It all starts when Chenle begins speaking referring to himself in third person, with a lisp to add. Jaemin takes him aside and tries to explain, in the nicest way possible, that this habit is more annoying than cute, and vaguely disrespectful to people with real lisps.
"It’s all Jisung’s fault!” Chenle immediately announces, with that innocent pout of his. “He taught me to talk like this."
And when Jaemin approached Chenle’s slightly younger best friend and classmate, Jisung had shown the same stubborn self-righteousness.
"It’s my dad’s fault, Jaemin hyung.” Jaemin could almost swear the sweet-faced boy is smirking, but six year olds don’t know how to smirk.
Jaemin flicks his forehead with exquisite gentleness. “Call me Teacher, brat.” Jisung’s grin just widens unapologetically.
So of course Jaemin’s curiosity about Jisung’s father, this man who apparently taught him to start a trend of speaking in a third-person lisp, is aroused. It’s easy enough for him to find an opportunity to get a glimpse of the man, by hanging out with the two kids that very afternoon as Chenle accompanies Jisung in waiting for his dad to pick him up from kindergarten.
Midway through their wait, a salaryman type in a dashing navy suit and grey tie approaches their direction, long legs eating up the ground. Jaemin straightens up instinctively, suddenly aware of his own body and frumpy attire. He doesn’t remember having seen the guy around the preschool before — he would’ve noticed someone so striking. Smart and clean-cut, just Jaemin’s type.
"Dad!” Jisung yells out, making him jump, then rushes towards the stranger without hesitation. The office worker drops his briefcase and opens his arms wide, breaking into the most blinding smile Jaemin has ever seen. He kneels down and Jisung runs, full tilt, into his strong arms which lift the little boy up effortlessly.
"Oh, Jisung’s mom didn’t come today,” Chenle remarks, biting his nails, which Jaemin absently stops by taking his hand. He’s still holding it when Jisung and his father walk up, hand in hand too.
"Appa, this is Teacher Na,” Jisung beams, looking adorably proud, probably of his father and not Jaemin. Jaemin can understand — anyone would feel proud of a parent so presentable.
Jisung’s father takes Jaemin in, from his face down to the apron Jaemin forgot to take off, and Jaemin smiles in embarrassment.
"Nice to meet you, sir."
"Lee Jeno.” The man’s gaze is sincere and straightforward, his handshake firm. “Thanks for always taking care of our Jisungie."
"Daddy, Teacher cooked your favourite food for lunch today,” Jisung commandeers his father’s attention again, eagerly. Jaemin cringes as Jeno bends to look at his son and breaks into that smile again.
"Is that right? Would you guys happen to have any leftovers?"
Jaemin can’t tell if he’s joking, but after an awkward silence he answers, “Uh… there’s some left in the kitchen, I think? I can pack it up for you if you give me five."
"No, please don’t bother, but thanks. I’ll just have it here. Just a few bites, then we’ll get out of Teacher’s hair, alright Jisungie? It’s late and your friend has to go home too.” Jeno smiles down at Chenle and Jaemin’s heart melts a little more.
"Don’t worry, Lele lives with Teacher anyways,” Jisung scoffs, and Jeno shoots Jaemin a confused look as their two boys link arms and skip towards the kitchen ahead, delighted at the prospect of another serving of Jaemin’s lunch.
"So, what subject do you teach here?” Jeno enquires pleasantly as they fall into step and follow behind their charges. Late afternoon is fading into evening and there’s a slight breeze that kisses Jaemin’s skin and ruffles Jeno’s slicked back hair. He swings the briefcase beside him as he slows a little to match Jaemin’s pace.
"English, though I’m just a trainee teacher,” Jaemin answers, undoing the apron from around his waist and smiling nervously — he seldom talks to parents outside of school hours. “I’m also the unofficial school chef, as you heard."
Jeno chuckles. “Impressive,” he says in fluent English, making Jaemin bite his lip to stifle a shocked giggle. “And you also… have a son?"
"What? No.” Jaemin shakes his head in confusion, then clarifies, “Oh — Chenle is… he’s under my guardianship right now. It’s a long story."
"So that’s the infamous Chenle,” Jeno hums. “Jisung never stops talking about him. It’s always Chenle this, Chenle that.
"I can see why — he’s a cute kid,” Jeno adds, and Jaemin feels like Jeno just praised Jaemin’s own son.
