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Ugly Ties

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When Jeno gets behind the bar, Jaemin is already sat there with a large glass of white wine, flirting with Sooyoung.

“Can you leave my co-workers alone please?” he complains. “Sooyong doesn’t need this.”

She smiles at him sweetly. “He’s too young for me anyway, no need to worry.” Using tongs, she places a slice of lime in a brandy cocktail and passes it over to another customer, happily ignoring the way Jaemin is smiling at her in that way he does when he’s about to turn on the mega-watt charm.

“You have a boyfriend now, remember?” Jeno chides, ignoring the way it still tastes odd in his mouth to say out loud. “Why are you at a downtown bar on your own on a Friday anyway?”

“Can I not visit my best friend and drink some wine without being interrogated?”

“Hey!” A pretty middle-aged woman comes to the bar, and Jeno makes an active effort to meet her eyes respectfully. “Can I have a large red please?”

“Of course,” he replies. “Any particular make?”

“Whatever is already open will do.”

Jaemin is silent while he watches Jeno work, but as soon as the woman has her drink and has given Jeno a particularly handsome tip. “As I was saying, why are you complaining that I’m visiting you at work?”

“I don’t know, because you have college maybe? Assignments? A social life?”

Jaemin scoffs into his wine. “All baseless accusations. Maybe I’m not even here for you, did you think about that? Maybe I’m here for Sooyoung.”

She giggles from where she’s mixing another cocktail. “Nice try, but you’ve been nagging for Jeno’s shift to start for almost half an hour, as if it’s my fault you came in early.”

He goes pink, but it just somehow deepens his charm, and Jeno can practically see Sooyoung’s heart melting in her chest, the way people always react to Jaemin.

Ever since they were kids, he’s always had the same sweet eyes, the same charming smile, pretty face, disarming aura – everyone falls for Jaemin in a way that has Donghyuck green with envy and both Jeno and Renjun mildly inconvenienced when they try to go out together but Jaemin gets swamped.

“I just wanted to see my best friend,” Jaemin mumbles, pouting a little. “Is that so bad?”

It’s not bad; it’s just not like him to drop in without any kind of warning. “You know I’m always happy to see you, but this kind of... it just isn’t like you. Are you sure you’re okay?”

Jaemin shrugs and drinks, which again, isn’t like him. Even when they’re clubbing, living it up like college freshmen should, he doesn’t drink to excess. “I’m good.”

“Ouch man,” Jeno says, “Lie to my face why don’t you.”

Another customer interjects, so Jeno has some time to pretend that Jaemin’s denial doesn’t sting a bit, and by the time he’s poured a handful of beers and mixed an unholy amount of vodka into an already potent cocktail, the doors to the bar are opening and he’s distracted from Jaemin’s sour mood by the presence of his adoptive parents.

“Doyoung! Jaehyun!”

They come over to the bar with a couple of other men, some familiar, some unfamiliar, but it’s Doyoung Jeno focuses on, because he looks so happy to see Jeno that it’s almost humbling.

“Hi Jeno, how are you?”

“I’m sweet! What can I get you guys?”

Doyoung shares a look with Jaehyun. “A bottle of red for us to share please, and the others can order their own. If I say I’ll buy a round they’ll empty my wallet.”

The shortest – Ten, maybe? Jeno has only seen him wrapped around Johnny or painfully hungover – groans. “You’re so fucking cheap.”

“I gave you a raise for doing absolutely nothing literally two days ago.”

Another of the group gently pushes forward until he’s at the bar’s counter. “I’ll buy the first round, in that case.”

Another pushes to join him. “No, that’s not fair. We can half the cost, right?”

No one else tries to argue, and they both share a look that Jeno knows well, because it’s the look he shares with Jaemin when they’re about to attack Donghyuck for being painfully annoying.

He laughs a little nervously. “So a bottle of red for my dads, and what will it be for the rest of you?”

They rattle off a long list of drinks that Jeno has to write down to remember, and then a majority of the bulk go and try to find a table big enough for all of them. Ten smacks Doyoung’s ass and cackles at the outrage he leaves for Jaehyun to calm back down.

The first one to offer to pay just sighs and runs a hand through his hair. “I can tell I’m going to be very tired by the end of the evening.”

The other one nods. “You can come over if you like, and we can console each other.”

“Console?” Jeno asks with some amusement. “Aren’t you guys out with friends?”

The shorter of the two nods. “But we’re old.”

“You can’t be older than thirty.”

“You’re still a teenager; you don’t understand the burden of your twenties yet. You will.”

Doyoung rolls his eyes. “Stop being so grim Taeil, we’re here to have a good time.”

Taeil’s mouth drops open and hangs there. “Did I honestly just get chastised by Doyoung for being a party pooper? Did that just happen?”

The other one, smiling softly, says, “I think you did. He seems quite refreshed after his little holiday, doesn’t he?”

“I can hear you both.”

“Good.”

Jaehyun squeezes Doyoung’s shoulder and grabs the bottle of wine Jeno passes over. “I’ll go make sure Ten hasn’t eaten the others, will you help Taeil and Taeyong with the drinks?”

Doyoung nods, and he blushes slightly when Jaehyun presses a gentle kiss to his cheek before leaving the bar. “Don’t say anything, any of you.” He pushes his hair back and looks around, maybe trying for a casual look, which fails miserably but is kind of cute anyway, until he notices Jaemin and his eyes widen. “Jaemin! I’m sorry for being rude, these are my friends Taeil and Taeyong.”

“Hey Doyoung,” Jaemin says, putting his wine down so he can shake Doyoung’s hand (which is weird, but maybe it’s something to do with adulthood that Jeno doesn’t quite understand yet). He waves casually at the other two, flashing one of his Jaemin grins, and Taeyong’s heart floats into his eyes in what is definitely a paternal love at first sight thing. “How are you all?”

“Well. How are you?”

“Good thanks.”

Doyoung eyes him, and his expression hardens in a way that Jeno knows spells trouble. “Why are you lying to my face so blatantly, like I won’t notice the way your glass is almost empty and your eyes are watery?”

Jeno winces as Taeyong’s eyes widen. “Doyoung, maybe now isn’t the time -“

“I don’t like liars,” Doyoung says quietly, but with all the force of a rolling boulder. “And I don’t like disrespect. If you don’t want to talk about it that’s your right, Jaemin, but please don’t lie to me.”

Jaemin swallows. “Okay. You’re right, and I’m sorry. Today has been tough.”

“Drinking copious amounts of alcohol won’t help anything. The best thing you can do is drink lots of water, eat something healthy, and make sure you get a good amount of sleep.” His gaze slides to Jeno. “Maybe talk to someone you care about and see if together you can devise a solution. Look after yourself, whatever you choose, though, okay? And never forget that you have a large group of people that care for you, whatever happens.”

He takes a handful of glasses and exits the bar, leaving his friends to collect the rest, red faced and apologetic as they hurry off after him.

Jaemin looks at Jeno. “Your dad is mean.”

“I don’t think he’s mean, dude, I think he’s just... you know. Unintentionally blunt. He’s only like that because he cares, but he’s not got the hang of expressing it.”

Jaemin blinks, and Doyoung was right, his eyes are watery. Almost like tears.

Uh.

A lot like tears.

Oops?

Yeah. Jeno doesn’t know what to do with that. “Uh... Jaemin you know you – I mean your – like. I think you’re crying.”

Jaemin blinks rapidly and sweeps back his fringe with one hand. “Maybe, but it’s rude to point it out.”

“Should I – “ He panics, tugging on Sooyoung’s sleeve. “Please can I take a break?”

She looks up from mixing, and her eyes find Jaemin immediately, face creasing with concern. “Sure thing sweetheart, take ten minutes.”

“Thank you,” he mumbles, then ducks around the back so that he can drag Jaemin away from the bar and out into the cool night air, where there are people milling about but the overall atmosphere is much less claustrophobic. “Dude you’re kind of freaking me out, what the hell is going on?”

Jaemin wipes his eyes. “You don’t like Minchul do you?”

“I think he’s a fucking loser,” Jeno admits before his brain catches up with his mouth and he realises shit, this is important, this is Jaemin’s boyfriend and he should be nice, no matter how annoying he is. “I mean I don’t know him all that well. Why?”

“He doesn’t like you.”

“Oh.” Like, yeah. Obviously. Of course he doesn’t, considering how close he gets to spitting venom whenever Jeno shows up. “What a... surprise. I’m sorry to hear that.”

“He said I have to choose.”

“Choose what? Like... his lunch?” It wouldn’t surprise Jeno. Minchul is weird and so clingy that it’s honestly baffling he can function without batting his lashes at Jaemin and asking him for advice on how to lift the fucking toilet seat. When Jeno had complained to Donghyck about it, the only answer he’d received was a mumbled ‘It’s bottom rights’ which he really didn’t understand.

“No. He said I have to choose between him and you.”

