Jeno is thirteen when he joins SM, but he doesn’t move into the dorms until he’s fourteen and starts school with Jaemin and Donghyuck. Immediately, he starts to feel it, this horrible, horrible clenching of his heart whenever he thinks of his mom or his dad or his sister. He knows it must be homesickness, but he hadn’t even known before now that longing for a place could hurt quite this much.
He has a running bet with himself to see how long he’ll last before he cracks and gives in, before he dials his home phone number on the cell phone they haven’t confiscated from him yet.
He lasts three days.
Jeno calls home on a day where nothing’s gone right and absolutely everything’s gone wrong.
He’s late to school that morning, somehow sleeping through all of his alarms, and he only even gets to school before the end of homeroom because Jaemin reaches into the bottom bunk and shakes him awake, hissing, “Lee Jeno! Get up, you’ll be late!”
He manages to completely alienate his friends by snapping at them during class because of how dead tired he is, and then he trips over his own feet while going to the lunchroom. Later, during dance practice, he’s so distracted that he can’t get any of the moves down, and then he cracks multiple times during vocal training.
At the end of the day, when they finally get back to the dorms after a full day of unfulfilling practice, Jeno beelines straight for the restroom, taking out his phone from his backpack and dialing his mom’s number. He goes straight to bed after his mom reassures him that no, you aren’t going to fail; no, they don’t hate you; no, you’re going to be wonderful and amazing, and anyone who says otherwise doesn’t have eyes or ears. I love you, and I know that the world will, too, once they see who you are.
Jeno exhales through his mouth as he stares at the wall, trying to blink away the tears threatening to spill out. He knows, realistically, that he has a decent chance. If he sticks it out with the training, he’ll be fine. He’ll debut with the others, and all of this will have been worth it. He sniffles, using the corner of his blanket to wipe away the sudden wetness on his cheeks, and he prays that no one’s going to come in and see him.
“Jeno?” It’s Jaemin’s voice, and Jeno supposes that he’d been too optimistic to hope that in a dorm with over ten boys, not one of them would be in their shared room. Jeno keeps his face towards the wall, waiting to hear what Jaemin has to say. He likes Jaemin, he really does— Jaemin is a great friend, and they’ve walked home enough times with nothing else to do but talk that he knows Jaemin better than he knows himself— but he doesn’t know if this is what he needs right now. “Are you okay?”
“Yeah,” Jeno lies, hoping that Jaemin will take the hint and leave. There’s a bit of rustling and shuffling around, and Jeno’s mattress dips when Jaemin throws himself onto it.
“It’s okay,” Jaemin says, scooting over so that he’s pressed against Jeno’s back, and Jeno stiffens, his hands curling against his chest. Jaemin reaches around Jeno, his fingers searching for and finding Jeno’s wrists. His thumbs rub small circles into the underside of Jeno’s wrists, and Jeno starts to relax. “I know you’re not.”
“How did you know?” Jeno’s voice is barely audible, barely a whisper, and it’s only because the room around them is completely silent that Jaemin can even hear him.
“Because I’m the same as you,” Jaemin whispers like a secret into Jeno’s ear. Jaemin lives in Seoul, so his family is closer than Jeno’s in Incheon, but the distance between them doesn’t matter when they’re not allowed to see their families anyway. “Every time I think about my parents, I just want to cry. It just doesn’t seem to get any easier. I hate it so much sometimes. It just— I just feel so lonely, sometimes. You know what I mean?”
Jaemin is shaking against Jeno’s back, and Jeno doesn’t know if it’s from the cold or from Jaemin’s thoughts, but he lets go of one of Jaemin’s hands to lift his blanket up.
“Yeah, I know what you mean. Hey, get in, Jaemin,” he says, and Jaemin takes Jeno’s blanket and wraps it around himself. It’s immediately warmer— Jaemin’s always been too warm to the touch, and having him pressed against Jeno like his is like having his own personal space heater.
“What’s so funny?” Jaemin asks when Jeno starts giggling at the thought of a Jaemin-shaped space heater, and Jeno can practically feel the smile on Jaemin’s face against the back of his neck.
“Nothing,” Jeno mutters. Jaemin’s thumbs have gone back to Jeno’s wrists, but instead of rubbing small circles into his skin, he’s started drawing directionless patterns, loops and swirls across the canvas of Jeno’s skin. “I miss my parents. And my cats. And also my sister, I guess.”
Jaemin laughs, his breath huffing across Jeno’s neck. “In that order?”
“Maybe, but don’t tell my sister that. I’m glad I found you, though. I don’t think I could get through this without you. You’re my best friend,” Jeno confesses into the air, and he waits one, two, then three heartbeats before Jaemin speaks up.
“You too, Jeno.” Jaemin presses even closer to Jeno until he’s wrapped around Jeno like a second blanket. Jeno wants to imprint this memory into his mind for the rest of his life, this feeling of being safe and sound and warm, and he knows that as long as Jaemin is with him, this memory will never disappear. “I’m glad I met you, too.”
Voicemail from: Noona (08/25/2016 18:07)
“Hi, baby brother! You look like a nerd. Ow, mom, stop, okay, I’ll be nice to him. Fine. Okay, fine. I get it. Jeno, mom says that I have to be nice to you, so I’ll be nice to you. You only kind of look like a nerd. Congratulations on debuting! It’s crazy to see people in the comments saying that you look so handsome when you really just— okay, okay. Fine, mom! Stop it! You look cute and sound cute, I guess. Good luck with promotions and don’t work too hard. Take care of yourself. Jaemin looks better than you do. We love you, and call us when you can!”
