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can't stop my heart when you're shining in my eyes

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13.

Jaemin met Jeno in his first year of junior high.

Technically, they didn't become friends, because Jeno was his older brother's Renjun's classmate and friend. But the three of them went to the same school, had since he and Renjun transferred there at the beginning of the year after Renjun and his mother moved to Korea to live with Jaemin and his father. Before that, Jaemin had been living in Korea too, but in the countryside of Jeonju while Renjun and his step-mother were living in China. She had married his father years ago, but because of their jobs they had to be based in different countries and only got to spend time as a family during summer vacations. He saw Renjun only for a few months each year, but they were friendly enough to be familiar and know each other as well as good friends. Although Renjun was his step-brother, Jaemin had always seen him as his hyung. But when they started middle school, their parents decided that it was important to live together as a family during their formative years, to give them company during their teenagehood. Privately, he and Renjun joked they were afraid to deal with their adolescent angst alone. But Jaemin knew his father cared for him and wanted him to have a mother figure, and an older brother to talk to. So the four of them bought a house in Seoul and enrolled Jaemin and Renjun at a prestigious junior high school, ready to start their new life together.

Renjun wasn't completely fluent in Korean yet when he arrived in Seoul, so at the start he was more shy than usual and stuck to Jaemin like a piece of chewing gum on his shoe. He didn't mind, because Renjun was cute and nice to have around, like a warm teddy bear. He had been taking Korean classes since their parents had gotten married, but still didn't know a lot of slang and colloqualisms kids their age especially liked to use. His mother was thankfully, much more fluent in the language.

Jaemin thought Renjun was super cool, especially when Renjun taught him English swear words. In return, he would teach Renjun naughty Korean words so the tutoring sessions their parents made them give each other were probably more of a bad than good influence.

The first time he met Jeno was a few weeks into the school semester, when Renjun brought him home after school. He was waiting for Renjun at the bus stop to make the journey home together that afternoon after dismissal, and brightened when he caught sight of him loping down the sidewalk, but his smile slipped a little when he saw another boy he didn't know trailing at Renjun's heels.

Renjun smiled breathlessly when he arrived at the bus stop, filmy uniform pasted to his skin with slight sweat from the midday sun.

"Sorry, Jaeminie, did you wait long? This is my classmate... friend, Jeno. He's coming over today to help me with some homework."

"Ah... nice to meet you." Jaemin quickly wiped his fingers on his pants and stuck out an awkward hand.

Jeno took it, smiling back just as awkwardly. "Your younger brother? He's cute," he told Renjun, and they shook hands limply as he muttered, "Hi," to Jaemin.

Renjun smiled, looking pleased by Jeno's compliment. "I know, right?" He ruffled Jaemin's hair, and just then the bus drew up so they clambered up and lumbered down the aisle of the mostly empty bus. Jaemin usually sat with Renjun but today Jeno sat down beside him so he sank onto the seat across the aisle, trying not to feel like the odd one out.

 

 

 

Renjun and Jeno did their homework in the living room when they got home, with their textbooks and worksheets scattered around the coffee table. They turned on the ceiling fan to full blast and unbuttoned the top button of their uniform shirts, loosening the collar and untucking the shirttails. Jeno looked serious as he got absorbed into explaining a Maths equation to Renjun, who looked dazed but was doing his best to listen conscientiously. Feeling left out, Jaemin drifted to the kitchen to get a snack and drink from the fridge to cool himself down. He chugged a few large gulps of milk straight from the carton lazily, then wiped his lips and curled his hands over the straps of his backpack as he trudged to his bedroom.

 

 

 

Jeno came over a few more times occasionally after that day, but Jaemin saw him in school too when he found Renjun at recess. Renjun was almost always sitting and eating with him in the canteen, but they always looked happy to see Jaemin and he was grateful they didn't mind him joining them because although he had a few friends in his class like Jisung and Chenle, he didn't have a best friend the way Renjun had Jeno.

They had soon become best friends after that first day, although they didn't say it. Anyone could see they were inseparable. Jaemin was slightly jealous, but he didn't know whether it was of Jeno or Renjun. A little of both, he guessed. But he felt spoilt when both of them doted on him equally, acting like his hyungs.

He had never really spent any time alone with Jeno until one afternoon when Renjun was held back in class to speak with his teacher. When Jaemin saw Jeno sitting alone at their usual bench in the canteen, he had hesitated before approaching with his plate.

He was relieved Jeno appeared warm when he looked up to see him. "Oh, hey. Our teacher wanted to speak to Renjun so I don't think he can come down for recess today. I'm going to get him something to eat. Do you know what he likes?"

"Um..." Jaemin was a little surprised; it was the longest sentence Jeno had spoken to him. "Maybe just a hotdog bun and a soda?"

Jeno nodded. "Good idea." He shovelled the rest of his plate of rice into his mouth, then smiled at Jaemin. "Wait for me here. I'll be back after I dump this and buy it."

Jaemin nodded back with his mouth full, feeling grateful for his niceness. Jeno didn't need to accompany him, he could just go back to class since Renjun wasn't here. It felt like Jeno was treating him as his friend too.

