Three weeks into sophomore year, just after autumn tiptoes in, a girl crosses the quad at K-ARTS and makes Jongin take notice.
"Chanyeol," he starts, in an easy tone of voice. "Do you know that girl?"
They're in their usual spot--a bench shaded by plenty of trees, now the color of fresh rust. Jongin's sprawled on his back, taking up most of the real estate. His head is in Chanyeol's lap, and Chanyeol's nose is buried in a novel. He is absentmindedly playing with Jongin's hair.
"Hmm?" Chanyeol murmurs. Jongin can tell his best friend isn't really listening, because Chanyeol's fingers still card aimlessly through his uncombed mop.
"Look." Jongin turns his face in the direction of the girl. The movement causes Chanyeol's fingers to land on his cheek, before he draws them away to adjust his glasses. Jongin juts out his chin. "Her."
Through his nostrils, Chanyeol pulls in a deep stream of breath, the way he always does when Jongin interrupts his reading. Jongin thinks of it as Chanyeol resurfacing from the depths of a fictional world to dive back into the real one.
"Sorry, which girl?" The rumble of Chanyeol's voice has more gravel in it than usual, because he hasn't said a word for close to an hour. He is facing the girl, who has settled on the grass with a group of other young women, but he isn't quite looking at her.
"Blue dress." Jongin is all calculated languor.
Chanyeol cranes forward and narrows his eyes, a two-step habit ingrained into him by chronic near-sightedness. But then he says, "Ah," and his eyebrows slope in recognition. "Ponytail?"
"Yeah." Jongin glances up at him and back to the girl. "Who is she?"
"That's Jinri. Choi Jinri." Chanyeol leans back and takes up his book from where he's balanced it on Jongin's stomach. "We have a few classes together."
"She's in our year?" Jongin presses. He scuffs the toes of his sneakers against each other. "I've never seen her before."
"Really?" Chanyeol's already got the book propped back up to eye level. Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel Garcia Márquez, the cover reads. Jongin's never heard of it before. "I met her maybe a week after orientation."
"What." Jongin sits up abruptly, knocking the book out of Chanyeol's hands. "But I know everyone you know."
"Careful, Jonginnie." Chanyeol bends to retrieve the book and dusts it off, front and back. The corner of the cover has folded on impact. Chanyeol smooths out the crease and runs his thumb over it with a sigh.
"Sorry." Jongin looks sheepish. He pets the book timidly, as if it's a puppy whose tail he's just stepped on. This happens often, but Chanyeol still laughs no matter what. Jongin knows he lets him get away with a lot of things. "Seriously, though, how did I not know about her? If I knew a girl that pretty, you'd hear all about it."
Chanyeol hums, and it's a pleasant, noncommittal sound. "You think she's pretty?" He slides the book back into his nylon backpack, which is covered in logo stickers Jongin has given him over the years. He zips it all the way around.
"Hyung. Look at her." Jongin says it like it's the most obvious thing in the world. "Of course I think she's pretty. Don't you?"
As instructed, Chanyeol does look at her, and Jongin grins at how literal he can get sometimes. Jinri is lovely in an effortless sort of way--long, glossy hair and long, glossy legs and full, feathery lashes. Her mouth is soft and pink, a rosebud pursed for a kiss, and the girlish awkwardness with which she moves makes her seem more foal than swan. Jongin has never seen anyone as cute as her.
He regards his friend in anticipation.
"I get it," Chanyeol says, giving him a simple smile.
Jongin was expecting a little more enthusiasm. His face twitches, half in disapproval, half in curiosity. "There's a 'but' in there somewhere. I can feel it."
Chanyeol huffs, amused. Easily, he passes his palm over Jongin's hair to flatten the wayward strands. Then he's getting up and slinging his backpack over one shoulder with the words, "I guess she's just not my type."
Jongin scoffs. "I knew it. You always say that. No matter who the girl is." He clamps onto Chanyeol's forearm to pull himself up from the bench, even though he doesn't really need the extra leverage. When he's on his feet, he shoves Chanyeol on the chest. "Do you even have a type? I've known you over five years, Chanyeol, and I still haven't figured it out."
Chanyeol rubs over a spot on his arm where Jongin had pressed his fingers a little too hard. He gives Jongin The Look--the one Jongin has grown to recognize from the number of times he's been at the receiving end of it. He's never quite managed to pin it down, as it oscillates between entertained and ironic and withholding, or all of the above, and sometimes, none of them at all.
"It's a secret." The bell rings, and Chanyeol is smiling. Before he leaves for his next class, he cocks their private salute--the two-finger one that widens into a peace sign--and Jongin, though thwarted, returns it.
They came across one another in high school, when they were the token weirdos in their respective social circles who preferred music to sports. Chanyeol was still on one of those clunky, first-generation iPods when Jongin first saw him, both of them slouching in the bleachers as their buddies shot hoops. He could hear the music clanging in Chanyeol's earphones, an Epik High track Jongin sometimes set choreography to when he was alone in his bedroom.
He hadn't realized he'd been staring until the tall, lanky boy stopped mouthing along to the intricate rap. Suddenly he was looking straight at Jongin and flashing him a smile filled with perfect, white teeth. "Wanna listen?" the boy had asked, removing a bud from his ear and offering it to Jongin like a piece of candy.
Jongin had taken it, sliding down the wooden bench and forgetting his shyness for the moment. "Thanks," he'd murmured. He really, really liked this song. "I'm Kim Jongin--"
"I know." His companion's eyes had crinkled into slivers. "I'm Park Chanyeol. I'm a freshman, too." Then he'd thumbed up the volume as high as it would go and swivelled his head to the beat, grinning. Jongin had found himself hard-pressed not to grin back.
That was a Wednesday--the guys always played basketball on Wednesdays. By the weekend, he and Chanyeol were inseparable.
It takes a few days of waffling, but Jongin does make up his mind. They're at the laundromat across their dorm when he finally asks Chanyeol to set him up with Jinri.
"Tell her about me." Jongin's grin is bashful, askew. "That way, when you finally introduce us, it won't be like I'm some random stranger."
The pile of clothes belongs to Jongin, yet Chanyeol is doing most of the sorting. It's been this way since Jongin flooded the dorm's basement with soap suds on their second week at college (he'd poured a touch too much detergent into the machine). The other students had glared, and Jongin had flushed with mortification, but Chanyeol had only laughed and laughed and laughed until the culprit was laughing, too. They'd mopped up the mess together, and have never done their laundry in the dorm--or apart--since.
