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Where the Sun Doesn't Set

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Donghyuck wakes up sprawled on Jaemin’s bathroom floor with dried spit on his shirt. It’s certainly not the most glamorous he’d ever felt waking up, but when is the night after a party ever? Besides which, already being in the bathroom affords Donghyuck the opportunity to puke up nothing but the deadly vodka-tequila cocktail Jaemin practically poured down his throat last night.

The bathroom floor is periwinkle blue with little white spots.

Unfortunately, his phone is nowhere to be seen. That may be a problem later, but it’s also a problem, now, because it means Donghyuck has no idea what time it is. The hangover is seriously messing with his internal clock. It could be nine in the morning or two in the afternoon for all he knows. Not that Donghyuck has real plans—he just likes the idea of being a person who keeps a schedule, is all.

Motivated by his quest for his phone, Donghyuck stumbles with groggy legs from the upstairs bathroom to the hallway. Stops. Looks up the empty hallways towards the stairs, then back down, to where Jaemin’s bedroom is. The door is cracked open, and so Donghyuck just barges in. No luck finding Jaemin—the only person curled up under the dark comforter is Renjun.

Speaking of Renjun, he looks adorable sleeping all curled up like that. Too bad for Donghyuck that the whole friend group knows he’s hooking up with the chronically Are We Dating Or Not Dating We Won’t Even Tell Our Friends duo Jaemin and Jeno. Who are, surprisingly, nowhere to be seen.

What is helpful, though, is that Jaemin’s alarm clock (who even has a real alarm clock anymore? Doesn’t Jaemin just use his phone like a sensible person?) tells Donghyuck it’s only eleven in the afternoon.

He makes it to the bed, dodging what looks suspiciously like soggy underwear, and shakes Renjun awake gently. Renjun nearly elbows him in the face for it.

“Hey dude, where’s the Co-Dependent Twins? I think Jaemin’s got my phone,” Donghyuck asks. Renjun groans and rubs at his eyes, crusty from the bad sleep he got. He notices Renjun also has a large hickey at the base of his neck approximately the shape and size of Africa.

“Jesus, why the fuck do you call them that? But I dunno, didn’t wake up when they got out of bed. Now leave me alone or hop in.”

Ha! Donghyuck totally knew they spent the night together. Score one for him, none for Renjun. Who’s keeping track? The victory is pretty bittersweet though, because Donghyuck has a crush on Renjun the size of the hickey Jaemin/Jeno left on him. He’s chosen to ignore Renjun’s invitation and pass it off as snark, because any other option makes him want to literally combust. Also he still has no idea where his phone is.

Donghyuck makes a cursory check of Jaemin’s mom’s room, but it’s locked just like he thought it’d be. Jaemin has one rule about parties at his place, and that’s that no one is allowed in his mom’s room, not even Jaemin. So Donghyuck wobbles downstairs. He passes by the living room, sees Mark sprawled across the whole couch and Jisung and Chenle sharing a beanbag, except Jisung just went through a growth spurt and his limbs are everywhere. Donghyuck didn’t make it far enough into the party to see if Yukhei and the kids he likes to hang out with stayed, but he doesn’t see them now. They must have all split at some point, or maybe Mark kicked them out.  

The weird thing about Jaemin is that he has practically no furniture, except for his own room, which is an amalgamation of all the things his friends have given him over the years.

The quest takes Donghyuck through the kitchen to the backdoor. Jaemin’s yard is tiny and mostly dirt, but Jeno tells them that Jaemin’s mom used to grow herbs back here. There’s no evidence of that, now, but there is still some of all the times they’ve pitched a tent and crammed all seven of them in for a sleepover with more charm than Chenle’s surround-sound equipped basement. There’s also a rickety swingset in the back that’s been there since Donghyuck first met Jaemin back in middle school. It seemed old then, too.

That’s where Donghyuck finds Jaemin and Jeno.

Jaemin is more-or-less sitting on Jeno’s lap on the swing, but it’s unstable in such a way that he needs to have his feet on the ground to keep his balance. It seems more cumbersome than it’s worth, but there really is something about Jaemin and Jeno that they need to be within eyesight of each other at all times, if not actually touching. Jeno holds a cigarette the two of them are sharing with the other arm looped comfortably around Jaemin’s waist.

“Is that cancer? Give me some!” Donghyuck says on the approach. Jeno rolls his eyes affectionately but he gets a mix of a snort and a laugh from Jaemin.

“Fuck you!” He says. “This cancer’s all mine.”

“Fine,” Donghyuck pouts, even though that’s not even true considering he’s sharing with Jeno. “Hey, do you have my phone?”

Jeno plucks Donghyuck unfortunate Android (hey, at least Mark’s in the same boat!) from the front pocket of Jaemin’s flannel and lobs it to him. Donghyuck manages not to fumble it. The hangover makes his reactions feel like crunchy peanut butter.

“You got food Nana?” Donghyuck asks. He’s got a dozen or so unread messages and Snapchats, many of which will probably be entertaining to go through later. At some point Donghyuck knows he was roped into playing Twister drunk off his ass.

“Mom bought pancake mix. No milk though.”

“We can improvise with water and nondairy creamer,” Jeno says.

“Damn, really? So resourceful Jeno,” Donghyuck says. He’s going to be all over that pancake situation. Jeno looks a bit sheepish at the praise.

Jaemin’s in a good mood today, because he gives Donghyuck the last hit off the cigarette before putting it out against the cement step. Together, they go inside to rouse the troops.

 

 


 

 

As far as Renjun’s parents are concerned, his friends are just as dedicated students as he is. Though to be fair, the only friend they’ve formally met is Mark, and that was at the academic award ceremony last year (he dazzled them—Renjun owes him for life). His folks own, of all things, a Russian-Chinese fusion restaurant, so they spend all of their time there making sure it doesn’t burn to the ground or that there are no rats hanging out in the kitchen. Hence, Renjun doesn’t even have to sneak out most of the time.

At home he speaks some bastardized version of Chinese. He understands it when listening ok, so that when he grandmother calls he knows every word he’s saying, but the strange consonants feel heavy and awkward on his own tongue. His jaw always hurts after speaking it for too long. And his cousins make fun of him for it, too. To them he’ll never be Chinese enough .

He tries not to talk to his parents about his life, because they wouldn’t get it. Their lives are ones of striving for progress. These days, all the kids want to do is die.

Truth be told, the weight of his parents expectations does rest heavy on his shoulders. Their story is like most immigrant stories—they came to a foreign place where they barely spoke the language just to give Renjun a shot at a better life. As much as Renjun adores the rest of the gang, the only one who really gets this is Mark. Although there is one key difference between them—Mark actually wants that hypothetical amazing life for himself. Renjun? He’s just kind of, well, doing it. There used to be no other options.

Jaemin and Jeno don’t care about school. Jaemin and Jeno don’t talk to their parents. They don’t even talk about their parents.

Renjun has known the pair of them for almost three years ( and they are a pair, certainly) and Jeno’s parents haven’t come up once. He knows it’s bad, because he knows that Jeno lives permanently at Jaemin’s and that he and his parents don’t talk, but that’s the extent of it. And Jaemin’s father is another mysterious figure. He’s there on the walls in Jaemin’s house, smiling in photographs like a happily family against the argyle wallpaper. Renjun doesn’t even know his name. Facts with Jaemin and Jeno are about as slippery as fog, and that’s one of the reasons Renjun is so intrigued.

