It starts the night Jeno sleeps on Jaemin’s side of the bed.
Jaemin had just finished showering, pulling on a comfortable pair of sweats and towel drying his hair. He rolls his head left, then right, attempting to ease the knot at the back of his neck. When that doesn’t work he remembers he has a doctor as a husband who’s surely more than qualified to relieve him of his pain.
“Baby, could you help me–” But Jaemin is cut short at the sight of his husband under the blankets, laying on his shoulder so his back is to Jaemin. This is all good and fine, except that Jeno is on the left side of the bed – Jaemin’s side of the bed!
“Jen, you’re in my spot.” He crosses the room and crouches at the side of the bed so he can face Jeno directly. “Hey…”
But Jeno is fast asleep, eyes shut and soft snores escaping his parted lips. His chest expands with each breath, indicating his only obvious sign of life. Jaemin melts at the sight and exchanges his bitter frown for a gentle smile.
He must have had a busy day , Jaemin thinks and removes the glasses which had half slid off Jeno’s nose. Jeno never sleeps with his glasses on unless he is dead tired. Deciding to forgive Jeno this one time (god, Jaemin is whipped) he presses a kiss to his husband’s forehead before whispering good night. Thinking nothing more of it, he climbs into Jeno’s side of the bed.
The mattress is cold through the fabric of his shirt and it keeps Jaemin awake. It bothers him that the door is so much closer to his feet than usual and that the humidifier is much further away than he would have liked. Who knew that sleeping on the wrong side of the bed could mess with his spatial awareness so much.
Naturally, Jaemin gravitates to the left – to Jeno. He shuffles closer until his chest is pressed against Jeno’s back and he can get an arm around his torso. The effect is instant and Jaemin no longer feels the cold. Even Jeno seems to snuggle closer in.
If Jaemin can’t have the left side, he’ll just have to share it with Jeno and the idea is more than welcomed. At least this way, he won’t be waking up on the wrong side of the bed. Grouchy, pre-coffee Jaemin is never a pleasure to deal with.
It happens again, a few weeks later, when Jeno forgets the name of his own cat.
Now, Jaemin has been patient. Every time Jeno has taken his side of the bed, he doesn’t bring it up, knowing now that they can share it. Whenever Jeno mistakenly put the dishes away in the wrong cupboard or put the forks where the spoons should be and the spoons where the knives were, Jaemin had let it slip. Even when Jeno had forgotten to pick Jaemin up from work that one time, leaving him to wait in the rain for half an hour, Jaemin had easily accepted Jeno’s apologetic hug and shivered in his arms.
Jeno is probably just tired. Jeno is probably distracted. Jeno is probably just busy.
It’s excuse after excuse and Jaemin begins to wonder when his excuses turned into lies. Maybe instead of patience, Jaemin is just in denial. There is something wrong with Jeno. Sure, his husband can be forgetful sometimes, even clumsy – and Jaemin thinks it’s cute when he is – but this is getting ridiculous.
“Hey, can you feed Bongsik?” Jaemin asks Jeno one Saturday morning.
It’s the kind of morning where it’s actually noon and the couple can sleep in for as long as they please without the fear of an alarm going off. The clinic Jeno works at doesn’t open on weekends and Jaemin is a primary school teacher. Jaemin had rolled out of bed first, struggling against the strong pair of arms refusing to let him leave. The promise of cooking breakfast released him from Jeno’s grip.
As Jaemin mixes in the Bibimmyeon seasoning with a plastic-gloved hand, Jeno shuffles into the kitchen and wraps his arms around Jaemin’s waist, continuing from where he had left off.
“Come on you sap, go feed our child,” Jaemin giggles, trying to dodge the kisses being planted along his jaw.
“Our child?” Jeno repeats sleepily, not obeying Jaemin in the slightest.
“Bongsik, go feed her. She must be starving by now.” This gets Jeno to stop nuzzling his nose into Jaemin’s neck.
“Bongsik?” Jeno repeats, sounding more alert.
“Yes baby, I haven’t fed her since nine last night.” The poor thing hadn’t eaten in fifteen hours, she must hate them by now.
Jeno withdraws his arms but lingers behind Jaemin as if hesitating to leave. The strange silence which suddenly envelopes the kitchen makes Jaemin nervous. He turns around, facing his husband who still hasn’t moved. Jeno’s perfect features scrunch up in concentration; brows knitted and teeth biting at his lip. It takes Jaemin a moment to realise that Jeno is genuinely confused.
“The cat, Jeno. We need to feed our cat.”
It hadn’t been Jeno’s confusion which troubled Jaemin but the complete look of realisation and guilt that followed.
“Oh, right, Bongsik,” Jeno mutters to himself, eyes wide with shock. He quickly reaches for the lower cupboard where they stored the cat food and opens a packet. Jaemin quietly observed Jeno empty the food into a clean bowl and rush off to find the cat.
With Jeno out of the kitchen, Jaemin let out a breath he had been holding. The whole situation had shaken him up so much he didn’t realise the Spam had already burnt.
“Shit,” Jaemin curses, instantly turning off the stove with his free hand. He scrambles to find the chopsticks he had been using earlier but doesn’t get very far with one hand still stuck in a bowl of noodles.
“I’ll do it,” Jeno says, reappearing behind Jaemin. He rummages through the utensil drawer for a clean pair of chopsticks.
“You absolute lifesaver, thank you.”
Jeno sets the table and Jaemin carries over the food, rearranging them on the placemats.
“Are the boys coming over to eat?” Jeno asks, scanning the table of food fit for a family of way more than two.
Jaemin shakes his head. “I texted Chenle but he and Jisung are having lunch with Jisung’s parents today.”
Zhong Chenle and Park Jisung were the two university students living in the apartment next door. Chenle had moved in a year ago, deciding that splitting rent with a roommate was a whole deal cheaper than paying to live in the uni lodges. Jisung had moved in shortly after. It was hard not to love the two boys they ran into every day, always more than happy to chill outside for a chat. They had made it a tradition to invite their neighbours over for lunch on Saturday mornings and game for the rest of the afternoon.
“Oh, that’s good. It’s been a while since Jisung last went home.”
“Yeah, hopefully things are getting better there…”
“Don’t worry, he has Chenle with him.”
Jaemin finds the courage to smile at the reassurance in Jeno’s voice. “I’ll pack them some food anyway. We both know what it’s like living the broke uni life,” Jaemin laughs, carrying over some empty plastic takeaway containers. As he starts spooning in fried rice, Bongsik slinks into the kitchen and leaps up onto the table, apparently done with her own meal.
“No baby, not here!” Jeno exclaims, immediately pulling the cat into his arms. She purrs loudly.
Jaemin’s heart warms at the sight of their cat nudging her head into Jeno’s caresses. “So are we going to talk about what happened earlier?” He asks.
Jeno looks up at him warily. “What do you mean?”
“That you forgot who Bongsik was.”
They both go silent. Jeno’s chopsticks, which are halfway to his mouth, come to rest on the table. He doesn’t move but averts his eyes to avoid Jaemin’s. “I– I’m sorry,” he finally coughs out. “I don’t know what came over me. Like, I could hear you saying Bongsik’s name but it just wasn’t registering.” Jeno sighs in frustration, twisting his wedding band around his ring finger. “I’m sorry, I’m probably just tired or something.”
“That’s what I tell myself too, Jeno. I’ve been telling myself that for the past few weeks.” Jaemin lowers himself into the adjacent seat, gaze remaining firm and calculating. He wanted to brush it off, he really did, but he was scared of what would happen if he let it go on. “I want to believe that you’re just distracted and your mistakes are just that – mistakes. But it’s getting really hard, Jeno.”
“Jaemin, it’s okay, it’s probably just nothing–”
“–No, listen, it’s not just the cat.” Jaemin holds up a finger, not wanting to lose his stance. “It’s the fact that you had to ask me how old you were on your birthday this year; that Mark complained twice about you getting lost on your way to work; how you always mistake the bathroom for the laundry. It’s the fact that you sleep on my damn side of the bed some nights without realising it.” The words come tumbling out of his mouth, sourced from the infinite supply of anxious thoughts which were plaguing him. “I’ve been noticing all this for a few weeks now and I’m just worried about you, okay? You haven’t been acting like yourself recently and I’m worried all this random memory loss could be a symptom of something bigger,” he finishes quietly, instantly overcome with the guilt of raising his voice.
Yet, Jeno doesn’t shy away from Jaemin’s distress or show any resentment to the criticism. Jeno just smiles. “Okay, I hear you,” he says softly. Jeno knows he’s lost the fight and willingly submits to Jaemin’s care. “What do you want me to do?”
Jaemin bites the inside of his cheek, thinking. “I don’t know, you’re a doctor, aren’t you? Can’t you diagnose yourself or something? ”
Jeno shakes his head. “It’s better if I book a consultation. The act of diagnosing myself is prone to subjectivity.”
“Right, right, medical ethics and whatnot.” Jaemin waves the idea away and goes back to thinking. “Can we just go visit Mark? The clinic isn’t open but surely he can do us a favour?” Jaemin really wants this done and over with as soon as possible. The sooner they can confirm Jeno is fine (and that Jaemin is just a paranoid, overly anxious idiot), the quicker they can move past this hitch in their lives.
Jeno nods. “Alright, I’ll text him after we eat. Please?” he pouts, eyeing the cooling Bibimmyeon. Bongsik meows in agreement and Jaemin coos.
“Awe, my babies are hungry,” he giggles, pinching Jeno’s cheek. “Okay, after we eat.”
Mark is already waiting for them in the clinic when they arrive. He’s leaning against the receptionist desk with his stethoscope hanging around his neck but is dressed down in sweats and a hoodie.
“Hey, Jeno. Hi Jaem, long time no see,” he grins, pocketing his phone. The waiting room is lined with empty chairs, a stark contrast to the busy line of people they were used to seeing.
“I’m guessing you just rolled out of bed too,” Jaemin says bemusedly at the untamed state of his hair. “Sorry, I know it’s your day off.”
“It’s all good man, anything for you two. Don’t pretend you didn’t use to wake me up at ungodly hours because of your energy drink addiction,” Mark says and makes a sour expression at the memory.
“That was before I married an absolute health Nazi.” Jaemin nudges Jeno in the ribs and the latter twists away to escape. “We don’t talk about uni-Jaemin, he died from a caffeine overdose.”
Back in university, Mark and Jaemin had been roommates. In fact, it was Mark who had introduced Jeno, a fellow Med student, to Jaemin during a night of last-minute anatomy cramming before their finals. That night, Jeno had traced the location of arteries and veins along Jaemin’s arms with a pencil, eventually leading it all back to his rapidly beating heart. A week later, Jeno was tracing the sensitive nerves of Jaemin’s insides with his skilled tongue, and let’s just say Jaemin had gotten much more than just an anatomy lesson out of it.
“How’s Hyuck?” Jeno asks, intertwining his fingers with Jaemin’s. They follow Mark through the familiar corridor to his consulting room, passing by Jeno’s in the process. Through the little window in the door, Jaemin catches a glimpse of his framed photo on Jeno’s desk and he smiles.
“He’s fine. Busy as usual. You know what the industry is like, especially now that his trainees are approaching their debut.”
Mark unlocks the door and they enter the small square room identical to Jeno’s. An examination bed is tucked away in the corner with the curtain half drawn and Mark’s desktop stands against the opposite wall. Aside from the clock and colourful posters advertising various health-related issues on the walls, the room is mostly bare. Jaemin feels somewhat uneasy as he and Jeno take a seat. Ever since he married Jeno, he hasn’t visited the GP in years.
“Oh, that reminds me,” Mark says with a muffled voice as he digs through one of the drawers for something. “It’s Hyuck’s birthday in a few weeks. I know it’s early but I wanted to plan a surprise party of sorts. Obviously, you two would be the first people I ask for help.”
Jaemin lights up. “Oh, a surprise party? That’s so sweet, how can we help?”
Mark stands back up, holding a blood pressure cuff and monitor. “I’ll text you more later. I asked Renjun to help too.” He sits in his office chair and switches the PC on.
“Okay, my dear patient, give me your arm. I’m just going to check your blood pressure. You might feel a bit of a squeeze but it doesn’t hurt,” Mark says in baby talk and Jeno scowls but reluctantly complies, straightening his back and placing his left arm palm-up on the desk.
Fascinated, Jaemin watches as Mark rolls up Jeno’s sleeve and straps the cuff around Jeno’s tricep. As Mark presses ‘start’ on the monitor, the cuff inflates and the numbers on the screen start changing.
“Okay, sorry, I’ll stop playing. What’s wrong with Jeno?” Mark addresses Jaemin, opening up Jeno’s medical history on his computer.
“It’s been going on for a few weeks now but Jeno gets this weird memory loss every now and then. At first, it was fine, we all misplace things and make wrong turns at roundabouts. But recently, he’s started forgetting weirdly important things, like the name of our cat and our apartment number. I just– I don’t know, I wanted to make sure it wasn’t anything serious.”
Mark rapidly types this all down. When the monitor beeps, the screen displays the numbers 118 and 78, all of which mean nothing to Jaemin but satisfies Jeno and Mark.
“Well, his blood pressure is fine. I’m just going to check Jeno’s medical history. Bro, any illnesses or diseases in your family history?”
Jeno pauses to think, removing the cuff himself and rolling down his sleeve. “Rheumatoid arthritis on my father’s side but nothing on my mother’s side that I know of.”
“Okay, okay, cool.” Mark records this all down. The room grows quiet and Jaemin listens to the tapping of keys. He takes one of Jeno’s hands and brings it to his lap, massaging it in slow circles. Jeno throws him a small smile.
“So I’m gonna ask that Jeno sees a pathologist for a blood test.”
“A blood test?” Jaemin repeats. “Why, is it bad?”
“No, no, it’s just–” Mark finishes typing and suddenly stands up. “Ah, crap, the printer isn’t on.” He rushes out of the room, leaving Jeno, Jaemin, and Jaemin’s unanswered question.
“Hey, babe, what’s happening?”
Jeno laughs and kisses the anxiety away. “Sudden memory loss can sometimes be linked to some vitamin deficiencies or imbalance of chemicals in the blood,” he explains. “Mark’s just printing off the referral.”
“Oh, okay, that doesn’t sound too bad.”
Mark returns with two pieces of paper or the ‘referral’ as Jeno called it, and hands one to Jaemin. “I, um…” He gets back in his seat and looks over the second sheet of paper he printed off. He seems on edge. “I’d also like to refer Jeno to a neuropsychologist.”
“What?” Jaemin exclaims. He looks over at Jeno but his husband remains oddly calm.
“Do you really think it’s that ?” Jeno asks Mark.
Hesitantly, Mark nods. “I’m not saying it is, but there’s a possibility, Jeno-yah. You heard Jaemin and to be completely honest, I’ve noticed things too.” Mark hands over the second referral and Jeno reads over it, licking his lips nervously.
Finally, Mark turns to Jaemin as if remembering he is in the room too. “Jaemin, listen, I’m only sending Jeno to a psychologist because memory loss can also be caused by mental deterioration like stress. In the rarest of cases – and I mean less than 5% – it could also be a symptom of mild cognitive impairment. If that is the case then only a neuropsychologist can diagnose Jeno.”
Jaemin can’t breathe with the way Mark and Jeno are looking at him, waiting for a reaction. “I, um… I don’t–” He stands up abruptly and Jeno’s hand falls out of his lap. “Sorry, I’ll be back,” he tries to say but nothing comes out of his constricting throat.
Jaemin walks out of the clinic. With his face turned to the sky, he wills the tears not to fall. I won’t cry. I won’t cry. I won’t cry.
Less than 5% of cases. It’s the absolute worst-case scenario. Less than 5%. Jeno didn’t mention it in his family history. And Jeno is healthy, too. He’s fitter than Jaemin and eats all the vegetables Jaemin cooks him. It’s just stress. It’s probably just stress. That would explain why Jeno is always tired and forgetting things. Less than 5%.
“Jaem,” Jeno calls, exiting the clinic.
“Jeno,” Jaemin croaks and his efforts go to waste as a tear slips down his cheek. He wipes it away with his sleeve. “God, sorry, I was just a bit shocked back there.” He forces out a humourless laugh.
Jeno doesn’t laugh back but pulls Jaemin into his arms, bringing Jaemin’s head to rest on his shoulder. Jaemin wraps his arms around Jeno’s waist. “It’ll be fine, nothing’s been confirmed. Mark is just being cautious.”
Somehow, Jeno is steady and unshakeable. “How are you so calm,” Jaemin mumbles.
“This is my whole job. I hear things like this so often, I guess it hasn’t really set in yet.”
A month later, Jaemin is in the staffroom feeding through a second Nespresso capsule. His mug is only half-filled and nowhere near enough to prepare him for what’s about to come.
“Honestly, what is it with you and coffee? You’re the reason we run out every week.” Renjun saunters into the staffroom, frowning at Jaemin. “And I also need a refill. Stop hogging it.”
“A refill already? What’s up with you?” Jaemin asks, letting the sound of the machine drone into the background. He turns around to lean against the counter. The clock on the wall reads 11:16.
“Took my class out for PE. We played soccer for 10 minutes, Jaemin – 10 minutes! And now I have to keep five kids in during recess and call two parents explaining why their children have bruised eyes and are bleeding out their noses.” Renjun groans and collapses into the couch. “I should’ve just made them do more math,” he mutters to himself bitterly.
Jaemin can’t help but laugh. Yes, Renjun is full of salt for such a short person but cannot hide the soft spot he has for his students. “Or you could’ve just joined my class. I was teaching them to make paper planes.” Jaemin’s mug is full and he takes a sip. It feels good. He beckons for Renjun’s mug and replaces a new capsule in the machine.
“I don’t know Jaem, Karma's gonna bite you in the ass when they’re in grade 5 and throwing planes with secret messages around the classroom.”
“Perhaps,” Jaemin says, “but you’re forgetting who the grade 5 teacher is. I only teach grade 1.” Renjun pulls a face because he’s the grade 5 teacher.
“Do you want to swap classes this afternoon?” Renjun jokes. “I’d much rather make paper planes today.”
“Actually, you can take my class if you like. They were gonna have a substitute anyway.”
“A sub? Where are you going?”
The machine stops and Jaemin reaches inside the fridge for milk. Renjun likes his coffee milky. “I’m going with Jeno to his doctor’s appointment,” he replies, handing Renjun back his mug who offers a small ‘thanks’.
“But Mark literally works across the hallway from Jeno?”
“No, not Mark. They already went over Jeno’s blood test results this morning and they came back fine.” Jaemin bites his lip, reluctant to let the next words come out of his mouth. Reluctant to confirm them. “I’m taking him to see a neuropsychologist. Mark thinks that if it’s not his bodily health, then it’s probably a cognitive issue that’s causing his memory loss.”
“Oh, Jaem, it’s going to be alright.” Renjun’s voice is supportive as he stands up and takes Jaemin’s hands in his. They’re warm and comforting, held tightly the way teachers do when a child is about to cry. “Jeno’s lucky to have you there.”
“Yeah, thanks Renjun-ah.” Jaemin smiles to prove to Renjun, and to himself, he’s okay.
Jaemin doesn’t know if he’s okay. He doesn’t because he’s too busy worrying if Jeno is okay.
