Donghyuck is nine when he almost causes a category five typhoon.
No one sees it coming, except for Donghyuck himself, one chubby finger pointing over Jeno's shoulder as he screams, "Look out!"
Jeno had never realized the playground slide could be so bendy. In the aftermath, he'd sneak lingering glances past the crime scene tape, marveling at the twisted slabs of plastic, the way a part of the yellow winding cylinder had made its way into the branches of a nearby tree and still limply hung like a stubborn fall leaf. But in that moment, he takes one look over his shoulder and his mind draws a blank, shock freezing him to his perch in the sandbox.
Later, everyone would tell him it was a miracle he was alive. That after the alarms stopped ringing, Jeno's mother had ran slipper-clad through the street, heart threatening to stop when she saw Jeno curled under an overturned playhouse, the door flung open and his pale legs sticking out.
"Where's Hyuckie?" he shivers as she belts him into the passenger seat. She stops, a wide eyed moment.
"Donghyuck? Sweetie, only you were there."
The drive to the hospital feels like the blink of an eye, from one block then whizzing down another. Jeno only remembers staring out the window, letting his eyes catch on the blur of the trees and thinking, that was what the world had looked like in that moment, a swirling mosaic around Donghyuck's trembling figure.
When he gets to the emergency room, he’s prodded in a million and some ways before they pat him on the head for being alive. Survival in a freak nature episode like that? It had to be the work of a higher being.
Jeno just nods along, sucking sullenly on the strawberry milk the nurse had slipped in his hand and kicking his feet. He knows what he saw, but he would keep his mouth shut. No point in inflating Donghyuck's ego.
Yet that evening, when Jeno comes home and sneaks out the backyard, sandals slapping down the block to Donghyuck's house, he isn't there.
The next day, he comes back like he was never gone. He wears the same blue basketball shorts and horribly orange t-shirt and cheeky little smile. But once in a while, some off-handed weeks, Jeno would walk to Donghyuck's house on the way to school and knock on the door, only to be greeted by Donghyuck's mother and the sad shake of her head.
"Where did you go?"
Donghyuck's eyes doesn’t move from Jeno's worksheet, wrist knocking back and forth as he scribbled in last night's homework. With his free hand, he scratched the tip of his nose. "Uh, camp."
"Camp?" Jeno furrows his eyebrows, leaning closer. "Like, in the woods?"
Reaching the last of the poorly printed blanks, Donghyuck flips over the paper and sighs. There is a back side. "Well not really? It’s in this building in downtown, but not that fancy if I think about it--" He stops, clapping a hand over his mouth.
"The lady said I'm not supposed to say."
Jeno places his hand on top of the worksheet and meets Donghyuck's eyes with a pout. Like clockwork, Donghyuck sighs, setting his pencil down.
"You know how an igloo looks? So imagine that but big. Huge. And then instead of ice, it's glass, and we're in the middle of nowhere...."
Jeno leans closer and lets Donghyuck tell him every detail of one of the biggest secrets on earth.
Donghyuck is just three months shy of seventeen when they come. A knock sounds against the door, sharp and urgent, and Donghyuck kicks Jeno off the sofa with a pointed look. Grumbling, Jeno picks himself up on his feet and answers the door to an armada of black suits, lead by a woman cut in edges and a sharp white suit.
“Hello,” she says, voice even and calm. “You must be Jeno.”
Jeno doesn’t have time to ask her how she knows his name. His attention snaps to the sound of metal clattering against wood as Donghyuck’s mother walks out from the kitchen, a promise of freshly baked cookies falling from her hands to the floor.
“No. No, no, no, this is too soon.”
False. The woman tells her there is no time.
Jeno is frozen in place as he watches Donghyuck rise from the couch, his hands in his pocket like this was just every other day. In retrospect, maybe it was. Maybe Donghyuck had spent every single day since that day on the playground waiting for this moment, for the stern voices that bubbled through the thin wall as he yanked his duffel down from his wardrobe. He turned to Jeno, ignoring the hovering crowd by open door of his bedroom. “Help me pack?”
