Jaemin is eight, and Jeno is nine.
Jaemin isn't worried about soulmates; he's too young to be fussed about these things. He already knows all he needs to know—Jeno is his best friend, and they're going to be together forever.
Jeno laughs when Jaemin tells him this, but his eyes shine like the stars in the night sky. Jaemin is young, but he knows there's a whole universe there, in Jeno's eyes and his bright smile.
"You're gonna miss the fireworks if you keep getting distracted," Jeno says, but he's not looking up either. He's still looking at Jaemin, making sure he listens.
"Any second, boys!" Jaemin's mama calls to the two of them from where their parents are all in a group by the George. "You don't want to miss it!"
Jaemin looks at Jeno a moment longer before tilting his head back to the sky. He leans back on his hands, feels the grass press into his palms, and takes a breath of anticipation. Not even a second later, the sky explodes in color as the first fireworks explode to send bright red and blue sparks across the blanket of night. There's an echoing boom right after the burst of color, and Jaemin flinches even though he knows it's coming.
"Scaredy-cat," Jeno teases, but he knocks his left foot against Jaemin's right, and he leans back on his hands too, pinky finger lying over Jaemin's.
Another firework goes off, then another and another, and by then Jaemin isn't flinching anymore, but Jeno doesn't move away, and neither does Jaemin. The smell of burgers cooking is heavy in the summer air, and Jaemin can see smoke rising from the grill. His moms have their arms around each other and they're chatting with Jeno's dad, not quite loud enough to hear. Jaemin looks away from the sky long enough to catch Jeno's dad looking their way.
"What do you think they talk about?" Jaemin asks when Jeno's dad looks away and shakes his head, smiling just like Jeno always does.
"Boring stuff," Jeno says. "And us." He doesn't even look away from the fireworks show as he answers.
Jaemin looks back to the sky as it's painted a sparkling gold. "What about us?" All he knows is that sometimes their parents suddenly go quiet when the two of them approach, like they don't want them to hear.
"Dunno," Jeno says. "Wanna try to find out some time?"
Jaemin grins and the sky is lit up purple and brilliant blue. "Yeah. We've got all the rest of summer to snoop."
"Yeah," Jeno agrees. "Let's do it."
When Jeno's dad brings burgers and watermelon slices over for them, he takes one look at their faces and says, "What are you rascals planning?"
"Nothing, Mr. Lee!" Jaemin says in his best sweet-talking voice. The barely contained glee on both of their faces gives them away, but Jeno's dad just laughs, says okay, and ruffles Jeno's hair before walking back to the grown-ups.
Jaemin and Jeno giggle into their fourth of July feast of tiny fist sized burgers and sticky sweet melon, and that's all Jaemin needs in the whole wide world: Jeno's company and a bit of yummy food to keep them going.
Jaemin's favorite part of Jeno's backyard is the tree that Jeno insists is over a century old. There's a rope swing hanging down from one of the thickest branches, and when Jaemin wheedles Jeno enough, he pushes him on the swing.
By the middle of August, Jaemin is nine just like Jeno, and Jeno loses all "older-kid" status, so it takes less pleading than ever to get Jeno to help Jaemin get as close to flying as a little boy can get. Sometimes Jeno makes Jaemin promise to push him too when his turn is over, but even when he doesn't, Jaemin pushes him anyway. Even at nine, he's starting to learn what Jeno wants even when he doesn't ask for it, and somewhere in the back of his mind, he notices Jeno learning the same of him.
It's Jeno's turn on the swing when Jaemin remembers their pact from the fourth of July. The start of school is looming – fourth grade seems scarier than third grade had – and he wants to focus on the freedom summer as long as it lasts, so he thinks about the present and the past, and doesn't bother himself with the future.
"You know," Jaemin says after giving Jeno a good push and watching the swing sweep him away, "we still haven't figured out a plan to find out what my moms and your dad talk about when they talk about us."
Jeno is facing away from Jaemin, so he can't see the look on his face when he says, "I actually heard my dad say something to your moms at your birthday party."
When Jeno swings back to Jaemin, Jaemin forgets to give him another push. "Really? Why didn't you tell me before? What did he say?"
Jeno swings away again, and Jaemin sees him kick his feet together. "Dunno. I guess I forgot because of the party." Jeno swings back, away again. "My dad said it would be funny if we were soulmates."
Jaemin's arms fall to his sides. He stares at Jeno's back. "Why would it be funny?"
Jeno jumps off the swing, and when the empty seat comes back to Jaemin, he catches it in both hands on instinct, holding it for a moment before letting it go. Jeno turns around and shrugs, toes of his sneakers in the dirt. "I guess because we're always together. We already act like we are, maybe?" Jeno shrugs again.
Something funny-feeling twists in Jaemin's chest. "You're my best friend," he says.
"I know," Jeno answers easily. "You're mine."
Jaemin nods. Right. This much he knows without question; Jeno is his, he's Jeno's. They two of them together, a package deal. "What did my moms say?"
Jeno shrugs. "Dunno, I left when they laughed."
