Truth was a thing Joonmyun valued. Even as a child he was exceptionally honest. His parents had made sure to praise him if he admitted his wrongdoings truthfully and to punish him if he tried to weasel out of a situation with lies. They were honest with him as well and he grew up understanding that the truth was a good thing.
That was until he met Jongin.
Jongin and his mother moved into an apartment in the tall building next to Joonmyun's parents' house. Jongin was not a liar. He was not a bad influence on Joonmyun. But he taught Joonmyun how to lie.
Jongin was eight and he was playing in the sandbox. He was all alone on the playground, the other kids had climbed on the fence surrounding the playground and stared at the new boy.
“He's from the countryside. Hey, country pumpkin!” an older boy shouted and rattled the fence. The boy in the sandbox kept his head down but Joonmyun could see his neck reddening.
“I bet he's really stupid,” another boy joined in the taunting. “Stupid and ugly because countryside people are stupid and ugly.”
Joonmyun thought the boy was being unfair. “You don't even know him!”
The other boy just stuck out his tongue and made a grimace. A girl with missing front teeth grinned at Joonmyun. “But I know him because my aunt lives there.” She pointed up at the apartment building. “She said he doesn't have a father. And she said countryside people smell like dung.”
Several other kids broke into laughter and held their noses as if they could smell a bad smell coming from the boy in the sandbox. They rattled the fence and started a chorus of “ugly pumpkin, smelly pumpkin.”
The boy pretended he couldn't hear them but Joonmyun could see that the little red car he'd moved on the sand track he'd built had stilled in his hand and his little fingers were clutching it tightly. Joonmyun remembered the feeling of fear; he'd been bullied in his first year of school but his older brother had been there to protect him and scare the stupid bullies away. Joonmyun wasn't intimidating enough to do the same for the new boy but he waited until the mean kids got bored and went away, and then he slipped through the swinging gate.
It smelled like dry grass and sunset when he sat down in the sandbox and looked at the countryside boy. He didn't smell. And he didn't look ugly, as far as Joonmyun could tell. He wasn't sure what exactly ugly was but he didn't really look a lot different from the other kids. His hair was a bit long but Joonmyun was sure he'd overheard some girls at school say that long hair was pretty.
“Go away,” the boy said in a small voice when Joonmyun's staring became too much.
“Is it true that you don't have a father?” slipped out of Joonmyun's mouth.
“I have a father.” The boy looked at Joonmyun and his eyes glowered angrily. “He's just not here. He has to work very hard.”
Joonmyun nodded. His father worked very hard, too. Sometimes he even worked in other countries and didn't come home for a week. The other kids never dared to make fun of Joonmyun because they knew his father had a very good job and earned a lot of money.
“I'm Joonmyun. I live there,” he said and pointed to the neat wall that adjoined the playground on one side. Behind the wall was a big garden and a big house where Joonmyun and his family lived. “We have a much better sandbox in our garden, and a paddling pool, and a tree house. Will you come play with me?”
“Can I bring Monggu?” They boy's eyes were glowing brighter than the sunset.
“I like Minah.” The group of boys around Joonmyun cheered and giggled. They had their heads stuck together and were whispering to each other. It was lunch break and the classroom doors were open, allowing friends from different classes to visit each other.
“I like Eunji,” another boy was pushed to confess by the others when it was his turn. More cheers and giggles but also a few disapproving voices that claimed Minah was a much better crush. She was the most popular girl in their grade.
“Now you, Joonmyun-ah!” Someone pushed his arm, laughing. Someone else was trying to pull his biology book away in which Joonmyun was reading the page on earthworms because when he'd been collecting earthworms in the garden with Jongin, Jongin had said they don't have eyes but they can still see. At age twelve, Jongin already knew many things about animals because he read a lot of books but being able to see without eyes was something Joonmyun found hard to believe.
“What,” Joonmyun growled and pulled sharply on his biology book. He wanted to know how earthworms could see because Jongin never lied to him.
“Don't be such a bore,” one of the boys whined and pushed his arm again. “It's your turn to admit who you like.”