Voicemail from: Mom (12/02/2016 14:23)
“Jeno. Jaemin’s mom just called me. She says that his back is treatable, so you can let the other members know, too. She’ll be keeping him at home for a while for rehabilitation and physical therapy. Don’t worry about him too much. He’ll call you when he feels a little bit better. Keep working hard, but don’t hurt yourself. Dad and your sister and I all love you.”
Voicemail from: Dongsookie (12/05/2016 02:01)
“Hey, loser. I thought you should know that Jisung called Mark-hyung to snitch on you. He says you keep crying at night. Why didn’t you tell any of us? God, you’re always like this, I swear, always keeping everything to yourself until you can’t take it anymore. If you ever need anything, you should just call one of us. Don’t keep it in, asshole. Don’t make us worry about you. It’s hard, but we’ll be seven again someday. Just you wait. Go to sleep, Jeno.”
Jeno doesn’t cry easily, and he doesn’t scare easily either. He’s the one who stays dry-eyed throughout even the most heart-wrenching of films, and he’s the one they beg to get rid of the cockroaches that sometimes find their way into the bathroom. He knows this— they all know this, which is why they make him the designated tissue box holder and the bug killer.
But somehow, just somehow, the fact that Jaemin might not come back terrifies him to a point where he feels like he can’t even breathe, and that in and of itself scares him more than anything else in the world.
He goes through a dictionary one day when he’s trying to find a word for what he feels about Jaemin when he’s gone. There aren’t any words in Korean for what he’s looking for, but he thinks he’s found one in Portuguese.
Saudade. Jeno reads that it’s hard to explain what it means, but when Jeno looks further and finds accounts about wives who lost their husbands at sea and wept for them them, about immigrants who left their homes for a better life and mourned their lost homelands, about those who have loved and lost, he realizes that this is what he feels. It’s a memory of something with a desire for it, and he knows that this is a different kind of longing than the one that he feels for his parents and his sister and his cats.
It’s something that he feels even more now that they’ve changed around the roommate assignments. His and Jaemin’s room becomes his and Renjun’s and Jisung’s, and Chenle stays with their manager in a smaller room. They have a spare room in the dorm that’s allocated for when— when, not if, the small voice in the back of Jeno’s mind reminds him— Jaemin comes back.
They give Jisung the top bunk that used to be Jaemin’s, and Renjun gets a bed that they push to the other side of the room. When Jisung clambers onto the top bunk and moves to fold Jaemin’s blanket and pillows up for storage, Jeno stops him.
“I’ll take them,” Jeno says, and he resolutely ignores the stares Jisung gives him as he grabs and folds up Jaemin’s blanket and tucks it into the corner of his own bed. Jaemin’s pillows go next to his own, and he pats them one last time before looking back up at Jisung. “What?”
Jisung sighs, pillowing his head on his crossed arms. “Nothing,” he drawls in the way that means he knows something before his eyes narrow at Jeno. “You better not climb into my bed to sleep, don’t think we don’t know that you guys did that. Donghyuck-hyung told everyone you’ve been doing that since predebut.”
Jeno flushes. He’s going to murder Lee Donghyuck someday. It’ll happen someday; he just has to convince the other hyungs to let him sleep overnight in the 127 dorm. Then Donghyuck will get what’s been coming for him for a long time. “It’s hard to sleep on my own,” Jeno protests ineffectually. “I have to sleep with something next to me, otherwise I can’t fall asleep.”
Jisung gives him a knowing look. “You’d sleep better with someone next to you, right, hyung?”
In lieu of a real answer, Jeno pelts one of the stuffed cats he keeps on his bed up at Jisung, who catches it with a laugh before throwing it back. He’s not wrong, if Jeno is being completely honest with himself. He sleeps the best with Jaemin next to him, and Jisung’s comments have only made him realize that he’s been sleeping worse than usual because Jaemin’s not there anymore.
It’s been just over a week since Jaemin left the dorm, and Jeno feels his absence in his bones. Sometimes, if he’s browsing Naver or Pann and sees something funny, he’ll turn to his side, an exclamation half-formed on his lips, before he remembers that Jaemin’s not there to be excited about it with him anymore. Jaemin’s not there to eat the cucumbers from Jeno’s servings of jjajangmyeon, and Jeno doesn’t have anyone to give him extra strawberry flavored candies. Jaemin’s absence leaves an emptiness in Jeno’s everyday life that he’s not equipped at all to deal with properly.
Saudade. Maybe that really is the right word. It’s not the kind of story that ends in sailors drowning at sea or in families being separated across continents, but Jeno thinks that maybe this, this is close enough.
Jisung’s expression is soft and sad when he reaches down to poke Jeno’s cheek. “Get some sleep, hyung. It’s late, and we have to record our parts for Joy tomorrow.”
Jeno nods, climbing into his own bed, and if Jisung notices that Jeno hugs Jaemin’s pillow to his chest, he doesn’t say anything at all the next morning. It’s okay. This isn’t enough, but it’ll have to be enough until Jaemin comes back.
