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No Deaths in Venice (yet)

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“Did you know that the old man in Midsommar was played by the actor that played that pretty boy in Death in Venice?” Renjun blurts out of the blue one afternoon, while they’re lying on Renjun’s bed, side by side, their arms brushing.

Jeno squints at Renjun’s phone, sees the Twitter app open. “The boy from what?”

Death in Venice,” Renjun repeats, absentmindedly, already moving on and scrolling down the Twitter timeline.

Jeno hums, not knowing what to say. He couldn't stomach Midsommar, like he can't stomach any horror movie even remotely graphic, ever. He thinks he spent most of the movie curled up into Renjun, staring at the slowly emptying popcorn bowl, at Renjun’s hand picking one piece after another from it, trying to ignore the voices on the screen and Renjun’s “ohh, that’s sick” murmurs.

 

Jeno’s first experience with horror movies had been The Exorcist, with his brother, one night when their parents were out and Jeno had begged his brother to let him watch it with him.

Jeno had then proceeded to have nightmares for two weeks, until Renjun had convinced him to sneak into Jeno’s brother’s room, where they found his secret stash of dvds and watched all of them in less than three days, because if Renjun said it was a good idea, who was Jeno to contradict him? Serial killers, ghosts, aliens, zombies, demons; old school, modern stuff; very graphic slashers, psychological thrillers with very little blood: there was a bit of everything, and none of that was the kind of movie that starry eyed twelve-year-olds should have been watching.

Renjun got hooked and has been ever since, and Jeno had realised that maybe they weren’t so terrifying, at least not enough to ruin his sleep for days, as long Renjun was watching them with him.

And that’s why they keep watching them together, even if Jeno is mildly terrified most of the times. They always watch horror movies together, it’s their thing, their arrangement, ever since they pinky-promised to do so at twelve. Sometimes Renjun rewatches them on his own, sometimes they invite other people to watch one with them, but it’s always Jeno and Renjun. Always.

 

Jeno is racking his brain, trying to remember when he and Renjun watched this “Death in Venice” movie Renjun mentioned. Jeno actually has a list of all the movies they’ve watched together since that very first time, but the list is back home and Jeno’s phone broke last week so he can’t look it up to try and remember it from the plot, and he doesn’t want to admit to Renjun that he can’t remember the movie, at all.

“When did we watch Death in Venice?” he asks after a few minutes, trying to sound as nonchalant as possible, fiddling with the hem of his shorts. “I can’t remember.”

“We didn’t watch it together,” Renjun replies, still distracted, his eyes on his phone. “I watched it with Mark last week. I thought I told you about it.”

Or maybe it isn’t their thing, afterall. Jeno feels thrown off kilter.

 

The first time Jeno was invited to spend the summer at the Huangs’ summer cabin Renjun and Jeno were eight and restless and constantly sending Renjun’s older sisters into fits because they kept sneaking out. To be fair, there wasn’t much to do inside the cabin. However, at the lake, they could meet with all the other kids there for the summer: Mark, Donghyuck, Jaemin; and then, after a couple of years, Chenle and Jisung were added to their summer gang. They would spend the day at the lake, playing in the water, building terrible secret bases, or, when it rained, pouring themselves over tabletop games at one of the cabins.

Jeno’s not going to be jealous over Mark watching a movie with Renjun. He isn’t. He refuses to be. It just… stings a bit, that’s all. He’s Renjun’s best friend, he knows that. He knows Renjun’s taste in horror movies the best. Renjun likes contrast, pretty colours, and a bunch of other things. A happy or cute or calm song going on during the most gruesome parts? Deliciously chilling, he’d say. The colour contrast of reds and blues in Suspiria, the old one? So pretty. Jeno knows him best. Just because Renjun’s been watching horror movies with Mark now, forgetting to tell him or invite him, that--that doesn’t mean anything, does it? 

 

When Renjun falls asleep--summer means afternoon naps to him--with his phone still in his hand, Jeno gets up and goes straight to the Nas’ cabin.

He finds the door closed. There’s a light drizzle--it has been raining intermittently for the past couple of days, this summer has been oddly cold--and Jeno doesn’t have an umbrella with him. He tries to think where Jaemin could be, gives up, and just runs to the lakeside, to the picnic area. There are a few gazebos where they hang out when the weather isn’t good, but not terribly bad either.

No trace of Jaemin, but Chenle and Jisung are there, looking like they’re conspiring, just as usual.

