“Our first challenge is…” Sungjae opened the envelope, pulled a card out of it, and turned it around. SPEND A NIGHT IN A HAUNTED HOUSE.
OK, I could cope with that. Maybe…
While the others were laughing and joking for the cameras, I hung back, out of the way. What did Justin think of haunted houses?
Considering his reaction to everything else, he probably thought it was lame. Ghosts weren’t real.
“What do you think, Justin?”
I snapped out of my thoughts and looked over at Sungjae. “I…” The hell with this. To the best of my knowledge, Drako had never done this kind of challenge before, which meant I could have some fun.
My brother was going to turn into a living meme with this one.
“I’m not scared.”
I wasn’t. But I was going to have some fun making my twin out to be a scaredy-cat…
Sungjae gave me a pained smile, while Yeonwoo refused to look in my direction. It was exactly the reaction they were expecting from Justin.
“Cut!” the director bellowed.
Moments later, Manager Choi walked over. “You have a few hours to practice then we’re getting in the minibus and heading to the location to film tonight. Don’t worry about packing as everything will be provided as normal.”
Normal? I almost laughed at that.
Instead, I flicked the microphone off, making sure the red light wasn’t lit, before heading down into the basement. I slipped into my practice room and quickly checked for cameras.
I sank down on the piano stool and let out a long breath. Sleep, for the next few weeks, was going to be hard to come across. With all the filming, practicing, and everything else involved with a comeback, I needed to work hard.
JJ hadn’t revealed what he was going to do but there was no sense in bugging him over his decision.
I’d left the sheet music on the keyboard and I pulled out the duet I was to perform with Yeonwoo. I read it over several times, scribbling notes over certain parts before I finally put my fingers on the keys.
With no concept of what was happening in the world outside of Justin’s practice room, I lost myself in the music. When I went back to America, I was going to make a conscious effort to play more often. I’d forgotten how relaxing it was.
A knock at the door disturbed my playing. “Yes?”
Sungjae opened the door and walked in. “It’s time to go to the haunted house.”
Sungjae didn’t leave.
“You need something?”
Sungjae stared at me, rubbing at a spot behind his ear. “What’s wrong with you?”
I opened my mouth, ready to snap some Justinesque retort at him, and instead sighed. “Nothing, Sungjae. But thank you for asking.”
Drako’s leader looked at me like I’d grown a second head.
I gathered up the sheet music, sliding it back into the folder. I wasn’t sure where the haunted house was, but I wanted to study the music on the ride. I got up and moved towards the door, but Sungjae was there, blocking the way. I looked down at his folded arms before arching an eyebrow at him.
“I know you don’t like us, and I know you’ve had enough of Drako, but you’ve got to make an effort for this show. When we signed our contracts, we promised we would do everything for our fans.”
“They see everything. They will know something is up. It’s not the same as a music video or a guest appearance on a show. Please, Justin. There’s not long before our contracts are up for renewal. It just a few weeks where you have to pretend to enjoy being around us.”
Sungjae turned and left, leaving the door open. I stared after him, not sure what to say to that.
Had Justin really said that – that he’d had enough?
I scratched at the back of my head, dismissing the idea. If he had, he’d changed his mind. He’d said he was going into rehab because he wanted to make things right.
Heading back upstairs, I found everyone waiting for me in the kitchen. Manager Choi had said we didn’t need to bring anything. I was thankful for that.
“Mics on,” Manager Choi told us. He waited for us to complete his instruction before leading us out to the minibus.
Which was when I found there’d been some changes made to the vehicle. Several of the seats were covered in a fabric that looked like it was there to indicate we shouldn’t sit in the seat, rather than for us to relax on. The back seat of three and one of the double seats in front were all that were available to us. And each one had several cameras attached to the headrest in front. Fuck.
Of course it would.
First on the bus, I went straight for the back corner. As I predicted, Yeonwoo didn’t sit next to me. Or on the back seat.
It was JJ who slid in beside me. The moment I looked at him, he pointed at the camera.
