We thank you for giving us another school year to spend with our friends and with our teachers. We are always thankful for another year of fruitful learning, and we are sorry for all the times we’ve taken our education for granted and for doubting you. Please continue to guide us so that we may carry out your most holy plan.
In Jesus’ name we pray, amen. Saint Nicholas of Tolentine, pray for us.
“You’re late,” Mr. Lee scolds.
Jeno can only nod through his panting, hand reaching for his necktie to loosen its grip on his neck. He awkwardly scans the room for an empty seat, zoning in on the one Jaemin saved for him with his backpack on. The seat is all the way at the back, so Jeno finds himself crossing the room, face a bright red even as his breathing began to even out.
Renjun wants to laugh as Jeno walks past him, but he stops himself before he could even snicker because he finds Mr. Lee quite scary and serious and grim. It’s clear the rest of the class feels the same, with awkward silence hanging in the air even though by now, in their third year of high school with (mostly) the same people, the classroom should be filled with noise.
“Did the head teacher take note of your tardiness?” Mr. Lee asks once Jeno’s all settled down.
“Ms. Bae, the head teacher,” Mr. Lee reminds him.
“Ah… I think she did,” Jeno answers quietly.
“Don’t be too comfortable in your seat. As I told the class earlier, I’m assigning you all permanent seats for this semester after lunch.”
But for now—introductions, more for Mr. Lee than for anyone else in the class. They each have to say their name and something interesting about them. As punishment, he makes Jeno first, but a knock on the door comes just as Jeno opens his mouth, making Mr. Lee practically fly out the door to greet Ms. Bae.
When the door closes behind Mr. Lee, Jaemin clears his throat loudly and says, “Quick, someone give me something interesting to say.”
“Tell him you come from a loving, Christian family,” Yerim teases.
“Wow, fuck you. Maybe you can tell Mr. Lee how you’re still technically a virgin.” Jaemin curls his fingers into air quotation marks, face split into a huge grin while Yerim glares and sticks her tongue out at him.
“Cut it out,” Mark says with a raise of his voice.
“Yeah, Renjun’s getting uncomfortable,” Chan Lee points out, which makes Renjun’s face heat up.
“I’m not uncomfortable,” Renjun counters.
“Sorry,” Jaemin tells Renjun with a shrug. “Anyway, Yerim’s still a virg—Ow!”
“How’d you end up here?” Jaemin asks Donghyuck through a mouthful of apple.
Donghyuck is the new student, just transferred from… who knows where, honestly. He didn’t say, neither in his introduction to the rest of the class or to Jaemin, Renjun, Jeno, and Mark now as they huddled together with their snacks in the tiny corridor in front of their classroom for recess.
“It’s not a big deal,” Donghyuck says with a shake of his head.
“You must be top of your class, though, since they put you in our class,” Jaemin argues.
“Nah, man. Straight C’s all the way.”
“For real?” Jaemin looks disappointed, falling into a slump and pouting as he chews. “The other classes must be full, then.”
“Yeah, that must be it,” Donghyuck concedes.
“It’s okay,” Jeno offers. “No one here is really, you know, nerdy. Except for Mark and Injunnie.” He wraps an arm around Renjun and pinches him on the cheek. “They’re the good boys.” At that, Renjun shares a look with Mark, who’s quietly turning red.
“It’s not like we’re spoilsports,” Mark breathes out in a rush. “Really. I’m fun to hang with.”
“You don’t sound sure of yourself,” Donghyuck points out.
“Really?” Mark squeaks, letting out an uneasily laugh that’s loud and awkward and that gathers attention from their classmates, particularly glares from Yerim and Koeun.
It’s not as if Mark ruins the fun—he just doesn’t initiate nor stop it, instead following along with a heavy nervousness that weighs everyone down but also helps keep them out of humongous trouble, like that one time Jaemin wanted to climb the fence to Jeno’s house because he was grounded but Mark was able to worm his way through the front door by sweet-talking Jeno’s mom. That kind of thing.
Renjun, on the other hand, thinks he’s too boring for even that. That day he just watched from the back, biting his fingernails. The thought makes him chew on his bottom lip.
“I’m sure!” Mark protests, the shakiness of it making Jaemin and Donghyuck laugh.
“What about you?” Donghyuck asks, turning to face Renjun.
Renjun shakes his head. “I know I’m boring,” he says softly.
“Don’t you love them?” Jaemin sighs to Donghyuck. “They make me feel like I’m not a loser.”
“Shut up, Jaemin, you’re a huge loser,” Jeno drawls.
“You’re boring, too,” Jaemin retorts with a serene smile.
“So you’re all boring,” Donghyuck says. “I get that.”
“Sorry,” Renjun says.
“Nah, it’s cool,” Donghyuck tells him with a smile. “My mom’s gonna like you guys.”
When they come back inside after recess, Mr. Lee has their new seating arrangements all mapped out. Renjun’s one of the first to get seated, so he takes out a notebook and doodles in it, letting the din of the classroom dull into background noise.
Renjun jumps slightly, going red at the sound of Jeno’s laugh.
“You’re stuck with me, sorry,” Jeno apologises.
“Why… am I sorry?” At Renjun’s nod, Jeno's eyebrows knit together and his mouth tightens into a frown. He doesn’t take his seat right away, instead frozen standing up while looking at Renjun, making for one very awkward tableau in the middle of their classroom. “I thought you’d want to sit with Mark or something.”
Renjun shakes his head. “Come on, we’re friends.”
Jeno smiles shyly. “Right,” he says and takes his seat.
“It’s nothing, by the way,” Renjun adds. “I'm just drawing trees.”
“Trees,” Jeno repeats
“It was mindless, okay.”
“You’re judging me,” Renjun accuses.
Jeno doesn’t say anything, but his smile gives it all away, the way his mouth curls and he looks like he’s trying not to laugh. Okay. Renjun gets it.
“I forgot how touchy you are,” Jeno drawls out as he rests his temple on his knuckle and looks straight at Renjun, mouth now a full-blown grin with his teeth showing.
Jeno’s grin makes Renjun pout. He rests his elbow on the table then his chin on his knuckles. “Am not,” he grumbles. It makes Jeno laugh again, and Renjun feels bad that he considered asking Jeno to stop because he feels conscious. Maybe a year of being with just Mark and his overall mild sense of humour got the better of him?
At least Jeno isn’t Jaemin, who’d push until Mark would scold him. Renjun lifts his head up to look around the room for Jaemin and begins to snicker at seeing Jaemin’s face so sour because he’s seated beside Yerim.
“Look,” Renjun points out while shaking Jeno’s shoulder.
Jeno turns his head and laughs again. “That’s cute,” he says.
“She’ll kill him.”
“Nah, she won’t do that. I think they like each other. They had a thing in, like, seventh grade, do you remember?”
“I don’t think I do…” Renjun says slowly. What was he doing in seventh grade to not know this?
Yerim is determined to avoid looking at Jaemin, settling instead for talking to Koeun from across the aisle. Their giggles could be heard from even where Mark is sitting with Donghyuck, in front of the teacher’s table on the opposite side of the classroom, who turn their heads in sync to look before resuming whatever hushed conversation they were having.
Well, Yerim is really pretty when she smiles. Maybe Renjun can understand why Jaemin would like her, even if all she does is scowl at him.
“Wait, seriously?” Jeno asks as he looks at Renjun in shock. “You don’t know about their thing?”
“He asked her to the dance!” Jeno reminds Renjun excitedly, his hand reaching out to clap on the surface of Renjun’s desk. “And she said no! Remember? He was sulking?”
If Renjun closes his eyes and calls back to two, three years ago, he can conjure up an image of Jaemin sulking during prom, but Jaemin’s way of sulking is to be noisier than he is, and sure enough, now, in their classroom, Renjun can hear Jaemin’s complaining.
“Hey, sir, can’t I sit beside Chan?” Jaemin grouses.
“But does Channie want to sit with you? Why are you even here?” Yerim counters, and Koeun snorts.
“You could hear Jaemin’s eye rolling from here,” Jeno notes. (“Does it look like anyone wants to sit beside you, ice princess?” Jaemin retorts to Yerim.) He shifts closer to Renjun so they could hear each other in the din of their classroom. “Do you want to place bets?”
“Do you still think they’ll kill each other before the month’s over?”
“Yeah, I do.”
“Okay,” Jeno says. “My bet is that they’ll end up together.”
“What’s gonna happen if we lose?”
Jeno hums then stops for a bit to fish out a small notebook from his bag as well as a pen. “Money’s kinda boring, right?” he asks. “What if you do my homework for the rest of the semester?”
“Why do you act like I’m going to lose?” Renjun demands.
“Because you will,” Jeno tells him smugly. “My grades are going to go up by a lot.”
“Lucky you,” Renjun grumbles.
“Thanks for admitting defeat, too.” Jeno’s smiling without his teeth, and it seems almost leering.
“You know, I’d rather do your homework than let you do mine,” Renjun bites back.
At that, Jeno ends up laughing. “Come on, Injunnie, I’d feel bad if I made your grades slip, too. Then you can’t graduate valedictorian or whatever.”
Renjun feels his face heat up. “I wasn’t aiming for it,” he says in a much lower voice.
“That’s cool,” Jeno says with a shrug, “but you know, I still think you’re gonna get it anyway.”
“Thanks…” Thanks, he guesses? “Wait, do you mean all our homework? Even essays and stuff?”
Jeno grins. “Yes, Injunnie. Everything.”
“Coming to lunch?” Mark asks with a tap on Renjun’s shoulder, jolting him from his thoughts.
Even though Renjun jumps slightly, he notices the tension in Mark’s face. “What’s up?”
“Did you see? I got seated next to Donghyuck.”
“What’s wrong with that?”
“Nothing,” Mark says a little too quickly. “He just makes me nervous.”
Jeno had already gone ahead with Jaemin and Donghyuck, who Jaemin had ended up liking on first sight, leaving just Mark and Renjun in the classroom with a few others. Even so, Mark hadn’t failed to lower his voice to just barely above a whisper.
“Why?” Renjun asks in the same pitch.
Mark frowns. “Do you think I weird him out?”
“Why would I think that?”
“Huh, you’re right. I don’t think you’re the right person to ask.”
“Hey,” Renjun grouses. He stands up and ushers Mark out of the classroom, where they continue their conversation in the same low voices.
“I just think I should… act cooler around him, you know?” Mark says slowly. “Because I think he’s judging me.”
“For being nerdy?” With the big, round glasses? The thick rim? The way his shirt is all buttoned up?
“Yeah,” Mark agrees glumly.
Renjun scrunches up his nose and asks, “Why should it matter to you?”
“Because I want to be friends with him!” Mark winces at his own voice and drops it once more. “Because… he’s friends with Jaemin and Jeno, right? I don’t want to be the loser that can’t get along with him.”
The way Renjun sees it, it doesn’t seem so hard to be friends with Donghyuck. Especially after Donghyuck’s somewhat expressed that he’s okay, if not totally cool, with all of them. So Renjun tells Mark just that as they enter the cafeteria and line up at one of the stalls for pizza so greasy it stains their shirts red.
“Do you think he’s cool? Is that it?” Renjun asks before taking a bite out of his pizza. They were supposed to look for the trio, but it seems like a day to eat by the bleachers facing the field.