They trade phone numbers after the light meal, because Jeno says he may need to ask Jaemin questions regarding school in future. After his shower later at home though, Jaemin is surprised to see his first message already lighting up his phone.
They start off exchanging pleasantries but unexpectedly end up chatting through the night. It’s twelve am when Jeno finally bids him good night and apologises for rattling on — saying he’d gotten so carried away he lost track of time.
Jaemin smiles a little goofily to himself, and thinks back on their conversation as he slides into bed. He’d explained to Jeno about how Jaemin’s and Chenle’s mothers are longtime friends, and Chenle’s mother had entrusted him to take care of her son while she sorted out some visa issues in China before joining them in a few months.
How old are you? Jeno asked then, as if it suddenly occured to him. Jaemin said twenty-three, and Jeno was surprised to find out he’s still a part-time student.
I’m graduating next year, though, Jaemin added, wanting to appear more mature when Jeno responded that he’s two years older than Jaemin.
I suppose you’ll have to call me hyung, then. Jaemin could almost hear Jeno’s deep chuckle over the phone.
Emboldened, he’d asked inquisitively after Jisung’s mother, not having seen her before either, while Chenle apparently has. It took a few moments for Jeno to respond this time, finally awkwardly admitting they’re separated.
I must be the only twenty-five year old divorcee you know, Jeno made fun of himself, and Jaemin felt bad for him.
It’s no big deal, he’d responded, but the IM conversation fizzled out after that, and Jeno went offline after they exchanged good nights.
Maybe this was one parent who’d feel too awkward to reach out to him again, but Jaemin had an unexpected amount of fun chatting with him in the short time.
Oh right, I forgot to ask you, Jaemin remembers the next time they meet by chance, which is a few days later. He’s gotten a glance at Jisung’s mom by now too, a woman as strikingly good-looking as Jeno — and as young. It’d come as another revelation to Jaemin when he did the math and realised Jisung must’ve been born when Jeno was barely nineteen. He can feel the pieces falling together, why some days Jisung’s mother comes to pick him up lovingly, and on others Jeno sheepishly sticks his head into the door. He can’t even imagine how it must’ve felt, becoming responsible for a new life at such a tender age.
Jeno shows none of that in his bearing now, smiling placidly as he always does, ever so mannerly towards Jaemin as Jisung’s teacher. “Ask me what?” He peers at Jaemin.
Jaemin shakes his head, the question now feeling foolish. “It’s just that Chenle and Jisung started talking in this ridiculous way a couple weeks ago, and it’s been getting on my nerves a little, I guess.” He laughs.
"What way?” Jeno knits his brows, apparently not having experienced it in his exchanges with his son.
"Well, like —“ Jaemin starts to imitate it, then feels silly. “Never mind."
"Show me,” Jeno presses, smiling.
Against his will, Jaemin smiles too, the other man’s grin infectious.
"Like… Jaemin is cute,” he lisps awkwardly. Jeno stares at him for a wide-eyed second, then bursts out laughing.
Jaemin is quite sure he’s blushing. He pushes Jeno’s knee with his own on the school bench where they’re sitting together, a little miffed. Jeno covers his mouth and finally contains his laughter, eyes glinting with amused apology.
"Pretty sure I never taught him anything like that,” Jeno deadpans, and Jaemin groans.
"I knew it."
He’s just kidding around, and has already put the issue behind him, but later on when they shepherd the Siamese twin imps to wash up, he overhears Jeno admonishing his son.
"What did Appa teach you about honesty?"
To his great amusement, Jisung appears more angelic than Jaemin has ever seen him, meekly repeating Jeno’s lesson on not telling tales, especially to his teachers.
Jeno and Jisung hang around at the kindergarten until twilight, helping Jaemin with the cleaning up of the kitchen for the day. Jaemin is glad he’d made another of Jeno’s favourite dishes again today, coincidentally — though it seems the young man has many likes and few dislikes when it comes to food.
When the place is locked up and Jaemin is holding Chenle’s hand outside the yard, while Jeno is juggling Jisung one-armed, Jeno offers to fetch Jaemin home in his car.
"Are you sure?” Jaemin checks his watch. “It’s pretty late, Jisung’s probably hungry already."
Jeno shrugs carelessly. “I already called for pizza and fried chicken, so it’ll probably arrive around when we reach home anyway."