Before they waltzed into Renjun’s life during second period study hall Freshman year, when Renjun came to these liminal outskirts from the thick of the inner city, he had a routine. It was centrally designed to keep him out of trouble—wake up, work out, rice for breakfast, school, study, exactly 1 hour of Netflix, sleep. Rinse, wash, repeat.

Most days, Renjun has trouble remembering to shower at all.  

And then Jaemin, with a shit-eating grin, asked to borrow a pen because he’d shown up to school without so much as a backpack.

Through them he met Donghyuck, and shortly after Mark, and it wouldn’t be too long until Chenle and Jisung came around.

The first time Renjun and Jaemin kissed was in the summer, sometime in June between Sophomore and Junior year. He remembers everything leading up to it so clearly: Renjun took the bus to the dive bar Jaemin worked at, the same on he’d been sneaking into to play pool in the afternoons before anyone cared about an underage kids being there. Eventually he was there so often the owner just started putting him to work barbacking and paid him under the table with hot food and a modest cut of the bartender’s tips. Renjun waited by the back door in the alley and Jaemin snuck him a burger for free. They sat on turned over milk crates and talked about Chenle’s new hair color and how Mark had actually gone to visit a college, and then at one point, Jaemin just leaned over and kissed Renjun so squarely on the mouth that his intention couldn’t be misinterpreted.

What surprised Renjun the most was not that is happened but that it happened there , in a setting completely devoid of mood when they were both stone-cold sober. He had expected it in the heat of the moment at a party or when they were up late, stoned, talking about the shape of the Milky Way. He’d never thought Jeno wouldn’t be there, too.

Not that he didn’t like it. He did. Jaemin was different then compared to now—less mature, more chaotic—but there has never been any denying that he’s very, very pretty and knows how to use that to his advantage. Maybe by sucking face with him Renjun can get some of that confidence for himself.

“What about Jeno?” Renjun had asked. Jaemin gave him a look like he had no idea what he was talking about. He tried to kiss him again, but it was Renjun’s policy to not let Jaemin bully him into ignoring his antics.

“What about Jeno?” Jaemin asked, frustrated and pouty.

“Aren’t you two...” Renjun threaded his fingers together to complete the sentence: together? Even the blind man who lives in the apartment below Renjun’s would know something is up between Jaemin and Jeno; they’re hardly ever apart and share secrets no one else knows. When, sometimes, Jeno just falls off the map the only person who knows where he is, if he’s ok, is Jaemin.

All of this apparently didn’t weigh heavy on Jaemin, who just shrugged. Either Jaemin was completely oblivious or the true nature of their relationship was another one of their private secrets. If Jaemin won’t even tell Renjun, the person he’s closest to besides Jeno himself, no one gets to know.

“Jeno was shy. See, we’re both attracted to you, Injunnie,” Jaemin said, admittance coming easy as anything. That’s different, now, the shy part. Over the summer Jeno came into himself, grew to be the more confident one while Jaemin relaxed some. They most definitely didn’t stop being attracted to Renjun.

For the record, Renjun did want to talk about it more, but Jaemin’s lips were also so, so tempting. And if Jeno was cool with it, then the only person who could get hurt by Renjun’s involvement with the capital T Them was Renjun himself. He decided in the alley that was something he was ok with.

Come back to the present, to late autumn of their Junior year, and the dynamic between the three of them honestly hasn’t changed much. He hasn’t really told anyone hey I’m sleeping with Jaemin and Jeno but hasn’t made an effort to hide it, either. And there was the time Mark walked in on him and Jeno making out in the bathroom at school. Mostly hanging out as a threesome is exactly the same but with added kissing.

Jaemin and Jeno want to have fun. Renjun sees a good puzzle to solve.

No big deal, really.

 

 


 

 

“Do you think Injunnie knows Donghyuck has a crush on him?” Jaemin asks, pulling back from the binoculars he’s using to peer into the windows of Jeno’s apartment. They’re camped out in the park across the highway that’s supposed to make the low-income housing units more scenic, or whatever, but most of the time it’s filled with homeless people, people on or selling drugs, or homeless people on or selling drugs. Fortunately, it’s a pretty good vantage point to stake out Jeno’s place with the binoculars Jaemin lifted from the high school science department.

“No? He wouldn’t keep fooling around with us if he knew. Our little Injunnie can be spicy but he’s not cruel,” Jeno says. Jaemin quirks an eyebrow at him, which means there’s something else Jaemin is getting at that Jeno hasn’t picked up on yet. “You think we should stop fooling around with him?”

“Donghyuck is never gonna make a move unless he think Renjun’s free real estate,” Jaemin points out. “Even then he might need a push.”

“You’re scheming,” Jeno states.

“When aren’t I? But... are you ok with it? It was your idea to approach him in the first place,” Jaemin says. Jeno considers it.

“Renjun deserves something good, yeah?” Jeno concedes. “And I like him. He’s wonderful. But he’s not...”

Us.

Jaemin nods in understanding. Jeno rests his head on his best friend’s shoulder, his hands finding the familiar, comforting spot to cup at the base of Jaemin’s neck.

“Are you ever going to use that conniving brain for good?” Jeno wonders.

“What could be more of a good cause than our sweet Injun? Other than that, hell no,” Jaemin giggles. “Ok, I haven’t seen anything for a solid fifteen minutes. I think we’re good.”

Visiting Jeno’s home is always, inevitably, a trial. Even as kids Jeno spent most of his time at Jaemin’s, when Jeno would ride his bike there in the middle of the night, but since his big blow-out fight with his father a while back he’s been living at Jaemin’s permanently. Still, his mail still gets delivered there, which is issue, but it’s not like Jeno can tell the school he’s not living with his parents without unleashing the fire and fury of Child Protective Services on himself.

So instead, he and Jaemin watch carefully to make sure his dad isn’t home before sneaking in.

Jaemin gets to the door first, just to make sure Jeno isn’t the first person seen in case there’s someone around after all. But the lock doesn’t budge with Jeno’s key.

“Hey,” he whispers. “Old bastard finally changed the locks.”

“No problem,” Jeno sets down his backpack and pulls out a small canvas holder of lockpicks he bought off eBay for twenty dollars. This is what Jeno’s best at—working with his hands. Jaemin stands over him protectively, watching for anyone coming down the hall, and let’s Jeno do his thing. There’s a delicious spike in adrenaline whenever they’re doing something like this and Jaemin practically lives off that rush (see also: drugs). But Jeno really is too good at this, and they’re inside within a matter of minutes.

The apartment is a mess and has a disconcerting smell to it, but that’s nothing new. Jaemin goes straight for the dining table where the mail always ends up, because he’s well aware the more time they spend there the likelier the chance they get caught or that Jeno falls into a vortex of memories. He’s already wandered unfocused to the spot on the living room wall where the family photos are. There aren’t any there of Jeno, not anymore. His dad smashed them all. There are some photos of his parents as a young couple and of their wedding, when they were so beautiful and happy.

Before things got really bad, Jeno and Jaemin would play GameCube on the living room floor after school eating cheese sticks and just barely expired Lunchables. Both Jeno’s parents had jobs, then. His dad still drank but it wasn’t so bad, or he was better at hiding it. They still have the same couch Jeno fell off of and broke his nose as a kid, and even though he was bleeding so much his mom didn’t take him to the hospital because she was too frightened of being called a bad mother.

