It’s snowing when they take the train back to campus, the large, fluffy flakes whipping past the windows and muffling the sound of the cars sliding along the tracks. Jeno watches their reflections in the glass pane Renjun leans against, the ghostly versions of them that look back and mimic their intertwined hands and sleepy faces. If he concentrates, he can see Jaemin too, like a light shell over himself, the both of them resting on Renjun’s shoulder, his puffy red coat cushioning their head.
“I hope they find the mugs we left,” Jeno muses.
Renjun catches his gaze through the window. “With the way your dad drinks coffee, they can’t miss them.”
“But they’ll know it’s from us, right? I forgot to leave a note.”
“Do they have another son who goes to our school and could feasibly make a purchase at the campus bookstore? I think they’ll know. The bow should help.”
Jeno nods against his shoulder, reassured, and lets the clacking of the tracks lull him again while he plays with the fingers slotted between his. A few months ago, he would never have believed he’d be returning to the next semester having seen his parents and shared with them not one, but two boyfriends, and both of them being accepted despite one’s inhuman nature. He feels loose, as if he’d been frozen and then slowly thawed; Jeno hadn’t been aware of how much tension he could subconsciously hold in, working so hard to keep his secrets.
He’s giving us that look again, babe.
Jeno turns his eyes back to the window, meeting Renjun’s again.
Mmm...you might describe it...like, we’re the Earth, and he’s an astronaut who’s been away from home too long. Like his spacecraft is on the return approach, touching into the atmosphere, and the descent burns but he wants so badly to land.
A shiver runs through Jeno, seeing in the reflection a light behind the other boy’s eyes like the white hot flames of friction, a little afraid but determined to push through the resistance no matter what it burns away on the outside. And God knows, Jeno has put up resistance, has not made it an easy approach.
Can you feel the emotional energy he exudes toward us, Jeno? Can you? It’s there all the time. Hurtling into our atmosphere at reckless speeds, willing to lose pieces on the way down, afraid but desperate to land even if he has to crash… maybe he’s the one from space, after all.
“What are you thinking about?” breathes Jeno, feeling not unlike a planet spinning through the void.
Renjun holds his gaze a moment longer, then shifts his eyes down to his lap.
“Your dad is handsome.”
“You’re...thinking about...my dad.” Jeno’s planet stops spinning and inside his head Jaemin laughs loudly.
A flush of embarrassment rises over Renjun’s neck and ears. “No, not like that! No I mean, you look like him. You are like him...sort of like… calm, thoughtful. But also like your mom… all passionate. Generous and considerate, accommodating maybe even to a fault. There is so much of them in you.”
Just like that, Jeno’s spinning again, atmosphere searing as a Renjun-shaped pinpoint burns it’s way down through to his surface.
The familiar tickle of Jaemin skimming along his arm rises on his skin, and shimmering pink subtly glides over his wrist to curl around their interlocked hands. If Jeno is a planet, Jaemin is his core, sometimes bubbling up and covering him, molten, but always there deep within and holding him together; his gravity.
“I hope that’s a good thing,” he whispers back, and wonders for the second time about Renjun’s family. “Which parent are—”
“I got you something,” interrupts Renjun, reaching for his backpack. Jeno sits back into his own seat, curiosity piquing and Jaemin fills his head with question marks until Renjun pulls out a small, white square box.
Then a pang in Jeno’s chest, as he realizes. “Oh no. Christmas...I forgot to…”
“I don’t care about presents. There was a lot going on, so don’t you dare be sorry or I’ll get mad.”
He uses his no-arguments tone, and Jeno bites his apology into the inside of his cheeks, reprimanded. Jaemin hums interest, and Jeno’s eyes return to the box.
“Here, for you both.” Renjun holds it toward them and Jaemin releases their other hands so Jeno can take it in both. He doesn’t need to lift the lid, since a tiny pink tendril does it for him.
“I know it’s cheesy, so if you don’t like it we can always get something else, but it made me think of us and it’s subtle, and you know there’s like, almost nothing out there for relationships like ours? Kinda inconsiderate, when you think about it...this was in the friendship section. Not that we aren’t also friends but...okay you’re staring at it for too long now, is it that lame?”
Renjun is biting his lip nervously when Jeno looks up again from the necklaces in the box, their delicate chains meeting in a heart-shaped charm comprised of three puzzle pieces. There’s no engraving, no other decoration on the shiny silver, but it doesn’t need any. In its simplicity, Jeno thinks it’s perfect.
“This is amazing. Junnie, I love it, so does Jaemin…it’s literally perfect.” Jeno can’t keep the awe out of his voice, but from the looks of Renjun’s smile he doesn’t need to.
“You’ll have to wear two of them, obviously,” Renjun points out.
“Right. Can we put it on now?”
“Now? Sure I mean... well, your uh, your scarf’s in the way…”
Jeno immediately pulls the scarf from his neck and lets it drop somewhere by his feet, applying eager fingers to remove the necklace pieces from the box. He’s careful to detach the puzzle segments, afraid that he'll break something, then holds one toward Renjun.
He instructs, “Push your hood back,” and leans to circle arms around Renjun’s neck. Holding the ends close, Jeno waits till he feels Jaemin hook the delicate clasp, then smooths the chain back so the charm settles over Renjun’s hoodie between the laces at the front. “Do ours,” he asks next, impatient.
