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I: GRAVEL TO TEMPO

Ten is aware it’s a cliché, a really bad one. Knowing, from the start, that girls weren’t exactly of his liking. Every anecdote from a teen magazine unmasking the secrets of realizing you’re attracted to the same sex at a young age.

Though, the realization comes at the beginning of Middle School. Fourteen years old and a metaphoric heavy backpack, which Ten carries around mindful of. Boys and girls surrounding, and it becomes unbearable to shore up anymore, shoulders threatening to just give out (pain and cramps that are far from any physical activity), as if that backpack could fall and spill its contents out—unveiling Ten’s forbidden thoughts.

Johnny, then, turns into a notable factor. Ten opts to ignore it, for the sake of his well-being, but there are certain situations that help bring him to his senses.

For example, an impromptu school dance held by the Department of Stage Arts to raise money.

“You’re coming, right?” The kitchen’s lighting has a yellow tint to it that makes Johnny’s face appear sharper than normal. So it’s all in the details.

“I guess. It’ll be boring, though.”

Johnny sends him a questioning look that nearly causes Ten to stumble over his words. A cliché, a really bad one.

“I mean—I don’t have a partner and everyone’s gonna be busy being… mushy,” Ten proceeds to explain, fully aware of the answer that awaits.

“Are you kidding me?” Johnny exclaims, “just ask Chanmi or Hayoung, or literally anyone. Any girl would love to go with you.”

It’s gradual, the way Ten’s heart shatters. An agonizing pain that doesn’t ease at all, no matter how hard he tries to smile and swallow the pieces of his heart stuck in his throat. A pressure, a taunting reminder of the worries Ten holds inside, under lock and key.

“I’ll see… I’ll still go if you promise to at least spend some time with me, asshole.”

“Of course.”

A cliché, it is, when Ten goes to sleep with dried up tears on his cheeks.

-

Walking around school soon becomes an undoable task.

Never in his life Ten would’ve considered himself to be insecure, then the eyes of his classmates begin to set his skin alight, a burning gaze that’s evidently inside Ten’s own mind, and he wants nothing but to curl up into a ball and disappear, evaporate, somehow. Because it feels as if they know 

And they can’t know. So Ten starts avoiding most social gatherings, rejects his friend’s invitations to hang out, as casual as it might be, and reaches the point where Johnny notices and stares at him with concern dripping from every word.

“Is everything okay? You seem down,” he utters as they lay together in bed, their unfinished project nearing the edge of the bed, about to become a scatter of paper and markers.

“Yeah.”

Of course, Ten refrains from displaying any hints about his distressed state, and then forces a smile to tug at his lips slowly, as if it’s natural. It’s an habit Ten learns to have.

“Okay but, you can talk to me,” Johnny reminds him. And he knows—he’s aware, that Johnny will listen to him and stay by his side no matter what. Yet, there’s a feeling inside him that sinks lower every time the thought of revealing what’s been gnawing at the back of Ten’s head for years crosses his mind.

Ten can only gulp and hope it stays down, hidden.

-

The dance per se is another unfolding point. Another situation where Johnny, in a way, pushes Ten further into self-discovery.

Getting ready alone in his room, counting down every minute left for it to end, dreading the moment he has to walk in and find everyone embracing their partners as they sway to a classic, cliché slow song—moments where Ten wishes it could all be normal again.

(It was never normal, Ten knows. Acknowledgement was what changed it all).

“Where’s Yooa?”

Johnny turns around, gleaming under the strobe lights that nearly blind Ten, and then narrows his eyes at him, gesturing for Ten to repeat what he asked. It’s the loud bass and high-pitched voices blending in the background that eventually, prompt Ten to lean closer.

“Yooa?” He inquires, once again.

Oh, she isn’t here yet,” Johnny leans in so Ten’s lips are ghosting over his ear, and then replies, “I’m guessing she’ll be here soon! Meanwhile, let’s get something to eat.”

It doesn’t last long, as most things do lately.

Any enjoyment and tranquility that could’ve filled his body soon vanishes, with the arrival of Yooa and her glistening pink lips, long curled hair, and the kind of cheery energy that captures Johnny in the blink of an eye. Resignation, disappointment, an unsettling feeling, whatever it is, it washes over him, inhibits him, so all Ten can do is grab his jacket and flee.

Where exactly, isn’t of great importance.

A girl attempts to catch Ten’s attention at the entrance, clutching onto his arm. It fully pushes that feeling to the edge, his stomach dropping, and the sudden urge to throw up overtakes him.

“Hey! You’re already leaving?”

Ten coughs, and feels his tongue sitting heavy on his mouth.

“I’m—yes,” he mutters. The girl bats her eyelashes at him, looking straight into his eyes, and Ten can only focus on how they are almost the same height.

(And the boy behind her that’s almost two inches taller, and how his matted black hair nearly covers his eyes, rose-coloured lips and thick eyebrows).

“Stay! The best part is yet to come,” there’s a wink thrown at him that Ten doesn’t catch, or pretends not to, and politely reclines, escaping her grip. But even as a fresh breeze blows steadily when Ten comes in contact with the outside world, calling his mother, the heaviness on his chest doesn’t ease at all.

