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no angels could beckon me back

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Jeno has maybe a month left. Maybe, if he lets the doctors confine him to his bed and fill him with medicine.

Maybe . Maybe a month. Maybe less.

Jeno coughs into his hand and stares at the flecks of blood that dot across his skin. He wipes his hand with a tissue and shoves it deep into his pocket, not daring to dwell on the circumstances.

Maybe. Jeno's life is full of maybes.

After the first appointment, where the doctor had looked at his lungs with a grim face, had held the x-rays up to the light and squinted at them, frowned at Jeno, shook his head.

Maybe , Jeno thought , I'll get better.

But the days dragged into weeks and the lump in his lung proved resilient and deadly.

A month. It's so little time, too little.

Jeno takes the chalk in his hand and uses it to draw a large circle in the crossroads where two roads pass. He had searched for one that was isolated, so no one would wonder what he was doing. He draws symbols into the pavement, each one painfully detailed and painstakingly crafted.

Miracle cures are hard to come by. Jeno knows this, but searches anyway.

He's visited priests and healers, self proclaimed witches. Shamans. He's read and searched and cried.

Jeno is too young to die.

This is my last resort, Jeno thinks as he draws on the asphalt, the ground rough beneath his knees. He stands in the center and fishes the bloodied napkin out of his pocket. He looks at it for a moment, then drops it onto the ground, watching it flutter red and white against the black asphalt. He takes a box of matches from his pocket and strikes one, letting it fall from his fingers.

The tissue blazes red and orange against the night. Jeno can see the smoke rise and can smell the tang of ash and burning iron but somehow feels far away, not there.

The smoke spirals into the sky, and nothing happens.

Jeno blinks back the stinging sensation behind his eyes and just stands there. It's another dead end, another option that was never going to work. He's about to turn away and head home when he hears a voice call out to him.

"A pentagram? You must be desperate."

Jeno turns to face the voice and finds himself looking at a boy not much older than he is. He looks innocent enough in the darkness, young and smiling. His hair is a cotton candy pink, looking as soft as spun sugar or thread. Jeno gapes at him.

"Who are you?" He asks, voice shaking. The boy levels him with a curious look, tilting his head.

"I'm Jaemin," he says, dipping into an exaggerated bow. His pink hair falls across his forehead and Jeno watches the movement, stunned. "I believe you summoned me."

Jeno nods slowly, mouth gaping.

It worked. It really worked .

What Jeno is looking at, if he can believe his eyes, is an honest to god crossroads demon. The kind that grants wishes, in exchange for one's soul.

Jaemin looks at him like he can read his mind. He raises an eyebrow. "So, what is it you want? Money? Love?" His voice has a tinge of disdain.

Jeno opens his mouth to speak but is interrupted by a series of loud, wracking coughs. His chest heaves as he tries to regain his breath.

"I want," he gasps, "to live."

The demon, Jaemin, steps closer to him, staring. He doesn't seem fazed by the fact that Jeno has just split blood onto the asphalt, or the fact that exhaustion and illness has settled beneath his eyes like a bruise. He simply purses his lips, looking at him.

"For how long?" He asks. His voice is clean, almost clinical. The words have been scrubbed clean of emotion with antiseptic, bleached of sympathy.

"As long as I can," Jeno gasps. He doesn't want to live forever. He just wants to live long enough to have actually lived, to grow up and grow old. He wants to go to college with his friends and study, he wants to see the world. He wants to fall in love, to kiss someone, to hold hands.

But he doesn't have enough time to do all those things.

At least, not yet.

"A normal human lifespan? I can do that." The demon wiggles his fingers in Jeno's direction. "But I assume you know what I want in return."

His soul. Jeno knows that, yes.

"You can have it," he says. "What do I need to do?"

"Nothing, as of now." Jaemin says slowly. "But know that once you pass, once you actually die, your soul is indebted to me."

Jeno nods. At least he gets to keep his soul for the time being. He was worried that the demon would take his soul right then and there, robbing him of the ability to feel.

Jaemin holds out a hand, his lips curling into a smile. "Let's shake on it."

Jeno takes his hand, shaking it once. The demon's hand is warm, surprisingly so. He lets go, feeling nothing at first. He takes a breath.

Jeno can pinpoint the second the air rushes into his lungs, clean and clear and good lord he can breath, can really breathe. He looks at Jaemin in shock and wonder.

"Thank you," he says, pressing his hands to his chest. "Thank you."

"Don't thank me," Jaemin says. "It's just part of the deal."

He walks off into the night, retreating into the shadows, and Jeno practically runs home.

He goes to the doctor the next day and waits, anxiously, for the results of his latest tests.

