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“I have for you,” Taehyun says, as he leans over Sungwoon’s textbook and covers it in darkness, “a most interesting proposition.”

Sungwoon nudges Taehyun’s arm to try and get him out of the way, but the man doesn’t budge. He heaves a tolerating sigh before asking, “And what would that be?” 

Taehyun has a tendency to just barge in whenever he wants and demand something until he gets it, which is why it’s a relief that Sungwoon doesn’t live with him. “I have a friend –”

“Wow, a friend. I didn’t know you had those,” Sungwoon remarks, and receives a defensive “hey!” in response.

“Shut up, dammit,” Taehyun says, shaking his head like it’ll shake off the fire Sungwoon just set on his soul. “Anyways, you know Daniel Kang, right?”

Yeah, Sungwoon does, but he’ll never miss the chance to provoke a perpetually impatient Taehyun. He squints his eyes in fake confusion. “Who?”

“Oh my god,” Taehyun groans. Sungwoon barely holds in a laugh. “Are you pretending to be difficult?”

“No, I’m quite easy-going,” Sungwoon says, taking his glasses off and rubbing at a smudge on one of the lens with the hem of his t-shirt. “I don’t know why you’re getting so worked up.”

“Anyways, asshole,” Taehyun continues, “My friend Daniel Kang, who is a nice, handsome boy, needs someone to fake-date him. After discussing potential candidates in our social circles, we concluded that you, my good friend, would be the best choice.”

Sungwoon eyes his lecture notes wistfully while processing the junk that’s just tumbled out of Taehyun’s mouth. He finally asks, “Why?”

Daniel Kang is their university’s Mega-Nice Boy. With friends and admirers from most likely every major and school organization, it’s understandable that he’d want to label himself as not-single to avoid the more obsessive girls, but there’s no reason for him to resort to Sungwoon to be in a fake relationship with.

And Sungwoon isn’t particularly interested in “dating” or even becoming friends with Daniel, because he doesn’t have time to play games like this when he’d rather focus on his studies and keep to himself.

“Don’t you worry, I have all the benefits and advantages ready for you,” Taehyun says, pulling out a seat and plopping down in it with all the grace of an elephant. He leans down and begins to whisper, like he’s revealing important, confidential information. “Lately, Daniel has been dealing with more aggressive admirers and it’s stressing him out. If he dates a girl, she’s just going to get attacked by crazy bitches, man. But you? You’re perfect. Your aura’s a nice mixture of terrifying and unattainable, and the fact that you’re well liked yet keep to yourself will help the relationship come across as legitimate A-F.”

Sungwoon’s about to lay down his stamp of rejection, but Taehyun shushes him before he can get a single word out. “No no, I’m not done, buddy. You must be thinking, ‘Oh great, wise Taehyun Noh, what’s in it for me?’”

“Probably nothing, you trickass bitch,” Sungwoon says, because Taehyun is almost always full of shit.

“Wrong!” Taehyun replies. “Pretend-dating Daniel Kang will dramatically improve your life. First, he’s got great people skills, which you will absorb by sheer association and perhaps osmosis. You will be able to shed your misanthropic shell of existence and stop being so awkward in public –”

“I’m not awkward,” Sungwoon protests mildly.

“Alright, maybe you’re not all that awful, but Daniel loves all people. He is a dog in human form and he will teach you how to unconditionally love others.”

“People don’t deserve unconditional love–”

“Second!” Taehyun pounds the table, though with controlled vigor, because as scatterbrained as he can be, he hasn’t forgotten that they’re in the library. “He will buy you food most likely every time you see each other, because he is a doting man. He also cooks, which will be good for you, since your diet is fuckin’ garbage.”

Sungwoon can only grimace. He’d had ice cream for both breakfast and lunch today, so he can’t really argue.

“Third, Daniel Kang is an all-around great catch. An intelligent man. A brain-ful man. A man who is willing to assist you in your academic pursuits and even complete homework for you.”

“I’m an art major,” Sungwoon says, with narrowed eyes. “And even if I wasn’t, I wouldn’t let anyone else do my work.”

“Daniel is also a man of morals,” Taehyun revises hastily, “who will strengthen your desire for intellectual stimulation in a significant other.”

“Does your list of pros end there?”

Taehyun looks defeated. Sungwoon should take a picture of his face with his mouth dropped open like that, to remind Taehyun how stupid he looks on a regular basis. “Are you… not convinced?”

“What part of your brain went through the list you just told me, and thought those points were sufficient enough for me to willingly get involved in a chaotic scheme created by two bumbling idiots?”

“I dunno,” Taehyun says. “The whole part? Have you seen Daniel? He is a nice looking boy.”

Sungwoon sighs. “Seriously—”

“I am willing to pull out receipts of times where I have wrecked my own ass just for you, Sungwoon. Our friendship is practically built on sacrifice,” Taehyun wails. “Is this how you’re going to treat me when I ask for a small favor?”

“Buying me another tub of ice cream on your Ralphs trip does not hold the same weight as me pretending to date one of your friends for an indefinite period of time,” Sungwoon snaps, as people start glancing over at their table because of all the noise. He starts to pull his papers into one pile and then shoves them behind the front cover of his textbook so he and Taehyun can leave. “Ugh, fuck you, Taehyun, we’re going to talk about this outside, where you can’t fool people into thinking I’m being a dick.”

Once they’re outside, Taehyun’s emotional façade instantly drops and he says, “I don’t know why you’re so against this idea. Think of it as a couple of free meals every week, and someone to talk to about your deep philosophical thoughts on life and society’s awful superficial ways.”

“Why do you keep talking about him like he’s super smart?”   

“Because he is?” Taehyun says, as if it’s obvious. “Are you not aware that he has like a 3.9 GPA? Black magic, dude. I have no idea how he does it with all the time he spends playing around.”

Sungwoon raises his eyebrows. “Fine,” he says, “but only if your big ole’ pretty boy can find the balls to ask me himself. I’ll consider doing it then.”

“You bet,” Taehyun yells. He’s so loud that his voice scares away the cluster of pigeons waddling around near them, and Sungwoon sighs at the chaos and endless noise that always accompanies Taehyun.

“You’re noisy,” Sungwoon says. “Have you ever shut the fuck up for more than a minute in your life?”

“Probably not!” Taehyun yells, at an even louder volume. He jumps up and claps the soles of his feet together. “We’re outside! Who cares!”

“I hope the next time you’re taking a dump somewhere that it breaks off halfway, you’re in a public restroom and the toilet paper runs out.”

Taehyun sputters at the venomous wish, and says, “Hey! Don’t say that! This definitely won’t be as bad as you think it’ll be. In fact, it may even be rewarding.”

Sungwoon makes a lewd gesture at him, and the bickering escalates until Taehyun receives a call and has to take off for a group meeting.

+

Except, Sungwoon is aware of all the ways that this plan could go wrong. Lies only go so far, and if people are really as obsessed about Daniel as Taehyun makes them out to be, nothing would prevent the truth from getting out once people dig deep enough. Not to mention that real feelings could develop on either side, although Sungwoon’s more worried about himself. Daniel probably comes into close contact with all sorts of people and feels nothing out of the ordinary, but Sungwoon has always held people at a comfortable distance so that he won’t ever need them too much.

And deep down, maybe Sungwoon’s afraid that people who have a specific impression about him will get too close and hate what they see, because he’s not a particularly interesting person and he doesn’t live a particularly interesting life. He sticks to what he knows and avoids trying new things because it can give him anxiety. He’s not spontaneous or explosively adventurous the way Taehyun is, and he finds settings where there are more than ten people quite suffocating.

There are also… parts of himself he barely understands, like why he’s so uncomfortable at the thought of being in close proximity to Daniel when Sungwoon’s already figured out that he's not really attracted to people, and whether he’s interested in sex at all or just indifferent to it because so few people have ever seen him romantically. The idea of being alone isn’t so bad when he’s not all that keen on sharing who he is.

He’s terrified that Daniel Kang, who loves everyone and never speaks harshly about people behind their backs, will deem him unlovable, and that’s the worst thought of all.

+

The first three days after Taehyun’s whack proposal, Sungwoon lives in fear. He jumps every time he gets a Messenger notification and stresses himself out whenever he catches sight of anyone that barely resembles Daniel Kang. He peers around building corners and watches his back for approaching strangers, but a week passes with no word from Taehyun or Daniel, and Sungwoon feels like a free man.

Until a shadow looms over his textbook at the end of an Intro to Modernism lecture. “What – oh shit,” Sungwoon says, clutching his chest. He’d expected Minhyun to be standing in front of him, since Minhyun had come in late today. He’d sat in a seat on the opposite side of the room to avoid getting yelled at by their professor, which meant no fooling around with Sungwoon whenever she wasn’t looking at their area.

Instead, it’s Daniel Kang, with an apologetic look on his face. He scratches the back of his neck and says, “Sorry. Did I scare you?” 

“No, you’re fine,” Sungwoon says, heart rearranging itself into its proper position after nearly coming out his throat.

“Oh.” Daniel breaks out into a relieved grin, and that sort of smile is too wide and too bright for eleven in the morning and the end of a lecture that had made Sungwoon want to jump out the window of their second story classroom. “I’m glad. I think you’ve heard about me from Taehyun, right?”

“Yes,” Sungwoon says, as he packs up his belongings. He pushes his glasses up. “Mr. Popular’s been receiving too many confessions from your more fanatic admirers?”

“I wouldn’t say it like that,” Daniel says, cheeks flushing. Sungwoon finds the reaction… cute, but then he frowns because he shouldn’t. “It’s more like a few people are being kind of…adamant that we date, when I’m not really interested, and also an ex insisting that we get back together.”

“That must suck,” Sungwoon says. His belongings are all in his backpack now, so he has nothing to do with his hands. Going on his phone would be rude, and he settles for crossing his arms over his chest. “Can I ask why you think I’d be helpful to getting them off your back?”

“You’re really serious about everything you do,” Daniel says. “And because people know that about you, they’d know the relationship isn’t something to mess with.”

“Okay,” Sungwoon says, feeling a little weird but assuming Taehyun has run Daniel through a bullet list of his work ethic and personality traits. “Fair enough. How long do you expect me to pretend-date you for?”

“At least a couple of months, if that’s fine with you,” Daniel answers. “If you’re agreeing?”

“Taehyun won’t let me live for the rest of my life if I don’t help you,” Sungwoon says, with a dry laugh. “So I don’t think I have a choice.”

Daniel’s teeth are so prominent when he laughs, like they’re all just as excited as him and want to pop out to say hello. Sungwoon is momentarily distracted, until the professor calls for them to clear the classroom since she has to lock the room.

“Do you want to grab coffee or something?” Daniel asks. “We might as well go over expectations and come up with our how-we-met story over something to drink.”

“That sounds fine,” Sungwoon says. 

Daniel takes him to Cloudbean Café, which is a popular, high-traffic location in the university for students since there are plenty of tables for people to sit and get their work done. “What do you want?”

“I can get my own drink?” Sungwoon says, in a questioning tone.  

“Free drinks and meals are part of the deal,” Daniel says, bumping Sungwoon in the hip so that he replaces Sungwoon’s spot in the line. “Tell me what you want, and try to grab a table while I order.”

“Just black coffee, then,” Sungwoon says, and Daniel flashes him the ‘ok’ sign with his fingers.

Most of the tables inside are fully or partially occupied, but there seems to be a girl who’s finishing up her drink and packing her laptop into her bag, so Sungwoon waits around until she leaves before sitting down. Sunlight seeps through the glass walls of the café front, and Sungwoon shifts his chair so that the brightness doesn’t directly hit his face. 

There are various people who call out greetings to Daniel, eyes trailing over to Sungwoon once Daniel sits down at the same table as him. Sungwoon had been prepared for the attention that would undoubtedly come with being a newcomer in Daniel’s social circle, but the curious glances have him looking away in discomfort.

“Here you go,” Daniel says, another giant smile on his face as he slides Sungwoon’s coffee over. That, along with the way the sunlight hits his bright white t-shirt and ashy blonde hair makes Sungwoon want to recoil. It’s probably a ploy, Sungwoon thinks, with narrowed eyes, that Daniel has come up with to distract everyone from being able to do anything properly.     