He watched Jeno queue up for the bun, then walk to the vending machine to buy a drink. But when he walked back to the table, he was holding two cans. At first, Jaemin thought one was for him, but he placed it down beside Jaemin's plate.

"I noticed you hadn't bought a drink yet. You must be thirsty."

Jaemin swallowed, looking up with surprise. "Thanks... hyung."

Jeno looked pleased. It was the first time Jaemin had called him that. He shook his head gruffly and sat down opposite Jaemin, opening the can for him with a pop. "Don't rush," he said. "There's lots of time."

For the rest of the break, they didn't talk much, but Jeno sat with Jaemin until he finished eating his food, then they parted ways as the bell rang.

 

 

 

 

14.

By his second year of junior high, Jeno was such a frequent guest at their house their mother knew him by name. She always prepared an after-school snack for all of them when they got home, if she wasn't working. She liked Jeno because he was a serious student, despite his delinquent-like exterior, and his tutoring sessions had been a very positive influence on Renjun's grades.

Sometimes Jaemin would shyly ask for help with his homework too. Now that he knew they didn't mind him joining them at the coffee table after school, he would sit down between them and take his homework out of his bag, spreading it out as well. When Jeno finished his earlier, he would help Jaemin look over the exercises he had completed, checking for mistakes.

Jeno always smiled kindly when he asked for help and taught him as meticulously as he taught Renjun. Jeno would make a good teacher when he grew up, he privately thought. He wondered what Jeno's ambition was.

The other, secret reason he liked asking Jeno questions was because Jeno always looked impressed by how intelligent he was. A few times, he said to Renjun jokingly, "Your brother is so smart, he should be in our grade."

Renjun agreed easily. He was the kind of older brother who took compliments to Jaemin as if they were personally directed to him, looking as proud as if Jeno had complimented him. "I bet he could teach me as well as you."

Jeno's face fell a little then, for the briefest second, so fleeting Renjun didn't even notice. Only Jaemin did, because he happened to be watching closely. He seemed worried that Renjun would no longer need him. And Jaemin didn't like the thought of Jeno coming over less often too.

So he tried not to act smarter than his age. But once in a blue moon, he still couldn't help showing off a little, just to make Jeno look at him with amazement and reach to ruffle his hair proudly. The first and only time Jeno asked him for help with an equation he couldn't puzzle out, Jaemin felt like he had scaled the moon.

 

 

 

They were never together for too long, mostly operating as a trio. Renjun and Jeno were alone together for most of the day at school, but Jaemin and Jeno never were, except a few minutes here and there when Renjun went to buy food at recess or grab a snack from the kitchen at home or went to the restroom. And usually, even these times were spent in comfortable silence, not looking at each other.

 

 

 

But one day in his class, when he was chatting with Chenle and Jisung, they were interrupted by one of his female classmates walking to his table. She was pretty and popular, and Chenle and Jisung looked awed and shy as she approached because none of the three had spoken to her personally before.

Chenle nudged him when they noticed she was holding a pink coloured piece of paper folded into a heart. Jisung looked at him, wide-eyed, and he felt his heart quickening. Was he going to get his first confession in his life?

But when she stopped before them, blushing, he was disappointed to hear her say, "Jaemin, right? Um, I noticed that you're friends with this third-year sunbae, Lee Jeno? Sorry to bother you, but could you help me pass something to him?"

Jaemin took the letter, too stunned and polite to say no. His friends groaned in disappointment as she walked away without even looking at them.

At recess, when he hesitantly fished the slightly crumpled letter out of his pocket and passed it to Jeno, his eyes widened in confusion at first.

"Jaemin-ah, what is this?" He looked afraid to take it.

Abruptly, Jaemin realised how the situation looked. He started blushing as he explained, "No, a girl in my class asked me to give this to you!"

Jeno's eyes cleared, and he finally accepted the heart from his hand. But his eyes narrowed, a hint of displeasure creeping onto his face.

"Thanks. But next time, just tell them to pass it to me themselves if they want to. You don't have to be their messenger."

"Oh... okay." Jaemin swallowed, wondering if Jeno was annoyed at him, or burdened by the confession from an underclassman which he probably got more than a few of. Even as a guy, it was difficult not to notice that Jeno was good-looking, in a more subtle way than Renjun's clean-cut handsomeness but no less attractive.

Jeno didn't open the letter, leaving it beside his plate as he continued eating his food without curiosity. Jaemin didn't know why he opened his mouth and blurted out, "She's really pretty."

Jeno looked up at him again, brow creasing. His fork paused on the way to his mouth.

"O...kay?" he replied, as though he didn't know how this was relevant. "Thanks for the info. But I'm not interested."

He crumpled up the letter without reading it. Jaemin felt bad for his female classmate, who was probably being rejected for the first time.

Renjun came back from the restroom and sat down beside Jaemin. "What's that?" he asked curiously, eyeing the creased pink ball.

Jeno blushed and grabbed it, shoving it into his pocket. "Nothing."