"What do you want me to tell her?" Chanyeol asks mildly. His hands are transferring Jongin's clothes from basket to machine, and his expression is set to its default boyish pleasantness.
Jongin feels so awkward. "I don't know. Tell her I'm nice? Tell her I'm…cute?" He laughs nervously. "I mean, if you think she'll agree. I don't know."
Chanyeol's glance is fleeting. "You are cute."
Jongin laughs again. "Chanyeol, it doesn't count when you say it."
"Why not?" Chanyeol's hands haven't stopped moving. "I'm your best friend."
"Exactly." Jongin nudges him aside so he can scoop up the rest of his clothes and shove them into the mouth of another machine. Chanyeol's way of doing things has always been too methodical. Too neat. "You can't say that objectively because we're super close."
"What does that have to do with it?" Chanyeol frowns at the disproportionate piles in his machine and in Jongin's.
"You like me too much. Your opinion is tainted." Jongin shuts the doors simultaneously, so Chanyeol can't obsess about the piles anymore. "Detergent?"
"I'll do it." Chanyeol measures out the proper amount for each machine, and Jongin presses the Start buttons so they both whir to life. "I won't tell her you're cute, then."
Jongin's brow furrows, and he backpedals. "No, wait…fine." He slings an arm around Chanyeol's shoulder and slips his fingers into the breastpocket of his shirt. He taps over Chanyeol's heart in a gesture of familiarity. "Please tell her I'm cute, hyung."
Chanyeol snorts and eases out of his hold. "You've been calling me that a lot lately."
"Oh?" Jongin pinches the hem of Chanyeol's button-down before he can get too far. He makes a game of pulling the shirt taut and letting it go slack again.
Chanyeol reaches behind him and catches Jongin's wrist with a large, warm hand. "You'll stretch it out," the elder reasons, prying Jongin's fingers from his shirt. "You've been doing a lot of aegyo lately, too."
The soft purse of Jongin's lips negates him, O-shaped. "No, I haven't."
"Yeah, you have." Chanyeol's voice is light, so comfortable.
"I don't know what you're talking about."
"You're doing it right now."
"I'm not doing anything!"
"Shut up, Chanyeol."
The man in question titters. "I was wrong." He takes the empty basket and places it over Jongin's head like a lampshade. "You're not very cute at all."
Jongin re-emerges from underneath the basket. He scowls. Blithely, as though he doesn't notice, Chanyeol takes the container from Jongin's hands and hangs it over his own head. Jongin can't stay mad for long.
It's later when they're watching a load of clothes tumble in the dryer and talking about ordinary things that Jongin gets sleepy. The sound of his laundry doing wet somersaults in the machine is pacifying. His yawn comes out in slow motion, and he leans his head against Chanyeol's shoulder. They always match up when they're sitting down.
He hears Chanyeol sigh, and Jongin reckons he's sleepy, too.
"We should get coffee after this," Jongin murmurs.
"Okay." He can feel the vibrations in Chanyeol's throat against the crown of his head. Chanyeol says, "I'll speak to Jinri about you."
Jongin's smile is sudden, a flash of lightning across his countenance. He raises his head to look at Chanyeol. "Owe you one," he says. It's a little adoring.
Chanyeol chuckles, shakes his head, and bends to tie a shoelace that has come undone.
That first Saturday, after they'd met on the bleachers, Chanyeol had shown up at Jongin's house on his own invitation. Jongin hadn't minded. They'd camped out in his room with sticky black bowls of jajangmyeon and three bottles of cola each. They'd listened to Drunken Tiger for hours, and Jongin had shown Chanyeol some of his choreography. Before Chanyeol went home for dinner, Jongin'd asked him to come again the next day. He'd shuffled his feet, because he was shy.
"PlayStation tomorrow, hyung?"
Chanyeol had smiled, pearly-white. "You don't have to call me hyung."
In the low lighting of the Italian restaurant, warm and yellow and calibrated for romance, Jinri looks beautiful. Not cute--beautiful. Jongin can't stop staring at her.
She's wearing a cashmere sweater that shows just the tops of her collarbones and a knee-length skirt the color of wine. Its pleats had rustled when they'd walked the length of Garosugil to get here. There is one white pearl in each of her earlobes. Her trench coat hangs right next to Jongin's in the coat room, the same dark beige. A perfect match. Jongin had wanted to impress, choosing a place that was too fancy for a student, but Jinri seems to fit right in. She looks like one of those girls in the dramas Chanyeol loves to watch--fresh and nice-smelling and elegant.
"So, what's good here?" Jinri sucks the corner of her bottom lip into her mouth. "I've never been before."
Jongin wants to kiss her, and he also wants to punch himself for being so eager. "Me either," he mumbles. "You look really pretty, Jinri." He flinches right as he says it, because he hadn't been planning to do so out loud.
Her eyes dart up to meet his. She has very long eyelashes. "Thank you." That's surprise he detects in her tone--a pleasant kind of surprise, and a little discomfiture.
Jongin clears his throat. "Chanyeol recommended this place to me. His parents own a restaurant near here, so they've scoped out all the competition." He licks his lips and flips the page of his menu. "He said the truffle pasta is good. And the, um, gno…something."
"This?" Jinri turns her menu so that it faces him. She points to the name of a dish--gnocchi with pumpkin cream sauce. "I don't know how to pronounce it."
"Me either," Jongin says for the second time. He sounds grateful, even to himself. "It's Chanyeol who knows about food, not me."
Jinri grins. "I learn so much when I talk to him. I know he's studying to be a musician, but sometimes I really think he should be a restaurateur. Or a food critic." She closes her menu and folds her hands on top of it. "I always ask him about all the new places he's tried, the latest dishes at Buonasera--"
Jongin's ears prick at the name. "Wait, you know about his parents' business?"
"Yeah." Jinri makes eye contact when she speaks. "I've eaten in the branch in Apgujeong. The one in Yeoksam, too." She has naturally smiley eyes. "It was the first place he recommended to me when we met."
Jongin hums. "Me, too, actually." He frowns slightly. "I'm sorry, I keep saying the same things."
"It's fine," Jinri replies. She stretches out her fingers on the table. Her French manicure has a subtle shine to it. "Chanyeol-oppa mentioned he's known you since high school?"