So Jeno does. He helps Donghyuck pull the sweaters off his hangers, and shoves them into the same, blue bag that Donghyuck had carried every day to volleyball practice in the spring. In went a few pairs of jeans, sweatpants, socks that have gone grey at the heel. Then at last, the duffel is ready to be zipped up and shipped across the world, Donghyuck by its side.
Donghyuck doesn’t say goodbye. Instead, he murmurs, “Text me,” before a steady hand opens the passenger door of a bulletproof car and he disappears inside. The last trace of him, the fluff of his hair in the summer breeze, bottled up by a somber slam.
They stand side by side, Jeno and Donghyuck’s mother, eyes to the horizon as the squadron of cars faded into tiny, invisible dots. Donghyuck’s mother’s eyes shine with unshed tears, but she takes one look at Jeno’s face and beckons him back inside for dinner.
While she busies herself in the kitchen, Jeno steals back into Donghyuck’s room and opens the wardrobe. Inside, there is a hole shaped like a boy.
The year passes by in an aimless monotony of school, seasons passing by in the window he stares out of during class, looking for the shadow of a missing boy.
Sometimes, when the hollowness in his chest starts to feel concave, he’ll walk the block down to the house with cherry tree in the front yard and the dusty gnomes guarding the porch steps. The door is always locked, but Jeno knows about the key hiding underneath the small aloe plant, sitting in the ceramic pot that Donghyuck had brought home in the fifth grade.
Hinges squeak as he eases the door open, all ducking glances and quiet steps. Not long after Donghyuck had disappeared behind the tinted glass of that bulletproof car, Mrs. Lee had packed up her bags to spend some indefinite time with her mother in the countryside. It feels strange, the empty house. He’s used to the thought of someone being home, acquainted with long nights of stumbling down the carpeted stairs, careful of where he tread in his drunken stupor. Vodka, from the bottle Donghyuck had weaseled out of Mark, singing in his veins like a siren song in the dead of the night.
But this isn’t the dead of the night. This is the dead of the afternoon, the dead of the summer, the only sign of life being the sound of cicadas screaming, even through the locked windows. Inside, a house that feels more like a museum, or maybe a time vault.
Jeno walks in, toes off his shoes, and carefully shelves them on the rack. Sunlight peeking through the blinds bathes the interior in an eerie glow, lighting up the dust that floats in the air like grainy film. A cloth has been draped over the couch where Donghyuck and Jeno had spent many mornings in Donghyuck’s pajamas, bowls of cereal in their laps as they discussed the finer merits of Sunday morning cartoons.
Jeno makes his way up the stairs and pushes open the door to Donghyuck’s room.
He hates that everything is the same.
There’s that stupid sticker Donghyuck had stolen from the zoo gift shop when they were twelve, a cartoon sloth dangling from a branch wrapped around its self-contained circle. It’s holding up a corner of a Girl’s Generation poster that Donghyuck had promised Jeno in his will, and only a few inches away from a polaroid of all of them that one summer. Renjun’s face, peeking up from Mark’s shoulders, Jaemin hugging Jisung’s waist and Jisung pulling Chenle in a headlock. In the middle, Donghyuck and Jeno smiling widely into the camera. Smile , Donghyuck had screamed at all of them, waving around the pastel Polaroid camera Jeno had wrapped up in a Hello Kitty bag and a bow. Snap .
Back then, Jeno thinks, life was simpler. Everything was easier to compress then, to fold down into tiny squares and tuck in a little box.
Jeno sits down on Donghyuck’s four poster bed and picks up the plushie they’d won together from one of the claw machines at the strip mall, holding it to his chest.
The fate of the world is not as easy to fold. Jeno finds that he cannot cram it into the shoebox decorated with stickers he’d stolen out of Yeeun’s coloring books quite as easily. Instead, it jumps around and shadows him in an empty room. In an empty house, no fire on the stove, no boy to call it home.
When fall comes, Jeno packs his bags only to fling them down on a lumpy dorm bed. By the time winter comes, his schooling picks up. He dives headfirst into his textbooks, and thinks about things like why hydrothermal vents form at mid ocean ridges instead of why Donghyuck glows bright blue through the TV screen hanging in the cafeteria.
