acatwhowrites: (Taohun♡bros)
A Cat Who Writes ([personal profile] acatwhowrites) wrote2014-12-07 10:55 pm

Peer Groups

title: Peer Groups
players: Byun Baekhyun (Baekhee), Park Chanyeol, Do Kyungsoo/D.O., Huang Zitao/Tao (Chuntao), OCs
word count: 8,184
rating: PG-13
warnings: bullying, non-con kissing and touching, violence
summary: High school was not at all like books and movies and parents hyped it up to be. For Baekhee Byun, high school was absolute Hell.

a.n.: Written for the girl EXO exchange on LJ. (Original post here.) Nothing really went right in Real Life as I was writing, so I had to cheat a little, and, even then, I was late. I want to rewrite this; I didn't get to add everything I wanted.
The thing with the marks on the hand is a real thing; UW Milwaukee has been/is being investigated in relation to some recent incidents. It's said again and again, but be careful at parties where alcohol is served. If you leave your drink behind, get a new one.

High school was not at all like books and movies and parents hyped it up to be. For Baekhee Byun, high school was absolute Hell.

Her classes were fine; she did well on tests and homework and participated a lot, so her teachers all liked her. She managed the school's wrestling team with a close friend. Every Tuesday after school ended, she presided over Spanish Club, and every Thursday after school, she presided over Korean Club. Those weren't any issue at all.

The problem was the students.

Her “peers.”

Just the girls.

Somehow, since her final year of middle school, through junior high school, into her junior year of high school, girls just did not like her. For some reason, her very existence pissed them off.

Around her friends—predominantly male, with the very occasional girl—the bullying was non-existent, but rumours still whispered through the halls and among the cramped vanities of the bathrooms.

By herself, rumours were replaced with fists in her junior year.

Bright and early one Monday morning, which dawned grey and wet, Baekhee crashed to the pavement, managing to land in the largest puddle and not only soaking her clothes but scraping her palms and knees. High-pitched giggles poured over her back, colder than the drizzling rain. She stayed down for a minute, willing the humiliated and pained tears back into her eyes, until the drizzles suddenly stopped.

Leopard-print rain boots stood to her right, and very long, tanned legs folded to lower a pretty student with dark eyes and maroon hair beside Baekhee. Her mouth was pinched in a frown, but the corners naturally curled upwards in what would be a permanent, pleasant smile. “Are you okay? That was a nasty fall.”

Baekhee nodded with a grunt, well aware how pink her cheeks were. “I'm okay. I just tripped.”

“Tripped with help, maybe.” The girl stood, pinning her panda umbrella between her neck and shoulder to carefully take Baekhee by the arms and pull her to her feet.

Baekhee was pretty short, but the girl stood taller than what was considered average, particularly for such a young girl. Her lips parted in a gasp of surprise, eyes wide. “You're bleeding!”

It was a dumb thing to do, but Baekhee looked down to her legs and hands, saw the muck and blood, and immediately felt hot tears well in her eyes as she realised things hurt. “I-I'm okay …” Her voice cracked.

“Come on! We'll go to the bathroom; I've got bandages!”

Baekhee sniffled and tried not to get the girl too wet, even as she held Baekhee close to her side and power-walked through the crowd of half-asleep students. Their shoes squeaked on the linoleum, and rather than turning down the right hall and going to the girls' restroom there, the girl lead her straight and down the left hall that had a few lights out. It was the hall where health classes often were, nearl deserted, because only one classroom was used.

The restroom in this hall was a single room and so quiet the squeaks of their shoes echoed.

“Here, wash your hands.” The girl turned the taps on and left Baekhee to cringe and flinch as the soap worked into her wounds. She dropped open the Koala Kare baby changing table and dumped her bags—a backpack, purse, and gym duffel—onto it. She shook out her umbrella a bit, closed it, and hung it on the edge. “Do you have gym this semester?”

“No, why?” Baekhee took a paper towel and tried to dab at her knees.

“You could've changed … I think my clothes will be kind of big on you; you're so tiny.”

“It's okay. I'll dry off eventually.”

“This building is freezing unless you're in the auditorium. You'll get sick.” She popped open her wallet and pulled out a few strips of bandages, gesturing to the toilet. “Sit.” The bandages pulled strangely across Baekhee's palms, but they were cute and covered in tiny Rilakkuma heads.

The girl spun around and pulled a pair of grey Victoria's Secret sweatpants from her duffel. “Here. These are clean and have a drawstring, at least.”

“I can't take your clothes.”

“But your knees … .”

The fall had been enough to make her bleed through the denim, even where it hadn't torn. It hurt to bend or straightened her legs; Baekhee thought she could just ignore it. Something looser would be more comfortable … .

The warning bell trilled, and both girls jumped.

“I'll wash them and give them back tomorrow,” Baekhee promised as she took the sweatpants. She stood and shimmied out of her jeans, shivering as the cool air seemed to wash over her bared legs.

