Jeno has known his soulmate is Lee Donghyuck since they were thirteen years old. They had known each other for years at that point, but it was only then, as Donghyuck hung upside down from the monkey bars after a failed attempt at a flip, that Jeno knew Donghyuck was his soulmate.
They spent ages just cackling as Donghyuck tried and failed to right himself until Jeno took pity on him and tried to push him back the right way up. His hand pushed gently at the bare skin of Donghyuck’s lower back, where the skin was sun-warm and soft, but that was not enough for Jeno to focus on. In fact, he didn’t have time to think about anything because all of a sudden, he wasn’t standing under Donghyuck, he wasn’t by the monkey bars. He wasn’t at the park at all. He was in a sea of red, gold, and orange. All of his senses were going haywire, as if someone had dialled all the sensory input in the world up to eleven and for a moment Jeno was convinced he was dying.
His hand burned.
When he returned to the regular world, his ears were ringing, and the world was screaming. Not literally, but after the silence he’d just been in, he wasn’t prepared for the sudden onslaught of noise. He could hear everything. There were all of the regular noises, the wind blowing through the trees, a dog being called by its owner, the creaking of the swing across from him. Then there were some stranger sounds. The static electricity jumping as a child went down the slide, someone in their car a few streets over cursing at the traffic, Donghyuck’s staccato heartbeat. For an eternity, he could hear it all. As he listened to the stuttering of his best friend’s heart, he realised exactly what had just happened.
Later, when Jeno asks Donghyuck how it had been for him, he will say that everything had gone quiet, silent, as if the world had pressed mute on itself. But for now, in that moment, with Jeno’s hand sitting on Donghyuck’s back, they only smiled at each other. A little shyly, perhaps, but no different from usual.
He went home and told his parents, and they smiled and nodded, and hushed his brother when Doyoung scoffed. The next day when he walked into class hand in hand with Donghyuck to tell their friends they all giggled or smiled stiffly and moved the conversation along. It doesn’t surprise either of them. They found their soulmate so early. No wonder people are uncomfortable with it, Jeno has never heard of anyone finding their soulmate this early in life. It’s practically unprecedented. But nonetheless, he and Donghyuck are soulmates, and they’ve told everyone they know. And that’s that.
Except, it’s been several years now and for some reason, everyone seems to think this is one big, elaborate joke.
“Are you sure this is where you want to be?” Jeno’s mother asks for the hundredth time, hands fretting at the edges of his bedsheets. He doesn’t reply – they’ve had this conversation more times than he can count on the journey up here alone, and he has too much unpacking to do to have it again now. His room is small, like most university dorm rooms, but if he can only figure out how to organise everything then there will be enough space for all his things.
“Really, Nono, I know you and Donghyuck think what you’re doing is all fun and games,” His mother says. “But eventually you’re going to find your real soulmate-” and at that, he blocks her out.
Having a soulmate is supposed to be a wonderful, magical experience. The soul-match process is taught in schools as young as seven, and Jeno remembers having to do school projects on it when he entered secondary school. It’s funny though, in none of the lessons, in none of the books, does it mention anything about what to do if no one believes you have a soul match.
The thing is: ‘Thirteen is far too young for a soulmate. People don’t make soul matches before their early twenties, it just doesn’t happen!’ Jeno has been told this time and time again, and he knows Donghyuck has too, but just because everyone says it can’t happen, doesn’t mean it didn’t. As of now, of course, there’s no way to prove it. Soul marks can come in anywhere from one hour to one decade after the soul match occurs. After five years of waiting and not a single patch of colour on either of their skin, it looks like Jeno and Donghyuck are going to be on the far end of that scale.
“Mum,” he replies. “I didn’t choose this university because Hyuck goes here. I chose it because it has one of the best history courses in the country.”
He has explained this a thousand and one times, ever since he first told his mother that he and his boyfriend would both be attending university together. Donghyuck’s parents were significantly less bothered – their soul mark didn’t come in for roughly five or six years and, though they both dated other people in that time, both his mother and father knew they were destined to be together. Unsurprisingly, Jeno’s mother is not a huge fan of Donghyuck’s parents.
“So you say, Jeno, but you said the same thing about the college you chose, and that summer camp you went to when you were fourteen, and the dance club you insisted on going to.” She stops fiddling with the duvet and straightens up to her full height – still a good foot shorter than Jeno, but it’s intimidating nonetheless. “I just want you to think about these things!”
“I have.” He says, and he doesn’t care how loud he’s being because maybe if he’s loud enough, this time she’ll actually listen. “I’ve thought about this every day since I was fifteen, and Doyoung told me you don’t actually believe me and Hyuckie are soulmates!” his mother recoils a little at that, but he doesn’t stop. “I love you, but you can’t keep trying to control me and call it care! Be honest, you’d have believed it if Doyoung told you he’d found his soulmate at thirteen. You would have believed him, even if his soul mark didn’t come in for five years! The only reason you don’t believe me is because you don’t like Donghyuck.”
His mother’s mouth purses. “Well,” she says. “You’ve clearly made your mind up about this.”
He wants to apologise. He wants to let himself give in to the aching sadness that has coiled around his throat every time soulmates have been brought up in his mother’s presence for the last three years. He wants to rush into her arms the same way he did when he was a child, upset over a bumped head, or his brother pushing him. He wants so much.
He doesn’t do any of that. Instead, he turns his back on his mother, hopes he can forget the way her lip wobbles, prays she doesn’t see the way his shoulders shake, hear the way his voice cracks when he says, “I think you should go now.”
His mother, bless her soul, doesn’t put up a fuss, doesn’t demand he pay attention to her. It’s not easy to forget that he’s a second son. Sometimes, that’s a good thing – he’s well aware of the difference in pressure put on him and Doyoung. But sometimes, times like this, when he’s being ungrateful and rude and he knows it, it feels terrible. Knowing every barbed word he throws at his mother has already been weaponised by Doyoung only makes him feel worse. But she only sighs, and he hears her get up and move away, presumably towards the open door. It’s silent for a little while, long enough for him to think that she has left without saying goodbye, but then he hears her voice, quiet and calm in a way he’s desperately trying to make himself feel. She says “I love you”. She says, “I’ll call you when I get home.”
