Growing up with a best friend like Na Jaemin has been nothing but one of the most amazing experiences of Lee Jeno’s life.
It’s got less to do with how they’ve known each other since they were in diapers. Plenty of people have known other people since they were in diapers but Na Jaemin is just different. Jaemin cheered the loudest during Jeno’s first swimming competition and was there to pick up the pieces when he lost. Jaemin helped him convince his parents to let him own a cat despite his allergy. Jaemin was there for every birthday, every high and low. They were each other’s prom dates. He was there for Jeno’s emotional breakdown when they had to go to separate universities. He didn’t know how to live a life without his best friend constantly in it but the taller boy reassured him then that nothing would separate them.
Na Jaemin remains to this day, a constant source of happiness, affection and security Lee Jeno never knew he needed. That’s not saying his family’s terrible. They’re pretty great.
His dad’s a coach for the national swimming team and his mom’s a retired Olympic figure skater turned coach and his sister’s a runway model. They’re also pretty okay with the whole, I like boys thing since Jeno accidentally came out to them while watching Javier Fernandez compete in the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics on the television. Typical Jeno move, looking back.
It was 2014.They were all cramped in the nice beige couch, his dad bought at Crate last year for his mom’s anniversary gift. Warm cups of hot chocolate in their hands. Heater turned on full blast but they still sit pretty much next to each other. Welcoming each other’s body heat like a gentle hello. Elbows knocking into each other as a show of solidarity against the bitter cold. One moment, Jeno was excitedly talking about how Javier’s step sequence was on point and then the next thing he knew he blurted out that he liked men loudly with another breath.
His parents and sister stared at him. Mouths agape. The television forgotten. Jeno had covered his mouth then, sweating buckets like a sinner in church or the time he forced himself to attend Jaemin’s 7thbirthday party only to faint after Jaemin blew the candles. Appendicitis.
In hindsight, they were pretty supportive of the whole thing. A lot of hugs and buying a nice rainbow pride cake and avocado ice cream in the middle of the winter. His mom couldn’t stop kissing his cheek and telling him that sh was so proud of him. His sister holding his hand the entire time. They had gotten so many weird stares from people but his father just leveled such a dangerous look to anyone that looked at him funny.
Three mouthfuls of cake in, Jeno’s father smiled at him. Faint wrinkles forming on his face but no less handsome. People have always said that he took after him in looks and his mother in personality. “Does Jaemin know?”
Jeno nods and his parents and sister just hum contentedly. They already knew. It’s a fact of life at this point. Of course, Jaemin knew first. Jaemin always knows first. Out of everyone in his life, Jaemin knows him best and he wouldn’t have it any other way.
So yeah, Jaemin.
It’s a pretty windy day.
The sky looking overcast, with dark, grey wispy clouds littered all over it threatening everyone with its intent to release a downpour. Jeno’s sitting in his room, minding his own business. Plucking the strings of his acoustic guitar to the tune of that AKMU song Jaemin’s been humming to himself last week.
The door to his university apartment bursts open to show a tall, lean boy wearing a nice black turtle neck with some well-fitted dark blue jeans. His hair’s pushed back and Jeno tries his hardest not to say anything too incriminating. Heart in his throat as he watches his best friend rummage through his closet.
“Jen, where is it?” Jaemin says as he pushes aside some dirty laundry Jeno has yet to properly sort out yet. He’s been feeling lazy all day. Fine, all week.
“To be fair, I have no idea what you’re looking for so I don’t really know how to help you right now.”
Jaemin levels him a look, half-withering, half-fond before throwing a pair of socks at him. Jeno could have avoided that easily but Jeno’s never been good at denying him anything. He loves him too much. Sometimes too much but that’s his life at this point.
“You need to clean up. Marie Kondo this place. It reeks of teenage boy.”
“I am a teenage boy, Nana if you haven’t noticed.”
“Baby, you turned twenty last summer. I was there to give you your birthday kiss as usual.”
Ah. Yes. The infamous birthday kiss.
You see, Jaemin and Jeno have this longstanding tradition that baffles everyone they meet. It started when they were five and Jeno forgot to buy him a birthday present that year. He had used up all his money buying avocado ice cream earlier that week. A prime example of his poor money management skills that was eventually corrected into a near miser-like grip on his wallet years later. For the record, Jaemin had been very upset. To reiterate with proper uppercase emphasis—Jaemin was Upset. Even a five-year-old Jeno knew that he didn’t like it when his best friend, sunshine of his life, half the meaning to his existence was Upset. So he does what his dad taught him to do when his mom is less than pleased.
He Begged. Groveled for forgiveness. Made promises he had every intention of keeping.
So he did just that. Sat down next to the crying boy and hugged him. Asked him what he could give to make him feel better and a five-year-old Jaemin just looked at him and said, “My mom always said that you have to kiss the hurt away.”
Five-year-old Jeno did just that.
Right underneath the cloth covering the table, hidden away from the purview of onlookers save for the telling multicolored pant legs, stockings and shoes our hero, Lee Jeno, held Jaemin’s tiny, tear-smeared face between two small, clammy palms. He kissed him on the lips. Long and sweet. His ears burning from embarrassment but his heart filled with such warmth. The smile five-year-old Jaemin gives back that day was incomparably beautiful. To this day, it is still a fond memory for him.
The next year on Jeno’s birthday, Jaemin handed him a nice minted red Lamborghini Murcielago toy car he had saved up for and kissed Jeno on the lips back. It was equally as warm and made firecrackers explode inside his chest cavity. Jeno never threw out his childhood teepee. The very place they had their second kiss.
They’ve been giving each other birthday kisses every year since then.
A sharp nudge on his forehead brings Jeno out of his reverie. Jaemin standing over him, hands on his hips and a scowl on his handsome face. “Hey, focus. Where’s your denim jacket?”
Reaching back, Jeno grabs the much-needed jacket from under his pillow. He had worn it yesterday. “Should I get the steamer?” Jeno asks as he hands it to Jaemin whose been making grabby fingers. “Nah, I’m kind of going for an effortless look today. The rumpled jacket would look nice.”
He watches silently as Jaemin brings it to his face to take a whiff of it like he usually does.
“Does it smell bad? Sorry, I kinda wore it already.”
The other boy shakes his head. A happy smile on his face. “Don’t be an idiot. You know I like to wear clothes you’ve already worn before. It smells nice.”
“Not too teenage boy?”
Jaemin shoves him lightly on the shoulder before shrugging the jacket on. He grabs Jeno’s aviators from the organizer he placed in the messy boy’s room two months ago in an attempt to contain the mess. It did not help in the slightest.
“What do you think?”
Jeno stares at him and can’t help the smile forming on his face. Jaemin’s always loved clothes. He should know best. He’d been Jaemin’s official doll growing up. He’s had his hair styled, makeup placed on his face and let Jaemin arrange their coordinating outfits since they were four. Jaemin even designed his older sister’s wedding dress a year ago. It was on the cover of a bridal magazine.
He loves the way the black turtleneck matches well with the faded, rumpled denim jacket and how the jeans make his legs look longer. The aviators sitting atop his nose and his styled, windswept hair gives off an old Hollywood movie star vibe. Sometimes, Jeno wonders to himself how someone as brilliant as Jaemin could have ever deigned to befriend him. Goes to that dark place inside his head that wonders if they would have ever met and become friends even if they never met as babies.
“Very James Dean. I love it.”
Jaemin sighs, sets the aviators on the bedside table before he tackles Jeno on the bed. His soft, chapped lips plant a kiss on Jeno’s forehead. Jeno hugs him in return. Let’s the smell of Jaemin’s expensive cologne waft over his nose. He hopes the scent lingers in his room long after the boy is gone. “You have a party later?”
“Yeah, my friend Donghyuck is coming with me. You wanna go?”
Jeno shakes his head. “I’ve got swim practice until late in the evening.” Nestles himself more in the crook of Jaemin’s neck. Trying to catch a whiff of Jaemin’s true scent. Woody and fragrant. Like the Basmati rice he likes to purchase from the grocery’s international section ever since they were young and they would play a game of sinking in their fingers in the rice sack. Reveling in the lingering smell that would stain their hands for the remainder of the afternoon.
“Come pick me up?”
“Always. You always drink too hard at these parties.”