Voicemail from: Jaemina ♡ (02/07/2017 20:13)
“Hey, Jeno. Oops, I went to voicemail. Um. I guess you guys might be out celebrating or, knowing you guys and especially Jisung, practicing hard. I saw your new music video! It was really, really good. I— I’m proud of you guys. You look good as six. It doesn’t look too empty without me, but don’t get too used to it! I’ll be back before you even know it. I hope you’ve been sleeping well without me. Take care of yourself, Jeno. I don’t want to see you get hurt because you’ve been worrying about me or something like that. I’m basically doing nothing but sleeping and working on getting better, so it could really be worse. Anyway, my Kakao is always open whenever you want to talk. Don’t cry too much for me, Jeno. I’ll see you soon.”
Voicemail from: Manager-hyung (04/21/2017 21:48)
“Jeno, can you call me back when you can? Jaemin just called me, and he wants to know if you can meet up with him tomorrow. He says he has something planned, and we’ll allow this only because we know none of you guys have seen him in a long time. Call me back!”
Voicemail from: Mochisung (04/22/2017 18:08)
“Hyung! Chenle just told me that you just left to meet up with Jaemin-hyung today. Why didn’t you tell me that was where you were going? I wanted to see Jaemin-hyung too! I hate you! Just kidding, I don’t hate you. Please don’t lock me in the bathroom again. Have fun and bring me back some food! Thanks, Jeno-hyung!”
The streets of Myeongdong are more packed than Jeno remembers. He’s scanning the crowd with his manager at his side, looking for a boy with a grey hoodie and a black cap, when his phone vibrates. Jaemina ♡, the caller id reads, and Jeno can feel his legs start to turn to jelly as he picks up and says, “Jaemin? Where are you?"
“Turn around,” Jaemin says, and it takes him a few seconds to process the words because Jaemin’s voice sounds so close, closer than it would if he were just speaking to him on the phone, and it’s so incredibly different to be hearing Jaemin’s voice in the air around him instead of from the speakers of his cell phone. Jeno turns around, and there he is, Na Jaemin in the flesh. Jeno can hardly breathe, everything around him suspended in that moment when he sees Jaemin again until he raises a hand in a wave, then time starts to flow for Jeno again.
“I missed you,” Jeno exhales, crossing the space between them in two long steps to throw his arms around Jaemin’s shoulders.
Jaemin is thinner than he remembers, the weight and space that he takes up in Jeno’s arms so much less than it did before. Jaemin’s arms come around to rest on Jeno’s waist, and his hands rub large, sweeping circles across Jeno’s back. Ironic, Jeno thinks, that it’s Jaemin comforting him when it should really be the other way around.
“Happy birthday, idiot,” Jaemin murmurs into Jeno’s neck, and the brush of his lips against Jeno’s skin is electrifying. Jeno tightens the circle of his arms around Jaemin’s shoulder, tugging him closer, and he feels Jaemin do the same to him. He hasn’t seen Jaemin in months, hasn’t seen Jaemin and his bright eyes and his wide smile in months, and he’s missed Jaemin so, so much.
Their manager leaves them with a promise to get back before midnight, and Jeno obediently agrees. He’s not thinking about how or when he’s going to get back tonight, though— all of his attention is on the person in front of him.
“Are you hungry?” Jaemin asks, and Jeno has to think about it. He’s had a light lunch with the other members earlier in the day, but other than that and some snacks, he hasn’t had a lot to eat.
“Yeah. I could definitely eat,” Jeno says, and Jaemin’s smile curves up.
“Awesome,” Jaemin says, and he curls his fingers around Jeno’s wrist and they take off, sprinting through dim alleyways and crowds of people. Some people recognize them, but they’re gone before many of them can think to pull out their phones and snap pictures. Oops, Jeno thinks. He was told not to make a scene, but here they are, two idols darting through the streets of Myeongdong like fireworks lit ablaze.
There’s a small family-owned place in Myeongdong that they used to go to as trainees, back when they’d been able to sneak out of their trainee dorms without managers watching their every move, back when the name NCT meant nothing more to them than a string of English letters, back when debut was a faraway dream. He and Jaemin and Donghyuck and Mark had pulled on their baseball caps and face masks and taken the subway from their company building in Apgujeong to Myeongdong just to stuff their faces with tteokbokki and ramyeon and kimbap, and it had been worth it every single time. It had been their place to go when training became too stressful, their place to unwind, their place to be the teenage boys they were.
Jeno hasn’t been there in forever, and nostalgia hits him like a wave when Jaemin drags Jeno there by the wrist and they stand there, panting, in front of the neon lights. They’re the same lights as they were three years ago, and Jeno has a hunch that the menu’s going to be the same as well.
For old times’ sake, they order a rabokki with two rolls of kimbap, one tuna and one bulgogi. As always, they fight over who gets the egg before splitting it equally in half. Jaemin takes the gimmari from on top of the rabokki and drops it onto Jeno’s plate, which makes Jeno give Jaemin a flat stare before picking up the roll and pushing it towards Jaemin’s plate.
“Doesn’t this remind you of old days? We used to come here with the others. Jisung came along once, too, don’t you remember?” Jeno asks, and Jaemin very nearly spits out a mouthful of ramyeon with how suddenly and how forcefully he laughs. “Ugh, that’s so gross, Jaemin, oh my god.”
“No, it’s just— the way you said that makes us sound like old grandpas reminiscing about when they were young and spry. We’re seventeen, Jeno.” Jaemin wipes his mouth with a napkin before digging back into the rice cakes. “We have a lot more memories to make together. There’s still time.”
