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Misconceptions on the Escapist World

Chapter Text

“Who are you?”

Jonghyun is so used to being woken up with kicks by now that he barely grunts as he rolls around to face the ceiling. He rubs his face to blink into reality when a harder hit comes at his ribs and he startles up to his elbows.

“Who are you?” insists that thin little voice again, full of aggression.

It’s too bright around for it to be time for the wake up call and the hard wood feels unfamiliar under Jonghyun’s body. Disoriented, he pushes his upper body up and is unexpectedly met with the rusted glint of a knife right at his chin.

That is ridiculous for a man used to carry around rifles all day, but his eyes widen in panic and he stiffens his spine immediately.

“Cadet 25–” He starts automatically, and has the dropping realization that he doesn’t need to be introducing himself like this now. He’s not a number anymore; he means nothing to the nation. “Kim Jonghyun.”

He remembers that he isn’t at camp, then. Finally does Jonghyun dare a glance around the truck box he got himself landed on last night. And up the line of the short-sword to the sight of a little girl looming over him intimidatingly.

“Explain yourself,” she demands, voice and face seeming much older with the threatening stare she gives him. Her hand doesn’t tremble.

Jonghyun wonders how low he’s gotten in life to actually swallow in fear of a pre-teen holding a big knife. But he’s hungry of two days and dehydrated to the point his mouth hurts, so his failing muscles won’t help him even get up from the dirty floor right now.

“I-I-m sorry, I thought th-this wasn’t...” Jonghyun starts, awareness coming to him in the form of hyperventilated anxiety. This box looked empty and abandoned stray away from the gas station, in the dark cover of last night. He didn’t think anybody would come pick it up so soon, but his brain wasn’t rationalizing well enough anyways when he collapsed dizzily into the first cover from the rain he found. “I just had to sleep somewhere, I promise I’ll leave right now–”

Jonghyun turns around to look for the opening out of there. The light of the high sun is making the asphalt steam on the outside. That’s not the empty grass field he walked on yesterday; Jonghyun hesitates in his movements, coming up blank.

“Are you a defector?” the girl questions, seemingly noticing his battered down uniform now that he’s not curled up among the piles of fabric. Jonghyun can’t quite identify the tone in her voice at this and it only riles him up more.

“No! I’m loyal to the Republic, just–”

“Whatever.” She sighs, and so does Jonghyun, relieved of explaining his humiliating situation for now. His duties as a citizen don’t seem to interest her so much, rather, she seems a little fed up of his nervousness.

The kid once-overs him with a hard stare and he permits himself some meek glances between her and the blade still at his face. An ungraceful little lady, she is. Hair all over the place and her narrow hips struggling to keep up a stained pair of oversized pants. Unlike the poor girls of his neighbourhood, she doesn’t put any effort to be as pretty as possible in dirty old clothes. And he’s never been spoken to so rudely, in informal language by a child before. Jonghyun frowns curiously at this odd figure.

Finally, the girl decides such a scared, starving man isn’t any threat for her and lowers the sword with a slump. Her features melt a little and some pity wedges into the menace in her eyes. She looks a little starved herself, and without all the aggression on her little body, Jonghyun can see she can not be much older than ten.

They pause in silence, staring at each other uncertainly until both shoulders relax.

“What are you gonna do now?” the girl ends up asking with a squint.

Of course. Jonghyun’s mind is working so slow he forgot he is currently being kicked out of someone else’s property, which he trespassed to hide from the rain after wandering kilometers off military camp. From which he was discharged for misconduct and due to be punished days ago. The reason he will never go back to his family and has now driven off to who knows where. He has no home, no job, and nobody who loves him to go to.

He stares up dumbly at the kid.

“... I... don’t...”

She cocks her head, considering him with some semblance of empathy in her pursed lips.

“You want a job?”

He doesn’t even question what kind of job a miserable teen girl could give him. The sudden settling reality around Jonghyun steals all spirit from within his body. His head just nods mindlessly like clockwork.

“Alright, what can you do?” The girl balances the tip of her short-sword on the ground and leans into her arm on it.

His mind whirls to think of what his life was like before the pit of misery he is right now.

“Hum, I was the apprentice of a clockmaker, before,” he says, too tired to be bitter about it. “I’m very good at fixing things. In the army I took care of all sorts of mechanics here and there, and I was a nursing assistant too...”

“Are you literate?”

The way she speaks, eyebrows raised, makes it sound like something of big interest. So Jonghyun answers immediately, “Yes” though he never stepped into a school and self-taught everything he knows with his boss’ books at the shop.

Given the comfortable atmosphere, he finally decides to stand up and stretch his aching body. She allows him; however, when Jonghyun’s adjusting his belt around him, her eyes zero in on something at his waist and the hard expression comes back to her face in a blink.

Jonghyun can’t even process it when he’s kicked against the wall and pinned on with the tip of the blade digging into the center of his chest. He is trained to put down men five times the size of this limp thing, but his dizzy reflexes only barely help him put his hands up in submission.

The girl looks into his eyes angrily.

“That better not be a gun,” she growls between her teeth, pointing down with her eyes. Jonghyun silently follows her gaze to the glistening silver in his belt.

Very slowly, he lowers one hand to unclasp his harmonica from its pocket and displays it to the kid in his open palm.

“Oh,” she exclaims, and takes the instrument from him. Jonghyun sighs his palpitations away once again as the girl walks away with the sword down, checking out the harmonica curiously. “You play this?”

When she turns to Jonghyun with an impressed smirk, she finally looks like the excited young girl she should be.

“Yes.”

“That’s not an answer,” she says amusedly, handing him back the instrument.

Jonghyun holds it like it’s sand that would spill out of his fingers. When he left for service, while other men came with lighters and charms, the harmonica was the only possession he brought with him. And now, aside from the water bottle dangling empty by his thigh, the harmonica is the only thing Jonghyun took when he ran away.

The girl nods for him to play it with sparkling eyes. Jonghyun holds the harmonica up to his lips and starts blowing softly, moving instinctively to the first melody that pops into his mind.

It doesn’t have the best sound. He built it himself, like a Frankenstein, with the useless pieces thrown to the trash of the clock shop, over the course of three years. But she sways sweetly along to the song; and even through all the dirt and the revolting weapon in her hands, she looks beautiful right then.

When his song ends and he lowers the harmonica again, Jonghyun feels surprisingly calm, as in a trance.

“That’s interesting,” the girl comments, like she’s trying to be serious again instead of showing her excitement.

He stands idly as she bites her lip and thinks for a little longer. After some moments, she puts both hands on her hips and shrugs.

“So, I can’t say anything about baths or a bed to sleep, but we can guarantee you at least one meal a day if you fix up some stuff, stitch up some people...” Her sword sways in the direction of Jonghyun’s instrument. “And play that thing sometimes. Deal?”

Jonghyun could never, in the wildest corner of his imagination, think he would end up in such a situation. Everything feels surreal, like he’s stumbled past the invisible door of a liminal space and none of the logics of the real world apply. Such as the logic of asking what the job a strange kid is offering you entails before you accept to it. 

“Yes,” he says simply, because if there’s any direction his life can lead to now is straight into the unknown.

For the first time since Jonghyun woke up, the biggest grin rips through the girl’s face. Her teeth are lightly yellow, but the streaming sunlight makes it shine in a golden smile. He thinks she likes him, after all.

“Yerim.” She belts her weapon and bows fast, hair whipping back and forth. “Welcome to the Lucky Star Circus, oppa.”

