It is entirely Jeno’s fault that on Mark Lee’s 21st birthday, Donghyuck closes the night on a hospital bed in the ER, bleeding from his forehead and clutching at the sheets for dear life.
“Doctor, how long do I have left?”
The young man in the white coat sighs, metal tweezers clattering against the plate. “I mean, if you had stopped squirming, I would have been done with these stitches 5 minutes ago.”
Donghyuck winces as the doctor edges closer, making sure to set his watery eyes on every member of the peanut gallery.
First, Renjun, who’s been scrolling through his phone the entire time while Donghyuck, aka his best friend since the sandbox aka the single person in this room who would save Renjun in less than a heartbeat (“Don’t be ridiculous, remember that time you left me at a rave while I was napping in the bleachers because you wanted to get a slushie?” “I was getting it for both of us!”), was enduring the capital L worst pain of his Life.
“You are so fucking dramatic,” Renjun says, and then snaps a picture of Donghyuck for his Snapchat story.
Next, Mark, slumped against the metal seats, arms crossed and eyes shut. His birthday hat is still on, BIRTHDAY BOY emblazoned across in bubblegum text, the elastic band digging into his skin. He’d thrown up twice during the cab ride to the hospital and if Donghyuck hadn’t known better, he might have wondered if Mark was the one who should have been on the hospital bed. For a brief moment, something like guilt licks through Donghyuck, at the thought that he might have ruined Mark’s night.
Then Mark begins to snore, a sound so loud that it draws the glare of a girl nursing a cast on a nearby bed. Nevermind .
Donghyuck flicks his eyes onto the next and final target: Jeno, who’s been hovering near the door, shifting back and forth on the weight of his heels. He’s winced everytime Donghyuck so much as whimpers in pain, which was, in honesty, half the reason Donghyuck kept yelping. At the very least, Donghyuck thinks as the doctor slaps the bandaid on his forehead, Jeno has the conscience to look guilty.
Because somewhere, deep under his bomber jacket and t-shirt and sexy gym rat muscles, Jeno Lee knew that he was the cause of Donghyuck’s demise.
The events pan out something like this:
“I can’t believe this many people came to watch Mark get shitfaced.”
Closing the fridge door with his hip, Renjun slides the bakery box onto Mark’s kitchen counter, pushing away the empty bottles of liquor for space. “You would be surprised. He’s a popular man.”
Clearly. When they’d come up with the idea of throwing a surprise party for Mark, Donghyuck only remembers inviting a few friends. Now, there’s a growing mountain of shoes by the door and Donghyuck’s old RA is playing beer pong in the backyard with a girl he once went on a blind date with.
“Hard to remember that when his natural habitat seems to be the fourth floor of the library,” Donghyuck says, following Renjun out to the living room once the candles are in place.
Renjun shakes his head. “I’m pretty sure he’s met half of his dates that way—“ he cuts off, blinking.
“Not again,” Renjun groans and Donghyuck follows his eyes to the centerpiece of the room, the grey couch upon which he has spent many a nights, snoring away. Except now, it’s occupied by one guffawing Mark, an unfinished beer in one hand as he stares up with a dumbstruck look, and a dark-haired guy, who braces one hand behind Mark’s shoulder and swivels his hips to the roaring cheer of the surrounding crowd.
Donghyuck narrows his eyes, stepping closer to get a better look, and freezes as he catches sight of that familiar smile. Jeno?
It’s like watching a trainwreck. One moment, he’s wide eyed with a gaping mouth, uncannily resembling Jaemin’s pet goldfish, and the next, Jeno’s fingers are grasping at the hem of his shirt. The wheels are turning, tracks screeching, smoke rising and boom, Jeno’s shirt is on the floor and the room explodes with a roar.
All the blood rushes to Donghyuck’s head, the hardwood floor shifting like a bouncy castle beneath him. Distantly, he hears Renjun calling his name, an echo from the end of a tunnel.
When he looks back on this moment later, Donghyuck will realize that Jeno’s shirtlessness is not what sends him reeling (though he admits it was nice to receive such a thorough review of the human body two nights before his anatomy midterm).
