This class is boring. Let’s go outside and crunch leaves!
No, we—I’ve already missed three times this semester, I have to actually take notes and pass.
School is pointless. We shouldn’t do it. We should eat a lot of chocolate and watch some movies.
If I drop out then I’ll never get a job and there will be no one to pay for your chocolate. How do you feel about that?
A wash of ice-cold surprise and then hot anger floods over Jeno, and he shudders involuntarily in his seat. The girl next to him notices and gives him a look, scooting her chair just a little farther down the row. Jeno whispers an apology, and looks up at the whiteboard to realize his internal conversation has already caused him to miss three lines of notes—Econ’s his hardest class, and he can’t afford that kind of lack of concentration. He glances at the clock on the far wall of the lecture hall. He only has to focus for twelve more minutes, so he doubles down on his notebook.
Fine...do your studying. We have to eat LOTS of chocolate. Or people.
I’m not eating any people, Jaemin. We’ve been over this. You don’t even like doing that.
Jeno….Jeno. Fine, Lee Jeno. Then please. Buy us more chocolate.
Oh Jeno. There he is! Do you see him, Jeno? We should go and speak to him, Jeno. Let’s go right now.
N-no, I don’t think so. He looks busy.
We can interrupt him, we read that book too! We can tell him it tasted boring when we tried it.
I’m not telling Renjun that my symbiote took over so it could lick my copy of Anna Karenina.
The people on the cover could have been tasty.
Sliding into his seat at the back of the room, Jeno tries to shake the extra voice out of his head. Recently it’s harder, because Jaemin seems to get a little stronger every week, and Jeno has a little harder time remembering where he ends and the symbiote begins. The symbiote taking on a human name only makes it easier to forget what Jaemin is—actually dangerous, and not at all human. But since Jaemin knows most of what he’s thinking, it’s hard to argue with him on much. Jaemin just tells him they’re one, and then pushes for more food.
He looks good today. Agree?
Bonding with Jaemin changed Jeno’s life in a host of ways. It took him three weeks to stop breaking pencils just by picking them up, and that was after the week of class he missed trying to stop screaming out loud every time the other voice in his head spoke. Weirdest was probably when he allowed Jaemin to take over his body— their body, he asserted—and walk around campus introducing himself to strangers with that eerily wide smile. Jeno had asked why he didn’t look like a monster, when he was one. Jaemin had been offended, pouted into the mirror, and replied that not all symbiotes were like the ones in the news. Some of them were just there, needed a host, maybe some brains to eat, and had no issue looking like humans. Jeno didn’t know enough to question him, only enough to put his foot down on the eating brains bit. Their foot. Jaemin’s foot? He put a foot down.
Why don’t we ever talk to him, Jeno? You like him. I like him. He’d like us, if he knew us. Let me take over and prove it!
You are not altering my entire physical appearance in the middle of this classroom!
Several rows forward, Renjun scribbles out a note while sighing in frustration, and runs a nervous hand through his hair. With the sense enhancements Jaemin brings along, Jeno can practically feel the tiny air disruptions from that movement. Having a crush and a symbiote at the same time...is not ideal. Not when Jaemin encourages and feeds on every little crush-like emotion, points out every time Renjun is in visible range—as if Jeno doesn’t already know —and pines after him too. With their symbiosis, it’s like having twice the crush at once.
Jeno misses whatever funny thing the professor says, but Renjun’s responding laugh makes his heart beat loud in his ears. There’s a deep sigh in the back of Jeno’s mind, the spot where Jaemin lives.
I bet he tastes nice.
We should get more chocolate. For snacks. Renjun will need snacks too! He’ll like us better if we give him our food.
For once, Jeno doesn’t disagree, although he does think some snacks other than just chocolate might be a good idea. He wishes he could calm his nerves enough to prepare better for the studying he’s about to do, but with Jaemin reminding him about it almost every second it’s hard to just get the things he needs and leave the convenience store.
The problem is that he’s on edge, even just walking back to his dorm room. The announcement of the group presentation through him for a loop—he’d already established himself as a loner (due to the whole...people eating symbiote thing. It seemed safer, even if he wasn’t allowing Jaemin to ever eat anyone) but he couldn’t argue his way out of the assignment. He did try, though, once Renjun’s name appeared on the whiteboard next to his as his partner.
Jaemin had been nearly beside himself with glee—or, beside Jeno. There’d been a frantic few moments where Jeno actually shook with the effort to keep Jaemin from phasing partially out next to him.
“Professor,” Jeno had sought the man out immediately after class, trying to keep his voice low as Renjun was only a handful of desks away. “Is it possible to have a different partner? Or not have one?”
No! Say we don’t want another partner! Take it back! We want Renjun, we want Rejun! WE WANT RENJUN.
“Oh, Jeno, well everyone has been assigned already, and it is required—“
The professor’s eyes widened slightly. “Sorry?”
“I mean, well, I want to do well, you know I usually work best alone anyway, and so…”
“Jeno, I’m sorry,” Professor Kim adjusted his glasses higher on his thin nose, “you’ll have to manage this time. All the groups are set.”
Haha! Yes! We get to keep Renjun, Jeno! This is so good. Let’s tell him we like him!
“I see, right, we—I’ll do my best.”
He’d barely made it two steps out the door when a hand caught his elbow. From Jaemin’s internal hisses of delight, Jeno already knew who it was before he turned around. “Renjun. Hi.” He managed, amidst the string of things Jaemin wanted him to say.
The slightly older boy looked back at him calmly, his thin, delicately handsome face revealing no obvious emotion. “Hey. Listen, I need to get to Stats, but give me your number quick so we can connect later about the presentation.” He handed Jeno his phone, just like that.
Jeno, Jeno, he’s nice up close isn’t he?? Put some hearts by our name!
It’s my name.
Don’t be cruel, Jeno. Eventually he’ll know mine too. Now put a heart!
The thought had forced an involuntary spike of fear. Jeno refrained, and also managed to stop Jaemin from sending a reply full of confessions to the text Renjun sent him an hour later.
So Jeno is nervous, and anxious, and letting Jaemin direct them across every crunchy leaf on the way back to the dorm, because in twenty-five minutes Renjun will be there, and Jeno has to find a way to appear to be a student who isn’t sharing his body with a leech lovesick from adopting his own crush.
Jeno finds it works best if he just avoids talking as much as possible. Renjun is far smarter than he is, and hasn’t suggested anything he doesn’t agree with yet. He does chuckle at the suggestion of doing their presentation on Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, though, if only because of the irony.
“You don’t want to do that book?” Renjun asks, confusion maring his brow. “The syllabus doesn’t leave us that many options.”
“Oh, no, it’s fine. I just...thought of a joke. Nevermind, not very funny.”
It wasn’t funny at all. We’re not like that. For one, I’m not evil and ugly, but instead extremely beautiful. Give me some credit. And secondly, you’re no doctor, and you have no friends, so.
Hey! I have friends! You know them!
The kiddos don’t count as friends, we barely even see them. Besides, Jisung and Chenle treat us like their parents.
Jeno pauses, musing over the odd new development of Jaemin bother referring to them as separate people. It goes against Jaemin’s typical schema, but perhaps it’s a good sign.
“Oh, okay,” is all Renjun says, back in the perceivable world.
They’re quiet for about half an hour, just adding notes to shared google doc while Jeno silently fights Jaemin from adding emoji hearts and memes.
Jeno, he’s not going to like us if we don’t talk to him!
You’re not talking to him. And besides, that’s not a given. I talked to plenty of people before you came along, and none of them ever liked me.
That’s not very believable. We talk all the time and I like you very much.
Under his t-shirt, Jeno feels the odd sensation of thin symbiote tendrils wrap around his stomach. He manages not to hiss in surprise; Jaemin does this sometimes, like his version of a hug. It used to make him blush, such a close touch on his skin but invisible to anyone else. He’s more used to it now, just like he’s used to Jaemin furling around him in bed at night sometimes, his weird, semi-solid form petting Jeno’s hair and caressing his face.
Let’s talk to him! Tell him he looks good.
“Um, Renjun, so—”
Tell him he looks handsome.
I’ll just ask how he wants to split the presentation.
Renjun looks up from his book, almost suspicious. “Yes?”
Tell him he looks delicious!
“Uh…” Renjun’s soft eyes are wide, hands paused in typing over his laptop.
Jeno feels his skin crawl, a mixture of embarrassment and Jaemin trying to egg him on. “Sorry, I mean, do you want to split the chapters? I’ll look for quotes in the first half of the book—“
This is SO boring. He’ll never like us for talking about this. We’re ruined. Jaemin includes a phantom pinch at Jeno’s stomach, making him wince.
“—if you want to look through the second half?”
The look Renjun gives Jeno is skeptical, like he’s just waiting for the next unusual thing Jeno might do. “Alright, that works for me,” he finally agrees, speaking slowly. They slip back into silence while Jaemin whines inside Jeno’s head, trying to force his fingers to write anything but notes.
Stop it or I’m taking all the plushies off the bed.
You are easily the worse half of us. I should’ve bonded with a human with some balls.
Pokemon plushies gone. Eat a dick, Jaemin.
Jeno thinks he’s handling these presentation prep sessions fairly well, all things considered. Sure, most times he has to internally debate Jaemin and physically suppress the symbiote from throwing them across the dorm tile to touch Renjun, but he’s becoming used to the challenge. He’s handling it.
By the third session Renjun seems to loosen up a bit. They actually discuss the material out loud and when Jeno suggests they make sure to include a point on the author’s intentional ambiguity, Renjun almost looks...proud? Impressed?
“Yeah, that’s important you’re right,” he says, and smiles. “Let’s add a slide.”
Jeno feels Jaemin ripple over his back.
He smiled at us!
Yeah he...he sure did.
Yes. Good. Now, let’s kiss him.
Actually, let’s not.
I would eat your liver except that it’s pathetic. Lily-livered. I’m saying you’re a coward.
“Aw, how sweet.”
Jeno realizes too late that he’s said this outloud. He realizes it because Renjun is giving him that look he’s growing accustomed to that’s something like amused confusion.
“I guess? It’s just a PowerPoint slide, Jeno.” Renjun quirks a eyebrow at him.
“Right. I know. I was um. Thinking about, y'know, Jekyll’s relationship with Hyde, how he uh like...cares...sort of...about him.”
Renjun’s look turns dubious, amused confusion mixed into it. “That’s a weird take. Are we still talking about the same story? You know they’re the same person, just divided, right?”
Aww. Look. You’ve confused him by talking about us.
Incorrect. I don’t care about you.
Behind his back where he prays Renjun can’t see, Jeno feels the touch of a hand creep into the scruff of his hair and tug lightly. He only flinches a little, and if his heartbeat picks up it’s definitely only because he’s afraid Renjun will notice.
Sweet little lies.
Jeno ignores Jaemin as much as possible and leafs through his book for the millionth time.
“I dunno,” he finally replies to the actual boy sitting on the floor of his dorm room, a beat or two too late, “maybe I read between the lines a little too much. Can you tell I’m not a Lit major?”
“It’s about the only thing I can tell about you for sure, Jeno.”
Jeno blinks. “What does that mean?”
“You come off a little mysterious, you know?” Renjun says, leaning forward with his elbows propped on his knees. “Sometimes I can’t tell if it’s actually me you’re talking to.”
“Oh. Um. I’m sorry?”
Renjun shrugs, and the glint in his eye worries Jeno a little. “Don’t be, I’ll figure you out eventually.”
A shiver courses down Jeno’s spine, in part because he believes him. Renjun’s nothing if not observant, which is exactly why Jeno has kept his distance so carefully until this point—and why he’ll be even more careful from now on. As for the other part, Jeno correlates it to Jaemin’s suspicious sudden silence inside his head. There’s no snarky comment, no demand or even a scoff. Jaemin’s lack of vocalization strikes Jeno as distinctly wrong , and he doesn’t like it one bit.
Somehow, Jeno catches a cold. It’s the type of cold anyone could catch, not particularly special; red, runny nose, glassy eyes and the kind of cough that rumbles around in his lungs but never feels resolved no matter how much he hacks.
Jeno’s furious, in an exhausted way, because this shouldn’t be happening to him.
Why aren’t you healing me? How am I sick??
Oh, so this is my fault somehow?
He stares at the notebook page in front of him and tries to make sense of the blurring lines, but his head is so stuffed it translates on his corneas like alphabet soup. And it’s his own handwriting. When the class ends only a few minutes later, he barely even recalls the time passing, and the effort to leave the classroom is astounding.
We live the other way, Jeno.
Jaemin’s reminder is thoughtful, but Jeno shakes his head, continuing toward the destination he’s already targeted.
“No, I can’t miss Lit. Remember? Too many absences.” He doesn’t even care that he’s speaking out loud, too tired and achy for the effort of mentalizing his half of the conversation.
What do you think your little human brain is going to retain in this state? Or do you just want to see Renjun?
“Not worried about either,” Jeno half-lies, knowing that he’s never going to feel like seeing Renjun is the wrong choice, “just have to be present enough for the participation grade. Why don’t you listen and tell me the notes later.”
A passing student shoots him a look, which he ignores. Jeno kicks a rock, watches it skitter across the sidewalk while he clutches his coat tighter against the chill of the increasing Autumn wind. No one else seems to be doing similarly; they’re bundled enough, but Jeno is the only one treating the short walk between the science and liberal arts buildings like a trek over Everest, flipping up his hood and tightening it till all he can see is a narrow line in front of his feet.
Hmph. I am not a secretary.
“I give you everything, like a leech. The least you could do is cover notes for me for once.”
Calling me nasty things isn’t helping to convince me.
Jeno sniffles conspicuously, trudging up the stairs and feeling like he really is climbing a mountain. There’s a flow of students in and out of the liberal arts building that churn around him, and he concentrates hard on his feet to avoid getting dizzy; someone holds a door open and he goes through it, not questioning whether or not it was meant for him.
“If you actually liked me, you’d help me,” Jeno whines a little, making more of an effort to keep the words under his breath as he follows the stream of students towards his classroom.
Rude of you to leverage my emotions like that, as if I’m not clear enough about who and what I like...
Managing the last few wide stairs up to the back of the lecture hall, Jeno drops into his seat like a lead weight and slumps against the desk, discarding his backpack by his feet. He can feel the warm tingle of Jaemin’s form masking over his skin, like sliding into a bath, covering his hands, torso and neck while leaving his face unchanged. Jeno exerts no effort, but his arm moves and fingers that look a little unlike his pick a notebook and pen from his bag, poise the ink tip against an open page.
Fine. I’ll help. I’ll help a lot, because you can’t seem to help yourself. And you’re embarrassing us.
Jeno mutters something like a thanks, letting his eyelids droop.
...don’t ever doubt me again.
He doesn’t see Renjun glancing at him from the second row, brows knitted and a quizzical downturn to his lips.
Renjun wouldn’t say he’s that interested, honestly. Not in like, a crush sort of way, or anything—it’s more the mystery of it all, the intrigue. From a purely scientific perspective, Jeno’s objectively fascinating, and Renjun’s pretty amazed to be the only one who’s seemed to notice.
Renjun thinks others definitely should have noticed, but at the same time he’s secretly pleased that the mystery has fallen to him. As he keeps his respectful distance behind Jeno, who’s walking the route to their shared class though he clearly is distracted, Renjun smirks to see other students skirt around him.
It hardly makes sense: Jeno is smart(if his Bio Chem major is anything to go by), over all pretty nice, good-looking(again, Renjun’s just being objective), so people should want to approach him. And yet, he puts himself out of the way, keeps a low profile, and doesn't hang around the social parts of campus. Not that Renjun does much either, but he asked Donghyuck and Mark, who cover just about the entire school’s worth of social opportunities between them, and neither could think of Jeno being present in any significant form.
“I thought he existed exclusively for the forty-five minute span of the Intro Bio Med class we shared twice a week,” Donghyuck had said, spoonful of jello wobbling dangerously in his gesturing hand. “Like, I have eyes, so I noticed him of course, because like, you know. He’s hot.”
Renjun had kept a placid face, refusing to affirm or deny.
Donghyuck hadn’t pressed him, although he did raise one well-shaped brow. “But yeah he’d like, disintegrate at the end of class. After mid-semester anyway. Up until then he seemed pretty normal?”
There had been a concurring nod from Mark. “I thought I’d seen his name on the roster for the soccer intramural team first semester last year, but he never showed up and never paid any club dues, so I guess not.”
“Lee Jeno, our class’s own ghost,” Donghyuck had snickered.
Renjun declined to inform them that he’d spent a solid few hours now in that ghost’s own dorm room, studying him (and supposedly great works of literature) at close range and taking note of the weird mannerisms he’d only witnessed at a distance till then.
Weird mannerisms like spacing out for full minutes at a time, or wincing at nothing, or answering questions no one asked, or ingesting what appears to be an insane amount of chocolate. Or, like muttering half of a full conversation to himself while huddled inside his hoodie, barely avoiding the flood of students swarming across campus. By the time they’re nearing the building’s doors Jeno has hardly raised his eyes, and Renjun is fully convinced he’ll be plowed over before he makes it inside. He darts forward and wrenches the door open for him, tongue prepared to snap a dry remark at him for not paying attention—
“If you actually liked me, you’d help me.”
Renjun freezes, feeling caught, the lowly whined words swirling around in his ears but making no sense while a slow flush spreads over his face. Who’s he talking to like that?
But Jeno’s already gliding away. Renjun watches him all the way to his seat, sees him treat it more like a bed than a desk while somehow still preparing to take notes. He’s never seen someone write while perceptibly asleep, and yet every time Renjun glances back he swears the pen has just been moving, even though by the time class ends Jeno hasn’t appeared to move a muscle or open his eyes once.
Having packed up his books, Renjun climbs up to the back row. In the now empty classroom he can hear the very faint sound of Jeno’s breathing, assuring him that the guy isn’t dead, which is a minor relief. He eyes the notebook under Jeno’s unmoving hand, where the pen still loose in his grasp covers some of the completely illegible chicken scratch gracing the page.
“Ah, so you were faking it,” Renjun observes in a whisper, grinning to himself. Clever, if not well executed.
He reaches forward and gently eases the pen from Jeno’s grip, absentmindedly noting his long fingers with nails filed into a subtle point. Just to study—because, as stated, he finds Jeno attractive from a third-party sort of perspective—Renjun observes the strong, straight line of Jeno’s nose and long, dark lashes that rest on his cheek, the one that isn’t squished against his arm on the desk. His inky hair pokes out untidily from under his hood, and there’s the thinnest sheen of sweat glistening on his brow.
Renjun starts. “Are you sick?” He asks, laying a hand over Jeno’s, not sure if it feels clammy or if he’s imagining it. “Hey, Jeno, wake up. If you’re sick you really shouldn’t be here!”
Jeno shows no sign of consciousness, and yet Renjun is surprised to feel the hand below his turn and fingers slot between his, squeezing tenderly. Red immediately burns in his cheeks. His eyes flit to Jeno’s barely parted lips, then to their hands. He swallows shakily.
He’s just...attractive. Objectively speaking.
Wake us up, but slowly.
I don’t know what the fuck that means.
Jeno tries it anyway, because he’s too worn out to argue with Jaemin about how one should wake up when one has just ostensibly slept through an entire class. He’s first aware that he’s stiff from sleeping in such an awkward position, and then aware that the lights in the room are unbearably bright. Only secondarily does Jeno become aware that he’s holding someone’s hand, which is pretty nice of them.
His sickness addled brain doesn’t exactly know what to do with such information, staring at the intertwined fingers for far too long before realizing more information can be gleaned by following the attached arm up to its owner. Jeno does this, and feels his heart drop into his stomach.
Renjun’s eyes are wide and worried. Jeno thinks maybe he’s hallucinating.
“Am I dreaming?” he asks, his brain-to-mouth filter completely absent. It seems like a reasonable question.
Renjun shakes his head, his soft gold hair swishing mesmerizingly. “I don’t think so.”
“Oh. So I’m awake.”
“That’s the alternative, usually, yeah.”
Jeno notices a feather-light dust of pink hovering on Renjun’s cheeks, and marvels at it. It’s nearly as mesmerizing as his hair. He could probably just stare at the two things for hours, and probably he should. He really can’t think of a good reason not to, but then again he also can’t really...think.
“Jeno, could you maybe...let go? Of my hand?”
It takes a couple of blinks for Jeno to translate a whole sentence, but he finally does, and pulls his hand away with surprising speed, unsure of why it was like that in the first place. He glares at his palm as though the offending limb will feel chastised.
Renjun shuffles awkwardly from one foot to the other, amazingly still present after being released. “Are you feeling okay?” he asks.
Tell him no, maybe he’ll take care of us!
“Yeah, I thought so, you don’t look alright. Do you want help somewhere? The hospital maybe?”
Yes! But not the hospital. Hospitals are the worst.
“No, I’m just gonna go sleep...more…”
Try again, stupid. Say it with me...yes, Renjun, please help us, we’re so very needy. Take care of us and give us all your attention. Cuddling would be an excellent start.
Jeno pushes himself groggily up from the desk, trying not to let how dizzy he feels be too obvious, but he gets the feeling Renjun can tell anyway. He’s fidgeting a lot, for someone usually so composed.
“So I guess you’ll probably want to cancel our presentation work for tonight, huh?”
Jaemin’s practically screaming his dissent inside Jeno’s brain, and he winces, bringing both hands up to rub at his face and steady himself from the noise. He breathes out with effort, focusing all his attention on the following words.
“Yes, let’s do it another time.”
“Yeah, alright...um, give me a call or something if you get worse, will you? I don’t need like, my presentation partner dying. Bad for my grade.”
Renjun gives a short laugh, and Jeno forces a nod and smile, because the effort of being sick and handling Jaemin is too much for more. With a little wave, Renjun leaves the classroom.
Jeno gasps the minute he’s gone, and braces both hands on the desk.
Are you so into him that you’re willing to kill me over it?!?!?
You liked him first! And all I’m trying to do is get us to show it!
“Not like this!!” Jeno growls, eyes burning while his arms wobble. Whatever rest Jaemin afforded him by letting him sleep during class seems to have done little but allow a full fever to take hold. He needs to get to his bed immediately, or risk collapsing somewhere on campus. Jeno reaches to throw his notebook and pen in his bag, then pauses.
“Jaemin. What the fuck is this.”
I took notes for us. You’re welcome.
“Oh, thank you, kind parasite, wonderful alien of mine. So much. For these...beautiful scribbles. Which I cannot fucking read.” He mercilessly shoves the notes into his bag, expending some precious energy with the force, and stumbles down to the classroom door. Things are not looking good.
Just because I can speak your human language does not mean I can write in it. You wanted notes? I gave you notes. Maybe if you’re nice to me again, I’ll read them for you.
Jeno nearly responds, but stops when he turns a corner and passes by a gaggle of students. He glares at them through his sick haze, and stalks forward when they shuffle to the side warily.
Fine. You can prove to me that they mean something later. I’m going to sleep for...thirty hours.
Too long. We’ll be bored.
Jaemin figures it should be possible, depending on Jeno’s general level of consciousness. He’s researched a little—once, while Jeno studied, letting Jaemin play with his phone while sort of resting on his shoulder. He’s looked up human sleep patterns, and it seems doable. So long as he can pinpoint when Jeno slips into the deep, non-REM stage of sleep, which should be pretty easy with his feverish state, Jaemin should be able to move them both without Jeno actually waking. Some humans apparently did this, just got up and walked around despite not being fully conscious; so it would be just like that, except with Jaemin driving and, if things go as planned, talking too.
Jeno squirms in his sleep, the fever making it a challenge to relax and be restful. But it isn’t long before he starts to settle, and Jaemin pays close attention to his brain activity, until it appears about the same as his research indicated. A moment later, Jaemin’s humanesque appearance has slipped over Jeno like a second skin—a few centimeters taller, softer faced. A visual Jaemin likes and has found that most humans respond well to, despite the slightly over-sharp teeth and claw-like nails he can’t quite get rid of.
Lifting their body from the bed with a bit of a wobble, Jaemin crosses over to the mirror. He blinks and liquid gold irises disappear and reappear from behind thin human eyelids; he smiles, and the grin stretches nearly to his ears. He draws it in a little more, and ruffles the pink-gold hair that almost ripples, as if underwater, it’s texture a little too glossy for a human. He’s not quite as good as some of the others of his chameleon symbiote breed, but he’s good enough, and finds this form to be particularly successful.
Being that Jeno is sick, there’s a little wooziness to his movement as Jaemin leaves the dorm and returns to the classroom. There’s a lingering scent there, a pleasing concoction of jasmine and bergamot, that Jaemin inhales—his grins spreads a little too wide as he keeps drinking it in, following it, until it’s lead him to the glass-windowed front of a small off-campus coffee shop. Inside sits a boy with honey-colored hair and round glasses perched on his nose, which is mostly buried in the pages of a weathered Jekyll & Hyde novel. Jaemin checks his reflection in the glass—puppet-like, unconscious Jeno is visible in one range of his sight, while his human form smiles back in the other. Jaemin schools his expression into his most disarming look, and pushes inside the shop.
Three days later, and Jeno cannot comprehend why he feels so tired. Blessedly, the cold has mostly gone, but no matter how early he goes to bed or how late he gets up, he can’t seem to get fully rested. He just continues to wake up tangled six ways to hell in his sheets, after frustrating dreams of wandering around empty streets feeling like he just missed meeting someone. Jaemin has just shrugged whenever Jeno complains internally, offering no suggestions, so Jeno sought out options.
The Nyquil and sleeping pills never made it as far as his tongue, Jaemin rejecting them both by scent the instant he brings them close. Although nowhere near loud enough to hurt him, Jaemin complains about the ‘calming noisemaker’ Jeno tries, whining that the whale sounds upset him. So Jeno attempts meditating, which proves hilariously impossible.
“Inhale deeply, and allow your body to relax, one vertebrae at a time,” the person on Youtube instructs.
One vertebra at a time? Can you even feel a single vertebra distinctly?
“Now, breathing out and in again, empty your mind of all thought, focusing completely on the energy radiating from your heart.”
Jaemin’s laughter is thunderous. Empty your mind???? Bitch, try and make me leave!
Jeno gives up on meditation and silences the Youtube video, flopping back on the floor with a tired groan. Either way, Renjun will be there soon. They’re down to three more sessions before the presentation and Jeno’s nervous that his partner will still feel awkward after the whole unconscious hand-holding thing. He doesn’t know how to explain it, or if he needs to, and really hopes they can ignore it altogether.
There’s a knock at the door, right on time.
Oh, I suppose he is.
Jeno quirks an eyebrow, thinking the look at Jaemin so he knows the confusion is toward him. There’s none of his usual enthusiasm at the prospect of the only person Jaemin likes better than his host, as if he’s neutral to the whole encounter. But Jaemin says nothing.
Peeling himself up from the floor, Jeno rubs his face while reaching to open his dorm to the lovely Chinese boy, heart pitter-pattering a little faster as usual. He pulls the door open.
Renjun is...smiling, softly, and staring at his phone. At first Jeno just stares too, caught up in appreciation of the sight, until he realizes it’s been an awkward amount of time and finally clears his throat.
“Oh! Sorry, I’m...hey.” Renjun looks sheepish, ducking his head slightly and tucking his phone into his pocket with haste.
Internally, Jeno hears an adoring sigh.
Jeno can’t help grinning. “It’s cool. Wanna come in?”
Renjun takes up his spot on the rug immediately, starting to pull his laptop out while Jeno unplugs his from its spot on the desk, unsettling a small pile of chocolate wrappers in the process.
“Are you feeling better?”
“Oh,” Jeno turns, meeting the questioning gaze with no small amount of nerves, “yeah I’m...pretty much good.” He doesn’t mention the inexplicable exhaustion—it’s not Renjun’s problem to worry about.
The other offers a warm eye smile. “Good. Next time, just skip if you’re sick. Email Professor Kim, he’ll understand. You’re not gonna get any notes out of it if you’re asleep anyway.”
Thinking of the notes he’d just transcribed the other day at Jaemin’s translation, Jeno just nods.
“Besides,” Renjun continues, though he’s now focused on his laptop screen, “you can always just borrow mine since we’re close. Now, did we decide on how we want to discuss the foreshadowing in chapter six or not?”
Jeno is too stuck on the we’re close bit casually thrown into his airspace to even remember what happens in chapter six, but he nods again anyway and thanks the stars that Renjun hasn’t brought up the awkward hand incident.
They’ve been working on the presentation for a good ten minutes before Jeno suddenly pauses, sitting back slightly while Renjun continues to type away at his keyboard.
Something is wrong or...missing? Jeno looks down at his hands, where the book is resting open on the page he’s been copying a quote from. Everything normal there. He glances across the room, out the window; the tree branches that hang over most of his view away in the late Autumn wind a little, tapping against the glass occasionally, mixing with the light music playing from Renjun’s laptop. Otherwise, things are calm and quiet.
A jolt of panic courses through Jeno so suddenly he nearly drops his book.
What? Don’t yell, please.
Jeno feels himself sag in relief, then frowns.
You’re super quiet?
Uh, yeah. Super. You don’t...have any comments? Nothing to say? Renjun’s sitting right here and you haven’t even pointed out how nice that shirt looks with his hair. It’s weird.
What, you’re not gonna tell me to hold his hand again?
Not like you’ll do it even if I do. You don’t listen to me.
Jeno frowns harder, a little annoyed. Yes I do.
I do! I do what you want all the time!
Not when it comes to him, you don’t. I give up.
“Can you start adding our sources to the works cited page?” Renjun says, and Jeno looks up at the interruption. It takes him a moment to register the change of topic.
“Works...cited, right, yeah.”
A small laugh from Renjun. “Where were you just now?”
Surprisingly, Renjun sets his book down and pushes his laptop to the side, then leans back onto his palms while keeping his eyes trained on Jeno. A flutter of panic for Jeno again; it’s like Renjun’s eyes can see right through him.
“When you space out like that, where do you go?”
“I…” Stunned, Jeno can’t think of anything to say.
Then Renjun shifts forward onto his knees, leaning over Jeno’s laptop and poking one finger gently onto his forehead while bracing the other hand on Jeno’s knee.
“Do you get so lost up here even you don’t know?” he says, finger still in place and not retreating. “Or is the rest of the world just not worth your attention?”
Jeno swallows, floundering. He doesn’t know how to respond to this question, to this proximity.
Say something, idiot.
Oh, now you want suggestions?
“You’re worth my attention.”
Renjun’s eyes widen and he sits back quickly, looking perplexed, while Jeno feels himself tense up an inch at a time over the cheesy line that just came out of his own mouth.
“That’s...funny it’s…” Renjun lays a hand on his phone, eyes shyly dropping away from Jeno’s. “You’re the second person to that say to me this week…”
“But...obviously it isn’t true? Since you’re always getting distracted whenever we’re working…”
The words slip out of Jeno’s mouth before he even knows them. “I pay more attention to you than anyone else.” He slaps a hand over his mouth immediately, before it’s too late and he says more.
We’re doing fine.
He’s looking at us like we’re crazy!
Renjun is in fact looking at Jeno, a faint blush of what Jeno assumes to be surprise glittering on his cheeks, fingers now gripping tightly over his phone like some sort of anchor. Jeno pulls his laptop close, ducking his head down to it and hoping he can perhaps just melt through his floor without disturbing his below neighbors too much.
“Well, I do hold the fate of your Victorian Lit grade in my hands…” Renjun mutters, after a moment, his voice surprisingly even. “Still, the real question is why you seem determined to avoid attention altogether. What are you hiding, Lee Jeno? Or are you just afraid of anyone learning you’re actually pretty nice to be around?”
Jeno doesn’t look up from his computer. His mind feels as blank as the search bar of his browser, the indicator still blinking as it waits for him to make a request. He could tell him, in this moment. He could trust Renjun with this.
But Jaemin’s silent, practically non-present. And for some reason, like that, Jeno can’t do it.
“I’m not hiding anything,” Jeno says instead, an icy creep of cowardice, totally unlike the encouraging feeling of Jaemin’s touch, trickling down his spine. He wishes Jaemin was talking to him, at least making a jab about his spinelessness or something .
“If you say so,” Renjun replies, shrugging as he returns to his book.
They finish early, Renjun citing a need to meet someone else about something, and Jeno crawls into his bed like a sloth, burying his face deep into the pillows and praying for sleep. It is, of course, no use.
“Someone else said I was worth their attention.”
“Did they? That’s sweet. Now I’m going to be jealous, though.”
“O-oh...you are? I mean, why should you? It’s not like you spend enough time with me to really be jealous. Unless you feel like...giving me your number, this time?"
“Give me your device, Renjun.”
“...all you did was take another selfie. I already have that.”
“Well, I’m not any less handsome in that one than I was the last one. Just want you to be able to remember me when I’m not around.”
“Why aren’t you around?”
“Is that a new shirt? It matches your skin tone so prettily. I could just...eat you up. How is your skin so soft?”
“N-no, I’ve had it a while, you didn’t answer my question.”
“You should finish your tea before it’s cold. It’s getting late anyway, I need to get going.”
“Um. Are you dying?”
Jeno stares up at Renjun from where he’s lying on the floor, too exhausted to actually sit up and work on their project properly. He can’t even bring himself to feel bad about how pathetic he looks in front of him, not after the past two days of dragging himself around campus like death warmed over, lacking even much in the way of an appetite. He knows his room is a mess too, scattered with clothes he simply dropped after wriggling out of them, and bed no more ‘made’ than the uncooked package of ramen sitting half-eaten on his desk next to a pile of assorted chocolate bars.
“Probably,” he replies, angling the book to drop over his face likes a shade.
The book blocks his vision but he can hear shuffling, and then the book lifts off his face on its own—or by the power of someone else—and Renjun is frowning down at him. “I think we should be done for today.”
“But we aren’t finished?”
“Whatever.” Renjun grasps his wrists and pulls. “Up, we go. On your bed.”
“Yeah. Take a nap.”
“Right now??” Jeno’s voice pitches higher, a nervous squeak as Renjun all but shoves him into his own bed. There’s nothing he can do but acquiesce, especially as Renjun adjusts the mess of blankets around him, careless to the fact that Jeno’s fully dressed in jeans and a sweatshirt—not the most comfortable sleepwear—and blushing furiously at the whole situation.
“Yeah, when else?” replies Renjun, and then he grabs his laptop and book and hops onto the foot of the bed, nudging Jeno’s blanketed feet aside.
...what is he doing? Is he...staying with us??? Jaemin’s voice pops up from the back corner of Jeno’s mind, where he’s been keeping frustratingly silent.
Jeno peeks at Renjun, wide-eyed, from inside the cocoon he’s been bundled into. It sure looks that way, his classmate settling comfortably against the bland, painted-white brick wall, adjusting the 90’s nerd sweater vest he’s wearing and focusing on the device on his lap.
Holy shit, I think he is.
Why would he...wait, this isn’t the plan...ask him why!
Plan? What plan?
Ask him why, or I will!
“Um...are you,” Jeno starts, obeying Jaemin’s oddly stressed-out demands for the moment, “like, staying here? While I sleep?”
Renjun glances at him, making a face as though it’s a stupid question to ask. “Well yeah. How else am I supposed to make sure you actually do it?”
A warm, affectionate feeling blooms inside Jeno’s chest, and he ducks his head low into the blanket. “I don’t think I can sleep if you’re watching me, though…”
“I’m not watching you, I’m working. And besides, you’ve slept just fine with me around before, so I don’t see why this would be any different.”
Jeno hears the tiny curse from Jaemin and wonders, focusing away from Renjun’s smirk momentarily.
Nothing. Just. Sleep, or whatever.
“Fine, be like that, and I will,” Jeno grumbles, rolling his eyes. Then he realizes he’s spoken aloud to Jaemin again , and dares a glance back at Renjun. The perplexed-yet-amused, closed-mouth grin is exactly what he expected to see, growing used to that response from Renjun whenever he trips up.
“You’re kinda sassy when you’re tired.”
Jeno decides it’s a good opportunity to just ignore him, so he does and rolls onto his side, adopting a position where he can still just barely see the other boy without making it obvious that he can. For all Renjun talks about Jeno being a ‘mystery,’ Jeno feels like it’s the other way around, as he watches him continue to do both their work alone. Why he’s there, why he seems to care if Jeno’s tired, why he’s so intent on figuring him out...it’s all a mystery to Jeno. He didn’t think anyone paid him any attention at all.
But then, Renjun seems actually kinda comfortable. Jeno’s seen him smile a couple of times, warming up to their partnership, or at least not creeped out over Jeno’s weirdness, which is more than he can say for just about anyone else. He’s even smiling now, if at his phone rather than Jeno, but it’s something.
There’s a pinch at the soft part of Jeno’s side, and he winces.
Stop pining and sleep already. We may as well, since he’s just deciding how we do things today.
You are being so weird.
And Jeno does, after a bit, because he can feel the need to rest down to his cellular level, and his feet are warm where Renjun has shifted to rest his legs over them, and it’s a very nice time for a nap.
When he awakes, it’s to complete darkness. At first Jeno thinks Renjun’s turned the light off for him before leaving, but as he finds it suddenly stifling to breathe, he realizes he’s just buried so far under his comforter that he doesn’t actually know which way is up. One of his arms is also sort of asleep, the fizzing tingles making it hard to move, and it takes a bit of wrangling himself around before Jeno emerges from the cottony jumble enough to see his room again.
He learns that ‘up’ is a relative term, or just one he apparently pays no attention to when asleep these days.
“I think I was wrong about you.”
Jeno blinks at Renjun from the spot where he’s snuggled near his hip, fully repositioned in the bed to crowd up next to his classmate. “How so?” he squeaks, trying desperately to find a good reason to be cuddled so close to him, and another for why he’s holding his hand again.
“Well, when you fell asleep in class you didn’t so much as twitch, except for this of course,” he raises the hand that Jeno’s is gripping, expression remaining the same and not glancing up from his phone when Jeno hastily retracts, “but I’ve never in my life seen someone move in their sleep as much as you did over the past hour.”
Except, Jeno doesn’t move in his sleep, at least not much. He knows this, because his mother used to tell him stories about how she would wake his toddler self up all the time, fearing him sick or dead, for how little he would adjust while unconscious.
“Sorry,” Jeno apologizes, scrambling away from Renjun as non-awkwardly as possible, “I don’t know what got into me. I’m not usually like that?”
Renjun finally looks at him, and smiles kindly. “It’s fine, didn’t really bother me.”
It bothers Jeno, though, sitting and puzzling over his sudden new sleeping issues and what could have changed for him to upend an entire life’s worth of routine REM cycles. There’s not much, due to the fact that Jeno’s a pretty boring person all things considered—with the grand exception of sharing his body with a petulant and demanding symbiote—and so he’s…
There’s a suspicious quiet, the kind that only happens when someone who ought to be replying is instead pretending they never heard their name.
I know you can hear me. Don’t play dumb.
While Jaemin persists with his silence, Jeno steals glances at Renjun, who for some reason is still there, despite being just shy of assaulted by Jeno, and not even working on their project anymore. Honey hair falling delicately into his eyes, the young man continues to smile at his phone, face so filled with affection that Jeno can practically hear the little hearts popping from his eyes. It’s enough to distract him from his internal war against Jaemin’s muteness, and before he can stop himself he’s asking:
“What do you keep staring at?”
Renjun starts, eyes shooting up to meet Jeno’s in surprise. Tomato red washes over his face, as he hides his phone close to his sweater vest.
“Oh I…” he hesitates, flustered, “it’s just…”
Jeno gets a queasy feeling like riding a rowboat too soon after a big meal. Not that he’s spent much time on boats but...something like that. Suddenly, he doesn’t want to know anymore. “It’s fine, you don’t have to tell—”
“I met someone.”
Whatever boat Jeno’s on, someone’s just dropped the anchor off the side, with the rope tied around his ankle. He tries to swallow the tightness in his throat, but he can’t seem to do it. “Wow. Congrats. What are, uh...what are they like?” He immediately wishes he hadn’t asked, baffled as to why he even did, and not actually too keen to hear all the ways he’s not the type of person Renjun would like.
Oddly, Renjun raises both eyebrows at him like Jeno’s just offered to officiate the wedding. “Really? He’s...interesting. I don’t think he has a phone, and he says some weird shit honestly...like what kind of person just walks up to a guy at a coffee shop and calls him pretty?” His tone is judgemental, but Renjun’s face has melted into a sugar-sweet smile, and he giggles.