I rolled my eyes. Did he really think I was going to bring anything up now?
Unfortunately, my plans to study the music were ended abruptly when Sungjae took the seat beside JJ. He had things in his hand which I knew were going to keep us occupied while we drove to the filming location.
Sure enough, not long after we set off, Sungjae produced a card.
“Tonight, you will be visiting one of the most haunted houses in Seoul,” Sungjae read aloud. “But first you will need to split into two groups. One of the groups will be responsible for finding your bedding, and the other group will need to find your food.”
“Oh fuck,” I muttered before I could help myself.
That earned me four reproachful looks. Sungjae leaned over and punched my arm. “No swearing on camera!” he said through gritted teeth.
JJ’s hand flew to his lapel mic and he buried it in his fist. “Let’s not start the show hitting each other. They will edit the swearing out, hyung.”
Sungjae’s punch hadn’t been anywhere near as hard as Yeonwoo’s had, but I appreciated JJ’s concern.
“How are we picking the groups?” Chan piped up.
Instantly, Sungjae’s attention returned to the card. “Kawi, Bawi, Bo for leaders. Winning team gets two members.”
Kawi, Bawi, Bo… the more formal name (or the actual way of pronouncing) Kai, Bai, Bo – Scissors, Rock, Paper.
At least I could play this game.
Disregarding traffic laws, Yeonwoo and Chan both kneeled on their chairs, hanging over the backs. Yeonwoo’s fist came uncomfortably close to my face as he held it out, ready to play.
When I scowled up at him, he gave me a smirk.
He might have been good looking, but he was a dick.
He was also the dick who won the game.
“Yay!” Chan cried, happily, becoming the second leader.
“Sungjae,” Yeonwoo said, before shooting Chan a look.
I could see the hesitation on Chan’s face. Although I’d apologized to him, there was clearly a Grand Canyon sized divide between Justin and Drako, and Chan was desperately wanting to pick JJ.
Much as I didn’t want to be on a team which would involve allowing Yeonwoo to boss me around, I didn’t want Chan to feel awkward either. I gave him a subtle nod of my head.
Chan’s eyes widened. “I want Justin on my team.”
“JJ!” Yeonwoo yelled.
I bit the inside of my cheek. Sure, Justin had a problem with everyone, and everyone had a problem with Justin, but if the group didn’t want the cameras to pick up on that, it was Yeonwoo they needed to speak to – not me.
Not long after that, we arrived at our destination. On the outskirts of Seoul, up in the Bukhansan mountains was a large, abandoned hotel. Unlike some of the more traditional buildings we’d passed on the way up, this hotel looked modern. It had two floors, and aside from the occasional broken window and graffiti, it didn’t look like it was going to collapse on us.
That being said, it didn’t look like a warm and welcoming hotel anymore.
As we piled out of the minibus, Manager Choi walked over, signaling that we could turn our microphones off. “The food is somewhere on the first floor. The bedding on the second.”
“You mean we’re really not going to eat if we don’t find the food?” I asked in surprise.
Manager Choi shot me a look of disbelief. “You will get rice.”
“Is this place really haunted?” Chan asked, looking up at the building. He was chewing at his lip and didn’t seem excited about the idea of going in.
“They’ve almost finished setting up, so you guys need to hurry and get changed,” Manager Choi said, pointing over to an area which had been separated off with privacy screens.
My heart sank. If this was the US we’d have been given a trailer. Hell, if Drako was as popular there as they were here, we’d probably have gotten more than one.
I started to follow the others over to where our manager had pointed, but a hand wrapped around my wrist, and I was suddenly pulled to one side.
“Are you insane?” JJ demanded.
I ran a hand through my hair as I looked at him. “I’m impersonating my brother,” I told him, my tone dry. “I’m sure that insanity line was skipped over a few days ago.”
“You can’t get changed in front of them!”
My eyes narrowed. “I wasn’t planning on doing a strip tease, JJ.”
