the colour of water
➤ your goal is making your dream a reality. chan’s goal is avoiding his supposed dream career path. after fate and a couple of chance meetings bring the two of you together, you help each other in ways neither of you expected
➤ swimmer!chan x art student!reader (gender neutral), angst, college au, comedy, fluff, slow burn, suggestive & implied nsfw content; chan in swim shorts (yes that is a warning), some sexual jokes, jeongin being A Teenager, reader can swim, painkillers (to help with a fever), chan cries one time, one instance of making out, pancakes at the very end. i also have no clue how swim meets actually work
➤ 26.8k words (...my hand slipped)
➤ a/n: the banner for this fic was made by the lovely @huenjin —this is my fic for her collab, based off the k-drama run on! feedback on this fic is absolutely welcome—your comments, no matter how small or vague, mean a lot to me <3 i hope you enjoy reading, and be sure to show all the other writers in this collab a lot of love!
Ideally, you wouldn’t be stuck in a room with fifteen other people covered in charcoal. You can feel the tension in the air—the session is bound to end any second now and you’re not done shading your portrait yet. The nude model in front of you is sweating under the studio lights in the classroom, but she can’t move an inch because everyone has to draw her from their respective point of view. The air is hot and sticky, muggy and suffocating; nobody cracks open a window because sketchbook pads would be flipped everywhere and cause a mess.
Someone coughs, breaking your concentration and causing you to blankly stare up at the clock, past the semicircle of students sketching. You tilt your head from side to side to stretch your neck and examine the model’s chest. Just as you’re about to put your charcoal to the paper again, your professor stands, the movement catching your eye. “Okay everyone, time’s up.”
There’s several chair creaks as the entire class relaxes back away from their sketchbooks. You hear several exhales as people stretch and blink off the daze of the past three hours. You let go of your charcoal and massage your dominant hand absentmindedly.
“You can turn in your sketchbooks to me as you’re heading out,” Professor Kim calls over the growing noise. People are picking up their backpacks and beginning to chat with their friends as they exit the classroom.
You glance to your right. Jeongin nods towards your hands. “You’re gonna get a cramp if you’re not careful.”
“Isn’t massaging sore muscles supposed to help them?” You stop rubbing, flex your hand and pick up your backpack. Immediately, a knife of pain stabs your palm, and you hiss. “Ow!”
“Told you.” Jeongin shoulders his backpack and stands. You scowl at him and pick up your backpack with your other hand, then gingerly grab your sketchbook. The two of you make your way to the door and pile the university-standard sketchbooks on top of the others.
Just as you’re about to exit out into the hallway, Professor Kim calls your name. “Y/N, could I speak with you for a moment?”
You nod in her direction. Jeongin slips past you with a “I’ll wait for you outside,” and you make your way back over to her desk.
Professor Kim smiles up at you. “I was wondering if I could ask you something. I have an opportunity you might be interested in.”
“Of course,” you agree easily. “Ask away.”
“I know this… is a burden to think about for most students, but I’m curious: have you thought about what you want to do after university?”
“After I finish this degree?” Your professor nods. “Well… to be honest I haven’t really decided yet. I’ve considered trying to get a Masters in visual arts, because from there I’d have a better chance of receiving job offers related to art, but I know I need a portfolio for that. I’d love to apply to the Masters program, but I have no idea what kinds of things they’re looking for in a portfolio, or… if my work would give me a chance to be accepted.”
Professor Kim raises her eyebrow at you. “You’re not sure you’re talented enough for them to accept you?”
You nod. “I’ve only ever made one comprehensive portfolio before now—to apply to this degree. I know I’ve learned a lot since my first year, but… I’m not sure if I’ll be able to apply what I’ve learned. In a way that will get me accepted into the Masters program, at least.”
Professor Kim examines you for a long while. “The opportunity I’m considering for you,” she says finally, “is for students who are interested in a Masters. I think that you’re talented enough to be accepted.”
Your eyes widen. Professor Kim wasn’t ruthless, but she wasn’t one to sugarcoat and give students false confidence when they weren’t doing their best. “You really think so?”
“I’ve seen the work you’ve completed in my class,” Professor Kim replies. “Of course, I can’t speak for your other professors, but I can see the drive in your artwork.”
“Thank you,” you mumble.
“I can put you in contact with another faculty member who helps students frequently with their portfolios,” Professor Kim says. “His name is Professor Yang. All of the students who had him as a mentor were accepted into the degrees they wanted to apply to.”
“I would really appreciate that,” you reply. “It would help me a lot; thank you so much.”
Professor Kim gives you a smile and turns to make a note on her laptop. “I’ll be sure to include you in an email I’m sending him. If I haven’t done that by the end of the week, or if Professor Yang hasn’t contacted you, let me know. He’s a bit… behind on technology.”
“I will,” you promise eagerly. “Thank you so much for this opportunity, Professor.”
Your professor gives you a genuine smile. “I hope it helps you, Y/N. You of all people deserve to thrive in an environment you’re passionate about.”
You thank your professor one last time and exit the classroom in a daze.
Being accepted into a Masters program was one step forward to your security—the knowledge of being qualified for a job and not having to worry excessively about finances. You knew that credentials did not always correlate to having solid job opportunities, but at least with credentials, you had something that was recognized by companies and agencies. It was hard trying to convince employers to hire you in today’s world without a degree, especially for a Visual Arts student. You needed the money and the job security; whatever it took to give you peace of mind and reassure you that you’re going to be okay, you wanted to do it. You’d spent too long worrying about money already.
You’d almost forgotten about Jeongin waiting for you in the hallway until you hear him calling your name from behind you, and you turn around.
He grimaces. “Was it bad?”
You shake your head, still in a daze. You’re aware that your cheeks feel warm. “She—she wants to help me apply for a Masters. She said I could do it.”
“What—” Jeongin breaks out in a massive grin and engulfs you in a big hug. “Y/N! That’s amazing!”
“Right?” You break away from him with a smile on your face. “Man, I can’t believe she thinks that of me. I feel so flattered.”
“I’m texting Lily and Seungmin. We should meet up at the café to celebrate this week.”
“Only if you’re buying.”
Jeongin shrugs. “Sure.”
You arch an eyebrow. “Really?”
“Hey, I’m not a complete mooch. I can treat people once in a while,” Jeongin defends himself as the two of you begin walking. “But only if you’re special.”
“Aw, thank you,” you coo at him, bumping his shoulder playfully.
Jeongin frowns. “Keep acting like that and I won’t buy for you.”
“But I was just thanking you,” you continue in the same tone, a grin spreading across your face.
Jeongin rolls his eyes. “Whatever. Come on, I have a feeling Professor Lee is going to be really nitpicky today.”
You nod, and the two of you pick up the pace, heading across campus to your next class.
Chan stretches his fingertips as far out as they’ll go and reaches forward for one last stroke through the water. He taps the wall of the pool and surfaces, then hangs from the starting block on the deck by his fingertips, breathing heavily as his eyes find the clock on the opposite end of the pool. The timer’s still going since his teammates haven’t finished their lengths, and Chan hoists himself out of the water to sit on the pool’s edge next to the block.
“Chan!” His head whips towards the side of the pool, where his coach is standing. “Not so fast. Go swim down first.”
Chan nods and obediently lowers himself back into the water, pushing off from the side and doing an easy, slow back crawl down his lane to cool down from the drills. His eyes find the speckled tiles of the ceiling as his arms and legs propel him through the water, his heart rate steadily getting lower as he relaxes after doing his lengths. He closes his eyes and exhales, letting the sound of his heart fill his ears underwater.
Chan would be a fool to say he wasn’t grateful for the medals, the praises, the scholarship that had gotten him into this university. He was—is grateful. He’d been involved in swimming his entire life. The opportunity to continue it while he was going to school essentially for free was a blessing. He loves swimming, he’s good at it, and other people reward him for being good at it—what more could he ask for?
Chan’s fingertips touch the end of the pool and he turns himself around, repositioning himself against the wall to push off and continue his backstroke towards the starting end of the pool. His eyes find the ceiling again, and he exhales slowly. He’s content.
Take away all the medals, the scholarships, the praise—Chan would still be content as long as he gets to swim. Because he loves it. He doesn’t need other people to tell him he’s talented, or to be scouted for the Olympics, like so many of his teammates were hoping to be. He just wants to be in the pool.
He doesn’t want it to be his career.
Chan’s fingertips touch the wall a second time, and he realizes he’s reached the end of his swim time. He hoists himself out of the water, tugs the rubbery swim cap off his head. As he passes by his coach, he hears, “Good work today, Chan. With times like that, you’ll be scouted at the next meet.”
Chan offers his coach a smile, fighting the uneasiness in his chest. “Thanks, Coach.” He waves his goodbye and heads towards the showers. When the hot water hits him, Chan tilts his face upwards and into the shower stream, and his train of thought comes back.
Being scouted provides what every athlete in the world wants: a chance to represent their country at the national or even international level. When Chan had first heard of scouts, he was just like everyone else: a little bit intimidated, but very motivated and eager. That had all changed over the four years he’d been at university. He’d received several opportunities from scouts, but had always turned them down with the excuse that he wanted to finish his degree first. As time went on, he realized he had become less excited with the idea of being scouted. Being a competitive swimmer and making it a career was all… so regimented. And while Chan loves routine and standards, it always seemed that his teammates were so much more intense about shaving precious seconds off their time, or making sure they were practicing at least four or five days out of the week. Make no mistake, Chan’s in the pool frequently as well—but he’s just there because he wants to swim, not because he feels the drive to become better. The pressure gets toxic after a while. He can’t remember the last time he swam purely for the fun of it.
But at the same time… Chan doesn’t know what else to do. Swimming is the one thing he’s good at—he’d never taken the time to try out different activities when he was younger because he loved swimming. Had he known the only path forward with swimming would be so intense and strict, he would have tried to figure out what else he enjoys doing for a career. Now, with his graduation and the threat of being scouted looming over him, he doesn’t have a plan B.
“Bro, are you okay?”
Chan blinks the water out of his eyes. Felix is standing in front of him, looking rightfully concerned. He must have seen Chan staring up at the showerhead. “Uh, yeah.” Chan looks down and slicks his hair back. “Just… enjoying. The water.”
“You take it in whatever form you can get it, huh?” Felix smiles, and Chan cracks what he hopes to be a convincing smile back at him. “Alright, just checking in on ya. I’ll see you around, okay?”
Chan waves his goodbyes to Felix and finishes up in the shower. Maybe, if his schedule allows it, he’ll get the chance to meet up with Jisung and Changbin at the café later this week and take his mind off of swimming.
You stare up at the board of menu options as you wait in line, the babble of students chattering around you disrupting your concentration. This café was always so crowded—a testament to its popularity.
“You know, staring at it harder won’t help you choose what you want to get,” Seungmin remarks from behind you.
You frown. “I know that. I’m just trying to concentrate. It’s so loud in here.”
“The menu hasn’t changed in forever and you still try to debate every single time about what you want to get,” Lily giggles from next to Seungmin.
Jeongin pats your shoulder comfortingly. “It’s okay, Y/N’s just a little slow. I know in the end they’ll end up ordering something basic.”
The cashier motions for the group of you to come up, and you’re delayed by indignance before your feet begin moving. After you place your order, Seungmin smiles playfully. “See? Same thing every time.”
You pout at him. “Shut up. I like what I like.”
The four of you move to the side to wait to receive your orders, you walking a bit ahead of everyone else. Just as you finish turning around to make another comment about your order, you see Jeongin’s eyes widen as he looks past you. “Y/N, look—”
Someone slams into your shoulder, and you yelp at the feeling of something hot and wet soaking across your front. When you look down, coffee is staining the front of your shirt, and you hold it out and away from you on instinct. The crowds of people around you all stop and stare. You think you hear someone laugh before trying to hide it with a cough. Great.
“—out,” Jeongin finishes lamely.
“Oh my gosh, are you okay?” The boy you’d just slammed into is staring at you with wide eyes, his hands up behind his head in a protective brace of shock. What he needed to brace for, you weren’t sure—after all, he wasn’t the one who got hot coffee dumped on him.
“I’m—I’ll be fine,” you say. “Sorry, I should have been looking where I was walking—”
“No no no, it’s totally my fault!” the boy replies, looking around. He meets the eyes of two other boys behind him, and one of them moves to the counter to grab a fistful of napkins. “I’m so sorry.”
“It’s alright,” you assure him.
His friend who went to get the napkins passes some to you. “Sorry. Jisung has a bad habit of carrying coffee by the lid only.”
The boy who spilled coffee on you—Jisung—scratches the back of his head sheepishly. “Yeah. I definitely won’t do that anymore.”
“Do you have a change of clothes?” Jisung’s friend asks. He runs a hand through his hair, and your eyes glue themselves to his head: frizzy and curly dark locks, full lips. He’s dressed in slides, athletic shorts and a muscle shirt, and has a black duffle bag hanging from his shoulder.
“Uh…” You look down at your ruined shirt and sigh. “No. But it’s okay—I only have one more class today anyway. I’ll… figure something out.”
Some staff member emerges from the back with a mop for the floor, and you get ushered to the side with the boy who gave you napkins. He’s still staring at you and your ruined shirt, and before you can reassure him that really, you’re fine, he tugs his duffle bag so it’s in front of him, unzips it and begins rummaging through it. After a couple of seconds, he produces a black T-shirt and holds it towards you. “Are you sure you don’t want this? It’s clean.”
You hold your hands up automatically. “Oh no no no, I can’t take your clothes.”
The boy shakes his head and extends the shirt towards you further. “I don’t mind, seriously.”
You stare at him. “You’re just… giving me your shirt?”
“It’s the least I can do since Jisung spilled coffee on you and ruined yours,” he insists. “You can return it after you use it if you want. I have five others exactly like this at home; I don’t mind.”
You hesitate for a couple of seconds, then take the T-shirt. Realistically, you didn’t have many other options. “Okay. Thank you.”
The boy grins, dimples appearing on his cheeks. “Don’t mention it.”
“I’ll just…” You trail off and motion towards the restroom. He nods and you walk past him and through the doors.
You get changed quickly and stuff your ruined shirt in your bag before slipping the black shirt over your head. You’re pleasantly surprised by the scent: mint, orange, and… was that vanilla? You were fully expecting a headier, salty smell—you’d subconsciously pinned the guy as someone who frequented the gym, like so many boys at your school.
When you emerge, Lily, Seungmin and Jeongin are all waiting for you. Jeongin holds up your order. “We got your stuff.”
“Where’s…” You trail off, looking for the boy who’d given you his shirt.
“Your saviour? He left with his friends after you went into the restroom,” Seungmin finishes for you. “Come on, we can still hang out here now that you’ve got clean clothes.”
You nod and follow them to a table they’d picked out, but the whole time you’re sitting with them, you can’t stop thinking about the boy with frizzy dark hair and dimples. How were you going to return his shirt if you didn’t know anything about him?
True to her word, Professor Kim includes you in an email she sends Professor Yang, discussing which students he’s going to mentor. Professor Yang contacts you separately and asks you to meet him during his office hours with a couple of samples of your work, in a couple of days’ time. You spend the next forty-eight hours enlisting Lily, Seungmin and Jeongin to help you pick out your best pieces. It made sense to include your best friends in the process—they’d all known you since you’d started university together, and seen both your highs and lows in art. You trust their opinion when it counts, and in this moment, it definitely counts.
Armed with four works of art, you go to your appointment with Professor Yang. When you pass him your works for his review, he takes his time, looking at every work for close to five minutes each in complete silence before setting one aside and looking at the next. His lack of reaction to any of your works makes you nervous, and you bounce your leg in lieu of speaking up. Finally, Professor Yang sets your works back on the table and leans back in his chair. “Of course, like all the students in this department, you have talent.”
