"I heard you and Jaemin are gonna be roommates," Donghyuck says over the phone, too nonchalant to not have an ulterior motive.
"Mm." Jeno twists the wire of his headphones around his finger, glancing down at his calculus notes. “He’s moving in the week after finals.”
"Not gonna lie, I’m kind of surprised," Donghyuck hums. He’s crunching on some chips, and the sound is mildly irritating to Jeno.
Donghyuck’s silent for a couple of seconds. Jeno takes that moment to read over another theorem, frowning as he parses out the words. He’s gripping his pen too hard, he realizes, hands white-knuckled and trembling.
"I don’t know,” Donghyuck says finally. “You’ve always been a little weird about Jaemin.” Jeno’s pen skids across the paper, unerasable and messy. He stares down at his notes in dismay, swallowing dryly.
Here’s the thing: Jeno loves him.
Jeno isn't sure when he first realizes — maybe within the first week of them moving in together, that first week of summer break in July. After a long shift at the cafe, Jeno had returned to the apartment with the smell of food simmering, the smell of home, lingering in the air.
"What's that?" Jeno asks, blinking in disbelief. He's used to arriving at a dark, quiet apartment. During months that Doyoung had prepared to defend his Ph.D. thesis, Jeno had thought he'd been roommates with a ghost, presence marked only by plates in the kitchen sink and diminishing groceries in the fridge. Seeing Jaemin in front of him feels unreal.
"Dinner," Jaemin replies, eyes focused on the stove. He’s stirring at something with a rubber spatula. He's wearing an apron, a nice sturdy navy blue that emphasizes his shoulders, his straight-backed posture, and his small waist. Jeno deliberately looks past him to eye the pan on the stove. Fried rice with eggs and soy sauce.
"Damn, it smells good." Jeno tries to focus on the food, only the food. His stomach grumbles in agreement, and he flushes, embarrassed.
"Do you want some?" Jaemin turns to face him, smiling. "I made a bit extra, by accident." He laughs sheepishly.
"Oh, it's—I didn't mean to—" Jeno stammers out. No one's cooked him for a while. Not since last autumn, when he'd gotten sick with a cold and Doyoung fussed over him with congee.
"It's fine, I'm used to cooking for Donghyuck anyway," Jaemin shrugs. He divides the food between two bowls, then slides one of them across the counter to Jeno.
"Thanks," Jeno says, swallowing. His eyes trace over Jaemin's side-profile, following a path from the curve of his eyelashes to the slope of his nose. "You're the best."
"You better do the dishes though." Jaemin's still holding the spatula in his hand, and the sight of him pointing it threateningly is more endearing than Jeno'd like to admit.
"Of course." Jeno smiles, easygoing and relaxed.
Jaemin struggles to keep a straight face, eventually beaming back at him.
And that’s when Jeno knows he’s completely fucked.
“How was the date?” Jaemin asks. He’s curled up on the couch, watching anime off his laptop. Normally Jaemin has such perfect, rigid posture. Jeno’s seen photos of the two of them sitting together, Jeno seeming three inches shorter despite their similar heights. He’s never seen Jaemin so small. A wave of protectiveness washes over him, unbidden.
Jeno shrugs. “Shitty,” he says. He doesn’t want to talk about it. Jeno knows that he could’ve eaten dinner with Prince Charming himself and he still would’ve found it lacking in comparison to the boy in front of him. Jeno knows he needs to get over his feelings, too, but knowing has never been the same as feeling.
Jaemin looks at the floor; Jeno’s unable to read his face. When he glances back up at Jeno, he’s schooled his features to seem appropriately sympathetic. It’s probably fake, in a way, but he doesn’t mind it. Revels in it, even.
“Wanna watch this with me?” Jaemin asks, patting the cushion beside him.
“Sure,” Jeno says. He sits close enough to Jaemin that their shoulders touch each other. Jeno doesn’t find the anime interesting at all. Maybe it is, but Jaemin’s in the middle of the episode, and Jeno’s not all that interested in figuring out what’s going on, anyway. Instead, he’s more preoccupied with Jaemin’s clean laundry-and-deodorant scent, and the way Jaemin’s pretty nice to him, despite everything. Slowly, Jeno drifts off.
