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Invisible, Unlikely, Impossible

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XVI.

Jealousy is a complex, awful emotion.

It isn’t a small tingle of sadness, a night of crying, a day of acting crazy and punching someone in the face. For Jaemin, jealousy is much more different. It isn’t about realizing he has lost Jeno and that he’s in another person’s arms now. That feeling Jaemin has experienced a dozen of times – a hundred, a thousand – wasn’t jealousy: it was egoism, narcissism, even lack of self-esteem during his teenage years all in the same box.

So it’s ironical that Jaemin, after nineteen years of walking on this earth, has discovered what jealousy is at last. It’s the urge of vomiting when his eyes fall on Jeno across Yukhei’s house, on Jeno’s beautiful smile and the way his eyelashes flutter when he closes his eyes, melting against Yukhei’s mouth. Jaemin feels so, so bad, like the world is spinning too fast and he’s standing still, like he’s about to be launched into space and his organs will shrink because he’s stuck in place.

His ears become numb to the music of the party, and when he swings around for help, he can’t see anything, white spots blurring the whole scenario. But someone holds him, talks to him, and Jaemin manages to breathe again on his own. When the world moves beneath his feet again, this time isn’t a hallucination due to his dizziness: he’s being carried away.

Five minutes later Jaemin finds himself hugging a toilet, waves of nausea shooting through his body and tears streaming down his face, and he thinks oh, this is it, this is jealousy.

Maybe he’s in love Jeno, after all. After nineteen whole years of being his best friend, after rejecting him two years ago because Jaemin was dating a girl, after Jeno disappearing afterwards for weeks, just to come back with an apology on his lips and a bunch of regrets – his big, sad eyes staring at Jaemin as though Jaemin was the only person that mattered to him. Because, like Jeno had told him, their friendship was bigger than anything, bigger than any person that crossed their lives and beds, bigger than themselves.

Jeno was wrong. Jaemin is crying in front of a damn toilet with Mark’s trembling hand on his back because, despite being a psychology major, Mark doesn’t have any idea of how to deal with an anxiety attack. Jeno was fucking wrong. Fuck Jeno.

“How come you can’t actually puke?” Mark mutters in a small voice.

He’s crouching down next to Jaemin, inspecting his face as if watching your friend vomit wasn’t a gross experience. Mark is made of a different material compared to other humans; he’s one of those persons you can only meet once in your life, whose love is endless and selfless. Jaemin could fuck up a million times, and Mark would still extend his hand for him, to pull him up once more.

“I didn’t drink,” Jaemin scoffs, bitter.

It’s normal for Mark to suppose that Jaemin is in this state because of the alcohol, but if Jaemin was drunk he wouldn’t have had an anxiety attack in the middle of a party; he wouldn’t have given any fuck about Jeno kissing other boy until the next morning.

“What?” Mark asks, befuddled. Under different circumstances, Jaemin would have laughed at his confusion, at the way Mark’s hand freezes on his hair. “Then how are you-”

A new wave of nausea invades Jaemin and Mark doesn’t manage to finish his question, leaning over to hold him. Jaemin is aware of why it’s coming back: the mere thought of Jeno provokes this within him. He fears that this will last, because in a few hours he will have to be up and functioning, talking to Jeno again, pretending that nothing happened tonight. It’s unusual for Jaemin not to lean on Jeno when he’s not feeling well, but in these past few months he has gotten the gist of it; and it’s destroying him.

When the nauseas come to a halt for the fifth time since Jaemin has knelt down, Jaemin whines, tired, and says, “Remember when I said that Jeno was like a brother to me?”

The ironical part of the situation is that they had that conversation two days ago. Two days ago. Jaemin was so sure of himself then, because he had affirmed it so many times since they started college that he had lost count. It was an automatic reflex when people asked about Jeno and him: no, we’re not dating. We’re friends. Jaemin wonders if hearing that had ever hurt Jeno. Of course it must have had. Jaemin should wonder how many times instead.

“Yeah,” Mark answers, expectant, almost afraid.

Jaemin rests his head on the toilet, not caring about how awful that is, and displays a cynical smile for his friend. “It was bullshit.”

The confession takes time to settle with Mark. Mark is smarter than he lets on, but Jaemin has lied to him so many times that he must have started to think that Jaemin was saying the truth: that he didn’t have any feelins for Jeno. His sensibility didn’t allow Mark to believe every one of Jaemin’s words, and despite how much Jaemin insisted, Mark won’t hold it against him. However, Jaemin hates that when Mark comprehends his words, pity is the unique emotion that his eyes transmit. He’s gullible and sensitive, and his empathy drives him to figure out what Jaemin has felt all this time, why he’s hugging the toilet as if it was his life saver.

“Shit. I’m sorry,” Mark mumbles. His finger threads through Jaemin’s hair, and even if Mark intends to calm him down, that tears a sob out of him. A little bit of sincere affection is what breaks Jaemin in two. “Jaemin-”

Deep inside, Jaemin knows the advice Mark will give him. Perhaps not now, while he’s having a breakdown, but tomorrow or the day after tomorrow or next week. The idea of telling Jeno about his feelings horrifies Jaemin, and it’s not a matter of rejection or acceptance, only the mere action of looking into Jeno’s eyes and admitting that he’s in love with him. His brain has prevented him from admitting it to himself for so long that it’s even more difficult to do it to Jeno.

“Don’t tell him, please,” Jaemin begs, voice dissipating into a rumble.

Mark’s hand halts, caught by surprise, bewilderment in his pupils. “I wasn’t going to,” he assures Jaemin. And it isn’t until Mark talks again that Jaemin realizes that his lungs are about to explode, “Breathe, baby. You need it.”

Jaemin does. He needs it.

“Thank you,” Jaemin whispers, drawing an exhausted smile.

Jaemin deserves what he’s suffering. Life didn’t shove his situation down his throat all of a sudden: it was a chain of actions what has brought him here, his stupid denial and his stupid flirting and the fact that he might have kissed Jeno a few too many times.

This is the story of how Jaemin ended up in a bathroom crying on his knees.

 

 

 

 

I.

For some, university means parting ways with their friends. For Jaemin and Jeno, university means arriving at the campus days before the year starts, shoulder to shoulder, together.

Between the two, Jeno is the most scared. Jaemin doesn’t understand why he’s scared. It’s a new environment, they’re leaving home, and Jeno has always been the quiet one – people often mistake it for shyness – but they have each other, so Jaemin is unable to fear anything. Jeno doesn’t tell him with words, but he tugs at his hands and doesn’t let go during the whole trip, and even when Jeno falls asleep in the train, his hand is tight around Jaemin’s.

The woman that informs them about their dorms and gives them the keys sends both of them a skeptical glance as soon as they walk up to the reception, and Jaemin is confused until he remembers that Jeno has entangled their hands once more. Jaemin doesn’t mind being stared at, and while Jeno does, he’s too nervous to remember that they have been holding hands for a while.

Jaemin might not understand why Jeno is so scared, but if he needs to crush Jaemin’s hand to feel better, Jaemin will give him that and much more.

 

 

 

 

II.

They meet their first friend on the second day of college.

There’s a café near the dorms, always buzzing with life and students that come and go high on caffeine. High on other stuff, too, but it’s not the café which provides it. Despite the amount of activity within, Jaemin and Jeno agree that they can find solace there compared to how the dorms work. The year has begun, therefore every senior is constantly hazing on them and they don’t feel that safe in their own dorms.

Jeno has brought A Room of One’s Own with him, since Jaemin doesn’t entertain him the whole time they spend at the café. Jeno learned that the hard way, pouting across the table at Jaemin while he scrolled down his phone and heeded him zero attention.

Today is different, however, because Jaemin’s attention is inevitably drawn by a boy sitting alone behind Jeno. He has a book resting on the table too, a sweetened choice as a drink to accompany, but what piques Jaemin’s interest is that the boy isn’t reading or drinking. He’s playing a curious game, palm facing upwards, a minuscule stream of water that imitates a fountain coming out of his hand. It’s perfect, meticulous, and when the water falls against his skin, it fades away like it never existed.

Jaemin can’t help but smile at him. And as his eyes flicker up to observe the boy’s face, Jaemin discovers that the boy is staring back at him, eyebrows raised.

“You only want to talk to him because he’s pretty,” Jeno interrupts him before Jaemin can recover his reasoning and announce what he’s about to do.

Jeno hasn’t even lifted his stare from the book, but his glasses have slipped down his nose, so it’s evident that he’s not reading anymore. His friend must have checked out the boy when they stepped in, because he hasn’t turned around in any moment. It isn’t strange, for Jeno has an incredible memory and a considerable perception of his surroundings. The way he reads Jaemin’s intentions though is beyond shameful for him.

“You wound me,” Jaemin jokes, placing a hand on his own chest for the dramatics. Then, curious, he bends over the table to whisper, “You think he’s pretty?”

Jeno places his book on the table to frown up at him, annoyed for some reason. “Don’t play with me,” he warns Jaemin, well aware that Jaemin is trying to entangle him into his mess. “I know you as if I had birthed you.”

Intuition tells Jaemin why this bothers Jeno. They’re hanging out together, so it’s not ethical for Jaemin to dump him to hit on the first pretty boy he found at the café. That’s not his plan anyhow, because Jaemin reckons that both of them need to expand their circle and make new friends. They have always had trouble to let other people in, as if their bond could be broken for building more friendships, but they have discussed this a few times in the past. Shaking off those thoughts isn’t as simple as it should be, though. Jaemin doesn’t blame Jeno for it.

“I’ll get his number and be right back,” Jaemin announces, guiltless.

First of all, he has to ignore the way Jeno rolls his eyes at him. But Jeno sinks into his reading session a second later, and that’s how he warns Jaemin that he won’t stop him from taking bad decisions.

Jaemin stands on his feet and approaches the boy, who has made the fountain disappear and has gently crossed his arms over the table, grinning at Jaemin like he’s a kid showing up at his door and asking for sweets. He’s indeed pretty, and that intimidates Jaemin, but he has never been the one to regret his impulsiveness.

A few minutes later and after some sarcastic remarks, Jaemin gathers the courage to ask for his name. The boy is called Renjun.

 

 

 

 

III.

Before Jeno’s confession, when they were fifteen, he gifted Jaemin a witch hat.

Jaemin had laughed at it at first, because it was the exact representation of what others thought they had to wear. It was black with a blue lace as a hatband, the crown pointy and the brim big and soft. But it was beautiful and manually crafted, and Jaemin’s eyes had sparked at the sight of it.

Back then, Jaemin didn’t understand the meaning of it, but throughout the years he has worn it so many times that Jeno claims he should buy him a new one, that it’s not decent to wear such a mistreated hat. It isn’t, but Jaemin can’t throw it away, for that hat carries a realization that changed Jaemin’s life.

When Renjun comes into their life, the hat becomes even more powerful. Back in their town Jaemin and Jeno didn’t know anyone of their own kind, and it’s the first time they have contact with someone like them. Back then, it was Jeno and Jaemin only, with their stupid witch hats and their stupid witch jokes, one on one, only one person to understand them.

The shift is vertiginous: when Jaemin wears the hat to his lectures, people stare at him. And they aren’t simple, curious gazes, not always. It feels out of place, though that’s what Jaemin is, though he can’t change that part of him. That’s why he’s safer with Jeno, why it’s effortless with him. It’s just a hat, but it represents a connection that they will never able to ignore.

 

 

 

 

IV.

Life is full of ironies. And when it comes to Jaemin, the universe works to wonderful extents to remind him that he can’t escape them.