“Thank you, Professor,” you mumble quietly.
“But”—Professor Yang holds up one of your paintings for you to look at, one of a field with flowers on a stormy day—“you don’t capture motion very well. I can tell that doing landscapes and still life such as this is what you’re comfortable with, that it’s easy for you. To be frank, you won’t be accepted into a Masters program if there isn’t diversity in what you submit in your portfolio.”
“An artist must be able to portray motion,” Professor Yang explains earnestly. “Sports photography is a much simpler medium because all you have to do is move with the subject and make sure the camera’s in focus, then click the shutter button. Once you do that one thing, the art is all there. Painting something that is in motion is much harder, especially if you do not have a photo for reference. With landscapes, you can sit for as long as you need to make sure you get the details right. You don’t have that kind of luxury with painting objects in motion.”
Professor Yang seems to notice the way you’ve drawn in on yourself, and leans forward a bit. “How badly do you want to be accepted, if you apply for a Masters?”
“Very badly,” you admit. “It’s my passion—I want the opportunity to continue it.”
Professor Yang nods and leans back in his seat again. “Professor Kim told me you’re doing very well in her portraits class. I have a great deal of confidence in her choice of students; are you willing to learn and improve your work?”
“Yes,” you reply immediately.
“Good.” A satisfied smile spreads across Professor Yang’s face. “I haven’t seen much of your work, but if we continue to work on your ability to capture motion, and I see what else you’re capable of, I think you have a good shot at acceptance.”
You can feel yourself brightening. “Thank you so much! I’ll be sure to work hard so that I can improve.” As you think about it more, a question rises in your mind. “...How exactly should I practice capturing motion?”
Professor Yang nods slowly, thinking over his options. “I’m close with some of the faculty members that coach sports at the university. I can talk to them, and hopefully one of them will allow you to sit in on their practices. You can start with sketching the athletes first, just to get an idea of how they move.”
He stands, and you get the indication that your meeting is over, so you nod and stand with him. “Thank you so much, Professor Yang. I won’t let you down!”
“Y/N, the only person you’ll let down if you don’t get accepted is yourself,” Professor Yang reminds you. His phone rings on his desk. “Go on, I should take this.”
You nod and exit his office, letting the door click shut behind you, and make your way outside to the quad. When you arrive, you immediately spot Seungmin, Jeongin and Lily sitting on the grass, and when you reach them, you fall down dramatically and wave in greeting.
Seungmin chuckles. “How’d the meeting with Yang go?”
Lily speaks up before you can respond—you’re too busy letting the rays of sun warm your face. “I think it went well, it’s Y/N after all.”
Jeongin rips a handful of grass out of the earth. You notice his eyes are downcast. “I wouldn’t be too sure about that. Yang is like a wolf in sheep’s clothing when it comes to critiquing art.” He glances towards you. “He tore you apart, didn’t he?”
“He said I need to learn how to capture motion in my drawings.” You sit up and move so you’re facing all three of them. “He’s going to see if I can watch some of the student athletes’ practices to sketch them.”
Lily hums understandingly. “Honestly that critique isn’t too bad. Motion is really difficult.”
“You do it really well though, Lily,” Seungmin pipes up.
Lily beams at him. “Thanks, Min.”
Seungmin coughs and turns his head away from her. You think you can see his ears burning bright pink. Jeongin snorts. “I think you broke him.”
Seungmin shoves Jeongin. “Shut up.”
Jeongin snickers before turning to you. “Any idea of who you’ll be watching?”
You shake your head. “Professor Yang didn’t say who he was close to… just that they were involved in sports at the school.”
Jeongin nods slowly before looking back down at the grass and grabbing another fistful. “Right. Well, hopefully it’s not something too difficult.”
“Hopefully,” you agree.
Lily glances at her phone, and her eyes widen. “Oh my gosh. Y/N we have class!”
“We do?” You check your own phone and yelp at the time. “Shit! Okay, okay.” You stand up and Lily helps you collect your paintings to put in your bag. The two of you sprint across campus to your respective classes, leaving Jeongin and Seungmin to stare in amusement at the two of you.
You end up arriving late to your class, and your professor asks you to help clean up at the end of the lesson. After you finish washing paint brushes and putting away canvases, you head to the front of the building to head back to your place. Just as you step outside the doors, you stop and stare in dismay at the weather. It’s stormy. Not an awful downpour, but the rain was definitely steady enough that your paintings in your bag would be ruined. You frown at the sky as you debate under the overhang of the roof.
You check inside your bag once again. The paintings were dry now, so if you held them against your body… and kind of hunched over…
You readjust your bag, determined to at least make it to the covered bus stop. It wasn’t too far. You could do it. Determined, you step forward and into the rain, tensing at the cool wet feeling of raindrops seeping into your shirt. You frown at the ground, not looking up more than necessary. You hear someone yell something, then the splat-splat-splat-splat of shoes on the wet sidewalk—and then the rain stops. Confused, you look up.
There’s a large black umbrella over your head. You find the hand holding it, and follow the arm to the person beside you.
Your eyes widen in recognition. It’s the curly-haired boy who gave you his shirt the week before. “You—”
His eyes widen too. “Oh—hey.”
“Need a hand?” He glances towards the bag you’re clutching to your chest.
“I, uh, I just need to get to the bus stop.” You point vaguely. “It’s not too far, I’ll be alright.”
“I’m going that way too,” he responds. “I don’t mind—the umbrella’s big enough for two people.”
You look at the weather around you again, then purse your lips. “If you don’t mind, then yeah, I need a hand. Just—just until the bus stop, I don’t want to inconvenience you.”
“You’re not inconveniencing me.” He smiles reassuringly at you. “What’s in the bag?”
“Uh—paintings.” You adjust your hold on the bag again. “They’re dry, and this bag isn’t exactly waterproof, so…”
The boy nods in understanding. The two of you continue walking in silence, and you gnaw on your lower lip before speaking again. “Sorry I took your shirt.”
“I gave it to you.” He sounds amused.
“I know, but—I don’t like owing people. Even now, with you helping me like this… I should pay you back. Somehow. It’s only fair.” It’s the only way that you know kindness works. You do something for someone else, they do something for you in return.
The boy shrugs. “An act of kindness doesn’t always have to be transactional.”
You furrow your brow. “Right, but… I don’t know you. Why would you be kind to me when I’ve given you no reason to be kind?”
“Because I want to do kind things for people,” he responds. “No other reason needed.”
“But still… I’ll feel uncomfortable if I don’t give you your shirt back, at least,” you explain. “You should give me your number… so that I can give it back.”
You’ve reached the bus stop now. The boy turns to face you. “Will giving my shirt back make you feel like you don’t owe me?”
“I think so.”
The boy nods and produces his phone from his pocket. “I get that. Feeling like you owe someone isn’t a great feeling. How about we exchange numbers? So it’s fair.”
“Ha-ha.” You swap phones with him and create a new contact, adding your number under the name Text for Missing Shirt. He passes your phone back to you just as your bus pulls up. “Well… thank you, for the umbrella.”
“No problem.” He smiles at you again.
“I should…” You take a couple of steps towards the bus.
He nods. “Yeah. You should.” He takes a couple of steps backwards away from you, and waves. “See you around.”
You wave in return and get on the bus. When you find a seat, you pull out your phone to look at his contact name: Text for a New Shirt. You smile. It’s a cute nickname, but you still don’t know his name.
Once you step off the bus, the rain has lessened significantly. You make your way to your apartment, still pressing your paintings to your body in an effort to preserve them as much as possible. When you get inside, Lily is waiting for you.
“Did your paintings get wet?” she asks you.
You shake your head. “Remember that guy who gave me his shirt last week? He came out of nowhere and shared his umbrella with me.”
Lily raises her eyebrows. “Ooh, how romantic. Did you get his number?”
You snort. “I did, but it was because I wanted to give him back his shirt.”
“It’s true,” you sigh. “I’m serious.”
“Y’know, I saw him the other day,” Lily remarks. “He was heading out of the music department, with the guy who spilled coffee on you. I don’t think he recognized me.”
“Huh. So he’s…” You frown. “A music student? He seemed like he was involved in sports.”
Lily shrugs. “He might be. You can use a duffle bag and not be involved in sports.”
“Yeah…” You shrug as well. “Who knows? I guess I can ask him when I give him his shirt back.”
“Or when you go on a date with him, since you have his number,” Lily smirks.
You frown at her. “I’ll go on a date with him when you realize Seungmin likes you back.”
“He does not!” she screeches. You snicker. “I’m telling you, my crush is one-sided! Unrequited! Destined to fail!”
“You don’t know that unless you ask him out!”
“And risk rejection? Never!”
You laugh. “You seriously can’t see it, can you? He’s infatuated with you, at least. He turned pink when you called him Min today.” And thousands of other times when Lily let her affection for Seungmin creep to the surface.
You hadn’t expected that your friends would be locked in some kind of slow-burn mutual pining situation—you thought they’d be smarter than that. When Lily had confessed to you that she thought Seungmin was cute, at the end of last year, you’d assumed it was just that—a one-sided crush. But then, not even a week later, Jeongin had let slip the fact that Seungmin just couldn’t stop talking about Lily. Ever since then, you and Jeongin had become the extras, the unofficial third and fourth wheels to Seungmin and Lily’s slow-motion romance. The two of you had suffered countless nights of hearing each of them pine after the other, with you finally snapping one night and telling Lily that Seungmin liked her back.
For a second, she’d believed you, but when she’d asked him out in a roundabout way and he’d said no, she became convinced Seungmin didn’t like her back. You didn’t blame Seungmin for not understanding what Lily was trying to ask, as her wording wasn’t clear and direct. He just needed to be told, point-blank: “Hey, I like you. Do you want to go out on a date sometime?” If Lily was the one asking, you were sure he’d say yes. But she was too worried about being direct with her confession. You understood her concerns, but it was maddening to have to listen to her wax poetic about Seungmin whenever he wasn’t around. It had to come to an end at some point.
Lily sighs. “No. I refuse to make the first move. I can’t stand having my heart broken by him.”
“I’m pretty sure Seungmin would rather have his art torn to shreds by Yang than break your heart.”
“But that terrifies him.”
“Exactly!” You hold a hand to your head. “Please. Go on a date with him before Jeongin and I plan one for you ourselves.”
Lily blushes. “You wouldn’t dare.”
“We just might,” you sing as you head off towards your room. You shut the door without waiting for her response, and stare at the black t-shirt folded on your bed. You suppose you’ll have to wash it before giving it back. Maybe you’d make an effort to actually look decent the next time you see him.
Professor Yang emails you at the start of a new week, saying he talked to the different faculty members about letting you sketch their athletes. The coach of the swim team seemed to be the most eager to have you sit in on the practices, so Professor Yang had forwarded a copy of their training schedule and events to you. He said the coach would be expecting you sometime this week, and if the schedule didn’t work out, to let him know.
You take a look through the training schedule, and see that there are open training slots six days a week. You find that a bit intense, but then again, these were varsity athletes. They could probably handle the schedule, and they might not have to come in every day—they did have classes, after all. You choose a date at random that fits with your schedule and email Professor Yang to let him know, then carry on with the rest of your day.
When the day to visit the pool rolls around, you ensure you have a blank sketchbook and the pencils, charcoal, and other materials you need to get your sketches done, and make your way to the Athletics Centre on campus. When you arrive, you wander for a bit until a receptionist points you in the direction of the pool. You thank her and hurry off towards the doors, tug them open and step inside.
The whole room is light, hot, and spacious. The full-length swimming pool has divided lanes, and there are several boys that are hanging out by the pool’s edge. You spot a man who seems to be a bit older than the other boys on the bench and cautiously make your way over to him.
The man is poring over a dry-erase clipboard. You cough a little so as to not startle him, then speak up. “Hello, um—”
The man looks up, and his brow furrows a bit. “Hello.”
“I’m, uh, Y/N,” you introduce yourself. “Professor Yang contacted you about letting me draw some of your athletes?”
The man’s face lights up at the mention of Professor Yang’s name. “Ah yes! I’m Lee Minhyuk, the coach. Nice to meet you, I’m honoured you chose to draw our athletes.”
“I actually didn’t choose—” you bite your lip to stop yourself and reword your thoughts “—I’m very grateful you’re letting me sit in on your practices.”
“Oh, it’s no problem at all,” Coach Lee assures you. “Is there anything in particular you need my athletes to do?”
Your eyes drift over to the group of boys by the poolside. A couple of them had noticed you talking with Coach Lee and were watching with vague interest. “Not that I can think of, no. I need practice capturing motion in my drawings, so I was hoping to sketch one of them as they… do laps or something?”
Coach Lee laughs. “Of course.” He turns his attention to the group and raises his voice. “Chan! Come on over here.”
One of the athletes raises his head and makes his way towards you. You can feel your heart drop to your stomach at his appearance: frizzy curly dark hair, full lips. He isn’t wearing a black sweatshirt like the last time you saw him—instead he’s donned very tight black swim shorts that reach just above his knee. There’s nothing about his body that can be left to the imagination: his chest and abs are well-defined, and you suspect from looking at his shoulders that his back is quite built as well. You can feel your lips parting and snap your mouth shut quickly, feeling the burn of a blush in your cheeks.
Your mystery saviour—Chan—reaches you and Coach Lee. “What’s up, Coach?”
“Chan, I’d like you to meet Y/N. Y/N, this is Bang Chan. He’s our best swimmer here—if you’re looking to draw someone with good form, he’s your guy.” Coach Lee turns to address Chan. “Y/N’s an art student. They need to practice capturing motion in their drawings, so their mentor directed them to us in order for them to work on their sketches.”
Chan makes a small o with his lips and nods. He extends a hand to you. “Nice to meet you, Y/N.”
You take his hand and shake it. His grip on your hand is firm but gentle. “Nice to meet you too, Chan.”
“You’ll have more time to get to know each other after training, if you want,” Coach Lee says. “But right now my athletes need to practice. Y/N, are you alright with sitting up in the stands to sketch? Chan will be in lane three today.”
You nod, glancing back at the rows of metal seats. “That should be okay.”
“Do you need me for anything before I start swimming?” Chan asks.
You shake your head and very quickly do a once-over of his body to… check his proportions. “I shouldn’t have any problem sketching you when you’re in the water.”
Chan nods. “I’ll be on my way then. Nice meeting you, Y/N.”
With that, Chan turns around and heads back towards the pool. You watch him walk away, and yes, his back is just as built as his front. You try to shake yourself out of your daze—after all, you’d drawn nude models before. Why is seeing Chan in swim shorts any different? This is still an assignment, related to school. You can be professional about this. You have to be professional about this. Your Masters acceptance depends on it.
With renewed determination, you turn and climb a little ways up into the stands. After getting yourself settled, you pull out your sketchbook and a pencil before looking at the water. The boys had begun swimming, and you find the lane marked with a three at the end, scanning the water for Chan. He’s about three-quarters of the way down the lane by the time you find him, and your hand rests on the sketchbook as you watch him.
How Chan manages to propel himself through the water so smoothly is beyond you. You watch his arms as they rotate through the water, the tips of his fingers always reaching the highest and furthest distance above and in front of him before reaching down into the water and pulling. He didn’t seem to be rushed or floundering—his movements aren’t hurried or short, like you’d assumed they’d be. He’s graceful. You didn’t even know it was possible to be graceful in competitive swimming.