“I like–” Joonmyun screeched to a halt, his insides squeezing so that his lungs and his heart stopped doing their job for a second. “No one,” he choked out and clutched his book, heartbeat racing. It was his first big lie because of Jongin, the first big secret he felt instinctively he had to keep at all costs.
Joonmyun and Jongin were best friends from the day Joonmyun had invited Jongin to his garden. It became Jongin's hide-out from the neighbourhood kids that bullied him and even more than that, it became a place where Jongin's imagination grew wings. He and Joonmyun became dragons and robot builders and rulers of the ant kingdom. Jongin's colouring books were stacked up in Joonmyun's tree house, and a pile of rocks next to them. The two boys were sure the rocks contained crystals and rare minerals which they would find if only they were allowed to split them open with the hammer and chisel Joonmyun's grandfather kept in the garage.
Joonmyun taught Jongin how to ride a bike and Jongin taught Joonmyun how to fly. He taught Joonmyun that you have to spread your arms wide when there's a gust of wind and let the air run through the gaps between your fingers because there's a magical wind that comes by once in a century and blows feathers onto your arms so that you can fly but you've got to be ready in the right moment. So you've got to spread your arms when you feel the wind because it might be the magical one and you don't want to miss that.
Joonmyun was old enough to know that humans can't fly. He was old enough to know that those who try and fly too high get their wings burned like in the story of Icarus he'd read at school. He was old enough to know that it didn't matter that he'd never catch a non-existent magical wind because when he spread his arms together with Jongin and watched him smile with closed eyes into the wind, he already knew what floating felt like.
“Mum, Jongin is my magical wind! Brother, Jongin gives me wings! Father, Jongin taught me how to fly!” He wanted to run through the house and shout the truth into every room. But he didn't. When he sat at the dinner table and his mum smiled and remarked that it's nice that he still played with Jongin so much, Joonmyun only smiled back and said Jongin's such a kid.
Jongin was fourteen and Joonmyun was keeping secrets. Jongin was his best-kept secret. He wanted to keep Jongin.
Joonmyun started university and Jongin still had three years in high-school. The university was in the same city, one advantage of living in the place that had exactly the university Joonmyun's parents wanted for him. He didn't have to move but commuting and seminars took time and Jongin stopped coming over every day to do his homework on Joonmyun's bed. One laundry day Joonmyun fished for all the socks he stuffed in the gap between the wall and the mattress, and a green felt tip pen rolled into his hands. It was one of the pens Jongin always used to underline the headings in his school notebooks. Joonmyun almost screamed, that's how hard the pain of missing Jongin hit him in the gut.
Jongin had a new best friend at school. He always brought him along on his visits to Joonmyun and when he didn't, he talked about him. It was Sehun this, Sehun that. Sehun was funny and cool and he danced urban hip hop something something. Joonmyun wanted to hate him but he couldn't because Sehun was genuinely nice, and it was good for Jongin to have a close friend, someone he could rely on while Joonmyun was at university. So Joonmyun couldn't hate Sehun but he was piercingly jealous of him, even as he became friends with Sehun.
Sometimes when Jongin had to babysit his little baby niece, Sehun came over to Joonmyun's place to do his homework and talk about movies and fashion and photography and all the countries he wanted to visit. Sehun liked Joonmyun and even idolized Jongin's “cool friend from university!!” a little. He valued Joonmyun's opinion and often asked him for advice which Joonmyun readily gave because he couldn't help the soft spot he was developing for Sehun.
Besides, Joonmyun knew it made Jongin happy to see his two best friends get along well.
All in all Joonmyun felt extremely bad for what he did. It went against all his principles, and Sehun didn't deserve it. But one day he was lying in his room with Jongin, both on their backs and watching the flickering of a summer thunderstorm through the roof window, and he said quietly.
“You know, Sehun said he likes me better than you.”
Jongin was quiet. Even his breathing was quiet. Joonmyun turned his head and watched him, knowing him well enough that he could tell when Jongin was quietly hurting. Joonmyun hated himself but now that he had started this, he couldn't stop.
