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.
When they were seventeen, Chanyeol had asked Jongin, out of the blue, why he thought they were such good friends.
"Easy," Jongin'd said. "We're so alike."
"You think so?" Chanyeol had looked at him curiously. His eyes had always been so large and expressive. They reminded Jongin of his pretty little puppy, Jjangga.
Jongin had shrugged. "We listen to the same music. We watch the same shows. We both love video games. And we both suck at sports." Chanyeol had guffawed, and Jongin's smile had been cheeky. "The only difference between us is that I hate reading and you…can't dance."
That'd earned him a shove. "I dance just fine," said the boy with two left feet.
"Sure you do," Jongin'd teased, bumping their knees together. "Why do you think we're such good friends?"
"Me?" It was funny, how surprised Chanyeol had been to have his own question thrown back at him. Jongin had thought it was the obvious thing to do. "I'm not sure."
"Wow, thanks." Jongin had tamped down a smirk, pretending to be miffed. He dipped a finger into the garter of Chanyeol's sweatpants and snapped it against his hip.
"No, no," Chanyeol had edged away, his laugh bright and rich. There had been a short pause after that; Jongin waiting expectantly for the answer and Chanyeol's soft smile melting down like a cube of sugar.
Then he'd said, "I guess it's because I like being with you all the time."
"Uh, Yeol," Jongin had warned, "that's really cheesy."
"But I do." Chanyeol's next smile had been a little less shiny than the previous one. It'd probably been a trick of the light. "I love spending time with you, Jongin."
Then Chanyeol had reached over and snapped the waistband of Jongin's sweats to get back at him. Jongin had chased him around the gymnasium, through an ongoing basketball game, and back up to the main school building. By end of day, the red marks on their respective hips had started to itch.
Jongin doesn't know why he remembers all this on the drive back from the beach. Chanyeol is asleep in the passenger's seat, having agreed to let Jongin take over the wheel.
Every time Jongin glances at him, he takes in that soft mouth, that long neck, those eyelids that seem to be smiling even when shut, and he knows something has to give.
There is no excursion the following Friday, because Jongin goes on a date.
Her name is Nana. Jongin's got Choreo with her. He'd met her just this semester, when they'd been partnered up for a drill. Her hands are soft and hot, and every time they dance together, Jongin's palms always smell like vanilla afterwards.
Nana is nothing like Jinri. There is nothing cute about her. There is, instead, a sharpness to the curves of her body and a dangerous curl in her lipstick smile. When she shakes her hair down from its ponytail after every class, it falls in a siren's swoop over one eyelid, while the other flutters meaningfully in Jongin's direction.
"Lucky you," whispers Sehun, another dancer Jongin knows from most of his classes. "She wants you, man."
Jongin asks her out. She says yes. They go to dinner on the same day. They drink cheap wine, flirting heavily, and Nana takes Jongin back to her place off-campus.
They don't make it to the bed. Jongin presses her against a wall and hikes up her skirt as she moans into his mouth. They end up on the floor with Nana on top, her hair streaming over one shoulder as she rocks against him. She whispers hotly into his ear, and Jongin muffles a groan at the base of her throat when he comes. He can't help it.
Afterwards, Nana scribbles her number on the inside of his arm and hooks two fingers into the neck of his T-shirt to drag him down. Jongin keeps his mouth closed for this kiss.
He still reeks of sex and women's perfume by the time he gets back to the dorm. It's six in the morning, and it looks like Chanyeol has tried to wait up for him. He's sleeping on his side in Jongin's bed. He's been reading Love in the Time of Cholera again, his pointer curled loosely between the book's pages as a marker.
When Jongin shuts the door, Chanyeol stirs. "Jonginnie?" He props himself up. His voice is raspy. "Where've you been?"
It takes a minute for him to note Jongin's dishevelled appearance. And yes, right there, his face is falling, just like Jongin thought it would. He knows there's still some lipstick around his mouth. He thinks he left it there on purpose. "Were you with someone?"
"Girl from class," Jongin replies. His nonchalance sounds terribly forced. "Im Nana."
"Im Nana," Chanyeol repeats in monotone. He pushes the heel of his hand into his eyes, like he's trying to wipe the sleep from it, but he looks more shaken than anything else. Jongin's chest squeezes. "You've been seeing someone?"
"Only since yesterday."
"Did you sleep with her?" The question is soft, but Jongin can hear the quiver in it.
"Yeah." He feels so cruel. "You should see her, Chanyeol. She's stunning." The way Chanyeol looks right now, like Jongin has just pulled the rug out from under him, makes Jongin question who he's being crueller to.
"Yeah?" The base of Chanyeol's throat hollows out in a noiseless sigh. And then he smiles, and it's horrible, because it makes him look even more devastated. "I'm sure she is. You always had good taste."
Suddenly, Jongin's not sure if he can do this. His fingers twitch at his sides. He reaches up and scrubs at his jaw, hoping he catches some of the lipstick in the slide. "Chanyeol--"
"Guess what you missed?" Chanyeol interrupts. His pitch is higher now, and he's talking very quickly. "I didn't tell you before because I wasn't sure I was really going to go. But at the start of the semester I applied for this exchange student program at Tisch--you know, NYU's school of arts? It's a," Chanyeol is stuttering, "a short course for music, and I just got accepted."
The silence in the rooms swells painfully in Jongin's eardrums.
"You're going to New York?" Jongin's palms are covered in cold sweat.
Chanyeol's smile is awful. "Yeah. For six months." His eyes are focused on a point past Jongin's shoulder.
"Six months?" Just the thought of it, the emptiness of their room without Chanyeol, stings.
"Yeah. Cool, right?"
"When are you leaving?"
"Week after New Year's."
"Chanyeol, that's three weeks from now." The room is falling away from Jongin, tilting on its axis. "Couldn't you have given me a head's up?"