Chapter Text

The job starts immediately after he steps out of the truck and downs a fresh water bottle, apparently. A crowd of a few dozens is rushing all around amidst a caravan of trucks parked on a big concrete clearing by the road. There are vehicles passing by every few seconds, so they must be just outside of a city.

Only a few people turn heads to Jonghyun as Yerim drags him through the commotion of unloading duty, and nobody gives him a second glance. She shouts at another kid to tell some Boa to speak to the boss about a new guy in the crew, then places him with a group of muscular men carrying around heavy blocks because that’s where she thinks he fits in. Despite the extreme weariness of his body, Jonghyun works until sundown without collapsing under the hot weather, only a couple words exchanged with his new mates as he follows their every order. That is just like what he did in the training camp – turn his mind off and forget he even exists as he moves like an empty robot.

Therefore, the fatigue hits Jonghyun all at once when they finish, like his conscience is only now coming back into his body. He almost faints and ends up mercifully downgraded to handing out bowls and spoons while they gather for dinner.

Yerim is back by his side when they line up for the food, way less energetic than in the morning but a lot friendlier, short-sword gone. She asks how he’s feeling and he answers everything monosyllabically, too worn out to think more complexly than that.

“You see the white stuff floating in here?” questions the man who pours the hot stew into Jonghyun’s bowl, mysteriously. He’s another peculiar figure, a pretty face with a black eye patch to the left. “It’s not tofu; they come from the last guy who complained about my cooking. So behave, new boy.”

It’s not that he isn’t amused, deep inside, but Jonghyun is surprised to find himself actually, physically unable to muster even a smile at that. He’s exhausted to the point of being reduced to basic bodily functions, but he doesn’t want to create an awkward situation and forces himself to answer with anything.

“I spent the last two years eating military food for every meal,” Jonghyun deadpans, expressionless. Yerim giggles behind him and the man twists his mouth.

“Oh, you poor thing,” he sighs, and dumps a little extra stock in his bowl, like an apology.

“Kibum-oppa likes teasing people,” Yerim speaks when they make their way to find a spot to sit by one of the fires. “He’s actually a great cook, given the grade of stuff we can get.”

Kibum could have been the worst cook this world has ever met; Jonghyun feels like dumping his entire face into the bowl and gobbling it straight into his throat, hungry as he is. He wolfs down that stew with an animal ferocity he didn’t know he had in himself, and does not even speak to anyone around. His stomach is still growling when he finishes but the food is tightly rationed and he already had a little bonus, so he can’t come back for seconds.

Everybody scatters to sleep just about anywhere that can be laid on, so given that the sky is clear tonight, Jonghyun picks a spot close to the fires where most are. Despite not knowing anybody here, it’s reassuring to feel the rustling and snoring of other people surround him; it scares him that somehow, everything around him is just a feverish dehydration dream, and he will wake up tomorrow half-dead in an empty parking lot, all alone.

For how deep of a sleep he had through last night, Jonghyun did expect that it wouldn’t come so easily tonight. After several minutes of laying still, his body gives up on him, and he finds himself immobile to much other than moving his eyes and blinking. That happens quite often – his body puts itself to rest but his consciousness clings to it nonetheless, forcing him to stay awake through hours inside an essentially tetraplegic body. It’s a state in between, dizzying into his subconscious while trapped to reality. At least he’s not hallucinating that weird starfish thing by his feet this time.

Instead, Jonghyun travels every corner of the night sky with his gaze, traces Lyra, his favourite constellation, and tracks the hours through the movement of the waning moon. He has so much to think about and yet, his mind remains completely empty and fresh. It’s not as satisfying as real sleep, but very welcome after all he’s gone through.

In fact, by the wake up call, he even feels better rested than he did ever since he enlisted, probably, which just serves to prove again that Jonghyun’s in some sort of goblin zone.

He’s briefly introduced to the boss, who is really just known as ‘the boss’ by everybody, and their conversation consists of Jonghyun saying his name and getting a pat on the back before the man leaves for something else. Later he meets Boa, the first female ringmaster he’s known of, and she lets him in on their schedule and some general info on how they organize things around here.

In their second gathering for food some time before midday, she pulls him up to his feet and calls for silence from the crew.

“This is Jonghyun,” Boa announces, and he bows quickly, spooning rice in his mouth non-stop. “He fixes stuff. So if anybody needs a repair, look for the guy with the military pants.”

The watching crowd shouts out some agreements and welcomes but doesn’t make much of a fuss, so Jonghyun can go back to eating in peace.

The circus’ next show will be on Friday, so they have two days to set up the carnival. It’s non-stop work for sixteen hours a day for everybody, from tent-building to rehearsing to pamphleting in town.

While that middle-aged man is called the boss, it seems that only means that he owns the entire thing and nothing else, because they don’t have any particular leadership or authority in their work methods. Nobody has a set role either – everybody does their part with whatever they can towards their collective goal. It’s the complete opposite of the reality in the army, or even, the reality of Jonghyun’s life back in the city, so he’s throughly dazed and not really adapted yet.

Nobody is ever short on things to do here, Jonghyun included. He stays in their camp all days, moving between all sorts of functions in wherever he’s called to or just happens to be short on people.

The others take Boa very seriously on her word, and he ends up repairing absolutely every type of thing. From nailing wood blocks, welding giant metal beams, to sewing costumes, Jonghyun fixes everything that lands on his hands. A lot of which are objects he’s never seen in his life before, but a clockmaker knows that there is only one universal machine behind it all. Everything is just pieces joined in the right way moving in the right direction – it’s not hard to spot a fix when you understand the pattern.

For every single fix, no matter if it’s just angling the radio to the right direction, he receives the most beaming faces in return. Battered down children, exotic fancy ladies, big and bearded men; they all smile at Jonghyun like he’s performing a miracle before their eyes. He can’t recall the last time he heard a ‘thank you’ – in the army, everything you do is your duty and nothing more. It makes Jonghyun uncomfortable and he goes through all of them with tight, awkward head bows. He doesn’t smile back once.

Nobody asks him anything. The colleagues he helps, Yerim or Boa, not even the boss. It’s absolutely baffling to Jonghyun – a strange man breaks into one of their trucks, starving in military apparel, and they all immediately start acting like he’s always been there. No interest about where he came from or the fact that he’s very probably a defector. No wonder the circus is a symbol surrounded in wonder and fear; these artistic types are pretty unsettling.

Eventually, the huge star at the tip of the great tent is finally standing proud into the sky, the orange sunset bleeding vibrantly against the green and blue patterns of the carnival. 

The definitive act in the revelation that Jonghyun has come to an alternate reality peaks on the Friday night show. After three days of working without break, he’s put to sit through the performance since the crew thinks a rookie wandering cluelessly around during their frenetic and precise routines would be more danger than aid. One mate even gives him some free popcorn and Jonghyun sits in a corner behind the bleachers to study the show he will soon become part of, somehow.

He’s never been to a circus before, but he was a repair boy for the local theatre in the past and was allowed some free watches through the projection cabin. He loves the magic in movies; he used to dream of building his own camera to capture his imagination, of stepping through the screen and running away into a new world forever. Yet pictures projected on the wall fall incredibly short to the wonder that happens inside their main tent.

