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Reckless, Wild Youth

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It is a truth universally acknowledged that popular boys in high school can be and almost always have been assholes, in some way, shape, or form. Mingyu likes to think he doesn’t fit the bill, but given that he is a popular boy in high school, it’s pretty certain that he’s not likely to want to own up to any asshole-ish tendencies.

“Do you think he’s gay?” Seungcheol asks one day when they’ve pushed their desks together for lunch break.

Mingyu is carefully and meticulously unfolding the plastic wrap putting an air-tight seal on his bacon and lettuce sandwich, and doesn’t quite understand what Seungcheol is referring to at first.

“What did you say?”

“That guy. Wonwoo, or whatever. D’you think he’s, like, gay?”

Mingyu looks up, on reflex, so he can take a peek at the guy in question. Luckily for him, his desk and chair have been turned around so he’s facing the back wall of the classroom, and he only has to sweep his eyes upward for a few seconds before naturally bringing them back down to his sandwich, no awkward head-turning or peripherals-straining, in order to catch a glimpse of the boy in question. Jeon Wonwoo.

His knowledge on the guy isn’t much, beyond the fact that they shared English homeroom together in ninth grade and had either a History class or a Math class together sometime in-between then and now. Mingyu's never once talked to him, never once had to be forced together by an apathetic teacher who lost their desire to work in a public high school fifteen years ago to awkwardly work on a project together with him, and besides the occasional exceptions (usually when the teacher makes him go up to answer a question on the blackboard) usually never looks at him, either.

Wonwoo’s been an enigma since day one, when Mingyu had just entered high school and hadn’t gotten used to suddenly shooting up in height over the course of eighth grade. While Mingyu was filling into his awkward growth spurt until he was tall and handsome and knew how to play the popularity game to his advantage, Wonwoo was doing … god knows what, actually. Maybe nothing. Maybe he just floated through high school, another forgettable face in a sea of gawky teenagers filling up a hallway, an extra on the edge of the set doing his own thing while the actual characters took the spotlight, being football quarterbacks and chess championships and debate team nationals and winning prom queen.

Mingyu hasn't paid him much attention, mostly because Wonwoo seems to reflect attention like sunshine reflects off of a sheet of snow, but taking a quick look at him now he doesn’t see anything all that different about senior Wonwoo versus freshman Wonwoo—disregarding a couple extra centimeters during his sophomore year that made him join Mingyu in the esteemed one-eighty club. Jihoon has never forgiven either of them for their height, muttering under his breath that some people just get all the luck.

In short, Wonwoo is the exact same quiet guy that he had been since the start of high school, the same quiet guy that hardly ever speaks and only ever seems to sleep in class or stare out the window, head off in the clouds. His looks are decent enough to have garnered attention in the beginning, girls labelling him as the silent and mysterious type. This is something Mingyu can respect, but Wonwoo disappointed everyone by never coming through with the follow-up—those who approached him quickly lost interest, labelling him as “boring” and “odd” and walking away huffily after several attempts at starting a conversation and in return receiving the shortest, curtest answers possible, or sometimes no answer at all.

Eventually, nobody approached him, and over time, as naturally as if it had been the will of the heavens, or maybe the will of the silent oddball himself, Wonwoo was left alone. Staring out the window like always.

That kind of guy isn’t the kind of guy Mingyu thinks he wants to hang out with. Or be associated with, to be honest. Call him shallow, conceited, whatever—but it had taken him three years to carefully cultivate the best circle of friends a guy could ask for: fellow basketball team members; hot girls that can always be counted on to smile and laugh at everything he says; some of the cooler smart kids so he doesn’t look like he’s, like, segregating anyone or whatever, and also so he has easy access to free tutoring if he’s screwed for a math test; stoners, so that even though Mingyu has never planned or even been interested in doing drugs he can look like he could if he totally wanted to; and finally, the duo that completes the ultimate high school Three Musketeers best friends fantasy he’s had since he was in the sixth grade, Seungcheol and Jihoon.

Choi Seungcheol is everything Mingyu’s aspired to be in the peak of his youth. He’s the school president, liked by almost everyone that matters, complete with nice just-woke-up-and-stylishly-tousled hair and an award-winning smile, probably has more friends than Mingyu can count; and he always knows what events are going on and what parties are being held that weekend, any weekend, any time.

On the other side of the coin, Lee Jihoon is a miniature devil with a drop-dead attitude and candy-pink hair to match, the combined result of a dare in his freshman year and the petty desire to keep the colour just to piss off all the scandalized teachers that threaten him to dye it back, and holds at least half the school in fear of getting on his blacklist, but he’s witty as all hell and respected by just about everyone who knows not to mess with him, and always comes through in a pinch when Mingyu needs him most.

“I don’t know,” Mingyu shrugs, slowly trying to untangle the clingy film keeping him away from his lunch. “He doesn’t look, y’know, like a gay dude.”

In all his seventeen years of life, he has never seen someone who played for the same team anywhere else other than a television screen, mostly in the role of some romcom heroine's Sassy Best Friend. Considering that they are the kind of mild, middle-class, white suburbia paradise high school where everyone practically knows everybody and at least six kids in any given class are kids he’s gone to middle or even elementary school with, his exposure to any of that sort of thing is minimal to none.

“Jesus, Mingyu, gimme that,” Jihoon sighs, taking the sandwich away from him and ripping into the plastic wrap with raggedy, stress-bitten fingernails until the sandwich is free. “Seeing you pick at it is giving me anxiety. And how would any of us know what a gay guy looks like anyway?”

“I dunno.” Seungcheol wiggles his eyebrows at him. “Maybe you are gay.”

“Suck my dick, asshole.”

“Sounds like something a gay guy would say.”

Mingyu bites into his sandwich with a sigh of hunger-panged relief, but is left overwhelmingly disappointed. The lettuce is too bland, the bacon bits keep crumbling into his lap, and there’s no butter or mayo or even a bit of mustard to give it some extra flavor. He sighs and stares at his lunch morosely. “This tastes awful.”

“What are you, a fucking connoisseur? Make your own lunch, then.” Seungcheol shoots Mingyu a teasing grin to let him know he isn’t being serious, and brandishes a cafeteria-made hamburger that consists of a pathetic lukewarm patty slapped in-between two wilted slices of buns. It looks even worse than Mingyu’s. “Your mom made that for you, punk, be grateful. I’ve had to buy my own lunches since the eighth grade.”

“As if I can make my own lunch.” Mingyu scoffs. “What seventeen-year-old boy knows how to cook? It’s embarrassing. I might as well sign myself up for a home ec class and be done with it.”

Jihoon rolls his eyes. He doesn’t have a lunch, because, according to what he once told Mingyu, he doesn’t believe in the concept. “Of course, your fragile masculine ego can’t possibly learn a valuable life skill because it has feminine connotations,” he says dryly. “If you want to know so badly, Cheol, just go ask him.”

“Ask who?”

“Wonwoo.”

“What?”

“If he’s gay! Fucking hell, you’re driving me crazy and it’s not even twelve-thirty yet.”

Seungcheol throws his head back and laughs heartily at his best friend’s expense. He’s the only one who can laugh at Jihoon when he’s in the midst of annoyance and not get instantly castrated. Not even Mingyu has reached that stage in their friendship yet. “Let’s make Mingyu do it.”

“Why me?”

“Because if he is gay, then,” Seungcheol makes a vague, noncommittal gesture towards Mingyu’s face and upper torso, “it’ll be pretty obvious once he talks to you.”

Mingyu is pathetically, grossly pleased. He’s been following Seungcheol like a stray dog to the school’s gym for the past year and a half and has finally gained some muscle in his old twiggy limbs, previously stretched thin over elongated bones. During the summer, when the three of them went out to the arcade, he got stopped on the street by someone asking if he was interested in modelling. Mingyu said no, but his ego’s been overinflated ever since, and he can’t help constantly bringing it up. “You saying I’m attractive, Cheol?”

“Uh, I’m not a homo, idiot.”

“Well, I’m not, either.”

“Yes, yes, we are all painfully aware of how heterosexual you two are,” Jihoon interrupts, stealing Seungcheol’s can of Calpico and downing half of it before anyone can react. “Are you gonna go up to him or what, Mingyu?”

“Why do I have to do it?” His voice is bordering dangerously close to whining territory. “It's too awkward, I’ve never said a word to him before.”

“Nobody has, that’s kind of the point. Also, you’re the youngest.”

“C’mon, Gyu.” Seungcheol leans forward, and his gummy smile is distinctly more playful, more sneaky, than before. “I dare you.”

It’s the magic word, because if Mingyu can count on anything, it’s that his own reckless, naïve pride can make him do just about anything, no matter how stupid, especially if it’s given to him in the context of a dare. Seungcheol knows it, and Mingyu knows he knows it, and it still does the trick. There's a brief moment of hesitation before Mingyu’s eyes narrow, searching his friend’s face to see if there’s any hint of a lie or a bluff.

“What do I get out of it?” he asks, carefully, forming the words to their utmost entirety before they fall in single file out from between his lips.

“I’ll get you the number of that girl in your chemistry class that you said was cute.”

“I’m confident enough in my own abilities, thanks.”

Seungcheol always plays fair, which is admirable. He pauses for a bit, weighing the options, makes sure that the dare is equal to the reward, before saying, “You get the first controller on video game nights for the next three months.”

“Deal.”

And with that, Mingyu stands up and slowly makes his way over to Jeon Wonwoo.

 

Wonwoo isn’t sleeping, as it turns out. Instead, he has a book open on his lap, something boring and heavy with a title like The Art of or The Great something or whatever the fuck, his body bowed forwards until his forehead is resting on the surface of his desk so he can read in a semi-comfortable manner. It surprises Mingyu, and makes him wonder how often he’s thought that the resident weirdo was knocked out during lessons but was actually wide awake, poring over books instead.

Why don’t you just read at home then, if you don’t have friends and aren’t paying attention in class?

“Um, hey. Jeon Wonwoo.”

The words feel strange on his tongue, like some hidden ingredient with an unforeseen flavour.

Wonwoo doesn’t respond for a few moments. When he finally looks up, unfolding himself until he’s sitting up straight and suddenly looking taller and more imposing than he usually does, Mingyu doesn’t expect Wonwoo to be so … normal?

Well, normal isn’t the right word to put it. It’s more like he’s never seen Wonwoo up close before, not like this. With his head constantly bowed, in either sleep or reading or just the way he generally carries himself from place to place, his black bangs have always been in the way of his facial features; but now Mingyu can clearly see Wonwoo’s square chin, sharp jawline, and intensely dark, monolidded eyes. He’s handsome, or something, although Mingyu feels a weird itch crawl up his spine to admit that another guy is handsome. But at least now he can see why girls used to approach him back in the day.

Wonwoo blinks at him, waiting, and Mingyu remembers he’s supposed to say something. He opens his mouth confidently, but something in the way Wonwoo is looking at him makes his brain pause and stutter, like a student suddenly put on the spot to answer a question in class. His mind blanks. “Um, ah, you probably don’t know me. I’m Kim Mingyu.”

Wonwoo looks around the classroom, then back at him, and the next time he blinks it’s different, a slow, drawn-out movement of eyelids and short dark lashes, and Mingyu realizes it’s meant to show sarcasm. “I know.” His voice is deep and a little gravelly, as if he never quite uses it. Mingyu’s heard it before, of course, mostly when he’s apologizing to the teacher for falling asleep in class, but he’s never heard it this close and with this sort of timbre. It feels like the vibrations of his vocal cords are making their way into Mingyu and rattling around inside his bones.

“Y-you do?” He hopes his confused stutter isn't noticeable.

“Does anyone not know who Kim Mingyu is?”

Mingyu fights back a cocky, proud grin. See? Even the class oddball who lives on an entirely different planet than everyone else knows who he is. “Is that so?” Feeling bold, he pulls out the empty chair of the desk in front of Wonwoo and slides into it, sitting backwards so he can rest his arms against the back of the chair.

Wonwoo’s mouth is set in a decidedly neutral fashion, but the corner of one side twitches, as if he briefly considered smiling. Instead of smiling, he says, “So why are you talking to me?”

Time to test the waters, so to speak. “What do you mean?” Mingyu cocks his head in the way that he knows makes him look slightly arrogant but also showcases the way his jaw slopes sharply downwards, and he flashes Wonwoo his best sharp-toothed smile, the one that made a girl in his Applied Physics class last year burn bright red and run away giggling. “Can’t I go up and talk to a classmate? We’ve been in the same homeroom for two years, you know.”

That doesn’t seem to be the answer Wonwoo wanted, and the look in his eyes and the curl of his mouth shifts. His facial expressions are always miniatures of the real thing, something carved into wood the size of a palm with details so small they're easy to miss. Toned down, muted, even, like being put through the most annoying Instagram filter Mingyu’s ever seen.

Mingyu’s surprised to find that he can still tell that there are slight changes, though, can tell that previously Wonwoo had been almost amused, answering Mingyu’s questions, asking questions of his own. It’s a rare occurrence in this classroom, seeing him willing to humour.

But now? Now, he looks like he’s about to shut Mingyu down, like he shuts everyone down.

This is the first hint Mingyu gets, among many in the near future, that this is no ordinary classmate, and that Wonwoo can see through practically anything. He must have known, instinctively, or through observation or a sixth sense or a dog’s sense of smell or something bullshit, that Mingyu had been lying, that he had approached him with a different goal in mind. And Wonwoo, above all else, hates lies.

Wonwoo starts to look down at his book again, and Mingyu panics. He can feel Seungcheol and Jihoon’s eyes on him, and he doesn’t want to fail in front of them, can't bear making the walk of shame back to his seat. “W-wait! Wait, okay? I’m sorry. I, uh, came to ask you a question. Actually. Please, um—please listen to me.”

Wonwoo hesitates. Both of them know that Mingyu never sounds so flustered, and never says “please”, and to Mingyu’s extreme embarrassment red heat crawls up his neck and cheeks. He can’t believe that he lost his carefree, cool-headed persona in front of Wonwoo, of all people.

It must be because Wonwoo is just so different. There are no cues to let Mingyu know how to act around him, no expressions or actions to let him know if Wonwoo’s feelings towards him are positive or negative. Mingyu knows there are people in the school that don’t like him, and he’s okay with that, because at least he knows where they stand and how he can approach them.

Here, facing each other with only a desk’s width of separation between them, someone’s watch catching the sunlight and reflecting an oddly-shaped patch of light onto the wall near his head, Mingyu doesn’t know how to act and how to get what he wants, and he feels like he’s out of his element. Wonwoo may exist on a completely different planet to the rest of the school, but in this exact moment, he’s the one with all the cards and Mingyu is the odd one out.

“What is it?” Wonwoo asks, slowly. His eyes are a bit too sharp. Something about them makes Mingyu feel uncomfortable, somehow.

When he was twelve, he did something categorized as Adolescent Mischief (probably broke a plate, or smashed a window, or fought a dog or something) and lied to his mom about it, and in the middle of telling his elaborately thought-out lie and feeling so proud and so smart he saw the look in her eyes. His mother was not an idiot, and obviously didn't buy into his story, but she still listened, calmly, seated at the kitchen table with all the quiet dignity of a monarch on a golden throne, as she waited to see how deep of a hole her stupid young son could dig himself into. Mingyu saw the look in her eyes and realized this instantly, and his words trailed off when he felt the white-hot shame and panic rush through his veins and melt through his arteries.

This is the kind of feeling he gets when he looks into Wonwoo's eyes, as though Wonwoo sees and already knows but is still going to listen to him fuck everything up with his words, and it's not something he feels happy experiencing again when he’s not a child, when he's prac-tic-ally an adult.

“It is—I, ah, uh—there was an, um, a rumour. That I heard. From someone. Nobody in particular. And I kind of wanted to ask you about it, and see if it was true or not. If you’re cool with answering.”

There’s a short silence, as Mingyu fights back the flustered pink flush heating up the back of his neck. He’s no genius, but he’s normally a little more articulate than this. He picks at a bit of dry skin around his fingernails and wishes more than anything that he knows how to time travel and can rewind back before he turned into a babbling, uncool mess.

Suddenly, Wonwoo lets out a world-weary sigh and says,

“Your ears get red when you’re flustered. It’s kind of cute.”

Cute? Something inside of him sparks and fizzes like a dying electrical wire. “I—urk—um, I, guh—what?” Mingyu burbles out.

“Is the rumour something about me being gay? Because it’s correct.”

“It’s … what?”

“I’m gay.”

“Gay.”

“As in, attracted to men. I don’t think I can make it any clearer than that.”

Mingyu’s mouth falls open but no words come out. He’s not sure which he’s more surprised over—the fact that Wonwoo really is gay, or that he casually admitted it to Mingyu with almost no hesitation.

“I, um, that’s—cool. That’s cool.” A small part of him briefly panics as he wonders if he sounds homophobic, and quickly adds, “So, um, what’s that like?”

He wants to crawl into a hole and never come out. What’s that like? Jesus fucking Christ, way to not sound homophobic, Mingyu.

Wonwoo makes a small sound between a cough and a snort and Mingyu realizes, with surprise, that the quiet kid is actually trying to hold back laughter. “It feels pretty normal. It just means that while you like looking at girls, I like looking at guys. That’s about it.”

It’s a very frank, honest, easy way of putting it. Mingyu likes all those qualities, and, being easily curious, can’t help himself from being a bit bolder and asking some more questions. “So, like, do you stare at guys during PE and stuff? Like, when they’re changing?”

“I’m gay, not a pervert. I keep my eyes to myself like a normal human being.” Wonwoo raises one eyebrow, just a fraction of a centimeter, and in that exact moment Mingyu discovers with a small burst of glee that Jeon Wonwoo does have a sense of humour after all. “Besides, what makes you think any of the guys in my PE class are my type?”

Well, true. Everybody had types, Mingyu supposes. He accepts that answer immediately. “What is your type?”

“Not anybody in my PE class.”

A sudden idea strikes through his system, and with some slyness he asks, “Am I your type?”

Wonwoo pauses, chewing down onto his bottom lip for a moment like it’s a habit, before he slowly says, “You’re not not my type.”

“What the fuck does that mean?”

“It means I don’t find you unattractive.”

“There’s a lot of double negatives going on right now, and they’re confusing me.”

Wonwoo sighs. “I find you attractive, but I’m not necessarily attracted to you. Do you know what I mean?”

Mingyu rests his head against his forearms. “Say it in terms of girls.”

There’s an eye roll directed his way, but Wonwoo strangely complies with his request. “Have you ever seen a girl that you thought was pretty, but you didn’t want to go up and talk to her?”

“No. If I’m attracted to a girl, and I know I have a chance, I’ll make a move.” That’s what he’s supposed to do if he finds a girl pretty, isn’t it? What the hell does he do otherwise? Look somewhere else and twiddle his thumbs and waste a perfectly good opportunity?

“Drop the hyper-masculinity for a second and just think about it. You see a girl, and you think she’s pretty, but that’s it. You don’t really feel like flirting with her, or asking her out, or anything. You just like looking, and appreciating her existence.”

Mingyu thinks about it as requested. It makes sense, but it also makes him feel a little weird. He finds himself double-checking his thoughts and intentions in every relationship he’s ever had or pursued in the past, and forces himself to stop by making a very aggressive shrugging motion with his shoulders. “I guess.

“Well, that’s how I feel about you. You’re attractive, but I’m fine just looking.”

“So, what, you don’t find me handsome enough to flirt with?” Mingyu asks in mock outrage, masking his feelings with lighthearted humour. Once again, he feels a little uncomfortable with the notion of guys flirting with guys, or guys flirting with him, or guys being romantically or sexually interested in him in any way. But more than that, more than the discomfort, he’s a little more than slightly devastated that the one gay kid he finally meets in the flesh doesn’t harbor some secret romantic crush on him or something.

To his great relief, Wonwoo laughs, just a little. It’s quiet, more of an exhale than anything, but his nose scrunches up when he does so and Mingyu finds himself staring and feeling more uncomfortable than ever. “I make it a habit to not flirt with straight guys, sorry.”

“Sounds fair enough.” At that point, Mingyu hears Seungcheol and Jihoon calling out his name, and an eraser lands square in the middle of his back. He feels oddly disappointed as he gets up from the chair and says, “Gotta go. Nice talking to you, though.”

Wonwoo smiles, for real this time, like, with the corners of his lips curled up and everything. It’s surprising how much nicer he looks like this, younger, more approachable. A smiling Wonwoo looks like he has friends to walk home with after school and a girl who's sweet on him that he likes to tease in the school library. “Thanks for not being too weird about it.”

Mingyu wonders if he would've been friends with the Wonwoo That Smiles, if Seungcheol and Jihoon would've liked him.The smile blinds him and makes him feel temporarily stupid. He wonders if he would've been there for the Wonwoo That Smiles when the Wonwoo That Smiles confesses his sexuality, worried about what that would mean for him with his parents, and the school, oh shit what will the guys say, and Mingyu could be there for him and put an arm around his shoulder, Bro, this doesn't change anything. We're still friends, I still care about you—okay, this scenario is getting way too out of hand. 

“No, no, I mean—” don’t make this weird, don’t make this weird, “—it’s not every day I meet someone who’s actually gay, so—”

Nope. Now he sounds like a douche. Wonwoo’s smile slips, and Mingyu mentally slaps himself. “Sorry, fuck, sorry I didn’t mean it like—I’ll talk to you later.”

And he runs back to his friends with his tail between his legs, unable to gather up the courage to take another look at the boy behind him. He’s never been one to care much about making people who don’t matter hate him, but for some reason, today is a day where Wonwoo does matter, and he doesn’t want Wonwoo to think he’s a jerk.

“You talked to him for a while,” Seungcheol says once Mingyu sits back in his own chair. “Well? What did he say?”

“Can he actually talk?” Jihoon asks incredulously.

“He’s gay,” Mingyu mumbles, “and he actually admitted it pretty easily.”

“Shit! No way.” Seungcheol swivels his head around to stare at the boy in the back of the room. “Eric swore the other day that he thought the guy was checking him out in the PE changing rooms. Guess he was right on the mark. Talk about creepy.”

“What? No!” Mingyu feels unnecessarily defensive, and without even thinking about it, he echoes back the words Wonwoo said to him. “He’s gay, not a perv. Eric thinks everybody under the fucking sun checks him out, he’s got an ego bigger than your grossly inflated thighs.” Jihoon snorts loudly beside him and Mingyu fights back his brief few seconds of pride at making Jihoon of all people laugh. “Anyway, Wonwoo—I mean, that guy—wouldn’t do something like that. He’s surprisingly kind of … cool.”

“Really? Him?

“Can you turn around already, Cheol? You’re making it super obvious that we’re talking about him.”

“Why are you so on edge?” Seungcheol retorts.

Mingyu feels his face heat up again under the scrutiny, but he saves himself by protesting, “I may or may not have come across as either homophobic or an ignorant asshole in some of my comments, okay? Now can we please not make this any worse and just turn your ass around?”

“So he can get a better look at it?” Seungcheol snickers, doing as Mingyu asked and swiveling back in his seat so he faces the front again.

“Trust me, Seungcheol,” Jihoon says, taking a bite out of the hamburger he had also stolen, “nobody wants to look at your ass.”

Chapter Text

The second dare arrives two and a half weeks after the first.

“You’ve been pretty friendly with him lately, y’know?”

Mingyu, once again, feels like he’s missing something. “What?”

“He means Jeon Wonwoo,” Jihoon says, giving Seungcheol a light smack on the arm. “If you’re going to say something, say it in full sentences, idiot.”

“Since when am I making friendly with him?” Mingyu snaps, slightly harsher than he meant to in his shock. After their first and last conversation with each other, they had gone back to their own separate lives. Mingyu to his friends, his basketball practice, his video game nights and skipping class with Seungcheol and Jihoon, Wonwoo to whatever the fuck he does.

It should have been a one-time thing. A simple dare, and that was that, then it was back to the way things always had been.

Yet, Mingyu finds himself sometimes meeting Wonwoo’s gaze, when he happens to pass by his seat or see him in the hallways. He finds himself not quite saying hello, not brave enough, but nodding at him, and receiving a half-smile and nod in return.

For most people, it would mean nothing. For most people, this would be considered the smallest sign of recognizing—not even a friend—an acquaintance. But this was Kim Mingyu and Jeon Wonwoo, two of the seemingly most different sorts of people you would find in a public secondary education system, so this was no small thing.

“I told you, he’s kinda cool,” Mingyu adds, slumping lower in his seat as if to combat the sudden heat rising in his cheeks. “It’s not like I say anything to him or whatever. No big deal.”

“It’s pretty amazing, actually,” Jihoon says, scribbling his way through a math exercise sheet. He’s the only one out of the three that seems to actually give a shit about school, or at least, out in the open. Mingyu studies, sure, but not in class during break where people can see. “I’ve never seen Wonwoo speak more than three words to anyone before.”

“Which three words?” Seungcheol cheekily asks.

Jihoon seems to be in a good mood today—he probably had more than three hours of sleep last night—and humours his friend, just this once. “‘Sorry I’m late’ and ‘I was sleeping’, and both exclusively to the teacher.”

Seungcheol snorts so hard he nearly coughs up spit, and Mingyu makes a face at his two friends. Normally, he’d be laughing right along with them, yet somehow laughing at Wonwoo’s expense doesn’t feel funny.

“Man, why are you being an asshole?” Mingyu whines. “Just forget about Won—that guy and help me with this bit of homework, Jihoon, come on, before class starts.”

“I am an asshole,” Jihoon agrees cheerfully, “And because I am one, I will not help you do your homework.”

“Fuck you.”

“Not interested, thanks.”

“You should make him fall for you.”

At this, both Mingyu and Jihoon turn their heads to look at Seungcheol, who’s staring at the back of the classroom in thoughtful amusement.

“Fall for who?” Mingyu asks dumbly. He glances at Jihoon, in case this is yet another thing that only he’s missing, but Jihoon shrugs his shoulders and looks just as confused.

Seungcheol points with his finger. “We should get Wonwoo to fall for Mingyu.”

There’s nothing for Mingyu to do but laugh at first. This must just be another joke. “Um, why?”

“I dunno. It’ll be funny?” Seeing the incredulous looks on his friends’ faces, he quickly adds, “Okay, but how is this any different than Mingyu getting that girl to fall for him last year simply because she said she didn’t think he was all that?”

“Uh, because I am all that and I had to prove her wrong?” Mingyu protests. It had been painfully easy, really, a lot of charming smiles and good eye contact and lowering his voice. He felt so bad about it afterwards that his rejection towards her confession was gentle and full of sincere apologies for not feeling the same way. “Also, bro, she was one girl out of about a hundred and sixty in our grade. This is the only gay kid out of three hundred students total. It feels, I dunno, like bullying or something.”

“We’re not stealing his lunch money or beating him up behind the school gym for liking dick, Gyu. Anyway, everyone should experience a crush every now and then, especially when they’re young and fresh in high school. We’re giving him a … what’s the word … help me out here, Jihoon.”

And Jihoon—who had only a few seconds ago been staring at his best friend blankly—blinks and is suddenly on the exact same page. His math exercise is forgotten on the rough, scissors-scratched surface of his desk as he leans forward, breaks into a sly grin, and says, “I would call it a ‘healthy high school experience.’”

As always, Jihoon is never more than two steps behind Seungcheol. The two of them had grown up together, from what Mingyu knows—best friends since grade school, two peas in a pod, never can find one without the other, Seungcheol and Jihoon, Jihoon and Seungcheol. It’s made Mingyu plenty jealous throughout the years he’s been their friend, because instead of them being the gang, the best friends, all together, sometimes he thinks it’s more like the best friends plus Mingyu.

They’re supposed to be the Three Musketeers, the Golden Trio, the Three That Challenged the World. And when Mingyu faces exasperated teachers scolding them for their mischief and referring to them as “the gang”, and when he overhears kids planning a party and instantly understanding that if they invite one they invite all three, he feels the very veins beneath his skin rush and hum with happiness, and he almost believes that they really are equal.

Yet, it’s hard to feel like he’s on the same level as them when they’re so in tune to each other they might as well share a brain. Remembering each other’s birthdays, hobbies, favourite foods, books and movies they like or don’t like, allergies, is as easy as remembering their cell phone number, or their own home address. Meanwhile, during sophomore year Mingyu had been so overcome with anxiety that they’d forget his birthday that he drove all three of them crazy with constant reminders of the date for two weeks straight.

It’s not just the small things, either, the material bits. They know each other’s personalities and odd little quirks better than Mingyu thinks he knows about himself. Seungcheol, whose mind often ran far faster than his mouth could and sometimes seemed too lazy to connect all his thoughts in a coherent sentence, never has to worry since Jihoon always understands him, can always translate everything he says. Meanwhile, Seungcheol knows exactly how to toe the line surrounding Jihoon, the line that borders the difference between annoyed tolerance and genuine anger, knows when he can tease him without facing repercussions and when to leave him alone and let him listen to music in silence for the next few hours.

It has taken Mingyu almost his entire high school career to cultivate that talent, and even then it’s not always accurate. He can still remember treading eggshells around Jihoon for months when he first became their friend, never sure when Jihoon—who pushed himself to be social as best as he could around his two very outgoing and extroverted friends, but couldn’t always keep his cool—would suddenly snap and storm off to his room.

Sometimes, Mingyu wonders if the three of them really are the Golden Trio he thinks they are. It’s a stupid thought. Of course they are; they do everything together. Not a day goes by where he doesn’t hang out with at least one of them, whether it is messing around at the arcade or nearby ramen shop after school, or popping into their house to pick up something he forgot and ending up staying for dinner. Most of his fears have since been comforted knowing that Seungcheol will always say, “I’m not going if Mingyu’s not gonna be there”, and that Jihoon will always say, “If you’ve got a problem with Mingyu, you’ve got a problem with me”, and he’s no longer afraid of outwardly calling them his “best friends” like he used to be before, in case they didn’t share the same sentiments.

But, sometimes … he still …

“A high school experience? Really, you guys?” Mingyu groans. “Don’t make me do this, come on. Flirting with a guy is really kind of … pushing it.”

“You don’t just have to flirt with someone to make them fall for you, dumbass,” Jihoon chides, poking his arm with the sharp end of his pencil.

Mingyu swats him away, carefully, before he accidentally gets lead jammed into his bicep. “I know that! But, like, it still feels weird. Plus, he said he’s not into me. I’m not his type, or whatever.” Wonwoo actually said more than that, but Mingyu feels reluctant telling them their entire conversation. He feels like it’s not something he should be sharing.

“He said that?” Seungcheol lets out a loud whoop that makes half the class turn their heads to look at them. “And you—Mister I-Once-Got-Scouted-to-Be-a-Model Mingyu—are just gonna let that slide?”

Well, no. Mingyu still feels indignant when he remembers Wonwoo’s words: You’re attractive, but I’m fine just looking. He has spent far too much time dwelling over that single sentence than he cares to admit, mortified over his own fragile ego. “I mean—” he blusters in an attempt to show that his pride is not at stake, “—it’s not like everyone in the world is gonna think I’m hot, I’m not that stupid, so—”

“Mingyu, please.” Seungcheol presses his hand onto Mingyu’s forearm and gives him a pitying, comforting look, the kind one would give to someone who’s just lost a lottery or possibly heard of a family death. “I don’t want to offend you or anything, because you are my bro, and you know I would stick by you through anything life can throw at us, but you are a bit of an attention slut.”

“How the fuck was I supposed to take that in any way that’s not offensive?”

“You can’t hide from the facts, man. You literally start sulking when people don’t find you attractive. You’re like that guy from Greek mythology, Narsuh—Narciss—you know, the one that drowned himself because he fell in love with his own reflection in a pond—”

“Narcissus, Cheol,” Jihoon corrects, at the exact same moment Mingyu squawks, “Fucking asshole, I’m not in love with my own reflection—

Anyway,” Seungcheol waves them all off with one nonchalant hand, “I’m just saying, Gyu. If you can’t get the school’s token gay kid to fall for you, then you really can’t call yourself hot.” He leans in closer and grins. “We aren’t telling anyone about his 'preferences', Mingyu, we aren’t ruining his life or starting a lynch mob. He doesn’t even have to know it’s a dare—he confesses, you tell him you’re straight, done, game over, and he’s none the wiser. It’s the same harmless fun we’ve done for the past three years, yeah?”

And Mingyu almost agrees, almost gets caught up in Seungcheol’s overexcited, eager-for-some-fun momentum, like he always does. But he notices the way Seungcheol’s eyes slide past him and to the back of the room again in amusement, and he’s suddenly hyperaware that “token gay kid” Jeon Wonwoo is sitting there, probably reading, probably asleep, probably daydreaming as he stares out the window, and Mingyu’s stuck between a rock and a hard place again.

“Dude, I dunno,” he mumbles, and stares at his hands and the blister on the back of his right one that he got trying to pull boiling hot Kraft Dinner out of the microwave. “Getting some girl to have a crush on me is one thing, but this is … I mean, i-it just feels shitty.”

“Don’t pussy out now, Kim Mingyu, c’mon.” And there it is again—the slight shift in Seungcheol’s voice, the lower, smoother, teasing quality, the single heartbeat at the precipice point of a cliff’s edge. “Dare you to do it.”

The room seems to slow down in time, nearly stop completely. Mingyu is dimly aware that he’s now holding his breath, his heart rate beginning to pick up, although whether it’s from the adrenaline that comes with the word “dare” or the fact that oxygen is now not making its way to his lungs, he can’t be sure.

He knows it’s stupid—stupid that he rests his pride, his confidence, his determination, everything that he’s built all these years to get him to where he is now, at the top, knowing that girls would love to date him and guys would love to be him and that he never has to worry about being alone or friendless ever again—on something as pointless and idiotic and teenage-boy-bullheaded as dares. But he can’t help it, for all the reasons listed above.

Because it’s hard to stop once he’s started.

“What do I get out of it?” he asks, slowly. He can feel Jihoon’s eyes on both him and Seungcheol, watching like a hawk like he always does as the scene unfolds before him, a play with an uncertain ending. “And don’t you dare be stingy, this is a whole new level of bullshit you’re making me do.”

“I know, I know,” Seungcheol says, a giddily excited grin spreading across his face like he’s a child at an amusement park. It’s almost worth the embarrassment and humiliation Mingyu knows he’s about to face in the near future, to see the look of absolute glee cross his friend’s face as he finally gets the fun he craves. “I won’t cheat you, bro, just lemme think …”

There’s a moment of silence. Then Seungcheol says, “When we go to college. All four years. I’ll follow your lead.”

“What?”

“If you want us to join some club in college, I’ll join it with you. You want us to take some bullshit course for easy marks, I’ll do it with you. You need help with a girl? I’ll be your greatest wingman.” Seungcheol grins at him. “You’ll call the shots, buddy. I’ll make it absolutely certain that college will be the era of Kim Mingyu.”

Jihoon’s eyes widen slightly at this declaration, but he makes no other move. Meanwhile, Mingyu’s mind is racing. He’ll be the one in charge? He’ll be the one that has the others following along to his decisions? No longer best friends plus Mingyu, but Mingyu plus his best friends?

“Done,” he says, before he can chicken out again, before he can stop himself and listen to the nagging feeling in the back of his head that what he’s doing is far beyond any other stupid thing he’s done, the feeling that he may not walk out of this dare the same way he walked in.

He and Seungcheol shake hands, just to make it feel more official, Jihoon watching like he’s a judge or an official witness or something, and that’s that.

The dare is on.

 

After about eight and a half minutes of mindless wandering, Mingyu finally finds Wonwoo sitting outside for lunch.

While the school heavily encourages everyone to eat in their classrooms to reduce littering and also the possibility of students smoking on the soccer field, there really aren’t enough staff members to monitor or care about the few students that sneak outside to eat, especially on nice fall days such as this. Wonwoo is sitting on the dry grass by the music hallway, where occasionally bursts of creaky trumpets or squeaks of clarinets flare up through the nearby windows and door before dying down again. He doesn’t look up from his lunch when Mingyu carefully approaches him like one would with a wild animal, but Mingyu just knows he saw him coming. He probably saw Mingyu coming before he even rounded the corner, who the fuck knows with this kid.

“Hey, Wonwoo,” Mingyu says, trying to keep his tone cheerful and friendly. “Been a while, hasn’t it?”

“It has,” Wonwoo says, slowly, as if he’s not quite sure how to respond. But he smiles at Mingyu, the corners of his mouth curling upwards invitingly, and Mingyu grins back in relief as he plops himself down across from his new “dare”, leaving only just enough space for the two of them to have their lunch bags placed in front of them.

“Nice lunch,” Mingyu says. Not his best flirtatious opening, but he’s done worse. Wonwoo’s meal really does look nice, though—handmade rice balls, from the looks of it, each about half the size of his fist, along with a can of coke and a small plastic bag of M&M cookies. “Did your mom make them for you? Can she make me some?”

His lunch today consists of mustard and ham in-between two slices of whole wheat bread. That’s it. His mom must have been frazzled running off to work today, and just threw in whatever she found and wrapped it all up.

Wonwoo’s nose scrunches up when he lets out a quiet exhale of laughter. “I made these.”

“No way! You did? You?

“It’s not an exclusively gay thing to know how to cook, you know.”

“Yeah, duh, I’m not stupid. I just mean, y’know, guys in general don’t cook much in high school.” Mingyu looks back down at his forlorn sandwich and makes a face. “Seungcheol and Jihoon are right, maybe I should have taken a home ec class. How did you make these?”

“My parents work late, so I usually make dinner at home,” Wonwoo says. His voice is soft but seems to carry with the wind, hold purpose. Mingyu’s never met someone so silent but commands so much attention with every deep, gravelly word that leaves his lips. He swears Wonwoo doesn’t sound like this inside the classroom; otherwise he’s sure more than half of his classmates would be hanging onto his every word. Or maybe it’s just Mingyu. His thoughts need to shut up now. “I use sticky white rice from the night before and pack them tightly. Sometimes, I fill the inside with something, like plums or leftover pork and salmon. Then, when I packed it into a ball, I wrap it with, like, those five-dollar packs of seaweed you can buy at any grocery store. Nothin’ fancy.”

It sure sounds fancy to Mingyu, who’s only cooking expertise involves making instant noodles and occasionally a fried egg here and there. For a moment, he forgets that he’s not here to chat but here to make Jeon Wonwoo fall in love with him, and his curiosity gets in his way as he asks, “D’you think you could teach me someday?”

Wonwoo’s eyes are sharp as he flickers them carefully over Mingyu’s face. Mingyu wonders if he’s trying to determine if Mingyu’s being serious or not. Eventually, he relaxes and says, “Yeah, okay.”

The two sit in silence for a while, eating their respective lunches. Mingyu tries thinking up something else to say, unused to having a fifty-minute lunch period that isn’t completely filled up with conversation, as he and his friends all try to share as many of their thoughts they accumulated during their lessons as quickly as possible.

Wonwoo seems to enjoy the silence, though, looking completely at peace as he eats his rice balls and balances a book on his right knee, so Mingyu shuts himself up as best as he can. Inside the school building, the senior orchestra blasts out a song for a few seconds before suddenly stopping.

“What book is that?” he finally asks, unable to stop himself from starting some sort of convo, god, it just feels weird when his mouth isn’t always moving.

Great Expectations.

“Charles Dickens?”

Wonwoo looks up from the book to meet Mingyu’s eyes, an amused grin playing at the sides of his lips. “You know who Dickens is?”

The way Wonwoo is looking at him makes Mingyu go slightly pink with both embarrassment and pride. He loves proving people wrong. “I’m not just some dumb jock, I take English too, bruh. Haven’t read anything, but I know what are classics. Is it any good?”

“I’ve read it at least twice. I think the beginning is a little slow, but the ending comes together great. Lots of plot twists.”

The sheer thickness of the book scares Mingyu off from making an empty promise of trying to read it someday, and besides, he just knows that Wonwoo will see right through him in no time if he tries to bluff like that. Instead, he takes a half-hearted bite out of his sandwich and thumbs away mustard that had smeared across the side of his upper lip, trying not to make a face at the blandness of the taste.

Wonwoo notices, of course he fucking notices. “Do you want some?” he asks, sounding like he’s trying to hold back laughter. “Of these, I mean.”

He gestures to the rice balls. There’s still a good dozen or so left.

“Dude … are you serious?” Mingyu’s mouth starts watering against his will. “I haven’t had someone willingly give me their lunch since the second grade.”

Wonwoo’s eyes trail back to the pitiful sandwich Mingyu is clutching in his fist and smiles again. Mingyu has never seen him smile so much in a twenty-minute period, and something hot and bubbly curls up his stomach and chest against his will, as he realizes he may be the first kid in Hysera Public Secondary School who has ever seen this happen. Just him. Like he’s special.

“How have you survived?”

“I steal whatever my friends get. And eat after school.”

“We can trade lunches, if you want,” Wonwoo suggests, pointing to the sandwich. For a split second, he almost looks serious.

But then Mingyu sees the light dancing in his normally serious, intense eyes, and at that exact moment, a particularly obnoxious tuba blares from the practice room, and Mingyu bursts into laughter.

Wonwoo doesn’t laugh, but his smile spreads until Mingyu can see two rows of charmingly straight, white teeth, and his nose is scrunching up again until there are faint creases wrinkling his skin, and it looks just as good as the images Mingyu had expected of Wonwoo laughing. His chest grows tight, and it doesn’t loosen up until long after Wonwoo turns back to his book.

And Mingyu pretends, just for a moment, that he’s nothing but friends with Jeon Wonwoo, just two boys sitting by themselves in peace outside of the chaotic school building, staring at clouds together and sharing rice balls (the sandwich lies forgotten on the grass a few feet away)—and that he’s not a popular, egotistical asshole who’s planning on breaking Wonwoo’s heart.

 

“I’m eating lunch with Wonwoo again today,” Mingyu announces when the bell rings.

“What, again?” Seungcheol whines. For a wild moment, Mingyu thinks that Seungcheol is going to ask him to stay with them instead, say that lunch period is no fun if Mingyu isn’t there. Or even ask if they can go eat lunch with Wonwoo, too.

But that, of course, doesn’t happen. Seungcheol just waves his hand cheerfully and says, “Can’t be helped, I guess. Good luck with the seduction, Gyu!”

“Knock him dead, kid,” Jihoon adds with a sly grin.

A strange, sick coldness washes over his body, like he just ate something rotten. Mingyu tries to shake off the feeling, confused and angry with his own stupid emotions, as he stands up from his chair and grabs for his backpack. He feels like his smile is frozen on his face. Even as his two best friends clap him on the back and give him thumbs-ups as he leaves the classroom, Mingyu suddenly begins to think that they don’t really care about him anymore. That they want him to hang out with Wonwoo more and more often so they don’t have to deal with him ever again. Losers can be with losers.

He had actually been looking forward to eating lunch with Wonwoo, had for reasons he didn’t even know himself checked and double-checked the weather channel for the past few weeks, in the hopes that the fall season still contained a few warm days so Wonwoo would be outside at his usual spot.

Yet now Mingyu just kind of feels like throwing up, or running away. Not going home. Just going somewhere, away from this town entirely, a somewhere where Mingyu knows nobody and nobody knows him and nobody is watching his every move, waiting for him to fuck something up the way people always wait when they get the chance to see someone who looks like they have everything stumble and fall.

He hasn’t even left Hysera’s front foyer and walked through the school’s main doors before his phone buzzes and he gets a snapchat from Seungcheol. It’s him and Jihoon making funny faces and peace signs. Don’t ditch us for him so often, we’ll be sad, reads the caption, followed by several crying emojis.

Mingyu lets out a quiet sigh and feels the muscles in his face relax into a real smile, the twisted feeling in his gut fading away until it’s like it never existed, as he responds quickly with a blurry picture of his feet stepping onto pavement and a cheeky miss my gorgeous ass already, I see.

 

“Why have you been eating lunch with me so often?” Wonwoo asks.

It’s a nice October day, the trees having abandoned their green and bled into orange and red and yellow, the sky still willing to hang onto its baby blue colour. There’s just enough of a wind biting through the two of them for Mingyu to be wearing a light jacket and to make Wonwoo’s cheeks go slightly red and his hair get mussed, a look that Mingyu swears on his life that he doesn’t find attractive in the slightest, what is his mind thinking?

“Do you want me to leave you alone?” Mingyu asks. Wonwoo’s lunch today is pasta—and not the kind of from-a-can ravioli pasta Mingyu has been making when his mom is out working late and he has to fend for himself for dinner. This is the homemade sauce, Italian seasoning, still-good-the-next-day kind of pasta. He swipes a couple of bow tie-shaped slices with his fingers and scoops it into his mouth. Wonwoo raises an eyebrow at him, but he’s grown far too used to Mingyu’s behaviour at this point to care anymore.

“I just don’t get why you’re hanging out with me so much,” Wonwoo says, not answering Mingyu’s question. Mingyu has a feeling both of them know the answer, anyway, because every time Mingyu rounds the corner to meet up with Wonwoo outside of the music hallway, Wonwoo gives him a smile that makes him feel a little dizzy, like the world is turning on its head. “Once or twice is one thing, but this has been going on for more than a month now. Either you’re using me for my lunches, or you got into a fight with your friends.”

Mingyu licks red sauce off of his fingertips. “I am using you for your lunches, in fact, but that’s not the reason why I hang out with you.”

Wonwoo does his usual quiet exhale-laughter and Mingyu feels the same burning, fluttery sensation in his chest again, which he attributes towards feeling a rush of pride. He’s the only one who can make Wonwoo laugh with just a few words. Only him. Mingyu loves feeling so important. “What is the reason, then?”

Mingyu blinks at him. “Dude, you’re cool. I like hanging out with you. Isn’t that a good enough reason?”

Wonwoo’s carefully composed expression slips into something that looks unmistakeably like surprise, before he suddenly ducks his head down to stare at his book again.

And Mingyu might have dropped the subject, if it wasn’t for the fact that Wonwoo’s head movement made his hair droop and expose the tips of his ears, which are suddenly very, very pink.

“Wait a second,” Mingyu says, caught between a laugh and something else that holds fast in his throat. “Are you embarrassed?

“What? Fuck no.” Wonwoo says it just a smidge too quickly.

“Yes, you fucking are! I riled you up! Your ears look like you’ve stuck your head in an oven.”

Wonwoo’s shoulders curl upwards until they’re hunched over the sides of his ears, as if to hide them, and the action is so ridiculously cute that Mingyu almost wants to die. He’s aware that there’s a cocky, shit-eating grin spreading across his face, and he breaks the small distance they had always left between them to inch closer to try and catch a glimpse of Wonwoo’s face, see if the flush has spread to his cheeks.

“You’re embarrassed, aren’t you?” he teases, the pressure in his chest clawing at his ribcage until he thinks he’s going to burst. Dimly, a small part of him is trying to tell him that this is bordering dangerously close to flirting territory, but the larger part of him that just wants to see unshakeable Jeon Wonwoo get, well, shook wins out. “Because I said I liked hanging out with you. And it was the truth. C’mon, admit it, you got shy.”

Wonwoo, finally, lifts his head up to give Mingyu a half-hearted glare. To Mingyu’s extreme disappointment, his face is not the bright red he had been hoping for. Already, Wonwoo’s expression is back under control, his blush fading, his ears only the slightest tinge of pink.

“You,” Wonwoo says, “are infuriating. And I don’t understand your thought process.”

“How am I infuriating?”

“You just are.” And then, in a manner that very obviously shows he’s intent on changing the subject, says, “You’ve shared lunch period with those two friends of yours almost every day since our sophomore years. They probably miss you.”

Mingyu pouts at the abrupt switch in their conversation but Wonwoo is unmoved. Giving up, Mingyu sits back down; returning them to their usual couple inches of separation, he says, “It’s not written in our Bro Code to spend every fucking day with each other. I can eat with whoever I want. Besides, they won’t miss me.”

“Careful now, that last sentence tastes strongly of bitterness.”

“Shit, did it?” Mingyu hadn’t even noticed the faint downtrodden tone in his voice. “That’s just me being a paranoid idiot, ignore that.”

“An idiot, yes,” Wonwoo says with a small smile, “but paranoid?”

Mingyu shrugs. “They’re great friends. Practically my brothers. They’ve made high school a helluva great time for me.”

He pauses. This is the moment where he bites his tongue in his mouth, where the words hold onto the edge of his throat with claws and refuses to leave.

“And?” Wonwoo prompts, gently.

“And,” Mingyu says, uncomfortable, forcing out the things that he normally swallows down and pretends it doesn't exist, “sometimes I feel like I’m the odd one out. Which is stupid, you know? Because they include me in everything. We’re always talking, always texting, always doing shit together, they don’t exclude me from anything, so I don’t know why the fuck I feel so—”

He breaks off, frustrated, and stares at a tree in the distance whose leaves had all turned completely lemon-yellow and were beginning to fall from their branches.

Wonwoo doesn’t say anything, but he’s still listening. And somehow, his presence comforts Mingyu. Even without looking at him, Mingyu can smell Wonwoo’s shampoo, something really fucking stupid like lavender or lilac that smells really nice, and the sound of the pages of his book fluttering in the light breeze, and he knows that Wonwoo isn’t going to laugh at him for saying this. It gives him the courage to continue.

“Have you ever been surrounded by friends but still felt really lonely? Like, you’re all there, but you’re not quite there, you know? Or more like, you’re there but they don’t know you are. I'm not making sense, sorry. I mean, you know they like you, but you don’t think they like you as much as their other friends? So you get this feeling that, um, that even if you weren’t around, like, you aren’t there that day or whatever, it wouldn’t even matter because they wouldn’t even miss you? Because they have other friends that they care about more anyway, and—fuck me, this sounds so stupid. I’m sorry. I’ll shut my dumb mouth up now.”

There was a long silence, as Mingyu’s ears and the back of his neck burns and he glares at the grass, unwilling to see what kind of expression Wonwoo’s wearing after his rambling. He hates feeling so small and helpless, his own words leaving him vulnerable, his neck left exposed and easy to snap.

This is why he hates talking about this. Thinking it is fine because no one can read his thoughts, but saying it, out loud, does nothing but make him feel like he's giving someone else the power to control him. To decide if he can go on living afterwards.

“I wouldn’t know how that feels,” Wonwoo says, and Mingyu’s head snaps up to look at him, “because you’re the only friend I’ve got.”

Wonwoo smiles again, but it’s so small it’s barely there, like the tiniest nudge would get it to shatter on the ground, and he softly adds, “And that’s the least stupid thing you’ve ever said, Kim Mingyu.”

Mingyu kind of feels like crying in front of Wonwoo. Kind of feels like doing something else with him. It’s that something else that scares him most.

“Dude, what the fuck,” he finally says, laughing weakly and then stealing more of Wonwoo’s pasta to try and curb the sudden ache spreading through his chest and up his esophagus. “I’ve never even told my mom this kind of thing. What sort of magic voodoo bullshit did you pull to get me to spill my guts out to you?”

“Let’s attribute it to your handsome face and winning personality,” Wonwoo says dryly, and he pushes his fat, steel, pasta-filled thermos and fork closer to Mingyu, lets him wolf down the rest like a starving child. “You could inspire anyone to listen to you with a bat of your eyelashes.”

“So you admit I’m handsome!” Mingyu says through a mouthful of food. Wonwoo grimaces at the sight.

“Haven’t we gone over this already? Yes, you’re handsome.”

“So you’re into me.”

“Ha. I gave you an inch and you just ran a fucking mile.”

Mingyu swallows without chewing properly and nearly chokes, but when he recovers, he gives Wonwoo an ear-to-ear grin, showcasing his trademark pointy canine teeth. “Face it, Jeon Wonwoo,” he says, confidently, “one of these days I’ll just be so irresistible your gay ass will fall right in love with me.”

Wonwoo rolls his eyes and scoffs. Perhaps it’s just Mingyu really running a mile after being given only an inch, but he thinks it’s a little significant that instead of saying no, Wonwoo just says, “We’ll see.”

Chapter Text

One afternoon, the wind surprisingly chilly and seeming to make its way underneath Mingyu’s jacket and shirt and crawl right into his bones, he turns the corner to the usual eating spot and sees Wonwoo, as always, bent over a book.

Feeling particularly mischievous, Mingyu sneaks up as quietly as he can and then loudly says, “What are you reading?”

Wonwoo doesn’t jump or even flinch a little, disappointing Mingyu and ruining his fun, but he does look up to smile and answer the question. “I’m thinking of making a garden when spring comes.”

“A garden?” Mingyu plops himself down and nudges the book until it’s angled enough for him to see it, too. “Oh, not a flower garden. Like, fruits and vegetables and shit?”

“Yeah. I’ve always wanted to try growing my own ingredients.” Wonwoo slides the book back towards him again. “It’s more difficult than I thought. Not to mention we’ve got rabbits in my neighbourhood, they’ll eat these before I can pick them. I just want to see what I can grow first, and what tools I’ll need to buy.”

A sudden image of Wonwoo crouched down in the dirt happily examining a tomato vine, complete with sunny yellow gloves and the kind of embarrassing sun visors old ladies tend to wear, fills Mingyu’s mind. “That’s kind of adorable,” he says before he can stop himself.

Wonwoo jumps at that, giving Mingyu a withering look that perfectly complements the faint blush spreading up his ears. “That’s not very heterosexual of you.”

Suddenly flustered himself, and dying a little on the inside, Mingyu quickly says, “I meant the rabbits, not you.” And then, remembering the entire reason why he’s hanging out with Wonwoo is because of the dare, he adds as slyly as he can, “Unless calling you adorable makes you more likely to flirt with straight guys, in which case, I meant you.”

Wonwoo rolls his eyes, lips tilted into a smirk as he turns back to his book. “As always, you’re infuriating.”

“Am I just so handsome you can’t stand being too close to me? What do you have for lunch?”

Wonwoo snorts at the abrupt change in topic and breaks out into a full-blown grin, pushing his lunch bag towards Mingyu. “Eat it all, I’m not that hungry.”

“Really? Nice.” Mingyu digs in and discovers it’s a sandwich. Unlike the sandwiches he usually brings to school, however, this one is fat with lettuce and tomatoes, butter and turkey, cheddar cheese and onions. He unwraps it giddily and is just about to take a bite out of it when he hesitates. “Are you sure? I mean, uh, this is your lunch, after all.”

“Take it all, I’m serious,” Wonwoo says. “I don’t like sandwiches, so I’d rather not eat it. Besides, I figured I should give you a taste of what a real sandwich is like. I’m pretty sure you have mold on yours.”

“Let’s not talk about my sad sack of health code violations in plastic wrap, please, I’m eating.” And Mingyu digs in with delight; Wonwoo watches for a few moments in silent amusement as Mingyu nearly drops half the tomatoes and turkey out the other side of the buns and into his lap, before returning to his gardening book.

The two of them sit in comfortable silence, the kind where words aren't necessary to fill up awkward pauses between conversation. If Mingyu thinks of something interesting to say he'll say it, and Wonwoo will look up and comment on it, and then they lapse back into calmness once more.

It's surprisingly nice. Mingyu's starting to really appreciate this kind of silence every now and then.

It isn’t until much, much later, when the bell rings and Mingyu has to stop in the middle of the story he’s telling Wonwoo (of the one time he and Jihoon drew Sharpie dicks on Seungcheol’s face when he was asleep and then forgot to tell him about it when he woke up and answered the door for a delivery man), and Wonwoo is giving Mingyu that soft, amused smile he only ever seems to give Mingyu, that something hits him.

Wonwoo said he didn’t like sandwiches. But he makes all of his own lunches.

So why would he make something he wouldn’t even want to eat, unless he made it specifically for Mingyu?

Abruptly, the floor feels like it’s disappearing from right underneath his feet. Mingyu’s legs go slightly weak when he stands up.

“Are you okay?” Wonwoo asks.

“Yeah, um—my legs fell asleep, that’s all,” Mingyu hurriedly says, giving Wonwoo his best reassuring grin to try and throw him off his case. A few seconds later, he realizes the smile he’s giving Wonwoo is not a reassuring one, but more like the smile he gives the few girls he’s really into. A warm, soft, kind of dopey smile, unlike his cocky sharp grins he loves to throw around. And judging by the way Wonwoo’s staring at him, intense as always but slightly surprised, pupils wavering in their sockets, it’s working on him the same way it works on the girls Mingyu likes.

But Mingyu doesn’t like Wonwoo. Mingyu is straight. He’s into girls.

He scurries back to class before Wonwoo can catch his face turning bright red with both embarrassment and mortification. He’s wrong, he must be. It’s all because he’s trying to make Wonwoo fall in love with him, that’s why this is all happening, that’s why Mingyu feels this way. Yes, that’s that.

He refuses to think about it anymore.

 

It’s the latter half of December, the leaves completely gone from the trees and frost greeting everyone in the mornings. Blue skies have become a thing of the past, each day showing that the heavens were the same as before: a lumpy grey mass, like a bowl of soggy oatmeal. The sudden absence of warmth leaves students with no choice but to grab jackets and scarves and hats and chatter their teeth all the way to school, the early morning the coldest and—judging by the ice tracks on the sidewalk that make every trek to school a battle to avoid slipping and cracking their head on the ground—most dangerous time of the day.

Mingyu hates the winter, for various reasons. One reason is that all of his hard work at the gym will go to waste if he can’t reasonably wear short-sleeved shirts that show off his biceps. Another reason is that he almost always gets sick when the cold weather hits, and he can feel it now, a cough itching in his throat, his nose a little more stuffed up than usual. Nobody looks hot when they’re sick.

Another reason is that Wonwoo no longer eats outside for lunch, but in the classroom with everyone else.

Which means Mingyu can’t eat lunch with him.

He is well aware that this is, as the kids say, a “dick move”. But he knows what kind of talk will spread if he eats with Wonwoo in front of all the other kids. So far, Seungcheol and Jihoon have kept it their own little secret that the gay rumours are true, after Mingyu drilled them for almost thirty minutes about how it would be a real low blow to tell everyone, and that people should ask Wonwoo himself, considering he gave away his “secret” pretty freely last time he was asked. But Mingyu knows rumours are rumours, and talk will talk, and he knows what will happen to him, especially in the basketball team, if the gay rumours start to include his name as well.

“Not eating with your boy toy again?” Jihoon asks as Mingyu turns his desk around to join them for lunch period.

“Literally shut the fuck up,” Mingyu responds grumpily, staring at the lump of rock-hard meatloaf his mom had given him in a Tupperware box. He misses Wonwoo’s lunches. He kind of misses Wonwoo in general.

He's painfully aware that the dull ache leaving a hole to rot in the pit of his stomach over the fact that he hasn't been able to talk to Wonwoo for a few weeks is not something that normally happens to people who just want to be friends.

“Why don’t we invite him to sit with us?” Seungcheol asks. This drags him out of his rut and Mingyu glances up, surprised and in the process of becoming elated, only to see Seungcheol giving him a teasing, gummy grin. He was only joking. Of course he was.

Mingyu's eyes fall back down to glare at his pathetic lunch. “Yeah, yeah, you two think you’re so hilarious.”

“What crawled up your ass and died?” Jihoon retorts. “Miss your boyfriend that much?”

The word “boyfriend” hits Mingyu like a bag of bricks, a weighty word full to bursting with delicious possibilities and leaving him temporarily breathless, and suddenly that makes him even angrier. “I’m sick, you complete and utter dick, I think I’m allowed to be a little pissy. Let me remind you that the last time you got sick I just came over to give you Tylenol and your homework and you nearly threw me out the window.”

“Let it go, Hoonie, you know he’s right,” Seungcheol warns when Jihoon opens his mouth to begin retaliating. He immediately closes his mouth, looking put out but not irritated. “And Gyu, I know being sick sucks, but I’m kind of having a ‘good vibes’ kinda day and you’re putting a damper on them.”

“You and your good vibes can eat my a—”

Seungcheol offers him half of his cafeteria-born Jamaican patty and Mingyu forgives them both instantly. It’s a little bland, which is a given considering the lunch ladies have to churn out two hundred of them every day and the ladies have long since stopped caring about them tasting good, but the little spiciness it has is enough for Mingyu’s tongue to burn, and numb his lips, and numb just a little bit of everything else.

Including the feeling he gets every time he looks up and sees Jeon Wonwoo in the back of the classroom, reading a book and eating his delicious homemade lunches as if it’s any ordinary day, as if he never once talked to and shared his meals and smiled at anyone called Kim Mingyu. As if he's not affected by Mingyu's absence in his life as much as Mingyu is affected by Wonwoo's.

And that, he thinks dismally, is the worst part about all of this.

 

Mingyu realizes, a day before winter break starts, that his perfect senior year has become not-so-perfect and completely contrary to everything he's been planning since he turned thirteen. It's essentially turned into a giant fucked-up bumper car ride, smashing him into terrifying headlong collisions back and forth between his friends, thinking of Wonwoo, school, looking at Wonwoo, being with his friends, wanting to talk to Wonwoo, on and on and on, until he can’t take it anymore.

At the very least, maybe he’ll stop thinking so much about this fucking guy once the Golden Trio, his Golden Trio, embarks on their very last epic high school winter break getaway. None of them have been able to talk about much else all week, discussing future Christmas deals on games in Steam, spending their class breaks googling directions to ski resorts and ice skating rinks, hoping they’ll get enough snowfall this year to have at least one good snowball fight.

Mingyu can’t wait, because this means he has two whole weeks including Christmas and New Years to be with his best friends 24/7, and give them enough happy memories to talk about for the rest of the year and reminisce about when they all go off to college together. As an added bonus, the amount of activities they’ve been planning means he’ll be far too busy to even think about Jeon Wonwoo.

And then his dreams crash before his very eyes after school.

“What do you mean, you guys are going to be gone?

“It’s our parents, Gyu,” Seungcheol says tiredly, ruffling his brown hair until it starts sticking up from static electricity. Next to him, Jihoon has the shockingly humane decency to look genuinely apologetic at their change of plans. The three of them are standing just outside the school gates, bundled up in jackets, the air so cold now that each exhale produces little clouds of fog. Small flakes of snow barely bigger than the head of a pin brush at their cheeks and cling to their eyelashes, melting instantly the second they reach the ground. “They’re taking both of our families on some dumb, giant cruise down South. Jihoon and I won’t be back until the day before school starts again.”

“Wait,” Mingyu says, and he knows he’s feeling irrational, knows he’s blowing this way out of proportion, like he’s some sixteen-year-old spoiled socialite who’s throwing a bitch fit because she got a Porsche instead of a Ferrari for her birthday, but he can’t help the anger bubble up his throat. He can’t help feeling like he’s being betrayed, being left behind. “What the fuck am I supposed to do during winter break, then? This has been our thing for two years now, guys! This was gonna be the third, the grand finale! I thought we had plans!

“Gyu, I literally just heard about this, like, fifteen minutes ago. I didn’t know it was happening, either.”

“But—” Mingyu desperately tries to construct the words necessary for him to accurately explain to his friends why this sucks ass, why them just up and leaving him is unfair and doing a lot of bad shit to his head, but his brain is full of cobwebs and his words are clumsy and lack coherence, as usual, and he loses the chance to describe his feelings. "We had plans. It’s seriously gonna suck without you guys here. Can’t you just, I dunno, not go?”

Seungcheol doesn’t even pretend to think about it before he’s shaking his head. Mingyu’s stomach curls, sharp and slimy and slick with second thoughts, until he’s feeling almost nauseous.

“It’s a cruise, Mingyu,” Jihoon pipes up. “How often are we going to get the chance to go on a cruise? C’mon, we’ll send you tons of snapchat stories, don’t be a brat about this.”

Mingyu tries to shut up, tries to hold his tongue, but he can’t. He had been looking forward to this for ages. This is their last winter break as seniors, a glorious winter wonderland adventure to end their life and reign in Hysera Secondary, and now it’s just gone.

And Mingyu knows his popularity doesn’t change if Seungcheol and Jihoon aren’t there, knows that he’ll still get the chain text invitations to parties hosted by his classmates, girls asking if they can be his New Years’ kiss at midnight, but none of that fucking matters. Those people aren’t his friends, his best friends, the people he knows and trusts more than anyone else. Seungcheol and Jihoon are his friends, and they’re abandoning him.

If it had been Mingyu, and Seungcheol and Jihoon were asking him to stay, Mingyu wouldn’t go. Mingyu would stay with his best friends.

They don’t care about you as much as you care about them, a nasty voice whispers in his head, the way it always has since middle school.

The hysteria rises, farther and farther, until Mingyu can’t think and he can’t breathe and he can’t see and he doesn’t understand why this is so painful for him, why this feels so awful, so he just mutters, “Fucking whatever,” and storms away. Like a brat. Jihoon is right, he’s being a brat, god dammit.

He keeps walking, keeps thinking, turning it around again and again in his head until he’s more upset than ever, the anger twisting its ugly head into something infinitely worse, something more like sadness, or heartache, or really bad stomach ulcers.

Because, he realizes, he is the kind of selfish prick who constantly seeks validation, who’s obsessed with knowing that people like him, are attracted to him, that people think he’s cool enough to want to be with, and now he’s the kind of selfish prick who realizes that reality doesn’t work that way, and people will always abandon him. Nobody can stay forever. His dad didn’t stay, and with his mother leaving for work before he’s out of bed and maybe coming home early enough to ask him about his day and wish him goodnight, she’s essentially absent from his life, too. All the other friends Mingyu has gathered throughout high school can abandon him too, without another thought, because they have their own friend group and wouldn’t even give two shits about Mingyu if he didn’t push himself to run the extra mile, to be friendly, and funny, and always available unless he’s doing something even cooler to make them jealous.

And he put three years of even more effort into his best friends, his Seungcheol and Jihoon, the two he’s looked up to the most, the peak of mischievous, carefree youth that he aspires to reach. He pushed and pushed himself so that his absence would be noted, would be missed, so that they would want to stay by his side because it wouldn’t feel the same otherwise.

And now, Mingyu knows. Knows that they have each other and Mingyu is their afterthought, the closing lines written hastily and without consideration to quickly conclude an essay, the last few bites on a dinner plate that doesn't need to be eaten and can just be swept into a trash can.

Knows that they can abandon him, too. Everyone can.

“Mingyu.”

He looks up in surprise, nearly tripping over his own feet. He had just been walking aimlessly with no particular destination in mind, and as fate would have it he’s run right into Wonwoo. The last person Mingyu wants to see when he’s in this sorry state.

“Oh.” Mingyu tries to meet Wonwoo’s gaze and fails, his eyes trailing off to stare at Wonwoo’s right ear. “Hi.”

Wonwoo sees everything. Mingyu knows Wonwoo can see the upset flush in his cheeks, the way his chest is heaving, the way his eyes are going slightly glassy with the effort to not lose his mind and get swallowed up, chewed to bones and glass and dust.

“Any plans for winter break?” Wonwoo asks cautiously, evidently thinking this was a simple conversation to ease into. Wrong idea.

“Nope,” Mingyu says, aware that his voice is going slightly shrill. He kicks at the permafrost building up on the grass by the side of the street. “Not anymore.”

“Your friends—”

“Are off on a nice little getaway cruise. I’m sure they’ll have lots of fun, since they’ll be together. Like they always are. Leaving me behind. Fuck.” His voice breaks on the curse like a prepubescent child and it feels so awful.

There’s a brief period of silence, as Mingyu glares at a fence next to him until he’s almost burning holes through the metal. He can feel boiling, liquid heat spreading up his chest and right to the back of his eyes, and he sucks in a shaky breath to try and get a hold of himself and not break down, not now, not in front of Wonwoo.

“I’m sorry,” Wonwoo says, softly. Mingyu hadn’t talked to him for weeks, and he never noticed how badly he misses the rise and swell of Wonwoo’s deep voice, misses the slightly hoarse quality to it, scratchy with the silence he so often keeps every day. Misses it like the winter-covered earth misses the blue sky and the sun. “That’s awful.”

Mingyu lets out a small noise very close to a sob. “I’m so pathetic.”

“No, you’re not.” Why is Wonwoo being so nice to him? He’s an idiot if he hadn’t noticed that Mingyu only ever ate lunch with him on nice days when Wonwoo was outside, where they wouldn’t be spotted by anyone. He’s an idiot if he hadn’t noticed that once he moved back inside for lunch, Mingyu returned to eating with his friends and not talking to him.

Wonwoo is an idiot if he noticed this and still wants to be nice to someone as fucked up and disgusting as Mingyu.

“Yes, I am.” Mingyu’s voice catches between his words, and it sucks. “My best friends are just going on a cruise their parents set up. It sounds like fun, they want to go. But I wouldn’t do the same, even if the cruise was great, I would’ve stayed behind to be with my friends if they didn’t want me to leave. So now I’m acting like it’s the end of the world and that I’m gonna die alone. Cheol’s right, I’m an attention slut.”

Wonwoo’s lips twitch, just once. “You do like attention. But you’re not pathetic to think that way. Anyone would be upset if they got left behind.”

That's ... unexpected. Nobody's ever said that to him before.

And Mingyu stares at him, stares at Wonwoo shivering a little in his black jacket, nose and cheeks bitten pink with the cold, but very clearly not intending on walking away until Mingyu’s problem is solved. His expression is sympathetic but not pitying, understanding but not condescending, and looks so inviting, so … solid. As if Mingyu can spit out all the words he wants and struggles to say, all the fears and anxieties he’s swallowed down for years, and out of everyone else he knows in his small, narrow-minded world, Wonwoo won’t be scared away. Wonwoo will stay.

And as he feels his mind start ripping apart by the seams, he throws away everything he's built up inside of him and decides to not give a shit, just for a little while.

“Dude,” Mingyu says with a sniffle, “this is gonna sound really weird and kind of gay, but can you, um, hold me for a bit?”

There’s a short pause. “What?” Wonwoo asks, leaning in a bit closer so he can hear better. Or maybe because he wants to make Mingyu say it again. Both options are viable choices when it comes to Jeon Wonwoo.

Mingyu would feel embarrassed, but he’s a little more preoccupied by the moisture welling up in his eyes and blurring his vision, like he’s looking through a bubble. “Can you, uh, hold me?” His voice breaks again. “Just for a few seconds, I swear?”

Wonwoo’s long, skinny arms are wrapping around him before he even finishes his sentence.

Before Mingyu can think this is a bad idea, or even just blink really hard to try and dispel the tears in his eyes, he suddenly has his nose buried in Wonwoo’s shoulder, Wonwoo’s hair tickling the side of his face, Wonwoo’s hands wrapped around his shoulders and the small of his back, Wonwoo’s chest almost pressed against his. So much of Wonwoo, Wonwoo Wonwoo Wonwoo, that Mingyu’s mind completely blanks out and he almost forgets to breathe.

Wonwoo doesn’t say anything—doesn’t mutter sweet nothings or little “it’s gonna be alright”s, “it’s gonna be okay”s—but the arm around his shoulders does move up to softly press against Mingyu’s hair, tangle slightly in his locks, stroke downwards and then move back up again to repeat the motion until it’s not a coincidental movement and Mingyu is fairly certain that Wonwoo is petting his hair.

It kind of feels really fucking nice.

Mingyu closes his eyes and lets the few tears that he had been unable to blink away drip down his cheeks and leave small wet stains on Wonwoo’s jacket. He had forgotten the comfort, the warmth, the reassurance that came with hugs, and people who are genuinely willing to give them.

Everyone is given hugs as a child. Mingyu had loved hugs when he was a kid, especially when his mother gave them. Mothers always give a special brand of hugs.

When was it, that Mingyu got too old to want hugs from his mom, or hugs from friends? When was it that the only hugs he expected and wanted to receive were one-armed ones from guys that were less like hugs and more like headlocks mixed with body tackles, and the sugary-sweet, vapid joy of a pretty girl pressing her body flush against his so he can feel her chest, thin arms wrapping around his waist not to give or receive comfort, but to tease and flirt?

He hardly ever sees his mother anymore, she’s always working late and he’s always out with friends. When was the last time he hugged her, or let her hug him?

Mingyu’s head hurts. His heart hurts, too, and he's not sure which hurts most. The pain is shared, one fueling the other, the other inspiring one. He doesn’t want to think about these things, doesn’t want to feel any more dull aches inside his chest, like everything he ever wanted and hoped he would be isn’t enough anymore, and that single shred of doubt is tearing his entire identity into pieces. So he closes his eyes and lets Wonwoo hold him close, and forgets everything except the warmth of a hand in his hair and a sturdy body to rest against.

They stay that way for much, much longer than a few seconds.

Mingyu is frozen stiff and never moves his arms to reach up and hug Wonwoo back, but when Wonwoo lets go of him and pulls away, Mingyu suddenly, desperately, religiously, wishes he had.

“You okay now?” Wonwoo asks, voice barely above a whisper. He must be a little embarrassed, too, because his eyes fix somewhere slightly above Mingyu’s right eyebrow and stay there. “Feeling any better?”

“Yeah,” Mingyu mumbles, quietly, and furiously rubs at his face with the sleeve of his jacket until the faint few tear tracks on his cheeks are gone and his skin is pink and sore. “I—”

He wants to make a joke, bring the mood back to the carefree one he’s so used to having. A part of him, the voice in the back of his head that told him in third grade that boys are better at sports than girls and in sixth grade real men don’t cry and in eighth grade she’s bitchy because she’s on her period, wants him to make a casual joke that he lost a couple of masculinity points for this and then never talk about it ever again.

He tells that voice to shut the fuck up and instead says, “Thank you.”

Wonwoo nods, and then, “You’ve got an eyelash on your cheek.”

Mingyu sniffs once, hard, before his fingers reach up to prod at his face. “Where?”

“Other side—by your nose—no, not that close—Jesus, here, just let me—”

And Wonwoo reaches up to touch Mingyu’s face.

His bare fingers brush against Mingyu’s cheekbone, pinch slightly at the skin below his left eye. They’re as cold as icicles, yet the touch feels like a live wire against him, burning him alive, a trail of fire left in its wake as if it means to burn an imprint of its path onto Mingyu’s cheek. Mingyu tries not to shiver, not to give anything away, as Wonwoo carefully plucks off the spare eyelash and blows it away.

“You’re not breathing,” Wonwoo tells him.

Mingyu lets out a breath with a gasp, only now aware that he had been holding it. “Oh.” That must be the reason why he feels like his ribcage and all the organs within are burning up. Yes. That’s it.

Wonwoo gives him a look that Mingyu can’t quite identify, but within that single look there’s more expression and thoughts and emotions than anything he has ever seen on Wonwoo’s face before. It’s a little mesmerizing.

But then Wonwoo is stepping away, back to reason and safety, enough that they’re still close but not enough for Mingyu to feel the warmth radiating from his body, and Mingyu realizes he hates that.

So he steps forward, across the yellow cautionary please-do-not-move-beyond-this-point line, closing the distance between them again. Wonwoo’s eyes narrow slightly at the action, but he makes no other move, just lets them stand close enough that the small puffs of their breaths mingle together with each exhale, a single unanimous cloud.

“Have a good winter break, Mingyu.”

“Do you have a cell phone?”

“Yes.”

“Can I have your number?”

“Why?”

“Because I want to text you over the break.”

Wonwoo’s ears are pink again, but that might just be from the cold wind as he pulls his cell phone out of his jacket pocket. “Okay.”

A minute later, Mingyu has Wonwoo’s phone number etched into the memory of his cell phone, and his cheeks are flaming red. From the cold. It’s from the cold. It’s cold outside.

“I better, um, get going, then,” he says, awkwardly. “I’ll talk to you later?” He hates how he frames it in the form of a question.

Wonwoo pauses for a moment, chewing into his bottom lip, but then he looks up at Mingyu and smiles, teeth showing and nose crinkling, big and warm and beautiful.

Mingyu just called a boy beautiful.

“Yeah,” Wonwoo says, “I’ll talk to you later.”

And suddenly it’s too much, too much to be looking at him, so Mingyu fumbles his arm into a clumsy little wave and turns around and all but runs away. He doesn’t slow down; not when he's down the street, not even when he's around a corner and out of sight. He doesn't slow down until he reaches his street and he's heaving for air.

Fuck, I think I like him, he realizes, chest aching, head a jumbled mess, nose stuffed up, cheeks stinging from icy winds, fingers numb, everything cold except for the small spot on his face that’s still burning where Wonwoo had touched him. I really, really fucking like Jeon Wonwoo.

Chapter Text

Mingyu likes Wonwoo. Another man. Mingyu likes a man.

His mom still has to work all the way up to Christmas Eve, so he’s had the whole house to himself to pace around, mulling over the concept, turning it over and over in his mind. Mingyu may be a little airheaded at times, but even he’s not stupid enough to try and tell himself that it’s all a trick of his head, that he doesn’t actually like Wonwoo—because he does, he knows he does, the very fact that thinking of that dumb, handsome face makes his stomach tie in knots is proof enough—and it’s idiotic of him to try and lie to himself otherwise, but that just makes everything harder to accept.

He likes girls. He’s liked girls all this time, and he’s pretty certain that he still likes them even now—likes their pretty lips, their silky hair, the way they’re so soft and Mingyu’s height lets him practically bury them in a hug.

So how is it that he also likes Wonwoo? There’s a word for this, he thinks, but it’s not a word he remembers or has ever heard being used in school, and he’s too much of a chicken to go Google searching it up now.

Maybe it’s just because it’s Wonwoo. Maybe it’s because he’s the first person to really have a full-length conversation with Wonwoo in the history of Hysera Public Secondary’s senior class, and he’s the first person to see Wonwoo smile, and laugh, and somehow that makes Mingyu special, and Mingyu loves feeling special. And Wonwoo is a good-looking guy, no doubt about it, so that probably helps matters, too …

If Mingyu had known all along that he secretly liked boys, this might have been easier for him to accept. But this came out of nowhere, as far as he’s concerned—or maybe hanging around a gay kid so often somehow sped up his own homosexual metamorphosis or whatever.

But that doesn’t change the fact that there’s two very important things that hinder Mingyu: the first is that he can face some serious repercussions in his community for being in a relationship with another boy, especially if that boy is Jeon Wonwoo, and it’s not like his school board is really winning any progressive awards anytime soon; the second is that he still has to make Wonwoo fall in love with him for a dare. Mingyu falling in love with Wonwoo was not part of the plan.

His cell phone, which he had turned off over the night and then put through a system upgrade that took way longer than it should have, finally finishes downloading its update and immediately buzzes to life with enough force it almost vibrates off his table, and Mingyu’s heart leaps up somewhere near his Adam’s apple when he thinks it might be Wonwoo. He dives across his bed for his phone and opens up the message.

It’s not a text from Wonwoo. It’s a snapchat story from Seungcheol. A really fucking long one. Mingyu’s jaw clenches for a brief moment when yesterday’s old anxiety flares up again, but he dutifully opens up the story and taps through it.

It’s a meticulous, overly-informative picture and video compilation of Seungcheol and Jihoon packing up their suitcases, driving down to the cruise ship, waiting in line with their families, and then being shown to their rooms. Every single one has some sort of caption, ranging from We had to wake up at 4 in the fucking morning for this???, to This line is taking forever, where’s our Gyu to sing along badly to the Katy Perry songs blasting above our heads?, to I’m sorryyyy, don’t be mad at us anymore, Gyuuuuu.

Even Jihoon sent him about a dozen snapchats, something he normally avoids since he only installed the app because Seungcheol made him, with captions like Sorry we abandoned you, buddy, and, Would be more fun if you were here.

Mingyu lets himself breathe, suddenly exhausted, hanging his head off the bed until he can feel blood rushing down and making him dizzy. They still care about me, they’re sorry, they’re thinking of me. He repeats this to himself, like a mantra, or a prayer, over and over again until he believes it and he feels better. They’re thinking of me, they wish I was there with them. It’s okay. We’re okay.

He responds to the both of them with an apology snap for blowing up at them yesterday, and then to try and make it look like he’s totally having fun without them and not moping at all (which he had been doing, all day), he blasts music from his laptop at an inappropriate volume and films himself dancing and singing along all over the house and sends them that, too.

Once that’s settled, however, he’s back to doing nothing else, except pace his bedroom and worry himself sick over his feelings for Wonwoo. Not even his reconciliation with Seungcheol and Jihoon gives him any relief.

Fucking shit. Seungcheol and Jihoon. What would they think about him if he tells them about this? Never mind convincing them that Wonwoo is cooler than they think he is and try to get him accepted into their friend group, Mingyu doesn’t even know if they’ll remain friends with him if he tells them he likes a guy.

This is all so frustrating. He wishes he never took that dare to go up and talk to Wonwoo back in September. Then Mingyu can be happily and peacefully heterosexual and finish off his senior year the way he always planned it to be, with his best friends and his basketball team and possibly with a really cute girlfriend.

His cell phone buzzes and he once again belly-flops onto his bed to grab it, nearly winding himself in his eagerness.

It’s a text from Wonwoo.

There’s a rink open at the park near my house. If you’ve got your own skates do you want to go skating?

He texts with complete punctuation, capitalization, and perfect syntax. It’s so dorky and so fucking adorable. Shit, Mingyu really likes him.

Yeah, sure! Where should we meet? Does he sound too eager? He sounds too eager.

I think you live on the other side of Hysera. Let’s meet up in front of the school and head to the park from there?

No prob. See you in ten minutes!

Mingyu throws his phone to the side, watches it bounce off his pillow and back onto his bed, and then burrows his face into his blankets and screams like a teenage girl getting asked to prom by her crush.

 

Thirteen and a half minutes later, Mingyu reaches the school gates, where Wonwoo is already waiting for him. Mingyu’s heart skips a beat and then picks up in double-time. It’s only been around twenty-four hours since he last saw him, yet it somehow feels like years. Wonwoo is dressed like any lanky teen would be in a parka and ratty old beanie, yet he somehow makes it look attractive.

“Sorry I’m late,” Mingyu says, breathless from running. “I, um, lost track of time.”

In truth, it had taken him much longer than he planned to get ready. He had to find something to wear that looks good, he had to fix his hair, he had to choose the right shoes, which he realized about halfway through didn’t even matter because they’d be wearing skates soon enough anyway. Then there was the whole matter of him digging through his closet to find his skates and actually having to get to school, which he managed to do by alternating between speed-walking and marathon running.

“You’re not that late, you know,” Wonwoo says, and it’s probably just the sun reflecting off of the sheen of ice and snow that’s decorating every available surface this afternoon, the temperature having dropped down to below-freezing overnight, but his eyes look a little like they’re sparkling. “Three minutes isn’t really a big deal.”

“Yeah, of course, of course. Fuck, please give me a second, I think I’m about to throw up my lungs.” Mingyu rests his weight onto his kneecaps and gasps for air.

Wonwoo waits patiently for Mingyu to stop sounding like he’s having an asthma attack, before saying, “Shall we go?”

Mingyu straightens up and looks at Wonwoo. Fuck, I really like this guy. He hopes the more times he tells himself that the less it’ll shock him every time he sees Wonwoo’s face and realizes that yep, this is happening, this is a real thing. “Yeah, sure.”

The walk to the skating rink is slow and calm, a nice wind-down from Mingyu’s hectic journey to the school. Wonwoo takes his time walking, Mingyu discovers, which normally pisses him off to all hell because he has places to be and no time to waste getting there, but somehow it doesn’t feel annoying for him to shorten his pace and slow down his giant giraffe legs to walk alongside Wonwoo at the same tempo. It’s nice, because Wonwoo helps Mingyu see all the things he usually misses when he’s outside, distracted by loud friends or music blasting in his earphones. Mingyu watches in barely-disguised fascination as Wonwoo drowns himself in the world that surrounds him; watches as he stares in wonder at the last few birds that are still hanging around before their migration; as he carefully plans each step so the crunch of his boots against frost and sidewalk is at its maximum satisfaction; as he plays with the fog his breathing creates in the air in front of him, trying to make smoke rings that he already knows is impossible to create.

“How do you do it?” Mingyu finally asks.

“What?”

“Like, making things fun for yourself when you’re just walking. You make it look almost like a game.”

Wonwoo huffs out his signature exhale-laugh, although it sounds slightly bleak. “When you don’t have friends, you learn how to keep yourself happy and busy doing just about anything.”

Mingyu thinks about this. “When I was a kid and we had to drive for two and a half hours to get to grandma’s house, I’d play games with what I saw out the window. Like, if there was a dirt spot on the glass, I’d pretend it’s a little person and make it do parkour on all the buildings and fences zipping past. There were rules, like how the dirt-person couldn't ever touch the ground, so it had to jump on rooftops or on lampposts and shit.”

Wonwoo smiles. “I did that, too.”

“Oh, good, I thought I was the only one.”

They reach the skating rink, a small square thing bordered by low, wooden walls that are slightly lower than calves-height, and most definitely made by hosing down the inside of the square and letting it freeze overnight. It’s set up in an open field in some place with tennis courts and a playground that is labelled with a sign out front called Vinca Park. There are a few people already on the rink, mostly families letting their kids fumble around and trip in the peace of their own neighbourhood, and letting them play hockey with tiny plastic sticks and baby nets that don’t even reach Mingyu’s thighs.

“Vinca Park is like a second home to me, man,” Wonwoo says as they sit on a nearby park bench, next to a stressed-out new mother comforting a fussy baby, and lace up their skates. “It’s literally, like, two blocks from my house, so I come here all the time. I’ve come out to skate here every year since I was six.”

“It’s nice,” Mingyu says automatically. Not that he thinks the park is actually nice, because really, a park is just a park and it looks like every other children’s jungle with a false sense of nature he’s ever seen in his life; but he likes the image of a six year old Wonwoo sliding awkwardly along the ice, probably with shaking legs and a death grip on a parent’s sleeve like Mingyu used to.

Wonwoo steps out onto the ice first, as naturally as if he had been born to do it, and Mingyu stops and stares, transfixed for a moment, at the almost graceful way Wonwoo can move on awkward, unprofessional ice like this.

Wonwoo circles around the entire square of ice and stops in front of Mingyu, where he’s still standing there dumbly. “Are you skating or what?”

“Of course I am,” Mingyu says, also dumbly, waddling towards the edge of the wall and instantly getting a fantastic idea. “Um, hey, I’m really not good at skating. Like, I’m such a beginner.”

Wonwoo’s left eyebrow quirks up. “Really?” he drawls out.

“Yeah. So you should, like, totally hold my hand. So I don’t fall.”

The other eyebrow quirks up, until Wonwoo doesn’t look sarcastic but just plain amused. “You brought your own skates. I can only assume that you know how to use them.”

Shit. Busted. “Wanna hold my hand anyway?”

“Maybe if we weren’t surrounded by families. I don’t really feel keen on seeing my next door neighbour gasp and steer her child away from me like I’m the reincarnation of Lucifer for holding another boy’s hand.”

“Damn, okay.” Mingyu stumbles onto the rink with all the grace of a tranquilized rhino and gives himself a second or two to adjust to the ice. “But, you would definitely hold my hand if it was just us here, right?”

Wonwoo smiles at him and says, “Maybe,” before skating away. Mingyu grins back, a little lightheaded, and follows after him as best as he can, unused to the rough ice beneath him and nearly plowing straight into a runny-nosed four-year-old who’s standing motionless in the middle of the rink.

They spend the afternoon that way, the rink so small that skating essentially feels like Mingyu’s just chasing Wonwoo, or occasionally Wonwoo is chasing Mingyu. Eventually, the sun starts setting, invisible beneath the lumpy grey clouds, the families all go home, and Mingyu can’t feel his ankles or his toes.

When the ice gets too rough and chunky to actually skate on anymore, Wonwoo stops and turns to look back at Mingyu. “Wanna head back? I can’t feel my face.”

“Same here,” Mingyu says, stumbling over his words, lips and jaw numb. Despite feeling cold almost everywhere he can feel sweat beading along his temples, and the back of his neck, hidden beneath the collar of his jacket and his scarf, feels unbearably hot. “Shit, I need, like, coffee or hot chocolate or something stat. Why won’t they build a goddamn Starbucks near here?”

Wonwoo staggers off the rink and collapses onto the bench, massaging warmth back into his legs. “You can stop by my house, if you want. We have hot chocolate mix in the kitchen, I think.”

Mingyu stops in his tracks and stares at him, for a moment forgetting the numb ache in his feet. “Your house? Where you live?

Wonwoo gives him a look. Unfortunately, it’s not the look Mingyu was hoping for, or maybe not hoping for, he can’t remember. “I’m asking if you want to come in for hot chocolate, not to have sex with me in my bedroom because my parents aren’t home.”

Mingyu makes a tiny dying animal noise in the back of his throat and is suddenly eternally grateful that his face is already flushed red with cold and exercise.

Wonwoo doesn’t appear to have noticed. He’s busy adjusting the zipper on his coat, moving it up and down as though he’s not sure if he’s too hot or too cold to wear it or not. “So?” he asks, gripping his hockey skates by their stiff white laces and throwing them over his shoulder, wincing when the action causes the hollow blades to smash against his lower trapezius muscles. “You wanna come or not?”

 

The first time Mingyu visited another kid’s house was when he was nine. He remembers it vividly.

Back then, his dad was still around, and Mingyu still thought he loved him. He liked being able to run to his dad and have him lift him up and swing him in a high circle above his head, young enough to do so without causing his father some serious back strain, and young enough to think he can almost touch the clouds resting prettily in the sky, ripe for plucking into his small hands. His dad’s fingers were calloused from driving cars to a nameless workplace and holding cigarettes. He smelled of spearmint gum and some Generic Dad Cologne that Mingyu secretly loved, and his clothes always carried the faint whiff of nicotine.

Mingyu’s mother hated the smell. She always used to scold him about it. When Mingyu overheard their arguments, he often heard words and phrases being thrown back and forth, like “second-hand lung cancer for your son”, “nosy”, “don’t you care about us at all”, and “controlling”. He never worried about it, though, and even when their voices rose until they were shouting, he just drowned it out by upping the volume on Cartoon Network and chewing extra loudly on his sugary cavity-inducing cereal.

He thought it was natural for them to fight; he thought it was obvious that his mom only yelled like that because she loved his dad and didn’t want him to get sick.

Later, when he was older, Mingyu would realize that she wasn’t yelling at his father about the cigarettes. In fact, it wasn’t about the cigarettes at all. His mom chose smoking to scream about because they were the easiest choice, the scapegoat; a single grain of sand in a whole fuckpile of problems in their marriage. And the more grains of sand Mingyu discovered as the years rolled by, the more he hated his father, and the more he regretted all the tears he shed when he watched his dad leave the house with nothing but a suitcase and never even look back at his son.

Either way, he was nine years old when he finally got invited to someone’s house. Mingyu was an anomaly in the system, a blue spot when everyone else were reds. That's the only way he could explain it, could tell his young self why he never had any play dates when he was younger, never got invited to birthday parties or trips to the museum or sleepovers. He once saw kids in the same class as him riding their bikes together to the convenience store to buy Kool-Aid and ring pops, so he skinned his elbows and bloodied up his knees for three and a half months until he too could ride a big-boy bike without training wheels, like all the other kids, just in case anyone asked him to come along.

Nobody ever did.

This was the first time. The kid in question was from the same class as him and had asked if he wanted to “hang out” (kids didn’t say play anymore, Mingyu had to keep reminding himself, they said hang out). He had been so excited and nervous that he thought he might throw up inside the leathery, tobacco-scented interior of his dad’s car.

When his dad dropped him off at the curb and he ran up to the kid’s door and rang the doorbell, a small part of him, even at the tender age of nine and one-quarter, wondered if this was all one big joke and the kid wasn’t even home, or he gave him the wrong address, and he would laugh into his face in class tomorrow.

The kid whose name Mingyu had long forgotten was home, and opened the door. Mingyu can’t remember his face now if he tried, but he does remember that the kid wore a Raptors basketball cap on his tiny little head and had a runny nose and looked a little bored, or maybe that was just how his face always looked.

They went inside and went up to the kid’s room to play video games. His mother was home, but like most stay-at-home PTA mothers who had an entire shelf in the living room for soccer trophies and karate awards as though they were golden statues of Emmys and gave her kids plasticky Lunchables instead of taking the time to make them actual food, her presence was oddly forgettable. She sat in the living room with her feet up and watched some talk show about daughters shoplifting from Claire’s or something while Mingyu and the sniffling kid played Call of Duty and Mingyu got killed horribly every single time. He had never played COD in his life before, and when the kid asked why he’s so godawful at the game Mingyu explained, with some embarrassment and a faint child's lisp, that his mom thought it was too violent for a young boy to play, and if he ever wanted it he could buy it when he was old enough to use his own money.

“That’s so weird,” the kid had said, before asking if he wanted to go outside and play basketball on their driveway instead.

As it turns out, Mingyu was also awful at playing basketball. He missed shot after shot and had to keep chasing after the ball as it rolled down the sloped incline of the paved driveway, nearly getting hit by a car once in the process. He meekly apologized over and over to the kid, who shrugged and said it didn’t really matter.

That kid never asked Mingyu to “hang out” with him again.

A few weeks later, Mingyu would learn that the kid had been sick, and none of his friends would hang out with him that day because they didn’t want to catch a cold. Bored out of his mind, the kid decided that he could easily get a few hours of entertainment out of someone who had no friends of his own, and would therefore definitely be eager to do anything he wanted.

And even then, even when the kid found someone who had no friends and was eager to do anything he wanted, he still found him too boring and too useless to invite him over a second time.

At nine and one-quarter years old, Kim Mingyu learned two very important lessons. The first was that if he couldn’t play Call of Duty reasonably well, he was a failure as a North American middle-class son. The second was that, by the unwritten laws of public school society, there was always going to be That One Kid who nobody liked and nobody wanted to hang out with, and by God, he swore on his life, he was going to make absolutely sure that it wasn’t going to be him ever again.

 

Wonwoo’s house is a small yellow townhouse down a veritable row of identical cookie-cutter matches. In order to maximize the minimal amount of space they have, the entire first floor is open. Mingyu’s eyes follow the small entrance to the kitchen to the living room to the stairs going up to some unknown dimension, circling back to the entrance again, a continuous loop with no walls to stop him.

“Just throw your jacket and skates anywhere,” Wonwoo says, shoes already off and stumbling towards the kitchen space.

Mingyu complies, fumbling with his zipper and placing his jacket onto the small white bench by the door. There are shoes carefully thrown into a chaotic pile beneath the bench: some are sneakers but most are winter boots to prepare for the season, some are shoes that Mingyu knows must belong to Wonwoo’s dad because no high schooler would ever wear them in their life, and some are women’s boots he surmises must belong to Wonwoo’s mother. Or maybe a sister. Mingyu doesn’t know if Wonwoo has any siblings.

By the time he follows Wonwoo into the kitchen space, which takes him roughly four steps to reach, Wonwoo is sitting on the small rectangular kitchen island and waiting for the kettle to boil. Mingyu slides into one of three brown stools lined up on the other side of the island and discreetly stares at Wonwoo’s back.

Wonwoo looks more at home here than he does at school—he sits tall, back straight, not slumping forwards the way he always does in class. The grim line of his mouth is relaxed and softened. Mingyu makes sure that he’s out of his eyesight when his eyes follows the joints and muscles that make up Wonwoo’s shoulder, down to an arm and an elbow, down to a wrist, until he reaches the long fingers that are tapping some random beat into the island’s granite countertop.

“Why are you staring at me?”

Mingyu jumps. “I, ah, wasn’t?”

Wonwoo turns around, bending one knee against the surface of the counter so he can be facing Mingyu directly. This is the first time, Mingyu realizes, that Wonwoo is looking down at him. He’s almost always sitting down, or even when they’re both standing Mingyu is still slightly taller. Mingyu’s neck creaks in complaint at the unusual angle it needs to take to look up at someone.

“When you’re used to people not looking at you,” Wonwoo says, “it makes it pretty easy to tell when someone is. Do you feel better now?”

“What do you mean?”

“You were, um, kind of upset yesterday. I find that doing something athletic usually helps me clear my head. Did skating help?”

He did it for me. Mingyu’s heart pounds so hard against the underside of his ribcage that he’s half-certain Wonwoo can hear it; can hear it smash itself into a bloody pulp against his stark white bones. He did this because he was worried about me.

“I,” he says, not thinking, “think being with you helped me. Not the skating.”

Wonwoo stares at him for a few seconds that feel like minutes. His expression is, as always, careful and constructed to hide.

“You really are infuriating,” he finally says, turning away just as the kettle boiled, steam wafting in torrents from its tip.

Mingyu doesn’t understand why Wonwoo keeps saying that, or why what he said is something considered infuriating, but Wonwoo smiles at him when he hands him a steaming mug of instant hot chocolate contained in burgundy red porcelain, and that’s good enough for him.

He notices that all his worries and anxiety over Wonwoo disappear when he’s by his side. As if being near Wonwoo tells him that it’s okay, that what he’s feeling isn’t something wrong or unnatural. As if being with Wonwoo is something that can happen and it feels perfectly right.

 

Mingyu doesn’t get the chance to hang out with Wonwoo again until after Christmas, but he had texted him every day. He had been worried that Wonwoo would get annoyed by Mingyu’s trademark constant barrage of texts, but Wonwoo had been diligent in replying to every single one, even if he misses it until hours later.