He wakes up with a cottony taste in his mouth that clues him in to the fact that he dozed off for a while. His head’s on Jaemin’s shoulder, and for that reason, Jeno takes care not to startle. He’s about to close his eyes again, hoping to feign sleep until Jaemin “wakes” him up, but Jaemin turns his head at that moment and catches Jeno watching him.
"Oh," Jaemin says. Up close, he’s weirdly handsome — wide eyes, long eyelashes, smooth lips — yet imperfect — a sprinkle of acne on his forehead, a knick on his cheek from shaving. It twists at something deep in Jeno’s chest.
He startles away from Jaemin. What is he doing? "I'm sorry, I didn't mean to—"
"It's okay, I don't mind," Jaemin replies, gentle. "It’s been a long day, huh?”
"Mm," Jeno agrees, swallowing down a yawn.
Jaemin watches him, his expression indecipherable. “I think we should sleep.” He gets up and stretches, avoiding Jeno’s eyes.
"Wasn't it uncomfortable?" Jeno asks. He should feel more guilty about falling asleep on Jaemin, but he’s never been great at lying to himself.
Jaemin rolls his neck, letting out a little sigh as he does so. It seems like such a secret, uncontrolled thing. Intimate, even. Jeno wonders how many people have heard those sighs, have seen Jaemin like this, all tired and beautiful.
"No,” Jaemin replies immediately. He’s looking directly at Jeno, now. “It’s never uncomfortable, with you.”
Jeno’s curious, so the next time he calls up Donghyuck, he asks, "Is there anything I should know about being roommates with Jaemin?”
“Wow, thank you for asking about my day,” Donghyuck replies. Jeno can practically hear him rolling his eyes. “It was good, how about you?”
“I’m serious.” Donghyuck had befriended Jaemin before anyone else, had roomed with him for the past three years of university. Jeno remembers seeing the two of them, sometimes, leaning into each other's space as they shared drinks or studying together at the library. Donghyuck knows what Jaemin used to be like, back when all Jeno knew of him was campus rumors and Heejin’s commentary.
"Doesn't he,” Jeno continues, a little hesitant, knowing he’ll regret asking, "bring people home a lot?" Jeno still remembers his first year of college, before Donghyuck met his boyfriend, Donghyuck showing up at his dorm and whining about getting kicked out of his room for hookups and sharing his bed at night. Jeno had hoped it meant more than friendship, back then.
Donghyuck laughs. “Is that what you’re nervous about?” He sighs. "God, I don't know. He really used to, but then it kind of just —” another sigh, here — “Stopped. I think he got bored."
"Since when?" Jeno doesn’t know why he keeps asking questions about this, except in a way he thinks he does know, and the denial of it just sinks in his gut.
"Since when what?" Donghyuck parrots back.
"Since when,” Jeno repeats. Donghyuck isn’t oblivious. He had known when Jeno had a crush on him, can probably intuit what Jeno feels about Jaemin now.
"Ah, maybe six months? Five? It's kind of hard to remember, honestly."
Five months ago. February. Jeno remembers that first lecture with Jaemin, turning to introduce himself with the words I’ve heard so much about you from Donghyuck falling from his lips easily. He recalls Jaemin’s bright smile cutting through the cold 8 am winter chill.
"Not that I want to remember," Donghyuck adds hastily. "Ugh, Jaemin didn't make that many noises but sometimes it seriously—"
“Tell me about your day,” Jeno interrupts. He doesn’t want to hear about the past, no, no.
Here’s the other thing: maybe Jaemin’s in love with him, too. They don’t talk about it.
When Jeno realizes that Jaemin has feelings for him, there’s no Eureka moment or anything. It doesn’t strike him like a sudden shock of lightning, no. Instead, the feeling seeps through him gradually, like a sunrise, like the softness of golden light in the mornings. Jeno doesn't understand it, really. He turns it over in his head, analyzing it as he would a book for a literature class, and the only conclusion he draws is: Why him?