Renjun raised an eyebrow at Jaemin in bafflement but didn't ask further.

 

 

 

It was his only his second year of junior high, but it was Renjun and Jeno's third year. He didn't want to think of the fact that next year, they would have graduated and moved up to high school, leaving him alone here. He wouldn't be able to spend recess with them anymore. Not for the first time, he wished he was the same age as them. The age gap of one year wasn't large, but they were at an age when it still felt substantial. It was just another of the unbridgeable differences between him and the two of them.

Renjun's Korean had improved a lot thanks to the immersive environment, and practicing it daily with them both. But he was still shy and his only good friend was pretty much Jeno. Jeno too, didn't seem to get along with any other person as well as Renjun. Jaemin could guess why. There was something about Renjun's quiet calmness that was soothing, that made you feel comfortable around him.

When he asked Jeno which high school he was aiming to get into, Jeno hesitated, seeming flustered. Jaemin wondered if he had not yet decided. He was surprised because Jeno was the kind of person who was clear about his goals.

Renjun smiled and slung an arm around Jeno's shoulder. "He wants to go to the same school as me, right?"

Jeno blushed and lowered his head, but he was smiling too. He nodded shyly.

"Oh..." Jaemin smiled too, unsurprised and thankful that they would still be friends in high school. He was worried he would never see Jeno again if he and Renjun drifted apart like so many middle school friendships. But he had expected Jeno's target to be an elite school, because Jeno was always one of the top in his class and he took his studies very seriously.

As if reading his thoughts, Renjun said sheepishly, "I'll have to work extra hard, so I won't drag you down."

Jeno quickly reassured him, "Don't worry, you won't."

Renjun beamed at him gratefully. "I really want to be your classmate for another three years, Jeno-yah."

Jeno ducked his head, the tips of his ears bright red. "Me too," he mumbled.

"Me three!" Jaemin clamoured, raising his hand cutely, and they all collapsed into laughter.

 

 

 

 

15.

Fifteen was Jaemin's loneliest year, not only because of Renjun and Jeno's absence in school. It was also because it was the year he started reaching puberty, the wet dreams he had once in a while before starting to plague him almost weekly, his voice breaking and body hair starting to grow on his legs and between. He started noticing girls, their breasts and hips under their uniforms, white thighs peeking out of short skirts. When he got erections that refused to settle, he had to jerk off clumsily, sloppily and without skill.

He felt embarrassed, mortified and ashamed of his urges. He had a growth spurt which made his limbs feel uncoordinated and movements awkward. He wanted to talk to Renjun about them, but didn't know how to broach the subject. Tried to remember if Renjun had seemed to be going through this too the year before, but couldn't remember anything different about him.

Driven to desperation, he started looking up porn sites on his laptop and watching videos which made him blush in shock, but he couldn't stop. He tried to jerk off every other night, because if he didn't the urges would seem to build up, causing him to get random public boners, which were especially painfully awkward at inappropriate times in school.

One afternoon, Jeno had come over to the house again. He and Renjun were in their high school uniform, white shirt and navy pants. It was a hot summer day and Jeno was flapping his shirt to to cool himself, the fabric translucent where it clung to the muscles of his back with perspiration. Jaemin was sitting beside Jeno on the couch, while Renjun was on the adjacent loveseat. They were watching MTV music videos when suddenly a female singer flashed her cleavage onscreen and just like that, Jaemin was hard, again.

He panicked, shifting his legs and feeling a bead of sweat trickle down his temple as he darted a glance at Jeno from the corner of his eyes to check if he had noticed. He was overcome with relief to see Jeno looking straight ahead, his eyes focused on the screen, seemingly unaffected by the half-naked popstar.

Jaemin squirmed and fidgeted uncomfortably, trying to take deep but silent breaths and tore his eyes away, thinking frantically of equations, his parents, his brother Renjun, Jeno sitting beside him -- anything but boobs. But to his dismay, his erection didn't go down but only seemed intensified by his distress.

He was trapped on the couch, his crotch tented so blatantly by now that if he stood up and rushed out of the room, Renjun and Jeno would be sure to notice. So he just continued sitting there and sweating in a frenzy, not knowing what to do to get out of this agonizing situation.

He jumped when he heard Jeno's voice beside him speak up casually. “Jun."

"Hmm?" Renjun looked over, and with amazingly quick reflexes Jeno threw his blazer over Jaemin's lap before he could see. Jaemin blinked as he looked down breathlessly.

Jeno stretched, still not looking at Jaemin. "Can we walk down to the store to get ice creams? It's really hot."

"Oh..." Renjun looked reluctant to get up from where he had been enjoying the music video, but said easily, "Sure."

"Let's go, then," Jeno said, getting to his feet and moving to herd Renjun out the living room.

"We'll get you one too, Jaeminie!" Renjun called back innocently, and Jaemin heard their footsteps fading, the front door opening and closing. He sat there for three minutes, heart and mind racing to wrap around what just happened before he stumbled to his feet and, holding Jeno's jacket over his crotch, looked around furtively before dashing to his room and locking the door.

