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Fight or Flight

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When Jaemin is nine, he puts a bandaid on a boy's knee.

He recalls the day as clearly as the sky had been above them. An endless expanse of cerulean gives the sun an opportunity to fully shine. He's taken refuge underneath the shade of the maple tree in his front yard, curling his knees to his chest. Even the occasional breeze doesn't alleviate the scorching heat. He's sucking on a cherry popsicle for temporary relief, but it's no match for the summer air. The juice dribbles down his hand and then his arm. It slips in between his fingers, sticking them together and staining them crimson.

That's when he rolls in, literally.

At first, Jaemin doesn't pay much mind to him. He's just another one of the neighborhood kids he's too afraid to interact with. While Jaemin stares at him half-heartedly, the other boy won't give him a glance. When he moves in between Jaemin's eyes and the sun, the light shines around him like a halo. It bounces off his skin, giving it an almost angelic glow.

Then, he disappears behind the fence.

Jaemin blinks, rubbing his eyes, wondering if it had been a mirage. Curious, he stands to get a better view, but all he can see is a tuft of chestnut hair. It doesn't move.

He winces at the sudden change when he steps onto the grass basking in the sun. He pokes his head out too, feeling his black hair already beginning to heat up like a furnace. He ponders if it's worth leaving the comfort of the tree's shadow to pursue someone he's only seen a few times from a distance. But when he hears a faint whimper, he drops his now bare popsicle stick and runs to the door of the fence.

"Hey!" He yells, pushing the picket fence door open. It stops abruptly, hitting something. Jaemin sees that it collides with quad skate wheels that are still spinning. The boy wearing them is lying on the cement to his side, clutching his knee.

"Oh my gosh," Jaemin exhales, kneeling by his side. "What happened?"

The boy shifts onto his back but looks away.

"Hello?" he asks.

He mumbles something inaudible.

"I can't hear you." A pause. "Did you trip on something?" Jaemin guesses.

The boy gives a silent nod.

Jaemin looks at his knees. They're littered with scratches of different severity. He's most concerned about the gash a little off-center of his right knee that is oozing blood.

"Stupid skates," the boy sobs, weakly pummeling his fist into them. A tear falls from his chin and blemishes the pavement.

"Hey, it's alright," Jaemin tries to soothe the crying boy. He reaches for the skates' laces, untying them. "Let's get you out of these first." He pulls them off the boy's feet and picks them up with his sticky hand, slightly grimacing.

He looks back at the boy. "Can you stand?"

"Uh." He tries to use his hands to pick himself up, but the moment he turns onto his knees he yelps.

"Here." Jaemin offers his clean hand to him, which he gladly accepts.

"Ah, ah, ah," he wails as he pulls himself up. Without hesitation, he throws his arm around Jaemin's shoulder. Jaemin steadies the boy by wrapping his arm around his waist.

"I have bandaids inside, uh…" he trails off, realizing he doesn't know his name.

"Donghyuck," he whispers.

"Donghyuck," Jaemin tries the name on his tongue. "I'm Jaemin. Can you walk?"

"I can try." His first few steps are wobbly, but Jaemin is there the whole time, guiding him up the steps to his house.

Jaemin pulls the screen door open and drops the skates near the shoe cubby. He leads Donghyuck to the kitchen and helps him sit in one of the side chairs in front of the dining table.

"One second," he says before turning to the garage door. "Mama!"

"Yes, honey?" She calls back.

"Where's the first aid kit?"

"What?!" She appears seconds later, examining her son frantically. "Baby, are you okay?"

Jaemin laughs, laying his hands on her wrists to calm her down. "I'm fine." He points to Donghyuck. "He isn't though."

She sees Donghyuck and gasps. "Oh my goodness. What happened?"

No longer crying, Donghyuck squirms in his seat. "Uh... my skates caught a pebble and I fell."

"You didn't wear any gear?"

Donghyuck's face is red with embarrassment, shaking his head. "I thought they were like ice skates. I play hockey, yaknow."

"Don't you still have to wear gear for that, though?" Jaemin pipes up.

"Honey," his mother says, stressing the syllables. "The first aid kit should be in the cupboard on the far left."

Jaemin shuts his mouth and nods, venturing over to the cabinet. He opens the door and looks at the first shelf. When he doesn't see it, he looks further up to the second, and finally the third, where the red plastic case sits.

He searches the room for a footstool but doesn't find one. He glances at his mother, who is preoccupied with making conversation with Donghyuck. So he takes the chance to lift himself onto the counter. There, he's able to reach it easily.

"Na Jaemin!"

Jaemin flinches at the use of his full name, almost falling. "Yes?" He asks innocently, pivoting on his knees to face his mother.

She scowls at him. "How many times have I told you not to climb on the counters? You could get a booboo!"

It's Jaemin's turn for his cheeks to burn. "Mama, it's not a booboo. I'm not six anymore."

"You're acting like you are," she continues to scold as Jaemin slips off the counter.

Donghyuck's hand goes to his mouth to stifle his snickers, but Jaemin can see it all from the way his eyes crinkle at the sides. It sets off an explosion of warmth in his stomach.

He sets the case on the table and his mom opens it to sift through it. "First, we're going to need these." She pulls out two packs of tinfoil squares that make Jaemin recoil seeing it.

Donghyuck's face pales. "Oh, no."

They're a kid's worst nightmare: alcohol swabs.

"We need to clean up your wound, Donghyuck," Jaemin's mother coaxes him gently, "or it's going to get worse. You don't have to look at it. Just close your eyes and it'll be over before you know it."

Jaemin gets an idea. "Ooh! Here." Without a second thought, he clutches Donghyuck's hand. "If it hurts, you can squeeze my hand."

Donghyuck is still reluctant. "What if I hurt you?"

"It's alright." He gives Donghyuck his best smile. "I can take it."

Donghyuck takes a deep breath and finally nods. "Okay." He squeezes his eyes shut. "Do your worst."

Jaemin's mother starts on the biggest wound. On the first tap, Donghyuck squeals. Jaemin is afraid he's bitten off more than he can chew when Donghyuck nearly crushes his bones. He tries to withstand as much as possible, standing his own ground by squeezing back for his own stability.

The landline rings and Jaemin's mother pauses. It reads out the caller's name, and her eyes widen.

"I need to take that." She hands the swabs to Jaemin. "You can take care of these, right?"

He nods. "I can, mama."

She sighs in relief. "Thank you, baby." She ruffles his hair affectionately before stepping out of the room.

Jaemin scoots over to the seat his mother was in when Donghyuck opens one eye to peek. "Is it over?"

Jaemin picks up a new swab. "Almost. We have to take care of those little cuts, too."

"Oh..." Donghyuck pauses. "Can I still hold your hand?"

Jaemin beams. "Of course."

He presses the swab as lightly as possible to Donghyuck's skin as possible, but the boy still squirms around in his seat. "You're so close," he encourages him, running his thumb across Donghyuck's knuckles.

He makes it to the final scratch on Donghyuck's left knee. "And..." One swipe. "done."

It takes Donghyuck a few seconds to free Jaemin's hand. When he pulls it away, he notices red splotches in the shape of a handprint. He flicks it around in an attempt to get his circulation back. "I thought my hand was going to fall off."

Donghyuck's eyes become clouded with worry. "Are you okay?"

"I'll be fine. Are you?"

"Thanks to you," Donghyuck nods, "Your mom too," he adds quickly.

"We're not done yet." Panic flashes across Donghyuck's face, making Jaemin giggle. "The bandaids." He pulls out the box and shakes it as proof. "We can't have you walking around with an open wound. Then we'd have to wipe you with those again."

"Yeesh." Donghyuck cringes.

"Yeesh, indeed." He opens the box. "Now, let's see."

He uses the biggest bandage on the gash. For the smaller cuts, he struggles to find plain bandages for them. He can only see patterned ones.

"Uh... Do you mind bandaids with hearts on them? They're red."

"That's fine. Red is my favorite color, actually."

Jaemin looks up. "Really?"

"Yup! What's yours?"

Jaemin was afraid of this question. "Um..." he mumbles it under his breath, hoping it isn't a big deal to repeat.

This only prompts Donghyuck to lean in closer. "What was that?"

"Pink," he whispers softly, fiddling with the flaps of the box. "I like pink."

Donghyuck tilts his head to the side in confusion. "Why are you being so shy about it?"

"I'm not."

"Yes you are." Donghyuck points to Jaemin's face. "Your ears are all red."

Jaemin's hand goes up to them and feels how warm they are. "Huh. I guess I'm just a bit embarrassed…"

"Why?"

"Um..." Jaemin's cheeks feel hot. "Some people told me it's a girly color."

"Who?"

"My friends at school."

"They don't sound like very good friends."

Jaemin shrugs. "Maybe, but they're all I have. I'm not very good at making friends."

Donghyuck stares at him, puzzled. "But you're so nice!"

"I guess it's not enough."

"It is for me!" Donghyuck shouts, making Jaemin jump.

"Tell you what," he continues, "Are you free tomorrow?"

Jaemin's confused. "It's summer. I'm always free."

Donghyuck nods, satisfied. "Good. Then I can introduce you to my friends."

Jaemin almost drops the bandaid box. "Huh?"

"I live only a few houses down. It's not far."

Jaemin isn't concerned with that. His mind is lingering on the word friends. His hands are deathly still, thinking.

Donghyuck pulls the box from Jaemin's hand, which makes him remember what he's supposed to be doing in the first place. He reaches for it, but Donghyuck plucks out a random bandaid.

"You're my friend now. You helped me when I was hurt, so I'll do the same." He holds out the bandaid. "Deal?"

The paper packaging tickles Jaemin's fingertips as he pulls it lightly. "Deal."

Donghyuck still doesn't let go. Instead, he sticks out his pinky. "Swear on it."

Jaemin snorts. "What are we, five?"

"Only four years from it."

Jaemin chuckles, finally linking his finger with Donghyuck's. "I pinky promise. Now can I please put the bandaid on you?"

"Fine." Donghyuck pouts, but his eyes are shining.

Jaemin peels the wrapper away, seeing that it's an old bandaid from a Valentine's Day sale. It's heart-patterned with a white background, where the hearts alternate between pink and red.

"Hey." Donghyuck points at two of the hearts. "It's us."

Jaemin blushes. "Yeah. It's us."

The evening sun filters in through the blinds of the kitchen window, nibbling at their legs and feet. It licks Donghyuck's honey skin, shining it bronze. Jaemin gently places the bandaid on the scratch. He bides his time smoothing it out, fingers staying in place, staring at the faded pattern.

Jaemin loves snow days. He especially loves it when it's clumps of packing snow for rolling into snowballs. He isn't one for hurling small chunks at other kids, so he uses the ground to roll into a snowman.

Today, it's different as Jaemin follows Donghyuck beyond his backyard.

He had ventured into these woods during the summer when he played capture-the-flag with Donghyuck's friends. But the winter forest is very different from seeing the glistening moss on the ground as he sought shelter on the branches of the many trees, hiding behind the leaves. Now, the snow has replaced the greenery, blanketing the ground and outlining the bare branches. The crinkling sound of snow being compacted and his bulky snow pants are almost synonymous as he trudges through.

Jaemin sniffles as the freezing wind nibbles his nose and cheeks, burying his face deeper into his scarf holding the loaned skates closer to his chest. He has asked Donghyuck to teach him how to skate sometime, but he had expected it to be in a local rink. With the prospect of public humiliation hanging over his head, he imagines that it would somehow motivate him to get magically better. But Donghyuck isn't that cruel.

Or so he thought.

"Are you insane?!" Jaemin shrieks, watching Donghyuck glide on the ice.

"Relax. I skate here all the time. It's safe, I swear." He puts a hand on his chest as a gesture of sincerity. "What were you expecting, anyway?"

"I don't know! Something I can cling to when I lose balance━which is probably going to be a lot," Jaemin shakes his head, curling his fingers into a fist. "not the pond!"

"What's wrong with a pond?" Donghyuck asks, skidding to a stop. "Is it because of…" He starts rocking back and forth in his skates. "...this?"

