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a little braver now

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(0). Here's the thing: Jaemin can't like Donghyuck.

No, it's not a problem of him not being able to feel anything for Donghyuck—god knows that for as clumsy and loud as Donghyuck is, he's also incredibly cute and caring and endearing. The problem is that if Jaemin develops feelings for him then he'll start letting his guard down, letting Donghyuck get closer. The problem with that is that if he lets Donghyuck know him, really know him, then Donghyuck will find out that he's... well, that he's not human.

And Jaemin absolutely cannot let that happen. Not again.

 

(1). "Hey, Jaemin!" Donghyuck's familiar voice calls through the thin walls. Jaemin hates the way he perks up from his textbook at the sound.

"Yeah?" he calls back, already pushing away from his desk to stand.

There's a beat of silence before Donghyuck responds: "I stress-made cookies again. Thought I'd offer you some to help with studying—I know you have that test coming up, right? For Anthro? Renjun's been talking about it..." his voice trails off and Jaemin is already at his bedroom door, tugging it open.

Stepping into the tiny hall, Jaemin finds Donghyuck near the apartment door, a large plastic plate in his hands as he lingers by the entryway. When their eyes meet, Donghyuck offers Jaemin an almost hopeful smile, and it makes something jump up in Jaemin's chest. He tries his best to shove it back down, and crosses over to Donghyuck.

"I wish I was this productive with my stress," he mutters, eyes dipping from Donghyuck's face to the cookies stacked up on the plate in his hands. If his gaze lingers just a millisecond too long on Donghyuck's lips... well that's nobody's business. Not even his own. He pretends it doesn't happen.

Donghyuck lets out a small laugh. "Yeah. I mean I wish I did more useful productive things with my stress. Like actually working instead of just wasting time, but I guess beggars can't be choosers."

Jaemin looks back up to Donghyuck, taking in his pink-tinged cheeks and bright eyes. That pesky little something surges in his chest again and he's so distracted by the way Donghyuck's face grows more sunset-painted by the moment that he almost doesn't realize. Almost doesn't catch it in time to stamp it down again. 

If Jaemin didn’t know any better, he’d think Donghyuck was the one who isn’t human for the effect he has on him.

A little too late, he remembers Donghyuck had said something, and he still hasn’t responded. He rewinds the conversation quickly in his mind and opens his mouth to respond, says the first thing that pops into his head. "I don't think this is totally useless—you're making people's days better with it, aren't you? Making people happy definitely isn't a waste of time."

Donghyuck shifts his weight from one leg to the other and his eyes widen, just enough to notice.

Fuck, Jaemin thinks, that was too honest. He angles away from Donghyuck and clears his throat. "I mean... like you share these with your friends too, right? I bet they love you even more for it."

ABORT! That was not better!

Donghyuck cheeks are bordering on red now. Jaemin tries to convince himself it's from the heat of the communal kitchen oven. "Yeah," Donghyuck says after a beat of utter silence. "That makes me feel better, thanks."

Jaemin tries his best to make his shrug nonchalant. "No problem."

Donghyuck shifts his weight again. Hesitates. "So... did you want a couple?"

A wisp of confusion curls through Jaemin before he remembers what Donghyuck had called him out for in the first place. The offer of cookies, not just awkward conversation. "Oh," he says, glancing down at the pile of chocolate chip treats. "Yeah!" With great care, he plucks two cookies off the top of the plate. They're still warm, chips looking close to bursting. He all but cradles them in his hand. "Thanks."

Donghyuck smiles. "No problem. I always need willing test-subjects."

Jaemin stills, blinking at him.

The lack of reaction must fluster Donghyuck, because he rocks back on his heels and rushes to say, "I mean for the tweaks to the recipe! I'm still trying to perfect this cookie and need feedback!" He lets out an embarrassed laugh. "I'm not trying to poison anyone, I promise. Especially not you."

Jaemin blinks again. Especially not you. He doesn't let himself wonder what that is supposed to mean, or what the beet red flush on Donghyuck's face might imply. He doesn't. He can't. So he lets out an awkward laugh to match Donghyuck's, and takes a small step back. "Well that's a relief; I wasn’t looking to get poisoned today." Another small laugh, another small step. "Thanks again."

Donghyuck worries his bottom lip between his lips and nods. Maybe it's for the best that he doesn't say anything more, doesn't send the conversation reeling any more off-track.

"I've gotta get back to the grind, but I'll give you my review for the cookies later?" Jaemin says, still backing towards his room. He knows he should jump ship as quickly as possible, but he finds it hard to look away from Donghyuck. Lately it's only been getting harder.

Donghyuck nods again. "Thanks," he says. "And good luck!"

Jaemin mirrors Donghyuck's nod. "Thanks," he echoes.

Donghyuck nods again and god, this is getting ridiculous now. Jaemin forces himself to turn around, walk back to his room like a normal person. Because that's what he's supposed to be. Normal.

Not for the first time, as he slips back into his room and closes the door behind himself with a sigh, he wishes that he really was normal.

Sure, he wouldn't be able to charm his way into any room he really wanted access to, or charm his way out of any situation where he's been caught red-handed, or any of the other oddities his birth allows him, but maybe he would be able to do something simple, something human.

Maybe he'd be able to go through all the stupid, silly rites of passage that normal kids his age get to experience. Maybe... maybe he'd be able to fall for someone just like this, and have it be okay.

 

(2). There's another problem with not being human, Jaemin discovers one day as he steps in from the floor hall and feels his stomach twist with apprehension before he's even gotten his shoes kicked off.

"Donghyuck?" he calls, fighting the urge to backpedal into the hall and slam the door shut.

"Yeah?" Donghyuck's response comes from his room. He sounds perfectly fine, just curious.

Jaemin hesitates. How does he phrase this innocuously? "Did you... um... bring something new home?"

There's a brief pause, and Jaemin can just barely hear the sound of movement behind Donghyuck's closed door. A moment later, the door swings open and Donghyuck pokes his head out. He takes in the sight of Jaemin, doing his best to fight a full-body cringe in the entryway, hall lights bright and unforgiving behind his back. "Yeah," Donghyuck answers slowly. "I got this cool horseshoe at the flea market in town. Put it over there–" he points just past Jaemin's line of sight “–for good luck. That's what they're supposed to do, right?"

Jaemin resists the urge to recoil, because he needs to play this cool, but also because Donghyuck's face is so cautious, bordering on something worse. It’s a look Jaemin doesn't want to see on him if he can ever help it.

"Yeah, I think so..." Jaemin answers. Because they ward off a certain brand of creature, he doesn't say.

Donghyuck watches him a moment longer. "I just thought it was cool and that you might want to share the good luck or whatever, but if you don't like it, I'll just put it in my room."

Jaemin exhales slowly. "If you wouldn't mind, I would appreciate it."

Donghyuck ducks his head and goes to retrieve the offending item. Jaemin tenses as he carries it into view, but in under a minute, Donghyuck has stashed the horseshoe somewhere in his room, and the twist in Jaemin's gut eases. It doesn't disappear entirely, but he figures if Donghyuck keeps his door shut and he keeps to himself in his own room with his door shut too, then he'll be able to live with it.

Jaemin finally closes the front door behind himself and toes his shoes off, pushing them into a neat line against the wall. When he looks up, Donghyuck is standing in his bedroom doorway, a look on his face that Jaemin can't quite decipher… or just doesn't really want to try for fear of what he might find.

Before Jaemin can think of anything to say, Donghyuck opens his mouth. "I'm sorry," he says. "I didn't mean to fuck up the communal space. Just thought it would be neat... I guess I should've thought a bit more."