Renjun grows to like Jeno much more than he ever likes Jaemin. They bond over books, fairytales, and in the span of three weeks, their attachment is menacing to Jaemin’s health. Renjun is a journalism student with a penchant for literature, so Jeno adores him, and Jaemin often sulks around them, shoulders hunched and clear disappointment on his face because he doesn’t know anything about The last of Hanako or There a Petal Silently Falls.

It’s a reminder of why friendships are so fragile. Jaemin watches Jeno’s eyes light up when he talks to Renjun, learns that there are people out there much more compatible with Jeno than Jaemin – people that can make him happier, enrich him as a person. Jeno can love boys that aren’t Jaemin, even if that love is platonic, and Jaemin isn’t ready for it.

Jaemin has always been the only one.

Despite the intrusion, Jaemin is unable to dislike Renjun. What encites his frustration is Jeno’s resolution to ignore Jaemin’s shifting emotional moods. During weekends Jaemin and Jeno hang out alone for the most part, though Jaemin skips a few Saturdays to favor plans with his classmates, and even if Jeno doesn’t mention that he disapproves of it, he does. By the third weekend Jaemin skips, an odd tension has built between them, a tension that has to do with more things besides Renjun.

They’re walking through a big park near the campus, a deep silence after Jeno has finished telling Jaemin about his week, and Jaemin pressed his lips as he realizes he hasn’t kept up with the conversation. Jeno’s voice is suffocated into his ears, as though Jaemin has lost the ability to hear, and he can sense how Jeno glances at him, first in concern, later in frustration.

“At least you could pretend you’re interested,” Jeno observes, interlacing his hands over his stomach. It’s a sign of nervousness, which Jaemin hasn’t witnessed in a long time, and he has the need to reach out and take Jeno’s hand in his. But Jeno isn’t receptive. Jaemin isn’t either.

Jaemin lies, “I’m interested.”

A noise of indignation leaves Jeno’s mouth, since both of them are aware that it’s a lie. They don’t lie to each other, it’s a rule, no matter how hard or awful the truth is. Protecting isn’t an excuse.

So Jeno halts altogether, and by the time Jaemin spins around to face him, his hurt gaze has transformed into a glower. The sun falling on his face contrasts with his expression, and even though the light concedes a glint to his hair and eyes, they remain as dark as always.

“You’re an open book,” Jeno points out. He bites down on his lower lip, pensive, and it takes Jaemin a second to understand that he’s measuring his next words. Jeno does talk with a careful, sweeter tone when he says, “Especially when I mention Renjun.”

Jeno would have never missed the signs. But his tone lets Jaemin know that Jeno has misinterpreted them, however, because Jaemin doesn’t have anything against Jeno and Renjun in particular, just Jeno and anyone. Anyone between them. He has a great irrational objection against losing Jeno, and it’s irrational because he’s not losing Jeno: they’re growing together but apart, as it has to be.

“That’s not-”

“I’m just saying.” Jeno presses his lips into a line, darting his gaze away from Jaemin and to the floor. Jaemin doesn’t know what that means. “I would never make a move on a boy you like, Jaemin. So you can stop acting like I killed your whole family for being friends with him.”

It’s a misunderstanding. Jaemin could fix it by explaining that his feelings aren’t directed to Renjun in that sense, but there isn’t a right way, a way at all, to clarify that. Jeno won’t comprehend that Jaemin is feeling jealous without having romantic feelings towards any of them. It doesn’t make sense, does it? Jeno won’t believe him, and if Jaemin attempts to convince him, they might fight over Jaemin’s insincerity.

So Jaemin prepares himself for the disaster this can turn into and mutters, “I’m sorry.”

For some reason, that’s what Jeno wishes to hear, and that involuntary confirmation that he’s after Renjun leaves a bitter taste on Jaemin’s mouth. The confirmation, the fact that Jeno has been anticipating it, and that Jaemin has surrendered so fast. Jaemin hates fitting in the mold Jeno has created for him beforehand, but it’s easier for both of them. It’s safe.

 

 

 

 

V.

“Is Jeno, you know?”

Jaemin looks up from his tablet, confused. Renjun is staring at him with an inquisitive semblance, attention diverted from his books. The way he speaks tells Jaemin that Renjun has been considering shooting that question for a while, but Jaemin was too immersed in his own tasks to notice.

“What do I know?”

Renjun lifts his eyebrows, incredulous at Jaemin's ignorance. “Off limits?”

The answer should be simple, but it isn't. No, Jeno isn't off limits. Jeno isn't his, nor does Renjun have to honor any friendship code not to madden Jaemin. Yet, for some reason, Jaemin is physically incapable of parting his lips and giving Renjun freedom. Permission.

“You like Jeno?” Jaemin asks instead, feeling his mouth dry, his lungs empty of oxygen.

For a second Renjun tilts his head, curiosity sparkling in his eyes. It's the tone Jaemin has used, he's aware, and he reminds himself to control his nerves next time.

But Renjun doesn’t evidence that Jaemin is responding in unusual ways; instead he shrugs. “He’s cute. You can tell, right? That your best friend is very, very cute.”

Jaemin's blood boils. It pulses against his eardrums, deafening.

“No.”

“Liar,” Renjun spits at him. And then, much to Jaemin's horror, he releases a laugh so out of control that it sounds like he's hurting his throat. Maybe it has something to do with the fact that he's trying not to make noise at the library, which he's failing at, but his laugh claws at Jaemin's conscience. “Oh god, you’re such a bad liar. Jeno was right.”

It isn't the first time Renjun toys with him, but it's the first time the target includes Jeno. Picking on others is his favorite pastime, and Jaemin bites the bait once and once again because he's used to boys like Jeno, who would never prank anyone in fear it would hurt their feelings. Renjun doesn't give a fuck about his feelings. And Jaemin has jumped right into his trap.

“What are you laughing at?” Jaemin says through gritted teeth.

“I don't like Jeno, dumbass,” Renjun confesses, a smirk lighting up on his lips. It should be a relief that Renjun isn’t interested in Jeno, but it's impossible for Jaemin to relax under Renjun's mocking scrutiny. “So what’s your story?”

“My story? Our story”

Renjun taps his pen against his notes, and with every touch, the pen liberates yellow sparks, like minuscule fireworks exploding against the paper. “The story of why you aren’t eating each other’s mouths on a daily basis.”

Even if Jaemin's innocence is long gone and forgotten, he never thinks about Jeno so explicitly. Never this way. And Renjun doesn't have any filter, thus worse expressions are yet to come if Jaemin enables him.

That's the reason Jaemin clears his throat to gain time, shifts his eyes to the tablet, and concludes, “Ask him.”

“I did, believe me.”

Jaemin snaps his head up too fast, and the triumph extends all over Renjun's face at his reaction. This little demon has prepared big tricks, but also small tricks like this one to shove Jaemin's truths out of him. If it's about Jeno, Jaemin will roll into the traps without the need to be pushed down.

“You asked him about us?” Jaemin hisses.

The problem is not only that it's none of Renjun's business, but also that Jaemin has made the effort for years of not reminding Jeno that once upon a time Jaemin rejected him. They don’t discuss certain memories because of that, because Jeno wanted to forget – in Jeno’s eyes, it was an act of selfishness, and even if Jaemin doesn’t agree, bringing up the topic hurts Jeno. It’s a mistake he will never wish to recall.

Renjun teases him, “Do you want to know what he answered?”

Jaemin would sell his soul in exchange of hearing at least five seconds of that conversation. All the things Jeno told Renjun, those things that he would never tell Jaemin. Yet it’s a breach of Jeno’s trust: Jaemin isn’t supposed to pry, but to move on. As he takes the decision of keeping his silence, his stomach violently twists at the opportunity he’s losing.

Renjun ignores his mute fear and, with a roll of his eyes, he begins, “Okay, so years ago Jeno asked you out while you were pretending to be straight.”

“I’m bisexual,” Jaemin corrects him.

“Makes sense.” Waving his hand to dismiss his input, Renjun squints at him. “Anyway, you were dating a girl you didn’t like that much, weren’t you?”

Feelings have never been Jaemin’s forte, that’s true, and less when he was a teenager. The difference between admiring someone’s beauty and wanting to introduce them to his parents was thin, very thin. Up to this day, Jaemin doesn’t know what love is yet, so he doesn’t have any way to measure it.

Yet it’s undeniable that his feelings weren’t that intense back then, so he mutters, “How do you know that?”

“Because you were fifteen, and you are you, and you hit on me just because you thought I was easy on the eyes,” Renjun explains. Jaemin has warned him a few times not to mention the incident again, but boys like Renjun love bathing in his own ego, and Jaemin bets that twenty years from now on, he will still be hearing about the day he flirted with Renjun. “Guys like you don’t date seriously in high school.”

Jaemin is impressed. “Fine. What else?”

“So Jeno asked you out,” Renjun continues, smug. “You were scared and had the perfect excuse not to take the risk, and now you’re condemned to be only friends forever.”

Even though Renjun is right in most of his suppositions, Jaemin doesn’t appreciate his tone. For others, it’s nearly impossible to understand why Jaemin would prefer staying friends rather than spoiling a friendship over feelings, or why Jaemin only applies this rule to Jeno.

“Friendship is important,” Jaemin recites. Out of the blue, a tension that wasn’t there before is installed in his back, and he sounds robotic even to himself. “Romance and sex are overrated.”

Renjun stares at him in horror. “Did you just say that?”

“Shut up.”

That plea is overheard, because Renjun has already clamped his hand over his mouth, drowning his laughter. “Holy shit, you sound so sad,” he moans, like not mocking Jaemin out loud is hurting his soul. And then, in a bad imitation of Jaemin’s voice, he mimics him, “Friendship is important. I kind of want to marry Jeno, though. But relationships are overrated.”

Jaemin chokes on air, and Renjun gazes at him like he’s forbidding Jaemin to contradict him. Like he knows every one of his little secrets. And Jaemin would have the decency to blush, but before he can dip further into his embarrassment, they are interrupted by a boy slamming his hands on their table.

Jaemin startles, a soft, embarrassing scream leaving his throat. He doesn’t know the boy at all, and judging Renjun’s matching shock, he doesn’t either. Yet the boy glares at them without an ounce of shame, hovering over the table like he’s disposed to punch both of them if they dare to say a word.

Jaemin checks their surroundings to see if anyone else can see him or this is a product of his imagination. Taking into account how there’s another guy one table away from them, sinking in his seat and covering his face in frustration, the furious, rude boy is real. Jaemin can relate to that frustration, because sometimes he can’t convince Renjun to behave politely either. But Renjun and he are the ones in danger now.

“Excuse me,” the boy grunts. His eyes travel from Jaemin to Renjun; he has nice, warm eyes, but they’re in flames. Jaemin didn’t notice him until he walked up to them, but his voice denotes that he has been holding this back for a while. “This is a library, not a romance advice booth.”

An immediate apology blooms in Jaemin’s mouth, but Renjun’s scoff interrupts him before he can talk. Inclining out of his chair to examine the boy in full length, Renjun scans the boy from head to toe.

Then, his sentence is, “That’s a pity, because I’m sure you could use some.”

Spiraling into panic, Jaemin makes a whining noise. Renjun doesn’t understand that he can’t insult strangers when they call him out for skipping rules, and he has been lucky so far, but luck isn’t endless. Today is the end of if, for the boy’s incredulity fuels his rage, and Jaemin is scared enough to back away in case he decides to put up a fight.

“What the fuck?” he spits, voice rising. Jaemin admires his self-control, because anyone else would be screaming at Renjun by now. “Who do you think you are?”

Renjun is about to answer with his real name, Jaemin feels it. So Jaemin hurries up to lie, “He’s joking. For real. He has a weird sense of humor.”

The boy doesn’t buy it. In fact, he doesn’t even glance at Jaemin, because all his attention is placed on Renjun, on his very purposeful smirk, very entertained with the situation.