You blink, remembering your sketchbook on your lap, and adjust your grip on your pencil. You watch Chan—thankfully, since his strokes through the water were nearly identical to one another, you wouldn’t need to worry about trying to recall back to one particular moment. You choose a moment in his cycle where his hand is reaching forward but hasn’t penetrated the surface of the water yet, take a mental photo, and duck your head down to begin sketching. You glance up every now and then, watching Chan for a couple of seconds before continuing your sketch.
You’re not sure how long the practice lasts for, but when you break out of your daze at the sound of Coach Lee’s whistle, you have three semi-detailed sketches of Chan in different positions. As you make your way down to the pool’s level, the boys all get out and file towards the showers. Chan is at the back of the line, and he catches sight of you and breaks away from the group to come over to you. “How did your sketching go?”
“It went alright for a first try, I think,” you reply. “Would you like to see?”
Chan tugs the swim cap off his head and nods, so you open up your sketchbook and turn it towards him. His eyes widen as he looks at the drawings you did. “Wow.”
“They’re, um, not finished, obviously,” you say hurriedly, suddenly bashful about letting him see your work when it was still incomplete. “But with more practice, I think they might be decent. You’re a beautiful swimmer—it’s hard to give your movement justice, but I’ll do my best.”
The tips of Chan’s ears flush pink. “Ey, no no no. I just really like swimming. But you—you’re really talented, Y/N. I think your sketches are great.”
You smile. “Thank you.” Your eyes fall on the towel thrown around his shoulders, and you sigh in disappointment with yourself. “I’m sorry I don’t have your shirt.”
Chan shrugs and rakes a hand through his hair. “It’s all good—we didn’t know we’d be seeing each other.”
“Still—I feel bad.”
Chan tilts his head. “Do you want to arrange a time to meet up so that you can give it back?”
You nod. “Yeah, that would be good. What does your schedule look like?”
“Uh…” Chan trails off and looks around the pool. “I’m kind of busy with… all of this, but I should be free on Friday afternoon. I can text you a time once I look at my schedule, but I have to check my phone, which is… in my locker.”
You nod. “That works for me. I should probably let you go shower now.”
Chan smiles. “I don’t mind.”
You smile back at him and turn, walking towards the exit. You get about halfway there when you hear Chan call your name.
You turn. He’s still standing where you left him. “Are you… coming back? To do more sketches?”
“Uh… I think I should be,” you call back. “This is the best time for my schedule so I’ll probably be back here at the same time next week?”
“Oh, okay.” Chan pauses. “I don’t mind if like—you want me to come in at other times to fit with your schedule. I tend to hang around the pool a lot anyway, it wouldn’t be a bother.”
You smile. “Okay. Thanks, Chan.” Chan waves, and you wave in return before continuing out of the pool; you make the decision to drop by Professor Yang’s office to give him an update and to see what he thinks about your schedule going forward.
Ten minutes later, you receive a text from Chan with a couple of different dates and times that he’s free. You choose one at random and text it back to him, which gets you a smiley face in return. Since you’re just arriving at Professor Yang’s door, you can’t respond to him. Just as you raise your hand to knock on the door, it opens, and you’re face to face with… Jeongin?
You’re so surprised you can’t find your words. Jeongin meets your eyes, and you notice that his face is red, his eyes watery. Is he upset?
Before you can ask your friend what’s going on, he frowns, avoids your gaze, and brushes past you, clearly not in the mood for conversation. You don’t notice that the door was left open until you hear Professor Yang’s voice from inside. “Y/N?”
You blink back to reality and step inside the office, leaving your worries about Jeongin outside. “Hello Professor. I know we didn’t have a meeting time scheduled, but I just wanted to drop by and say that I finished my first session.”
Professor Yang hums. “Good. I’m glad. And you’re going to continue attending those practices?”
You nod. “I was wondering how long I need to attend them for, just to get an idea of… timelines.”
“Until I see you’ve improved,” Professor Yang replies. “If I see you’re making no progress with the swimmers after a month or so, we can try to arrange for you to sketch a different sport. Does that sound agreeable?”
You nod. “That works. Thanks again for setting this up for me.”
Professor Yang smiles. “It’s no trouble at all, Y/N. You deserve to have your talents nourished—I don’t believe you’ve ‘peaked’ in terms of artistic ability yet, but what you’re showing now is promising enough for me to want to help you.”
“Thank you,” you reply. “I’ll leave you for now, then.”
Professor Yang smiles at you, and you step back outside, glancing in the direction you’d seen Jeongin walk off in. He was nowhere in sight, and you wonder what he was doing in Professor Yang’s office.
You don’t try to ask Jeongin what happened in Professor Yang’s office—not that he’d given you much opportunity to anyways. You barely saw him in the next week. Seungmin told you he wasn’t feeling well, and when you texted him a get well soon message, his replies were short and somewhat curt. You didn’t hold it against him, though. People behaved differently when they were sick.
Jeongin’s absence meant you were stuck third-wheeling with Lily and Seungmin, which wouldn’t have been that bad if they weren’t so oblivious to each other’s feelings. You had to sit through all the secret glances, the wistful sighs they thought the other didn’t hear, the awkwardly shy moments that would arise whenever one of them initiated physical contact with the other. Sure, it was endearing to a point, but you also couldn’t believe they couldn’t see it. They must have some idea that the other person liked them as more than a friend. The mutual pining was almost too much for you to bear.
You were incredibly relieved when the day arrived for you to meet Chan, because it meant that you could escape your best friends’ sappy slow-burn antics. The night before, you place Chan’s shirt by the door so you remember to take it. It smelled like your laundry detergent now, since you washed it, but it was in one piece.
Now, as you sit waiting for Chan, you check your texts with him to confirm the time and place: 3 o’clock in the main quad. It was 3 o’clock. You glance around before taking a seat on the bench. You are in the main quad, unless your university had unearthed a different main quad that you didn’t know about. And Chan is nowhere in sight.
[3:03pm] hey, i’m on a bench in the main quad, if you’re looking for me
You bounce your leg nervously. Did he ditch you? Purposefully not show up? He didn’t seem like the type of person who would do that, but then again, you barely knew anything about him.
[3:12pm] is this a way of telling me i should keep the shirt? lol
[3:20pm] i don’t think i got the dates mixed up… did i?
[3:25pm] maybe we should reschedule for another time? or i can give you back the shirt when i come to your practice
You check the time on your phone again and sigh. 3:28pm. Chan clearly wasn’t coming. You stand and frown, looking down at your bag. “You’re causing me a lot of trouble, you know,” you remark to no one in particular. “Got my hopes up for nothing.”
Your head jerks up, and you catch sight of Chan. He’s running towards you from across the quad. Running. Nearly in a full-out sprint. To see you.
Other students give Chan odd looks as his pace slows to a jog the closer he gets to you. When he finally reaches you, he rests his hands on his hips and rocks from side to side on his feet. His chest is heaving, and after a couple of seconds of silence you find your words.
“Did you run all the way here? Where were you?”
Chan nods. “Athletics. I—lost track of time. Sorry.”
You stare at him. “You ran here from across campus?”
Chan nods again but doesn’t respond, and you realize his hair isn’t frizzy and curly, but rather slicked back away from his forehead, the dark locks wet. He smells slightly like chlorine—had he jumped out of the pool and ran to see you? “Yeah. I wasn’t even sure if you were still here, but I’m glad you are. And I’m sorry for making you wait.”
“It’s okay. Do you… want to sit down? Running that far must be tiring.”
“It’s a bit different than swimming in a pool, for sure,” Chan laughs as he sits down. His breathing had evened out by now; you couldn’t believe he looked fine when he had just run across campus.
“You could have texted me, and then walked. Or I could have met you halfway,” you say.
Chan nods. “I guess I could have… it didn’t really come to mind. I was just thinking about the fastest way to get to you.”
“You miss your shirt that much?”
Chan laughs. “Sure.”
You laugh and open your bag, rifling through it to find the shirt. The more you search, the more your brow furrows. “Wait.” You go through the contents of your bag one more time, your movements getting more frantic. “Oh, you have got to be kidding me.”
You turn shamefully to Chan. “You’re going to hate me for making you run. I can’t find your shirt.”
“It’s not in your bag?” Chan’s voice is more amused than anything.
“No, it’s not. What on earth did I do with it?” You think back to the night before: you had definitely put Chan’s shirt by the door to remember taking it. And this morning, you had woken up (late), breezed through your routine and… left. Without taking Chan’s shirt. You smack your forehead. “Ugh, I’m stupid. I put it by the door last night to remember to take it, but I woke up late this morning so I forgot to actually put it in my bag before I left.”
“Hey, it’s all good.” Chan shrugs. “Like I’ve said, I don’t mind if you keep it.”
“But I mind. It’s not mine, it’s yours.”
Chan shakes his head and smiles. “You can do whatever you want with it. You could even sleep it in if you want.”
“I’d only sleep in someone else’s shirt if I was dating them,” you tell him. “That’s a thing that couples do.”
“It is?” Chan’s brow furrows. “Huh. I did not know that.”
“You didn’t?” Your eyebrows raise in amusement. “How did you not know?”
Chan shrugs. “I haven’t dated anyone before.”
“Really?” You sit back on the bench. “I wasn’t expecting that.”
“Do I look like someone who dates a lot?”
You glance at him. “I mean—I get the feeling a lot of people think you’re attractive.”
“Really?” Chan looks down at his body in surprise, like he’s evaluating his physical appearance for the first time. “I haven’t really thought about that. I mean, I guess… people might flirt with me sometimes, but I haven’t dated.”
“Why not? You don’t have to tell me, but I’m just curious.”
“I haven’t found anyone who catches my eye, I guess,” Chan replies slowly. “Plus, swimming takes up a lot of my time.”
You nod. “Makes sense.” The two of you sit in silence for a couple of seconds before you sigh. “I seriously can’t believe I forgot your shirt. I feel bad for cutting your practice short for no reason.”
“Oh I didn’t have practice. I was just swimming because I had some free time.” Chan shifts on the bench, making you look at him. “Hey, speaking of swimming. How’s your sketching going?”
“Oh, that?” You glance towards your sketchbook in your bag. “It’s going alright, I think. I mean, I’ve just been adding more detail to the three sketches that I did of you last week.”
“Is it for a project?”
“For a portfolio, yeah. I want to apply to a Masters program, but I need more practice drawing different types of things. I usually do portraits, still life… stuff where the subject isn’t moving.”
Chan’s lips form an o as he nods. “That’s really cool. I mean, I don’t know much about art, but it’s sweet that you have something you’re passionate about.”
You smile. “Thanks.”
“Can I…” Chan ducks his head to stare at his lap, apparently bashful. “Is it weird if I ask to watch you as you sketch?”
You cock your head to the side. “Watch me… as I draw something?”
“Yeah. Like, just to get an idea of how you work.” Chan plays with his hands a bit. “That sounds really weird now that I say it out loud, sorry.”
“I mean, it’s better than hearing I’m an artist and immediately asking me to draw you,” you reply. “I’ve never had anyone ask to watch me as I work, but… I could try it out.” You stand, grabbing your bag and putting it over your shoulder. “Come on.”
Chan stares up at you. “Right now?”
“Yeah. Unless you have plans—I’m free.”
A slow smile spreads across Chan’s face. His dimples make an appearance. “Okay. Let’s go.”
You walk with Chan by your side. You didn’t have a destination in mind, but your feet take you to the edge of the campus, where a river flows and gurgles quietly in the late afternoon sun. It’s a place you’d discovered towards the end of first year, but you hadn’t returned to sketch here since last spring. You’d become too occupied with assignments in class to draw for fun.
You plop down on the grass and pull out your sketchbook as Chan settles down next to you, and stare across the river to the trees on the opposite bank. “I haven’t been here in a long time.”
You shrug as you open your sketchbook and pull out pencils. “Haven’t had the time.”
Chan hums next to you, but falls silent as you put your pencil to the paper. You begin roughly sketching the edge of the river, the stones and the grass, the way the roots of the trees are entangled in the earth and each other. Your vision zeroes in on your sketchbook as you draw, and you forget that Chan’s next to you until you feel the warmth of his body as he leans in to look. “Wow.”
“It would be better if I had my paints with me,” you mumble. “When I sketch it in pencil you can’t tell what season it is.”
Chan’s shoulder bumps yours as he shrugs. “You’re still talented. If I tried to draw that, it would end up looking like stick figures. No pun intended.”
You snort as you sit up to stretch your back. “I don’t think you’re that bad at drawing.”
“You haven’t seen me draw. Swimming is the one thing I know I’m good at.”
You glance at him. “You’ve been swimming for a long time, huh?”
“Yeah. As long as I can remember.”
“Wow. Have you ever… tried doing anything else? Or finding out what else you liked?”
“I thought I didn’t need to.” Chan laughs drily. You detect some bitterness in his tone. “But I guess I was wrong. All the people who swim with me want to go to the Olympics. They don’t just swim because they love it, they swim because they want to become world-famous and be known for their athletic ability. I just… like swimming.”
You look at him again, confused. “But you’re a great swimmer. I don’t know much about swimming but… shouldn’t it be a good thing that you have the possibility to get paid for something you love doing?”
“You’d think that,” Chan sighs. “I know it’s not like this for everyone, but I find that if I’m forced to do something I love over and over again, even when I’m not in the mood for it… it kind of ruins the fun of doing it.”
You nod slowly. “I get that. I guess… sometimes painting isn’t as fun as I originally thought it was. It’s easy to do something when you don’t know anything about how to do it, and it’s so much harder to do the thing you like when you know how to do it. Or what you’re supposed to do to make it good.”
Chan nods. “Yeah.” He looks down at your sketchbook again. “You said you did portraits too?”
You blink. “Uh, yeah. A couple.” You flip through the pages of your sketchbook absently.
Chan sticks out a hand to mark a page. “Can I see that?”
You open it to the page he chose; you’d done some doodles a while back to practice facial features individually. You had sketched different types of eyes, noses, and lips.
“Wow.” Chan shifts so he’s closer to you and leans in to look at the page. His shoulder presses against yours. “Those are so detailed.”
“I was just messing around. I didn’t have a reference.”
“I wasn’t looking at someone’s face while I was drawing, so I couldn’t check to see how accurate or consistent I was.”
“Oh. I guess it’s easier with a reference, then.”
“Yeah, way easier. Like, if I was going to draw you, for example, I could just look up at your face whenever I needed to, like—” You look up and fall silent as your eyes meet Chan’s. His pupils are warm and dark, watching you sincerely. His shoulder is still pressing against yours, his face centimeters from yours. You swallow. “Like that. I’d look at whatever part of your face I needed to draw.”
“So if you needed to draw my lips, or if I could draw and I wanted to draw your lips…” Chan trails off as his eyes fall downward on your lips. Your eyes fall to his lips as well. They’re pretty. Full, pink, soft. Kissable. You feel your own lips part slightly as you stare at his mouth.
Chan hasn’t moved away from you at all. The warmth from his shoulder is now a heat that fuses the two of your bodies together, and you realize that if either he or you leans in, your foreheads would be touching. Then, it wouldn’t be long before your lips touched. You could kiss him right now. He could kiss you, if he wanted to.
You close your mouth and bring your gaze back up to his eyes. “I’d look at your lips.”
Chan blinks and pulls back from you a little bit. “Right.” He smiles. “It must be nice, getting to stare at pretty people all day.”
You smile back at him. “I hope you’re including yourself in that. I always make sure my subjects are attractive.”
Chan’s ears burn bright pink as he scoffs. He shifts away from you to bury his head in his arms. “I—hey, that was really smooth.”
You laugh, bumping his shoulder as he giggles. You find yourself missing his warmth.
Maybe it wasn’t a bad idea to keep his T-shirt for a little longer.