"Hyuck, no!" Jaemin yelps, jutting his hand out instinctively and leaping forward. He slips on the ice on the edge of the lake, almost falling on his back. Scrambling up, he retreats as quickly as he had stepped forward.

Donghyuck frowns. "What's wrong?"

Jaemin desperately clings to the nearest tree as if it's his last anchor. "How do you know it won't crack?"

"It won't. I've played whole hockey games here." Donghyuck steps off the pond and walks over to Jaemin. "You trust me, right?" He holds out his gloved hand. "C'mon."

Slowly, Jaemin reaches out. Donghyuck's gloves are made for winter sports, a flashy scarlet with a black stripe wrapped around the cuff. They look so professional compared to Jaemin's fluffy turquoise mittens, ones he would normally rip off to give away to his snowman.

"First, you put your skates on," Donghyuck instructs, setting Jaemin down on one of the many slabs of wood that they dubbed to serve as benches. "You can tie your shoes, right?"

Jaemin scoffs. "I'm twelve, Hyuck."

Donghyuck puts his arms up in faux surrender. "Hey, I was just checking."

Still, Jaemin chuckles, removing his mittens to tie the laces.

Then, Donghyuck interjects again. "Wait, that's how you tie your shoes?"

Jaemin freezes, holding up two loops. "Huh?"

"You don't do the snake and mouse thing?"

"What are you talking about?"

"This." Donghyuck kneels and takes the laces of Jaemin's other skate in his hands. He makes one loop and wraps the other string around it. Then, he loops it through.

Jaemin watches baffled as Donghyuck double-knots it. "How did you do that?"

Donghyuck looks up at him, just as bewildered. "I just showed you."

"That looked like magic to me." Jaemin stares at his untied laces. "I have no clue how to do it." He lifts them back into their former loops. "I'd rather do the bunny ears."

Donghyuck raises a brow. "Bunny ears?"

Jaemin nods. "Yeah! That's what I call them."

When he finishes, he shoves his mittens back on. His fingers feel like they're about to fall off his hand.

"Okay...." Jaemin tries to stand, but he can't find much stability on the skates. "Woah!" He tumbles back onto the bench.

Donghyuck holds out his hand again. "You can do it."

Jaemin readily accepts it, launching himself forward. "I can do it━ Ah!" He uses too much power and leans on Donghyuck more than he wants to regain his footing. Donghyuck is patient, his arms hovering near Jaemin's waist in case he falls.

"You're doing great," he smiles, pulling Jaemin onto the ice, "now just push to the side. It's just like when you taught me how to roller skate."

Jaemin nods, repeating the motion that he's practiced on quads. His eyes are trained on the ice below his feet, wincing whenever he sees a slight discoloration. His knees are wobbly with uncertainty.

But Donghyuck is always there beside him, clutching his hand. Even when Jaemin messes up his strokes and twists around, Donghyuck is right in front of him to attach himself to.

Jaemin feels a hand running up and down his back. "Hey, you're okay." Donghyuck matches his pace with Jaemin's, slowing down around the pond.

"I'm scared." Jaemin whimpers, reluctant to turn and try again. "I'm no good compared to you. What if the ice breaks? What if I fall?"

"You don't have to be as good as me. You're learning," Donghyuck begins, looping one of his arms around Jaemin's waist. "of course you're going to make some mistakes. And I would never, ever, put you in a situation that could hurt you. It's alright if you don't trust the ice. But here's the thing━ Hey, look at me."

Jaemin tears his view from the ice they're dancing on and into Donghyuck's eyes. They're like his own miniature suns━ ones that he's sure could melt the snow around them if he tried hard enough. Snowflakes have stuck to his eyelashes from the sky, decorating them like glitter.

"If you fall, I'll always be there to catch you." Donghyuck whispers below the wind. He blinks, setting some of the snowflakes free. They fall onto Jaemin's cheeks, melting the moment they hit his skin. He isn't sure if the burning sensation on his face is from the cold anymore.

On a winter afternoon, skating in Donghyuck's arms, Jaemin realizes something.

He's in love.

Jaemin's epiphany isn't much of a shock to him. In fact, he's more surprised that he didn't realize this sooner. Falling for Donghyuck was a slow but easy process, gradually melting into his spell. There are so many instances where it feels like it's just them, where the rest of the world disappears holding his arm, when Jaemin feels the safest and happiest.

This makes reality even more sobering when Donghyuck slams his tray in front of Jaemin at lunch.

"I'm going to do it today," Donghyuck announces.

"Nice," Jaemin nods, "What exactly are you doing?"

He puts his hand on his heart to make a firm declaration. "I, Lee Donghyuck, will be trying to ask Liu Yangyang out."

Jaemin chokes on his food. "What?! You were serious about that?"

Donghyuck frowns. "When am I not?"

Jaemin laughs through the pain in his throat and chest. "I thought that conversation the other day was just us dicking around. Why else do you think I said Jung Jaehyun as my ideal type?"

"Well, he is hot." Donghyuck winks at him. "I think you have good taste."

Just like that, time freezes in Jaemin's mind. The sparkle in Donghyuck's eyes is very real as he talks about Yangyang. Through his dilated pupils, he can deny the fact he's talking about someone like that who isn't him. In his mind, Donghyuck isn't the person who can confess head-on.

He would be wrong.

Donghyuck's holding a piece of paper in his hand when Jaemin sees him after chemistry. When he gives it to Yangyang, he stops in his tracks.

Their conversation is completely inaudible to Jaemin, so he tries to filter the rest out. But even within the sea of students that pass in between them, his curiosity grows, and he can't turn away.

Just like that, at sixteen, he watches the one he's in love with give his heart to someone else.

Jaemin should have expected to see Donghyuck less and less following his first date with Yangyang.

When it happened, he couldn’t be more over the moon to hear and see Donghyuck so ecstatic for something. He was even consulted about the date outfit. With his wardrobe full of tracksuits and hoodies, he felt like he couldn’t offer much advice. All he knows is that when Donghyuck walked out of his closet with what he picked out, Jaemin couldn’t think of anything else for the rest of the night besides how radiant his smile was.

But when Donghyuck excitedly called him when the night had ended to tell him how wonderful Yangyang was, he couldn’t control the way his heart shattered.

Each day, the weight in Jaemin’s chest gets heavier. It comes with watching Donghyuck opt out of some of the things Jaemin thought he’d never do alone, like walking to school all on his own.

Maybe that’s the reason why he finds himself drawn to hiding behind the camera hanging off of his neck. He wants to capture the moments when he manages to win over Yangyang for Donghyuck’s attention.

However, Jaemin’s starting to feel more lonely. He tries to give Donghyuck space to be with Yangyang, but he can start to see him fade away from his view. He can no longer deny the pit in his stomach he gets whenever he sees them together. His brain is marinated by heartsickness, plaguing his mood.

That is when he makes a fatal mistake.

It starts when Donghyuck doesn’t turn up for lunch. Unfortunately for him, he doesn’t have to guess where he is.

He spies him across the cafeteria at the hockey team’s table, fingers interlocked with Yangyang’s.

Jaemin feels a familiar tickle in his nose, and the tears come the next time he exhales. It’s not like he hasn’t cried over his hopeless situation before, but it’s always in secrecy and solitude. He’s always able to keep the storm at bay before it erupts. As he quickly wipes his eyes with the sleeves of his sweater, he realizes how truly unbearable it is.

So, he makes a decision. In hindsight, a terrible one.

Jaemin figures he has a few days, but Donghyuck unexpectedly joins him on his commute home. An awkward silence hangs over them, with Jaemin staring up at the trees whose leaves are beginning to change color.

Finally, Donghyuck breaks the ice. “So…. How was your day?”

“Fine,” Jaemin replies cooly, “though it isn’t fun to eat lunch all by yourself.”

Donghyuck grimaces hearing this, and Jaemin turns away. He’s already suffocating.

“I’m sorry,” Donghyuck apologizes.

“Donghyuck, it’s fine,” he says, exasperated. “I just wish you would’ve told me.”

“Why do you wait for me every day? Do you not have other friends?”

“Not really,” Jaemin confesses.

“That’s sad,” Donghyuck says lightly, but it hits Jaemin like a truck. He’s always been sensitive about this, ever since they met. It makes him question, does Donghyuck actually pay attention to him and his feelings anymore?

Jaemin stops walking, watching Donghyuck’s back to see how long it takes for him to notice that he isn’t beside him. He doesn’t stop at all until Jaemin finally coughs something up for the vault in his chest.

“Are you bored of me?”

Donghyuck’s feet skid. He spins around, astonished. “What?”

“You heard me.”

“I’m not━ I don’t━” he sputters, “What are you getting at?”

Jaemin fiddles with his backpack straps. “I miss you, Hyuck.” Whether he likes it or not, everything starts to snowball. “You’re not the same anymore. Ever since you started dating Yangyang, I━”

His words flip some kind of switch in his friend. His eye twitches in irritation, making Jaemin pause. His stomach drops. What has he done?

Donghyuck steps forward, sticking his finger out at Jaemin. “You have no right to say anything about that. You haven’t been around me to know what I’m like.”

“That’s what I was trying to say━”

Donghyuck isn't done. "Why do you always paint Yangyang as some kind of villain? What did he ever do to you?!"

"I don’t! I’m not saying that!" Jaemin doesn't know what he's supposed to be saying. His logic has gone out of the window. All he knows is that he's hurt, both by how Donghyuck is slipping away, and that he is falling for someone who isn't him.

Donghyuck's jaw drops as if something dawns on him. "Are you jealous?"

"What?!" Jaemin gasps, his voice squeaking. "No, I'm not!"

"You know the tips of your ears get red when you're lying, right?" Donghyuck takes a step closer. "Do you think I'm stupid?!"

"I don't!" Jaemin's grasping at straws now, looking for something that can mend these cracks without revealing his secret. Why did he have to open his big mouth?

"Then what is it? Why do you always chase after me like a lost puppy?" Donghyuck's voice breaks. "Why can't you just be happy for me?"

He can't, no matter how hard he tries. He can't be happy if he isn't the one by Donghyuck's side.

"I'm not always going to be there to put a bandaid on you," Jaemin says, his lip quivering.

His chest aches. He wants to scream at Donghyuck for breaking their promise, cursing him out for being the exact reason why he's in so much pain. But Jaemin's suffocating under the false hope that maybe, just maybe, Donghyuck will come back to him.

"I didn't ask for that!" Donghyuck screeches, "I don't need you to protect me!"

"Then I won't!" Jaemin blurts out, bursting into tears.

Donghyuck falls silent. The only sounds that can be heard are the autumn breeze picking up dry leaves around them and Jaemin trying to muffle his sobs.

Donghyuck takes another step closer. "Jaemin, I-"

"No!" Jaemin pushes Donghyuck away, terrified of him witnessing Jaemin being vulnerable so close. He's barely breathing, gasping for air every second. His shoulders tremble as waterfalls rush down his cheeks, staining the cement along with his clothes and hands.

There's an itch on Jaemin's wrist. He looks down and the bracelet catches his eye. It's faded from the hours it's been under the sun, but he treasures it more than anything. It's made of string with clumsily woven hearts, alternating pink and red. They're linked together like Jaemin thought he and Donghyuck would always be like.

With one pull, he rips it off.

Jaemin's eyes linger on how it's draped lifelessly over his fingers. "If you don't need me..."

Donghyuck tries again. "Jaemin, please━"

He looks up, tear ducts suddenly dry. "I don't need you."

Donghyuck is stunned into silence, so Jaemin takes another step. He throws the bracelet towards him in fury, secretly hoping he clutches it, begging for him to stay.

But it bounces harmlessly off his chest, falling down to the ground.

Jaemin takes two steps back, feeling his surroundings start to spin. There's no coming back from this. His vision becomes blurry again and new, hot tears start streaking down his face. His stomach swirls with nausea. His knees are jittering, on the verge of buckling. His tongue is somewhere in the back of his throat, making him choke on all his words.