The girl wet a paper towel and cleaned the blood from Baekhee's knees. “At least there's no pebbles or anything embedded in your knees. When I was little, I fell off a swing, but I didn't let go, so my legs dragged, and I had a bunch of stones in my knees. My mom came to school, but she wouldn't take me home!” She pressed dry paper towel to the wounds, wincing at her own memories as well as the reddened knees. She looked up to Baekhee's face, suddenly. “My name's Chuntao, by the way. I'm a sophomore.” She peeled open another bandage and returned to the task at hand. “So, anyway, I had to wear these huge pads of gauze like kneepads. It hurt so bad, and my dad literally had to hold me so my mom could pick the pebbles out.” Finished with her bandages, she held up her own leg. “I still have the scars.” Sure enough, there were dozens of tiny, raised patches of pale scars over her kneecap.

Bending her knees experimentally, Baekhee pulled the borrowed sweatpants up and tied them at her waist. The legs pooled over her feet, making them both laugh. “I can just roll them up a bit. And my name's Baekhee Byun. I'm a junior.”

“You want a different top, too? I have an extra T-shirt.”

Baekhee shrugged. “May as well. Thank you.”

“I felt bad, seeing those girls pick on you.” Chuntao pulled out one shirt, frowned, and handed a second one to Baekhee. It was fitted and hung a bit nicer than her practice shirt.

Bakehee held up her sodden jeans and shirt. “I guess I'll just hang these in my locker.”

“That's about all you can do. Sorry, I don't have a hair dryer. I finally took it out of my bag … .”

Baekhee picked up her backpack and unlocked the bathroom door, waiting for her new friend. “Are you in sports or something?”

“Gymnastics! I'd like to be, anyway, try-outs aren't for another week, but I've been practising.” Chuntao quickly towelled off her boots and grabbed all of her things. “I kind of wanted to try wrestling, but there's no girls' team.”

“Yeah, they're kind of narrow-minded about that. Same with football.” Baekhee flipped the light as they left. “We're too fragile or something, you know.”

Chuntao snorted. “I've broken more bones than any boy I've met. It should be based just on try-outs. If you can do it: You're in.”

“I agree,” Baekhee sighed. She stepped to the left outside the library. “I'm this way. Thank you for the clothes and bandages.

“You're welcome; I hope you feel better!”

They parted ways, and Baekhee couldn't help but smile, even as her knees throbbed. It was people like Chuntao who made the bullying seem not so bad.

Her good mood could only last so long, it seemed. She made it through the whole day, even lunch, with just snide comments about her borrowed outfit. To spite them, she threw her hair up into a messy bun on top of her head. After sixth period, a whole pack of girls cornered her in the art hall beside the short steps leading to the English and computer rooms.

“Nice outfit, Baek Byun. Forget to get dressed this morning?”

“It's like you've given up on life,” another junior jeered. She paused, manicured fingernail tapping her chin. “That's a good idea for you, actually.”

“Please leave me alone; we're all going to be late.” Sometimes, Baekhee tried to reason with the girls. Logic never seemed to work, unfortunately.

“So leave!”

Baekhee made a move to walk away, and another girl side-stepped in front of her. “It's rude to leave in the middle of a conversation.”

She rolled her eyes. “You're talking to yourselves, anyway. I don't need to be here.”

“What was that?” the girl grabbed Baekhee's bun and yanked her head down.

“Uh oh; she's starting to cry!”

“What's the matter, sweetie? Did we hurt your feelings?” She tapped Baekhee's chin, and Baekhee's tongue caught between her teeth. She whined high in her throat and clapped her hands over her mouth.

“God, she's so fucking sensitive. It's not like we even did anything.”

Another girl nudged the others, and they fell silent with crocodile smiles.

A teacher walked past, telling them all to hurry to class, and Baekhee took the opportunity to slip away from the girls and hurry down the hall. As she trotted in and out of the throngs of students, her vision grew blurrier and blurrier until she couldn't tell where she was going at all. Her legs carried her away, and that's all she cared about, but when they gave out, she didn't fight it and collapsed to her knees, sniffling and whining until she shifted to sit on her butt with her legs bent up to her chest. It took mere seconds for sobs to claw up her throat and shake her shoulders.

Of all people, why pick on her? What'd she ever do to anyone? Since middle school, she was a target for remarks and abuse, and she was tired of it.

She was just tired.

Across the green, a group of boys headed to the track for gym class in shorts and T-shirts. They looked towards the crying girl curiously, but no one moved to check on her.

One of the tallest, a junior named Chanyeol Park, nudged one of his friends and pointed to her. “Is she okay?”

He shrugged. “She's picked on her a lot; girls are really scary.”

Chanyeol chewed his bottom lip and stared to where the girl had buried her face in her arms. “Shouldn't we check on her?” It had rained that morning, after all; she was probably sitting in a puddle.

“It'll just make it worse for her. These girls are some real bitches. They tried picking on the transfer student last year when they found out her English is poor, but, well, you remember. The fitness test. She aced everything. Kind of scared them off, I guess.”

“Oh, yeah.” Chanyeol stayed where he stood, still watching the girl—who looked so small and sad, like a puppy left out in the rain, that he was sure his heart was breaking a little—until his friend lightly kicked his foot.

“You coming, or are you going to do something dumb?”

“I just want to make sure she's okay.”

“Fine,” he sighed. “I'll tell Mr Choi you're sick … .”