"It's amazing!" The doctor exclaims. "You're completely healed! It's a miracle!"

Jeno smiles quietly. He doesn't think about the crossroads demon.

...

Jeno gets his wish. He graduates high school and gets accepted into the university of his dreams. Life is a fever dream and Jeno, Jeno feels so unbelievably lucky to be where he is now. He looks over at his friends. He remembers when he had first told them he was cured and how they had cheered, threw him a surprise party with a cake that said Yay! in big sloppy letters.

Life is good. Life is great .

But Jeno can't help but wonder about what happens after, when Jaemin comes to claim his soul. He thinks, realistically, it won't matter then. What does he need a soul for when he's dead?

The question lingers at the very back of his mind, unanswered.

He's been at college for about a week when it happens. He's walking back from the library after dark and crossing the street when he's flooded in bright headlights.

A screech of tires and Jeno is almost rooted to the spot in shock.

It isn't fair. It isn't fair.

Suddenly Jeno feels an arm around his waist and is pulled forcefully onto the sidewalk, crashing against the pavement. The car races past, full of drunken, shouting partygoers. He takes a shaky breath and gets to his feet, turning to thank whoever had pulled him off the road. His eyes widen at the sight of the boy in front of him.

"Jaemin?" He asks, voice incredulous. The pink haired boy stands up and brushes himself off, looking at Jeno coolly.

"You're welcome," he states, his hair tousled across his forehead. He gives an air of inconvenience, as if helping Jeno wasn’t in his plans but he decided to do it anyway.

"Why'd you save me?" Jeno blurts out. Jaemin doesn't look surprised at his outburst.

"It's part of our deal," he says. "You want to live as long as you can, and it's my job to see that my end of the bargain is kept." His eyes soften. "Also, you're a dumbass. Someone had to help you."

Jeno bristles slightly at the words, but he feels oddly unbothered. He looks at Jaemin curiously.

"Where did you even come from?" He asks. Jaemin just shrugs.

"I was in the area," he says, shoving his hands in his pockets.

Jeno takes a moment to look at Jaemin, really look at him. Beneath the lamplight he looks a little too ethereal to be a normal person, wearing a white sweater and jeans. He looks almost human, maybe too human, and Jeno has to tear his gaze away.

"Thank you," Jeno says, and he truly means it. Jaemin dismisses it with a wave of his hand.

"You don't have to thank me," Jaemin says. "It's just part of the deal."

...

Strange things happen, just unusual enough for him to notice but not unusual enough for him to care. When winter comes the flu begins to spread, but Jeno is the only one in his dorm that doesn't get sick. His chemistry class is the only room completely spared by the fire in the science lab next door. The little things add up and suddenly Jeno begins to wonder if perhaps Jaemin is behind all of this, lurking on campus, watching over him. The thought is slightly unnerving, but Jeno feels oddly comforted.

Maybe, just maybe, he would like to see Jaemin again.

...

He doesn't have to wait long. It's January, and students are starting to trickle back onto campus. He's rushing to the library, arms full of books he needs to return, when his foot hits an unmelted patch of ice on the sidewalk. He slips backwards and the books fly out his arms, pages rustling in the air. Jeno is preparing to knock his head on the cold ground when a pair of arms slide beneath his back and swoop him back onto his feet.

Jeno's breath is fogging in the air when he looks at Jaemin, dressed in a red sweater and blazer. Jaemin smirks slightly.

"You should be more careful," he says, his voice light. He still has an arm wrapped around Jeno's waist and Jeno can feel the warmth from his skin through the knit material of his sweater. He can't help but blush as he disentangles himself from Jaemin, hiding his face as he picks his books up off the ground. Jaemin bends down to help him.

"So, uh," Jeno starts, slightly flustered by the proximity. "What have you been up to?"

Jaemin shrugs. "A little bit of this, a little bit of that." The answer is purposefully vague, Jeno can tell. He gets the feeling he doesn't want to know what Jaemin has been up to.

"Well, thank you." Jeno rubs the back of his neck. "For keeping me from wiping out on that ice."

Jaemin opens his mouth to say something, but Jeno interrupts.

"Don't tell me not to thank you," he states. "You're getting thanked, no matter what."

Jaemin's face settles into a warm smile.

Jeno adjusts his books in his arms. "Want to come with me to the library?"

The library is quiet and, thankfully, quite warm. Jeno unravels his scarf from around his neck and puts his books down at an empty chair. Jaemin sits on the table, his legs dangling over the edge.

"You like the library," Jaemin says nonchalantly, paging through one of the books, a thick biochemistry one.