 

 

 

 

16.

Needless to say, when his parents asked which high school he was aiming for, Jaemin replied without hesitation the name of Renjun and Jeno's school. Even though it wasn't the most elite one he could get into, there was no way he was giving up the chance to join Jeno and his brother for the additional two years he could get with them. He had missed them enough this year to know it wasn't a nice feeling.

Renjun smiled at him proudly across the dinner table, obviously assuming Jaemin was doing so because of him. It was true, but he now had another reason he'd never voice out: Jeno. If Jeno had gone to the elite school, then maybe... Jaemin would have considered it a little more. That was how much Jeno had come to mean to him as a hyung too, almost as much as Renjun.

He successfully got into the school. Jisung and Chenle had gone to another, but he was comforted to know they were at least together and would have each other. They promised tearily to stay friends after high school and not let life and growing up tear them apart.

He met new friends in high school too, growing especially close to two of his classmates, Donghyuck and Yangyang. He liked Donghyuck because something about his personality reminded Jaemin of Renjun, but that was about where their similarities ended. While Renjun was more soft-spoken, Donghyuck was loud and gregarious and outgoing.

Even in high school, Renjun and Jeno seemed their own exclusive unit. They were friendly with other classmates, but mostly kept to themselves and spent their breaks with each other, and now Jaemin too when he entered their school. They were lucky to have stayed in the same class through all four years, Jaemin thought. They shared a bond he wasn't part of, and that he envied because he had never had with anybody.

Naturally, he introduced Donghyuck and Yangyang to the two, and the five started sitting and eating together at recess. He was pleased that all of them hit it off immediately.

After they met, Donghyuck whispered on the way back to class, "Your brother is really... pretty."

Jaemin was surprised, turning to look at him. "Did you mean handsome...?"

For the first time, he saw Donghyuck blushing a little. "Um... yeah," he backpedaled. "I guess."

But privately, Jaemin could understand what he meant. Because though Renjun was drop-dead gorgeous, it was more of the pretty than handsome kind of good looks. He was even prettier than some of the girls in their school, and there was a delicate, fragile air about him accentuated by his skinniness and paleness. But he knew Renjun didn't like being called that, so whenever people did he always corrected them.

 

 

 

When he blurted it out to Renjun accidentally though, spilling the beans when he mentioned his friend Donghyuck had said he was pretty, he was puzzled to see Renjun not looking offended for the first time but instead lowering his head shyly.

"What else did he say about me?" he asked Jaemin, sounding urgent.

"Nothing?" Jaemin was confused, but happy that Renjun seemed to have a good impression of Donghyuck, when he seldom displayed interest in anyone besides Jaemin and Jeno.

"Oh." Renjun look disappointed.

"What did you think about him?" Jaemin prodded, for some reason.

Renjun's ears coloured. "Um... nothing much. He was really... manly.”

 

 

 

Donghyuck nearly fell off his chair where he was trying to balance on the hind legs when Jaemin told him that. He had no idea why he was playing messenger for both, telling them what each other said to him in confidence but he was just curious about what was going on and it was fun to see them flustered.

"Your brother said I'm manly?" Donghyuck repeated, voice shriller than usual.

Jaemin nodded and shuffled his books, exchanging glances with Yangyang.

Donghyuck's face was flushed again, and he quickly cleared his throat and seemed to recover.

"Ah... I mean, obviously, it's no surprise that everyone thinks I'm manly..." He preened obnoxiously until Jaemin and Yangyang whacked him on the head with their textbooks in exasperation.

 

 

 

Now, when Jeno came over, Donghyuck usually would too. Yangyang was busy with music club activities on a lot of days, so he joined them less often.

Donghyuck was kind of a slacker, not very interested in books, easily distracted. He often asked Jeno for help with his homework, and Jaemin couldn't help feeling a twinge of irritation when Donghyuck begged Jeno in a wheedling voice to help him do his homework, calling him hyung. He was used to being the only one who called Jeno -- and Renjun -- hyung. Jeno sternly refused, but he did coach Donghyuck as seriously as he taught Renjun and Jaemin.

The four of them had a good chemistry and camaraderie, and spent many long languid afternoons together with Jaemin and Jeno studiously working on their homework while Donghyuck tried to coax Renjun into speaking in more than monosyllables. When he got too noisy, Jeno would sigh and set down his pen loudly, scolding, "Donghyuck, concentrate.”

When they were hungry after dismissal they would walk to the nearby McDonald's for tea. Jeno would sit beside Renjun but Donghyuck would steal Renjun's fries. Sometimes Jaemin felt a pang of unbrotherly resentment that all Renjun had to do was keep silent as a block of wood but both their friends were all over him, trying to get his attention.

 

 

 

He didn't know when, but he started sensing a slight and strange tension between the four of them, especially when they were alone together. He couldn't figure out where it was coming from, but wondered if Jeno and Donghyuck had had an argument he didn't know about because sometimes he would look up and catch them eyeing each other with hostility or even outright exchanging fleeting glares. He had always been sensitive about the mood and reading people like Renjun so it was surprising that Renjun continued to be innocently oblivious, linking arms with the both of them as he led them away.