When Renjun and Jeno first met them, holding each other’s hands while dressed in very similar navy-style clothes, Renjun had whispered to Jeno, “They look like evil siblings ready to haunt you,” half joking, half serious. Turns out they weren’t even blood related, although they did grow up pretty much together, and that they just had the misfortune of having mothers who were very close friends and had some pretty outdated taste in children’s fashion.

Very little of that evil children aura is left--it’s been six years, Jisung and Chenle are now 14, their voices getting deeper and that creepy synchrony they had now subdued.

Does he want to ask them for advice? Has he stooped so low?

“Have you ever heard of Death in Venice?” Jeno asks, because yes, he has, and he’s kind of panicking right now.

Jisung shakes his head, shrugging.

“Isn’t it some kind of, I don’t know, creepy old movie? European?” Chenle says. “I think I’ve heard Mark talking about it with Renjun, or something.”

“Oh, that’s right, they were talking about it a few days ago.” Jisung nods.

Does everyone know about this except for him?

“Uh, have you seen Jaemin? He wasn’t at his cabin,” he asks.

 

Jeno thinks that A Nightmare on Elm Street 2 marking his sexual awakening is pretty up in the list of things he doesn’t want to elaborate upon with anyone, ever.

Truth to be told, there had been… signs… before that, a weird obsession with the hands of one of his older brother’s friends, a few moments where he found himself tracking the water running down Donghyuck’s wet hair down his nape and his back after a swim in the lake, an entire existence spent looking at Renjun’s lips when he’s speaking--until Mark pointed it out, that is--and a million other things that Jeno had just… brushed off, like that.

It's just… something that happened. He had his sexual awakening while watching A Nightmare on Elm Street 2, with Renjun sitting next to him, one of his arms pressed against one of Jeno’s.

When the movie finished and the credits were rolling, Renjun turned to him and said, a little hesitant, “Is it just me, or was that… kinda homoerotic?”

It hit Jeno like a ton of bricks in that instant, and the only sound he had managed to muster up was a weak squeak. That was enough of a response, apparently, because Renjun had turned back to the laptop and closed the lid, as if nothing happened. And it didn't, really. Mostly.

It wasn’t about the content of the movie, really. He swears it wasn’t. It was just the last push that shoved Jeno over the edge.

The thing is, he didn’t tell Renjun immediately. He has never mentioned the Nightmare incident to him, actually. But he was 14 and needed to talk to someone about it, so the thing he did immediately after getting home was getting the home phone--he didn’t have a mobile phone yet, back then--and call Jaemin’s home.

Renjun is… Renjun, he’s everything to Jeno, but Jaemin is the one he calls when he doesn’t know what to do. Especially if it’s about Renjun.

He stomps back to the Huang’s cabin, cursing the moment his phone slipped into the lake and managed to crack open on a rock underwater. The drizzle has turned into something more insistent, and Jeno is starting to feel damp. Renjun’s oldest sister is sitting in the armchair in the living room when he enters.

“Is Renjun awake?”

“Not that I know,” she replies, looking up from the book she’s reading.

Jeno grabs one of the umbrellas at the entrance and goes out, once again to check if there’s anyone at the Nas’. The door is open, this time, and there he is, Na Jaemin, looking like he’s just walked in himself.

“Jaemin, have you ever watched Death in Venice?” Jeno asks bluntly.

Jaemin blinks at him. “What’s this about?”

Disgruntled, Jeno recounts his last few discoveries.

 

Jaemin laughs at him. “You’re jealous,” he says, a grin on his face that Jeno doesn’t like at all.

“I’m not,” he mutters, but they both know it’s true. They have discussed Jeno’s ever-growing crush on Renjun. They’ve been discussing it ever since they were 14 and Jeno called Jaemin in a panic, telling him he thinks he’s gay and rambling about horror movie sequels. They’ve been discussing it even more since Renjun told the whole gang last summer that he thinks that girls are neat, but boys are, too.

But it’s also been years of denying it all the time, and Jeno is not going to stop now just because Renjun watched a horror movie with Mark, okay?

Renjun watched Death in Venice with Mark. Jeno feels jealous, yes, he does, and he feels stupid, because they never outright told each other that horror movies were an exclusive thing for them, that horror movies were a “Renjun and Jeno only” thing, but that was what Jeno had thought for all this time. It makes him feel terrible because he has no right to feel hurt--of course Renjun would watch horror movies with his other friends too, who wouldn’t? Why shouldn’t he? Why should he tell him about it?

And yet.

“Are you sure you have never watched it with him before?” Jaemin asks, ending Jeno’s spiral of thoughts.

