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your heart ticking like a time bomb

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Sicheng has two kinds of friends. The first kind is okay with silence, and becomes close to Sicheng due to proximity, existing in the same comfortable quiet for some time until their lives naturally meld together. The second kind just barrels into Sicheng’s life and sticks like a barnacle, refusing to shut up or leave.

Take a wild guess as to which kind Nakamoto Yuta is.

In Sicheng’s defense, he has no idea what he’s getting into. He’s five years old and is shy and polite, which is an unfortunate demeanor to have in a relatively social world— his mom is always worried that he doesn’t have enough friends. At five years old, he doesn’t have the words to tell her that having no friends is better than being in bad company.

Anyway, on to Nakamoto Yuta. Sicheng is on the swingset, minding his own business, while his mom keeps half-hearted watch on him from the bench nearby. He’s at the highest point when a kid runs over with a snapback and a mildly deflated soccer ball; Sicheng has to tuck his legs in to make sure he doesn’t kick the other in the head.

“HEY,” the kid says.

He has messy black hair and is probably around seven. Sicheng sneaks a glance over to his mom— she’s watching, and for some reason, Sicheng isn’t allowed to cite stranger danger on people his age.

So Sicheng reluctantly skids to a stop, woodchips flying everywhere. He stares down at his shoes, unable to meet the other boy’s eyes. “Hey.”

“I think I’ve seen you before,” the kid says, tilting his head. Sicheng tries to figure out if this statement goes the other way around— no, Sicheng doesn’t recognize the other boy at all. “Do you live around here?”

“... Yeah.”

“Me too. I live on the circle. My name’s Yuta. What’s yours?”

The circle? Oh— Sicheng knows exactly what Yuta’s talking about. He likes to bike on that cul-de-sac because it has the steepest downhill in the neighborhood.

“Sicheng.”

“Do you want to be friends? We can play soccer together,” Yuta says. “My friend Taeil is sick today, so he can’t play, and I tried playing alone, but it’s nowhere as fun.”

See, Sicheng never got to answer whether he wanted to be Yuta’s friend or not, but Yuta, his mom, and the universe collectively make the decision for him. Getting his butt kicked at a very unofficial game of soccer marks the start to the day Yuta inserts himself as a permanent fixture in Sicheng’s life and refuses to budge.

With Yuta comes Taeil, and Sicheng learns that the house at the very edge of the cul-de-sac (the circle, as Yuta always calls it) is shared by both the Moons and the Nakamotos. Sicheng doesn’t understand the logistic of that arrangement— honestly, Yuta and Taeil don’t even understand the logistics of that arrangement themselves— but it’s an interesting subject nonetheless.

“My dad says it’s not technically our house,” Yuta says. “It’s someone else’s.”

“Oh,” Sicheng says. “How can you live in it, then?”

“Because he says the real owner is super rich and has a bunch of houses, and lets us live in this one,” Yuta says. “I don’t know why someone buys that many houses if they’re just going to let other people live in them.”

“Yuta’s family gets half the house and our family gets the other half,” Taeil says. Taeil is quieter than Yuta, the shadow half of the package deal. Gradually, though, he’ll warm up to Sicheng, and then he’ll reveal himself to be as weird as Yuta is. “We share the kitchen.”

“That sounds cool,” Sicheng says. Later, he’ll realize the arrangement is probably a pain much of the time, but for now, he’s just a little jealous that Taeil and Yuta get to have sleepovers everyday.

“Yeah.” Yuta shrugs— he’s too used to his living arrangement to give proper assessment on how it is. “Anyway, let’s go to the park and play soccer. Two against one.”

In elementary school, Sicheng is in one grade, and Taeil and Yuta are in the grade above him. They eat lunches and play at recess together, and Yuta and Taeil develop the habit of spending the afternoon over at Sicheng’s, enough that it’s almost a second home.

Yuta never ceases to be fascinated with Sicheng’s house. When he comes over, he always likes to look at the lunar calendar on the wall, the baby grand piano in the living room, and especially the spinny pouf chair. Yuta has two years on Sicheng, but it’s Sicheng’s world that Yuta chooses to live in, not the other way around.

One thing that Sicheng learns early is that the Moons and the Nakamotos are polite people. When Yuta and Taeil’s parents find that their sons have been eating snacks over at Sicheng’s, they immediately send food over in compensation, and the pantry in the Dong household soon contains a mixture of Chinese, Japanese, and Korean snacks. Sicheng vividly recalls the three of them arguing over whose language stole from whose— he’s pretty sure Taeil won.

Politeness, however, differs from niceness, which differs from kindness, which differs from love.

Sicheng thinks that Yuta is polite on the outside and filled love on the inside. He establishes almost right away that he has a whole lot of love to give, emanating from him like radioactive material. Yuta loves dogs, all of the dogs in the neighborhood, and when he’s older, he loves kids, giving away precious quarters to lemonade stands and yard sales.

So in the summer, when Chenle comes over to Sicheng’s house, Yuta loves him.

Chenle’s parents are best friends with Sicheng’s parents, but their families live an hour away from each other, so Chenle only comes to visit about twice a year. The kid’s hyper, in a way that would be annoying if Sicheng weren’t so grudgingly fond of him, which is probably due to the sheer admiration that shines out of Chenle’s eyes whenever he looks at Sicheng. Older by four years, Chenle thinks just about anything Sicheng does is cool, so Sicheng can pass off old things as new to him— games, jokes, riddles, stunts.

“Alright, don’t make any noise, okay,” Sicheng whispers, helping to fold Chenle into the kitchen cabinet. They’re playing hide and seek, and Yuta is it.

Chenle giggles underneath steel piping and lemon cleaner, and Sicheng goes to hide behind the curtain. Yuta finds Taeil first, because Taeil almost always hides under the sofa or the couch, and then Sicheng, but is unable to find Chenle for the life of him.

Yuta likes Chenle even though Chenle doesn’t admire him that much at all.

“He called me Taeil ,” Yuta complains to him the next day. “I don’t think he can tell me and Taeil apart.”

“To be fair, a lot of the teachers can’t tell you and Taeil apart, either,” Sicheng says.

“I want Chenle as a little brother, the kid is so cute ,” Yuta fusses. “Remember when we were that tiny, Sicheng? He’s so tiny.”

Sicheng rolls his eyes. “If you had a little brother, you’d accidentally kill him.”

“Not true. I’m super nice to Taeil’s little sister.” Yuta actually learned how to french-braid hair for Taeil’s little sister— it’s a neat trick, and really useful. “But she likes Taeil better, obviously. Ugh. I want a little brother that’ll think I’m cool.”

“I don’t think it’s possible for anybody to find you cool,” Sicheng says, and ducks when Yuta tries to hit him.

But yeah. Between the two of them, Sicheng is the more mature, but Yuta is the one that keeps everybody together. He expresses love easily. Privately, Sicheng thinks that Yuta would make a really good big brother, but he would never in admit that to Yuta, not in a million years.

---

In middle school, Sicheng’s best friend is Minghao Xu. Sicheng never makes fun of Minghao. Outside of school, Sicheng’s best friends are Yuta and Taeil, and Sicheng doesn’t think he’ll do anything but make fun of the both of them.

At this age, Sicheng isn’t allowed to just play in the afternoon in the afternoon, so when Yuta and Taeil come in after school, Sicheng’s usually practicing piano or studying. Taeil is pretty good with doing homework with him; Yuta, not so much. On good days, he doodles along the edges of the paper or stares at the ceiling. Most days, his quiet only lasts for so long before he caves and begs Yuta and Taeil to do something with him because homework is so boring.

“You’re gonna die in high school next year,” Taeil says, amused.

“Hey, Sicheng, how do you make it so that it flaps its wings?” Yuta asks, holding up an origami swan. He pulls the head and tail, but the wings don’t move.

Sicheng frowns. “I don’t know. What’d you do wrong?”

“Why do you automatically think that I did something wrong?” Yuta protests. He’s actually really good with origami— he can make five kinds of paper planes and several different kinds of flowers, but animals aren’t his strong suit.

“Wait, is that your math homework ?” Sicheng asks in disbelief, inspecting the swan.

“You didn’t realize that earlier?” Taeil says. “Yeah, it’s his math homework.”

Sicheng unfolds the swan. There’s some work on it that barely passes as math, and Yuta has torn off the whole bottom of the worksheet so that the paper would be a square.

“Hey, Yuta,” Taeil says, suddenly serious. “I heard your mom and dad talking about how they’re not going to let you come here all the time anymore unless you get your grade in math up.”

“What?” Yuta says, smile disappearing.

“Yeah. They were talking about sending you to a tutoring center or something.”

“Well, I’m not getting a tutor ,” Yuta says, scathing. “Hey, Sicheng, do you have any tape?”

Sicheng passes him a roll of masking tape, and Yuta tapes the worksheet back together before starting on it, mouth in a tight line.

Yuta never has to get a tutor. By the end of the semester, his grade in math is a solid A. Sicheng doesn’t really understand the true gravity of that, because math comes easily to Sicheng— he’s three grades ahead, and he likes numbers. But really, the amount of work Yuta puts in is as solid as any theorem to serve as a proof that by middle school, he’s already in love with Sicheng, although Sicheng, of course, has absolutely no idea.

---

Contrary to Taeil’s predictions, Yuta does not, in fact, die in high school. His grades are decent, if not stellar, and he joins the soccer team. He comes over to Sicheng’s house to show off his jersey, and later, a couple of medals that he wins.

High school seems like a foreign place to Sicheng, who is in eighth grade, and maybe part of him fears that Yuta will vanish into it, but Yuta is just Yuta, albeit a Yuta that swears more and makes more dirty jokes. Sicheng reprimands him for it at first, until he starts doing it himself.

“You’re kind of a terrible influence,” Sicheng remarks.

“I mean, it would’ve happened sooner or later, Yuta or not,” Taeil says. In high school, Taeil is one of those people who manage to retain much of their childhood kindness, which is an impressive feat, to say the least.

“What do you mean, Yuta or not ,” Yuta says. “It’s not like I’m— I don’t know, showing you porn, or like, selling you cigarettes, or getting you drunk—”

“Oh yeah, my friend gave me a pack of cigarettes, I don’t know what to do with them,” Taeil says. “I might sell them or something. Do any of you know how to work eBay?”

“See? Long story short, it’s Taeil we should be worried about,” Yuta concludes, although Sicheng isn’t listening anymore. “I’m just a lame guy who watches too much anime.”

Taeil sighs.

“Hey, Sicheng, come to my soccer game tomorrow,” Yuta wheedles, winding his arms around Sicheng’s back. “Sicheng? Please?”

A funny story— somehow, Sicheng has managed to obtain a reputation for hating touch. He didn’t really hate it in the beginning, but someone pointed out that he never hugged anyone and tended to avoid skinship, and somehow, he just went along with it until he just became to the guy who didn’t like to be touched. He’s half of mind to shrug Yuta off, but Sicheng’s just too used to it from him.

Sicheng doesn’t usually say yes to these things, but he doesn’t have anything tomorrow, since it’s a Friday. “Okay.”

Yuta’s eyes widen. “Really?”

“I mean, I have to ask my parents,” Sicheng backtracks. “But okay. You guys better win.”

So the next day finds Sicheng up in the bleachers, intimidated by all the high schoolers he sees around him, and Yuta on the field. This Yuta, wearing a uniform and a cool smirk, fist-bumping teammates and scoring goals— Sicheng almost doesn’t recognize him. He regrets coming to this game to see a stranger, and after that night, develops a subtle fear for the next year.

But when freshman year actually arrives, Sicheng holds his own.

He’s in the advanced track for pretty much everything and is a coveted partner for for projects and quizzes. He does Cross Country in the fall, debate and math team all year round. People will ask him how he has his life so together.

In truth, he doesn’t sleep as much as he should, and much of his drive comes from the unhealthy belief that he isn’t good enough.

He hangs out with Minghao’s group of friends, a loud and friendly bunch that Minghao looks one-hundred percent done with all the time. In high school, Taeil is boxed in as one of the theater kids; Yuta as a soccer kid, as aforementioned, and that, on top of the two of them being a grade ahead of Sicheng, mean that their social circles don’t run together at all. So in school, Sicheng doesn’t really talk to Taeil and Yuta, even if he could. They always hang out after school, anyway.

An annoying aspect of their age is the romance part— Sicheng admits to being attracted to a couple of people and not really doing anything about it. One time, he likes a girl enough to ask her out, which was probably one of the most terrifying experiences of his life.

“You have a girlfriend ?” Yuta asks. He finds out from Taeil, who Sicheng tells first, probably due to his subconscious sense of self-preservation. “Why didn’t you tell me?”

“It’s not a big deal. Taeil’s had plenty of girlfriends and boyfriends,” Sicheng protests, trying to shove Yuta off of him.

“And he told me all about them, unlike you,” Yuta says. Sicheng wonders why he’s so apt to hear about this stuff— it bores Sicheng to death. “When’d you get together? What happened? Have you guys like, kissed?”

“Can you, like, stop interrogating me?” Sicheng says, a little cross. “No, we haven’t kissed. I just liked her and asked her out.”

“I don’t know how you’re so cool about this. I would freak out if I ever scored a date.”

Yuta, surprisingly, has never gone on a date with anybody. The guy’s a romantic— he says he’s waiting for the right one, or something. Sicheng personally believes that line of thought archaic (seriously, it’s the twenty-first century), but he’ll respect Yuta’s wishes. Besides, Yuta would be insufferable if he ever did find somebody, so Sicheng’s glad to put that off.

Or, Yuta’s standards have just been raised too high by anime. That’s the other possibility.

Sicheng, himself, wouldn’t say he scored Mina— she’s definitely out of his league, personality-wise. It’s just, he saw her playing the piano, and he was impressed. That’s all.

They date for six months, and their fall-out isn’t overly gruesome. Not pretty— they didn’t wind up friends after the relationship— but it could definitely be a lot worse. She’s the one who cuts things off, and Sicheng is a little bit heartbroken, but he can’t say he didn’t deserve it.

He would say he’s glad he dated her, though. He learns that relationships are a lot of work, and that it requires some show of affection to keep the spark aflame. Basically, he learns that relationships are not for him. He has the vague thought that in the future, he’ll probably have to marry someone, have a family, whatever, whatever. He imagines he’ll suck it up and be a good husband and father when that happens.

Sicheng gets the label of being cold. Someone goes as far to deem him incapable of feeling emotion. Sicheng wouldn’t say that’s the case. It’s an unfortunate truth that most people that don’t know how to show emotion are the ones that have the most trouble dealing with it.

---

It’s just that maybe Sicheng has too many expectations for the future. He doesn’t know where the pressure came from. His parents are strict, yes, but they make it clear they’ll love him no matter what. He supposes that much of the pressure comes from himself.

The school he goes to definitely doesn’t help. Take AP classes, manage your SAT scores, make sure that you’re keeping track of extracurriculars and volunteering hours so that your college transcript looks good. It keeps their high school ranked as one of Ohio’s best, but it’s also a crushing pressure on a lot of students, Sicheng included.

Are you good enough ? he wonders, late at night. On bad days: No. You’re not good enough .

“This entire damn school needs to take a chill pill,” Yuta announces, and that’s what lets Sicheng breathe.

Yuta seems immune to the atmosphere of their school. “It’ll be a cold day in hell when I do something for the sake of looking good on apps,” he says bluntly. Yuta plans to go to their local community college for two years before transferring over to Ohio State. “I don’t need to be stuck in debt for fifty years due to education, thanks.”

So while Sicheng doesn’t necessarily walk the path Yuta and Taeil pave, he does get to see a bit more ahead of him than some of his friends do. High school is not the end of the world. He notes what Yuta and Taeil do, and makes decisions accordingly.

“Ask Yuta and Taeil,” becomes a mantra of Sicheng’s parents, when it comes to what classes he should take next year or when he should take the SAT.  

Freshman year blends into sophomore blends into junior year, which is Yuta and Taeil’s senior year. “Thanks for abandoning me,” Sicheng says, a little after their graduation, Yuta with his cap upside-down on his head.

“You should’ve come out of the womb earlier, then,” Yuta retorts. “Wait, actually, that wasn’t up to you, nevermind. That was up to your parents—”

“Stop talking. Stop talking right now. You’re not allowed to use words anymore,” Taeil says, slamming a hand over Yuta’s mouth. “Anyway, I actually don’t think it’ll be much different? Yuta will be living at home and I’ll be driving down during the weekend.”

“Hmm. Yeah. It’s just the principle of it, I guess,” Yuta says.

“Oh, congratulations on graduating, by the way,” Sicheng says, a little abhorred by how he forgot to say that in the first place, even though he’s far from politeness with Yuta and Taeil.

“Right? Finally out of this hellhole. Now I’ll be in a different hellhole,” Yuta says, smug. “Oh, Sicheng! Sign my yearbook, please.”

Yuta only bought the yearbook for his senior year because the yearbooks cost fifty dollars, and he says he’s not paying that much for what’s basically a glorified picture book of his classmates. Sicheng takes out a pen, writing, “Have a good summer.”

“That’s the most generic thing you could have ever written,” Yuta says, affronted. “You could have just written H.A.G.S. Really rub it in, you know.”

“You’re going to be seeing me in the summer! And probably the rest of my life!” Sicheng says, exasperated.

“Oh, did someone write you a sonnet ?” Taeil says delightedly, yanking the yearbook out of Yuta’s hands. “Aw, they did! Oh my god, they did the iambic pentameter and everything— I’m taking a picture of this. Just give me a second.”

Taeil is right, though. Nothing much does change on Sicheng’s end.

He and Taeil message each other on weekdays, and most weekends, Taeil drives down to visit. That, coupled with how Sicheng never saw Taeil in school in the first place, makes Sicheng totally forget that Taeil is in college at all at times. There is even more minimal shift in his relationship with Yuta, who lives at home. Yuta comes over to Sicheng’s house, plays All Star on the piano, acts annoying. Same old, same old.

I’m not the one who’s going to leave Ohio,” Yuta says, when Sicheng comments on the zero disturbance. “That’s all on you.”

Sicheng shrugs. “I might go to Ohio State.”  