Continues pressing down, making it hard to breathe. Ten ignores Johnny’s texts wondering where he is, and collapses onto his bed.

This time, in contrast, Ten doesn’t let a single tear fall. Just closes his eyes and learns to pretend.

-

“We kissed!” Johnny exclaims as soon as Ten opens the door to his room.

“What?”

“Yooa kissed me,” he clarifies, “it was nice.”

“Cool,” flopping onto bed, Ten mutters, voice muffled by Johnny’s pillow. It smells like him, a homely scent.

(Which is weird, but Ten notices he doesn’t feel as anxious as before).

“Are you gonna tell me why you disappeared?”

Ten wishes he’d actually disappeared, vanishing into thin air, instead of spending the entirety of the night gazing at the ceiling.

“I got bored, I told you,” Johnny is staring at him, a look of pity and worry, and in any other situation Ten would give in and spit it out, no matter how embarrassed or scared he was. Though, now it’s different. Ten deems it acceptable to lie.

At least for a while.

“Also, every girl rejected me. And you promised to stay with me, so I would say this is your fault.”

Pouting, Johnny huffs and sits up straight. Ten doesn’t budge, just waits for him to react.

“What do you mean? Why didn’t you tell me?” He babbles, making Ten grin broadly, eyes twinkling, and then continues, “I feel bad now, Ten! You should’ve looked for me.”

“I wasn’t going to interrupt your date, hyung.”

“It wasn’t a date!”

“But you kissed,” now it’s wicked, the way Ten smiles. He pushes every single thought towards the darkest part of his head, and focuses on teasing Johnny until he’s flustered and pushing him off the bed.

It happens rather quickly. Johnny blushes furiously, cheeks red like two fresh apples, and knocks their shoulders together—Ten teetering slightly, expecting it this time. A brief silence blankets them, comfortably, and Ten feels sedated almost.  

There’s a sense of comfort, familiarity.

(It doesn’t last long, as most things do lately).

“I’m sure you’ll have your first kiss soon!” Johnny mutters, out of nowhere. Ten refuses to meet gazes. “Don’t dwell too much on it.”

As if a lever has been pulled, an unexpected gush of memories come flooding into Ten’s brain. There’s a birthday party and a few boys, and a girl yelling for them to kiss, encouraging. There’s laughter and crimson faces, and now Ten gulps. A year later, where Ten realizes.

He’s nothing but a joke.

-

Progressively, Ten finds himself isolated.

No matter how much of an open book Johnny views him as, Ten’s deceiving skills seem to improve each day. A smile and a few excuses work just fine, whenever Johnny questions his behaviour.

(“You aren’t coming?” His voice has been getting huskier, as Johnny’s body starts producing teenage hormones, and then he’s nearly two and a half inches taller than Ten.

“I’m sick,” over the phone, Ten coughs as if to prove it.)

So, unsurprisingly, fridays turn dreadful and gloomy. Whereas before Ten spent the entire weekend at Johnny’s place, stomach filled with laughter and food, now he sits on his bed and scrolls through every single app on his phone looking for something, anything, capable of providing him that much joy.

It’s fruitless.

(And Ten stares outside his window, at the roaring wind making the trees dance, and pathetically relates to its leafless, bare branches).

A pop-up ad is what finally piques his interest. Ten is very aware why, specifically, a gay-dating app is being recommended to him, knows his browsing history is the one to blame (or, well, he is). Yet, no matter how embarrassing it is, there’s a stronger force inside him controlling his actions instead.

That’s why, as long as Ten convinces himself there’s nothing inherently bad with it, the app gets downloaded onto his phone. Although he doesn’t dare to sign in, there’s satisfaction in knowing it exists, that similar people utilize it.

Because he’s on his own.

Thus next morning, as Ten walks into school with both earphones on, to the tempo of a cheerful song, a secure grip on his phone—he opts to ignore the unwavering gazes of everyone around him.

Like his shoes scraping against the gravel underneath his feet, it’s mute to Ten’s ears.

II: PRETTY BOY

High School not only brings Johnny a girlfriend, but a boy named Dong Sicheng comes along.

A pretty boy, to be more precise.

Ten notices him the first day, lost and a bit peeved, and then he’s resolutely approaching his graceful and slender figure static in a corner. The way his eyes widen a bit upon taking in Ten’s face, and then narrow as if he’s processing it, leaves Ten reeling. Thick and plump lips, pointed ears, tanned skin. Factors that stay etched on his mind, and then act as a reminder.

However, as soon as a flirty but subtle greeting rolls out of Ten’s tongue and Sicheng takes an entire minute to answer, Ten realizes there’s kind of a communication problem.

Because well, Sicheng is chinese.

“Is he new?” flopping down beside him on the grass, Johnny asks, diverting his eyes towards Sicheng.

Ten focuses on Sicheng’s attentive gaze on the teacher for a bit too long. “Yes.”

“Looks like you already talked to him.”

Which isn't exactly incorrect—they had held three conversations in the past week for as long as Sicheng was able to communicate without any awkward silences. Ten is satisfied with that progress.

“I did, but,” a pause. Johnny glances back at Ten briefly. “He's not that good at Korean so there isn't much to talk.”