“Thank you,” Sungwoon says curtly, and unlocks his phone. He’s got five new Snapchat notifications from Taehyun, but he ignores them in favor of opening the Venmo app so he can pay Daniel back. “What’s your Venmo username?”

“It’s a secret,” Daniel says, sipping at an iced drink of some sort that looks like it has way too much sugar and milk in it to be healthy.  

“It won’t stay a secret if I break your leg,” Sungwoon says, absentmindedly. He doesn’t expect the physical threat to be taken seriously, what with Daniel looking very much like a Gym Bro, but the amused giggle that comes from Daniel surprises him.

“What’s so funny?”

“So smol, so dangerous,” Daniel says, eyes curling up into crescents, clearly not intending to let Sungwoon search up his Venmo account. “It’s just a drink. A small expense for a big favor.”

“If you say so,” Sungwoon says, and locks his phone. “What expectations did you want to talk about?”

“Oh yeah,” Daniel replies. “Mostly just how many times you’d be willing to meet up a week and how far we should go to prove the legitimacy of our relationship in front of other people.”

“It’s not necessary to see each other that much, right?” Sungwoon asks. “Maybe two to three times a week at most? I don’t know. I’m not much of a party…person…”

To him, the offer sounds like plenty of commitment for a fake relationship that only needs to be seen and made obvious in public. Dealing with people from his classes and his tutoring job is enough human interaction as is, but Daniel might have different expectations. 

“I know you’re not,” Daniel laughs. “I’m not going to throw you in extrovert paradise, Sungwoon, unless you ask me to. We’ll probably grab meals or study with just the two of us.” 

“Oh,” Sungwoon says. For some reason, he’d thought that Daniel would be like Taehyun and just expect Sungwoon do whatever was asked of him, but so far Daniel has been nothing like Taehyun, who kind of just yells his way through everything until people see it his way.

“Yeah.” Daniel uses his straw to poke at the ice in his cup. “Taehyun said that you don’t like hugs or physical contact, but you’ll probably have to pretend to like me enough to tolerate those things when we’re in front of other people.” 

“That’s fine,” Sungwoon says, feeling mildly sweaty already at the prospect of having to engage in regular doses of human-touching. He’d grown up with plenty of affection and solid attention from his parents, but somehow he’d grown up avoiding hugs like they were the plague, and by the time he noticed how much more awkward he was about physical affection than other people, it had been too late to change.  

“Cool,” Daniel says. “So, you’re going to be up for making out in front of people too?”

Sungwoon nearly burns his throat from his coffee. The pleasant smile on Daniel’s face had been deceivingly innocent. “What?”

“Kidding.” Daniel’s eyes are curved again, and Sungwoon can understand why there are so many people chasing after him. The undivided attention that Daniel gives whoever he’s focused on in the moment can be addicting if you crave affection, but Sungwoon is mostly immune to the charms of pretty girls and boys.

“Wow, what a sense of humor you have,” Sungwoon deadpans, which sends Daniel into a fit of soft giggles. “It is really easy to make you laugh.”

“My mom told me I was born giggling,” Daniel says, giving his drink another tentative sip. “So I guess it never stopped? I’ve always been like this.”

“Do you laugh in lectures too?” Sungwoon asks, as a joke, and snorts when Daniel widens his eyes as if to say, how did you know? Usually Sungwoon likes making people laugh, but Daniel does it so much that it seems to mean less. “Predictable.” 

“I pay attention,” Daniel says, defensively. “Sometimes I just remember past events or notice things that other people don’t, and it’s probably bad to hold in joy like that, so I let myself laugh quietly.”

“That’s cute,” Sungwoon remarks, and he means it genuinely, but the fact that the flatness of his speaking tone hardly changes between giving a compliment or an insult tends to throw people off because they think it’s the latter. It’s unexpected, that Daniel turns pink from his cheeks to the tips of his ears. If he was tanner it’d be easier to hide, but his skin’s so milky pale that any redness in his face is instantly noticeable.

“Are you embarrassed?” Sungwoon asks, with a lilt to his voice, because he is a cat that loves to stick his claws in people’s sides in their weaker moments, even if he’s only just met them.  

Daniel covers his face, pouting. “Taehyun told me I needed to be careful because you’re meaner than you look, and I think I know what he’s talking about now.”

Sungwoon considers telling him that he’s just as mean as he looks, and that Daniel would be better off with a cute girl who fits under the curve of his arm, not Sungwoon, who has so few things that he likes and very little aptitude for kindness.   

“Just so you know, Taehyun’s full of shit,” he says, instead. He might as well talk trash while he can. In comparison to Sungwoon, Taehyun is a bug who deserves no one’s time. “I’m easily the nicest person you’ll ever come across.”

“Doubtful,” Daniel says, as he peeks at Sungwoon through his fingers while waiting for his face to cool down. “What’s our back-story?”

“You slid into my DMs and I fell in love at first unsolicited dick pic,” Sungwoon suggests, winking suggestively. “Good idea, no?”

“I’ve never sent a dick pic in my whole life!” Daniel’s gone back to completely covering his face, and his ears are redder than before. “I don’t know what kind of person you think I am, but–”

“It’s okay, you don’t have to be ashamed,” Sungwoon says, in a soothing, mock-counselor tone as he takes a sip of his coffee and blinks unassumingly at Daniel. “Wholesome boys send dick pics, too.”

“I hate you,” Daniel groans. 

“Already?” Sungwoon says, laughing. “You can’t be like this. We’ve been together for less than a day.”

“I’m going to die,” Daniel says. He’s so easy to tease, and receptive, and Sungwoon ignores the little voice in his head that says all the people that Sungwoon keeps close to him have exhibited the same trait.

“Naw,” Sungwoon says. “If you’ve lived through Taehyun Noh, you can live through me.”

+

A week later, Taehyun’s somehow wormed his way into Sungwoon’s apartment because Hojung failed to keep the pests out when he left for class.

Sungwoon is currently chowing down on a tub of ice cream when Taehyun stomps his way into the kitchen, ceasing his shouting the moment he spots Sungwoon. “What a fatass,” Taehyun says. “When are you not eating ice cream?” 

“Let me live,” Sungwoon barks, through a mouthful of Ben and Jerry’s Americone Dream. “I don’t judge any of your decision making skills.”

“Because you know they’re all awful and I can’t be stopped,” Taehyun says, before making a clicking noise of disapproval. “You have a dining table. Why not sit down and eat?”

“How’s the boyfriend?” he asks, when Sungwoon shoves the lid back on the now half empty pint of dessert and puts it back in his freezer.  

Fine? So-so? Sungwoon doesn’t really know what to make of Daniel, who’s an inch away from being six feet tall but giggles as easily as a girl in middle school, and doesn’t seem to have a lot of character beyond his smiling face. To be fair, he’s probably never needed to develop an interesting personality, since height and a handsome face are enough to keep most people around a guy. 

Sungwoon’s the opposite. It’d been natural for him to develop a sharper sense of humor to try and compensate for his small size, so that his presence would be noticeable even if he wasn’t the tallest head in any crowd.

“I don’t know,” Sungwoon says eventually, shoving the words bland and also inexplicably cute back down his throat in case Taehyun wants to report back to Daniel. “Don’t you spend a lot of time with him? Don’t you spend more time with him, to be honest?”

“I want to hear your side of the story,” Taehyun says, leaning in way too close. Sungwoon can see the bright blue of the gum he’s chewing in between his teeth. “Was he suave? Were you suave? How did y’all meet?”

“I’m most suave when punching people in the damn face,” Sungwoon says, moving his head back so that Taehyun’s minty breath stops hitting his cheek. Taehyun probably needs a couple punches to the gut before he’ll permanently learn what personal space is. “Remind me to withdraw from this friendship after this whole fiasco is over.”

“I’m worthy of being cherished, just so you know,” Taehyun says dramatically. “I don’t know why you have to pretend that you hate me when you probably love me to death.”

“Yeah, so much love, that I’d kill you for sure,” Sungwoon retorts. “Should have done it the moment I met you. Children get lesser sentences, probably, and the jury would unanimously vote me innocent once they listened to the testimonies of anyone who ever knew you.”

“You keep threatening to kill me but I wake up every day a safe man,” Taehyun says in a sing-song voice. He comes into the kitchen, brushing past Sungwoon to open the fridge. He closes it after a few seconds of surveying its contents, presumably because he can’t find anything to his taste. “You’re a real big talker aren’t ya?”

“I’d rather be a big talker than a giant pile of shit,” Sungwoon says. “Stop looking in other people’s fridges.”   

“Wow,” Taehyun gasps. “You get just get more and more vulgar each day. What am I going to do with you?”

“Fuck off, hopefully,” Sungwoon says, even if it’s in vain, because hardly anything he says has ever sent Taehyun running away.

As if to prove Sungwoon correct, Taehyun makes himself comfortable on the couch, shoving Hojung’s stray clothes to one side so there’s space for him to lie down. The couch had been dropped off from a senior who’d been moving out of the complex and couldn’t find a place for the couch in her new, smaller apartment.

“Anyways, I’m curious,” Taehyun says, raising both eyebrows. “What are you like around Daniel? The kid hasn’t been able to stop talking about you.”

Sungwoon blinks. “What?”

“He’s all sparkly eyed, asking me this and that and why I hadn’t introduced you to him earlier. Did you shower him with compliments or something?”

Not really. Sungwoon had been bored by a seemingly perfect exterior and decided to spice up life by chipping away at a minor chink in Daniel’s shiny armor.

“Aha,” he says, in a flat voice, but sends Taehyun a smug look. “I think that’s just my immeasurable charm making him realize that he deserves better than to settle for a friend like you.”

“You pipe the fuck down, asshole,” Taehyun quips. “Tell me what you did to my bro.”

“How am I supposed to shut up and tell you something at the same time?”

“You know what I mean!”

“Nothing,” Sungwoon says, examining his nails as he leans against one end of the kitchen counter. “We talked about expectations and possible back-stories to tell people over coffee at Cloudbean’s. Isn’t this what you wanted me to do?”

“Yeah.” Even so, Taehyun sounds unsatisfied, and he pauses for a moment. “What’s the back story you guys settled on?”

Sungwoon scratches at the outer corner of his eye. “Um, probably something like we started talking because we were both friends with you, and then sparks flew as time went by.”

“That’s so generic.”

“Your life is generic,” Sungwoon retorts, and Taehyun rolls his eyes at the lazy comeback. “Well, I suggested the back story of him sliding into my DMs and me falling in love at first dick pic, but he was thoroughly embarrassed and horrified by the idea. So I didn’t want to put him in any more agony.”  

Taehyun bursts out laughing. “That’s so something you’d come up with, even though you’re like a freak who never sleeps with anyone ever.”

Taehyun talks to Sungwoon, sometimes, about the hot girls he hooks up with, and Sungwoon’s interest in sex has never been piqued even then. How can he be bothered to seek someone out specifically for sex when just the thought of touching a body that he isn’t comfortable with is off-putting and not hot in any way?

He doesn’t say that, though, because most people don’t understand and Sungwoon doesn’t like talking about the things that make him feel as if he’s been built with wrong parts, like a machine that looks right but doesn’t operate properly.  

The shit-eating grin he pastes on his face should be enough to deter Taehyun from steering the conversation towards a more serious note. “I’m a freak because I support the idea of wholesome relationships that start with an honest, heartfelt emotional connection? I don’t know why you’re attacking me for wanting to meet my soulmate, my one and only.”  

“Don’t say sweet words like that,” Taehyun says, with a grimace. “It doesn’t suit your asshole image.”   

“I have no idea what you’re talking about. I’m full of love and kindness,” Sungwoon replies.

“Yeah,” Taehyun says, and the way his lips are pursed means he’s thinking. Something Sungwoon doesn’t want him to do. “I don’t know. I thought you were being all pure and religious about it when we first started school here, but I guess it’s more because of the fact that you’re… what did you say it was last time? Demisexual?”