“Oh.”

Like, oh.

Oh.

“Wait, what? He really said that to you after like two months of dating?”

Jaemin nods and scrunches his nose, which Jeno knows is a sign he’s barely holding his shit together, so he sweeps him into a hug that’s not very dignified since Jaemin is so much taller, but it’s the thought that counts, right? Jaemin seems to think so as he rests his head against the side of Jeno’s neck and breathe shakily. “He really said it. Demanded it, actually, like he actually has more value than my best fucking friend.”

“So what happened?” Jeno asks, stroking a hand through Jaemin’s hair. He’d recently discovered that girls seem to like it, and he’s never tried it on a dude, but Jaemin just sighs again and presses closer into the touch, so he must be doing something right.

“I dumped him, what the hell do you think I would do?”

Jeno swallows the mild panic he’d refused to acknowledge when Jaemin had first stated his ultimatum. “Definitely not chose him over me?”

Jaemin laughs wetly and presses even closer, as if trying to merge into one double person, which would be totally weird. But still, Jeno allows it, because if he had to be merged with someone Jaemin would definitely be his first choice. “Of course I picked you, idiot. It just hurt, you know? I know the two of you didn’t see eye to eye but he was just-“ He swallows, and when he speaks again his voice cracks a little. “He was my first real boyfriend, and I thought it was actually going somewhere. I thought he was helping.”

Jeno squeezes him tighter. “He doesn’t deserve you, especially if he doesn’t like you having friends as amazing as me. Besides, what could he ever help you with that I can’t?”

Jaemin shrugs and burrows impossibly closer. Jeno can feel his wet eyelashes against his neck. “I don’t wanna talk about it anymore.”

“Okay,” he soothes, trying to think of how he looks after the cats when they’re grouchy. Sometimes the need space, but other times, all it takes is a cuddle and some soft petting until they’re happy and purring again. “I’m gonna be working until midnight, but if you like I can give you the key to my dorm room and you can go hang out there until I get in and then we can watch a movie or something? You can go take a nap and wake up feeling refreshed for my divine company.”

“I don’t wanna burden you,” Jaemin mumbles, though he doesn’t lift his head from Jeno’s shoulder.

“You said I wasn’t a burden when I got food poisoning from that raw chicken and vomited over your favourite jeans,” Jeno reminds him. Being sixteen was... wild. Seventeen and eighteen were arguably wilder, but for the sake of the point, Jeno is willing to let that pass in silence. “I would say that any kind of vomit scenario is much more burdensome than this.” He fishes his keys out and passes them to Jaemin’s hand. “Go on, go sleep. Make sure you actually rest for once.”

“Okay.”

“Ring Renjun and tell him what’s happened, and maybe once he’s finished his tutoring he can join you.”

“Okay.”

“Okay?” Jeno asks as Jaemin lifts his head and wipes his eyes.

Jaemin nods firmly. “Okay.”

“Don’t cry over him anymore, he isn’t worth it. We can make fun of him when I finish my shift.”

Jaemin laughs quietly, more of an exhale, but a tiny smile graces his mouth. “You really don’t like him, huh.”

“I mean, now that I can speak without jeopardising anything for you, he was an asshat. Possibly one of the largest asshats around. Almost as bad as that one Hyuck found when he was seventeen, you know-“

“No,” Jaemin says, eyes widening. “Tell me he isn’t as bad as the guy that looked our age but was actually twenty eight.”

“I mean,” Jeno hedges, “I don’t think he was... you know, that predatory, but he had the same stinky vibe.”

“Why didn’t you say anything?”

Jeno shrugs. “You looked happy with him.”

Jaemon shakes head, rolling his eyes up to the sky before focusing back on Jeno. “You’re my best friend. If you think he’s bad, I trust that. I thought you just found him annoying.”

“I mean I definitely did find him annoying.”

Jaemin smacks his arm and smiles ruefully. “Go back to work.”

“You’ll be waiting for me when I get in?”

“No, I’m going to take your only key and dump it in a lake before eloping. Yes, I’ll be there. Bring some of that fancy wine your boss keeps for engagement parties and we can wallow in style.”

“Of course.” But before Jaemin can leave, Jeno catches his arm, tugging on his jacket. “Ring if you need me. I mean it, okay? You’re more important than this job, and if you need me I’ll come.”

Jaemin tears up again, but he gives Jeno’s hand a squeeze before gently removing it from his arm. “Alright.”

Inside Sooyoung is smiling, but she’s clearly starting to struggle with the amount of customers, so Jeno hurries back to the taps and apologises.

“Don’t worry about it,” she says between drinks. “Is Jaemin okay?”

“Yeah he’s – Sir you can’t smoke that in here! – he’s dumped his boyfriend and is kind of torn up about it. I’m gonna go nurture him after my shift.”

She giggles. “Nurture him?”

“Yeah, you know. Like a cat.”

“That’s how I know I raised you right,” he hears, and looks up to see Kun at the bar. Kun, who is definitely within Sooyoung’s age range. She looks up too, and like every woman between the age of twenty and seventy, immediately adores Kun. Which is like, totally understandable. He’s husband and dad material aplenty.

“Hi!” Jeno says cheerily. “Are you joining Doyoung?”

“Yeah, I had a couple of appointments that overran today, so I said I’d meet them here. Can I have a gin and ginger please?”

“It’s free,” Sooyoung says as Jeno gets to work. “Doyoung snuck over here and told me to put all the drinks on his card.” Her blush fades into pale panic. “Um. He also told me not to tell anyone that.”

Jeno laughs as he gets to measuring Kun’s gin. “How’s he meant to keep it a secret if they’re ordering drinks that never get paid for?”

“I promised I’d tell them it was a discount for being loyal customers or something,” Sooyoung says, passing Jeno a bottle of ginger ale as she pours two white wines for the middle aged ladies staring at Kun. “He said they’ll laugh at him if they find out he’s paying in secret.”

“Well your secret is safe with me,” Kun says, taking the drink Jeno offers him. “And thank you very much, I’ll leave you both to work. Jeno, will you be coming on Sunday?”

“Yeah, the others will too if that’s cool.”

Kun smiles. “Of course, it’s lovely having you all over. I’ll see you later; work hard.”

“Yes sir,” Jeno salutes him and then focuses back on the crowd as Kun heads off to the rowdy table at the back, where it looks like Yukhei is competing with Ten for whiniest loser at whatever game they’re playing.

Sooyoung takes someone’s money and then turns to Jeno. “So who was that?”

“My dad.”

“Just how many hot dads do you have?”

“The number seems to be growing really fast. Can I get back to you?”

She laughs at him and pinches his cheek. “Sure.”

“If it helps, I think of you as my hot mother.”

She wipes away a fake tear and pinches his cheek again. “And I love my idiot son.”

Yeah, he probably by all moral laws shouldn’t have to work while he studies at college, but overall? Jeno fucking loves this job.

 

-

 

He leaves at exactly midnight, Sooyoung shooing him out of the bar so that he can go take care of Jaemin, and he can’t pretend he isn’t relieved that he doesn’t have to do the after shift cleaning, because wiping sticky alcohol off of multiple surfaces is definitely the worst part of the job.

He gets back to his dorm smelling of beer and peanuts, to find his single bed already hosting two entwined bodies.

Renjun looks over the top of Jaemin’s sleeping head and whispers, “Hey. Want me to go back to my dorm?”

Jeno shakes his head and grabs stuff so he can shower, opening and closing draws as quietly as possible. “Stay,” he replies at the same volume. “We can make it work.”

The three of them always make it work.

He showers as quietly as possible, ignoring the way his phone vibrates by the sink with a continuous stream of messages (probably from Donghyuck) so that he can soap up then wash off and towel down and moisturise with the weird smelling stuff Jaemin had gotten him for his birthday that actually makes his skin feel really good. No shame, because there’s nothing wrong with smelling like honeysuckle and having baby smooth skin.

No shame, even if Renjun sniggers at him when he climbs into the pile of limbs. “You smell like a perfume store.”

Jeno curls himself around Jaemin’s sleeping form. “You smell like ass.”

“I’ve been tutoring Chenle again, so I smell like him. I’ll let him know you think he smells of ass.”

Jeno kicks him, and they both freeze when Jaemin groans, but he just burrows down further between them. “Dick,” Jeno whispers to Renjun. “Do you think we should wake him up and make him talk about his feelings and stuff? It’s what Kun would want us to do, right?”

“I think we should just let him sleep. He’s had like, a million coffees today, so he must be really tired if he’s actually managed to close his eyes for longer than four seconds.”

Jeno nods, resting his head lightly on Jaemin’s chest. He kicks Renjun again, but softer this time. An affectionate boop. “We gonna sleep too?”

“If you stop kicking me.”

“I’ll consider it.”

“How was work?” Renjun asks, closing his eyes, shifting into a slightly more comfortable slouch, despite the lack of room.