Ahead of them, Sicheng continues chatting shyly to a teacher (nodding and keeping his head hanging low, as if he's being reprimanded, and Ten is sure that's not even near what's happening) until a boy with a self-assured grin and a matching aura approaches them, side-hugging Sicheng as if he's known him since diapers.

And that's another pretty boy, it seems.

“Who's that?”

Johnny narrows his eyes at their figures retreating into the school, attempting to focus (though without his glasses on, succeeding at discerning anything but a blur is almost impossible).

“I think that's Yuta,” after a few seconds of struggling to see and remember, Johnny replies, “Nakamoto.”

So now there's Dong Sicheng and Nakamoto Yuta, and Ten is really having a hard time keeping up.

“Wait,” Ten finally averts his eyes from any trail Sicheng could've left, and notices Johnny’s searching gaze, and the question hanging from his lips. “Are you jealous?”

What?”

Johnny can't know.

“Are you scared he’ll steal your new friend?” There's a mocking tone to his voice, but Ten knows it's not even bordering teasing. That's an skill Ten’s been working on for a long time now, so he would know.

“Sicheng isn't even my friend.”

“But you want to!”

“Don't you have a girlfriend to go back to?”

Instantly, Johnny gives up and allows his shoulders to sag, relaxing against the tree.

“Why do you always say that?” He mutters. “I can't wait for you to get one so I can tease you too.”

Gradual, slow, bit by bit. Ten’s heart sinks and reaches the pit of his stomach, a feeling of emptiness and heaviness at the same time. It misses a beat, or two. And Ten just wants to be normal.

He guesses, with Sicheng sharing most classes with him, and Yuta treading on his heels, normal isn't an option anymore.

-

“Hey, you're Ten, right?”

Taken aback, Ten has to double-check. Go from Yuta’s shiny, flat hair, to his wide but pretty nose, down to his puce lips and then back to his bottomless, luring eyes.

He still takes his time processing Yuta’s words.

“Yes, sorry.”

“I just wanted to introduce myself, I’m new too,” then Yuta smiles, and Ten has to push it far back into his mind so it doesn't haunt him. “I've seen you around with Sicheng.”

“A pleasure to meet you properly,” Ten says, “I've seen you around with Sicheng as well.”

How, Ten doesn’t know exactly. But a week later he finds himself at Yuta’s place, sitting on his bed as if they’ve known each other their entire lives. Ten feels that sense of belonging as well, chatting the evening away, laughing carefreely—to the point where he realizes how, smoothly, the tension eases away and his shoulders slouch. Peaceful, unruffled. It’s a rare occurrence whenever Ten gets to enjoy any kind of social interaction, especially when there are pretty boys involved.

So he leans back against the headboard and allows Yuta to lure him in.

However, it appears destiny has other plans for him (or Yuta does, or whoever is controlling his life at this very moment), because the conversation takes an abrupt turn, and Ten is unable to find his tongue.

“Sicheng is, in my very honest and unbiased opinion, the prettiest boy ever,” Yuta comments, offhandedly, and pauses to take a sip of his orange juice, “sadly he’s a bit preoccupied with getting one sentence in Korean right to even pay attention to me.”

“Sorry, what?”

Ten isn’t used, in any context or situation, to the words pretty and boy together.

“Don’t you think so?” frowning, Yuta stares at him, “If you don’t, I’m glad. He’s mine.”

Now Ten is just plainly disconcerted.

“I mean… he is. I—don’t get your point,” Ten attempts really hard not to stutter, or reveal that he’s about to start trembling.

Yuta just giggles. “I thought I was very clear when I said I liked him a few minutes ago.” So Ten must’ve missed that part of the conversation. “Wait—you’re not homophobic or anything, right?”

And as wrong or immoral as it might sound, Ten feels his entire body floating, as if an excessive amount of serotonin has been released and Ten is just bathing in it. No matter how serious though absurd that accusation is, it opens a door. It allows Ten to step outside, and for the first time in his life, feel free.

“No, no, not at all,” Ten shakes his head, “I’m gay.”

It’s out. So there’s one less weight pushing him down.

“Can I tell you a secret?”

“You are gay too?”

Yuta grins. Ten relishes in every detail. “Yeah, that too. But—I knew. That you were gay, or liked boys, at least. I found you in a dating app a few months ago.”

Momentarily freezing, Ten’s eyes snap open so wide it elicits a hoarse laugh from Yuta.

“You’re kidding, right? I forgot it existed.”

“Calm down! I’m sure no one will find it. No one would dare to sign in even if it's to find people to bully, or something like that,” Yuta assures him, a steady hand on his shoulder and soft eyes that make Ten forget how dark they are in reality. “But for a moment I thought you were one of those, no matter how strong your gay vibes are.”

“Gay vibes?” he giggles.

“Yeah, really strong ones. That and the dating app thing are the reason I first approached you—and Sicheng too.”

“Don’t worry,” Ten says, “I’m not gonna take Sicheng away from you.”

Yuta pats his back.

“Though, he has to be near you first to be taken away.”

A pillow is thrown at his face. Yuta bursts out laughing and Ten huffs. However, with a less heavy metaphoric backpack, it’s easier to launch himself at Yuta without any holdbacks.