Renjun suppresses a smirk, moving quickly to take the two remaining necklaces and clasp them around Jeno’s neck, running his fingers over them and pressing lightly where they lie just below his collarbone.
“There,” he murmurs, “it’s nice.”
Tilting his head down, Jeno can see the charms where they sit against his shirt. The two pieces overlap, half hidden underneath Renjun’s fingers, and the weight of the chains around his neck feels comfortable. Phantom touches raise goosebumps where Jaemin feels along the links.
Then Renjun turns his fingers to lift up Jeno’s chin, their tips cool, pressing up on his skin. Renjun’s eyes flit around the car for a moment, ensuring no one is looking their way, before meeting Jeno’s once again.
With a quick breath, he dips forward and presses a kiss to Jeno’s lips that sends a bloom of warmth spreading over him. Jeno reaches a hand forward, grips his knee tight. This isn’t a long kiss, nor slow and languid. It’s short but hot, most of it already sheared away from the build up of re-entry, and no parachute.
hyuckie quick question
for the LAST time that jacket looks great on u
a genius christmas gift, best ive ever done
who is telling u otherwise n WHY DONT U BELIEVE ME
this isn’t about the jacket but i still think it fits weird
when u left was jeno going out for coffee?
no he fell asleep which is why junnie n i left
are there many people on campus w pink hair?
there’s like one girl i’ve seen otherwise not really
few reds tho? a kid w blue hair
thought i just saw jaemin getting coffee
like just thru the window
it’s kinda late tho?
probably wasn’t him
okay honestly im not sure this sits right on my shoulders
get back here so i can kill u
Jaemin thinks it’s fascinating, watching Jeno slowly wake up like this, not knowing the exact moment he’ll cross the line into consciousness. The light of an early morning in late February falls through the dorm window and washes across his face, making his dark hair shine a shade lighter even as it sticks out in random directions—normally Jaemin would wake him like an alarm clock. But it’s a Saturday, so he lets the sunshine brush over the human’s eyes instead, noting the movement below his eyelids, and waits for him to stir awake.
Jeno’s eyes pull open slow and he blinks, taking in a big breath through his nose like he hasn’t breathed all night. It takes him a moment or two to orient, running a hand up through the mess of his hair and stretching the other arm out to tense catlike, then flop back on the blanket. Finally, he rolls on his side and his eyes find Jaemin, softening into warm arches to match his lazy grin.
“Good morning,” calls Jaemin, his voice casual but full, from where he sits in Jeno’s desk chair and leans against its back, head propped on his palm. He returns Jeno’s smile, letting the sunshine and air settle in the space between them. He fiddles with the charm around his neck and waits.
The blankets swish as Jeno curls below them. “Good morning. It’s kinda early,” he notes, and follows it with a yawn.
Jaemin agrees with a nod, and waits again.
As the silence drags on, seconds ticking away, Jaemin watches it happen, the slow realization that comes across Jeno’s face. He begins just by looking Jaemin over, studying him head-to-toe with a pleased smile—but it falters infinitesimally, confusion creeping in, and a tiny crease splits between his brows. Jeno looks at the chair, then at his bed, then at the floor, clearly trying to calculate the distance but struggling in his just-woken state, not confident in his judgement. So he follows the line of Jaemin’s body instead, looking for where it leads back to his own, and finding nothing. Jeno throws back the blanket to confirm for himself that there’s nothing connecting them, then looks to Jaemin with shock.
“What...what’s going on here? How’re you...over there?” His words come out fast and disbelieving, and there’s an edge of panic in his raspy voice.
“I’ve learned some things in the past couple of months.”
Jeno slides his legs over the edge of the bed, sitting with his hands gripping the edge of the mattress and his shoulders tight. His exhale is shaky.
The night in Jeno’s childhood bedroom returns to Jaemin’s mind, the whispering voices and covert phone call. And a piece of information too surprising to ignore.
“Yes, since Christmas. You see, I have this friend…”
“Yuta...interesting choice. It suits you, though I’m surprised to hear you make a change like that.” Jaemin lets the name roll around in his brain, trying to glue it onto Strike and make it stick. It isn’t a typical decision to make, which Jaemin knew when he first did it himself.
Yuta laughs, the sound tinny over the line. “Well, the universe has altered slightly, and perhaps I’m more adaptive than you give me credit for. Regardless, I’m far more approachable as Yuta than as Strike, to humans that is. That’s going to be necessary for when I’m not with Sicheng.”
“What, you want to die with a human name? Are you expecting them to give you a grave to put something on?”
“Oh no, Jaemin, not at all. The voices, friend, it’s what they mean for us. I guess it’s been so long you don’t remember—we’re one again. All of us, across the universe, connected in mind.”
In the farthest back of his memory, behind a thousand lives and a thousand hosts, underneath memories of humans and animals and aliens alike, hover the wispy shadows of a time when he and the other symbiotes shared common thought, strengthened by this connection. Not quite so long ago as Strike’s origin, but not too long after Hide spawned from his source symbiote. He hadn’t been around but a few hundred years when the connection was severed.
“I...remember a little…”
“Then you know we’re stronger like this.” Yuta follows up, his voice growing serious. “Strong enough to last a little while without using our hosts’ lungs as life support. Just a brief time, no more than twelve hours or so, but long enough. So I think Yuta will do nicely as a name, when Sichengie and I aren’t combined.”
Jaemin takes this in, and suddenly a million ideas of what Jeno can do with time apart from him spring to mind. He mimics something like a gasp.
