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when it rains i think of you

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Jeno reappears in Jaemin’s life the same way he did for the first time – like it was meant to be. It’s the start of the new semester and campus is crawling with activity because in the first week everyone’s convinced that this time they’ll attend their classes, will not be lazy, will definitely get all the free snacks the societies are handing out.

Jaemin is one of them, standing in line in front of a white tent in hopes of receiving a cupcake in exchange for his signature. The club people must know that everyone’s here for the food and not to sign up for weekly knitting sessions or whatever, but they try anyways. Bless them.

The September sun is warm on Jaemin’s shoulders. The beginning of a new semester is always the best – the weather’s good, there are always parties to go to, no assignments yet to hand in, new people arriving. Jaemin looks around, spots familiar faces and strange faces and then his eyes catch on one face somewhere in between.

There’s a boy lingering near the tent, seemingly unsure of whether or not to join the queue. His hair is pitch black, his clothes casual, comfortable, but fitted to an athletic body. There’s a small mole underneath his right eye that Jaemin can see even from here.

Recognition tingles through him like a bell, bright, sudden, and unexpected. “Jeno?”

Jaemin isn’t quite sure. This boy looks so different – more a man, really – but then he looks up and Jaemin is hit by a wave of nostalgia so potent and sharp that it knocks him a step back.

Jeno looks mature. He looks healthy, has filled out and sharpened into the image of a grownup. His eyes widen with recognition and then he smiles and that’s still the same. It’s his signature eye smile, the one Jaemin saw when he locked eyes with Jeno across the classroom back when they were fourteen. It’s the same smile that Jeno always used to give him so readily, so easily. It feels like a miracle now, seeing it again after so many years of only dreaming of it.

“Jaemin?” Jeno asks. “What a surprise!”

What are the chances, Jaemin wonders. What are the chances that after everything that had happened, everything they’d said to each other, he’d ever see Jeno again?

 

“I’m doing my masters in IT,” Jaemin says. They’re sitting on one of the benches near the Humanities building, both with cupcakes, catching up. Jeno’s presence feels unreal somehow, like he’s a figment of Jaemin’s imagination. “What about you? I thought you’d never come back here.”

I thought I’d never see you again.

Jeno laughs quietly. If he hears the quiet wariness in Jaemin’s question he doesn’t show it. “I thought so too but I got a really good opportunity. The architecture options here have always been good, so I took an internship for three months and then after that I’ll have to decide.”

Jaemin’s heart betrays him despite all this time and all this distance. It stumbles against his ribs, painful and wanting and stupidly hopeful. “So you’re staying around?”

“Yeah,” Jeno says. “At least for now.”

Jeno must see the hopeful shadow on Jaemin’s face. He must know what Jaemin is thinking about, must be able to read Jaemin the same way he did almost three years ago. He must now that Jaemin is thinking of the past, of everything they had to leave behind, but he doesn’t say anything about it.

Maybe Jaemin was the only one who couldn’t let go after all.

 

 

“Have you heard that Jeno’s back?” Hyuck asks him over lunch a few days later.

“Yeah.” Jaemin stabs a potato. “I actually ran into him the other day.”

They’ve been texting since then, after Jeno offered his number. Said he’d like to catch up more, see their other friends, the ones who are still around. Jaemin couldn’t have said no, not even if he’d wanted to. There are too many questions he needs to ask.

At Hyuck’s deafening silence, Jaemin looks up. Hyuck is considering him with something like curiosity and pity. “What?”

“Why didn’t you say anything? Are you already monopolising him?” Hyuck asks.

“Wow, that’s a big word, well done.”

“Fuck off. Tell me more.”

Jaemin shrugs. “He seems like he’s doing well.”

“No, I mean like, did you feel anything?”

Did you feel anything. Jaemin felt a lot, if he’s honest. Jeno is as beautiful as he’s always been but unfamiliar now, which hurt more than it should. It was hard to be confronted with the fact that Jeno moved on so well without him, that he has other best friends, maybe even a relationship, and Jaemin is just an artefact from the past, a chapter from his adolescence. None of them can erase the memories, but Jaemin has no claim to Jeno’s future.

“Oh, it’s bad,” Hyuck deduces from Jaemin’s expression.

“It’s not. It’s just – we’ve changed.” It’s what he tells himself anyways.

Hyuck leans back, clearly pleased with Jaemin’s reaction. Goddamn instigator. “You can catch up with him later. I invited him out with us.”

Jaemin doesn’t reply. He wants to be happy about it, wants to see Jeno again, but he knows it’s not going to be that easy.

 

 

In the past years, the Neon has been their go-to place. It’s not the fanciest bar but drinks are cheap and the couches cosy. Jeno has never been here and it’s obvious in the way he looks up at the high ceilings, the dark furniture, the LED lights lining one side of the room.

Jaemin learns that Jeno has already reached out to most of his old friends. Would he have done the same to Jaemin if Jaemin hadn’t met him on accident? What’s the protocol for people like them – people who separated on different terms than everybody else?

Jaemin decides not to think about this today. Mark’s putting the first round of drinks on the little square table that stands between their two favourite couches. Renjun and Hyuck immediately start bickering and Jeno sits opposite of Jaemin, a pool of pleased serenity, fitting right back in. Conversation is mindless, easy. Jaemin doesn’t have to try hard.

“So, Jeno,” Renjun says, folding his hands around his beer once everyone has settled. “Have you left behind any broken hearts? Or have you just brought your sweetheart with you this time?”

This time. Jaemin throws Renjun a scathing look.

“Is that your way of asking if he’s single?” Mark asks, grinning. Everyone’s happy tonight; the gang has finally reunited, despite some new and some missing faces.

Jeno laughs good-naturedly. Was there ever any other way he could laugh? “I didn’t leave anyone behind and I’m not dating anyone. What about you? Have I missed anything?”

You’ve missed so much, Jaemin thinks. He watches Renjun and Hyuck exchange a glance before they entangle their fingers. Jaemin envies how they move together, how they speak to each other without words. He used to have this, too, with Jeno, but now Jeno’s a stranger who Jaemin can’t read.

Jeno raises his eyebrows, shock evident. “Are you serious?”

Mark pats his shoulder. “There was so much fighting involved, believe me. Until they figured out that they were just jealous of other people. Now they’re gross.”

As if to prove Mark’s point, Renjun and Hyuck start making out. It takes Jisung’s and Chenle’s arrival to break them up and there’s a lot of shrieking and kicking.

This is what he missed, too, Jaemin thinks. Their group, finally completed, being loud and uncaring and entangled in each other’s lives. They don’t get together like this that often anymore – the schedules are too different with some working full time, some studying, some living further away. Jeno fits into this constellation like a missing puzzle piece despite all the things he’s missed out on. Maybe he’s the catalyst of bringing everyone back.

A few drinks and a trip to the bathroom later, Jaemin finds himself sitting next to Jeno. It’s difficult not to lean against his shoulder, not to leech off his warmth. Even after three years, Jaemin is helpless against Jeno’s effortless gravity.

They get along too well. It’s obvious to anyone with eyes that their chemistry is still there and Jaemin finds himself wanting Jeno to himself. Jeno has become more assertive, more sarcastic. There’s something sharp about him now that is new to Jaemin, doesn’t match the gentle boy he knew who was always willing to please people. It makes conversations more fun now, though, when Jaemin can’t predict what Jeno’s going to answer but there’s enough familiarity to tease.

The others seem thrilled, too. Jaemin can’t remember the last time he’s seen everyone hyped up like this and Hyuck is quick to instigate more get-togethers.

He’ll get used to it again, Jaemin figures. Seeing Jeno, being close to him. Being friends and nothing more. He’ll get used to it, because he has to.

 

“You were quiet today,” Jeno says, catching up with Jaemin on the way out. He smells like cider and boy and something sweet, and Jaemin wishes he could pull him closer. “You good? Or is that the new you?”

