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Monday the 5th

 

 

 

 

6:00AM — 502.5FM

 

 

« Good morning, friends. From the media & communication lab of Neul Paran High School, Blue Dawn Radio is starting now. It’s our first broadcast of the new year. As time goes by and we become newer versions of ourselves, I hope we can embrace this growth excitingly.

[sniff] I’m Kim Jonghyun and today I’m starting my last year at Neul Paran, and my last year with Blue Dawn as well. You know that [chuckle] I’m already sentimental about this, right? I think it’s seen as a weird satisfaction by other people, but it makes me feel accomplished to help my classmates find their comfort on the way to school. To me, the morning commute is a moment when I’m empty-minded and suddenly all the stress from the coming day starts to invade my brain. It’s very important to have this moment to start my day feeling light and confident. And it’s crazy that it can be good for others too, every time someone says Blue Dawn helps them, I really get... emotional... [sigh]

Even though we’re coming from different places all across the city, taking different transportations, going through our own personal troubles and feelings... I think Blue Dawn is a space where we can be in regardless of our situations. A mental space, that we can all share together.

I wish Blue Dawn can be a safe space for us to take a break and be ourselves this year. »

 

 

 

8:07AM — Neul Paran High School, gymnasium

 

 

“– Our much honoured, retired founder Lee Sooman-nim, Psychology of Education PhD, travelled the world for fifteen years to, through conferences, workshops, coaching and administration, take the know-how of the most well-educated nation in the planet to improve over ten countries–”

Taemin didn’t know there would be a speech. He’s hopeless to make any sense of all the clauses and commas Principal Han uses and the more Taemin can’t understand, the less he can pay attention to it. If someone asked him to go mop the floors outside right now, he would run for it in a blink, just to have a way out of this.

 “–while Korean education is a global standard, he met nations with shockingly different systems that succeed with a unique approach–”

He wonders how the entire gymnasium can take this – standing still to listen to boring stuff must have been a form of prisoner torture some time. As Taemin looks around at his classmates, they’re all pretty much staring blankly at the front, some playing with their bracelets, some biting their nails. A phone can be spotted here and there – Taemin is empty-pocketed, since his parents will only let him take his phone out if he gets good grades this year. He bites and sucks on his cheek, kicking his feet frustratedly.

“–the power of collaborative independent learning – and Lee Sooman-nim decided to it bring back home thirteen years ago to take Korean education to its next global level–”

All the loose flesh on Taemin’s fingertips is chewed out by now, the top button of his shirt popped in and out a thousand times, and he’s already thought in depth about how it was to live before the lamp was invented. He is playing ‘Bang Bang Bang’ in his head and trying to groove as minutely as possible when the teacher by his left grabs his shoulder.

“Kid,” calls the man, “What’s up with you?”

The boy startles and turns to look up to the teacher. Big eyes are staring him down with annoyance through dark bangs – he’s rather young but Taemin is sure he was introduced as his class’s homeroom teacher earlier.

“Hum.” His eyes roam around as he thinks of how to explain himself, with an awkward smile. They keep silence as he bounces from foot to foot for some seconds.

“–that cultivates not only our students’ brains, but also their hearts. To unite Korean tradition with the best of worldwide education, for a Korean youth who can become global citizens–”

“Do you need to go to the restroom?” the teacher asks impatiently, signalling to the boy’s overall shiftiness.

“Oh, yes, teacher-nim,” Taemin perks up instantly.

He is lucky enough to be presented not just with an opportunity to leave but to do something really fun, which is lying. Making his legs bounce a little more, he looks back to the teacher seriously. “Can I–”

The teacher hits his temple with his fingertips.

“You should’ve gone before this started,” the man whines it in a way that has Taemin asking himself if he’s being scolded or teased. “Don’t be so impolite.”

The sunlight is shining on and off the teacher’s white staff tag and it keeps catching his eye. Taemin watches it and wonders what they would do if it started raining right now since the gymnasium is all open, until the letter markings come to focus by chance.

‘Staff: Kim Heechul. English Department.’ Taemin’s eyebrows shoot up with an idea.

“Mr. Kim,” he starts with a sweet smile this time. The teacher frowns at him suspiciously. “May I please have... permission to go to the bathr– restroom?

He doesn’t give up on a beaming proud face even as the man once-overs him grumpily.

“Ah, what a snobby kid,” Mr. Kim sighs dramatically. Taemin jumps from foot to foot, victorious. “You’ve won my heart. Go on, go on.”

He slaps the boy’s back to get him moving and Taemin shoots to practically skip out of there, still managing to turn and bow in the middle of his sprint.

“Be back on this spot in five minutes, Lee Taemin!”

Taemin signals okay with both hands, mind already running on a story about jammed doors and missing toilet paper to use later.

 

 

 

8:15AM — Jinki’s phone

 

 

[me]:

oh my god i want to die

was it this long last year?

 

[jonghyunie]:

why is the school’s goodie two shoes on his phone rn?

 

[me]:

im a goodie two shoes?

youre the attendance record of the entire school

 

[jonghyunie]:

i only do it for the radio, you know it

 

[me]:

i listened to it today

 

[jonghyunie]:

{blushing}

 

[me]:

your voice style is changing a lot

it rly sounded like true asmr today

 

[jonghyunie]:

i sounded like asmr???

 

[me]:

i thought that’s what you were going for

 

[jonghyunie]:

asmr....... why....

{upset}

 

[me]:

i think its your style ^^

 

[jonghyunie]:

i dont want to make the students sleep when they listen to me

the time to fall asleep is during class

{pouting}

 

[me]:

kkkkk

 

[jonghyunie]:

you’re friends with everyone

why do you mssg me to fix your boredom and then just mock me

 

[me]:

i dont want my friends to get in trouble for texting

 

[jonghyunie]:

and what about me????

 

[me]:

youre already used to it

troublemaker kim

 

[jonghyunie]:

{shock}

 

 

 

8:29AM — Year 12 Class 5 at Neul Paran High School

 

 

“This is your fault, brat!” Jonghyun shouts through the open door when he peeks Jinki passing by.

The boy stops and turns, startled. He looks into the classroom and finds Jonghyun standing by the back wall, arms sticking up straight towards the ceiling. His friend’s trying to stare him down with the darkest grumpy face he can muster in such situation.

Jinki laughs at him. He managed to slip his phone into his sleeve as Teacher Choi-nim walked by, but being such an air-head, Jonghyun obviously wouldn’t be able to pull off something like that even if given a whole hour for it.

“Does you good,” teases Jinki, “If you stretch a little more you might grow another centimetre!”

“We’re the same height, idiot!” the other shoots back.

Jinki leaves to his classroom still smirking at Jonghyun’s angry eyebrows, but he’ll certainly buy a strawberry milk apology for him later.

“I think you should be proud, Jonghyun-ssi,” one classmate teases as she walks past to her desk. “You’re the earliest punished student in the history of Korea.”

Jonghyun thinks back to the moment the teacher snatched his phone away. The screen read 8:18AM – eighteen minutes into the school year has got to be a record somewhere. He groans, clenching his tingly fingers in the air, and shuts his eyes tight to wait for the teacher while ignoring his current reality.

 

 

 

7:02PM — Key’s bedroom

 

 

Key’s phone starts ringing right as he drops his backpack in his room. At first, he frowns curiously at Nicole’s selfie on display in the incoming video-call, then his heart clenches. He rushes through the motions of taking off his outer layer and falling on the bed to pick it up worriedly.

Is everything okay?” is the first thing he says as soon as the call starts, his wide eyes taking up all of his corner of the display.

On screen, Nicole is lying with her face mushed on the pillow, hair everywhere. The stark light of the device in her dark room makes the image monochrome and grainy.

What’s with this face...” she giggles sleepily and spits out some hair. “Do I look like a witch with this bedhead?”

Key sighs, relieved to see his friend is alright, despite calling in what’s clearly the dead of night in California. As his muscles relax, he moves to a more comfortable position on the bed.

You always look like a witch. Isn’t it like... late for you?” he asks, hesitantly. So far, he’s been embarrassingly confused at understanding time zones. “I mean, I don’t know, I texted Charlie happy birthday on the wrong date just now.And sent his gift through PayPal; the brat didn’t even say anything until after.

It’s just past three in the morning,” the girl yawns with a cute smile. “You know I had to check up on your first day, bub.

Key purses his lips disapprovingly, but his heart is actually throbbing warmly.

Go to sleep, you’re crazy.

That just makes Nicole laugh, hushed.

We all know you stayed up until ass o’clock for months to talk to us, Key.

He pouts because it’s true. Since moving back to Korea last September, Key had been essentially living on a double time zone. Constantly jet-legged over trying to keep up with a Korean-timed schedule while being awake at odd hours to have a British-timed, virtual social life – and it got a little worse when Nicole moved back to the States. Now he’s had to adapt back into a regular life to attend school and really doesn’t know how he’ll keep up with his friends from now on. That’s something he doesn’t want to think about yet.

That’s because I’m crazy too,” Key settles for answering, and it comes out a little gloomy.

Is that your uniform?” Nicole gasps suddenly, eyes widening.

Key checks his screen image and twists his head to the navy-lined, aqua green atrocity that is his school jacket hanging on the wall. He turns back with a sad grimace.

Oh my God, it’s so ugly,” giggles the girl, a little pitifully.

Key nods sombrely, eyes shut tight.

Nicole has been his best friend from day one in London, back when her incomplete first-generation Korean was the only communication Key could get without hand signals. For his entire adolescence they’ve been as close and confidant of each other as it gets. She even delayed her leave to the United States for them to stay together and only went back when he did, too.

She knows him better than anyone and can read him with a glance, but still gives Key some ten seconds to admit it by himself before she probs:

So, it sucked, uh?” she whispers, empathetically. Her eyebrows dip down sadly.

Key grunts in agreement. Unsure of where to start, the two end up looking at each other through the screen in silence for a while. It feels comfortable like that between them. Her puffy face looks adorable even in the terrible lighting and he wishes he could be squishing his friend right now.

Now that he’s let his body sit still and relax, Key begins to realize it feels sore and worn out, even if all he did was sit on a desk all day. His head is a little drowsy too and he thinks he’ll take a nap before dinner.

I had forgotten how exhausting Korean school is,” Key sighs, fiddling with his earring. “And no one just transfers into the last year, everybody was staring at me.

They were probably looking at your hair,” Nicole tries to reassure, dismissively.

Key moves to straighten his bangs – great, another thing to get self-conscious of there. But he keeps pouting, unconvinced.

There’s a lot of people with dyed hair there,” he insists.

Alright, then they were looking at your sassy bitch attitude.

Nicole’s grin stretches at the pace Key’s eyes squint angrily.

My what? I’m hanging up.

He drops his phone face down on the comforter and can’t help but chuckle along Nicole’s muffled laughter.

You’re such a bluffer,” she says when he picks up the phone again. Her eyes roll. “Tell me about it.

The very first thing that happened was this girl telling me that coloured nails aren’t allowed,” Key starts to blurt out stressed, “They were, like, bright blue and I didn’t even remember! I had to scrape it off.” He sighs with an embarrassed grimace; he can’t believe he let himself wear nail polish to school. “And she was like, ‘pretty colour’. Then she asked to put me in the class’s LINE chatroom.

Nicole is just watching him ramble with wide eyes.

Well, that seems friendly–”

She probably told everyone the new guy is a queer,” Key shoots nervously, but then deflates. “Nobody talked to me the whole day.

The corner of Nicole’s lips tightens dubiously at his frown.

Knowing you, you probably didn’t talk to anyone either, right?” Key sighs and looks away; she bites her lip. “Bub, I think you’re doing that thing where you make things too negative because you’re scared.

They have the FaceTime equivalent of a stare-down for some moments. Nicole is right, but he can’t help but overthink everything in the anxious situation he’s in.

Honestly, I’m... really scared that I won’t make friends here,” Key ends up admitting after a while, voice small and meek.

I know you always feel like that but...” Nicole sighs and gives him a sweet look. “I mean, you are very shy but you’re so interesting. People always want to get to know you, and you’ll find people to be your friends. Even if you’re quiet and all.

Her voice is honest and earnest, but even though it warms Key’s chest to know his friend thinks that, it’s not enough to comfort him.

It’s not just that, Cole. It’s like a completely different reality here,” he starts, but then has to pause to gather his thoughts and make sense of this confusing feeling. How lost and inadequate he is in this strange city, much more than he ever was in London, eleven years old and all alone. “Maybe this doesn’t make sense, but it feels that I’m not as Korean as I used to be. I don’t know any more how to live in here, how I should act around people...

The anxiety Key’s been pushing to the back of his mind the entire day comes squeezing at his lungs and he curls up further on the bed, chewing on his lip.

Nicole shakes her head.

You don’t have to change yourself because of the country, Key,” she protests, “Just be yourself without worrying so much.

He scoffs so hard he rolls onto his other side.

‘Be yourself’, this is the most pathetic advice you’ve ever given me, and you know that.” He gives a hard stare to the girl through the camera, and Nicole chuckles to herself defeatedly. “If I’m just myself... I don’t know, I don’t know when people would find me weird or...

Key knows how to be himself back in England, the international student with strange fashion, a foxy personality, gay interests and friends who think he’s cool for all of it. In Korea, he doesn’t know where or how he fits in. All the codes and stares and streets and unsaid signals are unfamiliar and puzzling. Key walks on eggshells, unable to predict when he will be inappropriate or rejected. He became a foreigner in his own homeland.

Through the thoughtful pause he’s set, comes a distant voice from Nicole’s side of the call.

Nicole, are you on your phone again?!

The girl startles and the camera trashes around for a second as she pulls the covers over herself. He grimaces.

Sorry bub–”

It’s okay–”

Nicole is looking at him with big, apologetic eyes.

Love you,” she smiles softly.

Love you, Cole,” Key whispers back, but it may get lost as the connection cuts out.

He rolls onto his back, phone held to the middle of his chest. It’s clashing how seeing Cole can comfort and sting his heart all at once. Key swallows down a sad lump in his throat a couple times, staring blankly at the empty white of his ceiling. It’s unsettling – like the walls and floors, he should fill that up with something too.

‘Sleep well’, ‘thank you’, and ‘I really miss you’ all get left unsaid. Interrupted. That’s how things usually end up in his life.

 

 

 

 

 

Friday the 9th

 

 

 

 

5:43PM — Jonghyun’s phone

 

 

[taenguu]:

guys im so sorry

management extended the training tonight

i left the school running just now

 

[ming ming]:

no need to apologize

 

[hot soo]:

theyre rly some asses uh

dont feel bad about this

 

[me]:

hey we can go out still

after the training?

 

[hot soo]:

me and minho would be at the hagwon tho

 

[taenguu]:

i dont think itll end before 12 or 1 am..

 

[me]:

we’ll meet on the weekend then

we cant just ignore your birthday

 

[hot soo]:

lets party on the weekend

 

[taenguu]:

dont mind it

birthday isnt that important to me guys

 

[me]:

thats against our friendship rules

 

[ming ming]:

we’ll work it out, just do yr best ttaeng

 

[taenguu]:

weekends are very full in the agency but ill find time for it

thank you kids

sorry again

 

[me]:

we love you

[taenguu]:

 

 

 

 

Saturday the 10th

 

 

 

11:47AM — Male dressing room at Neul Paran High School

 

 

“Sit down.”

It’s the chill blankness of Minseok’s semblance that puts down the fire at once like a measly match under his fingers. All of sudden Minho feels like an awkward giant, his unreasonable fist clenched on the tiny captain’s shirt, his wild emotions ricocheting around the room stupidly.

He drops his hand like he just broke his mom’s crystals.

“Captain-nim I’m sorry I didn’t see what I was–”

“Choi Minho, sit down.”

Minseok’s face doesn’t hesitate at his words. Distinctly aware of his running heartbeat, Minho closes his eyes tight as he lowers onto the bench to not acknowledge all his teammates witnessing the scene in the dressing room. His shoulders tremble fighting the need to hit himself out of how frustrated and pathetic he is right now, so he settles for burying his face deep into his hands.

“You don’t touch me like that,” Minseok proceeds, and what stings the most is that he doesn’t sound even angry, just like the neutral and indisputable leadership he owns. His voice barely rises and it still resonates in the room. “You don’t touch your teammates like that either. And not anybody from any other team, so don’t let me see you doing that ever again.”

It really hadn’t been anything close to aggression when Minho grabbed onto the captain for attention, his mind running on the game’s adrenaline as he shouted out in his haste to get somebody to realize that kick had not been valid at all, and the goalie that time, and during that pass... But intentional or not, Minho was raised to have more respect for his seniors than that, and enough shame to drop his hands with a drag to say a formal, “I am very sorry.”

The rest of the team, although watchful, is keeping a respectful silence over the matter. Minseok sighs deeply, and taking opportunity in this break, Minho tries to continue, in a quieter tone:

“But really don’t you think my point stands that they shouldn’t have–”

“Do you ever think about yourself instead?” Minseok shoots back, and Minho whips his head up, shocked into silence. The captain keeps a hard stare on him but starts a short pace a few steps right and left, irritated. “Every match, every freaking match you get yourself all hot over everything that was wrong in it. You can’t go accusing other people at every loss, Minho.”