JJ’s cheeks turned crimson. “Then how do you plan on changing without them noticing you’re missing a dick?”
“Not changing is going to draw more suspicion.” I pulled my wrist free. “I’ve got this.” I walked past him to the changing area.
I’d considered the possibility of this happening, and I had worn boxers and a vest. I knew how I could change my pants with the t-shirt I was wearing covering the boxers. The vest was ribbed and hid the bandages well enough that I could throw another shirt over the top of it if I couldn’t get away with wearing the same t-shirt I already had on.
What I hadn’t considered?
The fact that the rest of Drako would be changing too.
There was a certain standard in K-pop. While huge muscles was more western, being slim and toned was literally a requirement.
And it could be just as bad for guys as it was for girls.
Drako were thankfully past the point in their careers where they had to be a certain weight, but so many other groups would have their debuts dictated by that figure.
But my god, Sungjae, Yeonwoo, and Chan all had toned bodies.
Sungjae was changing his pants. He had the most perfect peach of an ass. I had a sudden desire to leave teeth marks in it.
Yeonwoo, who was also changing his pants, was wearing boxer briefs and holy shit, he needed to change his name to Yeonwow. Of course the human dick had a huge dick.
I barely had time to sweep my eyes over Chan’s shoulders before JJ was smacking me upside the head.
“Ow!” I shot him a glare, ignoring the fact my face was going red because he had caught me perving on the other members.
I turned away. I should not have been caught perving on the other members. I shouldn’t have been doing it to start with. Focus.
I moved over to the rail and took the hanger with my name on. All five of us had been given tracksuits. Mine and Chan’s were dark green with black slashes. Sungjae, Yeonwoo and JJ had tracksuits which were black with dark green slashes.
Changing my clothes was swift and no one yelled that there was a girl in their midst. It probably helped that the others were doing their best to ignore me. I turned, finding JJ watching me, and gave him a smug smile. Keeping the swing from my hips, I went to join the others in front of the main entrance to the abandoned hotel.
Chan turned to me, holding a camera on a selfie stick. “Are you ready, hyung?”
“Let’s do this!” I said, pumping the air.
The action earned me a lot of curious stares. It seemed that even the crew were aware of Justin’s sullen mood.
As Yeonwoo had won, he and the others went in first, leaving Chan and I outside. We were moved to a picnic bench and left with three cameras filming us – one on me, one on Chan, and one on both.
They were going to be milking our reactions.
“Are you worried?” one of the crew asked us.
Somewhere in the building, Sungjae yelled.
I glanced over my shoulder, looking at the hotel. This was going to be like a haunted house at a fairground. People jumping out at you left, right, and center. Something caught my eye in one of the windows: a person in white, staring at me. I waved.
Chan saw me and glanced up. His eyes went wide as he yelped, falling back into me.
Wrapping my arms around him, I held him tight. “Don’t worry. I’ll protect you.”
“Th-thank you.” He bit his lip, but he didn’t fight his way out of my grip. “I don’t like ghosts.”
Movement in front of us, behind the camera, caught my eye. It was the producer, waving his hand, indicating that he wanted us to talk.
Conversation on camera…
Conversation in general… I had no idea what to say to Chan. Not that I could say on camera, anyway.
“You seem to be looking forward to this,” Chan said. He was still in my arms, clinging onto my sleeve.
I nodded. “I am excited about this comeback. I have an opportunity to show Drako and our fans a different side of Justin Kang, and I’m looking forward to it.”
That sounded idol-like, right?
That would cover any slip up I made…?
“Just like Drako is showing a new side with our music,” I continued.
There was a moment’s pause as Chan stiffened in my arms, and then he nodded. “Yes, this is-”
There was another scream from inside the hotel – this time from all three of them – and Chan winced. Without thinking about what I was doing, I took Chan’s hand and gave it a squeeze. “Going to be a great album, right?” I asked Chan, gently prompting him.
Chan nodded, a little more enthusiastically than necessary. “Yes. We’re doing something special for our fans this time.”