The first sign that something is wrong is the whispers around the clinic. It’s the interrogative questions from the psychologist, the MMSE conducted with Jaemin out in the waiting room, the wide eyes of shock from the assisting clinician reading results, the pitiful looks from passing nurses. The way the doctor hands Jaemin another referral to the diagnostic imaging centre for a scheduled CT scan.
“W-why?” Jaemin trembles as he asks – no, begs for answers. Why Jeno? Why was this happening to him? He wants to ask so badly. But he doesn’t because one look at his husband – so accepting of the chaos to which their little enclosed life is unravelling into – makes Jaemin hold it in too.
And so two hours at one clinic become four at another. Jaemin’s world, once full of colour and children’s laughter, is replaced by grey waiting rooms and the dull drone of machinery. A day of brain imaging stretches into a week, then two, then four to get results. Where he would usually be talking to teachers and students, Jaemin finds himself conversing with doctors and nurses, all of whom tiptoe around him like cracked glass.
“We’re so sorry, sir,” they would start, eyes turned to the floor and masks pulled under their chins. “Your husband is in the early stages of mild cognitive impairment. We’d like to brief you two about how this may affect your husband in the future.”
But by then, the results are already clear to Jaemin without needing the medical explanations behind them. By then, there’s no one stopping him from asking, “Why? Why him? The 5%. This was meant to be the worst-case scenario, so why? Why did it have to be Jeno?” His voice is strangled and desperate as he claws for hope amongst the hopelessness of the situation.
Despite all this, there is only clarity in Jeno’s eyes as they tell him he will no longer be able to continue his medical practice. They tell him that he’s likely to forget important dates, people’s names and faces, words on pages and ideas in his head. Medication will become his best friend. Finance and mobility will become his enemy.
All this and Jeno just nods. “Okay, I understand.”
It’s when they’re finally home does Jaemin realise he isn’t okay.
They’re finally home for what feels like the first time in days when in reality, it had just been the constant travel between their apartment and medical facilities which made it seem so.
Jaemin finds himself standing in the middle of their bedroom, his intentions of being there completely gone from his mind. Yet, he continues to stand there, staring at the paper calendar which hangs from the wardrobe. Four weeks have gone by and Jaemin had forgotten to cross them off. Four weeks stolen from them.
“Are you okay?” Jeno asks him quietly, walking into the bedroom. Jaemin spins around so they’re facing each other, a mere few centimeters apart. “Baby, talk to me.” Jeno pulls him down so they’re sitting side by side on the bed.
“Are you okay?” Jaemin asks instead, on instinct.
Jeno shakes his head and repeats, “But are you okay?”
Jeno’s eyes read Jaemin like an open book. There’s concern in them, blind to Jaemin’s bullshit. Jeno’s eyes are tired, shadowed beneath by loss and despair. His lips are chapped and his skin sickly pale. In Jaemin’s eyes, Jeno is perfection, even when a little damaged and hollow.
“No,” Jaemin mends his answer, reaching up to cup Jeno’s face in shaky hands. “No, I’m not okay. How can I be okay? My love, my precious love of my life, is going through the worst-case scenario and I can’t do anything for him.” Jaemin finally lets himself crack. He lets himself give in to his anger and sorrow. He lets himself collapse into Jeno’s arms in a sobbing mess and doesn’t try to hide the tears.
Time seems to slow down. There is no more hospital rush, no more dizzying travels back and forth between doctors, no more impatient waiting for results. There’s just Jaemin and Jeno and their fucked up life.
Jaemin feels Jeno pull him in closer, tighter. Chests flush against each other, Jaemin can feel the way Jeno’s frame quivers with tears. Always so strong and indestructible, calm to bad news and accepting of the worst, Jeno also gives in.
“I’m so sorry, Jaemin, I’m so sorry,” Jeno whispers. “I’m 27, this isn’t meant to happen this early. I didn’t want to believe it. It was supposed to be stress or trauma or even fucking overdrinking,” Jeno laughs, painful and humourless. “But not this. Never this. And I was so scared Jaemin, so fucking scared, I didn’t want it to be true. I didn’t want you to find out. I’m so sorry.”
Everything comes pouring out; words, tears, truths, fears. It only makes Jaemin cry harder. His breathing is rapid and each hiccupped sob is uncontrollable. He brings his head up so he can see Jeno. His husband is as much of a mess as he is. Jaemin’s hand, covered over by the long sleeve of his sweater, comes up to wipe Jeno’s flushed cheeks.
“Stop apologising,” Jaemin rasps, throat constricted. “It’s not your fault, nothing is your fault.” He pushes back the hair from Jeno’s forehead which is wet with tears and brings his lips up to press a kiss there. Jeno’s arms still tremble from where they wrap around Jaemin’s waist. “Whatever you’re going through, I am too. You don’t carry your pain alone because I’ll be right there. I promised this when I married you.”
Jeno looks at Jaemin with so much love. He looks at Jaemin like he’s the world. Jeno leans in for a peck. “You could’ve been so much happier, Jaem. We’re still so young. We were gonna save up, adopt kids by 30, start a family, move into a proper home…” He mumbles against Jaemin’s lips. “I love you, I don’t wanna lose you.”
Jaemin tilts his head and kisses Jeno. He kisses Jeno like it’s the last kiss they’ll ever share and in a way, it might be. It might be the last one Jeno remembers.
Jaemin’s lips part willingly to make way for Jeno’s tongue. It brushes against Jaemin’s tongue and licks into his mouth, exploring it to cement the memory for as long as it will stay. They pull back for air but Jeno lunges forward once more and Jaemin topples over until his back hits the mattress.
Everything pauses as Jeno cages Jaemin beneath him with sturdy arms. Jaemin’s chest heaves, his breath stolen by his husband. Jeno’s face speaks a million words but asks only one and Jaemin nods in reply, knowing exactly what the question is.
He slips a hand beneath Jeno’s shirt, running his fingers up and down his torso. Jeno pulls it off before going back in to leave tender, open-mouthed kisses along Jaemin’s jaw. He bites lightly at his collarbone, low enough so Jaemin can easily hide them from his students at work. Jaemin’s breathing quickens, lost in the way Jeno's lips feel against his skin. When Jeno sits back up to admire the collage of blooming marks on Jaemin's chest, the latter eagerly strips off his sweater and shucks away his jeans and underwear.
Jaemin lays there, bare and absolutely beautiful. Jeno gets up to pull off his own jeans before bending down to pick up their discarded clothing from off the floor. As he dumps them into the laundry basket and searches the dresser drawer for lube, Jaemin’s eyes follow his every move. Their room is dim but Jeno’s sculpted body is an image clear in Jaemin’s memory. Every dip of his abs, every taut muscle, every sensitive spot. It will all hold a place in Jaemin’s memory.
Jeno stands next to the bed when Jaemin crawls up to him on all fours. He holds Jeno’s dick and runs his hand up and down the shaft. Jeno shivers. Jaemin’s lips enclose around the head, suckling softly. Above, he hears a satisfied sigh and it urges him on. He licks down the length (following another prominent vein that Jeno had taught him about on their not-so-anatomy lesson) then licks back up where he takes Jeno’s cock in his mouth. It sits heavy on his tongue and Jaemin forces it down his throat, pulling back before he chokes. The drag seems to do things to Jeno who suddenly tangles Jaemin’s locks in his fingers. Jaemin bobs his head, cheeks hallowed, relishing in the wet sounds that leave his mouth. The whole act sends blood down south and Jaemin starts grinding down on the mattress to relieve himself. He doesn’t remember when he stops moving his head and Jeno starts thrusting instead. Jeno spills down Jaemin’s throat, moaning so much that Jaemin swears he could come just by listening.
“You’re so perfect,” Jeno breathes, climbing onto the bed and kneeling between Jaemin’s open legs. He licks the dribble of cum and saliva from the corner of Jaemin’s mouth before kissing him properly. If Jaemin’s mouth tastes like cum, Jeno doesn’t seem to care. His husband is just hungry for him, licking down Jaemin’s neck to his nipples where Jaemin groans with sensitivity. Jeno kisses down Jaemin’s toned stomach, cleaning up all the precome gathering there.
“Baby, lower, please,” Jaemin begs, knees spreading further apart.
Jeno chuckles and places a hand on Jaemin’s hip. “Turn over then,” he says. Jaemin rolls over and gets onto his elbows and knees, waiting patiently. He hates how exposed he is in this position and it’s worse he can’t see what Jeno is doing. Might as well do it blindfolded (not that he hasn’t before).
He feels Jeno’s breath first, hot and wet on his entrance. Then his tongue follows, hesitantly prodding the rim at first but eventually diving in deeper at the sound of Jaemin’s moans.
“Ah, Jeno, that feels good.” Jaemin tucks his head in the pillow, grasping it between desperate fingers.
Jeno’s tongue is magic, rimming him like the first time he did it, somehow knowing where to lick and suck and most importantly, where Jaemin’s bundle of nerves are.
“Ah, fuck,” he whimpers when something hits his prostate. Pleasure like electricity shoots up his spine and his arms give out.
Jeno licks into him deeper, relentless, not giving Jaemin a break as his body unconsciously jerks away to escape the overstimulation. He spreads Jaemin’s asscheeks apart with his hands and pulls off, watching his hole twitch with anticipation.
Jeno goes still for a moment and Jaemin wonder’s where his husband has gone. He’s left empty and painfully hard, spit dripping down his thigh. The silence is so solid, each of Jaemin's heavy breaths seem to get caught in the air around him. Then, without warning, cold lubed fingers squelch into his hole and Jaemin cries out. It’s two fingers first, scissoring to prepare rather than satisfy. With needy whines from Jaemin, Jeno adds a third finger. It’s only when Jaemin starts grinding back does Jeno pull out.
“Baby, how do you want me?”
“I wanna see you,” Jaemin says, rolling back over to lie on his back.
Seeing Jeno’s face again makes Jaemin smile. His hair is once again plastered to his forehead but with sweat and his eyes blown out in lust. Jaemin reaches up and pulls Jeno in for a wet kiss as they attempt to aim for each other’s lips but it turns into a clash of teeth and tongue.
Jeno’s dick is slicked up with lube already and he pushes in slowly; gently. The slide is easy but the tightness isn’t. Jaemin struggles at first to get all of Jeno into him, reminding himself to relax. When he finally does, the feeling is mindblowing. Jeno fits so perfectly inside, reaching every wall and crevice. For a second, Jaemin forgets where they are. Connected and in Jeno’s arms is the only place he wants to be at the moment.
When they make love, it’s tender and kind. Jeno starts with shallow thrusts, letting Jaemin adjust to his size. Jaemin grinds up against Jeno’s hips, gradually needing more.
They get addicted to the friction and Jeno speeds up, drilling Jaemin into the mattress like he can’t get enough.
“Ah, yes, harder baby, harder, ngh–”
Jeno lifts one of Jaemin’s legs over his shoulder and his cock reaches even deeper. Every thrust into Jaemin's prostate has him screaming Jeno’s name. God forbid that the two uni boys next door can hear him. His eyes tear up again but this time out of overwhelming pleasure. When Jeno is close, he pounds harder, erratic, so desperate to feel all of Jaemin.
Jaemin loves this man, he truly does. They release at the same time. Their chests are painted as white as Jaemin’s insides. Jeno makes sure to pump every last drop into Jaemin before he pulls out his softening cock. Jaemin feels liquid dribble out of him.
Jeno caresses his cheek endearingly, wiping off droplets of cum from his flushed face. “I love you,” he says, pecking Jaemin’s nose before getting out of bed to grab a towel.
Jaemin’s eyelids feel heavy and he rests them, feeling Jeno’s careful touches as he runs the towel down Jaemin’s body. Jaemin hears Jeno leave to put the towel in the laundry basket but the latter doesn’t return. Confused, Jaemin opens his eyes to find Jeno at the end of the bed, hesitating.
“I– which side is mine?” He asks quietly like he’s ashamed. It softens Jaemin’s heart and he smiles.
“Whichever side you want,” Jaemin replies. “Or right here in my arms.” He brings his arms up and waves Jeno towards him.
His husband chuckles, relief washing over his face. Jeno crawls back on the bed and rests his head on Jaemin’s chest.
“I love you, Jeno.”
Like Jaemin had promised, he’s there for every step Jeno’s life takes down the exponential decline. The diagnosis had just been the minor earthquake that unleashed the avalanche, ensuing the massacre which followed.
Jaemin is there, standing in the waiting room of Jeno’s busy clinic, as Jeno exits his boss’s office with a downcast smile. Jeno’s resignation letter lies like a dead weight in the supervising doctor’s hands who stares at it with regret.
“How’d it go?” Jaemin asks, linking his arm with Jeno’s. His eyes are twice as bright with charm, making up for the lack of light in Jeno’s dimming eyes.
“Wasn’t as hard as I thought it’d be,” Jeno says in forced positivity. “If anything, Mark seemed to take it harder than me.” The couple shares a laugh and continue to joke about Mark’s love for Jeno on their way to the car. Only Jaemin is allowed to drive now, the result of another bit of freedom Jeno’s condition has taken away from him.
Jaemin is there to hug Jeno’s mother and father after Jeno breaks the news to them. His mother is torn, shred apart by the blade of Jeno’s words and bleeding tears of anguish. Jeno’s father maintains his posture but his grey and worn expression mourns for his son silently. Jaemin can see where Jeno gets his cool and collected composure from.
Jaemin is there when Jeno cancels his membership at his favourite gym. He is there to hear his husband call and schedule appointments to get all the legal and financial stuff sorted. He is there when Jeno returns all his borrowed books as well as his library card, and when Jeno pulls out of the cycling fundraiser which coincided with the day of another one of Jeno’s diagnostic appointments.
Jaemin is there, when they’re back in their apartment, nearly walking in on Jeno talking to their cat. With a bowl of popcorn in one hand and a bottle of red wine in the other, Jaemin had planned to suggest a movie night. However, the low whispers coming from the living room makes him pause and listen. He presses his back against the wall which divides the kitchen from the living room.
“You’ve got to be a good girl, Bongsik. For Jaemin,” Jeno says softly. Their cat purrs as if engaging in conversation. “One day, I might not be here. I might get sick and have to leave you two soon. If that happens, you’ll be the one who has to keep Jaemin company, okay? You have to make sure Jaemin isn’t lonely. Jaemin can’t stand being lonely. He likes cuddles on the couch, hugs when he gets home from work and kisses before he goes to bed. You’ll have to do that for me, okay?”
Frankly, Jaemin hates that he’s there. He hates every exhausting second of being there to witness Jeno lose pieces of himself, even before his condition has started to do any real damage. He can’t stand the way Jeno’s eyes get dimmer with every hobby he drops, every colleague he wishes farewell, every legal document that makes him sign his life away. One more step closer to disappearing. Someone has a hand through Jaemin’s chest and is squeezing the last bits of strength Jaemin has left. But every bit of it goes to Jeno – to be a sturdy pillar for Jeno to safely rest his head against when they’ve finished draining the lifeblood out of him.
Sometimes, it’s as if Jeno is already a ghost. His physical body is composed of societal commitments which he must withdraw from now, leaving behind his naked, intangible soul which walks right past Jaemin every time he reaches out for it.
“Nana?” Jeno calls. The shuffle of footsteps comes closer.
“Coming!” Jaemin calls back, blinking away watery eyes. “Movie night?” He asks and walks out from behind the wall, holding up the popcorn bowl.
Jeno beams. “Wait, I was just about to ask you the exact same thing?” He laughs. “You read my mind.”
“Idiot, I’ve known you for nearly 7 years. We’re basically telepathically connected at this point.”
They snuggle into the couch, a blanket thrown over their legs and the popcorn nestled in the middle.
“Alright, then what show am I thinking of?” Jeno teases, scrolling through Netflix.
“Penthouse?” Jaemin offers with adoring puppy eyes.
Jeno opens his mouth to retort and it’s clear to Jaemin that ‘Penthouse’ is definitely not what Jeno has in mind. Yet, Jeno seems to retract his answer and nods his head instead. “Yeah, Penthouse. I haven’t seen season 4–”
“–season 3 yet.”
Jaemin breaks into a fit of giggles. “God, you’re my favourite person. You know that right?”
“I do, actually. We’re telepathically connected, remember?” Jeno says slyly, nudging Jaemin with his elbow. “So you probably already know that you’re mine too.”
“Of course, of course,” Jaemin plays along. “But hearing you say it sounds so much nicer.”
Who knew that a single smile from Jeno was enough to recharge Jaemin’s draining battery and replenish his strength. Jaemin has to remind himself that for every struggle he deals with, Jeno is taking it ten times harder. Where Jaemin bruises, Jeno receives a bloody gash each time he stumbles. Jaemin decides that instead of being a stationary pillar, he will be Jeno’s source of energy to help him get back on his feet and encourage him to keep climbing up from the troughs of his downhill life. For every low point, there is a peak and Jaemin wants Jeno to reach his.
Donghyuck’s birthday hits them from right around the corner. And Jaemin, who gets dizzy from just standing up too fast, is knocked down hard by the event. He had promised Mark to bring desserts and snacks for the party (though Mark had also said not to stress about it, Jaemin wasn’t one to turn down a favour).
Jaemin is in the kitchen on a Saturday morning, sifting flour into his pot of melted butter and milk to make a shoe pastry. Donghyuck loves Jaemin’s cream puffs almost as much as Jeno loves his omelettes.
Deja vu reminds Jaemin that just a few weeks ago in this exact room, Jaemin had started it all. If he hadn’t asked Jeno to feed Bongsik, Jeno wouldn’t have forgotten her name and Jaemin would probably never have forced Jeno to see Mark. Then Mark wouldn’t–
“Babe!” Jaemin yelps, feeling a hand grope his ass. Jeno snickers, earning a wack from the spatula. He dodges it and reaches for the top cupboard to take his medicine (the benzos and anticholinergics and some couple others with absurdly long names that make Jeno laugh every time Jaemin attempts to say them. He likes doing this because it distracts him from the antidepressants among Jeno’s medications).
“Oh, sorry, I forgot you preferred spanking,” Jeno smirks, brushing back his dark hair from his eyes. And oh, if only Jaemin wasn’t so weak for his insanely hot husband.
“Not in my sacred kitchen, Jeno,” Jaemin warns. “I am a pure soul and will not let you taint these cream puffs.”
Jeno snorts but retreats to sit at the dining table where two dozen cupcakes are cooling on racks. “Please, it’s not like we haven’t done it in the kitchen bef–”
“Okay! Enough! I don’t want to hear it. If I don’t remember, it didn’t happen.”
“I don’t know Jaem, it’s pretty hard to forget how dirty you looked licking whipped cream off my dick.”
“What dick? You mean the one I am this close to breaking right now?”
“The dick you nearly broke by biting–”
There’s a cough from behind Jeno and the couple whip their heads around so fast, Jaemin swears one of them cracks their neck, if not both of them. Jisung is there, face beet red and fiddling with the drawstrings of his hoodie.
“I, uh… are we too early?” He asks hastily, unable to look Jaemin in the eye so Jaemin looks at Jeno instead, trying to manifest daggers piercing the amused look on his husband’s face.