He stops, fills in another big sigh, and lowers himself with hands on knees to face the younger with an intense look.

“When you lose, you need to reflect on your own actions, on what you did and didn’t do that lead to this. We can’t control what the other team does, or our teammates, or what the referee thinks. We can only control our own actions and you need to accept every game will ever only depend on yourself.”

The bright sparkle on Minseok’s brown eyes is so honest that Minho isn’t sure if he feels scolded or enlightened in that moment. In any way, the fire knocking around inside of him is still hard to hold down and the captain’s strong stare into him is only stirring it worse. His teeth grit, and with a determined inhale, he turns his face back down, effectively ending the talk.

“Congratulations on the game today, guys,” Minseok straightens up and addresses the others with his usual cheerier tone, “You worked hard. Please take what I just said home for now and reflect on yourselves. We’ll leave this match to discuss in our practise on Wednesday when coach-nim is back.”

His head doesn’t lift to watch the captain greeting the team, or to find the colleagues that come to hesitantly tap his back in support. Minho only dares to move when the rustling of the dressing room around him somewhat subsides and he lays down on the bench with a defeated groan, throwing his own dirty towel over his face to block out the light and not even caring for the stench.

Minho lets the refreshing sound of the showers running as his teammates chat fill up his head, all the hustling emotions inside his body – the anger of injustice, the adrenaline of the game, the disappointment, his frustration with himself – eventually finding inertia to a lighter buzz. Breathing in and out steadily, arms and legs stretching out, he could even feel his body temperature going down by the degree, and the urge to hit his head back on the wood subdues for a while.

Within minutes, he is on the verge of a nap when he feels someone rip the towel from his head and whip it over his thighs. He shoots up straight on the bench with a hiss and receives the cloth back on his face from Minseok.

“When do you leave duties on Monday?” The captain still sounds serious, but not really any upset now.

Minho scrambles to get his phone from the backpack on the floor and checks his timetable; his class is on cleaning duty that day.

“Around 5:40PM.”

“Meet me at 6:30 on the small yard, hm? We gotta talk,” Minseok kicks at his foot gently but Minho is already laying back down, eyes closed and out of answers.

They just breathe in silence for a moment. The dressing room is terribly quiet around them and it seems like most of the others already left.

“You’re lucky Coach-nim isn’t here today, cause I was almost interdicting you from the team myself.”

Minho risks the smallest glance to the other but Minseok isn’t looking at him anymore; instead he has his hands on his hips, staring down at his shoes. He can’t see well through the other’s wet hair but Minseok looks almost sad to him.

When he catches movement, Minho quickly shuts his eyes again, and feigns indifference as he listens to the captain’s sigh and slow steps retreating away.

“Choi Minho,” he hears Minseok call, almost out of the door. He stares at the ceiling. “You worked hard.”

He waits until he can’t hear anything else in the room to move for the phone dropped on his belly. Opening LINE, he scrolls through a few rows of friends congratulating him on the match, and sighs at Taeyeon’s apology for not making it – she has to follow her mother to a business lunch and their celebration is going to be rescheduled again. At the very end of the line, a particular conversation that actually piques his interest.

 

[sooyoungie noona]:

this is a friendly match, what do you think youre doing?

i hope youre stalling because minseok-ssi is scolding you

you played very well today. you dont need to be acting like this, idiot..

 

Minho can’t help but chuckle at it. He can always trust Sooyoung to be straightforward and care for him. Through the years living next to each other, she’s become a noona he can speak comfortably with and swear, neither caring about their genders. It’s truly refreshing in the middle of those sweet congratulations.

 

[me]:

i fucked up

i know im right you SAW that goalie didnt you

how did they let it pass????

but captain-hyung wants to talk now

 

[sooyoungie noona]:

yes omg that goalie totally passed the limit there idgi..

you still acted like a baby 

 

[me]:

thanks for taking care of me noona

{kisses}

 

[sooyoungie noona]:

get ready already im waiting for you at the gates

we’re gonna do our chicken and cider since ttaeng isnt coming

and youre paying, for throwing a tantrum

 

[me]:

check

 

He exited the app feeling a little lighter and was about to drop his phone when he sees the red bubble on the KakaoTalk icon. He only has that app for one friend nowadays.

 

[jjong hyung]:

nice game minghoo

if only youd stop getting worked up over useless things..

just because youre right doesnt mean your form is

you did well, regardless of the outcomes

i know youll become a greater player this year

{thumbs up}

 

That’s the Jonghyun way to tell him to get a grip. Minho smirks at his phone as he types up his reply, but still a little giddy inside his chest.

 

[me]:

are you telling me you stayed awake this time?

thank you hyung

 

Jonghyun sends back a sticker that doesn’t make any sense to him but makes Minho smile anyway. Maybe his friends’ meanness was the little push he was looking for to stop sulking and head out to the showers.

At lunch, Minho is meek and embarrassed, and Jonghyun sits quietly by his side, his sulkiness making him drown inside his giant hoodie. He interacts with their conversation with small smiles and ‘yeah’s – the others know he’s troubled over Taeyeon missing out, even if they planned a celebration again for the evening.

The moment Minho makes it to complain about the game again, Sooyoung turns off her hearing ads, a little stunt that stopped being funny a couple years ago. They switch focus to discussing past and upcoming demonstrations in the Sports Saturday. While the football team may have lost, Sooyoung won by a slide among her taekwondo group, so they at least have something happier to rave about.

Minho keeps up a positive posture until they part on the subway, but between side-eyeing Jonghyun concernedly for the whole meal and the tension in his gut over the upcoming Monday, he can’t say he feels very genuine about it.

 

 

 

 

 

Sunday the 11th

 

 

 

 

9:16AM — Minho’s bedroom

 

 

Minho considers himself a simple man with a very simple life, and so his routine consists basically of two things: studying and football.

He trains at school at the biweekly team practises, after school when the gymnasium is free, and even plays a little with his teammates when he has time during lunch; on the weekends, he has family games with his mother and father, sometimes his brother when he’s visiting.

That would be his free time – otherwise, he’s either in class at school or at the hagwon late into the night. In the gaps, Minho studies alone in the classroom, in his room, in the subway and at the dinner table – he even puts English listening tests to play while he showers sometimes. Medicine is a very competitive career to choose, and he has sadly not been gifted with effortless intelligence like Jonghyun, who reaches the top of class every month by eating chips and playing video games all night long. Minho’s determined to get into SKY and nothing less, and he’s happy to have three sweet hours of sleep at night to achieve it.

He can tightly squeeze time for food and his family and friends in this hectic schedule, so it’s alright. Playing, studying. It’s a good, exhaustive life.

That means when one is out of reach, the other is all he has. Minho can’t afford the fleeting thought about football right now without hitting his nerves with yesterday’s match and tomorrow’s conversation. So, to keep himself on today, Minho takes a study day.

He sits by his desk at 7:00AM on the dot determined to not put his nose away from books until the late afternoon when he and his friends will finally, hopefully, go out to celebrate Taeyeon’s birthday. Except she messages to put it off a few hours, when he checks his phone on his mid-morning bathroom break, so he gets more time and another thing to worry about.

Jonghyun’s only reply on the chatroom is a dry ‘ok’ so Minho knows it’s going to get bad. As he goes back to his simulation chemistry questions, all he can think of is how his friend is probably listening to dark classical music by the window right now. Walking up to open the refrigerator every few minutes just to stare at that stupid mini cake again. Minho can sense the drop’s going to come soon; Jonghyun is too fragile to deal with disappointment like this.

His foot is jiggling anxiously as he wonders about his friend. It moves like it’s doing kick-ups and Minho thinks that might be a good way to let out his emotions instead of shouting, next time. Then, he wouldn’t be worrying about his upset captain because of dumb misbehaviour now.

While called ‘captain’ by the others, Minseok is really the director of their lab and can call for punishment of any member by their supervising teacher. Maybe Minho won’t get kicked out, but he could be interdicted from team activities for a while – he can’t bear the anxiety of such a frustration.

He’s been staring at a carbon molecule blankly for three minutes by now, and he’s thinking of football again. Minho face-plants on his notebook for the first of many nervous times through that day.

 

 

 

11:11PM — Jonghyun’s kitchen

 

 

The little frosted cake sitting in the box in the middle of the table is the most depressing sight Jonghyun has seen in his whole life.

Minho has pushed his chair a little away, only watching his friend quietly. He saw that Jonghyun slipped into his sentimental hole the second he dropped the phone on the table, Taeyeon’s message cancelling on them once again still blinking on the screen. It was the fifth time that weekend. There’s not much to do but be there next to him as the wave hits.

Taeyeon’s just busy, just having problems, it happens. That might be what Minho thinks but Jonghyun’s heart can always see further, broader, deeper. Nothing is ever so small; it grows on him because of everything it can be. Then comes terror.

They’re losing Taeyeon – that’s the only thought Jonghyun’s mind funnels into. He’s losing her and she’ll keep on disappearing more and more, then become a successful singer as she’s meant to be, then it’ll make her forever unhappy and lonely and there is nothing that Jonghyun can do about it because he’s nobody in the grand scheme of her universe. His arm stretches out completely in the direction of the cake, but his fingers don’t reach it, and he drops, arm and head and shoulders, on the table, defeated.

Jonghyun’s crying now, hyperventilating, and it’s completely unreasonable. And Minho knows that Jonghyun knows it is, so he doesn’t reassure or comfort him – the way his friend prefers to go through his emotions is naturally and by himself. Instead, Minho gets up to push the cake into his hands silently, rubbing Jonghyun’s skin carefully for a moment before letting go.

Any of his own uneasiness about the football team or his frustration with Taeyeon’s absence is long forgotten; Minho only worries about Jonghyun, sniffing, cheek pressed to the wood, one arm hugging the cake box close. Over the years, he’s tried to force himself to accept that he can’t change Jonghyun’s sentimental nature; but even as he holds back, the anger burns inside Minho that he can’t protect his friend’s soft heart.

Eventually Jonghyun raises his head, just enough to look into the little box. His gift has been waiting there for Taeyeon since Thursday night, moving around in his backpack here and there as the four tried to meet up. It might be a silly and ephemeral thing, but he didn’t have money for any respectable present and guessed his hard work would compensate for it.

Everything in it was thought out with love. Jonghyun made it blue velvet, because that’s Taeyeon’s favourite colour, (and his, too). The colour can’t be seen through the white frosting, and it would be a surprise when she cut into it. On the top there are four biscuits cut out into hearts, decorated in chocolate ganache. Scrolling through recipe after recipe on the internet, it took four tries to get the whole cake right. Jonghyun was so proud of it.

Useless. Three days and much handling around later, it only looks as pathetic and soggy as Jonghyun’s face right now. The frosting is flat and melted, two of the hearts broken up in the soaky mess, and it even looks a little dipped in on one side. It’s pointless to give it to her anymore. Jonghyun grips the box with both hands angrily, breathing out the want to smash it against the wall with his eyes close shut. He wishes the whole world would break down right then.

“Just eat it already, hyung, she’s not going to mind,” Minho finally insists, as kindly as he can.

If the object of hurt doesn’t exist for Jonghyun to fixate on anymore, his feelings might come to balance.

He picks up the mini cake with both hands and, biting directly into it, stuffs the blue into himself in bulk.

The batter is dry and airy, the sticky frosting tasting more like melted butter. It’s disgusting, and Jonghyun’s happy he didn’t give it to her after all.

 

 

 

 

 

Monday the 12th

 

 

 

 

12:21PM — Cafeteria at Neul Paran High School

 

 

That kid on the left-back corner of the cafeteria is starting to really bother Jinki. It’s the new boy in his class – the only new person in their year, which is why Jinki paid attention to him to start off. New students, especially in the twelfth year, tend to be a big hit; but this one greets everyone quiet and serious and seems to be always minding his own business. Alone, just like he walks in and sits every day for the entire first week during lunchtime.

Jinki heard that he looks like a bad boy, or a cool drama dude, when he asked some of his girl friends from class about him. That’s all probably the bleached hair. Jinki can’t really agree – that ‘arrogant’ stance on the boy’s face looks, to him, extremely introverted. Like he is the kind to feel left out in most situations. And apparently, he hasn’t even introduced himself to anybody yet.

Maybe Jinki has some sort of saviour complex but, as he debates over letting the boy find himself at his own time or bringing him under his wing, he keeps a lookout for his classmate whenever he can, which happens to mostly fall on lunchtime.

Today again, he walks in and confidently strides over to one of the single tables anybody barely uses in the corner. He seems at ease there, scrolling on his phone as he sips on his iced tea. Jinki has to admit, the dude does look kind of chic in these moments.

“Jinki? What’re you doing...?” Bora smiles at him funnily from his left. Jinki suddenly notices his hands are stuck around his lunchbox and he’s the only among his classmates that isn’t eating yet.

Maybe he should really do something about that.

“I think I will eat somewhere else today, alright?” Jinki stands up with his lunch. Some of the students are busy chatting, but the ones closest nod with a confused smile.

Bora giggles when she notices where he’s heading.

“You really have a thing for the weak and powerless,” she whispers out, with an eye-roll. “There goes Avenger Jinki one more time!”

He doesn’t give himself a lot of time to think as he beelines to the back of the cafeteria and drops himself on the opposite chair to his strange target. The boy does have a fancy aura about him, even while wearing the same plain uniform as everybody else; he’s like those boys in manhwas who always show up with sparkles and flowers drawn around them. It’s not intimidating to Jinki, rather, he finds it lovely.

“Good afternoon.”

Key puts his phone down confusedly when a big lunchbox enters his field of vision; nobody is awake to answer him on the group chat anyways.

“Good afternoon...” He mumbles back automatically, frowning. The unexpected interaction has his heart jumping anxiously.

“Did you have lunch?” asks the other casually. Jinki knows he didn’t. He’d seen the boy playing with his peach from the moment he sat down.

That’s one strange thing to Jinki, that he doesn’t seem to have lunch every day. It’s something he would normally assume to be the struggle of a scholarship student like Jonghyun, but nothing about this guy’s shiny watch and fashionable bag seems to fit into that image.

Key fidgets with his knife, uncomfortable. A stranger coming to talk to him was already enough adrenaline without this kind of question. He just felt too full with the Korean breakfast he had with his father that morning – he isn’t used to having meals that big. It doesn’t strike him as anything but weird that a stranger is approaching him like this, so he is already trying to plot an excuse when he looks up to meet the other’s gaze.

The boy settling across him has sparkly braces and a big smile, so big it seems his entire body is smiling along with his mouth. It’s a student from the window row of his classroom, one he’s seen greet people around a lot. And somehow, he has the kind of trusting face that makes Key stop hesitating on his motives and feel just confident in going with honesty.

“I just ate too much at breakfast, so...” He grimaces. “I’m still pretty full.”

He is definitely pretty shy around strangers, notes Jinki, as he observes the concealed nervous way the boy keeps finding useless things to do with his hands as they talk, adjusting his accessories and unwrinkling the napkin.

“Ah, I see,” Jinki replies politely, and starts to open his lunch. That’s a weak excuse but he’s the one who came invading the boy’s space, so he shouldn’t judge.

The setup of that lunch box is impeccable, something out of a cooking show, and it has Key’s eyebrows shooting up in awe. It looks tasty, if only for the colourful arrangement that really catches his artistic eye.

“You should still have something more substantial,” Jinki continues as he unrolls his utensils from their cloth napkin. “To get you through the rest of the classes, maybe some protein. Here,” he pushes the little square jar of red beans toward the other’s direction, “have some of my beans.”

He’s offering Key the spoon with a worried glint in his friendly eyes. This isn’t England, so he finds himself with no option but to accept it with a bowing head. But the other boy smiles wider at that, which makes him feel a little better about it.

“Thank you...” Key trails off in a tense moment, staring straight at the other’s eyes. Should he say any greeting if he’s just picking from someone else’s food? That’s too specific to remember. “...I’ll eat it well,” he completes hesitantly.

Jinki giggles at the sour grimace on the other’s face. What a funny little guy; he wonders what’s going on in his head.

For a minute, they eat in front of each other in silence. Key feels a little observed, picking spoonful after spoonful of beans and chewing throughout slowly, but whenever he looks across the table, his counterpart is busy stuffing himself with beef and rice happily. His eyes squeeze in a charming eye smile whenever their gazes happen to cross, and Key feels his shoulders relaxing down a bit.

“Sorry to be so straight-forward,” Jinki starts up when it feels like they’ve gotten a little more comfortable with each other. The other lifts his head, stuffed chubby cheeks like a hamster. “But how come you’re always eating alone?”

That sounds like an even odder question to Key, who stops momentarily to try to think if there’s an answer less obvious than:

“I just don’t know anybody yet...” He runs his eyes around the cafeteria. It’s only the second Monday of the year, after all.

Well, Jinki certainly pegged him as the shy type since day one, but it’s already the second Monday of the year. Even those though and friendless guys around the school have found themselves a group to eat with, at least.