Everything fell into place one unremarkable afternoon at the height of summer when they were lounging in the living room, snacking on watermelon to cool themselves down. Without any embarrassment, Donghyuck unbuttoned and peeled off his uniform shirt. Jaemin caught a glimpse of Renjun's eyes widening as he took in Donghyuck's bare chest and torso, before he tore them away and looked down at his lap. Jaemin’s eyes drifted to his left, where Jeno was sitting between him and Renjun. Jeno's face was turned towards Renjun, away from him, but Jaemin heard the soft, almost inaudible hitch of his breath as Donghyuck playfully wrestled Renjun against the couch and tried to make him take off his shirt too, while Renjun giggled and squealed breathlessly, loudly refusing.

He saw Jeno's eyes swiftly move over the way Renjun's flimsy uniform shirt strained over his narrow waist and shoulder blades, clinging to the contours of his skin. Saw them widen at the sliver of bare skin that was revealed when Donghyuck grabbed the collar of Renjun's shirt roughly, popping the top button. He saw the tight set of Jeno's jaw, the hard line of his profile as he sat there and between him and Jaemin his hand balled up into a helpless and frustrated fist.

It was hard to breathe. The white noise of Donghyuck and Renjun roughhousing in the background faded away behind the roaring in his ears as many things fell into place in quick succession. Jeno's frequent visits to their house, the way he had sacrificed going to a better high school for Renjun, the way he was always faithfully, loyally by Renjun's side; the way he only smiled when he was with Renjun. The way he looked at Renjun.

Jaemin’s heart clenched painfully at how obtuse he had been. How long had this been going on? How long had Jeno been suffering silently, whilst he and Renjun were happily unaware?

In that moment, for the first time since they had become brothers, he hated Renjun.

Inexplicably, the afternoon a year ago when Jeno had thrown his blazer over Jaemin's lap and asked Renjun to get ice cream flashed into his mind.

Before he knew what he was doing, he blurted loudly, “Hyuck."

Donghyuck and Renjun paused in their tussling, a silence falling as they looked up at him from the ground where they were tangled, Renjun's face flushed with embarrassment and something else, Donghyuck's with irritation. They were breathing hard.

"Come here," Jaemin babbled, for lack of a better idea what to say. He patted the ground beside him and implored Donghyuck silently with his eyes.

Donghyuck looked confused, and a little more annoyed as he reluctantly let go of Renjun's shirt and got up. But to his credit, he acted like a loyal best friend and obediently walked towards Jaemin and sat down beside him.

In his haste to sneak a glance at Jeno and check his expression, he nearly missed the look Renjun shot him: one that he didn't recognize at first, because Renjun had never displayed this emotion towards him -- irritation.

 

 

 

Jaemin didn't know what to do with his discovery. He was troubled, lying awake now at night not with lust but conflict. He felt so bad, like such an insensitive friend -- because he now considered Jeno his close friend. He didn't know if Jeno felt the same, or still only saw him as Renjun's kid brother. But Jeno had done so much for him in the past four years, quietly, without asking anything in return, that Jaemin felt a fierce loyalty to him.

He knew his brother was innocent, but couldn't help feeling annoyed at Renjun for being so insensitive, carelessly and unconsciously hurting Jeno. If even he had noticed, then Renjun as the object of Jeno's affection, with all the time they spent together, should have way earlier. He really hoped Renjun was genuinely clueless and not just pretending, because if he was Jaemin might not be able to forgive him.

He didn't really think much of Jeno -- or Donghyuck, for that matter, possibly being gay. Their high school was an all-boys one and he knew it was common for teenagers to experiment or develop feelings for the same gender at their age. And if they did, the most likely person it would be for would be Renjun, who was honestly -- Jaemin had to admit objectively, even as his brother -- good-looking enough to turn guys gay. Or maybe it was because he was too close to both Renjun and Jeno, that it didn't feel real. Perhaps he had always subconsciously, on some level, sensed the way Jeno cared for Renjun was not entirely platonic.

 

 

 

He thought of asking Jeno about it, telling him he knew, but didn't dare to. He didn't want to embarrass or humiliate Jeno further, or make him feel more awkward. Maybe it would be better for all of them if he pretended he didn't know too.

 

 

 

 

17.

So he didn't say anything and the months passed. A new year began and he entered his second year. Renjun and Jeno entered their final year and he dreaded the thought of them leaving, moving on ahead without him again. Even with all the complications and the angst, the silent and unmentioned triangles and cliques, he wished they could stay in high school forever.

Donghyuck had grown closer to Renjun, almost as close as he was to Jaemin. Sadly, it seemed Jeno and Renjun had drifted further.

