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trouble brewing in my heart

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part 1: something’s rotten in orange county

 

In retrospect, Jeno probably should have taken the hint from the dude who bumped into him on the way in and turned back around. Caught the vibe, or whatever. It’s not like the guy had sneered or purposefully shoved him or anything, but he was pushing an industrial cart with a lumpy tarp thrown over top, and there was definitely something brownish oozing from underneath.

However, hindsight is 20/20, and Donghyuck is objectively louder than any niggling suspicion in Jeno’s head could ever be. “Come on already,” Donghyuck whines, hipchecking him through the door when he doesn’t move fast enough. “We’ve been talking about trying this place out for weeks.”

“Right,” says Jeno, watching the giant man steer his trolley around back before he shakes it from mind.

City 127 is one of those places so persistently Instagrammable that you end up going there sooner or later if only to pose beside their wall of neon affirmation. Currently it says “you’re beauteaful to me” in blue cursive, which Donghyuck reads aloud with a wet kissy noise next to Jeno’s ear. The rest of the shop is decorated similarly, all glossed round tables and tiered pastries behind the counter. Each menu item is handwritten in bubbly lettering, which is cute until Jeno realizes he can’t actually read any of it from this distance.

“You’re just gonna get black milk tea like always,” says Donghyuck, following Jeno up front.

“I’m adventurous sometimes,” Jeno retaliates. It’s kind of warm in here, and the jacket he’d worn out isn’t holding up well. He shifts uncomfortably, glancing around for someone to take their order.

“Good to hear! We’re super proud of our selection of flavors,” bellows a new voice that springs out of literally nowhere. Tufts of platinum blond hair curl from under the store logo on the guy’s cap, and his grin occupies at least sixty percent of his face. His slightly crooked nametag identifies him as JAEMIN !! o(>ω<)o.

“Cool,” says Jeno, folding his arms casually across his chest. This unintentionally draws Jaemin's gaze from his eyes to his biceps, where it remains fixed for an awkwardly long time.

“Yeah, so anyway, what can I get you?” he asks finally.

Jeno scans the menu top to bottom again, peripherally aware that Jaemin hasn’t blinked once since sprouting from the void. Wintermelon sounds good, but then again, so does the grapefruit mango blend. They’ve got a strawberry cheesecake flavor that piques Jeno’s interest, but maybe that’s being a little too daring.

“He’ll take a black milk tea with boba, 70% sugar and ice,” recites Donghyuck, eyeroll somehow audible. “Brown sugar latte for me, boba, half sweet. And light ice, please.”

Humming, Jaemin punches in the order and looks up expectantly after delivering the total. “Card? Cash?”

“It’s not a combined order,” Jeno protests.

Donghyuck smiles, angelic. “I left my wallet at home.”

“Again?”

“Mhmm. Crazy how that keeps happening.”

Jeno groans but produces his own wallet to pay for them both. He doesn’t know why he still bothers hoping fruitlessly for some burst of late-stage character development on Donghyuck’s part. “Scratch that. Looks like they’ll be together after all.”

“Not a problem, cutie,” Jaemin purrs, brushing his fingers over Jeno’s palm for like a whole second longer than he needs to in order to hand off the receipt. “Coming right up.”

They thank him and go to wait at the next counter further down. Donghyuck manages to hold it in until Jaemin has shuffled out of earshot, after which he elbows Jeno meaningfully no less than six times in the ribs. “You should totally go for it. The two of you already have a couple thing—the bottle blond? You could coordinate your root bleaching cycles and put tumbleweeds everywhere permanently out of business.”

“I’m not gonna talk about this when he’s right there,” Jeno mutters.

“Think of what you could save on toning shampoo,” Donghyuck singsongs. “Matching sets. His and his. Plus free boba whenever you feel like it.” His eyes go a little starry. “Damn, just imagine.”

“I’m guessing these are yours?” A different worker (nameless, because his badge has been completely scribbled over in black Sharpie) emerges from the back, shaking their drinks with loose strokes of his wrist. His mouth is arranged to convey customer service pleasantry, but there’s a sharpness to his gaze. “We don’t hand out free boba to Jaemin’s eye candy of the week, sorry.”

Donghyuck opens his mouth to say something else, but Jeno cuts in before he gets the chance. “No, we totally understand. Have a good one!”

“I wasn’t even gonna do anything,” protests Donghyuck sullenly as they make their way to the door.

“You’ve done more than enough,” says Jeno, trying to conceive of how he can possibly show his face here again after this.

As if on cue, Jaemin whirls around and calls out. “Leaving already? At least stay for a picture with the wall. I’ll take it for you guys.”

“Haha, we’re good, thanks.” Jeno tugs on Donghyuck’s arm, making his hand slip as he stabs his straw through the film crowning his cup. A gush of milk tea escapes and promptly dribbles onto the floor. “Oh my god, so sorry, let me get that real quick—”

“I’ll get it, don’t worry,” says the small, unnerving one at the end of the counter. He bends to retrieve a spray bottle and a roll of paper towel, looking at them in a manner vaguely reminiscent of how Jisung looks at the spiders he’s about to squish with his shoe.

“Cool, cool, cool,” says Jeno, thoroughly embarrassed now. “I’ll, like. I gotta. Um, enjoy your Thursday.”

Jaemin pouts from behind the register, either oblivious to or unperturbed by his coworker’s annoyance. “Come back soon!”

“For sure,” Jeno promises, pushing the door open and herding a sulky Donghyuck outside. Once the door has jangled firmly shut behind them, he releases the breath he’s been holding and plasters his back against the shop’s brick exterior. “We can never come back ever again.”

“I don’t know,” says Donghyuck, licking a drop of syrup from his knuckles. “The guy behind the counter was pretty cute.”

“I’m not gonna take a chance on a boba shop cashier who hit on me via receipt,” Jeno insists. He’d seen the phone number scrawled at the bottom. The pocket he’d shoved it into feels warm.

“Oh,” says Donghyuck. “Yeah. Jaemin was cute, too.”

Jeno gives him a weird look but thinks the better of asking for details. “Let’s go home.”

 

*

 

Because Jeno’s existence is but a cog in the machine of some greater cosmic punchline, it comes to light that not even home is safe. On laundry day, he’s waiting for his load to finish drying when the door flies open and the room immediately swells with noise.

“So apparently making fun of the ass tatt is fair game,” says one of the two people who’ve just walked in, his face obscured by the monstrous heap of clothes looming from his basket.

The other one, hauling a noticeably tidier stack, scoffs. “Did Doyoung tell you that? You haven’t even seen it.”

Jeno feels a flush creep up his nape once he places them. Somehow, he’s made it halfway through the year without ever encountering the two employees from City 127 in his apartment building, but naturally they would spawn now that he’s embarrassed himself where they work. He wonders if he should say hi, or if they even remember him.

“Wait, it’s you!” Jaemin, now unhindered by his overflowing basket, straightens up and points directly at Jeno. “I’d recognize that face anywhere,” he adds, tone buttery. The effect isn’t quite the same with a giant bottle of Downy April Fresh in his other hand.

“Hahaaa,” goes Jeno. “What are the odds.”

“In my favor, apparently.” Jaemin drops the accusatory finger and offers instead a smile so brilliant that the ceiling lights seem to dim momentarily. “This is my friend and roommate, Renjun. You guys met earlier, kind of.”

Renjun obligingly shakes Jeno’s hand before returning to sifting through his whites. “He’s more of a parasite than my roommate, for the record.”

“Don’t mind him,” Jaemin deflects. “Anyway, I guess I didn’t introduce myself properly before, either. I’m Jaemin, and you’re… gorgeous.”

“Uh, Jeno, actually.” This handshake goes on significantly longer, Jaemin’s palm warm against Jeno’s own. “I didn’t realize you both lived here?”

“I live here,” explains Renjun. “Jaemin’s pipes burst because of all the shit he dumped down the sink, so he’s decided to move in with me for the time being. Hence the parasite thing.”

“Am not,” says Jaemin.

“Are too. Like a tapeworm.” Renjun doesn’t look the slightest bit apologetic, but he allows Jaemin to rest an elbow on his shoulder.

Jeno wipes his palms on his thighs and wishes fervently that his laundry would hurry up and dry already.

“Hey, you should come by the shop again sometime,” Jaemin offers. When Jeno doesn’t immediately respond, he takes a half-step back, hands in the air. “I’ve been told I come on a little strong, but I swear we’re chill! It’ll be nice to see a familiar face. Bring your friend, too.”

“Sure, I guess. We did like the drinks,” says Jeno and observes with curiosity the way Jaemin’s face splits into a relaxed grin yet again. It’s kind of fascinating. He’s got supernaturally pearly teeth. Jeno feels almost compelled to study them, to examine the rows under different lighting and map their wattage on graph paper.

“Perfect, because I can be just as swee—ow!” Jaemin whirls around to pull a face at Renjun, who demurely busies himself with adjusting one airpod. “He’s grouchy because he doesn’t want me to comp you, but I won’t tell if you don’t,” he stage whispers.

Helplessly, Jeno smiles back.

Only days later, he’s on his way out of class when the same restless curiosity wells up inside him. Although discrete math is mostly kind of a shitty time, Kun is the nicest and most genuinely helpful TA he’s ever had the fortune of encountering, and sometimes he lets their section go early. Which, in this case, means more time to explore other pressing interests. Jeno fires off a text:

 

city 127?

i can be there in 15

public menace

what if im busy

you’re not busy

public menace

im halfway through s4 of jojo

do u really want me to abandon giorno during this trying time

that’s gonna be on ur conscience

D:

ok meet me when you’re done

 

Despite knowing that Donghyuck has seen the entirety of JJBA three times already, Jeno shoulders his bag resolutely and starts heading down the street. He has homework to keep him busy until Donghyuck gets there, and also to hide his face behind if Jaemin’s advances prove too flustering.

“You made it after all!” chirps Jaemin from the counter as soon as the door opens.

Jeno hesitantly waves and returns the greeting. He glances at the seasonal specials, which all sound fun and compelling but not quite fun or compelling enough, and orders his customary black milk tea with a silent vow to branch out next time. When he makes to pull out his wallet, Jaemin shakes his head.

“I didn’t think you were serious,” says Jeno, taken aback. “I have to pay, come on.”

Peering over his shoulder as if Renjun will materialize from the shadows and conk him upside the head, Jaemin leans in (why is he always leaning in?) and murmurs, “Of course I’m serious when it comes to my favorite customer.”

“I’ve literally only been here once before?”

Jaemin shrugs. “You made a great first impression.”

“Okay, but I still have to—”

“Suddenly I can’t hear,” Jaemin announces and pops the cash register with a flair. He makes a show of counting imaginary bills and sliding it shut again. “There, looks right to me. Here’s your change.”

Once it becomes clear that he’s waiting for Jeno to hold out his hand, Jeno wearily complies. Jaemin trails his fingers over the extended palm like he’s reading the lines, head lowered in concentration. For no apparent reason, Jeno finds himself holding his breath. It’s just that Jaemin is unreasonably good-looking up close, all poreless with mile-long lashes fanning over the apples of his cheeks, and he smells faintly of fabric softener. Not even the devastatingly fried state of his hair can dissuade his handsomeness. The echo of Donghyuck’s voice worms its way into Jeno’s head, yammering on about their matching shades of blond. He briefly imagines what it would be like to share a bathroom with Jaemin, their counter lined with value-size bottles of Olaplex, and shivers.

“You good?” asks Jaemin, low and warm. Also, unmistakably amused.

Jeno opens his eyes and immediately colors. “Oh yeah, I’m great.” He shoves his still-outstretched hand into his pocket. “So great.”

“Just making sure.” Smirking, Jaemin disappears into the back.

That leaves Jeno to stare at the wall until Jaemin slides his drink across the counter with a little heart drawn over the plastic film. Jeno feels kind of bad about tearing it with his straw. After he’s retreated safely to a table and chanced one more peek at Jaemin’s unfairly pretty, split end-ravaged head, he takes out his laptop and resolves to grind. His code isn’t going to fix itself.

Except—and this isn’t his fault, he’s trying to focus, seriously—it’s just kind of hard to put his mind to his homework when weird things keep happening. First, there’s a pronounced thump from inside the storeroom as something heavy hits the door. A weak groan, then the noise rings out again. Jeno twists around to see if any of the other patrons have noticed, but the few people in the shop are all oblivious students with headphones crammed firmly over their ears.

He’s willing to forget about it until the door inches open a minute later, exposing someone with a stark bruise blooming across one cheek. The man’s oversized button-up, material so silky and luxe under the light that Jeno can judge its expense even from here, is open at his chest to hint at an elaborate tattoo. It tapers down his sternum in swirls and scales, shaded painstakingly in full color. Reaching up, the stranger deftly secures the buttons, but the motion draws attention to a slick smear of red across his knuckles. Then, he makes direct eye contact with Jeno.

Jeno swallows and diverts his gaze, though not quickly enough to miss the conspiratorial wink sent his way. He can’t be the only one who saw that, right? But nobody else has stirred or given indication that they’ve felt a disturbance at all.

Unwanted, the memory of the guy with the stained tarp who’d bumped Jeno’s shoulder the first time he came here surfaces. It’s like he’s the only one privy to these microevents, a string of secrets shared between him and the strange people—staff members? who knows—floating in and out of the shop. The idea doesn’t sit well with him.

After Donghyuck arrives, Jeno tries to explain but to his own frustration can’t articulate his suspicions. “He had blood on his hands,” he insists. “You couldn’t miss it.”

“Even though everyone else in the store somehow did. Totally.”

“I mean—yeah, but if they’d been a tiny bit more observant, or taken off their headphones…” Jeno trails off, aware he sounds like he’s grasping at straws.

Donghyuck stirs the clump of aloe jelly at the bottom of his cup. “What, they would’ve participated in your daytime hallucination?”

“Don’t be mean,” says Jeno plaintively.

“I’m a realist!”

“You ordered a Joseph Joestar body pillow last week because, and I quote, he’ll be lonely spending the winter by himself.”

“Okay, and? Am I just supposed to let him be cold?”

Jeno regards him quietly for a few moments before letting it go.

“Anyway,” says Donghyuck, leaning back on his hands. There’s a sparkle in his eye that makes Jeno want to duck and cover the way they teach you for tornado drills. “Is Renjun here today?”

 

*

 

Not even Jeno’s most valiant efforts are enough to prevent City 127 from becoming their regular hangout spot in the weeks following. It’s conveniently located halfway between campus and their apartment building, the wifi is fast, and the boba isn’t exorbitantly pricey. Jaemin, true to his word, offers a free drink at the end of his shifts even in the face of Jeno’s complaints (Donghyuck usually takes it). One busy Friday, Jeno finds himself huddled at a corner table with his chin in his hands, his line of vision stuck where Jaemin’s shirt collar flops open below the base of his throat, and grudgingly admits to himself that he’s passed the point of no return.

“Why don’t you just text him or something?” suggests Chenle. “He seems so nice.”

“He’s also given you his number like three times by now,” Jisung adds. “In case you missed it the first two times.”

Jeno ghosts his fingers over the inner lining of his jacket, where the multiple receipts bearing Jaemin’s glittery gel pen scrawl have been marinating for the better part of the month. He’s saved the number to his contacts already. “I don’t have time for a relationship,” he protests weakly.

“You’re good at making time,” Chenle answers, eyes glued to his screen. “And being able to rest and relax with people you like is important.” Unlike the rest of them, he doesn’t have any assignments pulled up or notes spread across the table. Actually, Jeno’s pretty sure he’s playing League.

“Okay, but what would I even say? It’s been so long since he first hit on me that it’s kind of awkward if I finally text him, right?”