“You should just ask to eat with your classmates,” he suggests, cheerfully. With an arm pointing back to his friends, “I’m from your class too, we’re having lunch over there.”

It’s a small school and with twenty students per class, they’re all bound to become friends pretty quickly. Jinki probably already knows the names of a third of the Year 10 juniors, by now.

Key looks between the boy, the other table, the window, awkwardly. He’s come to feel that this classmate really cares for him, and it does flatter him somewhat. People never seem to think of him as someone approachable, and Key... likes this friendly smiley dude. Maybe Nicole was right. He just wishes he wasn’t so lost in this conversation.

“Is it a big deal to eat alone?” Key asks, softly, and actually curious at this point – no one ever addressed this to him before. But the other frowns at that, shifting his gaze down at the table, and Key realizes how he sounds with a startle. “Ah, sorry, I didn’t mean to sound rude or anything...” he completes, panicked.

Jinki’s head shoots back up with a suspicious squint.

“Are you a foreigner, by chance?” He has a little accent that’s still perfectly Korean; it’s something about his attitude that feels so... international. And transferring at such an odd time... little details, but it seems to make sense.

Are all of this guy’s questions so random or is he really that obvious? Key chuckles nervously.

“Not really, I lived overseas for many years,” he admits, carefully. He’s rather uncomfortable with the way people have been reacting to that information, since he got back.

It figures. Jinki nods with a curious “Ahh...”

Seemingly satisfied at that, the boy goes back to enjoying his lunch calmly.

Key watches him funnily for a few seconds, waiting for some clarification, but he looks satisfied with the exchange. What started as a tense conversation to him is soon becoming a weirdly cute one.

“Why?” he probs after a while of puzzled staring.

“It’s because Korean people hate eating alone,” Jinki explains with a frown. That gets Key pensive for a while; this isn’t something that ever goes through his head. Could it be one more thing England erased in him?

As the boy in front of him stares off in thought, Jinki notices that his spoon has been dangling limp on his hand for a while. He taps it with his chopsticks and drops half an egg on it, waking the other up.

“Go on,” he gestures to the food between them.

While chewing through, Key tries to think of a question in kind for his counterpart.

“Why do you eat in groups?” he goes for, curiously.

Jinki tilts his head, smiling, as he considers. He’s glad to see the boy starting to enjoy his company.

“I don’t know why exactly...” He lets out a long sigh, glancing at the food and the students gathered around the room. “It makes the food go down easier, right?”

Key looks down to the almost empty baked beans jar on the table and smirks.

“I guess I agree.”

Jinki lets the boy quietly move back to his cut up peach. Since he feels pretty positive that he won’t be kicked out now, it seems introductions are due.

“I’m Lee Jinki.” He squints at the chest of the other’s uniform. “Kim Kibum, right?”

He seems really displeased at that and waves his hands with a grimace as he hurries to swallow his fruit.

“Call me Key, please.”

“Key?” Jinki confirms, raising a hand above his head to signal ‘height’. Key giggles with a vigorous nod. “Now that you know someone here, you’ll eat with me from now on, right?”

“Hm!” Key tries to let out the quietest sigh of relief that won’t be noticed; he’s never made a... friend so easily before.

Jinki knew he was right, this could never be some cold city guy. Key’s rosy, chubby cheeks perfectly match his peach when he finally breaks a smile at him.

 

 

 

6:24PM — Small yard at Neul Paran High School

 

 

Captain Minseok is already lounging on top of the little concrete wall, legs stretched out and barely touching the ground, when Minho runs up into the school’s small yard with a milk carton in each hand.

“Choi Minho, you’re late,” Minseok giggles without even looking up. His feet wiggle happily.

Minho sighs and checks his watch.

“It’s 6:24...” He chuckles, shaking his head.

Laughing out, Minseok urges him to come closer and snatches the banana milk from him. He hits Minho in the head to shake it and stabs the straw in to sip loudly.

“I felt you’d get here sooner this time, that’s why I texted you to get the milk,” Minseok raises his brows, smirking. He knew Minho is always on prompt to please people, especially when they are on the verge of kicking him out of the football team.

It is a legend of sorts among those who know him in the school that Kim Minseok has never been late to anything in his life. So much so that he isn’t ever caught on time either, as he seems to always arrive earlier than anyone else to everything, no matter the circumstances. ‘It is said that by the time his mom arrived at the hospital in labour, he was already waiting for her on the nursery,’ and jokes like such constantly go around. And soon, a silly school joke became a permanent game with Minseok’s friends as he beats them over and over in this constant race. Minho is glad the captain considers him enough to have been included in it for a while now, even if it means being sent back to the other side of school to buy banana milk for this unabashed cheater.

He just snorts and drinks from his own chocolate milk.

It’s good to enjoy the easy atmosphere between them for a minute, a relief to be with Minseok as his usual cute self after the last tense couple days. The evening air is chilly and springy, with the wind rustling the growing grass next to them in a soothing sound, and it’s very pleasant to feel the scene in silence for a while. The captain takes his time to speak.

“I thought about you yesterday, Minho. That’s what the banana milk is for, you owe me for making me think on a Sunday.” He kicks at the other’s calf. Minho is staring at him in close attention, although his worries had subsided at the warm welcome earlier. Minseok leans back to look up at the sky. “I started wondering... Minho, what other hobbies do you have other than playing football?”

“I like watching football too,” he deadpans jokingly, and Minseok blank stares him immediately. “Okay, I... like playing video games.”

“Which games?”

“Tekken, Wii Sports, FIFA...” Minho looks at his side to see the captain giving him a hard face. He gets a little squirmish. “I play Overwatch with Jonghyun-hyung too!”

Minseok doesn’t look convinced and he starts to fidget.

“Look, alright, I also like watching movies, listening to music–”

“Everybody does those things, Minho,” Minseok interrupts impatiently. Minho shuts up and looks at his bouncing foot for a while. “With your father and brother working in sports... Do you happen to have a very demanding family?”

There is genuine care in the question, but Minho can only shake his head.

“Nothing like that.”

The thing is that against any expectation, he really doesn’t. After a brief playing career, it was as a coach that his father found glory working for increasingly bigger teams across the country. That’s how he met his mother, a sports commentator. Minho’s brother played with him from the time they could stand up on their fat little legs and has now been a pro player for six years in Busan.

But none of that ever made his parents pressure either of them into anything. They had always encouraged all of their interests and see it as purely a blessing that both sons are as in love with sport as the rest of the family. He never felt that he needed to catch up to his brother for his parents’ love, and while his father might offer critique and advice, not once has the boy ever been scolded for his conduct in football by him.

Minho turned out like this all by himself.

He sways from side to side uncomfortably for a minute, slurping the rest of his chocolate milk, and occasionally looks up to Minseok’s furrowed thinking eyebrows. Finally, the captain finishes his own carton and turns to him with a twisted mouth.

“I know that you’re aiming for SKY – you already put too much pressure on yourself studying. Focusing all your energy into football, then, I don’t think it’s good for you,” he starts, carefully. “I don’t know where your competitiveness issues come from but spending yourself like this is giving you relationship problems in the team. That shows up on the field too.”

Minho grits his teeth worriedly.

“Are you putting me on a break?” His body feels completely empty inside as he waits for the answer, wide eyes fixed on the captain.

“I actually just want you to find a hobby,” Minseok replies, and it’s so anti-climactic that it has Minho frowning. “It can be anything, just something that you enjoy spending your time on. So, you can take your mind off football and studying and you’ll be less obsessive when you play.”

He lets the younger mull over this for a while. This wasn’t in any of the fifty scenarios Minho imagined this conversation would go like.

Finding a hobby... what kind of reprimand measure is that? He usually never minded much other than football because that was just his thing. But Minseok really made him feel a little bit too obsessive with this conversation. Minho would never think people found this kind of diversity important or anything – he just loves football so much that it’s enough of a pastime for him to never really need anything else filling his time. It’s hard to picture, in what else could he find an investment like this?

“A hobby... What do you say I do?” Minho asks awkwardly.

Minseok shrugs.

“Well, if you’re out of ideas, maybe you could find an interest in another lab. I’m part of culinary too, it’s very relaxing in my opinion.” Minho laughs in surprise and the other follows with a shy chuckle. That hadn’t seemed like the captain’s style to him. “But maybe relaxing isn’t what you need, I don’t know. Perhaps something that is the total opposite of football? You’ll find something.”

“I’m just alright in the team as long as I get another hobby?” Minho confirms, baffled. It’s easy enough but he’s still very resistant to this idea – he doesn’t want to share his attention any more than he has to. “I can’t focus on two things like this, I already spend too much time studying!”

The captain bursts out laughing. “Choi Minho. You had the biggest personal training schedule in our list and you were just a tenth year. I think cutting down a little bit won’t hurt your performance.”

“But–”

“You want to be a doctor, right, not a pro player.” Minseok raises his eyebrows. “You don’t need to take the team so seriously.”

“But what if I just don’t find anything?” Minho bites his lip and diverges his attention to the crumpled carton in his hands as soon as he realizes how whiny it sounded.

“Then your stress will keep building up and one of your fits might end up putting you on a break,” Minseok offers, in that special hard-but-soft way of his. Both his hands come up to massage Minho’s shoulders supportively and the younger looks at him with a pout. “You’re an important friend for the team. I don’t want to see you lose yourself. Just look around and you’ll find something that interests you. You’re more than just a foot on a ball, Minho.”

 

 

 

7:12PM — Front gates of Neul Paran High School

 

 

“Hey, Minho...” Sooyoung greets him with worried eyes. Minho’s walking out the gates quietly, frowning at his shoes. “It’s alright. It sucks but you’re gonna get through this.”

Her hand comes up to squeeze at his shoulder gently when he stops by her side. Minho almost feels sad over how caring his friend is being for such a dumb issue.

“He told me to get a... hobby,” he utters, still rather confused.

Sooyoung has to squeeze her face to morph it from concern into shock.

“What?”

“I have to find a hobby to stay in the team,” he expands.

“A hobby?” she repeats, perplexed. Then she scoffs and starts walking away to their usual path home, Minho quickly following behind. “You shout at the referee’s face and your punishment is to find a hobby? I thought you were interdicted!” Her bob swings side to side as she shakes her head vigorously.

“I thought so too,” he whines, pouting at his friend.

“Why a hobby though?” Sooyoung chuckles with a puzzled frown.

“Hyung said I need to be less obsessive about football.”

The girl tilts her head back to laugh evilly at the sky and Minho shoulder-shoves her out of the sidewalk in embarrassment.

“What are you pushing me for? He’s right!” Sooyoung hits him back at his side, smiling playfully. “When was the last time you did anything that’s not football?”

“I know, I know,” sighs Minho defeated, rubbing to soothe his arm. Sooyoung’s ‘joking’ punches are way harder than her jokes.

“I’m happy that you can stay on the team,” she adds a little more sweetly.

Minho smiles too, relieved. As much as he had tried to not think about it, the very real prospect that he might be pushed away from the lab, even if shortly, had been terrifying him since Saturday. As much problems as they have, Minho loves football, and loves his teammates, and loves playing with them. It would be a very big, painful hit to ruin this.

“I hope you learned your lesson this time, though,” Sooyoung teases and smirks.

He looks away and kicks at the ground.

“Yeah, no shouting, no fighting,” he grumbles. What is hard is to talk about how he never thinks of what he’s doing then, completely unable to feel out how inappropriate he’s being. His body doesn’t seem to know what ‘keeping a cool head’ is.

They huddle closer to cross by a few very busy streets in silence.

“So, what are you gonna do?” Sooyoung turns to him when they reach a quieter area.

“Hm?”

“About the hobby stuff.”

“Ah... I don’t even know where to start,” answers Minho unsurely. He shoves his hands in and out of his pockets. “Guess I could hang out with you guys and try to, I don’t know, get into something?”

The girl shakes her head with a scoff.

“We already ‘hang out’ since primary school, I don’t think this would work well.” She raises an eyebrow.

She has a point – even growing up together, Minho never really caught much interest in his closest friends’ activities. All three of them are so artistic, with Jonghyun and Taeyeon into music, and Sooyoung was even part of an idol competition before she lost her hearing; nowadays, she’s a big fan of film and drawing and these are just not his thing either.

Jonghyun loves reading long-sentenced philosophical novels and marathoning anime into the night, which Minho doesn’t mind accompanying but is frankly boring for himself. Taeyeon has been on the same track as him, mind out of all but singing ever since she joined the trainee line of her mother’s company last year. Sooyoung is certainly the most alike to him in tastes – she runs and plays all sorts of sport with him, but at school she trains taekwondo, which is probably counterproductive to Minho’s problem at the moment.

“Hyung suggested that I join another lab at school,” he tells. Sooyoung nods approvingly. “There are a lot of options, I guess.”

“You should join the swimming lab,” the girl suggests, wide eyes excited.

Minho frowns immediately; this is a weird thing to say in many levels.

“Our school doesn’t even have a pool–” He stops when he deciphers the cheeky look on his friend’s face and shuts his eyes tight. “This was so tacky. Take this seriously, noona!”

He slaps the back of Sooyoung’s head lightly as she snickers.

 

 

 

 

 

Wednesday the 14th

 

 

 

 

5:17AM — Locker hall at Neul Paran High School

 

 

“Who’s the lucky one?”

Teacher Heeyeon is by his right, poking her head from behind the locker row with a naughty smile. Having been engrossed in his own thoughts until then, Jonghyun jumps with a startle and hides his hands inside his jacket.

“Ah, teacher-nim, don’t show up like a ghost! I’m sensitive!” he whines, trying to divert the attention.

The teacher just snickers at him as she walks closer, then crouches to check the locker door he was fixated in.

“Ah, Kim Taeyeon?” she reads, “So it’s a friend’s gift?”

Jonghyun’s chance for a way out is right there, but like an idiot, he splutters and gags with an awkward smile and gives himself in instead. Teacher Heeyeon’s eyes grow visibly at the same rate his face heats up.

She breaks a happy, lightly teasing smile.

“Jonghyunie,” Teacher Heeyeon croons, “You’re such a romantic boy. You’ll be a great boyfriend.”

Jonghyun panics at the word ‘boyfriend’ with an electric jolt inside. He can’t even picture signing the gift he’s clutching; the idea of being Taeyeon’s boyfriend is so unreachably gigantic that looking up at it could make him dizzy.

“I’m not confessing to her or anything!” he shoots back immediately, ducking his head away in nervousness. His right hand rubs his at his hot ear. “I’m just giving her some chocolate, that’s all.”

The little green packet turns in his hand. Nothing cute or fancy, just a discreet bag of delicate and bitter chocolate chips, stapled with a sticky note of Jonghyun’s message. It was a little expensive, but he wasn’t going through the home-baking fiasco again so soon. Rather than something generic with hearts and pink, it’s one that fits Taeyeon’s taste just right.

Teacher Heeyeon peeks over his shoulder at it.

“Shouldn’t it be white chocolate though?” she asks.

“75% dark is her favourite,” he mutters sweetly. Something burns happily inside his chest while saying this – maybe the silly satisfaction of knowing how to please her – and he has to take a deep breath to balance his body.

Shuffling from foot to foot awkwardly, Jonghyun tries to ignore the mysterious smirk in Teacher Heeyeon’s face, her eyes seeming to search through him. From being asked to call her by first name and being teased over his crush on a girl, this is the type of comfortable relationship Jonghyun and Teacher Heeyeon have. They’ve really grown close since his tenth year – she, being the supervising teacher of the med-com lab, is the one person who accompanied him at the break of dawn every day to the school studio for two years. But there are limits in a student-teacher relationship that Jonghyun doesn’t know how to feel about.

After some seconds, she sighs and pats the boy’s back encouragingly.

“I’m going up to turn on the tech. Give you some privacy,” whispers Teacher Heeyeon before turning and walking away.

Jonghyun is left back at stage zero. Small hands holding the chocolate like a baby bird, staring fixedly at the three characters on the middle locker, soft sighs every other second. Romeo on the other side of the garden wall. He doesn’t feel his heart run fast, rather, it feels tight and shy inside of him.

His name might not be on it, but he thinks it’s very probable that Taeyeon might recognize his writing style. That’s what he’s anxious about – he doesn’t want to fully reveal himself just yet –, though he may not really have much to worry about. The four of them have been friendly gifting each other at Valentines and Whites for a couple of years now, so she would probably not assume too much of it. But maybe that’s what would sting Jonghyun more.

This is the line between truth and hiding that he’s begun to walk on the day he started falling in love with Kim Taeyeon. His feelings keep swaying him from one side to the other, too passionate to hold back from showing his love and too fearful to stamp it on his chest with pride.

Confessing to her... It’s true that he thought of that but doing so on this kind of day for the sake of comfort is really not his style. Jonghyun might be a romanticist, but his tastes care for what is special in one’s personal feelings, rather than classic (and commercial) traditions.

Whenever it came to mind the scenario of telling Taeyeon he’s falling for her, it felt abrupt and inappropriate. Jonghyun’s heart isn’t ready to be offered like this; it’s such a young, fragile emotion that he’s still discovering, learning how to care for. Confessing now would be picking a flower before it blooms. He thinks that to find the true flavour of love, you have to bite it when it’s ripe. So Jonghyun still waits for the moment, and strangely, very happily so.