-

Surely, they become closer.

And for a moment Ten forgets about Johnny (though it’s one of those things that stay at the back of his mind, nagging, and it’s better to avoid what’s hurting him than to face it), about his girlfriend, about the secret Johnny is unaware of. Yuta seems to be the answer to Ten’s sorrows, a happy pill of sorts, so Ten sticks to him like glue.

Sicheng, on the other hand, appears more and more annoyed at Yuta’s antics. And with such a major language barrier, there’s not much else to do. (Yuta is too keen on helping Sicheng overcome it, thinking a bit too high of himself—Ten just laughs, amazed, from the sidelines).

“Can you help me with this one?” Stuttering at the beginning, Sicheng asks, pointing at a word on the page they're going through.

“Microorganism,” Ten reads out loud, accentuating each syllable so Sicheng can comprehend. For a moment, Sicheng leans in to read his lips and then imitate the movement, his own plump lips repeating the word, and Ten has to look away and gulp.

It's all about pretty boys.

Speaking of the devil, Yuta walks into the room and his eyes immediately find them, sparkling. With a wide grin, he approaches them and plops down on the chair beside Sicheng, wrapping one arm around him.

“What's up?”

“The ceiling,” Sicheng replies wittily. It's admirable and praiseworthy how he doesn't take his eyes off the book.

“If you're this bratty when speaking in Korean I can't imagine your attitude while speaking Chinese.”

Ten has to muffle a laugh, watching as Sicheng simply raises an eyebrow and lets out an indecipherable string of Chinese words that Ten supposed are just curses, and Yuta only smiles and nods.

“I thrive on insults.”

“You're a microorganism,” Sicheng quips.

So it's all in the details.

-

Ignoring Johnny never works, Ten would know.

Not because he's a persistent person, calling and texting him nonstop, but because Ten just can't resist more than a week without him. Without hearing his laugh or watching him gush over dog videos Ten shows him, blushing, talking. Existing.

Ten doesn't mull over it too much. Like most ideas, pushes it far back, and so it's just dependency without any deeper meaning.

“Hey,” Johnny greets him with a kiss on the cheek as soon as Ten opens the door. It burns, in a way, or perhaps it's just Ten’s face—weaknesses like Johnny’s lips pressed against his skin, the way he has to lean down to reach Ten, his vanilla scented perfume. Factors, reasons.

(Ten completely disregards them like he's done most of his life).

“How are you?”

“Fine, I guess,” Ten replies, “sorry for—kind of ignoring you.”

Taking a seat on the bed, Johnny grins, sweetly, eye-crinkling. “Don't apologize, really, I understand you are busy with other people.”

“Sounds like you're jealous,” wittily, Ten teases. It helps relieve some of the tension. A brittle air, about to snap, that’s all inside Ten’s head.

Johnny opens and closes his mouth like a fish out of water, and then decides to let out a short, mirthless laugh. Ten sees right through him.

“Are you?”

“A bit,” he admits, “you are with Yuta and Sicheng all the time.”

It stings, as if a needle with a sharp point is slowly sinking into his skin. Yet, this time, Ten can’t fathom the reason.

“I mean, you spend almost every day with Junghwa, I’m not the one to blame, really.”

Now that Ten said it, he feels near as light as a feather, though there’s still parts of him that he hasn’t disclosed—so his downfall is meant to happen. For now, he enjoys telling partially the truth, and basks in Johnny’s reaction.

He’s got this thing, where no matter the situation, Johnny is unable to get mad.

“But—you,” he stumbles over his words, “that’s not the point!”

“Just saying…”

Ten stifles a giggle, watching Johnny frowning and attempting to make sense of Ten’s ridiculous stance. (Yet, inwardly, Ten still believes his reasoning is valid enough. Or maybe it’s the thought of Johnny and his girlfriend together making his eyes water that raises a red flag).

“There’s a party tonight,” Johnny starts, finding his tongue, “do you wanna come?”

Pondering over it for a second, or pretending to, Ten tuts and sits beside Johnny on his bed.

“‘Course.”

Johnny smiles, widely, once again. And the usual twinkle in his eyes reappears, almost making Ten forget about the real reason he’s attending that party.

Alcohol, Yuta, and Sicheng.

-

It’s your textbook, teenage party.

As soon as Ten sets foot in, there’s someone behind him throwing up in a bush, and a girl offering him a drink before he can even say hello.

Everything Ten expected, really. That’s what he most likes about them. People so out of their minds that they don’t remember a thing next morning, worried about a nasty hangover and how to get rid of it. Despite the disgusting couples or one-night flings making out in every single corner of the house, as cramped as it already is, and sweaty, boisterous crowds dancing until their bodies meld together—Ten manages to get past them until he reaches a clearer part of the room, immediately occupying the only free space on the couch.

Yuta is by his side in a matter of seconds.

“You won’t believe what Sicheng is wearing,” he wails, “I’m gonna die. I’m gonna pass out.”

“I literally just got here.”

Holding out a cup filled with a strange orange color, Yuta waits silently for Ten to accept it, so he does, and takes a long swig.  