A sigh. Dramatic as ever. Jeno loves it, anyways. “You know it’s hard being the life of the party. I’ll text you the address later.”
Jaemin disentangles himself and Jeno has to force himself not to cling on too much. He doesn’t want Jaemin to feel suffocated with his presence. “I need to go now, before you convince me to take a nap with you.” Jaemin grabs the aviators and puts them back on.
“Take care, please.”
“I love you, Jeno.” Jaemin says over his shoulder.
Jeno nods. Warmth blooming in his chest.
“You need to say it back. We’ve practiced this for years.”
“I know, me too.” He’s always been the stilted, poor at emotional vocabulary Han Solo to Jaemin’s verbose, Leia Organa. They even had the matching costumes to boot a few years ago.
Jaemin grins widely. A thousand megawatt smile in display as he shuts the door close.
Jeno examines his room. Piles of dirty laundry on the floor, his closet ransacked but he smiles fondly.
The scent of Jaemin’s cologne lingers.
People are often confused with their friendship dynamic.
Not that Jeno can blame them. His friendship with Jaemin is quite odd and unique after all. How could it not when they’ve been together for as long as they have been alive. Jeno roams the aisles of a rather pricey clothes store, looking for something to give Jaemin. He’s always loved to receive presents and Jeno always loved to give them.
“Jeno, are you sure you can afford to buy something here?” His swimming teammate, Jaehyun asks. Jeno nods. “I’ve been saving up a lot. It’s our anniversary next month.”
Jaehyun levels him an incredulous look before proceeding to pinch him in the cheek. “Anniversary? Did you finally ask him to be your boyfriend and not tell us?!”
“What? No! We aren’t like that. It’s our friendship anniversary!”
It’s not exactly a common tradition anyways but it’s something that Jaemin had initiated. Five-years-old and fresh-off attending his grandmother’s 50thgolden anniversary, Jaemin leads Jeno further back into the garden and offers him a heart-shaped dollar ring he’d folded earlier during the reception. The hum of old jazz music filling in the silence between them.
“Let’s celebrate our anniversary too. Let’s be together for a long time,” Jaemin had said, smile slightly crooked but sincere. Jeno could only nod as he let Jaemin slip the dollar ring onto his finger.
He didn’t take it off all night.
To this day, it’s still carefully folded and kept in his childhood bedroom back in Incheon. Besides, he doesn’t mind celebrating one extra holiday. Not when it means that Jaemin gets to dress up like he loves to do and Jeno gets to be that person that makes him happy.
“How long have you been friends?”
“About twenty years but we started the friendship anniversary when we were five.”
Jaehyun whistles. A roguish grin on his face. “So you’ve been together for about fifteen years now?”
“Jeno, are you sure you aren’t in love with him?”
Jeno pauses in his search for the perfect gift. “Of course I love him. I love him more than I could ever love myself probably.”
“I mean do you love him romantically?”
Jeno’s never really thought of it that way before. Does he? Love Na Jaemin in a romantic way? He decides not to think about it too much here. He’ll mull about it more in the comfort and safety of his room later. Preferably over a hot cup of chai tea.
“Hmm. What do you think of this one?” Jeno asks as he holds up a rather beautiful crème colored coat. It’s soft to touch, elegantly designed and would keep Jaemin warm. Already, he could see Jaemin wearing it in the fall and winter. He’s always loved timeless pieces and Jeno knows that Jaemin is overly sentimental too. Having kept every single friendship and birthday present Jeno’s ever given him immaculately taken cared of until the end of their lifespans. Even then, Jaemin would be mournful to have to give them away or throw them in the trash. Jeno’s there to cheer him up anyhow.
“I think he’ll look great in it,” Jaehyun says with a dimpled smile. Jeno’s always liked him. Looked up to him even. He had decided to accept Korea University’s sports scholarship because seeing him compete in the Nationals had inspired him back in high school. It also helped that it was full-ride and would help his parents have less expenses. It’s not easy to send Jeno to swim competitions at his level. Thankfully he has received some sponsorships as well since his good performance at last year’s meet. Nabbing a spot on the national team does wonders too.
He buys the coat and a nice, white scarf to go with it. Has the store clerk wrap it up in a lovely box and off-white packaging. A beautiful black satin ribbon, tastefully made sitting on top of a hastily written card.
He knows Jaemin will absolutely adore it.
Jaemin spends the night at his apartment.
He’s been spending far too much time sewing, designing and preparing for his college’s fashion show. Dark-under eye circles and the occasional smattering of tiny pimples around his forehead that stresses him out. It’s been their tradition for the younger boy to sleep over at Jeno’s place when he feels the most vulnerable. It doesn’t really matter if Jeno’s place is a little bit far from the his college. They’ve already set up a routine. Jeno’s just as willing to spend the night at Jaemin’s place if it meant that his best friend would feel better the soonest.
Under the comforter, Jeno looks at his best friend’s face and traces the slope of Jaemin’s nose, the long, curled eyelashes that fan the other’s high cheekbones. It flutters a little bit at the sudden touch but the brown haired boy continues to slumber on. He’s broader than him, and once upon a time he used to be incredibly jealous of that fact but he’s come to accept it as a fact of life.
“Do I love you?” Jeno asks to no one in particular. His voice barely above a whisper.
He doesn’t have a lot of experience with love. Not when he’s actively repressed that part of himself to focus on more important things. Like swimming and Jaemin. Always Jaemin. He’s incredibly thankful for how supportive he has been all throughout his competitive swimming career. It’s not easy to be friends with someone whose been training to become an Olympic champion since he was old enough to swim.
Jaemin would spend time hanging about the bleachers doing his homework and designing clothes while Jeno practiced stroke after stroke in chlorinated water. Those days, it was only through Jaemin’s gentle, unwavering support that he managed to wake up early in the morning to practice, eat healthy meals and still have enough time to do his homework. The gentle boy had never once complained and in turn, Jeno does his best to help him follow his dream.
He was there when Jaemin first discovered how much he loved clothes. They sat in the living room watching Jaemin’s grandmother sew his first Halloween costume. The sparkle in his eye every time a piece of fabric would fall down from the table and the way his face lit up in joy to see the finished product. That from nothing, something beautiful was created. He likes to think that god made Jaemin like that too.
Jeno never complained when Jaemin wanted to spend hours at thrift shops looking for clothes or managing his outfits every time they had to go out. Jaemin even designed their tuxedos for Prom the two years they went. He called him extra early in the morning when Jaemin had landed that summer internship at a fashion label and sent coffee deliveries with his own pocket money to make sure Jaemin stayed awake to finish it.
There is nothing he wouldn’t do for Na Jaemin and he can’t imagine a life without him. Can’t bear the thought of being bereft of his presence either. An ache forming in the hollow cavity of his chest. His heart seizing and letting go erratically.
Shakily, Jeno reaches his hand to cup Jaemin’s cheek. Rubs his thumb in lazy, gentle circles at the dip of his cheekbone. Here, under the covers, in the safety of his bed, Jeno watches the sunlight filter through the threads and illuminate the boy beside him. Sun-kissed and radiant. Oh how he wishes he could keep this sight in front of him forever. To imprint this feeling, this vision before him in his mind so that when he closes his eyes, it’s this he sees. He accepts the secret truth of his universe.
“There is no me, without you.”
He feels a warm hand envelope his own. Jaemin’s eyes flutter open, still shaking off the last vestiges of sleep but he’s on the cusp of wakefulness and he’s smiling. The one that he only ever shows to Jeno. Soft, gentle and sincere. The same one he gets whenever Jeno leans in to give him his birthday kiss or whenever they’re together. Hands twisted into knots, hidden under their school bags as they ride the last bus ride home after Jeno’s stayed too long to get another hour of swimming practice. The singular one that radiates happiness from every single pore in his body. Look alive, it says. See me come alive in your presence.
“There is no me, without you too.”
Ah, so this is what love feels like, Jeno thinks. His cheeks hurt and his eyes sting but Jaemin brushes them away with a calloused thumb. Coarse, from all the years he’s spent pricking them from sewing his masterpieces together. Worn and loved and full of wonder as he sews their tapestry together. Red thread abound and ever present in the woven, unfinished mural of their lives.
He understands now.
Today’s practice is not going the way it’s usually going.