We chatted about the album for a while, interrupted by the occasional scream from the hotel behind us. Finally, Sungjae, JJ, and Yeonwoo walked out, each with a box full of food items or cooking utensils.
Yeonwoo dropped the box on the table, making the contents rattle, as his gaze landed on my arms around Chan. Before the scowl could fully settle on his face, he turned and busied himself with emptying the contents of the box.
“Your turn,” Sungjae told us.
I let go of Chan so that he could get up, and I did the same. When he hesitated, I took his hand, once more without thinking about it, and led him to the hotel’s main entrance. “We can do this,” I told him.
Despite the fact he was holding the camera on a stick in his other hand, and there was a camera man following us, I forgot about it – or, at least, pushed them from my mind.
I could feel the apprehension radiating of Chan. As I pushed open the door and walked in, my own nerves decided to wait outside.
Inside, there were no overhead lights on. There were strategically placed spotlights pointed at the wall, and they’d been covered to make the light dim and atmosphere ominous.
I sucked in a deep breath. At some point, someone was going to jump out at us. I was sure of it.
My heart was racing as I led us to the stairs.
Sure enough, as we turned the corner and entered the hallway, a woman leaped out of the shadows. She looked like she’d crawled out of the video in The Ring.
Channeling my inner Justin, I let out the manliest scream I could, and grabbed Chan’s arm, pulling us back out of the way.
Beside me, after recovering from the initial scare from the woman and from my yells, Chan looked at me, eyes going wide. And then he burst out laughing. “I thought you were going to protect me, hyung?”
“Nope,” I said, quickly, earning me another laugh. “You’re in charge of that.”
Pulling his arm free of my grip, Chan took my hand, but this time, he led us down the corridor until we reached a sign.
The sign had been printed and pasted on the wall to look like it had been put up ten years ago when the hotel was last open, but it had the Drako logo in the corner to make sure we didn’t miss it.
“Your beds will be found in your first memory,” I read out loud. “And your key is the code that strengthens you.”
Beneath the writing was a map of the floor. There were thirty rooms stretching out in each direction and each were only labelled with the room number.
I stared at the poster, my mind going blank. I couldn’t remember my first memory. How did the crew know?
Frowning, I glanced down the dark corridor. Like downstairs, it was barely lit, and the few lights were flickering. Trash littered the floors and aside from the graffiti that looked genuine and not fresh for the show, there was no indication of what any of these rooms were.
“Is there a nursery here?” I mused.
Chan’s face lit up and he tapped at a room on the mini map. “This way.” He pulled me down the corridor before I could see what he had been pointing at.
Courage had been found as he led us fearlessly around piles of trash and abandoned furniture.
Until something went sailing through the air.
At the last moment, I made my scream deeper as it joined Chan’s. I pulled him back and he wrapped his arms around my shoulders as we stared at the thing flying back and forth through the air.
It was a rat – thankfully, fake – tied to a piece of sting.
I couldn’t help it. I was overloaded on adrenaline, and I was imagining watching this scene back later. Everyone had been screaming at some point, but I was sure if Justin had been here, he would have been doing everything in his power to make sure he hadn’t.
It earned me another look of confusion from Chan. “It was just a rat.” I pointed at the plastic rodent which was still swinging slightly. “Come on.”
Our pace slowed a little, so when we passed two more doors where something came flying out of them, we were a little more prepared.
Finally, Chan stopped outside of room 227. “This is it.”
I stared blankly at the door. “Why this one?”
I turned my blank stare to Chan. “I got nothing.”
“Hyung? Two twenty-seven? February twenty-seventh? Our debut date?” Chan prompted. There was a look of incredulity on his face.
“I meant the code,” I lied. I pointed at the keypad on the door. “I think all of the ghosts scared the thoughts from my brain.”
At least it was Justin looking like an idiot right now.
“That’s even easier, hyung,” Chan said, his face lighting up. “What strengthens us?”
“Spinach? The gym?”