“Excuses,” says Donghyuck around the highlighter in his mouth. “Go talk to him in person, then. Pretty sure he’s on break right now.”

“I can’t,” whispers Jeno. He’s bad at making conversation when he gets nervous. There’s a solid 94% chance his brain will turn to pudding when Jaemin delivers that blinding smile up close.

Donghyuck lets the highlighter clatter to the table and sighs. “I have to do everything myself.” Before Jeno can ask what he means by that, he’s being unceremoniously shoved out of the booth, though his reflexes prevent him from eating shit.

“Oh no, Jeno! Are you okay?” says Chenle loudly, sounding like he’s reading off a script with a gun to his head. He still hasn’t looked up from browsing through Louis Vuitton champion skins.

Jeno barely has enough time to sit up and dust himself off before Jaemin comes running, brows knitted in concern. “Hey, you alright? Let me help you up.”

“I’m fine,” Jeno assures him, but he takes Jaemin’s offered hands anyway.

Jaemin pulls him up easily. His hands are pleasantly soft. It’s genuinely tragic how fast Jeno has gotten lost in the sauce despite his best attempts to push any interest out of mind.

“Your palms are all red,” Jaemin observes and clicks his tongue. “Here, follow me and I’ll bring out some ice.”

“I really am fine,” begins Jeno, then pauses when he realizes that he’s blatantly being gifted an opportunity. “But, uh, okay. Thanks.”

Jisung and Donghyuck each aim a thumbs up at Jeno as he trails after Jaemin to the front. He appreciates their confidence in him, but his well of talking points is fast running dry. Starting to sweat a little, he examines the walls for anything to jump off of. A plaque mounted behind the register finally catches his attention; it’s polished to a luster and displays a headshot of a tired-looking kid in round glasses over the somber caption In Loving Memory of Mark Lee, 1999 - 2019.

In the time it takes for Jeno to process the words and decide that commenting on them is probably not a good idea, Jaemin has caught onto where he’s looking. “Plaque’s cool, right? Mark used to be employee of the month every month.” He sighs, a bit wistful. “I miss that guy.”

“Is he, you know…” Jeno lowers his voice respectfully. “Did he… pass?”

“Yeah.”

Oh,” says Jeno, horrified. “I’m so sorry to hear that.”

Jaemin holds out only a few seconds longer before cackling. “I’m just fucking with you, he’s not dead. He moved back to Canada last summer, though, so it’s the same difference.” He bends to rummage in the freezer and misses Jeno’s sigh of relief. “Can I see your hands so I can ice them?”

As it happens, the red has already begun to fade from Jeno’s palms and they’re barely smarting anymore. He still obediently turns them face up. There’s an unexpected tenderness to Jaemin’s touch, the circle of his fingers around Jeno’s wrist feather-light, as he glides his makeshift ice pack over the affected skin. Without the service counter to separate them, Jaemin is closer than he’s ever been. Jeno would be lying if he said he minded, exactly.

But before jumping headfirst into the unknown, he needs to get to the bottom of whatever secrets are circulating around the premises. Even if Jaemin is humming along to the Crush song playing on the overhead speakers, his voice unsuited for the velvety melody but kind of sweet nonetheless. Even if the three (!) receipts with his phone number on them are starting to burn a hole into Jeno’s pocket.

Jeno had seen what he’d seen. He doesn’t want to end up in a relationship with someone who works at a place where strangers with golf ball-sized bruises come and go just to discover later that bloody knuckles are only the tip of the iceberg. As batshit insane as it sounds, what if Jaemin is gang affiliated? Or if the thumping from the backroom was actually the sound of a loan shark pistol-whipping a sorry debtor into submission, and Jeno unwittingly lands himself on their radar? The $7.50 he’s got in his Venmo account most likely won’t cut it.

Conducting research is the key. That’ll give him desperately needed answers and hopefully alleviate his fears in the process. The odds that Jaemin is actually involved in some illicit, large-scale scheme are little to none, anyway—Jeno just needs to know for sure to help him sleep at night.

“Hey, what’s your work schedule like?” Jeno asks suddenly.

Blinking, Jaemin lets go of his hands before a slow grin spreads across his mouth. “2 p.m. till closing on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. Why? You planning to keep me company?”

“No promises,” Jeno tells him.

So commences the long-term stakeout.

Okay, maybe stakeout is a bit aggressive. Jeno’s still working on the terminology. What’s important is that he’s got Jaemin’s schedule memorized, and his discussion section lets out even earlier this week so he can make it to the shop on Wednesday right as Jaemin’s shift is starting. He sets up watch in the corner, keeping one vigilant eye trained on the storeroom door. The other one tries to puzzle out his math quiz. Predictably, this proves too complicated to maintain for long, and his focus slips when he gets a problem wrong.

Of course, this exact moment is when the door chooses to squeak behind him. By the time Jeno whips his head around, whoever had pushed it is fast disappearing. All he sees are twin flutters of silk, slinking like tails into whatever horrors await inside the storage room.

Differential equations can wait. Jeno drops his pen and marches up to the counter, emboldened by a morning’s steady caffeine intake.

“Can I help you?” Jaemin trills. He looks disproportionately delighted to be the focus of Jeno’s attention. The pesky songbird in Jeno’s chest that seems to appear every time Jaemin looks at him preens and ruffles its feathers. Jeno commands it to pipe down.

“Yeah, if you’re not too busy?” says Jeno, glancing down to confirm that Jaemin isn’t occupied with assembling someone’s drink. The only thing that Jaemin appears to be assembling, in fact, is a frog chair in Animal Crossing. The Switch he’s using to play has a strip of medical tape on the back that reads PROPERTY OF RENJUN HUANG and another one below that reads JAEMIN I KNOW YOU CAN SEE THIS I SWEAR TO GOD. Jeno marvels at Jaemin’s casual willingness to provoke higher powers.

“Never too busy for you. What’s up?”

“I was wondering if you guys receive shipments in the back or something? I couldn’t help but notice that there’s someone always coming and going.”

“Oh!” Jaemin’s smile freezes peculiarly. “Yeah, my manager is around a lot. He’s probably signing off on deliveries or checking inventory. You know, managerial stuff.”

Jeno pauses. Although Jaemin had recovered with spectacular composure, he knows he didn’t imagine that split second of buffering. “Alright. I just noticed because there’s a draft from the door swinging, that’s all.”

“Well, you could come sit up front,” Jaemin offers with a shameless flutter of his lashes. “I’ve been told the view is great.”

Biting down on a smile, Jeno pivots away to return to his assignment. “Maybe next time.”

When he finally makes it home an hour before closing and relates the events of the afternoon to his beloved roommate, he is met with a less than enthusiastic response.

“You’re being unconscionably dramatic,” announces Donghyuck, fishing for a slice of avocado from his poke bowl. “I thought that was my thing. Who are you, even?”

“I’m not being dram—” Jeno pauses as Donghyuck’s chopsticks hone in on his mouth to deposit a cube of ahi tuna. He chews and swallows. “Okay, maybe a little bit. But something about the atmosphere of that place is off, I swear.”

“Remind me again how many people besides you have clocked this mysterious tattooed man in silk?”

“Um, no one yet.”

“But you wanna keep insisting that you’re not the one who’s sus.”

“Yes,” says Jeno determinedly. “I’ll prove it.”

Donghyuck rolls his eyes and pinches Jeno’s cheek with the hand that’s not typing every possible permutation of Renjun’s name and birthday into the Instagram search bar. “Cute. Knock yourself out, Detective Conan.”

 

*

 

The wall space above Jeno’s desk has been colonized in recent weeks by a massive whiteboard that constantly threatens to fall onto his lamp. He’s got it color-coded for maximum efficiency and sectioned off with the little Samoyed-shaped magnets Donghyuck got him for Christmas. There are definitely clues lurking here—he just needs to figure out how to unearth them.

Jeno takes a step back to examine it properly. The middle of the board displays a used City 127 stamp card and the street address of the store (he tries not to dwell on the blow to his budget all ten stamps had dealt). Surrounding it is a word cloud including terms like “debt collection,” “pyramid scheme????” and “grass jelly $0.50.” In the corners, he’s added short profiles of the suspects he’s gotten to know through his surveillance.

First is Jaemin, whose name has very professional and necessary sparkles drawn around it in Expo marker. Next is Renjun, who’s basically an urban cryptid—all Jeno’s got on him is that he attends their university and seems discontent to be perceived. There’s Johnny, previously known as the giant guy who bumped into Jeno during his first visit, who has proven to be unfailingly friendly after they were properly introduced. He seems to do most of the heavy lifting around the store, as well as baking all their pastries in-house. Finally, there’s Jaemin’s still-unidentified manager who possibly beats the shit out of people in the back.

Sighing, Jeno sinks into his desk chair. So maybe there are actually no clues. The only interesting detail he’s observed is that Johnny’s sleeve tattoos bear a striking resemblance to the one he’d seen on the mystery manager’s chest, all serpentine and swirling.

ABB branding, scrawls Jeno on the word cloud, then erases it. International yakuza ties. Erase. F is for friends who get tattoos together? He buries his head in his hands and groans aloud. Maybe—and it pains him to say this, but he is fast approaching a very dark place—Donghyuck was right. The cart Johnny was pushing that day could have housed old machinery or something, and maybe the bloodied guy in the storeroom making all kinds of sounds was… was like… having a particularly rough quickie in there? (Jeno shudders from head to toe at the hygienic implications, but he supposes it’s preferable to homicide.)

All Jeno has really accomplished through this mission is seeing Jaemin three times a week, every week, and being flirted with while his homework rots untouched. Jaemin especially likes to come up behind him under the pretense of peering at the equations on his screen, then slide a warm hand down the length of his arm. It’s always startling for a moment before Jeno leans into the touch; Jaemin moves silently, and he never seems to just walk anywhere if he can help it. He slinks, or saunters, or is carried over on a cloud of pixie dust. Sometimes, when Renjun is out and business is slow, he plops down across from Jeno and they play Smash. Embarrassingly, Jeno’s cheeks have started to heat up against his palms just from the memory.

“Get a grip,” he mutters to himself, straightening up.

Between the week of exams looming in his near future and the state of his nerves, it would probably do him well to cut back on the time he spends at City 127. He can’t really make the excuse that he goes there to study anymore, because the only things he seems to end up studying are the shape of Jaemin’s eyes when he smiles and the slim chain that falls between his clavicles. Jeno has thought about tracing his fingers over that shallow dip more times than is appropriate (which would be once at most), and certainly more times than is conducive to maintaining his scholarship (actual estimated value between 75 and 90 incidences). Yes, a small break is healthy. This will definitely be good for him.

He barely makes it a week of quitting cold turkey before the withdrawal starts to set in.

“Should I be concerned,” drawls Donghyuck, “that you’re three years deep into Jaemin’s Facebook profile?”

Rest in peace, plausible deniability. Jeno startles and tries to swipe over to the half-written email to Kun he’s been sitting on since morning, but it’s too late. This is nothing Donghyuck didn’t already know, admittedly. “I had a few burning questions.”

“Yeah?” Donghyuck searches Jaemin’s account on his own phone and scrolls aggressively downwards. “About what, the tropical cruise he went on during winter break 2017?”

“No, he went skiing in Tahoe,” says Jeno reflexively. “I mean. Shit.”

Donghyuck’s sloping eyebrows communicate something between pity and unbearable smugness. “Still don’t understand why you won’t just go out with him. He practically blossoms when you give him attention, and you obviously don’t mind his.”

“It’s complicated.”

“You mean you haven’t given up on the chance of him being a gangster.”

“Inquiring minds would like to know!”

“Hmm,” says Donghyuck and reclines onto the couch to continue his game of 8 Ball with whoever has been kicking his ass all week. “He’s not working this Friday. Just a heads up in case you were gonna go see him.”

Jeno stills and looks back at him. “Who’d you hear that from?”

“A little fox told me,” Donghyuck sings, confusing Jeno even more, then giggles as if remembering an inside joke. His phone pings and he glances down. “Fuck! What the fuck! How does he beat me every time?”

This seems like a natural cue for Jeno to take his leave. Back in his room, he burrito rolls himself into his comforter and contemplates this new information. When he’s avoiding the boba shop as a matter of his own principle, that’s one thing, but Jaemin not being there for him to visit if he wanted feels somehow different. A bit emptier.

He’s not gonna go, though. It’s entirely possible that Jaemin had a personal emergency or just wasn’t feeling well, and that happens to people all the time. Jeno is a normal person who has normal levels of dependency on getting his hair petted by sparkly-eyed bobaristas. Jeno…

Is standing outside City 127 in the cold come Friday evening with circus music blaring mockingly in his head. And perhaps outside of his head, too. With a weary jolt of realization, he pats down his pocket. It’s been so many months since the last time Donghyuck bothered to call him that he’d forgotten Donghyuck had custom changed his ringtone.

“Hello?”

“Hiiii,” says Donghyuck, suspiciously out of breath. “Plans for tonight have pivoted. Don’t come home, thanks, bye.”

“What do you m—”

“Just!” There’s a crash in the background and someone who is not Donghyuck swears quietly. “This is for your own good.”

Then he hangs up, leaving Jeno with no other option than to walk up to the door of the shop. It’s curiously dark inside even though they should only be starting to close now, and there are no people visible, customers or otherwise. Today’s not a holiday as far as Jeno is aware. He flips the hood of his jacket up and spins on his heel, unsure of where else to go now that his apartment is off-limits.

The decision is made for him when Jaemin’s unmistakably parched blond head comes bobbing down the street, catching the glare of the streetlamp behind him. He’s balancing several crates stacked one on top of another and his phone between his ear and shoulder. “Yeah, I’m here,” he’s saying. “I don’t see you.”

“Jaemin!” says Jeno. “Hey!”

It seems Jaemin doesn’t hear him because he swivels into the narrow perpendicular alley to approach the shop from the side door. Jeno chews his lip for a moment before choosing to follow. He’d seen the keyring jangling at Jaemin’s belt, and he figures that it’ll probably be tough to unlock the door while dealing with the crates. Jeno is nothing if not helpful.

Jaemin is still muttering into the phone as Jeno rounds the corner, fumbling as predicted with the keys. “No, I haven’t seen Yuta either. And I have my hands full with all the shit you asked me to bring, so you’re gonna have to come open the door from the inside. Yeah. Okay, bye.”

“Hey, Jaemin,” Jeno repeats, waving. “I was walking by and thought you might need some h—”

“Jesus fuck,” says Jaemin. His head snaps up so hard that his phone tumbles from the crook of his neck and clatters to the ground. “You need to go.”

“What? It’s okay, I don’t have anywhere to be. That looks really heavy, too.”

“No, you need to leave, Jeno, like right now.”

“You’re sure you can carry it all?”

“Of course,” Jaemin lies shrilly. “These barely weigh anything, I really can handle it so please—”

“Watch out, you’re about to step on your phone—”

Jeno moves in at the same time that Jaemin shifts away, colliding with the door. The impact would have put a stop to them both if the door hadn’t opened inwards a millisecond later, and the yelp that ensues as the two of them collapse into a dimly lit hallway is even louder. It takes a beat for Jeno to realize that the yelp had come from neither himself nor Jaemin, but from the man over whose feet they have so gracefully tripped.

“What the fuck,” snaps the shadowy man. “Jaemin, who is this?”

“He’s leaving,” groans Jaemin.

Though he doesn’t have the slightest idea what’s happening, Jeno can pick up on hostile energy when he encounters it. “Yes sir, leaving right now, just let me get to my feet.”

“Well, hurry up.” The man’s watch flashes when he extends a hand down.