Jeno might be sick.
Hey idiot, are you hearing this? We’ve got competition and you’re dead or ??
Oh gee, I don’t know, sounds like this guy just has the guts to do what you won’t. I bet he’s really handsome too, probably tall, really big smile…you’re feeling jealous now.
Um what the fuck?!
“Yeah, haha, what a weird thing to say…” Jeno replies, extracting himself from the bed in an effort to get some distance from Renjun. Jaemin’s flooding half his brain with weird indignant and agitating emotions, and the other half is peaking with his own envy, and under all that he really feels the need to open a window. The pane slides up with a godawful squeak, betraying the fact that Jeno’s never once tried to open it before, but the cold air that rushes in is a relief. Behind him, Jeno hears the creak of the bed that means Renjun’s getting up too, and the familiar shuffling of things being sorted back into his bookbag.
Renjun hums. “A little weird, sure. But I’m getting used to weird lately. Actually, I think I like weird better. More fun in a little mystery, y’know?”
Mmm, have to agree with that.
Turning casually, and only tripping over his own foot a little, Jeno offers a smile he hopes isn’t as fake as it feels. “Right, definitely.” He leans back against the sill and immediately knocks two of Jaemin’s favorite plushies out the open window. Jeno tries not to cringe at the instant screaming inside his head. “So,” he forces through grit teeth, “you’re like, dating?”
A surprised, rose pink blush sprinkles onto Renjun’s cheeks as he lifts his bag onto his slim shoulder. “No uh, I really have only met him a few times, he kinda just shows up and...sorry, but, the window, did you know you just—”
“I sure did. See you in class?”
With a tiny quirk of a smile and a wave, Renjun leaves Jeno’s room, and Jeno swears he’s shaking his head as he goes.
The plushies!!! Jeno!! Go get them immediately!! Jaemin is practically writhing, stretching in sticky gold tendrils off Jeno’s shoulder like a piece of gum being pulled up from the sidewalk on a hot day. Jeno rolls his eyes.
“They’re fine, calm down.”
Oh, no, we will NOT just calm down!! Moomin and Ryan are on the lawn, catapulted to their deaths, you threw them OUT THE WINDOW —
“I didn’t throw anything! It was an accident!” Jeno sticks a hand into the gold tangles and draws Jaemin back from the open air, trying to plaster him back against his skin before someone hears and looks in through his window. The last thing he needs is someone to glance inside and see him wrestling with a glob of sentient golden spaghetti.
Jaemin morphs into a more solidified shape in front of Jeno, about three-quarters of what a full person would be. “Sure, it was an accident.” He sneers, baring sharp little teeth. Then he rolls golden irsed-eyes and pouts, grumbling. “Whatever, I’ll go get them myself later then, if you won’t.”
“You’ll…” Jeno’s head tilts as he looks at Jaemin, who appears very suddenly like he’s just been caught with his tendril in the chocolate jar. “Yourself, huh? Say, Jaemin...I never thought to ask exactly what it is you do when I’m asleep. Care to share?” Jeno’s tense like a wrecking ball held at ninety degrees from a wall, about to swing.
“Well, if you must know, I have plenty to keep me occupied, you know, symbiote things, you wouldn’t really understand.”
Arms crossed, Jeno leans against the side of his bed and challenges. “Is that right? So you don’t, say, wander around at night amusing yourself? Literally over my sleeping body?”
Jaemin turns sheepish, wide and glowing eyes trained on Jeno’s socks. “Well, we wouldn’t have to phrase it exactly like that…”
“Sure. We wouldn’t have to. Haha. So. Jaemin. What the fuck?” Jeno can hear his voice growing louder, and knows the window is a wide gaping hole for the world to listen through, but he’s mad tired and just mad, not knowing where his own body has been the past week or possibly longer, under the questionable control of an alien with debatable intentions. “Is that why you let me be sick, so I wouldn’t be suspicious? You can’t do that shit! I’m not a puppet, you alien fuck! Not your homosapien avatar, not a pair of lungs for you to carry around! My body isn’t some all-inclusive, furnished apartment for you to use however you want, shithead!”
To his credit, Jaemin does look a fair mixture of shocked and chastised. “Jeno…"
“What? What does that mean?”
Jeno points a finger in the symbiote’s face, jaw stiff. “No embodied Jaemin, until I say so. You stay in. If I so much as yawn one time more than normal, I’ll play Metallica so loud you’ll kiss your own ass goodbye. And then you can think about exactly how bad you’ve been from the inside of my water bottle. Got me?”
Jaemin’s shrunk down to no more than a swirly, gold puddle of silly string, which makes it a little difficult to be shouting at him, but Jeno holds his ground.
“I was just trying to help..."
“That sure worked out, didn’t it? Made me exhausted, can’t get any work done, and on top of that, Renjun’s found someone, and probably thinks I’m just a cranky idiot that can’t even pull his own weight. So, thanks man.” Jaemin looks like he’s about to reply, but Jeno isn’t interested in any more excuses. He retrieves his laptop from the floor and grabs the back of his chair, jerking the piece of furniture back from the desk viciously before taking a seat. He glares at the screen, reading over the contents of the presentation with a simmering rage just under his skin.
“What...what are you doing?” Jaemin asks timidly, small form peeking around from behind Jeno’s neck.
“I’m getting some work done, for once. Feel free to shut up and piss off.”
Jeno offers Jaemin a friendly middle finger.
Jaemin does shut up then, and, spurred on by the energy of anger, Jeno completes a record amount of homework.
Regret is a funny thing. Incredibly useless, yet impossible to get rid of once it’s taken grasp, bringing with it a thousand ifs and could haves that do as much as dandelion wishes—that is, exactly nothing, ineffective at every level in repairing done damage. Jeno’s very familiar with the concept of regret, the feeling of it building up behind his teeth like drinking a cup full of ice cubes only to intake too much and be unable to spit them back out. It’s cold, and it stings, and he feels foolish and sorry.
The plushies are gone.
He’d felt terrible already, as secretly as he could from the entity sharing his skull, that he’d left them out the remainder night, but as he looks at the patch of dewy grass where a Moomin and a Ryan ought to be sitting, vaguely damp, and sees nothing...his stomach churns.
Jaemin utters a frightening combination of a hiss and a growl, low and unearthly and deep inside Jeno’s head.
Look what you’ve done.
Jaemin. I’m sorry. Jaemin, I’ll—
Jeno doesn’t continue, because he can feel the silent space where Jaemin blocks him off. Standing there on the sidewalk in the persistent wind, he wonders how he went from grounding his personal inner demon to apologizing to him in the span of under ten hours, and how on earth he’ll make this up to him while still holding his stance on not being used like a muppet.
Turning with a huff and trudging towards class, Jeno wishes desperately that he had other people’s problems.
It’s not like Jeno talks to Renjun every class period they share. The blunt truth, of course, is that prior to their project he assumed Renjun wasn’t even aware of his existence more than nominally, so his expectations are spectacularly low. Or, at least, they ought to be.
He must be letting his crush get ahead of himself again, because not speaking with Renjun is the norm, not the exception. Yet...he thought, based on what he looks back on as a few weeks of budding friendship, and the last evening of even potentially like...fuck. He doesn’t know. It seems like someone who lets you snuggle up to them in your sleep would be equally comfortable with chatting in public.
Jeno’s not dumb, or, not that dumb, at any rate. And it sure feels like Renjun is avoiding him as he skirts around the corner of the sciences hall and out of sight by the time Jeno turns the same bend. It was the same leaving class, and when he’d seen him across the quad around lunch, disappearing quickly into the cafeteria with a couple other faces he vaguely recognizes. Maybe they’re not best friends, let alone dating or anything, but direct avoidance is new.
Coupled with Jaemin’s doubly metaphorical cold shoulder, Jeno feels just a touch lonelier than usual.
“Hey Mark,” Renjun begins, keeping his tone as even as possible. He grips his binder tightly, rationing the hope that it hides the way his hands have been shaking for the past day and a half.
His friend doesn’t look up, buried the way he is in his notecards, highlighter perched precariously between his lips.
“Myeah?” Mark replies after a beat, muffled.
“You’re taking that Extraterrestrial Physiology elective this term, right?”
Mark spares him a glance, dropping the highlighter and smacking Donghyuck’s hand away when the younger tries to use the moment of distraction to swipe at his bag of pre-exam anxiety twizzlers. “Yeah. Why?” Donghyuck manages to get one anyway.
Renjun bites the inside of his lower lip, hesitating on the question. Jeno’s face materializes in his mind, his dark hair and eyes smouldering momentarily before vanishing again. And another face, a very different one with a glittering smile, that does the same. Renjun twitches, a tiny shudder.
“How like, common, is it...y’know, symbiotes. Are there a lot of them?”
Donghyuck’s eyes shoot up to where Renjun’s sitting on the park bench above him. Reclined on the thick plaid picnic blanket, the boy rolls onto his stomach and props his chin up in his palms, gumming on a twizzler that hangs from his mouth. “Been watching a lot of the news lately, Junnie? Or reading those conspiracy blogs?” Mark reaches across his own pretzeled legs and tugs at the candy, but Donghyuck turns his head away and bites it securely into his heart-shaped lips.
“Well the class is more biologically focused,” Mark offers, glaring at Donghyuck as he speaks, “but in the intro Dr. Moon mentioned a handful of statistics. Mainly it seems like we don’t really know. Like, there’s the ones on television, and the few instances that have been reported or even appeared with a host offering to be studied—which is where we get the majority of our class material from, I think—but we don’t have much way of knowing if there’re more.”
“Makes sense, since we can’t really see them. Because they’re like, inside your body with you. The kinkiest aliens,” Donghyuck giggles, eyes dancing as he wiggles his fingers under his face.
Donghyuck shrugs at Mark. “I would expect you to be the only person who doesn’t find something inherently sexy about sharing a body and mental space with another entity, human or creature. No secrets, no privacy, no keeping them away from your...personal affairs. Suddenly your body isn’t just yours anymore? Pretty intimate.”
Renjun stares down at Donghyuck, his expression carefully composed. His ears are ringing, neck feeling warm, the echoes of a recent overheard conversation bouncing around his head. What do you do while I’m sleeping...not a puppet…
Mark sighs wearily. “Anyway. We don’t know what all exactly the symbiosis is like just yet, what all they can do when bonded with a human.”
“And...is it dangerous? To bond with one?” Renjun questions, ignoring how Hyuck’s begun fiddling with his shoelaces, loosening them only to tie one shoe to the other.
“I guess it can be, or not,” Mark responds, seeming to grow less attached to the topic as he refocuses on his flash cards. “Seems like there’s a mix of good and bad, from the studies so far. Apparently their most destructive tendencies can be suppressed with chocolate.”
“Huh. Okay.” His throat feels tight. Jeno’s room is brimming with candy wrappers.
Donghyuck pats Renjun’s feet. “Curious that you’re curious. Lonely inside that tiny body recently?”
Renjun can feel how red he is, prickling with both embarrassment and indignation. “Definitely not. Nor is it any of your business.” He sits a little taller, knowing it doesn’t make him any larger, but doing it just the same.
“I love our friendship, Junnie, so open,” Hyuck coos, turning onto his back and smiling up while reaching blindly for more candy. Mark flicks his arm instead and he whines. “But speaking of lonely people, seen our class ghost lately? Could have sworn I saw those angular cheekbones looking your way when we met up before lunch yesterday.”
If he grips the binder any tighter, Renjun’s sure it’ll crack. “Not really,” he lies, “just class like usual.”
“Well, maybe you should see him. He’s still hot.”
Renjun pictures his classmate again, this time curled at his side asleep, yet with his elegant hand finding Renjun’s all the same. Once again tells himself: Jeno’s attractive, objectively . He doesn’t like the way it feels like a lie. He glances down at his phone, open perpetually to his photo gallery and a particular recently taken selfie, and wonders if it’s possible to be objective at all, and if he’s losing all sense of rationality.
Renjun doesn’t show up at the usual time to work. For twenty minutes Jeno waits, fidgeting in front of his door and taking frequent glances at his phone. There’s no message, no call. He sends a text, and watches as it doesn’t even get marked as “read.”
“What do I do? We have to...we didn’t practice presenting yet...”
How about we go to him.
“I...we...don’t know where he lives…”
What if...I might know where he could be?
The coffee shop is warm, inviting, and lit better than any romance novel setting Jeno can recall. Although he’s never heard Renjun say anything particularly cheesy, he can imagine that it would be a place he’d enjoy spending time. It has the same intellectual, reserved aura to it, enough that Jeno can almost picture Renjun sitting quietly at that corner table with a cup of steaming tea and a good book.
What he can’t imagine, is why Jaemin thinks Renjun would be there.
“This is some hunch you’re going off,” Jeno mutters under his breath, eyes scanning the tables a third time, just in case he’s somehow missed the face he’s been obsessively pining after for the past year and half.
Yeah...but apparently I’m wrong. Tonight, anyway.
Jeno sighs, about to check his watch again, when a different face catches his eye. One he remembers vaguely from a different class the previous year, and is pretty sure he’s seen hanging around Renjun as well. Although Jeno tries to avoid approaching most people, especially ones he doesn’t really know, it’s kind of an emergency. He gathers his courage and weaves to the middle of the coffee shop.
Where are we going??
Stay quiet. Now we’re using my hunch.
The boy looks up, eyes round with surprise, when Jeno stops beside the table. There’s a large psychology textbook taking up most of the available space, and in front of the empty seat there’s another mug of coffee, so he must not be alone.
Jeno hopes he remembers the guy’s name correctly. “Um, it’s Lee, right? Lee Dong—“
“Oh my god. Lee Jeno. Speaking to me? In public?” The boy interrupts him almost immediately, then starts twisting in his chair, searching. “Mark, are you seeing this? No, of course not. Takes too fucking long in the bathroom I swear to— any way, hey, hello, to just what do I owe the pleasure??” The whirlwind of words concludes with him blinking up at Jeno brightly, as if actually overjoyed.
“Uh, hey. I was wondering, you hangout with Renjun, don’t you? Huang Renjun?”
The boy continues to blink, and Jeno continues to be unsure of his name. “Not sure, can you describe him?” There’s the barest hint of a turn to the corner of his lips as he asks, but Jeno doesn’t know what else to do than attempt to answer.
“Describe...him? He’s...small? Like, kind of slim I guess, a bit shorter than me, hair dyed like...like honey..”
“I’m starting to picture it.” He taps his chin, then, inexplicably, asks, “Would you say he’s pretty? Like, a delicate, refined beauty? The type you want to protect, even though his personality can be almost prickly, but it’s something about those soft brown eyes—”
“Oh, I..I don’t…”
“Donghyuck, shut the fuck up. Stop teasing him.”
Blessing whoever this is that’s just returned to the table, both saving him and also confirming the name Donghyuck for him, Jeno lets out a strained breath. Donghyuck is laughing, and with a burning embarrassment Jeno realizes he’s being made fun of, and with frightening accuracy.
Lee Jeno? Boo Boo the Fool.
Oh, because you knew better!
“Mark, Lee Jeno would like to know if we hang out with Renjun.”
The darker haired boy, who Jeno is pretty sure he should recognize better, raises both eyebrows dramatically in a moment of comprehension Jeno doesn’t share. In total contrast to the way Donghyuck seems perpetually devious, Mark looks utterly genuine and kind. Jeno idly wonders how they get along as friends.
“Well, we do?” Mark turns to Jeno. “Why, are you looking for him?”
Jeno nods. “We were supposed to meet up to work on our group presentation tonight, but he didn’t show up, and he’s not answering my texts. Do you know what dorm he’s in? It’s due tomorrow.”
As he speaks, Jeno watches Donghyuck’s jaw drop, a giddy kind of expression filling the rest of his face. “Group presentation? Like, what size group?”
“It’s just us,” Jeno clarifies.
“Just you. Mark, it’s just the two of them. Just . That’s incredibly urgent, obviously we have to help.” Donhyuck’s simpering voice has Mark rolling his eyes.
Him...I like him. Can we keep this Donghyuck too? As a friend?
Jeno makes a face. I don’t know, maybe. You don’t think he’s kinda...weird?
I don’t think we’re one to make that kind of judgement.
“—his room number, he’s probably there. Jeno? Um, did you catch that?”
Mark’s looking at him; well, they both are, Mark with confusion and Donghyuck with his unsettling amusement. Jeno blushes, wishing he were better at concentrating on more than one voice at a time. “Sorry…”
Taking the torn corner of notebook paper from Mark’s hand, Donghyuck presses it into Jeno’s with a squeeze. His gaze is impassioned, adamant.
“Take this, go to him. We’re rooting for you,” he says, with an affirming nod.
“Uh,” says Jeno. He looks at the paper, which has a dorm, hall, and number on it. That, he can work with.
The nice thing about university and living on campus is the convenient geographical closeness of just about everything and everyone you need. There terrible thing about it is also those exact same reasons, Jeno realizes, as it takes way less time to reach Renjun’s dorm than it does for him to formulate how he intends to explain finding it.
I may be from another planet, but even I know if you want someone to open a door, you have to knock on it.
I’m...getting to that.
The answer is apparently insufficient for Jaemin, as a swift taffy-stretch of gold bolts out and knocks in spite of him, zipping back before Jeno fully finishes hissing a warning.
Bad alien! What did I say about being grounded?! Someone could see, you can’t—
Renjun. “ Renjun.” Jeno’s spoken word aligns perfectly with the voice inside his head, for one rare moment, as the door slides open.
The boy in question looks frozen, shock blanching his face. He grips the door handle tightly, hiding almost entirely behind the door except for the six inches of space he’s looking through.
The pause that follows is so pregnant Jeno is pretty sure it’s having a litter of twelve, when Renjun finally stops biting his lip and asks, “Why are you here?”
Jeno pushes his hands deeper into his jeans pockets, fingertips curling as they hit their limit. “Our presentation…”
Comprehension dawns immediately, and Renjun’s eyes widen. “Shit. Right. That’s tomorrow...and we were working on it, just us two...and not anyone else, right? It’s just been us?”
Is he losing his mind?
“Are you okay?” Jeno asks instead, searching for signs of illness, but seeing none besides the slightly unusual paleness Renjun’s exhibiting. “Can I come in, or will that bother your roommate?”
No one else is inside. Jaemin supplies this for him, inhuman senses active.
I know, but he doesn’t know that we know. That I know. He doesn’t know you at all.
With apparent caution, Renjun allows the door open enough that Jeno can move inside, seeming to cringe away as he passes. “Donghyuck isn’t here,” he supplies, “he’s almost never here.”
“I know,” distracted by all the personal effects of Renjun in the room, Jeno replies without thinking, then turns back quickly and stutters, “I mean, because I saw him! That’s how I knew where your room is...he didn’t say you were his roommate though, just that you would be here, not that you were alone or anything, promise I’m not creep—”
“And you, Jeno? Are you alone?”
The door clicks shut behind the thinner boy, Renjun leaning back against it like he needs the support. He swallows visibly. “I mean, Jeno, are you alone, yourself in there? Is it just you? Has it always been just you?”
Is he...how would he...how the fuck?
Ignoring Jaemin, Jeno attempts a casual air. “I don’t really understand what you’re asking.”
Renjun nods. “Sure, that makes sense. It’s a vague question. I do have another one, though.” Angling around Jeno, Renjun reaches onto the bed that looks regularly used and retrieves two items, and suddenly Jeno’s breath is caught firmly in his throat. “Do you think...do you think Jaemin wants these back? I’m just curious.”
An arm reaches over Jeno’s shoulder, slender gold-tinted fingers extending toward the plushie toys. “Yes, please.”
In the same time that Renjun yelps and trips back onto his bed, Jeno throws himself into the corner of the room near the door, back pack cast aside and hands grappling with Jaemin’s twisting form. “What are you doing???” He hisses over Jaemin’s frustrated noise. Ice-cold horror pulses over Jeno in waves, splitting into outrage at the symbiote and fear at turning back to learn Renjun’s reaction.
“Jeno relax, he knows me. Renjun likes me, too.”
“He knows you!? How does he know you? When would you have…met...” Jeno looks back over his shoulder at Renjun, sitting on his bed with his knees tucked up under his chin, arms wrapped tight around his shins. He thinks about all the sleep he’s been mysteriously missing, and the person Renjun’s been meeting.
Standing slowly, Jeno releases Jaemin to whatever form he feels like taking, and meets Renjun’s gaze. He’s surprised to feel almost hurt. “You...you knew? And you didn’t say anything to me?” Although he can’t see how exactly Jaemin’s moving, Renjun’s darting eyes that follow the movement with trepidation are clear enough indication that the symbiote is morphing blatantly behind him.
“You didn’t say anything to me, first! I didn’t know he was you. I mean, I didn’t know you had...you were, the symbiosis...I didn’t realize he wasn’t human!”
Jeno feels Jaemin’s fingers grip onto his shoulder, the contact maintaining their connection while Jaemin mimics the full human appearance and leans into Jeno’s side. He still thinks the tells are pretty obvious; things are just...not quite right. A little more than human, too sharp here and too wide there. But if he weren’t so familiar with them, it might be pretty believable. From the look on Renjun’s face, until now it apparently was.
His tone is precious-ly sweet as Jaemin greets Renjun as he truly is. “Hi.”
A ripple of a shudder shakes Renjun, a healthy amount of fear clouding his face. His lip trembles a little and he gives a small, awkward wave. “H-hi, Jaemin.”
“Sorry I couldn’t give you my number. It’s a little difficult for me to get a phone without Jeno.”
The boy in reference seethes, turning a scowl on Jaemin. “Apparently it’s pretty easy for you to do lots without me knowing.”
Unfolding himself slightly, Renjun balances the toe of one slipper back on the floor, arms still holding himself together. “But, how did you...don’t you have to be connected? How did you meet me at the cafe?”
Jaemin doesn’t give Jeno a warning, doesn’t wait for his approval before he throws himself over him like a blanket, complete with the familiar feeling of being enveloped inside another appearance that somehow reshapes his own size and dimensions. Jaemin capitalizes, taking full bodily control regardless of Jeno’s internal protests, and eliminates the space between them and Renjun, who scrambles back anxiously.
“ Just like this, sweetheart ,” Jaemin croons, caging arms on Renjun’s either side and bending near to him, hovering just an inch from his face. They can hear the rapidfire trill of his heartbeat, thrumming wildly beneath the short nervous breaths he’s gasping for.
He’s gonna hyperventilate! Jeno warns, mentally trying to pull Jaemin back. He knows Jaemin’s enjoying it: the heightened responses, the scent of adrenaline urging his target to fight or flee, and the knowledge that, if he were so inclined, he could easily prevent any escape.
“Turns out I don’t need to be jealous after all, isn’t that lovely?” Jaemin whispers, eyes crinkling sweetly.
“I-I think you should go, please,” stammers Renjun in response, red-faced, and pushes the knee he’s still got folded up between them against their torso. “Please, please just go.”
Jaemin, fucking back off, he’s scared!
Suddenly Jaemin moves them back, sliding off Jeno until he’s invisible inside their head again and only Jeno’s normal outward appearance is left, breathing hard and looking at Renjun with concern.
“Renjun, I’m sorry, he was too quick, I couldn’t—”
Two plushies, one after the other, fly across the few feet and hit Jeno. There’s no time to catch either, not when Moomin connects with his face seconds after Ryan’s collided with his shoulder, and Jaemin’s in no mood to use his enhanced reflexes and be of assistance.
Hastily scooping up his bag and the toys, Jeno does.
The light pouring into the lecture hall from its tall windows seems to bore into the side of Jeno’s face, the rays thinly warm inside the supposedly temperature-controlled space that always feels a little too cold. His eyes travel over the faces of his other classmates, mostly bored expressions and dark-circled eyes, although a few people are paying actual attention to what Renjun’s saying. He wonders if they notice the way his hands are shaking, if any of them can hear the elevated beating of his heart. From a step back and to his side, Jeno can.
Jeno shifts onto his other foot, and clicks through to the next slide while Renjun continues.
“I’ll handle it,” Renjun had said, not looking up from his notes before class.
His tone was so stony. Jeno almost shivered. “But we both worked on it. It’s a group presentation.”
“Then you can change the slides.”
So that’s what he’s doing, letting Renjun present their work while he zones out and lets the font on their slides blur into unreadable nonsense.
He looks nice today.
Jaemin’s been quiet, more vague emotions of self-pity and moping than conversation. Jeno sighs deeply. He knows this; Renjun looks pristine, the picture of scholarly perfection from his chocolate knit sweater and collared shirt to his dark jeans and leather ankle boots. Jeno can feel their contrast in his plasma, deep underneath the black track pants and hoodie he pulled from the floor after a night absent of any sleep. But he’s accustomed to being exhausted.
Would you let it go? Can’t you see he hates us now?
...but...he never even gave us a chance.
It gives Jeno pause. Do they deserve a chance? He’s not so sure, but for all Renjun’s insisting he’d figure Jeno out, it does seem a little rude that his reaction is the cold shoulder. He got what he wanted, didn’t he? He pushed Jeno’s buttons, listened in on conversations not meant for him, and in the end he learned the horrible truth. Jeno thinks that if someone hunts after a deep dark secret, they shouldn’t be so surprised to find out it’s ugly nature.
Renjun clears his throat, loudly, and Jeno zones back in to catch the side-glare he’s getting. Renjun nods to the slides.
An indignant flare rises within Jeno. It’s his presentation, too. He clicks the next slide, quickly sizes up to where they are in the content, and beats Renjun to the point.
“What’s especially interesting about the third-party narrator perspective,” he says, voice assertively loud and burying Renjun’s speech-expectant inhalation, “is that it allows the reader almost an objective view of the whole Jekyll versus Hyde drama.”
Renjun’s staring at Jeno, motionless except for the twitch at the corner of his lip and small furrow in his brow.
Jeno continues, but deviates from the info displayed on their powerpoint. “Or at least, it should. It’s deceptive, because we’re fooled into thinking Utterson’s view is objective, when in reality it’s self-serving and, to be honest, incredibly nosey. He’s obsessed with someone else’s personal mystery, a knowledge he has no right to, and one that’s potentially dangerous even. After all, it kills the other guy. But Utterson keeps sticking his face right into it.”
Jeno raises a brow at Renjun, noting the faint shadow in his cheek created by how tense his jaw is.
“The shock kills Lanyon.”
“I know, Renjun. I read the book.”
Renjun smiles at him in a way that’s more unsettling than encouraging. “Really? But your take on the narration is that off? Fascinating.”
A bubble of annoyance simmers in Jeno’s chest, and he can feel Jaemin’s surprise at the biting tone.
“You interpret the selfless concern of a friend as nosiness. He’s not allowed to care, when a person he’s close to is acting strangely?” Renjun has turned to face him instead of the class, arms crossing and confrontation imbued in his posture, the lecturing podium standing like a wall between them. “Yeah, of course it’s not objective, but it isn’t unreasonable, he’s allowed to worry! It’s universally agreed that Jekyll’s the one at fault in this story!”
There’s a confused tension growing in the room, and a skimming glance tells Jeno that they’ve garnered the attention of even the least involved members of the class. But he doesn’t care.
“Is that right?” He bites back through grit teeth.
“Would I be wrong? The root of the problem is Jekyll’s isolationism from the beginning. Maybe if Jekyll hadn’t hidden away from everyone then they could have gotten to know both him and Hyde and it would’ve been fine.”
Jeno. Why does he sound like he isn’t talking about the book? I don’t understand.
Oh, I do though. And he’s not.
“Well maybe he was scared of what would happen! Hyde’s inherently dangerous. He had plenty of reason to think things might go wrong!...and they did!”
Renjun’s jaw drops, his mouth a small and perfect O-shape. Then he dives into a rant that leaves Jeno reeling. “Or they might have gone great if he had opened up earlier, and maybe people would even like Hyde but Jekyll wouldn’t let him have a chance and by trying to control things in secret he forces Hyde to act out, and this dual life is so unhealthy that it ends up killing him, because he can’t even take care of himself enough to sleep, which is so stupid , and Utterson knows this, since he’s like the only one really even paying attention, and he thinks Jekyll is a nice person, if he’d just trust people a little bit then—“
“Oh, I hardly think he gets to judge, when he doesn’t know what it’s like—”
“Boys, boys! ...I don’t know what you think you’re talking about right now, but I have a feeling it isn’t the story we all read. While I’m all for an impassioned class debate, can you perhaps circle back to the actual material for this particular assignment?”
Both Renjun and Jeno startle, words dying on their lips as Professor Kim’s voice cuts between them. A bright redness fills Jeno’s face, hot embarrassment flooding him while Renjun blanches in distress at the chastisement.
“Yes sir, sorry,” Renjun mutters, eyes dropping to the wood panels beneath his boots. Jeno closes his eyes and tries to steady his breathing.
That was quite the drama! I wish it had lasted. Can we do it again?
Jeno wants to laugh, in the sick sort of way. No, I think we’re done.
He clicks to the next slide and sends Renjun a challenging look, effectively handing off the rest of the presentation to him. He seems to draw up his confidence in a breath, and proceeds with the material to the conclusion of their presentation, if a bit dryly. Jeno just changes the slides.
There’s polite, if hesitant, applause as they conclude, and before they can fully step away Professor Kim lays a hand on Jeno’s elbow and quietly says, “Both of you, please see me briefly after class.”
Jeno nods mutely, and Renjun agrees before hurrying back to his seat.
Jeno, I think Renjun said something important. Jaemin suggests as Jeno sits down, feeling generally miserable and uninterested in the remaining presentations.
Well, he’s smart, so I’m sure he mentioned all the most important points. He’ll get full credit.
I don’t mean that, please try to keep up. I mean what he was saying to us that wasn’t really about the book.
Oh. Right. That.
Leveling his eyes at the back of Renjun’s head, from which hopefully he can telepathically draw information, Jeno draws his brow together and tries to fathom why Renjun would be so adamant, why he would care whether Jeno and Jaemin opened up to people or not. He didn’t even know them. And why would anyone want to put themselves in a position of vulnerability, knowing what Jaemin was? What he could do to a person who wasn’t careful?
But I don’t do that.
The point is that you could. It’s a risk.
That’s why you’re here. You’re easily our better half, Jeno. I don’t eat people and I don’t cause trouble, and I don’t traumatize children or old ladies, and that’s all because of you. So really, the one you don’t trust to manage the risk is yourself, though I trust you completely. Hidden as usual, Jaemin wraps like a waistcoat around Jeno in his version of a condensed hug. Can’t we try to talk to Renjun, one more time?
As he’s staring, Jeno catches Renjun discreetly glancing back over his shoulder, his eyes flicking away instantly when he realizes Jeno’s already looking. And maybe Jeno’s just always going to have a soft spot, or maybe what Jaemin’s saying hits home a little too accurately, but Jeno finds he wants to make an attempt to repair the damage.
“One more time, after class,” he mutters, with a slight nod. The girl beside him—he never did learn her name—shoots him a suspicious glance and, as usual, shifts further away.
In a blur after which Jeno can’t recall a single other presentation, the rest of the period passes, and soon the other students are shuffling out of the room. Jeno waits, listening to Jaemin ramble about being hungry and listing all the chocolate flavors he wants them to go buy, until it’s just him, Renjun, and Professor Kim left. His feet feel leaden as he approaches the desk, his project partner already there and not sparing him a glance.
“Mr. Huang, Mr. Lee. So, how did you find working on this presentation together?” Professor Kim asks, leaning his hip against the edge of his desk and regarding them cooly. Jeno always did think he was one of the cooler faculty at their university; Kim Dongyoung had a reputation among the students for being both interesting and intelligent, which Jeno desperately needed if he was going to stay awake at all through a Lit elective among all his major courses.
Renjun mumbles something unintelligible, pairing it with a shrug.
“Didn’t quite catch that. How about you, Jeno?”
“Dunno what he said either, sir.”
Professor Kim gives him a dismayed look, and Jeno realizes his mistake too late.
“No, Jeno. I’m asking you to explain why my top student and my at least very reliable student reached a point where they needed to argue subtextually at one another in the middle of a presentation on the classic work of Robert Louis Stevenson. So?”
Renjun’s face is quite red, and Jeno gapes. He doesn’t know where to begin, or how.
Should I explain it? I think I’ve got it pretty well straightened out.
No, nope, do not. Thank you.
“I’m really sorry, I shouldn’t have let my personal frustration out like that,” Renjun apologizes suddenly, keeping his head down. “I understand if my grade gets impacted, that’s only fair.”
“Um, me too,” Jeno latches on, hoping it will suffice for both of them. “Really sorry.”
Professor Kim glances between them, a dissatisfied twist to his lips. Finally, he sighs. “Fine, you don’t have to explain to me, personal is personal. Don’t worry too much, most of your presentation was quite solid and well-researched, so I can excuse the strange outburst. I’ll have drop a few points off, but you’re both doing well enough it shouldn’t affect much. Just do try to keep it under wraps next time, though, would you?”
They nod simultaneously, much to Jeno’s surprise and Renjun’s apparent chagrin. The teacher then picks up a thin stack of paper and book from the desk and leaves the lecture hall, bidding them both a good afternoon.
Renjun takes a step to do similarly, and Jeno panics, knowing he’s not that likely to get another chance.
Pausing, Renjun turns to him, his movement tentative. “Okay. And?”
Jeno shifts uncomfortably, double-checking that the room is empty except for the two of them...and Jaemin, of course. If he remembers right, theirs is the last class of the day to use this room, so it should be safe enough for conversation. “You were right. You are right. Isolating myself indiscriminately isn’t a sustainable way for me...for us...to keep living.”
The glacial stiffness holding Renjun together melts just a bit. “No, it isn’t.”
“But...you’re afraid of him, us, aren’t you?”
“I’m...I don’t think so.”
The wide-eyed and shaking version of Renjun, huddled on his bed at the mercy of Jaemin’s fervid advance, still bothers Jeno’s memory. “Are you sure?”
“I was surprised, Jeno. I needed time to process.” Renjun’s thin shoulders droop gently, only his hand on the strap keeping his bag from sliding right off. “I was trying to take that time before I confronted you about it all, and then you showed up in my room. And then Jaemin came out of nowhere. I wasn’t expecting all that, so yeah. You shook me up. But no one’s reported mysterious deaths on campus, or anything like that. If you were dangerous, there would be rumors—there aren’t. Just a chocolate shortage.”
Ask him if he’s alright with me joining this conversation, please.
“Can Jaemin...join us?”
Renjun nods firmly, but still stiffens visibly when Jaemin essentially materializes beside Jeno, as though he’s stepped out of a bi-dimensional crack lurking behind Jeno and found it a pleasant destination.
“God,” Renjun breathes out, shaky voice mixed with a laugh, “that’s so freaky. And you even look human.”
“I just want to look like someone you’ll like, human or otherwise. I’m happy to adjust to your preference, doll.”
Jeno’s eyes roll practically of their own accord, but Renjun actually blushes.
“Um, no you’re...you’re pretty much there, uh, as is.”
The smile Jaemin puts on could leave third degree burns. He leans into Jeno, purring, “See? He likes me. Haha.”
“Great, my blessings on you both.”
“Actually,” Renjun corrects, risking two steps back towards them, “I mean Jeno too. You really never do hear all people’s talk about how you’re the handsome, broody type, do you?”
Jeno’s a little thrown off by the sudden topical shift, but more incredulous at the suggestion. “No? Mostly the vibes I get from people are more like ‘what the hell is his problem?’ and then they keep their distance.”
A hint of genuine smile tilts Renjun’s thin lips. “Well when you glare them down, sure. You could try smiling.”
“I can make us smile, if you’re not sure how to do it, Jeno.”
Adjusting his backpack straps, Jeno shoots a sideways glance at Jaemin. “I know how, thanks,” he grumbles. He looks back at Renjun, feeling there’s more they need to resolve. “I’m sorry about the presentation, too. That was...immature of me.”
“It was immature of both of us. Just...bad timing.”
Jeno can’t help but laugh. He can’t imagine what good timing for telling someone you’re physiologically and mentally bonded to a Klyntar, an alien, would be like. It’s too ridiculous.
“Wow. I don’t think I’ve heard you laugh before? Screw smiling, just do that. People won’t be able to leave you alone.” Renjun shakes his head incredulously, shifting another half step towards Jeno and Jaemin, leaving only about two feet of space to separate between the toes of their shoes.
Then it’s Jeno’s turn to blush. As if they hadn’t been awkward and biting mere minutes ago, Renjun smiles shyly, eyes softening into sweet crescents.
“I really don’t understand it. What are you both waiting for? A divine intervention? Is this dancing around one another’s attraction a regular human thing, or is it just you two?” Utterly blunt, Jaemin’s questions hang in the remaining space.
“Jaemin!” Jeno hisses.
“Don’t ‘Jaemin’ me, this is stupid. You like him, and he’s complimenting you. What more do you need?” Parting from Jeno slightly, Jaemin closes the remaining distance to Renjun, who looks more than a little nervous, and brings a tender hand to his cheek. “Sweet, you’re emanating strong affectionate feelings all over the place. Between the two of you, I could feed off the emotion for a lifetime. Ideally, I’d like to.”
Jeno digs his fingers into Jaemin’s arm, tugging worriedly. “Hey, you can’t just touch people!”
“We’ve held hands a couple times now. It’s fine, right, Renjun?” He strokes a thumb over the angle of the boy’s jaw, adding, “You like it, don’t you?”
“I do like it...I like both of you…” breathes Renjun, his eyes glazed a bit. It reminds Jeno of the glazed feeling he first got when Jaemin starting treating him the same way, all smooth and charming with the enticing edge of danger. And then his brain catches up, and his heart races.
“That is what he said, Jeno love. Now Renjun, in the interest of time economy, because the waiting thing is becoming tiring, would you mind too much if I kissed you?”
“What!?” Jeno squeaks, and he’s at a loss, the conversation a runaway train he doesn't remember boarding.
Reasonably, Renjun shakes his head. “I would mind,” he says quietly, flooding Jeno with relief. Then he tears it back. “If Jeno does like me, I’d like to kiss him, first.”
“Oh, why, of course.” In an instant, Jaemin pulls Jeno forward and places him neatly within Renjun’s reach, pressing at the low parts of each of their backs to tilt toward one another. “There you go. Now, kiss.”
As Jeno’s still floundering, Renjun shrugs and let’s his book bag drop to the floor with a dull thunk, then leans forward and just the slightest bit up. He kisses Jeno simple and soft, and settles back on his heels a second later. And he smiles.
“That’s adorable. A good start."
“It wasn’t bad. But...it could improve,” Renjun has the audacity to smirk, the magical trigger that finally lurches Jeno out of his vague catalepsy.
The room goes mostly out of focus around them, the acrid smell of dry erase markers fading away as Jeno dashes through abridged stages of comprehension, amazement, acceptance, and finally lands on the teasing provocation presented to him. “Let me improve on it, then.” He matches Rejun’s gaze and leans in with intent, taking hold of his chin and pressing lips to firmly to his. Jeno hopes his year and a half worth of crush finally communicates itself. Renjun emits the tiniest of sighs, and he thinks it must.
They break apart for a dazed moment, then Jeno’s shrugging off his backpack and reaching for the tapered curve of Renjun’s waist, loving the excited hitch of breath elicited as he pulls them flush together. There’s an amused, deep-voiced chuckle near Jeno’s ear, and Jaemin asks, “ Now, may I? ”
Eyes not leaving Jeno’s lips, Renjun nods, the motion cut off when Jeno claims his mouth again, a flash of movement swirling around them simultaneously as Jaemin engages.
“This is really, ah...wow, really fucking weir—ah—” Renjun’s words come out clipped, rushed in the spaces between when Jeno’s got his lips occupied,“—weird, ugh, oh my god.”
Jeno would love to think all the soft, tiny, surprised noises and whines coming out of Renjun are solely from his efforts, but one of Jaemin’s vaguely clawed hands rests on Renjun’s shoulder, and the freaky amorphous version of Jaemin’s upper half is twisted around them, paying determined attention to sucking a hickey into the high part of Renjun’s other shoulder so...it isn’t.
Jaemin slides his hand up into Renjun’s hair, carding it into a grip and tilting his head back so he can ghost over his throat. Renjun stares at Jeno with half-lidded eyes as the nebulous lips pepper him with kisses, and Jeno’s inches away.
“Bad weird? Or good weird?” A jolt of worry strikes through Jeno, searching those drooped brown eyes for any hint of fear. If Renjun’s afraid, he’ll pull Jaemin away and leave, right now.