The smile on Chan’s face wavered. “Our Sparks?”
Drako’s fandom. Of course it was Sparks.
I raised my hands, elbows bent, palms up. “Oops.” And then I realized the bigger problem. I stepped back, sweeping a hand towards the keypad. “You should have the honor.”
Thankfully, Chan didn’t catch on that there was a problem, stepping up to the keypad. Over his shoulder I watched him tap in 0530. May 30 – the date Drako’s fandom name was announced. I’d have to remember that.
The keypad turned to red.
“Is it six digits?”
Chan pursed his lips and then retyped with a two-digit year at the front.
The keypad turned red.
I stared at the keypad, wondering what else gave us strength that I could suggest without making it look like there wasn’t something up with Justin. And then it dawned on me.
“Huh?” Chan stepped back, chewing at his lip.
I quickly stepped forward and tapped the numbers in. There was an electronic beeping and whirring, and then the door popped open. “It’s a telephone keypad. You used to have to hit numbers to make letters,” I explained.
With Chan looking at me like I was a genius, I pushed the door open and another extra from The Grunge leaped out.
I didn’t move. I didn’t even blink.
“Hello,” I greeted her.
The ghost hid her face, running off down the corridor.
When I looked at Chan, his mouth was hanging open. “You didn’t even flinch.”
“That’s because I had the strength of our Sparks.” It was quite possibly the cheesiest line I had ever allowed to leave my mouth, in my life.
Knowing Chan would follow, I walked into the room. It was a standard, cheap hotel room. Nothing special. Or it wouldn’t have been when it was still in use. There was a wall of cupboards, two beds – neither with a mattress or sheets – and some upturned furniture.
As I started opening cupboard doors, Chan hurried further into the room. “Nothing here,” he said, before hurrying back behind me to the bathroom. “Justin, in here.”
I abandoned the cupboard I was checking and hurried back, the camera man I’d almost forgotten about moving out of the way. Strangely, the first thing I noticed in the bathroom was that the bathtub was full of the grossest looking water I’d ever seen. It was almost black – like most of the tiles.
Then my attention drifted to Chan. The bedding was in two neat parcels. A dark green blanket tied up in a black bow. One was still sitting on the toilet lid, the other in Chan’s hands.
“We did it,” he said, happily. Chan handed me the blanket and I took it from him.
And that was where it everything went wrong.
I had taken a step back, so that I had enough room to turn around in the tiny bathroom, when I felt something walk across the back of my hand. As I was holding the blanket, the only way I could see what it was, was by raising my hands.
Of everything I had prepared myself for, none of it included a living, breathing, cockroach. For some reason, I hadn’t even considered that they were in South Korea.
Maybe that was due to the fact I was terrified of anything insect.
I screamed like the girl I was – far too high-pitched for Justin.
But worse came out of my mouth.
“Fuck! Fuck! Fuck! Get the fucking thing off me!”
In an attempt to get it off, I jerked my hand.
The blanket went soaring through the air. Into the filthy water in the bathtub.
I didn’t even care.
It took several shakes of my hand to get the cockroach off me and then the motherfucker started flying.
Turning, I almost knocked the cameraman over, and bolted out of the room. I tore down the corridor, bursting through the double doors at the top of the stairs. I ran down them, and it was only when I got to the bottom and saw a second camera crew that I realized how much I fucked up.
I froze, feeling lightheaded. “Justin, are you OK?” one of the crew asked me. “What happened?”
There was a loud bang at the top of the stairs as Chan ran through the doors, followed by the cameraman. He had one of the blanket sets in his hand, but had abandoned the selfie camera at some point.
“Justin?” he called, running down the stairs.
“I’m fine,” I told them all, my voice sounding squeaky. I cleared my throat. “I’m fine,” I said again, this time managing to sound less like me. “I don’t like cockroaches.”
Chan shot me a sharp look. “Really?”
I nodded. My heart felt like it was in my throat. And Chan was still looking at me like I was an alien. “I hate cockroaches.” I shuddered. I could still feel it crawling over the back of my hand.