The next week or so passes uneventfully. You attend another one of Chan’s practices, starting rough sketches of him in different poses and adding more details to the ones you already had. It was truly fantastic to watch him swim—he moved through the water with such ease and relaxation. You could tell he was in the water because he loved it, not because he wanted to improve his times or become a better athlete. It didn’t stop him from finishing first every time, though.
The rest of your classes are mundane as usual. Jeongin was back on campus now, with the same positive attitude as always. You figured you probably shouldn’t bring up the run-in with him at Professor Yang’s office—it really wasn’t any of your business. The two of you shared glances whenever Seungmin and Lily had some sweet moment that neither of them were aware of. One time, Seungmin held Lily’s hands after she dropped something, and both you and Jeongin swore he held on to her for longer than necessary. Lily had gushed to you about the incident afterwards, about how it was so sweet of him to be worried about her like that, how nice his hands felt, and how it made her crush on him so much worse. You responded by reiterating to her that he liked her, and she immediately shut you down. It was incredible how stubborn she was being.
One day, after you finish your last class and check your phone, you see someone’s texted you. Your brow furrows at the contact name: Text for a New Shirt. You open the text and laugh, because it’s from Chan. You’d forgotten to change his contact name.
After fixing Chan’s contact name in your phone, you check to see what he asked.
[3:45pm] Chan: are you free this evening?
[4:35pm] i just got out of my last class! sorry for not responding earlier
You’d barely stepped out of the classroom when you feel your phone vibrate with a new text.
[4:37pm] Chan: it’s all good, no worries
[4:37pm] Chan: i was thinking we could meet up, if you want more practice sketching me
[4:37pm] you’re free now?
[4:38pm] Chan: yep! i’m in the pool, as usual lol
[4:38pm] are you texting me while you’re in the water?
[4:40pm] Chan: oh yeah i forgot to tell you, i’m secretly aquaman. electronics obey my will to stay dry, so i’m actually texting you from the bottom of the pool
You snort as you step outside and make your way to the Athletics building.
[4:42pm] i’d say don’t drown, but since you’re aquaman, you clearly don’t have to worry about that. i’m omw
When you arrive at the pool ten minutes later, Chan isn’t in the water. He’s sitting in the stands beside the pool, a towel around his neck as he looks down at his phone. You snicker. “What happened to texting me from the bottom of the pool?”
Chan’s head whips up to look at you, and he smiles. “Oh right. Y’know, I’d been in there for too long. My fingers were starting to get wrinkly and it was hard to type.”
“Right.” You sit down next to him. “How’s your day been?”
“Eh.” Chan shrugs. “Had some classes, did some swimming… It was alright. How was yours?”
“Same as usual, I guess,” you reply, staring at the pool. “Not too eventful, other than classes.” You glance over at him. “Do you want me to sketch you now, or…?”
“Oh yeah, the sketching.” Chan stands up and tosses the towel to the stands beside you, leaving him in his swim shorts. He makes his way over to the side of the pool and lowers himself in before turning around in the water and facing you. “Do you want me to do anything?”
You shrug. “You can do… whatever you normally do? I just need you to be moving as I sketch you.”
Chan nods and positions himself against the side of the pool. He takes a deep breath before pushing off, swimming down the length of the pool with a butterfly stroke. You watch him intently, analyzing how he moves through the water.
After Chan does one lap of the pool, he pauses against the wall and glances at you. Then, he does a slow front crawl over to the side, in front of you, and crosses his arms on the deck so he’s holding himself up. “How’s it going?”
“Good.” You set your pencil down on the bench. “Getting lonely in there?”
Chan smiles softly. “It would be a lot more fun if you were in here with me.”
You look down at yourself—you’re fully dressed, definitely not preparing to cannonball into the pool. “I’m not exactly equipped for swimming right now. Not everyone can be Aquaman, you know.”
Chan shrugs. “True, but you can go swimming without anything on.”
You arch an eyebrow. “What are you implying, Chan?”
“I—hey!” Chan waves his hands at you in denial, a light dusting of pink across his cheeks. He can’t meet your eyes, instead choosing to look down at the deck. “Hey, hey, hey, hey! I’m not implying anything! I’m just saying that—for some people, it is possible to go swimming without anything on!”
The fact that you managed to fluster him pleases you more than you’d admit. “But you said ‘you’. As in me. So you can’t blame me for thinking you’re implying something.”
“If I wanted to see you naked I wouldn’t ask you to skinny-dip,” Chan mumbles. Your eyes widen and you let out an exhale of laughter, and Chan stares at you like a deer caught in headlights. “Oh my gosh, you heard that, I’m so sorry. I’m just gonna—go. I’m just gonna—yeah. See ya.”
Chan sinks underwater, bubbles popping on the surface as he presumably collects himself below the surface. You let out a full laugh at his actions. “I can’t sketch you if you’re hiding from me, come back!”
It takes several seconds before Chan pops back up from underwater. He’s holding himself up by his fingertips on the deck—the only part of him visible to you is the top of his head and his eyes. “That was awkward.”
You shrug, still smiling. “It’s only awkward if you make it awkward.”
Chan sighs and hoists himself up so his arms are crossed on the deck again. There’s a healthy blush on his face from his embarrassment, but you choose not to comment on it. He meets your eyes. “If your sketchbook wasn’t in your lap right now I’d splash you.”
You hold your sketchbook up like a shield. “I’m so grateful for you,” you tell the paper. Chan snorts, and you peek out at him from behind your shield. “Are you going to splash me if I come closer?”
You set down your sketchbook cautiously and approach the side of the pool. You crouch on the deck beside Chan and eye him suspiciously. “Are you sure?”
Chan extends a pinky finger. “I’m sure.”
You reach out with your own pinky, but quick as a flash, Chan cups his hand and tosses upwards towards your body, sprinkling you with water. Your mouth drops open indignantly. “Hey!” Chan cracks up, and you frown. “That’s it.” You reach over and grab his arms, pushing him off the pool deck and pressing momentarily on his head so he sinks beneath the water.
Chan only stays underwater for two seconds before reemerging. He has a massive smile on his face. “Sorry, sorry, I couldn’t resist.”
You pout. “This is the worst betrayal ever. Just when I thought you’d be nice.”
Chan rests on the side of the pool for a second, then hoists himself out of the water. You watch him as he walks over to the stands and grabs his towel, then looks expectantly at you. “Come here.”
Your eyes narrow. “You won’t push me in or something?”
“No, no. I promise I won’t.”
You sigh and stand up, meeting him halfway. Chan examines your face before reaching up with the hand that’s holding the towel and carefully dabbing at your skin. Your heart skips a beat at how soft his touch is. You meet his eyes; he’s watching you attentively, making sure he’s getting every part of your face that got wet. Then, when he’s finished, he gently takes your wrist and dries your arm as well.
You notice he has an eyelash on his cheek. “You could have dried yourself off first.”
“The towel would have been wet and of no use to you if I’d done that.”
You nod. “Hold still.”
You reach up, your fingers brushing the side of his face. You see his gaze soften, his lips parting slightly as you brush his cheekbone with your index finger, capturing the eyelash. You hold your finger in front of his face. “Eyelash.”
“Oh.” Chan stares at your finger for a long while before blowing the eyelash away. “There. Made a wish.”
“What’d you wish for?”
Chan shakes his head and bites his lip. “Can’t tell you. Otherwise it won’t come true.”
“Right, right.” You stare at the pool for a bit. A thought creeps into your mind, and you smile mischievously. “Hey Chan, about earlier?”
You make sure you’re closer to your sketchbook before you speak. “Doesn’t looking at things underwater make them appear thirty-three percent bigger?”
You’re pretty sure your laughter can be heard outside the pool when Chan kicks at the water. The blush is back on his cheeks in full force, and you think he looks pretty when he’s embarrassed.
You attend Chan’s swim practices regularly as the weeks go on. Chan also lets you know he’s free several other days in the week at the same time as you, so the two of you meet up. Chan always swims for around half an hour while you sketch him before stopping and resting on the side of the pool. The two of you spend more time talking than swimming and sketching, but he wasn’t about to admit that to Coach Lee or Professor Yang, who think that the two of you are spending time together to improve your chances of getting into a Masters program and Chan’s swim times.
Chan secretly looks forward to these sessions, because they help him forget about his worries. But sometimes, real life creeps up on him. Like now, when Chan is floating on his back in the pool and you’re absently sketching in the stands. The deadline intrudes on his thoughts like someone dropping dye into water. It colours his thoughts and taints how calm he feels. He rightens himself and frowns, then swims over to the side of the pool and crosses his arms on the deck.
You, of course, hear him begin to swim and look up from your sketchbook. “Done for today?”
Chan shrugs halfheartedly. “I guess so.”
You nod and look back down at the sketchbook. “I guess you were in there for longer than normal… you barely even swam.” You look up. “Something on your mind?”
Chan thinks it’s incredible how you can notice something’s off without him having to say anything. Your attentiveness makes his chest swell with some emotion he can’t pinpoint as he struggles to find his words. “There’s a… swim meet on the weekend.”
You nod, allowing him to think through his thoughts for a second before asking, “Is this swim meet special, or different than the other ones you’ve had?”
Chan nods. Coach Lee’s words echo in his head from his last practice, and he recites them to you. “This is one where a lot of scouts will be present. The person who comes in first overall… it’s nearly guaranteed they’ll be asked to join an agency when they graduate.”
“And you’re worried because your graduation is so close,” you infer. “Would being signed to an agency be good or bad?”
“I don’t know,” Chan sighs. “It’s supposed to be what I want. Everyone here on this team wants it. But…”
Chan trails off, and stares at the tiled deck in front of him. He’s never spoken about his swimming worries with anyone before. Would you judge him? Think he’s being stuck-up or selfish for turning down a solid career opportunity just because it’s not what he wants, even though he was nearly guaranteed to achieve it? What was wrong with him? Why couldn’t he be happy with doing what he loves, what he’s good at, for a career?
Chan blinks to focus. You’re touching his arm, crouched in front of him on the pool deck. “Got a lot on your mind, huh?”
“Yeah,” he sighs. “Sorry.”
You smile gently. “That’s alright. Do you want my advice?”
“If you have to convince yourself that this will be good for you, it probably won’t be,” you state. “Like, yes, sometimes we have to tell ourselves that completing tasks we hate will be good for us, but… that’s for stuff like doing laundry or taxes or short-term goals. Not for career choices. You don’t want to be stuck with a job you can already see yourself disliking.”
Chan stares up at you for five long seconds. “You’re a genius.”
You snort, but Chan can see the corners of your mouth twitch up. “Oh please. No way.”
“No, you really are,” Chan says earnestly. “That makes so much sense.”
“You really think so?”
“I know so.” Chan kicks and hoists himself out of the water, then turns and sits on the pool deck with his legs still in the water. “Thank you, seriously.”
Chan keeps his eyes on the ripples across the surface of the water. “Do you… want to come to the meet?”
“Am I allowed to go?” The surprise in your voice is evident.
“It’s technically open to the public, but not very many people know about it unless they’re involved in the sport.” Chan can feel his body getting warmer, his heart doing gymnastics in his chest as he opens his mouth again. “And… I’d probably feel better about swimming if I knew you were there.”
He’s never asked anyone to watch him swim before. He’s not even sure why he asked you. All he knew was that he wanted you to see him compete and be there no matter what the result was.
“Hmm, alright.” Your tone is light, agreeable. “I’ll need practice drawing other people in action, so…”
Chan sighs. “Don’t tell me you’re going to the meet just to watch everyone but me.”
“I might,” you tease. Chan sticks his bottom lip out in a pout, and you laugh. “Kidding, kidding. I’ll be there for you.”
Chan feels himself brighten at your words. I’ll be there for you. Not for anyone else, or to draw—for him. He liked the sound of that. “Great. You can bring your friends too, if you want. Just as long as I know you’re watching me.”
Chan could have a thousand pairs of eyes on him at the meet, but now that he knew you were coming, that didn’t matter. The scouts didn’t matter, his coach didn’t matter, his teammates didn’t matter.
What mattered was you.
Chan makes sure to send you the details of the swim meet times as soon as he gets his phone out of his locker. On the day of the swim meet, as he’s arriving at the recreational centre that’s hosting the event, he feels his phone buzz with a text. Chan checks his lockscreen, and smiles when he sees your name in the notification bar.
[1:43pm] y/n: hey chan, i know you’re going to be busy competing in a little bit, but i just wanted to say good luck! whatever the result, i’ll be there for you 🤍
Chan feels his cheeks warm as he stares at your second sentence. You’d never sent a heart emoji to him before. Did that mean something?
Did he want it to mean something?
Chan blinks as someone slaps his back in greeting. He looks up to see Hyunjin standing next to him. “Hey dude, how are you feeling?”
“Not bad,” Chan smiles. “How are you feeling?”
Hyunjin shrugs. “Y’know, pre-competition butterflies.” His eyes land on Chan’s phone. “Good luck texts? Saying your last goodbyes?”
“Something like that, yeah.” Chan glances down at his phone and types you a quick response, telling you to wait for him after his events are over. He shuts his phone off and tosses it into his bag, then turns to Hyunjin. “You ready?”
The next half hour or so is a blur—there are so many different universities attending this meet, so the change rooms are bustling with activity. Chan gets ready and is whisked away to his first event. He doesn’t even have time to look in the stands to find you in the crowd before the swimmers are signaled to climb on their starting blocks, and then the event begins. Chan’s body goes on autopilot, driving him through the water so quickly he barely even realizes he’s finished when his hands tap the wall. He looks up at the timekeeping board to confirm; he’s in first place. At any other meet, he would be content; but today, he frowns.
He has a different plan for the outcome of this meet.
Chan has five different events he needs to compete in, and for every single one, he makes sure to slow down. He doesn’t want to come in last place—that would raise too much suspicion. But if he takes a little bit longer on his turnaround times when he reaches the end of the length, and makes his strokes a bit slower than usual to make it seem like he’s tired… he might finish in second place.
The next three events go according to plan—Chan finishes second in all of them, and smiles inwardly at the surprise on his competitors’ faces when they realize they’ve beaten him. Just before his final event, he glances at the stands one last time, just to see if he can find you.
And find you he does—you’re up towards the back of the stands, sketchbook held to your front, biting your bottom lip. Chan smiles and raises his hand in a small wave.
You see him and smile, waving back excitedly. Chan’s heart skips a beat at the look on your face, and his smile grows even bigger. He’s giddy; your excitement is infectious, and he damn near giggles when you give him a thumbs-up.
Someone blows a whistle, and Chan has to shake the smile off his face as he takes his place on the starting block. His cheeks feel warm and his limbs are coursing with newfound adrenalin at the knowledge that you really are watching him. The second whistle sounds, and Chan starts.
Usually, when Chan swims, his mind goes blank. He doesn’t focus on anything but the feeling of the water, his breathing, and the tap of his fingers against the walls to indicate he’s done his length. Today, while he’s swimming, he’s thinking of you. The way your gaze softens when you smile at him, how you’re always beside the pool when he swims. You make Chan feel calmer, more at ease. The lengths of the pool blur together, and time collapses in on itself until he feels his fingers touch the end of the pool. Chan stops, hangs from the pool deck, and looks into the stands.
You’re watching him. Cheering for him. Chan feels his chest swell again and he breaks out in a massive grin. He’s not sure, but he thinks you lock eyes with him, and your smile grows a little wider too.
It’s not until Chan’s out of the pool that he remembers to look at the timekeeping board. His name is at the top, but he doesn’t mind. It was worth it if it made you smile like that.
As Chan is heading back to the change room, eager to get his phone from his locker and text you, Coach Lee pops up into his field of vision. “Chan! What happened today?” His tone isn’t friendly or cheerful. Coach Lee is genuinely confused. “The first and last races were what I expected of you, but the other three? Did something go wrong?”