“I’m going to get you two kicked out,” the boy announces, and for the first time, there’s something akin to happiness in his face.

When he walks away, Jaemin makes contact with the other guy, who automatically gestures them to escape. It’d be pretty comical if it wasn’t because that’s his friend, and if a friend tells them to run away from someone he knows well, it means they have to fear for their lives. Besides, Jaemin needs the library and can’t afford a ban.

“We’re taking the emergency exit,” he orders Renjun, who is still observing how the threatening boy heads toward the reception. Jaemin has to reach over the table and punch him in the arm to get his attention, and then emphasizes, “Fast.”

All in all, Jaemin still has to drag Renjun out while he laughs, because for him running through the library must be the most hilarious activity ever.

 

 

 

 

VI.

Jeno stops accompanying them to their library meetings.

At first, Jaemin believes his excuses. It’s an advantage for Jaemin, anyhow, because he doesn’t have to stand witnessing Renjun and Jeno whispering to each other, snuggling and sharing interesting passages of their books with each other. Jaemin finds difficult for the three of them to be together, so it’s a relief when Jeno claims that he studies better on his own.

But then Jaemin understands why Jeno is doing this: he is trying not to meddle between Renjun and him.

Those stares that Jaemin shoots at them are easy to misinterpret, in particular when Jeno is certain that Jaemin likes Renjun. Jeno has erased himself from the equation so that Renjun and Jaemin can have their library dates, alone, and neither Renjun nor Jaemin have been smart enough to realize.

The day realization hits Jaemin, however, he sits in the library with his stare lost among the shelves, reevaluating his whole life, feeling like the most insensitive, dumbest person in the world. Jeno would do anything to make him happy, but Jaemin isn’t as unselfish as his friend. In fact, Jaemin would hate to think that it’s not because Jeno cares about him and his happiness, but because Jeno’s feelings have evaporated forever.

Meanwhile, every day Renjun sits closer and closer to the boy that threatened them. Jaemin assumes that it’s an attempt to irk him, but by the second week, Renjun can’t look into his eyes anymore. When the boy lifts his head to glare at them, Renjun hides behind his notes, and no matter how many times Jaemin tells him that it’s gross that he’s developing a crush on the boy, Renjun insists in studying in that zone of the library. In all honesty, Jaemin deems suspicious that the other pair keeps choosing the same seats every week, but he wouldn’t incite Renjun’s hopes even if he was paid to do such.

And to aggravate the situation, one night in which they’re having dinner at a cheap restaurant around the corner, Renjun decides it’s a good idea to mention the boy in front of Jeno. It marvels Jaemin how many things Renjun has to say about him considering that he doesn’t know him, but he learns that a whipped Renjun can talk for hours about someone’s eyelashes.

Jeno’s confusion grows by the moment, his fork resting over the bowl, as though he can’t eat and understand Renjun at the same time. In an attempt to avoid the questioning glances Jeno is throwing at him, Jaemin slumps further in his seat, looking at his soup like he hasn’t fed himself in days.

His plan is ruined by Renjun, who isn’t satisfied with the lack of enthusiasm from his audience and pokes him until Jaemin gazes up at them.

“He’s cute, isn’t he?” Renjun asks, hopeful.

“You insinuated that he was ugly in his face,” Jaemin reminds him. Jeno’s eyes narrow at him, and he ignores that uncomfortable feeling creeping on his back to be able to finish, “Pretty sure he hates your guts.”

Renjun utters a chain of protests after that, but they fall into deaf ears, since Jaemin couldn’t care less. His apathy might be registered as pain, because Jeno struggles to change the topic, and what was confusion before becomes concern, pity, and sadness. And Jaemin feels like a criminal for worrying Jeno. For not talking with him about everything, like they would have done a couple of years ago to clear up any misunderstanding. Jaemin doesn’t remember when he turned into this coward version of himself.

For once, Jaemin is relieved when the night falls and he returns to his dorm. Even if Renjun’s passion is contagious, Jaemin can’t soak in it while Jeno tries to drift the conversation; by the time Jaemin tucks himself into bed, he feels as exhausted as he had run a marathon.

He doesn’t have the chance to relax, however, because there’s a knock on the door and the first thing Jaemin’s brain supposes is that a senior has come to torture him. It’s past two in the morning, and even though most pranks got old a month ago, from time to time someone decides that Jaemin has to comply with his duties as a freshman: that’s it, suffering. Jaemin approaches the door without making any noise, determined to pretend that he isn’t at the dorm, but then he recognizes Jeno’s voice calling his name in a whisper.

The halls are dangerous, so Jaemin opens the door and hauls Jeno inside without any tact. Jeno gasps at the strength of the pull, for he doesn’t have any time to comprehend that Jaemin has heard him, and looks terribly surprised when he realizes he’s inside Jaemin’s bedroom.

Jaemin is sure that Jeno doesn’t have any right to feel surprised. He’s the weird one for paying a visit at this time of the night, especially when they have parted ways minutes ago.

“What are you doing here?”

Instead of answering him, Jeno observes the dorm, his big eyes analyzing every corner like he’s about to discover a crime scene. “Is your roommate here?” he asks in a small voice, glancing at the bathroom with clear wariness.

That’s not the question he intends to ask, Jaemin knows. Jeno is making sure they are alone. He used to do this when they were kids too, when he scrambled towards Jaemin and tiptoed to whisper a secret into his ear – that he had stolen sweets from his sister for both of them, for example, or that they should plot to have a sleepover together before their parents could reject the idea – and always, always, he observed their surroundings first.

“No, he’s-”

Jeno interrupts him with a quick, “Can I sleep with you?”

Speechless, Jaemin notices that Jeno has his pajamas folded and pressed against his own abdomen. Though Jeno’s semblance doesn’t display his nervousness, the way he’s clenching the pajamas, knuckles white, does.

In a daze, Jaemin nods, not understanding what’s happening. Jeno disappears into the bathroom to change clothes, and Jaemin stays stills for a whole minute until he snaps back to reality.

They have slept together a hundred times throughout the years, and Jaemin isn’t exaggerating. Their mothers are close friends, so sometimes they would just fall asleep in each other’s bed and their mothers would deem waking them up a hassle. As they grew up, the atmosphere was different. Jeno’s touches were more careful, at least until the tiredness took over the best of them, and often they looked at each other for longer, for so long that they had to pretend that it wasn’t happening. Jaemin can recall every single time that he opened his eyes in the morning and Jeno was in his arms, looking so peaceful and innocent that Jaemin doubts he will ever witness it again.

They stopped sharing beds a year before college. Jaemin never asked why, because there were questions which answers were too delicate.

Jaemin is trembling when he slips into bed, but pressing his legs again the mattress helps him to conceal it. The sheets are cold, but Jaemin’s body is invaded by heat, by tension, yet his last concern is spending a cold night. He knows that’s impossible with Jeno by his side.

As Jeno steps back into the main room, Jaemin lies down and busies himself with his phone. Jeno has never liked the nights Jaemin ignored him in favor of his phone, so Jaemin isn’t caught off guard when Jeno snatches his phone away, a small frown between his eyebrows.

“Unchanging you,” Jeno says, placing Jaemin’s phone on the bedside table.

Then he climbs onto the bed with Jaemin.

They fit so naturally that Jaemin feels amazed for a second. Jeno sighs, his chest inflating and caressing Jaemin’s side. Jaemin sweeps his arm around Jeno’s waist and pulls him closer, and he can hear how Jeno stops breathing when his leg irremediably clasps over Jaemin’s hips. Every inch of Jeno’s body is against Jaemin, and for the first time in a long time, Jaemin feels complete. When he dares to glance at Jeno, he discovers that Jeno has closed his eyes, his head resting on Jaemin’s chest and his hair tickling the crook of his neck. Jaemin reaches out and caresses Jeno’s thigh over his pajama pants, securing the grasp of Jeno’s leg around himself. Jeno shuffles with him, adjusting, the warmth of his cheek on Jaemin’s collarbones.

“I shouldn’t have left you alone,” Jeno murmurs, an afterthought. “I’m sorry.”

His apology is the last piece of information Jaemin needs to comprehend his actions. Jeno might have set the rule of not sleeping with Jaemin ever again, but he would break any rule to comfort Jaemin – a heartbroken Jaemin, a Jaemin that is dealing with Renjun crushing on another guy, is the perfect excuse for Jeno to console him.

Jaemin is tempted to shut up and cuddle Jeno all night, but he sounds so regretful that Jaemin would feel like a monster if he let this pass.

“Jeno,” he begins, curling a hand around Jeno’s cheek to make him look up. Jeno does, eyes wide at the gesture, and all of a sudden Jaemin is aware of how easy it would be if he decided to move forward and leave a kiss on his lips. “I don’t give a fuck about Renjun. I mean, as a friend, yeah? Wait, that’s not a question. I definitely give some fucks about him as a friend. But that’s all.”

Jeno blinks at him rapidly, as though he’s trying to wake up from a dream. His heart pounds so fast, so hard that Jaemin senses it under his clothes, against his ribcage. Jeno’s heart is beating for him.

“How did that happen?” Jeno questions him at last. “Did you two… already try?”

Not even in a thousand lives Jaemin would have imagined that Jeno would ask something like this. A positive reply would destroy him. Jaemin could have made a bunch of mistakes with Renjun and it wouldn’t be anything new for Jaemin; Jeno is aware of that. Yet he’s still asking.

“No.” Jaemin has to repress the urge of laughing, because Jeno is serious. The idea of having something more than a simple friendship with Renjun is hilarious to Jaemin, but it’s different for Jeno. “I liked him for three days. When pretty boys open their mouth, my crushes are often short-lived.”

Jeno sinks his face in Jaemin’s pajamas, and it takes Jaemin a while to realize that he’s hiding his laughter. It’s hard to do so, however, because Jaemin can sense how Jeno’s mouth stretches, can spot the swelling of his cheeks as his face twists into a smile.

Befuddled, Jaemin demands, “Why are you smiling?”

“I’m not smiling,” Jeno mumbles, but his smile stretches wider against Jaemin’s chest.

“Lee Jeno, you are smiling.” Jaemin can’t help but laugh, his fingers threading through Jeno’s hair to push his bangs away and confirm that, in fact, Jeno’s eyes are scrunched up in happiness too. “Let me see you.”

The words slip out of Jaemin’s mouth, and they hold more power and meaning than he ever intended. Jeno is just as affected as him, because when Jaemin taps his chin up and Jeno reveals his face again, his smile has melted away.

After two years, Jaemin looks at Jeno, really looks at him. Jeno doesn’t have his childish features anymore, but hard edges and angles and air of masculinity that Jaemin envies from the bottom of his heart. He remains beautiful in Jaemin’s eyes, intimidating in a wonderful way when he doesn’t smile, and pretty when he does.

“You’re my whole life, do you know that?” Jaemin murmurs, and despite how weak his voice surges, he pronounces every word with care, with affection. It’s a thought that wasn’t supposed to be verbalized. Jaemin didn’t want to tell Jeno. A friend can’t be his whole life, but he is, and that’s so scary for both of them that it reflects on Jeno’s expression too. Jaemin breathes out, hoarse, “Should I shut up?”

“Please,” Jeno begs.

And all of a sudden, Jaemin is hit by a wave of things to say. Things which, biting his tongue and throwing his head back on the pillow, he keeps to himself anyhow.

Jeno slings an arm around him, because he’s oblivious to how dangerous is to trust Jaemin, and Jaemin has a fleeting thought about holding his jaw and kissing him. He wonders if Jeno would kiss him back, if he would moan when Jaemin bit him, and how far Jeno would let him go while knowing that Jaemin could never reciprocate his feelings.

