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para ti, no moriría (for you I would not die)

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“And the most terrifying question of all may be just how much horror the human mind can stand and still maintain a wakeful, staring, unrelenting sanity.”

- Stephen King

 

...

 

Jaemin is very still. That is the first thing that Jeno notices, the first trait he marks down in his head.

Jaemin is very still, and very, very cold.

 

...

 

Jaemin died on a Tuesday.

Jeno remembers it so vividly, like a painting in his mind that he has seen hundreds of times. There is timelessness in the memory, pain painted across the canvas of his recollection in streaks of red and cloudless blue skies.

It was after school one day, and they had been planning to see each other later. Jeno had stayed after for dance practice, and Jaemin had simply shrugged at his apology.

“Well, have fun loser,” he had said playfully. “I’ll see you later!” He had given Jeno a bright smile and headed down the street. Jaemin always walked home.

It was the last smile Jeno would ever see.

Jaemin was hit by a car right in front of his house, and Jeno can see the image in his mind with such clarity it is almost like he has been there, like he actually saw the way Jaemin’s head lolled on the pavement against the fallen cherry blossom petals, the ground damp with afternoon rain. If Jeno closes his eyes, he can still see it, like a photograph.

He went to the funeral as a courtesy, and afterwards he went home dressed in all black and stared out the window until his eyes burned.

Jaemin shouldn’t be dead.

And Jeno vowed that he wouldn’t stay that way.

 

 

Grief has a funny way of clouding our decisions. We deny the truth, and we rage against it, and we scream and shout and cry.

Jeno does none of those things. It could be said that the grief Jeno feels is too deep for displays of sadness. There is a thought that runs through his mind, something he had learned about customary suits of solemn black, something about the trappings and the suits of woe, but he cannot remember it now.

The trees behind his house whisper and whisper, a hush in the wind, and as Jeno watches they wave at him. Beckoning.

 

 

“It’s a shame what happened to him,” Jeno’s aunt says one rainy afternoon, eyes worried. “Such a sweet boy.”

Yes, that was Jaemin - smiling, and sunshine and easy laughter. Ever the charmer. Jeno simply watches her move around the kitchen, busy and anxious. 

“A shame,” she murmurs, eyes fixed on the dark trees. “A shame.” 

She worries at the cross hanging around her neck, silver through and through, pure and shining. Her eyes are far away, looking beyond what she can see. Jeno imagines she sees nothing.

He leaves.

 

 

As a kid, Jeno would listen to the trees whisper.

His aunt had forbidden him from going into the woods - it was dark, and dangerous, and some whispered that there was something unnatural there. Preternatural.

Jeno was a kid, and didn’t care.

The first time he had gone into the woods it had been raining, the downpour torrential. It bounced off the trees and slithered across wet leaves, it created miniature rivers that pooled into tiny waterfalls. Jeno had been enchanted but the rain soon became too much and he had ducked under the trees to escape the worst of the storm.

When the rain finally eased he found that he was deep within the forest, in a small clearing peppered with stones. Jeno had clambered over the fallen logs and wet grass to find that the stones were not simply stones - they were graves.

Graves for cats, for dogs, rocks and chunks of wood engraved and painted and scratched with names. It had been so cold, then, and Jeno had simply wondered at the small cemetery.

He had headed home, leaving the rain and the forest behind.

However, the forest had never left him.

 

 

This is the truth - Jeno wouldn't let Jaemin rest. Couldn’t.

They didn’t bury Jaemin’s coffin immediately because the rain made the soil heavy and so Jeno jumped into his grave and pulled Jaemin out. Pulled Jaemin out of the ground and carried him to his house, to those woods. Jeno remembers that dead weight, the stiffness in Jaemin’s limbs, the ashen quality of his skin. He remembers it sometimes, the memory more like a nightmare.

He had buried Jaemin there, instead - a shallow grave dug with his hands. He cleared away the sticks and stones and piled Jaemin’s body into the dirt, hastily covered it. The moon had laughed at him, he felt - the trees had watched.

Jaemin had been so cold then. Cold as ice and almost translucent.

Jeno buried him, and waited.

 

 

It only takes three days.

Jaemin died on a Tuesday, was buried on a Thursday, and when Sunday came there was a rustle in Jeno’s mind, a movement in the trees.