The 'oppa' washes over Jongin in a gentle wave of jealousy. "Yeah. Since I was fifteen." It's still jealousy, though.
"I always see you two walking around campus," Jinri says. "You're really close, aren't you?"
"He's my best friend," Jongin confirms. His voice is marginally lower, and he has just realized they've been talking about Chanyeol for longer than expected.
"That's nice. He said the same thing about you." Jinri looks down at her nails. Almost to herself, she adds, "Oppa is really nice."
"Can I ask you a question?" The segue is nothing if not abrupt, but Jongin can't help it. He tries to at least keep his voice casual and his mouth from twisting into an incriminating shape. "Why did you agree to come to dinner with me?"
The lighting might be dim in here, but Jongin knows a blush when he sees it. "Well, I guess…" Jinri makes a small sound, halfway between a laugh and a sigh. "I don't know exactly. This is my first blind date. But I guess I wanted to try something…new, for a change. And he--I was told you were very sweet." She looks at Jongin hesitantly, her face tilting a tiny bit, like she doesn't know what to expect from him.
Jongin doesn't speak Girl, so he's not sure if there's anything to be decoded from that. Still, he wonders what Jinri's something-old is. What, or who.
"Should we order?" He cracks out a smile and tries to concentrate on how truly, undeniably pretty the girl across the table from him is. It occurs to him, not transiently, that she might have preferred to be sitting across from Chanyeol.
"Sure," Jinri says, none the wiser. Her cheeks are still flushed, but the rest of her face is smooth and amiable. "You can order for us both, Jongin."
"How was your date?" Chanyeol asks over lunch the following day. Or rather, over the takeout they've had delivered to their dorm room at three in the afternoon.
Jongin shrugs evasively, his face neutral. He pushes a spoonful of kimchi rice into his mouth.
"Okay," Chanyeol says, drawing the word out. "I don't know what to make of that."
Jongin attempts to laugh it off, but he can tell Chanyeol disapproves by the look on his face.
"What happened?" Chanyeol's timbre is serious without being demanding.
Jongin swallows his food. "Nothing."
"Jonginnie." Chanyeol bumps their ankles together. They're sitting side by side on the floor, their legs stretched out and their backs against Jongin's bed. "You can tell me anything."
He wasn't going to, really. He'd planned to keep it to himself and forget all about it. But Chanyeol's expression is warm and concerned, and Jongin still feels…sad? Yes, sad about the lovely, perfect, bittersweet date he'd had with his dream girl, who was clearly thinking about someone else. He wasn't going to say a word, because he didn't want things to get awkward, but the familiar temptation of Chanyeol's comfort is too much to resist.
It's ironic, given that the source of the salve is the reason for the cut.
"Jinri has a thing for you." Jongin tries to mask his disappointment with a smile. "That's all."
The soft focus in Chanyeol's eyes slowly sharpens to a point. "What are you talking about?" he says. "That's not true."
"I think it is." Jongin pushes his lips to one side, a cute way of saying sucks for me, but mostly because he thinks it will take some of the edge off of Chanyeol's gaze. It does. For a second.
Chanyeol places his takeout carton on his thighs. His features cloud with worry. "We're just friends, Jongin."
"She talked about you all night, though." Jongin remembers how easy it had been to test out his theory. How brief mentions of restaurants and television shows and music and books (especially books he knew Chanyeol had read) had always brought the conversation back to his friend. "It was on-and-off, and I could tell she was trying not to. But nine times out of ten, you were on her mind." He chuckles, hoping he doesn't sound bitter.
"You should go for it." He looks Chanyeol square in the face, grinning like he's fine. He still wishes Chanyeol would hug him, though. "You're a shoo-in."
"I'm not going to do that, Jongin." Chanyeol's voice has dropped to a murmur. The look in his eyes tells Jongin his bravado reads as flimsy as it feels. "I would never do that to you. Ever."
"But I wouldn't be mad. I'm the one telling you not to pass up the chance." Jongin glues his eyes back to his rice. "And…I dunno. She's really sweet. I just want her to be happy, I guess."
"Just her?" Chanyeol says under his breath. Jongin catches it without considering if he was supposed to or not. He guesses Chanyeol is talking about him, and Jongin thinks (not for the first time) of how nice it is to have someone who's always got his back.
"No, not just her. You, too, of course. You're my buddy." The don't worry about me goes unsaid. "Who can blame her for liking you? You're awesome." He laughs, draping his arm over Chanyeol's shoulders and attempting to make light of the situation. "If I was a girl, I'd like you."
Chanyeol stays absolutely still, instead of melting into Jongin's side like he always does.
"I told you, didn't I?" The elder's voice is flat. Not calm. Flat. "She's not my type."
It makes Jongin tense up, the position of his arm feeling strangely inappropriate. He lifts it minutely. "Yeol?" His voice shrinks, as though he's been reprimanded. "What's wrong?"
He might as well have said abracadabra, because suddenly Chanyeol is dipping his long neck so he can balance his head on Jongin's shoulder. Thawing. He snakes an arm around Jongin's waist, too, and he mutters, "Sorry. I didn't mean to snap."
"You didn't," Jongin says back, mystified but relieved.
Chanyeol squeezes the dip of his waist in a second unspoken apology. Then he withdraws his arm and straightens up. "Jinri doesn't know what she wants," he says, louder this time, and less intimate. He gifts Jongin with one of his megawatt smiles. Chanyeol never, ever runs out of smiles. "She doesn't know how easily she could fall in love with you."
"Because she's hung up on you," Jongin teases. He hopes everything is okay now.
"Still debatable." Chanyeol scrapes at the remnants of his takeout. "But even if that's the case, she won't be for long. I can guarantee you that." There is a determined quality to his tone, and Jongin isn't sure what it implies. But Chanyeol's expression is affectionate, and it puts the younger at ease.
"Whatever you say, hyung." He digs up a heaping spoonful of rice and grins, genuinely this time, before he stuffs his face.
"Trust me." Chanyeol says. The look he gives Jongin is still as fond; just a little funny around the edges. Jongin barely registers the difference, because Chanyeol is reaching for his precious food. "Give your hyung some rice. I'm all out."
It is Jinri who sends the first text, ten days later.
Hi Jongin, the message begins, and Jongin can't believe it when he reads the name of the contact. Are you free for coffee today?
Yes! is his initial response, before he deletes the exclamation point and replaces it with a period. Then he changes his mind completely and starts from scratch. Hey, he replies, sounding out the word in his head. Where do you want to meet?