Mark takes the lead, stopping first by one of the drinks stalls to buy lemonade. He’s deliberate, taking small sips, chewing on his bottom lip, nibbling on his pizza. Outside, they find a bleacher in shade and settle there.
“Okay,” Mark says finally. “I think I get it now.”
“Hm?” Renjun looks up at him as he wipes the grease from his mouth with a napkin.
“I want to not be the uptight Mark anymore!” Mark declares. He says it with pizza oil still on his chin, so maybe it is the start of the era of a fun-loving, fun-initiating Mark.
Renjun feels like he’s seeing Mark for the first time, oil-slicked chin and all. He’s slightly weirded out by Mark’s conviction. “Because of Donghyuck?” Renjun asks slowly, testing the waters. That was a little too fast, wasn’t it?
“Didn’t it make you feel bad when Jaemin called us losers?” Mark asks in return.
“He says that all the time, though?”
“I dunno…” Mark says with his eyebrows scrunched together. His face will never be smoothed out, Renjun is sure. “It feels like he means it this time.”
Renjun frowns. “I don’t think he does… I mean, what if you’re conscious because he said it in front of Donghyuck?”
“Yeah, it felt like a… like a kick in the stomach? Do you know what I mean?”
Without willingly calling it to mind, Jeno floats to the top of Renjun’s mind, his curved eyes and teasing smile. “I get it,” Renjun says.
“You know, I was kinda nervous when I found out Jaemin and Jeno were in our class,” Mark says slowly with a shake of his head, as if he himself can’t believe he’s saying what he is, as if the subject itself feels too terrible to mention.
“‘Cause it’s like… Remember? We kinda stopped talking after a while.” Because Mark decided to do everything—student council, school newspaper, honour society… His lunch breaks morphed into lunch-breaks-slash-meetings, meetings where his moderators would take pity on him and let him eat while they discussed.
Renjun reminds Mark of precisely that, and Mark clicks his tongue at Renjun.
“Hey, you were busy, too,” Mark says. Renjun had competitive math training, which was always after school, and was in the honour society with Mark, so they spent some lunches tutoring middle school kids as part of their outreach program.
Somehow, Renjun feels like he—they—messed up. He rests his elbows on his knees and his chin on his curled up knuckles, pouting.
“So, yeah, new Mark,” Mark prompts, trying to shake Renjun out of his slump. “Agree, disagree?”
“Neutral. What if I don’t like new Mark as much as I like old Mark?” In other words, what if new Mark doesn’t make Renjun feel as safe as old Mark does?
“Then I’ll make sure new Mark isn’t a jerk,” Mark says simply.
“On a date?” Jaemin interrupts, seemingly materialising in front of Renjun and Mark out of nowhere, Jeno and Donghyuck flanking him on either side.
“Hey, don’t be like that,” Renjun says. “We’re just friends.”
Jaemin hums at that, smiling widely with his mouth closed, but that quickly gives way to a full blown grin, Jaemin’s shiny white teeth and all. “Sorry, Injunnie. I just never hear you talk about girls.”
“Because you never shut up about Yerim,” Jeno deadpans, making Jaemin laugh.
“Come on, we were wondering why you two never showed up.” Jaemin’s tone is so light that Mark and Renjun end up sharing a pained look. Mark looks like he’s constipated, face set into a grimace.
“Sorry” is all Renjun can say.
“It’s cool,” Jeno says, but why does Renjun feel like it isn’t? “Come on, we gotta get back or Mr. Lee’s gonna have our asses.”
Math with Mr. Moon the next morning was far from relaxed; he introduces himself with a sunny smile for the first five minutes then starts off on the history of Euclidean geometry. It's barely eight in the morning and Jeno is yawning, loud and frequently, to the point that Renjun feels himself getting sleepy, too, and it makes him think that Jeno is probably a bad influence.
“Stop that,” Renjun whispers, taking a break from taking down notes to chide Jeno.
“Can’t help it,” Jeno says through another yawn, making Renjun frown. “Cover for me while I nap?”
Renjun wants to scream, ‘No!!!!!!’ and the indignation, the appall of it must have been so apparent on his face, because Jeno laughs quietly into the back of his hand, shoulders shaking.
“I’m just kidding, Injunnie,” Jeno teases. “I’ll just nap later at lunch or something.”
“You should sleep earlier,” Renjun suggests.
“Wow, thanks, mom.”
When did the slides become a primer on what is a postulate and what is a theorem? Looking back at his notes, Renjun realises he stopped taking them around the time Mr. Moon was talking about pyramids or something. That was around two or three slides ago, roughly translated into five minutes of lecture time.
“Why do you look like you’re going to piss yourself?” Jeno asks.
“I’m distracted,” Renjun says in a clipped tone.
“It’s just an introduction; you need to chill out.”
“I forget things easily, okay.”
Jeno grins, which he’s been doing a lot of lately, like all he does is grin. “Lucky for you, I don’t. And I’ve been paying attention, so I know that a postulate is something that you assume to be true, and you can use those to prove theorems.”
Renjun takes that down, face heating up because he has no idea how Jeno managed to get that while talking to him. “You’re making me look bad,” Renjun grouses at Jeno, who just shrugs. “Seriously.”
Jeno doesn’t say anything more, his gaze fixed once again on the slides on the board. As if in a show of boastfulness, he makes it clear he’s not taking notes—his chin is resting on his curled up fist with barely a pen or a notebook on the table. He nods like he understands, and he probably does.
But a few minutes later, Renjun takes another look at him and catches him fast asleep, completely still on his desk with his eyes closed. Renjun moves to wake him up, shaking him gently as to not cause a scene, and nearly laughs at how Jeno doesn’t seem to sense Renjun’s hand on his shoulder at all. The room's lighting has been dimmed, thankfully, because of the slideshow Mr. Moon’s using, so it’s not too obvious.
Jeno wakes up when the bell rings, eyes flying open at the sound. “Shit, did I fall asleep?”
Renjun answers, “Yeah,” just as he packs his notebook away and takes out the one he has labeled for English with Mr. Jung. “How many hours of sleep did you get?”
Jeno yawns, “Not much. Like, four hours? Why didn’t you wake me, Injunnie?”
The realisation makes Jeno laugh. “Thanks, though.” He crosses his arms on the desk and rests his cheek on them, almost as if he’s curling up to sleep. “Good night.”
Renjun can only stare at him and blurt out, “What?”
“I heard Mr. Jung’s chill, don’t worry,” Jeno says through another yawn.
“You heard or you know?” Renjun asks.
“He was Chenle’s teacher last year.” Oh. Jeno closes his eyes and smiles serenely. “Good night, Injunnie.” Yeah, definitely a bad influence.
“Well, someone looks pissed,” Jeno notes lightly. Jaemin’s standing in front of his desk, bag slung over his shoulders because he’s absolutely ready to go. Everyone else is filing out of the classroom, chatting excitedly about going for burgers before heading home.
“She ignored me the whole day,” Jaemin grouses. “Can you believe that?”
“I admire her tenacity,” Jeno says as he packs his things. “What do you think, Injunnie?”
“I’d ignore Jaemin, too, if he were annoying me,” Renjun comments, making Jeno burst out into laughter.
“You hear that, Jaemin? Stop annoying Yerim.”
Jaemin pouts. “I’ll have you know that I’m not even trying.”
Jeno shakes his head. “Man, I really think you messed up this time.”
“Injunnie, what do you think?” Jaemin asks. He takes off his backpack and sets it down on the floor, sitting down on the chair in front of Jeno while he waits for Jeno and Renjun to pack their bags.
“I don’t know the full story,” Renjun admits, “but I think you should just leave her alone.”
"So you’re saying we shouldn’t talk about it?” Jaemin sounds sad and he faces Jeno with wide, puppy eyes. “Jeno?”
“Not talking about it isn’t what Renjun means,” Jeno says. “Just wait, dude. No use pissing her off all the time, right?”
Jaemin sighs. “Fine. You guys coming? I’m introducing Donghyuck to the pizza place.”
“Can’t,” Jeno says.
Jaemin winces. “Oh, yeah. Have fun.”
“Violin lessons,” Jeno explains to Renjun.
Renjun makes the same face as Jaemin. “Have fun,” he says, which makes Jeno laugh. “I’m getting pizza.”
Jeno rolls his eyes. “Whatever.”
“Don’t you ever wonder why some pepperoni, like, curl up but some stay flat?” Donghyuck asks as he sprinkles pepper flakes on his slice. “I really hate it when the pepperoni’s flat, you know. I like ‘em crispy.”
“Both are fine,” Mark says, but he can easily say that about anything.
Even Donghyuck calls Mark out on it: “Dude, you say that about everything—cats versus dogs, vanilla or chocolate, Yerim or Koeun.”
“Wait, so do you know why?” Jaemin prompts, saving Mark from the embarrassment of having to spit out excuses while flustered, the tips of his ears going a bright red.
Donghyuck does know, and it’s something having to do with the way the pepperoni are made, the same way some hotdogs are soft all throughout and some have a snappy outside. Shit like that. It’s interesting stuff, Donghyuck thinks.
“Bet you watch those ‘how are they made?’ videos on YouTube,” Jaemin says.
“Yeah, dude,” Donghyuck tells him with a grin. “I mean, doesn’t that ever bother you? Like how toothpaste can come out of the tube all stripe-y and shit?”
Jaemin shakes his head. “You really think about that kinda stuff? But you know what, dude, I’m bothered now that you mentioned it.”
“See!” Donghyuck exclaims. “I was telling Mark earlier but he’s so serious, right? He was all ‘'Why would I think about stuff like that?’" This time, Mark’s entire face goes red as Jaemin, Donghyuck, and Renjun laugh. “So, yeah, anyway, tell me about you guys.”
“What?” Renjun lets out.
“You know, just tell me stuff about you that you think I should know. Mark told me he likes riding bikes and that his favourite writer is some guy named Isaac.”
“Isaac Asimov,” Mark offers. “He writes some of the best science fiction out there, like The Last Question.”
“You don’t even know him!”
“Yeah, because I’m not a huge nerd,” Donghyuck teases. Mark gets up from his seat and goes to the toilet, the timing of it dramatic and funny and making Donghyuck apologetic, the set of his mouth tight. Donghyuck watches Mark go, turning his head back only when he realises that was probably weird of him to do.
“I like anime,” Jaemin says.
“Ooh, which ones?”
“I liked Attack on Titan before, it, you know, got all shitty.”
Donghyuck asks, “Did you read the manga?”
“Oh, fuck yeah. Caught up with it like a week after the first season ended.”
Renjun snorts. “The only anime I ever liked was Moomin,” he says. When Donghyuck gives him a look, Renjun continues, “It was this, like, anime from the nineties that was based on a Finnish children’s book.”
Donghyuck hums as he licks grease off his fingers. “Doesn’t explain why you fucking watched it, dude.”
“It's cute!” Renjun protests. He shows his lock screen with a drawing of Moomintroll and the Snork Maiden to Donghyuck and Jaemin, wondering if he should regret his decision. Not that it matters because both have already seen it, and Mark, who’s come back from the toilet, has voluntarily watched an episode or two with Renjun already.