Chanyeol was already jogging away but called, “Thanks, Kyungsoo!”

Kyungsoo rolled his eyes and jogged to catch up with their friends. Chanyeol often dropped his own responsibilities, like classes, or projects, such as their little band, to involve himself where he didn't belong. He always managed to make a place for himself, though, whether it was with the old ladies at the supermarket who fussed over him after he helped reach for items up high or down low on shelving or with his neighbours after untangling a child's kite from a tree or chasing after a dog dragging its leash. He had an animal sort of magnetism, and Kyungsoo's theory was that Chanyeol was simply too gangly and awkward and smiley to not be hopelessly endearing.

He shook his head and jogged to catch up with his classmates.

Baekhee rested her forehead on her knees and pulled her arms around her head, over her ears; she didn't hear anyone walking to her over the soft grass. She felt the warm summer breeze across her neck and cool dampness of the grass and silently willed herself to just melt into the ground.

Something touched her shoulder, and she jumped.

A boy, obviously in the throes of puberty, retracted his hand and sat back on his heels. “You okay?” He had really nice eyes, large and thickly lashed behind big glasses settled on ears that reminded her of a car on a hill with its doors open.

She sniffled and wiped her nose across her arm with a shrug. “Just peachy.” The tone was unintentionally bitter; the last thing she wanted was to thrust her issues on a stranger.

The half-smile he tried to offer fell to a frown. “What happened?”

“Nothing.” Baekhee dropped her legs to the grass but didn't stand. “I should go to class.”

“It's those girls, right?” He sat cross-legged on the grass, elbows on his knees. “My friend said some girls pick on you.”

Baekhee shook her head. It hurt. The bun she'd tied up was loose and pulled on her scalp. “It's no big deal.” She tilted her head to untangle the elastic band from her hair with a hand and shook her hair free.

“Then why are you crying?”

She flipped her hair over her shoulder. “Call it a hobby. Why do you care?”

“I don't like seeing people upset.” He got to his feet and held out a hand. “I'm Chanyeol Park. I want to see you smile.”

“Baekhee,” she replied, exaggerating her name to lift her cheeks in a poor image of a smile. She accepted his hand and was easily pulled to her feet.

Chanyeol resisted the urge to crouch down to talk to her, like he does with the neighbourhood kids. “It's almost the last class. Let's just go.”

“Go where?” Baekhee started walking with him, taking two steps for every one of his. She didn't even stand to his shoulders, and she was being awfully trusting of someone she only knew by sight.

“My family has a couple cafes. My dad's is really close. My treat.”

“I guess, since you're paying.”

He grinned, showing an alarming number of teeth. “Great! I'll go change. Meet me out front, okay? Ten minutes!” He ran off, loping like a giraffe. Baekhee watched for a bit, smiling a little bit, but when he was gone, the anxiety returned, and she kept vigilant lookout over her shoulder as she sneaked back into the school building to get her backpack and books.

Thankfully, the girls were in class or smoking in the bathrooms or something. As long as they were away from her, Baekhee didn't care.

Chanyeol changed back into jeans and his sweatshirt, locked his gym locker, and made a quick stop at his locker only to stare at his books and notebooks and completely blank on what homework he had to do. There was a pretty girl waiting for him.

There was a pretty girl waiting for him in front of the school.

Heart in his ears, he grabbed some important-looking notebooks and stuffed them into his bag. If he missed some assignments, he could do them in class and hand them in late. Baekhee was more important.

He didn't see the girl when he sneaked past the attendance office, and his stomach dropped a little.

Psst.” Between the school and a low wall separating the property from someone's front yard, Baekhee sat on a pile of wood and waved her hand. “There was a cop for some reason. I didn't want to get hauled in for truancy.” She grinned at him, eyes and face still a bit pink from crying.

She really was super cute. A big part of that was probably how petite and teeny she was, although most girls were compared to Chanyeol. The raincoat she wore had to be borrowed or a hand-me-down; it hung to her calves, and the sleeves were rolled up just to reveal the tips of her fingers.

She is so fucking cute … . Chanyeol tucked his hair behind his ear and gestured down the pavement. “I parked in my friend's driveway.”

“I thought you said your dad's cafe was close.”

“It is! I-I'm not just trying to get you in my car. I promise. It's the next town over. We could walk, but it's probably going to rain again, and it's faster by car.” He fiddled with his bookbag. “If you'd rather not, we can just walk.”

“No, it's fine. I trust you.” She walked ahead, pausing to look back at him. “If you try anything, though, be aware that I've done hapkido since I was ten.”

He raised his hands. “On my honour, I will suppress my natural smoothness. No moves will be put upon you.”

“You sure you can trust me, though?” Baekhee teased when Chanyeol caught up, spinning his car key on its ring around his finger.

He stopped and pulled his phone out. “Maybe I should text my mom, just in case they have to search for my body … .”

“Ideally, the pieces would be too small to find, but there is an awful lot of you.”

“Would you believe me if I said I'm still growing?”

Baekhee looked at him as if he'd grown a horn from his forehead. “Tell your mom to put a brick on your head! You're too freakin' big already.”