They decide on a Caffe Bene not too far from K-ARTS' Seocho campus. Jongin's already sitting in a table for two when Jinri breezes through the door. She's wearing the same coat she'd brought to the Italian restaurant, with dark wash skinny jeans and low-heeled ankle boots. Her hair's in a ponytail again, and her chin is lost in the folds of a polka dot scarf. She looks adorable.
Jongin feels the telltale squeeze in his chest as he gets to his feet.
"Hi," Jinri breathes out, cheeks ruddy from the chill. "Am I late?"
"No," Jongin says quickly. "I'm early."
They both sit. Jongin slides a steaming coffee mug (one of two) across the table. "I ordered for you," is his blushing explanation. "Hope you don't mind. It's a--"
"Cappuccino?" Jinri cups the drink in her hands and brings it to her lips. She smiles. "You remembered from last time."
"Yeah." Jongin licks his lips. "I did."
From there, it's almost a re-enactment of their first date, except with a tangible sort of awareness on both sides. That's not to say the afternoon doesn't go well. Jongin knows a little more about the girl--the varied span of her musical interests (Bach to Beyoncé), the tiny triggers that get her to laugh (puns). Jinri, who is as unassumingly alluring as the first time Jongin laid eyes on her, says nothing about Chanyeol this time.
They run into each other more and more on campus. Jongin is studying dance and Jinri music, just like Chanyeol. Both departments are based in Seocho, and Jongin is grateful for it. Even though there are thousands of other students milling around, it's more likely he'll bump into her on a daily basis than it would be if she was studying drama or art a few subway stops away at the sister campus in Seokgwan.
Sometimes Jongin is alone, shuttling between classes with a tumbler of hot tea in his grasp. Jinri will wave hello and strike up an easy conversation in the corridor, the smell of her hair a light perfume. Jongin will ignore the bell that signals the start of Theory and listen to her talk until she realizes she was on her way to vocal training or lunch with friends.
Other times he is with Chanyeol, and Jinri will greet them both.
"Hi, Chanyeol-oppa. Hi, Jongin." Her smile is like sunshine. It seems to get brighter when she makes eye contact with Jongin. He can't detect a difference in the way she says their names, and it makes him happy.
As soon as they get to chatting, Chanyeol will slip away on the wings of some excuse.
Once, when Jinri lets slip that she's on break and famished, Chanyeol immediately bows out, telling them both he's got study group with friends. Jongin looks at him oddly then and asks, "Who? You're on break right now, too. Let's go eat."
But Chanyeol is already backing away, his hands curled around the straps of his backpack. "New friends. You don't know them," he replies. He smiles pleasantly at Jinri. "Have fun." And then he makes his exit.
In the evenings, Jongin starts long, light-hearted chats with Jinri over Line. He'll ask her how her day went, and she'll tell him a funny anecdote, and they'll link one another to interesting articles or videos they came across during the week. Jongin switches to an unlimited data plan, even though it's more expensive than the one he's maintained for four years, just to keep talking to her.
He asks her out to everything--a TVXQ concert, a ballet performance, a visit to Lotte World, dinner for the rest of the week. Even if they have to reschedule some of the dates when real life gets in the way, she always says yes.
It only dawns on him how much time he and Jinri are spending together when Chanyeol, for the first time since Jongin has known him, says he isn't free to hang out.
"What do you mean?" Jongin frowns from his side of their bench in the quad. It's snowing, and he's frozen like a popsicle. "We always see each other on Christmas."
"That's before you met Jinri." Chanyeol's voice is patient, but also a bit distracted. "Haven't you ever thought it was strange the way we celebrate Christmas in Korea? In most parts of the world, it's just like Chuseok. Big family day. Christmas Eve, too. Here, it's like a day off from school and an early Valentine's rolled into one."
"Thank you for the information," Jongin replies monotonously. His teeth chatter. "I don't know how that explains why you can't meet up with me."
Chanyeol burrows deeper into his padded overcoat. "I assumed you were going to see Jinri," he says carefully. "So I made other plans."
Jongin's eyebrows knit together. He feels kind of betrayed. "I am going to see Jinri, but I wanted you to come with us." He bumps his shoulder against Chanyeol's, keeping his hands in the pockets of his thick fleece. "Just break your plans! This is tradition."
"I can't," Chanyeol explains quietly. "I promised I'd go camping with Baekhyun, and if I flake he'll have to go alone." The smile that peeks out from under his scarf is rueful. "It wouldn't be nice to do that to him, Jongin."
"Well, you shouldn't have made those plans in the first place," Jongin pouts, a tiny shiver running up his spine. Then he registers the name. "Baekhyun?" He cranes his neck. "Byun Baekhyun?"
"Yes, Byun Baekhyun." Chanyeol cocks an eyebrow. "How do you know him?"
"I don't," Jongin says slowly. "But I've seen him making out with a shitload of guys in all the empty dance studios. And when I say 'making out,' I'm toning it down."
"Yup, that's him." Chanyeol sounds amused.
In Jongin's head, his best friend and a gay lothario make an odd match as friends. "How do you know him?"
"He sang over a few of my compositions. You wouldn't believe his voice." Chanyeol kicks at the frozen ground with one foot. "He's a really cool guy, too. We've got a lot in common."
"Oh," Jongin says. "And you guys are going camping…alone?"
"Yeah," Chanyeol murmurs. "Why not?"
"What if he likes you?" Jongin demands. "What if he tries to make a move on you while the two of you are all cozy in that tent?" He draws one of his hands out of his pockets to tug at Chanyeol's earlobe. "I heard he can be really persuasive, hyung. Tao--you know that Chinese kid in my hiphop class? He told me he was never into guys until he…Baekhyun…well, until Baekhyun."
"Yes, I know Tao," Chanyeol humors him. "Honestly, though? Baekhyun isn't interested in me. We're just really good friends." He chuckles mildly, the air filtering out through his nostrils. "Like I said, we've got a lot in common."
The way he says it makes Jongin sense, in a sudden, irrational way, that he's being left out of something important. "Like what?" he asks, with less enthusiasm.
"A lot." Chanyeol's smile is soft. An icy gust of wind makes them both tremble. "Let's go inside, Jongin. I'm so cold."
Jongin nods, and they rise from the bench at the same time. The conversation continues as they trudge through muddy snow on the way back to their dorm.