“I guess,” Sungwoon says, a lump in his throat. There are occasional moments when he opens up to people, and he doesn’t like being reminded about it after they’re over. “Maybe. I haven’t figured it out entirely myself. Maybe I’m just allergic to humans~”

“You’re not allergic to humans,” Taehyun says. “What does that make me?” He seems to realize belatedly that his careless question is going to be used against him, and he shouts for Sungwoon to stay quiet

“A bug on my laptop,” Sungwoon says, remembering the tiny spider that had crawled its way across his keyboard last night. Sungwoon had transported it in a little bit of tissue to his front door and then tossed it outside. “Gum on the sidewalk.”

“Fuck off,” Taehyun says. “Dick.”

Despite the bullying, he recovers relatively quickly. “It’s just weird because I’ve never seen how you act when you’re in a romantic situation? I’ve seen everyone I know fall in and out of crushes, but you really only take initiative to go after someone once you’ve realized they’re easy to pick on.”

“Aw Taehyun,” Sungwoon coos, and clasps his hands together. “Is this your way of telling me you want to date me?”

Taehyun is speechless for a few seconds, then goes red in the face like a volcano warming up to explode. “Fuck no! I do not appreciate your existence, and there is no way in hell that I’d want to date you. Not even because I’m primarily interested in hot girls, but because you’re a gigantic bag of dicks!”  

“I’m so hurt,” Sungwoon says, fluttering his eyelashes obnoxiously. “I’ve have given myself to you if the timing was better, but I’m already a taken man.”

“Gross!!!” Taehyun all but roars. “Never say anything like that to me again.”

“It’s okay, Taehyunnie,” Sungwoon says, knowing full well that the nickname gets on Taehyun’s nerves. “I’m everyone’s type.” He snickers when Taehyun throws a fit, yelling about how his types involve tits and ass and nice personalities.  

+

Afternoons all of this week have consecutively gone up into the nineties, but today’s temperature is the highest at ninety-eight degrees. Sungwoon is going to melt like a popsicle in his black shirt and black jeans, and he is never going to be the same again. The cold air of the AC in the library hits his face like a brick as the automatic entrance opens at his approaching presence, making him sigh of relief at the now much colder environment.

“Hi,” Sungwoon greets as he sits down across from Daniel, slightly out of breath. It would have been easier for him to meet Daniel right after his group meeting concluded, but he’d needed to make a trip back to his apartment to drop something off for Hojung. “Sorry that you had to wait for me. How was your day?”

“Fine?” Daniel answers like he’s asking a question, and Sungwoon laughs.

“You don’t know how your own day was?”

“No, I do,” Daniel says, frowning. His troubled face makes him look so much like a puppy, soft brows tilted downwards and lips in a small pout. “It was fine. Great. You just caught me off guard.”

Sungwoon’s phone battery is blinking red, and he unfurls his charger cable and plugs in his phone to an open electrical outlet. “You want to tell me more?”

“Um,” Daniel says, hesitating. He scratches the back of his neck. “I got an exam back for one of my classes and I got a higher score than I expected, so that was nice.”

“Cool,” Sungwoon says. “What exactly do you major in?”

“Electrical engineering,” Daniel replies, chewing on the top of his ballpoint pen while keeping his eyes on Sungwoon.

“Wow, really?” Sungwoon can’t hide his surprise. He’s had his fair share of being looked down on and having people assume he’s stupid just because he’s an art major, but he didn’t expect for Daniel to have such a high GPA with a major that notoriously difficult.

“Why?” Daniel asks. He’s not being defensive, but the tone of his voice says he’s received reactions similar to Sungwoon’s. “Do I not look the type?”

Sungwoon laughs, having been caught red-handed. “You look like someone who’d be majoring in econ or international studies, to be honest.”

“I’m no good at econ,” Daniel says. “We were required to take one semester of it in my senior year, which was fine, but I don’t think I could do econ for four years. My dad’s an engineer, so I figured I’d do the same thing since I was pretty okay at science and math in high school.”

“I see,” Sungwoon says.

“Why did you choose art?” Daniel asks. “I’ve heard you’re really smart, that you could have studied law or medicine, so I was wondering.”

“Aw. Has Taehyun talked about me?” Sungwoon says, making a note to himself to use that information and wipe Taehyun’s dignity in the mud later.  

“Yes?” Daniel says. “Though he wasn’t the one to say you were smart.”

“Who’d you hear it from, then?” Sungwoon asks, surprised. He’s always kept a low profile, throughout high school and university, and people as shiny and social-butterfly-esque as Daniel Kang shouldn’t… hear about him.

“Two or three different people?” Daniel says. “I can’t recall names, exactly, but people usually say the same thing: that you’re really intense in classes regardless of what subject it is.” 

“Oh,” Sungwoon says, feeling the tips of his ears go hot. “I don’t even talk in class.” He does not look at the way Daniel’s smiling at him so reassuringly. In Daniel’s default facial expression, his eyes are symmetrical, but as soon as he becomes even slightly amused, his eyes curl into uneven crescents, the one on the left always looking like it’s racing to shut itself faster than the other one.

“You don’t have to talk a lot for people to know you’re smart, right?” Daniel says. “Everyone’s a different type of learner.”

Sungwoon waves him off dismissively. “They’re exaggerating. I was good at studying in high school but I doubt I would have made it in either of those professions.”

“I’m sure you’d do well in anything you choose,” Daniel says, and Sungwoon finds it strange, that he sounds  so certain for someone who’s only spoken with Sungwoon at length in person on four separate occasions.

+

“Instagram,” Daniel says in excitement, half an hour later, and Sungwoon takes out his earphone.

“What did you say?”

Daniel points to Sungwoon’s phone screen, where he has the Instagram Explore section open. “What’s your Instagram?”

“Oh,” Sungwoon says, blinking in confusion. “It’s um, actually it’s easier if you just give me your phone. I’ll find my account for you.”

“Here,” Daniel says easily, sliding his unlocked phone over. Sungwoon opens the Instagram app and types sw00nie into the search bar, then pulls up his page.

“I don’t really post anything,” Sungwoon says, as Daniel takes his phone back. Despite spending most of his time on Instagram and hardly any other social media apps, Sungwoon prefers not to follow people he knows in real life and browses the explore tab more frequently than he checks his actual homepage.

“Swoonie?” Daniel grins, pronouncing the name carefully. “That’s a cute username.”

“Thank you,” Sungwoon says, glad that his voice doesn’t convey the warmth in his chest. He wants to flare his nostrils and slide under the table from how gross he feels. He hadn’t been trying to be particularly cute when making the username, but it feels strangely intimate to be showing Daniel an account he rarely shares with people outside of his immediate group of friends. He’s got over sixteen unattended follow requests from people he knew to a certain extent in middle and high school, and here he is, letting someone who he’s only officially known for barely two weeks see his account.    

A notification lights up Sungwoon’s lock screen. D_kangboi has requested to follow you. He unlocks his phone to accept the request, and then follows Daniel back since Daniel’s page is already public.

Daniel has over a thousand followers, but that’s probably more because he’s a typical Cute Boy rather than because his feed is anything special. His posts look like they don’t go through too much thought or manufacturing, which Sungwoon likes due to personal preference, and he continues scrolling through the grid of posts. There are photos with friends, the occasional selfie, and so, so many cats.

“Why do I feel like you’re sizing me up based on my Instagram page?” Daniel asks, then whines as he tries to cover Sungwoon’s phone screen. “Don’t look at it so hard!”

After a minor scuffle, Sungwoon manages to retrieve his phone and holds it close to him. “What’s wrong with me looking at your feed? It’s public.”

“It’s weird to have you looking at it in front of me,” Daniel says. “I feel pressured. What if it’s not aesthetically pleasing enough for you?”

“Your feed is your feed,” Sungwoon says. “Isn’t it more important that you like what you’re posting?”

“I guess,” says Daniel, looking like he’s about to squirm out of his seat.

“I like your feed,” Sungwoon says. He’s being honest, really, but then his sarcasm escapes its leash, and he doesn’t have the discipline to catch the wily thing. “The photos are nice and give off the feel of you talking to a close friend. Makes you really relatable to your fans.”

Daniel makes a loud noise of distress.

“No, but really. You get a brownie point for having no pictures of you posing with cool cars that aren’t yours,” Sungwoon says pointedly.

“Is that a dig at Taehyun?” Daniel asks, bunny teeth showing as he giggles, relieved that Sungwoon is no longer picking on him, and Sungwoon winks.

“You bet it is, and you better tell him too, so he can shape the fuck up,” he says, which makes Daniel laugh even harder. 

+

They lay out a few more expectations for each other here and there every time they meet up. Sungwoon hates phone calls, so Daniel agrees to text first before he calls unless it’s an emergency, and Daniel has a page from Sungwoon’s sketchbook with Sungwoon’s weekly schedule outlined on it in the form of a chart and lots of cat doodles.

(“Cats!” Daniel had exclaimed, obviously pleased at the drawings, and Sungwoon had refused to acknowledge the warmth that spread through his palms whenever Daniel expressed his happiness.)

They’ve also gone through each other’s basic facts and individual backgrounds in order to play a more convincing couple. Sungwoon now knows that Daniel’s number one love is cats, even if it was painfully obvious from his social media accounts, and that he was raised in southern California, and that most of his favorite activities are related to exercising, whether it’s b-boying, skateboarding or playing sports.  

Pretending to be Daniel’s boyfriend hasn’t been all that difficult so far. Sungwoon really only has to meet him for one on one interactions, and occasionally pose for photos that Daniel will put on his Instagram with mysterious captions or heart emojis.

Surprisingly, Daniel has taken to messaging Sungwoon through Messenger every day, even if it isn’t a whole lot. At first, Sungwoon finds it unnecessary and has a bad habit of taking hours to reply at a time, but each morning, without fail, Daniel will send the same sticker in lieu of a normal greeting. It’s the one with the shiba inu peering in through a window, as if asking politely to be let in and paid attention to. It’s fitting, that Daniel, an overgrown puppy in all aspects of his personality, always uses stickers and emojis involving dogs.

Despite his brain being mildly against it, Sungwoon finds himself increasingly warming up to the messages, because Daniel’s replies are always so prompt, and he answers simple questions with enough details to make conversation worth continuing. Sungwoon gets a kick out of relentlessly teasing him, too. He loves watching the way Daniel stumbles over his virtual words when he’s impossibly embarrassed.   

Sungwoon rarely talks to Taehyun through text or chat for the opposite reason. Taehyun will go offline for days at a time, then hound Sungwoon with funny video links over the course of ten minutes before fading into the void again.

It’s just that Daniel’s entertaining, Sungwoon tells himself on multiple occasions, which is an easier pill to swallow than the possibility of Sungwoon feeling any real attachment to him.

While Sungwoon has had little to no experience in the realm of relationships, he still has a type. He’s always been more fascinated by people with quirks, with wildly strong personalities that make them shine brighter than anyone else, because the way he approaches everything himself is at its best, only lukewarm. And logically, lukewarm is how he should feel about Daniel too, who is bland and easily teased, and has a personality that doesn’t strike Sungwoon as being particularly special.

Instead, there’s a fondness that curls in his stomach every time the blonde comes to mind, subtle but stronger than any momentary attraction Sungwoon has felt towards anyone in a long time. For someone who Sungwoon keeps trying to characterize as bland and nothing more than amusing, the curve of Daniel’s crinkled eyes and the plushness of his lips whether he’s tightlipped or smiling burns brightest even when Sungwoon closes his eyes, and he wonders hopelessly if he knows what his type is at all.

+

At first, Sungwoon thinks it’s just his imagination, but then he sees Daniel wearing a loose shirt that fit him snugly three weeks ago, and knows his eyes aren’t playing tricks on him.

He brings it up, after he’s finished writing two separate proposal ideas for his Writing for Television course. “Have you been losing weight?” he asks.

His voice comes out sharper than he means for it to, and Daniel looks like a deer caught in headlights. They’re in the library, sitting next to each other today instead of across, since the seat opposite from Sungwoon is occupied by a student that’s been asleep for the last two hours.

“Yes?”

“Why? Are you not eating well?”

“No, it’s um,” Daniel chuckles, like he’s embarrassed. Sungwoon hadn’t thought it was cute, how everything on Daniel’s face completely shifts and squeezes together when he’s flustered, when they first met, but now he can’t look away. “We’re having the dance club showcase performance in November, so I’m getting back into shape for that.”

