“Biggest regret,” someone asks one cold night. They’re sitting around drinking spiked cider, huddled into their coats, fire flickering over their faces. Jaemin Na is eighteen years old, slightly drunk, and a little sick to his stomach. It’s been two and a half months since he tore himself out of San Diego, California, and condemned himself to the much colder, harsher winter of Anne Arbor, Michigan.
A girl across from him—Tri Delta, annoying, drunk when she got here—says something about breaking up with her boyfriend when they both got here, but now he’s super hot and is sleeping with girls she doesn’t like on purpose, which is making her mad. Someone else says they regret pushing their parents out of their life. Then it’s Jaemin’s turn, and he tells the truth before he even registers it.
“I kissed my best friend,” he says, “and then I left.”
Heavy silence falls over the seven of them. The guy next to him—last name McCool, first name unimportant because his last name is McCool—whistles slowly. “Damn,” he says. “Have you talked with her since?”
“No,” Jaemin says, staring into the fire and trying to keep his voice steady. “He’s still in California.”
“Oh, it’s a dude,” McCool says. “Well…are you over him? Would you even wanna talk to him?”
Five years is a long time to love someone, Jaemin thinks to himself, and laughs bitterly. Too long to keep loving them, still.
“I’m not over him,” Jaemin answers at last. His breath clouds in front of him as he exhales. “Not in the slightest.”
His English class, thankfully, is canceled the Wednesday before Thanksgiving, so Jaemin flies from Ann Arbor, Michigan, back home to San Diego, California, on Tuesday morning. The airport is busy, despite it being barely eight AM, and he stumbles through security half-asleep, putting his shoes on the wrong feet and sweating through his hoodie and massive down jacket as he struggles to shove both his iPad and his laptop back in his backpack before he can be pushed aside by the people behind him, who are equally as disoriented and grumpy.
He’s got just enough time to get coffee at Starbucks, which only makes him feel like he’s about to shit his pants halfway through the four-hour flight. He tries to do some of his homework—he’s got an essay draft due this Monday, which sucks, because he hasn’t even finished the book yet. Not to mention, he’s got a math final next Saturday (he wants to know what maniac decided weekend finals were a thing) that he needs to study for, otherwise he’ll fail the class, because exams are worth 45%.
To say that he’s stressed is an understatement. It’s his first quarter of his first year of college, ever, and he already feels like dropping out. It’s time to cut the bullshit and set the record straight: college is fucking hard. School-wise, it’s no worse than high school, but Jaemin all of sudden has to balance the whole taking care of himself thing, too, which he’s pretty awful at.
Gone are the days of his mom peeling tangerines for him and his dad picking him up from school; gone are nights of good takeout and seemingly unlimited triple-shot Americanos at Starbucks (they’re expensive, Jaemin found out two weeks in, when his bank account alerted him that he had twenty dollars left for the rest of the month). Instead, there are long stretches where he forgets to eat, and nobody reminds him to go to bed when it’s two AM. He made friends that left in a week, which was strange, because his friends back home followed him from first grade through high school. The heating in his dorm barely works and his roommate is a fucking slob. Dining hall food is overpriced and makes his stomach hurt; more than once, Jaemin had gone to bed and dreamt of his parents’ cooking.
But, at the same time, he’s having the time of his life. He’s got friends from his class and the boys that live across the hall from him; older friends that throw parties in their houses, who buy him weed and alcohol like it’s no big deal. His Venmo balance surges and messages fill his timeline, falafel or thanks for the coffee or CANNOT BELIEVE I FORGOT MY WALLET. His private story is all late nights in the library, two AM 7-11 runs, boba with friends on Thursday afternoon, technologically-challenged professors who don’t know how to work PollEverywhere.
Snow comes to Michigan early November, which is so bizarre and exciting that Jaemin takes a hundred pictures and spams the group chat he’s got with all his friends from home. Originally, he’d been afraid of the distance, and it is a little weird to not see them every single day, like clockwork, but he’d FaceTimed Donghyuck last night, and Snapchats Renjun near-constantly. Even Mark, who’s shit at responding quickly, has kept in touch. Ten years is a long time to know someone, Jaemin thinks, and there’s a part of him that’s desperate to keep them all close.
There’s only one outlier:
“Have you heard from Jeno lately?” his mother asks him on the car ride from the airport, Jaemin’s jacket and hoodie abandoned in the backseat, windows cracked. The sun is out full-force, and Jaemin’s mother is wearing her massive sunglasses, the ones she’s had since Jaemin was little. He tells her often that they’ve sort of gone out of fashion, but she says there’s no reason to buy a new pair when these work just fine.
“Uh, sort of,” Jaemin replies, side-eyeing her and wondering where the question came from. As far as he knows, nobody’s parents know about him and Jeno—he’s just told his friends, and they’ve all sworn to secrecy—but his mom’s always had a second sense about these things. His older sister is the same way, quietly picking apart his secrets until he unravels. “Why do you ask?”
“Oh, no reason,” she says, casual as can be. “He got in last night, and I heard that his mother couldn’t even get out of bed to drive him from school. He had to fly.”
“You know how she is, Mom,” Jaemin says, a little distracted by his phone—Hyuck’s just texted a picture of his suitcase, packed and ready for his flight home tomorrow morning. “She’s not in super great condition.”
“I just can’t believe she’s all alone in that house,” his mother comments. “I know she wanted Jeno to be closer. I can’t believe he didn’t stay—I know UCSD would’ve taken him, a smart boy like that—”
“Can we not talk about Jeno,” Jaemin asks, putting his phone down and looking up. They’ve hit traffic at this point, and Jaemin’s tired of fielding questions about Jeno. He knows they left things on an awkward note, and that they’ll have to talk about it at some point. But that’s between him and Jeno, not between him and his mother.
“Okay, okay, sorry,” his mother says. “What do you want to talk about then? You barely tell me anything on the phone when we talk.”
Jaemin deflates. “That’s because you always call at dinnertime. There’s a two-hour time difference, remember?”
“Yes, I know,” she replies patiently, “but I didn’t think you’d be eating dinner at seven-thirty. I always think that you’ll be done.”
“Sorry,” Jaemin says, but his mom just shakes her head.
“Don’t apologize,” she says. “Just make it up to me now. How are your classes? Have you made friends?”
Jaemin lets her nitpick at his life for the rest of the car ride, and the intensity with which she listens to him tells him how much she’s missed him. Even if she won’t say it aloud.
They get back at around noon, and the dogs go crazy when they see him, jumping up and licking his hands. Grier nearly takes him out in his attempt to fit between his legs—which he can’t, because he’s a 70-pound black lab. Athena, who’s a border collie, is a little bit smaller but more nimble, meaning Jaemin almost loses an eye when she jumps up on him.
“Whoa, you guys,” Jaemin says, staggering backwards and laughing. But he drops his bags so they can lick his face, too, and by the time he extracts himself from the dogs he’s covered in fur and his sister is rushing at him, knocking the wind out of him again.
“Jaemin,” she breathes, squeezing him tightly. “Oh my god, I’ve missed you.”
“We talked last week,” Jaemin gasps. “Misun—dude, I can’t breathe—”
“Sunny, come help your father with the pizza,” their mother chides. “Let your brother put his stuff away.”
“Sorry, sorry, yes, coming,” Misun says, pulling away, her eyes wet. “God, ugh, you know how I am with these sorts of things—”
“Misun,” their mother repeats, and Misun rolls her eyes before going to help their father bring the pizza in. It’s from Jaemin’s favorite place, and they put mushrooms on half of it, just for him. For the first time all year, they finally sit down and have a meal as a family. Time stretches out as they catch up, their mother asking probing, nosy questions and their father getting into heated stories about the people who work for him.
He hauls his suitcase up to his bedroom. It’s mostly the same—a little emptier than it was, mostly because he’d taken pictures, posters, and all of that to college with him. It smells the same too, which is bizarre—like the nice shampoo his mom buys for the bathroom he shares with his sister, the Old Spice deodorant he still wears, and the blankets he’s had since he was a kid, still piled at the end of his bed. It feels a little strange to put his suitcase down on the floor by his dresser, still packed, like he’s a visitor in his own home. He sort of is, now.
He leaves his bedroom before he starts feeling sad. His mother is arguing about what they need at the grocery store; Jaemin, who hasn’t driven in a while, offers to go for her. He’s in the middle of debating prices on pumpkin filling when Renjun texts their group chat:
hello everyone who is back better show up at my house tonight or you’re all being kidnapped
Jaemin sends a few emojis in response. Donghyuck complains about being excluded and Mark says that they’ll all have to get together soon. And then Jeno says that he’ll be there, and Jaemin’s stomach sinks.
On the way back from the grocery store, he debates with himself, desire to see all of his friends warring with the awkwardness and heartache he wants to avoid. What he’d confessed at the bonfire last weekend had been true, unfortunately—he was not over Jeno, not really. Especially not after that night at the party, when Jeno had kissed him back so soundly that Jaemin had believed, for a drunken half-second, that they’d outlast the night and kiss in the morning, too. But they hadn’t, and it had ended lukewarm and awful and now they barely talked outside of the group chat, save for the occasional Snapchat like haha how r you? or just saw one of those inflatable dancing guys and thought of u lmao.
But he misses Renjun, and he’s already sent a half-dozen texts to other people he’s been meaning to catch up with, so his fate is pretty much sealed. He’ll just show up and avoid Jeno, and then pray to the universe that it’s not as awkward as he fears it’ll be.
It’s not as awkward as he thought—it’s worse. He and Jeno get there at the same time—literally, they walk up Renjun’s front steps together, Jeno in shorts and a hoodie, his hair lighter than Jaemin remembers. They smile awkwardly at each other as Jaemin texts Renjun to say that they’re here.
“How are you?” Jeno asks haltingly.
“Fine,” Jaemin replies without looking up.
A long, pregnant pause. Jaemin’s hands start to sweat.
“The weather must be nice compared to Michigan,” Jeno says, and Jaemin snorts, unable to believe that they’ve grown apart so terribly that they’ve resigned to talking about the weather.
“Yeah,” Jaemin says again, dry. Thankfully, before Jeno can say anything worse, Renjun opens the door.
“Hey guys,” Renjun says, grinning. “Wow, long time no see—”
“Renjun!” Jaemin practically shouts, flinging himself away from Jeno and into Renjun’s arms. “I missed you!”
Out of the corner of his eye, he sees Jeno’s shoulder droop, defeated. He feels a little guilty about that, though he’s not totally sure why. Renjun pats Jaemin on the back, but he’s looking between the two of them like he’s piecing something together.
“Don’t do that,” Jaemin whispers in his ear. “Stop trying to put things together.”
“You guys still haven’t talked?” Renjun whispers back, putting his arm around Jaemin’s shoulders and giving Jeno a friendly, fake smile. “Come on in,” he says, louder. “Everyone’s in the living room. Jisung just brought cake.”
“Oh, shit, that’s right,” Jeno says, face lighting up. “Chenle just turned eighteen! Holy shit! Chenle! Where is he?” Jeno kicks off his shoes and thunders into the living room, where the noise level immediately spikes. Jaemin forgot how many people he invited, but apparently it was a lot.
“What’s going on,” Renjun demands the second Jeno is out of the room. “Tell me you didn’t just let it sit, Jaemin. Please tell me you at least talked.”
“Uh, we talked,” Jaemin says, “in the group…chat…” He trails off at Renjun’s exasperated look. “Sorry, okay?” he continues, throwing his hands up. “It was awkward when we left, and it felt impossible to try to solve it when we were whole states apart.”
“You can’t avoid it forever,” Renjun warns, even as Jaemin starts to peel away and head towards the living room. “Hey, come back here—”
“Maddie Sanchez!” Jaemin says loudly, ignoring Renjun entirely. “What’s up? How’s it going?”
Maddie’s face splits into a massive grin. “Is that Jaemin Na? ”
“The man, the myth, the legend,” Julia Waters chimes, very stoned. “Looking good, dude.”
