A list of Chenle’s favorite people, in chronological order:
1] Sicheng. Chenle’s parents are friends with Sicheng’s parents, so Chenle has known Sicheng since he was zero. Sicheng is four years older than him, and Chenle always thinks of him as “Sicheng-ge” in his head. Chenle’s family visits Sicheng’s twice a year, and Chenle is always hyper from excitement on those days— Chenle likes Sicheng’s home better than his own, with its trampoline, ping-pong table, and spacious upstairs, good for hide and seek. Sicheng’s home also includes these two boys, Yuta and Taeil, as extra decoration, and Chenle just grows to associate visits to Sicheng with Fruit Ninja and chopsticks stuck inside of corn on the cobs and games of soccer in the park, Chenle always winning because he’s on Yuta’s team.
2] Renjun. Chenle meets Renjun when he’s around five or six at Chinese School, which occurs every Sunday afternoon and has an actual name other than Chinese School, but god help you if you called it anything but. They become friends after Renjun offers Chenle his Doritos in the cafeteria. The two of them share Mandarin class together, where Chenle watches Renjun draw instead of paying attention and Renjun lets Chenle copy off his homework. They’re quite a pair: Renjun is everything any teacher wants while Chenle is a terrible student, marking up the passages with pin-yin at the very last minute and never doing well in mo xie , but he doesn’t care.
At least, Renjun seems perfect. The day the new Percy Jackson book comes out, he gets yelled at for the first time for not paying attention. Sometimes Chenle wishes he could be as studious and quiet and creative as the other, but Chenle can’t even hold a grudge against Renjun for being so good, since Renjun always has a spool of string for Cat’s Cradle and a deck of cards for Speed and a sharp wit that’s caused Chenle to burst into a fit of giggles during class more than couple of times. Renjun is in the grade above and goes to a different elementary school than Chenle, and will go to a different middle school, but the two of them will meet when they go to Encity High together. Chenle dismisses this— high school is forever away, and will never happen, not in a million years.
3] Jisung. On the first day of fifth grade, Jisung walks into their Gifted classroom, and then a second later, Chenle and Jisung are best friends. Jisung will be Chenle’s favorite person for the foreseeable future and possibly all of time. At recess, they play four-square out on the blacktop. Over the weekend, they go over to each other’s houses. In class, they do not shut up.
It’s a level playing field. There isn’t a mote of admiration in their relationship. They’re in the same grade, around the same age, and Jisung is skinned knees and inability to pay attention while Chenle is high-pitched laughter and a tendency to boss people around. Their flaws are revealed right off of the bat.
They’re best friends. Chenle is sure of that. When the world supposedly ends 2012, they spent the day of the predicted apocalypse together. Later, he’ll wonder if maybe he was always in love with Jisung, but he’ll dismiss this idea— he was ten . People don’t have any business falling for anyone else at ten.
Maybe it’s Sicheng’s fault. Maybe he jinxes it, right at the summer before freshman year.
“Are you nervous?” Taeil asks. He’s going into his third year of university, while Sicheng is going into his second. Chenle’s a starstruck by how they’re college kids, but is a little annoyed at how they treat him like a little brother.
“I’m not,” Chenle says. “It’s middle school, but bigger.”
In truth, he’s nervous, yeah. High schoolers are weird, and Chenle is weirded out by the idea he’ll be one of them. He wonders if high school is anything like the movies, but from what he knows of Taeil, Yuta, and Sicheng, he’s pretty sure it’s not.
“Don’t worry, we’re gonna make you a list,” Taeil says, and gets out a crumpled piece of notebook paper. “We know what to do, since we survived it.”
“Key word, survived,” Sicheng deadpans. “It wasn’t pretty.”
Chenle isn’t five anymore and has a concept of age, but when he was younger he thought that Sicheng was just perpetually older than him and has trouble shaking off that idea even now. Case in point: when Chenle was five, Sicheng was nine. Chenle is fourteen now, which means he’s older than a past Sicheng. Weird . Sicheng’s still really old, though, and Chenle kind of wants to ask Sicheng about what college is like, but he’s scared for the answer. College is forever away. It won’t happen. He isn’t even in high school yet, even if he will be.
“I don’t need your help,” Chenle says.
“Yes, but you want it,” Taeil says flippantly, uncapping a Bic pen. “Alright… what’s the start…”
Chenle rolls his eyes. The three of them are about to go outside. Yuta isn’t here right now, which Chenle doesn’t purposefully think about, but his subconscious notes the absence after years of Yuta always being there.
“Are we really doing this?” Sicheng says, laughing.
“Yes.” Taeil taps his chin. Writes,
1) Take regular physics if you want to live.
“Oh, that’s actually really good,” Sicheng says. “No matter how smart you are, you’ll get a D in AP Physics. And have, like, ten mental breakdowns while at it.”
“See? I’m good at advice,” Taeil says.
2) Sit at the O form at the AP tests so that the memes will be relevant.
Sicheng’s eyebrows furrow in disbelief and immediate regret. “Are you serious?” He grabs the Bic pen from Taeil’s hand. “You’re a bad influence.”
“You come up with something, then!”
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,” he says, striding over. He automatically claims a seat next to Sicheng and slings an arm around his shoulders, like he’s a magnet and Sicheng is a refrigerator.
“Hey, Yuta,” Chenle says. “They’re giving me terrible advice for high school.”
“Now why would they do that?” Yuta says, raising his eyebrows. “You’ve gotta suffer like every freshman does. That’s like, what freshmen are good for.”
Sicheng grabs Yuta’s soccer ball and hits him over the head with it. “I can’t believe you’re an adult,” he says.
“And I can’t believe Chenle’s gonna be a high schooler,” Yuta says, and Chenle closes his eyes and thinks, don’t say it . Yuta sniffs, and says it. “They grow up so fast.”
Later, when Chenle goes home, he pulls the crumpled piece of paper out of his pocket. There’s the two pieces of advice, but also a third one. It isn’t Taeil’s handwriting. It’s either Yuta or Sicheng who added it.
3) Don’t fall in love with your best friend.
Chenle’s brows furrow. What kind of strange advice is that? I wouldn’t fall for Jisung. Not ever. Are you kidding me? He folds the paper up into quarters and puts it in the pocket of his shorts.
God. College kids are so weird .
None of this advice ends up being applicable to freshman year. Freshmen aren’t even allowed to take AP classes, which Chenle will only appreciate while suffering through free responses in the future.
The first day of high school is walking into everything with a painful sense of newness, teetering along the border of cringy and endearing, trying to navigate the hallways because the school is so damn big, fumbling with the locker combinations, listening to teachers telling them that it’s no longer going to be easy to do well in school, and Chenle. Hates. It. He feels tiny in the sea that floods the hallway during passing periods, nervous and unsure among juniors blowing chewing gum, tired of this same old bullshit, seniors with their hair dyed, just here for one last year because they need to be.
Third period is biology class. Chenle takes a seat in the middle of the class and stares around at the lab tables around the room, the equipment in glass cabinets, and the teacher that may be older than the fossils on his desk. Five minutes after the bell rings, Jisung stumbles through the door.
“Sorry, I couldn’t find the room,” he apologizes, voice high and eyes down.
Chenle knows they have this class together because they compared schedules over the summer, but only now does he truly, truly appreciate this fact. “No problem, it’s the first day,” the teacher says. “Take a seat wherever.”
Naturally, Jisung sits next to Chenle. “Hey,” Jisung whispers.
“Hey,” Chenle says, thinking that this is probably how Miley Cyrus felt when the Jay-Z song was on; in all this insanity, he has his best friend. Thank god.
Two weeks in, Chenle thinks he’s gotten his bearings, and there’s the neat surprise of meeting Renjun when he goes to the introductory meeting for musical. Chenle has to squint— is that Renjun? It is, whoa. For Chenle’s last year at Chinese school, Renjun hadn’t been there, and seeing him for the first time at Encity High, Chenle is mind blown. Renjun used to be a kid, like him, but now he’s a sophomore, and Chenle has a hard time wrapping his head around that idea.
No matter. Renjun takes him under his wing, introducing Chenle to his lunch table— three other sophomores, Jeno, Jaemin, and Donghyuck, and a junior, Mark— and Chenle takes Jisung with him. Jaemin, for lack of a more accurate term, adopts Jisung, and the seven of them form the sort of squad that Chenle had kind of hoped for when he’d thought about high school, creating a group chat that goes off 24/7 and giving teachers a headache whenever two or more of them are in the same class.
There is no falling in love as freshmen. Chenle is terribly obnoxious and Jisung is terribly awkward— neither of them exactly crush material. In that year, Jisung finds his place among the runners and Chenle among the theater kids; Jisung’s voice cracks and he grows half a foot while Chenle gets his first boyfriend over the internet in a relationship that lasts exactly two weeks because long distance doesn’t last and Chenle and Felix don’t have any chemistry beyond the memes and the awful one-liners they send each other.
Jisung doesn’t get a girlfriend, or a boyfriend, or even have crushes. Honestly, Jisung doesn’t seem very interested in that kind of thing, and Chenle and Jisung might be best friends, but Chenle talks about Felix mostly to Renjun. A year older, Renjun said it was cute, but seemed rather cautious about the whole thing, and Chenle hates that it was the right attitude, because for the two weeks Chenle and Felix were dating Chenle was really ready to fly down to Australia to meet the other (and plane tickets are expensive) when it wasn’t even a real relationship anyway.
So. Freshman year is terrible. Chenle never wants to do that again.
Sophomore year is a little better. There’s something invisible about it, like Chenle’s just there, existing, which, while not ideal, is okay. He can make mistakes in peace.
Renjun gets a lead in musical this year. He isn’t a stereotypical sort of theater kid, that’s more Chenle. It’s Chenle’s second time at this, so he knows to watch out for the director swearing as opening night nears and the petty drama that unfolds ten at night in the musical group chat. He also knows how much time musical will take up. It’s nothing like middle school in how hard they’re worked, and also nothing like middle school in terms of the talent. Chenle is ensemble again, but he has to put in almost the same amount of work as a lead without any of the recognition. He swears next year he’ll get a name.
“There’s your boyfriend,” someone says, and Chenle doesn’t even realize he’s being addressed until he gets nudged on the shoulder. “Over there?”
Chenle looks over and sees— Jisung. “That’s not my boyfriend. Are you kidding me?”
Jisung sometimes stops by musical practice after basketball, badly in need of a shower, to say hi to Chenle and to hand him half of whatever snack he’d gotten from the vending machine, even thought last year, as opening night approached, one of the set kids had accosted Jisung and made him carry around pieces of plywood for a good half hour. One would think Jisung would be more wary after that, but he still drops by.
“Hey, Chenle,” Jisung says, a little grease-stained packet in his hand.
“Are those cookies?” Chenle demands, gesturing toward the packet.
“Yeah. I’m helping out at the concession stand for the volleyball game, so I got them for free,” Jisung says. “If I give you them, will you forward me your trig notes?”
“... You know my handwriting is terrible.”
“Do you want the cookies or not?”
Chenle shuts up, because for some reason, their school has really good chocolate chip cookies, a stark contrast to the mystery meat in the hot dogs they serve for lunch. Also some reason, the cookies are overpriced, so it’s fair to use them as a bargaining tool. Chenle is tired from going through the choreography, and the cookies are a welcome sight, even though food is technically not allowed in the auditorium.
“Oh,” Chenle says, just remembering. “Tickets just came out. Do you have money on you right now to buy one, or do you want to pay me back later?”
“Shouldn’t you ask whether I’m coming or not first?” Jisung jokes. Chenle shoots him a stink-eye, although he knows the issue of Jisung’s attendance isn’t even a question. Jisung knows how important this is to him. “How much do they cost?”