Donghyuck's lips curl into the slightest of pouts, and Jaemin is ashamed of the way his heart spins in his chest, in a tizzy to make this right. "Don't worry about it!" he says quickly, putting as much honesty into it as he can so Donghyuck will believe it. "I like that you wanted to spruce up the place—I just have a... thing with horseshoes?"

Donghyuck's brows rise in interest, and Jaemin realizes he’s said too much. He scrambles to think of something to say to explain this away, and realizes he needs to lie—at least a bit. His lips part and the words just spill out. "When I was younger I, um, got locked in a barn overnight by some kids who didn't like me." Jaemin nearly slaps a hand over his own mouth. What happened to lying? That was way too close to the truth for comfort—Donghyuck doesn't need to know him like that! What if he asks questions?

Donghyuck's mouth falls into a pretty little o. Jaemin tries to scrub the thought from his mind. "Oh my god?" Donghyuck says, wringing his hands together. "I'm so sorry! That's... that's horrible! So you have like–" he shoots a panicked look over his shoulder "–trauma with barn stuff? Fuck. I really am sorry!"

Jaemin raises his hands as if to placate Donghyuck. "It's not that bad, really. That kind of stuff just still makes me uncomfortable. Like I'd rather just let that be a repressed memory, you know? Don't really love having it all resurface, but it won't kill me or anything," he trails off with an awkward laugh.

As Donghyuck stares at him, the voice in Jaemin's head screams: WHY WOULD YOU TELL HIM THAT? HOW IS THIS BETTER THAN "ACTUALLY IRON REPELS FAIR FOLK"? Jaemin winces at his own internal monologue.

"Still," Donghyuck says softly after another beat of silence. "I'm sorry. I'll keep this a farm-core-free household from now on."

The attempt at a joke brings a slightly lopsided smile to Jaemin's lips. Donghyuck is so earnest. Jaemin likes that about him; the thought rushes into Jaemin's head and a spike of panic cuts through him. What is he thinking? He doesn't like Donghyuck! Absolutely not.

"Thanks," he says, inching away. "I appreciate it."

"Is there anything else you need me to keep out of the way?" Donghyuck asks, almost looking like he wants to step forward after Jaemin.

"Nothing off the top of my head," Jaemins says because he can't exactly list off all his weaknesses for Donghyuck. What if he puts two and two together? "Gotta keep that trauma box sealed shut, y'know? Not trying to think about any of it."

"Right. Of course," Donghyuck nods quickly, leaning back. "Just... let me know if anything ever bothers you again, okay? I really don't want to make you uncomfortable at home."

"Sure thing," Jaemin says to placate him. "Thanks." He pauses. "And you, too. If I ever do anything... weird, you can tell me off. I won't be offended."

"You mean weirder than usual?" Donghyuck asks, seemingly without thinking if the way his eyes widen in surprise and his cheeks flush in embarrassment is anything to go off of.

Jaemin tries not to find it painfully endearing. He laughs, because there doesn't seem to be any ill-will and he knows for a fact that there are still some things about being human that he just doesn't quite get, even after all these years of pretending. "Yeah. Weirder than usual."

Donghyuck averts his eyes, still blushing. "Cool," he says weakly. "Will do."

"Cool," Jaemin says, trying to school the smile off of his face. He resolutely doesn't think about how Donghyuck looks stupid cute like this! He's not focused on that—he’s worried about the fact that he's opened up a little too much again!

"Well... I've got to–" Donghyuck jams a thumb over his shoulder in lieu of finishing the sentence, and Jaemin understands.

"Right," he nods quickly. He is absolutely not at all disappointed that yet another one of their painfully awkward conversations has come to a dead end. "See you."

"See you," Donghyuck echoes. His eyes linger on Jaemin a moment longer before he turns back into his room and closes the door behind himself.

Jaemin's shoulders sag as the door clicks shut, and he runs a hand down his face. 

He is so fucked, isn't he?

 

(3). Jaemin thinks the universe must hate him.

Some higher power must have it out for him, because why else would he be wide awake at two in the morning, reaching for his water bottle to see if he can drown himself only to find it empty?

Jaemin lies there for what feels like an impossibly long time trying to ignore the parched feeling that springs up in his throat as soon as he realizes there's no water for him to drink, but in the end, he can't do it. With a groan, he throws back his blankets and hauls himself out of bed, grabbing his bottle and phone and heading for his bedroom door.

It's nearly pitch black in the small apartment, so Jaemin uses his flashlight to navigate the short way to the main door, snagging his key and stuffing his feet into slides before slipping out. At least the safety lights are on in the hall, and he can pocket his phone as he heads towards the communal kitchen to refill his bottle.

The whole trip is painfully dull. He can hear some people still awake in the rooms he passes, but for the most part, the night is dead. He flicks on the light in the kitchen just long enough to get his water and take a huge gulp of it to quench the thirst that had driven him all the way out here in the first place, then he kills the lights and heads back the way he came.

He expects to return to the same darkness he'd left behind, but when he lets himself back into the apartment, there's light coming through the cracks around Donghyuck's bedroom door, and when Jaemin locks the main door behind himself, Donghyuck's door creaks open.

"You're awake?" Jaemin asks as Donghyuck appears before him while he puts away his slides and key.

Donghyuck rubs his face with the back of his hand and nods. "Studying," he says around a yawn. "Sort of fell asleep for a bit, though. Thanks for waking me up again."

It sounds genuine enough, but Jaemin still grimaces. "Sorry. I tried to be as quiet as I could."

"No, no," Donghyuck says, "I was serious. I need to finish this work tonight—I actually am glad you woke me up."

"Ah," Jaemin says, shifting his weight. "Your welcome, then?"

Donghyuck nods, yawning again. "What're you up for?"

"Water." Jaemin lifts his bottle up as evidence. "Couldn't sleep and got thirsty."

Donghyuck makes a sound of understanding. "Water helping?"

Jaemin shrugs. "Just kinda makes me need to pee."

Donghyuck giggles and oh... oh. Jaemin is tired enough that he must be delirious. There's no way Donghyuck actually sounds that cute. Not that Jaemin thought the giggle was cute or anything! Not that the way Donghyuck's whole face scrunches up in happiness when he laughs makes him feel anything. Nope! Definitely not!

"Are you heading back to bed, then?" Donghyuck asks, drawing Jaemin back.

Jaemin shrugs. Now that he's up, the thought of just lying in bed for who knows how much longer without actually being able to fall asleep makes him want to scream. "Dunno if I could sleep now even if I tried, honestly. Guess it’s just one of those nights. Why?"

Donghyuck makes a sympathetic sound and then shifts, tangling his fingers together and glancing away before meeting Jaemin's eyes again. "I was just wondering... if, y'know, you might be down to read my flashcards to me for just a little bit? Obviously you don't have to—I know it's late as shit and you're tired and everything but–"

"Sure," Jaemin says, cutting Donghyuck off. The word is out of his mouth before he can think better of it, before his brain can remind him that hello? spending one-on-one time with Donghyuck never ends well! You always end up sharing too much, getting too attached! This is such a huge mistake!

But then Donghyuck's rambling turns into a shy, relieved smile, and god, how can Jaemin change his mind now? (Trick question: he can't.)

"Thank you," Donghyuck says, voice soft to respect the late hour. "I promise I won't keep you long! And you can just leave whenever you want!" He steps back, lifting an arm to usher Jaemin into his room.

Jaemin thinks about the horseshoe he knows is still somewhere in there, about how the iron makes his stomach twist and his head ache. "Um," he says—a picture of eloquence. "What if we do it out here? You could probably use the change of scenery."

Donghyuck hesitates for half a second before he draws his arm back in to his body. "Yeah, sure. I'll just grab the stuff."