“Both of us know that isn’t the case—” Yuta likes to do this thing where he’ll have way more faith in Sicheng’s abilities than Sicheng is comfortable with “— you’re gonna go to that place in Cali.”

“They haven’t accepted me yet.”

“What kind of sham school would turn you down?” Yuta scoffs, and Sicheng rubs his temples.

UCLA is his dream school. It’s hard to explain, but Sicheng saw the campus over the summer, and long story short, he fell in love.

“Can we, like, not talk about college,” Sicheng says. “Deadlines are coming up, and I’m tired.”

“So you’re asking me to help you procrastinate? I got you.” Yuta goes over to his laptop and pulls up some illegal streaming website, interface surrounded with R-rated ads. “What do you wanna watch?”

“Your pick.”

Yuta’s predictions come true. Sicheng sends in his essays, which he can’t help but find pretentious and cliche, and a few months later, he gets an acceptance letter from UCLA. He gets the letter and just looks at it for a moment, unable to believe it’s real. He almost wants to keep the news all to himself, not tell his parents or his friends and have them fret over it. It feels like there’s a small sun blooming in his chest, unbelievably warm.

His parents are happy. Of course they are.

“You worked hard,” his dad says. “Congratulations.”

Taeil freaks out. “Dude, you’re going to California!”

Minghao says, “Nice job,” and drops the subject after, which Sicheng likes.

The person he has the most trouble telling is Yuta. Not because Yuta wouldn’t be happy for him, but Yuta would make a big deal out of it, since he knows how much Sicheng cared about getting into this school, and that’s a little embarrassing. But he has to.

“I told you so,” Yuta says, wrapping him in a hug that Sicheng barely registers after years of being manhandled. “I’m not surprised. Like, I’m going to be happy for you because you’re happy about this, but I can’t say I’m surprised.”

“I think you’re happier about this than I’m happier about this.”

“I like to live through my friends,” Yuta says. “You better bring me back a souvenir, okay?”

---

UCLA does this little lifestyle inquiries survey to assign roommates together. Sicheng winds up with this guy named Ten.

“His name is Ten?” Yuta reads over Sicheng’s shoulder.

“Yuta, privacy,” Taeil chides, reading over Sicheng’s shoulder as well. “But yeah, his name is Ten?”

“Unless it’s a typo, yeah, his name’s Ten,” Sicheng says.

“That’s actually a pretty cool name,” Taeil muses. “If he ever decides to be a superhero, he doesn’t even need an alias— he’s all set.”

“I don’t trust that name. He’s probably a serial killer,” Yuta says, shoving his face closer to the screen, and Sicheng thinks that along with privacy, personal space is just not a concept that Yuta ever learned. “He’s probably named Ten because of all the people he killed.”

“That’s a bit of a stretch, don’t you think,” Sicheng says drily.

He messages Ten for awhile, who seems like a good person, albeit a good person who abuses the emoji keyboard and uses way too much punctuation and shorthand. They get the basics down— Ten lives in Chicago, Illinois, just a state over, and talk about perhaps meeting up.

Sicheng’s initial thought is to meet up somewhere in Indiana, at the midpoint, until he finds out that Ten can’t drive. its a city thing , Ten says. you couldnt drive here if you tried.

Exact opposite is true in the suburbs. You can’t get anywhere without a car , Sicheng types. I actually would rather bike, but the sidewalks here are just for show.

thats so weird to think about!! but yea sorry :( i dont think i could go to indiana on my own. i guess well just see e/o in cali/

Sicheng asks his parents, though, if he can make a trip over Chicago. His parents are kind of horrified at the idea, worrying over the safety of driving over to another state, but Sicheng, at seventeen, has gotten pretty good at playing their game.

“I’ve only talked to him over the internet,” Sicheng argues. “And you can’t know somebody unless you meet them in real life.”

Sicheng’s mom contemplates that. “That’s true,” she admits.

“And if he turns out to be really weird, I can request a switch sooner,” he adds, and after a little more back-and-forth, his parents consent that he can go over, as long as he updates them every three hours over the phone.

So Saturday, Sicheng drives West, carrying a can of pepper spray in case Yuta’s predictions are correct and Ten’s a serial killer, switching radio stations as he travels over the long distance. The scenery along the highway is predictable, although he gets a few strange smells as he passes by poultry farms in Nebraska. It’s in Chicago that things get interesting— skyscrapers sprout up out of the ground around him, and traffic becomes very, very dicey. Sicheng takes a good half hour to find a parking spot, and then he heads for the address that Ten had given him, which turns out to be a little smoothie shop with a neon aesthetic.

Sicheng’s seen Ten’s face in pictures, so Sicheng picks him out pretty easily. Ten’s a couple of inches shorter than him in real life, but he also has an aura that makes up plenty for the average height. “Hey,” Ten greets. “Oh, wow, the pictures don’t do you justice.”

“Um, thanks,” Sicheng says, a little bit flustered, and Ten grins— Sicheng gets the feeling that Ten’s like this to everyone. “Have you ordered yet?”

“No, that’d be rude. Although I guess it’s rude to loiter like I’ve been doing for the past hour, too, I guess,” Ten says. His voice is slightly accented, but he speaks sharp, confident. “What kind of drink do you want?”

“Any recommendations?”

“Everything here’s good. I like coming here on days when I don’t need the caffeine.” Sicheng feels his natural shyness dissolve a bit under Ten’s outgoingness, and the two of them head up to order.

“So, like, anything about you that I absolutely need to know?” Ten asks.

“Whenever anyone asks me something like that, I forget absolutely everything about myself,” Sicheng says, and Ten laughs.

“Fair enough. Sorry for giving you an identity crisis, then,” he says. “There’s not much to know about me except that I’m kind of scared of fruit, and that also, if we ever see a bug in the dorm, we’re going to burn the whole place down.”

“I can kill bugs, so we don’t have to resort to arson,” Sicheng says. “Also— fruit?”

“Yeah. Fruits are kind of terrifying, if you think about it. Like, especially tropical ones? You could kill somebody with a pineapple.”

“You’re drinking a fruit-based smoothie right now, though.”

Ten waves a dismissive hand. “That’s different.”

“Okay,” Sicheng says slowly. “I don’t get it, but okay.”

They talk about their majors. Sicheng is in architecture, Ten doubling with dance and design, claiming he wants to make costumes in the future. “It has a lot of math, though,” he sighs. “I can’t do math to save my life, but I’m starting to find art and math are a package deal.”

“I can’t dance to save my life,” Sicheng says.

“That’s what everybody says. Get two shots in them and their opinion changes very quickly,” Ten says, and Sicheng vaguely registers that his parents might disapprove of Ten— oh, well. College is all about making bad life decisions. “I’m sure you’re not that bad. A lot of people really just lack confidence.”

“Then I’m sure you’re not so bad at math.”

“That’s what my boyfriend said, actually, but he’s super smart,” Ten says. “He told me about, like, fractals and infinity and the golden ratio. I got a tattoo of the symbol.” He rolls up his sleeve to reveal a small phi on the inside of his wrist. “Apparently, it represents perfection in art.”

Sicheng examines the tattoo, the dark ink and neat lines.

“But most people will probably think it’s because I’m in a frat or something,” Ten laughs.

“What’s your boyfriend’s name?” Sicheng asks.

“Johnny. He’s like, kind of a nerd, kind of a really lame comedian. I can show you a picture of him.”

Sicheng takes note of the way Ten’s voice softens, the way Ten’s eyes crinkle when he pulls out his phone and slides it over. It’s a picture of Ten and another guy, presumably Johnny, standing side by side. Scaled to size, Sicheng is pretty sure Johnny has at least half a foot on Ten. They’re cute. That’s the only way to describe them.

“He’s going to UChicago.” Ah— long distance. But Ten doesn’t seem worried about that at all. “All he told me was to try not to flirt the entirety of Cali into submission.”

“He’s really tall,” Sicheng comments.

“See, thank you for saying that instead of saying that I’m really short,” Ten says, pleased. “Yeah, he’s tall. We have a joke that a skyscraper gave birth to him.”

“Your skyscrapers are really nice. We don’t have anything like that in Ohio.”

“They are . Chicago’s got a lot of problems, but the skyline’s gorgeous. But I don’t think I’ll miss it too much at UCLA,” Ten says. “I’ve been in a lot of places. You can make anywhere your home if you try hard enough.”

That’s a strange thing to say. Sicheng feels like no matter how hard he tries, he can’t find a home anywhere. His cells are rooted in China, but his body lives in America— no matter where he is, he doesn’t fully belong. Maybe that’s why he’s majoring in architecture: something inside him wonders if he has a home, if he could possibly build one for himself in the future.

Ten is also Chinese, but he’s lived everywhere but— Thailand, Korea, the United States. He’s proficient in several languages because of it. Sicheng wonders if Ten feels like he doesn’t belong at times, but if Ten does, it doesn’t show. Sicheng doesn’t think he’s ever met someone who seems so comfortable in their own skin.

“Are you staying here for the night?” Ten asks, when Sicheng’s finished his smoothie, the sky just beginning to darken.

“Yeah, I’ll probably find a hotel or something.” There’s no way Sicheng would get back to Ohio in time, what with the insane traffic.

“You could stay over at mine,” Ten says. Sicheng opens his mouth, about to say that he couldn’t impose like that, but Ten continues. “I’ve been all over Asia. You’re not going to out-polite me. So you might as well stay.”

So Sicheng stays over at Ten’s household, meeting Ten’s mom, who Sicheng senses is warm but strict, and drives back to Ohio on Sunday. He feels mildly jet lagged after being on the road for so long, even if he was in a car. His head is full of static, like the radio station, which he stopped bothering to change sometime in Indiana.

---

“I still think he could be a serial killer,” is Yuta’s evaluation. “A pentalingual, good-looking artist slash dancer with tattoos and piercings that also happened to flirt with you a little bit? That just screams of murder.”

“Oh my god,” Taeil says, exhausted. “ Yuta .”

“I think it’s his nature to flirt with everyone,” Sicheng says.

“On the slim chance he’s not a serial killer,” Yuta continues, “then he’s the whole package. Like that’s love interest material right there. You could date him.”

“Okay, first off, he’s my roommate, so that’d already be a deal breaker,” Sicheng says. “And second off, he’s taken.”

Yuta hums. “Hmm.”

Sicheng doesn’t understand the hmm , and he doesn’t like that— Yuta’s usually pretty easy to read. But really, Sicheng isn’t going to UCLA for the dating prospects. He would rather not worry about such things. “Third off, he’s afraid of fruit.”

“That’s such an interesting character flaw,” Yuta says, and the oddity dissipates. “Is this anime available on Crunchyroll?”

---

Sicheng would never admit it, but summer feels like the end of everything. Ohio’s boring, especially the nowhere neighborhood he lives in, tucked away in some nameless suburb, but Sicheng is familiar with the cracked pavement, the sidewalks that stray off to nowhere, the neat rows of houses.

Chenle comes over. The kid is heading into eighth grade; Sicheng only registers how fast time passes when he sees it on someone else.

“So,” Chenle’s mom says, at dinner. “Sicheng, I heard you are going to UCLA! Congratulations.”

“What’s that?” Chenle asks. “Oh, is that a college?”

Chenle’s reaction might be Sicheng’s favorite one of all. To Chenle, UCLA isn’t a top-twenty school with a low acceptance rate; it’s just a meaningless string of letters that sound kind of cool when you put them all together.

“Yeah. It’s over in California,” Sicheng says.

“Oh. Will you come back to visit?” he asks. Sicheng detects a legitimate fear in Chenle’s eyes that he’ll just vanish off to the other end of the United States and never return.

“Yeah. Every winter break and summer break, at the least,” he says, and Chenle smiles and returns to his corn on the cob. God. He wishes Chenle could just stay like this forever, knowing nothing of university rankings or standardized tests.

Yuta hasn’t been as dramatic as Sicheng expected over his departure, which Sicheng supposes he’s relieved about, until the actual day Sicheng heads for the airport. School has already started for Yuta and Taeil; unfortunately, Taeil has classes today, and can’t see him off.

“Hey,” Yuta says, the two of them eating empanadas while waiting for the flight. Sicheng cracks open his three-dollar bottle of Sprite. He had forgotten about lunch while packing and is literally paying the price. “Video-call me all the time, okay? And text me. Don’t worry about the time difference.”

Sicheng, for once, chooses not to fire off some sort of retort. “I will.”

“I’m serious. Don’t forget about me.”

There’s legitimate concern in Yuta’s voice, and Sicheng should probably be do something like reassure him that no, it’s impossible for Sicheng to forget about him when they’ve been friends for over a decade, but in the end, the words die in his mouth. They’re too sentimental— he can’t get them out. Yuta’s expression is raw, and it’s more terrifying to Sicheng than guns or fire or tropical fruit could ever be.

“I won’t.” Sicheng averts his eyes, switches the subject. “Hey, do you wanna bet on how much that sweatshirt over there costs?”

---

California, due to its proximity to the sea, is very warm. Sicheng is actually unsure of how to dress for it. He’s used to the ever-changing weather of Ohio and being able to wear hoodies for a good half of the year.

“Hey!” someone shouts, and Sicheng turns to see Ten barreling over. Well. Ten should probably know how to dress, at least. He’s not explicitly majoring in fashion, but he made it clear that he knows a thing or two about style.

“Hey, Ten,” Sicheng says, grateful to see a semi-familiar face.

Yeah, the campus is gorgeous, but he knows nobody here. It’s a strange experience, watching people mill about, no names to attach to their faces, although Sicheng knows he’ll be acquainted with many of them in the coming year.

“Here, I’ll go help you unpack, and then we can go meet up with Taeyong and Jaehyun.”

“Who?”

“My friends. I got here two days ago, and I got lonely.”

“You work fast,” Sicheng notes, and Ten laughs, light and airy.

“Yeah, well, I’d die without social interaction, so I kind of have to,” he says. He points in the opposite direction. “Our dorms are over there. Shit, I’m starting to realize how big this place is. At least I’ve got an excuse to being late to class, then.”

Ten has already set up camp in the dorm, and Sicheng notes that Ten has actually made an effort to keep all of his stuff to exactly half. Ten’s put up posters, and his half of the room looks already like it’s been lived in, while Sicheng’s is just a basic structure, not yet filled in. Sicheng and Ten pull stuff out of Sicheng’s suitcase until Ten gets bored, and then they meet up with Taeyong and Jaehyun in a little cafe that sells bubble tea. Sicheng isn’t partial to the way bubble tea tastes, but he finds an odd sort of delight in the texture of the tapioca.

“Jaehyun’s a freshman, like us,” Ten says. “Taeyong’s a second year.”

“Jaehyun and I are friends with each other from back home,” Taeyong explains. “I’ve been stuck with the guy all my life.”

Jaehyun smiles, and Sicheng is disarmed. Sicheng isn’t usually one to notice these things, but Jaehyun has this aura about him. Sicheng knows nothing about objective attractiveness, although if he were to guess, he supposes that Taeyong’s face, probably based off the golden ratio mathematicians so love, would be it, but Jaehyun— there’s something to his smile.

“Taeyong’s an English major,” Ten says. “Apparently, he’s a genius at writing. Like, song lyrics, stories, whatever. You name it.”

“You’ve never even read anything I’ve written,” Taeyong protests.

Ten waves a dismissive hand. “I trust the rumors,” he dismisses. “So I was telling Taeyong about my friend, Lucas. He went to China in the summer, and he’s living in his grandparents’ apartment, and he met a ghost in the stairwell.”

Ten says it with such conviction that Sicheng doesn’t even question it as a true story. “What’d the ghost want from him?”

“Lucas doesn’t know either. But I was saying that the ghost was probably just lonely while completing their unfinished business, or something, and Lucas is a pretty fun guy to talk to. Taeyong said he could write a story about that for a class this semester.”

“Are you a writer yourself?” Sicheng asks. Creativity flows from Ten in waves— Sicheng wouldn’t be surprised.

“No. I can’t be good at everything,” Ten laughs. “Do you want to see the pictures Lucas took of China? They’re pretty cool, he’s good with filters. He sent me a bunch of pictures of the fruit vendor down the street, though, because he’s an asshole.”

“What’s wrong with the fruit vendor down the street?” Jaehyun asks.

“Ten’s afraid of fruit,” Sicheng says. Jaehyun laughs: it’s a startled sound, unsure of whether Sicheng is kidding or not, but it’s a good sound nonetheless. “Hey, Jaehyun. Where are you from?”

“Connecticut,” Jaehyun says. “You?”

---

“I might join the bee club,” Ten announces, when Sicheng walks into the room. Ten isn’t talking to him, though. He’s talking into the cellphone he’s got between his head and his shoulder, other hand occupied with his textbook.

“Alright,” whomever Ten is talking to says back, on speaker. “Is this some kind of innuendo? Like, for pollination or something?”

Ten pouts, although the person on the other end of the line can’t see it. “You have so little faith in me. I joined the club out of a legitimate dedication to the environment, Johnny.”

“Can’t say I’m sorry to doubt you. Your mind’s always in the gutter.”

“Pollination’s a stretch, even for me,” Ten says. “I mean, fine. I joined ninety percent for dedication to the environment, ten percent for the joke potential. But the bee club really does seem nice.”

“Good to know you’re doing well at UCLA.” The voice goes softer, and Sicheng shies away, a little uncomfortable, even though Johnny isn’t even in the room. It’s just that any sort of intimacy sends him into the mindset of a twelve-year-old boy, and this conversation reeks of it.

“Ah, you know my heart’s in Chicago, or at least, in the Chicago black market for organ-trade,” Ten says. “Hey, my roommate’s here. Say hi.”

“HI,” Johnny yells, like he’s a wizard who doesn’t know how muggle telephones work. “TEN’S TOLD ME ONLY GOOD THINGS.”

“Johnny, you’re on speaker, you don’t have to yell—”

“HI,” Sicheng yells back, if only for Ten’s amusement. “TEN’S ONLY TOLD ME GOOD THINGS ABOUT YOU, TOO.”

“He’s lying,” Ten says into the phone. “I’ve been badmouthing you to everybody. Not a single good word here.”