Jaemin smiles, hides the truth behind it. “Believe it or not, but even I matured a bit.”

“Hmm, I noticed. Maturity looks good on you.”

Don’t flirt with me, Jaemin thinks and then, don’t flirt back.

But he can’t help himself.

“Does it now? You, too, though.” He gives Jeno an appreciate onceover, checking him out in a way that Jeno has to notice. “You’ve filled out.”

“In a good way, I hope.” Jeno jostles his shoulder against Jaemin’s and Jaemin lets him stay there, pressed against his side. Their hands brush against each other and Jaemin curls his fingers into a fist, suppressing the urge to reach out. He remembers what that was like, when Jeno was his and every touch was a matter of course.

“In the best way,” Jaemin says.

Jeno’s smile is a brilliant thing in the half dark.

 

 

That night, when the alcohol has worn off and there’s just naked nostalgia left, Jaemin opens a box he hasn’t touched in years. It’s full of photos, polaroids, prints. Jaemin likes photography, has always liked it, and back then Jeno had been his favourite subject despite Jeno’s complaints and half-hearted attempts of escape. There aren’t that many pictures of the two of them together and it had never bothered Jaemin until now.

There are some, though. Jaemin lets himself remember those moments as he holds the pictures. The two of them at the zoo. At high school graduation. At Mark’s seventeenth birthday party.

They looked so different then. Fresh-faced, innocent, young. Naïve, perhaps. Back then, they thought they had life all figured out.

But they hadn’t. Jaemin remembers thinking how he would do anything to keep Jeno in his life as he stood next to him in front of the cinema and took a selfie with his chin on Jeno’s shoulder. He remembers how warm Jeno had been, how steady and dependable, always next to him no matter what.

In the end, Jaemin hadn’t done enough to keep him. It’s less of a regret and more a realisation, the pinprick pain of “ah, I could’ve tried a little harder if only I’d known a little better”.

But he hadn’t known better.

Jaemin puts the photos back and closes the box. Maybe he should get rid of it, finally. He won’t open it again. It’s time to make new memories.

 

 

Hyuck is quick to establish Jeno’s presence back in everyone’s lives. Jaemin realises he might not be the only one who’s missed him so much, though he doubts anyone suffered as much because of it as he did.

Right now, Jeno is being introduced to the friends they’ve accumulated in his absence – the seniors, TAs, the girls. Jaemin tries not to pay attention to how Yeeun is eyeing Jeno from two seats away, tries to ignore the interest in Jeno’s smile as he talks to Yeosang.

Jaemin can’t blame him. He has no reason to be mad, to be possessive. If Jeno were to date one of his friends, he would have no right to be jealous, not when he’s done the exact same thing in the past.

“Why are you making that face?” Renjun nudges his elbow into Jaemin’s side, dragging his attention away from Jeno. “Already being jealous?”

“Never,” Jaemin gives back. “When’s this party getting started? I thought you said we’d all be smashed by ten.”

Renjun puts his hand on Jaemin’s arm. “Patience, my friend.”

Jaemin doesn’t have a lot of patience tonight.

No one talks about it. About Jeno and him. The others mention the past often, which is fair given how it’s the thing that connects them all and there’s so much catching up to do, but no one speaks of Jaemin’s and Jeno’s relationship, not even Jeno himself. It’s like they’re all pretending it never happened and the thought cuts Jaemin deep whenever he nudges against it.

It’s like Jeno and he never were anything at all. Like it was something forgettable. Jaemin knows no one’s mentioning it out of consideration because it could be awkward, could make things uncomfortable, and everyone’s relying on the same old comfort of a returning childhood friend.

But to Jaemin, Jeno isn’t just a childhood friend. To him, Jeno is his ex boyfriend, his ex best friend, his ex everything. He’s the one who promised that Jaemin and they would buy a house together some day, the one who whispered into Jaemin’s ear one grey Saturday morning, “We’ll grow old together, right?”

And that’s impossible to forget.

Jaemin abandons the full living room in favour of finding drinks. They’re at Hendery’s house, a graduate from last year who’s somehow kind enough to let a bunch of semi-mature college kids trash his place every now and then. It’s an old, spacious house, the kind only rich kids would live in. The kitchen would be pristine if it weren’t for the mess of bottles, glasses, and cups on the island. Kun and some girls are lingering, smiling over at Jaemin.

Somewhere in the house, someone turns the volume of the music up. The bass is muffled but Jaemin can feel it in his guts; it must be shattering wherever it’s coming from.

“Are you still a lightweight?” someone asks from the door.

When Jaemin turns, Jeno is smiling at him. It’s unfair how good he looks, wearing a low-cut sleeveless shirt underneath a silky red jacket. The Jeno Jaemin used to know would wear hoodies and sweats, maybe denim. This Jeno knows how handsome he is. This Jeno is confident in himself.

“Not as much as I used to,” Jaemin says. “Want me to make you a drink?”

Jeno pushes off the threshold and saunters up to the counter, intrigued. “Will I regret it?”

“Find out for yourself.”

Jaemin mixes Jeno something sweet, something that seems innocent until it’s too late. Jeno watches him with attentive eyes but doesn’t interrupt him, then takes the cup from Jaemin. He doesn’t break eye contact when he takes a sip. Jaemin’s smirk is slow, deliberate.

It’s only a matter of time, he thinks, before this tension turns volatile. 

“Damn,” Jeno says. “If I make stupid decisions later, take responsibility.”

“Not if those decisions are fun.”

Jeno grins at him. Jaemin shouldn’t be doing this, shouldn’t be entertaining this, shouldn’t be flirting with Jeno when he doesn’t know what he wants, or what Jeno wants.

But it’s easy. It has always been so easy with Jeno – it was the thing that made them work so well. The same wavelength. The same outlooks on life. Same humour, different temperaments. Two sides of a coin, completed by each other.

“Come on,” Jaemin says, grabbing his own drink. “The others must be missing us.”

 

The others did, in fact, not miss them. Jaemin walks into a room that’s so full of sound it feels like a physical wall and Jeno grabs his wrist for a second, steadying himself. Renjun is draped over Hyuck in a way that seems indecent in public, some others are sitting on the floor around the coffee table while Mark’s pouring shots, and Jisung is dance-battling Mia, hogging the attention of everyone else in the room.

Jaemin finds he loves it here. Despite everything, in spite of everything. Even though Jeno is still standing next to him, a temptation, a reminder of the past, a marker of an unknown future. Still, he loves it. He loves these people, this feeling. There’s nothing wrong with that.

 

 

After a week of not seeing Jeno, a week of thinking about him, a week of dragging himself through memories that hurt even after years, Jaemin meets up with Jeno at the library to study.

The semester is picking up speed and Jaemin is already tired. He can’t afford to slack off this year but it’s hard to focus now when this part of coding is incredibly boring and Jeno showed up wearing skinny jeans and a loose-collared shirt that’s too thin for the season.

Still, Jeno is good company, has always been. He’s quiet, taking notes from whatever he’s reading in his neat, collected handwriting. It’s the first time it’s just the two of them, though, since that initial run-in, and Jaemin can’t help but question Jeno’s intentions. He wants to reconnect, that much is clear, but in which sense? Their past is impossible to disregard, especially when it hangs between them like both a warning and an invitation. Jeno can’t ignore it forever.

“Hey, I was wondering –” Jeno begins, leaning back, “Is our ice cream place still there?”

Our ice cream place. Jaemin nods hesitantly. “Yeah. It hasn’t changed all that much.”

“Do you wanna go there when we’re done here? For old time’s sake? Man, I missed their caramel fudge ice cream. You can’t get it like that anywhere else.”

