing. But as fatigue started to catch up, he reminded himself of the whole reason why he had to get sent to that stupid orphanage, and then adopted in the first place.

 

His father’s death.

 

Find the truth’ the voice demanded again. Jeongin listened.

 

It’s late, almost four a.m. when Jeongin found the page.

 

       ‘29th August 2008 - Man, aged thirty-nine, dies in drunk-driving incident outside Seoul markets.’

 

Jeongin scrolled down the article.

 

       ‘The thirty-nine-year-old, identified as Park Jungyee, was found yesterday at one a.m. dead in his car after it crashed into a pole outside Seoul’s popular Dongdaemun Markets, Euljiro, as a consequence of intoxication. No one else was injured in the accident. His family cannot be contacted. He will be buried in Seoul cemetery, with his burial commencing on the 31st.’

 

A small photo of Park Jungyee was cropped into the left of the page. Jeongin couldn’t recall it – it had been too long, but the name sounded slightly familiar, and he knew that the time and story fits with his own.

 

He zoomed into the pixelated image. It’s a wide, but sunken-in face, with high cheekbones, stubble, dark-brown irises, lips that are fairly reminiscent of Jeongin’s own, and eyebags that are so dark that they look like they have been tattooed on.

 

It’s his father.

 

He waited for the overwhelming grief to fill him from his toes to the tips of his hair, but it never comes. Nor does the shock, or the melancholy, or even the few happy memories.

 

He felt nothing.

 

He had always know how his father had died – his social worker had told him, but it felt strange to look at tangible evidence of the man that Jeongin can barely even remember to the extent that sometimes he thinks it was merely a figment of his imagination.

 

He took a screenshot of the article with his laptop anyway and deleted his history.

 

He lied in bed, his mind whirring, keeping him awake. The voice is gone now, maybe it has been satisfied.

 

He formed a plan.

 

He fell asleep knowing exactly what he would be doing when he wakes up – after all, a small expedition never hurt anyone, did it?

 

 

The December air was as cold and as sharp as glass as Yang Jeongin walked down Seoul’s crowded streets, wishing he had put another layer on before he left. It was December 31st – one day before Stray Kids’ schedule started back up again and one day before 2019 began.

 

He had left the dorm before the clock hit eight – telling Seungmin and Hyunjin (Jeongin was surprised to see the latter awake) that he was ‘going for a walk’ before he left. It wasn’t exactly a lie – he was walking, but every half-truth made Jeongin’s heart a little weaker. He didn’t know how much longer he could keep his past away from him or his friends.

 

But still – as he navigated his way to his father’s gravestone – he felt oddly eager. It was more than anything he had done before in terms of facing his parents.

 

He walked into the cemetery briskly, the cold air and his anticipation keeping his awake. Jeongin ignored the sympathetic stares he got from a woman as he looked through all the ‘Parks’ to search for one name – a name that would give him some sort of closure, or that’s what he hoped at least.

 

He breathed into his dark facemask and shoved his hands deeper into his black coat. All black seemed fitting for the occasion – it wasn’t like Jeongin had attended any sort of funeral for his father when he was younger, so maybe this could make up for it.

 

When he found it, a boring rectangular gravestone with the name ‘Park Jungyee’ and a date of death engraved into it, Jeongin would be lying if he said he felt sorrow.

 

If anything as he kneeled beside the headstone and took off his facemask, letting his breaths swirl around in the cold morning air, he felt guilty for not feeling sad. But in honesty, how could he feel sorry for a man that had never intervened or did anything to stop years of abuse? How could he cry for a man that had cowardly left his sons to die at the hands of a monster?

 

No. Jeongin couldn’t think like that. That was the same line of thinking that lead his father to his death, and the same line of thinking that had dehumanized his mother into a monster.

 

He forced himself to feel some sympathy. This man had tried his best to deal with it all and stay for his children, sleeping on the floor every night with nails ripping apart his back, and after all, the guilt for leaving had been what killed him. If anything, Jeongin could emphasize with that gut-wrenching deep-rooted feeling of guilt.

 

He felt it too. Who knows, maybe it was all genetic – maybe his father’s guilt and his mother’s destruction blended together and made him.

 

“I forgive you” was all that Jeongin could say to the grey slate in front of him.

 

He let himself kneel next to his father for another moment.

 

When it started to rain, Jeongin got up, his knees clicking in protest as he pulled himself off the mushy grass.

 

“Goodbye,” he said. The slate didn’t answer.

 

Jeongin pulled his facemask back up and burrowed himself into his coat further. He turned around and left his father, without leaving a single flower, or petal behind.

 

As he walked out of the cemetery, Jeongin felt lighter than he had when walking in. Maybe seeing his father’s grave had given him more closure than he thought. Maybe it was the serenity of the environment, where headstones stood up like blades of grass, or maybe it was because Jeongin had finally found enough the courage to face his past.

 

Either way, it gave Jeongin a strange sort of hope and a want to conquer his childhood again.

 

So, as he walked back to the train station, weaving through the crowds on the street he began to hum.

 

 

 

Eighteen.

 

When Jeongin turned eighteen, he sat in front of a camera and had eight others trying to blow out his candles for him.

 

That makes it sound like a terrible birthday party, but besides from having to be extra cautious about his words, it was the best one yet. Well, the best one of the few he’s ever had, but still, when Jisung asked him about what he had done each year for his party in front of thousands watching, he quickly made some up.

 

When Changbin read out a fan’s question of ‘what have you been doing since the start of the year’, Jeongin had sent the phone camera a hearty smile and said ‘working hard.

 

And it was true, he had been, but not in the sense most people probably thought. Rather than focussing on his singing or dancing, he had been working on his eating. The happiness he felt as Christmas, and the zero kilo weight gain after stuffing his face, had reminded him that eating a little more wouldn’t hurt him.

 

With the help of these blogs online, ‘recovery blogs’, he had worked to defeat that constant feeling of being too cold, that dizziness and irritation and the headaches. When he thought back of it, he’d gone into it in August with the best of intentions – to look older and get more fit, but as the year had gone on, he had gotten more obsessed with the number on the inch tape and the number on the scale.

 

It wasn’t easy, especially when the voice in his head screamed too loud, or called him fat, and many days he would give up, and not eat at all. But he was determined to get better, and after messaging some online ‘eating disorder recovery group chats’ about it, he had made a few friends (with his true identity hidden of course) and he had even briefly confided to one of JYP’s psychologists about it!

 

So, he was trying to improve, but this way, he knew wouldn’t lead to self-destruction as it did before.

 

When the Vlive was over, and the cake and snacks were gone, Jeongin felt truly content. He was eighteen now! That was a legal adult in places like Australia, a fact which Chan had informed him of proudly.

 

Still, he felt a strange feeling in his stomach when the words ‘legal adult’ came up – all he could be reminded of was that in three-hundred-and-sixty-five days he would be of adult age in Korea – nineteen. And that number just reminded him of Jeongsan, and honestly, that wasn’t something he wanted to think about on his birthday.

 

“You’re going back to Busan tomorrow, right Innie?” Jisung asked and Jeongin nodded quickly in response.

 

For his birthday, the management team was giving him a week off to travel back to see his family and friends. When the idea was first presented, Hyunjin started rambling about how he’d ‘never been to Busan before’ and was ‘so excited to go’ which only made Jeongin feel worse when he informed the team that he’d rather go alone rather than the ‘team trip’ they had all envisioned.

 

It also made his feel that worm in his heart burrow in further after Stray Kids’ shared experience in Australia. The ‘Unveil Tour’ had wrapped up by mid-February and if Jeongin was honest, seeing Chan’s family and home in Sydney was his favourite thing about it. Even Felix, who the team knew didn’t have the best relationship with his mother, introduced all eight of them to his family.

 

In actuality, Jeongin had met all of the other members of Stray Kids families already – either a year or two before. He knew the members were slowly growing curious about why Jeongin hadn’t instigated any union between his ‘real’ and ‘idol’ family – but every time one of the members brought it up, he gently shut them down.

 

It wasn’t his fault really - he wanted to keep his past and his present as far away as possible. And who knows? Maybe Jaesook could let it slip that this was also around the anniversary he was separated from his family, or maybe a member could go searching through his room and find the incriminating evidence of his adoption certificate.

 

Or possibly, even worse, they could find out he liked boys!

 

It was just too dangerous to let any of his members into his home – if anything went wrong and they felt betrayed or something like that, who knows what would happen to him, what would happen to Stray Kids – if his secrets ripped apart the team, then he had just destroyed something wonderful yet again.

 

And that was not a risk he was willing to take.

 

“Make sure you pack tonight, yeah?” Chan smiled warmly at him and Jeongin cheekily smiled back, them both knowing that it was not going to happen and that he would not pack until he was a hurried mess half an hour before his train left.

 

And that was what exactly what happened.

 

Somehow, he managed to say all his goodbyes to his members (giving Hyunjin an extra hug when he still looked confused as to why it wasn’t a whole team trip to Busan), get to the right platform, and board his train with no second to spare.

 

As he watched the city turn to suburbia then turn to a brief countryside, Jeongin settled into the train ride. The anxiousness of seeing his family and especially his friends again, however, make his fingers shake in unease, and he wished he had brought one of Woojin’s pocket puzzle type toys to play with to distract him.

 

Before he knew it, he was stumbling out of the train into the cold wind of his hometown, Busan. He broke out into a smile when he saw two people, in matching coats, their faces in large smiles that outshone their wrinkles and blemishes; his parents.

 

“Mama!” he squeaked childishly before embracing her into a hug. “I missed you so much!”

 

She responded with the same enthusiasm – wrapping her arms around his shoulders and leaning into his chest, as now Jeongin had overtaken both his parents height-wise. “It’s been so long Jeonginnie, we’re so glad to have you back.”

 

They drove back to the house in constant chatter – whether it was Jeongin telling his parents about all his experiences in Seoul or it was his father updating him about their grumpy neighbour Mr Sang’s obsessive gardening, Jeongin loved it all.

 

When they arrived home, out of the cold biting wind, he felt warmth fill his heart. It was just as he had left it three years ago – the curtains were still the same ugly mauve that Jeongin had a love-hate relationship with, the carpet still had a stain from where he spilled coffee on it on his first Mother’s Day celebration upon arriving – it was perfect in its imperfectness.

 

He was home. And he was genuinely happy. That was the most important thing after all, just like his mother told him all those years ago.

 

If Seoul was the place of exciting and slightly daunting new experiences and opportunities, then Busan was the city of comfort. The skyscrapers aren’t so high in the main part of the city and the small town his home is in on the outskirts was serene in every sense of the word. It’s like a breath of fresh air amongst the constant buzz that is his hectic school and idol life.

 

And so, for the seven days he had, he breathed it in and cherished it.

 

He took a walk around town with his father every morning, walking past his school and even meeting one of his old classmates, who recognised him both as the Yang Jeongin of the robotics club and the Yang Jeongin of the up-and-coming rookie idol group. His Dad’s phone started to ring on the second day’s walk and by the frown on his face, then the fake ‘chipper’ attitude he carried until they arrived home, Jeongin knew it was his biological mother that called.

 

In the afternoon of the second day, Jeongin popped down to the old dance studio and was surprised when his whole group, including the instructor, was there waiting for him, with large ‘Welcome Home Jeongin!’ and ‘Congratulations!’ posters stuck tackily above the doorframe.

 

Jeongin laughed at the giant cake (that was burnt on one side and undercooked on the other) and tried not to think about how open he was here compared to when he was around his members.

 

“You didn’t have to do all this!” he laughed, giving Kyunghwa, who now donned mint-green hair, a huge hug.

 

“Of course, we did! Byungjun even came back from Seoul University to come see you!” she rebutted, squeezing him tighter.

 

Sure enough, behind her stood Byungjun and Jaesook, both with large smiles on their faces.

 

“I missed you guys” he admitted, hugging both of them tightly with no care for any sense of ‘manliness.’

 

“Damn you’ve grown!” Jaesook exclaimed, and Jeongin laughed when he noticed their height difference. Jaesook’s eyes were in crescents as he grinned and Jeongin felt his heart fill with warmth – this is what friends truly were.

 

“I like the red hair,” Byungjun said softly and Jeongin ran a hand through his obnoxious, but favourite coloured hair self-consciously. “I see you’ve strayed down the path of hair-dye with Kyunghwa and Jaesook.”

 

“It’s all a part of the job” Jeongin huffed over-dramatically, propping one hand on his waist and the other on his forehead like he was a damsel in distress and ignoring the elder’s pun, just to spite him.

 

Oh god! The last thing we need is you acting like a little shit just because some thirteen-year-olds are swarming over you!” Jaesook mocked but there was no malice behind his tone, unlike what it was when he they first met.

 

“You know what Jaesook,” Jeongin said thoughtfully, a wicked smile on his face that caught the attention of everyone in the room. “You really do look like DAY6’s Jae-sunbaenim, just hell of a lot shorter and even more stupid! Actually, never mind, I think comparing you two is an insult to him!

 

The room broke into a delighted outrage with Jaesook trying to tackle him to the floor and Byungjun holding him back and Jeongin laughed with them, feeling better than he had in months.

 

“Hey” a gentle poke on his arm made him turn around.

 

“Kyunghwa-noona, you good?” he asked quietly because he hadn’t seen the elder look this worried in a long time.

 

“Well,” she started, flicking her long hair over her shoulder which Jeongin knows she only does when she’s feeling nervous. “This is…” Kyunghwa moved to the side and a short, plump girl with natural dark hair is standing there and for a second Jeongin’s heart raced at the impromptu meeting. “This is my girlfriend, Seonni.”

 

“Hi!” the girl, no, Seonni, smiled, her teeth white and her cheeks puffed up into a wide grin. Jeongin admitted quietly to himself that he liked her already.

 

“Hey, it’s nice to meet you, I’m Jeongin” he introduced himself and bowed slightly.

 

She bowed back but before she could talk, their dance instructor connected the music to the speaker and rather embarrassingly ‘I AM: You’ started to play. Jeongin looked around for a second, half-flattered, half-mortified, but as soon as everyone started dancing the choreography to Chan’s part (they learnt the whole song!) he threw his head back in a gleeful laugh.

 

He was really home.

 

 

It was the third day of being in Busan and the atmosphere had trickled to awkward. Why? Because this day, nine years ago, he was adopted, and since he came to the house, he’d never asked his parents why they were looking to adopt and even more, why they chose him.

 

The broken boy, abused by his mother, a burden to his brothers, with a dead father and a hell-of-a-lot of trust issues. Yet still, knowing this, and reading his file, thus knowing about his situation, they still welcomed him into their lives and loved him whole-heartedly.

 

The question weighing down in his mind was why, and every other year he hadn’t found the courage or the time to ask.

 

But not this year.

 

He was going to have ‘the talk’ with them. And it was going to happen today. He had to find the answers.

 

“Hey Mum! Dad! Can I talk to you guys, please?”

 

Jeongin hated the way his voice cracked as he called out for them as he sat on the couch in the living room and he hated the face of worry his Mother made she saw him, looking nervous and lost.

 

“Jeongin, what’s wrong, honey?” his mother crooned, sitting beside him so that their shoulders brushed together.

 

“Is everything okay?” his father, who had presumably been out in the garden due to the mud all over his boots and pants panted, his face tinted red in exhaustion.

 

“You don’t have to run, Dad” Jeongin snickered at the mess the dirt made all over the carpet and laughed when he saw his mother’s murderous glare. “How did you even hear me from the front garden?”

 

“It’s my vision failing me, not my ears!” his Dad smiled, sitting on the other side of Jeongin with a huff. “Besides, the window’s open.”

 

Jeongin chuckled again, some of his initial nervousness from starting the conversation he basically dreaded to have, dwindling at his Father’s odd antics.

 

“Well,” he cleared his throat, his hands wringing together tightly as he tried to figure out what to say. “Today nine years ago, you guys picked me up from the orphanage and adopted me, and I just want to say I am forever thankful for that, and I could never have gotten kinder, more considerate parents.”

 

He watched as his mother’s face stiffened in surprise and his father’s eyes fill with tears.

 

“But” he coughed, leaning into the sofa more. “I guess I’ve always just wanted to ask you… why me?

 

A careful silence grasped the room.

 

“Well” his mother begun, shifting uncomfortably on the soft pillows. “Your father and I always wanted to have children, but after… trying for several months we took a visit to the clinic and found out that I am barren, uh, unable to have children.”

 

“And after a year to… heal after this… news” his father continued, “We decided that we should look into adoption.”

 

“You, Jeonginnie, were the perfect fit for us” his mother sniffled and Jeongin felt tears gather into his eyes. “You were bright and playful and – well – older. Honestly, after looking after kids all day when I worked in childcare centres, I had quite enough of screaming babies to last me a lifetime.”

 

Jeongin laughed wetly, wiping away a stray tear that had fallen down his cheek.

 

“You were smiling Jeongin” his father grinned shakily at the memory. “Every other kid in there looked just about fed up, but you were the one playing with that darned Rubik’s Cube with most its pieces missing and helping the other children. That’s when your mother and I decided that we wanted to fight for you and I’m so glad we did.”

 

Jeongin felt another tear fall down his face, but he didn’t wipe it away. “Thank you,” he said instead and fell into his parent’s wide embrace. “Thank you so much.”

 

That night, at dinner, his mother served him his favourite meal with a hot chocolate – just like the old days. In the evening, his father took him out for a surprise. Together, they drove around the neighbourhood, listening and gleefully singing loudly to the songs that got Jeongin into singing in the first place.

 

When they returned home, his mother gave him a gift – a Rubik’s cube, just like he used to have in the group-home-orphanage, and the symbol of his years from nine to thirteen when everywhere he went, the same exact Cube was with him.

 

“I love you guys” he whispered to them and they smiled, with stars filled in their eyes.

 

“We love you too, Jeonginnie” his father crooned and wrapped him into another hug.

 

Maybe his biological mother was wrong after all, he pondered as he laid in bed, trying to crack the colourful cube he had once mastered at fourteen. His fingers spun complex routines and equations of when to turn the top-layer left and the left-side up. He solved most of it – the easy part, now he only had one face to complete.

 

Maybe people can love me he thought, spinning the cube around again and did the final turns of the cube relying completely on muscle memory. His Mother’s threats rang through his mind;

 

“No one will love you, except me. Do you hear that?”

 

He frowned as he solved the last piece with a loud and satisfying ‘click.’

 

He examined the colours, yellow, white, orange, blue, green and red in fascination in the darkness, the comfort of his childhood bedroom.

 

He experimentally tossed it in the air, before catching it in the palm of his hand. He smiled.

 

Oh, dear Mother, how glorious of me to say that you are wrong.

 

 

Jeongin fiddled with his Rubik’s Cube nervously as he waited for the bus to arrive. Kyunghwa, with silver-hair despite him literally seeing her five days ago, noticed his anxiousness and rested a hand gently on his leg.

 

It helped, but it couldn’t quell the worry bursting from his heart. After Jeongin solved the cube for the eighth time, he adjusted his dark facemask so there was no chance of him being recognised sitting on a dingy bus with a girl (who knew the scandals that would cause) on his way to the other side of Busan.

 

The side of Busan Jeongin had always avoided since he was adopted.

 

The side of Busan where his old house was – the house he was trapped in with his mother.

 

“If you aren’t feeling up for it, Jeonginnie, we can turn back” Kyunghwa whispered softly, bunched up in her pink beanie and scarf Seonni knitted for her, but Jeongin determinedly refused.

 

“No, Kyunghwa, I need to see it before I go, it’s… what’s right.”

 

So together the pair sat on the bus as it squeaked down unfamiliar roads in quiet comfort.

 

It was cold – the weather had taken a harsh turn for the worse on his fifth day. He had been at dance practice with Jaesook in the early morning (Byungjun had to go back to Seoul early and Kyunghwa was seeing her family) and when they left the studio, the ground was covered in a blanket of thick snow.

 

Jaesook had taken him to buy warm milk teas, and Jeongin couldn’t help but wonder if it was the same shop the elder had offered to take him to all those years ago.

 

“Now arriving at; Sunyoong Park” came the crackly digital voice over the bus’s broken speakers.

 

“This is us!” Kyunghwa said hurriedly, making her way down to the front of the bus before the doors closed. Jeongin followed closely behind, snapping out of his memory, wishing he had her hand to hold onto, but that was stupid and babyish and-

 

As soon as he stepped into the fierce winter breeze he stopped, all the air leaving his lungs in a quick and soundless gasp.

 

The park was rather nice for the shambled townhouses lining the road, it had large trees and park benches dotted among the single pathway that ran through the grass. He knew this place. He remembered this place.

 

It was the park from his very first memory.

 

Where he walked with his babysitter and crushed that leaf.

 

Now it was winter, and the trees were barren of any forms of life. Jeongin shivered, but not because of the cold air – because of the memories attached to this park.

 

He was back. And there was no babysitter to hold his hand this time.

 

“I’ve been here before” he said shallowly, his breath coming out in puffs in the frozen air. “I used to come here all the time.”

 

As if on instinct, or maybe repressed memories, his feet started to move through the park, then took a left at a corner then a right at a T-crossing.

 

The anxiety in his chest and stomach fuelled his every move and before he knew it, with Kyunghwa a few paces behind him, he stopped.

 

He turned to look at the house he stood in front of.

 

It was the same white weather-beaten walls, the same square window-panes with a cross in the middle, the same slightly tilted roof as if it hadn’t been built quite right.

 

It was his first home.

 

If it could even be called that.

 

“Is this it?” he heard Kyunghwa hesitantly ask from behind him.

 

“Yeah” Jeongin swallowed down the lump in his throat and nodded. “It is.”

 

It’s changed though, he noticed looking around at the outside of the house. The garden was certainly much more cared for, the door was painted a welcoming mahogany colour and the dirt that used to stain the white walls was mostly cleaned off. Well, I have too.

 

He stood and took the house in for a few moments more. Kyunghwa pushed her warm pink fuzzy glove into his own bare hand and squeezed it tight. Together they thought in silence while staring at the walls that once trapped him, his father and his brothers’ in – like a cave where his mother was the angry tiger.

 

With one more look, he grasped Kyunghwa’s hand and left the house with the feeling of wary content weighing on his heart. He never wanted to step inside there, or even see it, again. But he went and he looked, and just like his father’s gravestone, it gave him the closure that he needed to grow, to change, to understand.

 

The pair walked back to the bus stop in silence, but Kyunghwa’s warm hand is all the anchor that Jeongin needed to stay grounded.

 

As luck would have it, there isn’t another bus scheduled for another hour.

 

“Perfect” he grumbled, flopping onto one of the ice-cold benches. “I can’t even get out of here.”

 

“Hey” Kyunghwa laughed gently, squeezing his hand tighter and taking a seat next to him. “Don’t be like that, Innie, it’s better one hour than two.”

 

“You’re right about that.”

 

A breeze passed by the pair, alone in the park on the cold day, and Jeongin shuddered again. He looked longingly at Kyunghwa’s thick woollen hot pink beanie and cursed himself for not listening to his mother when she read him the daily forecast at breakfast.

 

“Do you have any New Year Resolutions?

 

Jeongin sniffed at the unfamiliar English term – he was sure he heard either Felix or Seungmin say it once in the dorm earlier that year, but he had paid no heed to it. “New Year’s Resolutions” he repeated. “What’s that?”