“Maybe you're just too tiny.”

“Hey!” She spun on her heel, finger raised. “I am fun-sized.

“Pocket-sized, more like.” He unlocked the passenger door—his car was old enough to not have remote access—and opened it for her before letting himself into the other side and folding himself to sit behind the wheel.

“Pockets of a giant, sure. I'll accept that.”

Chanyeol couldn't believe how easy it was to talk to Baekhee. It was like they'd known one another for years. She had a big laugh and a big smile, and she sang to all the songs on the radio in-between their conversations—which were more banter than anything significant, but Chanyeol still counted it as important conversation.

If he was really being honest with himself, which he preferred to avoid, he couldn't believe that such a cute girl was talking to him. As a friend so nicely put it one day freshman year after a girl sweetly rejected him, Chanyeol was more like the puppy girls wanted to hang out with and play with more than the manly wolf exuding reliability and triggering pheromones.

A friend from another school, who played ball for the other team literally and figuratively, suggested girls were threatened by how pretty Chanyeol was—Chanyeol had been meaning to get his hair cut for months; he'll get around to it, eventually.

The gist, as he understood it, was girls just weren't into him.

But Baekhee chattered away and teased him and appeared completely comfortable. No threatened behaviour from Chanyeol's beauty or cooing over his puppy-dog-ness … . That was a good sign, he thought.

One of the Parks' cafes sat on a corner across from a law office, bank, and shared a wall with a shop that sold foreign toys. Parking in the municipal lot, Chanyeol slung his bookbag over a shoulder and locked the doors once Baekhee had unloaded herself and her bag.

“Your dad's not actually working today, is he?” she asked as they passed a police car covered in radio antennae.

Chanyeol hummed. “I'm actually not sure … . Why?”

“It's kind of early to meet the parents, isn't it?” Baekhee covered her cheeks with her hands and wiggled cutely. “It's so sudden, after all.”

Chanyeol may have been a bit in love. He was a teenage boy, though. They went through crushes like socks.

His dad did not work that first sort-of-almost-if-you-squint date, but he did work on the next one. Luckily, Chanyeol and Baekhee weren't skipping class, so there was no parental inquisition, and he could tell his dad was charmed by Baekhee.

Chanyeol had to face the parental inquisition solo that evening. Of course, his dad had told his mom about their son's “date,” and that got his sister sniffing for dirt on him and offering advice he didn't want or even entirely understand. Girls were just weird.

Baekhee wasn't entirely a girl; she blended in with Chanyeol's friends almost immediately. With her came Chuntao, who was some sort of unofficial bodyguard, and Chanyeol had the pleasure of watching one of the freshmen, Sehun, fall in love with the leopard-print-loving girl. Both girls were sporty and competitive and, if they didn't wear makeup, could totally have been “one of the guys,” in Chanyeol's opinion.

He's so glad he's out of the whole “girls have cooties” phase. Baekhee was just too cute.

During lunch, which they all miraculously had at the same time, Chanyeol learned his crush was not as hidden as he thought when Chuntao leaned over his shoulder and whispered a threat to his manhood if he made Baekhee cry.

He pushed his lunch over to Jongdae, who shared a few classes with Baekhee, and shook his head when asked if something was wrong. He knew his ears were burning, and if he so much as glanced at Baekhee—laughing and clapping her hands at something someone said—his whole head would combust.

Baekhee still woke up anxious and sick for school, even though she often went to bed giddy and smiling after texting her friends. Not even Chanyeol, the giant of a boy with a giant smile, could get rid of the butterflies throwing up in her gut as she got on the bus and walked into school.

At least she had Chuntao, now. The sophomore was off-limits, somehow, or maybe two people was too much for a pack to pick on. Once Chuntao saw her, she'd hook their arms together and immediately start talking about her pets or shopping she wanted to do or how much she missed her past schools and homes for various reasons. Baekhee had a theory all the chatter was to distract her from the whispers and stares, but the girl was naturally chatty and clingy. Through her, Baekhee met Jooyeon, president of the Student Council as well as a peer advisor. It was sweet how Jooyeon treated Chuntao like a daughter.

With Jooyeon on one arm and Chuntao on the other, Baekhee's anxiety slowly ebbed but would return once they parted ways in the hall to get to their respective classes. More than once, her shoulder met a metal locker, occasionally knocking down whatever hung inside. She even rubbed shoulders with painted cinderblock on more than one occasion.

Around homecoming, Baekhee rubbed her bruised shoulder in homeroom and waited at the edge of her seat to be out the door once the bell rang. The teacher—one of the math instructors—had a rule that if anyone packed up before the bell rang, they would all be kept for an extra five minutes. For those who rode the bus, such as Baekhee, that was not ideal.

Other students hummed with low conversation, and the table behind Baekhee was whispering about a party hosted at a college kid's house that weekend. Anyone with an invitation—meaning anyone who heard about it—was welcome.

“Hey, Baek. Baekhee.” The girl right behind her nudged her chair with a foot. “Are you gonna go?”

“Go where?”

“To the party?” she spoke with a clear Duh! in her tone.