The running headline reads, CHOSEN ONE PREVENTS INTERNATIONAL CATASTROPHE. Jeno’s text to Donghyuck reads, you look like a smurf . Then, like an afterthought, was that supposed to happen?
“No,” Donghyuck tells him over the 2 AM Facetime call, his voice distant as he tosses his toiletries into his suitcase. A toothbrush, strawberry flavoured toothpaste because Donghyuck never took to the taste of mint, a shampoo that Jeno knows smells like peaches because he has the same bottle sitting on the edge of his bathtub. “Well, I don’t know. One second, I was there, doing, well, you know. Next thing I know, it felt like a part of me was eating myself alive.” He pauses, tossing in a hoodie that Jeno swears was his. “Also fuck you, a Smurf?”
He’s desperately trying to come off as casual, but Jeno can hear the uncertainty that hide in the spaces between Donghyuck’s words, trembling syllable by syllable. Jeno hesitates, curling his fingers around the phone, desperate for a word that will make it all okay.
Instead, he says, “I’ll send you a white beanie to complete the outfit.”
Through the pixels divided by a thousand miles, Donghyuck cracks a fuzzy smile.
It’s raining, cats and dogs and maybe even a small corner of a zoo, all whipping lightning and thunder that shakes more than the bass in Yangyang’s car when he blasts rave music on the highway. Tucked in the small nook of his bedroom, Jeno curls up under his favorite quilt and wonders if he’d prefer that to the muddling merriness drifting through the crack in his doorway. If he closed his eyes and tried to focus, he could pick apart Yeeun’s voice, debating with his mother about which brand of hot chocolate from the supermarket tastes better.
He looks down at the mug cradled in his hand. It’s gone cold. He’d been too busy watching the rain, peering out the window with his face mere inches from the glass. One drop, two drops, slamming against the pane like miniscule comets, until it was entirely too futile to count.
According to the news, Donghyuck had touched down in the states yesterday. winter break? Jeno had asked. my ass, came Donghyuck’s reply, three hours later, five stone head emojis in tow.
Now, Jeno’s phone is lost somewhere under the mountain of laundry, clean or dirty undecipherable, growing atop the lone ottoman in his room. He stopped believing in Santa when he was six. Eighteen and eight months is old enough to stop having expectations.
Tearing his eyes away from the window, he sets his mug down and flicks off the light, dragging his quilt to bed.
“Early bedtime, gramps?”
Jeno jolts up, flipping on his bedside lamp. The last time he’d seen Donghyuck, he’d been wrapped up in a sleek black suit, smile sharp and eyes unreadable. The Donghyuck in front of him is dripping wet, toeing off his beat-up sneakers as he flashes Jeno a sheepish smile from the window sill.
“What are you doing here?”
Yanking off his wet socks, Donghyuck grimaces. “You don’t miss me?”
Jeno scrambles out of bed, hurrying to his closet to pull out the last of his clean towels. He storms towards Donghyuck, throwing the towel over his head before flopping back in bed. He watches Donghyuck shake his head, like a dog, droplets flinging through the air.
“Do they know you’re here?”
Donghyuck scowls, dropping on the bed. Up close, he’s gaunter than Jeno remembers, dark edges curving in on the planes of his face in ways that don’t quite show through a phone camera.
“They don’t own me like that,” Donghyuck mutters. Jeno feels the bed dip as Donghyuck climbs closer, his shiver carrying chills from where his wet jeans touch Jeno’s knees all the way up his spine. He drops the towel in Jeno’s lap and looks up at him like a stray to be taken in.
That’s how Jeno ends up with a shadow-eaten boy in his hands, pliant as Jeno works a towel against his crow’s nest of a crown, humming the stray notes of a Christmas song. He’s shucked off his wet clothes in favour of Jeno’s pajamas, and in Jeno’s science camp hoodie, he looks as young as Jeno feels, heart flitting in his chest like a bird in a cage.
“Yes,” Jeno whispers later, when the lights are off again and Donghyuck is pressed up against him. His knees brush against the back of Jeno’s thigh, and the small slopes of his elbows graze against Jeno’s back. Every point of contact feels like an iron brand, searing through his skin.
