It is a truth universally acknowledged that popular boys in high school can be and almost always have been assholes, in some way, shape, or form. Mingyu likes to think he doesn’t fit the bill, but given that he is a popular boy in high school, it’s pretty certain that he’s not likely to want to own up to any asshole-ish tendencies.
“Do you think he’s gay?” Seungcheol asks one day when they’ve pushed their desks together for lunch break.
Mingyu is carefully and meticulously unfolding the plastic wrap putting an air-tight seal on his bacon and lettuce sandwich, and doesn’t quite understand what Seungcheol is referring to at first.
“What did you say?”
“That guy. Wonwoo, or whatever. D’you think he’s, like, gay?”
Mingyu looks up, on reflex, so he can take a peek at the guy in question. Luckily for him, his desk and chair have been turned around so he’s facing the back wall of the classroom, and he only has to sweep his eyes upward for a few seconds before naturally bringing them back down to his sandwich, no awkward head-turning or peripherals-straining, in order to catch a glimpse of the boy in question. Jeon Wonwoo.
His knowledge on the guy isn’t much, beyond the fact that they shared English homeroom together in ninth grade and had either a History class or a Math class together sometime in-between then and now. Mingyu's never once talked to him, never once had to be forced together by an apathetic teacher who lost their desire to work in a public high school fifteen years ago to awkwardly work on a project together with him, and besides the occasional exceptions (usually when the teacher makes him go up to answer a question on the blackboard) usually never looks at him, either.
Wonwoo’s been an enigma since day one, when Mingyu had just entered high school and hadn’t gotten used to suddenly shooting up in height over the course of eighth grade. While Mingyu was filling into his awkward growth spurt until he was tall and handsome and knew how to play the popularity game to his advantage, Wonwoo was doing … god knows what, actually. Maybe nothing. Maybe he just floated through high school, another forgettable face in a sea of gawky teenagers filling up a hallway, an extra on the edge of the set doing his own thing while the actual characters took the spotlight, being football quarterbacks and chess championships and debate team nationals and winning prom queen.
Mingyu hasn't paid him much attention, mostly because Wonwoo seems to reflect attention like sunshine reflects off of a sheet of snow, but taking a quick look at him now he doesn’t see anything all that different about senior Wonwoo versus freshman Wonwoo—disregarding a couple extra centimeters during his sophomore year that made him join Mingyu in the esteemed one-eighty club. Jihoon has never forgiven either of them for their height, muttering under his breath that some people just get all the luck.
In short, Wonwoo is the exact same quiet guy that he had been since the start of high school, the same quiet guy that hardly ever speaks and only ever seems to sleep in class or stare out the window, head off in the clouds. His looks are decent enough to have garnered attention in the beginning, girls labelling him as the silent and mysterious type. This is something Mingyu can respect, but Wonwoo disappointed everyone by never coming through with the follow-up—those who approached him quickly lost interest, labelling him as “boring” and “odd” and walking away huffily after several attempts at starting a conversation and in return receiving the shortest, curtest answers possible, or sometimes no answer at all.
Eventually, nobody approached him, and over time, as naturally as if it had been the will of the heavens, or maybe the will of the silent oddball himself, Wonwoo was left alone. Staring out the window like always.
That kind of guy isn’t the kind of guy Mingyu thinks he wants to hang out with. Or be associated with, to be honest. Call him shallow, conceited, whatever—but it had taken him three years to carefully cultivate the best circle of friends a guy could ask for: fellow basketball team members; hot girls that can always be counted on to smile and laugh at everything he says; some of the cooler smart kids so he doesn’t look like he’s, like, segregating anyone or whatever, and also so he has easy access to free tutoring if he’s screwed for a math test; stoners, so that even though Mingyu has never planned or even been interested in doing drugs he can look like he could if he totally wanted to; and finally, the duo that completes the ultimate high school Three Musketeers best friends fantasy he’s had since he was in the sixth grade, Seungcheol and Jihoon.