Baekhee shrugged a shoulder—unfortunately, it was the one that was bruised—and covered her grimace with a thoughtful expression. “Parties aren't really my thing.”

“It'll be so fun. Like, everyone's going.”

Great. All her favourite people.

“I'll think about it.”

The girl grinned and handed her a pieced of paper torn from her notebook. “Here's the address.” The bell finally rang, and they were dismissed. “Maybe I'll see you there!”

Baekhee had never been to a party—college or otherwise—other than family get-togethers. She folded and unfolded the paper as she waited for her stop on the bus home. It could be fun, she thought.

Chuntao was busy, so, after a Google search, Baekhee decided that simple was better for a party and threw a black skirt on over patterned leggings with a thick cardigan over her white tank top. Some makeup and quick work with a curling iron, and she was out the door to catch a bus.

There was no set time for the party, but the place was packed when Baekhee made it over after a bus transfer. She could hear the music before she could clearly see which house it was, and the bass seemed to shake the street the closer she got.

Most everyone inside was a stranger and undoubtedly older. Red plastic cups sat in pretty much everyone's hands or sat abandoned on any horizontal surface. Music and voices competed to be heard. The noise almost hurt, but there was an energised atmosphere than Baekhee kind of liked.

She figured she'd find someone familiar sooner or later, and she met the girl who'd given her the invitation and address in the kitchen. “You came!”

“Yeah. Thanks for the invitation.”

“N-No problem.” The girl swallowed and offered a red cup. “Drink?”

Baekhee took it and sniffed it curiously. “What is is?”

“I dunno, but it's pretty good.”

The bitterness made Baekhee jolt with shivers. “Ugh. I think it's lighter fluid.”

“It's better once you're used to it; trust me.” She took her own cup and gestured to the porch. “I'm gonna go. See you later!”

Baekhee waved and sipped the drink a couple more times. It got easier to drink, but it didn't taste any better.

It was definitely some kind of grain alcohol, and it was strong enough Baekhee was sure her nose hairs were curling. She managed to finish it while snacking on Gardettos and cheese, though, and the girl returned like magic to offer her a refill.

Everything was better when blurred a little. All the imperfections were smoothed away, and no one really mattered. Baekhee's hand was taken by someone and drawn on; someone else grabbed her to dance with among the sweat and alcohol-soaked bodies in the basement. She made her way upstairs again and had yet another cup pressed into her hand, but the softened film that was her vision was darkening at the edges, and she felt sick. She wanted to sit down. She wanted to lie down and never get up.

A guy grabbed her wrist and pulled her onto his lap. Maybe he'd let her nap a bit, if he'd get his hands out from under her skirt.

“Stoppit,” she mumbled, pushing at his arm.

“Shh. It's okay, isn't it?” His voice was right in her ear and echoed. She shook her head to clear it and to say no.

She didn't want to sit by him, even if his lap felt comfy, but he kept and arm across her lap and hand on her back. “Lemme up. I gotta pee,” she lied. It sounded like a good idea after she suggested it, though.

“Don't be such a prude.” His lips brushed across her neck, below her ear, and she shuddered. She really did not like this.

No.” Her arms crossed over her chest as her bra suddenly loosened. Her cardigan was pushed off her shoulders so a bra strap could be pulled down her arm when someone else said something, and the guy holding her started yelling and called her a slut and maybe something else, but she was shoved to her feet and caught by the someone else.

“C'mon, Baek. Let's get you home.”

“Wait … ” The room should not be moving when she was stationary. That made no sense. Her stomach lurched as her throat shivered. “I don't feel so good.”

The black was rather calming.

There was a weird sound in her room, like rushing air and a leaky something or other. She tried to wipe at her eyes, but something pulled.

“Hang on, Baekhee.” The something loosened, and Baekhee rubbed at her eye with a fist, squinting at a wall that was definitely not one in her bedroom. “You alright?”

She looked at the boy leaning on her bed and smiled a little. “Minseok? Hi. What happened?”

“You passed out at that party you shouldn't have been at.”

Oh, yeah. The party serving lighter fluid. “It was gross.”

“I'm sure. The doctor who pumped your stomach was amazed you were even upright for as long as you were. Whoever made those had no idea what they were doing.” Minseok dragged the folding chair back and sat beside the leaning, leaning on his elbows. “Why were you there?”

“Bored. I was invited.”

“You of course had permission.”

“Of course. I asked the authority figure in the house. Mom and Dad are at my aunt's, and my brother's at his dorm, so it was me. I said okay.”

He rolled his eyes and sat back. “Your parents are not going to be thrilled about this bill.”

She yawned. “I'll probably call them and let them yell at me in this semi-public place.” Looking around the room, she wasn't impressed. Hospitals tried to be soothing and accommodating, but they were just uncomfortable and way too clean.

“Baek … .”


“What's on your hand?”

She frowned. “I dunno, whatever the hospital gave … me … .” A bold red X graced he back of her right hand. It smelled like Sharpie. “I don't remember this.”

Minseok nodded. “Kids at my school have been getting busted for wild parties. Some girls—always girls—were brought to the hospital after passing out or someone calling 911, and they had Xs on their hands. Different colours. They were drugged.”