“Jeno will be so happy...he can do so much with twelve hours!”
The line hangs empty for a moment before Yuta’s chuckle crosses it.
“So you’ve gone and fallen for your host boy? I told you it would happen.”
“No, you said I’d get bored and end up wanting to eat him. That’s not the same thing.”
Jaemin scoffs. “Uh huh, and so Sicheng is ‘technically’ just your host?”
“...don’t come at me like this, I’m older than you. I’ve already checked other worlds, and only this one has anyone like him. He’s special, not a menu item.” Yuta doesn’t sound defensive often, and his tone is enough to confirm that Jaemin has him pegged.
He makes an admission of his own, a kindred note between them.
“So is Jeno...and...and Renjun…”
“Hold the fuck up? Hide. Do you have another host?”
“No...Jeno and I...he’s ours. Together.”
The following laughter isn’t mean or mocking, but purely delighted. When Yuta calms, Jaemin can’t help but feel smiley over the sound of it.
“Well, you’ve turned out more fun than I had you down for. Maybe I can convince Sicheng of something similar…” In the background there’s a ruffling noise, like blankets shifting. “Anyway, I need to get going. Have fun with your newfound freedom, Jaemin, and your two precious humans too. Perhaps we’ll come and see you sometime.”
Jaemin would roll his eyes, if he were in that shape. “Don’t hurry. But...thanks.”
The call disconnects.
By the conclusion of the story, Jeno’s jaw has been hanging open for a solid few minutes, his brain working for comprehension through an extended series of eyelid blinks.
Jaemin thinks his befuddled expressions are some of the cutest.
“Let me get this straight,” Jeno starts, “you have a friend?”
“This is the rudest you’ve ever been to me, Lee Jeno.”
Jeno bites down on his bottom lip, pulls an awkward smile. “Sorry, but like. It’s a little shocking you happen to know the one other symbiote we’ve come across, who we saw on TV.”
“Yuta has never been particularly talented at staying under the radar...Jeno, why are you shaking?”
He’d fidgeted all through the past few minutes, but as Jaemin looks closer he can see the human’s elbows ready to buckle under his small quakes, and the telltale inward curve of his shoulders trying to hold him steady and failing.
Jeno’s breath puffs short. “Is this...is this it? You don’t need me anymore?”
“No, what? Jeno, no. You didn’t listen carefully.” Jaemin stands quickly and goes to him, sitting at Jeno’s side and wrapping him in his arms. “No baby,” he repeats, “I’m not going anywhere. Or, not anywhere I can’t get back to you in twelve hours or so. Did you miss that? The time limit? Jeno, it’s alright, calm down.”
“Why do you keep trying to scare me like this…” whines Jeno, burying his face into Jaemin’s shirt and taking long breaths to regulate his oxygen flow again.
“I really thought this was a good thing this time. No, I definitely still think that. I’m sure Renjun will agree with me once he gets here.”
Renjun arrives about fifteen minutes after receiving Jaemin’s text. He smiles happily and hugs Jeno when the door opens, and the look slides right off his face when he catches sight of Jaemin over Jeno’s shoulder, standing a good six feet separate behind him.
Jaemin winces at the yell he lets out, but opens his arms to him for his own hug. Renjun stays where he is and points an accusing finger at him instead.
The handrail feels smooth and worn under Jaemin’s fingertips as he skims along it, the wood softened by years of hands like his hugging its curve while climbing the flights inside Mark’s apartment building.
Well, hands similar to his, anyway. Probably ones a little less able to change shape at will.
He reaches the third floor landing quickly. The door is nearly touching his knuckles when another one behind him opens, the only other on the floor, and Jaemin turns his head to meet the eyes of a short, stout elderly lady in pink house slippers and hair curlers.
She looks him up and down, and furrows her brow.
Jaemin smiles, sharp teeth poking out from his lips. “Good afternoon.”
This is confusing to him. It’s definitely afternoon. But he’s sure it’s a human thing he doesn’t understand.
With a challenging look, the woman picks up her newspaper and shuffles back inside. Jaemin can hear her muttering about weird young men visiting the boys who live across from her, that they’d better be more careful.
He knocks on the door, and waits. Enhanced hearing allows him to pick up the sounds from inside clearly: the couch cushion reshaping itself as someone eases up from it, a light thunk on the coffee table, soft mumblings of who is knocking? Without texting first? It better not be some salesperson we have no money…
Donghyuck opens the door warily, and his expression doesn’t change more than a fraction when he sees Jaemin. He’s just as wary, but with a tint of surprise.
“Oh Donghyuck…why hello…fancy seeing you here…” Jaemin wears a cheerful grin.
“It is not a secret that I pretty much live here, Jaemin, so your pretense is not needed. Where is Jeno?...Jeno, collect your boy-thing.”
“Oh, well, Jeno isn’t with me right at the moment.”
Donghyuck’s eyebrows shoot up, and he holds the door closer to the jam, hiding behind it.
“W-what do you mean? Then...how...where is he? You didn’t...oh my god. Did you kill him? Why would you come for me next?! Listen. You don’t want this brain, it’s full of anime and Mariah Carey hits from the late 90’s, it cannot taste that good. Wait. No, if you killed him, who’re you using right now? OH MY GOD. RENJUN—”
“Is also not with me. I mean, they’re both with me, in the sense that we’re together and dating, but right now they’re not present.”
“Are you fucking with me? That isn’t possible.”