As a student taking a culinary elective, Jaemin can’t help his dismay. “That’s such an unnutritious dinner, though."
"Yeah?” Guilt crosses Jeno’s face, and he immediately feels bad for his bluntness. “I guess… I know it is. I’m awful at cooking though, so it can’t be helped. The last time I made Jisung dinner, he got a tummyache and we both had to stay home the next day."
Jaemin covers his mouth. “I think I remember that incident? He got sick because of your cooking?"
Now Jeno definitely looks embarrassed. “The only healthy thing I have in the fridge is my mom’s kimchi,” he admits ruefully, and Jaemin’s heart goes out to the duo.
He slaps his forehead. “I should have kept some of the lunch food and packed it up for you to takeaway. You could keep it in the fridge a couple days."
Jeno shifts Jisung to his other arm, distracted by the boy squirming and playing with his hair, messing up his styling.
"Thanks, Jaemin,” he says sincerely, meeting his eyes from around Jisung, and Jaemin shakes his head, flustered.
The sky is darkening and Jeno receives a call that his delivery is en route, so he ushers Jaemin and Chenle to his car parked nearby, and deposits Jisung in the backseat. Jaemin helps them with their seatbelts before putting on his own. Jeno smiles back at them, hand on the wheel.
"Yes, sir,” Jaemin kids, and laughs when the children imitate him, saluting.
Later that night, after dinner, Jaemin’s phone vibrates with a new text. He picks it up and smiles broadly to see a photo of Jisung passed out on the floor, mouth open, behind a stack of takeout boxes and half-eaten pizza.
Think I ordered too much? Jeno sent with a playful emoji almost out-of-character for him.
I think you can finish up the rest, hyung, Jaemin texts back, and Jeno replies after a few minutes with another picture of the pizza all gone. Had he wolfed that down in less than five minutes, just to show Jaemin? Jaemin laughs out loud, unable to imagine it, and walks into the living room to switch off the television and put Chenle to bed. Good night, Jeno hyung, Jaemin texts before he sets his alarm for the next morning and turns in.
Jisung’s mom is the one who picks him up for the next few days, and Jisung looks equally happy to be staying over at her house, so Jaemin tries not to wonder when Jeno will be back.
Almost as if the universe read his thoughts, he can’t believe the next meeting arrives so soon.
He receives the unexpected call on Monday two mornings later when he’s helping Chenle wear his backpack and straighten his sailor uniform before heading out.
"Hyung?” Jaemin answers, confused and slightly worried. Why is Jeno calling at such an early hour — is something wrong with Jisung?
"Jaemin-ah.” The older man sounds frazzled, for the first time since Jaemin met him. He’s usually so calm and collected that Jaemin thought nothing could ruffle him. But he can almost hear the tension in Jeno through his voice.
"What is it?” His own heartrate quickens.
"Nothing, I’m so sorry —“ Jeno catches his breath and seems to get hold of his composure again. “It’s just — we were heading to school when something cropped up at my work, and I kind of… have to rush there.
"I don’t have time to drive to the kindergarten without speeding, but I’m not going to leave Jisungie home alone, so — I know you don’t have transport, but is there any way you could pop by on your way?"
"I’ll grab a cab,” Jaemin replies, thinking fast. “No problem. Why don’t you head out first? I’ll be there in fifteen, and Jisung’s such a good boy for you. I’m sure he’ll be fine till I arrive."
"Nope, I’ll wait for you,” Jeno insists, though Jaemin can tell he’s in a bigger fix than he’s letting on. “Travel safe — and thank you so much, Jaemin-ah."
"It’s no problem at all, hyung,” Jaemin repeats, before hanging up, already bundling Chenle out the door and looking out for a taxi. He confirms Jisung’s address with Chenle and they’re on their way.
Jeno pays the driver when they pull up at the lobby of his modern apartment building, ignoring Jaemin’s protests. He’s dressed more formal than usual, in a double-breasted suit with his briefcase and a manila folder of documents already sitting in the passenger seat of his car.
"I owe you for this,” he tells Jaemin before sliding into the driver’s side, tossing him a short but grateful smile. Jisung is still rubbing sleep from his eyes, uniform slightly more ruffled than usual, and Jaemin feels hopelessly endeared as he waves Jeno’s car off.
True to his word, after profusely thanking Jaemin again in the evening when he comes to pick Jisung up, Jeno extends the offer to Jaemin to take Chenle off his hands this coming Saturday.