While Donghyuck gets his study materials from his room, Jaemin turns on the main light and sinks down onto the floor, legs folded beneath him as he leans back against the wall. Donghyuck returns with his hands full, tugging his door shut behind himself with his foot. It clicks shut as he settles down across from Jaemin, setting all his things on the floor between them.

"Man, I'm glad I stress-vacuumed the other day," Donghyuck jokes as he stretches his legs out and organizes his things on the ground.

Jaemin laughs through his nose, taking a sip of water while he waits for Donghyuck to be ready for him. After a moment, Donghyuck straightens.

"Okay," he says, gathering a stack of index cards in his hands, "I just need you to read these off for me and let me know if my answers are right. Obviously–" he lets out an awkward laugh "–you know how flashcards work."

"I do," Jaemin says, unperturbed.

Donghyuck leans forward to pass the cards to him, and Jaemin resolutely does not think about the fact that their fingers brush when he takes the cards from Donghyuck.

It's a bit stilted at first – Jaemin has a bit of a time trying to pronounce some of the words on Donghyuck's cards – but eventually they fall into a rhythm.

Donghyuck tips his head back against the wall when he's thinking especially hard, and Jaemin absolutely does not stare. He just gets... distracted, sometimes, by the way the light hits Donghyuck's neck and the high points of his face. His tired brain certainly does not ever entertain the thought that Donghyuck is just so handsome that he could look at him think like that – with his brows furrowed and lower lip caught between his teeth – for ages. It does not ever occur to Jaemin that maybe they could stay like this all night long and he would actually be okay with that. He doesn't think anything of the sort.

After the stack of completed flashcards starts to tower over the pile of flashcards still to go, Donghyuck lets out a heavy breath and nudges Jaemin's knee with one of his outstretched legs, fluffy-socked toes brushing against the flannel of Jaemin's pajama pants. "Hey," Donghyuck says softly, bringing Jaemin to a halt mid-reach for the next card.

Jaemin glances at him, raising a brow in question.

"Thanks for doing this," Donghyuck says in that same soft voice. "I really appreciate it."

"Yeah," Jaemin says, "no problem. I was awake, probably not gonna be able to fall asleep anyway; it wouldn't have even made sense to not help. Especially after watching you stress-clean all Friday."

Donghyuck lets out a light, sheepish laugh. "Ha... yeah. Still." The way he looks at Jaemin is so earnest that it makes Jaemin feel a bit punched-out—like Donghyuck has stuck his hand straight through his chest and knocked his heart loose. Jaemin is just on the right side of exhausted that he doesn't fight the feeling as much as he should.

Jaemin swallows back something suspiciously like affection rising in his throat, burying whatever misguided sentiments he might now be tempted to voice under the next flashcard. "Wanna get back to it?"

Donghyuck's face does... something at that—something Jaemin can't quite parse (or maybe that he just doesn't want to parse for fear of what that might tell him). For a moment, Jaemin worries, but then Donghyuck nods, signalling for Jaemin to keep going, and that's that.

There’s nothing to worry about because there’s nothing there, he tells himself. Nothing at all.

 

(4). Winter finals hit and hit hard.

Jaemin spends most of his time locked in his bedroom, pouring over his work and preparing for submissions deadlines that loom like towering beasts. Every time he leaves the apartment, the faces of the students he sees out are all the same—the same as each other, and the same as him. Everyone is tired and stressed and sending prayers every which way to help them pass with good marks.

It's the most normal, the most human Jaemin has felt in a long time. Everyone under the same steel sky, shouldering the same burden. Sure, some carry it better than others – looking at you, kids who start drinking and smoking more than ever... get it together for your own sake, guys – but at the end of the day, they all crash into the same mediocre dorm beds and wait for the day it's all over and they can go home for a month and come back to life.

It's hellish, but it brings a fucked up sense of unity. And, more importantly, it keeps Donghyuck just as busy and closed-off as Jaemin. They still see each other every day, but there are no close calls, no drawn out moments that leave Jaemin feeling off-kilter. Not... not there ever were any of those moments, of course. That would imply that Jaemin has feelings for Donghyuck, which would be utterly false.

But, as with all things – even the truly awful – it passes. Jaemin leaves his last final with bone-deep exhaustion weighing him down so his feet scuff against the pavement as he walks back home through the biting cold, but it's over. He made it through. He can finally exhale. The relief comes at a heavy cost, sure, but it comes, and that's what matters.

Or at least that's what Jaemin thinks... all the way up until he walks out of the stairwell on his floor and in a single breath is hit with the overwhelming smell of sugar and butter and berries like a pastry shop has exploded somewhere nearby.

Drawn in by the smell, Jaemin delays his plans for showering and diving straight into bed to sleep for upwards of ten hours; he passes by the apartment door and heads all the way to the floor kitchen, where he finds Donghyuck sitting on the ground with his computer in his lap, the oven humming just a few feet away.

"Stress baking?" Jaemin guesses in greeting, eyeing the furrow between Donghyuck's brows as he types away at his computer.

Donghyuck startles, looking up at Jaemin like he hadn't even noticed him walk in. "Huh?" he asks, fingers stilling on the keyboard.

"I asked if you were stress baking again," Jaemin repeats.

"Oh," Donghyuck says, face shifting with understanding. He looks a bit sheepish, a bit... something else that Jaemin doesn't really want to think about. "Yeah. You know me too well."

Jaemin's heart does a funny little thing in his chest at that, and he feels heat prickle his cheeks. "Guess so," he says, rubbing the back of his neck and rocking back on his heels. "You still have finals left?"

Donghyuck nods, chewing on his lower lip, knocking his feet together so the hard bottoms of his slippers make a metronome clicking sound. "This paper... due tomorrow." He sounds exhausted just saying it.

"You're almost there, then!" Jaemin tells him, because he gets it, gets how it feels like the finish line is impossible to reach when you're out of breath and staggering, but he also knows it's still possible to get there, even if you do it crawling. He wants to make sure Donghyuck remembers that too—it’s suddenly very important to him that Donghyuck knows this, that the burden so obviously weighing him down might ease just a little bit. "The light at the end of the tunnel is like, right there!"

"Yeah." Donghyuck lets out a strained breath. "I just have to actually get there. It’s kind of killing me."

"Hey," Jaemin feels compelled to tell him, "you're smart as hell and hardworking, Donghyuck. You literally made, like, a cake or something as a break from your paper? Most of us just fuck around on twitter or reddit to procrastinate. You’re… great! You can totally do this."

That something else on Donghyuck's face grows, spreading until it's painted all his skin a faint shade of pink. "Thanks," Donghyuck says softly, eyes flickering away from Jaemin before landing on him again. "And, um, it's a cobbler."

Jaemin's brows furrow in confusion and Donghyuck points his thumb in the direction of the oven. "The cake," he clarifies, "is a cobbler. Not actually a cake."

"Oh." Jaemin glances at the oven even though he can't see through the towel that hangs over the window to it. "That's cool! I've never had cobbler before. It smells great."

Donghyuck brightens, offers Jaemin a shy smile. "You can have some when it's done—if you want. If it's good, that is." He laughs, running a nervous hand through his hair. "I've never actually made it before."

Jaemin lets out a low whistle. "Trying something new while you're in the middle of a final paper... you really are so brave. Well, either brave or just crazy." His lips curl into a grin so Donghyuck knows he's just joking. "Probably both."

Donghyuck flushes, wetting his lips and ducking his head.

"I'll stop distracting you now," Jaemin says, remembering that Donghyuck does in fact still have that paper to get back to. He lifts a hand and shakes it in a fist like he's cheering at a sports game—a very subdued sports game, but you get the idea. "Good luck!"

Donghyuck tips his head back and smiles, smaller than before, but still genuine. "Thanks," he says.