He doesn’t turn around. She doesn’t wait for him to do so. For the first time ever, Lee Jeno is completely, utterly alone.
“Is this a bad time?” a voice says from behind him, and he whips around.
The boy in his doorway is pretty, and not the gentle but masculine kind of pretty Jeno himself is, or the kind of subtle beauty Donghyuck has. He would probably be even prettier, but there’s a concerned frown on his face that Jeno feels the need to get rid of.
“I’m sorry, what was that?”
The boy gestures behind himself vaguely. “I just came to introduce myself. I’m in the room next to yours, but if this is a bad time…”
“No!” Jeno insists, “It’s fine! It’s just – you know.” He wipes at his eyes furiously, hating himself for crying in front of someone who isn’t his soulmate or his brother, and then sticks his hand out for the boy to shake. “I’m Jeno.”
“Jaemin,” the boy – Jaemin – says as he shakes Jeno’s hand, and the frown that’s been marring his face melts away. Jeno was right, he looks even prettier with a smile. “I’m an architecture and history student, joint honours.” He looks almost embarrassed as he says it, as if being an overachiever is something to be ashamed of.
“I’m doing history too! Nothing else though,” Jeno says, feeling the corners of his own lips begin to twist upwards.
Jaemin’s smile gets even bigger. “Yeah, my brother said that would happen, the uni shoves all of us doing the same stuff together because that way we’ll already have something in common.”
“That makes sense, my boyfriend is taking psychology and he’s all the way across campus.”
Jaemin’s smile droops for a millisecond and then comes back in full. “You have a boyfriend? Aren’t you worried about finding your soulmate?”
“Actually, I already have,” Jaemin’s face doesn’t lose that puzzled edge, so he waits for the other shoe to drop.
They stare at each other for a moment, Jaemin uncomprehending and blank. Then, it’s as if a lightbulb goes off above his head. “Oh!” Jaemin exclaims, “Your boyfriend is your soulmate!”
Jeno nods, relieved that he won’t have to spell it out. That’s one good thing about getting older, people are more ready to accept that he has a soulmate, instead of insisting he’s far too young to know what he’s talking about.
“That’s so cool, when do you know? Was it an instant thing like you see in the news sometimes, or did you know each other for years first?” He laughs at Jaemin’s barrage of questions, and Jaemin laughs along with him. “I’m sorry, you’re one of the first people I’ve met who is my age and have found their soulmate!”
“Actually,” Jeno says, “I met Donghyuck when I was in reception. We’ve known each other for almost fifteen years!” Jaemin’s eyes light up, and Jeno isn’t surprised. Everything about Donghyuck makes him seem like he belongs in a fairy tale, or a children’s picture book, and his soul bond story is no different. Jeno feels so incredibly lucky to have a part in that.
“Our soul bond started when we were thirteen, and we’re still waiting on our mark, but it’s coming.”
Jaemin’s brightness doesn’t waver, but something in his eyes fades. “Thirteen? Are you sure?”
Jeno has no clue how to answer that. Is he sure that it’s Saturday, that the sky is blue, that he sneezes when he eats near his cats? Somethings are just truths, and he’s a little bit insulted that Jaemin would ask him if he’s sure, like Jeno had told him he wants tuna and red onion sandwiches for lunch or to turn up to his first lecture in a Teletubby onesie.
It has been almost half a decade since Donghyuck and Jeno first started their soul bond, but Jeno still isn’t used to that sticky, awkward energy people exude when he explains that yes, he did start his soul bond at thirteen and no, they don’t have their soul mark yet. Usually, he just shrugs it off and puts the person on his Do Not Interact list.
He looks at Jaemin, with his easy smile and friendly disposition, and decides that no, actually, he doesn’t want to lose that. He’ll give Jaemin a free pass this time.
“That’s a bit rude, don’t you think?”
“I didn’t mean to offend you,” Jaemin says, carefully. “I just meant… I’ve never met anyone who-.”
“Met their soulmate so young, yeah, I know,” he sighs.
“Yeah,” Jaemin repeats awkwardly, and there’s an awkward lull as Jeno prays he hasn’t lost the only friend he has made so far. Then Jaemin gestures back at the door. “My brother let me take his old PS2 with me, you wanna go play Silent Hill?”
“Fuck, you play Silent Hill? Horror games scare the shit out of me.”
Jaemin laughs at him, not unkindly. “So, you wanna go play?”
Jeno thinks for a moment, then nods. He’s okay with letting this go if Jaemin is as well. “Fuck yeah, lead the way!”
His phone pings with a message as they leave his room. It’s short and soft, much like all of Donghyuck’s messages. Good luck settling in! I’ll see you tomorrow! I love you! Followed by a bunch of sparkly heart emojis.
He smiles to himself as he shoves his phone into his pocket, content in the knowledge that tonight, like most nights, he will fall asleep with Donghyuck singing lullabies at him through skype, and everything will be okay. He is not alone.
Donghyuck arrives late in the afternoon the next day – part of the university’s anti-traffic scheme, having half the first years come on Saturday and the other half arrive on Sunday. It has been four days since they last saw each other but from the way Donghyuck throws himself at Jeno, he’s starting to wonder if it hasn’t actually been four months.
“I can’t believe we’re actually here!” Donghyuck screeches in his ear, as Jeno buries his face in his boyfriend’s neck and pretends he hasn’t missed him. Donghyuck’s sister Yerim and her soulmate Chaeyoung are standing to the side laughing at them, but he can’t find it in himself to care. He’s missed this, missed holding his boyfriend.
Unfortunately, for all that he loves affection, Donghyuck is not a big fan of public displays, and he untangles himself from Jeno’s hold sooner rather than later.
“You said you already had a look around, right?” Donghyuck asks, but Jeno doesn’t have the chance to respond before his boyfriend is barrelling onwards, “You have to show me everything!”
“Do you need any help unpacking or anything like that?”
“No, Chaeyoung helped me out with all the big stuff so there’s just decorating left really.”