But that’s crazy, isn’t it? Jeno still loves him. Jaemin would never break his heart.

 

 

 

 

VIII.

Permission provided, Jaemin decides to join Jeno in his study sessions. After all, Renjun has reached a point in which he frequents the library for hormones related reasons rather than education reasons, and Jaemin has a limit to how many days he can waste just so that Renjun flirts with someone else.

The only disadvantage is that Jeno’s roommate, Jisung, doesn’t hide his dislike towards Jaemin, and sometimes Jaemin isn’t in the mood to put up with Jisung’s antics. He figures out that Jeno must have vented to him about Jaemin a couple of times, which is strange if he ponders over it: once upon a time, Jeno would only complain to Jaemin. And not about Jaemin. But people grow up and become assholes and make mistakes, and Jaemin prefers Jeno to badmouth him behind his back rather than punching him in the face.

Though a punch, from time to time, would do him good.

Jeno insists that Jisung doesn’t hate him, but one night Jaemin falls asleep in Jeno’s bed, curled up against him, his shoes mysteriously disappear during the night. In the morning, Jisung’s smile is too bright, and guys like Jisung only smile when they have made a man suffer.

That’s the reason that night Jaemin convinces Jeno to have dinner outside, claims that Renjun will arrive later – it’s a lie, but Jaemin texts him the location and threatens him to turn up, otherwise Jeno will know he has lied once again – and manages to escape Jisung’s glower from inside the dorm. Yule is around the corner, so Jaemin convinces Jeno that it’s their Yule dinner before Renjun goes back home for the holidays. Unlike him, Jaemin and Jeno will spend the holidays at the campus instead of with their families, but they have each other.

Jeno is physically and emotionally unable to refuse such an important event, not because he’d feel guilty, but because he loves cheesy occasions.

In a life that they have spent together, there are rarely any first times left for them, but tonight Jaemin discovers one of them. It’s a point of no return to walk arm in arm with Jeno, to look at him while they stroll through the crowd and the cold, and realize that they’re not two kids anymore. And thus as Jeno snuggles closer, unaware of the way Jaemin is staring at him, Jaemin is sure that they look like a couple. When they were kids, they had many excuses to justify their touches, yet all those excuses are meaningless and insufficient now.

It becomes obvious in small details, like the waitress’ confusion when Jaemin asks for a table for three, not for two, or like the continuous feeling of being watched by curious eyes. As they sit down and Jeno gets rid of his coat, Jaemin regrets inviting Renjun. It could have been Jeno and him alone, like it has always been.

But it isn’t. Renjun arrives twenty minutes later, almost runs to and into their table, panting, and announces, “Donghyuck.”

“What?” Jeno says, grabbing Renjun’s arm so that he doesn’t fall flat face onto the table.

Considering that he has forgotten to bring his coat, Renjun must be out of his mind. It seems to be plausible because without any explanation, he glances at Jeno and adds, “I have a date with Donghyuck.”

That doesn’t clarify anything. As opposed to what it should be, it’s Renjun who treats them like they’re crazy when he’s the one acting like he sniffled something white on his way here.

“You have a date with-?” Jaemin starts. “Who the fuck is Donghyuck?”

With a disgusted gesture of his lips, Renjun glowers at Jaemin. “My boy? Library boy. Please, Jaemin, wake up, I don’t have any more boys.”

Anyone could vouch to that, since Renjun hasn’t left the library in the last two months. It would be a miracle if Renjun had managed to flirt with another boy during that time.

Jaemin opens and closes his mouth several times, not knowing how to process this information. “How did you score a date with him when he hates you?”

“I went to him, said he was cute, asked him on a date,” Renjun explains, like it was the easiest thing in the world. Like it’s obvious. Yet he wasted two months by acting like a teenager that had never kissed a boy before.

But the puzzle isn’t complete. Jaemin is aware of how Renjun has been interested in Donghyuck for a while, but the other boy has never shown anything except disdain towards him. In fact, Jaemin suspects he was the one taking chairs away from their usual table so that Renjun and Jaemin couldn’t sit near him and his friend.

“He said yes?” Jaemin asks, unsure.

“His friend did.” Judging how Renjun’s lips stretch into the most prideful smile possible, Renjun doesn’t doubt that it’s still a positive answer though not a direct one. Jaemin has his own doubts. “Donghyuck looked like he was dying inside.”

Jeno has to cover his mouth not to laugh, and Jaemin knows exactly why. Renjun is so enthusiastic about it, but the other boy has likely been tied into this mess thanks to his friend. Although both of them trust Renjun’s antics to change the boy’s opinion on him, it’s still funny that Renjun assumes that he has Donghyuck on the palm of his hand.

Jaemin doesn’t lower his guard, however, because by the time Renjun sits with them, he’s flashing an enchanting smile at Jaemin that is nothing but suspicious. It’s not a consequence of his happiness. Jaemin has the bad hunch that Renjun is about to ask something from him.

“Why do I feel like there’s a catch?” he mutters, careful.

Jeno stares between them, interested, but he flatly ignores Jaemin’s foot under the table. Jaemin can’t count on him to rescue him from whatever idea Renjun has come up with, perhaps because Jeno doesn’t deem Renjun dangerous, or because he wants to see Jaemin burn.

“You’re coming with me,” Renjun announces without an ounce of shame. “It’s a double date.”

Jaemin freezes, his heart plummeting. Out of instinct, he glances at Jeno first, but his friend has moved his eyes away from them, all of a sudden very interested in the sleeves of his jumper.

Renjun shifts on his seat, frowning. “Don’t make that face, you saw the other guy. He’s damn handsome.”

It’s not hard to sense Jaemin’s intent of rejecting the idea, and that’s why Renjun intercepts him before Jaemin can contradict him. Renjun didn’t even consult him before accepting, which is beyond rude, but that’s not the problem for Jaemin. He’s not against going on dates with strangers; in fact, a part of him is sure that he needs a bit of affection and he needs it fast, but Renjun is a fool for mentioning it in front of Jeno. Jaemin doesn’t want him to know.

Renjun grumbles at his silence, “It won’t hurt you to try.”

And Jaemin retorts, “Why doesn’t Jeno go instead?”

The idea startles Jeno, who looks up at Jaemin with frightened eyes. Jaemin feels like a fool for trying to pass this onto him, because Jeno has never gone on a date. Jeno knows that Jaemin knows, and that explains why the betrayal invades Jeno’s expression when he catches on what Jaemin is attempting. Jaemin supposes that it must hurt, to be shoved by his own crush into another boy’s arms as though Jeno’s feelings for him are a nuisance that Jaemin needs to get rid of.

“He doesn’t even know Jeno,” Renjun says like it’s obvious. Jaemin raises his eyebrows, skeptical, reminding Renjun that the guy doesn’t know Jaemin either. “I mean, his face. And Jeno is out of his league, to be honest.”

“And I’m not?”

“You’re not,” Renjun confirms, unabashed despite Jaemin’s offended semblance.

Jeno hasn’t outright denied that he’d be disposed to take the offer, however, but when Renjun and Jaemin decide to get involved into a glaring contest – Renjun because he’s going to kill Jaemin if he doesn’t accompany him, and Jaemin because he thinks he’s on anyone’s level – Jeno meddles.

“Just go,” he says, leaning back on his seat. His chest rises, but he holds back the sigh in time; Jaemin has known him for too many years though, and he can sense his resignation and reticence. “You can’t let Renjun meet a guy that wanted to have him kicked out of the library, all alone.”

In a fit of selfishness, Jaemin has to bite his own lips not to snap at Jeno. He doesn’t understand why Jeno is being so weak, why he gives up on Jaemin like it’s useless to fight for him. Jaemin hates that Jeno is so keen on pretending his feelings don’t exist. They need to talk about it, but Jeno will look at him and deny everything this time, hoping to avoid the same situation they lived years ago.

Forgetting that they’re not alone, that Jeno’s feelings are supposed to be a secret, Jaemin reproaches him, “You don’t mind?”

If Jeno had shown the slightest fear before, that disappears to give space to coldness. “Why should I mind, Jaemin?” he defies Jaemin, chin up.

Because you smiled when I said I wasn’t interested in Renjun, Jaemin should answer. Because you love me, no matter how many times I break your heart. But Jeno wants to play the pretending game. That game in which he pretends he doesn’t hurt if Jaemin moves on, in which he tells himself he can get over Jaemin until his wish becomes reality. Jaemin is determined to play it with him. That’s the fastest way to dispel the intrusive thoughts about wanting to kiss Jeno, to give themselves a chance, and Jaemin is an expert at it.

 

 

 

 

IX.

That year, Yule happens to be the loneliest holidays in Jaemin’s life.

Jeno is by his side, but he’s more silent than ever. When Jeno needs company, he invites Jaemin over, but they sleep in different beds – Jeno on Jisung’s bed, since his roommate has left for home as well, and Jaemin on Jeno’s bed. Yule is cold, long and empty. Jaemin misses being a kid that could fix anything by just apologizing to Jeno. They’re growing up and words aren’t enough anymore. They’re growing up, so their tolerance is decreasing, and Jaemin feels the pressure of having to mature if he doesn’t want to disappoint his loved ones.

When Renjun comes back, Jaemin feels relieved, and then the relief brings an unpleasant feeling to his mouth. If Jeno is anticipating Renjun’s return as much as Jaemin does, he doesn’t show it, and after giving Renjun a proper welcoming, he erases himself from the map.

Jaemin realizes that Jeno was with him so that Jaemin wasn’t alone, not because he wanted to. It angers Jaemin that Jeno has so much compassion, that he keeps putting Jaemin first and putting himself last, always last – Jaemin doesn’t understand what Jeno is asking from him, even though he wants to give it to him.

Renjun’s return means that Jaemin has to buckle up for their date, however, and that humors him long enough not to ponder over Jeno. With his flirting skills gone rusty, Jaemin’s only trick is to look handsome, so that’s what he focuses his efforts on.

When they sit inside Renjun’s car and Renjun turns to fix Jaemin’s hair for the last time before parting, he reveals, “We have been talking during the holidays.”

Jaemin isn’t all that surprised. The radio silence from Renjun hinted that he either was too busy to pay attention to Jaemin, or that he was ignoring him on purpose. Jaemin is glad that it was the first option.

“You didn’t even answer my texts, dude,” Jaemin complains.

“It’s not personal, I just don’t want to kiss you, you know?” Renjun grabs the wheel, smiling, and when Jaemin is about to respond with a similar smile, Renjun attacks him, “What did you do to make Jeno angry?”

For all he knows, Jeno and Renjun didn’t have time to be together, less to discuss the  hellish Yule Jaemin and Jeno have gone through. Jaemin’s messages did insinuate that they weren’t having much fun, but assuming that Jeno is mad is a stretch – though lately Renjun seems to read Jeno better than Jaemin does, and that’s scary. It feels like Jaemin is losing Jeno bit by bit, because Jeno is changing and Jaemin has lost the ability to comprehend him, to keep up. He’s stuck.

“He’s not angry.”

“Sure he is.” Renjun doesn’t give him the chance to explain himself. “You must have done something. Maybe not during the holidays, but before that? When I left he was already acting odd.”

And then, like an epiphany, Jaemin realizes what he has done.

 

 

 

 

X.

This isn’t a double date.

Jaemin is pretty sure that Mark, Donghyuck’s friend, is straight, because no one would dare to eat a hamburger like that in front of his date. At least, no one that cares about the impression they will leave on their partner. Mark is either straight or uninterested in Jaemin, and for the sake of his self-esteem, Jaemin hopes that it’s the first.