Jeno is looking at him. Jaemin doesn’t understand how he can pose this so innocently. Their ice cream place was their number one spot for dates and special occasions. It’s laced with romantic memories – their first official date was there, every valentine’s they spent together, any ridiculous anniversary, all birthdays, celebrations, anything. They used to squish themselves into one booth and hold hands underneath the table and feed each other whipped cream when no one was looking.

“Sure,” Jaemin says nonchalantly. “For old time’s sake.”

 

If Jeno’s aware of the strange mood, he doesn’t show it. They’re sitting at a table, opposite of each other this time, and Jeno’s going through the menu to point out the things that have changed. His hair is getting long, falling over his forehead and hiding his eyes, and Jaemin wants to reach out and brush it back.

“I can’t believe they took the waffles off the menu,” Jeno laments without looking up. “I loved those.”

“Maybe you were the only one who ordered them,” Jaemin says softly. “But they still have the pancakes.”

Jeno looks up sharply. “Are you implying that pancakes and waffles are the same thing?”

“No, but you have to admit that they’re kind of similar.”

“I can’t believe you just said that. I feel offended on the waffles’ behalf.”

Jeno laughs and Jaemin joins in in spite of himself, heart skipping like a pebble across water.

Oh no, he thinks. Oh no, oh no, oh no.

 

 

It’s easy, almost unavoidably so, falling back into being best friends. There’s always the barrier of the past making Jaemin apprehensive but being with Jeno is too much fun to run away from it. They do what they used to do, without the romantic aspect – they bike together, play video games, watch movies, study, cook, sometimes with others, sometimes just them.

Jeno is different, that much is clear, but that doesn’t change how Jaemin feels about him. It’s a curse, really, finding out new amiable things about Jeno.

It feels like falling back in love, even when Jaemin isn’t sure he ever fell out of it in the first place.

 

 

It’s a little bit unbearable, sometimes.

Jaemin is sitting in Jisung’s cramped dorm room, fumbling with the sheets while Jisung is sitting in his fucked-up desk chair. Jisung was still in high school when Jaemin and Jeno broke up, but he’s one of the people Jaemin trusts the most. In the past year, Jisung has grown up so much. One day Jaemin might have to stop treating him like his baby.

They’ve been talking about Jeno. No one else would; everyone asks, hushed and nosy, about how Jaemin is feeling but no one gives advice.  

“I don’t know what he wants,” Jaemin says now. His fingers tangle in the sheets. “If he wants anything.”

“Why don’t you just ask him?” Jisung suggests.

“It’s not that easy.”

“Yes, it is.”

“If I mention it he’ll think I want more from him and if he doesn’t want that he’ll distance himself.”

“But you do want more.”

“I don’t want to lose him again. He doesn’t know if he’ll stay here and I – being friends is easier.”

“Jaemin, you can’t stay friends with an ex. Even less when you’ve still got feelings for him.”

“I can. I have to.”

“Listen. You have to draw a line at some point. You can’t keep saying yes to him and hurting yourself.”

Jaemin knows that better than anyone but he can’t help himself.

 

 

It was a mistake to bring Jeno home. Jaemin doesn’t remember which part of him thought it was a good idea – to invite Jeno inside when it started to rain instead of lending him an umbrella.

But Jeno’s here now and Jaemin hates himself for how much he likes that image. Jeno is standing in his living room, head tipped slightly as he considers the polaroids, the gadgets, the mess of empty coffee cups and glasses on the little IKEA table. It’s quiet aside from the pitter-patter of the raindrops on the window panes, washing out the apartment in grey light.

And then Jeno turns, fixes Jaemin with a warm look, and says, “You kept our couch?”

He states it like a question but it isn’t really. It aches inside Jaemin – it used to be Jeno’s couch until they moved in with each other, and then, when Jeno moved away, Jaemin didn’t have the heart to throw it out despite its terrible state. It still smelled like Jeno for the first week and then Jaemin moved into his own flat and took it with him.

It’s not about the couch itself. It’s about what it represents – memories and history, Jaemin’s inability to let go, his nostalgia. Not mine. Not yours. Ours.

“It’s cosy,” Jaemin shrugs off. “And I didn’t wanna spend money on a new one.”

“Fair enough.”

“Sit. Do you want anything to drink? I think I might have some hot chocolate mix somewhere.”

Instead of sitting, Jeno trails Jaemin to his little kitchen. It’s too small a space for two grown boys, too small especially for two boys with history that’s too fragile to be brought up.

What do you want from me, Jaemin wants to ask. Why are you doing this to me?

He doesn’t ask. He opens his cupboards until he finds the box with the powder and then fills the kettle.

“I like your place,” Jeno says conversationally as they wait for the water to boil, leaning back against the counter. “It’s very you.”

“Is it?” Jaemin fiddles with two mugs so he won’t have to look at Jeno. He seems too comfortable here to be a stranger, recognises too much of Jaemin despite having missed out on three years of his life.

Jeno hums. “It’s warm. Practical. Friendly. Just like you.”

Jaemin bites his lip and then turns. “What makes you think,” he says, “that you still know me?”

Silence. The words came out reproachful, though Jaemin didn’t mean them to. The kettle rumbles, almost drowning out the downpour outside. Jeno looks back at him and Jaemin thinks he can see something like hurt or longing in his eyes but maybe that’s just what he wants to see. Maybe that’s just a mirror of what Jaemin feels.

That’s the issue with feelings. They change faces, sometimes. You can’t always recognise them for what they are.

“You haven’t changed that much,” Jeno replies. “Sometimes I think you haven’t changed at all.”

Jaemin grips the counter to stop his hands from shaking. He hates hearing this, hates that he’s still so transparent to Jeno when he can’t tell what Jeno’s thinking about at all, hates that after everything, Jeno being here still means something.

He doesn’t answer. Instead, he finishes the hot chocolate, hands one mug to Jeno and then pushes past him.

“You’ve changed,” Jaemin says when they’ve both settled on the couch. He wants to say more but he doesn’t know how, doesn’t know how to voice that Jeno’s like a dream he’s remembering wrong, always surprised by the details that are different. Jeno looks mostly the same, speaks the same, laughs the same, but there’s a wall around him that Jaemin can’t see through. A stranger with the face of someone he once loved.

“I guess so.” Jeno carefully sets his mug down and turns to Jaemin. “Did you miss me?”

Did you miss me.

The words jab a dagger between Jaemin’s ribs. The question is cruel and Jeno has to know it.

“How can you even ask that?” Jaemin snaps. “You know I did. It was impossible not to.”

“I didn’t mean – I missed you, too. I was just wondering…”

Jaemin silences him with a glare. Something inside him is screaming like a hurt animal, a wound he hasn’t dared to touch reopening. “Are you going to say sorry now? After three years?”

“You know I didn’t have a choice,” Jeno says but his pained expression reveals the guilt.

“You did,” Jaemin says. His rage bleeds out of his voice at once, morphing into hurt, and that’s even worse. Anger and hurt mean you care. It means vulnerability. “You just didn’t make me an option.”

 

“I’ve been offered to transfer to a better university.”

The beginning of the end was a Thursday. It was storming outside and whenever it rains now Jaemin still thinks of this moment. Jeno came home later than usual, which was why Jaemin was getting antsy. He was about to call him when Jeno finally came in, flushed and charged with restless energy.

The words didn’t register right away. “What?”

Jeno took a breath and repeated, “I’ve been offered to transfer.”

The first thing Jaemin felt was pride. Jeno was ambitious, Jeno worked so hard, it was only right to reward him with such success.

Jeno obviously didn’t share that joy since he wasn’t smiling. “It’s – it’s a university in Canada. And it’s a three-year programme.”

The congratulations stuck in Jaemin's throat, immovable.

Canada. Impossibly far away. Jeno, hidden in a prestigious course, too far away from Jaemin.

“Oh.”

“Yeah. But it’s a really good opportunity. The best, actually. If I do well there, I’m set for life.”