When Jaemin came out of the woods he was so pale Jeno could fancy him a walking spectre, and he could almost imagine the trees parted for him to pass. He stood at the treeline and their eyes locked from Jeno’s upstairs window. He ran down the stairs and out the back screen door, but Jaemin had still not moved, still as the trees and ever so pale.

It was almost as if he had needed an invitation to be more alive.

He wasn't sure what to say. All his words had dried up in his throat like a stream spread too thin.

“Are you glad to be back?” Jeno asked, voice curious. Jaemin stared at him, silent for a moment, hand curling and uncurling.

“Yes,” he had whispered, voice stiff, rusty, unused. “I’m glad to be back.”

 

 

Of course, there are complications with bringing someone back from the dead. The first is that no one can know Jaemin is alive. Jeno hides him in the attic he calls his room and hopes his aunt doesn’t get too curious. A secret is only a secret until someone else finds out.

Jaemin doesn’t bat an eye as Jeno wipes the dirt off his skin. He’s still wearing the suit he was buried in, and the black jacket and white shirt have both become encrusted with dirt. Jeno removes the jacket and decides it is best to just get rid of it. Why keep such a dirty thing? The same could be said for Jaemin.

Jaemin is quiet. His lips are almost white and he moves with a stiffness that he cannot seem to wear out of his limbs. Jeno hopes that this will get better with time, like everything else. Hopes that everything will be better, in time.

He hopes, and hopes, and hopes.

 

 

Jeno must continue on with his life. He must remain normal, must maintain that facade of sadness everyone expects to see. He is not sad because he is not mourning. Why would he be sad for a friend that is not dead?

Jaemin’s death was just a temporary phase. He thinks of it like that, creates his own perspective, and imagines that everything is fine.

 

 

Jaemin carries the scent of the dirt he was buried in with him. It clings to him like a cloud, like a hand that will not quite let go of him. Jaemin washes and Jeno gives him clothes that should smell of nothing but soap and skin but still he smells like the decay, like the rot of grass on his temporary grave.

Jeno has grown accustomed to it, but that does not mean it does not bother him.

 

 

Jeno isn’t quite sure why he brought Jaemin back.

He tells himself it is just a friend’s duty, that Jaemin would have done the same if he could, but there is a doubt.

Sometimes he looks at Jaemin, his resident dead thing, and wonders how things might be different if one of them wasn’t a walking impossibility. Wonders how Jaemin’s hands would feel in his if they weren’t cold and dry. Wonders how things would be different if Jaemin didn’t carry the scent of earth in his skin, as if it were ingrained in his person.

He doesn't want to say he is in love because that would make him selfish, make him someone that only cares about what they want. Even before Jaemin had died he had felt a pull, a magnetism, something that he had ignored.

But now, with Jaemin lying awake next to him, otherworldly and out of place, Jeno can ignore it no longer.

 

 

“You seem off,” Renjun says the next day in class. “Are you okay?”

“Yeah,” Jeno says. “Of course I am.”

Renjun seems to doubt that statement but shrugs. “Do you want to hang out later?”

“No, I’m…” Jeno searches for an adequate excuse. “Busy.”

“Are you thinking about Jaemin?” he asks, eyes sad. “I know it’s been hard for you.”

Jeno almost laughs. Of course he’s been thinking about Jaemin - half-alive Jaemin who lives with him, Jaemin whose eyes are empty as glass, Jaemin who maybe shouldn’t be alive at all.

Jeno feels bad for Renjun, though. The three of them were close, more than just friends. They had known each other since kindergarten, gone through middle school together. They were inseparable, and now death has drawn a permanent divide between the three of them. Jaemin, who is dead; Jeno, who carries a secret; and Renjun, who must not know.

“I’m fine,” he responds.

He heads home after school, and Renjun does not say anything else about their conversation.

It is better that way.

 

 

“How is my family?” Jaemin whispers one evening as Jeno does his math homework.

Jeno puts down his pencil. “They’re fine,” he says. He keeps his voice low because he can hear his aunt downstairs, dishes clanking in the sink. “They’re sad.”

Jaemin nods and stares out the attic window, something unreadable in his expression. Jeno feels an ache in his chest and realizes that he has created an uncrossable divide between Jaemin and his old life. He cannot go back to who he was before - he has died in more ways than one.