He’s not meeting his minimum lap times and he’s had two false starts. Jeno has grown out of that phase since his disastrous elementary school swim meets. The frustration is building inside of him bit by bit as his lungs burn and his arms ache. the final straw is drawn when he misses a stroke and throws himself off-rhythm. Floundering in the middle of the water as he growls in frustration.
The sound of his father’s whistle shakes him out of his spiraling circle of doom and gloom. The shape of his father’s mouth is downturned but his eyes are kind. Always kind but firm. “You are distracted.”
“Care to tell me what’s broken through your usually impenetrable focus?” His dad asks as he pats the side of the pool for Jeno to sit on. Nodding once, he takes his cue. Wades through the water and grabs the edge to pull himself up into sitting position. Toned legs dangling over the edge and flicking the water with every lazy, half-hearted kick. The fluorescent lights glinting off the surface of the turquoise pool. Reflecting the shadows of the water against the stark, utilitarian walls in wavy, shapeless forms.
“Dad, how did you tell mom you loved her?”
“This is new,” his dad comments. “My son mulling about something aside from swimming.”
“Please answer the question truthfully.”
The older man, sits more comfortably, setting down his clipboard facing his son. “I mustered up all my courage and just asked her. I bought her flowers and hoped for the best.”
“You weren’t afraid she was going to reject you?”
“I was. I was scared out of my mind but I thought, I had to find out the truth. I had to see if she had it in her heart to love me and if she had said no, then at the very least I could move on. My heart would mend and I wasn’t a coward.”
“I’m a coward,” Jeno whispers quietly. The anxiety building in his limbs as he twists his hands together in knots. “I’m not brave like you.”
“Nonsense!” His father says in his deep gravelly voice. The kind that reminds you of great, crashing wave and the strong undercurrent that pulls you under only to crash you against a sandy shore. Alive but changed forever. “You’re plenty brave, Jen. You braved your fear of failure to compete for a spot in the national team didn’t you?”
“It’s the same, Jen. When you get in the water, you don’t know what’s going to happen. If you don’t move, you’ll sink so you keep moving. You reach the edge. You fight for your goal. With every stroke, every breath, every plunge into the water fighting against fatigue. Fighting against that thought in your mind to give up and let the water either sink or float you away. You have it in you to be brave. You just have to believe in yourself. Remember mental conditioning. Visualize.”
Jeno thinks of Jaemin and his smile. The way his head falls back when he laughs with his whole body. The way his hands look as he expertly stitches fabric together to make something so aesthetically beautiful from nothing but tool and long swatches of cloth. Plenty of people must see that he’s nothing short of beautiful. Nothing short of kind. He doesn’t want to miss his chance. Even if that means risking their friendship. Hoping against hope that time would mend their relationship even if the other boy doesn’t feel the same way about him.
“I think I’ll tell him.”
“Good luck in telling Jaemin how you feel.”
Jeno whips his head towards his father whose levelling him a smug smile. Eyes crinkling at the edge of a crescent moon. “Son, I raised you. You think I wouldn’t notice how devoted you are too him? Your mom and I aren’t blind. Also, what kind of friend celebrates anniversaries together like they’re married?”
“We aren’t married!” Jeno exclaims. His body flush with embarrassment.
“Not yet, at least. Not at all if you don’t confess soon. I quite like the thought of having Jaemin as my son-in-law.”
“Is this you giving me your blessing?”
He feels two strong arms envelop him tightly. “Yes, now. I want one last lap and no slacking off then you can leave early. Go tell him how you feel.”
Jeno slips into the pool filled with new found purpose. If he breaks his old record for the 200 meter it’s nobody’s business but his.
Standing outside of the bar, Jeno braces himself.
He’s never been one for drinking, seeing that it messes with the diet Taerung has set him to follow but he likes accompanying Jaemin out anyways. Thankfully, his best friend had replied promptly to his text regarding his whereabouts. They’re all out celebrating finishing the final design piece early. All that’s left for them to do is the fashion show itself.
Letting himself in, Jeno scans the crowd for any sign of a tall man with brown hair. The music and the thumping bass, rattles his ribcage as he squeezes himself in through throngs of undulating dancers moving to the beat. The smell of alcohol and sweat and cigarettes and regret swirling around in a cesspool around him.
Jeno knows he looks terribly out of place here. With his plain white t-shirt and black adidas track pants but that’s what he gets for coming here straight after practice. Pushing his glasses back up his nose, he scans the crowd again. He spots Jaemin standing against a wall talking with another male, a glass of beer in hand.
Jaemin’s sense of style is impeccable as ever. A leather jacket over a nice graphic printed shirt he’s tucked inside skinny black jeans and a pair of oxfords. Even in this dim-lighting, Jaemin stands out from his peers in the effortless je ne sais qois he exudes. Never needing to try hard to look good.
Carefully he makes his way towards the both of them. Hurrying when he sees the way the other man leans into Jaemin’s personal space. A dangerous glint in his eyes that Jeno is all too familiar with.
“Jaemin!” he calls out when he’s close enough. Jaemin squints and sees him. A dazzling smile lazily forming on his lips.
“Well look who the cat dragged in. Did you come here straight from practice?”
Jeno nods as he stands before them. Very underdressed for this type of crowd but he’s never really found it in him to care as much for his appearance. Those things don’t matter when he’s in the water most of the time.
“Oh before I forget, this is Jungwoo-hyung. He’s one of the models we got for the fashion show.” Jeno eyes the model through his spectacles. Definitely tall, well-proportioned and handsome. Definitely Jaemin’s type.
“Hyung this is my—”
“Jeno. I’m…I’m Jeno.”
“Well, nice to meet you Jeno.” The model says with an easy smile. “Jaemin, you never said your best friend was this handsome. Maybe he should have been your model instead?”
Jaemin shakes his head before finishing his glass. “He can’t, Jen’s got training over at Taerung.”
“The national sports center? Really?” Jungwoo says, disbelief clear in his eyes.
Jeno shrugs it off. He’s used to it. “I um, I erm, I swim. Competitively, yes.”
“He can do it all but his specialty is the 200 meter butterfly,” Jaemin says as he drapes an arm around him. Chest puffing with pride at his best friend’s accomplishments.
“Wait, Jeno as in Lee Jeno the swimmer who won six gold medals in the ASIAN Games last year?”
Hearing his accomplishments from someone else makes Jeno bashful most of the time. Hell, he dreads the times he has to star in CFs but the money would help him with his training. It’s not easy to be an athlete these days.
“The one and only, but right now he’s Jen, my best friend. Awkward but lovely.”
It’s all Jeno can do but nod. The music changes into something quite lively. The mood in the bar intensifying as more people crowd the makeshift dancefloor.
He feels a tug in his arm and he looks at Jaemin. All smoldering eyes and playful smirk unknowingly pinning Jeno in his spot with just his gaze. “Dance with me.”
Jeno lets himself be dragged into the dancefloor. Jaemin letting his body move to the beat of the music. His body translating what he feels into movement, popping and locking as he spins around. Jaemin is beautiful when he dances. Carefree, fluid and full of charisma. Jeno’s mom still thinks it’s a waste for Jaemin to have given up speed skating but Jeno knows his passion has always been for couture.
“Stop being so stiff! I said dance with me not watch me dance!”
Jeno laughs as starts to sway side to side trying to get into the rhythm of the beat. He feels the older boy’s hands wrap around his neck, breath hot as it fans against his ear. “I’m dancing already,” he says good naturedly. The smell of alcohol and cigarette smoke clings onto Jaemin’s clothes but his body is warm as always.
“I know, I just wanted to be close to you. I missed you.”
“We saw each other last week?”
Jaemin’s grip tightens. “I still miss you. I miss you every day when we aren’t together.”
“I do too. It’s not easy to be apart when we’ve been together most of our lives.”
Jaemin ghosts his lips directly over Jeno’s. Dangerously close, a false move would tip them over into uncharted territory. “There is no me, without you,” Jaemin says loud enough for just Jeno to hear. He grips the older boy’s hips tighter. Reassuring.
Jaemin lays a sloppy kiss on Jeno’s forehead like he usually does when he’s drunk. Only this time, Jeno can feel the undercurrent of something else. A chip in Jaemin’s usually well-guarded walls. A trace of something they’ve been dancing around each other for years but not quite spoken out into existence. A glimmer of hope in a shroud of darkness.