“Thanks,” Jaemin says, slapping her outstretched hand. “Nothing like absolutely freezing my ass off in the midwest.”
“Aw, it’s good for you,” Julia says, laughing. “Hey, is Mark Lee back yet?”
“Nah, Donghyuck’s going to get him tomorrow,” Jeno says. He doesn’t make eye contact with Jaemin.
So that’s how it’s gonna be, Jaemin thinks to himself sourly, crossing to sit next to Chenle, who gladly engages in conversation with him.
“Can’t believe you’re a legal adult now,” Jaemin says, heart squeezing. Chenle’s resulting smile lights up his whole face. “You’ll get sent to big-kid jail now.”
“And you can go to strip clubs,” Julia chimes in. “Or join the military.”
“Do not join the military,” Renjun scolds immediately. “Oh my god, wait, you guys are off to college.”
Jisung rolls his eyes, sinking back into the couch. “Don’t talk about it. I still have to submit the UC apps.”
“You’re set on staying in California?” Julia asks.
“Yeah, it’s cheaper,” Jisung says. “I don’t know how much aid Boston will give me, so I’m keeping my options open.”
“I’m staying in California,” Chenle says. “I don’t really want to go that far from home.”
“You thinking UCSD?” Jeno asks.
Jisung huffs. “Okay, how about no more college app talk? How about something different?”
‘Something different’ ends up being tangentially related, as they all fall into regaling each other with stories about the trainwreck that is freshman year. Maddie’s dorm was robbed, Julia broke a finger, Renjun’s roommate set fire to their microwave, and Jeno almost drowned in a fountain while he was drunk. But they’re all still alive, mostly, and when they run out of near-death experiences, they turn back to reminiscing, nostalgia only made more potent by the joint Julia shares among the few of them that slip outside close to ten. It’s a little colder than Jaemin had expected, but still incredibly mild compared to the lung-freezing Michigan weather.
Jaemin passes the joint to Jeno, who makes sure their fingers don’t touch. Jaemin wants to stomp on his foot, or shake him. Maybe both. But because he’s not Donghyuck, and also is working on this whole getting-over-Jeno thing, he restrains himself. Jeno takes a hit and passes to Maddie Sanchez, who gives him a warm smile that Jeno doesn’t flinch under.
Jaemin takes a deep breath and pretends like he doesn’t care. If Jeno’s going to ignore him, then Jaemin will return the favor.
At least for tonight, he thinks, because if there’s one flaw he cannot squash, it’s the curiosity, the desire to follow the tangled thread and straighten it. He refuses to be kept in no-man’s land, in the grey area between now and last summer. Jeno can rebuff him and not touch him and ask about the weather all he wants—for now.
Tomorrow, Jaemin thinks, he’ll get his answers. But for now, he smokes and bitterly watches Maddie and Jeno talk casually. For now, he wonders where it all went wrong—and if they’ll ever get a chance to put it right.
Donghyuck lands early that next Wednesday, before any of them are even awake. By the time they are, he’s already taken the car to go pick Mark up from UCLA. Donghyuck and Mark have played out a little like a miracle—neither of them had even suggested they make it exclusive, that they try long distance, but it had happened anyway. Not exclusive, technically, but they are, because Donghyuck, in his own words, cannot physically imagine being with anyone else. Which means that Donghyuck has sort of come out to his parents.
They know he’s dating Mark, at least, even if they’ve never sat down and had a long, involved conversation about it like Jaemin did when he told his mom. His dad knows, too, but it’s so cripplingly awkward to talk about with him that Jaemin’s just left it be, in the same way that Donghyuck’s let it be with his parents. There are just some things better left alone, Jaemin thinks, and Donghyuck being gay must be one of them.
Jaemin spends the morning helping his mom clean the house and his dad in the garden, weeding and watering and then vacuuming for so long his arm gets tired. Jeno crosses his mind only once, thankfully, because he wore himself out thinking about it last night, lying in bed and staring at the dim glow-in-the-dark stars he’d stuck on his ceiling when he was eight.
It’s half-lucid moments like these where he lets his mind play back through that night at the party—Jaemin, a few Coronas in, coupled with a few shots of cheap vodka, crammed in the kitchen with Renjun and Donghyuck. Then there’d been Jeno, talking with Mark, ignoring Jaemin—ignoring Jaemin right until Jaemin had gotten in his face and demanded what his problem was. Being drunk gives Jaemin a way out of his own head, and it’s never pretty, never without consequence. This time, the collateral was a six-year friendship, dissolving when Jeno had told Jaemin, kiss me, and Jaemin had done it.
There was no going back to normal, not after the way Jaemin had dragged Jeno down the hallway and had kissed him again, harder, and the space between their bodies had shrunk and vanished. That night, he’d smelled like sea salt and shampoo and tasted like cheap alcohol and something headier.
And now it's awkward, almost unbearably so. They need to talk about it, Jaemin knows—the only issue is, Jaemin doesn’t even know where to start.
But this is why he’s got his friends, even if they’re dating. Actually, their whole friend group is sort of pairing up with each other (minus Renjun, because he clearly was using the brain cell while the rest of them were accidentally falling in love). But Donghyuck is still better at solving Jaemin’s problems than Jaemin himself is, and Mark says things like it’ll work out, dude and is generally very loving and supportive. The only issue is, Donghyuck doesn’t like to sit still and Mark sort of does whatever Donghyuck wants nowadays, so Jaemin somehow ends up at Vertical Hold with the climbing shoes he barely uses, being coerced into renting a harness because he’s belay certified, and Mark isn’t.
“I somehow feel like I’m being finessed into this,” Jaemin comments, eyes narrowed as Donghyuck tightens his leg loops. “When I said I needed advice, there was no climbing implied—“
“I’ve started charging for my services,” Donghyuck interrupts. “And also, look, two birds with one stone. And it’s a two-for-one deal.” He gestures at Mark, who’s stretching on the ground with a pained expression.
“How am I supposed to talk to you when you’re on the wall, though?” Jaemin asks.
“When I climb, you talk to Mark. When Mark climbs, you’ll talk to me. When you climb, we’ll talk about you behind your back.”
Jaemin opens his mouth to argue back—he doesn’t really want to climb, because it’s hard and he doesn't like heights and Donghyuck always shows off, which is annoying—but Donghyuck’s reasoning is, unfortunately, very sound.
“Fine,” Jaemin mutters. “I’ll belay you and your stupid boyfriend.”
“The stupid boyfriend would like you to know that he’s also your friend,” Mark pipes up, reaching for his toes. “Plus, I’ve got something that might help.”
“Weed?” Jaemin asks hopefully, and Mark laughs.
“Well, yeah,” he says, “but also, like, some insider knowledge.”
Jaemin squints. “Insider knowledge?”
Mark gets to his feet, and they head over towards the top rope walls. “Remember that conversation I had with Jeno at the party?”
“Oh, the super sketchy one,” Donghyuck says, nodding.
“The one you immediately stopped as soon as we came over?” Jaemin asks.
“Yeah,” Mark says. “I didn’t want to say anything about it then, but I feel like it’s probably okay now.”
Donghyuck leads them over to a corner, peering up at the route. “I’m gonna do this nine to start,” he decides, looping the rope through his harness and starting to tie in. He hands Jaemin his ATC.
“How do the grades work again?” Mark asks as Donghyuck runs through safety checks.
“It’s always five-point-something,” Donghyuck explains. “The higher the number, the harder the grade.”
“Ah,” Mark says. “Should I do a five-nine?”
“You could try if you wanted to," Donghyuck says, giving Mark a sweet, supportive smile. “Jaemin, on belay?”
Jaemin makes sure the carabiner is locked. “Belay on.”
“Climbing,” Donghyuck says.
“Climb on,” Jaemin answers, and when Donghyuck starts climbing, Mark picks up where he left off.
“Okay, so,” Mark says, “please don’t freak out on me or drop Hyuck when I say this.”
“Not a good start,” Jaemin says, laughing and trying to ignore the way his stomach flipped over. “What did Jeno say?”
Mark hesitates, clearly thinking hard. “Please don’t tell Jeno I told you this.”
“Dude, come on,” Jaemin complains, taking in slack so aggressively the ATC clatters. “Just tell me.”
“Well, basically,” Mark says, “he told me he was into you.”
Jaemin’s mind practically sets on fire. “He said what now?”
“Jaemin, you’re lowering Hyuck really fast,” Mark points out, and Jaemin jerks down on the rope before Donghyuck smacks into the ground, which is rocky rather than mat-covered, for some reason.
“Sorry,” Jaemin says as Donghyuck unties himself. He turns back to Mark. “You’re kidding. You’re telling me that Jeno liked me back?”
“I thought you were over him,” Mark says, eyebrows furrowing.
“Does it look like Jaemin’s the kind of person who gets over people?” Donghyuck snorts.
“You're no better,” Jaemin points out, just to be fair. Donghyuck scowls, but it’s true—he had a crush on Mark for ages before he did anything about it. Mark looks between them like he’s not sure what’s going on. “So you’re telling me we’ve been awkward for no reason? That I’ve been overthinking for no reason?”
“Uh, if it makes you feel better,” Mark says, “Jeno was having a pretty rough time with it too.”
Jaemin frowns and thinks this over, inching his way up one of the easier routes. By the time he gets back to the ground, Donghyuck has formulated a response as well.
“If you think about it,” he says, “which I know you have—probably too much, honestly—you guys haven’t made it easy for each other. I mean, you’re not an easy person to read, believe it or not. And Jeno is so sweet, but he’s also very confused and does a poor job communicating that.”
Jaemin heaves a sigh, leaning back against the climbing wall. “I guess we haven’t. Fuck, I hate this.”
“Yeah, shit sucks,” Mark says sympathetically, patting Jaemin on the back.
“What do I do?” Jaemin asks helplessly. “I don't want him to mess me up again, but I also…” He trails off, twisting his hands together and hovering on the edge of a truth he hasn’t admitted aloud to anyone.
“Also what?” Donghyuck asks, and Jaemin takes a deep breath.
“But I also sort of want to give it a chance,” Jaemin says. “If he wants to, of course.”
“I think he does,” Mark says, and Jaemin can tell that he’s not just saying that. “But you really should go talk to him.”
“Yeah, dude, you guys need to talk,” Donghyuck agrees, shaking his head like he’s not somehow equally as idiotic. “Ah, Jaemin. What would you do without us?”
“I would’ve done a lot better in school, probably,” Jaemin quips, “and I wouldn’t have spent over fifty bucks on boba last year.”
“Hey, that’s fifty dollars well-spent,” Donghyuck argues. “And you know that.”
“You know what,” Jaemin replies, “I can’t even disagree. It was well-spent.”
Donghyuck spends a few more minutes giving Jaemin shit before he sobers again. “So you’re good? You’re gonna to talk to him?”
Jaemin lets out a slow breath. “Yeah,” he says. “I will.”
Mark and Donghyuck head back north, but only after Mark gets Jaemin to promise that no matter how it goes, he’ll come over to Mark’s place after he’s done.
“Are you gonna text him?” Donghyuck asks, one leg in Mark’s Jeep, a worried expression on his face.
“No, I know where he is,” Jaemin says, pulling up the Snapchat map. Jeno’s Bitmoji—wearing a chef outfit, which Donghyuck had set it to over last summer when Jeno worked at the noodle restaurant—is hovering around Pacific Beach.
“Oh yeah, he said he was gonna try to get on his board today,” Mark says, nodding. “I was gonna go tomorrow, if you wanna come.” He says this last bit to Donghyuck, who pales and shakes his head.
“Still not a massive fan of the ocean,” he says.
“You go to school in Seattle,” Jaemin points out. “That’s literally on the coast.”
“Yeah, but surfing isn’t, like, the hot-and-trendy thing to do there,” Donghyuck says, crossing his arms. “It’s all climbers and skiers and people who drink black coffee out of Hydroflasks. You should come visit.”