No, it’s the look of Jeno’s face, the hint of shyness slipping through his smug smile, the pink tip of his lips darting between his lip as he rolls down his hips and—
The world is so unfair, Donghyuck thinks as he tips forward. His knees hit the ground with an audible smack and a stinging pain ricochets through his head. What did Mark ever do to deserve being on the receiving of that ? Sure, it’s his birthday, but as far as Donghyuck is concerned, Mark has never learned to chew with his mouth closed and once contracted mono from his first kiss when he was thirteen.
Surely Jeno had better tastes.
“Oh thank god,” Donghyuck hears someone say, voice suspiciously like Renjun’s. “Good thing he didn’t land on the cake.”
Groaning on the floor, he’s eerily reminded of last summer. As part of an effort Mark called “group bonding” and Renjun called “finals are over let’s get fucking smashed”, they’d driven up to the mountains and hunkered down in a cabin, courtesy of Jaemin’s vague familial connections. By the end of the blissful three day weekend, Donghyuck had pulverized his liver and decided that there was no better ending than to starfish out on the lakeshore, a can of beer in his grip as he stared out at the horizon.
“Jesus, I thought you were dead for a second.”
The grass had rustled and a shade fell over Donghyuck as Jeno stood over him, hands on his hips.
“Are you disappointed?”
“Would’ve been a comfier car ride back, yeah.”
With the efficiency of a sloth, Donghyuck patted the patch of grass beside him and Jeno took the invitation. That day had been a furnace, leading most of them to hole up in the cabin where there was a steady stream of AC, but in the hours approaching sunset, the quiet breeze licked through the humid air. Still, Jeno radiated warmth, heat brushing against Donghyuck’s skin while he sat cross-legged on the grass. As Donghyuck took a swig from his can, he found that he didn’t mind.
In that hungover haze, Donghyuck couldn’t remember what they talked about. His brain grasped at strings, grade curve and heatwave and the way Jeno’s lips pursed around the rim of the can as he stole sips of Donghyuck’s drinks.
At last, Jeno stood up, swatting the grass from his legs, and stuck his hands in his pocket. He looked down at Donghyuck, a soft smile blooming on his face.
“Would have missed you though,” he murmured, leaving Donghyuck to stare at his retreating figure as he disappeared into the cabin.
This moment is what presses at the forefront of Donghyuck’s mind as he sprawls on the floor of Mark’s apartment, Jeno hovering over him, the world spinning. The warmth of his skin, just like that summer afternoon, as he reaches for Donghyuck’s shoulder. Above, the shitty fluorescent lights flicker, fading into darkness like the edges of a sunset.
“I mean, I just don’t understand how Mark can get away with posting blatant thirst traps on his Instagram story. Shouldn’t this be illegal? For the public conscious?”
“If it was, you would be in an orange jumpsuit right now,” Renjun replies, stabbing at a lettuce piece in his salad bowl like it owed him a debt. “Not interrupting the only semblance of peace I’ve been afforded in this death trap of a capitalist society.”
Across the table, Jaemin reaches over to steal a crouton. “Kind of sad that your only semblance of peace is an overpriced salad, but okay.”
“Yes, because I need to hear that from someone who thinks collecting puff bars is a personality trait--”
Donghyuck sighs, tearing into the wrapper on his cookie. They’re from the forbidden land, also known as the coffee shop on campus where Donghyuck has been banned since freshman year for The Incident That Shall Not Be Named. He’d stolen it from Mark’s counter the other night as a consolation prize for being able to cross “ trip to the ER” off his college bingo sheet. “Can we get back to me, please? I’m injured .”
“No,” they respond in unison but still bend over Donghyuck’s phone when he slides it across the table.
“Is it fair for a human being to look like this?” Donghyuck wails, curling onto the table.
This, of course, is Jeno’s latest Instagram post, a snapshot of him bent over his bike as he looks off into the horizon. It has been ten hours since Jeno has posted this, and hence, ten hours since which all of Donghyuck’s executive brain function has shifted from cramming a month’s worth of chem lectures he slept through to memorizing the order of Jeno’s Instagram feed. That’s not weird, right?