“You have to go then,” Jaemin said. “It’s not even a question, you have to go.”

“I know but – but what about us?”

Maybe, if Jaemin had been paying closer attention to Jeno’s expression, he’d have known that Jeno had already made his decision then. He was just telling Jaemin about it, was just preparing him. But Jeno was ready – to leave everything behind, even his boyfriend, even his best friend.

But back then Jaemin didn’t see it. It was a punch to the stomach but they would manage, right? He said as much. Said, “It might be hard but I’ll come visit in the summers. We’ll be fine. We can do it.”

But Jeno never believed in that.

Jaemin remembers the fights that ensued in the following weeks. He remembers what it was like – not wanting to let Jeno go, knowing it would be the right to do, begging Jeno to change his mind.

Between the two of them, Jeno had always been the smarter one. Jaemin was practical in everyday life but Jeno was practical in the emotional sense. He thought their relationship wouldn’t survive long distance before Jaemin even let himself think about it, so he did what Jaemin obviously wouldn’t do.

Of course Jaemin remembers. It’s not something you could ever forget, when your boyfriend and the one who you thought was your endgame breaks up with you in favour of his career. It was fair; Jaemin knows that with the benefit of hindsight. It was the right thing to do for Jeno.

But right then it had felt like betrayal.

His face had been so hot with tears. Jeno hadn’t cried, mostly because he only does when angry and he wasn’t angry then, just heartbroken. A part of Jaemin had wished he wasn’t the only one showing his pain but in a way, Jeno had. It was in the way he held Jaemin, in the timber of his voice.

“We’ll see each other again,” Jeno had said with the conviction of someone who had to believe those words himself. “I’m sure of it.”

Even if we will, Jaemin didn’t say, even if, I’ll always know you only loved me on conditions.

 

“It wasn’t that easy,” Jeno says now. Jaemin wants to see shame, wants to see regret, but Jeno just looks slightly dejected. “Believe me when I say that it was the hardest choice I ever had to make.”

“Well. I’m happy for you that you’ve made the right choice for yourself.”

“Jaemin.”

“What? What do you want, Jeno?” Jaemin bites out. “If you want to be friends then why are you bringing this up?”

“Because I want you to stop pushing me away, but first you have to stop being so hung up on the past! It’s been three years!”

As if Jaemin didn’t know that. Three years and here he is, wanting the same boy for whom he wasn’t enough. Enough time to accumulate resentment, not enough time to forgive.

Jeno looks expectant, waiting for Jaemin to say something, but Jaemin doesn’t. They sit in uncomfortable silence for a while until the lighting in the apartment clears.

“It stopped raining,” Jaemin says shortly. “You can go home now.”

Once upon a time, Jeno’s home was Jaemin.

“Thank you for the hot chocolate,” Jeno says softly and then he’s gone.

 

 

Jaemin doesn’t speak to Jeno for a while. He hears about him thanks to Hyuck’s unstoppable mouth, but avoidance works, at least for a while.

Jaemin misses Jeno. He hates himself for it and for the way his heart jumps when he does see Jeno at a friend’s kickback, but it is what it is.

Feelings, he figures, are unavoidable, no matter how hard you try to run away from them. It’s one thing that will never change – Jaemin would never have the strength to cut Jeno off, to leave him, to forget him. Jeno was always his everything and that was his mistake.

Jaemin isn’t sure if Jeno has seen him yet. Maybe he has and is avoiding him, too. Maybe he hasn’t. He isn’t sure which option would be kinder.

Maybe he should head home. His cup is empty but the warm buzz of alcohol can’t fill him this time and he isn’t really feeling like being social, sitting alone in front of the apartment complex while everyone else chatters and laughs in the yard.

He’s about to get up when he sees a short girl stalk over to him.

“So,” Yeeun says, sitting down next to Jaemin on the stone step. Her hair falls over the side of her face like a curtain before she tugs it behind her ear, fixing him with an inquiring look. “Tell me everything.”

“About what?” Jaemin asks.

“About Jeno, of course,” she says. “He’s your ex, right?”

When Jaemin nods without saying anything else, she sighs and pats his knee. “I won’t start something with an ex of one of my friends. The others wouldn’t, either. If you were worried about that.”

“You can if you want to,” Jaemin dismisses her. “It’s not like he’s mine. It’s been over for ages.”

“That’s hard to believe with the way you look at him.”

“Yeah, well. The difference is that he doesn’t look back.”

“I wouldn’t be so sure about that.”

“He wants to be just friends.”

“And you?”

I want to hold his hand. I want to make him laugh. I want to have what we had back then, but better. “Nothing I can have.”

Yeeun laughs. “You boys are so angsty.”

“Shouldn’t you be dashing out advice?”

“I should, but I’m clueless. Sorry, dude.”

Jaemin snorts and nudges her shoulder. “Just here for the gossip, huh?”

“Yeah. And to keep you company. You looked so alone out here.”

Maybe Jaemin isn’t as good at hiding as he thought. Maybe everyone can see it on him – the wear and tear of not being able to let go, the loneliness, the longing. It’s embarrassing, really. His feelings for Jeno are embarrassing.

Yeeun squeezes his shoulder and gets up. “Come on. Join us. We have hot gossip you can’t miss out on.”

Despite everything, Jaemin lets Yeeun pull him up and follows her back to the rest of the pack.

 

Turns out Jeno hadn’t seen him because once he does, he comes over immediately. Not an avoider anymore, Jaemin thinks. A problem solver. He’s wearing a simple blue sweater today but that doesn’t make him less attractive.

“Hey,” Jeno says, voice small. “Can we talk?”

Jaemin looks around the yard at large. People laughing, smiling, standing too close to each other on one of the last warm days of the year. So many relationships, so many constellations. It’s so hard to figure out where their place is among them, if they have a place at all, as a duo.

“Sure,” Jaemin replies eventually.

Jeno swallows and gestures for Jaemin to follow him, which he does. Jeno leads them into a quieter corner and leans against the fence there.

“I wanted to say sorry,” Jeno starts. “For bringing up the past and stuff.”

Jaemin shrugs. He shouldn’t have been so sensitive about it, not after this much time, but he doesn’t reply.

“Are we okay?” Jeno asks. He looks small, hands in his pockets, shoulders slumped.

I can’t believe you ask me this, Jaemin thinks. I can’t believe I still want you.

“Yeah,” he says, even though he knows he shouldn’t. “We’re good.”

Jeno sighs deeply. “Thank you. I just…” He glances at Jaemin. “I miss my best friend.”

“I miss him, too.”

Jaemin doesn’t smile but Jeno must see that a part of him wants to. He knocks his shoulder against Jaemin’s, grinning, worming his way back into Jaemin’s vulnerable heart, yet again finding a place to stay.

 

 

“You need to take your mind off everything,” Hyuck says, patting his back. “You’re too stressed with your course and the Jeno thing and I can’t remember the last time you got laid, either, which is positively tragic for a dude your age.”

“Lee Donghyuck,” Jaemin warns. He already regrets forgiving Jeno so easily because now he keeps asking Jaemin to hang out and it’s killing him, and everyone – Jeno aside – can tell.

Hyuck just smiles serenely. He’s the right match for Renjun, Jaemin figures. Another instigator who always knows which buttons to push. Jaemin wonders how often they fight.

Jeno and he never really used to fight, not until the end.

Hyuck’s expression morphs into annoyance. “See, you’re doing it again. This zoning out bullshit. We’re going out next week and I’ll be your wingman and I’ll find you the hottest person in the room to take home.”

“Fine,” Jaemin says. Maybe Hyuck is right. It’s been a while since he’s been with anyone and if anything, it will take his mind off of Jeno for a few hours.

 

 

The hottest person in the room, it turns out, is Jeno.