“What, and develop a vitamin D deficiency?” Jaemin laughs.
“I’ll have you know that it's been really nice so far,” Donghyuck says. “If you like mid-forties and sunny.”
“Don’t know about the mid-forty part,” Mark says dubiously. “I don’t have a coat for weather that cold.”
“Aw, big baby,” Donghyuck coos, leaning over to kiss Mark on the cheek. Something in Jaemin's chest squeezes, and he quickly makes a few retching noises to cover the bitter taste that rises in his throat at the sight of their easy, instinctive affection.
“Alright, I’m out of here,” Jaemin says, turning to leave before he can feel even worse. Not that it's Mark and Donghyuck’s fault, necessarily—it’s almost entirely his own for being an idiot and getting in this massive, tangled mess with Jeno.
Not everyone just falls together, he reminds himself as he says his goodbyes and heads towards his car. Google Maps says it’s a ten-minute drive, which is uncharacteristic of San Diego. He hasn’t missed California traffic in the slightest. At school, he either walks, bikes, or takes the bus—there’s none of this bullshit bumper-to-bumper traffic just so he can go three miles.
Jaemin starts the car. The radio turns on, playing that one song by Bazzi, and he asks Jeno (in the group chat, of course) where he is, saying that he’ll be by Pacific Beach because he’s picking up a gift for his sister. It’s not necessarily the truth, but he’s been meaning to buy her something for her birthday, which is on the Monday he goes back to school.
Yeah I’m just now getting done I’ll meet you on the pier? Jeno asks, and Jaemin texts back a thumbs up. He gets on the freeway and a few minutes later, he’s squeezing his car into what is possibly the smallest parking space known to mankind—and of course, it also happens to be approximately nineteen miles away from where Jaemin needs to be.
Tourists and families alike stroll the streets. Jaemin jaywalks, nearly gets hit by a guy on rollerblades, and has to duck underneath a girl carrying a massive surfboard. There are people already beginning to flock towards the pier in preparation of the sunset. Jaemin passes by the white shacks with their little blue doors, looking for Jeno. It’s not too busy, thankfully, so Jeno spots him with relative ease—standing at the end, leaning on the railing, talking on the phone. His surfboard is propped next to him and he’s still in his swim trunks, the shoulders of his hoodie a little wet from his hair. He lifts a hand in a soundless greeting, and Jaemin joins him at the railing, looking out over the waves. The wind lifts his hair from his neck, salty and slightly fishy-smelling.
“I’m good here, Dad," Jeno is saying, turning so his back is to the ocean. Jaemin braces his arms on the railing, trying not to be obvious about his eavesdropping. “No, Mom probably won’t do anything, but you know she doesn't like Thanksgiving—“ He pauses, hurt flickering over his face. “That's not very nice.”
Another pause, and then, “Dad, I’m not coming to New Jersey. I’m staying in California. I want to see my friends.” There’s something discordant in his voice, like he’s both angry and sad. Jaemin starts to edge away, wanting to give him privacy, but Jeno catches his sleeve, holding him in place.
Jaemin stays. Honestly, there’s not much more running that either of them can do—he can only avoid this certain conversation for so long. He's terrified that he’ll have to let Jeno go, all the way, because Jaemin’s still not over him. And even if Jeno theoretically was into him, who knows what might have changed over the last two and a half months? That night meant something to both of them, clearly, but what if Jeno’s already moved on?
Jeno pulls Jaemin out of his head before he can start spiraling, nudging him gently. He’s off the phone, now, and his attention is on Jaemin.
“Hey,” Jeno says.
“What’s up,” Jaemin replies, and both of them hesitate awkwardly. The hesitation is funny, though, that Jaemin can’t help but snort, and the tension dissipates immediately as they both dissolve into laughter.
“Wow, we’ve really fucked it all up,” Jaemin says, a little breathless. Jeno grins, though there’s something unsure about his expression, like he can’t tell if Jaemin is joking or not.
There’s a brief moment of silence. Seagulls screech off in the distance, and Jaemin looks at the familiar planes of Jeno’s face. The face he’s known (and loved!) for years, now, as something decisively non-platonic, but mostly as one of his best friends. And it’s both kinds of love that have him saying, “come to Thanksgiving at my house.”
Jeno blinks. “What?”
“I mean it,” Jaemin says. “My family loves you, and you shouldn’t have to be alone on Thanksgiving.”
“There’s gonna be aunts and uncles, baby cousins and my grandma and grandpa,” Jaemin hurries on, not caring how desperate he sounds. “Please come. Don’t go to New Jersey.” His heart is pounding hard in his chest, so hard he feels like he might be a little sick.
Jeno stares at Jaemin for a long moment. Behind him, the tops of the waves are starting to turn creamy gold as the sun sinks towards the horizon. Something fills the air between them, and they lean in at the same time. It’s not the messy, drunken kiss they shared over the summer—it’s colder, saltier, and much softer. Something settles in Jaemin, and a feeling of relief washes over him as Jeno pulls back, eyes curving as he smiles.
“If you don’t mind having me,” Jeno says, “then I’d love to come.”
Jaemin has to take a second to remember what they were talking about. “Oh, Thanksgiving,” he says, embarrassed, and Jeno laughs. “My parents always cook too much, anyway. And you’re always welcome.” He pauses. “Should we, uh…do you wanna talk about it?”
“Maybe later,” Jeno says. “Not now.”
Jaemin is about to protest, but Jeno tugs him forward by the drawstrings of his hoodie and kisses him again. And by then, whatever Jaemin was going to say doesn’t matter anymore, washed away by the sound of the water, the wind in his hair, and Jeno’s lips on his.
By the time they get to Mark’s house, the horizon is alive with the colors of the sunset, pink and yellow and violet streaking the sky. Jeno sits in the passenger seat of Jaemin’s car, and the backs of their hands brush twice before Jaemin links his fingers with Jeno’s. There’s a little bit of rush-hour traffic they get stuck in, and Jaemin rolls down the windows and Jeno turns up the volume to let Oasis’ ‘Champagne Supernova’ float from the stereo like a golden dream.
“Do you need me to bring anything to your house tomorrow?” Jeno asks.
“The last thing we’ll need is more food,” Jaemin says, merging so he doesn’t miss his turn. “Just bring yourself, and maybe wear jeans without holes in the knees.”
“I can do that,” Jeno says. “Hey, uh, on the subject of holes, um, what are we saying to everyone?”
“How is that on the subject of holes,” Jaemin deadpans, taking a right. Downtown has given way to the warm-colored stucco houses and eclectic mix of restaurants that make up Donghyuck and Mark’s neighborhood. The ocean is no longer visible, but the wind still carries the faint tang of salt. The slightly-nauseating fishy smell that hangs around a lot of piers and boardwalks in the city has lifted. It’s quiet enough that ‘Here Comes the Sun’ by the Beatles seems to fill the street, and the sound of Jaemin closing his door echoes off the houses. Jaemin has pulled in behind Mark’s terribly-parked Jeep—parallel parking will always be Mark’s weakness, Jaemin thinks—and he and Jeno make their way up to Mark’s house.
“You never answered my question,” Jeno prompts quietly. “What do we—what do you want to tell them?”
“Uh,” Jaemin says, “what do you want to tell them?”
“That we talked?” Jeno offers. “Unless…”
“Unless what?” Jaemin asks, heart jumping into his throat. Jeno’s brow wrinkles, and Jaemin wants to kiss him again—is actually halfway to kissing him again, except Donghyuck opens the back gate and shouts at them so loudly they startle apart. Jeno almost stumbles off the curb and grabs onto the back of Jaemin’s shirt with a yelp. Jaemin drops his phone, trips backwards, and swears. It’s a miracle that he and Jeno don’t fatally wound themselves somehow.
“My heart just stopped,” Jaemin wheezes, bracing his hands on his knees and exhaling. Donghyuck is losing his shit, laughing so hard he’s in tears. “Donghyuck, what the fuck, why’d you do that, why can’t you be normal, for once—god, I need new friends, what the hell, dude—”
“That hurt,” Jeno says, a little petulant, rotating his foot.
Jaemin scoops up his phone. “If it’s cracked, Donghyuck, I’m going to be so pissed.” It isn’t, thankfully—his case is a little scratched, but otherwise, his phone is unharmed. Donghyuck wipes his streaming eyes, face red.
Renjun appears from behind Donghyuck. “What’s happening out here? Why is Donghyuck laughing so hard?”
“He thinks he’s really funny,” Jaemin says cooly, even though he’s not really that mad. It was pretty funny, honestly, especially now that he knows his phone—and Jeno’s ankle—isn’t broken. “And he’s not.”
“Hey, do you have food?” Jeno asks, completely off-topic. “I’m starving.”
“Mark’s dad is a chef,” Donghyuck says. “There’s always food. Also, we’re thinking of setting a fire and inviting some people over, if you guys are down?”
“Uh, medium-down for the people,” Jeno says. “I haven’t seen you or Mark yet.”
“Yeah, fair enough,” Donghyuck says, nodding thoughtfully.
“But fire, absolutely,” Jeno adds, and they follow Donghyuck and Renjun into Mark’s small but neat backyard, one of those mini palm trees casting dappled, fading shadows over the brick patio.
“Um, if you guys are drinking tonight, I’m out,” Jaemin says. “I have nine billion family members coming over tomorrow, and I can’t be hungover and dealing with babies.”
“Nah, no drinking,” Donghyuck says, waving a hand. “I’m two months into school and I’m already sick of that shit.”
“Me too,” Renjun adds. “Especially boxed wine.”
All four of them shudder at the mention.
“I’m down for no drinking,” Jeno says, pulling them back, “and even more down for a sandwich.”
“Mark’s in the kitchen, I think,” Renjun offers. Jeno gives him a thumbs up, sliding open the back door and kicking his shoes off. As soon as he’s out of sight, both Donghyuck and Renjun wheel on Jaemin, simultaneous and a little terrifying.
“Did you talk?” Donghyuck asks, eyes narrowing.
Jaemin keeps his expression neutral, even as his pulse spikes. “Yep.”
“And it went well,” Jaemin says, crossing over to the fire pit, tossing a log in. “Can we actually just get dinner? Tell Jeno to stop making his sandwich, I’ll just order pizza and you guys can Venmo me—”
“Don’t do that with your face,” Renjun says, not letting the subject change distract him. “By being unreadable, you’re just telling us that something did go down.”
“Barely,” Jaemin scoffs. “Do we have lighter fluid?”
“Uh, it should be under there,” Mark interrupts, nudging open the door with an elbow, a bag of Fritos tucked under his arm. “Also, did you say pizza? Because that sounds pretty awesome right now.”
Jaemin locates the lighter fluid. “I did say pizza.”
“Sweet, I’ll Venmo you,” Mark says, pulling out his phone with his free hand.
“Hey,” Donghyuck complains. “Stop changing the subject. We were grilling him about his talk with Jeno.”
“What talk with who?” Jeno asks, also emerging from the kitchen, peeling a tangerine.
“You and Jaemin,” Renjun says to him.
Jaemin and Jeno exchange a glance. A corner of Jeno’s mouth twitches, threatening to turn up. “What about me and Jaemin?” Jeno asks, playing dumb.
“Jaemin said you talked,” Donghyuck says, crossing his arms. “Did you?”
“Jaemin and I talked, yeah,” Jeno confirms. “It would be weird if we just sat in his car in silence, right?”
“That’s not what I mean, and you know that,” Donghyuck says, scowling. “I meant the party.”
“Last night’s party?” Mark asks, sounding genuinely confused. “Wait, I have no idea what you guys are talking about.”
Jeno can’t hold back his grin anymore, and Jaemin feels his own facade cracking, too. Jeno’s eyes curve, and Jaemin snorts, clapping a hand over his mouth to try to muffle it.
“Oh my god, you guys totally talked,” Donghyuck huffs. “About what? Did it go well?”