“Now, hear me out,” Yuta starts once again, and Ten does. He tries to, at least, but his eyes gradually shift around the room. They fix on Johnny and his girlfriend swaying intimately, by chance, clearly. And whatever Yuta is saying fades into the background.

It sets off a slow but solid plunge, of his heart, and stomach. A steady pressure. And it seems as if it will never leave.

Ten’s heart beats so hard he’s almost sure it’ll break his ribs, rip apart his skin and bones. It’s not Sicheng walking into the scene with sparkling yet bottomless eyes, nor Yuta placing a hand on his thigh, that feeling goes beyond anything Ten can materialize.

Anything Ten is able to comprehend.

So he does what he does best, ignores it. Gulps the entire drink down, along with the palpable lump in his throat, and stares at Yuta with a defiant expression that Ten hopes says enough.


“We should make out,” he says, purs, almost.

Johnny leans down to whisper in Junghwa’s ear, and it reminds Ten of how that’s their thing, too.

“That’s a terrible idea and I’m totally up to it,” placing the cup somewhere beside him, Yuta replies, and tightens his grip on Ten’s thigh.

It’s the fraction of a second, where Sicheng seemingly finds them and makes a beeline for the couch, while Johnny hugs his girlfriend’s waist and softly, sweetly, joins their lips. His eyes, though, remain open. And they focus wholly on Ten.

That’s when Ten takes the lead and gyrates his body so he’s facing Yuta and their mouths are millimeters apart, breaths mixing together. It’s just the fraction of a second, where Ten kisses a boy publicly while both his friends watch.

And God, does he enjoy it. The press of Yuta’s moist and eager lips, how smoothly they move and involuntarily guide him. How Ten just falls pliant under Yuta’s hands reaching behind him to hold his back, and leaves a warm spot where his other hand was to place it on his cheek instead, as to angle his head.

How, as Ten moans into his mouth, craving whatever Yuta is giving him, nearly climbing onto his lap, and then decides to let his eyes flutter open—they find Johnny’s intense gaze on him instantly.

It’s then, that those lips turn plumper, somehow. A sharp cupid’s bow appears. And Yuta no longer tastes like alcohol and oranges.

He tastes like home.

-

“Why didn’t you tell me?” Johnny laments out loud. They’ve been silently staring at each other for an hour, maybe, and Ten refuses to crack.

He refuses to assimilate reality.

“Isn’t it obvious?”

Johnny shakes his head dramatically. “No! I’m your best friend!”

“That’s why! Dumbass. I couldn’t lose you. You couldn’t know.”

Ten recalls every single moment where he would fantasize about this situation, coming out to Johnny. It’s nothing like he imagined.

“Why would you lose me? Do you—you think I would… leave you?”

And that’s the motive, the whole point. Ten knew (now knows) Johnny would stay by his side, no matter what Ten did. No matter if he’s gay or killed a person (though there’s no correlation between both those scenarios, but Ten expects a similar reaction to both of them from most people), Johnny would support him and advise him. He’s just weak like that. But then comes the side of Ten that’s self-conscious, ashamed, guilty—unfortunately, the one that has taken hold of his brain, over his entire self.

Johnny’s reassuring and gentle words become useless.

“I wasn’t thinking about you leaving me. It’s just—you’ve always wanted me to have a girlfriend, to get a wife and children and grow older together with our respective families. That’s… That’s not me, Youngho.”

A silent, flimsy tear rolls down Johnny’s cheek. Hanging by a thin thread, Ten’s heart drops.

“I-I’m sorry. I never meant to make you feel like you had to do those thing. I—I want you to trust me,” Johnny mumbles, gulping audibly, “I feel so bad. If only I knew— God , I made you feel awful.”

“It’s okay,” he attempts to appease him, and shifts closer so their knees knock together. It sends a different kind of tingle down Ten’s spine. Johnny’s eyes shine with a flickering light, glassy, and it shouldn’t be as breathtaking as it is. (Because those tears are, partially, Ten’s fault. Because Johnny is his bestest friend).

“So, you are…”

The silence that follows doesn’t help with the heaviness on his chest, like concrete drying in his heart, it gets denser minute by minute.

“I’m gay.”

Although Ten breathes a sigh of relief, there’s no relief, per se. It’s watching Johnny’s unchanging expression and hoping their friendship will remain the same.

The wave of easiness comes once Johnny’s arms are engulfing his lithe body in a comforting and loving embrace (suffocating, too, but it’s what makes it more thoughtful), face flush against the length of his neck. Ten, now, breathes in and doesn’t feel like his lungs are on the brink of bursting apart.

It’s Johnny’s homely scent.

“I’m sorry,” he mumbles, muffled by Ten’s shirt, “I love you.”

They go to bed, together, an habit that should be weird for Johnny now, but nonetheless grabs Ten’s hand and guides him towards the stuffed and soft mattress. There’s an arm around Ten’s waist, a routine, and that’s when Ten feels just a tad less heavy.

It’s all about pretty boys.

III: PALACE

Yuta confesses to Sicheng and Johnny breaks up with his girlfriend. These particular events take place somewhat near the same period of time.

With their dynamics constantly mutating, Ten doesn’t notice when it all starts to change.

(Though, he’s aware, it’s a gradual process).