Yeri makes an indignant sound behind them. “You brat! I did most of the heavy lifting, you and Chaeng stood around making dick jokes with your next-door neighbour!”
Jeno doesn’t doubt that that’s true. Yeri and Chaeyoung met two years ago but Yeri didn't introduce her to Donghyuck until their first anniversary because, while they get along startlingly well, they have achingly similar personalities which means they also have a tendency to bring out the worst in each other.
Donghyuck waves his sister off, bumping into Jeno’s side and looking around the quad curiously. “Sooyoung told me that when she helped you move in, you spent the whole time talking to your RA about where she got her fairy lights while our darling sister did all the unpacking. I’m sure she did the same to Johnny. It’s practically a right of passage, now.”
Yeri grumbles under her breath about ungrateful brats, and waiting until it’s his turn, but Donghyuck has already moved on.
“Come on, I’ll show you my room and you can meet Mark. He’s my RA.”
Jeno follows him happily, “I’m glad you’re making friends.”
Donghyuck laughs and links their hands together, “Yeah, me too. What about you, what are your flatmates like?” he asks and Jeno thinks of Jaemin, of his easy smile and friendly nature.
“Good, “ he says, smiling. “Yeah, pretty good. I think I’m going to enjoy living here.”
Donghyuck smiles in return and it’s blinding in its intensity. “Yeah,” he says. “Me too.”
Donghyuck’s room is in the block for the social science halls, and Jeno is in the humanities and arts block. They’re opposite sides of campus so the gap between them is about a fifteen-minute walk, long enough that Jeno has to put actual clothes on instead of just pyjamas if he wants to visit, but not long enough to convince him not to try and visit every day. Thank god Donghyuck knows things like boundaries and personal space. He has never demanded Jeno’s constant affection and attention, and so Jeno has absolutely not been trained, conditioned, into needed to spend at least an hour by Donghyuck’s side every day.
Okay, yeah, that’s a fucking lie. Donghyuck wouldn’t know personal space if it wriggled out of a hug with him and told him to back the hell off. He’s clingy to the point of annoyance, and more times than not it’s Jeno telling him to maybe give me a break for a little bit, because I really need to pee.
But still, Donghyuck has three older siblings to Jeno’s one, and a younger brother as well. His house is more like a zoo than a home and even though he and Jisung are the poster children for evil younger brothers, he has learned well from his older siblings. He is more socially knowledgeable than Jeno is, he knows how to deal with more and how to act in new settings. So, when Donghyuck says ‘if we’re going to make new friends and have proper university experiences, then we should spend the first week hanging out with our dormmates, acclimatising, and not with each other’, Jeno listens.
And it’s not like he’s angry, or even annoyed! It was a good idea. He’s made a real friend in Jaemin, and he’s joined the dance society, and the pudding tasting society, both groups he knows Donghyuck wouldn’t want to be a part of. But honestly? It’s been five days and he’s only seen Donghyuck once, which is ridiculous since he is only fifteen minutes away. He’s starting to really miss his boyfriend.
So, when Donghyuck suggests a group brunch meeting at the ‘cute little cafe fifteen minutes from campus’ he jumps at the chance.
“Jeno!” Donghyuck says, beaming up at him from the booth he’s sitting at and waving, even though Jeno is a foot away at most. “And you must be Jaemin!”
Jaemin smiles at him gleefully, as if meeting his only friend’s boyfriend in a tacky waffle, cake, and smoothie shop is his idea of a fun time. Hell, maybe it is, Jeno’s only known him a week. “You can call me Nana, everyone else does.”
The other two boys wave their hands politely, introducing themselves as they move coats and bags around, making room for them all to sit comfortably. Jeno doesn’t really listen to – Renren and Yangjun’s? – introductions because Donghyuck is looking at him. It’s the same look he had when their soulbond started, when Jeno asked him out, when they had their one year anniversary. He looks like he doesn’t really believe Jeno exists. He looks like, if he breathed too hard or moved too quickly, he thinks Jeno would disappear. It’s painful, that kind of blind devotion. Jeno doesn’t know how he could possibly live up to it, but god does he want to try.
This is the Donghyuck he sees in his mind every time someone tells him that his soulmate bond isn’t real. Every time someone says they were too young, or they must have imagined it, he sees the love clearly written across Donghyuck’s face. It’s what keeps him going.
It is also, in his weaker moments, the look that haunts his fears and worries. If he’s being honest, sometimes Jeno craves the solitude he got when he was just Jeno, and not one half of Donghyuck-and-Jeno.
‘Having a soulmate is complicated,’ he thinks, ‘especially if no one else believes you have one.’
“Hey Hyuckie,” he says, ignoring that train of thought.
Donghyuck’s smile widens and he shoves a menu into Jeno’s hand as he drags him down to sit beside him. “Check this out, they have the nicest sounding smoothies, and enough cake to take on a diabetic army.”
Across from them, Jaemin and Donghyuck’s slightly taller friend both huff a laugh, but the marginally shorter of Donghyuck’s new friends only scoffs. “Why would you fight an army of diabetics, and on that note, why would a bunch of diabetics be eating cake in the first place?”
“Hmm, because we told them it was sugar-free and they’re starving, Renjun. They’re fighting a war, that’s very physically taxing!”
“If they’re fighting a war, that means we’re their enemy! Why would they take cake from their enemy?”
Jeno tunes their argument out. He’s used to Donghyuck’s ridiculous hypothetical scenarios and has long since stopped questioning them. Renjun will learn soon enough. Instead he focuses on how beautiful his boyfriend is. He’s all soft lines, and sharp curves, and his skin is glowing in the midday light. He looks radiant, golden brown skin and honey-brown eyes under the harsh fluorescent lighting. There is nothing he can truly compare him to, but he tries... Donghyuck is sunlight, glowing and gentle. He is amber, shiny and bright. He is fire, raging and free. Jeno wants to pin him down and kiss him till both their lips are numb.
Donghyuck pauses in his argument just long enough to push at Jeno’s face. “Stop looking at me like you want to eat me, nerd.”
