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the miles between our screens

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"Pull yourself together," Jisung tells his reflection in the mirror. He narrows his eyes and pokes a finger right at the glass, as if he could ever really intimidate anyone, let alone himself. Unsurprisingly, it doesn't work; he still feels like four dozen butterflies flitting nervously around his room, barely contained.

"Focus, Jisung. Focus," he says, letting out a breath to calm himself. He runs his fingers through his hair to smooth it down for the fifth time in as many minutes and exhales again, watching his shoulders drop. "You can do this."

He tries to smile at his reflection and it comes out wonky and awkward. He throws himself onto his bed with a groan. He can't do this.

Any second now, his laptop screen will shutter, the image of him shrinking down into a small box in the corner as his call is accepted. Any second now, Donghyuck will pop into view and will see Jisung.

Will see what a mess you are, Jisung's brain supplies. He groans again, wants to bury his head under the blankets. He's been looking forward to this call for days, but now that it's moments away, the last-minute panic is setting in. What if he can't think of anything to say? What if he really does look like a mess? What if— 

"Jisung?"

Jisung's head snaps up. Donghyuck is on the screen, looking at him with a mix of confusion and fondness. Fondness. Jisung’s brain fizzles.

"Oh. Hi," Jisung says, heat rushing into his cheeks and he re-situates himself on his bed. The smile that takes over his face is shy and embarrassed, but it's genuine. Painfully genuine. He's so happy to see Donghyuck, even through the screen of his computer.

"Am I interrupting something?" Donghyuck asks playfully. "You cat-napping?"

Jisung's cheeks burn as he shakes his head. "Just..." he gestures vaguely. Donghyuck grins warmly and Jisung's heart cartwheels in his chest. "Just waiting for you," he manages to get out.

Donghyuck rests his chin against his palm, tilting his head and considering Jisung through the screen. "You're so cute," he says. There's too much genuine honesty mixed in with the teasing of his voice.

Jisung drops his head into his hands, covering his face. "Shut up," he mumbles into his palms.

"No," Donghyuck coos, drawing out the o, "I mean it, Jisungie. You're too cute. C'mon, don't hide. I can't imagine pinching your cheeks if I can't see them."

Jisung takes a deep breath and lets his hands fall into his lap again, biting his lip to keep the embarrassed smile on his face from spreading too wide. He meets Donghyuck's eyes through the screen and feels himself flush all over again.

"There," Donghyuck says, the smile clear in his voice. "I missed being able to see you." He lifts a hand and Jisung watches what he assumes is Donghyuck tracing a finger against his laptop screen. "I miss you."

It's a strange thing then, how some of the fluttery feeling in Jisung's chest deflates even as more of it is born from Donghyuck's confession. "I miss you, too," Jisung says, twisting his fingers together in his lap.

A flicker of sadness passes over Donghyuck's face before he smiles again and it's gone. "So how have you been? I want to hear everything."

Jisung shrugs. He hasn't been doing much of anything for months now. "I've been okay, I guess." He glances away, eyes landing on the window left cracked open across the room from his bed. It's raining and the wind is blowing with a sharp chill, but he hates to feel completely trapped with the windows closed. "Cold. Bored. Lonely. You know." When he sees Donghyuck's lips curl into a frown, he tries to smile to chase the look away. "Alive, though."

"Well that's good, at least," Donghyuck says, but his face betrays that there's more he wants to say. He leans in towards the screen, the image of him growing bigger on Jisung's laptop. "Have you been bundling up? Taking care of yourself?"

Jisung nods, tugs one of the blankets up his bed to lay it over his legs. "Hoodies and blankets and everything," he says. "And I'm still taking my vitamins every day— the alarm you suggested really helped, by the way. I don't know why I didn't think of it before." This gets Donghyuck to smile, pleased. "And when the weather's okay, I go out for walks. You already know that, though."

"I do," Donghyuck says, eyes softening. "I love getting your pictures. I'm so jealous you get all those red and orange leaves up there, it looks so pretty."

Jisung nods, but— "I'd trade it for your palm trees, to be honest. I hate the cold."

Donghyuck laughs through his nose. "My little baby."