“Is that what it was?” he asked, slowly.
“OK”, said the producer, stepping forward before more could be said. “Let’s take a couple of deep breaths and head back to the others. They have been cooking and dinner is almost ready.”
Someone stepped forward with a bottle of water and I took it, swallowing a few mouthfuls. It made me feel a little better, and now I was feeling calmer, I was also starting to feel embarrassed.
I was terrified of bugs. But that was an overreaction, even by my standards. My eyes went wide, and I turned to the production crew and producer. “I’m sorry,” I said, formally. I dropped into a bow. “I swore a lot. I am so sorry.”
The producer clapped me on the shoulder as I righted myself. “We will edit it, don’t worry.”
I was still feeling mortified when we finally left the hotel and rejoined the others.
As the producer had said, they had been busy cooking. It was stew and it smelled delicious. No doubt JJ had been in charge of that. The three of them had been sat around the table, chatting, but they stopped as we approached.
“Did the ghosts scare you?” Yeonwoo asked me. His tone was light, but there was a glint in his eyes.
“Cockroach,” I admitted with a shudder. There was no point lying when they would eventually see the footage, anyway.
Both Yeonwoo and Sungjae gave me a look of surprise. “Cockroaches?” Sungjae repeated. “You?”
I glanced at JJ. He very, very discreetly, gave me a single shake of his head.
“It made me jump, OK?”
“Unfortunately, we only got one blanket set,” Chan said. He set it on the ground by the table.
“I guess it’s going to get cozy tonight.” JJ walked over to me, draping an arm over my shoulder. “Don’t worry. I’ll protect you from the scary bugs.”
JJ led me over to the table where Sungjae dished up the food. The cameras remained on us while we ate, so I couldn’t say anything to JJ.
I was quiet for most of the evening, scared that I would say something else to make it worse. Terrified that I had already fucked up, and they all knew. Instead, I picked at my food, forced myself to react to the conversation around me, and tried to work out if the others had found out.
As the night wore on, I was sure that no one other than JJ knew my secret. None of the other three were treating me any different.
While we ate, a large tent had been set up on the grassy area. I’d overheard that the plan had been for us to stay in the hotel in a room that had been cleared specifically for us, but they were concerned about me and someone had magicked a tent out of the back of a truck.
It was a tent just big enough for the five of us. I wasn’t sure if we would have gotten beds in the hotel – judging from the blanket sets, probably only two of them – but here, it would be one floor.
The relaxed feeling that had finally started to settle on me was instantly replaced with dread. It wasn’t sharing a bed with four guys that was the problem, so much as sharing a bed in such a small space and hoping none of them would find out.
None of the others seemed concerned. Of course, they liked each other, and short of JJ, they didn’t have a clue who I was, so why would they be concerned?
“I think, considering Justin failed to bring the second blanket back, it’s only fair he gets the spot by the opening,” Yeonwoo declared, not hiding his smirk.
“That’s fair,” I quickly agreed. Not only did I deserve it, he gave me a reason not to be sandwiched in the middle of them.
I wasn’t sure of the time. The sun had set not long after we had arrived. But after everything that had happened, I was exhausted. I crawled into the tent, grateful that this was nearly over. Now, I just had to get through the night, and the only person on the other side of me was JJ.
Once the obligatory shots were taken, including ones where we were pretending to be asleep, the crew called it a night, leaving us with only one night vision camera in the corner of the tent.
Despite how tired I was, I couldn’t fall asleep. As the others drifted off one by one, I lay there, conscious of the camera and far too hot. The others had shed their jackets, but mine remained on, keeping me covered.
I reached forward and opened the door to the tent, allowing a breeze to blow on my face. That felt better.
Then JJ’s arm wrapped around me, pulling me back to him. “JJ?” I whispered.
JJ muttered something that was lost against the back of my neck, but sent a shiver down my spine, and he snuggled up against me.
My heart was pounding like it was the beat to an NCT 127 song.