He wondered if Jeno still had feelings for Renjun, if they were the same, or more. Sometimes, he imagined it was a trick of his mind, that afternoon when he had seen so many unfamiliar and intense expressions chase across Jeno's usually wooden and inexpressive face. It was easy to believe, because Jeno never let slip any more emotion after that day, and never said anything to either Jaemin or Renjun, as far as he knew. No matter how outrageously or physically Donghyuck teased Renjun, Jeno never showed any reaction on his bland face again. Jaemin wondered if Jeno knew, sensed that Jaemin had called Donghyuck over to his side out of consideration to him that afternoon. If he did, he wouldn't be surprised because more so than his exterior revealed, Jeno had always been one who thought intricately.

But like the boner incident, it went unspoken between them, a secret they had mutely sworn never to put into words.

 

 

 

Even if he was no longer as close to Renjun, Jaemin wanted to let Jeno know that he didn't want them to drift apart. He wanted to remain close friends with Jeno. He wanted to always be there for him.

So since he couldn't express this in words, he tried to do so with his actions. He would volunteer to go on errands or grocery runs for his mother, and with a light heart skip out into the cool night air, already smiling in anticipation as he made his way towards the nearby 24-hour convenience store where Jeno had started working part-time, graveyard shifts as a temporary job to earn some spare cash.

They had short, staccatoed conversations on these brief encounters, where he lingered in the aisle pretending to search for what he wanted as Jeno crouched beside him, restocking the shelves methodically. He was an efficient worker, able to mind the small shop alone, and Jaemin had noticed his arms had filled out since he started doing heavy lifting for the crates and boxes at the mart.

It was during one of these exchanges that he found out that Jeno was trying to save money because he wanted to rent an apartment and move out of his parents' house when he started university, and during another that Jeno told him he wanted to study music production.

"I never knew you were interested in that," Jaemin marvelled.

Jeno looked up at him, smiling. "There are many things you don't know about me, Jaemin."

For some reason, Jaemin thought he saw a flash of sadness in his smile. Immediately, he thought of Renjun.

The words slipped out before he realised what he was saying. "I know," he said.

Jeno looked confused, then flustered. He swallowed. "You know what?"

Jaemin swallowed too, cursing his big mouth. "About... about you and Renjun." He shifted uncomfortably with the can of tuna in his hand and tightened the fingers of the other around his basket handle.

Jeno's face paled, the packet of biscuits he was shelving sliding out of his hand. He picked it up clumsily and shoved it back on the shelf, dropping his eyes to avoid Jaemin's.

"I don't know what you're talking about," he said, but his ears were red as he stumbled to his feet and strode briskly away to start stocking another aisle.

 

 

 

He didn't visit the convenience store for a while after that. But he missed Jeno, even though he still saw him at school during recess with the others. Their nighttime chats had been something special, something only they shared.

A few weeks later, he plucked up his courage and walked apprehensively to the mart again. From a few yards away, he could see Jeno inside the deserted mart, peaceful and tranquil because they got very few customers at night. But still, sometimes he worried: what if a drunk walked in when Jeno was alone, and tried to bully him because he was a high school kid? What if teenage delinquents wanted to buy cigarettes without IDs, and got pissed when he refused to sell it to them? What if robbers held him at knifepoint till he emptied the cash register? Being so righteous, he had no doubt Jeno would fight back defiantly, stupidly if such things happened. He wasn't the sort to run away like a coward, from situations that were scary. Unlike Jaemin.

He pushed open the door, the cheery automated buzzer announcing his entrance. Jeno looked up from the cash register, where he had been reading a textbook. Relief flooded through Jaemin when the only emotion spelled plainly across Jeno's face was missing, and warm happiness.

"Jaemin," he said, eagerly setting his book on the counter facedown to mark the page. He came out from behind the cash register and walked towards Jaemin, closing the distance between them. "You haven't been by in a while."

Jaemin smiled shakily, nervous. "I was busy."

"Yeah, I guessed so." Jeno shoved his hands into his pockets, but he was still smiling as he leaned back to study Jaemin in his sloppy sweats.

 

 

 

After Jaemin had ticked off all the items on his grocery list and hoisted the bags in both hands, preparing to leave, Jeno called him back.

"Do you want to help me with some shelving?"

Jaemin turned, mouth parted with surprise. It was the first time Jeno had asked him to stay longer.

"S-sure," he replied obligingly and put the bags down again. Jeno smiled, looking pleased.

They spent the rest of the night working in companionable silence. Jeno asked him a few times if he was tired and wanted to go home, but Jaemin replied that he wanted to help Jeno a while longer and wasn't sleepy.

In the end, he ended up staying till dawn. The sun was an amethyst glimmer in the lilac horizon as Jeno's co-worker arrived and they left together, Jeno with his bag slung over his shoulder and one of his hands full of the groceries he had helped Jaemin carry.

He looked sheepish as he walked Jaemin home, the streetlamps starting to flicker off one by one as they passed. The morning breeze caressed his skin. Jeno had paid for both their cans of instant coffee earlier, but he was trying to stifle a yawn because he didn't want Jeno to feel bad.

"Thanks," Jeno said, his sharp eyes not missing it anyway. "Sorry. I didn't mean to make you stay so long. Will you be okay without sleep?"

Jaemin waved a hand. "I'm fine! I wanted to stay. I... enjoyed talking to you."

At his honest words, Jeno coloured with what looked like pleasure.