Unlike Jaemin expected, there isn’t any sort of tension among them. Renjun and Donghyuck must have been talking a lot, indeed, because their conversation flows without trouble. Donghyuck is a boy that laughs easily, that likes Renjun’s mean jokes and that enables Renjun in dangerous ways. Mark laughs along every time, even at remarks that are far from being funny, to the point that Jaemin thinks he’s surrounded by three crazy guys with an uncanny sense of humor.

When Renjun and Donghyuck leave the table to order more drinks, Jaemin follows them with his eyes. Renjun is shameless, passing an arm around Donghyuck’s waist when they’re in line; with his other hand, he summons a bunch of tiny fireworks, showing off to Donghyuck. Donghyuck stares at the fireworks at first, laughing, but the next thirty seconds his eyes are on an unsuspecting Renjun, who is frowning up at his own hand in concentration.

Mark, who is observing the pair as well, asks Jaemin, “Are you like Renjun?” Jaemin nods. “I thought so.”

“Why?”

Mark shrugs, “The air around you. Donghyuck was kind of scared of Renjun when he discovered what he could do. But to be fair, he has some cool tricks. The fountain one? Donghyuck loves it.”

Jeno loves that one too, but Jaemin suspects it’s because it was the trick that brought Jaemin to notice Renjun. The trick that in the end united the three of them.

“Still, he wanted me to come in case Renjun was weird,” Mark finishes, biting down on the last piece of his hamburger.

Mark might not be his type, but Jaemin can tell from miles away that he’s a trustable person. He displays a raw honesty that instead of coming off as rude, it comes off as innocent, like a child that runs his mouth without remembering that he’s not supposed to reveal what his parents said in the intimacy of their house.

“Well, he is weird,” Jaemin agrees with slight amusement.

Mark tilts his head, stealing a glance from Renjun before redirecting his words back to Jaemin. “He’s cute and impolite and Donghyuck likes that. Plus he needs to get off me for a while and Renjun is helping him to do that.”

Jaemin laughs again. “Why do you sound like you hate Donghyuck?”

Not bothering to deny that he would never hate Donghyuck, Mark sends him a significant gaze and clarifies, “Listen, he’s like five. He sucks more of my time than anything else in my life.”

Truth to be told, Jaemin has never seen Donghyuck at the library without Mark in tow. They’re always together. It reminds him of Jeno and him, except that unlike Mark, he’s not letting Jeno go so unselfishly.

“I’m guessing both of us were dragged into this, huh?” Jaemin comments, voice extinguishing as he remembers that he did prepare for this date, but Mark stuck to the original idea: giving his friend some company in case Jaemin and Renjun turned out to be murderers.

“Please, I would third wheel a thousand times if that’s what Donghyuck needs of me,” Mark assures him with a shrug. It takes him a few seconds to understand the full meaning of Jaemin’s words, but when he does, he inspects Jaemin’s expression with interest. “Not interested in boys?”

Jaemin shakes his head. “I am.”

“Oh, so someone in particular?” Mark is more interested now, especially as instead of answering, Jaemin gulps down the words fighting to surge from his mouth. There’s always a name that fills his head when that sort of question is brought up, but Jaemin can’t tell if it’s out of habit or it holds some significance. “Complicated, I’m sensing. That boy that used to be with you two in the library?”

It’s an understatement to say that Jaemin is shocked. Throughout the years, he has been asked multiple times if Jeno is his boyfriend, but no one has ever spotted Jeno a couple of times and then asked Jaemin if they were together. Mark shouldn’t even remember that Jeno exists, should he? And yet there he is, watching Jaemin’s reaction in deep curiosity, like he’s a mystery to decipher.

“He’s like a brother to me,” Jaemin says, but the knot in his throat doesn’t allow him to explain the whole story. That they’re childhood friends, and that’s why they look so close to each other, that it’s not because they’re in love with each other. “Why would you suppose that?”

It must be evident to Mark, since he observes Jaemin like pondering if he’s really asking that. “It’s in the eyes,” he concludes in the end, tapping his own temple. “It’s so easy to tell who is falling in love, who is already in love, who is dating out of loneliness.”

Jaemin has the urge to look away from Mark. He’s not telling Jaemin with explicit words, but he’s insinuating that he can read Jaemin’s eyes as well, that Jaemin might lie all he wishes and Mark will still know the truth.

Mark pats down on Jaemin’s hand, which has become a fist over the table, and points with his head at their friends. “Look at them.”

Jaemin looks at them. Donghyuck is still laughing, eyes sparkling as he listens to Renjun’s rambling; Renjun has the same glint in his eyes, and Jaemin has never seen him talk so fast, with so much excitement, like he wants to tell Donghyuck a million things and wants to make him laugh a million times.

Jaemin wonders if he has convinced himself of his own nonexistent feelings. If he has replied that no, he’s not in love with Jeno, so many times, that his mind has erased the possibility of considering it. It’s natural, automatic, like breathing or opening his eyes in the morning. No, I’m not in love with Jeno. But some days Jaemin can’t open his eyes because he’s too tired, and sometimes he holds his breath in because he’s too nervous, until he realizes that he’s choking.

 

 

 

 

XI.

They abandon Renjun and Donghyuck in the middle of the dinner, though rather than abandoning them, they’re doing them a favor. Both of them say their goodbyes with slight surprise, as though they have forgotten that they weren’t alone during the last two hours.

Mark walks Jaemin home and they exchange numbers even if they’re certain they’re going to meet up again – with Renjun and Donghyuck all over each other, it would be impossible not to. In Mark’s absence and as soon as Jaemin returns to his dorm, he feels an uncomfortable weight on his shoulders. He still tells himself that it’s because he’s tired, but deep inside he’s conscious that his sixth sense is alerting him of something.

It’s not the first time he has experienced this, yet it’s a rare occurrence. Barely anyone manages to have premonitions on real time, and when they do, it’s like in Jaemin’s case: every two or three years, sometimes a decade. It’s not about their own skills, but a whole set of circumstances plus their mind state that gives way for a premonition.

Jaemin doesn’t even bother to dress with street clothes again; he grabs his keys, leaves the dorm in silence not to wake up his roommate, and strides into the hallway in his pajamas and his dog shaped slippers. Every step he takes towards Jeno’s room is a nightmare itself; his feet are leading him, so it’s not a mistake, but he hopes to change the direction at the very last moment. He doesn’t want the premonition to be about Jeno.

But it is.

He takes a deep breath that doesn’t confer him the braveness he needs, and then knocks on the door. There isn’t any response. There are subtle noises coming from inside, however, and although Jaemin might be mistaking them for an adjacent room, his heart tells him that he’s not wrong. He clutches the spare key that Jeno gave him months ago – he’s not granted permission to use it if Jeno or Jisung are inside, but Jaemin doesn’t care about that right now. There were never boundaries between them, and Jaemin hates them from the bottom of his heart.

Jisung’s indignation is terrifying when Jaemin steps into the room. The boy is kneeling in front of Jeno, who is sitting on his bed, face sunk on his hands. There are tissues everywhere, delicate sobs escaping Jeno’s mouth and tears in Jisung’s eyes as well, and Jaemin becomes petrified at the sight.

This is a moment that doesn’t belong to Jaemin. He shouldn’t have seen this, but it’s too late. Jisung’s raged eyes, full of fire, are on him, and Jeno is wiping away his tears in embarrassment. A stuttering apology escapes Jaemin’s lips, but it gets drowned as Jisung stands up and strides towards him without a single trace of fear.

“What the fuck,” Jisung sputters at him, incredulous. If it depended on Jisung, Jaemin would be involved into a fight in the next four seconds, enough time for Jisung to push him against the door and throw a good punch. “You fucking asshole.”

It’s Jeno’s voice what prevents Jisung from taking the last step, a soft, “Jisung, don’t.”

Jaemin wouldn’t give any fuck about fighting him. His priorities lie on Jeno right now, on approaching him and hugging him and asking why he’s crying. On asking what he can do to make him feel better. On apologizing because deep within, Jaemin knows it’s his fault, even though he can’t tell what happened this time.

“We didn’t open for a reason. Give me the key,” Jisung orders between gritted teeth, extending his palm upwards. Aware that he crossed a limit by entering their room, Jaemin hands the key over without any complaints. Jisung shakes his head, a glare perduring. “You have issues.”

It’s not about the invasion of privacy, because when Jaemin moves aside to look at Jeno, Jisung doesn’t hesitate to grasp the collar of his t-shirt and keep him in place. Jaemin gathers all the patience in the universe not to bat Jisung’s hand away, because though here’s no way Jisung is stronger than him, he would upset Jeno further.

“Jeno?” Jaemin calls him, pleading.

It has been too many years. One word, and Jeno understands.

“Jisung, can you give us a minute?” Jeno whispers then, but he doesn’t even lift his gaze. Jisung stares at Jaemin harder, like forcing him to leave despite Jeno’s permission to stay. “It’ll be fine.”

Fine is an exaggeration, but they have gone through stupid fights and big fights, and Jaemin isn’t going to leave and give up. Jeno is accepting his presence because he knows Jaemin is dramatic enough to sit by the door all night.

And still, when Jisung slams the door close and Jaemin finds himself alone, yet again with Jeno, he realizes that he’s not ready for this after all.

Jeno is still sobbing, clenching the edge of the bed in an attempt to prevent his body from following the harsh pulls of his chest. He never was a kid that cried a lot, and Jaemin is clumsy at this. The few instances Jeno has ever cried were for his family; when they were ten and his little brother fell from his skate and broke a leg, when his parents were on the verge of divorcing and his mother disappeared for months. He also cried when all of them pretended to forget his birthday just to give him a surprise later, and as they were surrounded by confetti, screams and laughter, Jaemin had to welcome a crying Jeno into his arms with the knowledge that Jeno wasn’t crying because he thought all his friends had forgotten about him, but because Jaemin had.

But tonight Jaemin falls on his knees and touches Jeno’s face, and his tears burn.

Jeno tries to move his hands away, visibly worried about hurting Jaemin, which is ironical, very ironical. Jaemin deserves a few burn marks, physical pain in exchange for the emotional pain he has inflicted on Jeno. That’s what their tears are for, anyhow, because when a witch cries for someone, their tears become the most harmful weapon against whoever made them cry. Jaemin’s skin swells up beneath Jeno’s tears, immediate minuscule blisters forming on his fingers, and it hurts, but it hurts less than it should.

“Stop,” Jeno reprimands him. Jaemin resists at first, and Jeno has to use all his strength to encircle his wrists and shove them against his thighs, far from his tears. Feeling like a kid with a fit of rage, Jaemin fights back, until he realizes that Jeno will feel worse if Jaemin tries to hurt himself. “Jaemin, stop. I’ll have to get you to the hospital.”

Jaemin grunts, “Do I look like I care?”

Jeno’s eyes have red vets and his cheeks are wet, his lips swollen, the salt making every tiny cut sting. The crying has been going on for a while. Maybe the whole night, since Jaemin left with Renjun for the date. It’s obvious beause Jeno doesn’t have strength to cry anymore, and it’s just sobs traveling up his throat from time to time, the shame making him look down and hide his face from Jaemin. It adds up to Jaemin’s frustration, because he wishes he could dry his tears, but Jeno is crying for him, so Jaemin can’t touch him at all.

“You’re out of your mind,” Jeno says, like that explains everything.

For a while, Jaemin respects the silence. Jeno is making an effort to calm down, and Jaemin stays there, chin on his knees, waiting and waiting. Even if Jeno would prefer not to be watched while he cries, Jaemin never retires his gaze from Jeno’s semblance, because he needs Jeno to know that there’s nothing to be ashamed of. If anyone should be ashamed, that’s Jaemin.