Jeno grasps gingerly, then staggers to a standing position, gets a good look at the limb to which the hand is attached, and promptly forgets to let go. Wrapped delicately around the man’s forearm is a snake tattoo, spiraling up from his wrist to where its fanged mouth unhinges below his inner elbow. F is for felons, Jeno thinks in an absurd moment of clarity.

“Yo, sorry I’m late,” comes a new voice from behind them. “I may have gotten just a smidge stabbed.”

Whipping around, Jeno finds the original mysterious guy with the chest piece bent over the doorstep, crimson streaming over the fingers clamped around his side.

“Oh, it’s Jaemin’s little boyfriend,” he coos, nonchalant, while his blood continues to gush. “Are we having a party?”

Jaemin performs innocent jazz hands. “Surprise?”

 

*

part 2: mafia boogaloo

*

 

 

When Jeno was in middle school, his older sister went through a phase of obsession with true crime documentaries, especially ones about mafia activity. She usually let him watch with her, and he spent many an evening listening to her laptop whirring over the percussion of staged gunshots. Truthfully, he found the idea of massive gangs running around under people’s noses too unsettling to ever really get into it himself. He was secretly thrilled when his sister’s subsequent infatuation revealed itself to be shoujo anime.

At present, Jeno feels like those documentaries have opened their mouths and swallowed him right into the belly of the fabled beast. Except instead of watching paid actors reenact grand larceny in pinstripe suits, he’s watching a man bleed out on the floor of a boba shop.

The man in question is apparently Yuta, Jaemin’s infamous manager, though with his longish hair slicked off his face and silk shirt open to his waist, he looks more like a poster boy for embezzlement in the Cayman Islands than someone who doles out minimum wage to college students. He also seems quite relaxed despite having hemorrhaged just minutes ago onto Renjun’s meticulously Swiffered tile.

The one with the forearm snake, Doyoung, kneels at his side, staunching the blood flow with a cheesecloth. “You found it yet?” he calls to Jaemin. “Hydrogen peroxide is on the shelf under the herbal blends.”

Jeno pinches himself sharply and waits for the bad dream to disappear. When it doesn’t work, he does it again harder, then another time. Doyoung shoots him a look over the rims of his glasses and barks, “Hurry up before your boyfriend draws blood, too. I only stock so much gauze.”

“Coming,” huffs Jaemin, materializing with an armful of first-aid supplies. “Brought the bandages, too.”

“How are you all so… okay with this,” Jeno croaks.

Doyoung shoves a roll of bandages in Yuta’s mouth before dabbing elegantly at the wound with a wad soaked in antiseptic. Yuta hisses but only squirms a little. “Well, this wouldn’t be the first time someone came in here needing to get patched up. Or the first time that Yuta got shanked, for that matter.”

Spitting out the bandages, Yuta protests, “Come on, this one barely grazed me.”

“You do seem to be bleeding a lot,” says Jaemin.

“Pfft,” goes Yuta. “A scratch. If you want a real story, you should hear about the time Taeyong and I got stranded in Miami.”

“Enough,” says Doyoung, unceremoniously gagging him again. “We know plenty about the thrills of your glory days.”

Yuta makes a muffled noise of indignation but allows Doyoung to continue working. Resisting the urge to pinch himself again, Jeno reaches shakily for Jaemin’s hand instead. It’s reassuringly warm against his own, like always. With each passing minute, Jaemin feels more and more like the only thing that’s real.

Eyes soft, Jaemin sweeps his thumb across the back of Jeno’s hand in tiny circles. “I know this is probably a lot to take in. Just, um, try to breathe? I’m still here.”

“And you’re not going anywhere, right?” says Jeno. He squeezes a little tighter, apprehensive at the thought of being left alone here with two guys who could probably be doing twenty to life for their repertoires.

“Nowhere,” Jaemin promises.

Doyoung observes them critically while smoothing a final layer of bandages over Yuta’s flank. “That was very sweet and all, but Jaemin, you do know what this means for us.”

“You’ve learned our secret, so we have to kill you,” whispers Yuta as soon as Doyoung frees his mouth. He watches Jeno’s face go utterly bloodless before laughing. “Just kidding. Your expression was gold, though.”

“I won’t say anything to anyone,” Jeno blurts. “I swear on my life. Scout’s honor. I really was a Boy Scout, so I mean it.”

“You’re so cute,” says Jaemin. “No one’s gonna hurt you here.”

“Well,” says Yuta.

“Stop,” Doyoung tells him. “And you,” he continues, pointing at Jaemin. “I saw the look on your face. Don’t jump a man when he’s down.”

“Unless you’re afraid,” Yuta singsongs, still very much horizontal on the ground.

“Can you not instigate for like 5 seconds? Look—Jeno, is it? Nothing is going to happen to you because I can tell you’re a smart kid who minds his business. So you’ll keep your mouth shut because that’s the smart thing to do, won’t you?”

Jeno shivers. Even though Yuta is the one who just smiled though the treatment of a stab wound, Doyoung is easily the scarier of the two. Jeno has yet to see him smile at all. By some awful trick of the imagination, his forearm snake seems to ripple under his skin as he turns his pointer finger onto Jeno. “Oh, yes. For sure. Absolutely.”

Doyoung holds eye contact until Jeno’s eyes start to water. “Good,” he says finally, and Jeno all but wilts against Jaemin in relief.

“If there’s anything else you want to know, feel free to ask,” Jaemin pipes up. “It might make you feel more comfortable. When I first started here, all I did was ask questions.”

“It was incredibly annoying,” says Yuta. “I would’ve swatted you like a mosquito if you weren’t so adorable.”

Jeno racks his slowly recovering brain. “So are you guys, like, actually mafia? Do you run drugs? Or is this whole store a front for your illegal business?”

“Yeah,” says Doyoung unhelpfully.

“What about that cart Johnny was pushing?” Jeno turns to Jaemin beseechingly. “Was that a person under the tarp? Oh my god, were they dead?”

“No way,” says Jaemin, almost affronted. “That really was just an old machine we needed to throw out. There was probably stuff oozing or whatever, but I bet it was just tapioca sludge.”

“And that time that Yuta came out of here with bloody knuckles? He wasn’t beating someone up?”

Yuta raises an eyebrow, Jaemin snickers, and Doyoung lets out a derisive snort before taking pity. “I mean, he was beating something up for sure.”

It takes a minute for Jeno to figure out what he’s getting at, but he flushes and turns away as soon as it clicks. The devious eyes Jaemin’s making are absolutely no help. “Right. Of course. Um, do you guys need help cleaning or something? Unpacking the crates?” He may have been the one who unwittingly brought this up to begin with, but Jeno would sooner die than keep talking about it.

“With the amount of revelations you’ve had in the past five minutes, I don’t know if you’re ready to see what’s inside the crates,” warns Yuta. “Your brain might short-circuit.”

“Beats going home,” says Jeno. “I think my roommate sexiled me.”

“For real? Mine nearly did too, but he ended up going to the other guy’s place instead,” says Jaemin. A strange look crosses his face. “Wait.”

Jeno shoots out a hand to cover Jaemin’s mouth at a speed possibly faster than light. “No, no, nope, stop talking. I can’t realize this many things at once.”

The door behind them shudders and swings open, blowing in a chilly draft. Johnny enters a moment later, beanie askew and huffing into his cupped hands. “Hey guys, what did I—oh.”

“Hi,” greets Jeno weakly.

“Hey,” says Johnny. He looks first at Doyoung, who jerks his head in Jaemin’s direction, then at Jaemin, who smiles angelically. Yuta waves from the floor. “Wait, I know you. You’re a customer. Jeno, right?”

“That’s me,” Jeno confirms, wondering faintly if Yuta wasn’t kidding and they really are going to dispose of him after all is said and done. He doesn’t know yet if he quite buys the busted machinery excuse Jaemin had given for the tarp. Despite his kind eyes, Johnny definitely looks like he knows how to get rid of a body.

Doyoung leans over and whispers into Johnny’s ear, hiding his lips with one ringed hand. Johnny’s eyebrows shoot up, then crease in the middle, then fall slowly back into line. “I see,” Johnny says when Doyoung steps back. “Well, it’s good to have you around, Jeno.” He flashes a grin and squats to lift the forgotten crates, making them look about as heavy as Lego blocks, then disappears into the storeroom’s back shelves.

Jeno doesn’t register that he’s trembling until Jaemin pats his shoulder. “You’re doing great,” he offers encouragingly. The fluorescent lights overhead lend him the suggestion of a halo.

Inch by inch, Jeno scoots closer. “Thank you.”

Jaemin wraps his arm all the way around, allowing Jeno to press into his side. “Still not going anywhere,” he says, and this time, Jeno manages a tiny smile back.

 

*

 

In a turn of events that can hardly be classified as wild after all the shit Jeno’s seen go down tonight, he ends up staying over at Jaemin’s place.

“Sorry about the mess.” Wincing, Jaemin peels an inside-out bomber jacket off a lampshade. “Renjun’s always on my ass about cleaning up. I swear I was going to tonight, but I didn’t expect to have company.”

“It’s okay,” says Jeno, glancing around. The place isn’t actually that messy, aside from a couple other carelessly flung articles of clothing around the common area and an open box of takeout on the table. “I didn’t expect to be company.”

Jaemin snorts and drifts into the kitchen to scan the fridge. “You want anything to drink? We have water, soy milk, and like fifteen cans of Monster.”

“Uh, water’s fine, thanks.”

“Great, because I lied about the soy milk.” Jaemin gives the carton a vigorous shake, wrinkling his nose when no sloshing is heard. “We’re always out.”

Jeno accepts a glass of water and sidles up to Jaemin at the counter. “Is it just you and Renjun who live here?”

“No, but it feels like that since his roommates are barely around. Dejun’s in sound production and sleeps in the studio most nights, and Yangyang’s from nearby so he goes home a lot. I’ve been using his room. He’s really chill about it.”

“That’s nice of him,” says Jeno. “Cool if I take the couch, then?”

Jaemin pauses. “What?”

“I mean, I don’t want to intrude—”

“Bullshit. I invited you over, so you can take my bed.”

“Of course not! Where would you sleep?”

“On the couch,” says Jaemin matter-of-factly. “I nap there all the time, anyway.”

Jeno shrugs, moving to rinse his glass in the sink. “That means it’s probably comfortable. Even better. It’ll be no problem for me.” He turns around and jumps when he finds Jaemin making a beeline for the couch. “What are you doing?”

“You can’t sleep here if I’ve already claimed it,” Jaemin announces smugly and bounces a couple times on the cushions like a child.

“I’m not gonna take your bed! Especially since it technically belongs to someone else.”

“Well, I’m not moving.”

“Fine. I’m not even tired yet.”

Jaemin purses his lips. “It’s late. Plus, you made some pretty traumatic discoveries earlier. I think rest would do you good.”

“I’ll rest when I need to,” says Jeno, plopping down next to him. He would, in fact, like to rest right now. But Jaemin and his stubbornness animate some elusive desire in him; he thrills quietly at the pushback, the way Jaemin oscillates between snarky and earnest in his caretaking. Their thighs are hardly an inch apart.

This thought seems to register in Jaemin’s mind at the same moment, if the way his mouth suddenly falls a bit slack is anything to go by. “Is this okay?” he asks.

“Sure,” says Jeno, trying to seem unaffected.

Jaemin watches him for a bit. “Okay,” he says slowly. “Here’s my last argument. You still don’t really know me, as much as I wish that could’ve changed without this mess happening. Yangyang’s bedroom locks from the inside. If you slept there, you would be better protected.”

“What, from you? Are you planning to kill me?”

“No! No, of course not, how could I ever—”

“Then I’m okay out here.”

“It’s for your own peace of mind! You shouldn’t just trust like this.”

“Anyone who spends the night with a random hookup is technically running the same risk,” Jeno points out.

Jaemin huffs, inflating his bangs before they settle back over his brow. “They shouldn’t trust like that, either.”

“Hey, listen. I’m okay at math,” says Jeno around a poorly suppressed yawn. “And I don’t mind my odds here.”

For a long minute, Jaemin sits there with his arms crossed tight, near irate. “Let me at least get you a blanket.”

“I’m not sleeping yet,” Jeno tries again, but Jaemin shushes him, not unkindly.

“Then I’ll just get it in advance so you’re comfy when you do wanna sleep. Give me like five minutes.”

Jeno has run out of protests, so he nods and watches Jaemin go. A blanket wouldn’t be such a bad thing, he supposes. He’s already a little chilly without Jaemin by his side, and after the things he’s experienced tonight, quality rest would be hard to come by. It shouldn’t hurt to try and ease the process.

Half of his brain is roaring, replaying the sight of Yuta’s blood, the steel in Doyoung’s eyes; his knees haven't recovered from turning to jelly. The other half, though, is ridiculously exhausted, as if just trying to process everything has expended all the energy left in him. Jeno’s eyelids sag despite his best efforts to fight it, and the couch’s arm seems to meld to his cheek when his head lolls. Jaemin’s apartment is warm, like him. Like his eyes and smile. He could still be a serial killer. He could be a hitman. He…

Well, he had every opportunity to tie Jeno up and dispose of him outside a gas station while they were driving here. The trunk of Jaemin’s car isn’t huge, but it’s roomy enough for one body bound at the wrists and ankles. The night was pitch dark, too. Perfect cover.

If Jeno pictures the situation at large, it seems unspeakably stupid to fall asleep here regardless. But the longer he squints at the details—Jaemin’s stream of whispered reassurances while Jeno trembled like a leaf in the passenger seat, the hand not on the wheel finding its way to Jeno’s own—it also feels kind of pointless to choose now of all times to get paranoid. He could have been killed any number of times tonight, yet he’s made it this far fully intact. Jeno isn't a betting man, but one more gamble with fate doesn’t seem as scary after the veritable twenty others he’s so far outrun.

He presses his face into the beaten fabric of the couch and laughs, drained though he is. Apparently a brush with death can send you willingly careening towards more danger just as easily as it can turn you away from it. You just don’t know what type you are until you’ve lived it. Or until the guy who’s been hitting on you for the past month holds your hand through it despite being employed by the very people responsible. The cosmic punchline of Jeno’s life is clearly still in enthusiastic development.

His train of thought can’t straggle on much farther before his lids are shuttering for good, and then the darkness curls up beside him.

 

*

 

Jeno spends the week after trying and failing to relocate normalcy.

It’s tough, obviously, more than he anticipated, and oddly tougher still without Jaemin. Not that he meant to cut him off, exactly, but it felt like a necessary step in dealing with it all. Like amputating a gangrenous limb. Except Jaemin is less necrotic tissue and a whole lot more gentle touches and winks thrown at random like flower bouquets, and Jeno is disgruntled to find himself once again between a rock and a hard place. Missing him. Whatever.

“Lame,” says Donghyuck without looking up from 8 Ball.

Jeno frowns. “Emoting?”

“Yeah, if you’re gonna mope about him like this. You conducted your whole investigation. Literally what’s left to stop you two from making out into the sunset?”

That’s the other thing. Against his better judgement, Jeno trusts Donghyuck a hell of a lot, and not being able to speak on what had really gone down the night of his fated sexile is eating him from the inside out. They’ve been friends since eighth grade, when Jeno diplomatically complimented Donghyuck’s shitty blue dye job that all his siblings wouldn’t stop laughing at, and they’ve been soul bonded or something ever since. These aren’t secrets they would usually keep.

As it is, however, Donghyuck’s safety appears to correlate positively with knowing as little as possible. Jeno remembers Doyoung’s warning, the hypnotic movement of the snake coiled around his arm. He can’t shake the idea that Doyoung would know somehow if he decided to open his mouth, and then everyone would be a lot worse off than where they started.