A month in, and Sicheng’s decides he has good luck with his roommate— UCLA’s algorithms worked their magic when it came to living styles. Ten never touches Sicheng’s stuff, even though Ten operates by an open-book policy when it comes to his own things.

Although, in this timeframe, Sicheng has also realized that he needs to be on guard about Ten, only because Ten makes life look deceptively easy, effortlessly doing everything at once while maintaining a long-distance relationship to boot. His schedule is chaotic on the surface, but there must be some hidden structure underneath, the way nautiluses build themselves off the golden ratio and sunflowers unfurl their petals by the Fibonacci sequence. Sicheng, however was not born with this magic ability of time management, and finds himself with several word documents in an attempt to keep track of his classes and spending.

Sicheng would say he has it under control, though. It’s a challenge, but not a struggle. His classes are interesting, and he personally likes it better than the strict eight-period days of high school. And although he hasn’t managed to root himself so deeply in the campus social scene as Ten, he’s made a couple of friends.

One of them is Kun, who shares a couple of classes with him. Sicheng thinks that Kun is definitely one of the more normal people he’s met, which paradoxically makes him abnormal — someone that nice and caring is out of place in today’s society.

“Here, you want a hi-chew?” Kun asks. “I got apple or pineapple, if you want them.”

Sicheng’s never had a hi-chew before— he picks the pineapple one, and it turns out to be a little fruit-flavored block that tastes pretty decent. “Thanks.”

“No problem. I use these to keep me awake in class, since I can’t have coffee.”

“You can’t have coffee? Why?” Sicheng asks, squinting. He does not ask, how do you live ?

Kun shrugs. “I don’t know. I just don’t react well to it, I guess? The same way some people don’t react well to weed.”

“I mean, they’re both mind-altering substances,” Sicheng says. “I’m sure there’s a relatively nearby alternate universe where weed’s legal and coffee isn’t.”

“If I find a wormhole, then that’s the universe I’m heading for,” Kun laughs. “Anyway, you’re not the only person to think I’m crazy for not drinking coffee. We’ll see if I crack during finals week.”

The other person that Sicheng befriends is Jaehyun, which he supposes is technically a result of Ten, but Sicheng would like to think that at this point, he and Jaehyun have a relationship that exists outside of Ten’s field force. Sicheng doesn’t know why Jaehyun would seek him out, since with Jaehyun’s golden aura he can talk to anybody, but Sicheng isn’t about to complain.

The two of them go swimming together. “Hey, the rec center has a pretty neat pool, wanna try it out?” Jaehyun asks, and that’s that. Sicheng only swims for fun while Jaehyun actually does the sport, but Sicheng thinks he can hold his own pretty well for an amateur.

There’s some moments when Sicheng feels awkward, because Jaehyun is, with no other way to put it, well-built, but once in the water, the awkwardness dissipates. Twenty minutes in, Jaehyun challenges him to a race.

Sicheng protests, “Hey, you’re on the team, and I’m not.”

“One, I’m not on the team yet, and two, I’m only good at freestyle,” Jaehyun says. For some reason, Sicheng’s mind flashes to this one swimming anime that Yuta showed him where the main character only did the front stroke, but he isn’t going to bring this up to Jaehyun. “I’ll do butterfly against you. I’m weakest on that one.”

“No. Do freestyle against me,” Sicheng says, pride flaring up. “Respect your opponents.”

“Well, alright then,” Jaehyun says, and the two of them count to three and kick off the wall. Sicheng cuts through the water, lungs gasping in the unfamiliar territory. Jaehyun’s good— he’s a monster, actually, but Sicheng would like to think he loses with dignity.

“Rematch,” Sicheng says, as soon as he’s caught this breath.

“You’re not bad,” Jaehyun says. “Here, I’ll do butterfly. I think it might be an even match, then.”

Sicheng loses again, but only by a millisecond. It’s still a bruise to his pride, but he supposes that the next time, he shouldn’t compete against someone who’s in a totally different league.

The two of them get out of the pool after an hour, and the awkwardness returns; it’s even worse now with Jaehyun’s hair wet and droplets of water rolling down his torso. Sicheng averts his eyes, toweling himself off and putting a shirt on, keeping a distance as they walk out of the rec center and onto the quad.

“I kind of feel, like, a sense of whiplash,” Jaehyun comments. “In Connecticut, it’d be freezing now.”

True. The sun is warm on their shoulders, the two of them in t-shirts. Sicheng can already feel his hair drying, frazzled from the chlorine. “Same for Ohio. When we went trick-or-treating as kids, we always had to wear puffy coats over the costumes.”

“Damn. California’s got it good,” Jaehyun says. “Except, I guess, they’d have to bullshit along to Christmas songs when they come on the radio. I doubt this place has ever seen snow.”

Sicheng laughs. “They probably don’t get the full hoodie experience, either.”

“Oh, you’re right ,” Jaehyun says, flashing that blinding grin. And Sicheng— he’s painfully aware of his body, feels on-edge like he’s standing in an electric field, too conscious of all of his movements and too wanting to say something remotely clever, It’s worrisome, to say the least. “Should I even buy a UCLA hoodie? On one hand, school spirit, but on the other hand, when would I wear it.”

“Depends on how much they cost, and if you fit the stereotype of a broke college kid.”

Jaehyun throws his head back and laughs, and Sicheng ducks his gaze to the quad to try and hide a smile.

And then, of course, there’s Yuta, who Sicheng has known since forever, and whose larger than life presence is now contained to the space of a small screen.

“Sicheng!” Yuta says, on video call. “You’re so pixelated!”

“So are you.”

“I miss your non-pixelated, real-life self.”

“Just pretend you’re like, watching a LQ anime then,” Sicheng says, irritable. “How are things back home?”

“Exactly the same. The sidewalk sprouted another dandelion, you know the drill. Tell me about California. What’s up? Have you, like, partied, or gotten piercings, or other non- Sicheng-ish things yet?”

Something about this question scrapes at Sicheng the wrong way, although he can’t pinpoint why. Maybe it’s because Yuta just assumes his personality will change once he’s in a different location. Maybe it’s that Yuta just thinks he has rights to know everything about Sicheng’s life. Whatever.

“Is this Yuta?” Ten asks, settling in next to where Sicheng’s sitting on the bed. “Hey, Yuta. Sicheng told me about you. You’re the friend from back home.”

“And you’re the cool roommate with the phi tattoo. So nice to meet you,” Yuta says, affecting a starstruck air, as if he’s talking to a celebrity. “We should talk to each other sometime.”

“Of course. We can discuss how cute Sicheng is together.”

“Or we can not,” Sicheng says, while Yuta laughs in the background, noise distorted by the video call.

“That seals the deal, we’re doing it,” Ten says. “Alright, well, I’ll leave you two be then. I’m gonna go get food.”

“Taeil’s doing well,” Yuta says, when Ten leaves. “Oh, he got memed by the Ohio State facebook page, I need to send some of the screenshots to you, they’re great.”

A dot blinks on Sicheng’s screen, reminding him that he’s got a paper due. “I have to go,” Sicheng says, already pulling up the word document with the essay. “I’ll talk to you later.”

“— Oh, okay,” Yuta says. “Sure. Talk to you later.”

---

On Yuta’s list of apparently non-Sicheng-ish things is partying, which Sicheng had vaguely known might change with his time at university. He’s still caught off-guard when the reality of it hits him in the face Friday night.

“Taeyong’s friend is having a party,” Ten says. “We should go.”

“Uh,” Sicheng says, incoherently.

“C’mon. Law of entropy is that any closed system will eventually move to disorder. Might as well start early, right?”

“... Did you just involve the second law of thermodynamics in an argument to get me drunk?”

“Yes,” Ten says, without shame. “Is it working?”

“A little bit, yeah.”

Ten beams. “I learned the entropy thing from Taeyong. He probably didn’t intend for me to use his words like this, but hey, information is information.”

Sicheng allows Ten go through his wardrobe to find an outfit that Ten deems acceptable for the occasion, since Sicheng himself has no idea. After awhile, Ten tosses him a shirt and some pants, saying, “Here, put this in.” The clothes actually aren’t too ridiculous, just on the more stylish side of what Sicheng usually wears. He lets Ten pencil eyeliner on his eyes; when Sicheng looks at himself in the mirror afterward, he’s unable to tell exactly what Ten had done, but his eyes do look different. Brighter, somehow.

“Nice,” Ten says, approving. “Those clothes look so good on you right now that I’d prefer you out of them.”

Sicheng chokes.

“Sorry, sorry,” Ten says, clearly not sorry at all. Sicheng likes his roommate well enough, but he’s still getting used to Ten’s utter lack of filter. “Anyway, let’s go meet up with Taeyong and Jaehyun.”

“Wait, Jaehyun?” Sicheng asks.

“Um, yeah. Somebody here’s gotta have good alcohol tolerance. Taeyong can’t hold a single beer and I don’t keep track how much I drink,” Ten says. “What, you got a problem with Jaehyun?”

There’s a knowing smirk on Ten’s face. “No, I don’t have a problem with him,” Sicheng says slowly, unwilling to give himself away.

“Well, then, that’s great,” Ten says, innocent. “You should see Jaehyun in club attire. I think he’s gotten a request to strip before. He didn’t fulfill it, but I would’ve, if I had a body like that.”

“And this is why you don’t have a body like that,” Sicheng says, effectively cutting Ten’s teasing off. “The universe made sure that you wouldn’t abuse it.”

So he and Ten meet up with Jaehyun and Taeyong pretty, and the four of them head over to the location of the party. Jaehyun does look good, and Sicheng keeps his mind out of the gutter, which is harder than normal, since some of Ten’s personality has rubbed off of him. Sicheng wishes he had hoodie pockets to stick his hands into, since he has never felt more awkward in his life.

Sicheng really didn’t know what to expect for a party, but he loses all confidence with the loud music, the raucous laughter, the dancing. He remembered telling Ten at their first meeting that he absolutely cannot dance, and well— the movement here doesn’t set his expectations too high, just a couple of wasted atoms bumping against each other, but he’s anxious nonetheless.

“What do I do,” he asks Ten.

“Okay, so first, we locate the booze,” Ten says, scanning the horizons. Once he’s found what he’s looking for, he hands a red cup to Sicheng. “Drink this. It’s liquid confidence.”

Confidence, apparently, tastes terrible. It smells like paint and burns going down, and Sicheng decides that if this doesn’t work, he isn’t going to trust Ten’s opinion for the next month , but after he downs a decent amount, his body starts to feel warm and light, and the music starts to sound a lot better.

Seriously, the music is so good. Sicheng doesn’t know what song this is, but it’s so good. He can feel his blood coursing through his veins, and his pulse syncs up to match with the beat of the song. Dancing seems like a really good idea. Like, all those people dancing— they’re really smart. Sicheng should take a hint from them. Ten is already on the move, clearly not needing much alcohol to get to a comfortable point. Sicheng loses track of Ten, so he heads off on his own, running into a bunch of people he’s seen in his classes and around the quad, some of whom enthusiastically wave and say hello, some of whom that just ignore him.

Sicheng feels pretty at home right now. He thinks he’s dancing. Whatever he’s doing, it feels pretty natural. He doesn’t think he’s ever felt so loose in his life.

“Hey,” Jaehyun says to him. Oh, there’s Jaehyun. “Make sure to drink water, or you’re going to have a really bad headache tomorrow.”

“I know what a hangover is,” Sicheng says, petulant. “Hey, have you drunk? I don’t think you’re as drunk as me.”

“I don’t get drunk that easily, apparently, which is nice. But hey, I’m drunk enough.” Jaehyun tilts his head, eyes amused. “You’re not a bad dancer, you know?”

“You’re not a bad dancer, either. Wait, I don’t mean dancing. You’re not dancing,” Sicheng says. He doesn’t know what he’s saying. “Anyway, you look really good. Did you mean to look that good tonight?”

Ten must be rubbing off of him more than Sicheng realized, because his filter really didn’t come to rescue him on that one. “I think we all tried to look good tonight,” Jaehyun says. “I’m happy you think I succeeded. Hey, wanna dance together?”

---

Hangovers are awful. Sicheng decides he doesn’t like them, and decides that he could never be a hard partier, since it isn’t worth it to wake up the next morning with his whole body feeling itchy, his mouth tasting like rot, and his skull trying to rip itself apart. The worst part might be the fuzziness to his mind; his memories from last night are tinged with static, and Sicheng has always prided himself on his wit.

He recalls hitting on Jaehyun very easily, though.

“Hey, you’re awake,” Ten says. “Do you want toast? I’m gonna go put bread in the toaster.”

The thought of food makes Sicheng’s stomach roil. “Sure, I’ll have some toast.” He knows that he has to eat, even if he doesn’t want to.

“So, how was that party?”

“You’re gonna have to go solo with parties most of the time, they’re definitely not too much my style,” Sicheng grimaces. “I think I hit on Jaehyun. Like, really badly.”

“That’s good!”

“No, it’s not, I’m going to apologize to him.”

“Why would you apologize to him? You were drunk and thought he was hot, no need to say sorry,” Ten says. Sicheng glares.  

Sicheng does say sorry to Jaehyun, stuttering the whole time. It isn’t that he’s sorry ; he just wants to make it clear that he didn’t, in fact, intend to say any of that shit. Jaehyun says basically the same thing that Ten did, except in first person— “Don’t be sorry, I was flattered.” To which Sicheng replies, bluntly, “And I’m embarrassed.” Apparently his brain-to-mouth filter still isn’t totally fixed.

Sicheng doesn’t like this. He doesn’t like that he likes Jaehyun.

Sure, it’s sweet in a way— his insides go all warm and electric whenever they have what Sicheng’s subconscious deems a good interaction— but mostly, it’s exhausting to be looking for signals that Jaehyun likes him back, signals he isn’t getting. Sicheng is fairly certain that Jaehyun only sees him as a friend. The worst part is that a crush puts you at a disadvantage, whereas Sicheng is all about standing on equal ground.

“Would you rather break somebody’s heart or get your heart broken?” Sicheng once asks Ten.

“Get my heart broken,” Ten says immediately. “That way, there’s no guilt. And besides, heartbreak is great inspiration for creativity. What about you?”

“Break somebody’s heart.”

“Really?” Ten looks genuinely astounded, as most people probably would be at Sicheng’s answer, even people who know him pretty well, with the exception of maybe Yuta, who knows that Sicheng’s a competitive asshole who can’t stand pity. “Damn, Sicheng.”

But Jaehyun holds Sicheng’s heart in his hands, with the power to break it.

Besides, like the flirting, the crush is plain embarrassing. He, Jaehyun, and Ten are talking once when Jaehyun comments that he really likes Ten’s piercings, touching the metal bar protruding out of the shell of Ten’s ear to emphasize his point. “I’ve got a couple piercings myself, but I want more.”

“What about tattoos?” Sicheng asks.

“Oh, I think they’re so cool, like, it’s living art,” Jaehyun says. “But I’d have to be sure of a choice, because removal is a hassle. I’ve thought about an image of a serotonin molecule, though? Like, small, maybe on my wrist. As a reminder to be happy.”

“That sounds good,” Sicheng says, leaning against a wall.

“It was just an idea,” Jaehyun says. “Also, who am I kidding. I’m terrified of the idea of being inked by a needle for two hours.”

“It’s not that bad,” Ten says, but Jaehyun and Sicheng both disregard his words. While Ten’s perceptions of the world are admirable, they’re also usually not applicable to the rest of the population.

But it’s a totally coincidental event— no correlation at all— that Sicheng decides to get his ears pierced. He wanted to back in high school, anyway, and it’s not like it’s that noticeable. Ten comes along, excited.

“I’m just putting holes in my body, no need for the hype,” Sicheng says.

“Hey, piercings are art, and I’m invested in all art,” Ten says. “Besides, I have to make sure you get a good pair for the first few weeks, since you can’t rotate them out until later.”

Two quick pinches in each ear, a lecture on disinfection, and a pair of silver studs later, Sicheng walks out. He’s never been too concerned about what he wears, but he thinks he gets it— it’s a form of expression. A difference to show to the world.

“Hey, I like your earrings,” Jaehyun says casually, and—

Maybe it’s not a difference. Maybe it’s something to make him more the same.

---

Rejection is a bitter pill to swallow. Not necessarily a bad thing every once in awhile— Sicheng knows it’s important to stay humble— but god , it tastes bad.

He and Jaehyun are studying together in the library, Sicheng recording measurements on a piece of paper, trying not to glance over too much. Jaehyun is not the best person to focus around, and today, Jaehyun doesn’t seem very focused himself, chewing his lip and rereading the same couple of pages over and over.

“What’s up?” Sicheng finally asks, since neither of them appear to be getting anything done.

“Ten told me something,” Jaehyun says, slow. “He um, said you might… be interested in me?”

Jaehyun winces, like the words are acid in his mouth, but they’re nowhere near the voltage those words are to Sicheng.

The initial thought is to get angry at Ten, but Sicheng disregards that thought almost a moment after occurs to him. They aren’t in middle school anymore. Sicheng never swore Ten to secrecy, and there is the expectation in college that if one likes someone, they should do something about it. Ten was probably just trying to help him out.

By no means does that mean Sicheng won’t ask Ten to do the laundry for the next week.

The second thought is to lie, but Sicheng decides that he’s embarrassed himself enough for this endeavor, and might as well just end it now. He knows how it will result, gauging from Jaehyun’s expression. “Yeah,” Sicheng says. “I am.”

He isn’t interested in getting brutally rejected, but then again, who is. Jaehyun looks caught off-guard by Sicheng’s response, although he was the one who brought the subject up in the first place, and Sicheng notes with some sick satisfaction that at least Jaehyun will now have to stutter his way through a no .

“I’m — sorry, then,” Jaehyun says. “I’m, um, let’s stay friends. If you want? Please. Because you’re really cool.”

Oh, wow, Jaehyun’s so bad at this that it’s painful. “It’s fine, really,” Sicheng drawls. His earrings burn holes of embarrassment into his head. “I’d like to stay friends.”

“Okay. Thanks. Again, I’m sorry… you’re a great person. You deserve someone who’s better than me.”