It’s fascinating to see the transformation of the ordinary people he’s known these past days into the magical creatures before him. Nevermind her tiny stature, Boa grows on the ring with her tall hat and shiny pants, booming voice luring the audience into excitement and fantasy. Yerim’s performance essentially consists of her and four other teenage girls trying to kill each other in the most creative ways they can; always narrowly escaping a knife or a bat or a ten meter drop with choreographed artistry, like in the American cartoons. Kibum takes off his eyepatch to reveal a hypnotic blue and becomes the Almighty Key, the charismatic magician who can bend reality to his will.

Ever the rational man, he didn’t believe he could be so engrossed in the illusion, but when at the circus you live under the circus’ rules. You know there is a trick, a drama, a net somewhere but your heart beats for the true feeling anyways.

Jonghyun drowns and twirls in all of it. The excitement of the orchestra, the fear of the wolves, the adrenaline of the acrobats, the comedy of the clowns, the beauty of the dancers. It’s the first time he’s felt real emotion in a very, very long time, and it’s almost too much to take at once.

It’s disorientating to come back down after the show is over and turn his body back into work mode, cleaning up for the night.

“Good show, uh?” Sooyoung, the aerial performer he’s helping roll up giant strips of fabric, is still jumping and grinning in glee. The copious layer of sweat on her skin makes her sparkle.

“Resplendent.” Because only one of those fancy words from the romances in his boss’ library would be worthy of defining that spectacle.

Jonghyun is lucky to have this one chance of admiring the full show, because it doesn’t look like such rest will come again any time soon. For the rest of the weekend, he’s put to run errands among their ticketing and food booths outside, and can only manage one or another glimpse at the colorful ocean happening inside of the great tent. As tempting as it is, he works dutifully and only allows himself a second before retreating back into the dark moonless night.

The whole crew is allowed to sleep just a little longer into Monday morning before the move out rush begins. Even quicker than it was built up, the entire carnival is dismantled into wood and metal and fabric and stocked up into the trucks. It’s almost heartbreaking to see that magic castle he helped create with so much passion dissolve into nothing so soon. And yet, the ephemerality of the way the carnival vanishes, always to be born again in new soil, is part of the beauty of it.

Jonghyun doesn’t know where they’re heading or even where they where before, but it doesn’t worry him in the slightest. It’s not like he has any particular place to be now; maybe just being anywhere is a blessing to him.

Several hours and one rocky nap later, they go into labour once again to rebuild everything they’ve just destroyed. During the week, Jonghyun has the chance to move around a lot more, getting acquainted with all sorts of jobs and people. He brews tea by the barrel, helps to wash the animals, learns how to put on eyeliner. There is just so much to be done in such a small team, yet nothing ever seems to fall short.

He still doesn’t talk very much to the others, but he feels welcome to sit quietly among them and listen to their stories. They never talk too much about the outside world, which Jonghyun really appreciates.

On Friday night, he is put to man the cotton candy stand, and although it makes him miss the show, he considers it a win to steal the sweetness from his fingers when nobody is looking – it’s been years since Jonghyun’s come across true sugar. A couple hours later, he’s glueing back stars onto a panel when a teenage girl, one Soojung who comes to call him rather often, comes running to him.

“Repair Jonghyun, are you busy?”

“Yeah.” Everybody is always busy here.

“You know some first aid too, don’t you?” That has Jonghyun looking up in interest, and he nods minutely. Soojung grimaces between her panting breaths. “Minho-oppa got one mean burn, he needs you.”

He doesn’t know who Minho is, but he drops his glue gun in some sense of urgency. There’s always someone else to pick up the work, anyways. Soojung leads him across the carnival to one of the dress up tents and waits with her head peeking through the entrance.

At first glance, Jonghyun can recognize the man as Salamander, the fire dancer. He’s trying his best to pour ice water onto his bare back by himself without making a mess. As he spots the duo, he lowers the vase and turns to welcome them with a bright smile.

“Ah, thank you for coming,” Minho exclaims, surprisingly happy for a man that is supposedly in pain.

As usual, Jonghyun doesn’t know how to respond, and just approaches the other’s bench with an awkward bow.

Minho is embellished in several grams of gold jewel pierced all around his face, ears, and torso. Jonghyun has seen that in his costume – it reflects the flames as he swirls and tosses, making his body bleed out light from within. It’s ethereal on the ring, a bit on the bizarre side up close; a shock to Jonghyun, but only one amongst several stark appearances in the circus, and he tries to not stare too much.

“I usually take care of this by myself, but I can’t get a good grip on this spot...” Minho explains when the other stops behind him to inspect the issue. Jonghyun thinks he’s trying to hide a little nervousness. “It feels a little worse than usual.”

And he would be right, because the burn streak across his upper back looks on the deeper side of dermis damage; but Jonghyun thinks if he’s not crying, he can do without a hospital for this. A quick glimpse at the tan skin of Minho’s upper body tells him it’s far from being his first injury, anyways. He pulls another bench to sit quietly behind the man and goes through the first aid kit he had been using.

“Do you think we can get plastic wrap or something around here?” Jonghyun turns his head towards Soojung. She goes skipping away in her usual style to fetch it.

He gets the water vase and resumes the constant pouring over Minho’s skin, catching it back into a bowl just under. The man hisses unexpectedly at the first cold contact, but seems to catch himself quickly.

“Sorry,” whispers Jonghyun, heart tight. It never settled well within him that sometimes to fix people, you need to hurt them first. “Just hold on.”

Minho puts himself in a more comfortable position, head down and elbows resting on top of his knees.

“How is your first experience in the showbiz going?” is his first humourous attempt at a conversation, after minutes of silence from Jonghyun’s end.

“How do you know it’s my first?” he asks back blankly.

Minho chuckles to himself.

“You’re very stiff. Not much of the artistic type.”

Stiff and artless. That is quite like Jonghyun.

“You’re right,” he answers. “I really appreciate art, though.”

Minho says nothing and Jonghyun bites his lips, hesitant if he wants to settle back into silence. This dude surprisingly seems like the outgoing type.

“The shows were gorgeous...” he ends up muttering. “Your performance was very beautiful.”

Jonghyun can see a big grin blossom on the other’s face before Soojung comes running back in with a roll of plastic wrap in hands. He dismisses her with a thanks and dries Minho’s back with a flannel in soft dabs.

“Hang on a little,” he says apologetically in advance. Wrap lined on top of the wound, he rolls it down in one go, pressing hard against the burn. Minho stiffens his shoulders with a loud groan but doesn’t move, and Jonghyun rushes to secure the bandage with medical tape. “Sorry.”

Deeming his work done, he stands up and checks out the result. Through the plastic wrap, the red skin starts out on a thick strip to the right and thins downwards to the left – Minho must’ve hit himself with the fire baton upside down during the show. It resembles a comet, somewhat.

“Plastic wrap,” Minho scoffs at the mirror while the other puts away the medical kit. “So many years doing this and I never thought of that.”

“Top grade technology from the Korean Forces,” Jonghyun tries to joke, and it comes out so bland that he’s surprised the other laughs at all. “You shouldn’t cover burns in gauze, it sucks up the hydration. It’ll heal better like this, just be careful when peeling it off.”

He stops himself when he looks up and sees Minho staring at him with a curious smirk. His eyebrows furrow in silence at the other.

“You know, you’re not that intimidating personally,” the man announces.

Well, that’s something Jonghyun never expected to hear from a 185cm tall guy covered in rings and scars, specially such a bubbly one.

“I’m intimidating?” he repeats, and that actually tugs at the corners of his lips, makes him almost want to smile.