“Don't tell him I told you this. He didn't want you to know, but I wanted to let you know.”
Joonmyun didn't know if at sixteen Jongin was still susceptible to this stupid game of who is whose favourite but he hoped so. He felt low and mean for spreading seeds of doubting Sehun in Jongin's heart. But he wanted to keep Jongin to himself.
“You'll always be my best friend, Jongin. I'll always like you best,” Joonmyun whispered and hurt inside.
Jongin scooted closer to Joonmyun’s side so that their hands brushed and pressed his face into Joonmyun's arm.
That was the second big lie. And not caving in to the guilt squirming inside of him and spilling the truth to Jongin, that he'd made everything up, that Sehun never said that, that Joonmyun was just jealous, became a regret he carried around with him his whole life.
Jongin and Sehun stayed friends but their relationship cooled down. Sometimes all three of them met up and when they did, Jongin kept in the background while Sehun, oblivious to the whole situation, joked around with Joonmyun and hung on his lips. Thus, Joonmyun watched Jongin create a self-fulfilling prophecy, the situations always looking like Sehun did like Joonmyun more than Jongin.
“It’s not true!” Joongmyun wanted to shout.
But Jongin always went to Joonmyun first with all his news and stories and questions and thoughts, just like he used to before Sehun. His big, brown eyes lay on Joonmyun's with so much trust that Joonmyun thought one day his chest would just break open and everything would spill out. All his love and all his guilt.
Gloomy summer storms still made Joonmyun heart unbearably heavy. Even when he spent them with Jongin, and just Jongin, pressed close to his side.
Joonmyun opened the door to a huge cloud of snowflakes and Jongin whirling into the house. Jongin was wearing a thick coat and a bobble hat, and his brown hair was sticking to his forehead where melting snow had left it wet. His radiant smile was the most beautiful thing Joonmyun had ever seen. “I think I have a crush! She said ‘bye, see you after the winter break’ and waved and smiled at me and I just suddenly–” Jongin flapped his hands around, snow clumps flying from the folds of his coat. “I came to tell you right away because you're my best friend!”
Joonmyun felt like he couldn't breathe.
Jongin's hands lowered and his smile dimmed slowly when he realized that Joonmyun didn't share his enthusiasm.
“Sorry. Are you okay? You don't look so good. You always catch colds in winter…”
“No, no, I'm fine,” Joonmyun lied. He was becoming goddamn awfully good at lying. To his best friend. The one person he had always, always wanted to tell the truth.
“Are you not happy? I have a crush, finally! After eighteen years. I was beginning to think I was a bit off the rocker.” Jongin grinned again, and took off his hat, coat, and boots, everything dripping with slowly melting slush. His sweater was dry and looked cozily warm. Joonmyun felt beside himself, like he was one of the cold, dripping hulls hanging on the coat rack.
“I am happy.” Joonmyun smiled as he followed Jongin.
And that was maybe his biggest lie.
Jongin plopped down on Joonmyun's bed and babbled about his crush, oblivious of Joonmyun drifting further and further away.
“I think I'll tell her on Valentine's Day.”
Valentine's Day was fourty-seven days away, and twenty days before the start of the new semester which would bring Jongin to Joonmyun's university. Joonmyun knew because he was secretly crossing days off on a tiny little pocket planner he kept hidden in his pillow.
“Don't,” he said, feeling hollow. “Girls hate that kind of cliché stuff.”
Jongin paused. “Really?” A frustrated sound fell from his pouting lips. “I don't know anything about girls! How do I make her like me?”
Joonmyun glowered. He hated her already for possibly not liking Jongin. At the same time he hated her for possibly liking Jongin. “She'd have to be really stupid not to like you. And if she doesn't, she doesn't deserve you anyway.”
“I know. But how do I make sure I don't mess up,” Jongin whined.
“You've got to be a good kisser. That's really important for girls. You've got to be experienced,” Joonmyun said because he knew Jongin had never kissed anyone. He felt shrewd and was disgusted with himself.
