Jaemin does not lie to himself.
He may lie to others — to those he loves to protect them, and to those he hates to protect himself; to every fan who asks him if he’s okay, his words a practiced act that glitter behind his eyes like a promise. He may lie to the world and cover his heart, but he will never lie to himself. He knows who he is — has known for a long time, and has never felt a strip of shame at the parts of him others might find despicable. He is strong in all the ways they will never know, has bones of iron and a disposition to match, has a steel-clad heart that pumps blood like a machine and keeps him running when by all accounts he should have given up years ago.
If he is just Na Jaemin, nineteen, again — no NCT, no burnished armour and eyes like a foxed mirror: he knows himself. He knows a part of him that was set into motion the day he sat on a practice room floor with twenty other trainees and made faces at the boy sitting beside him. It's an ugly part, to some — to Jaemin, even, because it's so precarious and dangerous, a representation of the tightrope he's balanced on for years. But it's special — it's one of the things he can hold on to. Something that when he thinks he's losing himself he can hold up and say — 'no. This is who Na Jaemin is.'
Two days after they'd met he and Jeno had snuck out of the dorm with no real direction. They'd wandered around the streets of Songpa-gu until their feet hurt, talking about school and how scary it was for them to be trainees, how their auditions went and what the recruiter had said them. What their parents thought (Jeno — proud. Jaemin — wary). Jeno had bought them ice cream bars, and Jaemin hadn’t had the heart to tell him how anything with milk made him feel ill. The notion of it had died on the tip of his tongue when he'd seen Jeno count the change and shove it into the pocket of his shorts — faded and full of holes. Jeno had handed him one, a shy smile on his face when he’d said it was for him ‘because he looked sweet’.
If Jaemin had known where that ice cream bar would lead him to, he’s unsure if he would have ever taken it. But as it was, Jaemin then was lonely and scared, and Jeno was nice — his own little galaxy contained in a boy, kissed by stardust with gangly limbs and a hiccuping laugh. They sat down on a park bench, red paint peeling like tongues, and ate until their fingers were sticky. It was the kind of carefree moment you can only enjoy when you are so young, when the world hasn’t filled your brain with worries like crows perched in your peripheries. Bright sunshine and a good friend, everything cast in a golden light like they were trapped in a great glob of sticky honey.
It was simple then.
Now — it comes with complexities; tangled feelings like water weeds, a truth that strangles him despite his hope to black it out.
Now — there is nowhere to hide.
Jeno steps into the light, his voice a tremble; says Jaemin’s name with his mouth full of blood.
He's raw and exposed — heart on display amongst the glass cage of his ribs, eyes black like the shadows have punched right through him.
“I am in love with you.”
It drips from him and stains Jaemin, leaking onto him where Jeno’s fingers cup his cheeks — tender, like he believes Jaemin might fade away if he doesn’t anchor him to this world and this moment.
He might be right. Or he might not even be helping.
Jaemin cannot speak. His only option is to focus inwards and try not to break apart at the seams. Jeno's bottom lip quivers and Jaemin pries his hands from his face, forces him to free him before he spills his guts. It’s a truth he never wanted to hear — an echo of his own — and he can’t fight it.
He leaves Jeno as a contrast cutout in the streetlights — lips parted in a silent protest, body torn open and wounded, bleeding across the pavement like they had fought a war between them.
Jaemin’s heart thunders like an oncoming storm and he swings his leg over his bike.
And then — he rides.
He rides faster than he ever has before.
He comes back past midnight, drenched in sweat that turns his skin to gooseflesh where it cools in the frigid air. The light in Jeno’s room is on. Jisung is asleep in Jaemin’s bed.
Jaemin climbs onto the top bunk and doesn’t sleep until the sun comes up.
If anyone notices, they don’t speak about it. He’s thankful for that, at least — that somehow in a dormitory of nosy teenage boys, he’s afforded some quiet. Even Kun gives him a berth, merely raises his eyebrows when he catches Jaemin in the hallway outside of their dorm, on a warpath to the outside to suck in the only air free of Jeno’s presence.
In their post promotion hiatus it’s easy enough to avoid him, but Jaemin dreads when they’re forced to come together again. He dreads being forced into a situation with Jeno — having to put back on his smile and pretend like every part of him isn’t falling apart. They say communication is the key to any relationship, but any attempt at communication comes with another battle, one Jaemin has quickly found he is ill equipped to fight.
To Jeno, the solution is easy —
(Why can’t we love each other?)
To Jaemin —
(For people like us? It doesn’t work that way.)
In the moments he folds, Jaemin fucks Jeno like it’s his last night on Earth.
It’s hard not to give in when Jeno is so reciprocal, so willing. He’s moulded to his touch and Jaemin wonders how he never realised the truth. He does not lie to himself, but Jeno is so utterly in love with him Jaemin must have been truly blind to miss it, the words written across the sky like a banner streaming behind a biplane, 300 dollars an hour just to tell the world what it already knew.
Pann article: The way NCT Jeno and Jaemin look at each other.
Jeno's bed: the way Jeno and Jaemin look at each other.
It's another mask of Jaemin's; one that's almost too close to the skin. So raw Jaemin can feel his flesh boiling beneath the melting veneer, like he's an oversized crustacean in a pot, the kind his mother used to cook the crayfish from the market in. No escape from the heat rising around him, from Jeno’s wet kisses and hot breath.
Jeno's wrists: behind his back. Jaemin pushes them down. Jeno whimpers. Pinned to the bed. Jeno, pinned under his gaze. Property of Na Jaemin, and Jaemin has to act like he doesn't want this. It's like a long forgotten aunt showing up on your birthday with the gift you were always forbidden to have.
Jaemin kisses him. It’s a terrible move, a terrible thing to do — but Jaemin is terrible. He will drink poison until he falls into nothingness because he craves the rush of ruin. He doesn’t know when he became self destructive — twelve, maybe. Thirteen — when he wanted to pass his evaluation so badly he was left with a bulging disc and instructions for bed rest. There was always a limit he was aware of, and there was always a drive to push past it. A competitive streak that saw him flying across the ice. A burning within him to try until it hurt, because it meant he was winning. Because it meant he reached the breaking point and then he punched through it, where no-one else would go because they were not mad like Jaemin.
They didn’t understand like him, didn’t know that this was how it worked. This was why he was so good — Jaemin had cracked the code, and he was addicted. Once he had been a boy of nothingness, but competition gave him something to do. Someone to be.
At fifteen he was already headfirst into his own misery, already headfirst into tearing down the foundations of his psyche and replacing them with all the things he thought might make him prettier. At fifteen he was reckless and stupid. At fifteen SM had made him beautiful, but on the inside he was twisted and shredded — scored with a thousand microscopic wounds that leaked blood with every scratch at his skin.
At fifteen — well.
This story has been told, this story is Jeno’s too, but at fifteen, Jaemin chewed bubblegum and spun in circles and, at fifteen, Jaemin kissed Jeno. He said the words he hoped would preserve him, but he thinks now might have been the deadbolt on the cage. He was fighting and punching but he was falling, falling so fast he hadn’t even realised it.
It turns out that telling someone they are not in love with you doesn’t make it true.
At sixteen Jaemin was on the stage. Jaemin was brilliant , radiant, glowing in the roar of the crowd, lifted to the heavens by every person that shouted his name. A sea of lights at his beck and call, and he smiled, and he shone, and he was everything they told him he should be. He was a star . His father told him he’d made all his friends watch their debut stage, and his grandmother called him to tell him how proud of him she was. Their staff celebrated with cake and samgyeopsal, and Jaemin ate until he felt sick, until he threw it all back up and crawled into bed with acid searing through his veins.
Jaemin has been destroying himself for years. He’s been picking at scabs and counting ribs and sneaking out in the dead of night to drink alcohol stolen from Ten’s closet. He’s crouched over the bathtub, blood vessels popping in his cheeks, sobbed until his body felt dry and squeezed thin. He’s danced until he bled and slept with his best friend, over and over, until he knew his body as well as he knew his own.
He worries that it's all he has left — that to burn himself up is the only way he can feel in control anymore.
The Halloween party is loud and busy, and gives Jaemin a chance to sit as far away from Jeno as possible, carving a veritable canyon between them. A day before, Jeno had cornered him in one of the rec rooms, ready to fight — and Jaemin had turned him down again. He’s not a pacifist, but the last thing Jaemin has ever wanted to do was hurt Jeno — though he realises belatedly that maybe he missed the mark on that wishlist.