“Let’s get out of here, Nana,” Jeno says as he runs his hand gently through brown hair. It’s soft, and healthy. Jaemin’s always been particular about his body after all. Then, again Jaemin’s always been particular about the things that matter to him most.
Walking outside the streets of Seoul at night with someone you love is different, Jeno thinks.
The lights are brighter but the noise is muted. Hyperaware of the distance between the two of them as each telltale brush of skin against skin sends waves of electricity up and down Jeno’s arms. His heart is beating rapidly in his chest but his mind has never been more focused.
Jaemin’s swaying a bit side to side. He must have gone too hard on the alcohol again. Sooner or later, the tall boy would have called him to pick him up from the bar. He never likes to go home with other people in this state. Not that Jeno would have let him. Jaemin always makes fun but regrettable decisions while he’s drunk. Like that time he shaved half of Jeno’s hair off in an attempt to save him from a dreadful bowl cut when they were in high school. Thankfully at least one salon was willing to salvage Jeno’s hair from disaster. It was the first time he’d ever had an undercut as severe but even his sister had complimented him nicely. Jaemin had been so apologetic about the whole think he shaved his head the same way in solidarity.
“You’re thinking too hard again, Jen.”
“Your practice ended early. Is everything okay?”
“Yeah, I just wasn’t feeling myself today. Coach said I was too distracted so he told me to go rest and meet up with you.”
“Why do your coaches always think that meeting with me is the solution to your distraction,” Jaemin muses out loud. A slight whine in his voice.
Jeno lets out a chuckle as he helps straighten Jaemin out by holding a hand to his elbow. “That’s because being with you gives me perspective. Peace of mind.”
“That’s. That’s poetic.” Jaemin levels him a suspicious look. “What did you do to the real Lee Jeno, alien? He’s never that smooth or cultured.”
“I take offense. I can on very, very rare occasions dish out something wise.”
Waiting at the bus stop, Jeno sets Jaemin down on the seat. Hopefully to help him sober up. They’re quiet for a long time. Bus intervals at this time of the night are rare. Trying to catch the last bus to Jeno’s apartment is also a bit of a waiting game but he doesn’t mind. Not when Jaemin’s set his tired head on Jeno’s shoulder for comfort.
It starts to rain. The soft pitter patters steadily intensifying until its turned into a downpour. It’s chilly but Jeno will be fine. Jaemin’s got a leather jacket on and his best friend has always been quite the furnace. It serves them well in the winter when they’re both curled up underneath the heated blanket.
The waiting shed they sit underneath has a grated section with no roof. Jeno watches the rainfall slip in between the grating above to land in front of them in steady splatters like a painter throwing paint at a canvass. Through the crack, Jeno gazes at the tall skyscrapers in the distance kissing the dark heavens and wonders what it would be like to kiss Na Jaemin for real.
No chaste birthday kisses in the way.
Open-mouthed, filled with longing and a hunger gnawing at their insides to press closer and closer together until they’ve all but filled the empty spaces that separated them into two different beings. Blurring the line between a half and a whole.
“You’re freezing,” Jaemin says. Wiping stray raindrops away from his cheek. The place Jaemin’s fingers touch him alight him in flame and heat.
“We’ll be home soon. I’ll manage.”
Sitting up straighter, Jaemin wraps his body around Jeno’s torso. Sharing the warmth of his body with him. Feeling crawling back into his skin as it chases the cold seeping into him earlier away.
“Better?” Jaemin whispers hotly against the shell of Jeno’s ear. He nods. Squeezing back just as hard. Eyes on the lookout for the bus that would take them home. “Everything’s always better with you in it, Nana.”
“Let me stay the weekend.”
“You can stay forever.”
“I mean it,” Jeno says as he stares into his best friend’s honey brown eyes. “I want you to be in my life forever, Nana.”
Jaemin’s silent for a long while before he buries his face in the crook of Jeno’s neck again. “Me too.”
The bus arrives not long after.
Jeno’s playing some RnB album that his friend, Mark, had recommended him to listen to. The soft, dulcet tones of h.e.r. keeping him company as he continues to fold the dollar bill. It isn’t easy but Jeno thinks that the payoff would be worth it.
Jaemin’s taking a shower and Jeno only hopes that he doesn’t use up all the hot water. He still wants a warm shower tomorrow morning. Just as he’s folded the final wing in place, the sound of the bathroom door opening has Jeno slipping it inside his sweater.
Jaemin’s rubbing the excess water of his hair and sitting in front of the electric fan trying to dry it out faster. “You’ve tidied up.”
It’s true. The room is decidedly cleaner than it was weeks ago. He’s done his laundry this morning and organized his closet. Even sectioned off an area for Jaemin’s things that he usually leaves when he swaps clothes with Jeno. It’s gotten to a point where Jeno had decided to buy clothes that would fit both of them in the event Jaemin’s clothes sharing habits strikes again.
Jeno shrugs nonchalantly as he settles into his bed. Setting an alarm for his phone at the regular time he has to wake up for an early morning jog. “Do you have class tomorrow?”
“No, I’m destressing the whole weekend at your place.”
“Okay, feel free to eat anything.”
“That’s if you have any food left to eat.”
“I just restocked last night. Coach said I had to eat better. I lost a lot of weight this month.”
Jaemin hangs the towel before motioning Jeno to scoot over on the bed. Pressed close, Jeno draws the blanket over them as they’ve always done. Knees bumping against each other, elbows squished in tight, chest to chest. The light filtering through the cracks. “You know you have to maintain it. The weigh in is soon.”
“I know, I’ve just been a little bit stressed.”
“Is it your wrist again?” Jaemin asks worriedly. “Did you tell the physical therapist?”
“No, it’s not my wrist. I was just thinking about love is all.”
Jaemin looks at him warily. Smile tight but still open. “What do you mean? Do you have someone you…like?”
Jeno nods. “Yeah, I do.”
“Oh,” Jaemin says his voice slightly wobbly. “Are you going to tell me who it is?”
Jeno nods. Notices the frightened expression on the other boy’s face. “Are you scared?”
“A little. You never talk about these things so I’m…I-I’m sorry I don’t know why I’m like this. You’re allowed to like whoever you want.”
Looking into Jaemin’s eyes, his bare face with his heart laid bare Jeno finds his resolve.
“Years ago, we made a promise that we wanted to be together for a long time and we have but I want more than that now. I want to wake up next to you and kiss you even outside our birthdays and anniversaries. I want to be there when you reach your dreams and I want you to be there when I reach mine. I want to be there for you when the times you are happy and even the times when you feel so down.”
Blood pumping into his ears as he reaches inside his sweater to pull out the dollar ring he folded and slips it carefully onto Jaemin's ring finger.
“I’m not perfect but I hope I can be at least good enough for you and I hope you can find it in yourself eventually to love me the way I love you. Because I do. So much. Even though I suck at showing it as always. I’ll work on it. I’ll be better so please, let’s grow old together. Please let me love you.”
He holds his breath as he looks at Jaemin, who is stunned silent. Jaemin bites his lips, trying his hardest not to cry but the tears fall down his face anyway.
“Shut up for a second, Jen.”
“I was so fucking scared okay. I didn’t know what I was going to do if you said you loved someone else.” Jaemin sobs for a long while but allows Jeno to wipe the stray tears away. It’s not often that Jaemin cries. He’s not one for showing emotion but Jeno feels bad for being the cause of his best friend’s distress.
Wiping his face with the sleeve of Jeno’s shirt, Jaemin looks at Jeno fiercely. Traces the crane-shaped dollar ring with his free hand. “You can’t take it back. This is for life.”
“You don’t have to wait for me to love you back. I've loved you since we were five and I proposed an anniversary to you in my grandmother’s garden. I probably loved you even before that. I don’t ask kisses from people I don’t like.”
“Besides, I’ve been secretly dating you for the past fifteen years after all. You better have proposed to me or I’d be angry.”
Jeno looks at Jaemin, fearful that the other boy might be angry at him for taking so long to understand his feelings but he doesn’t seem upset. Instead, he’s the happiest he’s seen him. The smile he loves so much is written all over his face. Practically beaming with happiness.