"I like to keep some things to myself," Chanyeol says, and there's an edge to his words. "You're the same, right? Im Nana." Silence. "I didn't think you'd be interested in someone," he licks his lips, "so soon after Jinri."
"I…we just had sex," Jongin puts in, trying to explain it away. But he's only making things worse, because Chanyeol flinches. "I don't…she's hot, but I'm..."
Shut up. Just shut the fuck up, Jongin.
He drags a hand through his hair, frustrated, aching, and so disappointed with himself. He's upset with Chanyeol, too, even though he knows he has no right to be. "I can't believe you kept this from me."
Chanyeol doesn't say a word. He has stopped smiling entirely.
Jongin's desperation bubbles up inside of him. "You should have told me about New York, Chanyeol!" It sounds like he's telling Chanyeol off. That makes Jongin feel even shittier.
Chanyeol gets off the bed. "I should have told you a lot of things, Jongin. But I didn't." The book is still in his hand, and his tone, while even, is angry. "You'll just have to deal with it."
That's how they leave it. Chanyeol brushes past him, grabs a coat and his shoes, and files out of the room.
Jongin backs up against the door and plants his face in his hands. It niggles at him, in the recesses of his mind, that he didn't say congratulations.
When they were younger, they'd only fought once.
It was years ago, and Jongin can't recall who started it, or what the fight was about. A girl, maybe--but they hadn't been fighting over her.
He doesn't remember the details, only how they'd patched things up. It was Chanyeol who'd come over first, and Jongin's parents had let him go straight up to their son's room, oblivious to the tension.
Jongin was lying in his bed, staring at the ceiling. Chanyeol had sat down on the edge of the mattress.
"Sorry," he'd mumbled.
Jongin had been so relieved to see him, so happy not to be at odds anymore, he'd grabbed the back of Chanyeol's shirt and pulled him down next to him.
He'd whispered, "Me, too," and punctuated the sentiment by kicking at Chanyeol's foot.
Chanyeol had kicked him back, his gangly legs barely fitting the bed frame. "Can I sleep over, Jonginnie?"
"Course you can," Jongin had said.
That night, he didn't know the word for it yet. Backhugging, maybe. Foregoing their personal sleeping space, definitely. It was only months later when he'd heard it mentioned on an American television show and the thing had become a force of habit between them that Jongin realized he and Chanyeol were spooning.
Chanyeol returns to the dorm the next evening.
Jongin apologizes at the door. "I'm sorry. I didn't mean to lose my temper. Congratulations on Tisch. You're brilliant. You're going to have such a good time. Don't forget me while you're there. I was just sad about you going away for so long. I'm sorry. Don't be angry anymore."
Chanyeol gives him a smile. It's not the one that warms his face and crinkles up his eyes, so he looks like a child who's just been fed. It's the one he uses when he's trying to finish a piece and Jongin's music is too loud. Infinitely patient. "I'm not angry. It's all right."
Jongin wishes Chanyeol would ruffle his hair, tap his nose, anything. He wants to close the gap between them with a hug, but he's afraid touching is out of the question.
"I'm sorry I sprang Nana on you like that. Were you waiting up for me? I should have called ahead and--"
"I'm not your mother, Jongin." Chanyeol's face is unreadable. "You don't have to tell me where you are." He gestures politely, like he's asking if he can come in, and Jongin moves aside to let him pass.
"I know," the dancer says, and he's actually penitent about it. "I know that, Chanyeol. But you're my best friend, and I just thought--"
"Look, it's okay." Chanyeol puts his hand on Jongin's shoulder. This is what he wanted, the touch he craved, but it's not as comforting as he thought it would be. "Let's just forget what happened. Okay?"
"Okay," Jongin says in a small voice.
Chanyeol lets his hand drop and toes off his boots.
"Can I ask you something?"
"What is it?"
"Where did you sleep last night?"
Chanyeol climbs into his bed. He hasn't brought back his book. "Baekhyun's." He pulls his phone out of his pocket and starts scrolling through it, not looking at Jongin.
"Can I sleep over?"
Chanyeol looks up from his phone slowly, like his head is weighted. The expression in his eyes is readable now, and the only thing it says is drained. "Jongin," he murmurs. "Don't you think we're too old for that?"
Chanyeol goes home to spend time with his family starting Christmas Eve up until two days after New Year's.
Jongin isn't lonely. Not at all. He calls up Nana and she meets him in a student pub, where they have way too many shots together. They end up at her place again, and Jongin goes down on her in the foyer, because he can. When they stumble their way into the kitchen, Nana returns the favor, and Jongin closes his eyes and tries not to think too much.
I'm into this, he tells himself, picking Nana up by the backs of her thighs and sitting her down on the kitchen counter. He wedges himself between her legs. Nana sucks a mark into the side of his neck. She's naked and so insanely gorgeous even though she's a little wrecked, so Jongin slides his tongue into her mouth, the way he thought he might have wanted to do to Chanyeol once. He banishes all thoughts of his best friend from his mind.
I'm into this.
The night before Chanyeol leaves for New York, he and Jongin have a meal at their favorite samgyeopsal joint. It's six days to Jongin's twenty-first birthday.
Jongin is expecting the light banter and their old jokes, because Chanyeol will never make him feel uncomfortable, not even when things are strained between them. He's hoping for the perfect segue so they can patch things up for real, and Chanyeol can leave on a positive note, and everything will go back to normal while he's in America.
He isn't expecting Chanyeol to confess before the meat is cooked through.
Chanyeol is turning slices of pork belly over the hot plate with a pair of tongs. "You should know," he says simply, "that I've always really loved you."
Jongin drops his chopsticks on the table. One of them clatters to the floor. His forehead is pulsing, practically vibrating, with the force of blood rushing to it.