Music floods through hall, tempered by chatter of hundreds of voices, laughter, Jungwoo tickling Jaehyun, and Ten with a hand on Xuxi’s thigh, a gentle squeeze delivered whenever his voice starts to pitch too loud and drown out the rest of the conversation at the table. Kun feeds a slice of roasted pumpkin to Chenle from his fork, and Jisung is sitting backwards on his chair, making faces at Taemin, who sits three tables over and keeps catching his eye, mocking Minho’s patterns of speech with exaggerated motions and then trying not to burst into laughter.
It’s so crowded it’s dizzying, and Jaemin finds comfort in it, in the feeling of melting into the background, in not having the spotlight on him for once. Of course the photographers come round, table by table, get them to smile like a happy family and ignore the fact that Mark is kicking Renjun in the shins, but it’s a flash in the pan, a brief moment of ‘everyone smile’ before Jaemin can get back to being his own little fortress.
Chenle shrieks. Jaemin lays his hand on Donghyuck’s thigh and flutters his eyelashes at him, receiving an unimpressed roll of the eyes back. He slides his hand higher. Donghyuck grabs his wrist and peels him away from his crotch, pushes his palm back down across the tablecloth, causing Jaemin’s fingers to splay out like he’s a criminal pinned to a wall.
Like he’s Jeno, pinned to his bed.
Donghyuck’s breath is hot where he leans in to speak into Jaemin’s ear, voice full of uncharacteristic bass. If not for the background noise Jaemin would think, maybe, that this was their bedroom — some kind of purgatory for his sins. Lust, greed — and pride.
“I’m not your therapy fuck, Na Jaemin.”
And the room comes swimming back to him.
“I don’t want a therapy fuck,” Jaemin says.
Donghyuck turns his head to the side, eyes glistening between the thick lines of his makeup. His hand is still on Jaemin’s wrist, hot.
“What do you want, then?” Words hot, too. Donghyuck always sears — so fucking addictive, the kick of danger that Jaemin just sometimes needs , a flash of pain to remind him that he can find a high somewhere that isn’t the stage.
“Sex,” Jaemin says, maybe a little too loud considering the twitch of Taeyong’s shoulders. “Just sex,” he says, quieter.
At the head of the table Chenle’s balloon hangs like a blood moon.
“Jeno is staring at you,” Donghyuck says, laughter thick. It’s tinged with a challenge, and Jaemin tenses up, shoulders trying to knit together, body guarding itself. “It’s not just sex ,” Donghyuck adds, eyes sliding from over Jaemin’s shoulder back to his face. “How long are you going to play at this?”
“It is just sex,” Jaemin says. He’s not going to turn around, though he can feel Jeno’s gaze burning into him with a single minded determination. It’s like he thinks that if he loves enough, the world will bend before him. “He’s impossible to reason with.”
“Is he impossible to reason with, or are you impossible to talk to?”
Jaemin wrinkles his nose and stabs his fork through a roasted potato. He’s aware that it's enough of an answer in itself, but he’s not going to elaborate. He doesn’t have the energy to. Instead he swallows the words with a mouthful of food and leans over the table to get Taeyong’s attention, grin falling back onto his face with practiced ease.
"Why are you so bullheaded?" Jeno shouts. The practice room door slams and Jaemin rounds on him, points a finger in his face and bares his teeth, every hair on his body standing on end.
Fighting is all they ever seem to do. Jaemin is filled with fire and Jeno is as stubborn as a bull — unstoppable force, immovable object, smashing into each other with reverberations that shake the foundations of everything they’ve built together. It’s luck that they’re both actors, that they can both pull on happy face when they need to — that Jaemin knows how to needle Jeno, that Jeno knows how to needle him. They both know how to say the right things to turn a scathing scowl into a camera ready smile. How to transform a trainwreck into a movie set.
“This isn’t how it works,” Jaemin says. The fury rising in him is like hellfire, and he wants nothing more than to burn, to take everyone in this building down with him, to hurt Jeno and make him realise his mistakes.
Jeno shoves him out of the way, and he stumbles, tripping over his feet as Jeno stomps to the middle of the floor like an actor in preparation for his monologue — and Jaemin follows him into the spotlight.
“How do you know how it works?” Jeno asks, voice dangerously low. His eyes are affixed to his reflection in the scuffed mirror and his entire body shakes. “What makes you think that you know any more than I do?”
"Because I’m practical!” Jaemin spits. He reaches out and stops himself at the last second, hand centimeters from Jeno’s shoulder. “Because,” he continues, “I think about this every day. How can you be foolish enough to think that there’s anything good at the end of this tunnel?”
This. This being Jeno’s continued insistence that Jeno can love him, that it will work out, that maybe they should try. This same war they’ve been waging, trenches dug, slinging their words back and forth, crawling into each other’s beds and spilling silent promises like blood across the sheets. A war fought with their bodies, with the way Jaemin fucks him, with the sobs that wrack his frame as the shower water — hot enough to turn his skin red and raw — pounds against his back. Washing Jeno from his body, but never from his being.
Jaemin swallows, venom pooling in his mouth. The memory is raw and it spurs him one — there’s so many things he could say, horrible things, things that swell within him like toxic flowers waiting to burst.
“Do you want this to have a happy ending Jeno?” Jaemin asks, and Jeno’s face falls — however minute it might be — before stitching itself back up. “Because there's no happy ending. We don't get to fall in love and have an ever after. Love doesn't conquer anything. Love will ruin us. Grow up."
This is their fight now. This is the battle they've entrenched themselves in. He’s sick of Jeno being starry eyed, sick of the sinking feeling that he had done this to him, sick of Jeno’s willingness to believe that this would all work out. It’s what he has feared will always happen — that Jeno will think there is some optimistic ending to this where they love each other and everything will be okay. That Jeno had deluded himself that there was something brilliant and bright about this world, and that he was working towards it. That love could bring him there — more than anything, that Jaemin was worthy of that kind of love.
"What is wrong with you?" Jeno hisses, spinning around to face him. There's tears in the corners of his eyes and — good, Jaemin thinks. Be angry. Jeno only cries when he’s angry, when he’s frustrated, when he can’t contain himself or find the time to sort through his emotions. It means somehow, in some twisted way, Jaemin is winning — that maybe Jeno will understand him now.
"Do you think I'm a child?” Jeno says, choking around the shape of the words. “Do you think I'm stupid? I don’t choose to feel like this, Jaemin."
"No-one fucking does,” Jaemin says. “In an ideal world we wouldn’t feel at all. So why don't you keep it to yourself? Why open your mouth?"
"Because it hurts. Because you keep lying to me and acting like it makes it all better. Because I want to hope there’s a future for us — for me — where I don’t have to tip-toe around anymore. Because every time Donghyuck fucks me I wish it was you and every time you fuck him I wish it was me and it's not fair to him or to me or to you or to any of us to have to keep it in anymore.”
Jeno sniffs, teardrops running down his jaw and splattering against the wooden floor polished by thousands of sneakers. Trainees just like they were once, dancing for their hopes and dreams. Dancing to be locked in a gilded cage and told to perform when it suited someone else.
His dream. He hates that he loves it.
“You kept running away from me, Jaemin, and I didn’t know how to make you stop. You made me think I was the coward. But now I know it's you. You're the coward. You’re — "
He pauses, chokes a sob that punches straight through to Jaemin’s chest with a fist of stone, his cheeks turned to marble shimmering with spidersilk rain.
"I'm what," Jaemin asks.
"You're," he takes a breath, bites his lip so hard that it comes away stained with blood when he releases it, fists balled at his sides.
“Say it, Jeno. Say it.” He doesn’t even know what he’s goading him into saying, only that he tastes blood, sees it in his eyes, hears it as a roar that crashes into him like a tsunami, violins screeching and the drums pounding in his ears — the final crescendo of the act.
“You’re gay, Jaemin.”
Jaemin exhales, and all the music falls to a halt.
He never thought he’d hear it, and yet — maybe Jeno was braver than they thought.
Maybe he had it in him. Maybe he knew how to fight, knew how to plant his feet and stand his ground. Maybe this is the hill he would die on, his wounds too much to go on. Jaemin wonders if he’d die with his name on his lips — if it would be his fault. Jeno was better than this, and Jeno was better than him — in so many ways — but he was so soft, like the world hadn’t had time to work calluses over his heart. He bled freely, and it had saved him, but now it was causing him to nosedive, to veer too close to where Jaemin lay crumpled in the dirt.
“Yeah,” Jaemin says. The single syllable hangs in the air. Jeno is pale as snow, and belatedly Jaemin realises that maybe he’s already hit the ground. Dangerous, dangerous, his mouth that acted without thought. Jaemin is not ashamed of himself — this much he knows. He's gay, and he won't be loud, but he will never deny it. There's some things about himself he can't deny.
And then he asks — “You are, too, aren’t you?”