So, he does what he knows best.

He runs━ away from Donghyuck, and away from the fact that he's in love with someone he can't have.

Jaemin wants to believe it was all a dream. That when he wakes up the next morning, it'll be a silly scenario that he played in his head. But he finds no trace of the handcrafted circlet on his wrist.

He's alone all over again.

He fears stepping outside of his house at the wrong time to see Donghyuck walking on his way to school. He's cautious, trying to peer out from his porch as much as he can. However, he can't see Donghyuck's house from here, so he takes a step, then another, until he's at the picket fence border. His gaze lingers on the sidewalk in front of it, where Donghyuck had fallen all those years ago. He wonders if he thinks about that moment as much as Jaemin does. Or is he too caught up in the present to even remember it?

Jaemin's question is answered when he lazily glances at Donghyuck's house and spots a familiar red Jeep in the driveway. Then he sprints, wondering if he can outrun Yangyang's car.

He's an expert at weaving through crowds. Being surrounded by people makes him feel more lonely than ever when even seeing two people laughing together feels like a bullet to his chest. Still, he has no way to go but forward.

This doesn't mean it makes him feel better. The dread is the heaviest when lunch hour rolls around, so he escapes to the library to distract himself.

His camera is set neatly in his backpack within a bag of his own. It was a birthday gift from Donghyuck after he noticed how much Jaemin spent time trying to capture the world around him on his phone.

He settles at one of the computers and pops the memory card out. Opening the photoshop application, he combs through the photos to find one to edit. He's quick to realize that a majority of them have to do with Donghyuck, whether he's in the photo or not━ like the sunset photo in front of the pond that he skated with Donghyuck on. There's a similar one with their street as the backdrop, but he doesn't fail to miss Donghyuck's house sticking out in the corner. Absently, he double clicks on it.

Jaemin bites his lip, trying to swallow down the lump that's forming in his throat. He stares emptily at the photo, unsure what to do.

That's when someone taps the table next to him.

He turns his head to meet the eyes of another boy his age with horn-rimmed glasses over his eyes. There's a guitar slung over his back. His fingers are fidgeting nervously with a blue pick.

"Are you Na Jaemin?" he whispers.

"Yeah?" he replies, also lowering his voice. "Why are we whispering? There's no one else here."

"Wait, really?" the other boy asks, his volume suddenly increases. His voice has a pleasant bass tone to it, making Jaemin wonder if he sings along with playing his guitar.

"Yeah. Librarian stepped out for a bit. I'm all by myself," he says bitterly.

"Great!" he cheers before catching himself. "Wait no, I mean━" he sighs, "I didn't mean, 'great'! because you're by yourself━I mean, I did━but not negatively!" He rambles, confusing Jaemin even more.

He pulls out the nearest chair and places it next to Jaemin. "I was looking everywhere for you. I wanted to talk to you."

Jaemin stares. "About?"

"Uh, I was wondering if you would maybe want to join yearbook."

Jaemin blinks. "Yearbook?"

"Yeah!" His eyes light up. "I've seen those photos that you've taken for the contest organized by the school newspaper. You're amazing."

"Oh, those?" Jaemin waves his hand, bashful. "My friend actually stole those photos and entered them when I refused to. I was so mad at him." He giggles for a moment, reminiscing.

The boy grins, his eyes molding into crescents. "Well, then I thank your friend. You're honestly so━" He notices what Jaemin's working on. "━Woah! That looks amazing."

Jaemin scoffs. "I haven't even started editing it yet. I don't even know where to start."

He leans closer to the monitor. "I'm no expert, but is the central focus supposed to be the sunset?"

Jaemin nods.

He pushes his glasses further up his nose. "Well, I think you should crop the left side a bit. Cuz it's a bit off-center."

"Huh." Jaemin blinks. "You're right." He moves his mouse to the cropping option and then notices what's in the area.

Donghyuck's house.

Jaemin's hand stops. "Um. I'm not sure how much I should crop, though."

"Why don't you start and I'll tell you when to stop?"

"That's a good idea."

Jaemin flicks his wrist slightly, watching Donghyuck's house disappear behind the cursor. It's strangely freeing how easily he's able to wipe it from the photo.

If only he could do that with his memories.

"Stop."

Jaemin lets go, seeing no sign of Donghyuck's house. "Anything else you see?"

"You really want an untrained eye?"

"Of course. I usually obsess over the small things," Jaemin confesses, "so sometimes I lose sight of the big picture."

"Hmm..." the boy hums before pointing to a figure in the photo. "Do you think you could erase that?"

Jaemin leans closer, feeling his shoulder brush the other boy's. "The person on the road?"

"Yeah."

Jaemin gazes longingly at blurry Donghyuck's silhouette. It could've been anyone, but he knows from the lifted leg and peace sign in the air that it's his best friend.

Former best friend.

He acts on impulse. The eraser tool is already on, so all he has to do is click around Donghyuck to remove him from the picture. Once he's gone, he can't deny that it looks a lot better.

"I think all I have to do now is adjust the lighting," Jaemin turns to the boy, "um..."

"Jeno," he smiles.

"Okay, Jeno." Jaemin smiles too, quicker than he expected to. "I'll join your dark side."

"Yes!" Jeno, hollers, pumping his fist. Jaemin shushes him quickly before bursting out in a fit of laughter with him.

Jeno is gentle with Jaemin's heart. He's nervous but giddy, cheeks tinted rose whenever their fingers brush each other by accident. Jaemin suspects there's more to it, but he doesn't push it. He isn't sure if he wants to.

Still, he's enamored by Jeno. He's extremely different from Donghyuck, who's outspoken and always goes for what he wants. Jeno draws Jaemin in a different way. He's slow, strumming tunes on his guitar as Jaemin leans on his shoulder, patiently listening to him. With Jeno, Jaemin can feel the throbbing pain in his chest start to subside.

He doubles over coughing as Jeno opens the hallway storage closet. "God, why is it so dusty here?"

Jeno sneezes too. "This is even worse when I'm with cats."

Jaemin moves a stack of papers aside. "You're allergic to cats?"

Jeno hums affirmatively, kicking around for something. "Can you see a footstool anywhere?"

"Uh..." Jaemin's eyes search around for anything. "We could use this." He lifts an empty box to the place they need and tries stepping on top of it. It collapses under his weight immediately. He clicks his tongue. "Never mind."

Jeno stretches onto his toes to reach for the top shelf, but his fingers barely graze the rim. "What do we do, then?"

Jaemin studies the box of cartridges at the top intently. He's not willing to move another box into the already narrow walkway, so he's stuck.

"What if I hold you?"

Jaemin whips his head towards Jeno. "Pardon?"

Jeno makes a ring with his arms. "I think if I lift you by the waist, you could reach it easily." He holds his hands out. "Only if you're comfy, of course."

"Alright."

Jeno blinks. "What?"

Jaemin moves in front of Jeno's chest. "C'mon."

"Oh, okay."

Jeno's arms secure themselves around Jaemin's waist, pulling him into his chest. Jaemin can feel a faint pumping on his back as he tries to focus. Jeno's chin landing on his shoulder before lifting him doesn't help.

Jeno's right. The cartridge box is right within his grasp. When he grabs it, however, he notices it's empty. He looks behind to see that the ink cartridges have fallen out and are scattered around the shelf.

"What's going on there?" Jeno asks his arms beginning to shake. "I can't hold you for much longer!"

"I know, I'm sorry. They're just everywhere." Jaemin slides as many into the box as he can before he feels Jeno's grip loosen. He's shifting downward, trying to grab the last one he sees. But Jeno's arms give out, making the cartridge fall not into the box, but on Jaemin's head.

"Ah!" Jaemin yelps, dropping the box in shock, clutching his forehead.

"Oh my gosh," Jeno says, pushing Jaemin's shoulder to make him turn around. "Are you okay?"

"I think so?" Jaemin removes his hand from his forehead. "Is there a mark there?"

Jeno leans in, their chests brushing each other. Blood rushes to Jaemin's cheeks when he does. His heart is racing, screaming for something. He debates whether to push Jeno away or pull him in even closer.

"Uh..." Jeno raises his hand to trace the spot, squinting. "I don't see anything," he admits, "but the lighting here is really bad."

Jaemin nods. "Right."

Neither of them moves.

Jaemin doesn't mind it. He stares at Jeno's face, vision jumping around erratically. They move from his eyes, then flitting to his lips.

"They say that kisses make booboo's better, right?"

Jaemin giggles. "You sound like my mom. She'd like you a lot."

"Well..." Jeno brushes his finger over Jaemin's forehead again, and he leans even closer. Jaemin shuts his eyes, holding his breath in his chest, unable to predict what he's going to do.

Jeno's lips sweep over his forehead briefly, but it sets off an explosion of butterflies in Jaemin's stomach. They're not gentle━ they claw at his sides, overwhelming him. Telling him that if he doesn't act now, he'll never know what they're meant to be. He wants to know what's beyond the cliff he's teetering over, wondering if he'll get what he's always wanted.

Jeno pulls away, noticing how perplexed Jaemin must look. His jaw drops. "I'm sorry. I should've asked━"

Jaemin takes the leap. He grabs Jeno's elbow and cups his cheek, silently asking for him back. He figures that it's his first too. He doesn't realize how their teeth bump awkwardly, trying to repeat the motions he's seen in movies so many times. But this isn't a performance for a camera. It's a quiet exchange of held-back affection, finally unfolding for the first time. Jeno's arm sneaks up his back to cup his head, gently threading his locks in his fingers. Jaemin pulls his hand back and finds Jeno's, lacing their fingers together.

Then, he hears the sound of footsteps quickly retreating.

It steals both their attention immediately, nervously glancing outside. That's when Jaemin realizes that the door is wide open, meaning that someone definitely saw them.

"I imagine being pressed against a shelf isn't very good for your back," Jeno whispers, eyes fixed on how they're holding hands. "We should do this somewhere else."

It's the bare minimum, but Jaemin can still feel his heart sputter. "Agreed," he grins, reaching down to try grabbing the box.

"Yaknow, you can use both of your hands," Jeno points out.

"But I don't want to," Jaemin frowns, finally able to scoop it up. "I wanna stay with you."

He doesn't know where this new resolve is coming from. He's known that Jeno has liked him for a while, though he hasn't always been sure if he wants to pursue something more with him. Jeno's always been honest and upfront with his feelings and Jaemin felt bad that he couldn't do the same. His mind swirled with confusing emotions, leaving him speechless.

But as he exits the closet with Jeno, he finds himself yearning for more. He wants someone who actually waits for him when Jaemin falls behind. He wants someone better.

Because if love and kisses magically heal the bruises on his skin, why can't they do the same for his heart?

Time is a fickle thing. It's said that it heals all wounds, but it waits for no one.

Jaemin likes to think that he's broken out of his shell. He's exchanged the large cardigans and muted colors for sharp blazers and bright shirts. But although he looks different, the cardigans and blazer feel the exact same way. They wrap around Jaemin's torso like a warm hug, giving him a sense of security.

He travels many places, as it's his job as a photographer. He likes the notion that pictures tell a story in a way that words never can. They stay with him, never drifting away.

Jeno was merely another chapter in Jaemin's story. They drifted apart following graduation and decided it was best to end their relationship. It was good enough of a conclusion for Jaemin, who was uncertain about how he felt from time to time. He doesn't know if he can consider Jeno as his first love.

There are times where Jaemin forgets about Donghyuck. But when he's waking up in a cold sweat from seeing him in his dreams, he asks the universe why it keeps plaguing him with the memories he desperately wishes would just vanish.

They're mystical in nature. The landscape flows underneath his feet with the details morphing into each other. The skies are mixed in between night and day, meshing into a permanent sunset when they collide. He stands here in this In Between, caught up in doing something else━whether it's in his old high school, the bookstore downtown, or even his university━when he spots Donghyuck, glowing like he's become the sun again. There are two outcomes. First, Jaemin is fixated on him as Donghyuck walks out of the door, away from him. Then the second━rarer one━is when Donghyuck catches his eye. He surges forward, hand outstretched. Jaemin reaches too, but when their fingertips brush each other, he's gone.