“Oh god, I forgot you two were coming over today,” Jaemin groans, turning off the stove and setting his pastry down to cool. “How long have you been standing there?”
“Long enough to find out how Jaemin likes his whipped cream,” Chenle pipes up from the couch, scratching Bongsik behind the ears. “Come on Jaem, there are kids around here. If you’re not up for parenting, Jisung and I could totally take care of Bongsik for you.”
Jeno chuckles, pushing back a chair for Jisung to take. “First of all, Jisung is also a kid,” he says and the mentioned boy scowls. “And second, Bongsik is probably years older than both of you. Have some respect for the old lady.”
“Like the way you two respect the kitchen?”
Jaemin is absolutely ashamed, fully aware that his face is burning up and that Jeno is aware of it too. He grabs the bowl of buttercream from the stand mixer and brings it to the dining table in urgent need of distracting himself and redirecting the entire conversation.
“Alright, wash your hands you two. You’re gonna help me ice these cupcakes.”
The mention of food does the trick and sends Chenle and Jisung scurrying for the sink, fighting over the soap bar. While Jaemin is close enough, Jeno pulls him in, wrapping his arms around his hips. Jaemin looks down at Jeno who leans his head against his stomach.
“Being cute won’t work this time,” Jaemin laughs but his heart melts as he says it. He mindlessly runs his fingers through Jeno’s locks.
Jeno hums, satisfied. “Shut up, you love it.” Indeed, Jaemin does. Not that Jeno needs to know that. He leans down for a short kiss and Jeno lets him go just as the boys come back from the sink.
“So I’m thinking blue,” Jisung says, mixing around the buttercream. “With sprinkles.”
Chenle makes a face. “What is this, a child’s ninth birthday? We should do yellow and use those little marshmallows Jeno keeps in the fourth drawer.”
This time, Jeno raises a brow in confusion. “How do you know about that…”
“Or,” Jaemin cuts in quickly, “we can combine both and do green with sprinkles and marshmallows.” He hands Chenle the little bottle of green food dye he had already prepared since it’s Donghyuck’s favourite colour.
“That works too,” Jisung agrees. When Chenle goes to fetch the marshmallows, all attempts at stopping him by Jeno are ignored.
The kitchen, more lively and crowded than usual, descends into a comfortable silence. Voices are replaced for the dense sounds of the wooden spoon mixing dough in the pot, the metallic ting of the whisk in the buttercream, the crinkle of the plastic from the piping bags and the light patter of sprinkles hitting the table. When Jaemin turns around to check his boys, they’re too concentrated on the task at hand, exerting more effort than necessary to get the spiral of icing perfect. Jeno stands by like a lifeguard, ready to wipe away smudges of icing Jisung keeps getting on his hoodie and sweep up Chenle’s sprinkle spillages. The scene is vibrant with domesticity, somehow making their apartment seem more like home.
“Jisung, how was it visiting your parents the other week?” Jeno asks through the quietness.
Jaemin freezes. Jeno did not just ask that.
“Oh, yeah, was alright,” comes Jisung’s monotonous reply, not once looking up from the cupcake he’s icing.
“That’s good. Jaem and I were talking about how your last visit was ages ago,” Jeno continues cheerfully, clearly missing the hint.
The tension of the room thickens in an instant. Whatever domestic family vibes they have going on are sucked into a vacuum. Jaemin glances at Chenle momentarily, searching for a reaction to gauge the severity of the situation. Chenle looks back at him, pale and wide-eyed.
“Yeah, I guess.”
Jeno looks like he’s gonna say something and Chenle visibly winces. Jaemin, too scared to face whatever Jeno says next, is quicker and asks, “Hey, babe, can you help me find Hyuck’s present? I can’t remember where you put it.” He places the cream puffs in the oven and wipes his hands on his apron, dusting off the flour.
Jeno’s attention is successfully diverted and he looks at Jaemin quizzically. “I thought I left it on the dresser?” He says.
“Um, no, I don’t think so?” Jaemin unties the apron and lays it on the countertop. “Just… Come show me where you left it.” He beckons for Jeno to follow him to their bedroom, leaving the two boys in the kitchen to finish icing the cupcakes.
Jaemin closes the door slowly and turns around to find Jeno standing by the bed with the gift bag in his hand. “It’s right here?” He says perplexed.
Jaemin smiles and walks up to him. He takes the gift from Jeno, who continues watching him like a lost puppy, and places it on the bed. “So don’t beat yourself up or anything but I don’t think we should be mentioning Jisung’s parents in front of him,” Jaemin whispers, interlocking his hands behind Jeno’s back so their faces are only a few centimeters away from one another.
Jeno takes in a sharp breath, only just catching on. “Did I say something I shouldn’t have?”
“No, no, not quite but I don’t think Jisung is ready to talk yet.”
Jaemin studies the way Jeno’s eyes fill with sorrow and disappointment, so emotive amidst his otherwise blank expression. “Shit, sorry, I just thought that him going back to his parent’s place was a sign it was all better.” Jeno searches for words, seeming to reach for them as they slip through his grip. “I didn’t know, I didn’t realise I was making him uncomfortable. Fuck, I must seem like a total asshole–”
“Shh, it’s okay, you’re okay,” Jaemin hums, bringing a hand up to sweep a thump across Jeno’s cheek. “We know this isn’t your fault.”
Yesterday, when a clinician had called for Jeno who left Jaemin alone in the waiting room, Jaemin had received a call from Mark.
“How’s Jeno?” He had asked in lieu of a greeting.
“I’m not too sure myself,” Jaemin had admitted shamefully, walking out of the clinic to escape the morbid silence. “There’s just so much going on, I can’t seem to keep up. Every time I ask someone to catch me up to speed, they bombard me with weird medical jargon and I don’t have Jeno there to dumb it down for me.”
He hears Mark sigh in frustration from the other end. “I read the autobiography of a neurosurgeon recently. He mentioned something about how the best doctors treat patients like patients and not problems to solve… and I now understand what he meant.” Jaemin wonders if the clinicians see Jeno as a thing to tick off their to-do list too. “Here, let me do the medical translation for you then,” Mark offers.
“Well, for one, I’d like to know what ‘mild cognitive decline’ insinuates.” Jaemin had heard the term thrown around a few times. He understood what each word meant individually but the phrase itself held no meaning in regards to Jeno’s condition.
“It’s just a way to describe the stage of Jeno’s neurocognitive state,” Mark says carefully. “This isn’t exactly my field of expertise but I read some literature on cognitive disorders the other day. Basically, within this stage, you’re likely to experience disorientation and forgetfulness. Changes to personality will occur, such as reservedness, and they may struggle to be empathetic at times.”
Since Mark’s crash course on cognitive decline, Jaemin had begun to notice things more frequently about Jeno. Things that Jaemin would usually brush away and forget, stuck out to him more distinguishable than ever. The way Jeno would sometimes pause longer to think whenever Jaemin mentioned the name of a friend, the way Jeno would tell Jaemin a funny anecdote he had already told him earlier that day, the way Jeno would have to re-read whole medical papers multiple times in frustration because the words were not processing.
All these little things aren’t consistent though. Jeno doesn't always forget a face to a name, he doesn’t repeat every story he tells Jaemin, but it is becoming increasingly more frequent in their daily lives.
In the kitchen, Jaemin had become aware of how Jeno is slowly losing his ability to read situations and relate to people. It had been a kick to the gut because Jeno is the most sympathetic person Jaemin knows. He’s the friend that got all the late-night rants, the heartbroken sobs over the phone, and the one who pats your back until you’ve calmed down.
“One day, sometime soon, I’m gonna run my mouth and get myself in trouble,” Jeno snorts, leaning forward to rest his forehead on Jaemin’s shoulder, defeated. “How can I socialise when I can’t even read social cues?”
“I told you not to beat yourself up,” Jaemin insists, stroking Jeno’s head. “It’s just Jisung, you know how understanding he is.”
“It’s gonna suck to have to be ‘understanding’ around me all the time,” Jeno mutters, mostly to himself. After a second, he takes in a deep breath, stands up and straightens his back, recollecting himself. “Alright, I’m okay. We should go back, they’re probably finished.”
“Shit, and I didn’t start the timer for the oven.”
By 6 pm, the couple starts getting ready to leave, sending home the two boys with food for dinner and a cupcake each. Jaemin packs away all his baked treats and Jeno moves them to the car, along with the gift.
Jeno returns to their bedroom where Jaemin had finished getting dressed, already starting to add a little makeup.
“What should I wear?” Jeno asks, pulling off his shirt and stalking into the walk-in wardrobe. Jaemin hears him flicking through the clothes hangers on his side of the wardrobe before moving on to Jaemin’s side when he finds nothing he likes. Jeno and Jaemin practically share every piece of clothing, Jeno always questions the appeal in establishing separate areas.
Jaemin follows him a second later, rummaging alongside Jeno. “You can wear my turtleneck and the trenchcoat over the top? I like you in long coats, they make your legs look longer.”
Jeno chuckles but lets Jaemin dress him up without complaint. “You look good,” Jeno says, observing the higher curl of Jaemin’s long lashes and the faint liner he drew along his lid with brown eyeshadow. The overall effect is subtle and natural, not so much enhancing Jaemin’s beauty as it is altering it into something new. Jeno reaches to straighten up the collar of Jaemin’s button-up.
“Will you let me do your makeup then?” Jaemin asks, eyes sparkling hopefully. “Just lip tint. Please?”
The barest hint of a nod has Jaemin dragging Jeno to the dresser where he scrambles to find the makeup bag. “Like this,” Jaemin says, puckering his lips for Jeno to follow. When Jeno copies him without question, Jaemin leans in quickly and pecks him on the lips.
Jeno’s eyes widen, speechless, before he lets out a soft laugh and ducks his head down in disbelief. “God, you will be the death of me,” he says.
“Okay, part your lips for me.” Jaemin brushes on the smallest amount of liquid lip tint and uses his ring finger to blend it out.
They’re one of the last to arrive at Mark and Donghyuck’s house. Jaemin spends a good 10 minutes looking for somewhere to park the car. Their house is relatively new but the neighbourhood is old and the roads are narrow and uneven. It had only been a year since their friends bought the house and moved out of their apartment. It’s the happiest Jaemin had seen Donghyuck since his wedding. Jeno had taken Jaemin’s hand in his during the housewarming party and told Jaemin it would be their turn soon. The memory, once a source of warmth in his mind, is now bittersweet to his heart, knowing that their dream would likely remain a dream.
“Jeno! Jaeminie!” Hyuck comes crashing into the pair, smothering them in hugs before Jaemin has the chance to remove his shoes.
“Happy birthday bestie,” Jaemin says over the noise, pinching Hyuck’s cheek and balancing the tray of cupcakes in his arm.
“What are you– 27 now?” Jeno laughs, handing over the gift.
“Another year closer to 30,” Hyuck laments. “But it’s okay, Mark tells me I don’t look a day over 20.”
In a way, Donghyuck is right, he hasn’t really changed much since they first met him in University. His face is sunkissed and there’s a youthful glow that he never really lost. It’s only the deepened stress lines that reveal to Jaemin that Hyuck is still aging.
“Everyone’s been waiting for you guys.”
They’re led into the kitchen where Mark is mixing drinks with Renjun. “Gosh Jaem, I feel like it’s been forever since you last came to work,” Renjun says. “Your kids must miss you.” He hands them both a drink. “How’ve you been, Jen?”
“Everything’s starting to settle down again,” Jeno says. “Jaemin helps me through it.”
Jaemin coos and kisses Jeno on the cheek. Jeno takes the opportunity to take Jaemin’s cup away and return it to the table. Jaemin had never been good at holding his alcohol, especially when he’s on an empty stomach.
“I’m glad Jeno, seriously. You know you can come to us too, you guys don’t have to struggle alone.” Renjun’s always been the one with the right words to say at the right time.
Jeno smiles a genuine smile. “I know.”
The couple goes around greeting the rest of the guests. There’s Yangyang, Renjun’s current boyfriend, out the back with Hendery grilling meat on the barbeque. Jaemin swipes a piece or two, feeding one to Jeno before Yangyang can catch them. Taeil traps Jaemin in his arms when he sees him. Jaemin had done his assistant teaching under Taeil a few years back and the two had kept in contact ever since. Two of their seniors from University, Taeyong and Jaehyun, arrive afterwards, bringing with them nostalgic memories of their younger days. Even some of Donghyuck’s fellow dance choreographers, Winwin and Yuta are there. Jeno is absolutely dumbstruck when he runs into his old friend Doyoung who had moved back to his home city in the Gyeongnam Province and was visiting for a few days.
Jaemin manages to keep Jeno by his side for the first half of the night but ultimately it is futile because they are naturally pulled apart by the myriad of people wanting to catch up with them separately. And so, by the time Donghyuck is blowing out his cake, Jeno is long gone from Jaemin’s sight. More people had arrived later, replenishing the supply of food and drinks. As a result, Jaemin downs a glass of wine, his last glass he had promised himself because he had to drive tonight. However, one glass ends up becoming two when he gets caught up with Ten filling him in on the nasty details of his sex life with Johnny, and quite frankly Jaemin decides he’s too sober for that conversation. Two glasses of wine blur in his vision and become 4 (or maybe 5, it’s too hazy for Jaemin to tell) while he’s on the couch consoling Xiaojun in the midst of grief from his latest breakup.
Jaemin is stumbling around the kitchen looking for water, suddenly way too hot and sweaty despite doing nothing but sitting around and talking. Kun is the one who finds him leaning against the kitchen island unsteadily. “Here,” he says, handing Jaemin a glass of lemon water. “Are you okay?”
“Yeah, yeah, I’m just looking for my husband,” Jaemin replies but it’s only after he says it that he realises he hasn’t seen Jeno since they first got separated.
“Oh, Jeno? He saw him leaving a few minutes ago. He said he needed to get something from the car,” Kun says.
Jaemin, too dizzy to wonder what on earth Jeno needed from the car, thanks Kun and exits the house. He pauses for a moment on the porch, leaning a shoulder against the wall to balance himself. Even from outside, the volume of the party is as loud as ever. Jaemin wonders if the neighbours can hear it.
When he reaches the car, Jaemin has to squint through the darkness, barely lit by the dim street lamps. Much to his surprise, however, Jeno is nowhere to be found.
His throat is parched and the ground beneath his feet is jelly – or maybe that’s just his legs. As his brain seems to do backflips in his head, fueled by the alcohol, Jaemin stumbles forward and keeps walking past the car. He doesn’t know where he’s heading or why, only that he’s moving forward (just not very straight). His legs feel disconnected from his body but he still takes the impact each time a foot steps forward. One after the other. He doesn’t know for how long but he hopes Jeno will come find him soon. Jeno always does.
Jaemin halts, eyes tearing up at the voice. He knew it, his husband always comes for him. He turns his head to the right, only just noticing that the row of crammed houses had ended, opening up to a wide clearing – a park. And there Jeno sat, rocking back and forth on a swing, watching him with bewilderment.
“Jaemin, baby, how did you know I was here?”
Jaemin smiles, all dopey, staggering in Jeno’s direction. “Telepathic connection,” he says, lowering himself into the other swing. His aim is off, however, and he leans too far back.
“Careful–” Jeno lunges for Jaemin, placing a steady arm on Jaemin’s back to stop him from falling. Jaemin just giggles, kicking his legs up and down.
“You left the party,” Jaemin says, fixing his grip on the chains and pulling himself upright. “I thought you left me,” he pouts.
Jeno sighs and starts swinging a bit harder but he doesn’t get very far with his unbelievably long legs never leaving the ground. “How much did you drink?”
“More than I promised I would, that’s for sure.”
They go quiet. Jeno’s swing creaks with every fall and Jaemin’s shoes scuff at the tanbark. Jaemin realises Jeno is giving him time to sober up and it certainly works as he sits in the cold of the night.
His head still sways and he doesn’t trust himself to stand up but at least he can feel his legs again. “I’m sorry but you try listening to Ten’s degradation kinks sober. It’s not fun.”
This gets Jeno to laugh and he shakes his head. “You think that’s bad? Try hearing Yuta sell you on the idea of electrostimulation.”
Jaemin fakes a gasp. “You wouldn’t!”
“I don’t know Jaem, he was pretty convincing.” Jeno smirks.
“Just remember, babe, if you accidentally electrocute me while your dick is up my ass you’re not being spared the pain.”
When Jeno laughs again it’s contagious. Suddenly, the snap of a book being shut calls for Jaemin’s attention and he notices the book in Jeno’s hands; Jeno’s journal. He wonders why Jeno has it with him right now.
“But hey, seriously, what’re you doing out here?” Jaemin asks.
“Counting the stars. It’s quite cloudy today but I’ve spotted nine of them and six which may or may not be stars. Zero shooting stars though.”
“Kun told me you were going to the car but here you are, at the park in the middle of the night while the party is still on,” Jaemin continues.
Jeno comes to a stop and meets his gaze. He hesitates to answer straight away, a thing Jaemin notices happening a lot more. Jeno sometimes needs time to formulate responses and recall the appropriate words. “I was gonna wait for you in the car but then… I couldn't remember where you parked it.” He flushes in embarrassment and ducks his head.
“You could’ve just told me you wanted to leave?” Jaemin says but Jeno shakes his head.
“You looked like you were having fun and I know you've been super stressed recently… I didn't want to take this away from you.”
“Jeno,” Jaemin says fondly, “you know I’d rather be with you.”
Jeno offers a smile but doesn’t answer, staring vacantly into the street.
“What’s wrong? Why did you want to leave so early?” Jaemin says, sensing Jeno wasn’t giving him the full answer.
Again, Jeno doesn’t answer straight away, choosing the right words to say. “I just… it was becoming too much.”
“Yeah, too much. Everything. So many people, so many voices – it was so suffocating. I don't know what's wrong with me, Jaem, this hasn’t happened before. But I was there, surrounded by so many people, trying to keep up with so many conversations and I realised it was futile because I couldn’t.” Jeno breathes in deeply, calming himself. “And then I was talking to Doyoung and I asked him why he couldn’t just live here with us in Seoul… Fuck, Jaem, I fucked up.”
“Babe, no, I’m sure you didn’t.”
“No, I did. Doyoung looked so hurt. He told me he couldn’t live in Seoul because he had to look after his sick mother. Fuck me, I can’t believe I forgot. He’s told me this before and I forgot, Jaemin. I couldn’t stand being there, surrounded by people who I could potentially hurt next.”
Jaemin gets up, albeit a bit wobbly, and stands in front of Jeno, cupping his cheeks in his hands. Jeno is forced to look up at him. “Listen, you can’t control this. You know this better than anyone. Don’t beat yourself up, remember?”
Jeno’s face, pinched with anger, softens as he faces Jaemin. Jeno seems somewhat forgiving, leaning into Jaemin’s touch. He closes his eyes and for a moment he is still; no rise and fall of his chest, no twitch in his cold fingers, not even a slight rhythmic rocking of the swing. Yet, he steals Jaemins heart, ghostly under the yellow street lamps and suspended in silence, Jeno might just float away.
“I’m sorry, you’re right. It’s just hard that something that used to come naturally to me – socialising, for god’s sake – is now something I have to think twice about before doing. This is how it’s gonna be for the rest of my life.”