They’re both stripped bare, both falling apart. Jeno stares at him, and Jaemin returns it, like he hopes he’ll see an answer he’s always wanted.
Jaemin has been in this long enough to know wishful thinking is just a folly. To know that Jeno isn’t the lifeline out of here. He should know that there is no lifeline, that he has to swim ashore by himself. And yet still he hopes , so unbearably hard it sears through him. God, he thought he was better than this, but there it is, that awful word — hope .
Jeno nods, and his hope turns to ash. It’s the smallest movement of his head but it feels like the biggest statement, it feels like Jaemin is in freefall but someone forgot to attach his parachute. The air rushes around him and snatches at his limbs and Jaemin wants nothing more than to erase everything and go back to where they started.
He shakes his head, freeing the thoughts. “Jeno,” he says, plain.
“Don’t say it,” Jeno says, like he could have possibly known what was about to come from his lips. “Just — don’t say it,” he repeats. The tears start to stain his collar, droplets like rainwater leaking through the cotton. He’s so fucking beautiful — even in anguish — that it causes Jaemin’s heart to catch in his throat, and he wishes this was another story. He wishes they were different people who had met at a different time, he wishes he didn’t have an image to save. He wishes — he wishes he had more than this to give, more than his hollowed out self. It’s like loving Jeno — it’s like there's a belated realisation that it’s all he has left of himself anymore. The only part of him that has no purpose — the only part of him that is fundamentally himself, not motivated by anything, not grafted from someone else's skin on to him. Just there .
“Say what?” Jaemin asks. He has to know.
“Whatever you’re going to say. That I don’t love you. Whatever you think justifies denying yourself, denying me. Whatever it is, I don’t care about it. Do you know how long I’ve been running away?”
“Is it as long as I have?”
“It’s not a contest.”
“No, but do you know?”
“I don’t care,” Jeno says, “It tore me open, Jaemin. It destroyed me, fighting this.”
“Congratulations,” Jaemin says, and he doesn’t know where it comes from — some misguided anger that boils within his guts, bubbles over and spills out from between the arrow tips of his mouth.
“Congratula—” Jeno’s face twists halfway through. “No. Fuck you.”
Hearing Jeno curse so harshly is enough to break him from the haze he’s slipping into. It’s enough for the world to be brought starkly into focus. Not enough for him to stop. It seethes within him, and he bites . “Congratulations,” Jaemin repeats. “Welcome to the real world. Welcome to the ‘I Can Never Be Who I Should Be’ world. I've been here for a while. Get used to it. You're never coming out of it."
“Never?" Jeno rears up and he's glistening, brilliant, diamond tears on his skin, hanging off the ends of his lashes. His face is flushed red with exertion and all too late Jaemin realises he's the same, too, breath coming in shallow pants. "What about Donghyuck, huh? What about Ten? They get to be who they want to be. Why don’t we?”
“Because they have fucking talent,” Jaemin says, and it's far too late for him now. The words are the bull and he is fine china. He snaps, breaks, every part of him shattering into pieces. What he’s always feared comes rushing up his throat like bile and he’s so close to losing himself, to falling down and surrendering to his worst fear. “Huh? What do we have, huh, Jeno? Our faces? Fanservice. Chemistry — it’s not fucking real . It can’t be real. We act our parts and then we go home and pretend there’s nothing wrong. If we lose our image we lose everything . Do you think SM would really give a shit if we were thrown under the bus? If our lives were ruined because we wanted some kind of fairy tale ending? We’re useless. We’re useless beyond being dress up dolls to sell fucking skincare or whatever variety show decides it wants a pretty face. The sooner you resign yourself to that the better. It makes it hurt a lot less."
Jeno's face twists. “Why are you so negative , Jaemin?”
“Why are you so naive, Jeno?” Jaemin is spitting, his face growing hot, and he’s tired, he’s so tired of fighting and trying to make everything better for it all to come crashing down around him. “You’re nineteen. You’ve spent long enough on this Earth to know you’re expendable.” Jeno flinches, and Jaemin digs in. “And you know what? I’ve felt that I’m expendable. Do you know how it was to experience that?”
It’s all coming out, evacuating itself from his heart like shadows chased away by the light. It’s like bad blood being purged — except this blood is the core of his soul, this blood flows through every part of his body, this blood is as old as he is and he doesn’t know if he can survive without it. No one taught him how to transfuse it and he's forced to continue bleeding out, unable to block off the gaping wounds in his chest.
"Do you know how it felt to see you win that first time without me?” Jaemin says, “to see that you got along just fine without me? I thought maybe you didn’t need me after all, anyway. Maybe you didn’t miss me. I had no idea if I would ever get better, no idea if I had destroyed myself for a dream I would never grasp in my hand. And I started to think maybe I wasn’t worth it. I started to think: maybe you’d be better off without me. Without my disgusting self messing you up. Without the threat of a scandal looming over your heads every time I peeled back the layers of my psyche to let my real heart out. Without the way I loved being so vile that people would rather I die than ever express it. I started to think my injury was a blessing to save you from me. All of you, but you, especially. Being temporary was an asset.”
There's a stunned second of silence, where his heartbeat crashes around him. And then Jeno, quiet but sure — “You are not expendable. And you’re not vile. You don’t deserve to die.” He’s shaking so badly he looks like a hypothermic, like his bones are trying to escape, like his skin might slough off and reveal how raw he has become. “I don’t care what anyone tells you. You are not expendable. I wouldn’t be here without you, Jaemin. I don’t think any of us would be."
He pauses, though there's more, written between the lines of his lips, in the arc of his eyes. He’s always been so open to Jaemin — heart on his sleeve. It doesn’t matter if it’s in the pitch soaked nighttime air or underneath the blistering lights that encircled the stages — Jeno is always a constant. He’s always there, ready to let Jaemin in.
"I almost left," Jeno says. His voice is soft now, footsteps in the snow, a whisper down the end of the receiver when Jaemin's back had given out again. "I never told you, but I almost left, the first time you went to the hospital." He takes a breath and ploughs through, all calmness struck from his voice, all his vulnerabilities caged. Anger, again. Like he's remembered how much Jaemin had hurt him. Eyes up, a fighter. That's Jaemin's Jeno, that's his best friend, the boy he knows every part of. He knows how to fight.
"I thought it wouldn’t be worth it without you here for me. Last year, too, I had the same thoughts. Did anyone ever tell you that? Or were you too busy being sorry for yourself that you never thought about anyone else?”
“All I care about is everyone else,” Jaemin says, all the tenderness he'd felt seconds ago hardened like hot sugar under water. “All I care about is making sure you’re happy, even if it tears me to pieces. Even if I have nothing left, you’re all I ever think about. You have no idea, Lee Jeno, how I feel.”
“You’re in love with Donghyuck,” Jeno says, and he sounds defeated, a verbal equivalent to throwing his gun on the ground, everything hitting the floor in a numb silence.
He’s wrong, Jaemin thinks. Holy shit, he’s wrong. He doesn’t think it’s —
Jaemin laughs, and it comes out a little mad. “Are you fucking stupid?”
Jeno hits him.
It’s not a strong punch, but it’s sudden, knocks the words from Jaemin’s mind like scrabble tiles scattering across the floor. He touches his fingers to his cheek and gasps. Jeno isn't violent — not usually, tends to bottle things up. Tends to knock a hole in the wall or bang in the piano in the studio to release the tension but — Jaemin knows he's gone too far now.
“You hit me,” he says. The fire is gone — no ash, no smoke, swallowed whole. The emptiness that follows is like depths of the ocean, like the night sky in mid winter when Jaemin used to dream of swimming under the river ice. Jeno’s eyes are wide as saucers, and he looks to his hand slowly, then back to where Jaemin clutches at his cheek, the skin pulsating with pain. “You hit me, Jeno.”
Jeno’s mouth opens and shuts uselessly — before he stutters Jaemin’s name, then: “I— I just wanted you to shut up. I’m sorry. Jaemin. I—”
Jaemin holds up his hand. He doesn’t need to hear it. He doesn’t want to hear it. It washes over him and he falls into, leaning back into his fate. The awful bloody cage of his ribs rises and falls and he opens himself up.
“I deserved it,” he says. Blood on his words — they drop to the ground like the casing of a bullet, the resolution left unsaid.
And I deserve so much worse.
“You,” Renjun says, taking an uninvited seat on the end of Jaemin’s bed and throwing him a still-cold can of tea, “look like shit.”
“Thanks for noticing,” Jaemin says. “Is it the black eye?”
Renjun looks him up and down like he’s a soggy kitten — cute but pathetic — and then he rolls his eyes. “It’s everything."