Watching him flounder is amusing— Sicheng wonders if Jaehyun is just spitting out random lines from movies he’s seen— but unfortunately, the hurt is also setting in, so it’s not something Sicheng can derive much joy from.

“Alright, then that’s settled. I’m going to go now, I’ll talk to you later,” Sicheng says, unable to look Jaehyun in the eye. He picks up his books and heads out of the library. There’s a weight to his steps, a little puncture wound in his chest, emptying out air.

He’s just humiliated, he supposes. He can’t stand being on this end of heartbreak— he has no power. Jaehyun can say anything he wants about how Sicheng deserves better, but in the end, it’s Sicheng who fell and Jaehyun who didn’t.

At least it’s not love. It stings, but it’s a shallow cut. It will heal.

“I’m really sorry,” Ten says.

Sicheng needs people to stop apologizing to him like he’s the victim of a bad illness. He almost wishes Jaehyun was an asshole about it— sure, that rejection was all cliche and awkward, but Jaehyun gets points for how kindly he tried to let Sicheng down.

“It’s fine,” Sicheng says. “You can do laundry for the next week to make up for it.”

Ten says, “Okay, but like— are you mad at me?”

“I mean, a little, yeah,” Sicheng admits. “But I’ll get over it.” He forgives easily, if not forgets.

Ten looks crestfallen at Sicheng’s bland tone. Sicheng stares unseeing at the ceiling— he doesn’t mind if Ten marinates in guilt for a bit, as Sicheng’s own ego is bruised and his heart beat-up. He knows from experience that he hates showing weakness, even if it feels good in the moment, though, so he sticks the sadness in a bottle and buries it in his chest.

He defers a couple of calls from Yuta, gives a few late, one-word responses to texts. Admitting this to Yuta seems worst of all.

Fortunately, UCLA isn’t a place that lets people wallow— near the ocean, the schoolwork is a tidal wave, and Sicheng memorizes passages from the textbooks that cost him more than a few organs and writes enough papers that he begins to think in paragraphs.

His relationship with Ten heals over quickly. It’s impossible to stay mad at Ten, impossible to stay mad at a roommate, and pretty soon, the two of them are back to their original dynamic.

“Let’s play the scribble game,” Ten says one night, when neither of them are able to sleep.

Sicheng knows he should be working on his project, but can’t, and caves to Ten. The scribble game is entertaining— Ten is one of those people who don’t need wifi to keep themselves busy. Sicheng thought for sure that Ten would turn his scribble into a dick, but Ten actually makes it into a cat.

“I like it,” Sicheng says, examining the doodle. “I can never draw people. Or animals in general.”

“Really? But you’re a good artist.”

“Only when it comes to inanimate objects. Extends to flowers on good days.” He remembers when he was younger, frustrated because of how unsymmetrical people were, but full to the brim with the element of life he was unable to capture. “There was no emotion in my pictures. But then again, I was always told I was emotionless.”

“What, that’s kinda rude.”

Sicheng shrugs. “I mean, I never thought they were wrong.”

Ten draws a speech bubble from the cat, reading, emotions are overrated , and Sicheng has never related to something more.

Because the truth is that he does have emotions, and his relationship with Jaehyun does not heal nearly as quickly. He keeps his sadness in a bottle, but the bottle is cheaply manufactured and plastic, with a leak in the bottom. They’ll swim, and Sicheng will duck his head under the water and think, you don’t like me , the chlorine harsh to his eyes but better than tears.

It’s fine. He didn’t come here for the relationships. He’s powered by a drive a million watts strong that will drill on with a rejection or not. He is here for his parents, to repay them for all they have given him, and he is here so he can play his role in the future, to create sustainable cities and decent low-income housing. Sicheng knows he isn’t the best with emotions, but just as certain he knows that he has discipline, and he has faith that his willpower will carry him through these four years and through the rest of his life.

The problem is that with a dream that strong, that powerful— it knocks things down in its path, things that might be unnoticeable until one looks back for them and finds them gone.

---

Near the tail end of November, Sicheng’s phone buzzes with a message from Taeil.

hey, yuta misses you. just saying.

he doesn’t want to bring it up with u though. says ur too busy.

They’re text messages, but Sicheng detects a whiff of animosity through the screen. He wouldn’t say that Taeil’s mad at him— just a bit neutral, which is like Taeil’s version of mad. Sicheng usually likes Taeil for how calm he is. How he doesn’t get too fired up about anything. But he cared enough about this to mention it to Sicheng.

The message stands as a stark contrast to the rest of the conversation thread, which consists of short anecdotes, song recommendations, and Food Network. He and Taeil don’t text that often, sometimes with two-day lags between responses, but he and Taeil have never needed too much communication to stay friends.

Sicheng thinks, he hasn’t been a terrible friend to Taeil, so why does this message bring on such guilt about Yuta?

“Um, yeah, finals week is coming and I’m dead,” Ten says into his phone, voice filtering through the room, while Sicheng stares at the ceiling and contemplates Taeil’s recent message. “Please send encouragement.”

“I’m sorry,” Johnny says. Sicheng can distinguish his voice by now. “I don’t have cash, though, so if that’s the kind of encouragement you need, then I can’t give it.”

“Johnny I’m well aware you’re broke. If I wanted money I wouldn’t have chosen you. No offense. I meant pictures. Please send me pictures of you. Or your dogs. I like your dogs.”

“Are you studying right now?”

Ten pauses, thumb poised above his phone screen; his little square avatar on Geometry Dash crashes into a triangle and dies. “Um.”

“NO, HE’S NOT,” Sicheng yells over.

“Get back to me after you study for two hours,” Johnny says. The phone clicks, hanging up.

Sicheng wonders how Ten manages to walk the tightrope of a long-distance relationship with such ease.

Before, Yuta was always just there, a few houses over. Now, being friends with him requires work, work Sicheng hasn’t been doing. Sicheng thinks of calls deferred and long lag times between responses. He thinks of Yuta’s long chains of texts and his own one-phrase replies. He thinks of how sometimes, he does think to talk to Yuta, but doesn’t bring himself to carve out that hour of time for a video call, knowing that once Yuta starts talking, he never shuts up.

Even now, when Sicheng is aware that their friendship might be falling apart, he doesn’t do anything about it, which is probably the worst part. He puts it off until later— he even opens up one of his spreadsheets and hovers his fingers over the keyboard, trying to figure out what to type. What would he even type? figure out how to be less of an asshole to ur over affectionate childhood best friend . Yeah. No. Yuta refuses to be a checkbox on Sicheng’s to-do list.

Figures.

He decides he’ll work on it when he goes back to Ohio for winter break, since right now, Ten’s right, they’re going to be entering exam season soon.

Kun breaks— his hi-chews and gum fail him, and he starts to come to their morning classes with cups of coffee. Sicheng drinks even more coffee than usual, studying late in the night and early in the morning. He looks over his notes and thinks obscenities at his past-self for skimping out on information and having shitty handwriting.

Paradoxically, the stress drives him to go to another party with Ten on Friday, because his nerves are so wound up that he craves the looseness that alcohol brings. He wakes up with less of a hangover, though, as he drank more water this time, and somewhere deep in his mind, he wonders if he might have lost some part of himself that he used to have.

He gets through finals, and boards a plane back home.

---

The first thing he registers is that he can see snow when they touch down, and thinks, shit, I’m not going to be used to this . He doesn’t have a jacket.

His parents are there to greet him when he walks out of the terminal, exuding warmth and familiarity, although they don’t make too much of a scene at the airport, since their family has never been one for dramatic displays of affection.

“Oh no, you don’t have a coat,” his mom realizes. “Here, you can wear mine.”

“I’m not going to wear your coat,” Sicheng pleads. “It won’t fit.” He says it in Mandarin, and the syllables taste rusty in his mouth after not speaking much of it for a semester.

She sighs. “I guess we’ll just have to turn up the heat in the car.”

It’s so cold that it cuts through Sicheng like a knife, but he tries not to show that. His parents are worriers— Sicheng initially wanted to keep his earrings a secret from them, but he felt bad and told them two days later. They were shocked, and his mom asked about infections, but they weren’t mad. Not that being mad would have been any use.

Yuta freaked out about the earrings, though. you got ur ears pierced?? that’s so cool!

Yuta isn’t here at the airport, though. Their winter breaks don’t start at the same time; Yuta’s finals end a week later than his. Sicheng had never mentioned the exact time of his flight, although Yuta had asked, so Yuta’s probably taking finals right now, unaware that Sicheng is back home.

Sicheng walks the cul-de-sac over to Yuta’s house, dressed in an actual coat. The neighborhood is familiar, and he’s missed it, to be honest. Snowflakes drift from the sky, melting when they hit the road. There’s a slight incline to the cul-de-sac, and Sicheng smiles a little as he remembers that he used to bike here because he found it so steep. He reaches the house at the end of the cul-de-sac and presses the doorbell.  

It’s Yuta’s mom that answers. “Oh, hi, Sicheng,” she says. “Yuta’s actually in the middle of a final right now, he’ll be back in two hours. You’re welcome to stay, though.”

“Thank you.”

It’s strange— all these years, and Sicheng hasn’t ever really been in Yuta and Taeil’s house. It’s always been Yuta and Taeil coming over to his. He sits down on the couch and pulls out a book, crossing his legs.

Besides Yuta’s mom, there’s no one else in the house. Taeil’s parents are at work, Taeil himself is at Ohio State— they won’t finish until next week, either— and Taeil’s little sister is currently at school.

A little after one, the doors slam open, and Yuta’s obnoxiously familiar voice yells, “MOM, I THINK I FAILED THAT EXAM. I DIDN’T KNOW THE ANSWER TO LIKE, HALF THE QUESTIONS.”

She yells something back in Japanese. Then, “GO TO THE LIVING ROOM. I THINK YOU’LL BE HAPPY.” Sicheng knows theoretically of the Konglish and Janglish in the Moon-Nakamoto household, but it’s pretty cool to see it in action.

“WHAT’S IN THE LIVING ROOM?” Yuta asks, skidding in with his head turned the other way. “I DON’T SEE ANY— oh my god. Sicheng. Hi.”

“Hi,” Sicheng says.

Yuta’s face splits into a smile, and his eyes glint with a brightness like coming home, but he doesn’t move, as if he’s frozen in place. It’s almost like Yuta’s shy , which is out of character, but then Yuta runs over to hug him, and there. That’s Yuta.

“Why didn’t you tell me you were coming back today?” Yuta asks, question muffled by the fabric of Sicheng’s sweater.

“Because you would’ve yelled down the whole airport,” Sicheng says. “Also, you had an exam.”

“Yeah, but I would’ve rescheduled if I’d known you were coming back. Damn, I still have exams for the whole rest of the week. I wish our winter break started early like yours.”

“If it’s any consolation, my winter break ends early, too, to balance it out.”

“That just makes it worse.” Yuta does a quick calculation in his head. “You won’t be here for New Year’s. Damn. But whatever, I’m just glad you’re back. I’ve missed you. Your voice sounds so much better when it’s not over the phone.”

There it is. That rush of guilt, along with something else. “Glad you think so.”

Yuta has to focus on exams for the rest of the week, so Sicheng doesn’t see too much of him until Friday. That’s fine— Sicheng has enough to keep himself occupied. He spends some time with his family, visits a couple of old friends from high school— he gets coffee with Minghao, who’s doing well— and he reads some books that he’s been wanting to check out but hadn’t had time.

Sicheng also practices the piano, though not for himself. Yuta says that living at home, he’s found himself playing the piano a lot more, and Sicheng suggests that they play a duet. Yuta latches onto the idea, and they decide on Canon in D. Yuta tells Sicheng to take the harder part, since, according to him, Sicheng is better at the piano, which isn’t necessarily true. He hasn’t touched their baby grand in some time.

Sicheng used to practice diligently for an hour everyday, but he usually found no enjoyment from it— he was good at playing the notes and rhythms correctly, but his teacher often told him that he played too safe, without enough emotion. He never liked most of the songs he played. The one song Sicheng fell in love with was Clair de Lune, which he mockingly dubbed the sad anime soundtrack song because he didn’t want to admit how much he liked it. He would practice it way past an hour, sometimes replaying a single measure a dozen times to get it right. But most of the time, he always practiced because he was told to.

Canon in D isn’t difficult, nowhere near Chopin’s Etudes from hell, but it’s enjoyable. Sicheng practices his half, trying to get the crescendos into perfect sonal gradients and making sure his notes are even. By Thursday, Sicheng tells Yuta that he’s got it down okay, and they try to fit their halves together. It takes about half an hour to get the hang of it, much because Yuta keeps getting distracted, remembering something funny that happened and talking about it, which Sicheng doesn’t mind too much. They’ve become dissonant since Sicheng went to college, their lives branching out in different directions. This intersection, short as it is, is imperfect.

The song turns out well. Neither of them are prodigies, but Canon in D doesn’t require genius— the eight chords sound nice with the bare modicum of competency. Sicheng doesn’t voice this, but he’d be reluctant to practice his part alone after this: his half will sound pale and uninteresting now without Yuta’s half filling in the spaces and providing harmony, no matter how well Sicheng plays.

---

After Friday is the week where Sicheng, Taeil, and Yuta’s winter breaks all intersect. For a week, it’s like old times.

“It’s good to see you,” Taeil tells Sicheng, although not with as much fervor as Yuta, because again, Taeil never needed that much from Sicheng, their friendship a solid thing, and everything Yuta does is over-the-top. “How’s the Ohio winter for you?”

“Fuck off,” Sicheng laughs. “You and I both know it’s cold.”

Their families usually celebrate Christmas together. But this year, Taeil’s been invited to a gathering with some of his Ohio State friends, so they shift the party to Christmas Eve. Their parents pass around cans of beer, and Sicheng puts on his best poker face when Taeil’s dad says, “Sicheng, you can try some.”

He pours him about half a cup. “Thank you,” Sicheng says, polite, and takes a sip. Yuta’s mom looks extraordinarily amused.

“No es tu primera vez… bebiendo cerveza?” Taeil says, in the clunky Spanish they learned in high school. Not your first time drinking beer ? Sicheng shoots him a murderous look. None of their parents can technically understand it, but it’s not hard to guess what Taeil’s talking about considering the context.

“Taeil,” Sicheng says. “Voy a matarte.” I am going to kill you .

Yuta laughs behind his cup of beer, which he’s poured orange juice into, like he understands anything about mixing. Then, he grimaces. “Wow,” he says. “This tastes really bad.”

Taeil gives Yuta and Sicheng cookies for Christmas, again apologizing for not being able to hang out with them on the actual holiday. Sicheng gives Taeil some pens in return, the kind built with grips around their barrels, since he remembers Taeil complaining about getting hand cramps taking notes.

Sicheng might not be a good friend, but he’s pretty good at giving gifts.

The next day dawns with blue skies and slush-covered roads. Sicheng isn’t big on holidays, to be honest— there’s an expectation to be absolutely happy, which is a daunting pressure. Mostly, he tries to pretend it’s a normal day.

The doorbell rings. It’s Yuta— of course it’s Yuta. “Merry Christmas,” Yuta says,  as the kind of person who is big on holidays. “Taeil drove down a bit ago to go. You’re stuck with me today.”

“Unfortunately.” Yuta toes off his snow-covered shoes. “I got you something, by the way.”

“Aw, you didn’t have to,” Yuta says, and Sicheng raises an eyebrow. “Okay, fine, yeah, I would’ve been disappointed if you didn’t. What’d you get me?”

At least he’s honest. “Give me a moment.” Sicheng goes to his suitcase, rummaging around.

There are actually a lot of instances where Sicheng will see something in a store, or something in general, and think, Yuta . It wasn’t hard to get Yuta a gift when Sicheng knows him like the back of his hand.

“Remember your One Ok Rock phase in high school?” Sicheng says. “I found a signed album at one of our school fairs. Got it pretty cheap, actually.”

And then there’s a moment of doubt, because that was back in high school, and Yuta’s a different person now, but the doubt’s erased with the shine to Yuta’s eyes. “Thank you,” he says, examining the back. “That was like, my whole eleventh grade. I forgot how good their music was.”

“I mean, yeah,” Sicheng says. He and Yuta have pretty similar music tastes, so Sicheng liked the band as well. “I think I just didn’t like them as much as you because I couldn’t understand them.” There were English translations, of course, but Sicheng would be the first person to know that the feeling gets lost in another language.

“I got you something, too,” Yuta says.

He fumbles around in his pocket, then hands a small box to Sicheng. “Since you got your ears pierced,” he says. Sicheng opens the box to find a pair of small pink studs. “And you believe in healing properties and such.”

“Rose quartz,” Sicheng mumbles. He’s always been the more superstitious out of the two of them, but more than superstition, he knows numbers— he doesn’t think this was cheap. He doesn’t mind giving gifts, but it’s hard for him to receive them. He never knows what to say. “Thank you.”

---

“Can I try your uni sweatshirt on?” Yuta says, later in the night.

“I don’t think it’ll fit you.”

“First of all, fuck off, you’re not that much taller than me,” Yuta says. “Second of all, fuck off, you kind of are that much taller than me, but let me try it on anyway.”

Sicheng takes his UCLA sweatshirt off, rolling his eyes, and passes it over to Yuta. “Oh, wow, this is really thin fabric,” Yuta comments, before slipping it on over his head. “Comfy, though.”

“What’s the point of this?”

Yuta stands up, adjusting the hem. “This is so nice. I look just like a traitor,” he says. “Eh, I don’t know. I know that I’ll be transferring to Ohio State next year, but it’s just cool to pretend that we could go to the same college together, you know? Even if you don’t want me there.”

The words catch Sicheng off guard. “I wouldn’t— not want you there.” Even he knows his words aren’t convincing.

“Mm. And the sky is purple. I’ll have Taeil next year, at least, I miss seeing him often,” Yuta comments idly. “I remember when I thought all three of us would go to the same college. I would think about all of us rooming together. Fitting a piano in there somewhere.”