Meanwhile, Jaemin has successfully located the notices from school, thankfully all unopened. One of them, specifically, contains a form that needs to be signed for Jeno to take enroll in welding at the vocational school. They’ll forge the necessary signatures when they’re out of the apartment and safe. He’s just about to forcibly remove Jeno from the apartment when—

“Jeno?” a female voice calls from the shadow of a bedroom. It’s thick and heavy with narcotics, like sound is physically taxing to make. Jeno’s mom.

“Let’s go,” Jaemin says urgently. He puts both hands on Jeno’s chest in a futile attempt to guide him back towards the front door. Jeno has a lot of muscle weight on him these days, however, and he pushes by him easily. Jeno makes it halfway to the doorway when his mom appears out of the gloom in the flesh, wrapped in a worn, stained periwinkle bathrobe. Jaemin catches Jeno by his fingers; he at least feels better having some hold on him.

“Sweetheart,” his mom coos. “And you brought Jaemin! This is wonderful. Should I make peanut butter and jelly? I’ll even cut the crust off.”

“Sure mom,” Jeno says, dazed.

“What the fuck, ” Jaemin hisses. But inside he knows there’s no stopping this now. He just has to wait it out until Jeno snaps out of this fog. And he also needs to try to minimize the damage.

They sit at the kitchen table, piled high with molding food, empty boxes of Amazon packages, bags of convenience store chips and junk food, and things that look like Jeno’s mom pulled them out of the garbage, like a baby doll with a missing eye. It’s all feeling very surreal.

“How has school been, sweets?” his mom asks like this is a normal day and her son hasn’t broken in unannounced. No silverware is clean, so she uses her bathrobe to wipe a butterknife off.

“Fine, I guess?”

“How are you doing in math? It was always your favorite subject when you were little. I remember doing flashcards with you for ages and ages before bedtime.”

She has no way of knowing, of course, that Renjun did all Jeno’s Algebra II homework last semester just so he could sneak by with a C+. Just like she doesn’t know that Jeno’s favorite subject is pottery, and that his teacher brought two of his pieces to a real gallery and sold them, which gave Jeno enough lunch money for an entire year when he would have otherwise had nothing. Jaemin has a polaroid of them at the opening tacked to his bedroom wall.

It’s enough to drive Jaemin utterly insane, so he gets up in a huff and goes into the bathroom. He rifles through the drawers and medicine cabinet looking for anything interesting. They might as well gain something from this. His efforts are rewarded with half a bottle of Percocets and almost a full one of Xanax, both of which they can sell for a tidy profit, and some other random pills they can use to rip off girls who don’t know better in the high school parking lot. All of them go into his backpack.

When he returns Jeno’s mom has placed two lopsided sandwiches on the table, which thank god Jeno hasn’t touched. He wouldn’t trust that jelly to not to be tainted with botulism.

“Jeno sweetheart, I really wish you would come home more,” his mom is saying. It freezes Jeno up, sends him straight off the deep-end into panic mode. Jaemin notices, of course, because he knows every crevice and razor-sharp pitfall in Jeno’s head better than his own. She notices nothing, not even that Jaemin’s come back into the room. “It’s just so lonely here without you. A mother should never be separated from her baby for too long. It’s just unnatural. And when you’re out there doing such unnatural things with that nasty Jaemin... it breaks my heart. How could you care more about that boy then your own mother?”

Jeno looks at Jaemin with wide, frightened eyes, pleading. Messaged received, loud and clear. Jaemin marches straight for him with vigor and purpose. Jeno rises from his chair to catch his outsretched hand in stride.

“Bye Mrs. Lee!” Jaemin calls from over his shoulder, and they don’t slow down until they burst into the stairwell at the end of the hall. Jeno needs to use the cinder block wall for support just so he can keep standing.

“It’s ok, shhh, it’s ok,” Jaemin rubs his hands up and down Jeno’s arms, his shoulder, face. He tips their foreheads together so Jeno has the wall behind him and Jaemin in front to ground him. It’s risky to stay here any longer when Mr. Lee could return from whatever nasty hole he slunk off too, but Jeno needs a minute to calm down.

“Thank you,” Jeno says. He doesn’t need to kiss Jaemin or tell him he loves him for Jaemin to know. All those declarations of love are unnecessary between them.

“Let’s get the fuck out of here,” Jaemin says decisively. He goes first so Jeno has no choice but to follow, which is how Jaemin is the one to end up face-to-face with none other than Mr. Lee himself when he rounds the corner to the next flight of stairs. “Oh hi Mr. Lee!” Jaemin says brightly, fake grin slapping itself onto his face automatically. FUCK!!! his mind goes internally.

“Jaemin?” Fortunately, Mr. Lee is too shocked to connect the dots that Jaemin’s presence could also mean Jeno’s. Also fortunately, Jeno is too far up the next half-flight up to be seen by his dad.

“Yeah, hi!” Jaemin is careful not to let his eyes follow Jeno as he creeps down the stairs one by one and lifts himself carefully over the railing. “Have you seen Jeno lately? It’s just, well, he hasn’t been at school lately and I was just wondering he was here, is all. No luck, haha.”

As if Jaemin isn’t the one Jeno ran to when the bastard broke two of his ribs (they told the group Jeno had to jump off his bike to avoid getting his by a car). As if Jaemin’s bed isn’t the one Jeno has slept in nearly every night since.

“No, I—”

The moment Jeno lands on the stairs behind his dad Jaemin is moving forward, so that when the man turns to look Jaemin can slide under his arm. Maybe Jeno’s dad yells, maybe he doesn’t. The wind pounds in Jaemin’s ears and he’s too focused on staying as close as he can to Jeno as they fly down the stairs and out of the apartment building. As soon as they’re outside Jeno grabs his hand and they make a beeline to where they dumped Jeno’s bike. Only when Jaemin is safely perched on the back does he turn around to see the figure of Mr. Lee, huffing and furious, watching them disappear from the entry of the formless gray apartment block.

 

 


 

 

When Jeno starts doing half-days at the vocational school Jaemin starts going to school more, too. There’s a reason: without Jeno around to skip class with him, Jaemin’s only friends are inside the building. Renjun and Mark care about their grades too much to skip regularly, and Jisung needs to reach a certain threshold of attendance every month to stay on the track team. Chenle just finds the whole circus of school amusing, though his parents have threatened to transfer him to the private Christian Academy a thousand times by now. The only other person who also doesn’t care is Donghyuck, and he’s got the exact problem as Jaemin.

The most frustrating thing about Donghyuck, Jaemin thinks, is that he’s good at things without having to try, and he’s either too dense to know or doesn’t care. Neither option is comforting.

They sit next to each other in Spanish II. Senorita Yareliz is a woman in her early thirties from Puerto Rico with rings of vintage JLo curls. She doesn’t take shit from anyone, especially not Jaemin, which is why he normally doesn’t bother showing up at all. She raises one of her too-perfect eyebrows at him as soon as he walks in the door, one minute and thirty seconds after the bell has rung.

“I want to dye my hair pink,” Jaemin whispers to Donghyuck almost as soon as he sits down. Donghyuck shoots him an incredulous look, but Jaemin can see the idea taking root in his head, probably imagining how well it would suit Jaemin.

“Qué fue eso?” Senorita Yareliz asks them, hands on her hips.

“Jaemin quiere cabello rosa,” Donghyuck answers without having to think about how to conjugate ‘want.’ See, that’s Jaemin’s point. He’s pretty sure Donghyuck has never studied for Spanish a day in his life and still manages to do fine in the class.