“I don’t know, I can’t remember anything about a movie with a title like that.”

Jaemin tries looking it up on his phone, but the internet connection is always terrible here, especially when it rains, and the loading bar on the browser app is stuck on the left side. They give up.

Death in Venice… I don’t think I’ve watched it, either, but I have a feeling I’ve heard that title somewhere,” Jaemin says, pensive. “I think… Oh,” he pauses, as if he just remembered something.

He gets up from the sofa and walks to the bookcase. Jaemin’s parents read a lot, and they bring a ton of books to the cabin every year.

“I think I’ve seen… Here,” he says, picks a book from the shelf, and tosses it in Jeno’s direction.

Jeno catches it with both hands. All those times playing goalie when they play soccer during PE because he doesn’t want to run are paying off.

The book is very thin, an old and battered orange hardcover. There isn’t anything written on it, except for an author, Thomas Mann, and the title: Death in Venice.

“I think the movie is based on this book,” Jaemin says. “Never read it myself, though.”

 

Jaemin offers to shelter him while he reads the book--it doesn’t look very long, Jeno hopes to be done in a few hours--and Jeno accepts. He goes to Jaemin’s tiny room, lays on his bed, and starts reading.

Going in, the only thing Jeno knows about this book is that it must be somewhere in the evil kid genre. Renjun mentioned a “pretty boy”, so that must be it. Some evil, demonic boy that wreaks havoc or something. And it must be very old--literature isn’t his forte, but he knows Thomas Mann is dead and all--so he guesses it’s some kind of classic.

The novel opens with the protagonist, an old and respected writer, taking a walk.

The atmosphere is vaguely eery. The protagonist gets off the tram and there is no one around. There’s a cemetery, a morgue, and a grotesque man looking at him that the protagonist is scared of, but when he turns back, the man is gone.

There have been deaths in the protagonist’s past. His wife died young. He’s lonely, his only daughter married off.

The protagonist decides to go on a trip.

At this point, Jeno is vaguely bored, but he feels like something bad is going to happen at some point. The pretty boy still hasn’t appeared. There is a long digression about the protagonist’s ideas about writing. Maybe the protagonist sees the boy during his trip. Wait, is the boy going to be a vampire? This could be a vampire novel. A vampire in Venice. Is that supposed to be exotic? It sounds exotic.

The protagonist finally leaves for the trip, changes ideas on the destination, and finally heads to Venice. There are a couple of creepy men once again--the man selling tickets for the boat trip that will bring the protagonist to Venice, and an old man having fun among much younger ones, that the protagonist seems to dislike a lot.

While the protagonist is on the boat, Jeno expects something bad to happen. Maybe the old man falls and drowns? Some creepy omens? When is this “death” in Venice going to happen?

When nothing happens on the boat, however, and everyone gets safely to Venice, Jeno has to readjust his expectations. “This must be one of those horror novels where nothing much very gruesome happens for most of the time, but the atmosphere is very eery,” he reasons to himself, mentally reshelving the book along the books he didn’t find that scary immediately, like The Turn of the Screw. One of the many novels Renjun had forced him to read.

When the protagonist gets on a gondola, and then compares the gondolas to coffins, Jeno pauses, scoffing. That’s a bit forced, he thinks, mentally shaking his head. Author trying too hard to up the creepiness. Gondolas? As coffins? Gondolas are the epitome of romance. Or were they considered scary when this book was written?

The gondolier turns out to be another creepy guy, but the protagonist gets safe and sound to his hotel.

And then, here he is. The evil kid appeared!

A 14-year-old Polish boy makes his appearance with his sisters, and the protagonist looks at him from afar, admiring… his beauty? Uh. The next day, the protagonist goes to the beach and keeps observing this young boy as he plays with his friends.

Jeno stops. The protagonist sounds... kinda creepy, to be honest.

He’s about to resume reading when someone knocks at the door of Jaemin’s room.

There’s only one person here who knocks on doors.

“Jaemin told me you were here,” Mark says opening the door, and he looks vaguely amused.

Jeno sits up, leaving one finger to keep the book open. He isn’t sure if he wants to see Mark right now. He should be better than holding grudges out of jealousy but he’s 16, his brain doesn’t work that well yet. Hopefully, yet. Anyway.

Donghyuck barges in, because if Mark is anywhere, Donghyuck is bound to be there as well, they’re a package deal. “We just talked with Jaemin, and he’s still in the living room laughing his ass off,” he says, launching himself on Jaemin’s bed. His stinky feet get uncomfortably close to Jeno’s face, and he swats them off.