In the silence of the night, he can hear Donghyuck’s breathing, soft and even, in then out. He falls asleep to the fleeting sensation of butterfly wings fluttering against his neck.
When Jeno wakes up to the bells of Christmas morning, his sheets are cold and Donghyuck is gone.
Jeno is nineteen when he stops bleeding. He’s shuffling his way through a stack of notes on Baroque art history when he feels a sting on the tip of his fingers and hisses, drawing his hand up to the light.
A hairline cut, barely noticeable but quickly pooling red. Jeno doesn’t stop to think about it, bringing the finger to his mouth as he flips to another page.
Nose deep in midterms, it takes a while before he realizes that the cut didn’t sting. Then one day, he gets careless with a knife. He’s in Yangyang’s kitchen, dutifully chopping tomatoes for a dinner party attempt at Italian, when the blade dances an inch too close to his fingers. It slices the skin open, and Jeno thinks, numbly, as he looks down at his finger, that there should be blood. There should be open skin, a gaping wound, red dripping down in between.
Instead, the only red is the tomatoes sitting on the cutboard, perfectly cubed as Jeno’s skin reknits itself under his gaze.
Donghyuck’s voice is scratchy, like the sound of wind flitting through the branches as Jeno huddles in the corner of the driveway, his phone cradled against his ear.
“What is it like?”
Jeno’s breaths draw small puffs of air against the night. Nearby, a bush rustles and Jeno’s heart stammers in his chest. “Having powers. What is it like?”
This is the first time he’s ever pushed the words out of his mouth, but they’ve always been there, sitting in his throat, burning against pink flesh every time Donghyuck’s face makes the news. At the other end of the line, Jeno hears the rustling of sheets, a click like Donghyuck has flipped on a light. It’s late here, but it must be even later there, half a country, two time zones, an entire year away.
Donghyuck sighs into the receiver, and Jeno imagine him sitting up in bed, combing a hand through his tousled hair. When Donghyuck finally speaks, his voice is quiet, a notch above a whisper. “Lonely.” A pause. “Why?”
The words don’t dislodge from the walls of his throat.
“Nevermind. Goodnight, Hyuckie.” He hangs up.
“You don’t look happy to see me,” is what Jeno blurts to Mark when he sees him again for the first time in a year.
Mark stares at him through his round specs, arms crossed as he leans back in the cafe booth. He looks like he hasn’t seen the sun in weeks. After a bout of awkward silence, he sighs, breaking the ice.
“I didn’t think I’d be seeing you again,” Mark admits, rubbing his face. Jeno catches the speck of stubble near his lip and wonders where the boy he’d kissed two summers had disappeared. “Why did you ask to see me?”
The coffee slides down bitter. Catching his grimace, Mark slides over the cream and sugar.
“How are you doing these days?”
Mark snorts, plunking a sugar cube into his own drink. “Don’t bother with the small talk, I know I look like shit. Why am I here, Jeno?” After a pause, “Is this about Donghyuck?”
At this, Jeno laughs, the sound dark and chalky. “Why would it be?”
Behind Mark, the TV is on the news channel. Donghyuck’s new platinum hair looks different on a large flatscreen than it did in a blurry photo on Jeno’s phone.
“It isn’t, really,” Jeno mumbles, avoiding Mark’s unimpressed gaze. He swirls around the spoon in his fingers, watching as the cream and sugar dissolve into a murky brown. “The research you’re doing for Neo Tech. Do you know anything about regeneration?”
Not even twenty four hours past graduation, Jeno found himself crammed between Renjun and a pile of snacks to last an apocalypse, cruising eighty miles per hour out to the coast. He’d been heckled into the trip at Jaemin’s insistence, a hey jeno come out with us and i feel like we never see you anymore after and well. you know. It’d been the phone call that had done it, half an hour later with Jaemin’s frenzied voice on the line muttering apologies as Jeno turned his graduation cap in his hand and thinks about the way Donghyuck won’t walk the stage.
“Mark said it’s my turn on the aux,” Jisung grumbled, waving his phone like a beacon.