“Good. Doyoung came in.”

“The guy that buys you all that food?”

“Yeah. He’s great.”

“Sure he is, he buys you food.”

Jeno grunts and closes his eyes. He didn’t close his door properly, and the light from the hall filters through the crack, but it’s bearable, and he’s comfortable. Jaemin has always been the best person to sleep on. “Dude, think of how angry you’d get if someone said Kun was only cool for his food.”

“Oh. Okay, fair point.”

“Anyway, shut up. Go to sleep.”

“No, you shut up.”

“No, you-“

Jaemin shifts again, rolling over onto his side, squashing Jeno’s head beneath his arm as he wraps around him and burrows his nose into his hair. Above them, Jeno can feel Renjun vibrating with laughter, despite being crushed by both of them.

Jeno can’t even tell him to fuck off, because his face is pressed against Jaemin’s chest now, and that would definitely wake him up.

“Just sleep,” Renjun whispers. “Argue with me tomorrow.”

He doesn’t wanna let Renjun have the last word, but Jaemin curls around him so tightly, so warm and smelling so nice, and he decides it’s too comfortable to disturb just for the last word. He’s drifting into sleep before he can think about it.

 

-

 

When he wakes up, it’s to Mark’s face hovering above his own.

He screams.

Jaemin jolts awake at the sound, hitting Renjun, who also jolts awake and rolls off the edge of the bed.

Mark sits back and laughs openly. “Hey.”

Groggily, Jeno sits up, despite Jaemin’s clingy hands trying to keep close. “What the fuck are you doing in my dorm?”

Renjun groans from the floor.

“Donghyuck rang me this morning and told me about Jaemin,” Mark says, unabashed. Jeno glares at him for being so blatant with Jaemin right there, but he just shrugs. “I brought chocolate.”

Oh. Forgiven. “Sweet!” Jeno says, pulling Jaemin into a sitting position. He has baby chick hair, fluffy and haphazard all over his head. Jeno combs it with his fingers and prods his cheek until Jaemin starts to blink slowly, eyes finally adjusting to the morning daylight.

“Hey,” he says to Mark, voice low and rough. “S’ Hyuckie here?”

“Somewhere. He was arguing with one of the guys in Block C when we arrived, so he might be a while.”

Jeno groans. “He needs to stop arguing with all of my neighbours.”

Speaking of the devil, Donghyuck wanders in, pink-cheeked and smiling. “Hey guys!”

Renjun groans again. “I wish this fall had killed me.”

Jaemin, now awake, narrows his eyes on Donghyuck. “Your mouth is swollen.”

On a normal day, Donghyuck would scoff, say something about Jaemin’s eyesight, maybe just roll his eyes and ignore him.

Today, he opens his mouth. Closes it. Blushes.

“Oh shit,” Jeno says. “Tell me you did not just make out with my neighbour.”

“I- I mean-“

“You did, you hussy,” Jaemin says, grinning wildly. “You absolute harlot, it’s not even noon!”

“He said I was cute!” Donghyuck says, raising both hands as if to defend himself. “And he plays sport!”

“We all play a sport,” Mark says, frowning. “Does that mean you wanna kiss us?”

The blush deeps, and even Jeno winces at that as Donghyuck’s eyes narrow into a glare. Fuck, how can Mark be so smart and so stupid at the same time?

“Of course I don’t wanna kiss your ugly ass,” Donghyuck says to Mark. “I’m not blind.”

Mark scowls. “Damn, chill. I was just asking.”

“Yeah, well stop asking questions and go back to being a sad hetero virgin.”

Jeno coughs loudly before Mark can launch himself at Donghyuck. “So, about cheering Jaemin up. You know, the reason we’re all here. Jaemin.”

Mark, still scowling, turns back to the bed and finally helps Renjun off the floor. “Should we have a movie day?”

“I have to tutor Chenle again from four until six,” Renjun says, rubbing his eyes. “But I could come straight back.”

“I have a date tonight,” Donghyuck says, “But I can always leave early.”

Jeno shrugs. “I’m free.”

Jaemin nods. “Me too. Wait – Mark don’t you have basketball practice this afternoon?”

“Uh – yeah. I forgot. Oops.” He winces. “Okay, how about we do tonight then? From... seven?”

“Sounds good.”

Everyone says their goodbyes and begin to filter out of the dorm room, until even Renjun is checking the time and making noise about how he has to go finish an assignment.

“When is it due?” Jaemin asks. He’s sprawled himself out on the bed now that there’s more room, won’t even make space for Jeno once he came back from the bathroom after getting dressed.

“Tomorrow. It’s fine, I only have a couple of thousand more words.”

Jeno cringes. “Ew.”

“Yeah, it sucks. I’m just trying to keep myself positive at this point.” He shrugs. “Anyway, I have to go. I’ll see you both later.”

“See you!”

Renjun’s departure leaves Jeno and Jaemin alone, so Jeno does the only think he could.

He throws himself down on top of Jaemin, knocking the air out of both of their lungs, and grabs tight to Jaemin to roll them both off the bed.

They hit the floor in a tangled lump, and as Jeno’s head smacks against the floor he can feel the phantom pain of Renjun’s earlier fall, but he can also feel Jaemin laughing, which is what matters.

“So,” Jaemin says, lifting himself off Jeno slightly to stare down at him, smiling, “Now that you have me down here, what are you going to do with me?”

“Don’t be gay, bro,” Jeno complains, rolling them over again so he can sit on Jaemin’s stomach and poke his nose. “We’ve got some serious shit to do today.”

Jaemin looks up at him, still smiling indulgently. “Yeah? What is it we have to do today?”

“We’re going for a walk to that park Yukhei always yells about,” Jeno says. “I’m gonna take some aesthetic as fuck pictures of you to blast on social media, showing the world that you’re strong and happy and showing that jerk that he can’t stop you from being super fucking cool.”

“You don’t have to do that,” Jaemin says softly. “I appreciate it Jeno, but you really don’t have to do that.”

“Shut up, dickhead,” Jeno complains, finally standing. “I know I don’t have to do anything I don’t want to do. Go get your spare toothbrush and clean up. I still have some of your clothes in the closet if you wanna change.”

It takes a while for Jaemin to consider himself presentable enough to leave the dorm, but when they finally make it outside, the sun is shining and the air is warm. It’s a great day for Jeno to take hundreds of pictures of Jaemin, if he does say so himself.

 

-

 

They end up spending the whole day together.

Jeno grabs some lunch on the way to the park and they eat on the grass, happy in the warmth until the sun hides behind some clouds and they decide to head inside. Then it’s gaming, like always, until Jaemin bores of accessorising his fighters in weird ways and demands that they make a family of Sims together that they can then kill in creative ways.

“Thank you,” Jaemin murmurs closer to Jeno’s ear.

Jeno pauses from where he’s trying to murder a neighbour by trapping him in the swimming pool. “For what? It’s not like anyone but you would wanna romance the Grim Reaper, I wasn’t gonna do it and steal your chance.”

“For today, idiot.”

“Oh,” he says. It’s embarrassing, but because it’s just Jaemin, he turns to him quickly and presses their noses together before turning back to his laptop. “Don’t thank me.”

Jaemin doesn’t speak for a moment, but when he does; his voice is barely above a whisper. “You’re so fucking stupid, Jeno.”

Jeno just laughs and elbows him. “You’re worse than me, dumbass.”

Jaemin rests his chin on Jeno’s shoulder with a sigh, going back to watching the screen. “Yeah, I really am.”

 

-

 

On Sunday, squashed on Kun’s couch between Jisung and Sicheng, Jeno has his first real conversation with Ten.

It’s very weird.

Ten is very weird.

He walks over from where he’d been talking to Kun, then sits cross legged on the floor in front of Jeno with dark, secretive eyes. “Hey there.”

Jeno looks at Jisung, who is arguing with Chenle over something, clearly not listening. Then to Sicheng, who is napping with his head on the arm of the sofa. Yeah, so Ten is definitely talking to him. “Hi.”

“I don’t think I’ve ever spoken to you properly, Jeno.”

“Yeah,” he says nervously. Ten is really cool, but he’s just kind of scary because of it. He’s maybe the prettiest guy Jeno’s ever seen, other than Jaemin. “Is there... something you want?”

“I’m just sticking my nose in everyone’s business, like always,” he replies, fiddling with the piercings in one ear. “I’m good at being intrusive. I’m just wondering how long you and Jaemin have been together.”

“Huh?”

“You and Jaemin,” Ten repeats, slower. “How long have you been together? You remind me of how I was with Johnny at the beginning. Like everything is still new and wondrous and scary.”

Jeno shakes his head, confused. “Like. Friends? We’ve been friends for ages, sorry to tell you. Almost ten years now, none of it is new.”

Ten tips his head back, looking at Jeno with increasingly widening eyes. “So... you’re not in a relationship?”