It’s Jeno’s fault, really, but he won’t admit to it. Can’t.

“How is Renjun?” Jaemin asks, politely inquiring about their other friend.

“He misses you,” Jeno says. His eyes follow Jaemin’s gaze out the window until they are both staring at the dark trees together. “He won’t admit it, but he does.”

Jaemin is silent. He simply stares at those dark, dark trees.

 

 

Fear and loss are the same creature, the same nightmare from a different angle. We fear loss and, in a way, lose fear when we should keep it the most. Jeno has done this: been afraid of loss, lost, and then left his fear behind.

Jaemin’s eyes stay carefully blank, and it is no longer something that Jeno can convince himself is a trick of the light. Jaemin’s eyes are hollow: he sees without seeing, sees everything and nothing. He sees Jeno but looks straight through him.

Jeno dreams with Jaemin by his side. He dreams of dirt and a view beneath the soil, dreams of trees that mock him, He dreams of dead weight, of a cold body, of a boy whose smiles once lit the sky.

They don’t, anymore. Jaemin doesn’t smile at all.

 

 

“What’s wrong, Jaemin?”

It’s a question that should have been asked earlier, that should have been broached the second Jaemin rose, but Jeno has avoided it. Avoided it, like so many other things in his life.

Jaemin is silent for a long time, chest rising and falling in even time with the ticks of the clock.

“Sometimes I wonder if I’m really alive,” he says.

Jeno turns his head and raises an eyebrow. Jaemin looks at him, fingers tugging at the seam of his shirt.

“Of course you're alive,” he scoffs. “You're here, aren't you?”

Jaemin looks at him, eyes dark and skin pale. The unnatural pallor never changes - he is always just a shade too white, veins dark under the skin.

“I feel different,” Jaemin explains. “I feel...wrong.”

Jeno says nothing.

“Sometimes,” Jaemin continues. “I feel like there is something else in here with me.”

Jeno doesn't ask what the “something else” is because he has already seen it, already seen that terrifying absence if morality that has plagued his dreams. He brought Jaemin back, yes, but a Jaemin that is the darkened mirror version of the Jaemin he knew before. He has brought back a doppelganger, a boy seen through the wrong end of a telescope, a boy painted on the canvas backwards.

“I’ll still be here,” Jeno says, taking his hand. “No matter what.”

Jaemin does not respond. Jeno gets the sense that he can’t.

 

 

Of course, one cannot just keep a reanimated corpse a secret.

Jeno is sitting with Jaemin in his room, poring over math questions, when his aunt knocks on the door. Jeno exchanges a panicked glance with Jaemin, who quietly rises and stands behind the door, out of view.

“Jeno?” His aunt says as Jeno opens the door. “Is everything alright up here?”

“Yeah,” Jeno responds. “Why wouldn’t it be?”

“I keep hearing voices.” She rubs her hands together nervously, rosary beads clacking together. “Even when you’re not home, I hear voices.”

“You’re overworking yourself,” he says. His chest burns as Jaemin locks eyes with him. “Stress is messing with your head.”

“No!” She cries out. “I know that you’re hiding something from me!”

Her voice is high and frenzied and her hands shake as she pushes Jeno aside. His room is a mess and he hopes her eyes simply skim over Jaemin, standing as still as a statue in the shadows.

Jeno’s aunt seems to be losing her grip on something, maybe reality, as she pulls the sheets off of Jeno’s bed and flings them to the floor. Jeno reaches out to her but she simply throws his hands to the side. She turns and her wide eyes fall upon the figure standing against the wall.

Jaemin says nothing, simply steps forward into the light. Jeno’s aunts’ mouth drops open and her hands fly to her chest. The rosary beads click against each other, the only sound in the room.

“I can explain-”

Jeno’s aunt turns to Jeno and her face has an expression somewhere between horror and fury. Her hands are shaking as she grabs him by the shoulders, grip unbearably tight as her fingers dig into his skin. “What have you done, Jeno? What have you done?

She looks at Jaemin, pale Jaemin with the blank eyes, and screams. The sound reverberates throughout the attic and it is only then that Jaemin steps forward, grabbing her wrist and pulling her out of the room. She yells, howls, fingers scrabbling at Jeno’s sleeve, and her screams are the panicked pitch of someone who has seen the devil. Demon, she calls him. Ungodly thing.