“Drugged?” The folded thermal blanket did nothing to get rid of the chills that shook her legs.

“The different colours mean different things. The only ones who know for sure are the ones who made them, but someone made you a target for being drugged.”

Baekhee stared at her hands. The red was too prominent. It looked fake. “I want to go home,” she muttered, pulling the blankets higher.

Minseok reached over and helped tuck the blankets around Baekhee. “I can call your brother, if you want. You can't go home just yet.”

“Minseok, I'm sorry! You brought me here, didn't you?”

“As long as you're okay, that doesn't matter. Should I call Baekbom?”

Baekhee shook her head. Anyone seeing her would ask questions she didn't want to answer. “I'll be okay. You can go home. It's late,” she added, looking at the clock beside the door.

He slouched a little. “Baekbom would kill me if I left you, now. It's okay. Just sleep. There's a pull-out bed if I get tired. I'll be fine.”

“You're sure?”

Minseok nodded and stood to turn off the remaining lights. “It'll be alright. Just rest.”

Baekhee touched her shoulder, feeling for her bra beneath the cheap hospital gown. The fuzzy memories she had weren't pleasant, and the X on her hand stood out in the dark, redder than blood.

It felt heavy.

She was discharged the next day, a Friday, and was driven home by Minseok who walked her into the Byun house and shared the lunch they'd picked up before leaving for his class.

Mr and Mrs Byun were not thrilled to hear about the party or hospital visit, but Mrs Byun's tears were more scared than angry, and that set of Baekhee, who clung to her mother like she was a human anchor and promised to be smarter as her dad promised to push the police to find out who had made his daughter into a target.

The weekend was quiet. Baekhee stayed home and baked with her mom. Chuntao visited on Sunday and was immediately adopted by Mrs Byun.

Baekhee went to bed scared for what Monday at school was going to be like. She wasn't disappointed. After being discharged Thursday, she was back at the hospital with broken fingers from a girl's heavy boot.

Tuesday had an impromptu assembly and speaker about bullying, of all things. Throughout the whole thing, Baekhee could feel the stares on her. The little hairs on the back of her neck tried to hide down her shirt.

With that, someone in administration decided the thing to do was to gather all the bullied kids—Baekhee included; she didn't know anyone had even noticed—and all the bullies and put them in a room together to talk things out.

As expected, the bullied kids cowered, and the bullies glowered. Everyone but the guidance counsellors and teachers were silent.

Of course, that made life even more hellish for Baekhee and the others. Someone had to have told someone about them being picked on, and who better than themselves? No one else knew the situation any better, so the girls relentlessly pursued Baekhee from the moment she stepped off the bus to the moment she was back on the bus at the end of the day sporting new bruises and hearing echoes of more insults and rumours in her head.

It all stopped one Monday. From being tripped down a couple flights of stairs and being locked in a dark locker room to absolutely nothing. Some rumours still flitted about, but Baekhee walked the halls like a cat in a room full of rocking chairs and never felt her tail pulled.

She hung out with her friends, laughing and goofing off, went out with Chanyeol or Chuntao after school, and just experienced the normal life of a life high school student.

Evidently, it was the calm before the storm.

At homeroom, Junghwa, one of the few girls who liked Baekhee, knowing her through dating Kyungsoo, ran to the door with wide eyes searching for Chanyeol. She nearly tripped over a desk in her haste to get to him, but Kyungsoo caught her arm. She pulled away and to throw her hands around as she spoke. “I need your help!”

“Are you okay?”

“No!” Her eyes welled with tears, and Chanyeol recoiled. He was allergic to crying; it made his heart turn to goo. “It's Baekhee; she—she was just taken from the doors by some girls, and they're going to the field, and I-I,” she sobbed, sniffling grossly, “I'm too scared to do anything; please help her!”

Yixing touched her arm and offered a handkerchief. She took it and covered her face, wailing even as Yixing sat her on a chair at his desk.

Kyungsoo rubbed her back but caught the look in Chanyeol's eye. “You're not—” But Chanyeol was out of his seat and dashing passed the teacher as fast as his long legs could take him.

Kyungsoo ran after him—someone had to make sure he didn't do anything too dumb—and ignored the threats of detention for running in the hall and skipping class.

Straggling students parted like the Red Sea for Moses as they ran, frowning or shouting obscenities but not trying to stop them in any way or follow them. None of them knew what was happening on the playing field.

Shoving the back doors open, Chanyeol and Kyungsoo tore across the back lot, dodging clusters of parked cars and leaning back awkwardly to not trip down the steep slope behind the bleachers. It always felt so close to the school when they'd have to walk down for gym, but now it felt like an eternity until they crashed against the metal undercarriage, fingers clutching the riveted beams.

They saw the girls in a circle, pushing another girl until one stepped out of the way, letting their victim fall to the grass. Their shrill taunts and laughter carried over the open field. Chanyeol's fists clenched at his sides. Girls or not, they weren't even being human.

“Soo, call the police. And an ambulance.”

“Chanyeol, don't—.” Kyungsoo tried to grab his arm, but Chanyeol was gone, ducking around the bleachers and loping across the grass to barrel into the thick of them. He pulled his phone from his pocket and kept an eye on his friend while punching in 9-1-1.