Jaemin strokes Jeno’s cheek, following the pink flush left by the cold. He would do anything for this man. He would take every blame and all the hatred Jeno feels for himself, he really would.
“Let’s go home,” Jaemin finally says, offering Jeno a hand up.
“Should we go say goodbye to Hyuck before we leave?”
Jaemin thinks about it but ultimately decides not to. “He’s probably drunk off his ass right now, we can leave Mark a text.”
Jeno chuckles and follows Jaemin to the car. “Speaking of getting drunk, I don’t think you should be driving right now.”
“Shit,” Jaemin groans, leaning against the car as his head starts spinning again. “I’m sorry, I’m a horrible designated driver.”
Jeno is more than forgiving, taking the keys from Jaemin. “Come on, I’ll drive.”
“But you can’t–”
“It’s alright, Nana, I haven’t completely deteriorated yet.”
Jaemin gives in reluctantly, sliding into the passenger seat. Sometime within the drive home, Jaemin nods off to sleep with Jeno’s hand in his.
They argue the next week. Well, it's not really an argument, more of a minor disagreement and neither are actually mad at the other. There’s rarely ever any conflict between the couple and so any sort of disagreement feels like an argument to Jaemin.
“Just go to work, Jaem, you’ve been away for long enough.”
“It’s just work, you’re more important!”
“But it's your whole job. What if they fire you?”
“Don’t be silly–”
“–I’m fine, I don't need you to take me to every single appointment. I know how to catch a bus. I can even call a taxi if you’re that worried.”
“–Hey, seriously, let’s be reasonable. You can’t afford another sick leave.”
“I just want to be there for you…”
Jeno finally calms down, his expression gentler as he holds Jaemin at an arm's length. “I know, babe, and you have. I just don’t want to become a burden. I don’t want you to have to sacrifice things for me. I’m fine on my own, really. I’m a doctor for god's sake.”
This is when Jaemin gets his genius idea. He doesn’t know why he didn’t think of it sooner. “What if you come with me to work?” Jaemin asks, earning a blank look from Jeno. “Like, what if you come help me in the classroom and we can go to your appointment right after. Your appointment is at quarter past three anyway.”
“I guess that would work…”
That’s how Jaemin convinces Jeno to come to his classroom. Jeno sits in a chair way too short for him, watching Jaemin read fictional stories to his kids from the back of the room. Jaemin has his eyes on the children but Jeno is in his peripheral vision, still and silent but not bored. No, Jeno is fascinated, smiling at the way the children laugh whenever Jaemin uses a funny voice for one of the characters.
In the 7 years they had been together, Jeno had not once visited the classroom. Sure, he had dropped by the staffroom once or twice when Jaemin forgot his lunch, and he had driven him to and from school, but he had never really been inside to see it all happen.
“Hey guys, I brought in an assistant today,” Jaemin had told his class, dragging Jeno in behind him with their linked hands. The children, all sitting cross-legged on the floor, turn around with curious grins. They love having visitors to the classroom.
“Is this the guy in the picture on your desk, sir?” One of the girls asks.
“Picture!” Jeno hisses under his breath.
Jaemin smiles even wider. “I want you guys to meet my husband.” It would be lying to say Jaemin hasn’t been dying to say that since the beginning of his teaching career.
Jeno goes red, as if something about being introduced to a group of eight-year-olds is more embarrassing than greeting same-aged coworkers. He offers a small smile. “Hi, I’m Jeno.” The innocent voice Jeno uses tempts Jaemin to just turn around and kiss him. He doesn’t, obviously. Gotta keep things professional. Chenle’s traumatised enough by their kisses and he’s 20 for god’s sake.
“Hi Jeno!” The kids say in unison, some offering excited waves. Jaemin hears one of the boys at the back call Jeno handsome and it makes Jaemin glow with pride.
And yes, there is no homophobia in Jaemin’s classrooms. None at all. There’s a reason why Jaemin prefers teaching the younger grades. He’s not stupid, he knows the extent of his influence as a teacher and he knows that his students are smarter than assumed. Any prejudice and beliefs he preaches in front of his children become a point of reference for them, introducing the kids to the values an adult holds in the real world. Exposure to open-minded and accepting attitudes are something Jaemin hopes all his kids take with them, long after they leave his class. It’s his little contribution to making this world a kinder place to be in.
Jaemin sends the children back to their desks with a writing task. Each student starts a story with ‘Once upon a time…’ before folding the page over their writing and passing it on to the person next to them. The second student continues the story, folds over their section and passes it on without knowing what the person before them wrote. Jaemin tells them to do this five times before taking back their original piece of paper to read the unpredictable stories they had formed. No story comes out any less hilarious than the next.
The kids run off to their bags to fetch their pencil cases, giggling and whispering story ideas to their friends. Jaemin lays out lined paper on each desk, straightening up the name tags as he goes. “We want fictional stories, okay? Is fiction real or not real?”
“Not real!” They chant back eagerly, full of pride when Jaemin claps his hands in approval.
When they’ve settled in their seats, writing as much as they can within the 60 seconds they’re given, Jaemin goes to Jeno’s side. “What do you think?” He asks him.
Jeno peels his gaze off the class to look at Jaemin but his smile doesn’t waver. “They’re lovely, I can’t believe how sweet they are. Makes me wish I had become a paediatrician instead.”
“I meant me, silly. What do you think of me as a teacher?”
Jeno laughs, nudging Jaemin with his shoulder. “What else is there to say? They pick it all up from you.” Jaemin’s heart properly melts at that. “You have 24 kids, 6 on each table, two-thirds of them are boys. The rest are girls and all but two of them wear skirts. Fifteen of them prefer using the bottom pigeon holes for their bags. Eight of them use pen over pencil.” Jeno lists his statistical observations and it relaxes Jaemin to just listen to his voice pointing out a new angle of which to perceive his classroom.
When the timer goes off, Jaemin scrambles to restore the order of his class. There’s a bit of confusion with who to pass their story on to next but Jaemin is quick to help. It’s second nature the way he moves between the desks, memorising who sits where.
Amidst the organisation process, a hand goes up from the back of the room. A little hesitant at first, Jeno goes up to the girl. Jaemin doesn’t notice, too preoccupied by the table of talkative kids.
“Hey, what’s your name?” He asks quietly, crouching down so he’s eye-level with the small child.
“Suki,” she says, eyes crinkling softly as she smiles.
“Can I help you with anything? Your teacher looks busy.”
“Sir is always busy with the boys. They talk too much,” the girl next to Suki snickers as she braids one of her pigtails.
“Yeah, sometimes we take ages to start class because of them,” another girl at the table joins in.
Jeno chuckles, starting to ease into the dynamic of the classroom. They’re kids but they’re more welcoming than most adults Jeno’s met over his lifetime. “Is that so?”
Suki nods. “My arms always get sore because I have it up for so long.”
“Well, now you don’t have to wait. I can help you.”
Suki asks him how to spell ‘because’ and ‘beautiful’ and Jeno borrows her pencil to write it out for her at the bottom of the page. He takes extra care forming each character, a drastic contrast to his normal handwriting (Jaemin complains that all doctors have unreadable writing). When Suki asks him what the word ‘narrative’ means, Jeno has to think a little longer on it.
“By the way, are you really a doctor?” Suki asks. Jeno’s mind blanks for a second, trying to remember if he had introduced himself as one earlier. “He always talks about you,” Suki adds.
Jeno cracks a grin, raising an eyebrow in amusement. “I didn’t know that. What secrets has he been telling you guys?”
“He told us that have a cat called Bongsik.”
“And you like cycling on the weekends.”
“And he complains that your eyesight is really bad–”
“–Hey, are you talking about me behind my back?”
Jeno turns around and Jaemin is there, hands on his hips. He gets to his feet and instinctively pecks Jaemin on the cheek before he even realises he’s doing it. The girls at the table squeal and Jaemin flushes bright red.
“I, uh– um, what?”
“Oh my gosh, you broke him,” the girl with pigtails giggles and Jeno winks at her.
“Is my eyesight really that bad?” Jeno asks his husband, smiling sweetly.
Jaemin recollects himself and clears his throat. “Okay girls, come on, the timer’s already started.” They pout in disappointment but Jeno can tell they’re Jaemin’s kids when they get back to work without complaining.
“You’re an absolute idiot, you know that?”
“I think the bigger idiot is the one who married the idiot,” Jeno says, sticking out his tongue.
Jaemin scoffs but the serious expression he had been trying to maintain deems impossible. “I’m an idiot for you only.”
Jaemin has lunch duty when the bell rings. Jeno promises the kids he’ll go play with them later and they run off to the playground with excited anticipation.
“They love you,” Jaemin observes, somewhat jealous but also a little smug knowing he has good taste in men.
“You’re the one who taught them to be so loving,” Jeno says.
They stroll around the playground, sharing the rolls of Gimbap Jaemin had prepared for them that morning. They soak up the sun which pierces through wisps of clouds in the mostly blue sky. Jaemin takes in long, deep breaths, thankful to be back in the carefree environment of the school ground; much more preferred to the concrete of the hospital parking lots. Suki and her friends skip alongside them, asking questions about how they met, when they got married, how many years they had dated (Jeno looks to Jaemin for help on this one). Jaemin is more than enthusiastic to answer all of them. When it comes to Jeno, Jaemin can talk for hours.
“Jeno! Jeno! Do you wanna play soccer with us?” Some of the children from Jaemin’s class yell at him from the grassy sporting field, waving their arms at them.
Jaemin looks at Jeno apologetically. “You don’t have to if you don’t want to.”
“It’s alright, I want to. I used to play soccer for our Uni, remember?”
Jaemin rolls his eyes. “We get it, you’re good. Go on then, they’re waiting for you.” He watches his husband jog off, fitting right in with the other kids. He plays goalie and although Jeno is a whole head taller than the goal, he purposefully lets a few balls fast, laughing heartily every time the students scream with delight. It makes Jaemin realise that Jeno would be a really good father.
“I didn’t know it was ‘take your partner to work day’?” Renjun chuckles, walking up to Jaemin.
“What partner? I only see a group of children?” Jaemin jokes, shrugging. “What time did you leave Hyuck’s party by the way?”
“Like, 11. Yangyang had work early the next day. What about you two? I didn’t see you leave.”
“Oh, yeah, we left a little after 10. Jeno was feeling a bit overwhelmed.”
“Ah, I get you.” Renjun nods, following Jaemin’s gaze to the soccer field where Jeno blocks a goal this time. “How are you two doing?”
“Pretty well, really. The shock is gone but we’re still adjusting, you know? Figuring out what’s changed, what we have to change, how to deal with it… In the long run, though, I think it’ll get better. The doctors said that cognitive decline affects thinking, not so much functionality, which is good, I’m thankful. I just gotta encourage social engagement and memory training, and just monitor if things change with him.”
When Jaemin turns to Renjun, his friend is smiling at him in amazement. “I don’t know if anyone’s told you this yet but you’re doing one hell of a good job, Jaem. Husband of the year honestly goes to you.” Renjun pats Jaemin’s back, true to his words.
“Jeno’s doing just as much,” Jaemin shakes his head. “He doesn’t show it but he’s trying his best to lessen the impact this has on me. I rely on Jeno as much as he relies on me.”
Jaemin notices the late nights Jeno spends collecting medical literature from Mark and reading updated journals on neurocognition and the developing treatments for MCI. Jeno is as much a doctor as he is a patient, not giving up just because some specialist told him there’s no established treatment yet. At the same time, Jeno is always thinking of Jaemin. Jaemin has seen the way Jeno googles how to work the dishwasher instead of asking Jaemin after a long day, or the way Jeno has started noting the times he feeds Bongsik on the inside of his palm. Jeno has started writing in a notebook too, documenting little things so as not to bother Jaemin when he forgets them later on.
When the bell rings for the end of lunch and Jeno comes sprinting back to him, Jaemin catches Jeno in his arms and nuzzles his face into his neck. Jeno’s sweaty and sticky and there are kids everywhere but Jaemin ignores it. He hopes Jeno understands how grateful he is to have him in his life. Jeno holds him close to tell Jaemin he understands completely.
“Oh, what are you doing out here?”
Jaemin locks their apartment and looks over his shoulder. Chenle is there, leaning over the metal railing which encloses the balcony leading to the elevator. Overlooking the railing is just another apartment complex and so Jaemin furrows his brows, confused at why Chenle is just mindlessly staring across the road.
Chenle turns around and smiles. “Nothing,” he says and stuffs his hands in his hoodie pocket. Truly nothing, with the way he doesn’t even have his phone on him. In fact, Chenle’s whole school bag lays at his feet.
“Alright,” Jaemin tries again, walking up to the boy and placing a hand on the rail. “Why are you doing nothing out here instead of in there?” He nods to Chenle’s apartment door.
Again, Chenle shrugs. “Wanted some fresh air.”
“And you couldn’t get some on the balcony in your place?”
Chenle huffs a laugh, peeking up at Jaemin with another empty smile. “Come on Jaem, you can stop tiptoeing around me. What’s up?”
“What’s up is me trying to figure out why you’re hanging outside your apartment, clearly just coming back from Uni, and not eagerly buzzing around Jisung like you usually do–” Jaemin stops, a thought hitting him. “Is it Jisung?”
Chenle bites the inside of his cheek and looks away, his gaze hovering on the car park below them. “Kinda.”
“Oh, Lele, what happened? Did you guys fight again?”
The last time they fought, Chenle had stormed into Jeno and Jaemin’s place and took refuge on their couch, refusing to return to his own bed until Jisung apologised for pulling out the wifi cable mid-game. It was stupid but Jaemin couldn’t say that he and Mark had argued over better things in their earlier days. Uni did that to roommates.
Chenle runs a hand through his hair, frustrated. “No, it’s not that. It’s just–” he groans, burying his face in his hands. “I don’t think Jisung is well.”
Jaemin frowns. “Is my baby sick?” He asks, alarmed.
“No, well I mean, yeah… just not sick sick, you know?” There’s a sort of relief that comes to Chenle after admitting it. Jaemin brings a hand to his back, rubbing up and down. “And I don’t know what to do, it’s never gotten this bad.”
“How bad is it? Tell me,” Jaemin coaxes.
“I, um… you can’t tell anyone – well, except Jeno, I guess – but we didn’t actually go visit Jisung’s parents the other week.”
Chenle nods. He keeps his head down, still unable to meet Jaemin’s eye. “We went to the Uni counsellor. I– he just hadn’t been doing well these past few weeks. Like, I’d get home and Jisung would still be in bed. He wasn’t eating anything I left him and I know for a fact he wasn’t attending his classes. Jesus Christ, it got so bad his classmates started texting me why the fuck Jisung was never online.”
There’s a buzzing going off from Chenle’s bag but he ignores it. Jaemin ignores it too. “And it was so weird, Jaemin, because there were definitely days he was completely fine too, just rarer. There were days he wasn’t in bed; when he was at the dining table eating ramen and rewatching lectures or taking notes. There were these days when I thought the worst was over and Jisung would keep being Jisung, not the stranger under our roof, holed up in his bedroom. But shit, it’s when I realised I had to stop pretending this was all just a phase that I took him to see someone.”
Chenle breathes in but when he exhales, his shoulders seem to shake with the effort. He leans his head back and sniffles. Jaemin knows he’s trying to stop the tears from falling, he’s been there too. Except, Chenle proves more successful, albeit a little flushed and eyes red. He finally looks at Jaemin and attempts a smile. “Ah, fuck, I hate this,” he chuckles, wiping his nose across his hoodie sleeve.
“C’mere,” Jaemin says, enveloping his friend in his arms. He brings Chenle’s head to rest on his shoulder. Jaemin is a little shorter and it must be straining Chenle’s neck but the younger appears grateful nonetheless, letting himself feel small in Jaemin’s hold. Jaemin mumbles calming words which, although are a bit generic and don’t sound like much, provide Chenle with hushed promises that Jaemin hears him. Truly hears him.
Chenle’s phone goes off again, buzzing in his bag, and this time Jaemin doesn’t ignore it. “I’m guessing Jisung is looking for you,” he says and Chenle pulls back.
“Yeah, he’s inside, actually.”
“Inside!” Jaemin glances at the door.
“I told him I’d bring back food. You know, in case it was a good day.” He finishes with a quiet voice, almost unsure of what he’s saying. “I guess I was scared to go in straight away without guessing which Jisung I’d be greeted with first.”
“So is it a good day?”
Chenle shrugs. “I think so. I mean, if he’s calling me then at least I know he remembers I exist.”
They both take another hesitant look at the door as if it’s the box with Schrodinger’s cat, a paradox of two dichotomous possibilities in space and time, yet ultimately only one state when viewed by conscious eyes. “They told me not to leave Jisung alone for too long.” Chenle clearly has more to say but the situation seems to forbid it.
“It’ll be fine, go check up on him. We can talk when I get back if you like?” Jaemin offers instead.
Something shifts in Chenle’s expression and he looks down at the shopping bags set beside Jaemin’s doormat. “Oh, crap, were you going somewhere?”
Jaemin waves a hand absentmindedly. “Just buying some groceries. Nothing urgent.” He isn’t about to tell Chenle that Jeno is waiting in the car for him.
“Right, yeah, let’s talk later. I’d like that.”
Jaemin squeezes Chenle’s shoulder to reassure him before walking away. As he waits for the elevator, he sneaks a look back but Chenle has already disappeared.
“Jeno, I am so sorry, were you waiting long?” Jaemin speaks rapidly, shoving the shopping bags into the backseat. As he buckles up, he pats around for his phone and wallet just to double-check.
“Baby, slow down, it’s alright.” Jeno puts a hand over Jaemin’s so the latter faces him. “It’s alright, I saw you with Chenle.” For a second, Jaemin looks through the window and remembers he can see their apartment door from the car. “I don’t know what it was but it looked important.”
So Jaemin does slow down. He reminds himself there’s no rush to explain himself when Jeno already understands. “God, there’s so much I need to tell you.”
And Jeno smiles, as patient as ever.
Jeno counts the signs as they drive to the nearest Mart. “There are 30 signs along this route. Seven of them were speed limits, three were to indicate roundabouts, five street signs, twelve route confirmation signs, two stop signs and three give-ways signs, one of which was for a school zone.”
Jaemin still puzzles over Jeno’s more recent obsession with counting things. He’s not quite sure if it's a habit Jeno had picked up on his own or due to his medical condition. Regardless, it’s amusing to listen to your mundane locations described to you numerically. Numbers are consistent and maybe consistency is what Jeno wants.
“What about this sign?” Jaemin asks, pointing to the parking sign he had left the car next to.
“Oh, well if we’re including signs at the location then there are 35 signs in total.”
They walk into the grocery store and Jaemin pulls up the shopping list on his phone. It’s routine the way they shop for groceries. Jaemin tackles the fresh food aisle, not trusting Jeno enough to pick out the ripest fruits or the least-bruised vegetables. As he moves on to the meat, inspecting packages of minced beef, Jeno saunters over to the refrigerated area to grab cartons of soy milk (for his anti-lactose husband) and blocks of butter for brownies. Jaemin wants to go to the snack aisle next when he realises he doesn’t have a trolley.
“Shit, hold this, I’ll be back!” Jaemin empties his arms into Jeno’s and dashes out of the store.
