Jeno spends quite some time believing that swimming is a lonely sport.
He shares the pool with at least eight different bodies in each event, competing to outswim everybody else, but the moment his foot leaves the starting block, the very second he breaks the surface of the water, Jeno believes that he’s on his own.
There’s no one to pass a ball to, no one to pick up after him if he makes any mistakes. He’s too far away from the bleachers to comprehend anything that his coaches or teammates are shouting. He can only hear the water splashing and himself breathing. No one pushes him off the platform when the gun goes off and he helps himself out of the pool when the race is finished.
When he lands a place on the podium, he only has himself to thank. It’s because he gets a good start, maintains his velocity after he dives, gains a gap when he kicks after the turn. Maybe he’ll thank his coaches for training him, or the captain of his swimming club for keeping an eye on him when they train.
At the end of the day, it’s only him who makes the jump.
It’s only him who finishes the race.
Jeno bends down into position, fingers hooking on the edge of the diving block as he watches the figure in the water approach closer to where he stands. He tries to ignore the noise behind him where Renjun and Donghyuck stand, completely uninterested in their relay run as they debate on where to grab dinner after they wrap up in the pool. Jeno would turn around and shut them up in annoyance, but it’s already ten o’clock when he looks up at the huge analogue clock hanging under the scoreboard, and training has been over for everyone else about an hour ago. The four of them are the only ones left in the pool, left to train. Not as individuals, but as a team.
It’s not a gunshot, not a whistle, not even a verbal signal from his other teammates, but Jaemin’s palm hitting against the wall that sends Jeno crashing into the surface of the water to complete their final lap. There are no opponents, no other person to beat. It’s Jeno racing against time, pushing through the water and cutting their time the best he can.
Sometimes, he forgets what he’s swimming the relay for.
It’s more hectic and frantic, and it’s why Jeno has always preferred swimming individual events rather than relays. There’s pressure on him, weighing heavier than the water he’s trying to push back, to do better. To catch up on the split second Renjun wasted on his exchange with Donghyuck or Jaemin’s accidental sloppy turn. The pool is empty, and he can never hear anything else but his own breathing and the water splashing, but the expectations always ring louder telling him to push harder and to swim and swim and swim until—
Above him, Jaemin offers a hand to help him out of the pool. He peels his goggles and cap off with one hand and takes Jaemin's hand in the other, using some of his strength to pull himself out of the water and relies on Jaemin to do the rest. When his other teammates gather to the edge of the pool, he sees that Renjun and Donghyuck are neither impressed nor dissatisfied, so Jeno knows what to expect when he looks back up and behind him at the scoreboard to see their time.
“It’s a good run,” Jaemin says with a smile despite the disgruntled look on Jeno’s face.
“Our time didn’t improve though. Not even by a second,” Donghyuck says, lifting a hand to scratch on his head.
“We were on break,” Jaemin answers nonchalantly. “I think that it’s a win that we haven’t gotten worse over our vacation.”
“Especially when some of us took advantage of our mothers’ homemade meals while we were home,” Renjun says, poking on his own holiday-made belly, and then on Donghyuck’s.
Donghyuck frowns and flicks Renjun’s finger away. “I’m sorry not all of us were sculpted like Greek gods like Adonis here." He nods towards Jeno, whose abs remained intact despite the holiday. “Whatever. I’ll get back in shape in a week. Two tops.”
“Yeah, right. Tell that to the eight servings of pork belly we were planning on eating tonight,” Renjun laughs, snapping his goggles and swimming cap back in place. “One more run, then we call it a night?”
Donghyuck doesn’t need to be told twice and drops back into the water and into position as Renjun resets the board. Jeno and Jaemin take their place a few meters back on standby, and watches Donghyuck react to Renjun’s whistle to start their final run for tonight.
Jaemin nudges Jeno gently with his elbow. “I thought you’d be happier on our first day back,” he says.
Jeno shrugs. “I am.”
“Well, you don’t look all that chirpy to me.”
“I’m just a little worried,” Jeno admits.
“About what?” Jaemin asks. Jeno makes the mistake of taking a quick glance up at the scoreboard, bright red numbers increasing as every second passes. Jaemin looks back to Jeno with a frown. “Our time? Did you not hear what I said? It’s our first day back. You’ve got nothing to worry about.”
That seems to catch Renjun’s attention, being one of the two nosy members out of the four of them (Donghyuck is the other one). His ears perk up at Jaemin’s comment, and he stares at them long enough for Jeno to see the mildly offended look on his face. Jeno knows how it sounds, like it's someone's fault that they have not improved since the last time they were here, which is why he didn't want to point it out in the first place.
If Renjun has anything to say about Jeno’s concern, he doesn’t voice it out, and instead takes his place on the diving block when Donghyuck closes in halfway through the pool.
Jeno waves his thoughts away and looks back to the pool. “You can’t tell me not to worry when we’re a team. It’s our time.”
“Just say you’re disappointed with our results. We’re well aware that we aren’t in our best condition, you know,” Jaemin tells him. There’s an annoying smirk on his face, the same lopsided smile that’d managed to convince Jeno to join his first relay team ever. “You don’t have to worry about us. About me. Have a little faith in me.”
Jeno rolls his eyes. His faith in Jaemin is what got him into this in the first place. “Please. The amount of faith I have in you is terrifying.”
“Then why does it feel like you still don’t trust me?”
On the diving block, Renjun flies into the water as Donghyuck finishes his lap. Jeno quirks a brow at their near-perfect exchange, which is a clear improvement from their first few runs earlier.
“It’s our last first day,” Jeno points out quietly. Beside the diving block, Donghyuck has pulled himself out of the water and plopped on the floor, chest heaving up and down as he recovers from his lap. It’s the perfect time to be sentimental. Donghyuck doesn’t have the energy to make fun of him.
“Last first day,” Jaemin repeats to himself, slightly nostalgic. “Are you that eager to finally stop swimming the relay?”
Jeno rolls his eyes a second time. “You know that’s not what I mean.”
Jaemin chuckles. Renjun nears the turn, but Jaemin makes no move towards the diving block. “Do you regret it? Joining the relay?”
“Nah,” Jeno pouts. “Turns out swimming in a relay team with you isn’t the worst thing in the world.”
Jaemin cackles loudly, voice echoing throughout the indoor pool. Renjun is halfway through the pool when Jaemin finally gets into position. He rolls his shoulders back and looks back one last time at Jeno. “You still have one year with us. Or, with me,” he says with a blinding grin. “Don’t get too sentimental yet.” He’s quick to bend over and to react to Renjun’s panel touch, wasting no time diving into the water.
Jaemin plunges into the pool, strokes powerful and quick. Jeno watches wordlessly, still in awe even after training together for the most part of the last five years. He only has half a mind to step onto the block when Donghyuck clears his throat and asks if he plans on diving three meters away from the pool.
He waits until Jaemin’s figure gets closer and closer, and dives when Jaemin’s hand hits the touchpad. Practiced. Second-nature. Easy. It’s always been when it’s Jaemin.
Sometimes, Jeno forgets what he’s swimming the relay for, but the answer really only is ever next to him. Always there to remind him.
Sharks swim alone.
And this is something Jeno learned in third-grade Science, and then took to heart as the years passed him by. He’d gotten used to practicing alone and winning alone that the thought of doing what he’s always done by himself with a team rarely crossed his mind.
He doesn’t realize things are happening until he’s in the middle of it all.
