Even before Jeno was old enough to know what a guardian angel was, he already knew that he had one. He didn’t know how to say the words yet, how to even talk or make any sounds except incomprehensible gurgling. The airplane and clouds mobile that dangled above his baby cot was his entire world, and he didn’t understand the concept of angels but he just knew instinctively that he had one, an invisible and protective being watching over him from nearby. He could sense his presence in the warm ripples of the air, fingers that were not his parents’ tucking the blankets under his chin when he was asleep and brushing across his cheeks so gently Jeno almost mistook them for the wind. Sometimes, Jeno thought he could hear a soft, sweet voice singing lullabies in another language, sounding like the melodic strains of a far-away radio.
Jeno is building a sandcastle in the field behind his family’s house, his nanny having left him alone for a few minutes to run back and fix his tea. A rustling in the nearby shrubbery disturbs the tranquil afternoon quiet, and Jeno looks up, his eyes widening to see a man climbing out of the bushes, twigs and leaves caught on his clothes and hair. Jeno’s spade slips from his hand, and he gets to his feet unsteadily.
The man lowers himself into a crouch so his eyes are level with Jeno’s, but makes no move to approach. “Don’t be afraid,” he says, and his eyes are kind. “Jeno-yah."
It’s the way the man says his name that stops him, like he knows Jeno, like he’s said it a million times before, everyday. The man is elderly, maybe almost as old as Jeno’s grandfather. But the fine lines around his twinkling eyes crinkle youthfully as he smiles.
"Hyung,” he says, and Jeno frowns in confusion because he doesn’t understand why this man who is obviously ten times his age is calling him hyung. Jeno is the baby of his family and all his cousins are older than him. This is the first time he’s ever been called hyung and he’s not sure he likes it. But he has no time to protest as the man continues, switching from Korean to another language Jeno doesn’t understand.
As the man speaks, his eyes fill with tears that overflow and spill down his cheeks. Jeno doesn’t know why this strange man who just popped out of a bush and knows his name is crying, but he knows that he shouldn’t talk to him, that he should run away. His parents have warned him about talking to strangers. But there is something about the warmth of the man’s eyes that makes him take a hesitant step forward, afraid but curious.
A surprised smile breaks through the man’s tears, and he looks like he wants to come closer too but holds himself back. “You were always so brave,” he says in Korean. “But don’t be too brave, okay?"
Jeno doesn’t know what he’s talking about, or how this man would know anything about him when he hasn’t seen him before, but he just nods because he sounds like Jeno’s parents. When he reaches out a timid hand to wipe the man’s tears away, he finally takes a miniscule step towards Jeno, closing the distance between them by a fraction. He is raising his own large palm to meet Jeno’s when his nanny’s shout echoes across the field. “Jeno, come and have your tea!"
They both drop their arms, startled. The man looks disappointed but resigned as he inclines his head towards the house. “Run along, then.” He doesn’t make a move to touch Jeno, but his voice seems to hold a thousand invisible caresses.
Jeno shuffles his feet uncertainly, knowing that if his nanny comes out and finds the man they will both be in trouble. So he reluctantly swivels on his heels and breaks into a sprint across the grass, towards the familiar open backdoor of his house. But he can feel the weight of the man’s gaze still watching him, and can’t resist turning to sneak a glance. The man is still crouching in the same position, too far to make out his expression but he lifts a friendly hand in a wave.
The second time Jeno looks back, he’s gone.
Two years later, Jeno sees the old man again on the road home from primary school. He is dressed in a flannel jacket and plaid slacks and seems to materialize from behind a tree. For some reason, he looks younger, his posture more erect, but the way the corners of his sparkling eyes crease into an impish smile is unmistakable, unforgettable. As is the way he says Jeno’s name, like the words are an enchantment, a prayer.
"It’s me,” he continues urgently, eyes searching Jeno’s. “Jaemin."
When Jeno doesn’t reply, the unfamiliarity of the name throwing him, the man groans and buries his face in his hands. “I’m sorry, I’m making a mess out of this, aren’t I? Please don’t run away. I swear, I’m not a scary man –"
"I won’t,” Jeno interrupts, and the man stops short, looking stunned. “You’re not scary,” he says, hoping he sounds daring and impressive.
The smile that lights the man’s face up is the only thing that hasn’t changed. “Thank you,” he says quietly, and this time he reaches out to ruffle Jeno’s hair gently. Jeno feels like his pet kitten as he nuzzles instinctively into the man’s touch, feeling bereft the moment he withdraws his hand.
The man takes a deep breath. “Let me start at the beginning. My name is Jaemin, and I’m –” he stops, seemingly struggling to find the words to go on.
"I know who you are!” Jeno declares triumphantly, and Jaemin looks surprised. “W-who?"
"You’re my guardian angel, right?” Jeno replies confidently, pleased with himself. Jaemin barks out a laugh.
"Angel?” he repeats doubtfully. “I’m no angel, but I guess that’ll do... for now.” He looks like he wants to say more, but is silenced by the look of utter contentment on Jeno’s face. “I knew it!” he says smugly.
They reach a traffic light, and Jaemin takes Jeno’s hand when he tries to dash across the road, his grasp gentle but tight with worry as he admonishes sternly, “Watch out for cars!” Jaemin’s hand is large and callused but warm, swallowing Jeno’s smaller one effortlessly. He doesn’t let go even after they’ve crossed the street, lacing their fingers together and swinging their joined arms all the way as he walks Jeno back home.
"Angel ahjussi,” Jeno blurts out bluntly, “Why is your hair black now? The last time, it was half grey.”
Jaemin laughs nervously, running a hand through his hair. “The last time? God, I’m sorry. I didn’t know we met before. Again. I thought this was the first time. The last time.” He stumbles over his words, stopping abruptly and looking relieved as they reach Jeno’s front door.
Jeno is disappointed, but he hears the noises of his mother bustling in the kitchen, preparing his after-school snack, and knows that Jaemin has to leave. Jeno knows that it’s not right for him to be talking to a stranger, especially someone so old, that it might even be dangerous. But he doesn’t know how to explain the feeling of unconditional safety he gets from Jaemin, the unaccountable certainty that Jaemin would never, ever hurt him. No one else would understand this blind trust even if he told them. He wants to ask, when is the next time I’ll see you? but instead puts his hand on the gate and pushes it open.
"By the way,” Jaemin says as he’s halfway across the front yard, and Jeno’s heart leaps as he turns around to look at him. “Don’t call me ahjussi,” Jaemin mumbles, his smile sheepish. “It makes me feel old.”
“Jaemin,” Jeno breathes the next time he sees a dark figure looming over his bed, eyes luminescent in the moonlight. It’s a muggy summer night and Jeno had kicked off his blankets restlessly, starting awake when he felt the weight of a hand tugging them up. It’s not the first time he’s felt a shadowy presence when he’s drifting into sleep at night, but this time the apparition inhales audibly in response.
"You remember me,” he says, voice thick and eyes glistening suspiciously bright. Jeno nods and sits up, throat dry. He can count on his fingers the number of times he’s thought of Jaemin during these three years, wondered if he would ever come back, wondered how and where he was, even wondered if he was just a figment of Jeno’s imagination. But now he is standing at the foot of Jeno’s bed, looking solid and real and anything but.
Jaemin’s eyes comb over him with a penetrating intensity that makes him shiver. “How have you been?” he asks, voice low, and Jeno swallows over the lump in his throat. “O-okay."
He hovers a respectful distance away, seeming afraid to approach, and Jeno boldly shifts to the side of his bed and pats the space beside him. “You can sit down."
Jaemin edges tentatively forward, and Jeno catches the white flash of his teeth in the dark. The mattress dips as he sits down beside Jeno, and the warmth radiating from his body reassures Jeno more than anything that Jaemin is just as human as he is.
"You’re growing up so fast,” Jaemin says fondly. “The last time I saw you, you were only this tall.” He places a hand in the air barely a foot over Jeno’s bed, and Jeno flushes. “I wasn’t that short!"
Jaemin chuckles and ducks from the pillow Jeno hits him lightly with. Although Jaemin is an elder, he doesn’t seem to mind Jeno’s roughhousing and Jeno doesn’t feel the uncomfortable need to be respectful and formal with him like his parents and other adults. There is something so youthful, so childlike about Jaemin despite his appearance that makes Jeno forget his age.
Suddenly, the smile slips from Jaemin’s lips and his face visibly pales, even in the dim. “Jeno,” he says, clutching Jeno’s hand unexpectedly. “I’m sorry this is so abrupt, but I have to tell you the truth. You’re old enough now."
"Old enough for what?” Jeno breathes. The exhilarating light in Jaemin’s eyes, the rabbit-quick thump of his pulse in his wrist makes Jeno feel like he’s on the verge of a life-altering discovery, that the next words Jaemin says will change his life forever. And they do.
"I have a... power,” Jaemin says delicately. “I can... I can travel through time."
Jeno’s jaw drops as he gapes at him, dumbstruck. This is starting to feel like an extremely vivid dream, but the tightness of Jaemin’s grip on his hand keeps him tethered to reality.
"You mean... you’re from the f-future?” he chokes out, palms suddenly clammy. It had been one thing when he thought Jaemin was a mysterious but benevolent celestial being, his bodyguard from the heavens, even when he had grown too old to believe in things like angels or Santa Claus. It’s another for Jaemin to possess supernatural powers straight out of sci-fi, far too close to the realm of ghosts and spirits for Jeno to be comfortable.
Jeno thinks he’s being subtle, but Jaemin flinches at the way he recoils minutely in fear. “Not exactly,” he manages a weak laugh. “Well, yes... I’m from a couple of decades later, but still in this lifetime. I’m sorry,” he adds, seeing the way Jeno’s eyebrows knit. “I know it’s confusing."
Confused is the least of what Jeno is feeling right now. Mostly he’s torn between a mixture of shock and disbelief, and the hope that this is a very bizarre nightmare he will wake up from any time now. Jaemin reaches out towards him, but before Jeno can think he snaps, “Don’t touch me."
Jaemin winces, stung, as if the words are arrows, and Jeno is immediately flooded with guilt. Betrayal and anger at Jaemin for blindsiding him like that battle inside him, but Jeno clings on to logic and common sense and tries to convince himself that this is a horrible practical joke, that any second Jaemin will burst out laughing and shout, “Gotcha!"
He takes a deep breath. “Prove it."
Jaemin looks at him, his eyes filled with so much sadness that it takes Jeno’s breath away. “Okay,” he says softly, and then right before Jeno’s unblinking eyes, Jaemin disappears.
Jeno has imagined this scenario so many times that he can no longer differentiate between dreamscape and reality: the next time Jaemin appears in his world, in his time. He has thought of a million different things to say, ranging from sarcastic to apologetic to cold to indifferent, but when Jaemin finally appears it’s the next summer and almost a year has passed, and Jeno finds that he is unable to lie about the only emotion he has been honestly feeling – missing.
Because not one of these three hundred and sixty-five days had passed without Jeno thinking of Jaemin, wondering where he was right now, how old he was, if he was safe and happy, if he was thinking of Jeno the way Jeno was thinking of him. Sometimes he felt uncomfortably jealous when he pictured Jaemin travelling to visit other times, other boys, while others he just felt worried when he realized that other people might not be as accepting of Jaemin’s strange power as he was, that they might ostracize or even capture him to a lab to examine and experiment. He ricocheted violently between a vast spectrum of positive and negative feelings, sometimes wishing he had never met Jaemin, and others feeling like meeting Jaemin was the best thing that had ever happened in his short life. His parents assumed he was going through the usual phase of adolescent angst and growing pains, but Jeno knew that it was all Jaemin’s fault that Jeno took hours to walk home from school because he was checking behind every tree, that he was late for class and fell asleep during lessons because he lay in bed every night tossing and turning as he searched the flickering moonlight for a familiar shadow. It was senseless and stupid because Jaemin was just a creepy old man Jeno had met thrice and had claimed he could time-travel, and Jeno had no reason to be so attached to him.
But then he thought of the brilliant warmth of Jaemin’s smile, the temperature of his hand and how carefully it had held Jeno’s as they crossed the road, the sadness in his eyes as he looked at Jeno, like Jeno was so beautiful and precious that it made him want to cry. No one had ever looked at Jeno like that before in his life. The only time he had seen a look like that in anyone’s eyes was the way his father looked at his mother when he thought Jeno wasn’t watching.