From the front seat, Chenle sighed, yanking the cord from his phone to pass it back. “Play Call Me Maybe one more time and I will not hesitate to throw your ass from this van.”
“Mark wouldn’t let you do that,” Jisung retorted, latching onto the cord with a satisfied smile. “Wouldn’t you, Mark?”
From the driver’s seat, Mark grunted, a confirmation as much as an apology when the tinny intro notes of a familiar pop song floats through the speakers. Plastic crinkling, Renjun extended his pack of chips to Jeno with a long-suffering expression.
Maybe, Jeno thought, reaching for the bag and willing his lumpy leather seat to turn the numb sort of comfortable, this will be okay.
It was not okay.
Three in the morning, alcohol sinking like lead in his veins, his feet digging into the sand as the ocean waves kick to and fro and Jeno was not okay
Beside him, Mark sat silently, his hands in his lap, face turned to an unseeable horizon. Everyone else was sound asleep, knocked out across the living room of the house they’d rented out, boozed down the river of consciousness. Jeno stared into the dead of the night and wished he’d done the same. Wished that he was anywhere else except here, drowning in an awkward silence as a sob wobbled in the back of his throat.
Mark’s mouth had tasted like cheap mango vodka and mint gum. In the haze of alcohol, that had been okay. Good even, with the way Mark leaned forward eagerly, catching Jeno’s waist with his arm, closing out the chill of the ocean breeze.
Then, a memory had trickled its way back to Jeno. Donghyuck, bouncing on the edge of Jeno’s bed, eyes sparkling like the lights he’d strung across his bed, his tie crooked and fluffy hair askew.
“Mark is a horrible kisser. All those girlfriends and you’d think he’d have learned something.”
“What? How do you know?”
“We kissed during the dance, duh.”
Donghyuck had pulled a face then. His nose scrunched up, eyebrows furrowed, lips twisted in disgust. That was what Jeno thought of as he pulled back from Mark like he’d been touched by a live wire, electricity turning the sweet flavour on his tongue into something acid.
One look at Jeno’s face, and Mark’s grip loosened, a noose falling limp.
The memory was infectious. Shivering, Jeno drew his knees to his chest and let his thoughts fester, red and shiny like the color of Donghyuck’s lips as he hovered mere inches from Jeno, sharp like the arch in his brow when he asked, “You want a demo?”
His eyes burned. He blamed it on the wind back then, picking up speed in tune to the crashing waves, forcing him to huddle further into his flimsy jean jacket.
Finally, Mark was the one to break the silence. In a voice like gravel, “Do you think he’ll ever come back?”
Jeno followed Mark’s gaze, out to the shapeless horizon and traces where he’d hoped the sun would rise. “It’s not up to me to bring him home.”
On the drive back, the sun beating down his profile and Chenle’s alternative rock music pulsing to the beat of his hangover, Jeno wished that it was.
There are tests to run.
Mark swipes him into a building that had appeared to be a crumbling brownstone on the outside but inside, ran sleek and cold, all glass and industrial metal frames that loom over Jeno like giants from an age far far away.
Heeding on Mark’s footsteps, he has to stop himself from stumbling when Mark suddenly halts midway down a corridor, tugging on the sleeve of a boy who blinks at him in surprise.
“I thought you had the day of?” His gaze is nonchalant as it slides towards Jeno, taking him in with the same manner one might appraise a houseplant.
Mark follows his eyes and steps closer. Hushed whispers are exchanged and Jeno sticks his hands further down the pockets of his coat, jolting when his finger slips through a tear in the lining.
The boy is calling his name, beckoning him down the corridor with an impatient hand on his hip. Jeno scurries along, mildly terrified of the smirk drawing up at the sharp corners of his face.
Jeno soon learns that his name is Xiaojun, and that Xiaojun is unapologetic with a needle. He finds Jeno’s vein faster than a heartbeat, the flat line of his lips curling as Jeno flinches in surprise.
“So you’re a super,” Xiaojun announces three hours later, tipping back in his high-backed chair as he tilts the laptop screen in Jeno’s direction. His voice is even like he’s commenting on the weather, the furling grey clouds across the metropolis sky, threatening a downpair.