Jaemin slowly pushes the door open, and Donghyuck along with it, until there’s room enough for him to step inside. Donghyuck backs away, his eyes never leaving Jaemin, as he reaches a blind hand for the umbrella that’s hanging by the door.
Jaemin sighs. “Donghyuck I’m not here to eat you, and an umbrella isn’t going to do anything to me.”
“Well it’ll give me an extra second!”
“It will not.”
Leaving Donghyuck to his defensive fantasies, Jaemin heads further into the apartment and glances around, peaking into the kitchen before entering the living room. The coffee table is covered in textbooks, and there’s a mug of some drink tucked in between them somewhat precariously.
He knows Donghyuck has followed him by the sound of his still-elevated heartbeat.
“Mark’s not here right now,” the boy states, “he had a lab thing. So if you wanted to talk to him more about that grade on his Extraterrestrial Physiology final you’ll have to text him or something.”
“I do want to talk to him about it, but I actually came to see you.” Jaemin turns, clasping his hands together and smiling sweetly. “Mark and I can discuss incompetent teachers later, today is all about Donghyuck.”
To his credit, Donghyuck doesn’t show much surprise, or even try to run. He just bites on his lip and crosses his arms, radiating suspicion till the room is heavy with it.
“I don’t think I like the sound of that.”
“It’ll be fun, I promise.”
“Because I’m fun.”
“Debatable. What I meant was, why do you want to?”
“Because,” Jaemin explains, all sincerity, “you are important to Renjun, and he is important to me. And you don’t like me, or at best you tolerate me, and that isn’t working for me.”
Donghyuck sniffs, unimpressed. “Sounds more like this is all about you.”
“Well, it can be about both of us.”
“No thanks,” says Donghyuck, and he looks away dismissively.
Jaemin stifles a curl of frustration that wants to bring out what Jeno refers to as ‘his scary side,’ and reminds himself that both his boyfriends commanded him to be nice today, if he was so dead set on doing this. Also that, as usual, eating someone was not the solution to his problem. They also made that very clear.
Donghyuck interrupts his personal counseling session with a petulant huff. “What would we even do together, anyway?”
The unexpected crack in Donghyuck’s armor, the hint of curiosity in his eyes, sends Jaemin into a sprawling grin.
“Anything you want, of course!”
In a certain way, Jeno feels a teenage sort of giddiness at getting to go on a date specifically with Renjun, on a sunny Saturday when most of his homework isn’t pressing and the trees have begun to think about producing buds. It’s sort of like he’s stepped briefly into someone else’s life, some alternate universe where they met under normal circumstances, approached one another without reserve, maybe fell in love over milkshakes and cheap pasta dinners bought with student loan pennies.
Jeno stops himself short there, mentally and actually, pausing on the sidewalk. For one, the daydream is pretty but feels half-empty without Jaemin in it. For two, did he just think the phrase fell in love?
“Earth to Jeno?”
He blinks to focus, growing sheepish under Renjun’s amused smirk. The implied metaphor is backwards, though, he thinks. Jeno’s not the astronaut of the two of them; Jaemin taught him that.
“Sorry.” Jeno catches back up to the smaller boy, shortening his stride to match again once he reaches him.
“What caught you up?”
They pass by a cafe with outdoor seating where a couple of brave patrons sip drinks in the cool weather, and nothing inside Jeno’s head demands he go order the creamiest hot chocolate available. It’s weird. No demands, no commentary, no one to catch him realizing he might be in love and cackle gleefully at him, point out how his hands feel tingly and his pulse has sped up.
“I just realized I keep waiting for Jaemin to chime in on all my thoughts. I’m not used to my mental dialogue being a one-sided conversation anymore.”
“Is that good or bad?”
“Objectively neutral I guess,” says Jeno, reaching out to pull open the restaurant door and hold it for Renjun, the puff of warm air from inside washing over them both, “but I’d rather just have him there.”
He wouldn’t say he’s...calm, exactly, about the whole new Jaemin ability, but he’s pulled himself together since waking up. For being able to read his thoughts and emotions, Jaemin’s surprisingly dense at recognizing what will or won’t scare the fuck out of Jeno. Suddenly being detached from him? His mind quiet and Jaemin’s eyes looking at him from all the way across the room? With no warning? That shit is on the ‘how about no, ever’ list. He’s a little proud he was able to not immediately burst into tears, but it was a close call.
Renjun pulls kind of a sideways face, something Jeno doesn’t really understand, before a server approaches them to be seated. They’re taken to a table quickly, near the back of the place in a booth that’s fairly private, the gentle overhead lighting casting inviting leather seats in comforting sepia hues. The place boasts a well-reviewed burger menu, as well as typical diner fare and vegetarian options. It’s exactly the type of place Jeno has avoided for over a year.
“Still feels weird that Jaemin scouted us a lunch date…” muses Renjun as he slides into the seat opposite Jeno and picks up the leather-bound menu.
Jeno chuckles. “Weirder than him wanting to go force Donghyuck to like him?”
“He’s got the concept of ‘alien invasion’ all wrong.”
They peruse the menu for a few minutes quietly, Jeno struggling with deciding between so many options. The server returns and before Jeno can even speak Renjun orders half the menu, leaving Jeno in shock by the time the server walks away again.
He grips his fork and bites his lip, then asks, “Um, you know that we’re like...broke college students, right? I mean, yes I’m hungry, but I definitely don’t need every protein they offer.”