Jeno snorts. “No! I’m straight.”

There’s a moment where Ten just continues to stare at him, silently.

Then he laughs loudly enough to startle everyone in the room, and he just...

Keeps laughing.

“Fuck!” he wheezes, wiping his eyes. “That was hilarious. I mean seriously.”

Jeno just looks at him. “Dude what the hell?”

“I mean you weren’t being serious, were you?”

“Yeah?”

Ten’s humour fades slowly. “You. What? You’re being serious?”

“Yeah,” Jeno says impatiently. “I’m straight. Jaemin is my best friend, but we’re not in a relationship or anything, we’re just buddies.”

“You’re even more like me and Johnny than I thought,” Ten says faintly. “Shit.” He stands up and dusts off. “Alright, well, I fucked up my own relationship enough; I’m not gonna fuck yours up too. Good luck.”

Then he’s gone, and Sicheng is peering up at him with sleepy eyes. “What was that about?”

“Uh,” Jeno says eloquently, “I have no idea.”

He hears laughter across the room, sees Mark and Kun giggling, Jaemin right in the middle, smiling widely with a coffee in his hands and softness in his eyes. He looks up and meets Jeno’s eyes, and his smile grows, his expression softens further, becomes something almost painful to see.

 

-

 

He goes clubbing with Donghyuck on Wednesday, because everyone else is busy with assignments that Jeno has already completed (because he and Donghyuck are the only ones that work better in the morning than the evening, apparently).

“How did you know?” he shouts above the pounding music.

Donghyuck pulls his mouth away from the end of his straw. “How did I know what?”

“That you like guys.”

Donghyuck’s eyes narrow. He sips from his straw again. “This guy was super into me when we were... fifteen, I think? But he was really nervous and asked if we could kiss to see if either of us liked it. We kissed, and we both liked it.”

“So the kiss told you?”

“Kind of. The kiss itself was gross because we were both fifteen and on the school roof, scared out of our minds we were gonna get caught. But like... the underlying emotion was there, I guess.”

“Okay,” Jeno says, relieved. He gets that with girls. It’s fine.

“Have you kissed a guy?”

“No!”

“Then what’s with the questions?”

“I’m just curious.”

Donghyuck glares. “Do you think I’m stupid?”

“Yeah.”

Donghyuck yells something, but the music spikes in volume as the song switches into some weird remix that drowns out what are probably profanities aimed at Jeno’s intelligence and appearance.

“Can’t hear you,” he says serenely, sipping his beer.

Donghyuck just rolls his eyes and blows out a breath, messing up his curly orange hair. “Let’s just go dance.”

So they dance, and whenever Donghyuck closes his eyes and some creep gets a little too close, Jeno nudges him away with a firm, pointy elbow. It’s fun. He loves Donghyuck, loves dancing, loves clubbing and meeting drunken strangers and laughing.

The atmosphere of a club is always different without Jaemin though, and he fails miserably at trying not to notice it.

He always dances with Jaemin.

They always do shots together, even before they were legally allowed to be in a club.

They always stumble home together, sleeping in the same bed.

Other than when Jaemin was in his shitty relationship, that is.

Donghyuck wraps an arm around Jeno’s shoulder and pulls him close, slurring his words a little. “You alright?”

He nods. “I think I’m done for now though. You wanna stay or go?”

“I’ll come with you.”

Jeno nods. “Cool, I’ll walk you home; make sure you get tucked in safely.”

“Thank you. Mark would never.”

He rolls his eyes. “Mark always does when we’re out. He’d kill me if I didn’t do the same.”

“Whatever.” Donghyuck links their hands together and smiles sweetly at him. “Doesn’t matter. You’re my favourite now.”

He laughs. “I don’t need that responsibility.”

“I thought I recognised you.”

Jeno turns to the voice, confused and kind of drunk, and sees Minchul. His face morphs into distaste without authority from his brain, and he hears himself say, in an unfamiliar, cold voice, “What the hell do you want?”

Minchul doesn’t look confrontational though, he just looks kind of sad.

Donghyuck tugs on Jeno’s arm. “Maybe just see what he has to say,” he stage whispers. “Outside, where we can actually hear things.”

“Okay,” Jeno murmurs. Louder, he says, “If you wanna speak to me you’ll have to come outside.”

Minchul nods and gestures for Jeno to lead the way.

Outside, where the night air is cool enough for Jeno to give Donghyuck his jacket, Minchul just sighs and kicks the curb. “I wanna apologise.”

“Oh,” Jeno says. He’s surprised, but he doesn’t much care for an apology. “I’m not the one you should be apologising to.”

“Jaemin has blocked me on everything.”

“I’m not surprised,” Jeno says. “And I don’t really know what you want from me, either. I’m not gonna apologise to him for you, and I’m not gonna ask him to meet you so that you can speak to him in person, either. If he doesn’t want your apology then you have no right to force him to listen to it.”

“You don’t seem to understand how hard it was for me.”

“I don’t care,” Jeno stresses. “I don’t care how hard it was for you. I care about Jaemin.”

Minchul is getting more visibly agitated by the second. “I had to live two months in the shadow of my boyfriend’s best friend. Don’t you understand why I had to ask him to choose? It wasn’t fair to me, because he was never going to admit to himself that he was already in lo-“

“Stop.” Donghyuck’s voice rings out cold. “That isn’t your secret to share.”

Jeno looks at him in surprise. As much as he pouts and whines and shouts, it’s rare for Donghyuck to use such an impersonal voice. “You okay?”

Donghyuck smiles at him. “Yeah. Yeah, I’m good. I think we should go now.”

“Alright,” Jeno murmurs. He looks back to Minchul, who is watching them with anger and upset. “Go back inside and enjoy your night with your friends. Move on.”

Minchul nods and wipes his eyes with the back of his hand. “I hope one day you realise how much you’re hurting him, and I hope it kills you.”

He leaves without another word, and Jeno watches his back until it disappears through the doors.

After a minute, Donghyuck tugs on his arm again. “Come on, Jeno. Let’s go.”

“What was that even about?”

“It doesn’t matter.”

“You sure?” He gnaws at his lip, concerned. “It sounded important.”

“The details of Jaemin’s relationships should remain with him, unless he wants to tell us.”

“I guess you’re right.”

“I’m always right. Now take me home.”

 

-

 

“How did you know you were gay?” he asks Doyoung on Thursday morning.

Doyoung looks up from his eggs. If he’s surprised, he doesn’t show it. “A lot of things started to make sense. The way I looked at girls wasn’t the way my friends did, and it wasn’t the way society seemed to want me to. I looked at boys like that instead. I wanted to kiss them, have sex with them too, but that came later. As an adolescent my feelings mainly focused on my loneliness, and whenever I imaged being married and growing old with someone, it was always a man I pictured next to me when we climbed into bed at night.”

“Wow,” Jeno says faintly. He’s never thought about it like that. Everything has always been default for him. He’ll get a girlfriend, one day he’ll propose, they’ll have kids and grow old together and then hopefully die together. It’s what he’s assumed since childhood.

“Why are you asking?”

He shrugs and plays around with his bacon. “I don’t really know, I’ve just been curious since I spoke to Ten on Sunday, I guess. I just wondered what it is exactly that makes people gay.”

“What did Ten say to you?” Doyoung asks, with something close to dread laced in his voice. “He says an awful lot for a guy with such a tiny brain.”

Jeno laughs. “Don’t worry; he didn’t offend me or anything. He just assumed that Jaemin and I were together, and it made me think. I’ve had girlfriends and stuff, but it’s never lasted. I don’t really know what it would mean to be in a proper relationship.”

Doyoung nods slowly. “It takes a lot of work on both parts, if both partners are committed. Relationships are a difficult mix of respecting boundaries and pushing for contact, and the balancing act of pushing and relenting can be hard to grasp. It’s different for everyone, I suppose.”

“But it’s worth it?”

“Yes,” Doyoung says without hesitation. “Romantic relations aren’t at all necessary for happiness, but if you can find someone you would happily share your life with, then I think you should cling on to that and treat the relationship as gently as possible. Jaehyun brings me happiness I didn’t know I was missing, but I can tell you that relationships before Jaehyun did me much more harm than good. Don’t ever settle for less than you deserve, is all I can really say. Not every relationship is worth the effort.”

Jeno finishes up his bacon, downs his iced tea, and then rests his head on his hands and watches Doyoung finish his eggs. He respects Doyoung like he respects no one else, from his poise to his kindness to his fiery spirit. “How did you know?”

Doyoung looks up again, eyes dark and quiet. “Hm?”

“How did you know that Jaehyun was the one you were meant to be with?”