“Ten dollars.” Jisung forks over a bill, and Chenle hands him a ticket, a wicked smile on his face. Jisung just rolls his eyes, waving before walking out of the auditorium, backpack over one shoulder, and Chenle thinks—
Break ends, and Chenle groans as he hauls himself up for yet another musical number. Practice runs until eight, which means he’ll have to stay up again doing homework. And it’ll only get worse from here on out.
For Chenle, musical is kind of like a tsunami— it’s just a slight wave in the sea at first before it rears up and swallows his entire life whole. Chenle feels bad for the kids in sports, yeah, but have they ever stayed behind at school until ten-thirty?
He’s excited for the show, though. Renjun is going to kill it, and Chenle is going to watch him suffer when people inevitably tell him he killed it. Renjun can dance, act, and sing, but he cannot take compliments to save his life.
Opening night is crowded, because Chenle isn’t the only one who’s harassed friends and parents into coming. His dad is missing this because of a business meeting, but his mom is there. The crowd is dark, the stage lights brilliant. Chenle can’t see her.
Music floats up from the pit. Chenle loves being being onstage, but there’s always that moment of terror before muscle memory kicks in (or doesn’t kick in, like that one piano recital he forgot to practice for). Adrenaline rushes through his veins, until he’s burning up.
He doesn’t remember the show. Just knows for a fact that he didn’t mess up, that he synced his movements with everybody else perfectly, because that’s the point of ensemble— to blend in— and that Renjun didn’t forget any lines. Chenle is living in a fever dream, in a world with wooden skies and a too-bright sun controlled the by tech kids.
It doesn’t feel like two hours. It feels like a second with ten minutes of intermission between.
Afterward, Chenle bounds offstage to change out of his costume, face still covered with stage makeup that will probably stay on for the next week, wearing a huge smile and feeling like he’s high.
“ Nice job !” Chenle screams at Renjun before Renjun can walk into the hallway and get swarmed by people who want to tell him he did amazing oh my god — more than a few people probably just developed a crush on him tonight.
Chenle will not get swarmed, but people who know him and of his participation in the show will give him a couple of high fives. He walks out into the hallway, searching for a familiar face, and if he wants to be honest with himself, he’s searching for Jisung.
Most people have got that one person they’re performing for, and Jisung is his.
Chenle sees Jisung before Jisung sees him. Jisung is determinedly searching the field of faces, gaze skipping right over him, and Chenle kind of wants to laugh. And he’s holding flowers. Chenle has always wanted to get flowers.
“Surprise,” Chenle says, and Jisung jumps and nearly hits his head on the ceiling. Actually, because Jisung is kind of really fucking tall now.
“You scared me,” Jisung says, stating the obvious. “Wow, you look so different. I almost can’t recognize you with all the makeup.”
Chenle absentmindedly rubs at his cheek. “Yeah, stage makeup is pretty heavy-duty,” he says. “Are those flowers for me?”
“No, they’re for somebody else,” Jisung deadpans. “Idiot.”
Chenle grins, taking the bouquet. Jisung’s face is a little red, probably from how crammed the hallway is. He’s momentarily distracted by the sight of a girl from tech receiving roses, and thinks to himself that she deserves them. All the tech and set kids do.
“You were pretty good, by the way.”
“Thanks,” Chenle says, mostly genuine, but with a hint of derision. He’s ensemble— there’s no way that his individual voice could have been heard. At the very best, he could have done well at blending in.
“No, you were . I watched you the whole time, you were great,” Jisung insists. He’s always been very honest. “You went through a lot of costume changes.”
And see, this is why Jisung is the person Chenle performs for. Because Chenle can always rely on him to be look. His chest does something that might be mistaken for performance adrenaline, but Chenle’s smart. He knows it’s something else, but chooses not to dwell on it. It’s opening night.
Somebody yells Chenle’s name, and Chenle sighs. “Sorry, gotta go,” he says. “I’ll catch you later.”
Jisung waves, putting on his jacket to go home. Chenle’s other friend tells him they’re heading to the nearby bakery to celebrate, and Chenle goes to look for his mom to tell her that he’s going. She’s standing at the side of the hallway, invisible among all the high schoolers, and she looks at him with a fond smile.
“Hey,” she says in Mandarin. “Nice job. All that work you put in paid off.”
Chenle can’t help but grin. His mom isn’t one for extravagant compliments, or even the words I love you , but her love is obvious in how she supports him with musical, despite how she doesn’t necessarily understand it, since there wasn’t anything like that back in China.
“Are those flowers from Jisung?” she asks, and Chenle nods. “He’s such a good friend to you.”
“Yeah, he is,” Chenle agrees readily, hoping Jisung is out of earshot.
“CHENLE!” somebody yells, and Chenle tells her, “I gotta go to the bakery now. Thank you for coming.”
“Have fun. Text me when I should come pick you up.”
Chenle crashes after musical. Physically, because the human body isn’t meant to do what musical entails, but also mentally, because he suddenly has all this free time he has no idea what to do with. Life goes on, though, and slowly, he falls into his usual routine, which entails a lot of stress and procrastination. By the time Valentine’s Day rolls around, he’s back to functional and bored, barely registering the holiday. In elementary school, they had class parties with heart-shaped cookies and made boxes to hold each other’s courtesy cards. After the cookies disappeared, Chenle lost interest.
Jisung laughs, quiet, and Chenle turns at the sound.
Jisung tilts his phone so Chenle can see the email he just got. “Oh,” Chenle comments. “I wasn’t aware you were planning on… seducing your partner this February 14 with some gourmet wine.”
“I don’t know how these companies find me,” Jisung says. “I’m a broke high schooler . I barely have enough money to buy Coke from the vending machine.”
“Did you know that the prices got upped this year so the Coke’s a dollar and fifty now?” Chenle says. “Who carries around quarters?”
“You sound like my dad complaining about gas prices,” Jisung snickers, and Chenle hits him, mostly because Jisung’s right. Jisung contemplates his phone. “Maybe I should forward this to my dad. He’s like a wine connoisseur.”
“I don’t get how wine connoisseurs work,” Chenle says. “It all tastes like fermented ass to me.”
He’s had a mouthful of cheap beer at his first and probably last stereotypical high school party, and he’s also had a sip of the expensive alcohol from his dad’s glass at a fancy party back in China. Both of them tasted equally disgusting.
“How would you know?” Jisung fake-gasps. “Have you been drunk before?”
Chenle rolls his eyes. Both of them, they aren’t innocent anymore— they’re well aware of swears, and the logistics of sex, and the wide variety of illegal substances there are in the world— it’s just that none of these things are that interesting to them. Chenle’s in high school, and he mourns the loss of heart-shaped cookies.
“Do you remember those heart-shaped cookies we used to get back in elementary school?” Jisung says, in one of those instances when the two of them almost seem to share a telepathic connection. Renjun’s called it scary before.
“We could make some,” Chenle suggests.
“Last time we tried to bake, we used liquid soap instead of milk,” Jisung tries, but Chenle’s already gotten up and headed off toward the kitchen. The cookies come out decent-looking, if burnt. The two of them take a picture of the one that’s shaped like an ass because they’re sixteen.
Jisung eyes the tray with suspicion. “We have to have messed up at some point,” he says. “We never pull this stuff off.”
Chenle breaks one of the hearts in half and takes a bite before he chokes. “Shit,” he wheezes.
On February 14, it’s a normal day sans the candygrams and the survey, which Chenle had completely forgotten about. Their school does it every year. It’s optional, which is probably due to its total stupidity, but Chenle fills it out anyway.
It’s a compatibility questionnaire, the data totally sham, with questions like ‘what’s your favorite idea for a date’ and ‘how do you express affection.’ The answers are crunched through a website, and people get a list of the top ten people in the school that they’re most compatible with.
Jisung’s number one on Chenle’s list. Chenle’s number one on Jisung’s.
“What do you know,” Jisung deadpans. “It thinks we should date.”
Chenle scoffs, oddly defensive. “This computer program is a terrible matchmaker. Us dating? Can you imagine?”
“Maybe in some galaxy far far away,” Jisung says, the Star Wars nerd he is. “Like… really far away. As far away as possible.”
Chenle laughs, but it’s a distracted laugh. The truth is that Chenle, along with maybe everybody else in the school, had taken the test secretly believing a little bit in the results, even as they all told each other it was stupid, that they were doing it out of curiosity. Maybe Chenle doesn’t mind that this dumb computer algorithm thinks he and Jisung would be good together. Maybe he’s even glad for it.
But the truth is that the two of them are still mostly normal in sophomore year, except for those few blips. Partially because Jisung isn’t really the kind of person to fall head over heels for without some kind of trigger, and neither is Chenle. Both of them are more dumbass than heartthrob in any galaxy, far far away or not.
It’s third period chemistry class, and Chenle and Jisung are probably a little bit more careless with the chemicals and lab equipment than they should be. Chenle’s trying to figure out how to work the Bunsen Burner; Jisung’s measuring out ethanol into a beaker and grumbling when he goes over the required amount.
“We’re supposed to get a blue double cone?” Chenle says, squinting at the fire, which doesn’t even look intimidating enough to roast a marshmallow. “Is this it?”
“Um, let me see,” Jisung says. He walks over to look at the Bunsen Burner, and Chenle takes the ethanol from him as a precaution. Jisung adjusts the flame, face screwed up in concentration. “Hey, you’re the artsier one out of the two of us, is this blue enough—
A couple of things happen in quick succession.
1) Jisung knocks over the Bunsen Burner. 2) Chenle screams, drawing the attention of everybody in their class. 3) Chenle drops the beaker containing the highly flammable ethanol. 4) You know what happens next.
The next day, their teacher says, “I don’t believe in the no child left behind rule.” Chenle swears she’s looking at him as she says this. “If you’re behind, you get left behind.”
It’s math class, and Chenle is messing around with his calculator, trying to type out sin of x. His calculator can do a bunch of weird shit like make ten kinds of graphs and possibly 3-D print an ice cream cone, but it comes at the cost of too many buttons for one person to keep track of.
Someone’s phone goes off, loud. It’s Jisung’s.
Jisung usually keeps his phone on silent, because the only people he gets calls from are spam callers in Russia or his parents, but Chenle had a few days ago turned the volume way up and set the ringtone to Call Me Maybe . It’s not a punishment in Chenle’s eyes, but Jisung, for some reason, doesn’t seem to appreciate that he literally got pushed out of the womb into the best era for music since Beethoven dropped Moonlight Sonata a few centuries ago. 2000’s pop saved America.
Jisung fumbles for his phone in his bag. “Um,” he says.
Chenle is torn between laughing and freezing in secondhand fear from the blank expression in their math teacher’s eyes. Mr. ? (He had said his name on the first day of school, but Chenle had forgotten it) is possibly part hawk, part killer robot. He speaks like his voice is made of gravel, and while Chenle might not understand anything about trig, he understands that Mr. ? gives no fucks if his students fail.
“It’s my mom,” Jisung says weakly.
Laughter. Mr. ? digs his eyes into Jisung’s soul.
“Carly Rae Jepsen is his mom,” Chenle hears himself add, and Mr. ? turns his gaze to Chenle, who feels his soul wither away and busies himself behind his sci-fi calculator.
His mom tells him later that day, “I got an email from your math teacher.”
“Oh,” Chenle says.
“I’m not going to be worried, though,” she continues. “Your math teacher doesn’t seem like he’s real.”
Chenle laughs so hard he nearly cries.
Another thing is that sophomore year is just not a good time to fall in love.
Mark becomes a senior, and at first, it’s funny— more comedy about how Mark is an old man who probably needs to start planning his retirement, like, right now. Jeno gives Mark a brochure he’d gotten in the mail on cremation services, which is absolutely terrible. Chenle loves it.