It’s New Years’ Eve, and Mingyu had spent four days dwelling over whether or not he should go to a party the point guard on his basketball team, Pierce, was hosting. He’s gone every single year, and has never regretted it—but this time he’d be alone, without Seungcheol and Jihoon by his side. Even though he knows everybody else that’s going, he feels like he’ll be lost if Seungcheol isn’t there to control the flow of the party, know exactly when to start a game of Never Have I Ever, or dance wildly in the living room, or mellow out in the garage and listen to someone bash away at an acoustic guitar. He feels like he’ll be bored without Jihoon bemusedly watching the chaos occur on the sidelines, like some sort of trustworthy gargoyle, that he can’t rely on anyone else but Jihoon to start some interesting conversation, or make sarcastic comments about the other partygoers when Mingyu wants to take a breather and sit out on something.

He seriously considers inviting Wonwoo but decides against it. The more he texts Wonwoo and gets to learn more about him in his dry, straightforward way of speaking that manages to translate even through cell phone messages, the more Mingyu is certain that what he’s feeling is real, frighteningly so.

But even when he feels his heart jump into his throat every time he texts Wonwoo or, shit, so much as thinks of him—Mingyu is Kim Mingyu and Wonwoo is Jeon Wonwoo. And Mingyu doesn’t know how the others will react if he brought Jeon Wonwoo with him to the party.

God, he’s such a fucking train wreck of a human being. A complete asshole.

But the anxiety gets so bad right before he’s supposed to leave for the party that he loiters in front of the door to his house and texts Wonwoo anyway.

There’s a New Years’ Eve party I’m heading to. Just a couple of kids from our grade, nothing big. (What a fucking lie, this is more or less a ticket to the biggest party of the winter season.) Wanna be my plus one?

Mingyu has to wait up to ten minutes for Wonwoo’s answer.

Sorry, I’m not really a party person. You’ll get laughed at for bringing me, anyway. Go have fun.

Mingyu lets out a breath he hadn’t realized he had been holding. He doesn’t know how to interpret the strange feeling coiling like a live snake inside his liver region—is he relieved Wonwoo said no? Disappointed? Did the burrito he have for lunch today not agree with him?—he has no clue, but whatever it is, it’s making him feel like he’s going to throw up.

You sure? It’ll be fun. Underage drinking and music and all that shit. (He hesitates, before adding,) They won’t mind you being there, I’m serious. If you’re self-conscious, trust me, they’ll be drunk out of their minds before we hit midnight anyway.

That’s nice of you to say, but I’ll just be watching the live concerts on TV. Be careful. It’ll really suck if my only friend dies of alcohol poisoning before his finals.

Hey, don’t mention those. I’m trying to enjoy my winter break, here.

Talk to you later, Mingyu.

He ends up arriving late to the party, which makes not much of a difference because, as everyone knows, New Years’ Eve parties don’t really go into full swing until eleven p.m. onwards, anyway. Mingyu walks in at ten-thirty-six and is greeted with loud cheers and a few of his classmates already looking more than a little tipsy.

“Mingyu, bro, you’re fucking late!” Pierce howls, dragging him in a half-headlock into the thick of the party. “We thought you wouldn’t show your ugly face if Prez and his attack dog weren’t here.”

Mingyu forces a smile onto his face, laughing along and yelling something along the lines of, “What am I, Seungcheol’s girlfriend? I can go wherever the fuck I want without him.” The music is too loud, he thinks, some EDM song pounding its way into his brain with sledgehammers. A girl laughs somewhere behind him, and it sounds too shrill and piercing, like knives scraping against plates.

Pierce shoves a Teenage Movie-appropriate red plastic cup full of what might be beer into his hands, and all Mingyu wants is to be at home. Or with Wonwoo.

He wishes Wonwoo really did come. Even if the others got weirded out and wouldn’t talk to them, Mingyu thinks he’d have fun with Wonwoo here. They can sit on Pierce’s mom’s ugly pull-out couch in the basement, where it’s always too cold for anyone to want to move the party downstairs. They can sit in calm silence, maybe share a beer together. Or maybe Wonwoo doesn’t like beer, in which case Mingyu would totally swallow his pride to ask one of the girls at the party for a Mike’s Hard Lemonade or some fruity “girly drink” or whatever the fuck, he’d do it without hesitation. They can talk quietly, even as the music blasts upstairs, about anything, everything, nothing. Mingyu can find out what Wonwoo looks like drinking alcohol, if he takes large gulps or small sips, if he’s a lightweight, if his face gets red with Asian Glow and he’ll laugh a real, full, drunk laugh, not his quiet exhale-laughs that sometimes sound like he’s scared of making too much noise and drawing attention to himself.

Mingyu wishes he can see those sides of Wonwoo.

A friend of a friend of an ex-girlfriend or whatever asks if he’s feeling okay, and Mingyu downs half of his cup immediately. Eyes are on him in this place. He can’t be thinking about that guy right now.

The party is kicked up a notch at eleven-fifteen. Mingyu finally gets drunk enough to forget about Wonwoo for a bit, and returns to almost his normal self. He plays drinking games with his pals and dances with a few girls and promises one, Naomi from his Advanced Functions class with the pretty dark skin and nice sense of humour, for the New Years’ kiss.

It’s eleven forty-eight when he thinks of Wonwoo again.

It’s eleven forty-nine when he realizes that not even the alcohol buzzing in his system and making everything feel fuzzy, like looking through the bottom of a glass, is helping him feel any better about Wonwoo.

It’s eleven fifty when he realizes he doesn’t want to be here, and he wants to share New Years with Wonwoo instead of anybody else in this house.

He clumsily apologizes to Naomi and tells her whatever excuse he thinks makes sort-of sense—something came up, his mom is throwing a fit and blowing up his phone, he has family waiting at home, he’s so fucking sorry, he’s such an asshole, he’ll make it up to her later, he promises—and slaps Pierce on the back on his way out the door, almost forgetting to put on his jacket.

Struggling with his zipper with one hand and pressing his phone to his ear with the other, he races down the pitch-black, freezing streets towards where his buzzed brain can vaguely remember is the street Wonwoo lives on.

Wonwoo answers on the second ring. “Mingyu?”

“Are you—are you at home? Where—where—where are you?” Mingyu says, but he’s not quite sure he actually said that. Halfway up his esophagus and down his tongue, some of the words melted into slush.

“What did you say?”

“I ssssaid, where are you? Are you at home?”

“Jesus fucking Christ, Mingyu, you’re slurring like you’ve just had a stroke. Are you drunk?”

Shit, Mingyu can’t even tell he’s that drunk. He’s running in a roughly straight line and not falling down, either way, so whatever at this point. “I’m heading to your house right now. Can you come out to see me? Please? Wonwoo?”

There’s a brief moment of silence, before Wonwoo lets out a quiet swear word. “Where are you right now?”

Mingyu shines the blinding light of his phone screen against the nearest street sign he runs by. “Wal—Wuh—Waldershits Road.”

“You mean Waldershins.”

“Bruh, fucking whaddever.”

“You’re not too far away, then. You know how to get to my house, right?”

“Yesss.”

“Okay, I’m coming out to meet you at the end of my street. Fuck, Mingyu, don’t trip and pass out in a gutter or something, you got that?”

“Loud and clear.” Oh, Mingyu can hear his slurred speech now; his words came out as something like “lud’n klerr.” He shakes his head as if that’ll knock the alcohol out of his bloodstream and says, more clearly, “Got it.”

At twelve-oh-four, Mingyu reaches Wonwoo’s street and sees him waiting for him, all alone at the very end of the road, the shrouds of night and the dull orange glow of the street lamps creating shadows that hide him like a scarecrow or a grim reaper or something way fucking bent like that. If Mingyu didn’t know that was Wonwoo shivering in his parka, he would’ve thought this looked straight out of a horror movie. The Shadow Man of Vinca Park Street, coming to a theatre near you!

“Mingyu, what the fuck,” Wonwoo says once Mingyu stops in front of him. He sounds almost angry. “You’re drunk, what are you thinking running here in the dark, by yourself? What if you got hit by a car or something?”

“Sorry,” Mingyu says. The icy cold air pinching every available skin he’s left exposed and freezing the insides of his nasal cavity is doing wonders on his sobriety, and he no longer sounds unintelligibly sloshed when he mumbles, “I missed midnight.”

Wonwoo’s face is too hidden in shadows and his parka hood for Mingyu to be able to see his expression. He can hear an unfamiliar tightness in Wonwoo’s tone, though, that he’s too dizzy to understand. “What?”

“I fuck—I fucked up. I was supposed to reach you before midnight.” Mingyu lifts his arms to clumsily grab onto the small, useless pockets along the sides of Wonwoo’s jacket sleeves. The kind that is too small and too inconveniently placed to actually hold anything. “S’pposed to make you my New Years’ kiss, but I missed it.”

Wonwoo doesn’t say anything for a disturbingly long time. But he also doesn’t push Mingyu away, so Mingyu lets himself play with the buttons on Wonwoo’s sleeve pockets and twist his fingers through the small unnecessary loops poking out from the material.

Eventually, Wonwoo says, “You should go home and sleep this off. Come inside for a bit, I’ll call a cab.”

“Sorry I missed the timing.” Mingyu tries to make out his features in the shadows, but can barely see Wonwoo’s eyes. “Are you mad? That I missed it?”

“I’m mad, but not about that. Come on.” Wonwoo gently but firmly leads him back down the street towards his house.

Mingyu stumbles for the fifth time and curses his feet for not cooperating with his legs for not cooperating with his head. “We can’t kiss now,” he garbles out unhappily. “You can’t kiss after midnight, that’s, like, fucked up, man. I ruined it.”

The tense quality in Wonwoo’s voice is still there, but he lets out a small snort at Mingyu’s devastation. “What happened to the party?” he asks. One of the houses they pass by is having a crazy night of their own. Cars are lined up down every available spot on each side of the street. “Did something happen?”

“What? No. The party was great. Always great. Pierce throws great parties, Wonwoo, do you know him? Have you ever talked to him? Bro, he throws great parties.” He remembers what Wonwoo was asking and says, “’t was fun, seriously. Had so many cans of beers. Was going to kiss Naomi instead of you.”

“Naomi Davis? Good job, she’s very pretty.”

“How’d you know? You’re gay.”

“I can be gay and still tell if a girl is pretty or not. Why didn’t you stay, then?”

Mingyu trips over his own feet and crashes into Wonwoo. “Dude—didn’t wanna stay, dude. Didn’t wanna kiss Naomi. Wanted to kiss you.”

Wonwoo, once again, doesn’t say anything else after that. By this point, they reached Wonwoo’s house, where the outdoor lighting is on and illuminating his front door and the three cement steps going up to his porch.

Mingyu refuses to go inside; he’s too invested in the way the chill in the air makes each breath he takes almost hurt, too invested in how it makes him feel more awake and alive than he's felt in what feels like weeks, months, years. Maybe forever. He makes such a big fuss about it that Wonwoo is eventually forced to sit on the steps with him, shivering side by side, waiting for the cab to arrive.

“Do you hate me?” Mingyu asks, sounding small and pathetic.

“No.” Wonwoo sighs heavily and smooths a lock of Mingyu’s hair away from his sweaty forehead. Mingyu thinks he might die. Is he doing this on purpose? Does he know what he’s doing? Is he flirting or am I just too drunk to tell what friendly affection is anymore?

“I,” Wonwoo says, through a tightened jaw, “will give you hell for this tomorrow, though. You scared the shit out of me, Kim Mingyu, making me stand out there in the cold and it’s so fucking dark I can’t see my goddamn hands in front of my face. Spending every five seconds thinking you weren’t going to show up because you got mugged or passed out somewhere and got eaten by a deer or something. Why didn’t your friends stop you from running out like that? What the fuck is wrong with them?”

This isn’t necessarily the most Wonwoo’s spoken in one sitting, but it is the first time Mingyu’s heard the words tumble out of him like that, so fast it’s almost as if his brain isn’t keeping up, and the most emotion he’s ever shown doing so. Mingyu’s never heard him sound so frustrated before, so upset. He knows he should feel bad for worrying Wonwoo, but instead he just feels a delicious pleasure, like he won something, somehow.

“They aren’t my friends,” Mingyu babbles, leaning into Wonwoo and feeling encouraged when Wonwoo doesn’t push him away. “I mean, like, not really really. We hang out, and like, throw parties together, but you can’t. Call that friends. I just hang out with them all the time because I want them to like me, not the other way around. I just want them to miss me or think it’s boring when I’m not there.”

He starts giggling. “Isn’t that crazy fucked up, bro? I’m so messed up. I don’t even like most of them, but, like, I want them to like me. I want everyone to think I’m so fucking great, so they always want to hang out with me. So they don’t want to leave me.”

He laughs even harder until he can’t remember what he’s laughing about. “I’m so messed up,” he repeats, like it’s the funniest thing ever. “I’m so fucking messed up inside.”

“No. God, no you’re not, Mingyu.” Wonwoo lets him lean against his shoulder and laugh until tears fill his eyes and Mingyu can’t remember if he’s really laughing or actually crying or crying from laughter or something else stupid and painful, but when he’s done he feels empty and drained.

“Hey,” Mingyu suddenly says, after a long moment of silence. “Hey. Hey, hey, hey. Jeon Wonwoo.”

“Hm?”

“Can we kiss?”

He can feel, beneath the parka and whatever shirt he’s wearing, Wonwoo’s muscles stiffen up, before quickly relaxing as though he knows Mingyu can sense it. “I thought doing a New Years’ kiss after midnight was fucked up.”

“It is, but this wouldn’t be a New Years’ kiss.” Mingyu shifts until his face is turned more towards Wonwoo. He’s so close he thinks he can feel Wonwoo’s breathing warming the tip of his nose, but he can’t be sure. “This would be, like, a normal kiss.”

Wonwoo freezes, before saying, as evenly as he can, “I don’t think that’s a good idea.”

That’s not the answer Mingyu was hoping for. “Why not?”

“I don’t want you doing anything you’ll regret when you’re sober again.”

Mingyu doesn’t understand. He thinks he’ll regret it if he doesn’t kiss him tonight, right now, at this very moment, beneath a brilliantly round, fat moon. Being with him feels perfectly right, doesn’t Wonwoo feel that too? “I wouldn’t.”

“Yes, you would. Mingyu.”

“Wonwoo. I want to kiss you.”

“Well, I don—” Wonwoo closes his eyes and takes a deep, shaky breath. Unshakeable Wonwoo has finally been shook. If only Mingyu was in a more sober state to fully appreciate this. “Mingyu, you’re very drunk and you’re confused. You’re straight. You won’t be happy when you wake up tomorrow and find out you kissed a boy.”

“No.” Mingyu tries to explain, clumsily, all the emotions that have been tangled up inside of him for the past two weeks. “I mean—I mean, I am straight, yes, but that’s not—you, I—”

“Mingyu, just drop it. Your cab’s here. You have your keys, right?”

Mingyu watches the car roll up Wonwoo’s driveway, confused and blinded by the headlights. Wonwoo gets a fistful of Mingyu’s jacket and has to half-drag him up to his feet, walk him into the cab, pay the driver, and tell him the address (which he got after half a dozen mumblings out of Mingyu).

This is definitely something Mingyu knows he will be extremely embarrassed about later, but for now all he cares about is that Wonwoo doesn’t want to kiss him, but he’s still helping him get home.

“Text me when you wake up tomorrow so I know you survived,” Wonwoo says, making sure that Mingyu’s buckled in his seat belt. “Promise me, okay?”

“Prrrromise,” Mingyu groans, as the dizziness fades away a little bit and leaves more of a headache in its wake.

Wonwoo opens his mouth as if to say something more, but he glances at the bored driver that’s already driven one too many drunken people home tonight and just shuts the car door.

Mingyu stares out the window and watches for that small little townhouse, gleaming with light under the crushing weight of the darkness above, and notices how the figure on the porch gradually getting smaller and smaller in the distance doesn’t go back inside until the cab is out of sight.

Chapter Text

Seungcheol and Jihoon arrive exactly as planned, the day before classes start once more. When they reach home, the first person they call is Mingyu.

Mingyu reaches the ramen shop by the school at record speed, practically beaming from ear to ear. “Finally, you assholes showed up!”

“What, you think we were going to finish high school on that cruise ship?” Jihoon jokes, grinning.

Mingyu nearly baseball-dives into the booth with them, staring at his friends as if to try and pick out anything new, if anything changed about them in the two weeks they had been apart. Besides a slight tan from their adventures a little closer to the Equator, nothing seems all that different, and Mingyu is overwhelmingly relieved for that. “Maybe you were. That’s the kind of best friends you jerks are.”

“Yes, yes, we are the worst best friends in the world.” Seungcheol slides out of the booth so he can go down on his knees and clasp his hands together, pleading up at Mingyu with his best puppy eyes. “Oh, great high and mighty Kim Mingyu, of homeroom class 132 of Hysera Secondary, will you ever forgive us?”

Mingyu preens under the attention, pretending to fix his hair and check his teeth through the reflection in the glass water pitcher, while Jihoon slaps Seungcheol’s shoulder and snorts out, “Get up already, you complete and utter embarrassing tool, people are staring.”

“Oh man, you should have been there, Mingyu,” Seungcheol says, getting off his feet and back into the booth seat. “The ocean looked so cool, and we got to eat the best food. I pity your unfortunate ass for having to freeze back home all break long.”

“The weather isn’t getting any warmer until maybe March, if we’re lucky,” Mingyu counters, pointing accusingly at him with a single chopstick. “So you have plenty of time to freeze your own unfortunate ass.”

And just like that, they go back to normal, the Golden Trio back together once more. They chatter incessantly, only stopping occasionally to slurp down ramen noodles. Mingyu notices how both Seungcheol and Jihoon are itching to tell him about all the shit that went down during the cruise and lets them do most of the chattering. They talk over each other in their excitement to tell Mingyu about the time they nearly got in trouble for running up and down the hallways banging on people’s doors; about the teens-only dance hall and all the pretty, rich girls Seungcheol flirted with on the cruise (Jihoon made a triumphant point of saying that Seungcheol never got any of their numbers in the end); about the time Seungcheol got crazy seasick and Jihoon spent most of his time videotaping him vomming into the toilet instead of helping him.

It sounded like a helluva lot of good times, and Mingyu feels the pangs of jealousy and regret creep through him, sticking to him like vines on brick walls. They kept saying that it would’ve been way more fun if Mingyu was with them, but from the sound of it, they had plenty of fun by themselves already. Seungcheol and Jihoon, Jihoon and Seungcheol, two peas in a pod.

But Mingyu doesn’t feel as upset as he thought he would—probably because if he really had been able to go on the cruise with them, well, he wouldn’t have been able to see Wonwoo.

The day after the New Years’ Eve party, Mingyu woke up at around two in the afternoon with a crushing hangover. His mom’s job didn’t give a shit whether their workers had family to share holidays with or not, so she couldn’t stay and nurse him, but she helpfully left half a crate of water bottles by his bedside and actually took the time to make Korean hangover soup, which he heated up and ate once he had the strength to go downstairs.

He only remembered he was supposed to text Wonwoo around five-ish. When he did so, Wonwoo responded almost immediately, with a, that was really irresponsible and I hope the hangover you’re suffering from is killing you slowly, drink lots of water and go to sleep early.

Neither of them mentioned the kissing thing. Or, rather, the not-kissing thing, because Wonwoo wouldn’t kiss Mingyu. Or didn’t want to. Mingyu isn’t sure which is worse.

The memory of that night is mortifying for Mingyu, because first of all, shit what if Wonwoo hasn’t fallen in love with him? Not only is he failing the dare, but now he’s getting rejected? Second of all—and he knows Wonwoo wouldn’t do it, but still—what if Wonwoo or anyone else who might have been outside and overheard their conversation tells someone? What if Mingyu walks into school and suddenly everyone knows that the basketball team’s center player is super gay for the high school’s loser?

So neither of them mentions it, and if Mingyu is lucky, Wonwoo hopefully thinks he had completely forgotten about what he did and, thusly, will also not talk about it.

That doesn’t stop Mingyu from spending the last few days of winter break wondering if things would’ve been different, somehow—if he wasn’t drunk, if he didn’t go to the party at all, if he had been able to explain how he felt—and he really did manage to kiss Wonwoo. All that train of thought does is lead him into wondering what kissing Wonwoo would feel like, if his lips are soft or chapped.

The what-ifs and almosts are killing him slowly.

 

Going back to school is frankly a curse. Not only does Mingyu now have to panic over first semester’s final exams in the latter half of January (“Little more than two weeks away!” his teacher lovingly reminded them every twenty-five minutes during homeroom), but he now had to go back to pretending he didn’t talk to Wonwoo.

Having to walk by his desk every day and see his slumped-over figure napped the fuck out is pure torture.

Mingyu finally gets the chance to talk to Wonwoo one afternoon, three days before the official start of final exams. It’s the end of school, everyone more subdued than normal as they all rush home or to the library to start their last-minute cramming sessions. He sees Wonwoo walking towards the library as well and realizes that this might be his last chance of the semester.

Hysera’s library resides in some ass-backwards part of the school, its entrance located through a small hallway that can be found in between the teachers-only photocopier room and one of those classrooms that look like they’re used but most people never actually have classes in them. It’s fairly common for freshmen to enter the school and not be able to find the library for the first two weeks or so.

Mingyu walks inside, passing through the anti-theft detection machines and onto blueish-green carpet the colour of mold. Brown fake-wood bookshelves are lined up to his immediate right, while to his left is the check-out counter where two bored-looking librarians stamp books or fix printers or whatever. Directly ahead of him is a small circle of old scratchy couches that are the prime hang-out spot for a few tenth grade fuckboys that think they’re cooler than they really are, and are about fifteen minutes away from getting kicked out by one of the librarians. A little further past the couches is an open space with four or five lines of cramped study carrels. Most of them are already full, with high schoolers either propping up textbooks or secretly playing League of Legends.

He wanders in clumsily, avoiding the librarians’ gazes as he searches for a dark head that stands slightly above almost everyone else. He just barely catches the back of Wonwoo disappearing down the F-H aisle and makes a beeline straight for him.

Wonwoo is looking calmly for something when Mingyu steers himself into the aisle. He doesn’t look at him, but he does whisper, “What is it, Mingyu?”

Mingyu thinks a library is the absolute worst place for him to be in right now. Well, in general, he’s far too loud for his own good and gets antsy in places that require continuous silence, such as libraries or churches or funeral homes. Less generally, it’s because looking at Wonwoo and hearing his name in Wonwoo’s voice is doing something very weird to his heart.

“How’s, um,” Mingyu whispers back, shuffling even closer to Wonwoo so they can hear each other better, obviously. “How’s studying going?”

Wonwoo isn’t exactly smiling at him, which isn’t reassuring, but one corner of his lips does pull up into a slight smirk. “Isn’t that something I should be asking you?”

“I study!” Mingyu whines in protest, slightly too loud on reflex. A few people shush him in the distance and he quickly lowers his voice again. “I mean, I’ve been studying all week. Senior finals are crazy important for my future, no way I’m gonna just wing them. I’m not, like, stupid, you know.”

Maybe Wonwoo catches something in Mingyu’s tone that Mingyu himself didn’t realize was there, because he turns to meet his gaze and his eyes and mouth are softened when he says, gently, “I know you’re not stupid, Mingyu.”

They stare at each other in silence for a few seconds, Mingyu feeling heat trail up his spine and neck and up to his ears and cheeks, before he hurriedly whispers, “So what are you, u-uh, looking for?”

Wonwoo holds up a book. Hamlet for Dummies. “I need this plus about three hours of Sparknotes if I’m gonna pass the English final.”

Mingyu almost starts laughing. Almost. “Dude, you read, like, a new book every two weeks. Shouldn’t you have Shakespeare in the bag by now?”

“I read for enjoyment, not for essays. I don’t have time or patience to analyze Hamlet’s teenager-level existential crises and then say it’s all about the symbolism of betrayal or his weird obsession with his mother or whatever the fuck.”

Mingyu quietly snorts and mutters an “A-fucking-men” to that. Wonwoo grins at him and returns to the book, flipping through its pages. Mingyu stands there and watches, feeling an almost overwhelming surge of relief that he’s talking to Wonwoo again. Wonwoo doesn’t hate him because of that night. They’re going to be fine. Right?

“Hey,” he says, so quietly he’s not sure if Wonwoo will even be able to hear him. “Are we—okay?”

Wonwoo is still staring at the book, but he’s stopped flipping through it. “What do you mean?” He says it as carefully as he can, as though he’s still wary about Mingyu’s intentions. That little hint of wariness is what kicks Mingyu where it hurts the most.

“You—you know what I mean. During New Years’.” Mingyu swallows down spit, pretends he’s not gulping nervously. Please don’t hate me for wanting to kiss you please don’t hate me for wanting to kiss you. “Are we okay?”

There’s a long silence. Wonwoo nods, just barely, more of a jerk of his raven-black head than anything else. “We are.”

“You sure?”

“You were really drunk—illegally drunk, since you’re not even eighteen yet, so that’s another reason to keep this quiet.” Wonwoo gives him the faintest shadow of a half-smile and returns to staring holes into the bookshelves. “Don’t worry, I’m not going to take anything you said under the influence to heart. Just forget it ever happened.”

No. Wait. That’s what Wonwoo thinks went down that night? Wonwoo thinks Mingyu was saying all that shit, saying he wanted to kiss him, just because he was drunk? And that Mingyu only brought this up because he didn’t want Wonwoo to get the wrong idea? “N-no,” he stammers out, heart pounding so hard he can feel it echo around his ears. This is his only chance to set things right, to change everything between them. “No, that’s not—I didn’t mean it like that—I-I meant—”

Wonwoo definitely hears the clumsy desperation in Mingyu’s voice—can probably hear every tiny catch around the breaks between words, every single nervous breakdown buried between the syllables. He finally stops pretending that he’s still interested in the books and looks around to make sure that they’re still alone—the librarians are busy hassling the sophomore fuckboys and all the other students are in the other end of the library studying, nobody but the two of them in the small, quiet, dark jungle of bookshelves—before he turns around to face Mingyu directly.

“Hey,” he says, in the same gentle tone he uses whenever Mingyu’s upset—the same voice he used when Mingyu first spilled his guts out to him all those months ago, the same way he talked to Mingyu when he held him before winter break—the same tone that somehow crushes Mingyu’s heart to pieces because it could mean so much more but never quite reaches that point. “It’s okay. Take your time to say everything. I’m right here.”

Mingyu takes several deep breaths to control himself and clear his thoughts, think carefully about what he wants to say.

What he wants to say, however, will change everything about him.

It’s the most terrifying feeling he’s ever experienced.

“You,” he says, slowly, voice lowering even further not so they can’t be overheard, but because he wants to hide the way his voice is shaking, “that night, you said to me that—that you didn’t want me to do anything I’ll regret when I’m sober.”

“That’s right.” Wonwoo’s face is set in stone. His guard is up at maximum capacity, and the wariness is back in Wonwoo’s eyes. He has to guard himself like this, Mingyu realizes, to keep himself from getting hurt. Because Mingyu is his only friend, and that means that anything he does or says has the power to hurt Wonwoo more than anyone else in this school. Wonwoo has to look expressionless all the time, has to always keep his emotions under lock and key, because he can’t bring himself to let anyone have that power over him.

Mingyu is the exact same as him. The two boys are completely alike. Only, Mingyu makes sure nobody has that power by making everyone like him and want to be around him. Wonwoo makes sure nobody has that power by pushing everyone away.

“And I argued back, told you I wouldn’t regret it.”

“Yes.”

“And—” Mingyu gulps. He thinks he’s in cold sweat. He curls his hands into fists and shoves them as hard as he can against his sides to try and pretend that he’s not trembling all over, pretend that this basically isn’t the scariest, most difficult thing he’s ever done in his life. “And I was right. I wouldn’t have.”

Wonwoo doesn’t answer.

“Because—b-because I’m here. Right here, right now, fully sober, fully rational.” It’s too much for him to process with all five senses; Mingyu’s eyes squeeze shut. “And if I were to kiss you right here, right now—I wouldn’t regret it, either.”

There’s a long, painfully long, silence. Neither of them utters a sound, except for Mingyu’s heart trying to pound its way up his throat and out of his mouth to splatter against the floor. When he can’t handle the silence any longer—has to know what sort of reaction Wonwoo has, even if it’s one of anger, one of disgust—Mingyu finally cracks open his eyes to see Wonwoo standing there, staring at him, a look of complete and utter shock on his face.

Mingyu had finally torn down Wonwoo’s mask, in its entirety.

Wonwoo’s face, so used to keeping everything buried under covers, is now a confusing myriad of emotions, one after another, dancing in the light of his eyes. Suspicion—disbelief—hope—happiness—elation—sadness—back to disbelief. His eyes are wide, mouth parted slightly as if he wants to speak but nothing is coming out. This is Jeon Wonwoo, stripped bare past skin and muscles and nerves and down to his very bones, no walls to hide behind, no mask to seek comfort in. This is Wonwoo and everything that makes him Wonwoo, makes him a boy-almost-a-man, a friend, a son, a human, and it’s so beautiful Mingyu thinks his heart might give out and stop right here and now.

“What are you trying to say?” Wonwoo finally asks. His voice is shaky like it was the night Mingyu first asked if he could kiss him, deep and raspy with emotion.

“I’m saying—” Mingyu’s voice breaks, but he ignores the mortification and rushes forward without stopping, “I’m saying that I don’t really know what’s going on, either. I’m fucking confused as hell. I think I’m still straight, but—but—you. This sort of thing. I’ve had girlfriends, I know what it’s like to like someone a whole fucking lot. And that’s the feeling I get for you. The same kind. Even if you’re not a girl, that’s—that’s what I feel. I don’t want to pretend it’s not there.”

He ends his shitty heartfelt confession as lamely as any unplanned confession could ever be and decides on shrinking into himself in embarrassment and just end it all. Just move on into the afterlife, Kim Mingyu, you’ll never fuck up as badly as you did today. Why does he sound so emotionally constipated at such an important time, why?

When Wonwoo doesn’t say anything, just stares at him, Mingyu fidgets and finally bursts out, “If you fucking listen to me spill my guts out like that and then say some bullshit about how I’m, like, “confused” or “faking it” or whatever, I will actually punch you in the face. In the middle of the library. I’d do it, bro.”

This, finally, gets Wonwoo to react. He cracks a small smile, slowly crawling back in on himself once more. But not all the way. Maybe he didn’t mean to, but he leaves a part of his walls down, enough for Mingyu to see through it, enough that Mingyu doesn’t have to analyze every small detail of his features to get an idea of his emotions. “Sorry,” he says, slowly, softly. “I was just … shocked. I was overthinking a lot of things, then … I wasn’t sure what to say.”

Mingyu scowls, his face so hot he’s sure he could probably fry an egg off of it. “What do you even have to overthink?” he whines. “It’s a simple yes or no question. Can I kiss you, yes or no?”

Wonwoo thinks it over. “No.”

Mingyu’s face falls. “No?” he repeats in a small voice.

Wonwoo smiles. It’s wavering and nervous, hopeful but not too hopeful in case what he wants is snatched right before his eyes. But it’s one of Wonwoo’s real smiles nonetheless. “Not in the library. This is one of the least romantic spots I’ve ever seen in my life.”

Mingyu can’t believe what he’s hearing.

“And not right now,” Wonwoo continues, in a hushed whisper. “I need to concentrate on finals, and you do too. Let’s, um, get back to this subject when second semester starts, alright?”

“Are you serious?” Something hot and bubbly is surging its way up Mingyu’s chest and throat, until he feels lightheaded. He’s faintly aware that he has a big, dumb, goofy smile on his face stretching ear to ear, but he can’t fight it down if he tried. “Bruh, you can’t be playing with me. You promise, after finals, right?”

Wonwoo is looking at him with something almost like bewildered amusement in his eyes—as if he can’t believe Mingyu actually wants to kiss him, can’t believe he’s actually fidgety with anticipation like a dog wanting to go on a walk at the chance to do so. “Work hard on your finals, Mingyu.”

“How am I supposed to concentrate on studying after this happened?” Mingyu whines. “Can’t I at least get a kiss for good luck?”

“You can get a kiss for getting over eighty percent in all your grades.” Wonwoo pauses. “I can’t believe I just said that. I can’t believe I’m bribing a straight boy with kisses. This is a new low. What has become of me.”

“I know, you’re the worst,” Mingyu says, feeling ridiculously giggly. Wonwoo lightly shoves him, before turning back to glance through the spaces between shelves.

“The librarians are getting suspicious. We should probably split.”

“Yeah, alright.” Mingyu doesn’t want to split, though. He wants to stand here for the rest of his life, for all of eternity, staring at Wonwoo and remembering the look on Wonwoo’s face and the way his eyes sparkled when he agreed to kiss him, thinking about what that might mean, what that means Wonwoo might feel for him.

But Wonwoo does leave, saunters out of the aisle as though nothing had happened, checks out his book, and leaves the library. Mingyu has to stand there, staring at the space Wonwoo had previously occupied, for several more minutes before he’s composed enough to leave too.

 

A little over two weeks later, February and the second semester of senior year starts and Mingyu feels happier than he’s had in months. It’s the kind of feeling he had as a child and it was the morning of a school field trip, or the night before Christmas, or when his parents took him to Disneyland and he’d be squirming in the backseat of the car and going all fluttery with excitement. This is the sort of emotion that most people lose when they get older, when the joy of small things lost their magic, but Mingyu feels it now, can feel it rushing through his veins from his chest to his arms to the very tips of his fingers.

Seungcheol and Jihoon have no idea why he’s so excited. They tease him a little at first, but it’s hard to fully make fun of Mingyu when he takes any joke about him with a loud laugh and then immediately falls back into a state of daydreaming euphoria.

“What, is it because Valentine’s Day is in two weeks?” Seungcheol guesses, grinning fondly at his friend and reaching up to ruffle his mop of brown hair, as the school bell rings and they walk to class together. “Man, you need to do something about that swelled head of yours.”

“Ahh, shut up,” Mingyu says cheerfully. It’s as good an excuse as any, because Mingyu does actually like Valentine’s Day. It may be a douche move to say, but Mingyu loves the feeling of high-school-food-chain superiority when the student council visits each class and Mingyu gets a veritable armful of chocolate-covered strawberries and candygrams and pink heart-shaped cards from friends and admirers.

They enter the classroom and Mingyu’s heart instantly jumps up and lodges somewhere near his Adam’s apple when he sees Wonwoo reading at his desk. It’s finally here. A whole semester of trying to figure out his feelings and Mingyu telling himself to fuck it all and just go for it, and now he can finally do … whatever with Wonwoo, kissing or something, whatever his confused emotions are telling him to do to quell the monster raging in his chest.

To his confusion, however, Wonwoo doesn’t smile or say hi, show that anything is any different than before. He doesn’t even look up from his book to greet him.

Jihoon snickers quietly behind Mingyu, his voice emerging from somewhere below Mingyu’s shoulders. “Looks like your dare isn’t going too well.”

Right. That’s right. The dare. Mingyu swallows down spit, throat suddenly bone-dry. “Maybe,” he mumbles, downtrodden, as he slumps his way up towards his seat. Wonwoo doesn’t so much as glance at him. He’s instantly crushed. Maybe what he thought was a positive response to his confession was actually a rejection and Wonwoo was actually brushing him off, the way people in high school often avoid confessions. I want to focus on my schoolwork right now, wait until after exams. Oh, wait, you’re still serious? Yeah, ha ha, I was hoping you’d lose all hope in me because I don’t actually want to date you but I was too nice to say no at first! Jokes on you!

Seungcheol and Jihoon give each other confused, “what-is-wrong-with-this-kid-now” glances when they see Mingyu slump forward in his seat with a depressed groan, suddenly sulky. He remains moody for the rest of the day, no matter what his two best friends do to try and bring his spirits back up again. Not even Seungcheol offering him the entire platter of his cafeteria mac and cheese can make him crack a smile again—although he does take all the mac and cheese.

After school ends, Mingyu gives some shitty excuse to his friends and runs off in search of Wonwoo. He’s not willing to spend the rest of the year wallowing in self-pity and second guesses, so there’s no beating around the bush; he has to find Wonwoo and get some answers out of him. He’s not in the library, nor in the computer lab, or really anywhere for that matter. Did he already go home? Does he not want to face Mingyu that much?

In a last-ditch effort, Mingyu runs to the side of the school near the music hallway, where he and Wonwoo had eaten lunch together so many times before last semester, but there’s nobody there. He feels the nauseating slick of anxiety crawl up his spine again. He fucked up. Did he fuck something up? Did he ruin everything? Should he have stayed quiet, kept his feelings buried, will Wonwoo never talk to him again? There are too many options, too many factors to consider. He hates it, he hates not having just a clear-cut direction showing him what’s happening and where to go, a sign that tells him hey, this is the way towards a great future where you have lots of friends and nobody ever hates you!

Fuck me.”

“What?”

He jumps and turns around to see Wonwoo behind him, looking a little out of breath. Mingyu makes a weird, garbled noise in his throat, before saying a little more eloquently, “Uh, hey, I was looking for you.”

Wonwoo gives him a little half-smile, not one of the real ones he normally gives him, and Mingyu immediately thinks everything is ruined. “I was looking for you too,” he says, slowly. “I guess we’ve been running all over the school and just missing each other.”

“Oh,” Mingyu says. There’s not much else he thinks he can say. Everything is sticking to the roof of his mouth like peanut butter.

“Um, listen. I’m sorry for not saying anything to you. Or whatever. In class.” Wonwoo’s eyes are very firmly staring at the snow-covered bare trees behind Mingyu and not Mingyu himself. His ears are as pink as the Valentine’s Day decorations the student council put up in the halls way too early. “I was nervous. And I thought that if I looked at you, it would, um, show. On my face.”

“Oh.”

“Sorry.”

“Oh.” Mingyu shakes himself out of his dumb stupor. “I-I mean, no! No, it’s my fault. Um.”

They lapse into the heavy, embarrassed silence that sits between two naïve teenagers who like each other more than they can say out loud and don’t quite know what to do with it. It’s almost torture, but Mingyu strangely likes it. All of his jumpy nerves and scared thoughts are gone now, everything makes sense. Wonwoo wasn’t avoiding him or brushing him off—he’s nervous. He’s just as nervous and embarrassed and shy and confused about this as Mingyu is.

This situation is just so ridiculous, Mingyu starts to laugh. Wonwoo stares at him in mild confusion.

“We’re a bunch of idiots, aren’t we?” he says, giggling. “Freaking out so much about this. We’re the most clichéd of all cliché teen high school romance movies.”

It takes a few seconds, but Wonwoo’s lips curl up and he lets out a weak laugh. “Yeah. The most clichéd idiots in all of teen drama history.”

“Worse than Romeo and Juliet?”

“Juliet was thirteen, and within the three days they knew each other, six people died, including themselves.” Wonwoo smirks. “To be fair, we could probably do worse.”

Mingyu grins back at him. “I thought that the play was about, like, the danger of holding grudges or something. And that Romeo and Juliet were destined to die because that was the only way the two families could end their feud or something that’s supposed to be tragically romantic.”

“Since when were you a Shakespearean expert?”

“You know, Sparknotes and stuff. Also, I do sometimes happen to listen to the teacher in class, just FYI.”

“You’re always so full of surprises.” Wonwoo looks down at his snow-scuffed winter boots, then looks back up at Mingyu with something almost like hesitance, almost like determination. “Are you still hung up about a kiss?”

A couple of organ systems in his body feel like they’ve stopped right in their tracks. “Yes!” Mingyu bursts out excitedly, then remembers that he’s seventeen and has kissed plenty of people in his life and this isn’t something he should be getting excited over. “Um, I mean, yes, a kiss would be really nice. Wait. Oh, no, shit, wait, I forgot. We can’t, you said that I had to—I didn’t score eighty in all my grades.”

Wonwoo’s face looks serious, but his lips are twitching. “Oh, no, what a shame. What did you do badly on?”

“Biology. I just can’t remember all those amino acids and shit.” Disappointment twists into the knobs in his spine. Why is Wonwoo just standing there smiling? Mingyu isn’t smiling, that’s for sure. This is a goddamn travesty, a highway robbery, an unfair suspension snatched out of the jaws of justice. Mingyu thinks it’s entirely unfair that a kiss from a boy he likes should depend on something as stupid as a Biology final.

“Guess it can’t be helped. What was your final grade?”

“Seventy-tw—”

Wonwoo leans forward and carefully presses his lips against Mingyu’s.

The world falls silent.

The interaction lasts less than two seconds, but in Mingyu’s head time stretches along for hours, days, forever, infinitely. He’s dimly aware that he should probably kiss him back, but before his body can respond, it’s already over. It had really only been a peck, after all, as shy and chaste as anything, yet all the air in Mingyu’s lungs has escaped him and he can feel a hot, itchy flush burn through his skin and sear the flesh of his cheeks, as if he had just emerged from the most intense teen make out sesh of all time. Wonwoo is looking a little breathless too, staring at him in shock as though even he can’t believe he just did that.

“Holy shit,” Mingyu finally says, sucking in a lungful of oxygen to try and lower his blush so he doesn’t look like an idiot who’s never kissed someone before. He never expected a guy’s lips to feel just as soft as a girl’s.

Wonwoo lets out a tiny exhale-laugh. “Um. Yeah. Holy shit.”

“But I didn’t score above eighty.”

“That was just an incentive to try and get you to study hard for your finals. I was going to kiss you anyway.”

Nice. Can we do that again?”

Wonwoo’s torso twists so he can look over his shoulder. “I don’t know. The vice-principal usually makes his way through here for a smoke break and to get to his car. We might get—”

Get caught. That’s right. What they’re doing right now, it’s something they have to keep to themselves, hide away from the rest. Mingyu feels an odd weight in his stomach thinking about that, remembering that he can’t sit next to Wonwoo in the classroom at lunch and hold his hand or kiss his cheek like he’s done countless times before with previous girlfriends.

But no. No, this is okay. This’ll be fine. Mingyu can have Wonwoo all to himself. It’ll be their little secret, just the two of them, and maybe, just maybe, when they leave this small-minded, unchanging place and go off to college, the near and so uncertain future, things will be different.

“Can I at least hold your hand?” Mingyu whines like a kid, stretching out one of his long arms.

Wonwoo looks over his shoulder again and bites his lip, looking unsure. Once he’s positive that absolutely no one was around to witness the two of them, he reaches out and grasps Mingyu’s hand, fingers clasping around each other.

Mingyu slowly moves their intertwined hands around, marvelling at the contrast they make with each other. Wonwoo’s hand is several shades lighter, fingers long and square. Mingyu likes them, likes the callouses he can feel along the finger pads, likes how this small detail, left unnoticed by so many, provides such insight into Wonwoo’s life and his story. He probably got them from playing guitar. Can he play, or is he still learning? What songs does he know? Does he sing them? What does he sound like when he sings?

He wants to know. He wants to know everything.

“I think I’m in trouble,” Mingyu says without thinking, thumb rubbing slow circles into one of Wonwoo’s knuckles and smiling when he realizes that this is something he can actually do now instead of just thinking about it.

“Why so?” Wonwoo’s eyes and mouth are soft as he watches Mingyu, an expression Mingyu’s only seen once, during winter break when they went to his house after skating. As if doing this, holding hands, is something that makes Wonwoo feel at home.

“Because, like—” Mingyu’s free hand flaps around to gesticulate. “I keep finding more and more little things about you that I like. And the more things I find, the more I want to know. The more I know about you, the more I like you, and the more I try to find new things about you. It’s, like, a vicious cycle or something.”

“And what brought this on?”

“Your callouses. Guitar, right?”

“Yeah.”

“Do you play?”

“Been learning since the sixth grade.”

“What can you play?”

By now, Mingyu thinks Wonwoo should be getting tired of him and his incessant questions. Yet, he doesn’t—has never been impatient with him. Whether Mingyu’s drunk or simply running his motor mouth again, Wonwoo has never looked annoyed or gave him a curt answer. He may be bemused, sure, but never irritable, and always answers honestly.

“A little bit of classical stuff, you know, finger-style pieces. I’ve been learning some old rock and blues stuff, too.”

“Do you know any songs? Like, songs you can sing?”

“Of course.”

“Can you sing them for me?”

Wonwoo laughs and squeezes his fingers before letting go. Mingyu’s hand falls like a dead weight back to his side, feeling empty. “Next time,” he promises.

Not his ever-present “maybe”. This time, it’s a continuation. A “next time”.

They say their goodbyes and head their separate ways towards home before the vice principal can come barging in. Mingyu’s only halfway to his house when he can’t take it anymore and sends Wonwoo a text demanding that he sing a song for him. Wonwoo responds with a voice message, rough with white noise, of him snickering and calling Mingyu “spoiled” and then humming a few bars of a song he can’t recall at the moment. It’s good enough for him. Mingyu presses his phone to his ear and replays the voice message again and again—trying to pick apart the notes Wonwoo’s humming, the way his face must have looked when he huffed out that small laugh in the very beginning of the message—until he reaches his front door.

 

On Valentine’s Day, Mingyu gets his usual tiny mountain of chocolates and candygrams. Everyone whoops and lets out obnoxious little “ooh”s, as his friends try and take a peek at whose names are signed onto the labels wrapped around each treat. Seungcheol gets slightly more than Mingyu, as usual, and just like every year Mingyu accuses him of using his powers as student council president to get more candies than he should. And, as usual, everyone is surprised at the amount Jihoon gets, considering he never dates or flirts with any girls and is a living, breathing, real-life prime example of the old saying “it’s better to be feared than to be loved”. As usual, Seungcheol gets huffy and demands to know why anyone would like Jihoon enough to give him chocolates, and, as usual, he’s immediately countered with a “not everybody thinks Mister SC-Prez- With-Teeth-Like-a-Toothpaste-Commercial is the hottest thing since sliced bread, Cheol, fuck off”.

Wonwoo, as usual, doesn’t get anything. But, under the pretense of needing to go to the bathroom, Mingyu passes by his desk on his way out the door and drops one of the cheap, heart-shaped milk chocolates bought bulk from the dollar store into his lap. Wonwoo has better self-control than Mingyu ever will and doesn’t react, but Mingyu catches him carefully unwrapping the chocolate’s shiny red foil underneath his desk, and his eyes are smiling.

 

“Is it hard?” Mingyu asks. “Not, you know, telling people you’re gay.”

The two of them are in Vinca Park, empty now that the skating rink is gone and therefore parents have no incentive to bring their kids out into the pre-spring March chill. They monopolize the two swings on the playground but don’t do much swinging, instead just sitting there and talking as Mingyu’s butt slowly grows increasingly more uncomfortable. Swings just weren’t made for people as big as him.

“I told you, didn’t I?” Wonwoo counters, avoiding the question.

“You know what I mean. You’re not, like, deep in the closet or whatever. But you aren’t exactly going around with a megaphone yelling ‘I’m gay!’ down the halls, either.”

Wonwoo pauses to think about this, one hand shoved into his parka pocket and the other wrapped tightly around Mingyu’s own hand. He never initiates the action, but he smiles every time Mingyu does and doesn't ever let go. “I guess so,” he finally says. “I’ve been doing it for so long I almost forgot that it sucks living like this.”

“When did you first find out that you were gay?”

Wonwoo shrugs. “Dunno. Grade … five, maybe? I never had any precocious child crushes on any of the girls, and I would always get this weird uncomfortable feeling when adults do that stupid ‘oh, you must like her’ spiel. Then one day my parents left the TV on, and it was this talk show, and they were interviewing a gay man. I can’t remember what they were saying, but I just remember standing there and listening to him talk about what it’s like to be gay and just thinking, ‘oh’.”

“‘Oh’?”

“Yeah. I think for some people, they may be born liking same-sex people, or maybe they grew up and started liking them later. I don’t know which one I am, but I just remember getting this ‘oh’ feeling. Like, oh, this makes so much sense. Like, oh, so that’s who I am. It’s like cleaning your room when you were a kid and finding a toy under your bed that you’ve been missing for months. You probably forgot all about it, but when you find it again you still get so relieved that you got it. It still feels right to, you know, have it. That’s how it felt for me, anyway.”

Mingyu’s boot traces meaningless patterns and shapes into the snow piled up beneath his feet. “How can I explain myself, then? I don’t know if I feel that way. I never got that ‘oh’ feeling.” He pauses, then hastily adds, “But I do like you! I’m not denying any of that! I just mean, y’know, I’ve been straight all this time. I don’t have that ‘oh’ feeling.”

“It’s different for everyone,” Wonwoo reassures him, and Mingyu is relieved to see that he doesn’t look upset. “I mean, sexuality is such a dumb thing to impose rigid rules on. Maybe everyone is a little gay.”

Mingyu laughs. “Maybe. Kind of like how people always have those same-sex celebrity crushes, or one of those if-I-had-to-pick-a-dude moments?”

“Sure.”

“I can see that happening.” They sit there in happy silence for a few minutes. The world is so quiet, as if it’s just the two of them, sitting and holding hands, and nothing else in this universe can stop them. Eventually, Mingyu grows curious again. “Did you tell your parents?”

“I have a feeling they’ve always known. I worked up the courage in about eighth grade or so. Just, one day when we were sitting down to dinner, I blurted out, ‘Yeah, so I like men’. I’ve seen the shows, I’ve heard the stories; I knew what could have happened to me if they didn’t take my announcement well. But I’m pretty close with my parents, and I couldn’t imagine lying to them about it, so I had to grit my teeth and just do it. Instead of being shocked or angry, they hugged me and told me that they love me no matter who I love.” Wonwoo pauses and laughs a little. “I don’t think I’ve ever cried harder than I did that day.”

“Aw. That’s so nice.” Mingyu squeezes his fingers. “I’m real happy for you.”

Wonwoo smiles at him. He’s been giving Mingyu a lot more real smiles lately, soft and probably just as gooey and gross as the ones Mingyu gives him. “Thanks.”

“Do you think we can …?”

He laughs, but out of reflex, Wonwoo looks around to scan the empty park first, before turning back to Mingyu, eyes shining in amusement. “You’ve been greedy for kisses lately.”

He’s always been greedy. It’s just that it’s only recently he finally gathered enough courage to voice his greed, no longer terrified that Wonwoo will reject him. “What can I say? You’re a good kisser.”

“Ha. That is most definitely a heavily biased opinion on your part.” But Wonwoo is leaning forwards anyway, eyelids fluttering shut. Mingyu’s heart jumps up into his throat, the way it does every time he kisses Wonwoo, but forces his eyes to stay open as long as possible. The exact moment before their lips connect is the most vulnerable Wonwoo becomes, and Mingyu selfishly loves seeing how beautiful he looks in that split second, open and trusting, and it’s as if he walked into an art gallery and saw the one single painting—aged a hundred lifetimes, a preservation of the life and history of an artist a little closer to gods than most, a story bottled up and kept within the confines of a single beautifully painted mortal—that makes his insides fall quiet and his heart feel older.

Wonwoo kisses him, and Mingyu kisses him back.

To use a worn-out simile that’s been used a thousand times before, kissing someone you like very much is like being in an amusement park. There are twists and turns, the sudden drops that shake your heart, the fireworks and the dizzying sensation of being at the very top of a Ferris wheel and looking down at the world that’s melted into a sea of lights and nothing else. But more than that, it’s the sensation of going home afterwards, of resting your tired head against something or someone comfortable and staring out the window, a heady mix of exhaustion and pleasure soaking into the marrow of your bones as you replay the memories of the day in your head. It’s the feeling of having so much fun it almost feels like it was just a dream, that no human being could ever feel this complete. It’s the feeling of being so happy you wish you never had to leave.

This is the feeling Mingyu has when he kisses Wonwoo. Not the twists and drops and fireworks, but the feeling of sleepy, dream-like nostalgia, of happiness so acute it weighs down his bones and almost feels like sadness.

When Wonwoo finally pulls away, it’s a slow, gradual thing, pulling off a bandage slowly so it doesn’t hurt as much. Mingyu blinks rapidly, lips tingling.

“Stop grinning so much,” Wonwoo says, cheeks pink, “it’s embarrassing.”

“I’m not,” Mingyu says, even though he is. His cheeks are sore from smiling so hard, but he can’t stop.

Wonwoo gives him a fond look. “You really are insufferable.”

He still doesn’t know what that’s supposed to mean, but Mingyu doesn’t care. “If I’m really so insufferable, maybe you should kiss me again to shut me up.”

“That sounds like an awful idea.” But Wonwoo does, again and again, and Mingyu feels like maybe everything is going to work out after all.

Chapter Text

Around the second week of March, the weather finally starts getting warmer. The snow melts, sending the streets into a muddy, sloshy mess that somehow always manages to worm its way into Mingyu’s shoes and drench his socks. The clouds part, showing blue skies for the first time in months, and with it comes a change amongst the senior class of Hysera Secondary Public School. In most cultures, spring signifies a new beginning—the growth of new leaves, flowers poking their way through the dirt, baby animals being born—but for the senior year students, it signifies both a beginning and an end. Their four-year sentence as high schoolers is almost over.

Mingyu realizes this for the first time when Jihoon shows him the letter he received in the mail.

“Holy shit,” he says. “So this is what an acceptance letter looks like.”

“I know. Holy shit.” Jihoon is uncharacteristically docile today, his dark eyes normally sharp with sleep deprivation, anti-social tendencies, and a generally crabby disposition now softened with happiness. He can’t stop staring at the letter, printed on slim white paper with the third-best university in the country’s official logo stamped right in the corner. Mingyu and Seungcheol have read and reread the letter a dozen times already, but Mingyu can’t stop glazing his eyes over the first few words in particular.

Dear Lee Jihoon, we are delighted to accept your application to the Life Sciences program in …

“Early acceptance,” Seungcheol says, leaning over to ruffle Jihoon’s hair like a proud father, something that normally ends in a death sentence. Instead, Jihoon is grinning, flashing canine teeth as sharp as Mingyu’s but without any of his usual characteristic Lee Jihoon bite, and he’s so pleased he doesn’t even slap Seungcheol’s hand away or curse him out. “Knew you had it in you, genius,” Seungcheol adds, and Jihoon’s smile grows even wider until his cheeks are slightly flushed and his eyes are bright and not a single inch of him looks sharp at all.

“That’s one out of three, then,” Jihoon says. Mingyu’s never seen him so purely, unironically delighted before; just witnessing it makes him want to smile, too. “You two fuckers better keep your grades up and show me matching letters in May, you hear me? Or I’ll kick your ass.”

“Uh, duh,” Mingyu scoffs. “No way we can go to different unis now. We’re in this together, man. It’s ride or die.”

“Gyu said it. We’ve got Jihoon killing Life Sci and me and Mingyu rocking Engineering.” Seungcheol rubs his hands together and grins, like he’s a campy villain from some Saturday morning cartoon show. Instead of looking villainous, however, he looks more like a young boy realizing a new chapter in his life is just beginning, and it will still be fantastic and it will still be with his best friends. “It’s too good to be true. We’ll be the Golden Trio, back at it again.”

Mingyu feels anticipation laced with nerves crawl into the tips of his fingers, make his knees shake. Cheol said it, what Mingyu’s always thought but has never had the confidence to say aloud. They are the Golden Trio. Best friends, together in high school, together in university, together until the end.

Ride or die.

Mingyu wants this so badly he doesn’t even know what he’ll do with himself if this dream doesn’t come true.

“Aw shit, I don’t think I’m studying enough for Calc.”

Jihoon brandishes a pencil threateningly, pointy lead side towards him, and says, “Don’t even think about slacking off like you did with Functions last semester, Gyu. I’ll tutor you if I have to. Twenty dollars an hour, with interest.”

Mingyu snorts and shoves the pencil aside. “Fuck off, I don’t need you to tutor me. I might die before I even get to take the finals.”

“Don’t worry about him, Hoonie,” Seungcheol says with a teasing grin. “He’s getting his boy toy to help him, isn’t he?”

“What?” Mingyu’s smile slips. “The fuck, how’d you—you knew?”

“I saw you two walking home a week or two ago and you were actually carrying your textbooks for once. I can only assume it’s because you’re getting him to tutor you while you’re still doing the dare, right? Unless you’re ditching us and hanging out with him for some other reason?” Seungcheol snorts loudly at the thought. “Are you seducing him?”

Mingyu laughs, slightly weakly, but he doesn’t think they noticed how he tensed up, knees jerking so hard they almost hit the underside of his desk. “Get fucking lost, Cheol. Of course I’m getting him to teach me Calc; what other reason could there be?”

Okay. He only saw them walking home. So Seungcheol didn’t see the way they take a roundabout route most students don’t take to get home, Mingyu impatiently waiting until Hysera was out of sight, out of mind, to grab for Wonwoo’s hand, lace their fingers together like they were meant to be molded into one. So Seungcheol didn’t see the way Wonwoo always looked surprised every single time he did it and had laughed, nose scrunching up, when Mingyu tried to lean in and kiss him and slipped on a patch of mud and nearly brought them both crashing to the ground.

And, well, Seungcheol is right, in a way. Mingyu is getting Wonwoo’s help with Calculus. He’s been going over to Wonwoo’s house two or three times a week, anytime Seungcheol and Jihoon didn’t make plans or Mingyu could find a way out of them, to sit at Wonwoo’s desk in Wonwoo’s bedroom and have the man of the hour himself lean over him to show him how to differentiate some function or other, smelling like clean laundry and the apple granola bars he always makes Mingyu eat as a “healthy brain snack”.

But what Seungcheol doesn’t know is that if Mingyu gets all his homework done that day and answers enough questions right on his own, Wonwoo very willingly lets himself get dragged onto his bed so Mingyu can make out with him, all eager lips and messy hair and clumsy hands too shy to go anywhere lower than the waist.

And if it just so happens that Mingyu doesn’t get any questions right that day? Well, that’s okay. Mingyu finds that in certain circumstances, he can be very persuasive.

 Yeah, Seungcheol and Jihoon are not going to know about that. Not just yet.

“You don’t think he’s going to pull any moves on you or anything, is he?” Seungcheol mock-whispers. “Better watch yourself, Gyu. He lives in a very conservative, heterosexual community. Spent lots of years bottling it in, if you know what I’m saying.” Jihoon makes a sound between a laugh and a cough, and that encouragement spurs Seungcheol on to jokingly add, “Yeah, I’m pretty sure the closeted ones are gonna be the most desperate. Having you in his room is probably a dream come true. He might lose all reason and jump you.”

“Cheollie, just because you’re always horny and desperate doesn’t mean he is, don’t be an asshole,” Mingyu counters smoothly, or as smoothly as he’s able with butterflies in his stomach at the thought of Wonwoo being the one to jump him instead of it being the other way around.

Wonwoo is the physical embodiment of the feeling of getting addicted to drugs or suffering from anxiety—once Mingyu starts thinking about him, it’s hard to stop. As a result, he doesn’t get back on track with whatever his best friends are talking about until Jihoon is shaking him, or rather, digging his fingers painfully into Mingyu’s shoulder and wriggling them in deeper until Mingyu yells and shoves him away.

“Asshole!”

“Pay attention, idiot. We’re asking you a question.”

Mingyu massages his shoulder. “Fuck, fine. Ask away.”

“Do you think Wonwoo watches gay porn?”

Out of everything Mingyu had been expecting, he was not expecting that. His mind splutters and coughs like a dying engine and he chokes on his own spit, heat flaring up into his cheeks. “What?” he asks once he recovers enough, speaking several times louder than is considered an appropriate indoor-voice volume.

Jihoon gives him a look. “Jesus, dude, sorry. I’m just asking a question.”

“What kind of fucking fork in the road-less-traveled-by did our conversation turn down to get to this topic?”

Jihoon rolls his eyes, and Seungcheol jumps in to answer. “Just, you know, since Wonwoo is into guys, he probably wouldn’t watch normal porn, right? So he should watch gay porn, right?”

Mingyu thinks he’s about to have a panic attack. Thanks to his friends being complete assholes, he now has a really great image of Wonwoo playing in his head and it’s suddenly getting very hard to breathe. He babbles without really knowing what he’s saying. “I don’t know, how the fuck would I know? We’re done. I’m not talking about this. Conversation’s over.”

“Okay, fine, holy shit, we’re not questioning you at gunpoint, Gyu. Calm your fucking dick already.”

To Mingyu’s utter horror, he can’t.

 

“You seem a little distracted,” Wonwoo says. “Worried about the Calculus test?”

Mingyu jumps. In a single second, his elbow slips off the edge of Wonwoo’s desk and pitches his head downwards to smash the underside of his chin against the desk surface. He doesn’t even have time to swear.

“Holy shit, Mingyu. You okay?”

All he can spare is a muffled groan of pain, massaging his jaw and checking to see that he still has all of his teeth.

Wonwoo’s bedroom is a surprisingly deep analysis of the character of the boy himself. His walls might have been a pale grey or a morning mist blue, but it’s difficult to tell when almost every inch is covered with pictures. Posters of bands Mingyu both recognizes and doesn’t, magazine cut-outs of movies that came out years ago, internet printouts of black and white paintings and intricate digital designs, and finally, 3B lead pencil drawings Wonwoo might have done himself on thick, creamy artist’s paper, slapped on top of everything else with sticky tack. The windows that overlook the street in front of his house have the curtains drawn, but the lights up on his ceiling are bright enough. His desk is a complete one-eighty from Mingyu’s, which has accumulated so much junk over the years that Mingyu isn’t quite certain it even exists at all. Wonwoo’s desk is spacious and efficient, resembling his own mind, Mingyu supposes. A stack of high school textbooks and sketchbooks are in one corner, a small pot of some nameless green plant in the other.

Despite having his own homework to do, Wonwoo never seems to mind when Mingyu commandeers his desk chair. His room is just small enough that one side of the table is right up to the corner of his bed, and that’s where he sits, the mattress sinking beneath his weight, making do with the small square of desk space he can reach, even though Mingyu always says they can grab a chair from somewhere else in the house and they can sit side by side so Wonwoo has more room.

“Mingyu?”

Wonwoo leans in to see if Mingyu’s dislocated his jaw or something and Mingyu panics, catching a whiff of Wonwoo’s shampoo and spearmint gum and the Tim Hortons coffee he had bought on the way to his house. It’s a gross but surprisingly tantalizing mix. He opens his mouth and word vomit falls out.

“I’m totally fine and I’m definitely not thinking about your dick right now, so stop bringing it up!”

Wonwoo blinks at him, unimpressed. “I’m … not, but okay. Jesus Christ.”

There’s a few minutes of silence, where Wonwoo calmly returns back to his History essay and Mingyu, horrified at his own stupidity, fumbles through a couple of Calculus questions. His mortification dies down enough that he can almost pretend nothing ever happened when Wonwoo finally says, “Why are you thinking about my dick?”

Mingyu’s hand twitches a little too hard, and his mechanical pencil lead snaps in half. “I said I wasn’t,” he hisses, “listen carefully.”

“Uh-huh.” Wonwoo’s not buying it; he’s too observant. He sounds unfairly amused, like he’s humouring Mingyu or something, when he says, “Is this something we should talk about?”

No. God, please, Wonwoo, I’m begging you. Drop it.”

“In all fairness, Mingyu, I really can’t.” Out of the corner of his eyes, Mingyu sees Wonwoo prop himself up with one arm, head tilting slightly as he stares at Mingyu with a surprisingly sly, teasing grin, his smile curling up catlike at the corners. He’s so handsome. Mingyu thinks he might cry. “I promise I won’t judge.”

“You’re already judging, you fucking—” Seeing Wonwoo smile at him like that, though, makes Mingyu falter. He looks away, ears reddening furiously, burns holes into his Calculus homework, and mutters, “Seungcheol asked me today if—if you watch gay porn.”

To his credit, Wonwoo holds back his reaction with admirable force of will, although the corners of his lips do twitch violently. “Okay. And, what? Do you want me to answer that?”

No! Je-sus, please keep your porn viewing habits to yourself. It—it just got me thinking, that’s all. If, um. If stuff like—that—is something we might. Be doing. At some point.” Mingyu buries his face into his hands. “I want to die. Just end my life, please.”

Wonwoo doesn’t answer him, a troubling sign. When Mingyu is brave enough to turn ever so slightly to see why, it’s because Wonwoo is doubled over on the bed in silent laughter, shoulders shaking. If this wasn’t an absolutely horrible, wet-the-bed, call-the-teacher-“mom” level of embarrassment, Mingyu might’ve been proud that he got Jeon Wonwoo to actually laugh this hard.

“I,” Wonwoo gasps out once he’s managed to get his breath back, “never expected a guy like you to be so shy about this.”

“I’m an attention whore, not a whore-whore,” Mingyu clumsily defends, flustered and digging himself into an even deeper hole than before as Wonwoo loses it all over again. “I’ve only ever, you know, gone all the way with a couple girls before, and this is a whole new level of mechanics to deal with—don’t laugh, you asshole, don’t—so excuse-fucking-me if talking to you about this is making me feel embarrassed and all you’re doing is laughing at me—”

“I’m sorry, I’m sorry, don’t be angry.” Wonwoo bites down on his bottom lip to hold back his laughter, and his hand reaches up to brush against Mingyu’s cherry red ears. “I can’t help it; you’re really cute.”

This mollifies Mingyu somewhat. Well, he doesn’t like feeling this freaking embarrassed, or being cute, but at least Wonwoo isn’t disgusted by him for popping the question or anything. And he does like the way Wonwoo is looking at him, so soft and goopy, as if Wonwoo likes the way he’s stumbling over his words and shoving his own fist into his mouth like a tool.

“So—so is this something?” He mumbles hopefully. “That we can try? I mean, have you ever thought about it before, or am I just being weird and overly horny?” It’s all Seungcheol’s fault. Fucking Seungcheol.

Wonwoo’s fingers trail down to trace the sharp curves of Mingyu’s jawline. His fingers are, as usual, icy cold, despite leaving behind the best kind of fire on Mingyu’s skin. It’s rare for Wonwoo to be the first to initiate skinship like this. It’s not that he seems unwilling; on the contrary, whenever Mingyu greedily yanks at Wonwoo’s collar and drags him in for kisses, Wonwoo doesn’t shy away from grabbing the back of his neck almost possessively and kissing him back. It’s more like he’s … indecisive. As though he’s still worried that if he’s the one to reach out first, Mingyu might realize this is all too weird for a straight guy and push him away, might end everything.

So, right now, Mingyu is the one that reaches for his hand first, hugs him first, kisses him first. And Wonwoo immediately reciprocates, but never initiates. It’s the balance, the silent agreement they have reached, and Mingyu is secretly terrified of doing or saying anything that might shift that balance for the worse.

“You’re not being weird,” Wonwoo says, his fingernails lightly scratching at Mingyu’s chin and the corners of his mouth until Mingyu gives him a small smile, which he gently returns. “Not to sound like those patronizing teachers during our sex ed classes in tenth grade, but this is perfectly natural.”  

“Ha. You really do. So—” Mingyu swallows, throat suddenly feeling rather dry, heart pounding until his chest feels tingly and numb. “So you have thought of me—of us—”

The air between them gains a strange new tension. Wonwoo’s grip on his chin tightens imperceptibly, the faintest increase in pressure, and there’s an odd glint in his dark eyes when he says, “I thought I made it clear to you from the beginning that I find you attractive.”

“O—” he gulps again, good god why is Wonwoo looking at him like that why is he feeling so nervous, “—okay, but, like, that doesn’t necessarily mean you’d want to—”

“Mingyu.” Wonwoo has an expression on his face that Mingyu’s never seen before, and Mingyu shivers. He feels so … small. So helpless. Weirdly enough, he’s kind of into it. “I want to.”

His heart jumps into his throat, and when Wonwoo’s eyes flicker down to his lips for a fraction of a second several interested parties on Mingyu’s body cheer in anticipation. “You do?”

“But,” and here, Wonwoo blinks and the gleam in his eyes is suddenly gone, and he’s back to the same old careful, indecisive Wonwoo. He moves his hand from Mingyu’s chin to his head, where he ruffles his hair like he would with a child. “Doing anything like that right now would probably be a mistake.”

“What?” The sudden change in atmosphere between them flusters Mingyu, who’s blinking rapidly and still stuck on the sexual tension from before. Can he call it sexual tension? Was that what it was? Holy shit, he needs to stop overthinking this. This wasn’t so difficult when he dated girls. “Why is that?”

“You know I’m a little older than you, right?”

“Uh-huh.” Mingyu still doesn’t get it, but now that he’s gotten over the initial horror of the conversation and the realization that Wonwoo thinks about him that way too is starting to sink in, he’s starting to feel petulant over why they can’t do any below-the-belt stuff today, right now if possible. “What does that have to do with anything?”

“It means that you, Mingyu, are still seventeen, and you will be until April.” Wonwoo lets out his exhale-laugh, although it sounds a little tight and breathless, and lightly pushes Mingyu away. “I don’t think it’s right to, uh, seduce a minor.”

“Oh.” Mingyu blinks. “Oh. Oh, um, right.” He totally didn’t even think about that. Actually, he didn’t even know Wonwoo was already an adult, already eighteen, that his birthday had already passed. Oh shit, he hopes Wonwoo’s birthday was sometime in January, or else Mingyu will feel like a complete douchebag for not giving him a present.

“So let’s talk about this again when the time comes. Alright?”

“You mean when I’m not jailbait.”

“Um. Yes.”

“Does this mean I’m going to get a booty call when I turn eighteen?”

“Sweet fucking Jesus, please don’t say it like that.” Wonwoo presses his hands into Mingyu’s shoulders and steers him until he’s back to facing the desk, staring at his homework. “Now, drop it and get stuff done. My parents are coming home by six, so if you want time to have a ‘break’ before then …”

“Don’t need to say it twice,” Mingyu quickly says, grabbing his pencil once more. “Um, can you show me how to answer this question? I got lost at the antiderivative and couldn’t figure it out from there.”

Wonwoo smiles at him, something sweet and gentle that makes Mingyu want to kiss him, Calculus be damned. “Move over, then,” he says, shifting as far off the bed as he can manage so he can lean closer and look at the problem.

Mingyu tries his very best to pay attention to what Wonwoo is saying, but it’s incredibly difficult. All he can think about is turning eighteen, and the sudden dizzying, sugar-rush decision that once he’s a legal adult and can take this thing with Wonwoo to the next level, it’ll also be the time he tells Wonwoo that he loves him. Loves him with all the heart-wrenching, single-minded intensity a bumbling, clumsy youth could have—and maybe, just maybe, if he tells him that he loves him, this thing that they have together might last.

 

There is nothing more damning and frustrating than the promise of something that’s unreachable until an exact date, such as most holidays, the premiere of a new season of a favourite TV show, the first day of summer vacation, and, in this case, birthdays.

Mingyu wishes he can just sit and wait for his birthday to roll around and be a legal adult already—not just for the Wonwoo thing, but he’s currently the only seventeen-year-old in the Golden Trio, Seungcheol and Jihoon’s birthdays long since gone and done with, and they won’t stop teasing him about it and trying to get him the kiddy meal every time they go to McDonalds. But unfortunately, the life of a popular athletic high school boy does not let him sit and wait; he has responsibilities.

The Hysera Secondary basketball team has the good fortune of belonging to a public high school that cares more about their boys’ sports teams than absolutely any of the arts. While the theatre club have been using and reusing the same props for years until they’re practically falling apart, and the music kids have been making do with school instruments so worn out finding a clarinet or tuba that’s not dented or scratched to all hell is about as easy as finding a four-leaf clover, the basketball team has never gone without shiny new basketballs every year, constantly-fixed nets, and pizza parties after every game regardless of whether they win or lose.

With Mingyu’s height and muscles, he doesn’t have to necessarily be good at basketball. He just has to stand in front of the net and make sure not a single ball gets past him from the opposing team. Considering he’s known as one of their best players despite still stumbling when dribbling sometimes and his foul shots only have a (optimistically) sixty percent chance of landing, that’s saying something about his natural talent at swatting things out of the air.

However, the end of the year always adds more pressure than the rest of the season: regardless of how well they do in previous games, the last match the team plays before the season is done and the coaches are contractually obligated to let them go so they have time to study for their finals is always the most important. Always.

Similar to how all public schools take Jeopardy games in class way too seriously with an almost frightening intensity, every high school in the district can agree on the importance of the final game of the year.

To his utter horror, Mingyu finds himself spending less and less time at Wonwoo’s house, making out and “studying for Calc” (although those quotation marks are a little unfair since he does, actually, study for Calc, and has really improved a lot since the beginning of the semester). Instead, as they hit the first week of April and exams are only a month away, he spends more time in the gymnasium with the coach and the team, training for the last Big Game.

He loves playing basketball, and he loves the feeling of stopping a ball from scoring and hearing the crowd in the stands shriek his name, but really. The choice between Wonwoo’s clean-but-vibrant bedroom and Wonwoo himself, compared to the painfully annoying squeak of running shoes against gym floors and the overwhelming stench of B.O. and stale sweaty feet in the locker room? Yeah, Mingyu’d still rather take Wonwoo.

Heh. “Take” Wonwoo.

“Kim Mingyu!” the coach shouts, blowing a shrill whistle. “Head out of your ass and back into the game, please!”

“It’s just a practise match between teammates, coach!” Mingyu whines, shaking his head free from distracting thoughts and focusing back on the present. Pierce, currently trying to score, flashes him a cocky grin and wink.

“Well, if this ‘practise match’ has anything to say about your current level of skill, you owe me twenty laps after this is over!”

“Aww, coach!”

“Do you want thirty, Gyu?”

 The rest of the boys chorus out an obnoxious “ooh” at him, and Mingyu flips them all off for their amusement when the coach pretends he has his back turned.

“Listen, Mingyu,” Pierce says when practise is over and they’re all stumbling back to the locker room, “Jared and I are planning the after-game party and we need your input. Do you think Devin’s house is good enough? I mean, he’s got a huge basement and a swimming pool.”

“Not Devin,” Mingyu corrects, “his pool is closed this year and he flirted with the captain’s girlfriend at the last party he hosted. See if John H. can have his parents gone the night of the game, he has a foosball table. Not John S., though, he got grounded two weeks ago so his house is a no-go. Always way too cold in his place, anyway, he doesn’t know how to work his goddamn thermostat.”

“You know your stuff.” Pierce claps him on the back, letting out a low, impressed whistle. Of course he does. Mingyu didn’t get to where he is now without knowing all the latest pointless gossip about the kids that matter. “Knew I could trust you, Gyu. See you tomorrow?”

“Gotta, or the coach will flay my ass.”

“Fuck, he’s such a hardass on you.” The two of them laugh, amiably. The coach is all bark and no bite, and they all know that.

This is the kind of camaraderie that Mingyu likes, is used to. Simple. Superficial. Maintained through careful social discourse and inviting the right people to the right parties. It’s all he’s ever taught himself to do. He changes out of his sweat-soaked gym clothes, feels the sweet soreness of exercise cling right through his muscles and down to his bones, both exhausting and satisfying and empty. What he wouldn’t give to just stand under a steaming hot shower for hours and hours until it melts away.

But everyone knows the showers in a public high school are not to be trusted even with hazmat suits.

After another round of goodbyes to his teammates, he walks out into brilliant sunshine. The first week of April is like a blessing, after so many long months of bleak grey winter. The sky is a vibrant blue with chunky mashed potato clouds, all the trees are budding with little green leaves, and brief splotches of small colourful flowers already dot the front yards of several houses on Mingyu’s walk home. It’s all rather picturesque. Mingyu is no poet, but when he sees tiny violet flowers sprinkle the grass of a nearby home he suddenly has one of those aching, too-old-to-be-contained-inside-a-young-body wishes, that he could find the words to explain the feeling of walking into a new spring.

He’s taking his time walking back. He doesn’t put on his earphones; instead, he listens to the squawks of birds returning home after migration. He relishes the crackle of his sneakers against the sidewalk. He snaps a thin twig off of a nearby hedge and twirls it between his fingers, the broken end a shocking green, fresh on the inside. He doesn’t pretend that this isn’t because of Wonwoo’s influence, that this isn’t what Wonwoo always does, taking his time, listening, watching, appreciating, and now it’s what Mingyu does, too.

Almost as if on cue, he gets a text from Wonwoo, asking about the game.

Mingyu grins stupidly, feeling as though Wonwoo is making a conscious effort to—at the very least—appear interested in what Mingyu does. He appreciates the gesture, as he texts back,

It’s the Friday after my birthday, at six. Do you think you can come and cheer me on? Give me a kiss for good luck?

Not a chance, is the reply, delayed in typical Wonwoo fashion for almost ten minutes, by which time Mingyu has already reached his home, where his mom left an abundance of yellow sticky notes on the fridge instructing him to heat up and eat their leftovers or it’ll go bad and “don’t think I won’t keep you from attending your game to scrub out the fridge if it starts to stink, little man”. And sorry, I can’t make it. Real excuse this time. My dad’s going on a business trip to LA for a few days and my mom’s taking the opportunity to visit some of our relatives in Korea, so I need to help them pack and drive them to the airport and everything.

Mingyu knows Wonwoo well enough by this point to know that Wonwoo’s nothing short of relieved to have a plausible reason to not go. He wouldn’t lie his way out of it—and he knows how much this game means to Mingyu—but he knows that Wonwoo would just feel uncomfortable the entire time he’s sitting on the bleachers, crowded and uncomfortable, as the entire student body that shuns him on a daily basis roars their approval at the select popular few in the match below. This makes it all the more touching, Mingyu thinks, when Wonwoo adds another I’m really sorry text, as though he’s genuinely regretful that he can’t go to support him.

It’s okay, I understand, he responds back, clumsily and with numerous spelling errors due to balancing his phone with one hand, the other elbow-deep in the fridge trying to find a snack. He finds a box of cheese strings hidden behind his mom’s tower of probiotic yoghurt stacked cheerleader-pyramid-style and an expired jug of almond milk, and settles for that. Is it okay if we hold off on our studying sessions until the day after the game? The night of I’ll prob be at a party.

Have fun.

Come as my date.

Don’t slack on your Calculus homework. A few days doesn’t seem like much, but you know how it stacks up.

Come with me to the party.

Have fun, Mingyu.

He knows his half-hearted invitations are just going to get rebuffed each time, so he opts for being the bigger man and ends it with just a heart emoji. Wonwoo takes both a terrifying and a hilariously long time to respond back with a simple, cute hand-holding emoji. Terrifying because nobody wants to wait forever for a response after sending a heart, that’s just intensely uncomfortable, and hilarious because Mingyu knows it’s probably because Wonwoo was flipping through the emoji pages meticulously, clumsily trying to find the best response.

Mingyu sends him a kissy face and Wonwoo responds with a hefty dose of straight-faced sarcasm and a “do your goddamn homework, Kim Mingyu, I’m seriously not kidding”.

 

Mingyu’s birthday passes by with trumpets and parade fanfare and confetti. Okay, not exactly, but it sure feels like it. He walks into Hysera Secondary and finds his locker covered with dollar store streamers, balloons, and photographs of himself with various friends and acquaintances. There is confetti, but it’s on the inside of his locker and falls out in a veritable shower when he opens the door. He laughs along with everyone else, not the least bit annoyed. It must have been Seungcheol and Jihoon, only those assholes know his lock combination.

Speaking of his best friends, they pooled together their money and possibly borrowed from friends to buy him a new phone case (“extra thick so you don’t smash the screen with your stupid fucking butterfingers”, Jihoon says, which is basically him telling Mingyu he loves him) and headphones. Mingyu nearly squeals in delight when he sees the headphones, black and lined with candy apple green and clearly not some cheap no-brand thing.

“Thanks, guys, this is really great,” he says, in an attempt to show them how much he appreciates their gifts.

“Aww, li’l Gyu is all into his feelings.”

“I take it back, you two can suck a thousand dicks.”

They snort and kick him, and it’s everything Mingyu’s ever wanted. He’s so happy.

Even better, Wonwoo texts him that lunch and asks to meet him privately at their usual lunch spot. Mingyu’s heart jumps into his throat. Now that the weather is warm enough for Wonwoo to disappear to the back of the music hallway again, Mingyu’s been meaning to sit with him but has instead been swamped by his teammates, the way they always do before the Big Game. To have Wonwoo invite him over is rare.

He fumbles excuses to his friends and races outside as soon as the lunch bell rings, nervous that they might start looking for him and walk into something they shouldn’t. His fears instantly disappear when he sees Wonwoo sitting on the grass. Instead of being buried in a book, he’s got a wrapped present in his hands, and he looks rather nervous.

“Is that for me?” Mingyu demands the second he falls down to the grass in front of Wonwoo. “Is that my birthday present? Are you going to give me a birthday kiss?” He remembers Wonwoo’s promise. “Are we going to—?”

“Well, not here, Mingyu,” Wonwoo rolls his eyes and hands him the present, “and yes, this is for you.”

Mingyu grins from ear to ear as he turns the present over in his hands. It’s tiny and boxy, covered in leftover Christmas wrapping paper that Wonwoo clearly used only because he ran out of anything else. He had scribbled over all the Christmas ornaments on the print so that they looked like basketballs.

“Ooh! What is it, what is it?” He tears at the paper. “I thought for sure you’d get me a book.”

Wonwoo fidgets uncomfortably. “Didn’t think you’d read it.”

“If you gave it to me, I would’ve.”

Patches of pink bloom in Wonwoo’s cheeks. “Just open it.”

Mingyu does. Underneath the wrapping paper is a small, velvety box, the kind sold in jewelry stores. He turns it over and over in his hands, before looking up at Wonwoo, half-joking and half-serious.

“Are you proposing to me?”

“Mingyu, I swear to god, just—”

He cackles at the wholeheartedly embarrassed look on Wonwoo’s face and opens the box. Nestled into soft blue fabric is a pair of silver stud earrings.

“You were talking about it,” Wonwoo hurriedly says before Mingyu can say anything. “Getting your ears pierced, I mean. You were saying you wanted to do it with Seungcheol and Jihoon once you graduated. Knowing you, you’d end up buying cheap things that would give you ear infections, so I thought that maybe I could—they’re real silver, these earrings, they won’t give you any infections. I don’t know if they’re the style you wanted, but—”

Mingyu nearly flings himself off the grass so he can lean forwards and kiss Wonwoo.

“Mmpfh—Mingyu.” Wonwoo pushes him away and looks around nervously. “I told you we couldn’t—”

“How,” Mingyu demands breathlessly, ignoring him, “could these not be what I wanted? You bought them for me, you heard what I was saying, you were listening to me, I, I lo—” He almost says I love you and bites it back just in time. “I love them.”

“Oh.” Wonwoo is lucky that his shaggy hair hides so much of his ears. What Mingyu can see of them, they look fire-truck red. “Oh. That’s—um. That’s good. I’m glad you liked them.”

“Did they cost you a lot of money? They weren’t too expensive, were they?” Mingyu carefully puts the box inside of his lunch bag so he doesn’t drop it anywhere. “You shouldn’t have gotten them for me if they were expensive.”

“It’s fine, Mingyu.”

“It’s—it’s not, I mean, I didn’t even get you anything for your—I don’t even know when is your birthday.”

A smile manages to sneak its way onto Wonwoo’s face. “It’s in January. We had final exams to study for.”

“That’s not an excuse. You should’ve told me.”

“We weren’t, I mean—” he looks down, “we weren’t … doing this back then. I didn’t think it was necessary.”

Mingyu wonders when the two of them will grow brave enough to actually say the words. He wonders if those words even apply to them. He wonders if this will ever get easier. He grabs fistfuls of grass so he can fight the urge to kiss Wonwoo again, to make it clear to both of them that this is real and so are they.

“Next year,” he says, voice clear and pure and full of youthful conviction, “I’ll buy you a gift. The best gift.”

Wonwoo stares at him for a moment before smiling, the smile that scrunches up his nose and lights up in his eyes.

“Okay.”

 

After weeks of training, blood and sweat and tears and all that shit, it’s over. It’s finally over. Mingyu walks out of the gymnasium basking in the glow of victory, cheers showering him and his teammates from the bleachers. He’s drenched in sweat, has a slight headache, and his muscles are screaming every curse word in their collective vocabulary at him, but his teammates and friends are raining fists onto his back and yelling in his ear, the ceiling is shaking with the echoes of everyone’s howling, and Mingyu’s heart wants to burst out of his chest with the force of his joy. They won. They won, they did it, and this fame is going to carry them through the rest of the year and right to graduation day. Mingyu’s grand exit out of high school has just gotten infinitely, exponentially better.

“You were fucking amazing, Gyu!” Pierce howls as the boys change back into their clothes with pained groans and exhausted, delighted chatter. “You were fucking in it to win it today. That bit in the last five minutes where you wouldn’t let anybody even get near the net, holy shit, bro!”

Mingyu grins widely, ego swollen bigger than his head. “I’m telling you, man, we were all killing it. Fucking great end to the season.”

Fuck yeah. Do you need a ride to the afterparty? I borrowed my bro’s car for today. If you don’t mind being there early while we’re setting up, I can take you there in, like, fifteen minutes.”

He shakes his head and nearly gets his head caught in his shirt as he’s pulling it on. “Don’t worry about me, I’m meeting up with Seungcheol and Jihoon and heading there in maybe an hour.”

“See you then, kid.”

He grabs his gym bag and races out of the locker room, worried to keep his friends waiting for too long. There are still people milling around the hallways against the wishes of all the supervising teachers, and they crowd around him to congratulate the team. Mingyu greets them all with the graciousness of a king amongst his subjects, and it takes him a while to slide away without looking rude.

The front foyer of the school is full of students and supportive parents, but not the assured broad shoulders of Seungcheol or the bubble gum pink hair of Jihoon. Mingyu looks around as best as he can, then takes a quick walk on his aching, sore feet throughout the hallways to see if they might be hanging around a water fountain or something. Then he ignores the slight cramp in his left calf muscle and paces around the hallways again in case he missed them the first time.

After a little over ten minutes of fruitless searching, the crowds thinning out until there aren’t that many kids left, Mingyu has to come to the unfortunate, upsetting conclusion that Seungcheol and Jihoon aren’t here.

Biting back a curse, he scrambles for his phone and calls Seungcheol (not Jihoon, because he never answers calls).

“Dude,” he says the second Seungcheol picks up, trying to keep his voice neutral and not at all irritated, “where the fuck are you guys? Are you outside?”

“What?” Seungcheol asks, sounding distracted and muffled.

“I said, where the fuck are you guys? You’re still in Hysera, right?”

“Oh. Fuck, Gyu, no. We … we aren’t.”

“What?” Something in the tone of Seungcheol’s voice sours in Mingyu’s mind, crawling deep into the pit of his stomach and settling there like thick poison. “What do you mean?” The pipes and vents in the walls around him suddenly clank and hum, louder than usual without the normal thunder of feet and voices of students walking up and down the halls. It sounds ominous, like opening a book and finding out that the first words are “it was a dark and stormy night”. “Weren’t you guys at the game?”

“Listen, dude.” Seungcheol is speaking fast, embarrassed. “Something came up, like, literally right before the game. Jihoon got his Chemistry marks back from his last test, he totally bombed it, he called me freaking the fuck out and you know Jihoon never freaks out. He thought they might take away his early acceptance. I had to stay with him, you know, tell him they won’t kick him out for this, make sure he was okay.”

Mingyu doesn’t say anything for a long time.

“So,” he says, slowly, aware that his voice is audibly shaking, audibly weak and vulnerable, “so, you guys missed the game.”

“We did. Bro, I’m sorry.”

“So, u-um, so—” he licks his dry lips and watches the ceiling lights spin above him, harsh and ugly. “You guys. Didn’t show up. At all.” The glory rush of the game is completely gone now, puffed out like a candle but without the trail of smoke from the wick to prove it ever even existed. He fights back shivers, feeling cold and clammy all over, but they keep coming until they feel more like he’s convulsing. “Even though you knew I’ve been working on this for weeks. And that this was really big for me. A-and Jihoon freaking out about something that’s not even our final exams, was more—more—you guys couldn’t even come to, t-to—”

“Gyu, I’m sorry, I really am. We both are. But he was freaking out, I had to stay and—”

“He was freaking out for a full ninety minutes?”

Seungcheol doesn’t answer that.

Mingyu lets out a slow, shuddering breath. “Yeah,” he mutters. For a split second, he blinks and sees the self-righteous slope of his father’s back as he walks down the driveway to his car, carrying a suitcase and not looking back. “Yeah, I thought so.”

Then he hangs up.

For a long moment, he just stands there, alone in the cold, empty hallway of his high school, and feels his heart beat faster and faster and sicker and sicker, until his stomach is crawling with worms and he’s nauseous and shivering and breathing way too fast and he’s not quite sure if he’s even alive anymore, if he’s a real person and not just a tightly-twisted bundle of nerves ready to snap. And suddenly he’s terrified, terrified and angry and heartbroken because nobody came for him, his mom is too busy and Wonwoo didn’t come and his fucking asshole of a dad obviously isn’t there and now even Seungcheol and Jihoon aren’t there and this is too much, this is all too much, and he doesn’t want to be here anymore. He doesn’t want to be anywhere.

Wonwoo.

He wants to be with Wonwoo.

Without even thinking about it, he runs back to the front foyer and outside into the evening air. The freshness does nothing to make him feel better, the sun doesn’t warm his skin. Instead, it just makes him feel sicker. He lets his muscle memory take him where he needs to go, feet pounding on the sidewalk as he races down the familiar streets that lead to Wonwoo’s townhouse.

He almost cries when he sees Wonwoo open the door after he pounds his fist against the doorbell, looking so soft and beautiful and calm in a loose sweater, hair falling into his eyes. It’s like coming home.

“Mingyu? What happened?” Wonwoo sees the utter emptiness, complete devastation, on Mingyu’s face, and his expression immediately contorts into concern. “What’s wrong?”

“Wonwoo,” he breathes. A small part of him comes to its senses and realizes that this is probably super weird, so he awkwardly says, “Hey.”

“Mingyu, what’s wrong?” Wonwoo takes a step outside, as if to get closer to him, then looks around at the evening street. It’s still light out, the sky an ugly Sunny-D orange with the setting sun. People are out on walks, jogging or holding young children’s hands or getting pulled along by dogs, now that the weather is warmer and the sun has set low enough to be hidden behind houses and trees. “Hey, come inside, alright?”

Mingyu stumbles into the familiarity of Wonwoo’s home, quiet and peaceful and feeling so far away from everybody else in this world, everyone else who hurts him. “I didn’t think you’d be home right now,” he says softly, kicking off his sneakers.

“Just got back from the airport fifteen minutes ago,” Wonwoo says in a distracted manner. “That’s not important. Mingyu, what happened? Is it the game?”

“No.” In the safety of the house, away from disapproving eyes and malicious gossip, Mingyu can lie to himself and pretend to be brave. He reaches for Wonwoo and clings to him, buries his nose into his shoulder as if his scent can fix the way his shoulders are shaking. But even hugging Wonwoo isn’t fixing the queasiness rotting through his insides. “We won. It was great.”

“Okay. That’s good, Mingyu. Congratulations. That’s really great.” Wonwoo rubs soothing circles into his back. Mingyu hears a trace of something odd in Wonwoo’s deep tone, but he’s not quite sure what it is. It sounds like fear, but that wouldn’t make any sense. “Wasn’t there supposed to be an afterparty? Did something happen at the party?”

“No.” He had completely forgotten about the party. The thought of going sickens him. “I didn’t go. Can we go upstairs? Please?”

“Sure. Sure, Mingyu, of course we can.” Wonwoo keeps an arm around Mingyu, protectively around his waist as though he thinks Mingyu might collapse, as they head up to Wonwoo’s bedroom. Mingyu falls face-first onto his bed the second they get there, resting his cheek against the soft, laundered blankets. They smell like Wonwoo, just a little bit, and it’s so comforting. So natural. So simple.

“My muscles hurt,” Mingyu whimpers.

Wonwoo carefully lies down next to him, on his back, face turned to look at him with the same quiet concern that makes Mingyu’s heart break because at this point, he’s not sure if he’s even worth it for Wonwoo. “Is that why you’re so upset?”

“No.” and before he can bite back his words, they start pouring out of him. “They left me again. They fucking left me. They knew—they knew how important this was to me, they’ve always known, they’ve gone to all my games. And this one? This one, the most important one of all? They don’t even show up, because—because—”

“Mingyu,” Wonwoo says in alarm, and Mingyu realizes it’s because he’s suddenly crying. Big, ugly sobs wracking through his chest, tearing through bone, salty tears dripping down and staining Wonwoo’s blanket. Mingyu curls into himself from the force of his heaving and wishes feelings were a thing that didn't happen to him. Wonwoo stares at him in sheer terror, utterly lost about what to do.

“He’s always going to choose Jihoon over me,” Mingyu can hear himself choke out, practically unintelligible in between the wet sobs bubbling out of his throat and burning his mouth. “We’re best friends, but we’re not. Buh-because they’re always, always going to puh-pri-prioritize each other over me. I’m a fucking idiot for even thinking they wouldn’t.”

“Mingyu,” Wonwoo says, eyes wide. He sounds like he’s pleading, shaky fingers reaching out to run through his hair, wipe at the tears that aren’t stopping. “Mingyu, please. What do I do. Please, tell me what I can do to help you.”

“Nobody fucking cares, Won—Wonwoo. That’s how it’s always gonna be. I try so fuh-fucking hard, but nobody will ever care. There will always be someone else, there will always be someone more. I keep trying and I’m tired. I’m so tired.”

“Mingyu, fuck.” Wonwoo slides over and wraps Mingyu into a hug. The angles are all wrong, his limbs are all awkward, but he manages to pull Mingyu until his head is tucked against his chest and he can run his fingers through Mingyu’s hair properly. “You’re gonna be okay, alright?” From here, Mingyu can feel more than hear the rumble of Wonwoo’s gravelly voice through his chest, like a purring cat. “You’re gonna be fucking okay.”

Mingyu cries himself empty all over Wonwoo, and Wonwoo holds him, until eventually Mingyu’s all cried out and he feels gross and snotty and crusty. He wriggles free (Wonwoo’s hands tighten for a moment before letting him go) and grabs for the box of tissues by the side of his bed.

“Sorry,” he mumbles, quiet and drained, as he blows his nose. “I don’t, um, I just—thank you.”

“Of course,” Wonwoo says, sounding choked up and strangely lost. “C’mere.”

Mingyu throws away the used tissues and, sniffling but pleased, crawls back into Wonwoo’s arms. He fits there, he thinks, like a puzzle piece. He doesn’t like how scared and unsure of himself Wonwoo was, as though he was terrified of Mingyu and terrified that he couldn’t do anything to help him, but he likes how affectionate Wonwoo is right now. How his arms wrap as tight as they can around him and how he shifts them around gently so his lips can press against Mingyu’s puffy, red eyelids, kiss at the dried tear tracks staining his skin.

“I don’t know what to do,” Wonwoo admits softly. “I don’t know what to say.”

He already did everything. Mingyu wants to tell him that, wants to tell him that just being there, holding him, kissing him, has already done so much more for Mingyu than either of them ever expected. But he can’t get the words out, can’t get the powerful, aching feeling inside of him manifest itself into words that Wonwoo can understand, so instead, Mingyu says, “I want my birthday present.”

Wonwoo looks at him. “I already gave you your—”

“Not that one.” Mingyu sniffles a little and clings to the front of Wonwoo’s T-shirt. He feels young and helpless, scared of growing up, scared of remaining a child forever. Scared of the world and what is waiting for him. He doesn't want to be scared anymore. “I want the other one.”

“Oh. Oh.” Wonwoo visibly swallows, his Adam’s apple bobbing. Mingyu watches the action, transfixed, and then traces it with his fingers. “Are you sure?" Wonwoo's fingers smooth away his hair, then stroke at his cheek, then move to his arms, as though unsure of themselves. “Emotionally, you’re not in a really good place right now, I wouldn’t want you to—”

“Please.” Mingyu rubs his thumb against a vein along the side of Wonwoo’s neck and feels his pulse jump and stutter. “I won’t regret it. I just want to feel good. You make me feel good. Please, Wonwoo?”

He closes his eyes and sucks in a quick breath, resolve crumbling right before Mingyu’s eyes. “Okay,” he says, so quietly it almost didn’t exist, and then a second time, louder, “Okay.”

He leans in to kiss Mingyu, Mingyu pressing in closer, greedily, with a sigh of relief. His hands rest around Mingyu’s waist for a moment, rubbing reassuring circles into his hipbones (Mingyu isn’t sure who he’s trying to reassure, Mingyu or himself), before trailing lower, and lower, and lower.

 

What might have been a few minutes or hours or days later, the two of them rest side by side, in each other’s arms again. The nerves beneath Mingyu’s skin are all buzzing, sparking and alive, and he tiredly smiles where his face is buried into the crook of Wonwoo’s neck.

“Thanks,” he says, because he’s not quite sure what else to say. It sounds weird to be thanking him, though, sounds almost clinical.