Maybe it’s the moment or maybe it’s the look in Jaemin’s eyes that pushes him to ask, “Are you going to be angry if I ask if I could kiss you?”
“I’d be angry if you didn’t, darling.”
Slowly, Jeno cups Jaemin’s face in his hands and leans in to kiss him on the lips. Chaste, closed-mouthed but filled with so much answers that it soothes the ache of uncertainty in Jeno’s chest. A balm to his wound.
When Jaemin leans in to kiss him again, Jeno’s ready. He’s been ready for a long time. It’s the kind of slow burn you get after a good stretch. An unrelenting promise of what’s to come. The third kiss is even better. Jaemin’s lips were upturned, smiling into it as he leans his soft lips against the plush of Jeno’s lower lip. It felt like an answered prayer. A rainbow after a cold, unrelenting downpour.
Jeno stops counting after the third. Not that it matters. Loses himself in the feeling of Jaemin’s chapped lips and eager tongue and roaming hands dragging the back of his shirt upwards. Pulling him down towards his gravity and Jeno lets him take as much as he wants. Kissing back softly, eagerly, passionately. Their limbs tangling against each other with no clear beginning or end.
Later, when they’re curled up against each other. Sated. Joyous. Euphoric. Jeno will brush a strand of matted hair away from Jaemin’s forehead before kissing him once, twice, in the mouth. He will smile into it. Jaemin will smile back.
“I love you, Lee Jeno,” Jaemin will whisper to him underneath the blanket. Nose to nose, breath fanning each other’s mouths, eyelashes meeting in the middle. Legs and feet and hands intertwined. The biggest grins on both their faces.
“I love you too, Na Jaemin,” he will whisper back.
This is their promise of forever.
He doesn’t quite understand the logic of it.
Not really. How can he, Lee Jeno, suddenly get so awkward with his best friend turned boyfriend of about three days. It’s not like he’s still waiting for his normal body parts to arrive or dreaded social interaction with others by his crippling shyness. Jeno finds it surprising up to this day that he has finally made friends with other people in university because of swim club.
He hates it when Jaemin is right.
Especially that afternoon years ago when they had their biggest fight in recent history. Jeno and Jaemin had both applied for and gotten in at Korea University only for the other boy to go behind his back and apply at a fashion college. Jeno had been livid and refused to talk to him for a week. Later, in the safety of Jeno’s childhood teepee where they once shared their second kiss, Jaemin would explain that he had wanted to pursue his dream of becoming a fashion designer. Tears in his eyes, he also explained that they both needed to grow apart from each other.
Jeno had been scared witless. He’s never been away too long from Jaemin and he had been terrible at making friends. Jaemin’s always been pretty okay with people. He’d been the class president during their third year in high school after all.
For him to have done that was a betrayal of the highest degree but over time, he saw that Jaemin had meant it well. Jeno wouldn’t have learned to cope without him and learned to open up to more people if he hadn’t done that. He wouldn’t have met Mark or Lucas or Jaehyun-hyung.
It still doesn’t explain how suddenly he can’t quite talk to him without feeling something’s stuck in his throat and how he turns extra clumsy around him. Dropping and bumping into things and making a general mess of things he touches. It’s like he’s transformed into Jaemin’s younger brother Jisung all of a sudden and it’s not really a pleasant feeling. Not when, out of everything in his life it’s his body proprioception that he can control better than most people.
They’re all hanging out at Jaemin’s apartment to celebrate their getting together by playing video games. Donghyuck affectionately calls it their early engagement party. Of course, Jaemin takes that time to flaunt his dollar ring to everyone who would care to look and marvel at Jeno’s precise paper-folding skills.
As of the moment, Jisung and his new friend Chenle are hogging the controllers and duking it out on Tekken. Their socked feet splayed at the designer couch that Jeno, Mark and Donghyuck had helped Jaemin ferry away in the middle of the night six months ago from being thrown into the trash. It was still fairly new and in pretty good condition too. It was not light in the slightest. Jeno had to weather through old man sex jokes for weeks when he threw his back. Coach and the PT had not been happy about that.
Jaemin’s in the kitchen whipping up some milkshakes with Donghyuck, whose currently flirting and trying to teach Jeno’s swim teammate Mark how to fry an egg. It’s not working out for either of them. The cooking not the flirting because despite how disastrously Mark is fucking up a sunny-side up egg they’re hitting it off well. It wont surprise him in the slightest if Donghyuck manages to slip his number in the other boy’s jeans.
Lucas is also here with his boyfriend, Renjun. An exchange student from Yonsei University. Jeno knows that there’s always been a stiff competition with both of their universities but he’s never been one to engage in petty rivalries. He’s just happy that his friend from College Algebra has found a kindred soul in a place far away from his home.
Jaemin smiles at him from underneath his lashes and Jeno bumps into the corner table of the dining room. Cursing his under his breath and clutching his toe in pain.
“You okay there, darling?”
Jeno wants to hit himself in the forehead. Really? Super fly? How much of a loser could he continue to downgrade into? He continues to berate himself as he sets the table as instructed. Bringing out the fine china that they had bought at a rummage sale in Hongdae during their freshman year.
“I still can’t believe Jeno-hyung and Jaemin-hyung are dating,” Chenle says to Jisung in a loud whisper. The Chinese boy had never been quite good at staying quiet.
Jisung makes a choked noise that seemed oddly dismissive. “Oh please, anyone with eyes could tell that they were going to get together eventually. They’ve been practicing since they were five.”
“What do you mean?”
“They had anniversaries, Lele. They organized each other’s birthdays. Until Jeno-hyung was nine, they even used to give each other good night kisses before he knew better and Jaemin-hyung couldn’t trick him anymore.”
“That’s rather sweet.”
“They are the poster child of childhood sweethearts.”
“There’s nothing wrong about that.” Chenle says, setting his head on Jisung’s shoulder. Jeno’s surprised that the tall teen had tolerated it at all. Jisung’s never liked physical affection. “I wish I had my own. That would have been nice. Jeno -hyung is pretty amazing.”
“Well, Jeno-hyung is spoken for already,” Jisung says sullenly. A pout on his lips. Chenle merely laughs and tickles him on the side. “You’ll find your own Jeno-hyung, Jisungie. I’m sure.”
“I don’t want someone like Jeno-hyung,” Jisung mumbles under his breath. Face pinched and annoyed. Of course Jisung wouldn’t. Not when he looks at the blonde-haired boy like he hung the moon and the stars above.
Jeno looks away, returning back to his task of setting the table. Gathering the rest of their friend group around the table, they say a small prayer before digging in heartily. Donghyuck moving quick in trying to earn Mark’s affection by feeding him a spoonful of chicken. The Canadian boy, too kind-hearted for his own good accepts it. A large grin breaking out from his face.
Jaemin sidles up next to him on the kitchen countertop as they watch their friends dig in. “Everyone’s growing up pretty fast aren’t they? It feels just like yesterday we welcomed Jisungie to high school and now he’s about to graduate.”
“Are we going to get him flowers this year?”
“Of course, we’re getting him flowers. I’d buy him the biggest bouquet if I could afford it. “
“I’m sure if we pool our money, we’d manage it somehow.”
“I’m sure we can do anything we set our minds to,” Jaemin says thoughtfully as he places a hand over Jeno’s outstretched palm.
Of course, that’s when Jeno drops the glass on his foot and all hell breaks loose.
It breaks of course, and it nicks his skin terribly. Blood oozing out from the embedded glass in steady rivulets. Thankfully Mark’s brought his beat up old Honda with him to Jaemin’s apartment and they rush him to the emergency room. They didn’t want to waste rising Olympic hopeful over a possibly career-lethal injury.
Jaemin had been livid. His face ashen as he holds Jeno’s hands while they stitch up his foot nicely. The doctor seemed kind too and referred him off to the physical therapist after he’s rested his leg for at least a week.
Unofficially, Jeno’s moved in for the time being at Jaemin’s apartment where the younger boy could keep an eye on him and make sure he didn’t try to work out in the interim.
The ordeal having solved the problem of Jeno’s skittishness around his boyfriend.
Anniversaries have always been a solemn, tradition shared only between them.