She yells for Jeno over and over again but Jeno does nothing, stands so still he forgets how to breathe. He squeezes his eyes shut until she stops and silence fills the corridor.

An hour later Jaemin comes back. He says nothing.

 

 

Jeno doesn’t see his aunt that night, or the next. He’s afraid to say it, afraid to look at Jaemin because he is afraid of what will see. No, not afraid- terrified. There is a hummingbird of panic trapped in his ribs and he knows what has happened but he cannot make himself accept it or believe it.

“What happened to her?” he asks Jaemin one night, voice a hush.

Jaemin stares at the ground. “She saw me,” he says. Then, quieter: “She saw me.”

“Where is she?”

“I don’t know,” Jaemin replies. “She simply ran away.”

Probably couldn’t handle seeing a ghost, probably couldn’t handle living in the same household as the walking corpse of a boy. But Jaemin’s words have the rose colored tint of a lie, and Jeno can see it.

Jeno waits, and stays silent. A week later his aunt’s body, or what is left of it, washes up on the rocks of a nearby pier. She is, as most things in Jeno’s life are, dead.

Jeno doesn’t ask Jaemin for the truth, because he feels he already knows it.

 

 

“I’m coming over.”

“Renjun, you really don’t have to, I’m fine-”

“Your aunt just died,” Renjun says. “You’ve been off ever since Jaemin…”

“I know,” Jeno says softly. “But I’ll be okay. I promise.”

 

...

 

Renjun shows up anyway.

He knocks on Jeno’s door and Jeno looks out the window to see Renjun’s small frame, fist banging against the wood. He looks back at Jaemin, who simply shrugs.

“Stay here,” Jeno says. He runs down the stairs and pulls the door open, Renjun’s face flushed as he looks at him.

“Listen, I know you said you were fine but I was worried about you since you haven’t been yourself lately and-”

“It’s okay,” Jeno says calmly. “Come in.”

Jeno makes tea, the kind he knows Renjun likes, and hands him a steaming mug. He doesn’t dare look up to the ceiling, where he can almost imagine Jaemin standing stock-still above him.

Renjun doesn’t touch the drink. “What’s going on with you?”

“Nothing,” Jeno says. It’s a lie and they both know. “Nothing’s going on.”

“Tell me the truth,” Renjun says urgently, his voice pressing into Jeno.

“You don’t want the truth.”

“I do.” Renjun’s mouth is set in a grim line, eyes set with determination. Jeno sighs, stands, and goes to the stairwell.

“Jaemin,” he calls out. “Come down.”

Rejun’s eyes go wide. “Jaemin? Jeno, what kind of sick joke is this -”

He stops and his mouth hangs open and Jeno can see the exact moment Renjun registers what he’s seeing. He stands and his chair screeches on the tile floor, the table shakes. The room goes cold. The kitchen smells like dirt.

“Hello, Renjun,” Jaemin says. There is the ghost of a smile on his lips, a passable attempt at a lifelike expression. “I’ve missed you.”

 

...

 

Renjun grabs Jeno and pulls him out of the room, Jaemin watching them both with careful eyes as they disappear into the next room.

“What the hell? Jeno, what the hell?

“I brought Jaemin back,” Jeno says quietly. “From the dead.”

“That’s not Jaemin,” Renjun whispers furiously. “That is not Jaemin.”

Jeno simply stares down at Renjun, at the fist balled in his shirt collar, at his angry eyes. “What?”

“Can’t you see?” Renjun whispers. “You messed with things you shouldn’t have messed with and now you’ve brought back something that should have been left alone.”

“I-”

“Haven’t you noticed?” Renjun says. “We all knew Jaemin before, and he was nothing like this.”

Jeno must admit that Jaemin has been a little quieter, more withdrawn, more thoughtful. Sometimes, when he speaks, he says things that Jeno could never imagine him saying. But Jeno had chalked it up to the aftereffects of dying, the consequences of going to the grave. He had never truly thought that Jaemin was different, or so greatly changed that he should be worried.

But now that Renjun has said it, Jaemin does seem different. There is something haunted in his eyes, something foreign to Jeno, something that wasn’t there before. Jeno isn’t sure what it is, but he fears it all the same.

“I don’t know what you're talking about,” Jeno responds, frowning. “And you should really mind your own business.”