“Hyuck, just let it go, they’re gonna be assholes about it,” Renjun advises, scowling.
“No, I wanna know,” Donghyuck whines. “Does this mean Jeno isn’t the token straight anymore? Does this mean we’re all Asian and gay?”
“And bi,” Mark corrects, his mouth full of Fritos.
Donghyuck points at him. “And bi,” he adds. He looks between the two of them, but Jeno and Jaemin just keep laughing. Something warm unfolds in Jaemin’s chest, and later, he’ll sit far too close to Jeno than is strictly necessary, and Donghyuck calls them out on it so many times that Jeno ends up laughing so hard pizza comes out of his nose.
They make s’mores with gourmet graham crackers, because that’s the sort of person that Mark’s dad is. People inevitably do end up stopping by—but it’s mostly Jisung and Chenle, and Maddie Sanchez at one point, who holds Jeno’s s’more while he carefully rolls a joint, balancing it on his knee. They’re talking too quietly for Jaemin to hear, and something in his stomach sinks—it’s public knowledge that Jeno was once absolutely whipped for Maddie. But the rising jealousy is quickly crushed when Maddie hugs Jeno and turns to Jaemin. “Be good to each other,” she says, and there is nothing on her face but genuine affection. “Everyone always thought you would be cute together.”
Jeno’s face looks a little pink, Jaemin thinks, but that may just be the light of the fire.
They smoke the joint, campfire smoke disguising the smell somewhat. Mark’s mom and stepdad probably know what they’re getting up to, but by the time they get back, it’s just the four of them, plus Chenle and Jisung, and nobody has been drinking and driving. So they let it go, and instead, offer beds to anyone that wants to stay.
Everyone does, and Jaemin texts his mom to inform her before migrating into the living room, where Mark turns on the TV so they can play Smash. Jaemin isn’t very good because he’s fairly stoned, so he gives up and watches TikToks over Jisung’s shoulder.
“You smell like weed,” Jisung comments, nose wrinkling, but lets Jaemin lean on him anyway.
Eventually, when Mark gets tired of having his ass kicked by Renjun, he and Donghyuck head up to Mark’s room.
“Please don’t have noisy sex,” Jisung shouts at them, and they all laugh when Mark trips over his own feet and almost falls down the stairs.
“Jisung, my parents are literally still awake,” Mark despairs. “We’re not—”
“Not yet, at least,” Donghyuck corrects. “Especially not with Chenle in the house. He’s a baby.”
“Chenle’s not a virgin,” Jisung says, and Chenle’s whole face goes red.
“He’s a baby,” Donghyuck repeats, horrified. “I don’t wanna hear about it.” But they hear him ask Mark a few seconds later, “is that true?”
“Uh,” Mark says, and Donghyuck shrieks. Then there’s the sound of a door closing, and the house goes quiet again.
A little while later, Jisung peels himself off the couch and starts dragging blankets out of the closet. “I’m not sharing a bed,” he warns everyone.
“Nobody wants to share a bed with you anyway,” Renjun says. “You kick in your sleep.”
“I’ll sleep out here with you,” Chenle offers.
“I call the guest bedroom,” Jaemin says before Renjun can.
“Wait, shit, can I shower first in there?” Jeno asks. “I need to change, too.”
“Yeah, no problem,” Jaemin says. Renjun gives them both a long, measured look, and Jaemin scowls at him. “Shut up, Renjun.”
“Didn’t say anything,” Renjun replies loftily. “Jeno, we’ll save you a spot out here in case you want it.”
It’s a trap! Jaemin screams internally. If Jeno rejects the spot, everyone will give them shit. If he accepts, then Jaemin doesn’t get to do some mild bedsharing with the guy he’s been in love with for years. Either way, it’s a lose-lose, unless—
“Thanks,” Jeno says, cool-headed and neutral. Jaemin’s spiral abruptly stops, and Renjun gives Jeno an appraising look. Donghyuck once said Jeno had a boulder instead of a brain, but maybe it’s a smart boulder.
“Wow,” Jaemin says quietly as he helps Jeno lug his stuff into the bedroom. “That was impressively cool-headed.”
“Really?” Jeno asks. “I didn’t want to give anything away, or, like, make you uncomfortable—”
“You didn’t,” Jaemin assures him.
“But at the same time,” Jeno says, voice lowering, “I sort of…wanted to, uh, stay.”
Jaemin’s brain grinds to a halt for the second time in five minutes. Maybe he’s the one with the boulder brain. “What?” he asks, a little shocked. He’s got a pretty good idea of what Jeno means, but he just—it’s Jeno.
“Not like that, not like that,” Jeno blurts out quickly, turning red. “I wanted—you know what, never mind, it’s not important.”
“Jeno,” Jaemin says dumbly, but Jeno makes a break for the bathroom, shutting the door behind him.
Jaemin opens a new toothbrush and washes his face, tiptoeing upstairs and listening to make sure Mark and Donghyuck aren’t doing anything before he even knocks. All he can hear, however, is ‘Hey Jude’ by the Beatles and the faint strains of sleepy conversation. The light from Mark’s room spills out from under the door, casting strange shadows on the picture frames on the wall.
Jaemin knocks. There’s a pause, then Mark goes, “Yeah, what’s up?”
Jaemin cracks open the door, averting his eyes (just in case! He has no desire to see either of them naked!) but Mark and Donghyuck are sitting opposite each other on the bed, fully clothed. Jaemin doesn’t know what they were talking about, but Donghyuck is looking at Mark like he’s hung the stars. One of Mark’s legs is crossed over Donghyuck’s, and they fit together so easily that Jaemin can see why they’ll always wait for each other. Their sort of love in one-in-a-million, once-in-a-lifetime, and Jaemin is both immensely happy and incredibly jealous. He wants that. He wants to fall together with someone as easily and Mark and Donghyuck did, wants him and Jeno to work out so badly he feels it like a physical ache in his heart.
“I was wondering if I could borrow pajamas,” Jaemin says, leaning against the doorframe.
“Yeah, yeah, of course,” Mark says, getting up and heading towards his dresser. He tosses a t-shirt and a pair of shorts Jaemin’s way.
“Thanks,” Jaemin says, and Mark gives him a thumbs up.
“No problem,” he says, and goes to sit back down.
Jaemin hesitates in the doorway, and Donghyuck, more observant than anyone gives him credit for, catches it.
“Hey, Jaem, you okay?” he asks.
Jaemin exhales heavily. “Yeah, it’s just…”
“Jeno?” Donghyuck guesses, crossing his arms over his chest.
“Um,” Jaemin says, trying very hard not to give everything away. “Theoretically, if it was, uh, about Jeno—”
Donghyuck rolls his eyes. Mark grins.
“He’s, uh, being weird. Weird and shy,” Jaemin says, and adds, “theoretically, of course.”
“Of course,” Mark says, body quaking with barely-restrained laughter. Donghyuck, however, seems to think seriously about it.
“He’s nervous,” Donghyuck says after a second. Jaemin waits for the second half of the answer—or at least an explanation—but nothing comes.
“That’s it? ” He asks, dubious. “I’m nervous too, but you don’t see me being weird about it!”
“You are being weird about it,” Donghyuck says. “You close off and act defensive and then smile when people ask you questions.”
A nervous laugh bubbles up in Jaemin’s chest, and he catches himself before he can prove Donghyuck right. Donghyuck raises an eyebrow. “See?” he says, and Jaemin crosses his arms defensively. “Look, there you go again.”
Jaemin glares at him, and Donghyuck raises his hands in surrender.
“Take a deep breath, dude,” Mark advises. “It’s weird, because like, you’ve known each other for this long and then it’s like, fuck, where do we go next?”
“But then you realize,” Donghyuck continues, “that it’s a lot easier than you’re making it out to be. However long you’ve been kissing each other, you’ve loved each other for far longer. Just go with that.”
Jaemin looks at the two of them, pressed together on the bed, and wonders when he started looking to them for advice. True, Mark still called him dude and Donghyuck is still gross and immature, but.
But they have a point. Unfortunately.
“You good?” Mark asks. “You gonna make it?”
“Yeah,” Jaemin says, breathing out and already feeling a lot better. “I think so.” He turns to go.
“Wait,” Donghyuck says.
Jaemin stops. “What?”
Donghyuck tilts his head in the direction of Mark’s computer, which is the source of the music. “The best part is coming,” he says, and all three of them sit in silence as they listen to the rising chords of ‘Hey Jude’, the verse giving way to the na-na-nas that everyone knows.
“Always worth waiting for,” Donghyuck says, but he’s looking at Mark.
“Okay,” Jaemin says, because that’s clearly his cue to leave. “Goodnight. And thanks.”
Jeno is still in the bathroom when Jaemin gets back to the room, so he changes into the clothes Mark loaned him and plugs his phone in, crawling under the covers. He’s just opened Instagram when the bathroom door opens, and the room suddenly smells like shampoo and shower steam.
Jeno stands in the doorway, face freshly washed, pajama shirt hanging loosely around his shoulders. It’s from a junior surfing competition, years ago—Jaemin can sort of remember it. Jeno had done well, Mark hadn’t, and then they’d gotten In-n-Out, crammed in Donghyuck’s mom’s minivan. He’s amazed the shirt even still fits Jeno, who is both much taller and much broader than he’d been in 2013. He looks good, and it’s just his pajamas.
God, Jaemin must be losing it.
“What?” Jeno asks, looking down at himself. Jaemin pulls his eyes away and goes back to his phone, feigning disinterest.
“Nothing,” he says, fake-casual.
Jeno can tell, but he’s never been one to pry, not like Donghyuck or Renjun. So he leaves it be, and Jaemin almost resents him for it. If Jeno pried, then maybe something between them would move.
Instead, they stagnate, and Jaemin wants to scream. The pier feels like ages ago, a memory already gathering dust. He wants to kiss Jeno again, if only to make sure it wasn’t a dream.
“Are there extra blankets?” Jeno asks, crossing to the end of the room and opening the linen closet. “I know Mark’s got extra pillows and stuff, but do you know about, like, a quilt? It’s like a crypt in here, and I don’t want to freeze on the ground.”
“No,” Jaemin says. He likes Donghyuck’s finsta post, which is a series of screenshots of texts between him and Mark. They really are Dumb and Dumber, Jaemin thinks.
Jeno continues to rummage around in the linen closet. Jaemin is tired of watching him—is tired of Jeno in general—so he huffs and decides to close the space. What the hell. They kissed, right? And it’s not like they’re gonna do anything else, even if he wants—
Jaemin shuts his mind down before it can finish that thought.
“Hey, just share the bed,” Jaemin says, tossing a pillow at Jeno. It hits him square in the back and he turns, frowning. “It’s late. Everyone else is asleep.”
“Are you sure?” Jeno asks, hesitant. There’s another silent, tacked-on question there that Jaemin can’t quite decipher, and he’s not sure if it really is okay, since they still haven’t talked—but at the same time, it’s Jeno. Jeno Lee, his best friend of many years.
You kissed, a part of Jaemin’s mind goes.
And? he demands. So? We’re both nervous.
There’s no response, so he pulls the other half of the comforter back and takes one of the pillows he’s leaning against and moves it over. Jeno’s always been a two-pillow sleeper, Jaemin remembers, whereas Jaemin has always slept on just one.
“Okay,” Jeno says quietly. He hits the lights, and the room is plunged into semi-darkness, the street light filtering weakly through the curtains. Jaemin holds his phone up so Jeno can see where he’s going, and a second later, the bed dips on his right, the covers shifting as Jeno settles in, picking up his phone from where it’s already charging on the bedside table.
They lie back-to-back in silence for a while, their breathing the only sound.
“I’m still high,” Jeno says finally, and Jaemin snorts. “No, seriously, Mark’s got all the seniors buying him weed now, so it’s like, legit.”
Jaemin takes a slow breath in through his nose, assessing. “Guess I’m still a little high too,” he says, and Jeno goes, “see?”