Renjun shrugs. “You wanted to taste a lot of it, though, didn’t you? It’s fine.”
“Fine like, how?”
“Fine like don’t worry about it. Just enjoy.”
There’s a multitude of questions Jeno would like to ask, but before he can do so Renjun smiles and mentions Jeno’s most recent O-Chem assignment. They don’t share a class this semester, and Jeno’s classes are growing increasingly more challenging as he gets deeper into his Biochemistry major...the more RNA chains he looks at the more his brain seems to melt. He’s mostly through describing the eight-part intensive lab they’re doing in Genetics when all the food arrives, effectively covering the table and taking up all Jeno’s attention.
He looks up at Renjun as the last dish is set, and the boy’s eyes are glinting.
“Dig in,” he tells Jeno, clearly pleased with himself.
There’s an angus burger and a whole plate of alfredo fettuccine in front of Jeno. He easily complies.
“I know I said we could do whatever you want, but studying? In the library? On a Saturday?”
Donghyuck holds a finger up to his lips and scowls at Jaemin, demanding silence for the nth time since they arrived.
Jaemin groans and lays his face on the table. He didn’t think anything could actually be more boring than sitting inside Jeno’s head while he was studying, but he’s been proven wrong over the last twenty minutes Donghyuck has spent revising notes on Developmental Psychology, hardly pausing a moment to give Jaemin any attention whatsoever. And unlike with Jeno, Jaemin can’t tease him or distract him in any of the fun ways. Not that he wants to, but it’s not even an option like it would normally be.
The library is by no means busy. Like Donghyuck, there are a few students present doing their own revising, but with the exception of their page-turning and pencil-scratching the place is silent to the point where Jaemin can hear ringing in his ears.
He closes his eyes. With a careful mental motion, like lifting the lid of a pot of uncertain contents, he delicately opens his mind to the symbiote link.
After no more than a minute, he blocks it again.
It’s terribly loud. There’s a mix of sounds when he opens to it, a background droning of whispers overlaid by thousands of voices speaking at once. Perhaps if he focused he could narrow down to someone, but it’s overwhelming to try.
Jaemin opens his eyes again and stands up. He needs a distraction, if Donghyuck won’t let them do fun things.
“Where are you going?” Donghyuck whispers harshly.
Jaemin points to the reference desk. He raises his brows as if to ask whether he’s allowed, but Donghyuck just makes a face and turns back to his work.
There’s a boy behind the desk, nose so deep in his book that Jaemin has to tap on the desk several times to get his attention. When he finally does, the boy glares at him like Jaemin’s just stolen all of his chocolate… or whatever it is he values.
“Hello, boy I do not know.”
“Dejun. I’m literally wearing a nametag.” The boy points to a tiny badge on his pocket that shows some shapes, and Jaemin assumes they are the human-written-language equivalent of his name.
“If you like. I want some books.”
The boy’s bold eyebrows furrow over his sharp eyes, and he frowns. “Uh, like specific ones? Because you can just take them off the shelf, you know.”
Jaemin fixes him with his most winsome smile, hoping it’ll work on him like it does on Renjun and Jeno. “For sure, but no, I want some special books. Ones on aliens.”
“Hmm.” Not reacting at all to his charm but instead reaching for the computer, the boy begins typing, then pauses. “Aliens in general? Or… you know. Those aliens. The aliens.”
“Oh…” Jaemin leans close over the desk, and whispers, “can you not say symbiote out loud?”
“I can say it!” he snaps, and it’s loud enough that a surprised murmur passes through the few students. The boy, Dejun, turns a bit of an annoyed red and pushes his chair back, walks around the desk. “Over here,” he grumbles, gripping the book he’d been reading tightly in one hand. Jaemin follows him down a few aisles and to a shelf where Dejun finally stops and points at a particular row, up above his head. He’s nearly as small as Renjun, Jaemin notes.
Jaemin nods. “Excellent.” He stares at the shelf, and then back at the small desk clerk. “Which ones?”
The responding look he receives is a confused one, Dejun quirking his head to the side; he reaches up and taps a red-spined book. “This one,” he says, “to this one.” He taps another, not far down from the first.
All in all, there’s about seven. Jaemin sweeps them all down into his arms.
Jaemin pauses mid-turn, glancing back to Dejun, who purses his lip firmly and then holds up the small tome he’d been reading at the desk. “This too. Just… bring it back to me before you leave.” He sets the book on top of Jaemin’s pile, and brushes past him back out of the shelves.
“What’s all that?” Donghyuck asks when Jaemin returns with his haul.
“I—... yes, clearly,” sighs Donghyuck.
Jaemin flips open the top book, and stares at the page for a few minutes. He hums.
“What?... wait, can you… Jaemin, can you read?”
The language looks like a bunch of patterned nonsense to the symbiote, and he realizes with distaste that any reading ability he had came from being attached to Jeno’s head, where letters and words translated themselves subconsciously. If he wanted to read now, he’d either have to learn fast, or…
“I’m sure I’ll get the hang of it.”
As Donghyuck stares at him, judgement apparent on his face, Jaemin settles the book in his hands, takes a deep breath, and carefully opens himself to the hive mind once more. It’s still loud, but he concentrates hard and pushes a piece of his mind out into the garbled cacophony. It doesn’t take long to find his answer.
Jaemin turns his attention back to the page, and grins as the nonsense becomes words. “Lovely.”