After awhile, though, it becomes more and more apparent that underneath all of the laughter, there’s more potential for tears. Mark talks about colleges and applications and majors, and Chenle gets the uncomfortable sense that Mark is heading down some unknowable road that Chenle doesn’t want to have to think about just yet.
“At least he destroyed the myth that senior year is stress-free for us,” Chenle comments. “He could sell his eyebags on eBay for a hefty amount.”
“Weirder things have been sold on eBay,” Jisung agrees.
But Chenle never expects for their friend group to fracture.
Mark and Donghyuck are a thing, have been ever since Chenle walked into Encity, and Chenle took that for a fact. The two of them were never overt about their relationship, but they are conspicuous when they decide to end it. Donghyuck stops sitting at their lunch table and also leaves the group chat. Without him, the chat sputters and dies, and Chenle is a little heartbroken: he has a folder full of screenshots that aren’t funny to anyone but them and has wasted probably dozens of hours on messaging instead of the homework he was supposed to be doing.
Sometimes the chat awakens in spasms, but after awhile it turns into just Jeno going hey anyone here ? and someone saying yeah i’m here and nothing else. Jeno finally stops after it gets too pitiful.
Renjun messages him on private. it’s kind of a miracle we lasted as long as we did , he says, and Chenle learns that a lot of things about high school are ephemeral.
The lunch table finally gives out, too, after Renjun gets a job after school and starts going to the library instead of the cafeteria to do homework. Chenle, out of loyalty, goes to join him, even though he can’t stand the library. Jisung spends some days with Jaemin, other days with Chenle and Renjun.
Long story short, it’s miserable. “I feel like I’m caught in a divorce,” Jisung says, when it’s just the two of them, over in Chenle’s house. The two of them are lying on Chenle’s bed, watching Stephen Curry. “How did we go from no drama to all drama?”
Chenle shrugs. “Don’t know.”
“Ugh. Can you help me with trig?” Jisung says, knowing that Chenle’s worse at math than him, not because Chenle doesn’t understand the material, but because he rushes and makes stupid mistakes. Reading directions is not his forte.
“If you do my Spanish.”
“I switched to French, remember?”
Oh, yeah. Those are the two languages their school offers. It’s so sad— Chenle’s Mandarin is rusting by the minute, and he can’t roll his rs for the life of him, much less conjugate or tell the preterite from the imperfect. “Switch back.”
“Never.” Jisung pauses. “Actually, I heard you accidentally gave your summer vacation speech in 中文 instead of Español, so if you promise to be a total idiot and make a mistake like that again, I’ll consider it.”
“How about this. 闭嘴. Callate. Shut the fuck up.”
“Aw, j't'aime too.”
There’s a moment when they don’t say anything, in comfortable silence. “Donghyuck and Mark broke up because Mark’s going to Cali next year,” Jisung murmurs.
“Do you think you’ll do that? Go to California?”
“Uh, I don’t know,” Chenle says. He likes where he is right now just fine. “I guess I wouldn’t mind? But you’d have to come with me. My mom doesn’t trust me to live on my own.”
Jisung hums, distracted. “I still don’t get why they broke up.”
“Because long-distance relationships don’t work out. Everybody knows that.”
“I don’t. Call me dumb, but why don’t they just try?”
Chenle has no answer for that. Because people are afraid of failure, he supposes. Because it might hurt worse later on. But he doesn’t want to explain that. He doesn’t even feel like it’s a good explanation.
“Not my business,” he chirps. “Anyway, Mark was born with the dinosaurs. College is light years away.”
Jisung frowns, pointing at Chenle’s worksheet. “The directions say to use the past tense.”
Chenle looks at the directions, where it does , indeed, say to use the past tense. He’s been filling the whole thing out in present. “Oh, shit.”
Chenle might not be good at Spanish, but he’s pretty smart in the ways that matter. He knows he needs Jisung as a best friend right now. He’ll probably always need Jisung as a best friend. High school is thin tectonic plates moving over a sea of magma, and he and Jisung need to be on the same side of the fault line.
The rest of the year, Chenle does his homework in the library. He finds himself with free time. It’s unnatural and uncomfortable, and he hates it. When finals roll around, Chenle actually knows the material, and he kind of wishes that weren’t the case.
The disparity between the expectation and the reality of summer is too wide. It’s not like Chenle expects much , because at this point he is well aware life isn’t like the movies, but it really sucks to be slogging his way to Driver’s Ed at eight o’clock every morning because of their school’s crazy graduation requirements. The only saving grace is that Jisung is there with him, sliding into the plastic chair beside him sweaty from summer running. Chenle doesn’t get why Jisung would do that to himself— he has to wake up at five, just so he can, what? Puke from running ten miles?
“I,” Jisung groans, “am so tired.”
He leans his head against the textbooks they’ve been issued, which are at least thirty years old and have dicks drawn all over them by various different inks and styles.
“I’ll wake you up in three hours,” Chenle says. Jisung mumbles incoherently and gives him a sleepy thumbs-up.
Chenle slumps, chin in his hands. He wants to learn to drive, yeah, but he’s not going to learn how to drive in a classroom , especially not with a teacher told them he didn’t care if they smoked during break but ribbed on Chenle for being Chinese. Driver’s Ed is just so, so unbearable.
(Anyway— kids don’t smoke anymore, they vape, get with the times .)
Jisung lifts his head up an hour and a half later. The teacher has already talked about what a stop sign is for fifty minutes, so now they’re watching a grainy documentary from the 80’s involving alcohol and car crashes. Chenle yawns, unimpressed. The movies don’t bother him. But during the footage of a window exploding, cutting the passengers in the face, Chenle can sense Jisung flinch next to him.
After the designated three hours of hell, Chenle walks out into the humid summer air, shivering as the sunlight hits his skin.
“This class is awful,” Jisung declares, traumatized. “I’m not even learning how to drive. I’m learning that I can never drive, ever, or else I’ll die.”
Chenle pumps a fist into the air. “You got this! Do it for the graduation requirements!”
“I could just bike everywhere, right?” Jisung reasons. “Or take public transportation? Oh wait, I forgot. We live in the suburbs where sidewalks go nowhere and trains don’t exist. Goddammit. I guess I’ll walk then.”
“I mean, the movies are just a scare tactic,” Chenle tries. “It’s not like you’re not going to go drinking and driving.”
Jisung looks unconvinced, kicking at a rock. “It’s just… whenever I watch movies where other people get hurt, I kind of feel like a… phantom pain myself. You get me?”
“Not really. I feel like that’s a nice people problem,” Chenle says. “It’s fine. You got me, I’ll drive you around.”
“ What? ”
“I don’t trust you behind a wheel.”
“You— driving isn’t as hard as the teacher’s making it out to be, if basically everyone does it,” Chenle says resolutely. “Ugh. You know what? I won’t drive you around, then. You can struggle with trying to get from place to place yourself.”
“Fine with me.” Jisung yawns, body drooping like a dandelion. “Oh, man. I’m sore.”
“How much did you run today, anyway?”
“Like… ten miles? I don’t think I’m doing Cross Country this year. The coach is getting too intense. Maybe I’ll do swimming instead.”
“So what I’m hearing is you’re gonna move your suffering from land to water,” Chenle says. Jisung smacks him. “I don’t feel bad for you. You did this to yourself.”
They reach the juncture in the sidewalk by the 7-11 and part ways. Chenle drags his feet— after Driver’s Ed is SAT practice. There’s something about standardized testing that he can’t do. He grits his teeth, mentally preparing himself to sit through two hours of filling in bubbles until the only letters he can think are a, b, c, and d.
Chenle gets his permit in July.
It’s a permit, not a license, which apparently has restrictions, but nobody follows those restrictions, and Chenle isn’t about to, either. He likes the idea that he can go anywhere he wants, even if he only really drives to places in their small town.
He isn’t the best driver ever. He runs over a mailbox and goes over speed limit, but in his defense, he’s learning , and at least he doesn’t have road rage.
“You are the worst driver ever,” Jisung gripes, from where he’s hyperventilating in the passenger seat. “How did you get your permit?”
Price Tag blasts from the stereo, and Chenle turns it down so he doesn’t have to yell. “I mean, you can get out if you want.” They’re going forty miles per hour.
The two of them are going to Mark’s going-away party. Chenle supposes that summer has smoothed over the rifts of the school year, although it’s no longer the dream that freshman year embodied.
“We’re never going to get to say goodbye to Mark,” Jisung says, then presses himself flat against the seat when Chenle makes a particular sharp stop. “We’ll be too busy saying goodbye to our lives.”
Chenle ignores him. He turns Price Tag back up and sings along to Jessie J. Chenle refuses to hear any more of this. He is definitely going to this party, and Jisung is definitely going with him. He’s sick of Driver’s Ed and SAT prep.
“Hey!” Mark greets, when Chenle shows up, Jisung staggering to the door behind him. “Um, Jisung, are you okay?”
“I nearly died ,” Jisung says, and proceeds to tell Mark all about what a crappy driver Chenle is.
Geez. At least Chenle can drive. He goes to Mark’s living room and helps himself to a popsicle from the freezer, one of the green ones, since the blue ones are all gone. Jeno and Jaemin and Renjun are already there, because Chenle runs on a schedule that’s half an hour slower than everyone else’s.
Donghyuck isn’t there. Chenle doesn’t think it’s because he’s late. He chooses not to dwell on this, though, and plops down on the couch next to Renjun. Iron Man is playing.
“We’ve all already watched this,” Renjun says. “We were just waiting for you and Jisung to show up.”
“I drove,” Chenle says.
Renjun’s mouth twists in distaste. “That’s so weird,” he says. “You drove. You’re like two, though.”
“You’re only a year older than me,” Chenle says. “Yes, I drove .”
The party is a good time. They play Mario Kart and Dance Dance Revolution, which Jeno and Jisung absolutely dominate— Chenle doesn’t get how they time themselves with the arrows, what the hell— and then they drag out the old badminton equipment Mark has in his basement and set up a game in his backyard. Chenle is so rusty at badminton. He gets hit in the face with the shuttle one time, feathers hitting his eye.
The thing ends with Mark’s parents bringing out pizza and cake. Well, it ends for Chenle; he’s missing the sleepover part because he has SAT prep tomorrow. (Not to be dramatic, but he hates his life.) The cake is carrot-flavored with cream cheese frosting, and Chenle reasons to himself that he’s technically eating his vegetables. Oh, there were tomatoes in the pizza, too.
“Hey,” Mark tells him, seeing him out. Chenle looks back into the house, where Jisung is getting headlocked by Jaemin and Jeno is smearing frosting on Renjun’s face, and tries to shove down that feeling of FOMO he supposes just comes with being an extrovert. He’d felt in freshman year whenever the group chat was active without him and now he feels it because he’s leaving eight hours early while everyone’s staying. “Don’t stress about the SATs, alright?”
“I’m not the one stressing, my parents are,” Chenle says, although maybe he’s a little stressed, because none of the tests are clicking for him even though he knows he’s perfectly proficient at english and math. “Can we clone me so I can stay over?”
“I think one of you is more than enough,” Mark says drily. Chenle doesn’t punch him solely because it’s his going-away party. “Anyway, I’ll miss you, Chenle.”
Chenle is about to come back at him with some sort of witty retort, before it hits him that Mark is really going away, Chenle isn’t going to see him at school anymore. Pizza and cake are just a disguise for the unpleasant truth. “I’ll miss you too, Mark,” he says sincerely.
“Text me,” Mark says. “Video-call me. Don’t be a stranger.”
“Yeah, of course, I won’t,” Chenle says, and walks out into the night. “See you.”