“Oh, yeah, it is,” Donghyuck concedes. “Did you draw that?”
“Dude. That’s a talent.”
"It's not that good, though.”
“But you made it your lock screen?”
“Because I like Moomin!”
At that, at the sight of Renjun blushing a deep, beet red, Donghyuck ends up laughing. “That’s cute. Oh man, you’re such a softie, Renjun.”
“Yeah, Injunnie’s really sensitive,” Jaemin pipes up. “That’s why I like him.”
Renjun shares a look with Mark, remembering their conversation the day before. Maybe he gets it now, how the things Jaemin says could be tinged with a little malice. Maybe it’s malice that Jaemin is unaware of. It feels so different from Jeno’s easygoing banter, the things Jaemin says.
Maybe Renjun’s overthinking it as well. On the way home with Mark, Renjun wants to tell Mark about it but instead keeps quiet as Mark talks to him about Donghyuck.
“What do you think about him?” Mark eventually asks.
“He’s nice,” which is all Renjun can say given that Donghyuck has his own car, that Donghyuck plays the piano, that even though he doesn’t know who Isaac Asimov is, he knows Haruki Murakami and that’s good, that’s a start. “So why did he transfer schools?”
Mark shrugs. “I didn’t ask. My guess is that his mom got a new job and they had to move.”
Renjun laughs and says, “We don’t really know, Mark, but I’m sure you’re right.” Mark gives Renjun an uneasy laugh before they slip into silence, turning the corner that marks the last three blocks before Mark’s house.
Right before they reach Mark’s house, Mark brings up: “And Jaemin…”
“I get what you mean now.”
Mark frowns. “I feel bad,” he admits.
“Should we say sorry?”
“What if I talk to Jeno first?” Renjun says. About what, exactly, Renjun doesn’t know, but at the very least they know that whatever it is, it’s jarring and they’re scared.
“That’s cool. See you tomorrow.” Mark waves him bye then enters his house, leaving Renjun to walk the last blocks home alone.
“Do you have any apprehensions about the new school year?” their guidance counsellor, Mr. Kim, asks Renjun, who shakes his head. “What about college applications? Have you decided on what schools to apply for?”
Any school with a good math program, really. Not that Renjun particularly likes math, but he’s found himself quite good at it. Maybe Renjun will surprise himself and apply for a humanities course this time next year. “I found some,” Renjun tells him.
“Same as Mark.”
“Was that by choice?” Mr. Kim asks.
“Yeah, it’s just a coincidence,” Renjun says. “It’s the programs, that’s why.”
“Yes, of course. And I’m sure both of you won’t run out of options in the future,” Mr. Kim tells him. “Are you scared?”
“That’s okay, Renjun. It’s okay to feel uncertain, too, at this time.”
“About everything?” Renjun asks.
Mr. Kim’s brows furrow together and he prompts: “Are you sure there isn't anything you want to talk about?”
“I’m fine, sir,” Renjun says quietly.
“I heard your old friends joined your class. How is it with them?”
“They’re…” Jeno’s okay, more than okay. For the past few days, he’s been helping Renjun catch up with his notes (even if it’s because he ended up distracting Renjun in the first place). With Jaemin… nothing feels out of place yet everything does. “I don’t know, sir. I can’t remember what it was like when it was all of us hanging out.”
“When was the last time you were together in one class?”
“Before high school, sir.”
Mr. Kim nods, taking note of it in his clipboard with Renjun’s profile on it. “A lot can change in high school, right? I’m sure they’re also worried that things won’t be the same now that you’re all together again,” he says slowly, catching Renjun’s eyes. It’s awkward—eye contact always is—but Renjun finds it comforting somehow. “But I think that it's not going to work if you try to assure each other that nothing changed. That’s not how it works, right?”
Renjun swallows. “Yeah.”
“I think the best you can do with them is tell them that even if things are different, your friendship won’t change.”
“I feel like… I feel like that’s going to be hard, sir,” Renjun admits quietly. “We kinda dumped them when we started high school.”
Once again, Mr. Kim nods. “It’s not too late, Renjun. You can still apologise and make it up to them,” he offers. “Jeno and Jaemin, right? Mark told me about them. Anyway, it won’t be long till I have to meet them, too, for the yearly check-ups.”
“Promise you won’t tell them?” Renjun asks.
At that, Renjun smiles—uneasily so, but it’s a smile nonetheless. “Thanks, sir. I’ll try to talk it out with them soon.”
“Get ready to do all my homework, nerd,” Jeno whispers to Renjun during English class while they were supposed to be going over the first few chapters of Pride & Prejudice.
True enough, Jaemin and Yerim are laughing over something in the book that Jaemin points out. They try to muffle them with the backs of their hands so Mr. Jung wouldn’t notice. Mr. Jung has his feet up on the desk, talking quietly to Mark about the book, so it’s not at all like he cares.
“Aw,” Renjun coos. “That’s sweet.”
“So will my grades be next semester,” Jeno teases. He stretches his arms up and crosses them behind his head, eyeing Renjun so smugly.
“Homework isn’t even a big part of our grade,” Renjun protests. “It’s like five or ten percent.”
“Hey, with you doing my homework, I have time to study for the real things, like exams.”
“Thanks a lot,” Renjun grumbles.
“Speaking of, do you get chemistry?” Jeno’s face scrunches up when he adds, “Don’t you find it weirdly hard?”
“Maybe it’s just because Mr. Nakamoto grades low,” Renjun surmises. He’s never gotten less than ninety percent in any science subject but on their very first pop quiz, Renjun found the red seventy-four percent mark he got taunting and mean. “I think you get it more than I do.”
Jeno grins. “I was gonna ask you to teach me, but I guess teaching you is fine, too. I get to learn anyway,” he teases. “You free after school?”
“Or tomorrow,” Jeno says with a shrug. “I just wanna get it all cleared up before we get another pop quiz, you know?”
“Yeah, okay. I’m free later.”
“Okay, kids, time’s up,” Mr. Jung declares. “Who thinks Mr. Darcy is an asshole? Raise your hands.”
“Oh my god,” Renjun bursts out, dissolving into laughter when he sees the fence encircling the perimeter of Jeno’s house. “Remember that time your mom grounded you? Jaemin wanted to be cool and climbed the fence to free you.”
“What? But the fence is so short,” Jeno says with his brows all furrowed. “What happened to him?”
“His pants got ripped and Mark ended up asking your mom for a sewing kit.”
Jeno laughs. “I didn’t know that,” he admits. “I thought she just changed her mind or something .”
“When do moms ever change their mind?” Renjun retorts. Jeno puts his finger to his lips, a signal for Renjun to shut the fuck up, and opens the door to his house, greeting his mom with a kiss to her cheek. Renjun follows suit except he doesn’t kiss Jeno’s mom on the cheek; he waves at her awkwardly from where he's standing, lowers his head, then follows Jeno into the kitchen.
“Do you want anything to eat?” Jeno asks. “Mom cooked some food, but if you want pizza or something, we can order.”
Jeno hums then sets down his bag on a free chair, taking his stuff out of it. “Jaemin and I do this a lot,” he explains, “Study together when we feel like we’re really fucking dumb. It works.”
“Thanks, I guess.”
“I’m not saying you’re dumb,” Jeno rushes to say.
“I know,” Renjun says lightly, smiling at Jeno. “Why are you studying with me, though? Not sick of me yet?”
“Just wanted to spend time with you,” Jeno says, copying Renjun’s light tone. He cracks open his chemistry textbook and skims through the chapter. “Do you get the whole atomic mass versus atomic weight thing?”
Renjun stays quiet until he’s able to leaf through his notes. Then, he finally gets his answer. “Atomic mass is specific to what kind of atom it is, like having more protons or neutrons affects atomic mass,” he explains. “Atomic weight is like the average of all these different atoms.”
“But wouldn’t that be the same thing?”
“No…” Renjun’s voice trails off, his mouth slipping into a frown. “Each element has different kinds of atoms in them. We learned about carbon dating in history, remember? Historians use carbon-14 to date historical objects, but there are other kinds of carbon atoms. So each atom has its own atomic mass, but the average of all these atoms is atomic weight.” To be honest, Renjun doesn’t feel all that smart, spouting his notes nearly verbatim back to Jeno, who makes a face like he’s hearing it for the first time and makes Renjun feel helpless and dumb.
“Must have missed that part,” Jeno mutters, more to himself than to Renjun. “I think I get it now.” Huh. He’s fast.
“That was quick,” Renjun notes. “Now what?”
“Isn’t there anything else? How’s math for you?”
Renjun flushes red. “I’m doing okay,” he answers. “Do you wanna read ahead for English?”
“Ugh,” Jeno groans, leaning back into his seat. “What’s the point? Mr. Jung makes us read it during class anyway.” When Renjun acknowledges that, they fall into silence again. “History’s pretty easy, right? I heard Mr. Seo’s tests are all essays.”
“So let’s just hang,” Jeno urges. “Come on, Injunnie, I feel bad I made you come all the way here. Let’s order pizza and watch a movie or something?”
Well, pizza and a movie on a Tuesday afternoon definitely beats drilling notes into one’s skull, especially now that there isn’t any homework to be done. Yet. “Yeah, sure,” Renjun concedes. “I’ll pick the movie.”
Jeno smiles widely. “Fine. I pick the pizza toppings.”
A rewatch of High School Musical and a pizza later, Renjun finds himself overstaying his welcome, veering into dinnertime that Jeno’s mom insists he stay for because she has enough food to go around. Renjun accepts, keeping quiet while Jeno and his mom carry on a conversation.
“What have you been up to lately, Renjun?” Jeno’s mom asks.
“I do math training,” Renjun explains. It’s always an after school thing but this year’s training hasn’t officially begun yet and Renjun’s just waiting. “I’m an editor for the school newspaper, too.”
“I was trying to tell Jeno to keep busy,” Jeno’s mom tells him. “He’s always just goofing around at home.”
Jeno makes a sound of protest that gets covered by Renjun’s giggling.
“I think Jeno’s doing fine,” Renjun offers.
“See, Mom, our class salutatorian thinks I’m doing fine,” Jeno counters his mom with a smug look on his face. It’s so cute, the way his face scrunches up, Renjun thinks.
“Keep an eye on him for me, okay?” Jeno’s mom tells Renjun. She gathers up the dishes and brings them to the kitchen. Jeno and Renjun get the rest and follow her to the kitchen.
“Keep an eye on you, huh?” Renjun teases.
“Shut up.” The tips of Jeno’s ears are cutely red, too, and Renjun reaches for them with his free hand to point them out, grinning when Jeno couldn’t swat his hand away because of the dishes in his hands, turning redder until even the tops of his cheeks were flushed. “You’re lucky my mom thinks you’re an angel,” Jeno grouses.
“Because I am.”
“She thinks Jaemin’s one, too, so I wouldn’t get comfortable, if I were you.”
On the pretence of needing to study, afternoons at Jeno’s house become routine. Sometimes, Renjun gets excited when Mr. Moon has to call off after school math training. Sometimes, Renjun stays for dinner. More often than not, Renjun remembers himself and heads home before the invitation—and, consequently, the inclination to stay—could reach him.
On some days, days like now, they do study, albeit with open bags of chips.
“Don’t you miss studying with Jaemin?” Renjun asks.