“Close, babe, but not quite.” Donghyuck’s hand leaves his cheek feeling warm, and he ignores his puzzled look to skim through the menu. There are lots of interesting smoothies, like Donghyuck said. They all have fun names, like ‘chunky monkey’ or ‘rose jam’.
“Maybe I’ll get the Berry Happy smoothie? That sounds nice.” he muses aloud. Yangyang hums, either in agreement or approval, but Donghyuck shakes his head.
“Babe, it has a plum puree in,” Donghyuck explains, laughing at Jeno’s disgusted grimace. Plums are awful. “Maybe try The Scream? That has berries in it, if that’s what you’re looking for. It’s what I’m getting.”
Renjun perks up opposite them. “That’s what I’m getting too!” Donghyuck grins and reaches across to high five him.
Someone nudges at Jeno’s foot under the table, and he looks up to see Jaemin looking at him. “Ask if you can have the Berry Happy without plum, or if there’s anything they can replace it with.”
“That’s so smart, oh my god,” Jeno mutters, and he’s kind of annoyed he didn’t think of that himself but hey, that’s what friends are for. “Heck yeah, I’m gonna have it with extra blueberries, and maybe some dates if they’re like, okay with modifications?”
“I’ll give you a date,” Yangyang and Jaemin both say at the same time, and the table erupts into noise as everyone starts laughing, screeching or gagging at the terrible joke.
Donghyuck doesn’t laugh. He smiles awkwardly, and then spends the rest of brunch clinging to Jeno as if he actually took the joke seriously.
It’s cute. Everything about Donghyuck is cute.
Jeno’s parents are the most in-love people he’s ever met. They move around each other in sync like they have a telepathic link, something made even more impressive considering that they themselves are not soulmates. Jeno can only dream of having that with Donghyuck one day. They are not parallel lines, running smoothly alongside one another, forever destined to be going the same way. Jeno doesn’t have to know what Donghyuck is thinking to be in love with him.
Still, he thinks as he watches his boyfriend drift off to sleep over their skype call, it would be nice to know what Donghyuck was thinking without having to ask.
“If you’re tired, go to sleep,” He says softly. Donghyuck’s eyes snap back open and he sits up straight.
“No, no, I can’t. I have to finish the essay, it’s due in like two days.”
“Can’t you just finish it tomorrow?” It’s already half past eleven and Donghyuck looks exhausted, he can barely keep his eyes open. Usually, Jeno was the one getting tired early.
“I’m meeting Renjun tomorrow, we’re going to the farmers' market. We’re gonna try and get some vegan cheese for Injun’s mum.”
“How would you even make vegan cheese, isn’t it just dairy and bacteria?”
Donghyuck laughs and adjusts his laptop, “I don’t know, but he bought some from Sainsbury’s the other day and it was pretty decent.” He smiles at Jeno, then shakes his head and pouts, “Okay, no, stop distracting me! I’ve got eight hundred more words to write.”
Jeno sighs fondly. “Okay, send me what you’ve got so far. I’ll proofread it for you.”
“God, I love you,” Donghyuck laughs and flops back against the pile of cushions he sleeps with, throwing an arm over his eyes.
His laptop dings as Donghyuck’s essay comes through, but Jeno doesn’t open it up straight away. Instead, he stares at the pixelated image of his boyfriend through the screen, soft, tired and smiling.
“Say it back,” Donghyuck mumbles, peeking out under his arm, and Jeno laughs.
“Okay, babe. I love you too.”
It isn’t long before he starts thinking of Jaemin and Donghyuck’s friends as ‘their friends’. It’s a weird couple phenomenon he’s noticed - it happens with best friends, too. If two people spend long enough with each other, eventually they don’t have ‘my friends’ and ‘your friends’, they just have ‘our friends’ and then occasionally ‘people you get along with that I don’t like’. It has definitely happened to them. For the most part, they get along with everyone, but it’s easy to see that Yukhei, a second-year they met through Mark, annoys the hell out of Donghyuck and is safely on the Jeno’s friends side of the conversation. It’s quite sad actually, especially since he’s always trying to get Hyuck’s attention and approval.
He wouldn’t say he dislikes anyone Donghyuck gets along with, but… well, Renjun is difficult to place. There is something so unsettling about the way he looks at Jeno, as if he can see right into his soul and doesn’t like what he sees. It’s only made worse by how he monopolises all of Donghyuck’s time, constantly inviting him out to art exhibitions and farmer’s markets. By the end of October, he’s pretty sure Donghyuck has gone on more dates with Renjun than he has with Jeno.
Donghyuck himself doesn’t seem to see anything wrong with this and only laughs when Jeno brings it up. “Why do you care, babe? I invite you to most of the places we go and you never want to come.”
“But that’s because they’re not exactly us, Hyuck! Since when have either of us ever wanted to go to a farmers market in our lives?”
“Isn’t that the point of university? To experience new things, shit like that?”
Jeno doesn’t know how to respond without sounding like a dick. “Hyuck, he’s clearly into you, more than just a farmers market buddy. It’s so obvious that likes you! He’s probably just waiting for us to break up so he can snap you up.”
His boyfriend’s face sours, like Jeno just shoved half a lemon down his throat and told him to smile about it. “Don’t say that. Don’t ever say that. First of all, I am not an object. I have my own autonomy and I can make my own choices.” Jeno hangs his head a little at that.
“Renjun is my friend. He doesn’t like me that way. You only think that because you’re not used to me spending more time with someone that’s not you, and that’s fine, Jen! But the solution is to talk to me and spend more time together, not to attack Renjun”
Donghyuck continues in a much softer voice. “Last of all, it wouldn’t matter if he liked me like that, which he doesn’t, because you are my soulmate. Are we going to break up?” It’s a rhetorical question, Jeno can tell, and Donghyuck doesn’t bother waiting for a response, “No, we are not. Renjun is my friend, you are my soulmate, and we all understand the boundaries of our relationships, so everything’s fine.”
Jeno lets the subject go, and it doesn’t come up again. Donghyuck keeps going to museums and arts and craft fairs with Renjun and Jeno goes to Dance Society with Jaemin and once a fortnight they all meet up with Yangyang to get lunch to talk about how their courses are going, just like usual. It’s frighteningly domestic.