On the way home, he doesn’t listen to music. He thinks about how people always say they’ll text and call, but most of the time, they don’t. There isn’t anything wrong with the technology, it’s the people behind them unwilling to take an hour out of their lives to call, or reading texts but not responding. Chenle tries not to do that. He tries to text and call people, or even better, he tries to actually go hang out with them, if they’re not that busy. But for some reason, even though he’s seen all of those posts on Twitter and Instagram that are essentially reiterations of the words, I’m lonely , nobody seems to want to do anything about it.
“Donghyuck should have been there,” he tells the pair of dice dangling in front of the windshield.
At this point, if this were a story, it should be obvious that Chenle or whoever is spinning the tale of his life is stalling on the romance.
People like to joke that Chenle doesn’t know anything about love because of his age. Chenle thinks it’s the direct opposite— he knows about love because of his age. He’s seen everything secondhand already, watched everybody else make the mistakes so he can avoid them. Also, he’s watched a lot of rom-coms and musicals.
The day after Mark’s going away party, Jisung comes over to his face. “I just needed to make sure you didn’t crash the car on the way home,” he says.
“You have so little faith in me,” Chenle whines. “Anyway, I’m alive.”
“That’s always good,” Jisung says. He crosses his legs, looking up at the ceiling. “I wish you stayed over for the sleepover part. I kinda fifth-wheeled.”
Chenle is not a nice person, or a selfless person, so he’s kind of glad for the information that he’s Jisung’s favorite. He doesn’t let any evidence of his gladness show, though, instead opting to say, “I wish Donghyuck was there.”
“I mean, of course. It would’ve been super awkward, though.”
Well— Chenle doesn’t just wish that Donghyuck was there . He wishes things were normal between him and Mark, because they had something good going on, even as friends. He wonders why the fallout after relationships has to be so messy, because Mark and Donghyuck were best friends before they were boyfriends.
“You know what Mark told me,” Chenle says. “He told me being in love is like being knifed in the chest. Or like having half your organs missing.”
“... Was he talking about in love or being an extra in the latest horror movie?”
Chenle shrugs. “Whatever, being sixteen is hard enough with all organs onboard,” he says flippantly. “Let’s never fall in love.”
“But we’re like, twelve,” Jisung says, in a perfect imitation of Renjun, before adding in a voice that’s very much his own, “I’m not making any promises.”
“Because we’re like twelve?”
“Because I might be in love.”
Now, Chenle isn’t a lyricist like Mark, or a writer like Jisung. So instead of saying something eloquent, all he does is stare at Jisung like he grew two heads to try and convey what’s going through his mind, which would probably look like a bunch of exclamation points and swears if it were ever to be printed on paper.
“BUT MOSTLY BECAUSE WE’RE LIKE TWELVE,” Jisung hastily adds, but it’s too late. Chenle has already recovered.
“What?” he demands, stuttering a bit. “You’re in love with someone? Who? Why didn’t I know about this?”
“I said it was a possibility,” Jisung tries, but Chenle can see that Jisung is lying.
“You’re my best friend,” Chenle says. Some part of him is legitimately hurt that Jisung kept something like this from him. Jisung has never had a serious crush before. “It’s like, part of the job description to tell me this stuff.”
“I’m really not in love—”
“In like, then?”
“I don’t know. Maybe.”
“Is it Renjun?”
“What the fuck? No, it’s not Renjun! It’s— not important, alright? I’m just trying to figure this out on my own,” Jisung says. “Please drop the topic, Chenle.”
And Chenle is about to push further, because he wants to help Jisung stalk this person’s Instagram and tease him about whoever it is and plan out a shovel talk, but then he realizes that maybe Jisung doesn’t want that. Maybe Jisung isn’t as desperate to grow up as everybody else. There’s almost a certain maturity to that. Besides, Jisung looks like he’s about to sprint out the door, so Chenle rolls back the full-scale interrogation his mind is begging him to implement, and only says, “Fine, but you owe me for this.”
And that is kind of how it starts.
In August, Chenle goes over to Sicheng’s house. He carefully cradles a box of cheesecake so it doesn’t tip over like many other thing in his life have.
Yuta and Taeil have graduated, and Chenle’s parents have reminded him maybe a dozen times to be polite and congratulate Yuta and Taeil and also to please follow their footsteps later in life and bring home a diploma. Chenle thinks he can pull that off. Maybe.
Chenle puts the cake on the table, says his customary ni hao shu shus and a yis , and then he heads to the living room, where Yuta, Taeil, and Sicheng are watching an episode of Grey’s Anatomy.
“This show makes me reconsider going to med school,” Chenle overhears Yuta say. “Can we watch Death Note?”
“Shut up, you haven’t even gone to med school yet,” Taeil says. “Anyway, these episodes are engineered are so you can never stop watching. Go with it. Let psychology take over.”
“I hope you never do drugs, Taeil.”
The three of them are sitting on the couch. Taeil is eating Doritos from a bowl with chopsticks, and Sicheng and Yuta are holding hands. The latter isn’t anything new, but Sicheng just draws attention to it by violently blushing and pulling his hand away.
“What?” Yuta demands. “Is this public indecency now, too?”
“No, it’s just, Chenle’s—”
“The kid is sixteen, he can handle holding hands,” Yuta says, and Chenle’s eyes widen. No way . “I’ve seen plenty of weird shit by the time I was sixteen.”
“Spare us your disgusting high school search history, thank you,” Sicheng says, regaining his composure and cuffing Yuta on the head. Yuta just catches Sicheng’s hand so that their fingers are interlocked again.
Chenle looks to Taeil for confirmation.
“Yes, they’re dating, and it’s awful,” Taeil says, and Chenle’s eyes widen. “Want a Dorito? They’re engineered so you can never stop eating.”
Chenle takes a couple of Doritos, unable to hide his smile. The news of Sicheng and Yuta’s relationship sparks a feeling like, oh, finally , in him. It’s like checking back on a good show half a year later and realizing the two protagonists he was rooting for have finally gotten together, except it’s real life, and he knows the actors. However, he has just enough respect for Sicheng and just enough of a sense of self-preservation to not tease the living daylights out of the two of them.
“Congratulations on graduation, Taeil,” Chenle says, instead.
“What about me?” Yuta immediately demands, affronted.
“I mean, congratulations to you too,” Chenle says. “On graduation and on getting together with Sicheng-ge.”
“I personally have no idea how he achieved either,” Sicheng mutters, face red. “Anyway, let’s finish this episode. I’m invested.”
The episode ends in a cliffhanger, as every single episode does, but Sicheng’s disciplined enough to cut the show off, and hey head outside and set up a game of soccer. Chenle, Sicheng, and Taeil all team up against Yuta, half because they’re always teaming up against Yuta and half because Yuta’s too good now.
They play to ten, and the only reason the three of them win is because Sicheng plays dirty on the final point and distracts Yuta with a stare that’s probably more indecent than any sort of kissing could ever be.
“I call foul play,” Yuta says in the end. “Three against one is just mean, anyway.”
“I would like to point out that you’re a soccer player and the rest of us are not,” Taeil says.
Chenle’s out of breath. He tries to spin the soccer ball on his finger and miserably fails. Then he remembers something. “Oh, hey, Taeil, I’m sorry. I’m taking AP Physics next year.”
“Don’t apologize to me, apologize to your future self,” Taeil says. “You’re going to die.”
Eh. Summer’s ending, junior year looming up ahead of him in two weeks, and Chenle is royally weirded out by the idea that he’ll be a junior, an upperclassman , when he’s been called a baby and accused of being twelve for the past two years.
Renjun is going to be a senior. He’s already stressing out over college applications. As is Donghyuck. On that note, Chenle says, “Hey, Sicheng-ge, you and Yuta are long distance, right?”
“I mean, not as of currently,” Sicheng says. “But usually yeah.”
“How’s that, been working for you?” Chenle asks. Sicheng raises an eyebrow, as if he’s about to ask why Chenle is asking, so Chenle hastily adds, “I’m asking for a friend. Not me.”
“Oh. Well, I mean, I personally think it’s been working fine?” Sicheng says. “It’s actually probably better there’s a couple hundred miles between me and him most of the time.”
“You’re so mean ,” Yuta chides. “But yeah, Chenle, long-distance never working out is a myth. Technology’s a thing now.”
Chenle hums. He wonders if he should tell this to his friend, or whether Donghyuck and Mark have already moved on, and saying so would just rip open a closed wound. “But isn’t it more work, still?”
“I think you have to work hard for anything,” Sicheng says. “Just decide if it’s something worth working for. You can tell that to your friend. I’m not saying anything more on the subject.”
“I feel like I’m listening in on a late-night radio talk show,” Taeil says. Sicheng chucks the soccer ball at his head, and Taeil ducks apologetically.
The four of them head back into the house, Chenle itching at a newly acquired mosquito bite on his leg. They watch a couple of music videos before going over to the kitchen to eat Yuta and Taeil’s celebratory graduation dinner, although it’s been two months since the graduation happened. Chenle has no complaints— it’s not like he gets to eat tteokbokki or takoyaki on a daily basis.
It’s later in the night, when both Yuta and Taeil have left, that Chenle asks, “Sicheng-ge, what’s your opinion on falling for a friend?”
This question is not for Donghyuck. Chenle is just… curious.
“I mean, I have terrible taste, so you might not want to ask me that question,” Sicheng says.
“I mean, I personally support it,” Chenle says. “Anyway, he’s not here, so you don’t have to pretend to hate him.”
Sicheng punches his shoulder. “When did you get to be such an asshole?” he asks, fond.
“So?” Chenle prompts. “Falling for a friend. A good friend.”
“I mean, I don’t think it’s something you can control. Believe me, I’ve tried.” Chenle smiles a little at that. “But yeah, I’d say it’s deadass terrifying, and so many things could go wrong. And feelings tend to get in the way, unless you’re a really good actor. Your friendship could get very messed up.”
“But if they like you back?” Sicheng adds. “It’s the best feeling in the world.”
Chenle wishes that he’d at least gotten a name out of Jisung. Because now he’s stuck trying to figure out who Jisung likes.
Jisung has never expressed interest in anyone before, so Chenle has nothing to work with, and eventually, Chenle realizes he should just give up. It’s just… something about this doesn’t sit right with him.
Junior year, Jisung quits Cross Country and joins the swim team. Chenle has never gone to one of Jisung’s Cross Country meets, which is probably a testament to his inability to be a good best friend, but in his defense, he isn’t about to watch anyone run three miles, best friend or not. Swim team, though, he’ll do. So Wednesday finds him sitting on the bleachers, marinating in humid air that smells like chlorine. Jeno’s on swim team, also, has been for the past two years, and Jaemin is a good best friend who comes to his meets, so Chenle sits next to him.
“You’re watching for Jisung,” Jaemin says.
“Yeah,” Chenle says.
“You guys are best friends.”
“Are you just best friends?”
Chenle doesn’t like where this is going, the emphasis on the just . Jaemin has always been ridiculously perceptive. “Absolutely.”
Jaemin switches the topic to the giant glitter poster someone behind them is holding, and Chenle tries to shake off Jaemin’s words. It’s fine. He’s a good actor, and even better at holding onto secrets. He’s fine.
Jisung’s event comes up, and Chenle focuses on the pool.
It’s just how it is. Jisung always makes sure to watch Chenle in a performance, no matter how small of a role it is, so Chenle is returning the favor. When you’re sixteen, not many people are watching for you, so they have to watch for each other. It’s normal for best friends to be invested in each other’s success. It’s like how Renjun once told Chenle that whenever Mark sends him a song he wrote, Renjun will drop everything to give feedback.
Why does this feel weird? Why does he feel so weird?