Chanyeol doesn't stop grilling the pork. "I had a crush on you when I was sixteen. Saw you for the first time on my birthday." He clicks the pair of tongs absentmindedly. "You were on your way home from school, and I saw you on the street in our uniform while I was picking out a cake with my sister. And then it started to snow, and you looked so happy to see it, Jongin. You looked so," his voice quiets, "so perfect."
"Hyung," Jongin attempts with trepidation, but it's like Chanyeol's in his own world.
"I really wanted to meet you," he goes on. "So I asked around for your name, and then I made friends with you on the bleachers at that basketball game. Do you remember?" By increments, his expression shifts from nostalgia to something a little too much like sorrow. "Then I got to know you, and of course you liked girls. We got along great, but you'd never like me how you liked them. And that was okay, because neither of us had a girlfriend in high school--we just had each other. That was enough for me." His voice hitches. "But then Jinri came along last year and, man, she made you light up. You should have seen the way you looked at her. I guess I imagined it's the same way I always looked at you."
Jongin can only stare at him like he's staring into the headlights of a speeding car, his heart pounding mercilessly against his chest.
"You were so suited to each other, so great together. I thought that was going to be the end for me. So when you broke up, I was shocked, Jongin. It was almost like…I dunno, like I felt I had a chance. Like maybe I could make you…" He pauses, and Jongin thinks he's not going to say it. But he says it. "Make you fall in love with me."
"Please don't call me that anymore," Chanyeol murmurs, not unkindly. "It makes me feel special, in a way that's not good for me."
Jongin opens his mouth to say something, but his lips only twitch. He shuts his mouth, then his eyes.
"I'm happy for you, you know." Chanyeol has started segregating the cooked pieces of meat from the partially raw ones. "I stalked Im Nana on Facebook." He chuckles without a daub of amusement. "You were right. She's stunning. Makes a guy go crazy--or feel bad about himself, depending on the guy."
"There's nothing for you to feel bad about," Jongin puts in, quietly aggravated. "You're handsome and you're fun and you're really fucking smart. You're perfect just the way you are."
"But you won't have me," Chanyeol mutters, and there's a stabbing sensation between Jongin's ribs.
Then Chanyeol shakes his head, like he's just gotten a hold of himself. "I'm sorry, I'm not telling you this to make you feel guilty. Before I…" He falters. "I want you to know this isn't your fault."
A chill tiptoes up Jongin's spine. "What isn't?"
Chanyeol doesn't answer at first. He picks up each slice of meat with the tongs and places them neatly on Jongin's plate. They add up to a juicy, sizzling pile.
"What isn't my fault, Chanyeol?" Jongin has never been this afraid, because he has never had this much to lose.
"I don't think we should contact each other while I'm in New York," Chanyeol mumbles. "I think it would do us some good, to take a break from our...to take a break. I want to do my best at Tisch, learn as much as I can, concentrate on music while I'm over there. And you have your girl now. You won't even feel the difference, not really."
"How can you say that?" The shock has deadened Jongin's voice.
Chanyeol rubs his lips together. They're chapped but still so red. "It hurts, Jongin." His tongue darts out to moisten the cracks. "I can't do this much longer."
"Please." Jongin doesn't even know what he's asking for. Chanyeol is cutting him off. This is really, really happening.
"You have your girl," Chanyeol repeats firmly, but the distress has already crept into his tone. "I need space."
Space sounds like the ugliest word in the world. "Chanyeol, you'll be gone for six months. Half a year. You can't…we're supposed to…" The inside of Jongin's throat is so dry, it sticks together when he swallows. "Aren't we best friends?"
"Don't you see?" Now Chanyeol is visibly upset. "I want to be more. I want you to love me the way I love you. I don't want to watch you come home after you've slept with someone else and have to take it because we're just best friends. But that's all I've been doing, because you don't love me like that and you'll never see me the same way." He stops there, swiping a palm across his mouth. Jongin is ashamed by the time Chanyeol speaks again, his gaze levelled at the dancer and his voice much, much lower. "You like girls, Jongin. You always have and you always will. Every time I've felt otherwise has just been me deluding myself. Right?"
There is a challenge in Chanyeol's eyes. It's as if he already knows the answer, and he's aware of the pain that will strike the moment he confirms it--but he just has to confirm it. His irises are so dark, almost black, not their deep, warm brown.
All Jongin has to do is tell him the truth. Say how he really feels. Admit he's been trying to fuck his way through other people to get Chanyeol out of his system.
That's all he has to do.
That's all he has to do.
Three months later, long after Chanyeol has boarded his flight at IIA and taken the warmth of his company with him on the plane, Jongin's regret feels just as keen.
It's April now, warm enough to go without a scarf in the mornings. Today, Jongin walks the length of Yeouido to see the Spring Flower Festival alone. The flora is a lush carpet, a fluttering curtain--thousands of azaleas, forsythias, plum blossoms, and apricot flowers, blooming bright. The cherry trees are the most beautiful of all, their brown-black trunks erupting into clouds of the palest pink.
The last time Jongin visited this park was with Jinri the previous year. Spring, 2015. They'd held hands, and Jongin had flipped the camera screen on his phone so they could take a selca at every turn.
Before that, he'd come here to watch the fireworks with Chanyeol. New Year's Eve, 2014. The snow had lain heavily in the tree branches as the pair of them trooped to the park's riverside swath. Jongin remembers it being two degrees out, and yet he'd been warm, so warm.
Today, the world is twelve weeks into 2016, which means he hasn't spoken to Chanyeol in twelve weeks. Not since the dinner at the samgyeopsal place. Not since Jongin officially broke his best friend's heart.
"Right," he'd said that night, hands clenching into fists. "I like girls." The immediate sensation of Weak-Stupid-Selfish-Scared had clocked him like a punch.
"Right." Chanyeol had traced a fingertip over his sideburn, over and over again. He'd never looked so low. "So don't fight me on this, Jongin. Let's just have a clean break."