Wonwoo laughs, weakly and breathlessly. “No regrets?”

“None whatsoever.” Mingyu can feel the I love you at the tip of his tongue, just waiting to fall out.

Before he can say it, Wonwoo shifts in his arms and says, in a different tone altogether, “Why didn’t they come to watch your game?”

“I don’t know,” Mingyu says after a long, careful deliberation. “Jihoon bombed a test and was scared they were gonna take away his early acceptance. Seungcheol stayed behind to comfort him.” Now that he’s no longer hyperventilating, Mingyu is suddenly unsure if his anger was something his friends deserved. He may not know Jihoon as well as Seungcheol does, but he still knows Jihoon. Lee Jihoon doesn’t panic, doesn’t freak out. He glowers and snarls when he’s angry, shuts in on himself when he’s upset, and barks out unapologetic laughter in all the moments before and after and in-between. Seungcheol isn’t great at explaining things, perhaps he downplayed how badly Jihoon was feeling. Maybe if Mingyu had seen him, he would’ve understood. “I probably just overreacted, like I always do.”

“No, you didn’t.” Wonwoo’s hands squeeze for a moment. He sounds disapproving, but it’s not directed towards Mingyu. “They knew this was important to you. It shouldn’t have taken over an hour to comfort a friend and then catch the last bit of your game.”

Mingyu worries his bottom lip between his teeth, still unsure. “If I was a good friend, I would understand, wouldn’t I? I mean, I freak out all the time.”

“If they were good friends,” Wonwoo says, and his voice is tight and irritated when he says it, “they would’ve tried their very best to get there in time to support you.”

Mingyu can’t answer that.

The time to confess his love is gone now. From what Mingyu can see of Wonwoo’s face, he looks contemplative and lost in thought, the twist of his mouth indicating that he’s still affected by what Mingyu had told him. Mingyu isn’t sure how to make it better, so he nuzzles back into the warm, comforting curve of Wonwoo’s shoulder and just breathes, nice and slow and steady, and doesn’t think about anything for a good, long while.

 

 

Chapter Text

May brings flowers in full bloom, colourful bouquets and honeybees. May brings insects that swarm on the hottest days and try to crawl up Mingyu’s nose. May brings everyone one step closer to final exams and the end of high school. May brings Mingyu to Wonwoo’s comfortably air-conditioned house, going over not just Calculus but also his Social Studies, and his Physics, and his Advanced History. All the courses he’s taking this semester to get him that boost in his average so his entrance into university becomes an utter certainty.

Mingyu thought it was impossible to love Wonwoo more than he already did, but May proves him wrong. He gets to see Wonwoo muffling swear words when he sits outside for lunch in the heat, sweat forming his hair into clumps that he pushes away from his face, revealing an open forehead and strong, sure eyebrows that make Mingyu’s pulse do double-dutch against the skin of his throat. He gets to see Wonwoo sit as still as possible in the hopes of attracting a butterfly to sit on his waiting finger without much success. He gets to see Wonwoo smile more, and give him more exhale-laughs, and he gets to see Wonwoo look more animated than Mingyu’s ever seen when he talks about the vegetable garden he had been growing in the backyard and how he’s never seen tomatoes grow on an actual vine before.

Mingyu gets to see more new sides to Wonwoo, more than he could hope for, and he wonders if this is how it’s always going to be. New sides of Wonwoo with each passing season. A quiet, contemplative autumn. A warm, forgiving winter. A nervous, hopeful spring. A happy, painless summer.

He wants to see everything.

The end of lunch approaches and Mingyu reluctantly gets up and stretches, brushing blades of grass and dirt off of his cargo shorts. “I’ll head back first,” he says, by which he means he’ll go first so it’s not too obvious to the rest of the school that he was with Wonwoo all lunch period. Wonwoo nods as if he understands. Maybe he actually does. “Seungcheol was telling me that—what’s with that face?”

Wonwoo blinks at him. “What face?”

He’s not playing dumb, not really. Wonwoo’s expression really hadn’t changed. It was completely blank, totally stoic. And that’s how Mingyu knew something was wrong. Wonwoo isn’t expressionless and muted around Mingyu anymore, doesn’t put his emotions through a filter and behind a translucent glass so it comes out murky and unrecognizable. Not with Mingyu.

“Is it Seungcheol?” Mingyu guesses, and Wonwoo pulling back into himself even further answers his own question for him. “You’re still, uh, mad at him about … that?”

A muscle twitches in Wonwoo’s jaw, like he’s clenching it. “A little,” he says vaguely, by which he means not a little and very definitely a lot.

The day after the Big Game, on Saturday, Mingyu met up with Seungcheol and Jihoon and they both apologized profusely, tubs of Mingyu’s favourite cookies ‘n’ cream ice cream and tickets to the arcade in their hands. Seungcheol had looked genuinely ashamed and Jihoon even let Mingyu put his arm around his shoulders and ruffle his hair the entire time, something that normally ends in curse words and sharp arm pinches. Mingyu had forgiven them both instantly. Of course he would. What else can he do?

Wonwoo, however, hadn’t.

As the days rolled by, it became very apparent to Mingyu that Wonwoo was really, really pissed off at what happened. When Mingyu tried to clumsily explain that it didn’t really matter, Mingyu was just overreacting, and his best friends were both really sorry and already made it up to him, Wonwoo had just shrugged it off and then changed the subject until eventually Mingyu was forced to drop it.

It's already halfway through the third week of May, the prospect of final exams so close Mingyu can almost taste it, acid-bittersweet on the sides of his tongue, and Wonwoo still hasn’t shown any signs of letting up. He’s not the type to let Mingyu know about his anger, but the fact that he turns practically to stone every time Mingyu mentions either Seungcheol or Jihoon’s name is a pretty clear indication that he hasn’t forgotten the way Mingyu looked when he ran to his house that night.

Mingyu feels a strangeness in his intestinal region every time this happens, like something is sharp, somehow, like there’s edges to catch. It’s the same feeling he had a year ago when Jihoon really, really disliked his new girlfriend for reasons he can’t even conjure up anymore. It’s the sick and slightly nauseous feeling of knowing that separate people who both mattered to him were not getting along and that eventually he was going to have to choose. This is the feeling he’s been getting recently, although it’s easy for him to forget about it and bury it deep within the dark reaches of his brain, distracted by his best friends and their outings and Wonwoo and his smiles and kisses.

Eventually, he knows, this is going to collide head-on. If Mingyu wants this to last for a good long while, possibly years, it can’t be kept a secret. He knows this, and he mentally kicks himself for continuing to do it anyways. Whether he’s … gay, or straight, or whatever the fuck, it doesn’t matter. Seungcheol and Jihoon deserve to know. His mom deserves to know. Wonwoo deserves better than to be kept hidden inside a dark closet like he’s Mingyu’s shameful secret, and Mingyu will be damned if they keep doing it like this for years and years to come until Mingyu marries some homely girl just to keep the façade going and Wonwoo becomes his bit on the side he sees behind his wife’s back (okay, a bit melodramatic, but hey, it could happen). Wonwoo doesn’t deserve to be a bit on the side. He deserves someone who can be proud to hold his hand in public, fuck the people who judge them.

And Mingyu tells himself, talks himself into it, works himself up to it, that someday—definitely not now, maybe not until graduation, maybe not until he starts his first year at university—he will become that person who deserves Wonwoo.

“I told you before, i-it’s really not a big deal,” Mingyu stammers out weakly, unsure of how to make everything okay. “Friends can’t always be there for each other.”

Wonwoo hesitates, then looks around carefully before reaching out and petting Mingyu’s head, a firm calloused palm pressing softly against his hair until Mingyu wants to purr. He smiles, as golden as the sun above them, and Mingyu’s heart tries to burst out of his chest.

“I understand,” he says, and even though his warm smile makes Mingyu let his guard down he’s still not sure if he really does get it. “You’re right. It’s not a big deal.”

The bell signalling the end of lunch rings out, surprising both of them, and Wonwoo drops his hand back to his side like it had been burned, like the bell was trying to shout out their secret to the rest of the school. He takes a slow breath, and doesn’t look at Mingyu when he picks up his backpack and says, “It’s not a big deal at all.”

 

Two days later, the entire school has a fire drill.

There’s something about fire drills and lockdown practices that is just incredibly exciting to students, no matter whether they’re in sixth grade or twelfth grade. It must be the jarring suddenness of the bell, even if you know about the drill beforehand, the way it interrupts boring lessons and makes everything so different and unfamiliar and strange, for just a brief moment. It’s probably the way lockdown drills make students shriek in pretend-fear and crawl under tables or press up against walls, smothering giggles with their friends as they sit in the dark. It’s the way fire drills create a sense of mass organized chaos, as students leave their classes and pour out of the doors in small hordes, out onto the grass in the school grounds until the drill is over and they have to walk back inside and go back to reality.

When Mingyu was younger, he remembers the delight of following his teacher and the rest of the class outside, where all the kids had to line up according to their classes so the teacher could take attendance. At the time, he didn’t have friends to search for and wave at from other classes, he didn’t have anyone to joke around and roughhouse with until the teacher yelled for them to stand still or so help me, I’m putting one of you in the back of the line. He remembers the days where it was raining hard and just about everybody forgot to bring umbrellas, and they all went back to class soaking wet. He remembers the days in the winter where they were taking PE classes and everyone shivered and whined in their gym clothes and yelled about child cruelty.

In high school, teachers finally assume that kids are smart enough to know how to get back to their own classes once the drill is over, so students are free to wander around and clump together with their friends and people from every other grade or class until the drill is done. Mingyu finds his basketball buddies, Pierce and Jared and John H., and ditches Seungcheol and Jihoon for a bit to chat with them, until he excuses himself to go find his friends again.

He tries to hunt down Jihoon most of all. He may be a little short, but bubblegum-pink hair is surprisingly very easy to spot in a crowd. And of course, if he finds Jihoon, he finds Seungcheol.

Eventually, after wandering towards the wide grassy field used for soccer matches, Mingyu sees an odd group of people clumping around one of the goalposts. It’s not that people gathered there is odd, it’s the fact that they aren’t scattered every which way, but all facing inwards. As though they are all crowding around something and watching. And as he looks, more and more people are joining the group, curiosity causing them to melt into the sea of heads and get in on the action.

Mingyu, being tall and strong and well-known by the other students, is able to easily squeeze and elbow his way through the crowd. Everyone is whispering excitedly to each other, buzzing like swarms of insects, all too quiet and too numerous for Mingyu to make out any distinct, individual words.

What he sees when he breaks out into the very center, however, makes his blood turn to ice and stop him in his tracks.

The center of the crowd, the stadium if you will, is a big, loose circle of grass, as though everybody in the front had known instinctively to not press too close, to not interrupt the show. Leaning against the fat off-white goalpost that got caught in the center is Seungcheol, Jihoon right next to him. The two of them are staring in undisguised shock at, of all fucking people, Jeon Wonwoo. Jeon Wonwoo is standing a couple of feet away from them, his expression dark and unidentifiable, and Mingyu realizes he had apparently just missed Wonwoo walking up to the student council president and his best friend and saying something so surprising that it made them stop and stare.

And judging by the rapidly darkening look on Seungcheol’s face and the grim, twisted line of Wonwoo’s mouth, Mingyu immediately learns that whatever Wonwoo said, it had not been anything nice.

It takes Seungcheol a long time to gather his thoughts and give them a voice, but when he does speak, he isn’t the carefree, universally-liked SC prez of Hysera Secondary, all lazy tousled hair and loose, cheerful smiles. His voice is low and irritable, and rough in the way Mingyu’s only heard twice, both during his sophomore year. The first time was when he was backing up a snarling Jihoon from some seniors who thought his small stature made him an easy target to bully. The second time was when Seungcheol was defending Mingyu in the second floor boy's bathroom from the same bullheaded seniors, which later led to them speaking to each other for the first time and Mingyu becoming his friend. One of his best friends.

“Okay, no offense, buddy, but who the hell do you think you are?”

Mingyu flinches like he was the one Seungcheol is hissing at.

“Nobody,” Wonwoo says, eyes dark pools of ink. He’s not backing away from Seungcheol’s almost intimidating glower; in fact, he’s responding back in kind, abandoning his usual school slouch to stand straight and tall. If he was any closer to Seungcheol, it would have been made even more obvious that he’s got several centimetres over him. “Nobody at all.”

“Then where do you think you get off telling me—”

“I just think that you should be a little nicer to your ‘best friends’.” At this point, both parties notice Mingyu is also here, standing dumbly in the circle with them. His eyes flicker just once in Mingyu’s direction, but his expression is as coldly neutral as ever. Mingyu stands there, frozen, not even daring to breathe. He can’t comprehend what’s happening; he doesn’t know how to fix the situation. The entire field has gone almost silent by now, a portion of the school and most of the senior class crowding and watching in interest as the school outcast who’s never spoken a word to anyone before tells off the student council president. It’s like watching Netflix for free. “That’s all.”

Seungcheol still looks a little bewildered and defensive, but his initial shock is completely gone now, and he’s now settling into angry disbelief, into complete and utter displeasure. His expression is just as stony as Wonwoo’s. That’s not good.

Wonwoo keeps talking. He looks almost aloof, but Mingyu sees the way his hands are clenched into ghost-white fists by his sides, pressed hard into the material of his jeans so they won’t shake and give him away. “If you actually gave two shits about Mingyu, maybe you’d work a little harder to treat him better. But you don’t really give a crap about him, do you? If you had to pick between Mingyu and him—” he jerks his head towards Jihoon, who’s standing there in silence; he’s definitely pissed off, judging by the way he's glowering at Wonwoo from beneath the bangs of his pink hair, but he seems to have noticed that it’s Seungcheol who Wonwoo is aiming at, and so he bites his tongue and holds himself back, “—you’d ditch Mingyu every single time, wouldn’t you?”

“What the fuck gave you the idea that you can come up to me and tell me I don’t know my own best friends?” Seungcheol snaps. Mingyu tries to speak up, realizing that this is just going to get uglier if he doesn’t step in now, but his mind is blank. No words come out, and when he tries to move, he realizes his legs are trembling and his feet are rooted deep into the ground like weeds. “You’ve never spoken to me fucking once in these four years, so why are you acting like you’re the king of this goddamn castle and preaching at me about shit you aren’t even a part of?”

“You knew that the game was important to Mingyu,” Wonwoo retorts, louder than Mingyu’s ever heard him speak until he’s fairly certain that Jeon Wonwoo might be yelling. “You knew it mattered to him, you knew he worked like crazy for it, and you don’t even show up. That doesn’t sound like something a ‘best friend’ would do to me.” Seungcheol opens his mouth, but Wonwoo doesn’t let him speak. His words fall out faster, harsher, until he sounds almost like that moment back in winter break when Mingyu was drunk. That time feels like a decade ago, a long-lost memory. “All he wants is validation, you fucking asshole. He just wants to know that you guys care about him and appreciate him, and you can’t even do that right. Is that how you’re going to be, all the way through university? You and Lee Jihoon do whatever you fucking want and leave Mingyu behind, throwing him a bone every now and then so he keeps forgiving you for making him feel like shit, so he keeps coming back?”

There’s a silence so cold and deadly after Wonwoo finishes his outburst, it’s like standing in a graveyard in the thick of winter. For a split second, it feels as though everyone watching is holding their breath.

“Oh. I see how it is.” Seungcheol’s eyes narrow dangerously, and when he breaks out into a smile with no real humour or affection Mingyu feels a cold sweat break out all the way down his back. “You like him.”

Wonwoo’s jaw twitches a little, but he makes no other reaction. “We were talking about—”

Seungcheol interrupts him. That brief moment of hesitation in Wonwoo from hearing those words spoken aloud in front of so many people had given Seungcheol the advantage, the control over the entire situation. And he mercilessly plows through. “You like Mingyu. You have a big, gay crush on Kim fucking Mingyu. Go on. Look me in the eyes and tell me I’m wrong.”

Wonwoo doesn’t say a word, but his own heart, softened from months of kisses and lingering touches and the hope that things always get better, betrays him. He can’t stop his expression from contorting slightly and giving away all the answers. The students all start buzzing to each other, gnats and flies swimming around and around to relate the news to kids further in the back that might have missed the drama.

Mingyu watches helplessly as, within two minutes, the entire senior year learned that the rumours were true and Jeon Wonwoo really was gay.

“Well, at least this is over.” Seungcheol is still pissed. Mingyu can see a vein jumping near Seungcheol’s temple as he turns around and gestures to him. “C’mon, Gyu, it’s over. You won. Time to tie up loose ends.”

He can’t think, can’t speak. When he finally opens his mouth, it feels dry as sandpaper. “Wuh-what?”

Jihoon walks up to him and snaps his fingers under Mingyu’s nose. “Stop daydreaming and get with the program, kid. It’s only fair that you don’t keep leading Wonwoo on, right?”

When Mingyu just stares at him, uncomprehending, Jihoon rolls his eyes and leans forward to whisper, “Be nice and do the right thing, idiot. Wonwoo’s on Cheol’s shit list now, the least you can do is tell that guy the truth. Don’t leave him hanging.”

Do the right thing.

Do the right thing?

Mingyu thinks he might throw up, right then and there, all over the grass and his Puma sneakers. This has to just be a bad dream, this can’t be happening, this couldn’t happen. Things were going so well, he finally promised himself to be better, he was going to become a better person, he was finally feeling so hopeful, so happy

When the ground starts swaying below him, he forces his head to look back up and realizes the feeling he’s had for the past few weeks is coming true. It’s time to make a choice. It’s like in video games, where you have to make the key decision to choose between playing as a good guy or a bad guy. Hero or infamy. Paragon or renegade. Wonwoo or Seungcheol and Jihoon. The guy he loves or the best friends he can’t bear to leave behind.

Eyes start to train on Mingyu now, as the onlookers begin to realize that Seungcheol and Jihoon are waiting for Mingyu to say something to Wonwoo, that he’s the one the loser gay kid has a crush on and he’s also a part of this drama’s equation. The whispers grow louder with each passing moment. The rumour mill is beginning to turn its ugly wheels.

Mingyu’s hands clench into fists, his palms sweaty and clammy. He’s only dimly aware that his breathing is coming out in short, weak pants, that the crowd surrounding them is stealing all the oxygen in the air and giving Mingyu nothing, dragging him on empty. If Mingyu defends Wonwoo, everyone and their fucking mother will know by the end of the day that Mingyu likes him, that Mingyu likes boys, fuck, this wasn’t how he wanted people to know, what will his mother say, will she hate him, will she send him to some sort of therapy or kick him out of the house, god fucking shit, what will anyone say, what will Cheol and Hoonie say?

If Mingyu says nothing, though, the rumours will spread anyway. And he might lose both Wonwoo and Seungcheol and Jihoon’s friendship.

If Mingyu does anything, makes any move at all, he’s going to lose some of the people that are most important to him. There’s no way for him to compromise, to get the best of both. He has to choose one and abandon the other, and he realizes with horror and self-disgust that a part of him already knows which side to choose.

The cold, rational part of his brain is taking over, and the nasty voice in his head that he’s managed to squash down for most of the semester is back, comes back to whisper in his ear and ruin everything and make him feel sick and ugly like always. Okay, Mingyu, you have two options. You can push Wonwoo away and go back to normal, pretend nothing ever happened. Or, you can support Wonwoo and lose everything. Your friends, your family, your community, the future university life you’ve been dreaming of. Your life will be ruined.

Shut up, shut up shut up shut up shut up, Mingyu thinks desperately. He’s not that awful of a human being, he’s not, he can’t make a choice like this …

The choice is easy, dipshit. Shove everything into a deep, dark hole. Feel nothing. Take your feelings and put them in a nice fuckin’ coffin and bury it into the dirt.

I love Wonwoo. I love him, I love him, I love him—

Love won’t do shit. Do you want to go back to the way things used to be? A pathetic, fucking loser who nobody liked, nobody cared about, nobody wanted to be friends with? A piece of fucking garbage whose own dad didn’t love him enough to want to stick around? Everyone leaves you, Kim Mingyu, don’t you remember that? Abandon everyone who’ll drag you back down to that hellhole of a pit, hook your fingers into the ground to stay on top, the way you’ve always done. Save yourself and be happy.

Mingyu’s mouth is moving before his brain can even realize what he’s saying. “It was a dare.”

The students fall silent again.

It’s an out-of-body experience. Mingyu feels like he’s watching this whole scene unfold from somewhere else, watching his body and mouth do things he doesn’t mean to do. He feels a cruel smile twist its way into his features as he says, louder now, so everyone can hear, “It was all a dare, Wonwoo. Cheol dared me to get the school’s token gay kid to fall for me. Took me long enough, too.”

Wonwoo is staring at him, stone-faced and expressionless. Mingyu is glad for it, glad that they’re both so, so similar. Wonwoo doesn’t let himself look sad or heartbroken, doesn’t let anyone get the satisfaction. He knows how to shut everything off and go on autopilot, let it all wash over him so the pain ends faster.

Just like Mingyu.

The two really are alike, except for the fact that Mingyu is a piece of shit and Wonwoo was the best thing that ever happened to him and Wonwoo doesn’t deserve any of this.

That’s enough, don’t say anything more. The damage is done.

Not yet, the hysterical, awful voice in the back of his head wails. You have to make absolutely sure—make sure that no one thinks you’re gay, make sure that no rumours can spread from this, that everyone knows—

“You didn’t really think that I—come on, dude.” Mingyu laughs, a hideous sound that grates like knives against the insides of his throat until he thinks he might cough up blood. He hates this. He hates everyone. He hates himself. Fuck, he hates himself so fucking much.

It comes to him like a dark, insane moment of euphoria. That’s it, he realizes, that’s the truth of the matter. All this time he’s been wandering around in circles wondering why he never had any friends when he was a kid, why his dad left him, why he gets so hysterical and anxious over such stupid things, why he gets so twisted up inside over whether people like him or not, and in the end, this is the real answer. It’s because he hates himself, a hatred that melts his flesh and burns him raw right to the very core of his lonely, desperate existence. He hates how cowardly he is, he hates living inside of his own disgusting skin. He just wants everything to end, the world to swallow him up and end his life, end everything.

“As if,” he says, and his voice sounds so hollow, so dead, even while an ugly laugh claws out of him once more. “It was all a game we were playing, okay?”

What is the look on Wonwoo’s face? It’s back to square one, the very first time when Seungcheol dared him to go up and ask Wonwoo if he’s gay and Wonwoo had been the strangest, most captivating, most endearing enigma of all time because Mingyu could never decipher his thoughts. He’s right back to square one and he’s lost his ability to understand the feelings behind Wonwoo’s mask. Just hate me already, please, just end it and let him hate me, I deserve it—

“As if I could ever—” Wonwoo, oh god, I really do love you, I’m so fucking sorry “—like a guy. Jesus, I’m not a fucking homo.”

As if it’s a curtain closing on the end of a play, the school bell rings, signalling that the fire drill is over.

The hum and buzz of conversation is back in full force, thousands of vicious teenage bees stinging and poisoning the air, relaying what Mingyu said in wicked delight. Whatever Wonwoo must be feeling doesn’t matter to any of them because who cares about him, right? Kim Mingyu’s been leading him on all year because of a dare, how funny is that? Jeon Wonwoo must be such an idiot, isn’t it obvious someone like Mingyu wouldn’t even give him the time of day otherwise? What a loser, how could he not have noticed?

By the time everyone is sitting in their seats and the excitement of a fire drill is finally over and classes resume like normal, not a single person in Hysera Secondary has missed what had happened.

“God, I’m glad that’s over,” Seungcheol grumbles. He still looks a little pissed, but he’s not an angry person by nature and the whole encounter had taken a lot out of him. His shoulders are slumped and he looks a little drained as he rests his head against the surface of his desk.

“It’s been a while since you lost your cool,” Jihoon notes, outrageously calm. He’s so used to blowing a fuse that it’s as though he wasn’t mad only a couple minutes ago. “Did what he say really get under your skin?”

“Of course! He fucking has the gall to tell me how I treat my—of course I give two shits about Mingyu! Gyu is one of my best fucking friends, who does he think he is to say that I don’t—” Seungcheol breaks off in frustration, before finally grabbing Mingyu’s shoulder and saying, “Dude, you don’t think that dickbag is right, do you? You’re my best friend, bro. You know that, don’t you?”

Normally, he’d be ecstatic that Seungcheol is saying this to him. ‘Validating’ him, according to Wonwoo. He’d normally be over the fucking moon.

Mingyu just feels numb. He doesn’t care. He doesn’t remember or care about what Wonwoo said, or even what Seungcheol said, because in the end, Seungcheol’s not the asshole that broke a boy’s heart and dragged the school loser in the dirt in front of the whole goddamn school, revealing his sexuality and making him the target of sneers and derision for the very last bit of his senior year of high school. It’s Mingyu. Mingyu’s the asshole who did that.

He forces himself to smile hollowly and mutters out a, “Yeah, I don’t know what he’s even thinking.”

All he can think about is the blank look on Wonwoo’s face when Mingyu exposed and humiliated him in front of everyone. The way Wonwoo just shut in on himself when Mingyu said it was a dare.

All he can think about is that the boy he wanted a kiss from so badly, the boy who had a smile that could make the whole world feel okay and had a touch that seared Mingyu’s skin and made him feel alive, hates him now. Jeon Wonwoo is currently sitting in the back of the classroom, behind him, forced to sit through the rest of school with a broken heart and his secret exposed before their entire neighbourhood.

And Mingyu will never, ever forgive himself or be forgiven for what he did.

 

May is ugly. May is too hot and makes Mingyu sweat too much. May has way too many insects and Mingyu wishes he can just crush them all beneath his fists the way he wants to crush himself. All the lunches his mom haphazardly piles into a bag for him taste fucking awful and the arcade has no a/c and all the parties his friends are madly hosting before it’s time to study for finals are dull and boring. The same goddamn people he’s grown up with for years, the same songs that play on Top 40 radio and the same shitty-tasting beer and the same big, rich houses with the same pools and the same video games on giant widescreen TVs.

He thought June might make things better, but it doesn’t. June just adds the stress of exams to even hotter weather, and when Mingyu is finally allowed to make the excuse that he needs to study in order to get away from everybody he’s suddenly sick of seeing and have blissful hours in peace, he finds that he can’t study a single thing. The words all swim in front of his eyes, and the more he sits there trying to go over derivatives or calculate a Physics question the more he’s reminded of going over these problems with Wonwoo, and that makes him sick to his stomach and miserable and he can’t study anymore.

Mingyu is a fucking mess.

He does his best to hide it, because the last thing he needs is one of his friends or whatever the fuck they are to get suspicious, but he thinks Seungcheol and Jihoon might be able to tell. Of course they can. They’ve hung around Mingyu for three years, and they know when he’s not into something. And sometimes he can see the confusion on their faces, because Mingyu isn't into anything anymore. And he’s trying, god is he trying to pretend nothing is wrong, but every time they go to the arcade, or go out to eat noodles, or play video games, or basically just do whatever they’ve always done, it feels hollow, a worn-out old shell of the way things used to be.

The one lucky thing for Wonwoo about his secret being exposed to the world is that he’s a senior and he’s the school outcast. The younger grades can’t really go after him, in the way that seniors are almost untouchable especially near the end of the year, and he never had any friends to lose. The sneers and whispers and awful, dirty jokes directed his way can’t bother him, because it’s been something he’s been dealing with all four years of high school.

Mingyu wants people to stop looking at him like he’s a circus act or a sinner. He wants to shove aside the people who make homophobic jokes at him and tell them to shut the fuck up or he will make them regret being born with a mouth at all. He wants Wonwoo to know that there are people who still care about him.

But he’s not ‘people’. He’s Mingyu. He’s the one that fell in love with Wonwoo and made him believe that the world could be a good place after all and then destroyed them both to save his own hideous, worthless skin. Wonwoo wouldn’t want to know he still has Mingyu in his corner.

But he misses him. Mingyu misses him so much. He misses how quiet the world feels when he’s by his side. He misses the way Wonwoo smiles, the way his nose crinkles when he laughs. He misses the quiet, steady timbre of Wonwoo’s voice, and how even though he was always so nervous to hold his hand in public places when nobody is around, his hand still felt so sure against his, fingers wrapped tightly around him as though he never wants to let go.

And nobody had ever really listened to him the way Wonwoo did, Mingyu gets that now. Nobody had told him his darkest fears and his anxious thoughts were important, that they mattered. Nobody had ever seen him at his ugliest and worst, crying or drunk or losing it over something small and stupid, and had held him like he was precious.

And now it’s gone. It’s all gone. Mingyu’s going off to university with Seungcheol and Jihoon and Wonwoo is going off to some college Mingyu can’t even be bothered to remember the name of anymore, and it’s all going to be over. It’ll be like the past few months hadn’t even happened. And Mingyu knows this, knows that it’ll all be easier if he can just forget about it and move on, but it’s so so so much harder than he expected it to be.

Time ticks by, slowly and sadly, until Mingyu suddenly finds himself sitting at his very first final exam and he can’t even remember how he got there. He picks up his pencil and stares dumbly at the questions in front of him. He’s dimly aware that he had worked so hard for these exams all semester, recalls a vague notion that he desperately wanted to improve so he can for sure get accepted into university, but that desire feels so hollow and pointless inside of him right now.

He reads through the Calculus questions and thinks of how Wonwoo had so patiently and diligently helped him through all of these, and then he thinks about how numb he feels inside, and then he thinks about how nice it would be to just stop existing. To just lay down on the ground and stop breathing and then he wouldn’t have to think about anything.

In the end, Mingyu answers all the questions, but he can’t remember anything he put down.

 

The last day of exams marks the end of high school. Seniors burst through the doors of Hysera and out into the grass, whooping and cheering. It’s over, it’s all over, all they have to do is enjoy their last summer vacation before becoming a university student or wait for their universities to accept them once they receive their very last report card. It’s a momentous occasion, a day to remember.

Seungcheol and Jihoon are excited beyond belief, unapologetically loud as they laugh and reminisce about the “good ol’ days”. Mingyu smiles along with them until it’s too painful to stretch his lips, and watches as they tear up their old notebooks and papers that had accumulated throughout the year. They insist that setting it on fire would be the most appropriate way to end senior year, but since none of them have a lighter, they settle for just shredding everything to prime satisfaction and then tossing it into the nearest metal garbage can.

Mingyu doesn’t join them. He had seen the back of Wonwoo making his way home, as slow and calm as ever, and he couldn’t look away even when Wonwoo had turned a corner and disappeared from sight.

“We gotta celebrate!” Seungcheol howls. “C’mon, I’m itching to do something. Arcade? Movies? Hey, let’s get our swimsuits and go to the public pool! There’s this girl I met at a party a couple weeks ago who works as a lifeguard there.”

“Of course,” Jihoon rolls his eyes with a smirk, “should’ve known. Hey, Mingyu, should we go by your house first, or mine?”

He jumps and blinks at them. “Um, what?”

Jihoon frowns. “Weren’t you listening? Pay attention, bro. Swimming. Public pool. Drop by your place first or mine?”

“Oh. Um.” Mingyu looks down at the ground. He doesn’t want to go swimming. He’s suddenly very, very afraid of drowning. “I don’t think I can. Sorry, guys, I’m exhausted. I’m probably just gonna go home and crash.”

“What?” Seungcheol whines. “Dude, come on, we just finished high school. Starting next September, we’ll be university students. Weren’t you always going on about how we had to end high school with a bang?”

Mingyu just shakes his head, then hesitates and shakes it again, like a dog ridding itself of water. “I told you already, I’m dead tired. You guys go ahead without me, I’m heading home.”

He starts walking in the direction towards his house, but he doesn’t get more than ten feet away when Seungcheol suddenly bursts out, “What is with you?”

Mingyu turns around, and something in him is alive and awake enough to feel surprised. Seungcheol is glaring at him, not pissed yet but working himself up to it, and he storms right up to Mingyu. Jihoon remains where he is, staring at the two of them in undisguised shock. For once, he’s not on the same page as Seungcheol at all.

“Gyu, you’ve been fucking weird for weeks!” Seungcheol demands. He’s not pissed off, but he’s something like it. Something born out of worry and confusion and plenty of irritation. As if Seungcheol had known Mingyu was off but had been staying silent for a long time, longer than he’s normally able to keep quiet, under the expectation that Mingyu would get over it and things would go back to normal. “What the hell is up with you? I would just say it’s because you fucked up an exam or something, but you’ve been acting like this way before we started finals. You’re seriously killing the mood here.”

Mingyu opens his mouth to say that nothing is wrong, but something inside of him shatters at the look of Seungcheol and Jihoon’s clueless faces, and the image of Wonwoo’s retreating back leaving him for what will probably be forever is still seared into his memory. He suddenly understands that that is how his love for Wonwoo will end, pathetic and miserable and with the knowledge that Wonwoo will forever think of him as the worst sort of bully, a bully who cares, and he’s suddenly furious because yes, he’s an asshole and it’s his fault, he’s spent weeks ruminating over that little fact and hating himself to the bones for it, but if Seungcheol and Jihoon hadn’t ditched his game and had just been good best friends like they were supposed to be, like Mingyu thought they were, then Wonwoo wouldn’t have called out Seungcheol for him and none of this would have ever fucking happened.

“We never should have done it.”

Seungcheol’s eyebrows knit together. “What?”

“The dare. We never should have done it.” Mingyu’s eyes are narrowing, his breaths coming out in short gasps. He’s not sure if his hands are shaking, or if that’s just the blood in his body boiling over. “You never should have dared me, Jihoon never should have sit back and let it happen, and I never should have been stupid enough to do it!”

There’s a brief moment of silence before Seungcheol lets out a slight laugh that doesn’t sound like a laugh at all. “Is that what you’ve been obsessing over? What, are you feeling guilty or something? He’s just Jeon Wonwoo, Mingyu. It’s not like we’ll ever see him again. If he hadn’t stuck his nose where it wasn’t needed it wouldn’t have happened that way—”

“We wrecked him, Seungcheol! Jesus fucking Christ, we told the whole fucking school—hell, the entire damn community—his secret. We humiliated him in front of everybody, and for what? So you can—can punish him for calling you out in front of your friends?” He laughs, but it sounds high-pitched and pathetic and just a little bit crazy. “Fuck, man, we’re so fucked up. We actually thought it would be funny to seduce a gay kid, and we thought that just because he was a loser and had no friends, it would make the whole thing okay.”

Seungcheol and Jihoon are just staring at him. Jihoon’s eyes are wide and his mouth is a little open, as if he’s trying to say something but doesn’t quite know what. Seungcheol’s jaw works for a moment before starting to say his name, but Mingyu doesn’t let him get a word out.

His breathing is becoming more and more laboured, closer to hyperventilation, and he wants to just collapse to the ground and laugh until he passes out because holy shit, is this the perfect trio he had been clinging to for years? A bunch of fucked up boys who do fucked up things to other people because they are part of the “right” crowd and can get away with it? Is this what Mingyu wanted when he was nine years old and realized that no other kid would ever want to hang out with him unless he changed absolutely everything about himself? Is this what Mingyu was expecting when he spat bitter, drunken curses at memories of his father alone in his room while his mom was working overtime to save up every penny for the bills and his university tuition, promising himself that he will never become someone as pathetic as his dad?

It’s so funny. So funny he wants to cry.

“And you know what, Seungcheol? Wonwoo was right. He was fucking right the entire fucking time. You’ve been a shit friend to me. You and Jihoon. What did you see when you saw a lanky sophomore nearly get his head shoved into a toilet by some asshole druggies? Did you see a guy who would one day become one of your best friends? Or did you just see some pitiful loser that you knew would be so happy to be included with the great Choi Seungcheol and Lee Jihoon, so delighted to be part of your exclusive little club, that he would do anything you dared him to do because he never wanted to disappoint you? Huh? Did you see that, Cheol?”

“Where the fuck did this come from?” Seungcheol bursts out. He looks well and truly angry now, but also a little afraid. Mingyu is hardly ever angry, at least to them, and he has never exploded like this before. Seungcheol doesn’t like getting blamed, but he’s also never seen Mingyu like this in the three years they’ve known each other, and that slight fear of the unknown is what makes Mingyu snap.

“I’m done, you know that? I’m fucking done. Wonwoo was right. You guys were supposed to be my best friends.” His voice cracks, but he’s so delirious he ignores it. “You were supposed to know me better than anyone else. But neither of you ever gave a shit.”

“How can you even fucking say that?” Seungcheol practically shouts, and Jihoon freezes up, eyes shifting between them with an almost terrified uncertainty. Jihoon is the one who’s supposed to get angry, the diminutive powerhouse with a short fuse. Seungcheol and Mingyu are the big guys who laugh everything off. Mingyu has never seen Lee Jihoon look so nervous before, and it makes him want to laugh all over again. “I’ve always considered you one of my best friends, Gyu! We’re a fucking team, the three of us, aren’t we? What, did Wonwoo get that into your head, that I didn’t give a shit about you? Are you seriously gonna choose Wonwoo over me?”

Mingyu’s heart twists itself into a ragged pulp. His voice sounds ragged and guttural when he says, “I wish I did. He cared about me more than you ever have.”

There’s a long silence as Seungcheol, directly in front of him, and Jihoon, ten feet back, both stare at him, processing what he just said. It feels like a weight had just lifted off of Mingyu’s chest. All his regret, his terror, his confusion over what he is and who he likes and whether that changes him, and now it’s gone, floating up in the air.

And he can’t even bring himself to care.

“You’re a bully, Choi Seungcheol,” Mingyu says shakily. “All three of us are. Just a bunch of stupid fucking bullies. But at least I have the guts to admit that I’m a piece of shit. You will never, and you're gonna be that way all throughout uni, and I'm backing out while I still have the chance to fix myself.”

Seungcheol’s face darkens instantaneously the second Mingyu finishes speaking—Mingyu's not sure whether it’s from what he had just confessed, or from insulting him, or because he had verbally confirmed what all popular, egotistical teenage boys in the back of their heads wonder, wonder if they are awful people, before burying that feeling into the ground and forgetting what makes them human. Maybe it’s a combination of all three, but the reason doesn’t really matter. In a fit of anger, Seungcheol spits out a word to describe Mingyu and Wonwoo. A word that none of them have ever used before or ever even thought about using, a word that they had all once agreed was too ugly, too crude, to ever call another human being regardless of their sexual preferences.

Mingyu twists his arm back, swings it forward, and punches Seungcheol in the face.

Before anyone can respond—before he even sees Seungcheol stagger backwards, muffled curses falling from in-between his fingers, before he even sees Jihoon run up to him to see if he’s okay, oddly silent as though he’s not sure whose name he should be calling out to first—he turns around and walks away.

They don’t come after him and he doesn’t look back.

That summer, as his high school life ended and the last day at Hysera Secondary, swampy with humidity and chirping cicadas, brought about the finale of the senior year he had so looked forward to for most of his natural-born teenage life, Kim Mingyu lost everything. He lost the boy he loved. He lost his two best friends and the perfect Golden Trio he fantasized about for years. And, because his finals were so bad, his grades plummeted and he lost the university he so desperately planned to go to, as well.

Chapter Text

Mingyu’s mother had a rough life. At twenty-six, she married a man who made her feel so special and believed she was in love. At forty-four, she was faced with three unfortunate realizations that no one struggling through menopause ever wants to have: one, her ex-husband was a major cheating scumbag; two, her job overworked and undervalued her until she had no life or future beyond it; and three, there was something very, very wrong with her son, and she didn’t know what happened and how to make it better.

She always knew that Kim Mingyu had been the odd one out growing up. It breaks any parent’s heart to see their child with no friends, no play dates, and know that they can’t do anything to help them. But Mingyu had made a change as he grew older, and Mrs. Kim had been relieved to see him grow up tall and strong and handsome, always out of the house and doing things with friends or girlfriends, as though his period of loneliness as a child was just a brief anomaly in his otherwise now-perfect life. She knew that she wasn’t there enough for her son, but he always gave her such an assured smile when she dragged her aching feet home after a long day of work that she lied to herself and said everything would be just fine.

Then, the summer after his last year of high school hit. And Mingyu suddenly didn’t seem to want to do anything. He never left the house, never hosted a party, nothing. She would go out for work and come back hours later to find him in the exact same spot, sprawled on the couch and sleeping or staring at the TV. When she asked him what’s wrong, he just said that he was trying not to think too much about anything.

Mrs. Kim was completely lost—a mother’s greatest fear is to look at her grown up children one day and discover a stranger. And the look on her son’s face, depressed and blank and sometimes so, so afraid, was a strange one.

 

The weather is boiling hot outside, like the sun wants to grill everyone well-done. Mingyu’s mother had been stuck in traffic while driving home, the cars on the highway slowed down to a tortoise crawl. She had spent what felt like half the day just staring at the silver back of someone’s Porsche, watching the road sizzle and shimmer like a desert mirage.

Mingyu is sitting in the same spot he was when she left for work that morning, on the couch. He must have moved at some point; there’s a bag of chips and a glass of water on the coffee table near him. He’s staring at some TV show with laser focus. Mrs. Kim sees that his eyes look red, but the implications scare her and she still wants to pretend that everything is okay.

“Why don’t you invite Seungcheol and Jihoon over?” she asks, carefully, the way one would speak to a wild animal.

Mingyu’s lips twitch as though he doesn’t want to remember their names. “We aren’t friends anymore,” is her only answer. She doesn’t ask him again after that.

 

One day, Mrs. Kim comes home from work to find her son curled up in the first-floor bathroom by the sink, crying and struggling for breath and clutching his chest as though he’s in pain. Mingyu chokes around his own tongue as his mother gasps out his name and runs over to hold him, trembling so hard it’s as though his body is spasming. He’s inhaling in sharp, ragged bursts and not really exhaling, and no matter how hard he tries to calm down he keeps getting more and more panicked until he’s completely lightheaded.

He doesn’t remember this afterwards, but when he first met eyes with his mother he had sobbed out, “I think I’m dying.”

Mrs. Kim never mentions it, but in that moment she looks at him and sees a stranger. Or maybe the son she knew was never really her son at all.

 

Mingyu has never heard two words that felt so damning before, like they were invented specifically to make him feel even less like the person he used to be than he already does.

“Anxiety attacks are very treatable,” the doctor assures them. He’s speaking to Mingyu, but it feels more like he’s talking to his mother beside him, like Mingyu’s a chubby child all over again who gets shy and tongue-tied during check-ups. “And it doesn’t seem like you’re suffering from any sort of actual anxiety disorder, just a lot of anxiety itself. Now, it’s definitely not caused by substance abuse or any family history, so this is probably just the result of some major life stress.”

“Stress?” Mrs. Kim interrupts, high-pitched and frightened. “What do you mean? So there’s nothing—there’s no problem with his brain or anything?”

The doctor is some man whose name either starts with a C or a V, in his late thirties, with a generically handsome face and a plastic tub of lollipops by the side of his desk. Mingyu hopes he doesn’t offer him one like he’s a fucking kid or something, but he also kind of hopes he can take one before he leaves.

“Stressful events sometimes trigger panic or anxiety attacks,” Dr. C or V responds, in an infuriatingly calm and musical voice. “The attacks can potentially continue to happen and then become full-on anxiety or panic disorder. Mingyu, you’re at that stage in your life where you’re becoming more independent, and it’s a very big change in your life. Have you ever experienced any panic or anxiety attack symptoms before? Feelings of dread, shortness of breath, dizziness, shaking, nausea? Any of that?”

Mingyu closes his eyes. Yes. He opens them again and mutters, “Maybe. A couple of times before. I can’t remember.” He feels like it’s necessary to try and tell the doctor, “It’s never been like that before, though. It’s never been that bad.”

Dr. CV smiles as though he understands, even though he really shouldn’t, and it makes Mingyu hunch up his shoulders defensively. “Then this might have been a … let’s call it a building block scenario. Numerous stressors you might not have fully resolved could have been stacking up inside of you over time until it developed into something bigger and much worse. Do you think that’s possible, Mingyu?”

Mingyu hates the way the doctor and his mother are looking at him. Like he’s a problem that needs to be fixed. Something that needs a label slapped onto it so it’s an identifiable problem with an identifiable solution and that will somehow make him all better. A part of him sort of wishes that it was that easy. That he just needs to pop some pills and he’ll go back to normal and stop feeling so shitty. “Yeah. I dunno. Maybe.”

“And have you been worrying about a lot of things, constantly? Have you been on edge and having trouble concentrating for weeks or months, even when you pretend you are feeling alright?”

Mingyu doesn’t answer.

For a moment, Dr. CV just smiles at him, like Mingyu is one of those ridiculous thousand-pieces puzzle sets and the doctor has just found the last piece. Mingyu wants to make a face and tightens his muscles to restrain himself. The doctor is so focused on putting that last piece into place that he’s completely overlooking the fact that some of the puzzle pieces are forced in the wrong way, squeezing itself into holes that don’t fit.

“Normally, I’d heavily recommend psychotherapy,” Dr. CV says, once again talking directly to Mingyu but feeling more like he’s actually addressing Mrs. Kim, as if Mingyu is too stupid to really understand, “it’s very effective to talk things out with a professional. However, since you showed so much resistance to the idea of getting a therapist at the beginning of this session—” and since mom is paying you a shitton of money to tell us what we want to hear and not what we need, Mingyu thinks sourly, “—and since the only problem here is that you’re anxious enough to be experiencing occasional attacks, I can prescribe to you some medication to help combat the symptoms and see if it’ll go away on its own as you adjust to university life.”

Mingyu’s mouth feels way too dry. He licks his lips and says, “I like that. What do I have to take?”

Dr. CV flips through some pages in a clipboard. “I suggest combining a benzodiazepine and an antidepressant,” he intones, as if reading off of a wiki page. “The benzodiazepine will help you deal with anxiety symptoms right away, which will be good when you feel an attack coming on, but they can be addicting so we don’t want to rely on them too much. Antidepressants are the more common approach, but they need a while to do its job. If we have you take both during the first two months or so of treatment and give the antidepressant time to come into effect, we can slowly get you off the benzodiazepine so withdrawal symptoms will be minimal. If your attacks get worse, however, we’ll have to consider whether or not you’ve developed an actual anxiety or panic disorder and think of alternative medication options, and I’m afraid I’ll have to insist on you starting psychotherapy if you don’t improve in five or six months. Is that fair to you?”

Stop talking to me as though I’m a dumb kid that needs to be reasoned with. Mingyu’s mouth twists, but he says, “Fine.”

Half an hour later, Mingyu and Mrs. Kim leave Dr. CV’s clinic, carrying Serax tablets (“Take one twice a day as needed!” Dr. CV had said cheerily as though he’s offering him candy or some shit, fucking asshole) and Prozac capsules in a plastic bag, detailed instructions printed out onto sheets of paper rolled up inside. Mrs. Kim keeps nervously babbling the entire way.

“I just don’t know, I don’t think making you take a bunch of medication is going to fix this. There has to be more … more natural methods that will work better. Mingyu, really, you should get other help. We can sign you up for a therapist, see what that does for you.”

“I don’t want a therapist,” Mingyu says a little too loudly, and his heart breaks when his mother flinches ever so slightly. He checks himself and makes sure his voice sounds softer and calmer when he says, “Mom, I’m fine. I don’t need a therapist. It’s like the doc said, I’m feeling stressed out right now. I just need to take these for a while so my anx—so my attacks go away.”

“Just remember what he said,” his mom frets as they make their way to the car. The air is thick and heavy with the promise of rain later this afternoon, sticking to the sides of Mingyu’s esophagus. “He said that thinking about anxiety attacks and worrying about them will make them more frequent. You have to try and relax. Maybe—maybe your new school has some sort of meditation classes? Or yoga? And Mingyu, you have to promise me that when school starts, if anything goes wrong, you’ll go the campus mental health centre. Okay? Just—just—take these pills and try not to worry about having more attacks, make some friends and have fun, and you should be fine.”

“I get it, mom,” Mingyu says quickly. His mother is unaware that her nervous babbling over not thinking about it is making Mingyu think about it, think about the terrifying feeling of his internal organs trying to knot around each other and rip out of his body, and then the subsequent shame and embarrassment of freaking out in the middle of the fucking parking lot and now his chest is already starting to uncomfortably squeeze against his heart and lungs until he’s grateful to collapse into the passenger seat of the car. “I will, I promise.”

Mrs. Kim looks like she wants to say more, but she stays silent as they drive back home. Like he’s been doing since the start of summer, Mingyu stares out the window and wills himself to just stop thinking. About everything.

 

A three-hour drive away, Aphodell College is a clusterfuck of old brick and mortar buildings arranged messily around each other in a loose rectangle along the perimeter of a grassy green quadrangle. As Mingyu and his mother balance cardboard boxes of junk to move into his new home for the next eight months, he observes the deciduous trees dotting the quad every couple of feet, allowing dappled shade to provide relief against the sun for students, and the clumps of vines trailing up the walls of the old-fashioned buildings, which give the whole campus some sort of austere English castle aesthetic.

Mingyu distractedly muses over how ugly it’ll all look in the winter with bare, dead branches anyway.

“Well, this looks nice,” Mrs. Kim says in a falsely-cheery voice. Mingyu chooses not to answer.

It is nice, it really is. The parking lot and quad is thick with the bodies of nervous and excited first year students, with family members and friends as they drag stuffed animals and suitcases and all manner of personal objects to their residences. Older students act as volunteers, helping firsties with their luggage and welcoming them with big grins, promising them that they’re going to love it here. Music is blasting out of speakers set up all over the quad, and there’s such an overall feeling of delighted chaos, a feeling of frighteningly fun independence as all these eighteen-year-olds move out for the very first time, that it’s almost impossible to not feel a little bit excited.

Yet, Mingyu can only look around at the old buildings, which look very uncomfortably as though many of them don’t have any working a/c, and he can only think of the third-best university in the country and its Engineering program and the missed opportunity that’s going to haunt him forever.

“Which residence is yours?” Mrs. Kim muses, staring at a fold-out map of the campus an overeager third year Commerce student handed out to her when they drove into the parking lot. “Irissen Hall? That should be … oh, where is it … all these buildings look the same …”

“It’s over here, mom,” Mingyu says with the bare minimum of exasperation, gently leading her in the direction of a small paved path that leads to Irissen Hall, a six-floor building slapped together near other smaller residences. “Look, see, there’s the sign.”

“Welcome to Irissen!”  a volunteer chirps once they get closer. “You excited to move in and start college?”

Mingyu smiles weakly. Everyone’s upbeat attitude is starting to wear him paper-thin. “A little nervous, actually.”

The volunteer student looks a little surprised, as though she can’t believe someone so tall and handsome could be nervous. “Oh, don’t worry! Lots of firsties feel that way. Here, let me run your student ID through the register. That’ll tell us your room number and you can get your keys!”

Mingyu follows her awkwardly to a small fold-out table right outside the residence and watches the line of new students dragging in their stuff go in and out of the Hall like rows of ants. Finally, the volunteer hands him a small pack containing everything he needs and leads them inside, babbling along the whole way. “Here’s your key for your room, 312. If you forget it and accidentally lock yourself out, you just walk over to the communal services building for all the East quad residences and sign out the copy of your key—just make sure you return the copy within twenty minutes or you’ll get fined. Oh! And here’s your laundry card. The communal services building has a laundromat, if you fill up money into the card you can use it whenever you want, it’s open 24/7.”

“O-okay,” Mingyu says, feeling incredibly lost and almost meek as he and his mother follow the chattering volunteer up three flights of stairs and then stop in front of room 312.

“Here you are!” the girl says. Do her cheeks hurt from smiling so much? “If you have any questions, come find me downstairs! Or just look for any older students wearing this green helper shirt. Good luck, Mingyu!”

Mingyu’s new room is small, but not claustrophobically so, to his relief. There are two beds placed in opposite corners and two cramped desks in front of the window, its ugly grey curtains moved back to reveal the pavement outside of Irissen Hall and a corner of the quad further beyond. An open door on one end reveals a tiny square bathroom, with only enough movement space between the shower, sink, and toilet for one person at a time. His roommate isn’t here yet, thank god. Mingyu hopes he can unpack everything and then disappear before his future roommate arrives and they have to deal with awkward introductions. If he’s lucky, he and his roommate—a complete stranger he has absolutely zero interest in getting to know—will see as little of each other as possible this year and then never talk ever again. Mingyu’s fine with that. Mingyu’s kind of fine with not talking to anyone.

“This is so … cramped,” his mother mutters under her breath, looking down at the scratchy grey carpet below her feet in distaste. “And it’s boiling in here, I can barely breathe. And it smells so stuffy. I hope the mattress is clean.”

Despite thinking the same way, Mingyu suddenly feels embarrassed, as though both he and Mrs. Kim are acting like they’re too good for a simple college residence. “It’s fine, mom,” he says, cracking open the window and dumping his cardboard box of crap onto the nearest desk. “I don’t think there’s a/c in this residence, but, uh, that’s why we brought a fan, right?”

For a second, his mother looks as though she’s about to say something—probably something about the gorgeous suite and apartment-styled residences in the university Mingyu was planning to go to originally. Before he fucked everything up. But she catches herself just in time.

“Do you know what?” she says with a soft little smile. “You’re right. This isn’t bad at all. It’ll be winter before you know it, and good thing you at least have heaters in here. And I’m sure you’ll become great friends with your roommate.”

“Yeah.” Mingyu resists rolling his eyes with a truly incredible force of willpower. “I’m sure we will. You can head back now, mom, I can unpack by myself and it’ll be a long drive home.” That’s secret code words for please leave me alone to panic over first year by myself, please.

“Are you sure you brought everything? Clothes, school supplies, your … em …” she lowers her voice into a whisper. “Medication?

It sucks, Mingyu thinks despondently, that his mother has to talk about it like it’s an embarrassing secret she doesn’t want anyone else to find out. It sucks even harder that Mingyu feels that way, too. “Yes, I have them with me, mom.” I’m not five, he wants to retort snappily, but he bites back the frustration he feels having to interact with his mom for so long, after years of behaving more like a tenant living in a home under a landlady than an actual son.

But his mom is trying. Mingyu is trying. They’re all trying, and it’s not working out so well for them, but they’re trying, and that’s gotta count for something. Mingyu thinks his mother is actually a little sad that her son is moving away, but he doesn’t want to say it because then he’ll start feeling sad too, and guilty that all he wants right now is to be away from that entire goddamn neighbourhood and high school.

“Alright. Then I’ll head back.”

For a split second, Mingyu looks at the tired crow’s feet around his mother’s eyes and the grey strands in her hair that she’s always trying to pull out but can’t keep up with, and he feels like crying. He wants to convince his mom that going to this college for Social Sciences really isn’t the end of the world, that if he works hard he can still try to get into that top Engineering program someday, that even though he fucked up everything in his life he can still fix it.

Unfortunately, Mingyu’s never been good with words and recent events has just made it even harder for him to spit anything out. And truthfully, he isn’t sure if he can fix anything anymore. He’s like a reverse King Midas. Instead of everything he touches turning to gold, everything he touches fractures like shattering glass and smashes against his feet. Cuts him up, bit by bit, tiny little shreds of skin that slowly but surely chip away at him.

His mother leaves. Mingyu watches her head for the parking lot from his rez room’s window, small and forlorn.

He suddenly, desperately wishes that he had Seungcheol and Jihoon by his side. Then moving into residence wouldn’t be so scary. He can unpack and have friends by his side when he visits all the events going on during frosh week, can feel safe and secure in the knowledge that even though college is suddenly so, so much scarier and newer than he expected it to be, he wouldn’t be going through it alone.

He wants to wish for Wonwoo instead, but he doesn’t let himself. It’s not something he has the right to do, even in his thoughts.

I’m alone. For the first time in years, I am really, really alone.

He looks away and begins unpacking his boxes, and doesn’t know where to put them.

 

There are events and activities happening all over the quad. Volunteers help sort first years into groups so orientation is a little easier. Mingyu passes by playful soccer matches, free lemonade stands, a group of helpful students handing out small bottles of sunscreen, a separate group of less helpful and snickering students handing out bottles of lube and condoms, and a long line of tables showcasing the various faculties and programs within Aphodell.

Mingyu doesn’t want to be that loser who wanders around without any friends, even though that’s basically what he is, so he lets himself get sorted into a group of other first years. There’s about thirteen or fourteen of them, waiting patiently for the volunteer student in charge to start orientation.

“Hey there,” the boy closest to Mingyu says. He has a blindingly white smile and genuinely friendly eyes, and Mingyu can’t stop himself from smiling back. “I’m Seokmin. What’s your name?”

“Mingyu,” he says, and then, because Seokmin just seems so friendly and Mingyu still at least possesses the skills of small talk, he adds, “What program are you going into?”

“English and History,” he says proudly. “It’s a double major. I’m hoping to be, like, a museum curator or something. Or maybe study old literature! I think it’s super cool. What about you?”

“Oh,” Mingyu says, flushing a little and licking his lips, “I, um, I’m in Social Sciences. I-I’m not sure what I want to do with—that—yet.”

He’s suddenly struck to the bone with crippling insecurity. This Seokmin kid hasn’t even technically started university yet, and he already has a crystal clear idea of what he wants to do with his life and where he wants to go with his degree. What if all the kids in his orientation group are like that? What if Mingyu is the only one here who’s a screw-up, an idiot who only got into Aphodell College’s Social Sciences program because he couldn’t get accepted anywhere else?

“Hey, that’s cool,” Seokmin says brightly. Jesus, is everyone here so happy and chipper? Mingyu never realized that there might be a day where he’d actually get exhausted talking to people, but, well, here it is. “Lots of kids have no idea what they’re doing. I talked to a guy across from me in my rez who’s taking Chemistry and I don’t think he even knows what an atom is.” He pauses, a look of wonder crossing his features. “Shit, neither do I, for that matter.”

Mingyu can’t help himself—he lets out a little snicker, for what feels like the first time in ages, and it kind of feels a little like a man who’s been locked in a dungeon for years just felt the sun against his skin again. The heavy pit in his stomach that he’s been sitting with all summer almost disappears, just for a few seconds. “Which rez are you in?”

“Rosen Hall. You?”

“Irissen. Please don’t tell me your rez has a/c, or I will, like, sucker-punch you in the face.”

Seokmin laughs. He has an unapologetically loud laugh, the kind that crinkles up his entire face and throws his whole body and would be annoying if it belonged to anyone else. “No! Oh my god, I was trying to unpack and I could feel, like, rivers of sweat going down my back. I thought I’d leave a stain on the carpet by the time I was done and could set up my fan.”

“Dude, I thought I was going to drown in my room.”

That makes Seokmin laugh even harder. Mingyu grins until his cheeks burn, because he forgot how fun it is, how good it feels, to make people laugh.

The exaggerations of the stifling heat in the residence rooms makes the other kids interested in joining the conversation, and soon all these previous strangers are laughing and joking about how they’ll all die through heat stroke before they finish first semester. Mingyu feels almost weightless, cotton-candy-light and floating just a little bit higher every time a brief cool wind passes through the quad and all the students close their eyes and sigh in relief and laugh with one another.

His eyes fall back down from the sky and his smile dies. In the distance, in another orientation group, his eye catches a tall boy with ruffled dark hair and, strange, he thinks he’s seen that T-shirt before and—

His heart plummets off the cliff of his spine and smashes into every single rib bone along the way. His breath catches in his throat. Was that …? No, that couldn’t be, but could it?

He desperately tries to spot the same guy again, but there’s too many students milling around the quad and too many groups walking here and there as their guide shows them each building, and he’s gone from sight. But Mingyu has a terrible, dreadful feeling that he might have just caught sight of Jeon Wonwoo.

But was it possible? Did Wonwoo say he was going to Aphodell? Mingyu tries to remember, but he’s spent all summer systematically trying to destroy all memories of that beautiful, precious, painful time in senior year from his mind, and he no longer has any recollection of where Wonwoo said he wanted to study.

It can’t be. Fate can’t be that cruel, to make Mingyu and Wonwoo run into each other again. It’ll be too soon, forever too soon. Wonwoo had just broken free of his personal hellhole of high school, had just entered a chance to be happy away from anything that would make him remember how shitty life was and how horribly someone who loved him treated him; it would be way too unfair for Mingyu to go to the same school as him, to walk up and ruin that for him.

Then again, Mingyu can always be wrong. He might just be seeing things, someone with Wonwoo’s height and build, his own mind filling in the empty spaces and trying to see handsome, glorious Wonwoo just one more time.

He can be wrong.

Still, Mingyu’s heart thuds painfully hard and fast against his chest and the dark pit is back inside his stomach again, trying to hollow out a bigger and bigger cavity in his body, because the sight of Fake Wonwoo made him remember that he’s not meant to be here, that he’s not one of these kids who wanted to go to Aphodell and are so excited and eager to study here, he’s an imposter and a big, fat liar and he ruins things and none of these people deserve to be ruined, and it’s suddenly way too hot and he can’t breathe and there’s too many people here, too many people who will see if Mingyu loses it and starts having an attack, and no fuck no Mingyu can not have an anxiety attack in the middle of the quad on the first day of frosh week, fuck that—

He needs that fucking Serax. Which he left back in his room. Great. Just great. He can already see his mother wringing her hands and cursing his laziness.

He pulls away from the group as quietly and innocuously as he can, but Seokmin almost immediately sees him. “Hey, where you going?”

Mingyu thinks fast, even as he feels trembling chills start running up and down his spine. “Too hot,” he says, trying to sound like nothing is wrong and not quite sure if he’s succeeding. “Gonna—change my shirt. Be right back.”

He sets off in what he hopes is the direction to his rez. The campus feels way too big, way too open compared to the contained, looping hallways of Hysera Secondary, his whole world for four years of his life. It’s dizzying. Mingyu clenches his hands into fists and tries working on the breathing techniques his mom made him read about two weeks ago. To his great relief, it works for the most part, and by the time he actually finds Irissen Hall he’s already calmed down and feels a little silly that he came all this way for nothing.

Ah, well. He’ll just skip orientation. It’s not like anyone would miss him, anyway. He can play Skyrim for the next six hours or so until his brain is fuzzy and he forgets he’s a real human being who needs to eat and sleep and he’s not actually a sword-wielding Argonian running around Tamriel killing dragons.

He climbs the two flights of stairs that take him up to the third floor and nearly forgets where his room is. It’s like being a fucking newborn baby during frosh week. He needs people to tell him what to do and where to go and what to look forward to or he’s completely, utterly lost.

The room is a lot less hot than he expected it to be, mostly thanks to a giant Dyson bladeless fan shoved into a corner near one of the beds. Mingyu marvels at the cool air its blasting into the room at its highest setting and is extremely tempted to stick his hand through it when he realizes that, a) that’s not his fan; and b) someone just walked out of the bathroom, a towel wrapped around his neck.

Mingyu stares at what he hopes is his new roommate and not some fucking weirdo who picked his lock and used his shower, and his roommate stares back unashamedly. He’s not as tall as Mingyu, but he’s long and thin and that somehow gives him the appearance of being tall. His ears, an oddly pointed shape, stick out from his head almost comically due to his heavy wet hair.

Eventually, Mingyu decides he has to say something, because turning around and walking out would be too weird. He sticks out his hand hesitantly, as if not quite sure what he should be doing otherwise. “Hey. I’m Kim Mingyu, your, uh, new roommate.” He uses his peripherals to double-check that the number on their open door is indeed number 312, and he didn’t accidentally walk into the wrong room somehow. Just seems like a classic Mingyu sort of thing to do, at this point.

His words cause the other boy to act. He holds out a tanned hand, his fingers just as long and thin as the rest of him. “Minghao,” he says. His voice is soft but not shy, with all the articulation of someone who can command the attention of a room without raising his voice. Mingyu is immediately envious. He always assumed that he had to be loud and obnoxious and funny to be the one everyone is paying attention to, and he’s since realized how utterly annoying that is. “Xu Minghao. I hope you don’t mind that I took that bed. You had a bunch of stuff on the other one, so I assumed …”

“Oh.” Mingyu’s hand drops to his side like a dead weight. “Uh, yeah, that’s totally fine. Sorry, I didn’t put everything away, I wanted to check out orientation, and, um. Yeah. I’m a clean person, I swear.”

Minghao’s mouth quirks into a crooked half-smile, one side higher than the other. It feels like much higher praise than it should be. “That’s cool. I didn’t think orientation went by so fast.”

“It’s way too hot outside, I’m sweating my balls off.” Yikes, maybe that’s a bit too much to be saying at a first meeting. Mingyu is painfully aware of how out of practice he is at talking to people.

To his relief, Minghao laughs a little. “I can feel that.” He slips by and roughly towel-dries his hair. His side of the room is already unpacked. Mingyu stares at a baby blue comforter, Christmas lights pinned to the wall just above the bed, and a desk containing an Apple laptop, printer, and army rows of extremely detailed figurines of food dishes, which is super fucking cool. Mingyu is horrified to discover that he actually likes Minghao already, finds him interesting, wants to get to know him better. This isn’t how he envisioned their first meeting to go. He imagined it—planned for it—to be far more awkward and far less enriching. “I have friends I gotta meet, though, so I have to go out there anyway.”

Ah. Even Minghao knows someone in college. Mingyu slumps into his desk chair and starts up his laptop, the only thing he’s set up so far, as Minghao grabs a messenger bag and swings it over his shoulder and heads out the door.

Just as he steps outside, he hesitates and turns back to Mingyu. “You sure you wanna stay here?” he asks. “You can come meet my friends, if you want.”

He’s even inviting someone he just met to go hang out with him and his friends. What the fuck. He’s also a really nice guy. What the fuck, this is super unfair.

Mingyu’s stomach crawls, though; the thought of having to smile and laugh with a group of strangers and pretend he’s a fully functioning decent human being sounds way too difficult right now. His attack has died down to nothing, but he can still feel a hint of it, purring dangerously in his chest, just waiting for another opportunity to crawl out his throat and wedge claws into his brain.

“Nah, it’s okay,” he laughs weakly, “I’m already beat. Have fun and uh, stuff.”

Minghao keeps looking at him for half a moment longer, eyes sharp and clear and reminding Mingyu very uncomfortably of wise old owls, of people who know too much about the world and its inhabitants and have stares that feel like they know everyone’s secrets. But then the lanky kid shrugs, turns back around and shuts the door, leaving Mingyu alone in his rez.

Shouts and screams of laughter echo up at him from outside the open window. Groups of students are having a water balloon fight on the quad as the sun slowly sets. People passing by yelp when water splashes a bit too close to them.

Mingyu desperately wants to join them. He’s already regretting turning down Minghao’s offer. Instead of chasing after him, he opens Skyrim and loses himself in a virtual world, a world where the most important thing is levelling up and all the dialogue is scripted, meaning there’s no possible way for him to fuck up if his character opens his mouth.

 

(Two hours in, he accidentally presses the ‘Z’ key and his magnificent level 36 Argonian badass Shouts at a guard, triggering them all to become hostile. So in the end, his character technically opened his mouth and Mingyu fucked up anyway. Typical.)

 

The next day, Minghao asks if he can accompany him to lunch. “I don’t know where anything good is, and the lines are all so long,” he complains. “I was thinking of maybe wandering around campus to see what they have, if you want to help me.”

He’s not asking if Mingyu wants to tag along. He’s asking if Mingyu wants to do this with him.

“Sure,” Mingyu blurts out before he can chicken out. “Yeah, I—y-yeah. Gimme a second.”

They spend an hour or so like that, just wandering around all the buildings on campus and taking note of what restaurants or cafés they have and what they sell. It all feels like it goes by too fast for him to really recall what they’ve done, but he remembers making a couple remarks that make Minghao laugh, and that makes him feel better.

They buy chicken wraps and sit on a bench by the Sciences buildings. Mingyu curses loudly and creatively when a barbecue sauce-covered piece of chicken and a tomato slice drops into his lap and stains his shorts and Minghao is clearly trying not to laugh as he offers him a napkin, and he appreciates that. Mingyu laughs at himself, anyway, because today he feels like it and it’s been hard to find reasons to laugh lately.

 

Aphodell doesn’t pull its punches when it comes to frosh. It seems like every night there are parties being hosted in at least three separate locations, all in varying degrees of intensity. There are board game nights and ice cream socials and toga parties and dance-offs in residence basements. Mingyu really wants to go to a few, but he and Minghao’s schedules for these events are off so he has to go alone, and it’s really not fun when he doesn’t know anyone and suddenly feels terrified of introducing himself to strangers. Halfway through frosh week he hides back up in his room, so when he gets another anxiety attack over being alone and pathetic his Serax is within arm’s reach and nobody can see him shivering under the sheets, trying to regulate his breathing.

As the week goes by, though, even Mingyu’s newfound apathy towards life gets incredibly boring, and the awful feeling of dread and nausea that comes with thinking of absolutely everything is starting to die down a little. The weekend after frosh ends and school begins on Monday, when Minghao asks if he wants to go out to the coffee shop just off campus with his other friends, Mingyu shoves down his terror to somewhere where it can’t bother him and agrees this time.

The walk is two parts peaceful and one part awkward. The awkwardness all comes from Mingyu, because he’s not sure how to fill up the empty spaces between conversation, and there’s only so many questions one can ask someone they’ve really only known for like a week. Where did you live? (Oakville) What school did you go to? (Mingyu has no idea what that school is) What program are you in? (Business) Do you have siblings? (One, an older brother he doesn’t talk to much)

As they walk down the busy sidewalk just off campus and towards the strip of restaurants and shops that cater towards Aphodell students, the sky above them a seawater blue and graciously thick with clouds that block the sun, Mingyu finally realizes that Minghao doesn’t mind the silence. Mingyu had forgotten that there are people who don’t need unnecessary chatter, who like the companionship of just being with someone and not having to talk to them, and he had almost forgotten that those kinds of people exist after …

They reach the coffee shop, a small little indie thing in neutral colour palettes. It’s the kind of shop where the bathroom signs read guys and gals instead of men and women, the chalkboards listing all their choices are written by hand with cute little pictures of walking muffins, and they have a Special of the Day! sign next to the glass display case of cinnamon buns, croissants, and lemon tarts.

Minghao waves at two boys sitting by the window, and one of them waves back and then beckons them over. Mingyu follows behind uncertainly as they take a seat, uncomfortably aware that these guys all know each other and are friends and Mingyu really, really doesn’t fit in anywhere right now.

“Guys, meet my roommate Mingyu. Mingyu, that’s Junhui, my cousin.” Minghao points to a tall golden-haired young man with an angular jawline, who grins over his mocha latte. “He’s an annoying asshole, but he’s a year older so he at least knows his way around campus—”

“That’s rude, Haohao.” The amusing thing is that Junhui and Minghao are similar not in any part of their looks, but in their speech. Junhui doesn’t speak very loudly either, but he’s confident and sure of himself with every syllable that leaves his lips. He greets his cousin with an almost cocky tilt of his head. “What will auntie say?”

“What mom doesn’t know won’t hurt you,” Minghao says smoothly, and Mingyu fights back an amused smile. This snappy side of Minghao is one he hasn’t seen in their room yet, and he wonders when Minghao will feel comfortable enough to be so relaxed around him like that. “And that guy who won’t look away from his phone is Seokmin—”

“Hold on just a sec, I’m texting someone,” Seokmin says, at the same time as Mingyu yelps out a surprised, “Oh, it’s you!”

Seokmin finally looks up and meets his eyes, breaking out into a delighted smile that looks like it could blind someone. “Holy shit, Mingyu! I haven’t seen you since, uh, orientation, right? Where did you go? I totally lost track of you.”

Oh shit. Right. Mingyu thinks quickly and lies, “Must’ve lost track of the group.”

Minghao’s eyes flicker once in his direction, instantly catching the contradiction in Mingyu’s words, but he doesn’t say anything about it. Instead, he says, “I met Seokmin at one of the frosh events. I could’ve introduced you to Jeonghan, too, but he’s setting up club events and shit so he couldn’t make it. And Soonyoung should be here right now, where’s he?”

“Texting him now,” Seokmin says, glancing back down at his phone. “He’s running a little late and bringing his roommate—oh cool, now this will be, like, a big get-together! I should have brought my roommate.”

“I thought your roommate was a fucking weirdo,” Minghao counters. Mingyu fights back a surprised snicker at the sheer bluntness of Minghao’s words. It reminds him of Jihoon, just for a second, but Minghao’s words lack the wolf-like bite Jihoon had.

“He’s not a weirdo, Hao, that’s rude. He’s just … a little weird.” Seokmin makes a face and then gestures incomprehensibly with his hands. “He’s got weird, like, porn books. Not porn magazines, that I could’ve understood, I’m talking genuine beefy-shirtless-guy-on-cover, sold-for-ten-dollars-in-drug-stores-for-bored-housewives kind of shitty erotica novels. And he also put up probably fifteen posters of, like, women in, like …”

He makes more confusing gestures that kind of look like he means bondage, and by that point Junhui and Mingyu are howling with laughter, slumped over the table. Minghao just makes a face at the whole situation, decidedly unimpressed.

“Who is this guy?” Mingyu chokes out. “I want to be his best friend.”

“I can’t breathe.” Junhui pounds the table twice with his fist, shoulders shaking. “Oh, poor, poor Seokmin.”

“Why do I have to get saddled with the weird one?” Seokmin wails. “I am a good son, I did nothing to deserve this. Why me?

“Look,” Minghao says, “if he’s freaking you out, just come crash at my place. That is—our place—” he shoots a quick, unidentifiable look at Mingyu, who’s finally calmed down, “—that is, if you’re okay with it.”

“Yeah, of course,” Mingyu says without hesitation. This is the happiest, most relaxed he’s been since he arrived at campus, and Minghao’s friends are just as nice and welcoming as he is, and why would he mind if Seokmin wants to escape from his weird kinky roommate every so often? “Bruh, I wouldn’t mind at all. Come and chill any time you want.”

Seokmin gives him a grateful smile that makes Mingyu’s ears turn a little red under the force of its brightness. “You’re a lifesaver, you guys. Really.”

And Mingyu thinks, for the first time in weeks, that he can be happy here. He can see himself passing by these next four years happy, and comfortable, with these guys. He can see himself becoming friends with Minghao and Seokmin and Junhui and their other as-yet-unseen friends, can see himself joining their group. Maybe it’s just the fall sunshine streaming in through the glass windows of the coffee shop and drowning them in dazzling butterscotch-yellow light, but Mingyu feels warm here.

The door opens behind him, and Seokmin looks up and his whole face brightens even more, if possible. “Soonyoung!” he half-screams, earning him a glare from a couple customers and the nearest worker behind the counter.

Mingyu wants to turn around and get a look at this new guy, but Junhui leans in at that moment and whispers to him, “Soonyoung is Seokmin’s best friend, they went to the same high school or something. And that’s his roommate with him, I guess—I’ve never met him until now, so don’t worry about feeling left out.”

Mingyu leans in so it’s easier for him and Junhui to converse. “Sorry for feeling so out of place,” he confesses, feeling at ease around the older student, “I’m probably dragging you guys down.”

“Not at all. Minghao’s been talking about you, and despite appearances he’s really not that easy to please, so we all know you’re a nice guy.” Junhui gives him a friendly wink. “I was an ickle little firstie once too, I remember how fucking terrifying everything is. Minghao’s probably too shy to say this, but you can totally hang out with us if you want. If you end up finding your own gang to stick with in the end, we won’t place any hard feelings on you.”

Mingyu smiles. For a moment, he’s a sophomore student again, slowly building a group of friends but awkward and eager for more, desperate for something that feels like family, and the handsome, broad-shouldered Seungcheol just saved him from some awful seniors. For a moment, he thinks of the one memory of high school that doesn’t make him feel like shit—the memory of Seungcheol and Jihoon helping him up from the bathroom floor, both of them younger and softer and kinder than they were in senior year, of Seungcheol’s mouth stretching into a genuine smile, and Jihoon picking up the contents of Mingyu’s pencil case that had flown everywhere during his struggle against the seniors. Don’t worry about those guys, they’re a bunch of assholes. You can hang out with us for a while if you want, until this whole thing blows over.

He has people now, if not friends, then at least people who are nice enough and friendly enough to invite him into their close-knit circle. And honestly, Mingyu isn’t sure he wants to find his own gang, another Golden Trio. If he can—if he’s worthy—then he would really like to stay with these guys.

Junhui finally stands up to greet Soonyoung and his roommate, so Mingyu stands up and turns around too, hiding his nerves with a charming smile as he hopes to make a good first impression.

Instead, he comes face to face with Jeon Wonwoo.

Chapter Text

Mingyu’s mind melts. Briefly, he realizes that he’s frozen and might not be smiling anymore and he needs to move, do something, or else he’s going to look fucking stupid and they’ll realize something is wrong with him, but he can’t move a muscle.

Standing in front of him, so close that Mingyu can see the faint dots of moles on his skin, Jeon Wonwoo stands frozen as well. His expression is unreadable—well, not unreadable, more like confusing, as though he’s not sure what kind of face he should be making. Mingyu’s chest constricts so tightly he might hear a pop somewhere. He’s still so beautiful—if it wasn’t for the fact that Mingyu had been staring at him for a good portion of last year and had practically memorized the planes of his face, he almost wouldn’t have recognized him. He got his hair cut so it doesn’t hide so much of his face, and he even styled it, pushing it away from his forehead and revealing the entire expanse of his smooth, clear skin. He’s not slouching at all. A pair of round, wire glasses are perched on his nose, and he just looks so good, and so perfect, and this is all just so unfair.

Mingyu waits for the hostility to settle in, for the hatred to poison his features, for Wonwoo to narrow his eyes and grit his teeth and maybe punch him. Mingyu wishes he would punch him. He would feel a lot better if Wonwoo punched him.

Instead, the boy beside Wonwoo jumps forward to pull Mingyu’s hand into a friendly shake. “Hey, I’m Soonyoung,” he says. He’s a bright, round-cheeked guy with dyed silvery-blond hair and a bright attitude so similar to Seokmin’s the two might as well be brothers despite no physical similarities. They’re best friends, all right. “You’re Minghao’s roommate? This is mine, Wonwoo!”

It appears as though no one else had noticed Mingyu turning to stone. Wonwoo slowly peels his eyes away from Mingyu to greet everyone else with polite smiles and handshakes, introducing himself as a—oh Jesus fuck why does the entire universe hate him—Social Sciences student.

Wonwoo is a complete stranger. A handsome, smiling stranger. Genuine friendly smiles and maintaining conversation with the others almost effortlessly, as he and his roommate squeeze into the booth seat next to Seokmin. Mingyu sits back down stiffly, feeling like the tin man in the Wizard of Oz whose joints are all rusted and hurts to move. Jeon Wonwoo is here, right here, sitting across from him. Every so often, Wonwoo’s eyes glance over at him, but he never actually addresses him. The slight chaos of having all these new people to meet makes it easy for the others to overlook that.

He can’t think. He can’t breathe. The light, airy conversation that’s starting amongst the group washes over him like white noise, buzzing in his ears. He can feel an anxiety attack crawling up his throat, as the sight of Wonwoo’s face and the memory of everything he’s been trying to forget surges up, and his stomach pulses as though it’s about to eject all of its contents. He has to get out of here.

Mingyu stands up. He didn’t mean to make a ruckus, but his chair squeaks loudly and harshly against the floor tiles, and the entire table stops talking to stare up at him. Fuck.

“Sorry,” he says, his words feeling thick and coagulated against his teeth and tongue. “I totally forgot, I have an—um—appointment. I gotta run.”

It’s such a blatant lie, he thinks despondently, and he thinks some of them can tell.

“We just got here,” Soonyoung complains. “C’mon, I was hoping you’d tell me all of Minghao’s dirty secrets.”

“I don’t have any that you’ll live to hear about, doofus,” Minghao says, although he sounds distracted as he gazes up at Mingyu, once again looking like he can see right through Mingyu’s half-assed falsehoods. Wonwoo used to look at him like that, Mingyu thinks suddenly with despondence. Wonwoo is looking at him like that right now. “You didn’t say anything about an appointment.”

“That’s because I forgot it,” Mingyu says lamely. Wonwoo’s eyes are on him, and it’s making him lose his train of thought. He can’t be here, because Wonwoo is here and Mingyu is someone he never wanted to see again and he’s gonna ruin it and he can’t have Wonwoo looking at him.

“What kind of appointment can you even have before school starts?” Junhui asks. He might just be curious, but Mingyu’s frantic brain hotwires his common sense and twists everything around so Junhui sounds accusing. They all are. His heart skips a beat when, for a wild second, he thinks they all know. They know what he did to Wonwoo, they know he’s a bully, a fake, an imposter in this school. They brought him here to snarl at him, hit him, tell him he’s a monster.

“With the mental health centre,” he blurts out, and when they all stare at him Mingyu wants to crawl into a hole and never come out again. Fuck. Fuck fuck fuck fuck they’re going to think he’s a freak. “Sorry, nice meeting you guys, gotta go—bye.”

And he all but runs out the door. Way to be subtle, Kim fucking Mingyu. Way to be subtle.

He shoves his shaking hands into his pockets, seriously considering taking out the Serax capsule he had shoved into his backpack at the last second and popping it right here, in the middle of a busy street crawling with Aphodell students. It’s over. It’s all over. Mingyu wanted to be friends with them so bad, and now he can’t. How can he, when they’re all friends with Wonwoo? Mingyu can’t be a part of the same friend group as Wonwoo, that would be the dick move of the century, to push himself into Wonwoo’s life again—no, he can’t do it, he has to separate himself as much as possible from them.

Wonwoo. Wonwoo, Wonwoo, Wonwoo—he looked so good, so far from the messy, disinterested loner from high school—Wonwoo—he was smiling, he looked comfortable talking with them, he looked close with his roommate and was hitting it off with the others, it’s like he’s a totally different person—god, do I still love you, Wonwoo, I’m sorry if I do—maybe they both changed drastically over the summer, in drastically different ways—I can’t be friends with them, they’re Wonwoo’s friends, their Wonwoo’s gang, I can’t

“Mingyu!”

For a heartbeat of a moment, Mingyu thinks it’s Wonwoo, running after him, calling his name. But that’s ridiculous. He turns around and sees Minghao sprinting across the street to catch up to him. For someone who’s ankles are about the size of Mingyu’s wrists, he sure does run fast.

“W-what?” Mingyu stutters out, hoping he doesn’t look crazy. “Did I forget something?”

“No, idiot. I’m leaving, too.”

“Why?”

Minghao gives him an exasperated look. “Because I’m worried about you. Did I really have to spell it out? It’s because of Soonyoung’s roommate, isn’t it?”

Mingyu fidgets, antsy, on the balls of his feet. “No.” He hesitates, then says in a smaller voice, “Was it obvious?”

“Dunno, I’m just good at picking up on things.” Minghao makes a vague motion with his long, spindly fingers. “I mean, you took one look at the guy and went white as a sheet. You literally looked like you were about to have a heart attack. I asked Wonwoo if he knew you and he just said you guys went to high school together.”

“Oh. Yeah.” Right. Of course, why would Wonwoo say anything different? What was Mingyu expecting him to say? Kim Mingyu was a popular, narcissistic asshole who seduced me, fell in love with me, and then broke my heart and made me the target of my entire high school’s derision and scorn, yeah, let’s not hang out with that guy ever again.

Minghao gives him another one of his sharp-eyed looks.  His voice is softer and surprisingly more gentle when he says, “You don’t have to tell me, you know. But I just didn’t want you walking back to campus alone.”

“Y-you don’t have to.” Mingyu’s voice sounds garbled and choked, somehow. “I’m sorry, you were there with your friends, and I—”

“I’m doing this because I want to. You’re my roommate, we gotta look out for each other.” One corner of his mouth twitches up. “How else am I supposed to know I can trust you to help me out if I accidentally lock myself out of our rez one day?”

Mingyu laughs, but it’s a weak, sad little thing, so he stops quickly. “Sorry.”

“I said it’s fine.”

They look at each other for a moment, both of them with something they want to say and neither of them sure of exactly how to say it, and begin walking back to campus. Mingyu realizes after a few minutes of silence that his attack has died down just enough to save him from hyperventilating on the street.

“Hey,” Minghao says, “do you really have to go to the mental health centre? I figured it was just an excuse, but …”

Mingyu takes a long, slow breath so his lungs won’t shiver. “No,” he lies.

 

Now that Mingyu’s run into him once, he’s suddenly seeing Wonwoo a hundred times. Why? Because God wants to make absolutely sure that Mingyu knows he’s going to hell when he dies.

He spots Wonwoo’s jet-black head out of hundreds of students in his Sociology lecture hall, leaning towards a dreadlocked girl Mingyu doesn’t know so the two of them can talk better. He passes by Wonwoo studying in a study carrel in the library, and if Wonwoo notices him he doesn’t look up from his notes to react. When he’s trying to grab a sandwich with Minghao after their shared English tutorial, he sees Wonwoo poring over a book on a bench, eating something out of a plastic Tupperware carton that looks homemade, and it reminds him so much of their old high school days out behind the music hallway, just the two of them in the shade of a gnarled old tree, that he feels sick.

The change in Wonwoo is astonishing. What was once a silent outcast in high school is now much more outgoing and confident, making a couple friends in all his classes and speaking out a lot more. He has his own style now, lots of form-fitting T-shirts to battle the hot weather and wire-rimmed glasses to help him see in class. It’s not that he’s changed his personality or anything like that, but it’s kind of like he feels more sure of himself, more comfortable in his own skin. Mingyu sees him and Seokmin walking across the quad together, and when Seokmin says something Wonwoo throws his head back and laughs. Not one of his quiet little exhales or silent giggles, but what looks like an actual full-blown laugh that makes his whole face light up in a way Mingyu’s never seen before.

He’s not jealous of Seokmin, not really—he doesn’t have the right to be jealous. Jealousy implies a sense of ownership, of entitlement, and that’s the last thing Mingyu wants to feel for Wonwoo, because Wonwoo doesn’t owe him shit anymore. It’s more like he’s … sad. Sad because, even at the peak of happiness when he was by Wonwoo’s side, when they were safe in his room and could hold hands without fear and kiss and Wonwoo would give him sweet smiles and Mingyu probably responded in kind, Mingyu had still never been able to make him laugh like that.

So maybe what they had wasn’t as special as Mingyu thought.

It’s pathetic, really, to be suddenly so in tune to Wonwoo’s presence again, like nothing has changed since high school. Mingyu wonders if Wonwoo notices him the same way, if Wonwoo miraculously manages to pick his face out of the sea of students in lectures, if he just so happens to look out a window and see Mingyu lugging his heavy backpack towards the Psychology building. If he does, he never makes it obvious. Mingyu can only hope he’s not being obvious either, but sometimes he catches himself naturally staring at the back of Wonwoo’s head in one of their numerous shared classes together and he has to force himself to look away and take notes.

 

One sweltering Wednesday, the weather giving no clear indication of switching over to nice, cool autumn anytime soon, Wonwoo walks into class eight minutes late, sweating and clearly out of breath. Nobody pays him any attention except for Mingyu, but that’s because he’s the human personification of natural disasters and he loves to torture himself. Despite the lack of interest or childish titters that would have followed if it was a high school classroom, walking into a lecture hall full of at least three hundred silent, impassive first year students is nerve-wracking, and Wonwoo immediately beelines for the closest empty seat.

Which just so happens to be beside Mingyu.

Wonwoo plunks down with a heavy breath and digs inside his backpack for his laptop, until he realizes exactly who he sat next to. He stiffens up, joints locking in his fingers and shoulders. Mingyu stares very, very determinedly at the powerpoint being projected onto the giant screen in front of him and refuses to look anywhere else. Wonwoo might’ve turned to look at him, but he can’t be sure. His eyes strain and his pupils quiver with the effort to not give in to the temptation to move his head and see for himself.

Eventually, Wonwoo opens up his laptop and starts taking notes, and Mingyu can start breathing again. What follows is forty-two minutes of the most painful class of his life. Mingyu desperately tries to pay attention to whatever his prof is saying (something about populations? Samples?), but all he can think about is that he’s close enough to smell Wonwoo’s sweat and the clean-laundry scent that hasn’t washed out of his clothes since twelfth grade and shit that might be cologne, and Mingyu’s tucking his elbows as close to his body as he can so he doesn’t accidentally touch him and oh Jesus his heart is pounding so hard he thinks the entire row might be able to hear him.

Around halfway through the lecture, Wonwoo does something completely unexpected. He leans in just a fraction of an inch closer and whispers, “Did I miss anything at the start of class?”

It’s the first thing he’s ever said to Mingyu since the fire drill that feels like it happened decades ago instead of four months.

His deep voice sounds husky and more gravelly than usual in lower decibels, and Mingyu honest-to-god shivers. Motherfucking Christ, he has to get it together. “N-not really,” he mumbles, not looking away from the powerpoint projection and stumbling over his words like an idiot. “There were some student council announcements, and then Dr. Cilier just reviewed what we were covering luh-last class.”

There’s a brief pause that feels like it lasts for ages.

“Thanks,” Wonwoo says, and Mingyu knows it’s only because he’s trying to keep his voice down so he doesn’t piss off anyone sitting next to them but the way he says it sounds soft and almost breathy and—Mingyu needs to stop thinking now.

The next time they have that class, Wonwoo is on time as usual and is sitting with his own friends, head bowed as they discuss something and laugh. Mingyu sits in his usual seat third row to the left and reminds himself that this is what’s best, that they really shouldn’t be interacting in any way. Wonwoo is doing great. He’s clearly turned his life around, he has friends, he doesn’t have to be scared and silent anymore, and Mingyu’s so happy for him, he really is, he’s so happy that Wonwoo didn’t turn into a fucked-up mess like him.

He reminds himself that he shouldn’t feel disappointed that their worlds aren’t connected anymore.

 

“Hey, look who it is!” Seokmin says cheerily as Mingyu sits in the chair next to him. “It feels like I haven’t seen you in ages.”

That’s because Mingyu’s been trying to avoid them all. It’s not that he doesn’t like them, of course not, he thinks they’re the nicest, friendliest people he’s ever met, and that if he could be part of their group maybe they can influence him to become a better person. It’s just that—they aren’t just friends with Mingyu’s roommate, they’re also friends with Wonwoo, and if Mingyu hangs out with them there’s always the chance that he might be there. And he isn’t willing to take that chance.

“Sorry,” he says, “I’ve been really busy. You know. Uh. Acclimatizing to university life and all that.”

He’s lucky that, as nice as they are, the duo is as oblivious as a sack of bricks. “Seokmin’s just clingy,” Soonyoung says, looking like a soft, overlarge teddy bear in an almond-coloured hoodie. He snorts when Seokmin tries to kick him and instead makes the table jolt violently and nearly spill Mingyu’s bowl of campus-made beef noodle soup. “If he’s been bothering you with mass texts or something, just block him. I do it all the time.”

Seokmin frowns at him. “You’re a horrible best friend.”

“Yeah, but you can’t live without me.” Soonyoung bats his eyelashes with exaggerated flirtation at him. Mingyu nearly chokes on his straw.

“Unfortunately, you’re right,” Seokmin says fondly, then turns to Mingyu. “Hey, you feeling okay?”

“Uhhh,” Mingyu says, suddenly aware that his ears are red and hot and he’s staring at his iced capp like he’s not sure where else to look. He’s momentarily shaken by the affection Soonyoung and Seokmin freely show for each other, a friendship that feels so strong it borders on love.

This isn’t something he had with Seungcheol and Jihoon. He doesn’t even think this is something Seungcheol and Jihoon had with each other. It wasn’t something they were allowed to do. Comforting touches were strictly arms slung loosely around shoulders, confessions of platonic affection were limited to lazy half-compliments hidden inside insults and words chosen carefully so they couldn’t be misconstrued as being too heartfelt than they were meant to. It’s exhausting, having to hold back so much, having to dull his emotions and relationships to iron and wood just because somewhere along humanity’s lifeline someone decided it wasn’t masculine for him to tell people he cares about that he, well, cares about them.

“I think I choked on my iced capp,” he finally says. Why does he always have to sound like a moron?

“You think?”

“… Yes.” Mingyu is never quite sure what he’s actually talking about until he’s already said it.

Instead of looking at him like he’s an idiot, Seokmin pats his back as if that will help clear his esophagus or something. “Are you okay?”

Soonyoung gives him a concerned look and twists around to stare at the nearest vending machine. “Need some water? I have some quarters.”

Mingyu stares at them, a little thrown by their reaction. If it was his high school friends, they’d have laughed at him. Not meanly, just, Mingyu fumbles a lot for someone who looks so very sure of himself and he’s kind of accepted that whenever he does or says something stupid he gives himself a free pass for his friends to laugh and tease him about it. He doesn’t mind. It’s better than being laughed at by people who aren’t his friends. He knows that feeling all too well.

“You guys are kind of too nice to function,” he says before he can stop himself, “did you know that?”

He instantly internally winces. It sounds like he’s lowkey insulting them. To his relief, they don’t seem to look offended and even laugh. “We aren’t that nice,” Seokmin admits with a smile. “Thanks for saying that, though.”

Only a truly nice person would say that. God. Mingyu thinks he might get cavities hanging around these guys, and it wouldn’t just be from his iced capp.

“Yeah.” Soonyoung wiggles his eyebrows. “How do you know that I’m not a horrible monster deep inside?”

Because I am, and you’re nothing like me. “Alright,” Mingyu jokes, “tell me something horrible and monstrous that you did.”

“Huh … hm …” Soonyoung has to think about it. “Oh! I totally fought a guy once.”

“Bullshit. You did, really?”

Soonyoung cackles at Mingyu’s awed reaction. “Okay, well, it was more like that, like, macho posturing thing guys do when they’re picking a fight but aren’t actually throwing punches, you know what I mean? But anyway, I totally did that in high school. Even got in trouble with the principal about it.”

“Why’d you do it?” Mingyu asks, amazed. He would never have thought that Kwon Soonyoung of all people would pick a fight with anybody.

“Oh, I remember this,” Seokmin pipes up, twirling his straw into his strawberry-banana smoothie and swirling the contents. “It was that guy in our Spanish class, right?”

“Yeah, him. Fuck that guy. Also, fuck that class. I had to learn English when I moved here when I was seven, why am I forced to earn a credit by learning another language?”

“I swear, you say that every single time we bring up Spanish class, but you still got a, what, eighty-seven at the end of the year?”

“Ugh, whatever. Oh shit, right, why I did it. That guy was just being a straight-up asshole. Like, acting like just because he’s part of the rich popular kids he can go around acting like they can get away with anything, you know?”

A dissonant chord strikes him where it hurts. Mingyu shrinks in on himself, shoulders hunching upwards subconsciously. “Yeah,” he says in a small voice, but Soonyoung and Seokmin don’t notice his change in behaviour or the supremely guilty look on his face.

“I mean, I wouldn’t have picked a fight with him if it was just that, but he was saying some really nasty shit that day. Homophobic crap. You know the type, they’re in every high school in the world and they all have egos too big to fit in the classroom. Anyway, I told him to shut his fucking mouth and he said ‘suck my dick’ and then I said ‘not even if you begged’,” Soonyoung shrugged like it’s no big deal, “then shit went down.”

Seokmin snickers over a slurp of his smoothie and then steals one of Soonyoung’s poutine fries. “I can’t believe you even said that to him. The entire hallway lost it. You were a legend for, like, two months.”

Soonyoung smiles but shakes his head. He doesn’t look all that proud of what he did. “I mean, I just got so angry, you know? I can’t believe people still have such backwards ideas about things like homosexuality. Like, you’d think we’d all be a little more accepting by now, but noooo, these guys just have to use gay slurs to prove their masculinity and be all ‘no homo’ about everything.”

A golf ball-sized pit of something called guilt and shame lodges in Mingyu’s throat and sticks there with hot glue. He wonders what Soonyoung and Seokmin will think of him when they find out what he was like in high school. He imagines what would have happened if someone like Soonyoung went to the same high school as him and he’s suddenly incredibly uncomfortable. If Soonyoung had spoken up against Seungcheol, he wouldn’t have let it slide. Mingyu could have ruined Soonyoung’s secondary education life the same way he ruined Wonwoo’s.

Were there people like Soonyoung in Hysera Secondary and they just weren’t brave enough, strong enough to call the popular kids out on their bullshit? Were there people who supported Wonwoo but were too afraid of going against the flow to speak up about it? By silencing Wonwoo, did Mingyu and his friends also silence others who were scared of being the next victim, the next bullseye for their wrath?

Jesus Christ, he really was an awful person.

“I mean,” he mumbles, swallowing nervously around the pit in his throat in an effort to shove it further down, “the guy was probably just insecure. Like, that was his way of feeling … powerful, I guess?” When they turn to look at him, he flushes and quickly says, “I mean, I’m not excusing his behaviour, he was being dickish. I just mean, like … we don’t know what he’s really going through, right? Maybe he wasn’t being an asshole just for asshole’s sake, y’know?”

“You’re totally right, Mingyu,” Seokmin says, nodding. He looks impressed. Did Mingyu just say something right for a change? Typical—he says something deep and insightful when he’s just trying to feel better about his own miserable self. Typical, typical Mingyu.