The room is spinning, but Jeno’s all Jaemin can see. They pre-gamed too hard over at Hyuck’s place and Jaemin arrived drunk, ready to make bad decisions in the form of kissing strangers. He didn’t count for the possibility of running into Jeno even here. What are the chances? What is the universe trying to tell him?

Is there not a single place in the world where Jaemin is safe from his past?

“Who invited him?” Hyuck grits out, grabbing Jaemin’s wrist to pull him away.

“I couldn’t not invite him,” Renjun hisses back. “He’s our friend. Don’t be mad.”

Jaemin stops listening to their banter, instead watching Jeno move around the dance floor. He isn’t quite dancing, just nodding his head along, scanning the room as if looking for someone. He looks stunning even from here, even with the drunken clumsiness to his steps, even with his hair messy.

“Stop staring,” Hyuck snarls and drags him away.

 

It doesn’t take long for Hyuck and Renjun to ditch him. Maybe it’s unintentional; maybe it was the crowd; but Jaemin finds himself alone in the sea of drunk kids, music flooding his veins like poison, and his hands are sticky with the sugary drink he’d accidentally spilled over himself.

He’s a mess, he knows it. He wants to go home, wants to crawl into bed and never return, but before that, he wants one more glance of Jeno. Jeno, in his snug black skinny jeans. His small waist that used to be so easy to hold down. His chest that’s so much broader now, so much firmer. Jeno, who looks beautiful even in passing when Jaemin can’t focus on anything, vision splintered into a kaleidoscope.

In the end, it’s not Jaemin finding Jeno, it’s Jeno finding him. He just materialises in front of Jaemin or maybe Jaemin just didn’t pay attention to him coming. It’s difficult to focus and then difficult to look away.

“Hey, you,” Jeno says, eyes caught somewhere on Jaemin’s chest before he drags his gaze up. Jaemin almost chokes on nothing; there’s so much heat in Jeno’s expression he can feel it radiating off of him.

“Hey,” he replies.

“I was looking for you,” Jeno says.

Jaemin raises an eyebrow. “For me, specifically?”

“Yeah.” Jeno curls his slender fingers around Jaemin’s wrist. “Dance with me.”

Jeno doesn’t wait for an answer. He simply turns around and pushes his back against Jaemin’s front, warm and pliable and inviting in ways that are forbidden. Jaemin stumbles back, steadying himself by holding onto Jeno, and that’s the first bad decision.

They fit together like they always have. Jaemin’s flooded with memories – how they went together to high school graduation, when everyone except their friends was scandalised by two boys dancing. Their chemistry teacher had to separate them eventually when Jeno kept grinding against Jaemin and then they left to make out behind the building, giggly and tipsy from fruit punch and happiness.

Everything is different now. This isn’t high school and Jeno doesn’t belong to him anymore. The alcohol sings venom into Jaemin’s ears – he wants you but not like that, never like that. You’re always the one willing to run after him. He’ll never love you again. 

And then Jeno turns around, sliding his arms around Jaemin’s neck. There’s undeniable tension between them and Jaemin doesn’t know how to alleviate it, doesn’t even know how to look away. He should avoid Jeno, should stay away because if he doesn’t he’ll say things, will do things, that he’ll regret.

But it’s Jeno. Unrecognisable, beautiful, familiar Jeno. His fingertips dig into Jaemin’s nape, pulling him closer until Jaemin can feel and smell his breath on his face. His eyes close. He stops hearing. Jeno’s hands burn invisible marks into his skin as they find his jaw.

Jaemin isn’t prepared for this kiss. It’s a kiss that feels like love, a kiss that tastes of memories and longing. This kiss says I missed you too, I want you back, please don’t leave me alone tonight, and then Jeno slips his tongue into Jaemin’s mouth and Jaemin stops thinking altogether.

Jeno tastes like tequila shots and lime and temptation. It’s nothing and everything like three years ago, when Jaemin tried so hard to be enough for Jeno and ultimately failed. Jeno kisses him like he wants him but Jaemin can’t believe it, not when believing it once shattered him into a million unfixable pieces.

Jaemin knows he has to say no. They’re both drunk, both craving touch, but this isn’t right. They have to talk first, they have to address –  

“You feel so good.” Jeno mouths the words against Jaemin’s throat, his teeth scraping over his jugular and Jaemin’s defences break.

It feels so good. Jeno nips at his skin, posing a clear question, and Jaemin is too weak to reject him. He could never. He would never.

“Jeno,” Jaemin whispers, unsure where his sentences are going. He can feel Jeno’s hands on him, his fingers sliding lower until they thread through Jaemin’s belt loops. Jeno pulls his hips flush against his own and Jaemin can’t help the groan climbing up his chest, can’t help but give in to the way Jeno grinds their crotches together.

“Do you want to…?” Jeno asks, looking at Jaemin with his dark, feline eyes. He’s seduction personified, Jaemin thinks distantly. He’s the most beautiful thing on this planet.

Jaemin stares at him for a moment. At his eyes and his red, glistening mouth. And then, because he’s stupid and weak and had to fight this for three years and he’s so tired of it now, he says, “Let’s go to my place.”

 

Sleeping with Jeno hurts. It hurts in the way that Jeno’s still sensitive in all the same places Jaemin remembers, it hurts in Jaemin’s chest where his heart sits swollen and tender, so ready to be destroyed, it hurts how Jaemin wishes he could be gentle without revealing his feelings. He hates that they have to use a condom now, hates what it implies. They never had to, back then, being each other’s firsts and onlys. He wants to feel Jeno, all of him, but it’s no longer his privilege. They’re no longer exclusive.

Jeno looks so familiar under him but feels so different that Jaemin almost gets vertigo from the mix of memories and reality. Jeno isn’t the lithe boy anymore but a man. His chest has filled out and Jaemin traces his pecks, the lines and dips of his abs. His waist is still so narrow, still perfect for Jaemin’s hands to fit around and pull him against his own hips, as close as possible when Jaemin finally pushes into him.

Some things don’t change. They never change. Jeno still kisses with too much tongue, messy and wild when he gets impatient. He arches up when Jaemin bites his neck the same way he always used to. Jeno can still make Jaemin fall apart with just a look and his name on his lips. Jaemin wants to take his time, wants to drag this out because it’s been so long, but he can’t, not with how Jeno’s pushing back against him, not with the noises Jeno is making for him, because of him, not with how long Jaemin’s had to wait to have this again. He thought he’d never feel like this again – embraced by Jeno’s tight heat, his mouth his to kiss, his body Jaemin’s to ruin.

Jaemin fucks him harder, tries to hide that what he really wants to do is make love to him; that’s clearly not what Jeno wants and clearly not what Jaemin should give him now, not if he wants to keep his secrets.

Jaemin feels close embarrassingly fast but Jeno doesn’t seem in a much better state. One of his hands is loosely wrapped around his dick but Jaemin slaps it away to jerk him off himself, matching the pace of his thrusts. Jeno groans at the touch and throws his head back and it only takes two, three more strokes before he comes. He looks beautiful, Jaemin thinks, falling apart under him. There’s a flush everywhere, hair matted to his forehead with sweat, eyes teary and intense with pleasure when they find Jaemin’s.

Jaemin forces himself to pause while Jeno comes down from it but instead of pushing him away, Jeno crosses his ankles behind Jaemin’s thighs and pulls him in again. Jaemin groans against his collarbones, hips kicking forward on their own accord.

“It’s okay,” Jeno breathes out, dragging his fingers through Jaemin’s hair and pulling him into a sloppy kiss. “Go on, fuck me. I want you to.”