"Six months," Jongin'd mumbled. "You'll talk to me again in six months, when you get back. You have to promise."
"Yes," Chanyeol'd said. "In six months, I won't feel this way anymore."
After a minute or so, Chanyeol had gotten up from the table to pay the bill. He'd ignored Jongin's protests, only flashed him an empty smile and slurred an apology as he excused himself from the restaurant, leaving Jongin to finish the meal. Jongin'd had waited all of twenty seconds before pushing his chair back and chasing after his friend.
He'd caught up to Chanyeol on the sidewalk. Clutched the hem of his shirt. Thrown his arms around that slender waist. Known this was goodbye.
"My family's taking me to the airport tomorrow," Chanyeol had said, holding him. The padded fabric of their winter coats had scraped together, the sound thick and chafing. "Don't worry about me."
"Don't forget your promise," Jongin had whispered, pulsing, pulsing, pulsing with the pain of his own cowardice. "Please come back." Come back to me.
Chanyeol had loosened his grip. "Happy birthday in advance, Jonginnie." Then he'd stepped away. "I'll miss you."
Every time Jongin rewinds to that moment (the tremor in Chanyeol's voice, his hands, his eyelids), the sight of the cherry blossoms turns his mouth to ash.
Chanyeol's been in New York four-and-a-half months when Jongin runs into Jinri on campus. Or rather, he's parked on his and Chanyeol's bench, trying to get through a novel, when she crosses the quad to sit next to him.
"Hey, Jongin," she greets him shyly.
She hasn't spoken to him since they broke up in the fall. He hasn't seen her since mid-October. She's wearing a white cotton dress and mint green sandals, and she looks as lovely as the first time Jongin saw her, right in this spot.
"Jinri," he says. "You look so pretty. How are you?"
She smiles, and it's effortless. "That's exactly what I came over here to ask you."
"Oh?" Jongin scratches the back of his neck. "I'm fine."
"How is Chanyeol-oppa doing at Tisch?"
"He's…" Jongin blinks rapidly, contemplating a lie. But this is Jinri, so he just shakes his head. "We're not really speaking right now."
"Why not?" Her voice is sweet and low, like they're the only two people in the quad, not two out of eighty-two.
Jinri shoots him an odd, searching glance. "Jongin," she ventures, "did he tell you?"
"Tell me what?"
"How he feels about you."
When all he can do is stare at her, mostly catatonic, her gaze gentles. "He came out to me," Jinri explains, placing a cool, slim hand on Jongin's knee. "Remember our first date? I think you could tell that I..." Her smile is sheepish. "That I liked him."
"Yeah," Jongin murmurs, still suspended in disbelief. "I was so jealous."
She keeps her hand where it is. "A few days after that, Chanyeol-oppa took me aside. I thought he was going to ask me how the date went, but no." Her eyelashes are even longer than Jongin remembers. "That's when he told me he was in love with you."
A pair of wider eyes is Jongin's only response.
"Then he told me why. How you worked so hard at everything you did. How you were such a talented dancer and how you were always impossibly sweet." Her eyes sparkle. "How every time he looked at you, you just got cuter and cuter."
"He said that about me?" Yes, Jongin is blushing.
"He did," Jinri replies. "And then he told me I would be a fool not to give you a chance. Especially since, under the circumstances, I didn't have a chance with him. Harsh." She chuckles, brushing a piece of hair away from her face. "Do you know how it feels finding out your first love is gay?"
"You were my first love," Jongin tells her.
Jinri looks at him so, so tenderly. "Oh, Jongin." She strokes his cheek briefly with the tips of her fingers. "I wasn't. I think you know that by now. Don't you?"
He catches her hand and holds it between them. Of course. Of course he knows. "I'm really sorry, Jin. For everything." Her thumb strokes over his knuckles, forgiving. "It was real, you and me. I never wanted to hurt you."
"I know," she tells him. Her expression is tinged with wistfulness. "But you hurt us both, anyway, me and oppa, and that won't do." She leans in. "Aren't you tired of pretending?"
"Yes," Jongin finally admits. "Yes. But I don't know what to do." Something inside him unfetters. "I'm afraid."
Jinri regards him thoughtfully. "Do you know how I know you love him?" She doesn't wait for a response. "You're reading his favorite novel. Gabriel Garcia Márquez? Wow. You always changed the subject when I used to recommend his books to you. Any book, for that matter."
Chanyeol has left behind his copy of Love in the Time of Cholera. It'd been sitting in the middle of his desk since January, innocent as you please, until one day Jongin picked it up.
"Do you mind if I give you a little spoiler?" Jinri holds her hand out for the book. Jongin passes it to her carefully. He hasn't dropped it yet.
Jinri leafs through its pages until she's almost at the end. When she finds what she's looking for, she points it out to Jongin and slides his bookmark back in place. "Read that."
Then she gets to her feet, and in earnest, so does Jongin. She pecks him on the cheek. She still smells exactly the same.
"The next time you think of lying to Chanyeol-oppa about how you feel, consider that," she gestures to the book in his hands, "my advice. And Jongin?" Her eye contact reels him in, and it's clear now, why he'd liked her so much.
Not as much as he'd liked Chanyeol, though.
"Remember what you really want."
He hangs back after Choreo a few days later to speak with Nana.
"Are you coming over tonight?" she asks, leaning against the mirror in the studio. Her hair is damp with sweat, but it still falls in silken waves over her shoulders. It's long enough that every time she gets out of bed nude, that glossy mane actually keeps her half-decent. Jongin has stopped counting the number of times he's seen it happen.
It's been a confusing couple of months. Many times, miserable.
"No," he replies. He doesn't flinch. "I won't be coming over anymore. I'm sorry."
Nana scrutinizes him for a long moment.
"There's someone I love," he confesses, diving right into it. "Someone who loves me, and who I lied to. And I need to stop fooling around, so when I tell him I want to be with him, he'll give me another chance."