He opens his eyes, reminded that Donghyuck is a poltergeist. The thought of him always echoes in his mind, haunting his memories. There's no sight of him, but he's made a permanent imprint on Jaemin's heart.

That's until he visits home for the summer.

He didn't intend to stay long. He's just homesick, filled with the desire to feel his mother's arms around him and to sleep in his own bed. But as he curls into the familiar couch cushions, he feels empty.

He isn't decent in the slightest when he hears the doorbell ring. He calls for his mother and then remembers that she's out getting groceries. So he sprints upstairs to grab the first pair of clothes he sees━ a plain white shirt and gray shorts.

When he opens the front door, his heart stops.

The sun is hanging low in the sky, but Donghyuck stands in between it and Jaemin's eyes. The golden light outlines his figure like a halo, but it's different this time. Maybe it's because the sun is less intense from when Jaemin first saw him, but he actually looks palpable, unlike all the years Jaemin watched him from afar. Shock flashes onto his face like he isn't expecting him.

"Hey," is the first word Donghyuck says to Jaemin in ten years.

"Hey, yourself." Jaemin leans on the door. "You've been here all this time?"

Donghyuck shakes his head slowly. "No. I'm visiting for the week."

"Same."

Silence.

Jaemin stares at Donghyuck, whose eyes are shifty. His hair has grown out to the point where he has to part in the middle to keep it from falling in his eyes. He's dressed in one of those floral patterned button-ups━ something sixteen-year-old Donghyuck would never be caught dead in.

Seeing it, he silently asks, how much has Donghyuck changed since they last spoke?

"Come in," he invites, opening the door wider. He wants to see if he's willing to come so far.

He does. In fact, Donghyuck almost bolts into the house. Bewildered, Jaemin shuts the door behind him. It feels like he's thirteen again when Donghyuck tends to appear in his kitchen unannounced, scaring Jaemin shitless. Now Donghyuck shuffles around here awkwardly, aware that he doesn't have that liberty anymore.

"So," Jaemin tries to chip away at the ice that surrounds them, "how have you been?" He turns around to open the cupboard for two glasses.

"I've been alright. Med school is a bit tough, though."

Jaemin's surprised to hear that. "Med school?"

Donghyuck nods.

"But," Jaemin grabs the cups quickly and places them on the counter, "what happened to hockey?"

Donghyuck shrugs. "I don't play much anymore."

"Huh." Jaemin exhales, nonplussed. Donghyuck not devoting himself to hockey isn't something he would've ever expected to hear from him. He recalls all the nights they poured out their dreams together, where Donghyuck wanted nothing more than to go professional with the one thing he was passionate about. Seeing that he let it go is so astonishing that Jaemin truly can't wrap his head around it.

He moves to the fridge and presses the glass to the ice dispenser. As it trickles out, Donghyuck gasps behind him.

Jaemin turns his head. "What happened?"

Donghyuck narrows his eyes at the fridge. "When did you get a new fridge?" He points at the ice dispenser. "It doesn't make that annoying gurgling noise anymore."

"Uh." Jaemin runs his fingers down the handle of the fridge door. "Like.... four years ago? I helped my mom pick it out." He taps it with a sigh."So it isn't that new."

Donghyuck takes a step back. "Right."

"I made lemonade earlier today. You want some?" Jaemin offers, opening the fridge to pull out the large pitcher.

Donghyuck perks up. "Like, the one where you sprinkled kool-aid powder in?"

"That's the one." Jaemin swishes the red liquid around. "Rock-a-dile red, your favorite." He grins. "Hopefully," he adds.

"Honestly, I don't know anymore." Donghyuck grabs the glass. He lifts it to his mouth to take a sip. "Hmmm..." He hums, pulling it away. "Wow. It's exactly the same. I feel like I could bounce off the walls with all the sugar in it."

Jaemin laughs and Donghyuck does too a few seconds later. For a fleeting moment, it feels like there was no Yangyang, no Jeno, and no fight. Just Jaemin and Donghyuck, like how it used to be.

Jaemin squints at Donghyuck. "Hey, you got a little something..." He reaches out without thinking, thumb swiping over Donghyuck's stained lips and the skin around it. The rest of his fingers curl around Donghyuck's jaw, caressing his face. They rest there as Jaemin stares at him, wondering how long he can make this second last. Donghyuck looks up to meet his eyes, and Jaemin realizes that he's the taller one now, even if it's only by a few centimeters.

"Why are you here?" Jaemin interrogates, retracting his hand and flicking the juice off of his fingers. They're going to be sticky later.

"I told you. I'm visiting for the week," Donghyuck reiterates, but his voice is shaky.

"I mean, why here?" Jaemin tries wiping his fingers on his shorts, leaving a dark stain. "Why now? You had no problem ignoring me in the past. What's with the sudden change?"

Donghyuck averts his eyes. "I was invited to a wedding."

Jaemin knits his brows. "Whose? And what does it have to do with me?"

"Yangyang's."

Jaemin's anger skids to a stop hearing this. He's hit with a wave of déjà vu instead. Donghyuck's been invited to an occasion where he's forced to watch someone he's had so much affection swear their love to someone else.

He knows the feeling all too well.

Jaemin clicks his tongue. "So, you want me to go with you as your plus one? To soften the blow?"

Donghyuck blinks. "You would do that?"

Jaemin nods.

"I made a promise, didn't I?"

The suit jacket hangs heavily on Jaemin's shoulders. He's no stranger to shindigs such as this, but he was always greeted by either new faces or people he had only met briefly who only knew who he was at the surface. They always describe him as charming, polite, and most of all, easygoing. When he talks to them, his voice is always clear, flowing from word to word with no difficulty. It's much different from how he is now, smoothing out his blazer for the ninth time, determined to eliminate any wrinkles he sees.

He studies himself in the mirror. No matter what he does with his comb, his black hair still refuses to look neat. There are dark circles underneath his eyes from his restless night of overthinking. He woke up only an hour before when his mother finally opened the curtains. His gaze is wild, erratically searching for something━a stain he can’t clean on time, a random bruise he can connect to a deathly illness━as an excuse to flake. He can't just plaster a fake smile with slow nodding. He’s terrified, and it’s painfully obvious.

He’s doing a final check when he hears the doorbell ring through the house ominously, coating the walls in its sound. It’s impossible to run away from. Slowly, he trudges down the stairs, watching how the carpet folds underneath his socks. He remembers how he used to be able to lay across one of the steps. Now, his foot almost slips because of how narrow they are.

He takes a deep breath and opens the door.

To say that Donghyuck is handsome is an understatement. He’s absolutely radiant. With his hair out of his face, Jaemin realizes that his ears are pierced━ another thing that teenage Donghyuck would’ve never done. They’re simple gold studs. Sunlight bounces off of it, sending a glare to Jaemin’s eyes. There’s a boutonniere pinned to his suit jacket━ the centerpiece being a red rose.

Jaemin spots something in Donghyuck’s hand. Before he can fully process what it is, Donghyuck hides it behind his back.

Jaemin frowns. “You know I hate secrets.”

Donghyuck grins at him. “I’ve only had nice ones for you.”

“Whatever you say,” Jaemin scoffs. His cheeks feel warm, and he wants to slap them. There’s no way that Donghyuck can make him feel this giddy after so long. Absolutely none.

“Then what about your twelfth birthday?” Donghyuck prods, leaning into the doorway. Jaemin lets him.

He ponders the memory. He and Donghyuck went out that day to the zoo in the town nearby. Jaemin had been buzzing, dressed in his favorite lion t-shirt. But after being frightened by how loud and real their roars were, he found solace with the smaller animals, indifferent to all the bunny spit on his hand after feeding them. When they visited the gift shop before leaving, Jaemin noticed a suspicious lump in Donghyuck’s pocket. Donghyuck insisted that it was his water bottle, so Jaemin let it go. However, when they returned, Donghyuck ran ahead of him home. Confused, Jaemin followed as fast as he could. There, he found his garage lit up with a huge cake on a table in the middle. No one jumped out at him. Instead, they stood with smiling faces, gently singing to him. He then learned that Donghyuck had shared Jaemin's embarrassing experience with the lions. Shyly, he took out a slightly wrinkly plush bunny from his pocket. “Happy birthday, Jaem,” he had said, pressing it into his hands. Jaemin hugged it tight, promising to sleep with it every night forever.

Now, it sits stagnant on his dresser.

“That was fun,” is all Jaemin replies with, tying his shoes on the bench.

“You should’ve seen your face,” Donghyuck giggles, “It was priceless! You were like this.” He places his hands on his cheeks, dropping his jaw and widening his eyes.

The tingle that Jaemin feels in his toes is completely involuntary. Donghyuck's expression is like feathers brushing his sides━he can't help but break into a grin.

Donghyuck notices this, and something on his face changes. The corners of his mouth are twitched upward slightly. He falls back into Adult Donghyuck, the one who's a complete stranger to Jaemin.

Somehow, it makes him wonder if he would notice these changes if they never separated.

"You ready?" Donghyuck asks, tapping the box against his leg. Jaemin tries to crane his neck around to see its contents. But whenever he moves, the box does too.

Eventually, he gives up and nods. "Yeah." He grabs his wallet and pockets it. He's about to usher Donghyuck out the door when he hears soft footsteps rapidly approaching him. Curious, he turns to see his mother bounding up to him with his camera in her hands.

"Mama!" Jaemin panics momentarily, throwing his arms out. "Please don't run holding that. My whole career is in there!"

His mother scoffs, finally stopping in her tracks. "You wound me," she teases, holding it up. She blinks, fidgeting with the buttons. "What are all these things?"

Jaemin leans over and points to the power button. As the shutter emerges, he asks, "What did you get this for?"

She rolls her eyes. "To take a picture, obviously."

Jaemin's confused. "Of what?"

"Us, dummy," Donghyuck jokes. He meets Jaemin's mother's eyes and they share a look that Jaemin can't decipher. He glances in between them, hating this feeling of being in the dark. Donghyuck still has his placid smile. Jaemin's mother isn't as good at hiding her emotions. Her eyes are sparkling as if a tear will slip out at any moment. She clasps her hand over her mouth and they finally escape.

"Mama?" Jaemin whispers, gently cupping her cheeks and swiping his thumbs over her skin. "What's going on?"

"It's nothing," she sobs, holding her hand up to her mouth to shield her face. "You two are just so grown up, that's all." She coughs, trying to wipe away the last of her tears. "It feels like yesterday when you were both on my tail to take you somewhere like your soccer games or the playground by this neighborhood." She sniffles, reaching out her hand to brush her fingers on Jaemin's chin, then Donghyuck's. "I missed seeing you two together."

"Oh," she sighs, wiping her final tears and taking a deep breath. "Alright. Just do a little pose. Whatever you want." She gestures vaguely with her hand, raising the camera once again.

"Uh…" Jaemin looks over at Donghyuck, who lifts his arm awkwardly. He tries too, but when Donghyuck's arm surges forward, he recoils. They lock eyes. Donghyuck’s are silently begging to just trust him. Jaemin is still frozen in place, curling his fingers back. What his mother said echoes in his mind. It’s the people they used to be, not who they are now.

So why is it that when Donghyuck casually pulls out a peace sign, Jaemin's face cracks into a grin? Why do his fingers crawl back around Jaemin's waist, holding it as he’ll never let go? How is it possible that he gets shy when Donghyuck throws his arm around Jaemin’s shoulders with more enthusiasm than he could have ever anticipated?

Jaemin changed, so why hasn’t his feelings moved with him?

CLICK!

Donghyuck flinches when the flash blares at him. “I definitely blinked in that one,” he protests, “We need to take another one.”

“Fine by me,” Jaemin’s mother cheers, fidgeting with the settings.

“Please don’t mess with my presets,” Jaemin begs, frowning at his mother. “I just wanna go.”

“Yes, yes, yes.” She presses the button, and the flash doesn’t catch them by surprise this time. Jaemin hopes that his smile doesn’t look fake.