A tall, modelsque sort of girl—whom Chanyeol recognised as the leader of the group—shoved Chanyeol's shoulder. “What the fuck is your problem?”

“What's yours?!” Chanyeol crouched beside Baekhee and felt his stomach drop. She was bloodied, bruised, and didn't even appear entirely conscious. He saw torn fabric fluttering around, but the pale material wrapped around a thigh dragged a beast from his heart that only saw red. “What did you do to her?”

“Nothing she didn't have coming. Skank like her tramping around school, hanging on all the guys and spreading her legs for anyone with a dick.”

He shook his head. “No … .”

“Aw, yeah. My boyfriend dumped me because of her.”

“Mine, too!”

“Your boyfriends dumped you, because you're all petty bitches!” Chanyeol surged to his feet, towering over even the tallest girl wearing knock-off brand wedges. “She is friendly and sweet and everything you're not. That's why boys can't stand to be around you. You're kind of pretty; that's it. Your hearts are disgusting, and you have no brains, so you're violent.”

“Chanyeol?” Baekhee rolled on the grass, curling up on her side. Her voice was rough and soft, like she'd spent hours screaming at the top of her lungs.

He dropped to a crouch. “I'm here; I'm getting you help.”

“Fucking Prince Charming here's probably had a taste of her, too; trying to protect her pretty assets.”

Chanyeol ignored them to kneel beside Baekhee. She was breathing shakily, and her mouth hung open strangely. He didn't want to risk moving her, but the other girls weren't backing down at all.

He cried out as something sharp struck his side, knocking him onto his hip.

A girl with thick makeup and dyed braids brandished a metal baton, retractable and easy to conceal. “We've really grown tired of you, Prince Charming.”

“Stop!” Baekhee's arms trembled, but she tried to get up and cover Chanyeol. She fell, and he curled over her before the baton could contact her shoulder, striking his back, instead.

Sirens wailed. There was shouting, and the girls squabbled among themselves what to do before finally running away.

Baekhee whimpered, and Chanyeol bit back a whine of his own when he sat back on his heels. He gently took her by the biceps and eased her up against his chest. She couldn't stay up on her own; he draped an arm across her body like a seat belt. “It's okay, Baekhee,” Chanyeol murmured against her hair. “It's okay; help's coming. Thank you for being brave. I'm sorry I didn't get here sooner. I'm sorry.” He had to resist the urge to rock back and forth, because he just wanted his friend to feel better and stay awake, but he feared he'd already moved her too much. His own back throbbed with waves of pain.

Kyungsoo sat cross-legged beside him, setting his hoodie over Baekhee's lap. “They're coming down, now, Baek. You're gonna be okay.” He wrapped his fingers around hers, rubbing the back of her hand where it didn't appear bruised.

A couple of ambulances used the maintenance road, usually only accommodating golf carts of equipment, and parked behind the fence. Paramedics hauled stretchers out of the backs of the ambulances and rushed to the trio.

Kyungsoo stood up to talk to them, pointing at Chanyeol and gesturing to his back. One paramedic ran back and returned with a flat board that took some coaxing to get Chanyeol to lie on.

“Take care of Baekhee first! I'm fine,” he insisted.

“Chanyeol, with your luck, your spine's broken. Just go with them.”

“Then you ride with her.” Chanyeol watched with wet eyes as the girl was carefully settled on the other stretcher and covered with a blanket. She whimpered a little when the stretcher was lifted onto its legs. “Please.”

Kyungsoo nodded and walked with Chanyeol's stretcher until they reached the ambulances. “I'll see you there. Just stay still, okay?”

Chanyeol closed his eyes and pressed the heels of his palms against his eyes. He heard doors slam and felt himself being lifted. The jostling hurt his back, but he ignored it, because Baekhee probably felt worse, and that made his chest ache.

“You're gonna be okay, kid. We're on our way,” the paramedic spoke in a soothing voice with an edge of authority. “There may be police there, later. We'll get you and your friend patched up, first.”

“She'll be okay, right? I-I should call my mom.”

She stopped him with a hand on his shoulder. “We will contact your parents once we get to the hospital. You need to stay still.”

He bit his lip and closed his eyes, waiting out what was probably the longest ride of his life.

Like the paramedic had said, police officers visited Chanyeol in his hospital room after he was treated for bruises across his back and a cracked rib. Kyungsoo was allowed when he said he had called the police.

The girls were easy to pick up and sat at the station, but both boys gave thorough statements, and Kyungsoo even offered the video he had taken on Chanyeol's phone, because, “There was no way in Hell I was going to let those girls get away with hurting my friends again.”

It took a while, and their parents arrived and had to be briefed as well, but Chanyeol was finally left alone with Kyungsoo and took his hand. “How is she?”

He looked at Chanyeol's hand and then his sneakers.


“She's not too good,” Kyungsoo admitted quietly. “Her lower jaw's broken. Black eye. Broken ribs. Dislocated shoulder … .” He had tuned out the doctor's list of injuries, having to quickly find a bathroom and throw up bile. His hand shook in Chanyeol's, or maybe Chanyeol's shook in his. “They think she'll be okay, but she won't be in school for a while.”