"Him?" That makes Nana laugh. The sound is unimpressed. She licks the corner of her mouth, and Jongin can see the dismissal in it.
His reply is quiet but firm. "Him."
"Your loss," she declares, right before she leaves the room. The following week, when class reconvenes, she asks to be partnered up with Sehun.
Jongin has never felt freer.
This is what the line in Chanyeol's book reads:
Tell him yes. Even if you are dying of fear, even if you are sorry later, because whatever you do, you will be sorry all the rest of your life if you say no.
Jongin takes a photo of the page with his phone and files it away for safekeeping in his heart.
On a muggy day in July, smack dab in the middle of summer break, Chanyeol returns from New York. Jongin has borrowed his sister's car and driven to Incheon to meet him.
When he sees Chanyeol at the airport, he doesn't call out to him right away. He's wearing a gray T-shirt, ink blue jeans, and Converse, still boyish in black Ray-Bans and so tall he walks head and shoulders above the crowd. He's cut his hair, too--and maybe someone's taught him how to do it, or maybe it's naturally rumpled after hours on a plane, but it makes him look sexy. There are girls (and guys) turning back to look at him. The mayhem in Jongin's chest is unmistakeable.
Crazy, stupid love.
"Chanyeol!" Jongin is trembling more than a little. "Over here!"
Chanyeol spots him over his sunglasses and waves, clearly surprised. He smiles at Jongin lopsidedly. It's warm and it hurts and it's what Jongin wanted and didn't want at the same time. It's like they've just seen and spoken to each other the day before, not six months prior. Like they're best friends again, and nothing (and no one) has changed. Like Chanyeol has made good on his word and finally gotten over Jongin, just like he said he would.
Jongin swallows around the shard in his throat, regret cutting into an old scar.
When they're face to face, he wills himself to act normal. "Hi, Yeol." He smiles broadly, waves both hands awkwardly, but doesn't make a move to touch him. "Welcome back."
"Jonginnie," Chanyeol greets him, voice husky from the long flight. The rush of emotions sends Jongin's head spinning. "I didn't know you were coming to see me."
"Is it okay?" Jongin tucks his bottom lip into his mouth, feeling many things, but above all, exposed.
"Sure it is." Chanyeol's speaking to him fondly, but they still haven't hugged. Jongin supposes he'll have to get used to it.
He's not sure if it's okay to say this next thing, but--"I really missed you."
Too late for takebacks now.
Chanyeol's smile quirks. Jongin can't see his eyes behind the dark lenses. He has no idea where he stands.
"Me, too," Chanyeol says, in no particular tone of voice. "It's nice to be back."
The drive to Seoul is not a silent one by any means. Jongin asks plenty of questions about New York and Tisch's campus and Chanyeol's curriculum under the Clive Davis Institute of Recorded Music. Chanyeol indulges him with long answers and evocative descriptions and anecdotes about his life in the Big Apple.
It's not much different from the way they used to talk. It's not quite the same, either.
He hasn't yet mustered up the courage to ask anything of substance by the time they get to Chanyeol's apartment building. His parents will be back tonight from a holiday in the Philippines, but his sister, Yura, is home. She's the one who gave all his flight details to Jongin. No questions asked.
"Thanks for picking me up," Chanyeol chirps when Jongin puts the car in park. "Do you want to come up for some food?"
"I think noona wants to spend some time with you," Jongin says softly. "But I'd like to come by tomorrow, if that's all right."
"Oh," Chanyeol says, showing the first signs of uncertainty. "I told Baekhyun we'd hang out tomorrow." Then his expression smooths itself out. "You're welcome to join us?"
"No, no," Jongin replies. He keeps his tone conversational, even though his chest is caving. "I don't want to intrude."
At that, Chanyeol breathes out a chuckle. The sound is so simple but so welcome. It makes Jongin's heart ache.
"You never do," Chanyeol tells him. "See you tomorrow."
Maybe it's because they've never hung out before, or spoken, or even been introduced, so Jongin's never gotten to observe him up close. But the truth is, Byun Baekhyun is really, really pretty. Jongin takes in the almond eyes, translucent skin, and lips like pressed petals with surprise. He sees how slight Baekhyun appears next to Chanyeol's lean, masculine frame, how close they stand together in the queue for the movie the three of them are about to watch, and it makes him nervous.
"How's summer treating you, Jongin?" Baekhyun's gaze is inquisitive. His speaking voice has a melody running underneath it.
Jongin clears his throat. "Pretty good."
"Have you been to the beach?" Baekhyun asks. Chanyeol's watching Jongin now, too, the look meant to be amiable on his end but totally disconcerting on the recipient's.
The last time Jongin went to the beach, he'd wanted to press his open mouth against Chanyeol's and taste the flavor of his tongue.
"No, I haven't," he answers.
"What've you been up to, then?" It's Chanyeol who's asking this time, in a low, palliative tone. He looks a little drowsy. Must be the jetlag.
Jongin is impossibly drawn to the sound of his voice. "Nothing." The sight of Chanyeol's sleepy face is much too endearing. "I've…I've just been waiting for you to come home."
The expression in Chanyeol's eyes does not change, but he does keep them on Jongin for a beat longer than necessary.
"Me, too," Baekhyun puts in. "I've been so bored without you, Yeol. Couldn't wait for you to get back." Then--Jongin's throat seizes--he slips his hand into Chanyeol's, interlocking their fingers. Baekhyun's hand is beautiful, veinless and pale. "I missed you so much."
Chanyeol snickers. "You're as clingy as ever." He shakes his head, but he leaves his hand in Baekhyun's grasp. There's an eyelash stuck to his cheek. "You act like we haven't been on Skype every day."
That really, really stings.
"Shut up," Baekhyun says cutely. He reaches over with his other hand and plucks off the eyelash. He brushes his fingers over the tiny bare patch on Chanyeol's skin. "You said you missed me, too."