Jaemin gives him a small nod and wave before spinning and heading back to their apartment. He almost doesn't realize there's still a smile playing at his lips as he leaves, almost doesn't realize how much lighter he feels after talking with Donghyuck, even if it was just for a minute.

Almost. But he does—realize, that is. He notices once he's unlocked the door, slipped inside, and kicked off his sneakers, as he pulls his phone out of his pocket and goes to check the time, only to catch a glimpse of himself in the black mirror of it. He just took a two hour exam and then slogged his ass across campus in the cold and he's smiling.

Jaemin freezes there, halfway through shrugging off his coat. He's still tired and ready to burn himself to his core in the shower before crashing into bed, but he doesn't feel like he'll never be able to get out from under the blankets again afterwards, doesn't feel like he'll need ages to truly recover. He just feels… almost happy, because he finally had a conversation with Donghyuck again for the first time in ages, and he made Donghyuck smile and laugh and that felt good and oh... oh no. 

That’s not just a little crush (okay fine, yes maybe he has had a little crush on Donghyuck all this time, maybe he has known all along and just pretended he didn’t like that would make it disappear) but something else. Something more. Something that spells out danger in capital letters right before Jaemin’s eyes. 

He remembers the image of Donghyuck’s smiling face and the warning flashes again: D-A-N-G-E-R. 

These might be real feelings, blooming in his chest like stubborn flowers pushing up through the concrete. It should be beautiful, but Jaemin can’t let it be… can’t let it be anything. He walks to their criminally small bathroom and strips and scalds his skin in the shower. He pushes away every thought of Donghyuck like ripping those little flowers right out of the ground. 

It can’t happen. 

He won’t let it.

 

(5). Things have been going well. Well… relatively.

After Jaemin’s realization, he’s been good about keeping to himself and interacting only when necessary. Leaving for break made it easier—even if before he made it out, he nearly slipped up at Donghyuck’s promised offer of cobbler. After getting back to school with a month and then some between Donghyuck and himself, as well as a fresh resolve, Jaemin’s been able to steer himself clear of danger for a solid few weeks now.

It's... well to put it simply, it's royally sucked to stay so far from Donghyuck and to be so detached when Jaemin had grown used to Donghyuck’s presence lighting up the dull winter days, but his secret is safe, and that's what matters. 

Jaemin tells himself day in and day out that that is the most important thing here. The slightly crestfallen look on Donghyuck's face whenever Jaemin catches himself getting too close and pulls away again, when he's painfully brief in all their conversations—it's just something he has to live with.

No matter how much Jaemin’s stubborn, foolish heart might want something to work between them, it just can't happen. He can't let it. The risk is too high.

So he shoves the wilting feeling in his chest down as deep as it will go and then buries it under his studies. And it works... for a month or two, at least.

Then it all comes crumbling down right before Jaemin's eyes.

It's just after the end of their second semester midterms. Jaemin is celebrating making it through by lying flat on his back on his bed, staring up at the blank ceiling in the dark and imagining it's a canopy of leaves instead. He hums, barely loud enough to hear, although he doesn't need to be quiet since Donghyuck is out celebrating in a much more... alcoholic way. The music buzzes in his chest and it brings a faint glow to the otherwise dark room. Jaemin knows he shouldn't play around like this while he's still in school, but it's late and he's all alone and he's been cooped up for so long that he just... decides it'll be all right, just this once.

He hums and lets the light, floaty feeling flow through him, and then, without meaning to, he lets his thoughts drift away. His mind's eye goes from the forest in the thick of summer to something a bit—well. Without warning, Donghyuck's handsome face pops into Jaemin's head. His soft, round cheeks like freshly ripe peaches. His eyes glittering like a starry night sky. His lips curling in a petal pink smile.

Something stronger than magic surges in Jaemin's chest and the light in the room grows brilliantly bright for a moment before Jaemin sits up in a sudden panic, fear rising in his throat before he can swallow it down, and it all goes black. The light dies and Jaemin is left sitting in the dark, breathing heavily.

This is bad. This is capital B—Bad .

Jaemin jumps out of bed and winces as his bare feet hit the cold floor. He runs his hands through his hair with none of his usual care. His fingers tangle in the mess of pink and he tries not to panic.

Breathe, he reminds himself. This isn't the end of the world. This is just... a blip. Just his overtired brain conjuring up a pretty image because his filter has been worn down by midterms.

He doesn't like Donghyuck anymore! He doesn't. He’s pulled away; he’s fixed this. He repeats this over and over again, muttering the words under his breath like a mantra.

Before he can trick himself into believing it, there's a royal pounding at the door. Not his bedroom door, but the apartment door. Jaemin startles, head turning on a swivel although he can't see through his own bedroom walls. It must be Donghyuck—finally coming home from a night of partying.

But then the banging comes again, and Jaemin's brows tug into a frown. For a moment he forgets about his own predicament as worry blots his mind. Donghyuck coming home shouldn't sound like that, should it?

Jaemin's feet are carrying him forward before he can think better of it. He pulls open his bedroom door and crosses all the way to the apartment door. He looks through the peep-hole and his stomach lurches with worry. He undoes the lock and tugs the door open without a second thought.

"Renjun?" he asks, eyes skipping between Donghyuck's best friend and Donghyuck .

Renjun lets out an audible sigh of relief. "Thank god," he mutters, "I can't find this moron's key anywhere."

By this moron, Renjun means Donghyuck—entirely slumped against his side, face red as a sunburn, eyes half-closed and glassy. He's got a silly smile on his face as he stares at the wall, so to put it simply: Donghyuck is fucking wasted.

Jaemin pinches the bridge of his nose. "How much did he drink?" The unspoken question of how much shit am I going to have to deal with for the next twenty-four hours?

Renjun just grimaces, and Jaemin figures that's as much of an answer as he needs.

"Thanks for bringing him home," he sighs, pulling the door open the rest of the way. "I'll make sure he at least gets into his room." He can press pause on his Donghyuck-induced panic long enough to wrangle him into bed. Actually, he realizes, this is the perfect way to prove to himself that there is no problem at all! He'll handle this just fine, and if he can handle clingy, flushed rosy Donghyuck, then he can handle anything.

"Sorry for the imposition," Renjun says as he detaches Donghyuck's arms from around him and angles him in Jaemin's direction, letting him go with a light shove.

"Please," Jaemin says to distract himself from the way Donghyuck lurches right into his space, fingers curling in the fabric of his shirt, "I'd rather this than waking up to find him passed out on the floor right here. Besides, you already got all the grunt work done anyway. What’s two minutes of babysitting compared to that?"

Renjun pulls a face. "You have no idea," he mutters. Then, louder, "Night, Donghyuck. Fucking gremlin."

Donghyuck presses his cheek against Jaemin's shoulder as he turns to look Renjun's way again. "Night, Junnie," he mumbles with a grin, words just shy of slurred.

Renjun lets out a world-weary breath and offers a quick wave before turning on his heel and heading away down the hall. As he goes, Jaemin takes a stiff step backwards – it's surprisingly hard to move with Donghyuck draped over him – so he can close and lock the door again.

"Good party?" he wonders out loud as he wraps an arm around Donghyuck's middle – no, his heart does not squeeze in his chest, thank you very much – and spins the both of them around so he can drag Donghyuck to his room. Ah, wait! Jaemin’s eyes drop down and he takes in the sight of Donghyuck’s footwear. “Can you kick your shoes off?”

"Mm," Donghyuck hums, cheek still pressed against Jaemin's shoulder. He can feel how hot Donghyuck's skin is even through his shirt, and it only gets worse as Donghyuck leans into him even more for balance and he wrestles his shoes off with his heels against the floor and then his toes against the heels of his shoes. 