Minho shrugs with a teasing smirk.

“Yeah, I always see you marching around all grumpy in this uniform, like a little soldier toy. Maybe it’s the eyebrows.”

Jonghyun can’t help but frown at the mirror to check; he doesn’t look slightly close to scary. More like an overworked, sad little man. That’s actually... the first time he’s seen his own image in a while, and he’s suddenly bothered to acknowledge his own body, remember he really exists in the real world. He shifts his gaze back to Minho’s easy smile for some seconds, unsure of how to answer.

“Well, you’re...” he starts, pocketing his hands awkwardly. “A lot less intimidating than you look, as well.”

Jonghyun doesn’t need to articulate what he means; Minho certainly gets that a lot. Given, the other snorts playfully.

“Ah, you’d think such a wound up guy wouldn’t whine so much at a little burn anymore, right?” Minho whines jokingly.

Jonghyun takes a moment to consider the other’s body again. It wasn’t as noticeable when he was dancing but up close, in regular lighting, the scars seem to reveal themselves gradually the deeper he can stare, slowly painting up the muscles of his naked torso. The colours in Minho’s skin danced red and orange with the flames, a psychedelic daze on his swirling body as the burning batons flied around; he looked like part of the fire itself. It’s startling that a man who showcases such immunity to fire can be so damaged by it.

“There really are so many...” Jonghyun mutters to himself, before realizing he must be inappropriate right now. He looks down. “Sorry.”

Minho doesn’t mind. He runs his eyes over his own chest, pensive.

“I get a new one at least every show,” he comments. His hand pats a light patch at his arm absentmindedly.

It’s impressive. Jonghyun thought he couldn’t get caught up in such illusions, but that is the opposite of the image a fire dancer creates. From the audience, his performance is pure magic – he dominates the flames with overflowing arrogance, every movement natural and confident like he was made for this. Sparkling smile always on place, Minho looks invincible, above failure and pain.

“That’s... kind of shocking,” Jonghyun admits, after a pause.

“Yeah?” Minho cocks his head, and his eyes stare off into the distance with a thoughtful smile on his lips. “I guess the hardest trick is making the audience believe that taming the fire doesn’t hurt me.”

Chapter Text

From the next morning, Jonghyun is Minho’s friend. He never decides that Minho will be his friend, but the other is the type who makes the decisions in his relationships. The guy is not overbearing, but for the first time since Jonghyun got there, there’s somebody urging him to speak, throwing him into the conversations at dinner and chitchatting around when they happen to work together. He kind of blanks for a second every time Minho turns to him with a question and a smile, unused to finding his voice so often, and the process of turning his thoughts into words is slow, like an old machine getting back to work.

It’s disorientating, but Jonghyun is starting to become more satisfied with conversing with his other mates. He can be a lot friendlier to Yerim now, who is always checking up on him since day one, and she’s surprisingly pleasant to chat with, given that he never related very well to children. And Minho is one cheerful fella, always caring for everybody around him, sometimes hot-headed but always ultimately excited about everything and everyone. He never tries to upturn Jonghyun’s chronic bad mood, instead, he just brings his brightness into the atmosphere and lets the other be, unjudging. Like warming up an oyster in water until the shell pops, instead of trying to pry it open. Soon enough, Jonghyun is the one hesitantly seeking him out, even if just to lay in silence by the fire before sleeping. Minho makes his heart burn; he smiles, only inside.

It’s by the end of the first month that Jonghyun starts getting over the initial veil of glamour of his new life. Circus life is becoming comfortable and usual, but his own metabolism is changing too. His brain that had been running on stress mode for so long, later thrown into a traumatic rush with his flight, had been too wired, and then too numb to exist by itself. Now that Jonghyun is breathing slow and safe, his thoughts are gradually coming back alive, and it’s awful.

Sleep starts to not come as easy; not even his body wants to get some rogue rest every night. The more he tries to empty his mind and not think of anything, the louder he can hear the radio in the back of his head, keeping his eyes fidgety and fingers clenching.

His family must have gotten a notice about him by now. 

Jonghyun wonders if he’s going to land on the anti-patriot list; perhaps for a while, but the military is certainly above caring to persecute a man whose biggest crime is having panic attacks during simulation runs. There’s not much you can do when it comes to regular jobs when you have a compulsory discharge under your name, anyway, and that’s enough punishment to a coward such as him.

His family won’t warrant a missing person search for him, as Jonghyun would be arrested for abandoning service were the police to find him. They’ll wait for him to come home, but he can’t. Someone ought to rat him out if he appeared around his old neighbourhood, but more than that. All the regret Jonghyun doesn’t feel at turning his back on the country is equivalent to the shame that’s eating him alive for failing as a son, a brother, the man of their family.

That’s where his mind blocks his thoughts forcibly every time, like a survival mechanism; he can’t bear to imagine how his mother and sister will be living now without his salary and with this stain on the family’s name. That might actually collapse the already damaged gears that are keeping Jonghyun breathing.

He keeps on living like a robot, like a dying animal, and shuts his mind off from interfering in moving forward. It’s not really a happy life. The work is as draining as military camp, but if by the end of the day he’s wiping glitter off his face instead of gunpowder, it must be a better kind of work.

Jonghyun only wishes that he could have some alone time eventually. From the moment he opens his eyes at dawn to the moment he shuts it past midnight, he’s being swarmed by people and demanding voices and invasive bodies. For that he misses the quiet loneliness of the clock shop’s backroom, its peaceful rhythm of work between man and machine. There’s no work in the circus that can be done outside of a team, and Jonghyun gets a stubborn headache from being constantly aware of people around him.

And only to add for his luck, it’s not seldom that he would feel completely inadequate among them.

“So you remember that Irene-unnie hurt her ankle?”

Irene is the stage name of Joohyun, the oldest in Yerim’s little murder troupe – he’s spent enough time with them so far to get to know their names. All the artists in the circus use exotic or foreign-sounding names to perform, for the glam of it.

“I can’t fix a swollen ankle, Yerim,” he responds, amusedly.

“It’s not that. We’re trying to make a new routine, so she can perform later without hitting her ankles too much. You’ll come be her stand-in.”

It’s not even a request. Children in here are cocky like that; in the entire group, everybody only speaks informally to each other, uncaring of age or intimacy. Titles such as brother and sister seem to be used more as cute-talking than any sign of respect, but Jonghyun ends up preferring this sort of comfortable language in the end.

He’s led to their little training corner among the mess of boxes and tents at the site, where all their tools are gathered and Joohyun is sitting with her feet up in a bag of ice, monitoring the others. Out of their pretty stage outfits, in sweaty old clothes, the girls all look more like dangerous street children while practicing their flips, throws, and stunts.

Jonghyun follows dutifully the instructions of the girls, running, dodging, throwing hits in slow motion. He is a mess, not only in his complete gracelessness, but because his morals won’t let him go so hard against a bunch of teenage girls even if they are that much more skilled in this weird dance than him.

None of the weapons are really that sharp, including Yerim’s short-sword, which hurts Jonghyun’s pride further to have been threatened with it. But they still land some powerful hits that could be a big pain, despite how lightly the kids play around with them.

So, maybe Jonghyun is scared of what teenage girls can do with hammers.

“Stop flinching all the time!” Seulgi complains loudly while they try to work out which is the best angle to stand for the audience in a particular move. Her arm dangles the hammer carelessly as if it’s made of cotton and he takes a step back, alarmed.