Jaemin shrugs. He's been holed up in his room for the past few days, only coming out to refill his water bottle and steal snacks from the fridge when he was sure Jeno wasn't around. Chenle had caught him once, at three in the morning, had taken pity on him and pushed his bowl of kimchi fried rice across the countertop. It had left gochujang stained grease all over his lips, but had been a welcome change from plastic wrapped kimbap and single serve bread.
In the aftermath of the verbal equivalent of Jaemin carpet bombing Jeno there's been a strange energy in the dorm. Mostly dissipating when Jeno goes out for a bike ride in sub zero temperatures, but still very much there. Still not something he can ignore. Jaemin doesn't like ignoring his problems — not really — and this one in particular is a wound to his pride. But he's not sure what else to do — he threw his cards on the table and it should, as far as he's concerned, be Jeno to approach him.
"Yeah, well," Jaemin starts. "That's what happens sometimes."
"When you get hit in the eye at the gym?" Renjun asks, echoing the excuse Jaemin had made for the bruise that bloomed under his eye like a violet.
"Uh-huh," he says. Renjun raises his eyebrows.
"You could at least attempt to buy into your own lie. It might make it believable."
Jaemin groans. "What do you want from me, Sherlock Holmes?"
Rarely, with Renjun, is it ever this simple.
"About?" he asks. He pauses the drama episode he's watching on his laptop and takes his other Airpod out.
" Jaemin. "
He hates Renjun sometimes, he really does. Both for the stubbornness that runs a mile deep within him, and for just how perceptive he can be. He knows he’s stuck here, probably, until a resolution is reached, or until Renjun has him in a headlock — verbal or physical, or both.
Jaemin lets out a dramatic sigh and pops the tab on the can. It’s the brand he likes — though the vending machine outside their dorm doesn’t sell it and often he has to trek up to the main road just to get some. Having it brought to him is a nice change. God bless Korean delivery culture.
“Thanks,” he says, and Renjun smiles, tight lipped, though the tension fades when he lets out a long breath.
“It’s no problem.”
They sit in silence for a handful of heartbeats. Jaemin drinks from the can to avoid the conversation, but instead of removing the fear it thickens it, causing it to hang over his head like a stormcloud, swollen with raindrops of anticipation.
"Am I a good person, Renjun?" Jaemin asks, when he thinks he can’t take the quiet anymore. When he feels like he’s about to burst.
Renjun blinks. "Yes."
There's no hesitation in the answer. Renjun is coarse sometimes — a blunt weapon — but he's not a habitual liar. He's not someone who would spare feelings — not for Jaemin, anyway. They’ve been through too much together to pull their punches now.
He tilts his head, like an animal judging a threat. “What kind of question is that?”
“Just a question.”
Renjun tucks his legs under him and stares. Again. Laser precision, like he can see straight through Jaemin.
“A question. Right. Jaemin — if you were a shit person frankly I wouldn’t talk to you apart from when I had to. The fact I'm here should say enough to you that I don't think you're a bad person. Stupid? Too proud for his own good? Sure. But you're not a bad person, far from it."
Jaemin feels — it kind of hurts. It kind of digs into him, validation he didn't even know he was craving. A tiny drop of warmth within a vast emptiness, midnight torch in a blizzard.
"You know I love you?" Renjun says, and it's plain as day how sincere it is — and how hard it must be for him to say it. For all Renjun's depth Jaemin knows how hard it is for him to be this raw with someone — being sincere is scary as fuck, after all — and to know despite struggling that Renjun has said it anyway — well. It means a lot to him.
Jaemin finishes the can of tea and puts it on the bedside table, looks at Renjun with what he hopes is something playful but knows probably comes off far too close to the heart. It doesn't matter. This is a safe place. They've been through hell together, vulnerabilities are nothing.
Renjun gives him a smile, one corner of his mouth, and crawls into his arms, except it's Jaemin that's really the one holding on. He won't cry because he's not really sure he ever even could but — it wracks through him all the same. Renjun rubs circles on his arm and tucks his head against his chest and Jaemin holds him tight, like he hopes he won't disappear for good.
The hiatus drone washes over him, a bucket of lukewarm water tipped over his head — not unpleasant, just bland. Tasteless. Donghyuck is in America, and Dream has nothing to do, no schedules, no festivals. The managers won’t even let them use V LIVE and Jaemin thought he’d appreciate the break, but he’s bored. The only activity he has left is to scarf down as many fried eggs as possible and binge watch dramas until he falls asleep on the couch, blanket halfway down his stomach.
He wakes up, watches the 127 teaser again, messages Donghyuck to tell him how hot he looks and gets frustrated when he receives no reply, before he remembers the time zone difference and boots his phone to the other end of the couch. The TV drones on but he hasn’t been paying attention for hours, is two episodes ahead of what he remembers. There’s nothing to stop the storm in his chest, nothing to stop his head from spinning like a pinwheel in a hurricane.
He and Jeno still haven’t made up. They’ve talked — without raising their voices — and they’ve fallen back to cordial interactions, the co-workersona in full force, but it’s been like pulling teeth. For Jaemin to gravitate towards Jeno is something natural, and he always catches himself at the last second when he goes to show him something funny on his phone, when he turns towards his room on instinct. When he taps his name in his contacts and then hits the back button.
It’s just Jaemin in the dorm — Chenle, Renjun and Jisung have gone out to see a movie with their manager and Jeno is at the gym, or biking, or do some other kind of physical activity that Jaemin knows by now is his way of keeping his mind from running awry. He’s dealing with this a lot better than Jaemin, surely, but that’s not much to say.
The front door opens and Jeno’s feet thud down the steps, taking them two at a time. Hair pushed back, jacket falling off his shoulders. He mumbles a hello and heads to the shower without waiting for an answer. A minute later and the water kicks on. By the time it turns off Jaemin is close to madness.
He wants to chance it again — wants to make this right. He wants Jeno so badly and he wants his heart to stop aching — but he doesn’t know if he can handle it. He doesn’t know if he can see Jeno’s face for more than thirty seconds without feeling like the whole world is being erased before his eyes.
Jeno leaves the shower and the lock on his room shuts with a thud. He gives Jaemin approximately a minute of staring at the TV screen with unfocused eyes before he’s back out — footsteps down the hall, apologising to a table when he bumps into it. It brings a smile to Jaemin’s face, involuntary and he can’t help it — he’s stupid — he follows Jeno like the fool he is.
He finds him in Renjun’s room, elbow deep in his drawers. His dark hair is damp and his shorts are faded, blue cotton splotched with spots of near white from far too many rounds through the washing machine. He’s not facing Jaemin, doesn’t even react to the creak of the door being pushed open.
“What are you doing?” Jaemin asks.
Jeno’s head whips around, his eyes wide. “Renjun has candy.” The words are strained like they’ve been pushed through the eye of a needle. There’s a rattle, and Jeno pulls out a packet of Cookies and Cream Pepero. “See,” he says, waving it weakly.
“You’re raiding his room?”
“It’s fine.” Jeno says. His eyes dart around Jaemin like he’s gauging escape routes. “Renjun doesn’t mind.”
Jaemin wrinkles his nose, reaches out and snatches the packet from Jeno’s hand. He’s not here to argue about this, though he thinks it could be a good distraction. It’s tempting, for sure.
“Sit,” he says, pointing to the unmade bed. Jeno’s eyes go wide but he listens, sits obediently on the edge of the mattress. Jaemin tears open the packet and sits beside him, takes out a stick and then offers it to Jeno, who accepts hesitantly.
“What are you doing?” he asks, crunching down. There’s already an Oreo crumb on his lip and Jaemin almost wipes it off before he catches himself. He’s still so angry at Jeno, still furious, still battling himself but being here with him — maybe Jeno was right. Maybe love conquers all after all, or is the salve for his burns. Maybe they can work this out.
Being in front of Jeno makes Jaemin wonder if maybe he isn’t the rational being he thinks he is — the person he wishes he was. They’ve taught him to think with a fragment of sense but well — maybe he can’t. Maybe he’s messed up to the core, and maybe there’s a part of him, once small, that corkscrews through his heart, underpins his very being and so desperately wishes — against all odds — that everything for once will be okay.
“We need to talk,” Jaemin says, and Jeno’s face falls.
“I’m sorry I—”
“Don’t,” Jaemin holds up his hand. It shakes, and he collapses it into a fist, knocks it against the mattress. “Just don’t, Jeno.”
Jeno nods. “Okay.” He sounds small. Jaemin has to resist touching him, resist holding his face in his hands. He opens and closes his fist, and lets out a long sigh. Little steps.
“I'm sorry,” Jaemin says. The words feel right. They feel like they belong, and Jaemin swallows around his pride where it blocks his throat, and Jeno raises his eyebrows.