Renjun takes hold of Jeno’s hand, one he’s got full control over without Jaemin’s influence, and lifts it to his cheek. “So good-weird. A two-in-one deal of hot guys who’re into making out with me, at the same time? The best weird there is.”
Jeno questions Renjun’s reference to Jaemin as a guy, hot or otherwise, but he did meet him in full humanoid form so he’s understandably confused.
“Why are you both talking so much. We did all this so we could taste Renjun, Jeno, not say things.”
He’s so used to hearing Jaemin in his head, it’s a little weird still to keep hearing him speak into publicly audible airspace so much now.
Renjun’s breath hitches, his eyes widening a little to fixate on Jeno while Jaemin continues to mouth at him. “Taste?” he asks, voice wobbly.
Jeno strokes his thumb over the smooth, pliant skin of Renjun’s cheek. “Ignore him, he’s bad at talking about things that aren’t food.”
But Renjun’s blushing, his hands where previously resting light on Jeno’s waist now curling fingers into his sweater. “No, I…” he hesitates, “I wanna know. If I taste good.” He squeezes his eyes shut as Jeno stares in shock. “I’m sorry. Shit. That was weird to say.”
“I don’t think it was weird at all.”
“Everything in my life is weird and fucked up. So...not that surprised.”
Jaemin takes a rather worrisomely enthusiastic bite at Renjun’s neck, making the smaller boy shudder but not breaking the skin. His frighteningly white teeth are a bit pointier than when he takes Jeno over and looks mostly human. This form almost reveals how dangerous the symbiote actually is.
“And you taste amazing. Jeno, don’t just stand there. Mouth. Taste. Do it.”
Renjun doesn’t say much more, reducing himself to the little involuntary noises that echo in the empty lecture hall. It’s an absolutely terrible location for both PDA and the visible symbiote manifestation, but Jeno sort of forgets that while crowding Renjun further against the podium, and latches their lips back together, following as instructed. Jaemin isn’t wrong; Renjun does tastes lovely, like jasmine, and kissing him at the same time as Jaemin—would there ever be any other way? unlikely—creates a better high than any amount of chocolate.
“In hindsight, it’s really pretty funny that we did the presentation on that book. I can’t believe I missed all that irony of that until the end. Like, I’m mad about it.”
“You don’t know the half of it, Junnie. After all, Jaemin isn’t the only name I have.”
“Oh god, I didn’t even think of that. I’m gonna choke.”
“Ah Renjun, Klyntar aren’t creative enough for pretty names like yours. To the rest of my species, I’m known more due to my camouflaging breed. They call me Hide.”
“Jeno, he isn’t fucking serious. Is he? I’m shitting.”
“You don’t seem ill…?”
“I can’t breathe.”
tune in next time, when Renjun tells his friends he’s dating two boys now and one’s an alien, to see Mark choke on a tootsie roll and Donghyuck fucking pass out! (maybe)
I think it’s important to note to you all that, prior to writing this, I had never read Jekyll & Hyde. Since it felt deceitful to include references to it without having full knowledge of the story, I picked up the spark notes about ¾ through writing. And now I’m angry as hell because apparently, minus killing people (which could EASILY have been part of this), I followed a very similar plot completely unknowingly. Otherwise nice and normal dude isolating himself in fear of another part of himself? Check. Transforming in his sleep? Check. Handsome and likable guy with friends who tries to figure out the mystery? Check. Nearly/actually getting caught because of an open window? Fucking check. ANYWAY. There are no new stories under the sun, art is dead, and I no longer know whether this is NCT fanfic, Venom fanfic, J&H fanfic, or some unholy amalgamation of the three. Thanks.
(Bonus fun fact: Jaemin gifts Renjun the Moomin plushie. Renjun loses his shit. Jeno doesn’t get it.)
now you can also yell at me at my cc
Chapter 2: this wasn't meant to be a series
Due to unexpectedly popular demand...here's some...more...of this bullshit...which I'm back on I guess...(it's all your fault. you know who you are. which ones of you did this. you should apologize to me.)
(Prepare for a lot of perspective switching...and weird formatting...if everyone wasn't inside everyone else's heads this wouldn't be an issue...but IT IS.)
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
dear huang renjun
did Jeno find you? how’d the ‘project’ go? ;))))))
tell me everything
or don’t. i can wait.
“I just want to be clear, for reference’ sake. Am I dating both of you? Are you...dating each other? Wait, are we boyfriends? I need clarity.”
Jaemin tilts his head to the side, nutella sandwich poised between his fingers, and sends them each a weird look. “I don’t think I understand.”
Renjun tries again, while Jeno slouches and stares at his lap, red-faced and silent. “Ok. Jaemin, what is Jeno to you?”
Jeno dips his head further.
“Just mine. Generally speaking. You are also mine.”
“Oh. I think you should ask me first. Just in case I don’t agree with that.” Renjun swallows thickly, straining to keep his voice calm and lower his fork back carefully to his salad plate.
Jaemin, full-bodied, leans across the small, round table and cups Renjun’s cheek, gold eyes holding his gaze tightly. “Renjun, beautiful Renjun. May I call you mine? ”
Renjun can only nod.
“Hallmark is shaking,” mutters Jeno, scuffing his shoe on the concrete below their feet. Renjun wonders how it’s possible that they’ve made out this much and Jeno still gets jealous when Jaemin sweet-talks him.
He carefully slides his ankle up along Jeno’s calf. It’s not nearly as smooth and sexy as he’d like; his skinny jeans pull Jeno’s sweatpants leg awkwardly, so he stops. Jeno’s eyes have flashed up to his anyway. “Hey, stupid,” Renjun addresses him, “ask me to be your boyfriend. Yours and Cassanova’s over here.”
Hands frozen mid-fiddling with his hoodie string, Jeno wets his bottom lip, a cute nervous habit. “Uh, okay. Do you...only if you want to, officially, could like...be, be m-my boyfriend?”
After a beat, Renjun turns to Jaemin, face blank. “How is it that you two share brainspace? Was there an actual question in there somewhere?”
“I’m not sure...I don’t seem to rub off on him.”
Jeno sits up straight then and grabs Renjun’s hand, making his fork drop with a tinging clack onto the porcelain below. He doesn’t blink. In fact, he looks a little desperate. “Renjun. Please date me. Please be my boyfriend.”
“There it is, thank god. For a minute there I thought I had only one boyfriend. Imagine, me trying to kiss only Jaemin, with the way you are. So awkward. Two is better.”
“I’ll take your word for it. But I have a question.”
While Jeno curls forward and drops his forehead on the iron-grate tabletop, groaning but holding onto Renjun’s hand, Renjun smiles warmly at Jaemin.
“What kind of animal is a Cassanova? Is it cute? ”
u can’t ghost me
ur best friend
that’s against code(™)
i saw u leave the dorm earlier where did u gooo~~
Plenty has changed since finally revealing the truth, and their feelings, to Renjun. Mostly in good ways, even if figuring out how to interact three ways with only two consistent bodies is...challenging. It’s a challenge Jeno feels up for, though, every time he finds himself tucked in the corner of Renjun’s bed with the smaller boy folded into his lap and sighing ticklish breaths on his neck. Usually Jaemin uses such opportunities in a variety of ways: taking Jeno’s arms under his control and feeling out Renjun’s soft curves, or wrapping web-like and sticky around them, golden strings of undulating glue that press Jeno and Renjun together and leave them blushing and stuck until they both have to beg him to set them free. Or he’ll materialize more fully, bury his face in Renjun’s hair and hum, just being cheesy and affectionate.
It was one of those times, when Jaemin had progressed to trailing noisy smooches along Renjun’s jaw, that the boy had looked at Jeno through sparkling eyes and casually asked why he didn't recall seeing Jaemin doing the same to him. “What do you kiss like when I’m not around?” He probed, leaning back into Jaemin’s touch. “I wonder all the time what I miss out on.”
It’s haunted Jeno for days.
He realizes with some discomfort that they’ve never defined their bond more than host and symbiote, not in any relationship sense, anyway. And the reason he doesn’t know how to answer that question is that Jaemin...doesn’t do that, really. Or at least not quite in the same way. He’s always been touchy, always sort of weirdly intimate. Jeno just assumed that was common symbiote behavior—it’s only with some embarrassment that he realizes perhaps not all symbiotes demand to be cuddled by their hosts, want to gently comb fingers through their hair while whispering little compliments.
But Jaemin’s never really like, kissed Jeno. That wasn’t...a thing. He didn’t ever really consider being ‘attracted’ to Jaemin. Like, he is. He thinks. Because Jaemin manifests prettily and he’s charming and attentive...but he’s Jaemin. Having a legitimate crush on him seems sort of like having a crush on a part of himself.
Shit. When did he start thinking of Jaemin as a part of him? Jeno’s head starts to ache. He’s always worked so hard to keep himself distinct. Then Jaemin developed the crush on Renjun as well, and that whole thing was kind of a combined effort…
Could I perhaps persuade you to take a deep breath?
Jeno exhales loudly, like he’s just emerged from swimming under the length of an olympic size pool. He does sometimes forget Jaemin is there, sitting inside his head but not always participating.
My bad, sorry.
Do you want to talk about it?
Jaemin slithers out beside Jeno slowly, taking his time in forming up into the shape of most of a person. Jeno wishes that sort of thing still bothered him, because it ought to be creepy as fuck. Instead, he likes watching the symbiote compose himself, threading into distinguishable features one bit at a time. It’s due to Jaemin, too, that Jeno can see it happen rather well even though it’s dark in his room, the confusing train of thought keeping him awake even though it’s late. And he does want to talk about it, because he can’t keep this up.
“Jaemin...why don’t you kiss me?”
“What do you mean? ” He slips fingers into the hair just above Jeno’s ear, toying with it.
“I mean, we kiss Renjun. You kiss him, I kiss him, sometimes at the same time. But...you don’t kiss me. And I don’t—”
“It seemed like you didn’t want me to. Do you want me to?”
Jeno thinks about it. He’s been feeling jealous, lately. He’s willing to admit that. But only now does he realize he’s not just jealous when he doesn’t have Renjun’s full attention...it’s over Jaemin too.
“You said I was yours.”
“Yes, you are. Do you want me to?”
“But, how do you feel about me?”
“Oh, Jeno...to me, you are everything. I like every part of you. I feel everything you feel, and everything you do is important to me. You are mine—I need you, and I want you. Now, Jeno, answer me. Do you want me to kiss you?” As he’s spoken, Jaemin has risen from his reclined position, instead hovering over Jeno as he remains still on his back, with the exception of his slowly increasing breathing pattern.
After a confession like that, who wouldn’t?
“Yes,” he breathes, and Jaemin moves immediately. He angles Jeno’s chin up but his jaw down, a thumb on its either side that compels Jeno’s lips to part, and exhales warmth right into his mouth along with a messy kiss. There’s no preamble, no warm-up peck; Jaemin goes for depth right away, making good use of Jeno’s open lips and even lightly dragging his pointy teeth over them.
A number of seconds pass, then Jaemin pulls away, licking over his lips and smiling down as Jeno pants in surprise.
“Oh...wow...how did you—” his human brain struggles for responses, sentence structures failing him. He doesn’t want to be mistaken: kissing Renjun is perfect, a literal dream come true. But kissing Jaemin is…
“Did you think I wouldn’t know exactly what you like? I’m in your head, Lee Jeno. I know how you want to be touched.”
Jeno is absolutely on fire. “And you’ve never thought to do it before??”
“Perhaps I’m more respectful of your boundaries than you give me credit for.”
In the following days, it’s this moment that haunts Jeno more. Jaemin had pressed another prolonged kiss to his jaw, then snuggled into his side and wished him a good night, coquettishly leaving Jeno with his mind in tangles and no idea where sleep might be found. Jeno keeps blushing inadvertently any time he thinks about it, only growing redder when he hears Jaemin chuckle in the back of his mind, aware of all the decidedly inappropriate ideas he keeps having.
Such as it is, Renjun hasn’t told his friends quite yet, and so they often take lunch to one of their rooms where Jaemin can move freely and speak to both of them. Having picked up little packaged lunches for this day, Jeno and Renjun sit cross-legged on Jeno’s floor, facing one another as they open the containers and Renjun relates some news story he read about earlier in the morning. Jeno’s been listening attentively till now, when he lifts the cookie out of its package and sets it aside on a napkin, leaving a smudge of melted chocolate chip on his finger. He puts the digit in his mouth reflexively.
Then Renjun gasps.
Jeno’s rarely surprised anymore by how fast Jaemin can be. Normal rules of physics just don’t apply to him. He is surprised, however, when Jaemin is suddenly in front of him, pulling his hand out of the way while balancing a palm on his knee, and diving in for a kiss, tongue seeking out the sweet chocolate he’s just eaten. A second later, Jaemin pulls back. He licks over his lip, just like the first time, and winks at Jeno before dematerializing again.
Renjun holds his buffalo chicken wrap limply, staring open-mouthed. Jeno must look as red as he feels, the giddiness in his smile telling of the subtle dynamic change that’s occurred.
Then Renjun animates, an astonished squeak bursting out of him as he points their direction. “You! He just—you guys! What are you keeping from me?! What was that?! Jaemin, come back here and tell me what you’ve been doing without me! I can’t believe this!”
There’s a weight against Jeno’s back and Jaemin is there, the back of his head tipping onto Jeno’s shoulder as he laughs outright. Renjun drops his food and clambers around Jeno to get to him, all interrogation and threats until the argument behind Jeno’s back dissolves into soft kisses, and Jeno smiles as he breaks off a piece of the cookie and pops it into his mouth.
As a hand he knows to be Jaemin’s reaches and slots fingers with his, Jeno doesn’t feel jealous at all anymore.
“I’m not so sure about this. Is it safe?”
Jaemin is absolutely affronted. Safe? Is it safe?
“Do you think I would hurt you, sweetheart?” Jaemin asks, aghast. The fact that there’s nervous hesitation in Renjun’s eyes is enough to leave him heartbroken.
But, as always, there’s reliable Jeno to solve everything.
“Junnie, you’ll be fine. We wouldn’t even ask you if there was the chance you can’t safely symbiose. We’ve been close enough to you to know.” At his words, Jaemin relaxes a little, seeing how Renjun nods and loosens at the shoulders.
Renjun still hesitates, though. “Okay, I believe you. But just...it’s a lot, you know? He’s bonded to you , I just didn’t think…”
“It’s only for an afternoon,” soothes Jeno, gripping Renjun’s elbow steadily. “Just so I can participate in this whole blood test and MRI thing in my lab. I can’t exactly have them seeing Jaemin squirming around. I need him out of my molecules for a while.”
That’s just a gross simplification of their complex symbiotic bond, and Jaemin’s grand nature as a sentient tesseract, Jaemin thinks, using tiny tendrils to play with Jeno’s ear. He feels too scrutinized at the moment to be anything more than a bubble of matter on his host’s shoulder, even if Renjun keeps looking at him and gulping.
“Does it feel weird?”
“At first, yeah. But I think I know a way to minimize that. I do need to get going though, so if we could?”
Renjun nods slowly, accepting. “Yeah, okay. I trust you.”
“Thank you. So...hold this for me?”
Jaemin melts into Jeno, disappearing. He knows it’ll be less unsettling for their boyfriend if he makes as natural a transfer as possible, which is why Jeno gathers Renjun close and smiles reassuringly before pressing their lips together. Then Jaemin moves.
He’s never been incredibly fond of switching between host bodies. For one thing, he likes to be comfortable, and when he finds a good spot it’s much nicer to simply stay there. Jeno is, to all purposes, a perfect and ideal host for him—he intends to remain indefinitely, and if that means keeping Jeno alive well past the normal human expiration, he doesn’t have an issue with it. But he knows this will be an occasional need.
It’s better at least that it’s Renjun, and not some random, or worse, an animal. One or two careful, exploratory touches had already confirmed they were compatible to stabilize, so there was no worry there. But as Jaemin wanders around the corners of Renjun’s person getting comfortable, he still feels like a first-time house guest peeking into all the unfamiliar rooms.
“Ah, this is so totally disconcerting, why can I feel so much of this?” Renjun wriggles inside Jeno’s arms, making a face.
Jaemin stops wandering and settles. He doesn’t have to go all around like that; he just likes to know where he is. But not if Renjun feels uncomfortable.
“Oh, he’s stopped.”
“You good?” Jeno searches Renjun’s eyes, now their eyes, and Jaemin knows he’s looking not just for Renjun’s confirmation, but for Jaemin too. So reliable. So reassuring. He makes sure Jeno can see him, even if Renjun isn’t fully aware. He knows Jeno catches his slight smile.
Renjun bobs his head quickly. “Yeah, I’m alright, this is fine.”
Just tell me if you change your mind, I’ll figure something out. Jaemin let’s him know.
Renjun shrieks. “Oh my god, oh shit I forgot about the telepathy thing, oh my god that’s so intense. My heart’s racing, shit.” It’s a good thing Jeno hasn’t left just yet, as Renjun needs another few moments to compose himself with some support, leaning his forehead against Jeno’s chest and attempting calmer breathing.
Jeno’s big doe eyes are curved into crescents as he shakes with laughter, his amused emotion strong enough that Jaemin can still pick up on it. “Now you won’t be so judgy of me anymore, huh? Not so easy to get used to, is it?”
“Oh just leave already.” Renjun smacks Jeno’s arm, pulling away. “Go be a science nerd. Jaemin and I are going to have so much fun without you.”
Taking his bag from the desk, Jeno shies away from Renjun’s mild aggression and makes his way out the door, still smiling. “I’m sure you will. Have fun babysitting, babe.”
Jaemin huffs, settling with his elbow crooked over Renjun’s shoulder and chin beside it to watch Jeno leave. “Now that’s just insulting. Genetically speaking I’m older than both of you.”
“Ah!” Renjun yelps, stumbling sideways, and Jeno cackles as he closes the door behind himself.
Renjun...Junnie...can we go outside?...I know you can hear me…
There’s another voice inside Renjun’s head. He hears Jaemin’s bored sigh and fights the urge to tense up. It’s unfair of him to be so stressed by hosting Jaemin while Jeno is out, as though Jaemin is some stranger he’s never been around before. In normal circumstances—normal being exceptionally relative, in their case—Renjun has become completely comfortable with his one human boyfriend and his one not-human boyfriend. But they were both external to him. It’s different to have Jaemin floating somewhere around his brain, not knowing how much the symbiote has access to.
I haven’t gone sneaking around through your head much, if that’s what you’re worried about.
“I’m not worried!...I’m a little worried. What all can you do in there? I feel like I should have...cleaned? That can’t be right.” Renjun bites the end of his pencil, too preoccupied with the new temporary state of things to focus on his studying. After Jeno left, Jaemin seemed content to remain invisible and generally quiet, which Renjun initially appreciated. Having half an alien phase out of his shoulder, without knowing exactly where the other half was, gave him too much anxiety. He really appreciates Jeno’s unflappable, enviable calm, now.
I can keep it simple, I don’t have to touch anything you don’t want me to. There’s blocks I can put up. That way, you’ll hear me like this, but you can keep any thoughts you want to yourself safe. Would you like that?
“Yes,” Renjun says immediately, then hesitates, “wait, but...does Jeno do that?”
“Oh. So then...if I do...that would be mean to you, wouldn’t it? Closing myself off from you, when he doesn’t.”
Will you be uncomfortable if I come out for a minute?
Renjun shakes his head, but closes his eyes for a second so he doesn’t really have to see it happen. He needs some time to adjust.
“Renjun.” When his eyes open, Jaemin continues. He looks very serious. “I want you to understand this, so please listen carefully. You are not Jeno. You do not have to do what he does, when it comes to me. We may all be together, but my relationship to each of you is and can be different.”
“But doesn’t it hurt your feelings?”
Settling back into the cushions on Renjun’s bed, Jaemin takes the Moomin plushie—recently relocated—into his arms and hugs it tightly. He shakes his head. “It doesn’t. When I bonded with Jeno, when he first became mine, we went through this. For weeks. Eventually we decided not to set up solid personal zones, even though we’re still learning exactly what all that means we share. But we decided that together. Although you are mine too, you are a different person. I’m happy you trust us enough to be open to me this much, but you don’t owe me more than that.”
Renjun feels relief flood him like cool water. It’s easier like this, sitting beside Jaemin nearly the way it is when Jeno is there. He didn’t realize he needed to hear this from Jaemin, either; somehow, he hadn’t given a lot of thought to the boundaries of things—since finding out Jaemin and Jeno came together, there had been enough mental hoops to jump through before ever considering what it would be like having Jaemin stay with him.
“Okay. I’d rather keep it simple then, for now.”
“Sure thing, sweet. If it’s a thought you want to share, just sort of...aim it at me.”
“Cool...and thank you.” Feeling oddly tired, Renjun reaches for Jaemin’s hand, peeling it away from the plushie to squeeze inside his own. “Can we not go outside right now though? I think I’ll feel too self-conscious. I really just want to take a nap.”
Jaemin tugs on Renjun’s hand, adjusting until the human’s head is cradled in his lap with the plushie as a pillow, and his alien boyfriend gazing sweetly down at him. Renjun’s Middle Eastern History notes drop somewhere off the bed. “Nap, then.”
Renjun narrows his eyes. “Will you be able to see my dreams?”
“Not if you don’t want me to.”
“...go ahead. If they’re boring, wake me up.”
“They won’t be boring if you only dream of me.”
“Jeno will have to settle for a cameo appearance.”
When Renjun wakes up, he’s cuddling the Moomin plushie close, Jaemin not immediately perceptible.
Jeno is back, watching him. Sitting in the desk chair but resting his elbows on the bed, he’s wearing his gentlest smile. “Hiya.”
“Hey.” Renjun, feeling a little bleary, blushes a little as he responds. He’s just been dreaming. It was a lot of nonsense, but they were both there. He wonders what the symbiote thought of it.
“Where’s Jaem—” Renjun begins to ask.
Still with you, baby. You were dreaming so nicely, I didn’t want to just leave you.
“Oh. He’s here.”
Renjun asks Jeno, “Have you been back long? Sorry I was asleep, were you bored?” He stretches an arm out, trying to wake up fully again. Jeno catches it, places the hand by his lips and kisses the palm.
“Not long, and I wasn’t. Just been thinking whatever I wanted. Most of it about you.” There’s a little hint of self-satisfaction to his tone, and Jaemin does the mental equivalent of rolling his eyes inside Renjun’s head.
He means without me. Like he’s just had a little vacation. What an ass. Renjun, I’ll go back now. Thank you for having me.
“He wants to go back, now.”
Jeno sighs. “I figured. This is about the time he starts complaining about being hungry...he kind of is like a baby. Huh.”
They both giggle, and Renjun beckons Jeno to lean forward so he can kiss him. He’s pretty sure it isn’t necessary for Jaemin to move between them, but none of their kissing is strictly necessary, so he can’t see why he should use another point of contact.
It takes only a minute, and then when Renjun keeps his eyes shut a moment longer and searches his mind for other presences, he finds nothing. The relief he expects; the bare twinge of wistfulness he doesn’t.
Then there’s a sharp little smack, and he flicks his eyes open to see Jeno grinning like a cat with Jaemin hovering in front of him, accusatory finger pointing in his face. There’s a reddish mark spreading under where Jeno’s covering his cheek, the effect of Jaemin’s scolding.
“You’re bad! I’m not an infant. And I went through your memory, too. Had a lot of fun with those thoughts, did you? Bad, bad boy. Shame on you.”
While his boyfriends bicker, Renjun just laughs and hugs the plushie tighter.
:)) if u keep ignoring me for one more day
i will make u regret it
been missing my bed, think i’ll spend more time in our room
stay out, demon.
I knew it. what r u hiding roomie
mark. see. he’s being sus.
i think renjun hating your presence is p normal
cool. u both disgust me.
im gonna find new people to love me
fear factor...6. he’s scheming. he’s giving me that look. we’re not safe.
whatever, he’s bluffing.
he doesn’t know any other people.
au contraire, mon little ami
perhaps i know one
one who could use another friend
esp a hq honey like myself
wait. why don’t i like this.
mark lee did that soccer sign up include contact info
yeah i think so
Lee Jeno’s phone number, please
the guy from me n junnie’s class
whomst junnie did a project with
and didn’t tell us
anything about it
that Lee Jeno
about whom we still
don’t know the story
after all this time
since our friendship means nothing
oh, i don’t have the signup sheet anymore
perhaps i have some news
lion’s den, 6pm. sharp. bring ur news.
Mark’s off-campus apartment—the ‘lion’s den,’ as Donghyuck likes to call it—is the sort of comfortable place that Renjun thinks his friend was a little too lucky to find. It’s within walking distance, on one of the quieter streets, and most of his neighbors aren’t students so it doesn’t have that constant stale beer and anxiety sweat smell that lingers in most of the dorms. (Or, in Donghyuck’s opinion, it’s boring.)
As they walk up to the building door, Jeno cranes his neck to look up at the curtained windows and scattered flower boxes, of which Mark’s windows have none, but Renjun doesn’t point out which unit is his.
“It’s so...quiet…” Jeno remarks, holding the door as Renjun slips inside. “How’d he get this?”
“Mark has work-study with the admissions department. That, and about eight scholarships you’ve never heard of, pay for it.”
“Why wouldn’t I have heard of them?”
Renjun glances over his shoulder as he climbs the stairs; Mark’s place is only on the third floor. “Because he applied to any he could find. They’re all weird random ones he got for promising to join different clubs. Like the Intramural Soccer club.”
It’s quiet for a few moments, and Jeno’s eyes lose focus subtly the way they always do when he shifts to the constant internal conversation he has with Jaemin. Renjun waits for a second, then attempts to bring him back around.
“Hey, I can tell you’re talking. Translate for me.”
They round the second floor stair landing. Jeno glances at Renjun ahead of him and smiles apologetically. “Jaemin wants to do sports.”
“Wouldn’t advise it. Although I’m sure you’d look good in uniform.”
“He agrees with you. I...don’t have a comment.”
A few more stairs and they’re at Mark’s door, the number painted onto the wood so faded that it’s hard to make out which unit it actually is. Renjun raps in quick succession with his knuckles. The soft thumps of someone running follows directly after, and the door swings back forcefully at the hand of Donghyuck. His eyes flash excitedly, flicking past Renjun to where Jeno stands with hands in his pockets and a mildly nervous smile.
“Renjun!” Donghyuck greets, gesturing to his friend, and then over his shoulder. “And news!”
Jeno smiles in confusion. “Er, yes?”
Behind Donghyuck, Mark approaches from around the visible corner and reaches forward to swiftly push the back of Donghyuck’s head, just a gentle shove that has the younger scowling. “Don’t be dumb. Hi Junnie, Jeno. Just push him out of the way and come in.”
“Gladly,” Renjun replies, barging past Donghyuck with enough confidence that the other can’t stop him. He does, however, immediately turn and drape over Renjun’s back, wrapping arms around his waist and tucking his chin over his shoulder so that they’re forced to duck-walk as they follow Mark into the living space. The reflection in the window across the room informs Renjun that Jeno trails behind, twisting his fingers inside his jeans pockets.
What are you so nervous about? We know them. Donghyuck is cute.
What if they don’t like me?
I’ll eat them.
For the love of... no, Jaemin. That isn’t how we solve problems.
“Hey Junnie, come look at this new app I got on my phone, in Mark’s room,” Donhyuck says loudly, too loudly for how close he is too Renjun’s ear, and then impels Renjun into the single room off the rest of the apartment. It’s impressively unsubtle a move to take Renjun away for interrogation, but that’s just typical Donghyuck, and he knows his friend doesn’t care whether he’s obvious or not.
Renjun wriggles out of Donghyuck’s clutches and pointedly rolls his eyes at him. “Subtle.”
“It’s how I am. But you. You sneaky bastard. Want to explain how it is that you’re suddenly so friendly with Lee Jeno, and why you wouldn’t share?”
Delaying for a moment, Renjun surveys the room, casually noting the changes there since he last visited. He’s missed spending more time with his friends, but loathe to admit it.
“Oh, I have to share every single thing with you?”
Donghyuck sighs like the life’s being drained out of him. “Yes, god, Renjun it’s like you don’t even know we’re friends. I share everything with you...clothes, food, being friends with Mark, food—”
“Are we still pretending you’re ‘friends’ with Mark?” asks Renjun, lifting an eyebrow and putting up air quotes before folding his hands together primly.
“Don’t deflect,” counters Donghyuck, his neck reddening, “this about you and your boy.”
Renjun smirks, taking a moment to peek inside the drawer before leaning back against the small dresser in the room. “So then this,” he pats it, “being full of your shit is just a casual thing friends normally do. That Mark totally accepts as normal friend-boy activity.” It’s full of Donghyuck’s clothes, an upgrade from the previous singular drawer he used to demand for ‘just like a toothbrush okay?’.
Donghyuck looks like he might implode. “It is convenient and we agreed on it. Stop. Deflecting. Are you and Jeno—“
“So then it also wouldn’t mean anything that your sleepover pillow, which is normally on the couch, is over here on his bed now?”
“Mark said he’s fine with it!” Donghyuck’s voice comes out high-pitched and a little strained, and he takes hold of Renjun’s forearms as if to physically stop him from any more verbal accusations. “He knows I get cold and it’s practically winter already, y’know? It’s just reasonable!”
“So you haven’t told him you like—”
Instantly, Donghyuck slaps a hand over Renjun’s mouth, like the whole conversation has, until just now, not been entirely incriminating if overheard. “I’ve made myself abundantly clear! I can’t make him less blind to it! Now, I won’t answer anything else until you tell me why you didn’t tell me about spending time with Jeno!”
Renjun nods appeasingly, and Donghyuck lowers his hand. “I was going to,” he explains, “but I needed to just...sort some things out first.”
“Sort what out? You could’ve asked me for help, you know.”
“No offense, Hyuckie, but we did basically just go over why asking you for help with a boy wouldn’t be of any use to me.”
“That’s the opposite of no offense. Full offense. I’m great with relationship advice, it’s just Mark who’s—”
Donghyuck is promptly interrupted by an abrupt commotion from the other room, coupled with some frantic shouting for Renjun that turns both their heads. Worry crowds Donghyuck’s face and he bolts for the door, with Renjun not far behind and filled with a visceral fear of the worst.
Where’s Renjun going??
I don’t know, but I don’t think Donghyuck wants us following.
Jeno watches Renjun be pulled away by Donghyuck into another room, leaving him and Jaemin to fend for themselves in the apartment with it’s only nominally familiar proprietor. Mark seems like the kind of person that’s easy to get along with and fairly welcoming—he did literally welcome them into his home—but Jeno’s never been too good at first interactions. However, with the two more talkative persons outside of conversational range, Jeno knows he has to find something to say.
“Nice place,” he ventures, trying to appear casual as he crosses the small livingroom and glances out the window. The view is the street, negating any additional comment he could make about that.
Mark smiles like they’re already the best of friends. He’s more or less just standing in front of the couch, tracking Jeno’s awkwardly aimless movement around the room. “Thanks. I like it. Gives me some breathing room away from campus, you know?”
“Makes sense.” Because of Jaemin, Jeno had been forced to find a way to get out of having a roommate, going to great lengths to convince the Residence staff that he had severe enough allergies to require it. Moving off-campus would have been the simpler solution...if he could have afforded a place. But when most of his budget went to cocoa products…
In the silent gap, Jeno hovers by the lone bookshelf and scans the titles blindly, not really reading them. It’s mostly textbooks anyway.
“So,” Mark starts, after clearing his throat, “you play soccer?”
“Sorry, is that not right? I thought I saw your name on the sign-up sheet for the intramural club last year.”
Like it was a thousand years ago, Jeno remembers, vaguely, his freshman self putting down his contact info on the sheets for a handful of clubs. He’d been full of butterfly jitters, unsure of whether these social activities would be good ways to make new friends at school, but cautiously hopeful.
And then Jaemin happened.
You didn’t make friends...because of me?
Jeno ignores him. It doesn’t matter, it’s buried ancient history as far as he’s concerned, and he’s no archaeologist. “Oh,” he replies to Mark, offering a sheepish smile, “I just considered it. But there were some circumstances so I couldn’t join, after all.”
Jeno. You can’t...just not do things, because of me. Are you not doing things?
Relax, I’m doing everything I need to. Chill out.
If there’s a topic he’s intentionally not thought about so that Jaemin wouldn’t be able to bring it up, it’s this one. The last thing Jeno wants is to dive into a long discussion of all the things he feels are off the table when you aren’t the only person living inside your skin. Besides...they have Renjun now, and dating was, if anything, the very last item on the list that Jeno expected to ever find possible. So he’s pretty content.
Muffled voices from the other room remind him that the other two are still there. It seems like Donghyuck practically lives in the apartment, rather than the dorm he and Renjun supposedly share.
“So Jeno,” says Mark, taking a seat on the couch as Jeno turns away from his second absent-minded review of the bookshelf. The older boy reaches into a small basket on the coffee table and pulls out a handful of candies, unwrapping them each with the ease evident of frequent practice. Jaemin makes a longing sound in the back of Jeno’s head as he identifies a number of soft chocolates. “You and Junnie...are dating?”
“Cool. That’s good.”
Jeno hopes Renjun’s ok with him putting it out there, but he can’t think of a reason to say otherwise.
Me too, I’m dating too. Jaemin supplies.
Jaemin, we can’t tell him that just yet.
Why not? He had some interesting books, didn’t you see? Books about me.
Jeno didn’t see, but he still thinks it’s a bad idea. He’s curious about other things anyway, and focuses back on Mark as the other tilts the small handful of unwrapped candies into his mouth and chews.
“Then, you guys, you and Donghyuck are—”
Mark nods, swallowing his current mouthful and unwrapping another tootsie roll, which he pops into his mouth while replying, “Yeah we’re—”
Jeno feels his stomach sink alongside Mark’s smile as they speak simultaneously, the embarrassment of the incorrect assumption from Jeno visible on him like a brand. Mark’s mouth hangs open a bit as he blinks in apparent shock, candy sitting visible on his tongue but forgotten.
“Oh, um,” Jeno tries to back-peddle, waving his hands conciliating-ly, “sorry, I just assumed, ‘cause Renjun says he pretty much lives here, and not in their room, and when you guys were at the cafe you seemed...but I shouldn’t have done that, assume, because I don’t really know you, that’s my...um...fault.”
But Mark just seems momentarily transfixed, eyes staring at the table until they suddenly flick up to Jeno once again.
“Shit.” He whispers. “Am I dating Donghyuck?”
Jeno lifts his shoulders in an uncertain half-shrug. “I don’t know. Maybe?”
Mark’s eyes unfocus again. He swallows nervously.
And immediately starts choking.
In disbelief, Jeno stares while Mark leans forward with a hand at his neck, nearly convulsing. “Mark? Mark, are you okay??” he asks, and when Mark shakes his head in an obvious ‘no’ and points to his throat, Jeno panics. He rushes forward, colliding with the coffee table and effectively kicking it out of his way as Mark slides to the floor from the couch. His face is quickly turning bluish, but Jeno has no idea what to do, other than crouch uselessly in front of him.
Why aren’t you doing anything? Jeno, he’s going to asphyxiate.
“I don’t, I don’t know the heimlich! I don’t know how??” Jeno replies aloud, unable to think his response when Mark’s literally dying in front of him. “Shit! What do I do?? Renjun, Renjun! Renjun help!”
Jeno finally thinks to shout for help, but the color Mark’s turning tells him he doesn’t have time to wait. He reaches his hands towards Mark’s shoulders, but hesitates, not knowing what to do next.
Oh for fuck’s sake, you humans are useless in emergencies…
When Jaemin takes control, it rarely feels like a relief, but it certainly does in this moment. Jeno feels Jaemin’s persona slide over him, like putting on a wetsuit really quickly, and then they’re hoisting Mark up and supporting him while leaning forward and—
Jeno tries to close his eyes internally, disassociate for a moment, find some way not to witness Jaemin’s approach for removing the candy that’s choking Mark. It’s certainly one way to go about it, and Jeno tells himself he can’t feel what’s happening, but when Jaemin finally steps them back, and releases a coughing Mark onto the couch, there’s the sickly sweet taste of the remaining bit of tootsie roll in their mouth and someone is screaming.
Donghyuck pretty much tackles him, which is a bad decision on the boy’s part considering how easily Jaemin subverts the power dynamic and catches Donghyuck by the wrists, holding him a safe distance away. Even Renjun trying to pry Donghyuck away doesn’t seem to make a difference.
“Who the fuck are you and what are you doing to my boyfriend!?!?” Donghyuck shrieks in his face, eyes wide and terrified in the wake of what they’ve just done, and Jeno belatedly realizes it’s Jaemin he’s seeing and not himself.
Jaemin, let me out!
Collapsed on the couch and wheezing, Mark manages to squeak, “Boyfriend?”
"Nice to meet you too, Donghyuck." Jaemin grins impishly, and Jeno can feel that even though everything is now a mess, he’s pleased to have gotten to reveal himself. With a wink, the symbiote dematerializes off Jeno, leaving him to stand there still holding Donghyuck’s wrists and with an abrupt need to explain himself.
The color drains from Donghyuck’s face, and his previously fisted hands go limp. “Jeno?”
“Donghyuck, it’s alright, don’t panic—”
Donghyuck doesn’t panic. “Fuck,” he says instead, and faints.
Bet you didn't expect to pseudo-cliff-hang did you? WELL. I'm growing weirdly attached to these particular characterizations, so mayhap catch us next time to clean up this mess (and maybe see Jisung and Chenle appear? to give their elders some shit about being freaks? likely).
now you can also yell at me at mycc
Chapter 3: how is there still more
sorry this took three-thousand years to update, i'm doing this with literally no plan so it takes a lot of rearranging. thanks for enjoying it so far for some reason TT i don't deserve.
this chapter is brought to you by Yeri and the NoRenMin gift that is Hair in the Air. TT TT
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Awkward silence. That’s the term Jeno applies to the situation, the concept hanging over their four heads—five persons...but, well.—like a clear, thick resin slowly but surely solidifying. If they don’t break it soon, he imagines it will freeze them in place completely. They’ll be like four statues trapped in Mark’s apartment, forever pinned to their seats by the paralyzing force of what just occurred, a supreme topping pizza growing cold and eventually rotting on the table between them.
“So.” Mark begins, shattering the silence although his voice still sounds raw. He clears his throat. “So...um.” He isn’t getting very far. Jeno can’t blame him—trying to find the right point to breach this topic is like wandering around a circular room looking for the corner. He knows. He practically lives in that room.
Donghyuck still glares daggers at Jeno, or rather Jaemin, because he somehow manages to glare through him to the symbiote wallowing around inside Jeno’s head. “This would be the time to start explaining.” He says. He’s still tightly gripping the remote like a weapon, body still angled slightly in front of Mark as though to protect him. It wouldn’t be intimidating at all if not for the sheer manic ferocity in his eyes, the brown practically glowing.
He hasn’t done this many times. Jeno shrugs. “I don’t really know where to start.”
“Start from today and work your way back, and hurry up.”
Jeno blinks, turning his frown towards the thin rug under his feet. He’s not even sure how to explain the last hour , let alone more than that. When Renjun told him they’d been invited to hangout with his friends, he’d been plenty apprehensive, but he hadn’t anticipated Jaemin...or the candy…
Jeno replays the last half-hour in his mind.
“I’m so sorry, are you okay? Is he okay? God I’m—” Jeno gasps, feeling like he’s been the one just choking, and not Mark, as they lift Donghyuck’s unconscious form onto the couch. Mark seems almost suspiciously calm and capable, despite having literally almost died moments earlier.
Mark shakes his head. “It’s alright...scary, yeah, but alright.” Once they set Donghyuck down, he immediately lifts the boy’s head and slides underneath it, sitting to rest the chocolate-y hair onto his thigh. “He’s shocked but Donghyuck is basically like a...a cockroach. Or something. Oh that isn’t flattering is it? God, don’t tell him I said that. I just mean he’ll bounce back.” He rubs a hand over his face, looking stressed, while the other finds its way into Donghyuck’s hair to comb soothingly.
Regardless of his assurances, Renjun still hovers anxiously around his unconscious best friend, putting a hand on his forehead, double-checking his breathing, putting a pillow under his legs. “Why’d he have to pass out though, honestly what unnecessary drama.”
The persistent twinge of guilt in Jeno’s chest feels otherwise. “Actually that’s about what I expect, the not-fainting is more weird.”