Jaemin can’t touch Jeno’s face, but he sits by his side and interlaces their hands. A protest dies in Jeno’s tongue, surrendering before even speaking, and Jaemin knows the reason. It’s the same reason why Jeno comforts him during times he doesn’t want to even face Jaemin.

Open secrets are a curious thing, because when Jaemin asks a question without proper explanations, Jeno doesn’t demand them.

“Why can’t we talk?” Jaemin says, because both of them are aware that they should have discussed whatever that was bothering them months ago. “Why does it have to be this way?”

Jaemin doesn’t mean to put the blame on Jeno. He’s not free from it, however; if at least one of them had taken the initiative before, they wouldn’t have reached this point, a point in which Jaemin is doubting if they have a purpose together or none at all.

Jeno isn’t embarrassed of his tears anymore. He stares at Jaemin with pure, innocent confusion, but Jaemin can sense how he clenches his fingers, like he can’t stand Jaemin’s touch. “What do you want me to tell you? That I’m in love with you? Again and again and again?”

There it is. Fear invades Jaemin, because this is not what he was planning. This is not the conversation he wanted to have. Jeno has never adapted to his plans, nonetheless, and just like last time, he’s confessing without calculating the right moment. There isn’t a right moment after all this time, Jaemin reckons. The failure of the first time precedes them, so Jeno doesn’t have anything to lose by admitting that he still loves Jaemin.

“That won’t change anything,” Jeno reproaches, voice breaking into a pained moan. He lowers his head, mildly surprised as he taps his throat, like he didn’t expect his body to betray him. “It’s not going to disappear.”

Instead of telling him what’s on his mind, Jaemin replies, “It doesn’t have to disappear.”

“It has,” Jeno contradicts him. Jaemin looks away, catching Jeno’s resigned smile out of the corner of his eyes. “It hurts.”

It must have hurt, but it’s easier for Jaemin to ignore that Jeno isn’t so hung up on him. Unconditional love, they call it. For Jaemin, it’s terrifying that Jeno can love him no matter what he does, but he also dreads that Jeno stops loving him one day.

And what Jaemin fears, over all those things, is that Jeno assumes that Jaemin wants him this way – broken, caged, to his mercy.

“That’s not what I meant, I-”

“You want me to be in love with you, Jaemin,” Jeno interrupts him. He brushes the tissue, reduced to a ball, over his eye bags, and when he gazes at Jaemin again, he does it with a bit more of confidence, his shoulders a bit firmer.  “I don’t know why, but you do. Every single time I try to move on, you bring me back on purpose. Does it stroke you ego?”

Jaemin feels helpless. All this time he reckoned that Jeno was too naïve to capture the small details of their relationship, but the truth is that Jeno had decided to be silent about it. He’s not a fool. When Jaemin slips yet another lie between them, Jeno tastes it, then chews on it and swallows it down.

Jaemin should have been scared of this conversation, yet he ignored the power Jeno has over them. He’s scared now, as Jeno looks at him and dares him to affirm that Jeno’s wrong, that Jaemin isn’t playing with his feelings.

“I’m letting you move on,” Jaemin lies, because if he says it out loud, maybe it’ll be real. He will break the invisible strings that he has wrapped around Jeno, the ones that make him glare at Jaemin, indignation all over his face. Jaemin corrects himself, “I’m trying to.”

It’s a step for Jaemin to recognize that yes, he’s holding Jeno back. But Jeno already knows that, judging the lack of reaction on his part.

“That’s a lie,” Jeno accuses him. His eyes are so, so big, or perhaps he’s too close, but Jaemin feels minuscule in comparison. It’s not a new sensation; Jaemin has always thought that when Jeno bares himself, it’s hard to handle him. He’s overwhelming. “Why did you pretend you liked Renjun just so that I wouldn’t spend so much time with him?”

Punching Jaemin in the face would have hurt less. Jaemin knows why, but he’s a coward, and if he reveals his reasons, there will no way to fix it.

Jeno laughs, pressing the tissue with his palm against his nose. It’s not a happy laugh. “You didn’t prepare an answer?” he mocks Jaemin.

Jaemin didn’t, because he never thought Jeno would confront him about it.

“I was jealous.”

Silence spreads. Jeno blinks at him, hopeful, and Jaemin feels like crying all of a sudden. “Of what?”

“I don’t know.”

That’s not a lie, for once. It might be because Jaemin doesn’t want to know, but the final product is the same. Rather than calming Jeno’s nerves, it worsens them, because he shakes his head and throws the tissue away on the bed.

“Get out, then.” Jeno dries his hands on his pants, not sparing Jaemin a second glance. It’s not an unpremeditated impulse: it looks like Jeno was anticipating this moment, this nothingness Jaemin is giving him. “I should stop being your whole life. It’s ruining us.”

Jaemin curses under his breath. He should have apologized for that, since Jeno has been waiting for the apology during the whole holidays. It was stupid of Jaemin to believe that Jeno would dismiss it sooner or later, that he would forgive Jaemin for leading him on when things were so delicate between them.

Even if Jaemin has developed a bad habit of telling more lies than usual, he would have never played with Jeno on purpose. Even if there’s a voice within telling him to try, his conscience weighs more; not his conscience, maybe, but the fact that he’d prefer hurting himself to hurting Jeno.

So he meant it when he told Jeno that he was his whole life, and he means it now, when he says, “I love you.”

It doesn’t matter that Jaemin’s confession comes from a desperate place.

Jeno pales in an instant. “What?”

“I don’t know how I love you, but I do,” Jaemin continues, regretting every word as soon as they come out. This isn’t supposed to feel this way. Jeno isn’t supposed to stare at him in horror, and Jaemin shouldn’t be terrified of what he’s doing. “And-”

“Don’t go on,” Jeno cuts him. He pins Jaemin with a glower, but there are signs of weakness in the way he turns around to look outside the window, giving his back to Jaemin. His chest deflates, trembling. “If you love me, if you call this love, then you love me bad.”

He’s right. Jaemin clenches his jaw not to reply.

“We can’t be together, Jaemin,” Jeno says. It would be so easy to break Jeno in pieces, for Jaemin has never insinuated that they should be together, that they should take the risk and, if failure arrives, they could find a solution later. No words needed, Jeno still knows that’s what Jaemin secretly craves for, because Jaemin is impulsive and dumb and likes dealing with his problems afterwards. “I love you and I know how I love you, but you don’t. It’s not fair, and you aren’t a game for me.”

Jaemin observes the way Jeno’s fingers are holding the edge of his study table. The table is receding there where his fingers approach; the only reason Jeno doesn’t look mad at him is because he’s concentrating all his energy in his hands. He’s so angry that he can modify the matter on the spot, and Jaemin has never experienced something like that, so he stays petrified on the bed, inspecting Jeno’s nape and his hair and his arrhythmic breathing.

By the time Jeno twists on his feet to face Jaemin, he has swallowed his tears. His eyes are still glassy, but the pain has been replaced by determination.

“I’m giving you one last chance,” Jeno announces, voice soft yet clear. His chest rises, and Jaemin trembles on the bed. “If you’re going to sabotage us again, you better have a good reason for it. If not, it will be over. Do you get what I mean?”

Jaemin wishes he didn’t. It’s not an ultimatum for Jaemin to clear up his mind and decide forever if he’s going to free Jeno from his hold or, on the hand, he will commit. It’s an ultimatum for their friendship too. Because Jaemin has been a horrible friend this year, crawling on Jeno’s back and scratching and covering his eyes so that he can’t see the world, and Jeno has to fly. Jeno has grown up, so he knows how to take care of himself, and if for his own good he must cut ties with Jaemin, he will.

That’s the scariest future Jaemin has imagined for them. Even if he runs away from Jeno sometimes, even if he prefers to be alone sometimes and with another person, even if he doesn’t will to confess and commit, he would be incomplete with Jeno.

At his silence, Jeno is expectant, but not pushy. Big decisions aren’t meant to be taken in the split of a second.

Anyhow, Jaemin can’t make up his mind right in that moment, because he’s missing a vital piece of information. One day he will ready to give a reply, and he’s aware of what he needs to perhaps reach that security in the next months.

“I want to do something,” Jaemin warns him. He drowns the screaming voice in his head telling him to stop, but his body is stronger than his mind, and his legs drive him to stand and walk up to Jeno. Jeno steps back, tries to, because there isn’t any more space for him to put distance between them. Jaemin’s heart beats so hard that it hurts, but he doesn’t halt until he’s close enough to squeeze Jeno’s hands over the edge of the table. Jeno grips the table harder, and Jaemin grips it with him, applying more pressure over his hands. Jeno nearly loses his balance, confused eyes roaming over Jaemin’s face. “We’ll forget it happened, and then we can start all over again.”

It’s obvious what Jaemin is talking about. His arms linger around Jeno’s waist, and Jeno closes his eyes, as though that could wash his confusion away. “What?” is all he can utter.

Jeno looks so pretty like this, Jaemin realizes, his long eyelashes intertwined and his expression filled with puzzled submission as he spreads his hands over Jaemin’s back. Jaemin’s doubts make sense at last, his continuous wondering about kissing Jeno, about finding out how it would be to risk it all for a kiss. This is the reason. This is why he likes it.

Jaemin hears himself call Jeno’s name so low that it sounds like a grumble, and Jeno doesn’t respond, but he stops breathing when Jaemin caresses up to his neck and cups the back of his head.

Jeno’s fists his shirt, torn between pulling Jaemin away or closer. Jaemin will accept any of those options, though one of them is fighting against what both of them are hoping for. Jeno asks in a whine, “Why are you doing this?”

“If it goes wrong in the end,” Jaemin begins. As words invade his head, they become a new revelation for him too, but he doesn’t feel disoriented anymore. It’s crystal clear now. “I want to have this at least.”

Jeno doesn’t oppose resistance when Jaemin inches closer and closer; he lifts his chin to give way, holding onto Jaemin like he fears that his friend will regret this in the last second. Jaemin would never. There is other sort of fear there, Jaemin notices, a fear that could become hatred with time.

Jeno’s anger dies against Jaemin’s lips. Both of them are tentative in the first contact, like they’re not sure if this is fine, like they should have a small taste and then discover if it feels good before continuing. It does. Jeno’s lips are swollen and warm from crying, and Jaemin has to drown a noise in the back of his throat at the sensation. Jeno might fear many things, but he doesn’t kiss with fear. Jaemin loses his control in the exact moment Jeno kisses back, hands rough but mouth tender, and out of the blue Jeno is on the table, draping his legs around Jaemin’s waist. Jaemin’s thighs crash against the table, but he can’t feel any pain, can feel just the warmth of Jeno’s tongue and his rushed breathing and the touch of his hands.

Even if his body screams impatience, their kisses don’t. Jaemin has waited for so long that he prefers to savor the experience, shyness mixed with desire. Jeno feels the same, driven to kiss chaste and later to lick into his mouth; a desire that sometimes drives them to just lap their tongues against each other with curiosity, like asking first, and then fuse their lips as well. With every kiss, Jeno is in a deeper daze, but Jaemin’s heart is plummeting to the bottom of his stomach.

It was a bad idea.

Jaemin forces himself to move away from Jeno, yet he makes a fatal mistake: he stares at Jeno. At Jeno, who chases after his mouth, who opens his eyes and gazes at him in a different way, like someone that has tasted venom and discovered that’s how they want to die.

“Jeno, we can’t go-” Jaemin begins, but he’s cut off by Jeno hauling him back into the kiss.

Jaemin gives up, because it’s impossible to reject something that he desires too. And like Jeno, he knows that the moment they part ways, it might be the last time they kiss. That’s the reason Jaemin feels a bit more heated up now, stroking Jeno’s neck and back, humming when Jeno doesn’t measure his strength well and pulls his hair too hard, just to stroke the zone as an apology one second later.