The music is louder than he thought it would be, and the alcohol available is pretty decent, but otherwise, the party is exactly the same as the ones Jeno went to in sixth form. Loud, busy, filled with frenetic people desperate to fit in. It doesn’t bother him – he has bigger issues. Namely, Donghyuck. His boyfriend is sitting in his lap, panting against his neck as Jeno bites along his jawline in the middle of their uni hall’s living room. He can feel spit cooling as it dries against his neck from where Hyuck was mouthing against him only moments ago. He’ll be covered in hickeys tomorrow morning; Donghyuck has always loved to bite.
Over his boyfriend’s shoulder, he sees Renjun staring at them.
He doesn’t know what Renjun’s problem is. He’s absolutely certain he has a crush on Donghyuck, but plenty of people have a crush on Donghyuck, and none of them have ever taken it out on Jeno. Why would they? Jeno and Hyuck are soulmates, he won before the game even started. You can’t be mad at fate.
“Babe, why’d you stop?” Donghyuck says breathlessly.
Jeno isn’t sure himself, but all of a sudden his heart isn’t in it. He pushes Donghyuck off of him gently and stands, stretching as feeling seeps back into his legs. He hadn’t noticed they’d gone numb. “My head is spinning, I’m gonna go get some water. You want some?”
Donghyuck shakes his head and settles back into the sofa.
Someone, probably Nana, has set out a selection of non-alcoholic drinks on the counter. They’re mostly mixers, lemonade, and orange juice, but there’s also a bottle of pineapple and mango smoothie and some sparkling water. Jeno pours a glass of sparkling water in the hopes that it will be so disgusting that it will sober him up, then turns to survey the room.
The party is busy, like everyone collectively decided that a Thursday in late January is the perfect time to attend a house party. Fuck, Jeno isn’t even sure whose house this is. Mark is in the corner, in the middle of a heated discussion with Mina. It looks serious but they’re probably talking about the best Lizzo song or when it’s socially acceptable to take Christmas decorations down or something. Jaemin is in the corner, well into the process of getting smashed with Yukhei and Hyunjin. Jeno will probably have to carry him back to his room later - as he has learned that Jaemin is very much a completely-trashed-or-nothing kind of guy.
Donghyuck has been joined on the sofa by Yangyang, and they’re leaning into each other laughing. They look good together. Happy. Donghyuck leans his head back as he practically cackles about something Yangyang has said and Jeno notices the dark splotches already forming against the pretty tan of his boyfriend’s neck. He could stare at Hyuck all night.
Apparently, Renjun has other plans.
He steps out of nowhere directly into Jeno’s line of sight. It would be enough to startle him if Jeno wasn’t pleasantly tipsy-numb. He looks… frustrated? Even after a few months, they don’t know each other well enough for Jeno to accurately guess his emotions half drunk.
“So,” Renjun says.
“So,” Jeno echoes.
“I hope this doesn’t come across as rude,” Jeno downs the rest of his disgusting fizzy water in anticipation. “But you and Donghyuck have been together how long?”
“We’ve been dating for, like… three years? Since we were sixteen.”
Renjun cocks an eyebrow. There’s a light flush dusting his cheeks, suggesting that he’s just as sober as the rest of them. So, not very. “I thought your bond started when you were thirteen?”
“Well, yeah, our bond started then but we’d already known each other for years at that point. It would have been weird to immediately go from nothing to dating. We, like, danced around it for a few years? Then Donghyuck asked me out on his sixteenth birthday.”
Renjun snorts, “Sounds romantic.”
He doesn’t have to know Runjun very well to know that he is being sarcastic and petty and mean. “It was, actually. He waited until my exact birth minute and then gave me my present and okay maybe ‘be my boyfriend’ isn’t the most romantic way of phrasing it, but it was sweet.”
“Why don’t you ever take him on dates?” Renjun asks, ignoring everything he just said. “You always get so weird when I take him out, even though we invite you, but you never take him anywhere yourself.”
Jeno bristles indignantly, “That’s not true! I take him places all the time!”
“Yeah? Name one date you’ve been on since coming to uni.”
“I took him to the aquarium, like, last week!” he doesn’t know why he feels so defensive about this but fuck if he’s going to let anyone come over here and disrespect his relationship.
Renjun doesn’t even blink. “ Actually, I’m pretty sure he took you to the aquarium.”
“That doesn’t mean shit, he had the idea, he asked you, planned that shit. Just because you provided the funds doesn’t mean anything.”
The sparkling water has not helped in the slightest and Jeno’s head is starting to hurt. “What’s your fucking point?”
“My point, Jeno, is that you have no idea how to date. Maybe it’s because you met so young, but you’ve both become so acclimated to the idea of not having to put the work in.” Renjun looks so pitying that Jeno has to reach behind himself and grip the countertop so he doesn’t shove his hands over his mouth. He doesn’t want to hear this shit.
“You know, I took Hyuckie to the Tate Modern last month and this lady called us a cute couple. I laughed it off but Hyuck just got really confused, it took me so fucking long to explain that we probably looked like we were on a date because you never take him on dates. You never call him your soulmate, either. It’s always ‘boyfriend’.”
Jeno slams his empty cup onto the counter and glares. “That’s because we are boyfriends. We’re only teenagers, soulmate is for later. He knows what he is to me, and we don’t need you sticking your nose in, thanks.”
Renjun has the audacity to laugh. “Does he? Because that’s my problem, Jeno. You can’t insist you have a soulbond and then refuse to call him your soulmate. It’s bullshit. You claim to be bonded but you don’t seem ready for that shit at all. It probably would have been better if you’d met now, instead, because as it is, you and Hyuck have wildly different interpretations of your relationship.”
The annoying thing is, Jeno can’t even disagree. He has spent hours daydreaming about who he would be if he hadn’t met Donghyuck as a toddler, hadn’t known him all his life. They had known each other forever and had only ever dated each other - after all, what would be the point in dating when you already have your soulmate right in front of you? And even if they had wanted to, no one wants to date the kid with a soul bond coming through. If he’d been given the chance to have a stereotypical meet-cute at a cafe, or a museum, or even in a lecture, now instead of then - maybe he and Renjun wouldn’t be having this conversation.