For now, 100g of bittersweet chocolate on White Day is perfect.

Ever since middle school, Taeyeon has gotten a couple of gifts from boys every year. She doesn’t care much for them, and usually complains of their immature approach, boys who think they like her just for finding her pretty. So, he really hopes something subtler will get her spirits up first thing in the morning. To just imagine Taeyeon’s precious eyes sparking up as she holds his gift makes Jonghyun want to wiggle in glee.

That one thought is the only fuel he needs to stop stalling; he can get over any stupid embarrassment for her smile. Jonghyun reads over his little note one more time before shoving the thin package through the slits in one move, eyes shut to hear the thud on the other side.

 

‘A star in the dark night

The darker it is, the brighter you shine

Please don’t ever hide your colour

The world is lifeless without you.’

 

 

 

12:06PM — Neul Paran High School’s garden

 

 

Jonghyun is barely out of the classroom when Jinki snatches him by the hand and drags him all three floors down with no explanation. The students have had almost no time to come down by the time they reach the garden, so it’s only them in there.

 “Jonghyun-ah,” Jinki calls when he lets go, turning to him face to face. They’re both staring at each other wide-eyed, Jonghyun with confusion, and Jinki with... nervousness? “I want to tell you something.”

He grips the bag in his hands tightly and blows out a heavy breath in concentration.

“It’s been two years since we met, and you’ve become a friend that I never want to live without. I hope I am that kind of friend to you as well,” Jinki speaks in a hushed, but confident tone, never breaking eye contact. His Adam’s apple bobs visibly. “I’m not completely confident saying this but... I like you, Jonghyun...”

Jonghyun isn’t saying anything, looking back at him with an ever so slight frown. Jinki’s face falls a little and his gaze begins to shift around insecurely.

“I’m sorry, I know it’s useless to confess. I’m a guy and so, uh...” his words start to falter. Jonghyun watches him lick his lips nervously over and over, feet uneasy on the ground. “I-I don’t want to hurt our friendship. But I think you’ll understand when I say that I would explode if I don’t show my true feelings.”

Jinki reaches into the bag to produce a white cardboard box laced in yellow. He sticks it out to the other, staring down.

“You probably don’t care b-but if you just accept my gift... it’s enough to make me happy. I-I made them myself.”

The boy keeps his head down, breathing softly with his hand still stretched out. The breeze blows a loose strand of his long hair at the same pace as the yellow lace around the box, and with the early spring flower buds around them, Jonghyun thinks this is a very pretty scene. For a romance movie.

“It’s so obvious that you’re messing with me,” he chuckles, relieved to finally break from his serious face. “I know you like women.”

Jinki gapes; he can’t believe he took acting classes since thirteen years old to be shot down by Jonghyun like this.

His entire image crumbles and he kicks at the air with a frustrated laugh.

“Ah, I never had someone doubt my acting skill like this before!” It took him twenty minutes to rehearse that speech for Jonghyun to be the most uncomfortable as he could, tumbling over his words in embarrassment from the confession. Jinki’s first ever attempt at a prank and it went down so fast.

Jonghyun giggles along his friend’s frustration.

“It wasn’t bad at first but the stutter was an overkill. Also,” he pauses to bite his lip in thought. “I have this feeling that you’re not the more forward one when it comes to relationships.”

Jinki walks over to the nearby bench and drops his body defeatedly, box on his lap.

“Yeah, you make sense.”

The other sits next to him with a mocking smile, taking the gift for himself to inspect. “I’ll eat this even if you’re not in love with me, don’t worry.”

When Jonghyun opens the lid, it’s filled with a sprinkle of white truffles that seem to have rolled around a bit, sugar dusting everywhere. He picks up a badly creased one to inspect; it looks legit and his eyebrows shoot up in surprise.

“It really is homemade?” Jinki nods happily just as Jonghyun throws it into his mouth. He instantly lets his body melt in the bench with an exaggerated moan and his friend snickers at him. It’s way too dense, but still creamy and sweet enough to make Jonghyun’s tongue tingle. His hand claps the back of the other’s shoulders approvingly. “You’re not a pretty lady, but maybe I’ll accept your confession after all.”

Jinki straightens up, a sweet smile on his lips but something mischievous glinting in his eye.

“That’s great,” he says, quickly, “I’m confessing that I really want you on the theatre lab this year.”

Jonghyun even stops chewing, the chocolate melting in his mouth as he stares at his friend in shock.

“Did you go crazy? You know that I could never...” He doesn’t even know where to start with it – enact a character, stand on stage, be watched. Where would Jinki even get such an idea from? An extroverted activity like theatre is the antithesis of Jonghyun’s everything. His head just shakes, baffled. “Never.”

Jinki sighs knowingly.

“I know you, Jonghyun, of course. I wouldn’t ask that you do stuff that doesn’t suit you. This year, we don’t have any senior who knows about music. We want to do a musical in the end of the year...” He looks into Jonghyun’s eyes hopefully. “No one in this entire school is as good as you at music.”

Compliments don’t ever react well in Jonghyun and he shifts in discomfort.

“And what do you mean I do?”

That’s not rejection; Jinki leans in his direction with renewed vigour.

“We usually have music managers in the group, to, well, manage this part of our projects. It’s nothing like the music lab, I promise you,” he assures strongly.

Well, that is something to appease Jonghyun. Scholarship students, among all, are most expected to exceed in their personal studies. Naturally, he was inclined for the music lab as that’s where his inspiration lies, but to the disappointment of the school, he left in the very first summer. With sciences and robotics, the music lab composes the big three show-offs which the principals use to boast the school’s pride everywhere. He had nice colleagues, but the stiff perfectionism and obsession with performance over anything truly honest had Jonghyun feeling caged – his art style was just not compatible with all that artificiality.

It can be said that Jonghyun succeeded in the med-com lab, with his project broadcast reaching higher interest among the students than this lab ever gathered before. It even led him to choose a Mass Communications degree.

Jonghyun processes this information while chewing through another truffle.

“You’re bribing me with homemade chocolate just to take care of soundtrack?” he asks through the food, eyebrows still arching in doubt.

Jinki does press his lips cautiously.

“You would have to be part of all the activities in the lab,” he explains, and Jonghyun’s face predictably cringes a little. “But seriously, you won’t be Romeo, it’s just production work. I actually think you will enjoy it more than you expect.”

How can he resist those earnest sparkling eyes in Jinki’s face? His friend looks very serious about all this, but Jonghyun still swallows, unsure.

“Why does it matter to be me anyways, other people will join...” he mumbles as a last attempt, gaze shifting down.

“You’re a friend that I really trust, Jonghyun.” Jinki bends himself over to put his head in the other’s line of vision. “More than your talent, it would be amazing to work together with you. It’s our last year here... it would make me really happy.”

Jinki really knows how to get to his heart, doesn’t he? Looking back at his friend’s honest face, Jonghyun can’t believe he’s seriously considering joining theatre of all things. The other really made it all sound a lot easier to him than it really is. Lee Jinki is surely a convincing, charismatic bastard.

“This sounded a lot more like you’re really in love with me,” is what Jonghyun says instead, to mask over the sudden sentimentality that hits him.

“I’m opening up here,” Jinki whines back, but keeps grinning at him.

Usually Jonghyun would never want his music to work for third parties again, but he trusts his friendship with Jinki...

“I’ll think about this, okay?” he settles for, with a careful glance to his friend. “Last year, the CSAT, it’s a lot going on.”

Jinki beams brightly anyways and Jonghyun focuses back on the truffles to hide his shyness.

“Is it your taste?” Jinki watches him eat attentively and Jonghyun nods silently.

These are just the bad leftovers from the batch – if they’re good, it means his real White Day gift was a success. Suddenly, he shuts the box and snatches it from Jonghyun’s lap. “Don’t eat all of it before we have lunch.”

He gets up and trots away to the building, leaving Jonghyun to catch up after him, calling for his chocolates back. Jinki has him hooked by the arm when he gets close, and they merge back into the crowd heading to the cafeteria.

“I can’t wait to tell everyone that you’re my boyfriend now,” croons Jinki, shaking their bodies through their linked arms.

Jonghyun rolls his eyes with an arrogant scoff.

“Nobody will believe you, I’m too handsome for you.” He flips his bangs exaggeratedly a couple times.

“It could work to make Taeyeon-ssi jealous.”

The other’s face stills, wide eyed and mortified.

“How do you know about Taeyeon?” He has only admitted it to two people before.

Ha. Jonghyun didn’t fall for his prank, but Jinki can still tease him with this. It’s not only acting – he’s very talented at keeping secrets too, after all.

“Love is a mystery, isn’t it?” he whispers cynically, and takes a moment to appreciate the nervousness in Jonghyun’s eyes before sprinting off towards the cafeteria.

“Jinki, hey brat, come back here!”

As Jonghyun stumbles panting into the salon, though, he forgets what he’s running for when he faces Taeyeon sitting with her friends, right on the first table. His eyes might as well be shining like spotlights. Taeyeon’s lunch still sits untouched in front of her, and there are two gift boxes stacked on the side; but the bag of chocolate chips she’s munching on with a smile has Jonghyun’s sticky note on it.

 

 

 

10:35PM — A notebook page on Jinki’s front door

 

 

‘Lee Jinki, you greasy bastard. The delivery man brought your flowers and chocolate in the middle of a lecture! I couldn’t show my face the whole day... Homemade again? You’re such a try-hard.

I wish I could have stayed to pinch you for this, but you’re taking too damn long and we have a dorm meeting tonight.

Video call me when you eat my chocolates, I want to see you. They’re not homemade but they’re pretty good, alright?

See you soon, pumpkin.

 

From. Honeybunny

 

– Also, I think it’s the 100th day since we met too. Are we going to care about these silly things? I bet you would, sap.’

 

 

 

 

 

Thursday 15th

 

 

 

 

12:21PM — Cafeteria at Neul Paran High School

 

 

 

“Hyung,” Key reaches out to hold Jinki’s hand before he can ruin it. He closes his eyes, hesitating for one moment, before asking, slowly. “Can I please take a picture of your food?”

Jinki’s eyes widen up in surprise, but Key is looking down at the lunch laid out on the table. He breaks into a confused smile.

“My food? Why...?”

“You always bring it so–” Key moves his hands around, trying to express it. “Prettied up, you know, it’s pretty.”

Every day of the short week they’ve eaten together, it’s been the same. The students around them lay out their modest kimbaps and rice bowls while Jinki brings over a banquet worthy of a cooking show. It looks so offensively good that it makes Key angry to look at. And perhaps a little hungrier than he would usually feel.

Jinki chuckles internally at the camera app already open in the other’s phone, gripped in his jittery hands.

“Is this why you’re interested in it?” He gestures for him to go on and the boy promptly starts adjusting the banchans on the table to his liking through the lens.

Key doesn’t stop taking pictures as he answers.

“I think that the aesthetic of food is as important as the taste to have a good meal.” It’s what he likes to do, at least. It kind of takes him back to when he was a child, having more fun dressing up dolls and setting up houses than he had with actually playing with them. Play around with the food a little, post a picture of it, think of colours and decorations instead of the molecular composition of everything. Key feels pretty while eating pretty food.

“I think so too,” comments Jinki, amused at the dedicated way Key works to turn his cooking into art. He reclaims his meal back after his friend is satisfied scrolling in his phone gallery.

“God, it looks so good,” sighs Key, frustrated.

“My parents are part of the food industry, so I grew up caring a lot about food.”

“Food industry? How so?” Key looks back at him impressed – if Jinki cooks like this, his parents are probably chefs of a fancy restaurant, or, God, a French pastry shop.

“A cattle farm of meat and dairy production,” Jinki tells cheery, and that’s actually more surprising. Key takes a second to revaluate the other’s figure, but Jinki looks nothing like the countryside type to him. “I could cook some of it for you one day!”

His eager face makes Key hesitate for bit, dropping into the uncomfortable smile he’s already used to as he replies, “Ah, meat... I’m a vegetarian.”

He checks Jinki through the corner of his eye, afraid he could be upset that Key’s rejecting his family’s food, but the boy doesn’t look awkward in the least. Instead, he lets out an honest giggle that has Key puzzled.

“Oh! That’s fine,” answers Jinki, “I’m actually allergic to dairy.”

He breaks into a full laughing fit and Key drops his head to sneer at how silly this is.

A minute later, Jinki is already eating when Key finishes up editing his chosen picture.

“Is it okay if I post it on my Instagram? I’ll tag you if you’d like...”

He already has a written caption on it, thumb hovering the post button waiting.

“Ah, I don’t have SNS,” Jinki speaks with a nod, like that isn’t the weirdest thing ever. The other shakes his head amusedly. “Just let me see it.”

“Thank you.”

Key waits for the post to upload fully and hands over his phone.

 

bumkeyk *pretends like i can cook like this* ♨

 

Jinki checks the filtered-up picture of his food with a chuckle. Key really made that so pretty it was almost plastic, and he was a little sorry to be chewing on it now. Out of curiosity, he zooms out to Key’s profile to look at some of the other pictures.

“Woah, it looks cool. It’s really your style.”

Key’s shy grin passes unnoticed as he scrolls down some selfies, random landscapes, two recurring poodles and lots of food. The compositions are vibrant and unpredictable, and Jinki notices the boy has a pretty sharp artistic eye.

The screen stops naturally on a selfie of five heads making weird faces together. Most have a sort of alternative style, like Key; vibrant makeup and piercings everywhere, not a single one of them has a natural hair colour. Key himself is on the top right, his hair blazing red, crossing his blue lenses clad eyes.

 

bumkeyk Our love will stretch on no matter how far we go. Thank you for the last 6 years, freaks ⚉♡

 

Jinki smirks a little sadly at the photo. Key looks very at ease with these friends; they fit right in with each other, and there is nothing of the awkward, inadequate posture the boy walks around the school in currently. With a tight heart, he thinks he wants this confident Key to appear again, even through the hurt of being away from his friends. His thumb moves a little more over the screen, just passing a couple more pictures before he gives it back, when one post has Jinki stopping with a start.

Key is play-dragging by the ear one of the friends from the other picture, a shorter, purple-haired Asian boy. They’re standing in front of a big theatre with a poster for Billy Elliot clearly displayed behind them.

 

bumkeyk I got Elliot, now we gotta find Billy 

 

It’s like a giant, red exclamation mark pops right out of Jinki’s head, and he tries to not sound ecstatic when he asks, “You like theatre?”

Key still startles with the other’s abrupt turn and stares at him confused for a second, before picking up his phone to see the picture.

“Oh, yes. This is from when I went to see ‘Billy Elliot’.”

He gazes into the image with a sad, loving glint in his eyes. Since Elliot got a job this year, it has been so difficult to keep in touch; Key misses him like hell. With a sigh and a tight smile, he closes the Instagram app and pockets the phone back.

“I used to watch plays a lot in London,” he continues a little mindlessly, poking at his food. “But I haven’t gone since I moved here...”

Jinki’s deflated a little bit and watches the other as he hesitantly bites his lips. He can’t help but be excited to follow the conversation, but the topic seems to make Key a bit sentimental. In the end he settles for an unsure, “I see...”, hoping that Key won’t give up.

“Actually, I took acting classes at my old school,” he tells eventually, not sure where he’s going with it. It’s just easy to talk about whatever with Jinki.

Well that is just way too perfect, and he wants to fist bump the air. In all of Jinki’s crazy hunt for members, the new friend sitting next to him every day is too good to be true, and the most pleasant surprise.

“I’m the director of the theatre lab this year,” Jinki blurts out all at once, barely containing his nervousness as he buzzes in his seat. He stares at Key expectantly for his reaction.

Unpredictable as always, the boy snorts, surprised.

“Really? Now that doesn’t seem like your style at all.” All well-behavioured and boringly dressed, Jinki is the total opposite of the drama kids Key is used to.

Jinki blinks and widens his eyes, before spreading an amused smile.

“What is my style then?”

Key’s lips purse to the side, a sharp squint taking the other in. Jinki has shabby hair that falls on his eyes, a thick line of braces on his crooked teeth, all of his notes are colour-coded and his uniform is so perfectly ironed that it looks frozen stiff. Maybe a calm and methodical style, like programming codes and playing e-sports?

“I thought of something tech-y, like... robotics,” he concludes.

“God, I’m awful with technology...” Jinki wheezes lightly. “The robotics lab would kick me out.”

He watches the other carefully, hoping this was a good bait. For a few long seconds, Key just resumes eating his sandwich silently, a thoughtful look on his face down to the table. He wonders what Jinki is like practising theatre – he is a little peculiar in his words and ideas, so that might make him a pretty fun artist. It’s a surprise, but also a big deal for Key, making him secretly bubble in excitement; he’s happy that Jinki has this to share with him, like it brings them closer.

“I haven’t chosen a lab to join yet...” he mumbles pensively.

He’s gone through the list of student labs for this year a few times, but as much as some were interesting to him, he hadn’t felt particularly energized for a decision yet. As for theatre, Key hadn’t put thought to it for a long time, ever since he left England, and his eyes had even glazed right over the words ‘Theatre Lab’ until Jinki brought it up.