Renjun brings a hand to his chest and pretends to gag. “Stop pulling that disgusting face, you’re gonna make my salad go back up.”
With his index finger, Jaemin pushes the phone back towards Donghyuck like it’s contaminated. “Please, just put us all out of our misery and shoot your damn shot.”
“But how? ” Donghyuck groans. He takes a bite of his cookie and thinks, maybe this is happiness. Maybe he should settle.
“Or, maybe try, I don’t know, asking him out instead of just leering from across the table every time we go out for barbeque?”
Donghyuck frowns, dropping the cookie back onto his tray. Since when has Jaemin been able to read minds? “It’s not that simple.”
“Yes it is,” Renjun huffs before he shoves his earbuds on, leaving Donghyuck to the mercy of Jaemin and a recount of his latest TA conquest.
Renjun’s words haunt Donghyuck afterwards, looping like a broken record, living rent free in his mind. He thinks about it when he wakes up late for lectures, when he’s doodling a picture of Jaemin drooling during their sociology lecture, when Jeno drapes an arm over his shoulder on karaoke night and has the audacity to wink , before launching into this one is for the boys with the booming system, top down, AC, with the cooler system , completely oblivious to the boom ba doom boom palpitations in Donghyuck’s chest.
It couldn’t be that simple. If it was, there would be nothing holding Donghyuck back from leaning across the faux leather seats and chasing Jeno’s mouth, tasting his mint chapstick while their plastered friends butcher Destiny’s Child and the strobe lights sparkle. But as it is, Donghyuck can barely manage to meet Jeno’s eyes without darting away.
“Like a coward,” Jaemin helpfully supplies later, when they’re stumbling towards the line for a club.
“I don’t even know if he likes me,” Donghyuck hisses back, watching as Jeno wraps himself around Mark’s waist like a koala to a tree. He hesitates. “Do you think there’s something--”
Jaemin follows Donghyuck’s gaze, then breaks away with a laugh. “Jeno? With Mark?”
“They’re always so…”
Jaemin is looking at him with the same blank gaze he directs at their professor during every lecture, when she throws out vocab terms from the textbook that Jaemin had begged off Renjun’s hands yet never bothered to open. Then, the gears turn, the final piece of a puzzle slides into place, and Jaemin lights up with a smile that makes Donghyuck want to punch his face.
“Oh, Donghyuck. Sweet, sweet Donghyuck,” Jaemin sighs, before he fishes a puff bar out of his pocket and brings it to his lips.
Through the curtain of orange-flavoured vape smoke, Donghyuck’s eyes stay pinned on Jeno. His head is bent over Mark’s phone, murmuring against Mark’s ear as Mark… swipes through Tinder? Donghyuck blinks, the smoke clearing away with the breeze as they shift up the line. Almost as if he can feel Donghyuck’s gaze, Jeno raises his head. He smiles, and Donghyuck finds himself smiling back.
It really wasn’t that simple.
At the end of the day, there is only one person who can answer his question:
“Donghyuck? I thought Doyoung banned you from being here.”
Donghyuck winces, eyeing the corners of the coffee shop for any trace of the manager, before stepping towards the counter.
“He’s not serious about that, is he? I mean, it was so long ago--”
“He asked me last week for a picture of you so he can put it up in the back room--”
“--so you guys can admire my beauty, right--”
“So that we know who to chase out with a broom,” Mark finishes, wiping his hand down his apron.
Donghyuck clears his throat. “Right.”
“What do you want?”
It’s funny. On the uphill trek to the campus coffee shop, Donghyuck had planned it all out in his head. The way he would push his way through the glass doors and waltz through the counter, staring Mark down with a smirk as he demands-- Demands? “You and Jeno.”
A wrinkle appears on Mark’s forehead. “Me and Jeno?”
“Are you a…” Donghyuck scrunches his face. “Thing?”
“Do you,” Donghyuck huffs out, gesturing indecipherable shapes in the air, “...like? Jeno?”