“I’m surprised you came today,” Donghyuck whispers once Senorita Yareliz’s attention is diverted. “We have a vocab quiz.”

“For fuck’s sake,” Jaemin groans.

Luckily for him, Donghyuck conveniently forgets to flip his paper over when he’s done so Jaemin can copy some of his answers. At least this is one quiz he won’t fail.


Jeno comes back during lunch, when they’re grouped up at one of the picnic tables outside. It’s not exactly warm but in early October the weather only calls for a light jacket. The view’s not exactly scenic, considering their school is surrounded on all sides by asphalt and concrete, but lunch is the only time they’re officially allowed to leave the building. Security reasons, or whatever.

Automatically, Jaemin splits up half his lunch and gives it to Jeno. It’s so routine that Jeno doesn’t stop his explanation of his welding classes and how cool it is to melt metal all day. Usually their lunch is a relative of peanut butter and jelly, but since it’s only been a few days since their incident at Jeno’s apartment Jaemin has decided to splurge this week and buy hot lunch from the cafeteria. Today it’s popcorn chicken.

Jaemin’s feeling antsy, so he runs a hand through the back of Renjun’s hair without really thinking about it, before remembering they agreed to lay off him, and abruptly pulls away. They really need to find a time to talk to Renjun, but he has no idea how to approach that conversation without giving away Donghyuck’s secret, which Donghyuck doesn’t even know they know about.

“You wanna skip out 7th period?” Jaemin asks Jeno instead. In the background Chenle is arguing with Jisung about some video game, so they rest of the group is distracted. Jaemin and Jeno lock eyes and a silent conversation passes between them, Jaemin trying to communicate to his best friend just how frustrating the day has been without Jeno by his side. He’s feeling trapped and he needs to get out of this place, and soon. Probably also smoke a shit load of weed.

“Sure,” Jeno says, knocks their feet together.

“Dude, how much school are you gonna miss? It’s only the second month and you’ve missed, what, four days?” Mark says. He’s chastising Jaemin, but also resigned about it. Seems like their conversation didn’t go unnoticed after all.

“I’m trying to beat my record from last year,” Jaemin shrugs. Last year Jaemin missed almost thirty days of school. He and his mom had to meet with the principal. This year he’s going for a new tactic: self-initiated half days. “Now, Jisungie~ I got you a present.”

Jaemin rifles through his backpack and pulls out a little baggie of orange pills and tosses it to Jisung.

“You don’t give me free Adderall,” Donghyuck whines.

“That’s because you’re not my baby,” Jaemin reaches over and ruffles Jisung’s hair. “Though you do qualify for the friends and family discount. Renjun? Mark?”

Mark rolls his eyes. “I try not to put unnecessary chemicals in my body.”

Jeno bursts out laughing. “Is Four Loco not an unnecessary chemical?

“Not the same!” Mark says indignantly.

“Oh Mark,” Donghyuck sighs. He places a hand over his heart. “So smart, yet so, so stupid.”

“Why do I even hang out with you guys? I just get clowned 24/7.”

“You’re such an easy target,” Chenle chimes in.

It’s true. Mark Lee, with his 3.9 GPA and his regular family and regular church attendance is infinitely enjoyable to tease. He always takes it well, though, and the truth remains that he is undeniably the leader of their little group. Which makes all the college tours he’s been going on lately pretty terrifying.

 

 


 

 

Donghyuck and Mark met, at of all places, church. Donghyuck’s grandmother was on some born-again crusade and was convinced she and her three grand-kids were going straight to hell unless they got baptised and started going to Episcopalian service every week. All-in-all the phase would only last around four months before she was onto a new thing. Donghyuck was ten years old at the time.

To be honest, the whole concept of religion goes over Donghyuck’s head, as it did then. But church was good for the promise of a heated building with warm drinks and snacks after, which was sometimes more than could be said for home. Because he was young, he was always invited down into the basement to hang out with the other kids. The real purpose was to talk about the Bible, but precisely because they were kids they spent more time goofing around with each other and tormenting the group leaders.

That’s where Donghyuck met Mark Lee for the first time.

He was eleven, and when you are young even the slightest difference in age adds exponential points to one’s coolness factor. And Mark was cool—he played guitar and led the children’s Bible study session on unapproved field-trips around the neighborhood. Sure, his jokes were lame, but that’s where Donghyuck came in.  

Miraculously, when Donghyuck’s grandmother ceased caring about religion and they stopped going, Donghyuck didn’t stop being friends with Mark. The other boy simply wouldn’t let him. It turned out they lived not too far from each other, close enough for regular after-school playdates. For huge swaths of time he spent more time at the Lee house than his own.

As they grew older they played soccer and Sega together, wrote songs about relationships they’d never had, and took their exploring further and further out into the urban reaches. It was on one such occasion that they met Jaemin and Jeno, actually, exploring the ramshackle warehouses down by the train tracks.

So Donghyuck would follow Mark anywhere. But it turns out there are places he just can’t.

The thing about Mark is that he has a normal life. At least, more normal than any of theirs. Donghyuck lives with his grandparents, Jaemin has a single mom. Jeno never talks about his family. Mark has a mom who’s not addicted to drugs, and a dad who owns a laundromat, and is also their only child. Their baby. Growing up they poured resources into him Donghyuck could never hope to receive—music lessons, SAT prep books, driver’s ed.

And it all accumulates in this: next year, Mark is going to college.

And he’s leaving the rest of them behind.

 

 


 

 

Everyone makes it to the weekend with only minor incidents (Mark, of all people, briefly got involved in a scuffle when someone on the sidewalk said something snide about Donghyuck—

“Who cares man? Not worth it,” Donghyuck had said .

“I care,” Mark replied, which was why they were best friends.)

But Friday night means freedom. Jaemin’s especially restless, because he really is trying to be better at attending school. He’s been putting his pent-up energy into hovering over Jisung, especially. The poor kid needs a break and Jaemin needs another outlet.

Jeno would happily volunteer himself, but he needs to keep up with his school work to keep his place in the vocational program, so his nights lately consist of more homework than heavy petting. Renjun is usually good about making time for Jaemin, but they agreed not to do that anymore. Which, by the way, Renjun has definitely caught onto. Jeno doesn’t know why it’s so hard to talk to his second-best friend. He wishes the words came out easily for him, but it’s so much more straightforward to express himself with his hands, his body. Whenever he really wants them to, the words just don’t come.

And also, Jaemin needs to sell the drugs he picked up from Jeno’s place. Jeno knows about them, not because Jaemin told him explicitly, but he saw them when he was digging through Jaemin’s bag for a pen while the other was in the shower. Jeno’s already decided it doesn’t matter that he took them; he just wants them out of Jaemin’s room ( their room, really) because of the awful way they make his heart ache.

Jaemin hears about a party happening in the basement of some line cook’s house from the bar, so that’s where they end up at night. Cooks always throw the best parties and the night promises to be a good one. They pregame for it after the sun falls below the horizon, going through the familiar routine of jumping the fence to the skate park and seating themselves in a line along the bowl. Chenle spirits a bottle of his parent’s Grey Goose from somewhere for them to share, though mixers are on short supply. They all drink from the bottle and don’t bother clean it after every swig.