“There will be a little setup tomorrow during homeroom time, so the students can get to know more...” Jinki feigns nonchalance by focusing on his food as he speaks, chewing on his veggies. “Somebody explained to you about labs, right?”

“Yeah, they’re like clubs, no?” Key shrugs, slurping on his tea. “They have it in England too. Except it’s not mandatory...”

Jinki clicks his tongue with a thoughtful face.

“I think it’s more dutiful than clubs.” Key stares at him curiously. “See, we have meeting plans and have to report our progress to our supervising teacher and need to present projects when the school asks for it. Actually, it’s like a study group, you know?” concludes Jinki.

“You just made it sound so stressful...”

“It’s not, really. Probably less stressful than most schools, because we’re dedicating to learn about what we like. In the theatre lab at least, there’s always a good atmosphere,” Jinki drops in a more insistent tone. But he ends up frowning briefly as he thinks, “The extracurricular study is usually the reason students come to Neul Paran...”

“Being honest with you, hyung,” Key turns to look the other in the eye, dead serious. His voice drops to a grave whisper. “I just came here because it had the shortest timetable I could find.”

As expected, Jinki bursts out in an indignant laugh and Key rolls his eyes, even if he knew what he was doing. It’s just like this kid to have priorities unlike anybody else’s.

“Just because this is an independent school doesn’t mean you can slouch out,” the elder scolds playfully, and it kind of shows in his funny voice how he might be a good actor. “It is short because we spend a lot of time in the labs. But if you like to laze around and play, you’d like to try the theatre lab.”

There it is. A friendly invite with no pressure and a good warm-up. Jinki closes his fist over his thigh in victory; his and Key’s gazes are interlocked comfortably, but he doesn’t really understand the glint in the other’s eye. Key lets out a little mocking giggle at Jinki’s cute eager face.

“You took so long to finally ask.”

 

 

 

 

 

Friday the 16th

 

 

 

 

8:23AM — Main entrance hall at Neul Paran High School

 

 

It rained. That’s what happens every couple months when the school stubbornly decides to hold events in the gymnasium, which has remained open-ceiling for years despite all incidents. It was a treacherous spring rain that fell from a white sky in the blink of an eye, washing in a torrent all the banners and tables set up.

All the screaming and jumping around finished, the still dripping wet students are finally settling inside the safety of the main entrance hall. They’ve managed to save a soggy part of their setups in a rush and resorted to pulling out desks into the hall in some resemblance of organization. All in all, this confusion seemed to lift everybody’s spirits, and they are a lot more excited showing off the labs, wiping each other with towels and trying to splash puddles on each other.

It’s a very crammed fit for all of them in the hall, especially with such buzzing energies. Minho has been squeezing around in the green ocean of bodies for fifteen minutes already, and lost Jonghyun five ago.

All the labs remotely related to sports or competitions are crossed out of the list in his hands. He also crossed out music, art crafts, theatre, and all sorts of things he doesn’t have talent for.

There is the sciences lab, certainly. It would be pretty beneficial for his medical studies, and Minho almost walked up to the director. However, he turned away in the last second, determined to take Minseok’s intentions to heart and find something to enjoy, not make himself study more.

Minho reads his options over and over, trying to spot the one that is “the total opposite of football”. What the hell would that even be? He picks up a pamphlet with Jinyoung as he passes the media & communications stand, which is reduced to some of the members sitting in chairs chatting around. Med-com has some diverse activities – school’s paper, website, radio, and they’re planning for a YouTube channel this year. It’s possible that Minho would enjoy some of that, but the med-com lab is Jonghyun’s space. Rarely does Jonghyun get to be a star in his life, and it feels wrong to try and push himself into it.

He doesn’t even look in the direction of the literature lab, as everybody knows the members fight to keep it a girls only club. Everything else he walks by seems to reject him – he’s a terrible cook, hates maths, still speaks primary school-grade English. For a guy who prides himself in being the best at everything, Minho finds there really can be so much he’s bad at.

Frustration overwhelming him in the stuffy hall, he walks into a restroom to rub his face and breathe. He doesn’t want to disappoint Minseok; he doesn’t want to disappoint his friends. He’s really running out of options.

 

 

 

8:39AM — Main entrance hall at Neul Paran High School

 

 

Tiffany’s face opens up in light when she spots Jinki coming back to their stand. He’s still drying his stubbornly dripping hair with a hand towel, which he has been attempting for the last ten minutes already.

“Jinki, Jinki, Jinki!” The girl jumps up from her seat urgently. “Look at this!”

The lab’s sign-up list is shoved into his confused face, which grows progressively more shocked as his eyes read down five... eight... ten names.

“Oh my God.” Jinki is buzzing; this is already more people than last year. Tiffany doesn’t let his damp hands catch the paper. “Are these real? The theatre lab never had so many...”

The girl is facing him with an equally amazed smile.

“We can like, perform Shakespeare with all these people,” she exclaims, then points at one name at the top of the list, with wide eyes. “And check this out. Jung Eunji is in our school.”

“Jung Eunji?” That sounds familiar.

Tiffany quickly types up something on her phone and turns it to him; his eyebrows shoot up in recognition.

“From the ‘Reply’ drama!”

“Wow, this girl is good,” sighs Jinki, in panic. “We’ll have professionals in the lab this year... I’m gonna be such a disaster.”

Tiffany drops her body back on the chair with a bored thump.

“Jinki, if you talk about this one more time, I’m kicking you out of the lab.”

“Please kick me out,” Jinki pouts, genuinely. “I’m so nervous.”

The girl takes a deep breath and rubs at her frowning eyebrow, looking thoughtful.

“Do you remember back in tenth grade, when Junsu-oppa made you director for a week?” she asks, gently.

Jinki tsks and kicks at the ground.

“Junsu-hyung was crazy, alright, and I didn’t have to do anything,” he whines. “It was nothing.”

“Exactly,” Tiffany exclaims, impatient, waving her hands around. “Being the director doesn’t mean all this much, you know it.”

The boy continues to blank stare sadly at her and they eye-fight in silence for a long moment.

Tiffany sighs and gets up again, gripping at his sleeves.

“Jinki.” Her voice is soft, true care in her eyes. “I promised we’d be working together, right? All the other members too. It’s like all of us are the director, you’re just the name.”

“You got so many members in, what, twenty minutes?” Jinki had to plot for weeks just to get a couple students to consider the lab. “Why are you not the director?”

Her hands drop from his arms to hold onto her waist, frustrated.

“Because I’m already the director of the debate lab, and you know this.” He does know, so he has nothing to say. It’s already impressive that Tiffany insists on staying in theatre – she has a real plan for her life, she’s going to be a lawyer, but still chooses to kill time with these artistic types. He’s lucky to have her by his side, so he can’t complain.

The girl holds his gaze serious as she asks, “Seriously Jinki, are you a man or a clown?”

“A clown, you know it.”

Without any warning, Tiffany fake-slaps him on the face, and Jinki tumbles back in surprise as the clap resonates. A giggle bubbles up his chest and when he looks up, Tiffany is smiling at him too.

“That’s the kind of leader our group needs,” she whispers, close. Her hand comes up again and this time actually taps his cheek encouragingly.

Jinki takes her chair as she leaves for the debate lab. He smiles giddily at their sign-up list and relaxes back as he feels he won’t need to do much more work from then. Eventually, Heeyeon comes to sit by his side only to, like him, pretend that she’s doing something, and only scroll around on her phone instead. Mr. Kim, as usual, is nowhere to be seen. Nobody comes to ask about the lab activities – Tiffany probably got most of those already.

In a few minutes, Key comes in and quietly signs with a meek smile to Jinki, who positively beams as he voices his happiness, but the boy scurries away right after, looking uncomfortable in the tight crowd.

A little later comes Baekhyun dragging a small kid by the collar, and Jinki has to swallow down a gasp when his wide eyes lift up. This boy was in a sequence of K.Will music videos just last year. They greet with equally nervous smiles while he signs, Baekhyun clinging to and shaking him in encouragement until he gets a stomp to his foot.

Another star kid in the lab this year, and there Jinki is, feeling like an awkward uncle in front of them. He’s watching Kyungsoo walk away when Jonghyun comes into his field of vision from the same direction. They lock eyes immediately and Jinki grins as he approaches, closer and closer until Jonghyun walks right past the makeshift stand with a straight face. Jinki’s jaw is dropped in an offended gape when the other turns around with a giggle and stops by the desk.

“Just pass me the damn list,” Jonghyun chuckles. There really is something lovable about the sparkle in his eyes, thinks Jinki.

“I’m glad to have you with us,” he says, watching their form grow as the other signs in it. “I promise you’re going to be happy in our group.”

Jonghyun scratches his nape with the pen, always a little warm under his friend’s honest gaze.

“I’m not entirely sure what to expect, but... It’s been a while since I did something... out of my comfort zone.”

Jinki can see him zone out briefly, chewing on his lip with lost eyes. Jonghyun is a person of habit and many quirks, so it’s rare for him to step into the unknown. His heart suddenly does a leap at the prospect of everything new that is to come this year. It’s what Minho is going through right now, as well.

“Hyung,” Jonghyun calls, in that tone that shows his mind is wondering something. “What does theatre mean to you?”

Jinki lifts his brows and breathes in, considering.

“Wow, you ask some questions, Jjong...” he chuckles. His chin rests on his palm and Jinki wonders intently for some seconds; Jonghyun’s questions deserve to be answered in kind. “Theatre is a game. A game of pretending and deceiving. Everyone who steps into the theatre is playing; the actors, and the audience... We’re not just pretending for the audience, though, we are deceiving ourselves too. It’s like when we are children, and we can believe in other realities inside of ourselves, and the fun of the game is more important than losing or winning.”

Satisfied with his words, Jinki looks up to meet Jonghyun’s eyes. They’re wide in curiosity.

“A game, uh...” he mutters, and picks up the pen again.

 

 

 

 

Sunday the 18th

 

 

 

01:14PM — Key’s dining room

 

 

Key twirls his lunch around on his fork, pouting. He hates pasta; it makes him feel stuffed and hot inside. But it’s been a while since his father had time to eat at home, so Chef Hong-nim insisted that he choose. One bite every other minute, Key tries to push the desire to throw up out of his mind.

“I have good news, kid.” His father’s eyes are squeezing excitedly behind his glasses. “With the inauguration finished, I dropped some hours from my week. We can have dinner together at home every Tuesday and Thursday now.”

Key opens and closes his mouth dumbly like a fish. He can’t believe how ridiculous the universe can be. Despite all the best attempts, he and his father are, too, still living in different time zones.

“Ah... Tuesdays and Thursdays,” he sighs. His eyes are fixed on the table. “Actually, I joined the theatre lab at school. Our meetings are on Tuesday and Thursday nights...”

It’s visible in his peripheral vision the way his dad tenses to not let his smile fall.

“Oh. Well, that’s not a problem,” the man insists, gaze running around as he seems to calculate a solution in his head. He’s disappointed. “It can– be arranged.”

Key hums awkwardly in response, trying not to gag at the mushy chewed pasta in his mouth. The carbonara tastes unusually bitter. His father isn’t a bad man, but their conversations always end up uncomfortable like that. Like they’re strangers pretending really hard to know each other.

“This is a surprise,” Chef Hong-nim calls from behind the kitchen counter. That’s the reality of open-concept architecture. “It’s hard to imagine Kibum-ssi acting, all you do is stay quiet in your room all day.”

The man laughs as he wipes his hands and Key shoots a little uneasy smile at no one in particular.

“I thought you’d be doing something with art crafts, right?” his dad tries to salvage the conversation. He’s always so on edge with Key’s mood that it makes the boy feel guilty. He doesn’t mean to be so demanding. “It’s great that you want to start theatre though, won’t it help with your shyness?”

Key closes his eyes reflexively. This is just getting worse and worse; why can’t they just eat in silence and enjoy the company? Over half a year they live together and every word the man says still takes Key back into the reality he tries to ignore. The sudden wash of sadness makes his fingers feel for the charm on his neck by instinct.

His father really knows him as well as the house cook.

“Actually, I’ve been acting for many years at school,” he mutters, because sometimes his feelings are too bitter and he can’t help but spill that acidity into the atmosphere and make everything uncomfortable. His stomach clenches and he inhales sharply, tries to keep his face neutral as he swallows back the bile.

His father sighs from across the table. Key knows he’s not being fair, he can’t blame the man for this. Like Nicole said, it’s not like he ever tries to reach out to people, either.

 

 

 

 

 

Monday the 19th

 

 

 

 

8:08AM — Year 10 Class 1 at Neul Paran High School

 

 

“Lee Taemin-ssi, can you come over here? It’s nothing much but, you aren’t signed up for any of the student labs.”

Oh, right. He had completely forgotten about that. For the better, because now that the fights with his parents from last week come back to him, it’s an instant drop in his energy reserves. Taemin sighs, upset, as he practically feels his wheels giving out and his muscles go limp.

“Yeah,” he mutters, unable to gather his thoughts into anything further. His gaze dances between the teacher’s face and the writing on the whiteboard. “Teacher-nim.”

Mr. Kim gives the boy a once-over with a confused frown.

“What happened?” he insists, in that perpetually insensitive way of his. Taemin kind of likes that more than adults who treat him so delicately. “No way that you didn’t like any of them. Even if you don’t, it’s requirement of the school that you take extra hours.”

He should’ve come up with an excuse, he realises belatedly. But he feels tired, and angry, so he doesn’t feel like lying right now.

Taemin stands stiff and stares off at a spot with a scowl, blankly for many seconds. Teacher Heechul makes a puzzled face but waits for him to be ready to speak in silence.

“It’s because...” Taemin forces himself to start. Everything is jumping around on his head and he can’t hope to make much sense, so his thoughts just flood out of his mouth as they appear. “I wanted to go to the dance lab, because I’ve been dancing all my life, but my parents – we fought, they don’t want me to go because they say it’s going to make me distracted, that I need to do another lab to study more. And then I was upset so... And the dance lab filled up anyways.”

He pockets his hands when he notices he started flapping. That wasn’t a good explanation at all – how can he get across that all of that was too much to think about to the point he had no focus to pick among the labs? God, he doesn’t even know where his list ended up.

Taemin watches the tip of his slipper scrapping the floor as he completes, “I’m sorry.”

He just waits defeatedly for a scolding as expected, but the man before him just hums in consideration.

“I see.” Mr. Kim doesn’t tend to let his emotions show very clearly, but Taemin feels truly acknowledged when their eyes meet. The boy sighs. “We need to get you in some lab, Taemin-ssi. The dance lab is closed but don’t you like any other?”

“I don’t know...” The boy grimaces.

They stand around in silence for long enough for Taemin to start getting jittery; meanwhile, Teacher Heechul seems to be deep in thought, analysing the student from head to toe.

“How about theatre?” he says at last, “I think that might be your style too.”

Taemin cocks his head, surprised.

“Theatre?”

“Well it’s all...” Mr. Kim shrugs, “Artistic and performatic like those dancers too.”

The boy bites his lip with a grimace; his family really doesn’t approve of him getting distracted with arts and these sorts of things.

“I don’t think my parents will like it then...”

“I’ll call them about it,” the teacher replies, confidently. He sits back into his chair and searches for something inside his file. “I’m actually the supervising teacher of the theatre lab. If you start getting distracted, I’ll give you extra study hours,” the man threatens in a serious voice, but Taemin has already found that he isn’t as intimidating as he acts.

He slips a paper across the table, ‘Theatre Lab Applications’ printed over it. Automatically, Taemin picks up the pen next to it, but stills when he touches the tip on the paper.

“Do you think I’ll really like theatre?” he asks wide-eyed at the teacher, “I never thought about it before.”

Teacher Heechul squints mischievously but doesn’t miss a beat.

“I think you’re gonna love it.”

“Why?”

“Theatre is all about lying. You love to lie, don’t you, kid?”

The mocking smirk on his lips makes Mr. Kim look very youthful, like a teenager. Taemin freezes, mouth gaping, and once again he’s not sure if he’s being reprimanded right then.

“I mean, well, teacher-nim...” he stutters nervously, with an embarrassed smile.

“If you tell the students I said this I’ll give you detention.” Teacher Heechul scrunches his nose menacingly but leans closer to whisper with an amused look in his eyes. “But I get you. Sometimes lying is the most fun you can have as a high school student.”

 

 

 

9:41PM — Library at Neul Paran High School

 

 

“You did what?!”

Jonghyun just shrugs meekly, casting him a quick glance before focusing on his computer again.

“The theatre lab, really? Have you lost your mind?” Minho insists, loudly, momentarily forgetting they are studying at the library.

Well, he is studying, Jonghyun has just been playing pirate Grand Chase for the last hour or so. Probably only because it’s so late, but it’s admirable that the librarian hasn’t complained yet – well, if it was Minho, he would give Jonghyun a pass too, purely out of respect for the intelligence in overwriting the school’s website-blocking script.

“Don’t be ungrateful. You chickened out, but I couldn’t let you have problems on the team.”