It's true. Jeno has always liked the comfort of books, the weight, the smell. Even when he was sick and unable to go places he was able to read, and read he did. He read as many books as he could, living vicariously through the characters. It was a little world that only he could enter, a haven from doctors and medicine.

The habit wasn't one he could break. He still spent long nights at the library just reading, sitting in between the aisles with his back pushed up against the shelves. He wonders if Jaemin knows this, has seen him coming back to his dorm with books under his arm, exhausted. He thinks the chance is quite high.

Jaemin's gaze slides over to him as he takes the books and drops them in the return box. He grabs Jeno's discarded scarf, mindlessly winding through his hands.

"So," Jeno says, trying to lighten the atmosphere. "Done anything fun lately?"

"No," Jaemin says, his hands momentarily still. "Unless keeping you from falling on every ice patch in existence counts as fun."

"I like to think I'm fun," Jeno pouts.

Jaemin laughs dryly. "I'm sure you are." His voice is almost wistful.

Jeno ducks behind a shelf to grab a book, but when he comes back, Jaemin is gone.

...

Jaemin is an enigma. He exists and doesn't, arrives when Jeno needs him and vanishes again.

Sometimes, when Jeno dreams, he dreams about Jaemin's eyes, brown flecked with gold, shimmering beneath the lamplight the first night they met. He remembers what it felt like to have a second chance.

Jeno doesn't worry about his soul anymore.

...

Jeno doesn't see Jaemin again for a long time. He survives midterms without so much as a migraine. Spring comes and he lets his friends drag him to his first real party, a wholly underwhelming experience. The music is too loud, the drinks too alcoholic. He ends up sitting on the couch, scrolling through his phone.

"Hey. You here alone?" An upperclassmen asks him, his voice gruff. Jeno looks around.

"No, I'm here with my friends."

"You look alone," the upperclassman says, leaning closer. His breath reeks of alcohol.

Jeno shifts away, uncomfortable. "I'd really appreciate it if you left me alone."

"Where's the fun in that?" He rests a hand on Jeno's thigh. The action makes Jeno tense in fear.

Suddenly the student is pulled backwards by someone, someone who proceeds to throw him to the floor with ease.

"What the fu-" The student yells angrily, but Jaemin is unrecognizably angry in this light. Jeno watches him as he rains down on the upperclassman with an unmatched fury, the student's face bruising from the assault. Jaemin's eyes have an almost feral glint in them, and Jeno has never seen him like this before. It scares him, terrifies him.

Jaemin stalks out of the party, leaving the student practically unconscious on the ground. His eyes flash to Jeno as he walks out, his mouth set in a grim line. The partygoers stare, shocked.

Jeno races out after him.

Jaemin is leaning against a lamppost, the light painting his face in shadows, when Jeno finally catches up to him. He stares at the ground, hand shoved in his pockets, as Jeno approaches.

Jeno's breath catches in his throat when he looks at Jaemin, maybe realizing for the first time that Jaemin isn't a friend or protector or whatever Jeno has been painting him to be in his mind. He's something different, dangerous, demonic.

Jaemin flashes him a weary smile. "Sorry about that."

Jeno waves his hand. "No, I-" He swallows. "I wanted to thank you."

"It seems like you're always thanking me for something." He jokes, but there's a strain in his voice, one Jeno has never heard before. He pushes off from the streetlight to stand fully in front of Jeno. "Are you okay?"

"I'm fine," he says. "A little shook up, I guess."

Jaemin nods once before turning to go. Jeno reaches out and grabs his arm.

"Why?" Jeno asks, his voice carrying on the night wind. Jaemin's eyes are hollow, empty.

"Why what?" he says, the lamp light casting a shadow across his eyes.

"Why are you always helping me?" Jeno asks, this time stressing the words. There's something pressing on his chest, something that hangs unanswered in the darkness between them.

"It's part of our contract," Jaemin says, but the phrase seems rehearsed. Jeno shakes his head.

"You've been there to protect me from so much," Jeno explains. "Is that really part of our contract?"

Jeno wants an answer, he doesn't want an answer, he wants to turn and go home and sleep away all of this and let it dissolve in the space of his dreams.

"If it wasn't," Jaemin starts, "would you object?" His eyes seem to glow from the inside out as he stares at Jeno. "You have everything you want - you don't even get sick." he takes a deep breath. "I just wanted to make sure you were safe."

Jeno opens his mouth to speak, but the night wind steals his voice away. The darkness is almost oppressing, the two of them standing in the sole light of a shadow world.