It’s time trials, something they do too frequently that Jeno doesn’t see the honest intention behind it. He makes nothing of the way Jaemin is over-excited about training or how their coach observes each of them more closely than usual. Jeno watches each event go one by one cluelessly, clearly disinterested by the way his teammates’ faces light up when they’re able to trim their time down, or how they sulk when they’ve failed to improve. Those who are still uncertain about their events join two or three different ones, but Jeno’s only interested in participating in one.
He pulls his shirt above his head and throws it back on the bench, making his way towards the block on the fourth lane where below him, Jaemin has just won his round against six other butterfly swimmers. He winks at Jeno playfully and wishes him good luck even though he knows well that Jeno doesn’t need it.
Jeno easily places first, and it doesn’t come as a surprise to anyone, but for some odd reason Jaemin is more excited about it than he normally is, and that’s when Jeno first knows something is off.
When the team gathers for a meeting, Jeno hangs at the back of the huddle beside Jaemin.
“That went better than I expected,” Coach Seo says with a hearty laugh, smiling proudly at his team. His gaze lingers a bit longer on Jeno. “I’ve been looking to build a relay team since the old members have either graduated or have left the team to focus more on their studies, so I'm very pleased to announce the new line up today."
Summer has just kicked in, and Jeno can feel the sun crawling under his skin, but also a shiver running up his spine.
“Lee Donghyuck and Huang Renjun, backstroke and breaststroke, respectively.” Jeno can see Donghyuck at the side, smirking proudly to himself and Renjun right in front, politely bowing towards their coach. “Na Jaemin, butterfly,” he announces next, and when Jeno turns to look at Jaemin, he’s already looking at Jeno too. Eyes full of hope, filled with anticipation.
“Lee Jeno, freestyle.”
Of course, Jeno has the decency to not be rude and waits until he can approach their coach alone to tell him that he isn’t interested, but before he can even actually get two words in, Jaemin drags him into the locker room by his arm so quick that he almost trips on his own two feet and sits him down on the bench.
“Okay. Listen. I know you think that the relay is just a waste of your precious individual training time—”
“It is a waste of my precious individual training time,” Jeno deadpans.
“—but you honestly don’t even have to work that hard,” Jaemin adds quickly. Jeno eyes him skeptically, not quite following. “Not if the person swimming butterfly kicks ass, and I hear he’s, like, a pro. The best of the best. Is actually half-fish half-human.”
“You are so cocky,” Jeno tells him, even though he knows Jaemin has every right to be.
“You are too. I’m just more vocal about it,” Jaemin says with a wiggle of his brows. “I rarely ask you for anything, Jeno. Just try this one out for me. With me.”
Jeno wouldn’t join a medley relay if anyone else asked, but he thinks that maybe he could try it just this once for Jaemin. Always only for Jaemin.
Jeno only sighs, shoulders slumped. “I’ll think about it.”
Jaemin already knows it’s Jeno-code for yes , so he hunches over to kiss Jeno’s cheek in excitement, and runs towards the pool before Jeno could smack him on the face.
And that’s how Jeno’s relay career kicks off.
It’s the darkness under Jaemin’s eyes and the way he drifts off more than usual that tells Jeno he’s been staying up late a lot, which isn’t uncommon among students in their last year, but is uncommon for people like them , who spend most of their energy in water than on land, who worry more about impressing recruiters, winning championships, and adding to all the medals hanging heavily on the wall of their rooms instead of striving for perfect grades or topping their class.
The only instance that would make Jeno exert effort in studying would be if he was forced to give up swimming. If he quits. But Jeno is very certain about what he wants to do; doesn’t have plans of throwing in the towel soon, but he suspects that Jaemin might.
They’re sitting on the edge of the pool, legs tangled and feet soaking in the water as they wait for the rest of the team to finish up in the showers. Beside him, Jaemin is a few seconds away from falling asleep, head nodding forward a couple of times that he almost falls head-first into the water.
Jeno hasn’t said anything yet, but he’s noticed Jaemin carrying some extra textbooks, coming from the library at an ungodly hour in the morning, running late to practice after extra classes, and the thing about bad news is that there’s never really a good time for it, and Jeno knows that he would have to get it over with at one point.
“Have you thought about what you’re doing when we’re done here?” Jeno asks, tugging on Jaemin's arm. It interrupts the comfortable silence between them, and it’s quite effective in knocking Jaemin out of his sleepy trance. He’s startled by the question, Jeno can tell.
“Yeah, but I don't have a final plan yet, y'know?” Jaemin yawns. He kicks his feet upward to make small splashes in the water. “Just get into college. Maybe become a teacher.”
“Sounds like a solid plan to me,” Jeno hums, leaning back on his elbows.
“Does it? You think it’ll fit me?” Jaemin’s eyes glint with eagerness when Jeno looks at them. “I hope it works out.”
“Why wouldn’t it?"
“Studying wasn’t ever part of our plan,” Jaemin answers sheepishly. “And swimming was never not a part of it.”
“So you are giving it up,” Jeno concludes thoughtfully.
“I told you nothing is final yet.” Jaemin lets out a long drawn sigh when he sees Jeno raising a brow at him. “Besides, swimming has always been more of your thing than mine.”
“It can be yours too,” Jeno retorts. “But there’s no point in doing it if you don’t want to anymore, right?”
“It’s not that I don’t want to. I just don’t love it enough to keep doing it for ten more years,” Jaemin says. “Can you believe we’ve been swimming for more than a decade?” He adds, an obvious attempt to change the topic.
Jeno decides to play along. “We’ve probably spent more time inside the pool than our beds.”
“I’ve spent more time with you than anyone else,” Jaemin says, face twisting into a grimace.
"You say that like it's such a bad thing." Jeno scowls at him, kicking his legs up to splash water towards Jaemin. “You think I enjoyed being stuck with you for a decade?"
Jaemin laughs, putting a hand on Jeno’s thigh to stop him from moving. “Name someone else you’d rather get handcuffed to for a decade then.” He challenges, like he’s daring Jeno to come up with a name other than his.
Jeno considers it for a moment. “I could tolerate being handcuffed to Donghyuck for eleven years. He’s been my roommate for almost four.”
“Is that why you spend more time in my room than your own? Let’s be real, Jeno. He’d drive you crazy two hours in, guaranteed,” Jaemin snorts. Jeno opens his mouth to protest, but is quickly cut off when Jaemin adds, “And don’t even try to convince me you’d willingly handcuff yourself to Renjun. That’s not happening. He won’t last thirty minutes with you.”
Jeno frowns and splashes some water towards Jaemin who easily dodges the attack. “It’s a stupid situation anyway. Nobody in their right mind would agree to being cuffed to another person for ten years.”
“You just did. To me. Admit it, there is no one else you’d rather be with besides me,” Jaemin tells him. The corner of his lips slowly turns up into a crooked grin. “If it makes you feel any better, you’re at the top of my list too.”
Eleven years. Four spent together in a relay team. Jeno’s always known there would come a day where they’d have to go separate ways as teammates, hopefully never as friends. Jeno’s always thought that the end line would always be years away. But the end isn’t five years from now or three.
Jeno can see the end, and wants so bad to beg Jaemin to give it more time.
Jeno isn’t sure he can willingly let go of this just yet.
Between the two of them, it’s Jeno who gets into swimming first.