She lowers the camera and spots what’s in Donghyuck’s hand. She gasps. “What’s that?

Jaemin whips his head around to see the box Donghyuck is holding, now completely exposed. It’s tan, a little larger than a watch box. However, it’s completely opaque, so Jaemin can’t tell what’s inside.

“I wanted to save this for when we were outside,” Donghyuck chuckles, lifting it. “but I guess we can do it now.” To Jaemin’s disappointment, his other arm falls to open the box. Inside is a boutonniere almost identical to Donghyuck’s, framed with baby’s breath’s flowers. In the center is a pale pink rose.

“Uh, you still like pink, right?” Donghyuck asks nervously, offering the box to him.

Jaemin nods and Donghyuck heaves a sigh of relief. “It’s beautiful,” he blurts out as he accepts it. He plucks out the pin, stroking the petals with his thumb. He goes to place it on his lapel, but he struggles with trying to pick the right spot. Then, it slips from his fingers.

Donghyuck catches it with ease, smiling warmly. “May I?” He asks.

No you may not, you bastard, Jaemin wants to say. And stop smiling at me like that, you’re giving me false hope.

But without any hesitation, he nods.

Donghyuck wastes no time. His hand slips underneath the lapel, fixing it into place. When he thinks he has it, he lets go. But it’s severely crooked, almost falling upside down. “Wait,” he says, focusing extra hard on the pin. He tries to drive it in more but ends up almost stabbing Jaemin. He apologizes frantically, pulling it out for another attempt.

“My sister put mine on me,” he admits.

Jaemin scoffs. “I can tell,” he chuckles.

Donghyuck glares at him. “Do you want this on or not?”

More than anything, he thinks.

Donghyuck takes his silence as a yes. “Hold still,” he warns, “I can’t get this on if you’re so fidgety.”

Jaemin freezes, even holding his breath. He doesn’t want to smell Donghyuck’s cologne as he leans in close, aware that he always puts on way too much. He doesn’t want to inhale the scent of old spice that reminds him of the faraway home of being in his embrace.

Finally, Donghyuck pulls away, trying to adjust it. “So, how is it?”

Jaemin looks to the mirror that’s propped by the door. It’s secure on his blazer but is slightly slanted. A few petals of the rose have fallen off the flower onto the floor. Despite it all, he smiles wistfully.

“It’s perfect.”

Donghyuck is driving his mother's car. It looks neater from the last time he saw the interior, but it seems that the stickers he and Jaemin stuck on the window really were permanently plastered. Nevertheless, time has eroded them. Some have faded colors after hours under the sun, some are white silhouettes, and others are merely edges and centers with no discernable shape.

Jaemin looks away from the window and to Donghyuck, who hasn't said anything to him since they bid Jaemin's mother farewell. He's squinting at the road as the evening sun shines on his face. Jaemin stares at the way it illuminates Donghyuck's eyes, brightening his irises to a russet shade. But this annoys Donghyuck as he pulls down his visor to shield them.

Huh, Jaemin thinks. I guess the sun blinds him too.

He runs his finger on the patch on the armrest where the leather had faded. He recalls Donghyuck's bragging once he was tall enough to sit shotgun, digging his hand in there as he turned around to talk to Jaemin. Now Jaemin is the one turning and expecting something, only to be met with the sound of Donghyuck drumming his fingers rapidly on the steering wheel. It's bitter, reminding him of his teen years when Donghyuck began to fade away.

So he asks the obvious question. "Who's Yangyang getting married to?"

Wordlessly, Donghyuck points to the glovebox.

Curious, Jaemin opens it. Inside mixed with spare change and chewing gum wrappers, is a red and blue invitation. Written in an elegant golden script is, Together with their families: Yangyang and Renjun save the date.

"Renjun?" He asks, the name completely foreign on his tongue. "Do you know him?"

"Not at all," Donghyuck replies, sour.

Jaemin mouths an Oh before placing it in his lap to study it further. "Sunset Hall? Isn't that where our prom was held?"

Donghyuck bites the inside of his cheek. "Yeah. I danced with him there."

Jaemin purses his lips hearing the tension in Donghyuck's voice. Still, he wonders...

"When did you guys break up?"

"A little after high school," Donghyuck answers almost robotically, "I switched majors, let hockey go. We just weren't the same people anymore. So, we weren't in love with each other anymore." He shrugs. "That's how it is."

"But then..." Jaemin hesitates, hoping he isn't crossing a line. "Why are you going?"

And why are you dragging me into it?

"I miss him," Donghyuck admits, wrinkling his nose. "Can I not miss someone who meant so much to me?"

"I'm not saying that." Jaemin almost shouts, his voice rises a few pitches higher.

"Woah." Donghyuck stops at a red light, finally turning to look at Jaemin, who's completely off the backrest. "Did I say something wrong?"

Jaemin blinks before slumping back. "No. Old habit, I guess."

Donghyuck knits his eyebrows. "What do you mean by that?"

"I..." He trails off, staring at his hands dejectedly. The past is the past, he must remind himself. He has to move on.

But how can he do that, when he can't even talk about their falling out without choking on his tongue?

Luckily for him, Donghyuck doesn't say anything either. Jaemin tries to swallow it down. He'll get plenty of chances to say something tonight. What that thing is, he doesn’t know.

Donghyuck finally turns into Sunset Hall, parking almost perfectly. Jaemin steps out, staring at the lines in awe.

"You were shit at parking when you first got your license," Jaemin remembers how Donghyuck had once managed to cross every line in the parking space.

"I'm a changed man," Donghyuck chuckles, twirling his keys in his fingers. "Ready to go?"

Jaemin nods then notices something odd. "Your tie is crooked," he points out.

Donghyuck runs his fingers on it and realizes it's at an angle. "Oh."

Jaemin reaches for it. "Here, lemme just…"

Donghyuck huffs with no attempt to push him away. "What are you gonna do? Tie it with bunny ears?"

Jaemin's hands stop adjusting Donghyuck's tie. "What?"

"Like you do with your shoelaces. You never learned how to do with the other way, huh?" Donghyuck's hand traces up Jaemin's arm, coming to rest at the cuff. "Did you think I wouldn't notice?"

"No." Jaemin swallows, eyes fixated on how Donghyuck's fingers are curled, slightly dipping into his sleeve. "I didn't think you would," he replies bitterly.

Donghyuck's grip loosens, nails brushing the skin on the inside of Jaemin's wrist. Familiar electricity courses through his veins. His heart races, fingers moving too fast on tying for his mind to keep up.

The sun is dipping into the horizon, making the satin bow tie glint in its light. Jaemin finishes quickly and pulls away, shoving his hands in his pockets.

"Let's get going," he mutters, beginning to walk to the hall.

They're seated in the second to last row, but right next to the aisle. As the couple walks down to the march, their faces hold nothing but joy.

Yangyang looks as far away as ever. His smile hasn't lost any of its radiance. It takes all of Jaemin's willpower not to scowl at him. After all, he's the whole reason he's here.

He catches a glimpse of his husband-to-be, grinning ear to ear. Renjun, Jaemin remember, finding it easier to look at him. But Yangyang keeps getting in his way, as it's his shoulder that faces where Jaemin and Donghyuck are standing.

When they reach the altar, everyone sits again. Jaemin tries to concentrate on the men in front, but the way that Donghyuck's knee bounces out of the corner of his eye easily distracts him.

Renjun is first with his vows, narrating their story. They were roommates freshman year and had rough first impressions. He jokingly complains about how Yangyang often mixed up their toothbrushes and his fiancé responds with, "You can't groan about that. You've had more of me in your mouth than my leftover spit on a toothbrush."

Renjun smacks Yangyang's forearm, face flushed red. He mouths something to Yangyang as a fit of assorted giggles descend over the audience. Jaemin covers his mouth to stifle his own, pretending to look scandalized. He steals glances at Donghyuck to see his reaction. The whole time, he's watching with a strained smile.

Yangyang is the one to shush the guests, a move that surprises Jaemin. Suddenly one hand is folded over his wrist as he listens to his vows with startling attention as if he's searching for something between the lines as the groom begins his vows.

"I thought that I'd have something grand by the time I got up here," Yangyang confesses sheepishly, laughing nervously when Renjun shoots him a questioning look. "I wanted it to be authentic━not something that's rehearsed in front of a mirror between shallow breaths."

He seems to squeeze Renjun's hands. Jaemin can't tell for sure from where he's sitting, but he tries to pay attention as intently as he can.

"To me, you're a river," Yangyang exhales shakily. "I fell face first and was swept away. Even though I tried to swim upstream, I couldn't help but feel intrigued by the rapids behind me. So I dove straight for them, jagged stones and all. And I won't lie━I got hurt a good number of times along the way. I guess that meant that they worked well." He winks at Renjun, whose head droops, bashful.

"Still, I somehow managed to make it past." He nods. "You embraced me, tending to my wounds yourself. You allowed me to wade in, and I felt your presence running on my skin."

Yangyang shakes his arms. "When I stumble on a slippery stone, you're right there to offer another to lean on. When I'm exhausted, I know that your steady hand will be there, pulling me along.

"Your current is powerful," he affirms, staring at Renjun with so much admiration that Jaemin can start to feel himself melting. "and I want to be within it for the rest of my life. I love you."

Jaemin gapes at the firm declaration, in awe of how easily Yangyang can utter these words. Or maybe he just can't tell because he's far away, unable to catch any beads of sweat on his forehead or other imperfections on Yangyang's skin. He squints, searching for something that can give it away. Something that can remind him that Yangyang isn’t as far above him.

Is it really true that he thought of it all on the spot?

Can Jaemin do something like this, too?

His nose itches and nostrils flare, but it's too late. The tears slip out of his eyes effortlessly, sliding down his cheeks. Terrified, he turns his head slightly before peeking over to Donghyuck, who's thankfully still focused on the ceremony. His breaths are strangled with small sobs escaping his mouth. He covers it, desperately biting on the skin on his palm. His shoulders still tremble even when he's hunched over slightly. It's enough to brush Donghyuck's. Moments later, a hand is trailing up Jaemin's back.

"You may kiss the groom," the priest announces. Cheers erupt from the chairs as the crowd stands to be the first to congratulate the couple.

But Jaemin pushes Donghyuck away from him and takes off in the other direction.

His fingers are stationed underneath his eyes as he passes the other guests, the bar, and then finally the hallway outside the venue. He settles on the nearest couch, trying to take deep breaths. That's when he hears the door open. He whips his head toward the noise but then looks away again.

Donghyuck is at his side at an instant. "Jaemin?" he asks in a soft voice, "What's wrong?"

"I━" Jaemin wheezes, doubling over.

"Okay, um...." Donghyuck's hand makes its way to his knee. Jaemin tenses faintly, but he makes no effort to break free.

"Deep breaths," Donghyuck decides, drumming his finger on Jaemin's knee rhythmically. "In...." Eight taps. "and out." Eight more taps.

Jaemin tries to follow this. His breath hitches several times when inhaling, but he finds it easier to breathe after a few tries. Donghyuck's other hand is on his back again, rubbing it in a smooth motion. No matter how Jaemin tries to deny it, he succumbs to Donghyuck's gentle touch, unwilling to leave this familiar comfort he indulged in years ago.

"Feeling better?" Donghyuck whispers into the quiet air.

"Uh, I think so," Jaemin replies slowly, raising his hand to wipe away the remnants of the tears. The tracks are still very visible on his cheeks and none of Donghyuck's hold on him loosens.

Donghyuck starts interrogating him. "What happened? Are you okay?"

"Um..." Jaemin shakes his head, desperate to scream something. But the words are stuck on his throat, telling him, It's not the right time. He wants to yell back, Then when? When can I finally say it?

"No," he finally admits, "I'm not okay."

"Then what is it?" Donghyuck asks, voice dripping with honey.

Donghyuck scoots closer. Right after, Jaemin moves away, keeping his eyes trained on his shoes. Slowly, Donghyuck's slide until they touch. It sends an involuntary shock through Jaemin, tracing his spine until he cracks again.