"I’m sure you must want some time to yourself.” They’re sitting in Jeno’s car outside Jaemin’s apartment, Jaemin in the passenger seat and Chenle and Jisung in their own universe at the back. Jaemin’s hand is on the door, ready to leave with his charge after thanking Jeno for the ride home, but the elder stopped him with his generous offer.
"You probably haven’t been able to go partying with your friends in too long,” Jeno continues, lowering his voice and looking at Jaemin solicitously. “Is that what kids nowadays do? Hitting the club?” He raises a mirthful eyebrow as if he isn’t only that much older than Jaemin.
"Is that what you did in college?” Jaemin asks back, genuinely wondering, before realising his insensitivity. Of course, any fool can guess that Jeno was busy balancing parenting duties and a heavy school load at that age.
Jeno shrugs, running his hands over the wheel. “I know how it feels to want some personal time."
Jaemin flashes him a smile. “Thanks so much for the kind offer, hyung. Really. I don’t mind taking you up on it… if you don’t mind me tagging along?"
"Are you serious? You want to come too?” Jeno brightens, and Jaemin nods eagerly.
"Saturday morning, right? That’s usually when Chenle goes to the playground anyway. Where are we going?"
Jeno gives him an enormous smile.
"It’s a surprise."
The day of their playdate dawns sunny and fair-weathered. Jeno shows up dressed more casually than usual, in a simple sweatshirt and jeans combo that makes him look much younger. His surprise isn’t anticlimactic at all — he brings them to an indoor theme park whose main attraction is a massive blow-up pool filled with balls of all sizes and kids jumping and swimming around in them.
Chenle squeals when they set eyes on it, presumably at the prospect of pelting his poor best friend with balls for the next few hours. If Jaemin had known he likes this sort of thing, he’d have taken Chenle here himself earlier.
"You look like you’d like to join them in there,” Jeno jokes when they’re sitting in the cafe designed for parents, his long legs crossed relaxedly.
"Of course not,” Jaemin scoffs, “I’m an adult,” and Jeno laughs.
The elder male had gone to the counter and ordered them both cups of overpriced coffee, and is now scrolling through his phone in search of popular restaurants in this shopping mall.
"What do you feel like eating for lunch? Hyung’s treat."
Jaemin sips his coconut milk macchiato, shrugging. “Chenle and I both eat anything. You should decide."
"Okay, then.” Jeno looks pleased, showing Jaemin the name of an expensive restaurant Jaemin’s never had the means to visit thus far. “This is fine?"
"That’s… more than fine, definitely.” Jaemin licks his lips, then tentatively probes, “Could it be that you’re… pretty well-off?"
It’s kind of both an obvious and delicate question, since he already knows Jeno and Jisung live in a new apartment in a higher-class neighbourhood. Chenle never mentioned anything about Jisung’s family being particularly loaded, but then again Chenle is used to luxury — compared to Jaemin’s middle-class upbringing, his family background is aristocracy.
More than his financial status, Jaemin is curious if Jeno is an important figure at work. It certainly seemed like he was someone indispensable, the other day when he had to rush off like that.
To already be so successful in both his parenting and work life at the mere age of twenty-five — there’s something admirable about that.
Jeno rubs the back of his neck, looking sheepish again. “We’re… comfortable, I guess? I’m lucky I don’t have to worry about everything Jisung needs, and my parents dote on him a lot too. I am good at my job,” Jeno admits frankly, “But I can’t say the same for fathering.” He sighs, setting the phone down.
"What are you talking about?” Jaemin stares at him. “I was literally just thinking about what a great dad you are."
"You were?” Jeno looks right at him, eyes wide with genuine surprise and pleasure. A slight pinkening fans across his cheekbones as Jaemin nods, and he looks down at the table, clearing his throat.
"Jisung was a surprise — as you must’ve guessed — and we were totally unprepared for him. I spent the first few years totally green, learning on the job, and there were a few narrow shaves. Sometimes it was just… too much, my repeated mistakes and fuck-ups. It’s been six years and… I still feel like a hack, never felt qualified. Don’t think I ever will."
Jaemin doesn’t know how to respond for a moment — it’s the most Jeno has confided in him at once.
"And all this shuttling around between his mother’s house and mine… He never complains, but I’m worried it’ll take a toll. A child deserves stability."