“Do you even realize what you’ve done?” Renjun says heatedly, voice rising. “He was dead, Jeno! He should have stayed dead! You aren't supposed to do things like this!”

“Was I just supposed to accept it?” Jeno shouts back.

“He was my friend too!” Renjun yells. “And that thing is not him!”

A hand rests on Renjun’s shoulder and he becomes as still as a ghost when he turns to see Jaemin gazing at him with a blank expression. Jaemin does not seem angry, just...empty.

“Do you really feel that way?” he asks softly, eyes dark as the night. Jeno holds a breath in his throat, trapped there like a dove in a cage.

“I- Jaemin-” Renjun stutters, Jaemin's hand digging into his shoulder. “You should have stayed dead,” he says softly, right to Jaemin’s face. “You should have stayed dead.”

There is a frightening moment of silence before Jaemin lets go of Renjun. He doesn’t look at him as he exchanges a fearful glance with Jeno and runs out the door, leaving them behind.

Jaemin raises his head to stare at Jeno, eyes dark and unreadable, filled with that strange nameless thing that has frightened him before.

“He didn’t really mean it,” Jeno says, trying to ease the tension.

Jaemin simply curls and uncurls his hand, breathing quietly. “It’s okay if he does,” he says quietly. He says nothing else, and walks away.

The breath curled in Jeno’s throat flaps its wings and frees itself, and the ache in his chest is all too familiar.

 

 

“I missed him,” Jeno tells Renjun, voice crackling through the phone. “I missed him so much.” His heart burns with the memory of that misery, and he wishes to never return to it.

“I missed him too,” Renjun responds, voice soft with an almost-longing. “But what you did was wrong, Jeno.”

He hangs up, and the only thing to accompany Jeno through the long night is Jaemin’s watchful eyes and the scent of dirt.

 

 

“Did you bring me back because you love me?”

The statement is so casual and simple that Jeno starts, muscles tensing. It’s a few days later and things have stilled in the air between them. Something like peace has settled across the trees. Jaemin’s voice is flat, and Jeno can feel his pulse underneath his skin.

“Why do you think that?” he asks, mouth dry.

“It’s true, isn’t it?” Jaemin replies.

Jeno is silent, but his silence says more than all the books in the world, than every poem written on love and grief and loss.

“Would you love me back?” Jeno whispers, afraid he has just crossed a line.

Jaemin, too, is silent. But not with meaning - it is the silence of tombstones and quiet, patient waiting. He leans forward on the couch, dark eyes searching Jeno’s face.

The kiss is chaste at first, just a simple press of their lips. A second passes but it is almost like a switch has been flicked because Jaemin is suddenly pressing forward, mouth at Jeno’s jaw. There is hunger in the movement of his mouth, desperation, and Jeno feels fear in his chest.

Jaemin pushes him backward and he loses his balance, hands slipping as he tries to stay upright.

“Jaemin, stop,” he says, panicked. “Stop!”

Jaemin stills and stares at him, eyes dark and hungry and there is something else in there, something more animal than man, more ghoul than anything else. His heart is racing and Jaemin’s face softens, something like remorse in those endless black eyes.

Jaemin pulls him into his arms, head against Jeno’s shoulder. His skin is warm with almost-life, and it feels so familiar that Jeno can’t help but relax at the touch.

“I’m sorry,” Jaemin murmurs into his shoulder. “I’m sorry.”

There is a foul taste in Jeno’s mouth, and he realizes later that it is dirt.

 

 

Jaemin doesn’t do it again.

But sometimes at night when he is asleep, he grabs onto Jeno’s hand, pressing it against his face. He is warmer now, as if pretending to be alive has made him more so. He curls up against Jeno, face buried in his side.

Maybe, if Jeno was good at pretending, this could be the ending he had wished for.

 

 

Renjun avoids him. It hurts, stings that Jeno’s only friend (well, only living friend) has taken to avoiding him like he is a curse, a plague, an undesirable thing. Every time he tries to talk to him it’s like trying to grasp a shadow, make contact with a ghost.

It’s ironic, really: Jeno doesn’t believe in ghosts

The only peace he finds come from Jaemin, who seems to be more alive than before. He’s brightened, in some way - he still smells like dirt, still has those black canvas eyes - but now he breathes, walks, moves like a living being. He’s not as pale, not as cold. It is a small improvement, and Jeno is glad for it.