Jongin looked at Joonmyun with big, desperate eyes. “I've never kissed anyone. Not that I think I'll kiss her any time soon.” He blushed a bit.
“You have to practice.”
Joonmyun imagined Jongin kissing another girl and being caught by his crush. He wanted it to happen.
“I can't go and kiss a girl I don't like! And I don't have any girl friends that I can just ask to practice kissing with. My sister, urgh. She's too old anyway. If I just read up on it...?”
Joonmyun couldn't help laughing at that last suggestion. “I don't think just the theoretical side helps in this case. It doesn't have to be a girl, I mean, it's just kissing practice. Everyone has lips.” As an afterthought, he added. “But don't ask Sehun, he doesn't know what he's doing, either.”
“But then I'm running out of options!” Jongin wailed. “Unless... you know how to kiss?”
Jongin's eyes landed on Joonmyun, so honest and hopeful that Joonmyun almost begged him to stop him from what he was about to do.
He lied. “'Course I do. I kissed a lot of girls at university.”
Jongin frowned, and Joonmyun was sure he would see through the web of lies he was crafting one ridiculous thread after the other. But he didn't. He believed Joonmyun and tried to keep the hurt from his voice when he asked. “Why did you never tell me? I thought we're best friends.”
“Oh, I just– we weren't–” Joonmyun back-pedalled quickly. “We just made out. We weren't together. Just university parties and stuff, it's nothing, the point is just that I know enough that I can teach you.”
Lies. Joonmyun hadn't been to wild parties and he hadn't even had his first kiss yet. He had never, ever wanted to kiss anyone else but Jongin. But Jongin wouldn't find out because he had no way of telling the difference between an experienced and an inexperienced kisser.
“Won't it be weird? I've known you for more than ten years.”
If Joonmyun lost Jongin to another person, to a girl, which pretty much destroyed any chances Joonmyun might have ever had, then he wanted to take something from Jongin first. Something only Joonmyun could have and no one else. Something that would be forever Joonmyun's. No one could ever take it from him. Jongin’s first kiss.
Joonmyun was obsessed with it. His web of lies was a spiderweb and Jongin was a sweet dew drop that had gotten caught in it. Running along the threads without knowing that Joonmyun pulled on them in such a way that Jongin would run right into his arms in the end.
“It won't be weird because we've known each other for more than ten years. It might be weird between other friends. But we're best friends and I'm just offering to help you out because that's what best friends do.”
Jongin took some time to mull joonmyun's words over in his head. Then he sat up straight and his eyes glowed. “Let's do this!”
“Sure,” Joonmyun choked out but tried to sound off-handed, like it was no big deal. Like his chest wasn't shaking from the mere idea of kissing Jongin. Like that wasn't what he had dreamed of ever since he'd noticed Jongin's jaw had gotten more defined and dusted with the slightest shadow of stubble. He'd shot up almost a head over Joonmyun in height. His shoulders were broad now and his hands always warm.
His eyes closed naturally when he leaned in and Joonmyun almost cried. Jongin was a trusting king who laid his greatest treasure out in front of who he thought was his loyal servant. But Joonmyun wasn't a noble knight, he was a liar and a thief.
The press of Jongin's lips was the softest and most hesitant touch Joonmyun had ever felt. It pierced through Joonmyun's core and he buried everything gently in that wound.
They explored how to kiss together, Joonmyun taking note of what he liked quickly and guiding Jongin after that, molding the way he kissed. Selfishly, he turned his kisses into a seal that he stamped on Jongin's lips over and over again.
And when he watched Jongin go, the sigils burned invisibly on Jongin's lips.
“I am happy.”
“I really have to do this exchange program, it's important for my studies.”
“I'm too busy, sorry.”
“I don't miss him, don't be ridiculous.”
“I am not drinking too much.”
“Of course I never loved him that way.”
“It doesn't matter. I'm over him.”
“It doesn't hurt.”
Lies, lies, lies. All of them. Jongin had turned him into a liar, and it wasn't even Jongin's fault.
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