“Did you just… learn to read, in like a minute?!” Donghyuck asks, mouth slack and eyes huge with disbelief.
The symbiote winks. “Benefits of a hive mind, it seems someone among us is literate.”
It’s some kind of recent trend in his life, Jeno thinks, having all these memorable meals. They have mostly been good from a food perspective, but his lunch with Renjun tops the list for the amount he’s eaten, and the amount he’s enjoyed it. Jeno is almost embarrassed at the fact that there are far fewer leftovers than he anticipated, but he’s not sorry. It was delicious.
In actuality, though, he’s preoccupied with other thoughts. They circle around Renjun, and the way his mood shifted oddly throughout the meal. Early on he was just as giddy as Jeno, eagerly biting into warm bread and chewing bites of pasta. He even let Jeno feed him, after a bit of complaint, and the cutest smattering of pink covered his cheeks as they puffed up like a chipmunk around the bites of steak. Jeno had to keep reminding himself to eat, rather than zoning out watching Renjun’s deft fingers maneuver his utensils, and Jeno’s heart right along with them.
It was weird that the giddy feeling didn’t last. Jeno couldn’t figure a reason for it not to, so seeing Renjun slowly quiet down bothered him. Maybe he was just full, but the way he prodded at his food with his fork seemed more distracted than satisfied. He kept glancing up at Jeno, only to look away as soon as he caught him staring. It freaks Jeno out because he isn’t used to getting anxiety from Renjun, who always has the answer to his other, more bizarre problems. It’s new, and it’s not fun.
Jeno just can’t take any more of it.
He sets his fork down and clears his throat. “Hey. Are you okay?”
Renjun tightens his fingers around the cloth napkin in his hands. He hasn’t eaten a bite in the past ten minutes, just stared at his plate. When he looks up at Jeno, his eyes are far too vulnerable.
“There’s something we need to talk about. Are you finished eating?”
As if Jeno could eat anything more after a statement like that. He feels more like the bottom has spontaneously dropped out of his stomach, impossibly empty again except for curling anxiety. Or maybe he’s nauseated. It’s hard to tell.
He swallows dryly. “What is it?”
Renjun chews the corner of his lip. “It’s about Christmas—”
“Oh my god,” Jeno gasps, “my family was too much after all, weren’t they? I knew they were going to be overbearing, and it was too fast, but it meant so much that you wanted to come, I’m really sorry you had to lie for me—”
“No, Jeno, it wasn’t them. I love your family. I didn’t even care that your mom made me sleep in the guest room. Like I told you, there isn’t anywhere else I would have rather been than with you.”
“It was what you did.”
Jeno grips the edge of the tablecloth, down under on his side where hopefully Renjun can’t see.
What he did. What he...what did he do? Unable to pinpoint a moment that would have stayed with Renjun for more than a month, Jeno just stares at him in silence, waiting in pained anticipation for something more to clue him in. After an agonizing minute, Renjun sighs.
“You shut me out, Jeno. At the hardest and scariest moment, with no explanation, you shut me out and literally locked the door. Really, you both did, because Jaemin could have opened it if he wanted to.”
Oh. When you tried to— Jeno mentally pauses, stops addressing the headspace where Jaemin isn’t, and inwardly cringes on the stab of pain from that memory. Perhaps it’s better not to have Jaemin with him at the moment to remember it, those few minutes in Chenle’s bathroom where his heart nearly ripped in half.
“I wasn’t thinking clearly. I was trying to lock him in.”
“But you could have taken me with you.”
Jeno wants to curl onto the table, bend himself under the weight of the stare Renjun has leveled at him, as if that will show that he’s sorry and he surrenders. He’s hopeful for a future state of things where he does immediately pull Renjun in to any crisis, but the truth is that it’s going to take time. He just hopes Renjun has the patience for it.
“I should have,” he admits, only a whisper, “and I’m sorry. I was panicked, and I’m used to everything Jaemin-related being my very, very personal problem. It felt like it had to be just me and him, like...I know we’d both be upset if he left...” Jeno pauses, only briefly meeting Renjun’s eyes before continuing, “but my entire life would change, again.”
“And it wouldn’t change mine?”
“I didn’t say that.”
“Well it sounded like that. It’s unfair of you to act like he’s just yours.” Renjun crosses his arms, a tiny barricade of defense, and his eyes are steely.
Jeno closes his eyes and exhales long through his nose. It’s hard to explain. “He’s not. But you’re acting like you don’t understand how there’s a difference, when I know you do. It’s been over a year, Junnie, that he’s been with me, part of me. I wouldn’t even know who I am without him anymore. If he leaves, ever, it changes my whole existence.”
When he opens his eyes again, heart beating fast from the weight of what he’s just said, Jeno meets Renjun’s gaze and is surprised to find it not angry, but once again vulnerable.
“I’m just…” he breathes, “you made me so scared...I just don’t see a scenario where losing one of you doesn’t mean losing you both. Why am I so scared of that?”
He couldn’t have dropped a bigger shock into Jeno’s lap than that one. “Losing...you’re saying you’d still want me, without him? As pathetic as I’d be?”
Renjun gapes back at him. Somehow they’ve managed to stun one another, Jeno realizes, with completely inverse fears based on the exact same thing. As with everything, it comes back to Jaemin, and how he’s tied the three of them together like a sailor’s knot.