Of course, Jeno doesn’t leap into Jaemin’s arms the moment he appears that summer afternoon when Jeno is sprawled in his bedroom after school. Even though he wants to, Jeno is no longer the six or eight-year-old who can be freely affectionate without shyness. Now, Jeno is self-conscious and reticent, glowering rebelliously at Jaemin as he hesitantly approaches.
"Jeno?” Jaemin whispers uncertainly, his eyes beseeching. “I’m sorry. If you don’t want to see me, I’ll go."
He moves towards the window, and Jeno shouts sharply, stopping him in his tracks. When Jaemin turns back, there’s a glimmer of hope in his eyes.
"You’ll break your neck,” Jeno says roughly, trying to preserve his dignity. “It’s the second floor."
Jaemin’s lip twitches, a bemused smile tugging at the corners. “Are you worried for me?” he asks brazenly, advancing towards Jeno’s bed as Jeno shrinks against the wall and scoffs nervously. “Yeah, right."
Jaemin looks so disappointed that it throws Jeno, making him blurt out, “What took you so long to come back?"
The words hang in the silence between them, sounding far too needy and spoilt, and Jeno curses inwardly. But Jaemin just looks at him seriously, his eyes regretful as he closes the last few steps between them and perches gingerly on the edge of Jeno’s bed. “I’m sorry,” he says, and the sincerity in his voice stirs something deep in Jeno’s chest. “I’ve been trying to come back to this time for the past five years. But unfortunately, it’s not something I can control.” He laughs wryly, but Jeno can see the way his hands are clenched helplessly in the sheets, his knuckles pale.
Five years. That explained why Jaemin looked noticeably older than the last time Jeno saw him, more than a year older, his temples dusted with ash. So what had been one year for Jeno had been five for Jaemin. Jaemin had spent five years not knowing whether Jeno had forgiven him, not knowing that Jeno wasn’t even angry at all. And if this year had been interminable for Jeno, then it must have been unimaginably more so for Jaemin.
A pang of guilt stabs Jeno’s chest. If only he had been more mature back then and not judged Jaemin so harshly, if only he had not let anger cloud his senses and said the words Jaemin needed to hear before he left. He can’t bring himself to spit out the words I'm sorry, but Jaemin seems to read the look in his eyes like a book as his own soften.
"Oh, Jen,” he says, curling his arms around Jeno’s body. “It’s okay. It’s not as if I didn’t see you for five years. I just didn’t see this you."
Jaemin’s eyes sparkle conspiratorially, and Jeno’s heart catches. Does that mean that Jaemin will travel to him more times in the future, or even that in Jaemin’s time, Jeno is there, too? Contemplating the mechanics of how it works makes Jeno’s brain hurt, so he quickly fires at Jaemin, “Where are you from?"
Jaemin looks surprised by his urgency, but smiles indulgently. “America.”
Jeno scrunches up his face, more confused than ever. He’s never been to America, and all he knows about it is that it’s a country far away from Korea. “How do you know how to speak Korean then?” he interrogates.
Jaemin’s smile broadens sheepishly. “You taught me,” he confesses.
Jeno’s mouth falls open. “Me? When?” he croaks.
"When I was a little boy,” Jaemin replies softly, his eyes distant and clouded until they meet Jeno’s and seem to refocus. “Jeno-yah,” Jaemin says simply. “I’ve known you all my life."
Jeno struggles to digest this. Jaemin is so old, older than Jeno can count on his fingertips. It’s impossible that he could’ve known Jeno for so many years when Jeno is merely twelve. But if Jaemin says so – Jeno looks at the smile on his face, open, honest, as if he can see into all the little crevices of Jeno’s heart, and he believes Jaemin.
"Why do you call me hyung?” Jeno continues questioning relentlessly. Jaemin has been here for more than an hour, longer than he’s ever been before, and Jeno knows that the clock is ticking. He can see it in the way Jaemin’s lips have lost their colour, his smile unflagging but his hands twisting anxiously in the folds of his grey shirt, the way he looks like he might be swept away by a gust of wind any minute if Jeno doesn’t hold on to him tight.
Jaemin’s laugh is weak but genuine. “Because in our time, the real one, you’re one year older than me.” He tweaks Jeno’s nose playfully.
"One year older?” Jeno gasps. He can’t imagine being older than Jaemin, maybe taller so Jaemin will have to look up at him, respect him, just as smart as Jaemin so he’ll be able to talk to him as an equal, maybe funny too so he can make Jaemin laugh. Maybe the Jeno who is a year older than Jaemin is strong and powerful and handsome, sweeping Jaemin off his feet, instead of his bumbling, childish twelve-year-old self.
"Jeno,” Jaemin murmurs, and Jeno snaps out of his reverie to see Jaemin disintegrating into thin air before him, just as unbelievable as the first time, even more mindblowing in the light of day. “Hyung –” Jaemin starts, the rest of his sentence swallowed by silence until only his imploring eyes are left, and then those too fade away.
“Miss me?” Jeno leaps out of his skin when he hears a familiar voice trudging home listlessly from school on afternoon, and he whips around, unable to believe his eyes when he sees Jaemin, looking almost exactly the same as he did the last time, his smile even more impossibly blinding than the one burned into Jeno’s memory.
This time, Jeno throws his arms around Jaemin breathlessly, breathing out a laugh of sheer happiness and relief. Before Jaemin can say anything else, Jeno is dragging him authoritatively down a shortcut in a nearby lane towards a deserted mossy riverbank. The water of the lake glistens in the sunlight, so clear they can see straight into the transparent depths. They settle down on the soft bed of moss, sighing in satisfaction.
Over the course of the past year, Jeno has spent days and months compiling a list of questions that he wants to ask Jaemin the next time they meet, but the moment they do, they seem to fly out of his head. His mind is dazedly blank, bleached empty by the dazzling starburst of Jaemin’s grin, which seems to steal and reflect all the light from the late afternoon sun.
They quickly exchange ages, which has unconsciously become their routine every time they meet now. Jeno is indescribably relieved that this time, the gap between their meetings is nearly the same for both of them. He doesn’t know what he would do if this Jaemin had been a younger one, one who had not yet explained the truth to Jeno. Jeno doesn’t know how he would even begin to clarify all the convoluted events that have happened to a clueless Jaemin. He has spent a year thinking and investigating Jaemin’s skill, drawing complicated diagrams and equations, but Jeno is no closer to comprehending it than the first day Jaemin had told him. After all, he’s only thirteen.
More than any physics textbook could, Jaemin has taught Jeno about the relativity of time. Now, the principle that time passes fast when one is doing something one likes and slowly when one is doing something one doesn’t finally makes sense to him. Because when Jeno is with Jaemin, the hours seem to fly by, racing past in idle chatting and playful banter. Time seems to expand when he’s with Jaemin – although throughout the years, Jeno can count the number of hours he’s spent with Jaemin on one hand, these hours seem to magnify infinitely, every minute and every second so precious and treasured, etched into his mind that they encompass a life. When Jaemin is not around, the minutes seem to drag by interminably, the hands of the clock crawling like a snail. Jeno thinks that Jaemin might not only have the power to travel through time, but to stop it too. Because when they are together, time freezes, and every time Jaemin leaves, Jeno feels like a tiny lifetime has passed.
Jeno doesn’t tell anybody about Jaemin, not even his parents or his best friend Doyoung who he has no secrets from. Jaemin hadn’t sworn him to secrecy, but Jeno knew that was because Jaemin trusted him unconditionally, and it made him swell with importance. Whatever happened, Jeno would never do anything to jeopardize Jaemin’s safety or make his flights through time even more fraught with peril.
When Jeno pushes open the door of his bedroom one day after school, he nearly screams to see Jaemin sitting on his bed looking more than ten years younger than the last time they met and dressed in a ridiculous white tuxedo, praying fervently with his head between his knees.
Jaemin looks up, panic flashing across his eyes as he hisses, “Shhh.” He motions for Jeno to close the door, and finally heaves a sigh of relief when he does. Jaemin is pasty and sweating profusely in the tightly-buttoned suit, and an unreadable look crosses his eyes as Jeno sidles closer warily.
"H-how old are you?” he rasps, and clears his throat.
Jaemin smiles lopsidedly, one end of his lips tugging up. “Thirty-one."
Jeno inhales softly. Of course, he had known that Jaemin had been young once, but he had never imagined how... how handsome he was when he was young. He had never expected that he would be able to see a younger Jaemin than the sweet, harmless elderly man he was accustomed to. Because at thirty-one, Jaemin is dangerously good-looking, his eyes still unlined and face smooth, creamy pale skin flushed intoxicatingly and eyes feverishly bright with an inexplicable excitement. But he doesn’t forget to always take care of Jeno’s comfort first as he pats the bed beside him and Jeno sighs and settles down a careful distance away, hoping the hammering of his heart isn’t as deafening to Jaemin as it is to him.
"Sorry, I’m kind of freaking out right now,” Jaemin explains sheepishly when Jeno raises an eyebrow.
"What’s with the suit?” Jeno deadpans, and nearly chokes on the sip of water he’s just taken when Jaemin replies with a shaky grin, “I’m getting married."
"Married?” Jeno echoes, stupefied. “To who?” The words slip unconsciously from his mouth, his brain still unable to register the fact that Jaemin – Jaemin who is suddenly not the kindly old man that Jeno has always known but unimaginably young, young and thrillingly beautiful – Jaemin is getting married.
Of course he is. Why would such a warm-hearted, attractive person be short of admirers? Jeno had always known that Jaemin had a whole life of his own in his time, that Jaemin had a whole other life that Jeno didn’t know a thing about, that he had no part in. Naturally, Jaemin would have a job and a pretty girlfriend too, like any other adult man. And now, naturally, he was getting married. There is nothing surprising about it, and yet Jeno wonders what is this piercing knifelike pain between his ribs.
Jaemin smiles enigmatically, but Jeno doesn’t know why he sees a tinge of sorrow. “Sorry, I can’t tell you."
"Whatever,” Jeno mutters stonily, and shifts away from him on the bed, unable to understand the feeling of intense loss plunging through him. He had almost forgotten that Jaemin was no one to him – not his friend, family, or loved one. He was merely an apparition visible only to Jeno, and only once a year. Theirs was a relationship that could never see the light of day, that existed only in the realm of dreamland.
But Jeno doesn’t know what is this bitter feeling in the back of his throat driving him as he tugs roughly at Jaemin’s sleeve. “Teach me English,” he orders, and Jaemin blanches. “Now?"
Jeno narrows his eyes at Jaemin, not expecting him to lower his eyelashes meekly and comply obediently. Jeno rummages in his messy room for his English textbook and curls up in Jaemin’s lap, leaning against his body like a chair although he knows that he’s grown too heavy and big and is squashing Jaemin. Jeno wishes he could ground Jaemin to this world so easily, prevent him from leaving by physical force. But he knows that the only one who holds real power here is time, and they are but pawns being tossed in its merciless hands. He knows that when the moment comes for Jaemin to leave, he will be transported back to his original life, back to his wedding to someone who isn’t Jeno, can’t be Jeno. The thought stops Jeno cold because why would he even think of marrying Jaemin? Even if they were presumably the same age in Jaemin’s world, they were both male. Up until today, Jeno had never even seen Jaemin as anyone but an old man, for god’s sake.
Jaemin pinches his cheek. “Pay attention,” he chides, and Jeno quickly snaps back to earth.
“I love you,” Jaemin is saying, and Jeno repeats it mindlessly, confused by how Jaemin’s entire body stiffens against his at the words, his eyes stricken as they lock with Jeno’s, like Jeno has just said something momentous, devastating.
"What does it mean?” Jeno gulps, but feels the warmth of Jaemin’s body fading intangibly against his, the textbook slipping from his fingers until finally all that Jeno is sitting next to is empty, cold air.
He picks up the book, paging frantically through it as he painstakingly tries to locate the three words. When he finds them, the Korean characters beside them make the textbook slip soundlessly out of his hands this time.
Jeno has a growth spurt between the ages of fourteen and fifteen, and when he’s walking across the courtyard after school one afternoon he frowns to see a commotion at the gates.
"Jeno-yah, your hyung is so hot!” Yeri gushes as she flounces past him with her gaggle of girlfriends and Jeno’s heart lurches. He doesn’t have an older brother.
Jeno’s footfalls quicken in trepidation as they near the school gates, his stomach plummeting when he hears a familiar, distinctive deep voice, grandstanding in fluent Korean to a handful of adoring girls.