He starts attending swimming practices after a part-timer hands him and his mom a flier about lessons in the local pool. It’s three hours a day, three times a week, and spending more time in the town’s pool meant that he was spending less time with the kid next door.
Jaemin easily finds a solution to their separation, runs home to his mother after finding out about Jeno’s swimming lessons, and convinces her to let him try swimming as well.
The two days they usually spend together turn into five, and everything else naturally falls into place. They become inseparable, like two peas of the same pod. The only thing that makes them unique from the other are their events, with Jeno strictly competing free and Jaemin competing fly.
Swimming is Jeno’s first love. It’s the first thing he’s passionate about. To him, the pool is home.
Throw Jaemin along, it feels even more like it.
When Renjun first asks how the two of them became friends, they tell the story like a rehearsed and memorized speech, as if they’ve already told a hundred people the same thing, which only proves that it’s always been the two of them together from the start. They’ve been neighbors for the longest time, have been swimming in the same pool for years already, and have been inseparable ever since.
And since Donghyuck is Donghyuck, he’s the first one to have an opinion about it. He’d woken up to Jaemin smushed between Jeno and the wall of their room, still knocked out as Jeno lazily scrolls through his phone with the free arm that isn’t supporting Jaemin’s sleeping head.
Donghyuck stares dumbly at them for a full minute, slowly realizing that he’d apparently gained another roommate overnight. "Why is he here?" He mumbles sleepily, running a hand through the messy nest of hair on his head.
Jeno glances at Donghyuck briefly. “Oh, you’re up. Uh, he got lazy so he just stayed the night,” Jeno says, voice in a half-whisper, careful not to wake Jaemin up.
“He lives literally two floors down.”
Jeno shrugs. “We fell asleep while talking.”
Donghyuck only furrows his brows and says, “That’s weird,” pulling his covers back on his head and going back to sleep.
The next time he brings it up again is a couple of weeks later, when they’ve just finished training and Jeno is in the locker room, about to go in for a shower.
Jaemin walks up to him, already dry and dressed with a folder in hand. “Can you do me a favor and drop this off at Mr. Moon’s table? I’m running late for class and this is due in the next hour.”
Jeno takes the folder wordlessly and shoves it in his bag.
“You’re the best,” Jaemin grins, stealing a peck on Jeno’s cheek and hastily running out of the locker room. Jeno grimaces, wiping the spot Jaemin smooched with the back of his hand.
Donghyuck overhears this and grabs his own folder from his bag. “Do you mind dropping this off for me too?”
Jeno doesn’t spare him a single glance. “Do I look like a mailman to you, Donghyuck?”
“Jaemin and I are literally in the same class,” Donghyuck deadpans. “What, do I need to kiss you too to get you to do this?” He strides towards Jeno, lips puckered.
Jeno holds a finger out on Donghyuck’s chest before he can close the distance. “Don’t.”
Donghyuck furrows his brows. “Weird.”
The third time Donghyuck comments on it is random. It isn’t prompted by anything, and there’s no sign of Jaemin anywhere when he asks, “Are you and Jaemin really just friends?” He looks at Jeno from where he’s lying on his bed, forgotten book draped on his stomach.
“We’re friends, yeah,” Jeno answers mindlessly, gaze stuck on the movie playing on the laptop perched on his desk.
“So, no romantic feelings involved?” Donghyuck clarifies.
It doesn’t register in Jeno’s mind until seconds later and he’s pausing the film, spinning on his chair in favor of addressing Donghyuck. “Romantic feelings?”
“Yeah. Like, I wanna kiss you feelings and all that stuff,” Donghyuck says. Jeno only stares at him soulessly. “You’ve never thought about it?”
Jeno’s mouth is dry. “I, well,” he stumbles on his words, completely flustered.
They’ve been friends for years, so maybe people think that he’s immune to Jaemin and all of his charms. And he is, to a certain extent, like he would cringe whenever Jaemin sneaks a kiss on his cheek, or roll his eyes when Jaemin tries to use his baby voice to ask for a favor. But Jeno is also only 18 and knows attractive when he sees it. They’re in a swimming team together, which makes it infinitely worse, because Jeno can’t even get through one week without hearing unsolicited comments about how handsome Jaemin looks with his hair pushed back, or how he has the best body and proportion out of all the butterfly swimmers in the team. He’s used to it, but that doesn’t make it less real, and it totally doesn’t help that Jaemin is an even more attractive human being underneath, and that he’s too good to everyone around him, much more to Jeno all this time they’ve been together.
He has thought about it. He’s thought about it for months on his own. Now he just tries not to think about it at all, because thinking about it is sort of like admitting that there are feelings to be sorted out, feelings that he doesn’t want to deal with, so he tries really hard to keep it out of his mind.
“No,” Jeno lies through his teeth. “No, I haven’t thought about it.”
“Oh,” Donghyuck says, seemingly disappointed. “Are you sure? I could totally see it. You two are already practically married.”
“Nope. Nah, I’m sure. 100 percent sure,” Jeno presses a smile, spinning on his chair so he faces away from Donghyuck and pressing play before his roommate could get another word in.
Jeno tries to distract himself with the movie, but it proves to be an impossible task, not when the thing Jeno’s been trying not to think about for the last few years suddenly echo loudly in his mind, along with the tiny voice in the back of his head cursing Donghyuck for unpacking it all with one curious question.
It’s sort of like dreaming about a friend and then waking up in love with them, except this isn’t a dream, and it happens for real somewhere in the middle of their second year.
It had been a harmless question, born out of genuine curiosity from a freshman’s end. They’re tasked to pair up with new recruits, help them adjust to the team the same way their seniors helped them when they had just arrived in Seoul. One of the new kids, Park Jisung, stayed behind to watch Renjun, Donghyuck, Jaemin, and Jeno train, in hopes of joining the team someday.
Jeno didn't mean to eavesdrop, wasn’t supposed to hear the conversation between them. If Jaemin had answered Jisung’s question differently, perhaps Jeno wouldn’t have minded it that much and simply forgotten what he’d overheard, but that wasn’t the case at all.
“Hyung, why did you join the relay?” was Jisung’s question.
“Because I wanted to swim with Jeno,” was Jaemin’s answer.
Jeno waited to hear an explanation, but he doesn’t get one when Jaemin moves to stand on the block to dive as Renjun closes in at the end of the pool. It bothers Jeno when he jumps in for his turn, when they wrap up, when they shower, when they eat dinner, up until the walk home.
“Did you mean what you said earlier?” Jeno asks quietly. They walk side by side, arms lightly grazing as they return to their dorm building.
“Which one?” Jaemin asks cluelessly.
“Earlier? Uh, in the pool?” Jeno clarifies, stumbling over his words. “You told Jisung you joined the relay team because you wanted to swim with me.”
Jeno doesn’t know why he’s afraid of asking, doesn’t know why his heart is hammering so hard against his chest that he’s sure the entire campus could hear it. It’s just the two of them, Renjun and Donghyuck already having disappeared inside, and Jeno tries to make sense of why the anxiety of asking Jaemin about this is eating him alive when Jaemin should be the one person he doesn’t need to shy away from.
“I just don’t get it,” Jeno rambles on, eyes cast down on the pathway. “I didn’t even want to join the relay in the first place, I joined because you did, so when you say that you joined because of me...”
“Jeno,” Jaemin starts, voice low and quiet. “I started swimming because of you, and I’m still doing it because you are.”