Mark is still standing at the door, smiling.

“And why is he,” Jeno gives up and takes the bait when they don’t say anything.

“‘cause your horror movie thing you have with Renjun is safe,” Donghyuck says nonchalantly. “Dude, just stop dancing around it and just tell him how much you lo--”

Jeno pushes him off the bed.

“Jaemin, that traitor,” Jeno mutters under his breath. He spilled the beans with these two gremlins. Mark looks like he’s a nice responsible kid, but he’s actually the one enabling Donghyuck and his stupid ideas all the time.

Death in Venice isn’t a horror movie, you moron,” Mark says with a chuckle. “It’s a movie about a creepy old dude following a kid around and eventually dying of cholera. Ideals of beauty and all that stuff.”

Jeno stares at him. “It’s not a horror movie?”

“Nope,” Mark says, smiling knowingly.

Jeno looks down at the book in his hands. He feels very stupid right now.

Donghyuck sits up on the floor. “How cute,” he coos, mocking, “his ears are red.”

“I thought you’d been watching horror movies with Renjun,” he tells Mark, still looking down at his hands. He let the book close. He doesn’t care much about it right now.

Donghyuck scoffs. “As if Renjun would ever watch a horror movie without you. He actually told me he has to watch them with you, what kind of lovey-dovey shit is that?”

Jeno is blushing furiously, his face feels like it’s on fire. “That’s not… We aren’t…”

“I’ve seen you once,” Donghyuck says, his voice a little bit quieter. “When you’re together watching horror flicks you curl up into him and… It’s pretty ridiculous, man. Like one of those huge dogs, hiding behind a feisty chihuahua for protection. And he was smiling. Hella creepy. A perfect couple. I didn’t even try to disturb you guys.”

The conclusions don’t make any sense, but it’s enough to convince Jeno to get back to the Huangs’ cabin.

 

Renjun is awake when Jeno enters his room. Theirs. There’s been a bunk bed in this room since forever, because Jeno spends the summer here every year.

“I was wondering where you went,” Renjus says when he sees him, still looking dazed after his nap. “Want to watch Alien Resurrection?”

“Sure,” Jeno says with a sigh, kicking one of the cushions on the floor and sitting down while Renjun fumbles with his laptop.

He sets the laptop down in front of them, and then they snuggle together, just as usual. They’ve watched this movie dozens of times before, it’s one of Renjun’s favourites, and Jeno doesn’t pay much attention to it, usually, but this time he feels like there’s something he should say, which means he’ll try to ignore whatever that thing on the tip of his tongue is and just concentrate on the movie, of course.

Ripley has just put Call’s knife through her own hand when Jeno suddenly finds his words. “I thought that Death in Venice was a horror movie, and when you said you had watched it with Mark, I got jealous,” he blurts out, his eyes stubbornly fixed on the screen.

Renjun turns his head to look at him, Jeno can see him to his right, out of the corner of his eye.

“Horror movies are our thing,” Renjun says, matter-of-factly, and honestly, that’s all that Jeno needs to hear for now.

Renjun, however, doesn’t turn back to the movie. He clamps his right hand around Jeno’s right wrist.

“I wouldn’t watch them with anyone else,” Renjun says, more urgent this time. “You should know that.”

On the screen, Ripley has grabbed Call’s hand. You gotta help me stop this thing before it gets loose, Call tells Ripley. Ripley caresses Call’s face with her fingers, while Call looks at her helplessly, her eyes wide open. It’s too late, Ripley tells her, you can’t stop it.

Jeno tears his eyes from the screen.

“You should know that,” Renjun repeats.

“Yeah,” Jeno breathes, looking back at Renjun.

Renjun’s hold on his wrist gets loose, but only to move his hand down so he’s squeezing Jeno’s hand now.

Jeno leans forward, brushes his lips on the corner of Renjun’s mouth. It’s just an instant. Jeno sits back, wondering if he’s misreading all this, if he’s being too hopeful.

Renjun’s hand leaves Jeno’s. He cups Jeno’s face with both hands and kisses him. It’s brief, tentative.

Jeno opens his mouth to say something, when the click of a gun in the movie makes him jump and the moment is broken. The two of them turn to look at the screen as Call and her colleagues are held at gunpoint by the military on the ship.

Renjun starts laughing as the brief action scene ensues.

Jeno curls himself up into Renjun once again as the aliens on the screen manage to escape from the lab they’re held in.

They have the whole summer ahead.