“I don’t wanna get hurt,” he whines back, embarrassment itching his face. With a huff, he quietly wishes this ends soon.

“We’re not gonna hurt you, what’s the point?”

Their complaints don’t help in the littlest. As the practise picks up in pace, Jonghyun finds himself retreating and flailing more frequently and more unconsciously each minute. None of the moves really hurt, but his buzzing tension does make him slip, trip, fall, and get actual scolding slaps from the kids.

“Why are you so scared, you were a soldier.”

“I never went into real battle,” is what he mumbles back, because he’s not about to let some teenagers in on the fact that he used to hyperventilate whenever a captain raised his voice near him, too.

Jonghyun has his back turned to Yerim, and he’s supposed to leisurely pick a coin from the floor right as she swings a bat over him. He’s seen the girls perform similar acts before, but standing there, he really doesn’t understand how this is doable. They try a couple of blind repetitions first, but he dives in too fast all the times, losing his balance while trying to check behind him.

“How can I do this if I can’t see you?”

“It’s like, oppa, I’m not going to swing at you,” Yerim explains. “You’re gonna lead the movement and I’m gonna move the bat along.”

She and Joy demonstrate with fake punches what she’s trying to say – Joy starts the move a fraction before Yerim, senses sharp to the other’s actions, takes the swing into the spot being opened up for her. They have great synchronicity that Jonghyun can’t hope to achieve in one day, but he focuses on internalizing what he can to help.

He breathes steady and tries to keep his senses on edge, but his timing is terrible. He goes down when it’s his prompt but he’s stalling it, or he startles at the impression of air rushing at him, or can’t stop trying to look back to his partner. The girls call for repeat over and over, determined somehow that he gets it right; that is some sort of game to them.

Jonghyun tenses, flexes down, but stops himself, unsure if he’s in the right timing. That’s one second enough for Yerim to knock him to the side with a hard hit on his arm. It doesn’t hurt that badly, but he trips sideways with a groan.

“Don’t hesitate! Or I’ll go in at the wrong moment!” the girl scolds him, with vigorous friendly rubs at his aching biceps. “You just gotta trust me.”

It’s devastating how much trust Yerim shows in her eyes at him, like this is so simple. They don’t even know each other. Jonghyun is incredibly annoyed at this practise, himself, even the other poor girls for cheering him on. That bat might’ve as well knocked over his last bit of patience.

That’s the problem with circus kids – they believe that everybody can do anything.

“And why do you think this is so easy to me?!” He doesn’t shout, but the words come out so heavy in the air that it sounds even worse. Jonghyun startles at the frustration and anger overwhelming his voice – he hasn’t spoken so emotionally for longer than he can remember, long enough to forget he’s able to have feelings, too.

The girls all stare at him in shock as well, unused to hearing anything but shy monotones coming from his mouth. He knows with total clarity that these feelings are not about them, which makes it scarier to think of where they come from. His heart starts convulsing painfully inside of his ribcage and Jonghyun isn’t prepared yet for all of this coming back. He needs to get away from there.

“Oppa-”

“Just find another person.”

Yerim is transparent when she scowls at his rudeness. You can’t say no in the circus. In the circus, the doors are always open, the mouths are always welcome, and it could be a blasphemy for Jonghyun to refuse his trust to the one girl who extended her hand to him in there.

He’s acutely aware of the five weird stares following him head back to the tent-building area with stomping feet. Unreasonable as it is, he spends the rest of the day with the off-putting sensation that everybody else is staring at him too, regretful heavy eyes about how much he doesn’t fit in there.

In panic at the little prospect of emotions he just experienced, he throws his body mercilessly to the heaviest work he can find, imploring that the exhaustion could drive the inevitable away. But the full moon rises regardless, and she’s the only to watch him lay reluctantly in a secluded side of camp that night.

Jonghyun dreads sleep by now. During the day, he’s usually too immersed in the fantasy to remember who he is, but every night his eyes fight with him to stay open, trapped in face of the reality that comes to attack him.

It has fermented chaotically inside of him all day and tonight, he thinks about his family and he wants to cry, wishes so much he could cry. But he’s a clogged well or a dying desert or maybe a rusted stone, because he can sob into his jacket, forcing out tears like vomit but they only pain his face and don’t come out. It’s maddening like his body will prolapse inside out. 

Jonghyun shoves his hands into his clothes to claw angrily at his flanks and thighs until there are purple-red bruises but it can’t rip out his feelings from inside. It only serves to wear out his muscles so hard that at the next deep breath, his body is shocked into paralysis and he crashes limply on his side.

And as he blinks dizzily, there’s the damned starfish, mocking his misery at his feet.

No way, Jonghyun won’t go through shit any longer than he has tonight. It’s a difficult thing to do, but if he focuses hard enough, he can eventually push himself awake with much effort. It’s torturous, going through several minutes slowly fighting to send a shock of awareness to every part of his body, the unsettling presence in his mind making him more anxious by the second, until he finally gets to the snap that clears the dazed feeling around him.

With a strangled ‘Ah!’, Jonghyun manages to force his body up with a startle. Giving himself no time to get over his swimming head, he uses the impulse to wobble up to his feet. Be it from the anxiety or the hot air of the night, his skin feels tacky all over with sweat.

He stomps on the ground where his vision was just to let out some tension but his legs tremble and he almost collapses again; waking himself up always drains him a lot more than expected. It’s better to take a little walk lest his body fails once more – Jonghyun certainly won’t let himself try to rest again tonight.

His bare feet trail lightly on the dying grass as he lets the light breeze calm down his nerves. Jonghyun circles their camp all the way to the other side, following the edge and avoiding the bigger mass of people sleeping towards the center. Then, just as he feels that he’s leaving the camp and is about to turn back, a dark figure comes into view just before the woods.

Looking like a mirage behind the smoke of his cigar is Onew, circled by his little pack of five or so wolves playing around; seems like they needed to go for a night walk. Each of them has a long rope around their necks that lead back to a knot on the man’s arm, but Jonghyun knows that’s not really necessary. They’re docile as oversized puppies and it’s unlikely they would run off under Onew’s supervision.

Unexpected even to himself, Jonghyun has the impulse to keep going in his direction, a feeling of safety growing as he approaches despite that all he wants is to be alone. The man’s lowered head turns up with a friendly smile when Jonghyun silently walks into his field of vision. His features are bold and gentle, and specially in the dubious darkness of the night, he’s similar to a cheerful uncle in Jonghyun’s eyes.

Body starting to heavy again, Jonghyun walks through the wolves to the stump the other sits on, brushing his hands over the rough fur here and there. Still under the man’s gaze, he slumps next to him without a word.

Onew has a way of looking at him so gentle, that it’s like he’s known Jonghyun for a long time.

“It’s getting a little hot to sleep, right?”

Summer is reaching its peak, surely.

“Yeah.”

Jonghyun’s not interested in talking and the other seems peacefully unbothered by it.

Onew silently offers the cigar he’s smoking, looking sympathetic to his distraught state. Jonghyun’s never smoked before, but comes close for a drag before gagging on the ash-dirty taste in his mouth. The other man doesn’t mock him, just brings it back to his own lips with a smile. Grimacing, Jonghyun spits on the grass far to his left, like he learned in the forces.