“You’re sorry?” he repeats.
“Don’t make me say it again.” Jaemin bites his lip.
“Sorry,” Jeno says. “No. Yeah. I’m sorry too.”
It’s so stiff that it feels like he’s coughing up ice, the air in the room frigid enough that the shards won’t even melt on his tongue. He takes another Pepero from the box and munches down, savouring the sugar rush.
There’s no solution to this. Everything he’d said in the practice room was true — or what he believed to be true. Tempered by anger and seared with an edge of self hatred he’d been cultivating for years, but true nonetheless. His darkest fears, bare in the light, and they’d seethed like a nightmare outline of a monster. They threatened his very self and Jaemin wishes he could take them back and lock them in the prison of his chest, but there was no way he could force them back down his throat like shadowy contortionists. they wouldn’t fit anymore.
“Jeno,” he says. His hand twitches and he gives in, lays it on Jeno’s bare knee, almost jumps when he feels how warm Jeno is. It's taken so little time for him to forget that Jeno runs hot, like a furnace. “Jeno, I—” Jaemin starts, but he’s still without words. He’s still without anything. The frailness of the moment bites at him and he takes a breath.
There's nothing to do but what he knows.
He kisses Jeno.
It flows down his throat, a wet heat that tastes like salt, a crackling shadow passing across his skin like a ghost of all the mistakes he’s made before. The want that floods through his lungs is thick with iridescent oil and the match-strike gasp that Jeno lets out sets it alight. He’s drowning — but instead of fighting, instead of clawing to the surface — he lets himself fall and allows the water to claim him. He crashes into Jeno like a typhoon and pours it into him, overflowing.
Jeno hits the mattress with a dull thud, hands tangled in Jaemin’s hair, body pushing up against him. He melts and surrenders, opens up with monsoon kisses and stuttered prayers that sound like Jaemin’s name.
Maybe this is why they’re so good for each other.
Maybe this is why Jaemin will always come back to him. Mutually assured destruction. The burn that rushes over him, the greed that sinks into his veins.
The way Jeno looks with his hair haloed around his face, with his eyes full of boyish shine, lips cherry red. Body arcing toward Jaemin’s, shirt pushed up, Jaemin’s mouth on his skin, fingers digging into him. This is where Jaemin is himself — this is where Jaemin lets himself be free. It’s what he wants and what destroys him — what hurts him more than anything. Tastes of what he could hold but could never have, kisses that should have said ‘I love you’ in another universe.
The way Jeno says his name, soft and throaty. Hands smoothing back Jaemin’s hair as he pulls him out of his shorts and takes him into his mouth, keeping eye contact. Watching the way Jeno’s eyelashes flutter, the way his mouth falls open.
“Jaemin,” he says, and Jaemin smiles around him, twists his tongue and feels his heart seize with the look on Jeno’s face. It’s so tender and vulnerable — this is where Jaemin gets to pretend.
But he doesn’t need to pretend anymore. Jeno loves him. Jeno loves him and Jaemin loves him back with a force that could level cities, but there’s a wall between them, a reminder of who they are and how this must never come to pass outside of these rooms. In the real world they’re just friends but here — here isn’t out there, here is somewhere secret, somewhere Jaemin’s walls fall down and the barrier between them is shattered. Jeno lets out a tiny gasp and whimpers, pleads for Jaemin to come back to him. For Jaemin to kiss him — for how good Jaemin’s mouth is, for how he wants him.
He obliges. He never could not. Jaemin does not lie to himself — he will always be weak for Jeno. And it hits him, then and there, as he’s sitting on his haunches again, staring at Jeno’s flushed skin, his eyes trailing up the hickies creeping over the definition of his abs and following the curve of his bones and muscles all the way to his face. It hits him that Jeno has always been like this — that there has been no change in the way he looks at Jaemin. It’s always been with reverence — like he’s the last star burning at the end of the world, like this is something so much bigger than just the two of them getting off.
It hits him and Jaemin wants to hide, but he’s out of options. And then he doesn’t even think he wants to take the option. That self destructive streak flashes through him like a red hot burst of sparks and there’s nowhere to go but down. His lips on Jeno’s, his body pressed against his, spit and precum and lube smeared against his stomach from where he rubs against Jeno. Hands on hands, fingers interlocked, kisses deep and desperate.
The roll of their bodies together, Jeno’s ankles around his neck, Jeno’s mouth on his, Jaemin stilling to kiss him more and more. There’s a nagging reminder that — by his own rules — this isn’t something he’s allowed to have, but Jaemin takes it in his hand and crushes it, smothers it between the sheets.
Jeno is breathy and loud, whimpering with every movement. Jaemin is — grounded. Here. Here with him and here with Jeno and losing himself, his heart fit to burst. Blood in his mouth, electricity sparking at his touch. Jeno asks for more and Jaemin gives it to him, fucks him until he’s all he can think about, until he’s sweating and panting and Jeno has said his name so many times it sounds like a prayer.
“I’m not naive,” Jeno says, simmering in the afterglow, sweat a sheen on his skin. He’s propped up on his pillows with his phone in his hand and Jaemin is beside him, soaking in the long waves of heat that radiates from his form, running his fingers along the lines of his muscles.
“I never said you were,” Jaemin says.
“Yes you did,” Jeno says. He looks up at him, eyes dark. “When we fought, you did. I’m not naive.”
Jaemin swallows. His body is wrung out — filled with aches from holding all of this in for so long, from the extertion of sex and giving in to his cravings.
He realises now that every part of Jeno is a part of him, too, and he’s not sure if he can’t fight it anymore. He is ruled by his heart and though his head tries to save him he does not listen.
He is Na Jaemin, and though he is broken and fractured, though he wears a thousand smiles like a glamour, wears his persona like a cloak of invisibility — though he doesn’t recognise himself more days than not — he knows who he is. He is a creature of love, a creature of need, someone who looks at Jeno and sees all he’s ever wanted.
“Jeno,” Jaemin says. He doesn’t need to say his name, because Jeno won’t stop looking at him, but it grounds him, gives him purchase in this world that seems to be spinning out of control. “Do you really think I’m in love with Donghyuck?”
It’s not what he intended, but it comes out anyway. A question that, worded differently, got him punched in the face.
Jeno chokes like the answer is lodged in his throat. “I—” he starts, and when his chest heaves Jaemin lies down against him, his ear over Jeno’s ribcage. His heartbeat echoes like the kick of a rabbit running from a predator, a mirror of Jaemin’s own. Jeno’s hand fixes itself in his hair and Jaemin lets out a long breath, measured, heavy. They’ve lain like this so many times before, sweat wicking onto the sheets, half naked and sore, and it feels so right. It feels like where they belong, where they speak their hearts and no judgement is passed.
“Do you really believe it, Jeno?”
“No,” Jeno says. It’s so small. So small for such a big revelation. Maybe the biggest things happen silent — happen as quietly as Jeno bleeding out on the pavement, as the twist of his mouth, as —
“Why did you do it?” Jeno asks. “Why did you do it if—?”
“I wanted to protect you.” It sounds so flimsy said out loud. The most pathetic excuse that becomes translucent when held up to the light.
“Everything. The world.”
“I’m not a maiden in a tower, Jaemin. I can look after myself. You don’t need to defend my honour.”
“That’s not what I meant,” Jaemin says.
“Because I feel like it’s — I feel like it’s my responsibility. To take all the hurt so you can be happy.”
“Jaemin,” Jeno says. It’s funny. Their roles are reversed, Jaemin with his hair being petted, Jaemin falling apart, Jaemin the one who feels so small and foolish. He’s always so good at putting on a front, but Jeno has him now. “You can’t martyr yourself like that. We’re all in this together — you don’t get to pick and choose what blows we take.”
“I know but it’s just—” Jaemin stutters and tries to force out the panic rising in his lungs. “I didn’t want you to go through what I went through. I didn’t want you to suffer, to be hurt. I didn’t want the world to ruin you.”
“You of all people should know that I can’t change who I am.“
“I didn’t—” Jaemin hesitates, swallows around the words.
I didn’t think I was worth it.
He doesn’t say it. He stays quiet, but he thinks Jeno might still understand. He might still know, just how he knows it’s not Donghyuck he loves, but Jeno, just like how he knows when Jaemin is the one who took his laptop, when Jaemin is the one who slept in his bed for his daytime naps, like how he knows when Jaemin comes back from the convenience store with his favourite chocolate and tries to hide it. No matter how he tries, there are some things Jeno can discern without effort, parts of him that Jeno can read like an open book. It’s part of letting someone into your heart — into your mind, into the messy corners of your psyche that all you can do when they open that door is apologise for the clutter. By letting yourself be revealed, piece by piece, you make yourself vulnerable, you unearth secrets buried under years of dirt and hardened layers.