Jisung feels himself blush, heat creeping back into his cheeks right as it was starting to recede. On principle, he doesn't like being called a baby - too used to the teasing of always being the youngest - but it's different when Donghyuck says it with that fond look on his face. A lot of things are different for him where Donghyuck is involved. Jisung likes it— so much more than he ever would have thought. 

He must get a little too lost in his head, get the faraway look Donghyuck likes to tease him for, because Donghyuck waves a hand in front of the camera to recapture his attention. "Earth to Jisung," he jokes. "You still here with me?"

Jisung nods quickly, coming back to himself. "Yup, yup. Sorry." He wonders if Donghyuck knows just how much of an effect his sweet little teases have on him, then realizes it'd be next to impossible for Donghyuck not to when he reacts the way he does. The thought brings more heat to his face and Jisung gives up on trying to fight it back.

"How are you?" Jisung asks to turn the conversation away from himself, and because Donghyuck's been a bit absent lately and Jisung wants to make sure he's all right. This slightly worried caring isn't a one way street, after all. "Are you sleeping all right?" It's a bit of a trick question— he knows for a fact that Donghyuck is up past at least three a.m. almost every night without fail.

And, just as he expects, Donghyuck's face turns sheepish. "College is making it kind of hard to function like a human," he says, "but I swear I'm working on it. It's like, damn, you'd think maybe it'd be easier without the morning slog to class, but no; it's even harder online. I took my last quiz at two in the morning."

Jisung stares at him. "You're kidding."

Donghyuck scratches the back of his head, averting his eyes for a moment. "Nope," he says with a laugh. "It's chill, though, some girl in my class took hers at four. So… all things considered on the scale of disaster students, I'm not that high up."

"Uh-huh," Jisung says, unconvinced.

"Well when did you go to bed last night?" Donghyuck counters.

Jisung hesitates, and that's all the answer Donghyuck needs.

"I knew it— you're just as bad as I am."

"Not as bad," Jisung says indignantly. "I'm always in bed before two."

"That's late, Jisungie," Donghyuck tells him.

Jisung crosses his arms over his chest. "But it's not as late. Besides... I'm working on it."

"That's what I said," Donghyuck points out.

Jisung pouts, and Donghyuck glares at him without heat before crumbling.

"Ah, fine." He throws his hands up. "You win."

Jisung's pout turns into a small smile and Donghyuck rolls his eyes as if that will distract from the fondness on his face.

"Just remember that in the winter it's especially important to wake up earlier so you get as much sun as possible before it sets ungodly early— and double that because you're so far north," Donghyuck says. "We've gotta fight the seasonal depression as best we can."

Jisung sighs. He knows all too well. "Yeah. Thanks for the reminder. I hope you're following your own advice, though. I keep seeing your last active bubble on messenger and it's... something."

Donghyuck holds up a hand. "Do as I say, not as I do."

Jisung laughs. He knows there's more he could say to continue down this conversation, but he also knows Donghyuck, and knows it's better to just keep nudging him in the right direction rather than try to order him around. Some things are better handled with care, after all, and Jisung thinks he's good at that— caring. He cares about Donghyuck so much it hurts just a little bit, like the way his muscles sometimes ache when it rains.

"Let's segue," Donghyuck says, drawing Jisung back to him.

"That's not how..." Jisung tilts his head. "You can't just do that?"

Donghyuck grins at him. "I just did,” he says like he knows he’ll get away with it. 

He’s right, of course; Jisung would let him get away with just about anything, and he knows it’s a two way street, so he doesn’t feel too bad about it. 

Donghyuck goes on to talk about his classes— only the interesting parts, he swears. Jisung knows this is because Donghyuck knows he feels listless, not sure what he wants to pursue now that the safety of highschool is behind him - heightened by the utter disarray of the world this year - and he’s doing his best to offer potential sparks of interest to Jisung’s ever-whirring mind; the knowledge makes Jisung feel warm even if all Donghyuck is talking about is Intro to Personality and an Anthro class he’s scheduled for next semester. The courses seem interesting, and Donghyuck’s voice sounds like a familiar song crackling through an old radio while he talks, so Jisung settles in and listens.