Chanyeol's next smile is warm and pleasant, like a sip of tea. "I did, Baek."
Jongin gets it now.
"I have to go." His voice is shaking. "I just remembered that my sister needs me to do some errands for her."
"Right now?" Chanyeol asks. Two small, concerned grooves surface between his eyebrows. "What errands?"
"Just stuff," Jongin insists, and his hands are shaking, too. He shoves them into his pockets and steps out of the line. "I have to go, I'm sorry."
Chanyeol wiggles his hand out of Baekhyun's, like something has just dawned on him. "Jonginnie."
"Bye, hyu--Chanyeol." Jongin can't even look at him. His heart is not pounding. It's almost completely frozen. "Bye. I'm sorry. I'll see you soon."
Chanyeol steps out of line, too. "Baek, hold our place," he tells their companion, who looks very much confused. "I'm just going to walk with Jongin for a bit."
Baekhyun nods, shooting the dancer a sympathetic glance. Jongin's attempts at a smile and a wave are feeble at best.
He starts moving, and Chanyeol keeps in stride.
"I'm sorry about the Skype thing," Chanyeol says immediately. His tone is careful, sandpaper-soft. "That was insensitive of me, bringing that up. It just slipped out."
"You don't have to apologize to me," Jongin mutters, feeling numb. "You didn't do anything wrong."
The sigh that pulls out of Chanyeol is uneven and just shy of impatient. It makes Jongin want to look up into his face. He doesn't, because his eyes are a little damp.
"I never seem to do anything right, though," Chanyeol murmurs. "Not with you."
God, Jongin just wants to kiss him.
That's when Chanyeol stops walking. "I hope you get all your errands done." He ruffles Jongin's hair, just the way he used to, nails scraping lightly against his scalp.
Jongin practically gasps. All the feeling floods back into his chest, hot as lava. He wants Chanyeol to do it again, and again, and again.
"I'd help you, but I really want to watch this movie." The elder's smile is lackluster. No teeth.
The younger's heart is burning. "That's okay--"
"But please come over tomorrow," Chanyeol continues. "I'll be home all day, resting. I'll wait for you."
Jongin doesn't know how to feel.
"Baekhyun won't be there," Chanyeol adds quietly. "Just us. Best friends." The two words are breathy and hesitant. Jongin's skin tingles with longing. "Okay? So just come over."
"Okay." And Jongin looks up.
They lock eyes and Jongin blinks and Chanyeol's face is so handsome, so familiar, and so filled with warmth. And oh, Chanyeol's eyes are widening and his lips have parted just a touch and his neck relaxes so it's almost, almost like it's going to dip. And Jongin can't help it, the way he's craning up at the tiniest of angles, and he can hear himself breathing, and he thinks maybe, just maybe, they actually might…
"Goodnight," Chanyeol says. His voice is gravelly, and it makes something pool in Jongin's belly. "My place tomorrow. Don't forget."
Jongin is dizzy with desire, already pining away, but he manages to say yes before Chanyeol leaves him by the escalators.
He's back, the message reads. Jongin has typed it into his old Line chat with Jinri. He'd cleared it right after they'd broken up, so his words wait alone against the default blue background.
When the chat signals Jinri is typing, he feels reassured.
You know what to do, she says. You can do it, Jongin. Then she sends a sticker to cement her point.
It's a blond-haired boy down on one knee, holding out a bouquet of red roses. There are stars all around the bouquet, so it looks like it's sparkling. The perfect K-drama confession.
It actually makes Jongin smile. Is that supposed to be me?
Of course, Jinri replies. Look how pretty you are. How can oppa resist?
She's so sweet, and she's always known exactly what to say. It's without second thoughts that Jongin sends his response.
I love you, Jin. I always will. You're wonderful.
It takes a few moments for the points of ellipses to appear on the screen, signalling Jinri is typing again.
That's the first time you've ever said that to me, is what she sends back.
Jongin starts to type furiously, but Jinri beats him to the reply.
Don't say you're sorry, her follow-up message reads. Love you, too.
She sends over one of the more popular Line stickers: an adorable, moon-faced character doing a V sign over his eye.
Good luck xx
Late, late into the night, when it's actually already morning, Jongin stays up thinking of all the years spent with Chanyeol just within his reach--the same years he'd spent dancing just out of Chanyeol's. The irony of it all keeps him awake until the sky whitens through his blinds.
Chanyeol's room looks just the way it did in high school. Jongin takes comfort in that fact when he sits on the floor by the bed.
"You hungry?" Chanyeol asks. It's still a few hours to dinnertime, but being the son of two restaurateurs, Chanyeol never fails to ask.
"Not really," Jongin says, and he smiles so Chanyeol knows he doesn't need to be treated like a guest.
They always sit like this--here, at Jongin's, in the dorm. Their backs are against the mattress, and they're sitting pretty close, but not enough to touch. Chanyeol's got his legs stretched out in front of him, and Jongin's bracing his knees against his chest.
"How've you been?" Chanyeol's voice is neutral, but Jongin's known him long enough to know when it's intentional.
"Same old," he replies. "Jinri says hello. She's speaking to me again." He adds, "We're trying to be friends."
Chanyeol hums. "That's nice. I always thought she was good for you."
"We're not getting back together," Jongin puts in quickly, hoping his timing is right. "But she is a great girl."
Chanyeol blinks. "And how's Nana?"
Jongin almost asks who.
"Oh," he manages instead. "Nothing happening there. Not anymore."
Chanyeol's reaction--if you can call it that--is minute. His nod is matter-of-fact, the sound in his throat comprehending, and he looks down at his legs, picking lint off his jeans. Jongin wonders if this is his cue.
His friend isn't done talking, though. "You left so abruptly yesterday." His palm rubs over his knee repeatedly. "What happened?"