Jisung used to be incredibly jealous of that fact when they were younger. Jaemin brought Jisung along with him everywhere. To the park, the river, Jeno’s childhood teepee and the swimming pool when Jeno had to train. He would have been okay with Jisung tagging along with them on their anniversary dates but Jaemin had remained adamant that it was one aspect of his life he was not willing to share with the brother he loved most. Arguably, he loved more than Jeno perhaps.
Jaemin is usually the one that handles the itinerary while Jeno is in charge of making said itinerary happen. Between the both of them, he’s much calmer, easier to talk to and less forgetful. The brown-haired boy has always been a visionary but not quite a planner. That was more often than not, where Jeno comes in.
Once Jeno’s confirmed the restaurant with a phone call, Jaemin swoops in and insists on dressing him up. He’s used to this already. Letting his boyfriend choose his outfits and coordinating with him. This process makes Jaemin happy and that’s important. Clothes have always been a gateway for Jaemin to express what he can’t say in words. Not that there a lot of things he can’t say verbally but some things are just too difficult and immeasurable to provide a clear definition of it anyways.
So he tries on a dark green, satin button up that he tucks into the nicest slacks he owns. The one that Mark says shows off his swimmer’s figure. Not that he understands what that’s supposed to imply.
“You’re looking great, Jen,” Jaemin says biting his lower lip. He’s clad in a nice white turtleneck, tucked inside Jeno’s dark blue jeans and a belt, he had no idea he owned since he barely used it. The fashion major has always had a knack for finding things. Jisung liked to call it a maternal instinct.
“Well, that’s all you, Nana. You know I would have just worn a t-shirt and jeans if I had my way.”
“Does that bother you? That I dress you up in things that you don’t like.” He asks hesitantly. Afraid to hear the answer but still willing to talk it out anyways. He wonders how often, the other must think this way to get that level of forlorn in his face.
“No, it makes you happy and if it was uncomfortable, you know I’d tell you.”
Jaemin plants a kiss on Jeno’s mouth. Smiling into it. Cupping his face in between two large calloused hands. He likes it when the other boy hold’s him like he’s the most precious thing. He wants to be his most precious person after all.
“I know, that’s why I love you so much.”
‘I, me too. I-I love you,” he stammers out. Finding it difficult to maintain eye contact for very long lest he self-combust from secondhand embarrassment. Darting around he sees the carefully wrapped anniversary gift, peeking from underneath his bed. Bending down quickly he grabs it and pushes it into Jaemin’s chest.
“I got you an anniversary gift,” he says hastily.
“What a surprise, I got you one too!” Jaemin says sarcastically. A playful smirk on his face. Going back to the white paper bag he’d brought over earlier and settled down in Jeno’s small dining table. He offers it for Jeno to accept.
“You should open it.”
“Why don’t we open together?”
Carefully they unwrap each other’s presents and laugh. They had both bought each other a nice coat and a scarf. Where Jaemin owned a solid crème, he had gotten a beautiful tweed coat with a red, handmade scarf that bore his initials on the end.
“Did you make this?” Jeno asks, hands tracing over the soft fabric gently. Afraid to ruin it with how ungraceful he’s been for the past week.
“I did, yeah. Sewed it myself. I thought, you needed at least one coat that wasn’t a parka this year.”
“Guess we truly do share one braincell,” Jeno says tucking a stray strand of Jaemin’s hair behind his ear.
“I’d like to say we’re more soulmates but half of a whole still sounds nice to hear.”
Under the artificial lights of his cramped apartment, Jeno finds new things and old things to fall in love with over and over again. The slope of his nose. The sharp angle of his jaw. The wrinkle on his forehead whenever Jaemin’s lost in thought. Chasing an idea or solving a particularly complex logistics problem. The clear sound of his laughter as it chases the dark, brooding thoughts that cloud his mind away.
They help each other put their coats on. Wrapping their scarves around each other’s necks as they venture out into the night. Jeno is wearing his old dollar ring on his pinky. He’d made a trip earlier that week to collect it. Jaemin is wearing his over his ring finger.
Both of their fingers intertwined as their hands sway to the steady beat of their heartbeats under the neon lights and the cover of the stars.
Dating Na Jaemin isn’t all that different from his usual routine prior to dating Na Jaemin.
Even if they have been secretly dating for the better portion of fifteen years, he’s happier that at least he can kiss his best friend outside of the important events that propagate their life. Waiting for each other’s birthdays had been secret hell for him growing up.
From his place in the shared double-bed of his tiny university apartment, Jeno observes their life together. He watches as Jaemin cooks them both an early breakfast in Jeno’s Korea University T-shirt and black sweatpants. It’s five a.m. and he should have already gone on his morning jog twenty minutes ago but he couldn’t bear to wake Nana up earlier than he had to.
The smell of garlic, soy sauce and sautéed rice rife in the air of Jeno’s small studio apartment. Jaemin’s got blossoming five-o-clock shadow and hasn’t shaved for two days but none of them particularly care. Jeno’s unable to grow a beard and enjoys waxing his hair off. Jaemin likes helping him remove extra underwater resistance. There is no empirical basis to support that statement other than the fact that Jeno just enjoys the feeling of smooth, exfoliated skin. Never anyone mind that he’s a male.
“Babe, can you help set up the table?”
Jeno stands up, wrapping the blanket around his torso like a superman as he putters around the kitchen and setting down the nice ceramic plates Jaemin had found for him over at a thrift store. They’re shaped like leaves and came in a set made for two. They both like to think that they were fated to own them.
The tall boy sets down a plate of soy-sauce rice with egg that makes Jeno’s stomach rumble hungrily. “Eat up, you have training in the morning.”
“What are you going to do?” Jeno asks through a mouthful of food. Jaemin wipes a stray grain of rice away from his chin.
“Messy,” Jaemin reprimands but there isn’t a lot of heat in the statement. Fondness replacing it like sand being smoothed over by the receding water.
“I’ll just work on choosing my music and set design proposal for the fashion show. Thankfully I was able to finish the clothes already.”
“Are you going to go out?”
“No, I’ll stay in. I’ll wait for you to come home.”
Jeno nods. He feels Jaemin’s foot nudge him underneath the table. Glancing up, the other boy’s got a mischievous smile on his face. A spoonful of rice in front of him. “Say aah.”
He swallows it eagerly despite his cheeks dusting pink. Domestic bliss has never been sweeter.
“What’s your schedule tomorrow?”
“Just conditioning. I can visit you tomorrow at your campus.”
“Mmkay. Sounds good.” Jaemin says as he gives his boyfriend a sweet kiss on the cheek. Jeno tries not to preen to much at having Jaemin’s undivided attention. Nevertheless, he’s always been a sucker for praise and positive reinforcement.
Jeno collects the dishes and washes them in the sink as Jaemin sets off to fix his sports bag. Placing water, two sets of spare clothes and the items he needs for class inside before zipping it all up. The keychain Jaemin, Jisung and Chenle made for him dangling noisily on the zipper. It’s dreadfully noisy as well as tacky but Jeno can be a sap at times.
He’s drying the plates with a dishtowel when he feels Jaemin’s arms encircle him. Hugging him from behind. “I like that I can do this anytime I want now. Do you know how hard it was to hold back and just keep it contained to our birthdays and anniversaries?”
“I do. I struggled too.”
“Now, we don’t have to.” Jaemin says as he peppers the back of his neck with soft, sweet kisses. The junction of his neck, his shoulder blades, the place behind his ears that are so ticklish. As he sets the last plate back in the cabinet, Jaemin holds him tighter. Arms like lead as if it pains him to let go. Turning around, Jeno hugs him back just as fiercely.
Eyes closing as he leans in to plant a kiss against, Nana’s soft, chapped lips. It’s been too cold lately and his boyfriend has always been prone to dry skin. It doesn’t help that he likes to bite and peel them off in his spare time. He reminds himself to grab a small tub of Vaseline for him at the drugstore before heading home.
Jeno finds himself chasing the other boy’s lips as he leans backwards, before rushing forward to crash their lips together again. Fingers running through each other’s hair. Legs moving backward until they fall into the comfort of Jeno’s bed. Jaemin’s back hitting the mattress with a soft thump. A giggle escaping his lips as Jeno continues to kiss him stupid. Jaemin lets him. He always lets him and for that he’s eternally grateful. That a heart as golden as his loves a heart as painfully fragile as Jeno’s.