 

“I learnt about it in the Western Values and Traditions class I’m taking” Kyunghwa explained, looking wistfully at the delicate snowflakes starting to fall onto the ground below. “On the first of January every year, some families make vows of what they want to achieve or do that year.”

 

“Does anyone actually stick to it?” Jeongin asked amusedly.

 

“Only the diligent, I guess” Kyunghwa laughed, catching a snowflake on her gloved hand.

 

“Did you make any?”

 

“Actually, I did.”

 

Jeongin looked at her in surprise, his bad mood completely forgotten. “Well, what was it?”

 

Kyunghwa looked at the snowflake still rested on her palm and in one gentle breath, blew it away. “It was to be brave.”

 

Jeongin sniffed. “Have you done it so far?”

 

“Yeah” she beamed, and her grin was so contagious that Jeongin couldn’t stop a small smile from dancing on his own features under his facemask. “I think I have been. I’ve been trying to talk to my Dad more recently and I’ve been seeing my family more while he’s around, so that’s all good.”

 

“How’s your brother?” Jeongin asked out of interest and he pretended to be infatuated by the snow to avoid his friend’s curious and baffled expression.

 

“Yeah, Kyungtae’s all good – he’s in the same year as you, so he’s just studying for his final exams already.”

 

Jeongin nodded quietly, deep in thought. “Maybe I should make a New Year’s Resolution too then, no matter I’m already a month late.”

 

“Yeah” Kyunghwa excitedly agreed, clapping her hands together so the mittens made soft little ‘pat-pat’ noises. “What is one thing you really want to do?”

 

Jeongin furrowed his brow in thought, wanting to solve his tenacious eating problems coming to mind, but the best answer was already in front of him, or more specifically a three-minute walk away.

 

“I want to come to terms with my past” he decided stubbornly. He looked down at his feet and thought of the second half of his promise. “And I think I want to be more open and honest with my members and… not hide everything from all of them…”

 

“Do they not know?” Kyunghwa asked softly and forlornly like Jeongin had just said the saddest thing (in both senses of the word) ever.

 

“No” Jeongin looked away, ashamed at himself and he had to grate out the words through his gritted teeth. “They don’t know anything about me.”

 

Kyunghwa didn’t answer, like for once she had nothing to say. “Why don’t you tell them when you get back?” she said after a pause.

 

“I’m really scared about telling the members about… my adoption and my past and everything.” Jeongin started, blinking the forming tears in his eyes back in frustration.

 

“-It isn’t the same with them as it was with you, or Byungjun or Jaesook - I’ve known them for years now and they still think that Jeongwoo is just in America for exchange! I have no idea how to even start being more honest with them – they’ll think I’ve lied to their faces since I was fifteen, and I have!

 

Jeongin stopped when he heard the echo of his own voice around the empty park. Embarrassed at his outburst, he looked down at his feet again which were kicking dutifully at a pile of snow.

 

“Hey, don’t beat yourself up about it,” Kyunghwa said and moved closer to him until their bodies were next to each other on the cold metal bench. “I’m sorry I just assumed you had told them, if I’m honest, I have, like, barely any idea what you’re going through right now” she laughed and Jeongin couldn’t stop the gentle chortle slipping from his own lips.

 

“It’s not like you have zero idea” he pointed out. “You’ve been living out of home since you were seventeen – surely it’s been tough for you to explain that, right?”

 

As Kyunghwa’s faux-pissed-off side glare, Jeongin knew he had hit the nail on the head.

 

“Whatever idol-boy” she jeered cheekily and Jeongin laughed so loud that it, rather than his frustration, echoed around the cold park.

 

“Hey, wait” Kyunghwa punched him on the shoulder to make him look up. She pointed into the distance. “Either my eyesight’s failing me at twenty-two or that’s our bus right there!”

 

Jeongin narrowed his eyes to try and make out the blue blur coming slowly down the road, wishing he hadn’t left his glasses at home, but surely enough it was their bus, as unreliable as Busan’s end-of-winter weather.

 

“Run!” he squealed, dragging Kyunghwa by her gloved hand and together they sprinted for the bus, leaving their footprints in the snow behind them, as a symbol of the friendship they shared, even on the coldest of days.

 

 

Another day, another interview Jeongin thought grumpily as he adjusted his seat on the uncomfortable chair the filming crew provided for him. It was late March, just passing the one-year anniversary of Stray Kid’s debut and the release of their fourth album ‘Cle 1: Miroh.’ The promotions for it had barely begun – although the team had finished most of the onstage elements, there were still interviews to film and people to talk to.

 

The novelty of interviews quickly died during the first ten, and now, on number twenty-one, Jeongin was really starting to get bored of it.

 

“This should be a fun interview” Jisung walked over, noticing Jeongin’s hesitance to start filming.

 

“Yeah,” Hyunjin agreed, taking his designated seat beside Jeongin. “They wrote up interesting questions that we pull out of a hat.”

 

Jeongin brightened up at that. Even better, he supposed, the interview was in Korean, not in English like many of them had been recently, so he might even be able to actually understand what’s going on this time.

 

Pull yourself together Yang Jeongin he prepared himself when the filming crew gave the signal for thirty seconds till going live. It’s just twenty minutes where you need to over-actively smile, nod and answer a few questions… Why am I in such a bad mood today anyway?

 

“Ready in five, four, three, two, one-”

 

The interview was going fine.

 

It was much more casual than the majority of the other interviews they had, it was more like a game than anything else, and despite his bad mood, by the end of it, he was actually quite enjoying himself. He had gotten a question that asked; ‘What is something you want to improve on?’’, and Jeongin had answered it with honesty and without much thought: ‘I want to help out my hyungs more, and be there for them like they are for me.

 

There was another question about roommates which all the members had tried to explain, but it all became a jumbled mess because as they had all switched rooms recently (Jeongin had finally gotten away from his bunk bed and had severely upgraded to the two-bed room he was now sharing with Minho) and in the end, despite even drawing a diagram, probably wouldn’t make the final cut.

 

As the questions kept coming, which Changbin or Chan answered a lot for some extra screen-time, but he didn’t mind – he was having fun, the interview was going well.

 

But life has never been fair to Yang Jeongin.

 

“Who is the most private member?” Seungmin read out and Jeongin felt himself freeze.

 

“Alright point to the person you choose; in three-” Chan started, taking the reins as leader and Jeongin felt his heart-rate spike.

 

“Two-”

 

He swung his head around wildly, trying to point out a member that he could at least justify his answer for-

 

“One-”

 

Oh crap, he was totally screwed.

 

Jeongin pointed somewhere between Changbin and Woojin and of course the other seven members (except for Felix who Jeongin presumed didn’t fully understand the question and pointed at himself) all turned to him.

 

“We choose our maknae I.N-nie!” Chan laughed and Jeongin managed a weak smile at the camera, now zoomed in wobblily on his face.

 

“Yeah, I guess majority wins” Jeongin meekly said, praying that Minho would just pull the damned next question out of the hat already-

 

“I.N is by far the most secretive member!” Hyunjin suddenly announced (to the whole world, oh my god he was going to die of mortification) and exaggeratedly stretched his arms wide.

 

“Yeah!” Seungmin agreed and Jeongin wished the earth would magically create a sink-hole right under his chair so he could just disappear. “We seriously don’t know anything about his childhood!”

 

At that Jeongin’s way-too-wide smile dropped.

 

Thankfully, at that exact moment, Jisung pulled the question hat away from Minho, scattering papers all over the floor with a bratty ‘I want to pull out the next paper, hyung!’ and the camera immediately changed to film the rambunctious pair.

 

A few seconds later, he resumed his childish grin, like someone had hit the ‘play’ button on a television screen and he unfroze, unrooted himself from his secrets and memories. But, as Jisung loudly read out the next question, Jeongin couldn’t shake the slight paranoia that he was being watched – the back of his neck tickled in apprehension.

 

In one movement he swung around to his left, only to see Minho staring back at him like he was a code the elder couldn’t crack, or a puzzle he couldn’t solve. Jeongin held the stare for a moment, too scared of what it would look like if he just ignored it, but the longer he peered into his hyung’s dark cat-like eyes, the more his nape tingled and the more he felt like he was being exposed and-

 

A misguided rough elbow from Hyunjin sitting to his right, made him flinch, breaking the strange spell that came over him when he stared into his dancing-hyung’s eyes and he was grateful that Felix was being forced to do three-aegyo poses for some random reason and the camera couldn’t pick up on his unease.

 

When he turned back to Minho, the elder was still looking at him, with that strange knowing sparkle in his eye.

 

Jeongin mutedly shuffled around so his body was facing away from his hyung’s who was sitting at the edge of the bottom row, and he forced himself to indulge in whatever Hyunjin and Woojin were laughing about, straining a big smile for the filming crew.

 

A few minutes later the interview-game-thing was over; it was their last one for the day too, but he couldn’t find it in himself to be relieved.

 

‘Your secrets have just been exposed to the whole world’ his brain hissed at him. ‘And Minho-hyung saw everything!

 

“You good, Innie?” Changbin asked him and Jeongin nodded blankly back.

 

“Yeah, sorry, just a bit tired, that’s all.”

 

“Make sure you get some sleep tonight then - we can’t have out maknae feeling down!” Changbin did his ridiculous aegyo and Jeongin contrived a big smile to keep the elder happy.

 

But, all through the car-ride back to the dorm, and dinner and while he got ready to sleep, Jeongin felt half-dead. Was it being exposed that made him unhappy? Or, Minho, so perceptively picking up on it – he didn’t know.

 

That night he fell asleep and felt the familiar twist in his stomach return, and he wondered how in the hell he could live up to his Late New Year’s Resolution after the horrific events called today.

 

 

It started of like any other morning.

 

Hyunjin had slept in late, Seungmin had made everyone eggs (which Felix didn’t eat, and then with one look at his reflection in the dark TV screen, upon seeing how much weight he had gained, Jeongin hadn’t eaten either), the ‘3RACHA’ team were walking around the living room in circles working on a rap, and Minho and Woojin had been trying to hold it all together.

 

Normal. Completely and utterly normal.

 

The only thing slightly askew was Jeongin himself. As soon as he politely refused those eggs, he had been having a bad day – foodwise and mood-wise, that was.

 

He hadn’t had a day where he cared so much about every single calorie he was consuming or burning in a long time – not since December due to his recovery process, and now it was mid-April. To make matters even worse, the team had a six-hour long dance practice today and he really wasn’t feeling it.

 

‘Six hours of dance equates to around two-thousand calories though’ the voice in his head, the voice that he had mostly forgotten about reminded him happily and Jeongin shook his head to rid of the thought.

 

No, Yang Jeongin, you are not going down that path again, not when you’ve worked so hard to escape it, he firmly told himself.

 

The voice didn’t answer.

 

And that’s what set him on edge the entire practice.

 

“Innie, you feeling okay?” Jisung asked at their five-hours-in break. “You aren’t looking so hot.”

 

With one brief look into the mirror at his form, sitting cross-legged on the wooden floor, he could tell that Jisung was right. His face was pale but red at the same time, his hair looked lifelessly flat to his scalp and his whole body was sticky with sweat. Curiously, he glanced over to Felix through the mirror’s aid; the Australian wasn’t looking great either – his cheeks looked hollower than Jeongin had ever seen them.

 

“What did you eat this morning, Jeongin?” Woojin asked lightly, taking another sip from his water bottle.

 

Jeongin stiffened. He saw Minho’s hooded expression trained on him, like he was watching him, observing him, analysing him…

 

His New Year Resolution rang in his mind;

 

“I think I want to be more open and honest with my members and… not hide everything from all of them…”

 

“Um” he stalled for time, his heart racing, half of him wanting to commit to his prior words and the other half screaming at him that he couldn’t let them know.

 

Innie” Chan said questioningly, a seriousness coating his words and Jeongin swallowed as all the room’s attention turned to him. “What did you eat for breakfast?”

 

“Well…” he tried again, but the lump in his throat wasn’t letting him speak. His knee started bouncing in anxiousness and he met eyes with Felix again before darting them away.

 

Tell them. Don’t tell them. Tell them. Don’t tell them.

 

“I, uh-” he gulped again, feeling his neck prickle from sweat. The tension in the room was almost tangible. His hands were shaking, his heart was racing, his mind was reeling-

 

“I didn’t eat anything.”

 

As soon as he spoke, it felt like his mind broke through a barrier of some sort, and his knee stopped bouncing immediately.

 

The room was quiet in shock at the fact he hadn’t eaten since last night’s two-minute-noodles, but Jeongin was in awe at something else entirely.

 

I-I said it!

 

“You didn’t eat anything?” Changbin’s scolding voice cut across all Jeongin’s initial giddiness at finally telling them the truth about something, and when he looked at the way all seven (with the exception of Felix who didn’t look surprised) were staring at him in a fizzled anger, Jeongin knew that maybe this wasn’t something to be so happy about.

 

“Um…no?” he tried weakly and tried to ignore the way Chan had clenched his jaw in an intimidating and furious way, just like how his mother used to do.

 

“What about my eggs?” Seungmin blurted out from where he was standing next to Hyunjin.

 

“I - um” Jeongin searched for an excuse as to why he had thrown Seungmin’s hard work into the trash, hidden under the guise of a napkin. “I was… feeling nauseous.”

 

At one glance at the room, it was obvious that no one believed him, but he didn’t care. He had finally been open to his members! It didn’t matter that now he was covering it up with a lie, but the thought was what counted!

 

“Alright, Jeongin, you’re coming with me” Woojin announced, standing up and all Jeongin’s happiness diminished.

 

“Wait, what?” he tried feebly but Woojin was already hauling him up off the ground and onto his feet. Oh shit, is he going to take me to management?

 

“Felix, Jisung, you’re with me” Woojin demanded and now it wasn’t just Jeongin who was looking at the eldest confused. Woojin seemed to sigh at the blank looks all the members were giving him. “We’re going to buy snacks – everyone looks like they need it.”

 

“Yay!” Hyunjin, who flopped back onto the floor exclaimed. “Get me some spicy chips, please!”

 

Jeongin stopped a sigh in the back of his throat and obliged with his hyung’s orders, shakily throwing his jacket over his shoulders, as of the denim would protect him from the world.

 

He pretended not to notice the way Woojin whispered something into Jisung’s ear as they left to room. He walked side by side with Felix, the other targeted member of Woojin’s planned little adventure to force them to eat, and the guilt of everything from this morning, and the thought of eating, makes his stomach roll as they walk towards the single vending machine in JYP Entertainment.

 

It’s really hard to ignore the small part of himself, the part he thought he left behind last year, the part that he thought he had gotten over already, that jumped for joy when all there is in the machine a few bottles of water.

 

“It’s empty,” Jisung said, when no one said anything, and Jeongin watched in the reflection of the vending machine glass as Woojin turned away with a sigh and a large hand tugging at his hair.

 

He wondered faintly if Felix was as happy with this discovery as he was.

 

“There’s a convenience store across the road” Jisung piped up again, in an attempt to reassure the eldest. “We might even find Hyunjin’s chips there.”

 

Jeongin nodded quietly, staying mute. Felix, albeit somehow even less enthusiastically than the younger, did the same.

 

“Alright!” Jisung clapped, trying to soften the mood between the group with one exhausted Woojin and two moody, starving teens that refused to eat. “Let’s get moving before Chan murders us for taking more than five minutes!”

 

“You’re right about that” Woojin muttered and started down the hallway. Scrunching his nose, Jeongin wondered what made his hyung switch moods from the one who motivated them all to do this to the one where he was grumpy and tired, looking like he already regretted trying to help at all.

 

‘It seems to be the effect you have on people’ his mind hissed and Jeongin, using the compartmentalization technique he picked up when reminded of his past, pushed the self-deprecating thought to the side.

 

The walk to the grocery market was short – he found Hyunjin’s chips and picked up some bread for himself, but just as he turned to the cash register to pay, with his members at his side, he froze.

 

The cashier was looking at him with his jaw dropped down to the floor, having recognised him in not the ‘it’s-Yang-Jeongin-of-Stray-Kids-way’ but a way that made Jeongin suddenly feel sick. He searched the face, trying to find a name to fit it, and when he saw the scar above the eyebrow his throat dried.

 

The one and only Lee Sangchul – the same kid who bullied me out of Busan Academia Middle School.

 

“Yang Jeongin!” Sangchul started and Jeongin glared back at him with a blank face, feeling the inner-turmoil from thirteen, and the injustice that the track-and-field star preyed on the biggest insecurity of his sexuality that accompanied him all through high school, start to rise up within him

 

He clenched his fist, ignoring the way Hyunjin’s chips shattered beneath his palm.

 

“-It’s really good to see you man” Sangchul continued, but Jeongin barely heard him, steam almost coming out of his ears.

 

“Oh! These guys with you, Jeongin?” Sangchul said and smiled to Woojin who was standing beside him. Jeongin forced a nod and took a deep breath to calm himself down. “I see you got a whole harem after you!”

 

“Yeah” Jeongin spat, disregarding how Jisung flinched beside him.

 

He slammed his food down on the register next to his member’s snacks, and the chip packet popped open from the force. Five years wondering and lamenting what he had done wrong to Sangchul bubbled up at the back of his throat.

 

“And I see you work in a shitty convenience store rather than representing South Korea in javelin or whatever the fuck” he snarled, unable to keep the poison out of his words, “so I guess we both did what the world expected of us, huh?”

 

The flaming rage dissipated however when Sangchul burst into a fit of laughter and Jeongin broke out of his anger and looked at the cashier with a frown.

 

“Holy hell, Jeongin!” Sangchul doubled over, humour racking his entire body. “If you had this mouth back at Busan Academia Middle, we would have been great friends!”

 

In the complete strangeness of the situation, Jeongin found it in himself to let out a brief genuine chuckle, his internalized rage forgotten. “Maybe so.”

 

“So how you goin’ Yang Jeongin?” Sangchul started to scan the items and put them in bags, popping a chip that was on the register into his mouth. Jeongin couldn’t tell why, but half of himself, despite everything Sangchul did to him, wanted to have this conversation, just like old friends would.

 

“Not too bad” Jeongin shifted uncomfortably, the member’s presences behind and beside him growing more and more apparent. “Why aren’t you in the Olympics?”

 

“Ah” Sangchul sighed comically, scanning another item. “Honestly I dropped out of high school as my coach advised and worked pretty hard for my ‘javelin and whatever the fuck’, but just as I was in the line-ups, I did my shoulder. Knocked me out of the runnings.”

 

Jeongin watched sympathetically as the boy rolled his shoulder experimentally then winced. “Oh,” he said dutifully, feeling bad about his harsh jab earlier. “That sucks.”

 

“Kinda’ does,” Sangchul said, finishing up the bagging. “Didn’t know what to do after that, so I did my military service early and here I am” he shrugged light-heartedly and Jeongin couldn’t help but stare slightly in awe at the boy in front of him. He’d never thought that the mean child who sat on people until they called him ‘Harry Potter’ would end up to be the slightly smug and cocky, but warm-hearted man he was today.

 

Jeongin tilted his head to the side in question when Sangchul peered over his shoulder and quirked an eyebrow at the three members standing rather incongruently beside them.

 

“Heard these are ya’ boys, Jeongin. It’s good to see you debuted with ah… was it… Lost Kids?

 

Jeongin chortled at that. “Nah – it’s Stray Kids.”

 

Sangchul shrugged and heaved the full bag of snacks and tonight’s dinner onto the counter. “Ya’ nose looks great, by the way, much better than mine – guess I couldn’t really pack a punch back then.”

 

Jeongin froze and watched Felix’s eyes widen at the connotation of Sangchul’s words and he quickly grabbed the bag to try and steer the conversation onto a different topic.

 

“Don’t stress, Sangchul” Jeongin fidgeted for his wallet. “Uh – how much will that be?”

 

“Don’t worry ‘bout it” Sangchul sniffed nonchalantly, chucking two more bags of Hyunjin’s spicy chips in the bag. “I’ll cover it, though it doesn’t really make up for what I did… and what I said to you to make ya’ leave, I know that was my fault, and I know it doesn’t change anything now, and you don’t have to accept my apology, but I am truly sorry for how I treated ya’ back then and all.”

 

Jeongin stood in place, shocked at the sudden apology and the shame that had crept onto the other’s usually sharp features.

 

He swallowed in thought. Sangchul had made his middle-school life a living hell, and being completely outed to the world, especially now that he was a public figure, was something that always teetered on the edge of his mind; it was a secret that could almost ruin Stray Kids reputation, even if it was just rumours shut down by JYP.

 

Woojin’s nudge was all it took for Jeongin to snap back into the present and he presented an awkward bow to his old classmate. “Ah… I can see you’ve changed a lot now, and you seem pretty cool, so yeah – let’s just leave it behind us.”

 

Sangchul flicked the boy another smile and Jeongin returned it cheekily “Will I see you around here, Sangchul?”

 

“Nah” the boy answered, leaning on the counter. “I’m going to do some help-work in Jamaica for a few months, but I’ll keep an eye for you on the big screen, yeah?”

 

“Yeah” Jeongin smiled again, “I’d like that – see you around.”

 

I guess this is fulfilling my New Years Resolution in some way Jeongin reasoned as he left the shop, taking a large bite of out his bread bun, and throwing Felix a packet of chips. As he crossed the street, he felt his members’ unasked questions prod at his back, but he chose the long going saying; ignorance is bliss.

 

I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to fully forgive Sangchul for what he called me, and how he treated me, but now I can’t look at him as a villain, but rather someone who is working to become better – and that, no matter the past, is something I can respect.

 

“How you feeling now?” Jisung’s hushed breath came close to his ear, and Jeongin smiled at the elder, bread stuffing his cheeks.

 

“I feel good, hyung. Really damn good.”

 

And as he finished his meal, the voice in his mind defeated, he felt happy, because for another time that day, he had been brave enough to say the whole truth.

 

 

As Yang Jeongin stood on the stage, sweat dripping down his neck and confetti falling around him, he felt truly alive.

 

It was their second last show for their Unveil tour in America. Los Angeles was screaming around the nine of them as they stood on stage, cohesive and unified as Chan always wanted, just having finished their last performance of ‘Boxer.’

 

As the lights beamed up again for their final speeches, Jeongin slicked back his now blonde hair, revealing his gleaming forehead, which caused a ripple of screams from the side of the audience he was standing close to and he quickly gave them a wave and a heart to show his gratitude.

 

When Chan first started to speak, he tried to translate their spiel of English that the leader went into, but a quarter of the way through, he gave up and just smiled and nodded, putting as much emotion as he could behind the simple gestures.

 

When it was his turn, he gave a huge heart to the crowd, and tried not to lie through his teeth as he exclaimed that ‘performing here in LA was a dream come true’ and prayed his words ringed honest. Of course, he was excited to perform in the ‘city of opportunities’, but to say it was something he dreamed about when he started singing at nine, was a bit of a stretch.

 

Besides, no amount of six-hour-Sunday dance practices back in Korea could have prepared him for three consecutive nights of performing at his best for three hours, then fall asleep for four or so hours before he had to do it all again.

 

Still, the high of hearing his name being chanted out, kept his jet-lag and minimal hours of rest at bay; because even if standing in the Pasadena Civic Auditorium wasn’t his exact dream, performing certainly was.

 

The night ended with a bow, a smile, a cheer, a changing room, and nine sweaty boys piled into a too-small van to get them to their hotel.

 

“Good night, huh?” Hyunjin asked, as the pair flopped down together onto their shared queen bed (they pulled the shortest straws upon arrival) and Jeongin groaned into a pillow in agreement, the adrenaline that had once fuelled his veins, having long died out.