"Jeno," Jaemin starts. It's the first time he's really said Jeno's name and it sounds foreign in his mouth, as if he struggles to say it. "I've given you what you wanted. A life. What more do you want from me?" His voice sounds as if it's on the verge of breaking but his face is angrily set, almost as if in stone. "We made a deal. Your soul for a good life. What more do you want?"

Jaemin's hands are clenched at his sides as he glares at Jeno, his eyes glossy. Jeno doesn't know if he's imagining the tears forming in Jaemin's eyes, but he's sure he must be.

Demons don't have emotions. At least, not that he's heard of.

"Do you know what happens," Jaemin says, voice breaking. "what will happen to your soul?"

Jeno is afraid to breathe. Afraid to speak. He wants to know and doesn't, all at the same time.

"I was like you," Jaemin says, hands shaking. "My soul for a wish. Now I'm like this." he laughs humorlessly.

"What did you wish for?" Jeno asks, his voice a murmur.

"My sister was sick. I couldn't stand the thought of losing her, so I made a deal. My soul for her life." He takes in a shaky breath. "Isn't it funny? She got better, and a week later I died in a car crash."

The words send an arrow through Jeno's chest. He wants to cry for the sadness, the brokenness in Jaemin's voice. He takes his hand gently.

Jeno isn't quite sure why. Maybe he wants to comfort him. Maybe he wants to help him in some small way after all he's done for him. Jaemin's hand is cold to the touch.

"When the crossroads demon came for my soul, he gave me a choice. Stay a lost spirit, doomed to wander, or become like him."

He spreads his arm in a sweeping gesture. "I think you can guess what I chose."

Jeno looks at Jaemin and for the first time sees him, really sees him. There's a pallor to his skin that Jeno could've sworn wasn't there before, his eyes dark. Even his signature pink hair seems duller beneath the light, an almost dirty blonde.

"I am what you are going to become," Jaemin whispers, his hand tightening around Jeno's. "Nothing is worth this, Jeno. Nothing."

"Why didn't you tell me before, then?" Jeno asks, voice strained. He's scared, scared of the future, scared of Jaemin, scared of the night and the way it fills his lungs like oil.

"I didn't care before," Jaemin says. "I only saw a...a customer, a contract. But you reminded me too much of myself. All you wanted was to live. I wanted to live, too." His voice is so impossibly young, and Jeno can hear the regret in the way the words roll off his tongue, heavy and sorrowful. "Now I care too much."

He stands a little closer to Jeno, his grip on his hand loosening. "I care about you, Jeno. All this time I spent protecting you and I didn't understand why. I couldn't...feel like you do."

Jeno can feel the breath leaving his body, escaping into the space between them. Jeno isn't sure what he feels either, a mix of apprehension and longing. Jeno can taste iron in his mouth, smell smoke, but it is only a memory of something that has already happened.

"I may not have a soul," Jaemin says, quieter this time, his voice barely a whisper. "But I have a good memory, and I remember what it feels like to be in love."

Jaemin wipes at his eyes. He isn't crying, not really, but Jeno suspects the action is a breaking of the moment, a physical reminder to Jaemin that he shouldn't say these things to someone like him. The words feel dangerous, too much like breaking some unspoken rule, too much like crossing lines that shouldn't be crossed.

Jeno doesn't think as he draws Jaemin into his arms, letting his chin rest on his shoulder. Jaemin tenses and for a second Jeno worries if he's gone too far. But then Jaemin relaxes into his touch, letting his arms encircle Jeno's waist. Jeno feels a tingle of warmth, almost electricity, at the touch.

"Thank you," Jaemin says, his voice breathless.

Maybe Jeno feels something at the words, something he's never felt before. He doesn't know what to make of the way he feels about Jaemin, about all that time he's spent wondering if Jaemin was out there somewhere, watching him.

Jeno presses his lips to Jaemin's, but only briefly, only for a moment. Jaemin tenses and Jeno is so afraid that now he's crossed the line but Jaemin pulls him closer, almost bites back. There's a hungry desperation in the kiss, like Jaemin is stealing the air from his lungs, the life from his body.

Kissing Jaemin is like kissing the devil himself. In a way, that's partially true.

Jeno pulls away and Jaemin looks at him, eyes wide.

"I - I have to-" He's stuttering and Jeno reaches out to him but Jaemin is already backing away, eyes wide and mouth open. It's like he's slipping through Jeno's fingers as he vanishes into the night, a shadow returning to the dark.

...

Jeno comes down with a cold.

It's such a small thing but he's laid up in bed with the sniffles and three boxes of tissues, his nose runny. His friend Renjun brings him some noodle soup but Jeno doesn't want it, doesn't want to do anything but lay there until it passes over.