After all, he knows Jaemin's reputation. When Jeno told Heejin they’d be roommates between shifts at the cafe, her reaction had told him all that he’d needed to know. Her eyes had widened and she'd whispered "isn't that The Na Jaemin," talking like a newspaper headline, her comments the latest form of Netizen Buzz.
Jeno’s not an idiot. He's seen Jaemin at clubs before, dancing all fluid and molten: something beautiful, something magnetic. He's heard the rumors.
Everyone wants Na Jaemin.
So, then, why would Jaemin want him?
"I thought you said you cooked for Donghyuck a lot," Jeno says, accusatory. They're walking back from dinner with Donghyuck and Renjun. He doesn’t feel drunk right now, just tipsy enough to be dangerously honest. His memory feels clear, almost too high-definition, replaying what had happened in his head. Jaemin's refusing to look at him.
("How's being roommates?" Renjun had asked, cheeks flushed. He’s always the first to get tipsy. "Jaemin's not giving you a hard time?"
"Yah," Jaemin elbowed Renjun in the side, then turned towards Jeno, considering.
"It's fine," Jeno said. He avoided Jaemin’s stare. "He’s so good at cooking, you know?"
"Oh?” Donghyuck pouted. “Jaemin, how come I never received this special treatment when we were roommates?”)
"Donghyuck demanded it as payback for things, occasionally," Jaemin explains vaguely, staring down at the pavement. Jeno's eyes are skittish in contrast, ricochet from the puddles beneath him to the street lights above to the edges of Jaemin's face and back.
Jeno recalls, briefly, his first year of college. Donghyuck would squish into his twin bed, cursing about being sexiled.
"Still," Jeno insists. He doesn't know what he's trying to get out of this. He wants Jaemin to look up from the ground, to look at him. "You don't owe me anything, you know?" He's embarrassed. His cheeks are still pink.
Jaemin sighs and finally, finally gives him a glance. "I know I don't owe you anything."
Jeno stops walking. "Then why?" He knows why. Jaemin knows he knows.
But — he wants Jaemin to say it, to breathe it out into the crisp night air, to outline and define the blurry edges of their relationship. He wants Jaemin to commit to something, even if that’s antithetical to anything he’s ever heard of him. He shivers.
"Come on," Jaemin laughs, shaking his head. He reaches out for Jeno's wrist, the part covered by his shirtsleeve. Foolishly, Jeno wishes it was skin to skin contact instead. "It's cold," Jaemin continues. "Let's go home."
"Where're you going?" Jaemin asks, looking up from his phone. He’s curled up on the couch. The sleep shirt he’s wearing right now is oversized on him, draping over his shoulders, and his hair is uncombed and messy. Soft, Jeno thinks. Like he should take care of Jaemin, instead of the other way around.
"Out," Jeno answers. “Heejin wanted to, so.” He shifts, uncomfortable, as Jaemin stares at him intently, taking in Jeno’s entire outfit. There’s always that look, like Jaemin’s trying to commit him to memory, like he’s someone special to Jaemin. Still — Jeno had anticipated it, had made sure to time his exit after Jaemin finished showering, had done his eyeliner and put in his silver earrings, and hoped for Jaemin to eye him up and down like this.
"Oh." Jaemin finally looks away. He purses his lips as he glances back down at the screen of his phone. "Have fun."
Jeno feels stupid, suddenly, like a kid playing dress-up, even if Heejin had hyped up his outfit with keyboard smashes and water droplet emojis.
"You don't—you don't go out anymore,” Jeno says. His fingers flutter uselessly at his sides. "That's what Donghyuck said."
Jaemin tenses, looking back up at Jeno. "Yeah, I — I used to be restless, I guess." Jaemin licks his lips, and Jeno unconsciously mirrors the action.
"Why'd you stop?" Jeno asks. He feels breathless, all of a sudden.