“No offence, or anything,” he says, too late.
“Okay, no offence, Huang Renjun, but fuc-” there is a disgusting, violent gagging noise and they turn to see Jaemin retching over the sink.
Jeno sighs, tiredly, angrily. It looks like his night is over.
He can’t stop thinking about what Renjun said. It hangs over him constantly, bitter and painful. He’s sure Donghyuck has noticed - how could he not? The way he’s started shying away from talking about their bond, or how he and Renjun have made it their personal mission to never be where the other is. A few of the people on Donghyuck’s course have had bonds start and, in a few cases, finish. It’s frustrating to see people who’ve known each other for a few months at most have a complete bond when they, who have known each other for years, do not. It’s led to some... discussions about their bond.
They’re hardly arguments, they barely ever argue, but if they did, it would sound like their recent ‘discussions’.
It all comes to a head on a non-descript Thursday afternoon, as he and Donghyuck are walking through the quad on their way to lunch. It doesn’t feel like the kind of moment that could house devastatingly life-changing events, there’s no thunderstorms or heavy mists, so Jeno thinks he’s fine bringing it up.
Donghyuck listens quietly to everything Jeno says, nodding along and frowning occasionally.
“Do you think Renjun kind of maybe had a point? I mean, about us maybe having met too young. Maybe we really didn’t know what we wanted?”
“Jeno, it doesn’t matter what anyone else say-“
“No, I know that, but-“
Donghyuck continues without listening to him, “We love each other and that’s all that matters!“
“Yes, I know, but-“
Donghyuck stops and grabs his arm, turning Jeno to face him in what, at any other moment, would have felt like some kind of heart-stopping, cheesy k-drama moment. Now it just feels crushingly anxiety-inducing. “But what, Jeno?” He looks exasperated and Jeno can’t help but notice the faint bruises under his eyes, the way his lips are chapped and dry. He’s still beautiful, but mostly he just looks tired. It doesn’t make him worry, the way a boyfriend should. It makes him feel guilty. He doesn’t want to unpack that right now. “Why does there have to be a ‘but’?”
And that’s the million-dollar question, isn’t it? Why does there have to be a ‘but’?
There’s a beat of silence, and then Donghyuck’s hand drops from Jeno’s wrist. He’d hated having it there - it made him feel trapped - but now it’s gone he feels the loss keenly.
“Oh,” Donghyuck says, and Jeno reels. “Oh. I’ve been selfish, haven’t I?”
“What do you mean?”
“This whole time, you’ve been coming to me with these feelings and these doubts and I’ve been so self-absorbed, haven’t I? I’ve been trying to comfort you, telling you that of course, we’re soulmates, that it doesn’t matter what anyone else thinks, that I love you no matter what. But that’s not what you wanted, is it?”
Jeno shifts uncomfortably. Donghyuck is usually quite slow – it’s not a flaw, he is incredibly resourceful and comes up with solutions to problems that Jeno doesn’t even realise are problems, but when it comes to interpersonal stuff, he usually needs things written out for him. To hear him be this frank, this insightful, is more than a little unnerving and would be even if the topic of this conversation didn’t make him want to curl up into a ball and die.
Donghyuck’s voice is cracking but his eyes are dry. “You’re my best friend, Jeno,” he says, “And I believe you my soulmate. But… If you don’t want to be in a relationship with me right now, I respect that. You deserve time to figure out what you want.”
“And if what I want isn’t you?” Jeno asks carefully. “If I decide I never want us to go back to a romantic relationship?”
Donghyuck’s eyes well up, and he blinks rapidly before looking into Jeno’s eyes. “Then I’ll be sad,” he says, “But I’ll get over it. I want you to be happy more than anything, Jen. Don’t use me as an excuse not to be.”
“So, you mean to tell me that, despite all your years and years of insistence that you too are meant, no, are destined to be, you and Donghyuck have broken up?”
It has been a week since Donghyuck let Jeno leave their relationship to explore who he can be without a soulmate and here he is, moping in his bedroom. Donghyuck has been such a big part of his life up until now that he doesn’t know how to even start going about changing himself without his help. Maybe their friends could have helped – Jaemin always talks about rediscovering who he was meant to be after his back injury, and Yangyang likes to ramble about being different people in different places, but their shared connection with both him and Donghyuck made him feel… uneasy. Besides, this is something that would need a deeper understanding of who Jeno is than a few months of friendship could provide. So, having no one else to turn to, Jeno called Doyoung.
Looking at the grainy camera image of his brother lounging disdainfully on his settee and sipping red wine provided through facetime, he is beginning to wonder if it was such a good idea after all.
“When you say it like that it sounds stupid,” he grumbles.
“That’s because it is.”
The problem with big brothers, Jeno thinks, is that they have usually gone through every major milestone before you. That makes them arrogant; they’re so used to knowing what to do through experience that they start to think they know how to solve every problem. They don’t.
Or, at least, Doyoung doesn’t. Jeno would tell him as much, but Doyoung graduated university with a degree in soulmate psychology, a first no less, and Jeno needs his help. Or, he will once his brother has stopped being such a judgy bitch.
“Why, though?” Doyoung asks, sipping on his wine and frowning. “I support you one hundred per cent, Jen, but if you’ve broken up… do you not think he’s your soulmate anym-“
“No!” says Jeno, sitting up and leaning closer, as if being nearer his phone will convince Doyoung of anything. “It’s not that, I still think we’re… you know.” Fuck, Renjun was right - he does avoid saying soulmate.
“Then why?” Doyoung asks again, as if Jeno has any fucking clue how to answer that question.
“Everyone kept saying things,” he settles with. “It made me angry, then it made me sad, but then it made me think.”
Doyoung looks so fucking done with this big brother advice bullshit and honestly Jeno can’t blame him. “Wow, congrats on sounding literally the most cryptic anyone has ever sounded. What the fuck does that even mean?”
“I’m telling Mum you swore in front of me,” Jeno says reflexively. Doyoung politely ignores him.
“Do you really care that much about what people think of you that you’d give up on a soul bond? God, uni only lasts three years – couldn’t you just wait it out?”