"Are you okay?" Renjun asks. Jeno nods, but he's really not.

At night, as he lays awake, he wonders where Jaemin has gone.

...

Sometimes he thinks he sees Jaemin, looking up at him from the street light below his window. But then he blinks, and sees no one at all.

Jeno is afraid he'll never see Jaemin again.

...

When summer comes Jeno is ready to move out of his dorm and head home. Of course, that means lugging boxes of junk down flights of stairs, a task that Jeno isn't very good at doing. he slips and the box tumbles from his arms, his belongings spilling down the stairs. He cries out in alarm and follows his junk to where it rests, scattered, on the ground.

Someone is already there, picking up his notebooks.

Jeno stares at Jaemin, who is staring at him, a book dangling from his fingers. He looks different now, the pink hair replaced with brown. It's flattering, making his eyes stand out. He's looking at Jeno with wide eyes, his attention diverted from Jeno's belongings on the ground.

"Where were you?" Jeno breathes. Jaemin swallows, never breaking Jeno's gaze.

"I don't know," he says. "Just around, I guess."

The words sound honest. There's something guarded in Jaemin's expression but it eludes Jeno, slips out of his hands as he tries to grab it.

"I missed you," Jeno says. He tries to keep his voice light but the heaviness is still there, weighing on his tongue with the memory of Jaemin's lips, of the lamplight across the sidewalk.

"You shouldn't have," Jaemin says. "You must know by now that I'm no good."

"Are any of us really good?" Jeno asks him softly. His hand burns, a reminder of that night at the crossroads.

"You are," Jaemin says, "good to me."

It doesn't make sense. It's like their places have been switched, like Jeno is the demon and Jaemin has just been saved by him.

"You treat me like... a person." Jaemin says. Jeno is silents.

"But you deserve that."

Doesn't everyone?

The burning is there in Jeno's chest as he meets Jaemin somewhere in between the spaces, in between the confusion and the longing and the murky gray of things that shouldn't and couldn't have been said. His mouth slots gently against Jaemin's and the feeling is familiar, Jaemin is familiar, maybe Jeno is just a bit of a hopeless romantic for a certain crossroads demon.

Maybe he can rewrite this story, one piece at a time. No soul is written in stone. Doomed or not, Jeno doesn't care.

Jaemin pulls him closer, wrapping his arms around his shoulders.

"Soul or not," Jeno murmurs, "you still have my heart."

A soul is a soul is a soul. That’s the thing about a life - it is so incredibly fragile that to touch it is to effectively crack it. To hold it is to shatter it. A life is a heavy thing, and Jeno can see his in Jaemin’s hands, in the heavy weight of his eyes locked on his.

“What is it that you want?” Jeno whispers, paper crunching under his feet.

“I can’t break the contract now,” Jaemin says, voice quiet. “If I do, you’ll die. We’ll both die.”

“Then don’t,” Jeno says quietly. “If having a soul still means I get to love you then so be it. If losing that soul still means I get to love you, then so be it.”

So be it. And just like that, Jeno’s fate is sealed.

...

An old man sits in a room, staring out the window. Sunlight falls against the floor in straight lines, drawing pathways across the walls and ceiling. The man sits, and waits. He knows something is coming.

The man has lived a long life, a healthy one, a happy one. He got what he wanted, most of it. He does not fear death, just knows that it is the beginning to something else. He takes in the sunlight with these eyes, knowing what will happen next.

The young boy sitting next to him places a soft hand on his. He hasn’t changed, not in 80 years. He still looks the same as when Jeno met him, all those decades ago, blanketed by shadows on a lonely road.

Jaemin’s voice is quiet. “Are you ready?”

Jeno smiles, gives a breathy laugh. “Of course.”

“You know the options you have,” Jaemin says, voice lost in the sunlight. His eyes are like honey in the light, and Jeno knows what he will choose. Has always known. Has spent the past 80 years of his life knowing.

“I know what I want,” Jeno says softly, and it's like he’s 18 again, just a kid who wanted to live his life. Jaemin squeezes his hand and Jeno feels a peace he has never felt before.

If having a soul still means I get to love you then so be it. If losing that soul still means I get to love you, then so be it.

Jeno is not afraid to die.

There’s a legend they tell about demons in the night. If you draw a star in a circle in a crossroads you might see them, two boys who never age, who never change. It’s a last resort, but the boys are always kind.

Maybe you can see them, like phantoms, in the back of a photo or silhouetted by the dying embers of a flame. Maybe, if you squint, you’ll recognize one of them - a boy who had no time left and then all the time in the world.

How long does love last?

Maybe eternity. Maybe more.