But they’re too close, too touchy, and it’s the time to stop this if Jaemin intends to be friends with Jeno again. So when Jeno detaches for a second to breathe in some air, Jaemin gathers all his courage and spoils the moment with a, “Jisung is waiting outside.”

Jeno lets out a small gasp. He forgot about his roommate, and Jaemin would find it funny if Jisung wasn’t going to murder him for kissing Jeno. He hopes it stays a secret between them, yet he refuses to ask that from Jeno; he would think that Jaemin is embarrassed of him, and that’s far from reality.

“Yeah. Shit,” Jeno curses, a small, disoriented laugh as he hops off from the table. He attempts to iron his shirt with his palms, an inutile idea because Jaemin has pulled at it enough to deform it forever. “Yeah.”

Jaemin doesn’t want to leave. Jeno looks at him like he doesn’t want him to leave, either.

“Goodnight,” Jaemin whispers. He traces the angle of Jeno’s cheekbone with his index finger. There aren’t full tears anymore, but his skin is still humid and Jaemin feels a burning sensation on his fingertips. “Don’t cry again, please.”

To Jaemin’s shock, Jeno sends him a tight lipped smile. A sincere one. Then he assures him, “I won’t.”

 

 

 

 

XII.

They don’t forget about it.

But to be fair, it isn’t Jaemin’s fault. It’s the mere fact that one doesn’t kiss his best friend and then forgets about it.

It’s also not the last time it happens.

They kiss two weeks later, after spending the whole day with Donghyuck’s friends. Renjun had claimed that it was necessary, that as his friends, they had the moral obligation of approving of Donghyuck. For that, evaluating the rest of his friends – apart from Mark – is essential, and that means that even after hanging out with them for hours, Renjun forces them to have dinner with them as well.

The problem is that Donghyuck has too many friends, to the extent Jaemin wonders if they’re friends and not only acquaintances. They’re as loud as Donghyuck is, and while Renjun doesn’t have any problem with that, Jeno does. Renjun would never notice, for his attention is always either on Donghyuck or on food, but Jaemin sticks to Jeno the whole day, prepared to fly off with him if the situation becomes too overwhelming. Jeno is a boy of small circles, of silence, and when he reaches his limit, accidents happen.

It’s strange to feel that he’s Jeno’s home again, the den he hides in because among this bunch of boys, Jaemin is the only one who understands him. Jeno presses his cheek against Jaemin’s arm, hands playing with his sleeve, as he observes Jaemin’s phone screen. It’s comfortable, because the conversation streams well among Donghyuck’s friends and Renjun, and when they direct their attention towards them, it’s Jaemin who replies. Jeno relaxes against him every time, a small silent thank you with his body.

Jeno can’t escape forever. Jaemin smells it from afar, because one of Donghyuck’s friends, Yukhei, has been stealing glances at Jeno from time to time. Jeno is oblivious, sunk in the warmness of Jaemin’s embrace. Yukhei addresses Jeno without detours, like a tsunami crashing over the table and drenching both Jaemin and Jeno.

“I have seen you around,” Yukhei points out with an enchanting smile full of teeth.

Jaemin doesn’t understand how he does it: his face reveals a pureness that is hard to find, the sort that makes you trust him right away. Yukhei looks like he doesn’t even know the concept of ulterior motives.

Jeno tenses up, looking first at Yukhei, then at Jaemin – as though Jaemin could explain it to him – and then back at Yukhei. “Me?” he asks, as if he was supposed to be invisible.

“Yeah. I’m in one of your classes,” Yukhei adds. His eyes glitter, and without holding back or hiding his enthusiasm, he continues, “Your presentation about violence and sexism in literature as a plot device was amazing.”

Jaemin has the odd, drilling urge to roll his eyes. Yet Renjun is staring right at him, observing his reaction, and Jaemin isn’t disposed to give him a reason to scold him. Renjun would kill him if he dared to do anything that could destroy the atmosphere, so Jaemin makes an effort to remain neutral.

“I-” Jeno starts, squirming. Jaemin catches Donghyuck wiggling his eyebrows at Yukhei, who deliberately ignores him. Even though Jaemin can’t see it, he feels the smile in Jeno’s voice, “Thank you.”

“You’re welcome,” Yukhei shoots back, cool.

Yukhei is easy-going, confident and after leaving the restaurant, he approaches Jeno to chat him up. Jaemin stays behind, Donghyuck’s arm around his shoulders – and Jaemin doesn’t believe in conspiracies, but he’s certain that Donghyuck is keeping him away from Jeno and Yukhei on purpose. Jaemin isn’t going to do anything, anyway. Jeno doesn’t need him, because it’s evident that he’s comfortable with Yukhei; he laughs at his jokes, though Yukhei laughs louder, and not even once during the walk to the taxi stop does he gaze back at Jaemin.

When they separate from the group, perhaps Jaemin pulls Jeno’s hand harder than usual. But that’s all. That’s all he can do without breaking the last opportunity Jeno granted him.

Renjun bids them goodbye, since he’s going to stay with Donghyuck for longer, and the rest disperse. Jaemin insists in accompanying Jeno to his room, though it’s a strategy to avoid being alone and start comparing himself to Yukhei – to avoid remembering the accusatory look Renjun threw at him, warning him not to do something crazy. To his relief, Jeno doesn’t find the offer weird, and they enter their building’s elevator holding hands.

“What’s wrong?” Jeno questions him as soon as the elevator moves up.

It’s fucked up that Jeno has noticed, but what did Jaemin expect? He hasn’t done a great job at concealing his unhappiness. “Nothing is wrong,” he replies, stare fixed on the buttons. He still senses Jeno’s eyes on him, worried. “What do you mean?”

“We agreed not to lie anymore.”

“I also promised you something.” Jaemin lets out a bitter, small scoff. It’s terribly unfair that Jeno is pushing his patience like this. Jaemin is doing his best, and he doesn’t deserve more complications. “It’s either lying or breaking the promise, and I know which one I’m choosing.”

Nervous, Jeno shuffles on his feet and lets go of Jaemin’s hand. That’s understandable, so Jaemin presses his back against the elevator’s mirror and gives Jeno his time, his space. Maybe he should have kept lying for the sake of their comfort, but this might teach Jeno not to pry too much next time.

However, Jeno slides in front of him, breathing heavily, and Jaemin’s heart almost leaps out of his ribcage when Jeno cups his face between his hands.

“Wh-?” Jaemin begins.

Jeno’s lips seal his question. And yes, Jaemin doesn’t comprehend what’s happening, but his brain refuses to function while Jeno kisses him. It’s different this time, but Jeno’s desperation remains the same as he tugs Jaemin towards his mouth, once and again and again, gasps falling out after every kiss. Jaemin can barely move, his fingers hesitating over Jeno’s waist; Jeno makes him feel like a kid that has never kissed anyone, but Jaemin is scared that if he responds roughly – like he wants to – Jeno will reconsider what he’s doing.

The elevator announcing they have reached the floor interrupts them. Jeno backtracks as though he has been pushed by an invisible force, and Jaemin can’t help but whine, wanting more. He trails after Jeno, who is stepping back and out of the elevator, but Jeno gives him a little push so that he returns to the elevator. Jeno is more affected than he lets on, but Jaemin’s senses are sleeping, and he doesn’t notice it until the last second.

Jeno shakes his head, ordering him not to follow him. “Jisung is here tonight.”

The elevator closes.

 

 

 

XIII.

There are secrets that one keeps because of loyalty, and others that one keeps because they’re too embarrassed to share them.

For Jaemin, there is a third reason: he doesn’t have anyone to talk to. The person he used to resort to is Jeno, who isn’t an option since he’s the cause of his problems, and Renjun is in the middle. Jeno is lucky enough to have bonded with Jisung, so he can rant to him – Jisung already hates Jaemin, so throwing more wood into the fire isn’t that big of a deal. But Jaemin is alone, and at last he seeks out help from Renjun, even if it’s to liberate himself from his terrible uncertainty.

Jaemin chooses the worst moment to do so.

One of Donghyuck’s friends, Chenle, is celebrating his birthday in a couple of days, and Donghyuck has convinced them to make a huge banner to hang it up from the ceiling in his dorm. Jaemin has no idea what resources Donghyuck has, but he shows up with a banner so big that Jaemin, Mark, Donghyuck and Renjun can comfortably sit on it while painting it. They carry the banner to the most hidden hall of Donghyuck’s faculty, not asking for permission, and Jaemin wonders why he accepted this insane plan just because Renjun is whipped for Donghyuck. As if they were five years old, Donghyuck has bought some acrylic paint and demands them to use their hands, which Jaemin does, dipping his hands into the cans. Two minutes later Renjun is making fun of him, his hands clean as the paint hovers over his fingertips, reminding him that he’s a disgrace for not remembering that he’s a witch.

Dirtying himself up with paint turns out to be a stress reliever, after all, and maybe that’s why he winds up spilling the secret in front of Mark and Donghyuck as well. As soon as he speaks, Renjun knocks one of the cans over, green paint extending over the floor and Donghyuck runs to save the banner with a shriek.

“You did what?” Renjun asks, torn between amazement and horror.

His friends’ priorities are questionable, because they have just spilled paint on the faculty’s floor, and Jaemin isn’t going to clean that up.

“We kissed,” Jaemin repeats.

He waits for the judgment. Mark doesn’t even spare him a glance, too preoccupied with outlining the C of Chenle properly, but Jaemin can’t blame him for not being interested in his mess. Donghyuck is wiping the floor with tiny, inutile tissues and having what seems to be yet another fit of panic, though not even for a second he thinks of screaming at his boyfriend.

And then there Renjun is, a frown on his face, as he protests, “Why didn’t he tell me? I could have protected him from you!”

“Protect him from me? Are you kidding me? He kissed me!” Jaemin fights back, not believing what he’s hearing. Shouldn’t Renjun protect Jaemin too? Why is everyone on Jeno’s side? His shoulders deflate. “I mean, at least the second time.”

To Donghyuck’s luck, Renjun is too far away to knock another can over, but he grabs one of the brushes – as thick as his hand – and points at Jaemin. “The se-” he begins, choking on his own saliva. On his knees, he approaches Jaemin bit by bit, a dark glint clouding his eyes. “How many times have you kissed him? I’m going to literally kill you.”

Jaemin should have reacted faster, but in his defense, Renjun has never attacked him physically. The most he has done so far is throwing a stream of water into his face when he ate his lunch without asking first, so Jaemin doesn’t expect Renjun to jump on him, pinning him against the banner and holding the brush over his face.

“Just twice!” Jaemin replies, screaming.

He can’t help but gasp when Renjun moves the brush down and paints all over his face. Jaemin fights back, certain that Renjun has lost his goddamn head, but Renjun is gathering strength from something else besides his body – Jaemin doesn’t know from what, but they’re not supposed to use their skills on their kind, that’s just unfair.

“Just twice? Just? Twice?” Renjun imitates him, drawing a new line on Jaemin’s face with each word.

Unhelpful, Donghyuck stops cleaning and staring at the scene, he comments, “I think I have dreamed about this before.”

“Wow,” Mark says, scrunching his noise in disgust. “Don’t be gross.”

Donghyuck pointedly ignores his friend and crawls over the banner towards them. Even before Donghyuck slips his hands under Renjun’s armpits, Jaemin already knows that Donghyuck pities him enough to rescue him. Renjun, who would have fought anyone else, doesn’t oppose resistance to Donghyuck.

Free, Jaemin sits up with a gasp, and then moans when he touches his full painted face. Mark cackles at him.

“What’s the problem?” Donghyuck asks Jaemin. He pats the banner so that Renjun sits next to him, and Renjun obeys without a second thought; Jaemin feels safe until Renjun lifts the brush to threaten him again. “I thought you were already dating?”