Jeno runs a nervous, clammy palm through his hair, wetting his lips and untucking his uniform shirt casually as he steps out of the gate, and then he is looking down at Jaemin in surprise as Jaemin squints up at him uncertainly. “Jeno?” he says in disbelief.
Not only is Jaemin slightly shorter than him now, he’s also younger than Jeno has ever seen him, his smile easy and careless, so beautiful it almost hurts to look at. Instead of the usual sensible, unremarkable clothes he’s worn on previous occasions, today Jaemin is dressed in a baseball cap, jersey and skinny jeans, looking as much as a teenager as Jeno.
But Jaemin obnoxiously reminds him that he is nearly twice Jeno’s age, to Jeno’s chagrin. He feels like Jaemin is saying it more to remind himself, because he’s been sneaking wary glances at Jeno since they left school to walk downtown to the arcade where Jaemin promised to treat Jeno to spicy rice cakes, face falling when Jeno bluntly asked if he had money.
To his surprise, Jaemin digs into his pocket and triumphantly fishes out a few dog-eared won. Jeno’s mind races as he considers the implications of this. Does this mean that at the age of twenty-nine, Jaemin is in Korea? When did he travel there from America, and was it a permanent move? Most importantly, was Jeno still in the picture?
A million questions bubble up impatiently on Jeno’s tongue, but he knows that if he voices them out Jaemin will only deflect them deftly, changing the subject and gently but firmly refusing to divulge any information about the future, laughing when Jeno begs, growing cool if he loses his temper. “I can’t mess with history or influence your free will,” Jaemin says resolutely when Jeno insists, “I need to know."
"Why do you keep looking at me?” Jeno eventually blurts out, more irritated with his traitorous heart for flipping and flopping in his chest like a fish out of water than Jaemin’s timid lash-veiled glances.
Jaemin swallows, Adam’s apple bobbing. “Sorry,” he laughs, and suddenly Jeno is also annoyed with the way Jaemin is always apologizing for everything, like he has committed some unpardonable wrong towards Jeno, like Jeno is a stranger he has to stand at courtesy with.
"It’s just that... I’ve never seen you this young,” Jaemin is saying. “Fifteen,” he mutters under his breath, then lets out a low whistle. “Wow."
"I’ve never seen you this short,” Jeno retorts sarcastically, which earns him a slug on the arm. “Watch it,” Jaemin warns.
"How’s the air down there?” Jeno sniggers, and Jaemin snarls, dropping his composed adult demeanor. “Lee Jeno, get back here!” he yells, chasing Jeno down the street like a little kid.
“My god,” Jeno murmurs hushedly when he gets within recognizing distance of the other boy on the street, and can make out his features. From afar, there was already something uncanny about him, but Jeno hadn’t dared to believe something so impossible, hadn’t allowed himself to hope.
Jaemin’s hair is shaggy, falling into his eyes and he’s dressed in a school uniform of white collared shirt and navy pants, similar to his, his top button undone and the noose of a striped tie loosened around his neck. A name tag with English characters is pinned to his breast pocket.
Jaemin takes a few steps back, looking overwhelmed as Jeno sprints towards him. There’s an uncertainty in his eyes that Jeno hasn’t seen before, a flicker of fear. Jaemin is always so confident and assured, never revealing a hint of the displacement and whiplash he must be feeling at being thrown abruptly into a different time, but this Jaemin is so obviously bewildered, so achingly young that it goes straight past Jeno’s defences.
"J-Jeno hyung?” Jaemin’s voice is shaky, the word catching in his throat with disbelief. “Is that you?” His eyes search Jeno’s desperately and he reaches out a trembling hand as if to touch Jeno’s face, but pulls away quickly.
Jeno nods, his own throat closing. He still hasn’t figured out how the mechanics of time travel works, but deduces swiftly that Jaemin must not have met his younger self before he was a teenager, and is relieved that Jaemin seems to have met his older self already. They’ve always been able to slip back relatively easily into an effortless tandem every time they met, no matter how jarring the disparities between their prior memories and history, catching up each other on the empty spaces. But this time, both of them are equally young, equally clueless and there is no one to take charge and be the mature one here, the one who prevents the other from falling apart at the sheer magnitude of this incredible phenomenon they are caught in. Till this day, Jaemin was always the one who took care of him, whose undimmable smile made Jeno feel that everything was alright, no matter how dire the circumstances seemed. It’s kind of unsettling seeing Jaemin just as vulnerable and lost as he feels, but Jeno realizes that this time, he will have to take charge.
He notices that Jaemin is shivering in the wintry draft, that his uniform shirt is flimsy and thin, almost translucent, and guesses that it must be summer in America. Jeno strips off his own school blazer and drapes it over Jaemin’s shoulders, and unwraps his scarf, winding it around Jaemin’s neck until the only things visible above the fraying wool are Jaemin’s curious, bright eyes.
"Let’s go,” Jeno says softly, and takes Jaemin’s hand wordlessly. Jaemin’s hand is smaller than Jeno remembers, soft and toasty, trusting and unresisting as it curls back around Jeno’s with an impossible familiarity. As they walk home, the chilly November winds rip unforgivingly through the air, but Jeno can’t even feel anything except the heat radiating from Jaemin’s skin, spreading like electricity up the nerve endings of his arm.
"Where are you coming from?” Jeno demands the moment they are sequestered in his room and Jaemin is sitting on the bed, looking oddly fragile and small amidst the ocean of sheets, unwrapping Jeno’s scarf from around his neck.
"2010,” Jaemin says, naming the year Jeno is in, and Jeno gasps. He hadn’t known it was possible for Jaemin to travel to a different place in his time. Then Jaemin says, “September,” and his heart plummets in relief.
"Of course it’s impossible.” Jaemin laughs out loud when Jeno tells him that for the first time, they’re finally in the same universe. “I’m a time traveller, not God. I can’t split myself in two.” He rolls his eyes and Jeno laughs too, breaking the ice. It’s still the same Jaemin, with his sharp tongue and infectious laugh, although his shoulders are narrower than Jeno has ever seen them, his frame pubescent and slight and his hair mussed and windswept hopelessly.
"Were you in school?” Jeno gestures to Jaemin’s attire, and Jaemin groans. “Right in the middle of biology class. It’s cool, though. I’m sitting in the last row, and Jungwoo’s got my back."
Jungwoo. It’s a name that Jaemin has mentioned on a few occasions, and Jeno had gathered that he’s a friend of Jaemin’s. But he never knew that he was Jaemin’s high school classmate, that he had had Jaemin for so many years, lived in the same world, the same time. Jeno feels a startlingly piercing knife of jealousy.
"Who’s Jungwoo?” he asks casually, and Jaemin replies easily, “My best friend."
It’s the smile on Jaemin’s face as he says the words that does Jeno in – a smile he hasn’t seen before, so boyishly wide that it makes Jaemin’s eyes crinkle into crescents. It’s a smile that makes him look about ten years old, such a beautiful, mischievous smile that Jeno is suddenly seething with an inexplicable unfairness that it isn’t directed at him.
"Your best friend, huh?” he repeats, voice low, and Jeno doesn’t recognize the mocking note in his voice. Jaemin hears it too, eyes widening as Jeno crosses the room in two strides and settles down beside him, the bed dipping as he squeezes Jaemin against the wall.
"Did you ever – with him –” Jeno chokes out, and Jaemin looks confused.
Abruptly, Jeno reaches out to brush Jaemin’s lips with his fingertips, and Jaemin jumps and jerks away, shocked. “Did you ever let him...” Jeno spits out, and his heart sinks like a stone when Jaemin doesn’t meet his eyes.
"It was just once!” Jaemin protests, looking stricken as Jeno takes his chin roughly and lifts his face up. He squirms away, flushed with guilt, but Jeno clambers over him, bracing his arms on the bed and trapping Jaemin between them, so close that their bangs catch together with static.
"It was a mistake,” Jaemin continues babbling. “I hadn’t met you yet, this you, and I didn’t know you were so – so – God, what am I saying?” Jaemin looks close to tears, precariously pale, and Jeno is afraid he’s slipping. He should know better than to be so careless, than to agitate Jaemin when he’s so inexperienced and obviously not in control of his impulses yet.
Jaemin raises glimmering eyes to his. “Can you forgive me?"
It’s not that Jeno can’t forgive Jaemin, because Jeno will forgive Jaemin for anything he says or does, had already forgiven him the moment the words left his mouth. It’s just that he can’t control how his vision flashes white hot at the thought of another boy, this Jungwoo, noticing the way Jaemin’s eyes sparkle like shards of rainbow glass and his lithe pantherlike grace, kissing those lips that look so soft, putting his hands on Jaemin’s wiry, supple body -
"Hyung,” Jaemin says huskily, and his voice licks through Jeno’s veins, igniting his blood like wildfire. Jeno is bewildered by the emotions that are rising up uncontrollably within him. His feelings towards Jaemin had always been placid, peaceful warm ones of security and friendship. Jeno had always looked forward to Jaemin’s visits. But somewhere along the way, his heart had started speeding up in anticipation, his palms cold and clammy in a way that was undeniably no longer platonic.
When had respect and admiration turned into animal attraction? He had never thought Jaemin could make him feel such passion and intensity, and the way heat is pooling in his stomach, making his cock twitch hungrily as Jaemin’s tongue slips out to lick his dry lips is completely unfamiliar to Jeno. Jeno doesn’t know how to handle this, doesn’t know how to handle Jaemin who is suddenly dangerous and terrifying, a beautiful grenade ticking down in Jeno’s shaking hands. It’s wrong, sacrilegious, and Jeno struggles to reconcile this gorgeous boy lying beneath him to the fatherly figure who has wisely guided and counselled Jeno all his life.
He sees the conflict in Jaemin’s eyes too, the way he’s reeling with shock at these new and unexpected emotions. Jeno has always loved the way Jaemin is so transparent, every single thought he’s feeling playing across his expressive eyes like an open book. He loves the way Jaemin is like spun silk; as lovely and seemingly fragile but actually unbreakably strong. He loves the way Jaemin is so vibrant and captivating and intense, like a supernova explosion Jeno wants to capture and possess with his own bare hands. He loves Jaemin.
"I can’t get you out of my mind,” Jeno whispers, pained. “When I’m eating, sleeping, breathing – you’re all I think about."
The smile that breaks across Jaemin’s face is blinding, lighting it up like the sun. Jeno hates that cocky grin, how Jaemin just waltzes into his life every time, sweeping through it like a hurricane and leaving Jeno wrecked and gasping. He curls his fingers into the fabric of Jaemin’s collar, buttons popping as he rips it open aggressively to reveal the expanse of porcelain white skin at Jaemin’s delicately wrought collarbones. “Take responsibility,” Jeno says, breathing heavily.
Jaemin answers by cupping a strong hand on the nape of Jeno’s neck and hauling him down for a clumsy and wet but enthusiastic kiss, their teeth knocking and noses bumping awkwardly at first but finally fitting together so perfectly that it feels like worlds colliding on their axis and shifting into place. Jaemin spreads his legs and wraps them around Jeno’s waist, and when Jeno settles between them he can feel how hard Jaemin is and how much he wants Jeno, exactly as much as Jeno wants him.
"I can not believe this,” Jaemin says, voice raw and post-coital as he runs tapered fingers through the strands of Jeno’s hair. “The last time I saw you, you were a grandpa. Now you’re a teenage boy with dyed blond hair fucking me.” He groans. “This is so fucked up. How am I going to face you the next time?"
Jeno laughs, prying Jaemin’s hands away from his face. “Maybe give me a blow job?” he tries hopefully, and ducks away from Jaemin’s outraged fists.
Jeno tries to pretend he knows what he’s doing, but in reality he doesn’t any more than Jaemin. They’re just teenage boys, full of testosterone and hormones, thinking with their dicks before their brain. It’s easy to get caught up in the heady sensation of meeting at the same age for the first time and mistake it for romance, but the only thing Jeno knows for sure is that what he feels for Jaemin is not a fluke. It might have seemed hasty, but Jeno knows that it was the right decision. Because they are preternaturally engaged in a losing battle against time, snatching stolen moments from it whenever they can. Even if they never meet again; even if they never meet in the capacity to be able to touch each other physically again, Jeno will never forget the subliminal sensation of Jaemin’s bare body curled up in his arms, the temperature emanating from his skin lighting up every cell of Jeno’s body like a scorching fire.
The moment Jaemin materializes in Jeno’s room, he immediately senses that something is wrong. Jeno has no time to even wipe a rough hand over his damp face or attempt to cover his red eyes and spiky lashes, before Jaemin is striding up, eyes tight with concern.