Chan forces a reassuring smile on his face. “I’m not sure what it was, coach. I just… couldn’t push myself enough, I guess.”
Coach Lee blinks in surprise. “Chan, what’s going on? This isn’t like you. I’ve had to field several questions from scouts about your times today. Everyone was expecting you to finish first, but it’s Hyunjin instead.”
“They want me instead of Hyunjin?” Chan frowns. “Aren’t the scouts supposed to only extend offers to the people who came in first from their schools?”
“Well… they’ll take Hyunjin because he came in first, but they want you, Chan,” Coach Lee sighs. “You’re more reliable with your times than Hyunjin—at least until today.”
“I think you should tell Hyunjin he got the offers, and tell the scouts I won’t be accepting any of their offers, no matter what they promise,” Chan says. He can feel a weight lift off of his chest as he speaks. “They can take Hyunjin or anyone else, but I’d prefer to not sign to an agency right now.”
Coach Lee stares at him for a long while. He’s understandably speechless, and it’s not until Chan stops in front of the door to the change room that he speaks. “Very well. I have no idea what prompted you to make this decision—are you sure you won’t regret it?”
“I’m sure,” Chan replies firmly. “Thank you for understanding.”
He tugs open the door without waiting for his coach’s response, stepping into the change room and exhaling in relief. He did it. He wouldn’t have to worry about scouting, or becoming a better swimmer. The path in front of him was totally clear now. He could do anything he wanted, and the idea was freeing.
Chan opens his locker and pulls out his phone, turns it on and opens his messages. He clicks on your name and texts you to meet him outside of the recreation centre, then gets changed as fast as he can and makes his way out of the venue. After navigating his way through the hallways, he finds you by the doors, sitting on a bench outside.
Chan calls your name. You turn, smile, and stand up, coming closer to meet him halfway. “Hey! Great job on your events.”
Chan can’t respond for a few moments. He’s too caught up in the way you’re looking at him, like you mean everything to him. He wonders faintly if he’s looking at you in the same way.
Chan blinks. “Oh. Uh, thanks.”
You tilt your head inquiringly. “Did you get the agency offers?”
“Yeah. But I didn’t accept them.”
Your eyes widen. “Really? Why—why not?”
“Because of you.” Chan notes the way your eyes widen even more and adds, “Like, not because of you. Because of what you said to me. About not doing something if I have to convince myself it will be good.”
“Oh. Wow.” You look around, as if the answers to your questions can be found in the air around you. Chan thinks that your expression is adorable. “But that—won’t that impact your career? Your future?”
“Maybe,” Chan agrees. He knows that there should be a part of him that is worried about what to do for the future, but at the moment, he’s strangely calm. “I’ll figure something out. Maybe you can teach me how to draw.”
You smile. “Maybe.” Your eyes widen. “Oh right! I talked with my mentor today. He says I’ve improved enough on my motion, so I don’t have to sit in on your practices anymore.”
Chan’s heart twinges. He knows he should feel happier for you than he does. “So you’re… not coming to see me anymore?”
“Well, no.” You’re rummaging through your bag as you speak. “So, I have this for you.” You produce a black T-shirt—his T-shirt—from your bag. “I finally remembered it.”
Chan stares at his shirt. He can’t bring himself to reach out and take it. “I told you that you could keep it.”
“And I told you I don’t like owing people,” you reply, still holding the shirt out for him to take.
“You don’t owe me,” Chan insists. “You never owed me.”
“Chan. Please, take the shirt.”
Chan shakes his head. “No. It’s yours now.”
“Chan—I didn’t know you when I took this from you. It’ll always feel like a favour to me, something I have to repay. I know you said I don’t have to, but for my own peace of mind, I need to.”
You sound sadder now, your eyes downcast towards the concrete. Chan still doesn’t reach out to take the shirt. “But you know me now.”
That makes you look up at him. “What do you mean?”
“I mean”—Chan shuffles the weight on his feet and grips his duffle bag tighter, like he can steady himself with it—“I think we’ve gotten to know each other better over this past month. I want to keep seeing you, hanging out with you. And if I take that shirt back… I’ll feel like there’s no reason to see you anymore. Like this—whatever this is that we have—will disappear. I don’t want that to happen. So,” he takes a deep breath in, “if you want me to take the shirt back, I need you to promise that you won’t pretend there was nothing between us. Don’t forget about me, about… us. Can you promise me that?”
You stare at him for a couple of seconds. Your gaze is soft, and Chan wonders for a second if he had crossed a line, forcing you to create a connection with him when you didn’t want to. Then, you nod. “Yes.”
“Okay.” Chan reaches out and takes the shirt from you. His fingertips brush against yours in the process, and he wishes he could reach out and take your hand. He’s not entirely sure what’s stopping him, but he doesn’t. “Thank you.”
“No, thank you,” you deflect. “The shirt didn’t smell like you anymore anyways.”
Chan smiles. “Maybe one day I’ll give it to you as a gift.”
“Or you could just tell me where you got that cologne from,” you suggest.
“Hmm, nope,” Chan replies lightly. “I’ll keep it a mystery so you only get to smell it when you borrow my clothes.”
You giggle, and Chan feels his heart flutter. He thinks your laugh could easily become his favourite sound. “In your dreams, Chan. I’ve told you before: I’ll only borrow clothes if I’m dating you.”
“Right, right.” Chan refrains from saying anything else. “Do you have a way home?”
You nod. “I have to wait for the bus.”
He smiles. “Get home safe, Y/N.”
You move to walk past him, but as you do, you reach out and pat his shoulder. “You too, Chan. Great job today.”
Later on that night, when Chan goes to put his shirt in the drawer, he catches its scent. You were right—it no longer smelled like him. Instead, it smelled like you—warm, safe, comforting.
Chan glances at his phone. It was something he’d been doing all evening, ever since he’d gotten home from the meet. He wonders if you got home safe. He wishes he had asked you to text him when you did, just so he could have an excuse to talk to you again. He’d take any excuse to talk to you, to experience everything with you. And just before Chan falls asleep, a thought crosses his mind that makes his eyes blink open again.
Wasn’t that love?
Chan doesn’t have enough experience with being in love to answer that question, but he secretly hopes it is.
The week after Chan’s meet, you catch yourself walking in the direction of the Athletics building. It was odd, how the habit of walking across campus was so ingrained in you after a short month. Even when you shake yourself out of your daze and turn back around to head home, you feel a tug in your chest, like your feet wanted to walk towards the place you no longer needed to go.
It was sad, not seeing Chan. You hadn’t realized how much you were around him until you stopped seeing him, and now there was a kind of… hole in your chest. A small rip in the stocking that you knew would get bigger if you didn’t mend it soon. A longing to return to the familiar. Chan had become familiar to you, and it was so strange to leave the familiar behind.
You keep your promise for the next week. You don’t forget about Chan—you’re not sure you could forget about him if you tried. You find yourself looking for him in every person who wears black clothing, everyone with dark hair, everyone with a duffle bag. But you never see him.
Your friends can tell that your demeanour has changed. They don’t comment on it, but you catch the little glances between themselves, the nudges to get you to brighten up. And you do try. But then you remember that you wouldn’t be seeing Chan, and then you wilt again.
Jeongin pulls you aside one day and asks if you could help him set Lily and Seungmin up on an outing—in your absence he’d witnessed so many more instances of pining, and he was rightfully fed up with having to third wheel in an oblivious idiots-to-lovers trope. Both of you decide to invite them separately to a café just off of campus, and then not show up. It wasn’t ridiculously elaborate, but it was as good a scheme as any to ensure Lily and Seungmin spent time alone together. You needed to start somewhere.
On Sunday, the day of the surprise date, you text Lily after she says she’s arrived at the café to apologize, citing projects as a reason why you can’t meet her. After confirming with Jeongin that Seungmin had arrived at the café a little bit after Lily, you head out to spy on their outing. Jeongin was already at the café, having found a bench that’s hidden from the windows by some bushes, and when you arrive, he motions you over and pulls a pair of binoculars out of his bag.
You snort. “You came prepared, huh?”
“This is a monumental day. I want to make sure I can hold it over their heads forever, which means I have to capture every detail of their lovesick bullshit.” Jeongin holds the binoculars up to his eyes and looks through the bushes. He makes a retching sound. “Gross. Seungmin’s staring at her like a puppy already.”
“Let me see.” Jeongin passes you the binoculars and sure enough, Seungmin’s got stars in his eyes. You swear you can see him blushing. Lily has a healthy blush on her cheeks as well, and she can’t stop smiling. “Sheesh. They’d better thank us for this afterwards.”
“Seriously. I swear, if Seungmin rants to me one more time about how Lily’s too good for him, I’m going to smack him upside the head.”
You pass the binoculars back to Jeongin. “Are we going to be spying on them the whole time?”
“You spy on people?”
The new voice makes both you and Jeongin flinch, and oh no, you know that voice. You turn. Dark frizzy locks, full lips. Same dark clothing, same duffle bag. “Hey, Chan.”
Chan has an amused smile on his face, and you realize how peculiar you and Jeongin must look: crouched on a bench behind bushes, binoculars in hand, peering carefully through the foliage. “Hey Y/N.” His eyes drift over to Jeongin. “Who’s this?”
“Oh, uh, this is my friend Jeongin,” you introduce. “Jeongin, this is Chan, the athlete Professor Yang had me sketch.”
Jeongin does a once-over of Chan. “Oh, right. Hi.” Without waiting for your response or Chan’s, he stands up. “I just remembered… there was this charcoal thing that I needed to finish. It’s due next week—I’d better go work on it. I’ll probably get too sick of watching our lovebirds anyway.” He glances at Chan one more time. “Nice meeting you.”
“You too,” Chan replies. Jeongin collects his bag and heads off down the sidewalk, leaving you slightly befuddled. You hadn’t heard of this project of his before. Was it just an excuse?
Chan sits down on the bench next to you, effectively stopping your train of thought. “You still haven’t told me who you’re spying on.”
“I don’t spy on people.”
“Mmhmm.” Chan raises his eyebrows at you. “Sure. But today I just happen to catch you hiding behind a bush with a pair of binoculars? What a coincidence.”
“I’m serious!” you say. “I don’t spy on people regularly, you just happened to catch me the one time I was doing it. Our two friends have been into each other for so long, but neither of them wanted to ask out the other. Jeongin and I just set them up on a date, and we wanted to see how it was going.”
Chan makes an o with his lips. “Did they know it was supposed to be a date?” When you shake your head, he nods. “I see.”
The two of you sit in silence on the bench, and after a little bit, you speak hesitantly. “I’ve never seen you off campus before. Are you… around here a lot?”
“Not really, no. I just decided I’d go for a walk since I didn’t have training. It’s kind of wound down since the meet—we usually have a bit of time to relax after a competition like that.”
“Oh, I see. I haven’t really… swam, in a long time, so I don’t know what it feels like to do it competitively,” you ramble. “I just swim for fun, sometimes. Haven’t really got the chance to since I’m in school.”
“Do you want to swim now?”
You look at him. “What do you mean? Is anyone else going to be at the pool?”
Chan shakes his head and offers you a dimpled smile. “Technically it’s not open right now, but… I know where the keys are kept.”
You glance back towards the café one more time. Seungmin and Lily are holding hands now, Lily telling a story while Seungmin is staring at her intently. His gaze is soft, caring, sweet. You smile. “Okay. Let’s go.”
“Wait, really?” Chan’s voice is laced with surprise. “You really want to?”
“Why not?” You shrug. “It’s better than staying and watching these two. I’d just end up third-wheeling anyway.”
Chan beams at you as he stands. “Great, come on!” The smile on his face is contagious, and you find yourself smiling as you follow him back down the street towards campus.
Lily and Seungmin could have their moment to themselves. You were going to have yours.
You feel like a secret agent when Chan leads you into the recreational centre—there’s not even employees at the front desk. After rummaging behind the counter for a bit, Chan produces a spare set of keys, then unlocks the doors to the rest of the complex, and the two of you slip into the pool room. You listen to your footsteps echo against the walls and the ceiling as the two of you approach the stands. The water of the pool is like glass, smooth and untouched, a perfect reflection of the speckled tiles ceiling. Staring at the water makes you realize something. “Do you have… something to swim in?”
Chan shakes his head. “Nope. Do you?”
You’re both whispering, like you’re worried the room will record your conversation. You shake your head. “No. Won’t we… get in trouble for this?”
Chan contemplates for a second. “We might get in trouble. But honestly?” He glances at you. “I actually don’t kinda care.” You giggle at that, your laughter ringing off the walls and causing Chan to grin as well. “I’m serious! If I get to hang out with you, I don’t care.”
“So you like breaking the rules, huh?”
“I like hanging out with you,” Chan corrects you, walking over to the shallow end of the pool and sitting on the side. “Even if it means breaking into the pool and swimming with our clothes on.”
You smile and join him on the side, removing your footwear and taking the first step down the stairs that lead into the water. The water is cool and refreshing, not freezing like you imagined. You take a couple more steps into the water. “The temperature is nice.”
“Yeah,” Chan agrees. “Maybe they keep it a few degrees colder when I’m swimming so I move faster.” He lowers himself into the shallow end of the pool, dunking himself so his shoulders are underwater before standing back up.
You try to not let your eyes linger on the way his black T-shirt clings to his biceps and his chest, instead choosing to look down at the water in front of you. You make your way down the last couple of steps so your feet are flat on the bottom, then copy him and lower yourself further until everything up to your neck is underwater. Chan watches you the whole time. There’s a smile on his face, and his eyes are soft enough to make you ask, “What’s up?”
Chan shakes his head, the smile not leaving his face. “Nothing.”
You run your hands through the water, feeling the ripples through your fingertips. Your shirt floats up away from the part of your body that’s underwater, gathering at the surface. You reach down and play with it absently.
At the sound of splashing, you look up. Chan’s begun swimming towards the deeper end of the pool. He’s still facing you, but treading water so he’s moving backwards. “Wanna go deeper?”
You take a couple of steps forward before pausing. “Will you make fun of me if I don’t use proper technique and doggy paddle instead?”
Chan bites his lip, but it doesn’t stop a smile from spreading on his face. “No.”
You furrow your brow. “You’re already smiling at me; I don’t have a good feeling about this.”
Chan giggles, still treading water further backwards into the deep end. “No, no, no, I won’t laugh at you.”
You sigh and take more steps forwards, feeling the bottom of the pool begin to descend as you get closer to the deep end. When you get far enough down the edge, you begin swimming over to Chan, and as soon as you start to move, his face breaks out in a big smile. You pout as you swim closer, and Chan giggles. He actually begins laughing so hard he has to swim over to the side of the pool and hang on to the deck. You shout at him accusingly. “Hey!”
“I’m sorry—it’s just—” Chan tries to inhale and control his laughter, but continues cackling until his head is tilted upwards towards the ceiling. The back and top of his head is wet, his eyes scrunched shut and mouth open in glee. “It’s just—you’re so cute! You’re so cute, I haven’t seen anyone doggy-paddle in years, oh my gosh!”
You feel your cheeks burn as you finally make your way over to the wall he’s clinging to, hanging on to the tiles with your fingertips and scrunching up your face in disappointment at him. “Don’t make fun of me.”
To Chan’s credit, he does sober up somewhat. “Okay, okay. I’m sorry.” He giggles again, resting his forehead against the tiles and shaking it like he’s in a daze.
“You must be excited to see me struggle,” you sigh.
Chan shakes his head before looking at you. “I’m excited to be swimming with you.”