They sit in silence for a long time. He’s not yet spent much time with this Onew other than to occasionally help move the animals around, but being next to him is surprisingly easy. Jonghyun’d thought that what he needed was time alone but at his first opportunity to really get in touch with his own thoughts, he ran away in panic. This time, it feels better to have somebody close by than be all by himself. Despite everything that’s inside him, the world around Jonghyun remains the same.

Many minutes go by before they have the urge to do anything but stare at the stars and the slow-moving wolves, Jonghyun’s mind gradually more drousy with sleepiness. Onew’s breathing timed by his cigar drags is a grounding constant by his side. With his heart back into a calm place, it’s easier to let the thoughts flow out into the night. Jonghyun thinks of the faces of his mother and sister, but the thought washes itself away soon enough. He remembers the clock shop instead. His main occupation in the circus has become fixing, but in his last years at the shop most of his work had consisted of building from scratch; Jonghyun rather misses that. Fixing is doomed to be imperfect; making things yourself is the only way to guarantee it will be truly good.

Absent-mindedly, his fingers reach out for the harmonica always loyally clasped to his belt and turns it around under the moonlight. Jonghyun watches the silver reflecting off it. He hasn’t played it ever since Yerim asked him to in the truck box, over a month ago – he thinks that’s the longest he’s gone without playing it but he doesn’t feel the urge of inspiration for that yet. Instead, he gazes through the metal cover like an X-ray, mapping out all the layers and pieces just behind it, remembering the wood that he carved and every bolt he screwed in.

The closest wolf to his right suddenly jumps at his hand, trying to gnaw at the instrument. Jonghyun lets out a surprised shout that almost sounds like laughter, making Onew smile at them. He musters enough strength to push her off, letting her have some fun with his forearm instead of the harmonica as he pets her brown fur vigorously.

“Hey, kid.”

This one is Brat; he heard it was Minho who named her, for peeing on him once. She’s still a child compared to the older animals, and acts a lot like a baby even with her deadly teeth and 60kg body. The way she chews excitedly on his arm is endearing; it makes his lips want to smile, corners tugging up as forcefully as they can.

Well, isn’t that curious. How can he put his hand between the giant teeth of a wild beast and trust, so relaxed, that it won’t hurt him, when he doesn’t trust another human being with something as simple as the truth? Are people the problem? Is danger the problem? He doubts the pain of getting his arm bitten off would even be worse than facing the reality of not having anybody to fall back on.

Dawn passes by quietly between the two men and the animals. Onew ends up falling asleep while sitting like an old grandpa, the head falling towards his chest protuding a cute double chin. Jonghyun appreciates the company of the wolves and doesn’t wake the other up until the morning call. Every second that he passes fighting off the dreaded sleepiness ends up making him more tired, and by the end of the morning he’s dysfunctional as a stuck clock.

He’s so out of it that he even manages to annoy Minho, who just tries to hide it with a polite excuse of work when he leaves Jonghyun to mop by himself over his breakfast. Yerim turns her body 180 degrees from him every time they pass by each other, as a child would.

The afternoon is spent setting up all the equipment and apparatus on the stage of the great tent. Jonghyun breaks and drops things, blanks and follows orders backwards dozens of times, until his mates are too tired to complain and just stop asking him for anything. The only one to keep on nagging at him is Kibum. The man isn’t worth much for bodily work, but his sense of method and organization comes very handy to order around the crew instead of having fifteen people trying to come up with a plan at the same time. He shouts out his help from the bleachers and makes a point to scold Jonghyun as creatively as he can every time. It makes him mad, and at the minute sound of the magician’s voice, he starts to jump into action out of pure annoyance. Kibum just snickers every time he startles awake.

Minho is rather close to the magician, and the two are seen playing around multiple times throughout the day. Therefore, Jonghyun has come to talk to Kibum a few times in groups, but never alone. In fact, their relationship feels rather ambiguous when all they do in almost every conversation is disagree with each other. Despite that, they always seem to end on a good note, like all of that is only a game of wordplay. Apparently, Kibum has judged them comfortable enough to tease his mistakes without mercy, in the name of friendship. He thinks.

They disperse by sundown for dinner and Jonghyun is the only left completing his last duty on stage. He’s too tired to hurry for food and just allows himself to work slowly as long as he manages to get it done. When lifting the second to last trapeze to its place, Jonghyun loses his focus and falls into the movement of pulling the rope automatically; he doesn’t realise the trapeze is hitting the support rod above his head with repeated clanks until he’s well into one minute of uselessly pulling at the rope like an idiot.

Kibum’s mocking laughter boils out of his tightly shut mouth despite his best efforts, traveling like a cackle across the arena, and Jonghyun just grunts at him. When he sends the other an annoyed stare, however, he becomes entranced in the wild beauty of Kibum’s laugh behind his hands. Jonghyun blinks in a daze, knocked out of his bad feelings for a second.

“Did you even sleep last night?” Kibum teases between his giggles.

“No,” Jonghyun deadpans humourlessly, but it’s an empty feeling as he’s once again hooked on Kibum’s beautiful smile.

The man shakes his head playfully.

“Honestly, hyung, your bluntness is endearing,” he says, a grinning squint in his visible eye that plays with Jonghyun. Is it mocking? Is it loving? He shifts his gaze to the eyepatch, wondering if the answer is behind it.

Jonghyun dumbly watches Kibum skip out of the bleachers and walk closer in his direction. He might be sleeping on his feet because only when the man is bending down to pick up the rolled up stack of rope by his side is that he remembers, right, there’s work to do. They work together to untangle the knots and secure it on the last trapeze.

“Is there anything troubling you?” Kibum asks. It’s casual, but with an edge of gentleness that tries to make Jonghyun feel appreciated.

He looks up at the other’s insistent eye. It’s hard to keep the gaze – Kibum is sure an impression, too much to not look at, but too much to keep staring – so Jonghyun trails up the white streak of hair in his forehead while he decides if he’s willing to open up. 

It would be in his immediate defenses to refuse, but as they move together around the ropes, Jonghyun realises it’s the first time he and the magician have been left to talk on their own since he arrived there. Among everyone in the circus, Kibum is the one he feels is most unreachable; partly for their disagreements, but most of the time because he carries an aura of easy power and mystery that says, whatever it is, you will never know it. It’s fascinating, but only from afar – Jonghyun is, truthfully, a little unsettled by his vibe. He knows they’re just the type of people whose pieces don’t match in any sense, and yet there he is, offering Jonghyun his kind ear. Nothing makes sense in this place.

Maybe Jonghyun is a fool, and foxy people like Kibum lure him in. A secret in exchange for another, he supposes, and mumbles, “I think I made Yerim upset.”

That’s not the real face of the issue, he knows, but it’s what he’s willing to give for now.

Kibum immediately grimaces at him, disapprovingly.

“What the hell did you do?”

Jonghyun doesn’t like that answer. He’s kidding, right? With Kibum’s brutal honesty, it’s hard to know. Riled up, he lets the words tumble out of his mouth in a rush.

“I don’t really understand what happened,” he blurts out. Angrily, but a different kind of anger than yesterday. “The kids wanted me to help in their practise, but I got frustrated and snapped at them.”

Kibum’s expression is nothing like Jonghyun expects when he finishes. There’s nothing of the previous reprimand, and thinking of it, he actually has no idea what that raised eyebrow and piercing gaze are supposed to mean at all.

“You don’t know how to be around people,” is what Kibum finally replies. There’s a little smile on his lips, honest and sweet, counteracting the severity in his eye.