It isn’t that Jisung’s attractive, especially with the swim cap and goggles over his eyes. Chenle doesn’t think it’s possible to find someone attractive when you’ve known them so long and see them everyday; they look the same one day to the next.
Jisung touches the wall second, and Chenle feels his mouth curve up in a smile, happy despite his confusion. He just needs to know who Jisung likes, really. Who Jisung will give flowers to and search out in the crowd, who will be sitting next to Chenle with a glittery poster board in the future.
Next to him, Jaemin lets out a small cheer as Jeno dives off the board. Chenle is invested in what place Jeno gets, because he’s a good friend. There’s no confusion there. What the hell is going on with him?
So now he’s unsure around his best friend. Great.
It’s just another one of his problems on top of an ever-growing stack— it’s junior year, and he’s drowning. Calc BC kicks his ass. So does AP Physics. He expects these two.
He does not expect to be so frustrated over code.
Over the summer, Chenle went to this volunteering event to introduce kids to STEM. Whoever the speaker was, Chenle hates him, because he single-handedly managed to convince Chenle to go into computer programming.
“How many of you guys have read Harry Potter?” the speaker says, and essentially every hand in the room shoots up. “I read it, and I thought, if I went to Hogwarts, I’d ace every subject. I wouldn’t even mind studying, because it’s magic . Who wouldn’t want to learn magic?”
“Now, think of what someone a hundred years ago would think of computer programming.”
For the next hour, the speaker proceeds to describe all the amazing things coding accomplishes. He neglects to mention that it’s the result. Behind the scenes are lines and lines of code, litters of empty coffee cups and the echoes of swears from some glitch that can’t be fixed or another.
“You don’t have enough patience for coding,” is Chenle’s dad’s evaluation.
Chenle’s dad is a doctor, and Chenle knows that his dad would like for Chenle to be a doctor as well, but Chenle can’t stand blood or rashes or vomit, so he crossed that possibility out pretty early. Chenle always assumed he’d go into business or something. Making money in a field about money— you can’t go wrong with that, right?
His dad isn’t wrong, though. Chenle generally doesn’t have patience, likes to barrel ahead without much attention to detail. But if Chenle cares about something, he’ll practice. He’ll be unforgivingly meticulous. That’s how he is with musical, and now that’s how he’ll be with programming. But as Chenle clicks run program and gets an error message for the umpteenth time, he can’t help but feel frustrated.
It doesn’t help that most of his friends are seniors, occupied with college applications. Renjun fusses over his essay while Donghyuck complains about ridiculous prices for tuition. Chenle’s got almost two years of high school left, but it doesn’t feel like it. People tell him to live in the moment. Ha. How’s he supposed to do that? Chenle drowns in uncertainty, in sudden cesspools of regrets. He should have done more clubs freshman year. He should have tried computer science out early. He is never going to college and will wind up sleeping in a cardboard box on the streets.
“Calm down,” Jisung says. “Everybody else is going crazy. Not you, too.”
“We can go to the same college, right?” Chenle asks, awkwardness put aside for the time being after a particularly stressful conversation with Renjun.
Jisung shrugs. “Depends where you’re aiming.”
Chenle doesn’t know where he’s aiming. That’s another thing. He used to be so confident that he’d be successful, that he’d prove all those people who talk shit about him and his culture wrong. He still imagines he’d own a grand piano, although he doesn’t care for a mansion. He also still imagines he’ll always be in contact with Jisung, no matter what.
“Whatever, we’re going to room together,” Chenle says. “I’ll kill the cockroaches and you kill the spiders. We can rock-paper-scissors for ants.”
“I don’t want to kill the ants.”
Chenle considers this, decides he probably doesn’t want to kill ants, either. “Alright. Let’s not kill the ants, then.”
In October, Chenle fails with Jisung. Chenle bombs the PSAT and takes comfort in the memes; Jisung gets below fifty on a test in English and burns a Yankee candle in prayer for a good curve. In November, Chenle falls for Jisung. The two of them are sitting on Jisung’s couch, splitting leftover Halloween candy. Jisung’s dad had bought a giant bag from Costco, but nobody had trick-or-treated at their house.
Chenle pulls out a Twix for himself and tosses Jisung the last kit-kat, who breaks it neatly in half and bites down on one of the sticks. “Alright, that’s the whole bag. I guess I have to do my homework now,” Chenle says forlornly, unwrapping the Twix.
“Physics?” Jisung made the smart decision. He took regular.
“Psych, actually.” Chenle yanks his folder out from his backpack with more force than necessary. They have these long study guides, and while they’re not hard, they’re tedious— Chenle’s hand cramps from writing vocab terms.
Chenle pulls out his phone, idly swiping past a couple new notifications from Instagram and opening Spotify. “What do you want to listen to?”
“Why do you bother asking when I know you’re just going to put on your giant playlist of 2000’s pop songs anyway?”
Chenle shrugs— they both know it’s true— and puts the playlist on shuffle. Taylor Swift’s You Belong With Me comes on, and Chenle mouths along to the lyrics as he starts the worksheet, looking through the textbook for the effects of serotonin. He can’t really focus. He hasn’t been able to focus too well around Jisung lately. But this time Chenle is also cold— he rubs his bare arms, then slinks them inside of his t-shirt. He’s always taken aback by the temperature plunge in autumn.
Jisung looks up. “You cold?”
“You wanna borrow a sweatshirt?” He doesn’t wait for Chenle to answer, tossing him his swim jacket.
Chenle takes it, hesitant, then puts it on. He has to roll the sleeves up several times over, and since it’s a little big on Jisung, it hits Chenle mid-thigh. Shit. Jisung’s, like, really tall.
A sports jacket? Really? Chenle picks his pencil back up, cheeks blazing. It was better when he was cold. Now he’s too warm. His mind diverges into two tracks: oh no, you’re catching feelings for your best friend , versus, could I get away with keeping this jacket forever?
Chenle wonders if it’s just the power of suggestion. (Hell yeah, psych term.) Maybe after Jaemin questioned their relationship, Chenle’s just looking at his friendship with Jisung and seeing stuff that isn’t really there.
Unfortunately, he can’t stop seeing it now.
Day by day, Chenle notices more and more. He’s suddenly aware of Jisung’s height, how cute his smile is. Chenle’s hyper-aware of himself, too. He’s worried his confusion is written all over his face. Fortunately, Jisung’s never been too good at reading between the lines. Chenle should have figured out from all those books and movies that people don’t choose to fall— it just happens. He has no control over the strange want in his chest, the reluctance to hand the jacket over when Jisung finally asks for it back.
Mark is right— it really does feel like half his organs are missing. His spleen and his left kidney are already gone. His heart’s probably next.
Chenle’s birthday falls on the Friday right after Thanksgiving.
It’s strange, he thinks. He’s seventeen. It doesn’t feel too different from being sixteen.
On the bright side, there’s no school today. If that isn’t proof that he’s a good person that’s on the better side of karma, he doesn’t know what is. He doesn’t have a birthday party, though. Don’t get him wrong— Chenle likes being celebrated, but he somehow managed to forget his own fucking birthday was coming up in the midst of all the other things he was trying to keep track of.
The power of AP Physics, ladies and gentlemen.
“We should go to the mall,” Jisung says, unceremoniously showing up at Chenle’s house at ten. Chenle shuts Snapchat off, where he was looking at a couple of happy birthday snaps. “We can get trampled by all the Black Friday shoppers.”
“Um, it’s probably hell in there,” Chenle says. Then he thinks. “Actually, it might be dead empty. Isn’t everyone online shopping now?”
“Are you turning seventeen or seventy?” Jisung jokes, and Chenle grabs a nearby cushion and starts hitting Jisung over the head with it. “HEY!”
“DO I LOOK SEVENTY?”
“Well, don’t kill me just yet, because I got you something,” Jisung pleads, and Chenle obediently puts the cushion away. “It’s technically Mark and I’s joint birthday present, though, because like, I wrote the lyrics and he came up with the tune.”
“Oh my god,” Chenle says. A pang goes off in his chest. “You guys made me a song?”
“Don’t expect too much, it isn’t really your style.” Jisung seems embarrassed, anxiously twisting his fingers. He takes out his phone and taps the screen a couple times. “Here. Check your inbox.”
On cue, Chenle’s email buzzes with a new audio file. He fumbles it out of his pocket and presses play.
Mark is majoring in music, and it’s apparent in how professional the song is, like Chenle’s listening to it straight from the radio. It isn’t a love song. Of course, it isn’t a love song. It’s better. It’s a song about being confused and figuring it out as one goes, and Chenle loves it. Jisung is correct that it isn’t necessarily his style— it doesn’t have the pure pop undertones that he likes so much, this is more R&B— but that doesn’t mean it isn’t good music. The lyrics are relatable, and the chorus is catchy, and there’s this really cool twist to the bridge that his inner pianist is just dying to analyze.
In short, it’s beautiful, and Chenle needs to say something that doesn’t make him look like a total idiot. “How long did this take you?” he asks.
“Don’t give me too much credit, I just came up with the lyrics,” Jisung says. “And like, I mostly thought of giving you a song because I’m broke.”
“Has anyone told you that you’re an asshole,” Chenle says, and thinks in relief: nailed it .
Chenle isn’t prepared for how destructive the crush is.
He knows how it all works. God knows he’s found so many girls and guys cute that he’s lost track, and he knows the feeling is like the love songs describe.
It’s just different when it’s his best friend. Someone kill him. Chenle falls for the idea of people— he doesn’t know what to do when he falls for the reality of someone. There’s no perfect, idealized version in his head of Jisung.
Like. Chenle’s seen the guy eat paste back in third grade. No.
But suddenly Chenle is addicted to the way Jisung smiles, and Chenle’s heart pounds so loud whenever Jisung slings an arm around his shoulders that he’s worried he might be standing in the epicenter of a small-scale earthquake.
Also— Jisung likes someone. Chenle is so curious, but now he’s afraid to ask who it is.
Unfortunately, he has so much homework that he doesn’t have much time to figure it out. College better not be this bad. From what he’s heard from Mark, it’s not, but Chenle still has another year and a half in high school before he gets to decide for himself. He falls asleep at his desk at 2AM, Nicki Minaj’s rapping his lullaby, head pillowed on top of his Psych textbook and the secret hope that maybe the person Jisung likes is him.
Finals roll around. Calc BC is a pain in the ass, and there’s no hope for Physics.
“Oh, thank god, we’re done,” Jisung groans. He’s in the school library, waiting for Chenle to finish up, since Chenle has one more final than him. “Do you want to play celebratory Mario Kart over at mine?”
“Yeah, but you better not pick Rainbow Road.”
“Rainbow Road is easy. You’re just weak,” Jisung retorts, even though Jisung isn’t that good at Rainbow Road either. “Anyway, my mom just told me yesterday that we’re going back to Korea for winter break, since my grandma’s turning eighty.”
“Oh, that’s cool,” Chenle says genuinely. He himself hasn’t been back to China since seventh grade. “I’m just gonna be stuck here. As per usual.”
It hits him a moment later that means he isn’t even going to have Jisung to keep him company, and Chenle’s winter break is suddenly looking a lot more boring. “We can’t do the New Year’s tradition this year,” Jisung laments.
“Oh, damn, you’re right,” Chenle says, pulling a face. The two of them have a tradition of going over to Jisung’s house and burning sparklers at midnight, but they obviously can’t do that if Jisung’s all the way over in Korea.
“We could video call at midnight instead,” Jisung suggests, and Chenle hums distractedly— video calling is okay, he supposes— but then he realizes something.
“Wait, when are we gonna video call? There’s a time difference, right?”
“How about Korea’s?”