Jonghyun thinks Minseok is absolutely right in asking that Minho takes a break, somehow. His competitiveness issues have been growing more and more worrying to Jonghyun over the past year; he’s been afraid his friend will overwork himself and do something regrettable. And the way Jinki spoke of theatre... There was true passion in it, and he thinks Minho could not only learn something in that but have some fun himself while at it.

Minho forgets the issue for a second as he watches amusedly his friend frowning focused and mouthing his thoughts, all the while hitting his attacks extra hard on the keyboard. Jonghyun is right; after he completely panicked on Friday, he promised that he would look for something outside of school, but it was clear that he was finding excuses, completely lost on what to do. But the other has always been a good, insightful hyung to him, so Minho thinks he should trust him if he judges that as a good opportunity for him; specially if they’re going together.

“Wait, you...” He frowns. “Why did you join it? What’s going on?”

His friend has never demonstrated any interest in acting or anything of the sort; he has borderline stage fright, for God’s sake.

“Jinki asked me to.” Jonghyun pauses to drink from his water bottle and turns his chair towards the other. “I think it’s gonna be interesting. Doing something that we never thought of before.”

“I don’t know about that,” is Minho’s immediate answer, “I think I’ll just give trouble to the group, you know, I don’t have that much experience...”

“It’s okay if you’re not good at it,” reasons Jonghyun, reassuringly, “It’s just a school project.”

Minho perks up his posture in the chair, proudly.

“Well I can act, it’s just really out of my comfort zone.”

His friend snorts quietly.

“When have you ever acted before, Choi Minho?” he mocks, rolling his eyes. Jonghyun knew he could tease some motivation into his friend.

“In primary school?” Minho replies immediately, so affected that he loses control of his volume. He checks around them in a hurry and gets the finger from a twelfth-grader reading a few tables away. “Don’t you remember I used to take all the main roles? I was dedicated to it.” He hits his fist silently between them on the computer desk, eager as he is.

Jonghyun stares at his friend in disbelief, and Minho holds his gaze defiantly. You don’t have to be a great actor to recognize who has talent or not, and Minho... Jonghyun has seen very few people ham as spectacularly as the boy in their old school plays. Despite his best efforts, laughter starts to bubble its way out of his throat.

Minho scowls at him.

“What?” he does his best attempt at angry-whispering. “You know I’m saying the truth.”

Jonghyun just nods, squeezing his lips as tightly as he can.

“What is it?” Minho insists, annoyed.

“Nothing,” the other giggles, red in the face.

“What?”

“It’s nothing.”

Jonghyun tries to swallow down his laughter with another sip of water, but it only ends up bursting out through his fingers onto his uniform.

 

 

 

 

 

Tuesday the 20th

 

 

 

 

6:25PM — old storage room at Neul Paran High School

 

 

When Minho and Jonghyun reach the location of the lab meeting, a twelfth-grader is welcoming the new members by the door. They recognize her as Tiffany, as Taeyeon is quite close with her.

“You can get comfortable, take off your jackets, wear your undershirt,” she’s saying as the two come near, “Girls, give up on your skirts already, you better be wearing pants.”

She signals to her own leggings-clad legs.

Minho and Jonghyun pass by her with friendly bows and step inside. The old storage room still has a bit of random junk that has been pushed out to the wall for a spacious clearing through most of the floor. Some students are already gathered on the far end of the room, just lounging on the floor, checking their phones and chatting quietly here and there.

Jinki greets them both with hugs, which is unexpected as that’s something he’s never done before, but the two boys don’t mind it. He sends them off to sit quickly, though; he’s still too anxious and doesn’t want to let it show to the new members. Thus, he gets back to pretending to organize things that don’t need organizing to avoid the others.

It’s to his great relief that Tiffany shuts the door announcing that everyone arrived, just a few minutes later. She gives him an insistent, bright smile until Jinki lets go of his artificial polite grin and smiles big as well.

“Hello guys, I hope everybody arrived well,” she addresses the group happily and some more bowing is exchanged. “Let’s not be all formal and instead just say, let’s work hard together in the theatre lab this year!”

Agreements of “We’ll do our best!”, “Let’s be well together,” and cheeky “Fighting!”s arise in response. Jinki feels giddy at the warm welcome this year’s group has.

“Usually we would have the auditorium, but since it’s under renovation after the fire, we temporarily changed our name to the junk lovers lab,” jokes Tiffany, so effortlessly drawing laughter from the others. “This first day is gonna be different, we’ll just get to know each other. The most important part of theatre is knowing and trusting your partners.”

Whether she’s trying to send him some message or not, Tiffany shifts her gaze pointedly at Jinki as she finishes speaking, eyebrows raised and probing.

He pulls in a nervous sigh and turns to the students.

“We don’t want this to get boring, so we suggested that each member bring a personal talent to show... Because all sorts of skill are appreciated when doing theatre. And so that we can see more sides of each other.” Jinki makes sure to relax his smile and posture. It’s indeed a little scary to face all those friends looking up to his responsibility like that.

Talent?! Minho looks at Jonghyun alarmed, only to see his friend shrinking with an embarrassed grimace. He forgot to tell him, that rascal. Minho punches the air in his direction and sits back with thoughts running on how to deal with this.

“We talked about this at the sign-ups. When we’re done we want to have a chat about everyone’s past experiences and ambitions on the lab this year...” Jinki isn’t sure what he should say next, so he passes it to Tiffany with a quick glance.

“We have a lot of newbies this year so how about the senior members introduce ourselves first?”

“So, do we start? Who starts?” questions Jinki. She just waves dismissively at him. “I start? Alright.”

He waits for the girl to get comfortable and bows.

“Hello, I’m Lee Jinki. I’m 19 years old, from Year 12. I’m the president of the theatre club this year, but you can see it really should’ve been Tiffany-noona.” Jinki smiles teasingly in her direction and she rolls her eyes. “I’ve been in choir and acting classes since I was in elementary school. You can tell I really like musicals.”

He chuckles, but it falls flat and he goes onto the next topic quickly.

“I wanted to show something new, but I asked my friends what my best talent is and it was decreed unanimously,” Jinki closes his eyes as his friends laugh, “that I should show my spinning talent.”

A few excited ‘hoo’s and whistles erupt among the students and Jonghyun claps alongside it, giggling.

“What should I spin?” Jinki wonders.

“I found this earlier just for you!” exclaims Tiffany on her knees, pushing out a broken, big drum from one of the junk piles around them.

The group erupts in laughter, but she’s 100% serious. Jinki just sighs, shaking his head and allows her to pass him the drum with a winning grin. It feels a bit over 1kg so he positions it carefully before sending it spinning over his fingers.

Composed as he pretends to be, the impressed and amused shouts that arise this time have him feeling a little cheeky; Jinki grins as he propels up the drum a couple times above his head and catches it back on his fingers as it spins.

“What’s this talent? Pizzaiolo Jinki-nim?” wheezes Key mid-laugh. This sort of thing is so Jinki’s style.

So, with any talent, Jinki really meant any talent, he thinks, surprised. The other kids look entertained with that, though, and he finds it cute that Jinki would put himself on that spot to encourage the ones with seemingly ‘useless’ talents.

Feeling oddly confident at the response, Jinki lets the drum slow to a stop as he searches around the room for his next trick. The group explodes the loudest yet when Jinki picks up one of the foldable chairs lying nearby in flat setting.

“No way!”

“He’s bluffing, idiots.”

“You’re crazy!”

After years of friendship, Jonghyun is rather surprised by the cocky attitude. It seems that their leader is the type to grow braver with the attention he gets.

Jinki tries to look cool and hold back his smile while preparing for it. The chair is a tad big for this, so he raises his arm above his head and that only makes it seem more skilled when it goes on spinning, even if not very smoothly. He grins to himself when he hears his classmates’ shocked gasps, and Jonghyun’s distinct shriek on top.

The ‘spinning talent’ is just an accidental gift, not any type of trained skill; since Jinki has no idea of what he’s doing, he only lets this last trick last a few seconds before somebody gets hurt.

“This has been it for Jinki-hyung’s personal talent,” he concludes with an amused smile, placing the chair back and sitting with the others. “I could have showed my tap-dancing skills instead, but you kids are so dumb.” He shakes his head in theatrical disapproval, but his heart is running wild; he’s actually very relieved the new members like him.

Tiffany is the next one to step up for an introduction, hands hidden behind her back. Jinki thinks she’s a way better public speaker than him, terribly charming and cheerful, like a celebrity on the red carpet.

“Hello. The Korean name on my jacket is Hwang Miyoung, but my birth name is Stephanie Young-Hwang. Still,” she sighs with an eye roll, “you’ll see that everyone calls me Tiffany, because it’s the nickname mom gave me. So, to the new guys, you’re all welcome to call me Tiffany too. Well, I’m on Year 12, and I’m 19 years old...”

She brings her hands to the front to reveal a piccolo flute with a smile.

“Don’t cheat! You can’t show a fancy talent after I showed my spinning,” protests Jinki, hitting his thigh. “You’ll make me look tacky.”

Tiffany gives him an evil giggle. She asks them to guess the song and gives Taemin a piece of chewing gum when he screams “Monsta X!” only five seconds into her playing.

“I was expecting a girl to guess it,” comments Tiffany when she sits back, a couple meters away from the boy.

He drags his butt in her direction, excited at any prospect to start conversation in the new school.

“I’m a big fan of Monsta X!”

“I’m a Monbebe too,” replies Tiffany with a cute smile, showing the concert rubber-band around her wrist.

Taemin can’t help but hands-talk.

“So cool... I really like their choreographies, Shownu specifically is very–”

Jinki calls them out gently from the other side. “Save the fangirling for later, please.”

Key is relieved for that girl; she looked in panic on what to do with that excited kid.

The three other senior members are from Year 11, Ahn Heeyeon, Byun Baekhyun, and Seo Juhyun.

Heeyeon doesn’t even get up from the floor – she calls her talent ‘selfie-stick’ and everybody is too shocked to react when she takes off her slipper, stretches one leg up in the air and takes a group selfie of the whole group, phone held by her toes.

“This is gonna be our group chat cover!” says Jinki when he checks out the final picture.

Baekhyun’s introduction is cut short when he’s booed out by his own friends for pulling out the same bad impersonation tricks for the thousandth time since he joined the lab last year.

“Just the motorcycle imitation then, let me do just the motorcycle!” he whines as Jinki pulls him away.

As a former ballerina, Juhyun’s skill is ‘perfect balance’, which she demonstrates by tiptoeing on one foot in an elegant pose and allowing anybody to try and distract or tip her off balance.

After that, the rest of the group starts to go up at just about any order, voluntarily or picked out at random by the seniors. Minho does his best at shifting away from their gazes every time. It’s a very new sensation for him to be intimidated by strangers like this, but he can’t help but feel pretty... off among them. They’re all super cool in this reality that is totally opposite to his and Minho feels too bland with his boring, unartistic life in comparison. Besides, he can’t allow himself to go up against them before thinking of a truly good talent to impress the group.

The first one to get up is a tenth-grader called Park Sunyoung, who performs sign-language singing. Cha Sunwoo from Year 10 is a hilarious mime, forming objects from thin air precisely with his hands and very realistic sound effects. Everybody holds their breaths in anticipation when Jung Eunji gets up.

“This is still unrevealed info,” she whispers with a mysterious snicker. “But I’m in the cast for an upcoming movie in a circus...” Everybody hoots as Eunji displays some creepy gymnastic stunts she’s been training, and then laughs with her when she trips all over and falls trying to bridge-walk. “I’m still in improvement!”

With the end of Eunji’s introduction, it seems that they have reached the shy half of the group; everybody stares at each other for a while, fidgety, with no one coming forward. Jonghyun and Jinki cross eyes by chance and the latter urges him on, gentle and silent, with just a small look and smile.

“Hello, I’m Kim Jonghyun from the twelfth year, 18 years old. Jinki-hyung invited me to join this year and take care of music–”

“Oh, are you Jonghyun from the band?” Sunwoo interrupts, wide-eyed.

Jonghyun perks up and deflates within a second. He thought Sunwoo was going to ask about Blue Dawn.

“No, I’m... another Jonghyun who does music.” Lee Jonghyun is the lead guitarist of a rock band some guys from the school made, appropriately named something with the word ‘blue’ like everything else at Neul Paran. The students seem to be pretty invested in them.

Sunwoo nods awkwardly.

“So, I never did anything like theatre before,” chuckles Jonghyun, down at his feet. “But I appreciate all sorts of art and I’m really excited to have this new experience.”

He pauses to check for what he needs next in his pants’ pocket, fingers a little clammy.

“I haven’t shown it to anybody yet so I’m a little insecure but...” The expecting eyes have him pretty uncomfortable pulling out his instrument and spinning it between his hands. Minho tries to show him a reassuring smile. “Over the spring break, I started experimenting with the kazoo.”

“That’s fresh!” comments Jinki, and it makes Jonghyun giggle.

“So, I’ll start,” he concludes, awkwardly, after a pause.

He wraps his lips around the kazoo and starts humming, eyes always closed. Everyone keeps silent as he plays it out, and Jonghyun’s not sure if it’s better or worse that he can’t gauge their feelings. It’s not the audience’s thoughts that matter in the end, though, it’s that it always makes him anxious to show himself in front of a crowd. The secluded little egg of the studio, where he can make people forget he’s anything more than a distant voice, is much more Jonghyun’s style.

It’s just about one minute long, but Minho is so proud of him for it. He wants to whistle when it finishes and the group cheers some praises, but he knows it would just embarrass Jonghyun more.

“Is that your own song?” asks Jinki.

Jonghyun nods shyly.

“What’s the title?” a couple students perk up simultaneously.

“It doesn’t have a name yet,” he replies, pocketing his instrument back. “It’s just a melody that’s stuck in my head recently.”

His heart is beating a little quick when he rushes back to his spot, but it’s more of a happier feeling than he anticipated.

Next up comes Im Jinah, Year 11, carrying bulky 15cm black heels.

“I wanted to be a model, so I became really good at high heel walking...” she tells, rather embarrassedly. Jinah then shows how she can jump rope, do yoga, and even soft kick Jinki on the shoulder on those shoes, like an action movie lady.

“I’m very good at cutting things,” says Do Kyungsoo, Year 10, presenting his talent. So far, the most random skill mentioned, it creates a roar of laughter. His cutting skills are, however, indeed as impressive as his acting, as he shows how he scissors perfect forms in paper without a ruler and slices up a cucumber in under five seconds, all pieces perfectly symmetrical.

Initially, Taemin had been hesitant to go up there not knowing anybody. But he’s getting very annoyed from sitting for so long, switching positions every couple seconds. He hopes nobody thinks his jiggling is a showcase of boredom towards the others, because he is hooked; they’re some of the coolest people he’s met. So, when Tiffany tilts her head at him and signals if he wants to go, Taemin jumps up in relief.

“Hello. My name is Lee Taemin and I’m 15 years old... I never acted before, but–”

“Say your school year,” Jinki interrupts softly.

“Uh? Ah, I’m a tenth-year. I was saying... I don’t know how to act but I’m a very good dancer, actually,” he beams.

Sunyoung raises her hand carefully. “I didn’t see you in the dance lab yesterday...”

Taemin deflates a little, shifting his weight on his feet.

“Well, my parents... We had a disagreement, and the dance lab meetings are too late for me anyways...” he trails off blankly and tries to remember what else he was supposed to say with a frown.

“Are you going to show us your dancing?” probs Tiffany at the silence.

“Hm, no!” Taemin knew he was supposed to show a unique talent like everybody else and planned for such, but now that she’s mentioned this he’s excited at the idea. “Actually, I can show that too if you want. But the personal talent I chose is a duck imitation.”

Oh God, no more imitations. Jinki crosses eyes with Tiffany and they sigh in the mutual understanding that it’s getting very hard to look excited and unjudging of everyone.

“Start whenever you want.” He’s just a fifteen-year-old, thinks Jinki, forcing a smile.

“Why can he do imitation and I can’t?” complains Baekhyun again.

Juhyun turns to him and snaps, “Your motorcycle imitation is the most annoying thing–”

There’s a shock of silence when everyone in the room startles towards the weird burp that comes from Taemin’s direction. The boy smirks amusedly and, hands in front of his mouth, goes a second time at his... duck sound.

It’s so stupidly awful that Jinki can’t hold himself from giggling silently, Key grasping his arm from the left as he laughs himself. Juhyun must be regretting saying that Baekhyun’s imitations are bad, he thinks. It seems that most of the room shows at least a bit of amusement to that. In the back, Jonghyun is hiding his laugh into his lap in an attempt to not hurt Taemin. Jinki checks up on the boy as an afterthought and sighs to see that he’s happy and grinning, apparently very satisfied that his imitation was funny to the others.

“You can show your dance talent too, Taemin-ssi,” comes in Tiffany to save the day. Taemin starts bouncing immediately at that; it’s like his body is always buzzing for dancing. “Do you wanna dance to ‘Trespass’?”

