There's nothing left for him in this world now, Jaehyun thought as the fires continued to lick through what was left of his mother. Perhaps this was for the best, at least now she can be at peace.
One of the spades on duty handed him the only possession of any importance on his mother's person — a plain silver necklace. He murmured a low thanks, slipped the necklace onto his neck, and tucked it under his worn shirt before walking out of the suffocating crematorium. It weighed like nothing, a complete opposite of how his entire chest felt.
Rain started to pour down over the city, it's cold wrath dampening the usual noises of the night. He gazed towards the rumbling sky and let the icy water wash away the smoke that carried his mother's ashes, wash away the tears that wouldn't come. He clenched his jaw to keep it from trembling. Just a few more blocks and he'll be home.
About a block away from the shanty they — he called home, he spotted them, Jimmy and three of his underlings, each one holding on to a dog leash. Vultures. They'd take young boys from the Squats and sell them to those exclusive clubs to be used by rich, capitalist scum. Jaehyun has successfully evaded them for the past weeks but today he's not counting on his luck.
One of the thugs noticed him just as he was backing away from the lamp post. Normally Jaehyun lost them by weaving in and out of the hidden alleyways but he can't outrun four hunting dogs, can he?
Now he's backed into a corner, the pimp's breath came in a puff of air as he stepped nearer to Jaehyun, his greying hair plastered to his skull making him look half dead. He calculated his chances — fight his way through them or make a beeline for the forested hill behind him.
"Nowhere to run now, pet. Best to just come quietly with us, let's make it less painful for everyone, eh?" The lopsided smile the pimp sent his way made his gut churn.
"Fuck yourself, Jimmy." Jaehyun spat, his mind now fixed on one thing.
He bolted for the trees.
He didn't know how long he ran, didn't know where the fuck he was. The rain has grown into a full-blown storm. Now he's more concerned about the cold than the thugs. No one in the right mind would venture into the forest in this deluge.
After what seemed hours, he came to a stop beneath a huge tree, its compact foliage a welcome refuge from the rain. The tree is cordoned off by thick, decaying ropes, the earth nearest to its base still dry and untouched seemingly by anything around it. It took Jaehyun a second to recognize where he was.
"The Mother." He breathed. She was regarded by the people as a sacred tree, a tree that gave protection and blessing. Eventually, she was abandoned to time as people turned to the more popular and practical neo religions.
Unlike his mother, who until her dying breath, prayed to The Mother, he didn't bother subscribing to any religion, not when having faith in someone other than yourself meant death in the Squats. Still, he supposed it wouldn't hurt to utter a simple apology before he climbed over the heavy rope.
Jaehyun didn't think twice to squeeze himself inside a gap he found in the trunk. The fresh woodsy scent enveloped him, wiping away all remnants of burnt liver from his nostrils. The sound of his breathing filled the hollow space and for the first time since his mother fell ill, he felt safe. Safe in the arms of another mother, no less.
He let his shoulders sag and with his head in his hands, finally let his grief break him.In his last conscious thought, he begged the Mother to take him far away, to take him from this world. To let him die.
After all, there's no reason for him to stay here anymore.
Jaehyun was floating, his only anchor to consciousness was a gentle voice coaxing him to drink. Reality faded in and out, there were flashes of a kind face, the warmth of soft hands over burning skin, and a whispered promise.
"It's gonna be okay Jaehyun, you're safe, you're safe with me."
They were all gathered in the small living room — Doyoung's two brothers were seated on the maroon couch, both of them sporting bright hair colors.
"He's the new what?" The purple-haired one eyed him up and down with thinly-veiled suspicion. His guarded face was in contrast to how soft he looked in those bear pajamas, something about him was vaguely intimidating, Jaeyhun decided. It's probably the hair color and the eyebrow piercing.
"I said, he's taking Taeyong's old bed," Doyoung said in a tone that left no room for further argument.
"I wasn't aware we were looking for a new housemate. Oh my god, hyung did you lose your day job?"
"Cool, a new housemate!" The redhead stood up and held his hand out to Jaehyun. "Hi! I'm Jeno. Excuse Donghyuck, he and his boyfriend are in the middle of a fight."
"For the last time! Mark and I are not boyfriends!" Donghyuck retorted at which Jeno just huffed. "Could have fooled me."
"How about you figure out your shit with Jaemin first before trying to call me out?" Donghyuck rolled his eyes at the now flustered Jeno and then turning to Jaehyun said, "Sorry you have to live with us, Jaehyun hyung. Let's meet again when circumstances are better." Jaehyun watched him go up the stairs with fascination.
"Hey what did you mean about me and Jaemin? Hyuck!" Jeno sprinted after his brother. Beside him, Doyoung let out a chuckle.
"Yeah, sorry about that. Donghyuck gets very dramatic when he's upset especially when it involves Mark." Doyoung pinched the end of his nose for a moment before letting out a big sigh. "Anyway, those are my brothers. They're busy with university and dance so they're out of the house most of the time." Jaehyun nodded along even though he isn't sure yet what university and dance entailed.