This is Jongin's cue.
"You and Baekhyun were holding hands." Just the memory of it smarts. "I thought it would be best to give you your privacy."
Chanyeol's head snaps in his direction. "It's not like that, Jongin."
"Really?" Jongin almost feels relieved, but he knows this conversation is far from over. "I just thought...since you two had a thing before. And you looked so cozy last night. You," he controls his tone, "you didn't take your hand away."
"That's just how it is with Baekhyun," Chanyeol puts in. "It takes some getting used to it." His eyes drop to the carpet, and his palm continues rubbing over his knee like an odd defense mechanism. "We haven't done anything since last summer. And neither of us wanted to, either."
"In New York," Jongin says, taking the segue where he can get it, "did you do anything with anybody?"
The sudden confusion on Chanyeol's face is tangible. "Oh. Um. Yeah." His voice is pinched, because he's holding back. "Why do you ask?"
"How many?" Jongin swallows.
"How did you meet them?" This is torture, but Jongin needs to know.
"One of them was a one night stand. I never got his name." Chanyeol seems hypnotized by something on Jongin's face. "We got drunk at a bar in Brooklyn, and I took him back to my dorm, and in the morning, he was gone." He doesn't blink. "I met Kyungsoo in class. He's Korean, too. He asked me out on Valentine's Day. We slept together on the third date. I broke it off a few weeks ago because I didn't see the point in long distance."
It feels terrible, of course, but Jongin asked for it. "Were you in love with him?"
"That was out of the question," Chanyeol replies instantly. His hand leaves his knee to pick at the carpet. His Adam's apple bobs, and Jongin wants to kiss it.
"Why's that?" he asks, bursting at the seams.
He can hear the sound of a car horn somewhere outside, children laughing in the next apartment, during the short silence that stills the air.
"You know why."
Tell him yes, Jongin remembers. Even if you are dying of fear, even if you are sorry later, because whatever you do, you will be sorry all the rest of your life if you say no.
"You should know," Jongin says, as clearly as he can, "that I've always really loved you." He only uses Chanyeol's words because they say everything he wants to.
"Oh, my god," Chanyeol whispers. His palm is flat and still against the carpet. "Oh, my god, Jongin. Don't do this to me. It's taken me so long to--and I haven't even--"
"Please don't get over me," Jongin pleads, panic striking like the crack of a whip. "I know I made you wait for so long, but I can't let you go."
"Since when?" Chanyeol asks. His expression is frantic. "Since when have you known?"
"Since Jinri," Jongin tells him, and he curls his fingers into the hem of Chanyeol's T-shirt. "But I didn't know exactly what it was until you took me to the ocean."
"Why didn't you tell me this before I left?" Chanyeol's eyes are closed, his brows sloping helplessly. "I asked you, and you said--"
"I was in denial, hyung." The endearment rolls off of Jongin's tongue like it never left. "I was in it so deep. I'd only liked girls before, and I'd always had you by my side. It scared the shit out of me, how different you made me feel, and how much could change, and," his fingers clench into the fabric, "how badly I wanted you."
He doesn't stop there. "It doesn't seem fair to just apologize for what I put you through. But if it's anything to you, anything at all, I'm really sorry. I…you have no idea how much I regret it." He places his hand, feather-light, on the dip of Chanyeol's waist. "I'm sorry. I love you. Just the way you love me." His mouth twists. "I've only thought about you these past six months. I was thinking about you way before then. All the time. Only you."
It's an eternity before Chanyeol exhales in a slow, measured stream. "Okay."
Chanyeol opens his eyes, and it's like he's talking to himself when he repeats the word. "Okay." He pushes a hand through his hair and presses the same one to his cheek, as if to steady himself. Then he looks at Jongin, half-lidded, and hope spreads like wildfire through the dancer's body.
"Come here," Chanyeol says.
Initially, Jongin slides over and stops when they're hip to hip. Then he thinks better of it and climbs into Chanyeol's lap. His knees rest on either side of Chanyeol's thighs, and he sits there quietly, waiting for the elder to speak.
Chanyeol brings up a hand to cup Jongin's face. It's warm and dry. So secure. His thumb brushes over Jongin's lips, and they part under the touch.
"Hi," Chanyeol whispers.
"Hi." Jongin's voice barely registers over the hush in the room. He's a little self-conscious, but that's greatly overpowered by the bliss he feels when he gazes into Chanyeol's face. It's filled with an endearing sort of disbelief--and blatant adoration.
"You love me," Chanyeol says.
"Yes," Jongin confesses. "I really, really do." He presses his lips against the pad of Chanyeol's thumb. Then, on a whim, he opens his mouth to accommodate his fingertip, deepening the kiss. He keeps his eyes open, so he can see Chanyeol's face darken in a telltale flush.
"Can I kiss you, Jongin?"
Jongin releases Chanyeol's thumb from between his lips. "Of course you can."
He makes it easy for them both, leaning forward until he's flush against Chanyeol's torso. He braces his hands on the mattress above Chanyeol's head. Their noses align.
"When did you get so…" Chanyeol gulps. "So good at this."
"I'm not." Jongin holds his breath. "I just really want to be with you."
It's like something snaps between them. Chanyeol kisses him hard, tangling his fingers in Jongin's hair so it feels a little desperate. Jongin can still make out the tenderness in it, even when Chanyeol flips him onto his back and fits himself on top. Jongin locks his legs around Chanyeol's body, their tongues sliding rough against one another.
This tastes infinitely better than melon.
Chanyeol pulls away first. His mouth is swollen red, and his thigh is pushed between Jongin's legs. "Are we going too fast?"
Jongin arches up to recapture his mouth. "No," he insists between hungry kisses. There is a delicious sensation curling in his core. "I've known you forever," he whispers. "Make me yours."
Chanyeol pulls away again, leaning on his elbows so he can prop himself up. His bangs are in his eyes. "I love you, Jongin," he says seriously. "I've never loved anybody else."