He curses, realising he needs a coin to unlock the trolleys, and starts emptying out his pockets. Jaemin doesn’t carry cash, let alone loose change – who on earth still carries around loose change? Maybe Jeno has–
Jaemin looks up at the sound of a familiar voice. “Oh, Doyoung, hey!”
Doyoung is dragging back an empty trolley and Jaemin lights up with an idea. “Can I have your trolley?”
“What, did you forget to bring coins?” Doyoung laughs but wheels it to Jaemin anyway. “What a coincidence though, I just finished shopping.”
Jaemin frowns. “Jeno told me you were only visiting for a few days. Why would you need to go grocery shopping?
“Doing a favour for Mark and Donghyuck. I am staying at their place after all. Speaking of Jeno, is he okay? We were talking at the party and he kinda disappeared halfway.”
“Oh, yeah, we left a bit early… he wasn’t feeling good.”
“I didn’t… I didn’t say anything wrong, did I?” Doyoung asks timidly, a guilty look in his eyes. “Mark told me about Jeno and I’m so sorry, neither of you deserve it. Maybe I was being a bit insensitive that night.”
“No!” Jaemin says quickly. “Jeno brought it up, actually. He’s just worried you think he’s a bad friend for forgetting why you moved out of Seoul.”
“God, no, Jeno couldn’t be a bad friend if he tried. I’ll admit it was a bit shocking when he asked me but Mark explained it all.”
Doyoung had been a big brother to Jeno, being beside him as he grew up. Though Doyoung and Jaemin aren’t particularly close, they reach a level of understanding when it comes to Jeno. In a way, Jeno exists as a connection between them and Jaemin is thankful for that. Having someone like Doyoung around reminds you there are still reliable people in this world.
“Anyway, I gotta go, I left Jeno inside with armfuls of groceries,” Jaemin says apologetically but Doyoung waves him off.
“Tell him I said hi. Let’s catch up again next time I’m here, or you two could even visit me?” The elder suggests brightly.
Jaemin chuckles. “Jeno would like that. See you, Doyoung.”
“Take care of yourself, Jaemin.”
When Jaemin reenters the store, Jeno is no longer where he left him last. Unease washes over Jaemin and he darts in between aisles in search of a certain brunette. His panic reaches it’s peak in the toiletries aisle where Jeno is crouched on the ground, picking up half the things which had fallen out of his arms.
“Dummy, why didn’t you stay put?” Jaemin asks, helping Jeno transport everything into the trolley.
“You said you needed conditioner,” Jeno replies.
Jaemin goes blank, quite certain he didn’t ask for conditioner. “Oh, conditioner! I meant for the laundry, Jen. As in, fabric softener.”
Realisation settles in and Jeno smiles meekly. “Right, right, I knew that. Sorry, I was a bit disoriented for a while.”
Jeno guides the trolley from the front as Jaemin pushes it from the back, tossing in a pack of toothpaste and mouthwash along the way. When Jeno has his back to Jaemin, the latter sneakily grabs a new bottle of lube and tucks it underneath the toilet rolls.
Sometimes, Jeno guides the trolley to the left instead of the right and they find themselves going in circles around the store. At the counter, as Jaemin starts unloading their trolley, he has to put back the extra carton of milk and the third box of cereal he knows he didn’t get. Ultimately, it takes them way longer than usual to do the groceries that week.
Jaemin collapses on the couch, diving face-first into a cushion and startling Bonsik who had been lying on the armrest. There’s a weird cramp between his neck and shoulder and he groans in pain.
“What’s wrong?” Jeno asks from the kitchen, putting away the groceries. Jaemin knows he’ll have to double-check that everything is in the right place but he feels too much like a melted puddle to move.
“I either need a 24-hour nap or a really good fuck,” he concludes, voice muffled in the cushions.
“Mmm, I think I can help you with that second one baby.” Jeno migrates to the couch, tracing a finger down the seam of Jaemin’s jeans before giving his ass a squeeze. Jaemin whimpers. “Just stay still and look pretty, let me do everything.”
Jeno gropes Jaemin again before lifting him into a sitting position. The way Jaemin’s body tingles reminds him of his minor strength kink. The rolled-up sleeves of Jeno’s blue hoodie reveal his veiny arms each time he flexes them. It turns him on.
“Up,” Jeno says and Jaemin lifts his arms, letting Jeno’s wandering hands caress his torso before pulling the crew neck over Jaemin’s head. Firm hands grip Jaemin’s shoulders and pin him to the back of the couch, exposing every pale inch of Jaemin’s broad chest.
“Fuck, you make me absolutely insane,” Jeno groans, leaning down to press an open-mouthed kiss to his husband’s waiting lips. Their mouths slot together with practiced ease, at the satisfying angle where their teeth don’t clash and Jeno’s tongue has the best access into Jaemin’s mouth. Jaemin attempts to gain some dominance and licks against Jeno’s tongue but they pull apart for air. It’s so lewd and messy, Jaemin doesn’t know if it’s his or Jeno’s saliva streaming down his chin. “This is a sight I’m never gonna forget.”
Jeno nuzzles into the crook of Jaemin’s neck and the latter tilts his head to the side invitingly. Something about Jeno’s plush kisses down his neck and shoulder soothe the cramp there and Jaemin lets out a small sigh. Jeno licks around, looking for the perfect places to suck bruises that’ll make Jaemin writhe in pleasure.
Jaemin loves doing it wet and dirty and Jeno certainly delivers with the way he starts dragging his tongue down the ridges of his stomach, coating it in spit.
“Jeno,” Jaemin pants, tugging weakly at Jeno’s sleeve. “Off.”
Jeno’s mouth leaves Jaemin’s skin momentarily to pull the hoodie over his head. He kneels on the floor between Jaemin’s legs dangling off the couch. Jaemin doesn’t move as Jeno yanks his jeans off him, relishing in the feeling of being lifted to get the pants off. Jeno crouches lower so Jaemin’s legs are over his shoulders and he can suck hickies on the inside of his thighs. Seeing Jeno’s mouth so close to where Jaemin wants it makes his breathing rapid and impatient.
Slowly, oh so slowly, Jeno kisses further up Jaemin’s thigh and licks a stripe up the bulge in his underwear. Jaemin whimpers again. Suddenly, Jeno’s fingers hook at the waistband and slide off Jaemin’s briefs in one swift move. Jaemin is left open and bare within the blink of an eye.
“Why are you so swollen down here?” Jeno mutters, pulling Jaemin’s hips closer to the edge and propping his feet up on the couch. Jeno holds him there by the ankles and Jaemin is completely exposed.
“What do you– fuck– what do you mean?” Jaemin gasps out as Jeno fists his dick. “You fingered me this morning, this is where all my pent-up frustration is coming from.”
“I did?” Jeno asks, smearing precum down Jaemin’s length. “Huh, we might need a redo to jog my memory.” He spits on his fingers and inserts two straight inside. Jaemin’s eyes clench shut in discomfort but the feeling of Jeno’s fingers wriggling in deeper only becomes more prominent. Without lube, the friction burns whenever Jeno scissors his fingers. Jeno pulls them out and Jaemin watches through half-lidded eyes as Jeno licks them, lathering them in copious amounts of saliva before shoving three inside him.
“Oh, fuck, fuck, fuck.” Jaemin thrusts his hips upward at the electrifying jolt of instant pleasure which rushes through his veins.
“I will baby, just wait.” And then Jeno is taking Jaemin’s cock in his mouth. He swallows around it, engulfing Jaemin in the wet warmth of his throat.
Jaemin’s mind is thick bliss, conflicted as he grinds down on Jeno’s long fingers but thrusts up to meet Jeno’s bobbing head. His own screams are deaf to his ears as he comes hard, harder than the last time they fucked. His thighs shake so badly he wants to draw his knees in but Jeno is in the way, draining every last drop out of him.
Jeno lets him go, licking up the base to collect the cum which had dripped out. He looks up at Jaemin with a smirk as the latter struggles to breathe, chest heaving with the effort. Jaemin knows how fucked out he looks, he knows how flushed his cheeks are, how swollen his lips are and the drool down his chin, how his heavy lids are barely open. He knows how wet he is, how tightly his hole is squeezing and the way his dick twitches. He knows because Jeno describes every vulgar detail into his ear.
“Babe,” Jaemin croaks as Jeno leaves a kiss on his cheek.
“Ready for round two?” Jeno asks, voice husky and broken after having Jaemin spill down his throat. Jaemin feels the blood rushing down south.
“I don’t think I can,” Jaemin says, trying to shuffle up the couch. That’s when he realises Jeno still has his fingers inside him.
“I haven’t even given you the really good fuck you asked for yet,” Jeno chuckles, lips brushing against Jaemin’s. The thing about having sex with Jeno is that it’s always good – always too good – because Jeno knows how to hit every nerve, how to bite just deep enough to get Jaemin going, how to apply the right amount of pressure to get Jaemin begging for more. To Jeno, just being ‘good’ has never been enough. He has to be better, has to be able to drive Jaemin to the brink of insanity, has to give Jaemin the most mind-blowing ejaculation that will have him getting hard by just recalling the sensation. Jeno masters playing the instrument which is Jaemins sensitive body.
Jeno’s fingers begin to move again, caressing Jaemin’s insides, stretching it even further. Jaemin moans his name, his legs spazzing from the overstimulation. It’s enough to harden his dick again.
“Round two it is,” Jeno grins.
When Jeno pulls out his fingers, Jaemin feels himself clenching around nothing, suddenly curious to know how open he had been stretched. His heart beats loudly in his ears as Jeno starts unzipping his jeans, pulling them down along with his briefs. Jeno is painfully hard, his cock standing long and thick against his abs. Jaemin salivates at the sight.
“Fuck, Jeno, you’re so hot.” He wants to reach out and caress Jeno’s raging boner, to kiss the tip and taste the saltiness of his precome. Except Jeno doesn’t give him the chance to because he picks Jaemin up like he weighs nothing and turns him around so his chest is against the back of the couch and his ass is out. Jaemin catches on and arches his back so he can lift his hips higher, wiggling them a bit just to tease. He hears Jeno stifle a moan. The tension is so thick that the silence is static in the air. Only the sharp sound of the lube cap being opened pierces through it. “Shit, so you did see me buy it,” Jaemin laughs weakly, remembering how he had not so subtly slipped the lube bottle into the shopping trolley on their way to the checkout.
“God, yeah. You’re so perfect,” Jeno growls, bringing his hands to rest on Jaemin’s hips. The first slap of Jeno length against his ass cheek is heavy and dripping with lube. Jaemin’s hands grip the cushions tighter. “So patient, my perfect baby.” Jeno slaps it against him again and Jaemin bites his lip to stop the unholy sounds threatening to leave his lips. But Jaemin is a weak man when it comes to sex and he chokes out a moan anyway when Jeno slides his cock up and down the crack of his ass, leaving a cold, wet trail that drips down his thigh.
“Please, please, I want it,” Jaemin hears himself sob, somehow surprised when tears start blurring his vision. Jaemin knows he’s needy but fuck, he’s nothing but a desperate cockslut when it comes to Jeno. “Please Jeno, please. Want you in me. Want you to fill me out—“”
Jeno mutters something from behind but Jaemin’s pleading is louder. Finally, (fucking finally), Jeno pushes the head in, luring Jaemin into a false sense of gentleness, before slamming the rest of his length in. The first thrust is so strong, Jaemin has to physically use his arms to stop himself from being slammed into the couch. “You’re so deep baby, fill me up so good,” Jaemin babbles, clenching around the girth to grasp the actual size of Jeno. Jeno is so thick and long and perfect, reaching Jaemin’s every wall and moulding it to his shape. “Oh my fucking god,” he whimpers as Jeno starts to move. He sets an unforgiving pace, the tip probably protruding visibly within his stomach from how deeply Jeno reaches. Helpless moans are fucked out of Jaemin with every firm thrust, getting louder and more pitched as they progress.
“Fuck Jaemin, fuck, you take it so well.” Jaemin thinks Jeno is an absolute monster with the stamina of something inhumane. There’s something so hot about the sound of bare skin slapping against skin, the viscous slick of lube being pumped deeper and deeper into his hole, the way Jeno gruff breathing intertwines with Jaemin’s sobs.
“Ah, harder baby, fuck me harder.” Jaemin is in pure bliss, mind somewhere in heaven or wherever else there are just clouds and complete pleasure. Jeno fucks him at the perfect angle, abusing his most sensitive place and earning a scream every time he does.
It all becomes too hot and too much that Jaemin comes again without warning, somehow even harder than the first. Maybe it’s the way Jeno drills into him harder, forcing it all out of Jaemin. His body finally gives out, completely drained both mentally and fluidly, and Jaemin lets his body hang limply over the back of the couch. Yet, he’s moaning even louder, swearing to god that Jeno speeds up. Jeno’s wraps sturdy arms around Jaemin’s torso, bringing his back flush against Jeno’s sweaty chest. Jeno pummels into him, so desperate and addicted for more. Jaemin wonders if there's anything left of his lifeless body to give him. Jeno snaps his hips forward one last time, burying himself into Jaemin’s heat before cumming. Jaemin can actually feel the impact of Jeno’s release and feels a sense of pride knowing Jeno came hard too. His hips rock gently, making sure he empties every last drop.
Jaemin gets the urge to plug himself, to greedily keep the warmth within – Jeno’s warmth. Jeno proves the telepathic connection once again when he doesn’t pull out and instead pulls Jaemin down on the couch so they’re lying down, spooning, legs so tangled that Jaemin isn’t sure which pair are his.
“Good?” Jeno whispers roughly, inhaling whatever scent there is on Jaemin’s neck. Probably just sweat, he thinks.
“So good,” Jaemin mumbles, snuggling closer. “You fuck like we’re still 20. I don’t know how I’m gonna keep up.”
“I told you you drive me insane,” Jeno chuckles, arms wrapping tighter.
They lie there for who knows how long, chest against back, trying to catch their breaths and their minds from where they had lost them during their high. Jaemin feels the most at home here, on the couch in Jeno’s arms, naked and exposed to the man who lets himself be equally vulnerable in front of him. Yep, post-coital cuddling is the only place Jaemin ever wants to be.
“I saw Doyoung earlier, you know? Outside the grocery store. He gave me his trolley,” Jaemin recalls, intertwining his hand with Jeno’s.
“Who?” Jeno asks softly, curling his fingers around Jaemin’s.
“Kim Doyoung,” Jaemin repeats, twisting Jeno’s wedding band around his finger with his free hand. “You know, the guy you’ve been friends with since middle school.”
Jaemin thinks for sure that Jeno will remember. He has to, Doyoung is his longest friend, there’s no way you can forget someone so woven into your childhood. Yet, Jeno responds with a guilty silence. Jaemin hopes Jeno has just fallen asleep.
“I don't… Baby, I don’t know…” There’s fear in his voice. The anxiety is enough to sober the two of them up.
Jaemin understands now; the counting, the numbers, the need for consistency. Jeno lives in a world where things disappear constantly without his realisation, only to be brought up later with the reminder that he was missing pieces of his own perception. Jeno lives in fear of losing himself, memory by memory. The desperation Jaemin feels during sex is Jeno’s desire to hold Jaemin as the one thing which might – which must – remain the most consistent thing in his life. Jeno is scared to lose Jaemin.
So Jaemin holds Jeno back. His arms hold Jeno’s life together, every fading piece of it. His desperation, his fears, his sorrows, all become something of consistency to the both of them. Jaemin holds Jeno to his own beating heart and tells him that if Jeno cannot trust his own perception of himself, he will still live on in Jaemin’s memory. Jaemin will carry that burden for the both of them.
It’s nauseating being back in the clinics so soon. It’s the same route with fifty-eight street signs, the same grey block buildings, the same headache-inducing disinfectant, and the same rubbery squeak of plastic blue gloves. The only thing that changes is what they tell Jaemin after Jeno’s appointment.
“It’s dementia,” they tell him.
“But he’s 27!” Jaemin exclaims, eyes wide and violent.
“Younger onset dementia occurs in those younger than 65. It’s rare but it can happen. We’re so sorry.”
And it’s back to square one. Square, fucking, one. Maybe even negative one. After all, the phrase is one step forward, two steps back. Being below zero, Jaemin knows there’s no coming back up from it.
At least with cognitive impairment, there hadn’t been a countdown on Jeno’s life. With dementia, inevitable brain damage numbers the days. How many? How many indeed…
The image of Jeno silently studying his own CT scan of his brain like a textbook makes Jaemin feel sick.
As Jaemin enters the depression stage of grief, Mark bypasses denial altogether and jumps head-first into anger.
“Fuck this. This whole fucking system. ‘ Everything we do is in the best interest of our patients’ – fuck that. These doctors – these so-called specialists – know that people with any sort of cognitive decline are prone to further severe brain disorders. He had fucking memory degradation for god’s sake, what other signs do you need? How could they be so fucking careless!”
Mark stops but only to catch his breath. Even his breathing is angry.
Jaemin has never seen his friend in so much rage. The closest had probably been the time one of Jaemin’s exes had fucked him at a party, broken up with him right after, and left Jaemin there dirty and crying. Mark had genuinely wanted to trepan the guy’s skull but in the end, it was Jeno who had snapped and punched him a whole five months later when Jaemin told him the story.
“I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” Mark says stiffly, sitting back down in his chair and resting his forehead in his hands. “It just frustrates me that they made a mistake with the diagnosis. Like, I get it, dementia is not something you can diagnose after a few appointments, but they didn’t even try harder to monitor Jeno. They didn’t consider it a possibility, fuck’s sake. They just told you Jeno would have minor memory and personality issues and let you go with that. I can’t, Jaemin, I just can’t fathom–”
He stops himself again with a groan. Jaemin gets it though. All the anger; he’s been there, done that. But Jeno’s no longer on a gentle sloping decline anymore, he’s plummeting down a vertical drop and Jaemin has no way of getting to the bottom to cushion his fall. Jeno is going to shatter and break into as many pieces as it takes for him to become unrecognisable. Jaemin only just realises the true impact of the change in diagnosis. Jeno, however, hadn’t been fazed at all.
“I think Jeno’s known all along,” Jaemin says quietly, staring at his lap.
“Yeah,” he nods. “I heard him talking to Bongsik the day we got home after his first diagnosis. He was telling Bongsik to look after me because he’ll have to leave us soon. Back then I didn’t think too much of it. I thought maybe Jeno was just getting all sad and sentimental with our cat. But now that I think about it, he was probably just preparing for this. He knew it was coming.”
“So why didn’t he say anything? We could have done something–”
“Done what, Mark? Go back to those snobby specialists and tell them they’re wrong?” There are tears forming in his eyes now, the kind which stings with helpless anger. “You know just as well as I do that there is no absolute cure for dementia.”
Mark gets up from the table and starts pacing the room, jittery with anxiety. He used to always do this the night before an exam. “Why can’t Jeno be more selfish? Why does he always try to hide his pain from us? Who cares if we hurt, at least he wouldn’t be hurting alone.” For some reason, this gets Jaemin to smile. “Why did you have to marry that good-hearted, selfless man? I honestly think it’s worse than having someone who speaks their mind 24/7.”