Jeno has no idea how to respond to that. He’s not even sure if he can, given how much his heart is threatening to burst out of his chest. Instead of answering the way he really wants to, instead of telling Jaemin that he just wants Jaemin to come back to them, he asks, like the coward he is, “So, what do you have planned after this?”
“There’s a movie that Yuta-hyung recommended. He said it was really good.” Jaemin slurps up the rest of the ramyeon on his plate, noisy and loud and the way he only ever does it when he’s alone with Jeno. “Here, take this last tteokbokki, I don’t want it.”
“No,” Jeno whines, but he eats it anyway. He picks some of the pieces of kimbap apart, fishing out all of the cucumbers before giving them to Jaemin. “How are you ever going to gain weight when you give me all the food?”
“I eat at home, too, you know. Unlike you guys, my mom actually cooks my food so I don’t have to eat crappy takeout or cafeteria food. That’s the real benefit of staying at home all the time. I get to do nothing and eat everything.” Jaemin shrugs, taking Jeno’s cucumbers and squishing them into his own rolls. “All things considered, it’s really not the worst life to be living.”
“But—” and the sound catches in Jeno’s throat, stuck like all of the words he hasn’t told Jaemin ever since he’s been gone. I miss you. I can’t sleep well without you. I want you to come back to me. I miss you, I miss you, I miss you. Jeno swallows, and Jaemin puts a hand over Jeno’s on the table.
“It’s okay,” Jaemin says, and his eyes are soft and the ever-perpetual smile on his face is small, “I know.”
No, Jeno thinks, you don’t.
After they’ve done away with all of the food, Jeno watches as Jaemin pads over to the cashier to pay. He’s forgotten how easy it is to be with Jaemin, how little he has to worry about having to act a certain way. With Jaemin, he can be who he really is, the Jeno underneath all the layers of singer and dancer and rapper and idol. He can just be himself.
“Alrighty,” Jaemin says when he comes back to the table. “Let’s get out of here.”
“Yeah, there’s a theater near here. I think it’s maybe two or three blocks away? I got tickets beforehand, so we won’t have to wait in line.” Jaemin digs around in his pockets before fishing out two movie tickets. “I got us good seats, too. Right in the middle of the seats, so we’ll be able to get the best experience. I heard the soundtrack is really good, too.”
Jeno hums, getting up from the table to follow Jaemin out. “I saw a lot of good things about it on the internet. The animation looks so nice, too.”
“You haven’t watched it with any of the members yet?” When Jeno looks over, Jaemin’s head is cocked to the side, and Jeno wants the ground to swallow him up so that he doesn’t have to give the answer that Jaemin already knows.
“Nah,” Jeno says, affecting nonchalance as best as he can. “I wanted to watch it with you.”
Jaemin doesn’t say anything in return, and Jeno doesn’t look over, but he feels Jaemin’s hand find his and he knows that Jaemin had the same idea. The walk to the theater is short, and Jeno can’t help but wish that it were longer because when they get to the front of the theater, Jaemin’s fingers disentangle from his.
Once Jaemin gives the ticket counter their tickets and they get past the lines and through the security, Jeno barely manages to suppress a snort when Jaemin pulls out a pack of candy from inside his jacket. “Really? Na Jaemin, really?”
“Hey, it’s the kind that you like.” Jeno scoffs, but upon closer inspection, it actually is. It’s a pack of the little chocolate candies with strawberries on them, and Jeno hasn’t had them in practically forever. “Don’t you dare say that I never do anything for you.”
“You’re the best,” Jeno says obediently, stretching his hands out to take the box of chocolate from Jaemin. “Where’d you even get this? Isn’t this Japanese? I didn’t know you could find these here.”
“Oh, I looked around a bit,” Jaemin says offhandedly, and Jeno knows that Jaemin probably spent the last month scouring the internet for places to get them online. He pushes down all of the things that he wants to say— you shouldn’t have done that for me, why did you do it, I’m not worth all that trouble— and instead reaches for Jaemin’s outstretched hand with the hand that isn’t holding the box of chocolate.
“I hope this isn’t my only present,” Jeno says lightly, and Jaemin puts his free hand over his heart, gasping.
“The nerve! What if I told you that it was? Would you be sad?” Jaemin asks as they walk to where they were assigned to sit, and Jeno thinks about it for a bit. Jaemin’s never been one to remember anyone’s birthday at all— the fact that he actually remembered Jeno’s birthday and planned out a day for them to hang out is more than incredible. More than that, though, is the fact that he’s gotten to see Jaemin after nearly four months of not being able to meet up in person. Jaemin’s presence is more of a present than anything could ever be.
“No,” Jeno says, and it’s the truth. He squeezes Jaemin’s hand and decides that today, he’s going to start being more honest with himself. “Being with you like this is more than enough for me.”
“Well, shit,” Jaemin mutters, loud enough that it’s clear that he wants Jeno to hear. “I should just return your gift then, it could’ve saved me some money.”
“Asshole,” Jeno laughs, punching Jaemin lightly in the shoulder, but he’s relieved beyond anything else. This isn’t the kind of conversation that he wants to have in the middle of a crowded movie theater. He pops the box of candy open. “Want one?”
Jaemin wrinkles his nose, clearly displeased. “Only if you eat the strawberry part off so I can have the chocolate part.”
Jeno rolls his eyes, but he dutifully bites off the strawberry end of a piece to pass Jaemin the chocolate end. “I have no idea what your entire deal with is with strawberry flavored things. You like strawberries just fine, don’t you? You’re so weird.”