It's been three days since he woke up inside Doyoung's wardrobe. Since then, explanations have been exchanged, theories have been thrown, plans have been made. He never pressed for more when Jaehyun would talk about his past or the world he was from. He was always ready to answer any question Jaehyun had as if Jaehyun was not some stranger from some other world.
They spent the whole Saturday morning going around the house. Doyoung laid down some rules for him to follow — no leaving cups, dishes, and whatnot unwashed on the sink; put towels in their proper places, always clean up after yourself.
Next, he learned how to use the toilet, water dispenser, the smart tv, and a smartphone? It's all so fascinating and new and it gave Jaehyun an excuse to spend more time with Doyoung.
"If you're unsure about anything, just ask me or the boys," Doyoung said before plopping down on his bed. "Really, ask. Can't have you using the bidet as a shower head again, okay?"
The tips of Jaehyun's ears blush at the recollection. "Actually, I've been meaning to ask you about getting a job? Some way for me to earn money? I refuse to stay in your home without paying you back."
Doyoung stopped arranging the pillows on Jaehyun's bed to face him. "Three days ago I found you in the wardrobe I bought off an antique thrift shop barely conscious, running a high fever. It took you the next day and a half just to be able to stand and take a bath."
Jaehyun wanted to tell him he'd lived through worse but given Doyoung's serious face, maybe it wasn't the right time.
"We don't want you to get sick again. Besides, you still have a lot to learn about this world before I can let you go out there with a clean conscience. Don't want people taking advantage of you and your...face." Doyoung's gaze never wavered from his but a noticeable flush started to bloom across his cheeks.
"Why? What's wrong with my face? Are dimples a sign of ugliness here?" Jaehyun ran a hand through his hair, a nervous tick.
Doyoung let out a nervous cough and averted his eyes.
"How about chores? It shouldn't be too hard? I did a lot of cooking in my world maybe you can teach me how to kitchens here work? Doing house chores is the least I can do." Jaehyun said.
"Okay, I guess we can start with that." Doyoung stood up and slipped under his covers. "Is it okay if I keep a night light on? I'm not entirely comfortable sleeping in complete darkness." The soft light bathed the room in blue.
"I don't mind," Jaehyun said, pulling up the blanket up to his chin.
"You sure? I can just—" "Hey, do you think—"
"Think that what?"
"Do you think I'll be able to build a life here? Get a job? Travel? I've seen the photos by the stairs. Seems like you've built a pretty good life for yourself." Jaehyun whispered.
Doyoung chuckled. "I don't see why you can't. You're still young, you seem like the hardworking type, and you have that face." He gestured vaguely at Jaehyun's head. "I know we're not exactly friends yet but whatever path it is you chose, I'll support you."
"Oh, thank you." Something warm crawled up Jaehyun throat at this, his voice coming out rawer than he intended.
"Doyoung, you saved my life. I'll be the best best friend you'll ever have."
"You'll have to fight Taeyong for that." Doyoung snickered.
"Okay, cool. Good night."
"Good night, roommate. Sweet dreams."
Jaehyun closed his eyes. It still feels like a dream — the soft bed, the warm sheets, the man on the next bed — perhaps this is his mother looking out for him beyond the veil. With every inhale, fresh linen and jasmine filled his nostrils and with it a new kind of peace.
Sleep came sweetly to Jaehyun that night, just as Doyoung said it would.
Jaehyun woke up to the smell of bacon.
Breakfast was an important daily event for the Jungs and his mother would always have bacon frying in the pan. Coffee would be freshly brewed and laughter was always part of the meal. That was before the civil war. That was when they still had a home, back when he still had a family.
"I know you're awake, you better come out for breakfast before Hyuck comes down!"
Jaehyun smiled as he got up from the bed, it's always a good day when the first thing he hears in the morning is Doyoung's voice. He glanced at the mirror hanging from the wardrobe mirror once to check for morning crusties before heading to the kitchen.
Donghyuck was already halfway through his pancakes, the excess maple syrup making his yellow plate shine like amber under the kitchen sunlight.
"Mornin' hyung, I was hoping you'd be cooking today, I've been craving bacon since last night."
"Morning, Hyuck." Jaehyun grinned at Donghyuck's sleepy face. "I had to close the cafe last night, Johnny and Taeyong's anniversary." He took a glance at Doyoung's broad back before slipping his extra pancake on Donghyuck's plate.
"—mmrhave your bacon too?"
"No asking Jae for extras!" Doyoung's voice didn't leave room for arguements but Donghyuck is Donghyuck.
"But why? You always give him three extra strips! This is why I prefer it when Jaehyun hyung is the one in charge of breakfast, he always gives me the extra I deserve!" Dongyuck whined as his brother settled next to him. "I can't stand this blatant favoritism anymore! Jeno back me up!"
"I think it's cool that the hyungs are finally dating. If you ask me, six months of mutual pining while living in close quarters is too slow burn for my tastes." Jeno ruffled his brother's purple hair while flashing a knowing smile at both Doyoung and Jaehyun, his eyes disappearing into twin crescents.