“You’re going to be,” Jaemin starts breathily only to be interrupted by a kiss. “late,” Jaemin kisses back with more fervor. Panting against Jeno’s lip when they break for air. Only to crash down against each other not soon after. Roaming hands and tangled limbs as they explore this newfound aspect of their relationship. Tracing the ridges of corded muscle Jeno’s earned from rigorous training. Peppering wet, open-mouth kisses on the long line of Jaemin’s neck. Blowing hot then cold air in the sensitive dips of Jaemin’s collarbone that has him unable to hold back a small moan in the back of his throat. Fingers tightening in Jeno’s hair. Pulling the dark-haired boy closer and closer. Jeno presses against him against the mattress more. Let’s gravity do its work as he lies on top of his boyfriend in a tangled mess of arms and legs and kisses and more kisses until they can barely breathe.
“Your dad is going to kill me,” Jaemin says weakly as they pull away for air. Eyes half-lidded in pleasure as Jeno continues to pepper kisses along his neck and face. Ghosting his lips on the head of Jaemin’s adam’s apple, the spot that never fails to make him hot and bothered and extremely embarrassed.
“We’re all going to die in the end anyway,” Jeno says with such nonchalance that has Jaemin roaring his head back in laughter. Giggles pouring out of his mouth like bubbles. Jeno grins at him. Eye crinkles and at half-mast. Not quite his signature crescent but not quite open either. Half-way between the waking world and a fleeting dream.
“I should go,” Jeno says quietly. Mirth still clear in his eyes. A childlike innocence usually buried under the weight of his responsibilities. The errant and nearly forgotten little shit of their childhood making a brief reappearance in their adult lives. “Be responsible.”
“Shut up and finish what you started,” Jaemin says, voice barely above a whisper. His eyes, doll-like and magnetic as he cards his long, spindly fingers through Jeno’s hair before pulling him back down by the neck. The salty taste of soy sauce and basmati rice cooked with olive oil makes his heart warm and full of things Jeno doesn’t have the words to quite explain. He’s never been a poet. But here, in Jaemin’s arms at half-past five in the goddamn morning, is bottled poetry. It’s a sunset and a sunrise. It’s the twilight and the dawn. It’s a beginning and an end. It’s a promise of forever wrapped in the red and gold thread that weaves the tapestry of their lives together. It’s a story they’ve only yet started and has no clear ending yet.
If Jeno is five minutes late to practice for the first time since his induction in the national swimming team, not one of his teammates were upset about it. Not when Jeno’s smile is so beautiful, so radiant that no one had enough brutality inside them to rain on his parade.
He’s never quite understood the world of fashion like Jaemin, does.
It’s always been quite an elusive concept to him. It’s only through his best friend’s painstaking hard work and his dutiful memorization skills that he’s been able to gain even the slightest understanding of what works and doesn’t work. He at least understands color theory and knows what type of clothes to wear each season.
Jeno likes to consider that a victory already.
Sitting in the front row of his boyfriend’s fashion show and watching model after model strut around that catwalk with such feline grace and showing off Jaemin’s designs brings an inexplicable joy within him. He may not quite understand this part of the boy he loves, but he can well support it in every way he can.
The lights turn off and the music starts. Changing as each student in his group showcases their hard work. The blood and sweat and tears that have gone into making the clothes that these beautiful men and women are wearing. Jeno can respect that dedication to the craft. He’s no less an artist in the water he’d wager.
The blue lights dim into white gold as paper circles fall down gently from the ceiling like snow. The jazz music a shocking contrast to the futuristic Eurobeat of the previous designer.
Jeno watches transfixed as the first model comes out to showcase his boyfriend’s work. Jungwoo’s in a dark almost black indigo shibori-dyed suit, stitched with beautiful gold fish swirling around a pond in a lovely cross-stitch that would awe most grandmothers. The male model carries the bespoke suit with an air of control and suaveness that Jeno would not have expected from someone as young as him. They share a brief moment of eye contact before the model walks away backstage.
To his knowledge, Jaemin’s fashion sense has always been classic, comfortable and endearingly introspective. He’s a clear proponent of sustainable clothes and has always blended style and affordability well in his fabric choices. It’s the first time Jeno’s ever seen his work display an artistic flair as restrainedly flamboyant as this. It’s as if Jeno was watching a period drama’s costume come to life.
From the beautiful evening gowns and tuxedos to the casual, every-day wear a leading lady or man might wear. It’s masterful. The way Jaemin has managed to blend art deco with their Asian heritage. Some designs are familiar to him, having seen Jaemin pore over reference materials late into the night. His favorite piece from his collection so far is the long, peacock green evening dress, hand painted and cross-stitched to look as regal as possible.
Jeno makes sure to watch the faces of the judges and he can’t help the smile that escapes his face when they see their nods of approval. It doesn’t surprise him in the least when Jaemin wins the costume design award at the awarding ceremony.
Jeno making sure to clap the hardest when he sees Jaemin, in an all-white ensemble, graciously accept the award up the stage. His smile growing even bigger, and more genuine when he spots Jeno in the crowd.
In a burst of courage, Jeno mouths a quick but easily discernable I love you.
Jaemin bursts into tears and mouths it back.
Later, when they’re both drunk and all over each other in a bar booth the fashion college has rented for the afterparty, Jaemin will lean against Jeno and hold him in a long embrace. The party rages on around them but time has stopped for the both of them. With eyes closed, Jaemin trails kisses along the ridges of Jeno’s jaw and face. Tracing the sharp angles and the soft curves of his cheekbones. From this close, Jaemin could count his eyelashes and Jeno could do the same.
“You are my lucky charm, Lee Jeno.”
The swimmer merely shakes his head as he draws his boyfriend into a long, drawn-out kiss. He tastes like cherries and chocolate and vodka. Oh so sweet and sultry. It pulls him under. Drags him down to the depths of the ocean but he couldn’t care less.
“There is no me without you, Lee Jeno.” Jaemin mouths against Jeno’s lips. Voice wobbly as if he’s divulged a great secret known only to the two of them. The weight of the words bearing over them both. Too laden with intent, with purpose to be said carelessly and without meaning. He gets the message. It’s a confession. An absolution. A reiteration of all the things that have led to this point and created this moment.
He whispers it back, like most things should be when it is shared with someone who owns half of one’s soul. With conviction and unwavering trust.
They crash into each other again. Neither of them caring about how the sea foam has carried all their worries away for the moment. Only that here, in this time, in this place, nothing can harm them.
Jeno is nervous.
He’s more nervous than he’s ever been in his life and that’s saying a lot of things since he also thought he was going to die when he proposed to his best friend of forever. His legs feel like Jell-o and his blood is pounding in his ears so loud he can’t even hear the noise of the crowd filling in the sports stadium. He’s misplaced his goggles twice and had to vomit his breakfast in the bathroom an hour prior because he couldn’t keep it in. Not when this tournament decides who gets a spot on the national team for the Tokyo 2020 Summer Olympics.
As a child he was never good at the butterfly stroke. He preferred the breast stroke and the backstroke more than anything. It had taken two summers and a video of Michael Phelps to convert him into trying it out in elementary school. Fresh off a defeat caused by him having a false start in the middle of the competition. He sucked of course, but Jeno has never been one for giving up when the going gets tough. It was just the thing that he needed to build up his ruined self-esteem.
He feels warmth threading through his clammy hands. Looking up he sees that its Jaemin smiling at him reassuringly. He can’t quite hear what the other boy is saying but the he feels the steady rise and fall of his chest, presses his ear against the younger boy’s ribcage and listens to a strong heartbeat. He stays like this for the remainder of the preparation time. Lost in their own world with Jaemin’s heartbeat to anchor him and guide him back home to the shore.
“Feel better?” Jaemin asks quietly. Jeno nods. Not quite trusting his voice at the moment. He squeezes back, warmth flooding through his fingers again. Warming them over.
“I have to go the stands, now.”
Jeno nods. Face determined.
“Win or lose—” Jaemin starts but is interrupted by a fierce press of lips. Jaemin’s body making way, opening up in the only way he knows how to relieve Jeno of the increasing amount of pressure he’s been put under. It’s not easy to live up to people’s expectations when the entire nation has been watching his swimming career for most of his life. But here, in Jaemin’s lips, in his breath in his arms he grounds himself into reality. That no matter the outcome of today, he has someone he can go back to. Someone who loves him unconditionally and has proven it over and over again.