Choi Seungcheol is everything Mingyu’s aspired to be in the peak of his youth. He’s the school president, liked by almost everyone that matters, complete with nice just-woke-up-and-stylishly-tousled hair and an award-winning smile, probably has more friends than Mingyu can count; and he always knows what events are going on and what parties are being held that weekend, any weekend, any time.
On the other side of the coin, Lee Jihoon is a miniature devil with a drop-dead attitude and candy-pink hair to match, the combined result of a dare in his freshman year and the petty desire to keep the colour just to piss off all the scandalized teachers that threaten him to dye it back, and holds at least half the school in fear of getting on his blacklist, but he’s witty as all hell and respected by just about everyone who knows not to mess with him, and always comes through in a pinch when Mingyu needs him most.
“I don’t know,” Mingyu shrugs, slowly trying to untangle the clingy film keeping him away from his lunch. “He doesn’t look, y’know, like a gay dude.”
In all his seventeen years of life, he has never seen someone who played for the same team anywhere else other than a television screen, mostly in the role of some romcom heroine's Sassy Best Friend. Considering that they are the kind of mild, middle-class, white suburbia paradise high school where everyone practically knows everybody and at least six kids in any given class are kids he’s gone to middle or even elementary school with, his exposure to any of that sort of thing is minimal to none.
“Jesus, Mingyu, gimme that,” Jihoon sighs, taking the sandwich away from him and ripping into the plastic wrap with raggedy, stress-bitten fingernails until the sandwich is free. “Seeing you pick at it is giving me anxiety. And how would any of us know what a gay guy looks like anyway?”
“I dunno.” Seungcheol wiggles his eyebrows at him. “Maybe you are gay.”
“Suck my dick, asshole.”
“Sounds like something a gay guy would say.”
Mingyu bites into his sandwich with a sigh of hunger-panged relief, but is left overwhelmingly disappointed. The lettuce is too bland, the bacon bits keep crumbling into his lap, and there’s no butter or mayo or even a bit of mustard to give it some extra flavor. He sighs and stares at his lunch morosely. “This tastes awful.”
“What are you, a fucking connoisseur? Make your own lunch, then.” Seungcheol shoots Mingyu a teasing grin to let him know he isn’t being serious, and brandishes a cafeteria-made hamburger that consists of a pathetic lukewarm patty slapped in-between two wilted slices of buns. It looks even worse than Mingyu’s. “Your mom made that for you, punk, be grateful. I’ve had to buy my own lunches since the eighth grade.”
“As if I can make my own lunch.” Mingyu scoffs. “What seventeen-year-old boy knows how to cook? It’s embarrassing. I might as well sign myself up for a home ec class and be done with it.”
Jihoon rolls his eyes. He doesn’t have a lunch, because, according to what he once told Mingyu, he doesn’t believe in the concept. “Of course, your fragile masculine ego can’t possibly learn a valuable life skill because it has feminine connotations,” he says dryly. “If you want to know so badly, Cheol, just go ask him.”
“If he’s gay! Fucking hell, you’re driving me crazy and it’s not even twelve-thirty yet.”
Seungcheol throws his head back and laughs heartily at his best friend’s expense. He’s the only one who can laugh at Jihoon when he’s in the midst of annoyance and not get instantly castrated. Not even Mingyu has reached that stage in their friendship yet. “Let’s make Mingyu do it.”
“Because if he is gay, then,” Seungcheol makes a vague, noncommittal gesture towards Mingyu’s face and upper torso, “it’ll be pretty obvious once he talks to you.”
Mingyu is pathetically, grossly pleased. He’s been following Seungcheol like a stray dog to the school’s gym for the past year and a half and has finally gained some muscle in his old twiggy limbs, previously stretched thin over elongated bones. During the summer, when the three of them went out to the arcade, he got stopped on the street by someone asking if he was interested in modelling. Mingyu said no, but his ego’s been overinflated ever since, and he can’t help constantly bringing it up. “You saying I’m attractive, Cheol?”