"What’s wrong? Did something happen at school?"
Jeno jerks away. Jaemin is dressed in a beige cashmere sweater, looking adult and infuriatingly beautiful and unattainable. He sees the tremor of Jaemin’s fingers before he pulls the sleeves over his wrists to hide them and knows that their time is limited, that he should reassure Jaemin before he is snatched away. But Jeno is tired of being selfless and self-sacrificing, tired of putting on a brave face and pretending that it doesn’t hurt like hell every time Jaemin is torn away from him. He’s only seventeen, seventeen and in love with a person who doesn’t exist in his life yet, in love with Jaemin, and everything is too unfair.
The past year has been a tumultuous one. Jeno has spent his time alternating between wishing passionately to see the teenage Jaemin again and hoping that if he does appear, it will be after fifteen. Because Jeno doesn’t think he can handle meeting an innocent, oblivious Jaemin, still blissfully unaware of his feelings and the enormous development in their relationship that has taken place. And then he feels like an idiot, because who else has to worry that their boyfriend has forgotten that they’ve had sex, besides really old people with Alzheimer’s or senile dementia who wouldn’t even be having sex in the first place? Thinking of Jaemin as his boyfriend sends a delicious chill down Jeno’s spine, and then he feels like a moron again for getting all worked up because Jaemin doesn’t even exist in his world, technically. He’s like one of those losers with imaginary girlfriends.
"Jeno,” Jaemin pleads now, for once dropping the hyung, and it oddly comforts Jeno how Jaemin somehow knows that this time, he has to be the patient one here because Jeno is being petulant.
Jeno gives in too late, finally turning back to face Jaemin as the warmth of his fingertips disappears from Jeno’s face, the words I missed you falling into empty air, unheard.
It’s been exactly three-hundred and sixty-five days, according to the countdown on his calendar, and Jeno thinks it’s safe to say that Jaemin is avoiding him. He has never stayed out of Jeno’s life for so long before, and Jeno feels a sinking dread in the pit of his stomach and again regrets the cold shoulder he had given Jaemin. Why had he tried to act tough, to act like he didn’t want to see Jaemin when he was burning for his touch? But there was once – Jeno has an inexplicable conviction that Jaemin had appeared near him once a few months ago, but hidden himself from Jeno. Jeno has no proof of this except that he seems to have developed a Jaemin radar, detecting his presence like gravity pulling matter to the earth, like a sunflower listing towards the sun. He had clenched his fists and waited for Jaemin to appear, laughing and teasing Jeno, in the end giving up and calling out desperately into thin air, “Jaemin! Jaemin-ah!"
A few birds nearby took flight, and a few passersby stared at him and walked away quickly, but Jaemin didn’t come out.
The next time he senses the unmistakable feeling of Jaemin’s presence, Jeno thinks grimly, desperate times call for desperate measures, and kicks into the plan he had meticulously calculated down to the smallest detail. He knows he has to act fast, before Jaemin drifts away, but in the end, nothing works the way he predicted. There are no cars on the nearby street, the only vehicle chugging slowly down the sunny afternoon asphalt a big, worn bus.
Jeno swears and throws himself in front of it anyway. Agreeably, the driver leans loudly on his horn and slams on the brakes. The bus screeches to a halt just as a blurred figure streaks across the street and pushes Jeno away, landing hard on him as Jeno sprawls backwards, scraping his elbows on the granite.
Jeno looks up, dazed, to see that his plan has worked as expected, and Jaemin is leaning over him, his eyes dark with worry and his hands running urgently down Jeno’s body. “Are you okay?"
Jeno nods, his throat tightening with relief, and Jaemin swivels around to glare at the bus driver lividly. He flips him off, giving him a piece of his mind about assholes who didn’t look out for pedestrians while driving. The driver bristles indignantly. “What the hell? That brat just dashed out –"
Jaemin silences him with one withering glance and turns back to help Jeno to his feet, fussing over him and practically carrying him all the way home.
"Why did you do that?” Jaemin says angrily the moment they get back to his room. “Don’t think I don’t know that it was your fault. I was watching the whole time."
"The whole time?” Jeno drawls, throwing his words back at him, and Jaemin blushes hotly.
Jeno relents. His motive was to lure Jaemin back, not to humiliate him. “I wanted to make you come out,” he admits honestly.
Jaemin’s mouth falls open. “How did you know –"
"I could feel you,” Jeno says quietly. “You’re so obvious."
Jaemin throws a pillow at him, looking crestfallen. “Shut up."
Jeno laughs, catching it. “How many times did I miss?” he can’t help asking.
Jaemin’s eyes are soft and questioning as they look up at him. “Only once,” he assures. “As far as I know."
"I was a fool,” Jeno says harshly, and Jaemin bites back a smile.
“My fool,” he agrees.
"Where are you coming from?” Jeno asks with a mischievous glint in his eyes later as they lie in his bed, bracing himself over Jaemin and smoothing the matted hair away from his face. “Do they have robot computers yet?” he muses, when what he really means is, Do you still feel the same?
"You know I can’t tell you,” Jaemin laughs, eyes on his as he brushes Jeno’s fingers with his lips. As ever.
When he walks into Jaemin in the dusty stacks of his university library, Jeno drops his books. Jaemin is dressed in a dark green shirt with a logo that reads Lee Music emblazoned across the breast pocket and coughing a little, waving away dust particles from the stack of books that he knocked off the shelf when he landed.
"Is that where you’re working?” Jeno blurts out, and Jaemin hurriedly slaps a sheepish hand over the uniform. Jeno shakes his head and picks up his textbooks. “Come on.” He inclines his head, and Jaemin trails after him obediently.
The moment they get back to Jeno’s cramped dorm room and confirm that his roommate is out, Jeno locks the door and slams Jaemin against it hard. Jaemin licks into his mouth with equal intensity and a missing that rivals his own. Jeno struggles to pull off Jaemin’s shirt and Jaemin fumbles with his belt, their mouths still latched on to each other’s as they stumble towards the bed and fall onto it, Jeno wrestling Jaemin beneath him.
"How old are you?” Jeno whispers beside Jaemin’s ear when they are lying spent in his tiny, rickety bed, legs tangled together and sheets sweaty. It’s the first time he’s neglected to ask this question immediately after Jaemin arrived, but he was just too swept away by the lust that overtook him. Or maybe Jeno was dreading hearing the answer.
Because Jaemin is significantly older than the last time he saw him – older than the day he got married. Jeno hasn’t allowed himself to think about this fact since sixteen, has been in denial about the fact that Jaemin is a married man. Even though he knows that he has to be fair, that Jaemin is allowed a life of his own that doesn’t involve Jeno, it’s just so, so hard to face the knowledge that the Jaemin lying in Jeno’s arms and smiling drowsily up at him, his body slick against Jeno’s, slick with Jeno’s cum, belongs to another person. Actually, it feels like a piece of Jeno’s heart is being torn out of him.
Of course, Jeno had never forgotten that day at fourteen when Jaemin had told him he was marrying someone else. Because of course it had to be someone else, right? Jaemin – knee-bucklingly gorgeous and unattainable Jaemin Na couldn’t be marrying Jeno. If he had, he would’ve told Jeno a long time ago. Jaemin wouldn’t do that to him, wouldn’t make Jeno go through the heartache and heartbreak of unrequited love.
Jeno had thought Jaemin wasn’t that kind of person. But now, he thinks he isn’t so sure anymore. Because if Jaemin is married to someone else, what is he doing sleeping with Jeno? Even though it’s in a different time, Jaemin’s feelings shouldn’t have changed. Is this just a fling for him, something he doesn’t have to be responsible for because he’s only visiting? Is he just playing with Jeno? The thought makes a bitter coil of anger surge in Jeno’s stomach, but he struggles to tamp it down. He doesn’t want to ruin a single precious minute of Jaemin’s short-lived visits with negative emotions.
But when Jaemin quietly answers, “Thirty-four,” Jeno’s heart still plummets. His next words strike Jeno like blows. “We’re naming the kids. What do you suggest?"
It’s the easy, natural way he says We that kills Jeno, that tells him more than anything how happy Jaemin is with his wife, lover, whoever the fuck it is who has the unbelievable luck of being married to Na Jaemin. Technically, We might also refer to Jaemin and himself, but Jeno tells himself not to be stupid before he can go down that train of thought. Jaemin might be a prankster, but he wouldn’t be so twisted to pull such a sick prank on Jeno.
At this point, Jeno feels downright nauseous, pulling away from under Jaemin’s heavy body to turn to face the wall so that Jaemin can’t see any of the thoughts playing across his face. Jeno racks his brain for the most random name he can think of. “Lele,” he says, and shivers as he feels a draft attacking his bare back.
When he turns around to see only tangled linen and empty space, without a trace, Jaemin is already gone.
When Jeno sees Jaemin the second time that year, he thinks it’s a figment of his imagination conjured up by his alcohol-addled brain. After all, Jeno has been spending the past few months after Jaemin’s last visit more drunk than sober. Even Doyoung had given up on advising him, disgusted. Maybe Jaemin had somehow sensed that he needed help and appeared in Jeno’s times of need like he always did – but that’s impossible. Jeno laughs bitterly. Even if he knew and could control his travelling, Jaemin wouldn’t care. He had never cared about Jeno the way Jeno cared about him.
But – twice in a year. Even in the haze of alcohol, Jeno realizes what a miracle that is. They’ve never met with such frequency before. Jeno wonders what this means, if it’s just a one-time fluke or if Jaemin will be appearing in his life more often in future. He doesn’t know if he’ll be able to deal with his heart breaking all over again every time.
Jaemin walks right up, striding through the bar towards where Jeno is blearily squinting at him and snatches the half-empty beer bottle from Jeno’s hand. “Lee Jeno, what are you doing to yourself?” Jaemin curses, his furious face swimming in Jeno’s vision.
"You need to wake up,” Jaemin says, slapping his face lightly with his hands the moment they enter Jeno’s dorm room. The place is a shithole, his roommate getting steadily more and more fed up with how he stank up the room with cheap liquor and unwashed clothes and finally moved out. Jeno grabs Jaemin’s hands with both of his own and doesn’t let go even when he struggles. “How old are you?” he demands, a glimmer of hope lighting up in him when Jaemin replies reluctantly, “Thirty."
So this Jaemin isn’t married yet. Jeno isn’t sure what he’s doing as he pushes Jaemin backward onto the bed and straddles him, stripping off his shirt and unzipping his fly, sliding an insolent hand up Jaemin’s stomach. All he’s sure of is that this might be his last chance to make Jaemin his, to possess him and brand him with painful marks sucked into the delicate skin of his neck and fingers pressed into his hipbones hard enough to leave purplish blue.
Jeno knows that it’s mean and underhanded, and not only that, he’s coming perilously close to altering the course of history. He had asked Jaemin if he had tried before, but Jaemin had only shaken his head solemnly. “I don’t dare to. What if it changed the trajectories of our lives forever? What if we never met?” he had breathed, fingers fisting helplessly in Jeno’s shirt at the thought. But he can’t help it because the thought of a whole life ahead of him waking up every morning to the knowledge that Jaemin belongs to somebody else is too bleak for Jeno to bear. He has no other alternative.
So Jeno takes a deep breath and leans over Jaemin, pinning his gaze with his. “Jaemin-ah,” he says, words hoarse and foolishly brave with alcohol. “Will you marry me?”
It’s spontaneous and unplanned, and Jeno almost regrets the question the moment it leaves his mouth. He has no ring or anything to offer Jaemin, who he is a decade younger than and hopelessly inferior to. His eyes are dull and bloodshot and nowhere as near as expressive as Jaemin’s, which are shining like glass, glittering and overflowing with tears that Jeno anxiously wipes away with the pads of his thumbs. “What’s wrong?” he panics, running worried eyes over Jaemin’s body. “Did I hurt you anywhere?"
"No,” Jaemin says, hitting him lightly, and his smile catches Jeno’s breath in his throat. “It’s just... I thought you’d never ask."
Jeno is so confused right now, but the happiness overwhelms everything. He can’t believe that Jaemin agreed, that he had been waiting for Jeno to ask. Did that mean – could that possibly mean that the person Jaemin had said he was marrying was... Jeno?
Jeno doesn’t dare to broach the question, afraid of the answer, but even more afraid of the enormity of what they are attempting to challenge. Who was he to think that he could take time into his own hands and determine the course of history, change their fate? He knew what he was in for when he had fallen in love with Jaemin. Like time, Jaemin was unpredictable, volatile and flighty, unable to pin down.