"I still don't understand," Jongin mumbles.
"What?" Chanyeol turns to look at him. Then he reaches out to tug down Jongin's beanie so it covers both his ears. "You need a better hat," he says. "This one won't keep you warm enough."
Jongin isn't listening. "Why did you make plans with Baekhyun?"
Chanyeol sighs, long-suffering. "I told you, it's because he wanted to go camping--"
"I meant why did you make plans with him when you know Christmas is reserved for us?" Jongin is frustrated now. He doesn't look Chanyeol in the eye when he speaks. "It's like you conveniently forgot about me."
It takes him a few more strides through the snow to realize Chanyeol has stopped walking.
Jongin whirls around. His friend isn't staring at anything in particular, but the expression on his face is strained.
"What?" Jongin asks, going over the last thing he said and finding it harsher than he'd meant. "Wait--"
"I only agreed to his plans for Christmas because I thought you would forget ours." Chanyeol's forehead creases, like he's trying not to be upset, and failing. "You forgot about a lot of things these past few months, Jongin."
"Me?" Jongin shakes head once, as if to clear it of cobwebs. "What did I forget?"
That's when Chanyeol finally looks at him, and Jongin reels, because the hurt on his face is raw. The elder tries to smile, anyway, because it's a Chanyeol thing to do. Smiling no matter what. "Do you know how old I am now?"
"Twenty," Jongin replies automatically. "What kind of question is tha--"
The words die in his throat.
November 27th. What was he doing on November 27th? He must have been with Chanyeol, like he is every year, because November 27th is Chanyeol's birthday…
"Twenty-one." Jongin whispers. His voice is small and uncertain. "Yeol, did I…"
"It's all right," Chanyeol puts in quickly. He shakes his head and tries to look reassuring. "It's fine." But the grin he slaps on comes out more like a grimace.
"Chanyeol." Jongin pulls his hands out of his pockets and barrels towards his friend, throwing his arms around him. "I did forget. I did." He tightens his grip. Chanyeol's hand finds its way to the small of his back and tries to pat him calm. "I'm sorry, I can't believe I--I don't know what I was thinking."
"It's all right," Chanyeol repeats. "You've been busy."
Jongin clings to him, feeling like the biggest asshole in the world and hoping the proximity to Chanyeol will somehow make him less of one. "I'm sorry."
Gently, Chanyeol extricates himself from Jongin's bear hug and steps back. He runs a hand through his hair, and Jongin notices for the first time today that he's cut it. He's afraid to ask Chanyeol why he pulled away.
"Are you pissed?" Jongin catches his bottom lip between his teeth. "If you are, I understand."
"Of course not." Chanyeol doesn't skip a beat. "What am I, twelve? It's just a birthday. And it was weeks ago."
"It's not just a birthday," Jongin cries. "It's your birthday, and it's important."
Chanyeol doesn't say anything in response. He only regards Jongin in a strange, measured way, and Jongin knows in his bones that he needs to make amends.
"I'll make it up to you," he tells Chanyeol fervently, even as the other gestures that it's fine, it's all fine. "No, I swear I will." Jongin licks his lips. "Do you want to do something together, just you and me? New Year's Eve. Just us guys."
Jongin knows he's getting somewhere when the furrow in Chanyeol's brow eases. His smile is truer, somehow. "Sure, Jongin," he relents. The snow crunches under his boots as he rubs his heel on the ground.
"Jonginnie," the younger insists. "You always call me Jonginnie."
"All right." Chanyeol's eyes are warm and pleased, and his face is almost wiped clean of its previous woundedness. Jongin likes it just like this, especially when Chanyeol says, "Let's do that, Jonginnie."
Jongin spends Christmas Day with Jinri at her favorite book café in Hongdae. He gives her a bluegreen coral bracelet and a small, fuzzy teddy bear, and she plops a snapback with the word "Dance" graffitied all over it onto his head.
They order two kinds of cake--one chocolate, one topped with fresh fruit. Jinri curls up next to him on their couch as they read their books and share the sweets with tiny, two-prong forks.
Jongin remembers to send a Line to Chanyeol.
Merry Christmas, he types. How's the camping going with Baekhyun? In the next message, he teases, Have you ~succumbed~?
Chanyeol texts back an hour later, when all the cake is finished and Jinri has fallen asleep with her head on Jongin's shoulder.
Merry Christmas to you and Jinri, the message reads. Baekhyun says I'm not his type…but you're another story.
Jongin balks. Chanyeol! Don't tell him what I'm saying!
Chanyeol responds, He was reading over my shoulder, sorry!
He's nosy. You reading this, Baekhyun? Jongin keys in belligerently. Tell him best friend stuff is confidential. And you only have ONE best friend, just so Baekhyun knows.
Chanyeol sends a sticker in response. It's a bunny frolicking delightedly with a tiny yellow duck.
Jongin smirks. This is the kind of silly, childish thing Chanyeol has always gotten away with. Strong, crazy-smart, secretly breakable Chanyeol, whom he never wants to hurt again.
See you when you get back, he types, and Chanyeol replies with another sticker. The bunny is beaming, holding two thumbs up.
On New Year's Eve, Jongin treats Chanyeol to a massive dinner at a Japanese restaurant of his choice. Chanyeol introduces him to takoyaki, the griddle-fried octopus balls from Osaka, and Jongin pretends to enjoy the taste of sake so that Chanyeol doesn't have to drink alone.
They troop to Yeouido Hangang Park after the meal and sit riverside with a bottle of Cass apiece. There's a ton of other people there--couples, families, groups of friends--all waiting for the fireworks to begin.
"Belated happy birthday," Jongin crows, holding up his beer to clink it against Chanyeol's. "Thanks for never getting mad at me, even when I'm an idiot."
"It's hard for me, really." Chanyeol presses his beer to his lips. "Your aegyo is too powerful."
"I don't do aegyo," Jongin ripostes. He might as well be stamping his foot.
Chanyeol's phone buzzes loudly in his pocket. He pulls it out and smirks at what it shows him. He tugs off a leather glove with his teeth to free one of his hands. Swiftly, his fingers glide over the screen, keying in a message. Then he slides the phone back out of sight, replaces his glove, and takes another swig.
"Who was that?" Jongin asks. He doesn't know why he's being so casual about it.
"Baek," Chanyeol replies. "Greeting me Happy New Year."
"Ah," Jongin says. "I should greet Jinri, too." It's strange, how the mere mention of Byun Baekhyun has him feeling competitive.