Jeno’s eyes knit together as he chews on his mouthful of chips. “Yeah,” he says when he finishes. “Don’t you miss Mark?”
“I guess… Mark’s so busy now, so I feel kinda bad for him.”
“Donghyuck’s with him, so I guess he’s doing okay,” Jeno offers, not unkindly. “Jaemin’s busy trying to win Yerim back.” Aside from varsity, that is. Whichever varsity team it is that Jaemin’s interested in at the moment.
“I still don’t know what happened with them,” Renjun admits.
“Okay,” Jeno begins as he closes his notebook, studying time done for the meantime, “they have an on-off thing. One day it’d be her parents, another day it’s because Jaemin’s scared… It just never seemed to work out for them, you know? Then Yerim got sick of it and said it’s better if they don’t bother.”
“Dude, he likes her a lot. Like, a lot.”
Renjun nods like he understands, but he doesn’t really. He understands the bickering, how both their words could be tinged with the hurt they feel, but he doesn’t understand how they can decide to try again. “How do you know that?” How does Jaemin know that?
“I just do, I guess,” Jeno says, because he can’t really think of how either. “Didn’t you have a crush on anyone?”
“You mean in middle school?”
“No…” Renjun can feel his face heating up.
“Dude, it’s okay,” Jeno insists.
“Don’t tell me you have a crush on Yerim,” Jeno hypothesises, bursting into laughter because it just sounds so odd yet has that slightest possibility of being true. When Renjun keeps quiet, Jeno goes, “I’m right, right? Oh my god.”
Renjun kicks his leg from the other side of the table. “I’m not; shut up.”
“So who is it?”
“No one, I’m telling you!”
“I don’t believe you.”
Sighing, Renjun goes through the list of girls he knows from school, the girls he thinks are pretty or cute or really nice or smart. That makes it all of the girls he knows from school, really, but he still doesn’t know that many of them. “Somi,” he says eventually.
“Somi,” Jeno repeats. “From Chenle’s class?”
Jeno nods and picks up another chip, chewing on it thoughtfully. Renjun watches with something else chewing up his insides. “Huh, you never talk about her,” Jeno says.
“Because it’s weird,” Renjun says with a sniff. “Come on, I still don’t get anything about Mayan culture.”
“Talk to me about Somi,” Jeno urges instead.
Why should Renjun? “Why should I?” Renjun demands.
At that, Jeno relents and puts his hands up in a show of it. “Sorry, Injunnie. It’d just be nice to hear you talk about something other than school for once.”
Was Renjun really that boring? The statement makes him frown. “She’s cute,” he says. “She danced in the talent show last year with Doyeon and Yoojung.”
“Yeah, I remember that,” Jeno says. “Doyeon’s more my type, though.”
“Doyeon’s really pretty,” Renjun agrees.
“Go on.” Jeno’s leaning across the table now, peering into Renjun with his eyes turned up, mouth curled up into a smirk. He’s handsome, Renjun can admit, and the thought of it along with Jeno’s close proximity to his own face makes Renjun want to squawk.
“This is so weird,” Renjun whines, making Jeno laugh. There are butterflies in Renjun’s stomach that want to spill out of his mouth, wings fluttering. Maybe it’s time for him to go home?
“You're really something else, Injunnie.” Jeno leans back to crack open his notebook and they discuss history again.
“I hate math,” Chenle says with a pout.
“Suck it up, kid,” Renjun tells him off. Chenle curses in Chinese under his breath as he goes over the same problem for the third time. On the other side of the table, Jisung is staring hard at some science questions, Mark hovering over him like a fussing mother.
“Sorry I’m late,” Somi apologises, breathless and failing to keep her voice to a whisper. Renjun smiles at her and gestures to the empty seat on his other side. “I failed my history exam,” she tells Renjun with a pout, said exam clenched tightly in her fist.
“Can I see?” Renjun asks.
“No!” she all but shrieks, clapping a hand to her mouth when she remembers she’s in the library, face going red. “Sorry.”
“Let me look at it,” Renjun asks again, gentler this time. “It’s good to figure out where you went wrong, right? The final exams are comprehensive.”
“I know,” Somi says, “but I think I made really stupid mistakes, so I don’t want you to see them.”
“I won’t laugh. Promise.”
Somi pouts but unclenches her hand and hands the crumpled paper to Renjun, who smoothes it flat on the table.
“What happened?” Renjun asks, trying his best not to smile. “Did you blank out?”
“Yeah. I hate history so much,” Somi complains. “It’s so boring and Mr. Byun sucks. I hate him.”
“History can be fun if you think of it as a story,” Renjun tells her. He wonders if he should tell Jeno about how cute Somi looks when she frowns like that. But he’s told Jeno more than enough, he decides. He tells her about the way humans learned to work their thumbs, then tools, then how they walked upright and into new civilisations, pausing only to check on Chenle’s progress.
It’s five when they all finish—or were kicked out of the library, rather. Mark slings his backpack over his shoulders and walks with Renjun to the exit nearest the pedestrian gate.
“Word is you like Somi,” Mark says. Teases.
“I don’t,” Renjun shoots him down right away while simultaneously swallowing down the feeling of wanting to smash Jeno’s violin on his smirking head. “I just said it so Jeno would back off.”
“Yeah, I thought that was kinda weird, too,” Mark remarks with a creased forehead. “You’d tell me if you like someone, right?”
“Of course! You’re the first one I’d tell.”
“I’d tell you, too,” Mark says simply, with a smile. Mark is an incredibly simple person, and it makes Renjun smile.
Renjun chews on his bottom lip as they walk out of the school, feeling it turn raw and tender before he asks, “Do you think he’ll tell Somi?”
“And embarrass you?”
Mark shakes his head. “Nah.”
“I don’t want her to think I’m creepy.”
“I’m sure Somi thinks you’re a huge nerd.”
“So do you like anyone?” Mark then asks.
Renjun frowns again and shakes his head. “I don’t spend enough time with anyone to really like them, I think,” he says.
Mark laughs and says, “Yeah, because you’re spending all your time with Jeno.”
So maybe Renjun should stop spending time with Jeno. Luckily, Mr. Moon calls for math training for an entire week, apologising for having cancelled on them for two weeks in a row, so Renjun’s stuck in a borrowed classroom till sunset, scratching out answers to competition questions and doodling when he fails to answer.
Mark’s math grades have never been stellar, so he’s never officially been in training, but he drops by sometimes to offer everyone a slice from the extra box of pizza from the student council meeting or to try to boost his grade up by having Mr. Moon tutor him. But on the other days, Renjun sticks with Koeun. She corrects him a lot, but he finds that he doesn’t mind.
“Can’t wait to get out of here,” Koeun sighs on Friday, her hair fanning out across her shoulders when she moves her head back. “Hina’s doing a sleepover and they’re starting without me.”
“That sounds like fun,” Renjun says.
“By the way, one of your EROs is wrong,” Koeun points out. “Two times three isn’t eight.”
“See, this is why we need calculators,” Renjun grumbles, but he still erases that line and continues from there.
Koeun hits him on the head. “You need to get smarter, dumbass. Did you get s equals two minus t for your parametrisation?”
Then there’s the Can’t today, got relatives coming over, the I got a meeting today (which isn’t entirely his fault).
“Nah, that’s cool,” Jeno says after Renjun apologises to him profusely.
“It’s not like we even study anyway,” Renjun argues.
“Well, yeah, but I like hanging out with you, Injunnie,” Jeno admits, his face curled up like he finds that what he’d just said is hard to say, and it tugs at Renjun.
“We have that chem long exam next week, right?” Renjun says. “We can study then.” Wow, who knew his resolve was this weak? Renjun certainly thought he was better than that.
Jeno’s egregiously late (or absent, but Renjun doesn’t know; Jaemin might), and Donghyuck takes this opportunity to take Jeno’s seat before Mr. Lee comes in for the morning prayer, as that side of the room is the only place that gets cell signal.
“Oh, dude, did you and Jeno break up?” Donghyuck asks while absentmindedly scrolling through Facebook.
“Look, man, I get if you don’t wanna talk about it.”
“We’re not dating?”
“Yes,” Donghyuck sighs, like he’s talking to a child, “because you and Jeno broke up.”
“No,” Renjun objects, the rest of it caught in his throat because he doesn’t know what to say. His face feels so warm he thinks it’ll fall off, and he has no idea what his face looks like at that moment to Donghyuck, but he just knows it’s hurting his cheeks and he wants to disappear.
“It’s okay to be in denial,” Donghyuck tells him gently. “I know what it feels like, okay? I’m here for you.”
How can Donghyuck be so malicious? “Is this a joke?” Renjun asks. “It’s not funny.” His face is almost quite literally burning, his eyes welling up with hot tears.
“What do you mean? Dude, I’m being serious,” Donghyuck says, his voice sounding extremely far and underwater, making Renjun shake his head profusely.
Is that what it looked like? Renjun wishes Jeno were in the classroom to tell Donghyuck off, but that would look bad, too, wouldn’t it? Not that it doesn’t already look bad with Renjun crying and trying desperately to not look like he’s crying by wiping furiously at his own face.
He can hear Koeun fighting with Donghyuck, swearing at him while Donghyuck protests that he has no idea what the hell happened. Koeun hovers in front of Renjun, slim fingers wrapped tightly around his wrists. Her hair is so pretty, the locks curling around her ears like tendrils of a vine, and the thought of it makes Renjun cry all over again, tears spilling onto his school uniform.
“Renjun,” Koeun starts, softly.
“I’m not…” Renjun feels so dirty, his skin crawling, and he looks so, so guilty with his face a bright red and his tear-streaked cheeks.
“It’s okay,” she says. She doesn’t say You’re not. Renjun wants to get mad at and to accuse her, but he finds his shoulders limp and void of energy.
“Donghyuck’s…” Renjun wrests one of his hands free from Koeun’s grip and wipes at his face again. “I hate it when people do that,” he says, eyes trained to the floor, to the scuffed toes of his black shoes. “Like… Joke around like that. It’s not funny.”
“Of course it’s not,” Koeun agrees. It’s not funny because Renjun feels like he’s being accused, like he walked into the classroom in his underwear and everyone started laughing at him. That kind of not funny.
Just then, Jeno comes in at—bless his soul—a whole three minutes before Mr. Lee. He stops in his tracks at the vicinity of his desk, eyeing the scene with confusion. “What’s up?”
“Nothing’s up,” Donghyuck says quickly, then goes to his seat, hand curled on top of Mark’s sleeping form to shake him awake. Koeun follows suit, quietly patting Renjun’s knee before she goes.
When Jeno reclaims his seat, it’s with the same expression stuck to his face, sour but not quite. Figuring things out. “Dude,” he says, “are you crying?”
“No!” A sniffle. Renjun wants to get his things and go home.
“It’s okay, you can tell me, right?” Jeno says. Jeno is the last person Renjun can tell, and Renjun can’t wait till lunch, when he can hide somewhere with Mark.
“Who’s prayer leader for today?” Mr. Lee asks as soon as he bursts through the door. “Chan Lee? Ah, Suhyun. Perfect.”