Donghyuck plays Brockhampton from his phone, and even though the sound coming from the tiny speakers is small and tinie Jeno finds himself bobbing along to Kevin Abstract’s rap without thinking. He and Jisung sync up in their body rolls, taking turns following each other’s leads in the dance they’re making up. Jaemin is tucked in close to his side as he listens to Renjun and Donghyuck bicker and fool around. To Jeno, Donghyuck’s feelings are so obvious, written plainly in his eyes whenever he looks at Renjun. And Renjun is supposed to be smart—it’s a wonder he hasn’t figured it out for himself by now. But even smart people have blind spots. Maybe Renjun’s happens to be Donghyuck.

At some point Renjun full on pushes Donghyuck into the bowl and being his usual self, Donghyuck rolls dramatically until he’s lying flat on his back, staring up at Renjun with joy lighting up his features. Jeno knows what’s going to happen next—he sees it in the split second of eye contact he shares with Jaemin, understanding the other boy’s plan perfectly. Catching Renjun completely off guard, Jaemin uses both hands to shove Renjun down in after Donghyuck.

Renjun yelps and slides down. In order to avoid kicking Donghyuck in the ribs Renjun rolls so that he lands on top of him. Good thing it’s dark, because otherwise everyone would be able to see Donghyuck’s scarlet blush. Chenle’s shirll cackles echo around the skate park and everyone else is laughing, too. Jaemin tries to hide his giggles in Jeno’s shoulder and fails.

Jeno’s arm finds its way easily to wrap around Jaemin’s waist, pulling him even closer than before. Jaemin’s hand is on his neck, thumb pressed against his jaw. He tilts his head, pillowed against Jeno’s chest, up. He wants Jeno to kiss him. So Jeno does.

Jaemin makes a pleased noise in his throat when their lips connect. The angle isn’t perfect—Jeno practically needs to pull Jaemin into his lap—but it’s still good, nice. Despite the amount of times they’ve fooled around they don’t do this, just kissing, often. Jaemin’s mouth is addicting.

Ew Guys, ” Jisung whines. “It’s like watching my parents make out.”

Everyone knows about them , Jaemin-and-Jeno, but they don’t usually show affection like this in front of the others. Not unless they’ve been drinking, or Jaemin’s taken something. An ugly feeling twists in the pit of Jeno’s stomach. Everyone assumes he’d want to put his stamp all over Jaemin. But they’ve never needed to define their relationship, to themselves or anyone in order to justify it. They’re just them . A plural.

Renjun is looking at them with just an eyebrow raised and an expression that practically screams to Jeno you have some explaining to do . Donghyuck looks at Jeno like he’s personally offended he’s done something to distract Donghyuck from Renjun’s majesty.

Jaemin turns to Jisung, ready to get back to tormenting him, when the air is filled with a familiar whirring siren and blue and red flash across the smooth cement surface.

“Time to go,” Mark says, already on his feet. He helps pull both Donghyuck and Renjun out of the bowl while Chenle and Jisung have already taken off towards the far side of the park, bottle of vodka abandoned. Jeno pulls Jaemin along by the hand.

This feeling doesn’t get old. The rush that fills the empty places in his chest cavity at the fear of being caught, the exhilaration of having to run from something real, with punishments. Jeno hasn’t even told Jaemin this, but he felt the same way running from his old man. Like he was alive.

Naturally the fastest, Jisung makes it the fence first and clears it easily. Like the leader he is Mark is the last one over.

It’s not the first time they’ve run from the cops, and it’s certainly not the last time, either. But Jaemin has some serious drugs on him, and both Mark and Renjun’s parents would eat them alive if they got in legal trouble. Still, once they’re a few streets away they all fall into delighted giggles, the laughter easing away the last of the adrenaline spike.

Jeno doesn’t miss how Donghyuck has suddenly decided to be brave and pulls Renjun into a hug that is just pretending to be completely friendly. Maybe Renjun doesn’t realize it, or maybe he’s too caught up in his own emotions, but he doesn’t pull away, either.

“Well that was fun,” Jeno says. The only person not panting from the sprint is Jisung, who barely looks like he ran at all. “Let’s celebrate by getting fucked up.”

That idea is hard to argue with.

So they find their way to the party, located in a yellow house converted into apartments. The entrance to the basement are the cellar doors to the side, accessed by means of an overgrown empty lot. It’s guarded by a man Jaemin greets with familiarity—a regular at the bar. He lets them in without grumbling about their age. Inside it’s nothing more than an unfinished basement with graffiti on the walls but the flashing lights and blasting music create the atmosphere of any other club.

Jeno loves this feeling. He allows himself to be pulled into the throng of people that move as one modulating entity by his friends. The music is too loud to speak using words—he lets his body do it for him. The alcohol makes everything warm and fuzzy around the edges. Makes him feel unstoppable. Jaemin’s touch is a constant, whether it’s a casual hand on his shoulder or brush of hips.

The DJ plays mostly EDM songs, where one track is practically indistinguishable from the next, but he also intermixes that with his own terrible SoundCloud rap. Those are the lulls in the party, where Jaemin slinks off to do business with the dark corners. Percocet has a good price, Xanax even better. Jeno wants to be there with him, the menacing shadow behind his shoulder, but it’s something in Jaemin’s odd protective instincts that always have him shooing Jeno away. His on-the-side drug business is always something he keeps away from Jeno. But Jaemin always comes back to his side, too, and that’s what matters.

Things begin to blur when Chenle convinces the rest of them to do shots of electric blue Rubinoff, which in Jeno’s experience is always a one-way trip down the rabbit hole. They probably cut it with cleaning products. They grimace as a unit as the cheap booze goes down like battery acid.

Jeno wraps both arms around Jaemin from behind, locking him into his embrace and the rhythm of his hips. He’s certain he won’t be letting the other boy go for the rest of the night, not when he’s this drunk. Jaemin does twist his head so he can press his lips against Jeno’s, awkward and perfect. They move together, some friction here, some flirting there.

Normally around this time they’d search out Renjun in preparation for some mutual fun. Jeno still kind of wants to do it. What’s his problem if Donghyuck doesn’t have the balls to pursue him? His loss—Renjun is the best .

Donghyuck is just being stupid. They could be so good together! He’s holding himself and Renjun back, and that’s not fair. Jeno searches out Donghyuck in his drunken haze. It would be easier to keep his eyes closed and just move with the music, Jaemin’s warm body against his so soft and tempting, but the alcohol is also fueling the irrational, angry side of him. Donghyuck’s not dancing with Renjun, now, just kind of around him. It’s infuriating, how he doesn’t just reach out. It would be so easy.

What happens next is something out of Jeno’s worst nightmares. Not like the ones of his dad, how to Jeno as a child the sounds of his footsteps sounded like those of a horrible ogre, or how the monster under the bed wore his dad’s face. It’s like the nightmares Jeno has been having more recently, where the monster is wearing his face.

What happens is this: driven by the dark pit of thoughts he’s travelled down into Jeno lets go of Jaemin abruptly, stalks over the Donghyuck, and pushes him. Hard. Hard enough that it can’t be mistaken for drunken play fighting, and hard enough that Donghyuck loses his balances and goes careening into the back of another person and eventually, the floor.

Jeno regrets is immediately, the horror at his own actions making him feeling abruptly sober. Donghyuck is shocked silent, for once, but Jeno hears cries from his friends ranging from angry (Renjun), concerned (Jaemin and Mark), and just confused (Jisung and Chenle).

Before Jeno can even get an apology out the people he pushed Donghyuck into are rounding on them with their own anger. Someone aims a sloppy punch at Donghyuck’s head but Jeno is there, aiming his own fist back as Donghyuck acts quickly and ducks out of the way.