“I feel betrayed,” Yuta bemoans, eyes attached to Sicheng—and the human doll beside him. Jung Jaehyun. “He’s been ignoring me just to trail behind that Ken-looking guy.”

“Do you realize you were doing literally the same time to him when you first met him?” Ten quips.

“Yes—but Jaehyun is straight.”

“And you didn’t know if Sicheng was straight or not back then, either so—”

“Who’s straight?” Johnny pops up behind them, jokingly meddling in their conversation.

“Ten,” Yuta responds. It pulls a giggle out of Johnny, who stares at Ten with raised eyebrows.

There’s still some discomfort when discussing the matter, especially from Ten, but Johnny seems to be dealing pretty maturely with it. It’s Ten whose heart beats erratically.

“Right,” after Ten rolls his eyes, Johnny says, and sneakily wraps one arm around his shoulder. Yuta notices and presses his lips into a thin line, opting to stay silent.

Without doubt, Ten can’t focus on Sicheng and Jaehyun, nor listen to Yuta and Johnny debating about what their interactions mean—it’s solely the heat Johnny’s body glued to his side irradiates, the smell of his shampoo, a constant that fills his heart with affection.

Now, it materializes, that feeling, those unknown factors that Ten’s been trying so hard to ignore. They are all presented in front of him, so Ten begins to understand.

-

Sleeping in the same bed is different.

At least, for Ten, it’s a pleasant but now thought-provoking experience. It induces certain ideas, certain feelings, that Ten shouldn’t be going through at all. And becomes impossible to dismiss.

(Partly, he blames it on Johnny. On his constant need for closeness, clinging to Ten or even Yuta, sometimes).

“What are we watching?” He asks breathing against the back of his neck. It’s impossible.

“Whatever you want.”

Johnny chooses what appears to be a rom-con (because he’s a hopeless romantic, unsurprisingly), but even if Ten had picked a movie out himself, he’d still be paying it no mind. His bed is far too small for two—their bodies jammed between the mattress and the laptop Johnny is balancing on his knees. So, there isn’t much Ten can ignore, his attention diverting from the screen to Johnny’s profile.

His full, rosy lips. The way his eyelashes flutter every time he blinks (such a simple action, that Ten doesn’t want to think about the implications of finding it cute ). When he licks his lips, when he laughs. The softness and warmth of his skin against Ten’s. It’s all in the details.

Ten now understands how, progressively, Johnny became the main and most important factor.

“You’re sleepy, right?”

Nearly jumping out of his skin, Ten’s eyes quickly shift towards the laptop, and then allows them to droop as to confirm Johnny’s statement.

“Yeah,” Ten mutters, “let’s just sleep. Romance is boring.”

With a short laugh, Johnny nods and places his laptop somewhere on the desk within reach. Ten doesn’t think when Johnny circles his arms around his waist, when he then turns around and completely welcomes Ten to do just the same—as they’ve been doing for years.

This time, it’s different. Now, Johnny’s back sears against his chest. It leaves a mark, that Ten wasn’t able to see before.

-

Undeniably, Ten falls in love.

Love, in Ten’s opinion, is a strong, heartful word. Love comprises many meanings, many obligations, responsibilities. And Ten doesn't want to be a liability.

Yet, Johnny is a big factor in Ten’s life. So Ten falls for him.

It’s not a life-changing sudden realization, it’s finally understanding, seeing. How his heart sometimes beats faster than normal when Johnny is present, or some other times, when it doesn’t beat at all—when Ten freezes, full-body, at the mere contact of Johnny’s skin against his. Perhaps, these aspects have been there since the beginning, every fit of jealousy, every second glance, every forbidden and hidden thought.

Johnny has always been there, so it’s no surprise.

“What’s up with him?” Yuta asks, whispering, once Johnny leaves to get a refill.  

“Why?”

“He’s been so touchy lately… And I don’t mean his usual clingy-self. I mean his Ten-clinginess that’s been getting just—too obvious,” failing at keeping his voice low, Yuta explains. Ten attempts to process his words but it makes his stomach churn.

“What are you implying?”

“I have no idea, I’m just pointing it out. You’re going through it, like, really through it.”

And Ten is, indeed, going through it.

“God, am I that obvious?” he groans.

“No, not you—he’s just… All over you. It’s understandable. I mean I see it because I know you, and I’m still convinced that you’ve been in love with him since you first saw him.”

Yuta’s habit of sticking his nose in others people business sometimes is helpful, apparently. He’s very observant and attentive, so he notices things that Ten wouldn’t be able to detect. Though, this time, Ten is very aware. Of Johnny’s constant touches, bordering on overprotectiveness sometimes.

“I can’t do anything, though. It’s what I have to deal with, I guess,” as Ten is about to sigh, Yuta interrupts with a mocking laugh.

“Don’t pretend you don’t enjoy it.”

In a way, Ten does. Because of course, those deep, concealed desires exist. The need for that contact to be something else, more. Still, Ten has to collect himself and suck it up. No matter how much he wishes he could act on them.

“I don’t.”

Johnny plops down beside them once again, and Yuta restarts their previous conversation, completely ignoring Johnny placing a hand on Ten’s thigh under the table, probably an instinctive reaction, yet it starts a chain reaction inside Ten’s body.