Sungwoon frowns. His glasses are hanging a little crooked on his face, and he pushes them up and adjusts them. “You’re already in shape.”

“The cameras are so unforgiving,” Daniel whines, scrunching his nose. “And my face is naturally squishy looking, so I’m trying to compensate.”

“You don’t have to, you’re already handsome enough,” Sungwoon says. He remembers the pain of dieting in high school, while juggling exhaustion from classes, lack of sleep, and the long hours from track practice. “It won’t be good if you don’t have enough energy for your rehearsals or the actual performance.”   

“What?” he snaps, when Daniel just smiles at him stupidly, saying nothing.

“You’re so nice,” Daniel says, resting his chin on his hand. “It doesn’t make any sense to me that you’ve never been in a relationship before.”

Sungwoon jerks his eyes away from his phone. “How do you know that?” He’s avoided the subject whenever Daniel starts getting curious about his past real relationships, so Daniel must have extracted the information from someone else.  

“Was I not supposed to?” Daniel looks worried. “Taehyun mentioned it to me, at one point. That he’s never seen you taken interest in anyone.”

It wasn’t that his personality was awful in school, but Sungwoon had never stood out as a particularly date-able person. He’d worn a pair of thin, oval framed glasses up until his last year of middle school, before he started actually picking out better looking glasses frames. While the people around him had grown into their taller bodies and started developing a curiosity towards the opposite sex, Sungwoon had stayed small in size and focused on his studies, watching the world with a cynical gaze.

People were fickle, and sought instant gratification through shallow relationships that they thought would bring them emotional comfort because they felt less alone. Those with the right proportions and faces were thrown into pools of admirers before they’d had any time to figure out who they were, and those with less fortunate genes watched from an outsider’s perspective, through a lens of envy.  

Years of being on his own has given Sungwoon a lot of space to reflect on his own desires and priorities, and while he likes the idea of having an emotional, romantic connection to someone who is exclusively his, he isn’t really interested in actively seeking out relationships.

But Daniel probably wouldn’t understand. So Sungwoon holds in his thoughts, and says with as much nonchalance as he can muster, “It’s not that I’m not interested in people. I’ve never been much of a looker, and I’m not that fascinating as a person.”

“Do you really think that? I think you’re a great catch,” Daniel says, looking as if Sungwoon has sucked out all the happiness from him. He leans in, so that their shoulders touch, and Sungwoon doesn’t wonder what Daniel’s cologne smells like because it doesn’t affect him. 

Sungwoon gives him a wry smile. “That’s because you love everyone. A giant puppy on the inside.”

“Everyone says that about me, but it’s not true,” Daniel protests. He bites his lip. “Just because I’m nice to someone doesn’t mean I necessarily like them.”

“Right,” Sungwoon says, taking a strict note to remind himself of that more often.

“I’m serious!” Daniel says, and hesitates, before he says, “I think you’re smart, and really witty, and really cute.”

“Please do not call me cute,” Sungwoon says flatly, as the familiar sensation of heat rushes to his face. Feelings are an unnecessary burden in the rollercoaster of life and he should shed his mortal shell to avoid feeling anything gross as gross as the happiness curling itself around his heart. 

“Why not?” Daniel asks, in a soft tone, like he’s approaching a small, dangerous animal. “Are you bad with compliments?” Even if he’s not looking Daniel in the eye, Sungwoon can tell that he’s being stared at, and he wants to growl at Daniel to back off.

“I hate the word ‘cute,’” Sungwoon informs him. “It’s a word that people use to compliment someone when they don’t know what else they can possibly say.”

Cute means different things to different people. I use it when I mean it,” Daniel says. “What kind of compliments do you like, then?”

“I don’t like compliments,” Sungwoon says harshly. “Your girlfriends might have wanted you to tell them they were cute and cuddly and wonderful people, but I don’t need it.”

Daniel’s expression is unreadable, but he’s quiet now, so Sungwoon takes the opportunity to go back to his phone. 

+

Sungwoon fumbles with his blankets when he hears his text tone from somewhere in their depths. It ends up being a text from Daniel, asking if now’s an okay time to call.

“Oh,” Daniel says, when he picks up Sungwoon’s call. “You called me first?”

“Figured that would make things easier,” Sungwoon responds, “than me texting you that it’s okay and then you calling me.”

“Were you sleeping?” Daniel asks, then decides, “You sound sleepy.”

“I drifted off, but nothing too serious,” Sungwoon answers. He’d gone on a run earlier, stretched, and then conveniently nodded off in his bed afterwards. “Why? What’s up?”

“Okay. Are you feeling up for a group dinner?”

“A group…” Sungwoon trails off. “Like, with people other than you?”

“Just two or three of my friends,” Daniel says. “It’s okay if you don’t want to. It’s late and this is such a last minute invitation, too.”

Sungwoon rubs at the inner corner of his eyes as he glances at his bed wistfully. There’s probably never going to be a day where he actively wants to have a meal with Daniel’s friends, so he might as well get the first awkward encounters over with. Pretending to date in front of strangers is easy, but pretending that he and Daniel are a real thing in front of Daniel’s friends is quite a different story.       

“On a scale from 1-10, how tough are your friends to lie to?”

“They’re not that judgmental,” Daniel says. “They’ve met girls in the past who didn’t know anything about me and not really cared. You and I have been hanging out enough that it should be okay, right?”

Sungwoon’s stomach twists at the word girls, but he shakes it off. “If anything, I’ll just pretend to be dumb,” he says. “Where are you guys eating?”

Daniels hums a bit. “I can pick you up.”

“It’s probably out of your way,” Sungwoon says, vaguely trying to remember whether Daniel has ever mentioned having a car. They’ve only been meeting in the library and shops within the school campus or close to it. The drive from the closest campus building to Sungwoon’s apartment complex takes fifteen minutes minimum on a good day, though, so he doesn’t want to put Daniel through unnecessary trouble.

“I’m offering because I want to,” Daniel says, which comes as a surprise to Sungwoon. There’s no point in making the effort when there’s no one to watch them, but Sungwoon chalks it up to Daniel being born abnormally kind. “Maybe I can tell you about my friends on the way?”  

“That’s…yeah that’s probably a good idea,” Sungwoon agrees. “What time should I be ready by?” 

“What’s your address?” Daniel says, and Sungwoon spells out the street name and building number for him.

“I’ll probably be there around 7:20 if traffic is alright,” Daniel says, after half a minute. That gives Sungwoon a little more than half an hour to go from slop to slightly more presentable, but he should be able to squeeze in a quick shower before he gets dressed.

When Sungwoon opens the door at 7:25, hair still a little damp, Daniel gives him a polite once-over. “Is there something special going on?” he finally asks.

“…No?” Sungwoon looks around at the entry way of his apartment. “Why?”

“You’re not wearing all black,” Daniel murmurs, eyes fixated on Sungwoon’s torso.  

“Ah.” Sungwoon glances down at his white shirt, and suddenly feels self-conscious. It’s the one he’d received in his freshman year during welcoming week from the arts department, but he really only wears it when his fresh shirts are running out and he hasn’t done his laundry. He hadn’t realized Daniel would notice. “I’m out of black shirts, that’s why.”

“You look nice in lighter colors,” Daniel says. “But you look nice in black too.” 

“Thanks,” Sungwoon mumbles, grabbing his keys and wallet. “Is the restaurant going to be cold?”

“Maybe,” Daniel says. “Seongwoo wants sushi, so I think we’re going to Ray’s, which is usually fine to me temperature wise. But you can wear my jacket if you need to.”

“Don’t joke around,” Sungwoon says, glaring at Daniel as he locks his front door and then the metal door in front of it. When he’d first moved in, trying to remember which way to turn the keys for four separate locks had been a challenge every time he was running late and needed to get to class or to a tutoring session.     

Daniel trails after him sadly. “I’m serious!”

“I’m not a girl,” Sungwoon says, stopping in his tracks once they exit the complex and he realizes he doesn’t know where Daniel’s car is parked. “You don’t have to treat me like one.”

“It’s not a girl thing, it’s a you thing,” Daniel says. Sungwoon doesn’t really have time to process the sentence, because Daniel points at a car across the street. “My car’s the gray Honda.

The inside of Daniel’s car smells, strangely, like a cold, open can of fruit juice. “Are you getting enough air?” Daniel asks in concern, messing with the vents that are in front of Sungwoon after ramping up the control on the fan.

“It’s fine if I don’t get air,” Sungwoon says. “I catch colds and erupt in sneeze attacks otherwise.”

“Ah, really?” Daniel undoes everything he just did to the vents. “Feel free to adjust them if you need, then.”   

“I will, thanks.”

As Daniel starts the car, Sungwoon says, “Tell me about your friends.”

“Seongwoo and Woojin are the two who are coming for sure. They’re in the same dance club as me,” Daniel says. “Jisung might be able to make it but he’ll be late if he comes.”

“Are there a lot of people in the club?”

“Actually, yeah!” Daniel says. “We’ve always had quite a crowd on the roster, but this year I think the complete list includes like sixty to seventy people. It’s rare for everyone to perform together, though, because we all have different schedules and priorities.” Sungwoon spends the rest of the car ride listening to Daniel chatter about funny anecdotes involving Seongwoo, and how Woojin sounds like an international student because of his strong Korean accent, despite having moved to California in the fourth grade.  

+

The restaurant is dim when they walk in, which Sungwoon is grateful for. If he messes up or says something wrong, at least he’ll have bad lighting to disguise the uncertainty in his face.

“They’re already here, I think?” Daniel says, giving a cursory look at his phone’s notifications before sliding it into his back pocket. “Here.” He holds out his hand, palm up, and Sungwoon looks up at him in confusion.

“What?”

Instead of explaining, Daniel reaches over to Sungwoon’s side to take Sungwoon’s hand in his, with his trademark toothy smile. “Your hand’s so small.”

Sungwoon can only make a strangled noise in response. His first instinct is to recoil from the touch, not because he feels disgusted, but because it feels like a sharp buzzing is running through all of his veins, and his heart’s beating unreasonably fast. If this is the type of attraction that people feel on a regular basis, Sungwoon would rather dunk his whole body in ice water. He silently thanks the stars that his hands aren’t sweating up a storm and wills his face to look like he’s positively in love instead of positively uncomfortable.

He stares at the material of Daniel’s flannel shirt the whole time they’re making their way to the table Seongwoo and Woojin already reserved so that he doesn’t have to make eye contact with anyone else in the restaurant. 

Daniel introduces the guy that notices their arrival first. He’s got the face of an actor, and Sungwoon wonders offhandedly if all of Daniel’s friends are this good looking. “This is Seongwoo,” Daniel says, then gestures to the guy sitting next to Seongwoo, whose ears are filled with silver, flashy piercings and has hair that’s been dyed a deep red. “And this dinosaur is Woojin.”

“Hi,” Sungwoon says, with a small smile. “Nice to meet you.” Woojin waves in response.

“Wow, you’re really as small and cute as Daniel said,” Seongwoo says, and Sungwoon is affronted.   

“I’m not small,” he says, sending Daniel a nasty side-eye.

“You’re a perfect size,” Daniel revises, accompanied with a nervous laugh. Sungwoon’s surprised that Daniel would go as far as to talk like an enamored boyfriend when they’re not around each other, but it makes sense that Daniel would pay attention to the little details.

Seongwoo’s a bigger talker than Woojin is, asking questions here and there about Sungwoon as they’re eating, while Woojin watches Sungwoon’s reactions with a careful eye.     

“If you’re an art major, then how did you meet Daniel?” Seongwoo asks, right before he shoves a giant piece of sushi into his mouth. He immediately forgets that he’s got food in his mouth, though, and keeps talking. “The engineering and art departments are basically on opposite ends of the school.”

“Chew with your mouth closed,” Woojin chides him, and Seongwoo covers his mouth with a dainty oops~ 

“Do you want the sexy story, or the boring one?” Sungwoon replies, and Daniel chokes on his water.