There is something about the way he says it, derisive and mocking, that makes something inside of Jeno erupt in a wave of fury and hurt. He can’t take this anymore. Not from his friends, not from strangers at parties he hasn’t shared more than three sentences with, and certainly not from his big brother.
“Oh, yeah, sure, what is three more years on top of the five I’ve already had to deal with this bullshit? God, Doyoung, you don’t get it. It hasn’t been months, this isn’t a new thing for me. I’ve been having people shove their shitty opinions on my soul bond down my throat for a third of my life and I fucking hate it.” He sees Doyoung put his glass down somewhere out of the frame and sit up straight, but he’s too worked up right now to bother with Doyoung finally paying attention.
“And the worst part,” He seethes, “is that underneath all the nonsense and bullshit, a lot of people have a point! Teen years are supposed to be all about discovering yourself so when you and your soulmate finally meet, you’re both the best versions of yourselves that you can be. So you have life experiences, and you’re ready to settle down and be with your soulmate for the rest of your life. I didn’t get that! I got saddled with my fate when I was thirteen fucking years old, and I don’t know how to even begin to deal with that.”
Doyoung is staring at him pityingly through the phone screen and Jeno’s thumb hovers over the ‘end call’ button. God, he’s so embarrassed.
“Jen…” Doyoung says before he can, “I don’t know how to address all of that. But… if you’ll let me, there are some things I can help with.”
Silence rings in Jeno’s ears as he considers it. Does he want Doyoung’s help? Right now, all he really wants is to vent and cry and bury his issues. But the anger he feels, the bitterness and loneliness… it’s all-consuming. He can’t live like that. He won’t.
“Okay,” he says. “Help me.”
Doyoung smiles at him, softly, sadly. “Nobody is ready for a soulmate, Jeno. We don’t work our whole lives to be good enough. One day, your soul is alone, and the next it’s not. It has nothing to do with who you are, or where you’re at, or being ready. It’s pure chance.”
“But,“ Jeno says, “Everyone always says thirteen is too young for a soulmate. If it’s not about being ready, then why does everyone say I wasn’t?”
Doyoung sighs and reaches for something out of frame. “Because no thirteen-year-old is ready for anything. They’re all dumb as shit, Jeno.”
That’s… actually quite true. He has a skewed version of himself at thirteen, most of his memories being filled with Donghyuck and their soulbond, but he remembers being fifteen, and seeing how dumb Jisung was. So dumb, is the answer.
“I don’t know how many times you have to hear this before it gets inside your thick head, Jeno, but soul bonds are not and have never been about discovering yourself for your soulmate. They’re about discovering yourself for you.” his arm comes back into frame and he’s holding a photograph. He doesn’t have to hold it up to the camera for Jeno to recognise it, the thick crease down the middle and crumpled edges give it away instantly. It’s the first picture he and Donghyuck ever took together after their soul bond started.
There are hundreds of copies scattered around the place. Doyoung took them to the printers to have enough copies made so that they could send them to relatives, a tradition in their family. Jeno’s copy is at the front of a photo album under his bed. Donghyuck’s is pinned to his pinboard, next to a photo of his family and his class time table. Or at least it had been. He’s probably taken it down now.
“There are two people in this photo. Your bond is between two people. Have you considered that you’re not the only one having these thoughts? That Donghyuck has to go through this stuff too? What makes you different from him?”
“What makes us different is that when we told our parents: his threw him a party and started calling me their fifth child. Our parents pretended it didn’t exist. How am I supposed to accept this when my own mother hates our soul bond. My own mother!”
“Jeno… you know the real reason why mum hates Donghyuck, right?” Doyoung asks carefully, as if he’s talking to a spooked horse, and Jeno feels the edges of his reality start to shake. He doesn’t know what Doyoung is about to say and honestly, he doesn’t want to know. His world has already suffered enough upheaval, he cannot take anymore change.
“Don’t tell me,” He says, but Doyoung is already talking.
“Our parents aren’t soulmates. You know this. Donghyuck knows this. Heck, the whole goddamn world knows this – they’re not ashamed of it and they shouldn’t have to be.” Jeno thinks of all the reproachful stares his mother gets when people notice the way her yellow-and-green smear doesn’t match his father’s ice white left hand. His father never gets those stares – not that Jeno blames anyone. Soul marks can come in any colour, and supposedly, if you listen to folklore or superstition, every colour has a different meaning. The only one that can ever be verified is white. No one’s soul mark ever starts out white. It fades away after your soul mate dies.
Neither of his parents have ever spoken to Jeno about their soulmate. Jeno has never wanted to ask. Apparently, Doyoung has had no such reservations.
“Dad’s soulmate died when he was young; they had only known each other for a few weeks. I asked him how it felt once, to lose a soulmate, and he said it felt like having his body ripped in half and the insides scooped out. They only knew each other for a little while but they had already begun to love each other so much.” Doyoung looks him dead in the eyes. “Dad was your age, you know.”
He can’t even begin to imagine what it would be like to lose Donghyuck. If his father had such a reaction after knowing his soulmate for a few weeks, losing Donghyuck, who he’s known a third of his life, would probably break him.
“Mum’s story is probably even worse.” Doyoung says.
“What could be worse than losing a soulmate?”
“So many things,” Doyoung says. “Death is not the worst thing imaginable. People are capable of terrible things, Nono. you know how Donghyuck has an uncle, his father’s brother?”
He vaguely recognises the man Doyoung is referring to. “Yeah, the one who doesn’t get invited to family parties because he did something bad that no one will talk about?”
His brother scoffs. “Bad is an understatement.”
“Okay. yeah, he’s a dick. What does that have to do with Mum’s soulmate?”
His brother looks at him pityingly. “Jeno, he is Mum’s soulmate.”
His world is spinning and there’s a pressure behind his eyes. He feels sick and scared and confused but he can’t find any words so Doyoung just keeps going.
“Mum hates Donghyuck because she’s certain that he’s going to end up like his uncle. She thinks the reason your bond hasn’t come through properly is that he’s forcing you into this, and you don’t really want it. I told her it doesn’t work like that, but you know her - a degree in soulmate psychology is nothing compared to a concerned mother.”