When he steps out into the diving board he’s calm and ready. His hands no longer shake. His eyes are clear and focused. In the dark uncertainty of his life and his future, at least here in the depths of the clear, light blue chlorinated pool water Jeno knows where he stands.
The whistle rings and Jeno bends his knees, gripping the dive board and slips into his starting position. The crowd is quiet as rows upon rows of Olympic hopefuls gather round to witness the birth of a new generation and how the weight of that elusive gold crushes the dreams of others. He’s been dreaming about qualifying since he was young enough to hope. Afternoons spent by the river, the public pool and the beach have built up to this singular moment.
The horn blares and Jeno dives headfirst into the water for the swim of his life.
He lets the cold water crash against him as swims like a bullet shot through the water. Arches his back and uses his legs to dolphin kick in the wave-like form he’s practiced for years to propel himself himself forward. His arms slicing through water as he surfaces, bringing them upwards to arch to take a big gulp of air before diving into the water again. Thumbs dragging against his thighs as he continues the movement. Keeping his momentum going as he pulls the movements together in one glorious dance.
His fingers touch the cool tile as he backflips and kicks off the wall to propel him forward again. Belatedly he knows he’s taken the lead but he focuses on the movement of his body. The arch, the contraction, the pull and push against water resistance as he slices through water to swim faster, faster, faster.
He ignores the burn in his lungs. The burn in his thighs as he makes his successive dolphin kicks. As he pulls his hands towards his body. Pulling and pushing himself forward. Recovering with a well-timed breath of air before diving into the motions again. His body is a wave.
It’s the final lap now and he’s getting tired. Everything aches but the sound of Jaemin’s loud cheers keeps him focused. Keeps him trained on reaching his goal. It re-energizes the sore muscles, the burning lungs and the fire within him to see it through to the end.
When his hand touches the cool tile, and the horn blares for the final time Jeno can barely grasp the edge of the pool to pull himself up. He takes his goggles off and searches the crowd for Jaemin. It’s always been Jaemin he looks for first. His eyes barely registering the look of pure, unadulterated joy on his family and teammates face. Too busy looking for a mop of brown hair and the most beautiful smile he knows. He finds him crying and whooping and cheering his name with all he’s got. His voice doesn’t register. Not yet as his mind and body are stuck in the quiet stillness as he adjusts to sound above water. He knows the way his name is formed. Knows it by watching the way Jaemin’s mouth moves to form the two syllables that make up who he is for more than a million times. He finds peace like this, that no matter the outcome he’s got Jaemin by his side.
“JENO, LOOK!” Jaemin’s shouts finally registering at last. His fingers pointing frantically above him.
Looking at the scoreboard, he gets another pleasant surprise.
“You missed beating the Olympic Record by .30 milliseconds,” Jaemin says over a bowl of cheesy ramyun. Blowing over the noodles before feeding it into the waiting mouth of his boyfriend. They’ve relocated back to the safety of Jeno’s university apartment. Sitting side-by-side as they share Jeno’s usual post-tournament ritual. Three strawberry milk boxes laid out on the side. Unopened.
Jeno’s exhausted from trying to answer question after question fielded at him earlier during the press conference and he’s never been good at words. He can’t blame the reporters. It’s not every day their country has a strong contender for an Olympic Gold Medal. It all still feels like a dream to him really.
Jaemin’s been preening and pampering him all afternoon once his own father’s left him off to recuperate in seclusion. “Aren’t you happy about that?”
Jeno merely slurps more soup in from the bowl.
Jaemin hums thoughtfully. “Guess you are but you’re too tired to show it properly.”
Jeno nods as he opens his mouth yet again for another chopstick-full of noodles. Jaemin complies eagerly as he wipes the extra sauce off Jeno’s chin. “I’m so proud of you Jen, I really am. So proud.”
Jeno gives him a small eye-smile and kisses his cheek. Jaemin kisses him on the nose back. Short and sweet.
“I heard your voice, Nana.” Jeno will later say to Jaemin underneath the blanket covers. Eyes closed. A serene expression on his face. “It’s what kept me going.”
It’s what will always keep him going when he starts to lose his way.
He falls asleep. Lulled against the quiet, rhythmic pull and push of Jaemin’s gravity.
“Do you remember?”
Jeno looks up from gathering bits and pieces of seashells from the white sand. “Remember what?”
“The last time we went to this beach. Just the two of us.”
“Wasn’t it the summer of our last year in high school?” Jeno recalls with a fond smile.
They had both run away just for the sake of it.
Hopping on a bus that led them all the way to Gangneung Jumunjin Beach. They had taken selcas and only brought the necessities for an overnight stay at a cheap motel. It had been an impulse decision. A final fuck you to the universe and the school system that had tried to dictate the paths that they should have taken.
It was a trip that had solidified the bond that they both shared despite adversity. That in spite of the niggling, self-doubt, anxiety and fear of what the future held for both of them—they had each other.
They had chased each other on the beach that day. Dipping their toes in the cold, refreshing water as they collected crabs and watched a brilliant sunset. It hadn’t been perfect. The sky was too cloudy and the air smelled of salt and ozone like an incoming storm in the horizon.
It hadn’t been perfect but it was good enough.
It was good enough for them to see the brilliant reds and soft yellows and vibrant, deep oranges that danced on the horizon as the sun began its descent to visit another part of the world. To close its day on the right and begin the day anew on the left.
It was a night spent sharing body heat in a single bed despite how sticky and humid the weather felt. The air conditioning malfunctioned in the middle of the night but still they slept together like they were children again. Undisturbed by the perils of the world. Relishing in that small moment before they had to shed the last vestiges of their childhood and transition into one of the most tumultuous yet beautifully painful parts of their lives.
The next day when they woke up, they found that both of their trainers were ruined. It had been chewed on by a rat the size of a cat. The soles open and folded into themselves if there weren’t chunks of it missing. Barefoot, they had decided to hang them on the branch of a tree as a final farewell.
They walked back to the bus barefoot too. Their hands clasped together in solidarity.
“I checked if our shoes were still there on the tree.”
“Were they still there?” Jeno asks as he offers a bigger sized conch shell in Jaemin’s outstretched palm. The sound of the waves kissing the sand lulling them in a sense of calm security.
“No, they weren’t but surprisingly I didn’t feel upset about it. You know how sentimental I can get.” Jaemin places the conch shell over his right ear and listens. He listens for the ambient sound to bounce and back and be amplified back to him. He listens for the sound of the ocean whispering its secrets to him but most of all he listens for the steady rise and fall of Jeno’s inhales and exhales as he dips his feet in the sand. This is the secret of his universe.
It is the silence and the way Jeno’s presence fills in the empty spaces where his questions fall. A reminder that he doesn’t have to search for his answers alone. Jeno’s love feels a lot like blue. It is the light blue sky in a hot summer’s day. It is the deep blue, turquoise water of a lake. It is the indigo blue blanket that Jaemin’s grown to love and look forward to washing and thanking for keeping them both warm and safe when he curls up naked beneath it with the boy he loves and who loves him most. The other half to his whole.
“Look at the sky, Nana.”
Jaemin looks at the looming sunrise in front of them. Watches the light refract and reflect to form a pale lilac, yellow and pink sky. The colors gradually deepening with every minute it takes for the day to wake up, shake off the weight bearing down on its weary bones and greet them with a warm good morning.
Jaemin looks at Jeno and watches the way the sunlight dances over his face and paints him golden. Kissing him is the poetry Jaemin wants to write. So he does. Soft and sweet. Relishes in the shy, coy smile the other keeps in his face that roots him to the spot and reminds him of how much they’ve shared and how much they will share. Together.
Here they stand before the secrets of their universe. Fingers entwined, feet slowly sinking in the sand. They slide their dollar rings on each other’s fingers again. Sharing the secret smiles and signals and rituals they’ve instinctively known to do with each other year after year.
“There is no me, without you,” Jaemin says gently. His voice carrying in the wind.
“There is no me, without you,” Jeno echoes back. Just as sure as he’s ever been.
After all, their love is just as unfathomable as an ocean and just as predictable too.
A constant work in progress. A cyclical push and pull. A never ending promise.