You feel your lips part in surprise as you really examine Chan. His hair is half dry and half wet, his T-shirt floating up in the water around him. His face is flushed from laughter, his eyes sparkling as he stares at you earnestly. It reminds you of the way Seungmin was looking at Lily earlier.
As you stare back at Chan, there’s a soft tug in your chest coupled with the realization that you want him to keep looking at you like that.
You offer him a soft smile before looking at the line where the water meets the side of the pool. “Well, at least I can provide comic relief.”
“Hey no, I think you can swim.” Chan pushes off from the side of the wall and treads water. “How about we have a race back to the shallow end?”
You laugh at the notion of racing him. “You’re a competitive swimmer, Chan! You’re obviously going to beat me.”
“I’ll give you a head start,” Chan offers hopefully.
You sigh with a smile on your face, and move along the wall so you’re at the very end of the pool. “Fine. And I’ll actually do a front crawl this time, to make sure you won’t laugh at me.”
Chan grins. “Okay. Deal.”
You adjust your position on the wall so you’re facing the shallow end, and Chan raises one hand in the air (how he managed to continue treading water while doing that was beyond you). “Ready?” You nod, and Chan brings his hand down. “Go!”
You push off from the wall, stretching your arms forwards as far as they can go and kicking so that you move as fast as you can. The seconds pass as you swim, and you suddenly understand why Chan likes swimming so much—all you have to do is feel the water around you as you glide through it. Swimming with clothes on instead of a swimsuit provides much more resistance, but it also means that you can really feel the water around you. You’re in your own bubble, your senses flooded in the best way possible.
You risk a glance forwards instead of to the side to breathe, and you see the wall of the shallow end in reach. Just a couple more seconds—
A pair of hands grab your waist, and you shriek and splutter in surprise. “Gotcha!” Chan yells triumphantly from beside you.
He starts to pull you backwards, but you wriggle free from his grasp and lunge for the wall. Chan lunges at the same time, but he’s just the tiniest bit too slow, and you end up touching the wall before he does.
“Ha!” You turn around triumphantly and grin at him. “I win!”
“Barely!” Chan protests, his hand still against the wall as he stands in front of you.
“Only because you’re a cheater,” you return. “If you hadn’t held me I would have won by more.”
“Held you? How exactly did I hold you?” Chan has a mask of innocence on his face.
You scoff. “What do you mean, how? You know exactly what you did.”
“Oh you mean”—Chan’s hands leave the wall beside you and dip underwater to find your waist. He steps a little bit closer to you, backing you up against the cool tiles of the wall—“like this?”
Your shirt is floating up and away from your body, so Chan’s fingers are brushing against your bare skin. Goosebumps erupt all over your body at his touch, and you can feel your cheeks warming again. You can’t meet his eyes, so you stare at the way his shirt clings to his body. “Yes.”
Softly, hesitantly, Chan calls your name.
You find it in yourself to meet his eyes. He’s staring at you with that same look in his eyes—fond, gentle. His eyes are warm and dark, searching your face for how you feel. “Can you… keep looking at me like that?” Your voice is barely above a whisper.
Chan sinks lower so that his head is just above the water. “Like what?”
“Like…” You shrug minisculely. “Like you like me.”
A small half-smile blooms on Chan’s face. “Okay.”
Time loses meaning as you gaze into Chan’s eyes. You have no idea how long you actually stay like that for, but it’s long enough for the water to feel cold around you, save for where Chan’s fingers are attached to your skin. His expression doesn’t change—his eyes remain soft as ever, his cheeks dusted pink as he looks at you. You take in every detail of Chan’s eyes, his nose, his lips, the way a lock of his hair is dangling down against his forehead, and you take a mental picture. Not to draw, this time, but just to keep in the back of your mind. For safekeeping.
Eventually, you reach up and brush the stray lock of hair away from his face, then let your eyes fall to the water. “Thank you.”
Chan lets go of your waist and takes a step back, and just like that, the bubble the two of you had built for yourself pops. “Oh, no worries. If you ever need someone to look at you like that again, you know where to find me.”
“I know where to find a cheater,” you say pointedly. “I don’t know who else you’d be.”
Chan sighs and smiles at you. “Well this cheater only let you win by a little bit. Swimming with clothes on is a bit different.”
“So you admit it! You did cheat!” you gasp, standing and pointing a finger dramatically. “And swimming with clothes on isn’t an excuse for being slow.”
“Hey, I’m used to swimming with next to nothing on,” Chan reasons. “You can’t blame me for being slower. If anything, blame my clothes.”
“Well, if you wanted to be faster, you could have taken your shirt off,” you suggest.
Chan raises an eyebrow at you. “You’re right.” He reaches up and grips the collar of his shirt, tugging it up swiftly over his head and oh, you’d somehow managed to forget how nice his body was. You can feel your eyes widen as Chan tosses his sopping wet shirt over to the side of the pool, then puts his hands on his hips and smiles at you. “Race me again?”
You scoff at him in an effort to delay the heat creeping up your neck to your cheeks. “No way. I prefer to quit while I’m ahead.”
Chan reaches up and runs a hand through his hair as you make your way over to the steps. “Are you sure it has nothing to do with me not wearing a shirt?”
You shake your head furiously, looking down at the steps through the water as you begin to exit the pool. “Accept your defeat, Chan.”
“Okay, okay.” You can hear the smile in Chan’s voice as he moves through the water, then hear him hoisting himself up on the side. When you glance over, he holds his hands up in surrender. “I accept my defeat.”
You smile at him. “Good.” You look around, suddenly remembering that you were in fact, just in a pool and now dripping wet. “Any idea of where towels are kept?”
Chan’s mouth falls open in realization. “Damn it.”
Chan doesn’t see you for the rest of the week. The two of you had completely different schedules for classes, and were on different parts of campus at all times. Since your mentor had decided that you were finished with sketching him, he didn’t really have a reason to see you anymore.
Every day he wished he did.
Chan thinks about you a lot over the following days. He thinks back to that Sunday in the pool, watching you swim with him and smiling at the memory of your doggy paddle. He remembers the feeling of your skin beneath his fingers, the way your gaze softened and your lips parted when he moved closer to you. He’d lost track of how long he’d stared into your eyes for, but he’d only stopped because you looked away first. Chan could stare at you for the entire day, if he had the chance.
Chan still doesn’t know much about being in love, but he’s sure that the amount of time he spends thinking about you isn’t normal. He catches himself wondering what it would be like to kiss you, what your lips feel like on his own, what it would like to hold you in his arms and not let you go. He daydreams about how your hands would feel in his, fingers interlaced just because he wants to hold you like that. About saying cheesy things that would make you laugh, but also fluster you, because you’re cute when you’re flustered.
He’s never felt like this about anyone, but he feels the need to tell someone. And since you caused him to feel like this, he needs to tell you.
Chan finds himself at your doorstep two weeks after you swam together, with his heart in his throat and the electric pulse of adrenalin in his limbs. The setting sun warms his back as he works up the nerve to move his arm. He inhales, and then knocks.
Five long seconds of silence. The door creaks open, and Chan is faced with someone who is… not you. A girl wearing a jean jacket, a purse hanging from her shoulder like she’s just about to leave. “Yes?”
“Uh, hi,” he lets out. “I’m, uh, here to see Y/N?”
The girl at the door’s eyes widen and she glances backwards into her home quickly before turning to him again. “Oh right, you must be Chan. Y/N’s… uh… they’re in there, but they’re sick today. I’m their roommate, Lily.”
“Oh.” Chan’s filled with a different kind of nervousness now—why hadn’t you told him you were sick? “Is it okay if I come inside?” Lily nods and steps back, letting Chan inside. He looks around quickly before turning to Lily. “I know I showed up unannounced, but I won’t be very long. I just wanted to come see them.”
Lily nods. “Normally I wouldn’t leave my sick friend with an unannounced guest, but… Y/N’s talked about you a lot. I remember you from when your friend dumped coffee on them. Plus… I have a date, so I don’t want to be late.”
Chan smiles at the memory of how the two of you met—it felt like so long ago now. “Thanks, Lily. Enjoy your date.”
Lily gives him a smile, and then she leaves, closing the front door behind her. Chan turns and surveys the apartment. It’s small—not cramped, but definitely standard for student housing. He doesn’t see you in the kitchen or living room, so he makes his way down the hallway to find two bedroom doors. One of them is open, and Chan sticks his head in to confirm that the room is empty before crossing over to the closed door. He knocks twice, and thinks he hears a murmur from inside before opening the door.
Chan finds your bed immediately—it’s piled high with blankets and duvets, across the room from your door. Pillows are stacked to give you something to lean back on, and Chan gives himself a second to take you in.
“Lily, I told you, Seungmin’s gonna think you’re great,” you mumble. Your speech is slightly slurred, a consequence of your tired state.
“I hate to break it to you, but I’m not Lily,” Chan replies, approaching you slowly and standing beside your bed.
Your eyes crack open, and you stare at Chan for a few seconds before your mind seems to click the details together. “Chan?”
He smiles at you. “Hi.” Your eyes shut again and you pull the covers up just a bit to hide the bottom half of your face. “How are you feeling?”
“Embarrassed,” you mumble. “And like I’m floating a little bit. I took painkillers… a while ago. Can’t remember exactly when, but I don’t think they’re working yet.”
“Why are you embarrassed?” Chan can’t help but smile in amusement.
You let out a heavy sigh. “You’re supposed to see me when I’m attractive. Not when I feel like I’ve been run over by a bus.”
“You’re still attractive.” Chan knows he’s not just saying that for the sake of comforting you. “Can I sit down?”
You hum, and Chan gently seats himself on the side of your bed. He reaches up and rests the back of his hand against your forehead, and his eyes widen. “Wow, you’re hot.”
You smile. “I guess being sick made me more attractive, huh?”
“No—I mean—you have a really high fever,” Chan explains, stifling laughter at your words.
“Oh.” Your smile disappears. “I guess I do feel pretty warm.”
Chan frowns. “How long have you had the fever for?”
“Dunno… a day or two?” you muse. “I thought it was just a cold, but… guess not.”
Chan bites his lip. “Okay, hang on. I’ll be right back.”
He leaves your room and enters your bathroom, finding a small towel and soaking it with cold water from your sink. He wrings it out and comes back to your bedroom, sitting down closer to you on the bed. “I have a cold towel here. Can I put it on your forehead?”
You give him a small nod, and Chan carefully, gently, presses the cold towel to your forehead. You let out a soft sound of satisfaction and tilt your head into his touch. “That feels good.”
“Good,” Chan replies. “Not too cold?” You shake your head slightly, and Chan removes the towel from your head and gently wipes the rest of your face down, cooling your skin slightly. When he finishes, he folds up the towel and hangs it over your headboard. “You should rest.”
“Can’t,” you sigh dejectedly. “Not for too long, anyway. I need to finish my portfolio.”
“Your health comes before your projects.”
“But it’s important,” you protest weakly. “All those paintings—they mean something. I need to make them mean something.”
Chan doesn’t have a good response for that, instead choosing to look at your face again. You look so peaceful with your eyes closed. “Are the painkillers working now?”
“Mmmh.” Your eyes open wide enough to meet Chan’s, and you smile tiredly. “You’re doing it again.”
Your eyes slide closed again, and Chan can see your whole body relax back into the mattress. “Looking at me as if you like me.”
Chan’s heart crawls back up into his throat and grips his lungs. “I do like you.”
The confession comes out as a throaty whisper and hangs in the air as Chan watches you. When you don’t react for several seconds, he turns away from you and sighs. Carefully, he eases himself up to stand, moving as slowly as he can.
Chan looks back towards you on the bed, frozen in place. Your forehead is creased in concentration as you move under the covers for a couple of seconds, fumbling slowly until your hand emerges from the soft blankets. You stretch your fingertips out towards Chan. “Stay with me. Please.”
Chan reaches out and takes your hand in his, your skin feverishly hot and sweaty against his. He sits back down. “Okay.”
The crease in your forehead disappears, and you exhale in hazy relief. You don’t say anything else, but your breathing slows until your fingers go limp in his.
After watching you for a couple of seconds, Chan realizes you’ve fallen asleep. He sighs and turns away from you, taking a good look around your room for the first time. There’s art tacked to the walls, sketchbooks and miniature easels on your desk, coloured pencils and palettes with dried paint everywhere. Your room is a whirlwind of art, colour jumping out at Chan from the white of the paper and the walls. He looks over to the table beside your bed, a single sketchbook open. He blinks, and stares at the page.
It’s a sketch of him. Not one of the ones you’d done while he was swimming, but a portrait of him in the water. He’s smiling, one lock of his dark hair hanging down against his forehead. The water of the pool around him is deep blues, indigos, even some purple around the edge of the drawing. It looks calming and relaxing.
It looks the way he feels around you. Comfortable, at ease. He hopes you feel the same way about him.
Your eyes open slowly. There’s sunlight streaming in from the gap in your curtains, but it doesn’t feel as irritatingly bright as it did the day before. You stretch under the covers before sitting up carefully. Your head doesn’t feel heavy, your limbs aren’t lead anymore.
How long had you slept for?
Your eyes land on your phone beside your bed, and you check the time. You were missing class. Somehow that fact isn’t enough to make you leap out of bed and get to school—you’re not even sure if you can leap. Then you notice a text notification.
[1:43am] Chan: hey y/n! i know you’re asleep as i’m sending this, but i hope you feel better soon! be sure to hydrate yourself and to get something gentle to eat. let me know when you feel okay, because i want to see you… it’s been too long since we’ve talked
You stare at the text for a long while, the gears grinding in your brain. In all honesty, you didn’t remember too much from yesterday. You’d felt sick in the morning, had lunch—Lily had suggested you rest. You’d taken her advice, gone to bed, watched a movie, and then taken painkillers right before Lily had left for her date with Seungmin. And then… your memories were all muddled, like someone had stuffed cotton balls into your head. You remember talking to… someone. Not Lily.
Your eyes widen in delayed mortification. How had Chan known that you were sick? You hadn’t texted him, but you had definitely talked to someone when you were drifting in and out of consciousness.
“Hey, you’re sitting up.”
You look up from your phone. Lily’s leaning against your doorway. “Yeah… I guess I am.” You clear your throat. “Hey, did you… tell Chan I was sick? He texted me.”
“Nope.” Lily grins. “But he came by last night, just as I was leaving to see Seungmin. He wanted to see you, and since he wasn’t a total stranger, I let him in. When I got back, he was sitting beside your bed, holding your hand.”
Your embarrassment is like a fever, starting in your cheeks and seeping its way throughout your face and down your body to the tips of your toes. You’re uncomfortably warm, but you wish it was because you were still sick instead of this. “He was here? Why don’t I remember any of it?”
“Probably because you were so out of it,” Lily suggests.
You’re too consumed by your thoughts to answer. Chan saw you while you were sick? Did you do anything stupid? Did you say anything stupid? You hope past you managed to keep their mouth shut—the idea that Chan could have heard you say something embarrassing, maybe something about him, was enough to make you want to hide in bed for the whole day.
Lily’s phone dings, pulling you out of your thoughts. She looks down at it and smiles. “I need to get ready. Seungmin’s gonna come with me to class. Are you okay by yourself?”
You nod. “I think my fever’s gone. So, are you and Seungmin finally together now?”
Lily blushes. “I—well, he did kiss me last night, so—”
“What? Lily, what have I been telling you? It’s about time!”
Your friend laughs. “Okay, yeah, fine. You and Jeongin were right.”
“We’re always right.”
“And hey, now that I’ve realized that Seungmin likes me, you can go on a date with Chan!” Lily gives you a cheeky smile as she leaves your room.