Another brief second of silence. Jeno puts his phone face-down on the bedside table and rolls onto his back. After a second, Jaemin does the same. It doesn’t take long for Jeno to speak up again.
“You don’t regret kissing me, right?” Jeno asks.
“The first or the second time?”
Jeno laughs, but the sound is a little strangled. “Um, both?”
“The first, maybe,” Jaemin says honestly, and Jeno releases a breath. “But the second time, not as much.”
“Oh,” Jeno says, voice very quiet and small. He doesn’t elaborate, and Jaemin lets his answer sit between them in the cool, still darkness.
“Why, did you regret it?” Jaemin asks after a few minutes, rolling onto his side. It takes Jeno so long to answer that for a moment, Jaemin thinks he’s fallen asleep.
His own eyes are closing when Jeno eventually says, “No, I didn’t.”
“Good,” Jaemin says. “You’ll still come to Thanksgiving at my house?”
“Yeah,” Jeno says, and Jaemin can hear his smile, a soft noise against the pillowcase. He’s rolled onto his side, too, and they stare at each other from opposite ends of the bed. If Jaemin was brave enough, he could reach out and touch Jeno’s shoulder.
Jaemin isn’t brave enough. However, Jeno is, and his fingertips brush along the side of Jaemin’s face, so lightly Jaemin almost thinks he’d imagined it.
“Cool,” Jaemin says, reaching up and stopping Jeno before he can pull away.
Jeno takes his hand off of Jaemin’s face, but presses their palms together, resting their hands between them. A bridge between two unsure, hesitant bodies, breaching what feels like miles of empty space.
“Cool,” Jeno echoes, quieter. They don’t say anything more after that, but Jeno’s hand doesn’t move, even as his fingers relax and he twitches as he starts to fall asleep. In the morning, they’ll find that the seemingly-endless gap between them has nearly closed, and that Jeno has almost fit himself against Jaemin’s side, a promise of what could be.
They return to Jaemin’s house just as things are starting to get hectic. Jaemin’s mom gives Jeno a huge hug before she puts the two of them and Misun to work, prepping the guest room and handing out grocery lists of things that still need to be bought. They work for the majority of the morning, changing sheets and vacuuming and cleaning rooms and running between the fridge in the kitchen and the fridge in the garage with pie crusts, frozen vegetables and kimchi.
Family starts arriving around lunchtime, when the three of them are taking a break at the kitchen table eating quesadillas Misun made. First it’s his mom’s sister and her two kids, a few years younger than Jaemin; then comes his dad’s sister and her husband and their kids, who are much younger than Jaemin. Then there’s his grandparents, who immediately latch onto Jeno and ask him a hundred prying questions about his life. His sister’s boyfriend, Ben, shows up with the turkey, which he and Jeno’s mother immediately get to work on.
Jeno and Jaemin are thus tasked with entertaining the babies, who aren’t true babies—Gemma is six, and Carson is four—but they’re not old enough to help with anything, and thus, must be kept out of the way. It’s not totally relaxing, but he’ll take it over vacuuming or dog-wrangling. Gemma dumps out all of her Barbie clothes and enlists Jeno in helping dress them. Carson babbles happily about Paw Patrol and about how he wants to be a mermaid when he grows up, just like his mom.
“Mommy’s not a mermaid,” Gemma interrupts. “She’s a veterinarian.”
“She talks to seals!” Carson protests, “and dolphins! That’s a mermaid!”
“She can be both,” Jaemin mediates. “A mermaid and a veterinarian.”
Carson turns to him. “What’s a veterinarian?”
“An animal doctor,” Jaemin says. “It means that she makes sure no animals are getting sick.”
“Oh,” Carson says. “Why?”
Jaemin opens his mouth, finds he doesn’t really have an answer, and closes it. “Uh—”
“Because sick animals are sad animals,” Jeno says, who’s on his stomach digging through the pile of Barbie shoes on the carpet. “And nobody likes sad animals, right?”
“No,” Carson agrees, looking mollified.
“I don’t like sad animals,” Gemma says self-importantly, and Jeno smiles at her, handing her a fully-dressed Barbie. “Oh, thanks!” She says. “Whoa, she’s even wearing matching shoes!”
“Very important in any outfit,” Jeno says, and Jaemin laughs. Gemma marvels at the doll for a second longer before she starts sorting through the shoes.
Jaemin scoots closer to Jeno. “Sorry this is so chaotic,” he says, sheepish. “I know this isn’t what you pictured, having to babysit—”
“No,” Jeno interrupts quietly, sliding forward on his stomach and putting a hand on Jaemin’s ankle, hand warm. “I like it. I’ve never had Thanksgiving like this, not even with my dad. It’s either me and Mom, or my dad and his family. But they’re quiet, and don’t get along very well.”
Jaemin blinks, surprised. He can’t recall not having people over during the holidays. It always feels like the house is overflowing with family from all over, some coming from northern California or Oregon or maybe even Chicago, just to see them. Nobody really fights, everyone cooks, and the pile of shoes by the door grows so massive that the dogs trip over it.
“I’m glad you’re here, then,” Jaemin says fondly, brushing some of the hair out of Jeno’s face. “Don’t want you to be sad during Thanksgiving.”
Jeno grins at him, rolling over and waking Grier, who’d been asleep in the patch of sun on the carpet next to them. He cracks an eye open, tail thumping against the ground when Jaemin reaches over to scratch behind his ears.
“I honestly miss my dogs the most,” Jaemin says, and Grier chuffs and moves his head so it rests on Jaemin’s thigh. “I get to FaceTime my sister all I want, and I call my parents, but I don’t ever see my dogs.”
“I want a dog,” Jeno says, shifting so he can pet Grier’s side. Their legs tangle, and Jaemin starts to pull away, a reflex, but Jeno puts a hand on his ankle again, stopping him. Grounding him. Jaemin relaxes, and Jeno smiles at him again, eyes curving.
“Are you boyfriend and girlfriend?” Carson asks abruptly.
There’s a beat of silence where Jeno and Jaemin exchange the same look of shock and disbelief. And then Jaemin starts laughing so hard he curls in on himself, dislodging Grier. Next to him, he can both feel and hear Jeno laughing as well.
“No, Carson, they can’t be,” Gemma says patiently, like she’s well-versed in the ways of the world. “They’re both boys. So they’re boyfriend and boyfriend.”
“Boyfriend and boyfriend?” Carson asks, frowning. “It can be two boys?” He looks over to Jaemin, whose face is starting to hurt with the force of his laughter.
“Sure can,” Jaemin wheezes. “It can be girlfriend and girlfriend, too.”
“Why?” Carson asks. Jaemin suspects that may be his favorite question. But both of his cousins are staring at him with open, curious faces, so he does his best to summarize decades’ worth of queer history and activism so they can understand.
“Everyone loves who they love,” Jaemin says. “It’s just how people are. Your mom likes your dad, and I like Jeno. It’s not so different.”
“Well, Mommy and Dad are older,” Gemma points out, and Jaemin is overwhelmed with another wave of laughter.
“Yeah, I guess that’s the difference,” Jeno says when Jaemin’s laughter turns soundless. He doesn’t know how they got to talking about same-sex relationships, but here they are. “But it’s important to be nice to everyone, no matter who they love.”
His cousins digest this for a long second, and then Gemma nods. “’Kay,” she says. “I like being nice, anyways.”
“Me too,” Carson agrees, though Jaemin’s pretty sure he has no idea what Gemma just said.
“Good,” Jeno says, while Jaemin wipes his streaming eyes. His cousins go back to playing, and Jeno looks up at Jaemin, expression impossibly warm. His thumb, almost absent-mindedly, ghosts over Jaemin’s ankle bone. Sparks dance along Jaemin’s skin, and he suddenly wishes there were less eyes and no children.
“Good job handling that,” Jaemin says, voice a little strangled. Jeno’s thumb keeps making circles.
“Kids are smarter than we give them credit for,” Jeno answers. “They just ask a lot of questions.”
“I want to kiss you,” Jaemin blurts, unable to help himself. Jeno’s smile widens, and he pushes Jaemin backwards until they’re both lying down, tucked partially between the couch and the wall. It’s here, hidden away, that Jeno lets Jaemin kiss him, propped up on his elbows. Jeno reaches up to brush his fingertips along Jaemin’s jaw, still smiling.
“You planned that,” Jaemin accuses. “Didn’t you?” And then, because he can’t help himself, he leans down to kiss Jeno again, quick and affectionate.
“Maybe a little,” Jeno laughs. Jaemin rolls his eyes, but he’s smiling.
“Jaem!” His sister calls suddenly, far to close, and Jaemin rolls off of Jeno before she can catch them. Something about her expression says that she doesn’t buy their forced nonchalance, both of their cheeks a little too pink to be truly innocent. “Dad needs your help.”
Jaemin hauls himself off the carpet, pointedly ignoring Jeno’s eyes. “Okay,” he says, as neutrally as he can manage. “I’ll be back.”
Jeno’s silent laughter follows him as he heads towards the kitchen, and it takes every inch of Jaemin’s willpower to not start laughing as well. His sister rolls her eyes at him—clearly, that’s genetic—but doesn’t push it. And if Jaemin feels warm and full even as his parents coerce him into setting the table, nobody has to know.
By six, they’re all sitting down at the table, plates loaded with food. They’ve pushed the kitchen table up next to the dining room table, making it so they can all see each other, even though Jaemin almost has to shout in order for his mom, at the head of the table, to hear him. Dinner is, as always, an eclectic mix of traditional Thanksgiving food—turkey, stuffing, cranberry sauce, potatoes and green beans with almond slivers—and Korean dishes, like the kimchi stew Jeno devours like it’s the last thing he’s going to eat before he dies.
“There’s tons of food,” Jaemin says, laughing. “You don’t have to eat so quickly. You’ll hurt your stomach.”
“Oh,” Jeno says, mouth full of asparagus. He breathes out through his nose, the first breath Jaemin’s seen him take since they started eating. “Right. Sorry.” He swallows and sits up, looking a little guilty. “I’m not used to the whole…dinner experience.”
Jaemin’s expression must be confused, because Jeno explains. “You know how my parents are—”
“Emotionally absent? Sort of awful?” Jaemin cuts in disdainfully, and Jeno’s nose scrunches. “Let me guess—dinner’s the same way.”
“Bingo,” Jeno says, giving Jaemin double-thumbs up.
“Yo, Jeno, can you pass the mashed potatoes?” One of the older cousins, Kihyun, calls from the opposite end of the table. Jeno startles at the sound of his name, but obediently hefts what is probably a two-ton pot of potatoes to pass down. He picks up his fork just as Jaemin’s grandmother leans in, eyeing Jeno critically.
“Does he speak Korean?” she asks Jaemin, whose own Korean is so rudimentary he doesn’t know how to answer her. Jeno frowns, like he recognizes what she’s saying but also doesn’t know the answer.
“Uh, not really,” Jeno says, and something like regret flickers over his face. Jaemin, too, feels a sort of loss—by the time he was old enough to recognize that his fluency in his family’s native tongue was fading, it was too late to try to re-learn it. He isn't a kid anymore, and now he’s limited to basic conversation. He can’t even read the alphabet.
“Do you have a girlfriend? What are you studying in school?” Jaemin’s grandmother continues in English, not discouraged. “Are you studying in California?”
“Halmeoni, leave Jeno and Jaemin alone,” Misun says, good-natured. “Your food is getting cold while you answer all these questions.”
“Hey, but I’m just trying to get to know Jaemin-ah’s friends,” his grandmother says crossly. ”Let an old woman be nosy.”
“I don’t mind,” Jeno says, expression earnest, and that’s all it takes for their grandmother, who leans in and starts badgering him with questions. Fondness warms Jaemin’s chest, and under the table, he puts a hand on Jeno’s knee.