From there, it’s a fight. They’ve been involved in the fair share of fights, but normally Jeno is not the one starting them. But because of it, Jeno’s momentary stupidity is overshadowed by the unleashing of drunken teenage energy funneled towards a specific purpose. Jeno and Mark both get a few good hits in, striking somewhat randomly (it’s hard to discern friend from foe in the dark) and get a few good ones back in return. It’s Renjun, as always, who fairs the best, because he’s small and fast and feisty as hell. Jeno sees him kick the guy who went after Donghyuck straight in the balls and land a kick in his stomach for good measure.

Before the entire party devolves into a fist fight Jaemin’s friend from outside appears and drags Jeno out by the back of his collar with the rest of the group following behind. They stumble back up the stairs and through the lot without speaking to each other, Mark in the lead.

They make it about as far as the deserted sidewalk before Donghyuck turns on him. Where there are crack in the sidewalk grow tuffs of yellowing grass.

“What the fuck was that?” he yells. Jeno looks at him like a deer in headlights. Jaemin is standing in between them, evidently prepared to protect Jeno from anything Donghyuck wants to throw at him. Not that he doesn’t deserve it.

“I—” Jeno starts. He has no idea what to say, the explanation stuck in his throat, threatening to choke him. “Sorry.”

Sorry? ” Donghyuck screeches. “You almost got my teeth knocked out in a basement brawl and you wanna say sorry?

“Back off,” Jaemin says firmly. “He said sorry.” Of course, it doesn’t even come close to calming Donghyuck down, because he just turns to Jaemin and directs his wrath at him, instead.

“Oh, of course you’re gonna defend your fucking boyfriend. I don’t know how you two fuck when clearly Jeno already has a dick up his ass.”

That, then, gets Jaemin riled up. What he doesn’t do, however, is deny that Jeno is his boyfriend. Mark steps in between them.

“Both of you cool it,” he says. Jaemin’s shoulders relax slightly but Donghyuck just shrugs Mark’s hand off.

“Stay out of it Mark, we’re gonna have to figure out our problems without you at some point.”

Chenle makes a miserable little noise.

“Don’t be like that,” Mark says quietly. Donghyuck seems to know he’s crossed some kind of line, because his body language changes from angry to closed off.

“You know what? Fuck this, I’m going home,” he says, and turns on the spot to storm off down the street without a second glance at any of them. Jisung looks like he wants to follow, but Mark holds him back. Instead, it’s Renjun who jogs after him, and the rest of them watch as he bumps Donghyuck’s shoulder gently as they walk into the darkness.

Later, when they make it home and into the bathroom, Jaemin uses a warm washcloth to carefully wipe away the blood from Jeno’s sluggish nosebleed and split lip. He’ll look rough the next few days for sure. Jaemin doesn’t ask what it was all about; it doesn’t matter to him, anyways. But there is something Jeno wants to talk about.

“What if I’m becoming like him?” Jeno’s body feels heavy. He’s seated on the closed toilet lid, elbows resting on his knees and his head in his hands. It feels good to voice the fear, but it would have been better if he could have said it earlier, to Donghyuck, when it really mattered.

“Oh baby, no,” Jaemin whispers carefully. He holds Jeno’s hands in his, presses a gentle kiss to Jeno’s forehead. “One moment of stupidity in no way means you’re anything like him. It was a mistake, is all. I knew the moment you touched him you regretted even thinking about hurting Donghyuck.”

“I know I just... felt so angry .”

“About Renjun?”

“About Renjun.”

Jaemin laughs softly. He cradles Jeno’s head against his chest. “Oh my sweet Jeno. What you’re willing to do for love.”

 

 


 

 

Renjun doesn’t know what’s going on, exactly, but he knows he doesn’t like it. First, Jaemin and Jeno have been practically ignoring him. And that’s—it’s fine. He’s known from the very beginning that he doesn’t have a real place between them. But Jeno’s behavior towards Donghyuck last night was completely uncalled for. And then there’s Donghyuck himself, who for a while now has been acting... weird around Renjun.

He knows that no one else is going after Donghyuck. Maybe Mark might, but as best friends Mark probably realizes that Donghyuck needed space. Renjun doesn’t have such status going against him, so he chases after the other boy even though Donghyuck probably just wants to be left alone. Besides, Renjun is too pissed at Jeno to stick around.

Contrary to what he said, Donghyuck doesn’t walk straight home. With Renjun by his side they wander somewhat aimlessly, only trying to get further and further away from the scene of the party. As they do so, Renjun lets his shoulder brush against Donghyuck’s, exchanging warmth from one person to the other. They don’t speak for a long time, until at last Renjun aims a well-placed punch to Donghyuck’s shoulder.

“Ow! Haven’t I been beat up enough tonight?” he whines.

“Sure,” Renjun says easily. He begins to steer them on the route to Donghyuck’s place. “Have you been fighting with Jeno or something?”

“No,” Donghyuck says. “Came at me outta fucking nowhere.”

“He’s has been acting weird lately,” Renjun admits. Donghyuck turns to look at Renjun suddenly, dark eyes unreadable. For some reason, Renjun’s heart spikes, and he thinks for a fleeting moment that Donghyuck is going to kiss him. And that Renjun wouldn’t mind if he did.

“I’m jealous,” Donghyuck says abruptly. “Of Jaemin and Jeno.” The moment passes. Jealousy Renjun gets.

“They have something special. Not something that we can understand.” Something Renjun is intimately familiar with. “I’m jealous of them, too.” Donghyuck stays silent. It strikes Renjun that somehow that wasn’t the right thing to say.

When they make it to Donghyuck’s home they hop the fence into the garden and go in through the back door, because the front squeaks like crazy. The sounds of their footsteps are muffled by the dim hum of the Fox News Donghyuck’s grandfather keeps on 24/7.

In the safe confines of his bedroom Donghyuck stands oddly by his bed, hesitating. Renjun assumes it’s the alcohol messing with decision making ability. Fortunately, Rejun knows where the sleeping bags are, so he sets one up for himself and steals a pillows from the bed. He also makes sure the other boy drinks a full bottle of water before tucking him in.

Donghyuck’s hand catches his wrist. He looks exhausted, now, the emotional and physical exertion taking its toll. But he looks so serious when he looks Renjun right in the eyes. “Thank you for being here,” he says softly. It’s one of the most genuine things Donghyuck has ever said to him, and it makes Renjun’s stomach flip over. He shakes his head, pulling himself together.

“Of course,” Renjun smiles. They go to sleep.

When he wakes up, Donghyuck is still sleeping peacefully. Renjun lets himself watch the boy from his spot on the floor. It’s afternoon, so Donghyuck’s grandparents have already left, gone to wherever it is old people go on the weekends. The house is still but for the gentle woosh of Donghyuck’s steady breathing. It’s nice. Renjun finds it comforting.

He knows Jaemin’s room well, but Donghyuck’s is far more unfamiliar. In the daytime filtering in through the curtains he can inspect the band posters pasted over the older baseball and hockey ones.

Truthfully, Renjun wants to stay—and he thinks Donghyuck could use to company. But there’s something he needs to do, or rather, someone he needs to talk to. So Renjun tears out a page of Donghyuck’s only lightly used school notebook and scrawls a note on it in Sharpie before he heads out into the afternoon.

He catches the bus at the corner of the street Donghyuck lives on. It takes him straight to his destination—a collection of commercial buildings in a converted warehouse space.