Jaemin could never deny Jeno anything, especially not this. He loves him, has always, will always, and this is poison for his mental state. He could never let him go, not like this. Maybe tomorrow he’ll wake up alone with regrets and another crack in his heart, realising that he was an idiot to let Jeno this close, to let them use each other like this when there’s too much history between them, but it doesn’t matter now. It’s too late and Jeno feels so good, pressing kisses to Jaemin’s neck while Jaemin thrusts back into him, again and again. It’s slower than before but it’s enough when Jeno releases a wrecked moan, calling his name, and Jaemin buries his face in the crook of Jeno’s neck, biting down when he comes.

They stay like that for a moment before Jeno pushes at Jaemin’s shoulder and Jaemin pulls out carefully. He doesn’t clean Jeno up like he would have three years ago and Jeno doesn’t press himself against Jaemin’s chest the way he used to when he comes back from the bathroom. With anyone else, this would be a hook-up – simplistic, straightforward, on point.

But it isn’t simple. It isn’t just anyone.

Jaemin doesn’t remember falling asleep but when he wakes up in the morning, Jeno is gone. There is no trace of him aside from the changed smell of Jaemin’s sheets and the faint hickeys Jaemin finds littered over his chest and neck.

Jeno is gone, didn’t stick around to explain himself, has no interest in what Jaemin might be feeling after this.

Of course he didn’t stay, Jaemin thinks bitterly, blinking away the threat of tears. After all, running away has always been what Jeno’s best at.

 

 

“I slept with Jeno,” Jaemin confesses.

Renjun stares at him. “That’s not what we meant when we said you should get laid.”

“I know.”

“And I take it you’re not back together.”

Jaemin swallows. “No.”

“And you didn’t talk about it.”

“No.”

“Oh Jaemin.”

“I know. It’s whatever. I should be over it anyways, right?”

“Yeah, but you’re not.” Renjun sighs. “Why did you do it? This is just making it harder for you.”

Jaemin deflates even more. He knows it was a mistake. He knew it was wrong while it was happening but that still wasn’t enough to stop him. Even if he could go back in time, he’d make the exact same choices, just to feel Jeno’s mouth on him again.

“Because it’s Jeno,” Renjun says, answering his own question.

He’s right. Jaemin is powerless against Jeno, the same way he always was, because while many things have changed, this one hasn’t.

 

 

Seeing Jeno after this becomes exponentially harder. The tension between them seems visible, so much so that the others are picking up on it. Renjun makes a point to distract Jaemin with conversation and food but Jeno’s like a magnet of opposite charge, pulling Jaemin in without even trying.

Except this time, Jeno no longer reaches out to him.

Jaemin tries not to be angry but it’s hard. It was a mutual mistake but Jeno was the one who initiated it, the one who refused to acknowledge their past, the one to take advantage of Jaemin’s pliability. It isn’t fair, Jaemin thinks, that Jeno always gets away with ditching Jaemin whenever he wants. It isn’t fair that it’s always Jaemin who ends up asking for him to stay, the one being hurt when Jeno won’t.

None of it is fair, or ever was.

Jaemin had begged, back then. Literally. That was everything that was left – begging Jeno for something; if not to stay, then not to leave him behind. Jaemin argued and cried and pleaded but Jeno was too convinced that it wouldn’t work.

Maybe, if Jaemin had thought about it, he could’ve seen the points Jeno was making. But in the end he was wrong – Jaemin would have loved him across all distances, all time zones, no matter for how long. He would never have left Jeno. Never.

But Jeno, rational and responsible, had to break up with him.

“If we don’t, we’re just prolonging the pain,” he said.

Jaemin had begged. He’d begged and fought, but in the end, Jeno packed his bags, gave Jaemin his key and said, “Loving you was the best thing I have ever done,” and that had destroyed Jaemin the most. The fact that Jeno felt the need to say this, of all things, as a goodbye, a reminder that this was truly over, and the fact that he used “was”. Past tense. I loved you from then up to here but this is where it ends.

Jeno left Jaemin behind, his ruined heart at his feet, and never looked back.

It was a hard pill to swallow – knowing that Jaemin was easy to leave. That he was easy to want, but equally easy to abandon.

He’s so tired of it now.

Jaemin focuses back on the present and wipes the wetness from his cheeks. No one seems to have noticed him zoning out; maybe his friends are used to it by now. Maybe they’re having too much fun with the boardgame they’re playing.

Maybe they’re just as tired of this as Jaemin.

 

Later that evening, when the games have been cleared away in favour of pizza boxes and everyone’s scrambling for their own, Mark catches Jaemin in the kitchen and corners him.

“You and Jeno,” he asks, straight to the point. “Did anything happen between you two?”

Renjun must have kept it a secret then. Jaemin appreciates that but it doesn’t make much of a difference; he’s two and a half beers in and the bitterness is close to the surface like this, when he can hear Jeno laugh about something Hyuck is saying as if everything was fine.

“We fucked,” Jaemin says, deliberately meeting Mark’s eyes just to see the shock there. “Nothing more.”

It takes Mark a minute to gather his bearings and Jaemin finishes his beer in the meantime.

“But you wish it was something more?” Mark muses.

Jaemin shrugs. It’s hard to tell what he wants these days. He wants Jeno to leave him alone. He wants peace of mind. He wants Jeno to look at him again as if Jaemin was the centre of his universe.

Impossible, how you can feel both resentment and affection towards the same person.

“I think you two should talk,” Mark says. “To get closure. So you can move on.”

If Jaemin hasn’t moved on in three years without being confronted with Jeno’s presence it seems pretty hopeless now, but he doesn’t say that. Instead he looks over at the others, at the easy way they all fit together despite their drastic differences. He wonders if Jeno would distance himself if Jaemin confronted him with his confession. He doesn’t want to uproot the group, not when it’s so painfully visible that they’ve all missed being together like this.

The alternative is hurting himself.

Mark squeezes his shoulder. “You should really talk.”

“To say what?” Jaemin snaps. “That I love him? That I need him to leave again?”

“Jaemin –”

“It’s not as easy as it seems from the outside,” Jaemin continues. “It sure as hell isn’t easy to just be friends.”

“Guys?” Renjun calls from the living room. “Can you bring some soda?”

Mark automatically grabs a bottle from the counter. “Just talk,” he hisses and then leaves Jaemin standing there, alone.

 

 

Jaemin doesn’t talk to Jeno. In fact, he cancels on his friends next time he’s invited over after he finds out Jeno’s coming, too, and Jaemin would gladly keep the avoidant behaviour if Jeno wasn’t always so intent on ruining Jaemin’s peace.

“Hey.”

Jaemin, hidden away in a corner of the library, looks up at Jeno’s stern face. “Shouldn’t you be at Mark’s place?”

“You should be there, too,” Jeno says, pulling out a chair to sit down.

“I told him I need to study.”

“You don’t look like you’re getting much done.”

Jaemin glares, pulling his unopened textbooks towards him. “You look like you’re overstepping.”

“Come on. The gang isn’t complete without you.”

“You’re more than fine without me.”

Going by Jeno’s silence, he caught the meaning that Jaemin intended. Jaemin knows he’s being rude but honestly, he doesn’t care anymore. Jeno should know better.

“Why are you being so cold to me?” Jeno asks.

Jaemin scoffs. “What kind of question is that?”

“A completely legitimate one.”

“Oh, is it?” Jaemin hisses. “Explain to me then why you slept with me and then slinked away before I woke up like a fucking one night stand. Did you have nothing to say? Wasn’t it you who said you wanted to be friends? Newsflash, Jeno: friends don’t fuck. Friends don’t flirt like we do. I get it, we used to be more, but we aren’t anything right now and if we want to be friends, please just give me some fucking space, so I can forget about everything that happened.”

Jeno just sits there, stunned into silence. Jaemin tries to stop shaking but it’s so difficult when everything inside him his boiling, so ready to explode.

“You’re right,” Jeno says quietly then. “You have changed.”

“You haven’t. You still can’t commit to anything.”