In flashes of what feels like either insanity or lucidity or perhaps both at once, Jeno wishes he had Jaemin to talk to about the whole of it. He stretches his hands out in front of him and envisions the fabric of that morning draped like a spiderweb between them.

(“Aren’t you afraid?” Jeno had asked, gathering his things in preparation to head out. Jaemin had generously offered a selection of skincare for Jeno’s perusal, as well as a spare toothbrush and a surprisingly good omelette, and finally stood at the door staring at Jeno with something unfathomable swimming in his eyes.

“Of who? Doyoung and Yuta?”

Jeno nodded.

“Nah,” said Jaemin. “Them and the rest are the closest thing I have to family out here.”

“Oh.” It felt like the wrong time to pry. Jeno wanted to know, but.

“They’re not as bad as they seem.” Jaemin smiled faintly. “You can even still come around. If you want.”

The pit of Jeno’s stomach performed an uneasy flip. “If I…”

“Don’t worry, I won’t keep asking you.”

Jaemin’s typical confidence was absent, shoulders slouched. After a moment of internal debate, Jeno opened his mouth, but by then the door was clicking and opening. Someone Jeno didn’t recognize entered and spared him only a cursory glance of confusion before trudging past, knuckling at the deep shadows under his eyes.

“That was Dejun,” Jaemin explained.

“Right. I guess I’ll just.”

“Yeah.”

“Yeah. Thanks. Thank you. I really appreciate you letting me stay over,” blurted Jeno.

And then Jaemin had waved him off, smile still unconvincing, and that was that.)

“You know what,” announces Donghyuck in the present, getting to his feet. “We’ll fix this today. You’re messing with the aura of our home that I worked so hard to cultivate, and I had plans this afternoon anyway. Two birds, one stone, free boba.”

“Plans with who?” asks Jeno even though he’d already put the pieces together against his will some time ago. He receives no answer, only a breezy request to be ready in five because Donghyuck’s date is big on punctuality.

Scrubbing a hand over his face, Jeno goes to change into a slightly nicer shirt. There’s no use arguing with a hurricane. Maybe Johnny will suplex them both off the premises when they get within a five yard radius of the shop and make life easier.

Except he doesn’t, and the two of them walk into City 127 undisturbed. The doorbell jangles pleasantly. Jeno holds his breath while he scans the empty counter. There’s a girl behind it instead of either Jaemin or Renjun, one hand absently twirling a pen. Jeno’s still operating under the general impression that unfamiliar faces are safer, but she doesn’t look surprised to see either of them.

“Hey, Yeeun,” chirps Donghyuck.

“He’s in the back,” she says, gesturing with the pen.

Donghyuck clutches his chest, apparently not concerned enough with being on time to drop the theatrics. “You don’t even say hi to me anymore.”

She snorts. “I think you’re here more often than I am at this point. I don’t say hi or bye anymore because you’re constantly around.”

“Isn’t that so nice?”

“Yeah, a little bit.” Yeeun tweaks the apple of his cheek, affectionate, and resumes twirling her pen. “This line is for paying customers, though, so unless you magically remembered your wallet today…?”

Patting down his pockets with the commitment of a veteran thespian, Donghyuck heaves an earth-shaking sigh. “What do you know. No such luck.”

“Sorry about him,” Jeno intervenes as a matter of course.

“Oh? You must be Jeno. Don’t worry, we’ve kind of adopted this one as a resident terror.” Her eyes glitter when she adds, “Your boy is in the back, too, if you wanna see him.”

Jeno’s throat dries up a bit as his heart starts to beat in double time. Before he manages to respond, Donghyuck is pulling him out of the way. Yeeun seems more amused than anything, waggling her fingers goodbye at them as they pick their way around tables and patrons.

Technically, Jeno hasn’t done a thing to betray Doyoung’s creepy snake covenant, but he kind of feels like he’s walking to his execution all the same. He doesn’t quite know how to look Jaemin in the face after a week of radio silence that already followed one of the most memorable nights of his life for the very worst reasons. He wonders if Yuta is as good at handling blades with his fingers as he is with taking them in the gut. He wonders if he should write up a last will and testament.

Donghyuck takes Jeno’s cheeks in his hands and squishes them firmly. “No more loud thinking. Your anxiety’s going to curdle the milk tea.”

Renjun picks this moment to wisp through the door. “You say you’re coming to see me and then you show up staring romantically into your roommate’s eyes,” he says to Donghyuck, who promptly forgets that Jeno has ever existed. He tries to plant a kiss on Renjun’s cheek, looking immensely satisfied even as he’s held off at arm’s length because Renjun is smiling.

Then Jaemin steps out and Jeno’s own tunnel vision kicks into high gear. It’s been a single week. How is Jaemin prettier than he remembers?

“You came back,” says Jaemin, slow and awed before his face splits into a grin.

“I guess,” says Jeno, then shakes his head. “I mean, yes. But I don’t know if I’m allowed to? Or if my friend is?”

Jaemin curls his hand over Jeno’s elbow. “Let’s talk outside?”

Glancing around at the accumulating afternoon buzz, Jeno nods. It’s not like anyone but himself ever seems to notice the more sinister comings and goings, but nevertheless he supposes it wouldn’t be a good idea to talk here.

It’s cold out, and a bracing gust slaps them both in the face. Jeno hadn’t taken off his jacket before coming in, but Jaemin hadn’t grabbed his on the way out, so he shifts minutely closer to offer Jaemin what body heat he can. Even tucked away from the main street in this cramped offshoot alleyway, the wind is temperamental. “Aren’t you freezing?”

“You warm me up,” Jaemin drawls. He doesn’t wait for the color to settle on the tops of Jeno’s ears or drag out the flusteredness to savor. “Thanks for coming,” he adds, quieter.

“I just tagged along with Donghyuck,” says Jeno, kind of embarrassed. “Honestly, I wasn’t super eager to see this place again.”

The corners of Jaemin’s mouth flick downwards. “I get that. You know, besides you, only two other people ever found out on accident.”

“What happened to them?”

“Well, one was Mark, and last I heard, he’s living his best life dating an Instagram model from Hong Kong.”

“Good for him,” says Jeno uncertainly. “And the other…?”

“You’re talking to him.” Jaemin laughs at Jeno’s sputtering. “Seriously. I made myself useful, so they kept me around. Yuta and Doyoung are mostly the reason I can afford to live out here.”

Jeno pockets his hands to stop himself from wringing them. “So you’re just okay with, like, doing crime?” He drops his voice to a whisper even though no one’s around, just in case. “Beating random people up and stuff?”

“No! We don’t—look. The most illegal thing that happens in the backroom is Taeyong and Yuta doing stick and pokes on each other in places where the sun doesn’t shine.”

“Who?”

“Taeyong’s our actual boss, he’s Yuta’s—anyway, that’s not important. We don’t go around picking fights. Sometimes Johnny upcharges for E during festival season, but that’s about it, and nobody looks at him and decides they wanna brawl.”

“Really,” says Jeno skeptically. “So your manager came in bleeding out of his spleen or something because a couple of ravers wanted cash back?”

Jaemin looks around discreetly before coughing into his fist. “Okay. Before I got here, years ago, they used to do more. Washing money and moving… less benign substances. But believe it or not, boba turned out to be a really profitable business, and after a while it made sense to do that full-time.”

Stab wound,” emphasizes Jeno.

“They have old enemies! Some people hold grudges longer than the serial run of One Piece. And with Yuta’s personality, I mean, go figure.”

Jeno squints at the manga reference. The very real possibility that Jaemin and Donghyuck would get along squirms into his mind in between more pressing matters, and he has to forcibly squash it down. “But you don’t do any of that, is what you’re saying.”

“Scout’s honor.” Jaemin nods solemnly.

“No way you were a Boy Scout.”

“Eagle Scout rank, and I still have the badge.”

Jeno looks at him.

“Alright, fine, I was very much not a Boy Scout,” Jaemin concedes, “but I totally could’ve been if I wanted to. I love community service. The smile on Donghyuck’s little angel face when I give him an extra scoop of boba never fails to brighten my day.”

“It ruins Renjun’s day, which is why it makes you happy,” Jeno points out.

Jaemin flaps his hand. “Tomato, tomahto.”

Suddenly, Jeno feels very tired. “Jaemin, I want to trust you. But like you said, I don’t really know you, and I definitely don’t know the people you work with. Basic survival instincts tell me that I should leave this place and not think twice about it.”

There’s a pause while Jaemin sobers up, too. The wind whistles through his hair, tossing fried strands in every direction, and he sweeps his hand back through the mess several times while choosing his words.

“I know that what you saw was scary, and I’m sorry you had to sit through that,” he says finally. “Hearing the whole story probably isn’t much better. Doyoung swore you to secrecy not because we’re hunting people down left and right, but because him and the rest of them are trying to keep a low profile now. Starting over, that kind of thing. The terrifying shit they did in the past stays in the past, and I don’t know the complete details either, but they’ve been really, really good to me, so I don’t have any reason to bite their hand.” Jaemin sighs and leans back against the bricks. “You don’t seem like the type to decide everything about a person based on first impressions.”

“The first time Donghyuck and I ever met, like before we were friends, he had gum stuck in his eyebrows because he tried to set a Guinness world record for bubble blowing and it popped all over his face,” Jeno recounts. “I helped him pick it out in the bathroom.”

“And you still talked to him after that, it seems like,” says Jaemin wryly.

Jeno smiles a little. “Seems like.”

“Well then.” Jaemin’s shivering slightly now, the tip of his nose turning rabbit pink. “I hope you decide the same for me.”

“What if I don’t?”

“I’ll miss you a lot.”

This type of unselfconscious honesty always makes Jeno’s cheeks heat. He feels for the inside pocket of his jacket, where the receipts with Jaemin’s number remain after all these weeks of thinking and suspecting and arguably pining. He’d miss Jaemin, too, of course. He already does when he’s just sitting at home and pouting into the uncaring lines of code on his laptop screen.

A text sounds off from Jaemin’s back pocket, shattering the atmosphere. He pries his phone out with shaky fingers, swearing as he taps out a reply. “Hey, my shift is starting. I’ve gotta go back inside. Are you heading home?”

Jeno breathes in slow and deep. “I’ll stay.”

 

*

 

Chenle returns to the library double-fisting two cups of taro slush with a green milk tea precariously tucked between his chin and shoulder. “Here you go,” he says, or at least that’s what Jeno thinks he says around the three straws hanging off his bottom lip.

“You didn’t have to carry the straws in your mouth,” Jisung whines, reaching for his drink.

“As if you don’t know what my spit tastes like?”

Tempted as Jeno is to say something dumb like oh, to be young and in love, he knows where that would get him, and he’s too busy to hash out that particular argument today. He refocuses his attention on writing out a homework help request to Kun, who’s been uncharacteristically slow with responses lately. Not even Jeno’s briefest and most kiss-ass inquiries have been answered, and he’s kind of starting to miss the smiley face in Kun’s email signature. “Were they out of trays? You could’ve at least held the third cup inside your elbow.”

“I just wanted to see if I could do it. Besides, that drink was mine, so if it burst no one could get mad about it besides me.”

“Always the innovator,” says Donghyuck, returning from the restroom. “Hey, where’s mine?”

“Renjun said if you want boba you have to go find him yourself.”

“Ew,” says Jisung.

“Ew,” Jeno agrees.

Donghyuck is already packing up his laptop. “Later, nerds,” he sings, slinging his backpack over his shoulder and flashing them a peace sign.

Twisting to peek at Chenle’s screen, Jisung pulls a face. “You’re not even studying. We’re taking astronomy on the same day.”

“I’ll get to it in a minute.” Chenle takes a sip of his drink, then twists his mouth contemplatively. “Man, it got kinda warm. Maybe I should’ve gotten a tray after all.”

Jisung fits his noise-canceling headphones over his ears. “Don’t come crying to me when you can’t hack the practice test.”

“How hard can astronomy be when my moon and stars is right here,” warbles Chenle an inch away from his face, giggling when Jisung shoves his shoulder.

They’re both visibly pleased, though, and Jeno knows from experience that their pinkies will be linked under the table in minutes. He supposes that his situation has gotten truly dire now that even Chenle and Jisung’s guileless brand of romance has started to wear on him. Donghyuck, of all people, is in something resembling a monogamous relationship right now, and his transient hookups used to be frequent enough for Jeno to tell time by them like a sundial. Everyone seems to be at least a little bit smitten. It’s just Jeno’s luck that the only person he wants, and who by all accounts wants him back, has criminal affiliations.

He stares at the condensation beading up on the outside of his cup. Not black milk tea, for once. Baby steps towards trying new things. With some trepidation, he pokes the straw through and gives it a swirl before tasting.

“Do you like taro?” asks Chenle. “You’ve never changed up your order before.”

“Yeah.” Jeno switches windows to iMessage and opens up Jaemin’s contact. hey, it’s jeno, he types, steeling his nerves. are you free sometime this weekend? “I just thought it was time to give it a shot.”

That’s Wednesday night. Thursday sees Jeno make a responsibly healthy lunch (to compensate for skipping breakfast, he’s not perfect) and put his phone on do not disturb before heading to his exam early. There’s a string of replies from Jaemin waiting to be answered, but just thinking about them makes the pit of his stomach flutter helplessly, and he could do with as little of that as possible given the state of his nerves already. It’s not until much later, back in his room with his schedule clear for at least the next few days, that he allows himself to look through his texts.

 

jaemin (boba shop)

aldfjslkkdjglkjsdlfgkldskfjlskdfgjlskls

JENO????????

 

He’s attached several gifs, each more frenzied than the last. Jeno snorts and keeps scrolling.

 

jaemin (boba shop)

I am literally free anytime you want me to be 🥰

this weekend is perfect you’re perfect

i thought you'd never text me i cant stop cheesing wtffffff this is is like

a dream

im so happy

 

jaemin (boba shop)

Omg did i scare you off

wait it’s exam week you’re probably busy okok good luck with whatever is on your plate atm ⤴︎ ε=ε=(ง ˃̶͈̀ᗨ˂̶͈́)۶ ⤴︎

u can do it!!!!!

heyy

thanks haha i did have an exam actually i think it went well tho

how’s saturday at 2? i’ll come up to get you

 

He’s barely hit send when the typing bubble pops up.

 

jaemin (boba shop)

yesssssss sounds amazing 🥺🥺🥺

˭̡̞(◞⁎˃ᆺ˂)◞*✰

 

The kaomoji usage is so unashamedly obnoxious that it makes Jeno smile to himself. He thumbs up reacts Jaemin’s last message before shoving his phone under his pillow and rolling onto his belly, wondering if he’s making a huge mistake. Usually when he does something that goes against the best course of action, this is about the point that he starts feeling kind of ill. Instead, his heartbeat thumps steady and sure against the mattress.

Maybe hanging out with Donghyuck has worn his capacity for rational decision making so thin that he can’t tell what’s what anymore. Maybe, and more likely, he’s just head over heels.

Saturday afternoon, Jeno wakes up after a luxurious ten hours to buttery light streaming in and a nervous, thrilled sort of thrum at the base of his throat. This can work, he tells himself as he showers and spends longer than he needs to picking an outfit. Donghyuck tells him to wear the canvas jacket that makes him look extra broad. Jeno sprays cologne around the lapel and texts Jaemin to be ready because he’s on his way up. They’re just normal people. They can have this.

Jeno turns the corner from the elevator and knocks on Jaemin’s door to no answer. After a minute, he knocks again, louder, and Renjun throws it open with a yowling tawny blur on his head. There’s toothpaste foam in the corner of his mouth and a shallow cut on his forearm. “Hi,” he says, trying to peel the cat off one-handed, and it promptly screams bloody murder. “I’ll tell Jaemin you’re here.”