Why would anyone faint at all? I’m not scary. Mark’s wrong. Did he even look at me?
Ok, but I think it’s more the alien laffy-taffy tendrils sliding over my body like you’re swallowing me whole that did it.
...so I happen to look like that sometimes. So what. That’s species-ist.
Species-ist? Hold on. No. You guys tried to infiltrate our planet and annihilate human existence less an a few years ago, you can’t go claiming social rights...are you serious about that? Jaemin, listen—
“Come back, Jeno,” Renjun calls, taking a seat on the arm of the recliner chair that Jeno sat in. He turns his chin up to him with a finger, worried eyes meeting Jeno’s. “Focus out, please.”
“Sorry.” He presses a palm on Renjun’s knee, grounding with the familiar touch. Internally, Jaemin whines at not being currently allowed to do anything similar, but that’s just the state of things. Just because Mark seems calm, doesn’t mean they need to push it.
They’re quiet for a while. There’s the tiny bend to Renjun’s eyebrows that Jaemin recognizes as the face he gets when he’s thinking really hard about something—Jeno finds himself wishing it was his mind he shared. Opposite them, Mark keeps glancing up from checking on the unconscious boy in his lap to toss looks at Jeno that are full of questions he isn’t yet finding the words to ask.
Then, with a sudden jerk, Donghyuck comes to and looks around, then jumps up from the couch with staggering speed and puts himself bodily in front of the slower-standing Mark like a human wall. “Junnie, get over here,” he demands, voice just shy of yelling, “he’s not what you think he is!”
Renjun puts out a calming hand towards Hyuck. “I know what he is, it’s alright.”
Donghyuck grabs it, trying to pull Renjun to the perceived safety of Mark and himself. Naturally, Renjun tries to pull back, and soon there’s a small tug-of-war taking place over Mark’s coffee table; Mark tries to reign Donghyuck in, who scrambles to “save” his friend, who would like to be let go-of, and who is being held back by arms that Jeno of course does not have control over. As if Jaemin would let Renjun be taken from him, in any sense at all. Appearances aside, the only thing Jeno is actually doing is sighing very, very deeply.
They probably would have continued indefinitely, had not the blessed sound of the doorbell interrupted Renjun and Donghyuck’s shouting, and Mark taken the moment to yank Donghyuck back onto the couch and threaten him to stay put. Donghyuck picks up the tv remote, brandishing it like a dagger while Mark hurries to pay for the food and send the delivery person on their way. It’s about then that the awkward silence begins to sink over them, complete with Donghyuck’s glaring, Renjun’s annoyed sighs, Mark’s confused blinking, and Jeno wishing Jaemin would let him even consider eating some of the pizza.
As Jeno tries to figure out how to answer Donghyuck’s demand for answers, the temptation of the food distracts him.
You put that disgusting trash in our mouth and I will strangle you from the inside. Reverse of Mark.
You are so mean. I miss food.
Donghyuck stamps his foot like a child. “You gonna explain or what?”
“Don’t be a dick, Hyuck. Jeno’s got a symbiote.” Renjun defends, badly. His thin arms are crossed so tightly Jeno thinks he could snap himself in half.
Jaemin growls inside their head.
“Please don’t say it like I have a virus. I’m not sick, and he really hates that.”
A glint of interest flickers in Mark’s eyes. “He talks to you? They really do that?”
“Uh, yeah? He rarely shuts up, actually.” Then Jeno jolts, too slow to notice Jaemin moving and controlling him to pinch his own arm. “Ow, fuck.”
There’s a deep sigh from Renjun, and the others look at Jeno like he’s crazy. Jeno’s stomach turns a little queasy, hating that look. It’s exactly why he avoids telling anyone about Jaemin in the first place. Because after explaining that he’s not insane, he has to show them, and then the suspicion of insanity turns to fear of being eaten, and eventually panicked ostracising. Which, in this case, could mean taking Renjun with them, and he can’t bear that. Nor does he think Jaemin will.
“I’m not crazy, ok? I’m just not...alone in here, and sometimes I’m not the one being...me. Us. Dammit, do you know how difficult this is to explain to people?”
So let me talk.
“Be quiet, Jaemin. No, Renjun, it wasn’t the same with you, you’d already met Jaemin sep—”
Jeno looks up, almost startled at how Mark’s leaning forward on the edge of his seat, eagerness all over his face. “How what?” he asks in return, nervously eyeing the way Donghyuck wraps a boa-constrictor-tight hand around Mark’s bicep.
“How’d you end up with...him?”
“That’s a long story for another day,” Jeno replies instantly. He can feel Jaemin bristle with excitement, but he hates that story, and he’s successfully avoided telling it to Renjun so far, so he doesn’t appreciate it suddenly being asked of him. Renjun’s fixed a gaze on them as well, but Jeno ignores the silent question of why they haven’t discussed this before.
Mark looks disappointed. “Oh."
“Why do you want to know?” Donghyuck questions, the words sharp.
“Really?” Mark laughs. “My whole damn class would shit themselves to be talking to Jeno right now. I’ve spent most of this semester reading ugly textbooks full of theories on the thinnest pieces of information about symbiotes, and now one’s sitting right across from me. I’m gonna get the best grade in the class!”
Donghyuck looks appalled. “That thing tried to kill you! Or at least make out with you!”
Oof, wrong on both counts. This “thing” did no such.
Jeno can’t stop the chuckle, but stiffens at Donghyuck’s glare.
“No, Hyuckie, he saved my life, probably. I was choking.”
“Pause.” Renjun stands up from Jeno’s chair, holding his hands in a T shape and looking between the three—four?—of them. “Is that what happened? You fucking choked? Why?”
There’s redness in Mark’s face again, this time more likely from embarrassment. “Uh, I did...sort of...yeah. Just...didn’t pay attention to what I was eating?” He looks at Jeno, eyes begging him not to elaborate more as to why he was distracted in the first place.
“Yeah, and I don’t know the heimlich,” Jeno offers quickly, “So Jaemin kind of...stepped in. I’m sorry for his, uh, unconventional methods. I really had no idea he was going to literally stick his tongue down your throat. Sorry about that.”
Donghyuck once again looks enraged, but Mark shrugs and smiles. “It’s cool. Better than dying.”
“You’re welcome. I don’t know what a heimlich is, but I have a feeling my method’s more fun,” Jaemin suddenly interjects, taking about half shape and leaning over Jeno’s shoulder as usual. He sends a look to Donghyuck. “You should try it.”
Jeno sighs and Renjun places a hand over his face in exasperation as Donghyuck shrieks again, clinging onto Mark. At least he doesn’t faint.
hyuckie are you coming here after class?
i can’t find the fry pan
do i own a fry pan?
sorry, i can’t today
oh, no worries
i can starve till tomorrow
can’t tomorrow either
ok. are you ok?
fine just busy. homework.
i thought you were ahead on things
i forgot some
look i can’t come over for a while
Junnie needs me
i thought he said he was all good?
about the other night
he needs me, he just doesn't know it. Ok?
don’t worry about it. talk to you later.
no i mean the other thing
let’s talk later.
When Jeno was in high school, he was a pretty good student. Smart enough, attentive, and the type to catch onto things fairly easily. But mostly he was just good at focusing and working hard, because there was very little to distract him.
In college, there is a lot to distract him. Namely, boys.
Like, for instance, Renjun; perhaps if he didn’t look so damn cute, sitting there on top of Jeno’s desk with a small copy of his primary source history text perched on those thin fingers, his legs dangling and swinging intermittently, constantly biting on his dry lips and the chapped skin there...maybe if he didn’t look like that , Jeno could actually focus on his essay.
Jaemin is, of course, absolutely no help.
It’s time for a study break... he suggests.
I haven’t even finished the introduction.
Yeah but...look at him.
Trust me, I have been.
Then you know what a crime it is how he’s nibbling his lips like that when WE could be.
Jeno uses all the willpower he’s ever had to ignore that and stay put on the floor, safely away from their boyfriend and his distracting powers. If he can just keep himself there, lying on his stomach with the laptop like a wall blocking him from Renjun, then perhaps the temptation will pass and he can make a dent in his work. And besides, it would be rude of him to distract Renjun too, engrossed as he is in the pages of his book, not even remotely aware of Jeno’s struggle.
Well, you may have reservations about distracting him...but I don’t.
Jaemin makes this declaration, and then he’s strung out bit-by-bit near Jeno’s shoulder, taking shape until he can crawl across the brief space, a few glittery, self-braiding strings linking him back to Jeno like a leash. It’s too late for Jeno to stop him, because speaking up will only interrupt Renjun. And certainly Jaemin knows, as he shoots a devious look back at Jeno, before reaching up and wrapping fingers around the exposed bit of Renjun’s ankle between his sock and the cuff of his pants.
Renjun jolts, shaking the desk with the abrupt movement as he looks down over his book. “Ugh, don’t scare me like that. What do you want?” He asks, glaring at the alien boy below him. There’s no malice in the look, only mild annoyance, but if Jeno knows anything it’s that he won’t last long with Jaemin beaming up at him like that.
True to form, Jaemin grins, wide and adoringly. “You.”
Pink spreads over the apples of Renjun’s cheeks as he struggles to remain composed. “Damn,” he mutters, “I set myself up for that.”
“I hoped you would,” giggles Jaemin, as he toys with the band of Renjun’s sock.
“Are you calling me predictable?”
“I’d rather call you pretty.”
It’s becoming a bad habit, but Jeno drops his head forward onto his keyboard and groans. Greasy and terrible as it is, watching them flirt never fails to get under his skin. It just does things to him, and he’s sure that was Jaemin’s plan all along—tease and compliment Renjun until Jeno couldn’t take it anymore, subsequently dragging him into their game.
“Well maybe you should come up here and say it,” Renjun replies, his voice taking on that sultry quality that stabs into Jeno’s skin like a needle and fills his blood with butterflies.
Jaemin sighs, longingly. “I would but…” still on his knees, he tugs his foot so that the tendrils twirled around Jeno’s wrist go taut. “...end of my rope.”
It’s a cue, and Jeno looks up for it like a well-practiced actor unable to resist the spotlight. Jaemin’s large, sparkly gold eyes and Renjun’s sharp, fierce brown ones both stare back at him, the first set paired with a smug grin while the second challenge him.
“Jeno...” Jaemin whines. But Jeno feels little sympathy—the symbiote is lying; he can totally go a bit further without straining their bond, he’s just taking advantage of Renjun not knowing that.
Jeno holds firm with Jaemin, but he makes the mistake of looking up at their boyfriend, and his resolve falters. The book is already set aside, spine bent as it sits face-down but open to his page. Renjun leans back on his palms and the look in his eyes is terrifying.
“Jeno,” he starts, voice cool as frost, “I would like you to come here.”
A little impressed gasp erupts from Jaemin, his feelings of delight in Renjun’s demanding tone filtering all the way back to Jeno, who finds himself already scrambling to his feet. As he moves, so does Jaemin, rising gracefully and gliding onto the bit of remaining open desk space at Renjun’s side, while Renjun grasps the front of Jeno’s shirt and pulls the moment he’s within reach. Jeno’s hips hit the desk, braced between Renjun’s knees, and his fingers find the smaller boy’s waist easily.
“Satisfied?” Jeno mutters, like having Renjun slide his arms up over his shoulders while Jaemin looks on giddily isn’t his favorite thing in the whole universe.
“I’m getting there,” replies Renjun breathily. “Kiss me.”
And that’s Jeno’s greatest distraction, in a nutshell. That Renjun likes being demanding, in control, because Jeno will let him without complaint. That Jaemin likes charming and manipulating, mostly harmlessly, because he knows Jeno’s every weakness, and he likes seeing his magic work on the both of them. So they end up like this, with essay disregarded, and thirty-some pages of required reading forgotten, and Jeno’s hair a mess under Renjun’s fingers instead. Recently it’s become clear that Jaemin likes to watch things nearly as much as he likes to take part in them, cooing appreciative noises and whispering “pretty, so pretty” over and over while his boyfriends stay locked at the mouth.
The distraction is complete enough that Jeno mostly misses when Jaemin pauses, glancing away from them to stare at the door.
But Renjun does not. “What is it?” He asks, pulling his lips aside even as he hooks his ankles behind Jeno. Jaemin laughs, the sound full of mischief.
“Oh, just give it a minute...why are you stopping? Keep going.”
A perplexed crease folds between Renjun’s eyebrows, which Jeno would find more adorable if he wasn’t more interested in getting him to turn his chin back where he can access his lips again.
Jaemin leans his head on Renjun’s shoulder, eyes following the moment when Jeno recaptures Renjun’s exhaling breath. “Three, two, one…” he counts suspiciously, then smiles through another laugh as the door suddenly swings open.
“Ahhh! what the shit are you doing?”
At the sound, Jeno’s head whips around, and he pales at finding Jisung tossing a bag onto the floor and glowering at him accusingly, hands balling into tight fists at his sides. An amused Chenle trails behind him, his bright eyes making a quick scan of the room before he smirks, looking far more pleased than necessary at catching Jeno in such a compromising moment.
“Dude. It’s four pm on a Thursday, have some fucking decency,” Jisung complains.
Jaemin tuts, but he’s still smiling and his voice is laced with affection. “Watch your mouth, kid.”
Jeno gapes, and wracks his brain to understand. Because here’s the problem with all his distractions: apparently he forgets even when his kid friends are planning to visit, a plan which comes rushing back to him only too late. He had agreed to this, given them his dorm address, all months ago. So the only surprise should be that they didn’t need assistance to enter the room.
“How did you…” he stares at the door, which he knows only he has a key for. Meanwhile, Renjun has retracted his hands and unhooked his legs from Jeno’s waist, sitting primly on the desk although red burns in his face and neck.
Chenle grins, and there’s a familiar touch of evil behind the high school senior’s smile. “Picked the lock. Thought you were out, didn’t want to wait.” He shrugs, letting a backpack slide off his shoulders and thunk onto the floor.
This is a skill Jeno would very much like to question, but Jaemin has bounded up from his seat and looped his arms around Jisung, who’s not quite skilled enough to evade him, and is looking very disgruntled as the symbiote baby’s him, pinching his cheeks.
“Oh my god,” Jaemin sing-songs, drawling his words, “my little baby is so-o tall and cute now! Look at you! Do the cheek puffing thing, cutie-pie!”
Jeno huffs a chuckle, not surprised, and hazards a glance at Renjun’s reaction to the display. His eyes are wide with shock.
“Jeno. Please get your freeloading parasite off me.”
Despite his struggling, Jisung is no match for Jaemin’s speed and flexibility, and remains trapped as Chenle bounds onto Jeno’s bed, laughing all the way there.
“Can’t help you, Jisungie. You know how he is.”
“I want to die.” Jisung deadpans, his face contorting as Jaemin pulls at his cheeks.
“Midterms are done, so feel free!” Chirps Chenle, reclined into Jeno’s pillows with his arms propped behind his head. He turns his attention to Jeno and the very quiet Renjun, whom Jeno realizes has no idea what’s going on. “Who’re you sucking face with, Jen?”
Jeno cringes, wishing his younger friend had a better filter. “Oh, uh, this—“
Renjun wraps a possessive hand around Jeno’s arm. “I’m his boyfriend. Renjun. Who’re you?”
“Oh yeah? Huh. Didn’t know Jeno knew how to get one of those. Mostly he just picks up stray aliens.” Chenle laughs. “I’m Chenle...Jeno is like...well I’d say he’s our friend but he’s more like me and Jisungie’s dad.”
“If that were true at all, you’d listen to me sometimes!”
Chenle blinks at him. “...sorry...what?”
It only takes a second of Jeno’s fumbling disbelief for the younger to burst into laughter, and Jeno is horrified to find Renjun giggling as well. The sound distracts Jaemin enough for Jisung to slip free and take a seat next to Chenle, but keep a wary eye on Jaemin as he glides back to the two older occupants of the room. And because he has no shame, Jaemin immediately reassumes his spot on the desk, a distinctly un-platonic hand on Renjun’s thigh and the other curling around the back of Jeno’s neck.
“But how can you be Jeno’s boyfriend when Jaemin...like, how does…” Jisung stumbles around his words, gesturing between the three of them as though he can somehow draw a visible chart that explains things.
Jaemin just squeezes Renjun’s thigh a little tighter, and nuzzles his face against Jeno’s upper arm. “Both mine.”
Jisung’s small eyes widen. “OH...really?”
“Bro, it’s worse than we thought.” Chenle nudges Jisung’s arm with his shin.
“Yeah, we gotta leave. Right now, immediately.”
They end up strolling the campus instead, the day uncharacteristically warm for a change, and Jisung and Chenle walk ahead chatting about something from their school while Jeno and Renjun trail behind. It’s a little too conspicuous for Jaemin to walk with them, of course, although it was his idea to get out of the room. Jeno doesn’t mind the suggestion, since it’s nice out, and the fresh air helps clear his head from the surprise of having to suddenly reveal his complex romantic relationship to his two closest friends.
Let’s go that way. Jaemin suggests, angling them to the left down the sidewalk. Jeno passes the instruction along to the younger two.
“You never told me about them,” says Renjun, suddenly. Jeno noticed he’d been quiet since they left the dorm, but Renjun normally took his time with things, and always got around to voicing his concerns, so Jeno hadn’t worried.
“I’m sorry,” Jeno apologizes, though it seems inconsequential over all, “didn’t think about it. I wasn’t trying to hide my friends from you, or anything.”
Renjun frowns, not the reaction Jeno expected. “No but...they know. About Jaemin. Doesn’t that make them more...important friends?”
There’s a slight feeling of tension in Jeno’s shoulders that tells him Jaemin is actively listening. As much as Jeno fears the trajectory of this line of questioning, Jaemin grows hungry for it.
“They are important, yeah. Like I said, I’m sorry I didn’t tell you.”
He’s going to ask…
I know. I know.
...okay. Let’s cross the quad, toward those tents. They look interesting.
Jisung turns back to look at Jeno for a moment, and Jeno nods toward the direction Jaemin is interested in, not giving it much attention himself. Jisung responds with a tiny smile, and pulls Chenle along the correct way.
“Jeno, how did you tell them?”
There it is, the question that Jeno can’t answer without begetting many more. Nor can he avoid it forever, the answer that eventually he’ll have to share with someone other than the tiny circle who already know it. A circle no larger than himself, Jaemin, and the two high schoolers goofing around ahead of them.
“Let’s talk about it later,” he suggests, buying some time, a little longer before he has to tell a story he’s never verbalized to anyone.
Renjun’s concerned expression deepens. “Okay…” he agrees, hesitantly, but Jeno has to keep them moving. There’s a whole cluster of tents and tables with colorful posters suddenly before them, and his two friends are waiting for them to catch up, pointing at things excitedly.
“What is all this?”
It seems odd that Jeno doesn’t know why there’s a commotion like this in the middle of campus, with students everywhere and such sudden noisiness. Renjun follows as he catches up to the other boys, looping an arm over Jisung’s shoulders and searching the various signs for one that will explain what he’s seeing. A large banner proclaims: “Student Clubs and Activities Interest Fair.”
How very interesting and intriguing that this just happened to be here!
Jeno slows, the flood of information momentarily blurring in front of his eyes. Why does he feel tricked…
He glances at Renjun; he’s looking pointedly another direction, pretending to read a large poster for Taxidermy Club—an interest Jeno is positive he doesn’t have.
“Huh,” Renjun observes, “who knew this school offered such diverse social opportunities.”
Jeno isn’t fooled for a second. He’s managed to be fooled all the way there, but not now. “Yeah, I’m pretty sure you did.”
Renjun smiles appeasingly. “Maybe so.”
So this is where you wanted to go, huh. I thought it was weird you had actual directions in mind.
I was just thinking we could get some information...just to see...in case you wanted to do some things.
Jaemin. I told you, I’m fine.
Jeno, normal people have hobbies. Renjun said so. I’ve seen your memories, you can’t tell me you didn’t used to enjoy other stuff.
Fine, but I—
“Whoa, Jeno, your school has a dance team?” Jisung’s awed voice interrupts the mental exchange, drawing Jeno’s eyes to focus on their surrounds once again. There is indeed a table stating just that, sounded by students in various costumes showing off their skills and inviting people to take flyers. Jisung accepts one, eyes alight. “Maybe I should apply here after all…”
Chenle nods with such enthusiasm he resembles the bobbleheads Jeno had in his room growing up. His fluffy hair only makes the resemblance stronger. “Can we go look at everything or do we have to be stuck with you three old people?”
At the use of ‘three,’ Jeno shoots Chenle a sharp look, and the boy returns him a smile that somehow is the physical version of “oops, yikes,” together. Jeno sighs. “Yeah, do whatever you want. Just come find us when you’re finished.”
The two high schoolers disappear into the crowd instantly, and Jeno is thankful for Jaemin’s internal reminder not to panic, that they’ll be fine without him having them in sight.
“What do you want to see?” Renjun asks, casually slipping his hand into Jeno’s. While Jeno has learned that Renjun isn’t much for overt, public displays of affection, he isn’t shy about subtle things like this. If anything, he’s possessive about it, unbothered about who sees or what assumptions they make. And if the way that Renjun’s hand feels cool and small inside his, his fingers thin but strong, gives Jeno butterflies...well, he hasn’t exactly told him just yet. Cheesy one-liners and greasy compliments are Jaemin’s strength, not his.
Jeno, scans the boothes.“I’m not that interested in anything, to be honest,” he replies, adjusting their hands so that Renjun’s fingers slot between his comfortably. Nothing in their immediate range catches his eye.
There has to be something here you like. I demand you find at least one thing.
Renjun’s mouth twists into something rather like a frown, but not quite. “Well, I think Mark is here somewhere, so let’s at least find him while the kids have fun. Maybe you’ll see something along the way.”
Jeno feels a little manipulated, the consequences of having two somewhat overbearing boyfriends, but it’s not like they can force him to do anything—well, Jaemin could , if he really wanted to be annoying—so he acquiesces.
“How about ping-pong club?” Renjun suggests somewhat loudly as they pass a rather boisterous table.
A very serious looking girl glances up at them and sneers. “It’s table tennis .”
Renjun startles back, and Jeno pulls him away. “I think maybe not.”
They continue on, weaving through the flood of both interested students looking for something to engage in, and confused one surprised to find an entire even blocking their usual path to class, all the while glancing at the honestly shocking amount of possibilities Jeno never knew the school had. There’s everything from clubs, to associations, to tutoring opportunities. And the more he sees, the more he thinks that perhaps he has been a hermit over the last year, unaware of his surroundings except for class, his room, and the trips out to retrieve chocolate.
Nearly the moment he thinks it, the soft, saccharine smell of sugar wafts over them, and Jeno turns toward the scent to see a booth labeled ‘Confectionary Club’. Their table is heaped with candies, sweets, and of course...chocolates. Jeno isn’t himself hungry, but his mouth starts to water and Jaemin lets out a little whine of delighted interest.
Let’s join that!
“I can’t cook, babe,” Jeno reminds him, unconsciously speaking aloud. “And I think they make those for sale and competitions, not for eating. I don’t think they’ll appreciate your...um, enthusiasm.”
Thanks! I hate it.
“Jaemin wants it?” Renjun asks quietly, nodding his head toward the sweets.
Jeno nods back. “We better walk away before he eats the entire table. And I do mean the table.”
Leaving the delicious-smelling club behind—not without considerable complaints from Jaemin—they press through the crowd, since Renjun is pretty sure Mark mentioned his booth would be near the end of the lane. After a couple of minutes, Renjun pauses.
“Ah, wait,” he says, removing his hand from their grasp.
“Hold on, stay here. I want to go back and grab a flyer from one we passed.”
Jeno frowns. He hadn’t pointed anything else out. “We’ll come with—” he offers, not wanting to lose sight of Renjun.
“No, I’ll only be a second if I go by myself. Be right back.”
Then Renjun is gone, light feet carrying him back while they stand bewildered.
There’s too many obstacles for me to see him…
It’s fine, we’ll just wait.
The representatives from the different clubs seem so excited, so enthusiastic to share about the great experiences new students who join them can expect. People all around Jeno seem to be shouting, laughing, and calling to one another—he can’t decide if it’s overwhelming, or enticing, to think of being involved in all this. Then, however, a different, distinct sound reaches him, and even Jaemin perks up as Jeno searches for its source. Just a few feet away, a slightly older looking guy has the tail of a violin pressed between his chin and shoulder, the bow in his hand pulling in wave-like strokes over the strings. The song is gentle, a little mournful, mesmerizing...but unfortunately unfamiliar. Jeno could get lost in it, and the string of cloudy memories it brings back. He shifts closer to watch.
You used to play…?
Only a little. I’d hardly even started lessons and we had to move.
Do you...love it? Am I keeping you back from music?
Jeno smiles, very softly, his eyes lingering on the sway of the instrument under the musician’s touch.
No, you aren’t. Even before you, I decided not to continue when my mom found a new teacher. Even with you, I could learn, but it’s that I could never play as good as what I want to hear. I love it, but I love it this way.
There’s a small, sharp intake of breath and Jeno jolts, noticing Renjun beside him once again, a small bag in hand.
“I just imagined you playing the violin with a rose in your mouth and had a small heart attack. It’s fine.”
...Jeno, you’re sure you don’t want lessons?
Jeno laughs, winking at Renjun. “Only in your dreams, babe.”
After a beat, in which Jeno wonders if Renjun even heard him, Renjun stops blinking and says, “Sorry, was that you? I’m waiting for Jeno to come reassure me that was just Jaemin making him say greasy things again.”
“Hey! It was me!” Jeno complains, mildly insulted even as Renjun gives him an eye smile and takes his hand again.
The laughter inside Jeno’s head, though, is all Jaemin.
The soccer booth is less of a booth and more of a sectioned-off space with some lawn chairs and a sign-up sheet on a clipboard lying in the grass, while a handful of students dribble a ball back and forth. They find Mark hunched over in one of the lawn chairs, ball trapped between the insteps of his shoes while he copies notes from a textbook. Luckily, there are only two other students talking with some of the team, so Renjun and Jeno, with Jaemin, easily approach.
Renjun toes underneath the ball, kicking it up lightly to where he can catch it. He’s secretly surprised the move works.
Mark glances up sharply, and his confusion turns to a welcoming grin immediately. “Ohhh, dude, so talented. Sure you don’t want to play, Jun?”
“You’ve just seen the extent of my skill. How’s the sign-up look?”
Picking up the clipboard, Mark looks over the names with a nonplussed sigh. “Could be worse. There’s a few people interested, but I dunno.”
“How about Jeno?”
Jeno’s been watching the ball pass between the other team members, unfocused, but perks up when Renjun mentions him, and starts turning red.
“No uh, I don’t know, that’s probably not a good idea,” he argues, scratching the back of his head nervously.
Standing up, Mark leans closer to Jeno, eyes alight and all conspiratorial, and mutters, “Oh? Because...of Jaemin?”
“Uh, yes. I guess.”
Renjun eyes his boyfriends, two perfectly capable and good people with the single complication of sharing one socially accepted body, and sighs internally. Jaemin mentioned this, Jeno’s hesitancy to do, well…anything. His fear. Even with Jaemin requisitioned to the headspace, Renjun can guess the arguments he’s currently voicing, especially with the miniscule flinch Jeno can’t help.
“I think you could consider it,” Renjun asserts confidently, and hands the ball back to Mark. “Practices wouldn’t start till next semester again, right? Why not see if it’s possible?”
Mark agrees eagerly. “Yeah!”
Jeno hesitates and bites at his lip, and when he starts to zone out Renjun knows he is thinking about it, and that means the internal dialogue is going to take some time.
“Um, Renjun…” Mark whispers, still eyeing Jeno, “what’s happening?”
“Jaemin’s talking. Give them a second, when Jaemin can’t manifest, without frightening the public that is, we just have to wait for a bit. Jeno translates. Although sometimes he does forget that—”
“Well,” says Jeno suddenly, “you would be pretty confident, but I’m the one left doing the damage control aren’t I?”
“—half the conversation isn’t audible to the rest of us.”
Mark’s eyebrows hover high, and he nods very slowly. “Ah. Gotcha.”
They both wait, looking at Jeno until he blinks rapidly a few times, glancing at them both.
“I said part of that out loud. Didn’t I.”
“Nothing we couldn’t have guessed for ourselves,” Renjun assures him, and Mark grins amicably.
“No big deal, man.” The intramural captain then pauses, his expression turning worried. “Hey um, have you guys seen Donghyuck today? He was supposed to come hangout with me here this afternoon, but I haven’t seen him at all.”
Jeno shakes his head, unworried, but Renjun frowns. “No, we haven’t. Did you text him?”
Words quiet, Mark replies, “Yeah, but...he’s kinda been weird lately, so I didn’t get anything back.”
“Uh, Jaemin wants to know if he scared him? Maybe...you know...the other day. Maybe we upset him,” Jeno adds, and Renjun really hates the way he looks upset about it for the both of them. He can imagine Jaemin wearing a similar expression.
He needs to talk to Donghyuck, immediately. “He’s probably just at the theater booth, or something, and forgot,” reassures Renjun, wondering why everyone is so damn emotionally self-conscious today, and if Donghyuck is also going to need a pep talk. When he thinks about it, though, Hyuck has been in their room a lot more lately pestering Renjun. He should’ve realized that meant he wasn’t with Mark.
“Yeah...probably,” Mark agrees. Despite his arguably positive response, he looks downtrodden.
Renjun bites down on his molars, an angry tightness filling up his jaw. He doesn’t like this. He doesn’t like thinking his whole world is coming together, only to realize his friends are fragmenting and his significant others have pasts and insecurities of which he’s only scratched the surface. It’s not that Renjun expected any of this to be simple; he just didn’t expect himself to be so oblivious when he usually prides himself on being observant, in-tune. But somehow, while trying to harmonize with Jaemin and Jeno, he’s lost track of the tune that Mark and Donghyuck play, and this newfound cacophony does not suit his taste.
Timing isn’t on Renjun’s side for now, though. There are two teenagers bounding up from the other side of his boyfriends, and they’re another set of notes he’s intent on familiarizing himself with so he needs to be present. It’s not hard, after all; they’re super cute. Perhaps the only thing cuter is the way Jeno and Jaemin dote on them.
“They have a basket weaving club!” Jisung gushes, beyond excited. “Look!” He hands a flyer to Jeno, who tries to appear impressed as he looks it over.
“That’s uh, cool, I guess...huh. Didn’t know you could do that underwater.”
Chenle clutches his stack of flyers resolutely. “Jisung and I have to come here now. I’m going to learn how to play the sitar in the Exotic Instruments Club, and join the Skydiving Team.”
Jeno...skydiving. Is it dangerous? It sounds dangerous.
I guess it can be?
Right. Please tell Chenle he’s not joining that. I do not allow it.
“Jaemin says no skydiving,” Jeno relays the message, shrugging apologetically when Chenle whines.
“Mom! Why! He’s so unfair.”
A pouting Chenle is always a little funny, and Jeno chuckles, even more amused by Renjun’s and Mark’s baffled expressions as well. Mark’s soccer ball rolls casually away as the oblivious boy stares in confusion at the two teenagers and Jeno, and their proxied conversation with a non-visible alien.
Jeno crooks an arm around each of the kid’s necks, hauling them in for an awkward half-strangling hug. “These are my friends, they’re still in high school. Jisung, Chenle, say hi to Mark.”
“Hi Mark,” they chant in unison, Chenle wriggling to get free while Jisung just sags in defeat.
“What’s up?” Mark says brightly in return, clearly rhetorical, and yet...
“Polar climates, global warming is real. What are you doing about it?”
“Currency rates, tragically. Inflation is a huge problem.”
Both Chenle and Jisung speak concurrently, their answers simultaneous and Mark simply gapes. Even though he was ready for it, Jeno can’t help laughing and letting them loose, only for them to start debating both points in front of a very confused soccer captain.
I missed these little brats. Sighs Jaemin, tone laced with affection.
I mean...me too.
Jeno nudges Renjun with his elbow and jerks his chin toward the cafeteria and dorms. “I think it’s time we feed these gremlins and let Mark talk to some other people.”
“Yeah...let’s go back down the row though, I want to see if I can catch Donghyuck.”
The suggestion of food draws the kids easily away from Mark, who looks a little relieved to be set free of them and turn his attention back to his station. He does extend them the invitation to come hang out again soon, however, with a none-too-subtle hint that he has plenty he’d like to ask Jeno and Jaemin about.
Personally, I’d love to know what they’re teaching about me in that class he’s taking… Jaemin muses as they weave back up through the row of booths. Ahead of them, Renjun walks between Jisung and Chenle, describing what classes are like there, and inevitably getting roped into telling them how he met Jeno.
Jeno shakes his head at the three, and replies to Jaemin. You guys can play twenty questions and get all the answers your hearts desire.
Heart’s desire? That’s a pretty phrase. I have that already, though, twice over.
Familiar tingles spread over Jeno’s skin as Jaemin grazes hidden touches low over his waist and back.
You love it.
They find Donghyuck. Or, rather, they fail to miss him.
Part of Renjun wonders how he can at once avoid Mark while also existing this loudly, as he watches his roommate and best friend complete a small performance of some scene with a couple of other club members. It’s from some Oscar Wilde play, Renjun thinks, and Donghyucks plays the dandy character like a professional.
The small crowd gathered claps appreciatively, but Donghyuck ignores most of them in favor of skipping up to envelop Renjun in a hug.
“Junnie! How is my favorite person??”
Although Renjun tries to twist free, he eventually gives up, tossing a defeated look to Jeno as he catches up to them.
Renjun sighs. “I’m not even your favorite, Hyuck. And I should be asking you that.”
“You are my favorite, which is why I won’t let anyone steal you from me.”
The follow up comment is directed at Jeno, he knows. Despite all Donghyuck’s previous egging for Renjun to date the other boy, his opinion had done nearly a complete one-eighty after the whole Jaemin revelation.
Jeno keeps a respectful distance, making no moves when Donghyuck angles Renjun away from him, and Renjun can tell from the minuscule twitches of his fingers that Jaemin disagrees with the decision. But Donghyuck’s entire posture is distrustful, his most judgemental gaze fixed on Jeno, and if the discomfort on Jisung and Chenle’s faces is anything to go by, it’s not a good setting for a probing conversation.
“Walk with me for a few minutes?” Renjun asks, drawing Donghyuck’s attention back.
Before Donghyuck can even answer, Jeno gathers his friends and pushes them toward the food halls. “We’ll be near the back tables, come find us when you’re done,” he says, his smile supportive.
“Can you even eat in there?” sneers Donghyuck.
Jeno pauses and regards him blankly. “Want me to eat here instead? The menu sure would be tempting.”
Donghyuck’s jaw drops even as Jeno startles, obviously not the one to have chosen the words.
“S-sorry!” he stutters, and hurries away, two giggling boys following after.
It’s moments like this one where Renjun finds himself sort of grateful that his boyfriends come as a package deal, their two diametrically opposed personalities balancing one another out. As he rearranges to grasp Donghyuck by the elbow and drag him away to a quieter part of the quad, Renjun tries to imagine integrating just one of them into his life without the other; he can’t do it. For every time Jaemin opts for dramatics, Jeno is immediately there to reign him in, and for every moment Jeno hesitates and minimizes his own voice, Jaemin pushes him to speak up.
“Could you stop cutting off the circulation in my arm and talk to me now?” Donghyuck asks, digging his heels in to slow Renjun’s determined pace.
Renjun just wants Donghyuck to be able to see how special his relationship really is, instead of despising it.
He halts, pausing them under a large maple tree and turning to Donghyuck, tucking his small plastic bag into his pocket and crossing his arms defensively. “Why do you hate my boyfriends so much?”
Donghyuck has the decency to look surprised. “I don’t hate them. I don’t hate Jeno.”
“But you hate Jaemin.”
“I don’t know Jaemin. I barely knew Jeno before you grafted him into our lives. And he just brings some other...thing, along with him? I don’t trust that.”
A bristling annoyance crawls up Renjun’s spine and his jaw tenses. “Call him that again and this conversation is over,” he threatens.
For a moment, Donghyuck seems to consider, his hands curling into fists by his sides, before he relaxes. Even still, Renjun can tell his tone is forced when he answers, “Okay, I won’t.”
“Good. Why can’t you trust Jaemin when I do?”
“He could literally kill you.”
“But he won’t, nor will he kill Jeno, or anyone else. We’re pretty clear on that, and I think we’re the people who would know. So are you going to trust me? Because I’d really like for all of us to be civil with one another.”
Donghyuck chews at his lip, the skin chapped from the dry winter air. “I trust you. I just...don’t want to lose you. Renjun, you’re my only person.”
“Um, no,” Renjun shakes his head slowly, becoming aware of the other half of the problem. “No, I’m not. What’s going on with you and Mark?”
Face morphing into a sad frown, Donghyuck leans back against the tree and sinks into a crouch, bringing his hands over his face. Renjun follows, folding cross-legged on the cold ground but keeping his focus on his friend.
“I messed everything up. Didn’t you see his face after...after I let that slip? God, why did I have to say ‘boyfriend’...fuck.”
“You’re not talking to him because of that?”
“I can’t. As soon as I do, he’ll tell me to stay away from him.”
“That’s...already what you’re doing.”
“Yeah but not because he told me to. I can’t hear it from him. I can’t take it.”
“Donghyuck,” Renjun reaches forward, resting a hand on Donghyuck’s arm, “I don’t think he’s going to say that. He asked where you were just like half an hour ago. I’m pretty sure he wanted to see you, not to get rid of you.”
“How can I be sure?”
“You can’t, unless you talk to him….Hyuck, how many texts do you have from Mark, right now?”
Donghyuck shuffles his phone out of his jacket pocket, taking a glance at the notification tab before looking down at the grass. “...twenty-four…” he mutters.
“Have you read them?”
“Oh Hyuck, come on.”
“How is it possible that the only person in this world you’re afraid of is Mark Lee? He’s like...it’s like you’re afraid of a puppy. Did you get bit by a beagle as a child? Is that why?”
Pouting, Donghyuck replies, “That puppy has my heart in his paws and doesn’t even know. You try doing that and not being scared.”
Renjun smiles, softly. “That’s why I gave mine to two, just to be safe.”
Narrowly avoiding Donghyuck pushing him over, Renjun hops back up to his feet with a laugh and holds a hand out for his best friend. “Come on,” he says again, in a different tone this time, “get up and pull yourself together. Text Mark back, and eat something. Better yet, go meet Mark and eat something together. I need to go find my idiots and their kids before the four of them terrorize the entire campus.”
Renjun pulls Donghyuck up, and he dusts the bits off grass from his jeans. “Kids? Is that who they are? You’re already adopting?” Donghyuck asks as they walk back towards the theater club tent.
“Someone has to raise them properly. I know their dads...useless.”
The laughter from Donghyuck soothes Renjun a little, making him feel at least like he’s somewhat repaired one place of dissonance in his life. Like old times, Donghyuck takes his arm while they walk, heedless of whether Renjun wants to be clung to...but he doesn’t mind. They part ways back at the booth, and as he jogs toward the cafeteria Renjun is sure to remind Hyuck again to continue the repairs.
“Fine! Stop lecturing me and go feed your mans! That’s an intentional plural!”
Renjun rolls his eyes.
hey, wanna go to Birdie’s?
the place by ur place
i need a milkshake
hey!!!! yeah!!!!! tonight?????
no next thursday
uh ok yeah then is good too
alfkhdhsks u r so dumb yes i mean tonight
im hungry now mark lee
why are you like this to me donghyuck
i’ll meet u there asap??
i’ll b the one drinking milkshake straight from the machine
i think u mean gay from the machine
WHO SAID YOU COULD BE FUNNY???!!
I’LL KICK UR ASS
c u there
I wanna hang out with the kids. Can I come out?
Jaemin...there’s literally people everywhere. That isn’t possible.
As they walk into the cafeteria filled with students, Jaemin pouts loudly from his corner of Jeno’s mind, projecting longing feelings toward their two teenage friends that dart immediately toward the line for noodles. In his usual course, Jeno heads for the french fry station and the desert trays, gathering the only two things he ever eats anymore. The cafeteria servers stopped giving him questioning looks months ago, and probably just assumed he has the sustained tastes preferences of a middle schooler and an insane metabolism.
They’re sort of not wrong.
It is possible...just let me have a turn. Would that be so bad?