“What do you mean, Korea’s ?” Chenle immediately says, just for the principle of it. “It’ll still be 2018 over here, then. That’s not right.”
“We watch the ball drop in New York when it’s still 2018, what’s the difference?”
“That’s an hour time difference! This is like— it won’t be anywhere near midnight for me!” Chenle protests. “No way. I’m not celebrating New Year’s at nine in the morning.”
Winter break is pretty boring. Chenle sleeps, watches Youtube videos, and hangs out with Renjun. The time difference between Chenle and Jisung is awful— setting up conversation is near impossible. Chenle doesn’t hold a grudge against Jisung’s absence, though. Jisung sends him a photo of his grandma with on her birthday, and it’s a sweet picture, her smile disappearing into a sea of wrinkles, two candles in the shapes of eight and zero on the cake. Chenle can’t be against Jisung being in Korea for that. Chenle missed his own grandma’s turning eighty because he had school.
It’s four-thirty in the afternoon on December 31, 2018 when Chenle sets up the video call. The two of them have compromised to split the fifteen-hour difference fifty-fifty.
“I still think I got the short end of the stick,” Jisung’s pixelated image says, once they get the sound to work. “I had to get up at seven-thirty for this.”
“Weak,” Chenle says. “And Happy New Year’s.”
Jisung laughs. “Happy New Year’s, too,” he says.
It hits Chenle just then how ridiculous they are. “I don’t think it’s New Year’s in any place right now except some spot in the middle of the Pacific Ocean,” he says.
“Well, Happy New Year’s to the dolphins and fishes there, I guess,” Jisung says. “Hold out to climate change in 2019, my friends. We’re slowly banning plastic straws for you.”
There’s a moment of quiet; Chenle adjusts his headphones and shies away from the camera, suddenly self-conscious— morning sun cuts across Jisung’s face, and he looks so at home, in a house he never got to live in.
“You know what we should’ve done?” Chenle says, breaking the silence. “We should’ve just called two times. One for your midnight and one for mine.”
“Oh, you’re right ,” Jisung groans. “We’re so dumb .”
Seven hours later, on Chenle’s midnight, he’s falling asleep to Jisung’s song on repeat when he gets a call from a number in Korea.
“I gotta go soon,” Jisung says, voice crackling through the speakers, clogged with background noise. “But I just wanted to say Happy New Year’s.”
It’s freezing but Chenle is flooded with impossible warmth. “Thanks.”
“Hey, are you listening to my song?”
“... Yeah,” Chenle admits, trying to keep his voice neutral. “It’s a good song.”
Jisung seems happy about that, and Chenle thinks this is a pretty good way of starting 2019, sparklers going off in his chest and the sound of the occasional firework exploding in the distance.
The one drawback to the song Jisung gave him is that now Chenle essentially owes Jisung an astounding birthday present back— not that Jisung asked for one, but by the laws of best friendship it’s essentially required.
Chenle schemes during the latter half of January in between forced memorization of electrostatic formulas and papers for English. To be fair, his options are limited, since he’s not creative like Jisung or thoughtful like Renjun, and he only has a few dollars like every seventeen year old out there. At least Jisung’s birthday falls on Chinese New Year, so Chenle will be reimbursed for the money he spends with some red packet.
Inspiration hits him when he’s paging through Google Docs. Jisung is a good writer, although he refuses to admit it. He always shares his stories with Chenle, though, because in his words Chenle ‘has to compliment him,’ even though Chenle is his own person and isn’t obliged to compliment anyone, thank you.
He legitimately thinks Jisung is talented. Simple as that.
Jisung slaved over this story in particular, about a kid their age who juggles school, dance, and trying to escort an alien back home. Published author material? No. But Chenle takes Jisung’s writing seriously, since Jisung has said that nobody else does.
“He’s gotten a lot better at writing,” Renjun says, after Chenle has copy-pasted the story into an email and sent it to Renjun. The two of them are in the library after school now, discussing prices. “Like, a lot better, in comparison to that one story I read in freshman year.”
Renjun isn’t wrong. Jisung’s writing in freshman year wasn’t terrible , but it’s got nothing on the sheen of semi-professionalism that glosses the pages of his work today. “So?” Chenle prompts. “How much should I pay you?”
“Can you cover my college tuition? Thanks,” Renjun says. Chenle glares. “Just kidding. I’ll be nice this time— just buy me a pack of zebra cakes from the vending machine.”
That’s the most expensive item in the vending machine, does Chenle look like he’s made of money— “You got a deal.”
Renjun hums. “Alright.” He smirks and switches the subject. “So, you put a lot of thought into this, huh? You just got me a gift card for my birthday.”
“You like Hobby Lobby, and I’m basically just going to get Jisung a gift card as well,” Chenle says, neutral. He hasn’t told Renjun about his crush, too afraid of looking stupid even to one of his closest friends. “Remember to come early in the morning to help me decorate his locker.”
“I rest my case.”
Tuesday rolls around, and Chenle gets up at five and heads to school with poster paper, tape, and a bag of individually-wrapped chocolate. Renjun is already in the hallway, sitting against the row of lockers, stifling a yawn with his hand— he’s ridiculously punctual even for things he doesn’t need to be punctual to.
“Xin nian fucking kuai le,” he says, grumpy from lack of sleep. “Nice start to the lunar year.”
“Happy Chinese New Year’s to you, too,” Chenle says. “And don’t pretend like you don’t usually get up this early to do homework.”
“Eh, you got me there,” Renjun says. He tears open Chenle’s bag of chocolate and unwraps one. “My mom subtracted a dollar from my hong bao because I woke her up so early. She’s so petty, it’s kind of hilarious.”
“My mom was too busy fighting over the virtual hong baos on WeChat to give me mine this morning, so I understand that,” Chenle says. She’d made rice balls for breakfast, though, so Chenle really doesn’t mind.
Renjun laughs, taking more unwrapped chocolates and arranging them in artful decorations across the locker— Chenle is kind of pissed that he’s talented no matter what kind of medium he’s working with. Meanwhile, Chenle’s just writing various shit on random pieces of paper and haphazardly sticking them onto the metal.
“What’s up, you losers,” Donghyuck says, walking down the hall like it’s a runway and looking like the physical embodiment of the sun even if it’s winter in the midwest and it’s six o’clock in the morning. “Wait— did Jaemin not show up? For all his talk about Jisung being his favorite freshman?”
“We’re juniors now,” Chenle says, but Donghyuck doesn’t hear him, noticing the chocolate and taking a piece for himself.
Jaemin does show up, but he’s late, because he went to go buy a slice of cake from the nearby Jewel Osco because he needs to one-up the rest of them on everything . Chenle kind of hates him. Jeno doesn’t come because he has morning practice with Jisung, but the four of them make plenty of damage all on their own. By the time they’re done with the locker, one can’t even see the metal surface, buried under too much chocolate and paper and glitter, the last courtesy of Jaemin.
“You know this is just going to be a free-for-all buffet for other students,” Renjun comments, and Chenle shrugs. It’s the thought that counts. “Wait, Jisung uses his locker, right? Because I never use my locker.”
“Right, you carry around your textbooks all day on your skinny shoulders,” Donghyuck says. Renjun’s forehead creases in wrinkles of irritation. “Nah, Jisung uses his locker for sure. Actually, he’s coming this way right now.”
“Oh, shit— scram,” Jaemin says, and the four of them take off in different directions, laughing, although Jisung’s already seen them and honestly, who else would cover his locker in glitter.
Since it’s school, it’s impossible to celebrate. Jisung’s unofficial birthday party is on Saturday. But since it's Lunar New Year's and Jisung's parents are friends with Chenle's parents, Jisung's family comes over to Chenle's for dinner bearing an ice cream cake the size of Chenle's head, and they all eat little round blocks of tofu and fish and rice together and watch the xin nian wan hui, Chenle's family working as an unofficial translation team.
“Alright, so the magician’s got a supposedly magical teapot that can pour you any drink you want,” Chenle tells Jisung. “Oh, he’s getting his volunteers to confirm they’ve never met him before. I mean their word isn’t worth shit, but it’s still impressive though.”
“Can that teapot pour me some good grades?” Jisung whispers, after seeing the liquid from the spout change from water to wine to beer.
“Right? That’d be so much better than alcohol,” Chenle agrees.
He fidgets a little, suddenly shy. He hasn’t given Jisung his present yet, and Jisung hasn’t asked, so there’s no obvious segway. “Hey, Jisung, I got you something for your birthday. Not a magical teapot, sorry.”
“It’s okay, I’m buying a cool cup anyway,” Jisung says, and Chenle would mock him if the wish wasn’t so nice in its innocence. Chenle fumbles in his hoodie and pulls out a thick red packet, handing it to Jisung, who opens it. Out comes a gift card, a square of peppermint bark, and a folded piece of paper, which—
“You did not .”
Chenle smiles. He might not be boyfriend material, but Renjun is, and from the shine in Jisung’s eyes when he looks at the charcoal rendition of the spaceship from his writing, Chenle can tell he did at least something right.
Everything goes wrong nine days later.
Valentine’s Day. Chenle asks, “Did you do that stupid questionnaire this year?”
Jisung shakes his head. “No. I already know who I like.”
It’s been half a year, and Chenle hasn’t pressed on this hypothetical crush. Partially because they’re always talking about something else, partially because he’s is afraid of the answer, and partially because he has the attention span of a goldfish and sometimes forgets about the issue in the first place.
This year, several clubs in their schools are doing V-day fundraisers. Jisung gets coerced into buying flowers from the debate team— the kid does not know how to say no, especially not to a debate kid— and goes and spends the seven dollars of change he managed to fish out of random places in his backpacks (seriously, seven dollars ) on carnations.
“You succumb to peer pressure so easily,” Chenle mocks. “Should I be concerned?”
“Maybe.” Jisung shrugs, holds the carnations out to Chenle. “Flowers?”
Chenle stares at the carnations. Jisung’s gotten him flowers for musical, before, but there’s no musical this time and it’s fucking Valentine’s day, and maybe Jisung’s just being nice, just being a good friend, but… for some reason the act stabs at him like a stray thorn.
“Shouldn’t you be giving that to the person you like?”
Jisung retracts the flowers. “I…”
“Who is it, anyway?” Chenle asks, unable to stand the question any longer.
“It’s not important.”
“Yeah, it kinda is. Give me the name.”
“Cut it, Chenle.”
“C’mon, I’m your best friend,” Chenle says. It’s true, although he’s not acting out of best friend interests right now. “You’re like, supposed to tell me this kind of stuff.”
Jisung looks like he might be sick. Chenle stares him down, and finally, Jisung mumbles, “Uh— Jae- Jaemin.”
Once the name registers, Chenle’s heart cracks in half like an egg, the pieces trickling down through his stomach and into the ground. It isn’t him. What are the chances.
“Oh, nice,” he says. Ten percent of him, the good ten percent of him, wonders whether Jaemin will like Jisung back. He thinks it’s no, and not because Chenle wants it to be no— Jaemin seems to like Jisung only as a brother. But, how could Chenle not have realized that Jaemin was a possibility? Was he so preoccupied hoping the answer would be different?
“Man, was it that big a secret?”
“Shut up,” Jisung says, embarrassed, and for once in his life, Chenle obeys. “Did you fill out that stupid questionnaire?”
“Uh, yeah I did,” Chenle says. His chest feels like a soccer ball that’s been kicked so hard that it deflated. “Cause like, why not, you know?”
“Yeah. Why not.”
Silence stretches between them. Chenle picks at one of the pills on his sweater. “I feel like flowers are something Jaemin would like.”
“Oh my god, shut up,” Jisung says, except he actually sounds annoyed.