Mark, as it turns out, is unavailable for lunch. It’s truly a horrific twist of events that has led Renjun to sit beside Jeno while Donghyuck and Jaemin take the opposite side of the bench, all of them eating in awkward silence. Until Jeno decides to grill Donghyuck on what exactly happened that morning, that is.
“Nothing, I’m telling you,” Donghyuck insists, the tips of his ears growing red. Maybe he’s wishing Mark was there, like Renjun is.
“Your face doesn’t look like it’s nothing,” Jeno presses. “Jaemin?”
“I don’t even know, man. I was cramming shit for math.”
Jeno frowns while Renjun continues to nibble on his sandwich, his stomach churning. “But is everything okay now?” Jeno then asks. “Fighting stresses me out.”
Donghyuck scoffs, “Sorry, princess.”
“Shut it,” Jaemin says to Donghyuck with an elbow to Donghyuck’s ribcage.
“It’s fine,” Renjun pipes up. Can Jeno please stop? Renjun wraps his half-eaten sandwich back up and gets off the bench, feeling like he’ll vomit if he tries to force the rest of his food down his throat. “I’ll go ahead.”
“I'll go with you,” Jeno says. He scrambles to get his lunch back on the tray for disposal.
“No, it’s okay.”
“Why don’t you wanna talk to me?” Jeno demands, suddenly annoyed and exasperated, showing it in his face though his tone was, as usual, quiet and calm. “Did I do something?”
Rather than wish he could disappear, Renjun wishes Donghyuck and Jaemin could melt away, leaving him and Jeno alone. Because he feels like he’s being scrutinised. Because he feels like they’re being scrutinised. Renjun walks out of the cafeteria with Jeno following him until they reach the school’s chapel, as far apart from the main buildings as possible.
The chapel is silent, the little marble basins in the entrance void of holy water. Renjun remembers to genuflect and to make the sign of the cross before settling at the back. Jeno stumbles into his seat, but even the shock of the noise as Jeno trips on the wooden pew isn’t enough to take over the quiet that’s settled in Renjun.
“Are you gonna pray?” Jeno asks quietly, almost mouthing the words.
“I don’t know. Maybe.” They’ll be late for history class anyway, the last minutes of lunch break already dying down as they stare at the crucifix, and for the first time, Renjun doesn’t feel the need to hurry back. But the fact that he feels that worries him. After a few more moments of silence, Renjun kneels on the pew and bows his head in prayer, hands clasped together.
Ever since someone told him that prayer should sound like talking to a friend, Renjun had dropped the whole ACTS thing. Instead, he talks about his feelings, not knowing if they’re how they’re supposed to be, talks about how lost he feels. He asks for guidance for him and for all his friends, Mark and Donghyuck and Jaemin and… Jeno. Jeno, in particular, he’s grateful for this school year.
Beside him, Jeno just sits, waiting, not praying. Renjun closes his prayer with the sign of the cross and sits down again.
“We should go back,” Renjun says.
“Yeah. Mr. Seo’s gonna hand our asses over to Ms. Bae,” Jeno jokes.
“You didn’t have to come with me, you know.”
Jeno shakes his head. “Dude,” he says, “you’ve been acting weird. Do you know that? Or, like, did you think I wouldn’t notice?” Renjun feels his face heat up, the calm gone and replaced by his heart wanting to leap out of his mouth. “Renjun, I know it’s because of me, and I wish you’d just tell me so I can stop trying to—I don’t know—to… to force our friendship.”
Now Renjun wants to cry all over again. “It’s not what it looks like,” is all he can say. They should definitely be heading back, otherwise they’ll be absent for history and late for chemistry. It looks bad. Explaining the mess inside his head to Jeno is worse, and he’d rather risk Mr. Nakamoto’s scolding to that, so he stands up.
Jeno stays in his seat, petulant. “Okay. And?”
“And what?” Renjun can’t move, so he just stays there standing, another awkward tableau. “I’m sorry?”
“Dude, what the fuck.”
“I don’t know!” Renjun shouts in a whisper, that being all he can do. “I really don’t know what’s going on with me, or how I feel… And I didn’t want to talk to you until I figured it out. Okay?” Jeno still looks annoyed, and Renjun can only watch helplessly as Jeno’s face flickers from annoyance to neutrality.
“Okay, Injunnie. Okay.” He finally stands up, making Renjun let out a sigh of relief in his mind, and they walk out of the chapel together. “Hey, you promise to tell me what’s up when you figure it out?” he asks, his voice back to normal levels now that they’re out of the chapel premises.
“You’re my friend, dude. We’re friends, right?”
Friends. Of course. “Yeah. What else would we be?”
They fall back into routine—lunches with everyone (it’s a special occasion when Mark is free enough to join them), afternoons at Jeno’s house. Renjun can swallow down stuff like balancing equations and the Persian Wars down his throat along with his feelings and his confusion.
Sometimes, however, they bubble up, especially when Renjun’s too tired to even think about school. He wants to steal Mark from the stupid student council meeting and drag him out for ice cream and eat them by the playground for kindergarten students.
Fortunately for him, Mark steals him first, leading them to the ice cream stall of the cafeteria at a brisk walk then not to the playground but to the baseball field, the farthest place in campus from anyone else within earshot. It’s hot, way too warm for comfort. It’s got Renjun licking fast-melting ice cream off his knuckles while Mark talks and talks about the little issues the student council is having, how Mina and Sohye are up to their pigtails with worry, and how that worries him, too.
Mark’s so worried about everything that Renjun’s worried Mark would suffer even more in college, all the sheer stress causing him to faint eventually. It’s something Seungkwan the senior warned them about, giving them stories of his sister in college.
Then, a burst of silence. Mark’s legs are shaking.
“Dude,” Mark starts, “there’s something I’ve been thinking about…”
“What is it?”
“I’m not sure I can tell…” Mark is a nervous laugher, and now he’s a pile of giggles, letting out a squawk of a laugh as he shakes his head. “God. I feel so…” His face is all red, too, the features crumpled up like the napkin Mark has in his fist. He gestures for Renjun to shift closer and cups Renjun’s ear once he does, whispering, “I think I like Donghyuck,” in the lowest of registers, barely audible that Renjun can’t help wondering if he’s heard it at all.
And he wished he hadn’t. “No,” Renjun says.
Mark’s face falls and becomes solemn. “I know,” he says.
For the second time that month, tears began to well in Renjun’s eyes. “You don’t know that—that you like him…” He’s almost pleading, and he wants to plead, wants it to be a funny joke he can laugh at. “Mark, you can’t.”
“I don’t know either,” Mark argues. “It’s just a feeling. Feelings can change.”
They can. They also should. “What made you think that in the first place?” Renjun demands.
“I don’t know! It’s just… I don’t know. We’ve been hanging out a lot lately—”
“We hang out a lot, too! Do you like me, too?”
“No! It’s not like that! That’s why I—That’s why I think I… like him… It’s different.” Even though no one could hear them, Mark still lowered his voice at the confession. I like him feels so hard to say when the crucifix on top of the chapel is the most visible landmark from where they’re sitting.
Renjun shakes his head. “Maybe you’ll snap out of it,” he says.
Mark sighs and leans back on the bench, practically trying curl himself on top of it and hang his head upside down from the edge. “I hope so,” he admits with his hands folded on his chest.
“Stop it,” Renjun mumbles when Jeno’s paper plane lands in his vicinity.
“We have, like, a million problem sets—”
“I’m bored, Injunnie. Bored.”
With a sigh, Renjun sets down his pen and eyes Jeno from across the dinner table. “What do you want me to do about it?”
“Entertain me. Talk to me.”
Jeno leans in closer, and Renjun quickly darts his eyes to the side, staring at the hairline crack in the wall of the kitchen instead. “Tell me something interesting.”
Mark likes Donghyuck. “I got nothing,” Renjun tells Jeno to his face.
Instead of leaning back, Jeno just smiles up at Renjun like he knows something. “I don’t believe you,” he says.
“You might wanna try it,” Renjun suggests. Mark likes Donghyuck. Renjun has to swat the thought away like it’s a mosquito. “This is—”
“Stop being a weirdo,” Renjun admonishes, hands too far to push Jeno away, so he just waits in annoyance for Jeno to back off.
“You’re weirdly annoyed today,” Jeno notes, because it’s the fifth time in that hour that Renjun snapped at him.
Because Mark likes Donghyuck.
“Do you wanna talk about it?” Jeno then offers, gently instead of goading. “Or if you don’t wanna study today, that’s cool, too.”
“I’d rather study,” Renjun says.
That’s when Jeno pulls away, looking at Renjun like he’s grown two heads. It's incredibly annoying. Jeno asks, “Are you sure? Isn’t it hard to study when you’re pissed off?”
“Then what do you want me to do?” Renjun demands.
“Fine!” Does Donghyuck like Mark back? Is Donghyuck gay? Is Mark gay? Renjun packs up his things, closes his bag. “I don’t wanna think,” Renjun admits to Jeno. He doesn’t want to go home, then, because he’ll just think and that’s decidedly a sordid way to spend a Friday evening. “Do you wanna do something?”
“You said you’re bored. Besides, dude, it’s Friday.”
“Whoa, slow down, badass,” Jeno teases, making Renjun flush red.
“We have that exam on Monday,” Jeno reminds him. “Remember?”
Renjun sighs and makes a face at Jeno. “We have the whole weekend to study. Let’s just have fun now,” he says and Jeno laughs because it really must sound incredulous, the words coming out of Renjun’s mouth, but Renjun feels antsy and tight, like he’s about to burst.
“Earth to Renjun, are you okay? What’s gotten into you, dude?”
“I don’t know,” is what Renjun settles for. “How about a movie?”
Jeno nods slowly. “Which one?”
“Uh, I got Ferris Bueller’s Day Off on DVD,” Jeno offers. “Mom likes John Hughes.”
Renjun finds Cameron oddly relaxing in the way that only watching someone else constantly be on the edge even in moments of fun could. Jeno likes Ferris, which doesn’t sound all too surprising.
“Dude, imagine not having to care about grades,” Jeno sighs. He leans on Renjun’s shoulder and yawns. “You gonna get mad if I sleep on you? I’ve seen this thing, like, twelve times.”
“And you were forcing me to study,” Renjun snorts, wincing at how Jeno must have felt Renjun stiffening up and it makes him feel bad enough to not withdraw or wriggle away.
“Just doing you a favour, dude,” Jeno says as he smiles up at Renjun. Renjun’s heart is beating loudly, and he’s afraid Jeno can hear it thumping to get out of his chest, the beating getting louder, more uncomfortable when Jeno wraps an arm around Renjun’s middle, burrowing his head in further as if Renjun were a pillow.
Maybe this is what Mark means about the feelings being different, how easy it is to mistake for liking or wanting. It’s not comfortable, not by a long shot, and Renjun is so painfully aware of Jeno’s weight and presence, his easy breathing as he falls asleep, but it’s calming.
It's a funny movie, but even Renjun finds himself trying his best to keep awake, eventually falling asleep as Mr. Rooney bumbles his way around Ferris’ house.
“Someone’s happy,” Jeno notes. Indeed, Jaemin is smiling benignly down at both him and Renjun, faint pink in his cheeks.
“Lads, I’m taking you all out for pizza later,” Jaemin says.
“You and Yerim made up?”
“Oh, more than. We have a date this weekend.”