“That’s not true,” he mumbles in response, mind still focused on what he’s learned. “Donghyuck would never force me into anything.”
“You don’t have to tell me that, that kid loves you to the moon and back. And you love him too.”
“How do you know that?”
“I know because it’s obvious. I don’t need some dumb uni first year quizzing your intentions to know that. When it comes to soulmates you either feel something or you don’t, and you clearly do. Now, are you going to stop moping around, letting someone else’s history and tradition rule your life? Or are you going to call your soulmate?”
Trust Doyoung to take all his biggest problems and make them simple again. “You’re right,” he sighs.
Doyoung laughs, and cups a hand around his ear, leaning in close to the camera. “Sorry, what was that? I want to record it for my resume.”
“Shut up,” Jeno mumbles. “You only graduated last year.”
Doyoung only smiles and shakes his head. “This isn’t graduate degree advice I’m giving you, Jen. It’s brother advice.”
Jeno still doesn’t call Donghyuck. He doesn’t contact him in any way for a while. He gets a few texts, but he ignores them. He doesn’t know how to be Jeno the friend, and not Jeno the soulmate, not yet. Not with Donghyuck. He’s not even sure he wants to know - his heart has made its mind up.
He goes to parties with Jaemin and gets drunk. He learns to cook. He cleans his dorm room. He writes essays and does a group presentation. He hosts a few of the dorm movie nights. He goes to more parties and gets drunker. He kisses some boys, then he kisses a girl. He writes more essays. He doesn’t think of Donghyuck.
He calls his mother.
(And if he cries at night, staring at the couple selfie he still hasn’t removed from his lock screen, well – that’s no one’s business but his own.)
Jeno has been at Mark’s stupid party for half an hour and, despite it supposedly being a ‘small, intimate setting’, he barely recognises anyone. He’s just decided to give up on finding Mark and instead make his way back to Jaemin, when he sees him.
He is standing at the edge of the room, bopping along to the beat of whatever shitty house song Mark is playing. His cup dangles precariously from where he’s holding the rim with his fingertips. If it were anyone else it would look awkward, but it doesn’t. It looks like he’s waiting.
Jeno thinks about Doyoung’s advice. Stop letting history and tradition rule your life, Jeno. You either feel something or you don’t, but you have to make that choice.
He thinks of his mother, of the way she constantly tries to stop him from repeating her mistakes, even though he doesn’t think she’s made any. How she’s always waiting for Donghyuck to break his heart the same way Donghyuck’s uncle broke hers all those years ago. He thinks of Donghyuck’s parents, content to stand by and watch each other date other people until they were ready to be together.
He can’t be like any of them. Jeno is done waiting. He’s ready now.
He walks towards his soulmate and the movement catches Donghyuck’s eye, and he looks up. For a moment they just stare at each other. It’s been so long since Jeno let himself look at his soulmate, really look, and he realises that he’s been seeing the same chubby, giggling thirteen-year-old for the past five years. Donghyuck isn’t a child anymore though, and neither is he. They’ve both done some growing and though they still have more to do, Jeno thinks that maybe that’s okay. He can handle it. He knows what he wants now, and he can only hope that Donghyuck still wants it too.
So they stand there, in gentle silence, waiting.
Then Donghyuck smiles at him, and his world restarts. Donghyuck smiles at him, and he knows they’ll be alright.
“Be my boyfriend again?” Jeno asks.
“Yeah,” Donghyuck replies, breathlessly, “Okay.”
(Jeno has grown enough to know that they’ll have to talk about this, that he can’t keep burying his insecurities and pretending they’re alright. But tonight, tonight he’s choosing to be happy. He’s going to dance with all his friends, sing and scream and laugh until campus security comes to them with a noise complaint, dance until his feet go numb. Tonight, he’s going to hold his soulmate close and choose to be happy.
He has a lot to celebrate, after all.)
A few months later and they’re all crowded around the same apartment again to celebrate the end of their first year. It’s a lot calmer than last time, only seven people - the original group, plus Mark and, to Donghyuck’s dismay and everyone else’s amusement, Yukhei. They’re sipping Schloer out of champagne flutes because everyone had a talk and decided that Jaemin was veering rapidly towards alcohol dependency issues and if he can’t drink anymore, it’s only fair that they can’t either. The fancy glasses were Yangyang’s idea.
They’re sitting sprawled across the living room when it happens. Jaemin reaches up to refill Jeno’s empty glass and then rapidly withdraws. “Fuck,” he splutters, sounding more panicked than any of them have ever heard him. “Jen, your hand, you’re bleeding!”
Everyone scrambles to their feet and towards him, desperate to see, to help. Donghyuck, perched half on a stained sofa cushion and half on Jeno’s lap, is a lot quicker, grabbing at his hand before anyone else even has the chance to look. He pries it off of the empty champagne glass and stares at his open palm. Everyone waits with bated breath for his verdict, even Jeno - he doesn’t feel any pain, but he’s pretty sure that not feeling pain until you realise you’re injured is a common occurrence with wounds that make you bleed. When Donghyuck finally looks up, there’s something in his eyes Jeno has never seen before. It’s some hybrid mix of desperation and contentment, longing and love. “I need to take my shirt off,” he murmurs.
“What?” Jeno asks, half confused and half scandalised. Donghyuck just ignores him, already turning around and pulling up his shirt. It’s so bizarre and out of place that Jeno can’t help but give in to his curiosity – Donghyuck is no stranger to stripping in public, but it usually happens when he’s had actual alcohol and not just half a flute of room temperature Schloer – and helps him pull up his silk shirt.
And then everything goes still, then quiet, then loud.
It is in the same spot Jeno had fruitlessly pushed at all those years ago. It’s large, sprawling and red, swirling and twisting all along what was probably once thirteen-year-old Jeno’s handprint. It looks messy and cluttered and bright, and it might just be the most beautiful thing Jeno has ever seen.
He brushes his fingers over the spot and hears their friends take a collective gasp as his soul mark meets Donghyuck’s, meets his soulmate’s.
It’s a match.