Jeno stares at the screen, willing the rows of numbers and letters to make sense. As if sensing his distress, Mark clears his throat by the door.
“You don’t have to do anything you don’t want to,” Mark says, stepping towards Jeno. His hand comes to rest on Jeno’s shoulder. “There are others who don’t do what Donghyuck does.”
Xiaojun snorts. “The Chosen One? He’s the only one who can do what he does.”
With a trembling finger, Jeno traces the line to where a scar should be forming on his hand, gnarled and fragile, the proof of once broken skin. There is no scar. There was no blood.
“Thank you,” is all he can muster as he ducks out of the room, the sound of Mark’s sneakers squeaking atop the tile on his heels.
He hasn’t seen him in months. Seen, in the physical, real sense, honeyed flesh where he’s become used to pixels, that cherry mouth falling open in surprise like a ripe summer fruit. A shadow-eaten boy bursting through the monotonous grey and hitting Jeno like a ten ton truck.
He looks thinner. His hair is dark now, not unlike the way it was when he was younger. He furrows his brows, looking between Mark and Jeno in confusion. “What are you doing here, I thought--”
“Mr. Lee?” The man at his side cross his arm. “We are running tight on time.”
Annoyance flickering across his features, Donghyuck opens his mouth, maybe to retort back or call out for Jeno again. Jeno doesn’t stay to find out. He mutters a see you later , skirting past Donghyuck to rush down the corridor and out the lobby, feet pounding down the street until he’s lost himself to an endless crowd, rain drenching him to the bone.
He doesn’t answer anyone’s calls. Not Donghyuck’s, not Mark’s, not the unknown number that continues to ring him day and night (but still Yangyang’s when he slurs into the receiver at midnight, evidently drunk out of his mind and needing to be escorted home).
He’ll blame it on finals, Jeno rationalizes, head bent over his textbooks and notes and the one million and one facts about Renaissance paintings he has to memorize before next week. He was a busy person. It was only natural for a busy person to not answer their phone.
Donghyuck was always the one on the receiving end of the texts. Random bits of thoughts cobbled together by Jeno’s brain throughout the day, like i saw a giant squirrel on the way to lecture and it reminded me of you [attached image] and your new hair looks like hay pls find a conditioner and that fall looked nasty, are you okay? Now, Jeno is the one scrolling through the notifications, flitting through the twenty or so texts with his name in various phonetic abstractions because Donghyuck can only be so creative. He doesn’t click on a single one.
Really, what scares him more than the pings on his phone are the thoughts that haunt him when he’s tossing and turning in the middle of the night, the implication of what it means to not have bled. Donghyuck had always been the chosen one, the one with the powers, the one who dangled the balance of the world between his crooked little fingers. Jeno was just the one who watched.
The world is ending on a Sunday.
"What," Jeno mutters into the phone, blinking up at his ceiling as Yangyang snores from the adjacent bed. He doesn’t know why he’s picked up.
On the other line, there’s a murmur of voices, rising in volume then breaking off in scatters. He hears a scrambling sound, then something like a door slamming shut. Mark's voice is quiet, but it rings like a foghorn through the sleepy haze of Jeno's mind.
"They don't know what it is, but we've been detecting abnormal wave activity from these random spots around the globe now and suddenly this morning, boom. An earthquake. Then a hurricane. Now--"
The words tumble out of Jeno's faster than he realizes he's been stringing them together. "Is Donghyuck--"
"Yes, he went," Mark sighs. "Hopped on the helicopter an hour ago."
There is a spot on the ceiling, something grey and vaguely green. Jeno’s stomach turns as he wills himself to sit-up, squinting through the morning light as he grapples his sheets for his glasses. "Why are you telling me this?"
He waits, hearing only Mark’s breathing through the grainy quality, before at last:
“These are rumors but Donghyuck, he-- The higher ups think he’s burning up. I’ve taken a peek at the data and his body, it’s something like a star in the final years right before--”
“--it collapses,” Jeno says flatly. He’s slipped on a jacket and is one foot into his shoes. Across the room, Yangyang stirs.
Mark exhales. “Yeah.”
“What do I do?”