“Uh, I’m not a homo, idiot.”
“Well, I’m not, either.”
“Yes, yes, we are all painfully aware of how heterosexual you two are,” Jihoon interrupts, stealing Seungcheol’s can of Calpico and downing half of it before anyone can react. “Are you gonna go up to him or what, Mingyu?”
“Why do I have to do it?” His voice is bordering dangerously close to whining territory. “It's too awkward, I’ve never said a word to him before.”
“Nobody has, that’s kind of the point. Also, you’re the youngest.”
“C’mon, Gyu.” Seungcheol leans forward, and his gummy smile is distinctly more playful, more sneaky, than before. “I dare you.”
It’s the magic word, because if Mingyu can count on anything, it’s that his own reckless, naïve pride can make him do just about anything, no matter how stupid, especially if it’s given to him in the context of a dare. Seungcheol knows it, and Mingyu knows he knows it, and it still does the trick. There's a brief moment of hesitation before Mingyu’s eyes narrow, searching his friend’s face to see if there’s any hint of a lie or a bluff.
“What do I get out of it?” he asks, carefully, forming the words to their utmost entirety before they fall in single file out from between his lips.
“I’ll get you the number of that girl in your chemistry class that you said was cute.”
“I’m confident enough in my own abilities, thanks.”
Seungcheol always plays fair, which is admirable. He pauses for a bit, weighing the options, makes sure that the dare is equal to the reward, before saying, “You get the first controller on video game nights for the next three months.”
And with that, Mingyu stands up and slowly makes his way over to Jeon Wonwoo.
Wonwoo isn’t sleeping, as it turns out. Instead, he has a book open on his lap, something boring and heavy with a title like The Art of or The Great something or whatever the fuck, his body bowed forwards until his forehead is resting on the surface of his desk so he can read in a semi-comfortable manner. It surprises Mingyu, and makes him wonder how often he’s thought that the resident weirdo was knocked out during lessons but was actually wide awake, poring over books instead.
Why don’t you just read at home then, if you don’t have friends and aren’t paying attention in class?
“Um, hey. Jeon Wonwoo.”
The words feel strange on his tongue, like some hidden ingredient with an unforeseen flavour.
Wonwoo doesn’t respond for a few moments. When he finally looks up, unfolding himself until he’s sitting up straight and suddenly looking taller and more imposing than he usually does, Mingyu doesn’t expect Wonwoo to be so … normal?
Well, normal isn’t the right word to put it. It’s more like he’s never seen Wonwoo up close before, not like this. With his head constantly bowed, in either sleep or reading or just the way he generally carries himself from place to place, his black bangs have always been in the way of his facial features; but now Mingyu can clearly see Wonwoo’s square chin, sharp jawline, and intensely dark, monolidded eyes. He’s handsome, or something, although Mingyu feels a weird itch crawl up his spine to admit that another guy is handsome. But at least now he can see why girls used to approach him back in the day.
Wonwoo blinks at him, waiting, and Mingyu remembers he’s supposed to say something. He opens his mouth confidently, but something in the way Wonwoo is looking at him makes his brain pause and stutter, like a student suddenly put on the spot to answer a question in class. His mind blanks. “Um, ah, you probably don’t know me. I’m Kim Mingyu.”
Wonwoo looks around the classroom, then back at him, and the next time he blinks it’s different, a slow, drawn-out movement of eyelids and short dark lashes, and Mingyu realizes it’s meant to show sarcasm. “I know.” His voice is deep and a little gravelly, as if he never quite uses it. Mingyu’s heard it before, of course, mostly when he’s apologizing to the teacher for falling asleep in class, but he’s never heard it this close and with this sort of timbre. It feels like the vibrations of his vocal cords are making their way into Mingyu and rattling around inside his bones.
“Y-you do?” He hopes his confused stutter isn't noticeable.
“Does anyone not know who Kim Mingyu is?”