"You should." Chanyeol tells him with a wan smile that doesn't reach his eyes. Jongin has never seen this one before. That's all he says, and Jongin's hand hesitates halfway to his coat pocket.
"Chanyeol," he ventures tentatively. "What if I ask Jinri to be my girlfriend?"
"Why not?" Chanyeol licks the beer off his lips. "She's a really nice girl."
"Will we still be friends if I do?"
And there it is. The Look. "Of course we will." Chanyeol sounds so very sure, but his eyes are wide and searching.
It takes a few moments for Jongin to mutter his response. "I just don't want you to feel like I've abandoned you." He angles his face in Chanyeol's direction, and he can feel Chanyeol's eyes on him, but he doesn't meet them. "I forgot your birthday this year. I'm sure I forgot a bunch of other stuff you aren't telling me about, too. I know how you are. I just got so caught up in everything. But I promise," and he musters up the nerve to raise his eyes, "I won't do it again."
"Jongin," Chanyeol says, "just do whatever makes you happy. Nothing's going to change."
The answer is so quiet. "Yeah."
Jongin will take it. "Good," he says, scooting over so he can loop an arm over Chanyeol's neck. He types a quick message to Jinri, wishing her a happy 2015, Chanyeol warm against him as he does it. The first of the fireworks shoot in the air, glittering and grand, just as he presses send.
"I'm really glad we're friends," Jongin says, and he rests his head on Chanyeol's shoulder, like always. Chanyeol clinks their bottles together a second time and gazes up at the blinding bursts of light.
The strange thing is that Jinri looks prettier and prettier the more Jongin spends time with her. The only difference is that her beauty is no longer a novelty, and the magic her company used to weave over him thins out until what remains is a fine trace.
The first time they kiss (backstage, at one of his dance showcases), it is warm and wet, and Jongin gets the sense that he should feel much, much more. The next morning at the dorm, he tells Chanyeol about the physical part of it, saying nothing of how it had left him unmoved. Chanyeol puts down his copy of Michael Cunningham's The Hours to give Jongin his undivided attention. He doesn't say much during the conversation, only hums and smiles and murmurs, "Congratulations."
Later, when they've pried themselves off their mattresses and Jongin asks where they're having brunch, he is surprised to find that Chanyeol is unavailable. "Sorry, didn't I tell you?" he says. "I'm meeting Baek today."
Jongin feels the tiniest pinch in his stomach and staves off the idea that he's being replaced.
When he and Jinri make up their minds to sleep together, another first for them both, it's decidedly not like the movies. The lead-up is fumbling and awkward, long limbs and sharp knees bumping into one another in Jongin's narrow single. Jinri excuses herself to the bathroom to freshen up, and Jongin realizes he doesn't have any condoms on hand. He has to text Chanyeol to ask if he keeps any in the dorm.
Underwear drawer, is the succinct reply.
The sex is sloppy and quick, with half their clothes still on. They don't do it again.
They do date for eleven months, during which Chanyeol grows increasingly distant. Jongin still sees him when they have meals and play video games and listen to music. But just as often, he'll spot Chanyeol across the quad with his arm around his guitar and Baekhyun's hand on his waist. They always seem to be laughing about something or whispering secretively, joined from shoulder to hip. Jongin is always rushing off to a date with Jinri, so he can't saunter over and find out what the inside joke is.
Instead, he ducks his head and pretends like his best friend isn't slipping away from him, in more ways than Jongin can understand, and for yet another month, he doesn't ask Jinri to be his girlfriend.
In September, just as junior year is starting, she breaks it off.
Jongin can't say he didn't see it coming, given the standstill in his affections. How it has touched everything, from the way they chat over Line to the way they (don't) hold hands in public (anymore). Whenever they fool around in the dorm, Jongin's body warms under the girl's palms; sometimes, when he's feeling lonely, he'll unhook her bra and pull her close, but his heart stays close to cold.
"You don't know what you want," Jinri says stiffly, standing in the middle of the quad. Her hair is blowing in the wind, and Jongin is reminded of the time last year when Chanyeol had said the same of her. She's blinking very quickly. "I can't be your guinea pig anymore."
"What are you talking about?" Jongin protests, taking her hand. A tendril of hair clings to her cheek. He wants to brush it behind her ear, but Jinri pulls her hand out of his to do it herself. Jongin mumbles, "You're special to me."
"Maybe I was," Jinri says, "but I'm not anymore." She pulls in a silent breath and meets his eyes, and that is when her weakness shows. "When we first started going out, you used to look at me like I was the only person in the room. Like you wanted to keep me all to yourself." Her gaze wavers. "You stopped doing that halfway through."
"I'm sorry," Jongin mutters, leaden chest and wooden tongue. "I don't want to hurt you."
"Too late." Jinri's mouth is a tight, trembling line.
"What can I do?" Jongin pleads. He already knows it's half-hearted.
His almost-ex-sweetheart is studying her shoes. It's autumn again, and there are amber-colored leaves strewn over the quad's grassy carpet.
"Will you kiss me goodbye?" she mumbles. "I'll never ask you again." Her eyelashes fan out over the tops of her cheeks. She still won't look at him. It makes Jongin's chest hurt.
He dips down, angling his face so she doesn't have to turn hers. His palm coasts over her cheek, and he parts his mouth so their lips fit together. Warm and wet.
Jinri pulls away first.
"I'm so sorry," Jongin whispers. "You're perfect. I don't know what's wrong with me."
Her expression is too pained for him to stand, so Jongin pulls her into his embrace. Her hair smells so good. She's slept over enough times in his bed that Jongin's pillow has picked up the scent of her shampoo.
"Chanyeol-oppa was right about you," Jinri murmurs into his shoulder. "You've always been sweet. Even when you're breaking someone's heart."
"Jin," Jongin starts, but she wrests out of his hold and walks away.
"Where are you?" Jongin mumbles into his phone. He's in his bed, an arm thrown over his eyes. A cocktail of guilt, relief, and depression buzzes underneath his skin, bewildering. "Jinri dumped me, hyung."
The line is choppy, but Jongin can still make out the words. "I'll be right there," Chanyeol says. "Just wait for me."
When Chanyeol gets to the dorm ten minutes later, Jongin stares at him, dead-eyed. The gentling effect it has on Chanyeol's face does not escape him, especially when the elder slides under his covers without having to be asked.