“I wouldn’t say he’s the one I’m meant to be with, because I don’t believe soul mates are real. However, I believe he’s who I am happiest with, and vice versa. If you’re asking how I knew that, I would say... hm. Give me a minute.” He cleans off the rest of his plate and takes a sip of tea, thinking. “He made me comfortable. That’s the main thing, I think. Especially as a teenager, I always thought romance was going to be sparks and fireworks and burning passion, but I know now that it’s just infatuation that makes you burn. You can desire your partner, but that’s not love. Love is comfort, it’s soothing, it’s feeling at ease when you’re together, like you’re just as in your own skin as you are when you’re completely alone. Jaehyun makes me feel like I have nothing to be scared of and no reason to hide who I am. He accepts me, and even though we’re not at the part where we know each other inside out, we’re open to keep learning. That’s important too, I think, because people are always changing, and if you’re in a relationship it’s important to change with them, rather than turning rigid and refusing to mature.”

“Wow,” Jeno says again. He forgets how mature Doyoung is.

“Does that help?”

“Yeah thanks,” he says, though he isn’t sure. He’s trying really hard to think of all that shit happening, watching someone grow while he’s still there, being completely and utterly himself around a girl, knowing she’d like him just the way he is, knowing he’d like her the same way. It’s weird, because he can’t imagine being like that with a girl.

He can’t imagine being like that with anyone.

Except, he kind of already is.

With Jaemin.

 

-

 

He goes back to his dorm.

He sits on his bed and thinks.

He’s never – he’s never been attracted to a man.

But then, weirdly, despite the fact that he’s had girlfriends, he’s never really gone crazy for a girl either. It’s always been the girl that’s made the first move, asked him for coffee or dinner or a movie, and he’s just kind of always said yes. Sex is good, but sex is just sex, right? Without emotion it’s just bodies.

He rings Renjun. “Hey.”

“Hi. Do you need something? I’m about to head to class.”

“Have you ever watched gay porn?”

Renjun hangs up.

He rings Mark. “Have you ever watched gay porn?”

“Not even a hello? No, I haven’t. Try Donghyuck.”

He does. “Hi. Have you ever watched gay porn?”

“Yeah, why?”

“I’m curious. Could you send me a link?”

“To what? A website? A specific film? Do you have something in mind?”

He feels himself reddening, anxiety churning in his gut. “Jesus, I don’t know. Just send me something you like.”

“Okay, one sec.” Donghyuck starts clicking away on his computer, and then the notification of an email pops up on Jeno’s screen. “I’ve just sent you some basics. Jaemin would probably know more about what you’re into than I would, though. I’ve just made a guess.”

“I don’t want to ask Jaemin.”

“Why not?”

“Because-“

It feels weird. He doesn’t want Jaemin to know about this, about how much he’s questioning things, about how uncertain he is about everything he’s ever known.

“I just don’t want him to know.”

Donghyuck makes a weird noise. “Alright, but I think you’re being stupid. Let me know if you need anything.” He hangs up, and then Jeno is left alone with the link.

After a second of doubt, he clicks on it.

Ten minutes later, he clicks off it, then slowly closes his laptop.

He’s... never been less aroused in his life.

The guys were so huge and oily and white. None of them looked like they were enjoying anything that was happening.

He rings Donghyuck again. “Dude, can you come over?”

“I’m not jerking you off, Jeno.”

“Fuck off, ew!” he yells, laughing slightly. “Gross! I just wanna talk to you. Can you come?”

“I’m working on next week’s assignment, can you come to mine instead and talk to me while I work? Bring me something from Starbucks on your way. Thanks bye!” he hangs up.

With no other choice, Jeno does what he’s told; picking up Donghyuck a painfully sweet frappuccino that he knows would upset Jaemin on so many levels, getting extra caramel because Donghyuck seems to hate coffee as much as he needs it.

“So,” Donghyuck says once they’re both settled on his bed. His sheets are a pale blue and covered in clouds, his room neat and organised. It’s weird for a teenage guy, but Donghyuck has just always been like that. Apparently when he works at the gym he organises everyone’s stuff for them too. “What can I do for you?”

“I don’t know, to be honest,” Jeno admits, taking a burning mouthful of cappuccino. “I watched the porn, but it just freaked me out.”

“I really didn’t think you’d enjoy it.”

“Then why send it?”

“It’s better than most of the whack porn out there, dude. Trust me; I’ve had to dig through the piles of garbage out there. Why did you ask for it?”

“I wanted to see if it... you know. Did anything.”

“And it didn’t?”

“No.”

“Does straight porn?”

Jeno tries not to cringe. “Not... not really, I guess? I don’t really watch it.”

“Then what porn do you watch?” Donghyuck shakes his head in denial. “No, don’t tell me you’re one of those straight guys that just watches lesbian porn.”

“No!” Jeno exclaims. He’s not like that! He’s a feminist and it’s really obvious that most of the lesbian porn out there isn’t for women, which is shit! It sucks! “I don’t really watch any porn.”

“The hell do you jerk off to then?”

“I don’t know!” he says with despair. “Just... thinking about sex, I guess!”

“With a woman?”

“I don’t usually imagine a face!”

“Why are you getting so defensive!”

“I don’t know!”

“Come out with me tonight,” Donghyuck says suddenly. “To a gay bar. Go kiss a guy and see if you like it.”

“Huh?”

“Come with me to a gay bar and find a guy to kiss. See if you enjoy it.” Donghyuck drags a hand through his hair. “You’re clearly confused and getting upset about it, and you need to put your mind at rest, one way or another. Come out with me and see what happens, because as much as I hate to see you suffer, you’re not gonna try out your sexuality on me.”

 

-

 

Despite his doubts, he ends up going, though he has no fucking idea how to flirt with a guy.

“You’ll figure it out. I’ll be around if you need me,” Donghyuck says, slapping him on the back and then immediately disappearing into the crowd.

Usually, if it’s a girl, he just waits around the bar until someone strikes up a conversation (not because he’s a coward) so surely it will work the same way with a guy right? (Not because he’s a coward).

After a couple of minutes of staring awkwardly at the barman, hoping his eyes don’t look as panicked as he feels, a tall dude clearly in his early twenties slides into the stool beside Jeno.

“Hey.”

“Hi,” Jeno says. His voice comes out weak, but maybe it’s just because of the volume of the bar’s music, and not because he’s a coward.

“Would you like another drink?”

“Yes!” he says, relieved at the thought of more alcohol and less social interactions because of drinking. “That would be nice.”

“What would you like?”

“Uh,” he scans the board behind the barman and points to a random drink. It must be cool, because they’ve drawn zigzags around the text. That makes it cool, right? “This one.”

The guy smiles and Jeno’s stomach cramps painfully.

Two hours later, Donghyuck finds him in the smoking area, sat on a bench with his head in his hands. He sits down next to Jeno and puts a hand on his shoulder, smelling of strawberry cocktails and strong perfume. “You doing okay, sweetie?”

Jeno nods, but doesn’t lift his head.

“You sure?”

“Yeah.”

“Where’s that guy gone that you were with?”

He finally looks at Donghyuck. “Have you been watching me the entire time we’ve been here?”

“Of course! You’re a vulnerable-possible-baby-gay. I had to make sure no one took advantage of you.”

He tears up a little. “I love you.”

Donghyuck glows. “I love you too! Now what happened to that guy?”

“He moved onto someone else when he realised he wasn’t gonna get me to go home with him.”

“Well that’s fucking rude. Did you kiss?”

“Yeah.”

Donghyuck presses closer. “And? How was it?”

“It felt... it just felt like any other kiss.”

He pouts. “Oh. No sparks? No sudden dick-desiring?”

“I mean like the thought of having sex with him didn’t disgust me or turn me off, and the kissing was nice, but I just wasn’t into him.”

“Was it better or worse than past girlfriends?”

“About the same.”

“So... maybe you’re bisexual?”

He nods. “Maybe.”

“Or maybe you’re just not that into anyone.”

“Maybe.”

Donghyck strokes a hand through his hair. “How do you feel?”

“I don’t know.”

“Wanna go back to my place and cuddle?”

He nods.

 

-

 

He sits next to Jaemin during lectures like he always does, but then makes quick excuses to leave as fast as possible, heart pounding guiltily in his chest.

It’s hard to look at him.

It’s hard to smell him – the familiar scent of coffee and chocolate he’s grown up with.

It’s hard to sense him, the quiet presence he’s always felt.

It’s hard to know he could ruin it all so easily. It’s hard to think of Jaemin as anything other than Jaemin, Na Jaemin, best friend, longest ally, staunch protector. It’s hard, and yet when he turns to Jaemin and catches the way he chews his bottom lip as he makes notes, the way he taps his pen, the way he can always feel Jeno’s eyes on him, looking up through the fall of his hair to smile.

It’s so difficult.

Jeno doesn’t know what to do, because he’s never been a huge fan of kissing, but he really wants to kiss Jaemin.

 

-

 

He goes to work, ignores the group chat messages, focusing on pouring beer and serving drunk douchebags that say he’s too young to serve, old women that should feel ashamed for hitting on someone barely legal, and posh bastards that don’t tip.