And Sicheng thinks, I am a terrible person . Yuta always wanted the three of them to stay together— Sicheng never really thought much of it; he would go wherever his ambitions led him, whether Yuta and Taeil were there or not. In theory, Sicheng cares about equal ground; in reality, he has never minded if he was the one a foot ahead.

“We’d burn the whole dorm down if we roomed together,” Sicheng finally says. “Or at least get flooded with noise complaints.”

“Yeah, but like, that’s the point of pipe dreams. You don’t have to think about the logistics.” Yuta hums. “Is your flight back to UCLA this Friday?”

Sicheng nods. “Friday afternoon.”

“Oh, yeah, then you’re really not going to be here for New Year’s,” Yuta says. “Shame. You got any resolutions?”

“No.” Sicheng always thought that New Year’s resolutions were cheap— there isn’t even anything astrologically significant about January 1. The only fresh start that exists is the one when you come out of the womb.

But on the other hand, he supposes that it’s nice to have a marker, a starting gun in the form of numbers: 01/01. The year won’t be perfect. But maybe he should try to be a better person 2017.

“I have a resolution.”

“Of course you do.” Sicheng sighs. “Hey— next year, I was thinking. There’s this streaming app called rabb.it where you can, like, watch movies simultaneously. We could watch something every Saturday.”

His words are clumsy. He fears that Yuta will see right through him, this awkward attempt to bridge the distance between them, when Sicheng has always been the one creating the distance.

“Let’s do that,” Yuta says.

“There’ll be a time zone difference, though. You’re three hours later than me.”

“I never sleep anyway. It’s fine, really.”

In evolution, species diverge when there is a geological barrier between them. Sicheng hopes it isn’t too late to close the gap before he’s a totally different person altogether. He wonders why his subconscious ever wanted the distance in the first place. It’s true that he can exist without Yuta, true that he never asked for Yuta’s friendship, but Sicheng’s world’s would be a colder place without it. Nobody at UCLA looks at him quite the way Yuta does. Like they want nothing more than his company.

“Can I have my sweatshirt back? I’m cold.”

He’s just a shitty person, he supposes. Or maybe he’s just human, and doesn’t make sense.

---

“I like your earrings,” Ten says, when Sicheng returns to California.

Sicheng touches the little stones of rose quartz. “Thanks.”

---

“Okay, this website is amazing,” Yuta says, of rabb.it. “How’d you find it?”

Sicheng clicks around on his end, distracted. “Ten uses it sometimes to watch Marvel with Johnny.”

“No, but, it’s just— you can video-call and watch a movie at the same time?” Yuta asks. “There’s no lag? What is this magic?”

“Your age is showing,” Sicheng says drily. “It’s called technology.”

“I’ve gotten pizza,” Taeil says, coming out from behind Yuta and waving at the screen, home from Ohio State for the weekend. “Also, what’s this about Yuta being old? Because I agree.”

“You’re older than me, you idiot,” Yuta says, exasperated. “Ooh, you really got it half pineapple? Give me a slice.”

“Yeah, because you coerced me. I can’t believe we’re friends,” Taeil mutters. “Using my money for your pineapple pizza—”

“Listen, Yuta generally has terrible taste, but pineapple’s the best topping,” Sicheng says, and Taeil lets out a hysterical laugh. “Some people just can’t appreciate that.”

“I think you guys are just insane.”

“It’s a shame my roommate’s out right now,” Sicheng says. Ten should be back around three or something, when Sicheng’s asleep. For all that Ten jokes about being irresponsible, he’s actually pretty good at taking care of himself— Sicheng doesn’t have to wait up for him. “He would agree with you.”

Sicheng is eating cup ramen. On his end, it’s seven-thirty in the evening. “Alright, what should we watch?”

It becomes a new aspect of Sicheng’s routine— every Saturday night, he’ll see a movie with Yuta, Taeil if he’s back for that particular weekend.

One night in February, the three of them watch Iron Man , but Taeil had left halfway through, saying he was tired and that he was going to sleep.

Yuta comments, “I feel really bad for Taeil. He really liked that guy.”

And Sicheng asks, “What?”

“Oh, you didn’t know?” Yuta asks, blank. “Oh. Oops.”

Taeil did seem a little down, but Sicheng had assumed it was because it was an off day or something. “Why didn’t he tell me that he liked someone?” Sicheng asks, of mind to be a little offended. “Or that he got turned down?”

Yuta shrugs, and Sicheng sees that this is one of those few subjects that Yuta won’t agree with him on. “Because you never want to talk about this kind of stuff,” Yuta says. “Besides, Taeil thinks you don’t get what it’s like to be rejected.”

“I was literally friendzoned three months ago,” Sicheng says, dry. “I get it.”

“YOU WHAT?” Yuta yells, loud enough that Ten, who’s working on something a desk over, looks up in surprise. “Okay, you’re a fucking hypocrite, then. Why didn’t you tell me you liked someone, and then got turned down?”

It’s like Yuta dug a thumb into a bruise. “Rub it in, will you?”

“I’m sorry,” Ten apologizes, from where he’s eavesdropping. “I didn’t mean to tell him—”

“You’re fine,” Sicheng says, waving a hand at Ten. He regains his bearings, turning to the computer with a scowl. “And Yuta, it was because you would’ve flipped out, and I don’t want you to flip out.”

“It’s something worth flipping out over. What kind of idiot gets the chance to date you and then turns it down? I’ll literally kill him.”

“First of all, Jaehyun is a great person, so don’t kill him,” Sicheng says, rubbing his temples. “Second of all, I don’t think you could kill him if you tried. He’s way taller than you.”

“I’m NOT THAT SHORT,” Yuta protests, to which Ten whispers, facts . “Also, height doesn’t mean anything. I’ll break his kneecaps.”

“No breaking Jaehyun’s kneecaps, please,” Ten calls over, so that Sicheng doesn’t have to say it. “Even if you’re pissed off on behalf of Sicheng.”

“I’m pissed off at Sicheng for not telling me about this, what the hell,” Yuta says. “But whatever. I’m probably three months late in saying this, but it doesn’t mean anything if he rejected you, you know? It’s nothing on you. He just can’t see how great you are.”

Sicheng laughs. Yuta’s words are three months late, and Sicheng hadn’t expected his input to mean anything— but that little bottle of hurt that’s been sitting there in his chest, the one that’s been pushed down deep underneath a tangle of other things, dissipates fully into the air, leaving him a whole lot lighter.

---

It’s April when Sicheng stumbles.

This unit— he isn’t getting it. The concepts aren’t clicking for him, and even the numbers, which are usually his forte, seem to slide out of his grasp, calculations a hazy mess. When he submits his project, he doesn’t even get a passing grade.

Failure isn’t something he’s used to, and it’s terrifying.

He can’t talk about it to Kun, who got an A. He can’t talk about it to Ten, who’s top in all of his classes. UCLA is a competitive school. He knows that. It’s why he applied. And Sicheng’s been getting along so far, although he’s been stressed out and constantly comparing himself to others, but now he wonders if it’s a mistake to come here in the first place. If he doesn’t belong. He lies awake in the middle of the night, staring at the shadows on the ceiling while shadows swirl in his mind, and he misses Ohio so badly. Transplanted a thousand miles away, he wishes he were back trying to fall asleep in his own bed, where he at least had a good grip of the world around him.

He takes his phone out, the screen too bright in the dark. There’s a message from Yuta, sent three minutes ago. dude i know you’re sleeping but check this sunrise out later DAMn it’s like the sky’s bleeding. Sicheng taps the photo open. It’s true: it looks like the horizon’s been slashed open. On Yuta’s end, the read signal must appear, because Yuta texts, o wait ur not sleeping ?

Yeah. I can’t sleep.

any reason or just like. can’t sleep.

I have a reason, but I don’t want to say.

The three bubbles bounce for a long time, before Yuta types, do you want to get waffles together?

Sicheng’s brows furrow. … Did you forget I’m in California.

no okay hear me out. go to a waffle house near u. ill go to the waffle house near me. and then we can set up vid call and pretend we’re having waffles together. please this is an idea ive had for some time.

Yuta sends the texts one after the other, no shame. Alright , Sicheng says. Let me go find a waffle house then, I guess .

He walks out into the night. It’s three, and California nights are gorgeous— the air is crisp, the sky dark. Sicheng can breathe out here. It’s better than uselessly trying to sleep, although he’ll probably regret it the next morning in class.

He finds a Waffle House. He’s never been in one before, actually— what Waffle House is Yuta in, anyway? He sits down and orders, then pulls out his phone to set up a call. “Where’s this Waffle House?” Sicheng asks, in lieu of a greeting. “We always went to iHop.”

“Isn’t it, like, blasphemy to talk about iHop in a Waffle House?” Yuta says, looking legitimately scandalized. “Also, the Waffle House just opened around here. I’ve been meaning to go. Okay, hold on, I’m going to order.”

Two minutes later, after Yuta’s placed his order, he asks, idly, “Do you think Waffle Houses are an acceptable date place?”

Interesting question. “I wouldn’t know, I’m guessing whoever you date will just have to find it acceptable,” Sicheng topic.

“My question was if you thought it was an acceptable date place, this isn’t about me,” Yuta says, stifling a yawn. “Man, I’m tired. Sometimes I hate that I can’t sleep in.”

“Some people would kill to be able to naturally wake up so early.”

“Mm. Yeah, well, it’s not all that it’s cracked up to be. Ooh, is this strawberry syrup? I’m gonna try it out.” The camera moves a bit as he drizzles a bit of the syrup on a napkin. “Hey, the wallpaper here is almost the same as yours. It’s like we’re in the same place.”

“It’s really not,” Sicheng says. His eyes flutter. God, he’s tired, physically and mentally. He might fall asleep atop his waffles when they arrive.

“What’s up, Sicheng?”

“I couldn’t sleep because I failed a project,” he blurts out.

He halts, unwilling to explain further. He already sounds stupid. There isn’t any way to word it that will make it sound better: I’m not used to failure. I’m afraid it means I’m not good enough, that once I fail once I won’t be able to stop, that I’ve just been lucky so far. It’s hard, especially, to admit this to Yuta.

“I’m sorry. But it’s just one project,” Yuta says, and Sicheng almost shuts the phone off right there. Alright, I get it, I’m dramatic atop of stupid . Yuta has never defined any of his worth by his grades, unlike Sicheng. “You’ll pick yourself back up again, okay?”

“What if I don’t?”

“Okay, I’m not the math guy here, but the probability of that is like, basically zero. Which is a very low probability. I know everybody says you’re smart, and I mean, I think that, too,” Yuta says. “But more than that, you work hard. You don’t stop working at something until you get it, to the point that it’s kind of unbelievable. So just, trust yourself, okay?”

“You have too much faith in me.”

“You don’t have enough faith in you.” Yuta rolls his eyes, then quietly adds, “Or me.”

It’s 3AM in a Waffle House in California. The quality of the call is so bad that Sicheng can’t even make out half of what Yuta is saying. It’s a pretty random time to fall in love, and later, Sicheng will ask the universe for a re-do— but right now, he just chalks the strange flutter of his heart up to utter exhaustion and waits for his waffles to arrive.

---

“We’re gonna room together next year, right,” Ten says. “Because I’d be really sad if you decided to dump me.”

“Of course,” Sicheng says automatically. “Who else would I be roommates with?”

Everything is normal until Sicheng touches down in Ohio. Yuta, unfortunately, has gotten ahold of his flight schedule this time around, and is waiting for him along with Sicheng’s parents. And then Yuta, because he has absolutely no reservations, drags Sicheng into an embrace that one would expect from people who haven’t seen each other in years, not months.

Which is typical Yuta. What’s atypical is that— well— Sicheng notices it.

He would think that after so many years, he’d be immune to Yuta’s touch. Which he is, or else his life would be hell. But today, he registers how warm the hug is. Yuta’s arms encircle Sicheng’s torso, and it’s like coming home. “I’m glad you’re back for the summer,” Yuta mumbles, and his voice vibrates Sicheng’s skin.

“Alright, get off me,” Sicheng says, shrugging Yuta off and wondering at his own thoughts. “I’m glad I’m back for the summer, too.”

Sicheng’s parents embrace him politely, lots of distance between them— their family isn’t as well-versed in the art of touch as Yuta’s is. They walk out of the stale air of the airport, but Sicheng still finds it a little hard to breathe.

Yuta’s got his arm hooked around Sicheng’s shoulders, and it’s a solid weight, a warm weight. Sicheng might be leaning into it a little bit. Is this a natural reaction of his? He tries to remember how he usually is— does he just let Yuta be? What the hell is going on with him?

“The radio station went downhill when you were away,” Yuta says, in the car. He’s holding Sicheng’s hand, fingers intertwined together, and Sicheng decides he needs to stop trying to figure out what’s wrong with his head so that he can actually hold a normal conversation. “They’re just playing the same ten songs over and over again. I don’t know what happened.”

“It’s always been like that,” Sicheng says. “I guess you’re just noticing now.”

---

Taeil’s home for the summer, too. The three of them sit on the curb and draw up plans for the next three months.

“We should all go to the pool together,” Taeil says.

“Why?” Sicheng asks.

“Why not?” Taeil asks. “It’s summer. Doesn’t happen all the time.”

So they go to the pool. The changing rooms are gross, and the pool is crammed with people, but the water is pretty, tranquil blue, so Sicheng almost doesn’t mind. Sunlight’s heating his hair up like a toaster, and the air burns hot. The water’s a relief.

Once Yuta’s waded in waist-deep, he ducks his head underwater and comes up with his hair wet, trails of water streaking down his skin. “Fuck,” he says. “It’s cold.”

“Language, there are kids here,” Taeil says. There are indeed kids— whole families, many of them clustered near the shallow end of the pool. “I just hope they’re not pissing in the water as I speak.”

“You jinxed it,” Sicheng says, grimacing. It’s fine. That’s why there’s chlorine.

Yuta and Taeil both forgot their goggles, while Sicheng doesn’t need them. They do cannonballs off of the diving board, which had seemed so high to them when they were kids, and Yuta attempts to do a somersault in the water, miserably failing.

“You just have to go over ,” Sicheng says, exasperated, after Yuta comes up for the fifth time.

“Listen, I’m a soccer player, not a swimmer,” Yuta retorts. “I’m way better on land.”

“That isn’t saying much.”

Yuta laughs, going underwater, and Sicheng doesn’t understand what’s about to happen until he feels a pull on his leg, dragged off-balance. He’s in the deep end, and it takes him a minute to right himself. Yuta lets go off him, yelling, and Sicheng glares.

I’m going to kill you, sayonara , he prepares himself to say, but—

He blinks, not realizing how close he and Yuta are after that stunt Yuta just pulled.

“Don’t be mad, I know you’re too good at swimming to drown,” Yuta says, but Sicheng doesn’t register the words. He just—

He gets this very, very vivid mental image of pushing Yuta up against the wall of the pool and kissing him senseless. He could do it. The wall’s right there, and so’s Yuta. Sicheng’s no stranger to intrusive thoughts, but this one makes his stomach churn with discomfort. What if he did it? Obviously, he won’t— Taeil’s there, along with dozens of other families, and Sicheng is a poster child for public decorum— but what if he just went and pulled their mouths together— what if he just… did it?

“Earth to Sicheng?” Taeil says. “Oh god, he’s plotting murder. Yuta, what have you done?

That’s a good question. What has Yuta done?

Sicheng doesn’t have too much time to dwell on it. He gets a job at the local ice cream shop, Summer 12/7. His hand cramps up from scooping ice cream, which he doesn’t even get to eat, but at least his coworkers are nice. There’s this kid named Jungwoo, another named Vernon, both a year younger.

Two weeks in, Yuta visits him. “Hey, Sicheng,” he says.

Sicheng frowns. Yuta has a job as well, something with ecological restoration— his jeans are streaked with dirt, and there’s a cut running across his neck. “What happened with your neck?”

“Roses happened.”

“Watch where you’re going,” Sicheng says. He doesn’t like seeing Yuta hurt. “Are you on your lunch break right now?”

“Yeah.”

“Then what are you doing in an ice cream shop?”

“I wanted to see you. Don’t worry, I ate a sandwich on the way here.”

“Well, I’m kind of working right now,” Sicheng says. “So do you actually want to buy something, or did you just come here for the explicit purpose of bothering me?”

“You’re so direct. Uh, single scoop of strawberry in a sugar cone, please,” Yuta says, squinting at the menu. “Is this how you treat all your customers, Sicheng?”

Sicheng rolls a scoop of strawberry ice cream, drops it in a cone, and hands it over to Yuta. “No, but I’ll pay for you since this is your first visit, so don’t complain.” He’ll give Jungwoo the money later.

“You’re the actual best,” Yuta says, flashing a smile that could give the sunlight outside a run for its money. He looks at his watch and pulls a face. “Damn, my lunch break’s over soon,” he mutters, heading for the door, cone in hand. “That uniform looks good on you, Sicheng! Pink’s your color!” With that, the door shuts behind him with a cheerful jingle.

Jungwoo sidles up to him. He’s a good kid— a year younger than Sicheng, as is Vernon. “You guys are cute together,” he says.

“What?” Sicheng says, then follows Jungwoo’s gaze toward the direction of the door. “ No. We are not together. Absolutely not. We’re barely friends.”

“Oh. Sorry. You just seemed together.”

So blunt. Jungwoo doesn’t even try to look ashamed.

Sicheng tries to conjure up the disgust he should be feeling but can’t. Instead, he thinks about him and Yuta, together. On a date. Holding hands. Being cute, as Jungwoo so casually labeled it. Sicheng shakes his head. He takes out his phone and snaps a picture of the basket of strawberry slices to send to Ten, who immediately responds with a barrage of question and exclamation marks and then the firm words, ur blocked .

---

Sicheng’s mom comes home from the grocery store with a couple of party-sized bags of chips, telling him that Chenle’s family will be over for the night. Yuta’s job runs until late, so Sicheng texts him to inform him of the news.

Taeil comes over in the afternoon as Sicheng’s pouring chips into a bowl. “Hey,” he says. “Yuta told me Chenle’s coming over to your house tonight.”

Taeil doesn’t know Chenle too well, since Chenle only comes over twice a year, but Taeil knows enough for Sicheng to say, “Yeah. Did you know he’s going to high school next year? That’s so weird to me. I’ve known the kid since he was in diapers.”