Mingyu fights back a cocky, proud grin. See? Even the class oddball who lives on an entirely different planet than everyone else knows who he is. “Is that so?” Feeling bold, he pulls out the empty chair of the desk in front of Wonwoo and slides into it, sitting backwards so he can rest his arms against the back of the chair.
Wonwoo’s mouth is set in a decidedly neutral fashion, but the corner of one side twitches, as if he briefly considered smiling. Instead of smiling, he says, “So why are you talking to me?”
Time to test the waters, so to speak. “What do you mean?” Mingyu cocks his head in the way that he knows makes him look slightly arrogant but also showcases the way his jaw slopes sharply downwards, and he flashes Wonwoo his best sharp-toothed smile, the one that made a girl in his Applied Physics class last year burn bright red and run away giggling. “Can’t I go up and talk to a classmate? We’ve been in the same homeroom for two years, you know.”
That doesn’t seem to be the answer Wonwoo wanted, and the look in his eyes and the curl of his mouth shifts. His facial expressions are always miniatures of the real thing, something carved into wood the size of a palm with details so small they're easy to miss. Toned down, muted, even, like being put through the most annoying Instagram filter Mingyu’s ever seen.
Mingyu’s surprised to find that he can still tell that there are slight changes, though, can tell that previously Wonwoo had been almost amused, answering Mingyu’s questions, asking questions of his own. It’s a rare occurrence in this classroom, seeing him willing to humour.
But now? Now, he looks like he’s about to shut Mingyu down, like he shuts everyone down.
This is the first hint Mingyu gets, among many in the near future, that this is no ordinary classmate, and that Wonwoo can see through practically anything. He must have known, instinctively, or through observation or a sixth sense or a dog’s sense of smell or something bullshit, that Mingyu had been lying, that he had approached him with a different goal in mind. And Wonwoo, above all else, hates lies.
Wonwoo starts to look down at his book again, and Mingyu panics. He can feel Seungcheol and Jihoon’s eyes on him, and he doesn’t want to fail in front of them, can't bear making the walk of shame back to his seat. “W-wait! Wait, okay? I’m sorry. I, uh, came to ask you a question. Actually. Please, um—please listen to me.”
Wonwoo hesitates. Both of them know that Mingyu never sounds so flustered, and never says “please”, and to Mingyu’s extreme embarrassment red heat crawls up his neck and cheeks. He can’t believe that he lost his carefree, cool-headed persona in front of Wonwoo, of all people.
It must be because Wonwoo is just so different. There are no cues to let Mingyu know how to act around him, no expressions or actions to let him know if Wonwoo’s feelings towards him are positive or negative. Mingyu knows there are people in the school that don’t like him, and he’s okay with that, because at least he knows where they stand and how he can approach them.
Here, facing each other with only a desk’s width of separation between them, someone’s watch catching the sunlight and reflecting an oddly-shaped patch of light onto the wall near his head, Mingyu doesn’t know how to act and how to get what he wants, and he feels like he’s out of his element. Wonwoo may exist on a completely different planet to the rest of the school, but in this exact moment, he’s the one with all the cards and Mingyu is the odd one out.
“What is it?” Wonwoo asks, slowly. His eyes are a bit too sharp. Something about them makes Mingyu feel uncomfortable, somehow.
When he was twelve, he did something categorized as Adolescent Mischief (probably broke a plate, or smashed a window, or fought a dog or something) and lied to his mom about it, and in the middle of telling his elaborately thought-out lie and feeling so proud and so smart he saw the look in her eyes. His mother was not an idiot, and obviously didn't buy into his story, but she still listened, calmly, seated at the kitchen table with all the quiet dignity of a monarch on a golden throne, as she waited to see how deep of a hole her stupid young son could dig himself into. Mingyu saw the look in her eyes and realized this instantly, and his words trailed off when he felt the white-hot shame and panic rush through his veins and melt through his arteries.
This is the kind of feeling he gets when he looks into Wonwoo's eyes, as though Wonwoo sees and already knows but is still going to listen to him fuck everything up with his words, and it's not something he feels happy experiencing again when he’s not a child, when he's prac-tic-ally an adult.