Jaemin shrugs, a casual, controlled movement. "I lost interest.”
Jeno leaves, after that.
"Seems like you'll finally meet Jaemin today," Jeno says. It’s close to the end of his shift, anyways. Jaemin wanted to go biking with him after, had insisted on stopping by the cafe with an I’ve never seen you in your uniform!! ㅋㅋㅋ and, well. He’s pretty sure Heejin’s more excited than he is, at this point.
"Seriously? Is that him?" Heejin ducks behind Jeno then peers around his shoulder. "He's even prettier in person."
“Mm.” Jeno waves as Jaemin enters the store, then turns back to the drink he’s making. He really, really hates jollypong smoothies. “Shouldn’t you be taking his order?”
It’s starting to get late in the afternoon, so the shop isn’t so crowded or noisy. It means Jeno can hear every word of their conversation.
"Heejin-ssi," Jaemin says brightly. Like Stevia, Jeno thinks. Overly sweet and fake. "I've heard so much about you.”
“Oh!” Heejin laughs, and Jeno doesn’t need to see them to know that Heejin’s blushing, too. That’s just what Jaemin’s like. He’s good at molding people’s feelings like it’s putty, putting people to stutters with just one smile. Jeno hates (loves) that knowing this doesn’t stop him from being another one of Jaemin’s victims.
Thankfully, they don’t chat for too long. Jeno counts down the minutes till his shift ends. When he heads to the backroom to change, Heejin stops him for a moment.
“Jaemin,” Heejin begins. She bites down on her lower lip, worries it between her teeth. "Is he single?"
Jeno hesitates. "Yes," Jeno grounds out, even if the words sting with wrongness in his mouth. He wonders if he should force a smile. “Are you — do you —” he breaks off, frustrated.
Heejin’s eyes widen. “Oh,” she breathes out. “I didn’t know it was like that.” She shakes her head furiously. “I’m not gonna—”
Jeno cuts her off. “Don’t worry about it,” he says, turning past her to leave.
Later, as Jeno bikes around the city and watches Jaemin’s sun-burnished smile, he thinks. He wonders what I didn’t know it was like that even means.
"Heejin asked me if you were single,” is the first thing Jeno thinks of saying during dinner. He stares down at his plate immediately afterward. Jaemin’d cooked his favorite dish: seaweed soup.
"What'd you say?" Jaemin replies. When Jeno looks up, Jaemin meets his gaze. He’s nervous.
"I said yes.” It’s weird. Just because Jeno feels close to throwing up, his heart beating out of his chest, doesn’t mean that the soup still doesn’t taste really good as he swallows it down. He clears his throat. "Is Heejin your type?" He has no reason to be worried over Heejin, but something masochistic inside of him still makes him ask.
Jaemin pushes his plate away from him with a screech, towards the center of the table. "Are you serious.” All the words of a question, all the certainty of a confession. He’s still staring intently at Jeno. "Don't do this. You can't do this."
"Can't do what?" Jeno pushes his plate to the side. He’s reminded of returning back from the bar at night, of Jaemin gently diffusing the tension he had worked so hard to build up.
Jaemin finally breaks eye contact, observing the veneer of the kitchen table with a critical eye. He’s silent for a couple of moments. Jeno counts his breaths: one, two, three.
"Look,” Jaemin begins. Pause. “It's one thing if you don't feel the same way." Another pause. "But that doesn't give you the right to disregard the fact that — that—"
"Mm?" Jeno prompts, leaning forward. Say it, he thinks. Say it.
"That I like you,” Jaemin continues earnestly, meeting him halfway. He looks down at Jeno’s lips, then up at his eyes again. They’re so close to each other. “I’ve liked you ever since I’ve met you, I’ve liked you for so long—”
“I’m not disregarding anything,” Jeno replies softly. He wonders, briefly, what Jaemin would think of his years-long crush, if liking him for five months had been so long. But Jeno casts the thought aside, and instead, he chooses to close the distance between the two of them.
When Jaemin says he likes him, Jeno believes it.