Chanyeol draped an arm across his eyes and bit his lips even as his chin quivered. He sniffled and openly sobbed. He pulled his hand away to cover his face with the scratchy bedsheet.

His mom, responding to the maternal instinct of her child's needs, returned to the room and sat on the edge of his bed, taking his wrists in her hands and speaking low.

“I'll go, now.” Kyungsoo turned to leave when Mrs Park stood and wrapped her arms around him in a tight hug.

“Thank you so much,” she whispered, kissing his hair. “You saved my baby and your friend.” She squeezed him again and held his cheeks in her hands to smile tearfully at him.

He left with a glance back at Chanyeol and pulled the door shut behind him. Baekhee was still in emergency care, so he found a lounge in Chanyeol's floor and texted Yixing and Junghwa to let Baekhee's friends know what happened before the rumour mill could really start. Considering the girls who mostly ran that mill were reportedly in police custody, Baekhee and Chanyeol should be relatively safe from gross speculation.

School without Chanyeol was weird, but without Baekhee as well, their table at lunch was pretty much silent. Kyungsoo held onto Junghwa's hand under the table and Sehun tried to distract Chuntao with a game on his phone, but she picked at her food without eating it.

“Chanyeol should be back next week, right?” Yixing asked, breaking the heavy silence.

Kyungsoo nodded. Mrs Park wanted to keep Chanyeol home for a few days after he was discharged, to keep an eye on him and make sure he didn't do anything stupid to aggravate the healing bruises. He'd gotten a text from him during homeroom that Baekhee was finally back in her room for a while. He was attached to her as much as possible, unwilling to let her leave his sight again.

“They're both gonna be okay, right?” Chuntao looked around the table. No one had a good answer, but Junghwa stood and hugged her back, burying her face in Chuntao's neck. Sehun looked jealous until someone nudged him under the table.

Around them, students buzzed with conversations. Some mentioned the fight outside, gossiping mindlessly, but it was just talk.

It was the girls who belonged to the arrested pack that called their attention. Choice words were said, twittering about how Baekhee and her knight or guard dog deserved to be in the hospital. The final question was why Kyungsoo, the snitch, wasn't with them, and Chuntao's fist slammed onto the table. Junghwa jumped and let her go when she stood to stalk the few paces to where the girls sat at their own table.

The whole cafeteria fell silent. One girl, some sort of stand-in leader with the actual authority gone, began to stand, but Chuntao pushed her down to sit with a hand on her shoulder. “Is that all you can talk about?” she asked. “Are you really such awful people that you wish for people to get injured so badly to be hospitalised for days or months? Baekhee is one of the most beautiful girls I know, and you all tried to destroy her. She was too strong to be talked down, so you beat her and picked on her. Her life was miserable. Chanyeol helped her find herself again, which you tried to take away again. Beating them up will just make them stronger. Know why? Of course you don't. You're pathetic princesses in high towers with daddy issues. They love each other. That's impossible to take away. That's why they're both so beautiful. And as long as they're alive, you're going to have to try a lot harder to get through us,” she gestured to her friends, “if you want to keep picking on Baekhee. Grow up.”

They were red in the face and ready to argue, but supervising teachers finally intervened and guided Chuntao to the guidance office.

Junghwa slowly sat beside Kyungsoo again, cheeks and eyes pink as she sniffled.

Dinner show over, the cafeteria returned to its default noise, but the table without Chanyeol or Baekhee remained silent.

Chanyeol visited Baekhee every day after school. She wasn't in any condition to do schoolwork, but he brought it along just in case.

Her jaw was wired shut, and bandages covered most of her body. She looked more like a war survivor than someone bullied, but she was still strong and beautiful to Chanyeol.

He chased away a couple reporters but searched online for news of the girls the police had picked up. There were varying charges of assault and battery, aggravated assault, aggravated battery, illegal weapons possession, drug possession, and a few others that Chanyeol was sure something would stick and get them locked up and away from Baekhee. In the meantime, the girls were all at home, which sat bitterly on his tongue.

Baekhee woke up sometimes. The pain from her injuries allowed for some strong medication that made her sleepy and a bit loopy, but she'd sort of smile at Chanyeol, and he'd take her good hand in his and talk to her, read to her, or put a movie or drama on his laptop for them to watch.

Their friends visited when they could, usually in boisterous groups that would quiet to study groups, because the hospital was such a calm place, although the frequent in-and-out of RNs and CNAs and LPNs and specialists frequently broke their concentration. They never got much done, but they had fun just visiting. Baekhee's bed filled with stuffed animals; the window sills and counter sported colourful arrangements of sweet-smelling flowers; and she even had a stash of non-hospital food in the closet where her street clothes had hung.

It was slow progress, but she did heal. The first thing she said to Chanyeol when the wires and elastics in her mouth were finally removed was “Would you go out with me?”

Chanyeol said yes, and, just to make it official, he posted it online along with a selfie of the two of them on Baekhee's hospital bed, making goofy faces. His phone was quickly vibrating out of his hand with the influx of messages, so he turned it off and turned on his laptop to watch another movie with his girlfriend.