Jaemin snorts. “Careful Mark, you never know where Hyuck might plant a spy camera.”
Mark looks at him with amusement. “He’s got goddamn cameras all over the house to film his ‘sudden bursts of inspiration’ for new choreographies. There’s no use hiding anything in this house. Jesus, there was one on my nightstand, Jaem, and I only noticed after we–”
“Shit, okay, I get it,” Jaemin interrupts in panic, holding a finger up to stop Mark from talking. The look of disgust Jaemin wears must be hilarious because Mark starts laughing. Something about Mark’s laughs turns any situation into a comedy skit and Jaemin can’t help but laugh too.
“Sorry man, I know you came to hear some comforting words but all I did was swear a ton,” Mark says.
Jaemin just shakes his head. “No, thanks for that. I think I just needed to know there was someone who empathises with me.” The most comforting words are the ones that express agreement. As a student, you always wanted to know there was someone else who hadn’t started the assignment yet too. “Anyway, I should go.”
“Are you picking up Jeno?”
Jaemin had dropped Jeno off at the MOHW centre for an appointment about the details of his health insurance. Mark lives close by, hence why Jaemin had dropped in unexpectedly. “No, I’ll go home and make dinner first. He shouldn’t be done for another half an hour.”
“You could always stay here? Have dinner with Hyuck and I?”
The offer is tempting but Jaemin has to refuse. He and Jeno need to talk about a few things later.
On the way home from Mark’s, Jaemin starts counting the number of people he drives past on the sidewalk. There aren't as many people as there are road signs since it begins to rain so Jaemin finds the task fairly easy. He’s not as observant as Jeno though and knows he missed a few people and probably double-counted somewhere along the way. In the end, Jaemin counts eighteen people. He isn’t sure what kind of people, or how many of each gender, or even the statistics of which direction they were all walking in. He isn’t as attentive as Jeno – the person whose attentive nature led him to research his diagnosis and find the truth behind it. The person who is not only attentive but careful, managing to keep Jaemin happy and naive for as long as time allowed him.
Jaemin has to run to the elevator after he parks the car to avoid the rain. It’s the kind of rain which comes down mildly but the strong winds blow it in a diagonal and there’s no way you can hide from it completely. He shivers as the elevator reaches the second floor and the doors slide open, welcoming the icy winds. The shared balcony is like an open hallway with the left side filled with rows of doors leading into separate apartments whilst the right side is barricaded by the metal railing.
As he approaches his apartment, he notices a figure banging on his door and yelling. “Hey, what are you doing!” Jaemin snaps, grabbing the person by the arm and spinning them around. Their sleeve is heavy with water, suggesting they had been out here for quite some time. The wind blows their hood off and Jaemin comes face to face with Chenle. Except, not the Chenle Jaemin is familiar with. This Chenle is filled with terror, pale face blotchy and red, hands quivering in Jaemin’s grip, the confidence in his eyes replaced for despair. “Chenle?”
“Oh my god, Jaemin, you’re here!” There’s a subtle switch in Chenle’s face from panic to determination as he grabs Jaemin by the shoulders. “Have you seen Jisung?”
Jaemin is speechless, still trying to process everything happening but it’s difficult with the wind whipping his hair into his eyes and the rain soaking through his skin. Jaemin manages to shake his head. Chenle curses.
“Jaem, you have to help me, please. I can’t find Jisung. He left to go somewhere last night and he still hasn’t come home.”
“What!” The word unlodges from his throat and he gasps. “Where did he go?”
“I don’t know! I don’t know. He just took his bike and told me not to wait up for him. I thought maybe he was gonna study at the Uni but he never came home. I’ve asked everyone – I even checked if Jisung signed into the Uni building at all – but he didn’t and no one else has seen him. I freaked out Jaem, I didn’t know what to do. And fuck, I should have told you yesterday but Jisung stopped taking his antidepressants. I didn’t want to be the guy who nagged him about it so I kept quiet. Fuck, I shouldn’t have, I shouldn’t–” Chenle’s body visibly crumbles and Jaemin catches him in his arms. He shivers, not from the cold but from the sobs which wrack through him. Jaemin hadn’t even noticed the tears in the rain.
“Shh, it’ll be okay, we’ll find him. Let’s go to my car, we’ll drive around and look for him that way.”
Jaemin leads Chenle back to the elevator and they run for Jaemin’s car. Chenle’s always been strong, a natural at controlling his emotions and not letting them control him. Jaemin finds himself in pain for the few seconds Chenle had weakened, brittle and overwhelmed. There’s fear in Chenle, both the fear of losing Jisung and the fear of being so emotionally defenseless in front of Jaemin. But Chenle is also resilient. In the car, Chenle somehow gathers himself without much trouble, remembering that any hope is enough to keep him going. Jaemin’s hands shake as he drives but Chenle inspires him to toughen up a bit and be the adult for once.
“I think I know where Jisung went,” Chenle says, looking out the window on his side. “I think he wanted to go back home.”
Chenle shakes his head. “To his parent’s house.”
Jaemin’s eyes go wide. “His parents? Don’t they live all the way in Gangbuk-gu?”
“Over an hour away from here? Yep, that place.”
“And didn’t you say he took his bike?”
Chenle nods slowly.
“Jesus Christ, that kid.”
Jaemin drives like Jisung’s life depends on it but the rain starts pouring even harder and Jaemin switches the windshield wipers to the fastest setting. At times, Jaemin has to slow down well below the speed limit to caution the slipperiness of the road. Just like earlier, how he counted the people he drove past, Jaemin scans the side of the roads in search of a familiar boy with a bike. Jaemin drives down the main roads which lead to the suburb where Jisung’s parents live. It makes sense that Jisung would have followed the main roads too.
Questions buzz through his head. He wonders if Jisung is okay, if something happened to set him off recently, why he would want to return to the home he had left in the first place.
“Jaem! Oh my god, is that him? Over there, can you see?” Chenle jumps around in his seat, pointing at something further down the road. Jaemin has to really squint through the film of water blurring the windows but he makes out the dark shape of a person on the ground, a bike knocked over at their side.
“Fuck.” Jaemin pulls over even though he’s really not supposed to be in the bus zone but desperate times call for desperate measures and this is one extremely desperate situation.
Chenle jumps out of the car before Jaemin fully parks it. “Jisung! Jisung!” Chenle sprints to the collapsed figure and hooks his hands under his arms. “Jaemin! It’s him!”
Jaemin gets out and upon closer inspection realises it truly is the lanky form of Park Jisung, completely unconscious and unresponsive. Jisung is so pale and cold, almost lifeless. His breathing is shallow and his pulse is weak. The first thing they do is carry Jisung into the backseat of the car. As Chenle buckles Jisung in and gets into the seat beside him, Jaemin goes back for the bike and chains it to the rack at the back of the car, courtesy of Jeno’s biking days–
Oh, shit – Jeno . Jaemin fumbles for his phone and he’s already five minutes late to pick him up. However, there aren’t any missed calls and surely the centre won’t close till later. Jeno will understand.
Jaemin drives to the nearest hospital and Jisung is rushed into the ICU for hypothermia. Jaemin finds himself once again in a waiting room but it’s worse this time knowing that Jisung isn’t even conscious right now. The image of Jisung lying there – half-dead on the pavement, skin paper-thin and veins like worms underneath, the blueness of his lips and the empty pulse – flits in and out every time Jaemin closes his eyes. He finds it impossible to associate Jisung, his young and lively friend, with the grey and fragile body in the ICU. It makes him sick. Chenle fidgets at his side, head jerking up at the slightest movement from the ‘Staff Only’ entrance.
“You don’t have to stay,” Chenle tells Jaemin eventually. “I’m gonna call Jisung’s parents. I want them to know what’s going on.”
And Jaemin gets it, this is his cue to leave the private family matters in Chenle’s hands. So Jaemin buys Chenle a coffee, asks a nurse to fetch a towel for the soaking boy, and tells Chenle to text him as soon as Jisung is awake.
Jaemin is nearly forty minutes late as he pulls up at the MOHW building. He had sent Jeno a quick text telling him there was an emergency and he would be late but he still feels horribly guilty. He feels even worse when Jeno gets into the car drenched to the bone, teeth chattering as he speaks.
“Baby, were you waiting outside?” Jaemin sweeps the hair out of Jeno’s eyes. His thumb strokes his cheekbone, so sharp and frozen to the touch.
“Only for the last few minutes. The building closed by five.”
“Shit, I am so sorry.” Jaemin looks around the car for something to dry Jeno off with but the back seat is just as soaked through. Jaemin himself is still damp and lacking any body heat of his own.
“It’s alright, you look like you had it worse,” Jeno says meekly, placing a hand over Jaemin’s which still rests on his cheek.
Somehow, Jeno’s hands are warm. Yet, at the same time, they’re not. They’re gloves of ice and the frail fingers inside are numb. Even so, they offer a sort of comfort Jaemin yearns for. It’s still not enough to save him from the cavity of despair which opens within Jaemin and threatens to swallow him whole.
Jeno just goes on smiling, the crescents of his eyes becoming the familiar presence they hold in Jaemin’s heart. Then Jeno messes up, just for a split second, when he opens his eyes and they falter. Suddenly, familiarity looks strange in the face of discomfort.
“I know you, Jeno. What aren’t you telling me?” Jaemin asks in a small voice and brings Jeno’s hand to his lap.
The way Jeno shivers makes Jaemin wonder if it’s from the cold or something else entirely. “No, there’s nothing…” Jeno trails off, gaze shifting to something behind Jaemin to avoid looking directly at him. “I just had a weird moment. For a second I was really disoriented, like I stepped out of the building and I didn’t know where I was or what I was supposed to do next.”
“But I was okay, really. You texted me and so even if I didn’t know what was going on at least I could count on you coming to find me – to put me back on some sort of path that I could follow.”
Jeno’s smile returns like a sunset, offering Jaemin the last rays of warmth but the light is dying and there’s not a lot of time left before it sinks completely under the horizon.
Something ugly builds up in Jaemin’s throat and he gulps it down to let his voice through. “Yeah, I’m here now. I’ll always be there, maybe not directly by your side but you can always trust that I’ll be there eventually.”
And Jaemin wants it to be true. He so desperately wants to be the one thing Jeno can count on amidst his confusion. Yet, irony presents itself in their current situation; Jeno in the car, soaking wet, waited 40 minutes for Jaemin, lost and scared and Jaemin had been his only hope. Truthfully, how capable is Jaemin, or rather, how qualified is he to stand by Jeno’s side? The audacity he has to offer his aid and still show up late. He disgusts himself.
“Whatever you’re thinking, stop.” Jeno squeezes Jaemin’s hands, showing that the numbness in his fingers has finally worn off. “You’re here now. Let’s go home.”
“Right, home,” Jaemin repeats to himself quietly, turning the engine back on.
Jaemin gets a formal email from his boss one morning. It’s not the best email to receive first thing after waking up. He frowns as he reads it and Jeno is observing his face but neither says anything about it. Frankly, Jaemin is glad Jeno doesn’t ask. How could he tell his husband that he had just received his first warning about being fired if he doesn’t show up to work one more time? He’s not about to give Jeno a chance to say ‘I told you so’. No way in hell.
Jaemin looks up from his laptop and although he had already closed the email, Jeno continues watching him closely. It takes Jaemin a second to realise Jeno is trying to figure out his expression, trying to differentiate between narrowed eyes of disagreement and squinting eyes of confusion. No wonder Jeno kept silent. Jaemin had become so used to having Jeno pick up the littlest details and offer instant comfort or concern. Now, he just gets silence and blank faces more often than not but there’s nothing wrong with that either.
“So are you coming with me today?” Jaemin speaks up, taking a sip of coffee.
Jeno nods. “To your classroom again?”
“Yeah, you have another appointment later today. I was thinking we could do what we did last time?”
“Like, going to your appointment together after I finish work?”
“Oh, right, yeah, that works.”
Jaemin is jittery with excitement as he leads Jeno through the narrow corridors of the school, anticipating the surprised looks on his student’s faces when they see Jeno again. Jaemin loved the atmosphere Jeno brought last time. There had been something playful and mischievous about it, like watching a bonding moment between two unlikely friends. Jeno had just fit right in. Jaemin hoped so badly to recreate that vibe. Hoped .
As he expected, the children are delighted to have Jeno back. They crowd around him the instant he steps inside, giving him high-fives and group hugs. However, the split-second looks of hesitation and slight discomfort in Jeno’s eyes don’t slip past Jaemin.
They’re doing math this period and Jaemin sends them to their desks with a probability worksheet to complete with dice. As usual, Jaemin gets stuck at the end table trying to settle down the group of boys sitting there. They’re nice kids but a little too curious for their own good, as if they wake up with the intent of bombarding Jaemin with strange and sometimes disturbing facts and questions. This lesson, they ask him about cannibalism and Jaemin’s mind immediately searches for ways to dodge this bullet.
In his periphery, a hand goes up from the middle table. “I heard somewhere that tribes will lure in tourists and eat them,” one boy says to Jaemin. “Is it true?”
“Uh…” Jaemin’s eyes wander over to the student with their hand up and feels bad they have to wait. He remembers that Jeno is with them today and Jaemin relaxes at the reminder of extra help.
Yet, seconds go by and Jeno remains in his seat by Jaemin’s desk, scanning the classroom but not making any attempt to move. Eventually, Jeno goes back to writing in his journal. The kid notices this too because she puts her hand down slowly and goes back to work. Disappointment settles heavily in Jaemin’s chest.
“You look bad,” Renjun tells him in the print-room later that day.
“You’re looking pretty bad yourself,” Jaemin chuckles. He waits for his 24 pages to photocopy so he can return to his class which Jeno is supervising. Is it the best idea? Probably not. Jaemin wants to get back as soon as possible.
“Sorry, did I say bad? I mean tired,” Renjun snickers, going to the printer. The machine starts vibrating. “You okay?”
Again, he just nods.
“Just… think about yourself too, Jaem. Don’t forget you still have a life of your own to live.”
Jaemin isn’t sure what Renjun is really trying to say but he never gets the chance to ask. Renjun collects his papers (because the printer is much quicker than the photocopier) and hurries back to his own classroom. Jaemin ponders about what Renjun said for the rest of the day.
Jeno forgets who Jisung is. Kind of.
It’s not a Saturday but there Jisung is, on the couch, next to Jeno in their apartment.
“I’ll be back by nine, Jaem,” Chenle tells Jaemin at the door, shouldering his bag. He opens his mouth again to say something but hesitates.
“It’s fine, Lele! Just go, we’ll take care of him.” Jaemin shoos him out.
Ever since Jisung’s runaway incident, Chenle sticks to his roommate like glue. Chenle swaps face-to-face lectures for online recordings, he relies on workshop notes from friends instead of taking his own, he emails questions to professors instead of attending tutorials. However, this time Chenle has a practical to attend and it’s not something he can do from home. As much as he had wanted to bring Jisung with him, he knows he can’t do that.
Chenle’s last resort had been to send Jisung to stay with Jeno and Jaemin until he returned. Jaemin had been skeptical at first, not having seen Jisung since the hospital (in which Jisung didn’t even remember seeing Jaemin at all that day), but Jaemin couldn’t say no to Chenle.
Glancing back at the couch, Jaemin wonders if maybe it’s better that Jisung takes some time away from Chenle. It can’t feel great being supervised by your best friend 24/7.
“Want anything to eat?” Jaemin asks them both. He’s grateful when Jeno asks for coffee and Jisung asks for one too. It gives him something to do, gives him a reason to leave the room.
Something about being near Jisung makes Jaemin anxious. Chenle had already confirmed that Jisung is stable once more and is keeping up with Uni work so there’s nothing wrong with Jisung’s behaviour at all. It might be the memories that come back to Jaemin every time he sees Jisung’s face. There’s rain in his ears, his eyes, his mouth. He’s drowning as he picks Jisung up and lays him in the car. Then all of a sudden it’s not Jisung but Jeno lying in the car unconscious, so cold like a porcelain doll, so lifeless like one too.
Aside from the constant need to put his thoughts back in place, the night passes by relatively peacefully. They chill in the living room, Jisung taking notes, Jeno is writing in his journal and Jaemin marks off some homework. Occasionally they chat, making brief comments or asking polite questions every now and then. Jaemin eventually leaves to prepare dinner. From the kitchen he can hear Jeno and Jisung talking, this time in a proper conversation, but the stove extractor is blaring too loudly for Jaemin to make out any real words.
After dinner, Jeno returns to the living room to finish reading a paper. Jisung offers to help clear up and begins drying off the dishes as Jaemin washes them.
“Jeno seems different,” Jisung says and it’s the first concrete thing Jaemin has heard him say all day. “Like, it’s not Jeno in there.”
“Did he say something weird?” Jaemin asks, trying to keep the conversation light, scared to dive into anything too dark around Jisung.
“I don’t think he remembers who I am.”
“What do you mean?”
“Earlier, he told me something. He said that he didn’t want to sound rude but he’d been observing me and he thought I looked sad.”
“No, it’s alright, it helped, actually. Talking to him, I mean,” Jisung says wistfully. “Don’t take this the wrong way but talking to someone with no idea of your past is comforting. I don’t know how to explain it, there was just no fear or anxiety talking to Jeno. He was completely objective about everything I said and he brought up something that I know you or Chenle can’t seem to do. But it’s good, really. I think it’s good for me to be talking about it.” Something about the way Jisung describes Jeno is genuine but there’s still regret there. Regret that Jeno, being in this condition, is one of the only ways for Jisung to find solace.
“I’m glad then, if there’s at least someone here you can talk to.” Jaemin wants to reassure Jisung that there’s nothing wrong with what he’s saying.
Jisung puts away the last of the dishes with a newfound rhythm which makes him seem so familiar and in-tune with Jaemin’s kitchen. He’s about to head back to the living room when he pauses. “And I’m really sorry, Jaem. I never got to thank you for the other day… you kinda saved my life.”
Jaemin smiles sadly. “Sungie, you know I’ll always look out for you,” he says, opening his arms which Jisung falls into, wrapping his own arms around Jaemin. “You gave me the nearest thing to a heart attack. I’m just so relieved you’re okay.” He holds Jisung tighter, the way he imagines he would hold his own son if he had one. “I really only followed Chenle’s guidance anyway.”
Jisung nods in agreement. “Yeah, I don’t know if I’ll ever have the guts to tell him directly but I really do love Chenle. It’s the only reason why I still put up with him watching me every waking hour,” he jokes lightly. “I’ve never had a best friend before him. It made me realise there are people out there willing to do anything for someone who isn’t blood-related and it still blows my mind. Sometimes I wonder if Chenle is more family to me than my actual family.”
Chenle arrives after that and thanks the couple a million times, forcing a box of macaroons into Jaemin’s hands as a gift. Chenle tells Jaemin to take care. “Don’t forget to take care of yourself too, Jaemin,” he says before dragging Jisung back to their apartment. “You should care for your own happiness as much as you care for ours.” Jaemin wonders if it’s a coincidence to be told the same thing from both Chenle and Renjun. He wonders what it means.
Jaemin sets the macaroons on the table just as Jeno walks into the kitchen, stretching his arms. “I feel like it’s taking me longer to read one of these,” he frowns at the thick document and sits across from Jaemin. He takes his glasses off to rub his eyes. Jaemin feeds him a macaroon. “Sometimes I just can’t remember a word or I have to reread it ten times before it makes sense. It’s crazy.”