There’s time for everybody to come down and recharge from the duck fiasco as she connects her phone to the Bluetooth speaker. And Taemin really does shine when he dances, very concentrated, his usual fidgeting switched for smooth and confident moves. A bit of a try-hard, but that just seems to be part of the genre. Regardless, Taemin has the time of his life when he can move his body to the music.

It’s rare for Taemin to have anybody to watch him so he whines a little when Tiffany cuts it after the first chorus, but bows flattered when the group bursts into applause and goes back to sit light on his feet.

“Why didn’t you go yet?” Jinki asks on a low voice, nudging Key on the shoulder.

He knows an indirect, so he gets up already and marches to his bag for what he needs.

At first sight, Key strikes as one of those famous students of the school, with his refined and unique looks. But unlike Kyungsoo or Eunji, that can’t be pinned down to any movie or fashion magazine seen before. He just happens to be pretty different, with his ear piercings, asymmetrical haircut, crumpled uniform; just a different regular student, as regular as students are in Neul Paran.

This one sure looks like the spectrum opposite of normie jock Minho in this room. He feels intimidated but still suddenly interested in the boy in front of him at the same time – it’s like he solidifies the sensation that Minho is in a different world within that lab.

“Hello, my name is Kim Kibum. I’m 17 years old, in Year 12,” Key blurts out seriously. “I came from England and I was called Key back there. I hope everyone would call me Key here too,” he smiles but hopes he’s being incisive with that.

He speaks in a cold and smooth manner that Taemin really digs. At the mention of England, Jonghyun even turns to look at Minho, knowing there would be sparkles of enthusiasm in his friend’s eyes.

“Why is it Key?” Jinki asks, smiling curiously. Has he been waiting to ask that since they met?

Key is still thinking of how to get out of this one when Tiffany starts giggling and he just knows she figured it out.

“It’s because ‘bum’ in England is–”

Nobody asked ‘why Tiffany’ at you!” Key interrupts, panicked, but tries to make it sound funny-rude.

Tiffany just grins more at him.

Woah, he bites,” she shoots back, in what he hopes is a friendly tone.

“You took acting classes before, right?” Jinki interrupts, unsure of the true feeling of that bickering.

“Yeah,” Key answers, just to leave that topic behind. “My school had a theatre group, I was part of a few plays.” He reaches into the paper bag and stops. “The talent I brought is actually... I really like art crafts, and I customize a lot of my clothes. This is a jacket I did recently...”

His hands produce a quilt evening coat, which he straightens up in the hanger to showcase properly. It’s coloured in delicate muted pastels, with patterns and shapes that change unpredictably through the fabric.

Key lets the piece go around for the others to appreciate more closely, nodding and smiling timidly to the praises. To Minho, unfashionable as he is, it looks weird and like something he can’t understand. It gives a soft feeling inside Jonghyun, and he sees some parts were sewed together by hand.

“I love this, there’s some Frankenstein concept here.” Jinah is by far the most interested in the group, practically pulling the jacket out of the handler to inspect it.

“Yes, it’s inspired by patchwork quilts,” Key explains with a soft smile. “They’re comfy and warm, and the concept of this is... I was thinking of ‘a blanket to take around with you’.”

“Key-ssi should model it for us!” shouts Heeyeon from the front. Key inhales sharply to himself. “Come on, Jinah-ssi, help him out!”

Do the catwalk,” singsongs Tiffany.

The idea seems to excite Jinah much more than it does to him, and she pulls Key by the arm to the empty space as he tries to make his reluctant face look comic.

“To compliment the patterns, you need to wear it like this,” says the girl, positioning the jacket around him so that it falls lower on one side. “You have to walk on a straight line, tiptoe first. Put your hand in your pocket. Then tummy like this, chest like this, head at 90° angle...”

Key keeps on making funny faces as he lets Jinah move his body according to her instructions. He’s okay with comedy-ing this one through when, right as he takes the first step, the Bluetooth speaker suddenly sounds “iPhone connected” and blasts the first notes of ABBA’s ‘Dancing Queen’.

“Who did this?! Who did this?!” Key stops on his tracks and searches the group, but everyone is facing him with equally giggling faces, not a phone in sight. He tips his head back and screams to the ceiling, “Nooooo!”

It’s so funny to see the cool guy lose his composure.

Jinah holds up his shoulders when he tries to crumble his posture and turn back. The club cheers him on and he tries to somewhat turn his bashful giggling into a theatrical pissed off face before he resumes. Nobody can be truly mad while listening to ABBA anyways.

Leaning on his shoulder, Jinah follows Key through the walk whispering tips all the way of how to look and pose at each stop. He tries to keep it serious-funny for the most part, because having people watch him like this has him antsy and Key rather they think about anything but beauty when looking at him. It feels like it works, by the cackles and playful whistles he gets bowing at the end.

After Key sits back down, a staring match begins when Minho and another newcomer realise they’re the only ones left now. He won’t lose on this; he knows he’s most likely to be the next forcibly volunteered person since Jinki knows him, but he’s still not come up with anything to do there. Thus, he’s determined to outdo this girl with pleading puppy eyes.

For some tense heartbeats the two send lightning to each other across the semi-circle of bodies. Just when Minho is preparing to have his name called, the girl sighs and gets up grumpily. He offers her an encouragement smile in exchange, but she just rolls his eyes at it.

She has a very pretty face, but her image crumbles with her awkward stiff posture and slurred speech. Minho would be willing to bet she’s a total rookie like him.

“Hello,” starts the girl seriously. Her speech is mumbled and it requires some attention to make out what she says. “I’m Bae Juhyun from Year 11. I’m 17–”

“Sorry, what did you say your name was?” Tiffany asks, seemingly casual, but there’s something affected about it that is highly suspicious.

Juhyun looks a little confused.

“...Bae Juhyun,” she repeats, more clearly.

“Hmm!” exclaims Jinki exaggeratedly, frowning.

Heeyeon and Tiffany follow:

“Ahh, this won’t do it!”

“Bad choice, girl.”

Baekhyun clicks his tongue with a disapproving wiggle of his finger.

All the seniors seem to be revelling a little in the cruel confusion they’re putting her through, and even the composed Seo Juhyun plasters an evil smirk on her innocent features silently, looking down. The rest of the group might be as lost as her, but still gets hooked on watching what this teasing will lead to.

“What?” she infers, on a line between shy and annoyed.

“We already have a Juhyun with us,” Jinki explains in a deep voice and a hard stare, like this is a serious matter. Bae Juhyun’s eyes just keep on switching, puzzled, among the lab members.

“By the theatre lab constitution, you’ll have to get a stage name,” completes Tiffany, sombrely. The grave emphasis she gives it makes it feel like this is not going to end well.

“Stage name?” Juhyun repeats, carefully. She’s juggling from foot to foot. Jinki pities that she is way too shy for this sort of teasing, but he can’t fight the club tradition.

“It can happen to anyone, don’t worry,” reassures Heeyeon, only a little on the condescending side. “I was Honey last year because of Heeyeon-unnie.”

“Noona went easy on you,” groans Jinki, “Senior Hong Jinki-nim named me Onyu on my first year.”

Usually the boy would be embarrassed of mentioning this nickname, but he wants Juhyun to feel a little more comfortable. It makes Baekhyun snicker.

“Onyu? Like ‘mildness’?” he asks.

“It actually stands for ‘hot milk’ but I’m not recounting that story,” Jinki answers with a pointed look at Tiffany, the only remaining witness of the time he got dumped with dairy milk before the very first lab meeting and had to get EpiPen-ed when his face swelled red hot. She puts her hands up with tightly shut lips and a teasing eye-smile, promising not to tell.

“I don’t know, I don’t have any nicknames...” Bae Juhyun mumbles, an embarrassed half-smile on her lips.

“Don’t worry,” interrupts Tiffany. “Juhyunie will give you one.”

She gestures to the girl who is keeping silent in her corner. Seo Juhyun gets up slowly and heads to the front, hands clasped behind her back with a contemplating expression, the glint on her eyes just a little bit evil. Jinki trusts her to go easy on the newcomer.

She even bows lightly to the other and gets another nervous little bow in reply. She analyses the fidgeting girl for a while, looking for ideas.

“Can you introduce yourself again?”

“Hm, I’m Bae Juhyun...” she mumbles, annoyed, and her slurring habit really digs her grave with this one.

“Baechu Young?” Juhyun doesn’t miss a beat, cynic wide eyes. The class guffaws and the girl hides her face in her hands, desperate. Juhyun bows several times as she speaks, theatrically, “It’s an honour to have the Cabbage Spirit with us this year. We’re the same age so it’s okay if I only call you Cabbage-ssi, right? It’s a pleasure, Baechu-ssi.”

Baechu can do nothing but laugh mortified into her hands as her destiny is sealed and doesn’t even look up when Juhyun shakes her hand before sitting again. Jinki chuckles at Juhyun and her sweet teasing smirk – he didn’t know she could be so mean. Then he shifts his gaze to Baechu, a little worried – he and Tiffany wouldn’t allow any teasing that made the students uncomfortable, but Baechu looks fine, her awkward smile back, only very red in the face this time.

She explains that after reading Marie Kondo when she was in middle school, she became very good at organizing things.

“Her show could be to organize the whole room in thirty seconds!” Heeyeon jokes.

“Can you do the clothes folding? That makes the fabric stand?” questions Eunji.

Baechu nods.

“Does it work with anything?”

“Pretty much.”

Nobody manages to agree on what to give her so it’s just a mess where Sunyoung hands her skirt, Jonghyun strips his dress shirt, somebody fetches a dropped jacket and Baekhyun pretends to unzip his pants before Tiffany hits him back into the floor.

Key has seen some of Marie Kondo’s videos before and Baechu works way faster than he thinks you’re supposed to, but it’s very lovely the way she measures the folds seriously and caresses every piece as she finishes. It’s all easy and smooth, which makes her look somewhat like a Disney princess.

Everybody claps by the end, as usual, but Baechu still looks up with a bashful smile like she didn’t think anybody would praise that.

“I’m so glad we’ll have someone to keep order here this year,” Tiffany talks as she helps the girl pick up and distribute the clothes again. “Theatre people, they’re like, such a mess. I would never hang out with them.” She eye-rolls mockingly, and Baechu seems a little more relaxed with her.

Minho gets up as soon as the girl gets out of the way, just to not pass through having to be called out. He’s tense all the way to the front, thoughts running; distracted with all the other interesting members, he didn’t leave much thought to remember something to showcase. Minseok was both right and wrong; Minho really doesn’t think of anything other than football, but he also really doesn’t know anything other than that.

He breathes hard, frustrated at being the one in disadvantage for once.

“Hello, my name is Choi Minho. I’m on the eleventh year and I’m 17. I’m on the football team... you guys must know that,” he starts the most charismatically he can muster, in an attempt to save his nerves. Minho certainly won’t say he was grounded into this so he goes, “I actually don’t know anything about theatre and acting and stuff, but I want to... discover new things. My special talent...”

Minho looks around the room, tapping his foot in thought. He doesn’t know what to do and doesn’t know what to say about it. So, he ends up doing something he is really good at, which is blaming someone else.

“Actually, Jonghyun-hyung signed me up and didn’t even tell me I had to bring a special talent,” he accuses playfully in one breath, laughing as Jonghyun’s eyes and mouth widen in shock and then shut in irritation. Minho knows he’s not really bothered, just joking. “So really, all I can think of is football right now. I know it’s kinda...”

Jonghyun chuckles nervously as he watches his friend, tense posture, stiff breathing. He realizes Minho is really taking this seriously, which is in itself dumber than anything he could show.

“Can you do those... ball... tricks? Like kick-ups and stuff?” Completely unexpected, it’s Baechu who takes pity on him, checking him unsurely.

“Yes, I can do that,” Minho exclaims, almost jumping. Jonghyun and some others cackle at his enthusiasm.

Jinki sighs in acceptance.

“Well, there must be a ball here somewhere...”

The older members are sent to round up the place for a ball quickly. Whereas in other places the youngest are usually made to do things, this lab doesn’t seem to care this way about seniority.

The only thing that resembles a ball at fast reach is a deflated and stretchy rubber thing that rubs off pink in Baekhyun’s hand. Everybody grimaces and he drops it back.

“Isn’t that a ball he got there?” asks Eunji, seemingly very amused to spot it after the others went through the trouble of searching for it.

She’s pointing at the indeed very round plastic bag among Kyungsoo’s things.

“This?” the boy sounds a little surprised and opens it up to reveal a large green fruit. “It’s a melon.”

The group chuckles at the natural way he puts it.

“Just a whole melon?” asks somebody, shocked.

“It was left from the cooking lab so I brought it here to share...” Kyungsoo explains, casually. “But if you want to use it...”

“I can totally kick-up this!” Minho says from the front, confidence back on, as if he’s ever kicked a fruit before. There’s a chance for him to show something interesting.

Jinki and Tiffany smile at each other, excited.

“Okay, let’s see Minho’s footmelon abilities!” announces Jinki as he skips to get the fruit. He spins it on his way to give it to Minho, just to be cheeky.

“Show-off,” Juhyun whispers when he sits back.

Minho accepts the melon with a bow and feels it a little between his hands. It’s a heavy one, but he can manage it. His eyes squint menacingly at the fruit, just to let it know he can’t be bested. He can hear Jonghyun laughing off at him in the back, but he concentrates as he balances the fruit at the tip of his slipper.

Leisurely, he warms up on the foot and knees, switches a couple times, easy peasy. Then, Minho skips straight for the chest, which might be a tad too bold because it almost hits the ceiling and knocks back at him too hard. He manages to catch it with his arm and does a couple shoulder runs with the melon.

The reaction from the group is great. Some smirking, some head to foot, and Minho slows down with some legs twirls – which are pretty easy, but always impress a crowd. He kicks the melon back to his head and bows to the cheers.

Minho leaves the fruit to balance on his head as he catches his breath.

“Woah, he can keep it on his head too!”

“For how long can you do this?”

“I don’t know, I never tried,” Minho shrugs. But he’s up for it.

“It’s boring if he just stands around, though,” Tiffany thinks out loud.

“Make him do girlgroup dance!”

Minho’s stare burns through the air all the way to Jonghyun, hiding an evil grin behind his knees.

That seems to be instantly regarded as a good idea by the group and everyone starts uttering this and that song.

“Key is a girlgroup fan!” Jinki shouts cheerfully. Key just stares back, baffled. “Teach him something.”

He smiles awkwardly at all the stares from the room. Did this guy bring him here just to expose him? Key gives Jinki a bold look and only gets a friendly grin in response. He gets up with an exaggerated sigh and drags himself dramatically to the front.

“You absolutely can’t touch the melon with anything but your head,” Tiffany decrees loudly.

Key stands to face Minho, both sideways to the rest of the group. Minho swallows, bothered, at seeing the other’s face up close; he looks like a doll, even with melted BB cream at the end of the day, a big scar crossing one eyebrow. He offers a friendly smile that Key doesn’t quite mind as he thinks about what dance to choose.

Momoland’s ‘Bboom’ is extremely overplayed by now, but it’s easy and very entertaining. He just says, “Follow me”, before he starts on the choreography, singing along just a tad slower to be nice on the other.

Key snickers at the frown Minho makes as he follows the movements, extremely serious to win this through. He needs to concentrate into head-upping the melon every few seconds to keep it on but getting the dance right is the hardest part.

Nothing he can’t do, with some strong focus, until Key starts skipping up on his step.

“I can’t jump! I can’t jump!” protests Minho as he quits, swaying to keep the melon up without hands. “This is not fair.”

Key deflates, confused. Won’t the melon just bounce along? He shakes his head and decides he rather not fight with this dude, then goes to think of a different choreography Minho won’t complain of.

In revenge, HyunA’s ‘Bebe’ is girlier and a little harder, yet a lot flatter on the feet. Key is satisfied to see the brief panic in Minho’s eyes at the first hip wave, but it lasts little as the boy stays more determined than ever in the task.

But only fifteen seconds in, Minho stops again and Key rolls his eyes before he even begins.

“There’s no way to keep turning like this!” Minho swirls slowly to demonstrate it. “I can’t see what you’re doing.”

“Is this really such a problem?”

“I have to do this right!” he replies like that’s extremely important.

Key wonders how he manages to deep sigh and dry laugh at the same time.

Oh my God, you’re so annoying,” he mutters funnily to himself, but it makes a couple members laugh. He sees it as Minho already proved enough of himself so far, melon still perky and proud on his stubborn head, and just settles for whatever for his last try. “Alright, let’s just do ‘Gashina’? It’s super easy!”

This time almost the whole group sings along as he starts on the chorus. Even Minho has some notion of the moves already, which makes the job all the more simpler. Key didn’t think of this as competition until the other pissed him off, but this time he really thinks he’d bring the other down with the neck moves. Impressively, Minho does extremely well at them in perfect balance.

The joy of finally performing his ability as perfectly as he wants makes him break a smirk in his previously serious and engrossed face. Minho even thinks his dancing isn’t half bad.

It’s just ridiculous how the moment comes at the last move; he goes too hard for that hip sway because he really can’t move his body like Key, and just that nudge up sends the melon tipping off to the side. The most torturous is that Minho’s hands are held up just right there, but he’s anything but a cheater, so he painfully feels the fruit roll away on the backs of his fists with shocked eyes.