Donghyuck bounces from subject to subject, always pausing long enough for Jisung to chime in if he wants to, leaving empty space between thoughts in case Jisung wants to reroute the conversation, but Jisung is so happy just to see and hear someone else - to spend time with someone else, even if it’s only through the computer - that he’s more than content to simply listen, voicing just a few quick thoughts. He’s spent so much time alone in his room this year that it’s nice to hear anything other than one of his now-innumerous playlists, or the sound of his own voice grousing at the screen of his phone during an online game.

It’s nice just to see Donghyuck, to hear Donghyuck speak. To remember that even though he feels helplessly, utterly alone more days than not, that’s never truly the case. There’s always someone in his court, rooting for him, thinking of him, missing him. The knowledge that Donghyuck exists, the confirmation of him on Jisung’s computer screen, is enough to keep Jisung content now, and - he hopes - to help carry him through the bad days. 

“Hey,” Donghyuck says after a moment of silence following a tangent about the last movie they’d watched on Netflix Party together. “Are you sure you’re all right? You actually look really sad.”

Jisung frowns. He clicks on the small box of himself on his screen to enlarge it and get a good look at his face, and his frown deepens. Donghyuck is right; he does look sad. He clicks on Donghyuck’s box again, shrinking the image of himself back down. “Sorry,” he says as he’s met with Donghyuck’s worried eyes again, “I don’t know why.”

“What are you apologizing for?” Donghyuck asks, brows furrowing. “Are you okay?”

Jisung shrugs. He thought he was, but honestly… these days he doesn’t really know. He’s gotten so used to the gray feelings that sometimes he doesn’t realize when they get heavier, darker, like brewing storm clouds. 

Donghyuck takes his silence with a small nod, a considerate look on his face. “What were you thinking about?”

“I was listening to you talk about the movie,” Jisung says. Really! He was.

But Donghyuck gives him a knowing smile— understanding, if a bit regretful. “Of course,” he says, “but I know you can get distracted even when you are paying attention. You were thinking about something else at the same time, right?”

When Jisung goes to protest, Donghyuck shakes his head. 

“Really, Jisung,” he insists, “I get it. I understand. I promise I’m not hurt at all— I know I can go on and on and eventually it all blends together. You’ve been really quiet tonight, so I just want to know what’s going on in that head of yours.” He pauses, considering Jisung through the screen. “You know you can tell me anything you want right? What else am I here for?” Donghyuck laughs lightly before his face grows a bit more serious again. “Seriously; I know things are hard right now and I want you to know that I’m here for you.”

Jisung swallows around a growing lump in his throat. This is nowhere near as safe as listening to Donghyuck go on about animation styles and the benefits of a good b-plot. Usually when he talks with Donghyuck, he tries to forget about all the chaos and disarray of the outside world. Usually that helps - gives him a short escape - but tonight he can feel the oasis flickering out of view like it’s just a mirage. He swallows again. 

“Thanks,” he says, voice soft because now that the ever-present pressure in the back of his throat is growing, he’s not sure he can manage much more. “I don’t want to bother you with all that, though. It’s fine.”

Donghyuck frowns. “Okay… if you really don’t want to talk I won’t force you, but I need you to know that it wouldn’t be a bother. I want to know how you’re doing so I can help in any way I can, Jisung. I really… I know it really sucks that I can’t be with you more than this, but anything I can do, I want to.”

“Okay,” Jisung says, looking down into his lap. “Thanks.” His voice is so small; he sounds like he’s about to crack down the middle. He tries to push it back— he doesn’t want to cry in front of Donghyuck. Doesn’t want to make Donghyuck ache at the fact that he can’t hold him close and run his hands down his back to comfort him. Doesn’t want Donghyuck to hurt at the lack of contact the same way he does.

Donghyuck is quiet for a long moment, giving Jisung time to breathe. To think. Sometimes Donghyuck can be pushy, but never when it comes to this. It makes Jisung feel safe and sound in a way little else does anymore. It makes him hurt, just a little bit, too, for reasons he can never quite put his finger on. He inhales through his nose, blinking fast. Donghyuck is trying; he wants to try too. 