“Thanks,” says Jeno, understanding all at once that he is, by association, no longer a normal person and as such cannot have a nice thing ever again.

Jaemin flickers into frame a moment later, looking equally frazzled and unfairly no less handsome for it. He’s wearing My Melody pajama bottoms that Jeno would take longer to admire if it weren’t for the panic pouring off him in spades.

“Jeno,” he says, “I’m so sorry, fuck, something came up. I just saw your text right now. You know I would never cancel on you if I didn’t have to, this is actually kind of crazy—”

“Whoa, take a breath.” Jeno furrows his eyebrows as Jaemin gulps for air. “Is everything okay? Like, are you hurt?”

“It’s not me,” says Jaemin despairingly. “It’s Bisky.”

Jeno’s brow creases further. “I don’t know who that is. Also, can I come in? It’s a little weird to talk about this in the middle of the hallway.”

Jaemin shoos him inside before locking the door and collapsing on the couch. “Bisky is Taeyong and Yuta’s cat. Like the character from Hunter X Hunter, you know. Taeyong’s a weeb.”

“I’m familiar,” says Jeno, sitting too, albeit a respectful distance apart. He’s absorbed some of Donghyuck’s anime fixations secondhand.

“Right, well, Renjun and I are supposed to be watching her while they’re gone for the weekend. And usually she’s really chill and mostly entertains herself by playing with this Kirby plushie that she loves. It’s like how babies get attached to a certain blanket. But if she doesn’t have it, she goes fucking apeshit.”

“I’m gonna go out on a limb here and guess that you don’t have it.”

“What gave it away,” says Jaemin and buries his face in his hands. “Don’t answer that.” Jeno pats his back awkwardly, then grunts in surprise when Jaemin cuddles up to him. “I’m 100% sure we had it when they handed her over to us. We went to their place to pick her up and Taeyong gave it to me, like in my hand. Then I put it in the backseat next to Bisky’s carrier.”

“Well, did you go anywhere else on the way home?”

“Just to drop Renjun off for his night lab.” Jaemin heaves a sigh into Jeno’s chest. “You smell really good, by the way. Sorry if that’s creepy. Might be a symptom of my mental break.”

Each time he blinks, his feathery lashes sweep against the dip between Jeno’s collarbones. It’s a peculiar sort of sensation that radiates out over Jeno’s chest in ticklish pinwheels, making him shiver. He’s distracted enough that his next sentence gets lost behind his teeth for a while before surfacing. “It’s not creepy. You, um, smell good, too.”

“Adorable,” drawls Renjun, clomping back into view. Bisky is still caterwauling as if possessed, flinging herself repeatedly underneath his feet even as he tries to hop around her. “Not helpful, though. Are you sure you came straight back here after that?”

“Yeah, I…” Jaemin goes still in Jeno’s hold. “Wait, no, I swung by the shop real quick before closing. I needed to get my flash drive back from Yeeun. She wanted to pet Bisky, so I may have—” here his voice gets smaller “—rolled the back window down just a tiiiiiny bit.”

“Is that so.” Renjun smiles eerily slow. “I’ll kill you.”

“Please don’t joke about that when I’m here,” says Jeno, paling, as Jaemin leaps to his feet.

“I don’t think he’s joking—come on, not the cat!” Jaemin yelps as Renjun gathers up an armful of wailing ginger tabby and releases the whole bundle unceremoniously on top of him. Bisky hisses and immediately sets to work trying to shred the back of Jaemin’s shirt.

One eye scrunched shut in fear, Jeno reaches out to gently unhook her claws. She doesn’t go easily, but she does stop shrieking after a minute and ceases her furious scratching to instead knead petulantly at the meat of Jeno’s thigh.

“Hey, Bisky really likes you,” breathes Jaemin with some reverence. “She hasn’t been this quiet since she fell asleep in the morning.”

“I’m good with cats,” Jeno says, petting cautiously down her spine, to which she answers with a deep purr.

Renjun leans against the wall with his arms crossed. “No kidding. I think she just imprinted on you.”

Jaemin stares at the bonding scene for a moment, entranced. “We still need to go find her Kirby toy,” he points out once he’s snapped out of it. “Odds are looking pretty good that we know where it is now. I can be back in ten.”

“Hell no. You lost her kitty Horcrux and then conveniently forgot about it for almost a whole day. I’m driving.” Renjun holds up his palm and wiggles his fingers, eyeing the keys on the table.

“But my baby,” says Jaemin, looking back and forth. “You know how I feel about other people driving her.”

“But my apartment,” mocks Renjun in the same nasally tone. “For which I pay rent. And you do what? Pour my Cocoa Pebbles straight out the box into your mouth like your monkey brain never evolved enough to develop fine motor skills.”

Jaemin sniffs. “Gay people can’t drive.”

“Your parking tickets would agree,” says Renjun, “so keys.” Scowling, Jaemin tosses the ring and he catches it smoothly. With the other hand, he aims a two-finger salute their way. “See you gays later.”

Placidly, Jeno observes the door shut after him. “He’s not coming back for a while, is he.”

“Doesn’t seem like it.” Jaemin flops back down. Bisky slits her eyes at him, but otherwise makes no move to attack. “I’m really sorry our date went sideways. I’ll make it up to you for sure, but in the meantime, I hope catsitting isn’t too bad?”

“Are you serious?” says Jeno, scritching behind each velvety ear. He watches in delight as she curls up tighter on his lap, tail wrapping protectively around her middle, looking for all the world like a round loaf of sourdough. “This is my dream date. She’s a cutie.”

“When she doesn’t have intent to maim, yeah,” Jaemin agrees. “I’m cuter, though, right?”

Jeno makes a show of thinking it over, laughing when Jaemin pretends to be outraged. “Of course. No one compares to you.”

“That’s right,” Jaemin croons to Bisky’s twitching nose. He leans his face all the way in so that they’re engaged in a kind of staring contest, glittering feline eyes against his own. “He liked me first. Except the fun part is that I liked him way before that.” The glance he shoots up at Jeno, however mischievous, is plainly soft at its core.

“I don’t know,” says Jeno. His heart takes a tumble from his chest and lands so hard that Bisky can probably feel it. “Somehow, I still feel like I’m winning.”

 

*

 

There is, of course, no such thing as a perfect significant other. You can dream up your ideal partner in sparkling detail, down to the kind of moisturizer they use or something, and the more elaborate your fantasy gets, the more likely you are to be let down when the real thing comes with a few programming errors. For Jeno, who is accustomed to hunching over for hours to debug code, the idea of working through minor character flaws with openhearted communication never seemed like it would be too great a test of his patience.

Except he’d kind of figured that the literal mafia ties were the worst of it, so Jaemin’s abhorrent propensity for inspiring danger in the kitchen, of all places—that still comes out of left field. It was a natural assumption that someone who works in food service should be able to operate a microwave without starting a fire. As it turns out, Jaemin is a terrifying exception.

“I forgot to peel the plastic off the cheese,” Jaemin explains, gazing forlorn at the smoldering remains of the Kraft single adrift in his noodles. “Like, I know you’re supposed to. I just.”

Jeno stares at it, too, almost impressed. This is a third grade level task. He didn’t think turning his back for a couple seconds would lead to disaster. To be fair, he also didn’t think that haunting City 127 after hours sounded very romantic, but that’s what Jaemin had promised in his wheedling texts.

Culminating in what? Pitiful silence and a wasted pack of Indomie. Sighing, Jeno empties the bowl over the trash can and gets to work preparing a fresh batch. Jaemin has the decency to look apologetic and makes himself useful chopping scallions. He’s good with a knife, at least—Jeno tries not to ponder the implications—and the steady rhythm of his blade harmonizes with the hissing steam.

“I can’t believe we missed Valentine’s,” Jaemin complains. “You didn’t ask me out until weeks after it passed. We could’ve done something really cute.”

“Sorry,” says Jeno sincerely as he reaches around Jaemin to retrieve two eggs. “In my defense, I was processing a lot.”

“I know—I didn’t mean to make you feel guilty—obviously it’s okay—”

“Obviously.” Jeno smiles. He cracks each egg one-handed to show off a bit. They’ve used Johnny’s good Irish butter to slick the pan, and it’s a testament to how far he’s come that he’s not afraid he’ll be headhunted for threatening the store of baking supplies. (Although if Jeno still checks the floor on occasion to make sure he’s not stepping on a discarded visceral organ, that’s nobody’s business. Better safe than sorry that you slipped on a kidney.) “I’m just teasing.”

“Okay, I thought so, but I wanted to be sure. I’m always nervous about messing things up with you.”

“I mean, you’ve already poisoned the Indomie with plastic wrap.”

“Messing up things you wouldn’t forgive me for,” Jaemin clarifies, sneaking up behind Jeno and octopusing both arms around his midsection. He continues clinging on even as Jeno returns to inspecting the noodles and while he waddles to the sink to drain them, taking extra care not to bump Jaemin’s elbow with the pot.

Today’s their first monthiversary and Jeno hadn’t been particularly concerned about celebrating, but Jaemin seems determined to pop bottles for milestones big and small. He’d squeezed “hap 1 month!!! ♡” in electric blue icing onto a dozen cupcakes for posterity before tugging Jeno into the kitchen; he wanted to eat them all in one sitting, too, but Jeno’s blood sugar spiked so hard at the mere thought that Jaemin consented to saving half for later.

Jeno has to admit that it’s kind of nice to have the kitchen to themselves like this, only half the lights turned on so that Jaemin is framed in shrouds of ambient gold. They’d even lit a candle (shaped like the number 20 with a used, droopy wick because it’s from Renjun’s birthday last week, but it’s the thought that counts). Outside, the night is velvety young. Someone’s car alarm is going off a block over and it drowns out the Spotify mix they’re playing from Jaemin’s portable speaker, so Jaemin hooks his chin over Jeno’s shoulder and hums the song's chorus beside his ear.

For a long moment, Jeno lingers there with Jaemin draped over him. Drinking in the heat, and their proximity, and the feeling of Jaemin’s fingers braided over his ribcage as if protecting something newly hatched. They’ve acclimated plenty to being physically close in the past month—Jaemin feeding off it like a touch-starved vampire and Jeno giving him one careful inch after another—but they haven’t kissed, not properly. Jeno is always worried about honing in on the perfect moment, which so far hasn’t announced itself with clear intention. He thinks that maybe this could be it.

They’re swaying a little, and Jaemin’s bottom lip is tinted sheer blue from the cupcake frosting. His eyes catch the brilliant reflection of the moon through the window. Jeno’s lashes flutter.

“Hey, the food’s gonna get cold,” Jeno blurts as if possessed.

“Oh shit, yeah.” Jaemin finally detaches and slides their bowls down the counter, pulling up two stools. Cursing the panic lever on his own stupid brain, Jeno joins him.

Another nice facet of getting together is that they never have to eat in silence. Jaemin has the tendency to singlehandedly fill up whatever space he’s occupying, but when it’s just the two of them he gentles a bit, directing the current with offhanded touches on Jeno’s thigh or tracing the line of Jeno’s jaw. When Jeno is telling a story, Jaemin looks at him like he’s the only person left on the planet.

Jaemin’s stories, however, are of a different breed entirely.

“...and then I knew I really fucked up because all of a sudden the little Airdrop icon was loading, and I was like, if I don’t figure out how to intercept this my prof is going to see my tasteful nudes. So Renjun asked him a question as cover and then sacrificed his notes to an artfully spilled venti mocha frapp, and while the professor was distracted, I leaned over and declined the Airdrop request from his phone on the table.”

“That sounds fake,” says Jeno slowly. “And then, what, everyone clapped?”

“No,” Jaemin sniffs, “that was my very real waking nightmare. Renjun’s a homie. Look.” He reaches for his phone and pulls up his messages, then hands it to Jeno. “We’re, like, brothers for life. Just look at our messages.”

Jeno obliges.

 

renjunnie

stop stealing my switch and bringing it to work

i literally know its u

it cannot be anyone else

but we’re bros 🥺

renjunnie

die

that’s so mean.. (⊙︿⊙✿)

renjunnie

oops i meant eat shit and die**

lol i hate autocorrect :)

 

“Your bond seems very special,” Jeno agrees, turning off Jaemin’s phone before he’s tempted to scroll up and find something compromising.

Jaemin snaps his fingers. “Exactly. I don’t know what my dick pics and I would’ve done without him.”

“I thought you said the photos were tasteful!”

“You’re welcome to inspect them and see for yourself.”

Jeno sputters into his bowl while Jaemin tosses his head back and cackles. “You can’t just say things like that.”

“Not even when I mean it?”

“Especially not then.” Jeno’s face refuses to stop steaming.

Jaemin cups reddened cheeks in both palms and kisses the tip of Jeno’s nose, looking unduly proud of his work. “Okay, okay,” he says once they’ve both stopped giggling, “you want to hear a real story? Yuta’s got the best ones.”

“I bet,” Jeno says.

“There was the time he got apprehended at the border because the drug dogs kept barking so he had to get creative with his baggie placement… the time he got crossed so bad he woke up with a wraparound tramp stamp and no memory of getting it done… oh man, the time this seedy televangelist tried to scam him and Johnny in Saint Tropez so they sunk his yacht, then had to jump in the harbor and hide under the dock for hours? That was a classic.” Jaemin’s counting the incidents off on his fingers as casual as you please. “Pretty recently, Yuta got another shitty tattoo, this time on his asscheek. He was stone cold sober though. Taeyong did it.”

“Oh my god,” goes Jeno faintly.

“I haven’t technically seen it, but Doyoung has, and according to him it’s a crime against humanity. I bet it’s just an anime girl.”

Jeno drives his fingertips into his temple. “Is Yuta why you are… the way you are?”

“Nah, I’m my own bad influence.” Jaemin cocks his head real puppylike and shoots Jeno a winning smile. “Kidding, I’m kidding! Don’t worry, I’m exceptionally responsible.”

“Right. And if I wasn’t around to calm your bosses’ semi-feral cat while you were having a meltdown…?”

“Oh, you’re right, I take it back. It’s all possible because of you.”

In seconds, Jeno’s cringing away again, ears burning. Jaemin holds onto his pride, likes exaggerating details with a polish, definitely—but more than that, he likes to watch Jeno fold up like a flower, embarrassed and a little charmed despite himself.

How exactly is Jeno supposed to help it, anyway, when Jaemin looks at him so openly? And holds his hand at every given opportunity, and rests his head on Jeno’s shoulder more often than he probably uses his own pillow at night. When he’s ludicrously shameless yet dead earnest when it comes to the time they make for each other, all soft-eyed and shining?

“You’re unbelievable,” Jeno mutters.

Jaemin’s lips ghost the curve of Jeno’s cheekbone. “Sure. As long as I’m also yours.”

The bravery comes surging up then, unannounced, in a heady wave from some mystery reservoir in Jeno’s gut. He turns his face so that they’re nearly breathing each other’s air, profiles aligned. “Jaemin,” he says quietly, and the name tapers off into only vibration. Their lips are just barely too far apart.

“Hi,” says Jaemin, starting to smile. His palms migrate to Jeno’s chest, warm and sure.

After the first kiss, then the second, then the interlude where they chase each other’s mouths contentedly, Jeno can’t contain his smile either.

 

 

*

part 3: thnks fr th bbl tea

*

 

 

The trouble begins in earnest on Tuesday.

Morning and afternoon are both deceptively slow, lecture and lab bleeding into each other. Jeno turns in a paper and gets a free donut from Yerim in the student union as the student org she’s tabling for packs up for the day. It’s all in all pretty unremarkable, except for the fact that Kun has abruptly resigned from his TA position. Aside from the generic notices he’s sent out to cancel his office hours, he’s been largely unreachable. Jeno’s last few attempts to make contact have been swallowed by the electronic abyss.