“You can always ask me when you’re stuck. I’m a teacher for god’s sake, who’s more qualified than me?” He says and Jeno laughs. “What were you and Jisung talking about earlier, by the way?” Jaemin asks.
“Jisung? The kid from before, right?”
“Yeah. He said you told him he looked sad.”
“Oh, yeah… I feel like I’ve done something wrong. Was I not meant to say anything to him?”
“No, why would you think that? I’m just curious because he didn’t look sad to me.”
Jeno thinks for a moment, tossing up ideas in his head and forcing the stubborn cogs to turn. “Maybe not sad but he looked a little bit empty. He said he had been doing a lot of reflecting these past few days. I think he’s just conflicted but he seems like he’s working hard to fix it. I– I don’t know if I’m supposed to know these things but we talked about what's been bothering him lately. I’ll admit I was scared that he would say something and expect me to know it and that I wouldn't but that never happened.”
“Have you forgotten who Jisung is?” Jaemin is surprised he asks this. He’s never, up until now, asked Jeno directly if he’s forgotten things.
Even more surprisingly, Jeno shakes his head. “No, not forgetting in the way you’re thinking of. It’s more like, I see Jisung’s face and he looks like a Jisung but I’m looking at a mannequin. He has no story, no past, no background. I remember Jisung but I can’t recall who he is – who he was – to me.”
An unspoken agreement forms between Jaemin and Chenle that day. It’s an arrangement of sorts that works in the best interest of Jeno and Jisung. Chenle refuses to leave alone Jisung in fear of letting certain thoughts plague Jisung again. However, this happens at the expense of Chenle’s class time and it’s not exactly the most ideal situation when finals are right around the corner. Jaemin, on the other hand, has been advised by doctors not to let Jeno go anywhere on his own, the obvious risk being that Jeno’s unpredictable memory may result in him getting lost. Yet, after his first warning, Jaemin knows he can’t take extra days off work. And so it happens that Jeno and Jisung find themselves in each other’s company more often, usually in Jeno and Jaemin’s more spacious apartment. Jaemin agrees to it for Jeno’s sake but also Jisung’s. Maybe Jeno can uncover memories of Jisung and in turn, the younger may be able to uncover his own demons by talking to Jeno.
Mark: hey wanna come over
Mark: unless you’re with Jeno
Jaem: what is this lol
Jaem: are we finally going to have an affair and cheat on our husbands
Mark: can I not just have my bestie visit when I’m bored
Jaem: I thought Jeno was your bestie
Mark: and you married him, therefore you are also my bestie
Jaem: and yet you asked me to come over but not Jeno?
Mark: okay maybe that did sound weird
Mark: all I meant was that I didn’t wanna bother you if you were out with Jeno today
Mark: I know that time means a lot to you two
Jaem: I’m dropping Jeno off at the councilor in a moment
Jaem: will come by after
Mark: okay sweet
Mark: you guys can stay over for lunch or smth
Mark: Hyuck says he can pick Jeno up after work
Jaem: oh great Jeno says thats fine by him
Jaem: aight cya soon
When Jaemin gets to Mark’s house, the first thing he notices is the living room. There’s something different about it. However, the familiar beige couch, the glass coffee table, the TV and the second-hand piano remain in their usual positions. Nevertheless, Jaemin feels like something is… off. It’s the same feeling he gets when he sleeps on the wrong side of the bed.
“Oh, right, Hyuck did some… rearranging,” Mark says hesitantly, locking the front door and joining Jaemin in the hallway. He had noticed Jaemin’s calculating silence.
Jaemin raises a brow. “I see. What exactly happened to the new arrangement? Or is this it and I’ve just forgotten the way it used to look.”
“No, I ended up having to put everything back in its place. Clearly, I haven’t done a very good job if you’re noticing differences.”
“Poor Mark, always having to go along with Hyuck’s spontaneity,” Jaemin tuts.
“Don’t worry, I have Jeno to empathise with me.”
Jaemin scrunched his nose in distaste but let Mark’s unsaid words go unsaid. “Why was he rearranging in the first place?” He asks instead and follows Mark to the kitchen.
“He wanted to move the bookcase next to the piano. You know, so he could display the new turntable and listen to it down here. He was just excited because I took him to a record store yesterday. Except, moving the bookcase means shifting the coffee table, meaning we had to move the couches but it couldn’t be in front of the doorway… yeah, you get the idea.”
Jaemin gets it instantly. Funnily enough, being past roommates meant that they had had a multitude of experiences trying to renovate the interior of their college room. Maybe even a fight or two trying to decide where to position the TV (Jaemin said it was better tilted to the right so he could watch from the kitchen but Mark was stubborn to keep it facing the couch). Later in life, after they had gotten married (to separate people, thank god), they found that their shared struggle to decorate a small space continued into their adult lives. Apartments could be big but never spacious. And well, let’s just say Jeno is definitely a patient man and more than empathetic to Mark’s endurance of spontaneity.
“Wait, which record shop?” Jaemin asks, flicking down the switch on the kettle after realising five seconds later it wasn’t boiling.
“I’ll send you the address. Actually, the whole street was filled with thrifty stores and bookshops. I think it's something up your alley. Pun not intended by the way.”
Jaemin makes them both coffee and manages to transfer them to the table swiftly without spillage, a skill (if you could call it one) he had picked up over his coffee fanatic days. Mark takes a tray of brownies out of the fridge and asks if Jaemin wanted a slice. Being the sugar-lover he is, Jaemin says please.
“How’s work?” Mark asks him over the drone of the microwave. “Haven’t seen you in a while.”
“You know, same as always. The semester is ending soon so it’s been chill and we just do fingerpainting every afternoon. Thank god for that too, I don’t think I have the mental capacity right now to teach them how to count syllables in Haikus. I just can’t.”
Jaemin brings a hand to his temple, just for a more dramatic representation of his stress. Usually, after one of Jaemin’s anecdotal stories, Mark breaks into a smile and then it builds to a laugh. Jaemin can’t explain it, there’s something ingrained in his humour that manages to tick every box for Mark. Maybe it’s the tone of Jaemin’s voice or the way he exaggerates every sentence with a side remark for the sake of hilarity. Whatever it is, Mark’s amusement is usually satiated and Jaemin is blessed with another one of his smiles.
For some reason, however, Mark doesn’t laugh after this anecdote. He doesn’t even offer a smile of sympathy or a small shake of his head with an agreeable sigh. Nothing. Zit. Zero. And it makes Jaemin really nervous, like he had said something wrong.
“Actually, Renjun’s been saying how tired you look at work now,” Mark says, staring Jaemin dead in the face with a tight expression. He only breaks away when the microwave goes off and he turns around to get the brownies.
Jaemin takes a gulp of coffee before saying, “do I look that bad?” He intends for the question to come off as a joke, a defence mechanism to keep the conversation afloat in fear of facing the more serious connotations.
“You do look like you lost weight,” Mark says, completely ignoring the chance at a sarcastic reply of ‘yes Jaem, you always look bad’.
Jaemin wets his lips. “Okay… maybe my fitness routine is finally showing it’s worth?”
The joke here, so very painfully obvious, is that Jaemin doesn’t work out. Never has been one to dedicate a portion of his time to sweat and ache like his husband. But alas, his joke is shut down once again. Mark doesn’t reply and takes a sip from his mug.
“You’re not, like, forgetting to eat, are you?” Mark asks slowly. “Or stress is also a benefactor to weight loss. I hope you’re not overworking your body.”
Something snaps in Jaemin and he places down his mug a lot harsher than he had meant to. “Stop this. Please.”
“Please, Mark. Why do you all keep talking to me like I’m the one who’s sick here? You, Renjun, Chenle, Doyoung– why won’t any of you tell me straight? What are you all trying to say?”
“I’m saying–” Mark says in a loud voice and it startles him. He breathes out and tries again, softer. “All I’m saying is that you need to take a step back, Jaemin, and look at yourself. And I don’t just mean physical appearance. I mean, your whole life– your future.”
Jaemin’s hands are shaky and restless in his lap and he wraps them around the mug, already empty. The ceramic is a dying warmth in his palms.
“You’re a good husband Jaemin. Seriously, we all see that. You’re there at every single one of Jeno’s appointments, you take him out of the house and remind him he has a life outside his dementia, you bend over backwards to make sure Jeno can still live as Jeno. So what about you, Jaemin?”
Unconsciously, the words come out. “What about me?” Words stutter around in his head. Things he wants to say blur with the things he doesn’t want to admit. It makes him confused and helpless being unable to defend himself.
Mark takes his glasses off and rubs his eyes. “Listen, I talked with Doyoung before he left Seoul. He mentioned that he ran into Jeno at the grocery store.”
“Jeno?” If Jaemin remembered correctly, he had been the one to run into Doyoung that day.
“Yeah. Apparently, when he said hi, Jeno walked right past him. Like he didn’t even see Doyoung… or he didn’t even realise it was Doyoung,” Mark finishes quietly.
“Oh, Doyoung… I didn’t realise– he didn’t tell me?” Jaemin fumbles as he speaks, so torn between thoughts.
“No, he couldn’t do that to you. He cried to me about it after, though. It’s traumatic hearing him cry because this is Doyoung we’re talking about. Won’t shed a tear at a friend's wedding but being forgotten by Jeno absolutely broke him.”
Mark finished off his coffee. Neither of them touches the brownies though. The thought of them left an overly sweet taste in Jaemin’s mouth and made him nauseous thinking about it. He doesn’t say anything, just stares at the table and traces the grooves of the wood with his eyes. They reminded him of veins, so dark and visible under the surface of the table’s polished coating.
“Look, Jaem, someone has to say this okay? You still have a life to live. Jeno doesn’t. He can’t look after you the way he used to. The balance is gone. Whilst you keep him in check, who’s there to keep you in check? We try to – Renjun, me, everyone – but there’s no one who can replace Jeno. And I know you. You cling to people. You don’t let go until there’s no one there to cling to anymore. Jaemin, if this broke Doyoung, I don’t want to know what’ll happen when Jeno forgets y–”
Mark gets cut off by the sharp sound of Jaemin’s chair being pushed back. The table shifts violently and the plate slides off the placemat.
“Stop, I don’t want to hear anymore.” Jaemin feels breathless and tense, a dense anger balled up in his fists. He heads for the front door and pulls it open just as Donghyuck puts his key in the lock.
“Oh, Jaem, how did you know–”
Jaemin doesn’t stop walking and curves right around his friend, grabbing Jeno in the process. His husband, who had been behind Donghyuck, is dragged to the car without a word. He wears confusion thickly on his face but doesn’t break the silence and gets into the passenger seat.
Jaemin drives off.
Jeno tells him later that he doesn’t remember the man who picked him up from the counsellor just now. Jeno tells him he doesn’t remember who’s house that was. Jeno tells him he can’t remember Mark when Jaemin tells him the name of his best friend.
The only thing Jaemin is glad for Jeno to forget is his own dementia. He witnesses this once, and truth be told, it’s the happiest Jaemin sees Jeno since his life first capsized.
It happens one Saturday morning when Chenle and Jisung leave after lunch and Jaemin finds himself sprawled on the bed scrolling through Instagram. The brightness of his screen hurts his eyes but he can’t bring himself to untuck his free hand from the warmth of his hoodie pocket to dial it down. He likes a video Hyuck had posted from the dance studio and the few posts documenting Jungwoo and Lucas’s golfing experience. Ten has just gotten a new tattoo and Chenle has a series of dark and blurry pics of Jisung on his Story from their recent party to celebrate the end of finals. It seems to Jaemin that everyone has done something worthwhile with their lives and he wonders why he hasn’t.
Just as he comes upon Renjun’s latest tweet about his six-month anniversary with Yangyang, Jaemin decides he’s seen enough. He sits his body up with a grunt and his eyes find Jeno in the doorway, studying his journal with a look of confusion.
“You okay baby?” Jaemin asks him.
Jeno nods. “Should we get going?” He asks, reaching for his jacket which hung from the hook behind the door.
“Going?” Jaemin repeats. “Going where?” He glances at his phone where a notification would usually alert him half an hour before one of Jeno’s appointments. However, his screen remains dark.
“To the cat shelter,” Jeno says like he’s asking another question. “It says I volunteer to help out there every month,” he goes on. “I just… thought it would be good to go one last time.”
Here’s the thing: Jeno looks like a sinnamon roll but is actually a cinnamon roll to the very core. Picture this: tall, dark, and brooding – a sculpted face frozen with a look of disinterest and a certain depth to his gaze which pierces right through you. This is how Jaemin first comes to know Jeno’s name. Flashforward to when Jaemin comes to know Jeno’s character – gentle hands on his hips, the soft whispers against his ear, the thawed expression of adoration Jeno gave him in the private confines of their relationship. It’s almost as if Jeno conceals himself, hiding from hungry eyes, maintaining his stance as unattainable. No one truly knows Jeno the way Jaemin does. No one truly knows the Jeno who cycles in charity marathons every season, who bulk buys books off amazon to donate to the public libraries after he’s through with them, who volunteers at animal shelters because, “I need to show these cats what true kindness is if they’re to recognise it in their future owners”.
And really, if no one knows Jeno the way Jaemin does, who is Jaemin to deprive Jeno of his rare truths? He smiles at his husband and says “Of course, we’re going. We do this every month.”
The sigh of relief from Jeno is like a gentle reminder of Jaemin’s guilt for forgetting the event. He needs to try harder for Jeno’s sake. There isn’t room for complacency.
10 traffic lights and 15 roundabouts later, Jaemin is parking in front of the entrance to the cat shelter. It’s a small, squat building at the corner of a lonely intersection with uniform white walls and a blue metal sign over the door. The tinted windows make the place look lifeless and if it wasn’t for the few dozen times Jaemin had visited the shelter, he would have thought it closed. Still, it’s a place close to Jaemin’s heart because it’s where they got their dear Bongsik from.
Jeno reaches for Jaemin’s hand and they walk down the path where he pushes open the glass door. A bell chimes overhead.
“Hello?” Jeno calls out.
They stand in a room void of people but not void of life. In front of two of the walls, lined with windows, are shelves of stacked cat appliances and products – canned food, dry food, toys, cat trees, treats – all organised in a particular order. The back wall has a closed-door labelled ‘Staff’ and beside it, a stretch of glass which looks into another room. On their left is the counter which Kun appears from behind.
“Oh, Jeno? Jaemin?” He says in shock. “I really wasn’t expecting you this month. Gosh, this is such a nice surprise.” He wipes his hands down his apron and steps around the counter.
“When have I ever missed my visits?” Jeno laughs.
Kun continues smiling for an awkwardly long period of silence before saying, “I honestly didn’t think you’d come so I actually invited–”
“Hey, guys!” Ten pokes his head out from behind the ‘Staff’ door. “Nice to have some fellow cat owners around.”
Kun turns back to Jeno but even this action is conducted hesitantly. “Well, the extra company is always welcomed. By the cats, I mean. Are you staying this time, Jaemin?”
Jaemin nods. So Kun hands them both an apron which does little to protect them from the cat hair but it’s effective in getting Jaemin in the mood for cat-caring. He realises later that Jeno had been smart in wearing his blue jeans instead of the black ones when he ends up picking cat hair out of them.
They follow Ten through the door which opens up into the back room. It’s here that the true life of the building is kept in.
The room is segmented into multiple little boxes, each one housing a cat or two. They’re generously furnished with beds and squeaky toys and food bowls that refill at regular intervals. If you look through the stretch of glass from the front room, you can peer into the backroom to admire the adorable cats.
Jeno navigates the room with a strange ease and it makes Jaemin slightly jealous knowing that the cat shelter is more familiar to his husband than their own apartment.
“Hi guys,” Jeno mumbles at a pair of cats in one box and he kneels to the ground. The nametags on the gate read ‘Sol’ and ‘Nal’. They’re Jeno’s favourites and as much as Jaemin had agreed he wanted to bring them both home to Bongsik, the couple knew their apartment was too small for three cats. Jaemin knows that despite the greed, Jeno silently prays for Seol and Nal to wait for them to buy a bigger house. “I’ve missed you two,” Jeno tells them, reaching in to stroke their ears.
Jaemin feels like a voyeur, intruding on a private moment – Jeno’s goodbye to them – and he looks away quickly.
“How’s the shelter been doing?” Jaemin asks Ten. He, like Jeno, volunteers at the shelter from time to time but more regularly than Jeno.
“Good, really good. We managed to find homes for quite a few of them last month and it gave us the space to accept more cats. It sucks, you know, when we can’t save every lost or abandoned cat they give us.”
“What– what happens to the cats who can’t stay here?” Jaemin asks slowly.
Ten bites the inside of his cheek. “We can contact other shelters and transfer them. If not… You’d have to ask Kun that, I’ve never really asked directly myself but I can take a guess.”
Jaemin dismisses the sorrow which wells in his chest and quickly changes the subject, asking if there’s anything he can do to help.
He spends the next half an hour refilling water bowls and although it’s a tedious and repetitive job, it gives Jaemin the opportunity to meet all the cats. He particularly likes the coffee-coloured Birman called Tira (short for tiramisu, Kun had revealed) who rubs her head against his hand in greeting. Jaemin says hello back by giving her long strokes down her silky stomach. He also grows fond of the grumpy Siamese, Darling, who barleys lifts an eye from the corner of the bed when Jaemin changes the water. Something about Darling reminds Jaemin of a sulky Jeno and he can’t help but laugh at that.
“What’s so funny?” Jeno asks, coming up behind Jaemin who crouches in front of Darling’s gate.
“Looks like you when you’re annoyed with me,” Jaemin remarks. It’s something about the way Darling squints at him and yawns before shuffling to face away from Jaemin.
“Huh, I’m pretty cute then, aren’t I?”
Jaemin earns a kiss because of that and his ears flush red.
“Come with me, I’m taking Seol and Nal to the outdoor pen.”
Jaemin gathers Seol in his arms and the patched tabby curls against his chest. He feels her small, warm body breathing against his own and the soft fur in which his fingers get lost in. Seol is precious and triggers a violent instinct in Jaemin to protect her with his life. Whether it’s just an innate human feeling to prevent harm to loved ones or complete emotional manipulation cats consciously deploy, Jaemin is willing either way.
He follows Jeno, who holds Nal, through the back door into a sunlit yard. It’s a small square area of grass, enclosed by high cat-proof fencing and shaded by umbrella-like trees. They place Seol and Nal into the large outdoor enclosure and the cats instantly start bounding through the tunnels and up the wooden slopes onto makeshift platforms. It’s like they’re sunlight charged and doubling in energy compared to when they were inside the building.
The pair sit on the bench near the enclosure, observing the playful cats chase each other through the grass like children. Jaemin finds that it’s a lot like watching his own students on the playgrounds, minus the stress.
“You know, it’s Seol’s birthday next month.”
Jeno nods. “I’ll come back here and bring her a gift. Maybe a toy or a cardboard box for her to mutilate.” He laughs at that.