"Excuse me but who are you to talk about slow burn when the one you got with Jaemin has been burning for years—"
"Why does it sound like it's my fault?" Jeno replied, indignant.
"—And while Mark and I are happy we're no longer the only couple in this family, we did not need to hear what the hyungs got up to last night!"
"We are not discussing my sex life over breakfast!" Doyoung glared at both his brothers, neck red.
"So we can discuss Jaehyun's then—"
Suffice it to say, the last batch of the bacon was split evenly between the siblings.
"Can you both please just finish your food," Doyoung said, finally taking the seat beside Jaehyun. "Here, have a little more. I had an apple before I started cooking so I'm good." He flashed him another gummy smile before digging in.
"Whipped!" Donghyuck teased.
Jaehyun felt the tip of his ears burn. "Thanks." He smiled nervously down on his plate.
Butterflies and sunshine filled his chest — a bubbly kind of joy — expanded from his heart to the rest of his body, like a balloon being filled up to its bursting point. His entire being itched with the sudden urge to hold Doyoung and kiss him senseless, current audience be damned.
Alarms blared from the back of his mind. He felt anxiety claw at his insides. Life has never been kind to him, why would it suddenly have a reason to do so now?
"—hyun? Is something wrong with the food?" Doyoung's whisper broke through his thoughts.
"No, it's delicious as usual. I guess I'm still tired from last night." Jaehyun ran his hand up and down his boyfriend's back in assurance. He got up and plugged in the coffee maker. "Anyone else want a cup?"
Misery always followed joy, that's just how life has been for Jaehyun. The more things fell into place, the more the anxiety in his gut grew.
Everyone was acting like he's always been here. He's completely adjusted to his job as a barista and part-time model for Johnny's photos, he's met new people, he's even met Doyoung's mother.
The escalating unease threatened to crawl up his throat as he neared the house. The sensation eased when he saw that none of the lights were on — he's the first one home — not unusual for a Thursday.
"SURPRISE! HAPPY BIRTHDAY, JAEHYUN!" His vision was full of multicolored confetti, what was going on?
Everyone was taking turns hugging him, shouting birthday wishes into his ear .It was too much.
Things started to blur, the happy cheers turned into a cacophony of noises he couldn't make out. He couldn't breathe.
"Jae? Jae, what's wrong?" Doyoung, that's Doyoung's voice. Warm palms cupped his face, wiping tears from his cheeks. When did he start crying? The more he tried to grasp and collect his thoughts, the faster they slipped through his fingers.
"I'm taking him outside. You guys eat, we'll be back."
Gentle hands lead him out to the garden patio.
As soon as they sat down, Jaehyun clung to Doyoung's button up like a man desperate to escape a raging sea. He buried face into the juncture of Doyoung's neck, fresh linen and jasmine. Soon the thoughts of the past, the smell of petrichor and burnt liver are erased, replaced only by the scent of home.
Jaehyun's thoughts began to slow, his heart no longer trying to compensate for the lack of oxygen. Doyoung's face finally came into focus.
"How are you feeling?" Doyoung said, his fingers now combing through Jaehyun's hair. "I'm sorry, I didn't think this would be too much for you. Do you want me to send them home?"
Jaehyun shook his head, his breaths slowing down.
"I'm sorry, Doie, I didn't mean to ruin the surprise—"
"Don't apologize, you ruined nothing. Attacks happen, there's no shame in that. It's not your fault. I should have checked with you the moment I felt something was amiss. You wanna talk about it?" Doyoung dropped light kisses on the crown of his head.
"You're so good to me it's scary," Jaehyun confessed, "Y-you treat me like I belong in this world. Like I've always belonged. Everyone is so nice, things are working out so well. And I can't help but think the other shoe is about to drop soon because there's no way my life can be this good — there's no way I can be this happy — without consequences."
He took a shuddering breath, his heart now threatening to beat out of his ribcage in the next moment. Doyoung drew random shaped on his back, grounding him, letting him know you're okay, I got you.
Jaehyun swallowed the lump of trepidation that clogged the back of his throat and continued. "But being with you — you — make it so damn easy for me to believe in happy endings. I love it here, I love being with the kids, working at the cafe, I love this house, and I-I love you, gods I love you."
"Jung Jaehyun, I love you." Doyoung held him by the chin and stared him straight in the eyes, his own now wet with tears too. "I'm scared too. What if I wake up one day to find you gone? The kids will be heartbroken, Johnny and Taeyong would ban me from the cafe. I know there's so much to unpack, I can't erase the traumas you went through or take away your pain. All I can do is hold your hand. And if you'll let it, this reality can be yours — we can be your family, I can be your reason to stay."
Jaehyun nodded fervently, his emotions too raw for words, too overwhelming for anything else. Fresh tears streaked down his cheeks, for the first time in his entire life, everything felt right.
"Welcome home, baby."
And with all his newfound faith, Jaehyun pressed a gentle kiss against Doyoung's soft lips.