“You think it’s weird that he up and vanished?” he asks Yerim.

She shrugs, flattening the empty donut box. Her earrings today are resin-coated slices of lemon that sway back and forth as she works. “Maybe he’s deathly ill. I heard there’s some kind of respiratory virus going around these days.”

“But then wouldn’t he just say so?”

“I mean, I don’t know, maybe he doesn’t want to worry everyone.”

Jeno thinks it over. Kun is considerate like that, so he supposes it’s a possibility. Still, direct communication with him never goes unanswered. The weird energy encompasses more than just his curveball resignation; the last time Jeno saw Kun in person, there’d been a thick bandage peeking out from under his sleeve, and he’d winced a little too hard when he accidentally bumped it against the edge of the whiteboard.

“I realize that saying this to you is like telling a fish to stop swimming, but.” Yerim swings her bag over her shoulder and jams the leftover flyers inside it, then shakes out her hair. “Try not to worry too too much about it? Kun’s a resourceful dude, he’ll be fine.”

“I guess so,” says Jeno, the worry still written in fluorescent paint all over his face.

She sighs at him, not without fondness. “Text me your conspiracy theories about his disappearance if you like. I’ll help you talk it off your shoulders.”

Jeno laughs. “I don’t want to rope you into tinhatting.”

“Just for you, I’d allow it.” Yerim shoots him a parting wave, her earrings glinting under the afternoon light as she goes. “Later!”

As much as Jeno wishes he could leave it at that, the concern continues to eat at him. He spends two hours longer than he strictly needs to on his comp arch assignment because Kun is drifting relentlessly in and out of his mind.

Come to think of it, that day with the bandage may not have been an outlier. The building where Kun used to hold discussion is stuffy brick and feels damply warm no matter the season; everyone sheds their outerwear the minute they step in. Kun’s been wearing long sleeves and sweating through them. What if he’s been hurt for longer?

Thankfully, Jaemin creates a welcome disturbance from the spiraling when evening settles in.

 

jaemin 💗

cashed in a favor with yeeun~~

she’ll close for me tonight

rly? when are you done?

jaemin 💗

7!

kk meet you there ^__^

jaemin 💗

YEEEAHH BBABEY

see u then :3

 

Jeno heart reacts and pockets his phone, smiling. The dregs of his work are easier to get through with something tangible to look forward to, and it’s six thirty the next time he checks the corner of his screen. He files his things away and sets out for the shop early.

Speaking in terms of efficiency, it makes no sense that Jeno walks all the way to the boba den of iniquity when Jaemin owns a perfectly good car and they live in the same building. However, efficiency is not Jeno’s primary concern. For all that he’s grown accustomed to lingering around City 127, even to the point of greeting every worker by first name, he feels better when he can keep an eye on it. Just to make sure.

He’s actually invented an analogy to rationalize it to himself. If you check for monsters under the bed every night and never see any, eventually you’ll lose the habit and sleep peacefully. But if one night the monster crawls out and catches you unaware—maybe threatens you classily over a shelf of jasmine tea blends—you’re gonna want to keep checking every night because otherwise you’ll never get any rest.

Except, like, Jeno knows how deranged this makes him sound so when Jaemin asks, he insists it’s about getting his steps in for cardiac health. He is fairly certain Jaemin doesn’t buy it, but he usually nods and pets Jeno’s arm anyway, which is license enough for the time being.

It’s quiet when Jeno arrives. A couple stragglers in the corner are sharing earphones over the ruins of a scone, but that’s it. Exams have subsided for the moment, and the emptiness reflects it. There’s only one other notable change:

“Ugh,” says Doyoung, shivering delicately as he sweeps past. “I feel like his eyes follow me wherever I go. Like a Korean hypebeast Mona Lisa. We’ve gotta take that thing down.” He’s glaring at the portrait of Mark still mounted somberly behind the register.

“No way! My darling little twerp must be remembered.” Yuta sounds genuinely affronted, following behind with either a medieval torture device or a disassembled stand mixer cradled in his arms. “Oh, hey Jeno.”

Jeno waves. “Hey.”

Neither of the managers are usually around when Jeno is. As far as he knows, they prefer to spend their time skulking around drop sites where a couple severed limbs will go unnoticed—no, he promised Jaemin he’d try to stop thinking like this. Doyoung handles most of the finances, he recalls, and Yuta the sourcing of wholesale ingredients. Potentially, they could have plenty of legitimate business to attend to between the two of them.

“How’s school?” asks Doyoung, fishing for something from a cabinet. Metal gleams in his hands when he turns and a chill racks Jeno’s spine from neck to tailbone, but a second look confirms that it’s just a can opener. “Jaemin says you study computer science.”

“It’s good.”

“Yeah? That’s good.” He clamps down on a can of condensed milk and twists a long cut into the edge. It’s innocent enough, but Jeno still looks away.

“I hope you guys aren’t conspiring to steal my boyfriend,” says Jaemin, slipping in from the kitchen. “I called dibs the first time he walked in here.” While Yuta and Doyoung are busy making disgusted faces, he closes the distance and slings an arm around Jeno’s middle.

“Jeno is very handsome but a little young for us,” says Doyoung dryly.

“Yeah, and you know I’m taken anyway,” Yuta points out.

Jaemin sticks out his tongue. “Whatever, ass tatt.”

“You wish you had the privilege of seeing it.” Yuta slaps his own ass without an ounce of shame. “Fattest in Orange County.”

“Why would I want to look when the tattoo is probably a pinup of Sailor Pluto?”

“Uh, fake fan. Obviously Jupiter is my favorite Sailor Scout.”

“Her physical strength belies her gentleness and heart of gold,” agrees Jeno, just to add his two cents. He can’t really keep up with the rest of the conversation, but he’ll be damned if he doesn’t know his magical girls.

Yuta whirls around. “I see you’re a man of culture as well!”

“Don’t engage him, Jeno,” says Jaemin, fitting Jeno’s palms against the dip of his waist and sighing contently when Jeno takes the initiative to scoop him closer. He angles them away from the other two, pressing into a corner opposite the window so that the last splashes of sunset alight on Jaemin’s hair.

“How was your day?” says Jeno when he’s done admiring.

“Pretty good. Johnny had us taste-test a new macaron flavor he’s working on. He even—hold on.” Jaemin’s obtrusively loud text tone splices his thought midway.

“What is it?”

Jaemin types a dispirited reply, sulkily tracing Jeno’s hip with his free hand the way he does before he has to pull away. “Johnny wants me to fill and assemble his last batch because he’s got something urgent to take care of. Would you mind waiting like fifteen more minutes?”

“Sure,” says Jeno, relieved the ask is benign. “No problem. I’ll be right here.”

“You’re the best,” says Jaemin and plants a wet, smacking kiss on his cheek. Then, “Miss you already!” as he disappears back through the door.

Jeno supposes he would be remiss not to take this as a sign to finish his homework and unpacks his stuff at the table nearest the end of the counter. He’s only got one more problem set that he can probably smash out in one go if his concentration isn’t broken. And he succeeds at it for a while; the first couple equations flow into each other, his pencil flying. Then his last piece of lead snaps without warning and in his haste to retrieve another pencil, he accidentally knocks the first one off the table and towards the storeroom door.

For a second, Jeno just watches it roll to a stop. He still mostly feels like he’s not allowed in that area, as if Yuta will appear behind him, leering. But Yuta is across the shop, occupied by charming an elderly customer, and Doyoung is probably in the back. It’s not like he’s trespassing, either. He’ll just grab his pencil and go.

At least, that was the original plan. In practice, Jeno crouches to collect the pencil and is frozen into place by the snatch of conversation that drifts innocently up to his ear.

“—know things are looking bad for Kun,” Doyoung is saying through the door. “Yeah. Yeah. No, I know, it’s pretty grim.”

Kun Qian? Jeno’s (former) TA, Kun? It’s gotta be a coincidence.

“No yeah, he finally quit his TA position. Shame. He seemed to really like it.”

Jeno’s heartbeat picks up as Doyoung goes on to namedrop his university and the research Kun was conducting for his thesis. It has to be the same Kun. The odds of them knowing each other are definitely bigger than there being a doppelganger with the same specific field of interest.

Doyoung’s voice gets a little fainter when he presumably moves deeper into the storeroom. Against his better instincts, Jeno stays put on the ground and strains his ears to hear. “I just don’t see how he’s going to cough up enough money. He said he knew what he was getting himself into, but I don’t think he anticipated being bled dry like this.” There’s a dry, rasping noise. Leafing through a notebook, maybe. “Then again, nobody ever does.”

“No way,” breathes Jeno. His heart has climbed fully into his throat by now, squirming in panic like he’s swallowed a frog. This conversation cannot be what it sounds like. Jaemin said that they were clean, that they don’t do stuff like this.

“Yeah, well, he begged me not to, but I don’t think I have much of a choice anymore. Next week, he’ll be in for a surprise.” Doyoung laughs. “Anyway. How’s the job going?” His voice grows slightly louder again, pacing footsteps filling the silence while he listens. “Hmm, that shouldn’t be a problem, though. I mean, I used to struggle with it, but knifework was always like breathing to you.”

Knifework, thinks Jeno. Kun’s bandages. The way he covered up his arms. Disappearing with almost no explanation. He throttles the rising urge to puke.

“Mhm. Yeah. For sure. Listen, I hate to cut this short, but I’ve gotta go.” Doyoung draws dangerously near the door, and Jeno scrambles to straighten up, but his boneless legs aren’t done processing the events of the past minute. “Let me know if you need anything. Yeah. Thanks, Ten.”

Then the door is opening and Doyoung is emerging with a faint smile that drops clean off his face when he sees Jeno clinging to the countertop for dear life and shaking all over. “You okay?” he asks, eyebrows raised.

“Hundred percent,” wheezes Jeno. He can’t even remember what the normal timbre of his own voice is supposed to sound like, let alone turn around and look Doyoung in his murderous eyes.

“Are you sure? Because you look like you’re about to hurl, and I’d rather you do it outside the store.”

With Herculean effort, Jeno straightens his hunched back into something that more closely resembles a casual lean. “I’m all good, just a migraine.” He tries to grin. It can’t look very convincing, but Doyoung must have bigger fish to fry because he just nods and walks brusquely past.

Some minutes later, Jaemin bounds out from the kitchen cradling a macaron in the palm of his hand. “What happened?” he asks, deflating. “You’re dead pale.”

Dead, echoes Jeno’s mind, and his knees promptly give out.

 

*

 

“You cannot be for real.” Donghyuck crosses his arms. “I’ve entertained a lot from you over the past few weeks, Jeno, but this time it’s too convoluted to be funny.”

“I’m not trying to be funny!”

“Good, because that’s kind of my bit. I claimed the lovable comedic relief role in like eighth grade, and it’s way too late to recast.”

“Can you please,” says Jeno and scrubs his face with both hands in anguish. “Please. Once. Be serious. There is a man’s life at stake.”

When Jaemin had convened an emergency council meeting in Renjun’s apartment, he’d initially meant for it to be only himself and Jeno. But Renjun was home, and with him was Donghyuck, and then there were four—not all of them believers, unfortunately.

“I don’t know what you think you heard, but I promise Doyoung is not ordering hits on people,” says Renjun.

Jaemin slaps the couch. “That’s what I said! Him and Yuta and the rest really aren’t shady like that anymore. We’re law-abiding citizens now.”

Donghyuck raises a finger, squinting. “No, hold on a second. What do you mean anymore? And now?”

The furtive look Jaemin directs at Renjun is not so quick that it goes unnoticed. “You didn’t tell him?”

“Tell me what?”

“I thought you guys were getting serious, kind of,” Jaemin continues, and Donghyuck lunges for a pillow to throw. It bounces off the back of the couch when Jaemin dodges, but Donghyuck is already soldiering up with another one.

“Tell me what!” He turns on Renjun, mouth drawn hard and tight.

Renjun coughs into his fist. “It never came up.”

“City 127 is a front for organized crime, including but not limited to drug smuggling and extortion,” says Jeno. “I’ve been telling you it was suspicious since the beginning! You just never believed me.”

“Well, you stopped bringing it up so I thought you finally let it go!” Donghyuck searches Jaemin’s face, then Renjun’s, neither of whom are keen on making eye contact at the moment. “Oh my god. So he’s not crazy? He’s right?”

“The extortion part is very questionable at present,” Jaemin offers.

Donghyuck collapses back into his chair, flinging an arm over his eyes in the manner of a Victorian lady subject to a fainting spell. “All of you have betrayed me tonight. Three Judases in our midst. Three traitor ass Sasukes.”

“Not me,” argues Jeno, kind of wounded.

“Okay, you’re right.” Donghyuck peeks one eye open from behind his artfully splayed fingers. “Everyone minus Jeno. Also, I take back the Sasuke part because neither of you guys deserve to be that sexy and brooding.”

“You’re a Sasuke stan?” asks Jaemin. “Really? Kakashi sensei is a man among men.”

Jeno claps a hand over Jaemin’s mouth to shut him up and only winces a little bit when Jaemin unrepentantly licks it. “Okay, listen, we have bigger problems at the moment. Doyoung is orchestrating a premeditated attempt on Kun’s life. If we don’t do something about it, he will actually literally die. Deathfully!”

Renjun rolls his eyes. “Why would Doyoung care about your old TA? I doubt Kun was involved in mafia activity before he retired to chaperone hackathons or whatever the fuck.”

“I was wondering that, too, so here’s what I’ve put together. Kun’s research isn’t very well-funded and I know his job didn’t pay that well, either, which sucks because he’s really good at what he does. I think he took a loan from your mafia friends and now owes them a ton of money, and they’ll kill him if he doesn’t cough it up soon. That makes the most sense given the conversation I overheard. Why are you all looking at me like that?”

Brows furrowed, Jaemin takes Jeno’s hand and begins to stroke patterns over his skin, prematurely apologizing for shooting him down. “Without getting into specifics, I could see why Kun might need a loan from somebody. I mean, I’ve done weirder shit by a mile when I was desperate to make rent. But… I just don’t see Doyoung taking up this loan shark character when he’s really serious about making an honest living now.”

“Well,” begins Jeno, and Jaemin shushes him before they reopen the shanking-in-the-boba-shop can of worms.

“Mostly honest,” he amends.

“So what did you actually hear Doyoung say that made you jump to conclusions?” Donghyuck presses.

Jeno feels a bit nauseous reliving the memory, but he tries to focus on summoning the words for the sake of painting the clearest possible picture of this mess. “At first, he was like, ‘I don’t see how he’s going to cough up enough money.’ Referring to Kun, you know. And then he said, ‘He begged me not to, but I don’t think I have much of a choice.’ That one was pretty much verbatim.” He stares holes into the carpet while Doyoung’s breezy tone runs loops through his mind. “He was talking to someone named Ten, and asked him how the ‘job’ was going, and complimented his knifework.”

“We don’t know anybody named Ten,” says Renjun.

Jaemin shrugs. “It’s not like Doyoung tells us everything.”

“Okay, then let’s say all of this really is what it seems like and he’s got murder on his mind. What are we supposed to do about it?”

Donghyuck reaches for a pretzel stick from the untouched bowl in the middle of the table and props it between his teeth like Sherlock Holmes’s pipe. “We could access the dark web to put a hit on Doyoung first,” he suggests, slurring because he can’t close his jaw all the way. “Pros: Kun will survive. Doyoung will end up dead.”

“Cons: we will also end up dead,” says Renjun flatly.

The pretzel stick snaps. “Oh. I concur.”

“Why don’t we chill for a minute and try to gather more information? Maybe Jeno misunderstood, or maybe the plot is more complicated than we thought and we’re just scratching the surface. We won’t know until we do some looking,” says Jaemin.