A bubble of honesty rises in Jisung’s chest, and he looks up again, finding Donghyuck’s eyes on the screen. “I just miss you a lot,” he confesses quietly. “I’m really, really lonely. While you were talking… I was thinking about how nice it is to just see you and hear your voice.” Jisung swallows again— the lump in his throat is rising dangerously high. “I guess I just made myself sad thinking about how this is all we can have. About how far apart we are. How-” he averts his eyes “-I probably won’t be able to see you in person or hug you or anything for another year at least .” Jisung’s voice breaks and he drops his head into his hands. 

This is what he was afraid of.

“Oh, Jisung…” Donghyuck sounds unbearably sad, and Jisung doesn’t want to lift his head to see the look on his face. “I know it’s hard— even harder for you because you’re distancing from your whole family too. I wish I knew what to say, or that there was something I could do to help make it all a little less terrible, but I think all I can do is tell you that I understand: the fear, the loneliness, the feeling like your chest is caving in at night when you’re alone in the dark just wondering if it will ever end. I know it’s really, really easy to get caught in that circle of everything is terrible and it’s never going to get better, but I think that focusing on just that will only make things harder.”

Donghyuck sighs, the sound loud and crackly through the computer, and somehow that helps Jisung find the strength to look up again. Donghyuck’s hair is messy, like he’s run his hands through it one too many times, and he looks more tired than before. But there’s a kind of determination clear on his face, keeping his head up. 

“I know we’re not supposed to say when this is all over because things are probably never going back to the way they were, but someday this is all going to be better and there are things that we will get back. I know how hard it is to try and get through this when it feels like we’re all just swimming against the tide, trying to keep our heads above the water, but - for me at least - I’m just trying to focus on each day, one at a time, to make it easier. I know that’s not too different from what other people are saying, but I think it’s pretty common because it’s working? At least a little bit.” Donghyuck hesitates. “I’m sorry, does this help at all or do I just sound like an asshole?”

Jisung shakes his head quickly. “No, no,” he says. “This is helping. How do you stay… okay through everything?”

Donghyuck wraps his arms around himself. “I don’t really,” he admits. “I have really bad days too. I think we all do. But I guess… I think about it like this: every bright spot you get, every time you smile or laugh— you take that and you hold it close to your heart and remember that there can always be more. As long as we keep going and getting through each day as it comes, there will always be more opportunity for joy. It doesn’t get rid of the darkness - I don’t think anything could, really - but it softens it a bit, I think.”

The ache in Jisung’s chest expands and then, like Donghyuck’s words have stuck a pin prick in it, the bubble pops. Jisung sniffs and ducks his head as his eyes burn. 

“Hey,” Donghyuck says, voice sounding watery. “You know what I just thought of?”

Jisung glances back up. “What?” 

“This quote from Teen Wolf that feels really appropriate,” Donghyuck says with a smile, despite how red his eyes look.

Jisung lets out a surprised laugh and a stubborn tear wells up in his left eye. 

“Do you want to hear it? Donghyuck asks.

Jisung nods, and the tear falls free.

“I don’t remember it exactly ‘cause it’s been years since I watched the show, but it was something like in life, there’s always periods of great happiness and periods of great suffering, but they never last and they’re never absolute— that’s the beauty of time: eventually it all evens out to equilibrium again. And I know that for them, that meant something totally different, but I think it’s true here too. Nothing is ever all one thing forever. Like, yeah summer always ends and we get stuck in winter for half the year and we fucking hate it, but even during winter there can be good times, and after a little while, it gives way to spring again. Always. No darkness can last uninterrupted by light forever.”

When Donghyuck falls silent, Jisung sniffles again. “I didn’t realize you picked up poetry during quarantine,” he says weakly.

“Shut up,” Donghyuck laughs, voice strained. “Renjun has been sending me poetry bot shit on Twitter every day, I guess it’s making me pretentious.”

“No,” Jisung says, smiling now even though his eyes are still glassy, “it’s not bad. I kind of like it. It gets the point across, anyway.”

Donghyuck sighs. “You’re so generous.” He pretends to pout for all of ten seconds before a small smile comes back to his lips. “Did that help? Like… a little bit, at least?”

Jisung runs the back of his hand across his cheeks and nods. He doesn’t really hurt any less, because Donghyuck is still miles and miles, months and months away from him, and any sense of peace and normalcy Jisung’d once had flew out the window months ago, but now there’s something else sitting beside the hurt in his chest. He’s not sure what exactly - hope, maybe? - but Donghyuck is right: it’s presence does make the hurt a bit easier to bear. 