They’ve grown a whole lot over the years, but Jeno doesn’t realize how much they’ve changed until now, until they’re left alone with nothing else to look at. They’re taller, have built their strength, have gotten considerably better looking, but they’re still the same, except there’s something about Jaemin that makes Jeno’s heart race now, something about Jaemin that makes Jeno want to pull closer to him, something that makes Jeno want to kiss him square on the lips. Something that terrifies Jeno about feeling this way.
“Don’t get me wrong, I love swimming,” Jaemin continues, “Maybe not as much as you do, but I wouldn’t have kept doing it this long if it wasn’t to get to know you better. I knew you were going to get into the relay team. With your skills, Coach Seo would’ve been stupid not to include you, so I had to work extra hard to get that spot next to yours.” The melancholic smile on Jaemin’s lips sends a shooting pain in Jeno’s chest. “I couldn’t swim against you, so I figured it would be better if I could swim with you.”
Jeno seems to be at a loss for a moment, and Jaemin senses this easily and awkwardly laughs it off. “Is that weird? Haha, I’m sorry. I know it’s dumb, following you around like this. Hopefully, in time, I’ll find my own thing on my own.”
Jeno shakes his head. “It isn’t. Just... You’re not going to quit, right? Tell me you aren’t going to quit. Not anytime soon, at least,” he adds, just so it wouldn’t sound so desperate. (It still does, no matter how many times he repeats it in his mind.) Never would Jeno have thought that he’d need a reason, let alone another person, for him to continue swimming, yet here he is. Here they are.
“Of course not,” Jaemin says, blinding grin creeping onto his lips. Jeno holds his breath, trying to hide the relief that he feels inside. “You can’t get rid of me that easily.” He swings an arm around Jeno’s shoulders and leads the both of them back to their rooms, where Jeno would spend the entire night wide awake, staring up at the ceiling, with his heart still pounding, thinking about how he might have just realized that he’s been in love with Jaemin all along.
One of the downsides of being the best is that the slightest slip would have everyone whipping their head his way. There’s a sword hanging above his head and everyone expects it to never ever drop. There’s a stillness in the entire facility, a thickness in the air that settles when he comes up above the water and realizes what had just happened. The sword had fallen, and it landed exactly on Jeno.
On the lane beside his, Mark, their captain, looks at him like a deer in headlights, completely dumbfounded. Jeno doesn’t give Mark a chance to speak or even get close, quickly taking the hand Donghyuck has extended towards him and pulling himself out of the pool.
Their coach, although visibly just as surprised and unhappy, is quick to dismiss the situation, and unceremoniously calls on the next pair to race. Jeno tries to ignore the inquisitive looks he gets and all the whispering from his teammates as he walks towards the benches, but it’s hard not to mind when everyone’s eyes are focused on him. Everyone suddenly doesn’t know how to act after they’ve witnessed Jeno lose to Mark, whose specialty isn’t even freestyle, for god’s sake.
Instead of heading to the benches, he makes a bee line to the locker room, hoping to hole in the showers until it’s time for relay training. Hoping that by then that he could get his head straight.
Jeno gets ten minutes under running water until he hears someone’s footsteps behind him, and when he turns around to tell whoever it is off, he’s greeted by Donghyuck.
“You know you won’t be able to make me leave,” Donghyuck says outright, crossing his arms over his bare chest.
Jeno ignores him tentatively and turns back towards the water. “I don’t think you will find much fun in watching me take a shower.”
Jeno takes that as his cue to shut the water and step out of the stall, turning towards the other boy. “What do you want?”
“I just watched you lose a freestyle match to someone who doesn’t even swim freestyle events and you expect me not to think that something’s wrong?”
“I am allowed to have bad days.”
“You’ve gone 4 years without a bad day and all of a sudden you’re having one. Smells like bullshit to me.”
“I’m not perfect.” Jeno pushes past Donghyuck to walk towards the benches.
Donghyuck trails closely behind him. “I know you aren't. That's why I want you to tell me if there’s something wrong. Tell Jaemin, or whoever. What is it? Are you nervous about the championship? Is it about recruitment? Is your personal trainer stressing you? Just give me something to work with here.”
“It’s you. It’s your fault,” Jeno says, groaning in frustration.
Donghyuck pauses, confused. “Well, if you’re gonna blame it on me, you might as well explain why.”
Jeno glares at him, then slumps in defeat. “You asked me about Jaemin and now I can’t get him out of my head.”
It’s like a lightbulb goes off above Donghyuck’s brain, and he looks at Jeno, scandalized. “So I was right. Fuck, since when?”
Jeno sighs, looking around cautiously to make sure no one’s listening in and looks up at Donghyuck waiting impatiently for his reply. “Last year? Two years ago? Does it really matter at this point?”
Venting should help ease the heaviness he’s always carried, but splaying his feelings all out in the open like this, making it very real, to Donghyuck, of all people, only makes him want the world to swallow him up and never spit him back out.
“I think you should just tell him,” Donghyuck says, looking at Jeno with something akin to pity.
"It's easier said than done,” Jeno says with a shake of his head.
“At least you tried?” Donghyuck shrugs. He puts a hand on Jeno’s shoulder, and it’s surprisingly comforting, so Jeno lets it linger there. “I get it, alright? It’s cruel, but you’re not going to get anywhere if you don’t dive into it. Get it? Dive into it? ‘Cause we’re swimmers? Come on, Jeno. I’m just trying to cheer you up.”
“Try harder,” Jeno says, glaring through Donghyuck’s soul.
“Then what do you want to do about this?” Donghyuck asks instead.
Jeno doesn’t get a chance to answer when their teammates start pouring inside the room one by one, signalling that training is done for most of them. He shakes his head at Donghyuck and pushes himself off of the benches.
Even if he doesn’t tell Donghyuck what his plans are, Jeno knows he’ll be quick to pick up on it anyway. He’ll cling to Donghyuck more than usual, keep a distance between him and Jaemin, he’d volunteer to reset the scoreboard, or stand by the edge of the pool instead of waiting beside Jaemin like he always does. If Jaemin insists on talking, he’ll keep it short, utter out 2 or 3 word sentences. Jaemin will get the idea too, but would have no idea why Jeno will be acting the way he will.
He’ll stay away as long as he needs to, until he forgets again, or maybe until they fall out. Whichever comes first.
It takes Jaemin a while to notice, three entire weeks of Jeno dodging conversations and invitations until he figures out that Jeno is avoiding him. Jeno sits out dinners with the team, reasons that he constantly feels so fatigued that he wants to retire to his bed as soon as he can. One day, Jaemin insists on walking him home, so Jeno looks to Donghyuck, begs for help with his eyes, taps into the telepathic roommate connection they’ve developed over the years to Please, help me. Do something.
Donghyuck quick-wittedly makes up a stupid bet that he claims to have won a long time ago, and then convinces Jaemin to pay up in the form of a free meal. Jeno goes back to his room alone, hungry, and heartbroken, and tries to sleep it all off.
“I’m running out of excuses to cover for you,” is the first thing Donghyuck says when he gets back one and a half hour later, going home to a restless and starving Jeno.
“Tell him I’m sick next time,” Jeno huffs, words muffled when he speaks into his pillow.
“I used that excuse last Sunday. Jaemin didn’t care. He’d risk catching the frickin' plague to see you,” Donghyuck mutters annoyedly, throwing himself on his own bed. He looks at Jeno from his side of the room and sighs when he sees Jeno’s disheveled and brooding state. “You know, you really should just talk to him about it.”