"Jaemin, please." Donghyuck's voice gets increasingly distraught the longer he speaks. "You know you can tell me anything."

I don't, Jaemin thinks, gripping the lower fabric of his blazer. He has whiplash from this━where Donghyuck is suddenly running after him. This dilemma is suffocating, ripping his insides into pieces.

Donghyuck's hand trails up Jaemin's thigh and comes to rest atop of his open palm. Without a second thought, Jaemin laces their fingers together. Finally, he looks up to see Donghyuck's eyes glistening with worry.

"It's stupid," Jaemin murmurs, glancing down at their hands.

But Donghyuck hears it. "It’s your feelings, nothing about that can be stupid."

Overwhelmed, Jaemin starts to cry again.

"Oh…" Donghyuck sighs, bringing his other arm down to Jaemin's waist, pulling him into a hug. He pats his back as Jaemin silently sobs against his shoulder.

"It's alright," he tries to comfort him, "You're going to be alright."

"How do you know that?" Jaemin asks, skeptically hopeful.

"Because…" Donghyuck pauses as if he forgot what he was going to say. "You always are. You always come out of whatever you're going through with a smile."

"I'm not sure about this one, though," Jaemin says in an empty voice, a stark contrast to what's going on in his head. Nails are clawing on the inside, sending a horrifying shriek through his brain.

"That’s what I'm here for," Donghyuck counters.

Jaemin feels a hand on his jaw, which fits into the palm perfectly. Donghyuck's thumb wipes Jaemin's cheeks tenderly, dragging against his skin slowly.

"Jaem," he pleads, "why did you cry?"

Jaemin heaves an unsteady sigh. "It's a bit complicated."

Donghyuck doesn't waver. "And I'm here to listen to all of it."

“Well...” Jaemin’s eyes are fixed on their interlocked hands as he tries to make sense of what happened. “I guess watching that made me realize how lonely I am.”

Donghyuck frowns. “How so?”

“Uh…” He pauses, unsure of whether to continue or not. He’s staring at a box full of unkempt emotions in their ugliest forms. How willing is he to open it and share it with someone who hasn’t spoken to him since their biggest worries were about their exam scores?

But when Donghyuck tugs on Jaemin’s sleeve out of desperation, he decides to lift one of the flaps.

“I travel a lot. Meet all kinds of people.” His hand glides up his arm, hugging himself. “I’ve photographed countless weddings. But I think I know why this one is different. Here, I don’t check into a pristine hotel with the same layout of soft pillows in the front and firm pillows in the back. The car I pull up to the venue with isn’t generically up-to-date. It certainly doesn’t have faded stickers on the inside of the window,” he giggles fondly, “Here, I’m unable to sleep in my own bed because my mind is plagued by apprehension. The mattress is a little small for me. The pink comforter is a pale peach from hours of drying on a clothesline in the summer. No matter how much I want to cling onto what or who they used to be, this place is changing. That’s why it’s different. I know them, yet they’re not who I once knew. Seeing people declaring their love for each other like that made me realize how much I want a moment like that. ”

“Yangyang made a dick joke at the altar. You want that?"

Jaemin snorts. "No, I didn't mean that. Well, I actually don't know." He sighs. "Though I kind of do. I want to be comfortable with someone like that."

Donghyuck scoffs. "You're such a sap, Na."

Jaemin chuckles too, glancing at one of the many chandeliers hanging from the ceiling. "Yeah, I am."

There's a foggy silence between them before Jaemin feels something new on his cheek. Confused, he turns to see a handkerchief dabbing his skin.

He stares at it, puzzled. "Where'd that come from?"

"There were tears you didn't notice," Donghyuck explains.

"And you did?"

"Of course."

Again, there it is━the strange surge of hope that courses through Jaemin when Donghyuck says something like that. He hates how easy and pleasant it feels, sending waves of excitement through his toes.

Everyone around him has changed. Is there a possibility that Donghyuck changed in a way that he finally sees Jaemin the way he wants him to?

"Did that come with your tie?" Jaemin asks, observing the similarity in the red fabric.

"Sure did," Donghyuck replies. "But I didn't sneeze on it or anything," he adds quickly, jutting out his hands to defend himself. "I know how much you hate germs."

Regardless of what the answer to Jaemin's question is, Donghyuck does something unexpected. He reaches farther along Jaemin's shoulder, pulling him into his chest. Jaemin doesn't fight against this advance. Instead, he snuggles his face into the crook of Donghyuck's neck, finally letting himself give in.

"I do," Jaemin answers placidly, but he doesn't think about that right now.

"Can we stay like this a little longer?" Jaemin asks, studying Donghyuck's face. He resists the urge to trace the moles on his cheek━the ones that Donghyuck tried to conceal when they were young.

"As long as you need," he reassures him in a soft voice. "I'm here all night."

That's right. Jaemin has all night.

So he shields himself from the world to bask in Donghyuck's rays, filling him with warmth.

“Na Jaemin, what the actual fuck?”

“What?!” Jaemin hisses, pulling his plate away from Donghyuck. “If I don’t have dinner, I’ll sleep hungry!”

“I hate to break it to you, but that,” he points at the sweets on Jaemin’s plate, “is not dinner.”

“Well, it’s food,” Jaemin huffs.

Donghyuck shakes his head. “You’re impossible.”

Jaemin sticks a spoonful of cake in his mouth, eliciting a blissful sigh. “This is heavenly,” he says with his mouth full, savoring the taste on his tongue. "There's cream cheese frosting on this one. I wanna marry whoever made this cake," he nods before taking another bite.

"Darling," Donghyuck chides him, "you're going to be sick by the end of the night. I do not want to spend the rest of it sitting by a toilet with you."

"You won't!" Jaemin insists, unsure of whether the giddy feeling in his bones is from the massive amounts of sugar he's taking in or the fact that Donghyuck called him darling. Even when it's wrapped with sarcasm, he can't stop the wind of joy that tickles his ears, forcing him to stifle his giggles.

The argument is gone when they arrive at a standing table near the bar, much to Jaemin's satisfaction as he silently cheers for his victory. Donghyuck still throws disapproving looks at him, but Jaemin's sugar high has elated him to a level that he doesn't care about it.

A loud bang from the dance floor steals their attention away from their food. It's a booming song that the DJ (or Yangyang, Jaemin wouldn't be surprised) picked to kick off the true reception. It pounds in Jaemin's ears, making him frown over the fact that he probably won't be able to speak with Donghyuck properly again until they step out of the hall once again.

Now the question is, how long until then?

The cake turns bitter in his mouth as a larger crowd forms around the bright LEDs moving up and down, painting them with multi-colored lights. It turns even sourer when he notices how intently Donghyuck is staring at them.

"Do you wanna dance?" Jaemin asks, eyes still fixed on Donghyuck.

Donghyuck doesn't tear his eyes away as he leans in closer over the table. "What did you say?!" he shouts.

"I said━" He sighs and drops his fork to cup his hands over his mouth. "Do you wanna dance?!"

Donghyuck hesitates before yelling back, "I don’t wanna leave you alone."

“I’ll go with you!” Jaemin nods, placing his fork on his plate.

Donghyuck’s startled. “You will?”

I will?

“Yeah!” Without thinking any further, he grabs Donghyuck’s hand. “If you want to.”

“I do, but━Are you feeling okay?” Donghyuck asks, concerned.

Jaemin frowns. “Of course I am. Yes is all I need.”

Before Donghyuck can respond, Jaemin is pulling him to the crowded dance floor. His chest thumps harder as they move closer, and he’s certain that isn’t because of the blaring music attacking his ears at every side. He’s shuffling his feet awkwardly, shifting from side to side.

Donghyuck, on the other hand, encompasses the rhythm. As if he’s on clouds, he floats across the floor. He glows underneath the lights, never letting go of Jaemin’s hand. He raises their arms, twirling on the ball of his foot. The elements of their environment bleed into each other, with the grin that’s etched onto Donghyuck’s face being the only clear picture Jaemin can see.

The song fades away into a slower ballad, and a hush falls over the crowd. Jaemin’s head whips around, seeing the people around him pair up. There’s a squeeze and then a tug on his hand. Puzzled, he looks to see Donghyuck silently asking him. He takes one step closer and already notices the small changes, like how Donghyuck adjusts his hand so their fingers are now intertwined. His other hand creeps around Jaemin’s waist, sending bolts of electricity down his spine. Even the lighting has changed, with the only necessary pieces being a white spotlight and a rotating disco ball hanging from the ceiling. It seems like there are sequins plastered onto Donghyuck's skin, making him glow.

They move slowly yet surely, like waves swaying back to shore. Maybe it's the tide rolling in, but Jaemin finds himself closer to Donghyuck than ever before. It's almost magnetic how easily he succumbs to the pull, anchoring him to Donghyuck.

Jaemin’s eyes are gazing into Donghyuck’s, greeted by a sea of unanswered questions. He dives into them eagerly, desperately searching for something. Is it to know Donghyuck's feelings? How to assuage his own?

He does something daring. The hand resting on Donghyuck's shoulder glides up to his jaw, cupping it. His thumb strokes his cheek, running over the assorted moles dotting them.

A sudden jerk from Donghyuck's arm brings him even closer, to the point where their breaths mix. It catches Jaemin off-guard, sending a tsunami to crash on top of him. His stomach flips, flailing around in the water. Any breath he can manage is too short before he's dunked under again until he's completely submerged.

With every stroke of his fingers, his muscles ache. Returning to air will take too long. He's in too deep, accepting his fate. It's futile to resist fate━crushing him under its pressure until he bursts. No one can hear his screams down here. For the moment he opens his mouth, saltwater stabs his throat, filling up his lungs.

Is this what it feels like to drown?

His feet skid. His body stiffens.

Donghyuck senses it too quickly, squeezing Jaemin's hand. "Are you alright?" he asks.

He needs to get out of here. Now.

Jaemin opens his mouth to reply with something vague, but gets interrupted by another voice shouting across the room.

"Hyuck!"

Jaemin peeks over Donghyuck's shoulder and is greeted by the smiling face of none other than Yangyang. Before, he would've mentally cursed him out for barging in uninvited, but this time, he takes it as an opportunity.

Jaemin points to Yangyang. "You should talk to him."

"You still haven't answered me."

"He's walking over here. You should turn around."

"But━"

"No buts!" He whirls Donghyuck around, pushing his shoulders. "Have fun."

Jaemin is grateful for the DJ picking up a louder song after the slow dancing comes to an end, as he can't make up any more excuses for not hearing Donghyuck call after him. He makes a beeline for the bar, tapping the counter impatiently.

The waiter furrows her brows at him. "You alright?"

"I almost did something stupid. Gimme something strong."

"Isn't that━Nevermind." She snaps her fingers. "I gotchu."

"Thanks, uh..." He glances at her nametag. "Jimin," he says, trying the best smile he can muster.

She nods with satisfaction, turning to the nozzles and syrups in front of her.

Jaemin hums, eyes wandering around the room, subconsciously wondering if he can spot Donghyuck among them. Then, someone bumps his shoulder.

"Oh, I'm sorry!"

"It's alright..." Jaemin pauses, gazing at the groom. "Renjun."

Renjun's ditched the tuxedo from earlier, now adorning a black and purple dress shirt and simple blazer. He joins Jaemin, sidling up next to him. He squints at him. "I don't think I've ever met you. Are you one of Yangyang's friends?"

"Uh…" Jaemin feels heat rising upon his neck. "Sort of? Not really? We were classmates. My plus one was really close with him in high school━Well, I guess I'm the plus one in this situation." He drums his fingers nervously on his shot glass, puffing out his cheeks with embarrassment. He figures that it may be a bit awkward to mention Donghyuck and Yangyang are exes at his wedding.

"I see." Renjun turns his head to Jimin. "Just a Shirley Temple, please."

Jaemin hikes his eyebrows. "That's it?"

"I prefer to be sober at these kinds of events," Renjun shrugs.