“Dude!” Jeno high-fives Jaemin then stands up to hug him. “Congrats.”
“Yeah, congrats,” Renjun pipes up, smiling back at Jaemin.
“Guess I won,” Jeno says lightly, moving his mouth closer to Renjun's ear to do so, catlike smile on his face.
“I knew I was gonna lose anyway,” Renjun mumbles. (He had woken up to Jeno still holding on to him, blankets to cover their knees. It makes him blush to think that Jeno’s mom had seen them like that and hadn’t done anything to wake them up. Renjun shifted slightly, and Jeno stirred awake, smiling up at Renjun without lifting his head.) There were problem sets to be answered, a critical essay on Pride & Prejudice to be written.
“Thanks in advance,” Jeno says.
“Try not to get too dumb,” Renjun sniffs. “Besides, we never said I had to do it right.”
“But you will,” Jeno says simply, “because you love me.”
Renjun sticks his tongue out at him and asks, “Do I?” (His skin crawled from feeling Jeno’s breath on it, the shame making his face feel like it’s on fire. He likes the closeness, the feel of it, but he can’t help wishing it were someone else.)
“I don’t know, you tell me what happened Friday night,” Jeno teases with a shrug, laughing when Renjun flushes red. “Dude, it’s no big deal.”
“Is it?” Oh, goodness, Renjun’s squeaking.
“Yeah, I hug everyone. Ask Jaemin.”
“If they let me, sure. As friends, you know?”
“You know that’s not weird, right? I’m sure you hug Mark,” Jeno says slowly, a small frown on his face.
Of course Renjun hugs Mark—nothing’s weird about that. Not that he really hugs anyone else. “Can we stop talking about this?” Renjun asks.
“Come on, Injunnie, be honest with me.”
“Just… everything? I know you said you wanted to figure it out first, but maybe I can help you out?”
How, when you’re the problem? Renjun wants to ask. Instead, he shakes his head.
Renjun pouts. “I don’t know what to tell you,” he admits.
“Why, ‘cause it sounds bad?”
“Promise I won’t judge,” Jeno swears, holding his hand up with the fingers straight and locked together. His face is red, too—why? Renjun doesn’t know because the only thing in his mind is that he wants to vomit his heart out.
He lets out a deep breath; it comes out shaky. Mr. Lee had already come in, reminding them that their class recollection is to be later in the month, taking up the whole of a Tuesday, so try not to be absent then. Jeno leaves Renjun alone to take note of the other stuff—the yearly medical assessment and the early morning mass their class has to sponsor (Mark’s a reader and so is Renjun).
“Mr. Kim is also saying your monthly guidance session with him is this week, so we won’t be having Christian living on Friday. He’s going to discuss with you career paths,” Mr. Lee says from his desk. “Anything else, Yerim?”
“Uh, we have some class projects for science month,” Yerim says. “Chan’s collecting money from everyone to pay for the materials, but I need volunteers to be the point persons.”
While the class sorts that out, Renjun slips off quietly from his seat and goes to where Mark is.
“Are you sure?” Mark asks later at lunch. They’re at the field all the way at the edge of campus again, watching the way the wind shifts the leaves.
“I don’t know. I just know I should avoid him for a while.”
“Kinda hard to. Aren’t you stuck doing his homework or something, too?”
“I’ll do that at home.”
“Dude.” Mark shakes his head and bites deeper into his sandwich while Renjun chews on his nails. When Mark’s done, he wipes his mouth and continues, “Do you wanna talk to Mr. Jung about it?”
“Uh, he and I talk a lot… He gives me extra stuff to read and his advice is great,” Mark says. “And… he helped me sort out my feelings.” He’s so pink, with a shy smile in his cheeks. “But honestly, I think you already know what’s up but you want to think you don’t.”
“I’m not like you, Mark,” Renjun grumbles. “I’m not…” Maybe he should’ve just let everyone believe he likes Somi. He likes Somi enough and nothing would ever come out of it anyway. “I can’t be. It makes me feel gross.” Everything makes him feel gross, really, except this—spilling it all out to Mark with cups of lemonade sweating in their hands.
“Me, too, you know. At first,” Mark tells him.
“And what? Mr. Jung told you it’s okay?”
“Yeah, there’s that, but also… I don’t know, man. Love is love. Right? Like… I don’t think I’m making a mistake.”
Mark sighs. “Because… it makes me happy and no one’s hurt. If it’s like that, then it can’t be too bad?”
“Does Donghyuck know?”
“No. Not yet…”
“But you’re sure?” Renjun prompts.
“I guess…” But Mark is smiling, so he must be sure. Renjun can’t help smiling back and wishing him luck.
Renjun’s parents are out of town, so the entire house is silent when he gets home, which is completely fine, because Renjun can heat up some of the food in the fridge, bound up the stairs to his room, and not come out for anything. For a while, he considers texting Jeno to come over so that they can watch a movie or something, but deletes the message before he could send it. He’s better than that. He’s a big boy; he can find ways to kill time on his own before bed.
In the end, after lying down on the bed and scrolling through his phone, he types up a short text and sends it. Hey.
Before long, Jeno sends an equally short reply: Sup. Okay, this was a mistake. The room is thankfully dark, even if no one else is around to see Renjun squawk and gawk at his phone, scrabbling for a reply.
“What do I do?” Renjun groans at himself. This is stupid. He’s acting like… Like he has a crush.
This is truly awful.
Renjun puts his phone down on the bedside table and stares at the ceiling till it feels like the ceiling’s staring back. Why did he have to like Jeno? “Hey, when I asked if you could help me understand my feelings, I didn’t want them to be this,” he grumbles to the ceiling. “I’m not Mark. I don’t think I can do this.” And why not? “It’s wrong. You know it is.”
What Renjun would give so that the ceiling would crack open and shower him with answers. “I’m not Mark,” he continues. “He's good at thinking about the ways things can be right, but all I can think about is how I’m supposed to…” Like girls, date them, marry them. Renjun swallows the lump in his throat. “All I keep thinking about is how I’m supposed to be, then everything feels bad.
“And Jeno’s a nice guy. I don’t wanna make him think he grosses me out.” Because he doesn’t. Because he makes Renjun feel comfortable. Because before Renjun’s skin began to crawl, he liked it when they were hugging, liked how Jeno would look at him and smile so prettily before Renjun pushed him away.
“Can’t we just go back to normal?” Renjun pleads to the darkness, but there’s only silence.
“Sorry, I fell asleep,” Renjun apologises the next morning once Jeno gets to the classroom.
“No worries. Jaemin ended up calling me anyway,” Jeno says. His eyes widen when Renjun hands him filled out sheets of paper. “Dude, you didn’t have to. It’s not like homework’s hard.”
“It’s not like you wouldn’t have copied from me anyway,” Renjun retorts, making Jeno laugh.
“Yeah. Thanks, though. I was gonna cram it during lunch.”
“I thought we had a deal?”
“Ugh, I felt bad. You’re doing a bunch of shit, so it makes me look like an asshole to add to that.”
Renjun rolls his eyes. “Whatever,” he scoffs while trying his best to hide his smile.
“When we talk about sin, it’s not accurate to think about it in terms of the act,” Mr. Lee says. “Would you say a child who doesn’t know what he’s doing is a sinner? No. We have to consider the intent of the person who does the act. Were they aware of the consequences of their actions? Did the person continue to do it despite reasoning with himself that it was wrong to do so?”
Renjun feels his stomach churning.
“We’ve already talked about how man is inherently good, as creatures of a God that is good,” Mr. Lee continues. “We know that because we feel guilt and shame when we do something bad, we reveal our nature of being God’s creatures.
“However, this doesn’t mean that we aren’t prone to making mistakes and wrong judgements. We can see that in our daily lives—we act on things we don’t understand, or we act on them because we think some other value system is in place. For example, doing something all your friends are doing just because they’re your friends. It means that you think their friendship is more important to you than your own values.”
From Renjun’s periphery, Jeno rolls his eyes, pen tapping impatiently on his notebook, but Renjun can’t stop thinking about the guilt.
“Today, we’re going to look into some issues that are present in the world and look into them in terms of sin—”
Renjun doesn’t get to hear the rest, having stood up and walked out before he could convince himself to stay seated. The guilt means it’s wrong. Reasoning it out means it’s wrong. And his body rejecting it means it’s definitely wrong, all the wrongs threatening to come out of his mouth the moment Renjun reaches the toilet and kneels in front of it, fingers clutching the edge to keep him from falling in and drowning.
Nothing comes out, but hot tears splash against his cheeks. Renjun picks himself up and sits down on the cubicle, leaning his cheek on the wall to cool himself down.
Maybe he really does like Jeno just because Jeno seems to be the better version of him—good-looking and charming, talented. Jeno’s more socially inclined, has a wider circle of friends; he’s best friends with Jaemin Na, for goodness’ sake…Jaemin, who can fit in anywhere because he’s friendly, outgoing, emphatic. And Jeno’s just so handsome that Renjun can’t hope to compete with him when it comes to looks so why not just like him instead?
Someone comes in the bathroom, making Renjun lift his feet off the floor and tuck his knees in.
“Injunnie?” Mark. Mark is wrong, too, and the thought makes Renjun cry all over again. “Injunnie, I can hear you,” Mark sighs. He knocks on Renjun’s cubicle. “Do you wanna go back to class?”
Renjun doesn’t answer. Mark leaves then comes back with a small pack of tissues, handing it to Renjun by sliding it through the gap between the cubicle door and the floor. Renjun doesn’t hesitate to climb off the toilet seat to get them and stays there.
“Thanks,” Renjun mumbles, feeling limp and drained of all energy. Mark sits down on the floor, leaning his back on the door, his head making a soft thud when Mark throws it back. Renjun has to ask, “You’re not going back to class?”
“I want to make sure you're okay,” Mark replies simply through Renjun blowing his nose.
“I’m fine,” Renjun insists.
“Sure you are.”
“How aren’t you bothered?”
Mark sighs. “I’m sure not everything they say is right, you know? Not that I know more than they do, but ‘cause… the people who make the rules are human, too, and we’ll never get it right,” he says.
“Is that enough?”
“Sometimes it has to be.” Then, after a while, Mark adds, “Donghyuck told me that.”
Donghyuck. “He’s smart,” Renjun offers, the words coming out slow. “That’s a good way to think about it.” He takes the hand Mark offers him, Mark squeezing his fingers gently.
“Are you guys…?”
Mark coughs. “I guess,” he says. Surely if Renjun can accept that, he could… "Is that okay with you?” It would be terrible of Renjun to say no, honestly—but it’s not like he really feels opposed to it, especially since Mark is happier, maybe even wiser.
“You’re my best friend,” Renjun answers. He doesn’t have to see Mark to know he’s smiling, the thought of it making him smile, too. Mark squeezes his fingers again.
“Is he okay?”
Renjun wishes he could drown in the toilet when he hears Jeno’s voice, loud and clear and worried. His chest caves in at the thought and he quickly withdraws his hand from Mark’s hold as it’s suddenly gone clammy.
When Mark doesn’t answer, Jeno repeats, “Is Injunnie okay?”
“Uh… he’s got, uh, diarrhea.” Thanks, Mark.