The pottery studio is Jeno’s sacred space. Renjun has only been here once before, and that was when Jaemin was accompanying him. But he knows this is where Jeno comes most weekends, and especially when something is weighing on him. It helps him, Renjun knows, to do something with his hands.

When Renjun arrives Jeno is hunched over the wheel working a rich brown piece of clay. Already there are three small pots completed and lined up on the work table.

Renjun doesn’t know how to start things off so he just settles on: “Hey.”

Jeno swivels on his stool to look at Renjun, face open with surprise. His top lip is the color of a plumb from where he got hit last night. The piece of clay on the wheel takes collateral damage, getting unfortunately squished and irreparably lopsided.

“Hey,” Jeno mumbles, unable to maintain eye contact. Renjun invites himself in and settles himself on a stool across from Jeno.

“Sorry about the...” Renjun gestures at the sad, lumpy bowl.

“Don’t worry about it,” Jeno says.

“Do you want to talk about yesterday? Even if you don’t, we still need to talk,” Renjun says seriously. Jeno’s clearly unsettled—he wipes his clay-caked hands on his apron and taps his foot. As soon as Renjun starts talking he gets up to wash his hands and organize some random pottery tools. If it were up to Jeno, the answer would be no , and no conversation whatsoever would be happening. But it’s not just up to Jeno, and Renjun didn’t trek all the way here for nothing.

“I know something it going on with you—both of you. You know I’m not stupid. At first I thought it was just me, and I decided to be fine with it because it’s not like you guys owe me anything—”

“No—” Jeno tries to say. Renjun barrels over him.

“But then you go and attack Donghyuck last night out of nowhere. What the fuck was that, Jeno, really?”

“What did Donghyuck tell you?” Jeno sighs.

“Nothing!” Renjun says, frustrated. “Well—just that he was jealous of you and Nana, but that doesn’t have anything to do with anything. Everyone knows you guys are tapped into each other’s brains.”

Jeno gives him and soft, pitying look, which is infinitely frustrating to Renjun. Suddenly he feels as though he’s the subject of the confrontation.

“I feel really fucking shitty about yesterday,” Jeno says. He’s playing with his finger like he does sometimes when he’s nervous. “Like, really. I seriously don’t know what came over me. But Donghyuck being jealous has everything to do with this.”

“What?” Renjun splutters.

“Injunnie,” Jeno approaches him and cups Renjun’s face gently. There’s still clay underneath his fingernails. “Donghyuck isn’t jealous of me-and-Nana. He’s jealous of me-and-Nana and you .”

“What?” Renjun repeats. In his surprise he backs away from Jeno and away from his touch.

“He’s totally whipped for you, dude. It’s kind of obvious,” Jeno says sheepishly.

“You knew and didn’t tell me?”

“Well it was only a guess , and we tried! We thought he wouldn’t make a move if we were all over you,” Jeno says. He probably doesn’t realize he’s doing it, but Jeno always brings Jaemin into a conversation, as if there could be no situation involving Jeno where Jaemin wasn’t also.

Now that it’s been said out loud, the image of him and Donghyuck together takes root in Renjun’s head and the base of his stomach. It’s not like he’s never thought about it—it’s that he’s never allowed himself to think about it. When Jaemin first began flirting with him it was so clear, so purposeful. Jaemin laid it on thick and sweet. Renjun allowed himself to think Donghyuck’s lingering touches beyond his normal affection were just another sign of brotherly love, that the darkness of Donghyuck’s pupils when he looked at Renjun were no different than the way he looked at the rest of them.

Oh, Renjun thinks. It’s like that .

And he doesn’t hate it.

In fact, just the thought of it spreads warmth down to his toes.

Renjun glares at Jeno for a few seconds before slapping his shoulder, hard.

“You should have told me from the get-go!” Renjun says.

“I know,” Jeno agrees.

Now that the argument has reached an impasse the two of them stand the studio in silence. Jeno is the one who breaks it.

“I really don’t know what came over me. And I really am so, so sorry.”

“I’m not the person you need to say that to,” Renjun tells him.

“You heard me apologize already and it didn’t mean shit. You know what makes you and Donghyuck a good match?” Jeno asks. “You’re both stubborn as hell.”

 

 


 

 

Jeno doesn’t apologize again to Donghyuck. Jaemin knows this because he’s been talking about doing it for days, but everytime he tries panic wells up in his chest. This results in a tension that’s uncomfortable for everyone and more than one painful lunch period. It’s most awkward for Jaemin, who Donghyuck has automatically (and, well, rightly) assumed is on Jeno’s side. They also share multiple classes together. Donghyuck has decided to embrace his petty side and annoy Jaemin from a distance with snide remarks said under his breath (but loud enough, of course, for Jaemin to hear), and fuck with his stuff. During their last Spanish class together Donghyuck managed to get over 30 crumpled up paper balls into Jaemin’s backpack.

If there’s one good thing to come of this, it’s that Renjun has been spending a lot more time with Donghyuck.

At this point, five days out from the initial fight, Jaemin is hoping that eventually everything will blow over and they can get back to their usual mischief. With Donghyuck though, that’s unlikely, and hell if Jaemin is going to be the first one to break, not after Jeno has already apologized. It’s quickly becoming a matter of pride.

“Jisung wants to know if you two are coming to his track meet tomorrow,” Mark asks him while they’re in the library together. Jaemin’s there not to do anything ridiculous like study, but his history teacher gave them time to research some assignment and the library is the perfect place to not do work.

“Of course we are,” Jaemin says. Jisung is practically Jaemin’s own child—he wouldn’t miss the first big track meet for anything. “Why would Jisung be worried about us not being there?”

“Well,” Mark says carefully. “With everything that’s going on between you guys and Donghyuck we—I mean Jisung—was just worried that you’d skip out to avoid him.”

“No,” Jaemin says firmly. “We’ll be there, for sure.”

The next day the six of them—Donghyuck, Renjun, Mark, Chenle, Jaemin, Jeno—sit on the cold metal bleachers at the side of the track. Jisung stands out among the other athletes, tall and lanky with recently-dyed blond hair. Jaemin did it for him.

Jeno keeps bouncing his knee, ringing his hands next to Jaemin. He’s also not eating the fries Jaemin bought them to share. Jeno doesn’t like being the point of conflict, not with his friends and not ever.

Donghyuck purposefully hasn’t looked their way once.

It’s amazing to watch Jisung run. Jaemin really does feel like a proud mom; it’s not like Jisung’s real parents are here to see him. During the 400m he flies ahead of the other runners with ease. That’s what’s beautiful to see—for Jisung, it’s evident running is easy. As Jisung rounds the final bend on the way home Jaemin jumps out of his seat and everyone follows, screaming for him, although it’s never really in doubt he’s going to win. Chenle jumps up and down and claps happily for his best friend.

Once Jisung’s race is done Jaemin pulls Jeno away with a casual we’ll be back to the group. They find a secluded spot behind the bleachers where the locker rooms are, where Jaemin pulls a joint out from his jacket pocket. They smoke in silence for a few minutes, passing it back and forth comfortably. Away from the crowds Jeno is far more relaxed, but that’s not a relief to Jaemin.

When they see Donghyuck approaching them, Jaemin might get his wish about the whole thing ending soon.

None of them say anything. Jaemin can read the nervous tension across the line of Jeno’s shoulders and neck. Jaemin doesn’t offer Donghyuck the last hit of the joint.

“Dude, I’m fucking sorry, ok?” Jeno blurts, desperate. “I—I don’t know what I was thinking.”