 

“Yeah,” he said anyway, to give his hyung some verbal conformation that he was still alive. He rolled over and grabbed his Rubik’s Cube from his bedside table – the one he had brought home from Busan and the one he decided to bring on his tour.

 

Hyunjin’s didn’t seem to care as the clicking of slotting each colour into place filled the otherwise quiet hotel room, and in his peripheral vision, Jeongin watched the elder change into some pyjama’s and do his nightly skincare routine. Jeongin sighed and put down his cube, only half solved as he followed his hyung; changing into some sleepwear and washing off his makeup and replacing it with moisturiser he stole from Changbin.

 

After fifteen minutes, both boys were in bed, cuddled together closer than they would admit to the other seven members when they were to be pestered about it the next morning and enjoyed the comfortable silence.

 

“How was seeing Jeongwoo this morning?” Hyunjin asked and Jeongin smiled at the memory.

 

The management team had organised him to have three hours off that morning so he could see his younger brother and his family. They all looked happy; Jeongwoo had grown considerably and had gotten new glasses. The mother had learnt some more Korean, Jeongwoo’s adoptive brother, who Jeongin finally learnt whose name was Marcus, not Maxis, was kind, and from a glance, he could see that he and Jeongwoo had a good relationship.

 

He was happy for them, but there was still a place, deep in his chest that panged, with the sad feeling of loss. Loss for what things could have been, but never were.

 

“It was good,” Jeongin said, playing with his cube more.

 

“Hey Jeongin,” the elder started and Jeongin shifted his head from where it was curled into Hyunjin’s collarbone to see the dancer better.

 

“Yeah, hyung?”

 

“Can I ask you a personal question?”

 

Jeongin tensed and from the way Hyunjin wriggled under the sheets, Jeongin knew he had felt it. He sniffed and took a deep breath, all the possible ‘personal questions’ the elder could possibly ask swirling around his mind like a hurricane.

 

Stay calm, Hyunjin-hyung won’t say anything that stupid!

 

“Of course,” he choked out, leaning his head on a pillow so he could both see, and avoid, Hyunjin’s eyes in it came to it.

 

“Why-” Hyunjin cracked off, his voice tired from performing, and he ran his tongue over his cracked lips, only making Jeongin more uncomfortable at the pause. There was an even longer pause as Hyunjin seemed to rethink and rephrase his question in his mind and Jeongin did his best to keep his heart-rate steady.

 

“You know how we’ve all been to each other’s houses?” the elder attempted again and Jeongin, with his mouth drier than a dessert, just nodded. “We even went to Felix’s even though…” Hyunjin furrowed his brow in thought again, “even though we all know that Felix and his Mum… aren’t so good.”

 

Jeongin frowned, the scared part of himself becoming defensive. He chewed on his lip and grabbed his cube to hide his trembling fingers and give him a façade of a distraction. “What are you saying, hyung?”

 

“Well” Hyunjin shifted again. “I was just wondering why we didn’t go to Busan with you in February, that’s all.”

 

The hotel room was quiet again, except for the quick clicking of the Rubik’s Cube as Jeongin thought of an answer – one that wouldn’t reveal everything he’d tried so hard to protect, but also an answer that held a sliver of truth.

 

“I just have some bad memories there, ya know?” Jeongin admitted, ignoring the fact that he had just picked up some of Sangchul’s stupid accent, and he buried into the pillows, staring committedly at the puzzle in his hand.

 

Hyunjin, however, did not seem to know and made it apparent in the way he turned over to face Jeongin, so the younger couldn’t ignore his glance.

 

“Is it…” the elder wrinkled his nose in question. “With your parents?”

 

Jeongin tried to ignore the irony as he finished his Rubik’s Cube at the exact time as Hyunjin finished his sentence, as if to say ‘Bang on! That’s correct for a million dollars!’

 

How am I supposed to answer this?

 

He resigned from his mask and placed the cube to the side and propped himself up on his elbows so he could focus on the boy in front of him. Jeongin swallowed down his fear, his fingers already itching at something else to fiddle with, so he tugged awkwardly as his t-shirt sleeves, as best he could for someone lying on his stomach.

 

“Well,” he cleared his throat, one side of his conscious screaming at him to stop talking and just lie, and the other half supporting him.

 

He remembered his promise to Kyunghwa, a promise, that after all his broken ones, he intended to keep.

 

“In Busan,” he started, his eyes flicking nervously from side to side as he searched for the right words to explain at least a bit of reason as to why he went alone to his hometown. “In Busan, when I was younger… there was someone and they… weren’t very nice.”

 

He paused, wetting his lips in careful consideration, and unnerving fear. “And my parents-” he rushed, words tripping out of his mouth as he defended his real family, the people who gave him love, ”they saved me from that, and helped me and stuff, but I don’t really want you, or the rest of the members, coming with me to Busan, because some parts of it I don’t want to see again-”

 

The image of boarded windows, soju bottles and shattered plates swirled back into his mind and he pushed it aside.

 

“- And I don’t want you guys to see that either.”

 

When he finished his half-assed but nerve-wracking explanation, he blinked open his eyes which he hadn’t even realised he had closed and searched hesitantly for the expression on Hyunjin’s face.

 

Jeongin felt his eyes begin to water when he realised that the expression was understanding.

 

“Hey, don’t cry, don’t cry” Hyunjin cooed, moving closer to him so they could snuggle easier. “It’s okay, Innie, you can tell us in your own time, and uh- none of us will judge you for anything, okay?”

 

“O-Okay” Jeongin managed to splutter out before burying his head back into the comfort of Hyunjin’s chest, so the elder wouldn’t see any more of the tears forming in his eyes.

 

“Let’s go to sleep, okay?”

 

“Okay,” Jeongin sniffled back a reply. From the way his vision darkened more, despite his eyes already being closed, it was clear that Hyunjin must have turned off the light. “Love you, hyung.”

 

He heard a small airy laugh from above him and felt a hand start to card relaxingly through his blonde hair.

 

“Love you too, Innie, love you too.”

 

 

“You know what time it is! It’s storage cleaning time!”

 

Jeongin tried to hide his face in a pillow as Seungmin walked into the living room, his hands full of laptops and his face full of glee.

 

The other five members in the room, save for Jisung, Felix and Changbin who were all out shopping, collectively, but exaggeratedly, groaned while Seungmin chatted on excitedly about the importance of having a ‘digital detox’ and how ‘full storage on your hard-drive even though it isn’t seen, is just as harmful as having a messy working environment.’

 

“Grab a laptop, everyone, we’re deleting unused files!” Seungmin started to throw MacBook’s like frisbees and that was something that made everyone sit up for sure.

 

“I swear he’s actually the devil” Jeongin muttered darkly into Hyunjin’s ear and the dancer laughed loudly, a sight that made Jeongin just as happy as Seungmin looked.

 

“If I find anything on sketchy on this – who’s laptop is this? – Kim Seungmin? Oh God, I’m screwed” Woojin, who seemed to have Jeongin’s exact thoughts, grumbled, seated next to Chan on the floor.

 

“Don’t worry” Seungmin chirped up, sounding somewhat like a highly-lovable but irritating salesman. “I can assure you there’s nothing bad there – besides Hyung, you’ll have the easiest job out of all six of us because my laptop is basically perfect!”

 

“How much would you bet that he has all Felix’s selca’s stored on there?” Minho, who sat on the other side of him, whispered and Jeongin couldn’t resist a snort at his hyung’s words.

 

“It might be fun! Besides if you get someone else’s laptop you can learn something about them and help them at the same time!” Chan, ever the optimist, said and Jeongin nodded in agreement, psyching himself and Woojin who somehow looked even less thrilled than Jisung the time that he realised that the Cookie Monster had a real name and it was Sid.

 

“I’m seventy-five percent sure that I left Felix-hyung, Jisung-hyung and Changbin-hyung’s computers by their bed, so let’s get started!” Seungmin said and Jeongin couldn’t help the smile that crept onto his face at the second-youngest’s antics.

 

Seeing how beat up this is, and the lack of any cute stickers, I’m assuming this is Chan-hyung’s laptop Jeongin thought and he was proved correct when he saw-

 

With a squeak, Jeongin slammed the computer screen so hard down that he feared it may shatter, and he immediately felt blood rush to his cheeks.

 

“You good?” Minho asked an amused but slightly-confused smirk on his face and Jeongin just nodded frantically to dispel everyone’s attention.

 

“Y-Yeah, sorry, I just saw some… 3RACHA lyrics and I don’t want to read it so it can be a surprise!” Jeongin willed the flush that had taken over his face to die down. As Minho got off the couch to get help with Woojin’s computer, Jeongin immediately moved from his space next to Hyunjin to the vacant place, and he carefully checked no one was behind him as he angled the computer away from prying eyes.

 

With a deep breath to prepare himself for what he was about to see, he carefully opened the laptop again.

 

Right there, a few inches away from his eyes, was literal pornography, and even worse, he had basically caught Chan (the pure, the humble, the legend, the leader, the still high-key hot sometimes Bang Chan) in the act.

 

Jeongin quickly closed the search bar, averting his eyes from everything on the screen to the best of his ability and as soon as the horrendous, image left his sight he sighed in relief (however he didn’t think he’d be able to erase the memory branded into his mind as easily.)

 

It wasn’t like Jeongin was a prude - he’d seen such things before, however, there was something entirely different about knowing that his hyung watched it recently!

 

Jesus, what a terrible start to this computer thing – Goddammit, why did Seungmin have to throw this laptop at me?

 

“Ohh!” Minho, who seemed chatty today said, turning everyone’s attention on him. “Let’s see what you, Woojin-hyung have been searching! Detective Lee Minho on the case!”

 

“This is a dangerous game,” Woojin said soullessly but didn’t look the slightest bit fearful at whatever Minho was about to reveal.

 

“Boring!” Hyunjin complained, sitting next to Minho near Seungmin, who Jeongin hadn’t even realised had moved from the couch in the whole fiasco. “All it is, is piano pieces, cookie recipes and bus schedules!”

 

“Well, that’s me” Woojin shrugged and Jeongin laughed at how true that was.

 

Nervously, he glanced back at his own, well Chan’s computer. There were a trillion tabs open, but thankfully nothing else that would potentially scar him for life, but there was one chain of consecutive tabs that caught his eye.

 

  • How to confront someone about an eating disorder, habits of people with anorexia, what weight is average for athletic male? What to do when male friend has eating disorder?

 

Those questions could be asked about me or Felix Jeongin frowned before minimizing the window so the tabs, along with Chan’s many others wouldn’t disappear. At least I’ve been good with my eating since that freak day in April, but Felix hasn’t really ever entirely improved since his fall a while back….

 

“Yang Jeongin! Are you listening?” Jeongin snapped his head away from the screen up to Seungmin who was now delicately balancing what seemed to be Hyunjin’s computer on the palm of one hand and pointing at the screen with his other. “Have you got into the storage settings yet?”

 

Jeongin nodded, but quickly found his way to the same page as to not slow the team. For the next few minutes, the five of them listened to Seungmin’s explanation of deleting temporary files and soon enough the ‘session’ was almost over.

 

In honesty, Chan’s laptop looked the same as before, but the leader still ruffled his hair and thanked him like saving a few gigabytes of space was a huge deal.

 

“Oh my goodness, Jeongin!” he heard Hyunjin and Minho cackling from their side of the room (no, they had not returned to the sofa, and no, Jeongin was not salty about it.) “Your camera roll is priceless!”

 

“Hm?” Jeongin cocked his head and trotted over to where the mischievous pair were sitting with his laptop between them, and sure enough, they were scrolling through his photos that his parents had taken at all his singing competitions and recitals.

 

Jeongin smiled at the warmth in his heart upon retrieving the old photos taken from when he was nine to eleven years old. His father had an affinity for cameras during that time (which had died out in a few years like his many other phases of what random thing he loved such as antique clocks, or Victorian era bird sculptures.)

 

“Yeah, that’s me – baby Jeongin taking the stage,”

 

He left his hyung’s giggling over his photos and made a cup of coffee (with milk and sugar) for himself and one for Chan, who was already starting to look tired although it was only half-past-one. 

 

“Hey, Innie! Why do you have this newspaper clipping from two-thousand-and-eight saved? That’s so creepy!”

 

Jeongin furrowed his brow in half-thought, half-confusion. A newspaper article? Why would he have that saved?

 

“Who the hell is Park Jungyee?” Hyunjin asked again, and realization hit Jeongin like a truck.

 

Oh fuck!

 

“I don’t know!” he exclaimed, his voice as high as a kite, and cracking with desperation. If Hyunjin only looked a little closer at the photo, or read the name another time, his biggest secret could be revealed.

 

“Park Jungyee…” Minho said as Jeongin snatched the laptop out of his hyung’s hands. Jeongin tensed as he watched the elder frown in thought as if he was about to come to some sort of epiphany-

 

“Look! Felix bought a huge teddy bear!” Seungmin’s announcement, as he came rushing into the room clutching said teddy bear in his arms, made all the members look up.

 

He’s really my saving grace at the worst of moments Jeongin let out a breath and inched away from his friends slowly until he could escape down the hallway and into his room.

 

When he got to his bed, the eight excited voices of his friends lapping over each other a room away, he opened his laptop again.

 

He stared at the incriminating article he had taken a screenshot of.

 

It was far too risky, especially as he had no password on this computer, a promise that all the members made together when they first moved in, for the photo to stay. He trusted his friends enough to not actively go through his laptop, but this was his whole past, his every secret in one measly image.

 

It was the fatal his birthname, that the members all knew already. If they connected the dots and realised that this Park Jungyee was his true father, who had the same skin-tone and lip-shape and prominent cheekbones as him, every lie Jeongin had ever told would be exposed, and he owed it to his members to tell them the truth himself if he ever did.

 

I guess this is goodbye he thought and with the guilt of a thousand souls on his heart, he dragged the screenshot over to the trash bin and cleared it, so it was permanently erased.

 

The guilt of a thousand worms burrowed into his heart. Melodies of that damned tune swirled around his mind. A blood-stained back came to his thoughts.

 

He wondered if this was the same over-powering guilt his father had felt when he left them.

 

With another sigh, he placed his computer on his beside table. The deed was done.

 

So, he mustered up a smile, cleared his mind and walked back into the living room, his back prickling uneasily with not his memories, but his father’s, of un-hammered nails sticking sharply out of a wooden floor.

 

 

“And do you remember that time our instructor yelled at me in front of everyone for missing that one beat! God, that was a terrible day!” Jeongin cackled, hitting Changbin’s knee with his hand as he recounted the memory.

 

“You’re right” the rapper smiled evocatively, glancing at the mirrors of the practice room they were sitting in, the dancing they had promised Minho they would do, forgotten. “We all were numbered at first – you were number twenty-one or something and I was-”

 

“Trainee Thirteen!” they exclaimed in unison, they bubbly laughter filling up the large room and echoing off the empty walls.

 

Together, the pair were seated on the polished floors of the very first place they had their first trainee lessons upon joining the company as Stray Kid’s usual room was out of commission for electrical work. As promised, the pair had tried to work on the choreography for ‘Side Effects,’ their title track that was to be released in exactly nineteen days, however, the nostalgia overpowered them both, and for the past hour, they had been reminiscing on the ‘good old days.’

 

“Oh, Woojin texted me – everyone’s coming around to pick us up for lunch at that kebab restaurant, they’ll be here in ten minutes” Changbin notified, and Jeongin dragged himself to his feet.

 

“I guess we should practice some of the choreo before Minho-hyung scalps us!” Jeongin remarked, standing next to his phone, his finger hovering over the play button.

 

“He will tonight anyway when he sees I still don’t have that stupid footwork down” Changbin pouted and Jeongin hit play, taking the whining as a yes.

 

“Come on, hyung – I promised him I’d teach you” Jeongin airily trotted over and pulled the elder boy to his feet. “At least get scalped alone, rather than pulling me into it!”

 

“Ugh” Changbin moaned and started bouncing on his heels to prepare for the part. “Fine.”

 

Jeongin just smiled at his hyung’s complaining and wondered how there was a time when he was scared of him. “Alright, three, two, one, go!”

 

Thankfully, after the ten full minutes they had been practicing (Changbin had flopped down to the floor seven minutes in and refused to move, this wasting time, until Jeongin threatened he would tell Seungmin where his chocolate stash was hidden) Changbin had gotten the footwork complete, so neither of their scalps would face the horror of an angry Lee Minho that day.

 

The sound of Hyunjin’s loud voice was a blessing to both of them, and they cleared out, and left JYP, on their way to the tasty kebab shop Chan was ranting on about.

 

“Why are there so many people out today?” Jisung asked as the nine of them started to walk to the restaurant, which was still five minutes away. Jeongin looked up. There were certainly more people on the streets for some reason, most heading in the same direction as they were.

 

“Strange” Changbin said from behind him, next to Seungmin, who was playing a game on his phone.

 

Jeongin shrugged and continued to walk, Felix and Woojin beside him.

 

It was going well – a normal, but good, day. But just like every good thing in the life of Yang Jeongin, it was destined to die.

 

That was until he heard the chanting. The sound of a million footsteps. Yells and screams.

 

No.

 

His stomach twisted like it had all those years ago when he heard the exact same thing.

 

It was the parade of death.

 

It had come back to haunt him.

 

“What the hell is going on up there?” Felix asked, just like that high-school girl had, just like he had, when he was thirteen years old.

 

“Hm,” Chan cocked his head in thought, the nine of them walking towards the noise. “Not sure, Lix.

 

The use of English didn’t seem to make the younger Australian feel better, because as Jeongin looked beside him he saw the boy picking at his hangnails, a nervous tick similar to his own.

 

He looked to his right, where Woojin was, and instinctively he walked a little closer to the eldest as if his hyung’s bear-like aura would shield him from the reality Jeongin was so desperately trying to flee.

 

One look into Woojin’s dark eyes, Jeongin knew the elder was thinking the exact same thing as he was.

 

An anti-LGBT march.

 

“Should we check it out?” Hyunjin asked weakly, his tone holding a hint of confusion and unsureness.

 

“Why not?” Chan said, a strange eager twinkle in his eye, that made Jeongin want to shrivel up. “It’s right next to the kebab shop anyway.”

 

“If it’s any form of… protest,” Minho said, holding onto Jisung’s hand as the boy, who was always anxious around large crowds, leaned close into the elder, similar to him and Woojin. “Shouldn’t we stay away? If we’re recognised, it could give us bad press.”

 

Jeongin found himself nodding at his hyung’s words, but for a different reason entirely, but Chan kept walking forward, leading the nine of them closer and closer to the mess. His knees rattled as he walked, his limbs felt both light like jelly and heavy like bricks at the same time.

 

“Wait, what is it?” Felix asked again and when no one answered Jeongin steeled himself with a deep breath. He had to warn Felix, morally unable to let his friend walk there, blind. If someone had told him what was going on back then, he would have been thankful – he wouldn’t be so screwed up today.

 

You have to do this. For him.

 

“It’s a protest, Felix-hyung” he gritted out, his voice sharp and face blank of any emotion as to not expose the fear that was filling his lungs like water. He felt dread overpower him as he spoke, so he channelled his resentment into words. “Against the gays.

 

As soon as he spoke, Felix reeled backwards like he had been physically hit, and he stopped dead on the sidewalk, making Seungmin run into the back of him. All seven stopped with them, the rest of the crowd rushing around them like a river

 

“I-I can’t go there!” Felix spluttered and in his peripheral, Jeongin watched Changbin’s eyes widen in understanding. “They – they hate people like me!

 

Jeongin felt his heart stop and he snapped his head away from Changbin to the Australian, who looked as shocked as he was.

 

“People like y- wait, what?” Hyunjin asked incredulously his mouth agape and as Felix filched away from the question, just like Jeongin would have if it was directed at him.

 

Like Hyunjin, and most of the other members shocked expressions, apart from Jisung, Changbin, Minho and Chan, all looked to be contemplating the accidental confession, the true meaning of the words finally linking in Jeongin’s mind.

 

Felix-hyung- he thought his eyes wide like saucers. Felix-hyung is – is gay?

 

“C’mon, I want kebabs!” Seungmin exclaimed nasally, moving past the huddled circle and towards the front where Chan was standing, effectively taking the attention away from the just-outed Australian. “There’s no better way to start the first day of summer!”

 

Jeongin felt physically sick. Because in Seungmin’s eyes there was that same knowing sparkle of something that looked close to excitement at seeing the parade of black, the march that wanted to kill people like Felix, and like him.

 

And yet he kept walking. The screams got louder.

 

His heart started to race.

 

‘Homosexuality will destroy South Korea.’

 

His hands prayed for something to distract him.

 

‘Reject gay rights and the criminals who call themselves LGBT.’

 

His mind began to spin, distorting the world around him.

 

‘Homosexuality is a sin.’

 

He felt bile crawl up to the back of his throat.

 

‘Death to sinners.’

 

He remembered Kyunghwa’s words; her last words to him before he left Busan.

 

“Be careful out there Jeonginnie, out there, especially in the entertainment industry, being like us isn’t acceptable.”

 

He closed his eyes.

 

Suddenly, he was thrust forward, until he felt the familiar plastic of a police line scrape his arms. His mind orientated itself and his hearing adjusted to the loudness of it all, the chanting, the feet, the powerful, happy cheers-

 

Happy? Wait, why is everyone happy?

 

Cautiously, he opened one eye and his breath caught in his throat asn his heart stopped.

 

All around him weren’t the angry faces, the black coats and furious signs – instead it was something truly beautiful.

 

Colour.

 

There was colours and flags everywhere, rainbows painted on ecstatic faces, printed on shirts and signs, the whole movement bouncing up and down as they danced and spun, on the other side of the tape was a whole world of unrestrained and pure joy.

 

“See, it’s not as bad as we thought” Chan smiled, his dimples on display and his eyes glimmering with delight and a smugness that Jeongin wanted to simultaneously kick him and hug him for at the same time.

 

“It’s amazing,” Jisung said, with the ghost of a whisper and Jeongin felt his eyes start to tear as he watched the fluid colourful crowd, with all sorts of flags waving freely in the wind, marched on.

 

He read some of the passing signs, his heart pounding in elation.

 

‘Accept yourself, us, and others’

 

‘Give South Korea gay marriage laws!’

 

‘LGBTQIA+ PRIDE DAY!’

 

‘Love always wins.’

 

The chants and footsteps were loud but were ever encompassing like they filled hearts with youthful bliss and joy for whoever heard them. The crowd on Jeongin’s side of the line were peaceful, with some even raising pro-gay flags too, or cheering with them.

 

Jeongin felt a smile adorn his features as his heart sung with pride and euphoria, even the air felt different on his skin, like it was lighter, and glowing somehow, and the messages rang through his ears.

 

This march, this festivity, it was a clear sign of hope.

 

It reminded him that despite the darkness of the world, such as the anti-gay parade he once saw, there was always something divine to balance it, or in times such as now, overpower it. Because the glee he felt as he watched his people celebrating and marching together, in a cohesive and unified passion, was stronger than even the gut-wrenching fear when he watched the first parade, the one that broke his fragile sense of self at the young age of thirteen.

 

“Why is this happening today?” Minho, just as breathless as Jeongin asked, and Jeongin turned to Chan for the answer but Seungmin piped in, his eyes crinkled into crescents, the sign of a grin hid behind his facemask.