“Excuse me? What kind of Korean doesn’t like cucumber? Cucumber is in everything you eat here, you fool. But yet you still don’t like it,” Jaemin shoots back. “Imagine having no taste buds at all. Oh, wait, that’s you.”
Jeno’s about to retort, but it dies on his lips when the lights in the theater start to dim. He gives Jaemin a sour look, which Jaemin returns with a nasty grin at having gotten the last word in. Whatever. They’ll have plenty of time to repeat the exact same cucumber versus strawberry argument again later.
Objectively, the movie is good. The rave reviews online have done it justice, and the graphics are to die for. It’s very good, which is why halfway through, Jeno looks over at Jaemin and sees him crying into the sleeve of his hoodie. “Oh my god,” Jeno whispers. “You’re crying?”
“Shut the fuck up,” Jaemin hisses back, but it loses some of its usual effect because of how clogged up Jaemin’s throat is. “Shut up and watch the damn movie.”
Jeno tries. He can see why Yuta watched it an entire three times, why he cried every time, and why Jaemin is crying now. He hadn’t really felt like crying before, but looking over and seeing Jaemin tear up is making wetness start to pool at the corner of his eyes, and oh shit. He tries to blink the tears away, but it’s futile— Jaemin’s already heard him sniffle, and he tightens his hand around Jeno’s as if to say haha, you’re caught.
Soon, the movie ends, and Jeno realizes that he doesn’t remember a lot about the movie— he’d been so focused on the warmth of Jaemin’s hand in his that he’d completely missed the last scene, and he makes a mental note to himself to rewatch it later tonight when he’s alone in bed and missing Jaemin. They get up to leave, and Jeno finds himself wishing that everyone in front of them would just walk more slowly so he can spend more time with Jaemin.
“I have to go back to the dorms,” Jeno says when they step out of the theater, hesitant at the thought of having to go. Jaemin’s hand is still clutched tight in his, and when Jaemin looks at him, his eyes are bright and wide and there’s a flush high on his cheeks. For as much as everyone likes to call Jeno the visual, Jeno thinks that Jaemin has always, always been immeasurably handsome.
“Do you really have to, though?” Jaemin asks, and that’s all Jeno needs to break.
“Nah,” Jeno says, and when he sees Jaemin’s smile widen and brighten up the entire night, the only thing stopping Jeno from launching himself at Jaemin right now is the crowd of people around him. He grips Jaemin’s hand more tightly and says, “Let’s go home.”
Jaemin’s place is fairly close to Myeongdong, but it’s still a fifteen-minute subway ride away. Jeno reluctantly lets go of Jaemin’s hand once they board the subway, but Jaemin finds them seats at the end of the car. Jaemin’s thigh is warm against his, and it’s the feeling of knowing that Jaemin is right next to him that gets Jeno through the train ride. From there, it’s a short five-minute walk to Jaemin’s place, an apartment on the eighth floor of a large complex.
Jaemin’s mom opens the door, and she very nearly chokes Jeno when she bursts forward to hug him. “Jeno! Happy early birthday! I hope our Jaemin treated you well today.”
“Hi, auntie, thank you,” Jeno says, toeing off his shoes at the entrance. “Jaemin was very good to me.”
“That’s good to hear. Sometimes he’s a little absent-minded, so I just had to make sure,” she clucks. “If you’re still feeling a little bit hungry, I made some seaweed soup for you boys.”
When Jaemin’s mom disappears into the kitchen, Jeno whirls around to stab an accusing finger into Jaemin’s chest. “You planned this! You knew I was going to come back and had your mom make me seaweed soup?”
“Okay, some corrections: I didn’t ask my mom to make you seaweed soup. I just told her it’s your birthday tomorrow and she said she was going to make you seaweed soup, so I had to do my best to bring you back here.” Jaemin puts up his hands in surrender. “Also, I technically did plan this, but I wasn’t a hundred percent sure that you would actually ditch the dorm to come back here. I didn’t do anything wrong.”
Jeno sighs. Jaemin is too much, but he can’t stay mildly annoyed at him for long, not when everything Jaemin’s doing is for him. “Fine,” he grumbles. “Let’s get some of your mom’s soup.”
It’s amazing, which is why Jeno has an entire three bowls of it. Jaemin stares at him the entire time until Jeno puts down his bowl to say, “Hey, I haven’t had your mom’s cooking in three years. Lay off.”
“I’m not judging you,” Jaemin says, setting his spoon and chopsticks down. He’s had four bowls, so Jeno has no idea why he’s making weird judging expressions in the first place. “It’s just been a while since I saw you here.”
Jeno swallows, and something in Jaemin’s eyes tells him that it’s a more loaded statement than it would seem. He used to go back home with Jaemin sometimes, back when they were still in school and he missed his parents. Jaemin’s parents are as familiar to him as his own, and he considers them his second mom and dad now.
“Yeah, it’s been a long time,” he says, clearing his throat, and he moves to put his own empty bowl and utensils in the sink, calling out to Jaemin’s mom in the living room, “Thank you for the meal, auntie!”
Jaemin goes to follow him, and they wash their dishes together, Jeno washing them with soap before Jaemin rinses them off with water and puts them in the drying rack.