“It’s whatever I guess,” Donghyuck shrugs, though his body language says he’s still a little pissed. “Renjun said I should come over here and get my head out of my ass.”

“You should listen to Renjun more often,” Jaemin says, snide. He’s seen close up how Donghyuck’s attitude has affected Jeno—he’s seen the soft flesh around Jeno’s fingers be bitten until they’re raw and stinging; how Jeno’s barely slept in five days. Same as when they were kids. Now that the big confrontation has arrived, Jaemin’s decided he’s not ready to let that all go without Donghyuck suffering a bit, first.

Donghyuck’s face furrowers into anger. “The fuck is that supposed to mean?”

“Just that without Injunnie around your head would be free real estate. I’m surprised you haven’t floated away already.”

“Fuck you!” Donghyuck spits. He looks split between staying and fighting and storming off. He chooses the former. “You just treat Renjun like he’s your plaything !”

Jaemin rolls his eyes. Jeno is a mass of nervous energy, escalating by the minute, but Jaemin’s in too far at this point to back down. He’s talking himself deeper and deeper into the pit, but something dark in the back of his mind is urging him on. Urging him to destroy his friendship with Donghyuck, just because it would be so easy to stick needles into the right places right now.

“You really are the dumbest motherfucker, aren’t you? No wonder Injun would rather be with us over you .” Jaemin’s tone aims for casual, like he doesn’t give a fuck about Donghyuck now and never did. He knows that one’s going to hurt. Jeno knows it too.

“Nana, stop ,” he whispers, pulling on Jaemin’s sleeve. Jaemin ignores him.

Destroy , his mind whispers. Destroy him.

“How—how did you know about that?” Donghyuck’s voice shakes.

“Please,” Jaemin coos. “You didn’t think it was obvious?”

“You guys have it so fucking great, don’t you?” Donghyuck is on the verge of tears, but his distress pushes him to fight back. “You’ve got yourselves and don’t give a fuck about anyone else, do you? You don’t tell us you’re in a relationship—your own fucking friends, by the way—don’t tell us why Jeno’s living at your place, you treat your mom like shit when I’d be happy to have a mom who actually gave enough of a fuck to be around! Not even Renjun is good enough, huh? You used him, too, just like you use everyone else in your fucked up, manipulative lives.

“And me? Once Mark and Renjun go to college I’ve got nothing. You have each other, so do Chenle and Jisung. I. Have. Nothing. You think I’m the dense one? Open your eyes to what’s right in front of you!”

Donghyuck is panting by the end of the outburst, tears dripping onto the grass. Jaemin feels shell-shocked. Somewhere behind him Jeno has collapsed onto the grass, using the cement wall of the locker rooms to support him.

He never realized that’s how their behavior has looked all this time. He thought it was no big deal. Suddenly, Jaemin doesn’t want to fight anymore.

“It wasn’t true,” Jaemin whispers. Stronger, he says, “It wasn’t true, Donghyuck, about you being stupid. You don’t realize it, but you’re so smart and talented, and you don’t even have to try. You just don’t realize it,” he repeats.

“Don’t fuck with me,” Donghyuck says without conviction.

“Last year you learned to play piano from YouTube videos in a month,” Jaemin says. “When was the last time you studied for a test? Remember when I had to meet with the principal last year? It wasn’t just because I missed a lot of school, it was because I wanted to drop out.”

It’s Donghyuck’s turn to be surprised. His eyebrows shoot up into his hair. “I—I didn’t know, man.”

Jaemin shrugs. “I didn’t tell you.”  

As quickly as it came on the anger between the three of them diffuses. What’s left are the sounds of them trying to cover up their sniffles. Without warning Jeno pulls the three of them into a very wet hug. Jaemin ends up with his face pressed into the side of Donghyuck’s neck, the other’s arm around his waist and Jeno’s around their shoulders.

“We care,” Jeno says fiercely. Donghyuck nods. The words sounded so much worse coming from his mouth. “We care about all of you. There’s some stuff I’m just not ready to share. Don’t let it think for a second it’s not because you don’t matter to us.”

“And Donghyuck?” Jeno adds. “You should really ask Renjun out.”

 

 


 

 

The night is young. The fluorescent orange of the sunset still plays at the edge of day and night. Soon, the air will be too cold to constantly be outside. Jeno and Jaemin appear and the edge of the horizon, Jaemin balanced carefully on the back of Jeno’s bike, his arms looped around Jeno’s shoulders. They come to a lazy stop in front of where Mark and Donghyuck are casually sitting on the stairs leading up to a boarded up entrance to an unused warehouse. It’s a place down by the train tracks, close to where the four of them first met.

“Where’s Demon-Spawn and my precious Jisungie?” Jaemin asks. Donghyuck is smoking a joint and he passes it to Jaemin for a pull automatically.

“Tagging a building,” Mark says. “You know Chenle’s been really into metal music lately?”

“Yeah,” Jeno whines. “I had to listen to that shit for two hours nonstop the other day.”

“And Injun?” Jaemin asks.

“Five minutes out,” Donghyuck answers.

“Sick.”

From his backpack Jeno pulls out two Gatorade bottles filled with unidentifiable liquids. He hands one bottle, a peach color, to Mark and opens the other one for himself.

“Are we mixing substances?” Donghyuck gasps in mock surprise. To him the liquid tastes like some unholy mixture of Coconut Malibu, Fireball, and Kiwi Tropicana.

“Not me,” Jaemin says. “Last time I got crossed I actually lost track of reality.”

“And you threw up all over yourself,” Donghyuck points out. “We had to stick your ass in the shower jeans and all.”

Jaemin groans. “I was really hoping no one remembered that.”

“I could never forget an opportunity to clown you,” Donghyuck says seriously.

“Are we talking about when Jaemin puked everywhere?” Renjun asks, appearing from practically nowhere. He sits on the stairs pressed against Donghyuck comfortably.

“Wow. After all these years of friendship this is how you repay me? I’m hurt Injunnie.”

Renjun rolls his eyes. “I’m sure you’ll survive.”

Jisung and Chenle return, bounding over the tracks. In his hand Jisung sports a blue spray paint can. Both of them look ridiculously pleased.  

“Hello trouble twins,” Jaemin waves. He pinches Jisung’s cheek because he knows it annoys the younger boy.

Unit complete, Mark pulls back a board revealing an entrance into the warehouse, and they go inside. They’re not the first to have explored this place and they won’t be the last. After they’re grown and gone more teenagers will find their way here, as is tradition. Flashlights lead them down the narrow passage, but it’s not just the light they’re following. In the distance can be heard the muffled pounding of base. They go until the hallway opens into the warehouse floor, long abandoned but still filled with some leftover crates of an industry gone by. The open space glows with a neon light setup and pulses with music. The party will go from dusk to dawn. Jaemin flashes a toothy grin.

Later, much later, when it’s so late things have looped back around to early, the seven of them find themselves on the warehouse roof. Someone put a couch up here at one point, and Chenle and Jisung are too drunk, too tired, to care about how disgusting it likely is. The other five of them sit on the lip of the roof, their feet dangling off the edge.

As usual, Jaemin and Jeno and tangled together in as many ways possible. Mark sits between them and Donghyuck and Renjun. The hesitation of something new still clings to those two. Inside, wrapped in the darkness of lights and sound, they were all over each other. But up here, exposed, Renjun settles for resting his head on Donghyuck’s shoulder, hands intertwined.

The outing ends the same way it began—color blooms across the sky, beginning to bathe the city with warm pink light.