"Me too," he replied softly.

They had reached Jaemin's house. Jeno handed him the bags of groceries gently.

"I'll... see you at recess?" he asked, uncharacteristically hesitant.

Jaemin nodded. "See you later, hyung."

Jeno raised a hand in an awkward wave and set off down the street, sun rays silhouetting him.

 

 

 

 

18.

Renjun and Jeno graduated, and finally parted ways after five years, going to different universities. But they remained friends, and Jeno still came over to their house sometimes for dinner, if less often because he was busy with adjusting to college.

Jaemin felt lonely, but he had Donghyuck and Yangyang. He didn't know whether he wanted to aim for Renjun or Jeno's university. Actually... maybe he did, just didn't want to admit it.

A lot of things had changed. But a lot of things were the same, like how Jaemin and Jeno could spend hours chatting; like the way Jeno sometimes fondly and playfully called Jaemin, "Brat."

But the change he liked most was that after five years, he felt more like Jeno's friend than Renjun's baby brother. And he felt proud that he got the feeling Jeno saw him that way too, as an equal, that recently he had started looking at Jaemin differently. Seriously.

He liked it when Jeno paid more attention to him, focused the full intensity of his thoughtful gaze on Jaemin. Jeno was a mystery to him in so many ways, even after all these years. And Jaemin thought that he wanted to spend many more slowly unwrapping the fascinating layers of him.

 

 

 

He regretted telling Donghyuck about his nocturnal trips to the minimart because Donghyuck had started teasing him about his "midnight dates". Jaemin was both embarrassed and offended. He should've known Donghyuck would see everything through his dirty, crude goggles, polluting everything with his gutter mind. He could never comprehend the kind of deep talks Jaemin and Jeno shared into the small hours of morning, a completely innocent bond on the level of their souls as they swapped stories and traded secrets.

 

 

 

On Jaemin's birthday, they had a sleepover at his house. To celebrate him turning legal, Jeno smuggled two six-packs of beer from his workplace and they had three each. It was his, Donghyuck and Renjun's first time drinking and they got a little tipsier than expected.

They stayed up late, playing spin-the-bottle. He was feeling light-headed, dizzy and vaguely nauseous, neurotic and overly emotional. His mood was only aggravated by the double meanings of the innocent but pointed questions they shot at each other, the air thick with innuendo and unspoken tension.

At this point he was just tired of all the subterfuge, all the obliviousness and unrequited feelings and painful one-sided crushes. He realised that he had been feeling frustrated, resented Jeno subconsciously since the night he had dodged the topic of his feelings for Renjun and refused to admit them to Jaemin. And it had burned when Jeno started avoiding Renjun, because Jaemin could transparently see that it was because it hurt him too much to be around Renjun and he felt wounded that Jeno didn't trust him enough to share this with him.

Maybe that was why when Donghyuck was asked "Truth or dare?" and he picked dare, Jaemin fired at him, "Kiss me."

Donghyuck froze, his eyes moving slowly up to Jaemin's. They had all gone out of their way to be especially accommodating to him tonight because he was the birthday boy, but now, he could see that Donghyuck was shocked and obviously uncomfortable.

When he didn't move and no one spoke, Jaemin surged forward unsteadily on his hands and knees over the bottle, between Renjun and Jeno, to press his lips clumsily against Donghyuck's. He didn't know who he was trying to goad into revealing their feelings -- Renjun or Jeno. Maybe both.

He could see Jeno and Renjun's reactions out of the corners of each of his eyes as he kissed Donghyuck's stiff lips. Donghyuck didn't kiss back, but in less than five seconds Renjun's hand had shot out and grabbed Jaemin's shoulder with a roughness he had never treated Jaemin or anybody else -- but Jaemin found his entire attention focused, inexplicably, on the way Jeno's face changed on his left with an intensity of emotion he had only ever seen once before in the last few years.

Jeno's eyes narrowed, his face hardening and lips pressing into a thin white line. As Jaemin stumbled back onto his haunches from Renjun and Donghyuck pushing him, he was so dazed he lost his balance, only able to see Jeno getting to his feet and turning away, walking off quietly.

Renjun was glaring at him silently but furiously and Donghyuck was wiping his lips, looking panicked as he gazed at Renjun, but Jaemin didn't pay any attention to any of these, couldn't, as he clumsily stumbled to his feet too and staggered weaving in the direction Jeno had gone.

As he chased after Jeno, questions raced through his head, pursuing each other's tails swiftly. Why had Jeno looked so upset, and even walked away as if he didn't want to watch further? It wasn't like Jaemin had kissed Renjun. The only two people who kissed were Donghyuck and Jaemin, and he didn't have feelings for either of them. Unless...

His heart leaped into his throat when he found Jeno standing outside the kitchen screen door, in his backyard. He pushed it open, but Jeno didn't turn around.

Jaemin walked towards him hesitantly. "Hyung," he whispered. "What's wrong?"

Jeno turned to look down at him, eyes blazing. He caught his breath.

"Do you like Donghyuck?" Jeno asked, running a hand through his hair.