“Oh, yeah, high school. That was a terrible period of our lives,” Taeil says. “Everything felt like the end of the world back then.”

Sicheng laughs, sliding the bowl over to Taeil, who takes a chip and crunches into it thoughtfully.

“Yuta was complaining that he chose a terrible day to pick an overtime shift. He really wants to see Chenle,” Taeil says. “Which, I don’t get why Yuta likes kids and teenagers so much. Like, kids, I can maybe understand. But teenagers? They’re terrible.”

“You were a teenager once.”

“And I was terrible.”

“I’m surprised that Yuta hasn’t died on the job yet,” Sicheng comments. “I wouldn’t trust the guy to wield a chainsaw.”

“He’s actually really adept at it,” Taeil says. “Like, he’s got his shit together.”

“Side effect of growing up.”

“Yeah. Speaking of growing up, Yuta and I are gonna room together at Ohio State next year, when he transfers… I’ll have to deal with him leaving his socks all over the place again. But I don’t mind.”

There’s a little break in Sicheng’s chest at that. He doesn’t regret going to UCLA, but his mind hovers over what-ifs : alternate universes where he stays in Ohio. He wonders if he’s as happy, if he’s happier.

“You know, about Ohio State,” Taeil says. His voice goes slow, unsure, like every word that comes out of his mouth is a step in a minefield. “Yuta… you know how he hasn’t dated anybody, ever?”

“Oh yeah. Waiting for the right person, or something.” Sicheng has never understood his line of thought, and still doesn’t. There’s seven billion people in the world. It would take a long time to find a soulmate, if one even existed.

“Well, he’s done waiting,” Taeil says, and Sicheng thinks there might be a bite to his tone. “He said he might date somebody next year.”

“Oh. Well. He can do whatever he wants.”

There’s something that doesn’t sit right with him about this, but Sicheng can’t pinpoint what— it’s probably just weird to think about Yuta in a relationship after being single for so long. Sicheng will get to watch his friend fall in love. Yuta will probably be insufferable about it.

Taeil rolls his eyes with something like exasperation. “I’m going to put this bluntly, okay?” he says. “Sicheng, if you have any feelings for him, please do something about it, right now.”

Sicheng’s mouth drops. “I’m sorry, what?”

Taeil could not have put it blunter if he’d written the suggestion on a brick and threw it at Sicheng’s head. People have asked if Yuta and Sicheng were together, but Taeil’s known the two of them for over a decade— he should know that they’re not…

“You don’t like him like that?” Taeil asks, voice heavy. “Not even a little bit?”

No ,” Sicheng says, certain he’s telling the truth— it has to be the truth. “Where the hell did you get that question from? He’s my friend! We’re all just friends!”

There seems to be so much more that Taeil wants to say, but all Sicheng gets is a cryptic, “Okay.”

The doorbell saves Sicheng from any more of this conversation. It’s Chenle and his parents, and all former talk is dropped in a flurry of a-yis and shu-shus and hospitality. Chenle asks where Yuta is, to which Sicheng responds that Yuta’s got a job whacking weeds and will be here later, then derails the subject to something along safer lines; said subject ends up being Chenle’s upcoming entrance into high school. Taeil starts Chenle a list of survival tips, Sicheng laughing along— 1) Take regular physics if you want to live, 2) Sit at the O form at the AP tests so that the memes will be relevant — at which Sicheng grabs the Bic pen out of Taeil’s hand, saying, “Are you serious? You’re a bad influence.”

And what does Taeil know about memes, anyway?

At this moment, Yuta comes banging through the door, holding a soccer ball. “What are you guys doing? Don’t tell me you’re studying in the summer. Nerds.”

It all happens in a span of a second, too short to process. Sicheng can’t explain it. It’s like he’s been electrocuted— that’s what it feels like. It’s the same Yuta, bright smile and red t-shirt, but something is completely different. Yuta walks over and automatically claims a seat next to Sicheng, slinging an arm around his shoulders.

“Hey, Yuta,” Chenle says. “They’re giving me terrible advice for high school.”

“Now why would they do that?” Yuta says, raising his eyebrows, fond. “You’ve gotta suffer like every freshman does. That’s like, what freshmen are good for.”

Sicheng’s in love. When did this happen? He only prays that this new realization, which hasn’t even had time to sink in yet, isn’t written all over his face for Taeil and Chenle and Yuta to read. Yuta’s arm is an iron band around his shoulders, blazing hot through the thin material of Sicheng’s shirt, and Sicheng needs to say something, fast .

He does the only thing he can think of at the moment: grabbing Yuta’s soccer ball and hitting Yuta over the head with it.  “I can’t believe you’re an adult.”

---

He comes back to UCLA dazed.

Sicheng’s had about a month to process this, and all he can say is that he hasn’t processed this Love turns people into idiots, and he isn’t an exception. There’s a fire burning in his chest in the form of want, and Yuta’s laugh is suddenly the best sound in the whole universe.

He had thought that all of the creativity had gotten wrung out of him by high school English, but his mind is suddenly a viable factory of fantasies, illogical and occasionally R-rated.

Long story short? He’s going to die. “I’m going to die,” he tells Ten.

“So early in the semester? Don’t get blood on the carpet, that’s all I’ll say, or my mom will kill me,” Ten says. “But what’s up?”

“I may have—” Sicheng winces. He’s in California. He’s safe here, a thousand miles away. “I may have, uh, caught feelings for a friend back home.”

“Oh my god, was it Yuta?” Ten says, loud enough that anyone in Ohio could probably hear it if they tried hard enough. “I always thought you guys were cute! Like, I didn’t say anything, because I—”

Sicheng puts a hand over Ten’s mouth. “Shut up. I’m going to be sick.”

He’s unaccustomed to the new state of things. He can’t stop wondering what Yuta’s doing back home. His mood becomes subject to change based on whether Yuta’s responded to him or not. Ten won’t stop wiggling his eyebrows whenever Sicheng and Yuta video call. And the video calls aren’t enough. He wants to teleport through the screen or book a plane ticket back; Sicheng, who hates touch, is now touch-starved.

But if his heart is in Ohio, his mind is here with him in California. He doesn’t allow himself to think about Yuta, instead focusing on the lecture he’s attending or the problem he’s trying to solve. Numbers and concepts— those are safe. Everything else is messy and unpredictable.

The only good thing that’s come out of this is that the last residues of Sicheng’s crush on Jaehyun are flushed out of his system. Their friendship wasn’t as good as it could be last year, with Sicheng harboring resentment and embarrassment after the rejection, but that’s all in the past now, to the point that Sicheng can joke about it with him.

“Wait, you like your best friend? That’s so cute!” Jaehyun says.

“Can you cool it with the enthusiasm?” Sicheng says, dry, twirling his pencil. “It’s not cute. He’s a terrible person. I have terrible taste.”

“I kind of realized. You managed to fall for me.”

“You know what I hate?” Sicheng says. “When people who are obviously great do self-deprecation. That’s you. And this is not a compliment. You need to stop.” Jaehyun laughs, apologetic, and Sicheng chucks a pencil at him.

The two of them— Sicheng and Jaehyun— are actually studying together when Sicheng’s phone buzzes with a request from Yuta to video-call. Sicheng isn’t doing anything particularly important, but it kind of sucks that he’d drop everything to video-call Yuta even if he were.

“Sorry,” Sicheng tells Jaehyun. “Call from a friend.”

“Is it Yuta?”

“Yeah.” Jaehyun smirks. Sicheng shoots him a murderous glare and presses accept.

“Hey, Yuta,” he says.

“Hey.” Yuta’s voice is obnoxiously loud; Sicheng turns the volume down so that he and Jaehyun don’t get kicked out of the cafe. “Are you doing anything right now?”

“I’m studying with my friend, Jaehyun. But nothing else.”

“Oh, okay.” The implications of that statement hit Yuta and Sicheng at the same time, and Yuta says, “Wait, is this the Jaehyun whose kneecaps I should break?”

Jaehyun laughs, startled. “He can hear you ,” Sicheng says, face burning red. He’s going to die. He wonders if Yuta will break his own kneecaps when Sicheng is inevitably rejected, although Sicheng will put that off for as long as possible. He is very careful not to let his feelings show. “And no, it’s not the Jaehyun whose kneecaps you should break, because you should not be breaking his kneecaps .”

“Please don’t break my kneecaps, I need them to swim,” Jaehyun says, and leans over so that he’s facing the mic. “Hey, Yuta. It’s nice to meet you.”

“Uh, nice to meet you too,” Yuta says, torn between being polite and irate, also starstruck in the way most people are when meeting the likes of Jaehyun for the first time. “I mean, not really! But like—”

“For everybody’s sake, Yuta, please shut up,” Sicheng says. He’s learning that when it comes to Yuta, it’s perfectly possible to be exhausted and annoyed and in love all at the same time. “What’d you call me for, anyway?”

“Oh, yeah.” There’s a rustle behind him. “Check out this jersey. I’m on the soccer team now! I’ll probably never be first-string, but it’s still pretty neat, right? I was gonna send you a picture if you didn’t pick up, but you did.”

“It looks good,” Sicheng says, and is happy when the compliment comes out of his mouth sincere, without the sarcasm that usually tinges his words. He might be a terrible person, and he might be an idiot with his newfound feelings, but he’s glad he is capable of such genuine secondhand pride; perhaps he is not such a bad friend. He is trying to be a better one, after all.

---

Nevermind.

Sicheng’s demise starts out innocently enough, with a text coming through as Sicheng and Ten eat pizza and do budget for the month.

CODE RED THE KID SITTING IN FRONT OF ME IS WATCHING HAIKYUU

I MUST BEFRIEND HIM IMMEDIATELY

Sicheng vaguely knows about Haikyuu!!— it’s some sort of volleyball anime that he remembers Yuta talking about, excited that there will be a third season. His phone pings again. ok hes super embarrassed i noticed lmao oops

Sicheng completely forgets about that message, until he sets up their routine movie night, and Yuta doesn’t come online. Two hours later, Yuta calls him, and Sicheng is relieved, although annoyed at how bitter and sad he is just because he thought Yuta forgot about him.

“Hey,” Yuta says, apologetic. “I’m really, really sorry, I’m an ass. Doyoung needed help on a project and I just lost track of the time—”

“It’s fine,” Sicheng says, because he doesn’t want to make it seem like it was a big deal, to him. “Who’s Doyoung, by the way?”

“Oh! He’s my friend, although I doubt I’m his,” Yuta says. “He’s super annoyed with me all the time, which is like— fair enough. I don’t remember if I told you this, but he was watching Haikyuu in class, and so I just decided to make friends with him.”

Sicheng raises his eyebrows. “And it worked?”

“Don’t sound so surprised, anime’s a powerful catalyst for friendship,” Yuta says, affronted. “Anyway, do you still want to watch the movie, even if it’s late on both of our ends?”

Sicheng weighs his answer. He’s trying to push down the panic that swells in him, unbidden, telling himself, it’s always Sicheng that sets up the movie, because Yuta would forget, it’s just that this is the first time that Yuta has actually forgotten. Which is fair, because Yuta has a whole other life at Ohio State that doesn’t include Sicheng. Is this how Yuta felt when Sicheng first came to UCLA?

Then he stops thinking about it, because he has an inkling that his current mindset might be a little pathetic. “No, you should probably sleep,” Sicheng says. It’s about midnight over there for Yuta. “Did Doyoung get his project done?”

“Huh? Oh, yeah. He’s really big on time management, I think he was just panicking because his post-it notes and color coding failed him for the first time in his life,” Yuta says. “He’s kind of rubbing off of me. I’m color coding my notes now, and I hate it.”

“So you’re saying he’s a… good influence?”

“No, you’re saying he’s a good influence. I’m saying I’m color coding my notes now, and I hate it,” Yuta says. He yawns. “I should probably sleep soon, but I can talk a little bit longer. What do you want to talk about?”

“I don’t know.”

“Hmm.” Yuta pauses. “Anyone you’re into right now, Sicheng?”

Sicheng nearly chokes. The two of them never talk about these things, which works out in Sicheng’s favor, as the person he’s into is Yuta, but he can’t very well say that. “ No.

Yuta laughs. “You just never told me about Jaehyun until literally months after you liked him. I figured I’d ask so I wouldn’t be so late to hear the news again.”

“Yeah, well, there’s no one I’m interested in right now, so don’t worry.”

“You really don’t want to talk about these things, huh, do you?” Yuta says, contemplative, and Sicheng misses the true meaning of Yuta’s words, too busy checking that there’s no outside evidence of his lie, but later, he will wish that he had asked, are you into anyone right now , because then at least he would have been prepared for the storm that follows.

The bomb doesn’t come during first semester, thank god, because Sicheng probably would have failed his finals. No, it’s during winter break, on Christmas, back home. Taeil, Sicheng, and Yuta are on the couch, versing each other in Mario Kart, when Yuta’s phone blares, and he hastens to pull it out of his pocket. Taeil leans over, eyebrows raised.

“Oh,” Taeil says. “It’s Doyoung.”

Sicheng pauses the game. Taeil gives Yuta a look , and Yuta clicks accept. “Hey,” he says, nonchalant as anything, but Sicheng’s known him long enough to detect a tremor of nerves. “What’s up?”

“Merry Christmas,” Doyoung says. His voice is pleasant, even filtered through the static of a call. “I was just calling to say hi. And to tell you that your gift will probably come a few days late, sorry, since two-day shipping is expensive.”

“Oh, yeah, I wouldn’t wish the cost of two-day shipping on anyone. You’re good.”

“Where are you right now?” Doyoung says. Taeil grabs the phone from Yuta. “Oh, hey, Taeil! Sorry, I didn’t know I was interrupting something.”

“Oh, trust me, it’s no big deal,” Taeil says, then turns the screen so that it’s facing Sicheng. Here, Sicheng gets a good luck at Doyoung— good-looking, with a pretty smile.

“Hi,” Sicheng says, polite.

“Hi,” Doyoung says. “What’s your name?”

“Um, this is Sicheng, my best friend,” Yuta says, fast, before Sicheng can answer. “And, um, Sicheng, this is Doyoung. My boyfriend.”

Wait.

What?

“Nice to meet you, Sicheng,” Doyoung says, and Sicheng wishes he could say the same, but is currently trying to deal with feeling like an entire bucket of ice water has been dumped on his head, cold leaching into his chest. “Merry Christmas.”

“Merry Christmas to you, too,” Sicheng says, numb, unable to do anything but fall back on the etiquette that’s carried him for twenty years.

“Sorry for bothering you guys, I won’t keep you for any longer. See you, Yuta,” Doyoung says. Sicheng hears it from far away, underwater. The call clicks, hanging up. Sicheng can’t breathe.

When did this happen? How did Sicheng not know about it? Did Taeil know about it? Shit, how’s he supposed to be reacting right now? He needs to make sure his mask stays on. It’s imperative now more than ever that his mask stays on. Should he have given Doyoung the shovel talk? Although Sicheng wishes he were the one getting buried right now.

Taeil must have known about this.

“You didn’t tell me you had a boyfriend,” is what Sicheng finally says, voice neutral, betraying nothing of how his heart is splintering into a million pieces. A physical blow to the chest could not have wreaked more damage.

“I mean,” Yuta says, laughing. Sicheng’s head is too full of fog to register how Yuta’s laughter is nervous and fake. “I didn’t think you’d be interested.”

“Of course I’d be interested. You’re my best friend,” Sicheng says. His mouth’s going on autopilot, so it fortunately doesn’t say some shit like of course I’d be interested. I’m kind of in love with you . “How’d it happen, anyway?”

“Yuta asked him out about three weeks ago,” Taeil says.

“And he said yes? Nice,” Sicheng says. “Okay, this conversation isn’t over, but I have to go to the bathroom. Just give me a sec.”

Once he’s in the bathroom, tears spill out of his eyes and down his cheeks, which he hates, but not as much as hates himself. When he’s finally processed the situation, it doesn’t bring him any peace. Doyoung, this is Sicheng. My best friend. Sicheng, this is Doyoung. My boyfriend . Some best friend he is, that Yuta didn’t even think that Sicheng would care about something like this. And what, did Sicheng really think that Yuta would just stay single forever? What a stupid thing to assume.

Taeil didn’t tell Sicheng, either. He had warned him— said that Yuta was done waiting— but unlike Sicheng, he can be the friend that Yuta deserves.

In theory, Sicheng knows how heartbreak works, and he’s scoffed at people rendered dysfunctional by it, crying over somebody else, crying over a situation that they have no control over. But now he gets it— it’s like mentally getting stabbed. Hard to understand until the knife is buried hilt-deep. He goes over to the sink, running cold water over his face, squinting at the mirror to make sure there’s no trace of his sadness. He has to go out and pretend now. Good thing he’s a good actor.

---

He is so thankful that his winter break ends a week earlier than Yuta and Taeil’s now.

By the time he comes back to UCLA, all his hurt has been bottled up and stored neatly inside his chest, but it’s an iron weight, weighing his steps down and making it hard to breathe. Smiling is hard, an act he has to think about.

Seeing Ten helps a bit, though. “Hey, I made you a shirt for Christmas, here c’mon try it on,” Ten says. “Wait— oh no, what’s wrong?”

“What? Nothing’s wrong,” Sicheng says automatically.

“Really? Because you just looked a little sad. I guess I’m just seeing things.”

“No, you’re right,” Sicheng says reluctantly. “Yuta’s got a boyfriend. I’m a little sad about it.”

The great thing about language is that one can twist words to make things sound a lot less important than they actually are. Ten doesn’t take it, though. “Sicheng, I’m sorry, that sucks,” Ten says, leaning over and wrapping his arms around him.

Sicheng feels tears threatening to fall again, and furiously blinks them back. “Yeah, I guess it does, but I’ll be okay,” Sicheng says. And he knows it’s true— it has to be true— he will be okay. He’s a resilient person. “No big deal.”

“Do you want to talk about it?”