He lets his breath fill the pause, slow, steady. There's ghosts of Jeno's kisses on his skin. His fingers in his hair, gentle, gentle. Even the way he touches Jaemin makes him ache. Makes him want to beg for forgiveness. For all the moments they’ve missed, for them to come back together.
Jeno’s hand tightens in his hair, and Jaemin looks up at him, tries to read into the expression on his face. “You're my best friend,” Jeno says.
The weight behind the words is immense. Jaemin shoulders it, and Jeno's hands tousle his hair, smooth it across his forehead.
"You're my best friend," he repeats, "and I forgive you."
No need to beg. It's given freely. It's Jeno.
It’s forgiveness for what Jaemin thinks is unforgivable. He had wanted it but — it’s given and suddenly he doesn’t. He won’t take it. “Don’t.”
“Yes,” Jeno says. A kiss on the top of his head, tender like Jeno thinks he might break — and Jaemin thinks he might be right. “I forgive you, Jaemin.”
It hits him in a long wave, like a receding tide coming back for more, washing over him and dulling the din of the world where it echoes in his ears.
“You don’t have to beat yourself up over it,” Jeno says, presses kisses into his hair. “For whatever you think is your fault. It’s not. And for what is — that’s okay. We all do terrible things at some point in our lives. I’ll survive.”
Another long pause. Jaemin keeps his silence, because he has no self control — not around Jeno, who tears him open, pries his ribs apart and plunges his hands deep inside effortlessly.
“I’ll survive,” Jeno says, “and you will, too.”
There are days when Jaemin doesn’t understand how he’s still here. When he rewatches a V LIVE broadcast and remembers how he’d thrown up in the bathroom ten minutes before they’d recorded. When YouTube autoplays a stage that had started with him stuffing sandwiches into his mouth to ensure that he got some kind of nutrition. They're taught that monitoring is the key to improvement, but all Jaemin can think when he watches is not his performance, but how his entire body had hurt from exhaustion that day — or how he’d fucked Donghyuck the night before. How before the sweat was even cold on his back he’d found himself in Jeno’s bed, repeating the same dance. How all of this did nothing to break the fever that burned within him.
Nothing did, anymore.
He wonders how every time he still manages to put on a happy face. Wonders when it just became automatic, instead of something he had to practice. Is it a comfort to know he can be someone else a moment's notice? That he can slip into another self if this world ever becomes too harsh for him? Or is it terrifying, knowing that somehow he has begun to compartmentalise himself, that he's already begun to sort his life into little boxes like birds in cages let out to sing when it's most opportune. He chooses the best parts to play, composes the perfect song and throws away the rest, scouring it from view like if he is the only one that knows about it then it cannot hang its shadow over the rest of the world.
When he thinks about how much Jeno knows, it terrifies him.
He knows. He knows so much about Jaemin, almost as much as Jaemin knows about himself, and if what Jaemin knows about himself is so deep-to-the-bone horrifying, then what must Jeno think about it? Jaemin has had years to grow used to it, is the sole architect of this nightmare machine — has been accustomed to it in some kind of Stockholm syndrome. But Jeno — he has nothing of that. Jaemin has shown him a room full of shadows, and he thinks it would be right for Jeno to run, but Jeno has stayed , and Jaemin doesn’t know why. Surely love is not enough. Surely — surely there must be some delusion. Maybe Jeno hasn’t been paying attention this entire time.
Voice — low. Jeno, come through the front door without Jaemin noticing. He’d been in a trance — sitting at the table and shoveling dry oreo cornflakes into his mouth like a broken machine. Beside him, Renjun is playing PUBG on his phone. The dorm is in disarray — with Kun and Ten gone the only person who bothers to tell them to clean up is their manager, and he has about all the authoritative power of a packet of chips. There’s a huge pile of plastic wrapping and cup noodle lids at the end of the bench, and as Jeno crosses the room he scrunches up the piece of paper that had been stuck on his foot and adds it to the mess.
“It’s 11pm,” he says. He’s sweaty, his helmet hanging off his arm. Another evening bike ride. Shorter this time. He’d left two hours ago — Jaemin doesn’t think he’d even hit the river. “You’re eating breakfast?”
“When did you ever care at what time of day I ate a meal?” Jaemin asks, the broken edges of the cereal cutting at his gums. He’s never been a very put-together eater. “You went cycling without me?” he adds, jabbing at him with the end of his spoon.
There’s been a tentative togetherness afforded by their discussion, by the moments like this one — Jeno blessing him, like this kiss of absolution was enough to scrub away some of the corrosion that has seeped into his bones. They do things together again — Jeno takes him cycling again, takes him to movies. They share moments like this — simple ones — and Jeno sits next to Jaemin on the couch again, grasps his arm when he laughs so hard his body can barely hold it in, starts to text him things that aren’t single word sentences or requests for coffee when he knows Jaemin is out. It’s a return to equilibrium — but unlike so many other times Jaemin has some vain hope that this might be permanent.
This might be mending, for real and for true this time.
“Sorry. I needed to think,” Jeno says, "and you're too slow." He shrugs his shoulders and runs a hand through his hair, hangs his helmet on the coat rack and heads to the fridge to pull out a bottle of beer. “You want a drink?”
“I'm not slow. You're a fitness freak.” Jaemin says.
There’s a clink as Jeno takes another bottle out. “Just because I can ride for more than ten minutes without having to take a rest doesn’t make me a fitness freak.” He winks at Renjun and gives Jaemin a grin, friendly and comforting, the same smile as the shy thirteen year old who bought him ice cream with his last few crumpled notes. It makes Jaemin’s heart do a loop and he has to fight hard not to react with anything else but a roll of his eyes.
Jeno pops the cap off his bottle with Ten’s bottle opener and hands it to Jaemin, then does the same to his own. The condensation sticks to his hand like sweat, and Jaemin wipes it on his jumper.
“Thanks,” he says, pushing the bottle along to Renjun, who murmurs out a thank you. The tiny sound of gunfire echoes from his phone speaker and he lets out a curse.
“I don’t understand how Chenle is so good at this.”
Jeno attempts to peer at Renjun’s screen and receives a finger on his nose for his trouble. He tries to bite it and Renjun flicks him on the forehead. “Bad dog,” he mutters. Jeno chuckles and pokes his tongue out, grin on his face like a toddler looking for mischief. Seeing them play warms Jaemin’s heart and he has to duck to hide his smile, fondness washing over.
"Think about what?" he repeats, attempting to distract him. His bowl is almost empty, and he's nowhere near full — he wonders if there’s rice in the cooker still.
“Just — nonsense,” Jeno says. He fidgets with a pen someone had left on the table.
“Normal Jeno stuff then,” Renjun says. He deposits his phone face down on the bench and stretches out his limbs like an overgrown kitten. Jaemin has an urge to pinch his ear that he thinks maybe he communicated out loud, judging by the way Renjun shoots him a glare. “Don’t think about it,” he says.
“Think about what?”
Jaemin makes a face and Jeno laughs, a rich sound that comes from his chest, filled with sincerity. It surprises Jaemin — because he doesn’t think he’s heard it in a long time — makes his tired heart ache and kick into overdrive.
"He's always annoying," Jeno says. Jaemin pinches his ear and twists it and Jeno lets out a loud squeak, reminisce of a kicked puppy, complete with the swimming eyes and pout when Jaemin releases him.
“Don’t try it,” Jaemin warns and Jeno just tilts his head, bottom lip jutting. Jaemin wants to kiss him. Renjun makes a puking noise.
“I’m glad you guys are talking again, but do you mind?" he says. Picks up his phone and stares longingly at the death screen.
“Mind what?" Jeno asks. Renjun dismisses him with a wave of his hand.
"You know exactly what."
Jeno's eyes meet his and his heart picks up for a second. The spark of mischief contained within seems like it’s been snatched straight from Donghyuck’s playbook, and Jaemin recognises that if Renjun wasn't here he'd be goaded into pushing Jeno up against the counter and kissing him until he was mad.
In another life, right?
"So, there's a Pann article about you," Donghyuck says, not even bothering to look up from his phone when Jaemin comes back from the bathroom. They’re in a Paris Baguette on the fourth floor of a shopping mall in Sinchon, somewhere busy enough that their chatter is swallowed by the background noise, but out of the way enough that no-one will recognise them. Donghyuck has been back from the US for a few days, and it’s not until now that’s he done sleeping off the entire tour. Jaemin almost envies it — he hasn't felt performance exhaustion in months, feels like he can't get a good sleep without it.
Jaemin pouts, before he realises what Donghyuck had actually said. "Wait, me?"