“Yeah,” Soonyoung agrees. “We gotta be the bigger person. And besides, high school is high school. College is something else entirely. Maybe he’s a completely changed man by now. If he is, then he deserves a second chance. If not, then fuck him, right?”

Seokmin laughs and agrees, and the subject changes to something else, a party someone in Soonyoung’s residence is hosting. Mingyu tunes them out for a few moments and hides his burning face behind his bowl of beef noodles. He wonders when he’ll stop feeling so ashamed of being alive.

 

He had forgotten about the party they were talking about, but Minghao reminds him of its existence in the third week of September, the leaves on a couple trees already beginning to transition to deep oranges and fiery reds and sickly yellows.

“Are you coming to the party in Dahlia Hall?”

Mingyu looks away from his screen, blinking in confusion as he comes back to the real world. “What’s up?”

“Dahlia Hall is throwing a bunch of parties tonight.” Minghao struggles to yank on a pair of ripped skinny jeans and nearly trips over himself. “I’m going to the one in 224 with the others. You coming?”

“Oh.” Mingyu looks at Minghao nearly losing his balance a second time and then looks back at his computer screen, paused in the middle of a Skyrim battle with a dragon. “I’m, um. Not sure.”

He used to love parties. He had always thought that when he reached university, he’d be in the know on every single new party or kegger on or off campus. He had always thought he’d make his friends and connections that way, squeezing through thick bodies of crowds and downing alcohol in red plastic cups, people unscrewing their bathroom doors so they have a flat surface to play beer pong. He never would have guessed that a day would come where he wouldn’t just be in the dark about big parties, but also feel hesitant about going.

Minghao normally just shrugs and lets him do his own thing, but tonight he plants his hands on his bony hips and says, “Dude, are you really going to stay in here and play Skyrim again? All night?”

Mingyu gulps, defensive. “I was going to study,” he protests, but it comes off as a weak excuse.

“No, you weren’t. You were going to play that game and harvest cabbages for, like, another five hours until your eyeballs dry up and shrivel in their sockets.”

“I fight bandits, too!”

“C’mon, you need to go to at least one party. It’s the ultimate college experience, man.”

Mingyu can’t argue with that. He glumly closes his laptop and searches in his closet for something decent to wear. Fifteen minutes later, he finds himself entering the unfamiliar Dahlia Hall with Minghao.

Unlike the surprisingly empty Irissen (which is empty, he realizes now, because everyone was coming here), the hallways are all buzzing with life. Students run this way and that, some giggling and trying to hide bottles of Smirnoff or Jack Daniels in their light fall jackets. Others are on their phones, clearly going through the Facebook messages detailing which rooms were throwing parties. Some students, already drunk or at least halfway there, shove each other up and down the stairs and shriek with laughter when one of the Hall’s dorm advisors shoot them unimpressed glares. They’ve already given up trying to maintain quiet and order. Tonight is a party night.

“This one,” Minghao says, opening the door to number 224. Dahlia Hall’s rooms are all styled to be like miniature suites or apartments, with a combined living room and open kitchen space, and a small cramped hallway that leads to what might be the bedrooms and bathrooms. The living room is full of more people than it’s meant to hold and thick with the heady, suffocating smell of sticky spilled alcohol and beer-soaked breathing. An iPhone attached to a pair of speakers blasts out some song Mingyu doesn’t recognize. Instantly, he feels the crowd pressing in on him, judging him, and he starts to grow uncomfortable.

“Hao, you made it!” Soonyoung nearly shouts once he catches sight of them. He doesn’t look as soft or teddy bear-like as he normally does; he looks like a party kid, and the transformation is incredible. He’s wearing pants that show the shape of his dancer’s thighs and a loose tank top, his hair is pushed back from his forehead with a backwards snapback and—Mingyu has to do a double-take—he outlined his eyes with a thin layer of black eyeliner? Mingyu has never seen a guy do that before. That wasn’t something he was aware that guys could do, except if they were a stereotypical emo kid or something. A part of him is vaguely concerned that he’s not as horrified as he would’ve been a few months ago and that he’s actually finding Soonyoung very attractive and almost dangerous-looking because of the dark addition around his eyelids, but that part is lost against the larger side of him that’s feeling incredibly unconfident and nervous in this party, and Soonyoung’s casually handsome appearance isn’t doing anything to make him feel better about himself. “Oh shit, and Mingyu, too? Hey, man!”

“Hey,” he says, and is thankful for the heat inside the room so he can disguise his reddening cheeks. This is the first time he’s felt any, well, interest in even noticing a guy’s looks besides Wonwoo. He glances at a nearby girl whose curvy waist is revealed through a crop top and shorts. She’s very pretty. No, he’s still interested in girls. That’s still a thing. His gaze returns to Soonyoung and the feeling doesn’t go away. This is distressing. And confusing.

“Why are you guys so late?” Soonyoung complains as he drags them to a free couch. “You missed, like, everything! We had a huge dance party like twenty minutes ago, and then Seokmin took like six shots and got fucking wasted, and he might have disappeared to go to another room so that reminds me I better go find him. And Wonwoo—”

“Wonwoo’s here?” Mingyu blurts out, aware of the sudden raise in his pitch. Minghao shoots him a look, but Soonyoung has drunk just enough to be even less aware of people’s conflicted emotions than usual.

“Yeah, of course, man. He’s—” he looks around the room, but there’s so many people crammed into the space that he gives up almost immediately. “He’s somewhere. Maybe the bathroom. Maybe another party. I dunno, but I gotta go get Seokmin before he falls down an elevator shaft or something. I’ll find you in, like, ten minutes, tops!”

They watch him weave not that gracefully through the crowds, and Minghao sighs. “Yeah, we probably won’t see him for the rest of the night.” He gives Mingyu a carefully neutral look when he says, “Relax a little, yeah? Want me to get you something to drink?”

 “I—” Wonwoo might be here. Wonwoo might be in this room as they speak. Mingyu feels his hands start to sweat. He has an increasing fear of getting drunk enough to start saying things to Wonwoo that’ll do nothing but hurt them both, and he wants to minimize that chance as much as possible. “I don’t think so.”

“Hey, that’s cool,” Minghao says, standing up. “I’m going to go find the host of the party, he’s some guy I know. Will you be okay by yourself? Just for, like, twenty minutes or so.”

Mingyu doesn’t know what to say. He wants to beg Minghao not to leave, that Minghao is the only person he knows and feels comfortable with in this party and if he disappears that’s Mingyu’s last lifeboat getting flung into dark waters and drowning below depths, and he can only keep his head up for so long by himself. He wants to tell Minghao that he’s not a baby who needs to be watched. He wants to tell Minghao that he’s a horrible person and maybe, just maybe, Minghao and his friends might be able to forgive him.

Instead, he nods and says, “See you later. Try to make sure Soonyoung and Seokmin don’t die.”

Minghao nods back, looking oddly serious. “Relax,” he says again, before he’s gone.

Sometime between high school graduation and the beginning of frosh week, Mingyu had lost the ability to easily make friends and meet new people. He sees groups of hard-partying first years yelling for beer pong partners and sees the arrogant faces of his old party pals, his old basketball team. He sees friends giggling on the couch in-between sips of coolers, not really partiers but just here to have a good time, and sees people that will judge him. He sees pretty girls swaying their hips to the music and shooting him quick glances, and sees the looks on their faces when they find out he was once in love with a boy, might still be, might be attracted to boys in general.

He doesn’t know anymore. He doesn’t know anything.

He sits there, on the couch, stiff as a board and staring at his phone so he can fake-text if need be. He’s dimly aware that Minghao probably didn’t expect this outcome when he invited Mingyu to the party. But somehow, the thought of having to talk to someone he doesn’t know makes his stomach feel queasy and he becomes hyperaware of the Serax capsule he had shoved into an old tic tac box and put in the back pocket of his jeans before coming.

Eventually, someone does sit next to him, although Mingyu is scrolling aimlessly on his phone and doesn’t notice at first. When he does look up, it’s because the person had said his name.

“Hello, Mingyu.”

His head shoots up at the familiar gravity of the voice, and his heart nearly stops when he sees Wonwoo.

It’s super unfair how good Wonwoo looks. He’s wearing a casual dress shirt, the buttons near the collar undone, and Mingyu has to bite his tongue so his eyes don’t travel down to stare at exposed collarbones. He’s suddenly incredibly self-conscious, wishing desperately that he had dressed himself up even a little more instead of just wearing old jeans and an Old Navy T-shirt.

“Hey,” he finally says, awkwardly and a lot quieter than he planned.

He’s not really sure what’s happening right now. Why would Wonwoo willingly sit down and start talking to him? None of his friends are here. Minghao’s off to find Soonyoung, Soonyoung’s gone to hunt down Seokmin. It’s just Mingyu. He glances down at the red solo cup in Wonwoo’s hand and surmises that it must be because he’s had a bit too much to drink. Wonwoo’s slightly flushed cheeks seal the deal.

“It’s been a long time,” Wonwoo finally says, his words slow and unsure. Both of them wince a little at the memories that come flooding back. Jesus, this is bad. This is worse than their very first actual conversation with each other.

Mingyu’s palms are so sweaty he thinks his phone might slip out of his hands and drop to the carpet. He clings onto it even tighter like it can comfort him. “It—it has.” He sounds choked up. This is torture.

“I …” Wonwoo hesitates, licking his lips. “I have to admit; I wasn’t expecting to … see you here.” His words carry a double meaning. He doesn’t just mean the party. He means Aphodell College in general.

“Neither did I.” Mingyu can’t look at him directly. His eyes fall and land somewhere around his shoulder, scared of what he might see if he looked in Wonwoo’s eyes.

“I thought you were going to that—”

“Change of plans.” He can’t stop a slightly bitter smile crawling across his face. “Uni didn’t work out for me.”

“Oh.” Wonwoo’s voice sounds odd. Even if Mingyu still knew how to read in-between the lines and decipher Wonwoo’s careful complexities, he’s not sure if he’d want to know what he was thinking. He was certain all summer that Wonwoo hated him, but now that he’s right in front of Wonwoo and he might confirm it for himself, he’s not sure if he’ll be able to handle it. “Then what happened to Seungcheol and Jihoon?”

Perhaps it’s a testament to his new character, but there’s no trace of bitterness or resentment when he says those old names. It’s like he’s moved on from those painful four years of his life.

It’s like he’s moved on from Mingyu.

“We aren’t friends anymore,” Mingyu says carefully.

There’s a heavy, poignant silence. When Wonwoo finally speaks again, it feels as though he’s trying to keep his voice neutral. “Can I ask why?”

Mingyu doesn’t know how to answer that. What can he say, in this situation? They made me break your heart, and mine. They’re selfish and arrogant and I was better off without them. I finally realized that they had turned me into something horrible, or they brought out the horrible person that I already was, and you really lucked out getting away from me. “When school ended, I had a … change of heart.” He pauses. “We got into a fight.”

“Oh.”

He’s not sure what possessed him to say this next part, especially since he’s not drunk, but he says it anyway. “I punched him. Seungcheol. In the face.”

There’s a long, settling silence that follows these words. When Mingyu finally gains the courage to flick his gaze upwards, he sees it’s because Wonwoo—relaxed and languid from whatever alcohol he’s been drinking tonight—is trying very, very hard to stop himself from smiling.

The sight makes Mingyu break out into a smile, too. Not the cocky, sharp-toothed, shit-eating grins he had in high school, and not even the soft, dopey ones he often gave Wonwoo. But it’s a smile nonetheless, because there it was. Wonwoo’s lips are twitching and his jaw is working to hold himself back and his eyes are bright, and it’s something he did. His sad little existence has finally done something good for once.

“That’s not very nice,” Wonwoo finally says, once he’s composed himself.

“Okay, let’s be real for a second,” Mingyu blurts out, “the dick kinda had it coming.”

That gets a surprised snort to escape past Wonwoo’s lips, and before he knows it, Mingyu and Wonwoo are muffling laughter into the scratchy material of the couch. It’s a little hysterical and more than a little relieving, Mingyu thinks, and it’s the relief that makes the laughs tumble out of his throat. It might not fix anything, it might not make anything better, and it certainly doesn’t make Mingyu any less responsible for the shit he’s done—but to be able to laugh about Seungcheol with Wonwoo, and in a sense, laugh about what had happened between them, somehow makes the tension between them loosen up and the nausea consistently present in Mingyu’s stomach lessen a little.

“Ah, shit, I hope I didn’t spill anything,” Wonwoo says once he’s finally calmed down, staring at the contents in his cup. He looks over at Mingyu’s empty hands. “You’re not drinking?”

“Oh. Uh, nah. I’m not in the mood tonight.”

“Really. You’re not in the mood for drinking.”

Mingyu makes a face. “Um, I don’t appreciate that tone. I’m not an alcoholic.”

“Yeah, because you running your dead-drunk ass for, what, fifteen minutes to my house in the dead of night is something a casual partier will do.”

“Hey, now, that’s in the past. I’m a new man.”

“Clearly.” Wonwoo’s expression is still tranquil, but his smile dims slightly when he says, “You didn’t really look like you were having fun. Sitting here alone, I mean.”

Mingyu feels an embarrassed blush spread across his face and ears. “I—I was—” he gives up, remembering that Wonwoo can read him easily, “I wasn’t having fun.”

“Where’s your friends?”

“Minghao went off to find Soonyoung.”

“And who else?”

He doesn’t know how to say this in any other way that’s less pathetic. His voice drops until it’s barely audible over the music. “I don’t have any other friends.”

There’s only time to catch his breath, to lose a couple brain cells because clearly he’s so stupid he can’t even control the words coming out of his mouth, and then Mingyu’s spilling out something that he really shouldn’t be talking about. “Do you hate me?”

Wonwoo looks genuinely surprised. He looks around at the nearby people, whether to make sure they aren’t being eavesdropped on or just because he’s not sure where else to look, Mingyu can’t tell. He takes a sip of his drink and then finally says, “What are you talking about?”

“Y-you know.” He needs to shut up now, Mingyu needs to shut the fuck up. But he can’t, he can’t rest until he knows if Wonwoo will ever forgive him, if he will always remain a vicious tormenter in Wonwoo’s mind. His heart beats faster and faster, making him sick and unsteady, and it almost physically pains him to force the words out. “Do you hate me for, for what I—I did?”

Wonwoo stares at him, a multitude of confusing and complicated expressions crossing over his face. He looks down at his hands, then at the crowd as though he might find Soonyoung somewhere and escape, and then at Mingyu.

One of the things he had always loved about Wonwoo was that he always spoke honestly.

“I wanted to. I tried.”

The silence settles in thick and heavy, like swimming through molasses. Mingyu’s breathing constricts in his lungs, his throat closing up. It’s hot. Way too hot. He can’t breathe.

“Yeah,” he says, words hitching in his throat and snagging on invisible catches. “Yeah. I—I thought so.”

The back of his eyes are burning, bright and hot. Wonwoo wanted to hate him. Whether he hates him or not doesn’t even matter at this point, because Wonwoo is clearly trying not to get stuck in the past, is trying to forgive and forget and move the fuck on, so of course he might not hate him now but all that matters is that he wanted to. Mingyu had hurt him so badly Wonwoo wanted to hate him.

It hurts a whole lot more than he was expecting it to.

It happens almost out of nowhere. Mingyu feels his pulse pounding against his throat and wrists, his stomach twisting anxiously as though he drank too much, and when he looks down and sees his hands trembling he realizes he’s about fifteen seconds away from losing it.

He stands up abruptly, nearly dropping his phone. Wonwoo stares at him.

“I have to—go,” he says, the words stuttering out of his mouth. “I—I need to—I’m sorry, I—I have to go. I’m sorry.”

I’m sorry, I’m sorry I’m sorry I’m sorry, he chants as he weaves his way through the crowd, stumbling and getting jostled by elbows and shoulders. He staggers a little too hard into a few people and they give him an unimpressed look, clearly thinking he’s drunk.

The smell of spilled alcohol and vomit crawls into his senses and makes his internal organs churn violently. He can’t stop this. He can’t hold it back this time. He’s about to have an anxiety attack, and it’s going to be in a party full of people. Fuck his entire life.

“Fuck,” he whispers to himself, “fuck fuck fuck, please, don’t, don’t—”

He staggers outside and into the residence hallway. The air is fresher out here, and cooler now that he’s no longer in a room packed with people. There are people running this way and that, but not that many, and there are a few completely smashed kids slumped against the wall, being comforted by their friends. Nobody notices or cares about one boy staggering towards a corner of the hallway and sliding down, burying his face into his hands so he can muffle the terrified little sobs that are wrenching their way out of his body.

He doesn’t know how long he sits there, gasping for air and choking on the awful voices echoing through his head. It might be an hour, it might be twenty minutes, it might be only three. But after what feels like an eternity, he hears someone calling his name, and footsteps pounding their way across the hallway and then kneeling down in front of him.

As if listening from far away, or through a glass bottle, Minghao’s words sound faint and distorted when he says, “Mingyu! Mingyu? Hey, come on. Look at me. Look at me, take deep breaths. Come on, man.”

He looks up. Minghao’s narrow face swims in Mingyu’s vision. Through his harsh, frightened breaths, he can feel bony fingers press into his shoulders. “Deep breaths, Mingyu. Everything’s going to be okay, alright? Everything’s gonna be fine.”

“N-no it’s not,” Mingyu sobs out, hating every inch of himself. He can feel splotchy red heat burning up his skin, and the ugly tears streaming down his cheeks feel like acid. He tries to hide his face behind his hands. “It’s not, it’s not it’s not—”

“Mingyu?” a new voice says, at first confused and then alarmed. “Mingyu!”

He hears rather than sees a pair of feet approach them, and then Wonwoo’s deep voice is saying, “What’s wrong with him?”

“Nothing, it’s fine,” Minghao says impatiently. “Mingyu, look at me. C’mon, man.”

Mingyu tries to hold Minghao’s gaze, blurred over with tears, but the sight of Wonwoo’s black skinny jeans behind his crouching roommate makes his shaking get worse, because he can’t have Wonwoo looking at him, not Wonwoo, never Wonwoo, not when Mingyu feels and looks so awful and Wonwoo can see exactly what kind of good choice he made to leave him behind.

“Did he take something? Bad weed?” Wonwoo’s voice says somewhere above him, sounding strangely concerned. This just makes the whole thing worse. Wonwoo shouldn’t be worried about him, he should be having fun in the party. So should Minghao. Mingyu should be here alone, dealing with it himself. He ruined it. He ruins everything.

“No, I think this is some—some sort of panic attack or something. Mingyu,” he addresses him this time, voice clear and firm but not sharp, not speaking in any way that might fray Mingyu’s edges any further, “do you have any medication you can take? Do you take any?”

“Muh-my Serax,” Mingyu chokes out stupidly. Only the pressure of Minghao’s fingers against his arms is keeping him grounded, keeping him from spinning out of control and flying off of the face of the earth.

“Did you bring any with you?”

Mingyu silently fumbles for his back pocket and pulls out the tic tac box. “Here. H-here, this—this—” He catches sight of Wonwoo’s face, just for a second, and he can’t even remember what kind of expression he has. But the sight of him makes his hands shake harder than ever, and he almost drops the box onto the ground. “Fuck, I fucked up, I fucked up.”

“No, you didn’t, you’re fine.” One of Minghao’s hands leave his shoulders to smooth his hair away from his sweating forehead, the action comforting. “You’re fine, Mingyu, you did nothing wrong. Is it safe for you to take it right now?”

Mingyu nods helplessly.

Wonwoo kneels down near him, and although Mingyu tries not to look at him he does so anyway. Wonwoo’s expression is peculiar. It looks like the same bewildered, slightly scared look he had the night of that big basketball game, back in high school. The same kind of helplessness. His hand reaches up as if to touch him, maybe, Mingyu thinks wildly, to pull him closer into one of the hugs that used to always calm him down; but he doesn’t move, and his hand stays in the air awkwardly, as though there’s an invisible wall between them.

“Mingyu, when did you start getting these … attacks?” His voice sounds odd, or maybe it just sounds weird through the pitch-black ocean rushing in Mingyu’s ears. “Was it after … after …?”

“I’m sorry,” Mingyu cries out, because this is the worst, he doesn’t want Wonwoo to know about his anxiety attacks, he doesn’t want Wonwoo to think of him any less, or worse, feel guilty about this, think that it might be his fault that Mingyu’s so fucked up now. Because it’s not, it’s not Wonwoo’s fault at all, Mingyu did it and Mingyu hurt him and the last thing he wants is for Wonwoo to think this is his problem at all. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m—”

“Okay, Wonwoo, man, you need to get outta here,” Minghao snaps in frustration, and Mingyu flinches even though he’s not the one the words are directed at; it’s the harshest he’s ever heard Minghao speak to anybody. “I know you and Mingyu have your history with each other, but I don’t care about that right now. You’re clearly making Mingyu feel worse, so can you just leave? I’ll take care of him and get him home.”

Wonwoo doesn’t say anything, and Mingyu can’t bring himself to look at him anymore. He buries his face into the crook of his arm and tries to breathe without his lungs hitching.

Eventually, Wonwoo says, “Text me when he’s okay.”

Mingyu doesn’t look up, doesn’t move, until Minghao says, “He’s gone off to take care of Soonyoung and Seokmin. I found them about to play strip poker in a room down the hall.”

Mingyu lets out a weak, teary little laugh. It makes him almost choke on his tears, but it also makes him feel a little bit better, a little calmer. “Wuh-what? Why would they—”

“Eh, don’t worry. They only managed to get their shoes and socks stolen before I found them and stepped in. Won—Soonyoung’s roommate can deal with the aftermath. Here, c’mon, let’s take your meds, yeah? Do you need water?”

Mingyu shakes his head and pops the pill, grimacing as he feels it worm its way down his throat. He stays in the hallway with Minghao like that, in silence, until his breathing calms down and he manages to stand up. The entire time, Minghao doesn’t speak, except to ask if he’s okay, if he can stand, if he needs anything before they go. Not a single word about his recent anxiety attack or Wonwoo passes between them. In the dead of night, the fall air comforting and cool against their skin, the two of them head back to Irissen Hall, exhausted and with a lot weighing down on their minds.

Chapter Text

There’s no going back from this now, Mingyu thinks. The weekend is over, people nurse their hangovers and go back to civilian life. The first month of university  speeds by unprecedentedly fast, and before he knows it he doesn’t have time to brood or mull over the events that had transpired that one night, because he’s suddenly four days behind on his work and he hasn’t been keeping up with his notes and he has online quizzes to remember to do and essays to write and assignments to hand in and the first round of midterms is coming up way faster than he was expecting and holy shit is college so much more different than high school. It’s so fast-paced; he barely has time to breathe.

Minghao must feel the same way, because he doesn’t bring up the anxiety attack Mingyu had. It’s not from a lack of seeing each other, either; they’ve been spending a lot more time together. Grabbing lunch after English tutorial is rapidly becoming a habit between the two of them, a habit that Mingyu’s starting to look forward to the most out of anything else in his life right now. Classes he shares with Wonwoo are stressful and distracting. Soonyoung and Seokmin are great, but every time he’s with them there’s an underlying fear that they’ll discover what an asshole he is and ditch him.

Somehow, only Minghao feels like something stable, something not quite permanent but if he’s careful might stick around. Maybe it’s just because they’re roommates, so, well, Minghao has to stick with him, for better or worse, for the next seven months or so. Doesn’t matter, at this point. Mingyu’s so starved for friendship and affection that he’ll take anything he can get.

They talk about things that, at the time, don’t seem to matter until the long run. Meaningless little facts about themselves and opinions they have, insignificant things that they remember happening in their life that build up bit by bit until suddenly, they cease to be irrelevant and they merge together to create a better character of a person than anything else in the world can.

Mingyu’s high school was so small, he didn’t really need to get to know any of them—not even Wonwoo can technically count, since he had sort-of known him for years based on sight and rumours and general opinions. He had forgotten what it’s like to learn someone completely from scratch, to get to know a complete stranger all on your own based on what you gather of their ideas and little quirks, their thoughts and dreams and fears. It makes getting to know someone so much more gratifying, so much more humbling, because everything he learns is something they have to tell him themselves. It’s a kind of trust that many people seem to take for granted.

When classes are over and they’re back in their rez, sometimes it becomes a different story. Sometimes, Minghao only manages to utter out a few words before he’s off again to study with the others in the library. Mingyu rejects their invitations and studies at home. He’s not sure if he’ll be able to concentrate if he’s sitting at the same table as Wonwoo. Then, sometimes Minghao stays and studies with him. They don’t really study together, since they’re in different programs and mostly have different classes, but just the presence of one is enough to make the other feel better. Mingyu hopes Minghao feels that way, anyway, so it’s not just him feeling like a loser.

“Are you and Wonwoo cool?” he asks hesitantly one day, in the morning, while the two of them are getting changed and preparing to head out for class. The sun is a weak yolk-yellow, which reminds him of his pitiful dinner of instant noodles and runny eggs last night. He’s trying to ration his meal card money so it lasts him all year, and he’s too proud and not desperate enough yet to ask his mom to make him something. Not like she could. She’s so busy. He hasn’t texted or called her since school started. The thought makes him curl into himself with guilt so he tries not to think about it.

“What do you mean?” Minghao asks as he fiddles with the collar of his shirt. Mingyu has a sneaking suspicion that Minghao knows exactly what he means, but he doesn’t call him out on it.

“You, uh, kinda snapped at him, when I was … you know.”

Minghao is the face of perfect nonchalance, but he looks just a little too invested in making sure his collar is perfectly folded. “I was kind of freaking out in the moment and just got frustrated, that’s all. You weren’t having a good time and he was making it worse, even if he just wanted to help. I’ll talk to him about it after midterms.”

Mingyu’s not really sure what to say, but he’s getting a weird, sick feeling in his stomach that probably isn’t because of his recent barrage of instant noodle meals. He suddenly remembers another lifetime ago when he had the same gruesome feeling arise between Wonwoo and his friends. The feeling of having to choose even when the situation doesn’t call for a decision, an A or B multiple-choice question posed within a short answer.

Last time, he was too scared to bring it up. He was too nervous that he might ruin everything to try and fix things. He refuses to let it happen again.

“It’s not his—” Minghao looks up; he pauses and takes a deep breath, “it’s not Wonwoo’s fault, you know. I swear it’s not. I—some kinda shit went down in high school, and he came out of it the worst. My an—muh—my—” he works his lips carefully and forces the word out, “my anxiety came afterwards. It’s not because of him, it’s just, well, related to … what … happened with him.” He gulps around the lump growing in his throat. “Please don’t—don’t think he did anything wrong. Don’t blame him.”

There’s a moment of silence, except for the hustle and bustle outside their open window as students with earlier classes than them run around campus. Mingyu stares fretfully at him, fiddles with the jeans he was in the middle of pulling out of the pile of clothes he had shoved into the bottom of his closet, not sure what to do with himself.

Minghao meets his eyes and smiles, and it’s so relieving, so welcome, that Mingyu thinks he can cry. “Alright,” he says, voice soft. “It’s okay, I get it. I’ll talk to him as soon as I can and apologize. I promise.”

Mingyu smiles back, and the pressure of the ocean depths that consistently crushes his chest eases up a little bit more. “Yeah? You’re good?”

“I trust your word. I shouldn’t be—I don’t want to assume anything.” He looks like he wants to say something more, but after a slight hesitation he shakes his head a little. Minghao, Mingyu’s starting too learn, isn’t the kind of person to smile all that often, but when his smile falls away his eyes remain bright and just a bit mischievous. “Okay, now I’m going to ditch you, or I’m going to be late for class.”

“What? Wait—fuck, wait for me!” Mingyu jumps up and tries to yank on his pants and succeeds in slipping and nearly eating shit face-first on the itchy carpet. “Minghao, you fucking asshole—stop laughing and wait for me!”

Minghao does wait for him, in the end, but he keeps threatening to open the door and show everyone passing by in the halls a half-naked Mingyu if he doesn’t hurry up. And for the first time in what feels like centuries, Mingyu feels no fear; he immediately snarks back and says that everyone on their floor only wishes they can see a half-naked Mingyu.

“Why, is your all-carbs all-MSG ramen diet making your arm fat look like bicep muscles?”

“Judging by your toothpick limbs, you could do with an all-carbs all-MSG diet.”

Something had changed between them after that night at the party. A sort of unspoken new connection—as if they have a secret to share, something to bond over. Mingyu’s still too unsure and still too frightened to know if this is really friendship, if he’s allowed to call this friendship, but it’s nice to be able to riff back-and-forth with someone again.

 

The first day of October brings a slight disruption to the dorm life Mingyu has started to settle into. A knock on their door at around nine or ten in the evening makes him look up from Skyrim (“I swear to god, Mingyu, if you don’t turn that off and start actually studying I will delete all your saves when you’re asleep”).

Minghao stares owlishly at the door. “Who could that be?” he asks aloud, although he’s not really looking for an answer. His notes are sprawled all over his bed and his lap, and nothing but their desk lamps are on, bathing the room in a comfortably warm glow.

“Wow, great, keep sitting there and doing nothing, why don’t you,” Mingyu mutters, standing up himself and stretching as he pads across the room and opens the door. “What is—oh, Seokmin?”

Seokmin stands in their doorway in a baggy T-shirt and plaid flannel pyjama pants, a backpack across his shoulder and what looks like his blanket wrapped into a secure ball under his arm. “Please let me stay here tonight,” he begs, looking positively miserable. It’s strangely cute.

“What brought this on?” Mingyu says, an amused grin spreading across his lips. The people walking by in the halls—coming home from late classes or hanging out with friends—give him weird looks.

Minghao leans as far out of his bed as he can to get a better look at Seokmin. “Did you walk all the way across campus in your pyjamas?” His eyes trail downwards. “Wow, Junhui was right. Your slippers really do like penguin carcasses.”

“Leave my slippers alone, they did nothing wrong. And I was desperate,” Seokmin whines. “It’s my fucking roommate again.”

Mingyu opens the door wider and lets him in, trying to hold back laughter and failing. He can only hope that Seokmin doesn’t somehow get offended by him, but to his relief Seokmin doesn’t look at all hurt or self-conscious when he shuffles inside. Mingyu likes being able to laugh again. Makes him feel all close and shit with these boys, somehow. “What did he do?”

“He’s putting up new posters.” Seokmin makes a face and does a full-body shudder as he collapses onto Mingyu’s bed. “He says it’s his Halloween special editions.”

“Yikes.” That feels like the only appropriate word to use in this situation. “Well, Hao and I were both serious on our offer. You’re totally free to spend the night here. Did you bring a change of clothes?”

“Of course.” Seokmin looks at their bare walls and sighs happily. “Wow. I’d live here if I could. It’s so nice, so clean.”

“Are you kidding?” Minghao looks at them over the edge of his notes. “You’re on Mingyu’s side of the room, how can you call it clean?”

“Hey!”

“I didn’t mean clean in the, uh, ‘hygienic’ sense.” He shifts his head so he can give them both a kicked-puppy look. “I was talking about my soul and my innocent, pure disposition.” Minghao and Mingyu both snort in unison. “Fuck you guys.”

“Just contact school administration and report him,” Minghao suggests. “For, um, lewdness? Perversion?”

“I can’t. He might hunt me down and kill me in my sleep.”

Mingyu returns to his comforting, familiar game of Skyrim, but he can hear Minghao and Seokmin talking through his earphones and suddenly the game doesn’t feel that interesting or life-consuming anymore, at least not in that moment. He saves and shuts it off and swivels his chair around to join in on their conversation.

That’s how they spend their night, complaining about workloads and professors and which TA is the worst for their classes. By the time the red digital numbers on Minghao’s alarm clock reads one in the morning, they have all shifted positions. Minghao is sitting up in bed, back against the wall and his blankets pulled right up to his shoulders. Seokmin has migrated to the floor (which has been kept relatively clean under Minghao’s supervision), where the boys had each donated a spare blanket from their closet as a makeshift mattress so it’s at least semi-comfortable to lie on. Mingyu’s curled up in his own bed, listening to their carefree, soft voices in a half-awake state. It’s soothing to hear them speak even if he can’t remember what exactly they’re talking about; like easy jazz out of a coffee shop’s radio.

“We should probably get to sleep,” Minghao finally says, lying down himself and snuggling into his covers. “I think Mingyu’s about to drop dead.”

“’M not,” he answers, low and weary. He’s not quite sure if he’s actually awake. Everything seems foggy and calm, like he’s floating in a glass of warm milk. He thinks his brain might be asleep already, but his body’s still on the move.

“What time is it? One?” Seokmin gropes blindly for his phone and then bites back a curse when the screen lights up way too bright. “Jeez, sorry, Gyu, we’re keeping you up. Minghao’s such a night owl.”

If Mingyu was more alert, more lucid and clear-headed, he would have just told them that he didn’t mind, it didn’t matter at all. Instead, not really aware of what’s coming out of his mouth, he mumbles out a happy little, “’S been a long time since anyone called me Gyu.”

“Yeah?”

“Yeah. Cheol ‘n’ Hoonie used to call me that … that …”

“Cheol and Hoonie? Who are they?”

Mingyu shifts uncomfortably. This isn’t something he wanted to bring up, but now that he did he can’t just change the subject. “My old friends from high school. We weren’t … we had a falling out before summer vacay.”

“That’s awful. What happened?”

Mingyu can feel Minghao’s concerned eyes on him, and maybe it’s because he’s too languid and sleepy to start getting anxious, but he doesn’t clam up at all. “It’s just … we were kind of the popular kids. Y’know? Big fish in a small pond, in a tiny well-off neighbourhood. We were kind of assholes. And I only realized that when high school ended. So we got into a fight, they went off to uni, I went here.” He pauses, then laughs a little so he can pretend it’s all fine. “The end.”

There’s a few seconds of silence, as though neither Seokmin nor Minghao quite know what to say. Mingyu wonders if they’ll start to hate him now, start to distance themselves from him until he’s cut off from the herd. He’s the kind of jerk that drove Soonyoung to anger back in their high school, after all, the exact same kind.

“Do you miss them?”

Mingyu’s surprised enough to open his eyes and let Seokmin’s face swim back into view. He doesn’t look angry, or hateful. “I,” he says, slowly. “I’m not sure. I mean, they—we did some really not-nice things. I could always blame it on them and the fact that all I wanted to do was get them to like me, but that doesn’t … doesn’t change the fact that I still did those things with them, right? I don’t think I want to miss someone like them.”

“I get that, but still.” Seokmin shifts for a more comfortable position, head resting on a borrowed pillow as he looks up at Mingyu. His movement makes the shadows on the wall dance around in an almost eerie fashion. “You can’t just look at everything in good and bad, white and black, right? They were still your friends, it kind of sucks to end it all on a bad note. Not to mention, maybe they’ve changed since the last time you saw them.”

“Changed?”

“Yeah. Like, for the better. I mean, you said you were an asshole along with them, but look at you now.”

Beneath his sheets, Mingyu’s hands clench unconsciously into fists. He notices the tension and makes them relax again. “What am I now?” he asks, quietly, almost afraid of the answer. What he’s afraid of, he’s suddenly not sure.

“A good person,” Seokmin says. Minghao silently reaches out to turn off his desk lamp, and the room is bathed in immediate darkness. The only light that reaches them is from the moon and a nearby street lamp outside their window. “A nice human being. A good friend to have.”

“Oh.” He struggles to find words, but in the wake of the powerful, almost painful ache rising in his chest, he can’t think of anything to say. “Good to know.”

“Alright, let’s get to sleep,” Minghao says, as if he knows that Mingyu can’t physically continue this conversation anymore and is giving him a way out. “Goodnight.”

“Night,” Seokmin sings. The two of them are little more than dark blobby shadows.

Mingyu doesn’t say goodnight; instead, he turns so he’s staring up at the ceiling and hopes that gravity pushes his welling tears down to the back of his eyes where they belong. It doesn’t really work out, but at least in the dark Seokmin and Minghao can’t see him cry a little.

 

One Friday afternoon, after classes, Mingyu packs up a backpack to go home. He wishes he can say it’s just because he wants to see his mom again, but really it’s because he has to visit Dr. CV. It’s officially two months into his medication, and Dr. CV thinks it’s time to start tapering off his benzodiazepine dose now that the antidepressants are kicking in. Mingyu’s heard that the withdrawal effects can range in intensity and can also suck serious ass, so he’s not looking forward to it. At the very least, he has been having less anxiety attacks recently, but that might just be because the side effects of his medication sometimes makes him feel too dizzy and tired to have a good, proper panic.

When he goes out to meet his mother in the parking lot, he’s surprised to find how much he’s missed her, pulling her into a big hug that lifts her right off the ground and makes her laugh and sound young. It’s weird that he should be surprised; this is his mother, after all, and he hasn’t seen her in over a month. He doesn’t understand his own emotions anymore.

His happiness over going home is short-lived, however. Returning back to the neighbourhood that does nothing but plague him with memories of his shortcomings and failures really does wonders to return him right back to the mental state he was in before he went to Aphodell. He stares at all the familiar landmarks as his mom drives them home and hates every single one of them. They remind him of all the stupid things he’s done. All the times he and Seungcheol and Jihoon walked through these exact same spots, so cocky, believing that the world was theirs for the taking.

At the very least, his mom doesn’t drive past Hysera Secondary. That might’ve been the official last straw for him.

The house feels big and empty, so full of useless space after he had just grown used to the cramped clutter of rez rooms. Mrs. Kim bustles around the living room and kitchen as if she’s not quite sure what to do with herself, fixing him up dinner. “A nice home-cooked meal is what you need,” she says brightly. “Hasn’t it been ages since you’ve had something homemade?”

“Wow, mom, I didn’t know you knew how to cook,” Mingyu jokes, and she playfully swats at his head before turning on the stove. He watches her for a few moments, before realizing something that hadn’t occurred to him before. “Hey, shouldn’t you be at work right now?”

His mom smiles at him. “I asked for the afternoon off. It’s … it’s been a while since we’ve been able to just, you know, sit and talk a little.”

“I …” His mom never takes days off work. He’s not sure if the company even lets her do that. He doesn’t know what to say or do in response to that, so he just shrugs his shoulders. “Yeah.”

What follows is maybe thirty seconds of awkward pause. Mingyu fidgets and fiddles with his phone uncomfortably. Why is it somehow so hard to talk to his mother? It’s his mom, and quite honestly the closest relative he has and the only blood family he really cares about. He should be able to converse with her easily, should be able to trust her with anything. What can an eighteen-year-old say to a person they haven’t really, genuinely talked to in years?

Eventually, Mrs. Kim asks, “So, how’s school so far?”

“It’s alright.” In direct comparison to how he’s feeling back in this hellhole of a neighbourhood, however, he amends his answer. “Better than alright. Classes are hard, but at least most of them are interesting. I’m really liking psychology right now. Oh, and I made, um, I made some friends. Soonyoung and Seokmin. And my roommate Minghao is really cool. And—”

He almost says that he ran into Wonwoo again, before catching himself. His mom doesn’t know about Wonwoo. She doesn’t know about any of that. She doesn’t even know that Mingyu used to love him.

This reminds him, with palpable fear with all the force of a gunshot, that his mom doesn’t know that Mingyu used to be in love with a boy. Might still like boys. She doesn’t know, and he doesn’t know if she’ll approve, and if she doesn’t shit what’s gonna happen to him? Who will he have left? He’ll have nobody. His mom is the only person in his life that he can count on to never abandon him, and he’s about seventy percent sure that he can only believe that because she’s his mother. Then again, his dad sure jumped ship quick, so maybe Mingyu’s immediate family are just all fucked one way or another.

Mrs. Kim’s smile falls—maybe she saw something in her son’s face that she didn’t like, or she wasn’t sure of. But either way, Mingyu catches himself and starts going off about whatever he remembers learning in class, so it sounds like he’s actually doing something with himself and being a productive member of society. That’s how the rest of their evening goes, as Mingyu slurps down a beef stew that actually tastes good, since his mom isn’t rushing to put together something in-between shifts at work. He excuses himself afterwards to go up and study in his room, which is mostly just an excuse because he really doesn’t know what to say to his mom anymore.

His room is exactly as he remembers it, but it feels less … familiar, somehow. It’s not even a bittersweet sense of nostalgia as he looks around the room he had lived in since he was a child, it’s like the room is no longer his. He had lost ownership of it, somehow. He collapses onto his soft, comfortable mattress and gazes around the room.

For some reason, the scratchy, cramped, too-hot rez room he shares with Minghao (and occasionally Seokmin) feels more at home than here. For some reason, having to squabble over who gets to shower first and trying to fight each other for space in the bathroom to brush their teeth and taking trips to the communal centre to do laundry together at two in the morning is more enjoyable than having a big, open bedroom to himself and his very own bathroom.

His phone buzzes and Mingyu stares at it like it’s a foreign object. For a split second, he thinks it might be Wonwoo. Then he thinks it might be Seungcheol or Jihoon. Or maybe it’s any one of the so-called “friends” that had ceased to contact him the second high school ended, Pierce or one of his other basketball teammates. Maybe they spotted him through the car window as they were driving home.

To his great, immense relief, it’s just Minghao. Hey, hoco is next week. You’re coming, right?

He texts back. What’s hoco?

There’s no answer for a good long while.

Are you serious when you say that?

 

“So, let me get this straight,” Mingyu says. “Homecoming is the day of this huge football game or whatever. And everybody gets drunk all day.”

“Pretty much,” Minghao says. “At least, that’s what Junhui told me. If he was just pulling my leg, I’ll kick his ass.”

The two of them are in the off-campus coffee shop where Mingyu had first met all of Minghao’s friends, the place where he first ran into Wonwoo. Now that he’s staying long enough to actually order something, he’s sincerely pleased that they sell rather delicious smoothies and one hell of a spinach-cheese-egg biscuit. Minghao insists that he’s tough enough to order a black coffee and drink all of it, but Mingyu is positive that he had poured in at least a quarter a tub of milk and four sugars into it when his back was turned.

“Okay, this is what Jun said it would be like,” Minghao says, gesturing with his stirring stick and nearly splattering the table with tiny black drops. “There’s events that happen throughout next Saturday. Pancakes in the morning, barbecue in the afternoon. Some of the really fucked-up people will start drinking then, but most wait until the keggers start popping up off-campus. I never understood the appeal of those, though; you gotta pay ten dollars to squeeze into a tiny house and get access to shitty beer and, if you’re lucky, jungle juice? No thanks. And then there’s the actual football game, and apparently Junhui says it’s always fun to watch the smashed kids try to make their way across campus to the stadium. Then, when the game is over it’s the parties in the evening, and those go insane. I think the police were called to a few houses last year.”

“That sounds completely and utterly ridiculous,” Mingyu says, slurping on his smoothie. “Not to mention exhausting. Aaah, fuck! Brain freeze, brain freeze!

“You’re telling me. I think I’ll just study for most of the day and go to the less wild night parties with the others. Unless you want to go to the barbecue, in which case, I don’t mind going to that.”

Mingyu hides the smile spreading across his face by pretending he’s still grimacing in brain freeze-induced pain. Minghao’s asking him what he wants to do. Isn’t this what he wanted with Seungcheol and Jihoon? No, no, it’s different. Mingyu had wanted to be the one making calls when it came to them, wanted to be the one who made the decisions everyone tagged along with, rather than it always being the other way around. This is different. Minghao isn’t planning his schedule entirely around him, but instead is willing to accommodate to fit Mingyu, to collaborate with him if he wanted to. Mingyu likes this a lot better.

“Well, I don’t think I can drink, so I’m okay with doing whatever.”

“You can’t?” Minghao makes another vague flicking gesture with his stirring stick that succeeds in staining the sleeve of his shirt with tiny brown spots, although he doesn’t seem to have noticed. “Is it because of—your medication thing?”

“Yeah, my—my medication thing. My doc told me I should stay away from caffeine and alcohol; they might fuck me up.”

“Not even a little bit?”

He thinks about it. “Well, I guess a little? Just this once? But I’ll have to moderate myself. I definitely cannot get drunk.”

“Well, it’s a Bring-Your-Own-Booze kinda party, so we can get Junhui to do a LCBO run for us and get you a cooler or something,” Minghao suggests. “Maybe just take one and only drink that for the night? And just nurse it?”

“Lame. But yeah, that should be okay.” Mingyu heaves an overly-dramatic sigh that makes Minghao laugh. “What party will we be going to?”

“Junhui’s, actually. He lives off-campus with some friends, and they were lucky enough to rent a house that doesn’t look like it’s the decrepit remains of a nineteenth century haunted asylum. It’s the only off-campus party I’m allowed to go to. My mom doesn’t mind on-campus parties, but she thinks I’ll get roofied and kidnapped if I go to a stranger’s kegger in some nearby neighbourhood, or at the very least, I’ll get lost as hell.” He hesitates, then says slowly, “Hey, Mingyu. You know Wonwoo’s gonna be there, right?”

His heart jumps. Mingyu’s not sure if it’s from fear or excitement. He’s not sure which one is the better choice. “Yeah. Figured.”

“You gonna be okay?”

“Yeah. Actually, I—” he takes a quick breath, and his words nearly fall over themselves in their rush out of his mouth, “—I’m going to talk to him. About what happened in high school.”

Minghao looks like he wants to say “What did happen in high school?”, but he instead takes a big swig of his coffee and by the time he sets the cup down, his face is neutral again. “That’s good. I hope you guys can work things out.”

“Same here,” Mingyu mumbles into his straw.

He hasn’t been able to stop thinking about it since his trip back home. All this time, he thought that meeting Wonwoo again was just another way for life to remind him that he hates himself, that he’s a screw-up, that he’s done nothing but fuck things over for himself and everyone around him. But maybe he’s been looking at this all wrong. He and Wonwoo must have crossed paths again for a reason. Everything happens for a reason. He’s far from being religious, like, in-the-next-country-over far, but if he was, then God probably meant for him to come back and fix things or something like that.

He’s going to apologize to Wonwoo once and for all, get things right, tell him that he must’ve really, really hurt him because of the dare, and that he knows there’s no way to be forgiven, but at the very least he wants to genuinely apologize from the bottom of his heart. What he really wants to do most of all is to tell Wonwoo that even with the reveal of the dare poisoning what they once had, his feelings were always true. But that’s not something Wonwoo will want to hear from him, and it’s not something he has any right to disclose. It’s not going to be about Mingyu. It’s about Wonwoo.

Either way, he’ll make up for what he did, somehow, somehow. And whether Wonwoo forgives him or not, that’s fine. But at the very least, he’ll try to give him something that he deserves to hear.

 

October is the perfect month for a massive campus-wide party. It’s officially the season of pumpkin spice and plaid sweaters, warm colours mixed with cool weather. Leaves are beginning to turn to orange and red, and when a big breeze hits it tears leaves off their branches and make them spin haphazardly halfway down the street so the people walking by can smile and point. The day before Homecoming it rains hard for most of the day, sending half the students into a state of panic. Parties aren’t as fun and don’t have nearly as big a turnout when it’s raining.

Fortunately, by the time Saturday hits, the sun is shining strong and determined, and the only remnants of yesterday’s rain is slightly damp grass. Everything’s in full swing. Mingyu wakes up to delighted howls of laughter and cheers of the students heading out early to have fun for the weekend. Minghao’s already awake, of course, and studying at his desk in his pyjamas.

“I can’t believe you’re doing schoolwork the second you wake up,” Mingyu gripes, staggering out of bed.

“Just wanted to get some stuff done so my evening is free. You should, too, or you’re gonna fail your midterms.”

“I’ve got it under control, Hao, chill.” Mingyu groans and stretches, feeling his spine pop in at least three different places.

“If you say so.”

The day swims by almost lazily, as if it knows that everyone wants to have a good time today and is trying to give them the most out of their time. Mingyu watches out the window as students leave by the dozens to go to the various parties happening off-campus and marvels at the sheer balls it takes them to all go get drunk in the daytime. At six, he and Minghao leave their dorm to go out and watch people stampede into the stadium in time for the game, and Junhui is right—it really is funny to see completely wasted individuals stumble to the bleachers, hollering their lungs out, some still clutching bottles of whatever in their hands.

They don’t stay to watch the game, which, as Minghao puts it, is “kind of a waste of time” and not actually the whole point of Homecoming. They instead choose a spot on campus to eat dinner together, taking their time and enjoying how empty the normally crowded as all-hell food court is. By the time the game ends at eight and people are returning back to their dorms to get ready for round two of partying, Mingyu and Minghao are walking to Junhui’s house and bickering over the Google Maps on Minghao’s phone.

Junhui lives in a small little home that appears almost identical to every other one on the block, all cement steps leading to a cramped porch and clutter caused by six young adults living in close proximity to one another that they can’t really hide. Junhui greets them smiling, his hair styled back and wearing a loose white collared shirt. Mingyu is once again unnerved at his own emotions. Was Junhui always this good-looking? And tall?

“Hey, you made it!” he says cheerily. “Mingyu, c’mere, your cooler’s in the fridge. Minghao didn’t say what you liked, so I just got you some lemonade thing.”

They follow him into the kitchen, just as small and overly cluttered as everything else in this house. Junhui opens the fridge door and stoops to grab Mingyu’s drink, just as Minghao says, “A white shirt, Jun? Really? That is not going to last by the end of the night.”

“Shut up, Haohao. I’m a host, I gotta look classy.” He straightens up and hands Mingyu a Smirnoff Ice. “Good enough for you?”

“Well, I’m not looking to get drunk tonight, so it’s perfect,” Mingyu says, smiling shyly at him. “Thanks.”

“Where’s mine?” Minghao demands.

“Forgot to buy you one.”

“Jun, the fuck, man? I paid you thirty bucks for this!”

“I’m just kidding, Jesus, you’re so uptight.” Junhui carelessly tosses a can of something at Minghao who just barely stops it from smashing into his forehead, cursing. “Do us all a favour and get buzzed, you’re far more fun to hang out with in that state.”

“Get fucked, Junhui. Thanks.”

“That’s the idea,” Junhui yells over his shoulder as he goes to greet a new wave of students showing up at the door.

Minghao grumbles into his drink, and makes a face when he sees Mingyu grinning toothily at him from across the counter. “What did I say? Annoying asshole. Of course, he gets away with anything because my mom thinks he’s the smartest, most perfect person in the world. Going to school with relatives is the worst, I tell you.”

Mingyu knows by now that when Minghao says that he doesn’t really mean it—it just seems to be his particular way of showing affection towards his cousin. “It’s cute how much he bothers you.”

“He doesn’t bother me. I am completely unbothered. What the fuck about you? Don’t think I didn’t notice you getting all bothered by him a few minutes ago.”

Mingyu’s smile slips, but he hides it quickly by taking several sips of his drink. The alcohol tastes almost unfamiliar and stronger than he expects, after forgoing it entirely for months. Minghao is distracted by his drink as well as being nettled by Junhui, and doesn’t appear to have noticed Mingyu’s discomfort like he normally would. “What do you mean?”

Minghao just snorts, examining the label on his can. “Oh, please. You think I haven’t seen a million and one people checking him out, like, all the time? I know a bothered look when I see one, Gyu.”

Was it that obvious? Or is it just Minghao and his ridiculously sharp eyes and observant personality? Mingyu doesn’t know, but he’s suddenly a little scared. If Minghao could see that Mingyu was attracted to boys, did anyone else? Is he not hiding it as good as he thought he was? And does it bother Minghao, does he care, would he be grossed out, would he—?

The house starts to fill up with people exponentially fast, and Mingyu distracts himself with his drink, and before long temporarily forgets his worries. This party feels nowhere near as awful as the one he went to last time. Maybe it’s because Minghao makes sure to stick with him most of the time, and he knows Junhui and Seokmin and Soonyoung, and he’s gotten to know a few other people at least by name that he manages to greet and maintain decent conversation with. Perhaps it’s because he’s unused to alcohol again, or maybe it’s just the effect of vodka mixing with the antidepressants in his system, but by the time night has fallen to pitch black outside, and the house is teeming with students, and music is blasting, and he’s around three-quarters done with his Smirnoff Ice, he’s feeling a little dizzy.

“Feeling alright?” Soonyoung half-yells into his ear while they stand close to the speakers. Once again, he looks way too good, and Mingyu’s feeling very confused.

“I don’t know if I’m buzzed or not,” Mingyu yells back.

“I know I am.”

They both laugh like it’s hilarious, and then Mingyu sees him. He spots Wonwoo in the hallway. The liquid courage coursing through his veins is probably mixing with the prescriptions still in his system and he decides that it’s now or never. Tonight, right now, is the moment he has to do it, while his inhibitions are too jacked up to stop him. “Hey, I’ll talk to you later, gotta go, go do something. See ya!”

Soonyoung just waves him off, searching for someone else to talk to. He weaves his way through the crowd, probably with all the grace of a hippopotamus, and reaches out to grab Wonwoo’s arm. At the last moment, he hesitates and then decides to settle for pulling on his sleeve, instead.

Wonwoo turns around, and if he’s surprised to see Mingyu there, he doesn’t show it. Instead, he says “Mingyu” in an almost expectant tone; like he’s been trying to find him, too. He’s holding a can of some sort of alcohol in his hand; they’ve both been drinking.

“Wonwoo,” Mingyu says, the word sounding strange curled around his tongue, like a foreign language. He hates that even now he still gets a weird tingly sensation up his arms that make his fingers feel a little numb. Wonwoo just looks so unfairly good in his stupid leather jacket, god. “I gotta t-talk to you. In private, if that’s. Okay. Is that okay?”

“I’ve been meaning to talk to you, too,” he says, which is cryptic as all fuck and makes Mingyu feel more nervous than ever. “Hold on—sorry guys, gotta go, I’ll catch up with you some other time—are you drunk, Mingyu?”

“No. Well, I might be buzzed. Maybe. But I’m totally lucid, I swear. Not like las—last time.”

Almost like in a dream, or maybe looking at snapshots of an event happening instead of watching it play out as normal, Mingyu vaguely recalls asking Wonwoo nervously if it’s okay for them to go outside to talk, where it’s quieter and has less people. He then remembers walking to the back door, hyperaware of Wonwoo’s presence following behind him the entire time—he remembers seeing Minghao, and patting him on the shoulder—he remembers walking outside, the fresh and cool night air reinvigorating him—he remembers staring up at the moon for a while, almost entranced by how bright it is—and then suddenly the snapshots end, and he’s back, and it’s the present.

“Are you feeling okay?” Wonwoo asks.

Mingyu looks back down at him, his features harder to make out in the darkness but still visible due to the lights from Junhui’s shed, where a couple students are getting stoned and taking no notice of them. “Wuh?”

“Last time—at that party—you were, well—”

“Oh.” He can feel his face grow hot. “I, yeah, that was a thing. I’m okay, really. It won’t happen this time. Probably.”

“Was it because of what happened?” Wonwoo’s voice sounds strange. “In Hysera, was it because of—?”

“I—no, god, no!” Mingyu doesn’t like the look on Wonwoo’s face. A small part of him, the part that’s still stuck in the past and hasn’t grown up from being a high school senior, wants to kiss him until that look fades away. Wonwoo has never looked more kissable than when Mingyu can no longer touch him. “They’re just anxiety attacks, that’s all—they’re not even a disorder or anything, I was just, I was thinking about things for so long that they started to fuck up my mind and stress me out. I’m on medication, I’m getting better.”

“You’re having anxiety attacks?” His voice sounds strained, somehow; like it bothers him, like it’s something that hurts to hear. Mingyu doesn’t like that sound, so he rushes ahead with his clumsy apology, ready to bare his heart and let it bleed dry and not stop until he says everything he needs to say.

“Wonwoo, I know you probably don’t want to hear this, but I think we should talk about—about everything that happened. In high school, I mean. T-the fire drill, the dare, what we did to you. I-I mean, Christ, it was awful. I threw you under the bus to save my own hide, I, I—”

“Mingyu.”

“—You’ll probably never forgive me for it, but I still want to say just how fucking sorry I am. I was a bully, a fucking asshole, and Seungcheol and Jihoon and I didn’t think at all about how you would feel, how the whole dare and everything after that would impact you—”

“Mingyu.”

“—I really, really, I’m so sorry, I’m—if I could turn back time, I-I’d never do it. I would have never agreed to the dare. I know I can put a lot of the blame on Seungcheol, but that doesn’t excuse my actions. I used you, I made you think—”

Mingyu.” Wonwoo cuts through his babble before he can really go full steam, and Mingyu’s words derail themselves into a meek, embarrassed stop as he anxiously waits for Wonwoo’s reply. He’s not sure what to expect, honestly. Judging by how he’s been since September, Wonwoo’s not interested in holding any grudges. But then again, Mingyu had lied to him for an entire school year, had tricked him and humiliated him in front of their entire senior class, and he wouldn’t hold it against him if he told him to fuck off here and now. It would hurt like hell, but he would understand.

“I want to apologize,” Wonwoo says, and that is an answer so unexpected he hadn’t even considered it to be an option. Mingyu stares at him, bewildered, mouth opening and closing like a gaping fish before he can finally find something to say.

“No, wait, what the fuck? I should be the one apologizing—I am apologizing—you did nothing wrong, you didn’t—”

Wonwoo looks up at the moon for just a moment, up at the night sky as if he wants to count the pinpricks of stars, before looking back down to earth and letting out a tired, bitter little laugh. “Oh, Mingyu. I knew all along.”

“W-what?”

“The dare. I knew about the dare the whole time.”

There’s a long, long silence between them. The night swamps them like a heavy blanket, the starry sky suddenly feeling much lower to the ground than before, its pressure threatening to cave in Mingyu’s head and crush his brain. He tries to make heads or tails of Wonwoo’s words, before finally saying, in a tiny voice, “You did?”

“Of course I did.” He sounds so matter-of-fact when he says it, but Mingyu knows better. Wonwoo’s got his hands shoved into his jacket pockets so he can hide their trembling, and his deep voice is tight with restrained emotion. Even then, he can’t quite stop himself; his words fall hard and fast, like hailstones, the way they always do when he starts getting worked up. “God, you’re so obvious Mingyu, don’t you know that? Why would someone like you start hanging out with me? It was so fucking obvious, you would’ve done anything for Seungcheol and Jihoon at the time, if they wanted to mess with me a little you wouldn’t have said no.”

“But—but—” Mingyu stutters a little, not sure if it’s the alcohol messing with him or just nerves. Probably both. Even now, even now, Wonwoo holds his tongue and patiently waits for him to spit it out. “Then why did you? You let me …? Why would you say nothing and let me, let me—?”

“Because,” Wonwoo looks more tired and more bitter when he softly smiles and says, “you started falling in love with me.”

Mingyu can’t get any words to come out. He doesn’t know what to say.

“You started falling in love with me, and I—I let you. Do you know how it feels, to be an outcast all your life, to be told by everyone around you that liking boys is wrong and sinful so you have to cover it up like an embarrassing secret, pretend there’s nothing wrong with you? To be a loser for years and years and years and think that nobody could ever, would ever give you what you want, and then to suddenly have someone like you the same way, to have someone …?” He sounds choked up, and Mingyu’s chest aches desperately. Unshakeable Wonwoo has been shook, a voice whispers inside his head, reminding him once again of the awful, perfect, disastrous past that he still clings to for dear life. “You were so popular, so tall, so handsome, and even though it was all a stupid fucking dare that was so fucking obvious to anyone with half a brain, you were so considerate, and gentle, and you were falling in love with me, me, of all people, of all—? How could I stop you? How could I stop myself?

There’s a brief moment where Wonwoo’s eyes look a little wet, and Mingyu is scared he might start to cry, but he takes a quick breath to keep himself together and when he speaks again, his voice is shaky but calm. Almost cool, as if he’s trying to distance himself from his emotions.

“Don’t you see, Mingyu? You thought you were using me, playing me for a fool. That I was some unwitting pawn in your friends’ game. But I knew all along, and I was also using you, in a way. Someone so popular and beautiful was falling for me, at a time when I was so certain that I could never be loved by anybody, and I clung to that and let it grow, even though I knew it couldn’t possibly work out. I knew, and I let it happen anyway, I let us both get in too deep and get wrecked. I,” he hesitates, “I let myself grow attached to something I knew was going to end.”

Mingyu wants to say something—knows he has to say something—but it’s suddenly so, so hard to formulate a sentence, to string words into a coherent structure. All this time, he had thought that Wonwoo felt so betrayed, that the reveal of the dare was something that could break him. But wasn’t Mingyu the one to realize, all the way back to when they first talked to each other, that Wonwoo can see through practically anything? That he seems to know people’s original intentions even if they try to hide it?

So fucking obvious, Wonwoo says.

In the end, he does manage to say something. “You thought this was going to end?”

Wonwoo gives him an exasperated look. “Mingyu, we both knew it, come on. That day with the fire drill was always going to happen, sooner or later. It was inevitable.”

He doesn’t know why he’s so fixated on this point out of everything else he’s been told tonight, but his heart thuds painfully hard and sad inside of his chest. “I didn’t want it to. End, I mean. I … I wanted to find a way to change, to make it last forever. Did you really, did you really think that it had an expiration date, that it was all going to be over?” His words start to hitch and crack, as if the sentences are starting to crumble and snap, as if he might start crying, but he fights it down. “Even when we, we … you did that thinking it was all going to stop by the end of high school?”

Wonwoo almost winces, as though he’s in pain. “Don’t. Please.”

“I-I’m sorry.” He heaves in a staggering breath of chilly night air. “It doesn’t change anything, knowing this.”

“Doesn’t it?” His voice sounds brittle and dry, like a dead twig that can be snapped off with one twist of a hand.

“Whether you knew it or not, it doesn’t matter. I still went ahead with it, I still hurt you. I’m still sorry for doing that to you. Whether the—the fire drill was going to happen or not, you didn’t deserve to be treated that way.”

For a moment, the two of them just look at each other. There’s so many unspoken words between them that won’t ever be said. The distance between them isn’t much—both have subconsciously huddled closer together so their words can’t be overheard and to protect themselves against the wind—but it somehow feels like they’re miles apart.

“I accept your apology,” Wonwoo says, “and I forgive you.”

“Even though what I did was horrible?”

“It was horrible, but you’re not a horrible person. Never were.”

“I don’t know about that.” He’s thinking about the awful voice inside his head that told him to abandon Wonwoo, told him to leave everyone behind and claw his way to the top so he can never feel lonely or unloved ever again. That voice hasn’t come back to him since the summer, but it doesn’t change the fact that he still thought it.

“Mingyu, why do you think I called Seungcheol out? In front of everybody at the fire drill?”

“I—I don’t—”

“I knew what would happen when I did. I knew he’d get embarrassed and pissed off and retaliate in the best way he could, which was to reveal the dare and my sexuality and embarrass me. I called him out because I had been silent all four years of high school, and that day I decided I wasn’t going to stay silent anymore. If this was going to end, if I was going to quietly graduate and take my leave and get the hell away from that place, I wanted to at least do it in the loudest way I could, by cursing out the most popular guy in Hysera.” His voice softens, almost sounding sad. “I just didn’t expect you to be the one to say it. That … hurt more than I was expecting.”

“Jesus.”

“Did it hurt you? To say it?”

“Of course it fucking did. I hate myself for doing it. I … you didn’t deserve any of it, not like that, not the way I said it to you. I was so desperate to prove myself to everyone else, and I was a coward and I got scared, and, and. I’m so sorry.”

Wonwoo smiles, but once again, it’s too soft and bitter to be a real one. It breaks Mingyu’s heart to see it. “You were going to choose them over me. I knew you would. Like I said; inevitable.”

Mingyu swallows uncomfortably around the lump growing in his throat and cutting off his air circulation. “I—I was so desperate to be liked by people at the time. All I wanted was to be the popular kid, to be the one everyone looked up to and followed. I was so scared of losing that, of being alone, I—” He breaks off, frustrated, when he can’t gather up the words to accurately explain his thoughts.

There’s another silence as the two of them process what the other has said. Eventually, Wonwoo sighs and says, “I think we … we both fell for each other at the worst possible moment. I think we were both too desperate to be loved.”

“Was there ever going to be a good moment?” he asks, a little weakly.

“Not ... not in high school, no.”

In English class, Mingyu had learned about dramatic structure. The reveal that Wonwoo knew about the dare the whole time had been the climax. The rest of their conversation had been the falling action. And now, now it is the dénouement, the resolution, the end. Mingyu’s suddenly tired. His very bones ache. He feels ten years older, a dead old soul living inside a young man’s body, and he’s completely exhausted. “Thank you for telling me. I should probably, um, be heading home.”

Wonwoo steps back slightly, and just like that, it’s like something breaks between them. The night feels darker, the wind feels colder, and the sounds of the party from inside the house is louder and more exuberant than before. “Yeah, same here. I have midterms to study for. I’ll, um—” He breaks off, confused, for a moment, as though he’s not sure of what to say.

Mingyu says it for him. “I’ll see you later.” It sounds strange and off-kilter, like saying “thank you” to someone instead of “you’re welcome”, or something like that. But Wonwoo’s expression clears somewhat, and after a moment of hesitation it feels like it was the right thing to say.

“Goodbye, Mingyu.”

He nods weakly. “Bye.”

And he turns and heads back into the house to search for Minghao, because there’s no way he can stay in this house for a second longer. Wonwoo stands outside for a few minutes longer—maybe to clear his head, maybe to wait for Mingyu to leave, who knows—before slowly walking back inside himself.

Chapter Text

The absolute worst thing to happen after that night at Homecoming is for Mingyu to be forced to dwell for long periods of time on his memories of high school. Unfortunately for him, the week right after Homecoming is reading week, and to his utter horror he’s right back in his house—or as it’s starting to be known as, his own personal hellhole—and left alone for hours upon hours as his mom goes to work. This week is meant to be a period for studying before the first batch of midterms karate chops him to the ground and drags him face-first through the mud, and he wants to study, really, he does. It’s just a little hard to concentrate when he’s back in this goddamn neighbourhood again, now with a completely different mindset.

Well, he hasn’t really changed, he thinks. It’s more like everything around him is what’s different, changing, twisting into something new and unfamiliar. And, for the first time since that day during the fire drill, he purposefully makes himself think back to his time with Wonwoo.

It was obvious, now that he dwells on it. How could he have been so stupid to think that Wonwoo wouldn’t notice what he was trying to do? All those times Mingyu thought he was being so subtle and clever, all those times he thought he was carrying such a great burden, a horrible secret—but he was the one kept in the dark the whole time. He was the one that was being tricked. The thought is funny enough to make him want to laugh. Pathetic, stupid Mingyu, back at it again.

And the worst part about this entire fucked-up situation? Out of every detail for him to become obsessed with? It’s not the fact that Wonwoo knew about the dare the whole time, it’s not the fact that Wonwoo already knew he was going to screw this up for them in the end, and it’s not even the fact that Wonwoo knew Mingyu was falling for him and was so desperate to feel wanted that he let him do it anyway.

He just wants to know if Wonwoo ever really loved him.

Wonwoo had said he let himself become “attached”, but that doesn’t exactly translate into “love” in Mingyu’s books. Then again, he doesn’t think Wonwoo would care so much about him if he didn’t actually like him—and he did care. If everything else between them turns out to have been an absolute lie, Mingyu is at least certain of that. The way he held Mingyu’s hands, the way he looked at him sometimes … Wonwoo isn’t the type to put his hands down someone’s pants if he didn’t care about them.

He mulls over this, turns it over and over in his head, unsure of what to make of all this new found revelations and unsure of what it means anymore, if it even means anything. Because what they had is already over, right? They’re two completely different boys leading completely different lives now, and any intermingling between them is only because of their mutual friends. It’s not like they like each other anymore, right?

So does any of it even matter?

The only thing that keeps him from going insane being stuck in his house for a whole week is his text convos with Minghao, Soonyoung, and Seokmin (Junhui feels slightly too intimidating and cool for him to casually text just yet). It feels a lot less like the lonely emptiness of frosh week and a bit more like his constant texts and group chats with people back in high school, with the small exception that he actually likes talking to these guys now. And to his relief, he hasn’t had another anxiety attack since that one at the party a month ago. In fact, he hasn’t felt the anxiety simmering just below the surface, waiting, pinching at his nerves and pulling at his frays, since then either. Maybe it’s just the antidepressants fully kicking in, but it feels a whole lot more like his body finally decided to fuck it and give up overthinking and worrying about everything.

That’s slightly more nerve-wracking, to be perfectly honest. Now he’s not sure if he’s experiencing less anxiety because he’s finally getting over it, or because his body is completely shutting down of any feeling.

 

Reading week ends, and Mingyu returns to Aphodell College with relief. He feels like he had been away for far too long. Every single tree in his line of sight is an atmospheric pumpkin orange, squash yellow, or turkey brown, and the sky is an invincible Crayola-blue. The weather is dry but not quite cold enough to call for heavy-duty jackets, and general excitement over Halloween—otherwise known as the next big batch of crazy parties in-between Homecoming and the weekend before finals—now permeates the air.

“Hey, man,” he greets when he lugs his suitcase up to his room and sees Minghao already there, chilling on his bed. It’s almost overwhelming how reassured he is to be back here, how much more comforting the campus feels compared to his house.

“Hey,” Minghao says, “how was reading week?”

“Boring as shit.” Also, he hates having to be back home, but he’s not going to get into that. “Yours?”

Minghao groans and says, “Thanksgiving is hell in my family. I wish my dad was Buddhist like my mom so we wouldn’t have these stupid holiday dinners and family get-togethers. I nearly stabbed Jun in the throat with my fucking drumstick.”

Mingyu snorts as he shoves his clothes back into his closet. “That sounds like fun.” His Thanksgiving was … nice, but lonely. Mrs. Kim cooked up a tiny turkey and fluffed up some mashed potatoes and bought a pumpkin pie, but the two of them just calmly eating it like any old dinner didn’t make it feel very much like a holiday. Normally, he’d be out at a party around this time. For a moment, when he had been spooning mashed potatoes and coagulated gravy into his mouth, he wistfully remembered that Seungcheol’s mom made excellent stuffing.

“Yeah, that’s a word for it.” Minghao groans and scratches at one of his golden hoop piercings with a bony finger. Mingyu keeps reminding himself to ask Minghao where he got his ears pierced, but keeps forgetting to do so. “Still, it was nice to have time to really study and get my act together for midterms. I think I got all caught up.”

“Oh, shit. Right.”

Minghao freezes and then gives him a look over his laptop. “Mingyu, you studied for the midterms, right?”

“Of course I did.” Well, he sort of did. Not as much as he could have, sure, but it’s all good. He should be fine. “Can’t you give me some faith?”

“Saying ‘oh shit’ when I mention the midterms doesn’t exactly sound reassuring.”

“No, no, bro, I got this.” Mingyu sets his laptop back up and suddenly realizes exactly how many midterms he had to study for. They felt so far away only a week ago. “Yikes. When’s—when’s my first midterm?”

“How would I know?” Minghao makes a sound like he doesn’t know whether to laugh or not. “Jesus, Mingyu, you’re making me nervous.”

He digs through his course websites to find his midterm schedules. The first one, Psychology, is this Tuesday. Followed by English on Wednesday. Yep, they definitely felt a lot farther away a week ago. “Oh, fuck me.”

“Do you need me to help you study? I can quiz you, if you want.” Minghao shoves his laptop to the side so he can stretch himself halfway off his bed and fumble for his desk’s drawer. “I have flash cards you can borrow somewhere …”

Abso-fucking-lutely not. Mingyu’s the one who screwed up, he’s not gonna drag Minghao down with him. “No way, man, you got midterms to study for too. I’ll be fine. Just … just wasn’t expecting them to come up so fast. It feels like we only just finished frosh week, and now …”

“Yeah,” Minghao agrees, head jerking into a stiff nod. First semester of their very first year of college is already almost halfway over. Maybe it’s just the increased workload, but Mingyu can’t believe how fast time is flying. It’s already so close to November, and yet he feels like September hasn’t even finished yet. For a moment he feels old, old as the universe, inside of his skin, acutely aware of how frightening it is to grow up, and then the moment passes and he’s back to himself. Dumb, stupid, rash, insecure, self-hating little Kim Mingyu, and he knows that at heart he’s still that awkward, overeager kid nobody ever wanted to play or be friends with.

He may be eighteen, but he still has a lot of growing up to do.

 

The first class he shares with Wonwoo is nerve-wracking in more ways than one. First of all, it’s a midterm review lesson that day, and Mingyu keeps flipping through his notes while waiting for class to start and realizing with a sudden jolt of nervousness that he doesn’t remember half the stuff he wrote down, which (considering the midterm is this Thursday) does not bode well for his future success. Second of all, and feeling slightly more important on the scale of Mingyu’s mental and emotional well-being, he hasn’t seen or contacted Wonwoo at all since Homecoming, and he’s not sure what at all to do or say. They had ended on a—fairly—amicable note, sort of, kind of, but it was left pretty ambiguous on both parts how they’re supposed to move on from here.

Thirdly, when Wonwoo does walk in, in a loose button-down shirt and blue jeans, he doesn’t sit at his usual spot with his friends. Instead, he walks up and sits right next to Mingyu.

The shock is so profound Mingyu can’t even find the time to jump a little in his seat, or flinch, or do much beyond stare at Wonwoo with wide-eyed surprise. Wonwoo’s face is calm and impassive, but his fingers nervously tap against the flat surface of his laptop.

“Hello, Mingyu.”

“Hi,” Mingyu’s mouth is way too dry, like sandpaper; he gulps while trying to make it look not that obvious that he’s gulping, “Wonwoo.”

Wonwoo’s jaw works for just a second as though he’s not really sure what to say. Mingyu just doesn’t understand why he keeps coming up to talk to him. “Hello, Mingyu. How was your reading week?”

“I, uh,” he looks down at the rows of chattering, giggling students below them, confused, “it was good, um, just—nice to see my mom again, I guess, and, uh—” an awkward silence follows as Mingyu tries to think of a way to keep up the conversation and Wonwoo pretends he can still fool Mingyu into thinking he always has his emotions under control. It’s like they’re back to being idiotic, selfish little high schoolers, and Mingyu’s sick of it, and he finally just gives up. “So what happens now?”

Wonwoo’s actually startled. He blinks at Mingyu for a moment, lips twisting into a thin, unsure line. Despite the lecture hall buzzing loudly with the sound of hundreds of voices talking at once, the air between them feels quiet. “What do you mean?”

“I-I mean—” Mingyu coughs and rubs at the skin by his wrists. “I mean, where do we go from here? What do we do? We … is it always going to be like this between us? Y’know, circling around each other, never—never being able to get used to each other?”

Wonwoo stays quiet for a moment. “I,” he says, slowly, “was hoping we could be … friends again.”

“Friends?”

“Is that stupid of me to ask?”

“I-I just didn’t expect you to—want to—is this some sort of pity thing? Like, you still feel guilty for what happened in high school and you feel sorry for me or something?”

“What? No. Jesus fucking Christ, Mingyu.” Wonwoo runs a hand through his hair as the other taps even faster against his laptop, fingernails clacking against its surface in sixteen-four time. “I just—look, we could be like this, awkward and uncomfortable and unsure of how to act around each other for the rest of our undergrad, or we could, you know, get over ourselves and start over as friends. That’s just what I’ve been thinking, that’s all. If you aren’t cool with that, it’s alright, no hard feelings.”

Could they do that? Mingyu runs his tongue anxiously over the sharp edge of his canine, digs in just enough for it to start to hurt a little. Could they just … be friends again? Forget about all the messy stuff, the drama, and just hang out like they used to? Well, it wouldn’t quite be like it used to, would it? Mingyu would no longer be fighting off the desire to hold Wonwoo, to kiss him, he wouldn’t be blindly reaching out for his hand when he thinks no one is around to see. It would be Mingyu and Wonwoo, back to normal, finally talking to each other and enjoying each other’s company the way they used to. But Mingyu wouldn’t be Wonwoo’s Mingyu, and Wonwoo wouldn’t be his.

But that’s probably what they both need. A fresh start. A do-over. A chance to be good for each other the way they could have, should have been, without all the heartbreak and baggage they carried with them in their quasi-relationship.

Pining over what he thought they had together will do nothing but hurt them both. Wonwoo’s right. Maybe it’s time for them to lose the bad blood, for Mingyu to get the fuck over himself.

And get the fuck over Wonwoo.

“Yeah,” he says before he can chicken out. His voice is stronger and more sure of himself than his heart feels. “Y-yeah, you’re right. Let’s—let’s start over. Let’s try again as friends. Wipe the clean slate.”

Wonwoo’s lips twitch into a smile. His fingers have stopped tapping. “It’s ‘wipe the slate clean’, Mingyu.”

“You know how shit I am at English, shut up.”

Wonwoo snorts, and Mingyu smiles, and they continue to sit together for the rest of the class. Even though he can’t get over Wonwoo that quickly, even though he still has butterflies in his stomach every time he looks at Wonwoo’s handsome face and the way Wonwoo absent-mindedly traces gentle circles against his laptop keyboard in-between writing notes, this is the least nervous and scared and queasy he’s felt around him in ages.

Maybe they’re moving in the right direction, after all.

 

College is definitely very, very different from high school. Mingyu isn’t used to the sheer amount of independence he’s given. No longer does he get handouts from his homeroom teacher that details the exam schedule, no longer does he have Seungcheol and Jihoon to sit with in the brightly-lit hallways of Hysera Secondary to pore over notes at the last minute before the exams start.

No, now he has to remember to search up his exam schedules for each individual class by himself. Now he has to walk to some building he’s never even gone to before at eight in the evening, the sky already darkening beyond comfort, looking up a PDF of his campus map on his phone but trying to be nonchalant about it so nobody knows he’s lost. Now he has to stand in a huge crowd outside of the lecture hall alone, because he hasn’t exactly made many friends other than Minghao’s gang and he doesn’t know anybody else taking the same exam at the same lecture hall as him. He shifts his gravity from one foot to another and goes over the Psychology notes he’s been cramming for since Sunday, trying to ignore the nervous tension boiling in his stomach like acid, and he feels very, very alone.

They are given a strict one and a half hours for the midterm. Mingyu struggles through the questions under harsh fluorescent lights and the unnerving sound of two hundred other students silently scratching their pencils against Scantron sheets but feels reasonably satisfied with the results. Feeling rather pleased with himself, he finishes half an hour early and walks back home, hands stuffed into his pockets so they don’t freeze in the chilly October night air.

His midterms pass one by one, some he thinks he did semi-okay on, others not so much. A particularly nasty midterm has him breaking out into a shaky, cold sweat when he realizes he can only answer less than half of the questions and has to struggle through process of elimination for the rest of them. He slumps back to Irissen Hall in shame afterwards, so dazed by how ill-prepared he was that he thinks he might get another anxiety attack before he gets home.

He doesn’t, thank god, but Minghao probably notices his trembling hands and shortness of breath because he disappears for several minutes and then returns, cheeks and fingers bitten cold and pink by the unforgiving autumn wind, with a bag of jalapeno chips and Twix bars he bought from the nearest campus convenience store. He doesn’t mention the midterms at all, as the two of them sit on the carpet and share their snacks over cans of Pepsi and talk about video games and music. Minghao’s consideration makes Mingyu feel a little ashamed of himself; he doesn’t think he’s done anything to deserve Minghao’s kindness and friendliness towards him, and he doesn’t understand why Minghao would go to so much lengths to be so nice to a guy who’s only ever fucked things up in his life.

But it feels so nice and personal to just sit and talk, and it’s so nice to have someone he can do that with again, so he doesn’t mention these thoughts to Minghao on the off chance he somehow scares him away.

When his mom calls to ask how his exams all went, he lies and tells her he thinks they went really well. She sounds so proud of him.

 

It’s so close to hitting November that they’re practically already up its ass. Halloween falls on a Friday, to everyone’s delight, and Mingyu finds himself once again bickering with Minghao on the way to Junhui’s house for another party.

Everyone’s dressed up in costumes that vary wildly in attention and detail. They have to squeeze by a pair of drunk skeletons who can’t stop making “boning” jokes, sexy witches, some punny asshole with plastic knives piercing cereal boxes taped to various parts of his body (“I’m a serial killer, geddit?” he guffaws after them as they walk past), scary witches, and a couple of lazy people who just put Scream masks on with their normal clothes, before they find Junhui. He’s talking to one of his housemates in the upstairs hallway, looking roguish and dashing in a pirate costume. Mingyu is instantly nervous and clammy when he sees that Junhui has conveniently left quite a number of buttons on his shirt undone, exposing more skin than is really necessary.

“Where’s your costumes?” he demands when he catches sight of them. Neither of them were particularly interested in getting dressed for the occasion.

Mingyu looks down at his white turtleneck. “I’m a ghost,” he says.

Minghao digs his hands into his jean pockets, sticks out his chin, and defiantly says, “I’m dressed as myself.”

Junhui frowns at them and shakes his head. “Oh, hell no, I’m not letting you two into this party without actual costumes on. Minghao, c’mere, I had a feeling you’d do this to me so I got another pirate costume. Come on, we’d be twinning—”

Minghao back steps so fast he almost crashes right into Mingyu. “Fuck you, Jun,” he says threateningly.

Junhui is completely unfazed. He directs his attention to Mingyu, who’s already weakening his resolve under Junhui’s black eyeliner. “Hey, Mingyu, gimme a hand here, yeah? Don’t you wanna see Minghao in a cute li’l pirate costume?”

“Yes, absolutely,” Mingyu says, and without a second thought he plants both hands firmly on Minghao’s shoulders and shoves him towards Junhui, who grabs him into an easy headlock and takes the time to affectionately ruffle his hair until Minghao whines and tries to wriggle free, cursing and spluttering.

“You’re the life of the party, Gyu,” Junhui says with a friendly wink. “Go enjoy yourself, and keep your phone out. I’m expecting pictures of Haohao from all angles to send to my aunt later.”

“Don’t you dare send mom any pics of me, Jun—” Minghao snarls, but Junhui’s dragging him into what’s presumably his bedroom, and Mingyu’s left alone in the hallway, grinning at their family antics before heading back downstairs. He doesn’t feel nearly as lost or nervous as he was compared to the first party he went to.

He’s in the small hallway right below the stairs and waiting for Seokmin and Soonyoung to show up—and maybe Wonwoo, since they’re technically now friends, he thinks—when someone bumps into him from behind and nearly makes him spill his drink all over himself.

“Oh, shit, sorry about tha—hey, I know you. You’re Minghao’s roommate, right?”

Mingyu stares at this person, a stranger as far as he knows. Harley Quinn. Or, well, someone dressed up as Harley Quinn, complete with long hair in pink-and-blue-streaked silvery pigtails and smeared eye makeup. His voice isn’t particularly feminine and his facial features are a little too pronounced to really mistake him as a girl, but even then he’s still almost too pretty. Mingyu’s never seen someone pull off long hair so well.

“Uh, hi?” Mingyu says. “Yeah, that’s … me. My name is Mingyu.”

Harley Quinn looks him up and down. For a quick moment, Mingyu thinks he’s checking him out and his muscles seize with both apprehension and something else he can’t really explain, but then he realizes that Harley Quinn isn’t so much checking him out as he is sizing him up, as if he’s trying to tell if Mingyu’s good enough or something.

“I’m Jeonghan,” he finally says after a terrifyingly long pause, giving Mingyu a quick smile once he’s satisfied with whatever he sees. “I’m a third-year student, so you probably haven’t seen me around, but I’m one of Minghao’s friends from high school.”

“Oh!” Vaguely, Mingyu recalls Minghao mentioning his name once or twice. “Y-yeah, um, he said something about you being really busy with club activities.”

“Yep, I’m drowning in organizing events and providing help lines along with keeping up with schoolwork, so I’m pretty much always booked.” Jeonghan casually blows a stray strand of his silvery hair out of his face. “Sorry for not meeting you sooner, I guess.”

“Is your hair real?” Mingyu blurts out.

Jeonghan laughs, but not unkindly. “Yes.”

“Shit, really? Isn’t it hard to, you know, take care of it when it’s that long?”

“Sometimes. I get split ends if I start getting lazy.” Jeonghan tugs at one of his ponytails, shrugging. “What can you do. If I have to cut it later, I’ll just cut it. No big deal.”

“Uhh, yeah.” Mingyu nods helplessly. Something in Jeonghan’s unwavering confidence makes Mingyu feel more like a youngster, as if within the two-year age difference between them Jeonghan had already learned something about himself that made him a more complete person. “Same. Totally get it.”

Jeonghan laughs again, and Mingyu feels rather pleased with himself, when he hears people calling his name and he turns to see his friends have finally arrived. Soonyoung and Seokmin are grinning at him and wearing identical skintight all-black outfits. Wonwoo trails after them dressed as a vampire and looking ridiculously hot. Mingyu has to shove his jumping heart back into its chest cavity and remind himself that they’re only friends now.

“Hey, guys,” he says, and can’t help smiling when Soonyoung and Seokmin both casually sidle up close to him like they’ve been doing it for years. Soonyoung even puts an arm around Mingyu when he turns to greet Jeonghan.  

“We haven’t seen you in decades,” he whines. “Where the fuck have you been?”

Jeonghan just quirks up an eyebrow at him, unimpressed. “If you joined my club like Wonwoo did, maybe you’d see me more.”

Wait, what? Wonwoo’s in the club Jeonghan runs? Mingyu wonders how much he’s missed out on in the past almost-two months. He just smiles with the rest of them and pretends he knows what they’re all talking about, even though he’s completely lost. Some part of him twinges with something cold and sad, and he remembers that feeling of being left out back when he was a kid.

“Don’t make me feel guilty, you know I’m busy,” Soonyoung says huffily, before adding, “Hey, where’s Minghao?” He looks over Mingyu’s shoulder as if he expects to see him hiding just out of sight or something.

“Junhui’s upstairs wrestling him into a pirate costume,” Mingyu says, and watches as a delightedly evil smile spreads across everyone’s faces in practical unison. “I’m instructed to take as many pictures as I can.”

“Holy shit, where is he?” Seokmin glances up the rickety stairs leading to the second floor. If he was any happier about this, he’d be rubbing his hands together like a villainous mastermind. “I need to see this with my own naked eyeballs.”

“He should be in Junhui’s room, I think, so go right up ahead. Wait, what the hell are you guys supposed to be?”

Soonyoung and Seokmin look down at their nondescript, form-fitting black outfits, then start to laugh. “Hold on a sec, Gyu,” Seokmin says, giggling, “you’re gonna love this. Hold on, just let us get our masks out, aaand …”

They pull out matching orange pumpkin masks. Mingyu just stares at them, while Wonwoo watches on in quiet, obvious amusement.

“Don’t you get it?” Soonyoung says, gleefully, when Mingyu doesn’t say anything. “We’re the dancing pumpkin man! From all the memes, you know? The one that dances to like, any song! C’mon, it’s funny.”

“I,” Mingyu says, “am so embarrassed to call myself your friend right now. Like, so embarrassed.”

“You don’t think it’s funny?”

“No, it’s fucking hilarious, except I actually know you guys and being connected to this in any way is mortifying. If you guys start doing the dance in the middle of this party, I’m walking out, I’m telling you right now. I’m leaving.”

Seokmin nods at his best friend. “He likes it,” he confirms with a wide, shit-eating grin.

“We’re gonna get Minghao,” Soonyoung says, “you guys just stay there and wait for a minute.”

They scamper off in their stupid fucking pumpkin meme man getup, and Mingyu turns around to find that Jeonghan has disappeared—probably got bored of talking to a bumbling first year, honestly—and it’s just him and a stupidly hot vampire Wonwoo, hair slicked back and dressed in a black Dracula-like cape. He makes it look better than it should.

“You’re not wearing a costume?” Wonwoo asks, looking down at Mingyu’s civilian clothing.

“I’m a ghost,” he says before he can stop himself.

Wonwoo snorts. “Mingyu, come on.”

“It works, okay? I’m wearing white. That’s basically a ghost costume already.”

“Only your shirt is white. I mean, you couldn’t even take the time to cut some holes into a sheet and wear that over you?”

Mingyu wants to argue his case, but Wonwoo is grinning and he looks so handsome and he has a thin line of red-painted “blood” down one corner of his mouth, so Mingyu gives up. He’s just glad that Wonwoo’s having fun, and being gently teased by him isn’t exactly an awful way to pass the time. “Alright, alright, I have a shitty costume. Are you happy?”

“I would’ve been happier if you wore a real costume. I was thinking maybe … a zombie? I’m pretty sure you dressed up as one back in grade eleven.”

Mingyu laughs at the memory. “I was a zombie basketball player. Because, like, get it? I joined the team and I became a zombie and I even had a bloody handprint on the basketball and—yeah, it was stupid. I can’t believe you remember that.” He doesn’t remember whether Wonwoo dressed up or not. He can’t recall if it was because he didn’t really notice Wonwoo until senior year or if it was because Wonwoo was one of those kids who never dressed up. “Did you—uh, I mean, back in high school did you ever—”

His smile dims a little, but he looks like he understands. “Nah. Felt I was too old, you know? And what was the point in dressing up if I wasn’t going trick or treating later? This year was different. It felt like, I dunno. Something fun to do.”

“You look really good. In the costume, I mean. As a vampire.” He flushes what’s probably a candy apple red, the colour settling deep into his cheeks and ears. Mingyu, shut up, just shut up. “Not that I meant that you don’t normally look good, or when you’re not a vampire, but I just meant. Um. Yeah.”

Wonwoo’s smile returns in full force, and his dark eyes are sparkling with humour. This cannot be good for Mingyu’s health. “I take it you’re trying to compliment me, so thank you.”

He wants to die. “I-I was doing something like that, yeah.”

“What do you mean when you said that I ‘normally look good’?”

“Aw, Jesus, Wonwoo, you can’t seriously make me elaborate on that. It means—” Mingyu flaps his hand unintelligibly in Wonwoo’s direction. “You—you know.”

“I don’t know.” Wonwoo’s head is tilting slightly, cocking to one side (almost like that ridiculous day when Mingyu blurted out that he thought about him and Wonwoo getting intimate together in his room), the very, very rare thing he does when he’s teasing him, and it’s almost too much to deal with right now. “You’re going to have to explain it to me.”

“Wonwoo, I—look, you’re, um—” He makes a garbled noise in the back of his throat and gestures, once again incomprehensibly and with a lot of weak flailing. “You look really—nice. You dress well and you got your hair cut, and you, uh, you’re a lot more confident now than, uh, than before. That’s all I’m saying.”

“You think I look ‘nice’?” Wonwoo’s voice sounds odd—pleased, almost, as if he had actually wondered what Mingyu thought about his upgraded appearance. The idea that even before they had hashed some sort of reconciliation with each other Wonwoo had been thinking about him, secretly wondering if he liked this new, changed Wonwoo, makes Mingyu’s bones abruptly turn to jelly.

“Wonwoo, you, I mean—you’ve always looked nice.”

That surprises him a little. “Are you talking about high school?”

“Well, yeah. Even then, you were always b—you always looked good.”

Wonwoo doesn’t say anything for a moment, but his eyes are a chaotic, magnificent mixture of both immense darkness and brilliancy, his face alight with something complicated and painful and gorgeous that Mingyu can’t name. He opens his mouth to speak, but at that exact moment there’s a resounding crash in the kitchen behind them, followed by shouts of alarm and laughter and the unmistakable tinkle of broken glass.

This shakes Mingyu out of the almost-trance he had been in before, the bubble that surrounds him every time he talks to Wonwoo that makes it hard for him to notice anything else. When the two of them realize that they’re standing close together, much closer than they really should be, they both flinch and jump apart, unexpectedly afraid.

They stay there in silence for a few moments, just staring at each other. One of Junhui’s housemates comes racing past them and into the kitchen with a low curse, demanding to know who did it. Mingyu digs crescent-moon marks into his arm with his short fingernails. Did he go too far? Did he make Wonwoo upset? Is he upset? He can’t tell anymore, all he can remember is that Wonwoo was teasing him and he was both embarrassed and wanting it to never end, and they had moved close together, and now they were apart and he’s just unsure now.

“I’m sorry,” Wonwoo suddenly says. His face is flushed pink, as are his ears, and he looks profoundly guilty. “I—that wasn’t very nice of me. After I said we should start over, be friends, I shouldn’t have—I shouldn’t. I’m sorry.”

“T-that’s okay,” Mingyu stammers, flustered himself and a little confused. What did Wonwoo say to make him feel the need to apologize? “You didn’t say anything hurtful.”

That just makes Wonwoo look even more pained. “That’s not what I meant, Mingyu.”

Mingyu wants to know what he does mean, but at that moment everyone appears from upstairs, Minghao now dressed in a—surprisingly tasteful—pirate costume that matches with Junhui’s, complete with an eyepatch. Soonyoung and Seokmin trail behind him, giggling and filming him with sickly sweet choruses of “Hey, Hao, say hi to Auntie Xu”, as Minghao struggles not to flip them off on camera.

“Hey, Gyu,” Minghao says tiredly, most of the fight now left out of him. “Nice costume, Wonwoo.”

“I’m not saying anything about yours,” Wonwoo says.

“Thank you, I really appreciate it. Mingyu, if you take any pictures, I will lock you out of our room. I can swear it.”

“You look cute, Hao,” Mingyu snickers. Minghao just glares reproachfully at him, but once Junhui starts blasting Spooky Scary Skeletons and Seokmin and Soonyoung break out into a stupid pumpkin man dance that’s way too in sync to have not been choreographed previously, he can’t bring himself to be angry anymore and bursts into hysterical laughter with the rest of them.

Mingyu and Wonwoo remain friendly with each other, sticking to their word of wiping the slate clean, but they don’t mention what had passed between them for the rest of the night.

 

When November finally comes around and there are more leaves on the ground than there are in the trees, Mingyu realizes on a chilly grey Saturday in the single-digit degrees Celsius that he failed most of his exams.

The shock doesn’t hit him like a gut-punch. It settles in slower, sicker, like a creeping feeling of dread and regret that spreads through him and sinks in deep like quicksand. It’s senior year exams all over again. He’s going to fuck up and lose everything, just like last time. As he sits at his desk and stares at his laptop screen, he blindly, frantically wonders if failing a certain number of midterms is enough to get him kicked out of the school. He was starting to really, really like Aphodell.

“Whoa, Mingyu, you okay?” Minghao looks up at him from his spot on his bed, sounding a little alarmed. “What happened?”

He realizes that he’s starting to breathe hard, the telltale signs of a possible anxiety attack. When Minghao gets up from the bed and walks over to see what’s making Mingyu so upset, he slams his laptop shut and stammers out a weak, “Don’t look!”

Minghao just stares at him. Mingyu feels like such a freak. He’s not sure why he even feels the need to hide his awful marks—he supposes it’s just because he feels ashamed. Minghao just seems so smart, and in control of his life, and Mingyu is such a fuck up, and he honestly doesn’t know what Minghao sees in him to continue wanting to hang out with him.

After a moment, Minghao looks away and fiddles with the loops on his jeans, like he’s not really sure what to do or say. Eventually, he says, “Hey, wanna watch the sun come up tonight?”

“What?”

“It’s something I’ve always wanted to do. Like, it’s such a college thing, y’know? To stay up all night and then watch the sun rise on some rooftop somewhere. I figured we might as well do it now before it starts getting too cold. What do you think?”

It sounds cold and miserable. But the way Minghao is saying it, the almost hesitant quality of his words, makes Mingyu find it very hard to say no. “Yeah, alright. Uh, where should we go?”

And so, at five-thirty in the morning, the two of them leave Irissen Hall and head out to another building on campus that Junhui promised would have the door to the roof unlocked. It’s dark as shit outside, the two of them shivering in their coats and shoving their beanies further down over their ears. They had little naps throughout the night so neither of them pass out, but they didn’t actually go to sleep under the ground rules that it’s considered “cheating”. Mingyu can’t stop yawning as they reach their destination, although the cold pre-winter wind is doing wonders on waking him up.

By the time they reach the rooftop, high up above the rest of the world and a little closer to the stars still barely visible in the sky, they’re both freezing and eternally grateful they brought hot packs and thermos bottles of hot chocolate laced with vodka. The two of them sit in the darkness for a while in semi-comfortable silence, playing music out loud on their phones and huddling into their hot packs, waiting for the sun to come up at seven-twenty.

“Man, we should’ve come here a little later,” Minghao grumbles, which makes Mingyu laugh. “No, seriously, why did we decide to leave two hours early? And why did we decide we weren’t allowed to sleep beforehand? We’re stupid.”

“Very stupid,” Mingyu agrees. The sky is starting to brighten by fractions of degrees, getting lighter only enough that he can tell it’s a very, very dark blue rather than black. The moon is still visible, bright and full. Something about this place feels very surreal, like he’s in a dream or something. It’s totally silent, the air is cold, the night is mysterious and beautiful, and his body is warm with the comforts of chocolate and alcohol. “Minghao, why did you bring me here?”

Minghao is good at playing it cool, but not good enough. Mingyu’s spent months trying to analyze Wonwoo’s behaviour, after all, so he can definitely see through this. “What do you mean?”