They look at each other, so many unspoken questions and answers in their eyes, and Jaemin eventually says softly, “Just be patient a bit more, okay? Next year – that’s when it all happens."
"W-what happens?” Jeno swallows, his throat so dry he can barely speak.
Jaemin smiles cryptically. “It’s the year we meet,” he says, squeezing Jeno’s arm. “All four of us: you, me, Jungwoo and Doyoung. It’s when it all begins."
"H-how –” Jeno stutters lamely, unable to process this information. Jungwoo and Jaemin are coming to Korea? And Jaemin knows Doyoung?
Jaemin laughs breathlessly. “The day after I met you at fifteen, I dropped everything and started working hard towards coming here. It took me three years to convince Jungwoo to go to Korea for university after high school."
Jeno gapes at him, struggling to absorb the revelation that Jaemin had wanted so badly and worked so hard to meet him, crossing continents and oceans the way he had crossed time. He had done so much for Jeno, more than Jeno had ever done for him.
"Oops,” Jaemin says, biting his lip and raising his eyes to the ceiling. “Should I not have said that?"
His irresistible, crooked smile makes Jeno laugh out loud. “I guess we’re going to get divine punishment then. But for you...” he caresses Jaemin’s cheek, watching the way a blush blooms beneath his fingertips. “It’ll be worth it.”
When Jeno sees Jaemin in the batch of freshmen entering their university for orientation, he doesn’t have to disguise the way his eyes widen and his knees grow weak with shock. Because seeing Jaemin out of the orbit of time for the first time is completely mind-blowing, every bit as heart-stopping as the first day. There’s a solidity to Jaemin, an opacity that is different from his time-travelling self, which had always felt too transient, too easily crushed in Jeno’s arms.
Jeno can’t take his eyes off Jaemin as he strides across the room confidently, his arrogant swagger capturing the gaze of everyone he passes. He is flanked by a spacy-looking pretty boy, who gets an equal amount of attention to him but in contrast looks utterly unaware of it.
Doyoung nudges Jeno, a familiar predatory look on his face that makes Jeno’s stomach clench uncomfortably. “Who’s that?” he swoons breathily.
“Jaemin Na.” Jaemin sticks out a hand as he walks up, keeping his eyes on Jeno's as he takes it, swallowing. Jaemin’s hand is warm and strong, callused, but his dark eyes have none of the hardness of his handshake and every bit of the softness Jeno remembers. He tries to control his expression, but neither Doyoung nor Jaemin’s friend (who will later introduce himself as the infamous Jungwoo) notice, too busy mooning at each other with goo-goo eyes.
Jeno pulls some strings, namely paying off his roommate with an exorbitant sum to move to Jaemin’s room so Jaemin can move in with Jeno. So they become roommates, sharing a cramped, dreary shoebox that smells like dirty socks and has textbooks strewn all over the floor, but because Jaemin is there, it’s heaven.
Jeno can’t believe that after so many years of waiting and longing, they can finally love each other openly, with the acknowledgement of others and blessings of their friends. He wants to be around Jaemin as much as he can so he can take care of Jaemin when he comes back from his trips, and help to keep Jaemin’s secret. Jaemin is always so brickheaded and wilful, wanting to take on everything himself, but Jeno knows that Jaemin is more vulnerable than he lets on.
By this time, they’ve started to learn to get used to Jaemin’s ability, the way families of handicapped people get used to their disability, shaping and building their lives around it the best they can. The years have taught Jeno how to be as familiar with the signs of impending travel as Jaemin is: when Jaemin abruptly turns ashen and jittery and starts shaking and sweating uncontrollably. They’ve realized early on that they can’t control it, but can do their best to nurture an environment that is conducive to discouraging it. When Jaemin feels calm, peaceful and safe, he’s less likely to travel. Agitation, alcohol or other stimulants and sudden mood swings seem to aggravate it, the last of which Jaemin finds it hard to refrain from with his natural quick temperament.
"What does it feel like?” Jeno asks one day, wondering why such an important question had taken him so many years to ask. It feels like something he should have asked Jaemin at the start, but the years had flown by so unnoticeably, and he had been so swept up in Jaemin that it hadn’t occurred to him.
Jaemin laughs, brow creasing as he tries to find the words to describe it. “It’s... amazing,” he finally says, shaking his head in wonder. “It feels like... like exploding into a million tiny particles and freefalling through the milky way, then being joined back together again."
Jeno considers this thoughtfully and winces. “Sounds painful."
Jaemin smiles wistfully. “It’s an indescribable experience. I wish I could take you with me."
Jeno smirks. “Better than kissing me?” he teases, and Jaemin bursts out laughing.
"Well, maybe not,” he concedes, winking.
Jaemin had waxed lyrical about the thrills of time-travelling, but he had conveniently left out the negative aspects. Now that they are living together, Jeno witnesses the effects travelling wrecks on Jaemin, and sees the ugly side that he had neglected to mention clearer than he ever has. Because Jaemin isn’t superhuman. He is merely mortal, and wasn’t designed to contain such a superpower. Time travelling is a power that is too enormous and overwhelming for Jaemin, for anybody. Jeno wonders who was the one who had decided to place such a weighty burden on Jaemin’s narrow shoulders.
Jeno helps Jaemin into bed after a frat party where Doyoung had taken Jaemin and Jungwoo without his knowledge. When he arrives there, Jaemin is already intoxicated and Jeno is furious, turning on Jungwoo. “Why didn’t you stop him?” he growls, and Doyoung stands up unsteadily and shields Jungwoo with his body, offering him a beer. “Come on, lighten up a little!” he giggles. “You’re such a stick-in-the-mud."
Jeno pushes him away, disgusted, and grabs Jaemin below the arms and drags him staggering back to the dorm. When he heaves Jaemin onto the bed, he’s already shuddering helplessly, teeth chattering. Jeno quickly gets in beside him and pulls two layers of blankets up around them, pressing his frame against Jaemin’s to give him body heat.
"Hyung,” Jaemin murmurs, registering him through hooded, murky eyes. “Hold me till I go.” He closes his eyes again, but not before Jeno sees the naked fear that flits through them.
As he crushes Jaemin tightly in his arms, already praying for his safe return, this might be the instant Jeno realizes exactly how harrowing and risky time-travelling is for Jaemin.
The longer the months stretch on without Jaemin time-travelling, the more hopeful Jeno feels. Coming to Korea, to Jeno has seemed to stabilize Jaemin’s travelling for some reason, giving him roots and anchors. As the bouts between Jaemin’s trips grow longer and more infrequent, they are lulled into a false sense of security. It seems almost possible that one day, Jaemin will be able to stop travelling altogether.
But just as they are getting complacent, an incident happens to shake up their idyll. Jaemin materializes in their room one night, hours after he disappeared and which Jeno had lain awake for, worry eating and gnawing at him. Jaemin usually manages to be quiet about his reappearances, but this time he has lost all composure, moaning and keening in pain. Jeno scrambles out of bed and crouches beside him helplessly. “Jaem? What happened?"
Jaemin cradles his leg, face paper white, and Jeno’s heart squeezes to see blood seeping through his pants. He quickly but carefully rips Jaemin’s pants down the length, inhaling sharply to see a nasty wound gushing blood at an alarming rate.
"I trespassed on private property. He had... a gun...” Jaemin says between clenched teeth, and Jeno’s mind flashes white with rage. “Who? Who did this to you?” He’s going to skin them alive, the fuckers who had dared to touch a hair on the head of his precious Jaemin.
"I don’t know,” Jaemin mutters, breath coming in uneven spurts. “They were speaking like, Greek or something."
"Holy fuck,” Jeno breathes. Jaemin had never really told him about his travels to other countries, only mentioned them in passing, and Jeno had no idea of the threat they genuinely posed. But he quickly snaps into action, studying Jaemin’s wound but not daring to touch. “This is bad,” he says softly, not wanting to frighten him. “I think you need to go to the clinic."
"No!” Jaemin says vehemently, clutching at his arm. “They’ll ask questions –"
"We have to get the bullet out,” Jeno says grimly, and lifts Jaemin up into his arms, squirming and protesting weakly. “Listen to me,” Jeno starts, his heart stopping as he looks down to see that Jaemin has lost consciousness.
Knowing the full extent of Jaemin’s risks now, Jeno starts worrying more. Actually, he buzzes around Jaemin, nagging and fretting tirelessly until Jaemin loses his patience and calls him a mother hen. But Jeno doesn’t care whether Jaemin is yelling or pissed at him, as long as he’s here.
Jaemin doesn’t really wear cut-off khakis and bermudas nowadays, ever since the scar from his gunshot wound and the subsequent operation healed to form an ugly brown gash. Jeno always makes sure to lavish butterfly kisses over it, reassuring Jaemin that he is still beautiful, that Jeno will never love him any less. He is almost too paranoid nowadays, suspecting that Jaemin is travelling at the slightest provocation.
They are lazing in bed one morning, late for classes and debating whether to cut them, when Jaemin starts shaking in his arms. Jeno looks down, a cold vice clamping over his heart, but it’s just Jaemin rumbling with laughter, thrumming and vibrating with his usual nervous energy. Jaemin is so vital and inexhaustible that it wears Jeno out sometimes, and leaves him feeling like he’s taken one too many rollercoaster rides.
"What if –” Jeno starts, but Jaemin interrupts him with a loud sigh, knowing what he’s going to say.
Jaemin’s eyes are impatient and exasperated, but his voice is soft as flannel as he brushes his knuckles across Jeno’s face. “Hush,” he says, flashing that happy-go-lucky smile. “Don’t worry. I’m a lucky bastard.”
They move in together after Jaemin graduates from university, pooling their meagre savings to rent a small but cozy apartment. Jeno has gotten a job as a salaryman in a production company with his major in film arts, while although he could have had better prospects with his degree in music, Jaemin starts work at a record store selling musical instruments, occasionally filling out for absent instructors at the studio there. But the main reason why he picked the job is that the owner Donghyuck, who was a classmate in their university, doesn’t ask too many questions when Jaemin abruptly has to take off in the middle of the day.
“Donghyuck’s a cool dude, man,” Jaemin muses one day when he comes home after work, his eyes glinting with something like respect, and Jeno tries to keep his face smooth and expressionless. “Oh, really?” he remarks casually, taking a long swig of his champagne.
Jaemin narrows his eyes at him. “Oh my god, you’re jealous, aren’t you?” he crows childishly, and Jeno blanches. “No."
"You totally are!” Jaemin trills gleefully. “Oh man, you are so cute.” Jeno frowns menacingly at him and growls, which only makes Jaemin clutch his stomach and laugh harder.
When they go on double dates with Doyoung and Jungwoo (who are ones to speak since Jungwoo has moved to Korea and gotten a job here for Doyoung too), they tease Jeno and Jaemin for being one of those inseparable Siamese twin couples, even after so many years. Jeno smiles and doesn’t say anything, because they’re right. He doesn’t plan on ever letting Jaemin out of his sight.
Jaemin rolls his eyes. “He’s impossible to get rid off. I guess I’m saddled with him.” But he squeezes Jeno’s knee under the table to soften the words.
Jeno covers his hand and squeezes back. He knows how contrary Jaemin is, how he will never admit it but is guilt-stricken and thinks he’s a burden to Jeno, thinks that Jeno deserves someone better, deserves a normal life. But what Jaemin doesn’t know is that Jeno doesn’t want normal.
He wants Jaemin.
“Holy shit,” Jeno breathes in relief as Jaemin crashes through the doors and bends over panting, an hour after he disappeared from the dressing room where they were helping each other put on their white tuxes. Jaemin usually reappears at the same place he disappeared, but they’ve noticed that when he’s nervous or upset or going through any intense emotions it gets a little screwed up. Today, Jeno hopes it’s because he’s so happy he feels like throwing up.
"I thought you were going to leave me at the altar,” Jeno jokes, but can’t hide the edge of real alarm in his voice.
Jaemin laughs breathlessly, but his eyes are serious and his voice low and steady as he vows, “Never."
"Where were you?” Jeno can’t help sulking a little, and Jaemin smirks.
"I was teaching a little brat English. It’s all his fault that I’m late. He just couldn’t get one phrase right –” The rest of his sentence is muffled as Jeno steals his lips in a brief, sloppy kiss.
“I love you,” Jeno finishes as he breaks away, and Jaemin’s face lights up in a breathtaking grin.