Jisung clutches the feeling and holds it close to his heart. “Yeah,” he says. “Thanks, Donghyuck.”

Donghyuck smiles, and it’s one of the small smiles Jisung treasures seeing on his face. “That’s good. I’m glad. I always want you to be happy— I know it’s not possible to always be happy, but I always want it for you.”

Jisung feels a bit of that familiar blush return to his cheeks. “Me too,” he says. “Want that for you, I mean.”

Donghyuck’s small smile grows a bit bigger. “Thanks, Jisungie.” He uncurls and rests his chin in his palm again, leaning towards the screen. “Have I ever told you how glad I am that you plucked up and told me you liked me? Because I am— so glad. Even if we can only date like this, being with you makes me really happy.”

“Donghyuck,” Jisung whines, dropping his head into his hands again, “you can’t go from sad existential poetry to that without warning.”

“Sorry,” Donghyuck laughs. He doesn’t sound all that sorry, to be honest, but then… Jisung isn’t actually all that upset. “What should I say next time? Warning! I’m about to get sappy on you because you make me think about my feelings and boy do I have a lot of them! Does that work?”

Jisung groans into his hands. “Sure.” When he picks his head up again, Donghyuck is looking at him with a smile so fond it almost makes Jisung want to cry again. “I’m just glad you liked me back,” Jisung mumbles, “otherwise it would’ve been really embarrassing.”

“Aw,” Donghyuck says, “is that the only reason?”

He’s teasing. Jisung knows he’s teasing. Still, he flushes harder. “No,” he says. “You also make me really happy. You’re helping me stay sane out here.”

Donghyuck’s smile softens. “Good. It’s good to know it goes both ways— just like it should.” He punctuates the thought with a yawn, large enough that Jisung can see even though Donghyuck tries to cover it with his hand.

Jisung deflates a bit. “Tired?”

Donghyuck shakes his head, but he yawns again. Jisung glances at the clock on his computer to see that it’s well past 10:00 p.m. for him, which means it’s well past 1:00 a.m. for Donghyuck. They’ve been talking for ages now. 

“I should let you go— I don’t want to be complicit in your terrible sleep schedule,” Jisung says, because as much as he would like to keep his call with Donghyuck going longer, he wants Donghyuck healthy and rested even more. And though he knows it’s still too early for him to pretend Donghyuck will actually go to bed at the end of their call, he knows Donghyuck needs time to himself to fully unwind before he can fall asleep. At least if Jisung lets him go now, maybe he can decompress and be ready for bed at a slightly more reasonable time than usual. 

Donghyuck pouts at him, but doesn’t argue. “I guess that’s fair. Thanks for looking out for me even when I don’t look out for myself.”

Jisung offers him a small smile. “‘Course.” It only makes sense for him to do this much, at least. 

Donghyuck yawns again, and this time it sets Jisung off as well. Donghyuck giggles. “I guess we should both be heading to bed soon,” he teases. “Maybe you can fix your sleep schedule too.”

“Maybe,” Jisung says noncommittally

“Dream of me?” Donghyuck asks, teasing.

Heat spreads across Jisung’s cheeks and he smiles, embarrassed. Although he knows Donghyuck is mostly joking, he does actually dream of him sometimes. “Sure,” he says, sure his face is flaming red. “I’ll try.”

Donghyuck seems almost taken aback by this, blushing a bit himself. It makes Jisung happy— sends a little spark of pride through him. 

“I hope they’re sweet dreams,” Donghyuck says after collecting himself.

Jisung thinks, privately, with you they always are. Out loud, he says, “Yeah. For you, too.”

“You want me to dream of you?” Donghyuck coos.

Jisung bites his lip, worrying it between his teeth for a moment before nodding. May as well be honest. “Seems only fair…” he mumbles.

  “Aww,” Donghyuck coos even harder. “You are too cute, Jisungie. I’ll try my best to dream of you, too. It’ll be us in some crappy college dorm, but we’ll be together and I’ll hug you until you can’t even stand it anymore. That’ll be my dream.”

Jisung draws his shoulders up and feels the bittersweet taste of longing explode in his mouth and pour down his throat when he swallows. “That’s a nice dream,” he says. 