“No.” The bottle in his chest weighs a hundred pounds, filled with all sorts of volatile chemicals and radioactive elements, but he refuses to open it, for fear of the mess following the explosion. “What’s this about a shirt?”

“Um, remember how I took your measurements a while back?” Sicheng remembers— Ten had gone around him wrapping a measuring tape around his wrists, his neck, his hips, eyes glinting with focus. “I made you a shirt.”

The shirt is simple, a black button-up, but Sicheng doesn’t think he’s ever worn anything that fit him better. Which is to be expected, since Ten’s basically a genius, and the shirt is built off of his measurements. “Thank you so much,” Sicheng says, flustered. Fuck Ohio , he thinks desperately, I’ve got California . “I’ll get you something back, just give me a moment.”

“I mean, it’s free of charge, but if you want to get me something back, I won’t oppose it,” Ten says.

Sicheng doesn’t do anything dramatic in his attempts to forget Yuta, like binge-drink or have a slew of one-night stands. Which is fine, he supposes, because engaging in unhealthy coping mechanisms is, objectively, a terrible idea, but he kind of wants to do something dramatic. He’s just too level-headed to do anything like that.

Sicheng’s chest rings hollow whenever he thinks about one-night stands. He knows that plenty of people engage in them, and that sex isn’t really a sacred ritual or anything— it’s just a reproductive function, necessary to continue a species. But if Yuta wanted to wait for love, then Sicheng wants to wait for sex. That’s just him. He wants to do it with somebody he really loves.

So yeah, he might want to do it with Yuta. But that’s a real pipe dream.

Sometimes, at night, he wonders if Doyoung is treating Yuta well. He wants to ask, but he’s sure that whatever answer Yuta gives will bring him pain. Instead, he just imagines that Doyoung does treat Yuta well, better than Sicheng could ever treat him. He imagines that this is fair. This is how it should turn out. Sicheng would make a terrible boyfriend. The universe made sure that Yuta got a better ending.

It’s what he tells himself, but it hurts , and fortunately (or unfortunately), a thousand miles gives him plenty of room to run and hide. He buries himself in schoolwork, making sure he has no free time to think about anything. He stops responding to Yuta’s texts— his messages are both the best and worst part of Sicheng’s days— and defers Yuta’s calls. Distance does not make the heart grow fonder. Distance allows the heart to forget.

---

It’s Saturday night, the night when he and Yuta should be watching a movie together, but instead, Sicheng is over at Jaehyun’s, alcohol flowing freely. It’s not a party— it’s just the two of them, but Sicheng likes this kind of company more than he does a club.

“You know, Sicheng,” Jaehyun says. “In another world? I would totally ask you out. And then we would totally date.”

“In this world, you’re making some bold claims,” Sicheng says. “But I mean, you’re not wrong.”

It’s a shame, because he really thinks that he and Jaehyun are on equal ground now. It’s funny— it’s only when Sicheng isn’t all starry-eyed or concerned with looking good that he’s at his best. Sharp, witty, diligent. Yuta saw that side of him all his life. But Sicheng was not in love then.

He’s learned that Jaehyun has been in love with someone his entire life, and that this is much of the reason why he’d rejected Sicheng when he did. His name is Mingyu. He’s all the way over in Connecticut, majoring in mechanical engineering. Apparently, he’s a good cook— whoever his roommate is, he’s a lucky bastard.

“Fuck Ten,” Jaehyun says. “Fuck Ten and how he’s happy.”

“Yeah. Fuck Ten, and his… functional long-distance relationship,” Sicheng says. His words slur slightly, the alcohol taking its effect. “No, Jaehyun, Ten’s too good of a person. I can’t hate him.”

“I know,” Jaehyun sighs. “Man, you think we did something wrong in a past life? Is this why we’re like this?”

“I don’t know, but when I’m reborn, I want to be a tree,” Sicheng says. “I don’t think trees have feelings. And they can make oxygen. That’s a win-win deal.”

His phone rings. It’s Yuta. Sicheng doesn’t even let it ring out the whole way through— he just clicks reject. Somewhere in his mind, he realizes that it’s a statement of war, but he’s too tired and his mind is too hazy to really think about the consequences of his decision.

“At least we look put-together,” Jaehyun concludes, setting his bottle down. “That’s the most important part.”

This is easier, in a way.

If he ignores Yuta, then the hurt stays below the surface. Most of the time, Sicheng isn’t someone to be pitied— he can still have fun, and hold a decent conversation, and if nothing else he’ll always have his ambitions— he is someone to be feared. But during unexpected times, in class, in the middle of the night, a painful emptiness will rush up and claw its way through his whole body. I miss you. If love is a poison, then he cannot tell if it’s the poison or the act of trying to flush the poison out that will eventually kill him. He just knows that it is a truly terrifying feeling, to belong so completely to somebody else.

He’s aware that the avoidance will catch up to him immediately. When Taeil calls next week, Sicheng senses that this is it— he’s about to be chewed out. He puts his phone on silent, but not before he sees a text: if you know what’s good for you, you’ll pick up .

Sicheng and Taeil never call. That’s just not something they do. But Sicheng tells himself to stop being a fucking coward, and he presses accept. “Hey,” Sicheng says.

“Dammit, Sicheng,” Taeil says, voice crackling through the line, laced with frustration. “What the hell are you doing? And I hope I don’t have to spell it out for you, what I’m talking about.”

“Yuta.”

“Bingo,” Taeil says. “You’re being an asshat. He misses you. Wonders what he did wrong.”

“He didn’t do anything wrong.”

“You’re right, he didn’t, all he did was get a boyfriend,” Taeil says, and Sicheng flinches. After so long, Taeil knows him. And Taeil doesn’t usually interfere in matters, but when he does— he does it well. “Do you not like that?”

“I think it’ll be good for him,” Sicheng says carefully.

He doesn’t answer the question. Of course Sicheng doesn’t like it. But it’s also true that Yuta deserves a happy ending. Sicheng has always thought that if you love somebody, you should be willing to let them go. You should let them be happy. Sicheng doesn’t think he can make Yuta happy.

“But you’re punishing him for it.”

Sicheng slumps. He opens his mouth to deny it, but then closes it.

“Look, you’re my best friend, and Yuta’s my brother,” Taeil says. “I want both of you to be happy… but I won’t let you be happy at each other’s expenses. So I’m just calling you to warn you that Yuta’s probably already at the Nevada border right now.”

“Wait, what the fuck?” Sicheng hisses. “You’re telling me—”

“Yep. Good luck,” Taeil says, merciless, and hangs up.

---

“Hey, Ten,” Sicheng says wearily. “Can you stay out of the room for the day? I have a visitor.”

---

Yuta has always preferred face-to-face contact, as opposed to Sicheng, who prefers messaging, where he has time to come up with a good response and can just not respond, if necessary. It’s precisely this, Sicheng supposes, that made Yuta act on the crazy decision to drive all the damn way to California to talk to him. No place to run or hide now.

Actually, Yuta doesn’t know Sicheng’s exact address, and he’s not a UCLA student, so if Sicheng wanted, he could keep hiding. But Yuta’s burned a few gallons of crude oil for this trip, and Sicheng will really, really be asshole of the year if he doesn’t let Yuta talk, so he sighs, shoving his phone in his pocket, where he’s texted Yuta the address of his apartment. Might as well rip the bandaid off. From what Sicheng can see, their friendship won’t be okay, either way.

Once you love someone, it’s like a fire: it chemically alters the nature of whatever it burns.

There’s a knock on the door. Sicheng gets up and opens it. It’s Yuta, and when he makes eye contact, he refuses to break it. It’s Sicheng that does, averting his gaze toward the floor. “Hey,” Sicheng mumbles. “Taeil told me you’d be here.”

“That’s nice. Can you tell me why the hell you’ve ignored me for a month straight?”

So straightforward. But if Yuta’s asking that question, it means that he still doesn’t know the nature of Sicheng’s feelings. Great, Sicheng will have to explain.

“I’m—”

“Listen, if you finally forgot me for all of your friends over here, then fine. You’re going to have to tell me to my face. If not, then I’ll keep texting and calling you like an idiot.”

It’s funny, because whenever people say that long distance relationships don’t last, they usually mean it in the romantic sense. But long distance friendships are difficult, too, and Sicheng flinches at the sheer bitterness to Yuta’s voice, like he’s been sitting on that thought for awhile, that Sicheng would give him up for a life over here.

“It’s not that,” Sicheng exhales.

“Then what is it?”

His mind’s a sieve, excuses falling through until there’s nothing left but the truth. “I’m in love with you,” Sicheng mumbles, stepping off the precipice. “And you didn’t give me a heads-up about your new boyfriend.”

Yuta’s mouth parts. “You— what?”

Sicheng can’t look at him. “I’m in love with you.”

He doesn’t know what he expects following that confession, but it’s not for Yuta to start laughing, dry and humorless, like he’s choking on nothing. “Since when ? You could’ve— goddammit, Sicheng, your window of opportunity was ten years long .”

“You—” Oh, god. No wonder Taeil was so annoyed at him, if Yuta means what Sicheng thinks he means. “Ten years? What are you saying?”

“I— I had a crush on you since the sixth grade. All the way until this year.”

“And you never told me?” Sicheng says, disbelieving. “Who even does that?

“You’re saying that like I chose to do that!” Yuta retorts. “And I never expected reciprocation. But… it gets a little bit tiring. After a decade.”

Of course, only Yuta would love so obnoxiously, would love so all out. Sicheng wants to shake Yuta’s shoulders, tell him that no boy is worth pining ten years over, especially not Sicheng.

He thinks about that day when he had that crazy, impulsive thought of pushing Yuta up against the wall of a public swimming pool and making out with him in front of dozens of people. If Sicheng could turn back time, he would have done it. Or maybe he wouldn’t have. He’s not a good person. He’s not a saint, the way Yuta is. Unlike Yuta, Sicheng has always loved with an expectation of reciprocation, because how can someone just give another person their heart without expecting one in return?

(Now he understands how it’s done.)

But the important part is that Sicheng lost his chance. He probably deserved to lose his chance, too. “You’re with Doyoung now,” he says simply. The words kill him as they come out of his mouth.

“Yeah, I am,” Yuta says. “I really… I really do like him.”

“I’m happy for you.”

The worst part is that it’s not a lie.

Sicheng has been an idiot all this time— if Yuta’s life were a sitcom, then any smart member of the audience would be glad that Yuta has finally moved on, and that Sicheng has gotten a taste of his own medicine. Ten years. Sicheng had a whole decade and did nothing. To his horror, tears slide down his cheeks.

“You’re crying,” Yuta whispers, astounded. “Don’t cry.”

“Don’t tell me what to do,” Sicheng snaps. At least he’s earned the right to lash out. “Did you get what you came to California for?”

“Sicheng…” And this is why Sicheng would so much rather break someone else’s heart than get his own broken. No matter how awkward Yuta must feel right now, it’s nothing on the regret and humiliation on Sicheng’s part. “Are we still friends? You’re my best friend.”

Sicheng wipes his face, although its futile, as more tears just leak out. “I don’t want to talk to you for awhile,” he says, looking away.

Now he’s the fucker that needs space. He’s hit rock bottom. At least there’s nowhere to go but up now, but it’s hard to remember that when he’s crying, and Yuta seems to be restraining himself from giving him a hug (Sicheng will really kill Yuta if he gives him a hug). “Okay,” Yuta says. “Just. I’m always here, when you do.”

And when will that be. Sicheng doesn’t want to face Yuta for the next century. “You need to go now, you’re probably missing classes back at Ohio State,” he mutters. “Thanks for dropping by.”

Etiquette. If nothing else, he has that. Yuta leaves, and Sicheng leans against the door, numb. A small voice whispers, could he really have gotten over you so easily, after ten years ? Sicheng tells tiredly it to shut up. Yuta is happy now. Sicheng should not interfere.

---

Yuta respects his wishes and doesn’t text or call. Sicheng wishes he could say he’s happy about that, but all he feels is hollow when he looks at his home screen and sees no new notifications except for a text informing that he’s used all his data for the month.

But well, it’s heartbreak. It’s not meant to feel pleasant.

After Yuta leaves, Sicheng doesn’t cry anymore. He’s dry-eyed, trapped underwater. He can handle this, though, he promises himself. Nevermind if it hurts. A month drags on. Sicheng sometimes poises his fingers over Yuta’s number.

Hey.

He can’t bring himself to send it.

---

It’s dark outside. Sicheng and Ten are crowded around Ten’s laptop, a blue USB containing the rough draft of Taeyong’s novel plugged in it, the manuscript up on the screen.

“Damn, this is such a difference to how Taeyong acts,” Ten comments, on one of the scenes. “It’s always the quiet ones.”

Sicheng laughs, dry. “Right?” There’s so much murder and magic in this story, in contrast with Taeyong’s kind demeanor. The vibe of the writing is unmistakably sexy in some parts, heavy with dark humor in others.

There’s a love story in there, too, although one born of hate. “Taeyong promised a happy ending for them, and he better uphold it,” Ten says. “I’m like, invested now.”

Sicheng’s phone buzzes, and he frowns, picking it up. “Dude, I think this number’s called me three times already.” He’s wary of spam callers and never picks up on them. “Do you think they’ve got the wrong number? It’s giving me anxiety.”

This time, though, the person behind the number leaves a voicemail: Hey, is this Sicheng? I’m Doyoung. Please give me a call back .

Sicheng nearly drops the phone. Ten notices his reaction and asks, “What?”

“It’s Yuta’s boyfriend,” Sicheng says. The words hurt to say.

The two of them eye Sicheng’s phone like it’s a live bomb. “It’s your call,” Ten finally says.

Sicheng hesitates— he’s not really interested in taking the damage this conversation could wreak, but he’s scientifically curious as to why Doyoung is calling him , of all people, and how he managed to obtain Sicheng’s number. “I’m gonna take it,” Sicheng tells Ten. “Can you, uh, just go out in the hall for a moment?”

“Sure. Tell me the details later, so I can see if I’ve got to fight him.”

“You liar. You just want gossip.”

“Also true. Good luck.” Ten takes the laptop and walks out into the hallway.

Sicheng dials on the number with trepidation. It rings three times before the other end picks up. “Hello?” Sicheng says.

There’s a moment of silence before he hears, “Hi. Okay, so it’s Doyoung. I broke up with Yuta today. No hard feelings.”

Sicheng pulls the phone away from his ear and stares at it in disgust, then promptly pulls it right back in to say. “You what? Why the hell would you do that?” He thinks, blindly, that he is going to book a flight to Ohio to kill Doyoung. What the fuck—

“I broke up with him because he lost his best friend over me.”  

Sicheng’s mind crashes, static waves and white lines.

“And like, yeah, like, I’m kind of bitter right now, not gonna lie,” Doyoung comments. “But like, he was sad after you guys stopped talking, and more than I want to date him, I want him to be happy. You know? I asked him for your number, so I could talk to you.”

Nevermind. Sicheng can’t kill Doyoung— actually, Sicheng will vote for Doyoung to be president if he ever runs. “You’re a… ridiculously good person.”

“I am. When I go to heaven, they better make my halo fucking Gucci.”

Sicheng can’t say anything. He himself is trying to be a good person but doesn’t know how, moral compass spinning in circles, unable to decide on a good direction to point, and here Doyoung is selfless so effortlessly . “I— I mean, I’m sure he’ll stop being sad sometime, you could—”

“This is the worst conversation in the history of the world,” Doyoung announces, loud, to no one in particular, unless he’s broadcasting over to a live audience, which he very well could be. “Listen. I thought the guy’s fatal flaw was, like, a shity taste in music—”

—Hey, Yuta likes the same songs he likes, what’s that saying about Sicheng—

“Or like, procrastination, but it turns out his fatal flaw was having a huge emotional boner for his best friend for like, over a decade. Who even does that?” Doyoung says. Sicheng can’t decide whether to wince over his word choice or agree with his statement. “I’m not interested in dealing with that. We’re broken up.”

There’s a long pause. “Is he okay with that?”

“I mean, he will be, although his hair might not,” Doyoung says, which is both cryptic and distressing. “He’s probably kind of sad and confused right now, but not that much. He wasn’t like, in love with me or anything.”

This conversation is like the oral version of playing basketball, except there are fifteen basketballs bouncing around at once and the basket is fifteen meters high.

Doyoung sighs, snaps, “Go talk to Yuta. Both of you are fucking ridiculous.”

The phone shuts off, and Sicheng is relieved that at least Doyoung’s last words to him were laced with acid— proof that Yuta was dating an actual human and not an angel.

He remembers that Ten’s in the hallway and goes to get him.

“You can come back now—” He doesn’t get to finish the sentence, because as soon as he opens the door, Ten tumbles through. “Why am I not surprised.”

“Sorry, couldn’t help but overhear you guys talking.”

Sicheng frowns. “You’re the worst.”

“I mean, since I was gonna make you tell me about it anyway, I decided to save you the work,” Ten says breezily. He sobers, though, when he sees the look on Sicheng’s face. “You don’t want to talk about it?”

“No, I don’t.” It’s information overload. Sicheng can’t help but feel relief that Yuta’s no longer with someone else, but it doesn’t feel right to make a move, even though Doyoung had asked him to. “Can we get back to Taeyong’s book?”

---

Hey .

Sicheng sent that about two minutes ago, and he’s unable to concentrate on anything, waiting for a response.

hey , Yuta sends back, and shit, where does Sicheng go from here?

Three bubbles. Yuta’s typing something else. are we okay ?

Sicheng pauses. Well, what is he supposed to say? Yeah .

are we friends?

Well. That’s a loaded question. Doyoung didn’t instruct Sicheng to ask Yuta out— which is completely fair, given that Doyoung has already helped Sicheng out much more than he deserves. But Sicheng can’t bring himself to ask for more right now. Yuta said that he liked Doyoung— how much, Sicheng doesn’t know, but Yuta must have gotten over Sicheng at least a little for that to happen.

And when Doyoung and Sicheng had talked, Doyoung’s voice, underneath all the exasperation and nonchalance, was laced with sadness. They had something there.

Friends. When Sicheng tries that word on for size, he discovers it doesn’t fit too well, but there’s nothing better on the rack. So yeah, why not friends? They could learn how to be friends again, despite all the slightly non-platonic things that have occured recently.