It’s a nice distraction, but it’s impossible to ignore the way Sooyoung keeps sending him concerned glances.

It’s impossible to ignore the way Doyoung, sat at a table with Taeil, Taeyong, Jungwoo, and Ten, keeps staring holes into the back of his head.

It’s impossible to ignore the text on his phone, the one unread message not from the group chat that just reads, ‘Have I done something wrong?’

 

-

 

“You’re being weird,” Renjun says over lunch. “For over a week now. What’s going on?”

“I don’t know, it's probably just stress from assignments.”

“So why is it specifically Jaemin you’re avoiding?”

“I’m not avoiding anyone.”

“Well he certainly thinks you are. Doesn’t seem very fair, especially since he’s so worried about you.”

“He shouldn’t be.”

“You’ve been weird for longer than this week, actually, now that I think about it. Longer than a month.” Renjun itches his cheek. “Since... Jaemin first started dating Minchul.”

Jeno doesn't look up from his noodles. “I don’t know what you mean.”

“You hated him.”

“Yeah, because he was a dick.”

“He wasn’t a dick, he was just insecure.”

“That’s not my fault.”

“It was your fault, actually. You got clingy whenever he was around.”

He looks up at that, outraged. “You’re kidding right? He was the clingy one! He was all over Jaemin all of the time, I could barely see my best friend without Minchul inserting himself between us and demanding attention.”

“It was defense. Whenever we were in a group, when Minchul was around, you’d sit on Jaemin, have your hands all over him, stroke his cheek or play with his hair, fiddle with his hands and his clothes, laugh and whisper into his ear. Minchul would sit there, watching the two of you. I don’t blame him for being insecure. He handled it badly, but his feelings were valid.”

“We’re best friends,” Jeno says, eyes burning, unblinking. Who is he trying to convince? Renjun? Jaemin? Or himself? “Best friends should be close.”

“Yeah, they should. We’re best friends too, right? But if you kissed my cheek while I was in a relationship I’d push you away.”

“So you’re blaming Jaemin?”

“I’m not blaming anyone; I think they were too different to last anyway. I’m saying that Jaemin is way too attached to you to give his attention to another relationship, but it won’t stay this way. What happens when he really decides to commit to someone else and pushes you away when you get jealous? It’s cruel to ask him not to.”

“I’m not asking him to do anything!”

“He dotes on you, and it’s unfair to him and whoever he ends up in a real relationship with.” Renjun puts down his chopsticks and sighs. “I’ve tried to tell him, but he’s so fucking soft on you Jeno, nothing I say with get through to him. Just... god, I don’t know. Just think about how you are together, and what exactly it is you want from him. The two of you can’t be like this forever.”

 

-

 

He’s confused.

He’s torn, he’s upset, and there’s only one person he can think to ask for advice.

Doyoung gives him Ten’s address, and he knocks on the door later that evening after his shift at work finishes.

Ten opens the door with narrowed eyes that widen when he sees Jeno, and then the gap widens until it’s big enough for a person to fit through. “I thought you were my neighbour. She keeps insisting that I’m feeding her cat and making it fat, despite the fact that I have never once so much as seen the cat. I don’t even know what it looks like.”

“Can I come in please? I need your advice.”

“Sure.” Ten lets him in and walks him to the small living room. “I can’t offer you much. I have water, coffee, and probably some frozen peas.”

“Water is fine, thanks.”

Ten nods. “Make yourself at home.” He returns with a glass of water in one hand that he passes to Jeno, an extremely fat cat in the other arm. He sits on the chair opposite the couch, watching Jeno curiously as the cat curls up in his lap and starts purring with the volume of a gasoline lawnmower. Ten strokes it distractedly.

“So you are feeding the neighbour’s cat?”

Ten cocks his head, still stroking. “What cat?”

“...Okay.” Jeno folds his legs up under him, and Ten’s eyes slip down.

“You’ve got a good body.”

“Uh, thanks? I go to the gym.”

“I can tell.” He rubs one eye. “I’m not being weird; I’m just saying you’re hot. If you’re having troubles that you need my advice for, I assume they’re problems with sexuality, since I’m awful at giving advice for anything else. But you’re hot, so I’m not sure what gay troubles you could be having. You have the body both teams go for, you know? Thin and built, tall but not too tall, good face, strong features, sweet smile. A real catch.”

He can feel his face burning. “Thank you, but I didn’t come here for a morale boost.”

“Then why?”

“You’ve were friends with Johnny for years before you began your relationship, right?”

“Yeah.”

“Then how did you know that you were in love with him, instead of just loving him as a best friend? How did you make that distinction?”

“Ahhhhhh,” Ten says, drawn out and knowing. “So that’s the issue.”

Jeno nods, rubbing a hand over his mouth, chewing the inside of his lip. “I’m confused.”

“That’s okay,” Ten says, more understanding than Jeno expects. “I wanted to beat myself up when I realised I’d fallen in love with Johnny. He wasn’t just my best friend - I thought he was straight too, which meant it was a double dead end. But I kissed him anyway, because in college I had this ugly fucking romance with self destruction, and I thought the only things I was good for were dancing and sex. I thought if I could give him sex, I could keep him. It didn’t occur to me that he loved me too, that he could like me for who I was and not just for how I looked. I’m getting better at that though.” He smiles faintly. “But I’m getting distracted, sorry. How did I know? It happened pretty suddenly. Some people ease into it, I always hear about love that’s gentle, like the kind of relationship Jungwoo and Yukhei have, but it was never like that for me. I looked at him one night and it was like I was smacked in the face with a brick, and after that, every glance was like another brick. You could have built a house with the amount of hits that landed whenever Johnny looked at me. Since we’d met, I always knew I wanted to spend my life with him there beside me, but it took me a while to realise that my life... kind of wasn’t much of a life at all without him. That’s how I knew.”

“Okay,” Jeno says, sick to his stomach. His hands begin to shake, so he puts the water down, and the cat immediately jumps off Ten’s lap to knock it over.

Ten sighs. “Don’t bother cleaning that up, it doesn’t matter.”

Jeno nods, still shaking. “Okay.”

“Dude. You alright?”

“I don’t even know what my sexuality is,” he whispers, “I have no clue. But I think I’m in love with Jaemin.”

Ten’s face falls into sympathy as he climbs off his chair to gather Jeno into an oddly comforting, bony embrace. “Oh honey, that’s okay. You don’t have to label yourself, you’re so young, you’ve got so much of life to see yet, don’t worry about the semantics. As for Jaemin, I think you should talk it out. This is clearly hurting you, and you don’t want to make my mistake of waiting two miserable years when you could have been happy the entire time.”

“I’m scared,” he says.

“I know honey, I know,” Ten murmurs. “Love is scary. Sexuality is too, whatever label you use. But you’re not alone.”

 

-

 

He rings Renjun, murmurs something that must sound pretty pathetic, because he walks all the way to Ten’s apartment to pick Jeno up and take him home.

“I’m sorry if I spoke to harshly to you,” Renjun says.

Jeno just mumbles something along the lines of reassurance and presses closer. For once, Renjun allows it.

“Can I ask what’s going on?”

“Is it wrong to assume that Jaemin would love me? Just because he’s bisexual and we’re close? Is it wrong to hope?”

Renjun looks at him with such an odd expression that it startles Jeno out of his misery. “It’s wrong to make any assumption about another person. The only thing you can do is ask him how he feels.”

 

-

 

The next day, he sits next to Jaemin in lectures again.

They don’t speak.

Jeno looks at Jaemin, but for the first time, Jaemin doesn’t look up.

 

-

 

His google searches are sad, pathetic, miserable, just like he feels.

They have a movie night, even manage to get permission from Chenle and Jisung’s parents to let them stay over at the college dorms, but Jeno thinks about sitting near Jaemin for so long and makes himself sick from the stress of it.

He doesn’t go.

 

-

 

How do I know I’m gay?

How would I know if I’m bisexual?

Does kissing men and women feel different?

What does love feel like?

Does kissing someone you love feel different from kissing other people?

How do you know if you’re in love with your best friend?

 

-

 

He goes back to the gay bar, this time alone, too ashamed of his behaviour to ask any of his friends to come with him. He’s muted their chat. He’s scared to face them.

There’s a guy at the bar, just like there was the time before, and this one is interested too. He drags Jeno outside by his hand, too big and too rough, and kisses him.

It’s fine. It’s not offensive, it feels good, but there isn’t anything there. It feels like just another mouth.

He opens his eyes, pushes the guy back.

Sees Jaemin staring at him, eyes wide, glass in his hand, friends around him nudging him, asking what he’s looking at.

“Jaemin,” Jeno says, barely aware he’s speaking. He pushes past the guy he doesn’t know, doesn’t care about, pushes through the crowd until he’s in front of Jaemin.