“I’m not ready to have that confrontation yet,” Jeno says. I don’t think I’ll ever be ready , he thinks.
“We’re going to graduate in a couple of months, and you’re going to regret not fixing this sooner than you should have. You’re going to have to face this at one point, anyway. I just think you should do it before it’s too late.”
Jeno opens his mouth to speak, defend himself, maybe make up a couple more excuses as to why he still can’t own up to his feelings, but he's interrupted by the loud rumbling of his stomach, so loud that even Donghyuck, who’s all the way on the other side of the room, hears it. He takes it as his cue to pull himself up from the bed and get some fresh air to clear his head.
Donghyuck watches quietly as Jeno grabs a hoodie haphazardly thrown at the foot of his bed and slips it on. He asks tiredly, "Where are you going at this hour?”
“Convenience store. I’m starving,” Jeno mumbles as he shoves his phone and wallet into the pocket of his jacket. “Do you want anything?”
“You, to get your shit together before you come back.”
Jeno mutters out a whatever under his breath , walks towards the door, only to be met by Jaemin standing on the other side when he swings it open, brown paper bag in one hand and the other raised mid-air to knock.
“I brought you dinner,” Jaemin begins, staring wide-eyed at Jeno. “But it looks like you’re feeling better enough to get it yourself.”
Jeno is frozen on his spot, stuck on staring at the paper bag and then on the confused look on Jaemin’s face. “I was just going out to buy, uh, medicine?”
More than confused, Jaemin looks hurt, maybe even a little bit betrayed, because he knows Jeno a little more than Jeno knows himself, and if all the time they’ve spent together meant something, then it is highly probable that he knows Jeno is lying to his face.
Donghyuck is too far away to reach, and there’s no one else to ask help from. There’s no getting out of this, Jeno is on his own this time, and he’s never hated this feeling more than now. He steps out of their room and closes the door behind him. “Do you need anything?” Jeno asks, coldly and a little harsh, because he wants to keep this as brief as possible. Because maybe this way, Jaemin will know to back off.
“I just want to know how you’ve been,” Jaemin says, somewhat bemused.
“I’m fine,” says Jeno. “You don’t have any reason to be worried. You literally see me everyday.”
“And yet you keep ignoring me when I try to talk to you,” Jaemin retorts, trying so hard to meet Jeno’s gaze. “Are you angry with me? Did I do something wrong?”
Jeno forces out a chuckle, as if Jaemin is the one who’s being unreasonable between them. “Why would I be angry with you?”
“I have no clue, that’s why I’m asking you,” Jaemin says, raising his voice. Jeno, slightly distressed, looks around the hall and their paper-thin walls, and he puts a finger in front of his lips to shush the other boy. It’s late. Too late, and Jeno doesn’t want to have this conversation with their entire building listening in. He doesn’t even want to have this conversation period. Jaemin starts again, careful not to speak above a whisper, “You’ve been acting so weird these past few days.”
“I’m not angry,” Jeno whispers back. “I’m not anything. There’s really nothing to talk about.” Jeno moves to sidestep Jaemin, but the other is quick to block him with his entire body. Jeno lets out a deep breath and, for the first time tonight, looks straight in Jaemin’s eyes. “Jaemin.”
Only now does he notice that Jaemin doesn't look like his usual self, his normally bright, warm persona replaced by a Jaemin who is more reserved and quite visibly very worn out. For a brief moment, Jeno considers confessing, because just as much as it pains him to keep all of his feelings bottled inside, it hurts him to see Jaemin troubled because of him, just because he doesn’t have the courage to be honest to his best friend and himself, but it’s a huge gamble, and Jeno isn’t ready to go all in, not when he thinks it’s going to end badly when he does.
They’re enveloped by silence for a while until Jaemin has had enough, until he’s ran out of patience and energy. “Take this. I got it for you anyway,” he says dejectedly, pushing the paper bag against Jeno’s torso and retracting his hand so quick like he doesn’t want to get burned. Not any more than he’s already been. “That one time in the pool, at the beginning of the year, when you told me you had faith in me,” he says, and Jeno wants to unhear how his voice cracks as he talks, “That was a lie, wasn’t it? You don’t actually really trust me at all, do you?”
He doesn’t wait for Jeno to reply, moves quickly, dodging the hand Jeno extends to get a grasp on his arm, then disappears into the stairwell before Jeno could catch up to him.
Jeno returns to his room with a still-warm bowl of porridge, a heart full of regret, and a voice in his head telling him that Jaemin deserves both a better lover and a friend than him.
The first thing he sees above the surface is Donghyuck, lips in a tight smile as he offers a hand out to help Jeno out of the water. When he looks up back at the scoreboard, he’s only met by disappointment.
“Where are they?” Jeno asks belatedly as Donghyuck pulls him out of the pool. When he looks around, he realizes that their two other relay teammates are nowhere to be found.
“Jaemin and Renjun already hit the showers when you dived in,” Donghyuck says with a shiver, wrapping his arms around his torso. “You two still aren’t talking?”
Jeno rolls his eyes, ignoring Donghyuck as he walks over to the bench. Though the school’s pool facility is built to allow training even on the harshest winters, every inch between the door to the locker room and the pool is still unbearably cold. The thought of heading to the showers and running his numb fingers under hot water is so, so appealing at the moment, but that would mean that he’d have to run into Jaemin as they rinsed off. Freezing to death seems to be the more appealing option.
“Jeno, I can’t feel my face anymore.”
“Then go. Hit the showers.”
Donghyuck huffs, walking over to the other side of the bench to grab the towels they’d left before diving in, wrapping himself with his obnoxiously bright neon orange towel, and throwing Jeno’s own white one over his head. “Don’t you think you’ve tortured him enough?”
“I’m not torturing him,” Jeno grumbles, pulling the towel off of himself.
“You are,” Donghyuck says, matter-of-factly. “And for something that isn’t even his fault.”
Jeno glares at him, unamused. It would be useless to try and defend himself, knowing Donghyuck would outright say that whatever excuse he’d give is pathetic, and any argument he’d use to prove he isn’t at fault is a lie. He lets out a deep sigh, leans back into the wall, and shuts his eyes.
A few minutes more and he hears voices echoing from the locker room. Jeno doesn’t look, remains frozen on his seat as he waits for the footsteps to become louder and louder. They stop in front of him.
“We’re going to grab dinner. Are you two coming?” It’s Renjun, voice stiff and painfully indifferent.
“I, uh,” Donghyuck hesitates, and Jeno can feel that he’s boring holes onto the side of his face with his eyes even without looking at him. “We’re feeling kinda tired. Another time, maybe?”
“I told you so,” Renjun mutters, probably to Jaemin, as he stomps his feet heavily towards the exit.
Jeno hears Jaemin’s airy laugh and only closes his eyes tighter.
“You’d think Renjun is the one being ignored by the way he’s acting, right?” Jaemin says, and Jeno could picture him, trying to force a smile towards Donghyuck, who shifts uncomfortably in his seat. “Get home safe, will you? Both of you?”
Donghyuck is probably nodding his head, some kind of assurance he’d look after Jeno. Jaemin’s footsteps are heavy when he starts towards the exit, and Jeno is only able to breathe and open his eyes again when he can no longer hear them.