“Look, I’m sorry for sleeping with you. I mean – I don’t regret it, I just regret that we were both so out of it and if I persuaded you into something you didn’t want, then I really am sorry, Jaemin. I’m sorry. And I’m sorry that I left back then, and for how I left you.”

More silence. Something claws its way up Jaemin’s throat, something acidic he can’t seem to swallow back down.

“Why didn’t you even try?” Jaemin asks. “Back then, when you left? Why did you have to end things?”

Jeno won’t meet Jaemin’s eyes, instead studies his hands. “I was scared,” he says eventually. “That if we tried, I’d have to see you get tired of it. It felt – it felt easier to rip the band-aid off right then. I know it sounds so stupid but I – didn’t want to put you through that just to see us fail.”

Jaemin stays quiet for a moment. He can feel the tension build in his chest, hot and furious. “So instead of giving us a shot, you just broke my heart and left? Because you assumed I would get tired of you? Was it just a band-aid to you? Wow. Fuck you.”

“I’m sorry, Jaemin. I know it wasn’t fair to you.”

“That’s right.” Jaemin bites back his tears. They’re years too late, wasted. “It wasn’t fair. I would’ve done anything to get you to try. And I would’ve made it work because – I loved you so much, Jeno. I have never in my life loved anyone or anything more than you and you threw it away.”

Jeno closes his eyes. “I’m sorry.”

“Whatever. Too late now. Just – just don’t play with me.”

“I wouldn’t – I didn’t mean to… I didn’t mean for things to escalate like this.”

“Whatever.” Jaemin doesn’t want to hear the rest. Doesn’t want to think about what to say to Jeno to make him understand. How un-loving him seems like a thing of impossibility now that Jaemin has been reminded of what Jeno’s like.

They don’t talk for a while. It’s even more difficult to have a clear thought with the object of his confusion sitting right opposite of Jaemin. He can feel how his heart presses against his ribs with every beat, as if dislodged and out of place.

“Can I ask you something?” Jeno says tentatively.

“Sure.”

“Do you still love me?”

Jaemin closes his eyes.

Falling in love with Jeno was this: a smile shared in the dark, the realisation of “this person knows me better than anyone” and the speed of a heart that felt too much at once.

There wasn’t a specific moment. It was some time during high school, when both of them had growth spurts and Jaemin caught himself staring at him whenever Jeno changed in the locker room. It was some time in their youth, when Jaemin wanted to be more than just Jeno’s best friend. It was when he found himself paying more attention to Jeno’s shoulders in the seat in front of him than to what his teachers were saying.

It was this: Jeno inexplicably getting shy around him. Jaemin having to press Jeno for answers. The answer being “I’m sorry, but I think I like you too much, please still be my friend.”

Falling is a process, Jaemin figures. He fell for Jeno in a slow burn slide, unstoppable, unavoidable, impossible to get up from.

His feelings never changed. They had different faces at times; they seemed invisible other times. He tried to love other people and managed to forget – it’s been three years, after all – but Jaemin never left those feelings behind. Not like Jeno did.

Jaemin looks up, catches Jeno’s eyes. “I never stopped.”

“It’s been three years.”

“I’m devoted.”

“But I left.”

“Do you love me?”

Jeno nods. Heat floods Jaemin’s chest.

“But you’re not sure if that’s enough,” Jaemin guesses.

“It’s not that easy, Jaemin. I don’t want to hurt –”

“If you cared at all about hurting me you would never have left!” Jaemin snaps. It just bursts out of him. Everything, everything. “You would never have given up like that! You had already made your choice back then and that wasn’t me but you were and are too much of a coward to admit that even to yourself. You know what hurts? Watching you come back, being best friends with you, having you kiss me but not knowing what it means. If it means anything to you at all, if you feel like I do – because I don’t know. I don’t know what you want from me. If you love me then try harder. I don’t want to get attached just to watch you walk away again.”

“I’m sorry. I’m sorry, Jaemin. I’m scared,” Jeno says. “That in the end we will both be hurting.”

Jaemin turns away. His chest is no longer burning, just hollow. It’s empty and he’s tired. So tired of waiting for Jeno to make up his mind.

“If you don’t want me,” Jaemin says, “if you don’t want to try again, then just leave me the hell alone.”

He collects his things and walks away, something he’s never done before, and a part of it feels good – knowing that he, too, can leave Jeno if he really wants to. Even if it’s only like this. Even if it’s make-believe.                                                      

 

 

“How are you doing, sweetie?”

His mother’s voice is tinny and worried through the speaker and Jaemin wants to remind her that he’s grown, that he doesn’t need her to worry about him anymore, but he doesn’t. Maybe it’s the familiarity of her voice. Maybe it’s the fact that she’ll coddle him if he lets her. Small comforts, small indulgences, things that will never change.

“I’m good,” he replies, pulling at a loose thread on his sleeve. “How’s dad?”

“Fine as always.” His mum sighs. “Please talk to me a little bit. You never come home anymore. Did you finally meet a nice girl who gets all your attention?”

Jaemin thinks of Jeno. Thinks of family dinners spent together, Jeno kicking his ankle underneath the table while smiling at Jaemin’s parents.

“No, I’m just… just busy,” he says, swallows. “Um. Jeno’s back in town.”

His mum breathes in. “Jeno? Lee Jeno?”

“Yeah.”

“Oh, please tell him I said hi, alright? How has been doing, is he –” She hesitates. Jaemin wonders what she’s thinking. “Are you two…”

“We’re just… friends. Acquaintances, really,” Jaemin replies, tries not to sound bitter. Back then, his parents had been accepting but he figures his mother wants grandchildren from her only child. Wants the traditional family. It’s a fair wish to have, but not one Jaemin can fulfil her and the guilt from that will never wash off.

His mother is silent for a while. Jaemin can hear a variety of background noises – chatter and dishes, quiet music.

“I know you liked him a whole lot,” she says then. “You lost so much weight when he left. I know you think being friends with him will be fine but I’m telling you as your mother, it won’t be enough. I’m sorry, Jaemin. But being friends with your ex-boyfriend won’t be good for you.”

I know, Jaemin wants to say but something is holding his throat closed. He can smell salt. He can feel it in his eyes. A tidal wave grabbing at his feet. He should have had this conversation sooner, before he let Jeno kiss him. It feels too late now.

“You’ll be okay,” his mum says. “You can always come home, you know? For a little break. To forget.”

“I know. Thanks, mum.”

They hang up shortly after and Jaemin wonders for a moment if he really should go home but even there he wouldn’t be safe from memories. It would be even worse there, he thinks. Sleeping in his childhood bedroom, in the very same bed that Jeno and he made out on countless times, the same bed where he’d lost his virginity to Jeno. The garden with the old swing where they smoked their first cigarette together. They were so young back then. Jaemin hadn’t felt that way when he was eighteen and head over heels in love but he knows it now. He was young and foolish and Jeno was so easy to believe when he said this was forever.

Don’t make promises when you’re happy. Don’t set ultimatums when you’re mad. Jaemin’s learnt that now.          

 

 

For once in his life, Jeno actually listens to Jaemin and leaves him alone, at least for a few weeks. It’s enough time for Jaemin to focus on studying; it’s a good enough excuse, too, to stay away from parties and get-togethers. He finishes assignments, visits his family for Christmas, spends the days after that choosing a new couch.

And then it’s New Year’s Eve. Hyuck won’t accept any excuses, so Jaemin joins him and their other friends at a club before everyone leaves together to go to Hendery’s house. There are so many people here that it’s easy to avoid Jeno, and Jaemin has enough restraint to stay sober, not wanting to be tempted.

He sees Jeno briefly when they’re all outside, standing under a shower of fireworks. Jeno’s talking to Aisha and Mia, holding a bottle in one hand and a lighter in the other. Jaemin can’t hear anything aside from more fireworks whistling into the air and exploding somewhere above them, drenching everyone in glittery and golden light, but he imagines Jeno’s wishing them a happy new year.