“Let’s go?” Jeno ventures, and Jaemin nods. He still remembers where Jaemin’s room is from all the times he’d gone there after school to pretend to be working on homework and to really be playing video games. Jaemin shuts the door behind him, and Jeno walks around the familar space, patting the stuffed bear he’d given Jaemin for a birthday a few years ago and looking at the audition tags he’d taped onto the wall. “It hasn’t changed at all.”
“No? I was hoping it would look a little bit more grown up. A little bit more refined, maybe?” Jaemin tries, and Jeno has to resist the urge to laugh in his face.
“You wish, Jaemin.”
“Oh, before I forget—” Jaemin heads over to his closet and pulls out a bag from a store Jeno doesn’t recognize before padding back over to Jeno and holding the bag out to him. “Here, this is your real birthday present. Your birthday present part seven.”
Jeno stares at the bag before taking it and sitting down on the floor. “Jaemin, you asshole, you didn’t have to get me anything. Also, part seven? What was the rest?”
“Part one was me, part two was dinner, part three was the movie, part four was the candy, part five was me paying for your train ticket, and part six was the seaweed soup,” Jaemin recounts. “Obviously, part one is the best one, but I’d say the rest of them are decent as well. Open it!”
There are layers and layers of wrapping paper piled inside of the bag, and it takes Jeno a few good seconds of pushing all the paper aside to get to what’s underneath. It’s a polo shirt, black and yellow, and when Jeno holds it up to the light, he sees that it has long and wide sleeves.
“I can’t believe you actually remembered my birthday,” Jeno says with no small amount of wonder and amazement. “Who are you and what have you done with my Jaemin?”
“You’re having a birthday party tomorrow, right?” Jaemin asks suddenly, completely dodging the question. “With the company?”
“Yeah, I am,” Jeno replies, a bit thrown off. “God, thank you so much. It’s so cute.”
“Can you wear it tomorrow?” Jaemin’s voice is quiet, and when Jeno looks back up, Jaemin doesn’t meet his eyes. “That way, I can be there with you as well.”
Jeno’s heart shatters, and in that instant, he knows that he would do everything in his power to never hear Jaemin say anything with that voice again. “Of course,” Jeno says, and he scrambles up from the floor. “Of course, Jaemin, of course. God, thank you so much, thank you.”
Jaemin’s eyes are bright when he looks at Jeno again, and Jeno reaches up to brush his thumbs across Jaemin’s cheekbones and leans in.
“Thank you, Jaemin,” Jeno whispers against Jaemin’s lips. “Thank you.”
Kissing Jaemin, like everything else, is easy. There’s no rush, no need to do anything quickly, and they can take their time. Jeno’s arms come up to wind around Jaemin’s neck, his hands finding themselves in Jaemin’s hair, and Jaemin’s hands come to rest at Jeno’s waist. Jeno relearns the curve of Jaemin’s lips, the warmth of Jaemin’s hands, the press of Jaemin’s body against his, and when he opens his eyes again and pulls away, Jaemin is looking straight at him, and Jeno very nearly jumps out of his skin.
“What— oh my god, did you have your eyes open the entire time?”
“Not the entire time,” Jaemin wheedles, his lips distractingly shiny.
“Why are you the way you are,” Jeno mumbles, and Jaemin leans closer. Jeno can already feel his face start to heat up again, and he pushes lightly at Jaemin’s face. “Stop, what are you doing. Na Jaemin, what are you doing, you are so weird, I swear.”
“It’s only because your eyelashes are so pretty,” Jaemin says, hooking a careful hand around Jeno’s neck and pulling him in. “I can’t stop looking at them.”
“Get off, you sap. Give me some clothes, I want to change,” Jeno says, but he’s already halfway across the room and rooting around in Jaemin’s drawers to pilfer his belongings. He picks out a shirt and a pair of sleep shorts before turning to Jaemin. “I’ll just shower in the morning, but I want to brush my teeth before we go to sleep.”
“Okay, I’ll go with you. I want to change too,” Jaemin says, getting a change of clothes out and following Jeno to the bathroom. The lights in the hallway are off, as are the lights in the rest of the house. “I think both of my parents are asleep.”
“Don’t try anything,” Jeno warns, getting a pair of raised eyebrows from Jaemin in response. “Seriously.”
“You’re no fun, really.” Jaemin locks the bathroom door behind them and digging around in the drawers for a toothbrush. He hands it to Jeno before turning away to change. “Here, go brush.”
“Oh, it’s okay, I’ll just change now, too. It feels just like we’re changing backstage in a music show.” Jeno’s known Jaemin for too long not to be comfortable changing around him like this, and he gets his clothes off and Jaemin’s clothes on in record time. “Hey, this is a nice shirt.”
“You can have it if you want,” Jaemin says. Half of his hair is sticking up from when he’d put his sleep shirt on, and Jeno reaches forward to pat it back down. “Just wear it back to the dorms tomorrow.”
“Maybe I will.” It feels the same and not at the same time, standing together in the bathroom and brushing their teeth. They’ve done it for so long in the dorms, but it feels different now.
“Doesn’t this feel domestic to you?” Jaemin blurts out, toothpaste still in his mouth, and Jeno nearly chokes on the toothbrush. Jaemin’s ears are starting to pink when Jeno looks up in the mirror, and Jeno looks back down at the sink, but it’s too late. He can already feel his face heating up.
“Shut up,” Jeno mumbles around the toothbrush. “Oh my god, don’t say things like that, I hate you.”