"Do you want to talk about it?" Chanyeol murmurs.
The sound of his voice, deep and tender, makes Jongin curl up to him. He ignores the invisible barrier that has stood between them for months. "No," he says. "It was my fault."
Chanyeol stretches out his arm so Jongin can use it as a head rest, and then he winds it around him, hand resting on Jongin's bicep. It makes the dancer feel safe.
"Where've you been?" he mutters into Chanyeol's chest. "I feel like we never talk anymore."
"I'm right here." Chanyeol's fingers comb through his hair.
"Then why do I miss you so much?" And, damn it, Jongin's voice catches at the end. It makes Chanyeol stroke a hand down his back and tuck Jongin's head under his chin.
"Go to sleep," Chanyeol coaxes. "Go on. I've got you."
Jongin shuts his eyes. He smells Jinri on his pillow and feels the warmth of Chanyeol's hand, and as he drifts off, his breathing matching up to his friend's, it occurs to him which comfort he prefers over the other.
Chanyeol keeps close during Jongin's mourning period. Pre-Jinri, they would meet in the quad when any of their breaks coincided. Post-Jinri, Chanyeol waits outside whatever auditorium or studio Jongin's class is being held in, breaking into a smile when they spot each other.
Chanyeol is there every time Jinri brushes by them in some building without a word, her face stony and her eyes looking straight ahead. He is there when they stop running into her altogether, and when Jongin realizes, with a pang, that she has changed her entire route to avoid him. He is there when Jongin slumps into their bench, moody and taciturn, unable to work out why he feels partially awful but vaguely relieved.
After a few more weeks of this, Jongin makes an effort to act a little more like his old self, a little less like a wounded animal. Chanyeol eases up on the attention. But the moment he gives Jongin a bit of space, even though it can't be more than an inch, the loneliness hits Jongin fast, like it was waiting in the wings.
"So, see you in the quad later?" Chanyeol ventures sometime in October. They've just left the dorm, and Chanyeol's pulling the sleeves of his cardigan over his knuckles because it's chilly out.
"Why?" Jongin asks. The sound of their footsteps on the cut lawn is muffled in contrast to the slow beat of panic in Jongin's ears.
"I dunno," Chanyeol says mildly. His jaw is lightly shaded with stubble. "Or I could meet you after your class."
"Yeah," Jongin replies, and he hooks his pointer through one of the belt loops at the back of Chanyeol's jeans.
When Jongin gets out of Modern Dance two and a half hours later, he finds Chanyeol in the corridor. The latter is sitting Indian-style on the floor, reading Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro. Jongin is familiar with this book, because they'd seen the movie adaptation together in high school.
He doesn't want to disturb his friend, but Chanyeol looks up anyway without prompting. It's with that constant, unwavering warmth that has made Jongin (and he admits it) even clingier than he was before.
"Hey, hyung," is all he has to say.
"Hey, Jonginnie," is all Chanyeol has to answer.
Pre-Jinri, Jongin had taken it all for granted. The no-lines familiarity between boyhood chums. The close, close, closeness of best friends. It all seemed so normal; a humdrum routine.
Post-Jinri, it's plain as day that the friendship he shares with Chanyeol is a little more intimate than most. They touch, a lot, and they sit together as if pulled by magnets, and when Chanyeol looks at him, it's with a honeyed sort of affection that warms Jongin's belly.
It's not like most friendships.
But then, Jongin thinks, that's just the way they are.
Byun Baekhyun is the one who changes everything, in more ways than Jongin can count.
It happens on Halloween, when Chanyeol offhandedly mentions that he's passing by a party Baekhyun is throwing.
This gets Jongin's hackles up--and he can't, for the life of him, coax them back down.
"I'm leaving now. Be back in an hour," Chanyeol tells him. He's not wearing a costume, just a burgundy sweater and snug dark jeans. "Are you good for dinner? Or do you want me to bring some food home?"
Jongin ignores that last part. "You're still close to Baekhyun?" he asks, one thumb scratching the nail on the other.
"Yeah, you know." Chanyeol strokes a finger behind his ear. "We hung out all summer."
"Oh." Scratch, scratch. "I didn't know that."
"You were still with Jinri," Chanyeol says simply.
For a moment, there's a loaded silence that hangs between them, the air thick with a secret.
"Look, Jongin," Chanyeol starts, but then he stops in the middle and ends with an ambiguous hum. A never mind kind of hum.
Jongin glances up at the sound. "What is it?"
"What?" Chanyeol murmurs, but it's not a real question.
"You were about to tell me something." Jongin pulls his mouth. "Did you change your mind?"
Softly, with eyes that seem so much more tired than they were a minute ago, Chanyeol says, "I don't think you want to know."
"Of course I do," Jongin replies instantly. "I always want to know things about you."
There's a question in Chanyeol's returning gaze, but the slope of his brow is a surrender. "All right."
"So." Chanyeol presses his lips together. "Baekhyun and I, we hung out all summer."
"I know, you just told me that."
"But the truth is I was seeing him."
Jongin stops breathing. His lips part by a centimeter.
A sigh spills out of his friend. "I told you you didn't want to know."
"Chanyeol." Jongin wills himself to stay calm. "You let Baekhyun seduce you."
"No, Jongin." And Chanyeol is swallowing hard, his face contorting in equal parts of anxiety and resolve. "He let me be honest with myself. Because I haven't been. Ever." His eyes are wide and worried. "Do you understand what I'm saying?"
It hits Jongin like a landslide. He can hear his heart beating in his ears. There is something rushing up from his gut to his chest. "Yes."
Chanyeol stares back at him, waiting. Jongin doesn't like the expression on his face--a deep shade of uncertainty, ready for rejection.
He reaches out quickly to curl his fingers around Chanyeol's wrist. The apprehension ebbs away when he gives it a reassuring squeeze.
"I'm glad you told me," Jongin says, and Chanyeol's dulcet eyes are grateful. Jongin's throat works, bone-dry. "How long have you…"
"Since high school," Chanyeol murmurs in total understanding. "Before we were close. Does that make you feel weird?" His fingers twitch from the nerves. On impulse, Jongin moves his hand to cover them.
"No." He's holding Chanyeol's hand. This is new. "Not at all."
"Thanks," Chanyeol whispers. His eyes dart from Jongin's gaze to their linked fingers to…Jongin's not sure, but it might be his mouth.