Two periods later, Chenle sees Jaemin in the hallway, twirling the stem of a pink carnation. He waves at Chenle, and Chenle pretends not to have seen. He feels like someone’s weighed his sneakers down with iron.
His English teacher offers extra credit to those who go on a date with somebody that the results say they’re compatible with and takes a picture. Chenle goes get ice cream with Jeongin Yang, number five on his list, because both of them need the extra credit.
The questionnaire can’t be totally stupid. It figured out who Chenle would like last year.
Jeongin is nice, but he isn’t Jisung, and the date comes to an end when Jeongin gets a call from his friend, Jisung Han (not Jisung Park). When Jeongin picks up, the other end of the line explodes in the indecipherable noise of a heated argument before somebody yells, “Jisung likes you and wants to date you,” followed by a, “Seungmin Kim, I will kill you with my bare hands.”
Chenle says, “I think you should attend to that.” He thinks, wryly, that perhaps the universe hates him and wants to rub it in his face that Jisung Park (not Jisung Han) does not like him and does not want to date him. He sticks a middle finger up at the sky. Thank you, universe. I get it. Alright? A quarter of the mile from the ice cream shop, he realizes he never even got a picture. Damn. He needed that extra credit.
Heartbreak is kind of a shitty feeling. His body feels heavier, even if he hasn’t gained any weight.
It’s hollow compensation, Chenle tells himself, that Jisung rejected him before Chenle could have done something like confessed and ruined their whole friendship.
No wonder friendships crack once they’ve trespassed into romantic territory. Once you feel something like this, it’s hard to pretend everything is normal, because it absolutely is not normal. But Chenle’s a pretty good actor, and he crosses his fingers that the couple years of musical training will come through and allow him to fake that nothing happened at all.
It’s a good thing we’re just friends, Chenle tells himself. It’s a good thing. More would be bad. More would be complicated. You saved yourself, really. Now, it would be really nice if his mind would actually believe these words.
But he and Jisung have been friends for seven years. It isn’t hard to fake that things are okay, especially when Chenle is legitimately more busy in the second half of junior year. Also, Chenle must be a masochist or something, because he derives almost a sick sort of pleasure from bringing Jaemin up.
“You know prom’s coming up,” Chenle drawls.
“That’s a senior only thing,” Jisung remarks. “Dude, I’m not even sure I’m going next year, though. Apparently tickets are fifty dollars? Not counting the cruise they’re booking afterward.”
“But you could get asked.” Chenle hikes up an eyebrow, which kind of hurts his face.
“Uh, are you talking about Jaemin?” Jisung says. “Look, I don’t— I don’t want to go anywhere with that, alright? Like… he’s going to college next year, and… and stuff. Just— come on, Chenle. I just want to stay friends with him.”
Chenle sighs. “You’re so boring.”
“Like you’ve dated so many people yourself,” Jisung says, voice hurt, and Chenle thinks that they might be fighting for real, albeit at a small magnitude. “Whatever. You wanna watch some basketball?”
Chenle doesn’t bring up prom again, at least not to Jisung. He does however, to Jaemin.
“What are your plans for prom?” he asks.
There was something off about Jisung’s voice when he talked his bullshit about just wanting to be friends with Jaemin. Chenle thinks it might be fear. Personally, he wants to know whether Jaemin likes Jisung back, but he isn’t sure what his motivation is.
Is he being selfless once in his life, and wanting a happy ending for his best friend even if it hurts? Or is he being selfish again, and wanting confirmation that Jisung’s crush will crash and burn? Once upon a time, he has heard the phrase, if you love someone, let them go . Once upon a time, he has also heard the phrase, if you love someone, you should fight for them. Chenle isn’t an expert on the ethics of unrequited love, but he thinks, he shouldn’t have to be.
He has never claimed to be selfless, or mature, or wise.
“I’m going as a group with Jeno, Renjun, and Donghyuck, but we’re going to buy two sets of the couple tickets for the discounts,” Jaemin says. “Oh, and don’t tell Donghyuck , but we’re buying a ticket for Mark, too.”
Jaemin grins. “The two of them are finally getting their heads out of their asses. Mark made some bullshit statement about wanting to be friends again, but they still obviously like each other. Donghyuck knows that, but he’s not going to let Mark off that easy, since Mark was the one who refused to do long-distance in the first place.”
“I mean, that’s fair enough.” Chenle says. “Let Mark suffer a bit.”
“But obviously we’re all in favor of them being back together, because well, they’re cute,” Jaemin says. “So on prom night, he’s going to drive down from UCLA. I hope he doesn’t die on the roads. That’s a long-ass ride.”
“Get Donghyuck’s reaction on video,” Chenle says. “Or something. Please.”
“I’ll try. As long as you don’t tell him.”
“I’m not that bad at keeping secrets.”
And because the two of them are having such an amiable conversation, Chenle says, “You could take Jisung to prom, you know. You seem to… like him a lot.”
The like implies a lot of things. Jaemin hums. “Oh, do I?” he says. “And what’s your opinion on that?”
“If you like him, you could do something about it,” Chenle says. “I’m sure he wouldn’t mind.”
“I don’t think he wants me to do anything, and I personally would not like to get shot down for no reason at all,” Jaemin laughs. “Maybe you need to get your head checked out, Chenle.” And then he ruffles Chenle’s hair with more force than necessary and leaves.
Chenle makes a playlist with songs about heartbreak and getting over people, not admitting to himself that these are songs that he’d listen to whether he was pining or not, and that he pays more attention to the tunes than the lyrics.
He’s finding that unfortunately, not liking Jisung isn’t as simple as flipping a switch off.
He scrolls through pictures of prom on Instagram, double-tapping every other photo, then tosses his phone to the side. Gonna Get Over You plays from the speakers, and he distractedly hums along. He wonders if he’ll go to prom next year. Eh. Too early to make these sorts of decisions, he supposes.
The truly destructive moment comes when he and Jisung are heading down the hall to fifth period. Chenle makes a bad joke, and Jisung says, laughing “You’re not funny at all, Lele.”
He pronounces it perfectly, with the little hooks on the e’s, and Chenle feels like he’s been punched in the chest. Lele sounds good coming out of Jisung’s mouth. Too good. “Where’d you get that nickname?” he asks, voice sharp.
Jisung shrugs. “I heard Renjun say it.”
Ah. “Don’t call me that,” Chenle says. The air snaps, brittle. “You’re not saying it right.”
“Okay,” Jisung says slowly, aware he hurt Chenle in some way but not sure how. “I won’t call you that, then. Sorry.”
Chenle does not expect for his mom to be the first one who he talks to about this shit, especially since they usually don’t talk much at all; she just hands him little baggies of cubed fruit whenever he has to stay up late— he figures the cubed fruit is the ultimate expression of love in the Zhong household. And usually Chenle will only tell her about other people’s petty drama that goes around in school, if only because her reactions are funny.
(She knows about the Mark and Donghyuck thing, and always thought the two of them should just keep dating since they already got this far and isn’t your generation always texting instead of talking to each other anyway? )
“What’s wrong, Lele?” she asks, the third time in four days, and Chenle would say nothing, I’m good like the first two times, but this time he sighs and just goes for it. Age supposedly comes with wisdom, or something, and right now it’s miserable being seventeen.
“Did you ever like anyone back in high school? In a romantic way?”
Chenle could never ask this question to his dad. His dad makes it seem like he didn’t have any feelings up until college, when he suddenly was able to nurture a mature and lasting relationship with his mom. Chenle calls bullshit, but not to his dad’s face.
Fortunately, his mom doesn’t ask too many questions, just says, “Yes. There was one guy that I remember all the girls liked, including me. He was really handsome and good at sports.”
“Did you ever get your heart broken?”
“We were all too focused on school to date, so I would say no,” she says. “Why are you asking these questions, Lele?”
He shrugs. “No reason.”
“It doesn’t matter, these feelings in high school, you know?” she says. “You’re really young right now, your life has barely even started yet. In college, you won’t even remember anything.”
Chenle chews his lip. Maybe he isn’t in college yet, and maybe in a few years he’ll look back and laugh, but he thinks that adults tend to underestimate the capacity for emotion that kids actually have. Right now feels like everything that matters.
“Now who do you like?”
Chenle starts. “No one.”
She just looks at him. Chenle wonders if it’s too late to jump out the window. He can’t believe he didn’t see this coming. Or maybe he did, but he asked anyway.
“It doesn’t matter!” he pleads, even though she didn’t say anything, and he’s just buckling under the weight of her stare.
She raises an eyebrow.
Chenle crosses his arms, looks away. “Fine,” he mumbles. He wonders if this is how Jisung felt when Chenle wheedled Jaemin’s name out of him, to his current regret. “Jisung.”
His mom knows that Jisung’s his best friend. Everyone knows that Jisung’s his best friend. And people say that high school sweethearts don’t last, and people say that high school friends don’t stay in touch, either, but Chenle and Jisung have been friends since elementary school. Friends for life.
“I don’t want to stop being friends with him.”
“I don’t think you will,” his mom says, although she looks taken aback by this piece of information. “I mean, you guys have been friends for so long. Right. You won’t lose that.”
“And even if you do, it’s not the end of the world,” she says. “I’ve lost a lot of friends. And then I made new friends. And I have your dad now. And you. Most importantly you.”
Good advice is generally a bitter pill to swallow. Chenle can’t stand this conversation any longer, and he walks out on the pretense of starting his final project for comp sci. At midnight, his mom gives him a plastic bag of fruit, and well, Chenle thinks, sticking a toothpick into a piece of cubed mango, he’ll figure it out, and until then, at least there’ll be cubed fruit.
The other person Chenle talks about it to Renjun, and it’s in a rather terrible circumstance, during their school’s practice AP testing week. Practice AP testing week, because their superintendent is apparently desperate to get their school on the right side of the bell curve, which means that their teachers essentially rewired their entire curriculums to squeeze the fun out of everything, which means that students are going through hell.
Some of their teachers aren’t going through with it, but at nine at night Chenle stumbles out of his practice AP Physics test, Renjun stumbles out of his practice AP Lit test, and the two of them stare in horror at the text from Renjun’s dad saying that he’s going to be late. This wouldn’t be a problem for Chenle had his parents not trusted him to drive at night, so he carpooled with Renjun, who can’t drive himself, and long story short, they’re stuck at school.
“I wanna sleep,” Renjun says despondently, as the two of them sit in the hallway, leaning against the wall. “Can I borrow your shoulder?”
“Thanks.” Renjun’s head comes to rest neatly in the crook of Chenle’s neck. “Ugh, I don’t mind English, but I hated AP Lit. We didn’t learn English this year. We learned how to take a test.”
“I’m sorry,” Chenle says. “I mean, I’m not taking AP Lit next year. Shakespeare? No thanks.”
He can feel Renjun roll his eyes. Renjun’s the kind of person who actually appreciates poetry in its pure form, whereas Chenle needs a beat and melody to even think about liking it. What can Chenle say. He’s not very sophisticated. “AP Physics is kicking my ass,” he groans. “I don’t know anything.”
“AP Physics was fun.”
“You know… you need to shut the hell up,” Chenle grumbles, half of mind to revoke Renjun’s shoulder privileges. “Not everyone can have it as together as you.”
Seriously, Renjun is perfect. He’s going to an Ivy, majoring in architecture, because although he’s really talented at art, he’s just going to keep that as a hobby. Chenle has a drawing from him back in their Chinese School days, and says he’ll sell it if Renjun ever becomes famous.
Renjun is silent for some time, before he says, “I mean, if it makes you feel better, I don’t really have it all together?”
“Sorry. Only some together. Ninety-nine percent together.”
“Shut up! I’m gonna die in college, my cooking’s passable at best.” Chenle winces— his cooking isn’t even edible . Shit.