Jeno flops sideways and pillows his cheek in Jaemin’s lap. His lingering clean laundry smell is as therapeutic as it gets when it comes to calming down in a situation like this, and Jeno inhales several deep lungfuls of it before speaking again. “I really didn’t want to believe your bosses were super evil dudes,” he mumbles into Jaemin’s shirt. “Yuta and I talked about Sailor Moon! That’s sacred bonding!”

“You might find out that nothing’s ultimately wrong and your anime girl heart-to-heart is still valid,” Renjun points out.

“Exactly.” Jaemin pets Jeno’s hair, smoothing the bangs off his forehead. “Let’s take this one step at a time.”

 

*

 

Sleep becomes harder to come by as Jeno struggles with his options. On the phone, Doyoung had named “next week” as the vague D-Day for the attack. That was yesterday, which means that Jeno has five days, including today and the weekend, to come up with a plan to save Kun.

He’s already reached out through the few channels available to see if Kun is doing okay as of now, but none have garnered responses. Stalking him on Instagram or Facebook to extend a word of warning seems creepy, even if it is a matter of life or death. (Besides, Jeno already looked and both are private with profile photos at least two years old, judging by the pixelated hair color. Kun doesn’t seem like a fan of social media.)

Jaemin is supposed to perform recon at work today, as is Renjun. The former promised to leave no stone unturned; the latter politely informed Jeno that he would be lucky to find even a drop of evidence but he would “look around or something” anyway. Those odds don’t sound especially reliable, and Jeno is not above asking for help from a freshman, so he turns to other resources.

“Hey, Jisung, I have a question.”

“Shoot,” says Jisung, pushing the cup of one headphone off his ear. His fingers are still flying over his keyboard, but Jeno knows he’s listening.

“If you were genuinely trying to hack someone, how would you go about it?”

Jisung glances at him bemusedly before turning back to his game. “You’re asking me? You’ve been enrolled in the same program for longer.”

“Yeah,” says Jeno, unsure of how to admit that the pep talk he’s really looking for is about the ethics of the operation. “Just humor me for a sec.”

“Alright. Windows or Mac?”

Jeno visualizes Doyoung’s laptop case. “Mac.”

“Um… I guess I’d write a virus that works like TeamViewer and lets me take control of their laptop remotely. Get them to download it through some link. Although with a Mac, it’d be harder.”

“True. Go on.”

Jisung reaches for his half-empty Redbull. “Assuming that they’re average and use Chrome to save passwords, I’d use that to look at their password information.”

“Okay, that’s more or less what I figured.” Jeno blows out a long breath and tips his chair back onto its hind legs. He has too strong a moral compass to go through with it, though.

“What are you even trying to do,” says Jisung, actually interested enough that he slides his headphones off completely. The library is mostly empty in the afternoons, so it’s just the two of them in the ground floor STEM corner, hogging one of the wheeled whiteboards to draw unflattering chibis of Chenle and Donghyuck.

“Nothing bad,” says Jeno. If you do it to save someone’s life, it’s not bad, right? It’s noble, kind of.

“Really? Let me see.”

“No, don’t—”

“Just a peek!”

“Jisung, it’s not—”

“Dude,” drawls Jisung, having fought his way around the table to snatch up Jeno’s laptop in his baseball mitt hands. “Seriously?”

Jeno thunks his head on the tabletop. “I know. Don’t make fun of me.”

“Dear friend,” reads Jisung. “It is my pleasure to write to you this letter, which contains an urgent business proposal. I am a Nigerian prince with access to 30 million USD by means of crude oil reserves—”

“Stop reading it out loud!”

Jisung is too busy cackling wildly to continue anyway. “Is your intended recipient eighty years old?” he asks when he’s recovered enough to speak again. He sets Jeno’s laptop back down gently, wiping an errant tear. “Holy shit. I think I just tore my appendix.”

“I said don’t make fun of me,” says Jeno, pouting a little. “I know, okay?”

“You’re way too nice to legit hack anyone, so I guess it makes sense that you’d attempt it like this. Why, though?”

“Um, maybe they have dangerous information. Hypothetically.”

Seated again, Jisung swigs the last of his Redbull and tosses it in a graceful arc into the trash can by Jeno’s foot. “You don’t seem like the man for that kind of job.”

“I’m not,” Jeno wails miserably. “Just forget it, please.”

That same evening, the council regroups—this time at Jeno and Donghyuck’s place so as to skirt the possibility of bothering Renjun’s nomadic roommates. The meeting is made about 2.5x more awkward by the fact that Donghyuck has belatedly decided to be angry at Renjun for withholding the truth about City 127, so they’re sitting next to their respective best friends instead of their boyfriends. It feels about as comfortable as a blind double date, but there’s no time to dwell on the atmosphere when the clock is ticking for Kun every minute.

Jaemin steeples his fingers. “Alright, do we want the good news or the bad news first?”

“Bad news,” the other three say in unison.

“Why even bother asking,” Donghyuck mutters.

After glaring pointedly for what he deems an appropriate length of time, Jaemin begins. “Okay. The bad news is that I didn’t learn anything new about Kun’s relationship to Doyoung, or the assassination scheme.”

“What did you even learn, then,” says Renjun.

“I was getting to that! The good news is that I know who Ten is now. And Yeeun made snickerdoodles!” Jaemin produces a Tupperware box from behind his back and beams as he offers it to everyone. Donghyuck’s eyelids genuinely flutter a little in bliss as he bites in, and Jeno internally commends the strategic peacemaking.

“These are really good,” says Jeno because goddamn, they really are, “but what’s the intel on Ten?”

“Oh, well, it’s not much. He and Doyoung are childhood friends who kept in touch until now, and apparently Yuta and Johnny know him, too. Johnny said he’s a nice guy when I asked.”

Renjun neatly dusts the cookie crumbs onto a plate. “You’re right, it’s not much.”

“Well, it’s an improvement over yesterday,” Jaemin says. “If you’re gonna judge, you’d better have found out more than me.”

“Okay,” says Renjun, leaning back. “I got Doyoung’s laptop password.”

There’s a beat of silence.

“How in the hell,” says Donghyuck.

“I pretended to be taking a selfie on the countertop while he was typing it in, then focused the camera over my shoulder at him. With the upwards angle and the video slowed down, it wasn’t that hard. I’d bet my semester tuition it’s JS19950209.”

“Wait a minute,” says Jaemin.

Renjun sighs. “Yeah.”

Jeno looks back and forth between them until it clicks. “Oh.”

“Yeah,” Renjun says again, closing his eyes for a moment. “Weird way to find out that Johnny and Doyoung are fucking.”

Donghyuck sulks into the remnants of the last snickerdoodle. “I don’t even know these people.”

“God, I wish that were me,” says Jaemin. “Anyway. What are we supposed to do with this information?”

“The knowledge that all of your bosses are romantically entangled?”

“What? No! I’m talking about the access to Doyoung’s laptop. Someone has to physically get close enough to type that password in if we want to snoop through his shit. I guess we could also try using it on his iCloud or something, but there’s no way he’s careless enough to use the same password, right?”

“I don’t know, Doyoung’s kind of a boomer.” Renjun shrugs. “It’s worth a shot.”

All eyes swivel slowly to Jeno. Which, okay, he understands given that compsci is kind of the field he’s dedicated his life and money towards, but no matter which way you slice it, the prospect of crossing Doyoung sounds scary. He would almost rather try Yuta instead, except when he voices this thought Jaemin dons a look of abject horror and shakes his head violently.

“What? Why not? Yuta might know something, too.”

“You cannot look through Yuta’s password-protected stuff,” emphasizes Jaemin. “What if you find sketchy fanfiction? What if you accidentally lay eyes upon his self-insert Property Brothers threesome? That will never, ever stop haunting you.”

There’s another beat of silence, this one worse than the first.

“How do you know—” begins Donghyuck at the same time that Jeno goes, “That’s really specific.”

Renjun stares up at the ceiling as if searching for an immortal being with whom he can file a complaint, even though the only thing up there is the partially defunct ceiling light that Donghyuck has been half-assedly Youtubing DIY repair tutorials for since November.

“Right… so. I guess we hack Doyoung,” Jeno concedes.

 

*

 

Like everything else literally ever, this is much easier said than done. Especially because they’re not exactly trying to hack Doyoung (Jeno already tried his iCloud and his work email, neither of which yielded results) so much as they’re planning to divert his attention long enough to actually hijack his personal device. Frankly, this is all beginning to feel a little too Ocean’s Eleven for Jeno’s taste.

“Everybody’s good with the plan, right?” Jaemin turns around in the driver’s seat after parking to address them all at once. “We have to be stealthy. Smooth. As swift as the coursing river.”

“We know,” says Renjun, elbowing him from where he’s sprawled leisurely in shotgun. “We don’t need to do that movie montage thing where we all recap it. Just do your part.”

“Okay, okay. Good luck, Jeno!”

Both Jaemin and Renjun cross their fingers meditatively for a moment before climbing out of the car to go clock in. Donghyuck shoots them an enthusiastic thumbs up through the window as they head in, then turns to Jeno and very seriously says, “You’d better make this worth the trouble. We might not be on bedsharing terms right now, but if my boyfriend loses his job for your conspiracy theory, there will be infighting in this boy band.”

“Boy band?” repeats Jeno, mostly hung up on the end of that sentence.

“Yeah. There are four of us, so like Big Time Rush.”

Jeno pauses to think it over. “Hold up. Who’s who?”

“There’s no time,” says Donghyuck, reaching around him to open the door. “I’ve gotta go. You should be able to figure it out, anyway.”

That leaves Jeno to start the stopwatch on his phone as Donghyuck traipses into City 127, counting out three minutes exactly before he also gets out of the car. Jaemin had left the keys with him so that he’d be able to lock it, but they jingle too loud in the depths of his pocket, so Jeno has to clench the ring in his sweaty fist. He tries to look as nonchalant as possible crossing the street. There are a couple people around—a little girl with her grandparents, a fishy looking guy in a stained chef’s coat who eyes Jeno as he passes—so he gives them all a wide berth just in case and heads for the side alley, where Renjun should be waiting by the shop’s back door.

Jeno takes a steadying breath and knocks twice. Renjun cracks it open right away, ushering Jeno in before he swings it shut again. The storeroom looks different in the daytime, with some natural light coming in through the single narrow window and reserve jars of tea stocked neatly on well-kept shelves. Most of the crates are gone, and along the very furthest wall, as promised, there’s a fold-up table with a couple overstuffed chairs drawn up around it. Doyoung’s office away from his real office, Jaemin had called it. If Jeno’s being honest, it looks inherently suspicious, especially given the warehouse feel, but he also kind of sees the appeal.

Regardless, they have more important things to focus on right now. Jeno takes his place by the main door while Renjun stands guard by the door that leads into the kitchen. Donghyuck should be out front creating their diversion at this very moment.

Sure enough, there’s a muffled yelp of apology right on cue. Jeno pictures it: Donghyuck’s boba with a huge rip torn into the plastic top, wide enough to spill at a moment’s notice. Jaemin calling across the shop for Doyoung to help him lift something heavy, and Doyoung probably grumbling about how he can do it himself but rising to help anyway. Donghyuck colliding with Doyoung and splashing the most vibrant drink on the menu all over one of the silk shirts the managers are so fond of. In the meantime, Jaemin will slink over to where Doyoung left his laptop unattended, and with any luck—

The front door cracks open and Jeno exhales. That’s phase one. Jaemin’s wrist flashes briefly into view as he hands off the laptop to Jeno, who immediately races towards the back. He opens Doyoung’s Macbook with trembling hands and types in the password Renjun suggested. He has all of one second to be elated when it works before noticing the battery level.

“Renjun,” Jeno hisses, fingers flying over the keys to maximize what little time he has. “This thing has 1% battery! Is there a charger?”

“Fuck, I don’t know. I can text Jaemin, but…”

Jeno searches Kun’s name in iMessage, but no amount of prayer can make a Macbook on its deathbed stop taking its sweet time to perform even the simplest command. “Come on, come on, come on,” he chants. At this point, there’s no hope of looking through Doyoung’s other saved passwords, because this thing is going to die on him any second now.

“Jaemin says there’s no charger up front, so it’s probably in Doyoung’s car,” Renjun reports. “And Donghyuck is losing Doyoung’s attention, so you need to hurry.”

There is, in fact, nothing Jeno can do to change the speed at which this is going. He’d brought a thumb drive along to copy data onto if it felt prudent, but that’s obviously not going to happen. This isn’t a heist film, and he’s not going to be the kind of creep who steals all a stranger’s data just to prove a hunch. Although Jeno supposes that he’s already become the kind of creep who looks through a stranger’s texts in the backroom of their workplace, which is hardly any better.

The laptop dies.

“Well.” Jeno bites his fist. “The battery’s gone. What am I supposed to do?”

Renjun’s eyes are saucers when he looks up from his phone. “Doyoung is heading back here, so you need to hide.”

“Great,” says Jeno weakly, and if he was going to say anything more, it dies in his throat when Renjun flying tackles him to the ground. He’s stronger than his tiny stature suggests, and Jeno is too stunned to make a sound as Renjun hauls several of the remaining crates around Jeno’s body. He just barely manages to stuff the Macbook down his shirt and turn around before the door opens, casting a long beam of yellow light across the floor.

“Hey, Renjun, have you seen my laptop?” comes Doyoung’s voice, terrifying in its clarity and nearness. “I could’ve sworn I left it on one of the tables up front, but now I can’t find it.”

Renjun is bent over with his ass towards the door, crouching over Jeno to try and mask him with shadow. “Don’t think so,” he calls without lifting his head. Jeno closes his eyes and prepares for the worst.

“Really?” says Doyoung. The door creaks, and he takes one step into the room. “Damn. This kid just spilled milk tea all over me, too. Guess it’s just not my day.” He sighs. “Thanks anyway.”

Jeno sits up when the room falls back into dimness. “We should not have gotten away with that. Oh my god, we could’ve died.”

“Don’t get cocky yet,” says Renjun grimly. “I’ve still got to sneak this—” he taps the laptop edge peeking out of his shirt “—back to him. I’ll go through the kitchen to the front. Hopefully Johnny’s not in there baking right now. You leave through the alley.”

“Yes sir,” Jeno whispers, scrambling to his feet. “Don’t, um, get caught.” He looks back only once before hightailing it out of the storeroom and back to the outside world, where the sunshine that washes over him feels like a searchlight, calling him out for his crimes.

He’s sick to his stomach and grimy from lying on the floor, and the leftover adrenaline courses through him in almost painful bursts. It’s messed up enough that they all conspired to do this, if only to potentially save a man’s life. Now they’ve failed, so what’s left? For them and for Kun?

Jeno pats his pockets and realizes that they’re empty. Jaemin’s keys must have fallen out when Renjun tackled him, and he’s not going to risk going back in there a second time, not now, at least. Instead, he texts Jaemin to let him know and begins the long walk home.

 

*

 

“I’m Kendall,” Jeno announces, breaking the silence.

“What?” Jaemin stops scratching under Bisky’s chin, and she meows in protest, butting her head against his fingers. “My bad,” he tells her, resuming until she’s mellowed enough for him to turn his attention back to Jeno.

“It’s stupid,” starts Jeno. He shakes his head as soon as it escapes his mouth. Jaemin will always hear him out anyway; there’s no point in self-censoring. “On Friday, before we staged all that commotion at the shop, Donghyuck said that we were like a boy band.”

Jaemin understands without further explanation. “I can see that,” he says. “You’re the dependable type. You’d make a good leader.”