 

“Today is the first of June – it’s the first day of International Pride Month” the dark-haired boy informed.

 

Jeongin nodded, taking a mental note of the day, before indulging himself back into the festive display of cheery faces and vibrant flags.

 

And when he turned back to his members, he grinned, because their eyes, were just as colourful and hopeful as the pride parade in front of them.

 

 

This dance practice, at two a.m., was really looking bleak.

 

The instructor was yelling, Chan was yelling, Minho was yelling, everyone was really. Even Jeongin had snapped when Seungmin had come too close.

 

The reason why everyone was so on edge? They were making their comeback for their single ‘Side Effects’ in three days, and just this morning the 3RACHA line had gotten into an argument about whether to add the screams at the chorus or not.

 

Chan and Jisung had voted yes, while Changbin (and Jeongin but he kept quiet) voted no.

 

The three of them still hadn’t fully talked it out, them all mad at each other despite the voting results, and the tension, plus the pressure of making a comeback had taken its toll on everyone.

 

And Jeongin was three more side-eyes, passive-aggressive jabs, and failures from exploding.

 

The day, from the get-go when he had a nightmare about cat claws and crackly screams (that rung too close to the screams in the song, hence his distaste of it) had woken him early. Not willing to waste time, he had attempted to complete his homework, but he had gotten frustrated at math problems and had given up and resigned to a fate of mindlessly watching YouTube.

 

Productive, huh?

 

Then the argument had happened, and Jeongin was facing the voice in the mind that wanted him to not eat, or to go do an hour on the treadmill just to give him something else to think about, but he refused to submit to old habits but battling it was harder than he thought.

 

Thankfully, the voice had gone away relatively quickly, but the mental strain had made him fatigued, which in turn had made him clumsy, which was one of the many reasons the nine of them were still dancing hours after their practice ended.

 

“Turn your right foot out more Jeongin!” Minho barked and Jeongin fought the urge to snap back a snarky ‘I know’ to his hyung who had been correcting every member the whole night.

 

He kept dancing, frustrated at his limitations, and unjustly irritated at the way Minho could still dance perfectly while observing and analysing everyone else’s moves at the same time.

 

“Felix! Keep your head up!” Minho snapped again, and Jeongin couldn’t help but wince at the weak expression on the Australian’s face.

 

Surely, they know they shouldn’t push him that hard, not when he’s so… fragile, mentally and physically Jeongin thought as the song started to come to an end. He snapped his gaze away from Felix and back to the mirror where he saw Minho’s leering eyes trained on him, but not in the way he looked when picking apart a dance move but picking apart his mind.

 

Jeongin’s temper flared in an instant and he slammed his knees into the ground loudly for the final pose, the sound sharp as the other members did it slightly softer.

 

He felt Minho looking at him again, those cat-like eyes reminding him too much of the person he was desperately trying to forget.

 

He saw his Mother’s eyes again, the shape of his own, but tantalizing and mocking and analysing him like he was nothing more than a burden-

 

“Innie, get up. We’re doing it again” Chan’s monotone voice snapped Jeongin out of his thoughts, and apparently his staring match with Minho through the mirror, and with a huff, he got off his knees.

 

He furrowed his brow angrily at the dirt all over his jeans, the smallest things making his mood worse.

 

Disgusting he thought and he flinched backwards when it sounded like his Mother’s sickening screech.

 

“Ouch” Hyunjin growled as Jeongin bumped into him. Jeongin turned to face Hyunjin with a fire in his eyes which the elder sneered at. His gaze darkened. “Can you not?”

 

Is he joking? Jeongin glared, insults forming at the tip of his tongue like fire on a match. “Not now, hyung” he hissed and turned to face the mirror.

 

“Hey!” Minho barked, seeing the commotion in the back. “Cut that out, Jeongin!”

 

He felt indignation at the complete audacity that he was the one called out when Hyunjin obviously started it churn through his veins.

 

“That is so fucking unfair” he muttered darkly under his breath but from the way Minho whipped around, with his stupid sonar-hearing and cat-like narrowed eyes, Jeongin knew he should have kept his mouth shut.

 

“What did you say to me?” Minho challenged and Jeongin swallowed as the other members, who had previously been in formation which had served as some form of barrier between the pair dispersed at the bitter, hostile tension in the air.

 

“Nothing, hyung” Jeongin grumbled out, looking away. “It’s fine-”

 

“No, it’s not fine,” Minho said, the tone almost patronizing. “Don’t disrespect me like that. Besides, you haven’t been ‘fine’ the whole day, so don’t lie to me either.”

 

“What are you my therapist?” Jeongin bit back, his mind flickering with every time Minho observed him like he was just a project or something to pick apart. “I’m not just something for you to analyse either, so stop looking at me like that.”

 

Minho cocked his head to the side, anger still ebbing from his whole body. “Like what?” he asked innocently and Jeongin bit on his tongue to trap in the grunt of outrage from leaving his dry throat.

 

“Like now!” he snapped back, his voice rising a pitch. He stomped towards the elder, nudging Jisung out of the way so they could stand face to face. “You’ve been doing it for years!”

 

“Well” Minho started, his voice low and almost dangerous. “Maybe I wouldn’t have to if you were more open with us and I didn’t have to try and see how you were feeling from the slant of your eyebrows, or whatever bullshit-percent your jaw is clenched.”

 

Jeongin retreated backwards, rage turning his eyesight red. How dare Minho say this when he was just trying to be more open? Didn’t they know how hard he was trying to unravel his years of lies?

 

Wow, hyung” Jeongin snarled, advancing to Minho once again, his hands clenched into fists at his side. “That’s real fucking rich. Sorry that I don’t trust you enough with my shitty childhood, okay?”

 

The room stilled, like the very world itself had stopped spinning on its axis. Jeongin heard his own breath, rough and heavy in the air like he had run a marathon. He heard Minho’s breath too – it was collected, deep, and quiet, so opposite to his own.

 

That’s what made him even madder.

 

“So, you had a shitty childhood?” Minho said, quirking an eyebrow, smug victory dancing in his eyes. Jeongin clenched his fist tighter, his nails starting to break skin. He wanted it to stop, for everything to stop, and yet Minho continued, triumphant and mean. “And I guess you don’t trust any of us, because we don’t know anything about you!”

 

Jeongin felt his eyes start to water with angry and betrayed tears.

 

“I think I want to be more open and honest with my members and… not hide everything from all of them…”

 

“You’re wrong!” he screamed, flinching at how loud his yells were. He felt a tear slip down his face. “Y-You’re wrong!”

 

Minho was wrong. He did trust his members, he would gladly trust them all with his life, so why was what the elder was saying making sense. Why did half of him agree?

 

Why was Minho right?

 

Why was he so broken?

 

Why did he break everything apart?

 

“Y-You’re w-wrong!” He spluttered out, his chest heaving. His vision swirled and his hands became clammy and he heard someone call his name, but he couldn’t find the words to answer.

 

He couldn’t breathe. He couldn’t think, he couldn’t see, he couldn’t smell, he couldn’t feel.

 

It was happening again.

 

“Y-You’re -You’re wro-wrong” he repeated, coughs and wheezes cutting off his words that he didn’t even know if they were directed at Minho, or at his own haunted mind.

 

It was like he was choking, and a person with cat-like eyes was the culprit.

 

But he didn’t know of those eyes belonged to his mother, Minho, or himself.

 

“Jeongin! Jeongin, breathe with me, yeah bud? Breathe, you’re okay, it’s okay…”

 

His stuttered panting was the first thing he heard when he came back to it.

 

“Jesus, Jeongin, you good?” a voice, he recognised as Changbin asked and he offered a shaky nod as he calmed down and evaluated his surroundings.

 

He was still in the dance room, he could tell that by the familiar red walls, but he was seated against something firm, in a foetal position like he curled in on himself.

 

Changbin and Jisung were next to him, both the most experienced with panic attacks, and their morning dispute seemingly behind them as they worked together to keep him grounded. Further away were the rest of the members, standing back to give the three some space.

 

Jeongin rested his sweaty forehead back on his knees. Both Minho and Hyunjin were absent.

 

“Hey, it’s okay, you’re safe, and you’re breathing better now, yeah?” Jisung’s calming voice asked and Jeongin attempted to speak, but all that came out of his mouth was a lonely croak.

 

“Let’s head home, okay? Can you walk?” Chan crouched down in front of him and Jeongin nodded, before accepting the leader’s hands and getting shakily to his feet. He breathlessly thanked Jisung and Changbin who supported him at his sides, making sure his knees didn’t give out, and leaned into their hold.

 

“I’ll get a driver,” Woojin offered and soon enough everyone was in a flurry of movement to pack up the room that it made Jeongin’s head hurt again.

 

“Innie?” Chan asked hesitantly and Jeongin looked up from the floor to meet the leader’s troubled eyes, both Changbin and Jisung copying him too.

 

“Y-Yeah?” he croaked out, his voice hoarse and his throat feeling on fire. “What’s up?” he attempted to joke, to ease some of the seriousness in the Australian’s eyes, but to no avail.

 

“We… we need to talk about this one day, okay?”

 

Jeongin immediately frowned and the fire he thought had been distinguished sparked up again like the embers had never burnt out. “What? The crippling detail that I seemingly have no trust in any of you, or the full-fledged panic attack I just had?”

 

Even Chan looked dumbfounded at his words for a moment and the elder shifted uncomfortably, immediately making the younger feel bad about his overt and unrestrained sarcasm.

 

“The – uh – panic attack, Innie” Chan said in a whisper, so the other members excluding Jisung and Changbin didn’t overhear.

 

Jeongin deflated, his adrenaline spent, and he let himself rely on Changbin and Jisung’s rather inhumane strength a little more. “Yeah, hyung, I know. We will.”

 

The drive back home to the dorm was awkward. The van felt empty – Minho and Hyunjin had gotten a taxi home, and Jeongin felt too tired to say that it wasn’t necessarily either of them that had triggered his panic attack, but rather the flashback, the fatigue, the bad day, and the terribly timed self-epiphany he had were all factors.

 

“Will you be okay tonight?” he heard Woojin whisper from behind him as the seven who arrived late, walked into the dorm.

 

Jeongin paused, the realisation hitting him, exacerbated by Woojin’s thoughtful words, that he and Minho, the very person he was having his first major fight with, were sharing their two-bed room.

 

“Yeah, hyung, I’m okay” Jeongin forced a small shaky smile that he hoped would reassure the elder.

 

“If you need anything, my bed’s open” Seungmin, apparently overhearing the conversation, said and Jeongin flashed him another melancholic smile.

 

“You know it guys.”

 

So, whispering his goodnights to the other members, who all looked like they too had just remembered that Jeongin and Minho shared a bedroom, Jeongin stood at his closed door. His fingers curled up to nervously play with his hoodie sleeve.

 

There was no use prolonging it. With three gentle knocks on the wood, which he had never done before to enter his own room, he wished for luck and slowly pushed open the door.

 

“Minho-hyung?” he whispered quietly into the darkness. “I’m home.”

 

There were a few beats of silence where Jeongin thought the elder had already fallen asleep.

 

“Hey, Innie” the careful breath disrupted the quiet and as Jeongin adjusted to the pitch-black room, he started to see the outline of Minho’s figure, curled up in his own bed. “Good to see you.”

 

The words were unsure, stilted, awkward but Jeongin appreciated them none the less.

 

“You too hyung” he tugged his hoodie over his head and closed the door behind him. There was silence as he stripped off the rest of his clothes, but as soon as he started to get into his own bed, he felt like he couldn’t.

 

He turned to meet Minho’s docile but inquisitive stare.

 

“Hyung,” Jeongin started an edge of vulnerability to his words. “Can I sleep in your bed tonight?”

 

Minho nodded and moved over, lifting up a corner of his duvet for Jeongin to get under.

 

“Hold on” Jeongin stopped and he tried not to feel bad when Minho’s head snapped up in an underlying tone of insecurity. “Hyung” Jeongin started, a small smile on his face and his ears tinted red. “Are you wearing underwear?”

 

The absurdity of the question made the elder cackle and Jeongin giggled, but still halfway unsure of what the answer would be and what he would do if the answer was the one he wasn’t going to be happy about,

 

“Maybe,” Minho raised his eyebrows in a friendly and typical flirting way and at that moment Jeongin gave up with his hyung’s weird quirks and got under the duvet anyway.

 

They cuddled there for a few moments before Minho spoke again.

 

“Innie… I’m really sorry about earlier, I went way too far and-”

 

“Forgiven” Jeongin interrupted and buried his head into the base of Minho’s back (he knew that despite Minho’s stubbornness, the elder loved to be the little spoon.)

 

“W-What?” Minho turned his head to look at him like that was the last thing he expected to hear.

 

“Forgiven” Jeongin repeated, squeezing his hyung tighter. “You’re forgiven. It wasn’t really your fault anyway, and I guess… in some ways you’re kinda’ right.”

 

Minho was quiet at that. Jeongin was too.

 

“Can we just sleep now, hyung?” he asked quietly, wanting to forget the bad day and all its terrible events.

 

There were another few moments, and Jeongin knew the elder was mulling over his decision.

 

“Okay, Jeonginnie, we can sleep” Minho finally said and Jeongin relaxed further into the bed.

 

“Night, hyung.”

 

There was another pause, but this time he knew Minho wasn’t thinking about what to say.

 

“Night, night, Innie, and I’m still so sorry.”

 

 

It was the third of July and the nine members of Stray Kid’s were doing a ridiculous ‘sexy and mature’ concept photoshoot to promote some random product Jeongin had never heard of. He doesn’t think anyone really knew what it’s for, but he knew better than to ask – for the whole day all the management team and the camera and makeup crew had been running around like crazy while insisting that none of them move so much as an inch as to not get one strand of hair out of place.

 

He listened of course. The last thing he needed was to mess up his hair and get doused in hair spray at a deadly level (seriously, if anyone lit a match near him, they’d all explode) but it seemed Jisung was not having such an easy time sitting still.

 

“Three more poses and then we’re done” their manager informed and Jeongin watched as Jisung hesitantly nodded and leaned further into Minho’s side, probably the many eyes making him uncomfortable.

 

Fiddling with his sleeves, Jisung’s nervous energy reaching him, Jeongin peered away from the pair and around the room. Chan had smudged his smoky eyeshadow and three people were basically stabbing makeup brushes into his eyes, Woojin was reading a book with Hyunjin the pair had seemed to materialize out of nowhere, Seungmin and Felix looked like they were ready to up and leave at any moment and Changbin was scrolling through his phone, as nonchalant as ever.

 

Jeongin narrowed his eyes at his hyung, who was sitting on one of the provided ‘abstract’ cube blocks the camera team had pronounced as seats and marvelled at how the elder was as still as a statue, with only his thumb moving to scroll.

 

Jeongin huffed good-naturedly and looked away, wondering if the rapper had taken any ‘how to be as still as possible’ classes (or was either a theatre nerd specialising in the art of tableaux or was an assassin) that he hadn’t told the group about.

 

He guessed it was a positive quirk. Felix had already screwed up a few of the previous group photos, and his solo photos, that the nine had all taken that morning, had taken the longest to complete, despite the elder having an extremely photogenic face.

 

No one had called him out about it though. The director had yelled something, but one cold-hearted glare from all eight of the members had shut him up quickly enough. Jeongin turned to the Australian again. He was looking shaky, weak even.

 

He felt his stomach squirm a little in uneasiness. He knew it was because of the elder’s eating habits.

 

Everyone did.

 

“Positions everyone! Makeup crew! Stop screwing up that poor boy’s eye even more and get that book and phone out of here!” the director of the shot yelled as Jeongin regained his picture-perfect presumptuous and particularly perpendicular posture.

 

“Three, two, one!”

 

The flash was blinding, and it took everything to not blink as the camera’s flash went off, but as the plump and arrogant-looking director made a satisfied grunt upon viewing the image, Jeongin relaxed again.

 

“We’ll end it” the man decided, scratching his uncared-for stubble. “It’s the best one we’re going to get.”

 

Jeongin couldn’t help but take slight offence to the man’s pessimistic words, and the other eight members seemed to do also, but no one complained when the finally got to change from the itchy pompous outfits they had been given (he had been forced to wear neck ruffles. Neck ruffles!) into their comfortable shirts and trackpants.

 

“Glad that’s over” Seungmin grumbled, ready to walk out the door, but a call from their manager made them pause.

 

“Hey, guys! Don’t you want to see the solo and group photos? The driver isn’t here yet anyway.”

 

Jeongin laughed as Seungmin groaned, but together the members walked over to the large camera screen where the best photos were being chosen.

 

Everyone did stupid wolf-whistles as the photos started to show and Jeongin couldn’t help his cheeks from heating up at the slightly seductive images. (Chan’s abs were in one, okay? And from the start he had always had a huge crush on Minho, so shoot him.) He blushed furiously when his own solo shot came up and couldn’t help but look at it twice.

 

He looked… good. He looked the exact vibe the director wanted, slightly cool but dressed in warm, sensual tones, and as the next few photos were of him, he marvelled at how mature he seemed. Sure, the makeup and clothing helped a lot, but his sharp cheekbones, plump lips (made darker with tinted lip gloss the makeup artist had put on last minute) that were slightly parted didn’t make him look young at all.

 

Honestly, if he saw the photos all together and didn’t know anything about it, he would saw that Jisung looked the youngest of them all.

 

But it wasn’t just the fact he looked mature in the photos that made him look good. He looked healthy. His cheekbones were prominent, yes, but they didn’t look hollow, and his eyes were bright and sparkly, not sunken in or dull, and his lips and hair weren’t damaged like they once had been.

 

“Innie! You look great!” Minho complimented and Jeongin couldn’t help the smile on his face, because he was finally fully happy with the way he looked. There was no need for calorie counting, or one-thousand skips and sit-ups every night (although that had given him abs after he started eating enough that he could build muscle again.)

 

There was no need for him to do anything, except maintain it, or even put on a little more as him arms and legs still seemed a little scrawny.

 

“Jeez, I look terrible” a small, wet laugh came from behind him, and Jeongin turned to see Felix looking at his photo displayed across the room.

 

Jeongin peered towards the image and winced. Felix didn’t look great – he looked sick, which he was.

 

“When we go back to the dorm,” Chan said, to fill the silence that had come across the members at Felix’s self-deprecating but unfortunately rather true, words. “Let’s all have a big talk about this, yeah?”

 

Jeongin tensed at Felix’s conflicted sigh and his pleasant mood from seeing his photo dissipated in an instant. No one moved, no one spoke. Everyone waited for an answer.

 

“Yeah,” Felix slumped and Jeongin felt his heart leap into his throat. “I think it’s around time.”

 

Jeongin could barely breathe as the nine walked quietly to the van after thanking the photoshoot effort and drove back home.

 

Is Felix really going to speak about his eating disorder? To all of us? I mean sure, it’s not diagnosed as far as I know, but a blind man could see that Felix has been struggling with food for a while. Maybe even for two years given that his probably started a little before mine, maybe at around my seventeenth birthday, or even the survival show.

 

Jeongin felt anxiety fill his bones in the quiet van, the other eight members probably feeling similar to him.

 

He looked down at his hands, at his wrists. They were slim, mainly due to his genetics from his mother, but definitely not as thin as they were eight-or-so months ago.

 

He looked at Felix again. The elder was chewing on his cracked lips nervously and picking at his hangnails that weren’t even there, thus just peeling the skin off his fingertips.

 

Jeongin looked back down again, a quiet question whirring in his mind.

 

If I spoke up… about my experience last year… would that help Felix feel less alone? Could I, Yang Jeongin, who has kept every secret buried under a smile, really open up about one of my most personal and most vulnerable issues?

 

If I did, would it even help?

 

He turned his head to watch the city passing by, thankful that he had gotten the seat closest to the window, and stewed in his thoughts, his fingers fiddling with nothing but the air.

 

They stopped for fast food.

 

Felix didn’t eat. Jeongin only managed half of his burger before giving up, but not from his mind howling at him to stop because of the calories, but rather his stomach, that felt like it was twisted around itself.

 

They reached the dorm too soon.

 

He walked stiffly up the steps by Hyunjin’s side and through the doorframe, taking off his shoes and hanging up his jacket on auto-pilot, his mind completely absent.

 

He watched as some of the members moved the coffee table to one side of the room, leaving a large space for them to sit on the rug. He stood off to the side, near Felix, who Jeongin was conscious enough to see was clinging onto Changbin like the rapper was his lifeline.

 

He walked over to the already half-made circle, sitting next in-between Hyunjin, who was the only member he had confided in about anything, and Seungmin, who had been the most supportive out of all the members when he had gotten back on track at the start of the year, but only because he was the only one who really knew what was going on.

 

His throat felt dry as Chan started the ‘group intervention’ or whatever it would be dubbed as.

 

“So, Lixie, before we start, I’m positive I can speak for all of us that we are extremely proud that you are willing to talk to us about this, and we love you no matter what, okay?”

 

Jeongin watched soundlessly as Felix shyly nodded, staring down at his hands. He swallowed and felt Seungmin nervously gaze at him before turning back to the Australian. Jeongin felt his stomach flip-flop as Felix looked to be summing up all his courage, just to confess.

 

“Well,” he started, his voice deep and raw. “You’ve probably all known for a while, and I have too, that… there are definitely a few issues between me and food” he laughed and curled closer into Changbin’s side embrace.

 

Jeongin just bit his tongue.

 

Felix sighed, his eyes watery as he continued. “I told Binnie-hyung a few months ago, but… I think I haven’t really been eating well since the start of last year, where I let the pressures of the job and all that get to me.”

 

The rapper, who looked so young and fragile sniffed, the sound loud and crude as it almost echoed around the room. Everyone else was quiet.

 

“I know the last time we talked about this” Felix added, looking away embarrassedly, “after my fall last year, we fought.”

 

Jeongin frowned as Hyunjin tensed beside him and seeing Seungmin’s perplexed expression, he realised it must have been the day where the yells had seeped through the walls as he and Seungmin had laid in bed together, their eyes full of tears, banished from the discussion for being ‘too young.’

 

“-And I want to say sorry for that, especially to you, Hyunjinnie-hyung, I don’t really think I ever apologised for screaming at you and everything.”

 

Jeongin nodded to himself, zoning out of Hyunjin’s reply. He remembered the fight, that was for sure. He didn’t think he would ever be able to forget that.

 

He zoned back in, seemingly missing a larger chunk of the conversation than he thought because now Felix was crying and so was Jisung.

 

“I-I just feel that I’m never good enough” Felix sobbed. “Not good enough to rap, or dance, or at speaking Korean or be an idol, and I thought that if I worked hard in exercising and eating I could finally f-feel like I had some control over my life, but it just made everything so much worse.”

 

Jeongin felt tears spring to his eyes, relating to parts of what the elder said, but he forced them down, wanting to stay strong so he could support the boy and maybe even confess himself.

 

“I just wanted to be better, and every time I tried to eat more so you guys wouldn’t be so worried, I felt so guilty, and I thought just eating a few more spoons of rice would make me fat again, so I just – I j-just vomited it all out-”

 

Felix broke down at that, leaning into Changbin’s chest as Woojin patted his back, and Jeongin faintly heard both Jisung and Hyunjin crying softly too. He awkwardly tried to reassure Hyunjin but left it to Chan, and instead got up and grabbed another box of tissues. When he sat down again, he felt a pressure so heavy on his heart and mind, that it was almost dragging him through the carpet.

 

He took a deep breath and closed his eyes.