There’s a knock on his door just then and Jeno opens it to find a sheepish Mark, running his hands through his dishevelled hair. “Save him, probably.”
On the drive, Jeno stares out the window and thinks about the stars. Not the ones in the sky, but the glow-in-the dark ones he’d begged his mother to buy from a department store at ten, tip-toeing on his bed to slap them on the ceiling as Donghyuck held the ladder steady beneath him.
“I can’t believe you still have these up,” Donghyuck had remarked in the summer before he turned fifteen, huddled next to Jeno in the dark. “Talk about retro.”
After Donghyuck had been whisked away, Jeno grew sick of them. One night, growing feverish under his sheets, Jeno had staggered to his feet, trembling against gravity as he reached to the ceiling and ripped them off one by one. He crumpled the thin plastic pieces in his hand and dunked them right into the wastebasket, right on top of the Valentine’s Day letter he’d written to Donghyuck when they were thirteen and never had the balls to shove in Donghyuck’s locker.
Watching the trees rip by, he wonders if he could have fished them out from the wastebasket and stuck them back on the ceiling if he had tried. If it would have been just as easy to smooth out the wrinkles and defy the gravity of long dried glue.
“We’re almost here,” Mark says, feet not lifting from the accelerator as they tear down the street, blowing apart the fallen leaves in their wake. Above, the sky crackles and the clouds crumble. In the car, Jeno looks down at his hands and hope they’re enough to rebirth a star.
The first thing he notices is the swings.
Despite being a new addition to the playground of the advent of Hurricane Hyuck, they’ve long since rusted, the shiny red paint chipping off to reveal a lackluster metal. The neighborhood kids don’t frequent the playground as much as they used to, herded away by paranoid parents and urban legend. On breaks, Jeno had grown used to the sight of them sitting idly, swinging only by the rocking motion of the passing wind. Now, he watches as the long chains thrash through the storm like carwash dummies, one arm torn from its shoulder as it limps with a broken plastic seat. Adjacent to the swings, the seesaw had been thrown on its side, and the roundabout whips through the wind like a spinning top, teetering on an invisible axis.
At the center of it all, just like that day so many years ago, is a boy, blue as a summer sky.
Heart hammering in his chest, Jeno steps closer and the wood chips crackle under his feet. Donghyuck whirls around, and the world tilts with his motion, metal bending past the laws of physics as he levels Jeno with empty eyes.
“What are you doing here?”
“Donghyuck,” Jeno tries, raising his voice over the howling wind. “You’re burning up. Please, stop.”
Beneath Jeno’s feet, the earth begins to wobble, and his knees threaten to buckle under the force of the winds. Still, he pushes forward, reaches further, tries to close the gap. “Donghyuck--”
“I know.” A smile tugs at the corner of Donghyuck’s lips, small and sad. He stares past Jeno, eyes like clouds, to the looming horizon. “Sorry I never said goodbye.”
“No,” Jeno gasps when he feels the ground split under his feet. Blood thrumming, he sucks in a final breath before the world cracks apart at the seams. “I’m not letting you go again.”
Jeno and Donghyuck are nineteen when they re-glue the splintering cracks of an ending world.
Numbly, Donghyuck limp in his arms as he traipses down the street, Jeno remembers that it's winter. The weather man had toted a blizzard and here it is, a cloud of white billowing from not the great mountains nor the Far East Winds, but the remnants of a boy blown to microscopic bits.
He doesn’t know how long they walk, Donghyuck’s arm slung around his shoulder as he shivers into the crook of Jeno’s neck, but before he knows it, they’re on Donghyuck’s porch and Jeno is slotting the key into place, pushing past the door.
With each limping step up the stairs and into Donghyuck’s room, the cold they’d dragged into the house begins to fade, until they fall onto Donghyuck’s bed and Jeno yanks a comforter over their shivering forms.
In his arms, Donghyuck stirs, red flooding back to his cheeks and lips, to the icy tips of his crooked fingers as he cradles Jeno’s face. Stray bits of white cling to his lashes as he blinks up at Jeno, a smile blooming on his lips like spring.
“Welcome back,” Jeno whispers, leaning in for the first of forever.