“They aren’t,” Mark replies in Jaemin’s place. “But they should.”

If Jaemin has learned something during these weeks of adapting to Donghyuck’s friends, is that Mark is a busybody. And of course, he retains all the information, forever, which means that Jaemin spilled more than he should have in their first encounter. Thus Mark remembers every little thing Jaemin said about Jeno, how close they are, how much Jaemin loves him; and what Jaemin hasn’t said with words, Mark has captured it in Jaemin’s eyes, as he calls it.

Donghyuck hands him one of the tissues, half dirty, and Jaemin accepts it in resignation. “We shouldn’t. We discussed it, actually – stop looking at me like that, Renjun, I don’t have to tell you everything – and we don’t want to risk our friendship just for a bad attempt at dating.”

Mark sends him a terrible smirk, “What friendship?”

“Fuck you, Mark.”

“Just saying. It’s not a friendship if you want to date him.”

They have been doing that for years, however, so Jaemin won’t buy that argument. “Sure it is.”

With a shrug, Mark returns to his precious letter on the banner. Donghyuck and Renjun aren’t that convinced by Jaemin’s reasoning, and Jaemin swears that there isn’t anything scarier than watching them exchange a look filled with intention. It also makes Jaemin jealous, because they haven’t been going out for long and yet they communicate so well, no words needed.

Renjun stamps the brush against the banner and redirects his attention to Jaemin, “Why did you kiss him?”

Even if Jaemin’s first response is to defend himself, that’s not his aim. The purpose of baring the truth to Renjun is receiving advice, lifting the weight off his shoulders, and for that Jaemin has to come clean. Renjun might kill him, but he isn’t going to judge him, which is what worries Jaemin the most.

“Because I needed it,” he confesses. Besides a primal urge, because his mind had insisted for weeks that Jeno’s lips were made to be kissed, the other motive was that Jaemin didn’t have the certainty that they were only friends. Kissing a friend shouldn’t wake up anything within him – shouldn’t have. “I mean, I thought it would help me to confirm that I don’t like him that way.”

Jaemin bites his lower lip, the words stuck in his throat. Three pairs of eyes stare at him in expectation. “And?” Donghyuck pushes him, impatient.

“I don’t know.”

He doesn’t know. Does he love Jeno? Yes. Romantically? Maybe, Jaemin has never loved anyone that way, so there isn’t any previous model for him to compare. Would he take the next step, well aware that he doesn’t deserve Jeno and that Jeno will grow to hate him as time passes by? No.

“This is so annoying,” Donghyuck grumbles. He throws his head onto Renjun’s shoulder, exasperated. “How do you deal with him on a daily basis?”

“Fuck you too, Hyuck, I’m here making your stupid banner, you know?”

Donghyuck deflates like a punctured balloon, disappointed. The kid that once threatened to kick Jaemin and Renjun out of the library is long gone, and Jaemin has discovered that Donghyuck is pretty sensitive and moody, the latter explaining why he acts so impulsively sometimes.

“My banner isn’t stupid. I can’t say the same about you, though,” Donghyuck retorts, offended.

The last thing Jaemin sees before being shoved down is Renjun’s brush. Once again.

 

 

 

 

XIV.

People are predictable.

It doesn’t come off as a surprise that, before the spring break, Yukhei asks Jeno on a date. Since it follows a pattern, Jaemin has been preparing himself for it, thus he smiles and nods when Jeno informs him. Like he doesn’t care. Because of Jeno’s ultimatum, he can’t care until he’s certain about his feelings; it’s forbidden.

Yukhei and Jeno fit each other as though they were created for that purpose. Yukhei’s outgoing personality pulls Jeno out of his shell when he needs it, makes everything easier for him – Jaemin remembers that’s why Jeno doesn’t get on well with persons similar to him, because they feed into a loop that becomes boring very fast. Jeno is happy around Yukhei, comfortable, and when all of them are together, Renjun keeps checking Jaemin’s state if Jeno shows Yukhei affection. After a while, Renjun becomes used to it too, and Jaemin learns that it’s time to stop obsessing over them.

It’s not that easy.

Jeno kisses him after his first date with Yukhei. He shows up at Jaemin’s room, fiddling with his hands, and before Jaemin can ask what’s wrong, if the date was fine, if Jeno fucked up, Jeno’s lips are on his. It’s three in the morning, and Jaemin’s roommate curses at them when Jaemin trips back and shuts the door open by accident. Yet Jeno doesn’t apologize: he backtracks, stunned, and leaves Jaemin without explanations.

People are predictable, but Jeno isn’t.

Jaemin keeps the secret, conscious that it’s just another mistake on Jeno’s book and nothing else. Yukhei and he haven’t advanced beyond the phase of getting to know each other, and Jaemin has the chance of ruining it before it progresses, but he doesn’t. Jeno can kiss whoever he wants as long as he’s not dating Yukhei.

There’s no option for Jaemin but to make a ball out of his heart and stuff his feelings there, forcing himself not to be selfish. He sits with Jeno in cafés and holds his hand under the table, and they talk about Yukhei, about how funny he is, about his family and his siblings. The way Jeno smiles makes it impossible for Jaemin to hate Yukhei. There’s a certain duality in Jeno, because he’s both the boy that kisses him at three in the morning and the boy that looks enamored of Yukhei in the daylight. Jaemin wouldn’t bet that it’s love, but it’s something, and he’s not a master at deciphering feelings.

After a third kiss, there’s a fourth. With a hunch blooming in his chest, Jaemin hesitates, doubts if he should open the door for Jeno and allow him to make the same mistake. Jeno knocks twice, three times, and Jaemin’s resolution faints.

His own consolation is that Jaemin tries to meddle, even if he loses all his strength as he fixes his eyes on Jeno, who has his hair slicked up and eyeliner in the inner part of his eyelids. He’s far from the boy that wears his messy, black hair over his eyes and drowns in big, pastel colored sweaters.

Jaemin loses the ability to breath for a second, and then he sputters what he rehearsed before opening, “Jeno, I don’t know what you’re doing but-”

It’s not a simple kiss this time. There’s rage in how Jeno pushes Jaemin inside, in his shining eyes when he realizes that Jaemin is alone tonight. They kiss and bite and pull, there are hands beneath their clothes and laughter, precious laughter falling between their kisses. Jaemin feels happy for the first time in a long time. He loves kissing Jeno, feeling bewitched and whole and infinite.

And then, when Jeno falls asleep against him, his street jacket still on, Jaemin feels lost.

Three weeks after the spring break ends, Jeno and Yukhei become official. According to Donghyuck, Yukhei asks him first during a bowling date and Jeno doesn’t need to think about it twice.

Jeno never kisses Jaemin again.

 

 

 

 

XV.

“What are we celebrating?”

Celebrating is a big word. It’s sarcasm too, Jaemin realizes as he stares at Mark across the table. They don’t frequent bars like this one, but that’s the exact reason Jaemin has summoned Mark here: because none of their friends will run into them. Mark is observing their surroundings with big, interested eyes, and he doesn’t question Jaemin’s intentions. Perhaps he knows them but chooses not to reveal it, since it would upset Jaemin.

Jaemin reaches out to share a toast with Mark, who laughs and follows along. “Love, life, and misery,” Jaemin concludes.

This is what Jaemin’s mother warned him once upon a time, but there he is, disposed to drown his heartache in alcohol. Mark seems to deem it a good idea as well, and Jaemin trusts his critical faculty enough – at least tonight, when it favors him. He has never tried this technique before, so having Mark around is a necessity in case being drunk worsens Jaemin’s state of mind. The aim is forgetting, not regretting what he did the next day.

“Aha,” Mark agrees. He wiggles his eyebrows at Jaemin, but his tone is serious as he adds, “Date me.”

“Screw you.”

“Fake date me?” he tries again, tilting his head to the side. A small slanted smile appears on his face. “All our friends are dating each other, they won’t be shocked.”

“Fake date you,” Jaemin repeats, amused. “Mark, do you read fics?”

“Pointing fingers is rude, witch.”

It’s obvious why Mark is proposing this. He’s too nice for his own good, always ready to lend anyone a hand, yet it’s surprising that he’s disposed to involve himself in a mess of such caliber. Jaemin must look damn pitiful in his eyes for Mark to prioritize him over his other friends; for example, Yukhei. Or maybe Mark hasn’t considered his plan that far ahead. One of them is always going to hurt.

Jaemin snickers, then takes another shot. He let Mark choose their drinks, and whatever it is, it burns like hell.

“I’m not trying to make anyone jealous, dude, I already told you that Jeno is like my brother,” he assures, feeling the déjà vu on the tip of his tongue.

Calling Jeno a brother after so many kisses is odd, but that’s the allegation Jaemin has to cling to. The official version of their relationship. Unless Jeno has snitched on them, none of their friends are aware of the last two kisses, and Jaemin isn’t about to destroy their privacy. Though the last one was much more than a kiss. It fucked Jaemin up much more.

Mark rolls his eyes. “I’m not going to point out the disgusting part of saying that about him, given your record.” He pushes his drink over the table, towards Jaemin. “Drink mine too.”

Jaemin doesn’t hesitate to take up on the offer. “You’re an angel,” he compliments.

The bad news is that Jaemin’s strategy works. Jeno becomes a small thought in the back of his head that, every time it flourishes, becomes funnier and funnier in Jaemin’s opinion. As they leave the bar, Mark’s arm around his shoulders, Mark claims that this is how one develops alcoholism. Jaemin can’t disagree. He’d do this every night if that granted him the chance of not giving a fuck about Jeno, about Jeno and Yukhei, about Jeno and his black eyes, about the way he shrugs his shoulders when he laughs and the way Jaemin feels when Jeno laughs.

Jaemin should drink more.

 

 

 

 

XVI.

Jeno dating Yukhei is a patience challenge for Jaemin.

Out of the blue, the ultimatum makes sense: the temptation was weaker before, but witnessing Jeno with another man decreases Jaemin’s self-control. It’s not jealousy, not with the whole meaning of the word, it’s frustration. Frustration because he’s dying to meddle in, to say, hey, Jeno isn’t yours. Jeno is no one’s, after all, but he’s the farthest to be Jaemin’s.

The ache doesn’t dissipate, but Jaemin manages to muffle it. The first time he sees Yukhei and Jeno holding hands hurts, the second hurts a little less, the third doesn’t induce any pain, just disappointment. Jaemin convinces himself that he can do this, he can live a life in which Jeno is in love with someone else, in which he’s relegated to his best friend, but not the most important person for him. Jaemin deserves it, for sure. While Jeno has learned to share him and has allowed him to expand his horizons, to have more friends and other healthy relationships, Jaemin is still struggling.

But there’s a breach in Jaemin’s convincement. He has put up with Jeno being affectionate around Yukhei, with Jeno talking about him with sparks in his eyes – Jaemin would even say that in those moments he feels happy because Jeno sounds happy – and with Jeno spending more time with Yukhei than with him. If he has surpassed all that, it’s because he’s capable of getting over Jeno.

Then Yukhei’s birthday comes, and Jaemin realizes the huge breach in his reasoning: he has never seen them kiss. And it hits him with full force.

Jeno has kissed two boys in his entire life, one of which he’s never going to kiss ever again, and the other is Yukhei. It’s full of irony that the physical comfort Jeno has with Yukhei, the way he holds onto his waist as they kiss, becomes that frontier Jaemin didn’t know exists. It’s full of irony because it has been a long time since he lost Jeno emotionally.

Jaemin kneels in front of the toilet, Mark soothing him with calming words and caresses, and wonders if his tears would burn Jeno’s skin.