“There’s no better name for whatever it is you’re putting Jaemin through,” Donghyuck says moments after, standing up from the bench, kicking Jeno lightly on the shin to prompt him to follow. “It’s torture,” he says simply, shaking his head in disapproval and disappearing into the locker room.
Jeno is dressed and about to go out for his daily 4AM jog when he opens the door and almost bumps into Renjun, waiting idly with his arms crossed on the other side of the door. He curses in surprise and jumps a few steps back, clutching the fabric of the windbreaker on top of his heart. From his bed, Donghyuck peeks at the door with squinted eyes and throws a pillow over his head, groaning, “It is way too frickin' early for this.”
Jeno drags his gaze back to Renjun, steps out the door and closing it behind him. “What are you doing here?”
"Jog with me," Renjun says, and it isn’t a question, so Jeno follows him without much of a choice to a quiet elevator ride to the ground floor, and a moderately-paced jog to the track field.
4AM jogs are mostly spent alone, since it’s only required to him by the personal trainer he meets on days that he doesn’t train with the team. It’s 40 minutes to himself, 3 to 4 times a week in the track field alone, lungs on fire and skin drenched in sweat. He comes back later to Donghyuck still passed out on his bed, even though they should really be getting ready for their 7:30 class.
Jaemin had tried to join him a few years back, but couldn’t keep up with waking up so early that he quit after a few days too. Renjun, on the other hand, has his own routine that he requires for himself, jogs at a later time than Jeno when the sky is a brighter color, and just as when he arrives at the track field, Jeno is already on his way back to the dorms.
The two of them aren’t exactly the best of friends. To put it bluntly, if they were to rank their team in terms of closeness, they’d put each other at the bottom of the list, which isn’t personal, but more of a matter of circumstances. Jeno is closer to Donghyuck because they’re roommates, and since Jeno has been friends with Jaemin since they were children, he naturally gravitates towards him more. Besides, Renjun has always been more of Jaemin’s friend anyway.
They slow down to a walk near the bleachers, pacing back and forth as they cool down. “Heard you got into Dankuk,” Renjun breathes out, breath still uneven from exertion.
“Where did you hear that from?” Jeno replies. One knowing look from Renjun and he already knows. Donghyuck. “You heard right, but I turned it down.”
Renjun stops on his tracks to look at Jeno incredulously. “You don’t turn down Dankuk. Not unless KSU wants you too.” Jeno pauses in his steps and presses his lips into a tight smile, and Renjun’s jaw drops. “Seriously, KSU? Wow, congratulations, man. Does Jaemin know?”
Jeno blinks, continuing on his steps to avoid having to look in Renjun’s eyes. “Uh, no. I haven’t had the chance to tell him yet.”
Renjun laughs, sounding more bitter than anything else. “Right. Of course, he doesn’t. How would he know when you’re avoiding him.”
Jeno sighs. “I’m not avoiding him,” he mutters out.
"Don't give me that crap," Renjun answers back instantly. “I used to order enough for three because you practically lived in our room. You haven’t set foot there in, what, two months already?”
Jeno sputters as he racks his head for an excuse. “I’m just trying to make the most of my time with Donghyuck.”
“That’s understandable, but don’t you think Jaemin deserves that same kind of affection? Him, of all people. From you, of all people?” Renjun says expectantly. He’s completely cooled down from pacing around, and Jeno is supposed to be too, but his heart hasn’t stopped racing, not since they started running, not even when they stopped. “Listen, this is hurting him more than you think. He thinks he did something wrong. He thinks you're mad because he told you he wanted to quit swimming.”
Jeno is about to defend himself until his brain screeches to a halt, backtracking over Renjun’s words. “Wait, he thinks I’m mad over that?”
“Are you?” Renjun says, frowning up at Jeno. “Are you angry because he’s quitting?”
“That’s not it, at all ,” Jeno says, mildly perplexed by the mere thought of it. “I want him to be happy, why would I be angry at him about that?”
“Then what is it?” Renjun demands, his patience running thin just as quick as the sun is starting to rise. “This is Jaemin we’re talking about. You dropped his phone in the pool and you two are still friends somehow. How big does your problem have to be that you can’t tell him about it?”
Massive , Jeno wants to say. It’s the kind that ruins friendships, the kind that would change how Jaemin sees him forever, the kind where it could go so wrong that they wouldn’t be able to go back to the way they were before. It’s a big problem, because Jeno can only think of two outcomes, and a fifty percent chance of it going to shit is just too much of a risk for him to take.
Jeno considers his options. He could run as fast as he can from Renjun (Not the best choice, Renjun runs faster than him), he could make up a lie (About what? Everyone who knows Jeno also knows that he doesn’t care about anything than swimming, and because Renjun knows that he has a bright future waiting for him, Renjun would call bullshit on him instantly), or he could tell the truth (God help him).
Renjun taps his foot impatiently. “Well?”
Jeno opens his mouth and tries to get the words out, words that he has never said out loud, not even to himself.
“I love Jaemin.”
There it is. Those actual three words, right there in air, very real and very true. He loves Jaemin. No ‘I love you but ’, no ‘I love you because ’, no ‘I love you, so ’. He loves Jaemin without reservations or conditions, loves Jaemin, that he’ll do anything for him, even join a relay team he didn’t want to be in in the first place.
The murderous look on Renjun’s face completely dissipates and he’s left open-mouthed by the confession. Jeno considers option number one again, but it’s obviously too late. Renjun composes himself and snaps his mouth shut. “First of all, I shouldn’t be surprised, but I am. Actually, now that I think about it, it’s kind of stupid I wasn’t able to piece the whole thing together myself…”
“You should’ve just asked Donghyuck,” Jeno grunts. “Would’ve made your life a lot easier.”
“I did. I tried. Donghyuck is a blabbermouth, but not about things like this, and especially not if it involves people he genuinely cares about,” Renjun says defensively. (Of course, he would defend Donghyuck, the two of them are one and the same.) He starts towards the exit, nudging Jeno to move closer so they could walk side by side. “Anyway, this isn’t about Donghyuck and his innate inability to keep secrets. This is about Jaemin, and how you’re overcomplicating the situation.”
Jeno winces in pain. “Everyone says that. Why does everyone say that?”
“Because it’s true,” Renjun states simply. “Do you like not being able to talk to the person you love?”
“Of course not, but—”
“Great. Now that’s out of the way, I guess you realize now that this is a really shitty situation for the both of you, correct? You hate that you can’t talk to him, he hates that he can’t talk to you. So the only left thing to do,” Renjun says it slowly, like he’s explaining to a kid who just won’t understand, “is to actually talk it out.”
“He loves you too, a whole lot,” Renjun continues in a murmur, like it doesn’t feel right having to be the one to say it. “He wouldn’t be like this if he didn’t.”
“I don’t think it’s the same,” Jeno replies with a sad smile.
“Maybe, maybe not, but does that mean you’re going to stop loving him then?” Renjun raises a brow at Jeno, who keeps his eyes on his shoes, scuffing against the path back to the dorms. He doesn’t answer. “Yup, I thought so.”
Fifteen minutes later and they’re back, without either of them uttering another word to each other.
“You know,” Renjun says as they stop in front of their building, “I’ve had my reservations about you, but I have no doubts about you loving Jaemin, or even Donghyuck, or me. We’re family. Our team of three is the closest thing I have to family ever since I moved here. I wouldn’t be talking to you about this if I didn’t want it to work out between you.” He puts a hand on Jeno’s arm, squeezes comfortingly then skips inside, leaving Jeno slightly feeling better than he’s ever had in the last few weeks.