“You think so?” Jeno can’t envision it, somehow. The idea of the four of them legitimately pursuing celebrity singing careers seems silly, the mantle of leader on his own shoulders even more ridiculous. They’d need additional members to make it work. Chenle would take to it like a fish to water, probably, and Jisung could be convinced if Chenle signed on since they don’t do anything apart.

“I know so. Look at how you rallied us behind the #FreeKun campaign.” For some reason, Jaemin’s christened their descent into madness with a hashtag.

“And look how that turned out,” says Jeno, disconsolate.

“Hey, you did everything you could. I mean, here, we can count.” Jaemin begins tallying with the hand not busy petting Bisky. “The remote hacking attempts. The extremely risky semi-burglary incident hereafter referred to as Bobagate.”

“Please,” Jeno snorts, but Jaemin keeps going.

“The multiple emails you wrote to Kun’s .edu address and his personal Gmail. The day after Bobagate when you walked into the shop and challenged Doyoung to a duel but he thought you were on substances and just patted your head instead.” Jaemin laughs and presses a kiss to the underside of Jeno’s jaw. “That was very courageous of you, by the way.”

“What was the point, though? If he gets hurt, that’s on us.”

“No, that’s on him. If he got caught up in mafia business and underestimated who he was messing with, that’s tragic and all, but it has nothing to do with us. We still don’t have proof that anything below the table was going on, anyway.”

“But I heard—”

“Proof that would hold up in a court of law,” says Jaemin gently. Bisky purrs her agreement, the fluff of her tail skating along Jeno’s arm in reassurance.

Jeno looks down at his lapful of cat, lustrous and round, and tries to appreciate the things that are within in his grasp, the ones that evolved for the better. There’s his relationship with Jaemin, for one. They’re both happier together than they were before and have told each other as much on more occasions than there are fingers between them. There are his grades, which he’s painstakingly maintained throughout this craziness, and the summer internship he just landed. Meeting Bisky, who is the cat he’s always wanted but never been able to have because of his allergies and the expenses of pet ownership. Taeyong had apparently called Jaemin this morning to see if he could watch her on short notice, and Jeno had been delighted to come over as soon as Jaemin relayed the development.

“Okay,” he agrees finally, not without some reluctance. “I see your point.”

Jaemin curls into him, resting his cheek on Jeno’s shoulder and effectively sandwiching Bisky in the middle. She bats a paw in protest before realizing how much warmer this arrangement is, then settles back down contentedly.

The apartment stills and quiets. Their three sleepy forms overlapping, a blanket thrown haphazardly over Jeno’s legs, an ancient episode of Naruto casting on the slightly cracked TV. Jaemin had insisted on watching the sub, but nobody’s looked up at the screen in a while anyway (except Bisky, who Jeno is beginning to suspect has an interspecies crush on Rock Lee because she mewls like an angel every time he appears). All in all, it’s a pretty ideal way to spend a Sunday—perfect, even, if Jeno could turn his mind off completely.

They would likely have stayed in the same position until evening if Chenle hadn’t interrupted with a FaceTime request.

“Am I getting in the way of something?” says Chenle when Jeno picks up, squinting at the blond mushroom of Jaemin’s head obscuring Jeno’s right eye.

“Yes,” mumbles Jaemin into Jeno’s neck, and Jeno shushes him.

“No, you’re good. What’s up?”

“I was honestly just calling to check up on you. I mean, you haven’t responded to the memes I’ve been tagging you in for a while, and Jisung told me about your, um, moment of weakness with the Nigerian prince scam.” Chenle has the grace to cover his mouth when a laugh bubbles up. “It sounds like you had a lot going on this past week.”

“I didn’t hear anything about this scam,” says Jaemin. “Is there context, or?”

Jeno goes red. “It was an early attempt at saving Kun. We are leaving it in the past.”

“Who’s Kun?” Chenle asks.

“It’s, um, kind of a long story, but basically he was my TA until he quit under mysterious circumstances.”

“You don’t mean Kun Qian?”

“Yeah,” says Jeno slowly. “You know him?”

“Well, if we’re talking about the same guy, he’s a family friend.”

Jaemin sits up so fast that Bisky jolts awake and almost slides off his lap. “You’re kidding.”

“Small world?” Chenle shrugs. “Our moms have known each other for ages. I saw him, like, two days ago for mahjong night.”

“And he was okay?”

“Yeah…? Why wouldn’t he be?”

Jeno’s mouth goes dry, his mind whirring into overdrive. Forget letting go; there’s still a chance to lay everything straight. “Chenle,” he says, “can I ask you a favor? Can you ask Kun if he’s willing to meet me to talk about something really important? Like, ASAP. I know this sounds kind of strange, but I swear he knows me and we’ve talked a billion times before. I just haven’t been able to get ahold of him lately.”

“Alright,” says Chenle, and the video of him pauses, presumably so he can text Kun, “but just so you know, I can smell the story here. You guys have to tell me everything afterwards.” He reappears in frame with his cheeks puffed out like a duckling. “I wanna be in the loop, too.”

“Of course,” Jeno promises, then remembers the kinds of gory details that the full story includes. Oh, well. Donghyuck already had to find out, so the whole crew may as well get in on it. Chenle will tell Jisung, naturally, but with any luck, they’ll be done leaking secrets after that.

“Oh? You’re lucky. Kun texted me back already.” Chenle purses his lips and goes to check the message. “He says if it’s really that urgent, he’s getting boba right now and you’re welcome to come meet him. He only sounds a little bit weirded out.”

“Let me guess,” says Jaemin. “He’s at City 127.”

“Yeah! How’d you know?”

Jeno has to laugh.

 

*

 

“Hey, Jeno. Jaemin’s not here today, if you were looking for him.”

“No yeah, he and Bisky are actually waiting in the car.”

Yeeun all but drops the towel she was using to clean the counter. “Bisky’s here?” she says, her pitch shooting up an octave. “Aw, I can’t leave the register, though.”

“I’ll tell her you said hi, then.” Jeno wipes his frantically sweating palms on his pants and tries to collect himself. He doesn’t see Kun in here. There’s a few students scattered around, a small family, and—no, there he is, sitting alone at a table for two. That’s Kun’s profile, his favorite emerald sweater. That’s Kun in the flesh.

“Hello?” Yeeun flaps the towel in front of Jeno’s eyes. “You’re spacing out. Are you going to order anything?”

“Yeah, I’ll come back. I just gotta… take care of something real quick.” Jeno pastes on a smile and takes half a step sideways.

“Oh, okay. Suit yourself.” She looks confused but waves bye anyway. Jeno feels bad for running off so abruptly, but first, he’s got to deal with the reason he came here at all.

Kun greets Jeno graciously, if with raised eyebrows, and immediately offers him a seat. He looks no worse for wear. His hair is unruffled, his skin glowing and pristine. Actually, he looks kind of healthier than he did before. “I have to say,” he tells Jeno after they’ve fulfilled the requisite pleasantries, “I wasn’t expecting to hear from you after I resigned. And through Chenle, no less.”

“Yeah, I’m sorry about that. I hope this isn’t too inconvenient for you.”

“Not at all! You were my favorite face to see in office hours.”

“Aw,” says Jeno aloud, a little touched, then snaps back into focus. “Um, I’m really not here for as normal a reason this time, though. This is going to sound crazy, but—” he flattens his hands on the table and leans in “—I have reason to believe there is an attempt being planned on your life.”

Kun’s eyebrows climb steadily higher. To his credit, he doesn’t gasp or anything—doesn’t react much at all besides taking a thoughtful sip of his plain milk tea. “Well, what are these reasons?”

“Hear me out,” prefaces Jeno, then launches into a careful retelling of the conversation he’d overheard between Doyoung, the mastermind, and Ten, the still-enigmatic assassin for hire. “I don’t know if you’re aware of this, but Doyoung and the other managers of this place are involved in real crime,” he whispers. “Basically a mafia organization. All the employees know, too, it’s a whole multilevel scheme.”

“Ah,” says Kun. He adjusts his glasses and smiles benevolently. “I think I understand what’s going on here.”

Jeno blinks, taken aback. “I mean, that’s good, I guess. But aren’t you worried?”

Kun is still smiling. “No, not especially.”

“Then am I missing something?” The fleeting thought to check for hidden cameras crosses Jeno’s mind, but Kun is too nice to set up this elaborate a prank.

“Seems like it,” comes the voice that’s been haunting Jeno’s dreams as of late. Doyoung appears from probably a time-space wormhole and says, “Mind if we pull up a couple chairs?”

“We?” echoes Jeno.

Doyoung inclines his head. “Well, yeah, seeing as you took Ten’s. It’s okay, though, he doesn’t mind.”

Swiveling around, Jeno actually does check for hidden cameras this time. There are none that he can see, but there is a slight man in a chef’s coat following a few paces behind Doyoung. He looks familiar somehow, and Jeno sits there buffering in silence until the memory comes back in grainy fragments: the alley, Friday, before Bobagate. Ten had been there.

Jeno gets the sense that he’s either about to be taken out back and shot through the head execution-style, or he’s going to die right here of humiliation.

“Hey,” says Ten once seated, reaching across the table to shake Jeno’s hand. “I’m Ten. I don’t think we’ve properly met.” There’s a sly turn to the corners of his mouth that suggests he’s getting a kick out of this interaction.

“I knew there was something fishy about you,” says Jeno morosely.

Ten draws back, surprised. “Really? Can you smell it? I tried my best to wash up before coming here.”

“Ten is a private chef who works with a lot of raw fish,” says Kun kindly. “He just got off work. He’s also my boyfriend.”

“What the fuck,” says Jeno, then, “I mean, excuse my language, but what? He’s not a hitman?” He rounds on Doyoung. “I heard you on the phone talking about a job he’s supposed to do involving knives!”

“Well, yeah, that’s how you slice the nigiri,” says Ten, examining his cuticles.

Doyoung snorts. “Ten and I went to culinary school together. Back when I had dreams, you know.”

Jeno sinks his chin onto his hands and stares very hard at the table. “But what about—you were talking about Kun owing someone money—and threatening to do something he didn’t want you to—”

“Oh,” sighs Kun, “this is a bit embarrassing, but I guess I should explain. My cat fell pretty severely ill a while ago, and the palliative care costs have been insane. Between the trips to the vet and medications, I really couldn’t afford to keep living on a TA salary. Ten convinced the family he works for that their kids would do better on their college entrance exams with a personal tutor, really vouched for me, and they took me on for a much higher pay grade a couple weeks ago.”

“What about the bandages on your arms,” Jeno mumbles into his palms. “What was that about?”

“Chronic disease can affect a cat’s temperament a lot, as you’d probably imagine.” Kun pushes up the sleeves of his sweater to display a collection of shallow scratches, the majority of which appear mostly healed over. “He panics and lashes out at me sometimes, but it’s not his fault.” Ten reaches over and gives Kun’s hand an empathetic squeeze.

“The thing Kun didn’t want me to do was make a Gofundme for his cat’s surgery, especially because he knew I wanted to donate and he has a thing about accepting ‘handouts,’” says Doyoung, frowning. “Even though that’s not what it would have been at all.”

Kun waves him off. “I don’t need it anymore, anyway. Tutoring these kids has earned me more in two weeks than I’ve made in months. I was just hesitant to quit because I honestly did like interacting with undergrads.” His eyes crinkle when he adds, “Like you, Jeno. I really appreciate all this concern. It’s quite touching.”

“It’s stupid, is what it is,” Jeno groans. He’s fairly sure that his brain is smoking by this point. “I can’t believe that I… and that you… just in general, I can’t believe.”

“Well, it was a fun story,” says Ten, leaning back in his chair. “I’m kind of into playing the villain role. Don’t you think I’d be sexy as an assassin, babe?”

“I,” begins Kun and promptly shuts his mouth, coloring all the way down to his neck.

“No?” Ten leers knowingly. “What about you, Doyoung?”

Doyoung wrinkles his nose. “Sure. Yes. And we would’ve gotten away with it too, if it weren’t for this meddling twink, etc.”

Jaemin decides that now is the right moment to burst into the shop with Bisky swaddled in his arms like a newborn baby, the Kirby plush dangling precariously from her jaws by one stuffed foot. He ignores the looks that the other patrons and even Yeeun give him and marches up to their table with a vengeance. “Okay, Jeno, I know I was supposed to wait until you got done, but then I saw Doyoung and this guy—” he jerks his chin at Ten “—walk in together, and I didn’t know if you would be okay alone. Sorry.” He pauses the tirade to take a second look at Ten, brows drawn together. “Who are you, anyway?”

“Jaemin, you know we don’t allow pets in here,” says Doyoung tiredly. “Not even the progeny of Taeyong and Yuta’s catboyisms.”

“Well, we’re not supposed to allow murders in here, either! But look at you!” Jaemin puffs out his chest as best as he can with a cat cradled against it.

Jeno pinches the bridge of his nose. “Just take a seat, and we’ll catch you up.”

 

 

*

epilogue

*

 

 

“I think the worst part of it all,” remarks Jaemin as they step into the elevator, “is that Ten and Kun were literally on a date before we showed up. Imagine if we went out thinking we’d get a little quality time to ourselves, then boom. Some kid kicks down the door and announces that you have 12 hours to live.”

“Don’t make it worse,” says Jeno, well beyond the point of arguing that Jaemin’s scenario is not at all what happened. “I am forgetting it. I do not see.”

“Come on, it’s funny,” says Jaemin. He hefts Bisky up to eye level and presses his nose to hers. “Isn’t that right, Bisky? It’s kind of funny? Yeah?” In answer, Bisky plants one paw on Jaemin’s cheek and tries to bite his ear.

“Even Bisky says no.”

“Whatever. Cats can’t vote in this democracy.”

The elevator comes to a stop at Jeno’s floor and they make their way down the hall. Jeno’s, because peace and quiet is what he desperately craves right now. Maybe a nice session of screaming into his pillow. Maybe he’ll even watch one of those gimmicky Youtube subliminals and try to brainwash himself into locking the past week so deep into his subconscious that no one will ever be able to make him talk about it again.

Jaemin rocks Bisky in his arms, pressing little kisses to her head, while Jeno unlocks the door and turns on the light. On the couch, Donghyuck leaps a foot in the air and tries valiantly to pretend like his tongue has been chastely residing inside his own mouth this entire time. Renjun nonchalantly wipes his lips on his sleeve.

“What are you guys doing here,” says Jeno, clinging to the last shred of patience available to him. “Why.”

Donghyuck crosses his legs demurely. “I invited Renjun over to watch a movie.”

“Aren’t you supposed to be fighting?” Jaemin says.

Jeno leans against the doorframe. “Yeah, Donghyuck, I thought you said you wouldn’t forgive him until he apologized for keeping secrets from you.”

“Well,” says Donghyuck, “I am known for my magnanimous heart.”

“We’re watching The Cheetah Girls 2 if you guys want to join,” offers Renjun. Against all odds, he has managed to make this sentence sound like foreplay.

“Thanks,” Jeno starts, “but I’ll probably just… go upstairs… and hang out with Jaemin?”

Renjun shrugs and unpauses the movie. “Alright. Don’t forget to feed the cat.”

Back in the elevator, Jaemin bumps his hip against Jeno’s and says, “You think we should’ve told them? They still think Kun’s on Doyoung’s hit list.”

“They didn’t seem too concerned about it.” Jeno takes Bisky to give Jaemin some reprieve, smiling as she mewls and burrows into his chest. “Tomorrow, I guess.”

“Does that mean you’re staying over?”

“Yeah, if that’s okay with you?”

Jaemin leans over and kisses Jeno, soft and slow, long enough that Jeno starts to get lightheaded. “Stupid,” he says fondly. “You know I wouldn’t want it any other way.”