Misun catches his eye and smiles knowingly. Jaemin rolls his eyes at her, and she shakes her head. I love you, she mouths at him.
Love you back, he replies. He misses her fiercely, and frequently—it was always them against the world, even when she’d taunt him until he cried, or, as he got bigger, when he’d shove or kick or hit her with couch cushions so hard she’d lose her balance. There was a period of years where they didn’t talk—she was moody and he was distant and struggling with the whole gay thing—but as she’d finished up high school and they both realized she was leaving, they’d forged something so strong that Jaemin’s no longer afraid to tell her anything.
On the night before their parents had driven her up to Berkeley, she’d sat with him in his bed and told him everything she’d done, all the awful and sad things, but also the good ones, too. And then she’d hugged him and said, I love you, Jaem, and you better say it back.
Love you back, he’d said then, and it’s their thing now, whenever they hang up or say goodnight. Or sometimes in the middle of dinner, like right now, when Misun can sense that he needs a reminder that he’s always got someone on his side, no matter what.
They do the dishes together, shoulder-to-shoulder, Misun scraping and stacking while Jaemin washes the bigger dishes, handing them off to Jeno, who’s armed with a towel. The other two cousins, Kihyun (who apparently goes by Kevin in school, as he informs them all) and Sooyoung, help with leftovers and bringing out the pies.
“Jeno, where do you go to school again?” Misun asks, passing the mashed potatoes to Sooyoung, who has a container for them. “UCSD?”
“No, uh, Cal Poly,” Jeno says. “I wanna do architecture.”
“Whoa, rad,” Misun says, looking impressed. “Damn. I could never do that much math.”
“Yeah, I’m not the best at math,” Jeno agrees, “but it’s worth it, because all the other parts are so cool.”
“I can’t believe you got into Cal Poly,” Sooyoung says, eyes wide. “Isn’t that, like, for super-super smart kids? Don’t you have to get all As?”
Jeno’s face goes a little pink. “I mean, I worked really hard to get in,” he says. “But if you want impressive, Jaemin got into the University of Michigan.”
“I looked that school up,” Sooyoung tells him. “It looks really, really cool. Maybe a little too cold for me, though.” She wrinkles her nose. “Do you really have to wear a hat all the time in the winter?”
“Pretty much,” Jaemin says, thinking about his growing collection of beanies. “It was twenty degrees when I left for the airport.”
All three collectively wince. “Even Berkeley gets a little too cold for my liking sometimes,” Misun says, frowning. “Hey, Sooyoung, pass me that pot if you’re done with it, so Jaemin can wash it.”
They fall into comfortable conversation—Sooyoung, who’s twelve, asks them questions about college with wide-eyed wonder and a naivety Jaemin hopes will never fade. Misun, who’d just turned twenty, wields the two decades like they’re trophies. And maybe they are, especially for their generation—making it this far in a world that’s doing its best to drive them into the dirt is an accomplishment, especially given how anxious or stressed or tired (or all of the above!) they all are. Misun, who had months where she could barely get out of bed, had made it into Berkeley, had made it to twenty. Yeah, Jaemin is pretty damn proud.
“You love your sister a lot, huh,” Jeno asks later as they finish their pie.
“Yeah, tons,” Jaemin says, looking over to where she’s chatting joyfully with their aunt and uncle. “Hey, you got anything to smoke?”
“Uh,” Jeno says, patting his pockets, “yeah, I’ve got my dab in the car. We can walk, if you want?”
“Cool,” Jaemin replies. “I’ll go let my mom know, and I’ll meet you outside?”
Jeno gives him a thumbs up, and Jaemin stands to go find his parents, brushing his hand over Jeno’s hair on his way to the kitchen. His mom is leaning against the fridge, listening to Jaemin’s aunt describe her new job.
He sidles up to her and puts an arm around her waist, leaning in and breathing in the familiar smell of her, papery and warm. She’s always smelled like the publishing house that she works in, and one of her hands automatically goes up to card through Jaemin’s hair, despite the height difference. He’d passed her many years ago, and she’d stopped treating him like a baby years before that, but there are still motions—habits—that make Jaemin feel small and safe. His throat threatens to close, because he misses her, misses this, and he coughs and straightens before he can get emotional.
“Jeno and I are gonna go out for a bit,” he says, “and just walk around. We might go say hi to his mom, too, if that’s okay?”
“That’s alright,” his mother concedes. “No drinking, please, and be home by midnight. Say goodnight to the baby cousins before you go—they’re just going down for bed right now, I think.”
“I will,” Jaemin says, and kisses her cheek. “Thanks, Mom.”
He says goodnight to everyone, and then he and Jeno head off together, passing Jeno’s dab pen between them, not saying much for a little bit. Then Jaemin’s brain starts to slow, and Jeno tucks the dab back in his pocket so he can hold Jaemin’s hand.
“You can almost hear the ocean from here,” Jeno says, tilting his head. It’s not at all true, because even if they were closer—which they’re not, not really—the city is too loud. But Jeno looks like a dream under the streetlights, and something in Jaemin has unfurled and relaxed, for once, so he tilts his head too.
“Almost,” he says. “Not really, though.”
Jeno snorts. The sound feels slow. “Not really. Guess I’m being a little dumb.” He pauses. “Did you ever think about me in Michigan?”
Jaemin stops, and turns to squint at Jeno. “What kinda question is that?”
Jeno shrugs, but he doesn’t look embarrassed. Probably because he’s stoned. “Uh, an honest one?”
Jaemin stares at him a little longer, but Jeno just lifts his shoulders again and smiles.
“Okay, fine,” Jaemin relents eventually. “I’ll answer.”
Jeno waits. Jaemin arranges his thoughts as best he can. It’s hard when he’s high. Everything moves so slowly, leisurely, coming at its own pace.
“I did,” Jaemin says, but it feels like a truth Jeno already knows. “A lot, actually. Did a fair amount of complaining, too.”
Jaemin gives Jeno a flat look. “We did a shit job after that party, and you know it.”
“Yeah, sorry about that,” Jeno says, honest. “It was just—”
“Super awkward?” Jaemin fills in, and Jeno nods. “Yeah. I get it. I’m sorry too.”
“I had, like, a crisis and all of that,” Jeno says, “at school. And then I realized that it doesn’t even matter what I am, or who I like—it was all about…” He trails off, frowning.
“What?” Jaemin asks, curious. Jeno hesitates, like he can’t decide if he wants to continue or not But Jaemin squeezes his hand, and he gives in.
“It was all about you, so the rest didn’t matter,” Jeno says helplessly. “Like, gay, bi…uh, pansexual? It’s like, I’m not in any hurry, you know, to try to figure it out. I don’t want it to be about me. I want it to be about you .”
Jaemin’s heart stops beating for a second as Jeno turns to look at him, honest and open, waiting for a reaction. And Jaemin doesn’t have anything to say, somehow—for the first time in his life, he thinks. All he can really do is detach from Jeno so he can kiss him gently, arms coming around Jeno’s neck to close the space between them.
Jaemin pulls back for a half-second, and Jeno looks at him dizzily before leaning back in. Jeno’s a good kisser, Jaemin realizes, thoughtful and apadative. Jeno’s teeth graze Jaemin’s bottom lip and a low, quiet sound escapes his throat before he can stop it.
It’s then that he remembers that they’re in public—that they’re about two seconds away from making out right in the middle of the street. Jeno seems to realize this at the same time, and he gives Jaemin a mildly embarrassed smile.
“Sorry,” they say at the same time. Jaemin laughs, slotting their fingers together again.
“Your place?” Jaemin asks, checking his phone. “I’ve still got ages until my curfew.”
“Yeah,” Jeno agrees nonchalantly, like his tongue hadn’t been in Jaemin’s mouth literally five seconds ago. “We can watch a movie, or something.”
“Definitely or something,” Jaemin says, scrunching his nose. Jeno gives him an endearing look, which means Jaemin is legally obligated to kiss him again.
Jeno’s house is quiet—the only sight and sound is Jeno’s mother, the light of the TV making her look older and paler than she is. They exchange a few pleasantries with her, but as always, she’s distant, quiet, and not quite there. Once again, Jaemin wonders how Jeno made it through childhood intact. Jaemin asks him this on their way to his room.
“It was mostly thanks to you guys,” Jeno says, flopping backwards onto his bed. Jaemin follows, landing on his stomach next to Jeno, leaning into the hollow beneath Jeno’s collarbone. “I spent a lot of time at your house when we were kids, don’t you remember?”
“I didn’t think it was that much time,” Jaemin muses.
“It was nearly every day, Jaemin,” Jeno says, amused. “Your dad would even pick us up from school when we were little. And then, when Mark got his car, we were always at his or Renjun’s house.”
“Okay, yeah, fair enough,” Jaemin relents. “I mostly remember sharing snacks with you and going to the park.”
“There was a lot of that,” Jeno says, gently pushing Jaemin’s hair out of his face, and then pulls his phone out of his pocket. He reaches over to his bedside table, and there’s the sound of him turning on his speaker.
“That’s why the time after the party sucked,” Jaemin says as Jeno picks a playlist. “It wasn’t even about whether I’d get to kiss you again. It was more like, fuck, I just lost my best friend.”
“You would’ve had Hyuck and Renjun and Mark,” Jeno says. “And the rest of San Diego, too. Everyone’s your friend, Jaemin.”
Jaemin huffs, nudging Jeno in the ribs. ‘Shake Me Down’ by Cage the Elephant comes on, and Jeno rolls back over so he can kiss Jaemin again. “You know what I mean,” Jaemin says when they part, letting Jeno sling a leg over his middle and pull him closer.
“I do,” Jeno says against Jaemin’s mouth, hand warm against Jaemin's cheek. “Sorta.”
“Sorta,” Jaemin scoffs. “What do you mean, sorta—“
He’s kissed a third time, and decides to give up on talking. With a sigh, he relaxes against Jeno, parting his lips and shifting so Jeno’s elbow doesn’t dig into his shoulder as much. He kisses down Jeno’s chin and throat and back up again, tugs gently on Jeno’s bottom lip with his teeth. Jeno runs a hand, lazy and slow, through Jaemin’s hair, and their legs tangle as their pace slows. They kiss for so long that Jaemin's mouth starts to tingle, and he has to stop and breathe into the crook of Jeno’s shoulder for a bit so he can come back to himself.
When he meets Jeno’s eyes, his expression is gentle, and maybe a little starstruck. Jaemin thinks it mirrors his own.
They’ve long-passed the line into something decisively more-than-friends; and yet, they still haven’t talked about it. Jaemin isn’t even sure where to start. But Jeno can only sense Jaemin’s discomfort, not identify it—so he wraps himself around Jaemin, holding him close like the heat of his body will somehow melt the doubt that’s wrapped itself around Jaemin’s heart. Jaemin wishes it could.
Eventually, though, the long day starts to catch up to them both. Jaemin’s curfew creeps closer as Jeno begins to fall asleep, only awakened when Jaemin gently extracts himself from Jeno’s arms, kissing him on the forehead and promising to talk to him tomorrow.
“Get home safe,” Jeno mumbles, hand fisted in the hem of Jaemin’s hoodie. “Thanks for inviting me over.”
“No worries,” Jaemin says, and despite the oncoming crisis, Jeno looks so soft and sleepy that he can’t help but smile. “I’ll see you soon, okay?”
“‘Kay,” Jeno replies, eyelids fluttering. He lets go of Jaemin’s hoodie, and Jaemin closes the door behind him, feeling like he might be sick.
He takes a deep breath. He at least needs to make it home. He refuses to have a meltdown about this in Jeno’s house, of all places.
His parents are waiting for him when he gets back, sharing a blanket and watching a movie in the living room.
“Hi,” his mother says. “Did Jeno enjoy Thanksgiving?”
“Yeah,” Jaemin says, voice shaky, the corners of his eyes prickling uncomfortably. He’s barely holding it together, and every part of him wants to escape and flee to his room, where he can panic-cry under the covers in pace. “He did.”