 

It was time.

 

He had to speak. For Felix. For his New Year’s Resolution, and for himself

 

“Last year, just after we released ‘My Pace,’” he began, his voice hoarse and wobbly. He shrunk into himself when eight pairs of eyes turned to him but when he felt Seungmin’s comforting hand meet his, he forced himself, no matter how hard it was, to continue.

 

“-When I read the comments, all I saw were the ones about… how young I looked” with his free hand he scratched the back of his head sheepishly, wondering how the fuck he had managed to just unintentionally reveal his second-biggest insecurity.

 

“-And I wanted to change it… so I started waking up, late at night and doing some sit-ups or something. And there was like a voice that told me to be better so I would go running, or hide and skip meals and, well, it worked.”

 

He managed to look back up at his members who looked horrified, but also like this wasn’t something unexpected. With another shaky inhale he turned to Felix, who was looking at him with a knowing, sad, lifeless twinkle in his eyes.

 

“So, hyung, I just wanted to let you know, I – I understand how you feel, I guess. I know that voice that tracks every calorie, and makes you do stupid amounts of cardio and I know the feeling of being proud when you haven’t eaten for five days straight and no one has called you out. I know it all, but I also know that it gets better, and… I think it’s really brave that you just told us about it because I… I never would have, not now, or back then.”

 

He bit his lip when it trembled and he squeezed Seungmin’s hand tighter when Jisung started to sob, his cries in heart-breaking, mournful waves.

 

Don’t you dare cry, Yang Jeongin. Not now, not when everyone’s watching.

 

“That’s – That’s really strong of you to tell us, Innie” Woojin said robotically, like he was still trying to comprehend the whole thing. “Thank you for speaking up.”

 

“I knew-” Hyunjin cried, his head hanging low, making tears drip steadily of his nose. “I knew there was something like an eating disorder with Felix now, a-and with Jeonginnie last year too” the dancer looked up to the ceiling, the lights illuminating his sorrow. “I knew-” he repeated, “but – I never did anything!

 

The room was quiet as Hyunjin bawled and Jeongin watched, with a heavy soul, as Chan just hugged the dancer closer, knowing that this was all because of him, and his own idiotic decisions.

 

“I knew too” Minho breathed quietly, and Jeongin was surprised to hear the elder speak due to his quietness the whole session.

 

“So did I,” Changbin said plainly.

 

The words sat in the air, sour and regretful.

 

Jeongin licked his lips, preparing to try and give some form of comfort to his friends.

 

“It’s not your faults” he frowned determinedly. “It’s mine. All mine. It was my decisions and choices, so it’s my fault.”

 

“It’s no one’s faults” Chan concluded, his tone authoritative, but soft. “All we can do now is help Felix and Innie recover and heal, and try to prevent this from happening to anyone else. But…” his voice turned hesitant, “Is there anyone else who is going through or have gone through something like this?”

 

No one said anything and Jeongin stared around with reproachful eyes, praying the answer was no.

 

Please let no one else deal with thoughts that were like mine. Please.

 

Slowly the other six members started to shake their hands, with Seungmin and Jisung both saying a choked ‘no.

 

Jeongin relaxed, his prayers answered. He glanced towards Felix again, who still had shiny eyes under the light, and shot him a small smile. Felix smiled too.

 

“Okay,” Chan said, his voice shuddering with something reminiscent of relief and a bittersweet-type of thankfulness. “Well, unless anyone else would like to say something, should we head to bed?”

 

Felix raised his hand like a school-student would and when Chan nodded to him, similar to a teacher, Felix shifted his weight until he was sitting further away from Changbin so he was sitting up all by himself.

 

“I think what I’m about to say goes for Innie too” Felix eyed him and Jeongin apprehensively dipped his head back. “But even though we have both told you what is going on, or what has happened to us in terms of our thoughts around eating and exercise and stuff, uh – please treat us the same way as before, even though it’s difficult. I definitely will have some bad days, even though now I really want to take my recovery seriously, and I’m sure Innie will have some too, but it will just make us feel worse if you’re all monitoring what we eat or whatever.”

 

The other seven members nodded in understanding.

 

Jisung, who had mainly stopped crying, piped up, looking anxious in his words. “Do you think…” he hesitated, chewing on his lip as he peered from Felix to Jeongin. “Do you think you should both get some… professional help from JYP like I have for my anxiety, or…”

 

Jeongin let go of Seungmin’s hand at the mention of therapy, and he frowned, feeling suddenly defensive.

 

I don’t need any therapy for it! I’m basically over it by now, there’s literally like one day every two months that I think about the calories and I’m at a healthy weight-

 

“Yeah” Felix’s deep voice broke through Jeongin’s thoughts like a rock to a window. “Honestly, I’ve already told a psychologist at JYP about it and we’ve been trying to get me back on track for a few months, but I kept relapsing, probably because I always felt so guilty about hiding it all from you.”

 

Jeongin stiffened when all the members turned to him.

 

“Innie, what about you?” Minho asked quietly and Jeongin had to avoid the elder’s narrowed eyes.

 

“No” he gritted out staunchly, a final tone ringing with his refusal. He neglected the way Hyunjin deflated beside him, like that was the answer he hadn’t wanted to hear. “I’m over it anyway – I’m better now.”

 

He glared defiantly at Chan, who’s posture screamed ‘wanting to rebuke’, but the leader, similar to Hyunjin slumped and nodded, like it was a battle lost.

 

For some reason, despite the honesty in his words, it made Jeongin feel like he had lost too.

 

Jeongin sat there, as still as a statue like Changbin had been earlier as the meeting adjourned, each member slowly getting up, giving Felix a hug, then disappearing into their bedrooms.

 

“Hey,” a voice said, and Jeongin looked up to see the slightly puffier face of Seungmin from above him.

 

“Yeah, hyung?” he asked, easing himself onto his knees, then his feet, gratefully accepting a hand from the other boy.

 

“I’m…” Seungmin started, and Jeongin felt his heart clench at the tears in his youngest hyung’s eyes. “I’m really sorry that I didn’t do much to help you back last year, and I know you said not to feel bad about it, but… I can’t help but feel like I never really… tried, tried to reach out to you or anything.”

 

“It’s not your fault, Seungminnie-hyung” Jeongin repeated, leading the boy over to the couch. “Besides, even if you did, I think I would have just been really defensive about it or something.”

 

Jeongin thought back to December, after Felix’s hospitalization, and the way Seungmin had begged him to start eating.

 

“-Plus, when the hyungs tried to have this conversation last year, with everything that happened to Felix, you did help me, your words were something that made me realise that I was impacting everyone, not just myself, and even though I didn’t try to fix myself until January, without us talking that night, it might have taken me even longer to start to recover.”

 

“R-Really?” Seungmin sniffed and Jeongin reaffirmed his words with a nod.

 

“Really.”

 

There were a few moments of quiet, until the pair heard Minho swearing about something in one of the bedrooms, that sounded like ‘holy shit! My toe!

 

Jeongin snickered at Changbin’s snarky reply of ‘shut up’ and curled into Seungmin’s side until they were both basically lying on the couch, pressed into together perfectly like peas in a pod.

 

“I think you did really well today, Innie. About opening up” Seungmin trailed off as Woojin passed by, holding a band-aid, probably for Minho’s toe, and the elder turned off the lights of the living room, bathing the youngest two in a blanket of serene darkness.

 

Jeongin felt Seungmin shift next to him and he urged the boy to keep talking by taking his hand, his eyes adjusting to the darkness to the point that when he looked over, he could see the elder’s face scrunched in thought.

 

“I know…” Seungmin continued in a whisper and Jeongin waited, hoping his face and body didn’t reveal his unease of mind. “I know you find it hard to open up to us, Jeonginnie, but I just wanted to let you know that the hyungs and I are always here for you to talk to, and we won’t judge you for anything, okay?”

 

Jeongin felt a tug on his heart as guilt for all his secrets and his past burrowed through it, like an arrow, or a worm.

 

He knew what he needed to say.

 

“I’m trying hyung” he whispered towards the ceiling, imaging his childhood bedroom where there were constellations and neon stars of his roof, that gave him comfort as he moved out of the orphanage. “I’m pretty… screwed up” he laughed rather bitterly at the wording but softened his tone when he felt Seungmin freeze beside him.

 

“-This year I made a promise” he continued, tiredness slightly slurring his words. “I made a New Year’s Resolution, and it was to talk to you guys more, about… my life and stuff, because I know it’s been pretty unfair that I’ve never really spoken about it.”

 

Seungmin hummed and Jeongin tried to say more, but it was like this throat had stopped working and had clogged up.

 

“But… I really do love you guys, and I do trust you…” he said, thinking back to his and Minho’s fight two weeks ago, still fresh in his memory. “But, it’s really hard, you know?”

 

Seungmin nodded again; he could tell from the way the elder’s hair tickled his ear.

 

They both were quiet for a few more seconds.

 

“Do you want to just sleep here tonight?” Seungmin asked, hearing the dorm bedrooms start to be loud again.

 

“Yeah, hyung, let’s just sleep here.”

 

And so, the pair, the two youngest, dozed off, still holding hands, that symbolised a new promise; one that they would always be there for each other, no matter what.

 

That night, Jeongin slept a little lighter, the guilt of having so many secrets lessened, lessened by one, but it was a start to achieving his promise to himself, his New Year’s Resolution.

 

And that, no matter how difficult it had been, was something he was thankful for.

 

 

It had been a normal day. It had been a more-than-normal day for Yang Jeongin. His eating was fine, his mood was fine, no one was ill or dying or anything.

 

The only thing slightly different, was that his solo vocal lesson had been moved to an hour later from his usual time five, to six, but even that had gone fine, well actually, as his vocal instructor had even given him a compliment about his scales. However, that did clash with the recording of their fifth full album Clé: Levanter, but the management team, and Chan had said it would be fine if he was one hour late to the recording session.

 

It had been normal as he’d walked down to the studio, passing by some trainees that he had quickly bowed to before continuing on, and it had been normal to the very thing about how his shoes squeaked against the floor, or he was slightly too warm because of the baseline temperature the building was set to.

 

It had been normal until he heard it.

 

The anger. The yells.

 

He swallowed.

 

Cautiously Jeongin crept towards the studio door, glancing up and down the hall in case the noise was coming from anywhere that wasn’t the bright red door he was supposed to be in, but everything was empty.

 

The screams increased in volume and Jeongin hesitated at the door, that was usually soundproof.

 

His hands trembled as he reached for the handle.

 

As soon as he opened it, it was like he had walked from a freezer into an oven. Animosity dominated the air in thick tendrils and he quickly glanced to his left, where two of the members were sitting, cuddled together as the war raged on.

 

Nervously he peered towards the aggressors.

 

It was some of the last people he’d ever expect to be engaged in a screaming match.

 

It was Changbin, who was standing aggressively, glaring at the floor, letting the other’s scream, Jisung, who’s wide eyes were narrowed with something akin to betrayal, and his soft cheeks covered in tear tracks, and… Woojin.

 

Kim Woojin. Jeongin’s eldest hyung, who gave the best cuddles and advice, who cooked and chased after them when Chan was in the studio and held the group together, was currently looking deathly, and aggravated, and almost ready to hit something.

 

Jeongin felt his heart stop

 

“You don’t have to stay,” a whisper from the side, made Jeongin start breathing again, and he glanced towards Minho, who was in a ball position as he sat, numbly watching the argument. Jeongin felt a sickening déjà vu wash over him when he saw how Seungmin was leaning into his side, reminding him of himself. “Lix and Hyunjin went to the practice room.”

 

Jeongin looked back towards the fight, that had already escalated since he’d turned away. He peered to where Chan was sitting, in his usual place manning the recording booth, his headphone’s discarded.

 

He looked at the small glass room where the recording took place, and when he saw a pair of headphones on Woojin’s neck, the cord stretching behind him into the booth, where the cord was pulled out of the wall, Jeongin put some of the pieces together,

 

He took a shuddering breath and blocked out the sound of tears and screams, a talent shaped from years of practice it seemed, and sat next to Minho.

 

“I’ll stay, just for a while” he decided, trying to keep the wobble out of his voice, but failing.

 

Minho wrapped an arm around his shoulders and pulled him close, probably thinking his voice crack was due to the nervousness of Woojin, Changbin and Jisung arguing, which most of it was to be fair.

 

Jeongin accepted the embrace, questions bouncing around his mind like a loose ping-pong ball.

 

“How the fuck could you say something like that?” Jisung’s shrill cry made Jeongin flinch further into Minho’s side. “After everything, Woojin-hyung! You just-”

 

“Jesus, Jisung! Can you tell I don’t want to talk about it? It was a slip-of-the-tongue, goddammit!”

 

Changbin interjected in, “You wouldn’t have said shit like that if you didn’t mean it! No one would joke like that!”

 

Jeongin tuned the argument out again until it was just like watching a television show on mute. “What did Hyung say?” he whispered to Minho and the elder shrugged, his gaze tensely on the fight

 

“I have no idea, only Jisung and Changbin could hear it because they were wearing the headphones. Chan has no idea either because he went to the bathroom just as Woojin got in the booth.”

 

“Oh,” Jeongin said dumbly. He examined the argument again. It obviously wasn’t bad enough yet that management had to be informed – the only way they would get involved was if they heard it walking by, or one of them threw a punch.

 

Jeongin winced at the thought of his friends physically hurting one another. It had only happened once during the survival show when Hyunjin and Jisung had finally had enough of each other.

 

He shivered at the memory, hoping that this wouldn’t be the second time.

 

“Fuck you Woojin! And fuck your respect!” Jisung screamed and Jeongin felt his eyes widen. The usually calm rapper had just dropped the formalities with a person older than him, one of the largest signs of disrespect in South Korea.

 

“Jisung, maybe you should-” Chan started but a sharp, intimidating glare from Woojin made him stop immediately.

 

“Fuck my respect?” Woojin repeated, walking closer to Jisung who seemed like a child under the tall boy’s terrifying build. “Fuck my respect when I’ve worked so hard for this group, just like you two, and have looked after you, Jisung, from day-fucking-one, when you were acting like a little bitch with Hyunjin?”

 

Jeongin bit his lip, glad that Hyunjin wasn’t around to hear that, and tensed as Minho flinched, seemingly about to intervene and protect Jisung, but Changbin beat him to it.

 

“How dare you talk like that to him?” Changbin growled menacingly, stepping between the eldest and the smaller idol.

 

Jeongin felt the flash of a repressed memory taint his eyes as he closed his eyes and remembered the way Jeongsan constantly took a punch for him.

 

“-And your respect to us, and this group, means nothing to me, not now, not anymore!”

 

“Changbin!” Chan snapped, and Jeongin curled further into Minho as the Australian stood up.

 

“Stay the fuck out of this Chan” Woojin growled like a rabid animal and clenched his large fists at his side.

 

“Oh?” Changbin hummed, his voice high, and his face filled with faux-shock. “Why should he when he’s our leader, or, I guess, not yours when-”

 

That’s when all hell broke loose.

 

Jeongin barely saw as Woojin extended his hands and shove Changbin so harshly that the boy lost balance and toppled backwards, the three chairs 3RACHA usually sat on falling over as the rapper smashing into them.

 

A blur of movement whipped past him and Jeongin gasped, expecting a sting on his cheek, but when he opened his eyes again, all he saw was an open door to the hallway.

 

A sharp noise snapped him back to the present, and he watched, his eyes starting to water as Chan held Woojin back, the man fighting the Australian’s vice-like grip like a grizzly bear fighting a chain.

 

“Fuck!” Chan grunted as an elbow clipped his jaw. “Minho! get Bin before he goes shit-crazy! Seungmin! Jeongin! One of you catch up with Jisung and the other go get management, now!”

 

Jeongin moved on instinct, already out the door. A brief look with Seungmin, communicated what words would take too long to, and Jeongin immediately searched the corridor, then broke out into his fastest sprint as he spotted the retreating figure, already far ahead of him.

 

“H-Hyung!” he yelled out, forcing his body to break out of its stupid freeze response by pumping his legs harder, his shoes hitting the tiles louder than ever. “Jisung-hyung!” he called again, but the squirrel-like boy didn’t stop like how Jeongin hoped, and just as Jisung rounded the corner, Jeongin really cursed his luck at having to track down one of the fastest runners of Stray Kids.

 

“Hyung!” he feebly tried again, running past three confused-looking members of TWICE (so he tried to bow while running which almost just made him fall over), but once again, Jisung paid no mind.

 

However, despite the elder’s speed, Jeonign’s stamina won out, and Jeongin sighed in relief as the boy stumbled into a random studio so he could finally let his beating heart and aching lungs rest.

 

“Jisung-hyung?” he knocked on the door. There was no response.

 

Okay, man up, a talk isn’t going to hurt you he hyped himself and slowly he pushed open the door.

 

“Hey? It’s Jeongin.”

 

His heart fell at the sight.

 

The rapper was wheezing, his breath choked up from the run and sobs that wracked his whole being, and tears were dripping off his nose as he sat on the table, his head down.

 

“Hyung…” Jeongin said, the caring tone drifting from his lips without him even realising it. “Shh, don’t cry, it’s okay, just take a deep breath.”

 

Jeongin watched helplessly as Jisung hiccupped, wondering what the hell he could do before the boy started to hyperventilate, and quickly, the method the Jisung had used to calm him from his panic attack after the fight with Minho came to mind.

 

Well, as much as he remembered anyway.

 

“Okay, just breathe with me okay?” he said and perked up when Jisung managed to nod. “In for three, out for three, yeah? In for three, out for three.”

 

It only took a few more deep breaths before Jisung stopped crying and Jeongin couldn’t help but be glad that it was over, despite how mean it sounded in his head.

 

“What a fucking day” Jisung just said tiredly and Jeongin just nodded looking around the room to try and figure out where he was and how to get back to somewhere he knew when Jisung was ready.

 

It was a studio – it looked old and unused, dust settling on every surface.

 

The pair sat in silence as Jisung evened out his breathing until it was normal. Jeongin had wanted to suggest that they should head back, as he left his phone at home and couldn’t contact anyone., but one look at Jisung, who seemed to be thinking, made him stay quiet.

 

He didn’t ask what happened either. He knew how constricting it was when someone asked that before he was ready to tell them.

 

A small part of him didn’t want to know anyway.

 

If it had caused Jisung to drop the Korean formalities and caused Woojin to attack Changbin like that, then he knew it must have been a big thing, something maybe even bigger than an untold secret, or a petty fight.

 

And that was what scared him.

 

“Yang Jeongin” Jisung started and the younger snapped his head up at the call of his full name. He waited for another terse moment as Jisung’s eyes filled with tears again.

 

He waited more, but the boy looked like he was unsure of what he wanted to say. Jeongin licked his cracked lips. “Y-Yeah?”

 

“Jeongin, what would you do if somebody said they wanted to leave the group?”

 

His heart stopped.

 

It felt like his whole body had been dumped into a frozen-over lake, his body breaking through the ice, then plunging into the cold water, so freezing that it made his brain stop, and his heart die.

 

He looked at his fingers. They were so numb they weren’t even shaking anymore.

 

He swallowed, his mind having gone completely blank at the unexpected question, and even more unanticipated and heart-wrenching meaning behind Jisung’s words.

 

He thought back to his childhood, from cat claws to plates, from the cage he was raised in to foster homes and a dog kennel, from the orphanage to his true home with his parents.

 

His mind swirled with neon roof-sticky stars, singing in the car, warm hugs, hot-chocolates, and the guilt that made his stomach ache until he moved to Seoul.

 

He thought of his brothers.

 

Jeongsan. Jeongwoo. Himself.

 

Park Jeongsan. Jeongwoo ‘Jason’ Morris-Green.

 

Yang Jeongin.

 

“Innie-” Jisung’s sorrowful cry made Jeongin look away from his hands. The boy was almost begging now, his eyes pleading and shiny in the worst of ways “What would you say to that person?”

 

He swallowed the lump in his throat and closed his eyes.

 

“I would tell that person” he whispered, the noise stark and firm in the cold studio, his words coming out with little puffs of air. “I would tell that person, that happiness is the most important thing.”

 

Jisung was quiet.

 

Jeongin was too.

 

He didn’t speak when the tears started to roll down his hyung’s face again. He didn’t need to.

 

All he needed to do, was hold Jisung’s hand, a simple act that gave them both comfort and gently start to sing.

 

So, he did.

 

 

Jeongin blinked sleep from his eyes as he woke, the thrumming of the train rousing him from his half-hour of rest. He peered outside the window his head had been leaning against, squinting as he tried to remember where he was.

 

All there was, was green, Beautiful greenery, something never imagined Seoul. There were rolling hills full of summer crops, tall trees, and a few cottages dotting the horizon he’s never seen similar to anything else in his whole life.

 

Right. We just had our London performance last night and now we’re on the train to Paris.

 

He stifled a yawn as he stretched, being careful as to not kick Hyunjin who was sleeping across from him and flashed Chan a smile who was the one awake in their strange square booth-like thing the trains seats were.

 

The train ride wasn’t long, only around two-and-a-half hours however the management team had booked the earliest train, which had left at five-thirty; a startling surprise for all of them when they had returned from the London Concert at one a.m.

 

He gingerly peered at his other members, most of whom were sound asleep.

 

He deflated when he saw Woojin, remembering the seating arrangements from that morning. As the booths only held four people, and Woojin hadn’t yet cleared things over with Changbin and Jisung and Jisung and Changbin had sat in separate booths, Woojin had been cast out to sit with the management team.

 

Jeongin cringed, remembering Jisung’s heart-broken question.

 

When Woojin looked up from his phone, meeting Jeongin’s introspective gaze and immediately the younger stiffened, internally panicking before he just sent the elder a thumbs up then sat back down in his chair, avoiding Chan’s humoured stare.

 

God, I can barely act normal around him after I know he might want to leave the group. Jeongin turned to Jisung who was sitting beside him, the final member in their cube of comfortable chairs, and bit the inside of his cheek.

 

I can’t let anyone know – Changbin hasn’t even told Chan or Felix yet, so it’s safe to assume Jisung wasn’t supposed to tell me about it at all.

 

He sighed the burden of another secret on his shoulders.

 

He wondered how Woojin must be feeling. His secret was something present, not ones in the past like Jeongin’s were.

 

Although I bet he hasn’t lied about it to everyone for three years he thought bitterly, questioning how he even got so deep into his secrets.

 

No, he shook his head to try and get the negativity out of his head. I shouldn’t think about these things now – tomorrow we have the Paris performance and then an international fan-sign the day after!

 

As soon as he thought about meeting international STAY, he felt a pang of nervousness shoot through his body, like it had been injected into his veins. For the next minute he wished he could suddenly get fluent in English, or even French, but despite his positive mindset, not even the law of attraction gifted a whole language to him.

 

“Go back to sleep, Innie, I’ll wake you up before we get there, okay?” Chan whispered in his place diagonally from him and Jeongin nodded, feeling tired as the hills rolled past.

 

Paris was lovely. All nine of them posed in front of the Eiffel Tower in the most-like-tourists way possible (Minho even wore a floral button-up), and with a lot of cheese and bread, and a little bit of wine in his stomach the day was over before they knew it.

 

The next day, the 30th July, they rehearsed for the concert that night, performing songs and getting used to the size of the stage.

 

No one spoke about how Changbin and Jisung would stay strategically away from Woojin at breaks and were only close if it was a part of the choreography. Jeongin saw Felix and Hyunjin shoot confused looks, or Minho and Seungmin discussing theories about what happened, but Jeongin just shrugged when he was asked if he knew what happened.