"It's the same for me," Jongin responds, blushing deeply. "So when we do this," he sucks in a breath, "when you fuck me," Chanyeol bites his lip, "I don't want you to think about the rest of them." Jongin almost sounds defiant. "Byun Baekhyun, those guys in New York. Just, just forget about them, hyung. I know I might not be as experienced, but, oh," he whimpers into Chanyeol's neck. The latter has slipped his hand into Jongin's underwear. His nose is pressed into Jongin's temple. "Oh, god. Please just think about me."
"Shh," Chanyeol soothes him. Jongin is so in love with him. Chanyeol kisses him once, twice, the sound of it succulent. Their lips are still touching when the elder admits, "That's all I've been doing, Jongin."
Jongin sleeps over that night. And the next. And the next three after that.
He only goes home when his mother phones him reproachfully and tells him he needs a change of underwear--and to stop mooching off the Parks' food supply.
The three older Parks have been in Busan all the while, setting up new branches of Buonasera. The remaining Park has had Jongin out of his underwear longer than he's actually worn it.
"Come on, Jonginnie." Chanyeol is so amused. "You have to go." He's leaning against the door, watching Jongin impressively slow down the process of putting on his shoes. "I don't want omoni to get annoyed."
"Okay, okay, I'm leaving. Come over tonight?" Jongin gets up, still shoeless, and slides his hands into the backpockets of Chanyeol's jeans. These past few days, their touching has gotten out of hand. Jongin loves it. "Sleep over all week. Or don't sleep."
"You're insatiable," Chanyeol laughs, but he licks into Jongin's mouth, anyway, just to hear him sigh.
"I'm making up for lost time," Jongin mumbles. Their tongues dance in a way that Jongin could definitely get used to. "Just humor me for a while."
"Whatever you want," Chanyeol replies. He pulls away only to peck Jongin on the forehead. Jongin loves that, too. "Forever, if you like."
Senior year has got to be the most wonderful time of Jongin's life thus far. It zips by too quickly, like all wonderful things are wont to do.
It's not like anything changes drastically. Jongin sheepishly realizes he and Chanyeol have been acting like a couple way before they were a couple when their routine remains unchanged. They eat takeout in the dorm. They sit together on their bench in the quad. They wait for each other outside their classes. They play video games and listen to music and plan the next step after K-ARTS. They explore the nooks and crannies of the city, and sometimes, they take trips to the beach.
The only difference is that Chanyeol tells him he loves him every day and kisses him, slow and sexy, whenever he feels like it.
Not necessarily on the mouth.
Sure, the stress of their theses, exams, and future in the arts looms constantly in the background. Jongin wants to join a dance company right after graduation. Chanyeol wants to take a year off, write a hundred songs, and try to sell one. They're in flux, just like everybody else.
But maybe Jongin is too happy to feel it, or maybe he feels like he can conquer everything, just because Chanyeol tells him so. It's probably a combination of both.
The love-sex-magic haze that envelops them both probably doesn't hurt. Neither does the comfort of their eight-year friendship.
A week before commencement, when all cleared seniors are officially on break, Chanyeol's sunbae Minseok from the music department takes them out to a steak dinner. He graduated the year before and is now working as a junior producer at SME. He's accompanied by a co-worker, Luhan, who is Chinese and beautiful but a little strange. Jongin regards him with curiosity.
"So," Minseok says, his lips an insinuating curve when he spies Jongin's hand in Chanyeol's. "How long has this been going on?"
"About a year," Chanyeol replies, just as Jongin says, "Almost a decade."
Chanyeol looks at him in wonder, and Jongin returns his gaze with pride.
"Ooookay." Minseok's tone is indulgent. "Glad we cleared that up." He points his fork at them. "Who liked who first?"
Chanyeol raises his hand. "I did." His eyes are a caress on Jongin's face. Even after all this time, Jongin can't stop the heat from creeping up his neck. "This one gave me a really hard time."
"I know how you feel," Luhan says placidly. He's so strange.
"You got him in the end, though." Minseok winks.
"And I got him, too," Jongin decides to say. He gives Chanyeol's hand a gentle squeeze. "Right, hyung?"
"Oh, boy," Minseok drawls. "You're one of those."
"What do you mean, sunbae?"
"You call him 'hyung' the way my sister calls her boyfriend 'oppa.'" The older man's smile curls into a flagrant tease. "Never pegged you as a bottom, Jonginnie."
The blush he and Chanyeol share is as dark as the wine in their glasses.
Luhan draws Minseok into a side conversation--something about the difference between Korean and American beef. He touches Minseok on the shoulder and wrist when he speaks, and suddenly Jongin knows exactly what's going on here. There, right there, on Luhan's pretty face, is The Look.
He tugs on Chanyeol's hand to make him bend.
"When I look at you," Jongin murmurs into his ear, "do I look like that?" He juts out his chin in Luhan's direction. He's still deep in discussion with Minseok.
Chanyeol glances at their Chinese companion and chuckles softly. He shakes his head.
"No? Really?" Jongin's a little surprised.
"It's different," Chanyeol says under his breath. "I can't explain it."
Jongin nods, although he's not quite satisfied with that answer.
"All I know," Chanyeol continues, "is that it makes me feel really, really good." His lips trace the shell of Jongin's ear. "And whenever I catch you looking at me, I fall in love with you all over again."
Jongin kisses him, then and there.
"Get a room!" Minseok hoots in the background, tossing his linen napkin at them from across the table.
"Leave them alone," Luhan chides him. "It's young love. It's cute."
The Jongin of two years ago would have crawled under the table. The Jongin dating Park Chanyeol barely registers their presence.
"You make me so happy," he laughs into Chanyeol's mouth.
"Good," Chanyeol replies, rubbing their noses together. "Because I plan on doing it for a really long time."