“He’s a good kid,” his father says kindly. “I’ve always liked him. He knows he's always welcome, right?”
“Right,” Jaemin says, only he’s crying now, just a little. But it's too late to try to make a break for it, so he just stands there, illuminated by the TV and viciously wiping tears off of his face.
Both his mother and father look shocked when they realize he’s crying, but they scoot apart to make room between them. Jaemin crams himself into the spot, his dad lifting the blanket and his mom shifting so he can lean against her. He’s not even totally sure why he’s crying, except that it’s about the future and Jeno Lee and school—everything has snowballed into this massive, inescapable weight that he could only carry for so long.
Maybe this is long overdue, then. He can't even remember the last time he cried in front of his parents like this.
“Shh,” his mother says, rubbing his back soothingly. “You’ll be okay. It’ll be okay.”
“I miss you,” Jaemin whispers, and his dad puts an arm around his shoulders, squeezing. “A lot.”
“We miss you too,” his mother says. “What’s worrying you?”
“Nothing,” Jaemin says, a knee-jerk reflex, and then hesitates. “Well, I’ve got to have a hard conversation with someone I care a lot about, and I have no idea how it’s going to go.”
Over his head, his mother and father exchange a knowing look. Jaemin doesn’t bother trying to decipher it. There’s a lot of unsaid things that have passed between the four of them—things that they’re all afraid to say, but know anyway. Jaemin suspects his parents know more about his love life than they’re letting on. But they don’t poke at it, and Jaemin, in return, calls them frequently and lets them into practically every other aspect of his life.
“However it goes,” his mother says finally, “remember that we’re here for you.”
“And that we’re proud of you,” his father tacks on. There’s something warm in his voice, and it makes Jaemin’s throat close with a feeling he can’t quite put into words.
“Really?” he asks, unable to help it. But his dad is smiling—the same smile that he and Misun share, though Minsun smiles far more frequently and much wider than their father does—ever-so-slightly, and Jaemin feels like he’s eight years old again, presenting his father with the latest installment in whatever story he’d been writing, or carefully spelling out big words and peeking at his reaction. Each time, he was smiling in the same way: affirming, affectionate, proud.
“Really,” his father confirms. “You work hard and do well in school. You’re a good man who takes care of his friends.” His dad’s eyes are a little glossy in the blue light from the TV, but he keeps going. “You make your dad proud, Jaemin. Always know that.”
“Okay,” Jaemin manages, sniffing. He leans on his mom until he stops tearing up, and stays like that for a long while, crammed between the two of them. He stays until he falls asleep, and in the morning, he wakes up with some of the weight eased from his shoulders, the spot right in the center of his chest warm again.
Friday, for the most part, is quiet. There’s some clean-up to do, and Jaemin spends the morning and afternoon hanging out with his family and cousins, watching the news in Korean before switching over to Food Network and then finally to Mario Kart, at which he kicks everyone’s ass, except for Kihyun, because he's become a video game legend in the span of a year.
Jisung swings by around dinnertime, right after his baby cousins and aunt have headed back to San Francisco. He’s greeted by Jaemin’s parents and immediately gets his hands on a turkey sandwich, which is unfair because Jaemin’s the one making them. And it’s with a mouthful of bread that Jisung charms Jaemin's mother into letting him sleep over again, only this time it's at Renjun's house, yes, just them, no, no alcohol, yes, Renjun's parents will be there.
Jisung roves restlessly around Jaemin’s room as Jaemin tosses some things into an overnight bag, sorting through his suitcase for his last clean pair of underwear and digging through his bedside table for his retainer. Jisung picks up framed pictures Jaemin still has from middle school, when Jeno had his terrible haircut and the majority of them still wore poorly-fitting glasses and braces to boot.
“Glad you guys were all friends,” Jisung says, “because if you were alone, you would've been bullied relentlessly.”
“The coolness of our friend group only started going up once people started coming out,” Jaemin says, “which wasn’t until, like, freshman year, starting with Hyuck. But even then, it wasn’t great.”
“That, and you all got your braces off,” Jisung adds.
“I mean, we all started getting comfortable in our own skins,” Jaemin says. “Dressing in ways we liked. Using labels if we wanted to. You know. High school shit.”
“High school shit,” Jisung echoes, “like APUSH hell and the pacer test in P.E.”
“That too,” Jaemin says. “All hail the American high school experience.”
Jisung hops in Jaemin’s car—he apparently was in the area at a classmate’s house, studying for his calc final—and they fight their way down the 5 to Renjun’s house. Renjun’s parents are home, finishing up with the dinner dishes and debating something in rapid-fire Mandarin that they halt just long enough for them to greet Jisung and Jaemin.
“Everyone’s in the basement,” Renjun’s mother says, drying her hands on a dish towel. “Do you want anything to eat or drink before you go down there?”
“No, I’m alright, thank you,” Jisung says, stepping on the heels of his sneakers and kicking them off to the side. Jaemin winces as he reaches down to untie his Nikes, which are in impeccable condition. He’s very proud of them.
“The Cortezes look really bad if they get all banged up,” Jaemin explains, gently setting his shoes next to Jisung’s trashed Adidas and Mark’s double duct-taped Vans. He makes a face at both pairs of sneakers before turning away and heading towards the basement. “And it’s not my fault you and Mark are heathens.”
“Jeno’s been wearing the same pair of Converse since sophomore year,” Jisung reminds him. “They’re so faded that they’re not black anymore, and yet, I don’t hear you mentioning his sneakers.”
Jaemin fights to keep his cool, he really does. But Jisung’s always been the one person who can get under his skin in one swift, effective swoop—and Jisung knows it, too, smirking smugly when Jaemin’s cheeks heat.
“Maybe because you’re pretty much whipped for him,” Jisung muses, and if Jaemin didn't love him so much, he’d kill him right his instant.
“Fuck off,” he says instead, and Jisung's laughter chases him all the way down to the basement.
He hears his friends before he sees them, shouting at the top of their lungs. They’re scattered on the floor and couch, computers open and Minecraft running. Chenle is the one doing the majority of the shouting—at Mark, who’s violently hitting his keyboard.
“Wait, you guys started playing without me?” Jaemin asks, throwing his stuff on the couch and sitting down next to Mark, who’s currently burning to death in lava. He stops tapping the spacebar and watches as his screen fills with fire. You died! the game informs him.
“Jesus Christ,” Mark sighs, respawning in his house.
“And that, boys, is why we don’t mine straight down,” Donghyuck says, matter-of-fact. But then he lets out a surprised shout, and in the corner of the screen, the chat informs them that he'd fallen from a high place.
“You really should put railings on your balcony,” Jeno says mildly as Jaemin digs around for his laptop. “And not upside-down staircases.”
“That’s the eighth time you’ve done that today,” Jisung says, plopping down next to Chenle and hitting the keyboard of his computer a few times. “Dude, I asked you to keep me alive!” He complains, and Chenle makes an apologetic face.
“Sorry, sorry, a creeper got too close and I was being stupid,” Chenle says sheepishly. “I have your inventory—how’d you get a saddle?”
“I gave it to him,” Renjun says.
“Hey, no fair, that’s abuse of server leader privileges,” Jaemin complains. All he’s wanted since the server was created was a horse, but Renjun had refused to cheat and give him a saddle.
Jaemin only feels better once he kills Renjun twice, first invading his house and then spending twenty minutes crafting an elaborate trap that dumps Renjun into a lava pit.
“Remember when we were in, like, eighth grade and had that massive server I bought with my allowance?” Donghyuck asks at one point.
“The realm?” Mark asks. “Yeah, it was pretty sick. I had a waterfall in my house.”
“Only thanks to Jeno,” Donghyuck scoffs, stretching his legs out into Mark’s lap. Mark lifts up his computer reflexively, setting it back down on top of Donghyuck’s shins.
Jaemin realizes he’s been staring at them, and immediately feels weird about it. He glances over at Jeno, who’s already looking at him. Their eyes meet, and Jaemin wonders what he’s thinking—if he knows what Jaemin wants to say, or if he doesn’t. God, Jaemin hopes he does, because it’ll make this whole thing so much easier, and he won’t have to talk around in circles for ages before getting to the point. He wishes Jeno didn’t have a boulder brain. He wishes his own head wasn’t filled with constant shouting. He wishes both of them were simpler—stupider than Mark and Donghyuck, like frogs or something, or penguins, where they could just eat fish and be in love without having to talk about it.
He becomes aware of Donghyuck saying his name with growing urgency.
“Huh?” Jaemin says, pulling himself out of his own head with great difficulty. “What?”
Donghyuck gives him a long, measured look. “You tell me.”
If Jisung’s the one person that can get under his skin, Donghyuck is the one person who’s always been able to notice when the inside of his head gets a little too loud.
“It’s a lot,” Jaemin mumbles.
“Wanna talk about it?” Donghyuck asks, uncharacteristically cautious, like he can sense that Jaemin’s actually on the edge of another emotional explosion.
“Uh,” Jaemin says, trying to find the right way to say oh my god yes without sounding desperate. “Sure.”
“Cool,” Donghyuck replies. He quits out of Minecraft and tosses his computer to the side, standing up. “Jaem and I are making a 7-11 run,” he announces. “Text me what you want because there’s no way in hell I’ll remember it all.”
“And then can we please play Smash,” Mark asks desperately as he dies, yet again. “I suck at Minecraft.”
“How can you suck at Minecraft,” Renjun says, amazed. “My cousin is nine and she can play it just fine.”
“I don’t know,” Mark says. He looks incredibly defeated. “You’ve got Smash on your Wii, right, Renjun?”
“Yeah, but I’m not setting it up,” Renjun says distractedly, but Mark looks happy to do something other than fall into lava or get shot by skeletons.
“We’ll be back,” Donghyuck says, bemused. He slings an arm around Jaemin’s shoulders when they get outside, starting down the sidewalk. The sky is cloudy, obscuring the moon, and a few of the street lights flicker as they make their way towards the glowing 7-11 sign.
“Are you gonna tell me what’s up?” Donghyuck asks finally after half a block of silence. Jaemin shoots him a look, because even if he’s trying to be a good friend, he’s still pushy, meddling, and far too keen-eyed for his own good. “And don’t try to hit me with the face of neutrality. I’ll see right through it.”
“Works sometimes,” Jaemin says morosely, sticking his hands into his hoodie pocket. “It’s so dumb, dude. It’s literally the exact same thing we talked about at the climbing gym.”
“No way,” Donghyuck scoffs, shouldering Jaemin. “I thought you and Jeno were good? No? He’s still being dense?”
“Or I’m just overthinking this,” Jaemin says, shrugging. “Maybe it’s both?”
“You gotta tell me what’s up, first,” Donghyuck reminds him, “and then I’ll tell you what I think.”
Jaemin runs through the whole thing—he thinks he’s in too deep, school threatens to separate them, is it worth it to even say anything, what if Jeno doesn’t want to, and what if he doesn’t feel the same way?
Donghyuck shakes his head, amazed. “I can’t believe I ever, for a second, thought you were over him,” he says. “Wow. That’s a lot.”
Jaemin picks at his lip, anxiously trying to read Donghyuck’s expression. “Am I overdoing it?”
“Are you still in love with him?”
“Yes.” The readiness—the simplicity—of his answer surprises him. He didn’t even have to think about it, really. Of course he loves Jeno. It’s just—does Jeno love him back in the same way?
“Then no,” Donghyuck says, much to Jaemin’s relief. “You’re not overthinking it.”
“At least, not too much,” Donghyuck adds, snickering when Jaemin frowns at him. “Hey, this is just payback, when you were being a shit about me and Mark over the summer.”
“That was a totally different situation and you know it,” Jaemin fumes, even as he holds the door open for Donghyuck. “You knew he was into you. And the summer is soft and romantic and there wasn’t any immediate, disastrous, internal crises—“
“That’s because immediate, disastrous internal crises are your jam,” Donghyuck says, squinting down at his phone. “Chenle wants a cherry Slurpee, Jisung wants sour cream and onion Pringles,” he reads off. “Grab some Sour Patch and peanut M&Ms.”