He hasn’t been in public as NCT Dream's Jaemin in weeks, and he doubts that someone thinks that his coffee order is particularly interesting, or at least interesting enough to garner a reaction
"You. And Jeno." His heart drops. "You two were looking frosty those last few We Go Up stages. After — you know."
Jaemin lets out a groan, fear dissipated. “That was months ago. Are people digging that up now?”
“Well, it’s not like they have much else to do.”
“Thanks for the slight,” Jaemin says. He's starting to itch from being left to his own devices for so long.
He takes a rather forceful bite of his croquette and washes it down with a mouthful of coffee, trying to cleanse the bitterness from his taste buds. Donghyuck makes a face.
“Watching you drink that still disgusts me.”
“The coffee jokes aren’t funny anymore,” Jaemin says.
“I think they’re kind of funny,” Donghyuck counters. He picks at the paper liner on the tray, tearing tiny pieces out of the corner. There's something hanging in the air, and he waits — waits for it to come out.
"Jeno talked to me," Donghyuck says. Four words that feel like lead dropped around him. "I mean, I knew but it's nice to hear it from his mouth — he's much better at feelings than you give him credit for, you know that?"
"Wouldn't be hard," Jaemin mumbles. He's waiting to see where this is going — isn't sure he likes it.
"Jaemin," Donghyuck says. His voice is low, almost unintelligible over the shoppers chattering outside and the music piping through the speakers. "He's in love with you. Actual genuine love. The rare kind of shit that doesn't happen in this industry.'
"This industry is why it doesn't happen."
"Hasn't stopped you," Donghyuck says. That bite that Jaemin loves, aftertaste of blue fire. "Or me," he adds, as if it’s an afterthought. Jaemin goes to ask but he’s bulldozed by Donghyuck, who has clearly practiced this conversation.
"Listen, Jaemin. I'm not here to tell you how to live your life. But look at me. Just look at me.” His eyes are glistening, full of solemnity, wiped of the mischief that often haunted them. Demanding Jaemin’s attention, not with a siren but with a subtle silence that feels apocalyptic. “Look at me,” Donghyuck continues, “and tell me. We’re not going to last forever, are we? The end of this year, and this is all over, Jaemin.”
It takes him a second to realise what Donghyuck is talking about, but when he does it spears him through the heart. It knocks him back to the last day of Dream Show, to the tears that had shimmered on all their skin — and the night after — where they’d all crowded into the dorm and pushed the couches to the walls, built cushion forts and camped out as a testament to their youth. Their manager had brought back takeout and they’d stayed up through the night, playing games on their phones and filling the room with chatter, telling trainee stories and ghost tales that made Jisung hide under his blankets and blubber in fear. Jaemin had fallen asleep in Jeno’s arms, Donghyuck pressed against his back, Mark’s snoring whispering in his ears.
“We’ll still be together,” Jaemin says. He and Jeno will always be together — they made a promise after all.
He doesn’t like to think about graduation. Two years had seemed like forever when they debuted, but then he’d blinked and Mark was gone. He’s scared that if he closes his eyes, it’ll be December, and Donghyuck will be right. They’ll be all over. “We’ll still be together,” he repeats. “What are going to do, add us to 127?”
“You don’t know. I don’t know. None of us know — that’s what I’m trying to say. What are you waiting for Jaemin? People would kill to have something like you two — the kind of genuine fucking connection you have — and you just squander it? For what? Because you hate yourself? Because you think eventually everything will work out, like it's something we can go to the manager to fix? You can't wait for everything to work out. You can't expect things to be easy — because if you do you'lll be here forever — and you’ll be here alone. You can’t expect him to wait.”
"I don't want him to wait. I want him to move on."
"No you don't," Donghyuck says. The words are a pointed finger aimed straight at Jaemin’s heart. "You forget that I know you, Jaemin. I know you're a lovesick fool who doesn't know how to cope without setting himself on fire. And I'm asking you — when you're older. When we reunite and it's been 10 years and Taeyong is getting married or some shit and we all come together again and Jeno turns up with someone else — how's that going to feel? Are you going to regret that you just sat and waited for things to be right and the world moved past you without realising? Because I think you are. I think you are, Jaemin. And you know what? Whatever excuse you have — it's wrong.
"You're allowed to be loved. We're allowed to be loved. There's nothing wrong with us, and god help me I will burn anyone who says there is. He loves you Jaemin, and anyone with working eyes knows you feel the same. Let alone the fact I've had to listen to you wax poetic about him for seven fucking years. Let yourself be loved, Jaemin. Please."
Donghyuck stares at him, eyes wide and pleading. "I just want you to let yourself be happy."
It's the scariest thing he's ever heard.
Jaemin takes it to heart.
Jaemin tucks his facemask over his chin and sits in the parking lot of the building, the cold wind slicing across his skin. The water of the puddles that lingers in dips of the asphalt is like black ink, is surface spotted with quivering green leaves and the pale glow of the streetlamps dotted around them like lanterns.
Jeno grumbles when he comes back out of the door, trying to fasten the strings of his hood under his chin and getting them tangled in his mask instead.
“Let me,” Jaemin says, pulling a glove off with his teeth and wiggling his fingers. Jeno makes a whining noise, but allows him to fix it, gives him a warm smile and a peck on the lips — bold even for him, setting off a gooey carpet bomb of butterflies like Jaemin is 15 again and kissing him for the first time.
This outing — it's about as close to a date as they can get, manager trailing behind them like a chaperone following kids to the movie theatre. They buy coffee and try on clothes, catch the subway to Dongdaemun and wander around the complex, Heunginjimun gate looming in the background, eerie silver mass of the design plaza dotted with traffic light reflections and ghosts of neon.
Jeno runs a finger around the rim of his coffee cup, worrying at a nick in the plastic. The paint splatter white light of the roses reflects on the surface of his glasses, shifting like a time lapse of the Milky Way when he looks up at Jaemin. “Do you ever wish you were normal?”
Jaemin blinks. A boy and his mother skip past them, night air crackling on the ends of their tongues. “Normal?”
“Not famous. Not an idol.”
“Sometimes,” Jaemin says. Careful, careful. It’s something he’s daydreamed about, every now and then, when slipping into the arms of restlessness that passed for sleep or cushioned by the sunshine filtering in through the dorm windows, nodding off in the back seat of the van moving back and forth through their abnormal lives. The fork in the path, the divergent move, where he’d never gone to that audition and had run the other way, straight back home and to his middle school classes and hours of studying, no dreams of stardom and sweaty practice room lights, no evaluations that made his bones shake. No NCT.
“We’d be in the army right now,” Jaemin says, even as he tries to shake the strange thoughts from his mind. The idea of deferred enlistment is so normal to him now — ingrained after years of idol culture being injected into his veins — that enlisting straight after high school like a civilian seemed foreign.
“I guess we would," he says, casting his gaze out over the crowd, a smile tugging at the edge of his eyes, turning them to lines. "You’d look good in uniform, I think."
“I can go buy a costume if that’s what gets you going,” Jaemin says, dry. He wishes there was more light than the roses and the skyscrapers reflected off the surface of the building, because he knows Jeno is blushing, and the red tips of his ears are oh so endearing. As it is he settles with his memories, hazy and grainy, tinged with a warmth Jaemin knows he could chase from the skin of Jeno’s stomach if he so wished to.
“Shut up,” Jeno says. He ducks his head, briefly, flicks the broken cup lid again. Eyes up.
“Do you?” Jaemin asks. Careful again, like he’s treading over sacred land, seashells cracking between his toes, fragments of plaster statues with faces long sanded off.
He recognises the way Jeno looks at him, then: utterly impossible. All too familiar and unguarded — whether it’s onstage or when they’re brushing their teeth together in the morning — filled with an honesty that only Jeno can carry. It’s like Jaemin is the sun — burning with the force of a million flares sent up to tell the whole universe to look at him — and Jeno is Icarus — willing to lose his wings and drown in the cruel ocean if it would just afford him a moment close to him. It’s breathtaking and terrifying, makes him feel impossibly small. Makes him feel unworthy, before he remembers Donghyuck's words and lets it settle within him.
"No," Jeno says. "But if I could have you? If I could be normal and have you? Then yes. Yes every time."
"Don't sacrifice your career for me," Jaemin says.
"I won't," Jeno agrees, rose light like lit torches on his face. "But if I had to. I would. It's not much of a career anyway, right? Worth giving up, maybe."
Jaemin hears his jaw click shut. He wants to argue and right and remind Jeno that he's wrong and that he — Jaemin — is poison but. He doesn't. He doesn't say anything. He just smiles and thinks the realisation tastes sweeter than anything he's ever known.