“I mean, come on. You weren’t just casually deciding to come here out of the blue. We’re here for, like, a reason.”

Minghao stays silent for a moment, taking the thermos bottle and chugging it. Eventually, he says, “Look, I mean … you couldn’t even tell me you had anxiety attacks.”

“What?”

“You didn’t tell me! Don’t you think that as your roommate and friend I’d like to know if you suffer from panic attacks, if you take medication, where you keep them, in case there’s like an emergency or something and I need to help you? I know I’m not always a really nice person to hang around with or anything, but—”

“Dude, are you kidding me?” Mingyu interrupts, amazed. “You’re great to hang out with, what are you saying? I-I just—you seem like you have everything together, you know? Like, your shit is just all together, and here I am, a fucking mess of a dysfunctional human being, and I’m just weighing you down with all my baggage! You know?”

“But I’m trying to say that I want to help you with that baggage!” Minghao hesitates, frustrated, then takes another deep drink from the thermos. Mingyu takes it away from him and does the same. “Wasn’t I making it obvious? From the moment I met you, I knew you were a nice guy. And all my friends really liked you too. And I thought, well, hey, I barely know anyone here and it’s college and I’m so fucking nervous about growing up and getting out into the real world and shit, maybe I could become friends with my roommate and it could be one of those friendships that last, like, years, you know? Not like the friendships I used to have, the kind in high school where you stop talking the second you don’t share classes together, like, maybe for once I could find a lifetime guarantee deal, someone I can actually trust. But then there was Wonwoo, and then you kept avoiding us, and at one point Seokmin thought for sure you didn’t like us or something because we kept inviting you to things and you never really wanted to go, and then there are these times where you just looked so sad and—I dunno! I’m bad at talking about this, fuck. Gimme the thermos.”

“No, it’s mine, you had your turn.” Mingyu takes a swig from it and bats Minghao’s hands away. “I just don’t get why you even want to be friends with me, Hao. I’m a fuck-up, okay? I screwed up a lot of shit, and I just—remembering it really makes me hate myself.” Saying it out loud makes his chest seize up. He drags in an icy-cold, shuddering breath, feeling his bottom lip tremble slightly, but he doesn’t choke it down. Not anymore. “But I’m an even shittier person for trying to forget, for trying to pretend nothing is wrong. So what else can I do? I have to remember, and I have to hate myself for doing all the things I’ve done.”

It’s still a little too dark to really make out Minghao’s features, but his eyes are bright and owl-wise when he stares at Mingyu. “I don’t even know what happened to you, man,” he says softly. “You won’t ever tell me. I know I said that I don’t mind if you don’t, that I don’t wanna assume anything, but like—I just want you to trust me. Yeah? I just want us to be able to, you know, talk to each other about shit. Be able to trust each other with the things we won’t say to anyone else.”

“You—” his voice sounds half-strangled, overcome with a strange, tight emotion, “—you’d listen to me?”

“Yeah, man. Why not? We have an hour before dawn, let’s just, I dunno, talk about stuff. I’ll listen.”

I’ll listen. The simplest, deepest, most confounding and intricate promise to make, and one that’s surprisingly hard to keep. But Minghao looks so genuine, sitting next to him on the rooftop, sniffling in the cold, and Mingyu finally comes to the understanding that he would trust his life to this boy, and—more importantly—Minghao would do the same.

He tells him everything. His overwhelming, desperate desire to be the popular kid, stemming from years of loneliness and resentment from his disappeared dad. His acceptance into the ranks of the popular crowd, his friendship with Seungcheol and Jihoon. The dare. Falling in love with Wonwoo. The betrayal, and the painful episode at the fire drill. Mingyu’s clash against Seungcheol that ended with their friendship ending and them going separate ways. His subsequent development of anxiety attacks and his feelings of ugliness and awfulness. And then, finally, that night on Homecoming, when Mingyu learned that Wonwoo had been aware of the dare the whole time.

Minghao doesn’t say anything, because true to his word, he listens. At some point during his tirade, Mingyu starts to cry, and Minghao silently pulls him into a hug, wrapping skinny bird-bone arms around him, letting him continue talking like that. By the time he’s finished and exhausted, and his jaw hurts from talking so much, they sky has lightened considerably, and the two of them are just silently watching it all happen in each other’s arms. It doesn’t feel awkward or weird or embarrassing. For Mingyu, it just feels natural. Natural to be able to hold his friend like this.

“Hao,” Mingyu says, clumsily but earnestly, unsure if he will ever find the words to explain himself properly, “you’re kind of, like, my best friend.”

Minghao lets out a weak, choked-up little laugh, his first noise in a long time. “Oh, good. You’re my best friend, too.”

“Does this change anything?”

“Change what?”

“I-I mean, you knowing everything. That I was a bully in high school. That I was in love with Wonwoo. Does that change things?”

“Nah.” Minghao shifts into a more comfortable position, stealing the almost empty thermos from Mingyu’s hands. “It just means that now I know. And now I can help you when you need it. And now you can count on me to have your back.”

“Are you going to tell me your sob story now?”

“Oh, I’m easy. My mom made me take ballet when I was five and she still has the pictures somewhere in our house to prove it, I had to come to the unfortunate realization that all the friendships and connections I made in middle and high school were superficial and out of convenience and I had never had a real, true friendship in my entire life—oh, and I have a perfect dickbag of an older cousin that I’m constantly compared to.”

Mingyu snorts, then nearly chokes on his own spit. “Where are those ballet pictures? I will pay mad money to see them.”

“Good luck with that, you asshat. Junhui’s been searching for them for years, and even he hasn’t found them yet.”

They both laugh, bright and loud and boyish, because the Earth is starting to wake up and the feeling of battling exhaustion and sleep deprivation to witness a moment as glorious as this makes them feel young. Not young like a lost kid, confused and frightened by the big, scary life ahead of them. Young in the way that children are so full of wonder at the things they see, the life they’ll lead, are so certain that they are the kings and queens of their own little universe.

And, when the sun breaks through the horizon and bathes the sky in crystals of golden marmalade yellow and fluffy pink lemonade clouds, so beautiful and calm and silent and picture-perfect that Mingyu thinks he could cry all over again, he realizes with a single burst of heart-aching, desperate inspiration that he’s glad to be alive. He’s glad that he went to this school, that he got to see Wonwoo again and patch things up between them, that he got to meet Minghao and the rest.

And as he and Minghao sit side by side and watch the world come alive and take its first breath of daytime, he finally starts to forgive himself.

Chapter Text

“Okay,” Minghao says, chewing distractedly on the wrong end of a pocky stick as he stares at his laptop, “so side-effects of Prozac antidepressants includes headaches, dizziness, strange dreams …”

“I did have a really strange dream last night,” Mingyu interrupts, watching Minghao pore over the Web MD page from the floor next to his bed, wrist-deep in a bag of dill pickle-flavoured chips.  “So get this, right? Soonyoung was actually Seokmin and Seokmin was actually Soonyoung, and only I knew the difference and no one would believe me—”

“That sounds amazing, Gyu, but focus.” Minghao taps his screen with the pocky stick. The entire reason why they’re doing this is because in their new effort to Encourage and Support each other as newly fledged best friends, Mingyu admitted that he didn’t even know what Prozac was supposed to do beyond “stop his anxiety attacks” and Minghao had looked at him with utter horror for not doing even a little bit of research. As such, they decided to spend their Sunday cooped up in their room raiding their snack drawers and googling Mingyu’s medication. All the potential side-effects of taking Prozac is apparently an uncomfortably long list, and the longer Minghao stares at the page the more piercing his eyes look, like an antsy vulture or some shit. “Do you ever feel any pain? Flu symptoms?” He double-checks the screen. “Anxiety? What’s the point of taking these fucking things to help with anxiety if their side-effects include more anxiety?

“Just because they’re listed on there doesn’t mean I experience all of them, chill. Occasionally I get a little nauseous or shaky, but I’m like, sixty percent sure that’s just me. Maybe I got lucky so far.” Minghao gives him an exasperated look and bites into his pocky stick, which prompts Mingyu to make a face at him. “Hao, please eat pocky the normal human way, chocolate-side first. Why do you eat it starting from the handle?”

Minghao ignores him. It’s freezing outside, the temperature dipping into the negatives enough for early November permafrost to crust over the grass and leftover stray leaves on the sidewalks. Inside, however, they’re nice and warm and lazy, their shitty residence rooms finally pulling through as they abandon their summer fans and crank up the heaters. They leave the window open just so the room doesn’t get too hot, because listen, they already paid for this room and it’s not like they’re gonna get charged extra for wasting heat. “Oh, look. It says here that one of the side-effects is decreased sex drive and—” he tries to bite back a small snicker and fails miserably, “—impotence.”

What? No. Dude, you serious?” Mingyu scrambles up to peer over Minghao’s shoulder at the screen. “Noooo! What the fuck, man, out of everything Prozac has to do to me it could include lower libido and fucking impotence? That’s super not cool. I, like, need that.”

“For what? You’re not dating anybody.”

“Stone cold, Hao. Stone fucking cold.”

“Look, I’m right, aren’t I? Have you dated anybody since the high school fiasco?” Minghao pauses, eyebrows knitting together in consternation. “Sorry, does it bother you if I call it that? I can stop.”

“Nah, it was a fiasco. You’re just saying it like it is.” Mingyu carefully avoids spilling any chip crumbs on Minghao as he reaches over to scroll down the page. “Ugh, I can’t wait to get off these meds. I’m trying to get my act together for the next midterms but it’s so damn hard to study. They make me so dizzy.”

“Well, you’re going to have to find some way to power through them, big guy, because—” he checks the calendar he’s got pinned to his wall, “—midterms are starting in about two weeks.”

“What? Already?” Mingyu looks at the calendar too and whines. “Oh my god, I’m such a fucking screw up. I swear to god, I thought we had more time.”

“Hey hey hey, it’s fine, alright?” Minghao says, clapping him on the back. It’s very difficult to do so in the position they’re in, lots of awkward arm angles, but he manages. “College is crazy, I know. It feels like we only just finished all of our midterms and now we’re doing them again. It’s super tough.”

Mingyu runs his hands through his hair, again and again until it’s mussed and all over the place. He’s sure he looks frazzled, over a week of shitty eating habits making him feel sickly and gross literally everywhere. He can’t believe only a few months ago he was a dumb high school student that could eat junk food every day and not feel it, and now he’s old. A couple days of instant noodles and cheap food court bagels and his entire body is screaming at him to be nicer to himself.

“I’m gonna fucking fail this entire semester,” he moans.

“With that damn attitude, you might.” Minghao turns around in his seat to look at him. “Look, you’re gonna be fine. I can study English with you, and Seokmin can help too. Come to the library with us, we’re there like every day. We can help you out as best as we can.”

Mingyu chews hard on his bottom lip. “I don’t wanna waste anyone’s time,” he starts to mumble, but Minghao cuts him off.

“Not that shit anymore, remember? You’re our friend. You aren’t wasting our time by asking for help, we want to help you.”

“Right, right. Sorry.” It’s a lot harder to ease up on himself than he thought. A long lifetime of self-hatred and insecurity can’t just go away overnight, it seems. But Mingyu’s trying, at least for Minghao’s sake. It’s difficult, and occasionally feels like he’s just faking it, but trying and faking is a whole lot better than internalizing all the shitstorms he was putting himself through before. “Okay, I can do this. I got this.”

And the next day, after his last class, he heads over to the biggest library on campus where his friends are studying together. The library’s common area is a vast, open space with huge floor-to-ceiling windows that overlook the dismal, dreary grey parking lot. Dozens of tables, some small and circular, others long and rectangular, and numerous plastic chairs weigh down the ugly green carpet, and the air buzzes with the indistinct chatter of students laughing with friends or working on assignments with group partners. Mingyu has to weave through plenty of tables, thoroughly lost and feeling a little embarrassed, for a few minutes before he hears his name being called and finally finds everyone commandeering one of the tables, waving him over.

There you are,” Soonyoung says, swinging an arm over his shoulders and steering him towards an empty seat next to Junhui, who’s surprisingly heavily focused on his laptop screen and not making smartass quips to Minghao, and Jeonghan, who’s got his hair up in a bun and texting somebody and thoroughly ignoring the group of girls staring enraptured at him the next table over. “Finally, you’ve joined our happy little family.”

“This family isn’t gonna be all that happy if you don’t proofread my essay right now, Soonyoung,” Seokmin groans, shoving his entire laptop across the table and making papers fly, to everyone’s annoyance. “Please, I’m begging you, just sit down and read it. It’s due at midnight!”

“Okay, okay, Jesus, you’ve got hours ahead of you, Seokmin.” Soonyoung returns to his seat, and Mingyu’s left to fumble out his laptop and notebooks and search for any empty space on the crowded tabletop surface.

“Sorry,” Wonwoo’s deep voice says, and he looks up to realize the man in question is sitting directly across from him, pushing all of his stuff close to his side of the table. “Here, is that enough room?”

“Y-yeah, that’s plenty. Thanks, man.” Mingyu sets up and plugs his laptop charger into the built-in outlet, a faint buzzing dancing along his skin. Seeing Wonwoo again, up close and personal with his easy smile, no longer makes him feel like he’s about to die, but he still feels a little tingly and numb and his stomach does weak loop-de-loops in response. He can only hope that this feeling fades away at some point. “Are you ready for midterms?”

“Barely. Psychology kind of kicked my ass last time, I need to figure out what I was doing wrong.”

Beside him, Junhui keeps muttering to himself under his breath as he scrolls through what looks like fifty pages of meticulous notes, and Jeonghan is suddenly leaving his seat to have a conversation with a couple older students across the room, and everyone else at their table is busy with their own work. Once again, it feels as though he and Wonwoo are left in their own little bubble, separated from the rest of the world.

“Mmmmmaybe we should study together?” Mingyu suggests, hesitantly. “I mean, we’re in the same program, and we take a bunch of the same classes. I figure, maybe …” He trails off uncertainly, but Wonwoo just brightens up.

“Yeah, that would actually be really great. I want to do well first year, you know? Should we plan times to study together?”

And against the unexpected frantic beating of his heart, Mingyu can hear himself say, “Just text me whenever you’re free. My number’s still the same.”

Wonwoo hesitates for a moment—maybe he’s suddenly feeling the same hesitation Mingyu does—but after a quick second he nods, glasses tilting a little further down his nose until he pushes them back up. “So is mine.”

“Alright.” And suddenly it’s all too much—the room is too hot, heat crawling up his face, the tables around him are too loud, and an itch in his cheeks is making his lips twitch into a dumb smile against his will, one he has to hide behind the screen of his laptop so Wonwoo can’t see. “Um. Cool.”

Minghao gives him a quick, questioning glance from above his textbook, which Mingyu steadfastly ignores.

And just like that, Mingyu finds himself studying every day after classes with Wonwoo. Sometimes with the others, fighting for table space and occasionally gaining withering glares if they get too loud, sometimes just the two of them, side-by-side in a deathly silent study room. When the weather’s nice, they take quick breaks out in the cold white sunshine and make faces at the people smoking too close to the library entrance. When it rains and sticks all the dead fallen leaves to the sidewalk like glue, Mingyu arrives to find Wonwoo bought them both cups of hot chocolate from the café downstairs, and he has to return the favour the next day. Even after midterms roll around and Mingyu wraps his arms around Minghao with a screech of glee after he finds out that he performed far better than last time, they continue this habit of studying together, regardless of the rest of their friend group (and it’s his friend group now, he’s a part of them, and so is Wonwoo, these are his friends). It just feels natural.

Slowly, little by little, any trace of tension or awkwardness between them falls to nothing. They never really return to what they used to have together—the atmosphere they once shared, the feelings, it’s a mausoleum relic collecting dust for all eternity at this point—but maybe that’s a good thing. Maybe they needed to be something entirely different now.

A long, long time ago, Mingyu had desperately wanted to be something more with Wonwoo, to be able to define their relationship with words he was too young and frightened to say out loud. His feelings had hit him when he barely had the time or patience to understand them, and from then on everything had moved so fast he couldn’t keep up, could only be swept helplessly along until he reached their inevitable disastrous crash-landing. Now their bond is less ambiguous, less difficult to explain. Sure, he hasn’t moved on completely just yet, and he’s not sure how long that ember inside of him that still glows for Wonwoo alone will keep on burning, but when November ticks to an end and gives birth to the first snowfall of December, the softness that remains doesn’t stop him from easily calling Wonwoo his friend. A good friend. A close friend. And he’s perfectly content to do so.

“Hello, Rudolph,” Wonwoo says as he and Soonyoung step into Mingyu’s room, careful to take off their boots and let it leak slush into a corner of the carpet by the door, where it won’t bother anybody. Seokmin’s already here, having slept over the night before (“the Christmas editions, Gyu,” he had sobbed, wringing his hands, “the mistletoe! My gentle pure virgin eyes can never unsee!”), and is currently balancing precariously on Minghao’s desk as he and Minghao hang up a ridiculous amount of Christmas lights around the room. It’s gotten to the point where they don’t even need to turn on the actual ceiling lights anymore.

Wonwoo is, of course, talking about the horrific pimple Mingyu’s got on the tip of his nose, an embarrassing thing he’s been trying to hide behind scarves and turtlenecks for almost three days now. “Fuck you, man,” he says, self-consciously bringing up one hand to his face. “I’m saving Christmas with this thing.”

Wonwoo grabs his wrist and drags his hand back down, trying vainly to fight back an amused grin. Against the yellow glow of the lights blinking away behind them, he looks like a regular holiday angel when he smiles like that, smooth and cat-like at its corners and carefree. Not for the first time, Mingyu finds himself grateful to be able to see Wonwoo like this, see him so confident and comfortable with himself. A real Christmas miracle. “Light the way for Santa, by all means, but for god’s sakes stop touching it. This is why it’s not going away, you keep rubbing at it with your greasy fingers.”

“It’s pre-finals stress-acne,” he wails, covering his face again the moment Wonwoo lets go. “This is so embarrassing, I’ve never gotten stress-acne before. My beautiful face looks like a fucking joke.”

“Ho, ho, ho,” Soonyoung sings, teasingly pulling out his phone. “Turn your beautiful face over here and smile for the camera, Rudolph.”

Soonyoung’s got a surprisingly wicked sense of humour, even if it’s generally rather harmless. He only wants to see him squirm—hopefully—but Mingyu still panics and tries to shy away from any possible camera view, face flushing a mortified pink. “Noooo, please,” he begs pitifully, wishing he wasn’t so tall and noticeable.

In a strange act of chivalry, Wonwoo steers Mingyu behind him with one firm hand against his back and then shoos Soonyoung away. “Don’t bully him, Soonyoung. Come on. Go mess with Seokmin, you know he loves getting pushed around.”

A tongue is stuck out out at him in childish response, dyed a vicious green by whatever candy Soonyoung’s sweet tooth had been sucking on before (Wonwoo always swears that his roommate keeps a steady stash of lollipops and sour skittles in his pockets at all times). “You’re no fun, bro.” But the phone is tucked away, and he does indeed bounce over to harass Seokmin, who’s making the desk wobble dangerously while Minghao yells at him to hold still.  

“Thanks,” Mingyu says, feeling sheepish at his overreaction. It’s just a pimple, it’s not even that big. They’re young, acne is normal—Wonwoo’s got faint, colourless tiny bumps himself fading away along the side of his temples, except in Mingyu’s eyes those look fine, are cute even, while his is like an angry red warning sign trying to catch the attention of everybody within a ten foot radius.

Wonwoo smiles at him. His hand is still resting against the curve of Mingyu’s spine, pressing in with the slightest pressure, enough so that Mingyu can feel it through his thick wooly sweater. “You still look handsome,” he promises him with a small laugh, rubbing reassuring circles into the fabric, and Mingyu thinks his heart’s about to stop.

“Hey, lovebirds!” Seokmin screeches from the other side of the room, making them jump. Almost immediately, Wonwoo’s hand drops to his sides like he had been burned, and Mingyu flushes red like they had been caught doing something wrong. “Can you get over here and help please, I’m about to either rip all the plaster on the ceiling off or knock out the power in the entire building, and Soonyoung’s not helping!”

“Love you too, babe,” Soonyoung cackles evilly. He’s got his hands on the sides of the cheaply-made desk like he’s helping Seokmin keep it steady, but Mingyu swears he’s purposefully jostling it every so often just so he can see his best friend whimper. For such a nice guy, he sure likes to have his fair share of mischievous fun.

“And you’re calling us lovebirds?” Mingyu shoots back weakly in an attempt to feel less … exposed, running over and jumping onto Minghao’s bed to help hold up the cables. “We’re going to set something on fire with this many lights, Hao.”

“They aren’t candles, we’ll be fine. It looks pretty.”

“It’s quite a sight,” Wonwoo’s dry commentary comes from behind them. Mingyu looks down to see him pressing his weight against the desk, actually helping Seokmin keep his balance. “Put in a few more tacks, Hao, I think the weight of these things might drag it down.”

It takes almost twenty minutes to complete their task (well, it would have been only ten, except Wonwoo had indeed been correct in saying that the lights were too heavy, resulting in half of their decorations collapsing to the anguished scream of Seokmin and Minghao), but by the time all the lights are pinned securely in place by numerous thumb tacks they technically weren’t allowed to be using, snow is falling gently outside in fat, lazy flakes and Junhui and Jeonghan have arrived with cup trays full of hot chocolate.

“There’s too many people in here,” Soonyoung says with a huff, struggling over the sea of limbs and backpacks and snack piles towards Mingyu’s side of the room, settling in at Mingyu’s feet. The clusters of lights give the room a bright, fun glow; music is playing gently from someone’s phone; the contrast between the puffy snow in the rapidly darkening world outside and the blissful warmth of the room is extremely comforting; Mingyu watches as Minghao lightly pulls at Jeonghan’s ponytail and teases him about its length, looking soft and happy, and he hides his smile behind the steam wafting out of his cup.

Wonwoo, sitting beside him on his bed and calmly watching the chaos resulting from Seokmin standing up to go to the bathroom and nearly falling on top of Junhui, notices his smile almost immediately. “What are you smiling about?” he asks, voice quiet so they can go unheard.

“I wasn’t smiling.”

“Of course you weren’t.”

“I just,” he pauses, bites his lip as he thinks of how to put into words the powerful feeling growing in his chest, aching, burning him, healing him. “I just never thought I’d feel, um, happy? Like this? Since high school, you know?”

“Mmm.” Wonwoo takes a sip out of his cup, nodding and making his hair fall into his eyes. For a wild moment, Mingyu has the urge to reach up and brush his bangs away, but at the last second he fights it down. The group is in general rather touchy with each other, but he’s sure it’s still a bit too awkward between him and Wonwoo to be as casually affectionate as, say, Soonyoung and Seokmin are. “I agree. It feels like you’ve found yourself, right? Like, I can sit here and think, ‘this is where I belong. This is where I was meant to be’.”

“Yeah.” He sighs, content. “I can’t believe I almost lost this.”

Wonwoo is temporarily distracted by Jeonghan calling them both over to look at something on his phone, before they return to the bed to continue their conversation. “You mean, if you didn’t go to Aphodell?”

“Well, that too. I was thinking more like, well,” he smiles sheepishly, “when we ran into each other. For the first time, you know, after high school. I almost gave up on everyone entirely after that.”

“Oh.” Wonwoo blinks rapidly, and Mingyu can almost see the gears turning in his head. Click, click, click, ding. “At the coffee shop, right?”

“Yep.”

“Yeah, yikes. That was shocking, to say the least.”

“For the both of us, I’m sure.”

Wonwoo stares out the window for a little bit, following the path of the looping snowflakes dancing past, the evening sky now so dark it’s hard to make anything out. His expression is contemplative and subdued. “Was it,” he eventually says, slowly, “because I was there? You were going to leave these guys because of me?”

“Well, I mean,” Mingyu feels his face heat up a little and gives a weak laugh, unwilling to let Wonwoo feel any sort of guilt about it, “they were your friends first. It was a bad time for me, and I thought that if I still hung around, it would make you upset. It would be like high school all over again or something, that I would, you know, after everything that happened I figured you’d want as little to do with me as possible. For me to jump back into your life after you finally got something good and mess everything up for you, again, I just.” He pauses, aware that the atmosphere between them is getting a little heavy, and quickly says, “It was before I found out that you—well, that you knew everything back then.”

They get distracted for a minute when Soonyoung lets out a shout of delight as a particular song starts playing, grabbing whoever’s phone and upping the volume further. Wonwoo ignores the resulting chaos (“I hate this song, god dammit, Soonyoung,” Jeonghan complains, looking extremely unwilling to actually do something about it) as he turns to look back at Mingyu and says, “Is it—okay—to talk about high school? I mean, it was kind of a mess for both of us, and if you don’t want to—if you’re not comfortable—”

Even when Wonwoo’s life used to be significantly worse than his own, he still talked like he wanted to be considerate for Mingyu. Sometimes, he honestly can’t believe Wonwoo’s even real. “It’s okay! Uh, that is—” There’s a brief window of time that seems to pause when Mingyu realizes they’re staring into each other’s eyes rather deeply, and the two of them both turn away to take a sip of hot chocolate, a little flustered. He firmly pretends he can’t see the tinge of pink dusting Wonwoo’s ears and surmises it’s from the awkwardness of the current topic. “I think we should. Talk about it, I mean. When we feel like it, when we’re comfortable to. I don’t think putting a taboo on it or trying to forget about what happened last year will really make anything better, you know?”

“I get that.” Wonwoo picks at his sweater sleeves, pulls it further down over his hands until he has sweater paws. Cute, Mingyu’s brain thinks before he can stop himself. “I don’t want to … pretend it didn’t happen, either.”

“Yeah.” And it is nice to be able to talk about it, to be able to air out those old feelings without having to worry about anything going wrong between them. He only wants to be someone Wonwoo can trust. “Grade twelve was a giant clusterfuck, but, uh, no regrets.”

And Wonwoo throws his head back and laughs. Really laughs. Not the shy little exhale-snickers that he always made back in high school. “No regrets,” he agrees.

Mingyu’s suddenly dazzled by the laugh he’s finally managed to steal for himself and all the teeth Wonwoo’s showing in his smile and forgets to reply, but their quiet little moment to themselves is over either way. “Hey, Gyu,” Minghao calls out, “Jun’s promised to give us his exam notes for first year Psychology by Wednesday. I need you to be an official witness so if he doesn’t, I can kick his ass with no repercussions.”

“I’m right here with pen and paper,” Mingyu says with a grin. “I’m the, uh, the recorder. The scribe.”

“Stenographer,” Wonwoo corrects.

“Bless you, is that contagious?”

Wonwoo just groans in response. Soonyoung tilts backwards from the force of his laughter until the back of his head hits Mingyu’s knees, and he just stays there, snickering, hair brushing Mingyu’s thighs. I’m happy, Mingyu suddenly thinks, and the realization hits him like a bolt of lightning. He pats Soonyoung’s forehead, who preens under the attention. It’s just so nice to be able to be affectionate to friends, to people he cares about, and not have to worry about being laughed at for being too sappy or effeminate or something. I think I’m genuinely happy here.

 

He finishes his last final exam on the nineteenth of December. Once again, his mom is free to pick him up. He’s so happy from being done with everything, from having a break to just chill for a while before second semester starts, that not even the prospect of living at home for two weeks is enough to ruin his good mood right now. He chatters away to his mom as they drive back, proud of how he thinks his exams went, telling her about something funny Seokmin did (she smiles and nods along like she knows about any of the people he’s talking about, and he makes a mental note to find a way to invite them all over one day).

“I can’t believe you even have the time to pick me up from Aphodell,” he says with a laugh as they pull into their driveway. “I can take the bus, you know. Wouldn’t you get in trouble from your bosses or something for skipping work so much?”

Mrs. Kim laughs as she parks the car. “What do you know about working, little man? Hey, can you take the garbage in for me? I meant to do it this morning, but I totally forgot.”

He does his chores without complaint, more than a little guilty that his mom has to do all of this by herself when he’s not around. He hadn’t been keeping in contact with her nearly as much as he should have, and when he imagines how she must’ve been lonely in this big empty house it makes his heart hurt, and he resolves to do something about that. New year (in a couple more days, at least), new him. He was going to be a better student, a more attentive son, he was going to be a better everything. “Let’s talk about you, mom,” he says when he finishes helping her unload the dishwasher after their lunch.

His mother laughs, pouring herself a glass of wine. Mingyu hasn’t seen her have a drink in, well, probably years. It’s nice for her to be able to relax for once, he thinks. “I’m old, what is there to talk about? You’re bound to have a for more interesting life than I do right now.”

“Yeah, but I already talked about myself on the car ride back home.” He leans against the kitchen counter by the microwave and puts on his best Good Child face, one his mom can surely brag about to her coworkers later. “I haven’t really talked to you in, like, months. I’m the man of the house—”

“The man of the house,” she repeats with a scoff. She’s smiling, but something doesn’t feel quite right. She won’t look at him; instead, she keeps staring into her wine glass, swirling the contents in a distracted manner.

“—and I should be there for you.” Mingyu’s smile dies down a bit; why is his mom being weird? “So, you know, go at it. Is there any parties we have to go to over the holidays? Is there a coworker or manager you want to complain about? I don’t have much in terms of advice or encouragement, but I know how to smile and nod in the right places and all—”

“Mingyu,” Mrs. Kim interrupts, like she can’t bear to stay silent any longer. “I’m being laid off.”

For a moment, he doesn’t process what she just said. They’re just a jumble of words falling out in a roughly straight line that grammatically make sense, but in terms of semantics are utter bullshit. Then everything clicks, and his jaw drops, jaw working but no thoughts forming, until he finally says, “Wait, what?

“A whole bunch of people had to be let go,” Mrs. Kim—his mother, Mingyu’s mom—says. She sounds too calm, too peaceful, like she’s had a lot of time to process this information and has decided she’s perfectly fine with it. “They let me know early on, since … oh, since late September, I think. By March, I won’t … I’ll be out of a job. That’s why I’ve been taking so many days off lately. Just want to use up all my saved-up vacation days while I still have the chance.”

Then she smiles weakly at her son, and Mingyu instantly knows better. He knows because he can see the slight wavering of her lips, the way her eyes flick down and to the left the way she always does when she’s nervous about their future, their livelihood, and of course he knows she’s just putting up a front right now to save face, to keep her only child from worrying, of course he’d know he’s her son and— “Mom, what the fuck, how could they—you’ve been working for them for years! You—you’ve—why didn’t you tell me?” He thinks his voice breaks a little somewhere near the end, like a child, but he ignores it. “Why didn’t you tell me?”

“Oh, Mingyu, how could I? You had such a … such a rough time over the summer, and you’re finally getting better, you have friends and you look so happy whenever you go back to school. How could I ruin that for you? How could I ruin your experiences by telling you I was getting fired, of all things?” And she sits there, looking so small and defeated and old, when did his mother get so old, as she says, “Don’t worry, we have plenty of money for your tuition. And I’ll find another job in no time, I’ve already started looking. Don’t worry about a thing, okay? Mom will take care of it.”

And that’s such a fucking lie, Mingyu knows it is. He’s an idiot, but even he knows that it took all of his mother’s time and energy and life working at that fucking place to be able to pay for Mingyu’s schooling and keep the house and still get him whatever he wanted. And this is how the company repaid her for over thirteen years of overtime and low pay. And Mingyu was so obsessed over his own stupid life that he didn’t know a fucking thing.

He thought he was changing, but he’s still as selfish as ever.

“I’ll get a job,” he says, determined. “I’ll start searching tonight. I can do it. Something part-time, close to campus, I can work maybe four days a week and start paying for tuition on my own.”

“Gyu, you don’t h—”

“I do, mom,” he says, and too late he realizes that he sounds too fierce, too angry, and his mom hides her flinch as if she’s thinking he’s mad at her. He quickly softens his voice, guilt settling low and poisonous in his guts, and gently adds, “Mom, it’ll be fine. I can start saving up for when I need to find a place off-campus next year, you know, when I have to start paying rent and all. I can handle both schoolwork and a part-time job, plenty of kids do it.”

“Sweetheart, you don’t have to,” Mrs. Kim says gently. “It’s good of you to offer, but we can manage just fine the way we are right now. Don’t you remember Julie, from down the street? She knows some companies who have a few positions open, she’s already looking into it for me right now. I can take care of everything, don’t worry.”

Mingyu and his mother both look at each other and, in a split second, both of them realize that the other is lying.

“Alright, that’s enough doom and gloom, little man,” his mom says. She always says that after a serious discussion to try and lighten the mood. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. Today, it doesn’t. “Don’t waste your winter break loitering inside my house. Go do something with your friends!”

He wants to keep talking about this, but he recognizes that stubborn look in his mother’s eyes. He’s seen it every day when he looked in the mirror. He kind of wants to freak out a little bit more, but for her sake he plasters on a smile and says, “Aw, they all live pretty far away, mom. We can’t just hang out all the time.”

“Then text them. Or ‘facetime’ or ‘snap’ or whatever you kids call it these days.”

He snorts as he gets up from the kitchen table. For a moment, he’s standing next to his mother, looking down at her, how frail and tired she is, and he wants to say something—do something—hug her, tell her everything’s gonna be okay, tell her how sorry he is, tell her about what happened in high school, tell her he used to be in love with a boy, tell her everything—but that moment passes and he goes back up to his room, where he can have a proper panic in peace without making his mother grow more grey hairs.

He reaches for his phone, scrambling to text Minghao, and with shaky hands as the full realization of his family’s possible future hits him he sends, with copious spelling errors and not a lot of periods or commas: Hao mom just told me she lost her job what the fuck are we gonna do we might lose the house if she doesn’t have a job and I suddenly realized tuition is so expensive and shit I think I’m gonna have to get a part-time job and what if I have to drop out or take like night classes or something to get my degree so I can pay for everything I dunno I’m kind of freaking out man I don’t know what to do anyway hi hope winter break is going good please text me back.

He then throws his phone to the side and buries himself in his blankets, trying to slow his heart rate so he doesn’t work himself up into an anxiety attack. It’s always the “working up” part that dooms him, the time frame where he keeps thinking about the issue until his breathing is too fast to slow down. Just when he thought he was finally free, finally cured, he can feel its tendrils creeping up his insides and hooking into his lungs again. Jesus, and he has to be home now of all times in this shitty neighbourhood again, bringing back all the bad memories he’s been trying to move past, and holy fucking shit why is Minghao taking so long to respond?

Eventually, after what feels like ages, his phone buzzes, and he dives over to grab it and see Minghao’s response. It’s not like he can really make anything better, of course, but at the very least he can have someone to talk him out of all the stupid ideas and worries his brain can’t help conjuring up.

Hey, Mingyu. This is Wonwoo. I think you texted the wrong person.

What.

Mingyu double-checks the number and swears, before catching himself and remembering his mom is just downstairs and then swearing a second time, quieter. Great. In his panic, his fingers had someone entered Wonwoo’s number instead of Minghao’s, like they were running on blind muscle memory or something. He doesn’t want to think about what that might mean.

A second text from Wonwoo, not even a minute later. Followed by another. And another.

Did you just say your mom lost her job? Holy shit, Mingyu.

Are you okay?

Do you wanna talk about it?

Mingyu, I need you to respond. Right now. Please talk to me.

Mingyu, I need to know if you’re having a panic attack or getting shitfaced drunk or contemplating throwing yourself in front of a car or something, just say ANYTHING to let me know what’s going on. Jesus.

It’s hard to text with sweaty palms, but he manages as best as he can. Yes, I’m fine. Sorry. I feel … I dunno. I don’t know what to do. Mom won’t tell me how fucked we’ll be without her having a job but I think it’s bad. I just I dunno I feel useless and stupid and I can’t believe mom’s been hiding this from me for months and I didn’t even know.

He deletes the last sentence before sending it.

God, I’m so sorry, Mingyu. Is there anything I can do for you?

Unless you know someone close to Aphodell willing to hire some stupid brat on short notice, not really. But thanks.

There’s a long pause, as usual, as Wonwoo chooses his words carefully. Mingyu tilts his head back until it hits the headrest of his bed, stares up at the ceiling and all the familiar shadows and faulty paint touch-ups of his childhood, and focuses on breathing. In, out. In, out.

He gets an answer.

Do you want to go skating?

 

And there they are again, back in Vinca Park for winter break. For two boys who would like nothing more than to move on from the past, they sure are meandering in useless circles around their memories.

Wonwoo doesn’t say anything about what Mingyu had accidentally texted him, which he greatly appreciates. He looks cute and cold and soft, bundled up in his warmest parka, his red nose just barely peeking out from beneath his scarf, hair getting mussed in the icy winds until they part and bare his forehead, just for a few seconds, and then he fights his parka hood back over his head.

“You’re not wearing any gloves,” Mingyu says.

“Couldn’t find any.”

Mingyu’s taking off his mittens before he can even think about it. “Here.”

Wonwoo looks at him with suddenly-wide eyes, and he sounds noticeably startled (or maybe that’s just his teeth chattering in the cold) when he says, “N-no, it’s fine—”

“Just take it.” He’s suddenly all gruff and embarrassed, about what he can’t really say, so he hands them to Wonwoo with slightly more force than is really necessary before collapsing backwards onto the nearest bench to tie up his skates, glad that at least in winter wonderland weather he can excuse having a red face. Wonwoo stands motionless for a few moments more, as if he’s still struggling to decide whether to accept the mittens or give them back, until eventually he sits down beside Mingyu to haul on his skates as well.

The rink is empty this time, the park utterly devoid of any life except for them. At this exact moment a year ago, in this exact spot, Mingyu had half-jokingly requested for Wonwoo to hold his hand. Today, they could have done it. Skated hand-in-hand together, round and round in circles, no one the wiser and nobody there to watch and disapprove.

Of course, he does no such thing. He laces up before Wonwoo and all but jumps onto the rough, handmade rink, immediately kicking off into loops around the cramped perimeter. After a minute or two he hears Wonwoo enter the rink behind him and start skating, too, but he doesn’t turn around and Wonwoo doesn’t say anything. It’s just Mingyu, and the frost biting at his cheeks and nose, the wind rattling in his ears and the hollow spaces between bones. Up above him, every single tree trunk turning to brittle branch turning to thin twig is covered in snow, blending into the cloudy sky above it, white against white. His world narrows down into the ice beneath his feet, the ice in his throat and lungs, ice dangling like Christmas ornaments from the branches above him, the howling wind, grey and white, all utterly silent and still.

And then he falls.

“Fuck!” he manages to squeak out in the most undignified manner possible, as his blade catches on an uneven patch of rocky ice and he goes down.

Wonwoo skates over and looks down at him. “You alright?”

“All the layers I’m wearing beneath my coat broke my fall,” he replies. He can’t bring himself to get up, now that he’s down here and staring up at the sky. It has the colour and consistency of elementary school glue. “Ah, shit.”

“Need a hand, Mingyu?”

“I don’t want to move. I’m staying right here.”

He can’t really see Wonwoo over the awkward angle of his crooked hat, his fall making it tilt even more over his forehead until half of his vision is obscured, but he can hear the soft chuckle and the amused, almost affectionate, “C’mon, get up, Gyu.”

Wonwoo’s never called him Gyu before. Maybe he just wasn’t a guy who worked with nicknames. Maybe he never felt close enough to Mingyu to be allowed to call him that. Either way, the word settles into him slow, like honey, warming up his insides. C’mon, Gyu. Get up, Gyu. “Come lie with me. It’s interesting.”

“Is it?” Wonwoo huffs as he gingerly manages to sit on the ice and then lie back without slipping. “I was just planning on skating circles around you for the next hour or two, actually.”

“Hah. Look, we can look up at the sky.”

“Looks like a whole lot of nothing.”

“Yeah, it’s ugly as hell. That’s the idea.”

They look up at the boring white sky for a while in peaceful silence, and then Wonwoo says, “Feeling better?”

“I stand corrected by what I said last year,” Mingyu says before he can stop himself, before he can think about what he’s saying. The bitter wind stinging the insides of his nostrils and esophagus clear his head, keeps him awake and lucid and more aware of his world than ever before. “Hanging out with you makes me feel better, not freezing my ass off skating.”

There’s a long pause. Mingyu cringes and grits his teeth, internally kicking himself, too afraid to turn his head and see what kind of expression is on Wonwoo’s face. Somewhere to his left, Wonwoo speaks up again. “I’m glad.”

“What?”

“I said, how bad is it if your mom doesn’t have a job?”

Mingyu shuffles around on the ice to find a more comfortable position. “I dunno, really, but that job was the only source of income we had. Nobody else is helping us pay for the house and my tuition or anything. And my mom practically sold herself to that company, she’s never home, she works weekends and holidays, and now they’re fucking firing her and I just—” his freezing cold hands clench into fists that he’s glad Wonwoo can’t see, “—it sucks to see people totally disrespect your own mom like that and you can’t do anything to help. I mean, I didn’t even know, she knew since fucking September and my head was so far up my own ass I didn’t know at all, I didn’t know anything—”

“Hey, come on.” Wonwoo’s voice is soft. “It’s not your fault.”

“I just—what if we have to sell our house? Where will we go? And what if she can’t find another job and I have to drop out and get like three jobs or something? I really like Aphodell, I don’t know what I’m gonna do if I have to leave.”

“Mingyu, deep breaths. You and your mom aren’t going to be destitute and penniless the second she’s out of work. Don’t overthink it.”

“I can’t help myself,” he says in a small voice.

He’s not sure if Wonwoo’s doing this on purpose or not, but his words are slow and soft, almost hypnotizing, the deep roughness of his timbre enough to calm Mingyu down. “You won’t have to leave Aphodell, okay? Moving into a smaller house won’t be the end of the world, either. Maybe getting a part-time job will help, but don’t start sacrificing your studies just to make money. I’m sure your mom wouldn’t want you to do that.”

“It took me everything I had to get my shit together last semester, I don’t—” he chokes up in his effort to not break down, “I don’t know if I can manage a job on top of everything else.”

“Just see what you can do. I have faith in you, I know you’ll be just fine.”

Mingyu snorts, although it sounds distinctly more pathetic than cynical, which was what he was going for. “Pfft. Faith. Since when have I ever done anything but let people down?”

“Mingyu.” Wonwoo’s voice is hushed but terse, gentle but exasperated. “Don’t think that about yourself.”

Right. Right. Change. He’s trying to change. Trying to feel less sorry for himself and more doing something about it. “Sorry. Old habit. You’re right, I shouldn’t be so hard on myself. Here, I’ll say some nice things to make up for it: I’m very handsome. I have really nice shoulders. Nobody can resist me.”

Wonwoo snorts, and the sound makes Mingyu grin. “Yes, yes, very funny, Mingyu.”

“I’m the hottest person alive. I have a great smile.”

“Alright, I think I’m going to leave you here.” Wonwoo sits up and struggles to get back on his feet. “Have fun staring at the boring sky.”

“What? No! Help me up, man, come on.” He makes grabby motions up in the air, whining loudly and obnoxiously when Wonwoo doesn’t immediately take his hand. “You know how clumsy I am with just normal feet, if I crack my skull trying to stand up on skates it’ll be blood on your hands.”

“Did you seriously just say ‘normal feet’?” But Wonwoo helps him up anyway, firmly grasping his hand and yanking as hard as he can. Mingyu stumbles a little once he’s back on his feet, nearly slipping, but Wonwoo’s got a grip on his elbows until he gets his balance back. They smile at each other for a moment, the scenery picture-perfect.

“It’s weird being back home for so long,” Wonwoo eventually says.

“Yeah. It fucking sucks.”

But at least we have each other here.

Neither of them say it, but like any good, strong, thought, it settles slow and comfortable between them all the same.

Chapter Text

The rest of winter break passes by both slower and faster than Mingyu was expecting—he wants nothing more than to be back in Aphodell again, loving his cramped shared room and the giant lecture halls and the snow-covered paths to the coffee shop with his friends more than anything else. Yet when his mom pulls up out front of Irissen Hall, he thinks of that big empty house and his mother growing old away from his sight. He thinks of all his days skating with Wonwoo, their texting conversations that sometimes end far later than either of them were expecting, his four hour-long Overwatch sessions with Minghao and Soonyoung and Seokmin. Being able to just relax and enjoy himself was so much fun.

Mrs. Kim hadn’t said much about her work situation since then. Maybe she didn’t want to ruin Mingyu’s winter break, maybe she was too afraid or ashamed to speak up about it. But he saw all the job postings she bookmarked on her laptop, and overheard her trying to find something through her connections, and even though all of his friends have been comforting him about it he still knows if they don’t get something soon their future won’t be looking too good.

“You alright, Mingyu?” Minghao says as they unpack freshly washed clothes and extra school supplies. He’s got his hair cut, a little shorter and currently slicked back with gel, freeing his forehead and making him look far older and more mature than his actual eighteen-year-old self. He looks like he could be out getting a job, living in an apartment, a fully-fledged, fully-functioning adult, and for some reason that thought scares Mingyu. “Will your mom be okay?”

“I dunno, I think so,” Mingyu says. His hair, on the other hand, desperately needs a cut. He keeps trying to shake it out of his eyes. His mother usually notices these things, even back when she did nothing but work. Another hint that she’s more shaken by her layoff than she lets on. “It’s just, y’know, she’s had that job for years and back then job requirements were a little more lenient than they are now. I think it’ll be difficult for her to find something that pays her the same with the degree she has now. And it’s not like we have money to spare for her to go out and get a Ph.D. so they can check one extra box on her résumé.”

“The world is so fucked up,” Minghao says in consolation.

“A-fucking-gree.”

They return to their unpacking, their comfortable silence broken only by Mingyu fumbling a pack of toilet paper and nearly knocking over a lamp with it, before Minghao speaks up again. “There’s something I want to ask you.”

“I know, I know, it’s my turn for garbage duty this week.”

“No, not about that. It’s about,” he pauses and coughs. When Mingyu turns around to look at him, he sees that the back of his best friend’s pointy, elf-like ears are turning red. “I was thinking that—well, maybe we could—”

“Spit it out, man.”

“My parents and I have been looking for a house,” he finally blurts out, “off-campus, you know, for next year. We’ve found a good one really close by, the rent is pretty cheap and the landlord seems nice. It has five rooms available. I was wondering if you wanted to be one of those five.”

“You—” Mingyu stutters over his own tongue, surprise and delight washing over him in equal parts until he’s not quite sure what to feel. “You wanna keep living together?”

“I don’t know what your plans are for next year,” Minghao hurriedly says, fiddling with his extensive miniature food figurines collection on his shelf. He looks almost nervous, really, like he’s really putting himself on the line. It’s moments like these where he forgets that, from what they’ve told each other, Mingyu is the first real friend Minghao’s ever had. “If you’ve already got a place you’re planning to stay in, I don’t mind or anything. The landlord already said he can find other people to fill up the rooms, but if you wanted to keep this going—”

“Y-yeah! Yeah, absolutely. Holy shit. Of course I want to stay with you.” Mingyu can feel himself smiling, big and dumb and impossible to fight down.

Minghao scoffs, flustered, and almost knocks over half of his collection with an awkward jerk of his arm. “You’re so embarrassing.”

“When do we sign the lease?”

“Jesus, Mingyu, don’t you want to see the house first?”

“Nope. It’s good enough for you, it’s good enough for me.”

Minghao smiles, and Mingyu smiles, and as the wet winter sun shines through their window and flashes amber-gold in the reflection of Minghao’s brown eyes, Mingyu doesn’t feel apprehension for the future at all; he really feels like there’s something to look forward to next year. At that, there’s a knock on their door. When Minghao drops his bag of toiletries and opens it, he reveals Wonwoo on the other side, very wind-ruffled. He looks like he had been outside for a long while.

“Hey,” he says, casually. Or at least, that’s what he’s trying to sound like. “Soonyoung told me you guys arrived, I was walking around nearby so he told me to drop in and say hi for him.”

Minghao’s sharp owl eyes narrow slightly. “I never told Soonyoung when we were back.”

Mingyu wants to thank his best friend for his absolute zero tolerance for even little white lies, because he gets to see Wonwoo’s ears flush an embarrassed pink and shift uncomfortably in the doorway, mouth twisting in indecision as he vainly struggles to think up another lie. It’s horrifically cute seeing him squirm—a thought that’s probably a little concerning, but whatever—but he definitely feels sorry for him. Nobody wants to be under Minghao’s practically-terrifying scrutiny.

“He probably saw one of you leave your car or something,” he eventually says lamely.

Minghao’s head turns just a few inches to the right so he can regard Mingyu carefully with his peripherals, before turning back. “Alright then,” he says, and Wonwoo’s shoulders slump in relief. “I was actually just … about … to go get lunch. Why don’t you wait here with Mingyu while I go get us all sandwiches or something?”

“Wait, what?” Mingyu says, dropping the ball of mismatched socks he was pulling out of his suitcase as Wonwoo says, at the same time, “Sure, okay.”

“Be back in fifteen minutes,” Minghao says, grabbing his wallet and keys and disappearing out the door without a backwards glance. A short period of silence falls over the two boys in the room. Mingyu doesn’t feel awkward around Wonwoo, not at all, but the weird way he came in and the equally suspicious way Minghao left put a strange tension in the air that makes him want to run after his best friend, just to escape the weird feeling.

“Um, when did you get back?” he says, in an effort to introduce some form of conversation.

Wonwoo looks a little startled, as though he had been lost in thought. He keeps rubbing at his knuckles, thumb swiping over the ridges and valleys of each bone. “Oh. An hour ago or so. What about you?”

“Probably around the same time, I guess. But Hao and I scheduled things so we’d get here at the same time, so our moms took us to lunch.”

It was a little weird, but not horrible. Mingyu had introduced Minghao to his mother the way he probably would with a girlfriend, nervous and desperately hoping Mrs. Kim would approve of him. Luckily, she did—she seemed to really like the quiet, headstrong boy, probably already knew how much of a good influence he’d be on her son—and Minghao’s mother had the same delicate sloping eyes as her child so Mingyu liked her immediately. The lunch was surprisingly pleasant, full of light conversation and the two mothers hitting it off, and Mrs. Kim had given him an encouraging, pleased little smile when they finished their meal.

Wonwoo smiles. “That’s good,” he says, quietly, thumb pressing into the space between his middle and ring finger knuckles and staying there. “I’m—glad.”

If Wonwoo is smiling, then all is right with the world. Mingyu is content to get back to packing, but he hardly has the time to turn around and pull out a wrinkled T-shirt when Wonwoo suddenly blurts out, “Are you feeling alright?”

“What?” he whirls back around, startled. Wonwoo is looking at him with a strange, almost distressed expression on his face. “I’m, uh—I’m fine, what are you talking about?”

“I’m talking about you and your mother. The layoff and everything. I know you tend to overthink things, get too into your head.”

“I’m fine.” Mingyu lets out a little laugh. “I told you when you texted me like, three days ago, I’m okay.”

Wonwoo shuffles his feet against the carpet. “Not the same as hearing you say it in person.”

Liquid gold bubbles slowly through Mingyu’s veins, swooping through his head until he feels dizzy and light. For a moment he’s suddenly not First Year in Uni Mingyu, a young man learning to grow up, he’s Senior Year High School Mingyu all over again and he’s childish and stupid and always so scared, his heart rate picks up and his thoughts turn frantic—Does he care about me does Wonwoo worry about me does he care does he does he does he—“Why do you want to know?” he asks, trying to be casual about it.

“No reason.” Wonwoo stares very resolutely at Minghao’s side of the room (the giant batch of Christmas lights were unfortunately put away before they were noticed and got them in trouble). He’s closing himself off in his discomfort, mouth hardening into a thin, tight line, hair falling into his face in a way that is almost painfully reminiscent of his high school days. That comparison frightens him, and as quickly as Mingyu’s heart had been fluttering, it goes cold even faster. Wonwoo is pulling away from him again. This moment between them, a moment that they could share and it could be a secret, just between the two of them the way things used to be, when they didn’t have anyone else but each other to turn to, it’s disappearing right before his eyes. And again, this frightens him, for reasons he can’t explain but can feel right down to his nerve endings.

“You know, when you say that it makes me think that there is a reason, after all.” Mingyu goes back to his suitcase, but after a few seconds of staring blankly at a pair of jeans he throws it back down and turns to face Wonwoo, who’s still standing awkwardly by the doorway. “You were outside for a long time. I’m not an idiot, Wonwoo. You’re shivering in your jacket, your nose is red, your hair looks like it’s been through a tornado. Minghao already figured you out, why are you still acting like I don’t know you were standing out there, maybe for an hour, waiting for us to come home?”

“I wasn’t,” Wonwoo says, gazing at Mingyu with hard, cold eyes and a tight jaw.

“Wow, did I really get fooled by you for a whole year? You are the shittiest liar.” Suddenly frustrated with his friend’s silence, and now undaunted by the weird atmosphere, he angrily folds his clothes and shoves them in whatever free space his closet has.

There’s no words for almost a solid two minutes, long enough for Mingyu to think that he won’t receive any answer at all (he could have thought that Wonwoo had left entirely, if it wasn’t for the fact that he’s always hyperaware of his presence and every move like a chump). Eventually, Wonwoo does say something, but it’s not really what he was expecting. “How can you tell?”

“What?”

“That I was lying.” He moves, shifting to sit on the edge of Minghao’s bed with all the carefulness of someone who doesn’t want to ruin a well-made blanket. Now that he’s out of the chilly wind, he unzips his jacket and shrugs it to the floor, tugging familiarly at his sleeves. “People have always told me I had the best poker face out of anyone they knew. They said I’d make a lot of money if I ever actually learned how to play.”

Mingyu shrugs, still sulky, still a little scared, still completely confused as to why he’s feeling so insecure all of a sudden. “Yeah, your poker face gets a little too good when you lie. You shut off, you know? When you want to hide something. You get all stony-faced and cold.”

“Oh.” Wonwoo looks rather embarrassed; he tugs harder at his sleeves until Mingyu’s halfway certain he might rip something. “I thought that’s how I always acted. I never realized.”

“You don’t act that way, Wonwoo, come on.” He hesitates, before giving up his pretense of shitty unpacking and whirling around to sit at the edge of his own bed, the two of them facing each other. For a split second, he wonders what it would have been like to have been assigned as Wonwoo’s roommate instead. To have walked in at the start of the school year, anxious and miserable and heartbroken, only to find him there. He wonders if it would have changed anything—if he would have met Minghao and the rest, managed to patch things up with Wonwoo, managed to break free of his depressing thoughts and struggle to make a difference in himself. Maybe he would have just ended up requesting to switch rooms, unable to deal with the turmoil and guilt. It’s a strange thought, and a sobering one, to think of how different everything could have gone if he wasn’t assigned to Minghao’s room, and Wonwoo wasn’t assigned to Soonyoung’s, if any little difference occurred and didn’t result in the two of them sitting across from each other at this exact second, the memories of their time in high school together almost like a dream. “Well, okay, you did when we first talked. Remember, at the start of senior year, when I asked if you were gay? You remind me of the you from that time whenever you lie, this, like, impenetrable fortress that doesn’t want to let anyone in, doesn’t want anyone getting too close.”

Wonwoo doesn’t speak for a moment. He looks like he’s either shocked, or remorseful, at Mingyu bringing it up. When he finally does start to talk, his voice is rather hushed. “I had a hard time in high school.” When he sees the expression on Mingyu’s face, he gives him a weak little laugh. “I mean, in other ways. I was friendless and alone. Even before what happened with Seungcheol, I was always that way. And one of the things I look back on and want to punch myself for is … it didn’t have to end up that way. I could have made some friends—maybe not great ones, but enough here and there to make school more bearable. I could have been more friendly to the people who took their time to approach me, to try and get to know me.”

“I remember,” Mingyu says softly. “Plenty of people tried to talk to you in ninth and tenth grade. You never really … responded.”

A rueful little smile creeps across Wonwoo’s face. He drags his sweater sleeves over his fists so Mingyu can’t see them shake a little, even though he can, of course he can see them. “Pathetic, isn’t it? I never had any friends growing up, never had anyone who wanted to be friends with me, and it was worse when I started to realize that I was gay, and that where we lived that wasn’t necessarily a good thing. But when someone tried to talk to me, I shut them out. Was I scared? Was I just disillusioned with the world? Who fucking knows at this point. But I just, I always had this thought that … that if I didn’t care about other people, if I pushed everyone away and kept to myself, I would be better off. And that’s what I did. And eventually I—I did stop. Caring, I mean. There was a point during those four hellish years where I just felt so—numb, all the time. Because I didn’t want to care about other people, and I made sure nobody cared about me, and I wasn’t alive, I wasn’t feeling, I just existed, day after day, letting people ignore me, letting the assholes have their fun picking on me because I thought—I thought—”

“You thought you deserved it?” Mingyu supplies, his voice so quiet and weak that he’s not even sure if it carried across the space between them.

Wonwoo makes a soft, choked noise that he can’t identify, but it’s enough to have Mingyu rush over, sit next to him on Minghao’s bed, wrap his arms around him like it’s the most natural thing in the world. Wonwoo doesn’t hug him back but he slumps against him as if he has no more energy to sit up by himself, sinks into the embrace and crooks his face into Mingyu’s sweatshirt so he can muffle more strange, terrible noises, shoulders trembling.

They stay like that for a few minutes. Wonwoo’s breathing eventually slows, and when he pulls away he looks more or less fine. His eyes are bright but he hadn’t been crying—no redness, no swollen or puffy eyelids, no drying tear tracks down his cheeks. Not even in the middle of a sad, infinitely sad, infinitely wretched story will he let anyone see him at his most vulnerable. Somehow, that’s the worst part of it.

“You okay?” Mingyu asks softly, rubbing Wonwoo’s back. He’s supposed to be comforting him right now, but he’s the one that feels comforted, relishing in the warmth resting against his fingers, the faint rise and swell of Wonwoo’s breathing in his ribcage.

“Yeah, I—sorry. Yeah.” He sighs. “I was supposed to be here seeing if you were okay, not the other way around.”

“Yeah, well, friendship’s a two-way street. You look out for me, I’m looking out for you.” There’s a moment of silence, more peaceful than before, the weight of it’s emptiness almost soothing. “You wanna know why it’s so easy to tell that you’re lying?”

Wonwoo lets out a mirthful little snort. “Because I become a cold, angry statue? You told me already.”

“Because you aren’t like that,” Mingyu corrects firmly. “Not anymore. You’re … you’re warm now.”

He blinks at him. “Warm?”

“Kind. Gentle. Good. Whoever you were, whatever you wanted in high school, that doesn’t have to define who you are anymore.” Wonwoo looks at him with a complicated, impossible expression on his face, and it compels Mingyu to lean in and say, fiercely, “Sixteen-year-old Jeon Wonwoo may have found himself in a dark place, a horrible place, that made him scared to reach out to people. But nobody can look at eighteen-year-old Jeon Wonwoo and say the same thing, or hold his old self against him. Don’t you think I would know how it feels? To look into the past and realize that I was some … thing I never wanted to become?”

Wonwoo still doesn’t answer. His Adam’s apple bobs, jerkily, like he’s swallowing back a lump in his throat.

“Minghao once told me that if you could look at your old self and think that you want to punch yourself in the face for being so stupid, then that’s a good thing. Because that means you’re no longer that person anymore. You’re different. You’re better.”

And then he sees the most beautiful thing in the world: Wonwoo smiling. It’s an uncertain, painful smile, stretching slowly at the tips until he reveals teeth. It’s fragile and soft and perfect, and Mingyu thinks his heart could stop beating and he could die right here, right now, and be satisfied. “You got one thing wrong.”

Oh no. “What?”

“Not eighteen-year-old Jeon Wonwoo. Next week’s my birthday.”

“It is?” He blinks, startled. “Holy shit, you’re gonna be nineteen. You’re gonna be old.

Wonwoo’s smile grows slightly, almost affectionately exasperated. “Shut up.”

“When?”

“Wednesday. Not exactly a great party day, I know. Soonyoung is delighted, though, he’s had this bottle of tequila hidden underneath his bed for weeks and he’s been dying for an excuse to open it. Me becoming fully of age to buy and consume alcohol is a pretty good excuse.” He stops himself for a moment, looking a little hopeful. “Would you like to … be there?”

“That depends,” Mingyu says, aware that he’s being teasing. “Are you my new LCBO runner? Flashing your ID card everywhere to get me the goods?”

“You’re still on antidepressants, aren’t you? I thought alcohol was a no until then.”

“I’m not saying I’d drink them, I’m just asking if you’d buy them for me.”

“This is exactly what I was afraid of. Becoming your enabler.” Wonwoo looks down at his hands, then back up, still smiling. His shoulders are loose, body posture relaxed; a weight had been lifted off him today. “Tell you what. You come to my sort-of birthday party, and I’ll get you a nice little cooler or something.”

“Oh yeah, that’s fine. You know, I’m kind of getting into those coolers anyway, they taste pretty good.”

Wonwoo looks like he wants to laugh. “You like them?”

“What?” Mingyu crosses his arms and huffs, defensive. “They’re fruity and sweet and bubbly. Twice the fun with half the shitty beer taste. I don’t know why guys get so twisted up about it.”

He does laugh. Bright and amused, a gentle windchime sort of sound. Nineteen-year-old Jeon Wonwoo isn’t afraid to laugh out loud anymore, it seems. “Wisest words you’ve ever spoken.”

In the end, Minghao doesn’t come back in fifteen minutes. He comes back an hour and a half later, casually balancing three paper-wrapped sandwiches from the pita place the next building over. He doesn’t seem particularly apologetic for being so late, nor does he look surprised to see Mingyu and Wonwoo sitting side by side and talking quietly to each other, heads bowed, soft smiles on their faces. He does kick them off his bed, though.

 

Wonwoo’s birthday comes by quicker than expected. The snow has melted away, but a particularly long, hard rainfall the night before followed by cold temperatures turned the streets into an icy death trap. Mingyu is eternally grateful that the sidewalks and roads within Aphodell’s campus are salted generously, so he only slips maybe half a dozen times or so on his trek with Minghao to Dahlia Hall on the other side of the quad. One of those times was on the salt itself, which made Minghao nearly cry with laughter and Mingyu attempt to shove him into the icy grass.

“You made it!” Soonyoung cheers, welcoming them in. He and Wonwoo share a suite room together, and Mingyu marvels at the amount of space they have. The living room area, as small as it is, still comes with a two-seater couch and several chairs, and their very own little coffee table, for god’s sakes. Seokmin is already there, having (from what Mingyu knows) camped out in their room for hours to escape his own terrifying roommate back in Rosen Hall. Junhui and Jeonghan have both texted their promise to be there within the hour, Soonyoung is wasting no time in opening up bottles of liquor they’ve stashed in their fridge, and Wonwoo looks soft and happy and glowing in the cutest caramel-coloured turtleneck sweater. Mingyu adores everything about this.

“You didn’t all have to come,” Wonwoo says bashfully, “I know we all have classes tomorrow.” He receives an immediate chorus of “Shut the fuck up, it’s your goddamn birthday and we won’t miss it for the world” from everyone, and even though he continues to make a point that they can’t stay up too late, they all have school to go to, just a couple drinks and everyone has to go home, it’s very easy to tell that he’s extremely pleased.

“At least,” Seokmin says a little loudly (he had already indulged himself heartily on Soonyoung’s special tray of jello shots and was looking rather red in the cheeks), “your birthday doesn’t fall on an exam day.”

“That’s true,” Soonyoung says with an amused snort. “Wonwoo, this could’ve been way worse. We could’ve had midterms tomorrow.”

“Aren’t I lucky,” Wonwoo says dryly.

“The cool people are here,” Junhui announces, opening the door with a store-bought cupcake clutched in his hands, followed by two other boys. One of them is Jeonghan, silver hair in a loose ponytail and looking handsome and classically college-appropriate in a baby blue sweater over a button-down shirt. The other is a boy Mingyu hasn’t seen before, all gentle small features with peach-pink soft hair and big doe eyes and an equally college-appropriate sweater, this one in royal red.

“Hey guys,” Jeonghan says, eyes glued to his phone. “This is Josh.”

You’re Joshua?” Soonyoung yells out, jumping off the couch to shake his hand violently. “The Hong Joshua?”

Joshua blinks at him, looking rather startled at the forceful introductions of a boy a few years his junior. “Um, yes. I think so.”

“Dude, we’ve been wondering who you were for, like, forever!” Soonyoung whirls around to give Minghao a playfully accusing glare. “Did you know about this?”

“Uh, yeah.” Minghao rolls his eyes. “I’ve known Jeonghan since high school, you think I wouldn’t be one of the first people to know who his new boyfriend is?”

“Ditto for me,” Junhui adds.

“You didn’t even go to our high school, Jun.”

“Tough break, Haohao. Jeonghan’s, like, my best friend. I knew Josh back when he and Jeonghan were still only flirting.”

Mingyu chokes on his cooler and desperately tries to cover it up with just a plain old cough. This is … this is the first actual gay couple he’s seen anywhere other than a TV screen. He tries not to be weird when he shakes Joshua’s hand and watches them settle on the floor by the window, watches Jeonghan lean into Joshua’s shoulder and show him something on his phone that makes Joshua laugh, his fingers fiddling naturally with the end of Jeonghan’s ponytail. He really, really doesn’t want to be weird about it, but it hits Mingyu that despite whatever was going on with him and Wonwoo during senior year this is his first time seeing what an actual relationship between two boys looks like. What a normal, healthy couple is without all the internalized issues and emotional baggage. Two boys who aren’t afraid to hold hands in public, aren’t afraid to introduce each other as boyfriends, aren’t afraid and don’t care what people might say about them.

This is what he and Wonwoo could’ve been. Maybe.

“Are you two gay?” he ends up blurting out, to his immense horror. Minghao covers his face with his hands and Wonwoo very quietly spills a large amount of tequila all over his kitchen counter a few feet away.

“Um, yeah?” Jeonghan says with a little laugh. “Not Josh, though. He’s in what you would call a ‘curious’ phase.”

“No, I’m not!” Joshua blushes, face turning as pink as his hair. “It’s Jeonghan’s stupid little joke, ignore him. I don’t really feel like labelling myself as anything right now, so I’m just, you know, not worrying too much about it. Just seeing where things go and not fussing over the details.”

“Dude, I totally feel that,” Minghao says, nodding in somber agreement.

“I can’t believe you didn’t know, Gyu,” Junhui says, as Seokmin tilts his head back and giggles tipsily at the ceiling. “I mean, look at him.”

“Shut up, Jun,” Jeonghan instantly says.

“You know what I mean. Besides, why do you think he’d be the president of the Aphodell Queer Community Association if he wasn’t gay?”

That’s the club you run?” Mingyu yelps, once again setting off a chain reaction of Minghao sighing into his palm, Seokmin and Soonyoung gleefully chanting “Gay Club! Gay Club!”, and Wonwoo stumbling and nearly dropping the tequila bottle as he returns it to the fridge.

“Oh my god, Gyu, you’re oblivious,” Junhui just says.

“I didn’t know! No one told me.” He stares at Jeonghan with wide eyes. “Wow, that’s a huge club, isn’t it? I mean, it’s a pretty big deal.”

Jeonghan blows a stray lock of silvery hair out of his way. “Well, it’s no science group or community service club, but it does its part for the students in Aphodell.”

“I-I’m sure.” Through the corners of his eyes, he sees Wonwoo shuffle to one of the chairs, staring resolutely at his glass in a way that makes it pretty clear he doesn’t want to be looking at Mingyu, which confuses him. Is he worried about Mingyu’s reaction? He shouldn’t be; Mingyu doesn’t care that Jeonghan’s gay or in charge of a club overseeing the entire campus’ gay community, all he can think about right now is that it might’ve been a club Wonwoo could’ve benefited from in high school. “You, like, make safe spaces for them, right? Or—or help them out if they’re confused or stressed or something? Basically make things okay for them, right?”

Jeonghan looks at him for a moment, but then he smiles, and Mingyu has the unmistakeable feeling that he just passed some sort of test. “Yeah. That’s what we try to do, anyway.” His phone beeps, and he stares at the screen for a few seconds before putting it aside again. “I mean, why do you think I’m always on my phone?”

“You have an extremely large social circle? You like staying in the loop? You’re secretly a millennial?”

“Ha ha, very funny. It’s because I have to oversee every single event and games night and café meetup that Gay Club hosts, and if I have more than five hundred students following our social media pages and expecting a warm, welcoming community to make college a safer, more comfortable place for them, then you damn well better believe I want it to be absolutely perfect.” He pauses. “But yeah, I also have a lot of friends.”

“Wow,” Mingyu says, incredibly impressed. “You’re, like, super cool.”

Jeonghan preens under the response, which makes Joshua chuckle and give him a lightly exasperated look. “Now you’ve done it, Mingyu. You’re going to regret feeding him compliments, he can get fat off of those.”

“Hush, Josh, I work myself to the bone and I deserve every bit of praise I get.” He claps his hands. “But even my ego has its limits. Today’s Wonwoo’s special day! Where’s the birthday boy?”

“Aww, birthday boyyy,” they all instantly coo, which makes Wonwoo blush and hunch his shoulders as if he could hide behind his drink. He looks like he doesn’t really know what to do with all the attention, which only makes Mingyu want to fuss some more. It’s painfully cute.

“Why can’t we all just sit and have a drink and let it be a normal night?” he complains, as if that’ll help distract everyone from the attractive pink in his cheeks. Or maybe Mingyu’s the only one who finds this attractive. He can’t be sure, the cooler is starting to make him feel a little dizzy. Or maybe that’s just him not breathing properly. This is difficult.

“Because we bought you a cupcake and got you presents,” Soonyoung says, helpfully reaching behind the couch and pulling out a box wrapped in girlish pink paper decorated with bows and streamers. At the unimpressed look on Wonwoo’s face, he says, “Look, I’m not rich. This is all the wrapping paper we had in our house. It was leftovers from my niece’s birthday party.”

“… I’m not complaining. Thanks, I guess.” He carefully unwraps it—Wonwoo, apparently, is the type of person who doesn’t like to tear at things, he picks at the tape carefully with his nails and makes sure he doesn’t rip the paper as he unfolds his present, ignoring Seokmin when he whines and tells him to move faster—and unveils a box containing one of the more comfortable Aphodell hoodies sold at the campus store. “Holy shit, actually thanks. Soonyoung, these are, like, ninety dollars.”

“Yep,” Soonyoung says cheerily, holding the hoodie up against Wonwoo’s torso to measure the length like some doting mother in a mall store. “And Seokmin, Minghao, and I both pitched in for this thing so you’re not getting any other presents from us.”

“I’m okay with that. I—wow, thank you.” Wonwoo thumbs at the print at the front of the hoodie, Aphodell’s name and coat of arms emblazoned there in dark forest green. Mingyu sees something flicker in his eyes—pride, maybe?—before Junhui places the cupcake in Wonwoo’s lap and says, “Here’s my present. Happy birthday.”

“Thanks, Jun,” Wonwoo says with a raised eyebrow, quickly moving the hoodie to the side so it doesn’t get stained with fallen icing. Jeonghan and Joshua give him a gift card for the campus store’s ever-expensive textbooks section (“I had to pull a lot of strings for that, don’t fail me or I’ll make you pay double for new books next year,” Jeonghan threatens). And then it’s Mingyu’s turn.

“Is that a book?” Wonwoo asks when Mingyu pulls out a small, rectangular, tightly-wrapped present.

“Yeah, sort of,” he says, suddenly feeling rather embarrassed. He starts babbling before he can help himself. “I-it’s not much, and I don’t really know if you’ve read it already or if you even like things like this, but it kinda reminded me of you and I read a few and I thought you might like it so—”

Minghao very indiscreetly kicks his tailbone from his spot sprawled on the floor. “Reign it in, big guy,” he mumbles as quietly as he can, which in such a small room didn’t really matter at all. Mingyu quickly inhales his drink so he can’t start talking again.

Wonwoo opens the present and stares at the title with surprise. “Complete Stories and Poems of Edgar Allen Poe,” he reads, then gives Mingyu an amused grin. “You saw a big, creepy raven on the cover and thought I’d like it?”

Mingyu fidgets uncomfortably. Wonwoo is smiling, sure, but that doesn’t necessarily mean he likes it. “Poe’s, like, that angsty guy. All dark and gothic and sad and horror shit. I just—I dunno—maybe you might be interested in that stuff? You can sell it if you don’t want it, I don’t really care.”

“Oh, stuff it,” Wonwoo says, moving the cupcake to the coffee table so he can place the book properly on his lap, “I do like Poe. Well, I read The Oval Portrait and Black Cat, and I liked those.” He meets Mingyu’s eyes and smiles widely. “Thanks, Gyu.”

“No problem,” Mingyu says, ridiculously pleased, and curls his knees up to his chin so he can hide his giddy smile. Gyu, gyu, gyu …

The rest of the night passes by happily. Soonyoung manages to shove the cupcake into Wonwoo’s face and get his nose and cheeks covered in icing, Joshua gets to learn exactly how insane his boyfriend’s pack of first year charges all are, and Mingyu gets to see Wonwoo smile and laugh more than he’s ever had in a single setting. This, he thinks, is the semester where everything is going to go right for him.

 

The first set of midterms were difficult, but Mingyu’s concentration and work ethic has improved by a marginal amount, and he sighs with relief when February hits and he learns that he’s in the clear and did not fail any tests so far. Of course, he knows by now that there’s no time to take a breath: he has to get going for the next set of midterms that will happen sometime in late February or early March, not to mention there’s their second semester reading week where he has to promise himself not to fuck up and slack off again, and then, well, there’s Valentine’s Day right before reading week hits. Which means another round of partying he has to mentally prepare himself for.

They’re honestly lucky that Junhui and his housemates like throwing so many parties, because he and Minghao have long since stopped paying Junhui to buy them their drinks. Neither of them ever go to these things with the plan to get drunk, so Junhui buys them their usual single can each and just gives them an exasperated little, “Stop taking advantage of me” that they both ignore. It definitely saves Mingyu a lot of money, something he’s been steadily growing more conscious of.

For the Valentine’s Day party, however, they walk in and find that something feels a little different.

It’s not the decorations, although they are very well done. Pink and red and white streamers and cut-out hearts hang by strings from the ceiling or along the kitchen cupboards or essentially on any available surface that accepts scotch tape, a bowl of Hershey’s kisses placed on the counter. Someone in Junhui’s house clearly had a good time setting up for today. And it’s not any of their friends that makes things feel weird: Junhui looks happily buzzed, Soonyoung and Seokmin are as usual insisting they aren’t lightweights (even though they really most definitely are), Wonwoo is bemusedly looking after them and trailing them like a mother hen to make sure they don’t fall, and Jeonghan and Joshua are being annoyingly cute and doing their own thing somewhere in the basement.

No, what bothers Mingyu are the other guests. Or rather, the number of them. As the night trails along, there seems to be a lot more people than there usually are, the comforting, familiar faces of the usual party guests now diluted with faces of college kids Mingyu’s never seen before. And maybe he’s just being weird or something, but he doesn’t really like the look of some of them, either; sometimes they laugh too loud and too mockingly, or swear loudly enough to make him flinch in surprise, or disappear out back and then reappear smelling absolutely awful and choking up the air in the cramped hallways.

Eventually, Mingyu can’t take it—he excuses himself from everyone and escapes to the solace of Junhui’s bedroom, one of the off-limit rooms. It’s blessedly cool and dark and full of air up here, and he lies down on Junhui’s neatly-made bed and gasps for a moment, letting himself just inhale clean oxygen until he feels a little light-headed. He stares up at the glow-in-the-dark stars Junhui’s plastered onto his ceiling (weirdly adorable). And then, of course, he fucking falls asleep. Big dumb idiot.

He couldn’t have been asleep for more than two hours or so, but when he finally wakes up he thinks days have passed. This must be what all those guys feel like in the movies, he thinks weakly, waking up a month later to an abandoned hospital and finding out that shit it’s suddenly the zombie apocalypse. He can’t hear the sounds of people shouting and laughing downstairs anymore—well, he can, but it’s sort of muted, like they’ve all moved the party another flight down. Junhui’s digital clock reads twelve forty-six a.m. in blinking acid green.

The floorboards creak when he steps outside and walks down the stairs. It’s the aftermath of a bomb explosion down here, nothing but traces of spilled alcohol, Hershey’s wrappers, torn streamers and hearts, all littering the floor or strewn carelessly over lampshades and chairs. People shriek and sing off-key below him, the door to the basement slightly ajar, music blasting loud enough to make the floor shake beneath his feet. Everyone must be packed into the empty, cold basement, raving or moshing or whatever the fuck. This is ridiculous; Junhui’s parties never get this out of hand. What even happened while Mingyu was out?

He thinks he really might be alone up here, until the sound of someone retching in the bathroom piques his interest enough to go see who it could be. Instantly, his heart jumps up to somewhere in his throat when he sees the familiar grey jeans and black T-shirt. “Holy fu—Wonwoo?

Wonwoo groans in response, hacking away as he hunches over the toilet. Mingyu rushes to his side and grabs hold of him, rubs his back until the gagging stops and Wonwoo slumps back and wipes at his mouth with a low whimper of disgust. “Here, come on, stand up,” Mingyu grunts, half-dragging him to his feet and steering him towards the sink. Wonwoo takes over from there, fumbling at the knobs until cold water streams out of the faucet and he rinses his mouth out. When he stands up again, he immediately begins to sway, culminating in Mingyu letting out the most unmanly screech of surprise when Wonwoo collapses into his arms.

“Jesus, Wonwoo, are you drunk?” Mingyu staggers a little against the weight of Wonwoo pressing against his torso, attempting to get his footing again. “Oh, what am I saying, you obviously are. Hey, uh, let’s sit down, alright?”

“Sure,” Wonwoo mumbles, eyelids fluttering in a way that does not look great. They stumble out of the bathroom and towards the couch in the living room, thankfully as empty as it was when Mingyu left it. The sound of the bass-heavy stereos pounding away somewhere in the basement below echoes like a thousand heartbeats, all so distant, so far away, like they’re nothing but a dream and this right here, the two of them, are the only things that are truly real.

Mingyu leaves him leaning back into the couch for a few seconds to grab a red solo cup from the kitchen and shove it under the tap, before returning and carefully supporting Wonwoo’s head by the back of his neck. He very firmly tries to forget that the last time he held Wonwoo like this, it was when he was seventeen and kissing him on his bed. “Drink. Fuck, how many beers do you need to get like this?” A nasty smell, something like a rancid skunk or dying chemicals, makes its way to Mingyu’s nose, and he leans in and sniffs at Wonwoo’s clothing. “Holy shit, man, is that weed?” He vaguely remembers seeing a whole group of people giggling out back with a bong and a couple joints in Junhui’s shed, but he hadn’t remembered or expected Wonwoo to be the type to join them.

“I don’t—I don’t know.” Wonwoo’s bleary, unfocused eyes blink in confusion. “I don’t remember that.”

Oh, Jesus Christ. Mingyu makes him drink at least half of the cup before asking him, “What’s the last thing you remember?”

“I was drinking something, and then something else, and then …” He closes his eyes as if it’ll help him think. He’s strangely cute like this, although Mingyu’s sure he’s going to die of a heart attack from sheer worry before he gets the time to appreciate this new side of him. “Ugh, I had another one, I think? And then suddenly I was here, and someone was taking care of me?” He looks down at the cup in his hand in mild surprise, before attempting to give it to Mingyu. “No more, can’t drink more, aaare you trying to get me drunk?”

“‘Someone’ my ass, that was me, idiot. I was taking care of you twenty seconds ago.” He shoves the cup back to Wonwoo’s lips. “It’s just water. You need it.”

Something like a giggle bubbles up from Wonwoo’s throat as he slurs, “That’s a lie, you’re trrrying to get me drunk.”

“You’re already drunk.” He can’t even bring himself to sound angry or fed up; he’s distinctly aware that his voice is drifting into something almost like exasperated fondness as he smooths hair away from Wonwoo’s sweaty forehead. Like taking care of a child. Is this how Wonwoo feels having to deal with him all the time? “Also, you’re high. Or getting off your high. I can’t tell.”

“Shit, I think you’re right. The room won’t stop spinning.” He takes another sip of water and then groans. “Turn it off, I’m gonna puke.”

“Oh boy. If you do, please do it in the bathroom. I don’t think Jun will appreciate it if you vom in the living room.”

“How—how—how do you know Jun?”

“I’m friends with him.” With some degree of amusement, he realizes that Wonwoo is so fucked up he might not even recognize who he’s talking to, but all that does is make him worry even further. He rubs Wonwoo’s back in gentle circles and contemplates calling an ambulance, trying to remember what the symptoms of alcohol poisoning are. “I should film this and show it to you later. Teach you not to get drunk and high at the same time.”

“You’re cute,” Wonwoo suddenly says, bloodshot eyes widening and sounding completely surprised.

Mingyu’s response is so automatic he couldn’t hide the redness of his ears if he tried. He takes the almost-empty cup from Wonwoo’s hands and escapes back to the kitchen to refill it with cold water, letting himself calm down a little and hoping the temperature might shock Wonwoo into a more sober state. He returns to see him swaying dangerously, and nearly spills the water all over himself in his rush to help him stay upright.

“This is Kim Mingyu, by the way,” he says, letting Wonwoo lean heavily against him as he holds the cup to his pale lips. “In case you’re too fucked to recognize me.”

“Min-gyu?” Wonwoo mumbles, flopping like a dead fish everywhere. His bones are completely rubber. “How d’you know him?”

“I am him.”

“Really? That’s wild.”

Mingyu snorts at the mumbled answer and just focuses on making sure Wonwoo takes careful, slow sips of water. A part of him feels almost pleased to be here; while everyone else is drunk off their ass and making a mess out of Junhui’s basement, he’s here, taking care of Wonwoo, helping him the way Wonwoo did for him so many times last year. Wonwoo’s still utterly wrecked, hair messy and eyes completely glassy, his face and lips an unattractive, sickly pallor. Mingyu lets him loll his head against his shoulder. He still looks so, so handsome.

“You know,” he slurs after several long minutes of semi-peace, eyes staring vacantly at nothing, “I’m actually gay.”

“I know, Wonwoo.”

“How? Do I look obvi … ob …” he seems to struggle with the word, before eventually settling with, “like one?”

Mingyu bites back a laugh and just takes in the feeling of Wonwoo’s head resting right against the junction that meets his shoulder and neck, the feeling of his arm slowly growing numb from the heavy weight of clumsy sloshed thoughts and sheer, blind trust. “You told me. Back in high school, remember?”

“No, I told Mingyu that.”

“I’m Mingyu.”

“No, you’re not.” Wonwoo yawns, mouth stretching as wide as it can go. “You know, I can tell you a secret. Iiiif you want.”

“Sure, man.”

“I think I like a guy. Like-like, in the gay way.” He snickers at some sort of joke only his fuzzy rum-soaked brain can figure out. “Like-like-like-like-like. The biggest like you can go.”

For a moment, he thinks Wonwoo’s just babbling nonsense. Then, once it really sinks in what he just said, he desperately wishes it was nonsense. Something in him just stops, a cog in his soul’s machine that he never noticed before freezing up cold, dread shooting through his veins until his fingers feel numb. He forces himself to speak, painfully aware that his voice is shaking slightly. “W-who?”

“You wouldn’t know him. He’s in my classes.” Wonwoo groans, and his eyebrows furrow like he’s getting a headache. “He’s nice. And sssmart. And he, he, he’s very handsome. So very handsome. So kind. I like him a lot. More than a lot. Fuck, I like him so much.”

“As handsome as me?” Mingyu says with a weak smile. The next time he helps lift the cup to Wonwoo’s lips, it’s trembling from the force it takes for him to stay here, to not drop everything and run away and leave Wonwoo alone, to not jump out into the night and scream himself hoarse like a wild, wounded animal.

“I can’t tell, you’re moving too fast,” Wonwoo squints and then laughs, a faint, faraway sound. “There’s, like, four of you.”

He shouldn’t be feeling this way. He shouldn’t be acting so completely heartbroken that Wonwoo’s moved on, gone off to like other boys, boys who would probably like him back because nobody in their right mind would reject him, just look at him, he’s so beautiful and perfect. Because he can do that. He’s perfectly free to fall in love with other men, date other men, men who won’t be afraid to kiss him in front of strangers and men who can protect him, can love him, can deserve him. Mingyu knows this because they’re friends, they’re nothing but friends, and that’s what he wanted, that’s what he desperately wished they could be, so why does he feel so—?

“But he doesn’t like me back.” Wonwoo’s looking dejected now, hiccupping slightly as he fiddles with a loose thread on Mingyu’s sweater like it’s the most fascinating thing in the universe. “He won’t ever. Never never never. Ifffff I … if I told him, he might hate me.” His eyes are looking even glassier, welling up with drunken tears. “He’ll hate me, he’ll hate me. I’m too scared to tell him. I don’t even think he likes other guys. I can’t ever—

“Hey, hey, uh, Wonwoo, it’s okay, don’t don’t don’t—” Wonwoo hiccups again as a few tears slip free, sliding down red-rimmed eyes and pale, ashen cheeks. Mingyu hastily wipes them away with his thumb, panicking now. Drunk and high or not, he’s never seen Wonwoo cry before. This is the moment where he sees Wonwoo’s vulnerability, in a moment where his inhibitions are so fucked up he can’t stop himself from blurting everything out, and god this is not the way he ever wanted to see Wonwoo open his heart to him, not like this. “Don’t cry, if that guy makes you cry he doesn’t deserve you. Hey, sssh, it’ll be o-ok-okay.”

“You’re crying,” Wonwoo says in faint amazement. When he reaches up to pat clumsily at Mingyu’s chin, he only realizes then that he’s tearing up too, either as a knee-jerk reaction from seeing Wonwoo look so sad and helpless, or from some strange unforeseen heartbreak, or from being so overwhelmed and tired, he doesn’t fucking know anymore. His hands are shaking, his ears are buzzing, his vision is swaying. His heart is pounding in his chest like he’s about to have an anxiety attack and he can barely speak. “Are you okay?” Wonwoo asks, his voice so faraway it could’ve been underwater.

Mingyu forces himself out of it and lets out a wet, shaky laugh. “Y-yeah, yeah I’m okay. It’s you we should be worrying about. I’ll get you more water.”

When he rubs his face dry with his sweater sleeve and refills the cup again, someone finally joins him from the basement, jumping up the steps two at a time. It’s Junhui, looking distinctly less tipsy and far more haggard.

“This party has gone way out of hand,” he huffs as a way of greeting, filling up his own solo cup with cold water and gulping down almost half of it in one go. “My fucking idiot of a housemate brought over a bunch of his clubbing friends that we don’t know, even though we distinctly told him that we don’t throw parties with people we don’t know outside of school, and now we’ve got a bunch of hardcore druggies fucking up the backyard and way more drunk people than I need in this place. Seriously, does one of them work at the fucking LCBO? Why is there so much alcohol at a BYOD party?”

“That explains this, then,” Mingyu says, pointing at a near-comatose Wonwoo slumped into the couch, staring up at the ceiling with placid contemplation. His voice is still wobbly with the intensity of his emotions—he’s honestly hoping he can just walk home by himself and maybe get lost and maybe cry somewhere nice and dark and quiet where nobody can hear him sob his fucking idiotic, useless heart out—but thankfully Junhui is too frazzled to notice. “I thought you would get drunk by now, too.”

“Oh, once I saw the state half of my guests were in, I sobered up real fast. Mother fucker, Wonwoo, you look like an extra from The Grudge.” He pats Wonwoo’s face until he receives a weak groan in response. “Yeah, he looks bad, but not horrible. More water and a good night’s sleep should help him recover. I can take him to my room later so he can puke it all out of his system in peace.”

“Will he be okay?”

“This idiot drank more than he could handle. Probably didn’t help that those assholes have been forcing drinks into everybody’s hands, it’s like they want us all to die of alcohol poisoning or something.” He looks up, and seems to finally notice the expression on Mingyu’s face. “Hey, man, are you—”

“Jun!” Joshua’s voice yells out, less mellow than usual, and they both turn (Mingyu rather grateful for the distraction) to see him and some other girl Mingyu doesn’t recognize staggering up the basement stairs, a familiar body lolling between them.

“Minghao!” Mingyu rushes over to help them, as Wonwoo whimpers something about “Noise hurting my eyes” and Junhui hisses out a terrified little, “Haohao too? Oh my god, what the actual fuck.”

“Jun, it’s those idiots Grant brought over from Lily Hawkins College,” the stranger says, a dark-skinned desi girl—Indian, maybe, Mingyu can’t be sure—with long rivers of black hair and a gracefully hooked nose. “There’s too many people down there, I can’t keep track of anything or anyone. They just kept forcing drinks on everyone they ran into. I think this poor guy here eventually got so drunk he stopped refusing them.”

Mingyu has never seen Junhui look angry, but as his expression darkens into what can only be described as calm fury he gets a cold chill down his spine. “Josh, take care of Wonwoo for me. Mingyu, can you get Minghao home? I need to sort some things out.”

“Holy shit,” Mingyu mumbles in mild terror as Junhui stomps downstairs. He takes Joshua’s place, swinging Minghao’s arm over his shoulder, as Joshua runs over and speaks to Wonwoo in a gentle undertone and makes him drink more water.

“Yeah,” the girl says, “Jun’s pretty scary when he wants to be. Hey, set this guy—Minghao, right? Jun’s little cousin?—on the couch for a second, I’ll get us an Uber.”

Minghao’s not looking great, either. His face is as bloodless as Wonwoo’s, hair falling into his sweaty forehead, lips so pale they’re practically grey. His eyelids flutter rapidly, and the only sign that he’s not passed out or worse is his occasional mumbles, all too quiet and mangled to make anything out.

“What do we do?” he says, beginning to panic as he lets Minghao sink into the couch cushions beside Wonwoo and tilts his head to the side in case he vomits. “Jesus, he looks really bad—will he be okay? Do we need to call someone or, or—”

“Hey, calm down,” the girl says, mashing impatiently at her phone’s touch screen. “He’s going to be fine, just had more than he can handle. I’ve seen worse at the pre-parties for faculty formals.” Below them, the music abruptly shuts off, plunging the entire house into a strong silence. There’s a few shouts of protests that swell up from the closed basement door, but that too hushes up pretty fast. “Looks like Jun’s about ready to kick some ass. The Uber’s gonna be here in three minutes, let’s get him outside before everyone thunders up here and makes things difficult.”

“O-okay.” They manage to get Minghao to his feet again. Mingyu turns to Joshua, the pink-haired boy in the process of moving Wonwoo’s head to rest between his knees. “Please take care of him,” he finds himself saying.

Joshua looks up at him, his numerous black and silver earrings glinting off the light of a nearby lamp. Despite being so soft and sweet, he looks determined and even a little bit dangerous with all those earrings and his black liquid eyeliner, a lion hiding under pink sheep wool sweaters. No wonder Jeonghan seems to like him so much. “I’ve been teetotal since first year, Mingyu,” he says with a little, tired smile. “Taking care of all the wasted guys afterwards is my job. You take care of Minghao, I promise Wonwoo is gonna be okay.”

Mingyu can barely remember how they get back to Irissen Hall. He vaguely remembers the Uber driver making friendly chit-chat with the girl, who seemed to get instinctively that Mingyu was in no mood to talk, and he remembers a little bit of the struggle it took to drag Minghao’s limp, uncooperative, gangly scarecrow body into the elevator and up to room 312. It isn’t until he’s tucked Minghao carefully into bed, the garbage can from the bathroom helpfully placed by his bedside followed by three plastic bottles of water, does time somehow switch back to normal and he realizes he’s just sitting on the carpet next to that girl for a moment of relieved silence.

“Thank you,” he eventually says, “for helping me take him home.”

“No problem,” the girl says. “He’s Jun’s baby cousin, I gotta do what I can to look after him.”

He leans back, resting his weight against his arms. Too many things happened tonight, he’s just so exhausted and dead to the bone and numb and he can’t stop thinking of Wonwoo’s face, his tears, “Fuck, I like him so much” who who who is he talking about who does he like why is he moving on and Mingyu’s still here acting like his heart is getting broken for the first time all fucking over again—he’s desperate to just not think about it anymore. “Are you Jun’s friend, then?”

“Yeah, same major. And you’re Minghao’s roommate. Sorry I forgot your name, I know it starts with ‘M’.” When she sees his quizzical look, she laughs. “Jun likes to talk about all you little first years. He really dotes on Minghao, you know. Not that he’d ever let him know that, the big softie.”

The girl has an interesting way of talking—some complicated accent mixed with an overlying Western one that plucks at her vowels in some words and not in others. When she laughs, Mingyu can see a little stud piercing flash in her nose. She sounds smart when she talks—articulated, eloquent, confident—and he likes all those qualities. And she is pretty.

Wonwoo. His chest seizes up for a moment, the old tendrils of his anxiety creeping back in the corners of his brain again, digging into its crevices. Wonwoo’s moving on. Wonwoo’s completely over what they used to have—Mingyu keeps saying that, keeps saying that it’s over, it’s over, it’s over, but it wasn’t until he heard Wonwoo say he likes someone else that he realized it’s official, it’s really happening. Maybe there was a part of him that he kept pretending not to see, a part of him that still thought they could be together in the end.

He wants to laugh at himself. Wants to cry. Dumb idiot, piece of garbage. Thinking the broken pieces they’ve managed to salvage and rebuild into a new relationship would be enough to undo all the stupidity of their past.

Wonwoo’s done with staring at their high school years, trying to sift through all the shards and see if he can figure out a way to make things work again. Wonwoo’s all grown up and he’s moving on. And if Mingyu is going continue to remain his friend and stay by his side and support him through everything, he knows what he has to do, even if it hurts so much to do it. He needs to move on, too. As quickly as possible.

“What’s your name?” he asks the pretty girl.

She looks at him and smiles. Minghao snores softly beneath his covers.

“Ananya,” she says. “What’s yours?”

 

 

Chapter Text

The thing about Ananya Chahal is that she is, objectively, the coolest person Mingyu knows.

“No, no, no,” she says, popping her gum when she laughs. They’re Sour Patch Kids flavour; she buys them in bulk and used to share them with Mingyu, but decided to ban him indefinitely when he kept swallowing them (“They taste just like the candy, it’s an automatic reflex!”). “The best season is two, Jake finally gets together with Amy in two.”

“No,” Mingyu corrects with a smile, “they make out at the end of season two, they get together in season three. Which is why three is better.”

“But the first couple episodes are so sad without Captain Holt!” She falls back against his bed. He very firmly tries to pretend he’s not admiring the way her dark curly hair fans out over his blue bedsheets. “I have a weak constitution, I just can’t take it.”

Mingyu shakes his head at her with mock disappointment, smirking. “How are you going to handle season four? They’re separated from the squad and in the witness protection program for, like, four episodes.”

“Ugh, god, I know.” She laughs. “Luckily for me, I can postpone watching it for as long as I want. It’s hard to keep track of all these TV shows, to be honest. You’ll see, Gyu. Once you hit third year, it’s nothing but essays and thesis papers.”

The two of them had exchanged numbers the night of that horrible Valentine’s Day party and ended up texting all throughout reading week. It’s hard for Mingyu to think about that night—not without Wonwoo’s slurred words echoing in his mind, his own horrible personality twisting his voice until Wonwoo sounds vicious, horrible, mocking him for desperately clutching onto a flame that’s been long burnt out—without getting a terrible ache in his chest that makes him feel hollow and empty inside. But talking to Ananya makes it better, makes him forget for even a little while. It feels nice and simple for him to flirt with a girl and be sure that things can turn out okay, that this is something he’s born to do, that it’s expected of him so there’s no possible way he can screw this up like he does with everything else in his life.

The best part about this is that liking Ananya is easy. She’s a top student with precise control of both her school and social life, active in several volunteering clubs, part of Jeonghan and Junhui’s inner circle of (what Mingyu thinks, at least) cool friends. She’s passionate about her culture and delights in telling Mingyu all the good Indian restaurants near campus and showed him several pictures of herself looking striking in saris. She’s witty, she likes a lot of the same shows and movies and music that Mingyu likes, and she’s basically cool as hell. It’s easy to be with her and flirt with her and think that this is what comes naturally to him, this is the way things should’ve gone after all.

The door opens, and Minghao returns from one of his classes. He stops and stares at the two of them snickering on Mingyu’s bed, laptop on Mingyu’s lap (they were watching Brooklyn Nine Nine). He has a distinct deer-in-the-headlights look as if he’s walked into something he shouldn’t have, although as far as Mingyu’s concerned they aren’t doing anything terrible. All clothing articles have remained on everybody’s person. “Hey, guys,” he eventually says.

“Oh, hey, Hao.” Ananya smiles at him as she slides off the bed. “You’re looking better.”