“It is—I, ah, uh—there was an, um, a rumour. That I heard. From someone. Nobody in particular. And I kind of wanted to ask you about it, and see if it was true or not. If you’re cool with answering.”
There’s a short silence, as Mingyu fights back the flustered pink flush heating up the back of his neck. He’s no genius, but he’s normally a little more articulate than this. He picks at a bit of dry skin around his fingernails and wishes more than anything that he knows how to time travel and can rewind back before he turned into a babbling, uncool mess.
Suddenly, Wonwoo lets out a world-weary sigh and says,
“Your ears get red when you’re flustered. It’s kind of cute.”
Cute? Something inside of him sparks and fizzes like a dying electrical wire. “I—urk—um, I, guh—what?” Mingyu burbles out.
“Is the rumour something about me being gay? Because it’s correct.”
“It’s … what?”
“As in, attracted to men. I don’t think I can make it any clearer than that.”
Mingyu’s mouth falls open but no words come out. He’s not sure which he’s more surprised over—the fact that Wonwoo really is gay, or that he casually admitted it to Mingyu with almost no hesitation.
“I, um, that’s—cool. That’s cool.” A small part of him briefly panics as he wonders if he sounds homophobic, and quickly adds, “So, um, what’s that like?”
He wants to crawl into a hole and never come out. What’s that like? Jesus fucking Christ, way to not sound homophobic, Mingyu.
Wonwoo makes a small sound between a cough and a snort and Mingyu realizes, with surprise, that the quiet kid is actually trying to hold back laughter. “It feels pretty normal. It just means that while you like looking at girls, I like looking at guys. That’s about it.”
It’s a very frank, honest, easy way of putting it. Mingyu likes all those qualities, and, being easily curious, can’t help himself from being a bit bolder and asking some more questions. “So, like, do you stare at guys during PE and stuff? Like, when they’re changing?”
“I’m gay, not a pervert. I keep my eyes to myself like a normal human being.” Wonwoo raises one eyebrow, just a fraction of a centimeter, and in that exact moment Mingyu discovers with a small burst of glee that Jeon Wonwoo does have a sense of humour after all. “Besides, what makes you think any of the guys in my PE class are my type?”
Well, true. Everybody had types, Mingyu supposes. He accepts that answer immediately. “What is your type?”
“Not anybody in my PE class.”
A sudden idea strikes through his system, and with some slyness he asks, “Am I your type?”
Wonwoo pauses, chewing down onto his bottom lip for a moment like it’s a habit, before he slowly says, “You’re not not my type.”
“What the fuck does that mean?”
“It means I don’t find you unattractive.”
“There’s a lot of double negatives going on right now, and they’re confusing me.”
Wonwoo sighs. “I find you attractive, but I’m not necessarily attracted to you. Do you know what I mean?”
Mingyu rests his head against his forearms. “Say it in terms of girls.”
There’s an eye roll directed his way, but Wonwoo strangely complies with his request. “Have you ever seen a girl that you thought was pretty, but you didn’t want to go up and talk to her?”
“No. If I’m attracted to a girl, and I know I have a chance, I’ll make a move.” That’s what he’s supposed to do if he finds a girl pretty, isn’t it? What the hell does he do otherwise? Look somewhere else and twiddle his thumbs and waste a perfectly good opportunity?
“Drop the hyper-masculinity for a second and just think about it. You see a girl, and you think she’s pretty, but that’s it. You don’t really feel like flirting with her, or asking her out, or anything. You just like looking, and appreciating her existence.”
Mingyu thinks about it as requested. It makes sense, but it also makes him feel a little weird. He finds himself double-checking his thoughts and intentions in every relationship he’s ever had or pursued in the past, and forces himself to stop by making a very aggressive shrugging motion with his shoulders. “I guess.”
“Well, that’s how I feel about you. You’re attractive, but I’m fine just looking.”