This is a test of sorts — toes dipped in the water, waiting to see if he can handle it. A first date when they’ve been going on dates for years — he can’t start at small talk, has to dive in head first. Finds he doesn’t mind. It’s the same as always, but there’s a giddy sensation inside of him. There’s a warmth, an unknown . The Jaemin of last year would be afraid but the Jaemin of now? He’s still afraid, but he faces his fear. He walks in front of it the way he walks on stage, smiles and punches right through it.
He thinks if he listens just right he can hear the crowd cheering for him.
Winter turns to spring and the rain falls in soft sheets, sticky humid head wafting around them. The comeback rumours that have been floating around become solidified and Donghyuck leaves for America. Jeno takes his hand and everything feels new and fresh, like breathing air for the first time after being trapped underwater for years. It’s like someone has freed him from where he’s been trapped all the years — but in truth Jaemin knows it was his own doing. He knows it was his own choice, his own shaky steps into the unknown. There’s an undercurrent to everything he does, to every slip-up he allows himself to make, to every mistake that lights him up like matches to tinder — but he pushes through it. And in pushing through it he thinks maybe, just maybe, that he starts to believe it.
Starts to believe bit by bit that he’s worth it. That when he sees faces staring up at him, awash in the light of a neon green ocean, that they want him to be here. He might still just be an idol to them, just someone on a stage, but that’s okay too. They love him and he loves them, and for so long it’s been the only thing that’s made him feel worthy. He’s thankful for it now, that they were able to lift him up when he needed it, even if the stage was once all he lived for. It’s part of the learning process, he knows. Part of growing up, of breaking his way through the cocoon he’d thought was his eternal prison.
When things start to hurt he stops. When his back spasms and he’s on his knees, Renjun’s hands on his shoulders, Jisung tipping his chin up to ask if he’s okay — he stops. He takes a breather. It doesn’t mean he’s a failure. It doesn’t mean he’s going to lose. It means he’s taking care of himself and — Mark’s voice, when he’d first hit the floor all those years ago, telling him: “You’re worth taking care of, Jaemin.”
In the whispering wind he and Jeno ride together, taste of river water thick in the air, car horns and the buzz of insects their background music. He’s still slower than Jeno — hasn’t been doing this for long enough to catch up to him — but Jeno keeps his pace, rides at his side and keeps him company with flashes of eye smiles and grins he can see even though his mouth is covered by a mask.
They stop outside the same old ramen shop, camp on the beat up benches with muddied grass caught in the tracks of their sneakers and the highway rushing along behind them. The roof of the sky is pale grey and the clouds that form are mere wisps, shadows of ghosts that sweep over the tips of the skyscrapers. There’s a warmth wafting through the air, a lingering heat they’ve they just stepped out of the shower, sweat stuck to their shirts. Jeno prods at his food and looks up at him, and there’s something strange in his eyes. Calamity. A need for answers.
“Jaemin,” Jeno says. “Are you afraid of dying?”
When he was eleven, Jaemin fell during the semifinals of the Gyeonggi Winter Meet speed skate event. Most of the other competitors missed him, skidded around him on the ice and sent kicked up shards onto his body but one, one couldn't steer properly, came racing towards him at full tilt.
Contrary to popular belief, Jaemin's life did not flash before his eyes. Nothing much did, except the lights reflecting on the metal of the boy's skates and the churn of the ice in the air. A question of who came up with the idea of strapping metal knives to your feet and moving as fast as possible. A hope that his face wouldn't be too mangled and that they could have an open casket funeral.
The crowd screamed. He thought he heard his name, and he squeezed his eyes shut, fingers numb, body no more than a sum of bruises and aches.
The boy flew over his head, skidded across the ice and crashed into the barrier, a tangled mess of limbs and skates stuck in the air, red scrapes across his puffy cheeks and bruises on his skin. Jaemin didn’t move for what seemed like an eternity, might have been only several seconds, chest rising and falling rapidly, every part of him on edge. A referee rushed onto the ice to help him up, and when he lined up to re-do his time that boy that had almost hit him smiled at Jaemin and apologised in shaky tones
You could have killed me , Jaemin thought. All his life in front of him, and one accident could have been the end of it.
“It’s okay,” he said, instead. He forgave. It had happened and he couldn’t change that. Instead he ducked his head down and he moved , rocketed across the track like a firecracker on the new year, carved a trail through the ice.
“You looked possessed,” his coach said. Jaemin laughed, shrugged a shoulder. He’d looked death in the eyes, just for a second. He’d understood.
Is Jaemin afraid of dying? Is he afraid that after so few years on this earth he’ll be smudged away — like a name in the margin of the ledgerbook of life, replaced and forgotten.
That the mark he left on people's hearts would heal over, and all this would be for nothing?
The answer is yes, unequivocally. A bloated yes, filled with viscera and bloodied promises, with the fear that pours through every inch of him and has become the energy that drives his self forward.
The wind whips up, snatching the last petals from the branches of the cherry trees and scattering them at their feet like wedding confetti. Jeno shovels a mouthful of ramen into his mouth, juice dripping from the ends of his chopsticks. His hair sticks up at odd angles and he looks at Jaemin like it’s the first time again, boyish and sweet — filling in his silences and shading in the empty expanses of his skin.
Is Jaemin afraid of dying?
Only because he would have regrets. His life might wash away, his name might be forgotten — face replaced by someone younger and brighter than him. He might lose everything he has — his name, his image, this persona studded in the diamonds that had once been coal dragging him to the bottom of the river.
He thinks, with a conviction that is shaky but sure, like a plaster statue reinforced as they speak, that that would be okay.
Here is what matters to him. Here is the only thing he knows.
Jaemin is overflowing with love, like it's the only thing that holds the shell of his body together. He bleeds freely, wounded so many times in this war with himself that it has become useless to patch all the holes up. He lives with them. They are a part of him as anything else.
He has been waiting and guarding, a fortress impenetrable with insides crumbling to pieces, every inhabitant that had once filled its walls with chatter scorched out. Every scar on his skin tells a story— a battle he has won to stand here today. The rising April wind runs through his hair, and he knows this.
Na Jaemin might be forgotten, one day. Na Jaemin might never make it, might be swallowed in the shadows of the stage. He doesn’t know what the future holds, but he knows what the now does, what the past has taught him.
He is in love with Lee Jeno. Every part of him is flooded with it, every part of him is fueled by it. There are a million paths in this universe — away from the SM auditions, away from their dormitory, towards the shadows and into the blinding light. They zigzag across his mind, across every timeline, kissed with Jeno's presence, with this assurance that runs through every part of Jaemin's soul. Jeno is there. Jeno will always be there.
The divergence is this:
One day they might not stand together on the stage, and one day Jeno might fall in love with someone else. One day Jaemin might be at a wedding, watching the boy who was his teenage best friend arrive with someone else. And for every moment, Jaemin would regret leaving this up to chance — taking the path that seemed bright and easy, that one that was so sure.
Sometimes you have to take a leap of faith. Sometimes you have to give everything up — tear yourself open and face your fears — because if you don’t you will spend your entire life wondering ‘what if’.
He doesn’t answer for the now. He answers for the future — the future full of fear, full of the black fog of unknowing. The future that has him and Jaemin, hands twined together, backstage at their first concert listening to the screams of thousands of people and feeling the hairs stand up on the back of their necks. The future where he doesn’t lie — to himself, or to anyone else, any longer.
"How would you describe each other?"
The lights come down. There's a live studio audience, mostly girls. Some of them are holding glitter signs with Jaemin's name on them. They smile, giddy, when his eyes pass over.
The host passes the microphone to Jeno, who pauses for a second, stares Jaemin in the eyes. The look that passes across his face is private, guarded, the same way Jeno stares at him in the small hours of the morning, when Jaemin wakes and catches him on his phone. It’s the look they share in backstage dressing rooms — the look Jaemin saw all those months ago, where the streetlamps highlighted the chiaroscuro of Jeno’s cheekbones and turned him into a war victim.
"He has a lot of love to give,” Jeno says. His eyes are crescent moons, and Jaemin’s heart swoops like a hawk in the night. Strikes down, finds a rabbit, kick drum in his ribs. “I don't know if the world can take it, but I think it's what we need. More people could do with being like Jaemin."
The microphone finds its way to Jaemin’s hands, Jeno’s fingers brushing against his. Jaemin is aware of the cameras rolling — of the people watching at home who will analyse every gesture, every breath. Sweat trickles down the back of his neck from the heat of the lights, and in the briefest moment his armour cracks open — reveals a heart so full it propels the words out of his mouth before he can catch them and stuff them back in.
“I love you, Jeno-ah.”
The audience laughs.