When Jeno falls silent, seeming embarrassed at his outpouring and lifting his cup to his lips, Jaemin takes a deep breath and tries to express his thoughts.
"You could be… doing much worse than this,” he eventually says, though it doesn’t come close to the reassurance he wants to offer. “Trust me. I’ve seen it all."
Jeno shoots him a look of sympathy, and Jaemin smiles weakly.
"Your best is enough,” he continues, leaning forward to hold Jeno’s eyes. “And… Jisung seems really happy and well-adjusted. He’s also the smartest student in his class."
Jeno laughs softly, obviously delighted. “No shit?” Jaemin shakes his head with gravity.
"You’re going to have his IQ tested, right? Has he taken MENSA?"
"Oh, no.” Jeno looks overwhelmed. “Maybe… later on? I want him to enjoy his childhood. Grades — aren’t that important as long as he’s happy and learning. Though, his intelligence has to be credited to his mother's nurturing."
"No no, I totally understand! I got ahead of myself. Sometimes I feel like I’m becoming one of those helicopter parents, and I don’t even have kids.” He giggles, and Jeno gazes at him thoughtfully.
"You want that eventually though, right? A kid of your own."
Jaemin hesitates, then nods. “I guess? I haven’t really thought much about it, to be honest. Chenle is like my own son and he’s a real handful so it’s all I can handle for now. And I can’t imagine loving any other baby more than him, really.” Jaemin feels like he may be blushing, gushing about the little Chinese boy.
Jeno continues gazing at him, eyes bright with something like adulation.
"What?” Jaemin asks, uncomfortable, and Jeno shakes his head, shifting his gaze away.
"I was just thinking — you’re kind of amazing."
"Amazing?” Now Jaemin is certain he’s red-faced.
Jeno nods, with a fond smile. “I mean… you juggle teaching, school and taking care of a six year old. That’s a lot of work. Don’t you get tired?"
Jaemin blinks. It’s the first time, it seems, he’s been asked this question, by someone who isn’t his parents or Chenle’s mother. “I…"
"It’s okay to be tired sometimes,” Jeno says, when Jaemin doesn’t finish his sentence. “Hell, I get tired too, and it’s been six years of practice.
"The offer still stands. I’ll help babysit Chenle anytime you need me. Just call.” Jeno makes a phoning gesture, eyes curving.
"Thank you.” Jaemin looks at his lap, feeling his smile overgrow his face.
"You’re welcome,” Jeno replies easily in his mellow voice. He glances towards the ball pool where Jisung has made friends with a bunch of other boys and girls, and Jaemin seeks Chenle out, one of the rowdiest. He’s so proud of how much the boy’s Korean has improved since Jaemin started fostering him a few months ago — he used to be reserved and shy because of his lack of fluency, and so his mother thought Jaemin would be the best person to be his caretaker to provide an immersive language learning experience. That was how Chenle who had once been a distant, childish family friend, barely able to communicate with him, had fallen into Jaemin’s life and stolen into his heart, taking it up whole.
"So, what’s your ambition?"
Jaemin starts at the question that seems more like something he would set as a topic for his students during their English class thrice a week. Write a sentence about what you want to be when you grow up.
It seems the last time he seriously considered the abstract words dreams or ambitions had been when he was around slightly older than Chenle and Jisung’s age. And yet, of course it’s always in the back of his mind — his future, the destination he’s heading toward.
It would be nice to have financial and career security like Jeno apparently does, one day, if only just so he can spoil Chenle with countless pampering gifts. The boy is already spoiled rotten by his whole family back in China, but that’s irrelevant.
"Let me guess — you want to be a teacher?” Jeno ventures, and Jaemin’s breath catches.
"How did you know?” It’s true; he’d originally thought he’d become a chef as he dreamt of and showed talent for growing up, but then Chenle entered his life and he discovered his interest in early childhood education, so much that he’d switched majors at the start of the year.
Jeno chuckles, a familiar sound by now. He looks pleased to have guessed Jaemin’s life plan.
"You would make a great teacher,” he says quietly, meeting Jaemin’s eyes again. “Just like you’d be a great dad."
He seems so much more mature and expansive than Jaemin, despite only having two years on him — maybe it’s the parent effect, or maybe it’s just how naturally avuncular Jeno is. Jaemin leans back in his chair, feeling perfectly at bliss, and decides to ask Jeno at the end of the playdate if he’d like to do this again next weekend.