Jaemin is quiet even after they finish cleaning up, even after they tiptoe back to Jaemin’s room, even after they turn off the lights. Jeno blindly fumbles for the bed with Jaemin’s hand low on his back guiding him there, and once he finds it, he rolls onto it, taking the side that’s closer to the wall. He hasn’t slept in this bed in years, but it’s still the same, the lumps and dips exactly where he remembers them being. He feels Jaemin clamber on, and once his eyes adjust to the dark, he can see Jaemin moving closer more clearly.
“There’s still space on the other side of the bed,” Jeno says, keeping a hand pressed to Jaemin’s chest, but Jaemin scoots closer until Jeno’s back hits the wall behind him. “Jaemin.”
“I saw that you answered questions about me at fansigns,” Jaemin says, the first words he’s said in a long while, and his eyes are luminous in the moonlight. “You weren’t supposed to, but I saw all of the fanaccounts on twitter.”
“Oh,” Jeno says. He remembers being at the fansigns and getting questions about Jaemin, remembers being told explicitly not to say anything about Jaemin, remembers thinking fuck that and whispering the answers to the fans anyway. He’s just never thought that Jaemin would ever find out. “Yeah. I mean, I had to. Everyone missed you so much, and—”
“I felt like I owed it to them. Everyone was waiting for you, wondering where you were, and we knew everything but we couldn’t say anything. I decided that I had to tell them anything they wanted to hear.” Jeno sighs, and he feels Jaemin move even closer. “I can’t blame them for wanting to know more about you, you know? It was so unfair that they made us not talk about you at all. It was like you didn’t exist, and I hated that.”
Jaemin is so close now that Jeno can feel his breath ghosting over his lips. “Did you miss me?”
It would be so, so easy to lie, but Jeno knows that Jaemin would see through him in an instant. There’s no use in trying to hide when Jaemin can read even the most minute of changes in his expression, when Jaemin knows by the inflection in his voice if he’s lying or not, when all of his secrets are laid bare between them.
“I did,” Jeno breathes out, an affirmation and a reminder and a confession all at the same time. “I missed you so, so much.”
Jaemin leans forward, somehow managing in the dark to press feather-light kisses to Jeno’s forehead, across his cheeks, on the tip of his nose, at the corner of his lips, before Jeno feels the press of Jaemin’s lips against his own. He chases the taste of mint through Jaemin’s mouth, dragging Jaemin closer to deepen the kiss.
“Happy birthday, Jeno. Even if I forget everyone else’s, I’ll always remember your birthday,” Jaemin murmurs when he pulls away, soft and quiet and fond, and Jeno thinks that he’s never loved anyone or anything more than Jaemin in this moment— Jaemin in an old and loved t-shirt, Jaemin looking at him like he’s the only one that matters in the world, Jaemin— just Jaemin. “Stay here with me tonight.”
“I love you,” Jeno whispers, watching the moonlight play off of Jaemin’s eyelashes, and Jaemin loops an arm around Jeno’s waist to pull him closer until they’re curled around one another, parentheses bracketing the sum of all that they are, all that they were, and all that they will be between them. This is his answer, and it’s more than enough.
For the first time in months, Jeno sleeps well.
Voicemail from: Renjun (04/23/2017 08:14)
“Uh, Jeno? Where are you? You didn’t come back last night, so exactly where are you right now? Manager-hyung is freaking out right now! Oh god, if you’re missing, we are going to have so much to explain to Doyoung-hyung. Please come back.”
Voicemail from: Chenle (04/23/2017 08:25)
“Manager-hyung says you’re grounded!”
Voicemail from: Lee Mark Lee (04/23/2017 10:13)
“Lee Jeno, when you see and hear this, I need you to call me back and tell me exactly why there are pictures of you hanging out with Jaemin on the internet. Doyoung-hyung is freaking out and Taeyong-hyung looks like he wants to cry, and I can’t tell if it’s because they’re stressed or if it’s because they wanted to be there with you and Jaemin. Please, my hair is probably going to fall out and it’s going to all be your and Jaemin’s faults. Renjun and Chenle and Jisung aren’t even telling me anything, and Donghyuck thinks it’s funny! But I don’t! Please just call me back. Thanks, Jeno.”
One night, Jaemin shows up at the dorm with his backpack on his shoulders and a wide grin on his face, and Chenle screams so loudly that Jeno is sure that literally everyone in their apartment complex can hear it. Renjun runs to Jaemin to give him a quick hug and a clap on the back, and Jisung slouches forward to try to give Jaemin a half-hug before Jaemin grabs Jisung and holds him tight for what Jisung later describes as the longest minute of his life.
Once Jisung wrenches himself out of Jaemin’s grasp, Jaemin’s eyes flicker expectantly to Jeno, and Jeno sighs before he opens his arms wide. Jaemin bounds into his arms, flinging his arms around Jeno’s neck and pulling him tight, and Jeno can feel the breath leaving his body. He pats Jaemin’s back— once, twice, thrice— to try to get him to let go, and he does, but only after pressing a wet and sloppy kiss to Jeno’s cheek that he pretends to hate.
Jisung’s entire face scrunches up, and Jeno takes it as a cue to grab Jaemin before he can attempt to pinch Jisung’s cheeks. Everything is back to normal now that Jaemin is back— at least, as much of a semblance of normalcy as they could ever possibly hope to accomplish. Normalcy with Jaemin means that Chenle shrieks even more loudly than usual with someone to fuel his and Renjun’s shenanigans and that Jisung is even more on the verge of an aneurysm than he always is by default.