 

At the lunch break, when Changbin made a passive-aggressive remark to Woojin, Jeongin sat by Jisung as Chan pulled the other rapper over for a ‘talking-to’ that he could safely assume was less stern and more worried than his other ones.

 

All six, with the exception of Woojin who conveniently occupied himself with getting his mic checked, watched as Changbin just shook his head sadly and didn’t speak. Chan just looked disappointed and like he had just given up.

 

The rehearsal was a bit more strained after that.

 

The concert was alive, bright, with fans screaming their names as they sang, danced and rapped.

 

Jeongin couldn’t help but feel bad for the STAY at the end of the night when it finished up; none of them had been in the best mindset to give them a performance of a lifetime.

 

That night, in his room with Woojin (talk about awkward), he decided to do his best at the fan-sign.

 

Maybe it was that his wishes came true, because the next day as he sat on the long table, faces of excited people of all ages, genders and races, passing by, Jeongin felt like he did pretty well.

 

That night, as the nine went back to the hotel, Chan and Seungmin forced Jisung Changbin and Woojin into a room, with instructions (as courtesy of Seungmin) to ‘not come out until you’ve figured it out.

 

The whole night, Jeongin was tense, and when Felix asked, he brushed it off as tiredness or feeling nervous about the hyung’s unsolved argument. Both were believable, and both were true, however, if what Jisung had said was true, there was no way that their relationship would be able to be fixed in a few hours.

 

However, when he and Hyunjin checked the room the three had been locked in (it was Seungmin and Hyunjin’s hotel room, so the elder had the key) Jisung, Changbin and Woojin had all formed some sort of cuddle pile of Seungmin’s bed and were sound asleep.

 

That night, Jeongin had invited Hyunjin back to his room, as now he had a spare bed, but the pair still shared Jeongin’s one bed, feeling reminiscent of their tour time in America.

 

The final day in Paris, was far better than the first three.

 

The tension between was reduced to the point they could stand to be around each other, talking as if nothing had ever happened in the first place. Jeongin could tell from the way Jisung’s eyes were filled with a melancholic sadness whenever he looked at the eldest, or the way Changbin still wouldn’t sit near Woojin, that they weren’t as close as they were before.

 

Maybe they never would be.

 

Seungmin had hollered for joy, shouting ‘they’re cured!

 

Jeongin hadn’t found it in his heart to correct him.

 

“What you thinking about, Innie?” Felix’s voice snapped him out of his mind and Jeongin flinched so sharply he almost fell off his little café stool.

 

Ah, sorry mate!” the Australian smiled and Jeongin, after regaining his composure smiled back.

 

The pair were at a little café, so empty and small that they had thought it was closed as they walked around the lesser-travelled streets of Paris. But, Felix managed to recognise the word ‘open’ from his French classes three years ago, and together they sat in the dimly lit café, sipping on teas.

 

It was perfect.

 

“Thanks for not bothering me about not getting food” Felix suddenly said, and Jeongin looked at his own plate, where a ham and cheese croissant sat, and Felix’s which had nothing.

 

“Don’t worry about it” he said, suddenly feeling a bit embarrassed that he had so casually ordered a meal while Felix didn’t.

 

He swallowed down his pride however when his stomach grumbled, and cheekily smiled at Felix with half the croissant already in his mouth.

 

“Back when you… had your eating issues” Felix started and Jeongin perked up, interested to talk about the topic of food comfortably with his only hyung that really knew what it was like to not eat even when hungry. “Did you just restrict, or…?”

 

“Just restriction and over-exercise” Jeongin answered surprised at how easily he confessed like they were talking about their old trainee days rather than full-fledged eating disorders. “What about you?”

 

“Yeah, that and well… purging too” Felix said shyly, in a small voice, like he was fearing being judged.

 

“You can beat it” Jeongin remarked, popping the last of his meal into his mouth. “Around a year ago” he pointed at his plate, “I never would have eaten any bread or cheese unless Minho-hyung was staring me down. I knew how many calories were in every single thing but I never really educated myself on healthy fats and stuff, so I was pretty unhealthy. Obviously.”

 

Felix laughed and Jeongin chuckled too.

 

“I’m just really scared of gaining back everything I’ve worked so hard to lose, ya know? I know my face and arms and stuff don’t look healthy but… I can’t help but love the way my ribs, my waist and my abs do, even though it’s probably too skinny or whatever.”

 

“I get you!” Jeongin piped up. “The main reason I did it was because I hated the baby fat on my cheeks, and when I started my recovery this year, I hated looking in the mirror, because I thought my face was going to look fat again, but guess what?”

 

Felix blinked, “what?”

 

“My cheeks look good now right?” Jeongin pointed to his elegant cheekbones in excitement. “I gained a lot of weight, and muscle too ever since I got my eating back on track, and my face isn’t as slim, but I like how I look way more now than I did back then, because I look a lot stronger, especially with my abs, and I feel it too.”

 

Felix nodded as if he was mulling over Jeongin’s words. “Hey!” he pointed to the window and Jeongin swivelled his head, expecting to see a member or something but instead he saw nothing.

 

He frowned as he peered out the window. “What are you looking at hyung? Are you just trying to distract me or something?”

 

“No” Felix laughed and pointed at the window again. “Look on the glass. Do you see that rainbow flag? It means this café supports LBGTQ people, see?”

 

Jeongin narrowed his eyes, wishing he had brought his glasses instead of his contacts and raised his eyebrows when he finally saw what Felix was pointing at.

 

“Cool” he commented, and as soon as he turned back to face Felix and saw the elder’s face drop, he wondered if his ’trying-to-squash-his-excitement’ voice came out too uninterested or harsh.

 

‘You could tell him you’re bi, it seems like a better time than ever’ a voice said and Jeongin tensed. He…he could. He knew Felix would accept him because the boy himself was a part of the LGBTQ community, but there was also a part of him that remembered Kyunghwa’s warning.

 

“Out there, especially in the entertainment industry, being like us isn’t acceptable.”

 

Jeongin closed his eyes, images of the all black anti-gay parade swarming back to him.

 

He remembered his nose bleeding in a bathroom stall.

 

He thought of Kyunghwa who was kicked out of her own home for her sexuality.

 

Then, he remembered the PRIDE march, the rainbows and glitter that lit up the sky, the pure joy and excitement in the air, the feeling of unity, of being a part of something.

 

He swallowed his fear.

 

“Felix-hyung” he started, his eyes still closed in worry and his voice trembling with nerves. “I’m…” the words were stuck in his throat, choking him, he needed to breathe, he needed to breathe-

 

“I’m bisexual.”

 

He opened his eyes, expecting disgust, confusion, anger, or even a slap to the face.

 

But what he saw was a freckled boy’s wide, accepting and rather flabbergasted smile, and so, just like that on the first of August, Lee Felix was the second-ever person that he, Yang Jeongin had come out to.

 

He walked back to the hotel feeling lighter than he had in days.

 

 

When he first read the message, he didn’t believe his eyes to the point that he had run all the way to the dorms’ bathroom, taken out his contacts and put on his glasses.

 

He froze as his eyes scanned the text message again, the sender being a jumble of numbers.

 

>From: +349 8550 196

Hey. I know it’s been a while.

 

Recently I’ve been thinking a lot about you as I’ve seen you on the big screen a few times, and I guess today I finally gathered up enough courage to do something about it. I’m in Seoul next week for a University trip. You live at the JYP dorms right? Well if so, and you want to see me, please message. I know I haven’t been there for you for the past ten years, and for that I apologise.

 

If you don’t want to see me, I understand and I won’t hold it against you, but I’ve heard there is a really good pretty underground café a few minutes away from JYP if you want called ‘Bitter Draught’, where you won’t get recognised. You don’t have to say yes.

 

However, we should talk about Eomma.

 

Sincerely, Park Jeongsan.

 

Jeongin felt bile rise in his throat, threatening to spill and with pinched eyes, he calmed himself.

 

You’re fine. This is fine. It’s just your long-lost brother you haven’t seen since you were eleven giving you a few days to decide if you want to bond over your shared traumatic past. No biggie.

 

“Jeongin, what you looking at-?”

 

“Nothing!” he yelped and shoved his phone in his hoodie pocket, almost hitting Felix as he leapt backwards away from the question.

 

“O-kay” Minho drawled out and raised his eyebrows good-humouredly.

 

“Guys! Seungmin made eggs for breakfast! Hurry up!” Jeongin heard Jisung’s yell from the kitchen, but Jeongin couldn’t bring himself to move, with the other members, who were still rubbing sleep from their tired eyes.

 

“Innie, you good?” Changbin’s question came from in front of him and Jeongin forced a feverish nod, hoping the elder wouldn’t pick up on his overwhelming anxiousness.

 

“Yeah, uh – tell the hyungs I’ll be there in five?” he pleaded and at Changbin’s nod he turned tail and ran into his room.

 

He nervously took the phone out of his pocket again, wondering if the message was a figment of his imagination, but when he typed in his password the message was still there, as clear as day.

 

“I want to come to terms with my past”, the first half of his New Year’s Promise.

 

He clenched his phone harder so it would stop his shaking hands.

 

He couldn’t break this promise, not this time, so with nerves fuelling his every movement he typed ‘Tuesday. 10a.m.

 

When he hit send, he felt a horrible wave of fear course through his veins.

 

He saw three speech bubbles pop up on the screen

 

>From: +349 8550 196

Okay. Thanks.

 

With a deep, steeling breath, he turned off his phone and shoved it into his pocket.

 

He was Yang Jeongin, he could do this, he was fine.

 

So, a week later, Jeongin was walking down bendy streets to his fate, his stomach feeling worse than it had since June the first.

 

He sighed as he took another deep breath, to fend off the panic and nerves infesting his whole being, and he ignored the way an irritated businessman who accidentally bumped into yelled at him for not paying attention.

 

Jeongin took another grounding breath. So far, the morning was going as planned; he had informed management he would be out, and he told the team a friend from Busan was coming down for a day and was going to meet them.

 

He felt bad about lying, but he was pretty sure he couldn’t just be outright and say it was his elder brother they had no idea existed.

 

He glared at his phone, which was open to a map and looked around wondering how despite living in the area, he had never heard of this weird café before, not even from Chan and Minho when the pair had made it their mission to find the best coffee from the café’s around JYP.

 

It only took a few more minutes, and a few streets that made Jeongin nervous he was about to be mugged before he found it.

 

It was rather dilapidated, worn-down, but still had some form of treasure to it, like it was a gift of some sort. And it was open twenty-four hours, so that was a plus.

 

Jeongin scrunched his nose under his facemask as he pushed open the glass door. Jeongsan was right, it was basically empty – there was no way he was going to get recognised here, not when there was only one person in the whole place.

 

Jeongin felt his heart stutter when the said, person looked up.

 

There was no denying it.

 

It was his brother.

 

“Jeongsan-nim?” he asked carefully, wary about the formalities as to how he should address someone who he only ever called ‘hyung’.

 

“JeongJeong?” the voice was quiet, hesitant, and Jeongin almost keened at the old nickname.

 

But, he narrowed his eyes. He couldn’t let his guard down yet.

 

“It’s been a while,” is what he said instead, taking a seat on the small, corner table across from Jeongsan.

 

His brother nodded, eyes shadowed by a pink cap with little white stars on it. “Yes, it has.”

 

Jeongin swallowed, the air becoming tense as they both had no idea what to say. Jeongin’s mind searched for words, for a topic, for anything, just like he had when he was eleven, but it was Jeongsan who spoke first.

 

“I’ve seen you performing. You’re good, really good, actually. It’s good you’ve done something with your life.”

 

“And you haven’t?” Jeongin frowned, disregarding the compliment, but he felt the worm of guilt tug on his heart again when the elder took of his hat and ran his hand through his dark hair in a distressed manner.

 

“Not really” the elder said and Jeongin couldn’t find the words to answer. Instead he looked around, his eyes searching the man’s attire. He was wearing black shoes, dark pants, a crumpled white shirt and a coat.

 

The only splash of colour was the hat. Jeongin stared at it again, not knowing why he was so drawn to it, before the realisation hit him.

 

That hat, it was the same one the person was wearing as Jeongin was performing back when he was seventeen and felt a fear so strong control his body that he almost collapsed.

 

Jeongin snapped his head up to Jeongsan’s eyes.

 

There were almond shaped, the same shade of brown and wearied and dulled by years of trauma and hardship.

 

They were like his Mother’s. They were like his own.

 

And they were exactly like the ones he had seen in the crowd that day.

 

“You - you” Jeongin stammered, piecing it all together as he spoke. “You came to see me! When I was performing last May! You – You were wearing this same hat” Jeongin pointed to the offending item and Jeongsan laughed, a sound he hadn’t hear in years.

 

“Yeah, I was wondering if you were gonna’ notice” the man admitted sheepishly while Jeongin looked shocked, his mouth agape. “You and me, we never quite left survivor mode, huh?”

 

Jeongin clamped his mouth shut, and the upbringing of their past. “Yeah, I guess not.”

 

“What else have you been doing? Apart from the whole idol thing?”

 

Jeongin blinked owlishly, wondering when their roles had swapped from Jeongsan being the quiet one, to the one that initiated the conversation. It was a surprise. A pleasant one.

 

Jeongin hummed in thought, beckoning the single waiter over and ordering a tea for himself and a latte for Jeongsan (the elder already had a cup finished on the table, making Jeongin ponder how long the man had been sitting here for.)

 

“I… I met with Jeongwoo a few times.”

 

“Jeongwoo? Our Jeongwoo?” Jeongsan shrieked, making Jeongin flinch at the sudden noise, something he hadn’t done for a while. Jeongsan seemed to notice and immediately quietened down. “Jeongwoo,” he scoffed in disbelief. “I can’t believe the kid’s still kicking!”

 

“He is” Jeongin said amusedly with a hint of pride in his voice, thanking the waiter for his tea when the worker came back. “He’s eleven now, and he got adopted in America, so he’s fluent in English too.”

 

“That’s amazing” Jeongsan muttered looking out the window, running another hand through his hair as if he was still processing it.

 

Jeongin took a gulp of the too-hot-tea and bit his lip, before speaking. “He asked about you, Jeongwoo, did.”

 

“Really?” Jeongsan said, a small hint of melancholy returning to his voice. “I didn’t think he would remember anything, not when he was so young…”

 

“He doesn’t” Jeongin supplied, his voice monotone. “He got told what happened.”

 

“You do though, I can tell” Jeongsan said, but there was a pleading note to his voice that betrayed his calm façade, that begged the answer to be no.

 

Jeongin nodded in affirmation of the elder’s words.

 

They took another sip of their respective drinks, not in awkwardness, but in mourning.

 

“I’ve seen Eomma.”

 

As soon as Jeongsan spoke, Jeongin almost spat out his tea and looked towards the elder in shocked incredulity.

 

“You’ve – You’ve seen her? After everything she did to us?”

 

Jeongsan looked away, as if ashamed. “Yeah. I got out of the foster home when I turned nineteen, and child services were obliged to give me her contact details, since I wasn’t a minor anymore.”

 

“D-Does that mean…?” Jeongin spluttered, then pointed at himself in question.

 

It felt like his whole world shattered when Jeongsan slowly started to nod.

 

“Shit” Jeongin sighed, crumpling onto the chair, not even caring that he just cursed in public.

 

“Here’s a tip – don’t contact her” Jeongsan spat and took another sip of his coffee, glaring at the table like it was their mother. “She hasn’t changed, trust me.”

 

Jeongin shuddered, a question forming at the tip of his tongue. “What… what did she do to you?”

 

“I got my own apartment at nineteen, with all the funding and stuff, and she… she just got out of rehab or served her time or whatever and she asked for a place to stay” Jeongsan recounted and Jeongin felt his stomach twist at the inevitable, at what he already knew was coming next. “She was fine at first, apologised and all that stuff, but she… she got back on soju and started to hit me again, ya know?”

 

His voice was quiet. Scared. “I thought I could deal with it, but eventually I had to kick her out. I haven’t heard from her since.”

 

Jeongin set down his tea, suddenly not thirsty anymore. He felt his insides start to rot and go numb.

 

Jeongsan had been in his living his nightmare. While Jeongin had been performing around the world, living his dream, his brother had been through everything Jeongin had tried so hard to forget again.

 

“Jesus,” he muttered. “That’s horrible. Where is she now?”

 

Jeongsan looked troubled, but wistfully, as he stared out the window to their left. “I have no idea.”

 

Jeongin gulped and turned to see out of the window too. There was nothing really, just a grey wall and a grey road, nothing like the wonders of Paris, that he and Felix had seen when they had sat in a café similar to this.

 

But the grey, the ordinary, was where terrible things lived in, thrived in.

 

She could truly be anywhere, maybe even a block away and Jeongin would have no idea.

 

It was like she was looming over him at every turn, filling his lungs with water and his heart with stone cold trepidation. It was almost like she had never really gone in the first place.

 

Jeongin shuddered and turned away, knowing what he needed to approach next, something that he knew that Jeongsan didn’t.

 

“How much do you remember Dad?” he asked, playing with the spoon in his hands as he waited for Jeongsan’s response.

 

“I know he was a good father, I guess. I mean, he left us, but I know he really tried to stay.” Jeongsan sipped his latte, in thought. “I remember that much. The only other thing I know is that he’s dead. Why do you ask?”

 

Jeongin took a breath. “His name was Park Jungyee. He died on the twenty-eighth of August two-thousand-an-eight in a car crash he was responsible for” Jeongin paused, watching as Jeongsan’s eyes widened at the knowledge.

 

“He’s buried at Seoul cemetery, row seventy-three, if you want to see him.”

 

“Yeah” Jeongsan said breathily, biting on the inside of his cheek. “I think I will. Thanks.”

 

Jeongin picked up his tea, and finished the last of it, the liquid the perfect temperature as it rolled down, soothing his throat.

 

“You should probably get going, huh?” Jeongsan smiled sadly, a hint of big-brother teasing dancing like mirth in his eyes.” What do you have on today? Twelve excruciating hours of dancing with no break?”

 

“Hey, it’s only eleven!” Jeongin bit back, a laugh at the base of his throat. “And we do get a break – the three seconds between songs!”

 

Jeongsan chuckled at that too, and together the brothers stood up and put on their coats, despite the warm heat outside.

 

“I’ll pay” Jeongsan said just as Jeongin reached out to give the cashier his card. “I’m your hyung after all, right?”

 

Jeongin felt a smile grace his lips and he retracted his card. “Okay, Jeongsan-hyung.”

 

Jeongsan looked surprised, and even happy has he swiped his card.

 

Jeongin couldn’t help but think, that his words, and letting him pay must have been important to the elder. Because it was something that a big brother would do.

 

“Let me walk you back, it’s the least I can do” Jeongsan said, rolling up his sleeves. Jeongin’s happy smile dropped at the white scars around the boy’s wrist, but quickly averted his gaze when the elder turned back to face him.

 

“Okay, hyung” the idol said, without thinking, trying to erase the image out of his mind. He peeked back at Jeongsan’s arms and flinched. There were a lot, most white and faded. He wondered if some of them were the same from the ones he saw at eleven, but it was unlikely.

 

He doesn’t seem embarrassed of them or anything Jeongin mused, walking by his hyung’s side. Not like how I was with my eating disorder-thing.

 

The walk to JYP was quiet; Jeongin, today more than any other day, was glad not to be recognised as he twisted and turned through back alleyways until he reached the ‘secret backdoor’ that the idols at the company used as to not have to go through the main entrance.

 

“I just wanted to say…” Jeongin started standing facing Jeongsan, “that I’m thankful we got to… see each other and stuff. It was good.”

 

“Yeah” Jeongsan smiled, and Jeongin was glad that it wasn’t the same fake one from eleven, but a true one, even with its hints of sadness.

 

“I guess I’ll see you arou- ah!” Jeongin squeaked when the door opened right into him, the doorknob digging into his side.

 

“Oh, Innie!” a voice exclaimed and Jeongin froze at who it was.

 

Oh fuck!

 

“Chan-hyung!” he said way-to-over-energetically and tried to keep calm, but started to internally freak out when Hyunjin, Minho and Jisung also walked out the door.

 

“Ah – this must be your friend!” Chan smiled, bowed and stuck out his hand towards Jeongsan.

 

Jeongin watched as Jeongin frowned and reached out to shake the hand, confused at the Western greeting and probably at being called a ‘friend.’

 

“Ah… no,” Jeongsan smiled sheepishly.

 

Jeongin felt his heart start to pound in his ears as everything slowed down, his whole crafted reality unravelling as Jeongsan spoke.

 

“-I think you might have me muddled up with someone else…” Jeongsan continued.

 

Jeongin felt his chest ache, but he couldn’t speak, to try and stop whatever the boy was about to say – he was frozen, just like he always was when something went utterly wrong.

 

He barely saw the way his members stared at him with perplexed eyes – all he could do was watch.

 

No. No, no, no, no-

 

“I’m Park Jeongsan, Jeongin’s older brother.”

 

And just like that his world shattered, like a porcelain plate, landing in little pieces at his feet.

 

“B-Brother?” Hyunjin squawked and Jeongin felt his heart stop.

 

He clenched his fist, his whole hand trembling.

 

His past three years of lies, was over.

 

Everything he had worked to build, then worked to slowly take down over the year had vanished.

 

His New Years’ Resolution just another promise broken.

 

He closed his eyes. He wasn’t frozen anymore. He was furious.

 

Hyung” he said, his voice dangerously blank. He watched with fire in his eyes as Jeongsan turned to him, dropping Chan’s hand, then stiffening.

 

“-I think it’s time for you to leave” he hissed, like a cat, or a tiger;

 

Like his Mother.

 

“Thank you for today,” he stared unnerved into Jeongsan wide eyes, his whole body feeling numb. “But I’ll pay you for my tea.”

 

Jeongin watched unfeeling as Jeongsan stepped backwards in shock, quickly bowing, before rushing into the street.

 

“J-Jeongin-” Minho stammered but Jeongin just walked past him and the rest of his friends.

 

And as the light from the day faded, and Jeongin walked further into the hall, ignoring his member’s calls, he felt tears build in his eyes.

 

Because once again he had destroyed something.

 

Once again, he had ruined his relationship with Jeongsan.

 

Like it was nothing more than a fragile autumn leaf.

 

 

“Kyunghwa-noona…” Jeongin cried into the phone, hidden away in the same studio where he found Jisung before. “I really screwed it up this time.”

 

Shhh, Jeonginnie… don’t cry, yeah? Talk to me” he heard Kyunghwa’s crackly voice some through the line, and the familiar sound only made his cry more.

 

“I-I met with Jeongsan, my brother Jeongsan and it was going really well but then he – he told everyone that he was my brother, and I got mad and-” He broke off, his sobs filling the empty room, remembering the way his members stared at him, in bewilderment and betrayal, and the way he had broken his and Jeongsan’s relationship.

 

“They’re never going to forgive me” he whimpered pathetically and curled into himself more. “I was finally starting to open up to my members, and after a whole decade I met up with Jeongsan, but it all completely went wrong, and now I’m back at square… negative seventy or something!”

 

Aish, Innie” Kyunghwa said, seemingly dumbfounded for words. “Seems like you really fell into a big-ass hole now.

 

“A big asshole?” he laughed weakly and the sound of Kyunghwa’s boisterous laughter he lightened up, momentarily forgetting the situation at hand.