“It’s our practical test in music today,” Jeno reminds them. Oh, right. Play a few chords on the piano while reading sheet music. “You guys coming?”
“Uh…” Mark knocks on Renjun’s cubicle, asking, “Do you think you can make it to music?”
Renjun, feeling his cheeks burn, mumbles out a feeble, “Yes.”
“How are you?” Jeno asks after lunch. Renjun hadn’t eaten much, considering how his throat still felt sore and tacky, and Jeno had paid notice, much to Renjun’s chagrin. This is his seventh time asking.
“I’m fine now,” Renjun assures him.
“I hate being the naggy mom friend, but you should’ve seen your face before you ran out of the classroom.”
Renjun turns red. “How bad?”
“Like you saw a ghost,” Jeno explains. “Mr. Lee was gonna cry.”
His fault, Renjun thinks with a slight twist of his mouth. “I’ll tell him about it tomorrow,” Renjun says.
“You sure you’re okay?” God. Donghyuck and Jaemin stopped asking after Mark’s explanation, still worried but seemingly satisfied. And Renjun hadn’t returned to the bathroom since anyway.
“Yeah. I drank a lot of water,” Renjun huffs out. Jeno smiles and wraps an arm around his shoulder; the proximity of him makes Renjun want to disappear.
“Good,” Jeno says. “Let me walk you home later.”
“You don’t have to,” Renjun says quickly.
“I want to,” Jeno insists.
And true enough, he waits for Renjun to fix his bag after class and walks with him all the way to the pedestrian gate, crossing the street with him after. By that point, Renjun’s given up trying to shake him off. The worst thing about it all is that Renjun’s stomach is churning so much that he’ll probably have diarrhea by the end of the day anyway.
“Earth to Renjun,” Jeno says, taking Renjun’s hand by the wrist. The sudden contact makes Renjun jump then his heart stop when Jeno holds his hand for real, his palm rough but warm. “You’re gonna die if you keep spacing out like that,” Jeno points out.
“What are you doing?” Renjun demands.
“Making sure you get home safely,” Jeno replies simply. “Honestly, Injunnie, what would you do without me?”
“Die, probably,” Renjun says drily. He should let go. What if someone sees? “Why do you care?”
“We’re friends, aren’t we?”
“Of—Of course,” Renjun stutters, wholly mortified by how bad it all must look to Jeno. “I’m sorry.”
“Huh? What for?”
“I don’t know,” Renjun answers, defeated. “Just… sorry.” Jeno squeezes his fingers in encouragement, and Renjun's heart squeezes the same. “Uhm.” His palms are growing sweaty, which is so not attractive, and Jeno still isn’t letting go out of sheer stubbornness.
“You’re so cute,” Jeno remarks, pink dusting his cheeks as he says so. Renjun chokes on his own spit.
Renjun’s house is near, just past the one with the trimmed bed of roses. “That’s my house,” Renjun says once he collects himself.
“Can I come in?” Jeno asks. Uh. Renjun nods as he unlocks the door to an empty house, his parents still at work. “Nice place,” he says after he’s taken off his shoes and placed them on the little shoe rack by the front door.
“Thanks… My mom’s fussy about interior design,” Renjun says. She likes having pretty things everywhere, most of which can’t ever be touched except to wipe the dust off of. “My room’s not that nice.”
“I wanna see it anyway,” Jeno says. “I just realised that I’ve never been to your house.”
“Yeah, ‘cause Jaemin’s mom liked having us around so we were always there.”
“Yeah.” Renjun leads Jeno up the stairs to his room, pausing when he has his hand on the doorknob. “Uhm, my room’s embarrassing.”
“I won’t judge,” Jeno promises, though his lips curl into a smile when he takes in Renjun’s room, the big plushies of Moomintroll and the Snork Maiden surrounded by pillows on the bed. “It’s cute.”
“You said you won’t judge me,” Renjun grumbles.
“I’m not, I’m not!” Jeno protests. “Cute room for a cute guy.”
“Stop it,” Renjun chokes out.
“Can I?” Jeno asks, pointing to the bed. Renjun nods, and Jeno takes that as a cue to take up one side of Renjun’s bed. “Dude, your bed is soft,” he sighs, extending an arm to pat the other side of Renjun’s bed so Renjun can lie down before curling his arm around the Moomintroll plushie. That’s… Okay, that’s gay. “Come on, Injunnie, you need to rest your stomach.”
“I don’t have diarrhea,” Renjun mumbles.
“What’s wrong, then?” Jeno asks.
Should Renjun tell him? A big part of him feels like the churning in his stomach won’t go away until he does. “No judging,” he says. He takes a deep breath.
“How many times am I gonna tell you I won’t judge you till you believe me?” Jeno snaps.
“Because you don’t know what I'm gonna say,” Renjun snaps back.
“It doesn’t matter.”
Renjun makes a face then sits down on the bed, taking the Snork Maiden plushie in his hands. “Uhm… Jeno, I…” Don’t look at him. “I like you. I think. I don’t know, but it’s making me nuts thinking about it.”
“You…” Jeno begins, voice soft. Don’t look at him, Renjun. “Injunnie—”
“You should go,” Renjun tells him. What on earth does Jeno’s face look like? Renjun doesn’t want to find out.
“Look at me, Injunnie.”
“No,” Renjun says, petulant.
“Come on, Injunnie.”
Oh. Jeno’s smiling, pink on his cheeks.
“You know,” Jeno begins, “that makes more sense than what I thought.”
“What did you think?” Renjun lets out in a squeak.
“I thought I pissed you off or something,” Jeno admits.
“’Cause I’m touchy?” Renjun grumbles.
Jeno laughs. “Well, yeah. And I was really bummed about it, you know?” No, Renjun doesn’t. “I like you, too.”
“Yeah. I was talking to Jaemin about it—”
“What do you mean ‘like’?” For all of Renjun’s bravado in telling Jeno, he doesn’t know if it’s a good thing for Jeno to like him back.
Jeno's eyebrows furrow together and he frowns. “Well… That I… like you. As, you know, more than a friend. For a while now, at least. And it’s why I was—I was afraid I pissed you off, you know? I thought I was being obvious and you got grossed out.”
Oh, god. Renjun wants to cry, guilt coursing through his body in waves.
“It’s okay,” Jeno says after he shifts closer to Renjun, hand reaching out to touch his. Renjun can’t really respond—his hand stays lifeless in Jeno’s. “Do you want me to go?”
No? “I don’t know.”
Jeno sits up and lets go of Renjun’s hand, placing it instead on the Snork Maiden’s head, right between her ears. Already, Renjun misses the touch and he places his palm right on top of Jeno’s hand then reaches forward to try to hug him with the other arm. The hug is warm and comforting with Jeno being able to catch him and to wrap both arms around Renjun’s waist.
Renjun is so embarrassed, so apologetic for the tightness in his skin. Jeno can’t feel it, but Renjun tries harder to will it away by tucking his head into Jeno’s shoulder and closing his eyes. There aren’t any soothing words—just a hand on Renjun’s back rubbing circles as he finds comfort in the touch.
Jeno had pulled away first, and for the briefest moment, Renjun thought they were going to kiss. He felt ready for it in a way that felt resigned, like it was inevitable. But Jeno doesn’t kiss him; he only smiles, and already Renjun can feel something inside him ache, a wanting to pull Jeno closer.
They don’t talk about it the next day at school, and Renjun thinks he’ll die from his stomach curling in anticipation and giving him the largest ulcer of his life.
“Renjun,” Mr. Lee calls after opening prayer, “can I talk with you for a bit?” Once Renjun had walked over to the teacher’s desk, he asks, “What happened to you yesterday?”
“Uh, I ate something bad, sir,” Renjun says.
Mr. Lee nods. “Are you sure you’re fine?”
“Yes, sir. I rested yesterday.”
“Jeno was really worried,” Mr. Lee notes. Renjun has to swallow down his blush. “Mark, too.”
“I told them already.”
“That’s good. You may go back to your seat.”
“How’s your diarrhea?” Jeno teases when Renjun goes back to his seat.
“Is that a date?” Renjun blurts out, and it makes Jeno turn red, which is an oddly satisfying feeling. “I don’t know.”
“How about later?”
“Isn’t your violin class today?”
Jeno pouts and leans on Renjun’s desk. “Violin’s boring.”
“You’re boring for taking violin.”
“Touché,” Jeno concedes. “I just wanna talk, Injunnie.”
“I can meet you after your violin lesson,” Renjun offers. There’s the ulcer again, flaring up. “I got things to do during lunch.”
By that, Renjun really means that he goes to the guidance counsellor’s office and hopes Mr. Kim is there. He is, eating his wrapped sandwich from home and sipping from a mug that was given to him by Jisung for Christmas. It’s one of those ‘you paint it, we glaze it’ type of mugs, with misshapen bugs now made permanent by the shiny lacquer as well as a messy Chenle was here with a long line extending from the last e.
That’s kind of nice of him, really, Renjun thinks. He knocks on the open door, causing Mr. Kim to jump slightly, a limp piece of lettuce flying out of his sandwich. “Sir, are you busy?” he asks.
“No, just having lunch,” Mr. Kim says. He puts his sandwich and mug down and faces Renjun properly. “Is anything wrong, Renjun?”
“Can I just… talk to you for a bit?”
“Do you want some?” Mr. Kim says, offering the uneaten half of his sandwich to Renjun. “You should be eating, Renjun. It’s lunch time.”
“I can’t eat,” Renjun tells him.
“Ah.” Mr. Kim gestures to all the pillows in his office then gives Renjun the sandwich anyway. “Have a seat, then.” Renjun takes the one nearest the door, reaching forward for a big soft pillow with red stitching on the cover to put on his lap. Meanwhile, Mr. Kim finishes the half of sandwich in his hand and drinks some more from the mug. “What’s on your mind?”
“I… I like boys, sir.”
“Any particular boy?”
“Does he know?”
Mr. Kim looks at him with wide eyes—then again, that’s his normal face. “Was it bad?” he asks.
“No…” Renjun fiddles with the plastic wrap around the sandwich. “He likes me, too. It’s just—I don’t know, every time I want to like it, I feel weird and grossed out and I wish he didn’t like me back so I can get over it.”
“Do you think it’s wrong to like him?” Mr. Kim asks.
“Sometimes,” Renjun admits. “I don’t understand.”
For a while, Mr. Kim stays quiet, chewing thoughtfully on his sandwich. Renjun takes that as his cue to try to eat his half, nibbling on the crust first before taking a bite. “Renjun,” he says, “I can’t give you any answers, but I want you to listen to me, okay?” At that, Renjun nods, so Mr. Kim continues: “I was like that, too, at your age. I had this boy in my class that I got really close to and who I ended up having a crush on.
“But I knew it was wrong because everyone from my teachers to my parents said it was wrong, and they all had their own reasons. I couldn’t understand. I thought I was being tested and that things will be okay if I just got rid of my feelings.”
“Mark told me they’re not always right,” Renjun pipes up.
“Mark is right. I’m not saying you should pick and choose what things you want to believe in, Renjun, but that you also understand for yourself why the teaching is like that. It’s not wrong to disagree.” After a beat, Mr. Kim adds, “In this case, it’s not wrong.”