Jaemin's not sure what there is to say to that, so he falls silent. When Donghyuck finally kicks his second shoe off and into the wall with a light thud, they start shuffling towards Donghyuck's bedroom door. It's a bit slow-going, but Jaemin is strong, and Donghyuck isn't actively resisting or dead-weight—just clumsy. They get there soon enough; Jaemin reaches the door with no problem, twists the knob and pushes it open. He braces himself for the repulsion of Donghyuck’s horseshoe from months back, but finds that he feels nothing. Huh.

They pass over the threshold and Jaemin hits the light switch with his elbow. He glances down at Donghyuck, trying to gauge his state. “Do you want me to just dump you in bed?” he asks. He’s never actually been drunk himself – at least not on human alcohol – so he’s not entirely sure what the usual procedure is. All he knows is what he’s seen around campus and in the dorms—and on television, but that doesn’t exactly count. 

“I’m not a sack of potatoes,” Donghyuck mutters. “You don’t have to dump me anywhere.” 

“Right… well do you want me to just help you to bed, then?” Jaemin corrects.

Donghyuck says something that sounds like, “If you insist.” 

Jaemin thinks that’s a bold stance for someone honest-to-god hanging off of him, but it’s Donghyuck, so he can’t get too worked up about it. He helps Donghyuck across the floor of his room, and when they reach his bed, he turns and releases his grip on Donghyuck, hoping he’ll just… flop down, or something. 

Or something is what happens. 

Instead of dropping right down onto his bed and effectively setting Jaemin free, Donghyuck tightens his grip around Jaemin and drags him down too. 

Jaemin all but squawks in surprise, and is so caught off guard that there’s nothing he can do to keep himself upright. Donghyuck hits his mattress and a second later, Jaemin hits it as well, narrowly avoiding landing on top of Donghyuck. He’s so stunned that he doesn’t register the warning signs until it’s too late to escape. 

While he’s still recovering from being unceremoniously dragged down to his ass, Donghyuck moves with startling speed for someone as drunk as he is, and plants himself right on Jaemin’s lap. This is when the alarm bells start ringing off the hook inside Jaemin’s head. He’s sitting on Donghyuck’s bed and Donghyuck is sitting on him, and his thighs are so warm that Jaemin can feel the heat through both their pants, and oh FUCK those are Donghyuck’s hands curling around his shoulders now! This is not good!

“Jaemin,” Donghyuck says softly, looking at Jaemin with shining eyes and flushed cheeks like Jaemin’s whole world hasn’t frozen like a scratch on a record cutting off the music in the middle of a verse. 

Jaemin swallows dry and stares as Donghyuck just looks at him while he sits there in his lap and runs a thumb over Jaemin’s collar bone through his shirt. “Y-yeah?” he manages to ask, voice croaky and barely there.

“Why don’t you like me?” Donghyuck asks, lips pressing out into a very distracting pout. His eyes go wide and seem to glitter – that can’t be possible, can it? – and he looks and sounds so genuinely upset that it makes something twist sharply in Jaemin’s chest. 

Just like that, Jaemin’s walls crumble. Donghyuck’s pout and pleading eyes, the overwhelming warmth of his body and the sincerity of his question are all cannonballs firing at Jaemin’s stone castle, bringing it down to dust. “I do like you,” he tells Donghyuck. Because it’s true. 

Oh.

Oh fuck. It’s true. He does like Donghyuck. Despite all his efforts, he really, really does.

Donghyuck frowns at him, lips curling down. His head dips closer, and backlit by the overhead light, he looks haloed. It does not help Jaemin remember to focus. “You don’t act like it,” Donghyuck says. Distantly, Jaemin wonders how he sounds so damn coherent all of a sudden now—the forefront of his mind, though, is dedicated to thinking about how Donghyuck’s breath smells like oranges laced with something stronger. How he doesn’t mind Donghyuck breathing in his face nearly as much as he should. God, he’s in it bad.

“Well–” Jaemin swallows again “–I do.”

Donghyuck considers him for a long moment. Jaemin knows he should lean away and remove Donghyuck from his lap, but his body refuses to move. The silence seems to drag on forever until Donghyuck says, “Every time I think you like me back, you run away. Why do you do that?”

Jaemin opens his mouth to answer and realizes there’s nothing he can say to that. I’m sorry, but the last time I had a crush on someone and let down my guard, they found out what I was and… well… you know the locked-in-a-barn story already, don’t you? He closes his mouth again.

Donghyuck wilts in his lap like a flower Jaemin has yanked out of the sun, like the flowers Jaemin tried to rip from the divots between his ribs. His fingers press into Jaemin’s shoulders and all of a sudden he’s much closer than before. Close enough that Jaemin can count his lashes, can see the questions swimming in his eyes. Close enough that Jaemin’s brain comes to a full and complete stop, so when Donghyuck leans that last bit closer still, Jaemin doesn’t remember to pull away.

Donghyuck's lips are soft—much softer than they have any right to be after a night of partying and drinking. They're soft and hotter than Jaemin had expected – not that he's ever thought about this, of course – and for a moment they're just there—just Donghyuck's mouth pressing lightly against Jaemin's.

Then... well, when Jaemin doesn't pull back or shove Donghyuck off his lap, Donghyuck starts to kiss him for real. And Jaemin must be weak, must be the stupidest bastard alive, because when Donghyuck shifts closer and sucks Jaemin's lower lip between his own, Jaemin's hands come up from the bed to wrap around Donghyuck's middle, pulling him closer still and holding him there.

Jaemin must be a fucking moron, because when Donghyuck kisses him, he kisses Donghyuck back.

All the alarms warning him of imminent doom fade away and there's just Donghyuck's arm winding around his neck and the warm pressure of his lips. That same something that's been sitting locked deep in his chest bursts free and comes rushing back up, crashing against the walls of Jaemin's ribs and filling his throat so it'd be hard to breath even if his mouth wasn't busy with Donghyuck's soft lips.

It makes Jaemin shake under Donghyuck, and the strength of it all – of months worth of repressed wanting – floods Jaemin's senses with so much force that he goes almost numb to it. His fingers press into Donghyuck's waist as he tries to hold on to something to keep himself from being swept away, and Donghyuck makes a soft, wounded sound against his lips.

The noise pierces through the haze in Jaemin's head like a rock hurled through a window. The glass splinters, then shatters, and Jaemin comes back to himself all at once. He jerks away from Donghyuck and his eyes fly open, wide and startled. He just...

He just kissed Donghyuck.

Donghyuck's eyes open slowly, focusing on Jaemin, frozen under him. "Why do you look so scared?" he asks, impossibly quiet.

Jaemin presses his lips together. He can still taste the fruit and alcohol from Donghyuck's mouth. He can't answer. Oh god he can’t do this. "You're drunk," he says, unwinding his arms from Donghyuck and then detaching Donghyuck's hands from where they're holding him.

"I wouldn't have been brave enough to do that sober." Donghyuck tilts his head, and he looks distinctly like he's trying to keep his face from falling. "What are you scared of? What are you always so scared of, Jaemin?"

Jaemin pushes Donghyuck gently off of his lap and onto the mattress. He doesn't answer. "You're drunk, Donghyuck," he repeats. "Just go to bed."

Donghyuck watches him climb off the bed and straighten his shirt, watches him retreat nearly all the way to the bedroom door before he says, barely loud enough to hear, "You're running away again."

If Jaemin were to look back, he would see that Donghyuck has crossed his arms over his chest and let a look of frustration take over his face as he stares Jaemin down. But Jaemin doesn't look back; he makes it to the door and leaves Donghyuck's room without another glance thrown over his shoulder. He closes the door behind himself and practically runs to the safety of his own room.