 

Alright, it’s not over, okay? They know you’ve been dealt some shitty cards in life, and it wasn’t like you are entirely at fault… okay a little bit was-

 

“Kyunghwa-noona” he whined, his tears ceased. “Way to blame the victim! Jeongsan was the one that exposed me.

 

But are you not the one that scared him away?

 

Jeongin bit his lip and his silence served enough of an answer.

 

Look, you’ve only known Jeongsan for like forty minutes this decade, right? Make it up with him first, and then it might change your perspective on things, yeah? I know telling your friends is gonna’ be hard, but they seem like good people – I’ve watched every interview possible of you nine and you’re always gonna’ have each other’s backs – no matter what shit you step in.

 

He sighed into the speaker, wondering when Kyunghwa had gotten so good at big-sisterly advice.

 

“How are you so smart?” he complained and shifted his position until his back was against the wall.

 

You were the one in Busan’s best middle school Jeonginnie, trust me you’re the smartest one in the bunch no matter what Byungjun ever said.” She was quiet for another moment. “The best thing you can do from here, is talking about it honestly, but you don’t have to tell everyone at once of that’s too overwhelming… I mean I would, but when have I ever had any tact, huh?

 

Jeongin snorted into the phone remembering when she came out to Byungjun and Jaesook when he was fifteen while the four were watching an anti-gay commercial.

 

Maybe start with one person you really trust and go from there. But, Jeongin, I think you should try and let everyone know sooner rather than later, okay? It’ll cause less pain… you know that best.

 

“Yeah,” he agreed dryly, wondering how different things would have turned out if he was honest from the start. “I do.”

 

After an exchange of goodbye’s Jeongin hung up the phone, feeling dismally alone in the dusty studio without his best-friend’s voice to comfort or advise him. He checked the time. It was four p.m.

 

He had missed most of afternoon dance practice by now.

 

No one had called him.

 

And as he walked out of the studio and caught a taxi to the dorm, that was what made him feel the worst.

 

 

Three days later nothing was fixed.

 

Well with his members, at least.

 

After calling Kyunghwa, he had quickly sent a quick ‘I’m sorry’ text to Jeongsan. The elder had forgiven him, but Jeongin knew that the boy was still hurt. He would be if Jeongsan had did that to him.

 

His members, however, were not so willing to forgive and forget so easily.

 

But, Jeongin could understand. If he found out Chan or Hyunjin or someone else had a secret brother, it would be like he was thrown into a spy movie or something, and that was not good for the stability of the group.

 

If there’s a group for much longer, seeing as Woojin supposedly wants to leave he thought bitterly, before pushing the negativity to the back of his mind.

 

He looked up, over his cup of hot chocolate he had made in an attempt to comfort himself, and sighed. It was a Wednesday, and Jeongin was tired. He had just had a huge test that day, homework had been killing him as per usual, but it was the tension with the group that was weighing him down the most.

 

Besides, when he had come back from his phone call with Kyunghwa that day, the way Felix looked at him, made it clear that the members who had seen Jeongsan had told everyone.

 

The cat was well and truly out of the bag.

 

The others had been walking around him as if treading on eggshells (probably a good representation of their relationships), and every dinner or dance practice where the nine of them had all been together, Jeongin had always felt so misplaced.

 

He hadn’t felt this lonely since arriving in Seoul.

 

With another dragged exhale, he looked back down at his math formulas due tomorrow. Dance practice had been cancelled as the 3RACHA line had an important meeting with JYP instead. Jeongin bit his lip nervously and watched as Felix bit on his hangnails next to Seungmin.

 

That was another thing just putting even more pressure on them; the upcoming album and all that came with it.

 

“Innie, do you want some marshmallows in that?”

 

Jeongin picked his head up off the dining room table in an instant and tried to ignore the way Minho, from the couch, was keenly watching their interaction. He blinked before realising that Woojin was talking to him and nodded before staring back down at his homework.

 

Woojin had been the only member who hadn’t been weird, or different, or awkward around him. Jeongin accepted the marshmallows with a small smile and watched as the plopped into the brown liquid.

 

Maybe it’s because he’s hiding a big secret too; just like me.

 

And maybe, at two a.m. in the morning, that was the reason why Jeongin had soundlessly pulled the elder out of bed and had led him to the ‘Bitter Draught’ café.

 

“Jeongin, I’m serous – what the hell are we doing here?” Woojin exclaimed as Jeongin ushered him into the same chair he had sat on last Sunday. “You have school tomorrow!”

 

“I know, hyung” Jeongin replied, ordering a chai tea for himself and an English decaffeinated tea for the elder. “I know.”

 

“So why the hell are we here?” Woojin hissed quietly, before faking a smile at the waitress who came by.

 

When she left, it was like an interrogation all over again.

 

“Yang Jeongin, I swear on JYP, if you don’t tell me why you forced me into a taxi fifteen minutes ago – which is essentially kidnapping, or no – idol-napping, I will-”

 

“My birth name was Park Jeongin, you knew that right?” Jeongin asked, watching as Woojin’s face turned from exasperation to an apprehensive curiousity.

 

“Yeah, Innie. I… did” the elder paused, in deep thought. “Why… Why are you telling me this?”

 

“My dad… my dad’s last name was Park but… he died when I was eight years old.”

 

Woojin looked like he had just seen a ghost.

 

“Wait… What the fuck Innie? Shit. I – I mean – I’m sorry, but I thought…”

 

“Yeah” Jeongin laughed and sipped his tea, relishing the sweet taste. “I’ve never told any of you guys about my… my life or anything. So… can I tell you, hyung?”

 

Jeongin felt his hands go clammy when Woojin was quiet.

 

It felt like forever until the elder hesitantly nodded.

 

Jeongin took a deep breath.

 

And started to speak.

 

 

By the time he had finished, in was three-thirty, and they were both in tears. Jeongin didn’t even feel embarrassed about crying, or resentful about breaking his most long-standing promise he’d made at seven. It was cathartic – actually.

 

Besides, his hyung wasn’t mad that Jeongin had started crying when he had told him about the way plates shattered, just like hearts, or how leaves broke, just like minds.

 

Woojin hadn’t thought he was weak for his tears – the elder was crying too.

 

Woojin just held him close like Jeongsan used to as they left the café with a large tip and got a taxi home. The elder tucked him into bed and pressed a kiss on his forehead, in such a motherly way it almost made Jeongin tear up again.

 

When he woke up two hours later, there was a brown-paper bag of fresh, recently-baked macadamia and white-choc-chip cookies resting by his head, with a love heart scribbled on it.

 

Jeongin bit into one, and it tasted like heaven on his tongue.

 

He let himself tear up again, but this time because he was happy.

 

 

August came to a close, and whenever Jeongin looked out of windows, either at home or school, the summer green had faded to a gentle, warm orange.

 

Now, he was in the recording booth, going over his lines for ‘Booster,’ his personal favourite track on the album while the 3RACHA line listened in on big heavy-duty headphones. The trio looked happier than they had for the past few weeks; it was probably because they finally got a conformation for the release date of the album: the twenty-fifth of November.

 

But with the due date steadily approaching, even though it was only the beginning of September, the nine of them were working harder than ever before.

 

“Try that line again Innie! Have a bit more power at the end, okay?” Chan advised from behind the glass and Jeongin sent the elder a thumbs up before the bass drummed through his headphones for the second time.

 

The pair of them, the leader and maknae duo, were in the recording booth alone as the actual session wasn’t set to start for another ten minutes. Chan had always been the one to push him to redo his lines until it was one-hundred percent perfect, and despite once feeling insecure and embarrassed about it, Jeongin was now more than happy to sing again and again until both he and the leader were completely satisfied.

 

When the music died out, Jeongin watched with a similar nervous yet expecting feeling in his stomach as Chan listened back to his lines. He fiddled with the paper in his hands as Chan frowned as he replayed the track again.

 

“Is it okay?” he asked into the microphone, apprehension dancing in his eyes.

 

Then, Chan smiled.

 

“It’s perfect, Jeongin!” the elder said, his dimples deep and eyes full of mirth.

 

Jeongin felt his heart pang. The elder’s eyes were so - so… father-like.

 

It was like the first time Jeongin sang with his father in the car to their songs, or when, at seven, Jeongin had shown the remade version of his project on Han River to his biological father.

 

Jeongin smiled back, forcing himself out of his thoughts, just as Felix’s deep, rumbly laugh echoed down the hallway.

 

“I think it’s time for the others to get here” Jeongin said and carefully took off the headphones and placed them on the hook.

 

“I think so too” Chan rolled his eyes dramatically as if the other seven arriving was the worst thing in the world. “But seriously, Innie – today was some of your best work.”

 

“T-Thanks, Chan-hyung” the younger stuttered, slightly overwhelmed by the rare compliments. “I think… you do great too.”

 

Chan snorted at Jeongin’s awkward compliment and the younger couldn’t stop his cheeks from burning up.

 

“Thank you Innie, that means a lot to m-”

 

“Seungmin in the building!”

 

The energetic yell cut off the leader’s words, but when Jeongin looked into Chan’s eyes, they were sparkling, glimmering, proud.

 

The leader’s eyes stayed the same throughout the recording session, even when Felix screwed up his verse a few times or when Woojin’s singing was a bit off.

 

In the hour break after the recording session, Jeongin finished of his homework then the team had a three-hour dance session where Jisung almost broke his ankle trying to flip over Changbin (Jeongin had tried his hardest not to laugh, but soon enough all nine were rolling in hysterics on the floor.)

 

After, the team had a meeting with management about schedules and timelines and other important but boring things, and before he knew it, they were all in bed and asleep.

 

It was a normal day for Yang Jeongin.

 

Until he woke up to the sound of voices whispering on the other side of his bedroom door.

 

What’s going on? He groggily rubbed his eyes, rolling over to feel for his phone on the bedside table. It’s four in the morning? Who the hell is up this early?

 

He sat up in bed, frowning when Minho’s bed was empty and the hushed voice outside his room was far too deep for the rapper’s lighter tone.

 

“Chan, what have you noticed?” a quiet call he identified as Seungmin, asked. Jeongin tensed as the sofa squeaked, the tell-tale sign there were many members on it…

 

Are the members…meeting without me?

 

Carefully, he crept out of bed and rested his ear against the door, so the voices were clearer.

 

“Well…” Chan’s soft voice echoed around the otherwise silent room. Jeongin leaned closer to the door, wishing he could see what was going on, and know what they were talking about.

 

“- It was a few years back, but I went to the airport with him and Jeongwoo’s homestay parents thought I was… his brother.”

 

“B-Brother?” Hyunjin’s bewildered squawk was followed by a series of hushes and shushes.

 

Jeongin felt his heart stutter, a chill in his bones. He strained to listen again, the hard floor making his bottom hurt and the cold seep into his muscles, but there was no noise.

 

“Speaking of” Minho started, and Jeongin grimaced when he couldn’t make out any more of the elder’s words.

 

“Right, Jeongsan” Woojin murmured and Jeongin felt his blood run cold.

 

Him. They were talking about him. More specifically his secrets, his past.

 

And Woojin, who knew everything was right there with them.

 

“Jeongsan” he heard someone repeat. “Innie’s older brother we never knew about.”

 

“What hurts more is that he didn’t tell us” he heard Hyunjin say sourly.

 

Jeongin bit his lip, guilt burrowing into his heart at Hyunjin’s negative and hurt tone.

 

“I wish he would have… I don’t know… told us about anything.

 

Jeongin cringed in the darkness of his bedroom. That was Jisung.

 

“Hold on” Felix cut in. “It’s culture and tradition for some families in Korea for siblings to have the same prefix in their name, right?”

 

Jeongin couldn’t breathe. No.

 

“Yeah, what you getting at Lixie?” Chan asked in return.

 

“If I’m right” Felix continued, his words short and confused, as if he was piecing a puzzle together. “Then… like – there’s a connection between Jeongsan and Jeongwoo, too – like they’re all brothers but they all have different last names, right?”

 

Shit. No, please-

 

“Wait, you’re right!” Seungmin’s voice was loud, as it the revelation was revolutionary and immediately Jeongin heard the elder slap his hand over his mouth.

 

“Maybe we should just let Jeongin come talk to us himself rather than-”

 

Woojin’s words were cut off by Jisung.

 

“You’re right – Jeongsan introduced himself with Park as his surname, not Yang like Jeongin-”

 

“And… I caught a glimpse of Jeongwoo’s passport, and his last name wasn’t Yang, it was a Western last name” Chan finished.

 

Shit. They figured it out-

 

“You didn’t bother to mention that two years ago?” Minho questioned disbelievingly.

 

“I-I didn’t think anything of it – I was more focussed that someone thought I was Jeongin’s brother!”

 

“How can they all be siblings but all have different surnames then? Something doesn’t add up…”

 

Seungmin’s desperate question was left unanswered

 

“He…” Hyunjin said quietly and Jeongin wished he could just burst out into the room and stop the conversation, but he was completely frozen to the floor. “He told me one night that someone-”

 

Jeongin felt his heart clench when Hyunjin cries came through the thin walls.

 

“He told me that in Busan someone hurt him-”

 

The was the sound of movement in the living room and Jeongin felt his stomach start to tense.

 

“Let’s – Let’s leave it for tonight” Chan’s quiet and uncharacteristically unsure voice drifted in the room, the replies too muffled for Jeongin to make them out.

 

As soon as Jeongin heard footsteps one wall away from him, he retreated back to his bed, just in time for supposedly Minho to open the bedroom door and come inside.

 

His breath mingled under the blanket covering his face, feeling to hot as it bounced back onto his flushed cheeks and his head pounded as he listened to Minho undress and get into bed, and the last few movements of his members before the dorm was quiet again.

 

They – they had a secret meeting about me, without me? How… how… Jeongin fumbled to find a word to fit his emotions, but his mind was blank, too tired yet too alive and anxious to truly think.

 

That night he didn’t fall back asleep, not like Minho who was snoring beside him.

 

He waited till the sky swallowed it’s starts and brightened.

 

The sun painted the world orange.

 

In one moment, one action, one breath, he got out of bed and plastered on a smile, like his friends hadn’t just figured out one of his biggest secrets, the lies and hidden-truths his name and his brothers’ names held.

 

He changed into his bright yellow school blazer and ate his breakfast of Australian cereals in silence, keeping up his happy façade.

 

Woojin kept sending him concerned glances all through the morning but Jeongin ignored them pretending oblivion was bliss.

 

But despite his happy-go-lucky appearance he couldn’t unhear what his friends had discovered, had said.

 

They knew. And soon enough the truth would truly catch up to him.

 

Like a cat to a mouse. Where the mouse would be left for dead; shredded like paper by long cat claws.

 

 

The headstone was cold to the touch, a block of slate with a name and a death date engraved into it. It was a week into September, months after Jeongin had first visited his father’s grave, but upon seeing a small bouquet of flowers resting beside it, he knew he wasn’t the last to have been there, kneeling in the grass.

 

Jeongsan must have came here before he left back to Incheon Jeongin pondered, kneeling next to the grave, feeling slightly sorry he hadn’t brought anything with him again to commemorate his father.

 

The twilight wind was quiet and calm, nothing more than a breath on his cold ears as he kneeled beside the slate.

 

“When I turn nineteen” he whispered to his buried father. “- Eomma will most likely… reach out to me like she did to Jeongsan-hyung…”

 

He trailed off, his stomach turning at the thought of seeing her face, seeing her nails, seeing her eyes.

 

His hands clenched into fists.

 

“Is it wrong of me to never want to see her again?”

 

Just like before there was no answer. But this time he felt his father’s presence, as if it was right beside him, humming a tune. Protecting him from the monsters of the world.

 

In an instant, he felt the hairs of the back of his neck rise in alarm and quickly he whipped around to glare into the shrubbery to find the threat, but there was nothing.

 

You’re just on edge because you’re here and you’re thinking of her. he reassured himself, slowly getting up and brushing the dirt of his slacks. It’s fine, there’s nothing there. She’s not there.

 

He walked back to the train station slowly, humming the same little tune whirling around his head. He saw a flash of a television screen from a Korean volunteer team clad in bright red jackets doing unpaid volunteer work for kids in Jamaica.

 

He grinned when he recognised one of the faces, with the same scarred eyebrow.

 

He got back to the dorm at dusk, as the haze of night-time falling among the streets and making his vision misty.

 

However, when he walked through the door, calling out a brief ‘I’m home’ he wished he could have appreciated the cold comforting air of the outside more. Because just as he toed off his sneakers, and walked into the living room, he was met with the stormy face of Bang Chan.

 

“Hyung?” Jeongin nervously asked upon seeing the elder boy’s rare frown. “What’s wrong? Is everyone okay?”

 

“Have you checked social media, Innie?” the leader asked tiredly and Jeongin bit his lip in confusion, already knowing ‘no’, despite it being the truth, would not be the answer the elder wanted to hear.

 

He peeked over the leader’s shoulder and met eyes with Woojin, who was trying to urgently sign something with his fingers, but the confusing flailing just made Jeongin more perplexed. He spotted Jisung and Felix curled up together on the couch. They looked… sad.

 

“Um…” Jeongin pushed past the barrier clogging his throat and fiddled with his sleeves in habit. “N-No?”

 

Chan sighed again. Jeongin flinched.

 

“W-What’s online? Did something happen?” He tried to ask, wishing Changbin’s irritated gaze or Minho’s calculating one would just disappear. “Hyung, please talk to me-”

 

“This” Hyunjin pushed in sourly, holding up his phone. “This, Jeongin.”

 

Jeongin frowned, feeling attacked, and squinted at the article.

 

He read the title.

 

       ‘Stray Kids’ Yang Jeongin spotted mourning at Seoul Cemetery.’

 

“What the fuck?” he blurted out, grabbing the phone from Hyunjin’s hands. It was a whole article! And a photo of his kneeling beside his father’s grave! He knew to trust his instincts! He knew to-

 

“What is it Jeongin?” Changbin barked out. “Why were you there? You said you had to meet your teacher at school!”

 

Jeongin snapped his gaze away from the phone guiltily. He had told the team that he had to go to SOPA for a meeting, well, all except his eldest hyung who knew the truth. He found Woojin’s eyes again, pleading to help him get out of this predicament.

 

“Innie, please speak to us” Seungmin pouted from the couch and Jeongin bristled in defence.

 

“I-It’s nothing!” he snapped back, his voice high and wobbly. He closed his eyes and remembered his promise, his New Year’s Resolution. “I-I mean it is something, b-but I just don’t want to talk about it now, okay?”

 

That seemed to shock everyone into silence, because when he opened his eyes again, everyone was staring at him with slack faces.

 

“So…” Minho questioned. “It is something? Someone?

 

Jeongin frowned, wrapping his arms around his body and sliding towards Woojin who had moved close to him. “Yeah… It was someone.” He drew in a breath when he saw Jisung flinch into Felix like he was wounded at the maknae’s words. “C-Can we talk about this another time? I’ve just been internet-exposed or whatever and now I’m tired.”

 

Hesitantly he flicked his eyes back towards the leader, who was looking far less big and scary than he did a moment ago. Now he just looked tired. Jeongin felt guilty for it.

 

“Yeah, Innie” Chan rubbed his forehead like he had a migraine. “It’s alright – go to sleep.”

 

Jeongin paused, not wanting to leave the almost-conflict on such an awkward note. Not when Changbin still looked a bit pissed. Not when Hyunjin looked close to angry-confused-tears. Not when Felix looked so numb,

 

“O-Okay” he choked out instead. “Goodnight, everyone.”

 

There was a small chorus of replies and quickly he rushed to his bedroom, wishing it was further away from the living room, so he didn’t have to hear Seungmin’s ‘what the hell just happened?’’ and Minho’s ‘I have no idea.

 

Jeongin stood at the door for another few seconds, wishing the walls were thicker so he couldn’t unintentionally eavesdrop, something he had found useful in the past, before turning away and flopping down onto his bed.

 

It was another few minutes before Woojin came in, with warm teddy-bear hugs and a toothbrush, some toothpaste and a cup.

 

“I’m assuming you don’t feel like going back out there tonight?” Woojin asked, leaning back on the bedhead of the bed, as Jeongin hastily brushed his teeth so his mouth was all foamy, before spitting the excess toothpaste into the cup.,

 

“Not really” he yawned, plopping beside his hyung and placing the cup onto his bedside table, deciding that was an issue for future-Jeongin. “What were you even signing to me behind Chan’s back before anyway?”

 

Woojin chucked, wiping a bit of toothpaste foam of Jeonign’s chin. “I was trying to draw the grave and a camera.”

 

Jeongin laughed at the ridiculousness of it and his hyung’s antics. “It looked like a duck and a canoe!”

 

“Hm” Woojin agreed light-heartedly. “I was never very good at charades.”

 

The pair lapsed into a comfortable silence and Jeongin unabashedly rested his head on Woojin’s strong chest.

 

“Innie” Woojin started and Jeongin grunted to let the elder know he was listening. The elder paused. “It was really good you didn’t lie to them out there.”

 

Jeongin furrowed his brow and lifted his head of the elder’s chest so he could look at his hyung’s face. “What do you mean? I basically did, I… I didn’t say who he was, or why I was there or anything,”

 

“No,” Woojin stated. “But you didn’t make something up about a grandma or something. You just said you didn’t want to talk about it, and that’s something everyone can understand. I’m… proud of you for that. If something like this happened a few months ago, I can’t honestly say I’d think you would have done the same thing as you did tonight.”

 

Jeongin bit his lip, taken aback by the sincerity of Woojin’s words.

 

“T-Thank you, Hyung. I - I don’t think I could say the same thing about my past self either,”

 

“Well, if anything it’s good some saesang fan decided to take a photo of you beside a headstone and post it all over the internet to expose you today then, isn’t it?”

 

Jeongin couldn’t stop a laugh from bubbling out of his throat and he curled up next to Woojin again.

 

“Yeah, hyung, I guess you’re right” Jeongin smiled, wondering how the hell something so negative could have been turned into something slightly positive, and feeling slightly proud of himself too. “I’m glad it happened today too.”

 

 

As he scrolled through the comments under their latest variety show, Jeongin expected the worst. Last time he had done such a deep dive into STAY’s words, even translating ones from other languages into Korean, he had basically given himself an eating disorder. So, it was safe to say that he had gone in with a steeled mind and a stone heart.

 

What he read shocked him.

 

       <i.n looks so handsome! he rly glowed up from pre-debut and a few months ago like im shook>

 

       <Innie looks so healthy! Like before he was waaaay to skinny but now he is so masculine>

 

       <Yang Jeongin looks very good – before he was just a sack of skin and bones and I was worried>

 

He felt a smile dance on his lips. They liked him. STAY thought he looked handsome and better than before when he barely ate.

 

       <Innie and Felix look healthier than before. Last year they literally looked close to the grave like idol industries is so bad on mental health. But they both seemed like they’ve gained weight thank god. Love my biases. :)>

 

Like the comment says., Felix also looks better compared to before. I think this year we’ve both improved.

 

“Innie! Have you finished all your homework?” Seungmin’s call came through the wall. Jeongin threw his phone back on his desk and turned to his English vocabulary list he had a test for the next day, guilty to be almost caught-in-the-act.

 

“Yeah?” he replied and finished writing the final words quickly.

 

Seungmin burst through the door of the bedroom, the noon light masking the bedroom in a cool and serene light.