“So, what, you don’t find me handsome enough to flirt with?” Mingyu asks in mock outrage, masking his feelings with lighthearted humour. Once again, he feels a little uncomfortable with the notion of guys flirting with guys, or guys flirting with him, or guys being romantically or sexually interested in him in any way. But more than that, more than the discomfort, he’s a little more than slightly devastated that the one gay kid he finally meets in the flesh doesn’t harbor some secret romantic crush on him or something.
To his great relief, Wonwoo laughs, just a little. It’s quiet, more of an exhale than anything, but his nose scrunches up when he does so and Mingyu finds himself staring and feeling more uncomfortable than ever. “I make it a habit to not flirt with straight guys, sorry.”
“Sounds fair enough.” At that point, Mingyu hears Seungcheol and Jihoon calling out his name, and an eraser lands square in the middle of his back. He feels oddly disappointed as he gets up from the chair and says, “Gotta go. Nice talking to you, though.”
Wonwoo smiles, for real this time, like, with the corners of his lips curled up and everything. It’s surprising how much nicer he looks like this, younger, more approachable. A smiling Wonwoo looks like he has friends to walk home with after school and a girl who's sweet on him that he likes to tease in the school library. “Thanks for not being too weird about it.”
Mingyu wonders if he would've been friends with the Wonwoo That Smiles, if Seungcheol and Jihoon would've liked him.The smile blinds him and makes him feel temporarily stupid. He wonders if he would've been there for the Wonwoo That Smiles when the Wonwoo That Smiles confesses his sexuality, worried about what that would mean for him with his parents, and the school, oh shit what will the guys say, and Mingyu could be there for him and put an arm around his shoulder, Bro, this doesn't change anything. We're still friends, I still care about you—okay, this scenario is getting way too out of hand.
“No, no, I mean—” don’t make this weird, don’t make this weird, “—it’s not every day I meet someone who’s actually gay, so—”
Nope. Now he sounds like a douche. Wonwoo’s smile slips, and Mingyu mentally slaps himself. “Sorry, fuck, sorry I didn’t mean it like—I’ll talk to you later.”
And he runs back to his friends with his tail between his legs, unable to gather up the courage to take another look at the boy behind him. He’s never been one to care much about making people who don’t matter hate him, but for some reason, today is a day where Wonwoo does matter, and he doesn’t want Wonwoo to think he’s a jerk.
“You talked to him for a while,” Seungcheol says once Mingyu sits back in his own chair. “Well? What did he say?”
“Can he actually talk?” Jihoon asks incredulously.
“He’s gay,” Mingyu mumbles, “and he actually admitted it pretty easily.”
“Shit! No way.” Seungcheol swivels his head around to stare at the boy in the back of the room. “Eric swore the other day that he thought the guy was checking him out in the PE changing rooms. Guess he was right on the mark. Talk about creepy.”
“What? No!” Mingyu feels unnecessarily defensive, and without even thinking about it, he echoes back the words Wonwoo said to him. “He’s gay, not a perv. Eric thinks everybody under the fucking sun checks him out, he’s got an ego bigger than your grossly inflated thighs.” Jihoon snorts loudly beside him and Mingyu fights back his brief few seconds of pride at making Jihoon of all people laugh. “Anyway, Wonwoo—I mean, that guy—wouldn’t do something like that. He’s surprisingly kind of … cool.”
“Can you turn around already, Cheol? You’re making it super obvious that we’re talking about him.”
“Why are you so on edge?” Seungcheol retorts.
Mingyu feels his face heat up again under the scrutiny, but he saves himself by protesting, “I may or may not have come across as either homophobic or an ignorant asshole in some of my comments, okay? Now can we please not make this any worse and just turn your ass around?”
“So he can get a better look at it?” Seungcheol snickers, doing as Mingyu asked and swiveling back in his seat so he faces the front again.
“Trust me, Seungcheol,” Jihoon says, taking a bite out of the hamburger he had also stolen, “nobody wants to look at your ass.”