“You didn’t...” Jaemin swallows, staring at him with wide, unseeing eyes. “You never told me.”

“Let me talk to you, away from here,” Jeno says, “Please.”

One of the guys nearby snorts. “Like you’d ever have to beg Jaemin for anything.”

Another dude smacks the guy, hisses at him to shut up, but Jeno isn’t concentrating on them, he’s too busy looking at Jaemin, searching his eyes for any of the softness he knows, the fond warmth. All he sees is shock.

“Please,” he repeats desperately.

Slowly, Jaemin nods. “Okay.”

They push back into the club, past the dance floor, out of the main exit, until the mainly empty street with its cool wind and cloudy skies are all that’s there to focus on other than Jaemin, and the hurt in his eyes.

“What’s going on Jeno?”

“I don’t know how to explain it,” he says quietly, looking at the floor. “I don’t know where to start, what to say – I just. I’m so confused.” He doesn’t mean to tear up, but he can’t help it. He’s so fucking torn up inside, it feels like he’s being pulled in so many directions.

“Well for a start, I thought you loved boobs,” Jaemin says, making Jeno giggle through the veil of tears.

“Yeah,” he says thickly. “I do love boobs. I just... you know girlfriends never last. Kissing has never been this wondrous thing for me, and sex is good, but it’s just sex. Then a couple of weeks ago Ten said something to me that made me think... is it just me? Is there something wrong with me? Or am I gay? So I went out with Donghyuck and I kissed a guy and I didn’t like it any more than I like it with girls, which made me feel worse, because I know I’m not asexual which would be fine, but I don’t know what I am.”

Jaemin puts a hand on his arm, which makes the tears come little faster. He rubs his eyes, annoyed at himself. “Why didn’t you just tell me, Jeno?”

Because you’re the only person I want to kiss.

“I don’t know.”

“That hurts.”

“I know.” He looks up. “I’m sorry, I’m really sorry. I just didn’t know what to do.”

“It’s okay, I’m glad I know now,” Jaemin says, rubbing his arm in a soothing manner that just makes Jeno’s heart clench tighter and tighter, while the taste of a stranger lingers on his tongue. “I understand how difficult it can be to question yourself.”

“What... what if I don’t find anyone?” Anyone other than you?

“Maybe you just need to kiss someone you already care about. That’s a thing too, you know. I think it’s called demisexuality, but I’m not the authority.”

“Donghyuck already told me he’d beat me up if I tried kissing out on him.”

Jaemin laughs tiredly. “I’m insulted that you went to Donghyuck before you went to me.”

“I don’t care about disappointing Donghyuck, though.”

Jaemin looks at the sky, scrunching his nose; the bad omen of Na Jaemin’s emotional state. “You can try with me, if you want.”

Jeno wipes his eyes again and sniffs. “Huh?”

“You know me. You care about me. You could try and see a kiss is different.”

No.

“Okay,” he whispers. “Are you – are you sure?”

“S’just a kiss, right?” Jaemin asks, looking at Jaemin’s mouth, his own trembling slightly. “Just a kiss. Just to see.”

The moment seems to come in stages, like there’s a lag on screen.

He blinks, and Jaemin’s hand is on his neck.

He blinks, and Jaemin’s thumb is under his chin, tilting his head up.

He blinks, and their lips are pressing together, and it feels like his heart has stopped in his chest.

Jaemin kisses him softly, somehow like Jeno always knew he would. Jaemin is strong, firm in his beliefs, unyielding in his defence of his friends, but he’s so painfully gentle with Jeno. He always has been.

They’re barely pressed together, just... breathing softly, lips like petals, and he feels more than hears Jaemin sigh before he presses closer, still soft, but firmer now, guiding Jeno with tiny, lingering kisses, each one like a lightning bolt down his spine, and then they press closer again, this time Jeno too.

He doesn’t know how long they stay like that, wound around each other.

He doesn’t know how his hands end up on Jaemin’s waist.

He doesn’t know how his tongue ends up in Jaemin’s mouth.

He doesn’t know when he realises that this is the only kiss that’s ever felt right.

And then Jaemin pulls away.

He’s crying, first softly, but as soon as he takes a breath it turns into wracking sobs.

Jeno blinks. “Jaemin-“

“I shouldn’t have done that,” he says, covering his mouth with his hand. His nose scrunches as his shoulders to shake. “Why did I do that, fuck!”

“Jaemin-“

“I have to go. I’m so sorry Jeno, but I have to go.”

He leaves, and Jeno is just... standing there, outside of a gay bar, confused and with chunks of his heart falling away, down to his stomach, piercing organs as they go.

He rings Doyoung, but by the time the call is picked up, he’s already sobbing. “I’m sorry Doyoung I just- I don’t know what to do, I don’t know where to go, I don’t know-“

“Where are you?” Doyoung cuts in calmly. “I’ll come and pick you up, just stay where you are.”

Less than ten minutes later Doyoung’s shitty old car is pulling up to the curb, and he’s striding over to Jeno, wrapping him in a hug that’s not Jaemin levels of comfort, but it’s close enough. Jeno keeps crying, unable to stop now that he’s started, but Doyoung doesn’t seem to mind.

“Come on,” he says quietly. “Jaehyun has a spare room in his apartment, would you mind staying there? I’ll be there, I won’t leave you.”

“Okay,” he says between the tears, clinging on for dear life. “Okay.”

 

-

 

As soon as they reach the apartment, exhaustion hits Jeno like a train, and he asks if they can talk in the morning so that he can go to sleep.

Concerned but unwilling to push it, Doyoung nods and squeezes his shoulder. “Bathroom is on the left, there’s a spare toothbrush out for you and a clean towel if you want to shower. Jaehyun is asleep, but he won’t wake up if you scream in his ear, so don’t worry about making noise. Breakfast is at seven thirty sharp.”

“Thank you,” he says. His phone vibrates in his back pocket as he climbs into bed, but he’s asleep before he can so much as think about checking it.

 

-

 

Jaehyun shakes him awake the next morning. “Hey,” he says softly. “You have about ten minutes until breakfast, and Doyoung won’t wait for you, as soft as he is. Time to get up.”

“Thank you for having me,” Jeno manages to get out past the rawness in his throat. He rubs his eyes and tries to blink himself back into consciousness.

“Anytime, you’re always welcome here,” Jaehyun says warmly. “Now come on, he’s making you bacon.”

And it’s nice. Calm. The three of them have breakfast, and neither of the men ask Jeno what had happened.

He washes up and Doyoung dries as Jaehyun gets into his gym gear and heads off to work, pausing to squeeze Jeno’s shoulder and kiss Doyoung’s cheek.

Once the door closes, Doyoung turns to Jeno, towel in one hand, wet plate in the other, determination in his eyes. “You don’t have to talk to me,” he says, “but you should talk to someone. There’s clearly something troubling you deeply.”

“Jaemin kissed me last night.”

The plate slips from Doyoung’s grasp and lands on the floor. It splits into two and lies there like crescent moons as Doyoung stares at him, more expressive than Jeno has ever seen him. “He kissed you?”

“It’s a long story.”

Doyoung picks up the two halves of the plate and puts them in the trash, then goes back to drying the others like nothing had happened. “Then you better get talking, I have to open the bookstore soon.”

So he talks, in painstaking detail, about his weeks of build up to the best kiss of his life, and Doyoung listens silently until Jeno runs out of words.

“I remember being nineteen,” is the first thing Doyoung says. “I hated it. At least now I know for certainty that I’m an adult, at nineteen you’re between worlds.”

Jeno nods. “Yeah, it sucks.”

“Are you in love with Jaemin?”

He nods again, slower. “I think so.”

“But you don’t think you’re gay?”

“I don’t know what I am. Maybe bisexual, maybe pan, maybe demisexual. I really don’t know.”

“That’s fine,” Doyoung says. “I only found out last week that I’m an aquarius, whatever that means. We’re always learning new things about ourselves, and it doesn’t matter how long it takes, as long as you’re kind to yourself in the meantime.”

He hugs Doyoung. “Thank you,” he says into his chest. “Thank you for always helping.”

Hesitantly, Doyoung’s hand comes up to stroke the back of Jeno’s head. “I care about you, so I’ll always be around if you need me. A lot of people care, Jeno, probably more than you realise. I think you should go back to your campus and speak to Jaemin though, before things stagnate and become difficult to address. You both deserve clarity.”

“He left me.”

“You’d just dropped a handful of small bombs onto him, then you’d kissed, and he’d been drinking. Yes, it was cruel to leave you, but it’s clear he wasn’t in his right mind. Talk about it. Communication is the only way things can get better.”

“Ten said that,” he grumbles.

Doyoung laughs a little. “You went to Ten for advice? You must have been really desperate.” He pulls Jeno away, giving him a once over before nodding firmly. “Come on; time to face your demons.”