 

“Lixie-hyung and I are going to get some coffee. Everyone else has stuff on, so you want to come with?”

 

Jeongin nodded, rolling his wheelie-desk-chair away from his English homework with a sigh, grateful for the escape. “Yeah, hyung, I could use a break.”

 

“Alright, get your shoes on. Felix-hyung is paying!”

 

Five minutes later the three were walking down the streets of Seoul, clad in facemasks and caps, with the destination of their local café in mind. At first Jeongin had wanted to suggest ‘A Bitter Draught,’ but it was too far too walk and there was a small part of him that wanted that to be his and Jeongsan’s, or his and Woojin’s special place.

 

“Where’s everyone else? It’s a Wednesday night – usually we don’t have too much stuff on…” Jeongin frowned as they walked down the street.

 

“Hyunjin and Woojin have make-up vocal lessons because their teacher was away yesterday” Felix informed nonchalantly. “And Changbin just messaged me – he’s in the studio with Channie-hyung.”

 

Jeongin counted the members on his fingers. Seven. “Well, where is Jisung-hyung and Minho-hyung?”

 

“Uh-” Seungmin coughed and Jeongin bit his lip at the elder’s tense expression. “Jisung is getting re-tested for his anxiety or something. To see if he needs meds or not. Minho went for support.”

 

“Oh,” Jeongin replied dumbly, feeling slightly bad he didn’t even know that Jisung was getting examined today.

 

Soon enough, however, his guilt faded as Felix started to energetically chat about his latest plush toy, a topic that Jeongin always found amusing, and even slightly inspired by – the elder wasn’t even slightly covert or embarrassed about the mountain of stuffed animals on his bed.

 

Jeongin didn’t think he would be so open about it if he liked something viewed as childish. Not to the fans. Not to his friends.

 

The three ended up at a café with red, seventies-style retro booths, that specialised in strawberry milkshakes. The three of them squeezed into one booth, with him squished comfortably in the middle. He fought the glee that bubbled up inside of him when Felix chose the milkshake without a second glance. Jeongin picked a slice of cheesecake and some tea.

 

“It’s really great you two,” Seungmin started when their food and drinks came. Jeongin jumped up in surprise at being addressed. “It’s really great of you both.”

 

Jeongin watched as Felix beamed, his freckles like stars on his cheeks. “Thanks, Minnie,” the boy’s deep voice drifted through the café, the purple neon lights making his eyes look like a galaxy. “I think we’re all pretty great.”

 

“Yeah,” Jeongin agreed teasingly, taking another bite of his cheesecake. “I think so too.”

 

The three sat in a comfortable quiet for a few moments, each enjoying their food or drink and listening to the lullaby of muted chatter around them.

 

“Innie, do you remember when we lived in that huge dorm room together? When you first arrived as a trainee?”

 

Jeongin nodded, taking a sip of his tea.

 

“Do you remember Woongie-hyung? He just messaged me out of the blue yesterday”- he debuted with a group at the start of the year! Honestly I had completely forgotten he had existed – I felt so bad!”

 

“Jeon Woong-hyung? Yeah, I already knew he debuted with a group under YG… It’s crazy how times have changed, huh? All three of us made it,”

 

“I’m glad we made it” Felix butted in and Jeongin looked away from Seungmin to meet his hyung’s eyes. “Us nine, Stray Kids.”

 

“It would have been strange if you and Minho-hyung weren’t in the final team…” Jeongin pondered, feeling like the group wouldn’t have been complete without Felix’s deep rapper voice or Minho’s beautiful and powerful dance.

 

“I there was even one person less, I feel like the group wouldn’t even be the same” Seungmin said lightly.

 

Jeongin winced, hiding it by taking another bite of his cheesecake, thinking of Woojin’s wishes.

 

‘Just be thankful for the now. The group is nine, and you’re sitting here with two of your closest friends’ his mind supplied and Jeongin embraced his thought, pushing his future problems to the side.

 

“I love you guys” he whispered, the celestial lighting of the retro booth matching the spiritual nature of his confession.

 

“Hey…” Felix crooned, sliding closer to the youngest. Jeongin felt his lip wobble under the aesthetic lighting and quickly buried his head into Seungmin’s shoulder to hide his embarrassment. “We love you too.”

 

“I-I know” he choked out, his ears and cheeks red and his breath hot against Seungmin’s collared shirt. “It’s just-” he buried himself into the darkness. “I haven’t told you guys anything about me. How can you love me when I’ve been so… secretive since you met me?”

 

“Hey,” Seungmin suddenly drew away as if offended and the light hit Jeongin with full force, exposing his red cheeks. “We do love you, Innie. And we trust that if you have been a bit… quiet about a few things, it’s for a reason.

 

“And you have told us stuff!” Felix punched Jeongin’s left shoulder lightly. “Remember? At that café in Paris?”

 

Jeongin froze at the way Seungmin’s thigh tensed beside his own, rigid at being left out of the loop.

 

Felix just took another sip of his milkshake, seemingly not having noticed the tension between the younger pair.

 

Seungmin’s whisper was as light, but hollow, as a ghost’s breath. “What… What happened in Paris?”

 

Jeongin bit his lip and ignored the way Felix choked, finally having realized the weight behind his innocent question.

 

“Uh-” the Australian struggled. “We – We just talked about, you know, our shitty eating habits and everything-”

 

“No, hyung” Jeongin cut in, his stomach twisting around nervously. “I…I want to tell him too.”

 

The trio were so quiet even the whirring sound of the coffee machine in the kitchen could be heard in the distance.

 

“Seungmin-hyung… I know maybe this is a bit… unexpected, but I hope you don’t think of me any different to how you did before, and if you need time or something… it’s… okay” Jeongin started habitually fiddling with his fork. “But… I’ve known this for a while, and it’s uh – I… like boys, like… like like boys… and uh- girls too, but…”

 

Jeongin trailed off as Seungmin stayed quiet, his mouth opening like clown’s in a carnival game.

 

“S-Seriously?” Seungmin spluttered, almost knocking over his vanilla milkshake in his haste. Jeongin nodded unsurely.

 

Seungmin turned away, his eyes wide in awe. “T-That’s great Innie! I mean, not great – I mean, uh- I will always support you no matter what. I have been an ally of the LGBTQIA-plus community for a while now, and I’m really glad you found the courage to come out to me, Jeongin.”

 

Jeongin laughed, the cheesecake tasting sweeter than ever in his mouth. “Thanks, hyung. It makes me really happy that you accept me and still like me and stuff-”

 

“I could never not-like you Jeongin! You are my only little brother in the team!” Seungmin wrapped his arms around Jeongin in a humongous supportive hug. “Who would a mercilessly tease without you there? Who would I force to get me my teabags from Minho’s cupboard?”

 

“Oh, great – all I am to you is a maid” Jeongin grumbled and grinned cheekily when Seungmin pouted from the younger twisting his words.

 

“No, Innie. You’re much, much more – you’re a brother to me.”

 

 

Jeongin held the elder’s gaze and reached out his hand until the two interlocked fingers, the action showing more than words ever could.

 

“Oh!” Felix exclaimed, breaking the moment just a bit. “Binnie just messaged me, Jisung finished his evaluation and Woojin’s buying chicken to celebrate, so they want us back at the dorm.”

 

“I see you’ve dropped the honorifics with Changbin-hyung, eh?” Seungmin asked suggestively and Jeongin snorted loudly, eyes wide, at the elder’s insinuation.

 

It took another moment for Felix to get it too.

 

“S-Shut up!” the freckled boy blushed violently, hitting Seungmin’s arm daintily repeatedly. “It’s not like that! I mean it is- I meandamn it!” the Australian rushed away from the booth to pay, leaving the vocalists cackling evilly at the table.

 

“Hurry up” Felix demanded petulantly when he returned and Jeongin snickered as he grasped Felix’s small hand in his own.

 

“Hey,” he whispered teasingly to the shorter boy as they left the retro café into the cool night. “Can I do this or will Changbinnie-hyung get jealous?”

 

“Y-Ya! Not you too!” Felix gasped his face on fire. “Minnie, y-you’ve corrupted him!”

 

“Good one Innie!” Seungmin gave him a high five before taking his other hand so the three were connected again, with Jeongin in the middle.

 

“I seriously love you guys” Jeongin giddily admitted again, his eyes sparkling like the stars above.

 

“Well guess what?” Felix laughed. “We seriously love you too.”

 

“Me three!” Seungmin squawked out on instinct, then frowned, confused. “Wait what?”

 

Jeongin threw his head back as he skipped through the street, that was empty and lit only by their glee and flickering streetlights.

 

So together, the three who had all claimed to be ‘seriously in love’ with each other, danced back to the dorm, the promise of fried chicken fuelling them on, hand in hand. And the whole time, Jeongin never let go.

 

 

The trees were glittered with gold and orange leaves when he decided.

 

Today. It has to be today.

 

Why today? A Sunday in the middle of September that has no special meaning or attachment to it? Jeongin didn’t know. But as soon as he opened his eyes, the thought came to him.

 

Today. It will be today.

 

So, all through vocal warm-ups, dance practice, and even just being near one of his friends, he felt nervous.

 

In an attempt to combat it, he messaged his friends – Byungjun, Jaesook and Kyunghwa of the ‘Busan bois’ group chat. They sent him heart emojis and kind words but it didn’t still his trembling fingers.

 

He called his father during the five-minute dance break, and although his parents were supportive, his mother yelling a quick ‘good luck Jeonginnie! You can do it!’, his stomach kept performing the world’s best acrobatic act, by somersaulting and making him feel nauseous every three seconds.

 

There was only one way to stop it. Stop that, and in addition the worm that burrowed into his heart, eating it like it was merely a rotten apple every time he told a lie, then covered it with another lie, and then another.

 

He couldn’t take it anymore.

 

He had to try and fix it, fix his mistakes and the lies and secrecy, and pre-emptively mend the relationships with his eight best friends and teammates that would shatter like a plate if even one of them found out the truth.

 

I’ve already turned to the people in my life in Busan, but they are hours away. They can’t help me now, not with this seemingly impossible task of tearing down the very thing I spent years building up.

 

It’s just me.

 

“Innie? You good?” Chan asked from across the dinner table and Jeongin nodded soundlessly back.

 

“Are you going to eat?” Minho pointed a chopstick at the pile of rice on his plate and Jeongin nodded again, despite the way his dry throat and aching stomach protested.

 

He glanced weakly towards Woojin and the elder caught his eye.

 

I’m going to tell them’ his eyes screamed. Woojin didn’t seem to understand and frowned, his eyes asking a worried question.

 

Jeongin shrugged him off, knowing he wasn’t got to get anywhere through silent charades, which the vocalist had already admitted he was terrible at. The dinner ended too soon, with Jeongin only managing to force down two bites. He glanced out the window, watching as the sun disappeared and the stars glimmer.

 

There was no use delaying it, the inevitable.

 

So, with a shaky voice, he begun.

 

“Hey guys?” he asked his voice cracking immediately. He swallowed and forced himself to stand straight. “Can we talk?”

 

Jeongin watched in his peripheral as Woojin almost dropped all the dishes, finally realising what was about to happen. He barely heard the others as they spoke and with his vision already blurring in slight panic, he made himself suck in another deep breath.

 

I’m doing it. Now. I’m not going to break my New Year’s Resolution, my promise, not this time.

 

“Innie, are you feeling alright?” Jisung asked and Jeongin bit his lip.

 

No.

 

“Um, kinda” he laughed nervously, the high-pitched sound echoing of the living room walls. It hurt his own ears. “Can…can we all just sit down for a minute? I um- want to tell you guys some stuff.”

 

It was too soon before Jeongin was sitting on the living room floor, the coffee table pushed to one side, with eight concerned eyes staring at him.

 

It was time.

 

“What do you want to talk to us about today, Innie?” Chan asked quietly, his eyes soft.

 

Jeongin took another deep shuddering breath. “Um… I just… want to tell you some uh- stuff about myself. I-I think its uh… around time.”

 

The room went completely silent.

 

“A-Are you sure?” Hyunjin stammered, showing the rest of the member’s shock.

 

Jeongin nodded, not trusting himself to speak. “Yeah… I want to.”

 

He clenched his fists tight, feeling his nails start to sink into the soft skin of his palms, and heaved in another breath, willing himself not to panic, or back out.

 

“Breathe, Innie, it’s okay” Seungmin’s calming voice drifted over him and he felt the elder’s hand take him, turning the fist into an open palm.

 

He closed his eyes.

 

“As you know” he began, his voice trembling with emotion. “I haven’t really been that open with you all about my childhood… evident through Jeongsan and stuff. And I know you guys have been thinking and talking about it or whatever and I used to feel… terrible that I have… hidden everything. So, I want to let it all out. Today. Right now.”

 

Minho was quiet. “O-Okay, we’re all here for you-”

 

“And you can stop at any time” Jisung rushed on, leaning towards him. “If you’re not comfortable, you can stop, we won’t judge you or anything, right everyone?”

 

The other seven, apart from Woojin nodded, to which Changbin noticed.

 

“Hyung?” the rapper frowned, leaning pensively towards the elder, his tone holding a tone of challenging. “Don’t you agree?”

 

Woojin looked surprised and caved in on himself when seven glares were directed towards him. He glanced towards Jeongin meekly. “Well, uh-”

 

“He knows” Jeongin admitted and he ignored Hyunjin’s sharp intake of breath opposite from him. “I- I told him already.”

 

“Wha-What?” Jisung spluttered his eyes wide from across the circle. “He- He knows?”

 

“Yeah,” Jeongin confessed shakily. “I told him after Jeongsan came here.”

 

The nine were quiet for a second and Jeongin prepared himself.

 

“I’ve never wanted you guys to come to Busan with me before, because… because when I was a younger, my Eomma… she wasn’t a very good person to us at all.”

 

He paused as Seungmin’s breath stilled. Felix took his other hand.

 

“She used to… yell at us, Jeongsan, Jeongwoo, my uh- Dad, and I” Jeongin continued, squeezing Felix’s hand. “And uh- when I was seven, my Dad left us and…” He paused, trailing off, and looked down at his lap.

 

“Innie?” Minho asked warily.

 

He swallowed. “He – He died a few months later.”

 

He watched as everyone’s face soured up, like they all ate a lemon. Hyunjin started to cry.

 

“Oh,” Felix blurted out, his eyes watering. “I’m sorry-”

 

“It’s fine” Jeongin cut off, feeing bad when his voice came out harsher than intended. “I-I mean, it’s okay, I… go to his grave sometimes, it’s not too far from here-”

 

He broke off as Hyunjin’s cries turned to sobs and he watched as Woojin hugged the younger. He felt a lump form in his throat, and he tightened his grasp on Seungmin’s hand tighter so it would stop shaking.

 

“What… happened next?” Chan asked meekly.

 

“Well, after a while we all got taken away by protection services, but because my Eomma had to go to rehab, and my Appa well… wasn’t around, we all got split into different orphanage-group-home type things.”

 

He paused again. “I got adopted just before I turned nine hence my name change,” he said, leaving out his shitty foster home experiences. “And my family, my… new one I guess, are great – my Dad loves gardening and old music and my Mother’s always there for me, they’re great and well, they… adopted me and whatever and… yeah.”

 

Jeongin bit down on his lip to stop his tears that were forming quickly in the corner of his eyes, half from hearing Hyunjin, and now Felix’s cries, and half from the relief that he had finally done it.

 

“I-” he started, his voice coming out in a thick wet sob. “At the start of this year, I made a New Year’s Resolution” he smiled the memory of snow, and early busses and the amazing parts of Busan. “It was to speak, to tell you guys about everything, my – my adoption, my Eomma, my eating disorder, my childhood, and – and now that it’s done, I just feel so… light.”

 

“Light?” Jisung questioned. “Light how?”

 

Jeongin laughed, feeling a tear slide down his cheekbone. “When I was younger… sometimes I felt a sadness, so strong, it – it was like a worm in my heart, something eating at me my whole life for being a bad brother or a bad person… and… the whole time I lied to you guys it felt like it was getting worse, like I was getting heavier or something.”

 

“I know how you feel,” Changbin sighed, leaning into Chan’s side. “That heaviness… I have it too.”

 

And… my Mum” Felix started in English. “You guys know I don’t have the best relationship with her, and to this day I still don’t really know whether I should forgive her or not… I still think it’s pretty… childish that I have a grudge against her…”

 

“It’s not” Woojin comforted, Hyunjin still crying on his shoulder. “It’s okay.”

 

Jeongin frowned in thought. “It’s good” he squeezed the other boy’s smaller hand. “You… still have time to ya’ know, to make up with her.”

 

Felix was quiet, thoughtful, for a second. “You’re right, I’ll- I’ll call her tomorrow.”

 

“Jeongin,” Chan said, his eyes both watery and bright. “T-Thank you… for telling us.”

 

“Yeah,” Seungmin agreed, his eyes sparkling in the dim light. “It’s really brave of you.”

 

“Did you…” Changbin started hesitantly. Jeongin turned towards the rapper. “Did you go to therapy for it? Do you need to now?”

 

Jeongin shrank back at the invasive question. “N-No” he stammered, retreating into himself, suddenly self-conscious. “I don’t need it.”

 

Everyone in the living room tensed up. Then, Minho began.

 

“It’s good sometimes, everyone needs someone to talk to and there’s no harm in-”

 

“No,” Jeongin growled adamantly, his mother’s past words, ‘getting’ help is bein’ weak anyway’ taunting him. “I’m fine.”

 

Chan sighed, a deep and heavy sigh. It made him feel like he had done something wrong. Again.  “Okay, Innie, that’s okay.”

 

“Yeah” Jisung said, his voice high pitched. “It’s okay, you – you can always talk to us whenever you need, alright?”

 

Jeongin bit his lip, letting go of Felix’s and Seungmin’s hands. “Yeah, alright.”

 

“I think this calls for celebration of a sort” Woojin clapped his hands, breaking the silence. “Fried chicken?”

 

Jeongin smiled at his teammates, feeling the most at peace he had in years. “Yeah. Hyung. Let’s get some fried chicken.”

 

 

Three days later, on a Friday, the nine of them had a real celebration, something a little more powerful and meaningful than some deliciously greasy fried chicken.

 

When Chan had asked him what he wanted to do, Jeongin had already had his answer – a day at Han River, just like his seven-year-old-self had dreamed of.

 

Management had convinced his school to give him a day off despite the many exams and Yang Jeongin was thankful for it.

 

That morning as he had woken up curled between Jisung and Minho, he had messaged the ‘Busan Bois’ group chat a thank you message for sticking by him and a smiley-face.

 

Unexpectedly, Jeongsan had sent him a message too – ‘Hey little bro! Meet up soon? I’ll be in Seoul next month – it would be good to see you.’ Jeongin had messaged back, then sent a message to Jeongwoo too, knowing the younger would open it when he was awake.

 

Today’s going to be a good day Jeongin thought, eating Felix’s Australian cereal. I can just feel it.

 

“Everyone let’s go, let’s go!” Chan clapped, storming into the kitchen two dimples on resting on his cheeks. “We’re leaving in five!”

 

“Hyunjin’s not even out of bed” Changbin laughed, sitting next to him, also eating Felix’s cereal.

 

“If we get out of here in five minutes” Minho snorted, biting into his apple from the other side of the coffee table. “I’ll buy both of your lunches for the next week.”

 

“I’ll take that deal” Jeongin snickered, finishing his last spoonful. “I have faith.”

 

“Yeah,” Changbin agreed. “Me too.”

 

Miraculously, Hyunjin managed to shower, change, eat breakfast and brush his teeth in Chan’s allocated time-period, so Minho was a few thousand won in debt to both of them.

 

Soon enough all nine of them were walking out of the dorm and to Han River.

 

He walked down the labyrinth of streets with his best friends feeling lighter than ever.

 

“How ya’ feeling?” Felix slung an arm over his shoulder, making his stumble slightly as they walked.

 

“Good” Jeongin replied, a smile gracing his lips. “Really good, actually.”

 

Felix grinned back at him, his freckles looking like constellations on his cheeks, his cheeks that looked less hollow than they had in ages.

 

“I’m so excited!” Hyunjin squealed, skipping along the pavement, arm-in-arm with Seungmin. “I love Han River!”

 

Jeongin snorted at his hyung’s overly-thrilled actions and leaned into Felix’s shoulder.

 

“Me too.”

 

The nine of them walked together, stopping firstly at a convenience store to buy ice-creams, then at the chemist for band-aids when Hyunjin scraped his knee trying to click his heels (all of them cackled at that, well, except Hyunjin of course.)

 

When they arrived at Han River Jeongin felt his breath leave him. It was beautiful. The water’s surface was shimmering, glimmering as it reflected the sun’s warming rays, and the autumn leaves drifted down alluringly, like it was drawing him into the sublime, the elegant nature.

 

The sun felt warm on his skin, and the soft breeze biting him, keeping him feeling truly alive. Truly blessed.

 

Truly lucky.

 

“How are you feeling?” Jisung asked, repeating Felix’s previous question.

 

Jeongin beamed at the elder boy. “Happy.”

 

Jisung laughed at that, the sound a little tight in his throat. Jeongin followed his gaze to Woojin’s broad back. The eldest was preparing the picnic rug with Seungmin and Chan. “Well,” Jisung said, the tone almost melancholic. “That’s the most important thing.”

 

Jeongin turned away, his heart tugging down slightly. Don’t think about that now. We’re all here.

 

With another affectionate look towards his friends he walked towards the river’s edge, the sound of water gently lapping at his feet, calming his body, and lightening his spirits.

 

“You good, Innie? The picnic’s ready!” Chan’s call came from behind him.

 

“I’m alright!” he called back, his gaze still trained on the ever-moving, ever-changing river. “Just give me a minute!”

 

He smiled softly when he realised he had spoken a complete, and honest truth.

 

I’m happy he stared into the river, his mind swirling with thoughts and emotions. I kept my promise, my friends know about my past and I… I feel okay.

 

He bathed in the noon sunlight for another second, thinking about his life; cat claws and dog kennels and neon ceiling stars and failed tests and singing in the car and dancing with his three friends back in Busan. He remembered moving to Seoul and meeting each one of his best friends, his crushes on half of them, his hope when he was given the chance to achieve his dream of debut and then capturing it.

 

He thought of everything that happened this year, at eighteen; trips back home, New Year Resolutions, interviews and comebacks and photoshoots, parades, fights, confessions and hope. One year before he would turn nineteen, Jeongsan’s only dream, be a legal adult and have his mother try and contact him.

 

The feeling of something drifting into his hand made him startle, his eyes snapping down to his fingers.

 

When he saw it, his eyes widened.

 

It was beautiful – large, perfectly symmetrical, was a golden-orange colour with bright red tips.

 

Just like before.

 

Jeongin sucked in the crisp late-September air and felt his hand curl around the autumn leaf, just like it had started to all those years ago.

 

He waited for the sickening crunch, the grating sound of bone snapping like it had when he was seven and the hallowing sound of cars crashing like when he was nine, but it never came.

 

He looked down at the leaf again. It rested gently in his slightly convex palm, unharmed and whole. The colour of fire against a stark palm, it memorised him, it enchanted him, it endured him.

 

He hadn’t destroyed it.

 

Jeongin let a smile creep onto his face, and he didn’t know how, but he felt his eight members’ presence behind him, at his back, just like they had always been.

 

The leaf shifted in the breeze, tickling his hand, begging to be fly with the wind once more.

 

So, he uncurled his palm and let it free.