Jonghyun crunches his nose, puzzled.

“What?”

He’s not aware of what his arms are doing with the ropes anymore, fully focused on the man before him. Kibum shrugs but keeps on working, frowning in thought.

“You stand in the sidelines and prefer to observe people instead of interacting...” Jonghyun’s eyes follow his pout. “You look almost nervous to mimic our cues or something, at times. As if you’re not human like the rest of us.”

That catches him off guard and he takes a few seconds to process that – Kibum read through something Jonghyun himself had never paid attention to until now, but is deeply correct. Never in his life has humanity given him any reason to relate to them. It’s always been Jonghyun against the world.

It’s only natural that the self-consciousness makes him close up like a porcupine, shoulders dropping, gaze at his feet.

“What does that have to do with this situation?” he scoffs, and pretends to do something with the rope but can’t concentrate on it. The other’s hands come to impatiently take it from him.

“Everything, no?” answers Kibum. When Jonghyun looks up at him again, the eyepatch is pushed to the back, and he freezes at the shocking blue like a rat before a snake. “You can’t fit in because you don’t believe that you’re like us.”

Jonghyun is caught up in his gaze, but he doesn’t know what he means. Kibum’s eyes pass a simple truthfulness, like he’s just stating the obvious. In reality, his words sound like a riddle to Jonghyun.

The trap is the strip of white that splits his face in half. Half motherly, half poisonous. Half explosive, half sentimental. Kibum is a great illusion of himself.

For a few seconds, Jonghyun only blinks into their eye-lock, lips shut. An anxious feeling is creeping up him, but it’s almost a good one – his body feels lighter than it’s felt in a long time. He could imagine that he’s being hypnotized, but Kibum seems barely aware of the power he has over him.

“I don’t know why I’m still here,” Jonghyun whispers, the words crawling out of his mouth on their own accord. He’s been scared of saying it ever since it downed on him, weeks ago, what the hell is actually going on in his life right now; but in this vulnerable moment, he can’t contain the urge to admit it. For a delirious second, he hopes that the Almighty Key, with his all-seeing, soul-piercing eye will have the answer to the question he can’t ask.

Gentle as a mom, Kibum shakes his head. He was saying the truth – they’re the same, after all.

“Trust me, Jonghyun,” he smirks, “None of us do.”

Finally does Jonghyun break away from their electric gaze with a deep sigh; somehow it feels like Kibum was the one to let him go.

He looks around, a little lost, and notices that the other has already finished setting up the trapeze – now Jonghyun only has to rope it up to the support rod. Body moving a beat before his sleepy mind, he picks it up from the floor, looking for any reason to move past that odd spell he just went through. Something about the trapeze feels off the moment he touches it.

“This isn’t stable yet.”

Kibum frowns at him for some seconds until he understands what Jonghyun is talking about.

“But you guys screwed it back just now,” he speaks, confused.

“No, it’s just stuck together.” His hands pull around the pieces to check, but they don’t budge. If there’s no give, it’s a bad sign. “I think there’s rust between the rods.”

Jonghyun shuffles the trapeze around between his hands, thinking. When he notices Kibum’s stopped talking, he snaps his head back up, half-expecting him to have vanished on the spot. But the man is just staring at him amusedly, eyepatch twirling in his fingers. You’re running from the conversation. Jonghyun frowns at him defiantly and to his surprise, Kibum blinks that look out in a second, deciding to humour him.

“Things are never perfect in the circus, hyung, just leave it,” Kibum sighs with a tired pout. Jonghyun pretends to ignore him stretching his neck and placing the eyepatch back.

Uncomfortable as that weird exchange was, Jonghyun is rather disappointed to have cut their conversation short, but he can’t think of a way to reverse it now.

“It’s going to give in,” he mumbles to the trapeze as Kibum dusts his already spotless clothes and walks away. “I’ll get the kids to test it, then.”

Jonghyun passes a quiet dinner next to Minho and waits for the cleaning work to be finished before heading off to search for the acrobats. His body frankly just can’t wait to collapse on his blanket, but he tries to justify to himself that the next show is tomorrow and he can’t allow their performers to go up before everything is completely secure. Jonghyun knows he’s using work to escape again.

He asks around until he’s led into a half-set dress up tent where he recognizes two of the acrobats sitting on the floor in a pile of fabric, struggling to resew some costumes.

They both look well into their late teenage years. Jonghyun’s never talked to them directly, but he can recognize them without makeup; there should be a third one, but he’s not here. After Kai greets him with a shy nod, France perks up smiling.

“Ah, they sent Repair Jonghyun to the rescue.”

The kid has thick hair up in a ponytail and eyes smudged in makeup of three days; Jonghyun thinks he remembers it’s a boy... He soon discovered that circus people don’t care too much about dressing appropriate to their gender, or quite often, dressing at all. Jonghyun was very flustered the first few times he bumped on a lady out in her bra in the last weeks, but in the end it came to him that the sight shouldn’t be more vulgar than allowing only men to relieve from the summer heat comfortably.

A yawn overcomes Jonghyun and he blinks hard to remember what he’s doing there.

“Actually, we’re setting up the trapezes and... Do you two have time to test-run them?”

The two boys look at each other with questioning frowns.

“Really?” asks France. “We never do that.”

Too tired to explain further, Jonghyun just shrugs and turns, leaving the kids to set down the sewing kit and follow in a hurry.

“What’re your names, anyway?” he remembers to ask in the middle of the way.

By his side, a low voice answers, “Jongin”, and further left, “Taemin.”

Exhaustion overcoming his body and mind, Jonghyun just sits on the bleachers and rests his sight while the boys strip their outer layers and start climbing up the stairs. After a few seconds, he startles back as if he just nodded off, and the first thing his eyes notice is that something looks weird about the arena this time.

He squints to confirm and rubs his face with an angry groan when he notices the safety net is missing.

“Ah, fuck, the net’s not up yet,” he shouts up to the kids. They’re already climbing onto the highest platform when their heads turn to him. “Sorry, just go back and I’ll call you after I set–”

“It’s fine, it’s just practice,” Taemin replies with a dismissive wave of his hand.

Jonghyun stalls for a couple seconds to process what was said.

“We don’t need the net, hyung,” adds Jongin, almost too softly to be heard.

“Are you kids crazy?” Jonghyun calls out, jogging to the arena.

There’s not much he can do from down there, though, craning his neck to watch the moment Taemin takes the leap for the closest trapeze. The boy uses the momentum to skip straight to the next one as Jongin takes his place. “Hey, get down!” he insists to no avail.

Jonghyun’s head snaps back and forth to follow the boys as they quickly leap and swing around the trapezes. He has no mind to pay for the usually breath-taking trickstery of their leaps and swings, bodies that move light and precise as perfectly oiled engines. His jaw clenches anxiously and he tries intently to remember which one is broken.

Jongin pauses for a moment standing straight on the rod, swinging gently back and forth, while Taemin has fun with some intricate poses and flips on the one just beside.

“Wasn’t one of these kind of lose last week?” Jongin asks his friend.

“You know that Jonghyun-hyung fixes everything!” is Taemin’s laughing answer.

He has Jongin sit down to help propel him onto the next trapeze and lands on it with both hands, swaying left and right like a ticking clock.

No matter how far or minute the sound is, Jonghyun’s ear is so on edge that it picks up the exact moment the junction of the trapeze slips open with a scratch under Taemin’s weight. His eyes shut reflexively when a cold shiver rips through his body, his heart almost folding into itself in panic.