He lets out a self-conscious laugh. Ever since he woke up with a terrible hangover the day after the party and learned of the events of the night (as well as receiving a thorough scolding about safe drinking by Junhui, which made his ears glow with embarrassment and shame for almost an hour after), Minghao made everyone swear not to mention that party again. Of course, everyone ignored him. It’s not like the rest of them fared any better that night, either. Only Mingyu got away from there in one piece, and considering he’s still on his medication that’s probably a good thing. “Oh. Uh, yeah. Thanks again for that, by the way. Mingyu told me I looked like hell.”

“Ah, you were no trouble. I’ve had to deal with far worse drunks than you.”

He sets his backpack onto the floor by his desk and watches Ananya lace up her boots. “That sounds like a story I’d like to hear one day, so long as one of those drunks is Junhui. Don’t let me kick you out, you’re free to stay if you want.”

“Nah, I was just leaving anyway,” she says, while Mingyu answers at the same time, “She has to go to the library for a group project.” They look at each other and laugh, Mingyu holding the door open for her.

“Talk to you later, Ananya.”

“Bye, guys,” she says with a friendly wave. Mingyu shuts the door behind her and turns to face Minghao, who’s looking at him strangely. It wipes the grin right off his face.

“What?” He’s aware that his voice sounds sharp, defensive almost, even though Minghao hasn’t even said anything yet.

He doesn’t have to wait long to find a reason to be defensive. “Mingyu,” Minghao says, and his eyes are sharp and impatient, “what are you doing?”

He willfully ignores the implications of the question and stubbornly clambers back into his bed, laptop resting on his pillow. “What do you mean?”

Minghao makes a flippant gesture with his arms. “This … whatever it is with her. Flirting, sort-of dating. It’s been going on ever since we got back from reading week. I mean, listen, she’s cool and Jun’s friend and I like her plenty, not to mention she’s actually helping you get your grades up so she’s definitely good for you, but … do you even like her?”

Mingyu snorts. “Dude,” he says, “she’s smart, funny, pretty, and clearly has her shit together. Why wouldn’t I like her?”

He gives him one of those looks that feel like he can see right through Mingyu’s ribcage and heart and right to his core. “You didn’t answer my question. Do. You. Like her.”

“I …” He betrays himself—his chest seizes up and his jaw clenches shut, the simple answer suddenly refusing to come out at all. “I …” Minghao stares at him, and he can feel hot panic crawl blindly up his throat. Wonwoo likes someone else, his thoughts remind him, someone who shares a bunch of classes with the two of you, he likes someone else and he’s moving on and he really, truly doesn’t love you anymore. “I want to like her. It’s just … it’s so nice. It makes things easier.”

Minghao doesn’t respond.

“That sounds bad, doesn’t it.”

“A little bit, yeah.”

Mingyu sits back heavily, moving his laptop aside and sinking into his pillows until the back of his head hits the wall. He ignores the dull pain; somehow, he feels like he deserves it. “I’m using her, aren’t I. I’m just using her as a way to officially get over Wonwoo.”

“Yep.”

“Oh my god.” He groans, digging his knuckles against his temples. “I don’t actually like her, do I? I’m just trying to force myself to like her so I can be officially done with Wonwoo.”

“Yep.”

“Oh god, am I leading her on? I’m leading her on. I’m a piece of shit.”

“Yep.”

He gives Minghao a despairing glance. The thought that he had somehow disappointed Minghao, had made him in any way regret trusting him and calling him his best friend, is almost unbearable. Not for the first time, he has that creeping little invasive thought that Minghao deserves someone better than him. “Hao, do you hate me?”

Minghao gives him another one of his sharp looks, but it has none of his usual bite in it. “Kim Mingyu, you are stupid and irresponsible and a huge dumbass. You are also my best friend, and we are going to be living together for the next three years. It’s my job to tell you if I think you’re fucking up, but I don’t hate you for it.”

“What should I do?”

He sighs. “Honestly? I don’t know. Are you even sure Wonwoo’s moved on the same way you think? I mean, from what you said to me he was kind of fucked in the head when he told you. What if it was just the drugs talking?”

Mingyu had thought of that before, but it was too painful for him to dwell on it for long. “You weren’t there, man. The way he talked about this guy … he must be some perfect asshole on an entirely different level for Wonwoo to call him smart and handsome and nice and all that shit, like he was some sort of king. The way he talked about him …” he winces. The lost hope he feels is so poignant he can almost feel it crushing his insides, numbing his nerve endings. “It’s official. He’s into someone else.”

Minghao hesitates, before walking over to sit at the edge of Mingyu’s bed, right by his shins. “Is it really hard, Gyu?” he asks, quietly. “Weren’t you guys already over? I thought you two had already, well, moved on.”

Mingyu feels uncharacteristically young again, feeling the terror and anxiety swallowing back his words once more, that awful gag reflex-inducing sensation that everything he wants to say that can free him, that can hurt him, is being forced back down his throat and suffocating him.

“I,” he chokes out, eyes beginning to burn. “I thought that—that I was over this. I thought I only wanted to be someone he likes again, trusts again. But-but then this happened and I realized I wasn’t okay with this. I’m still not over him.” His voice breaks as the realization hits, a small sob breaching through, and just like that he can’t stop the pressure from exploding outwards, shaking and trembling from the force of it, “a-and-and-and some part of me thought that against all odds, against all reason, against everything, he might still love me and it’ll be like none of the shit we did in high school ever happened but it’s not, it’s not, he’s leaving me behind and I can never get him back and he doesn’t love me anymore, he won’t ever love me and I’m nothing, I’m nothing!”

Minghao’s got his arms around him in seconds, resting his sharp pointy chin against the top of Mingyu’s head. He pets his hair as Mingyu sobs, the kind of wet aching cries of his youth.

“You’re not nothing, Mingyu,” he says, voice quiet and soothing. “You’re never nothing. You’re still Wonwoo’s friend, aren’t you? He still cares about you.”

“He won’t,” Mingyu whimpers. “He’ll find out, and he won’t. He’ll find out I’m still in love with him even after all the horrible things that happened to us and all the shitty things I’ve done to him and he’ll hate me.

“No, no, no, he won’t hate you.” Minghao’s long, spindly fingers feel nice combing through Mingyu’s locks. “You know he won’t, Mingyu. He could never hate you. You know that.”

“No.” He’s not sure what he’s protesting, all he knows is that it’s the only thing he can do anymore. “No.”

“Oh, hush, you big, overgrown baby.” He rubs his knuckles against Mingyu’s back, the faint pressure helping him calm down and take deep gulping breaths. “You don’t really think Wonwoo will hate you.”

“Yes I do,” he says, stubbornly.

Minghao hums a little laugh that Mingyu can feel more than hear, pressing his cheek where he can sense the dull vibrations in Minghao’s throat. “Wanna know what I think?”

“Not really.”

“I think you’re trying to find a way to justify shitting on yourself like this. You’re heartbroken and miserable and you feel dumb hoping that Wonwoo might take you back, you’re relapsing on the whole trying-to-improve-your-mental-health-and-happiness thing you’ve had going for you so far, and now you need some sort of reason to continue feeling miserable so you don’t have to think about anything anymore or find a way to fix it. So you’re trying to make yourself think Wonwoo will hate you and never talk to you again.”

Mingyu scowls against Minghao’s shoulder. “You suck.”

“So you think I’m right.”

“I didn’t say that,” he mumbles into his shirt. “I’m just saying you suck. It’s an observation.”

Minghao hums again. “You thought Wonwoo hated you before, didn’t you? And he didn’t. Trust me on this, big guy, he won’t hate you for having a harmless crush on him. The worst you’ll get from him is a gentle rejection, maybe, like, an awkward hug. Plus, maybe that guy was—” he stops himself.

“What guy?”

“The … guy Wonwoo was talking about. He said he was in a bunch of his classes? But that you didn’t know him?”

“Yeah.” Mingyu grimaces, and against his will he starts going over all the familiar faces in the Social Sciences faculty. Who is it out of the several hundred first years in their program that stole Wonwoo’s heart? Which one of them was it that sits with them in lecture halls, that befriended Wonwoo back in first semester when he was thriving and Mingyu was just trying to get through the day without wanting the world to end? “I mean, maybe I do, but whatever. There’s like two, three hundred students in just about every class we have together.”

“I just—wonder—if maybe, maybe he was—” Minghao stops himself again, teeth chewing the inside of his cheek ragged, before he sighs. “I’m probably wrong, forget it. But you really should consider that Wonwoo was not in his right mind when he told you this. If it bothers you so much, why don’t you at least ask him before you start doing this to yourself again?”

“Yeah,” he says weakly, “yeah, you’re right. I should just talk to him and ask him if it’s really true and he’ll realize I’m still into him and I’ll have to deal with him telling me that there’s no way in the world he’d ever want to make the same mistake twice. Yeah, great idea.”

Minghao sighs. Mingyu once asked him if he had ever dated anyone. Minghao had responded that he’s never so much as had a crush before. Nobody’s ever made his heart race, made his palms sweaty, made him feel like he’s floating. It’ll happen one day, with someone special, he had said, and he sounded rather wistful. Xu Minghao didn’t need another person by his side to feel complete, to feel like himself, but Mingyu thinks he secretly wants that intimacy with someone. That feeling of dependency and comfort, the closeness. Until then, expect me to give you the worst dating advice ever.

Then you’ve never kissed anyone, Mingyu had observed with surprise and a smirk. Minghao had laughed and responded with, A very drunk Soonyoung during frosh week changed that real fast.

“Just talk to him,” Minghao says, tightening his hands around Mingyu’s shoulders for reassurance. “It’s Wonwoo. What are you so afraid of?”

 

At the start of March, when the weather warms up a little and they face muddy puddles and soft, soggy grass and frequent rain, he asks Ananya out on an official date (her umbrella is weird, shaped like a giant leaf like the one in My Neighbour Totoro, her cousin bought it for her at a special custom Ghibli store on a trip to Japan—although it’s cute the shape is altogether too awkward and just barely covers her and her backpack; Mingyu’s umbrella is ordinary, but the pattern is that of numerous other smaller and smaller umbrellas, like some kind of umbrella Inception).

She accepts.

He doesn’t ask Wonwoo anything. He’s a coward.

That night, he dreams of himself at eleven years old, awkward and gangly and lonely, sobbing into his mother’s hip as he watches his dad slide into a taxi and drive off. He didn’t understand why at the time, but now he knows. It’s because good things aren’t always as good as they seem, and wistful dreams only take you so far before you wake up again.

 

“Hey, Gyu,” Wonwoo says with a little smile as he sits beside Mingyu for their second semester Psychology class. He’s still got his friends in this class, too—the girl with dreadlocks, an Asian boy with glasses and bad acne, a girl with skin and hair both so pale she could practically be dead for all Mingyu knows. But he sometimes sits beside Mingyu instead of going with anyone else. He sits with him more often than not, recently.

He smiles back, but it’s painful. This is painful. It’s so, so godawfully horrible to sit here and act like nothing’s changed and they’re still friends when Mingyu’s realized that’s not what he wants at all. He thought he only wanted Wonwoo to be happy and confident and to consider him a friend, but he doesn’t. He wants more, he always wants more, he still loves Wonwoo and he’s so, so selfish.

“You, um,” Wonwoo doesn’t speak for a moment—he’s suddenly very preoccupied with turning on his laptop and setting up his notes. “You seemed pretty distant during reading week. You okay?”

“What?” Mingyu’s distracted. Wonwoo’s presence suddenly seems so much more real, so present, he can practically feel the skin on the tip of his fingers thrumming with the awareness that the weight and warmth of the person next to him is Jeon Wonwoo. “Oh, sorry, you know how things are. I actually got shit done, though, can you believe that?”

“That’s good.” Wonwoo smiles at him, so handsome, teeth white and straight. “I’m glad.”

“Yeah. I kept getting distracted, though, so don’t go hailing me as a saint just yet. If it wasn’t for Ananya telling me to get my ass back on track—” he halts mid-sentence, eyes widening slightly.

Shit. Ananya. That’s right. He can’t be going on and moaning about his pathetic, desperate feelings that continue to cling onto his perception of Wonwoo. That’s not something he has to … he should be doing anymore.

“Right. Ananya.” Wonwoo’s smile dims, bit by bit, before disappearing entirely, “She’s pretty cool, huh? I’ve seen her with Jeonghan and Jun a couple of times.”

“Yeah,” he croaks. “Yeah, she’s cool.”

He doesn’t understand the expression on Wonwoo’s face, in his eyes. He doesn’t get what it’s supposed to mean. God, he’s so lost, he doesn’t understand it at all. “And she’s pretty.”

“I thought gay guys can’t tell if a girl is pretty or not,” he immediately says, echoing a similar conversation they had once. That night at New Years. The party. When he realized he wanted to kiss Wonwoo so, so badly. Jesus fuck.

Wonwoo snorts, and Mingyu thinks he’s remembering that night as well. “Oh, shut up. I … you … that is …” he clears his throat. “Are you dating her?”

“I,” he licks his lips when he finds them extremely dry. His tongue feels like sandpaper, scratchy and rough. “Sort of. We, um, we’re going on dates, but we haven’t made anything super official yet. We’re both just looking for some fun, y’know? She wants to wait and see if this is something worth turning serious.”

And then finally, for the first time since he’s sat down, Wonwoo looks directly into his eyes. His eyes are so deep, so dark, Mingyu thinks they’re black holes tugging at the gravity beneath his feet and threatening to throw him off balance, spaghettifying him until he’s nothing but consciousness and a piece of string. “Do you like her?”

It seems like a lot of people are asking him that question these days.

“I think so.” He thinks Wonwoo can pierce right through his very soul at this point, the gaze directed at him is so strong he can barely breathe. “I think she … would be good for me.”

Wonwoo doesn’t say anything for a good, long while. The professor sets up, turns on the projector, and starts class.

“Okay,” Mingyu thinks he can hear him whisper as they write notes. He wants to say something, but doesn’t know what. Every word that comes out of his mouth feels like barbed wire, bear traps, things that catch and take hold and drain him out hollow and dry. He bites down hard on his lip to keep himself from saying anything stupid, from ruining things more than he thinks he already has, and doesn’t let up until he starts tasting coppery blood.

 

“I’ve always wanted to get my ears pierced,” Mingyu says.

They’re eating lunch at the only good Korean place near campus, slurping down spicy tofu soup and purplish bean rice and kimchi. He’s delighted to find that Ananya not only can tolerate the spiciness of authentic—well, authentic enough for North America, anyway—Korean cuisine, but revels in it. “Dude,” she had said with a laugh when Mingyu expressed some concern about her picking the hottest level of spice (three chili peppers placed beside the order’s name on the menu for easy reference that your taste buds are gonna have a hard time), “I’m Indian. You should try my mother’s cooking sometime, it might make you cry.”

Ananya’s pulled her hair up into a loose bun, the kind of hairstyle that looks messy but effortlessly sexy without appearing careless, something Mingyu has never figured out. Without her thick locks hanging in the way, he’s free to stare at her ears, both of which have several piercings. He reaches out with his free hand to fiddle with one of the cartilage piercings, amazed, until she snickers at him and swats his hand away.

“Don’t, you’re all greasy from the oil,” she says.

“I wiped my hands.”

“On your jeans, honey. Didn’t you take high school chemistry? You need soap and water before I let you rub your grubby hands on me and clog my ear pores.”

He just laughs and repeats himself. “I’ve always wanted to pierce my ears.”

“Why don’t you?” She takes great care not to spill any of the soup, Mingyu notes, so she doesn’t stain her clothes with any redness. Mingyu’s T-shirt is already splattered with tiny little drops, which is unfortunate but inevitable. Luckily for him, he can hide it under his jacket for the rest of this date. If this is a date. It’s supposed to be a date, at least, but Mingyu has the strangest sense that this is less of a romantic date between a sort-of couple and more like a casual lunch with a good friend. He shakes that sense away and focuses instead on Ananya’s pretty, thin wrists, her cool piercings, her dark mulberry lipstick. “Is it your parents?”

“No, no, my mom doesn’t really care, so long as it’s not some crazy facial piercing and so long as it’s my money. I just never found the time, I guess. Plus, don’t they hurt? Like, a lot?”

“They hurt a little,” Ananya says. “They hurt more if done with a piercing gun. The guy I went to for my cartilage used a needle, and I felt it was way better. He does a good job.” When she sees the excited look on Mingyu’s face, she smiles fondly—again, he feels like that smile is suited more for a young, overeager kid brother than her casual boyfriend, but he looks at her long eyelashes and the slender nape of her neck to forget about it. “He actually works in this city. Do you wanna go see him?”

“What? T-today?” He checks the time on his phone, as if he didn’t already know it was around one in the afternoon on a Saturday. “Like, right now?”

“My housemate isn’t using her car today. I can drive you over if you want.” She pats his hand, grease from the chili oil be damned, when he starts nervously fidgeting. “It’s just a suggestion, Gyu. You don’t have to if you don’t want to.”

“No,” he blurts out, “no, I-I wanna do this. Let’s do it now, before I chicken out again.”

“You sure?”

“I’m not a scaredy-cat.”

She clucks her tongue, and he knows she’s thinking of the last time they watched a horror movie together. “You’re a bit of a scaredy-cat, honey.”

“Hypothetically, if I was a scaredy-cat, will you hold my hand when they shove the needle into my ear flesh?”

“No, Gyu, I’m going to film you crying and send it to all your friends.” He blinks at her. “Yes, of course I’ll hold your hand.”

“Okay, let’s go.” They stand up to pay, fiddling with their coats. This is the first weekend in months where the sun actually seems to be shining, but the welcoming brightness outside is terribly misleading—the weather won’t warm up into springtime for another couple weeks.

“Do you know how sensitive your ears might be?” Ananya asks as they head down the street and back towards Aphodell (the house she rents is on the other side of campus). “I don’t trust the funky earrings they sell at these kinds of shops. They’re usually a cheap, shitty plastic that can infect you and your ears get all gross. I had to deal with that first hand, it’s nasty.

He laughs, but it sounds awkward and self-conscious in his own head. “I, um, I actually do have earrings to wear. I’ve got them back in my place, do you mind if we—?”

He’s distinctly aware that something about this is very wrong, as he runs back out to the front of Irissen Hall, clutching a tiny velvet box in his hands. There’s something very weird about going with his current girlfriend to pierce his ears using earrings given to him by his ex-whatever. The ex-whatever being the entire reason why he’s dating his current girlfriend in the first place. This is all so terrible.

“Wow,” Ananya gasps when she peeks inside the box and looks at the studs. “Silver? Oh, they’re so beautiful. When did you get this?”

“They’re, um, they’re actually a birthday present.”

She whistles. “Some birthday present. These are very definitely expensive, you know. They must be a big fan of yours.”

Mingyu genuinely just wants to Die. Straight up capital-letter Death by guillotine or a falling telephone pole or an axe murderer to end his tremendous guilt. “Yeah,” he mumbles, shoving the box into his pocket as they had back to her house to grab the car. “Yeah, big fan.”

 

When he says goodbye to Ananya and goes off to find his friends, they are all lounging in ragged old leather armchairs and loveseats in one of the many campus common areas, this one on the second floor of the Sciences building. “Look at that,” Seokmin marvels the moment he arrives, fiddling with the lobes of Mingyu’s ears so he can observe the silver studs firmly attached to the soft flesh. “You look good with earrings, big guy, hot damn.”

“Stop touching them,” Mingyu whines, slapping his fingers away. “They hurt. This wasn’t even a cartilage piercing and it hurts so bad.

“Yeah, but you suit earrings really well, Minyu,” Joshua says, patting at his hair in an attempt to soothe him. He has to reach quite a bit up to get to the top of his head, but Mingyu’s appreciative of the gesture all the same. “Congratulations. Think you can work your way up to an industrial by the end of the year?”

“Oh, buddy, no. Just imagining how you got your damn tragus pierced makes me wanna pass out.” Despite all his fluffy pastel sweaters and clean, gelled hair, Mingyu keeps finding more and more things about Joshua that makes him understand exactly how he and Jeonghan got together. Joshua’s got minimal piercings but most of them in distinctly painful, unusual places, and even a tattoo on the fragile underside of his left wrist (of the Deathly Hallows, though, so he’s still definitely still dorky).

Jeonghan just laughs. His ears are perfectly smooth and unmarked, although according to Minghao he has piercings in places that aren’t meant to be seen in most polite company. “Did Ananya take pics of you blubbering in the seat?”

Mingyu throws his hands up into the air, ears stinging. “Why does everyone assume I cried? I’m not a baby!”

“You’re a bit of a baby,” Jeonghan coos, pinching his cheeks. Mingyu doesn’t have much baby fat on his face for him to work with, but Jeonghan manages all the same.

“I didn’t cry, okay?” He throws himself into one of the couches, leaning heavily against Minghao—who whines a little at the weight—and tossing one of his legs over Soonyoung’s lap. “I was a stone cold motherfucker. Not a single tear was shed.” They all give him a look. “Okay, fine, my eyes were a little wet. But I didn’t cry!”

“Aww,” Junhui says, “did Ananya hold your hand?”

Mingyu feels Minghao stiffen beside him, or maybe that’s him freezing up and he just can’t tell. Against his will, his eyes flit immediately over to Wonwoo, curled up in an armchair on his own and buried in a book (And Then There Were None by Agatha Christie). Wonwoo doesn’t look up from his book, or really do anything out of the ordinary, so Mingyu doesn’t understand why he’s looking at him like he’s waiting, expecting him to react.

“Yeah, she did,” he says.

The others all laugh and tease him, although instead of feeling pleased by the attention Mingyu just feels horrible. He smiles weakly at their little jokes but his eyes keep returning to the back of Wonwoo’s head, his hunched shoulders from his awkward folded-up position in the armchair, the crisp white pages of the book he’s reading. He doesn’t turn any of those pages for a good, long while.

 

“How were midterms?” Mingyu asks Wonwoo. It’s one-part genuine curiosity, one-part because he wants to know if Wonwoo performed as good as he did, and one-part because he’s desperately hoping that, regardless of their recently awkward study sessions and practically silent, stiff midterm reviews, if he talks to Wonwoo enough and pretends nothing is wrong and weird and off between them things really will go back to normal.

Wonwoo hums a noncommittal answer, gold wire-rimmed glasses slipping steadily down his nose until he pushes it back up again. His hair is starting to get long, bangs beginning to cover his eyes when he doesn’t style it up. Both he and Mingyu need a haircut, it seems. He resists the urge to reach out and run his hands through Wonwoo’s black locks, to ruffle his hair, to laugh at the faint static electricity.

“Alright. I’m definitely doing better in terms of studying since first semester.”

“Yeah, same here.” He’s still not getting as good as he wants, but he’s improving. His average, at least, is moving up. Moving up to what, though, what goal, he really has no idea, which isn’t a good thing. He needs to apply for his major sometime by April, and there’s not a lot of time left for him to reflect. He wonders what Wonwoo is thinking of applying for, but he’s suddenly not sure if they’re close enough for him to ask those kinds of questions anymore.

Their conversation ends, just like that. Mingyu teeters on the edge of saying something else to try and restart the dry spell following between their sentences, but Wonwoo is very diligently taking notes from their latest class on Child Behaviour as early preparation for finals (only two and a half weeks away, Mingyu realizes, holy shit first year is over in two and a half weeks), so he gives up and glumly returns to his own notes.

“Your earrings,” Wonwoo suddenly says, shocking Mingyu into fumbling his pen and almost tipping over his Second Cup coffee.

Mingyu looks up, waiting for Wonwoo to finish, but he stares holes into his notebook and doesn’t say anything more. Eventually, he has to do something. “What about them?”

“They,” Wonwoo pauses and licks his lips. Mingyu hates that his eyes follow the movement like a creep, totally transfixed and unable to move away. “They’re the ones I gave you. For your birthday.”

For his birthday last year. Mingyu can still remember, clear as day. He can practically feel the itchy grass beneath his hands and feet, the sun in his eyes, that feeling of heart-wrenching, desperate, clumsy love he had for this discomfited skinny boy. He remembers forgetting they were at school when he kissed him, can remember how happy he was and how his heart was so full of something he felt like it was going to burst.

“Yeah,” he says, so quietly Wonwoo might not be able to hear him. “They are.”

Wonwoo doesn’t move for a few moments, as if he’s caught in an internal struggle, before he eventually looks up and meets Mingyu’s eyes for the first time in a long while.

“They look good on you,” he whispers, smiling at him. Something about that smile seems so sad. His chest aches, dull and painful. The back of Mingyu’s eyes burn.

They both look back down at their notes and don’t speak to each other for the rest of the day.

 

Mingyu’s been dating her for almost a month now. They’re both still taking things casually, neither sure just yet how they feel about committing to this relationship. For Ananya, it’s because Mingyu’s so young—only a first year—and she’s not sure how mature he can be. For Mingyu, it’s because he’s only dating Ananya in an effort to get over Wonwoo for good, that one day he can look at her and fall in love and everything will go back to how it used to be when he had some semblance of control over his life, when he just liked girls and liked dating girls and he never had someone as perfect as Wonwoo making him question everything he ever thought he knew about himself. If he can love Ananya, he can truly be Wonwoo’s friend without all the background angst, he can encourage Wonwoo’s crush and support him every step of the way without half-assing it or being insincere.

He doesn’t want to be insincere for Wonwoo anymore.

They’re in his room again, watching something on his laptop, just talking and laughing. Hanging out with Ananya is really so easy, Mingyu doesn’t have to fake-laugh at any of her jokes and she tells the greatest stories of Junhui and Jeonghan back when they were first-years themselves. It feels good to be with her.

“You know,” Ananya says lightly, running her fingers up Mingyu’s arm. “I heard Minghao’s with Junhui right now. He might not be back for hours.”

“Oh?” Mingyu lets his hand rest at the small of her back, the end of the nice little S-line curve that he just adores on all girls. “Should we, uh, make the most of it?”

And before he knows it, their positions on his bed are shifted, his back up against the wall while Ananya hovers just over his lap. Things are kind of starting to get hot and heavy. Mingyu doesn’t mind at first, though—why the hell would he? Making out is awesome and Ananya is super pretty with her curly hair down like this and girls are just so soft, and he likes the way their hips swell so he knows exactly where to put his hands. It was so hard to figure out when he started kissing Wonwoo, but maybe that was just because Wonwoo’s body is as straight as a rod, his hips nothing but bony ridges pressing against skin, similar to the knobs of his spine Mingyu had the opportunity to see that one time, when he had him with his shirt off, when he ran his hands down the full length of his back appreciatively and saw him shudder, that time when they—

Oh god. He’s thinking about Wonwoo while making out with a girl.

Fuck.

“W-wait!” he splutters out, breaking their lip-lock and pushing Ananya away. “Wait, oh my god, I fucked up, this—this shouldn’t be happening, I’m so sorry—”

“Mingyu?” Ananya questions, utterly bewildered. When she sees the look of what is possibly sheer panic on Mingyu’s face, her thick eyebrows press together to form a dubious frown. “If this is the part where you tell me you already have a girlfriend, I’m going to punch you in the dick.”

“N-no!” he stammers, hands flopping uselessly to his sides. “No, well, not exactly—it’s just—this is gonna sound so bad when I explain it, oh my god, Hao’s right I’m such a fuck-up oh man oh man oh man.”

“Gyu—Mingyu, calm down. You’re working yourself up to a frenzy.” She carefully pats his arm and sits back on her heels, giving him some space to breathe. It helps a little—once he isn’t taking in the scent of her lovely flowery perfume with every lungful of air it helps him clear his head and feel less guilty. He wheezes a little in response, and the hitch in his throat tells him that he was this close to having his first full-blown anxiety attack in almost five months. “Come on, you know I’m not gonna go ballistic on you for no reason. Just tell me what’s wrong, yeah?”

The sheer torrent of words that fall out of Mingyu’s mouth in a single breath is honestly a sight to behold. “I’ve been in love with this guy since high school and a bunch of shit happened but we’re friends now that we’re in college together but the thing is I’m still in love with him but he has a crush on another guy and he’s moving on and I’m not and it makes me really scared so I wanted to get over him by liking you but I still like him and it’s just not fair to you I’m so sorry I’m such a piece of shit I’m sorry!”

Ananya stares at him, before sighing and pulling her hair up into a ponytail. He’s never seen a clearer indication of sexy times being done and over with. “One more time, Gyu,” she says, “from the beginning.”

He tells her.

She looks surprised but strangely calm, just nodding along to what he’s saying. When he finishes, he lamely ends with, “I’m so sorry. I—I like being with you. I thought it would be so easy to fall in love with you, you’re just so cool.

She laughs at that, nose stud glinting in the light of his desk lamp. “Well, thank you for that, Mingyu. I’m just glad you told me this now before you did something you’d regret, or before either of us got too invested in this relationship. See? This is why I date casually before I make the choice to upgrade it to a serious relationship. You never know when your quasi-boyfriend breaks up with you because he’s actually secretly in love with his old high school ex.”

It’s strange. He’s so pleased to have this off his chest, to know that Ananya doesn’t seem to hold any hard feelings towards him, but a part of him is almost regretful. Not regretful as in he regrets breaking up with her, but regretful in the way that she really could have been good for him. She would have really gotten him back on track, improving his grades, have him volunteering at club events. Help him become some golden boy like he used to be back in Hysera Secondary. And, truthfully, he doesn’t think he’d mind becoming that Mingyu.

But this is the choice he’s made.

“I know this was really shitty of me, but can we still be friends?” he asks her timidly.

She fondly ruffles his hair. Kid brother-style. “Of course, Gyu. Like I said, this wasn't ever really serious, so I'm not as heartbroken as I could've been. We'll be purely platonic from now on.”

He sighs with relief. “Good. That’s good.”

“I hope you don’t mind, though, but I’d rather leave now.”

“Oh—yeah. Yeah, that’s probably best.”

He waits for her as she laces up her boots again, holding open the door all gentlemanly like he’s always done. She gives him a hug before she goes, an affectionate and genuinely friendly hug, and Mingyu thinks in the back of his head that he will never, ever date a girl as flawless and understanding as her. Truly a gem on this planet.

“I’m serious, Gyu, no hard feelings between us,” she says once they step away from each other. “No jilted lover syndrome over here, and this month has been fun either way. Still, never had a bi guy use me as a rebound before. Normally, it’s girls trying to have a “sexy phase” after their boyfriend dumps them. Guess there’s a first time for everything.”

She turns to leave, but Mingyu grabs her arm before she can.

“Wait!” he blurts out. “What the fuck is a bi?

 

 

Chapter Text

“So let me get this straight,” Mingyu says slowly. “If you’re bisexual, you can like both girls and guys? And this is a real thing? This—this—this is something people can do?”

Jeonghan looks both amused and exasperated. “For the last time, Mingyu, yes. That is the definition of bisexuality. In the most simplest way I could give it to you.”

The Aphodell Queer Community Association’s club room is set up in the main student centre building, on the third floor. Mingyu was amazed when he walked in for the first time earlier today—striped flags decorate the room, draping like curtains over windows or along the drab yellow walls, in rainbow and colourful patterns he doesn’t recognize but feels are important somehow. A giant sign had been placed over the door, painted into what looks like the universal symbol for male and female interlinked together like chains. It’s similar to most communal areas he’s seen before, little tables dotted here and there along with couches and armchairs and bean bags, but this room feels cozier, somehow. Maybe it’s because everything in here is so full of pride, like every single object or furniture placed in this room is something that has been fought over to take its place here, like they’re priceless.

In here, it’s very obvious that Jeonghan reigns Supreme King. He doesn’t particularly act like he does, nor does his attitude change very much, but Mingyu can still feel it. People he can only assume must be the council members or representatives continuously come up to him to ask for his opinion on so-and-so event or so-and-so awareness month, and Jeonghan doesn’t skip a beat to come up with an answer, to give out part of their funding or settle some sort of conflict. Joshua sits next to him on the couch, busy with what looks like Organic Chemistry homework, but every time Jeonghan says something particularly cool he looks up to give his boyfriend a loving, proud smile.

“It’s all a matter of identity, Mingyu,” Joshua says helpfully as Mingyu sits squashed up on top of a bean bag, folded into himself like origami paper, utterly bewildered and his whole world shook to the core. “It’s important to identify with it. If it doesn’t feel right, it’s not for you. So me, for example, I also like both guys and girls, but I don’t really like identifying as bisexual. I don’t even identify as pansexual. Going without labels is just what I’m most comfortable with, you know.”

“P-pansexual?” Mingyu stammers.

Jeonghan elbows him. “Don’t throw everything at him at once, the poor kid’s gonna explode.” He turns back to face Mingyu, uncharacteristically gentle. “Josh is right, though, Gyu. It’s not really about finding some sort of label that you think explains yourself and then sticking with it forever, just because someone says that’s what you are. It shouldn’t be, anyway. It’s about exploring, seeing what feels right for you. If you don’t feel like calling yourself bi, you don’t have to.”

Mingyu shakes his head frantically, like a dog ridding itself of water. He thinks his ears are ringing. “No, i-it’s not the … labelling myself part that is freaking me out. It’s the—”

Jeonghan looks rather sympathetic. “The liking boys part?”

He shakes his head again. “No, not even that! Well, I mean, a little bit like that, but I mean—I was just, am just, super confused. Because I didn’t realize this was something I could do! I liked girls all my life but then I started liking—” he breaks off abruptly, realizing what he was about to say, but it seems like he didn’t need to stop himself after all.

“Liking Wonwoo, right?” Joshua pipes up.

Jeonghan elbows him again, bruising the skin over Joshua’s ribcage. “Josh, I thought we agreed not to let him know.”

What?” Mingyu squawks. “You—you both know? That I, with, uh, with Wonwoo—”

“We don’t know the details,” Jeonghan says quickly when he sees how nervous Mingyu is starting to get, practically wringing his fingers raw. “It’s just, well, it’s kind of really obvious to us that you and Wonwoo had something going on with each other. You, at the very least, have definitely been chasing after him like a puppy with his tail between his legs.”

“Oh, god,” Mingyu moans, lurching forward to bury his head into the lumpy knobs of his knees. Embarrassment rushes through him, hot and fast, burning like steam through his ears. It’s almost like getting caught with a crush in front of his parents or something. “Does everyone know? Am I that obvious? Does, does Wonwoo—”

“No, no,” Jeonghan says, rubbing at the space between his shoulders soothingly, hair falling over his face and tickling Mingyu’s neck. “I can safely say most of them are clueless. Maybe not Minghao, he’s ridiculously perceptive. The only reason why we know is because—”

“I’d recognize that kind of hopeless look anywhere,” Joshua says with a grin. “Jeonghan used to look at me like that before we started dating.”

Jeonghan scowls at him and punches his arm, cheeks turning a delicately furious shade of red. “Josh! What the fuck?”

“No way!” Mingyu half-screeches, earning him curious looks from the other students hanging out in the room. “Jeonghan was the one who chased after you?”

“Oh, yeah,” Joshua says, laughing as he fends off Jeonghan’s increasingly flustered attempts to shut him up. “Weird, huh? You’d think it would be the opposite, but Hannie wasn’t smooth at all! He kept trailing after me and trying to add me to whatever Facebook group or club event, getting all moody if I so much as checked someone out and giving me this depressingly lovesick look all the time. According to Jun, he was absolutely impossible to deal with back then.” Jeonghan curses and tries to slap a hand over Joshua’s mouth, but he grabs him by his fragile-looking wrist and wedges a knee in-between them so he’s free to keep talking. “It went on like that for, like, five months until I finally took pity on him and asked him out.”

“Josh,” Jeonghan whines. Joshua leans in so he can give Jeonghan a cute little eskimo kiss, noses brushing each other, and only then does Jeonghan look satisfied and move back. Mingyu watches this interaction, fascinated, and a brief twinge in his heart makes him realize he misses having someone to treat so lovingly. Is he really this sappy? “Okay, fine, yeah, I was the Mingyu a year ago. Joshua was the Wonwoo. But that’s not the point, the point is, Gyu, are you okay with everything? Like, really really okay with it? Internalized homophobia is a very real thing, you know, I’ve seen what it does to the new and confused or the closet cases.”

“I,” Mingyu scratches at the back of his neck, smiling up at them sheepishly. “Is it weird that I’m okay? Like, super okay with this? It’s—it’s weird to realize that this is a thing, that it’s a real thing and other people experience it too and I’m not just crazy or greedy or confused or whatever, but connecting the dots and saying that I’m this—I’m, I’m bisexual—” he has to take a quick breath, the feeling of saying those words out loud is such a head rush, his blood boiling and shaking with unexplainable fire, “—that feels okay. Am I making sense?”

“Not particularly,” Jeonghan and Joshua both say.

“Okay. Well, um. It’s—” and then he remembers what Wonwoo had told him, once upon a time. “It’s a little freaky to realize this about myself, but it also gives me this ‘oh’ feeling. Like, oh, this makes so much sense. Like, oh, so that’s who I am.”

He can never repay Ananya enough for sending him immediately to Jeonghan and Joshua to get this sorted out. He’s all muddled up, but not out of confusion, more like his emotions are all over the place and he just doesn’t know how to express it. He kind of wants to run out into the middle of the quad and yell for the whole world to hear, “I’m bi! This is a thing! This is a thing I can be and it’s okay, it’s okay and it’s me and I never thought this was something I could have!” He feels like it’ll make things more real if he screams it that way. He had spent almost two years worrying himself stupid over this, terrified that something was wrong with him or his love for Wonwoo had done something weird to his brain, but now it makes sense. The reason why he can have feelings for a boy while still feeling attracted to girls. Oh.

“Is this—can I tell the others about this?” Mingyu asks, stumbling over his words in his excitement to say everything at once. “Is it okay? Will they be okay with it?”

Jeonghan laughs fondly. “Yes, Mingyu, it’s okay to come out to your friends. Don’t you know that most queer kids band together like moths to a flame? I hardly doubt there’s a single completely heterosexual person in our friend group.”

Mingyu’s mind is blown.

“Just—don’t worry so much about it. Take things slow.” They pat his hand, like he’s some overly excited child they’re trying to calm down. “You don’t have to tell anyone if you don’t want to, and we won’t out you. Take it one step at a time and just do whatever feels comfortable for you.”

 

“Guys,” Mingyu declares the second he meets up with Minghao, Soonyoung, and Seokmin for lunch, “I’m bisexual.”

They stare at him for a moment before turning back to the food they already started on without him. “Congrats,” Soonyoung says indifferently, “so am I?”

“Wait, wait, wait,” he frowns, sitting down and looking at them all with severe disappointment. “Why aren’t you all making a big deal out of this? I was kinda expecting you to make a big deal out of this.”

Seokmin chokes on his beef noodles and nearly drops his chopsticks to the ground. “Wait, Mingyu, you thought you were straight?

“Oh, ignore him,” Soonyoung says. “I thought you were as straight as a rod, Mingyu, if that makes you feel any better.”

“Then why aren’t you freaking out right now?” Mingyu says, now a little peevish. He was hoping for some sort of reaction, at the very least. It’s a big deal for him.

“Dude,” Soonyoung snorts into his pizza, “have you ever heard the saying ‘gay together, stick together’?”

“No,” Mingyu says, at the same time as Seokmin says, “Absolutely never have,” and Minghao says, “You made that up.”

“Look, whatever. The point is, queer kids always tend to clump together. We’re like electrons, except instead of similar charges repelling, it’s similar charges attracting. It’s like a homing beacon or some shit. So even though you were pretty hetero, I thought for sure it was only a matter of time before you became susceptible to all the—” he flaps his hand around and succeeds in sending a small spray of pizza sauce splattering onto the table, Minghao cursing and furiously wiping at his sleeve, “—mystical gay forces around you.”

“Well, I thought I was straight,” Mingyu grumbles, peeling back the plastic wrap on his turkey sandwich. “So I think it’s a big deal.”

 Minghao gives him a look that seems to indicate a whole lot of information about him and Wonwoo and how nothing they had ever done together was remotely straight, and Mingyu gives him a look of his own to tell him to shut up.

“Mingyu,” he says, “while I’m proud of you for realizing this side of yourself and coming out to us, I’m begging you: please please please start focusing on your finals. They’re in, like, two weeks.”

“I’m not a dumbass, Hao, I’ve been studying.” But Minghao is right. As much as Mingyu wants to remain dazzled by this new thing he can identify with, as much as he wants to witness the world through new lenses (he realizes with surprise and mild delight that he can totally appreciate both girl’s and guy’s looks now, he can absolutely find a guy hot and nobody can judge him anymore fuck everyone who says otherwise he’s bisexual! He can do things like this now, so fuck off!), he knows that these last few final exams are crazy important for his future.

It was a long, difficult decision, but eventually Mingyu had applied for three different programs, all within the general umbrella of Social Sciences. It’s weird, really. He had been shaping himself up to follow Seungcheol’s footsteps and join the Engineering kids, but after taking all these courses, he’s starting to become more and more interested in them. His mother had been concerned, of course—she still held hopes that he could get some well-paying engineer or doctor’s job or something—but she’s willing to let him discover what he’s interested in.

“But what kind of jobs can you get with those kinds of degrees, Mingyu?” she had stressed, voice thin and feeble over the phone, like she was an entire ocean away. “What kind of security?”

“I can become a researcher,” he had said, clicking through the school website pages, his heart not really set on any one thing, “I can become a professor. I can become an expert in the field. I can—I can do lots of things, mom.”

And she had agreed, because what else was she going to do? She was already in her fifties, without a stable source of income, only just barely managing to find some job as a dentist office receptionist, with a scumbag of an ex-husband and a post-anxiety wreck of a son. What else is there to do but to let her only child do what he wants, let him find some happiness in this world?

The next two weeks of last-minute labs and classes and review sessions spin by faster than he can comprehend it, and so do the next few weeks of Finals Hell. He spends a lot of time shut up in the library at ungodly hours or in his room, staring at textbooks and notes until his eyes feel pinched and strained and he can’t remember the last time he ate. He can barely remember what he even did—he vaguely remembers hanging out with his friends maybe once before finals officially started, can sort-of remember studying with Wonwoo but the two of them completely silent, strangely tense, not speaking up unless to talk about whatever subject they were working on together—and suddenly, finals are over, his first year of college is finished, and he’s back home and sinking exhausted into his own bed with four entire months of summer vacation to deal with.

Time is a strange thing. In the heat of the moment it can crawl by at a sluggish pace, or blast away at full volume with strobe lights and confetti and all the bombastic trumpet blaring of I will remember this. I will commit every single moment to memory and I will look back on this night and remember it forever.

Mingyu thinks he’s starting to realize this now, when he looks back on how scared and nervous and upset he was when he first came to Aphodell, when he finally found the courage to let Minghao into his life, talk things through with Wonwoo, make friends, make connections, do all the things he thought for sure were never going to happen when he was hyperventilating alone in his room last summer, hating every square inch of himself. It all went by so fast. Just a blink of an eye, and suddenly it’s done, and he didn’t even remember his birthday was coming up until it was gone, his nineteenth birthday disappearing somewhere on the day of his Psychology exam, and he only remembers when his friends get Facebook notifications about it and they all scramble to buy him cupcakes. It feels like a thousand years ago that he was so anxious about being left behind, being left alone, that he would make absolutely sure that every person in all of Hysera Secondary knew when his birthday was weeks in advance, and it feels like only a month ago that he first met Minghao’s friends, met Wonwoo again, at that coffee shop off campus.

Time is a strange thing, he’s realizing now, because it likes to be left behind. It likes having people look back at it over their shoulder and wonder. Wonder if they really lived their life to the fullest, if they’ll ever have a night as fun as that one, friends as good as what they already lost, if they’ll ever love again, if they’ll ever grow up, ifs and ifs and ifs. Everybody, just looking over their shoulder as they keep walking forwards, stuck in the present, moving towards the unforeseeable future, but always, always looking back.

His mother makes him his favourite meals and buys him an ice cream cake as a belated birthday celebration. It’s just the two of them, but he thinks that works out just fine. In these next four months, he thinks, he’s going to go out there and get a job. He’s going to cross his fingers and hope that he gets accepted into at least one of the specialized programs. He’s going to repair the distance that has grown between him and his mother throughout his teenage years and maybe even come out to her. He’s going to Skype his friends and play games with them and hopefully patch up whatever rockiness has accumulated between him and Wonwoo.

An entire school year passes by faster than a gasp for breath, and he needs to start looking into the future.

 

May is wet with rain showers but already getting nastily hot, trees blossoming into full bloom and flowers grinning in their backyard. Things have been going well so far, he thinks. He’s definitely not moping around in his house all summer this time around, that’s for sure. He gets a terrible job at some nearby McDonalds where he has to smile at screaming children and sneaky mothers trying to complain their way into getting a discount, but hey at least it’s money. He’s making an effort to hang out with his mother more, accompanying her when she goes grocery shopping and taking the bus to drop off some lunch or snacks or whatever at her receptionist job, in general just trying to make up for lost time. He’s keeping up with all his friends, his original anxieties that the long summer apart might distance his friendship with them proving false, their group chat always alive and clogging his notifications.

The one problem he has so far is Wonwoo.

That’s how it goes, isn’t it? It always somehow circles back to him. No matter how he tries to change things, he finds himself looping the exact same path and unable to escape whether he even wants to or not. In the end, after the disaster of their high school lives, after his anxiety attacks, after patching things up and becoming friends again, after dating Ananya and realizing he’s bisexual, in the end he still comes to the same conclusion:

Kim Mingyu will, try as he might, always be in love with Jeon Wonwoo.

That’s just the truth of the matter. He’s still in love with him. To be honest, now that he looks back on it, he never stopped. From the moment he first realized he liked a boy for the very first time, up to this exact minute, he’s always loved him. He’s wearing the fucking earrings Wonwoo got him for his last birthday, for god’s sakes, what’s the point of even trying to deny it?

What do you think I should do? He always texts Minghao when he wants advice. It’s nice to have a best friend and know he will never laugh at his problems, never tell anyone his secrets. It’s nice to trust someone like that.

I mean, I think you should just tell him. The worst thing that can happen is he rejects you, which to be honest I think is kind of unlikely.

Dude, the worst thing that can happen is he thinks I’m a fucking idiot for even trying to get back with him after the shitstorm we went through in high school. I could ruin everything between us forever.

There’s a long moment where Minghao doesn’t respond, long enough for Mingyu to start to get nervous. He breathes out a quick sigh of relief when he finally sees the little grey dots pop up.

Okay, I wanted to stay out of this because I don’t wanna make any assumptions or get in over my head or anything, but this is driving me crazy. Gyu, I’m pretty sure Wonwoo likes you too.

He nearly drops his phone.

He immediately glances towards his bedroom door, suddenly highly nervous that it’s wide open—which is crazy, because his mom literally just left to go to the post office and there’s nobody else in the house. Even so, he jumps off his bed and closes the door to give himself some unneeded privacy and throws himself back onto his mattress, wrinkling his sheets. His cheeks are burning.

Don’t even fucking try that. I told you, he said he liked someone else, remember?

Oh my god, Gyu, he was drunk and high and out of his mind! Plus, he didn’t say the guy’s name, and he didn’t recognize you the entire time. It could’ve been you he was talking about, don’t you think?

Well, of course he thought about it! Of course he wondered—hoped—that Wonwoo had been talking about him. Had feverishly tried to recall that night and wondered if there was any possibility, any clue at all, that it might have been him, if he had any chance at all. He said the guy was handsome and smart and nice.

You’re all of those things, Mingyu, although clearly you’re trying to push the line when it comes to the intelligence bit. I mean, really. There are limits to how stubbornly dense a person can be.

But he’s not nice. He doesn’t think so. He’s not the kind of nice that Wonwoo deserves. Wonwoo deserves a boy who’s unafraid, who’s openly loving and capable of treating him right. At this point, even though he knows he’s bisexual now, he’s still not sure if he can ever treat Wonwoo right. Even now, in the most open and tolerant community he’s ever seen so far in his life, he’s still scared that if he achieves the impossible and gets back together with Wonwoo, nothing will stop him from going down the same road. From hiding their relationship again, having to sneakily hold hands when they think no one’s watching, only capable of stealing forbidden kisses in the privacy of their homes or hidden behind a building somewhere.

He’s scared that even after all the personal journeys and self-improvement he’s been doing for the past year, it won’t be enough to change him.

The sound of the door opening downstairs and Mrs. Kim calling out “I’m home!” makes him jump and hastily give Minghao a text you later message before running downstairs. His mom is struggling to both lock the front door and balance a large cardboard box, which he immediately takes from her.

“Jesus, mom, what is this?” He grunts at the surprising weight, carrying it towards the kitchen. “Rocks?”

“Ugh, do you remember that hideous crystal pineapple thing your aunt bought us years and years ago?” His mom follows him to the kitchen, tossing her keys aside and massaging her temples with a huff. “I thought I lost it somewhere during that Christmas party and we would never have to see it again, but lo and behold! She found it in your grandmother’s storage room. Apparently, it got mixed up with the presents and she could never figure out whose it was, so it was collecting dust somewhere where nobody would have to lay their eyes on it. But now we have it, and I have to put it up somewhere or she’ll get mad the next time she visits.”

Mingyu helps rip off the tape and open the box, pushing aside packing peanuts and bubble wrap before he gets to—“Oh my god, that thing really is hideous.” He pulls it up and examines it. It’s impossible how they managed to make a pineapple out of ceramics and inlaid crystals and make it look so ugly. “I don’t remember it being this bad.”

“You were only seven, you couldn’t have remembered.” Mrs. Kim snorts. “You should have seen the look on everyone’s faces! They were all trying to compliment it, but it was so obvious that they were all relieved Haeyoung gave it to me and not any of them.”

“Oh, I remember that.” Mingyu laughs. “I remember thinking, well mom’s expression looks like she just stepped in dog shit—”

“Oh, I didn’t look that bad, I thought I had control over my emotions!”

“No, you really didn’t, mom! I remember, because you had to pretend it was because of the wet dog smell from Uncle Daeyong’s poodle so you wouldn’t hurt her feelings! And then dad turned to me and whispered that he might try dropping it and say it was an acci—dent.”

He realizes, far too late, that he had just mentioned a taboo topic between them. The smile slides off of Mrs. Kim’s face, as does his own, and the two of them stand there in the kitchen for a moment in silence, not even the visual joke of the pineapple able to ease the tension growing in the room, before his mom quickly says, “We should find someplace to put this.”

“Oh—y-yeah!” He snaps back to reality. “Maybe somewhere hard to spot.”

“I was thinking the top of the fridge?”

“I can do that.”

The stiffness in the room lessens somewhat, but to his dismay it doesn’t return to the happy recollection of old memories. His mother feels farther away than ever when he finishes placing the pineapple as far on the fridge as he can manage so it’s almost out of sight. Even when he returns the chair he had been using as a step stool to its rightful place at their kitchen table, moving close enough to his mom that he can see the pale green veins on her thin-skinned hands, she feels as distant as a ghost. The feeling haunts him, and he escapes to the safety of the fridge again, pretending to look through its contents for something to eat.

And he’s suddenly terrified that it’s too late, that all the moments they had missed when he was a bratty, selfish teenager can never be brought back. That something between them got fucked up in between then and now and he will always feel like they are strangers to a certain degree, that he will lose a relationship with his mother that he suddenly desperately wants to have.

And just like that, he shuts the fridge door, turns around, and the words are coming out of his mouth. Something, anything, the desperation for a new connection or bond between them to come forth and maybe tie them a little closer together than they were before.

“Mom,” he blurts out, “I’m bi.”

She stares at him. Neither of them speak for a long, long time. “You are what?” she finally says.

Mingyu flattens his hand, presses them hard against his thighs so his jeans can soak up his sweat. He feels shaky, trembling all over, his stomach clenching and twisting violently until he thinks he’s about to throw up. He’s never felt more terrified, more sick and gross and frightened, in all his life, but at the same time he feels so free. It’s not a secret anymore. He’s said it, he forced it out, and he may not be able to take it back and he may regret it but at least he doesn’t have to hide it and he’s free. “I’m bisexual. I-I like both boys and girls.”

“I don’t—I-I—” Mrs. Kim presses her hand to her forehead for a second, before looking back at her son with a strange expression on her face. “I don’t understand. Mingyu, what are you saying?”

“I like boys and girls, mom,” he says, gulping slightly to bring moisture back into his rapidly drying throat. “I have since high school. W-well, I mean, I didn’t know what it was called until a month ago, but I was sort-of dating a boy in grade twelve so—”

“Mingyu! What?”

“I know! I know, I never told you and I kept it a secret and I’m so so sorry! But I really, really liked him, mom, I still like him, but I also still like girls! And that’s what it’s called—bisexual. It’s a thing.”

She sinks back into a chair. That can’t be a good sign. “Mingyu, I … Mingyu. Listen, I know that college is a very exciting place. I know you, son, you like following the crowd, joining the newest trends. And I know there’s no harm in it, but—”

“No—no, it’s not a fashion trend, mom!” He brings his hands into fists, nails digging sharply into the fleshy part of his palm. This isn’t going well, this is not going well at all. “Mom, you don’t understand, it’s not a trend or some cool new thing people like to do. This is a sexuality, same as being gay or straight, it’s not something you choose, it’s just something you identify with!”

“Mingyu,” his mother starts to say reproachfully, and Mingyu has to choke down the fear and upset and, worst of all, disappointment bubbling up his throat. That’s the worst thing. He’s disappointed, in his own mother. Because he thought she would understand, that she’d at least sit there and listen to him at least, but she isn’t, she’s not listening and she’s not understanding and this isn’t how he wanted this to go this isn’t how he was planning for this to happen at all. “If you told me you were gay, I would be surprised but I would understand. You know I won’t ever hate you for something like that, so long as you were happy. But this … bi thing … you could make a lot of people upset, you know? You can’t just play around with boys and girls all wishy-washy and—”

“No, no, mom why aren’t you listening to me?” He wants to tear his hair out at the scalp. He wants to cry. He wants to scream. He wants and he wants and as usual he doesn’t get anything that he wants. “I-I-I’m not being wishy-washy! I’m not fooling around! Just—just because I’m saying that I like both boys and girls it doesn’t mean I’m going around messing with both at the same time! I’m still the same, I’m still me, it’s just that I might have either a boyfriend or a girlfriend in the future!”

“Mingyu, you’re not listening.” But you’re not listening, he wants to shout at her, but what kind of fucking son would he be to shout at his own mother? Sure, his non-Asian friends back in high school talked back to their parents all they wanted, but how could he? Even now, when all he wants to do is yell over her words until he forces her to hear him, he has to choke back everything he’s feeling like he always fucking does because he will never disrespect his mother like that. “You see all these bi people and they, you know, they’ll date one person and then suddenly drop them because they like a man now, and—”

“You know what?” he stammers out, before the roaring in his ears gets too much to deal with, before he really loses it, “forget it. Just forget it.”

“Mingyu, I only—”

He can’t even look at her. “I’m going out for a bit, I’ll be back for dinner.”

And he turns away, fighting off the boiling anger and hurt brimming in the back of his eyelids, ignoring his mother calling his name, and yanks on his sneakers and runs out the door, not even taking the time to tie his laces.

It’s a beautiful day today: it’s hot, but not too hot, the sky a brilliant blue with puffy white clouds and a sky buzzing with birds. Flowers dot every carefully-decorated front yard in patterns of white hydrangeas and stark red tulips, bright yellow dandelions brightening up any bare patches of green grass. It sucks. Mingyu doesn’t want it to be nice and lovely outside, he wants it to be cold and rainy and miserable to match his mood. He kicks at a rock and glares at the sidewalk, rubbing at his face furiously until he manages to force his tears back into their lacrimal glands.

Well. That didn’t go as he planned.

He reaches into his pocket and pulls out his phone, opening up Minghao’s chat and already halfway into typing something up to receive comfort from his best friend. At the last moment, he stops, thumb hovering uncertainly over the screen. Of course Minghao can help, can offer words of encouragement, can make Mingyu feel better at least for a little while, but he has a feeling what he needs right now is someone physically present for him. He thinks he needs a person here to listen to him vent, to maybe pat him on the back, to offer him immediate relief and understanding, a “I’m here, I understand what you’re going through, it’ll get better”.

And, after a moment of indecision, he calls Wonwoo’s number.

He listens to the ringtone buzz for a good few heartbeats, pulse pounding in his throat and wrist like miniature marching bands. When he hears the click, he almost fumbles his phone. Wonwoo’s voice comes in half a beat later, sounding even deeper over the phone. “Mingyu? Is there something wrong?”

It’s actually very shitty to realize that the love of his life thinks he only calls him when he has problems he wants to talk about. It’s even more shitty to realize that it’s basically true and Mingyu is an utter mess of a human being and he can’t stop using his crush as a therapist. “Kind of. Um. Sorry, I hope I’m not distracting you or anything—”

“You’re not, my parents actually just left to take my sister to the art museum downtown.”

“You’re not going?”

“I like going to art museums by myself, it gives me all the time in the world to look at the exhibits and just—um, s-sorry, is there a reason why you called?”

“Yeah. Yeah, actually. I, um.” He gulps, staring blindly at the glaring red of a nearby stop sign as he struggles to find the words and not break down all over again. “I, uh. Just came out to my mom as bi.”

There’s a pause, a very long, very tense pause. The silence between them is only broken when he thinks he hears Wonwoo let out something like a deep exhale, strangely shaky and ragged, although that might just be interference on the other line. “How did she take it?”

“Not—” he chokes a bit, words hitching, “—not great.”

Another pause. This one much shorter, as if he didn’t have to think about it at all.

“Meet me at Vinca Park?”

He checks the name of the nearest street intersection he’s on. Without even really thinking about it, he had already been making his way there. “I’ll be there real soon, maybe five minutes.”

The last time they were at Vinca Park in the hot, gorgeous heat of May, Mingyu had kissed Wonwoo so hard he got dizzy afterwards, the two of them smothering laughter in a small grove of trees out of sight of a couple of mothers letting their toddlers get sand in their shoes on the playground. He had held Wonwoo’s hand, brought it to his face, kissed his palm even though it was a little sweaty, and Wonwoo had looked at him like he was brighter than every single star in the sky. The last time they met in the hot, miserable heat of May, Mingyu had broken both of their hearts forever and they didn’t speak for the rest of the summer. These are two very conflicting, very unnerving memories to recall when they walk into Vinca Park together.

Wonwoo is wearing a thin T-shirt and a pair of tan-coloured khaki shorts, his dark hair messy from the humidity of the day and bangs sticking to his forehead a little with sweat. While defined, his limbs are rather gangly, making him look smaller than he really is. Mingyu thinks he can pick him up no problem. Of course, he doesn’t try. Maybe he would have a couple months ago, but things have been weird between them since he started dating Ananya and he doesn’t really know where they stand anymore.

“So,” Wonwoo says, glancing towards him, eyes flickering down and then back up just once. Mingyu’s not sure if that glance was an appraisal or a judgement. He’s hoping it’s because his tank top shows his nicely defined biceps and deltoids and not because he somehow got mustard stains somewhere inappropriate without knowing.

“So,” Mingyu says, a little cautiously.

There are a few people in the park, mostly dog-walkers and joggers and a few middle school kids lording it over the swings. Wonwoo steers them towards one of the benches in the shade of a small tree, the two of them sitting down rather apprehensively. “Do you want to,” he makes a clumsy gesture with his hands, “talk about it?”

Mingyu takes a breath. “Okay, so I, um, I told my mom I was bi. And it’s like, she just doesn’t get it? She thinks I’m following a trend, or fooling around, she’s acting like being bi is a bad thing and that I’m confused or whatever and I thought—I thought—” he’s already choking up. “I thought she would get me.”

“I’m sorry,” Wonwoo mumbles. “That’s gotta be difficult.”

He kicks at a small white flower on the grass by his feet. “I mean—I was so scared to tell her, you know? She didn’t know about—about high school or anything—and I thought that she would at least listen to me? But she didn’t, she didn’t even try to listen to me, and I just. I just feel so stupid.

“Okay, it’s not stupid. You know it’s not.” Wonwoo lifts his hand and then freezes, arm remaining awkwardly in the air for a few seconds, before reaching out to carefully pat Mingyu’s arm. “Coming out to parents is a really terrifying situation. Sometimes you’re lucky and it works out just fine, and sometimes—well, it’s gonna hurt. Let yourself feel hurt by this, it’s okay to feel upset about it.”

He sniffs hard and glares teary-eyed at the dirt coating his sneakers. “You’re right. I guess. It could’ve been worse. She could’ve … could’ve disowned me, or beat me or something, or threw me out of the house.”

A brief spasm of something heavy-hearted and frightened crosses over Wonwoo’s face, but he covers it quickly with a calm, “Is that why you’re out here?”

“Nah, I kicked myself out.” Mingyu wipes away sweat beading along his forehead. They sit there for a moment in silence, the shade provided by the tree not much relief against the sun. Wonwoo watches a golden retriever tangle itself in its own leash in the distance, squinting and looking thoroughly uncomfortable in the heat. Eventually, Mingyu finds the voice to say, meekly, “Do you think she’ll ever—you know, will it ever sink in? That I’m not her perfect basketball-playing, popular, cool heterosexual son anymore?”

Wonwoo snorts, but when he grasps his arm again and starts to speak his words are low and sincere, a gravity to them Mingyu hasn’t felt in a long time. “She will come around.”

He’s suddenly hot and embarrassed—the kind of red, itchy heat that is impossible to blame on the summer weather—and can only manage to peek sideways at Wonwoo just long enough to gauge his expression before staring at his feet again. “You think?” He hates how small he sounds, how little-boy-weak he feels.

“Of course she will.” The conviction is surprisingly strong in his voice, the belief overwhelming. He can’t tell if Wonwoo really means it, or if he’s trying to convince everyone, including himself, that what he’s saying is true. “You’re her son. She loves you. It may take some time for her to, y’know, understand bisexuality and what it really means. But she’ll understand in time.”

Wonwoo’s hand is still on his arm, and after a moment he drops it back down as if he had been burned. He’s smiling though, a soft, careful thing that appears as deliberate as it is shy. Mingyu wonders what good fortune, what saintly pardon, he ever received in order to earn this smile.

“I, um—” Wonwoo looks a little flustered, ears flushing pink beneath the longer strands of his hair. “This may not be a good time, but I have to ask if—well, when did you come out?”

“Wait, you didn’t know?” Mingyu gapes at him. “Dude, I’ve been bi since, like, April.”

“What?”

“Yeah, after Ananya and I split—”

“You broke up with Ananya?”

“Oh my god, have you been living under a rock?”

Wonwoo is staring at him with a look of utter bafflement, which is probably the cutest thing Mingyu’s ever seen in his life. “When—when—when did this happen?”

“We only dated for like a month!” He forgets how much it sucks to love this man, forgets how much strength he needs to stop himself from wanting to kiss that mortified, jumbled expression out of his lips. “It—I wasn’t really dating her for the right reasons, and we didn’t work out. We’re just friends. And I found out about bisexuality and basically, well, this happened.” He sighs. “Look how well that turned out for me.”

“So,” Wonwoo says slowly, “you’re not dating Ananya?”

“Nope.”

Wonwoo turns away from him for a few moments, maybe to look at the soccer field directly to his left. Mingyu is left awkwardly fidgeting beside him, unsure why Wonwoo has to hide his face so completely like this, fighting the urge to put his arm around his shoulders and pull him a little closer, fighting the urge to once again start hoping, start wondering if maybe he has a chance with him after all of this. When Wonwoo finally looks back at Mingyu, his face is as unruffled and cool as it ever has been. “You’re still wearing my earrings.”

“Oh. Um, yes?” He touches one of the studs a little self-consciously. “I don’t exactly have any other ones, do I?”

“I’ll buy you another pair, then.” And he says it so matter-of-factly, as though it’s totally obvious he’s going to spend a whole bunch of money to buy him another pair of special silver earrings just so they won’t give him any ear infections, who the fuck does that? Jesus Christ, he loves him so much. “I forgot to get you anything for your birthday last month, consider it a belated present.”

“Don’t you dare.” He playfully shoves Wonwoo’s shoulder, or as playfully as he can anyway when he just wants an excuse to touch him. “We were all busy stressing out. It’s not your fault my birthday falls on the shittiest time of the year for college students.” He heaves an overly dramatic sigh. “Guess this is what I have to expect for the next three years.”

“We’ll get it right.” He’s smiling again; a flash of white teeth, nose crinkling into thin lines, eyes curling up like little half-moons. It’s brighter than anything under the sun. “One of these years, we’ll celebrate your birthday on time.”

It’s just an observation, but somewhere in Mingyu’s mind it feels like a promise. He only had a year with Wonwoo back in Hysera before they were to presumably part ways. Now, he has three. Three years with him, at least. Three years to make things right for good between them.

Now it all depends on what he does in these next three years, and whether it will irrevocably change things between them forever.

 

Chapter Text

“I don’t understand how you agreed to rent this place with me,” Minghao huffs as he struggles with a cardboard box of shoes, “and yet you didn’t even bother checking it out until the day you fucking move in.

Mingyu is completely unfamiliar with the house, and almost immediately nearly bashes his hip against a corner as he tries to get up the stairs after him. “You said it was good and I trusted you!”

“You’re paying four hundred and fifty dollars a month for this place, Gyu, you can’t just take my word for it!”

The house is about a ten minute walk from Aphodell, conveniently close to a bus stop and a couple blocks away from a shitty No Frills grocery store. It’s a little run-down in the front yard—clearly, the old renters weren’t too keen on cleaning up or watering any plants—but it’s clean and nice on the inside. There are two bedrooms in the basement, three on the second floor, and the main floor contains a nice, slightly cramped living room and a kitchen. There’s a small little entryway with a door that leads to the backyard which has been repurposed to be some sort of dining room, containing a little table and five chairs.

“It’s gonna be weird,” Mingyu remarks as they reach their bedrooms. “Having my own space, I mean. I just spent an entire year living in the same room as you.”

“Yeah, and now we’re living directly next to each other,” Minghao huffs, scrambling to open his door without sending his box careening out of his hands and crashing back down the stairs. “Not really a huge upgrade. At least I don’t have to listen to you snore anymore.”

“What? I don’t snore! Fuck you, take that back.”

“Look, it was either you or Irissen’s loud-ass heating systems, I couldn’t tell after a while.” He finally manages to kick his door open and immediately dumps everything in the box onto his bare mattress. “Oh, this is nice.”

“Hey,” Mingyu complains, peeking through, “I think your room is bigger than mine.”

“Not by much.”

Mingyu’s new bedroom is roughly around the same size as their room in Irissen, except now it’s all to himself and weirdly enough he’s not sure how happy he is with all this space. This is his new home for the next three years. No longer does he have to share a room with someone and have to face any lack of privacy. He doesn’t have to throw pillows at Minghao if the glow from his laptop screen distracts him, he doesn’t have anyone to scold him when he plays Skyrim in his room instead of studying, he doesn’t have to have any quiet conversations with Minghao in bed anymore at three in the morning. Nope. Doesn’t have to deal with any of these things.

He leaves his stuff in a corner by his new closet and heads back to the room next door. “Hao, I’m lonely.”

Minghao rolls his eyes at him, but he looks strangely relieved himself when he smiles and says, “Fine, come here and keep me company while I unpack.”

This feels more familiar. Mingyu bounces on the edge of Minghao’s new bed, watching as his best friend sets up his laptop and school supplies on his new Ikea-bought desk, carefully placing his little food figurines in their usual army rows. His old strings of Christmas lights are back and already lining his window, and he’s added new colourful fairy lights in the shape of stars. It’s nice to see this little hint of their old place back here, a reminder that things haven’t completely changed after all.

“Can we agree,” Mingyu says, legs swinging over the edge of the bed, “that no matter what, we won’t like our new housemates more than we like each other?”

Minghao snorts, carefully hanging clothes in his closet. He even folded them in his suitcase, the nerd. “Don’t be petty.”

“Just saying. I don’t even know who they are. Do you?”

“I talked to I think, like, one or two of them? Just on Facebook, our landlord helped set it up so we could all have a group chat. I added you to the group too, if you ever decided to go on the fucking site.”

“I hate Facebook, I’d rather not.” His timeline is filled with all the meaningless new updates of the lives of people he no longer cares about. His old basketball buddies from high school, Pierce with two or three of the old crew, a beer in hand, something about keggers and getting fucked up. One of his ex-girlfriends whining about some bitchy TA in a different college. If he ever had the courage to scroll even further, he’s sure he will find something about Seungcheol there as well. He’s not sure what. Maybe a crazy party, or something about university lecture halls, or maybe him dragging Jihoon across campus to some Engineering event. He can’t unfriend them all, but he also doesn’t want to have anything to do with them either.

“You have to in order to keep track, Gyu. I’m not gonna be the one reminding you about cleaning schedules or paying rent every month, I swear to god, I’m not.” Mingyu smiles winningly at him, and Minghao gives him a rather half-hearted glare back. “They’re all a year younger than us, first years. I guess they didn’t want to suffer the air conditioner-less residence rooms like we did.”

“That means we’re gonna be the older ones, we have to boss them around.”

“We really don’t, big guy.” The doorbell rings somewhere below, and after a moment where the two of them don’t move Minghao says exasperatedly, “Mingyu, come on, go answer it. I’m busy here. You’re not doing anything.”

He fidgets. “I don’t wanna greet them without you,” he says, feeling abnormally fussy about meeting new people today.

“Mingyu! Go.”

Fine.” He stands up with a huff and descends down the stairs, nearly slipping on one of the corner steps. There’s a shadowy outline of a figure behind the translucent glass window on the door, one that solidifies into a real person when Mingyu opens it.

He comes face to face with a boy struggling with several precariously balanced boxes in his hands. He definitely seems if not looks younger, with round ruddy cheeks and honey-blond hair sticking to his forehead with sweat from the heavy September heat. Mingyu barely has time to take in the polo shirt and red chino shorts before the stranger is opening his mouth and saying bluntly, “Who the fuck are you?”

Mingyu blinks at him, startled. “Who the fuck are you?”

The stranger looks him up and down (he has to look up quite a bit to get to Mingyu’s face) before he frowns, mouth curling into an almost comical upside-down crescent moon shape. “You don’t even look like a second year. Did you take a couple years off or something?”

“What—I—” Mingyu splutters, “are you saying I look old? What the fuck?”

“Leave him alone, Kwan,” a tired voice says behind the frowning boy. A new stranger comes up the cracked asphalt driveway, black hair pushed away from his face beneath a snapback, wiry limbs shifting beneath his tank top when he steps up and holds out his hand in a rather typical bro-shake. “Hey, man. I’m Vernon, this is Seungkwan. Sorry about him, we just landed from Vancouver and he hates plane rides, he’s been shitty all day.”

“Fuck you, Vern,” Seungkwan immediately hisses, and as Mingyu shakes Vernon’s hand Seungkwan curses again as he drops one of the boxes, arms finally giving out under the weight. Vernon watches the box fall to the ground and tip sideways. “Asshole! You couldn’t even help me grab it?”

“Payback,” Vernon says smoothly. Seungkwan’s cheeks redden even further in anger.

“For what?”

“You stole my headphones, I know you did.”

“You almost forgot them on the plane, you dumbass, I put them in my backpack so you wouldn’t lose them like you lost everything—”

“I’m Mingyu, I guess,” Mingyu says, but he’s pretty sure his words are lost in the argument that grows between his new housemates. He desperately hopes they’re the ones taking over the basement rooms, as far away from him as possible.

There’s a tap at his shoulder, and he turns to see Minghao watching the two boys fight like a married couple on the porch, looking distinctly amused. “What’s going on here?”

“I don’t fucking know,” Mingyu says, already feeling tired. “Hey, Hao, do I look old?”

Minghao gives him a once-over. “You look like you could be kinda old.”

“What? Like, old-old? Like, twenty-five-year-old-hottie old, or I-should-be-out-of-college-by-now old?”

“That’s up for you to decide,” Minghao says, brushing past him to break up the petty fight and introduce himself.

Mingyu doesn’t quite understand these two boys, even as he spends an hour helping them carry all their shit to the basement (thank god none of them are in the room next to him). Seungkwan is loud and overdramatic. Vernon is apathetic and almost too chill to function. They’re practically total opposites, and yet it’s obvious right from the get-go that they are joined at the hip, inseparable, which he has to admire on some part. The two of them came together all the way from Vancouver and, judging by the way they talk to each other, are either best friends or dating or something, he has no idea.

“So,” Seungkwan says as Mingyu and Vernon struggle to carry his box spring mattress down the stairs without one of them dying (Seungkwan had suspiciously declined to help, claiming that his arms hurt too much), “what’s your major, Mingyu?”

“Psychology,” he grunts. He had gotten the acceptance email about a month or two ago, to his surprise and delight. Psychology was the major he was most interested in, and it had been his first choice. It’s weird for him to realize that he likes something that used to be so alien and boring to him, that the idea of understanding what goes on in people’s heads and why they do what they do is so interesting. He’s not really sure what his long-term goals are just yet, but he was happy to have more psychology-related courses to add to his schedule either way. “And Minghao’s majoring in English Literature.”

“That’s cool,” Seungkwan says, in a way that makes it very unclear whether he actually thinks it’s cool or is simply being dismissive. Maybe it’s both. Mingyu already wishes he was just living in a single room with Minghao again. “I’m hoping to get into History myself, Vern’s going into Philosophy.”

“I’m ready to get absolutely no jobs and live off of Kwan’s museum curator paychecks,” Vernon pipes up with a grin.

“At least you got it all planned out,” Mingyu says with a snort, as Seungkwan chimes in with a, “Like hell you are.”

“Gyu.” Minghao’s voice echoes from upstairs. “Come on up, I need help with this.”

“I’m coming!” he yells back, and leaves Seungkwan and Vernon to bicker over their rooms as he climbs the stairs again. Minghao is currently struggling with bringing another mattress up the stairs, while someone with his back turned to Mingyu is trying to help him and not getting much traction. “Hey, I got that,” Mingyu says, stepping up beside the stranger and lifting up the mattress.

The new boy—probably their last housemate—looks surprisingly young, although he has a mature cut to his jawline and a responsible older-than-his-years look in his eyes. He appears rather flustered that Mingyu’s helping him and quickly says, “No, it’s okay, I got it.”

“Nah, it’s fine. Hao, don’t just stand there, keep moving.”

“It’s hard when you have to turn a corner, you dick,” Minghao huffs, trying to angle the mattress as best as he can to get it up the stairs. “This is Lee Chan, by the way, he’s the one moving into the room next to ours.”

“Oh, cool. What are you here for?”

Chan blinks at him for a moment. “I, um, I’m here for a double major.”

“Double major? That sounds pretty cool.” He grunts as they manage to get the mattress around the corner and they carefully haul it up the stairs. “You excited to start college?”

“Yeah, I think so. I’m excited for frosh week, although it sounds kinda crazy.”

“It was crazy,” Minghao says with a small laugh, “We’ll be here if you ever need a break from the events.”

Oh, that’s right. Mingyu doesn’t have frosh week this year. He forgot that they’ll basically have an entire week before classes start, a week for him to catch up with everyone as they move into their own respective houses. Not for the first time today, he wonders what Wonwoo, Soonyoung, and Seokmin’s house looks like, if it’s nearby, if he’ll still have the chance to hang out with them. He secretly kind of misses the fact that Seokmin doesn’t need to escape to them for a sleepover now that he doesn’t have a crazy roommate anymore.

“Hey, Hao,” he says once they finally get the mattress up to the last bedroom (Chan insisting on doing the rest himself, refusing to let them even help carry up boxes—apparently he likes being independent, Mingyu already likes this kid), “Can I, uh, talk to you for a sec?”

Minghao gives him a little look, sharp owl eyes analyzing him carefully. He definitely knows something’s up; Mingyu wouldn’t ask to talk in private unless it was something really personal or really terrible. “Sure,” he says, backing up into his room and closing the door behind the two of them. “What’s up?”

Mingyu throws himself down onto Minghao’s bed, freshly made with new washed sheets and fluffy blankets. Minghao has pictures taped to the wall beside his bed, mostly of friends and family. Mingyu absent-mindedly traces his fingers across the nearest ones, done with a polaroid camera Soonyoung had bought at some point last year. Several of the photos are pictures of him and Minghao, just hanging out and goofing off together. It makes him feel supremely warm and gooey inside. “So, um, I kinda made a decision during the summer. About Wonwoo.”

Minghao falls into a lumpy green bean bag by the bed. “Okay.”

“I’m, uh. Going to tell him the truth. Like, about my feelings, I mean.”

“Oh.” Minghao’s eyes widen. “Oh! You mean you’re gonna confess to him?”

He heaves a sigh and looks up at the ceiling. Even the idea of it makes his stomach start fluttering with anxious little butterflies. “Yeah. I just, well, I think I need to tell him. It’s not fair to him, and, and I guess it’s not fair to me. My feelings for him aren’t going away anytime soon and I think I need to hear him say if I have a chance or not, or else I’m gonna spend the next three years in this place clinging to that small tiny possibility of it happening.”

“That sounds good to me,” Minghao says. He looks skinnier than normal in his T-shirt and shorts, all his limbs bony and long. He’d probably kill Mingyu for thinking this, but he looks fragile sometimes, like despite his sharp looks and even sharper words he’s just frail enough to be crushed without warning. “Although I still think you’re being too hard on yourself. It’s like you’re preparing yourself to get rejected no matter what.”

The ceiling has a couple glow-in-the-dark stickers, similar to Junhui’s. He wonders if that’s where Minghao got them from. “I’m preparing myself for the worst-case scenario. That’s different.”

“That’s called being pessimistic.”

“Look, if I tell Wonwoo I’ve been head over heels for him since September and he looks me in the eye and says, ‘Mingyu, the last time we dated it was an unmitigated disaster unlike anything the world has ever seen and you’re a fucking idiot for thinking we should try it a second time’ then, like, at least I’ll be ready for it?” He had tossed the idea around many times during the summer—in-between his job, hanging out with Wonwoo in the park, uncomfortably avoiding his mother after the Discussion That Will Not Be Named—and decided that this was the best way to go about it so he won’t suffer from a panic attack or something equally dumb halfway through his confession. “And if he says anything else, then it’ll be, like, a pleasant surprise. Everyone wins.”

Minghao just stares at him before slowly shaking his head. “I’m telling you, you have nothing to worry about. Also, I highly doubt Wonwoo will ever say something like that to you. He’s way too nice.”

“Yeah, he is. He’s nice. So nice.”

Minghao fake-gags and throws what turns out to be an eraser at him. “Ugh, you’re so sappy, I hate this. If I ever fall for someone I will throw myself off a cliff before I start behaving like you.”

Mingyu snorts and throws it back at him. It smacks against the wall two feet away from his head and bounces onto his desk. “I can’t wait to see you fall in love so you can be dumb and sappy like me and get off your high fucking horse.”

He’s laughing, but Minghao suddenly looks a little distracted, like he’s responding but also absorbing Mingyu’s words. “Yeah,” he mutters, turning away to stare out his window, a far-off pensive expression clouding his features, “if that ever happens.”

 

“Look who it is!” Soonyoung shrieks, ignoring the glares of the other coffee shop patrons he’s bothering and dragging Mingyu by the back of his neck down into a hug. “I can’t believe it’s been four fucking months!”

“Ugh, don’t hug me, man, it’s too hot and sticky to be touchy-feely right now.” But Mingyu hugs him back anyway, gleeful, because he’s a big dumb sap and Soonyoung likes to smush his cheeks right up against people and he likes being able to be affectionate towards his friends. “You changed your hair!”

It’s a short, black undercut, and Soonyoung laughs and runs his fingers through the fringe. “And you should. You’re getting almost, like, shaggy, my dude.”

“Leave me and my disgusting shaggy hair alone, I didn’t get a chance to get it cut over the summer.” More like he desperately needed a cut but didn’t dare ask his mom for a drive to their hair salon.

It had been a painfully awkward few months between them, neither of them willing to address the situation or the reason why the connection they had slowly been building back had fallen to pieces so suddenly. He doesn’t really know what to do, to be honest—he’s angry at his mom for not even trying to understand him, disappointed, heartbroken, even wondering at times if being bisexual really is something he should be ashamed of. Of course, Wonwoo had talked him out of that kind of mindset at several points throughout the summer, and he had overwhelming support flooding in constantly from the group chat with the others, but still. He can’t stop thinking about all his fears back in high school about what might happen if people found out he was into boys, and he can’t stop thinking that maybe he was right about his mother—that she won’t ever be able to accept it.

“I can drive you to a place if you aren’t picky,” Junhui says, running his hands through Mingyu’s hair until he slaps his wrist away. “Because no offense, but you look way better with shorter hair.”

He perks up. “I mean, would you actually?”

Junhui grins at him. “You’re paying me for gas money.”

“Jun, you’re extorting him,” Minghao says, frowning at him and punching his cousin in the shoulder. Jun looks utterly unfazed, leaning back in his chair.

“Nah, it’s fine,” Mingyu says quickly. “I have a job now, I’m basically gonna be rich.” When they all give him looks of varying levels of surprise, he explains. “I’ll be working shifts here, three our four days a week.” He points at the floor of the coffee shop as if that’ll help explain things.

There’s a brief moment of silence before the table explodes in an uproar, once again invoking the ire of all customers within earshot. “They accepted you?” Soonyoung half-screams, grabbing his shoulders and shaking him in excitement. “Dude, you didn’t even tell us! Do we get discounts now if you’re working the register?”

Seokmin shakes his head at him in mock disapproval, but he’s beaming at him. “I can’t believe you just became the most responsible one out of all of us. I’m disappointed in you, Gyu.”

“I have a job, too,” Junhui pipes up, insulted. “And Jeonghan is still the head of Gay Club.”

“We need to stop calling it Gay Club,” Minghao mumbles, his comment going mostly unheard.

“Yeah, but you’re super old, Jun. You should have a job.”

“I’m going to hire Wonwoo to assassinate you in your sleep, Seokmin.”

Mingyu tries to fight back his laughter and fails miserably. He feels warm and fuzzy all over, and it’s not because the weather outside is stifling and summer-hot. He belongs here. This is home. “Hey, where is Wonwoo, anyway?” He looks around the coffee shop, as if somehow within the two minutes he and Minghao have entered the place he had somehow missed Wonwoo’s dark head standing in line buying coffee or something. It’s been two weeks or so since they last met, and he feels almost itchy to see him again. “He’s not coming?”

“You didn’t know?” Soonyoung says, raising an eyebrow at him. “Wonwoo’s a Social Sciences representative, dude. Got his application accepted like a month ago. He’s gotta be out there allll of frosh week looking after the firsties.”

“He is? He didn’t tell me at all, what the fuck?” It’s totally ridiculous, but Mingyu feels a weird surge of pride when he hears the news. Two years ago, Wonwoo was a ghost, an outcast, the silent nobody in the back of the room that almost went through all of high school as an unnoticeable, untraceable being if it wasn’t for Mingyu’s fuck ups. Now he’s out there wearing a representative shirt, probably dying a little under the hot sunshine, leading first year Aphodell students through icebreakers and events and offering them advice and encouragement on how to survive college.

They’re both working hard to change. He’s just so proud.

 

“I can’t believe you never told me you’re a Soc-Sci rep,” he says to Wonwoo when they finally meet for their first shared class, Social Psychology.

“Sorry,” Wonwoo says, giving him a slight smile. “It just slipped my mind. Besides, I thought you might be busy with your own job applications, and, well …”

“Dude, no? Like, I’m really happy for you. Of course I’d wanna hear about it.”

Wonwoo’s smile grows, even as he ducks his head to log in to his laptop. “Sorry I couldn’t hang out with you guys. Frosh week was exhausting as a participant, but having to actually run the whole show is even worse. I thought I would pass out from the heat.”

“Nah, it’s okay. I got to see your house, though. It looks really nice! Your kitchen is way cleaner than ours.”

He laughs, nose crinkling up. “Is that your fault or the landlord’s?”

“It’s not me, I swear! It’s my new housemates. Chan’s a good kid, I suppose, but Seungkwan never cleans up his damn dishes!”

Wonwoo shakes his head with another small laugh, looking down at his laptop. Mingyu starts to feel tongue-tied when he stares at the sharp cut of Wonwoo’s jawline and quickly looks away, running his hand nervously through his now cleanly-cut hair. He trusted Junhui to take him to a good hair salon, but there’s still that faint sense of unease that comes with going to a completely new place after years of tradition.

They’re sitting near the side of the lecture hall, any nearby students busy doing their own thing. The professor isn’t here yet. They’re practically alone, in a sense. Is this a good time to confess to Wonwoo? His heart begins to slowly pick up its pace, thudding dully in his eardrums. Is this a now-or-never chance?

“Wonwoo,” he starts to say, nerves jittery, but at that exact moment the professor walks into the hall and starts setting up her powerpoint introduction.

“What is it?” Wonwoo asks, but Mingyu can see his attention is now wholly focused on the professor and opening up a new set of notes. Mingyu glances at the clock. Only a minute left before class starts.

“No, it’s nothing,” he mumbles, fidgeting with embarrassment in his seat. Wonwoo gives him a curious look, but doesn’t say anything about it.

It’s okay, he comforts himself, even as his palms grow sweaty and leave gross little condensation prints on the surface of his laptop. There’s plenty of other chances. Just wait for a better moment. You’ll get it over with eventually.

 

“It’s already almost October,” Minghao says, “when are you gonna tell him?”

“I’m trying!” Mingyu wails. He thinks he looks a little silly in the coffee shop’s apple-green apron and it’s a bit too tight on him, but his coworkers are friendly, the work is fun, and after spending a summer working at a McDonalds he’s pleased to see that the number of annoying customers he has to deal with is shockingly minimal. Minghao is currently leaning against the counter to talk to him during one of the lulls between busy hours. There’s only a couple people in the shop right now, most of them hipster-like students writing essays in the corner seats or older, middle-aged regulars that just so happen to live in the area.

“Try harder, man,” Minghao says, and he sounds a little frustrated. “You’ve been tiptoeing around him for so long now it’s starting to get obvious. Eventually the rest of the guys are gonna notice and this’ll be an even bigger mess.”

“Ugghhh.” Mingyu slumps forwards and leans against the cash register. His elbow manages to jam against enough buttons to send the cash drawer flying out and hitting him in the stomach, which he has to fumble back into place and pretend nothing happened. “It’s so hard.

“How hard could it be?”

“Well for starters, there’s no good moment!” He flaps his hands at his unimpressed best friend. “Like, there’s always too many people around, or, or it just … I dunno, the feeling isn’t right?”

“What feeling?” Minghao shoots back. “I mean, what kind of feeling do you even need to just talk to the guy and be like, ‘Hey, by the way, I’m madly in love with you and I’m terribly annoying about it’?”

“I’m not being annoying about it,” Mingyu says, then hesitates. “Am I?”

He receives an eye roll in return, but Minghao noticeably softens a bit. “You’re being a little annoying. But that’s mostly because you keep complaining about it to me and not doing anything about it.” He breaks off the conversation and slides away when the door opens and Mingyu has to take a couple orders, but once that’s done he comes back with a determined look in his eyes. “Okay, how’s this: you and Wonwoo are studying tomorrow, right? Just you two? So, at some point during that studying session, you just blurt it out. It’s that easy.”

No, it’s not that easy. But Minghao is right; Mingyu can feel himself starting to reach for any sort of excuse necessary to put this off longer and longer, and it’s coming to a point where Wonwoo is starting to notice his awkwardness and even Soonyoung (Soonyoung!) had at one point quietly asked Mingyu if he and Wonwoo had gotten into a fight over the summer. This has to happen. It’s like ripping off a band-aid.

It’s still relatively early into the semester, so the library isn’t as crowded as it had been last time he was in there during the heat of finals. He and Wonwoo have their own designated spot in the more private areas of the library, a small table to their own that’s half-hidden behind bookshelves and little nooks and crannies where people pass by without noticing them.

Mingyu’s eyes flicker from his laptop (he doesn’t actually know what window he has open right now—he thinks it’s his notes?) to Wonwoo and back again, foot tapping an increasingly nervous beat into the dull carpet below the table. Now or never, he chants to himself, now or never.

Just before he steels his resolve and opens his mouth, a brief moment of sadness overtakes him. It had been nice pretending, he thinks miserably, that he and Wonwoo could ever have some sort of relationship. That he could still delude himself with the tiny brief moments of hope that Wonwoo returns his feelings. He knows that there is a very big possibility that this might shatter any last trace of ease and comfort between them, might ruin Wonwoo’s trust in him. That in the end, Mingyu’s own stupid inability to ever move on from this beautiful boy might be the reason why they can never truly be together, friends or no.

“Hey,” he says, quietly, “can I, um, can I tell you something?”

Wonwoo glances up at him quickly over the rim of his glasses, but Mingyu can tell he’s distracted by his textbook. “Of course, Mingyu.”

He swallows down saliva, running his hands nervously over the rough fabric of his jeans. He thinks he’s going to throw up. Or have an anxiety attack. Or both, all at once, followed by him running away and jumping off a cliff. Oh boy. Okay. Here we go.

“I like you.” Wonwoo’s textbook slips from his fingers and falls against the table with a deafening crack, making several heads whip around to stare for a few seconds in surprise. Mingyu can feel his ears burn hot enough to produce steam. “I-I still like you. I wanted to forget about it all and move on, and just—I just wanted to be a good friend to you, but I-I-I can’t keep it a secret anymore.” There’s so much more he wants to say—he wants to tell Wonwoo that his laughter is the most beautiful thing Mingyu’s ever heard in his life, that Wonwoo has the prettiest fingers, gentle but rough from guitar callouses, that Wonwoo looks so fucking cute it’s unreal in these glasses, that he has a smile so breathtaking there was no possible way Mingyu could not fall in love with him all over again, foolish and weak and soft for the crinkle of his nose and the curl of the corners of his lips. So much he wants to tell him but can never find the words to describe it, and besides, he doesn’t want to pour too much of his heart out when he knows he won’t get anything to show for it in the end. “I’m sorry, I know you probably don’t want to hear this, but I needed to tell you. That I lo—like you, a lot.” He ducks his head and closes his eyes, bracing himself for the head-on collision of rejection. “Okay. That’s it. There, done. If you’re uncomfortable, I can totally just fuck off right now, if you want.”

There’s a silence so long, so painful, Mingyu is almost tempted to open his eyes and see for himself the damage he’s caused. But of course he can’t, he doesn’t. He’s scared. Always so, so scared, of everything. He keeps his eyes squeezed tightly shut, hyperaware of the sweat lining his palms and the buzz of voices around him, washing over him like the sickly hum of a hundred flies.

Finally, he does hear a sound from Wonwoo—a slow intake of breath, ragged and guttural and strangely so, so heart wrenching. Then he hears a weak laugh. “You always close your eyes, you know? Whenever you say something that scares you, when it’s hard for you to say it out loud, you close your eyes like you think it’ll go away. Like a little kid.”

He cracks his eyes open slowly. “I’m not a kid,” he mumbles, slowly raising his head to look at Wonwoo.

He’s not sure what he was waiting for, what he was expecting, but he’s pretty certain this isn’t it: Wonwoo not ducking his own head in shame or shock, not looking angry or upset, not turning away in embarrassment. No, instead Wonwoo is staring right at him, hard, powerful, dark eyes alight with the fiery glow of a thousand electrical storms. The intensity of the look is enough to make Mingyu fumble and heat up his cheeks even more.

“What are you saying, Mingyu?” Wonwoo says, softly. For a second, Mingyu thinks he hears Wonwoo’s rough voice shake when he says his name, but he can’t be sure.

“I’m saying—” he licks his lips, an action that Wonwoo’s eyes don’t fail to pick up on, “I’m saying that I like you. That I still like you. That I’ve never stopped liking you.”

“But you were …” Wonwoo’s jaw works for a moment as though he doesn’t quite know what to say. “You were dating Ananya less than six months ago.”

“You know me, I’m the pinnacle of bad decision-making.” He lets out an awkward laugh that falls flat. He fidgets, and fiddles, and squirms, and Wonwoo still doesn’t say anything, just staring at him with that impenetrable fire and a mind lost deep in thought. Eventually, he can’t take it and he blurts out, “Listen, please just let me down easy. Okay? Just, just say what you need to say and I’ll fuck off. We don’t have to drag this out if you—”

“Shut up for a second,” Wonwoo says, breathlessly. “I … I need to think. About this. Can I think about this?”

“S-sure.” Well. That’s distinctly more encouraging than what Mingyu had been expecting, which was a flat-out fuck you and your little dog, too. “Take as long as you need.”

“Okay.” Wonwoo takes a few deep breaths to control himself, then picks up his textbook again. After a few seconds of sitting there dumbly and realizing holy shit this really happened he just confessed to Jeon Wonwoo like a tool, Mingyu returns to his laptop as well. His heart is hammering too hard and too loud in his chest, the words on his laptop screen swimming around in his vision, and every single one of his internal anxieties and inner demons are screeching at him that this is all just a huge mistake, that he ruined the only good thing left between them. He’s only in this torturous state for maybe a single painful minute before Wonwoo sets his textbook down again and says, “Okay, I thought about it.”

“Um, that was quick.”

“Yeah. So let me get this straight. You like me.” His voice is weird—emotional, maybe, or at least overcome with something heavy and poignant. “Even when you were dating Ananya. You liked me.”

Mingyu curls in on himself, shoulders hunching up, staring at a random spot on his laptop screen without really seeing it. He’s mostly just trying to make sure he’s avoiding Wonwoo’s gaze as much as possible. “Yes, okay?” he snaps bitterly. “Yes. I have been hopelessly into you for months, I don’t know how else I’m supposed to fucking say it? Just—can you stop beating around the bush? Just end it already, just say no, I already know but I just need to hear it—”

“Hold on a second.” Wonwoo’s arm reaches out across the table to him, like he wants to touch Mingyu’s hand—Mingyu flinches away and immediately regrets it, but Wonwoo stops himself halfway through the motion either way, resting his hand down awkwardly on the space between them, currently tangled in laptop charger cords. “Why do you keep acting like I’m going to reject you?”

“You told me,” Mingyu mutters, moving his hands down to his lap so he can squeeze them hard, knuckles cracking and turning white, fingers pressed down tight against his thighs to try and pretend they aren’t shaking. He feels small and weak, he feels like a kid, he feels like the kid he used to be who tried so, so hard to be likeable and never be left alone. “That night, at the party on Valentine’s Day, you—you kept talking about the guy you liked.”

Wonwoo stares at him, eyes blinking repeatedly in what might be confusion, before saying, “You didn’t tell me about that.”

“Of course I wasn’t going to. I just—you told me, you said you had a crush on another guy in our classes, you—” he falters for a moment, heart breaking, “you kept talking about him, Wonwoo, okay? I don’t even know who this fucking guy is and I didn’t even have a chance, I don’t know if you still like him or whatever but I kinda knew since then that this wasn’t gonna be a thing that ever happened.”

There’s a moment of silence.

“You are—” Wonwoo chokes out. “You’re so—you’re such an idiot, Mingyu.”

“Really? You’re calling me an idiot now?” he whines pathetically.

Wonwoo lets out a flimsy laugh, the sound bubbling out slightly hysterically, like he can’t help himself. “Because you are, you’re an idiot!” And to Mingyu’s utter shock and minor horror, he can see Wonwoo’s eyes filling up with tears, eyes turning shiny and bright behind the reflection of his glasses. His hand moves up to cover his mouth and try and stop the feverish, hiccupping giggles falling out of him. “And—and I’m an idiot, too, we’re both just a bunch of fucking idiots dancing around each other, god, we’re so stupid. The both of us, so fucking stupid.”

Mingyu knows he should say something, anything, but he can’t. His tongue is stone in his mouth, heavy and useless. He can only sit there and watch as Wonwoo buries his face into his hands, then slumps forward to burrow into his arms against the table, shoulders shaking with something, laughter, tears, fear, relief, maybe all of them, maybe none of them, but when he lifts his head to look up at Mingyu there’s a smile growing on his face, tremulous and fragile but as brilliant as ever.

“I was talking about you, you dumbass,” he says quietly, and Mingyu thinks his heart stops.

When he doesn’t respond, Wonwoo keeps talking, fast in the way he tends to do when his emotions are all worked up and running quicker than his brain. “I don’t remember what happened that night, but if I was talking about liking a guy, I was talking about you. There’s no, um, there’s no one else, that I feel this way towards. Nobody else. It’s only—it’s always been you, Mingyu. Always.”

“What?” he whispers, aware of the liquid burning in the back of his own eyes, the almost aching sensation pulsing deep in the core of his heart. “What are you—but you said—y-you said you didn’t even know if your crush was interested in men—”

“I didn’t know!”

“Then what the fuck—” he gestures between the two of them, “—did we do in high school?! You call that ‘not interested in men’?”

Wonwoo runs a hand through his hair, fingers shaking. “You’ve always been like this, Mingyu. Always thinking about all the terrible things you’ve done, blaming yourself for everything, never thinking about the things people have done to hurt you. Do you know how many times I’ve stayed awake at night, thinking about how much I fucked you up? How before you told me you were bi, I thought that you, that I, that I had somehow made you dependent on me. That despite your—your sexuality, your identity, your feelings, I made you become attached to me because of what I let happen during senior year and screwed you up.”