“Yeah,” Donghyuck agrees. “I like it.”

“Me too,” Jisung nods. 

They’re both quiet for a moment, just watching each other through the monitors. Then Donghyuck yawns again and Jisung’s shoulders drop back down. 

“I guess I’d better go get after that dream,” Donghyuck sighs.

“I guess,” Jisung says. He fiddles with the edge of the blanket in his lap. “This was nice. We should call again— some time when you’re free again.”

Donghyuck nods quickly, not a beat of hesitation. “Yeah,” he agrees. “I would love that. I’ll text you, ‘kay?”

“Okay,” Jisung says. “Night, Donghyuck.”

Donghyuck smiles, hand coming up towards the screen again— probably running his fingers over the image of Jisung on his computer because he’s lucky enough to have a touch-screen and he can do things like that. “Night, Jisung,” he says after a moment. “I’ll talk to you soon.”

Jisung nods, offering what he hopes is a matching smile. “Talk to you soon.” He waves to the camera, and Donghyuck waves back to the count of ten before ending the call. 

The screen of Jisung’s computer shutters, Donghyuck’s window closing and leaving just Jisung’s own image. Jisung gets a good look at himself - fuzzy around the edges, but certainly there - before he closes the whole window. He looks at his background for a moment before closing his computer. 

The ache in his chest still hasn’t gone away, but he can breathe with it now, can bear it better than before. He knows it’s silly, but he misses Donghyuck already. He wraps his arms back around his body and closes his eyes, pretending, for just a minute, that it’s Donghyuck holding him instead. He lets out a heavy breath and slumps back against his bed.

Maybe he’ll turn in early for once after all. If he goes to bed with Donghyuck so fresh in his mind, maybe he really will be able to have sweet dreams of him. Jisung inhales, lets the breath back out. 

He would like that very much.

 

***

 

( Ten days later, Jisung wakes up to a text from Donghyuck: check your porch!

Jisung stares at his phone as his brain slowly comes back to life, and then throws his covers back, stumbling out of bed and out of his room. By the time he makes it to his front door, he’s awake enough to really wonder what’s going to be waiting when he braves the cold morning - yes, it’s before noon! - air. He tugs the door open, wincing at the loud creak the hinges make, and at how uncoordinated he feels.

There, on the faded wood, is a small package. Jisung prods at it with his toe. He pulls his phone from the pocket of his pajama pants and opens his chat with Donghyuck. What is this? He peers at the package while he waits for Donghyuck to answer. 

It’s a gift, silly! comes Donghyuck’s reply. Put it somewhere safe where it can sit long enough to be ~clean~ and then wash your hands! Now you have something to look forward to in two weeks <3 

Jisung, for lack of anything better to do, pockets his phone again and follows Donghyuck’s instructions. Once the front door is locked again and Jisung has brushed his teeth and used the bathroom and crashed back into the warmth of his bed, he sends Donghyuck another text. What’s it for? 

Donghyuck’s reply comes within minutes: for you! 

Jisung furrows his brows. But why?

Because I care about you and I thought of you when I saw it. You’ll understand when you open it!

Jisung sucks on his lower lip, wondering what soft thing Donghyuck has ordered to his house. He supposes Donghyuck is right— he’ll just have to anticipate for the next two weeks. Okay, he writes back. Thank you <3 

 

***

 

Fourteen days later, Jisung peels open the packaging to reveal a gray hoodie. It has white lettering printed across the chest and a wonderfully soft fleece lining. It looks at least one size too big, but that’s how Jisung likes his sweatshirts. He opens his chat with Donghyuck to find that Donghyuck has sent him a picture of himself with a matching hoodie. 

You got one too!? Jisung types into the chat.

Yup! Now we’re matching. Whenever you miss me, just snuggle up in that and pretend it’s me keeping you warm <3 and I’ll do the same <3 Indirect hug— life hack!

Jisung is suddenly glad they’re just texting— he feels his whole face burn, and knows that if Donghyuck could see him now, he’d never let him live it down. 

Thank you, Jisung writes back. His fingers hover over the keypad a moment longer. How easy would it be to type out three more words? He wonders… and then he thinks that maybe now he’s ready to find out. )