But being around Jaemin is like walking on broken glass. No matter how softly he treads, no matter how he watches his steps, it still hurts to go forward.

 

 

When Jaemin came back, he came back covered in dirt, eyes bright in his dirty face. When he spoke his words were like gravel, tumbling in his mouth. Jeno did not mind - his friend was back.

Still, there was a small doubt - what happens now? No one could know. He had done something dangerous, something beyond the scope of human reason. He had risen the dead from a cold grave, had taken his friend’s body and reburied it with his own hands. What were the consequences? How could he know, how could anyone know?

Jaemin had watched him, then. Watched, and watched, and watched.

The memory recoils in his stomach but Jaemin simply squeezes his hand, the gesture warm and familiar, and Jeno’s mind is put to rest.

 

 

“Are you scared of me?” Jaemin asks one night, arms wrapped around Jeno’s waist.

“No.”

“Liar,” Jaemin says breathlessly. “I know you are.”

“I’m not,” Jeno says, a pang of fear running through his veins. The yellow lamplight turns the room rosy gold, paints Jaemin’s skin warm hues of orange. It’s a living color, a color for being alive . “I promise.”

“You don’t have to lie,” Jaemin says quietly. “I’d be afraid of me too.”

Jeno has no reply to that. He shifts, turning so he can watch Jaemin’s eyes. They look darker in this light.

“Why would I be scared?” he asks, heart thumping in his chest.

“Sometimes I want to kill you,” Jaemin says softly, hands warm against Jeno’s cheek. “Sometimes I want to rip you apart, limb from limb.”

The words strike Jeno to his core but he has become used to such things and simply grabs Jaemin’s hand. “But you don’t.”

“What if I do?” Jaemin says.

“You won’t.”

Jaemin laughs at that, the fingers of his other hand digging into Jeno’s skin. “Are you sure, Jeno? Are you sure?”

That night the wind mocks Jeno, echoing. Jaemin lies beside him, pale as ever, and outside the wind whistles through the trees.

Are you sure, Jeno? Are you sure?

 

...

 

It’s raining.

It seems like it is always raining here, the trees always dark against the sky. The rain goes on for a week, traps them both inside with nothing to do. Jeno can see Jaemin go a little stir crazy.

He doesn’t like the rain.

Storms come, lightning illuminates the sky, and Jaemin grits his teeth with each rolling bang of thunder. Jeno notices this, notices how the skies are always dark and how much darker Jaemin seems to be because of it. He is not afraid, but sometimes he is hesitant.

Sometimes, when the rain pours outside the windows in sheets of water, Jaemin curls up next to him and wraps his arms around Jeno so tight he has to tell him to let him go. Sometimes Jaemin breaks things - cups, plates, pencils. It’s never an accident, not really. Sometimes Jaemin kisses him a little too hard, holds him a little too close. He always smells too much like dirt.

Sometimes, Jeno is a little bit afraid.

 

 

“The answer is no,” Jaemin says in the dark, skin passably warm for a corpse. Rain pours outside the windows, neverending, the sky weeping above them.

Jeno shakes off his drowsiness to look at Jaemin. “What?”

“No,” Jaemin repeats, gaze burning through Jeno. “I am not glad to be back.”

 

 

“Come with me,” Renjun hisses quietly, peering through the door as Jeno holds it open. “Hurry.”

“What is it?” Jeno asks. Renjun’s sweater is damp on the shoulders from the light rain, and his eyes almost blaze in their sockets. It's a lazy Wednesday afternoon and even though rain drifts in the air the sun still attempts to shine. The sun, like Jeno, is trying it's best.

“I’m getting you out of here,” Renjun says. He grabs Jeno’s wrist. “I don’t know what Jaemin has done to you, but the Jeno I know wouldn’t be okay with all of this madness.”

“I am okay with it,” Jeno says, confused. “He’s not that bad.”

“I can put two and two together and make four,” Renjun says, voice bitter. “Your aunt mysteriously dies and I come here to see Jaemin’s reanimated corpse walking freely around your house? It doesn’t add up. None of this does.”

“Please, come inside, you’re all wet.” Jeno opens the door a bit more and Renjun cautiously steps inside. He glances around the empty kitchen and relaxes a bit. Metal glints in his hand.