“Well, that’s fucking dumb.” He feels so strange—indignant, almost, upset—but mostly hopeful. Hope unlike anything he’s ever felt before. It’s so hard for him to understand this, to come to terms that what he’s been tearing himself up over might end in a way he’s never allowed himself to even dream of. If what Wonwoo is saying, if the things he’s implying are … “I cared about you, you dick. Whatever I was, whatever I thought I was, I liked you with everything I had to offer. Fuck, are you kidding me, I liked you so much.”

“How could I know?” Wonwoo pushes his glasses aside to rub the back of his palm against his eyes, trying to wipe away unshed tears. “God, you’re such an asshole. You think you were fucked up when we ran into each other again last year? How do you think I felt? I felt so guilty and heartbroken and I spent the whole summer regretting so many of the things that I did to you, and there you were again, so fucking handsome, so careful, so gentle, but god the way you looked at me back then … I thought for sure I ruined everything between us. And I didn’t know if you actually liked guys or not, and then you started dating Ananya and I just thought that there was no way. There was no chance I could ever …”

“Holy fuck, we really are idiots.” And he’s smiling, he thinks, cheek muscles aching from the force of it, a wet laugh leaving his throat. “I started dating her to try and get over you. When I heard you talking about your supposed crush I thought you had moved on from me, I thought I could never get back what we used to have. I thought …”

“I thought, you thought,” Wonwoo echoes back, sniffing hard. “I think we can establish that the two of us don’t think straight.”

“I mean, Jesus, I sure hope we don’t.”

“Oh, shut up. Are you really going to make a pun now, of all times?”

“You like me?” And just saying the words makes his voice hitch, his chest tightening and the lump in his esophagus growing larger. Is this a dream? he wants to cry out. Is this real, is this happening, can someone like me be this lucky in life? “You really, you mean it? You really like me?”

“Of course.” He sniffs again, rubbing at his nose, and smiles. He’s so beautiful, so radiant, Mingyu thinks he’s going lightheaded. “I do, of course I do, I’ve always … oh, don’t cry, you big softie.”

Mingyu reaches up to wipe at his cheeks, surprised to find a few stray tears smeared across them. “I didn’t—u-um, I didn’t know I was—”

“Can we get out of here?” Wonwoo looks around at their surroundings, and Mingyu remembers with a start that they’re sitting in the middle of a library, with only bookshelves and the general bustle of the distracted people around them keeping the two of them from being noticed and making a big gay scene. “I, uh, I don’t think I can study anymore.”

“Yeah. Yeah, alright.” He closes his laptop and begins clearing up, but it’s difficult to tear his eyes away from Wonwoo’s figure across the table from him. This is happening. This is real. Wonwoo likes him, he’s liked him all this time and this is so, he’s so …

The two of them must look strange as they exit the library, trying to half-heartedly cover their wet, teary faces as they escape into the heat outside. The world seems so much brighter than before, the colours of the sky, the grass, the flowers, the trees, everything more crisp and vibrant and saturated. He’s even more hyperaware of Wonwoo’s presence than normal, the entire left side of his body buzzing and tingling with the effort it takes to not close the gap between them, to not reach out and pull him closer, take his hand and cling to him before this all becomes a dream and melts away. He keeps sneaking peeks at him, and when he meets Wonwoo’s eyes, he realizes that Wonwoo had been doing the same thing. They laugh a little awkwardly and turn away, cheeks burning, ears pink, shy and flustered and so painfully young again.

Wonwoo takes a deep breath to steady himself. “So,” he says, breathtaking under the dappled sunshine as they pass beneath a tree, “what happens now?”

“I dunno,” Mingyu says, “I mean, if you still have r-res-reservations about us after, you know, what happened last time, I completely understand. I get it if you don’t—”

Wonwoo punches his arm softly. “That was a rhetorical question, don’t you dare finish your sentence. I didn’t pine after you miserably for a year for you to say some bullshit about what happened in high school.” He adjusts his glasses so it sits more comfortably on his nose, sniffling, cheeks pink. He’s still teary-eyed, Mingyu sees now, the two of them as fragile as teacups and just waiting for another catalyst to send them both full-on sobbing. It’s both slightly embarrassing and incredibly freeing. “This isn’t high school, this isn’t Hysera. This is the here and now.”

Mingyu doesn’t know where they’re going, but their feet take them to the small patches of trees by Aphodell’s track and field circuit. Nobody is currently using the burnt reddish track and its crisp white lines, so they have a surprisingly private, intimate spot of grass in the corner of the field, a place where they can talk and—if need be—grow emotional without any weird looks. Mingyu stumbles onto the grass and then leans against the rough bark of the biggest tree, too overwhelmed to stand up straight.

“Before we start fumbling and fucking up and making each other confused again,” Wonwoo declares, “I just want to set things straight. I like you, Kim Mingyu, and if you feel the same way then I’d like to date you. For real this time. No—no stupid dares, no hiding, no secrets. It might be a second disaster, and I might need some—some time to get used to it, but this is. Um. This is an option I’d like to explore. If that’s okay.”

God, he says it so formally, so awkwardly, it’s the most impossibly nerdy confession he’s ever received. Mingyu’s so in love he can’t see straight, warmth radiating from the center of his chest and spreading outwards until his arms and legs feel numb and tingly. He’s light and floaty on the balls of his feet, practically weightless. “M-me too. I like you too, and I, uh, I would really, really like to date you.” And just like that, saying it out loud, it’s all too much for him to handle—he can feel the waterworks coming, boiling in the corners of his eyes and blurring his vision. He makes a pathetic little sob nose. “Fuck, you like me. I can’t believe you actually like me.”

“Of course I do, I—” Wonwoo looks at Mingyu and visibly melts, every feature turning soft as he takes in Mingyu hiccupping and frantically wiping at the tears rolling down his cheeks. “Jesus, Mingyu, don’t cry, if you don’t stop I’m going to start crying.”

“I don’t wa-wan-want you to cry,” he chokes out, shoulders beginning to shake, “I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I just, I’m so—”

“O-okay. Okay, it’s okay, hey, c’mere.” Wonwoo steps forward and wraps his arms around Mingyu, and god it feels like coming home. Mingyu inhales shakily as he rests his cheek against Wonwoo’s shoulder, relishing the feeling of Wonwoo’s thin arms pressing tight around his back and his hair. He clings to Wonwoo like a fucking baby, hands grasping at his shoulders and back and waist maybe a bit too tightly, maybe enough to leave a mark, but he’s so stunned and happy and disbelieving that he needs to ground himself somehow, needs something to remind him that this is real. He thinks he can feel Wonwoo trembling in his arms too, although that might just be from him.

“I’ll be good to you,” he can hear himself saying, words choking and wrapping around the little sobs he can’t hold back. “I promise. I’ll—I’m not scared anymore, we don’t have to hide this, I’ll be good, I’ll be better, I’ll be someone who deserves you. I couldn’t keep that promise in high school but I’ll do it now, I swear I’ll see it through now.”

“You’re already good, Mingyu,” Wonwoo whispers back, the hand in Mingyu’s hair tightening for a moment. His voice is wrecked, the deep rasp just as broken and shaky as Mingyu’s. “This is something we both can see through. You’ve al-always been so, so good to me.”

 

When Mingyu finally comes home, Minghao takes one look at his red-rimmed eyes and snuffling nose and jumps up from his chair, concern etched into his features and looking ready to give him the Rejection Comfort Package Deluxe. “How did it go?” he asks, cautious in his words.

Mingyu gives him a weak but beaming smile. “He likes me,” he says giddily. It still doesn’t quite feel real when he says it.

Minghao stares at him for a long moment before his shoulders slump in immediate relief, letting out a quiet sigh. “I fucking knew it,” he declares, before pulling Mingyu into a hug.

Chapter Text

It isn’t until Mingyu wakes up, brushes his teeth (squabbling with Minghao for the chance to use the bathroom, so apparently some things will never actually change), gets dressed, and is halfway out the door with an apple in his hand that he remembers he is officially the boyfriend of Jeon Wonwoo.

It really is like getting hit by a truck. He almost staggers—although that might just be because he tripped over a branch—and when he repeats that sentence to himself suddenly he thinks he’s flying. That also might be because of the branch. But when he rights himself and resumes walking that feeling of being hit with a profound, unstoppable force remains. Wonwoo likes him. Wonwoo likes him. They’re dating. Even thinking the words feels too fantastical, like it’s just another anxiety-ridden dream he’s constructing for himself so he can keep smiling in his crush’s presence.

But no, this is real. Hopefully.

His first class of the day is Abnormal Psychology, and if it wasn’t for the fact that he finds the course incredibly interesting he might not have been motivated enough to pay attention. Luckily for him, Professor Harper is one of those profs with both an engaging style of teaching and a sarcastic sense of humour, and it’s very easy to get absorbed in the lecture. He wonders if maybe his interest in this course stems from his own struggles with his mental health—that’s what his panic attacks were basically, right?—and he resolves to maybe ask Dr. Harper for more information about anxiety disorders during office hours the next time he’s free.

After a one-hour break he uses to buy a sandwich from the nearest café his next class is Social Psychology, which is one of the classes he shares with Wonwoo, and almost the second he steps into the lecture hall his heart rate begins to speed up until he almost feels nervous. What will happen between them? Will things change in a way that he might not be able to handle? He realizes, with a brief twinge of fear, that it’s been a while since he’s been a boyfriend to anyone (does Ananya even count? Maybe he should amend that statement into being a “good boyfriend”, because dating someone to try and stop thinking about another person entirely wasn’t exactly Good Boyfriend of the Year material), and the last time he and Wonwoo had been some semblance of “together” things had gone terribly.

He scans the dozens of heads that are already seated but can’t find a familiar one amongst them. Okay. He’s not even here yet, so no point panicking. He breathes in, out, takes his usual seat, and tries to distract himself by setting up his laptop and opening up his notes.

Wonwoo arrives a minute or two later, slightly out of breath. A lock of his dark hair is sticking up a different way from everything else, and it’s painfully cute. Mingyu’s desperate to reach up and smooth it back down, do something sweet and loving and boyfriend-like, but he’s terrified that a single wrong move will make Wonwoo think twice about yesterday’s events.

“I slept in,” Wonwoo huffs, sinking into the seat next to Mingyu. “I thought I might be late.”

“Nah, you’re good,” Mingyu says, forcing himself to sound casual. Well, now he’s just embarrassed for overthinking everything—Wonwoo doesn’t look the least bit concerned. Maybe it’s not that big of a deal for him. “We’ve got, like, three minutes before class starts.”

“Good. Good.” And then Wonwoo is pulling out his laptop, and Mingyu’s heart sinks against his will. What had he been hoping for? A kiss on the cheek? An “I love you”? A smile? Hell, maybe even just a glance in his direction. Is he selfish for wanting at least something to remind him that this is happening?

Wonwoo mumbles something.

“What?”

He refuses to look at him, but Wonwoo’s ears are pink and very obvious against his black hair. “Missed you,” he repeats, barely audible.

Mingyu blinks once, twice, processing the words, before suddenly everything inside of him opens up, like one of those hyper-fast videos of blossoming flowers. He smiles, giddy and delighted, and reaches up to pat down that one stubborn lock of hair on Wonwoo’s head. “Missed you too.”

They don’t have time to say anything more during class, not until it’s over and they’re walking out of the hall together into the brilliant autumn sunshine. Wonwoo looks like he’s glowing, unearthly, quiet and peaceful and lost in thought, and Mingyu can’t take it anymore.

He blindly reaches out for his hand, and Wonwoo flinches at the touch. Instantly, Mingyu snatches his hand back, flushing an embarrassed rosy pink. “S-sorry,” he stutters, horrified, “I didn’t—I wasn’t thinking—”

“No!” Wonwoo blurts out, and he looks equally mortified. “No, I’m sorry, I—I just wasn’t thinking and I panicked for a second. It’s fine, it’s okay, you can—”

The anxiety is starting to set in again, crawling up his throat and suffocating him in ash. Is this really okay? Are they making the right choice here, deciding to be together? He thought it would be okay, that the simple fact that they like each other would be enough to make everything work out and be happily ever after, but of course it wouldn’t. Even if they like each other, that doesn’t change the things from the past. “No, it’s okay, you—you’re uncomfortable, it was my fault for doing that without asking. I’m sorry, I—I’m sorry.”

“Mingyu, I—” Wonwoo cuts himself off to stare at the ground, eyes dark and pensive. Mingyu recognizes this look, knows Wonwoo’s currently thinking over exactly what he wants to say and what words he wants to use for it, and makes himself shut up. Eventually Wonwoo slowly says, “Old habits die hard. I’m so used to this being something I’m not … not allowed to show off. Y’know?”

“Yeah.” Mingyu’s voice sounds hoarse. He clears his throat. “Yeah.”

“But I …” And Wonwoo is struggling to say this, Mingyu knows he is. Jeon Wonwoo, who never talked about his feelings to other people, who was so used to living behind layers upon layers of bricked-up walls and thick plastic masks because it’s easier to hide himself from the rest of the world than face its criticism, is now forcing himself to let all the words out. Everything he normally would have swallowed back down. It’s like he’s pushing himself to be more communicative, to explain his thoughts and feelings, for him. For Mingyu. “I’m not sure if I’m … ready for it to be something I can do casually. But that doesn’t … that doesn’t mean I don’t want to not do it either.”

“Again with the double negatives,” Mingyu says softly. Whoever said relief was just a chemical-reaction emotion, an abstract concept, was an idiot. He can say right here right now that relief is a physical, tangible thing, something that fills up all the empty nervous parts inside of him until he feels relaxed and happy, bones marshmallow-soft, blood as light as air.

“Do you get what I’m saying?”

“You’re cute.” He can’t stop himself from saying it. “So cute. I really want to kiss you.”

Wonwoo immediately blushes a furious shade of red, an intensely bright colour that looks so unnatural on his normally impassive facial features, so out of place and awkward, and Mingyu thinks he sees a gateway opening up to another world. “You’re the wo-worst,” he stammers out.

He doesn’t respond to the whole kissing thing, which Mingyu is surprisingly rather glad for. He sort of expected that it would be way too early for them to start talking about something like that, and in a way, he’s glad for it. He wants to take things slowly, as slowly as possible, a snail’s pace. He wants to ease into Wonwoo step-by-step like a child takes their time getting used to the chill of a swimming pool.

But he holds out his hand, not reaching for Wonwoo like last time, just leaving it hovering in the air as an unspoken invitation.

Wonwoo doesn’t hesitate to take it.

Nobody on the quad spares them a glance. The ones who do only give them the kind of curious once-over stare most people give to campus couples in general, and that’s that. Even so, Mingyu’s heart is pounding just from this slight bit of exposure, so used to having to snatch himself away when he catches sight of anyone, and he’s sure Wonwoo must feel the same. He loosens his fingers slightly so Wonwoo can pull away if he gets too uncomfortable, but Wonwoo only squeezes his fingers tighter.

 

Seungkwan climbs up the basement stairs at twelve-forty-five in the morning to see Mingyu humming softly to himself in the kitchen and making a bowl of oatmeal.

“Hey-y-y-y,” he says slowly, in the kind of voice someone might make in front of an unstable or unpredictable person. “What’s up?”

“Oh, nothing,” Mingyu says cheerfully, hauling himself up onto the counter to wait for water to boil.

“Mingyu,” Seungkwan says, placing his hands on his hips. “I come upstairs to get a glass of milk and you’re here making—” he double checks the dry grains resting patiently in a bowl, “—porridge at midnight. Please tell me what exactly is ‘nothing’ about this.”

“Dude,” Mingyu says with a boisterous laugh, cutting himself off abruptly once he remembers there are in fact people sleeping in this house and Minghao will steal his keys and lock him out if he wakes him up now. “This is college. You’re living alone, you don’t have to answer to anyone for anything. So if I wanna make a double bowl of raisin bran and apple cinnamon oatmeal at twelve a.m. who’s gonna stop me?”

Seungkwan watches him warily as the water comes to a boil and Mingyu pours it in carefully, making sure there’s enough to make the oatmeal thick and fluffy but not enough to water it down. That’s the job of the milk carton in the fridge.

“I guess you’re right,” Seungkwan says, sounding a little unsure. Mingyu snickers as he continues completing his porridge masterpiece.

Seungkwan is a weird one, that’s for sure. Mingyu hasn’t really connected with any of his housemates yet beyond the kind of closeness generated by five young men living alone and trying to figure out who left their underwear in the dryer on a Saturday afternoon, but he can more or less figure out their “type” by now. Chan is a slightly anxious, overeager Photography and Environmental Sciences double major, the sort of kid that tackles everything he does with single-minded focus and determination that should not belong to a first-year student. Vernon is the sort of easygoing, laid-back guy who thinks getting worked up over anything is just a waste of energy, which both gives him the advantage of never making rash decisions in the middle of a mental breakdown, while also making him pull frequent all-nighters once his project due dates are suddenly too close to be waved aside.

As for Seungkwan? Well, Mingyu had been all set on pegging him as exactly what it reads on the label: obnoxious and bossy, overconfident and quick-witted, an attention hog and overwhelmingly clingy. Yet somehow, every time he happens to talk to him alone he feels like there’s more to Seungkwan than meets the eye, but he can never figure out what.

“Don’t you have milk in the fridge downstairs?” Mingyu asks as he pours said drink into his bowl, enough to thicken the oatmeal even more. The art of the golden water-milk ratio in oatmeal is a gift. “Why come all the way up here?”

“Vernon drank all the milk,” Seungkwan says, which sounds like a lie considering Vernon is lactose intolerant, and Mingyu tells him so straight up. “Okay, fine. He took the milk and put it in that dumb useless mini-fridge he’s got in his room, but I don’t wanna ask him for it.”

Mingyu looks down in the direction of what is, maybe, Vernon’s room below the kitchen tiles. “Is he still up?”

“What kind of question is that? A better one would be why the hell do you guys all go to bed so early? What happened to not having to answer to anyone about anything you do?”

Mingyu clucks his tongue indulgently at him and spoons a giant lump of oatmeal and raisins into his mouth. “Not getting enough sleep does nothing to help your grades out, my man. You’ll get it by second semester.”

Seungkwan scowls at his patronizing tone but makes no move to fight about it. “Yeah, he’s up,” he mutters, answering the earlier question.

“Hm.” Mingyu notices something he hadn’t seen before—Seungkwan’s eyes casting downwards, mouth twitching into a miserable frown, the way he shuffles his feet like he wants to stay up here but is running out of reasons to explain himself. “Did you guys get into a fight or whatever?”

He expects Seungkwan to scoff and snap something sarcastically—after all, the two firsty-years have childish, petty arguments at least twice a day, he sort of just expects it now—but he’s surprised to see tears pool in Seungkwan’s eyes as he sniffs angrily. “He’s a fucking asshole, that’s what he is.”

“Oh.” Seungkwan looks like he’s getting closer and closer to crying territory, and Mingyu glances around the empty kitchen as if he’ll find the answer to this predicament tucked between the toaster and the drying rack. “Um. Hey, you wanna talk about it?”

No,” Seungkwan hisses in a way that sounds like yes. “What’s there to talk about? He’s just a dickbag who apparently doesn’t give a shit about anything but his PlayStation 4, so, like, what’s even the point, right?”

“Uhhhh …” Mingyu looks around for an escape route, but there’s absolutely no way for him to leave without looking and feeling like an asshole. “Hey, okay, let’s, um, go over here—”

He leads Seungkwan awkwardly to the living room, letting the lights from the kitchen provide them with enough illumination to see. Seungkwan wastes no time in throwing himself onto the couch with a muffled wail into a pillow, leaving Mingyu to sit on a different armchair and wait for him to kick it out of his system.

“You know, I had to force him to rent this house with me!” Seungkwan snaps once he’s done punching the pillow. “That lazy asshole does nothing for himself! I always have to pull him along, make him put in effort! If it wasn’t for me making him move his ass, that idiot would still be back in Vancouver living with his parents, going to whatever college was the closest and had the cheapest bus fare!” He scrubs at his face with his hands until it’s pink and raw and kind of adorable, even with the way he’s scowling. “Like, does he have any dreams? Any aspirations? Does he care about anything?”

There’s vulnerability in his voice that he’s trying to hide behind frustration, something Mingyu picks up on instantly only because he’s heard it in his own voice many times before. He shoves two more spoonfuls of oatmeal into his mouth and swallows quickly before he says, “It’s not, um, it’s not that easy, is it?”

Seungkwan stares at him. “What?”

“Like, you’re not mad at him for being lazy. It’s something else, right?”

Seungkwan doesn’t answer. His head drops down to bury his face into the pillow again.

Mingyu fidgets slightly and sets his bowl down on the coffee table. “Listen,” he says in a hushed tone, shuffling as close to the couch as he can from his own seat. “I didn’t have a lot of friends growing up. And when I did in high school, I got really, uh, really self-conscious. You know? Like, they were my friends, they liked me, but I still wasn’t sure. I thought I was crazy or something, that I was super sensitive and needed people to validate me all the time and that it was all my problem. But I, um, I sort of started to realize this now that, uhh, that it wasn’t my fault. And in a way, it wasn’t really … their fault either. I’m starting to see that they, it wasn’t like they didn’t like me. They were my friends, and they did care about me, but not enough to make me feel better.”

Seungkwan doesn’t look up, but Mingyu has a feeling he’s listening intently to what he’s saying. Mingyu fiddles with a stray feather he pulled out of one of the cushions, half lost in thought as he thinks back to two people that used to be his entire world, his idols. One black hair, one pink. “The fact is, I’m realizing that they weren’t necessarily great people, but they also weren’t terrible friends. They liked me, and cared about me, and that part wasn’t made up or horrible. They just … weren’t capable of giving me the kind of friendship and validation and attention I really needed at that time.”

“What’s the point to this story?” Seungkwan mumbles, despondent.

“Oh. Uh, my point is that, like, if you aren’t letting them know how you feel, you shouldn’t be too hard on other people, and more importantly yourself, when it feels like they aren’t pulling their weight in a relationship. Like, what I was saying with my friends—which was a horrible, super long-winded explanation, uh, sorry about that—I was really bothered by how they didn’t seem to care about me as much as I did about them. But I never told them about that, because I thought it would make things worse or they’ll think I’m a loser. But who knows, right? Maybe if I—if I told them how I felt, that some of the things they did or said hurt me and were hurting others … maybe if I just talked to them a little more, they might’ve understood. Things might’ve gone differently.”

“Are you friends with them now?” Seungkwan asks.

“No.” When Seungkwan doesn’t say anything, he stumbles along through his terrible awkward advice once more. “I’m not saying that you should let people treat you shitty or anything! I’m just saying that—you know, Vernon is a really chill, lazy guy, everyone can see that, but I don’t think he doesn’t care about you. Sometimes it’s harder for some people to show parts of themselves that might come easier to others. So if his attitude is bothering you, you should, like, talk to him about it instead of picking a fight.”

“Have you ever tried having a serious conversation with Vernon?” Seungkwan rubs furiously at his eyes, hair flopping down every which way across his forehead. “He just laughs it off or acts like it wasn’t a real question. It’s like trying to go to marriage counseling with a cement truck.”

“Dude, you two obviously care about each other, if you tell him you’re really bothered by this he will listen.” Mingyu sighs and wipes milk from his chin. “Just kiss and make up already.”

Seungkwan snorts against the leather of the couch cushions. “Ew, I’m not kissing my best friend, man. That sends too many mixed signals.”

“Oh. Uh.”

“Why would you even think that?”

“Well, I always wondered if—”

“Wait, you thought we were together?” Seungkwan jumps upright on the couch, cheeks flushed and incredibly flustered. “Holy shit, why does this always happen to me?”

Mingyu stares at him blankly, wondering if he can get another chunk of oatmeal into his mouth without looking. Wisely, he decides his motor coordination skills are not up to the task. “So, you guys aren’t …?”

No! We’re just friends, Jesus, I’m not even gay! I’m like as straight as they come, Vernon’s the gay one.”

Mingyu blinks rapidly as he tries to process this information. He never would have expected it, to be honest, but it’s not really his fault; Seungkwan has memorized the lines to more Lady Gaga songs than Mingyu thinks exists and has like fifty Glee covers on his phone, while Vernon dresses like every single frat-member fuckboy Mingyu’s ever seen in his life, all backwards snapbacks and polo shirts. “This sure is a turn of events, Seungkwan.”

“Ugh, oh my god, this always happens!” Seungkwan throws his head back and just barely manages to avoid smashing his head on the wall behind him. “People mistake us as a couple, like, twice a week. It’s exhausting having to keep telling them we’re friends. Just, why?”

“For starters,” Mingyu says helpfully, “maybe don’t refer to your conversations with him as ‘marriage counselling’.”

“Fuck, you’re right.”

“Does this mean you’re one of the only straight people in this house?” When Seungkwan just gives him a Look, Mingyu smiles and says in a proud, slightly indulgently smug way, “I’m bisexual, you know. And Minghao is something.”

“Yeah, I know you are, Mingyu, you’ve literally walked into this house before screaming “what’s up sluts, I’m bi’. The floors are very thin, you know.”

“You still want that glass of milk?”

Seungkwan scowls at him, but he mutters out a tiny, “Yes.”

There’s a strange, quiet moment between them as Seungkwan drinks a glass of milk and Mingyu chomps down on oatmeal next to him in the middle of the night, in the dark living room. It’s not like they really had a lot to say to each other, yet somehow, Mingyu feels like they’ve reached some sort of understanding.

 

“So,” Wonwoo says. There’s a faint chill in the autumn breeze, leaves blown off their branches and flying into people’s hair, getting caught in their backpack zippers, pinned to shoulders before inching away and shooting off with the wind again. Wonwoo has a loose grey cardigan on, sleeves running past his fingertips. Mingyu can feel the fabric when he holds his hand.

“So,” Mingyu echoes back, swinging their connected arms loosely as they walk, lets the momentum carry the movement like a pendulum.

“Homecoming is this Saturday,” Wonwoo says, in what he probably thinks sounds casual and nonchalant. Mingyu fights back a grin and wonders when is a good time to tell Wonwoo that he’s terrible at disguising his intentions. Maybe he’ll never say. “Hopefully it’ll be less crazy than last year’s.”

“Oh shit, yeah, I totally forgot what went down at last year’s hoco.” Mingyu blinks as he remembers that night. He was at a pretty low point, and Wonwoo had—Jesus, it feels so long since then. “We weren’t even talking back then.”

“Please don’t remind me.” Wonwoo’s mouth twists into a thin-lipped grimace. “You looked so fucking scared of me back then, I thought I ruined everything—sorry, uh, if that brings back uncomfortable memories. We don’t have to talk about it.”

“I want to, though.” Mingyu is earnest when he says this, words honest and fond. “It’s, like, a part of our history, you know? Even though it was shitty, it still ended with us getting together for realsies. It sucked, sure, but I don’t think we should avoid talking about it entirely.” He pauses for breath, a smile reaching his lips regardless. “Did you like me back then? Did you really?”

Wonwoo’s ears are pink and he makes an awkward, jerky shrugging motion with his shoulders before letting out a self-conscious laugh. His free hand, the one not currently entwined with Mingyu’s, reaches out to try and snatch a falling yellow leaf out of the air with no luck. “I mean, yeah? I never thought I’d see you again, I think I nearly died of shock when I saw you at that coffee shop. And I mean, out of all the coincidences in the world, right? Your roommate just so happened to make friends with someone who’s best friend was my roommate? I didn’t know whether I was being blessed with a second chance to make things right or if I was being cursed.”

“Shit, that was totally what I was thinking, too!”

Wonwoo tries to grab another passing leaf, this one a dark red maple. Again, it slips just out of his grasp at the last second. “I didn’t know what to do,” he says with copious amounts of embarrassment. “At that one party, remember? I tried so hard to talk to you but I was so nervous, I didn’t know what to say. Then somehow I fucked it up and you had that—that—” He draws into himself when he can’t bring himself to say it, shoulders hunching upwards, chin tilting towards his chest, eyes downcast. For a split second, he looks genuinely afraid.

“Hey, no,” Mingyu says quickly. “That panic attack wasn’t your fault, I swear. I think it was mostly just shock when you said you wanted to hate me. Was that true? Did you want to hate me after that … mess?”

Wonwoo doesn’t speak for a moment. “I tried to,” he admits quietly. “Only while we were still in high school. I just … I don’t know, everything was shitty because I didn’t have you and the whole school knew me as the gay kid, and some of them would call me names in the halls and stuff. And there you were, still one of the kings of Hysera, still had your friends and your admirers and your basketball team. I just, I don’t know. I really don’t. I was miserable, and it felt like you got out of it totally scot-free, and there was a moment there where I just wished I hated you for what you did to me. I wanted to place all the blame on you, and ignore the fact that I was the one who let it happen.”

Mingyu doesn’t know what else to say. He wants to tell Wonwoo that he didn’t get out of it scot-free. He wants to tell Wonwoo how miserable and empty he felt at that time, how much he regretted his choice and how he just wanted to run back to Wonwoo and beg for forgiveness. But that’s a story for another day, another time. Today, it’s Wonwoo’s story, and he contents himself with squeezing his hand in an encouraging way.

Wonwoo flashes him a quick, grateful little smile. “And when I realized I didn’t hate you—I couldn’t—I spent a lot of my summer just … thinking about stuff, I guess. Reflecting, or whatever. I thought that there was no way I would ever meet you again and I fucked things up enough, and that I had to change. I had to, you know, be a different person in college. Get out of my shell, make friends, don’t be afraid of myself anymore. In some way, I guess I thought that it could, I dunno, make up even a little bit of what I did to you back then? Like, if only I had been more confident and sure of myself, less scared of what people would think or what they’d say, maybe things wouldn’t have gotten so messed up in Hysera.”

“Jesus, Wonwoo,” Mingyu mumbles, squeezing his hand again. “I can’t believe you—for me—I literally spent, like, five months thinking you hated me and that coming back into your life will ruin everything. It’s so weird to hear this from your perspective.” All this time, and Wonwoo liked him back. All those weeks he spent feeling the cold, ugly twists of anxiety squeeze his lungs at the very thought of Wonwoo, and Wonwoo was right there, wishing for something different. “That’s crazy.”

“It is. But anyway, you distracted me. I was trying to ask you something.”

“Oh, right. Sorry. What?”

“Well, I know we have that Homecoming party at Junhui’s again.” Wonwoo fidgets and is suddenly intensely focused on catching a leaf midair, practically glaring at the passing autumn foliage to try and cover up how red and nervous he’s starting to look. “I was wondering if you’d, maybe, like to hang out with me that day. Before the party. I mean,” he licks his lips, just the tiniest flash of pink poking between his teeth, “just the two of us.”

“Holy shit,” Mingyu breathes, “are you asking me out on a date?”

Even just the word being spoken aloud makes Wonwoo grow flustered, and he looks so dorky and adorable as he stammers out, “I-I mean, we’ve never had one before. Technically. I just thought, you know, we could hang out or whatever. Unless you have plans with Minghao already, then—”

“Uh, I am absolutely going on a date with you, like what even the fuck?” Mingyu nearly starts jumping for joy in his excitement, feeling a bit like the pressure in soda cans when you shake it before opening the tab. “Oh man, oh man. A date.

“Stop making a big deal out of it,” Wonwoo grumbles. “It’s not like Mr. Popular over here never went on a date before.”

“Well, have you?”

He hesitates, the pause giving away his answer anyway. “No,” he confesses.

“Then this is a big deal. We gotta make sure your first date is totally perfect. What do you want to do?”

“I don’t know, Mingyu, I’ve never been on a date before.” Wonwoo just barely manages to snatch a brown-green oval-shaped leaf, crushing it in his fist, and he flashes a smile in victory before letting it fall to the ground. “What did you do with all the girls you dated?”

“Don’t you think it’s weird to talk about my old girlfriends? Since you’re dating me now and you’re super gay?”

“Mingyu, I literally don’t care.”

“Okay. Well …” Mingyu thinks about it. It’s been quite a while since his old high school romps. “I guess a lot of it was, like, meeting up to go to a party together or for dinner? And I’d, you know, open the car door for her, pull out her chair, pay for the meal, that sort of thing. And then we’d usually head back to her place or mine and we’d watch a movie and, like, sometimes bone down.”

Wonwoo lets out a strangled noise.

Mingyu instantly realizes what he just said. “Oh, shit! No no no, uh, I mean, I’m not saying that we’re gonna—I mean—that’s how my dates in high school went! It’s not like I had sex with every girl I ever dated, mostly we would just make out—” Wonwoo makes another weak noise and Mingyu clamps his eyes shut. There really needs to be a manual installation of a feature into his brain that can actually help him stop saying stupid shit. “But we don’t have to do that either! Oh my god, why does my mouth always run on autopilot.”

“No,” Wonwoo wheezes, eyes wide and something akin to mortified. “No, it’s okay, it’s fine.”

“I totally promise, I’m not gonna bone you down on our very first date.”

“Please don’t ever, ever use the words ‘bone down’ ever again.”

“I’m so sorry!” he wails miserably. “I promise, I won’t talk about sex or kissing or touchy-feely stuff any more intense than a hug for the rest of my life. I don’t wanna make you uncomfortable.”

“I don’t need that either, Mingyu. I just—” Wonwoo takes a moment to compose himself, waits until the red leaves his face somewhat, before saying in a much calmer tone, “I just want to take things slow. You know. Let it sort of naturally build up to those hurdles in a relationship, or whatever. I felt like in high school we rushed into a lot of things, and I’m scared of—I don’t want us to make the same sort of mistakes.”

“No, I get it.” Mingyu says, quickly softening his voice once he sees that his own embarrassment is only making Wonwoo feel worse. “I want to take it slow, too. I’m totally cool with everything, okay?” He waits until Wonwoo gives him a thankful smile before swinging their hands again and saying, “So, about that date. What are you thinking? Movies, dinner? Just hanging out?”

“Oh. Um. Those all sound good.”

“Then we can do all of them.”

Wonwoo snorts and pulls out his phone from his back pocket. “I don’t even know what to eat. Or what to watch.”

“Figuring it out is half the fun!” Wonwoo just frowns at his phone in reply, where Mingyu can see (when he peeks over his shoulder) that he’s scrolling through an IMDb Top 100 movies list. He appears genuinely concerned with all the options he’s being given, so Mingyu takes pity on him and nudges his shoulder. “Hey, if you want I can choose the movie. You can pick dinner. You know I’m like a human garbage bin, I’ll eat literally anything and love it.”

Wonwoo instantly relaxes, smiling up at him and putting his phone away with a relieved sigh. “Is it gonna be a crazy high-octane action movie or something? Because I’m not really a fan of those.”

Mingyu scoffs at him. “This is a date, Wonwoo, I’m not stupid. We’ll watch something soft and cute, like, like, Spirited Away. Or if you’re into pretty movies, we can totally watch Hero, I love that one.”

Hero?” Wonwoo’s lips do a crooked, quirky thing that makes Mingyu’s heart beat probably fifty times faster. “Junhui’s talked about that one before. I never expected you to like wuxia movies.”

“Why not?”

“You’re very … westernized. I don’t know, I thought you might find their fighting scenes campy with all the floating-in-the-air stuff.”

“It’s a pretty movie,” Mingyu says defensively. “I know jack shit about cinematography and colour theory, but even I can tell that it’s, like, super pretty with all their colour themes and how it plays in the story or whatever. That scene with the red dress and the leaves was so good. Don’t need to be whitewashed to get that.”

“I’m just saying your taste in movies is surprising. I like it.” Wonwoo looks both amused and impressed, and it’s Mingyu’s proudest moment all year. “I guess I can trust you after all.”

 

“He’s never been on a date before, Hao,” Mingyu says, staring at himself in the full-length mirror—Minghao’s mirror, that is. Mingyu never remembered to get one for himself, so he frequently barges in to make sure he looks okay. “So, like, I really can’t screw this up. I have to make sure it’s perfect. I’m so nervous.”

Minghao rolls his eyes. “What is there to be nervous about? You like him. He likes you. You guys are basically just going out to eat and then watching a movie before a party. There’s literally nothing you can do to mess up here.”

“You don’t get it, man—hey, does this look okay?”

“Lose the jacket if you want to wear those jeans,” Minghao suggests automatically.

“Thanks. Anyway, like I was saying, it’s not that simple. We were together, sort of, for basically an entire semester of high school, but we never went on any dates. And Wonwoo’s never been on one either, so it’s his very first date ever and I don’t wanna mess it up. This is my first chance to really show him that this can work between us.” He grabs a different jacket from the pile of clothes he dragged into Minghao’s room from his closet and throws it on, smoothing at the collar. “Jesus, I’m freaking out.”

“Again, why? You’re already together. How can one iffy date ruin a relationship?”

“You’d be surprised.”

Minghao shakes his head, as the sound of feet come thundering up the stairs and Seungkwan and Vernon barge in. “Hey, question,” Seungkwan says none too quietly, “do any of you have a HDMI cable? Vern and I wanna hook up my laptop to that useless TV in the living room and watch some Netflix.” He glances in Mingyu’s direction. “Wow, that jacket does not go with those jeans.”

Mingyu throws his hands up in the air. “Do any of my jackets go with these jeans?”

“Probably not, get out of those pants immediately. Anyway, HDMI cable. Any of you.”

Minghao shakes his head. “Nope. Try Chan, maybe he’s got one.”

“Maybe I’ve got one what?” Chan asks, popping into view as he leans against the doorframe beside Vernon. “Oh, Mingyu, you’re looking real snazzy. Are you going somewhere for hoco?”

“No offense, Chan,” Seungkwan says, “but you have terrible fashion sense.” He looks back at Mingyu and takes one look at his slicked-back gelled hair and his attempt at matching up a too-formal suit jacket with dark jeans and rolls his eyes so far back Mingyu wonders if they’ll get stuck. “He’s going on a date with his boyfriend.

“I didn’t know you were dating, Mingyu!” Chan beams. Nice kid. Truly a good child. He really, really doesn’t deserve to live in this house with the rest of them. “What’s his name?”

Vernon snickers and makes a swooning gesture with his arms. “His name is Wonwoo and Mingyu is so in love with him and doesn’t deserve him and they’ve been crazy about each other since high school senior year.”

“How do you know that?” Mingyu demands.

“Dude, you talk about him to Minghao, like, all the time, and your voice is fucking loud. I’m surprised Chan doesn’t know your life story by now just by sleeping in the room next to yours.”

Chan shrugs his shoulders. “I listen to music literally all the time and I spend most of the day in the library,” he needlessly explains. “That’s funny, I didn’t realize the walls were so thin.”

Minghao snorts at his spot on his bed and raises one hand up to knock on the wall by his head. He doesn’t use much force, but it lets out a resounding thud anyway. “The walls, the ceilings, the floors. We’re lucky to be on the top floor, Channie. I’m pretty sure Seungkwan and Vernon hear every single footstep and conversation in the basement.”

Vernon grins and fiddles with the headphones slung almost permanently around his neck. Mingyu’s never seen him without those black and silver things getting their wires tangled in door handles and drawers or accidentally dipping into a bowl of mac ‘n’ cheese, to Vernon’s loud exclamations of dismay. “Yeah, dude, we can all hear everything. Imagine what’ll happen if one of us brings someone home to—”

Nope!” Mingyu and Minghao both yell simultaneously, as Seungkwan slaps a hand over Vernon’s mouth and punches his arm and Chan tilts his head back and roars with laughter.

“You are disgusting,” Seungkwan screeches, as Mingyu starts to howl too and kick his feet against the floor and Vernon wiggles his eyebrows, eyes curving up into crescent moon slivers in good humour. “You are the absolute worst man in the world and I hate you and I hope you never get laid!”

“New house rule,” Minghao yells over the din of all the noise they’re making. “If any of us brings someone home, you better give us all a text message at least an hour in advance. I want to make sure I can crash at Seokmin’s or Junhui’s before I start to hear weird noises through the walls.”

“The only person we have to worry about right now is Mingyu!” Seungkwan says, pointing an accusatory finger at Mingyu, even as his initial disdain fades away and he starts grinning.

“I’m not bringing Wonwoo home to do shit like that! Are you kidding me? You think I’m gonna get it on when I’ve got Minghao and Chan literally right next door?” Mingyu is laughing as he says it, but the sudden image and brief memory of the last time he saw Wonwoo with distinctly less clothes on than is appropriate makes his cheeks flush, something the others pick up on immediately, and they all boo at him.

“It’s almost five, big guy,” Minghao suddenly says, glancing towards his digital clock on his nightstand. “Look, wear that first jacket and just change from those jeans into that other pair you have, the skinny one, you’re gonna be late.”

“Shit, you’re right!” Mingyu immediately pulls off his jeans, stripping down to his underwear with absolutely zero embarrassment that literally the entire house is watching him. “Wish me luck.”

Seungkwan makes an amused scoffing noise under his breath, his words so quiet Mingyu almost misses them. “If you’re wearing those boxers to your date then it’s a good thing you’re not taking him home.”

“Seungkwan, I literally hate you.”

 

“Sorry I’m late,” he says, puffing a little as he jogs up to Wonwoo. They’re already dressed up for Junhui’s Homecoming party since neither of them will likely have time to get changed or anything before they need to head out, which means Mingyu gets the immense, torturous pleasure of seeing Wonwoo with his hair pulled back from his forehead and wearing a jean jacket over a loose grey turtleneck sweater. He looks so good Mingyu is suddenly overcome with the desire to go to hell with taking it slow and gathering him in his arms for a kiss, but he holds himself back, knowing it would only make Wonwoo feel uncomfortable. “You look really good.”

“Thanks,” Wonwoo says. “You too.” His gaze lowers to take in Mingyu’s slim blazer and tight black button-up, resting rather obviously on the area where the fabric stretches tighter over his chest and up to where his hair is slicked back. Mingyu thinks he’s going to pass out. “You weren’t that late. Only three minutes.”

“Still late, though.” Mingyu sucks in a deep lungful of chilly autumnal wind and holds out his hand, waits for Wonwoo to take it. “So, where to?”

“Just down the street here, by the coffee shop. There’s a Thai place I desperately want to try.”

“Ooh, Thai?” Mingyu grins as they walk down the street together. Despite the faint cold breeze that’s beginning to demolish the heat of summer, the streets are alive with students enjoying Homecoming, many drunk or well on their way to getting there by the time keggers start popping up in the neighbourhoods. “That sure is fancy.”

“I figured we could save the burgers and fries for another time,” Wonwoo says with a small laugh, hair ruffling a bit in the wind.

The Thai place turns out to be small but quaint, with a couple empty tables that they immediately gravitate towards, sitting amongst cultural decorations and a heavy red tablecloth. The longer Mingyu sits there the hungrier he gets, and it’s very hard for him to not immediately dive for their food once platters of peanut and beef stir fry, red coconut curry, mango papaya salad, and jasmine rice are set in front of them.

“Watch out you don’t drool all over the table, Mingyu,” Wonwoo teases, although he’s picking up his chopsticks with an eager gleam in his eyes.

They don’t talk much in the beginning, too focused on consuming as much food as possible. It isn’t until they’re getting full and Mingyu’s tongue is slightly numb from the spices do they slow down, start to talk a little in between sips of water and spoonfuls of curry-soaked rice. Wonwoo looks as sated and comfortable as a cat in sunlight now that he’s full and out of the cold, lips curled permanently at the edges as he cleans his plate. There’s a brief scuffle when it comes to payment (“I went to the ATM to take out extra cash for this!” “Mingyu, this isn’t 1955 and I’m not a girl in a poodle skirt, just split the bill.”), but they have plenty of time to walk back to Wonwoo’s house for a movie before they’ll head out to Junhui’s party.

The house Wonwoo is sharing with Soonyoung and Seokmin is smaller than Mingyu’s, more of a townhouse than anything else. Soonyoung and Seokmin have rooms on the cramped second floor, while the living room facing the front yard has been repurposed to become what is now Wonwoo’s room.

Wonwoo makes a point to press a finger to his lips to gesture for Mingyu to be quiet, waiting until they walk into his room and he carefully shuts the door. “Sorry,” he says, “there’s a different group of people that rent the basement rooms, they don’t like when we make too much noise in the hallway.”

Due to the large windows of the living room, Wonwoo’s bedroom is extremely bright even with the setting fall sun, his half-closed blinds casting stripes of light across the closet doors and the periwinkle blue of the walls, which are less cluttered with photos and posters and pictures than his room back home, but the little things he’s added—a four-month dry erase calendar by his desk, strings of fairy lights similar to Minghao’s hanging over his bed and curling around his headboard, a printed-out picture of him with other Social Sciences representatives during frosh week—still add character.

Mingyu immediately moves to look at the photograph, spotting Wonwoo almost instantly amongst the twenty or so heads there. There are people with their arms around him, everyone squeezed into a small cluster, and Wonwoo is doing that adorable nose-crinkle thing and he looks genuinely, honestly happy.

Wonwoo laughs when he sees Mingyu staring. “Oh god, I got the worst sunburn the day they took that pic. Can you see how red I am?”

“You look like a cute lobster,” Mingyu says, making Wonwoo snort loudly as he falls onto his bed and opens up his laptop. “Are you okay with Ghibli?”

“Of course.” Wonwoo opens up a streaming site and Mingyu starts searching for English subtitles for From Up on Poppy Hill. “You know how western kids grow up with, like, Disney and Looney Tunes? For me, it was always Ghibli movies. Ghibli was basically my Disney.”

“That’s super cool.” Mingyu lets the movie load for a little bit, occasionally ghosting over the laptop’s touchpad to see how it’s progressing. “My parents were both Korean, but they weren’t super crazy about keeping their cultural roots. My mom can speak Korean and she knows how to cook some, like, cultural food, but that’s about it. I only started watching Ghibli movies in high school because Jihoon—” he falters, “—he, well, he really liked them. Grew up with them, too.”

Wonwoo is quiet for a moment, and Mingyu’s nerves tense up again. Wonwoo just says lightly, “Funny that we had that in common. Never would’ve thought we’d share any interests.”

And that’s all he has to say about it.

Suddenly, it’s too much for Mingyu to deal with, the sudden drops in his stomach and the anxiety twisting his organs up again. He feels like he’s processing and feeling everything all at once—the fact that he’s alone with Wonwoo in his room; that laugh Wonwoo gave him when Mingyu had a grain of rice stuck in the corner of his mouth during dinner; the way the two of them are sitting side by side in order to see the screen; the abrupt memories of crowding on a couch with Jihoon and Seungcheol and watching Princess Mononoke and Porco Rosso, laughing at things on screen or getting somber at the quiet, beautiful moments, for once not having to worry about putting up an act for the rest of the school—and above all, his constant simmering state of fear that after all they went through to get here this relationship might not work out after all. It’s all too much.

Heart hammering, he leans sideways to rest his weight against Wonwoo, head lolling on his shoulder, the slightly scratchy fabric of his turtleneck strangely comforting.

“Mingyu?”

“I don’t know when it’s gonna stop,” he mumbles. “The—the anxiety that I’m gonna mess something up, that I’ll say or do the wrong thing and you’ll realize you could do so much better than me.” He drags one hand down his face, mostly to hide his expression. “Sorry. I just—I’m so freaked out all the time, and I keep waiting for that feeling of not being good enough to go away, but it’s not. I’m sorry.”

“Mingyu, I—” Wonwoo’s voice is tight and pinched, something raw in its vocalization. There’s pressure against his back as Wonwoo’s arm wriggles between them to wrap itself around his shoulders, hugging him closer. “Jesus.”

“Sorry.”

“Stop apologizing.” The way he’s tilted to Wonwoo’s side is super uncomfortable, but Mingyu doesn’t care. He misses this. He misses being able to freely throw himself at Wonwoo and find comfort in his arms, not having to panic about making the wrong move. “You don’t have anything to feel sorry for.”

“This was supposed to be a date, I don’t wanna drag down the mood by telling you about my dumb insecurities.”

“Don’t even, Mingyu.” Wonwoo turns his head to look at him, and they’re close, very close. The distance they’d have to cross to touch lips is so miniscule it’s almost nothing. Mingyu is afraid to even breathe. Neither of them move away. “If something bothers me, I’m going to talk to you about it, okay? I’m not going to get sick of you.”

“This won’t be a constant thing with me,” Mingyu sniffles, “I promise. Just gotta get it out of my system first.”

“It’s okay. It’s okay.” Wonwoo’s other hand reaches up, hesitates for a moment, then raises itself to rub his thumb against Mingyu’s cheek, little circles just below his cheekbone. “Do you need anything? To feel better?”

His mind briefly runs through a couple dozen possibilities of what will make him feel better. Can you kiss me? Can you pet my hair? Can you sing for me? Can you hold me close close close and whisper nice things until I feel like I’m loved? “Can we watch the movie?”

“Absolutely.” Wonwoo’s arm doesn’t move away, even as they start the movie and the familiar gorgeous animations of the Port of Yokohama and Coquelicot Manor come into view. His hand is sort of pinned between Mingyu and the wall, but he still manages to sort of stroke Mingyu’s shoulder, a comforting heat and pressure that steadies Mingyu’s breathing and soothes the doubts in his head. By the time the movie is over and the ending credits appear, he’s soft and happy and there are faint thudding footsteps coming from above them, indicating Soonyoung and Seokmin are home too and getting ready for the Homecoming party. The sun has set enough for the sky to be more of a dusky blue than a setting orange, although there’s still enough light to keep the room from requiring artificial lighting.

“Hey,” Wonwoo says softly. “You alright?”

“My neck is sore,” Mingyu grunts, sitting upright stiffly and feeling something crack when he stretches.

“Not what I meant.”

“I know.” He gives him a—hopefully—reassuring smile. “I’m okay. Just got overwhelmed. I guess.”

Wonwoo doesn’t look too comforted. He nods, biting his lip slightly, before reaching out to take Mingyu’s hand. He runs his thumb over each knuckle, tracing the faint ridges of some metacarpal bones that are visible beneath his skin. “I don’t get why you’re so self-conscious sometimes,” he mumbles, head tilted down, bangs falling into his eyes. “You’re so kind. And considerate. And ridiculously attractive. I don’t know how … how you think I can do any better than you.”

Mingyu makes a noise in the back of his throat that sounds like he’s trying to laugh while being throttled. “Have you ever looked at yourself in the mirror?”

Wonwoo crinkles his nose in embarrassment, letting out a nervous chuckle. “I’m just saying, I’m a very lucky guy,” he says, avoiding the question.

There’s a soft knock on the door and Soonyoung opens the door, head poking in. “Hey, we’re about ready to go,” he says. He’s already got eyeliner on and his hair is carefully mussed, once again making him about ten times more attractive than normal. “Are you guys ready?”

Mingyu isn’t sure if he is just yet—he feels dazed and comfortable on Wonwoo’s bed, the heat of the laptop warm on his thighs, and he desperately wishes this moment will never end.

He’s not sure how much of this shows on his face, but Wonwoo squeezes his hand and automatically tells Soonyoung, “Go on without us. We’re gonna watch one more movie before heading out.”

Soonyoung pouts at them. “Boring.”

“The party won’t be over until like three in the morning anyway, they can deal with our absence for another two hours.”

Soonyoung shakes his head and grins before closing the door behind them. Wonwoo turns to Mingyu, a little apprehensive. “Is that okay?” he asks. “I thought maybe … are you alright staying here a little while longer?”

“Yeah,” Mingyu says, utterly relieved. “Are you okay?”

Wonwoo gives him a breathlessly crooked smile. “Well, I’ve never seen Hero before, and you seemed to really like it, so …”

They smile at each other for a few moments. The sound of Soonyoung and Seokmin’s muffled snickering and the accidentally-too-loud slam of the front door echoes beyond their bedroom, and Mingyu can see the two of them walking down the driveway through the large front-facing windows. Mingyu shifts himself closer to Wonwoo until their sides are touching, moving the laptop to rest on both of their legs at once, and starts searching for English subtitles again, utterly delighted to have a couple more hours alone with Wonwoo before heading out to the party.

(They arrive later that evening to the sight of Seungkwan completely smashed and Chan dry heaving into the first floor’s toilet, Minghao giving Mingyu both a concerned and amused recount of what they’ve missed, which includes Chan stupidly mixing his drinks his very first time trying alcohol and Seungkwan getting drunk on nothing but a red solo cup of sugary green tequila margarita mix. Junhui gives Mingyu a Raised Eyebrow Look as he gets them both water bottles. “You’ve got some interesting housemates,” he says, but he looks extremely pleased and fond of them once Seungkwan starts breaking out into a loud, drunken, but surprisingly accurate rendition of Rick Astley’s Never Gonna Give You Up with Vernon, to the sheer delight of all the other party guests.)

Chapter Text

Reading week is awkward in more ways than one. Mingyu said he could just take a bus, but Mrs. Kim had insisted on coming to pick him up, saying a three-hour car ride is much simpler to deal with and costs less for him in the long run. Mingyu had to bite his tongue and say it’s not the money he’s worried about, it’s the three-hour car ride alone with his mother that is the hard part.

He had never been a particularly good son in terms of keeping in touch. Blame it on shitty habits, mental illness, his broken-hearted dejection at the start of college, whatever, but he isn’t great at calling and texting his mom and he knows that. He had been working to improve this habit, try and repair the relationship between them that has gone so far off the rails before he even realized it was happening. But ever since the summer … well, they’re right back where they started.

Mingyu doesn’t know what to do, what to say. He’s both crushed and disappointed at his mother’s reaction—and it’s clear from the pseudo-cheerful tone in her voice when she’s talking during the car ride that she’s trying to pretend the whole thing never happened. He doesn’t get it—how can she just act like that after he confessed something that was clearly so personal and important to his identity? And if she didn’t understand, if she didn’t get it, why couldn’t she take the time to do a freaking Google search and learn up on bisexuality, try and see what exactly her son is saying and what he’s dealing with? Instead, she prefers to do nothing; to continue hurting his feelings and thinking of it as some in-the-middle phase that can be kept under lock and key, act like her reaction didn’t destroy all semblance of trust Mingyu’s been trying to develop between them.

He doesn’t get it.

All he knows is that he’s going to continue to be himself, whether as self-confidence or in defiance of her he can’t really say, and he’s not going to hide who he is and who he wants to be just because it might make her uncomfortable. That isn’t his problem.

“I’m going out,” he says, chomping down on an apple as his mom prepares some toast. His mother is clearly a little confused to see him up so early—he slept until noon nearly every day the last two reading week breaks he had.

“Oh,” she says, “where?”

“Studying at Wonwoo’s.”

“Wonwoo? Who’s that?”

It’s almost funny enough to laugh at. Jeon Wonwoo, both the name and the person attached to it, has consumed Mingyu’s fucking soul for more than a year now, and yet his very own mother doesn’t even know who he is. Mingyu almost wants to say “boyfriend”, just to be petty and justify his sullen behaviour when his mom’s eyes grow wide in shock, and it’s the truth anyway. But he doesn’t. “We, um, we share similar majors.”

Mrs. Kim instinctively knows that her son isn’t telling her everything, but she doesn’t comment on it. “Oh. Okay. When will you be back?”

“I dunno. I’ll text you about it.”

“Do you need a ride?”

“No, he lives really close.”

And he’s out the door, laptop and notes and books weighing down his backpack, before his mother has even finished her coffee and got ready for work.

The late October air is fresh and chilly, more grey skies than blue these days, and while there are a few brown leaves stubbornly clinging to the branches of trees, it’s mostly a tangle of bare twigs stretching up towards the clouds. Mingyu tries to forget about the tension in his house and instead focuses on the sound his sneakers make when they tap against dry sidewalk, knowing that in a month or two he’ll only hear the soft, plodding steps of trudging through snow for a long while.

He’s already reaching the corner of Wonwoo’s street when he realizes that, considering it’s only about eight-ten, there’s a high chance Wonwoo’s family is still at home eating breakfast or something and Mingyu looks like a fucking idiot coming here so early and bothering them all.

He slows down to a walk. He and Wonwoo hadn’t exactly decided on a particular time to meet up and study, so maybe he can go chill in Vinca Park for an hour or something before texting him again. To his surprise, as he walks past Wonwoo’s townhouse, the door opens and a familiar beautiful dark-haired figure steps out onto the porch.

“Mingyu,” he calls out, sounding amused and unsurprised.

“It’s early,” Mingyu replies, feeling foolish. “Sorry, I wasn’t thinking, I just—”

“Needed to get out of the house ASAP,” Wonwoo finishes for him, and his voice turns a little softer, a little more empathetic. “C’mon in, it’s okay.”

“Well, I mean,” Mingyu stammers, feeling a little foolish just standing there on the sidewalk, having a loud conversation with someone a couple feet away in broad daylight. “I just—I wouldn’t wanna intrude, or cause a fuss, or, or whatever. You know?”

“You won’t be any trouble, Gyu, I’m serious. I—” Something, no, someone, a voice Mingyu’s too far away to make out, says something that gets Wonwoo to turn back around, yell out to whoever’s inside his house, “Yeah, I’m—I’m asking him! Hold on a second—” He turns back to face Mingyu, looking a little embarrassed. “My parents are finishing up breakfast, they said they’d be happy for you to join us. Have you eaten?”

“I had an apple on the way over.”

Someone inside the house yells something else, and Wonwoo’s cheeks are starting to turn a very obvious pink, even from this distance. “He said he had an apple! Y—mom, I know, can you just hold on? I’m trying to—Mingyu, come inside and have some toast and eggs.”

As Mingyu walks up to the porch, he feels traces of panic and anxiety start to cling into the cracks beneath his eyelids and under his fingernails, trying to bleed out and make themselves noticeable. He hadn’t expected to—Wonwoo’s parents, his family, this is a step he hasn’t even come close to considering in their relationship yet—

Wonwoo sees the look on his face and holds out his hand. “It’s okay,” he says quietly, squeezing his fingers. “It’s fine. There’s nothing to worry about.” When Mingyu doesn’t look convinced, he smiles and adds, “They’re really excited to meet you.”

Wonwoo’s parents look a lot like him, which is an observation that shouldn’t shock Mingyu and yet it does. Wonwoo has his father’s eyes and firm handshake and broad shoulders, his mother’s smile and softness and little habits. The two of them hold their drinks the exact same way—whether it be cup, or glass, or carton, they always have their left hand on the bottom propping it up. Wonwoo has a little brother that Mingyu’s only seen and heard of in passing a couple of times, too, a fifteen-year-old boy called Bohyuk who barely spares Mingyu a glance over the book he’s reading.

Guess being a bookworm runs in the family. Mingyu kinda loves it.

“I remember seeing you at Hysera’s graduation assembly,” Mrs. Jeon says, which only further adds to Mingyu’s internal panicking by reminding him that he was one of the reasons her son had such a terrible time in high school—if not a major factor, then at least some sort of underlying contribution to it, anyway. “Do you like your eggs sunny-side up, Mingyu?”

“Y-yes, thank you,” he stammers, taking a seat at the kitchen island next to Wonwoo. “Sorry, how do you know my …?”

“Oh, Wonwoo talks about you all the time!” Mrs. Jeon says with a laugh that is a carbon copy of her son’s, gesturing for Wonwoo’s father to put some whole-wheat bread into the toaster. “It was really funny, you know, he hardly ever talks about his friends, but we heard so much about you since last year—”

“Mom!” Wonwoo complains, utterly mortified, as Mingyu smothers delighted laughter into his sleeve. “Don’t listen to her, Mingyu, she’s exaggerating.”

“What has he said about me?” Mingyu asks, ignoring Wonwoo’s increasingly flustered and frantic attempts to shut him up.

Mr. Jeon snorts, nearly spilling his coffee, and Wonwoo’s mother laughs again as she slides a beautifully done egg onto a plate with the toast and hands it to Mingyu. The egg yolk is a brilliant, gooey yellow that only needs the tiniest prod to start going runny, while the outer edges of the whites are crispy and golden-brown. Mingyu’s stomach grumbles against his will.

“He said you were a very sweet boy,” she says, making Bohyuk snicker when Wonwoo shoots his family a betrayed glare. “That you were very kind, and always looking out for your friends, and he was very lucky to have you. He also said you were handsome enough to be a model, and he was right!”

“Mom!” Wonwoo’s ears are so red they could probably heat up Mingyu’s breakfast all over again. Mingyu grins into his plate as he stabs the egg with a corner of toast and watches the yolk start to trickle out. “Can you guys not in front of my boyfriend, please?”

Wonwoo called him his boyfriend. In front of his parents. Mingyu’s suddenly so happy he can’t quite contain himself, and lets out a noise through a mouthful of yolk-soaked bread that could be considered a cross between a high-pitched squeal and a mirthful giggle. Wonwoo clamps his hand down onto Mingyu’s knee, pressing down just hard enough to threaten him nonverbally to stop adding to his humiliation.

Luckily for Wonwoo, he’s saved by his little brother finishing either his breakfast or his book (it’s hard to tell which is more important when it comes to the Jeon family). “I’m going now,” Bohyuk announces, running his plate quickly under the sink’s faucet to hastily wash off crumbs and stains before placing it in the dishwasher, then giving both parents a quick kiss on the cheek and running to grab his shoes.

“School doesn’t start until eight-thirty,” Wonwoo’s father says, checking his watch. “Why the rush?”

“Adam brought his 3DS, we’re gonna play Pokémon Sun before homeroom.” Bohyuk swings his backpack over his shoulders and flies out the door. “Bye!”

“We’ll be heading out soon, too,” Mrs. Jeon tells the leftover boys. “Will you boys be alright?”

“I’m turning twenty in three months, mom,” Wonwoo mutters, not removing his hand from Mingyu’s knee. He just lets it rest there as Mingyu scarfs up his meal. “I think I can handle everything.” His mother smiles knowingly, and Wonwoo’s cheeks turn pink again. “We’re just studying!”

“They’re fun,” Mingyu says twenty minutes later, after helping Wonwoo wash all the plates and dry them and his parents leave for work. He very firmly tries not looking at Wonwoo’s ass as they climb the stairs to his room (it’s not like he even has anything there! What does Mingyu find so fascinating about it?!), instead desperately focusing on the lean line of his back, which doesn’t really help in any way whatsoever. “I like them.”

“They’re ridiculous,” Wonwoo mutters, pressing his weight into the half-closed door to his bedroom to get it open all the way. “You don’t get it, they’ve been waiting literally since I hit ninth grade for one of us to start dating somebody so they can pull the Embarrassing Parents card. They’re basically over the moon that I brought a guy home after all this time.”

“I think it’s nice,” Mingyu declares. Wonwoo’s room looks exactly the same, and he really missed being back here. He throws himself onto Wonwoo’s bed, lying spread-eagle and facing the ceiling. “I like how, y’know, supportive they seem to be of you bringing me back. Like, you know. A guy.”

Wonwoo shakes his head, but he’s smiling a little even though he’s trying to hide it. “I think they try to play it up as much as possible. Since I’ve had such a hard time with being gay in this place. They try to … I don’t even know. Be ten times as supportive to make up for it, I guess?”

Mingyu smiles and hums, happy with the response, happy to know that Wonwoo’s family is loving and encouraging and just as soft and sweet as him. There’s a few moments of silence, and when Mingyu raises his head slightly to see why, he finds Wonwoo just standing there and looking down at Mingyu sprawled on his bed, a strangely thoughtful, weighty sort of look in his eyes.

“Um?”

Wonwoo shakes himself out of it. “Sorry. Um, what were we talking about?”

“I think we were done?” Mingyu sits up. He’s suddenly very aware of the last time he was in Wonwoo’s bedroom, and some of the things that have happened in Wonwoo’s bedroom, and he quickly jumps off the bed and grabs for his backpack. “I mean, I did come over to study, so. Should probably get to doing that. Um. Yeah.”

Mingyu’s incredibly embarrassed to keep remembering all the things that have happened in here, and maybe Wonwoo is too, because the two of them really do nothing but study and occasionally take breaks to watch some YouTube video together and talk for a bit. By the time Bohyuk comes home from school and Wonwoo’s parents return from work and ask if he’d like to stay for dinner, Mingyu’s never felt more productive in his life before. He should study around Wonwoo more often.

He texts his mom about being late coming back home, but hesitates just before his thumb can hit the send button. He’s not sure why. He just … well, whatever. He hits send and heads downstairs for what smells like rice and sizzling eel and home-cooked vegetables, and he’s never been happier being back in this godforsaken neighbourhood.

 

To everyone’s dismay, the third week of November is when the weather decides to permanently enter the single-digit temperatures. Every morning, Mingyu checks the weather on his phone and curses and grabs for his sweaters and jeans and thick jackets, cheeks and fingers bitten numb with the cold before he can make it to the warmth of a campus building.

“I swear to god,” Junhui mutters, rubbing at the dark circles beneath his eyes, “if I survive this next week and hand in all these assignments on time, I’m going to sleep for an entire day.”

“An entire day?” Joshua groans. He’s leaning back in his chair, head lax and staring up at the ceiling with empty eyes. Jeonghan doesn’t look away from his laptop, but he reaches one hand over to gently rub the back of his boyfriend’s neck. “That sounds great.

Mingyu sighs and stretches. The library chairs are incredibly uncomfortable to sit on for long periods of time, but it’s better than getting distracted back home. Plus, the library is the best way for him to be able to hang out with the older guys, who have now reached their fourth and final year of their undergraduate degree and basically live in the library these days.

“More than five hours of sleep?” he says with a tired laugh. “That’s an old wives’ tale, there’s no such thing.”

Next to him, Minghao snorts, and resumes his favourite break time activity of trying to land small crumpled-up balls of paper on Vernon’s sleeping figure a few seats down at their table. Seungkwan keeps shooting Vernon dirty looks, but is too overwhelmed with his own work to bother trying to wake him up.

“Wanna know what we need?” Minghao mumbles, just loud enough for Mingyu to hear so they won’t bother anybody. “We need a night out, just us, once this stretch is over. Or maybe with the other guys, our housemates? Something small? It would be a nice way to break in the house.”

“Sure, man,” Mingyu whispers back. “When?”

Minghao grins. He tears off a corner of his paper, smushes it into a rough sphere, throws it, then throws his arms up in silent triumph when it lands perfectly in the makeshift basketball hoop that is the hood of Vernon’s sweatshirt. “My last essay is due this Thursday. I think Friday sounds best instead of Saturday. That way, if we drink too much we won’t waste our entire Sunday nursing a hangover.”

“Yeah, that sounds—aw, shit, dude, wait, sorry. I’ve already made plans to have, like, a study date with Wonwoo on Friday.”

“Oh.” Minghao pauses. “Didn’t you already go out with him last week?”

“Well, we just went out for lunch and stuff, that’s all.” And Mingyu would have turned right back to his projects if it wasn’t for the fact that there’s something odd in the twist of Minghao’s mouth that makes him hesitate. “Hey, I mean, it’s not a big deal. We can still have drinks on Saturday, right? We just don’t need to get drunk.”

“Yeah, it’s no biggie.” Minghao turns away before Mingyu can get a look at his face and determine if it really is “no biggie”.

The disappointment surprises Mingyu and throws him a little off-kilter. Minghao’s never been a guy who’s a stickler for things going his way. He’s always been okay with changing things up or trying out a different plan of action. For a split second, Mingyu wonders if maybe Minghao is mad at him, or maybe mad that he’s hanging out with Wonwoo all the time. But … it’s not like he’s not spending time with him, right? They still hang out all the time. Mingyu’s not even blowing him off this weekend, he’s just pushing it to the day after.

Jeonghan yawns loudly and asks aloud if anyone can go get him another cup of coffee. Mingyu doesn’t even have the chance to volunteer before Joshua is getting out of his chair.

 

On Friday, Mingyu’s last class of the day goes a little later than normal, so he has to run to reach the student centre building as fast as possible.

Wonwoo is waiting for him by the tables, leaning against an ugly concrete pillar and looking grateful to be out of the cold. “Hey, Gyu,” he says, a charmingly casual and affectionate use of the nickname as he distracts himself with something on his phone.

“Sorry I’m late,” Mingyu says, catching his breath, and the way Wonwoo automatically frees his left hand in order to hold it out for Mingyu to take—like it’s natural, like being physically close is so natural for him after all these years—is so fluid and seamless that Mingyu feels large and oafish when he stumbles forwards to grasp his hand, warm up the forever cold fingers just a few more degrees.

“It’s fine. Hungry?”

“Always, man.”

“Yeah, I hear you. Oh, while we’re here, you want a BJ?”

Mingyu chokes and doesn’t respond for a long moment, although his heart rate certainly does. He instantly feels his brain lose all semblance of information processing and his cheeks burn a brilliant red. “Uhhh …”

That makes Wonwoo look up from his phone, and taking one look at Mingyu’s burnt-out, dumbfounded expression makes his cheeks flush pink too. “Oh my god, Mingyu. I’m asking if you want a Booster Juice. As in, a smoothie. From Booster Juice. The place that sells smoothies.” He shoves his phone into the back pocket of his jeans so he can bury his face into his hands (he refuses to let go of Mingyu, though, so Mingyu’s right hand is helplessly pulled along to rub against the ridges of his brow bones, not that he’s complaining). “Oh my god. Mingyu.”

“I-I’m sorry!” he protests weakly, although now that the situation has been cleared up he’s starting to find it rather funny. “I’m sorry, I just—that could be taken wrong in so many ways, Wonwoo, like, you know that, right? I can’t be the only one who’s hearing that.”

“I thought it was normal!” Wonwoo says defensively, and it’s outrageously cute how his eyebrows furrow together a bit when he says this, the way he sounds so embarrassed and betrayed. Mingyu highkey is about to lose it. “I—Soonyoung and Seokmin call it that all the time! I thought everyone said that.”

“I mean, are you sure they were talking about Booster Juice …?”

Wonwoo groans, squeezing his hand and crushing Mingyu’s fingers for a split second like it’s supposed to be a punishment (it sure doesn’t feel like one). “Don’t. Do not. I refuse to let myself start wondering if my friends are using a secret code for blowjobs right in front of me. I hate you for putting that thought into my head, Kim Mingyu.”

“I’m here to teach you about the harsh realities of the world,” Mingyu says, voice as serious as he can muster. He manages to hold it for about a second after he finishes his sentence before exploding into laughter. Wonwoo rolls his eyes at him, but Mingyu sees a hint of a smile at the edges of his lips as they head into the little plaza in the middle of the student centre’s main floor to find something to eat for an early dinner.

They eat pasta and burgers and fries in a little sticky two-seater table and, once they’re finished, are prepared to head back to Mingyu’s place to study. Not that Mingyu is freaking out or anything, but he spent a good portion of yesterday afternoon cleaning his bedroom and shoving all his clothes into his closet instead of leaving them on the floor. After they throw away their empty cartons and plastic utensils, Wonwoo immediately reaches for his hand again, not even reflexively looking around first to see if anyone’s watching, and Mingyu feels so many electric tingles go up his arm he thinks his entire left side of the body goes numb. He wonders when he’ll ever get used to this. He hopes never.

“Mingyu?”

Mingyu pauses before they reach the stairs leading up to the exit, turns his head, and grins. “Ananya! Hey, holy shit. I haven’t seen you in ages.”

Ananya is as beautiful as ever, dark skin glowing and smile brilliant, hair pulled into an effortlessly pretty loose bun. She doesn’t look at all uncomfortable or awkward to see Mingyu again, and Mingyu is glad for it. They had ended on good terms—at least, he hoped they did—and he would’ve been genuinely regretful if their friendship fell through because of his dumbass self.

“Mingyu! Oh my god, it really is you, it’s been months.” She moves as if to hug him, but stops at the sight of Wonwoo, whose grip has suddenly tightened around Mingyu’s hand and looks very stiff, and simply stands back and smiles. “Sorry I haven’t come to see any of you guys, fourth year is kicking my ass.”

“Nah, it’s okay. I get it.”

“What program did you choose to specialize in?”

“Psychology.”

“Ooh, that’s fascinating!” Wonwoo’s hold around Mingyu’s hand goes even tighter, and Ananya has a distinctly shrewd look on her face when she says, “Is he …?”

“Yeah.” Mingyu feels a strange surge of joy at the sight of Wonwoo’s hard line of a mouth and stubborn eyes, at the realization that this might be the first time he’s ever seen Wonwoo show something like jealousy—but he’s soft and sweet for him and he can’t bear making Wonwoo feel any sort of negative emotion, so he tugs him closer to his side and moves to wrap an arm around him and says, “Wonwoo and I are dating now.”

“Long time no see, Wonwoo,” she says pleasantly.

Wonwoo’s ears turn pink—he’s very obviously embarrassed that he’s acting so pettily towards a girl who doesn’t mean any harm and really didn’t do anything wrong—as he mumbles, “Hey, Ananya.”

“How’ve you been?”

“G-good. Fine,”

“And what are you studying?”

“Social psychology.”

“That’s so cool! Is it fun?”

“I-it’s hard, but it’s cool, I guess.”

“Hey, man, that’s really great, it’s good that you’re enjoying whatever you study. I’m glad you guys are enjoying yourselves. Anyway, I better be going. I’ll catch you later?” She bites her lip to fight off laughter at the sight of Wonwoo’s expression again and hastily adds, “A double date, perhaps?”

“That sounds good,” Mingyu says when Wonwoo doesn’t look like he can answer in his discomfited stupor. “Text us a time whenever you’re free.”

Ananya cheerily waves goodbye, and they watch as she walks off.

“You did good,” Mingyu says brightly.

Wonwoo gives him a grumpy glare and shakes his arm off. “Oh, don’t patronize me.” There’s a brief pause, before he quickly takes Mingyu’s hand again and presses his fingers down hard as if for reassurance. “I was just … caught off guard.”

The two of them leave the student centre building and take the path that will lead them back to Mingyu’s house the fastest. Wonwoo walks half a step or so ahead, just so Mingyu won’t be able to see his face or how red his cheeks are. Mingyu stares at his back as they leave the campus and walk down the cold, grey sidewalk, grossly in love, unable to keep his goofy dumb smile off of his face.

“Face it,” he eventually sings, giddily, “you were jealous.”

Wonwoo’s voice is firm and exasperated, but not annoyed. “Mingyu.”

“Wait, that’s not the word I’m looking for. I believe the correct term is territorial.

“Mingyu.”

“Possessive.”

“Mingyu—”

“Wanting to show her that I’m yours.”

Wonwoo turns around abruptly, making Mingyu nearly smack right into him. Wonwoo’s eyes are bright and sharp, and funnily enough there’s a slight grin playing at the edges of his lips. Mingyu suddenly can’t remember what he was teasing him about. Or what they’re doing right now. Or what he had for dinner literally twenty minutes ago. He suddenly can’t think of anything except close close close close

“Yeah,” Wonwoo says softly, and the look in his eyes is so intense and burning star-bright that Mingyu thinks he might drop dead on the spot. “Yeah. You are mine.”

Mingyu makes a noise that doesn’t quite sound human, but Wonwoo seems to get what he’s saying. He gives Mingyu a smile that softens every feature on his face—the curves of his eyes, his nose crinkle, his cute laugh lines by the gentle curls of his lips—and Mingyu knows that he would do literally anything for this man.

They resume walking in silence, and Mingyu hasn’t recovered by the time he’s fumbling for his key and leads Wonwoo into the comfortable heat of his house.

He can’t think properly as they ascend up the stairs and to his bedroom.

He can’t breathe as they dump their backpacks on the floor and sort of just stand there, tension brewing between them, just staring at each other like they both expect the other to do something.

“Can I—can I kiss you?” Mingyu stammers, before he can chicken himself out of saying it. He’s confident enough in their relationship now to know that Wonwoo won’t suddenly break up with him for asking something like that. The worst thing he can say is no, which is, while embarrassing, not traumatizing enough for Mingyu to suffer from a panic attack or jeopardize their feelings.

Wonwoo stares at him for a moment, and his expression is closed-off, considering, difficult to determine. Mingyu immediately regrets asking—maybe it was too soon, maybe he shouldn’t have— “I just really, um, uh, I really wanted to. But it’s okay, we don’t have to. I just thought I’d ask.”

“Mingyu,” Wonwoo says.

Then he’s kissing him.

Mingyu’s brain really only has time to determine a few things—Wonwoo’s lips are just as soft as he remembers—the last time Wonwoo kissed him without warning like this was the very first time, and for a moment, he can almost smell the fresh air outside of Hysera’s stuffy halls, can see pink and red paper hearts and he’s all fluttery and nervous like he’s seventeen again—Jesus, god, holy shit, he’s missed this so bad—before everything sparks and fizzes out of commission and he can’t think of anything, only able to kiss back eagerly, clumsily, scrabble his hands around Wonwoo’s waist and dig his fingers in slightly too hard just so he knows this is real.

When they pull away, Wonwoo is blinking hard and his cheeks are flushed an awfully adorable shade of red, visibly flustered, and it’s so fucking endearing Mingyu impulsively leans in just to peck his lips against Wonwoo one more time.

“Sorry,” he says automatically, but he’s too rollercoaster-dizzy and his brain is doing cartwheels and he can’t quite bring himself to feel all that apologetic for it.

Wonwoo is distinctly ruffled-looking, but he has enough left in him to snort. “Why are you apologizing?”

“I dunno. I just felt that—like—if I was being pushy or anything.” He swallows nervously when Wonwoo grins at him and doesn’t step back, just lets them stand chest to chest, sharing air. It’s intimate in a way that doesn’t even feel sexual, it just feels easy and nice and so impossibly perfect. “You said you wanted to take things slow, s-so.”

“This is fine.” Wonwoo’s hands are tracing the line of Mingyu’s jaw, smoothing at the skin on the back of his neck, and he looks rather proud of himself; perhaps he finally realized that he is free to do anything he wants, no longer worried about being caught or being judged, that this is something he can have and this is something he can share with Mingyu.

“I just—” Mingyu gulps nervously when Wonwoo’s fingernails scratch carefully along the edge of his jawline, just enough for him to feel it. His hands remain stupidly resting on Wonwoo’s waist, just above the sharp bones of his hips. “I just don’t want to rush you. Make you do anything you’re not ready for.”

“You aren’t, Mingyu.” And Wonwoo looks very dazed, eyes wide and bright and sparkling like glass panes in summer sunshine, a disbelieving, giddy little smile on his face as one of his hands moves to press against the outline of Mingyu’s lips. “I used to be … really scared. That, you know, you’d suddenly snap out of it and realize you actually liked girls all along and you’d push me away. And I knew what was going to happen by the end of high school, I knew that my days were numbered, so I couldn’t—I was too scared to ruin it by doing more, so I never wanted to start something, in case you pushed me away. I just took whatever you gave me.”

“Are you kidding?” Mingyu chokes out, laughing a little. The jolt in his motion makes one of Wonwoo’s fingers scrape slightly against his teeth. “I always thought I was, I mean, maybe I was being too pushy, because I was the only one who ever initiated anything. You know? I-I never realized you were scared, I was scared, that I might do something wrong or push you too far and—”

“I think we’ve already established that the two of us were scared, insecure idiots in high school.” Wonwoo slowly, lazily, reaches up to wrap his arms loosely around Mingyu’s neck, keeping him close. Mingyu’s throat goes dry almost embarrassingly fast. “But I will tell you this: there has never been a moment where I didn’t want to kiss you.”

“Really?” Mingyu squeaks.

“Yeah. Really.” Confidence is a very attractive look on Jeon Wonwoo. So is acceptance, and self-love, and the knowledge that there is a boy out there who would cross entire oceans and galaxies for him. He leans in enough that their noses brush. Mingyu’s breathing hitches pathetically, butterflies furiously beating their wings against the weak insides of his stomach, utterly at Wonwoo’s mercy. “And I think there’s at least a year’s worth of kisses we need to make up for.”

Mingyu wants to agree, probably say something dumb again, heart pounding and brain waves going haywire, but Wonwoo’s already kissing him and he’s kissing back and Mingyu doesn’t care about whatever dumb thing he wanted to say enough to stop.

 

It’s like a switch has been flipped on between them. Suddenly, it just doesn’t make sense for Mingyu to not be kissing Wonwoo. Their study dates switch from being in the library to being in one of their rooms, because it makes for a more private place to make out during their break sessions, and sometimes if Mingyu’s feeling brave he’ll kiss Wonwoo’s cheek when they have their first class of the day together and Wonwoo flushes a pleased pink.

“You don’t have to do all that, you know,” Wonwoo says with plenty of embarrassment, when Mingyu shows up to their last class of the semester together and giving him—in order—a paper bag of his favourite chocolate glazed doughnuts, a medium cup of Tim Hortons green tea, and an adoring kiss to the very top of his head that is visible to literally everyone within a three-row radius of the lecture hall.

“Do you not like it?” Mingyu asks, confused.

“I’m not saying that. I’m just—I don’t want you to have to push yourself or anything.”

“Yeah, okay,” Mingyu presses, “but do you not like it?”

Wonwoo is silent for a long moment, cheeks and ears and the back of his neck a burning sunset-red. “I like it,” he mumbles over the lid of his green tea, fogging up his glasses.

Mingyu smiles big and dumb and wide and is almost tempted to kiss him for real, a firm press of lips on lips, in front of the whole class just so everyone knows this beautiful, perfect being is his and Mingyu belongs to him and no one else can do this, no one else will know what Wonwoo looks like when he’s dizzy and out of breath and looking at Mingyu like he’s never known someone’s tongue could even move that way—but he holds himself back just in time. Wonwoo may enjoy being pampered by him, but Mingyu just knows almost instinctively that the level of flustered satisfaction can cross very easily into genuine discomfort, and he’s very careful with keeping himself from ever passing that line.

“You two are disgusting,” Soonyoung complains when they’re all hanging out at his house, curled up in his room upstairs and as far away from the picky basement dwellers as possible. “You know that, right?”

“What the hell did we do?” Mingyu demands, defensive.

“Your PDA offends me.”

Mingyu makes a disbelieving, scoffing noise and looks around the group for support. “I—we—we’re holding hands! We aren’t even kissing!”

Soonyoung makes a face. “Yeah, but you guys keep looking at each other like you want to. If you wanna make an escape to Wonwoo’s room and just deal with the UST, please be my guest, but stop subjecting us to the torment of watching you two eyeing each other.”

“You’re actually terrible!” Mingyu blusters, as Wonwoo straight up hides his reddening face with his book. “There’s no Unresolved Sexual Tension between us! Y-you’re all awful people and, and I don’t appreciate your slander!”

“You jealous, Soonyoung?” Wonwoo manages to say, possibly hoping it would sound more biting than it actually did.

“Don’t act cute, Wonwoo, we all know gross displays of affection and feelings in front of all your single friends is downright inhumane,” Seokmin points out. He and Soonyoung high-five.

“Mingyu is right,” Wonwoo says, “you’re all awful people.”

Minghao’s been rather quiet today—he’s not a particularly talkative guy from the start, but ever since they came here he seems even more subdued—but he grabs a pillow and aims it squarely at Soonyoung’s head, hitting him with a sharpshooter’s precision. “For god’s sakes, you two, they aren’t being overtly sappy. Calm down.”

Mingyu shoots his best friend a grateful smile, but for some reason Minghao avoids his glance, instead choosing to focus on Soonyoung squawking at him and trying to throw a pillow back, with far less accurate results. Mingyu feels the grin slowly slip off his face. His mind definitely isn’t playing tricks on him, or making him second-guess himself and others’ intentions—no, there is something off with Minghao’s mood lately.

And it has to do with him.

When Mingyu and Minghao head out for the night, Wonwoo kisses his cheek quickly before Soonyoung and Seokmin can see. “Night,” he says softly, and Mingyu feels a burst of affection, of the purest kind of love he thinks a human can ever experience, and it’s suddenly very hard for him to walk away and cross the street to get back home.

“You’re literally going to see him tomorrow,” Minghao mutters rather sullenly, when Mingyu keeps turning his head and looking back at the yellowish light through Wonwoo’s bedroom window. “You don’t have to act like you’ll never see him again.”

“Sorry,” Mingyu says, giving himself one last peek before turning around and walking properly. He’s taller and stronger than Minghao, but for some reason he has to struggle to keep up with Minghao’s long, spindly legs and his strangely large strides. “I just—it’s dumb, I know, but I just miss him every time he’s not with me. You’ll get it when you—”

“No, I don’t get it!” Minghao says, voice loud and ringing against the empty streets and dark pavement, and the utter surprise of it all makes Mingyu stop dead in his tracks. “I don’t get it, Gyu. I don’t get why you have to act like it’s the end of the world every time he’s not in your sight, or why you two can barely get your hands off each other—”

“We were just holding hands,” he insists shakily.

“Yeah, and I don’t fucking get it!” And with that, Minghao storms down the street, practically running, and by the time Mingyu can force his legs to move and he’s stumbling into a quick pace after him, Minghao’s already home. Mingyu opens the door and pulls off his sneakers to see Minghao in a thoroughly bad mood, throwing open the freezer door to grab a cup of Ben & Jerry’s and slamming it shut with more force than necessary.

“Hold on,” Mingyu says, flustered, “are you—are you mad at me?”

Minghao yanks the utensils drawer open in a manner that distinctly implies he is. “Of course not,” he says. Mingyu just stares at him, bewildered and nervous. He tries to wrack his brain, rake through his memories, try to figure out exactly what he did that has made Minghao so upset. A moment of dread briefly overtakes him. This is the first time they’ve ever fought. In the past fourteen months they have known each other, this is the very first time they’ve ever even gotten mad at each other, and despite everything they’ve been through together Mingyu’s anxiety overwhelms him, whispers in his ear that it might not be enough.

“Is this because of Wonwoo?” he asks, voice weak and a little bit shaky.

Somehow, that makes Minghao look even angrier. “Of course not, why would it be?” he snaps, and once he grabs a spoon the drawer is slammed shut too, and he’s never been a particularly good liar.

“W-what’s wrong with him?” Mingyu stammers. “Is it because we’re dating?”

Minghao’s eyes flash, and his mouth twists into something complicated and upset. “No!”

“A-am I ignoring you or something now that I’m dating him? I know it’s shitty of me to ditch you for him, but I—I’ve been trying really hard to not do that, I’ve been super careful to not be that kind of friend, but if you feel that way then—”

“I said it’s not that!”

“Then what the fuck is it?”

They barely notice the sound of footsteps until Vernon has climbed up the basement steps and poked his head into the kitchen, voice strangely tentative and careful. “Um, hey, is everything alright?”

Mingyu hadn’t even realized the two of them were raising their voices, practically shouting at each other. He’s suddenly overcome with shame and horror—he’s never fought like this. Ever. The last time he raised his voice at a friend, it was when he walked away from Seungcheol and Jihoon forever. And the thought of losing Minghao the same way is so upsetting, so terrifying, he doesn’t know what to do.

“Everything is fine,” Minghao mumbles, all the anger draining out of him. “I’m tired, I think I’m gonna go to bed early.”

Vernon checks the digital clock on the oven display. “Uh, it’s only nine?”

“Yeah, Vern, that’s why it’s fucking early!” Minghao quits the kitchen and stomps upstairs. Vernon and Mingyu stand there in uncomfortable silence as, a few seconds later, they hear a bedroom door slam shut.

“Dude,” Vernon says, looking troubled, “I thought Seungkwan and I were the ones that cause all the drama in this house. What the fuck even happened?”

“I don’t even know, man,” Mingyu says, heart sinking down down down into somewhere below his stomach. For the first time in months, he feels the overwhelming urge to have Serax tucked somewhere in his room again—something, anything—to stop the queasy surge of nerves curdling sick and messy up his spine. The grim claws of panic attacks and anxiety-driven intrusive thoughts whispering in his ears again. The awful, awful feeling of potentially ruining something important, without knowing what he’s done wrong, and not having a single clue how to fix it.

Chapter Text

Minghao doesn’t talk to him until the next afternoon, and only to knock on his door and say, “Sorry for snapping at you. I was angry at something else, and it wasn’t your fault and it didn’t have anything to do with you, and I was taking it out on you. That was shitty of me. I just have some problems to work out.”

“Oh,” Mingyu says, stupidly, because stupid seems to be the only adjective he can use to describe himself these days. Stupid for the way he acted in high school. Stupid for trying to come out to his mom. Stupid for everything that has to do with Wonwoo, good or bad, dating him or not. Stupid for not noticing something was wrong with his best friend until it was all too much. “I mean, you know I’m here. I’ll listen to anything if you wanna, like, you know, talk it out and stuff—”

“Thanks,” Minghao says shortly, and gives him a small, exhausted smile. “I’ll be okay. Just need to … think about stuff some more. Like. On my own.”

“O-oh.” Mingyu feels absolutely hopeless, a twelve-year-old again, drying tears on the fabric of his mother’s shirt as his dad drives away from him forever. That feeling of reaching out as far as you can, grasping desperately and holding onto nothing but air. “Well. Okay. I’m still here whenever you want to talk.”

Minghao only nods before heading back to his room, soft footsteps like ghosts or cat paws, and Mingyu watches the chipped white paint of his bedroom door shut with a sinking heart, not feeling much better.

Mingyu finds himself hanging around Vernon’s room more than usual, “usual” meaning he basically never did until now. He knows what the bedrooms in the basement look like—he tends to just hang out in one of their rooms when he’s waiting for his laundry to be done—but now that living beside the best friend that’s maybe-sort of-possibly mad at him is becoming unbearable, he’s tasked himself with spending most of his time at home moping on Vernon’s bed while Vernon plays Overwatch on his computer. It’s a better outcome than trying to chill with Seungkwan, who’s either doing club or volunteer shit and threatening bloody murder on anybody who sneaks into his room when he’s out, or talking Mingyu’s head off about some new gossip he doesn’t know or care about. And besides, Vernon was the one who walked in on their shouting match the other day. He’s basically involved.

“So,” Vernon says one night as Mingyu dispassionately watches a YouTube video and warms up his mattress, “how’s things with Minghao?”

“Good,” Mingyu says automatically, not looking up from his phone screen.

Vernon scratches at his hair, flattened and slightly greasy from spending several hours beneath a red snapback. He has an ultra-pretentious temporary tattoo on the underside of his arm above his elbow, something Mingyu is trying very hard to not mention. “You can, like, tell me the truth, dude.”

Mingyu sighs and tosses his phone aside. “Okay, it sucks. He apologized the other day, right? But he’s still being awkward about it. And I tried to tell him we can talk about it or whatever, but he doesn’t want to and I don’t wanna push it in case he gets even more mad at me.”

“Sucks, bro.”

“I don’t even know what’s wrong,” Mingyu whines, throwing himself onto his back so he can stare up at the ceiling and Vernon’s sub-par fluorescent light fixtures. “He won’t tell me. How can I figure out what I did wrong if he won’t tell me? Hao’s not like this.”

And it’s true, he thinks fiercely in the back of his mind; Minghao is not like this. Minghao has always been a source of wisdom, of common sense. He doesn’t see the use in unnecessary drama when a straight-to-the-point, brutally honest conversation can end all the trouble. He’s always been someone who was open and truthful about his feelings, in order to minimize uncomfortable situations like the one happening right now.

“Hao’s a pretty cool guy,” Vernon says, shuffling a bit in his hideous weed-patterned socks. “Like, he’s probably just in a dark place right now. He’s gotta get that negative energy outta there, y’know? It’s his own personal journey or whatever. Just chill for a bit and let him sort his shit out.”

“I actually hate you,” Mingyu says grumpily, annoyed that Vernon didn’t say anything helpful and that he wasn’t Minghao, who would’ve in fact said something both helpful and inspiring. “And your tattoo looks stupid.”

Vernon frowns at him, clearly highly offended. “Don’t have to insult my sweet tats, Mingyu, I’m just trying to help.”

“Your version of ‘help’ is to tell me to not do anything to fix this and hope it sorts out on its own! That’s not help, what even the fuck?”

“That’s my advice, pal, take it or leave it.” Vernon twirls a pen in his hand with practiced easiness. “Also, why are you even being hostile to me? The two of us are like, the gayest people in this house. We should have each other’s backs.”

“I actually can’t stand talking to you,” Mingyu snaps, and then rather meekly adds, “When do you think Hao’ll stop being mad at me?”

Vernon looks like he wants to say something snarky and unhelpful again, but at the sight of Mingyu’s earnest expression he wisely chooses to hold his tongue. “I don’t think he’s actually mad at you, dude. I mean, you didn’t do anything wrong. You just wanted to hang out with your boyfriend.”

“Yeah, but—like—what if that’s what he’s mad at? That I’m spending so much time with Wonwoo?” Mingyu feels like he might be sick. Isn’t this what happened last time? A choice between the boy he’s in love with and his best friend? A choice between Wonwoo or Seungcheol and Jihoon? Is Mingyu forever doomed to only have one or the other, never a best of both worlds situation? Maybe it’s just something wrong with him; maybe he doesn’t know how to properly handle the responsibility of both friendship and love. Maybe he’ll never be able to achieve the kind of balance others can.

“I mean, it’s weird seeing you so obsessed with him, but it’s not like you don’t pay attention to anyone else.” Vernon shrugs and twirls the pen so fast it spins off his fingers and falls to the carpet. He doesn’t bother picking it up. “I think you’re doing a pretty good job in terms of splitting up your time. If Minghao is pissed about something like that, then he’s being unreasonable, because frankly, you’re not as bad as you could be.”

Mingyu laughs weakly. “You know, Hao said something like that before. That he didn’t get why I was so into Wonwoo. No, not like that, more like … he didn’t get why I looked at him the way I did, why I always wanted to be around him. I thought he said that because he’s, you know, never dated or was into anyone before, so he didn’t get why, but now I just … I dunno, I feel stupid but I don’t know why.”

“Some people just aren’t into that life, bruh,” Vernon says. “I mean, take me for instance. I’ve dated before. Plenty of times. But it never went anywhere and always ended pretty fast. And it’s because I didn’t get it, too. Relationships are a lot of work, man, and you may be okay with putting in all that effort, but not everyone does. I just don’t have the energy to spend focusing on one single person all the time, y’know?”

“Doesn’t that just make you a bad boyfriend?” Mingyu points out, rather mulishly. Once again, he’s not really sure what that has to do with anything. Why can’t Vernon just say something sensible that fixes all of Mingyu’s problems like a verbal slap in the face, like Minghao? He misses his best friend.

“Maybe,” Vernon agrees almost too readily. “But what can I do? It’s not that I don’t like the guys I’ve dated—I did—it’s just that I have my own life too, and I don’t particularly like sharing it with other people. And you may not have known this, but most people want their significant other to pay attention to them, like, seventy-five percent of the time, so they know they’re being appreciated. I know it’s sucky of me, but I just can’t give them that attention. It’s exhausting for me. So here I am, fresh in uni and still pathetically single.”

Mingyu frowns. “I get your plight and I’m sympathetic, Vern, I really am, but what does this have to do with anything?”

“Oh, right.” Vernon runs his hands through his greasy hair and wrinkles his nose. “What I’m trying to say is, people are confusing and their reactions towards romance vary considerably. I don’t know what Minghao’s particular problem is, but probably seeing you so lovey-dovey with that Wonwoo guy is forcing him to come to terms with stuff that might be uncomfortable for him. Anyway, if he says it doesn’t have anything to do with you and it’s just a thing he’s gotta figure out himself, then give him space and let him do that. Hovering around his room like a little lost lamb won’t do shit, buddy-o.”

Well, he did say something helpful in the end. Sort of. “Thanks, I guess.”

Vernon’s attention is already drifting back to the pen lying on his ugly beige carpet, as if he’s still determining whether or not he should bother bending down to pick it back up. “No problem, pal.”

 

“Are things still bad between you and Minghao?” Wonwoo asks as the two of them study together in his room; or, well, “study”. Wonwoo’s seemingly always on top of everything regardless of how much time Mingyu steals from him, and Mingyu himself made enough exam notes to feel like the day hasn’t been a total waste. Now, they’re sitting on his bed with their backs against the wall, watching the sunlight glinting off of car headlights zoom by the half-shut blinds of Wonwoo’s windows. They’re holding hands, a reassuring physical touch more than anything else, and Wonwoo is leaning just enough into him for Mingyu’s chest to feel all funny and floaty.

“Kind of,” Mingyu says. “I mean, like … we just aren’t talking much right now.”

“Is it because of …?” Wonwoo hesitates, looking strangely cautious. “Us?”

“No! No, no—well, yeah, actually, kind of, I probably shouldn’t lie.” Mingyu sighs. “He won’t say, but I think so. I mean, it was pretty much implied?”

“Is it because we’re spending too much time together?” Wonwoo asks slowly. There’s an odd look on his face, one that almost could look like guilt. “Do we need to, um—?”

“You better not suggest ‘taking a break’,” Mingyu says quickly, and watches as Wonwoo’s cheeks flush an embarrassed pink and he turns away. “You totally were! What the hell, Wonwoo?”

“I just—” Wonwoo stutters, looking like he immediately regrets even thinking about it. “I—I cost you your closest friends once before, I didn’t want to be that kind of person again.”

“My closest friends were kind of shitty and made me kind of shitty, Wonwoo.” Mingyu squeezes his hand in an effort to let him know his sincerity. “Trust me, this isn’t—that wasn’t your fault.”