Hands full of sugar and carbs, Jeno ponders as he seeks out a table near the back of the room, one the kids can easily find but that isn’t too broadly visible. He guesses it wouldn’t be the worst thing, probably, but he’s apprehensive nonetheless.
I think people will notice if I turn into an entirely different person in the middle of their lunch period.
Jeno can feel Jaemin rolls his eyes. Literally. Jaemin rolled Jeno’s eyes.
Go in the bathroom, genius.
And just...never come out?
Babe. Have you not done everything possible over the last year to make yourself invisible? Who in here is going to take note of that?
It maybe stings a little, such a remark, but Jeno can’t argue with it. He’s kept his profile intentionally low, he knows.
Well, Jisung and Chenle will be surprised. Renjun too.
Great! I love surprises. Let’s go.
Jeno gives in and heads to the bathroom with a sigh, gesturing to Jisung and Chenle over to the table he chose as they pass him with plates heaped with food. Inside the bathroom, he ducks past the person washing their hands and slips into an open stall, waiting till he’s completely certain the room is entirely empty before he gives Jaemin permission. Jaemin’s excited vibrating against his skin is getting annoying, anyway.
The symbiote wastes no time, first blooming out from his back and leaning over his shoulder to plant a big kiss on Jeno’s cheek, then enveloping him with a giddy giggle before Jeno has time to react.
“Yes, oh my god, thank you. I feel like I haven’t walked around with people feet in ages.”
It’s been like...a month or something. Corrects Jeno, acclimatizing himself to the strange echoey feeling of being more or less inside-out.
Jaemin leaves the stall and steps up to the mirror, and it’s one of the things Jeno is pretty sure he’ll never be used to, seeing his boyfriend’s face looking back at them with his nowhere visible. Jaemin cards a hand through his ultra shiny hair, and gives a wink—Jeno thinks it’s directed at him, but he wouldn’t put Jaemin winking at himself out of the range of possibilities.
“Let’s go eat!” Jaemin announces, and another guy entering the bathroom quirks a confused look at him.
Please try to refer to us as just one person, out loud, thanks.
“Haha, oh yeah. It would be really weird to hear someone talking to themself, wouldn’t it?”
As they pass a pair of girls on their way to the table, who both briefly pause, Jeno sighs as loudly as he can.
You don’t have to speak out loud to talk to me too, you know?
Sorry! I’m trying!
They make it back to the table without further incident, save the surprise on the boys’ faces when Jaemin is the one to appear. A noodle slides grotesquely back out from Jisung’s mouth and Chenle pauses with a burger midway to his lips.
“Why?” is all Chenle asks as Jaemin takes the seat next to him, before taking an inhumanly large bite.
“I wanted to have dinner with you.”
Jisung rolls his eyes. “You already were.”
“Yeah but, this way I can do this,” he reaches for Jisung’s cheek, pinching the pliant skin and wiggling it around to the younger boy’s annoyance, “all I want.”
“Can I please just eat in peace?”
Chenle nods, mouth full, and Jaemin gives Jisung’s cheek a final tug then sits back.
Can I be hurt that they’re prioritizing food over us?
I don’t blame them. God, I miss noodles and burgers.
It’s like you want me to starve. Stabbing a few fries with a fork, Jaemin stuffs the second of his two only food groups into his mouth, then chews through a grimace. These are stale and disgusting.
Well it’s your fault we’re not eating something halfway decent like Chenle’s burger, so don’t complain.
That’s dead, not even halfway decent. Now a live cow…
Ugh. Absolutely not. I don’t want mad cow disease.
Unsatisfied, Jaemin pushes away the plate of pathetic potatoes and attempts the chocolate cake instead. By a very small margin, it’s better, but still pretty bad. They eat it anyway, Jaemin not even bothering to complain more about the limited options. He’s drifted back to the day’s earlier events, and while the kids are too busy eating to talk to him, forces Jeno to converse instead.
So what club will we join, hmm?
Jeno groans in exasperation, the sound internal. I thought we were past that!
I told you to pick something. Just do soccer with Mark. You like sports. Mark knows about us. It’s safe.
But...I have an unfair advantage.
Only if I get involved. And I don’t have to.
Jeno still feels nervous about it. He just doesn’t want to hurt anyone. There’s so many things that could go wrong, where they could slip up and get outed in front of the whole school.
Jen, love. You’re human. You have to be a part of humanity. I’m the ride-along, not the driver here. So do it, if that’s something you want...and I know you do. I trust you, remember that you need to trust yourself.
I know but...Jaemin...you’ve always taken over when I hesitate. With Renjun, with Mark...if I hesitate, there’s you. But there can’t always be you. You can’t just step in any time you decide I’m not doing well enough.
...you’re right, that’s not fair of me to do. Jaemin casts his eyes down, setting his fork on the table and playing with Jeno’s fingers, their hands, in an absent-minded way. I...I never apologized, for manipulating you, when I met Renjun...I’m sorry. It was wrong. I thought I knew better, and whether that’s true or not it wasn’t my decision to make without your consent.
“Oh, they’re doing that again,” Chenle says, not bothering to finish chewing before speaking. Jisung looks up from his bowl, narrowing his small but pretty eyes at his older friends and noting how glazed their eyes look.
He tuts, clicking his tongue loudly. “We come all the way here just for them to space out and forget we even exist.”
“Put a noodle on Jaemin’s fork. See if he notices before eating it.”
The two conversing mentally miss this other exchange entirely. They’re too focused on a long overdue conversation. Jeno’s heart warms to hear the apology from Jaemin—he’s nowhere near angry anymore, and frankly it ended up being the push they needed, so in a way he’s almost grateful.
Well...thanks, hearing that makes me feel better. You do kind of do that, though, you realize? You risk exposing us all the time…
Okay well, I won’t apologize for all of it. I take calculated and necessary risks, you know. Enhanced senses and whatnot? Also...Mark would have potentially died, and I told you I saw his books on symbiotes. Calculated, necessary.
Fair….but you can’t take risks on the soccer field.
Why would I even need to?
....I’m probably not even good enough. Do you think they’ll let me join?
If Mark is the one helping run it, I bet they let anyone join. He’s too nice.
Jeno is about to agree with him when Jaemin’s extrasensory ears perk up, and he catches sight of Renjun as he approaches the table and squeezes in between the Chenle and Jisung, taking the chair across from his boyfriends. It’s far too cheesy to admit to anyone, but Jeno learned a while back that Jaemin could identify people by memorizing their heartbeats. Naturally, there’s one in particular they like best.
He’s giving Jaemin a look, somewhere between surprised and amused, and a little bit fond.
“Well, look who it is. Are we playing musical boyfriends today?”
Jaemin smiles and lifts his fork, saying, “Dunno what that means, but Jeno’s laughing so I think yes.” Without glancing at it, he brings the utensil to his lips and bites, even as Renjun’s eyes narrow then widen in milliseconds at the movement.
The starchy, salty noodle slides over Jaemin’s tongue, and for a brief moment Jeno triumphs before Jaemin grabs the nearest napkin and spits the food out with a shudder.
“Eughh...gross, why?” he whines, face drooping into a hurt expression as Chenle and Jisung break out laughing.
Jisung wipes a tear from under his eye. “It’s like your kryptonite is noodles. That’s so sad.”
Jaemin just stares at the nasty, masticated food in the napkin and pouts, no longer interested in any of the food options present.
Oh babe, sorry, but that was kinda funny?
“But I’m hungry…”
We can go by the convenience store on the way back, maybe.
“It was bad, huh? Maybe this would be better,” Renjun interrupts, taking a small bag from his pocket as Jaemin looks up, and the two kids pause their laughter. He reaches inside and pulls out a decent sized square wrapped neatly in wax paper, and Jaemin’s nose suddenly picks up a heavenly scent.
He leans forward over the table, eyes fixed as Renjun’s delicate fingers peel the wrapping away and reveal a thick chunk of dark chocolate fudge.
Oh shit...that...smells good...
It’s a familiar scent. “From the Confectionary Club?” Jaemin asks, mouth watering. His tongue darts out over his lips.
Renjun smiles smugly. “It might be. Do you want to try it?”
“Yes. Yes please,” Jaemin leans further, fingers reaching.
“Ah-ah,” tuts Renjun, pulling the fudge back a few inches. Not out of reach—nothing’s really out of reach for Jaemin, technically—but enough to make him pause. “Here.” Renjun lifts the tempting candy in his fingers and holds it up near Jaemin’s lips.
Chenle let’s out a high-pitched, disbelieving laugh. “Seriously?” he asks, even as Jaemin’s eyes flick up from the chocolate to Renjun’s; there’s a teasing glint in the smaller boy’s gaze.
Trapped inside, Jeno tingles with a mixture of feelings. Embarrassment is one, because even though the cafeteria is bustling there are still people who might look at them, and Chenle and Jisung are already giving them fake disgusted faces. But hunger is another, and it smells so fucking delicious, that combined with Jaemin’s hunger he’s practically writhing to eat. Underlying all that...the fact that Renjun snuck back to get it for them, wants to feed them himself…
If we don’t eat that right now I’m going to light on fire Jaemin please .
Leaning just a little more, Jaemin bites into the fudge, carefully avoiding Renjun’s fingertips with his sharp teeth, and holds back a moan at the taste. But Jeno’s responses aren’t audible, so he doesn’t worry and loudly relishes the gooey, quickly melting, slightly bitter cacao flavor as it swirls around their tongue.
Wow...calm down? Jaemin chides, with very little gusto behind it.
No, no way, eat the rest, fuck that’s amazing.
Jaemin doesn’t need convincing, dipping his head back to bite around the remaining half of the chunk, unable to avoid briefly pulling the tips of Renjun’s fingers past his lips along with it. The other boy pulls his hand back quickly, a glitter of pink dusting his cheekbones, but maintaining the gaze he’s held with Jaemin since the first bite. Before he can go too far, Jaemin’s hand shoots out and catches his wrist.
“Uh. Is this allowed?” Jisung asks, pushing his chair back in mild shock and jaw hanging open as he points at them.
Chenle drops his head on the table, narrowly avoiding his plate. “I am definitely going to be sick.”
As soon as the principal amount of fudge is clear from his mouth, Jaemin pulls Renjun’s arm straight and brings the chocolate-bearing fingers to his lips, completely ignoring the other two at the table as he licks the remaining smudges clean.
Renjun’s blush deepens and he snatches his hand back, hiding both under the table and staring pointedly away. “Okay, well, you didn’t have to go that far…”
“Your idea. I was just being thorough, and tidy.”
Too thorough. But it was so good.
Oh Jeno...don’t worry. I’m going to remember that you liked it.
“Hey um, super glad you guys are so..uh, gross with each other, but can we leave now? There’s like, people staring. Also, I can’t look at food anymore,” begs Jisung, voice quiet but desperate. Chenle nods vehemently in agreement, quickly moving to dispose of their plates and head for the door.
As they leave, Jaemin slips an arm over Renjun’s narrow shoulders, which the shorter doesn’t shrug off even if he does roll his eyes. They pass by a table where two boys they’ve never seen before stare, and as they go Jaemin has to smirk, overhearing as the one turns to the other.
“Dude...I think I’m gay now,” he says.
“—and also, also, I can’t believe Renjun wouldn’t fess up to me, but Jeno just??? says, ‘yeah we’re dating’ to you, he doesn’t even know you! As if he isn’t carrying around a deadly alien that could jump out at any moment—”
“Like, I need more information. I need answers. Is my Injunnie safe? Oh my god. That thing...guy...he’s inside of Jeno. How are they like...together? With Renjun? Is it poly or just an open relationship?”
“Mark, what? Why doesn’t any of this worry you??”
Mark halts them both, catching Donghyuck’s elbow mid-step on the sidewalk and lets a couple of annoyed looking strangers pass. After dinner at Birdie’s, during which Donghyuck successfully deterred all awkward topics in favor of drinking his weight in vanilla milkshake, they both agreed a walk around campus would help them digest, even though the day’s surprising warmth had faded in favor of more nipping temperatures.
When they’re finally in the clear, Mark lets go and sighs. “It’s not that. I mean, I for sure care about all of their safety and uh, whatever. But...it’s...I definitely heard you say boyfriend, that night. About me.”
“O-oh. Did you? Huh. Well. I must have just…said that accidentally...” Donghyuck stutters, suddenly very interested in the concrete.
“How would you say that accidentally?”
“Well, you’re my friend...and a boy...friend, boy...boyfriend...very easy to mix up the words, common mistake that anyone could make in a stressful moment."
“No, Hyuck, it isn’t.”
“Right, it isn’t.”
Mark takes a deep breath. He tilts his head back to take the air in, then lets it go, and takes Donghyuck’s hand instead, leading him over to a nearby bench. The campus is littered with them, and it’s not uncommon to see students post-up across their wooden slats while flipping through large textbooks and small novels, although typically more in the early Fall and late Spring semesters than the biting cold air of the current season. Above them, Christmas lights twinkle in the trees that line the lane, an indication of the upcoming holidays.
They sit, and Mark adjusts Donghyuck’s scarf snugly around his face before taking both hands in his, the leather of his gloves soft against Donghyuck’s fingers. “Hyuckie…” he starts, and there’s a soft concern in his voice, “have I been...leading you on?”
“I’ve been thinking about it all day. Like this morning. I knocked over shampoo in the shower, and it was your special color maintaining stuff. Then I nearly used the wrong toothbrush, except that I saw you wrote a little ‘M’ on mine and a little ‘H’ on yours. And...and earlier, Lucas asked about getting drinks this weekend, and I told him I needed to double-check our schedule with you , and didn’t realize it until twenty minutes after.”
Donghyuck’s eyes stay trained on their hands, his posture tight as Mark speaks. “Well, obviously you have to ask me. You don’t know your own schedule anyway.”
Mark laughs shortly. “I’d know if I can get drinks, Hyuck. I said it because I didn’t know if you’d be cool with it.”
“So? How long has it been? How long have I been treating us like a couple without knowing it?”
If it weren’t for the heavy coat and layers he’s wearing, Donghyuck would be afraid Mark can hear how fast his heart is beating. He never would have guessed it would take a near-death experience for Mark to start noticing him differently, but then again that makes a lot of sense.
“Um, maybe since around when you started keeping my favorite instant coffee brand in the kitchen?” he guesses, because he can’t think of a specific point. Not when he’s wanted it to be real forever. Not when it was more him subtly doing it than it was ever Mark.
Mark’s eyes widen. “That was like, the first day I moved into the apartment.”
“Actually, you kept some in your backpack before that...last year…”
“Holy shit...yeah I did. Hyuck, I’m really sorry. I shouldn’t have just been like that...like this.”
There’s a sting at the corner of Donhyuck’s eyes, and he wishes it was just the cold night air and light breeze, but he knows it’s not. “So are we...breaking up, from our non-relationship, right now? Because...well, it’s gonna take me some time to get everything out of your place. And I may have dropped my eyeliner pencil in the vent so just—” he pulls a hand free to swipe the back of it under his eye, trying to play it off like there isn’t a tear there already.
“What? No. What?”
“Yeah, I did, it might melt, hopefully that won’t come out of your deposit—”
Gloved fingers touch on Donghyuck’s chin, Mark holding his face still and effectively bringing his words to a stop. “Donghyuck, I don’t want you to move out, or break up, or any other thing you can’t technically do since we never technically did in the first place.”
If Donghyuck happens to shift a bit closer, it’s entirely subconscious. “You don’t? You just said you’re sorry though?”
“Well yeah, I’m sorry I didn’t realize sooner.”
“That I was treating you like a significant other. I never asked you if you wanted that.”
“If I wanted...Mark... I’m the one who called you my boyfriend, without asking. Are you saying...are you saying you do want that?” Donghyuck’s head is spinning, and Mark’s calm sincerity is only making it worse. How can he know Mark so well, and still not understand what he’s saying?
“I’m saying…” Suddenly, Mark grows red, dropping Donghyuck’s chin and glancing to the side into the street rather than looking at Donghyuck as he had been. His voice grows quiet. “I’m saying that if people are going to make assumptions based on how we act, I don’t want them to be wrong.”
Maybe the scarf is stifling him, or maybe it’s miraculously jumped forty degrees in temperature, but Donghyuck is burning hot. “Well, then you’ll have to either stop letting me hold your hand in public...or be my boyfriend.”
Mark looks back. His smile is soft, the very same one that first stole Donghyuck’s heart and locked it up. He squeezes Donghyuk’s hand with his gloved one, very much keeping it in his hold.
“If it keeps you from moving your pillow anywhere else, then let’s try that.”
Walking Jisung and Chenle to the train station feels unexpectedly bittersweet to Jeno. A lively energy surrounds them, and Jeno is glad to see how they’ve become comfortable with Renjun, pulling him between them and talking animatedly about the movie they’d all seen together the previous night. It feels like it used to, but with the added flavor of Renjun’s wry sass and the easy way he buffers between them.
They can come here next year, right Jeno? Jaemin asks, like all they need is Jeno’s permission.
It’s not the hardest school to get into. If they want to be here, I think it can happen.
We’ll feel better with them close.
The entrance to the train station is just around the next corner, and Jeno feels a pang of worry. They made it here all on their own, he reminds himself, they can make it back the same.
“Next time we visit, can we stay at Mark’s place?” Chenle asks Renjun, holding onto his hand as he balances walking on the curb.
Renjun raises his eyebrows. “Maybe? We can ask him...and Hyuck, I guess. Why?” Jeno doesn’t miss the tiny smile on Renjun’s face, one that correlates directly to the fact that Mark and Donghyuck had been not-so-subtly sneaking smiles at each other during the dinner they’d gathered at the apartment for on Saturday.
They’re dating now, right?
Jeno shrugs at Jaemin’s question. They’re something, I think.
“Mark has all of Dragon Ball Z on his laptop and Donghyuck can cook. Plus he has a couch, so it’s way better than Jeno’s dorm room,” Jisung clarifies, turning to walk backwards in front of them and answer on behalf of Chenle.
“Yeah!” Chenle echoes. “Like Jaemin says, life’s all about finding the right place to put yourself. The right place is definitely Mark’s.”
“I don’t think that’s...yeah, that’s not really what he means,” Jeno voices Jaemin’s dissent, but Chenle shakes his head dismissively.
Inside the station, Jeno enables Jaemin’s need to fuss over them, voicing his concerns that they aren’t forgetting anything and know when to get off at their stop. Jisung rolls his eyes, but they both pity him and confirm that yes, they do know how to get home just fine.
As the train approaches, Jisung takes Jeno’s elbow, meeting his eyes and chewing on his lip a little before quietly saying, “Come home and visit, okay?”
“Um, maybe, I guess,” replies Jeno, slightly confused.
Jisung puts a bit more pressure into his grip. “No, I mean...actually come. Your mom came over last month and I heard her talking to my mom...you really haven’t talked to them, have you?”
Swallowing anxiously, Jeno shakes his head very discreetly, hyper aware of how Chenle and Renjun have quieted beside them. “I’ll call her, or something.”
“Just come. Maybe you don’t have to talk about Jaemin just yet, if that’s too hard. Come home over break, okay? You can just go to Chenle’s if you need to. But don’t skip out like last year.”
Overhead, a whistle loudly signals that the train has arrived, equally apparent from the large, dulled silver cars slowing to a halt behind Jisung. Letting out a long breath, Jeno nods. There’s a heavy silence in his mind where Jaemin doesn’t interject, and Jeno’s grateful for it.
“Okay, I’ll think about it. Maybe just for a few days.”
That seems to be enough for Jisung. With final hugs, they pack the two younger boys into the train and wave at them through the window as the locomotive pulls away. Left behind is the same feeling Jeno always gets, that he forgets how much he misses them until he’s confronted with it again. This time, Renjun is there to notice and slide a hand into his.
Maybe it’s just the mood that makes them return to campus in silence, but Jeno doesn’t need to glance at Renjun to know what expression he’s wearing; he could feel that lightly furrowed brow and hint of frown from a mile away. It’s the same expression that frequented his features during the weeks they prepared for their presentation together, when he was still trying to first figure out they mystery of Jeno and Jaemin.
The sun is setting as they approach the residence halls, and Jeno’s mind has begun to drift to the classes he should prepare for tomorrow, as the final weeks of the semester begin. When they come to the spot where they usually part, his steps angle towards his building, but Renjun’s hand in his tugs the other direction.
“Come to my room tonight,” Renjun asks, although the suggestion sounds more like a predetermined decision, “we haven’t had time alone all weekend.”
Alone? Does….does he mean...I mean, is he asking—
Jeno feels his face grow hot. “Uh, well um...do you, I mean, if you’re thinking of...” he coughs, and laments that Jaemin doesn’t have words to supply either. “Uh, why?”
Renjun blinks at them for a moment in the fading light before his eyes grow wide. “Oh! That’s not what I meant, not like that! Wow, sorry, I didn’t think about how that would sound, shit, sorry. Not that I don’t...ahh...I just meant I want to talk to you guys about something.”
“We can’t do that in my room?” Jeno asks, heart still racing a bit even though the implication is gone for the time being.
“I don’t want your homework to be a distraction.”
Wow...plot twist. Now responsibilities are the distraction.
Jeno grins. “I think that’s backwards of how this normally works.”
Renjun just shakes his head and pulls Jeno towards his hall. The walk is so familiar now, Jeno could do it in his sleep. He hasn’t, Jaemin has promised, but he could. Within minutes they reach Renjun’s door and enter into the comforting warmth, not at all surprised to find Donghyuck absent.
As Jeno loosens his scarf and kicks off his shoes, Jaemin manifests with a flourish and a relieved sigh, like he’s been cooped up for too long. The symbiote reaches for Renjun as the smaller finishes taking off his coat, and pulls him into a squeezing, cuddle of a hug.
“Ok, calm down Jaems, it hasn’t been a year since you touched me,” Renjun chides, trying half-heartedly to crane his head away as Jaemin nuzzles into his neck.
“It’s been an entire afternoon, so it might as well be.”
The bed is close enough that Jaemin doesn’t have to immediately follow Jeno for Jeno to hop onto it, letting his legs hang over the side and kick back against the blanket. Although it’s cute to see them cuddle, he can see the signs of a serious topic hiding behind Renjun’s eyes, and it’s making him grow a little nervous.
He takes a deep breath, preparing, somehow knowing that whatever it is he wants to talk about, it’s not something they’ll be able to put off.
“What did you want to talk about, Junnie?”
Renjun turns inside Jaemin’s arms, and he look somehow a little apologetic.
“Well…” he starts, voice gentle, “I didn’t want to push about it, not while the kids were still here. But, you did say we could talk later...about how you came to...have Jaemin with you. That whole story.”
Jaemin looks between them sharply, worry etched into his face. He carefully releases Renjun and glides to the bed, shifting up behind Jeno and laying a hand on his shoulder.
Hey...are you...ready to do that?
Jeno nods slowly, curling his fingers into the blanket. “I guess you probably deserve to know,” he says, half trying to convince himself. He thinks briefly of his homework, then let’s go of the hope of getting it done.
It’s certainly quite the story.
hhhhnnnnn ok so tune in next time for Story Time with Lee Jeno!!!!
also here are some bonus items courtesy of NCT basically making this all canon (so long as you just take what they say entirely out of context and repurpose it for your own benefit! hurray!)
(bless you Jeno for saying these words)
(y'all im dead i didn't even have to ask for this TT NCT really gives i love Dream.)
(also thanks for putting up with the sudden influx of MarkHyuck into this chapter i really couldn't help it...im weak n i love them thanks good night.)
Chapter 4: still not the end
just a couple of things~
sorry this took so long. i had to grow a plot. it's fine.
might be updating the content rating because some things ended up a little graphic. he's a symbiote, it was bound to happen. i promise nothing too intense.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
“I made a mistake. No, I did something dangerous, without thinking, and I put all our lives in danger.” Unsure of a better way to begin this story, Jeno fiddles with the bedspread and tries to focus on the memories while keeping his emotions in check.. A subtle Jaemin-tendril places a Pokémon plushie in Jeno’s lap, and he nervously wraps his arms around it.
“Jeno, I’m sure it wasn’t that bad—”
“It was, though. I’ll tell you, but it’s a long story, ok?”
Renjun settles into the chair in the corner of his and Donghyuck’s room resolutely, letting Jeno and Jaemin fill up his bed and leaving Jeno plenty of space to talk, which Jeno appreciates. “Tell me.”
Jeno takes a deep breath, steadying his nerves, before continuing. “Okay. We went hiking. In high school, we liked doing that sometimes, usually just at local parks or hiking trails, nothing special. But then I went off to college and...I felt so bad, leaving them. We couldn’t do things together on the weekends anymore. I started getting wrapped up in school and didn’t text them back often as I should...Chenle called me. That sounds normal but he’s like...he only texts, ever. But he called me, and said Jisung mentioned that he felt like I didn’t care about them anymore.”
“Babe. I’m sorry.”
“No it’s okay, now. Just. I sort of, broke down, just a little. I hadn’t made any friends yet. I was trying but they were still all I had, even if I wasn’t doing a good job showing that. So I told him we’d take a trip, a long weekend and go hiking. Like we always had.
“I found this national park up north with all kinds of trails and camping. I told them it would be just us, and that it’d be fine since I was an adult now. I convinced their parents—even Jisung’s mom, who basically defines helicopter parenting. I skipped my Friday classes, took the train home, borrowed my dad’s car, and we drove up there...and it was the best. Chenle’s family is disgustingly rich so he got all this camping stuff, and that night we sat under a billion stars and they caught me up on all the gossip from my old school, and Jisung said he hoped I’d make friends soon at college.”
Pausing, Jeno takes a deep breath and squeezes Jaemin’s chikorita plushie until his knuckles turn white. Behind him, Jaemin stays silent, wrapped up in himself and staring at Jeno without blinking.
Finally, Jeno continues. “Nothing should have gone wrong. The park had maps and well-marked trails, and we had so much gear that could've saved our asses from forest fires and stuff. But...we found the leftovers of a closed-off trail that looked like it went to this waterfall, halfway up a mountain when we’d been out for a few hours already that Saturday. Man...we should never have followed it, but I let them convince me, because they were so happy, y’know? So excited. We all swore we could remember the way back, but as it started to get closer to sunset, we realized we’d been idiots. Mostly me, the ‘adult’, the responsible one. I was the lead idiot.
“It would’ve been fine if it was just getting a little lost...like, the park had rangers and stuff, I like to think someone would have just found us. Except…” closing his eyes for a moment, Jeno exhales shakily. He’s gripping the plushie so tight it looks misshapen, freakish. “Except, we ran into a leopard. An honest to god, big ass fucking leopard. And it just...stared at us, from on top of this rock ledge, and I don’t know how to explain to you what it feels like to know you’re a meal option. I felt every drop of my blood run ice-cold, and all I knew was that I had no idea how to get away, and we were going to die, and it was my fault.”
“Fuck, Jeno, you couldn’t have expected that—”
Jeno shakes his head stubbornly, lips pulled into a thin line. “Just...just listen, okay?”
Renjun nods, biting his lip to keep quiet.
“So there I thought this was it, we’re gonna die. This giant cat though...just kept watching us, sometimes sniffing the air, flexing these fucking terrifying claws. Meanwhile I was like, trying to shuffle the kids behind me sort of, trying to slowly back away from it. I was holding onto the hope that maybe we could make a break for it, when the thing jumped down—like the thirty-foot drop is nothing —and stalked toward us. Then I figured this was it, I could distract it so they could get away. So I push them back, but then it leapt at us...I don’t even have time to get the whole word “run” out before it was on top of me.
“I’m pretty sure my throat should’ve been crushed in, because this thing was massive, but instead it was staring me down, and it’s eyes were this like...impossible liquid gold. I didn’t really know what leopard eyes normally looked like, but… it wasn’t that. And I was like. Man, what a crazy last thing to see before I die. Somewhere I kinda heard Chenle and Jisung screaming, I think, but there was a whole-ass mountain leopard on top of me so that was pretty much all I could focus on. And then it...well, like, licked my face. My whole head, actually, which was...so incredibly gross and also painful, like scrubbing with a sandpaper towel. I couldn’t breathe and I was sure it was tasting me to build an appetite for my flavor but then...this...gold stuff...like, leaks out of its mouth, which is horrific and nasty and going all over my face...okay, I don’t want to explain what that experience is like. Jaemin has gotten way better at not being super grotesque and horrific with the whole body transfer bit.”
Renjun blinks, eyes wide and owlish. “You’re telling me that Jaemin...was in a leopard.”
“Yes. Jaemin was in the leopard. And then he was in me.”
Jaemin hazards a tiny smile. “Far better option, as hosts go. The leopard was so...under-evolved.”
Jeno nods, not really hearing. “So I’ve got a leopard on top of me, and then suddenly there’s a voice in my head sighing about better accommodations, and my body sort of feels like it was either going to explode or just quit, and it was fucking...too much. Like a panic attack, while having a heart attack, while having a migraine, and also your liver is failing, and potentially a seizure too.”
“And I don’t know if we like, kick the leopard off us, or what, because I’m like basically re-enacting The Exorcist on the ground, and Jaemin wasn’t the nicest yet because he’s mostly laughing, but then—“
“I’m very sorry. Please know that, before he continues.”
“—yeah, thanks. Anyway. He casually mentions that it’d be a shame for the leopard to get to them first. Which is the first moment of real clarity I get in the whole disaster, because I roll over and see that the leopard isn’t fucking dead and is stalking towards Chenle and Jisung. But I can’t move my own body, because Jaemin doesn’t want to just yet.”
“I hadn’t...been connected to emotions for a while,” interrupts Jaemin again, and his eyes flit to Jeno. He reaches a hand forward, carding fingers through his host’s dark hair with careful tenderness. “Not human ones. I’d had no reason to be anything but selfish until then, and hungry, but...Jeno’s emotions were strong. The fear didn’t settle with me. The pain over losing his friends didn’t either, which I didn’t see coming. But he did, and I just...couldn’t have that. I needed him as a host, and I knew their deaths would cause him grief and mourning. Ergo, they couldn’t die.”
Renjun looks stunned. “God. Wow.”
“Uh huh. So there is...a lot of screaming, and I’m pretty sure some of it is me, although I don’t think I used real words—”
“It was very eloquent. Lots of ‘no no no, god, fuck, no’ and the like.”
“Okay, you can stop interrupting. I guess I got the idea across because we move towards Chenle and Jisung, and we’re way faster than I expected, but also I didn’t know what I was gonna do against a leopard, and the leopard was...was...”
Jeno pauses again, and Jaemin this time doesn’t interject. After a moment in which Renjun makes himself wait, although he’s desperate to hear more, his human boyfriend finally continues.
“It was a little faster than us. Just by like, ten seconds. Which is so short, but so damned long too. Long enough to attack Jisung, long enough to...to get it’s teeth in, pretty deep...and it’s claws.” Jeno takes a deep, shaky breath and blinks rapidly. “I was definitely not controlling my body (and I know now of course that Jaemin was), but we like...punched a leopard. Which in hindsight was pretty cool, but in reality felt insane. So then it turned around to attack me, us, of course. And instead of y’know, fighting it I…well, Jaemin, just...fucking, ate its head. Have you ever seen most of a corpse of a giant cat? Chenle threw up. Zero out of ten, I don’t recommend that shit.”
“But anyway. Jisung was hurt, like bad. And not conscious. And Chenle was wailing uncontrollably, and I still had something else inside me, so I was also pretty damn unstable. Then this voice commented that Jisung didn’t look too great, which I fucking knew, but what was I gonna do? I couldn’t do anything. Then the voice said ‘wait one moment, please,’ like I’ve asked it to take my order at Mc-fucking-Donald’s, and then it was pouring out of me and into Jisung which I really did not want at all. Like I couldn’t do anything except be so completely horrified that screaming wasn’t even close to adequate, seeing this...goo, this like moving slime go inside him. Into my friend, wh-...who was like my little brother, who’s already half...h-half torn to shreds…”
Jeno’s held up so well this far, he hardly realizes he’s crying until Renjun has jumped up and come to stand in front of him, cupping his face in his hands. Behind him, Jaemin quietly shifts to wrap around his middle, carefully holding Jeno like some kind of symbiote blanket while nosing softly at the back of his neck.
With a gaze so compassionate Jeno would almost call it loving, Renjun says, “Jeno. You don’t have to keep telling me this. You can stop.”
“I want to,” Jeno chokes out. He has no idea when his voice started sounding so raw.
“Alright, but we could take a break?”
“No,” shaking his head, Jeno replies, “I’m almost done. Just...just give me a second.” He concentrates on breathing, trying to get his lungs to even back out while Renjun strokes the tears from his cheeks. After a couple of minutes, he feels steady again and reaches to intertwine his fingers with the approximation of hands Jaemin forms above his lap.
“Okay. Okay. Almost done. So...Jaemin fused into Jisung, and...you know Jaemin can heal a certain amount of injury, right? So he did that, he healed Jisung. But that meant that he covered him completely—like when he covers me—and for a minute or so Jisung was gone and there was this other guy laying on the ground in front of me and Chenle, who stopped screaming but was basically hyperventilating. Because, holy shit, right? There was suddenly some guy where Jisung should be. Then this guy opened his eyes, and that same liquid gold from the leopard was there, and he sat up and said, ‘he’s going to be fine,’ and I honestly didn’t know if I should believe him or not. I just remembered watching this guy smile at me, Jaemin smile at me, before quickly melting away to leave behind an unconscious, but unhurt, Jisung.”
The look Renjun shoots Jaemin is a mildly impressed one, and Jaemin shrugs with a sheepish smile. “I sometimes am a decent sort of...non-human.”
Jeno laughs, the sound awkward. “I mean, it was the least you could do, after you made the situation in the first place. But we’ve gotten past that,” he directs this at Renjun, “Jaemin and I are good. I don’t want you thinking we didn’t deal with the...the repercussions.”
“Can I ask...how you dealt with it? Like...what else happened?”
“Well, Jaemin came back to me, which was only marginally better than him being in Jisung, obviously. And also we had to get away from the leopard body that was bleeding out everywhere next to us, because how the hell would we explain that to the rangers? Yeah, no. So I pick up Jisung weirdly easily, and Chenle latched onto my arm and we got outta there and found our campsite somehow. It was the fastest I’ve ever packed shit up and thrown it in a car. I was just trying to drive us home, and not think about how I was pretty sure some creature was in my body somewhere, ‘cause I just knew I needed to get these two home and safe. Chenle went the longest I’d ever witnessed without speaking, like full hours, until we stopped in front of his house—since Jisung’s parents would’ve be too suspicious of why we came back early—and then as we hauled a half-asleep Jisung inside he just asks me...he just asks if I was ok.
“And I was very fucking not. But this was Chenle. So I said yes. And I patted him on the head and got them inside, and at five in the morning I got back to my bedroom at my parents house to have a chat with the voice in my head that hadn’t stopped whispering things since we left the park.”
“Oh, Jeno . I know you basically disappeared for like...a week or something, was that where you were the whole time?”
Jeno shakes his head. “No, I was here. We came back the next day. I didn’t want my mom to see me, something was pretty obviously wrong with me and it would’ve freaked her out. Then I just stayed in my dorm room until Jaemin and I worked it out. So that’s it, that’s why they knew how it all happened.”
Giving Jeno a moment to breathe, Renjun nods and pets his hair soothingly, having remained standing till he was finished. “So,” he observes quietly, “that’s why Jaemin likes Jisung so much, too?...That’s why you like him?”
“It wasn’t long, but when I was healing Jisung his mind was pretty open, he was too vulnerable to protect it, so I got a glimpse of his inner self for a few moments. That, and in general how cute he is... I may have developed a soft spot.”
Jeno feels the affectionate smile that spreads across Jaemin’s lips as he speaks, his tone gentle and smooth.
“Do not be mistaken, I adore Chenle too. I just haven’t been inside his head.”
“You wouldn’t need to,” Jeno grins, slowly but surely feeling the mood lighten, “he’s more than willing to share his thoughts already.”
The other two giggle, and Jeno takes the moment to glance around Renjun at the clock on his desk. The time that reads back at him makes him tired instantly, not even sure when it managed to get so late. He sags against Renjun, tipping forward to rest his forehead against the smaller boy’s sternum and sigh.
“It’s late, we should go. Sorry for keeping you up, Junnie.”
Renjun’s cool fingertips press up from under Jeno’s jaw, coaxing him to straighten up enough to make eye-contact. The boy’s sharp eyes peer down at him. “You’re not. I invited you over, remember?”
“I know, but—”
“—we all need our rest, Sweet.” Jaemin finishes Jeno’s thought, himself rather slowly melting into Jeno’s back like a hermit crab retreating into its shell to sleep.
For a beat, Renjun considers their words, and Jeno imagines he’s just biding a little more time before saying goodnight, when he suddenly suggests—
“You could stay here, sleep here, if you want.”
Jaemin reappears instantly, a surprised and curious twisting blob of rose-gold on Jeno’s shoulder as Jeno sits up straight to read the sincerity on Renjun’s face.
“Really? You...you’re okay with that?”
“I just offered it, didn’t I?” retorts Renjun, almost exasperated. “It’s cold out and that’s just an unnecessary walk when you’re already tired...and...yeah. Just stay, take my bed and I’ll sleep in Hyuck’s.”
“Oh, yeah okay.” Jeno removes his hands from Renjun’s hips, gripping onto his own jeans. He’s still a little shaky from reliving the memories. “I don’t have...clothes.”
“What do we need clothes for? We always sleep in—“
“—okay haha, nevermind that, on second thought maybe leaving is better—“ Jeno puts a hand over the rows of sharp little teeth that frame Jaemin’s symbiote mouth, trying to shush him, when a pair of sweatpants hits him in the face.
Renjun rolls his eyes like he gets paid to do it. “Change, dumbass. I’m going to the bathroom.” Bundle of clothes and a toothbrush in hand, he slips from the room, leaving Jeno to shrug out of his sweatshirt and jeans and pull on the sweats. He’s seen this pair on Renjun before, baggy and cozy looking. On him, they feel more like joggers, barely reaching his ankles.
As Jaemin dawdles around by his hips, poking his little alien face into the pockets and sneezing out lint, Jeno climbs into Renjun’s bed and tries not to think too hard about how soft the sheets are, how they smell vaguely of jasmine.
Just ask him to sleep here with us. Jaemin urges, burbling up like a little pinkish fountain from Jeno’s chest and grinning down as his host settles into the blankets. We’re emotional right now, we need it.
“No, he was pretty clear about the boundary when he said where he would sleep. I’m not gonna push him, and it’s probably not a good idea anyway.”
Jaemin’s grin stretches. “Why not? We don’t bite...much.” To prove it, he hovers by Jeno’s chin and nips, following with a teasing lick.
“You’re gross,” Jeno groans, pushing Jaemin away, “cut that out before he comes back in here.”
The door opens just as Jaemin acquiesces and cuddles around Jeno’s neck rather like a velvety, occasionally wiggly scarf. His shiny, liquid-gold eyes watch Renjun as he unceremoniously flips the light switch and retreats to Donghyuck’s bed with a light footed hop. And Jeno convinces himself this is fine, they’ve napped in the same room, the jasmine sheets aren’t a disappointing weaker version of Renjun himself, the feathery soft sound of Renjun’s breathing on the other side of the room isn’t going to keep him awake at all.
He doesn’t have to hear real thoughts to know Jaemin is chuckling at him.
Oh, baby, when have we ever been good at ignoring him? Please.
Shut up. Sleep.
Why? He isn’t. We can tell he’s overthinking too.
It’s polite to pretend we can’t.
Jeno is just preparing for whatever retort Jaemin has for him when there’s an annoyed huff from the other bed, followed by the rustling of blankets. “Nevermind,” says Renjun, voice raspy, “fuck this.” A second later there’s a gentle thump as his foot touches the floor and Jeno turns over to see Renjun’s thin figure moving near to his bed.
“I’m not sleeping all the way over there. Move over.”
Neither human boy even gets the chance to do anything, as Jaemin takes it upon himself to scoot Jeno closer against the wall while also roping out impatient tendrils to scoop Renjun up and lift him directly onto the mattress (and Jeno) without warning. The impact forces Renjun’s breath out with an oof, warm and right into Jeno’s face.
The smaller boy drops his head on his boyfriend’s shoulder. “Was that necessary? I was nearly here myself,” he complains into the cotton T-shirt.
“Whatever,” says Renjun, rolling onto his back and breathing for a moment while Jaemin dissolves into Jeno with a pout, making soft impatient noises as he goes.