Sitting down hard on the floor, Jaemin drops his head into his hands and tries to remember how to breathe. He shouldn't have done that. He should not have done that. His fingers knot in his hair and it cuts through him like a knife that he wishes it was Donghyuck's hands in his hair instead—that he knows he shouldn't have kissed Donghyuck but he liked it even more than he'd imagined. That even now, he still wants to kiss Donghyuck again.

He's so, so, so fucking screwed. 

 

( + 1 ). Donghyuck doesn't remember.

When Jaemin finally slips up in his Donghyuck avoidance tactics, and comes face to face with Donghyuck a few hours past sunset, Donghyuck looks at him the same as always—not a trace of his hurt from the night before on his face. "Hey," he says, nodding to Jaemin in a casual greeting as if Jaemin hasn't gone wide-eyed and frozen at the sight of him, "I'm starting to think you had the right idea about celebrating at home with a nice dinner for once instead of partying. I've taken so many excedrins today I feel like I can hear them rattling around inside me like I'm a fucking maraca."

Jaemin lets out a stilted laugh – he can’t believe Donghyuck doesn’t remember – then regrets it when Donghyuck winces at the sound. "Sorry," he says lowly.

Donghyuck shrugs it off and... is Jaemin imagining it or is Donghyuck looking at him closely? Watching him?

"Maybe next time just drink less," Jaemin suggests. "I'm sure Renjun would appreciate it—your head and stomach probably would too."

“Maybe,” Donghyuck says. “Making stupid ass decisions is part of the college experience though, right?”

“It doesn’t have to be,” Jaemin points out as if he hasn’t also been making the worst possible decisions these past few months.

Donghyuck sighs like he’s on a stage with an audience, reaches out and drops a hand on Jaemin’s shoulder, leaning in like he’s about to deliver scripture-worthy wisdom. “But it is,” he says in a fake deep voice, meeting Jaemin’s eyes and holding him there in his gaze.

Jaemin lets out a horribly embarrassing laugh and prays Donghyuck can’t hear how fucking nervous it sounds, how much he’s trying not to squirm. Donghyuck is too close. All Jaemin can think about is how much closer he could be. It’s making him dizzy. It’s making him stupid.

“Anyway,” Donghyuck goes on, dropping his hand and leaning away again, “did you hear that the fair is coming to town?”

Jaemin blinks, catches his breath as Donghyuck retreats far enough that he can think clearly again. “It is?”

“Yeah. Renjun saw the trucks roll in this morning, so they’re already setting up; I guess it’s this weekend. Almost like a cosmic reward for getting through midterms or something—obviously they didn’t plan it, but it’s still nice.”

“Uh…” Jaemin still feels slightly at a loss, still isn’t sure how to have a conversation with Donghyuck when the last time he’d seen him he’d kissed him. “Yeah. That’s cool.”

“We should go,” Donghyuck says.

“Huh?” Jaemin says.

Donghyuck points to himself, then to Jaemin. “Me and you. The fair tomorrow. We should go. Celebrate making it through midterms.” He says it like it’s so simple. It absolutely isn’t.

Jaemin stands there and honest to god splutters. “Um… won’t the rides hurt your head and upset your stomach  or something?”

Donghyuck shrugs. "Not after I knock out for twelve hours. I bounce back quick." There's something in his face, in his voice.

Jaemin can't say no. He tries--well, he tries to try. He just can't do it though. He finds he wants to go to the fair with Donghyuck even if that's the stupidest thing he could possibly do now. Even if that sounds like a date, which he should under no circumstances go on!

His silence seems to be answer enough for Donghyuck. Or maybe Donghyuck can read his mind... just a little bit. Not enough to know anything too dangerous, but enough to know where his heart lies: on his sleeve, no matter how hard he tries to reel it in and keep it hidden and safe. "Awesome," Donghyuck says matter-of-factly. "I'm gonna go do that sleeping now 'cause I'm fucking exhausted, but I'll see you tomorrow! Wear your dark sneakers--I think it'll be a bit muddy."

Jaemin stares at him. Not for the first time, he wonders if maybe his whole life is one huge trick, if maybe he's the stupid human and Donghyuck is the ethereal, all-powerful other.

What else could explain the hold he has over Jaemin?

"Night!" Donghyuck says, spinning on his heel and closing the conversation (if it could even be called that).

And then Donghyuck's bedroom door is closing behind him and Jaemin is left standing there, wondering how the hell he's going to survive this.

 

The answer, Jaemin finds roughly fifteen hours later, is that he isn't.

He's standing on the town common, now converted to fairgrounds, in his dark, old sneakers because Donghyuck was right about the mud, and everything is chaotic and loud but all Jaemin can see and hear is Donghyuck.

Donghyuck is wearing battered combat boots and dark, ripped jeans that show off far more thigh than Jaemin is capable of processing. It’s offset a bit by his hoodie – so large he nearly drowns in it – but not enough. Jaemin feels dizzy and lightheaded and he hasn’t even gotten on a ride yet. He’s still not entirely sure how Donghyuck got him here in the first place.

“So…” Jaemin says, shifting his weight from foot to foot and trying not to look at Donghyuck anymore because he’s been staring, without now coming off like an uninterested asshole.

“Let’s do the big boat swing,” Donghyuck says, appearing unphased by Jaemin’s awkwardness. Maybe he’s so focused on everything else that he doesn’t notice.

“Are you sure you can take that?” Jaemin asks even as Donghyuck starts to lead the way over to the ride. “You won’t throw up or pass out or anything? I still don’t think this is a good idea considering how much you drank day before yesterday.”

“Don’t worry,” Donghyuck says with all the confidence he usually has before doing something that makes Jaemin wince in anticipation. “And come on! How am I faster than you when you’re in sneakers and dad pants? You should be moving.” 

“Excuse you,” Jaemin says, hurrying after Donghyuck as he picks up the pace away from the entry booth, “I am not wearing dad pants. These are literally just pants. And I’ve seen you wear cardigans!” As Jaemin draws up even with Donghyuck, he sees that there’s a wide grin tugging at his lips, and he looks far too satisfied with himself. 

Oh, god. He’s got Jaemin chasing after him and playing right into his hands now. What the hell happened between the night Donghyuck kissed him and now? Has Donghyuck changed or has Jaemin? Why does it feel so different now?

“Come on!” Donghyuck says again, grabbing Jaemin’s hand and tugging him closer, pulling him into the line of people shuffling onto the ramp for the ride. 

Jaemin is so startled by the boldness of it that he doesn’t protest, doesn’t pull his hand free from Donghyuck’s grip. That’s the only reason—the surprise. It has nothing to do with the fact that Donghyuck’s hand is warm and his skin is soft and holding his hand feels nice. Absolutely nothing to do with any of that. 

By some stroke of luck, they weasel their way onto the ride, flashing their wristbands to the worker who hardly cares and passing the metal gate just before the worker closes it because The Pharaoh's Fury has reached capacity. Donghyuck pulls Jaemin nearly all the way to the back of the boat, and they squeeze in next to each other at the very edge of the row.

Jaemin feels winded before the ride even starts. The length of Donghyuck’s body is pressed up against him, heat seeping through their clothes and making Jaemin feel like his whole right side is on fire. As the worker comes over to secure the ride before starting it, Donghyuck squeezes Jaemin’s hand and Jaemin feels light-headed. Oh this is so bad. 

“If you throw up on me I will never speak to you again,” Jaemin hisses just to have something to say because the silence and their proximity is killing him. 

“Relax, Jaemin. I’m on the edge; I’ll just do it overboard,” Donghyuck jokes. 