Jaemin frowns and crosses his arms. "It's not that funny."
"Maybe you have to be older to get it," Jeno says. "Like kissing or something."
"You don't have to be old to kiss," Jaemin says, because he's seen his neighbor across the street kiss her boyfriend, and they're only two grades above him.
Jeno makes a face though, and Jaemin can't help laughing. "I bet you could never kiss anyone," he teases.
Jeno's face gets all screwed up the way it does when he's frustrated. "Could too!"
"Oh yeah?" Jaemin's mouth moves too fast for his brain. "Prove it!"
"There's no one around," Jeno says with a defiant gleam in his eyes like he's won.
"Nuh-uh," Jaemin says. He jabs his thumb into his chest. "I'm right here. I dare you to kiss me to prove it."
Jeno's face goes slack for a second, and Jaemin puffs out his chest triumphantly because now he's won, but then Jeno balls both his hands into fists and a determined look takes over his face. "Fine! I'll do it."
Jaemin's eyes go wide, his heart goes haywire. Jeno takes a step towards him, then another and another and all of a sudden he's almost right in front of Jaemin and he panics. Jaemin yelps and bolts, running away from Jeno, kicking up dirt and scuffing up the overgrown grass of his lawn.
"Hey!" Jeno calls after him, footsteps pounding after Jaemin.
Jaemin just keeps running though, rounding the side of Jeno's house and booking it towards the street.
"This was your idea!" Jeno shouts.
Jaemin should probably answer, but he's too busy running away. Jeno's bigger than him, though, because they're still young enough that the months Jeno has on Jaemin matter; Jaemin only makes it to the field at the end of the street before Jeno catches up to him.
Jeno tackles Jaemin into the grass and they both go tumbling down, rolling through dirt and wildflowers. Jaemin's back hits the ground and all the air is punched out of his lungs. He's gasping for breath and his heart is jack-rabbiting in his chest as he pushes himself back up and glares at Jeno.
"That hurt! Why did you have to tackle me?"
Jeno brushes dirt off his hands and sits on his scraped knees. "Why did you run?"
"You were going to kiss me!" Jaemin says, voice an octave higher than usual.
"Only because you dared me to!" Jeno says with the same indignant tone of voice.
"I didn't think you really would!" Jaemin defends.
Jeno juts out his lower lip. "I was only gonna 'cuz you wanted me to. You could've just said nevermind."
"Nevermind, then!" Jaemin says quickly.
Jeno's lips twitch. "Yeah. I got it." His lips twitch again, and then he laughs.
As Jaemin's heart settles, he finds himself laughing too. Running was silly, Jeno tackling him was silly. "Wanna go back?"
Jeno smiles, and there's something a bit different about it now, but his eyes still shine the same, so Jaemin knows it's all right. "Yeah," Jeno nods.
When Jaemin holds a hand out to pull Jeno up, Jeno takes it easily. Jaemin thinks it's nice to hold hands like this, so he doesn't let go until they get back home together.
Jaemin is fourteen, and so is Jeno when Jaemin realizes that the hammering of his heart when he looks at Jeno's lips and when he lies awake at night thinking about the summer day they might have kissed means something more than panic or friendship.
He's fifteen when he realizes he doesn't care about soulmates the way some of the kids in his grade do because mark or not, he's already found his own.
Jaemin is sixteen, and Jeno's birthday is only two weeks away when Jaemin finally figures out that Jeno feels the same. Seven years late, Jeno follows through on Jaemin's dare to kiss him, and they fall together from there, but it hardly feels like falling.
Jaemin is seventeen, and Jeno is eighteen.
Jaemin isn't worried about soulmates; he already knows all he needs to—Jeno is his best friend, and he's in love with him.
It's late at night, and everything feels different now that highschool is over, now that they've graduated and the world isn't one block wide anymore. Jaemin doesn't have an early curfew anymore, and Jeno hasn't had one since April, so as the clock in Jeno's truck flashes 11:49 p.m., Jaemin just smiles and looks out the open window at the sprawling night.
They haven't been talking – just listening to old Tim McGraw songs play on the radio – but they don't need to talk. It's been ten years since Jaemin first started learning how to understand Jeno even in his silence, and though the skill still sharpens and grows every day, Jaemin's gotten it to enough of an art by now for this silence to be more than okay—for it to be common, perfect even.
Summer wind whips through the car and sends Jaemin's grown-out hair into disarray, and he breathes the wild life into his lungs as they drive down a back road towards the lake. The hour turns by the time they pull over on the side of the street. It's the eighth of June as they tumble out of the truck together, and Jaemin is already holding out a hand for Jeno to take as he rounds the hood.
Jeno's palm is calloused from years of baseball – the first thing he braved without Jaemin by his side – but Jaemin doesn't mind; he'd hold Jeno's hand if it was cracked and bleeding or if it was smooth and silky-soft, as long as it was Jeno's. It's been years and years and he still thinks there are precious few feelings better than Jeno's hand in his, their fingers locked together like puzzle pieces they've slotted together so many times they've become perfectly matched.