"Man of class," Jaemin nods, "I respect that."

Renjun chuckles, pulling his drink closer to him. "What about you?" He asks, stirring the syrup with his straw.

"What about me?"

"You haven’t touched your drink since I came up here, and you were here before me."

Jaemin takes the shot. Instantly, it tastes like iron on his tongue. The bubbles explode like miniature bombs. He feels like needles are cutting through his throat when he swallows.

"I don't really like alcohol," He states nonchalantly, slamming the glass on the counter.

Renjun blinks. "Then why did you take it?"

Jaemin wipes the corner of his mouth. "I need an excuse."

"For what?"

"To get away." He slumps before glancing at Renjun. "You ask a lot of questions."

He takes a sip from his straw. "I'm just trying to be a good host. What are you trying to get away from?"

Jaemin stares at the mahogany finish, wondering if it's right to dump all his emotions on someone he hardly knows. Renjun's expectant gaze is burning into his back, demanding more.

"I needed to get away from my feelings. From him." He groans as the pain begins to blossom in his head. "I thought they were gone. I thought━" He chokes. "I thought that I had moved on.

"I've had ten years to get rid of them," Jaemin rants, "but then he waltzed right back in when I was least expecting it." His fist pounds the counter weakly. "Now, it's weird. There are moments where we're complete strangers, and then there are some where it feels like nothing happened between us."

"So like, a displaced familiarity?"

Jaemin's head perks up. "Yes!" He points his finger at Renjun. "That's it!" He frowns, hand drooping. "That's exactly it..."

The lump in his throat is too much for him to swallow down. "I'm scared. I'm scared of how easily my body betrays me when he's around." He points at the dance floor. "We were there earlier. He's ridiculous when he dances. He always has to be the brightest one there." He giggles. "But I know that he doesn't have to try. That's what I love about him."

There's a high that rushes through Jaemin as he thinks about Donghyuck. It wells up inside his stomach and then crawls up his throat. Infiltrating his brain, he sees stars━the same kind in Donghyuck's eyes. Brilliant yet poisonous, his emotions are breaking him down. Still, its hold on him is addictive, hands clasped around his throat as he's driven into a corner. His voice is raspy as he begs for more. The words are dancing on his tongue, eventually rolling close enough to the edge that Jaemin can spit them out.

"I love him," Jaemin finally declares, "and I don't know what to do about it."

"Then tell him."

Jaemin whips his head toward Renjun. "What?"

Renjun nods. "You heard me. Tell him."

"I can't do that." Jaemin shakes his head furiously, almost laughing at the thought. "It's going to ruin everything."

"You didn't say anything for forever," Renjun points out, "Where's that gotten you?"

Jaemin's face flushes. "A fight and never speaking again for ten years."

Renjun winces slightly but keeps the remainder of his composure.

"But what if it's the wrong choice?" Jaemin asks earnestly, begging for help. "What if I destroy our relationship again and regret it until I die?"

Renjun purses his lips, running his index finger around the rim of the glass. "I know I'm no expert, but here's something I've learned." He signals for Jaemin to come closer so he doesn't have to shout over the music.

"You're always going to regret a choice because you're looking at the possibility of another thing you could have done. But that's all that it is━a possibility. It's the perfect outcome that you've imagined. You can never compare reality to fantasy."

“If you love someone," Renjun continues, "you tell them━even if you’re scared that it will burn your life to the ground━you say it and you say it loud.”

"Don't worry about making the wrong choice." Renjun jabs his finger in Jaemin's face. "Make a choice, then make it right."

Finished with his monologue, he pulls back, grabbing his drink again. Jaemin is speechless.

"You really know a lot," he comments, mouth hanging open.

Renjun laughs. "Just a thing or two." He gestures around the venue. "After all, this is my wedding."

Jaemin smiles. "Right."

"Renjun!"

"Speaking of the devil," Renjun jokes, turning at the sound of a familiar voice. Jaemin spins around and meets Yangyang's face.

He’s stunned by how familiar Yangyang looks as if he didn’t age at all during their time apart. His grin is annoyingly wide, showing off the teeth that Jaemin used to believe he stole. Something unpleasant bubbles up in his stomach, gnawing at the sides to hit him with nausea.

“Jaemin, right?” Yangyang asks, holding out his hand. “Donghyuck told me about you.”

That’s when he gets it.

He’s jealous.

He's jealous of what Yangyang has: a lovely wedding, a lovely husband, and finally, Donghyuck.

Well, had. He had Donghyuck.

When Yangyang says it, Jaemin realizes there's a second feeling.

Guilt.

He desperately wants someone to blame for stealing Donghyuck away from him all those years ago. Naturally, he placed it on Yangyang, the boy Donghyuck fell for instead of him. The thought of him tortured Jaemin, making him wish that Yangyang would suddenly disappear and never return. Now he chides these thoughts, snapping the threads that are keeping him tethered to sixteen.

So Jaemin takes Yangyang's outstretched hand, shaking it lightly.

"That's me," he beams.

Jaemin clutches his stomach, groaning.

Donghyuck raises a brow, repeatedly glancing from the road to Jaemin. "You alright?"

Jaemin nods. "I think I have a stomachache."

He clicks his tongue. "It's all the cake. I wouldn't say I told you so, but..."

"Asshole," Jaemin chuckles, leaning back on the car seat.

"Hey, I'm not the one who decided to induce a sugar high at eight in the evening!" Donghyuck sighs after a moment of silence, tapping his finger on the steering wheel. "You're probably crashing, that's all. At least you'll sleep well tonight."

Jaemin rubs his temple. "Anything will be better than last night."

That seems to grab Donghyuck's interest. "How come?"

"I was nervous for today," Jaemin confesses, gazing out the window. "Like, I only managed to get out of bed around two hours before you picked me up."

"What's there to be nervous about?" Donghyuck asks, sounding confused. "It's just me."

Jaemin almost laughs at this. It can never be just Donghyuck. It's his startling eyes, flickering like candlelight. He treasures the warmth he receives from them but is reminded of their fragility. Any gust in the wrong direction can snuff the flame, leaving Jaemin in the dark again. How can he not be nervous when one of the things he treasures the most can be taken away so quickly?

Too afraid to answer, he gazes out of the window for help. Then he spots an orange sign on the side of the road. He sits up quickly. "Wait, did you see that?"

"See what?"

"Turn around. Please?"

Donghyuck complies, making a u-turn until Jaemin tells him to stop. He pulls onto the path, noticing the gates. "Why are we at Rainbow's End?"

Jaemin gasps, recognizing the cement arch with multi-colored stripes illuminated by the headlights. Immediately, he steps out of the car to inspect the sign.

His heart sinks.

"What is it?" Donghyuck calls after him, slamming the car doors shut.

"They're demolishing it."

"They're what?!" Donghyuck shakes his head. "That can't be right. Certainly..." He finally reads the sign. "Oh my god..."

"This is going to be gone before I leave," Jaemin says, biting his lip and looking at the gate. "We should visit."

"The gate's closed," Donghyuck points out.

Jaemin already has one leg over it. "So?"

"How did you━"

"It only reaches our waists now," Jaemin replies, throwing his other leg over and landing on the woodchips. "This thing was only made so kids can hop it."

"True." After a moment of consideration, Donghyuck turns back to the car.

"Where are you going?!"

"I'm getting my keys, dumbass!" Donghyuck yells, turning the headlights off. "I can't let the engine keep running if we're here."

Jaemin brightens. "You're coming?"

Donghyuck grins. "Duh."

Jaemin waits for Donghyuck to crawl over the fence before they run into the playground, feeling their shoes sink into the stones that lie on the ground.

"You are not going on that," Donghyuck warns.

Jaemin grabs the handles of the merry-go-round, glaring at him. "What are you, my mom?"

"I'm just saying that you're going to be sick, and I don't want your puke to have a trajectory."

"And why's that?"

"Because it could hit me!" Donghyuck shrieks.

Jaemin giggles, kicking off the ground a few times before letting it spin him around. He leans toward and away from the center, whooping at how disorienting it feels. His mind is swirling as well as his stomach. "This feels a lot weirder than what I remember!" he shouts.

Moments later, something causes it to slow abruptly. In the hazy view that Jaemin has of his surroundings, he's able to make out a hand being held out to stop the spinning.

"That's enough," he hears Donghyuck say as Jaemin steps back. He bumps into his chest, unable to find his footing. An arm wraps around his waist, keeping him secure. Another one lifts his, placing it on Donghyuck's shoulder. "Let's get you somewhere else," he decides, starting to walk towards one of the swingsets.

He helps Jaemin onto one and then takes the one directly next to him. Jaemin is shaking his head, trying to come to his senses of what just happened.

Donghyuck rocks on the swing, sending a loud creak through the air. He grits his teeth, dragging his foot through the stones. He groans, popping one of his shoes off and shaking it. "I forgot how easily these can get in your shoes."

Jaemin only watches, slightly pumping his legs. There's no noise.

Donghyuck gapes at him. "You got the creak-less swing!"

Jaemin nods, swinging higher. "I guess I did," he grins.

He looks around, seeing how empty everything is. "I just noticed how quiet it is here."

"You're late," Donghyuck chuckles.

"Very," Jaemin echoes. "It's just so weird. In the places I go to, the city is still blazing with life by one in the morning. Here, it's still. I guess I forgot there are places that actually sleep."

Donghyuck whistles. "You're really living the life, huh?"

Jaemin's legs droop, skidding through the pebbles. "I'm sorry?"

"You're going to all these cities and spend your time doing the things you've dreamed of since you were young." Donghyuck smiles at him. "I'm proud of you, Jaem."

Jaemin tilts his head to the side. "I suppose? I've never really thought of it that way."

I haven't gotten everything I wanted from when I was young. I don't have you.

"What about you?" Jaemin asks, "Did you want to go into medicine?"

Donghyuck's shoes have slightly buried themselves in the pebbles. "Not at first. In the beginning, I was really bummed. It felt like I was giving up everything I had worked for and being blown back into square one. But that's the reality of it all. Hockey was a hobby that I had to let go of."

He averts his eyes, staring more intently at his shoes. "I'm honestly surprised that you agreed to come with me tonight."

"Why?"

Donghyuck shrugs. "I don't know. Kinda thought you were too cool for that."

Jaemin scoffs. "What?"

"It sounds stupid, I know." Donghyuck purses his lips. "I just didn't know how you would react after seeing you for the first time after... that.

"I thought you were going to reject me," he continues, "Scream curses in my face. I deserve it."

Jaemin shakes his head. "No, you don't."

"But I do."

"No!" Jaemin screams, stomping the ground. "I just━" he sighs, "I wish you saw yourself the way I see you."

Donghyuck turns to him, intrigued. "And what does that look like?"

Jaemin's breath hitches.

Is he really going to do it?

"You don't have to be something extravagant. I don't care that you aren't the biggest or brightest star in the sky," Jaemin says, rocking gently on his swing, staring out at the lamppost on the corner of the street. "All I wanted was the one that was closest to my heart. You gave me warmth━gave me life." He digs his shoes in the wood chips, not caring that they may get ruined. "And when I realized that I had lost you…" A bubble floats up to his throat, reaching his eyes. It pops, and his vision suddenly becomes blurry. He wipes the tears with the pad of his fingers. "Frostbite isn't easy to deal with, you know. No matter how you try, your limbs are solid and stuck. That's how I felt. I was frozen in place, unable to move forward."

It's all pouring out now. "That doesn't mean I didn't try. I tried so hard. But as I moved from star to star, I couldn't settle. For some, I couldn't feel anything even when I was diving as deep as I could before suffocating. In others, they were too scalding to bear, even when I was light-years away. It's said that when someone you really love fades away, you search for little pieces of them in others, trying to cultivate what you can find. Because in reality, you didn't forget about them. You never got over them."

His hand buries itself onto the fabric of his pants, wishing he could do the same. He's seconds away from ripping it before he lets go, watching how it's ridden with wrinkles. He knows that even if he tries to iron them down, there's no guarantee that they won't appear again.