Doyoung sweeps in with Jungwoo on his heels, their expressions a study in contrasts. Jungwoo looks unperturbed and calm as usual as he ushers Jeno to the side door leading to the front of the chapel, while Doyoung’s face is as pale and wan as he fixes Jaemin’s bow tie distractedly and hustles him out of the one leading to the back. “Hurry, you’re late!"
Jeno stumbles towards the podium with the box of rings in his sweaty hand and climbs unsteadily up, clearing his throat as the pastor’s disapproving eyes sweep over him. He runs anxious fingers through his hair and straightens his tie, when suddenly the heavy wooden doors creak open, pure white light flooding into the sanctuary. Jeno turns to see Jaemin tripping in, clutching a bouquet of baby’s breath and looking equally terrified out of his wits but wearing a desperately happy grin and tender pride shining fiercely from his eyes as steps down the aisle, closing the distance between them.
Jeno tries not to take it too personally when Jaemin vanishes from his arms halfway into Sunday morning, when they are dressed in matching coffee-coloured cashmere sweaters and curled up together lazily on the couch indulging in each other and a romantic comedy.
Jaemin reappears just before the closing credits, when the male and female lead are sharing a cheesy smooch. He looks slightly dishevelled but otherwise unchanged, but the look in his eyes makes Jeno mute the TV and give him his full attention. “When?” he says simply, and Jaemin chuckles wryly.
"I’m not sure. But you looked really young. Sixteen, maybe?” he estimates. “You were crying. I didn’t have enough time to find out why."
Jeno shifts across the couch to pull his tense body into his arms and Jaemin reluctantly relaxes. “I’m sure it was nothing, just teenage angst,” he reassures, stroking a hand soothingly down Jaemin’s back until he feels Jaemin melt against him.
"It was the first time I’ve seen you that upset,” Jaemin says in a small voice, breath hot against Jeno’s collarbone.
Jeno sighs and racks his brain, feeling the dim stirrings of a distant memory. “Oh, that time,” he laughs. Jaemin looks up eagerly as he continues, “I was just... throwing a tantrum. I was seventeen and gay and in love with somebody I technically hadn’t even met yet and it was just... too much to take."
Instead of looking relieved, a stricken look chases over Jaemin’s face. He pulls away from Jeno, shrugging off Jeno’s arms when they try to encircle him.
"You don’t deserve this.” Jaemin’s voice is rough, his eyes not meeting Jeno’s, and Jeno’s heart drops. “You’re too good for me."
"Jaemin,” Jeno starts, unable to contain the fear and desperation in his own voice. “No, never –"
"You idiot,” Jaemin says in English, but the way he caresses the word might as well have meant darling.
When Jeno returns to his office after lunch to find Jaemin sitting behind his desk, in his chair, he quickly closes the door behind him and frowns. “What are you doing here? Did you play hooky again? Donghyuck is going to be so pissed."
"Who’s Donghyuck?” Jaemin asks, and Jeno belatedly notices that he’s dressed in a school uniform that Jeno has seen once before, when he was sixteen, and looks visibly younger than the Jaemin Jeno had dropped off at work that morning, so obviously a different person that Jeno wonders how he could’ve missed it.
"How – why – How old are you?” he stammers, head spinning. The deceptively angelic grin on Jaemin’s face as he stands up makes Jeno take a stuttering step back.
"Eighteen,” Jaemin says, advancing. He walks right up to Jeno, unnervingly close, and scrutinizes him with narrowed, appraising eyes. “How old are you? God, you’re hot,” he says, and the words go straight to Jeno’s cock.
"Too old for you,” Jeno says brusquely, trying to hide the way Jaemin’s compliment makes him want to roll around in glee. “Even if you’re legal. You’re not lying about your age, are you?"
Jaemin laughs, loud and bold in the quiet office, and Jeno quickly clamps a hand over his mouth. “Shhh,” he whispers furiously, and Jaemin glares at him. Jeno releases his hand, and Jaemin scoffs indignantly, “No. I’m graduating in a few months."
"Oh,” Jeno says doubtfully. Jaemin looks achingly young, but his hair is cut in a shorter style than at fifteen, and he does look slightly more mature, in incomprehensible ways Jeno cannot pinpoint. His ears are newly pierced with a row of glinting silver hoops that weren’t there before and Jeno frowns disapprovingly, feeling like a conservative parent. He’s probably too used to seeing the current, adult Jaemin that he’s confused. “Okay, I’ll believe you temporarily."
"So who’s Donghyuck?” Jaemin presses impatiently. Jeno gulps. He’s not as experienced at this whole keeping things a secret and not messing with history thing as Jaemin is, and predictably slipped up. “No one,” he replies smoothly, the skeptical look on Jaemin’s face calling out his lie.
Jaemin hadn’t told him that he had travelled to Jeno’s office at eighteen. If he had warned Jeno, he wouldn’t be so taken by surprise now, unprepared and shaken by Jaemin’s sudden arrival. He had probably done it on purpose, Jeno rages. He had plotted with his teenage self to ambush Jeno, corner him and make him make an irreversible mistake. Well, he wouldn’t fall into their trap.
But for all his posturing, the boy perching on Jeno’s desk, watching him closely can’t hide his immaturity, his vulnerability. Jeno finds it difficult to suspect or hold anything against him as he brushes snowflakes off Jaemin’s hair, already melting. “Is it snowing there?"
Jaemin jumps at his touch, startled, but then tentatively allows Jeno to touch him. He reminds Jeno of the cautious kitten he had as a child. It’s the second time Jeno has seen Jaemin so young and impressionable and he is determined not to take advantage of him and give in to his feelings the way he did the first time.
But Jaemin seems to have no such qualms as his fingers close around Jeno’s tie and he tugs Jeno bodily forward roughly, bringing their lips within an inch of each other. Jeno’s palms land hard on the table as he catches his balance, scattering documents.
"I’ve been waiting for three years,” Jaemin swears under his breath, his lips seeking Jeno’s desperately. Jeno grips the edge of the table hard and tries to pull away, but Jaemin’s grasp on his tie is unwavering.
Eventually, Jeno stops struggling and succumbs to the sheer, carnal pleasure of Jaemin’s lips and tongue sliding insistent and skilful against his, doing things that Jeno wonders with shock and a twinge of jealousy where and who he had learnt from. Jeno trails his tongue down Jaemin’s piercings and bites his earlobe, drawing a whimper and tells himself he’s not strong enough to resist Jaemin, when in actual fact he knows that he could easily overpower Jaemin in a heartbeat. It’s just that he doesn’t want to. Jeno is a coward, always letting Jaemin take responsibility for the difficult actions and initiate the leaps of courage.
There is something illicit, something thrilling about kissing eighteen-year-old Jaemin while his thirty-three year old self is working miles away at a record store in town, oblivious and unaware of what Jeno is doing at this very moment. Jeno has never been into voyeurism or weird kinks like that, but he imagines Jaemin coincidentally really bunking off work and walking in to find a schoolboy with his white-socked, knobbly legs wrapped around Jeno’s hips, panting into his mouth, which Jaemin probably wouldn’t recognize as himself at first.
Would he feel the way Jeno felt all the other times when the person he was jealous of turned out to be himself? Would he laugh and strip off his clothes, joining in? Jeno is hauled back to earth by Jaemin’s impatient hands sliding under his suit jacket, undoing the buttons of his work shirt and splaying flat against his bare chest. Jaemin’s lips curl smugly at the way Jeno’s heart speeds up erratically.
"Hey, hey,” Jeno says sternly, sensing things slipping out of his control but trying to remain calm. “Keep it above the waist, okay?"
"What?” Jaemin looks dismayed, like Jeno has just announced the end of the world. “But what about this?” He grabs Jeno’s hand and brings it to the tented crotch of his pants, and Jeno hastily recoils, stung, but not before he feels the throbbing heat of Jaemin’s cock through the thin fabric, not before it manages to make him just as porcelain hard.
"Hyung," Jaemin rubs his body against Jeno’s cock and whines, in that familiar tone that Jeno knows by now is deliberate, that one Jaemin knows Jeno can never say no to. This time, he’s not getting his way.
Jeno untangles Jaemin’s interlocked arms from around his neck with difficulty, ignoring the way Jaemin’s pupils are blown so wide his eyes are almost entirely black, glassy and unfocused, the way his lips are sinfully swollen and parted, awaiting Jeno’s own. He backs away unsteadily, holding Jaemin’s wrists together with one hand as with the other he strips off his tie, holding one end between his teeth as he knots the other tightly over Jaemin’s wrists.
Before Jaemin can struggle or say anything, Jeno is on his knees before the desk, spreading Jaemin’s thighs with his hands and lowering his mouth to Jaemin’s cock. “Ah!” Jaemin gasps almost painfully as his cock hits the back of Jeno’s throat, his hands grabbing Jeno’s shoulders tightly for support.
Jaemin’s eyes are closed in ecstasy, and Jeno can’t stop himself from unzipping his own fly and reaching into his briefs to touch his own aching cock, pumping a rough hand over it to the rhythm of Jaemin’s muffled moans and spilling over his fingers as Jaemin comes down his throat crying Jeno hyung.
"Can we just cuddle then?” Jaemin pouts later, as if he hasn’t just made Jeno break probably ten laws, and Jeno smiles and lifts him off the desk, cleaning him up and straightening his uniform. He doesn’t want anyone, especially Jungwoo, seeing Jaemin like this when he gets back. Even though by now he knows Jungwoo is with Doyoung, he doesn’t want to risk awakening old feelings.
After that, Jaemin curls up in Jeno’s lap in his chair, work forgotten, and Jeno cards his hand through Jaemin’s hair, stroking languidly until he falls asleep with a contented smile still on his face. Impulsively, Jeno presses a chaste kiss to his damp forehead. When Jaemin jerks awake, eyes anguished as he starts fading, Jeno is still holding him.
“I cannot believe this.” Jeno heaves a dramatic sigh. “I was twenty. I wasn’t ready to have kids, or even imagine having a family! And I was pissed off at that time."
"Sure seemed ready to screw me and propose,” Jaemin counters calmly without missing a beat. “Be a man and be responsible for your actions."
Jeno groans. “We are not naming our kid Lele,” he says flatly.
"Come on, it’s not so bad,” Jaemin coaxes. “Look, he’s so cute he’ll be able to pull it off.” He shoves the portfolio of the boy they are adopting from China, filled with adorable pictures that they have spent all morning cooing over. “Plus, you already named the other boy."
The other boy was a few months younger, and came from a Korean orphanage. He didn’t have a name, so Jeno had picked Jisung. It was a name he always wanted to give his son, and he could’ve picked something equally pretty for the other boy if only Jaemin weren’t so stubborn. Not for the first time, Jeno bemoans his teenage self.
Jaemin disintegrates literally halfway through a particularly hard thrust, and Jeno is left with an unresolved boner and a head full of worry. He knows it’s his fault, that he shouldn’t have been so rough, should’ve seen the warning signs when Jaemin’s cries started sounding more agonized than pleasurable. But he had forgotten to hold back for once, and sure enough, Jaemin hadn’t been able to withstand it. He was always bragging and waving away Jeno’s fears, calling him a worrywart and whining and whimpering faster, harder, pushing Jeno to his limits. Jeno was sure as hell not going to let him live this down when he got back.
By the time Jaemin returns, still nude, Jeno has thankfully gotten rid of his erection and is sitting in an armchair smoking a cigarette with his legs crossed and looking appropriately judgmental. But the words that come out of his mouth are not reproachful but gentle. “Are you okay?"
Jaemin laughs and grabs Jeno’s shirt, pulling it on. “Yeah, besides the fact that I’m dying of embarrassment. I think I scarred that woman for life when I appeared in her daisy fields buck naked. Luckily she fainted, or I’d have a great time explaining why my ass is leaking cum.” Jaemin snickers, looking more devilish than embarrassed.
"Someone saw you?” Jeno says sharply, raking his gaze down Jaemin’s bare body. “A woman saw you?"
Jaemin snorts and chortles loudly, his eyes laughing at Jeno. “Relax, hyung. She was like, eighty."
"Ah.” Jeno sags with relief, then studies the way Jaemin looks in his shirt with interest. “She’ll deal. Now get back to bed, we’re not done yet.”
Sometimes Jeno wakes up alone, his hand fumbling sleepily over the other half of the bed to find it empty, sheets bunched up. He tries not to let his mind wander too pessimistically as he climbs out of bed and goes to attempt the daunting task of waking up the kids, who are six years old, absolutely perfect and have too much energy for their own good.