Jeno lets out a breath in short pieces, the shock burning around his edges, before saying, “You don’t have to do what he wants.”
“To snuggle? Nothing wrong with that, just wasn’t ready to drop on top of you like a wet noodle. I didn’t come over here to sleep an awkward four inches away.”
“Oh. Right. That makes sense.”
Can I talk?
“Use your own mouth,” Jeno grumbles, turning on his side to face Renjun as though he could somehow turn away from the voice in his mind.
No, cozy in here. Let me.
Renjun turns his head to Jeno, reaching a hand up and grasping the collar of his T-shirt. “What is it, Jaemin?” He looks so intent to know, and his eyes seem to see through Jeno, so the dark-haired boy sighs and relents, relinquishes the focus on his faculty of speech. “Kiss us goodnight?” his lips say, Jaemin’s words sweet and pleasing on his tongue.
“That’s it? That’s what you want to say? Seriously?” Jeno takes back control incredulously, ignoring Renjun laughing beside him.
Well we want it!
Renjun’s small hand slides to Jeno’s neck, fingers fitting just into the sliver of space between his shoulder and the pillow. “I have an idea. Jaemin first, let me see you.”
Nerves prickle along Jeno’s spine, replaced quickly as Jaemin body-suits over him. He wastes no time pushing up onto an elbow and curving their body over Renjun, eyes sparkling and full of adoration looking down at him.
“We’ll only dream of you, Sweet.”
“Yeah yeah.” Renjun fights a grin and clasps his fingers behind their neck. “Goodnight, Jaemin.”
They meet in the middle, Jaemin kisses deeply as usual, and Jeno likens it to the phantom sensation of kissing someone in a dream, like he can feel it and not feel it at the same time. It’s not the same as saving Mark from choking; he tried not to feel that. Although Jaemin is in control, commanding the movement of their mouth against Renjun’s lips, Jeno strains to be right behind those barely shifting touches.
Then Renjun tilts his chin down, escaping with just enough space to pant a short breath and say, “Okay, Jeno…” and tilt back up into the kiss. Jaemin hums once, then reluctantly begins to give control back to Jeno with almost painful slowness. Every cell that Jaemin releases is a tiny bit more that Jeno can feel in high definition, outward appearance altering as pink hair gives way to black and gold eyes morph to brown below fluttering eyelids. Jaemin’s careful razor teeth soften to square against Renjun’s lower lip, and though it feels slow-motion only a minute passes before Jeno is inhaling his smaller boyfriend’s shaky breath. Exhilarating —the only word Jeno can vaguely process as describing the experience of shifting mid-kiss, as he presses his lips once more solidly to Renjun’s then pulls back to see him.
The darkness hides most everything, but with Jaemin’s help Jeno can see Renjun’s hazed eyes smoldering in the night. He knows without asking that they were open through the change, watching. His fingers curl behind Jeno’s neck.
“You are...incredible…” he whispers, breathless.
Jeno knew it was a bad idea, knew it was dangerous to be so close in the dark, to go along with this idea. The vision of Renjun staring up at him, lips puffy and hair fanned out like a halo, because of them ...he’s overwhelmed. He has no control over the pathetic whine that slips out as he crumples, burying his face into the boy’s torso. His nose presses into his ribcage and he grips tight around his waist. Renjun laughs. The sound reverberates along with his racing heartbeat in Jeno’s ear.
Jeno nods, the quiet purr of Jaemin in the back of his head.
Baby, Sweetheart, sleep well.
can u maybe not scream so loud at 8 in the morning
I WILL SCREAM LOUDER????
give me a hecking HEADS UP next time!!!!!!!
chill the fuck
we were just sleeping
how could i mistake
his head cradled on your tummy
his hand up under your shirt
Pink Haired Alien Boy all up in your face
u r right how could i be disturbed
first thing in the god dam morning
yeah. whatever. nvm. congrats on ur domesticity.
so glad mark lee is normal.
oh fuck wait he just tried to use the wrong end of the toothbrush
standby i have to mourn my life choices
see u guys for dinner wed?
Donghyuck is curled into the corner of the couch with a steaming bowl of pad thai and his feet tucked under Mark’s leg, and the gaze he has trained on Renjun and Jeno lacks almost all of his previous suspicion or malice. Renjun appreciates this, because he feels a little bit like he’s brought his significant other over to meet his parents, which is stupid because technically he’d already done that the first time they gathered, and neither of them feels like a parent to him. But they both have questions, namely Mark, and so does Jaemin, so perhaps it’s the pending interrogation that’s making his fingers shake a little as he wrangles the rice noodles onto his chopsticks far more slowly than usual.
“We should’ve eaten before we came,” comments Jeno, his tone mournful as his eyes follow the noodles that Mark slurps from his bowl, like a starving man stumbling upon a picture window view of a Thanksgiving dinner.
Mark’s face turns concerned. “Is that not enough chocolate?”
On the coffee table sits a plate piled high with chocolate bars, enough for anyone to raise a questioning eyebrow, that Jeno has been steadily making his way through. He picks up another bar, something so dark it breaks with a flutter of chalky flakes, and munches on a piece with a dejected sigh.
“It’s not that, it’s food envy. Everything Donghyuck makes smells so fucking good.”
A dusty rose blush of pride appears on Donghyuck’s face, and Renjun rolls his eyes. Even if it wasn’t on purpose, there’s almost nothing better Jeno could do to win him over more than to compliment the boy’s cooking.
“You’re not wrong there,” replies Mark, aiming an affectionate grin at Donghyuck.
“Very wrong, it smells awful!” Jeno retorts instantly, then groans at Jaemin’s words coming out of his mouth. Renjun rolls his eyes, and Mark laughs while Donghyuck just sticks his tongue out and sneers in response.
They devolve into comfortable conversation from there, the topic changing to a convivial bemoaning of the next few weeks of finals work between them and the approaching holidays. Mark’s workload seems to be the heaviest, his upper level classes are starting to get more demanding, while Renjun simply states that he has more papers due than days he thinks he can write them. Jeno’s just finishing the last of his chocolate bars when Mark makes a noise of exclamation that surprises everyone.
Scooting to the edge of the couch, Mark leans toward Jeno with excitement. “Can I interview Jaemin a little?”
As usual, Jeno’s hesitation contrasts with the interested perk from Jaemin. He knew this was coming, but still feels vaguely nervous about what kind of information might come up. There are still things about Jaemin even he doesn’t know.
“You’re interested because of your class, right?”
“My final paper is coming up, and there’s no better source material than asking my actual subject matter.”
He can’t argue with that; no one on campus, not even the professor, could offer what Jeno has ready and available, and integrally attached to his central nervous system.
We’re fine with this, right Jeno? Come on, Jeno...babe...let us!
Jeno sighs, nodding quickly. “Yeah, sure. It’ll probably be easier if he just…” He motions across his face, like a mask. He’d have Jaemin manifest next to them in partial form, like he does mostly around Jeno and Renjun, but Jeno knows it still freaks Donghyuck out a little bit. It’s simpler to just let Jaemin have the floor for a while.
Mark nods eagerly. “Cool! Yeah, that’ll work. Lemme get my laptop—” Setting his empty bowl aside, Mark vaults over the back of the couch to go dig in his bag, while Donghyuck eyes Jeno warily.
“Let me know when it’s gonna happen,” he asks, “I don’t really—”
“It’s cool, I’ll warn you. You guys have had enough surprises.”
A moment later Mark drops back onto the couch, a pair of glasses now perched on his nose and laptop in hand. He flips the device open and looks up at them expectantly, the glow from the screen making him look almost manically excited. “Whenever you’re ready!”
“It’ll be now, Donghyuck,” advises Jeno, and the other boy quickly averts his eyes, looking somewhere over Mark’s shoulder. He doesn't have to look away for long.
“Oh Donghyuckie, you can look again,” says Jaemin, crossing arms over the coffee table and resting their chin on them, simpering smile directed at the boy on the couch. “We’re all decent now.”
His teasing goes ignored—save for an eye-roll—as Donghyuck leaves the couch to collect the remains of dinner and takes them to the kitchen. Jeno thinks the lack of a scathing retort is good sign.
Mark adjusts his glasses and hums. “So can I just confirm some like, physiological basics? If it’s not too invasive, I’m focusing on the host-symbiote bond dynamic so—”
“What do you want to know?”
“Well—” Mark launches into a list of questions so long, it’s clear he’s been compiling it for some time. Some of it Jeno has wondered about himself, despite being the one personally experiencing it. Like, whether Jaemin’s as sensitive to sound as he’s implied— Yes.— and how far out from Jeno Jaemin can stretch himself before he can’t access the anatomical support he needs and just detaches. They don’t actually get a clear answer for that, unfortunately.
“Typically I’m in trouble no matter how close to him I am, so…” Jaemin offers, wearing a smug grin Jeno can feel. He can also feel a strange ambiguity around Jaemin’s thought process on that information, like he’s being intentionally vague, or trying to hide an uncertainty of his own. Jeno doesn’t know how to interpret that.
The answer prompts a snort from Renjun. “More accurate to say Jeno is in trouble no matter how close he is to you .”
“We like to keep things interesting.” Jaemin blinks, as Jeno corrects him in the privacy of their head. “Ah, Jeno would like to note that he would be fine with things not being so interesting all the time.”
Donghyuck, back from the kitchen,—where running water and clinking utensils have been the only signs of his presence in the apartment for the last little while—scoffs loudly. “You may be weird, but overall I think you’re the least exciting alien I’m aware of,” he says.
“That’s on purpose!” Jeno briefly overpowers Jaemin to exclaim.
The two self-possessed humans in the room beside Renjun both look to their friend, who nods and mouths ‘Jeno’, like he’s an expert interpreter which, all things considered, Jeno thinks is about right.
“You’re the better half of this—” Donghyuck picks up Renjun’s empty soda can and gestures at Jeno and Jaemin in a general, all-encompassing fashion, “— business, Jeno.”
They drop their gaze from Donghyuck’s face, Jaemin quirking the side of their mouth in just the hint of a smile.
With a few other items tidied, Donghyuck heads back to the kitchen, and Jeno watches Renjun hop up and follow him while Mark draws Jaemin’s attention back to his questions.
There isn’t a dishwasher in Mark’s apartment, so when Renjun follows Donghyuck to the kitchen he isn’t surprised to find a sink full of water and a pair of rubber gloves waiting for hands to be shoved back into them. That happens quickly enough, and Renjun leans his back against the counter beside the sink while Donghyuck scrubs at a pan sticky with sauce.
“I thought you were going to be nicer to him,” Renjun says, fixing a mildly accusatory look at his best friend.
“I’m trying!” Donghyuck sounds sincere enough that Renjun backs down right away.
“Ok, ok, sorry. I appreciate it.” He concentrates on the soap bubbles that swish around as Donghyuck’s rubber-duck-patterned gloves move through the water, biting unconsciously at the inside of his upper lip for a moment. “So for the holidays...are we doing like usual? Your house?”
Donghyuck fumbles and drops the mug he’s holding back into the soapy water, and turns to Renjun with an expression of alarm. “Oh...Injunnie…”
Renjun’s chest tightens. “Did you...forget?”
“No, no, it’s not that,” Donghyuck nearly puts a wet, rubber hand on Renjun’s arm, but thinks better of it just in time. “I was gonna tell you. Mark has to stay here over break to help with some club stuff, his parents are going on some trip anyway...he asked me to stay, since he’d be alone, you know?”
“Oh. Right, of course.” That’s understandable, Renjun tells himself, trying not to make his disappointment apparent. Mark shouldn’t be alone, and Donghyuck would want to be there for him...he’s usually there for Renjun but everyone has priorities…
“But we can all hangout, if you’re on campus too, it’s really fine!”
Renjun would rather not third-wheel the entire break, especially not Christmas. “No, that’s ok, you’re even worse now that you’re dating for real, I can’t stomach that for a whole week.”
The rubber gloves make a soft squeak as Donghyuck removes them and sets them aside, quickly enfolding Renjun in a hug. “I’m sorry,” he whispers, “I assumed you’d be going with Jeno? Did you guys not talk about things?”
Renjun props his chin on Donghyuck’s shoulder and lets the hand rubbing his back soothe him a little. “I meant to, I just...well, I’m not even sure if he’s going, but they have their own stuff going on and I don’t want to add to that…”
“Junnie. They look at you like either of them would actually sacrifice themselves if it would help you, I’m pretty sure they’re not gonna be upset if you say your family is kind of useless and you don’t have a place to spend Christmas other than the dorm.” He hugs a little tighter. “Or even if you don’t want to tell them yet, just ‘cause you haven’t been dating that long doesn’t mean you can’t ask a favor. Lee Jeno is stupidly nice, he probably wants to take you home for the holidays.”
A warm, hopeful glimmer blossoms in Renjun’s middle. “I’ll ask…”
“Good boy,” coos Donghyuck. Renjun jabs his side. “Ow. Uncalled for. As recompense, help me with these dishes.”
Initially, Jaemin assumed that Mark was like one of the more avid and enthusiastic students; he must like to be thorough. Many of his questions bordered on basic, common knowledge that something like a textbook—of which Mark seemed to have a few—would cover, so he found himself a bit disappointed in Mark’s questions. Even Jeno, cozy in the back of their mind, checked-out from the conversation fairly quickly once Renjun and Donghyuck left the room.
But after a few more minutes, it makes sense. Mark leans back in his seat, eyeing the entrance to the kitchen, and then directs his attention to Jaemin again. There’s a different light in his eyes; a more serious air settles over them.
“I think we’ve got...maybe ten or fifteen minutes,” he says, his meaning absent of reference point.
Jaemin leans on a fist against the table, regarding Mark amiably. “For what? Have you been waiting to makeout with me again? That’s very flattering, but we’re quite committed at this point. We don’t need Donghyuck hating us anymore than he already does.”
“No! Nothing like that!” Mark’s vehemence is almost comical, the way he recoils with a deep blush, and even Jeno chuckles quietly.
“Relax, it was a joke. Although there’s always the chance you wanted to know for scientific purposes...in which case perhaps Jeno or Renjun would provide you with first-hand accounts instead.”
Mark shakes his head and shoulders, like trying to wring the mental images out of himself physically. “No,” he says, and oddly enough slips down from the couch to sit opposite Jaemin on the floor, the coffee table between them, “but this is about them. Renjun mostly, but Jeno too I guess.”
Motioning to their head, Jaemin reminds him, “Well if you’re trying to be secretive, Jeno is listening, so just keep that in mind. In your mind. He’s already in ours.”
“Funny. It’s Donghyuck I don’t want hearing things, so that’s fine.”
Jaemin leans back away from the table, his curiosity growing. Jeno makes a vague comment that this is the most serious Mark has ever seemed, the most mature. His usual affability makes it easy to frequently forget that he is the oldest among them—Jaemin aside—and has spent a good few years watching out for his friends from that perspective.
“Donghyuck has concerns, because he’s afraid of what he doesn’t know being intimately close to what he cares most about,” Mark clarifies, “and I have concerns because I know a little bit more, I guess. I know which things specifically to be concerned about, I didn’t want to upset him by voicing those in front of him. And I’m sure we’d all rather that I ask instead of him, since he’d most likely get riled up and accidentally bite someone’s head off,”—Jaemin raises a shocked eyebrow—”...poor choice of words? Anyway, I just want to be certain that no one is in any danger. Even Jeno.”
Somehow, coming from Mark, the question isn’t insulting. Jaemin nods in a manner he hopes is reassuring.
“No one is in danger from me. Arguably they’re in more danger without me. I’m far more durable in most life-threatening circumstances.”
“And if you were to suddenly run low on phenethylamine, with no source around except the body you’re inside, or the one standing across from you...what then?” Mark’s eyes are steady, voice strong and commanding.
Inside, Jeno keeps still. Jaemin knows the trust is there, knows they’ve discussed things. But he also knows there is a part of the human biology that evolutionarily will not completely release the fear of something that has invaded it, that this facet of humanity is what has kept it alive and flourishing this long. It’s a piece of Jeno that Jaemin admires, even if it sometimes feels unfair. There’s always going to be the opinion that symbiotes cannot be trusted.
I do trust you. Renjun does too. That’s what matters.
No, it’s not all that matters, Jeno. Humans are communal by nature, and devoted to one another by choice. For us to be together, in any capacity, the trust has to extend to beyond us—it has to exist among those that you call family.
There’s a jump in their heartbeat at that, and Jaemin holds back a smile. He straightens their back, folding their arms carefully as he holds gaze with Mark during the brief mental conversation.
“Let me ask this. Does your class say we are monsters?” he angles, answering Mark’s question with one of his own.
“Well...that depends,” Mark’s jaw tenses, his expression a battle between discomfort and determination. “We were given the reports on what happened at The Life Foundation. They were fairly graphic. Will you really kill your host if you can’t get food?”
A pang of faultless regret courses through Jaemin, something Jeno shudders at. Jaemin wasn’t there when that happened, nor is he of the same mind that he was when he came to this planet. He exhales with borrowed lungs.
“You die if you don’t eat. I die if I don’t eat. We’re sharing a body. It’s bonded to my biological matter; if the matter does not get energy from some kind of sustaining material, it will die, and so will whatever it’s bonded with. But to call that killing would only be true if a symbiote decides to stay and let it happen. I can leave. No need for two to die because one isn’t fed.”
Mark holds his gaze for a long moment, jaw flexing, until finally he cracks an impressed smile. “Fuck...can I quote you in my final?”
From the direction of the kitchen come voices, and Mark casually lifts himself back onto the couch, his expression once again relaxing. As Renjun and Donghyuck appear carrying plates of desert, the older human tracks them with a fond gaze that centers mostly on Donghyuck. He relocates the laptop out of the way, already anticipating the younger to sit close and drape a leg over his lap. Donghyuck lifts a forkful of something to Mark’s lips.
Renjun folds down next to his combo boyfriends, setting his plate on the table and shooting them a warm smile.
Jaemin winds an arm low around his waist, grip resting where his hip bends above his thigh.
“Hello, Sweet.” Jaemin replies, then frowns slightly, glancing at the table, and back to Renjun. “What is that? Nothing for us?”
Donghyuck interjects. “It’s strawberry tart, and everything you eat is dessert so that’s why there’s nothing for you.”
“Well that’s quite rude, isn’t it? Not unreasonable, but you’ve made Jeno sad...he’s moping now, it’s heartbreaking.”
With a sigh, Renjun leans close and pecks their jaw, his nose lightly bumping against their cheek.
“I’ll make it up to you later,” he whispers.
Tell him to enjoy it for me, and I want a kiss for every bite.
Jaemin relays the message, and while Renjun shyly nods Donghyuck pretends to gag.
While he’s never taken much advantage of it, one of the benefits of having a symbiote parasitically attached to him that Jeno truly appreciates is the physical strength increase. He’s not trying to uproot trees or lift cars or anything, but it does allow him to give his boyfriend a piggyback ride with minimal effort and maximum distance, and there’s something to be said for that.
Renjun smushes his cheek against Jeno’s ear, linking his arms a bit tighter as they walk and Jeno relates most of the conversation with Mark that he missed by helping with the dishes. He leaves out the last of it, out of courtesy to Mark, because Jaemin agreed that it was the best way to go about it.
The questions awe Renjun anyway, always interested as he is to understand more about the creature currently making it impossible for him to slide off Jeno’s back onto the sidewalk.
“I can’t believe this is who I’m dating,” he wonders aloud as they pass another shop closed for the night, “an alien who can take on almost any physical form, but also tried to eat my boyfriend and his friends when he first met them. And now loves them. And also ate a tiger.”
“It was an Amur Leopard.” Jeno feels his lips move in answer, letting Jaemin speak as he wishes.
“Right, a...wait, an Amur? Jaemin! Those are endangered! There’s only like seventy of them left in the world!”
“And? By that reasoning Jisung is endangered. There’s only one of him.”
“Huh. Well. You’re not wrong?”
As Renjun giggles at the idea and suggests getting him put on the endangered species list, Jeno’s thoughts turn back to Jisung and the request he made at the train station. He’d told him that he would think about it, that he would consider visiting over part of the holidays. But until this moment, he hadn’t considered it at all. He thinks about what that says about himself, and the trust he puts in his family.
Jaemin...I need to go home.
Ahh. In a few weeks? To tell them about us?
...I don’t know, maybe. At least just to go.
Renjun re-settles on Jeno’s back, hooking his ankles. “What am I missing?” he asks, having clearly noticed the pensive silence.
Would it be less scary with Renjun there?
Jeno thinks everything is better with Renjun there, even if that presents its own kind of challenge. His family doesn’t know about him either.
“I’m going to go home for a while, over the holidays.”
The pensive silence passes over onto Renjun, the visible puffs of his breathing close to Jeno’s ear as they continue to walk along slowly under the streetlights.
“Come with me?”
When Renjun takes too long to respond, Jeno stops and puts him down, nervously turns around to see him. “You don’t have to,” he clarifies, “I know it hasn’t been long for us dating and maybe it’s too soon to meet my parents, or whatever, so you can say no. I just...well, I’d like having you there.” He searches Renjun’s eyes, seeking out an answer.
He can’t figure out why Renjun almost looks like he’s going to cry.
“Yeah. I’d like that, going with you.”
“Really? I don’t want you to feel pressured, or anything. I won’t be hurt if you have plans.”
Renjun takes a step forward and lifts onto his toes, folding his arms around their neck and hugging hard. Jeno isn’t really sure why, and Jaemin’s not offering an explanation, but they hug him back just the same.
“I want to go with you,” he mutters. “Thank you.”
After another moment Renjun loosens his arms, separating away and taking Jeno’s hand instead. They aren’t far from the dorms, and with finals approaching they’ve agreed that they’ll need time alone to study. Their hands swing as they walk, and Jeno feels like he could skip, if now he wasn’t suddenly nervous about having to introduce a whole boyfriend to his parents.
“I’ll let Jisungie and Chenle know tomorrow,” he says, talking to calm himself, “you sure your family won’t mind us stealing you?”
Renjun shakes his head. “No, they won’t.” He smiles at Jeno, reassuring although there’s an edge to it that he can’t quite place. “Doubt they’ll even miss me. You know, with how hectic the holidays get and all.”
Before Jeno can really question it, Jaemin jumps in, speaking his own mind. “Good, because we would miss you far too much.”
so! i'm happy to be able to say, confidently, that the next installment will be up soon (like, actually soon, not vague time-is-nebulous-soon-might-be-a-month soon). get ready to embrace the angst.
(also i'm setting up a foundation for endangered species jisung pwark. lmao.)
also, many many thanks to kei for beta-ing this for me, which i have never had before. i'm beyond grateful. it's way more readable now. (please check out her works!)
Chapter 5: we goin through it
we now continue what is actually not a love story between 2 boys n an alien, but in fact a long n complex ode to chocolate.
sorry (sort of?) in advance for everything we're about to undergo in this one...i promise it's worth it. <3
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
The next two and a half weeks of finals passes in a haze, in which Renjun sets a strict schedule of when they’re allowed to spend time together—”Jaemin is too distracting!” “That isn’t fair, I can’t get rid of him!” “Take one for the team, Jeno.”—and the Lion’s Den becomes a study haven for when the library gets overcrowded.
They learn fast, though, that when Mark gets that pinched look on his face over an essay it means it’s time for them to clear out of the apartment and let Donghyuck make some tea. The exams seem endless and overwhelming, but suddenly they pass, and for the few days before Jeno scheduled to go home they relax as five in a blissful state of post-exhaustion resting.
Jeno and Renjun sneak into Jeno’s parents’ house late on Christmas Eve-eve—if using Jeno’s key can be counted as sneaking in—and tiptoe with the utmost care upstairs to his room. Renjun had already voiced his opinion that he thought the effort was unnecessary.
“Look, there’s no good way for us to show up,” Jeno had informed him, “either way my mom is gonna lose it when she sees you.”
Jeno shook his head, then, and Jaemin swerved his gooey self out of the way, continuing to focus his delicate tendrils on sewing a patch over one of his plushies before it got packed for the trip.
“No, she knows about the gay thing. They all do. It’s because I’ve never...brought someone home before…”
Renjun had made an “ah” sound, and then looked mildly sick.
"We've been home before,” added Jaemin, almost defensively. He had paused his sewing to make sure Jeno acknowledged him, and the one instance they’d previously been in side his parents’ house.
Jeno had shaken his head again. “Definitely doesn’t count.”
So they sneak in instead, Jeno pointing out which stairs to avoid and carrying both duffle-bags so they can make the least noise possible. With his bedroom door safely locked, Jeno breathes a sigh of relief—he can relax now, sort of. Actually, he probably won’t relax for the next four days at all, but this is the closest he’ll get until they go back to school. He tries not to let the worry consume him, keeping his focus on simple things like putting their bags by the closet and ridding himself of his thick coat.
“There’s so much of you here…” Renjun observes like he’s in awe of it, draping his jacket over Jeno’s desk chair. Admittedly, compared to his dorm room with one photo of him with Chenle and Jisung, and all of Jaemin’s toys, this room does put his life a lot more on display. All his academic awards are here, all his baby pictures and the knick knacks from high school that he left behind.
Renjun gasps. “You wear glasses?!” He gazes at Jeno’s sophomore yearbook photo, jaw hanging.
“Used to...but then—”
“Oh, Jaemin magic.”
Jaemin pulls out of his shoulder blade and reaches for a picture in which an ice cream cone dribbles down over Jeno’s knuckles—his mouth hangs open in a laugh and his eyes are nearly gone in favor of smiling crescents. “I like this memory,” he coos, holding the frame like it’s precious, “we were so hot but the treat was nice and cold, and mom took us to the pool right before…”
“It was a good day,” Jeno admits, and doesn’t correct Jaemin projecting himself into the memory.
Crossing over to them, Renjun studies the picture too, then the two of them, and then the collection of other frames in the room. “Can you tell me all these stories?” he asks. “If Jaemin knows it, I want to know too.”
If he wasn’t so sincere, Jeno would almost laugh and tease him for being unnecessarily competitive. But Renjun’s eyes are clear, and in the dimmed lighting just from his desk lamp he looks like every one of Jeno’s high school daydreams fulfilled. No, better.
Jeno takes Renjun’s hand and pulls him close. “Whatever you want. I’ll recite from my first memory, if you ask for it.”
“God, you can be so dramatic,” comes the muffled reply, half-mouthed against Jeno’s collar while Jaemin starts to slowly loop around the two of them like a lazy rope. They stay like this for a few minutes, until Renjun wiggles and mumbles something about being smothered, asking to be released. The taller boy hums into his hair, sighing.
“She’ll make you stay in the guest room, tomorrow night, with the starchy sheets and the clock that ticks really loud. So appreciate us while you can.”
Renjun relaxes his shoulders, tilting back so he can look up at Jeno. “Your mom?...so...this is pretty much my one shot at making out with you in your childhood bed?”
Instantly too red to respond, Jeno nods. Jaemin squeezes them both tighter, soft tendrils constricting as his grin tips over Jeno’s shoulder. “Come on,” he urges, “the sheets are Jersey knit, so snuggly!”
It’s so late that Jeno ignores the idea of washing his face or any of his normal routine, and instead allows Jaemin to convince him into waddling backward to the edge of his bed. There, they loosen their hold on Renjun enough that Jeno can sit, letting his hands fall to circle loosely at the boy’s knees. He expects this to play out like a movie, for Renjun to climb into his lap and kiss him, and his heart has already started racing at the thought...when his boyfriend sidesteps him and crawls onto the bed. Jeno turns in confusion to find Jaemin manifest and cuddling Renjun like Jeno’s not even there.
“Mean,” he comments, but climbs in without further complaint. As he does, Jaemin gives Renjun’s cheek a final pinch before unexpectedly dematerializing.
We got our cuddle in...but we haven’t forgotten the high school daydreams…
Jeno feels the world slow around him with Jaemin’s words in his mind; Renjun curls on his side in front of him and tucks his hands up under his ear, staring. Leaning forward to kiss him and reaching for his hip is as natural to Jeno as breathing.
There we go.
There’s faint noise downstairs when Jeno wakes, and he’s about two inches from being ejected from his own bed. This is mainly due to Renjun’s having a foot braced against the wall, subsequently backing Jeno closer to the edge bit by bit. But more interesting is the staring contest Jaemin is having with his cat.
“Bongsik..how’d you get in here…” Jeno wonders aloud, voice like gravel. He glances at the door and notices the small cat-flap installed at its bottom and wonders when that happened.
“This cat is not good at staring contests. We’ve won four times already,” announces Jaemin, who himself is hardly larger than the animal.
Jeno shrugs. “Wasn’t a skill we looked for at the animal shelter.”
The symbiote fixes a confused look at Jeno, then softens as Renjun stirs.
The other boy sits up slowly, shifting to sit cross-legged and rub a hand over his face. He doesn’t seem to notice how treacherous a position his little spoon has forced Jeno into. The collar of Renjun’s t-shirt hangs loose and low, though, and with one look at the raspberry-colored blotch at the bottom of his neck, Jeno forgives him. Definitely worth it.
“You have a cat?” Renjun asks suddenly.
“We have three,” clarifies Jeno.
Bongsik gets bored of swatting at Jaemin’s tendril that has been giving her exploratory pokes, and wanders over to nuzzle Jeno’s hand. He scratches her favorite spot under her chin and smiles happily. “I used to be allergic, but Jaemin kind of cured all that. More magic.”
They sit and play with the pet for a few minutes, and with each one Jeno’s nerves grow as he knows they can’t stay upstairs much longer. His mom has surely seen the shoes by the door, noticed his room in use. Like many mothers, she’s always had a sixth sense for her son that he never quite understood, and even though the house is mostly silent he can practically hear her calling him to breakfast. A breakfast he has never turned down before, and a breakfast that he can’t eat. He’s less than excited.
Maybe she’s making chocolate-chip pancakes? Jaemin suggests hopefully, sliding his way back inside in winding curls.
Jeno hopes so, but what he smells is bacon.
There’s something moderately frightening about being right, at times. Sure, it’s nice to know an answer, or understand something and be able to speak about it correctly, but if you wish the answer was something else? Sometimes being right is not so fun.
This is what Jeno thinks, seeing his mother shriek and throw her tiny arms around Renjun. He’s equally disturbed to learn that they’re about the same size, his boyfriend and his mother, and he has to banish the thought from his mind.
They’re both cute, it’s a good thing. Offers Jaemin, and Jeno realizes it’s the first time he’s seen her properly outside of his memory. The same goes for Jeno’s father, of course, who looks up from his phone over his glasses and offers a small smile. At least, thinks Jeno, everyone is behaving as expected.
Luckily the distraction of Renjun allows Jeno the ability to pretend to eat, moving eggs and chunks of turkey sausages around on his plate, and smearing ketchup so that it looks like there’s more gone than the few bites scooped stealthily into the napkin on his lap.
Looks kinda...brainy...scrambled...red...I almost want it.
Jeno’s suddenly, emphatically glad he can’t eat.
After breakfast, just when Jeno thinks he can probably suggest he’d like to show Renjun around his old neighborhood, maybe brave the cold to sit at the old playground for a bit, his mother announces she must have them come help her with last-minute shopping. She talks so fast and flutters around them that he’s not even sure when they put coats on or bundled into the car, but it happens regardless. As a result,Jeno is reduced to pointing at things outside the window as they pass by and trying to ignore his mother’s eyes on him in the rearview mirror. Renjun probably knows that he’s tense if the careful squeezing of his hand where it rests on the seat between them is any indication.
The multi-level shopping center rises like a beacon of glass and concrete above the other buildings as they approach, and it’s only with absolutely divine luck that they find a parking space in under ten minutes.
The last-minute shopping crowds are a nightmare.
“I was afraid of this…” his mother sighs, and their little group clumps tightly together as the swarm of people spills both ways through the doors.
“Then why bother with it?” Jeno asks.
“I forgot to get your father a new shirt for his annual seminar,” she explains, and Jeno remembers the big science conference which his dad always attends, and often is a guest speaker at. He recalls a vague shirt-buying tradition.
Someone bustles past and bumps Renjun, knocking him against Jeno and they sigh simultaneously in annoyance. A second later they both giggle, the stress of the crowd lightening under the comfort of sharing an opinion about it.
Jeno’s mom grins, shaking her head. “I’m starting to see why you two work. Alright, let’s go by Baskin Robbins first. I need rum raisin or I won’t survive this place.” She loops an arm through Renjun’s and surges ahead, and Jeno barely catches his hand before they disappear into the crowd forever.
Mom is so nice... Jaemin whispers to Jeno, the tone touched with longing, and Jeno’s heart sinks just a little.
The ice cream shop seems to be one of the few places among the crowded stores where few shoppers have interest in stopping. It might have something to do with the cold December winds, but they’re grateful for whatever reason that no one else is pausing to lick any of thirty-one creamy flavors while a TV in the upper corner of the wall shows the daily news on mute.
Jeno digs into the largest size of the darkest, most chocolatey flavor they have, trying not to make it seem like a religious experience but they’re hungry so it’s not far off. Meanwhile, the fact that his mother and Renjun have progressed from awkwardly discussing Renjun’s history major to finding a bonding point over historical dramas—“there’s not a single thing accurate in Scarlet Heart,” “But it’s so beautiful? I was heartbroken?” “Yes. Oh my god.”—makes Jeno so soft he almost forgets there’s still another half of the puzzle to fit in.
Maybe we can just tell her? Look how much she already likes our Sweetheart.
Jeno feels the hope, and allows himself to consider it. Maybe, he replies hesitantly, but Renjun isn’t an alien lurking in my body.
Is lurking really the right terminology here? Jaemin pokes him in the thigh, making Jeno jolt.
Better than possessing, isn’t it? Anyway. Maybe there’s a way to break it to her softly…
Want to try the strategy that we used for Renjun again? We can start a book club with mom!
The list of reasons why that’s not going to work are lined up at the tip of Jeno’s mental tongue, when his mother lets out a shocked gasp.
“Oh, look at that! ” she exclaims, pointing to the current news story mid-report. Three sets of eyes (one mental) follow her gesture, and both Jeno and Renjun blanch white.
There’s a symbiote on the news.
“Excuse me, can you turn the volume on?” She asks the clerk, who nods wordlessly and lifts a remote.
The story is from some business district in Tokyo. The reporter on scene looks shaken, and keeps glancing nervously to the side where a man sits on the hood of nearby car and grins too-gleefully. His eyes are a glossy, shiny red, his grin full of pointed teeth.
“—lier today, when a miscommunication at the rail depot caused a local train line to barely avoid sudden collision, resulting in one train nearly tipping off the track. Our...our source stated that the row of six cars was saved by a...a man, who stood up suddenly and then changed shape, and extended...ex-extended spider-like t-tentacles that kept the cars connected and pulled two cars up from hanging off the track. We have some footage...please be warned it is somewhat graphic.”
The report cuts to a video, obviously off someone’s phone camera, and they watch as what was just described takes place at a short distance. A freakish figure darts and swings between the cars, tendrils of candy-apple red stringing along and yanking metal back into place. Then the video changes to one from a perspective inside one of the cars, partially hanging, and the camera owner shrieks as the car shudders dangerously. A second later, the grinning creature appears through a broken window, eyes sparkling, strangely long tongue hanging loose, and shoots a red rope of matter out the opposite window. The camera focuses as the creature strains and the camera angle changes as the train car becomes right on the track once again.
Jeno hazards a glance at his mother. Her wide eyes, hand over her mouth, face full of horror…all signs of what he already feared. He feels the sharp, tiny snap of a hairline crack appear on his heart, just in the spot he dreaded most.
“Luckily no one was killed, and the injuries remain minimal, thanks to the...the heroic actions...thanks to that...person—”
God. Seriously? She knows what he is. Embarrassing.
Jeno cringes at Jaemin’s distaste for the reporter’s wording. She’s clearly on edge, knowing the symbiote is right there but for some reason refusing to interview him. He must prefer looking moderately human, Jeno guesses, since he’s clothed and sporting blonde hair rather than the full-red form from the footage. She’s mid sentence when he suddenly transforms behind her, standing up and melting away to reveal a flustered-looking, handsome man in a suit, who immediately starts yelling at what appears to be himself. Probably having an internal-turned-external discussion. This causes some commotion, and the channel quickly cuts to the studio reporter.
“Can you even imagine?” Jeno’s mother asks, eyes still pinned to the screen. “How awful! And just...ugh, I wanted to look away but how can you?” She finishes her sentiments with a disgusted shudder, and Jeno feels sick twice over. He’s not entirely sure he’ll be able to keep the ice cream down.
“If you ask me,” she continues, “that kind of thing—” the ring of her phone cuts her short, and her face becomes bright again as she answers her husband’s call with a sweet voice, holding up a ‘just a moment’ finger for the two boys. She gets up and moves slightly away, repeating a list of groceries that Jeno’s father tells her they are missing.
Renjun says nothing, instead looking at Jeno with a mixture of concern and sadness, a deep crease of pain between his brows.
And Jaemin...Jaemin is so silent Jeno is afraid to reach out for him at all.
For the rest of the afternoon, Jeno finds it difficult to talk to his mother, difficult to engage in their activities at all. Throughout picking a shirt for his father’s gift, and trekking through the grocery store for the last-minute items, he becomes increasingly grateful that Renjun is there, and imagines with a shudder having to have gone through this alone. He doesn’t know how he would have managed.
“We’re having jjampong for dinner, honey, your favorite!” she tells Jeno, obviously expecting his usual excitement. She can’t know that the announcement produces the exact opposite in him: anxiety and sadness, because it’s just another reminder of his predicament.
Jeno nods, weakly. “That’s great,” he says, unable to support his voice enough. From the way her face falters, he can tell it sounded more like the last thing he’d want.
“Wow, I haven’t had that in ages, Mrs. Lee!” Renjun cuts in with sudden enthusiasm, putting himself physically between them. “Can I help you pick out the vegetables? Jeno, you should go choose some good octopuses. Wow, am I ever excited for this!”
Renjun sounds so contrived that Jeno is sure his mother can tell, but she allows him to pull her towards the produce section regardless. As they separate, he can hear her lowly ask if something is wrong, and his chest tightens.
“Oh no, he’s just exhausted from finals,” Renjun lies easily for him, his voice growing distant, and Jeno drops his head as he shuffles toward the seafood.
Tanks of fish and crustaceans soon surround Jeno, and he feels the telltale echoes of hunger in the pit of his stomach even though there’s no obvious reaction from Jaemin. The internal quiet is so cavernous; his alien boyfriend hasn’t said a word in hours, and the mounting concern is beginning to pull at Jeno’s seams. He stops in front of the octopus tank and gingerly reaches for his symbiote with his mind.
Jaemin? Look...live food...little squishy brains and everything...
There’s something like a vague sigh, as if heard through closed doors from another room.
It’s gonna be okay, you know that? Jeno urges, trying to convince himself as much as Jaemin. We’ll figure it out with time...come on. He taps on the glass, and a small octopus wobbles away. You can’t tell me you don’t want to slurp up like six of these little dudes.
Why taunt me with more things I can’t have? —comes the faint, tired reply. Jeno’s heart leaps, relieved to hear the voice again.
Sorry...you’re right. Maybe we can sneak one aside without anyone noticing. Just...please don’t go silent on me? I’m...I’m upset too, alright? Don’t leave me alone with that.
A gradual feeling begins to fill Jeno’s mind, like how a home magically comes to life again when its owners return from a vacation, or like when you turn on the radio in an empty room. A warm sort of reassurance that can only come from intentional presence.
I’m sorry. I’m here.
Jaemin presses a number of velvety tendrils around Jeno’s middle, hugging, and in return Jeno subtly places his hands on his stomach and presses back. He’s pretty sure he looks vaguely like a newly pregnant woman cradling her unborn child in the womb, dopey smile and all, but whatever.
You should pick out those three... Jaemin says, highlighting them in Jeno’s vision as he refers to the creatures in the tank. And then that one, for us to nibble on.
Jeno regrets that suggestion a little. I am not going to enjoy that experience, am I.
The tendrils around his torso morph shape, and he feels the awful sensation of tiny suction cups pulling away from his skin only to smush back on again. Each one makes his stomach tense involuntarily—it tickles. Jeno doubles over slightly and hopes desperately that his coat is thick enough to hide the obvious movement under his shirt.
Oh, no, we are going to enjoy it immensely.
When Renjun and his mother find Jeno a few minutes later, he’s holding the bags of live octopus carefully, and looks very red in the face.
“What happened to you?” Renjun asks.