“Minghao’s not a shitty friend, though.”

“No.” Mingyu’s voice drops, wavers slightly. “No, he’s not.”

Wonwoo looks like he wants to turn away, to stare out at the peaceful road turning a rosy amber-pink by the setting sun, the flashes of lights from the passing cars, in silence. Instead, with some difficulty, he looks at Mingyu and says, “I don’t want you to end up losing friends because of me. For whatever reason it may be. I … that’s not the kind of boyfriend I want to be. That’s not the kind of relationship I want to have.”

“I get that,” Mingyu says, and he lifts up their joined hands to observe them. He had done so before, a long, long time ago, when they first kissed and held hands back in Hysera Secondary. It both surprises him and yet feels totally natural that nothing’s really changed between them—Mingyu’s hands are slightly bigger, darker, his fingernails looking rather embarrassingly damaged with untended cuticles; Wonwoo’s hands are paler than his by a few shades, nails square and kept clean, guitar callouses adding rough patches to otherwise smooth palms and fingers. Mingyu is almost tempted to raise Wonwoo’s hand up to his lips to kiss it, right in-between the knuckles, but he knows it would only distract Wonwoo and this isn’t a conversation he feels they should be distracted from.

“I get that,” he repeats himself, quietly, “but I also don’t like it when you suggest something like taking a break so casually. I didn’t love you for two years for you to say something like that as though it’s an obvious solution to fixing my problems with Hao. That’s … that’s not the kind of relationship I want to have.”

There’s a moment of silence, but it’s neither tense nor awkward. It feels like they’ve used up all their awkwardness long ago.

“You’re right,” Wonwoo says, and to Mingyu’s surprise and delight he is the one to raise their hands, to twist his wrist so Mingyu’s hand is on top, to press cool and soft lips to Mingyu’s rough knuckles the way princes do in fairy tales. Mingyu can only stare, pink-faced and gaping and secretly extraordinarily pleased. “You’re right. I’m sorry. It was a stupid thing for me to say. I don’t want a break away from this, not by a long shot.”

“I wouldn’t let you go so easily, anyway,” Mingyu teases. “I’d persuade you to give up the idea before you make up your mind.”

Wonwoo smiles crookedly at him, a lopsided sort of smirk. “Yeah? How would you persuade me?”

“Probably something like this,” Mingyu says, before leaning in to kiss him.

He pulls away several long, delightfully sweet moments later, the two of them breathless and a little ruffled and thoroughly distracted from the conversation.

“So, like,” Wonwoo says, struggling to even out the tone in his voice and get them back on track, “um—what’s your plan, then? How are you going to get Minghao to talk to you?”

“I don’t know,” Mingyu responds, truthfully, his brain feeling more or less like a mushy stew. “Everyone keeps telling me to just be patient and let Hao work through his own shit, let him come to me on my own. But I don’t think Hao will ever talk to me that way. He … he keeps things to himself. I feel like I shouldn’t wait for him to tell me what’s wrong, or else he’ll just end up pulling farther and farther away. I mean … it’s stupid, I know.”

“It’s not stupid, Mingyu.” Wonwoo squeezes his hand. “Minghao is your best friend, right? You know him best. Do whatever you think you should. And if … if it turns out badly, we’ll do our best to fix it. Yeah?”

“Yeah.”

Mingyu offers him a small little smile, barely strong enough to withstand a breeze. It’s hard for him to pretend that he has much confidence that he’ll pull through in this situation; it seems like fate itself has decided he can never be happy with both friends and his love life.

Wonwoo presses his hand a little harder, as if to instill into Mingyu some of his own faith, and Mingyu’s smile eventually grows into something more real.

Mingyu knows more than anyone else that leaving something to stew while he works up the courage to address the problem only makes things worse, but that doesn’t stop him from letting the icy-cool friction between him and Minghao frost over into the chill of December. The skies are a blanket of uniform watery grey that doesn’t hint at snowfall just yet, but certainly threatens everyone with one in the near future.

The unfortunate truth is that with the arrival of cold weather and winter is the stress of final exams. The first semester of Mingyu’s second year had passed by in the blink of an eye, and now he finds himself looking through all the notes that have accumulated throughout the past four months, condensing them into more compact exam notes and hoping they’ll be enough, all without Minghao by his side.

“Any ideas on what he’s been doing lately?” he asks Vernon, once again hiding in the refuge of the basement bedroom. Minghao’s in his room studying, and the occasional sounds of his chair rolling back against the floor, or the sounds of a mouse frantically clicking, is enough to make Mingyu’s stress levels skyrocket through the roof.

“Whaddya mean?” Vernon says through his instant noodles, the corners of his mouth smeared with the vibrant red of its spicy soup. He has an entire jug of soy milk next to him at his desk, which he takes a frantic swig of after every other mouthful.

“Minghao. He’s not really hanging around Soonyoung or Seokmin these days—maybe because I hang out with them too? I don’t know, but they were asking me about him and they said he hasn’t been showing up to eat lunch with them or anything.”

“He’s been with those older guys lately,” Vernon states, plainly, as though it’s common knowledge. “Y’know, Jeonghan and Joshua?”

“How the hell do you know that?” Mingyu demands, irritated that Vernon knows something about Minghao that he doesn’t.

“Uh, I saw him?” Vernon rolls his eyes at him as he slurps up more noodles, sending a small splatter of red drops along his desk and over the open pages of his Linguistics textbook. “Dude, you can calm down, it’s not like I’m trying to steal away your BFF or anything. Joshua’s been helping me out with my first year Law and Morality course because he got an A+ in it during his year, I just so happened to see Hao there talking with Jeonghan when I went to the Queer Community Clubhouse or whatever it’s fucking called.”

“It’s the Queer Community Association of—oh, whatever, you’re not gonna remember the name anyway. Well, did you know what they were talking about? Were they talking about, like, me?”

“Dude, I don’t know. They were in another room? It looked like a pretty serious discussion, but I’m no eavesdropper. Why are you even panicking about this, I told you to chill out.”

“Wh—fuck chilling out! I don’t wanna chill out!”

There’s a brief knock on the door that doesn’t wait for an answer before it opens, and Seungkwan pokes his head in. “I heard someone yelling about chilling out and I figured it was one of us getting pissed off at Vern’s usual listless attitude towards life. What’s happening?”

“Get lost, Seungkwan,” Mingyu says grumpily. Seungkwan chooses to ignore him and instead saunters inside to throw himself on the bed beside Mingyu, stealing the small bottle of Vernon’s bedside gummy vitamins and popping them like candy.

“Mingyu is acting like he just got platonic-dumped,” Vernon says, nearly knocking the open jug of soy milk over his entire laptop in his haste to grab it.

“Mingyu’s always acting like that.” Seungkwan offers Mingyu some gummy vitamins, and after a moment of quiet deliberation over the adults-take-two-gummies-a-day label directions on the side of the bottle he grabs a handful as well. “Is Vernon telling you to just sit back and let things happen? Don’t listen to him. He thinks if he just lies down and takes a nap everything will sort itself out. That’s why he has no goals in life and needs me to dig his stupid ass out of ditches.”

“That was one time in high school, man,” Vernon mumbles into his bowl, looking rather embarrassed.

My advice,” Seungkwan continues as though Vernon hadn’t said anything, “which is the only real advice you can get in this house, so I don’t know why you went to him instead of me, is to confront Minghao head-on. You’re both skirting around the problem instead of addressing it directly and just fixing things. Weren’t you the one who told me that you shouldn’t be too hard on other people if you aren’t trying your best to talk things through yourself?”

“I give my wise, all-knowing opinions freely,” Mingyu says sullenly, “that doesn’t mean I have to act on them myself.”

Seungkwan rolls his eyes at him. “You’re all a bunch of babies,” he says sternly, as though Mingyu hadn’t seen him almost dissolve into tears watching Charlotte’s Web with Chan and a bottle of Bacardi Breezer literally a week ago. “If the relationship is important enough to want to keep, then shouldn’t you take a couple of risks and fuck your sad feelings?”

Mingyu is starting to find these conversations oddly familiar, like a weird case of déjà vu—and then he remembers precisely what is so familiar about them: these are almost the exact same kind of pep talks Minghao used to give him when it came to trying to confess to Wonwoo.

And Mingyu abruptly remembers everything Minghao’s done for him so far, his encouragement and patience, his steadfast desire to remain a loyal friend. The way he’s never once turned his back on Mingyu in any way, never once made him feel like he was playing second fiddle in what should have been an equal friendship, never once made him feel anxious or shitty or terrified of being left behind.

And Seungkwan is right, all things considered—this is a friendship too important to the both of them for it to fall apart from sheer miscommunication.

 

“Hey, Hao,” Mingyu says, staring at the irregular grainy patterns on Minghao’s wooden door. “Can I come in?”

There’s a long, heavy silence, broken only by the sound of Minghao’s chair rolling aside for a moment before Minghao himself opens the door, big owl eyes and pointy elf-like ears and all, and it’s almost like it’s their first time meeting each other in that cramped, too-hot residence room all over again.

“Sure,” Minghao says cautiously, standing aside to let him walk in.

“I know you said you’d talk to me when you’re ready,” Mingyu says slowly, allowing Minghao to walk back towards his desk but not sit down, let them have the physical space apart. “But to be honest, it’s been a while and I don’t want to leave this sitting any longer. It’s almost exam time, and after that we won’t see each other for almost two weeks, and I, um, I don’t think we should start next semester without talking about this, y’know?”

Minghao looks a strange combination of uncomfortable and slightly miffed. “I mean—I—yeah, okay.”

There’s an awkward silence where Mingyu can hear geese honk loudly outside as they migrate somewhere warmer for the season. The sky outside of Minghao’s window is a dull reddish-orange with the nearby streetlamps.

“So, like,” Mingyu says nervously, “are we gonna talk about it?”

“Where should we start?”

“Uh, maybe at the part where you flipped out at me about Wonwoo after that hang-out sesh with the guys? That seems like a pretty good start, Hao.”

It’s very, very weird to see Minghao look so reluctant to share information with Mingyu—he fiddles with a bracelet of small wooden beads around his bird-bone wrist with long fingers, picking at it like some sort of wiry animal. His long silver earrings clatter against each other every time he moves his head.

“I’m sorry for being difficult,” he eventually says, with difficulty. “I just—I’m still trying to figure things out and it’s messing with my head.”

“And being around your best friend somehow makes it worse?” Minghao doesn’t answer, and Mingyu fights back the desire to stomp his foot like some sort of overdramatic child. “Come on, Hao. Whatever’s going on with you, you know you can trust me with it. Right? You’ve done so much for me, the least I can do is listen, right?” When Minghao still looks a little hesitant, Mingyu feels familiar cold claws curl their way up his throat, and he says, “Or is this friendship not—enough, you don’t trust this enough? Am I not—?”

Am I not enough?

“No, Gyu, no, it’s not, I—” Minghao looks almost ashamed of himself at the lost, sad little look on Mingyu’s face, utterly conflicted. “It’s not you—I mean, it has some things to do with you, but it’s not you you and I—I just—I don’t know how to—”

He stops and just breathes for a moment, trying to calm himself down. He’s working himself up into something, Mingyu can see, can see the little tricks and tells that show him Minghao is, underneath his calm and casual demeanor, falling apart at the seams in a way that doesn’t happen to Xu Minghao.

“Fine,” Minghao says, voice deceptively calm and measured, eyes like dark coals. “You really wanna know? It’s because I’m aromantic, Mingyu. I’ve been questioning a lot and talking to Jeonghan and Joshua about it lately, just to sort things out, and I think that’s what I am.”

Oh.

Mingyu wasn’t expecting that. He’s not sure what he had been expecting, but it really wasn’t that.

He struggles to both find something to say as well as try and remember what being aromantic means from the seemingly endless list of identities and sexualities that Jeonghan had helpfully described to him a while ago. “Oh. That’s—uh—that’s the one where you don’t, like, you aren’t—uh—roooh-omantically attracted to people, right?”

Minghao is looking rather flushed, eyes bright, but his mouth is pressed into a hard line and he’s struggling to keep himself composed and unmoved. He’s not as good at it as Wonwoo. He’s had far less practice. “Yeah,” he says. “That’s the one.”

“Um. I see. Okay.” Mingyu cringes as he says it. It sounds so … unfeeling, so cold, compared to the absolutely wonderful and warm-hearted way Minghao had accepted and supported him when he was questioning his sexuality. But he doesn’t know what to say. His dumbass self barely even knows what being aromantic entails. As far as he can remember, it just means that Minghao won’t really love somebody the way Mingyu loves Wonwoo—which, looking back, makes all his lighthearted jibes at Minghao understanding how he feels one day suddenly super shitty—but is that really what’s wrong between them? Is that why Minghao’s distancing himself from him? “But why are you mad at me?”

Minghao’s jaw clenches, but not from anger—from frustration, maybe, but this time it’s not directed at Mingyu. He appears to be most upset at himself. “I wasn’t mad at you.”

“You kind of were, Hao.”

“Yes, I was, but it wasn’t your fault. I told you, I was taking it out on you.” Little by little, the stone walls he had been trying to build up begin to crumble, its supports weak, its foundations useless. Minghao’s chin slowly begins to wobble, lips twisting, dejected. “I’m sorry. I was really mean to you. It wasn’t your fault, it was me getting all stuck in my feelings and I was—I was jealous.”

“Jealous?” Something clicks inside of Mingyu. “Of, of me and Wonwoo?”

“Yeah. Maybe. I dunno. I just—I—” Minghao shrugs his shoulders aggressively, ducking his head to stare firmly at his floor. “I don’t know.”

“Hao, I—I didn’t know. If I knew seeing us act like that would make you uncomfortable, I wouldn’t have—” Mingyu moves closer to him, arms half-reaching maybe for a reconciliatory hug, but Minghao suddenly lets out a weak noise and stumbles backwards, tears starting to fill his eyes.

No, see, that’s exactly what I didn’t want you to have to do!” He swipes roughly at his cheeks, but fresh tears are replacing themselves quicker than he can wipe them away, and it looks like it makes him even more upset. Mingyu understands more than anyone how vulnerable crying like this in front of a person can make someone. He knows that feeling all too well. “I didn’t want you to have to hold back on anything! I—you were happy, you were so happy with Wonwoo and I didn’t want to ruin that for you but I-I—every time I saw you look at him the way you do, like you love him, I just wished someone would look at me like that but it won’t happen and I—”

“But—but it’s not like you’re going to be alone forever,” Mingyu says weakly, unsure of what to do, what to say. All he knows is that his best friend is starting to break down in front of him, his best friend who’s stronger than anyone he knows, and he needs to, wants to do something to make him feel better. “Right? A-and I thought aro people can still get into relationships? It’s not like you can’t?”

“No, see, you don’t get it,” Minghao chokes out, trying to cover his red, teary face with his long fingers. His voice turns a little muffled through his palms. “I won’t ever be able to have what you have. I-I can’t deal with even the thought of having to be around someone all the time, of-of being so dependent on them, and getting t-that emotional over someone—it’s not something I can do, okay?”

A car honks abruptly in the distance, loud enough for Mingyu to hear Chan drop something heavy in surprise just down the hall. But everything feels fishbowl-bubbled around him, hazy and muffled and insignificant.

All he sees is Minghao, his best friend, trying desperately not to cry, and there’s a terrible ache in his chest that curves clean ice-scream-scoops out of him with every tiny hitch in Minghao’s chest where his lungs don’t inhale properly.

“But I want it,” Minghao says miserably, “I want it so badly, I want someone to look at me the way you look at Wonwoo, or—or Wonwoo looks at you. Nobody’s ever looked at me like that. Nobody ever made me feel wanted that way. I-I want to know what it’s like to just have someone who’ll look at me like that, like I’m important, and it’s so unfair of me to want that because I want the intimacy but not the feelings, and there always will be feelings, it’s inevitable, and I’m going to end up being selfish and hurting other people because they’ll care more about me than I do about them until I get sick of it and leave them and I’m fucking terrified because I’ve only just realized this is happening to me, and I’m going to end up all alone—and I—”

“Wha—Hao, you’re not going to be alone. No, what the fuck?” Mingyu steps forward, not really sure why but just sure that he has to, but Minghao only shakes his head, blubbering a bit, looking around likes he’s trying to find somewhere to escape and let out all these feelings in a place where nobody can see him.

And Mingyu, the high school prom king of bottling up feelings so they’ll never see the light of day, is not about to let that happen.

“Hao, I don’t—” he stutters, useless and clumsy as always, ever the fumbling and idiotic Kim Mingyu. “I can’t claim to say I know exactly what this is gonna be like, because I don’t know a lot about being aro, and I don’t know what that experience is like for you. But you’re not selfish. You’re not being unfair. Everyone wants to be loved, everyone wants intimacy, you just—um—you just want it in a different way.”

Minghao chooses not to respond and stares resolutely at the ground, tears dripping onto his socks.

“How can you think you’re never going to be loved?”

No answer.

“Minghao, listen to me—” Mingyu places both hands on Minghao’s face and gently forces him to meet his gaze, “—listen. When I was at the very bottom, when I was fucked up and miserable as all hell and thought nothing in life could get any better, it wasn’t Wonwoo who pulled me out of that ditch. Not Wonwoo. It was you, Minghao.”

Minghao hiccups and tries to turn away, but Mingyu doesn’t move an inch. He can feel his eyes burning, watering, his voice getting rougher with held-back tears. “C’mon, Hao, look at me. You’re the one who saved me from that, okay? What the fuck gives you the idea that the love I have for you is any less important than the love I have for Wonwoo?”

Minghao lets out a shuddering sob and leans in to hug Mingyu, bony arms wrapping tight across his shoulders.

“I don’t know what kind of relationships you’ll have in the future, bro,” Mingyu chokes out, hugging him like his life depends on it. “I don’t know how they’ll work out, and I don’t know how you’ll make them work. But I know you can do it, because you’re, like, the least selfish person I’ve ever known. And no matter what, you’ve got family and friends that love you, and you’ve got people who won’t ever let you be alone, and I know it may not be the kind of intimacy you wanted but that—that’s gotta count for something, right? That’s gotta be good enough for something, right?”

Minghao doesn’t respond for a moment (maybe he can’t), but eventually he lets out a watery laugh and says, “Yeah. Yeah, that counts—that counts for everything.”

 

“Aro, huh?” Soonyoung muses, looking relieved that what had been bugging Minghao all this time hasn’t been anything as terrible as (according to his own hyperactive imagination) debilitating school debts or deeply personal family betrayals. “Well, I guess I could see that. Hao’s never really been one for romance.”

“I can’t believe he talked about it with Jeonghan and not me,” Junhui says, looking gravely insulted. “I’m his cousin!”

“Yeah,” Vernon points out, “but you aren’t the head of the Queer Mouse Club House—”

“That wasn’t even close, Vern,” Seungkwan interrupts, annoyed.

“Fuckin’ whaddever.”

“I’m glad, though,” Seokmin says, leaning back in his chair as he thoughtfully chews on a campus-bought chocolate croissant. “That, y’know, he’s starting to work things out. I never thought anything could bother Hao, but I guess I was wrong.”

“Same.” Mingyu warms his cold fingers around the insulated cup of his hot chocolate. Beside him, Wonwoo is blowing into a Tim Hortons cup of green tea in an effort to cool it down enough to drink, cheeks pink from the sharp sting of the winter winds outside the campus plaza. He looks utterly adorable in a red beanie, black hair unstyled and falling down his forehead and into his eyes in a manner that reminds Mingyu very startlingly of a quiet outcast that used to sleep in the back of the class during high school, and it’s making his heart do very funny things.

“I’ve never met an aro person myself,” Wonwoo says after a careful sip of tea, wincing when it burns his tongue. “But Minghao seems a little conflicted about his identity. We should all just do our best to support him and remind him that romantic relationships aren’t the most important things in life, and that he’s valid, and that we’re here for him.”

“Well said, babe,” Mingyu immediately says without much thought, making Wonwoo’s cheeks grow even pinker.

“Ugh, you guys are actually disgusting, shut up,” Soonyoung complains, throwing some crumbs in their general direction. “No wonder Hao’s getting all weirded out by relationships, he’s got you sickening lovebirds to deal with.”

Wonwoo scowls at his friend, embarrassed and very obviously trying to kick his shin underneath the table. Mingyu would normally react the same way, but today he can only laugh. Laugh and drink his hot chocolate until he can taste the lumps of sugary-sweet chocolate sauce at the bottom of his cup, lick half-melted whipped cream off his lips. Laugh at his friends and wait for Minghao and Jeonghan and Joshua to join them. Laugh until the troubled frown on Minghao’s face breaks into a smile, until Chan joins them after his last class, until the big group of weirdos and unlikely friends and caring, kind, genuine people enjoy their last few moments together before exams season.

Like every other day in this December so far, it hasn’t snowed, but when Mingyu looks out the window at the setting sun he feels the same sort of peaceful magic of watching it fall from the sky. Something inside of him that he doesn’t really understand doesn’t feel very afraid anymore.

Chapter Text

Winter holidays have never felt more stifling.

Mingyu longs to be back in school, to walk around the snow-thick streets with his friends and then come back home to packets of Coffee Crisp-based hot chocolate mix. It felt like he only had a few days to admire the way the campus street lamps illuminated the shiny red and gold decorations, the holiday lights strung around the trees in their bare ice-capped branches, to know what it feels like for Wonwoo’s icy cold lips to press themselves against his cheek, muffling laughter, in an effort to warm themselves up, and then suddenly they were struggling through finals and then first semester was over.

Christmas has never been a particularly big thing for their family in the first place. Mrs. Kim always had to work so many hours, she’d really only have December 25th itself to spend with him, and then she’d be back to work. The past few years, especially in high school, made the holiday become more of a friends-and-partying thing than a family thing for Mingyu, anyway.

“My new job is much better with their hours,” Mrs. Kim says brightly, “I can finally get some time off. Maybe I should try making that fruitcake again, I think I still have the recipe somewhere. And maybe we can go skiing! Do you remember that one year we went skiing? It was so long ago, back when your father—”

“Maybe, mom,” Mingyu mumbles, feeling nothing but discomfort.

Why do you keep acting like nothing’s wrong? Why won’t you apologize? Why won’t you understand? The questions hang at the very tip of his tongue, barbs of steel and poison, but they catch on to the sides of his mouth whenever he tries to spit them out, the accusations and demands and pleas leaving him until they’re nothing but hot air. It’s the weight of all those words that makes him unable to act normal around his mother, makes it hard to breathe in the same room as her, but he can’t say any of it and his mother continues to act like everything’s okay, and it just seems like nothing will ever change.

“Or—” his mother falters, “—maybe you’ll be with that friend of yours again?”

She means Wonwoo, and, well, she’s not wrong. Mingyu’s been waiting for a chance since high school to be able to spend a winter holiday with him. But at the same time, Wonwoo has his own family to share Christmas with, Mingyu doesn’t plan on taking that away from him just because they’re dating. And as for him …

“I will sometimes, mom. But we can spend a few days doing—stuff.”

Mrs. Kim smiles, but it’s as hollow as Mingyu’s promise of a fun family vacation. The two of them are the last remnants of a broken family that has forgotten how to be normal again.

Mingyu remembers that time when they went skiing. It was a long, long time ago, when he was maybe five or six, when his dad was still with them. He remembers trying to learn how to snowboard, falling so many times into soft pillows of snow, until his socks were wet inside his boots and he couldn’t feel his nose or jaw. He remembers his dad laughing, back when his laugh meant something, and he remembers his strong arms lifting Mingyu out of the snow traps and setting him back on his feet.

He’ll get buried under there, his mother had said, her voice warmer and happier than any other time Mingyu can think of. For god’s sakes, honey, he’ll freeze to death.

Nah, we Kim men are built like iron fortresses, his father had said, before immediately slipping on some ice and getting his legs all tangled up in his skis. Mingyu never heard his mother laugh so hard before as the two of them tried to get him back on his feet, wobbly legs like baby birds, nearly falling over themselves.

I wanna come back here again, Mingyu had declared, cupping a mug of hot chocolate bigger than his tiny hands can hold, courtesy of the ski resort’s café, filled to the brim with chocolate sprinkles and marshmallows. He remembers licking whipped cream off of his lips, sweet and rich.

We will one day, Gyu, his father had said, and maybe the details are fuzzy after so many years—maybe Mingyu’s brain had supplied itself with false information, artificial lab-created test tube memories—but Mingyu thinks he remembers the way his dad had put his arm around the waist of his wife, the way his mother had smiled at him like she really did love the man she married, and the way she pretended she didn’t notice him stealing from her plate of biscottis whenever she conveniently looked away.

They never did go back to that ski resort, now that he thinks about it. He’s sure they meant to, but about two years later his dad lost his job and had to look for a new one that didn’t pay as much, and then his mother had to get the job that would slowly sap out all her time and energy, and then suddenly everything went wrong and that trip to the mountains became nothing more than a half-nostalgic childhood memory.

And just like that, Mingyu thinks he’s going to start crying.

He gives his mother one last, weak smile, before turning and heading back upstairs. He’s not strong enough. Not yet. Here, here in this house, he is still the small, miserable, unloved boy he always was.

 

It’s depressing to not be able to see Minghao, especially when Mingyu knows he’s still going through some tough times with his newfound aromanticism. But being able to text him whenever—knowing that he’s not bothering his best friend, that if Minghao doesn’t respond for a while it’s because he’s busy or unable to pull out his phone at the moment, not because he’s ignoring his messages—offers a strange sense of profound relief that Mingyu hasn’t felt with any other friend before, except maybe Wonwoo.

“You aren’t talking to your mom?” Minghao asks, his face grainy through the FaceTime camera and his every movement a little blurry and lagging. “Like, at all? A little awkward, isn’t it?”

“Well, of course it is,” Mingyu grumbles. He strangely feels too big for his old desk in his bedroom, the corkboard on his wall that once held Hysera Secondary semester schedules and printed photos of him with Seungcheol and Jihoon smaller than he remembers. “And, I mean, we do talk. Sort of. We sat and watched TV last night.”

“Wow, Mingyu, that really sounds like the pinnacle of human connection.” If Mingyu couldn’t tell that Minghao was rolling his eyes through the video, the sarcasm in Minghao’s voice manages to convey that perfectly well. “Have you tried talking to her about … you know, being bi? Maybe she needed time to think. Maybe she gets it now.”

“I doubt it.” Mingyu watches snowflakes, fat and lazy, drift down through his bedroom window. Downstairs, he can hear his mother in the kitchen, making Pillsbury snowman cookies for tomorrow’s Christmas morning treat. “She acts like nothing is wrong between us, like nothing even happened. That doesn’t sound like someone who needed time to think and ‘gets it’.”

“But, I mean, she’s gotta have to come to terms with it at some point, right?” Minghao cuts himself off, and there’s a brief moment of argument and struggle that Mingyu can’t make out until eventually Minghao’s face gets back into view, irritated, and Junhui’s resting on the bed with him with his feet propped up onto Minghao’s outstretched back. “You’re dating Wonwoo now, you’re either gay or bi or some sort of LGBT, and that’s something she can’t pretend isn’t happening.”

“Right, right,” Mingyu mumbles, looking down.

“Mingyu, please tell me she knows you’re dating Wonwoo.” Minghao hesitates, looking utterly baffled. “Okay, please tell me she knows anything about Wonwoo.” When Mingyu doesn’t respond and instead gives him a sheepish half-grin, Minghao says, “Mingyu, please tell me she knows who Wonwoo is.”

“She knows that he’s my … friend. That’s it.”

“Your ‘friend’? What about in high school?”

“Even then. She doesn’t know anything. About—about what happened in senior year, or about my feelings, or, or anything.”

“For Christ’s sakes, Mingyu.”

“I’ll tell her. One day, I guess.” Mingyu shrugs aggressively. “Maybe. I don’t know. Look, being back here just feels … weird. It makes me remember a lot of dumb shit about myself. I wanna go back to school.”

Minghao drops the subject, seemingly able to tell that Mingyu doesn’t want to talk about his mother or Wonwoo right now. “Yeah, you only say that because you got high marks in every subject, and I got that fucking B- in 19th Century Literature. I hate you.”

Junhui says something only half-audible, but clearly makes Minghao laugh and try to kick him at the same time. Mingyu smiles at their antics, but a part of him feels somber at the idea of Minghao and Junhui having a great time during Christmas, how lively their family must be during the holidays. His mom is humming along to Frosty the Snowman downstairs, music playing from their stereo, but the house still feels empty and barren.

Mingyu thinks of Seungkwan and Vernon arguing loudly in the basement only to break into smothered laughter, of Chan running to his door desperately asking for help on his exams. Of the shock of Wonwoo’s lips against his cheek.

He wishes he was home.

 

Christmas morning dawns dim and cold, the weather well into the negatives, and despite the house’s heating system Mingyu still finds himself shivering and reaching for his thickest, woolliest sweater when he gets out of bed. Wet, tiny snowflakes flit by at a solid diagonal line to the ground, wind howling, and Mrs. Kim has the TV turned on to the special holiday channel belting out cheerful tunes to the background of a perfect, flickering fireplace.

“Merry Christmas, Mingyu,” she says as they grab cookies and glasses of milk and sit on the floor around the little plastic tree.

There are distinctly less presents under the tree than there used to be a couple years ago, and Mingyu isn’t sure if it’s because he’s getting too old to really need that many gifts, or if it’s because Mrs. Kim’s new job no longer gives her the kind of money to afford to spoil him.

Both options make him uncomfortable for very different reasons that he can’t quite explain, so he chooses to ignore it.

His presents are all small, boring, but essential things—school supplies like fresh notebooks and pens, a new charger for his phone, socks and underwear and new jeans that don’t feel tight around his calves. Mingyu finds himself strangely satisfied, anyway. No expensive gaming console, or the latest fashion trends, or some fancy new gadget that he only wants because every other popular kid in the school is getting one too. Instead, he finds the satisfaction in these little things, and he thanks his mother for every one of them, even if it’s nothing but a pack of fresh new erasable gel pens.

Now that he has a job of his own at that coffee shop near campus, Mingyu has enough of an income—not much, considering it’s minimum wage, but it still counts—to buy her something special for the holidays.

Mrs. Kim gasps and coos at the shiny pearl necklace Mingyu had saved up for her, a simplistic piece of jewelry that he got because he has no idea what kind of jewelry his mother actually likes, but she seems happy enough and tells him all about how jealous the other ladies at her job will be when she shows them the present her hardworking son gave her, and Mingyu smiles because she’s smiling, and for a while there it almost feels like they’re a family again.

“Don’t you remember back when we had a real tree?” his mother suddenly says with a small laugh, and just like that the soft smile on Mingyu’s face slides off. “Your father nearly broke a lamp trying to get it into the living room. And all those pine needles! I had to vacuum the carpet at least twice a day just to keep it clean. These fake ones are nice too, I suppose, but … well … there’s nothing quite like the smell of a real Christmas tree, don’t you think?”

He can’t believe this. Is she really talking about dad right now? The subject has been taboo for so long, breaking it now (on Christmas of all days!) feels almost like a betrayal. Like she’s letting herself go back to those memories, as though all the misery and shit they both had to go through to get over his father’s absence, to move on and remind themselves that they don’t need to go through something like that ever again, all means nothing.

“These cookies are great, mom,” he blurts out, “I’m gonna go get some more. Are there any left?”

“I—oh. In the kitchen.” His mother looks confused, and suddenly that expression is infuriating, and before Mingyu can lose his temper and say something stupid he runs into the kitchen to take a breather.

This is weird. This has never happened before. Mingyu doesn’t get angry—not like this, not out of nowhere and with such little provocation as something like mentioning his asshole ex-dad, and especially not towards his mother. Sure, his nerves are a little short ever since he came back into this house, with all its bittersweet childhood nostalgia and memories of Hysera Secondary, but surely that’s not enough to make him want to lose it just because of a small conversational piece.

He takes a moment to calm himself and checks his phone. Wonwoo sent him a picture fifteen minutes ago, of him happily opening presents with his family. They have a real pine tree.

The rest of the morning passes by in the same oddly stressed manner, never quite going back to the comfortable, sleepy atmosphere they started off with. It’s almost like they’re trying to get a reaction out of each other or something; Mingyu avoids having to talk to his mother by going on his phone, prompting Mrs. Kim to eventually ask him who he’s texting or desperately start a conversation that almost inevitably becomes reminiscing about their lives when his dad was still around, and both options only give Mingyu the choice to wiggle anxiously on the couch and mumble bullshit responses and desperately hope she gives up talking.

It doesn’t make for a happy holiday for either of them, and by the time it hits two in the afternoon and the bitter wind outside has settled into a simple biting chill, both of them are keyed up and tense and yet neither of them are backing down.

“Maybe I should start getting dinner ready,” his mother says, as if it isn’t a little ridiculous to start dinner so early when nothing she cooks will need such long preparation. It’s almost as transparent as Mingyu’s thumb consistently tapping the space key on his phone so it looks like he’s texting someone, even though he really isn’t.

“You don’t have to, mom,” he mumbles. There’s traces of an anxiety attack building up in the back of his throat, the edges of his mind, that nausea and fear and overwhelming desire to run away and disappear forever. What is it that’s making his panic come back? Is it the constant mentioning of his father? The increasingly terrible feeling of pretending he’s not bi or currently in a relationship with another man? The sheer presence of his mother alone? He doesn’t know, but it’s starting to make his vision swim. He doesn’t know what’s on the screen of his phone.

“I should have put in more effort, it’s the first time in years I can make a real Christmas dinner again. Oh, remember that one Christmas when I made that turkey? It was my first time trying to cook one, I nearly burnt it to a crisp. You were only a toddler at the time, the smell made you cry and your father had to drive out in a near-snowstorm to find a pre-cooked turkey for us at some sketchy Polish butcher—”

It’s too much. All too much. He hates being in this neighbourhood, he hates being in this house, he hates being reminded of all this shit he doesn’t want to be reminded of. He thinks he’s about to go crazy.

“Can we not talk about dad right now, please?” Mingyu interrupts, harshly, through gritted teeth.

Mrs. Kim shoots him a warning look. “Watch your tone, Mingyu.”

“Look, can we just not get into this during the holidays, mom?”

His mother just gives him a look like he’s some sort of tantrum-throwing problem child and shakes her head. “Mingyu, he’s your father, for god’s sakes. He’s not a part of our home anymore, but he’s still a part of this family. Talking about him once in a while won’t kill you.”

Talk about him?”

And just like that, he gets it. He gets why he’s so, impossibly angry right now.

It’s because he can’t talk about his own sexuality, can’t talk about something that’s so integral to his personal identity, to his own mother and in his own house. Something that a mother should know about, something he should be able to trust his own parent to listen to and support, to encourage and understand, is something he has to pretend never happened, without any regard to his own feelings or comfort on the matter.

It’s because his mother can decide when to break the taboo subjects in their family, can decide to suddenly start talking about his father despite how much Mingyu hates to even think about him, can decide what is acceptable to divulge into and what isn’t, and Mingyu is nineteen years old—almost twenty—and he still has no say whatsoever.

And despite hanging out with Wonwoo far more than should be really appropriate between “friends”, Mrs. Kim still hasn’t—or maybe refuses to—figure out the truth.

“I just don’t wanna talk about him, that’s all!” he snaps, almost half-yelling. That’s not even what he’s really all that angry about.

“Mingyu, your voice! Really, you can be such a child sometimes, pretending everything you don’t like was something that never happened—”

Without another word, he stands up and storms out of the living room, heading towards the foyer so he can yank on his boots and throw a jacket on. Mrs. Kim follows after him a couple beats behind, voice raising, demanding for him to not walk away in the middle of a conversation.

“Mingyu—Mingyu! Where are you going?”

“I’m going to see Wonwoo,” Mingyu says shortly, and the anger reaches an all-time peak. An image of a volcano appears in his mind, the kind fourth-graders make for science projects, all brown plasticine and violent orange and red baking-soda lava erupting like a geyser. “I probably won’t be back for a while.”

“Now, hold on,” his mother says, sounding like she’s struggling to keep her own frustration in check. “This is Christmas, young man, and Christmas is supposed to be spent with family. Does Wonwoo mean more to you than your own family?”

The two of them have been dancing around for so long, it’s almost a relief for Mingyu to finally explode. He clenches his hands into fists and spits out, “Our Christmas isn’t family. Get real, mom, we haven’t been what any sane person could call a family for a long time now.”

The look on his mother’s face makes him hesitate and sputter out, the absolutely crushed expression in her tired wrinkles and old memories making Mingyu immediately regret saying it, but it’s been said all the same. He’s still angry, still upset, still broken and twisted and clinging to the dirt inside of himself. He’s horrified to realize he’s feeling the exact same way he did that lingering moment during the high school fire drill, standing in the grass and letting poison drip out of his mouth to hurt someone he loves, because he’s scared and desperate and killing himself slowly on the inside and he doesn’t know where else to put the venom.

And he’s still seeing red when he says, “I’m going to go see my boyfriend now. My boyfriend of three months, that I’ve had feelings for since high school, which you wouldn’t know about because you don’t actually care.”

He only has time to witness Mrs. Kim’s features morph into a look of shock before he turns on his heel and stomps out, slamming the door behind him for good measure.

 

He doesn’t really call Wonwoo, but he did tell Minghao about the fight, who must have promptly texted Wonwoo—because he’s only in Vinca Park for about fifteen minutes, sitting on the swing and staring numbly out at the snow, bare fingers slowly losing feeling against the freezing metal chains that suspend the swing on its frame, when he hears the sound of boots crunching and he turns to see Wonwoo bundled up and out of breath, cheeks and nose flushed pink in the cold and from exertion and looking so beautiful and Mingyu doesn’t deserve him.

“Mingyu,” Wonwoo says, and there’s too much to read into in his voice—laced with warnings, disapproval, worry, exasperation, sadness, love—and Mingyu turns his head, looks away and glares at the blinding bright snow. “Why didn’t you call me?”

“It’s Christmas,” Mingyu mumbles, wondering if Wonwoo can even hear him. They’re the only two people in the park. Everyone else is at home, under warm blankets and drinking eggnog, listening to Christmas carols or opening presents.

“So what?”

“So you should spend time with your family. I … I’m not gonna call you to come get me every time I have some sort of fucking problem. You’re my boyfriend, not my therapist.”

“So, what? You’d rather just sit here and freeze to fucking death?” Wonwoo’s voice is sharp, and Mingyu tries his hardest not to cringe away from it. There’s a long moment of silence, before Wonwoo lets out a heavy sigh and walks up right in front of Mingyu, kicking up snow along the way. Mingyu stares at the simple, knitted pattern of Wonwoo’s scarf, refuses to look up any further than that.

“Alright, come here,” Wonwoo says softly, and mitten-warm fingers find their way to Mingyu’s hands, gently coaxing them to unfurl from their iron grip around the swing’s chains. The chill is almost painful now, burning in the joints between his fingers’ bones until they feel too stiff to move. “I said c’mere, you idiot. Your hands are freezing.”

Mingyu doesn’t respond, mostly because he’s starting to feel a hard lump of rock moving its way up his throat, eyes beginning to burn searing holes into the snowflakes flecked against Wonwoo’s jacket and scarf. Wonwoo’s hands slowly and methodically rub some warmth and feeling back into Mingyu’s fingers, pastel blue mittens soft against bare skin.

“You don’t have anything to keep you warm,” Wonwoo says, and his voice is low and scratchy and soothing—and maybe he knows this, because he keeps talking, more than he usually does, as his warm gloved hands move their way up Mingyu’s palms and wrists and forearms, just massaging the coldness out of them. “No gloves, no scarf, no hat, you could’ve turned into a popsicle. You can’t write essays if you get frostbite, you know.”

He slowly moves his hands up to cup the sides of Mingyu’s face, gently angling him upwards. Mingyu tries to meet Wonwoo’s gaze, but his eyes automatically fall down to just past Wonwoo’s ear, as though not looking at him might hide the fact that tears are starting to pool up and slide down his cheeks.

“You’re okay,” Wonwoo whispers, doing his best to wipe away the tears heating up Mingyu’s skin, an almost blessedly blistering relief against the marble-cold winds. “You’re okay, Mingyu.”

“W-what did Hao tell you?” Mingyu mumbles through frozen lips.

Wonwoo doesn’t even have to ask how he knew it was Minghao. Of course it was Minghao. “He just said that you got into a fight with your mom and left the house. If you weren’t ringing my doorbell, then you could only have been here. Becoming a living snowman like a doofus.”

“I told her.” Mingyu squeezes his eyes shut, eyelashes clumping together through hot tears and icy snowflakes, the warm puffs of Wonwoo’s breathing close enough to make him shiver. “Ab-about us. And I got mad. I said—said a lot of things I shouldn’t have.”

“You were upset,” Wonwoo says, and lips so warm they almost feel like they’re boiling press themselves against Mingyu’s closed eyelids. “You were just being irrational.”

“I hurt people,” Mingyu sobs. “I hurt you, and I hurt my mom. I hurt people when I’m too scared to deal with my own fucking feelings.”

“It’s okay, Gyu. It’s all gonna be okay.” Wonwoo’s lips travel a path along Mingyu’s nose and cheeks down towards his mouth with a little more urgency now. “You’re—you’re so cold, come on, let me take you home—”

“I’m not going back,” he babbles through a series of tiny hiccups, totally dazzled at the way the snowflakes manage to stick to Wonwoo’s short, fine eyelashes. “I can’t go back, not now, not after what I said to her—”

“Not your home, Mingyu, my home. Let me take you back to my house and get you warmed up.” When Mingyu finds that his legs can’t move and he feels rusted and hot-glued to the seat beneath him, Wonwoo’s hands move again to wrap around his, tugging gently. “Let’s go, Mingyu.”

Through warm kisses and gentle words of comfort, Wonwoo manages to coax him out of the swing’s seat and out of Vinca Park, the two of them slowly trudging through the snow back towards Wonwoo’s sunny yellow townhouse. Mingyu is barely aware that he’s kicking snow off his boots and shuffling inside, Wonwoo helping him to peel off his coat. It isn’t until people are carefully pressing hand warmers into his palms, a cup of warm honeyed tea wafting from beneath his chin and nose, does he realize he’s shivering hard enough for his teeth to chatter and Wonwoo’s parents are clustered around him. Wonwoo’s younger brother, Bohyuk, watches a little anxiously a few feet away with a book in hand.

Mrs. Jeon has a fluffy purple housecoat wrapped around her, and both Wonwoo’s father and brother are wearing plaid flannel pyjama pants. It’s clear that none of them had been expecting company, that maybe they had been in the process of going through presents or watching an old Christmas movie, enjoying their family time—he could only be bothering them—and yet they look at Mingyu with nothing but concern.

“Bohyuk, put some blankets into the dryer for a minute or two, will you?” Mrs. Jeon says, and Bohyuk disappears up the stairs, and eventually a low rumble echoes from a distant room. “Let’s have you drink some of this, dear, slowly, let it warm you up.”

Mingyu sips at the drink, and it goes down his veins like liquid gold and amber, a lovely little fire that makes his numb fingers and toes tingle. He wonders if the tears on his face, long since dried from the wintery winds that battered against him as they walked over, are still clear enough to be seen. He desperately hopes not.

“I’m going to take him up to my room, mom,” he can hear Wonwoo saying right next to his ear, and there’s an arm wrapped protectively around Mingyu, pressing him close to Wonwoo’s side. “Is that okay?”

“Of course,” Mrs. Jeon says. “Call us if you need anything.”

Mingyu forces his legs to move, and stumbles up the stairs with Wonwoo, still clutching the hand warmers and his cup of tea. Wonwoo sets him down on his bed and leaves for a moment, returning with a couple blankets that Bohyuk must have put in the dryer. He wraps them around Mingyu, and it’s like being smothered in a sun-soaked cocoon.

“This feels amazing,” he sighs, still taking small sips of the tea and shivering at the sensation of all this heat. “Holy shit, why haven’t I tried this before?”

“Try it with everything,” Wonwoo says, making sure his door is closed securely behind him. “Socks, sweaters, underwear, it’s the best. I used to just lie down on piles of freshly-dried laundry when I was a kid, and dad would always scold me for wrinkling them.” He plops down beside Mingyu and takes away his cup, placing it on his desk, and immediately gathers him into his arms, leaning backwards so the two are reclined on the bed.

“What did you tell your parents?” Mingyu asks, voice a little muffled against the sharp jut of Wonwoo’s collarbone beneath his sweater.

“That my boyfriend had some trouble with his mom and was trying to freeze himself to death near our house.” Wonwoo huffs out a small, pained laugh, and as his hands press against the back of Mingyu’s skull, the small of his back, Mingyu feels them shaking. Maybe they have been shaking the entire time, only they were concealed beneath his mittens. “They are the parents of a gay son in a conservative community. I think they had an idea what kind of trouble you were having, not that they’ll pry.”

“I’m sorry for ruining your holiday,” Mingyu starts to say, but Wonwoo cuts him off.

“I get to spend Christmas with Kim Mingyu in my bed, trust me, you didn’t ruin anything.” Wonwoo shifts slightly to give himself a better angle to kiss Mingyu, a sweet little peck that hides how tense and anxious his expression really is. “Although I wish it didn’t have to start with you crying out in the snow.” His voice turns a little wobbly, the general deep roughness of his tone gaining a sandpapery quality like tumbling gravel. “Seriously, Mingyu, don’t do shit like this without telling me. It’s below zero temperatures out there, you could’ve gotten hurt.”

“I’m sorry for making you worry.”

“If you apologize for one more thing, I’m going to dump that entire cup of tea over your head.”

“Do it, it might bring some feeling back into my ears.”

“Nah, I was only bluffing. I might burn your ears off, and I love your ears.”

It sounds as close as Wonwoo can get to an I love you, and Mingyu thinks his ears are burning anyway.

The blankets are beginning to cool by now, but they did their job warming Mingyu’s body up. His lips and jaw and fingers are almost completely back to normal as he says, “To tell you the truth, I lied a bit. It wasn’t the whole bi thing that my mom and I fought about. It was—well, it was a lot of things. I did tell her you were my boyfriend, though. As I was walking out the door. Post-fight.”

“Of course you did.” Wonwoo’s smile is a little strained as he says, “I take it I’m not exactly going to be invited to meet her anytime soon, then.”

“I dunno. Maybe. One day. I mean—I didn’t exactly wait and see if she approved or not—it isn’t that she cares about me being gay, it’s more about me being bi, because that is something she doesn’t understand, and I just—whatever. I don’t care. She just—I don’t care.”

Wonwoo doesn’t say anything for a long moment, but he does hold Mingyu even tighter to him. After a while, he simply says, “Do you want anything? Hot chocolate, maybe?”

“That sounds great, but I should probably finish that tea.”

“Of course you should.” Wonwoo’s arms don’t relax from their hold on him; Mingyu couldn’t have sat up to grab that cup of steaming chamomile if he tried.

“Thank you.”

“For what?”

“For—for doing all this for me. Your mess of a boyfriend. For taking me in and looking after me when you should be spending time with your family.” There’s so much more he should be thanking him for, Mingyu thinks, but he’s suddenly overwhelmed with everything Wonwoo has done for him and probably will do for him in the future, and that brick that seems to always be lodging itself in his windpipe is starting to return the more he thinks about it, so he doesn’t elaborate further, no matter how much he wants to. One day he will, he’ll sit down and compile a complete list of all the things Wonwoo has done that he’s grateful for, but not today.

Wonwoo gives him a small smile and smooths hair away from his forehead. “Jeez, Mingyu, I already told you it’s fine. You’re not bothering anyone. We already opened our presents and everything this morning. Honestly, at this point, we usually go our separate ways to read books or watch Netflix or something, anyway.”

“I had a present I was going to give to you, too,” Mingyu says miserably, “but I forgot it at home.”

He laughs. “That’s okay, you can give it to me some other time.”

Wonwoo has a present for him, though, and Mingyu gapes when he pulls out a present roughly the size of a shoebox from his closet, clumsily wrapped and revealing several vintage Archie comic issues and a stuffed animal that vaguely resembles some sort of Asian mascot (“It came from one of those claw machine games at Pacific Mall, do you know how many quarters I lost trying to get that stupid thing?”). Wonwoo smothers laughter when Mingyu dramatically kisses the mascot on its slightly dilapidated plush nose, then laughs even harder when Mingyu turns to dramatically kiss him, instead.

All in all, it’s a much happier Christmas than Mingyu had been expecting, so happy that he almost dreads going back home. Wonwoo’s mother drives him there, insists to, because there’s no way he can walk back all by himself in the cold. Wonwoo wanted to come too, just for the ride, but Mingyu insisted he stay back. He’s not sure why, but he wants to keep Wonwoo away from his house as much as possible.

“Will you be alright, Mingyu?” Mrs. Jeon asks as she pulls into the long, snow-covered driveway. The house is so much bigger than the Jeon family’s humble townhouse, with a real front lawn and a swimming pool closed for the season in the backyard, but weirdly enough it doesn’t feel as grandiose or magnificent.

“I’ll be fine, Auntie Jeon, thank you.”

Neither he nor Wonwoo had really told her the reason why he ran away from home, and it didn’t seem like she was about to ask for an explanation. All the same, he sees the look in her eyes when she glances at him through the rearview mirror. She’s the mother of a son who had to spend most of his young life believing his gayness was a curse, an embarrassment he should be hiding, a son who was ridiculous and cast out of social circles even before his sexuality was brought to light. She’s the mother of a son who’s suffered through dozens of Christmases alone with nobody but his family to support him, and it’s difficult for her to sit by and think that there’s somebody else’s son out there who can’t even rely on family to do that.

“Of course, my dear,” she says, and the smile she gives him looks so much like Wonwoo’s Mingyu thinks he might get emotional. “If you ever need to drop by and visit us, you are more than welcome, anytime you like. I know it’ll make Wonwoo very happy; he thinks about you more than he’ll admit, that boy.”

And with that thought calming his nerves, Mingyu bids her goodbye and enters his house again. Mrs. Kim immediately runs down the hall, face pinched with worry.

“Mingyu, I can’t believe you,” she says, near-tears, “it’s absolutely freezing outside, you could have gotten hurt!”

It’s almost like that trip to Wonwoo’s house never happened. Mingyu’s shoulders hunch up defensively, and before he can stop himself he’s already snapping out a bitter, “It’s not like you were giving me any calls, were you?”

But it seems like the fight has left both of them—Mrs. Kim opens her mouth, but Mingyu cuts her off with a sigh, words weary and quiet. “No, I didn’t mean that. I’m sorry. I know you were only giving me space, you would have called if you were really worried.”

The two of them just stand there for a moment and look at each other, neither of them willing to argue anymore but both not knowing how to fix it. Eventually, Mingyu decides to be the bigger man and says, “I’m sorry for yelling at you. And running out like that. I just—I was—I was just—talking about my dad makes me really upset lately. I don’t like thinking about him.”

That wasn’t the whole truth about the root of the argument, and he thinks his mom knows it, but she doesn’t comment on it.

“And I’m sorry for pushing you about it, if it really hurts you that much, Gyu.” She looks old and tired, so small and frail next to him, and Mingyu already feels horrible for blowing up at her. “I just … you were right, you know. Saying we haven’t been a family in a long time. I know it’s not really anyone’s fault—I had to work, you had friends, you had school—but I was just wanted to find some way to make this a family holiday again. But all I could think of was the good times we had when—well, when things were simpler.”

Something hot and acidic is burning in the back of Mingyu’s eyes. For a moment, the hallway suddenly smells like his father’s cigarettes, that generic cologne, the sound of his father laughing at something on the TV, and the terrifying noise of his parents screaming at each other like a distant echo in the ears of his own ghost at twelve years old.

Nothing was ever simple.

“Are you still making that turkey?” he asks, shyly. “I could help you, if … if you want.”

“It’s almost done cooking,” his mother says with a smile. “You can help me carve it, it’s such a small one but it’s still too heavy for me.”

“Sure thing, mom.” And it feels good to say that—despite the fact that he knows they’ll be spending the rest of the holidays treading carefully around each other, watching their words, it’s the first time in weeks, months even, that Mingyu thinks they might be able to work this out.

 

This time, Mingyu celebrates New Years with a real kiss from Wonwoo, albeit one that’s still a little bit fuzzy from one too many drinks. His belated Christmas present is a series of expensive new sketchbooks and pencils, and Wonwoo seems intent on giving him a kiss for every digit he sees on their price tags.

 

Second semester starts in the freezing cold of January, and Mingyu returns to find the house almost unbearably chilly after two weeks with no one inside to use the heater, icicles hanging from the roof like crystallized daggers and dangling low enough to feel dangerous. Chan is there first, bundled up in what might be three pairs of sweaters, whining desperately for Mingyu to help him fix the thermostat because he doesn’t know how to do it himself.

Mingyu’s routine is almost automatic, at this point, and it’s a relief to have that kind of security in his life. He works at the coffee shop Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, and studies the rest of the days, usually in the library with the others. If he’s lucky, he gets to hang out with Wonwoo on Saturdays, just the two of them, in what might be called a “date night” but mostly consists of them alternating between studying together and making out. Other weekends, he gets Minghao to go to the gym with him, or Junhui is throwing a party and they all get smashed.

It’s a life he enjoys far more than he expected, or thought he’d ever be able to achieve, and it makes him happier than anything.

One Saturday in February, just before their reading week, Vernon knocks on his door and says, “Yo, dude, are you planning on meeting with Wonwoo tonight?”

“I don’t know yet,” Mingyu says, not really bothering to hide his confusion. “Whhhyyy are you asking?”

“Because I wanna know if you’ve got any plans with Minghao, obviously.”

“Still don’t know what you’re getting at, bro.”

Vernon rolls his eyes. He’s wearing the ugliest grey hoodie over his basketball jersey-inspired T-shirt, and Mingyu can’t believe he knows someone who’s gay and has such an appallingly terrible heterosexual sense of fashion.

 “Dude,” Vernon says, “because Hao’s stressed from exams, obviously, and he’s still feeling kind of shitty because of the whole aromantic thing, and because Seungkwan and Chan are both doing something with Soonyoung and I’m bored by myself. I thought I could take him to that stupid arcade place a few blocks down, distract him a bit before he has to go back home for reading week.”

“You’ve been hanging out with him a lot,” Mingyu observes.

“What, man? You jealous?”

“I’m not Seungkwan, you can chill out, I’m not gonna pick a fight with you because I think you’re stealing my best friend.”

“Can’t compete with you anyways, bro,” Vernon says, which makes Mingyu grin and reach for his phone to text Wonwoo.

Three and a half hours later, as he’s lying on his bed on his phone, he hears the faint sound of the front door opening, an amused Minghao saying to have fun and yelling for Vernon to get a move on, and then a couple seconds later Wonwoo opens the door to Mingyu’s bedroom, looking tired and a little upset but impossibly cute in a cable-knit olive sweater.

“Move, I’m exhausted,” he says, not giving Mingyu any time to roll away before he collapses onto the bed right on top of him, chin jabbing almost painfully into Mingyu’s sternum for a moment before he adjusts his position into something more comfortable.

“How was your midterm?” Mingyu asks, moving his hand up so it can rest in Wonwoo’s dark hair, soft against his fingertips. He’s struck dumb at the very notion that the boy he’s been in love with for two years now finds it so easy to just lie on top of him like this, moving with the rise and fall of Mingyu’s own breathing, eyes closed, short eyelashes a stark almost-blackness against the pallor of his cheeks like some sort of fairy tale princess. Something about apples and red lips. Mingyu should probably not start thinking about lips right now.

“Shitty. Exhausting. At this point, I’m only hoping I pass it.” Wonwoo’s words are short and tight, indicating he’s much more upset about this than he’d like others to believe.

Mingyu carefully runs his hands through Wonwoo’s hair, stroking it, hoping there’s something warm and reassuring in his touch the way he always feels with Wonwoo’s. “It couldn’t have been that bad. You studied so hard for it.”

“It was. I was discussing it with some friends who were in the same exam hall as me. I already know I got at least three questions wrong, and some of them were worth a lot of points.” Wonwoo scowls and hides it against the fabric of Mingyu’s shirt. “Christ. I completely screwed up.”

“Okay, no, you didn’t. You’re overthinking it. You’re fine. And it’s still only the first midterm, yeah? You can totally catch up with the second one and the final exam.”

“I guess,” Wonwoo says, not sounding completely convinced. “Can we do something else now?”

“Like what?”

“I dunno. Just, anything else so I can stop thinking about it and freaking out.”

Mingyu hasn’t had enough time alone with Wonwoo since midterm crunch time started, and he instantly has a couple ideas, many of which don’t involve much else other than locking lips and releasing some stress, but he’s not sure whether Wonwoo is up for it. “W-well, uh, I mean …” When Wonwoo raises his head to look at him, Mingyu gives him a helpless, weak little shrug, hoping the slightly embarrassed and hopeful expression on his face will tell it for him.

Wonwoo stares at him for a moment, a half grin playing on his lips. “You’re completely insufferable, you know that?”

Well, that’s not a no. “Oh, whatever. It’s a small price to pay for loving you.”

Wonwoo stills, and it takes Mingyu a second to realize that his expression has completely frozen.

“What?” he asks, cautiously, wondering if he’s said something wrong.

“I. Nothing. I just—” Wonwoo licks his lips, struggling very heavily with the right words to say. “I just … you’ve never said that before. That you—you loved me.”

“I haven’t?” Mingyu tries to wrack his brains for an answer, and realizes he really hasn’t. He’s only ever used the words “like”, perhaps in an effort to verbally lessen the extent of his feelings so as not to burden Wonwoo with them too soon. But in this moment, with Wonwoo practically on top of him, black hair falling into his eyes and curling a bit around his ears, he’s absolutely certain that there is no other word he’d rather use. “Huh. Well, I do. Love you, I mean.”

Wonwoo makes a choked up, strangled noise, ears and cheeks and neck instantly flushing a brilliant pink that makes Mingyu feel extraordinarily pleased. “I-it’s not a big deal to you?”

“Well, I’ve been saying it for so long in my head, it kinda feels like I’ve been telling you that all this time.”

Wonwoo can only stare at him.

For a few long moments, they just look at each other, and Mingyu starts to actually worry this time. Maybe it wasn’t the best time for him to say it out loud—maybe it was too soon, too early, too much, too everything—and maybe it was better for him to keep it to himself and swallow the love down like always. “Sorry for saying that, I could’ve—I didn’t mean to—”

Wonwoo cuts him off by frantically slotting his mouth against his, and Mingyu’s anxiety disappears against the sudden shower of fireworks exploding against the back of his eyelids. Wonwoo kisses him long enough to make him get a little dizzy, and they’re moving, shifting against each other, mostly awkward hands and elbows and knees and a couple painful accidental jabs. Eventually, Wonwoo pulls away and Mingyu finds himself blinking stupidly up at his gorgeous face, pinned to the bed, Wonwoo’s skinny legs on either side of his hips and chest heaving above him. Mingyu is utterly thrilled at this turn of events.

“I do, too,” Wonwoo says, and a flicker of an embarrassed smile crosses his face between tiny gasps. “Love you. I mean.”

“You do?” Mingyu asks, already smiling big and dumb and wide. His hands don’t really know what to do with themselves, but they automatically land on Wonwoo’s waist and seem to like staying there.

“Of course I do. How could I not?” Wonwoo scoffs, feebly attempting some form of bravado, despite the fact that his hair is sticking up every which way and he’s got a light dancing in his eyes that makes Mingyu want to fall to his knees and grovel at his feet. “You think I’d stick around and deal with all your shit because of just a fleeting infatuation?”

And then Wonwoo smiles for real, lips stretching to show teeth and gums, eyes crinkling at the force of the grin, and Mingyu suddenly decides that he’d much, much rather fall to his knees before Wonwoo and do something entirely different. Although groveling might still be involved.

“H-hey,” he stutters, the sharp ridges of Wonwoo’s bony hips feeling heavy beneath the weight of his sweaty palms, “I, um, I know it’s been a long while since we, well, you know—and I don’t know if you are feeling the same way right now, but I—I just—if you—”

Wonwoo interrupts him with a hard kiss, teeth clacking together clumsily in his eagerness.

“Yeah, just shut up now,” he says breathlessly, before pulling away to grab his sweater by the back of his collar and yank it over his head.

Chapter Text

Kim Mingyu was fifteen years old, gangly, awkward, and self-conscious when he first met Seungcheol and Jihoon.

He was delighted when he entered high school, if only because it felt like he might have a chance to become something different. Sure, he already knew at least half the people here, because they all went to the same elementary school together, and sure, they all probably already knew him as That One Kid nobody ever cared about, but people changed when they became teenagers, didn’t they?

He thought so; but when he was fourteen and walking down those halls for the first time, getting mixed up and confused every time he left a classroom or found his locker, he didn’t feel like anything changed at all.

Fifteen meant something promising—he finally hit his growth spurt, suddenly found himself staring at the tops of people’s heads, found girls looking at him with, well, not with enraptured interest like he wanted, but at least with curiosity, found boys a little more willing to have him on their team in PE. It meant something, to not be chosen last. At least, Mingyu thought it did.

But all the same, he was fifteen and wandering the halls during lunch period alone, a whole year since he entered Hysera, and he still didn’t have what anyone would call good friends. He ate in the classroom by himself, just close enough to a group of people that he might be able to pretend he’s part of their squad. He studied by himself. He walked home by himself.

He’ll get there. He wouldn’t be That One Kid forever. He would get out of this. He had to.

Using the bathroom on the second floor proved to be a big mistake—as a tenth grader, and not a particularly impressive-looking one at that, he was at risk of catching the eye of not-so-friendly older students if he entered any bathrooms on the upper floor. Just like he suspected, he pushed open the door and found a small group of seniors clustered by the bathroom’s open window, smoking weed. It stank of rancid fumes and wet grass and skunk.

They looked him up and down, eyes red and unfocused, sneering. Mingyu recognized them. They were part of the special brand of rich white kids who took the simplified version of all the math and science courses because they couldn’t care less about school, skipping class and acting out, knowing they’re parents would keep them out of trouble in the end.

“Hey, you,” one of them said when Mingyu tried to silently shuffle towards the stalls. “Yo! I’m talking to you, Chinese Kid.”

“I’m Korean,” Mingyu mumbled immediately, before he could stop himself.

“You think I give a shit?” The senior stumbled up to his feet, and despite feeling proud of his growth, Mingyu immediately felt small again. “Listen. Need you to do a favour for us seniors, yeah? Keep an eye on the door for us, let us know if a teacher is coming by.”

Don’t get pushed around. Don’t get pushed around. That had been his greatest fear for years. To not just be someone people ignored, but to be someone considered easy picking for bullies. Mingyu squared his shoulders and stammered, “N-no. No. I’m just here to use the bathroom. I-I have to get back before lunch period ends.”

He didn’t like the look in their eyes, the utter callous coldness, and whirled around to escape. The moment his back was turned, there were hands grabbing the back of his neck, twisting painfully in his hair, his garbled shouts of alarm stifled as the seniors yanked him backwards and started dragging him into one of the stalls. Mingyu couldn’t make out what anyone was saying over his own yells—snarls of “fuckin’ kid”, “disrespect”, “lemme show you who’s the boss around here”—he was on his knees before he could escape, staring at a toilet bowl. He braced his arms against the stall, forcing every muscle in his head and back to keep them from shoving him face-first into that filthy, stale water—he was choking, their grip strong and unforgiving, the smell of the stall unbearable, why him, why did this have to happen to him—

“Hey!” someone yelled. The bathroom door slammed shut on squeaky hinges, and there was the sound of feet hammering against tiles. The hands around Mingyu’s head abruptly loosened, then fell away, and Mingyu jerked away from the toilet gagging and heaving.

He watched through tear-blurred eyes as two students punched and shoved the drugged-out seniors into submission. They scrambled out the bathroom with muffled curses, swearing revenge. They still reeked of weed—a teacher would catch them sooner or later, punish them with a couple weeks worth of detention they’ll eventually weasel out of. They weren’t Mingyu’s problem anymore.

“Fuck, man,” one of his saviours said. Mingyu recognized him instantly. He was Choi Seungcheol, rising star of the sophomores, the one everyone wanted to be friends with and all the sports teams wanted on their side. And next to him was his apparent best friend, despite their numerous differences—Lee Jihoon, a pink-haired rebel with a short temper, who was quickly becoming a student widely feared by students and teachers alike. The two of them were young and vibrant and willing to extend their hand out to those who needed it—something all three of them will eventually forget by the time they reached their last year of high school. “Were they really gonna dunk you? That’s fucked up, holy shit.”

“Every senior in this school is a fucking barbarian, Cheol,” Jihoon complained, scowling and rubbing at his knuckles. “Can’t wait for them all to fuck off next year.”

“When I become student council prez, trust me, nobody will try pulling shit like this.” Seungcheol dusted off his varsity jacket, then grinned down at Mingyu and held out a hand. “Man, good thing we came in when we did, huh?”

Mingyu accepted the hand, and Seungcheol hauled him up. He suddenly felt self-conscious, dirty, and not just from touching the bathroom floor. Seungcheol was someone who had life handed to him on a silver platter. He was not and would never be That One Kid, and here Mingyu was looking like an idiot in front of him. Even Jihoon, as odd and eclectic as he was, didn’t look like he was ever someone that knew what it was like to be lonely.

“You’re Mingyu, aren’t you?” Seungcheol said. “Hey, we share Math and History, don’t we? I’m Seungcheol, that’s Jihoon.”

“Uh—right.” As if he wouldn’t know, when they were all anyone ever talked about. Mingyu wanted to be someone like Seungcheol. He wanted it so bad, it ached. “Thanks for helping me out. That wasn’t fun.”

To his utter amazement, both Seungcheol and Jihoon cracked grins. Seungcheol even laughed.

“Us Korean-Canadians gotta stick together,” he said cheerily. “Can’t let all these privileged fucks wear us down.”

“You should probably spend the rest of lunch period with us,” Jihoon said calmly. Mingyu noticed his knuckles were bruised. He must hit hard. That was utterly unsurprising. “Those druggies usually hold long memories for grudges. They won’t mess with you if you hang out with us, though. You can hang with us for a while until they die down, if you want.”

“Y-yeah.” Mingyu squeaked. “Yeah, sure!”

“Cool. Cheol, let’s get a fucking move on, this place smells like ass.”

And Mingyu followed them out of the bathroom, hardly believing his luck. It wasn’t just that Seungcheol and Jihoon were, quite possibly, the coolest damn people he’s ever met. It wasn’t just that they saved him from getting a horrific toilet-dunk by potential bullies.

It was because they brought him to eat with them, Seungcheol offering Mingyu to dip into his bag of sour skittles, Jihoon immediately dragging him into an enthusiastic discussion of video games and movies, like he was a regular person. Like he hadn’t spent the majority of his childhood friendless and alone. Like he was someone who mattered.

And that feeling was so incredible, Mingyu decided he’d follow these two anywhere.

 

Due to the nature of their midterms and Mingyu’s work schedule, he doesn’t get to celebrate Valentine’s Day with Wonwoo until after it’s long since passed.

It’s not something that they really stress themselves out about. They watch Jeonghan and Joshua buy each other ridiculously extravagant, expensive gifts like a married couple on their anniversary, and they laugh when Vernon presents everybody with a single red Hershey’s kiss with all the grandeur like he’s holding a bag of diamond rings. They laugh when Chan nearly sets the kitchen on fire trying to make his chocolates homemade. They laugh when Seokmin jokes that they’re in trouble if they don’t buy something for each other to celebrate the holiday.

“Do you care that I didn’t get you anything?” Mingyu asks, as they walk home from campus together. That single street they take before they have to split up down different roads is the most precious street in the entire city. More precious than anything. The street lamps have been turned on to combat the wet fog misting down between the houses, and Wonwoo looks almost eerie under the fuzzy light, like some sort of ghost, or maybe a lucid dream. The warmth of the palm pressed against Mingyu’s hand feels real enough.

“Am I easily jealous and emotionally fragile?” Wonwoo retorts with a crooked grin. “I didn’t get you anything, either, I don’t see you complaining.”

Mingyu laughs, tugs at the hand he’s holding so Wonwoo stumbles a bit closer to his side, and the conversation ends like that.

After reading week, as the days creep ever closer to March and the weather starts changing from cold and wet to vaguely warm and muddy, Mingyu gets an unexpected call from Wonwoo.

He’s in his room, studying for his required Introductory Neuroscience course and feeling horribly confused by it. Somewhere below him is the quiet rumble of the laundry machine. One of his housemates—maybe Seungkwan—is in the kitchen, either washing dishes or breaking them.

“What’s going on?” he asks, leaning away from his desk and the mountains of notes in his terrible handwriting. He keeps mixing up various brain functions and it’s driving him crazy—he learned this in Intro Psych last year, how is he still forgetting it?

“Nothing in particular.” Wonwoo’s voice is rough and scratchy over the phone. He’s just getting over a cold (Mingyu had brought him a thermos of soup a few days earlier—it was chicken noodle soup from a can, the kind of thing Wonwoo probably already owned in his house, but he seemed to appreciate it all the same. Even with his red stuffed-up nose and hoarse throat, he looked adorable, and Mingyu was annoyed that Wonwoo wouldn’t let him kiss him). “I thought you might wanna hang out today. Watch a movie or something. For Valentine’s Day.”

Mingyu stares up at his ceiling, where a spider has been casually chilling for the past couple of hours, and laughs. “Valentine’s Day was, like, almost two weeks ago, Wonwoo.”

“What can I say, I’m a horrible romantic. Do you wanna hang out or not?”

Mingyu could do with a break—and it’s not like he’s going to say no to Wonwoo, anyway. He’s impossibly whipped.

“Sure, let’s go.”

Minghao’s bedroom door is open, and he looks up when Mingyu passes by with a jacket on and a bag slung over one shoulder. “You off somewhere?” he asks, thumbing through a book that could either be an English textbook or a genuine novel—considering his major, they might be both one and the same—and playing music quietly from his laptop. Mingyu doesn’t recognize or understand the song; it’s probably one of Minghao’s Chinese artists.

“A movie with Wonwoo. Why, you wanna come with?”

Minghao snorts. Mingyu’s relieved to see that he doesn’t look upset or jealous—just calm. Just Minghao. Just regular, sarcastic, warm-hearted Xu Minghao, with his sharp eyes and sharper ears. A Minghao who seems more comfortable with his own skin than he used to. “I’d rather not. You guys are probably the type to make out during the movie, anyway.”

“We are not!” Mingyu protests, truthfully, although he can feel his cheeks flush. “We pay, like, thirteen bucks to get those seats, we’re not gonna waste our money by sucking face. We can do that in the privacy of our own homes, thank you very much.”

“Mm-hmm.” Minghao turns the page of the book. “You two are cute. Have fun.”

Mingyu starts to walk away, but hesitates at the last second and doubles back. “You sure you don’t want to come?”

Minghao looks up from his book and fixes him a wide, amused smile. “It’s all good, Gyu. Go enjoy your date.”

“You’re fine?”

He laughs. “I’m always fine.”

Wonwoo is waiting at the bus stop closest to each other’s houses, in the same parka he’s owned since high school. Mingyu breaks out into a smile when he notices Wonwoo wearing a striped blue, grey, and bronze scarf—a Hogwarts-themed gift Mingyu got him for his birthday back in January. Wonwoo gives him an embarrassed grin in return when he notices Mingyu’s happiness, ears and nose pink with the faint chill that comes with the blustering wind that still hasn’t gone away.

“You’re wearing it,” Mingyu says delightedly. He curls his fingers around one end of the scarf, his stubby nails scratching into the soft, cheaply-knitted fabric.

“Of course I did,” Wonwoo says. He still sounds a little stuffed up in the sinuses, but otherwise clear-headed and looking forward to heading out together. “I’ve been wearing it, like, every day.”

Mingyu’s smile widens. He tugs lightly, not enough to make it tighten around Wonwoo’s neck, but enough for Wonwoo to have to lean in a little closer to him, make his breath hitch slightly and the colour in his cheeks deepen. He’s thrilled to know he can have this effect on him, that he can make Jeon fucking Wonwoo look so flustered and nervous, break through that calm veneer of his.

“It looks cute on you,” he says, quietly, voice just low enough to make Wonwoo gulp.

“Stop it,” Wonwoo says, sounding firm but making absolutely no move to back away—instead, he takes a step forward so they’re closer together, can share each other’s body heat. “You’re trying to—to seduce me.” His face twists into an embarrassed grimace at that, which makes Mingyu snicker. “That’s not really the right word I was looking for, but—ugh, whatever. It’s still the same—” Mingyu tugs just a little bit harder on the scarf, and Wonwoo’s voice shakes in the middle of his sentence as his head pitches forwards, “—s-same sentiment. God dammit, Mingyu, if you keep going on like that we won’t get to the movies at all.”

“Why not?” Mingyu asks. Coyly. Teasing.

Wonwoo’s cheeks boil with red heat. He looks almost mortified. “Because I’ll make you come back home with me.”

It’s a ludicrously tempting offer. The only reason why Mingyu wouldn’t want that outcome is because Seokmin and Soonyoung are probably home right now, and having sex in the same house as the two biggest loudmouths in their friend group does not sound like it’ll end well. With his grip still firm around Wonwoo’s scarf, he leans in to kiss him, warm up their freezing lips, and then finally lets go and steps away.

Wonwoo gives him a faint-hearted glare, trying to hide the smile twitching against his cheeks. “You’re infuriating, you know that?”

“So I’ve been told.” A blue bus rolls around the corner, just in time.

They take the bus to a plaza of various restaurants and bars that all surround a singular movie theatre, uselessly wide and spacious like all movie theatres seem to be. Mingyu’s grateful to be out of the cold, but the almost overpowering scent of buttered popcorn that permeates the air inside is starting to make his very skin feel greasy. He stamps out the slush clinging to the bottom of his boots, lets his drying shoes leave faint wet stains on the blue carpet of the theatre, and they go to buy their tickets.

“What movie were you even thinking of, anyway?” he asks as Wonwoo heads straight for the self-serve ticket machines. He watches, amused, as Wonwoo smushes his finger against the screen without hesitation. “Get Out? You wanna watch a horror movie?”

“I heard it wasn’t that scary,” Wonwoo says, sounding a little defensive. “I—I think it would be fun? To watch?”

“Hey, no complaints here, I’m into it.” The machine spits out two tickets, and they quickly join the long line of people waiting to order overly expensive snacks. “I just know you aren’t into movies like that.”

Wonwoo raises an eyebrow, and for a brief, startling moment, he looks like himself from two years ago. “Life is all about taking big risks, Mingyu.”

Mingyu buys the snacks, since Wonwoo bought the tickets. With the ridiculous sizes of the slushies, the giant, overflowing box of popcorn, and the plasticky-fake nacho cheese dip, it all amounted to more than what the tickets cost. Not that he minds, of course—he’s the one with the steady income, or as steady as part-time barista experience can get him. He’d buy everything for Wonwoo, if he could, but he knows Wonwoo would never let him.

There aren’t that many people in the auditorium when they head inside—maybe about twenty—so they get free reign of which seats to pick. They settle for as close to the back as possible, Wonwoo gently chiding Mingyu when he kicks his feet up to rest against the back of the empty seat in front of him.

“I haven’t been to the movies in a while,” Wonwoo muses, picking carefully at the popcorn, taking his time to eat them and save it for later.

“No?”

“Never been a fan of it. Way too loud. Too many people. Whining children.” Wonwoo fidgets in his seat and grimaces. “Uncomfortable seats.”

Mingyu laughs. “The struggles you’re forced to endure,” he says with a dramatic sigh.

Wonwoo gives him that crooked half-grin. “Honestly, I don’t know how I survive sometimes.”

Mingyu looks at him in the dim light, the half-darkness of the cold auditorium, and desperately wants to kiss him.

And, just when the auditorium grows dark as the movie trailers start, he does.

 

“What did you think?” Mingyu asks, as they trail out the auditorium. He feels dazed, almost disoriented, like the sun is brighter—the city is stranger—like the world had somehow irrevocably changed in the two-ish hours they’ve been watching the movie.

Wonwoo tosses the empty popcorn bag and plastic nacho box in the trash. “It was good. More interesting than I expected, actually.” He snorts. “I mostly just have to go to the bathroom.”

“I thought it was funny.”

“But I just don’t get it! Where—where’s the science behind it? How can you just transfer brains and consciousness like that? I mean, don’t get me wrong, it’s cool and all, but like, there’s no basis to it, there’s no facts—”

Mingyu smothers his widening grin as best as he can, without much success. “Wonwoo, I really don’t think you should be looking for the ground roots of reality in a horror movie.”

“I’m just saying, it’s harder for me to be scared if I can’t find anything realistic about it.”

“Are Steven King novels based in reality? You wanna tell me there’s some evil clown demon out there preying on kids in sewers?”

Wonwoo gives him a half-hearted glare. They hold hands, regardless of whether any of the families wandering around the movie theatre look astonished or not. A part of Mingyu is always going to care, he thinks, always going to feel self-conscious and scared at other people’s reactions, always going to be bitter that they will always feel that way and others won’t have to. And maybe a part of Wonwoo will always feel that way, too. But it gets easier and easier every day.

“I don’t get scared of Steven King novels.” He pauses. “Not that one, anyway. The short story with the crazy maître d’? Could totally happen in the real world. Now that one was fucking scary.”

Mingyu hasn’t read a single Steven King novel, but he has seen several of the movies, even the older and less popular ones so he can keep up with Wonwoo. “Did they ever make a movie out of it?”

“I don’t think so.”

“You’ll have to explain that one to me, then.”

Wonwoo smiles at him, and his fingers tighten around Mingyu’s. “I appreciate you trying to be interested in my stuff.”

“I-I am interested!”

“Watching movies based off of the books isn’t really the same thing, but you’re trying, and I love you for that. Wait, who the fuck is that?”

Mingyu’s so caught up in staring dreamily at the way Wonwoo sniffles in the cold that he almost doesn’t realize Wonwoo’s changed to a different topic. “Who the fuck is who?”

Wonwoo is looking around, craning his neck to scan the plaza. Mingyu follows his gaze, but all he sees are families and young couples, people swarming towards the dessert shop and sitting around the patio tables dotting the plaza’s paved ground. Underneath the grey, February-chilly sky, everyone sort of looks the same.

“What’s up?” he asks again.

“I—thought I saw—” Wonwoo hesitates, then shakes his head. “No, I’m probably seeing things. I thought I saw someone we knew, but … I’m probably wrong. Forget about it.”

Mingyu almost wants to ask, but Wonwoo doesn’t seem troubled by what he might’ve seen, only curious. He shrugs it off, and together the two of them wander the plaza to find a place to eat, and everything is normal.

 

Work has become something Mingyu almost appreciates in his life. It’s simple. Clockwork. He goes in for a shift, chats easily with customers and coworkers alike, and heads back home. His old worries about finding a job proved unfounded—it doesn’t distract him from his studies. If anything, it’s helped him focus. Knowing that he has six-hour work shifts three or four days every week made him take his study schedule more seriously.

And maybe it’s something more—maybe it’s the atmosphere of a sleepy, independent little coffee shop. The way the lights are so soft, and the music is always a really pleasant kind of jazz. It never gets busy enough to be hectic, so the customers are never rushed enough to be rude. It’s exactly the kind of place Mingyu likes working at.

Of course, it helps him sound cool, as well. Oh, sorry I was late, I had work. I won’t be able to make it, I have work. Yeah, I work at this café, I’m making some real side cash for myself, it’s no big deal.

Today proves to be a weekend work day like any other. The sky outside is a dismal grey like usual, everyone bundled up in scarves and coats, their breaths puffing out like hazy clouds of cigarette smoke. The chill doesn’t touch Mingyu indoors, though—he feels plenty warm, sleeves rolled up to his elbows so he doesn’t get coffee stains on his sweater, flashing his best smile at the middle-aged housewives that pop in for coffee with their jogging club members so they give him the best tips. He’s good at his job. He likes it. Funny, how things sometimes work out in the end.

The door opens, and a young man absorbed in his cell phone walks in and waits in line. Mingyu hands over change, smiles and thanks and nods, and doesn’t think anything of it. His eyes follow the few customers waiting in line, strays past him—and then immediately flickers right back, unable to hide his shock.

He recognizes that head of black hair, those ears. The way those feet shuffle a bit and the shoulders hunch. He recognizes all of it, even without having to see his face.

He would recognize this person anywhere.

The line moves up, and Mingyu is forced to tear his eyes away to deal with the next customer. He’s shaken up, he knows it, his fingers shake when he scans the barcode of some plastic-wrapped sandwich. His smile is uneven, his tone distracted. The line moves up. One person. Two. Three. They’re face-to-face now.

“Seungcheol,” he says.

Seungcheol snaps his head up and away from his phone in an instant, eyes widening. For a moment, he doesn’t say anything, but eventually he slips out a tense, “Mingyu.”

“It’s. Um.” The awkwardness is palpable, as the two of them meet each other’s gaze and both instantly recall the last time they saw each other, Mingyu had punched him in the face. “It’s nice to …” He can’t even finish the sentence. “I didn’t know you were in … the area.”

“I … yeah.” Seungcheol is both exactly the same and completely different. The core details are still there, but the minute fractions have changed. The slope of his jawline is a little harder, he’s a little taller, a little broader. Hints of stubble he must’ve forgotten to shave off neatly create rough patches in the skin on his chin, above his upper lip. He has an undercut now, hair gelled back away from his forehead, and it makes him look sharp and mature. Mingyu knew him with a single glance, and yet the man standing in front of him is almost unrecognizable.

He’s surprised to find how sad this actually makes him.

They hover for a few seconds more, until a polite cough from the next customer in line reminds Mingyu that he’s in the middle of a shift. “Anything you want?”

Seungcheol shakes out of his thoughts. “Oh, right. Uh. Gimme a cappuccino, I guess.”

“Sure thing.”

They go through the motions stiffly, like puppets threaded with wire. Just before Mingyu gives him back his change and a receipt, unsure of whether to feel relieved or disappointed that he didn’t have a chance to speak with him, he makes his decision.

“Listen,” he says, “I’m off shift in, like, fifteen minutes. If you, um, if you’re still around by then, and you wanna stay to …”

He can’t say “talk”. He doesn’t know what to say.

Seungcheol hesitates, but then he nods, a single short movement before he moves to the other end of the counter to wait for his drink.

The next fifteen minutes feel more like an hour. Mingyu keeps getting distracted by customers and wonders if Seungcheol already left, if he’s not willing to stay behind. God knows why he’d want to. They haven’t made any effort to communicate with each other for two years.

Oh, god, it’s been two years.

Has time really flown by that fast? Did high school really feel that slow? Now that Mingyu thinks about it, Seungcheol and Jihoon befriended him in grade ten—they were the best of friends for what felt like ages, an entire era of Mingyu’s life, yet in reality it was for only three years. Mingyu’s been best friends with Minghao for two years already. Mingyu hasn’t talked to Seungcheol or Jihoon for almost as long as they were friends.

He glances up. Seungcheol is sitting in a two-seater in the corner, by the window, very resolutely looking anywhere else except the bar counter. Mingyu takes a deep breath when the clock strikes three and his coworker comes to take over his shift. This is it. This is happening.

He yanks off his apron and hangs it up in the back, before grabbing his bag and making his way past the counter.

“You want anything?” his coworker asks. “On the house.”

Mingyu normally doesn’t take the offer—the other employees tend to overly abuse their discount privileges—but today he says, “Gimme a latte. Large. I think I need it.”

He gets his drink and slowly makes it over to where Seungcheol is sitting. Once he sits down, he’s done for. There’s no getting out of this. They have to do it, and it’ll either be really awkward or really terrible or both.

“I’m here to see my cousin,” Seungcheol blurts out the moment Mingyu sets his drink down and slides into the other seat. “She’s a college TA, for a religion study class. I didn’t realize … I didn’t know you also went to Aphodell.”

“I never told you,” Mingyu mumbles.

“You never did,” Seungcheol agrees.

There’s a long moment of silence, neither of them quite knowing what to say. Mingyu hesitantly trails his eyes up to his face. The ridge of Seungcheol’s brows looks the same. So do his stupidly long eyelashes. Mingyu’s eyes zero in on the spot by his cheekbone where his fist made contact two years earlier.

“How’s Jihoon?” Mingyu finally asks. That’s a place to start. It surprises him, but he actually kind of … misses that guy. He’s not sure if he misses Jihoon’s sarcastic grumpiness or just misses the feeling of being friends with someone so widely feared, but regardless, that pink head of hair feels almost comforting now that he looks back. If the circumstances were different, he thinks Jihoon and Minghao would actually get along well. The idea of it is both frightening and wistful.

Seungcheol smiles, and Mingyu finally sees the dimples that used to drive girls crazy. “Good. He’s good. We’re both … doing well.” He falters, and a ghost of something complicated flashes over his face.

“Are you two …?” Mingyu starts to say.

He only meant, are you two still friends, but Seungcheol must be thinking of something different. Fear and desperation cross his features and he nearly spills his cup when he leans in to emphatically say, “No! No, god, no. We … he … it’s not.”

“N-not what?” Mingyu stammers, clueless.

Seungcheol looks like he wants to die. “Nothing. Never mind. He’s fine. Bleached his hair blond a couple months back. Was a bright red for most of first year—both of us, actually.”

For the first time since Seungcheol walked into the coffee shop, Mingyu feels a real smile stretch his lips. “Wait—you had red hair?”

Seungcheol scoffs. “I looked good.”

“No offense, but I highly doubt it.”

“Fuck all the way off, Gyu, I’m telling you, I looked great. Like a video game character or some shit.” Seungcheol is grinning, too, and for a moment Mingyu feels seventeen years old again except it doesn’t suck, it doesn’t feel like he’s lost and alone and miserable and hating the feeling of being in his own skin—it feels light and fizzy, fun, as though he’s found something instead of losing it. But then Seungcheol’s smile dims, and he’s back to being a stranger again. “You would’ve done it, too. The three of us. All with red hair.”

“The results would’ve been disastrous,” Mingyu says, in an effort to make a joke. “I’d look awful in it. You guys would’ve had to force me.”

Seungcheol’s smile dims even further, before dropping off his face entirely. “Yeah,” he mutters, eyes casting downwards to stare at his half-empty cup. “We probably would’ve.”

The atmosphere grows gloomy and tense all over again. Mingyu fiddles with the handle of his own cup. He’s not sure how to handle this. He truly never expected to run into Seungcheol again—at least, not until a high school reunion when he was thirty and had a stable, well-paying job and was engaged to Wonwoo, like he fantasizes about—and he’s not sure what to feel, or what he should feel. Should he be angry? What Seungcheol and Jihoon pressured him into doing, into becoming, what they put Wonwoo through, it’s unforgivable. But in the end, it wasn’t all their fault either, was it? Mingyu was the one who did everything, in the end. He’s the one who channeled all his fear and desperation for approval into his friendships. He’s the one who went through with the dare, who humiliated Wonwoo in front of everyone.

And he changed. The dumb, terrified kid who broke the heart of someone he loved to save his own hide is currently sitting here, with a job, studying something he truly enjoys, with a group of wonderful friends, and Wonwoo is there by his side after all.

Didn’t Seokmin say something like this? Didn’t Mingyu say something like this? Who they were in high school doesn’t define who they’ll be for the rest of their lives. They have the chance to change. To grow. To set things right.

And Mingyu wants to set this right. He does.

He looks back up at Seungcheol, ready to bury any remaining hatchets and let bygones be bygones, no matter what kind of bad blood has simmered between them, when Seungcheol suddenly blurts out, “I’m sorry.”

Mingyu blinks at him, startled.

“I’m sorry,” Seungcheol says again. He looks—nervous. Choi Seungcheol, ex-student council president, the most popular kid in Hysera Secondary School’s senior year, who never sweated over a pretty girl or a soccer match or a math test in his life, looked nervous. “For everything. Back then, back in high school, I—you were right. I was a bully.” His shoulders sag. “I was a bully.”

Mingyu stares, unable to really hide how surprised he feels. “When did—I mean, why—”

Seungcheol gives him a small, rueful smile. “It’s not a very good feeling,” he says, “getting punched in the face by one of your best friends. Not a good feeling to be dragged by him like that, either.”

“Well,” Mingyu stumbles, suddenly embarrassed at how reckless he acted all those years ago, “we were—we were young, and stupid, and I was—”

“No, it’s not something you should apologize for, Mingyu.” Seungcheol shakes his cup a little, gloomily watches the foam wobble. “I—was angry. For a long while after that. Mostly at you. Then at Wonwoo. Then … mostly at myself. Dumb kids like me, we aren’t too happy finding out we’re actually shit friends, yeah? And man, did you ever tell me exactly how shit of a friend I was.”

For all Mingyu’s talk about change and growth, he still can’t hold back how utterly baffled he is by Seungcheol’s apologies. He can’t believe he’s seeing the Choi Seungcheol he used to idolize so much look so downtrodden, so humble. Like he really does feel remorseful over what he’s done.

“I-I mean, it was my fault too. I had a lot of really shitty emotional baggage, dude, not gonna lie, I was a bit of a mess. I was so desperate to be a part of you guys, I think I would’ve done anything you asked of me. And that’s a pretty unhealthy mindset, on my part, so I can’t put all the blame on you.”

“Is that supposed to make me feel better about myself?” Seungcheol says dryly, running his hands wearily over his face. “You were one of my best friends, Mingyu. The three of us up against the world, the Golden Trio. Nothing was supposed to get in our way—nothing was supposed to be more important than all of us, together.”

Something very small and very sad, something that Mingyu almost forgot about himself, quietly breaks into pieces. “You really thought that way? About us?”

“I mean—of course, Gyu. Christ. You two were, like, the most important people in the world to me. And I fucking let you down. Let you both down. It’s my own fault.”

Mingyu hesitates, taking a moment to think while taking a sip of his latte. “I—well—what’s done is done, you know? Can’t change the past, man.”

“You’re telling me.” Snowflakes, thin and wet and grainy, begin to fall from the sky and zip past the windows, tangling in the knitted wool of tuques and beanies and scarves. “What happened with you, then? After … afterwards? What’s been going on with you?”

“I mean, lots of shit,” Mingyu says. “I, uh, developed a really weird anxiety issue over the summer, got over it, made some friends, majored in Psych, uhh, started dating Wonwoo, came out as bi, fought with my mom—not necessarily in that exact order—got a job, as you can see—”

“Wait, wait, wait.” Seungcheol’s eyes widen. “You’re dating Wonwoo?”

Oh. Right. Mingyu’s gotten so used to being openly bi, openly dating a man, he forgot to be careful about it around others. He squares his shoulders. “Yeah,” he says, slowly. “I’m bi. I like both guys and girls. Is that …?” Is that a problem for you? The question sours and withers away halfway up his throat. He’s not sure if he wants to know the answer.

Seungcheol doesn’t open his mouth for a long moment, his eyes searching Mingyu carefully. His expression is strange—it’s not one of horror, or disgust, or even disbelief. It’s almost like he’s … wondering. Thinking.

“How long have you guys been dating?” he finally asks.

“Four months, now. Almost five.” It feels longer. It feels like an entire lifetime.

“You guys … good? You’re happy?”

“Really happy. Yeah. He’s, he’s great. We’re great. It’s been real good so far.”

“How long have you, um …?”

“How long have I … liked guys?” Seungcheol nods. “I mean, I dunno. I didn’t know until I started liking Wonwoo back in high school. I’ve never felt much of anything for guys before then.”

Seungcheol doesn’t say anything once more, this time for an uncomfortably long period of silence. Mingyu fidgets, the familiar icy hooks of anxiety and eventual panic attacks trying to dig its way into him again. He doesn’t like how uncertain and nervous Seungcheol makes him, like he’s once again some stupid kid trying desperately to gain his approval—but Seungcheol looks equally worried. Equally uncertain. It sort of balances things out, somehow.

“I gotta admit,” Seungcheol says, “I’m a little disappointed you were never attracted to me.”

Mingyu stares at him, eyes wide, and then he doubles over with a loud snort that makes a few customers’ heads turn their way. “You fucking narcissist. Oh my god.”

“Uh, no. You were the Narcissus, remember? I just had a big head with a massive ego.”

“Big difference, dude?”

“Mildly so, yeah.”

Mingyu snickers. “I can’t believe you. I tell you I’m into guys, and the first thing you say is that you’re pissed I never got the hots for you? Classic Choi Seungcheol, my god.

“What were you expecting? For me to call you a—well, you know, what I called you that time. Not my proudest moment, believe me.”

“Did you—” Mingyu gulps, good mood gone, a little scared to hear the answer. “Did you mean it? That time?”

“Did I mean it? I mean, yes, sort of.” Seungcheol rubs at the back of his neck. “Not—not in that way, in the—I was just angry, at the time. Angry at everything you were saying to me. I wanted to hurt you, in like … the worst possible way I could think of. And when you said that about Wonwoo, back then, about how he cared about you more than we ever did, I just—it was the first thing that came out of my mouth. Isn’t that so garbage? That I’d say something like that just to hurt your feelings. Piece of shit move, if you ask me.”

They don’t say anything for a long moment. Mingyu wonders what Wonwoo’s doing now. If he’s studying at home, maybe, watching the snowflakes fly past his window. If he’s maybe hanging out with Soonyoung and Seokmin. He wonders if maybe he should be here for this conversation. Maybe Wonwoo doesn’t want to have anything to do with this. He put the past behind him, he’s made peace with what’s happened. But maybe this is just gonna open a can of worms that Mingyu wants to keep him well away from.

“You’ve changed,” Seungcheol notes. “Like, you’re different now. You seem … calmer. Stable, sort of.”

Mingyu laughs, a bleak sort of sound. “Like I grew up?”

Seungcheol nods. He doesn’t look seventeen anymore; he looks like an adult, like he could wear a suit and tie and blend into the sea of workplace businessmen that slowly age in high-rise office buildings. “Like you grew up.”

Mingyu doesn’t know what else to say—there’s so much he feels like they should talk about, so much they still have to say to each other. But there’s nothing. There’s dust, and sand, and the taste of steamed milk and espresso on his tongue. He feels like their time has passed. That his relationship with Seungcheol has dwindled down into half-bitter memories, nostalgia, old things that there’s no use saying anymore.

“Shit.” Seungcheol checks his phone. “I need to go meet my cousin. Sorry, I have to head out.”

“Oh. Yeah. That’s fine.” They both stand up. Mingyu’s still taller than Seungcheol; it’s a tiny detail he’s weirdly pleased to note. “My number is still the same. If you or Jihoon ever want to, um.”

“Yeah. Yeah, ours too.”

They hover for a moment, uncertain. Strange, really, to be almost twenty years old and still feel so young and confused about how the world works. Mingyu feels both like an old man and a young boy when he holds his hand out and Seungcheol shakes it, the action awkward and weirdly formal for two people who were once close friends.

“Jihoon misses you,” Seungcheol says, fumbling with his jacket. It’s from the same brand as Wonwoo’s parka. Mingyu doesn’t know why that seems so important. “He’ll never admit it, as usual, but he does. Maybe—maybe talk to him sometime, if you feel like it. He’s got a lot on his plate, I think he’ll be really happy to hear from you again. If that’s something you want to do, I mean, I don’t wanna force you.”

“I’ll send him a message,” Mingyu assures him, and finds it funny how that seems to relieve a huge weight off Seungcheol’s chest. He smiles—dimples flash—and he makes his way towards the door.

At the last moment, he pauses and then turns back around. “Uh, hey. Mingyu.” Seungcheol looks sheepish. “Could you—could you give me Wonwoo’s number? I just—if he’s willing to even hear from me, I want to, y’know, be able to apologize to him properly.”

“I—yeah. Y-yeah, sure.” Mingyu pulls out his phone and hands it to Seungcheol, hardly able to believe the change two years have made.

“Is your password still the same?”

“Yep.”

“Dude, you really need to change it.” Seungcheol copies down Wonwoo’s number. Just before giving it back to Mingyu, he double-checks the screen. “Your home screen is a pic of you two.”

Whoops. Mingyu forgot about that. His home screen wallpaper is one of the few selfies he can manage to wrangle out of Wonwoo. It was from a night at Junhui’s place, less of a party and more like a friends-only board games night with far too much alcohol to be appropriate. Seungkwan and Soonyoung are blurry colourful blobs in the background, engaged in a heated argument over Monopoly. Wonwoo’s leaning against Mingyu’s shoulder, cheeks flushed from a bit too many of Joshua’s vodka-juice concoctions and grinning from ear-to-ear. Seungcheol looks at the selfie of them, almost amazed.

Mingyu remembers that Seungcheol’s probably never seen Wonwoo look so open and happy before. Remembers that no one from Hysera has seen how much Wonwoo’s grown. He’s suddenly so, so stupidly proud.

“You two look cute together,” Seungcheol eventually says.

Mingyu’s never heard Seungcheol utter the word “cute” before, in terms of a man, and actually mean it. He feels himself smile, and thinks maybe everything is going to be just fine.