“You’re not pathetic—”
“How would you lose me? How—”
They talk over one another, a jumble of confusion, and finally stop to just stare. Jeno has questions, so many questions, but all he can think is that their conclusion is the same. Renjun just voices it first.
“So, basically, we can’t ever let Jaemin go for any reason.”
Nothing Renjun has said previously has ever sounded as true, and Jeno nods solemnly.
Renjun grabs his jacket from the back of the chair next to him, standing quickly. “Let’s go find that idiot alien right now.”
Jeno couldn’t agree more. But there’s the matter of the bill…
He’s about to point it out when the waiter returns, nearly running into Renjun and looking subsequently a bit perplexed.
“Oh, yes sorry, here,” Renjun stutters, then pulls out his wallet and produces a subtle, matte black card. “Could you run it quickly?”
The server assures him he can, and hurries away, leaving Jeno to stare at his boyfriend and wonder at what point he was supposed to have become aware that Renjun perhaps wasn’t scraping by on loans and scholarships. It’s like he’s suddenly standing in a new light, where Jeno can’t tell what else he hasn’t noticed, or hasn’t asked? And when the bill comes back and Renjun signs for it without Jeno ever seeing the total he can’t help following the motion of the card disappearing back into Renjun’s pocket.
“What was that?” Jeno asks.
“It’s called tipping? Normally I’d pay more attention to the math but I kinda wanna get out of here so whatever.”
“No, no, I mean… Renjun, are you rich?”
Renjun tenses as they push out the door, his eyes shifting, and he pauses like he doesn't know what direction to walk.
Jeno sucks in a guilty breath. “Wait, that was rude, I’m sorry. It doesn’t matter if you are, that isn’t important.”
“I’m only supposed to use it for school stuff and emergencies,” Renjun suddenly admits, quiet enough that Jeno nearly misses it. Hesitating there on the sidewalk, he looks sort of like he expects someone to pop out of the shadows and arrest him, or scold him like a child.
“I don’t think...this qualified for either of those…”
For a moment Renjun shrinks, looking down at his shoes as his fingers curl protectively over the puzzle piece dangling from his neck, and Jeno hovers closer; there’s something about this topic that’s touchy, but why?
But Renjun straightens suddenly, adjusting his shoulders back and taking Jeno’s hand into his with a punishing grip. “Well I don’t care.” He nods to affirm it, and starts pulling Jeno in the direction of campus.
Too stunned and confused to question him further, Jeno trips after Renjun, and only just hears what he mutters as they cross the street.
“Fuck them, anyway.”
“Hyuckie...” Jaemin leans over the table, trying the nickname and batting his eyelashes the way he’s seen humans do. “Shall we get some snacks?”
Donghyuck looks up from his books, and this time at least Jaemin thinks he’s softened a little. Well, maybe not much, because he scowls at the use of the nickname, but he does set his pen down and rub at his eye tiredly. Jaemin waits for his answer patiently, ignoring that it’s been literal hours of the absolute boredom of studying.
It could have been worse, though. Jaemin learned a good bit from the books; or, more accurately, he learned nothing at all, except that the humans had only barely scratched the surface with their knowledge of his species, and been mostly wrong at that.
It irks him to think Mark has been studying for an entire semester on mostly baseless claims and harebrained theorizing. Jaemin could have told him more in an hour over coffee.
“Fine, I need something salty,” Donghyuck gives, bringing Jaemin’s attention back to the present moment. He pushes his chair back with a creaky scrape against the linoleum library floor, and leaves everything as-is on the table.
Jaemin follows Donghyuck out into the hall and down a ways to the row of vending machines.
The human stares at the little shelves of packaged foods silently, then shoves his hand down to rummage in the pocket of his jeans. “Well I can guess what you want,” says Donghyuck, “and I think chips will do for me…” he pauses, then, “ah shit. Nevermind, I have no change.”
“You don’t have money?” Jaemin asks, for clarity’s sake.
“That’s right, no pesos, so no snacks.”
He turns away from the machine, taking steps back towards the library proper, but Jaemin reaches a hand up and places it over the display screen.
Donghyuck pauses, glancing back. “What are you doing?”
Jaemin stretches a couple of tiny, subtle tendrils out and into the coin slot, feeling around. He could punch the number combinations from the inside, but that feels like the complicated method. As Donghyuck sidles up to him, curious, Jaemin retracts and leans his body against the machine instead, blocking visibility for any passersby to see him snake a larger tendril up from the tray at the bottom to grab the snacks directly. After a moment, a chocolate bar and a bag of chips drop from their prison, the machine automatically rotating new ones forward as Jaemin bends to pick them up.
“That’s...that’s stealing,” Donghyuck whispers, but he looks awed.
“Is it?” Jaemin asks. “I think it’s doing the public a service. Free snacks come to me, I don’t bite anyone’s head off. Pretty fair trade.”
As Donghyuck looks down at his chips with hesitation, Jaemin sighs. “I can hear how hungry you are. I’ll bring some change back another time and settle the debt, if it bothers you that much, but please eat that.”
“Nah, fuck that, serves the school right for stocking such shitty snacks in these things anyway. And besides,” he says, pulling the bag open, “they hiked the prices up like fifty percent last semester. That’s the real criminal behavior, preying on broke students.” He pops a couple chips into his mouth, seeming a little looser as they amble back toward where they left their books.
Jaemin grins. “Then I’ll be happy to steal you snacks anytime.” Donghyuck laughs, but Jaemin continues. “Also, I was thinking while I was reading.”