Seongwoo’s eyes have a twinkle in them. “Well, when you word it like that…”

“Sungwoonie,” Daniel says, in a warning tone. Even if Sungwoon knows he has the upper hand, the mixture of authority and endearment in Daniel’s voice makes warmth rush through Sungwoon’s entire body.

It’s hard to pretend that he’s unaffected, especially when the heat of Daniel’s shoulder bleeds into Sungwoon’s smaller frame. Sungwoon winks at Seongwoo as he leans in and stage-whispers, “I can tell you when Daniel’s not around.” 

“There is no sexy story!” Daniel grabs on to Sungwoon’s wrist in panic. “What are you going to tell them!”

“Okay, okay,” Sungwoon says, laughing at how worried Daniel’s getting. “We just talked online because we’re both friends with Taehyun.”

“You’re friends with Taehyun?” Woojin asks, opening his mouth for the first time to say something that’s not to school Seongwoo into better behavior. 

“I met him in middle school,” Sungwoon says. “We’re both from Norcal.”

Woojin tilts his head to the side. “San Francisco?”

“South of it,” Sungwoon answers. “Takes about forty five minutes to drive there from our hometown.”

“That’s unexpected,” Woojin says. “The fact that you’re friends with Taehyun, when he’s so noisy.” His accent is more obvious, now that he’s speaking longer sentences.

Under the constant yelling and tendency to drag other people into his chaos, Taehyun is a simple person, at the very core of his personality. He’s got so much confidence that he goes after whatever he wants, as long as his efforts don’t hurt anyone else, and he’s fiercely protective of Sungwoon even if Sungwoon sets him off like a firecracker every time they see each other.    

“That’s all you’re eating?” Daniel asks, after Sungwoon’s cleared his plate. “You can order more if you want.”

“I ate something late this afternoon, so I’m not that hungry,” Sungwoon reassures him. That’s a lie, but he’s not going to rack up a hefty bill for Daniel to pay. His eyeballs had nearly fallen out at the prices he’d seen on the menu, earlier.

“Also, you’re sniffling,” Daniel observes. “Are you cold?”

“I’m fine–” Sungwoon starts to say, then squeaks in surprise as he’s drowned in the flannel shirt that Daniel has taken off and draped over him.  

Sungwoon feels his face flush hotter than the sun, and Seongwoo asks politely, “Would you two like to get a room?”

Woojin immediately calls Seongwoo out on his bullshit. “You’re way worse whenever you have a girlfriend, Seongwoo. Leave them alone.” This leads to a lighthearted argument between the two until the waiter comes and gives the bill, presumably so that their table will leave and take their ruckus with them.

After paying their bill, they wait outside the entrance while Daniel uses the restroom. Sungwoon can feel Seongwoo staring at him, and eventually, the latter remarks, “You look like a heartbreaker.” His tone is airy, like it’s half a joke, but he’s clearly waiting for some sort of reaction from Sungwoon.  

Sungwoon blinks, not sure if his ears are hearing right. In a million different universes, he doesn’t think he’d be a heartbreaker in any of them. “I don’t… follow?”

“Don’t mind him,” Woojin says. “Seongwoo’s just anal.”

“I’m being a good friend,” Seongwoo corrects him, nudging him in the side. “You butt out.”

“Whatever,” Woojin says, and shakes his head.

“Listen up,” Seongwoo says, with all the ferocity of a small pup, and Sungwoon would laugh at the hilarity of this situation, but he has a feeling Seongwoo wouldn’t like that at all, so he holds it in. “I’ve seen Daniel date all sorts of people, and while most people are besotted with every inch of his damn body and soul, it’s clear that he likes you way more than you like him!”

Sungwoon’s not sure why Seongwoo’s making all these obviously wrong calls, and he tries to explain why Seongwoo has no idea what he’s talking about. “I–”

“No arguing,” Seongwoo interrupts. Sungwoon sighs. “You better make him happy or I’m gonna come rip you a new asshole!”

“Sure,” Sungwoon says, so agreeably that it makes Seongwoo freeze. When in hell is he going to be the one hurting Daniel, anyways? 

“Sure?!” Seongwoo says. “You’re looking real confident, punk. Just wait ‘til I–” He must see Daniel approaching, because he breaks off midsentence and scoots closer to Woojin. “Act natural.” 

“You’re the only one getting worked up,” Sungwoon says, and Seongwoo narrows his eyes, Woojin laughing beside him.

“What’s so funny?” Daniel asks, putting both hands on Sungwoon’s shoulders.

“Seongwoo’s life,” Woojin answers readily. “One giant joke, to be honest.”

“You’re going to be a dinosaur with a lopsided smile when I clock you in the jaw,” Seongwoo says, cracking his knuckles.        

Daniel only smiles at the two of them, apparently finding their sparring common and harmless. “I’m going to take Sungwoon home. You all have rides?”

“Yes,” Woojin says, grabbing Seongwoo by the nape of his hoodie. “I’ll be taking this drama queen back to the dorms.” He starts dragging Seongwoo in the opposite direction of where Daniel’s parked, Seongwoo putting up a fight all the way, with his loud Who you calling a drama queen?! echoing after them.

“You’re being kinda quiet,” Daniel says, once they’ve reached the street right in front of Sungwoon’s complex, and parks into an open spot by the curb. “Did I make you uncomfortable by the way I acted at dinner? I wanted…I wanted to make sure it was obvious, that we ‘like’ each other.”

“No,” Sungwoon says, thinking back to Seongwoo’s accusation of him not liking Daniel as much as Daniel liked him, and frowns. “Not at all.”

“Okay,” Daniel says. “You ended up wearing my flannel shirt, after all~”

Sungwoon blushes scarlet. “If you had given me a choice–!”

“You look so cute in bigger clothes, though!” Daniel says, with a sly laugh. “I couldn’t help it.”

He protests when Sungwoon takes the article of clothing off of his shoulders and begins folding it to give back to Daniel. “Keep it for now!”

“Why would I?” Sungwoon barks.

“You can wear it to your next class,” Daniel says. “So people know you’re mine?” The word mine rolls off his tongue uncertainly, like he’s testing to see whether he likes the sound of it or not.  

You’d think that with how gentle Daniel’s teasing is compared to Sungwoon’s brutal way of poking fun, it’d be less damaging. Instead, it’s the opposite. Everything Daniel says, he sounds like he means, and at this rate Sungwoon’s heart is going to become weak as paper to Daniel’s havoc wreaking puppy paws.

“In that case,” Sungwoon says, tucking the folded flannel shirt under his arm, leaning in towards Daniel, “what should I leave on you to make sure people know you’re mine?”

Daniel swallows, the bob of his Adam’s apple processing in Sungwoon’s mind in slow motion. The moment Daniel’s gaze flickers down to Sungwoon’s mouth, lingering longer than normal, Sungwoon knows he’s pushed the boundary too far and backs up. Even if Daniel doesn’t say it outright, there had been no mistaking what he’d thought of, what he’d wanted, and that is too much responsibility for Sungwoon to carry.

“Get home safely,” Sungwoon says, hoping he sounds nowhere as winded as he feels, as he gets out of the car.

“Goodnight,” Daniel replies. The smile on his lips doesn’t reach his eyes, and Sungwoon holds his breath all the way until he’s inside his apartment, in his bedroom, which is when he realizes he still has Daniel’s flannel shirt in his hand. 

“Messy,” he says to himself, not sure whether he’s talking about the junk all over his floor, or the way his heart feels like it’s split itself into a million jigsaw puzzle pieces.          

+

They don’t talk about it. Daniel doesn’t even send his usual dog-in-the-window sticker, not the day after or even the day after that, and Sungwoon decides that he’s going to wait for whatever tension exists between them to dissipate. The silence is strange. He’s never liked the burden of text tones and app notifications constantly coming in, and yet, not receiving any from Daniel feels like punishment for having feelings he still doesn’t understand, doesn’t want to understand.     

The next time Sungwoon sees Daniel is two days later, on a Wednesday. He isn’t expecting him, even though Daniel’s made a habit of coming in at the end of Sungwoon’s Intro to Modernism classes so that they can grab an early lunch together.  

Minhyun spots Daniel first as he and Sungwoon leave the classroom, Sungwoon having conveniently woken up on time from his nap to pack up his belongings just as the class concluded. “Your boyfriend’s here~”

“What–” Sungwoon looks up, then does a double take at Daniel, who’s approaching them. “Kill me.”

“Why? What’s wrong?” Minhyun asks, as Sungwoon tries to make a split second decision on whether to strip himself of the red and black flannel shirt Daniel had let him borrow or take the embarrassment like a man.  

“Nice outfit,” Daniel remarks, smugly, and Sungwoon shoves his face into Minhyun’s back.

“Do not make me an enemy of a man as powerful as Daniel Kang,” Minhyun says, turning around and gently pushing Sungwoon’s head away from him. “I will be leaving now, friend.”

“Don’t leave,” Sungwoon croaks. Minhyun only sends him an apologetic smile, giving Sungwoon a cursory wave before walking away and leaving him alone with Daniel.

“You rolled up the sleeves,” Daniel observes, taking Sungwoon’s hand in his. His smile reaches his eyes today. Without the four days of silence as solid evidence that Daniel had felt just as off as him in their last conversation, Sungwoon might think he imagined the whole thing.  

“I didn’t think you were coming today,” Sungwoon says quickly, pulling his hand out of Daniel’s. “I didn’t wear it with the intention of–” he stops talking when Daniel’s smile only grows wider. “Listen, you big oversized punk–” 

“This ‘oversized’ punk’s clothes look good on you,” Daniel interrupts. His tone is innocent as he adds, “Is it a new aesthetic you’re trying out?”   

Sungwoon’s brain cells collectively scream, all at once. “I was late,” Sungwoon growls, “so don’t get the wrong idea!”

“I don’t know what idea you’re talking about,” Daniel replies. “I haven’t said anything.”

Sungwoon huffs, his previously spotless image having been dragged through the mud, and speeds up his footsteps to leave the source of his irritation behind.

“Please don’t be mad. Wait for me~” Daniel yelps, sounding like he’s holding in a laugh, and Sungwoon only walks even faster in silent rebellion. Daniel’s legs are longer, though, and he easily catches up to the shorter boy once he makes the effort, taking Sungwoon’s hand in his again when they’re shoulder to shoulder.

Sungwoon’s embarrassment has mostly dissolved by the time they’ve gotten coffee, though he continues to glower at Daniel from behind the mocha Daniel’s picked out for him as a surprise.

“Pose cutely,” Daniel requests, as he holds up his phone to take a picture, with a lilt to his voice that says he knows Sungwoon’s barely resisting the urge to punch him. 

“I’d rather die,” Sungwoon says, and holds up a horizontal V with his fingers to the side of his face, refusing to smile.

+

“Hey,” Daniel says. He fidgets from where he’s standing by the kitchen counter.   

This is the third time that he’s hanging out in Sungwoon’s apartment. The first time had been because of a promise Daniel wanted to carry out, to cook a ~wholesome~ meal for Sungwoon, and the second time was an extension of the same promise. Today there is no healthy meal, only homemade root beer floats, because Daniel likes them and Sungwoon has never had them. The fizziness of the sassafras root flavored drink leaves a ticklish feeling on the roof of Sungwoon’s mouth, and it’s easier to like the taste when he pairs it with vanilla ice cream.  

Both of them have ignored the fact that they’re starting to see each other more than just two to three times a week, and a lot of those meetings are in private. 

Sungwoon is… aware that his feelings towards Daniel are no longer that neutral. He keeps them mostly under wraps, but they break free, sometimes, and bounce off the walls of his bedroom and prod him in the chest repeatedly, like they’re angry they’re being repressed anytime Sungwoon’s in front of other people.

Considering that Daniel isn’t Sungwoon’s type in any way, it should be easy to throw the feelings away, but Daniel is a lot of things Sungwoon never knew he needed. He’s the soft, steady gaze that tells Sungwoon his stories are valid and worth listening to, and the encouraging hums that mean his attention is completely on Sungwoon and no one else. Daniel pushes Sungwoon to make little decisions like what or where they’re going to eat because he’s so determined to make Sungwoon happy rather than satisfy himself. Since childhood, Sungwoon has always faded into the background to let other people make decisions for him, so the effort that Daniel puts into making him feel like his opinions and preferences are worthy has flowers blooming in the cage of Sungwoon’s chest.