Jeno shakes his head. He may have to explain the dozens of little red suction marks on his stomach to him later, but he isn’t about to do it now. “Nothing, I’m fine. Let’s go before these things find a way to escape on their own.”
Secreting a whole small octopus away from the rest of the groceries isn’t the easiest thing Jeno’s ever managed to do. The flurry of bringing bags inside the house, however, and the added distraction of loud Christmas music playing while his father fails to be helpful in favor of being entirely in the way, provides enough cacophony for one small sea creature to go missing.
He makes a quick trip to the bathroom, leaving Renjun only with a cryptic text about rendezvousing in his bedroom, and meets him there five minutes later with a queasy look on his face.
Renjun returns his look with one of pure confusion, sitting on the carpet with his phone balanced in one hand. “Babe...what on earth does ‘gotta swallow something gross, brb meet in my room in five’ mean? Like, what was I supposed to take from that?”
“I just ate an octopus.”
“Those are for dinner.”
“No, this one was for Jaemin.”
Renjun’s eyes narrow, then his jaw drops slightly open. “Oh...that is gross,” he grimaces.
Jeno plops down next to him, letting himself crumple onto the floor and sigh deeply. If he doesn’t think too hard about what he—really, Jaemin, since he took the initiative to encompass Jeno and swallow the thing himself—just ate, he can just enjoy feeling not hungry for the moment. But that only deals with one emptiness inside of them, and not the other, much more disheartening one.
There’s a sound of plastic scraping against more plastic followed by a happy purr-chirp, and within seconds Bongsik pads delicately around Jeno’s face, sniffing at him. It’s nice that this attention doesn’t make him descend into a fit of sneezing anymore. A moment later Jaemin stretches himself out behind Jeno, bending and reaching over him to coo at the cat and pet her silky fur.
He looks up at Renjun, who’s giving them that sweet, beatific smile, the one that could fool anyone into thinking he can’t turn around and shred someone with his wit a minute later. Jeno knows that, directed at them, it’s one-hundred percent affectionate, if at the moment a bit despondent.
“You’re thinking about what my mom said, aren’t you,” Jeno says.
Renjun nods, his soft gold hair falling over his eyes. “It was hard to hear.”
“Yeah…”Jeno bites at his lip, watching as Jaemin pretends not to listen to them while playing with the cat. He’s quickly shrunk from a human-ish shape to his nebulous one, a sure sign he’s feeling less than chipper. “I guess for the time being we just have to keep you a secret, Jaem.”
“I suppose I’m named Hide for a reason.”
“Oh, babe, not like that…” Renjun scoots forward, nudging the cat away and cupping his thin fingers over Jaemin, patting soothingly. The symbiote curls into the touch, nuzzling Renjun’s hand before gradually transmuting to match it, fingers intertwining fingers and the rest of him growing human-shaped again enough to wrap another arm around Renjun’s neck and tuck his face there too. Jeno sits up and reaches to card a hand through Jaemin’s pink hair, soft as satin, and for a minute they both just hold him.
Then someone downstairs increases the volume of the Christmas music, the not-so dulcet tones of Feliz Navidad echoing throughout the house and reminding Jeno that they need to come up with a plan for the evening ahead of them.
Settling back, Jeno pinches the bridge of his nose and exhales lengthily, trying to problem-solve. “I have to eat dinner, somehow,” he announces.
Jaemin slides out of his hug around Renjun and gives Jeno a look, one eyebrow raised as if challenging, then dissolves unceremoniously into his spaghetti state again like he can’t decide what shape to be today. Bongsik immediately flops down and bats at the pink-gold matter, purring.
“You’ve done well so far at pretending to eat, you can’t keep that up?” proposes Renjun, his eyes leisurely following the war of fluffy cat paw versus symbiote goop.
“She’ll know something is wrong with me, if I don’t eat it. It’s my favorite meal, Renjun.”
“So...try to eat it?”
Jaemin’s rose-pink bubble-gum matter does an angry sort of ripple. “Gross.”
“I can’t. I’ll throw up, or Jaemin will do something obvious like spit it back out. Trust me, I’ve tried.”
Renjun frowns at the symbiote. “Jaem, can’t you cut him a break? It’s for your own good, too.”
Bongsik purrs loudly as the alien nuzzles her fur. “It’s so gross,” he repeats, “also, my material element literally cannot use any of that for energy, consequently Jeno cannot properly digest and metabolize it. Unless there’s another spare brain full of phenethylamine lying around, we’re stuck with chocolate and the occasional potato.”
Jeno groans, feeling his hope disappear. With only a little over an hour until dinner, his hands start to shake with stress. He squeezes his fists and then flattens them and tucks them under his legs, pressing into the carpet.
“If only there was somewhere we could...put him…” muses Renjun, poking little spaces into the carpet tread mindlessly with a finger.
“He can’t breathe,” Jeno reminds, “and I don’t exactly own an airtight hyperbaric chamber.”
“I know...but just temporarily…”
Jaemin turns and looks up at Jeno. “Ooh, can we ask Jisung if I can hangout with him for tonight?!”
Even in the somewhat dire circumstance, and with so few options, Jeno rejects the idea almost immediately. He trusts Jaemin with his life, with all their lives probably, but he will never forget the first time he saw Jisung disappear to give way for Jaemin, and he doesn’t believe he can ever handle that again.
“No, Jisung has to eat with his family too.” Luckily, this is true. “Them finding you there is about a million times worse than mom, here.”
His features are vague and almost snakelike and small, but Jeno can still make out that Jaemin is pouting about it.
Then Renjun makes a considering sound, tilts his head in thought. “Huh...maybe…”
Jeno peers at him, trying to read his mind, then follows his gaze instead. He’s looking at Bongsik. Jeno doesn’t get it, and then he does.
“What?” Jaemin stops nuzzling the cat and looks between them both, before huffing and zipping up to Jeno’s mind for answers. Jeno shudders with the yelp of surprise Jaemin lets out when he discovers their idea. “You want me to stay with the cat?” he blurts, incredulous, as a slightly larger and angrier manifestation of him appears again, eyes glinting.
Renjun nods. “What’s wrong with it? A little smaller than a leopard, sure, but you can make it work, right?”
Jeno picks up Bongsik, holding the happily blinking cat protectively against his chin. “How dare you. She’s perfect.”
“She’s a house cat! You want to entrust the life of your space boyfriend, hundreds of years old and a superior lifeform, to a house cat?” It seems ridiculous that a stretchy blob like he is can somehow be intimidating, and yet Jaemin manages it, sharp teeth on display and voice subtly hissing past his long tongue.
Bongsik takes the opportunity to lick Jeno’s chin twice, then try and bite him. Holding her slightly further from his face, he tries not to laugh. “Honestly, I think you have a lot in common.”
Renjun breaks into laughter, Jeno matching him, and they both ignore Jaemin’s continuing arguments. It’s not like they have another option.
Jeno glances down at the side of his chair, feeling so apologetic even as his taste buds revel in the flavor of his mother’s cooking. The feline face looking back may be Bongsik’s, but the glare is all Jaemin.
“She must have missed you, sweetheart,” his mother comments, ladling another serving of jjampong into his dish.
He swallows his mouthful and ignores the muted snicker from Renjun. “That must be it,” he replies.
The warm stew pours into his bowl. “Don’t give her the seafood, even if she begs for it,” she reminds him.
“I don’t think she wants any…”
He doesn’t think, he knows that in her current state the cat would never touch the stuff, and the dead giveaway is the terse flick of the cat’s tail. Honestly, it’s lucky she was a yellow-eyed cat to begin with, because the judgemental shine of gold as Jaemin refuses to break his stare ought to make anyone pause. They had both encouraged him to just stay in Jeno’s room for the evening, but Jeno’s not surprised Jaemin prefers to sit right at his foot between his and Renjun’s chairs, his presence ensuring they don’t forget for a moment how they’ve wronged him.
The meal is just as good as Jeno remembers it, and for a while he gets comfortable, the four of them eating companionably while cat-Jaemin keeps relatively calm. He doesn’t expect his mother to grow suddenly quiet.
“Well, I’ve missed you, Jeno.”
Jeno glances up quickly. This change of tone isn’t something he’s prepared for.
“Honey, you promised you wouldn’t do this,” his father reminds, and moves a hand onto her arm. She shakes her head, keeping her eyes down, and Jeno prays she isn’t going to cry, because he has no idea how to handle that.
“I can’t help it. Can’t I miss my son when he doesn’t visit home for over a year? When he barely calls? I’m not sure what prompted you to come home this holiday, but...but I’m just so…” she inhales shakily.
Renjun quietly lowers his spoon, and Jeno can basically feel the discomfort radiating off him. He imagines he’s radiating the same, his face growing hot in shame and embarrassment. Jaemin pads closer and puts a paw on his foot.
“Mom, I’m sorry—” Jeno attempts, directionless with how to apologize more from there.
She sniffles. “Were you afraid to share your life with us?”
There’s no way to hide his shock. Yes. He’s afraid of exactly that, of his family looking at him like he’s a foreign object, of them crying out in fear and disgust. Of the words, “how awful,” but directed at him, not at something on the TV. He’s afraid of them looking that way at Jaemin, who is sweet and supportive and who, in spite of his alien nature, pushes Jeno to be even more human. Jaemin protects them and dotes on his friends and loved ones… and Jeno is afraid of them looking at him with horror, and what they might do because of it.
Afraid to share his life with them? Yes, very much.
Jeno can’t answer. He doesn’t know how. He can’t explain the truth if he tells it and he can’t lie, not on Christmas Eve while his mother’s eyes brim with tears and his father’s shoulders sag.
The very worst part is how alone these thoughts are inside his head, no reassuring words or calm suggestions from Jaemin’s soothing voice. Jeno would give up eating every food he’s ever liked for the rest of his life, to never feel alone at a time like this again.
When he says nothing, his mom bites her lip and searches his face, looks to Renjun as well. “Why did you…” she hesitates, “why did you think you couldn’t tell me? You two...don’t you know it makes me happy to see you together? Renjun is so lovely, Jeno. I would have loved knowing him sooner.”
Static fizzes over Jeno’s brain like a TV with no signal. What? He opens his mouth, trying to understand—
“It was my fault, Mrs. Lee,” Renjun interjects, before Jeno can come up with something. “I was nervous and I asked him to wait. I’m sorry for hurting you, keeping him away like that. Please don’t be upset with Jeno.”
Jeno’s astonishment turns to Renjun, then. He lies so earnestly, face held in firm resolve to take the fault onto himself, when he hasn’t even been in the picture long enough to account for all of it. Jeno realizes with an icy feeling that this is becoming a habit, Renjun lying for him—the only thing he hates more than that knowledge is that there’s nothing he can do about it.
“Oh honey, no, I won’t be upset...I mean, yes, I am upset, but just because I didn’t understand. But you’re right, I didn’t think...you of course would need time too. Of course. You don’t know how happy I am that you’re here now, though. It’s just been today but I can tell, you’re so good together.” Jeno’s father nods, obviously content to agree without words, as his mother finishes gushing.
Renjun blushes, and there’s a wideness to his eyes that’s something like disbelief. Jeno reaches for his hand under the table, squeezes it tight. Renjun’s fingers are shaking.
“Oh, what am I going on about, I’ve completely ruined this dinner!”
“Mom, no, it’s fine!” Jeno finally finds his words, jumping in to try and change the mood. “I missed you too, but now I’m—” how awful!...you don’t know how happy I am… ”I’m happy to be home.”
She smiles, wiping away a loose tear, and through some awkward laughs they manage to continue dinner. Renjun keeps hold of Jeno’s hand, though.
From the floor, cat-Jaemin hops lightly into Jeno’s lap, bumping his small head against Jeno’s stomach. He sets his spoon down momentarily and pet’s the animal, not even sure what he’d say to him if they could speak to one another at that moment.
Jeno finishes eating, but he no longer tastes it. The echoes in his head are too conflicting, a disruptive mixture of disgust and approval, of antipathy and love. It’s too much, he thinks. He won’t be able to live between lies for too long.
The plan was for Jeno to retreat briefly after dinner and relieve Jaemin, but the announcement of desert and subsequent adjournment to the cozy den force them into a delay. This incites obvious annoyance in Jaemin, who weaves around Jeno’s feet with obvious intention as he tries to walk, always just a hair away from tripping. His parents express amused confusion, and Renjun just laughs.
Jeno’s father settles onto his easy chair, adjusting his glasses and smiling approvingly as Jeno and Renjun take seats on the couch, close but not too close. Perhaps if Jeno had known Renjun was such a model boyfriend, he would have brought him home sooner.
Jaemin jumps lightly into the thin slice of space between them, sitting tall and, for anyone with a keen sense, oddly possessively for a cat.
“I’ll be right back with desert,” his mom states, giving Renjun’s shoulder a little squeeze as she passes.
Soft purrs emanate from the animal as Renjun scritches behind its ears, impossible to say whether it’s Jaemin or Bongsik enjoying it more. “Didn’t you say you have three cats?” Renjun asks.
“We do,” answers Jeno’s dad, clearing his throat, “but Seol-ie is older and Lal-ie is very shy, so Bongsik-ie is really the only one we see much. Although normally she isn’t this...cuddly?” He frowns lightly, watching Bongsik roll and nose against Renjun’s leg like the behavior is one of his data sets that has stopped making sense.
“I told you, it’s because Jeno’s home. She’s always liked him best.”
Mom returns with a tray of dessert plates, each one topped with a generous slice of cake. Jeno’s dad makes an appreciative sound as she sets the tray down on the ottoman and proceeds to hand off plates, while Jeno and Renjun pass each other a furtive glance.
The cake is deeply, lusciously, mouth-wateringly chocolate.
“I’ve been perfecting this recipe, one of the guys at work is an ex-pastry chef and he passed it along to me.” Passing a plate to Jeno, she gives him a bright smile along with it. “Tell me what you think!”
With large pieces of the dessert on either side at face-level, the cat sitting between Renjun and Jaemin squirms onto it’s feet and sniffs, pupils dilating with interest. The feline’s front paws prod insistently at Jeno’s thigh, demanding his attention along with pleading meows.
Jeno shoots a look at Renjun. Renjun shrugs.
“Ah, shi—uh, shoot,” Jeno exclaims suddenly, bending forward a hint and cupping a hand over one eye.
Shuffling the plate out of his lap, Jeno stands from the couch, keeping his eye covered. “It’s fine, mom. My contact just fell out...I’ll be right back.” He exits the den, angling for the upstairs bathroom. The moment he’s out of sight of the others, Jeno drops his hand and takes the stairs at double. He can hear the soft, four-paw pitter-patter following him, and holds the bathroom door open for the cat that catches up seconds later.
Jeno closes the door and turns to find cat-Jaemin perched on the sink, gold eyes blinking happily at him.
“Alright, come on then. Let Bongsik go back to her regular cat business.”
He holds out a hand, creating a bridge for Jaemin to slide across. Instead of moving immediately, the small jaw opens wide and sharp little cat teeth snap over Jeno’s finger.
“Ow! You—!” Jeno jerks his hand back and wrings it, shaking the sting away. “Really?...okay, fine, that’s probably deserved. But I’m trying to get us both back to some good chocolate here, remember?”
Jeno’s phone vibrates once where he’s set it down on the counter. He ignores it.
The cat winds around the sink, purring and smiling as much as a cat can. Jeno steps up to the porcelain, gripping his hands over the edge and waiting for cat-Jaemin to settle between his forearms. The tiny face tilts up and Jeno leans down, letting the soft nose boop against his own. “Are you ready now?” he asks, and gets a little nod in return.
The cat seems to shiver, eyes losing the golden-tint, and Jeno knows Jaemin has started to come back to him. He watches the rise of pink-gold matter, how it undulates and reaches out to find his skin, creeping snakelike over his elbow towards his neck. The goosebumps that bloom on his skin from the sensation feel nice, and Jeno ignores another buzz from his phone in favor of focusing on them. A slower transition is always smoother, and more comfortable when not interrupted.
But Jeno has forgotten that interruptions come many ways, and are by nature usually outside one’s own control or expectation.
Jaemin is about halfway home when the bathroom door opens, and Jeno’s mother steps partially into the room.
“Jeno honey, did Bongsik come in here? I don’t know why she is so underfoot to….day…” the words die on her lips as Jeno meets her eyes, his reflection in the mirror leaving no doubt of what picture she’s seeing at that moment. Her only son, eyes wide with shock and fear...her pet, squirming unnaturally...and between them, an alien form stretched and contorting, stringing out of the cat’s body and wrapping around the boy’s neck.
Jeno has seen what this looks like from an objective view. He isn’t oblivious. To him, Jaemin is beautiful in every shape, a strange and fascinating miracle he’s come to appreciate.
To his mother, an alien is strangling her son.
“J-Jeno?” her voice is small and laced with the tremor of terror. She cowers back from the door.
The center of Jeno feels like it’s gone hollow, and he can’t deal with this, he simply doesn’t know how—he didn't at dinner, and he hasn't had any bright ideas since then. He’s spent over a year trying to figure it out, with no conclusion.
He’s too numb to function, and it's no surprise Jaemin instantly takes over.
The speed with which Jaemin finishes leaving Bongsik and re-bonds with Jeno outruns any of their previous transfers, and before Jeno’s knees can completely buckle Jaemin wraps over him. Jeno sees his mother witness the transformation, her son becoming another person just like Jeno watched it happen to Jisung, and he pains at the look on her face.
“We’re so sorry,” half-Jeno, half-Jaemin chokes out.
When none of Jeno is left visible, finally, she screams.
Flight response activates, and Jaemin propels them from the room at inhuman velocity, sliding past his mother even as she stumbles back and into the opposite wall, slumping to the carpet in shock. They bypass Jeno’s room, not stopping to grab anything before leaping down half the staircase. As they do, Jeno’s father swings into view, distress and confusion covering his face.
“What’s happening?! Who are—”
Jeno has never really had reason to experience Jaemin’s ability to move beyond human capacity before, but it takes nothing for the symbiote to bound off the wall and maneuver around the older man, aiming for the den. Renjun is there at the threshold, face stricken with worry that only increases as they come into his view.
“Jaemin?!” Renjun glances at the stairs, from which direction crying can be heard. “Oh no,” he gasps, and it’s all he has time to say before they grasp his wrist and bolt for the front door. Jaemin flings out two extensions, one to open the door and one to grab Renjun’s shoes, before they escape into the dimly lit street. He doesn’t ask Jeno where to go, only pulls the way to Chenle’s house from his memories and heads there, scooping Renjun up close to keep him warm against the cold air.
“Jeno! Wait!” a voice calls after them.
Jaemin doesn’t stop, the need in Jeno’s mind to be elsewhere too strong to be overruled. Only Renjun looks back, sparing a long glance for the father figure standing in the doorway, calling out to his son on Christmas Eve.
The house where the Zhong family lives is the kind of large where if you were to be in one end of it, you might completely miss what was happening in the other. Entirely separate accounts of any given day could be given over dinner, based on which rooms each member decided to occupy. Once, Chenle recounted a story of a day where a bird got into the home theatre, creating a disturbance three-hours long for his mom and the housekeeper. Meanwhile Chenle’s father and brother worked on a model yacht together in almost utter silence. Chenle was oblivious to all of this while studying. The day’s events only got revealed a week later, when Mr. Zhong asked if anyone knew how their first model yacht had been destroyed—he’d gone to put the finished new one with it, and found it in pieces—prompting the story of the home theatre destruction, and Chenle exclaiming that it explained where the parakeet he’d been keeping in the small garden he’d started on the west patio had got to. No one else had noticed there was a garden on the patio.
This story is something Jaemin remembers, but not because he was there when it was told. He has the memory, but it isn’t his—it just explains where he’s currently sitting, cuddled around Jeno as he sleeps with his head in Renjun’s lap, on a guest room bed with far too many decorative throw pillows.
The house is very big. Only one quarter of the family knows they’re in it. It’s very different from Jeno’s house, which Jaemin wonders if he’ll ever see again.
Next to him, Renjun sighs long and deeply, his chin dipped down nearly to his chest as he combs fingers through Jeno’s hair. He looks exhausted, but he’s already refused to fall asleep, too consumed with worry over their boyfriend. Jaemin could knock him out if he wanted, poke a pressure point and make him rest, but he doesn’t think that’s the right thing to do currently.
“I’ll come back tomorrow afternoon,” a voice whispers lowly outside the door—Jisung, only able to sneak away from his family for fifteen minutes to answer the distress call from Chenle.
The distance and door are no challenge for Jaemin to hear Chenle’s response through.
“Don’t rush, I think he’ll be out for a while. Those two have got him.”
“I know, I just want to talk to Jeno. I don’t like not knowing what happened. Last time he was like this was when Jaemin first showed up, and neither of you told me exactly what happened to me for a month. Not interested in a repeat of that.”
The tone of Jisung’s whisper stings Jaemin a little, and he snuggles down further behind Jeno, burying his face at his human’s nape.
The two younger boys talk quietly a little longer, mostly making plans for the next day, and Jisung leaves shortly after. The door opens and Chenle pokes his blonde head into the room.
“I’m going back to bed,” he informs, “but text me right away if you need anything. The drawers over there are full of random stuff for guests, so you can check those first if you want.”
“Thanks,” says Renjun, fingers briefly stilling behind Jeno’s ear.
Chenle smiles, eyes crinkling. “Sure.” His face softens again, glancing at his sleeping friend. “Sleep as long as you want. We can deal with all this later. My family did gifts and all earlier this evening, so tomorrow we probably won’t even bother with each other until dinner. We’ve got time.”
Renjun nods, and Jaemin notes how he pinches his lips tight.
“By the way,” Chenle adds, pausing just before closing the door again, “Merry Christmas.”
Holidays aren’t something Jaemin has a strong personal concept of, more than the memories he can review for context. They’re important for humans… he thinks, that much is obvious. Seeing Renjun slowly nodding off, frown permanently fixed to his face, and Jeno with eyes puffy and red from crying, merry is the last thing Jaemin would call this day. So far, from the ones he’s spent with Jeno—one depressingly in the dorms, now painfully amidst family—he doesn’t think they’re supposed to be like this. But if he looks for a reason why...the only common factor he can see is himself.
Morning has well passed by the time Jeno wakes up. He’s warm, and when he breathes out something soft flutters against his chin. Immediately he tilts his head to press his cheek against Renjun’s honey hair, reaching blindly to hug him closer.
“Mm...so glad you’re here….thank you for being here…” he whispers, the words crackling in his sleep-dry mouth. Whether the movement or the words wakes him, Jeno can’t say, but Renjun noses against his chest in a sleepy sort of nod.
If we’re all awake now, Chenle’s been checking since about noon. We should probably go let him know we’re all alive.
Jeno sighs, reluctant to move. “Let’s go find Chenle.”
He makes to get up, pushing back on an elbow, but pauses when Renjun moves quicker, bringing small warm fingers up to Jeno’s cheeks and meeting his eyes.
“Hey, I—” Renjun hesitates, some word not making it past his lips. He swallows, then pulls Jeno down and presses a soul-bearing kiss to his lips. The kind that feels like it means something, though Jeno doesn’t know exactly what. It lasts a few moments, then Renjun releases him. “It’s going to be ok,” he says.
Half of Jeno believes him, and half asserts that it certainly doesn’t feel that way. He just nods.
Realizing they don’t have any of their things with them,—Jeno left his phone, doesn’t even have shoes —they rummage around in the drawers Chenle referenced and scrounge up some of his brother’s hand-me-down clothes. Renjun eyes them with a look somewhere between impressed and disapproving; they’re all too big for him, and all expensive, and all so lightly worn some still have the tags on.
Jeno smirks. “Welcome to the Zhong household. If you find something you like, you can keep it.”
Renjun French-tucks the end of the overly-long, borrowed maroon sweater into his own jeans and rolls his eyes. He looks exceptionally cute, drowning in it.
Finding Chenle after they’ve pulled themselves together isn’t as hard as it might be; luckily, they’re in the part of the house that Jeno is familiar with, and it’s only a couple of hallways and a flight of stairs to his friend’s room. He knocks on the door once, and they enter to find the boy sitting on the floor in front of his bed, deep in a video game with a bowl of cereal beside him along with his phone.
He looks up at them brightly, pausing the game. “Cocopuffs?”
Jaemin makes an affirmative desiring sound in Jeno’s mind. The room is huge, but Jeno knows it well and heads for the corner with the mini-fridge, leaving a still-awed Renjun to blink around in amazement.
It doesn’t take long for them to settle near Chenle with their food, quietly eating as he plays his game, and Jeno takes the opportunity to study his younger friend a little. Without Jisung around, it’s easier to remember that he’s a year older, and that it was only his family’s moving around when he was little that held him back a year. Even still, there’s a marked difference between the Chenle from when Jeno first left for college, and the one sitting calmly beside him now.
When did he mature like this? Jaemin wonders for them both. There’s a patience and a confidence to him that neither of them noticed before, and Jeno finds himself with a glowing ache like pride in his chest.
Chenle pauses his game again when they’re nearly finished, setting the whole thing aside and meeting Jeno’s eyes with a kind smile.
“First of all, you can stay here as long as you need to,” he says, “and if you don’t want my family to know I won’t tell them.” He reaches out a hand, and Jeno accepts it.
Jaemin heaves an odd sort of internal sigh.
Chenle continues. “Second...Jisungie should be here soon, so then you can tell us why exactly Jaemin was all visible and dumping the both of you on my doorstep. I mean, you’re welcome any time, but some warning is better usually.”
His mother’s horrified face flashes across Jeno’s mental eye, and he winces. “I slipped up, they know about Jaemin.”
Face faltering only slightly, Chenle lets out a breath. “I hoped it wasn’t that. Let’s wait for ‘Sungie.”
“Yeah, okay.” Jeno takes his hand back from Chenle and settles on the floor, smiling half-heartedly in response to Renjun’s supportive glance.
Yeah, what is it?
I’ve been thinking.
The way he says it feels strange. They think together, Jeno wants to say. It shouldn’t be different.
Do you remember what I said, about trust? About humans needing family?
What about it.
There’s a shift in Jeno’s mind, like Jaemin has moved closer to him somehow. As if he’s protecting him, or steadying him before something difficult. A pool of dread curls in Jeno’s stomach.
Jeno. Your family loves you. You, not us. Not me.
Jeno tenses, sitting straighter and hands fisting.
Stop. Shut up.
Jeno, I think I should go.
“No!” Jeno shouts, jumping up. Vaguely he can feel the others around him, but it’s like all he can see is red. Renjun seems to be speaking to him but he can’t hear it, can only focus on the way Jaemin is trying to calm him internally while still making such an insane suggestion.
It’s okay, Jeno. If I go, you’ll be alright.
“Stop saying that!” Jeno grabs his head, squeezes his eyes shut. “Stop it!”
Please calm down, you’re not breathing—
That much Jeno knows. He’s gasping, like the air around him has thinned, and he feels completely dizzy. Stumbling forward, he pushes past Renjun and out of the room, searching for the bathroom he knows is nearby somewhere. He pushes a door open and finds a cold marble countertop with a sink, and slams the door behind him, ignoring the jumbled yelling that’s following him. It’s too much. He locks the door.
Why did you take us here, Jeno?
Jeno braces himself on the counter and stares into the mirror, knowing what he’ll see. It’s not his own reflection that stares back at him, but Jaemin’s, and at least he looks less confident than he sounds. Hurt crowds around his golden eyes, his lips turn down at the corners.
“Look at me and tell me you want to leave,” Jeno challenges, his voice breaking around the words.
I didn’t say I want to. I said maybe I should.
“And just where are you gonna go?!”
I’ll find another host somewhere...I heard there’s websites of people looking to be hosts. Maybe that.
“The fuck I’m letting some alien-fetishist freak have you!! You can’t just replace me!!”
Not replacing, freeing.
There is pounding at the door, along with frantic voices. “Jeno! What’s going on?!?” Renjun calls, obvious panic in his voice. Jeno glances at the door, and back.
“What about Renjun??”
He has you. You have each other. Jaemin’s eyes soften, and Jeno can feel that knowing this reassures the symbiote, which is so incredibly unfair, it makes Jeno crazy to hear.
“No, you can’t just say that. You said we’re yours! We are going to figure this out together!”
“Open the door, Jeno!! Please!!”
This is figuring it out, Jeno. This is us realizing that maybe it’s not just your favorite food I’m starving you of. I’ve already almost starved you of friendships, I’m not going to starve you of your family. The four of you having dinner together last night...that was good. It was picture perfect. You didn’t need me at all.
Jeno slaps a hand against the glass, hard, and the mirror trembles with the impact.
“You know that isn’t true,” he seethes, anger flaring up alongside the hurt. He forces his own memory of the previous night to the forefront of him mind, all the stress and loneliness and wishing Jaemin was with him through it. “See? Not true.”
The reflection of Jaemin’s hand on the mirror aligns with Jeno’s, fingertip to fingertip. It’s like he’s standing in front of him, like a full person unto himself. Like he’s separate, even though the voice is all in Jeno’s mind. Jaemin’s expression mirrors Jeno’s pain, but with an added note of resignation and Jeno hates how stubborn he is, how self-sacrificing. He knows what Jaemin’s going to say even before he says it.
But I was the reason you felt that way at all. I was the reason for your fear.
Jeno notices he’s crying when he drops his head and sees a tear fall into the sink. With Jaemin as his reflection, he couldn’t see them before, barely feels them now.
“That doesn’t matter, if you’re the reason I’m happy too…” The words come out hardly more than a whimper. “Why are you trying to leave me?”
Because you could be happier.
The door flies open, and Jeno turns to it in teary-eyed shock as three separate figures come barging in. He expects Renjun, but it’s Jisung who surges forward and seizes him, lanky arms wrapping around Jeno’s shoulders and holding Jeno’s head to his shoulder. The hazy realization that Jisung’s gotten big enough to cuddle him, combined with his relief at his presence in the midst of Jeno’s compounded misery, breaks him down into full sobs.
“Hey, hey you’re ok,” Jisung murmurs, one of his weirdly big hands petting Jeno’s hair. “What were you doing in here to get like this?”
Jeno grips into Jisung’s sweater tightly and tries to speak, stuttering through uneven breaths, “H-he...trying-ng...leave m-me…” It’s all he can get out.
“No one’s leaving anyone, alright? No one is leaving. It’s ok, you’re ok.”
A hand closes softly over Jeno’s fist where he’s clutching at Jisung’s back, and he reflexively opens to hold it, squeezing tight over fingers he knows belong to Renjun.
Chenle quietly suggests they move back to his room; this involves a bit of shuffling as Jeno refuses to let go of Jisung, but eventually they get him to where he can sit on Chenle’s bed and has calmed to mostly sniffles. While Jeno leans against his younger friend, pointedly not touching the sorrowful wordlessness inside that is Jaemin, Renjun pads the tears from under his eyes with careful fingers.
“Think you can tell us what happened, yet?” Jisung asks, after a few minutes.
He doesn’t, actually. Just beginning to skim back over the events of the previous day sends an anxious wave rolling over him, complete with cold sweat. Jeno shuts his eyes tight and shakes his head.
“Junnie can you…” he asks.
Renjun slips an arm around his waist, rubbing a soothing thumb over his hip, and start calmly retelling the day like it’s a historical account. He tells how welcoming Jeno’s parents were, how they managed to playoff Jeno’s inability to eat pretty well. Then he talks about the shopping, and the story on the news. When Renjun shares the words Jeno’s mom said in the ice cream shop, Chenle gasps, and Jisung goes momentarily stiff.
“Oh yikes…” breathes Chenle, eyes full of sympathy while looking at Jeno.
It’ll be easier to let go.
Jeno bites the inside of his cheek, hard, ignoring Jaemin. “Tell them about dinner.”
Renjun does, explaining their plan with the cat, and the unanticipated dramatics from his mom, and finally of course the presentation of a dessert Jaemin could never pass up. When he gets that far, Renjun hesitates, squeezing Jeno’s hand.
“The rest...I wasn’t in the room...when she followed you I tried to text to warn you but…”
Through a shuddering breath, Jeno takes over the story. “You didn’t miss much,” he says, “and even if I had seen the warning I don’t know if it would have mattered. She caught us in the middle of rebonding, and Jaemin went into crisis mode the next second. My own mom screamed like she saw a monster.”
We’re not a monster, Jeno. But I am if I keep tearing up your life.
Jeno drops his head onto Jisung’s shoulder. Please. Please stop.
Chenle lets out a knowing hum. “So after that was when you showed up here.”
“Not many other places we could really go.”
“I would have been pissed if you went anywhere else!” Chenle quips back, his earnestness lightening the mood just a little. Renjun manages a light chuckle, a small smile.
They’re left with the problem, however, of what comes next. In the cold quiet of Jeno’s mind, Jaemin still hasn’t let go of the conviction that his departure is the best solution—he nudges with it, trying to make Jeno comfortable with the idea by offering images of his life before being bonded, of his family on vacations and gathered for birthdays. They’re good memories, but Jeno still thinks they’re better to look back on together.
Finally, after a heavy silence, Chenle asks, “You said...he’s trying to leave? Jaemin?”
“He thinks he’s setting me free. Us free.”
Renjun’s grip on Jeno’s hand becomes vice-like, sucking in a sharp, surprised breath. “He can’t!”
“No one needs to go anywhere, except back to your house, Jen,” Jisung interjects calmly, the first words he’s spoken since the story began. Jeno pulls away from his shoulder, sitting back to look at him. Jisung shows no sign of confusion or distress; in fact, he looks happy.
Tilting so he can reach into his back pocket for a moment, Jisung withdraws a rather bent, unsealed envelope. He smooths it out as best he can, trying to flatten it against his thigh before holding it out for Jeno. Jeno takes the envelope carefully, a crease in his brow.
“Your mom came to my house today…” Jisung starts, giving Jeno pause. “She was pretty upset, but mostly because she really thought you would be there. Don’t know why she didn’t think of here too. Anyway, when you weren’t, she wrote this and asked me to give it to you, if I knew where you were.”
Thick cardstock crinkles under Jeno’s fingers as he grips the envelope too tight, afraid to even think what might be inside.
Jisung gives him an encouraging smile. “It’s ok, open it.”
With no small amount of trepidation, and with Renjun leaning over his shoulder, Jeno slides the contents of the envelope out, a little surprised to be met with a cheery Christmas card. He flips it open, and the generic holiday wishes have been messily scribbled out and replaced with his mother’s hasty scrawling.
We love you. Come home, please. Come home, all of you.
“All” is underlined multiple times, the word’s meaning unmistakable. It’s not, “come home, once you’re rid of that thing,” or “come home, you’re in trouble.” Just...come home, all of you.
Suddenly Jeno can’t see. Renjun takes the card before too many tears fall on it.
Jisung pulls him back into another hug, patiently patting his back while Jeno cries in relief.
“Jeno...go talk to your mom,” he says.
In a borrowed car from the Zhong’s, Renjun drives them back to Jeno’s house, following his muttered directions while he and Jaemin fidget nervously in the passenger seat. Even with the card gripped in their hands as encouragement, the ride stays mostly silent. How will this go? Is this acceptance, or grit-teeth acknowledgement of a displeasing new reality? What will they be greeted with when they open the door?
As they pull up to the house, it seems they don’t have to go that far to find out. His mom sits wrapped in a blanket in the middle of the driveway, and jumps up the moment the car begins to slow. Jeno gets hardly halfway out of his seat before her arms circle around his neck.
“Oh thank god,” she says, through a choked-up laugh, “you scared me so much!”
“Inside, It’s too cold out here. Renjun, you too sweetie, come on.”
They make their way inside, and the door opens for them, Jeno’s dad looking up in surprise from the steaming mug he’s holding. “Oh, I’ll just...bring your tea to the den, then?”
Dragging them by the hand into the house, Jeno’s mom suggests, “Yes, and set the kettle on again, I think we’ll need another cup. And...a hot chocolate.”
Jaemin does something like an excited flutter. She’s...thinking of me?
Of us, Jaem. Yeah, I think so.
Settling in the den feels like a weird deja vu, an inverted version of the previous evening. There are no cats to be seen, and Jaemin jitters in the back of Jeno’s mind, a representation of the anticipation they both feel. As before, Renjun sits down on the couch beside them, but this time close, his grip on their hand so tight there might as well be superglue between their fingers. While his dad makes the warm drinks, Jeno’s mom paces and rambles the past twenty-four hours’ worries at them: that they left so quickly, that she didn’t know where they could get to without a car, the frustration in realizing Jeno left his phone…
Finally, as his dad sets mugs beside them, she pulls the ottoman up close in front of Jeno’s chair and sits, grasping his free hand.
“The point is, Jeno, please tell us these things! You’ve done this ever since you were little, always running away whenever you thought you did something wrong. You should know by now, when it comes to us, there’s nothing you have to hide. ”
Oh, Jeno. Please.
Jeno takes a deep, deep breath. “Then I won’t.”
“There’s someone else in there with my baby, isn’t there?”
“Yes,” Jeno admits shakily, “like you saw yesterday on the news. That’s...that’s me too, with Jaemin.”
She smiles, repeating the name. “Jaemin?” Jeno nods.
“But mom...you called it...that other symbiote, you called it awful. Why am I different?”
Renjun grips his hand impossibly tighter, the three of them bracing each other in the subtlest way. Even at this point Jeno’s fear wavers on a peak.
Of all the unexpected responses, his mother lets out an incredulous laugh. “Different?” She shakes her head. “Jeno, you will always be different from any other person to me, because you’re my son. You’ll be the exception every time. But I wasn’t talking about the symbiote. Those people were in a train accident on Christmas Eve. That was the awful part! I’m so sorry I didn’t finish my thought, and let you misunderstand. I truly think it was a miracle that that man and the symbiote with him were there and able to keep anyone from being killed. They weren’t awful at all.”
Jeno’s throat has gone completely dry, and tight in the way it always feels when he knows he’s going to cry. The thing is...he feels like an idiot, an idiot so blinded by his fear that he forgot what kind of person his own mother was, enough to believe she could hate when she had only ever raised him in generous love.
“Then,” he swallows, holding back the doubled emotion that Jaemin feels as well, “why did you scream last night, when you saw Jaemin and me?”
Her smile goes soft, almost embarrassed. “Like you wouldn’t? Just because I don’t hate...Jaemin? Jaemin, doesn’t mean I was mentally prepared to see you covered in sticky pink alien. I think I deserve a little time to adjust to that.”
Her words make Jaemin giggle weakly, and Jeno can’t help but copy him, even if a tear slips out with it. His mom is already crying a little anyway, so he doesn’t feel embarrassed about it.
From just behind her, where he’s pulled a dining room chair over to sit in closer range, Jeno’s dad leans forward to put a hand on Jeno’s knee. “There’s a lot changing and going on in the world these days, Jeno. Refusing to adjust to it won’t help anyone, least of all if parents refused to adjust to their own children’s lives. You’re the first person we’re going to accept, always.”
Jeno...we love them so much.
“You’re included in that, by the way, Renjun,” says his mom, turning her patented loving-mom-gaze on him.
Jeno turns to smile at Renjun, and finds him with his face buried in the crook of his opposite arm, crying.
“I’m fine, I’m fine,” he says, wiping his eyes and offering a wobbly smile, “just an emotional day. Don’t worry about me.”
Jeno’s mom brings a hand to his cheek briefly, then turns back to her son.
“Jeno,” her words call his attention back, “...may we meet Jaemin now? Properly?”
Nervous energy spikes in Jeno’s chest at the request. He figured it would come, and he wants to let them, can feel how much Jaemin wants to as well. No more hiding, no more Hide— not for this family, at least. Just them, distinct but together.
Want to step into the kitchen for a second? Or ask them to close their eyes?
“I’ll just go uh...get him, quick,” Jeno says, shifting to stand up.
She stops him. “Honey, I think I’ve already seen the worst it can be. Go ahead and let him out.”
There’s not much to argue with there, so they don’t. His dad sits back, only the hint of tension in his jaw revealing his nerves, and his mom stays just as close. Jeno wants to tell her this isn’t some kind of test, but at the same time...maybe it is. He says nothing more, and gives Jaemin permission to manifest.
Jaemin has taken over their body in many way in the past, and Jeno has never exactly questioned his methods or considered whether his different techniques were for any particular reason. Sometimes it was like zipping up one of those hoodies where the zipper included the hood. Once, it felt like he’d been suddenly doused with a massive pail of water. There was even a time, when Jaemin was a little pissed off at him, that he’d sort of yanked Jeno backwards and the sensation was what Jeno imagined falling into a bathtub full of pancake batter would be like.