He's asking before he can stop himself. "Did you…did you sleep with him?"
Chanyeol's eyelids flutter. "Yes."
Jongin knows how hard he's blushing. The rush of blood is making him dizzy. "Did you like it?"
The look he gets in exchange for that is dark. Unfamiliar. It makes the hair on the back of his neck stand up. His stomach is burning.
"Jongin," Chanyeol says, a breath too soft, "why are you asking me that?"
But Jongin only presses on like he hasn't heard, because he's not in full control of his mouth. "Did you like it enough to make Baekhyun your boyfriend?" He releases Chanyeol's hand, breaking eye contact. His palm moistens the moment he lets go.
"I liked it." Chanyeol's voice is melted butter. "But it was just a fling. I don't have a boyfriend."
The words trigger something unexpected in Jongin's chest. Gone is the sharp, insistent pain from earlier. In its stead is the barely-there caress of almost-pleasure--and hot, hot heat. "You're just friends?"
"We're just friends." Chanyeol's smile makes him look so young. The dark intensity behind his gaze is evaporating. Jongin won't forget it anytime soon, though.
"Tell me when you're seeing someone," Jongin mutters, embarrassed all of a sudden. "They'll need my approval."
Before Jongin knows what's happening, Chanyeol has wrapped him in his arms for a tight hug. "I have to go to Baekhyun's party now," he murmurs into Jongin's hair. "But thanks for everything. I wanted to tell you for so long."
Jongin doesn't know why he feels so weak all of a sudden, like his knees are close to buckling. One of Chanyeol's arms is looped around his waist, the other hooked around his neck, and Chanyeol's breath is making his scalp tingle.
"No problem," Jongin shakes out in reply. His fingertips curl into Chanyeol's sweater. "That's what friends are for."
November finds Jongin more restless than he's been in years. Waiting for his K-ARTS acceptance letter to arrive back in his last semester in high school is the closest approximation of the feeling--but it doesn't quite cover it. Now, it feels like he's waiting for something to happen, only he doesn't know what.
Chanyeol doesn't comment on his silent agitation. Not even when Jongin stares at him, feeling strange but also like he can't help himself. Chanyeol always catches him doing it, and Jongin jolts out of his reverie. Sometimes he just can't stop looking, though.
What Chanyeol does do is take Jongin on these little excursions around Seoul, from popular tourist sites to small hideaways that he likes. "We should get out more," Chanyeol will tell him, pulling on his coat and helping Jongin with his own.
One weekend, they go to the National Museum of Korea for the first time since middle school. Jongin finds the retired brass bells and glass-encased jade plates a little too stuffy for a Saturday afternoon. But he goes along with it anyway and lets Chanyeol take his picture next to the ten-story pagoda that sprouts up from the ground level to the third. (He admits it's awesome when Chanyeol shows him the photo.)
After the tour, Chanyeol buys them hot chocolate from the café at the entrance, and they sit on the stone steps in the plaza to soak in the view of N Seoul Tower. Chanyeol brings his cup to his lips with one hand, resting the other on the cement floor. Jongin doesn't realize he's been staring down at it for the past few minutes until Chanyeol asks him, in a kind voice, if there's something curious about his hand. In the old days, Jongin would have just grabbed it and bounced it over his own palm like a kid, just because.
Today, he ekes out a "No" and gnaws at the rim of his paper cup.
Chanyeol laughs. "You look like a puppy."
They troop to Namsan the next weekend, but not to explore the tower. Chanyeol tells Jongin they're having dinner at Cibocima, an overpriced Mediterranean joint near the outdoor viewing deck that's worth it simply for the view.
They cram into the Namsan cable car with all the tourists, and the height and the darkness make Jongin a little nervous. It gets worse when Chanyeol tries to steady him, resting a hand between his shoulder blades, warmth seeping out even through his glove.
When they get to the restaurant, it's all white tablecloths, soft lighting, and floor-to-ceiling windows filled with glittering skyline. The déjà vu is crippling. This time last year, Jongin had been doing something similar with Jinri. When he looks at Chanyeol, who's perusing the menu, his gut roils with acid.
It doesn't stop him from saying yes the next time Chanyeol invites him on another little field trip.
"Let's go the beach tomorrow?" Chanyeol's teeth are white and square, like Chiclets. "Minseok-sunbae said we could borrow his car."
"It's going to be freezing, Chanyeol."
"So?" A soft-lit smile. "We don't have to swim."
"All right," Jongin murmurs. He regrets it immediately after. Spending all his time with Chanyeol now is different from spending all his time with Chanyeol before. It feels dangerous.
They drive a few hours to the East Sea and spend half a day barefoot, taking pictures and chatting. Chanyeol unpacks the kimbap, fried chicken, and beer they picked up at a rest stop, and they eat with their hands. They each have a Melona for dessert, even though it's so cold by the sea that the ice cream makes Jongin's teeth hurt. He finishes the whole bar, anyway.
At sunset, when the silver-capped waves glow orange in the light, Jongin suggests they make their way home.
"Sure, Jonginnie," Chanyeol says softly, blinking slow and languid. He reaches out and swipes his thumb over the corner of Jongin's mouth.
Jongin stiffens at the touch.
"You had ice cream," Chanyeol explains, showing Jongin the pale green smear he's caught on his thumb. Then he sucks it off with a light press to his lips. He starts to gather up the remnants of their picnic.
For a long, disconcerting moment, Jongin is seized by the desire to hook his fingers behind Chanyeol's neck, draw him in, and slide his tongue into his mouth. In his head, it tastes like melon.
Instantly, he's sputtering like a faulty faucet, whipping his face away to cover up a nasty flush. These thoughts about Chanyeol leave him aghast. Horrified.
"Everything okay, Jonginnie?" Chanyeol's holding an empty plastic container. His brow is quizzical, and the swell of his bottom lip is so prominent.
Jongin shifts so his back is turned to his friend. Five minutes ago he was freezing, but now it feels like his skin is burning up.
"Hmm?" The younger man bites his lip and looks quickly over his shoulder. He keeps his eyes at the level of Chanyeol's collarbones. When Chanyeol reaches for him, he sidesteps the action, but one slip of the foot finds Jongin on his ass in the icy sand.
Chanyeol helps him up. He doesn't laugh. "Are you all right?"
"Yeah, sure," Jongin replies. His real answer is far from it. There's sand in his shoes, a stinging in his tailbone, and a stupefying fear in his heart.