It’s getting harder and harder to look at Daniel Kang, who Sungwoon wants so badly to keep but cannot.  

He quirks an eyebrow. “What’s up?”

“Are you…” Daniel hesitates, mumbling to himself, then starts over. He’s fidgeting, and Sungwoon notes vaguely that one of the long lightbulbs in the kitchen has gone out while he waits for Daniel to get out whatever’s lingering on the tip of his tongue.

“Would you be willing to come to the dance club showcase?”    

“When is it?” Sungwoon says, setting his phone down. If it were anyone else, Sungwoon would be his usual self and try to wiggle his way out of going to anything unrelated to his studies, but Daniel looks so hopeful that Sungwoon doesn’t want to hurt him. “If I don’t have anything going on, I’ll go.” 

Daniel visibly brightens, and replies immediately, “November 10. It’s a Friday evening, from six to eight-thirty.”  

November 10 sticks out in Sungwoon’s mind as a date with something important happening. He opens up his Gmail inbox to view his school email, going through the list until he finds a message sent earlier this week from his Global Cinema instructor, announcing that he’s going to be moving the class that particular week from Thursday afternoon to Friday evening due to personal conflicts.

“I can’t,” he says, sighing. “I have a class rescheduled that day which completely overlaps the time of your showcase.”

“That’s fine,” Daniel says, a little too quickly. “It was worth a shot to ask.”

If this wasn’t all just for show, if this wasn’t pretend… Sungwoon would be more inclined to comfort Daniel with an outstretched hand or a hug.

Instead, he curls his fingers into a fist, because it’s a waste of time to want Daniel’s hand in his. “It’s a shame that I can’t see you dance, when it must be the only side of you that’s cool,” he says, making sure his voice carries evenly. 

“You’re never going to run out of ways to grill me to a burnt crisp, are you?”

“Probably not,” Sungwoon says. “It’s too much fun to give up.” Daniel pouts in response, a bit of ice cream residue still left on the corners of his lips, and Sungwoon wonders whether Daniel would taste more like root beer or ice cream if Sungwoon took the chance to kiss him.  

+

A few days later, Taehyun comes over to complete his usual routine of trying to wound Sungwoon’s eardrums with his impossibly loud voice. Sungwoon nudges the side of Taehyun’s leg, after Taehyun’s run out of things to yell about and spent a good half hour watching videos quietly on his phone. “Do you know if Daniel has any favorite food?”

“Off the top of my head I know that he likes rice cakes, pizza, noodles, mochas,” Taehyun says, not looking up from his phone or taking out his earphones. “Why?”

Sungwoon draws the things Taehyun just listed onto a new page of the notebook he uses for to-do lists and planning projects. “Okay, thanks.”  

“Hey, asshole, don’t ask for my help and then not answer my question,” Taehyun barks, as he yanks out his earphones.

“As a bum who invades my private space on a regular basis, you can afford to answer a single question, can you not?” Sungwoon says. He prefers not to reveal his plans until he’s certain that he can complete them, but Taehyun looks ready to declare war, so Sungwoon will have to make an exception. “I know Daniel’s been dieting for the dance showcase, and I’m thinking of bringing him some food afterwards since I can’t make it to the actual performance.”

“Why can’t you make it?” Taehyun asks. “It’s on a Friday night.”

“One of my classes got rescheduled,” Sungwoon explains, and draws a pair of googly eyes with thick, sad eyebrows and a wide frown, to match how he feels on the inside.

“Wow,” Taehyun says, five minutes later. “Do you know that you’ve been keeping this thing up with Daniel for months and this is the first time you’ve talked to me about him, and it’s not because I asked you first?”

Sungwoon’s lost count of how many times he’s wanted to ask Taehyun about Daniel, but the more you talk about someone, the more you fall in love with them, and Sungwoon knows better than that. At the end of the day, feelings are momentary and only expand into something more if you let them.

“It’s not like we’re actually dating,” Sungwoon says, licking his lips. He forgot to put on lip balm this morning, and now his mouth is suffering for his mistakes. “What reason would I have to talk about him?”

“Don’t be snarky. You talk about everything else,” Taehyun says. “I find it hard to imagine that you wouldn’t have something to say about him.”

“I only complain about the people I meet while I’m tutoring, or my classmates,” Sungwoon says. “I have nothing to complain about Daniel. He’s a perfect man, just like you said.”

“Your years of experience with sarcasm has made you unable to express any compliment in a genuine manner,” Taehyun says, sighing. “Do you actually like him as a person?”

It’s doubtful that Sungwoon would have made it through a week with Daniel if the guy had turned out to be a major asshole. “Yes? He’s great. A whole lot better than you, that’s for sure–” Sungwoon says.

Taehyun shouldn’t look so relieved, when Sungwoon has made a clearheaded attempt at dismantling his ego, but he yells, “Then say so, asshole! I was under the impression you didn’t like him at all.”

“Like I said,” Sungwoon says, “I don’t talk about the things that don’t give me trouble.”   

There’s something therapeutic about balling up all the frustrations he experiences from day to day, and turning them into stories where he’s not the victim, but a spectator scrutinizing from above. He rarely talks about the things that really hurt him, because they twist his insides up and make him feel like nothing for being unable to get over them. Even if Daniel makes him happy, the risks of dwelling on such pointless feelings are so high, and talking about Daniel will only bring out more hidden truths Sungwoon has already shoved into the back of his throat and refused to acknowledge.  

+

On the day of the dance club’s showcase, Sungwoon doesn’t see Daniel due to Daniel needing to be present for performance preparations that start a few hours before noon and last all day. With an unexpected chunk of free time and a slower week up ahead in terms of assignments, Sungwoon spends his morning curled up in bed, dead to the world.

Around one in the afternoon, he wakes up to new Messenger notifications from Daniel and a text from his mother asking how school is going. He replies to her first, typing out relatively detailed sentences about the critiques he received this week from his teachers, as well as the fine arts student who’d come into the student learning center for writing feedback and been terrible in all sorts of ways, from her personality to her writing to her actual paintings.

When he finishes that, he launches the Messenger app, and checks Daniel’s messages. Just a quick morning, sungwoonie sent around 9 am and two selfies sent about an hour ago, with Snapchat stickers pasted all over the backgrounds.

(He’d refused to give Daniel his Snapchat username a few weeks after they’d exchanged Instagram handles, despite the extensive fight Daniel put up.

“Why won’t you let me send you snaps!” Daniel had whined loudly, because they were outside in a park with screaming children all around them.

“I hate everything about Snapchat’s interface,” Sungwoon had replied, unmoved by Daniel’s puppy face. “I only check it occasionally, when I want to be appalled at how much people need to share their daily lives with everyone they know.”

Daniel had said something along the lines of Sungwoon being awful, and only quieted when Sungwoon told him that he’d pay much more attention to any photo Daniel was willing to send over Messenger.)

Sungwoon sends back a good aftErNoOn~, and then good luck with your performance. He looks for pants to put on now that he’s getting out of bed, and washes his face after shoving his legs through a pair of black sweatpants. The rest of the afternoon, he works on concept sketches to get a head start on next week’s assignments until he has to get to class.

For Global Cinema, they’re not meeting in their usual classroom, but in a basement-level computer lab that’s open to all students as long as there isn’t class being held. There are a line of couches on the opposite wall outside of the computer labs, two of which a majority of Sungwoon’s classmates have squeezed themselves into while they wait for their teacher, Chester, to arrive. Sungwoon stands on the side, not bothering to get comfortable when he arrives because there are only two minutes left before class is supposed to start.

Five, ten, fifteen minutes pass, with no sign of Chester.

Minhyun, squished in between one arm of the couch and Jaehwan, watches Sungwoon shift his weight to the other hip. “Wanna sit on me and Jaehwan?” Minhyun says. “You can put your backpack down, too.”

Sungwoon does as Minhyun suggests, and sprawls out on top of his two classmates, phone in hand.

Twenty five minutes later, still nothing. Classmates are repeatedly refreshing their emails to see whether Chester has sent out a last minute email cancelling class, but no one’s seen anything. No one has his number either, and Sungwoon checks his phone for the time. 6:43 pm.

Daniel’s face, insecure and filled with muted disappointment when Sungwoon had told him he couldn’t make it to the performance, comes to Sungwoon’s mind. If he walks fast enough, there’s still enough time for him to get to the showcase in the East Auditorium and watch a large portion of the performance.

“Where are you going?” Minhyun asks, as Sungwoon decisively gets off of him and Jaehwan, grabbing his backpack to sling over his shoulder. A little more than half of their classmates are standing up and preparing to leave, too, irritated at having had to wait nearly an hour for an inconveniently scheduled class, only for Chester not to show up.

“Dance club’s showcase,” Sungwoon answers.

“Oooooooh,” Jaehwan crows. “Ditching class for your boyfriend, Sungwoon Ha?”

“Yeah,” Sungwoon says, having neither the time nor the patience to explain. “And how many times have you missed classes that weren’t cancelled for a booty call, only to be dumped the morning after?”

Minhyun’s laugh can be heard filling the hallway even as Sungwoon takes the last two steps of stairs to get to the first floor and leaves the building.

+

“Hi, how much for a ticket?” Sungwoon asks, grabbing his wallet out of his back pocket and opening it to look for cash. He doesn’t usually carry any on him since he hates the bulk that comes with having a bigger wallet.  

There’s a flicker of recognition in the eyes of the girl who’s watching the admission table, but whatever she’s thinking, she doesn’t voice. “Three dollars. Just a heads up, there probably won’t be any more seats left.”

“That’s fine,” Sungwoon says.   

He hands her a twenty, and all but shoves the change she gives him into his pockets before half running through the dark hallway that leads to the auditorium, just in time to see Daniel come onto stage by himself. The audience erupts into screams and cheering while Sungwoon makes his way along the side of the room in search of a closer and better view of the stage.

Nothing about the Daniel on stage looks cute or puppy-like. Even from this far, Sungwoon can see the thick layer of makeup on his face, the illusion of a sultry gaze created by darkened brows and eyeshadow. The weight loss Daniel has put himself through for the last few weeks is evident, too, his soft jaw a lot sharper and cheeks more defined.

As the front row of spotlights goes dark and the defined silhouette of his body is lit by lights behind him, Daniel seems to drain the entire room of oxygen. Sungwoon is thoroughly winded, and he can only watch breathlessly as the lights come back on and Daniel moves across the stage, motions fluid and looking like he was born for the spotlight.

The rest of the showcase passes in a blur. Sungwoon walks around aimlessly after the last of the applause has died down and people start getting out of their seats to go into the lobby of the auditorium, where many of the dancers are mingling with friends and family or taking pictures. He eventually leans against a wall at the end of an empty row of seats, and scrolls through his unread messages until he decides whether to look for Daniel or not.  

“Is that the cute and smol Sungwoon I see?” Sungwoon hears from somewhere behind him, and turns to find Seongwoo walking towards him. “I thought you weren’t coming?”

Whatever hostility Seongwoo had felt from their first meeting has faded over time, for reasons unknown to Sungwoon. Sungwoon had never really felt threatened anyways, what with Seongwoo’s bark being worse than his bite, but it certainly makes things easier in the instances they do see each other, for Seongwoo to not perpetually rear up to be at his throat.  

“Instructor didn’t show up to class,” Sungwoon explains. “You looked really cool on stage.”

Seongwoo makes this hilarious mixture between a modest and smug expression that is so on-brand with every story Sungwoon’s heard about him from Daniel. “Thank you very much! Did you get to see Daniel’s solo?”

“Yes, I did,” Sungwoon answers, and yelps as Seongwoo grabs onto his shoulders and begins steering him through the crowd of dancers and audience members. “What are you doing?”    

“Let me take you to Daniel, lost child.”

Initially, Sungwoon had planned to catch Daniel to say at least a few greetings, but he’s feeling oddly daunted after seeing the strength of Daniel’s stage presence. The screams had been so… loud when Daniel appeared, under all those bright lights, and Sungwoon had felt as hot and prickly as the lights were, probably, remembering that he was just one person out of hundreds who adored Daniel Kang.    