The idea of hanging out with Chan, of going on a date with him, makes your cheeks burn again. “Oh, shush. Not when he’s just seen me while I feel like the plague.”
“Pretty sure he’d still date you,” Lily calls back teasingly. “See ya!”
You hear the front door close and look down at your phone, sighing at Chan’s contact name on your screen. Hopefully he wouldn’t tease you about anything you’d said. You send him a text thanking him, apologizing for being such a mess, and asking when he’s free to meet up. His response comes almost immediately, telling you not to worry about him, and to just suggest a time when you’re feeling well.
You glance at yourself in the mirror. You did have a fever just the day before—you didn’t want to rush anything and become sick again. You suggest a time in the evening for the following day, and Chan agrees to your suggestion, asking you to meet him in the main quad on campus—the same one where you’d tried to give his shirt back the first time.
The next day, when you’re going to meet Chan, you decide to put a little bit more effort into your appearance. You run your hands over your clothes as you walk, smoothing out the fabric. You didn’t really need to, but you were nervous. Seeing Chan was making you nervous.
When you arrive at the bench, Chan’s already there. His black duffle bag is between his feet, and he’s bouncing his leg, looking around the quad. When he catches sight of you, his face breaks out in a smile, and he waves at you. You wave back and continue walking until you reach him. “Hey.”
“Hi.” Chan pats the bench next to him. “Take a seat. Are you sure you’re feeling better?”
You nod. “I promise.”
Wind rustles the leaves on the trees as you sit in silence. Other students are walking by, some in couples, some in groups, others by themselves. You purse your lips together. “I’m sorry I don’t remember more of your visit. The fever really must have made me seem crazy.”
“You weren’t crazy, you were just tired and sick.”
“Lily said you were still with me when she got back from her date with Seungmin.”
Chan nods. “It didn’t feel right to leave you alone. You slept most of the time, but… I wanted to be there if you needed something.”
“Thanks.” You glance at him. His head is tucked downwards, his ears just the lightest shade of pink. “Why did you come to visit me in the first place?”
“Oh, I uh, wanted to tell you something. But when I learned you were sick, it… didn’t really seem like the right time to tell you.”
“Well, I’m not sick anymore.” You shift so that you’re facing him a bit more on the bench. “What did you want to tell me?”
Chan turns to face you completely and gazes at you. A small smile is on his face, like you’ve just done something he found cute. “Do you remember any of what we talked about?”
You shake your head slowly.
“And what am I doing right now?”
You examine his face a bit more closely. His fond expression makes your heart settle a bit. “You’re… looking at me as if you like me.”
Chan nods. “I’m looking at you like this because I do like you. I really, really like you. And what I wanted to tell you was this: I can’t stop thinking about you. But I don’t know if you have feelings for me in the same way I do about you. I wonder if you also want to hold my hand, hug me, or kiss me. Because I—I want to do those things with you. I want to be around you all the time, Y/N. Do you…” Chan trails off and swallows. “What do you feel?”
A smile grows on your face as Chan speaks. You search his eyes, his beautiful brown eyes that are staring at you with hope and a little bit of nervousness, before letting your gaze fall to his lips. His soft, full, pink, kissable lips. You reach forward, and lightly let your fingers graze against his jawline. Chan’s eyes widen, but he remains silent, hopeful, ever observant. You lean in, watching as his lips part slightly.
When you kiss him, what you feel isn’t fireworks or butterflies in your stomach. It’s the comfort that comes with the familiar. The reassurance of knowing he’ll be there for you. The warm hope of a good beginning to something great. What you feel for Chan is complete adoration, total fondness, absolute ease.
You feel like he’s your home.
The kiss is sweet, short, and fleeting—you pull back after a couple of seconds to see Chan’s eyes open slowly. His lips are still parted, and he stares at you with sparkling eyes. You smile. “That’s my answer.”
Chan looks down at his lap for a second, then back up at you. He seems adorably stunned. “Then can I keep doing it?”
“What? Looking at me as if you like me?”
Chan shakes his head, his cheeks becoming tinged with pink. “No, just liking you.” He can’t meet your eyes, too shy to face you as he continues speaking. “I don’t have to try when I look at you as if I like you. Because I don’t need to try to like you; I just do.”
“Would you stop if I said no?”
Chan shakes his head again. “No. I don’t think I could ever stop liking you.”
You can’t stop smiling. “Then go ahead, because I like you too.”
The reality of your confession seems to finally hit Chan, because a wide smile spreads across his face. His dimples appear on his cheeks. “Really? You do?”
You laugh. “Yes, Chan. I like you.”
Chan giggles, his face alight with happiness. “Thank goodness. I mean—that’s a relief.”
You laugh. “It is, isn’t it?”
“Yeah.” Chan brings his hands up to touch the back of his head and his ears. He’s still smiling, and you take another mental picture of him; the sun’s setting on his face, and he looks the happiest you’ve ever seen him. “It really is.” He turns to you. “Do you… need to go anywhere? I feel like I have to get up and move around, or something.”
“I could go for a walk,” you agree.
“Okay.” Chan’s beaming at you as he stands up. “Let’s go!”
The two of you walk for an hour, all around campus and by the river, then off campus to your place. You’re so close together that the back of Chan’s hand brushes against yours several times. After it happens for the fourth time, you take his hand in yours, feeling his fingers grip your skin gently. Like he doesn’t want to be too forceful, but he doesn’t want to let you go.
You don’t want to let him go either.
That night, you finish your portrait of him that you’d started two weeks ago. You fill the paper completely with your watercolours, and you realize that what you feel for Chan feels a lot like being underwater—it surrounds you completely, putting you in your own protective bubble.
You wouldn’t have it any other way.
You don’t actually see Chan in person for another week, but you text all the time. He sends you good morning and good night texts, and reminds you to take breaks in between preparing your portfolio. You do the same for him, reminding him to rest and take breaks in between his practice schedule.
At the end of the week, you finish your portfolio. After sending it to Professor Yang to look over, you text Chan about it. An hour later, he turns up at your door, all smiles, with a blanket folded in his hands.
“I was thinking we could go stargazing,” he suggests bashfully. “Just so you have time to… relax.”
“Right,” you agree. “Not so I can spend time with you.”
Chan pouts and you crack up, only sobering up to apologize and take his hand to walk with him. He takes you to a secluded part of campus, lays out the blanket, and the two of you spend hours beneath the starlight, looking at the constellations together and telling stories. When you get cold, Chan gives you his hoodie, and you inhale the scent of mint, orange and vanilla.
Finally, when Chan drops you off, he kisses you on the cheek, and you feel your skin burn pleasantly under his lips. You offer him a shy smile, and he wishes you goodnight, telling you to keep the hoodie. You wear it around the house for the next week, until it doesn’t have the scent of Chan’s cologne on it anymore and you have to return it.
You send your portfolio off to the universities of your choice, and try not to think about it. Ultimately, you fail, and check your email obsessively over the next couple of days. One afternoon, you’re watching Chan swim when your phone buzzes with a notification.
Y/N, congratulations! You’ve been accepted into the Masters in Visual Arts program. You are able to confirm your offer by clicking on the link below. We look forward to seeing you on campus!
“Chan!” You stand suddenly, your voice a shrill shriek of excitement. “Chan come here!”
Chan stops doing laps and swims over to the side of the pool, his brow creased by your excitement. “What’s up? What happened? Are you okay?”
“Chan, holy shit! I did it!” You beam at him. You can feel the excitement bubbling in your veins. “The Masters program—I got in!”
“You—” Chan blinks, then breaks out in a wide grin. “You got in? That’s fantastic!”
“Yeah! Look, look, look.” You come over to the side of the pool and show him your phone. Chan reads it, then without speaking, hoists himself out of the pool. You step back from him to avoid getting water on you. “What are you doing?”
Chan stands properly and spreads his arms. “Giving you a hug,” he replies with a goofy smile on his face.
“But you’re soaking wet!” you laugh, stepping back towards the stands. You turn and place your phone on the stands, just in case.
“Y/N,” Chan whines. “I want to congratulate you! Please?”
“Wait,” you insist, holding a towel towards him. “Dry off first at least.”
Chan sighs, and reaches forward. Instead of grabbing the towel, he takes hold of your wrist and very gently pulls you towards him, reaching out with his other hand to pull you into a hug.
“Chan!” You yelp at the feeling of his bare skin soaking your shirt, the warmth from his body burning into yours. Your cheeks feel hot, because you can feel everything as he’s holding you against him. You start to giggle because it’s all so ridiculous. “Hey!”
Chan nuzzles his face into your shoulder, giggling mischievously in a way that is not so subtle. “Yes?”
“You—” you have to break off in laughter as his hands connect behind your back, pulling you even closer to him “—I’m trying to stay dry!”
Chan lifts his head from your shoulder and stares at you with innocent quizzical eyes. “I can’t let you know that I’m proud of you?”
“No—you can, it’s just—you can’t do it when you’re dry?”
“Hmm, not this time.” Chan gives you a cheeky grin. “It’s a special occasion.”
You sigh, but can’t find it in you to be actually mad at him. “Fine. I’ll let it slide this time.”
Chan smiles fondly at you and presses a wet kiss to your forehead. “Good. Because,” his tone softens, and he makes sure you’re looking into his eyes, “I’m really, genuinely proud of you. You deserve that spot, and you’ll do so well once the semester starts.”
You smile at him. “Thank you, Chan. Your support really means a lot to me.”
Chan finally lets you go, and you step back from him, taking the towel for yourself. “Did you give me a hug just because you were hoping I’d take my wet clothes off?”
A blush colours Chan’s cheeks. “No,” he squeaks out.
You raise a teasing eyebrow at him. “Mmhmm. Sure.”
Once you’ve dried yourself off as best you can, you toss the towel to Chan and pick up your phone. You send a screenshot of your acceptance to your group chat with Seungmin, Lily, and Jeongin. The first two send congratulatory messages in response right away, and you respond to both of them.
It’s not until you’re back home that you notice that Jeongin never responded.
The next day, as you’re walking to class, you spot Jeongin coming from the opposite direction. You wave to him, expecting him to give you a sunny grin and a wave back, but Jeongin does neither of those things—instead, he frowns, looks down at his phone, and spins around in the opposite direction.
Your brow furrows. That was the worst fake reason to not come to class you’d seen in a while. Instead of stepping inside your classroom, you follow Jeongin, back down the hallway, into the stairwell. He’s already halfway down the stairs when you call his name.
Jeongin sighs and looks up at you. “What?”
You frown. “Are you not coming to class?”
“Why do you care?” Jeongin mumbles bitterly. “You can skip with me, seeing as you got your Master’s acceptance.”
You blink. “So you did see my message yesterday.”
“Yeah.” Jeongin looks down to his shoes, kicking slightly at invisible pebbles. “I did. Congrats, or whatever.”
A small seed of unease plants itself in your chest. You shift your weight before speaking slowly. “I… kind of thought you would be happy for me. You were happy when I told you that Professor Kim wanted to help me.”
“Yeah, I was.” Jeongin sighs. “I didn’t think you’d actually get in.”
“Well, I kind of thought my art needed improvement, too.” You laugh, but it’s a shaky exhale. “But Professor Yang helped a lot, and now I’m in!”
Jeongin stiffens up at the mention of your mentor, his shoulders tensing, jaw set. “Yeah. He really did help you, didn’t he?”
Your friend’s voice is a cold knife dipped in poison, his dripping, chilling sarcasm tearing through any ease you have left in your body. The seed in your chest grows bigger, and when you speak, you’re quiet, unsure. “Why are you talking about him like that?”
Jeongin’s eyes, when they finally meet yours, are darkened wells overflowing with venom. “Because he”—he spits out the pronoun like it’s the bitterest substance to enter his mouth—“invests all his time on students who don’t actually need help, or his connections. You could have gotten the Masters just fine by yourself, but no, he made it seem like you needed his help to get in. My father took the time to ensure you got everything you dreamed of and more, while I had to fight tooth and nail for him to even consider me for a Masters. You took my place, Y/N. He replaced me with you and I hate him for it.”
Your mind is reeling at Jeongin’s rant, and somewhere in your head, the pieces click. Jeongin exiting Professor’s Yang’s office, eyes red and puffy. Jeongin looking down at the grass, saying that Professor Yang was brutal when it came to critical comments on art pieces. They even had the same last name—why hadn’t you understood sooner? “Professor Yang is your father?”
Jeongin exhales and drops his gaze, turning to rest against the banister so he’s not facing you. You can see his back quaking with anger. His fists are balled up at his sides, his knuckles white. His voice trembles, loud and vehement in his anger. “Yes, Y/N, he’s my father. He helped you when you didn’t need it and wouldn’t help his own son. And he didn’t just help you get accepted, he was your goddamn wingman!” Jeongin roars the last word at the wall, his voice a wounded snarl that makes you flinch. “He essentially set you up, and with Bang Chan of all people! A guy who has everything, who’s successful and has the world at his fingertips. And, you’re dating him now, so I guess I’m the fifth wheel. How on earth are you going to keep up a relationship with Mr. Perfect when you actually start your Masters? There’s no way you can maintain a relationship and get good grades in school.” Jeongin turns back around to face you, his lips curled maliciously in a sneer. “Look at me. I’m single, and I can’t even get into the program. What makes you think that trying to balance your career and your love life will work out?”
You become aware of your hands shaking—you’d been stunned into silence by Jeongin’s rant, too shocked to try to speak. When you open your mouth, your voice is just as shaky. “I—I don’t know. I’ve never tried… doing that.”
Jeongin laughs spitefully. “Trust me, it won’t go well for you. You’d be better off breaking up with Chan—he’ll only distract you when it comes time for you to focus and do your best.” Jeongin shoulders his bag and continues down the flight of stairs, out of the stairwell, leaving you with tears budding in your eyes and your hands clasped in a knot of anxiousness.
Your mind spins for a couple of seconds as you try to sort through what Jeongin had told you. His last words keep repeating in your head, but you try to shake them off. Chan wouldn’t distract you intentionally. He knew that getting into the Masters program was important to you and wouldn’t do anything to jeopardize your chances at success.
An awful voice whispers a cruel, chilling suggestion: what if you got distracted yourself?
You hated to admit the voice had reason, but it was true to some extent. You’d never tried to balance schoolwork and a partner at the same time, and you weren’t sure if you could do it. Would you be so focused on spending time with Chan that you’d lose track of your priorities? You didn’t want to do that. A Masters degree meant so much to you—it was a chance at good job offers, some form of security that you would need if you were going to be successful in life. The more you thought about it, the more you listened to the voice and acknowledged that it had a point, the more you doubted your ability to balance both your love life and your future career. You’d heard stories of couples that had to take time apart to focus on school. Some of them ended up getting back together, others didn’t, but in all cases the couples found that it helped them focus on their studies and boost their grades.
Maybe that’s what you needed to do. Take some time apart. Just so you can ensure you’re able to get good grades at a time when it matters most.
You blink back to focus and look down the stairs to see Chan. You feel your heart soar and then crash, because he’s here to see you and this kind of excitement is exactly what Jeongin was talking about are two thoughts that hit you milliseconds apart from each other. “Hi Chan.”
“Is everything okay?” Chan’s brow is creased with worry, and he steps closer to you, gauging your expression. “I thought you were still in class—I was planning on surprising you, actually, but I guess you’re… done early? Or…”
Chan trails off, and all you can do is stare at him, the tug of sadness weighing you down. “Chan I… I’m worried.” As soon as you start speaking you can’t stop, the emotions from bearing the weight of Jeongin’s rant overflowing and spilling out of your mouth. “I can’t stop thinking about you, and I should be thinking about my Masters. I’m worried that I’m going to get too distracted, and that because I can’t stop thinking about you, I won’t be able to focus on doing well in my Masters and getting a job and being stable and secure in life.”