The skies have brightened up, the sun has come out, and Jeno realizes that he might be ready for love.
In times when he’s unable to ground himself, Jeno finds himself going to the one place he can always re-center. In times when he’s supposed to be the fastest and the best, he lets the water judge him, but in times like this, when he needs the water not to win but to feel, he’s free.
It’s fifteen minutes to 11PM on a Sunday, one of the days Jeno trains alone with his personal trainer, and he’s supposed to have left an hour ago right when his trainer did, but he decided to stay a while longer, just to have time to himself. Sitting beside his neatly folded towel on the bench are the keys to the pool, which the guard had left to him, like he always does when the relay team stays behind to practice even later into the night.
It must be because he’s in water that he doesn’t react as badly as he would have on land when he sees Jaemin emerging from the door, taking hesitant steps towards the pool.
“Did Donghyuck tell you where I am?” Jeno speaks up first, moving nearer to the edge of the pool.
“I figured it out myself,” Jaemin replies. “It comes with knowing you for a long time.”
Jeno gives him a rundown from head to toe, gaze lingering a little longer on the hoodie and sweatpants Jaemin has on. Jaemin is right, he does know Jeno like a prayer, like a book from cover to cover, but Jeno knows him just the same. “Are you just going to stand there? What are you waiting for?”
Jaemin looks tired, a little better than the last few days, but still exhausted. And yet, he still has the strength to smile at Jeno. “Promise me you won’t run away?” He says, hands gripping the hem of his hoodie to lift it above his head.
“I’m done running,” Jeno replies gently, voice growing softer when Jaemin proceeds to peel his sweatpants off, leaving him in his swimming gear. He watches as Jaemin takes a tentative step back then runs towards the edge and dives into the pool. His heart races as Jaemin’s figure turns back towards him, getting closer and closer, stopping just a few inches from Jeno when he resurfaces, head close enough that Jeno could only focus on his lips. “Hi.”
“Hey,” Jaemin breathes, hot on Jeno’s lips. “It’s been a while.” He kicks his legs in the water until he’s backing Jeno up against the tiled walls.
Jeno gulps thickly, letting out a small yelp when he feels the porcelain on his back. “We need to talk.”
“We do,” Jaemin whispers, one hand gripping the edge of the pool and the other ghosting on Jeno’s side. “But we can do that after this.”
Jeno’s breath gets caught in his lungs as Jaemin surges forward, catching his lips in a kiss. The water is cold on their skin but Jaemin’s hand burns itself up and down Jeno’s back, fervently grabbing where he can, Jeno’s arm, Jeno’s shoulder, Jeno’s ass, so he can pull Jeno closer, much, much closer, until there’s barely space for water between them.
Jeno’s head is spinning, and he’s unsure if it’s because of the lack of air or because he can’t process what’s happening quick enough. He lets his instincts take over him, hand going up to cup Jaemin’s jaw, tilting his head and licking into his mouth. It’s addicting, the small sounds Jaemin makes when Jeno presses forward, the small sighs, his moans. Jeno basks in all of them, tries to get as much as he can from Jaemin because it’s been a long time coming, and he just wants to make sure he never forgets this moment.
He switches them around in one swift move, trapping Jaemin between his arms and against the wall, but it still feels like it’s Jaemin who has Jeno in his hold when he tangles his legs around Jeno’s waist. Jeno dips his head, falling on the crook of Jaemin’s neck as he presses soft kisses on his slightly tanned skin, whispering I missed you with each touch.
They end up on one of the lane dividers a few moments after, Jaemin hoisting himself up on the rope and Jeno circling both his arms on Jaemin’s waist as they kiss lazily, tasting the chlorine from each other’s mouth.
“I had to find out from Renjun,” Jaemin says, a little choked for air as he puts a fist in Jeno’s hair, tugging just slightly.
“If he waited for just one more day, I would’ve told you myself,” Jeno reaches up to mumble against Jaemin’s jaw. “I think he was scared I would chicken out.”
Jaemin pulls away and hits Jeno softly on the chest. “You were going to make me wait one more day?”
“The flower shop was closed today,” Jeno says, pecking the pout on Jaemin’s lips.
“Such a romantic,” Jaemin snorts, pressing a kiss on the mole just below Jeno’s eye. “So, you aren’t mad at me? Even about me quitting?”
Jeno tightens his grip around Jaemin’s waist. “No. I mean, I’m not jumping for joy, it would’ve been nice to keep doing it with you, but I won’t take it against you if you wanted to stop.”
“I hope that you don’t think that I don’t want to be with you anymore just because I’m quitting,” Jaemin says, sliding his hands from Jeno’s nape to his jaw, thumb slightly grazing Jeno’s lower lip that easily falls agape at the touch. “I was thinking that we’re at that point in our relationship where it wouldn’t matter if we were constantly physically side by side.”
“I guess for the most part, I was just worried about us drifting apart,” Jeno says. “Then it just got worse when I realized I liked you.”
Jaemin hums. “I understand why you didn’t tell me. I get why you would have been scared to tell me.”
“I was scared of my own feelings. I didn’t want to scare you away too.” Jeno confesses with a small shrug. “What does this mean though? Do you like me back?”
Jaemin stares at him blankly. “What gave it away? Me jumping you in the pool?” He smirks when Jeno’s cheeks bloom pink. “I’ll be honest with you, I hope this doesn’t throw you off, but it didn’t cross my mind that I loved you until Renjun brought it up.”
Jaemin runs his fingers on Jeno’s spine, a gesture of comfort that effectively eases the anxiety that starts to bubble in Jeno’s chest. “I always knew I felt something for you, even when we were younger,” he adds. “But labels didn’t matter then. As long as we were together, I didn’t mind having those feelings, even if I couldn’t make sense of it. When Renjun told me, when he pointed out how much of a mess I’d been when we spent time apart, he helped me realize that I felt the same way.”
Jeno nods, carefully taking in each word. “I tried to forget about it. To get over my feelings for you,” Jeno admits. “It wouldn’t be the first time, but I thought if I could do it once, I would be able to do it again. It was harder this time around, and I obviously failed, because we wouldn’t be here if I did.”
Jeno makes a mental note to treat Renjun to a meal later, maybe even Donghyuck, because neither Jaemin nor Jeno would be here if it weren’t for their two other friends. Jeno continues, “I’m not asking you to return my feelings,” Jeno says slowly, making sure that Jaemin understands. “I wasn’t expecting you to reciprocate mine at all. At the very least, I just really wanted us to stay friends, because as long as you’re happy, I thought I could be too.”
Jaemin looks at him funny. “Did you think avoiding me would make me happy?”
“I know, I was wrong. I should have trusted you more, but I sincerely thought I was doing what was best for the both of us,” Jeno answers apologetically. “I really am sorry.”
“You can always trust me,” Jaemin says, smiling as he puts his arms on Jeno’s shoulders.
“I know, I know.”
“Jeno,” Jaemin says, tilts his head, and smiles, “I love you.” Those three words in the air, very real, and very true. Jeno’s heart leaps out of his chest, as he holds Jaemin closer, burying his face on the other’s chest. “I'm not going anywhere,” Jaemin says finally, cupping a hand on Jeno’s cheeks and leaning back down to seal their lips again.
It feels an awful lot like judgement day when they arrive at the sports center on the second day of the championship, the last competition they’ll face as a relay team.