How long can Jaemin go before he too, tears open?

"I was always grasping at straws for closure. I read books, wrote letters." He gestures vaguely with his hands, causing a small creak from the swing. "I wondered what I could've done to keep you longer. But it didn't change the fact that you were running faster. Before I knew it, you weren't in my eyes anymore." He can't control the way his body is shaking, tears spilling down his cheeks.

He can't bear the weight of an unspoken love anymore.

He recalls how he always dreamed of him confessing to Donghyuck. It would be another summer evening lazing by the pond. The other boys would be gone, but Jaemin had what he liked to call Best Friend Privilege. With it, he could sit in silence with Donghyuck, his feet hanging from the dock, barely skimming the water. Every year, it got closer. It would be a day that he could finally dip his toes in, kicking the water in Donghyuck's face after he said something stupid. He'd merely roll his eyes and say, "You could never. You love me."

Then Jaemin would say, "Yeah, I do."

It would be a moment of unspoken understanding, pinkies brushing each other until all of their fingers would interlock. Their skin bathed in golden light, Donghyuck would make the first move━he always did. He'd brush Jaemin's bangs from his eyes and cradle his head. Small giggles would join the chorus of nature around them, blending into the world at sunset.

Where Jaemin stands now, all he receives is a gentle breeze, coddling his cheeks. It reminds him of Renjun's gentle advice━to say it, to scream it. It's his stage, free to do what he wants.

"Even when I ran away, there was a part of my heart still frozen." He lays a hand on his chest. "It never melted."

"You're my sun," Jaemin finally confesses, gripping the chain of the swing with all his might. "All I ever wanted was to be your moon."

"I love you, Lee Donghyuck. I always have." He chokes. "I always will."

It ends in a whisper not much louder than the howling wind, but Jaemin doesn't care. This isn't a strategic declaration for the world to poke their noses into. It's a quiet cadenza, improvised and raw.

His words are for Donghyuck and Donghyuck only.

Moments pass and the wind dies down. She’s done her part, swirling around Jaemin’s hair to keep him sane throughout. But there is no longer anything to blanket over the lingering silence between them other than the sound of Jaemin’s shallow breaths, in disbelief that he actually did it.

He finally said it.

So why is Donghyuck saying nothing?

Jaemin feels like he’s about to explode. Blood roars in his ears. He thinks his heart is going to burst out of his chest if he stays on this swing any longer. So slowly, he stands, allowing his messy blazer to take its time adjusting to its original posture.

He’s being impatient, his inner voice tells him. It’s been ten damn years, Jaemin fires back.

“I’m sorry,” Jaemin apologizes before breaking into a sprint.

The lights are simply hazy clouds blending into the night as he runs once again, but this time faster than ever. The weight once on his shoulders has finally been shoved off, but now he’s vulnerable. Naked.

He can’t face Donghyuck like this.

But this time, something different happens. He hears the quick movements of chains followed by a few creaks. Then he hears a crystal-clear plea.

“Wait!” Donghyuck shouts after him, picking up the pace.

That’s when Jaemin realizes that he can’t just run home like last time. It’s Donghyuck’s car perfectly parked in the lot. He’ll catch up. He freezes in his tracks, his shoes kicking up the wood chips.

His head whips to the playscape and makes a detour.

The first thing he comes across is a ladder, so he tries to scale it. It’s inefficient━ he slips a few times before finally making it up onto the platform. But it’s the closest thing to where he’s seeking refuge.

The tube is symbolic to Jaemin. It was his first choice in hide-and-go-seek before Donghyuck caught onto his patterns (it was fairly quick). It was also where Donghyuck once hid as he walked by. Instead of staying quiet, he jumped out like a jack-in-the-box, scaring Jaemin so badly that he burst into tears. Donghyuck felt so bad that he gently took Jaemin’s hand and led him to the ice cream cart nearby.

Now, Jaemin is curled up inside, running his fingers over the clouded plastic windows. The paint inside is in better condition than the outside, but it has wear of its own. It’s littered with scratches and various doodles. He spots a few hearts with initials in them. Upon seeing them, more tears slipped out of his eyes. He breaks into quiet sobs again.

His peaceful moment is broken by loud clanging rapidly approaching him. He cranes his neck to see Donghyuck running to him. With nowhere to run, he shields his face.

“Jaemin!” he yells, kneeling at the tunnel. "Jaem," he says again, much softer. "please."

"I'm sorry," Jaemin chokes, "I'm so sorry."

"You can't run away from me again," Donghyuck begs, voice wavering. "I won't let you."

"Stop!" Jaemin's scream echoes through the air of the empty playground. "Just say it. Stop torturing me like this, Hyuck."

"I can't say anything to you if you're like this." He clasps his hands together, falling onto both of his knees. "Please, Jaem. Come out of there."

Jaemin shakes his head. "I can't."

"Why not?"

He demonstrates by putting his hands on the sides and pushing up. No movement.

"Oh…" Donghyuck trails off.

"I'm stuck," Jaemin wails softly, weakly pounding the metal around him. "I'm too big for this now. I used to be able to fit my whole body in here." He flails his arms uselessly. "Now look at me."

"I grew up, Hyuck. I didn't want to." Jaemin clutches his head, bringing his knees even closer to his chest. "I didn't want to grow up. I didn't want to change. I didn't want us to change!" He's hyperventilating now. "I wish I could go back. I'm haunted by all these what-ifs, asking myself, what could have I done? Why was I not enough? I just wanted one thing, and it was you! I'm stuck on that day. I'm fucking stuck!" His fists hammer the tube, cursing at it to let him out. He kicks against the hole he's gotten himself into to no avail.

He can't escape by himself.

Donghyuck grips Jaemin's hands, pulling him. "C'mon," he cries, "You can get out of there. I'm here."

"For how long?"

"As long as you want me to be. I'll take it." Another tug. A pop.

Jaemin's free.

Donghyuck senses this and pulls even harder until Jaemin realizes that he's been scooped into his arms. The unmistakable scent of Old Spice invades his nostrils again, but this time, he indulges in it. His arms go around Donghyuck's neck, holding onto him as if he'll never let go.

He doesn't want to.

"It's over now," Donghyuck hushes Jaemin, rubbing his back.

"How do you know?"

"Will you let me speak?"

Jaemin silently nods, apprehensive.

Donghyuck sighs, settling on the floor of the playscape without letting Jaemin go. "I don't think I'd ever hear those words from you," he whispers, stroking Jaemin's hair.

"What?" he asks, "That I love you?"

"Yeah," Donghyuck replies in a soft voice. "I thought any thought of me had disappeared when I saw you kissing a guy around the corner at school."

"At school… Wait━Do you mean," the name is foreign on Jaemin's tongue, "Jeno?"

"Was that his name? All I remember was trying to find you after school one day because I wanted to apologize. Then I saw you with him and thought, 'So he's forgotten about me'. I kind of just bolted away after that." He rocks back and forth. "But I could never do the same."

Donghyuck pauses to rummage through his pocket. Jaemin perks his head up to see the small object that's enclosed in his fist. There's a pink string sticking out of it. "Wait, is that━"

"It is," Donghyuck nods, opening his hand to reveal a string bracelet with hearts. The string bracelet with hearts.

Jaemin reaches out to run over it with his fingers. "It doesn't look a day older. You kept it all this time?"

"Until I had the guts to face you again," Donghyuck answers.

He's silent before Jaemin notices how his eyes are shining. He reaches up to rub his eyes. "Hyuck…"

Donghyuck covers his face, embarrassed. "I'm so sorry, Jaem, for everything. For getting mad at you because I was leaving you behind. For realizing it too late. I'm so sorry." He chokes.

"It's okay," Jaemin tries to reassure him, patting his knee. "You couldn't have known. I didn't say anything."

"Still," Donghyuck sobs, "I never hurt the same way that you did, I'm certain." He shifts his body so he can look at Jaemin. He cups his jaw, trying to blink back his own tears. "You didn't deserve that at all."

"You know, I visited your house whenever I came home. You were never around, though," he explains, "But your mom always greeted me like nothing happened, and she would take me inside. She'd give me lemonade, and then she would talk about you. She would tell me where you currently were, and when you'd be back. She'd show me photos from your exhibitions━telling me how you're doing. It made me miss you even more, knowing that I couldn't be by your side. That's why I was so shocked when you were the one who answered the door. Dropping by became so routine to me that a change like that messed me up."

Jaemin sits still, soaking in all this new information. His mind is playing a game of pinball, where random areas light up with a small epiphany. He's rapidly pressing the buttons to push more, praying that he can think of something coherent to say. Luckily, he doesn’t have to.

"You're everything I've ever wanted and more," Donghyuck continues, "You're not the moon. You're not even the Earth. You're my whole universe, pulling me in with ease. I'd run across every galaxy if it meant that I could have you again.

"Na Jaemin, I love you too."

The words ring in Jaemin's head, making him light-headed. So, he makes the first move by grabbing the back of Donghyuck's head, cradling it in his hand.

It's neither of their firsts, but it wouldn't feel like it if it was otherwise. They melt into each other, intertwining fingers and tousling hair. Kissing Donghyuck feels like the eve of summer, where the spring rain douses the last of the blossoms. When the sun peaks out, the humidity mixes the scents, filling the air with them. They infiltrate Jaemin's brain, leaving him breathless and dizzy.

They grow tired, so Donghyuck resorts to pressing butterfly kisses on Jaemin's cheeks. He giggles at them, burying his face into Donghyuck's shoulder.

"'M exhausted," Jaemin mumbles, snuggling in Donghyuck's arms. "Can we just sleep here?"

"We'd probably get fined for loitering. What we're doing right now is already illegal, anyway." He chortles. "We'd probably scare some poor kids in the morning."

Jaemin nods. "I don't wanna stand up myself, though." He grins, trying to muster the most adoring look he can. "Hyuckie, can you help me up?"

Donghyuck rolls his eyes. "You're so dramatic." Nevertheless, he still obeys.

Jaemin hugs Donghyuck fully this time, thrilled to be able to finally melt in his arms the way he's always wanted. "Sleepover?" he asks, planting a few kisses on Donghyuck's neck.

Donghyuck pulls away to peck Jaemin's lips. "I thought you'd never ask."

Their hands find each other as they walk back to where Donghyuck's car is waiting.

"Well now that we're together, I think that you need to know something," Donghyuck says in a serious voice.

Jaemin stops. "Hm? What's that?"

"I…" he takes a deep breath, "put milk before cereal."

Jaemin makes a face at him. "You like milk?"

"I━what?" Donghyuck's jaw drops. "You don't like milk?"

Jaemin shakes his head. "I'm sorry. It's been nice being with you for ten minutes but I," his voice cracks and a giggle slips out, blowing his act, "cannot be with a man who likes milk."

"Jaem, you cannot be serious," Donghyuck deadpans.

"I am!" Another giggle. "I'm dumping you, I can't do this."

"Jaemin!"

"Oh my god." Jaemin's face morphs into shock, pointing behind Donghyuck's shoulder. "Is your car getting towed?"

"What?!" Donghyuck shrieks, spinning around, giving Jaemin a chance to make a run for it. When he realizes it, he shouts after him, "Jaemin, I'm going to kill you!"

"Gotta catch me first!" Jaemin yells back.

"Motherfucker━"

Jaemin laughs━freely, and with the wind swirling around him. The chase ends quickly as Jaemin runs out of air, and Donghyuck has gotten a lot faster since the last time Jaemin saw him sprint around a track.

"You're not leaving me again like that, you hear?" Donghyuck demands, spinning Jaemin around to look at him.

"Only if you do the same," Jaemin insists. He raises his pinkie. "Swear on it."

Donghyuck understands immediately, raising his own pinkie to interlock with Jaemin's. Then he pulls him in to kiss him again.

Jaemin can't help but smile in it, breaking it with the tiny giggles that leave his mouth.

When Jaemin was nine, he swore to stay by Donghyuck's side.

Now at twenty-six he says it again, sealing it with a kiss and what he hopes to be a thousand more.