Mark blinks, before he rubs his eyes with a sigh, like the sight of Donghyuck is making him age prematurely. Last week, Donghyuck had spied a tab titled “Top 10 Retirement Locations” open on Mark’s laptop when he found him napping between the library physics stacks. Judging from the bags under his eyes, Donghyuck probably was half the reason Mark had already started planning out his retirement to a farm in Canada.
“No, I don’t.”
Relief courses through Donghyuck.
“And Jeno likes someone else.”
“What?” Donghyuck demands. “Who?”
Someone clears their throat behind him and Donghyuck turns, profanities ready on his tongue, only to be greeted by his 3 AM sleep paralysis demon.
“Hello Donghyuck,” Doyoung says and wow—
“Did you get a haircut?”
Doyoung snarls. Donghyuck takes it as his cue to book it out the door.
For someone who seems rather… unassuming in an apron and button down shirt, Doyoung has the athletic prowess of an ex-Olympian. In the past five minutes, he’s chased Donghyuck through a sizable chunk of the campus, wielding a feather duster in his hand as he screams Donghyuck’s name (among other colorful synonyms).
Donghyuck, on the other hand, can’t remember the last time he’s stepped on a treadmill. When was the last time he ran this fast? To his chemistry midterm the day after he fell asleep in the bushes of a frat house? With every step, Doyoung is gaining on him and Donghyuck still has a long and productive life in front of him, goddammit.
Spying a cart ahead, he rushes forward, ducking into the shade of a building as the cart passes behind him. He hunches over, hand grasping the rail as he gulps in air.
Jeno’s face is upside down. No, Donghyuck is upside down. He rights himself, turning around to take in the backpack slung over Jeno’s shoulder and the pinch of his forehead as he looks at Donghyuck with concern.
“Oh, hi Jeno. Didn’t see you there.”
Jeno opens his mouth. “What are you--”
“Donghyuck Lee! I know you’re in here!”
Without thinking, Donghyuck links his arm against Jeno’s elbow and yanks him into a corner, shimmying their way through the greenery lining the building. He doesn’t let go until they’re in the thick of the hedges and Jeno says, calmly, “I think we’re in the clear.”
Then Donghyuck turns and oh, that was a bad idea. Because Jeno is pressed right up against him and Donghyuck can smell his cologne, something like a gust of summer wind that breeds a heady feeling. Want. Donghyuck is so close and he wants. He wants to lean closer, wants to run his hands through Jeno’s hair, wants to push his body against Jeno’s, wants to ask--
“Who do you like?” Donghyuck blurts out and ah, fuck. That is not it. He stares at Jeno, mortified, and briefly wonders if February is an apt season for earthquakes.
“Mark told me…” He trails off, shaking his head. “Nevermind.”
By now, Doyoung’s shouts have faded, leaving only the sound of leaves rustling against each other in the breeze, chirping birds in their nests. He was safe. Sucking in a breath to quell the hammering of heart, he edges away, toeing back towards the building entrance.
He stops, turning to Jeno. “Yeah?”
Jeno cocks his head to the side, a curious gesture. “You know I was jealous of you when we first met?”
Jeno steps closer. Then closer, and closer, until his face is inches away and a soft touch lands on Donghyuck’s shoulder: Jeno’s fingertips, trailing the expanse between Donghyuck’s shoulder all the way down to wrist, then brushing against Donghyuck’s hand.
“I saw you and I was like, dumbstruck. Here’s this guy, who’s so confident, who’s good at everything, even when you don’t care. You’re also like, really hot. But for someone so smart, you can be so, so dense.”
And then Jeno does the obvious: he kisses him.
“Oh,” Donghyuck says later, when he comes up for air. Jeno’s hair looks like a bird’s nest and he’s smiling ear to ear, the poster cat who’s found the cream, licking at his puffed lips as he rests his arms on Donghyuck’s shoulder. Donghyuck winds his arms around Jeno’s waist and pulls him in.
As it turns out, it is really that simple.
(It is entirely Jeno Lee’s fault that on Donghyuck’s 21st birthday, he nearly has a heart attack when Jeno pushes him down on their couch with a knowing smile and rolls his body down onto Donghyuck’s lap.
“Happy birthday,” Jeno whispers into his ear.
Donghyuck proceeds to lose his fucking mind.)