A detached piece of the trapeze hits the floor on his left with a startling clank. When he gazes back up, Jongin is hanging upside down, hands securing a nervously cackling Taemin by the ponytail and one arm. The trapeze he was previously on swings in a spiral, dismantled.

Jonghyun shakes his head in shock at the playful giggles of the teens. His heart is painfully beating away any sleepiness, his whole body tensing up hot with adrenaline, and his head stings with a sudden headache.

“Do you wanna give me a fucking heart attack?!” he screams up with fire in his wide eyes.

In an impulse, he grabs the broken rod and throws it aimlessly to the ceiling to express his nerves. It arches over the top platform and thankfully doesn’t hit anybody on the way back down.

Jongin hauls the boy in his hold onto one of the safe trapezes and they sit swinging idly for some moments to catch their breaths. Taemin has the gall to chuckle cutely at Jonghyun’s distressed state like it’s funny.

“It’s alright, hyung,” the boy pants with a grin, “I told you we don’t need a net!”

Jonghyun takes a deep calming breath to control the want to strangle the boy himself and the whole arena spins around him; he gives up and just drops on his ass on the floor right there. He holds his head and tiredly begs the boys to just come down already so he can fix it, but they still play a little more around the broken rod before complying. Circus kids.

Jonghyun calms his breath back to normal by the time the boys join him back on the ground.

He closes his eyes and listens to the thumping of his heart in his ears through the rustle and chatting of the teens. So long since he felt so aware of the one organ that keeps him alive.

“It’s just... mind-blowing, you know?” Jonghyun sighs, looking in amazement at the trapezes slowly swaying to a stop above them. “How you act like it’s so easy to be up there.”

“Of course it’s easy,” Taemin replies in the middle of putting his pants back on. “I’ve been doing this my whole life.”

Jonghyun focuses on Taemin’s face, intrigued. Despite his words, he doesn’t sound cocky at all. Sweat glistening down his flushed cheeks, there’s a simplicity in his expression that is purely innocent.

“How old were you when you came to the circus?”

Taemin pauses, biting his lip, and for a moment Jonghyun fears that he won’t be answered – it is a sort of unspoken rule of the circus that questions aren’t allowed, after all. But Taemin replies still:

“Hum, I don’t know how old I am exactly, but it was over ten years ago for sure,” muses the boy, head swaying as he thinks. “It’s the same for Jongin, we’ve always worked together.”

Jonghyun glances at the other boy; Jongin is too far too hear them, stretching out the arm he pulled while grabbing the other before. His brain is too fatigued to be caught up imagining how is it to fall out of Earth so young, grow up in the fantasy and forget what reality was ever like. It changes you deep into one’s very instincts, as these kids prove.

“You must trust him a lot, to do all that without any security,” Jonghyun wonders.

To his surprise, Taemin just shrugs.

“It’s not that big of a deal.”

Jonghyun raises his eyebrows at him.

“You’re not going to say it’s not scary to do it without a net,” he refutes, shaking his head. Circus artists deceive your senses in ways much deeper than you expect; he already learned with Minho.

Taemin runs a hand through his bangs and chuckles, shifting on his feet.

“Well, it’s part of the fun,” he admits. His eyes have a way of dancing around the space surrounding him while he works through a thought. “But just because it’s scary doesn’t mean you have to be scared of it, right?”

Jonghyun blinks up at him. It has to be the exhaustion truly damaging his brain, because this time he finds this sort of non-sense talk adorable, rather than frustrating.

“I don’t think I get it,” he probs, a trace of genuine humour in his voice.

Taemin flips his ponytail and licks his lips in thought.

“Like, it’s scary that you could fall from there,” he begins, cocking his head as he speaks, “But I know I won’t fall, so I’m not scared.”

He looks comically confident on what he just said, and it’s funniest because he is. The weirdest hiccup goes through Jonghyun, something that could try to be a laugh one day.

“You can’t know that you won’t fall.”

That makes the boy huff.

“Yes, I can,” Taemin grins, raising his eyebrows at the other like a challenge. “I’ve never fallen even once. I trust myself.”

Like a bird to flying, this is the soul of a child who grew up somersaulting in the air as naturally as breathing. His chest is open proud and Jonghyun is fascinated.

“That’s not enough,” he still says, in dizzy disbelief.

Taemin smiles and as childish as he looks, it’s Jonghyun who feels he’s being smiled down as a silly child in that moment.

“Well, if I don’t even trust my own self not to fall, then why would I trust some net to catch me?” he scoffs. His eyes linger playfully narrowed at Jonghyun for some moments, until the man drops his shoulders in defeated sleepiness. His lips feel involuntarily tight, trying to remember how to smile.

Surrounded by rods and tools, Jonghyun remains on the arena long after Taemin and Jongin leave back for their duties. His hands work mechanically under the low light of the single spotlight illuminating inside the tent. Completely aware of what he’s doing, Jonghyun resigns himself to keeping on working until he collapses from exhaustion.

The footsteps are resounding and soothing in the deep quiet of the night.

“So this is where you went,” even as a mutter, Minho’s voice vibrates low inside the empty tent. “What are you doing so late?”

Of course Minho would be the one to notice his absence. Jonghyun shakes in place at sudden. He feels as if he had just been asleep, although he knows for sure his body never stopped moving. It takes him several seconds to unglue his tongue from the dry top of his mouth.

“This could break during the show,” he mumbles senseless, more like a mindless chant. “I need to finish it.”

He can hear the exhale when Minho smiles at him, but his heavy eyes stay stuck on the pliers in his hand. Jonghyun doesn’t remember what he was about to do with it.

“The show is only tomorrow, you have time,” Minho assures as he walks closer. “Go to sleep.”

“No,” Jonghyun snaps back without even thinking about it. He has no idea if it sounds rude or depressed, he doesn’t care anymore. He’s so painfully sleepy, everything already feels like a dream.

“Why?”

Minho’s voice is warm and kind, despite everything. It always makes Jonghyun a little more cozy inside. Despite everything.

Slowly, Jonghyun raises his burning eyes to his friend.

He knows why he can’t sleep, he’s spent the last six weeks voyaging through every nook and cranny of that feeling every night. And he knows why it’s so hard to face it.

Jonghyun is full of so much ugly hate that he’s terrifying himself; why, why did life to this to him? He hates this pointless war, he hates himself for being a disappointment of a son, he hates world who made him so freeze up so, so hard.

“I’m...”

Angry.

Jonghyun sighs and looks at the dark twirling ground.

“Scared.”

Minho is an impossibly solid mountain through the waving forms his eyes project in the dark. The way the sparkling golden piercings in his face flutter in Jonghyun’s drowsy vision looks like a lighthouse just on the edge of the horizon.

His dry eyes watch in a blank daze as Minho comes closer and closer, until he can hold Jonghyun around the shoulders. Those strong arms pull him up like he’s made of cotton, the pliers slipping to the floor softly.

“I’ll be next to you,” murmurs Minho by his ear. So gentle he can barely feel it, Jonghyun is nudged one step at a time, slowly towards the exit. “You don’t need to hide your feelings here.”

It hurts to blink; the next time Jonghyun’s eyelids drop down, they don’t flip back up. Despite everything, he thinks, and puts all of his courage into letting his body drop senselessly onto Minho’s secure hold. In the safe darkness, as he lets himself be guided away, the very corner of his mouth curls up in relief.