College, man. It’s probably a good moment to say something like I’ll miss you next year , but unlike Renjun, stress from AP testing doesn’t help Chenle be sentimental. He’ll miss the hell out of Renjun, he really will, but the words get stuck in his throat.
“You gonna date anyone in college?” Chenle asks. Out of all of them, Renjun’s the one who’s expressed least interest in romance. Well, he used to be tied with Jisung, but now that’s changed.
“Eh, not if I can help it.”
At least Chenle can look forward to college, just one more year and then he’ll meet someone cool on a campus way bigger than their high school’s and he won’t be all hung up— “I’m not lame. I just don’t have a Jisung.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?” Chenle sputters, trying to shrug Renjun’s head off, but it remains glued like a weight to his shoulder. Dammit, Chenle should not be a pillow for traitors.
“I mean, correct me if I’m wrong, but I think you like him,” Renjun says. “And I think he likes you back.”
Chenle sighs, gives up. “Your first statement is true. Your second’s not so true. I guess even you’re wrong sometimes.”
“Oh,” Renjun says, when he’s processed that. “I’m sorry. Did he tell you he didn’t like you?”
“Nah, he just… likes someone else,” Chenle thinks, and he figures right then that maybe that’s okay, he’ll get over it eventually. Telling it to Renjun is like ripping open a wound, but this time it should heal correctly.
“Oh. I mean—”
There’s the sound of footsteps, and Chenle looks over instinctively because “— Hey, Calc AB just finished up, but why are you guys still here?” Jisung asks.
Jisung’s frowning, and Chenle’s entire body is frozen, stuck on the half a percent chance Jisung might have heard something of their conversation. Renjun’s head stays on Chenle’s shoulder when he says casually, “My dad’s just running late, Lele and I are carpooling.”
Jisung’s frown deepens, and Chenle wonders if both of them are thinking about how Chenle had forbidden him to use that nickname. Probably. It was an insignificant argument, a puff of smoke to the wind, but after they’re all weary from bubbling in scantrons and writing free responses, it comes back to haunt them.
“Oh, okay. I mean, my mom’s here, I can just ask her if you want to come with.”
“Nah, we’re good,” Chenle says.
Jisung doesn’t offer further, just pushes open the double doors and leaves, cool air blowing in from outside. Chenle laughs dryly. “We’re so petty .”
“Right? Must have gotten it from our moms,” Renjun says. “But yeah, I got your back.”
Actual AP testing rolls around, and all hell breaks loose.
Chenle arrives late for the AP Physics test, so when he gets into the room, most of the seats are occupied. The only tests left are the B forms, and Chenle stumbles through the test in a daze, filling in bubbles at random and drawing sad faces on the free response, before he’s finally done. Getting his backpack out of his locker, Chenle suddenly realizes that he’s officially followed zero out of three rules on that dumb list that Taeil had bequeathed him in the summer before freshman year.
Well. He’s never been good at following directions.
The memes do only pertain to the O form. He suffered the whole year for nothing .
“I don’t even get the memes,” he complains to Jisung, the the two of them sprawled out on the floor of Jisung’s room. “Life is so unfair.”
“At least you have me.”
The words skitter around Chenle’s chest like pinballs. Jisung can’t just say shit like that. Except he can, and he just did.
“That’s terrible compensation,” Chenle says. “And I don’t even have you. You like Jaemin.”
Huh. Chenle can’t just say shit like that. Except he can, and he just did. Must be delusional from all that testing.
“Okay, would you— I don’t like Jaemin, alright?” Jisung groans. “I don’t fucking like Jaemin anymore. I haven’t liked him since freshman year.”
It takes Chenle a good five seconds to process what Jisung just said, but it still makes no sense. Hold up. Jisung doesn’t like Jaemin now? But—
“You liked Jaemin in freshman year?” Chenle asks. “Wait, what the hell?”
“He was the first person I ever liked, and it was just because I thought he was really cool then, until I found out he was a loser like the rest of us,” Jisung says. “I panicked when you asked me, alright?”
“So you lied?”
“You were interrogating me! What else was I supposed to do?”
“Then who do you like?” Chenle asks, exasperated. “It’s not that big a deal, you know? We aren’t in elementary school anymore. Why are you so wound up over something like this?”
“It’s a big deal to me,” Jisung says flatly.
“You’re so lame.”
“Okay, then so I am.”
Chenle is about to fire something back when he closes his mouth, belatedly realizing that one, the last time Chenle had asked who Jisung had liked, he’d suffered, and two, he probably shouldn’t make fun of Jisung for something like this. In the stories Jisung writes, he sometimes includes a romantic subplot, and Chenle’s gathered from them that Jisung is kind of an idealist. He puts a lot of weight in love and all that. He believes in soulmates.
“Besides, you never told me you liked Renjun,” Jisung mutters
Chenle bolts upright and wheezes. “Oh my god, no,” he cackles. “Where did you get that idea?”
Jisung doesn’t answer.
“Is this about the whole carpooling issue?” Chenle asks, remembering that night. “Because I swear we were both just ridiculously tired from AP testing. I would rather date a date than date Renjun.”
“That’s a little mean to Renjun,” Jisung says, but he starts to laugh, too, some of the tension dissipating between them.
“Uh, Renjun would probably say much worse things about me.”
Jisung sighs, a little self-deprecating puff of air. “I thought I was better than this, but I guess not,” he says. “Too many sitcoms. Sorry, Chenle.”
“No, you’re fine.”
“I mean, you’re my best friend…” Jisung says, and Chenle’s mind announces, ladies and gentlemen, he has not just been friend-zoned, he has been taken completely out for the count . “And I feel like I’ve been mean to you lately. So like that apology was like. Big. You know.” He makes an encompassing gesture with his hand.
“Nice,” Chenle says, imitating the hand gesture. “And you’re fine. I’m sorry too. Sorry for pushing about who you liked and all that.”
He’s willing to let this whole issue blow away. Because the truth is he will always value his friendship with Jisung over anything else. Also, apologizing and discussing feelings is really painful. He would prefer to use humor as a defense mechanism.
“No, it’s just that, though, I…” Jisung takes a deep breath. “It was you, who I liked? But I was really confused and scared because we’re best friends, and I didn’t want to ruin that for anything. But like I promise I’d rather be your friend than anything else.”
Hold up. What?
“Wait, what does that mean?” Chenle demands. “You can’t just drop that on me and— you liked me?” Actually, that’s not the issue here. “Do you still like me?”
“I mean, yeah,” Jisung says, voice small, whatever bravery that had allowed him to admit it the first time giving out like a sinkhole. “But like I said. It doesn’t matter. I’d rather be your friend than—”
“Stop, stop,” Chenle says. “Just shut up for a moment. I like you too. We’re on the same wavelength here.”
There’s a moment when both of them are just silent, nervous, not looking at each other. Sunlight wraps around Chenle’s skin, bubbles rise up his chest. He bites his lip so his mouth won’t split into a smile. Sicheng was right.
This is the best feeling in the world.
“So what now?” Jisung asks.
“I don’t know. Your call.” It’s funny that they’re talking like it’s an art project and not the entire state of their relationship. Even though Chenle’s bossy and careless, this isn’t something he can just mess around with.
“I… don’t want to date you, sorry,” Jisung says, still not looking at him. “It’s going to be senior year soon and I… a lot’s gonna change. So I did mean it. When I said I wanted to be your friend.”
“Okay,” Chenle says. Jisung’s never dated anybody before. Chenle has, but they were relationships that didn’t have much weight to them, and after they were finished they didn’t change to friendship. So Chenle gets the move Jisung is making. “But you like me.”
“Then in time I’ll ask you out,” Chenle says. “And if you still feel the same way say yes.”
Chenle would argue that if he really was faced with heartbreak, then he would’ve dealt with it. It would have been painful, but he would’ve done it. In another universe, maybe that’s the route he would have to take. But in this universe, he’s lucky. Chenle will take this now over anything that could happen later.
Chenle is over at Sicheng’s house in August when his phone buzzes in his pocket.
i’m in target rn and they’re playing carly rae jepsen lol. figured u and ur last decade ass should know
Chenle sends back, how does it feel to listen to your mom’s song while shopping???
!!! I HATE YOU!!!
no u really really really really like me, actually.
“You’re smiling,” Yuta says, pulling the phone out of Chenle’s hands, who lunges for it in return. Yuta glances at the screen, takes in the little swirly heart next to Jisung’s name and the last text message and— “Oh my god, is this your boyfriend?”
Chenle scrambles to pull his phone back. “You have a boyfriend now?” Sicheng demands. “Who is he?”
“You’re not supposed to have a boyfriend!” Yuta says, outraged. Chenle finally succeeds in pulling his phone from Yuta’s grasp. “You’re twelve!”
“You guys, calm down ,” Taeil says, the one person who has retained a semblance of sanity. “He’s not twelve. He’s thirteen.”
“You guys all suck,” Chenle declares, exhausted. “And he’s not my boyfriend. We’re just friends who like each other.”
“Aw, that’s so cute,” Yuta says, and Chenle just barely manages to stop himself from flipping up his middle finger at someone five years his senior because that descriptor is just too much. “Although lame. You should pine for somebody for ten years at least before making a move.”
“Yuta, nobody does that but you,” Taeil says. “Some people actually communicate.”
Sicheng takes one look at Chenle’s face, one dying soul to another, and saves him. “Alright, let’s give Chenle a break. Who wants to play Mario Kart?”
A list of things that happen in senior year, in chronological order:
1] Renjun teases Chenle mercilessly, but Chenle is truthful enough to himself to know that he enjoys the teasing a little bit, even if it is annoying. Besides, it means he stays in contact with Renjun. So far, the two of them have maintained contact with zero problem, Renjun telling him about university and his roommate, Yangyang, who casually builds and fixes cars in his spare time, and has his boyfriend Xiaojun over so much Renjun feels like he’s got a third roommate. Two months into school, Renjun sends him a message devoid of his usual perfect punctuation and grammar.
oh no yangyangs boyfriends friend is realy cute i dont have time fo rthis, goddammit.
2] Chenle dies. No, seriously. Senior year kills him. Chenle has to deal with college applications on top of his classes, and he can’t write a good essay to save his life. It isn’t even that he’s unable to brag about himself— that’s actually Jisung’s problem. In the end, they draft each other’s college essays so that they at least have something to start with, except Chenle doesn’t even want to change anything because Jisung might know him more than he knows himself.
3] Jisung and Chenle get accepted into different colleges.
“I mean, that was to be expected, honestly,” Chenle says. The world is so big now, everybody leaving everywhere for somewhere else, but also so small, woven together with the zeroes and ones of technology. “But if you forget me I’ll kill you.”
“I couldn’t forget you even if I tried,” Jisung says wryly, in one of those instances where he knows exactly what to say to render Chenle speechless. “So, long-distance, huh? Is there anyone who isn’t doing that nowadays?”
Long-distance. It’s something that suggests a romantic relationship. “We’ll definitely stay friends.”
“Uh huh.” The two of them are lying on the floor of Chenle’s room, which is probably all sorts of unsanitary but all sorts of good for avoiding homework. “Hey, Lele, go out with me.”
The words strike Chenle like a lightning bolt, and through the verbal electrocution he can only think of one thing.
“I thought I was supposed to ask you out!”
“Sorry, got to it first,” Jisung says, and Chenle’s heart stutters at how confident and smooth his voice is, no signs of uncertainty, even if later Jisung will admit he was dying on the inside. “So yes or no?”
“I mean, sure , I guess,” Chenle says, euphoria blooming in his veins, and Jisung’s smile is so blinding that Chenle is basically obliged to shift closer, reach over, and kiss it off.