“Whatever Mark’s teacher was feeding that class about my kind? Total bullshit, most of it. They don’t know anything. We need to get Mark’s grade changed.”
Donghyuck stops dead in the hallway, just before the door into the research stacks. “Change his grade?”
“Of course,” Jaemin nods, chin tilted down to meet the shorter boy’s gaze, “Mark’s paper is correct and his teacher isn’t. That grade will affect his GPA, from what I understand of the collegiate system, and his GPA could affect his life. So we should change it.”
“You want to help Mark. You...care about his future.”
Jaemin isn’t sure what’s unclear about this, what is puzzling Donghyuck. He’s speaking pretty straightforwardly. Not for the first time, he wishes it wasn’t rude to just jump inside someone’s head whenever he can’t understand what they’re thinking. Donghyuck especially.
He misses Jeno and his delightfully open mind.
“Yes, Donghyuck. Why wouldn’t I?”
The boy remains silent, just taking out another chip and crunching on it with his small, blunt teeth. He pushes on the door and Jaemin follows, getting a little surprised when Donghyuck starts packing his study materials up.
“Let’s go get some real food, do something actually fun,” suggests the human, his voice casual as though the boring day so far hadn’t been entirely his doing.
Jaemin preens, filling with pride. He’s done something right, though he’s not sure what, if Donghyuck is warming up to him. Jeno and Renjun will be so pleased to hear.
They leave the building and head towards town, and as they go Donghyuck chatters like they’re the best of friends.
Explain to me again why you’re so interested in finding them? I don’t see what purpose this serves for us.
Things are changing, Love. And something about them… it’s better to know who our friends are, as the world’s opinion shifts around us. Who knows how we might need one another going forward.
Fine… but we couldn’t have just called ahead? Such a waste of time, searching an entire campus when we don’t even know exactly what to look for.
Love, please. You underestimate our abilities. Let’s have a little trust, shall we?
It happens like this: rushing a little, and in somewhat of an anxious state, go Jeno and Renjun back up the street of the small shopping district near campus. At the same approximate time, heading toward the same area in light-hearted mood, comes Donghyuck with Jaemin, discussing what movie they should see and the absolute travesty—in Donghyuck’s opinion—it is that Jeno and Renjun haven’t even attempted a movie date thus far. Then, from something like the side, as it were, approaches a taller man of slim build wearing a concerned frown, walking just slightly behind a man with a shock of blonde hair and a predatory sort of gleam in his eyes, the pair of them generating the same kind of energy as one of those rideable mechanical tigers you sometimes find outside grocery stores—that is, theoretically intimidating, but more comical in actuality. All six persons, heading different directions yet toward the same point.
Naturally, Jaemin’s the first to notice. He stops Donghyuck mid-sentence in describing the current films playing, his smile stretching from generally content to too-wide and glowing.
“There you are,” he breathes, and lengthens his stride.
Donghyuck has to jog to catch up, a step and a sight behind, once he finally realizes who’s coming from the opposite direction. They’re not even close by, the other pair still a few blocks distant, but Donghyuck guesses Jaemin’s senses can pick someone up from even farther than that.
And normally, Jeno would confirm that. He’d have noticed Donghyuck and anyone else coming, by their heartbeat or scent or hearing their voice from afar. Except for at the moment, where his senses lack Jaemin’s enhancement. So instead it’s Renjun who exclaims something, and they both see the bright, flouncing pink of Jaemin’s hair and Donghyuck trailing behind him. Renjun keeps his hold on Jeno’s hand, but Jeno’s the one who moves a bit faster and drags them both toward the other third of their heart.
With just one street left between them, the four wait to cross, to meet on Jeno and Renjun’s side. It’s an odd few minutes of awkwardly staring at one another across the pavement; Renjun notes that Donghyuck looks neither annoyed nor angry, but actually pleasantly amused, like the fact that Jaemin’s bouncing on the balls of his feet with energy is almost cute. And Jeno feels a sort of out-of-body strangeness, not unwelcome but surreal, to look at Jaemin completely outside himself—he’s a whole entire person, broad-shouldered and brimming with vitality, dark eyes glimmering as they meet Jeno’s. Even though he knows Jaemin could choose to look like anything, he marvels at the the visual he’s chosen, and watches the crosswalk indicator with anticipation.
The light changes.
Donghyuck’s laugh rings out into the street as Jaemin flies across. In the few seconds they have to prepare, it occurs to Jeno to brace for impact. Not that he’s been jumped by Jaemin all that many times, but his memory serves as a warning, and the symbiote looks to be at peak enthusiasm.
So Jeno steps slightly behind Renjun, grinning when Renjun realizes and protests but can’t escape.
Although it doesn’t matter, in the end.
Jaemin reaches their side of the street, and is seconds away from what undoubtedly would be a bone-crushing embrace, when he’s thrown sideways at the last possible moment.
For Jaemin, it’s something like noticing a car about to t-bone into the driver’s window. An off feeling, eyes flicker to the left, a nanosecond of shock, and then: impact.
The couple yell in surprise and concern as Jaemin gets tackled, rolling to a stop just at the edge of the curb. From his back, Jaemin bares his sharp teeth and growls, eyes flashing, until all his attack reflexes melt away in surprise.
The blonde pinning him to the sidewalk grins, fang-like teeth visible almost to the back molars. When he speaks, the words come out like a hiss.
“In the flesh.”