Everything is normal until it comes time for bed, and Jaemin pads over to his old room to grab his blanket and pillows to move them over to his new room. Jaemin pauses in the doorway, and it’s only when Jisung crumples into a fit of laughter on the ground that Jeno blanches, the realization of what Jaemin must be seeing finally hitting him.
“Okay, okay, that’s enough!” Jeno shouts, shoving past Jaemin to grab Jaemin’s pillows and blanket from where they’re still placed on Jeno’s bed. He throws them into Jaemin’s arms, barely managing not to look at the absolutely shit-eating grin that’s made its home on Jaemin’s face, before using all of his strength to try to push Jaemin out of the room. “You have your own room, use it!”
“Jeno,” Jaemin says, his eyes widening with mock innocence. “Did you really sleep with my pillows when I was gone? Did you really? Inquiring minds want to know!”
“Out!” Jeno uses the rest of his strength to push Jaemin out of the room before he slams the door.
“You shouldn’t slam the door like that!” Chenle yells through the door. “I’m telling manager-hyung it was all your fault if we end up having to get it fixed again!”
“I have to go to sleep, hyung, open the door. Stop being such a baby,” Jisung says, and Jeno snorts.
“Shut up, Jisung, you sleep on the couch. Try harder next time.”
“I want to sleep.” It’s Renjun this time, someone who actually sleeps in the room he’s supposed to be sleeping in, and Jeno reluctantly opens the door. Renjun gives him an exasperated look as he passes by Jeno and flops onto his bed.
“Please be gone by the time I fall asleep,” Renjun mutters.
“You wish,” Jeno says, crawling into his bunk and staring up at the bottom of the top bunk. He tries to fall asleep, but it’s too cold and too empty next to him, and he hates that Renjun is right. When he takes his pillow with him and leaves the room, he tries his best to avoid Renjun’s judgmental stare. He fails.
Jisung cranes his neck up over the arm of the couch when Jeno walks by on his way to Jaemin’s room, and he clucks his tongue in disapproval. “Sad, hyung. You couldn’t last a day without him.”
“Go the fuck to sleep, Jisung,” Jeno says, his voice and smile sweet as he whacks Jisung on the legs with his pillow.
“I’m telling on you,” Jisung grumbles before burying his face into the couch seat. “Have fun with Jaemin-hyung.”
“I’m pretending I never heard that,” Jeno calls out behind him, and he gets a grunt in response. Jaemin’s new room is one of their old storage rooms that they converted into something liveable. Jeno doesn’t knock before he opens the door, poking his head and pillow in first.
“Knock knock,” he says in lieu of actually knocking, and Jaemin waves a lazy hand at him.
“I knew you’d be coming back. I was waiting for you.” Jaemin scoots over on the bed to make space for Jeno, and Jeno slips under the covers, putting his pillow next to Jaemin’s. Jaemin looks so much healthier, so much fuller, so much happier up close, and it warms Jeno’s heart to see Jaemin back like this.
“Cocky, aren’t you?” Jeno laughs. He’s suddenly so much sleepier than he’d been before in his and Renjun’s and Jisung’s room. He blames Jaemin’s electric heating pad and Jaemin’s thermostat that’s turned up higher than the rest of the dorm’s and Jaemin himself. Jaemin’s as much of a walking space heater as he’s always been, and on a chilly January night, this is exactly what Jeno needs.
“C’mere and stop talking,” Jaemin says, reaching for Jeno to pull him closer, and Jeno tips his head obligingly to the side so Jaemin can nose into the side of his neck, and it tickles when Jaemin inhales, deep and slow.
“You smell like laundry,” Jaemin mumbles into Jeno’s neck, and Jeno laughs.
“What else would I even smell like?” Jeno asks, and Jaemin makes a noise like discontent.
“I don’t know,” Jaemin huffs before Jeno feels a smile curve against his neck, and he’s not sure if he’s ready for what Jaemin is about to say. That smile means nothing good is about to happen. “Maybe me?”
Jeno’s intuition was right. He’ll never be ready for the kinds of things that come out of Jaemin’s mouth, and he gasps, a sound that’s only muffled by how fast Jaemin’s reflexes are in clapping a hand over Jeno’s mouth. Jeno gives Jaemin a baleful glare before he licks a stripe up Jaemin’s palm.
“Disgusting,” Jaemin mutters, pulling his hand away and wiping it on his sheets, and Jeno takes the opportunity to dart forward and peck Jaemin quickly on the cheek. “What are you, twelve?”
“No, I’m Jeno,” Jeno replies, and he takes in the moment that Jaemin rolls his eyes for all it’s worth before he attempts a bit of honesty. “I’m also a little bit in love with you, in case you haven’t noticed.”
“Don’t worry, I’ve definitely noticed. It’s so hard not to notice when you can’t even sleep without my pillow,” Jaemin laughs, but his eyes go soft around the corners and his hands find Jeno’s underneath the covers. Jaemin is finally, finally here in the dorm with them after what felt like an eternity, and Jeno can’t wait to promote with him again. “I’m back.”
“You’ve finally come back to us,” Jeno murmurs, and he hopes Jaemin knows that home isn’t the dorm. Home isn’t Seoul or Incheon or anywhere else. They say that home is where the heart is, and Jeno knows for a fact that his home will always be where Jaemin is. “Welcome home.”