“Sir, how did you… Are you…”
Mr. Kim smiles, blushing faintly. “We live together now. Kinda ironic that he teaches Christian living.”
“Anyway, Renjun,” says Mr. Kim after he clears his throat, “I hope you understand.”
“I do, sir. Kinda,” Renjun says with his heart beating at the rate of a mouse’s. Even so, he feels relieved, like something had stopped squeezing at his heart and allowed it to beat as fast as it did. He thanks Mr. Kim and walks back to his classroom, able to finish the sandwich with lunch coming to an end soon.
Renjun hasn’t seen Jeno’s room in a while, not long enough for any change to happen but long enough to expect change to happen. It feels like slipping back into routine, but he just stands by the door, backpack still on his shoulders till Jeno says that he can set it down by the study table.
“Hey, don’t be scared,” Jeno says while placing his hands on Renjun’s shoulders, which makes him very scared. As soon as his hands were there, they were gone as Jeno had gone to sit on his bed, patting the space beside him. “Sit here.” Once Renjun had, Jeno starts. “Uhm.”
Oh, he’s scared. Renjun could laugh if he weren’t so nervous either.
“What do you wanna do?” Jeno finally asks.
“Uhm…” Jeno bites his lip. “It’s just—I don’t want to make you uncomfortable. I know how hard it was for you, like, admitting it.”
“How do you know that?” Renjun asks.
Jeno laughs, blushing somewhat. “Mark told me.” Renjun is going to have a few words with Mark. “He said you freaked out about him and Donghyuck.” Renjun is going to have a few strong words with Mark. “It’s also why I thought you hated me.”
“I’m sorry,” Renjun bites out, embarrassed beyond belief. “I was really surprised when Mark told me.”
“What made you change your mind?”
Huh. Renjun’s not entirely sure. Maybe it’s Mark thinking of Donghyuck as providence. Maybe it’s Mr. Kim (and how Mr. Lee couldn’t possibly believe in everything he teaches either). “I was wrong,” he says finally.
At that, Jeno smiles so widely that Renjun’s heart clenches. “I’m proud of you,” he says. “We can take this as slow as you want… if you wanna do anything.”
“Yeah, I wanna try it out,” Renjun says, his voice faint because his heart is almost definitely gonna give out from his thoughts. He knows they just agreed on taking things slow but… “Can I… kiss you?”
“Are—Are you sure?” Jeno asks with wide eyes.
“Uhm.” Renjun takes his bottom lip in his mouth and chews on it. “Just one…?”
Jeno laughs. “I guess that’s okay.” He shifts closer and places his hand on Renjun’s shoulder again, the touch warm and solid, drawing Renjun in. “Close your eyes.”
“Have you even kissed anyone?” Renjun challenges but closes his eyes anyway. Then, he can feel Jeno’s breath ghosting over the corner of his mouth.
“No,” Jeno confesses in a low voice. “Just trust me.”
So Renjun bites his tongue and parts his mouth just slightly when Jeno’s lips touch his. Everything had come to a stop then—the room had gone quiet, Renjun’s heart’s slowed down to a thrum. All Renjun can register is the press of Jeno’s mouth against his before it goes away all too soon.
He puts his fingers to his lips and opens his eyes to find Jeno doing the same, his face a bright shade of pink that Renjun finds he deeply treasures.
“How was that?” Jeno asks then.
“Okay?” Renjun ventures then at the sight of Jeno’s hurt face, adds, “I don’t know, I liked it!”
“I liked it, too,” Jeno says. “Do you feel weird?”
Renjun thinks, if he closes his eyes, he wouldn’t be able to tell the difference. “Guess not,” he admits.
Jeno smiles again and laces their fingers together. “I’m glad.”
“What are you doing later?” Jeno asks the next morning by way of greeting. “Wanna go get tacos?” Right, date things.
“I have tutoring,” Renjun tells him, “with Chenle. He has a big science quiz coming up.”
Jeno hums. “I’ll go with you,” he says finally.
“Are you sure? Biology’s kinda boring.”
“Yeah, I’m sure. I wanna see you teach.”
“Tutor,” Renjun corrects, but he flushes red anyway.
“We can grab something after,” Jeno offers. “My treat.”
“I’m not saying no if you’re treating,” Renjun teases.
Later that afternoon, Renjun greets Chenle in the library with Jeno behind him. “Uh, Jeno’s sitting in with us, is that okay?”
“Am I third-wheeling?” Chenle asks, making Jeno burst out into laughter while Renjun feels himself go so red that he’s nearly purple.
“Shut up,” Renjun chokes out, thinking he’ll burst when Jeno wraps an arm around his shoulder and goes, “Hey, Chenle, what are you guys learning about now?”
“Uh… ATP or some shit,” Chenle says. “All the cell shit.” He gets out his notes and leafs through it. “Uh, Krebs cycle…”
“Cellular respiration,” Jeno offers.
“It’d be good if you remember the four big phases first,” Renjun says. “Do you know glycolysis? Glucose gets split up into pyruvate—from one molecule with six carbon atoms to two molecules with three carbon atoms each.” He gets Chenle’s notebook and draws the diagram for it. Jeno hasn’t let go of him yet, his arm way too warm on Renjun’s shoulders.
“Yeah, I remember,” Chenle says.
“Didn’t they show you that stupid cell respiration song? The Black Eyed Peas one?” Jeno asks. “I watched that on repeat.”
Renjun scowls. “If Chenle just needs to focus on key points, then that’s useless,” he points out to Jeno, who was so close that Renjun found himself tilting his head back for a bit of space and Jeno had finally let go. “What about it is confusing for you?” he then asks Chenle.
“Uhm… NADH and FADH,” he answers finally.
“Oh, okay. That should be quick, then. We can finish early,” Renjun says and gets to the breakdown of the interplay of NADH and FADH in the general process of cell respiration, Jeno staying quiet by playing a game on his phone. They finish some thirty minutes later after a run-through, a second run-through, and Renjun entertaining Chenle’s questions and his follow-ups on other concepts. At some point, Jeno grew bored and took a nap on the table, head pillowed on his arms.
Chenle packs up, thanks Renjun, and goes. Renjun shakes Jeno awake, smiling widely when Jeno looks up at him sleepily.
“I told you it was boring,” Renjun says.
“You look cute as a tutor,” Jeno says.
“How do you know? You were sleeping.”
“I was dreaming about it.”
“Stop,” Renjun whines, thankful that the only person left in the library is the main librarian, who was all the way on the other side. It is a Friday afternoon, after all. “Also, can you not do that in front of Chenle?”
“I don’t want him to think something’s up.”
“Something is up, Injunnie,” Jeno states. He sits up and rubs his eyes open. “I know Chenle. I’m sure he’s okay with it.”
“But what about people who aren’t like Chenle?”
“I’m not going to kiss you in front of Mr. Moon,” Jeno says drily. “Are you worried our classmates will give us shit?”
“I’ll fight them.”
Renjun snorts. “Nice try.”
Jeno slings his arm over Renjun’s shoulder again and moves himself closer to place a kiss on his cheek. “You’re not alone here, okay?”
Silently, Renjun turns his head towards Jeno and leans in, cupping Jeno’s face as he kisses him. He has no idea what he’s doing—maybe if he does it right, it’ll feel better than it does now. But it feels so good regardless, making heat flow through to his fingertips. Jeno shifts even closer and chases Renjun’s mouth, jumping back in his seat when he hears the librarian shuffling around.
“Library’s closing soon, boys. You should be enjoying your weekend!” she calls from the row of computers.
“Yes, miss!” Jeno calls back. He wipes his mouth and laughs quietly. “Wow, Injunnie.”
“Oh, god,” Renjun chokes out, mortified. “Can we please go get tacos now?” he says weakly, stomach churning from the realisation.
Jeno takes Renjun’s hand and runs his thumb over the knuckles. “Yeah, of course.”
Renjun snatches the bag of chips away from Mark and grabs a handful, trying to stuff the entirety in his mouth.
“You guys made out in the library?”
Mark’s mouth curls and he laughs. If Donghyuck were there, he’d laugh, too. “Whatever you call it, Injunnie, it’s still making out,” Mark says.
“And you know all about that because you and Donghyuck do it.”
“You’re the worst, dude.”
“Thanks.” Renjun settles for eating the chips out of hand, one by one.
“How do you feel?” Mark asks.
“Like I have to hurl.”
“It’s okay. Me, too.”
Mark’s eyebrows knit together. “No, not now… I told you before that I think he’s good for me. But at first… I found it hard to, you know, tell myself I wasn’t doing anything wrong. And even if my brain already knew it, it was like my body wasn’t agreeing with me, you know? It’s willpower, dude.”
“So I should… just bear with it?” Renjun asks.
“Uh… I don’t know. Maybe whatever you can take will be fine. Jeno gets it, you know?” Mark says, not moving an inch when Renjun pouts and slumps against him, suddenly drained. “Hey, Injunnie, you okay?”
“Yeah,” Renjun mumbles, replaying Jeno’s I'll fight them in his mind and trying not to cry because his first thought was that Jeno couldn’t possibly fight anyone before he could think that Jeno really meant it, and in that sense, it seems only fair that he feels ashamed. I’ll fight them. “I suck,” Renjun grouses. “The world sucks.”
“Then go make things suck less,” Mark says.
Renjun thinks he can keep kissing Jeno forever. Just that—lazily, on Jeno’s bed, learning how to get better each time. It’s also terrible for his grades, which had been so nice before Renjun realised kissing Jeno was so much more fun than problem sets. And whenever Jeno smiles at him, Renjun finds it easy to swallow down whatever lump’s caught in his throat.
“What are you thinking?” Jeno asks.
Jeno leans in again, kissing the tip of Renjun’s nose then taking his bottom lip in his mouth.
“I’m sorry,” Renjun says when Jeno pulls away. “For not thinking you’d fight for me, I mean.”
“Were you thinking that this whole time?” Jeno asks, frowning slightly. “I get it, Injunnie. You’re scared.” Before Renjun could open his mouth to protest, Jeno adds, “I’m scared, too.”
“Yeah? Like… I don’t know how I’m gonna tell my parents,” Jeno admits. “I think my mom thinks something’s up, but I still wanna tell her. Not now, but… one day. But, you know, we gotta start somewhere? People at school can be shitty, but I think we can take them.”
“You’re gonna knock someone out, Jeno Lee?” Renjun teases.
“Maybe? If someone was being a dick to you,” Jeno says. It’s so simple that Renjun wants to shake his head at it, but he lets the sentiment warm him down to his toes. He sidles up to Jeno and curls up against him, pulling him into a hug with his face burrowed in the crook of Jeno’s neck. Jeno hugs him back, lets Renjun bunch up the shirt on his back in his fists.
Before long, Renjun starts crying, soft sobs that stain the fabric of Jeno’s shirt. Jeno runs his fingers through Renjun’s hair and kisses the top of his head.
Renjun wants that so much, wants the simplicity of it to mean that it’s true, not to mean it’s an unreachable end. Maybe with Jeno it is that simple and that true. Maybe Renjun should stop looking for further complications and just let this be.
“You okay?” Jeno asks gently once Renjun pulls away to wipe at his face, embarrassed about the tears and snot on his shirt.
“Getting there,” Renjun answers. Thanks to you. “Can I kiss you again?”