Jaemin laughs too and hopes his expression doesn’t betray him. Forced laughter is easy to imitate but a look of amusement isn’t. When he looks over at Jeno, his husband is watching the cats but Jaemin doesn’t mind. He likes Jeno’s side profile and the way his eye-smile looks from this angle. He’s tried to capture it on his camera a few times but eventually gave up, knowing that it’s impossible to beat the real thing. He regrets it now though, wondering why he didn’t try harder to photograph something which he clearly can’t have forever. Photos may not be the real thing but they are timeless and that’s something the human expression fails at.
It’s been a while since Jaemin’s seen Jeno’s face glow in this way. He had forgotten how his eyes crinkle in the corners and the natural upturn of his lips. It’s like seeing a long-lost friend – that precise moment when your eyes meet and you see in slow motion the way their face breaks into genuine delight. You can’t help but smile back and so Jaemin does. He smiles in a way that says ‘welcome back’ to the Jeno who is healthy and alive, who doesn’t need to worry about whether or not he can make it for Seol’s birthday, whose love for the cats is ingrained deeper than memory.
What happens to the cats who can’t stay here? What happens to the humans who can’t stay here? Society doesn’t have space for them. Where do they go when there’s no space? I’ve never really asked directly myself but I can take a guess.
Jeno finally feels Jaemin’s stare and he turns to meet his gaze.
“You’re right, Jen. We’ll get Seol the biggest cardboard box for her birthday.”
No one knows Jeno the way Jaemin does and so Jaemin lets Jeno forget his dementia, even for just a few seconds more. If it’s for Jeno or Jaemin’s sake, that’s something he’d rather not think about.
They share a smile. An empty promise. A silent goodbye. It’s now that Jaemin lets go of Jeno’s hand, letting go of the Jeno who still has hope of returning to the shelter.
We talk about how heartbreak feels – we wax poetic, daydream, write whole essays and novels, sing timeless songs, produce art – something about the pain inspires creativity. Frankly, it’s quite insane but maybe that’s what makes it so, so human.
But when Jaemin’s heart breaks, he doesn’t feel it. He hears it. His chest is numb as the beating organ inside cracks into pieces, the sound of shattering glass is unmistakable. He didn’t know there was a sentence powerful enough to embody heartbreak, but it’s there, he hears it loud and clear. Well, it’s not loud, nor noisy, or ear-splitting. It’s soft, a deadly quietness, deafening in the way silence can be sometimes. That’s what Jaemin hears as he wakes up this morning and Jeno asks him: who are you? Three words, disguised in Jeno’s voice, are the words of a stranger.
Immediately after, the physical pain hits. It registers in waves, each lasting longer than the last. Every time Jaemin’s head surfaces for a gasping breath he is pulled back under another wave. Ocean water is sharp and piercingly cold against his raw heart, gouging thin fingers into the cracks and tearing it apart. It sounds like tearing paper – tearing their marriage certificate into shreds.
“I– I’m so sorry, I can’t really remember…” Jeno begins and then stops, his eyes going wide as they fixate on Jaemin’s face. One moment, Jeno’s brows are knitted, his lips parted with the intent of saying more. The next moment, the sharp lines of Jeno’s face blur softly through Jaemin’s fragile lens of tears. They don’t fall, just gather in his vision, as if to protect him from seeing too much of the man capable of damaging him further.
“Oh, shit, are you okay?” Jeno twists his body away and Jaemin fears he’s going to leave but he turns back around with a tissue box in his hand. “I’m so sorry. I have a sort of cognitive impairment and I’m losing my memory. I don’t remember bringing you home.”
Well, fuck. Nothing in Jaemin’s 26 years of experience has prepared him for this. Where was the medical guide on ‘how to respond to your partner forgetting you live together’ or ‘caregivers guide to coping with your husband waking up and thinking you’re a hookup he can’t remember'?
Jaemin breathes his last breath before he is pulled under for good. Abruptly, he sits up, startling Jeno, and climbs out of the bed, heading straight for the bathroom. He closes the door and presses his back against the wood, feeling the uneven ridges dent his bare skin. He slides down and crouches on the tiled floor, face buried in his hands. “Fuck, fuck, fuck.”
It’s happening as Jaemin had always known it would. He just isn’t ready for it yet, it caught him off guard, it isn’t supposed to happen now. It shouldn’t ever happen but it is. Jaemin knows he’s being delusional, he knows he’ll never truly be ready to face it.
As Jaemin lifts his face from his hands, he sees his bloody and broken heart laying in his palms, torn beyond recognition and repair. He sits and stares at it, like picking apart roadkill with your eyes as you drive by, telling everyone else in the car “there’s the flesh of a dead animal on the road”. He sits and stares for a few minutes, a few seconds extra, maybe he could even stretch it to a couple of hours and possibly a lifetime. At least that way, he won’t have to face a lifetime without Jeno.
Suddenly, the bathroom door slides open and the wood scratches across his spine. A pair of arms wrap around Jaemin’s torso and squeeze him tightly into the naked chest of the hugger. Jeno’s skin is warm and familiar, halting the shivers running down Jaemin’s arms.
“I’m so sorry, Jaemin. I am so, so sorry.” The words in Jeno's voice are Jeno’s words again, the stranger gone but not without a trace.
“Say it again. My name, say it again.” Jaemin looks over his shoulder and meets Jeno’s eyes, red and irritated behind his glasses.
“Jaemin. My Jaemin. My beautiful husband, Jaemin. I love you.”
Jaemin’s heart heals a little; just a little. Through a choked laugh, Jaemin smiles and holds Jeno’s face. “I just needed to hear it one last time,” he says because although he isn’t prepared to let go, he’s inching back bit by bit. One ‘last time’ at a time. “Thank you for loving me for as long as you could.”
Jeno leans forward and kisses Jaemin deeply. Kisses him because his world is ending. Kisses him because it’s truly the last one they will ever share. Jaemin loops his arms around Jeno’s neck and pulls him closer. Jeno’s mouth is soft and wet against his own, familiar until it’s foreign and Jaemin’s mind can’t differentiate himself from Jeno. Clumsily, Jaemin’s body gives out and they tumble to the bathroom floor. Jeno hovers a breath above Jaemin, one hand behind his head to protect it from colliding with the tile. In the moment, they forget everything and Jeno’s laugh is the most natural thing in Jaemin’s world. Jaemin smiles at him lovingly.
“I’ll always love you, Jeno.”
Jaemin turns around and for a second he sees a familiar blue hoodie and he’s hopeful. Yet, it’s just Jisung there, a bag over one shoulder and a helmet under his other arm.
“Just got back from class?” Jaemin asks, walking up to his friend.
Jisung nods. “Are you going to visit him?” He asks cheerfully.
“Yeah, did you want to come again? I’m sure they won’t mind.”
Jisung’s face dims as quickly as it lights up. “Oh, not this time, I’m sorry. I have a group project due tonight. Can I come next time?” He pouts.
Jaemin coos, pinching his cheek. “Yeah, for sure, you know he’s always happy to see you and Chenle.”
As Jaemin drives off and Jisung waves at him from the balcony, he realises it’s better Jisung doesn’t come with him this time. There’s someone else he has to see first; it’s a visit long overdue.
He tries counting the number of signs as he drives but he loses track after counting his eighth sign for the third time.
Jaemin pulls up in front of Mark and Donghyuck’s house. His hands shake as he presses the doorbell. He has to wipe his palms on his jeans when he hears someone inside the house yell, “hang on!”
The lock clicks and the door opens. Jaemin sucks in a breath when Mark appears there, glasses wonky on his nose and mismatched pyjama shirt and shorts on.
“Jaemin, hey?” He says in genuine surprise but not in a disappointed way. “I, uh– you didn’t tell me you were coming over. I could have dressed a bit more, um, nicer or something.” For all his stuttering and flush of embarrassment, Jaemin wonders how he could have fought with Mark in the first place. He hadn’t talked to Mark since then (nearly two weeks ago) after ignoring all his attempted calls and texts.
“What, I can’t visit my bestie when I’m bored?” He asks with a hint of a grin.
Relief fills Mark’s smile and he steps aside, holding the door open wider. “God, you’re right, what am I saying? This is the nicest I’ll ever dress for you.”
They sit in the kitchen in the same seats they had had their last conversation. The memory fills Jaemin with remorse. When Mark offers to make coffee, Jaemin declines and explains he isn’t staying long.
“I just wanted to apologise for last time. I lashed out and I really didn’t need to, you were just voicing what everyone else had been trying to warn me of and I was actively avoiding it.”
“Jaemin,” Mark starts gently, placing a hand over Jaemin’s which rests on the kitchen island. “I wasn’t hurt, okay? I went too far and it was honestly just thoughtless of me. I don’t know what you’re truly going through and I shouldn’t have acted like I knew what was best for you. So, really, I’m sorry.”
The uneasiness which had been haunting Jaemin since their fight instantly dissipates and he chuckles. “Eight years, Mark. It took us eight years to get us to say sorry to each other. I didn’t even apologise that one time I fell asleep and locked you out of the dorm all night.”
“Shut up, don’t remind me. I keep a spare key under the succulent pot outside now because of that. I get scared Hyuck will lock me out one day if I piss him off hard enough,” he groans. Still, they both laugh about it and Jaemin says something about how Mark should be grateful that it happened.
“So, how are things? You’ve declined every single one of my calls, I was almost convinced you had blocked me or something.”
Jaemin’s face falls like he’s just recalled a bitter memory. “Actually, there’s something I wanted to tell you. I’ve only told our neighbours so far and I’m sorry I didn’t tell you sooner.” He waits for some sort of reaction from Mark but there’s nothing, only a patient nod to urge him on. Jaemin exhales nervously. “Jeno moved back into his parent’s house a week ago.”
“What!” And there it is, the reaction Jaemin had been anticipating. “No, you’re kidding. Why?” Mark gives him a funny look like he doesn’t completely believe Jaemin but it’s also a look of dread.
“It happened, Mark. He woke up one day and didn’t know who I was.” His eyes water as he says this and he sniffs them back, telling himself he can’t cry every time he says this. “And Jeno, that idiot, had already planned it all with his parents in case the situation ever came about. He’s under their care now, I couldn't do anything about it. They took him away and I let them. It’s what Jeno wanted in the end.”
Jaemin doesn’t cry – or he doesn’t think he does – but Mark pulls him into a warm hug anyway and they stand there like that in the middle of the kitchen. He gently strokes a hand down Jaemin’s back and pulls his face into his shoulder. Jaemin lets him because he doesn’t realise till now how much he had missed being held.
Jaemin’s grief is bottomless but not in the way a free fall is. His grief isn’t an endless empty hole. Jaemin is there, shovel in hand, digging out the grief spoonfuls at a time. The only thing which keeps him going is the hope that there’s an end to it someday – an end that exists not in reality but in his fantasies as a way of keeping him going – a delusion if you will. Yet you find that over time, your muscles strengthen and the heaviness of the shovel gradually feels lighter in your hands. Each pile you dig up becomes less of a burden and more of a step in your repetitive routine.
The ocean had swallowed Jaemin whole that day but he still tries to swim up until there’s no more breath in his body. Once again, he hopes there’s an end to it. No one tells you when grief ends and so it’s impossible to ever find out if it does.
Later that day, after Mark promises to visit Jeno soon, Jaemin thanks him and says goodbye before driving to Incheon – to Jeno.
There’s a real, tangible fear which eats at Jaemin as he knocks on the door and waits. His heart beats with anxiety and his breathing is unsteady. It’s Jeno’s father who greets him and says, “is that you again, son-in-law?”
Jaemin forces a grin. “Don’t pretend you weren’t expecting me,” he says and Jeno’s father laughs in agreement.
“He’s out on the veranda. My wife is at work right now but she’s always nagging me to get him out of his room while the sun is out.”
“Mother’s know best, don’t they?” Jaemin says.
Jeno’s father returns to the kitchen to finish making the Gimbap he had started. When Jaemin offers to help, he firmly declines. “ He needs your presence more than I do.”
Jaemin knows he’s right and he’s just stalling, really. He does this every time he visits, though unsure as to why. Maybe it’s because every visit is unpredictable, or because every Jeno he visits is unpredictable. He has to remind himself it’s still Jeno out there either way.
As Jaemin steps out onto the veranda, he shields his eyes from the sun which has already begun its descent down the horizon. It shines directly into his face. He spots Jeno the moment Jeno sees him.
“Oh, hey, um…”
“Right, sorry. Hey Jaemin.” Jeno bookmarks the novel in his lap and places it on the wooden patio table. He’s reading ‘The Housekeeper and the Professor’ and Jaemin finds it achingly ironic.
Jaemin lowers himself onto the couch beside Jeno, but not too close. Just enough distance to tell Jeno that Jaemin is someone who knows him and knew him.
“You were here yesterday too. And the day before that,” Jeno says. “We must have been close.”
“You getting sick of me already?” Jaemin chuckles, picking up Jeno’s book and flipping it over to scan the blurb. The weight of the book feels familiar in his hands because it’s one of the first books Jaemin had ever recommended to Jeno. It’s nice seeing it again after all these years. It’s nice of his parents to keep Jeno’s things in his old bedroom as if they had known he would return.
“The opposite, honestly,” Jeno answers and it makes Jaemin look up at him. He hadn’t expected a reply. “I’m glad I made a friend like you, Jaemin. You visit me, even after I can’t remember things like how we met or why you insist on keeping me in your life.”
This is another thing Jaemin still cannot get used to: Jeno’s directness. Jaemin knows it’s another change to Jeno’s personality due to his lost memories of his original self but it’s hard to remember that the person Jeno had been is no longer the person he is now. The quiet, thoughtful man no longer exists, replaced by someone who speaks his mind freely and without filter. Maybe Jeno’s perception of social conversations no longer differs from the ones in his head.
“You’re a special person in my life, Jeno. I don’t need any other reason than that to enjoy your company.”
What hurts the most isn’t that Jeno refers to him as a friend. What hurts is that Jeno can never have him as more than a friend anymore and that Jeno is aware of it too.
Still, Jaemin doesn’t give up on him. He continues visiting Jeno after work every day, even for an hour when he’s limited on time. Gradually, though, he begins visiting every other day and that slowly turns into only weekends. He tells himself that at least on weekends he can spend the whole day with Jeno.
Knowing that Jeno can be a new person every day somewhat cushions Jaemin’s pain. There are days Jeno will smile at Jaemin and tell him with pride that he remembers him. Those are the best days. Those are the days they lounge around together watching movies, laying against each other on the couch as they read separate books, walking side by side around the neighbourhood listening to music through shared Airpods.
That’s not to say that there aren’t bad days either. Hell, there are more bad days than good. It’s days when Jeno doesn’t smile but stares at him with empty eyes and a frown. He’s unable to conceal his pained expression when Jaemin has to reintroduce himself again and tell him he’s a visiting friend. It’s days when Jeno picks up a book and says that all the words on the page look like characters from another language. It’s days when Jeno’s completely lost himself in a state of disorientation that Jaemin can’t do anything but sit with him quietly and offer Jeno his presence.
People like to tell Jaemin to move on, to get on with his life and start afresh. What they don’t understand is that Jaemin can never truly restart when Jeno has integrated himself into Jaemin’s personality and lifestyle.
Are you divorced? No? When are you going to? You should meet other people, it’ll help to forget him. I can introduce you to someone. No? Don’t you think it’s unhealthy for you to continue living this way? It can’t be good for your mental health. Are you sure you want to do this for the rest of your life? Oh, ok. Well, I’m here if you need to talk, alright?
“You know, Jaem,” Jeno brings this up one afternoon whilst setting up dominos. They’re working from either end of the trail. “I wonder about this sometimes.”
Jaemin hums but doesn’t look up, too busy trying to balance a domino on one of Jeno’s books. He’s reading the medical autobiography ‘This is Going to Hurt’ and it makes Jaemin smile knowing that Jeno still has some sort of ingrained love for medicine. “What is it, Jen?”
“I just wonder what my life would be like if I wasn’t like this,” he says casually. “There are so many things I’d want to do if I was still well. I’d drive a car, maybe adopt a cat, work as a doctor….” When he pauses, Jaemin looks up at him. Jeno licks his lips before continuing shyly, “I’d ask you to go out with me. Take you on a date. I really I like you, Jaemin, but even I know that you deserve someone more socially acclaimed. If I wasn’t sick like this, I’d be that person for you.”
Jaemin nearly chokes on a gasp. “Oh, Jeno–” we’re married… He swallows hard but the tears feel thicker in his throat. He forces it down, breathing in through his nose. Jeno places down the domino in his hand and sits up, waiting anxiously for Jaemin to say something. The latter puts on the kindest smile he can muster but it feels fake and deceitful.
“That’s really sweet Jeno but I’m sorry,” Jaemin laughs nervously and holds up his left hand where his wedding band glints on his fourth finger. “I actually have a husband.”
Jeno’s eyes go wide. “Oh, god, I’m so sorry, did I forget? If I had known…” Jeno blushes and looks away, picking up the domino again to make himself busy. “He must really be an amazing man to get someone like you,” he mumbles.
“Yeah,” Jaemin says softly, staring at Jeno. “He truly is amazing. You knew him well.”
Cognitive impairment and neurological disorders are just as much of an emotional struggle as it is a medical issue. Jaemin had made the mistake of forgetting the biggest risk of Alzheimer's disease.
A brain that degrades rapidly, erasing itself memory by memory with no sign of stopping, disappears for good one day. The only question is when that day arrives because when it does, there’s no delaying it further.
They tell Jaemin that Jeno had been gone long before his day came, like it’ll comfort him to know that. It doesn’t. It’s like winning all his battles for the past few months, only to lose the war.
Jaemin grieves for the Jeno who loved him, not to be mistaken for the Jeno he loved because Jaemin will love Jeno’s soul unconditionally. He grieves for the Jeno who held memories of their marriage, their wedding, the first time they moved in together, the first time they made love, the first time their eyes met. You can preserve memory but once it’s lost there is no way of returning it to the empty vessel which contains us.
Jaemin gets one last conversation with Jeno after he’s gone. It’s one-sided at best but the conversation arrives in the mail one morning in the shape of Jeno’s journal.
Jaemin doesn’t open the package immediately. He’s scared. He lets it sit there on the bed like it’s Pandora’s box and stares at it from afar. He isn’t sure how long he’s there or what he’s waiting for. He just sits. Stares. Frozen. It’s easy to let time escape him. There’s no one to walk in on him, to remind him it’s two hours past dinner time, to lay beside him on the bed and patiently wait for him. Time means nothing to the lifeless. Time means nothing to the uninhabited husk of his body, purged of his heart weeks ago. The dead don’t need to concern themselves with the future for they are stuck in the present, where they remain in the past of the living. The living who move forward without them.
Jaemin blinks and it’s pitch black. The bedroom is cast in shadows with a single stream of light coming from the streetlamp outside his window. He can’t tell if he had fallen asleep. He must have because Bongsik is on the pillow beside him now, curled up in the cotton and lying there undisturbed. Jaemin reaches out a shaky hand to pet her but his fingers come into contact with the hard edges of the package. Bongsik lay next to it and somehow it looks less threatening now. It’s clear what the cat is trying to tell him as she purrs lowly.
He finally peels back the paper and opens Jeno’s journal. It begins like this:
My first memories are of you, Jaemin.