"N-no..."

"Because if you do, your heart is going to be broken. He likes Renjun," Jeno stated flatly, as if he was the one who had everything sorted out, the all-omniscient being who had seen through everyone's feelings.

"Is that why you're upset?" Jaemin retorted, the alcohol lending him foolish liquid courage.

Jeno inhaled sharply. He had turned to face the sky again but now his eyes returned to bore into Jaemin's.

"What do you mean?"

"Come off it." Jaemin snorted humourlessly. "I knew from the start. I've known for years."

Finally, his words seemed to strike Jeno dumb. He blushed from the roots of his hair to the tips of his ears, biting his lip nervously. "H-how...?" he breathed, sounding pained. "I thought no one knew."

"Jeno hyung, you're so obvious," Jaemin scoffed, the anguish on Jeno's face feeling like nails through his heart. So... he had gotten his answer. Even after all these years... Jeno was still in love with Renjun. "Of course I knew," he muttered, feeling hollow. "I watched you every day..."

"You watched me every day?" Jeno cut him off by repeating, sounding astounded. Jaemin quickly realised what he had said and blushed.

"Jaemin," Jeno said urgently, reaching out to clutch his shoulders as if this was important. "You've been looking at me, watching me, enough to know what I'm thinking? How I'm feeling?"

"Why does it matter?" He tried to shrug off Jeno's hands, avoid his piercing gaze. "You didn't trust me enough to tell me how you felt about Renjun."

Jeno only held him tighter, not letting go.

"Because, Jaemin-ah," he exploded finally, "If you had been watching me so carefully, you would've noticed that I liked you!"

Jaemin stopped struggling, stopped moving. He raised disbelieving eyes to Jeno, feeling his next breath catch in his throat. His heart seemed to have halted.

"You... like me?" he breathed, barely above a whisper.

Jeno reddened blotchily, finally seeming embarrassed as he relaxed his grip and lowered his eyes, not meeting Jaemin's.

"For nearly a year now," he said softly.

Jaemin couldn't breathe; couldn't think. Was this a drunk hallucination? It was too unbelievable to be true.

"B-but... you liked Renjun hyung," he blurted out stupidly, confusedly. It felt like his whole world had been turned upside down, that everything he had believed in was proven untrue.

Jeno looked frustrated. "Yes," he admitted with difficulty. "I did. But by the time you asked me, I had already stopped liking him, and started liking you. That was why I didn't... want to tell you about it. I was worried it would hurt you. I thought maybe... you might like me too. But I guess I was foolish to hope."

He laughed bitterly, dropping his hands from Jaemin's shoulders.

"Wait," Jaemin rasped, his mind spinning.

Jeno looked up at him, the quiet hope in his eyes so bright it was unbearable.

"Hyung... I..." he swallowed over the lump in his throat. "I like you too?"

It sounded like a question, and he felt bad when Jeno's eyes darkened with hurt, looking slightly heartbroken.

"I mean..." he hastily clarified, "I stare at you all the time; I love spending time with you; I miss you when you're not around; I think about you a lot; I'm happy when I talk to you; I find you weirdly attractive; my heart hurts when I think of you liking other people. And when you said you liked me, I... I couldn't breathe."

"Jeno hyung." He raised his eyes fearfully. "What... do you think this means?"

For the first time in the six years Jaemin had known him, he was amazed to see Jeno's eyes filling with tears. When they spilled over onto his cheeks, he could see the fierce happiness crystalline behind them, shining from Jeno's beautiful eyes.

"Jaemin-ah, you pabo. That means you like me too," he whispered tenderly and hoarsely, wiping his tears away with his fingers.

"Are you sure?" Jaemin's heart felt like it was ready to burst, the backs of his own eyes prickling.

Jeno nodded shyly, an adorable blush dusting his cheeks. "I'm pretty sure... but are you?" He still looked half-hopeful, half-heartbroken.

"There's only one way to find out," he replied breathlessly, reaching out to caress Jeno's face. His face felt hot, and damp, skin softer and smoother than Jaemin had expected. His lips looked the same.

"Can I...?" Jaemin gestured to Jeno's mouth, leaning forward with sudden hunger.

Jeno flushed, tongue slipping out to wet his lips. He lowered his head in a bashful nod.

Jaemin gasped; that was enough encouragement for him to surge forward and touch his lips to Jeno, tentatively at first, but Jeno surprised him by deepening the kiss, crushing their lips together. His hands moved up to cradle the back of Jaemin's head, startlingly gentle, and Jaemin instinctively wrapped his arms around Jeno's shoulders.

Jeno opened his mouth, tongue gently running across Jaemin's lips, so he let his mouth fall open too.

 

 

 

When they broke apart, Jeno looked at him like a man awaiting his sentence in court. Jaemin was breathing hard. They both were.

"So?" Jeno asked, a tremor in his voice. "Do you like me, Jaeminie?”

 

 

 

He found his answer in the passionate lips pressed against his own, stealing his own name out of Jeno's mouth, not breaking away even when the kiss turned salty with both their happy tears.