Chan listens, then gently reaches out to take your hand. Your fingertips graze against his as he speaks softly. “Y/N… you know I’d never do anything to distract you from achieving your dream.”
“I know, but I can’t guarantee that I won’t get distracted. I’m worried that I’ll prioritize spending time with you over doing well on my studies. And you mean so much to me, Chan. You really do. But this degree does as well.” You slip your fingers out of his.
Chan’s eyes are shining. He rubs his ear with one of his hands a couple of times before speaking. “So you’re… are we… breaking up?”
A tear finally makes its way down your cheek, and your heart cracks in half at his question. “No, please, don’t say that. I don’t want to break up with you. I just… want to make sure I can get good grades without being distracted. I don’t want to end us, but I just… want to pause it for a bit.”
Chan stares at you, his eyes dark and sad and full. It hurts to look at him, but his response hurts you even more. “Okay.”
You blink. “You’re… okay with that? With everything I just told you?”
Chan takes a deep breath, then speaks. “I understand where you’re coming from. Focusing on your career is important, and I want to support you every step of the way. Even if supporting you means taking a step back from you. I can… I can do that for you.”
You can feel your heart shatter, because you know you’re hurting him, and somehow, he’s okay with it. “I’m sorry.”
Chan offers you a sad smile. “I’m sorry too.”
You once heard somewhere that a thing can only hurt you for as long as you love it. And as you stand with Chan in the stairwell, you fear he’ll be hurt because of you for a very, very long time.
Chan is not a selfish man.
It’s one of the things he prides himself on—putting others before himself and ensuring they were secure first is his form of safety. If he can take care of people around him, he feels at ease. So when you tell him you want to take some time apart, because it will help you succeed—Chan agrees. Because he wants you to succeed, whether or not he’s actively part of your life.
Chan trusts you. He trusts your decision, because you know yourself best. But he can’t help but notice that as you’re suggesting something that should help you succeed, you don’t look very happy. And that causes him to worry about you.
The first day after your… suggestion, he walks by the river where he watched you draw. He wonders if you’d been back there to sketch since you’d been there with him. He pulls out his phone, and he gets as far as actually opening his text conversation with you, fingers hovering over the keyboard to ask you just that, when the concern hits him like a freight train.
Not he can’t or he won’t—he shouldn’t. It wouldn’t be good for you. And Chan wants what’s best for you.
But as he exits out of the app, he can’t ignore that he wants to.
The next couple of days are some variation of the same cycle—he sees something that reminds him of you, goes to contact you, then stops himself because you said he shouldn’t. Every single time, he wishes he did. He knows the longer he waits, the more stilted and awkward it will be when he does finally crack and text you. Or maybe it won’t be. Chan’s never gotten to this awkward phase in a relationship before; he hasn’t gotten this far in a relationship at all. He doesn’t have the strange finality that comes with a bad breakup, where he knows he can’t, shouldn’t, won’t text you. If it was a proper breakup, at least he’d know that you absolutely didn’t want anything to do with him.
But you didn’t word it like that. It’s taking time apart, not I don’t want to see you again. Chan doesn’t know if he’s crossing the line by texting you. And so, he creates a rule for himself: If you don’t text him, he won’t text you. Taking time apart was on your terms, after all. It’s only fair, out of respect for what you want. And whatever you want, Chan wants.
It’s not until the fourteenth day after your… suggestion, when he’s sprawled out on his bed, staring at your contact name for the nth time that week, that he wishes he could have been more selfish.
Next thing Chan knows, he’s walking down the sidewalk on your street. He won’t be forceful, he won’t even knock on the door, but he just… needs to see you. To check if you’re really okay, if your decision to take some time apart truly was helping.
He’s about three houses away when your front door opens. Chan freezes, then ducks into the driveway of the house he’s closest to, seeking cover in the large green shrubs your neighbour has on their lawn. He peeks through the green foliage, hoping no one else is around to wonder what on earth he’s doing.
You exit the house, Lily by your side. She says something Chan can’t hear, and you laugh. A big, loud, happy laugh that makes Chan’s chest ache in want. He wishes you were closer to him so that he could pull you in for a hug, kiss your forehead and tell you that he loves your laugh. You begin walking away from him, chattering away with Lily about something you were clearly excited about. Chan waits until you disappear from his sight before standing back up and turning around, heading back the way he came.
You looked happy. And if you were happy, then Chan should be happy for you.
But Chan is unhappy.
If he’s honest with himself, he’s been unhappy since the day you suggested taking time apart. He’s disappointed in himself, for not being more assertive, for feeling so selfish about this whole thing. Why couldn’t he be content with just knowing you were happy?
He knows the answer is because he wants you back. But admitting it makes him feel wrong, because he’s not supposed to be selfish. He doesn’t know how to be selfish—speaking up for what he wants was never something he learned.
The ugly claws of selfishness grip him tightest when he sees you four days later, eighteen days after you said you wanted a break. You and him are both in the café, the same one where Jisung spilled coffee on you all that time ago. He’s waiting for his drink, you’re just entering the place, but he sees you and wants you and misses you even though you’re right in front of him.
You meet his eyes and give him a small smile. Hesitant, like you don’t know what the limits of this whole situation are either.
It also kind of makes him feel like a stranger. And he hates that.
You don’t come over, you don’t initiate conversation, so Chan follows his rule again: if you don’t initiate it, he won’t either. He gets his drink and leaves, a lump of sadness swelling in his throat. He feels selfish, and it feels awful, but by now, he realizes he can’t shove it away by will alone. He can only feel it and wait until you come back.
Or until he asks for you to come back. Whichever he’s brave enough to do first.
It’s been twenty-one days since you’d talked with Chan. Not that you’re keeping track or anything.
Your grades and performance in class are decent, but they’re no better than before you decided to take a break. Which leads you to the conclusion that Chan hadn’t been a distraction at all. If anything, you were more distracted now that you shouldn’t see him. You’re not sad—you don’t spend your time crying, missing him and wishing you hadn’t said what you did. But you do feel… hollow. Like something’s just slightly off-balance. Like he’s missing from your life.
But he doesn’t message you. Doesn’t try to contact you. So you don’t either.
Would he think you’re selfish for changing your mind, for asking him to come back? Would he not like you for putting him through three weeks of radio silence, just to text him out of the blue and say “actually, I’ve changed my mind, please come back”?
He might. He’s not obligated to come back to you either. It’s a pill that’s a lot harder to swallow than you’d like to admit.
On the evening of this twenty-first day, you find yourself by the river, the same one where Chan watched you sketch. The burbling of the water over rocks is white noise in your ears as you doodle a face, the setting sun casting a shadow of your pencil across your page.
The setting sun also signals to you that it’s time for you to finish up, so you pack up your sketchbook and tuck it back in your bag, then stand. You turn back around towards the sidewalk, to begin walking home, and you freeze.
Frizzy, curly dark hair. The duffle bag. Those beautiful brown eyes, now wide with panic. “I—uh—hi.”
It’s so strange to finally hear his voice after three weeks. “Hi.”
Chan seems unsure, fearful of making the wrong move. He grips at his duffle bag strap for a bit before blurting, “I wasn’t watching you. I mean—yes, I was watching you—but I only stopped for a second—to see if it was really you. Not like—spying on you.”
You nod, and go with the only script that seems like it will fit for the moment. “How have you been?”
It’s not the right script. You know as soon as the words leave your mouth that it’s too impersonal—it doesn’t address anything. But you’re not sure if Chan wants to talk to you about… the things that need addressing. You were the one that pushed him away, after all.
He swallows. “I’m… fine. How… how are you?”
So he’s going with the script. You look down to the grass. “I’m doing okay.”
You nod. You can’t think of anything else to say to him without breaking from the script, which hurts, so you settle for, “I’m actually just finishing up, so I need to… get back home.”
“Oh.” Chan takes an awkward half-step back. “I guess I should let you go, then.”
You nod and move past him, heading back down the road on your way home. Your heart is sinking, because that wasn’t how you’d wanted the interaction to go at all. But now that you’ve ended the conversation, you can’t just turn around and keep talking to him.
It’s quiet for five long seconds, and then everything happens at once. Hurried insistent footsteps behind you, arms—his arms—brushing past your waist and around your middle, stopping you where you stand. The warmth of his body pressing up behind yours, solid and soft all at once. Mint, orange and vanilla when you inhale.
Chan’s voice is wrought with desperation, the single syllable puncturing your heart and rooting you to the spot. He inhales shakily. “I’ve never been selfish about anything, so I don’t know how to do this. I don’t know anything about how this is supposed to work. Can you… not let me learn how this is supposed to work? All I know is that… I want you with me.” His hands cling to you, pulling you back against him just a tiny bit tighter. He buries his face in your shoulder. “Please.”
Chan is crying. His tears are hot on your shirt, his torso shaking against yours with muted sobs. You feel him exhale a hot breath against your skin, another “please” whispered, a cracked plea for you.
There’s a lump in your throat as your hands find his forearms. Gently, carefully, you rub his arms until he loosens his grip, allowing you to turn around and face him, to see his red tear-stained face. You reach up and wipe away his tears with your thumb, cupping his face in your hand. He leans into your touch, his eyes dark and watery as he waits for you to do something, anything. You swallow the lump in your throat. “Okay.”
Chan smiles as more tears spring to his eyes, and then he’s pulling you in for another hug, pressing kisses to the top of your head as you bury yourself in his embrace. You hold on to him just as tight, and you hear him whisper “thank you” as he begins to rock the two of you side to side. And then it’s quiet, and all you can hear is the steady rhythm of his heart.
“I was worried I would lose you forever.”
You lift your head to meet his eyes. “You could never lose me. Not even for a moment.”
Chan smiles again. His eyes are warm. “So we’re back together now?”
You nod. “I won’t just get distracted by you. You’re going to be the center of my focus now.”
“I like that,” Chan admits shyly. You giggle, and he steps back from you. “You said you needed to get home?”
You nod. “Would you like to come with me? We could… watch Netflix or something.”
Chan nods and takes your hand, interlacing your fingers with his. “Okay.”
Getting back home is quiet. The two of you don’t speak the entire way back to your place. Chan’s hand stays glued to yours, his thumb running over the back of your hand comfortingly every so often.
It’s not until you’re actually in your room, with Chan sitting on your bed with his back against your headboard, that you speak up. “I think Lily’s out with Seungmin. She told me to not expect her back tonight.”
“Oh.” Chan nods as you sit next to him, the mattress dipping a bit. “So we can… watch Netflix all we want?”
“Yeah.” You raise your eyebrow at him. “Or something.”
When the realization hits him, it’s adorable, because you can actually see it—a deepening blush from the tips of his ears down his neck and up to his cheeks. His mouth opens and closes a few times, and then he giggles. “Oh. Right.” Then he sobers up, and his eyes fall on your lips. You look at his lips too.
The kiss is different this time. It’s familiar, yes—same scent, same feeling of his soft lips against yours. But Chan lingers more. His breath is warm against your skin in between each time his lips fit against yours. His kisses are drawn-out, languid and loving. Every brush of his lips against yours causes you to melt, and your head relaxes back enough to rest against the wall. One of his hands reaches out and slides up your neck, fingertips resting against your jaw as he kisses you.
Your hands reach forward, finding the front of his shirt and bunching it up in your fists, making him lean further into you as you shift on the mattress again, turning your torso so that you can face him completely. Your knee nudges against his thigh as you move, and Chan’s other hand finds your hip, his fingers dipping beneath the hem of your shirt to rub back and forth over your skin. There’s a soft noise in the back of your throat, and Chan pulls himself back, making your eyes flutter open.
His lips are swollen, slightly redder than they were a minute or two ago. His cheeks are flushed—he looks a bit dazed, his eyes half-open and heavy-lidded. “It might be more comfortable if we were lying down,” he murmurs.
You nod and scoot yourself down on the bed, laying on your side so you’re facing Chan. He mirrors your actions, and you watch as his shirt rides up a couple of inches, exposing the tiniest sliver of skin to your eyes. You can feel that your shirt has done the same as you lean in to capture his lips in another kiss. His hands find your skin again, and this time you copy him, letting your fingertips wander up the side of his body, just a little bit underneath his shirt.
You let your nails graze against his skin, and Chan shivers—something you wouldn’t have noticed if you weren’t touching him. His jaw slackens as his kisses become more open-mouthed, and then his hand leaves your side. He reaches over and across you to change the angle of the kiss, his forearm planting itself next to your head as he shifts his weight up over you. His legs tangle with yours, hips resting half on top of you as his kisses grow more insistent, roaming from your lips to your jaw with quiet hums. Warmth washes over your body, and you reach up with both hands to find his torso again. It’s not long before he gets the hint and pulls away from you. Once he rids himself of his shirt he leans back down to you, pressing his lips to your neck. Soon your clothing joins his in a pile on the floor.
It’s impossible to name all of Chan’s qualities—attentive, gentle, and caring come to mind immediately, but there are so many more things he makes you feel, so many more he shows you as he kisses you, as his hands hold you like you’re a masterpiece. You’re creating your own masterpiece in your head, but this time instead of using paints or charcoal or pencils, you use Chan. Every sound he makes, every inch of skin you feel under your fingertips, every movement goes on your canvas. He’s your masterpiece, just as you are his, and you’d have it no other way.
Sunlight streams in through the curtains as you crack your eyes open. You stretch your fingertips out, only to be met with a mattress and sheets. Your brow furrows, and you open your eyes further to confirm that Chan isn’t next to you. There’s a note next to your head.
Come into the kitchen, I’ve got something for you
You smile and sit up, rolling off the bed to root around in the pile of clothes on the floor. You find shorts and a black shirt and tug them on, the scent of mint, orange and vanilla enveloping you as you step out of the bedroom.
Chan hears your bare feet padding on the hardwood as you enter the kitchen and turns around to face you from the stove. “Good morning.”
You smile sleepily at him. “Morning.”
“I, uh,”—Chan gestures towards the stove, and you register the sizzle of batter in a pan, the warm syrupy scent drifting towards your nose—“made pancakes for us. If you want.”
You cross the kitchen and reach out for a hug, and Chan almost pulls you in, then stops and holds you at arm’s length. “Are you wearing my shirt?” You nod, and he grins before finally connecting your bodies. “You’re so cute.”
“Thank you for making pancakes.” Your speech is muffled since you’re speaking against his skin.
Chan hums. “It’s nothing.”
You pull back to stare at him. “No one’s ever made me pancakes before. It’s something.”
“I guess you’re right,” Chan allows. You take a step back to allow him to turn and flip the pancake that’s currently cooking, and he nods towards a plate of warm, steaming pancakes beside the stove. “Those are ready, if you’re hungry.”
You oblige and take a pancake, putting it on its own separate plate before sitting down at the table. You drizzle the right amount of syrup, cut off a piece and pop it in your mouth. Your eyes widen. “Wow.”
“Yeah.” You tear off another piece of pancake, putting it in your mouth and damn near moaning at how good it tastes. “Wow, I love you.”
A couple seconds go by before Chan chuckles. “Me or the pancake?”
You grin and stand up from the table, coming over to Chan and taking his face in his hands. You press a kiss to his lips in between every word. “I—” kiss “—love—” kiss “—you.” One more kiss, just in case.
Chan’s staring at you in adoration again. “I love you too, Y/N.” He kisses you once more before commenting, “You taste like syrup… I might have to kiss you again to make sure there’s none of it left on your lips.”
You raise an eyebrow at him. “You should do that, then.”
Chan reaches up to cup your face and pull you in, smiling at you. “It would be my pleasure.”
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