As they walk through the halls to the waiting room for the swimmers, Jeno feels an aching in his gut, a complete 180 from how good he felt yesterday with his individual events. Today, Jeno can only feel greed, desperately wanting that win for his team, and dread, because he badly doesn’t want it to be their last.
“Are you nervous?” Jaemin asks quietly, thumb rubbing comfortable circles on Jeno’s thigh.
“Little bit,” Jeno exhales shakily. “We have some tough competition this year.”
“We’re tough competition too,” Renjun says, cutting in on their conversation.
They look around the arena, at some familiar faces that they’ve shared the same pool with. Jeno could name a couple who he could consider as acquaintances, who he could consider as a friend had they met under different circumstances, rather than seeing each other simply as someone to beat.
“Renjun is right,” Donghyuck says, arms extending to pull all four of them in a huddle. “We got this, okay?”
Four years in the making, and all it’s going to take is four minutes in the pool to conclude all the highs, and the lows, the hardships, the losses and all the wins.
The sound of horns signals all starting swimmers to jump into the water, and Donghyuck is the first one to peel away from their circle, smiling brightly at all three of them before lowering his goggles and plunging into the water.
There’s a brief moment of silence that puts everyone on edge. The gun goes off, everyone leaps off their seats, and their last ever race begins.
Donghyuck’s fast reflexes gets him a good start over his competitors, speeding through the first fifty meters of the pool. He keeps his pace, and when he returns to the starting block where Renjun is already waiting for their exchange, they’re still on the lead by an entire head.
Renjun doesn’t waste a split second, plunging into the water smoothly when Donghyuck’s hand reaches the touchpad. A couple of swimmers gain on his lead right after the turn, using their height and build as an advantage, but Renjun doesn’t relent, only pushes harder to close the gap as he powers through the swim back.
In no time at all, Jaemin dives in at ease, connecting with Renjun’s handover without a hitch. It’s amazing, now that Jeno thinks about it, how Jaemin had still been able to juggle training and his studies, because Jaemin is still as fast and as powerful, and too quick, he’s soaring back to where Jeno has already settled into position, ready to jump as soon as Jaemin slams a hand onto the wall.
They’re at least a head behind before Jeno makes the dive, but by the time he makes his turn, there’s barely a gap between him and the swimmer in the lead. Jeno alternates putting one hand in front of the other, pushing the water back towards his hips as he surges forward. There isn’t a shadow in sight when he looks through his goggles.
He holds his arm out as far as he could reach before he slams on the wall, and he’s never been so quick to pry his goggles off to look at the scoreboard.
“Jeno, we did it!” Jaemin shouts above him, holding a hand out to pull him out of the water. Jeno lands immediately into his arms, clinging so tight that it might cut off Jaemin’s circulation. “We won the championship, oh my god.”
Jeno can’t help but let out the most contented sigh into Jaemin’s shoulder as he slips an arm around Jaemin’s waist. “Thank you. God, if it wasn’t for you, I wouldn’t be here with you,” he says, voice muffled against Jaemin’s neck. He’s about to lean in for a kiss until a weight jumps on his shoulders with a sob (Jeno isn’t sure if the wetness is pool water or Donghyuck’s tears), and Renjun trying to worm his way between Jeno and Jaemin. Jeno chuckles, tries his hardest to swallow back the tears when he says, “I love all of you so much.”
Jeno celebrates his wins quietly, usually accepts everyone’s congratulations with a courteous bow, and pats himself on the back humbly and silently when he’s alone and no one else will be able to see. This time, he lets his team indulge; lets them and himself bask in the glory of their last medley relay win.
He wouldn’t have finished the race without them anyway.
“It’s our last day,” Jaemin says, and it feels just like yesterday when the year had just begun.
The four of them are the only ones left after a night of celebration, a little send off for the seniors that the rest of the team prepared on their last day in the team. It seems fitting that this chapter of Jeno’s life ends with them, beside the pool, late at night, where they’d spent most of their time in the last four years.
Tonight, they’ve packed their bags, and the only thing left to do is go on their separate ways.
“I’m going to miss you,” Donghyuck says, putting a hand on Jeno’s shoulder.
Jeno brushes it off and rolls his eyes. “No, you’re not.”
“You’re right. I’m not,” Donghyuck replies solemnly, only for his next words to reverberate in the entire facility, “because we’re going to KSU together, baby!”
“I’m going to miss all of you too,” Renjun chimes in from across them, smile nostalgic. “But the next time we see each other, I’ll be representing my own country, and I am going to kick all of your butts so bad.”
“You wish your teammates were us,” Donghyuck sticks his tongue out in response, and it seems like Renjun doesn’t really have a response to that, not when he actually wishes they could still be a team even after this. Donghyuck smiles teasingly, hopping up and stretching his limbs and joints. “How about one for the road, Renjun? 400 IM?”
A cheshire-cat smile creeps on Renjun’s lips as he moves to get up on his feet. “I’ll set up the scoreboard.”
When Jeno looks to his left, Jaemin is already looking at him too, lips pressed into a sad smile. Jaemin had been accepted at the school he wanted all along, majoring in Education with a minor in Physical Education, and it just so happens that he’s only thirty minutes away from KSU, so they’d be able to see each other without problems. Jeno has been nothing but supportive, constantly reminding Jaemin that he’ll be okay, despite the distance. They’ll be okay.
“You’re going to miss this,” Jeno points out for him, taking Jaemin’s hand in his.
“For sure," Jaemin affirms quietly, staring out into the expanse of the pool that’s accepted them in the last few years. “I’m glad this is how it ends -- the four of us from start to end. You and I from the very start and until the end. I wouldn’t want it any other way.”
“We’ll meet in the same pool again. Whenever you feel like it,” Jeno assures him, like he knows it for sure, leaning in to plant a kiss on Jaemin’s jaw. “And you’ll be seeing a lot of me and Donghyuck, so I don’t think it’ll be that bad.”
“I better,” Jaemin replies, slightly threatening. “It’s my turn to crash into your shared apartment all the damn time now.”
Jeno chuckles, tangling his fingers with Jaemin and folding them on his lap. “Any regrets?” Jeno asks.
“Absolutely none,” Jaemin replies easily. “You?”
“Nope,” Jeno shakes his head. “Especially not this one.”
Sometimes, he wonders what it would’ve been like if he stood his ground and didn’t let Jaemin force him to do the relay. That would’ve sucked, for sure, so he puts the thought at the back of his mind, thanking the gods that he’d been as unconsciously whipped as he was that he agreed, even when he really didn’t want to. It’s the best thing that’s happened to him, right behind learning how to swim, and falling for Jaemin.
“Yo, lovebirds, are we doing this or what?” Renjun returns, traces of nostalgia completely gone as takes his place on the diving block, remote in hand to start the clock.
“Someone’s excited to lose,” Donghyuck smirks, stretching his arms as he steps up on his block.
Jeno pushes himself up from the floor, offering a hand to help Jaemin up who says, “How about you three pray that your arms don’t give up when swimming fly?”
“Babe, you really are more cocky than me,” Jeno laughs, eyes crinkling into half moons as he takes his place.
They bend into position, fingers hooking on the edge of the diving block, and eyes fixed on the water below. Jeno takes one last good look at each of them; thinks, swimming really isn’t a lonely sport after all.
Ready. Get set. Go.
And crash into the surface they all go.