Will he ever get used to this? Jeno wonders as he prepares breakfast, burning the toast and overcooking the eggs. He doesn’t think so. Even after decades, it’s still as discombobulating and disorienting as the very first day. And if it’s as difficult for him as this, it must be ten times worse for Jaemin.
Jeno is brooding and pensive as he gets the boys ready for school, pulling on Chenle’s uniform carelessly until he squeaks in protest, “Appa, my shirt is inside out!"
When he looks down at Chenle’s sailor nursery uniform, it is indeed. He quickly apologizes and is putting it on straight when Jaemin walks into the house, smile bright and carefree as if he’s oblivious to the fact that Jeno has spent the whole morning agonizing over him.
"Where were you?” Jeno snaps, the low note in his voice making Jaemin stop in his tracks, eyes widening.
"Just at the market, picking up some groceries. Why?"
"Why didn’t you leave a note? Do you know how... how worried I was?” Jeno chokes out, voice thick, and Jaemin’s eyes soften as he drops the bags and swiftly crosses the room, taking Jeno into his arms and patting his back soothingly like he’s one of the kids. “Oh, honey,” he murmurs contritely in Jeno’s ear. “I forgot. I thought I’d be back before you woke up."
"Don’t ever do that again,” Jeno says fiercely, wrapping his arms around Jaemin so tightly he gasps for breath, and Jaemin nods against his shoulder, making wordless comforting noises in Jeno’s ear.
"Appa, daddy,” Chenle tugs on his arm as Jisung makes barfing faces. “We’re late for school."
"Oh, right,” Jeno clears his throat as they sheepishly detach. Jaemin is blushing in embarrassment and it’s the most adorable thing he’s ever seen, instantly dissipating his anger. But he keeps his voice gruff as he bends to help Chenle wear his bag and tie Jisung’s shoelaces. “I’ll drop them off at school.” He looks up at Jaemin. “You coming with us?"
Jaemin melts into a dazzling grin, flashing two rows of pearly white teeth. “Sure. Just let me throw the milk in the fridge."
Jeno tosses the keys in the air and catches them as he leans against his car. It’s a six-seater family wagon, with enough space for the two baby seats they had needed when Chenle and Jisung were growing up. He looks up at the exterior of their white stucco house, sparkling proudly in the sunlight. It’s all he ever wanted – a beautiful house and two kids with Jaemin. And yet, Jeno wishes this happiness could be truly unadulterated and uninterrupted by the occasional tug of uneasiness in his stomach.
Jaemin comes out of the house juggling Chenle in one arm and locking the front door behind him with the other, all the while chattering talkatively with Chenle. He takes Jisung’s hand easily and leads them towards the car, beaming the megawatt force of his smile on Jeno, and Jeno opens the door, smiling back as he heaves Chenle from Jaemin’s arms and deposits him gently in the backseat.
Jeno had expected Jaemin to be a natural dad, but Jaemin had surprised him with how nurturing he could be, how he disciplined their children with soft words and an iron fist. But most of all, Jaemin had surprised Jeno with his capacity for warmth and gentleness, how fiercely he protected Chenle and how readily he would sacrifice his own life for Jisung’s in a heartbeat. Watching Jaemin becoming a father, Jeno had fallen in love all over again.
Jaemin ensures that the boys’ seatbelts are properly fastened before climbing into the passenger seat beside Jeno. He looks back dotingly and teases, “Try not to kill each other back there until we reach school, okay?” and Chenle and Jisung nod like little angels, but the moment Jaemin turns away their squeals ring out. Jaemin sighs and laughs fondly, exchanging an exasperated glance with Jeno.
When they stop at a traffic light, Jaemin makes a muffled noise and Jeno turns in alarm to see him doubled over, threadbare shirt soaked through with sweat. Jaemin looks up, a weak smile plastered on his face. “I think I’m really going this time. Can you hold down the fort?"
Jeno nods shortly, trying to smile back, when what he really wants to say is that he can’t even hold it together for a minute when Jaemin’s gone, that he can’t even hold himself together. But he keeps the cheerful smile Jaemin needs on his face until the seat beside him is empty and his face feels like cracking.
"Where did daddy go?” Chenle leans over the seat, baffled eyes like saucers. Jeno gulps. “He... uhh..."
"Pabo!” Jisung raps Chenle’s head. “Daddy has a superpower. It’s invisibility,” he says proudly.
"Ah, I know!” Chenle yells. “He’s like spiderman, right?"
Jeno shakes his head and laughs reluctantly. He can’t help wishing he could go back to the days when he was as innocent and easily accepting as them, when he still saw Jaemin’s time travelling as a superpower instead of a hindrance, the days before he had fallen in love with Jaemin. But then he catches sight of Chenle and Jisung bickering and roughousing in the rearview mirror, laughing gleefully, and thinks, maybe not.
“What are you doing?” Jeno whispers in Jaemin’s ear, leaning over the back of the couch where Jaemin is sitting with his eyes screwed shut and his shoulders set rigidly. Jaemin jumps, eyes flying open, bashing Jeno’s chin with his forehead. He places a hand on his chest. “You scared me."
"Your head is like a rock,” Jeno complains, rubbing his chin, before he notices the way Jaemin is breathing shallowly, eyes on his lips. “Did you know that ears are my most sensitive spot?” he asks offhandedly, voice husky.
"Um...” Jeno hedges, starting to flee, but before he knows what’s happening Jaemin is kneeling backward on the couch, both hands locked around Jeno’s neck as he hauls him down for a rough, hungry kiss. Jeno splays his palms against Jaemin’s face, straying beneath the neckline of his shirt and flattening against Jaemin’s chest. His lips curl up in satisfaction against Jaemin’s mouth as he feels the way Jaemin’s heartbeat quickens against his hand.
Jaemin always kisses so confidently, so recklessly that it makes Jeno weak, his tongue darting impatiently along the seam of Jeno’s lips to coax them open effortlessly, then grazing his own experimentally, dizzyingly before entangling them. He tastes like decaf and candy and bittersweet spearmint toothpaste, that unique Jaemin taste that Jeno can’t get enough of.
Jaemin bites his lip hard, canines puncturing Jeno’s lip and drawing blood. Jeno is starting to only find out how Jaemin really likes kissing when they are the same age, on equal terms – bruising and painful, not like the maddeningly gentle way he would hold back when Jeno was still a teenager, no matter how much Jeno wheedled and pushed him. But now, even at forty-two, Jaemin makes Jeno feel like he’s twenty-four.
He finds out how Jaemin likes when Jeno slides a possessive hand beneath his shirt, spanning the taut muscles of his abdomen and grazing his nipples. Jaemin inhales softly and grabs fistfuls of Jeno’s shirt, tongue exploring Jeno’s mouth till he’s panting Jaemin’s name.
Finally, when they are both gasping audibly for oxygen, Jeno has to physically wrench himself away. Jaemin looks so breathtakingly dazed and dishevelled, his irises blown pitch black and lips swollen and abused, seeking Jeno’s mouth like a baby bird’s that Jeno impulsively vaults over the back of the couch, nearly crushing Jaemin as they fall into a tangled heap. Jaemin makes a muffled oof sound like the breath is knocked out of him, and Jeno hurriedly lifts his weight off him and searches his eyes apologetically. But Jaemin is grinning wickedly as he braces his hands on Jeno’s shoulders and climbs ungracefully into Jeno’s lap, straddling him with his legs spread. Jaemin gazes fondly into Jeno’s eyes, tracing circles on his chest with his fingertips as Jeno drags a teasing hand down Jaemin’s thighs.
"Hyuuung,” Jaemin whines, pouting. “Don’t tease."
Jeno laughs with more pleasure than he probably should. “What were you doing?” he presses.
Jaemin sighs, nosing into Jeno’s neck and licking the sensitive skin there with a hot tongue. “I was trying to send myself back to the past."
Jeno’s eyes widen, forgetting the blistering sensation of Jaemin’s tongue on his neck as he grabs Jaemin’s shoulders and pins his gaze. “You’ve learnt how to control...?"
Jaemin shakes his head glumly, but his eyes are steely with determination. “But that won’t stop me from trying."
Jeno softens, feeling an odd pang of jealousy towards his younger self whom Jaemin is trying so desperately to travel back to, away from his current one. “When do you want to go back to?” he asks, and Jaemin hesitates but replies honestly.
"The night I told you."
"Oh.” Jeno swallows, realization dawning on him as his eleven-year-old feelings flood back, almost as fresh and raw as that day. “Don’t bother.” He puts on a cheerful smile. “I got over it, didn’t I?” he spreads his hands, reminding Jaemin of where they are now, that they’re okay.
"I know,” Jaemin says softly, smiling as he strokes Jeno’s hair off his forehead. “But I’m still worried."
Jeno understands that feeling of frustration that no one in the world except the two of them share, that feeling of hollow helplessness when they are ripped away from each other in the middle of important conversations, heated confrontations, even tender passion. That feeling of being left hanging, like crashing into a brick wall, unable to just turn off their emotions as easily as a faucet. He will never get accustomed to the feeling of being forcibly separated by time and space, with the sinking dread of not knowing when the next time will be, and the uncertainty if he will be able to bear the wait.
“Jaemin, wake up,” Jeno hisses urgently in his ear, and Jaemin groans, rolling over. He squints open his eyes groggily to find Jeno’s hand clamped heavily over his chest.
"I can’t breathe,” Jaemin complains, voice gravelly with sleep, but Jeno only holds on tighter. “I just realized,” he whispers hoarsely. “I’ve never seen you after forty-eight."
"What?” Jaemin blinks, still disoriented. Jeno thinks he might be having a panic attack. “The first time I saw you, you were forty-eight,” he grits out. “After that, your age seemed to randomly fluctuate and decrease, but I never saw you older than that first day."
Jaemin frowns. “How did you know I was forty-eight?” he jokes, trying to lighten the atmosphere. “You must’ve been a little kid. I hardly think I told a brat how old I was."
"I knew because we met when you were forty-six, and you told me your age. Jaemin, I know you and you looked about two years older that first day. I don’t know why I’m so sure about this, but I am,” Jeno says grimly, and the words finally sink in.
"Oh,” Jaemin says dully.
"Jaemin.” Jeno clutches his shoulders tightly, fingertips gripping bruises into Jaemin’s skin. “What happens after forty-eight?"
Jaemin meets his eyes, the fear in them mirroring Jeno’s, and Jeno’s heart drops to his stomach. “I don’t know.”
As he gets older, Jaemin seems to lose his hold increasingly on the threads that anchor him to their time. Jeno should have known that their two decades of relative stability were too blissful to last long, that they were already a lease of borrowed time. Jeno sees with heartbreaking clarity the toll that each trip takes on Jaemin, how it saps his energy and leaves him haggard and gaunt. Jaemin pastes on a smile, not wanting Jeno to worry, but Jeno sees right through his feeble facade.
Jeno knows that Jaemin doesn’t only travel to Jeno’s childhood – he also travels to other places, other times and countries that are unfamiliar and foreign and possibly dangerous. Jeno sits alone in the vacant house, sick with worry with every passing minute of Jaemin’s absence, only able to breathe normally again when Jaemin reappears, looking weary and drawn but relieved.
Jeno wakes up one winter morning to find Jaemin breathing labouredly and fading in and out beside him, struggling to hold on to his tenuous grasp of their world. When Jeno takes him into his arms, he’s freezing. Jeno rubs his warm palms up and down Jaemin’s cold back until he stops shivering.
"Jaemin, baby,” he pleads, even though he knows it’s unfair. “Stay with me."
"Hyung,” Jaemin whispers, eyes half-lidded and voice lost as a child’s. “I’m slipping–"
It’s been more than forty years, but every time Jaemin goes, he still seems to take a piece of Jeno along.
Jeno stands in the first pew of the church with his arms around Jisung and Chenle, watching as Jaemin’s family and friends file past the casket respectfully, each person placing a single white lily on the glass. Jaemin had always seemed so infallible, so magical to Jeno, appearing and disappearing from Jeno’s life like an otherworldly being. But in death, Jaemin looks entirely too human, completely mortal. Jeno closes his eyes and wings a prayer that when he opens them he will be lying next to Jaemin on their sun-drenched bed and Jaemin will be laughing and teasing him, telling him it was all just a nightmare.