“What if he’s busy?” Sungwoon says uncertainly, as he looks for the closest exit door to escape out of.  

“Are you kidding me?” Seongwoo says. “He’s going to fuckin’ nut the moment he realizes you were able to watch him perform!”

“Maybe not,” mumbles Sungwoon, and if Seongwoo hears him, he ignores it.

“It doesn’t look like he’s out here?” Seongwoo says, jumping up and down to scan the groups of people in the lobby of the auditorium. “Darn. Maybe he’s backstage getting changed or something.”

Despite Sungwoon’s protests, Seongwoo drags him back through the crowd the way they came, onto the stage and behind the curtains, where there are doors opening up to a room full of backstage preparations and people getting their heavier makeup removed and costumes changed out of.

“Yo, Daniel,” Seongwoo says, shimmying and throwing jazz hands around Sungwoon as they approach Daniel, who’s currently changing out of the white collared shirt he was wearing for the end of the showcase.   

“What–” Daniel’s mouth forms an O when he turns around. Up close, his eye makeup looks even more dramatic than from the back of the auditorium. Sungwoon spots a flash of pale, toned tummy before Daniel pulls his t-shirt all the way down. “Sungwoon?”

“Hi,” Sungwoon says softly.

He expects the hug, which nearly bowls him over because Daniel’s so much bigger than him, but in no way does he expect the brief press of Daniel’s mouth on his, over as quickly as it came. Daniel smells like foundation and sweat and whatever’s survived of his cologne, and Sungwoon is so distracted by his own wave of emotions that he doesn’t realize Seongwoo’s still watching them. 

“Waaa, so gross,” Seongwoo jokes, dramatically putting his hands together to make a single clap. “Since I’ve done my job as the messenger of love, I’ll be on my way to see my adoring fans now.”

“Thanks,” Daniel tells him. “Good job today.”

“You too. See you later!” Seongwoo says, wiggling his fingers at the two of them, and heads off to go back out to the auditorium.    

“I thought you said you couldn’t make it?” Daniel asks, as he rubs at his eyes. 

“I guess my professor’s week has just been really chaotic,” Sungwoon says. “We rescheduled class because he had to deal with stuff, and then he couldn’t show up today because another situation came up, I guess. We still haven’t heard from him.”

“I hope he’s okay?” Daniel says. He’s settled for curling a loose arm around Sungwoon’s waist, watching the shorter attentively.

“He should be. Don’t worry about it,” Sungwoon replies. “Your solo was nice.” Nice is an understatement, when Sungwoon still feels like he’s drowning in waters that are so deep he can’t see the bottom.

Daniel beams. “Thank you for coming. When did you arrive?”

“Sometime around seven?” Sungwoon says. “You’ve changed out of your clothes already? Other people are still taking pictures.”

“I’m pretty tired,” Daniel responds. “I’d go out and take pictures with my friends, but people who don’t know me that well ask for pictures too, and I have a hard time saying no.”

“They’re your fans. You’re going to break their heart,” Sungwoon teases, and Daniel pouts at him.

A small girl approaches them, and Sungwoon subconsciously moves away from Daniel, ignoring the lingering thing Daniel’s hand does around his waist before it finally drops. “Sorry to interrupt you guys,” she says to Daniel, smiles at Sungwoon. “I was wondering if you wanted your makeup removed now? I have cleansing water and makeup wipes, which will be easier than you trying to take it off at home.”

“That’d be nice, Wendy. Thanks,” Daniel says, with a smile. “Do you need me to sit down?”

She gestures at their height difference. “What do you think?” she asks, laughing, and Daniel sheepishly sits in an open chair to let her reach his face better.    

Sungwoon hovers nearby, pinned by Daniel’s even stare when he tries walking a few feet away. “Wait for me,” Daniel says, looking unsure of himself, even if he’s not giving any room for Sungwoon to decline. “I’ll get my stuff, and we can leave after I greet a couple of people?”

Sungwoon keeps a straight face. “What makes you think I’m going to wait for you?”  

“You–!” Daniel squeaks. “Be nice.” He can’t lash out properly, what with Wendy wiping down his skin with a cotton pad.

“Maybe you should keep some of the makeup on,” Sungwoon remarks casually, as Wendy takes off all the eyeshadow on Daniel’s right eyelid in one swipe. “I don’t think you can be seen in public after this.”

“Sungwoonie,” Daniel whines, drawing out the last two syllables in a helpless tone, and Wendy’s initially soft chuckling at Sungwoon’s bullying has transformed into a full on laugh.

“You two are really cute,” Wendy says, popping the cap of her cleansing water back onto the bottle once Daniel’s face is completely free of makeup. “There. All done! I was pretty thorough, but wash your face when you get home, just to be sure.”

“Thank you, I will,” Daniel says.  

“Great job today!” Wendy says. “Have a good night.” Everything about her face is sweet, especially her smile. They’re tinted a coral, almost orange-ish red, and Sungwoon wonders, offhandedly, whether he’d have an easier time accepting his own feelings if he was a girl.

“I was going to surprise you with food because I couldn’t come watch you dance,” Sungwoon says, a while later. “But since I’m already here, we can go pick up an order of rice cakes or pizza or whatever you want. I’ll treat you.”

“I can’t gain back all the weight I’ve lost in a night,” Daniel says, mildly.

“You won’t,” Sungwoon says. “Maybe only half.”

“Even then–!” Daniel starts saying, but then he sees Sungwoon’s smirk. “Ah, you’re messing with me again.”

The night air is so cold that it stings Sungwoon’s cheeks, and he tugs his hood over his head, glancing at Daniel in the meantime. The purple under his eyes is more apparent now that his face is completely bare, and some of his hair is flopping out of its neatly gelled structure, but even under the shitty lighting from the street lamps lining the sidewalk, Daniel looks gorgeous.

“What do you want for dinner?” Sungwoon says. “This is the one time I’m buying food for you.” Daniel’s jacket is barely zipped, and Sungwoon absentmindedly reaches out to drag the zipper all the way to the top, until it can’t go any farther.

“Oh,” he says, realizing that he’s never done anything like that before, and steps back, feeling slightly panicky.

“Thanks. How do you feel about tteokbokki? I know a good place that’s not too expensive.” Daniel intertwines their fingers together, plunging Sungwoon’s hand into sudden, intense warmth. There’s no one around, and Sungwoon’s mouth is so dry. 

“You know how to get there?” Sungwoon asks.

“Yeah,” Daniel says, voice lilting up in confusion when Sungwoon pulls ahead and makes a turn to the right. “Where–”

“Parking lot for students that don’t live directly on campus,” Sungwoon explains. He’s still holding Daniel’s hand, and considers letting go of it. “I parked my car here for class.” 

“Oh,” Daniel says, observing their surroundings. “This is pretty far from your department, isn’t it?”

“Yes,” Sungwoon sighs. “I spend most of my mornings looking like an idiot because I’m sprinting to class with my backpack bouncing around behind me. One time I was having a really off day and I tripped on flat cement so hard that my backpack kind of went over me, though I was still wearing it.”

“Oh no,” Daniel says, horribly amused, and Sungwoon snorts.

“Yeah. It was in front of like thirty people passing by, too, but before anyone could ask me if I was okay, I jumped up and ran to class like my life depended on it because I was so embarrassed.”

They get tteokbokki in a Korean restaurant with an entrance so small and sign so poorly lit that it’s easy to overlook the place entirely if you’re just wandering. Sungwoon’s willing to buy the largest serving of rice cakes they have, but Daniel goes for the medium size bowl instead.

The owner is the one to serve them their food. She’s a woman in her fifties, hair short and curly, and she brightens considerably when she sees Daniel, remarking on him not having eaten here recently. “I was on a diet for a performance,” Daniel explains, “but I’m a free man now.”

“That’s good. Young people shouldn’t be dieting at all,” she says, laying down small dishes of assorted pickled vegetables after she’s brought over the hot tteokbokki, served in a white ceramic bowl. She’s also leaves a bottle of soju on the side, which Sungwoon has no intention of touching. “Enjoy the food, boys.”

Sungwoon has never been the caring type. He’s not like Minhyun, who gets Sungwoon gifts just because something in a store reminded him of Sungwoon, or his mother, who’ll lose sleep stressing herself out about feeding whichever guest is over for dinner. As soon as acquaintances turn out to be emotionally high maintenance, Sungwoon tosses them off his personal list of things-and-people-to-care-about.

He’s never felt a strong desire to take care of anyone other than himself, so it doesn’t make any sense, that Sungwoon feels so much satisfaction just from watching Daniel eat so freely.

“Do you want any of this?” Daniel asks, a third of the way through their meal, holding up the bottle of soju.

Sungwoon shakes his head, and Daniel makes an indistinct hum as he remembers that Sungwoon drove them here. “Right. You’re driving. Do you like soju, though?”   

“I don’t drink,” Sungwoon replies, softening the statement with a smile.

He’d gotten drunk, once, at a small gathering with people in their major and woken up the next morning in horror because he hadn’t been able to remember anything. Not how he got back home, not how he got back into his own bed. According to Minhyun, he hadn’t done anything… odd, but the long stretch of blankness in his mind between his first shot and the next day had been overwhelmingly awful to swallow. Out of all the things Sungwoon hates in life, he hates losing control the most, and he’s avoided alcohol of any kind since the incident.

“Oh,” Daniel says. He looks like he’s going to ask Sungwoon why he doesn’t drink, but he doesn’t. “Are you okay with me drinking, then?”

“G-go ahead,” Sungwoon says, startled that Daniel would ask for permission.

After dinner, they get ice cream in the shop next door. The girl cashier is wearing their university’s sweatshirt, and her smile is pointedly sweet every time she glances at Daniel. Even while Sungwoon’s paying, she barely looks at him, and only sneaks peeks at Daniel when she thinks no one’s paying attention. Sungwoon ignores the ugly taste of possessiveness crawling up the back of his throat, sinking its sharp claws into his tongue and pushing him to say something nasty, so that he can watch both of them flush with discomfort.  

“She was about ready to propose to you,” he says, as they leave, wrapping the waffle cone of the ice cream they’re sharing with a napkin. Despite wanting to indulge, Daniel hadn’t wanted to finish a whole one by himself.   

“I hadn’t noticed,” Daniel says. He rests his hand on top of Sungwoon’s when he leans in to take a bite.  

Maybe it’s better, that Daniel doesn’t notice the way people look at him. It’ll be harder, that way, for him to realize that Sungwoon’s veins course with electricity every time Daniel touches him. That Sungwoon finds Daniel’s voice sweet enough to want to taste it in his mouth and keep it all to himself.

“Do you do that on purpose?” Sungwoon licks on the other side of the scoop where Daniel’s teeth haven’t touched.

“Do what on purpose?”

“Pretend not to notice when people like you?”

The look in Daniel’s eyes is indecipherable. “A lot of it isn’t… isn’t real,” he says. “There’s being in love, and then there’s just liking the idea of someone when you don’t really know who they are.”

“Wow,” Sungwoon says. “So emotionally intelligent, you.”

He gets a light shove in response. “Don’t tease me when I’m being heartfelt,” Daniel says. “You make it so hard to…”

“Hard to what?” Sungwoon asks. 

“Never mind.” Daniel shakes his head, aggressively chomping down on the ice cream. They take turns finishing off the rest of the waffle cone, until only the last bit of it is left, which Sungwoon pops into his mouth.

+

“You said that I don’t notice, when people like me,” Daniel says. He’s followed Sungwoon to the front of his apartment, apparently having left something important there a few days ago. Sungwoon fumbles with his keychain to single out his house key and unlock the front door. Daniel closes the door behind them, locking it for Sungwoon while Sungwoon wiggles out of his slip-on Vans. Hojung isn’t home, which is a common occurrence. 

“Yeah,” Sungwoon says. “What about it?”

“You don’t notice, either,” Daniel says. His breath smells like salted caramel and alcohol, and Sungwoon’s eyes traitorously follow the heart shaped curve of Daniel’s upper lip as Daniel crowds into Sungwoon’s personal space.