The blood in his veins turns into liquid fire.

-

“Sorry,” Johnny apologizes as Ten flinches. The imprint of his hand on his back still incandescent.

“Don’t worry.”

It’s been getting tougher, Ten finding himself incapable of withstanding it anymore. It’s looking at Johnny’s lips and picturing them against his, scorching, burning. It’s watching a movie in bed and wishing Ten could just straddle him and make out for hours.

It’s coming to terms that it’s all inside his own head.

“Are you okay?”

“I think this is the third time in a week that you ask me that,” Ten replies instead, “I’m fine, just tired. Y’know, school.”

“I told you I’d help you with Math!”

Last time Johnny tried to tutor him, Ten couldn’t concentrate more than a minute because the tint of Johnny’s lips was just too enticing.

“Fuck off, I’m smart enough to study myself.”

Johnny shrugs and leans against his shoulder, like every single time, meaning to knock him off the bed. Now Ten loses his balance because Johnny gets way too close—and the impact has nothing to do with it.

“I know.”

-

Ten has a dream that night.

One where he’s confident, sure of himself and his actions. Apparently, they are both bantering about something that Ten doesn’t recall with accuracy, and Ten wears a smug expression on his face as if he knows something Johnny doesn’t.

Then they are kissing. With passion, fervor. Ten remembers it almost vividly, the press of Johnny’s thick lips against his, nearly covering his entire mouth, Ten confidently wrapping his legs around Johnny’s waist (they were in some kind of washroom, if he’s not mistaken, and Ten was sitting while Johnny was pacing around). Every sound coming out of their mouths, and their breaths mingling together once they part.

It’s only a dream, Ten knows, as he wakes up with a heavy heart.

The imaginary imprints of Johnny’s lips, the ghost of his hands caressing his back and thighs, the exhilarating desire and vehemence. It will remain inside his head, where Ten builds a palace.

Covered in gold, bathing in red roses, Ten leaves Johnny there.

 

IV: ONE BAD NIGHT

“Does this look good?” Ten steps out of the bathroom, trying on the fifth outfit of the evening. It’s Johnny’s fault, he guesses, and his unconscious need to impress him (even though Johnny has seen him maybe in his worst states, bedhead, red-faced and crying).

“Yes, I told you, five times already,” Johnny says, and then, “you look good in everything.”

It’s all in the details.

How Ten has to swallow the sharp feeling in his throat, like needles, knives. It doesn’t hurt anymore.

“Well, thank you,” Ten utters, avoiding facing Johnny so he doesn’t reveal that he’s actually blushing.

This time around, it’s Ten who proposes going out, impelled by Yuta’s encouraging words. So they get ready at Ten’s place and wait giddily for Yuta to pick them up, and once he does, they drive to the house where the party is being held (and as he enters the car and finds Sicheng in the passenger seat, messy hair and red spots on his neck, Ten muffles a giggle and remains quiet).

Alcohol helps Ten get rid of any inhibitions, that’s mainly the reason he’s been partying so much lately (and because Johnny’s actions don’t hurt as bad, their drunk-selves completely forgetting about it the next morning), so once he’s inside and comfortably seated where no one will throw up on him, or grind against him, he accepts Yuta’s bizarre drinks volitionally and gulps it down in one go.

Johnny just watches him attentively, and then does the same.

To no one’s surprise, Ten is babbling two hours in. Clingier than usual, flirtier than normal. A combination that could end pretty badly, with Johnny hugging his waist and guiding him outside.

“Yuta and Sicheng are making out somewhere… I didn’t wanna interrupt them,” Johnny comments as he finally lets up, allowing Ten to flop down on the grass.

The stars gleam brightly, the night draping over them like a curtain, blanketing the city with a slight fog and an icy atmosphere. Though, Ten doesn’t mind the burning cold. He only notices because Johnny’s breath becomes visible every time he talks, and then shivers, attempting to warm himself up by rubbing at his arms.

“You’re cold—”

“I’m bisexual.”

Ten freezes. Not from the cold, clearly. He goes rigid, and stays laying on the grass until the sudden urge to throw up overcomes him and then he’s sitting up, vomiting all over himself.

After, it’s a blur.

-

Fortunately, Ten remembers it all. Or well, he recalls the feeling of grass against his skin and the echo of Johnny’s words taunting him. Yet, that’s enough for him to wake up to his stomach churning once again.

(And he doubts it’s the alcohol).

Unfortunately, Johnny is right beside him.

“God, are you okay?” He asks, putting a hand on his neck and placing the other on his forehead, probably checking his temperature. Ten knows he’s not cooling down any time soon.

“Yeah,” Ten mumbles, “I’m fine, just—”

“Don’t worry, you got really wasted,” reassuring him, Johnny starts massaging his back. It only worsens his stomach ache.

“Please, Johnny, just tell me what you told me last night.”

Johnny frowns, stops any movement, and then bites his lips. The silence that follows is a heavy one, filled with untold emotions.

“I—I think I’m bisexual,” he breathes out. Exhales, inhales. Ten understands that feeling the most. So he does what Johnny did back in the day, what he knows Johnny needs, and forgets about the hangover and sore throat to sit up and embrace Johnny in a tight, warm hug. They stay like that for minute, hours, eternity.