Jaemin scoops some candy off the shelf and into his arms, aimlessly following Donghyuck down to the drink section after he’s filled up Chenle’s Slurpee.
“So what do I do,” Jaemin despairs. “I feel like I want to talk to him, but I don’t know how to say it simply.”
“Just say, I really like you, do you want to try this out,” Donghyuck says, opening the cooler door and picking out Renjun’s lemonade. Jaemin grabs two Arizona teas—because Jeno probably asked for something to drink but didn’t specify what, despite really only liking Arizona tea.
“I don’t think I can,” Jaemin says quietly, looking down at the cans in his hands. “I cried about it, and everything, and I still have no idea what the hell I’m doing.”
“What do you think Jeno meant by something to drink?” Donghyuck asks, and then looks up to see Jaemin staring despondently down at the Arizona teas. He snorts. “I don’t know why I asked. Of course you know what he wants.”
The corners of Jaemin’s eyes prick uncomfortably. “I don’t know if I do.”
He’s not talking about the drinks.
Donghyuck stares at him for a long moment before he sighs. “Look, Jaemin. At a certain point, you have to stop trying to talk yourself out of it and go with your gut.”
Jaemin digests this as they walk up to the counter, Donghyuck passing over a couple of bills and handing Jaemin the heavier bag as they step back out into the mild night. “You got sorted into Gryffindor, didn’t you?” Jaemin asks suspiciously, narrowing his eyes.
Donghyuck shrugs. “Am I wrong, though?”
“Stop trying to sound like Renjun,” Jaemin says, swinging the bag at Donghyuck and nearly knocking him into the street.
“Just be glad he isn’t here,” Donghyuck says ominously, and leaves it at that. Being tag-teamed by him and Renjun is pretty brutal, unrelenting and unwavering. Both of them are also often right (at least when it comes to love lives that aren’t their own. Both Hyuck and Renjun are disasters in their own way, too).
They get back to the house and dump all the snacks on the couch, jumping in for a few rounds of Smash, which Mark is indeed much better at. Jaemin’s mom texts him, reminding him not to come back too late because his flight back to Michigan is tomorrow afternoon, and he still needs to pack.
The reminder sends a rush of nausea through him, chilling him to the fingertips. He looks around at his friends, playing video games and getting crumbs on the couch, just like they have for the past six, seven years of Jaemin’s life. Afternoons in middle school became Saturday evenings in high school, and now those have been reduced to the odd moments in between college, which has flung them all to far parts of the country.
He moves to sit next to Jeno, who leans into Jaemin’s side instinctively. Jaemin puts an arm around Jeno’s shoulders, cheek pressing against Jeno’s head. He smells the same as he always has, leaching all the body heat out of Jaemin, hands cold no matter the season.
“Don’t go,” Jaemin says into Jeno’s hair, not necessarily meaning physical distance. Jeno, somehow, understands that.
“Not going anywhere,” Jeno replies. “Unless you want me to.”
“I wouldn’t have said it if it wasn’t the truth,” Jaemin says.
“Okay,” Jeno says simply. Jaemin wishes he could make everything as straightforward as Jeno does. “Good.”
They sit quietly for a moment. Jaemin can feel Jeno’s heartbeat through his shirt, steady and unfaltering. Jeno plays with the hem of Jaemin’s hoodie and t-shirt.
“Your hands are cold,” Jaemin says.
Jeno hums, thumb brushing over Jaemin’s hipbone and staying there, making the skin tingle. Jeno gives him a warm, relaxed smile, and Jaemin pulls him closer.
He doesn’t know when he falls asleep, but he wakes up on the couch wedged next to Jeno. The lights are off and someone’s thrown a blanket over the top of them. Jeno’s whole hand is under Jaemin’s shirt, fingers curled loosely on his sternum. Jaemin sits up slowly, trying not to wake Jeno, and creeps over to check the time. It’s eight-thirty—which means he’s got to get back to his house and pack.
He slowly starts placing things in his bag, trying not to be noisy. Jeno, probably noticing the lack of body heat, wakes up anyway, rubbing his eyes sleepily.
“Jaem?” he asks, blinking. “Are you going?”
“Yeah, my flight is in a few hours,” Jaemin says, feeling sick to his stomach at the thought.
“What? Already?” Jeno asks, clambering off the couch. “Wait, shit, I’ll go wake everyone and then come with you.”
“No, you don’t have to—“ Jaemin protests, but Jeno is already taking the stairs up from the basement two at a time, vanishing to go wake their friends up to say goodbye.
Donghyuck is sporting an impressively messy bedhead, leaning on Mark in the kitchen as Jaemin drags his duffel bag upstairs. Renjun yawns; Jisung still looks half-asleep. Chenle’s got pillow creases all down the side of his face, but he bounds forward first to give Jaemin a massive hug.
“It won’t even be that long,” Jaemin assures them, leaning forward to hug Jisung as well, who looks genuinely upset. “Like, two weeks. This week and then finals week and then I’m done, and I’m back here.”
“You’re not going to LA to see your family?” Renjun asks.
“Not right away,” Jaemin says. “Only for Christmas Eve, and all of that. We’ll get together over the winter holidays, and we’ll be sick of each other by the time we go back to school.”
“I never get sick of you, Nana,” Donghyuck says, and the nickname is so old and unexpected that Jaemin lets out a startled laugh, which also comes out a little strangled because he sort of wants to cry. He hugs Donghyuck and Mark equally as tight, and then crushes the breath out of Renjun so thoroughly he complains.
“You’re going the farthest, dude,” Jaemin says. “Don’t vanish on us, alright?”
“I check my Snapchat,” Renjun says, giving Mark a pointed look. “You’ll hear from me.”
“Good,” Jaemin says, stepping back and picking up his bag. He meets everyone’s eyes, memorizing their faces for when he feels the most alone. “I’ll miss you guys.”
“We’ll miss you too,” Mark says, and Donghyuck sniffs.
“Okay, go on,” Renjun says, waving his hands. “Get out of here. You’re making everyone emo.”
“I’ll be back later,” Jeno says, lifting a hand as he follows Jaemin out into the driveway. He climbs into the passenger seat, connecting to the aux while Jaemin starts the car. The light is grey and muted, the sun still climbing into the sky.
They chat easily about finals and their friends at school, about how Jeno has to buy a new wetsuit because his is ripped right on the ass. Jaemin feels more and more sick to his stomach the closer to home he gets, and eventually he’s not sure if he can keep driving without bursting into tears. He takes a sudden right, and Jeno only asks if he’s okay as the buildings fall away and they’re spit out on a road, and then into a nearly-empty parking lot. Jaemin is breathing hard as he puts the car into park, bracing his hands on the wheel and exhaling deeply.
Jeno’s hand is on his back. “Jaemin?” he asks, sweet and gentle.
Jaemin’s heart stutters in his chest, and everything he’s wanted to say rises in his throat like acid, burning his tongue and teeth. Tears prick at the corners of his eyes; he’s being Donghyuck-level fatalistic right now but can’t help it, not when he’s sitting next to the boy he loves with his whole body, on the last day of a week that’s felt like a dream. Not when Jeno’s kissed him slowly and quickly but not enough, not yet. Not when he still has a hundred things to say and they have a hundred places to go and a hundred more nights to share a bed and hold hands, and Jaemin still has to take him on a date and ask, will you go out with me ?
Jeno is still there when Jaemin cracks open an eye, looking worried.
“Should we talk about it now?” Jaemin asks, voice strangled. Jeno blinks, not quite understanding yet, but Jaemin continues on regardless. “I cried about it and asked all our friends about it, and it’s all I’ve been able to think about, so.”
“Oh,” Jeno says, remembering the words he’d said on the pier, right before he’d cupped Jaemin’s face and kissed him sweetly, tongue curling against Jaemin’s.
Jaemin takes a deep breath and closes his eyes again. He’s not brave enough to say it and look Jeno in the face.
“I’ve liked you for forever,” Jaemin starts, because it’s important that he tells Jeno the whole story. “Since middle school, probably, before I even knew what gay was, and it was dumb and shallow at first, and then you called me your best friend and I loved you—“ He voice cracks, and he swallows, correcting himself. “Still love you, I guess,” he says. “And I don’t want to get into anything if you’re gonna break my heart. Because I already went through that when you were still the token straight and in love with Maddie Sanchez. And it sucked.”
The silence that follows is echoing, but not necessarily…bad. And sure enough, when Jaemin opens his eyes, Jeno doesn’t look disgusted or sad or annoyed—he just looks surprised, mostly. “Wow, um,” Jeno says, brow furrowing, “I guess I was angsty for no reason, then?”
Jaemin sits back, struggling to piece things together. “What…do you mean?”
“I mean, like, if only we’d talked before,” Jeno says, “we could’ve had the whole summer like Mark and Donghyuck. I had a thing for you also—“
“What,” Jaemin half-shouts, grabbing Jeno by the face and pulling him close so he can look for any sign of a joke or a trick.
“Surprise?” Jeno says, shrugging helplessly. “I mean, in my defense, I didn’t think it was that kind of thing. I remember I saw you at State, for that track meet, and you looked so happy. And I was sort of like, huh. Interesting.”
“I mean, I knew you kissed me for a reason,” Jaemin says, still very much shocked. But something in him is thawing a little, accepting what he’s hearing not just as a miracle, but as reality. “And all of this was because you liked me to some degree. I just didn’t know it was for that long.”
“And right now, too,” Jeno adds firmly, putting his hands over Jaemin’s, where they still frame his face. “I still like you now. A lot.”
“I can’t believe this is happening,” Jaemin says dizzily. “All the overthinking—oh my god, I’m dumb—“
“You’re not dumb,” Jeno assures him. “You’re better off than Mark.”
“Mark is an incredibly low standard for dumb-dense-boy,” Jaemin says dryly, and Jeno laughs, eyes curving into crescents.
“So…” Jeno says after a second, searching Jaemin’s face. “What does this mean? For us?”
“Uh, it’s gonna be hard,” Jaemin says right off the bat, and then winces when Jeno’s face falls. “It might be a lot of distance. Too much, maybe.”
Jeno’s frown deepens, and he starts to pull away, and Jaemin can see that he’s gotten it all wrong. “No, no, Jeno, no,” he says, grabbing at Jeno’s hands to stop him from pulling away. Jaemin bites his lip, desperately thinking of a better way he can put this, while Jeno waits.
“It’s like sitting through the first part of ‘Hey Jude’ just so you can get to the na-na-na part,” Jaemin tries. “It’s like, it’s a long song, and just the same part over and over again…but you know something absolutely outstanding is at the end, you just know it.” Jaemin looks at Jeno desperately, hoping he gets where he’s coming from. He’s run out of other ways of saying it.
Something is beginning to dawn across Jeno’s face. Jaemin hopes it’s realization, breath catching in his throat as he watches Jeno put the pieces together.
“Is the na-na-na worth it?” Jeno asks slowly, like he can’t believe what he’s hearing.
Warmth starts to spread through Jaemin’s chest like honey, and his eyes sting.
“Yeah,” he manages, choked-up. “It’s the best part of the whole song.”
Jeno’s smile is back in full force, and stays even as Jaemin leans to kiss him over the center console. What a terrible, roundabout way we took, he thinks, hooking an arm around Jeno’s neck and pulling him closer. What a lot of missed time they’ll have to make up for.
“I’m going to miss you a lot,” Jeno breathes, hugging Jaemin tight, propping his chin on Jaemin’s shoulder. Jaemin squeezes him back, memorizing the shape and smell of him for when he’s alone and under much colder skies.
But there’s something to look forward to now, he thinks. Jeno’s smile—warm like the San Diego sunshine, and a part of a long, lovesick song worth waiting for.