Daniel’s tipsy, and Sungwoon isn’t, but he lets Daniel kiss him anyway, because Sungwoon has long given up on pretending he’s not attracted, and he doesn’t feel all that self-conscious when Daniel probably won’t remember why they did this tomorrow. People kiss all the time, without being in love with each other.

Daniel’s lips are so full, and sticky from ice cream too, but ice cream is the last thing on Sungwoon’s mind as Daniel cups large hands around his neck and chases after each and every one of Sungwoon’s soft sighs with his mouth.

“What did you come here for?” Sungwoon says, after Daniel pulls away, hands still curled into the starchy material of Sungwoon’s collared shirt. “What was it you forgot?” He wonders if Daniel’s mind is clear enough to tell that this is only Sungwoon’s second kiss.

“Did you actually believe me about that?”

“Did you lie?” Sungwoon says, flushing as he realizes what kind of monster he’s allowed into his home. He can’t be expected to know rules like that. “You’re – how was I supposed to know what that meant?!”

“I was wondering if you had understood,” Daniel says, smile devilish, “but either way, you’ve let me in.”

“Is this how you tricked all your previous girlfriends, too?” Sungwoon remarks. He pulls open the door to his bedroom, looking for escape, but Daniel’s already at his heels, squeezing his way in before Sungwoon can close the door on him.

“Go home,” Sungwoon says. The light in his bedroom is much brighter than the lights by his doorway, and he wonders, with a sickly feelings at the bottom of his gut, if his mouth looks as swollen and as obviously bitten as Daniel’s does.  

Daniel furrows his brow. “You keep wanting to bring up my ex-girlfriends,” he says, licking his lips, “but I wish you’d stop focusing on them, when they don’t matter.”

Remembering that Daniel has had relationships before is a defense mechanism Sungwoon has resorted to in order to control his emotions. It’s selfish to bring up repeatedly, when Daniel probably doesn’t want to be reminded of his past, but Sungwoon needs the reminder that there is no future for him with Daniel Kang in it. “What do you want me to focus on, then?” he asks.

“Me,” Daniel answers, with such certainty, and Sungwoon’s logic collapses in on itself as Daniel pulls him down onto the bed, into his lap. He doesn’t really seem to notice how nervous Sungwoon is, primarily concerned with leaving more damage in places besides Sungwoon’s lips. He sucks at exposed skin just below Sungwoon’s jaw, teeth sinking down hard enough to make heat spike violently in the pit of Sungwoon’s stomach.

In their conversations, Sungwoon’s the one with more leverage, the right words always conveniently linking themselves on his tongue, ready to drown another soul in the sharp edge of his rough jokes. Kissing, though, is clearly Daniel’s playing field, and he drags Sungwoon full force at his pace, fingers digging into the shorter boy’s hips as he marks his territory along the sides of Sungwoon’s mouth and Sungwoon’s teeth.  

“You don’t understand what you’re doing,” Sungwoon says, pushing at Daniel’s shoulders as he takes a breath of air. The deeper, darker part of his personality wants to scratch and bite at Daniel’s skin until he bleeds, and leave scars behind that will remind anyone who sees his bare body afterwards that Sungwoon was the one to make a permanent mark. “You don’t know what you’ve done, already.”   

“I just–” Daniel’s words come out rough. There’s usually a smooth, velvety texture to them, but nothing about his voice sounds composed right now. His already plush lips are dark and swollen, Sungwoon’s work, and Sungwoon pulls back once his brain finally catches up with his impulsive body.

Stupid, stupid, stupid. He tries to move back, but Daniel’s grip on his waist is firm. “What are you–!”

“You never let me get close.” Daniel’s nose brushes against Sungwoon’s as he says it. Sungwoon’s first thought is about pore oil and how it’s probably unhygienic since the last time he washed his face was six hours ago, but Daniel claims so much of Sungwoon’s attention that he can really only think of practicalities for a split second before he’s back to short circuiting at the weight of Daniel’s palms pressing into his thighs.

“Because I don’t want you to,” Sungwoon says, inhaling shakily, wondering why he bothered fending off Daniel at all when he’s still going to lose to him in the end. “Have you ever thought about that?”

“And yet,” Daniel says, sounding unbearably pleased, “you’re on top of me, letting me kiss you.” 

“A mistake,” Sungwoon mutters. “I should kick you out of my home.”

“Let me stay,” Daniel says, a little out of breath. His fingertips brush the zipper of Sungwoon’s jeans, in interest, and Sungwoon shifts away from him uncomfortably.

“I’m not…” Sungwoon trails off, close to panicking. Anyone else might jump at the chance at… whatever Daniel wants, but Sungwoon is bewildered by the expectation for him to go that far. 

“Okay,” Daniel says, moving his hands back up to Sungwoon’s waist reassuringly. “I’m not going to do anything you don’t want me to do, Sungwoon.”

“You’ve got a lot of nerve for someone who ambushed me,” Sungwoon snaps, the resolve to make Daniel leave crumbling at the way Daniel says his name, honey-sweet and manipulative as hell.

“Do you really want me to leave?” Daniel asks.

When Sungwoon says nothing and avoids his gaze, Daniel leans in to kiss the corner of his mouth in triumph. “I thought so,” he says. Coming from anyone else, the words would grate against Sungwoon’s nerves, but Daniel manages such a weird combination of smug and hesitant that it throws Sungwoon off.

He lets Daniel kiss wherever there’s skin showing and realizes, as Daniel rolls sensitive flesh in between his teeth, that he finally knows the taste of Daniel’s smile.    

+

Reality hits Sungwoon like a train when he wakes up to light filtering through his dark curtains and realizes the line he’s crossed.

All of his friendships are neat, boxed in. He stays within the lines he’s drawn for himself, splits the price of snacks and food with his friends when they share a meal, and avoids owing anything to anyone or having anyone owe anything to him. Most people are, to him, replaceable, because Sungwoon has always been cool-headed and untouchable, both physically and emotionally.

Despite that, Daniel has made his way into Sungwoon’s bed when no one has ever been in his bedroom, and left fire in the wake of his fingertips skating along Sungwoon’s arms and sides. He’s sound asleep next to Sungwoon, breathing deep and steady, a stark contrast to the turmoil Sungwoon’s currently feeling on the inside. He has an instinctive desire to move away and get out, but Daniel’s nose is buried into the side of Sungwoon’s neck, his whole body radiating so much heat that Sungwoon is feeling sweaty on a November morning.

Eventually, he manages to untangle himself from the mess that is their limbs, and flees to the kitchen to drink water. Hojung’s bedroom door is flung open, which means he’s probably spent the night somewhere else, and Sungwoon’s relieved that his roommate doesn’t have to see him like this, nervous and panicky and not himself at all.

He doesn’t know how long he stands by the kitchen counter, motionless, but apparently it’s enough time for Daniel to have woken up and noticed his absence.

“Morning, Sungwoonie,” Daniel says, from behind him, and Sungwoon flinches.

“Sorry. Did I scare you?” Daniel says, and Sungwoon remembers, miserably, that those are the same words Daniel had said to him when they first met. His voice is rough from sleep, though not rough the way it had been last night, making him sound desperate and like – “What’s wrong?”

“I don’t think I can do this fake dating thing anymore,” Sungwoon blurts out, because pretending is no longer enough, and Daniel looks at him sharply, the sleepiness in his face instantly dissolving.

“What do you mean?”

“You said that I could stop after a few months,” he stammers. “I think you’ve made enough of a point to the people who were bothering you before we started this… thing.”

“I don’t understand.” Daniel’s voice is strained. His eyes flicker down to the large red-purpleish mark below Sungwoon’s jaw, asking a silent question. “Is it because of what we did yesterday? I thought–”

You’re getting clingy, too attached, annoying. Sungwoon goes through the meanest things he can use to hurt Daniel’s ego so much that Daniel will stop coming closer, but he can’t bring himself to say any of them.  

Instead, he says in a calm tone, “You have class soon, right? I can drive you to your dorm.” As long as one of them isn’t hurting on the outside, they’ll be fine. Daniel has been through worse scrapes and bruises than the ones Sungwoon’s going to leave on him.  

“What is wrong with you?” Daniel says, grabbing him by the shoulders. “If I did something to make you mad, then tell me! Whatever you don’t like, I’ll stop doing. Don’t just… don’t just cut me off.”

In some sense, Sungwoon had prepared himself for disaster the moment Daniel first smiled at him, warm and sweet and inexplicably comforting. He’d known from the beginning that it might be hard for him to leave Daniel, but he’d never considered it would get this messy, that Daniel would be the one to get upset at Sungwoon for wanting to end things between them.

“I need space,” Sungwoon says, after a long silence. It’s the closest that Daniel’s going to get to the truth, because Sungwoon really does need space. Space, and time, and enough distance between them so he can think about what he truly wants, without Daniel’s giggling and soft eyes and large hands to skew his judgment. 

Daniel looks like a puppy whose heart has been left in the cold rain, stomped on over and over again. “What did I do wrong?”  

“Nothing. You’re not to blame,” Sungwoon says, wanting to laugh or cry or both, maybe. The only thing that’s Daniel’s fault, really, is the awful way he’s seeped into every nook and cranny of Sungwoon, so much so that Sungwoon can only see him and think about him no matter which way he looks.

Sungwoon shivers. With Daniel no longer clinging onto him like a slug and a shoddy central heater that really only heats the hallway and not any of the actual rooms, a thin t-shirt isn’t enough to withstand the cold. They’d gone to sleep like that, Daniel in a borrowed shirt that drops down mid-thigh on Sungwoon but fits just right across Daniel’s wide shoulders and the rest of his torso. Sungwoon’s probably not going to ask for it back.

“You’re lying,” Daniel says. “You’re uncomfortable about something I’ve done, and you don’t want to talk about it, and you’re going to use ‘space’ as an excuse to never see me again. Isn’t that it?”

“I’m not obligated to tell you how I’m feeling,” Sungwoon says, evenly. “Pretending to be something I’m not has gotten exhausting, and I’m tired of acting like your boyfriend when none of this means anything.”

He can tell that it’s the hardest blow he’s given, because Daniel’s face crumples and he stands up, looking numb. “Fine,” Daniel mumbles. “I’ll be leaving.”

Sungwoon says, “I’m driving you.”

“You don’t need to,” Daniel replies dismissively, as he goes around Sungwoon’s living room, collecting his things, and then heads towards the front door. “Uber exists for a reason.”  

“Let me drive you,” Sungwoon says, grabbing him by the arm, and Daniel looks like he wants to shake the touch off, but he sighs.

“Fine,” Daniel says. “If you insist.”

The drive is silent, words hanging in the air between them. Sungwoon can practically hear Daniel’s anxiety and thoughts crashing like giant waves through an ocean.  

“I’ll get your shirt back to you, through Taehyun or something,” Daniel mutters, when they’re in the drive-through parking lot in front of his dorm building.

“You can keep it,” Sungwoon says. “It fits you better, anyways.” 

Daniel sends him a withering look. “Can I ask you something?”

“…Sure.”

“Why did you come to the showcase, when you could have just gone home and done other things?” Daniel asks. “Why did you buy me dinner, when I’ve always been the one paying for your meals? Why did you kiss me back last night, and why did you act like you cared when you don’t really?”

Sungwoon’s at a loss for words. “I do care about you,” Sungwoon says, honestly. “Even if… even if it doesn’t look that way right now.” 

“Clearly not enough to tell me whatever the fuck went wrong between last night and today,” Daniel snaps, and Sungwoon can see him visibly trying to reel the anger back in. “Sorry, I’m not calm right now.”

“I understand,” Sungwoon says.

“I just got the impression that you wouldn’t have done those things if you didn’t mean them,” Daniel says, “and I feel dumb for expecting something from you when you don’t owe me a thing. Because even if it looks like I’m friends with everyone, I–”

He breaks off in the middle of what he’s saying, biting his lip so hard that Sungwoon’s afraid it’ll bleed, and shakes his head without finishing the thought. “Anyways, thanks for driving me home. I’ll catch you later.” He gets out of the car, backpack slung over one shoulder as he runs up the steps to the building.

He doesn’t look back, not even once, and Sungwoon drives back home, surrounded by silence again.