Ten doesn’t mind. This time, his heart beats regularly.

-

Johnny suggests stepping outside, get some fresh air.

No alcohol or parties involved, or any other people that isn’t them. Which, should’ve been suspicious right from the start, but Ten is too focused on the pair of jeans that Johnny chose to wear—making his legs appear longer, and so, he looks taller.

(Which is hot, but Ten has to keep it down. Hidden).

“Where are we going?” He dares to ask once Johnny opens the doors to his car. (It’s actually his mom’s car).

“It doesn’t matter.”

“Wow, how romantic,” Ten quips. Johnny giggles. It’s all in the details.

Arriving at a dark, vast field, Ten fears a little for his life. Despite its eerie aspect, once they come in contact with the fresh breeze that’s blowing, and Ten discerns small, pink flowers under his feet—the scenery becomes breathtaking. Above, the pitch-black sky showcases a variety of speckles in form and color, twinkling, and beside, the moon glowing with a silvery tone. Ten couldn’t ask for more.

“This is—refreshing,” he says.

“I know, I looked it up and the weather forecast said it would be a clear and nice day, so…”

“You planned this that much? Wow, what a gentleman—”

“I like you.”

It appears Johnny picked up this habit—interrupting people in the middle of a sentence to drop a bomb and brush it aside, as if Ten’s heart didn’t just start beating so hard it might just break his ribs. There’s no way he’s going to be able to process that statement.

What?”

Johnny’s sudden confidence falters, and he struggles to find his tongue. “I-I like you. As in, more than a friend. I think—you’re the reason I realized I partially like boys.”

It’s a heartfelt confession, one that makes Ten’s skin crawl in a good way. Goosebumps arise all over his flesh, and once again, the cold isn’t the one to blame.

“Don’t joke about that, Youngho,” Ten warns, “it’s not something to take lightly.”

“I’m serious, Ten.”

And as Ten’s known him his entire life, it’s easy to read him like a book. Note when Johnny’s lying or telling the truth, when he’s sad or happy, he’s complex in other ways—but Ten knows his way around him like the back of his hand.

Johnny likes him.

“Not to be completely out of line but,” he moves closer until their legs are touching, and their faces are inches apart, cross-legged sitting on the damp and freshly-cut grass, “can I kiss you?”

After those words leave Ten’s mouth, and Johnny nods eagerly, eyes fixing immediately on Ten’s purple lips, he has to pinch himself. To know that it isn’t a dream, any of this. Evidently, it all remains the same.

The stars shine brightly above them, and the foggy horizon threatens to welcome different shades of orange and yellow into the sky, and Ten leans up and kisses Johnny like he was meant to do almost his entire life. Above, the black, dull curtain, doesn’t compare to the cliché sparks that appear at the contact of their lips.

It starts like one of those close-mouthed kisses, awkward, at the beginning of Middle School when you’re forced to—basically. It’s slowly experiencing with the sensations, and Ten is extremely aware, that Johnny hasn’t kissed a boy before. So he takes the lead, gently adding pressure, coaxing Johnny’s puckered lips to move and slightly open. It works, Johnny adapting to Ten’s pace and tempo, following Ten’s experienced but unreliable guiding.

That’s how, once Johnny’s elbows give out, and he falls back onto the grass, the kiss becomes anything but innocent. It’s an opportunity, right in front of him, of which Ten has dreamt many times, so he takes that chance—and straight up straddles Johnny’s lap, attaching their mouths once again straight away.

Johnny tastes like home.

It’s a fact that Ten has known even before tasting him. It’s on his scent, his aura. He’s like a family opening gifts on Christmas morning, a get-together after many years, a warm coffee on a gloomy morning. Ten doesn’t consider himself a poet, but there’s just too many ways to describe Johnny.

Now, though, it’s passion. Open-mouthed, biting lips and swallowing groans. Johnny shyly places his hands on Ten’s back (and it’s nothing like Yuta’s hand, or touch, it’s nothing like any other boy’s kisess). Ten plays with Johnny’s hair, aware of him adoring that, and his body melts into Ten as he holds him tighter and tighter. There’s just an insatiable tension accumulated from all the years.

“Fuck,” Johnny groans, “I’ve never kissed a boy.”

“I’ve never kissed a boy I loved,” Ten says. It makes Johnny lean back just to stare at his eyes, at Ten’s usually bottomless but fierce eyes, now filled with an alluring glint.

“I’m sorry I’m so dumb.”

“Just shut up and keep kissing me.”

Johnny does, with fervor too. Learning in the process, nibbling at Ten’s bottom lip, drinking in the sounds Ten’s been holding in for so long. Fiery, passionate. Ten’s hands work their way around Johnny’s body, after he gets a nod from him, a confirmation, and so they sneak inside his shirt, caressing every curve and line along his hefty figure.

“Can I?” Johnny is considerate enough to ask, his pure soul, as his hands rest at the hem of Ten’s sweatshirt.

“I’ve been waiting my whole life.”

So it’s a process, a gradual one, where there’s no ending or beginnings. Not one bad night, nor a good one. It’s a combination of many factors.

It’s a cliché that Ten learns to accept.