But when he opens them what he sees is Jungwoo and Doyoung on the podium fumbling over the words of their heartbrokenly-composed eulogy, Jungwoo supporting Doyoung when his knees give and he abruptly breaks into an anguished sob. Jungwoo helps an inconsolable Doyoung off the stage, setting off another bout of loud sniffling by the women in the audience, and Jeno knows that it’s his turn, that he should go up and do damage control so Jaemin’s funeral can remain dignified and respectable.
He shuffles up the stage, looking down at the baleful eyes of the crowd. He’s not surprised that Jaemin had been loved by so many people, because Jaemin had always drawn people to him like moths to a flame. He knows he’s not special, that he wasn’t the only one who had been susceptible to Jaemin’s charm, but Jeno comforts himself in knowing that he was the only one who had been loved by Jaemin. At least, he was the person Jaemin had loved most in this world.
Jeno looks at the crumpled and creased paper in his hand, torn from a notebook, the ink blurred and smudged slightly by tear stains. He starts reading but breaks down when he looks into the audience to see Jisung and Chenle clutching each others’ hands tightly, uncharacteristic tears slipping soundlessly down their faces. It’s the sight of their two children swimming in black suits too big for them that does him in, that reminds him most of how much the three of them have lost with Jaemin’s passing. The words he had planned to say now all seem so artificial, and Jeno can’t bring himself to spout cliche condolences.
He thinks of the earth-shattering truth that not a single soul except himself knows, a tale so outlandish that no one will believe even if he tells them, a proof of a living miracle that had died with Jaemin. He wants to shout out this secret that he has kept his entire life out on the rooftops, bare it to the whole world. But then it strikes him like a lightning bolt that the sentence Na Jaemin was a time traveller is not the only thing he has to say.
Because Jaemin was so many other things. Jaemin was a time traveller, but time travelling was not what defined Jaemin. Jeno takes a deep, bracing breath and opens his mouth.
"I met Jaemin when I was twenty-one, in my second year of university.” I met Jaemin when I was six, and he was forty-eight. “We were classmates.” We were strangers who were decades apart. “We became good friends.” We became soul mates. “Jaemin was a force of nature, as elemental and beautiful.” He was a force that defied nature. “He was so vivacious and volatile,” He was an asshole sometimes, but he could also be an angel. “and had such enormous appetites for living and loving.” That it left me shaking. “Even though we were both boys...” Even though it was wrong and impossible... “We fell in love." We fell in love. “I proposed to Jaemin when I was thirty-one.” I proposed when I was twenty. “We got married and started a family.” We adopted two beautiful kids. “Jaemin was the best father.” The best in the world. “But not only that, he was a beloved friend, son and husband.” Dearly beloved.
Three years after Jaemin passes away, Jeno thinks that he has joined him in heaven when he sees Jaemin again, backlit by the buttery yellow light of the afternoon sun, inexplicably looking about twelve years old but still unmistakably Jaemin.
Then Jaemin’s words filter over the years, finally making sense to him. I’ve known you all my life. Jeno gasps softly as he finally understands the real extent of Jaemin’s power. It was a truly formidable power, nothing short of a miracle, a gift which transcended death and allowed him to travel out of his lifetime.
Jaemin is huddled in the corner with his hands over his head like a trapped animal, shaking in his threadbare t-shirt, and Jeno’s heart swoops. He had never expected to see Jaemin again. Of course, he had wondered, gone through all the what ifs and maybes, but he had never really believed that something so unreal could be a possibility.
But now, Jaemin is right in front of him, defying all logic and breaking every single rule of time he has ever believed in, and Jeno is not surprised. Because Jaemin was the beautiful boy he had fallen in love with, who was a magician of time, a traveller of the ages. Jaemin had always known that he would return to Jeno, which was why he hadn’t been worried to leave Jeno, knowing he would be well taken care of.
He lifts his weary body up from the armchair, joints creaking. As his footsteps approach tentatively, Jaemin looks up, shoulders squared to fight and glowering at him, eyes darting from side to side like a cornered prey, but they widen with recognition when he sees Jeno.
"Jeno hyung?” he whispers, and gets to his feet on trembling legs, falling limply into Jeno’s arms.
Jeno strokes his hand up and down Jaemin’s back until it stops racking with quiet sobs, wondering what horrors Jaemin must have seen at such a young age to make him so frightened, every sob feeling like a blade into Jeno’s heart. He gathers that Jaemin must have met him before, and feels grimly relieved and unbelievably happy at that prospect.
A distant memory filters into the back of his mind, like the refrain of a pop song from a faraway house. They were lying together in bed, on another ubiquitous languorous afternoon, and Jaemin had turned to him with sudden gratefulness in his eyes and said, I can’t imagine what I would’ve done if you hadn’t been there for me.
Jaemin might have been talking about any number of occasions, but Jeno suddenly knows with unaccountable certainty that he was talking about his childhood, where he had met Jeno in his twilight years. And this is how Jeno knows that he has to be patient and understanding, all-accepting, watching over Jaemin silently the way Jaemin always watched over him. He wishes he had the chance to tell Jaemin that he didn’t know what he would have done had Jaemin not been an integral part of his childhood too, but Jeno comforts himself by cradling the back of twelve-year-old Jaemin’s head with a tender hand and crooning Jaemin’s favourite English lullaby into his ear until he falls asleep in Jeno’s arms.
The greatest regret of Jeno’s life is that he had never managed to figure out the English words Jaemin had said to him on the very first day they met. Even though he had been well-taught by Jaemin over the years and is literate in English now, he simply cannot remember. The curiosity is killing Jeno, and his second biggest regret is that he never asked Jaemin what he had said when he was still living.
The next time Jaemin appears in his house, Jeno is ready. In the past few years, he has been dedicatedly preparing for Jaemin’s arrival, always keeping the kitchen well-stocked with Jaemin’s favourite snacks and redecorating an entire room into a playroom, installing it with state-of-the-art gadgets and the most expensive toys. Jeno finds himself spending more and more time sitting in the room daydreaming, an odd feeling of peace and serenity stealing over him as he indulges in memories of Jaemin.
He falls asleep in the rocking chair by the window one day, and when he wakes up Jaemin is perched in his lap, blinking up at him with curious, heartbreakingly innocent eyes.
"How old are you?” Jeno says gently, afraid to move lest this is a dream and Jaemin will burst like bubbles at a touch.
Jaemin’s face splits into an artless grin, revealing a missing tooth. He holds up seven fingers.
"Do you want to... play?” Jeno says hesitantly, and Jaemin nods enthusiastically. Jeno watches with fond tenderness as Jaemin kills monsters and races cars on the Playstation and Xbox, which are the latest models and probably not existent in Jaemin’s time yet. Watching Jaemin’s inexhaustible energy makes Jeno feel alive again, like the way he used to feel when Jaemin was still around.
Sometimes Jeno wonders – if Jaemin had been a normal boy who didn’t have the ability to travel through time, would they still have a chance to meet? Or would they remain in two different countries all their lives, so near yet so far, the trajectories of their existences like two parallel lines, bypassing but never intersecting?
Jeno thinks that maybe, just maybe, Jaemin’s time-travelling might have been a blessing instead of a curse. He had spent his whole life alongside Jaemin fighting against time, fighting for time, and even though they hadn’t come out successful in the end, Jeno realizes that he wouldn’t have traded it for anything in the world.
When Jeno wakes up on his sixtieth birthday and sees the child – barely a toddler – curled up beside him on his bed, sleeping soundly with his thumb in his mouth, his heart leaps into his throat. He’s so young that Jeno almost can’t recognize him, can’t believe that this defenceless child – this boy who looks like he’s just learning to walk and talk – is the confident and cocky Jaemin Na, the love of Jeno’s life. And yet – and yet the boy’s long, dusky lashes flutter open, revealing dark, shimmering eyes, ones that Jeno knows with unshakable certainty in the depths of his very bones.
The moment he realizes it’s Jaemin, Jeno feels a pang of helpless protectiveness. Jaemin shouldn’t be time-travelling this young – no one should have to, at any age, but definitely not this early. Jeno’s heart clenches as he imagines how frightened and bewildered Jaemin must have felt, suddenly sucked up by the dark oblivion of time and churned in its unfathomable depths until he landed in a strange old man’s bed. But he is glad that his hands are the ones time has chosen to place Jaemin in, because till Jaemin can take care of himself, Jeno will be Jaemin’s guardian angel the same way Jaemin had once watched over him.
As he looks down at Jaemin’s enormous, mournful eyes, Jeno wonders how he will break this life-altering truth to Jaemin. It’s too big a revelation for someone so frail, so tiny and unequipped to deal with such a crushing blow. Jeno wishes he could protect Jaemin from all the dangers in the world, buffeting him from the winds and rain, always be his unfailingly safe harbour. But he knows that the only way he can protect Jaemin is to prepare him in as many ways he can for the difficult years to come.
Jeno knows that even though this is an ending for him, everything is just beginning for Jaemin. This is how their love song will play – like a ballad on repeat, a broken tape on eternal loop.
Jaemin starts to cry, making Jeno flustered as he fusses over Jaemin, stroking his downy head helplessly and cooing wordless soothing murmurs into his ear. Suddenly, Jaemin’s pudgy hand reaches out and closes in a death grip around Jeno’s finger. He stares at Jeno unblinkingly through mutely entreating tears.
"Jaemin-ah,” Jeno says hoarsely, and the name seems to miraculously silence Jaemin’s sniffling sobs, stilling him as he looks up at Jeno with eyes so trusting and familiar that it brings Jeno to his knees.
"Don’t be afraid,” Jeno begins softly, in the halting vowels of the English Jaemin taught him. “My name is Jeno, and I’ve known you all my life…"
The last thing Jaemin sees before he closes his eyes is Jeno at forty-nine, and the first thing he sees when he opens them is Jeno at six. He takes in the scratchy darkness surrounding him, and gets unsteadily to his feet, brushing twigs and leaves off his clothes as he steps out of the shrubbery.
Jeno is staring at him, eyes wide as saucers, and Jaemin resists the urge to laugh hysterically as he realizes he probably isn’t making a very good first impression, and that the laugh that Jeno will come to find so sexy when he grows up will most likely send him running away screaming now.
Thankfully, Jeno remains unmoving, and Jaemin sinks into a crouch, meeting his eyes straight on. “Don’t be afraid,” Jaemin says, trying to telegraph volumes of unspeakable words to Jeno with his eyes, and impossibly, Jaemin thinks he sees a glimmer of recognition somewhere deep in the pools of Jeno’s eyes as he says his name.
It loosens the floodgates, and Jaemin’s tongue feels thick and parched in his mouth as he trips over his words, blurting out, “Hyung.” Jeno looks confused and Jaemin has the sense of mind to switch to English before he continues.
"I was always trying to find a deeper meaning to this, wondering why I kept travelling back to the same place, the same boy. I’ve spent my entire life trying to control my ability, asking myself, Why me? I thought I wanted to know how to stop travelling through time. I didn’t know that what I really wanted to know was how to travel towards you."
It’s only when Jeno reaches out a guileless, tiny hand to brush Jaemin’s cheeks does he realize that they are wet. Jaemin is overcome by the sudden, intense need to touch Jeno, this precocious six-year-old child who can already bring an adult to his knees, who Jaemin is so proud, so ferociously proud of. He can already see in this little boy the man Jeno will grow into – upstanding, compassionate, full of love and generous with sharing it.
A shout rings from the house as Jeno’s nanny calls him in for tea, and Jaemin drops his hand, stricken. Jeno gazes at him with depthless, searching eyes, and Jaemin tries to keep his smile undimmed and the sorrow out of his voice as he says lightly, “Run along, then."
He knows that this is the first meeting for Jeno, even though it might be the last for him. First or last? Jaemin’s mind is getting fuzzy, his consciousness blurring. It’s too early. He looks up to see Jeno flying across the field, like his feet have sprouted wings. Jaemin smiles and looks down to see his arms ending at his wrists, replaced by thin air.
Jaemin calls Jeno’s name in a whisper softer than rustling leaves, immediately whipped up by the wind, but Jeno seems to hear it across the distance, his feet halting. Jaemin lifts his hands to wave, but remembers that they are gone. He tries to curve his lips into one last smile, but his mouth has disappeared too. What is left of him is only his eyes, watching Jeno until the very last second before he is plunged into the swirling darkness of time again. Even when Jaemin is no longer there Jeno seems to sense his presence, turning around and staring right at the very spot he was, his eyes disappearing in a breathtakingly sweet smile. Jaemin smiles back with his eyes, before they fade away too.