 

-

 

Doyoung is a scary force of nature, because he really insists on getting out of the car and walking Jeno to the doorway of Jaemin’s dorm building, as if he’d make a run for it from the road or something.

“Be strong, be clear. Good luck.”

He will, he’s a strong independent man, goddamn it. He’s a feminist!

He runs up the stairs because he’s eager to get it over with, and not because he’s a coward.

He hyperventilates outside the door for a couple of minutes because he ran too fast, and not because he’s a coward.

He knocks on the door because he’s brave. Courageous, even, as his heart bounces around his chest and dread settles as thick sludge in his stomach.

Jaemin opens the door slowly – and Jeno freaks out.

This isn’t running away, he tells himself as he runs away. It’s a tactical retreat.

“Jeno!” Jaemin catches him at the end of the hall. “Don’t leave, don’t go. Please.”

He presses his lips together, unable to look at Jaemin. “I, uh. I think this was a mistake, I think maybe I need a couple more days-“

“Please.”

Jaemin sounds so awful, so pained. Jeno folds. “Okay. Okay, fine.”

Jaemin’s dorm isn’t fancy; it isn’t as cute as Hyuck’s, but it’s more organised than Mark’s. It’s just like Jeno’s, actually. They squash together on Jaemin’s narrow bed, facing each other but neither looking at the other. It’s never been this awkward before, not even when Jaemin first came out as bisexual and had a hysterical breakdown about it that resulted in a cracked window and a black eye (from the ball he threw at the window that bounced back into his face).

“I’m sorry for leaving you,” Jaemin says. “I’m really sorry, that was unkind of me.”

“It’s okay,” Jeno says quietly. “You’re already forgiven, or whatever.”

“And I’m sorry for kissing you,” Jaemin says, even quieter. Barely above a whisper. “It was wrong of me, really wrong of me.”

It’s so deadly quiet in the room that Jeno can almost hear his own heart shattering. “It’s okay,” he says. “We were both drinking, and we were both upset. Mistakes are mistakes, right?”

Jaemin closes his eyes and swallows. “Right.”

It’s too much.

“I’m gonna-“ Jeno makes a vague noise that sticks in his throat. “Go home so I can shower before class.” He’s already had a shower, but Jaemin doesn’t know that.

“Alright. I might skip today,” Jaemin says. “I don’t feel too hot.”

“Okay. Alright,” Jeno says, “I’m gonna – I’ll see you around.”

He bolts.

 

-

 

Outside, in the morning air, Jeno finally checks his phone.

Every single one of his thirty two missed calls are from Donghyuck, along with the seven voicemails. As soon as he rings, Donghyuck picks up and starts screeching. “Lee fucking Jeno where the hell have you been? Jaemin comes to me in hysterics because the two love struck idiots of the century finally kissed and he’s sad about it for some reason? What the fuck happened?”

He blinks at the sudden barrage. “Uh. Jaemin kissed me, and then ran away. He said he shouldn’t have done it. That’s... that’s it really.”

“He ran away?”

“Yeah.”

“Coward.”

Jeno swallows. “It’s okay, we just talked, I get that he regrets it and it’s fine. A mistake is a mistake.”

Donghyuck is silent for a minute. “I’m confused. Why did you kiss?”

“Because I told him that kissing doesn't do anything for me and he suggested it was because I don’t care about the people I kiss. He offered to see if our friendship would make a difference.”

“Jeno,” Donghyuck says in such a sweet voice that it’s frankly terrifying. “I love you dearly, but you’re perhaps the most stupid person to have ever graced the earth. He offered to kiss you under the pretense of friendship? What the hell!”

“He was being a good person.”

“He was torturing himself!”

“I don’t understand what you’re trying to tell me.”

“It’s not my secret to tell,” Donghyuck groans. “It wasn’t Minchul’s and it really isn’t my secret to tell but goddamn it you’re both so stupid it’s physically paining me! I’m gonna get fine lines from the stress!”

Minchul’s secret?

“It wasn’t fair to me, because he was never going to admit to himself that he was already in lo-“

And then:

“I hope one day you realise how much you’re hurting him, and I hope it kills you.”

“Donghyuck,” he says. “Does... does Jaemin... is he?”

“Is he what?” Donghyuck asks eagerly. “Come on, don’t make me say it, I don’t wanna be that friend that spills secrets, but you can work it out! Like charades! Three words, one of them is Jaemin, the other two are loves you!” A pause. “Fuck.” He hangs up.

Jeno sits on the grass outside of Jaemin’s dorm building and stares at the sky, wondering if any secrets will drip from the fluffy clouds and enlighten him.

Love is comfort, it’s soothing, it’s feeling at ease when you’re together, like you’re just as in your own skin as you are when you’re completely alone.

He loves Jaemin,

He really loves Jaemin.

“He was my first real boyfriend, and I thought it was actually going somewhere. I thought he was helping.”

“You’re so fucking stupid, Jeno.”

“I had to live two months in the shadow of my boyfriend’s best friend. Don’t you understand why I had to ask him to choose?”

Maybe...

Maybe Jaemin is in love with Jeno too.

Maybe Jeno really is stupid.

He runs back up to Jaemin’s apartment, and this time it isn’t fear fueling him, it isn’t cowardice, it’s just adrenaline and a fuck tonne of hope.

He bangs on the door. “Jaemin, open up, it’s me again! Jaemin!”

Jaemin opens the door. He’s crying slowly, silently, eyes red and miserable, nose scrunched, jaw trembling.

“I’ve made you wait for so long,” Jeno says, pushing into the room, closing the door behind himself, grabbing Jaemin’s hands with his own, linking their fingers together, tripping over his words and his thoughts and his breath in his need to get everything out of his expanding chest. “I’ve made you wait so long for me, I’m so fucking sorry. I’ll make it up to you from now on, I promise.”

Jaemin sniffs, and when he speaks, his voice wobbles. “Jeno if you can’t tell already I’m having kind of a bad day, can you go make no sense somewhere else?”

“No,” Jeno says immediately. “You know when we went to that high school prom and it sucked and no one even danced, and we drank all that redbull and got super hyper? And we were gonna dance but then that slow song came on and everyone left the floor, but we just looked at each other and you grabbed my hand and I grabbed your waist, and it was just us. And we just danced together in the middle of the gym, the only ones dancing, and we were giggling, but it was so quiet, and it felt like we were the only people there. Do you remember?”

Jaemin puts a hand over his eyes and cries harder.

“Jaemin, this is important! Do you remember?”

He nods past his tears.

“I was wearing one of your ties, do you remember? Because there was a stupid dress code and I didn’t even have a tie, and you gave me the ugliest tie you could find, with those awful neon polka dots. You remember?”

He nods again.

“I still have that tie,” Jeno says. “I... I thought it was weird at first, and it’s ugly as hell, but I love it. Every time I look at it I think of dancing with you. Every time I see that tie I think of how happy we were dancing alone, like we were the only ones in the world, like no one else matters. I can’t believe I thought that was just a friend thing. I really can’t. I mean like, when you ask anyone what their first thought is when you say the words ‘happiest dance of your life’ it’s usually a wedding, right?”

Jaemin moves his hand from his face, blinking. “I don’t get it.”

“I love you,” Jeno says, lifting his own hand to wipe away some of the stray tears that keep falling. “I’m sorry it’s taken so long for me to realise, I’m sorry you’ve been waiting for me for so long, but I love you. I really, really love you.”

“You don’t owe me that,” Jaemin says, still crying. “Just because of my feelings – and your sexuality, just because we’re so close doesn't mean we should be together, you shouldn’t feel like you owe me your-“

“Excuse me?” Jeno asks. “You think I’d be with you because you’re the closest gay guy? Really?”

Jaemin looks helpless. “Then why else?”

“Why else would I love you?”

“Why me? Why now?”

“Because I’m stupid,” is the only honest reply Jeno can give. “I don’t know my sexuality or whatever – I like boobs still, they’re fucking great, but I love you. I love you.”

“You love me?”

“I love you.”

Jaemin presses his lips together, nose still scrunching. “This isn’t some kind of lame joke?”

“I love you. The way you kissed me... it was the only one that’s ever felt right. You’re the only one that’s ever felt right for me. I’m sorry it’s taken me so long to realise.”

Jaemin laughs past his shiny eyes and red nose. “You really put your declaration and boobs in the same sentence, huh?”

“Of course,” Jeno says, laughing too. This is what being in love is? Wanting to kiss all over Jaemin’s tear stained face? Wanting to make him smile for the rest of their lives? He must have been in love for a long fucking time without realising it, because this is how it’s always felt to be with Jaemin.

“I love you too. I always have. I think I always will.”

“We’re nineteen. We have a long ass time to prove that hypothesis.”

“You have a long time to make it up to me.”

“I do,” Jeno says, cupping Jaemin’s face, bringing it closer so he can press their noses together. “And I will.”