Sand and gravel crunch underfoot, and the sound of frogs and crickets and nightlife fills the air as the two of them make their way down to the dark strip of beach by the water. The moon shines down like a spotlight on the lake, and Jaemin pulls Jeno along all the way to weathered old boards that form a sort of makeshift wall between the hard-packed sand and the water a bit below. They sink down so their legs hang over the edge of the wall, and Jaemin knocks his heels against the wood, looking over at Jeno.
It's something like magic, seeing Jeno up close. Even after all these years, Jaemin hasn't gotten totally used to it. The moon casts his face in sharp relief; his skin seems faintly silver, shadows deepening the cut of his jaw, his nose and cheekbones. The light catches on his lips and the apples of his cheeks, shining in his eyes as he turns to look at Jaemin.
Jeno cocks his head in question and the smile that takes hold of Jaemin's face comes unbidden but oh so welcome. "I don't know how you look so gorgeous in that stupid hat," Jaemin says.
Jeno's cheeks crease as he smiles right back, reaching up to touch his backwards baseball cap with his free hand. "Still pretending you hate my jock side, Mr. Student Counsel? You know I didn't buy it when we were in school, and I don't buy it now."
Jaemin laughs, and it's soft and quiet, but it feels brighter with just the two of them there. He reaches over to brush his fingers along Jeno's bicep, doesn't say that he loves summer most now because Jeno's been wearing muscle tees since he turned sixteen and realized he was hot as hell (Jaemin's words, not his). "Your uniform and practice shirts always gave you a farmer's tan," Jaemin says instead. "And you always stunk after practice."
"And you kissed me anyway."
Jaemin flushes a bit in the moonlight. "You were my ride home, weren't you? I had to pay my fare."
Jeno hums, something playful dancing in his eyes alongside the starlight. "I was your ride here, too. Pay up?"
Jaemin forgets to roll his eyes at the teasing, just leans in and kisses Jeno. His lips are a bit chapped and taste salty from the glovebox snacks he keeps stashed in his truck. Jaemin's free hand slips up Jeno's arm to clutch the loose collar of his shirt as he kisses Jeno again.
When Jaemin leans back, the smile on Jeno's face is a bit dazed. "I should drive you around more," he says softly. "I love the chauffeur benefits."
Jaemin grins and looks out at the lake, the water moving languidly, small ripples catching the moonlight and making it dance. "If you think those are good, the boyfriend benefits are gonna blow you out of the water."
Jeno runs his thumb over Jaemin's knuckles and Jaemin can feel his smile growing even if he can't see it. "Trust me," Jeno says, "I already have a pretty good idea how great they are."
Jaemin grins wider, still looking out at the lake. He gives Jeno's hand a light squeeze and kicks his feet against the wooden wall again. They sit together in the quiet, watching the water move below them and the moon move above it all. Jaemin can feel the time slipping away from them, but Jeno's hand is warm and solid in his so he doesn't let the ever-spinning world frighten him.
"Do you think things will change?" Jaemin asks when his mind starts to grow too loud for him to appreciate the soft lapping at the lake's shore and the sound of a night bird singing in the woods across the water.
Jeno sighs, and out of the corner of his eye, Jaemin sees him tilt his head back up to the sky. "Yeah," he answers after a moment. "Everything's always changing. Good and bad. We can drive now and we don't have curfews anymore. We’re gonna be in college in a different town in a couple months and we’ll have to figure out how to live without your moms’ cooking.”
Jaemin lets a light laugh slip out of him. “We’ll have my cooking.”
“But none of your moms’ dishware.”
Jaemin hums. “True.”
Jeno is quiet for a moment, and Jaemin can feel him thinking. “We’ll be all right though.”
“Yeah?” Jaemin looks at Jeno and Jeno’s eyes fall from the sky to Jaemin’s face.
“Yeah.” He looks at Jaemin the same way he looks at the stars that shine high above them. “‘Cuz some things don’t change.”
“Like you and me?” Jaemin guesses.
“Like you and me,” Jeno echoes. He brings their joined hands up to his lips and kisses Jaemin’s knuckles.
A flash of memory passes over Jaemin—the first time they’d fought for real, Jeno was angry that Jaemin didn’t understand why he was scared of losing him if one day he bumped into someone on the street and all of a sudden there was a mark on his skin that hadn’t been there before, and Jaemin had been angry that Jeno didn’t understand that he didn’t care about any of that because he already knew where his heart had made a home.
Now there’s no anger, no fear that they can’t overcome, and Jaemin knows that they do change sometimes; that’s what growing up is all about, after all, but they change together, and that’s why they don’t break apart. But Jeno’s right too; there is one thing about the two of them that stays the same no matter how much they grow. Jaemin is still young, but he believes with all his heart that one thing is all that really needs to remain constant in this world.
Jaemin leans into Jeno’s side. He knows love isn’t predetermined, but made. Cherished and grown.
Jaemin smiles. He knows how to cherish, and he knows exactly who he loves.