“Oh god.” Jaemin feels like he’s going to be sick. Donghyuck is still holding his hand, looking at Jaemin with that grin on his face like he’s not driving Jaemin crazy, and it’s too much. How is Jaemin meant to keep his walls up when everything about Donghyuck is screaming for him to let them down? It’s just—just too much. This is a ride Jaemin desperately wants to leap off of, but he’s locked in. He stares at the bars keeping him safe and sound in the rocking boat, and it feels too much like a metaphor. 

The ride lurches, starting up with small swings that grow bigger each time, and Jaemin’s stomach drops to his feet. He’s in too deep now—if he abandons ship it’ll only be worse. He fights the urge to squeeze his eyes shut – that’d only make the swooping of his stomach worsen – and just braces himself. 

In no time at all, the ride has nearly reached its peak. Jaemin’s stomach is in knots and Donghyuck is surprisingly silent beside him – Jaemin had assumed he’d be whooping and shouting like the teenagers sitting in the row behind them – and at some point Jaemin’s grip on Donghyuck’s hand had gone white-knuckled and he hasn’t been able to let go since. 

The boat swings up up up until Jaemin thinks he can taste the clouds, and for a moment everything is perfectly still and the tension in Jaemin’s body gives out as he floats. Then everything comes crashing back down as the boat rushes through the downswing and Jaemin’s body coils tighter than before and his heart surges up into his throat.

And then the worst (or best, depending on who you ask) is over, and the swings grow smaller and smaller until the ride settles at the base again, falling still. Jaemin lets out a shuddering breath and feels his limbs turn into jello, trembling at the rattling of kids trying to pry back the safety bars before the locks are undone. 

“Thanks for not throwing up,” Jaemin says, and heaven above he sounds shot through, winded like he’s been absolutely walloped. 

Donghyuck lets out a shaky laugh as their row’s safety bar clicks open and they can push it up. He’s still holding Jaemin’s hand. They stand and Donghyuck is trembling a bit too. Maybe it’s the adrenaline? They join the herd of people filing off the metal stand and down the ramp back to the muddy grass below, and Donghyuck still hasn’t let go of Jaemin’s hand. 

More importantly, Jaemin still hasn’t let go. He knows he should – god knows his brain is practically screaming for him to put some distance between them – but Donghyuck feels like a lifeline now, and Jaemin just can’t pull himself away.

“I need to sit down,” Jaemin says, hoping it comes out nonchalant despite everything.

“We just were,” Donghyuck notes, but he redirects their path so they’re heading towards the ferris wheel, which is letting off now and has a surprisingly short line. Maybe there really are some perks to showing up early, before all the parents and kids show up en masse. 

“I need to sit down on something that’s not moving like it’s trying to fling me into outer space,” Jaemin corrects, although he knows Donghyuck doesn’t really need the correction when he’s already heading for the gentlest ride at the fair. Jaemin hadn’t thought he’d have any issue with the more exciting rides here, but something has him off-balance, unsteady. He glances sideways at Donghyuck. He thinks he knows what. He wishes he didn’t.

They reach the end of the dwindling ferris wheel line and Donghyuck makes a sound that seems like it’s meant to be a laugh, but doesn’t quite come out right. “Yeah… the ride did get me more than I thought it would.”

“See!” For a moment, Jaemin gets caught up in the vindication of Donghyuck admitting that his predictions weren’t too far off from being correct. “I told you! You should learn to be more cautious.”

The line moves up, and they shuffle forward up the metal ramp. The barrier chains rattle. “I don’t want to live cautiously,” Donghyuck says with little hesitation. “You miss out on too much when you do that. I mean, sure, you also experience a few too many things, but overall it’s better. At least that’s what I think. Or want to think, at least. I know you disagree—obviously. But… yeah.”

“Huh,” Jaemin murmurs. He hasn’t thought about life like that in a very long time. He hasn't had the luxury, has he? 

The line moves forward again and there are only three pairs ahead of Jaemin and Donghyuck. Jaemin stands there and thinks about what Donghyuck has said.

Two groups. Jaemin looks down at their joined hands. At this point it would almost be stranger to abruptly let go, wouldn’t it? Or is that just an excuse because he knows that against everything his head is telling him, he doesn’t want to let go. He doesn’t want to push Donghyuck away. He doesn’t want to run for the hills.

One couple left. They’re standing shoulder to shoulder. The shorter girl is combing carefully through the taller girl’s hair while they wait, smiling when she leans into the touch. Something squeezes in Jaemin’s chest. He thinks about two nights ago, his hands knotted in his hair, clasped around the back of his neck, wishing they were Donghyuck’s instead.

“What if you get hurt?” Jaemin asks. “What then?”

“Injuries heal,” Donghyuck says. “I broke my arm skateboarding when I was twelve but look at me now—good as new.”

“What if you get hurt badly? Like what if it’s something you don’t just bounce back from? What if it stays with you?”

The two girls ahead of them pile into a cart and a worker secures their door.

“I guess that’s life,” Donghyuck says, grip tightening ever so slightly. “You could get hurt doing anything really. You could get caught in a freak accident even if you don’t even leave your house—literally anything is possible. Sure there’s an element of math and logic to it but really, if you live your life always worried about what could happen, then you’ll never do anything. You know?”

The ferris wheel rotates enough to open up three more carts, and the old passengers file out. The worker ushers Donghyuck and Jaemin up and shepherds them into the farthest cart. Jaemin finally has to let go of Donghyuck’s hand to sit on the seat across from him. He draws his hand in to himself, shoving it in one of his jacket pockets just so he doesn’t have to think about how empty it feels now. 

The worker locks the tiny double doors to their cart behind them and moves on to the next one. 

Jaemin looks across the cart at Donghyuck. The sleeves of his hoodie are pulled down over his hands now, and he looks smaller than Jaemin would have expected after such a rousing declaration. “So you’re not scared of anything?” Jaemin finds it incredibly hard to believe.

“Are you kidding?” Donghyuck asks. “I’m scared of so much stupid shit. Hell, I don’t even follow my own advice all the time, but I try to. It’s the trying even though you are scared that makes it worth it. It makes you… brave. I like the thought of that.”

Jaemin’s lips part and he lets out a breath as the ferris wheel jerks into motion. I’m scared of so much. Jaemin looks Donghyuck in the eyes – they’re bright but cautious, lit by a slant of sun that cuts under the cart roof – and remembers two nights ago when his eyes had been glassy and hurt. I wouldn’t have been brave enough to do that sober. 

Jaemin feels like a coward, now. He feels… well he doesn’t know what all he feels, what he’s supposed to feel or what he’s allowed to feel. All he knows is that Donghyuck is watching him closely, and he thinks Donghyuck knows that they’re not just talking about getting on rides at the fair anymore. He opens his mouth, unsure of what to say, hoping the right words will just come. He doesn’t think, just says— 

“You kissed me. The last night of midterms. You kissed me.”

Everything stops—even Jaemin’s heart seems to go still in his chest. Why did he say that? Why did he say that? Their cart reaches the highest point of the ferris wheel and Jaemin feels like the whole rest of the world has fallen away. It's just the two of them, suspended. Donghyuck is still looking at him, and Jaemin can’t tell what the strange look on his face means.

“I know,” Donghyuck says after a deafening moment of silence. 

Their cart starts to descend and Jaemin stares. “You know?”

Donghyuck nods.

“I… I thought you didn’t remember? You didn’t say anything.”

“I thought it would be easier,” Donghyuck says, twisting his fingers in his lap as the world turns slowly around them. “I didn’t want you to feel… I don’t know.” He looks away. “I was scared you would run away from me again if I didn’t act like everything was normal and fine. I told you—I’m scared of a lot of stuff.” He laughs and it falls a bit flat. 