Yeah. We’re friends .

okay then look at this picture of taeil [image attached]

When Sicheng opens up the file, he blinks to see Taeil with his hair— blonde? Taeil looks like he’s mildly dead inside, but blonde actually doesn’t look too terrible on him.

TAEIL dyed his hair?

not on purpose lmao,, there was something really wrong with our shampoo i think someone messed with it??!!

Sicheng recalls Doyoung saying that Yuta would be okay, although his hair might not, and tries not to laugh. The blonde was meant for Yuta. It got to Taeil instead. But Sicheng definitely won’t sell Doyoung out.

He looks pretty good in blonde, actually

that’s what i keep telling him but he won’t believe me!!

The two of them fall back in sync so easily it’s like nothing ever happened at all, and Sicheng can breathe. He can’t help thinking— hey, do you want more ? But his chest has finally stopped hurting, and it’s a relief, so he will take this for the time being, no questions asked.

“You smile a lot at your phone now,” Ten says, smirking. “Something happen?”

“No.” It’s the truth— Yuta’s texts are just cute, and sometimes he sends over pictures of dogs, which are, in Sicheng’s opinion, the universe’s greatest invention. “You’re like, way worse with Johnny.”

“Hey, I said nothing about Johnny. I just said you smile a lot at your phone now.”

---

The rest of Sicheng’s sophomore year passes uneventfully, unless one counts that one Uno game that nearly ended with their apartment going down in flames and the discovery that Kun knew sleight of hand very well.

The tradition of Saturday movie nights are reinstalled. Sicheng, Yuta, Taeil, and Ten watch Kimi No Na Wa together, which is a terrible decision— it might as well be a bet on who will cry first. Sicheng tries to tell himself that it’s full of plot holes and obvious moves to play with audience’s heart strings, but—

The main characters’ obvious longing, compared with the truly evil background music, is something that resonates. Like the boy in the movie with dreams of being an architect, Sicheng draws a lot of buildings as well, imaginary cities and towering mosques that arc toward that asymptote of perfection without ever truly reaching it, but unlike the boy, who doesn’t know what he’s looking for, Sicheng is painfully aware of what he’s missing.

---

June comes. Sicheng walks around the airport, rolling his suitcase behind him. He spots his mom, his dad, Yuta, Taeil— Yuta’s sleeping on Taeil’s shoulder, and Sicheng can see Taeil wave at him before shaking Yuta awake.

“There he is,” Taeil says, walking over to pull Sicheng into a half-embrace. The blonde has dulled, the dark roots of his hair showing. “You know, every year I think that you’re not just not gonna come back, but you do. Good to see you again.”

There is something wrong with their reunion this year. It takes a few moments for Sicheng to place it, but then he realizes— Yuta is standing two feet away, actually upholding the rules of standard public decorum for once, hands clenched at his sides. He doesn’t move to hug Sicheng for the entirety of the conversation, even as he converses as normal. Sicheng feels like a bucket of ice water has been dumped atop his head. Their friendship has been restored, but touch is Yuta’s language of love, and intentionally or not, Yuta is giving Sicheng the silent treatment.

“Can we get some food?” Taeil asks. “I’m sorry, I’m really hungry, I drove down two hours to meet you without eating lunch.”

“Oh yeah, you’ve got that summer internship thing, right? Congrats, by the way,” Sicheng says. He turns to his parents and lapses into Mandarin. “Can I get food with Yuta and Taeil?”

“Alright,” his mom says. “But if you don’t mind, your dad and I will leave early— Yuta can drive you home. Have fun.”

Sicheng, Yuta, and Taeil end up wandering around the airport until they find a McDonald’s, which is crowded despite its ridiculous overprice— the perk a prime location brings. Taeil gets a burger and fries. Sicheng himself isn’t that hungry, so he doesn’t order anything, figuring the energy bar in his backpack is enough.

Yuta didn’t order anything, either, just steals Taeil’s fries without an ounce of shame.

“Just buy your own food,” Taeil groans, after the fifth or sixth theft. “I could be sick for all you know.”

“Who cares? It’s free food,” Yuta says, grinning.

“It’s my food,” Taeil protests.

Sicheng chews on his bar, rolling his eyes.

“Hey— Sicheng. I like your shirt,” Yuta says.

“Thanks. It’s the one Ten made it for me, he’s kind of a genius.” He would be lying if he said he put absolutely zero thought into his outfit for today. Ten’s shirt. Yuta’s rose quartz earrings. A watch, even though he usually checks his phone for the time.

But Yuta hasn’t touched him at all.

“You got so lucky with your roommate. All mine does is leave socks around the room and steal my food,” Taeil says, dry.

“I’m offended,” Yuta announces, sliding from his seat. “I’ll just leave, since it’s clear I’m not wanted. Okay, wait, I have to go to the bathroom, so I’m actually going to leave. Make sure nobody steals my seat.”

“We’re just gonna finish up and go without you,” Taeil yells after him, then returns to his food, rolling his eyes. “Want a fry, Sicheng? I don’t mind sharing. I just, you know, prefer if people ask , first.”

“Yeah, well, familiarity has its drawbacks,” Sicheng says, amused. Yuta’s actually very polite— holding doors and cleaning up after others and ordering the cheapest thing on the menu if somebody else is paying, but only with people he doesn’t know well. “Keep your fries.”

Taeil isn’t listening, though, looking out the glass door that Yuta has disappeared out of. “Is he gone now? Okay, I’ll assume he is, and that it’ll take him some time to find the bathroom, since he’s so bad with directions.” He points a fry at Sicheng. “So, I have some stuff to say, dude.”

Sicheng’s stomach sinks. “What?”

“I’ve tried to stay out of it, but oh my god, this has been going on since forever ,” Taeil says. “This is like, the longest and shittiest kdrama ever produced, and I’m just. I’m done .”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Sicheng says, although he knows exactly what Taeil is talking about.

“Please. Just put me out of my misery as a professional third-wheeler,” Taeil begs. “You and Yuta are not just friends. Stop pretending you are. Get your shit together— you guys aren’t teenagers anymore.”

“But we are friends.”

Sicheng knows that isn’t the full truth, nowhere near the full truth, but if there’s anything statistics taught him, it’s to err on the side of caution— there’s the probability that Yuta’s stopped liking him, that Yuta finally realized Sicheng is not a viable love interest, and Sicheng can’t risk that.

“I like your shirt,” Taeil says, deepening his voice and hooding his eyes.

It takes Sicheng a moment to realize that Taeil’s imitating Yuta’s words from before. “Okay, please never do that again,” he says, trying to smooth his eyebrows out of their wrinkles of abject disgust. “Yuta does not sound like that.”

“Please. You think this isn’t weird for me, too?” Taeil sighs. “Look, point is— I’m not gonna be here for the summer because of the internship. Get things figured out before I come back or so help me.”

Yuta comes banging through the door and sliding back into his seat. Sicheng pops the rest of his bar into his mouth, chewing forcefully, while Taeil takes a pointed sip of milkshake. “Hey, what’d I miss?” Yuta asks.

Sicheng swallows, crumpling up the wrapper. “We were just betting on whether you’d be able to find the bathroom.”

Yuta rolls his eyes, draping himself all over Taeil. Over Yuta’s shoulder, Taeil raises an eyebrow. Sicheng pretends not to notice.

---

This summer, sun drips gold against painfully blue skies. Sicheng’s family never puts the air-conditioner on full blast, so Sicheng spends a lot of time sweating in the heat.

Yuta’s doing more ecological restoration this summer, and Sicheng’s scooping more ice cream at Summer 12/7. He’ll have to think about architectural-related jobs soon, polish his resume and such, but he’s fine for now.

“What do you think about doing this summer? Like, Taeil’s not here,” Yuta says. “It’s kinda sad that we’re too old to like, mess around at the park and stuff now. We’re supposed to get drunk at night or whatever.”

“What, you don’t like getting drunk?”

“No, I do. Just saying,” Yuta says, flashing a smile. “We should get drunk together at some point, actually. It’ll be fun. What are you like when you’re drunk, Sicheng?”

“I’m very flirty,” Sicheng says, without really thinking. He loses his brain-to-mouth filter, too. And then he realizes— he absolutely cannot get drunk around Yuta, for fear of the shit he might pull. “Drinking’s okay for me, I guess. I prefer being able to think.”

“I think that thinking is overrated,” Yuta laughs. “But alright then.”

Thinking might just be overrated. Sicheng pulls apart equations like saltwater taffy in his mind, can spend entire nights trying to understand a single formula, and it translates to overanalyzing everything else in his life as well. Even Taeil lost his patience on him, which is saying something.

Get your shit together over the summer, he’d said. Sicheng doesn’t know if he’ll be able to uphold that.

Days blur together, only marked by the painful observation that Yuta really doesn’t touch him anymore. Sicheng thinks he might be the one to break first and do something crazy, which is a thought that should embarrass him, but his longing has eclipsed embarrassment.

When the two of them aren’t working, they hang out. They’re boring people, Sicheng thinks— most of the time, they just watch movies or talk, and one time, they attempt to compose a song on the piano that turns out not half-bad.

They do drink one night, but Sicheng is careful not to get drunk , drunk.

“Taeil’s doing well at his internship,” Yuta comments. “He’ll probably get a job at the company after he graduates.”

“That’s cool.” Sicheng looks up at the skies. He used to be fascinated with astronomy when he was younger— planets and constellations and rocketships. None of it ever translated to real life, though, since there’s too much light pollution here to distinguish between a shooting star and an airplane.

“I know I’ll stay behind in Ohio, too, ” Yuta continues. He’s philosophical when drunk, Sicheng supposes, but his words echo a sentiment that Yuta holds when sober, that he’s not destined for faraway places or stories of travel. “What about you, Sicheng? London or Tokyo or New York or Beijing?”

Sicheng stares down at the lip of his beer bottle. There’s something about the shape of beer bottles that promises a good time, he thinks idly, although they might be false promises. Yuta’s staring at him, expecting for Sicheng to have all the answers, but the truth is that Sicheng doesn’t have as many answers about the future as he himself would like.

“I don’t think it matters,” he says, finally. “Who knows. I could stay here, too.”

Although stay is a loose word. He’s already upped and transplanted himself over to California for college. When Ten and Sicheng had first met, Ten had said that you could make a home out of anywhere, but for Sicheng, it’s the mirror side of the sentiment. He doesn’t belong to any place, so it doesn’t matter much. But he’s figured out something that no lecture class told him. Mortar and bricks will build a house, but it’s different for everyone what makes a home.

Yuta might just be in the criteria. Sicheng’s whole body feels like it’s burning up. If somebody cut him open right now, his blood would be technicolor with all the things he wants to do. He sets the bottle down. Time to stop, he actually doesn’t want to do anything he’ll regret the next morning.

There’s a new mosquito bite on his shin. Another itch he wants to scratch but won’t.

---

“Oh, you know what we should do?” Yuta says, the two of them out on the sidewalk one morning. It’s the fourth of July, both of them given an off-day on work. “We should go to the Waffle House.”

Sicheng blinks, groggy. He doesn’t have Yuta’s natural habit of waking up at early hours, but he’s trying not to sleep in so much. It’s seven o’clock, and there’s at least a dozen yawns stuck in his throat.

“Oh. Waffle House,” he says. “I mean, sure. Why not?”

He dimly recalls that night when he and Yuta went to separate Waffle Houses. It was such a lame thing to do, looking back at it, but it was so deep into the night, and Sicheng was so frazzled and upset, that it seemed like the perfect thing to do at the time. Maybe it was.

They walk to the Waffle House, which isn’t as straightforward as it sounds, considering that whoever designed their town expected everybody to be sedentary creatures with no need for functioning sidewalks. A car blares at them while they’re on a crosswalk, the driver giving them the middle finger.

“Jesus,” Yuta says. “Why are people so angry?”

Sicheng’s regretting not flipping the driver the bird right back.

At least he and Yuta have reached the Waffle House plaza by now. No more angry drivers to contend with, except with people trying to parallel park. The Waffle House is fairly empty this time of the day, because as much as it’s a breakfast place it’s a breakfast place for lazy mornings, and no such mornings exist when it’s eight AM. Sicheng and Yuta slide into a booth, where a waiter who looks like she wants to go to back to bed hands them their menus and heads off.

They both order waffles. Sicheng draws circles into the table with his index finger as they wait for their food to arrive. When it does, Sicheng cuts his waffle into eighths and sticks a piece into his mouth.

“I still can’t believe you eat your waffles dry,” Yuta says.

“I don’t think drowning them in syrup is any better,” Sicheng retorts. He doesn’t see the need for syrup— waffles are perfectly sweet all on their own.

“Remember when I asked you if you thought a Waffle House was a good place for a date?” Yuta says, and Sicheng’s blood freezes. “What’s your answer?”

Well then.

Sicheng flashes back to that conversation, and berates himself for being so stupid — Yuta was asking if Sicheng thought a Waffle House would be a good place for a date because Yuta, well, wanted to take him on a goddamn date. “Why do you ask now?”

“Because past Yuta is fascinated. He wanted to date you.”

Yuta’s not looking at him, carefully cutting his waffles into smaller and smaller squares. This is not a safe conversation. They’re really going to take about how Yuta had a crush on him for like, ten years. That’s not something Sicheng’s ready to handle so early in the morning. He can’t even remember the quadratic formula this early in the morning.

“Tell past Yuta that he shouldn’t insult the way I eat my waffles,” is what Sicheng says.

“Fair enough.”

“What about present Yuta?” Sicheng says, unable to help himself.

“What about present Yuta?”

The words get stuck in his throat. Is present Yuta still in love with him? Does present Yuta want to deal with all the shit that comes with having a long distance relationship? Is present Yuta willing to deal with Sicheng’s inability to properly show affection and to reciprocate affection at the most unfortunate of times?

“Are we friends?” Sicheng asks.

Dammit. That’s not what he meant to say.

“I mean, of course, we’re friends,” Yuta finally says, and that’s that. He returns to his waffles, not saying anything else on the topic.

After that conversation, Sicheng decides that words are useless.

He’s always preferred numbers, but numbers won’t help him out in this situation. But words… he’s unable to say what he should say. He’s too afraid that he’ll get shot down, or that worse, he won’t get shot down, and then he’ll have to deal with the consequences.

They’re good at being friends. They’ve been friends for so long. They have this easy banter and an ability to talk for hours about the most random of topics. But also, they’re kind of terrible at being friends— it’s a shirt they outgrew long ago, a label that’s hanging on by a thread. Friends is no longer an option. Even Taeil called them out on it, Taeil who’s never been a risk-taker and who isn’t a romantic, Taeil who knows Yuta and knows Sicheng and knows that maybe the two of them should just date.

They go to Sicheng’s home from the Waffle House. Sicheng picks up a book— Zero: The Biography of a Dangerous Idea — and flips through the pages without really taking any of the information in. He sets it down, in favor of implementing a dangerous idea of his own.

“Hey, Yuta, can I try something?”

“What do you want to try?” Yuta asks, where he’s looking at the lunar calendar on the wall in fascination.

Sicheng doesn’t answer in the form of words, just walks over, tilts his head, leans forward, and presses their mouths together. Touch. Yuta’s favorite and currently discontinued form of communication. It’s not as eloquent as language, but it gets the point across.

He pulls back after just a second. Or at least, he tries to pull back— it doesn’t work, because Yuta reacts in a split second, wrapping his arms around Sicheng’s waist to pull them close. Something in Sicheng’s mind announces, fuck it , and one of his hands go up to cradle the side of Yuta’s face, the other to tangle in his hair.

Somebody could electrocute Sicheng and he wouldn’t know the difference. They’re touching everywhere — shirts bunched up against each other, although there’s a line of Yuta’s skin where fabric has ridden up that’s radiating heat a hundred degrees. Oxygen is a necessary component to human existence, but Sicheng’s pretty sure he could make do without it right now.

And then he feels Yuta’s mouth curving into a smile— Yuta’s trying to contain it, but he can’t, and eventually he has to pull back because it’s impossible to kiss when one’s beaming that wide. “I’m sorry,” Yuta says, and explains, eyes like the sun, “Reality’s just so crazy.”

“I guess it is.” Maybe they’re making out in the fourth dimension.

“No. I’ve thought about this for a decade. I just. Didn’t expect it to happen.”

And then Sicheng feels guilty, because he’s kind of an idiot. “Yeah, I’m sor—” but Yuta stops smiling then and leans in, effectively shutting the apology up.

Okay. No, really, this is nice, but they have to talk about it, even if Sicheng doesn’t want to. They can’t just kiss and forget about it, especially when future circumstances won’t allow for a physical relationship most of the time.

Sicheng pulls away. “I mean, are you sure you want to do long distance—”

Yuta rolls his eyes and closes the gap again, and Sicheng realizes that Yuta’s literally is not going to let him apologize or express reservation or say anything that Yuta doesn’t want to hear. They kiss for a while longer until Sicheng finally breaks out of his addled state to push Yuta away. “Hey,” he says, exasperated and more than a little turned on. “I just need to know. Do you want to go out with me?”

“Fucking finally,” Yuta groans, pumping his fist like the loser he is. “ Yes , you goddamn idiot.”

And yeah, Sicheng thinks, he kind of is an idiot, but love turns people into idiots, and while Sicheng has always strived to be above-average, he knows he’s not an exception. When it comes to Yuta, he’s going to be irrational and disoriented and illogical. He’s going to emotionally (and in the future, probably literally) strip himself naked and mentally (but hopefully never actually) set himself on fire, and well.

It’s the best feeling in the whole damn world.

“Hey,” Yuta whispers into his ear, right after detaching their mouths and right before moving his lips down to Sicheng’s collarbone. It’s the Fourth of July and fireworks can’t compare to this, Yuta touching him after a whole summer of respecting personal space. “We’re not just friends. Friends don’t do this. Okay?”

---

In September, Sicheng makes the thousand-mile trip to California again, a small smile on his mouth.

He’s just spent the whole summer in a different place. But he can’t tell, because no matter where he is—

He’s finally where he’s supposed to be.