Jeno steps back. “Renjun, is that a knife?”

Renjun doesn't answer. He doesn’t have to.

“Please,” Renjun says helplessly. The knife in his hand looks almost like a toy, the glint of metal too real in the afternoon light to truly exist. His eyes are sad. “He’s not our Jaemin.”

Jeno can’t help the chills that run over his body, climbing from his toes to his throat. It is an old terror, one that he has become accustomed to. Renjun is right: he is not their Jaemin. He is Jeno’s Jaemin, and he cannot let him go.

“He killed your aunt,” Renjun says, voice almost a hiss. He meets the doubt in Jeno’s eyes with a fury of his own. “He is a murderer . I don’t know what you were thinking, bringing that thing back.”

The words aren’t bitter, just sad. Sad like a lake that stretches on for miles, sad like a forest that has never seen the sunlight. Sad like Jeno. Sad like Jaemin.

“It will be alright,” Jeno says. “He isn’t that bad, he’s just a little strange-”

“He is not even human !” Renjun spits. “You don’t know what he is!”

There is a tap of ceramic on granite and Jeno and Renjun turn to see Jaemin, watching them both. There is a mug in his hand, and the kitchen smells like tea. It’s the kind they both know Renjun likes.

Jeno’s eyes slide to Jaemin, whose expression is as blank as a sheet of paper. His dark eyes are like a void: light enters, but does not escape. He seems to take up too much space, seems to suck all the life from the room. Blackbody, abyss, void: these are all names for what Jaemin has become, for what he continues to be. This time, Jeno cannot ignore his fear. It shakes through him, creates tremors down his spine.

Jaemin looks at Renjun, who goes as white as a sheet.

“Jaemin,” he says, brandishing the knife. “We were friends before.”

Jaemin nods. “Yes, we were.”

Renjun’s voice is shaking. “But we aren’t friends anymore.”

“No, we aren’t.”

There is finality in the words.

The movement happens faster than Jeno can see: a glint of metal, a flash of skin and then a gasp that is almost a wail. Everything happens so fast, too fast.

Renjun lets out a shuddering breath accompanied by blood, so much blood. He coughs and it paints his lips red and he lets out what is almost a laugh as he pitches forward. There is an awful sucking noise, wet and terrible to bear as he struggles to take in air. He falls to the ground and Jaemin catches him, the handle of the knife protruding from Renjun’s thin chest. His eyes meet Jeno’s and they are so wide and scared that he looks several years younger, just a kid on the playground where they three met. He is still clinging to Jaemin, clinging to life, clinging to something, and his mouth gapes open as if he wants to speak.

He says nothing.

The light goes out in Renjun’s eyes like a dimming lamp, Jaemin kneeling over him. Jeno gasps, skin tingling all over. He cannot move as Jaemin looks at him. Once again, he sees that strangeness - that foreign darkness, that otherness. It sticks to him like the scent of dirt but Jeno can do nothing, has never been able to do anything at all.

Jaemin scoops Renjun's limp form into his arms. “He was going to kill me,” he says blankly, searching Jeno's eyes. Remorse, or some kind of other related feeling, tinges the words. “I'm sorry.”

Jeno gapes, hands shaking as he rubs his face. “What am I supposed to do?” he asks hopelessly. “What am I supposed to do?” His heart is beating the way a race car engine runs: far too fast for its own good.

Jeno kneels next to Jaemin, Renjun’s eyes open and glassy and staring at the ceiling, and he wonders how long it takes for a body to stiffen. Blood seeps into Jaemin’s shirt as Jeno watches, stunned. Jaemin stands, Renjun still in his arms like a doll, and the only option available to Jeno blares like a neon red sign in front of his eyes.

“Come with me,” Jeno says.

The woods whisper.

 

 

Renjun dies on a Wednesday.

It is Saturday night and Jeno feels a hand on one shoulder, and then another. One is warm with acquired life, familiar in the extreme, the other cold as new death.

Renjun smells like earth and decay and when his hand touches Jeno a shiver runs through him. His grip tightens on Jeno’s shoulder.

Jeno can hear the trees waving in the wind, sound like a laugh in the distance. The rain is relentless outside, and Jeno can feel his shirt go damp where Renjun's palm rests.

“Hello, Renjun,” he says calmly, and the boy behind him does not answer. “Are you glad to be back?”