Jaemin just keeps staring. Donghyuck remembers? He’s been acting like this for the last two days but he remembers? Jaemin can’t wrap his head around it. How has Donghyuck managed to be so… normal? Jaemin has felt like his heart’s been in his throat since this morning and he’s barely been able to breathe with how much Donghyuck makes him feel and he hasn’t been able to stop thinking about their kiss no matter how hard he’s tried. And all this time, Donghyuck has remembered too, but he’s been perfectly fine?

But no… that’s not exactly right, is it? Jaemin has felt Donghyuck tremble beside him, has heard how his voice doesn’t come out quite right sometimes, has seen the nervous flicker of his eyes. Donghyuck says he’s been scared, and maybe he is, but Jaemin realizes he’s also brave—just like he says he wants to be. 

Donghyuck… he says he’s scared of losing Jaemin, but he’s brave enough to keep reaching out a hand for Jaemin to hold on to. 

It hits Jaemin then as their cart rises to the peak of the ferris wheel again, that this is different than last time. Last time he’d been young and he hadn’t known what consequences were. He’d been careless and shown too much to someone who, in hindsight, had been little more than a stranger—just a boy Jaemin had pinned too much on simply for the fact that he was human and interesting in all the ways Jaemin wasn’t used to. It had been shallow and one-sided and looking back it only makes sense that it would blow up in his face.

But this… with Donghyuck, it’s something else. Jaemin knows Donghyuck, and Donghyuck knows more of him than any other human Jaemin has known in years and years. Jaemin likes Donghyuck, and it’s more than just a passing fancy, because Jaemin has known Donghyuck tired and stressed and drunk and irritated beyond belief, and he’s liked him through it all. 

And the closer: Donghyuck likes Jaemin back. He’s seen Jaemin tired and stressed and angry too, and he’s seen him cold and closed off and scared and he still wants Jaemin around, still reaches out with so much boldness to hold his hand.

Jaemin doesn’t realize how long he’s been silent until Donghyuck clears his throat, shifting in his seat as the cart rises a third time. “Are you mad?” Donghyuck asks tentatively. “I wasn’t trying to trick you or anything, I just—”

“I’m not mad,” Jaemin says, cutting Donghyuck off before he stresses himself out trying to explain. “Sorry. I’m just thinking. Processing.” He tries to laugh, but it sounds more like a wounded wheeze. It earns him a grimace from Donghyuck, and so Jaemin urges himself to keep pushing forward… to change something. “Do you remember everything?” he asks.

Donghyuck nods. Their cart sinks down and they go around another time on the wheel, rising into the sunlight again. “Are you gonna make a break for it after we get off this ride?” Donghyuck asks. It’s probably meant to be a joke, but Donghyuck isn’t laughing. He sounds worried. 

Hearing Donghyuck’s voice like that – wary and uncertain – makes something clench in Jaemin’s chest. He’s too used to hearing himself sound like that, too used to feeling everything he can see now in Donghyuck’s face and in his body language. He hates that he’s the reason for it. Jaemin shakes his head. “I won’t run if you won’t run either.”

Donghyuck lets out a surprised laugh. It’s real this time. “Trust me—I don’t plan on it.”

Jaemin shrugs. “You say that now, but you never know.”

Donghyuck stares at him. The ferris wheel grinds to a halt while they’re at the top. Down below, the workers are starting to let people off. “I’m saying this in the gentlest way possible, Jaemin, but unless you’re a serial killer or a cannibal or some kind of undercover North Korean spy, I think you’re gonna be good.” 

Jaemin laughs. He expects it to sound more awkward than it does. This is still hard, but maybe it’s not as hard as he’d feared. “Well I’m definitely not any of that.”

“That’s what I thought,” Donghyuck says. “So what is it? Something worse than commitment issues?”

Jaemin crosses his arms over his chest. “What makes you think I have commitment issues?”

“Probably the fact that I know you like me, and I know you know that I like you, but every time we get close, you speed-walk away and lock yourself in your room and then avoid me for hours, if not days,” Donghyuck says like it’s the most obvious thing in the world.

Oh. That. “Would you believe me if I said that had nothing to do with commitment issues?”

Donghyuck gives him a look. Like can you believe this guy? But this guy is him. The ferris wheel jerks back into motion and their cart shakes a bit as the wheel turns until they’re just starting to hit the downward curve, then stops again. Below, more people disembark. “What is it, then?” Donghyuck asks.

“I’m just scared,” Jaemin says.

Donghyuck furrows his brows. “Of what?”

Jaemin hesitates. Is he really doing this? “You know how I told you I got locked in a barn when I was younger?”

Donghyuck nods. “Kind of hard to forget.”

“Well… it was the last boy that I liked who did that.” 

Donghyuck’s eyes blow comically wide and his lips part and Jaemin kind of wants to laugh. This is so fucking stupid – he’s saying way too much – but he keeps going anyway. 

“Yeah. I was just a kid and I was really fucking stupid back then – more than now, if you can believe it – and I opened up too much and he really didn’t vibe with it.” Jaemin finally laughs a little, but it’s self-deprecating and a bit forced. “And ever since then I just haven’t wanted to open up to anyone. Until you. But I’m still sort of worried you’ll shove me in a dark barn and slam the door on me and run if I tell you too much. That was a pretty formative experience—I still haven’t been able to shake it.”

Donghyuck lets out a heavy breath. “Yeah,” he says, “I believe it. But um… I’m really not a farm guy. And I don’t think there are any barns around campus. And, hey, you’ve told me this much and I haven’t gone running. That has to count for something, right?”

“We’re locked in a box suspended in midair,” Jaemin points out. “It’d be more impressive if you could run from here.”

Donghyuck rubs the back of his neck. “Fair. But still.” He’s turning pink under the sun, but he doesn’t break eye contact. He looks much more determined than Jaemin would have expected. “I think we’ve gotten to know each other pretty well while living together this year, and I still like you, Jaemin. And I want to try something with you, if you want. Even if you need to take it really slow, I’m okay with that. Even if we just take tiny baby steps, I’d like that more than this backpedaling that we’ve been doing. Obviously it’s totally up to you. I promise I won’t kiss you again if you don’t want—drunk or not. But… I’d really like to try.”

“Kissing me or dating?” Jaemin asks with a hint of a smile because Donghyuck’s earnest confession makes him warm, eases some of the tightness in his chest.

Donghyuck laughs. “Both, honestly. But only if you’re down.”

The ferris wheel whirs to life again and they sink until they’re nearly at the bottom. The ride stops just before they make it, though, and they have another minute alone. 

Jaemin looks across the cart at Donghyuck. This is probably a terrible idea. This could crash and burn horribly. He could get hurt again, have to uproot and move to a different college across the country where no one knows him to start over a second time. This could be an absolute disaster. 

This could be anything.

There’s no way to know what will happen. This is stepping into the dark and hoping there’s still sturdy ground underfoot—a leap of faith. But… but Jaemin wants to try. Maybe it’ll all blow up in his face, but maybe it won’t. Maybe this could be something good, even something great. The only way to find out is to try, and god, after years of being terrified, after months of running away, he’s ready for a change, ready to try. 

Jaemin looks at Donghyuck and he nods. “Okay,” he says, swallowing his fear and letting his heart lodge in his throat. “I’m down.”

Donghyuck lights up. “For the kissing or the dating?”

Jaemin laughs, and this time it’s real. The ferris wheel shakes into motion once more and leads them down to the platform. Jaemin holds out a hand for Donghyuck as they come to a stop again and the worker moves towards them to unlock the cart doors.

Donghyuck takes Jaemin’s hand with a smile, and this time he lets Jaemin lead the way. They step out of the cart and head for the ride’s exit ramp, and Jaemin sends Donghyuck a shy smile. “I think both would be good. Let’s find out.”