Dance completely forgotten, Minho dives right determinedly as if he’s saving the final goal, but the melon flies further than he can throw his head to and he crashes on the ground. The boy almost wants to stay faceplanted on the floor as punishment for this stupid loss but drags himself up to a crouch.

Minho puts his hands at his temples, frustratedly. Lying only half a meter ahead is the melon, cracked into two beautiful halves staring up at him mockingly. The seeds might as well be spelling out ‘DEFEAT’.

The craziest thing, though, is that everybody claps and shouts for him. Over a broken melon... theatre people are really, really weird.

Jonghyun only controls himself from falling to the floor in laughter in order to steady his hand for a picture so that he can laugh more later. Minho, crouching pathetically and death-staring a broken melon like it’s his worst enemy. He needs to save that for eternity.

Key laughs out like he’s never seen something better.

“I can’t believe you lost on the easiest move. The easiest move!” he practically shouts out in his haze. He takes a few breaths to steady himself and lowers closer to the frozen, quietly moping boy by his feet. “You’re a strange dude, Minho-ssi.”

Minho looks up when he taps his back and immediately covers his face with a groan. It suddenly makes him remember he lost because of Key, the cool and artistic pretty boy in the lab. That only serves to make Minho’s frustration worse. And what did Key mean with ‘strange dude’, what did he mean with that shining smile?

Just when he begins to recharge and stand back up, Tiffany rushes to his side and holds his shoulders.

“Another round of applause for the birth of a talent, melon girlgroup dancing!” she exclaims, and the group goes all back to whooping.

Minho thinks how it’s probably the first time he’s ever been applauded for something that isn’t exactly winning. Funny people. He bows with a tight, flattered smile.

“Hm, very crunchy,” moans Jinki behind him. He has half of the melon in his hand, chewing on a broken off piece happily. “Congratulations, Minho-ssi.”

Minho’s got no idea what he’s talking about but his body just feels like smiling along.

Jinki signals Kyungsoo over to bring the knife and chop up their snack already.

“Why don’t we all chat a little as we eat this?”

 

 

 

 

 

Wednesday the 21st

 

 

 

 

5:26PM — Male dressing room at Neul Paran High School

 

 

Purely out of nerves, Minho arrives almost twenty minutes early to the next football practise, but not surprisingly, Minseok is already in the dressing room, looking over notes while he stretches.

“So, you’ve decided to turn from a football star into a drama star?” The captain pokes his butt with the tip of his marker when he walks by. Minho freezes and whips his head back. “Isn’t it like that Disney movie?”

“How do you know this?”

Minseok rolls his eyes with a funny face, teasing.

“A little birdie told me you can dance with a melon on your head. You’re a man full of talents, aren’t you Minho?” He pats the younger on the shoulder mockingly.

Minho swats him away with a whine, face hot.

“Who’s telling you these things!”

Theatre should have a ‘happens here, stays here’ clause – he cringes just from imagining all sorts of embarrassment he will go through in there this year.

“Do Kyungsoo from the cooking lab. Did you know he was in a K.Will music video?” Minseok replies, widening his eyes. “Anyways, how did you like it?”

Minho chews on his lip, unsure. He had fun yesterday, even if he kind of stressed himself out. But there wasn’t much theatre-ing going on yet, either. It was a strong impression, either way.

“It’s pretty different from all I’ve done before, but it’s interesting,” he settles with an ambiguous shrug. At the worst case, he thinks he might at least have a good laugh with Jonghyun there this year. This sort of unwinding is just what the captain asked for.

“I think it’ll do you good,” says Minseok with a gummy smile. He looks up at the other fondly. “Stop doing the same things every day.”

Minho replies with a tense smile and turns away, messing around in his locker for a minute just to pretend like he’s not twisting in anxiety inside.

He tugs on his towel nervously as he asks, breath caught on his throat, “Am I good on the team then?”

It echoes on the empty room. There’s a pause and he can’t help checking on Minseok through the corner of his eye.

“Well, let’s see...” He walks over to the bench and picks up their mini whiteboard. His eyes tease Minho with a glisten before he grins, “Is winger-forward good enough for you?”

Minho’s heart somersaults right out of his chest.

“For real?!”

He snatches up the white board, eyes bulging in disbelief, and there is his name placed in on the left-winger position of their formation table. Minho’s wanted to play forward since he was in his middle school’s team. He’s so happy that he bounces with a jittery laugh, out of words.

The captain looks proud of him.

“Captain-hyung!”

Minho feels his chest expanding and jumps on him in an impulsive hug, smashing the whiteboard between their bodies; lucky Minseok’s calves are strong enough to take 179cm of screaming boy on him.

 

 

 

 

 

Thursday the 22nd

 

 

 

 

6:27PM - Old storage room at Neul Paran High School

 

 

“We’re gonna start soon,” Tiffany bows. “We’re playing a game in the meanwhile, so please go in silently.”

Minho and Jonghyun look at each other in curiosity before stepping inside.

There’s a circle in the middle of some eight people who seem to just be sitting quietly on the floor until they walk in, taking off their jackets. Everybody bows silently at each other and Jinki gives them an excited wave as the students part to give them room.

Minho and Jonghyun settle cross-legged, side by side. Nobody gives them any explanation and immediately resume their serious and concentrated instances.

For several seconds, Jonghyun is nothing short of lost and wonders if this is some senior prank. Nobody seems to be doing anything but staring at each other. He mimics them, nervously, and starts to shift his eyes around – even if staring people in the eyes is rather awkward to him.

The silence is so deep that they both startle when someone to their right whispers, “Ra!”, not long after.

In just a few seconds, Sunwoo from across the circle sounds, “Ma!” Then a long pause again before Jinki says, “Ba!” No one on the circle expresses any reaction at any of these.

What kind of game is this? They’re reciting the alphabet, but it doesn’t seem to be at random. Theatre people are really weird, thinks Minho. But he’s in for absolutely any game, even this mysterious stuff, and sharpens his eyes as it goes on to find the pattern where he can start playing in.

“What letter are we in again?” mutters Taemin, bashfully, to Sunyoung by his side.

“Last was Ka.”

A few seconds later, Taemin utters “Ta!”

Another minute and some letters later, Jonghyun surprisingly perks up, “Na!”

Minho turns to him wide-eyed, questioning how did he get it. His friend shrugs, a finger to his lips, because it’s funnier to see Minho try to figure it out by himself.

He bounces in concentration, focusing on each and every face around him. The letters pass by and he can’t seem to catch what makes the ball go around. But unexpectedly soon, he looks at Kyungsoo to his left who enunciates, “Sa!”, his eyes undoubtedly and incisively right into Minho’s through his glasses. Then he just looks another way like it didn’t even happen.

This can’t be just it. Minho sits bewildered for several seconds, but when nobody else keeps the streak, he looks for a safe target – Jinki, and waits for him to look in his direction. “Ah!” he whispers hesitantly.

Nobody shows reaction, not even Jinki, so he judges he didn’t mess up the game. Some moments later, Jinki passes “Ja!” to someone else, and Jonghyun chuckles seeing Minho self high-five his success.

This game isn’t half as interesting after you understand it, and Minho quickly grows bored.

It’s kind of unsettling for Jonghyun to be staring at so many people he doesn’t know like this, eye to eye. He has a hard time keeping a straight face at times, but it makes his stomach flutter in a good way to hold those stares.

Key loves it; the connection when two gazes lock and the game passes on is somewhat electric. We are told to lower our eyes from seniors, shift our gaze from strangers, so facing new people so directly feels like acknowledging a very bare part of each other. Right in the moment two people look into each other’s eyes, it’s exciting like they share a secret, for only that little second.

It’s not like Taemin wasn’t interested, but he started watching a spider going up the cabinets two minutes ago. It’s a bit of a relief when Tiffany walks in announcing everybody arrived and they can stand up.

“What do you think we were doing just now?” Jinki suddenly asks, mysteriously.

No one has an answer for a while, odd as that is.

“It was a game...?” Jinah tries, more like a question.

“What was the purpose in it?” asks Jinki emphatically and holds eye contact with each student in the circle to be more provoking.

“To concentrate?” Taemin says.

“Good.”

Key wants to give the opportunity for the others to speak up, but after they remain silent for a while, he licks his lips to start.

“We were strengthening our awareness of each other,” he says, quick and sure. “We need to pay attention to our partners when we act.”

The proud grin that stretches on Jinki’s face at that is uncontrollable, and Tiffany will probably tease him for playing favourites later. He really likes this guy.

“Oh, that’s right,” Tiffany answers. Key looks at his feet, conscious of all the stares at him. The girl proceeds didactically, “This sort of connection is the starting point of chemistry in theatre. Because there are members with no experience this year, we planned to show some starting points of theatre in our first meetings. So, each senior member is gonna be responsible for a meeting.”

She smiles encouragingly at Juhyun by her side, with a little elbow-shove. The girl shuffles on her feet and smiles.

“Um, we will do eye contact exercises today...”

 

 

 

 

 

 

Monday the 26th

 

 

 

 

5:57PM — Gymnasium gates at Neul Paran High School

 

 

Planning a surprise birthday party to Minseok is a daring idea that only a crazy guy like Han would attempt. After they got caught with burning barbecue on Minseok’s backyard last year, Han decided to unite forces with the hopefully smarter people from the cooking lab to celebrate after school hours.

Both groups meet before the gymnasium gates, and the cooking lab is promptly attacked by the players to steal a bite or a lick and ruin everything they’ve prepared before the party even starts. Han comes in swirling around the chunky gate keys.

“You guys done with the balloons?”

“Ten left,” a voice pants.

“Last one!” shouts Minho, adding another blown up balloon to the strings around his arm.

When Minseok isn’t around, Han takes his opportunity to boss the others around, giving out annoying comments and unnecessary orders just because he can.

“Don’t eat the frosting without me, idiots.”

Kyungsoo stares Minho down in angry panic as he is once again helpless to salvage the cake he holds from being attacked by Han’s finger. Minho doesn’t know what he has to do with that but sends him an apologetic smile because he’s the only person the shy boy knows in that crowd.

Somebody snorts loudly.

“I swear to God if he finds out it’s gonna be–”

He groans as the nearby players kick at his shins.

“Shut up, don’t jinx it.”

“We have time, okay?” groans Han. He balances a pack of ‘soda’ on his hip – at least half of them have beer inside – and cuts through the crowd towards the gate. “His class is on kitchen duty right now. Besides, he has no reason to come to the field.”

The moment Han sticks the key in the lock, the gate softly swings in with the weight of his arm and everybody immediately shuts up. It’s already unlocked.

“Motherfucker–”

Their captain, lounging on the lower bleachers, greets them with a cheeky salute. Lips pursed around the straw, he slurps his coffee milk as obnoxiously loud as possible in the falling silence of the gymnasium.

“Hey, I heard there was a party? Lucky that the dishwashers are leaking, right?”

In a heartbeat, Han reaches for the cupcake tray in Minho’s hands and throws one square on Minseok’s forehead.

 

 

 

 

 

Tuesday the 27th

 

 

 

7:25PM — Old storage room at Neul Paran High School

 

 

Baekhyun is responsible for their vocal workshop. Figures he’d be the specialist, given how much and how loud he talks.

The boy demonstrates how to train breath control by breathing in and humming out as far as they can, then goes around checking their chests with his ear.

“Breathe in lower. Use your belly.”

“You need to vibrate it more. Yes, yes, good.”

“Hyung, you’re wheezing,” Baekhyun scolds with a frown. “You need to take better care of your throat.”

Jinki coughs self-consciously.

Baekhyun listens near Jonghyun for a total of three seconds before clapping him on the shoulder. “Ah, this dude is a professional. You don’t need to be here. Get out of my class, go!” He pretends to push the other towards the door while Jonghyun hides his bashful face.

Key tenses up when Baekhyun walks by him. Nobody else seems to be having much problem with the exercise, but he feels himself lacking tremendously. He finds himself running out of breath every few seconds, breathing in sharply to restart, yet it’s like he can’t ever pull in enough air. His head is feeling a little light, but he doesn’t want to get criticized by a junior, so he shuts his eyes and tries hard again.

Baekhyun stays next to him for a long time, ear up close to his chest. His hand feels softly at Key’s front a few times before he nods to himself.

“Ah, I see,” Baekhyun finally speaks, in a whisper gentle enough to only be heard between them. “You can’t keep up because you have too much air.”

Key blinks.

“What?”

“You breathe in a lot but don’t let all the air come out. You’re always keeping all this air here,” Baekhyun gestures to the upper part of his own chest, just under the neck, “so you never empty your lungs. Makes it feel like you’re drowning on air.”

Well, that is just like what the strain in Key’s lungs feels like. Is Baekhyun trying to say that the reason he can’t last is because he’s scared of exhaling?

He certainly has more self-control than that. With a determined inhale, Key resumes humming, but doesn’t last long before he’s gagging again.

“I really can’t go further than this,” he pants, grumpily.

It doesn’t affect Baekhyun. He smiles softly, and it makes Key a little angrier.

“It’s alright if it feels weird. Just once is enough. With me.” The boy places one hand on each side of Key’s torso and looks into his eyes reassuringly. “Breathe in and breathe out. Even when it feels almost empty, don’t stop.”

Key inhales slowly, at the same pace as the boy before him, and follows when Baekhyun starts blowing out through his lips. Gradually, his body starts tensing up as the discomfort inside his chest grows and Baekhyun nods encouragingly. Key focuses all his strength into pushing out through the burn, and his shoulders start dipping in; he can’t take it much longer as his throat convulses and wheezes back.

When he breathes back in, he can feel that his lungs were barely half-empty yet.

“I can’t do this.” Key whips his head around, suddenly hyper-aware of the surrounding students, but nobody is paying attention to them. He fiddles with his earring frustratedly. “That’s too much, I’m running out of air.”

Baekhyun laughs, airy and low. Key sends him a glare.

“You can’t run out of air, senior-nim,” he smiles, like it’s an absurd thing to say. “There’s air everywhere. All of this –,” he waves his arms in the space around them, “– is air. You just have to breathe it back in.”

 

 

 

 

Friday the 30th

 

 

 

 

7:46AM - 502.5FM

 

 

« ...So, the first month of the school year is already ending. It’s been a very surprising year for me so far. It started some interesting new things and I’m excited for where that will take me.

You know, I joined the theatre lab this year. That never seemed like my sort of thing, but I’m having a lot of fun. There’s something special about theatre kids... Maybe it’s just me, but in the med-com lab, we are super practical. Of course, we’re friendly but we don’t meet up so often, and when we talk we’re all business.

In the theatre lab, it’s a different atmosphere. People are different, just like their stereotypes [chuckles]. We’ve only known each other for a few meetings, but everybody already speaks comfortably in the group. Even the juniors. I’ve been hugged by the other members as a greeting as well. Even if we’re not close friends, it’s like there’s this sense of trust within the whole group. [pause] And that makes sense, in a way, because in theatre we create this sort of unusual connection... We see each other without inhibitions, and it’s uncomfortable at first, but very liberating, I think.

They don’t seem to care about rules from the outside world; it’s like we have our own parallel reality there. It’s very refreshing.

Did you guys start something new this year? Or something unexpected that happened this month? Let’s talk about it... »

 

 

 

 

 

Saturday the 31th

 

 

 

 

9:00AM — Key’s bedroom

 

 

Key has trouble clicking off his alarm due to how littered his phone is with notifications. He blinks and squints at the bright light, trying to make sense of the forms. His digit unlocks the home screen and clicks on the culprit, WhatsApp.

The app crashes twice as he tries to open it, and once it manages to properly load, it’s obvious why. ‘⚧FREAK SHOW☣’ is right on top of the chat list.

1,306 new messages.

Key squeezes his eyes for a double take, but his heart is already frozen inside of his chest in an instant. It’s so selfish, but it feels like his guts turned into snakes as he clicks into the chatroom to see his friends having fun without him.

They sure had a blast tonight. His finger scrolls down meters and meters of funny selfies, memes, key smashes, but he doesn’t take in any meaning.

The pain is too big to let him laugh. He’s been trying to blind himself to it for all those weeks and this comes like a burning slap to the face. He hasn’t had a real conversation with his friends in months. Key misses his friends so fucking much and his dad, Jinki, the theatre lab will never be enough to compensate how much he regrets the stupid decision of leaving them.

Too hurt to go on, he skips down to the only message that tagged his number.

 

[veve]:

omg i cant believe @⚿ key is missing all of this SLEEPING

 

Eyes stinging, he keeps trying to breathe in in short bursts but finds his lungs already too full with air. Key stares up at the mandala he painted on the ceiling over his bed, just a couple days ago. The swirling purples and blues still look wet, dropping like sideway tears. His eyes are wet.

His phone goes flying to the other side of the bed, and with an angry roll, he tucks himself back into the comforter, trembling. Key pulls in a deep breath and pushes it out and out and out, feeling the muscles all over his body give out with it, until there’s no air left in him. Then screams, silently, into the pillow.