This time isn’t like any of those. This time, Jaemin treats it like a children’s magic trick; like the most seamless sleight of hand. Letting go of Renjun, he reaches for the end of their shirt and grips the hem, holding it slightly taut and then rippling it, changing their appearance in time with the motion. It’s not drastic, and more of it is what Jeno feels than what can be seen; a subtle difference in height, the warmer tone of skin. Jaemin covers their left hand with their right, and draws it up all the way over their shoulder like pulling on a long glove, letting the transformation happen as he goes, and repeating the action on the opposite side. Then, finally, he brings both hands to cover their face, ducking their head down, and as he raises it again he brings both hands back as one might when breaking the surface of a pool, pushing back through Jeno’s black hair and leaving behind pink. It takes about a minute, all in all, but the result is Jaemin’s chosen appearance instead of Jeno’s natural one, and three humans sitting in shock.
“That was a bit...theatrical…” Jeno’s dad mutters, though he looks impressed.
Meanwhile, his mom breaks into a smile that stretches from ear to ear. Not once did she flinch, nor pull away even a centimeter.
“That was beautiful,” she corrects, eyes holding Jaemin’s gaze. “Hello, Jaemin.”
Wrapped inside, Jeno can feel how the address makes Jaemin blush. “Hello,” he replies.
Then she reaches out and hugs them.
“Welcome to our home.”
If the minuscule hiccups at their side are anything to go by, the display of familial affection has Renjun an absolute mess.
They spend a while talking after that, going through an—abridged, less-detailed—version of the camping story, and Jeno’s parents satisfying about a year’s worth of questions. There’s plenty they want to know, especially in reference to what to expect for future visits. Of course, Renjun adds bits where he can, including how they met in class, though staying vague about certain details. All the while Jeno notes how his parents both work hard to try and address them both, he and Jaemin, every so often reminding themselves that he’s still there. They pull out presents, too; for Jeno, some lab instruments engraved with his initials—”if you can’t use them in class, you’ll need your own eventually, right?”—and for Renjun a set of fancy, hand-bound leather notebooks. His mom worries aloud that they aren’t very personal, but she didn’t know what to buy. Renjun clutches them to his chest and shakes his head, his word of thanks small but intense.
Then they hand a hastily wrapped box to Jaemin, who peels the paper away to find a large tupperware tub. It’s the chocolate cake.
“This was all I could come up with off a google search…” explains Jeno’s mom, with red in her cheeks.
Jeno’s dad sighs. “She wouldn’t let me have any more of it, once she figured that out. I sure hope you enjoy it.”
“There’s really nothing better you could give us, thank you.”
You’re way too easy.
When they’ve talked late enough that Renjun starts yawning and can’t stop, Jeno’s mom announces it’s time they all went to bed. Jaemin takes that as a cue to give the floor back to Jeno; he drops the theatrics for his retreat, quickly melting off Jeno in his usual manner, but not before planting a quick kiss on Renjun’s cheek. As they stand to go to bed, Jeno’s mom fixes him with a scrutinizing look.
“Wait,” she says, glancing at Renjun, “Jaemin just...who exactly is dating Renjun, actually?”
An uncomfortable pause follows, and while Jeno searches both his and Jaemin’s mind for what angle to cover that question with, Renjun turns a shade of red they didn’t previously know existed.
“Can we...maybe cover that topic tomorrow?” Jeno finally asks. “It’s um...not very straightforward.”
It’s not straight in any direction.
His mom raises an interested eyebrow, but lets it slide. “Okay, tomorrow then.” She heads up the stairs, taking Renjun by the hand and bringing him pointedly with her.
“Let’s get you an extra blanket for the guest room, we can’t have you getting cold.”
As Renjun shoots him a pitiable look over his shoulder, Jeno shrugs. At least one part of the visit went the way he expected.
Fluid, shimmering pink-gold matter bubbles up from the young man’s skin at his ribs, pooling onto the bed at his side and slowly rising into a larger shape, though an indiscernible one. Giving it a name would be difficult, when the matter itself refuses to stay solid long enough to hold more than the vague amoebus implication of a form. The amorphous figure turns back to the young human, looking with opaque gold eyes at where the human’s face wears a mild frown, the echo of whatever disturbed his sleep a moment ago. It’s slowly fading as he continues his rest.
Jaemin closed himself off the instant the voices appeared in his mind. He knows it’s his mind, specifically, and not Jeno’s where they are, and for as unsettling as they are to hear he won’t have them wake Jeno and cause him distress too. His voices, his problem.
In this form, Jaemin can’t sigh, nor does he need to—Jeno’s lungs are taking care of all the oxygen-processing work. But he does sigh mentally, out of habit, because that’s Renjun’s response to nearly everything and he’s sort of adopted it for himself. This is a moment that calls for a sigh.
He doesn’t know what the voices are.
There’s really only one person Jaemin can ask. He doesn’t have to think twice about it; there aren’t many other symbiotes and most of them, like himself, feel it better to keep a low profile. He just knows one who doesn’t mind, who rather likes , making a show of himself—one he’s embarrassed to be rather familiar with.
Stretching out a tendril to quietly fetch Jeno’s laptop, Jaemin sets it on the floor beside the bed and curls down next to it. He forgoes typing, and wiggles the tendril directly into the USB port, letting the bit of matter disseminate and merge with the machine itself, essentially bond and speak with it. It’s more efficient this way, after all.
Navigating through the internet is so much simpler than Jeno makes it look with all his keystrokes. Jaemin tells the computer what he wants to find, and the search begins.
News report, December 24, Tokyo. Derailed train. Heroic...alien? Man, “controlled” by symbiote...identified as Dong Sicheng. Attested to symbiotic relationship and involvement in the heroic actions.
Jaemin reviews the pictures from the incident. The symbiote’s chaotic smile, wide and wild, contrasted with the soft, doll-like features of the host man, Sicheng. He’s pretty, Jaemin thinks. That figures. He searches again, using that man’s name. He finds an office address, an email...a phone number.
Symbiotes are efficient, they have to be. Efficiency means survival. Jaemin has no doubt the one attached to Sicheng will be paying attention to Sicheng’s phone as if it were his own—in many ways, it is his too, assuming he’s set or left open similar boundaries.
He dials the number through the laptop, fiddles with the ringtone on the receiving end so it’s sound will alert only the person with whom he wants to speak. No need to disturb Sicheng, no need to disturb Jeno.
The call answers.
“Hide.” The name is drawn out, the tone overtly pleased. “Oh wait, you like to go by something else don’t you? What was it...Jaemin. Yes....now why did I expect you? I suppose I know you too well, after all.”
Jaemin lets him ramble as he does, a little fond even to hear the haughty voice. “Hello, Strike. Seems like you’ve been having fun lately.”
A laugh in return. “Don’t worry about that. I know why you really called. You’re hearing the whispers too, aren’t you? And I can tell you why.”
That’s relief to Jaemin, though he doesn’t say it. He keeps away from the news from others like him on purpose, because he’s happy with life as it is. But this he needs to know. The voice on the other end of the line continues.
“So shall I tell you? I think you’ll like it actually. Oh, and by the way, I’ve copied you a bit lately. Decided I’d like a human name of my own...it’s helpful for the host bond, as you know. Strike has a ring to it, but if you wouldn’t mind...Call me Yuta.”
[imagine me, but smiling this giant, extremely self-satisfied smile] oh yes friends. oh yes.
i feel like i wanna say many things to u all about this story, but i'll keep them short:
- if u get tired of the constant synonyms for morph/transform/etc, ME TOO. i'm sure i will have used every one that exists by the time we're done here.
- i have 0 clue what Jeno's cats look like. maybe i've seen them once. no idea.
- his parents don't have names probably, i dunno. the important thing is that i have a strong headcanon(normal canon? i have a thought.) of who Jeno's dad is/looks like. ;))) ;))) more importantly, i thought it was about time for some Good Wholesome parents...don't u think?
lastly, kei also beta'd this ch. u can thank her (but never as much as me!) by giving her works a look!!
as always, i love to hear from u all on twt/cc, so please don't be a stranger. <3
Chapter 6: that's enough for one day
remember when i promised it wouldn't be a whole 2 months before i updated?
well it isn't. i have three whole days. u thought. (actually i never did explicitly promise this. so never mind.)
please note that these people r totally jeno's parents.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
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.”
for anyone wondering "wait. can she do that? is that allowed?" the answer is 1) yeah, there r no rules, and 2) im at least basing everything i allow jaemin to do in canon, so as it turns out the 12 hr thing is legit (do not ask me WHY that works, i also don't understand why hive mind = not needing lungs for 12 hrs, but i also haven't read every single venom comic. so we trust wikipedia.)
<33 thanks for being here. please feel free to say hi on cc or twt if u want. ^^
Chapter 7: back (somewhat) on the bs
i'm sorry i'm bad at updating regularly. i promise we'll see them through to the end (whatever that is...they keep surprising me [eye roll]) of this ride.
i feel sort of weird posting this piece bc technically it's not the complete arc, which i usually try to keep all in one update, but that's just the state of things currently, unsatisfying to me as it is.
but i want to give u all something at least. u deserve more!
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
He knows it’s not polite to stare. He’s been told so, taught from an early age. Proper manners instruct that one should keep one’s eyes to one’s self when not engaged in conversation, and not let them wander in bouts of blunt observation or fixate on the business of others. Staring falls into the category of intolerable rudeness, as far as Renjun’s family is concerned.
Renjun has often been intolerably rude.
Had Jeno not sat so far behind him in class, Renjun would have stared at him more often. He’d had to take his opportunities at other times: when the other boy was diligently working during their study sessions; when walking to class; when he happened to see him on campus. And then...at Jaemin. When he waltzed into the coffee shop that one night and took up the opposite side of Renjun’s table. It had started to shift then, though. Jaemin demanded to be stared at, disdained any moment Renjun didn’t give him direct attention—this didn’t change when Renjun left single behind suddenly for a double love.
Now, Renjun can stare at either of them as much as he likes. And he likes to, a lot.
Doesn’t mean it isn’t rude of him to stare at Yuta and Sicheng, though.
“So if you ever travel, don’t get seats in the back of the plane. Because the engine noise is fucking terrible and it’ll make you want to tear yourself in half,” Yuta advises Jaemin, pacing back and forth on the worn wood floor of Mark’s apartment. “It’s not worth trying to explain to the flight attendant why there’s suddenly one less seat than bodies to fill them.”
“You didn’t explain anything,” Sicheng interjects, sitting in the larger armchair across from the couch and looking, to put it lightly, tired. “She asked you to put a seatbelt on and you disintegrated in front of her like a melting popsicle. We nearly had to have an emergency landing.”
Donghyuck laughs, then stops short as Sicheng sighs in his direction.
“Well that only explains how you got here, not why.”
Yuta stops his pacing and leans over the back of the couch. He throws his arms over Jeno’s shoulders, nearly hitting Jaemin in the face, and grins wolfishly.
He only grins wider as Jeno shrinks under the touch, until Jaemin shoves Yuta’s head back.
There’s a small warning of a snarl in his voice. “Get off him, Strike. What kind of curiosity?”
It’s like Renjun can see it hanging between them. Yuta—Strike—bleeds curiosity, just like he bleeds indicators that he isn’t human. It’s in the way he seems to lunge at everything, that he holds things like they might try and run, or touches people like they’re prey. Even if Jaemin vouches for him, even if Sicheng is there already bonded to him, Yuta just seems a moment away from...well, striking. His eyes glint red at the edges and he moves constantly, circling the room, only stopping to climb into the chair and curl around Sicheng possessively.
Renjun thinks Yuta is what he would’ve expected a symbiote to really be like. Jaemin has never seemed more unique for the comparison.
“Wanted to see you, Jaemin, and your two…”
Jaemin narrows his eyes.
“Well, you found us. You could have contacted us, though.”
“That’s what I said,” says Sicheng. He pinches the bridge of his nose, and if he notices or is bothered by the way Yuta rests his chin on the top of his head, he doesn’t show it. “Sorry he decided to attack you.”
“I’m not sorry I did. It was fun.”
“What do you want from us?” Renjun asks, fighting the urge to flinch when Yuta’s and Sicheng’s eyes turn to him. It’s like getting electrocuted twice. Yuta’s eyes pierce, but Sicheng’s deconstruct—he’s quieter, but Renjun feels like he’s more than he lets on.
Yuta leans precariously over the edge of the chair, keeping himself in place with an arm around Sicheng’s neck. “More like, what do you want with our Jaemin?”
“Nothing. Just want him.”
Sparks light up Yuta’s eyes even more. “Fascinating.”
He doesn’t scare easily. He doesn’t. But if Renjun scoots a little closer to Jaemin’s calf and grips onto it, that’s nobody’s business. It soothes him that Jaemin and Jeno are both right there, behind him on the couch, and Donghyuck catty-corner to him sitting by the coffee table. He just...wouldn’t want to meet Yuta alone in an alley. That’s all.
“So you just came to spectate?”
“Of course not, Jaemin is my closest friend, like a terrible little brother,” Yuta says, grin wide, as Jaemin rolls his eyes yet smiles in return. “We came to introduce ourselves, since times seem to be changing. This planet is an odd one. They didn’t let us take over and they haven’t kicked us out. We showed ourselves—stupidly, if you ask me—and that means we have to define our presence here. Best for Venom if he never goes back. The others will take him apart one molecule at a time.”
Jeno shudders. Renjun wonders what memories of Jaemin’s he knows, what images that kind of threat can remind for him.
Yuta sighs. “But anyway. We’re here. We’re not leaving, or anyway I don’t mean to, and I don’t think you do either. Can’t speak for all the others… well no, I could, but the effort? Not worth it. Point is, some of us plan to be here. I don’t plan on hiding—”
“Have you ever?”
“—hush, you can flatter me about my bold and daring behavior later.” Yuta pinches Sicheng’s cheek and drops a quick kiss on the crown of his hair. Sicheng rolls his eyes. Renjun thinks if he had a week with them, he couldn’t figure out their relationship.
Jaemin hums, and Renjun turns over his shoulder to look back at him. Hand intertwined with Jeno’s, their alien boyfriend looks pensive in an unfamiliar way. Then he looks down to Renjun and smiles.
“So you want to know what we’ll do?” It’s almost like he’s asking Renjun, but not exactly.
“Yikes. Big question to ask university students,” Donghyuck mutters, eyeing Yuta warily.
“Is it? I think not. Are you going to be a part of the world? Are you going to save it? Or fade into the background somewhere where you won’t matter? Which is it?”
From somewhere in a nearby apartment, the sounds of a chair scraping back over hardwood echoes back to them, filling up the heavy silence along with the soft thumps of feet moving about.
Then Jeno exhales slowly. “Maybe we don’t know yet.”
“You have thousands of years of genetic memory and experience,” adds Renjun, “we’re each just a little over two decades old.” He bites his lip, says quieter, maybe so no one can hear. “I’m still learning how to be alive.”
It’s a false hope, of course. Donghyuck puts a hand on his knee. More surprisingly, Sicheng tilts his chin down and smiles softly at Renjun, his eyes gentle and sympathetic.
“That’s all you need to be doing. Don’t listen to him, he’s just got a hero complex.”
As Renjun hazards a smile back, a key turns in the lock and the door opens with its familiar creak.
“Hey Hyuckie, I bought cereal, but is this the kind you wan—” Mark calls as he shuffles into the living room, backpack hanging from one shoulder and plastic grocery bags from his left arm, and comes up short when he finally looks up. “—ted. Oh. Uh. Hi.”
Donghyuck pushes up from the floor and crosses to him before Yuta can spring out of the chair, as it looks like he wants to.
“Babe, this is Sicheng and Yuta. Yuta’s a symbiote too, like Jaemin… and uh… new thing! They can go around on their own a bit now.”
Mark scans the room with wide eyes, looking from person to person, and the gears in his head do almost visible information processing. Renjun would laugh, if the air didn’t feel so thick.
Then Mark breaks into a smile. “Oh cool.”
They send off the two visitors a few hours later. Out on the dark street, Sicheng shakes their hands amiably, making sure Renjun has his phone contact—”Just in case we ever want to meet like civilized people”—and giving Jeno a supportive shoulder squeeze.
“Let us know if you come around again,” Jeno suggests, his eyes flitting to where Yuta and Jaemin stand aside in quiet conversation. Yuta has an arm slung around Jaemin’s neck and his smile has softened to something fond, diminishing the sharpness he exuded earlier. Renjun wonders if his earlier demeanor is the real Yuta, or some kind of unnecessary posturing to leave them with a macho impression of him.
Sicheng nods. “You’ve got a good thing going here. I was worried at first—you’re so young. But I think you’re doing even better than I have been.”
“Really? That’s…” Jeno bites down on his lip. Renjun can’t help a little smile; he doesn’t have to read Jeno’s mind to know what that kind of encouragement means to him.
“Really. I’m a little envious.”
Yuta appears at Sicheng’s side, and Jaemin slides behind Jeno to drape his arms over Renjun’s shoulders.
“Let’s go, Love, I’m getting stretched thin here,” Yuta sighs. He takes Sicheng’s hand, his own hand melting into a candy-apple red, amorphous shape between Sicheng’s fingers and crawling up his wrist. The other hand he raises in a wave, fingers wiggling teasingly.
With a last goodbye, the pair turns and heads toward the busier cross-street to hail a cab. As many times as Renjun has seen Jaemin morph in and out of Jeno’s head, there’s something uncanny about watching Yuta suddenly lose shape and wrap around Sicheng until only the man is still visible, pausing at the corner under the streetlamp and sticking a hand out for cab. He waves back at them as one pulls up, then they’re gone.
Jaemin lets out a sigh mixed with a laugh. “So typical of him to just show up like that. And when I had barely even tested this out. So inconvenient.”
Despite the complaint, Renjun can note an edge of fondness in Jaemin’s eyes.
“We should get going too,” says Jeno, turning, “time’s about up, right?”
Drained and ready for sleep, Renjun takes a step down the sidewalk. Time for processing everything in this day is exactly what he needs, feeling thin at the edges, though not unhappy.
Fingers at his elbow stop him, and Renjun turns to find Jeno paused a step back, and Jaemin close and looking down at him, a dark gleam in his eye.
“Before we go back to things as usual,” he murmurs, pulling at the loose, unzipped halves of Renjun’s jacket until he’s tucked close, “I want to see what it’s like.”
“What?” asks Renjun, though the thumping of his heart seems to already know. Jaemin holding him, tall in a way he doesn’t usually appear when connected to Jeno, and Jeno just out of arm’s reach...it’s different. It’s not… it doesn’t feel disjointed, the way Renjun imagined it might, if Jaemin was always like this, all solid and perceptibly distinct. But then, it didn’t feel like that with Jeno all day either. Renjun finds yet another small fear starting to disappear, melting away inside his chest like an icecube in spring.
Jaemin cards fingers through Renjun’s hair, delicately clearing it from his forehead. “Just, this.” He tilts down and captures Renjun’s lips, applying a light pressure to the small of his back at which Renjun can’t help but arch closer.
It makes him nervous; they’re just out in front of the apartment building, dark of night broken by a weak lamp and the light filtering out from the unit windows. He’s itching-ly aware of Jeno watching, leaned against the brick and breathing quietly. But Jaemin places a hand at the curve of his jaw, squeezing behind his neck, and maybe he hits a pressure point or something but Renjun just stops thinking; who might be watching, what they look like… he forgets it all. There’s just Jaemin’s lips on his, simple, and Jeno close by.
“There,” Jaemin breathes as he pulls away, at the same time as Jeno lets out a “wow.”
Renjun glances at Jeno, letting his hands fall from being tucked against Jaemin’s sternum, his fists uncurling. He can feel every pulse of blood around his brain, like he hasn’t had enough oxygen, and maybe hasn’t. Jeno’s stare doesn’t really help.
It makes Jaemin laugh outright and swing around, snatching Jeno away from the wall and planting an open-mouthed kiss on him before he has the chance to speak again.
Five minutes later, as he walks beside Jeno, with Jaemin his usual amount of invisible, Renjun thinks maybe he can worry a little less.
practices start thursday
soccer intramurals? you’ll be on the team, right?
yeah, i guess why not
nice. mid fielder?
how’d you know?
you seem like one. also we need one.
sounds like a plaWE ARE VERY EXCITED MARK
THIS IS GOOD
oh hey jaemin
Jeno would prefer not to admit it, but he loves being on the IM soccer team. It makes him feel healthy and invigorated, and as much as he likes Jaemin and the near invincibility that comes with him, Jeno really enjoys the days when he has practice and Jaemin splits off to the library. He likes being in complete control of his own body, reassured by the knowledge that Jaemin hasn’t gone anywhere too far and will be coming right back. He likes meeting up with Renjun at the food hall after, telling him all about the new plays he’s come up with, the ones he and Mark and Yukhei run together.
As he jogs the lengths of the field in a post-practice warm down, Jeno glances towards the row of low bleachers. He’s keeping an eye out for Renjun, who promised to meet him there after practice today instead. There’s no sign of him just yet, and a minute later something smacks against Jeno’s heel.
“Jeno, pass that back to me?” calls Jungwoo, one of the handful of grad students on the team.
Jeno taps the soccer ball back, engages briefly in some dribbling back and forth, until Yukhei darts between them and steals the ball with a laugh.
When Jeno looks up again, Renjun’s there, a stone’s-throw from the practice field, and deeply engrossed in whoever he’s speaking to over the phone. Even though he’s facing away, Jeno could recognize the graceful slope of his shoulders and stubborn posture anywhere, anytime. He’s an expert at very few things, but he likes to think Renjun is on that short list.
Slinging his bag over one shoulder, Jeno skips over to his boyfriend, but slows as he approaches. Renjun’s posture reminds him of a singular tree on the side of a mountain; as much as someone’s pose can give away an aura of tense, straining and wind-beaten, his does.
“I know, yes I get that it’s an important occasion,” Renjun’s saying into the phone, “but—...no, I heard you.”
Jeno stops, hesitating to reach and tap his arm. It sounds important, like he shouldn’t interrupt.
Renjun pinches the bridge of his nose. “I said I understand, but it’s a busy part of the semester and I...do you have to say it like that?” His voice loses strength, slipping into a tone of hopeless resignation Jeno’s never heard before.
He steps around Renjun, and in the second it takes Renjun to register his presence, Jeno sees deep etches of sadness in his face. Then the boy’s eyes widen.
What on earth?
“I have to go.”
Jeno wraps his hand around Renjun’s forearm as he ends the call. “What was that about?”
“It’s nothing, don’t worry about it.”
“I’m already worried!”
“I can see that, and I’m saying not to worry more. It’s just family stuff, no big deal. We have more important things to focus on.” Renjun has already started walking toward the food halls, forcing Jeno to keep up with him and making it hard to argue.
It feels like a theme lately, but Jeno doesn’t want to mention it. More than that, he isn’t sure how.
“What’s more important?” he asks, as they round the edge of the quad and into the presence of scents of vaguely edible campus meals wafting out as students thread in and out of the building.
Renjun quirks a glance at him. “You don’t know?”
Jeno shrugs, shaking his head.
“Of course you don’t. Why am I surprised. But I bet he knows, so all isn’t lost just yet,” Renjun nods ahead of them, his lips drawing into a soft smile, and Jeno turns to see where Jaemin is leaning against the faded brick beside the doors, caught up in a phone conversation all his own. He spots them coming, and finishes the call as they reach him.
Jaemin grabs the strap of Jeno’s bag and hauls him forward the remaining steps, then drapes over him like a heavy tarp and nuzzles into his neck. Which is disgusting. He’s still sweaty from practice, and Jaemin seems not to take that into account at all.
“Baby…” Jaemin hums, but at the touch of lips on his skin, Jeno pushes him off, blushing furiously.
“Jaemin,” he warns.
The manifested symbiote doesn’t even try to look penitent. Jeno would know, he knows all Jaemin’s expressions inside and out (literally).
“What, I can’t kiss you on the eve of your birthday?”
Jeno blinks. “On what?”
Renjun sighs, long and exasperated but fond. “I thought maybe you were just trying to be low key about it, but you seriously forgot your own birthday?”
“Nuh-uh! You guys just brought it up early, I know my own birthday!” He did forget, but Jeno’s sure he would have remembered before it was downright embarrassing, except that he has not just one but two significant others to be overbearing about this sort of thing, including one that can and does regularly read his mind, which includes the instances when it’s lacking information as often as when it has it. Like now, for instance, when there’s not really people around for a brief second, and Jaemin takes the opportunity to portal jump into Jeno and snicker inside his brain.
“Jeno forgot, hasn’t even thought of it in passing in at least a month,” says Jaemin, hijacking his mouth and betraying him in cold blood while Renjun just leans his weight onto one hip and smiles goofily at them both.
He bites the corner of his lip and rolls his eyes. “That was obvious. If he had any idea it was coming up, he might have also known we made plans to go out tonight, too.”
“Yeah, you know...dancing and drinking and all that?” Renjun does a sort of wiggle, a little bit hips and a little bit shoulders, that might be meant to be seductive or something but mostly just looks like he’s just had an icecube deposited in his shirt. Jeno’s endeared nonetheless and as usual, in his brain, Jaemin positively coos.
And the rest of the day goes by in a blur that Jeno has absolutely no control over. He’s fairly used to not having any control when either of his boyfriends is around anyway, but it’s even worse than usual as Jaemin rejects even his outfit suggestions, tendrils plucking things out of his hands at will, and finally just manifesting and shoving Jeno away from the closet in favor of choosing everything himself. At some point Renjun just disappears, saying he’ll meet up with them later at the Lion’s Den—a place that wholly confuses Jeno momentarily, as he doesn’t know any bars called that, and forgot about Donghyuck’s weird name for Mark’s very normal apartment. Jaemin helpfully reminds him as he coerces Jeno into a pair of jeans with an excess of tears that he’s pretty sure don’t even fit him anymore and a red button-down he wasn’t aware he owned.
Trying to flatten out the smattering of wrinkles in the shirt, Jeno frowns. “Not really fair that you can just...modify your ‘outfit’ at will,” he complains, bending two fingers in air quotes as he watches Jaemin morph through a series of ‘shirts,’ finally landing on something black and vaguely glittering, with not enough buttons and is it sort of sheer too? God dammit.
“I could just go without, if you’d prefer that,” Jaemin purrs, throwing a sudden simmering, poisonous look over at Jeno.
Jeno holds up a hand. “Nope. Birthday boy says keep your clothes on.”
Jaemin quirks an eyebrow at him.
“Um…” It seems early to feel this attacked, but Jeno has learned by now he never gets to be ready for it.
“Oh relax, babe, just teasing you. It’s not me we need to worry about, anyway,” Jaemin casually suggests, then he’s draping a sleek leather jacket over Jeno’s shoulders and pushing him towards the door before Jeno can ask what the hell that’s supposed to mean.
All Jeno can actually manage is, “where’d this jacket—”
“It’s your birthday present,” Jaemin answers his half a thought as he hurries them down the stairwell and outside. “Well, it’s for you and Renjun. Maybe I saw him dream about you wearing something like it once, months ago. So it’s for the both of you, in a way. I hope he remembers that when he sees you.”
Turns out it doesn’t matter at all, or rather, Jeno forgets completely about whether Renjun has a reaction to seeing him, cause seeing Renjun takes all of his thoughts immediately the moment Mark’s front door opens. Jeno is vaguely aware of Mark and Donghyuck behind Renjun, like blurred out human-shaped blobs of color that might be talking, but all he can see clearly is Renjun smiling softly at him with slightly tinted lips and heavily lined eyes, his hair floating off his forehead and artfully tousled in a way that has Donghyuck’s influence all over it.
What’s worse is what he’s wearing. Jeno’s never seen Renjun actually wear this particular deep green, silky v-neck before, but he has seen Renjun run his fingers over the sleeve lovingly while pulling a lesser item out of his closet. He realizes there’s good reason for that; it hangs on his shoulders like dripped water, leaving a slim line of collar bone visible and the dip of smooth skin below his throat. He has just the front of it tucked lightly into a pair of pristine white jeans, the hems of which settle on leather ankle boots that Jeno only knows are expensive because he can’t identify the brand.
Renjun’s neck grows red as Jeno continues staring. “Did I overdress?” he asks, reaching up to self-consciously fuss with his hair, and a very shiny watch glints on his wrist as he does so.
To Jeno, Renjun is worth a thousand times the value of anything he could put on, and although no amount of pricey clothing could come close to matching him, it’s only appropriate he looks this deliciously good and expensive.
“No way,” he breathes. “You look...like…..so good.”
Jaemin hums in agreement as he hooks his chin over Jeno’s shoulder, his hands pushing lightly against Jeno’s lower back as he ushers them inside the apartment. “Mm yes, good enough to eat,” Jaemin suggests, a sharp tooth glinting in a very unnatural way.
“Quit being gross in the hallway, we have neighbors that don’t need psychological scarring!”
Jaemin takes Donghyuck’s scolding as an invitation to go psychologically scar him instead, gliding past Jeno and Renjun and circling around until Donghyuck swats him away in annoyance while his own boyfriend just laughs.
Consciously or not, where Renjun goes Jeno follows, and so he finds himself in the small kitchen holding a cup while Renjun pours liquor into it.
“Aren’t we just going to go drink at...wherever it is we’re going?” Jeno asks as Renjun lifts the bottle away.
He nods. “Sure, this is just a starter. You know, pregaming.”
Jeno nods very slowly. “Right.”
“Right...ok so you don’t know.”
Renjun’s expression of surprise and amusement is only mostly embarrassing and Jeno feels the flush on his face without even taking the shot. “It’s not like I’ve really had the opportunity!” He says.
“Not even in high school?”
“My best friends are both younger…” Jeno frowns through the excuse, suddenly regretting never trying to really befriend anyone his own age, “I had a lot of studying to do to get into my major and you met my parents, not really the party types, I mean it’s not like I really had time for this kind of stuff or—“
“Hey, hey, Jen, it’s fine!” Renjun laughs, somehow delighted by the fact that Jeno was basically a loser until now, and lifts his own cup. “Cheers to you letting loose for the first time, then. Happy birthday, babe.”
Hesitantly, Jeno lifts his cup too, and after they tap the sides he follows Renjun’s example and swallows the liquid in one gulp. It burns in a weird, unfamiliar way, completely different from the tart wine they sometimes got from Chenle’s dad; this pools hot in Jeno’s otherwise empty stomach and tingles on his lips. He licks them and the tingles transfer to his tongue.
Renjun laughs and Jeno’s eyes flit back to him and the smirk hiding at the corner of his mouth.
“It’s like, tonight we take your partying virginity,” he muses.
Jeno loses the word somewhere between his brain and his mouth and ends up making a noise akin to a surprised, confused dog, which Renjun only laughs at again.
Bottle in hand, Renjun nods toward the living room and the increasingly boisterous noises coming from it. “Come on, our boyfriend is waiting, probably.”
He wasn’t, exactly, Jeno observes as they find Jaemin, head thrown back and fully focused on downing a large, dark colored bottle of his own while Mark watches with obvious fascination.
“Uh, what’s that?” Jeno asks.
Three more identical bottles clunk heavily onto the coffee table as Donghyuck sets them down. “Chocolate liqueur,” he says. “This is an experiment.”
Jaemin finishes the first bottle and hands it off to Mark, who accepts with wide eyes as Jaemin cleans his lips with his unsettlingly long tongue and reaches for another. If Jeno didn’t know better, he’d say Jaemin’s eyes look a little glazed. Maybe he doesn’t know better. He’s never tried to get his alien drunk before.
“Isn’t a drunk symbiote kind of...dangerous?” Renjun voices the question Jeno has just begun to feel anxiety about.
“Oh,” Mark pauses, his hand hovering over the cap of another bottle of liqueur, “oh my god. I didn’t think of that. I just wondered if it was even possible. Oh no.”
The question hangs in the air until the second bottle, empty, hits the table and Jaemin’s fingers wrap around a third.
Renjun interjects, “Maybe that’s enough?”
“Tastes good. Feels good,” is all Jaemin says before the rim meets his lips again.
“Maybe not our best idea.”
Sighing, Renjun hands Jeno the bottle they’d started and puts his own cup aside. “It’s alright,” he responds to Donghyuck, “I’ll just stay sober tonight and keep everybody in check.”
Jeno thinks that’s pretty unfair, Jaemin’s bonded to him after all so the responsibility is really his when you think about it. “I can—”
“Nope, it’s your birthday, you’re gonna enjoy it,” Renjun cuts off his offer.
If there’s one thing Jeno has learned, it’s not to argue with the more reasonable of his boyfriends. An hour and a half later, half lost in the all-encompassing heat and pumping music of some club he doesn’t recall the name of, Jeno confirms this.
He feels amazing. Or, he thinks he does, based on the parts of him he can feel. He also sort of feels bodiless, like his molecules have dissolved, broken down into atomic particles and merged with the scattered fragments of colored light that glitter overhead, and the waves of thrumming synth that feel more inside of him than anywhere else. Almost reminds him of Jaemin, like if Jaemin were composed of music and light instead of alien matter and that had possessed him instead.
Someone melds themselves to his back and hot breath ghosts over his shoulder. Jeno pulls his heavy eyes down from the kaleidoscopic ceiling and glances left, registering the subtly glittering skin of Jaemin’s forehead as the creature buries his nose into Jeno’s neck. He’s as sweaty as he was hours ago after practice, if not worse, but this time Jeno doesn’t care if Jaemin coyly nibbles at his skin; there are too many other sensations to be distracted by. The sounds, the colors, the way his heart beats loud in his eardrums while they move with the music, the pressure of Jaemin at his back and his hands sliding around Jeno’s waist to his hips, and back again. His memory is hazy but vaguely recalls them doing something to Jaemin, something that’s left him slowed down and sticking to Jeno even more than usual, using him like a crutch the symbiote also wants to chew on.
Jeno drags his eyes forward and his chest constricts. He’s not sure where this moment of sudden lucidity is stemming from, but he’s thankful for it, because Renjun dancing is a sight he didn’t know he needed to see. The green of his shirt is darkened in spots with sweat, a bead glistening at his temple too, and it’s like Jeno’s watching him in flip-book motion as the flickering lights fracture Renjun’s movements. Even still, he moves with a grace that matches his personality perfectly, all fluid and frictionless yet sharp in the way that means keen but with more power behind it.
Renjun removes the gap from between them and places a hand on the center of Jeno’s chest, takes one of Jeno’s hands in his other. Then it’s the three of them moving together, like they share only one body at the core of which Jeno burns like a supernova. He leans his forehead down against Renjun’s and just tries to keep breathing, but it’s not easy with so little space and Jaemin reaching around him to grip at Renjun’s hips too.
“Good enough,” Jaemin slurs into Jeno’s ear, all hot, “to eat.”
The mentality must be wearing off on Jeno, after all this time, because looking into the endless depths of Renjun’s chocolate brown eyes, he agrees. He feels like he could swallow him up whole. He knows they could.
“Kiss me, please,” he gasps, unsure if Renjun can even hear him, “for my birthday.”
“For anything, everything, for nothing at all,” he hears back, then Renjun angles his chin up and Jeno gives up on breathing and just melts, lungs be fucked, as their lips connect messily. Renjun’s thin fingers appear as five distinct sensation points on Jeno’s scalp a second later, colliding with the feeling of Jaemin’s teeth at his neck, and Jeno’s thoughts disintegrate into ashes and nonsense. He’s composed entirely of what he can feel, only of that, and he suddenly can feel so much.
Indeterminable minutes later, something vibrates suddenly against his thigh and that is an extremely confusing sensation compared to the rest, enough that Jeno jolts, and then bristles with distaste as Renjun separates and produces a blinding light in the darkness.
He frowns at the phone in his hand, gesturing to it and over his shoulder, and walks off, brushing away Jeno’s keep-reaching hands. As he goes, Donghyuck pauses mid-Dance with Mark to grasp Renjun’s arm, but Renjun just shakes his head and disappears.
There’s a lick under his ear and Jeno shudders.
“Your worry tastes bad,” Jaemin mutters. He twists around in front of Jeno and searches him with *inscrutable eyes. “It’s just a phone call.”
“He’s got to answer right now?”
Jaemin nods, hooks his wrists behind Jeno’s neck. “Don’t we trust he has good reasons to?”
Jeno isn’t sure. Or, that’s not quite it, he knows he trusts Renjun, but there’s something about these calls he doesn’t trust, not when it’s the second one today that’s made Renjun looked upset like that. Or is it just the second? His brain is too fuzzy to know for sure. He feels like an overripe apple, the flesh all grainy and giving way to any firm touch.
Touch like Jaemin’s hands massaging at his nape, pulling his focus forward. “Stop. Before I climb inside your brain and turn it off.” He pushes Jeno in a circle until they end up next to Donghyuck and Mark, then forces him to match up with their rhythm and continue dancing. Mark evaporates away and reappears minutes later with more drinks, pushing cold wet glasses into Jeno’s and Donghyuck’s hands.
Jeno pulls the icy, sizzling liquid fast from the straw and lets it tear at his throat. Whatever it is, it must be strong, because the sides of his vision begin to fade back out. He doesn’t focus on anything clearly past Jaemin’s hands on his hips until some time later, when that grip tightens painfully and Jaemin growls against his skin, and Jeno thinks Jaemin may bite him for real the way he sounds like an angry animal, feral and frightening.
“—better go get him.”
The words are coming from Mark’s lips, sounding alarmed, but it’s Jaemin who moves fastest, leaving Jeno to list sideways and bump into a stranger before over-correcting back the other way into Donghyuck’s steadying hand. And over his shoulder Jeno can see Renjun, silk shirt glinting, leaning heavy against the bar with a row of small cups laid out before him. Jeno would have guessed he was bringing them all another round, except for the way his boyfriend mechanically, methodically puts each shot against his lips and drinks it down. He gets through three before Jaemin materializes at his side and blocks the fourth with a hand; Renjun snakes his fingers around to the fifth one and downs that instead.
Donghyuck curses. “What is he doing?”
Jeno can’t guess, and it makes his stomach churn like the toy rock tumbler he used to play with as a kid, only the rock this produces never quite gets smooth and only sits heavy in the pit of him.
Renjun slides his tongue over his lips, collecting stray drops of liquor. “I bought five.”
And you needed none. Jaemin flicks the remaining shot glass away effortlessly, keeping his eyes locked with the reddening boy in front of him even as the glass flies off the bar and shatters somewhere. “Enough.”
“You can’t tell me—”
He snaps his jaw shut when Jaemin moves, crowding Renjun against the bar and ignoring the protests from the bartender.
Jaemin can smell the cocktail of emotions on the human like a sickening perfume: anger, helplessness, fear, anxiety. They gather in his alien olfactory center and the image of them reflects behind Renjun’s eyes, but Jaemin doesn’t know why. He only knows they’re there.
It isn’t me, is it, Sweet?
It can’t be, not now, not after how far they’ve come. It wouldn’t make sense. It has to be something else, or Jaemin has to start all over again somehow.
“I’m not going to tell you again,” he says instead, low into Renjun’s ear, where he can feel the growing heat at the boy’s neck as the alcohol floods his veins. He pulls at the hair that’s been growing long over Renjun’s nape, holding his squirming hips steady and inhaling the bitter scent invading the space between his cells. “Why fill your blood with this?”
“Just don’t wanna think.”
“Darling, why?” he tries again.
Dark eyes growing glassy, Renjun shudders as his smile loosens and the tightness in his forehead does too.
“Because it’s nicer that way.”
It’s nicer not to keep secrets. It’s nicer to share with us, it’s nicer when we think all together, you and me and Jeno. But you can’t hear, not when we speak like this. Jaemin lets Renjun snake hands up to grip at his biceps, knocking foreheads. We don’t know what you think when you don’t tell us, Darling, don’t you know?
“Don’t you know?”
Renjun hums, distracted. “Weren’t we dancing? Where’s Jen, where’s he at? I wanna dance with him, he looks so good, I want him.”
He moves, and Jaemin has to follow. He can’t change a mind he doesn’t know. Not like how he wishes he did.
>~< this cuts off so weirdly but we will return to straighten it all out soon enough. as always, the patience u all have w my inconsistency is astounding; i do love u for it.
BUT! it's nice to get this out n not be staring at it in my drafts anymore!
<33 thanks for sticking w me & this crowd. looking forward to whatever comments u all have got. :))