If things were as Jaemin had wanted them to be, Jeno would still be his new year’s kiss. But he isn’t. He’s standing right there but feels impossibly far away and they’re not even close enough to have a normal conversation, everything always tinged by the past and the feelings Jaemin never let go of.

That’s what always hurts the most, Jaemin thinks. The fact that he lost his best friend twice. Maybe in this new year, it’s time to accept that there’s no future for them.

As if Jeno felt him looking, he turns and catches Jaemin’s eye. His smile slides off his face and Jaemin looks away quickly, vanishing in the small crowd.

 

 

“Jaemin, wait!”

It’s five am or something like that and Jaemin is about to head home. Few people are still here; most of them have left hours ago. The small circle that remained is familiar, having quiet conversations in the now empty halls of the house. Jaemin’s been clearing away bottles and wiping away spills in the kitchen, but he’s tired now.

Too tired to avoid Jeno, it seems.

Jaemin pauses in the threshold until Jeno caught up with him. His cheeks are flushed from the cold but his hand is warm when he reaches for Jaemin’s wrist.

“Can I walk you home?” Jeno asks.

Jaemin stares at him. “I’m sober.”

“I know but –” Jeno takes a breath. “But I have to talk to you.”

Jaemin bites his lip. Now, weeks and months and years later, Jeno wants to talk. He should say no. Jeno already had so many chances to say something; he should say no. But he doesn’t. “Fine.”

They walk in silence for a while, Jaemin setting a brisk pace. It’s almost comical, he thinks, how Jeno always stays quiet even when he was the one reaching out. How Jaemin always has to prod and pull everything out of him himself.

“Listen,” Jeno says then. “Listen, Jaemin, I want to try again. With you, I mean. I just think you deserve better.”

Jaemin stops abruptly. The world’s tipping off its axis, grinding to a halt. The horizon is brightening already, the start of the first day of a new year. “What?”

Jeno looks shy in the dim light, staring down at his sneakers. “I made so many mistakes. I would understand if you couldn’t forgive me.”

Jaemin is quiet for a moment. A lonely car drives by; in the distance the occasional fireworks go off.

“You did,” he says. His breath catches in his throat. “Make mistakes, I mean.”

“Yeah.”

“I still don’t understand why you didn’t even want to try. Was I that disposable to you?”

“You weren’t, I just – I thought I was doing us both a favour,” Jeno replies. “Leaving you was the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do but it felt – it felt like I had to prove to myself that I could do the right thing and let you go. But it wasn’t the right thing. I realised that but by then I’d already broken everything and you deserved a shot at it, like, if I couldn’t move on then maybe you could at least.”

It hurts. Somewhere deep in Jaemin’s chest, it hurts. Knowing all this pain was preventable, was unnecessary – it’s both relieving and disappointing. “That doesn’t make any sense. You could’ve just talked to me about it.”

“I know. Every day I missed you. You’ve always been enough for me. But I didn’t want to put you through a long distance relationship just for me.”

“Long distance would’ve been better than nothing at all.”

“I know that now. I’m sorry.”

“I spent three years,” Jaemin says, voice shaking, “three years trying to forget you. And then you show up and still don’t directly speak to me about the past and leave me to figure it out all on my own, which is impossible.”

“I couldn’t tell whether you still wanted me or not,” Jeno says. “You were so cold to me. You were the same but at the same time, you were untouchable and I had no idea what you were thinking at all. So I tried going slow and then messed it all up.”

“Right. You did mess up.” Jaemin is glad he didn’t drink tonight. The jumble of feelings inside him is impossible to navigate, predominantly pain and anger and, ridiculously, relief. Relief that Jaemin wasn’t insane to think Jeno wanted him still, in some way. Relief that Jeno, too, suffered because of his choices.

Now they’re standing there on the sidewalk, somewhere on the road between uni and Jaemin’s apartment, the road to an uncertain future, the remainders of their history scattered around them, connecting to the present. Jaemin wonders what the future will look like. It’s New Year’s – time to think about what to keep, what to change, what to leave behind.

He doesn’t want to leave Jeno behind. He doesn’t want Jeno to just be his past. Despite everything that happened, Jaemin still wants him around.

“What now?” Jaemin asks quietly. “Are you going to stay?”

Jeno nods, swallowing hard. “I don’t want to leave again,” he whispers. “And even if I had to, I don’t want to leave you. I don’t want to repeat the one mistake that I regretted the most. I know you’ll need time. But I want to try because I love you and you deserve someone who tries their best for you. You don’t have to say yes. You don’t have to say anything if it’s not what you want. But if it is, if you maybe want to try again –”

There are tears in Jeno’s eyes, Jaemin realises. Life is strange. Things are coming full circle in ways you’d never expect. No part of Jaemin was prepared to see Jeno like this, with silvery tear tracks on his cheeks, trying so hard to say and do the right thing. Holding himself accountable. Leaving Jaemin the choice.

This is reciprocation, he thinks. Finally, Jeno has caught up; finally, he loves Jaemin the same way that Jaemin has always loved him – devotedly, committedly, honestly. Maybe back then Jeno hadn’t been as mature as Jaemin had thought him to be; maybe they both needed that growth, maybe Jeno needed to be away for a while to figure out what really matters to him. It’s a shame it took three years. It’s a shame that for Jaemin it has always been clear – that it would be Jeno or no one at all. 

“Haven’t you learnt anything?” Jaemin replies hoarsely. “I would never leave you behind, no matter what.”

“So you’ll take me back?”

Jaemin reaches for Jeno’s hand and intertwines their fingers. It feels both new and familiar, and also long overdue. “Yeah. Now walk me home.”

 

 

They take it slow, at least at first. Sometimes on dates, Jaemin will pretend not to know Jeno as well as he does, will ask questions he already knows the answers to just to see what Jeno will say. Sometimes Jeno will hold back, won’t be as forward as Jaemin would expect him to be. They talk about the three years, their other relationships, about what they want and expect from each other.

But it’s good that way. It’s necessary. A lot has happened in three years and they need time to relearn each other, time to understand each other again.

Jaemin is happy, happier than he’s been in a long time. Right now he’s standing in Jeno’s kitchen, waiting for the pan to heat up while Jeno stands next to him and slices spring onions. Jeno is humming some pop song, focused on his hands, and Jaemin watches him for a minute.

“If you keep staring I’ll accidentally cut my finger,” Jeno says without looking up.

“What, do I make you nervous?” Jaemin slides closer just to tease.

“You’re just very distracting.”

“That’s bold coming from you.”

At that, Jeno does look up, innocently reaching for the edge of Jaemin’s shirt. “Maybe we should postpone dinner and put our attention elsewhere.”

Jaemin laughs and smacks Jeno’s hand away, turning back to the pan. “Let’s not. I wanna take my time later.”

Jeno doesn’t reply but when Jaemin looks over, he’s smiling, his cheeks dusted pink.

 

 

“I don’t understand why you had to be so dramatic,” Jisung laments, sitting squished between Chenle and Renjun on Jaemin’s and Jeno’s new couch. Despite being the tallest now he’ll always be everyone’s baby. Jaemin thinks he secretly enjoys it. “Why didn’t you just talk about it when you first met? You could’ve gotten back together straight away.”

“One day you’ll have feelings for someone and realise it isn’t that simple, idiot,” Chenle quips.

Jisung scoffs. “I’ve decided not to have feelings for anyone ever. It seems super inconvenient.”

Chenle makes a face somewhere between disappointment and annoyance. Jaemin catches his eyes and winks at him.

Jeno, sitting on the ground in front of Jaemin, turns to point a chiding finger at Jisung. “Believe me, you can try running from your feelings but they’ll just chase you right back to where you started.”

“And thank fuck for that,” Renjun says. “Otherwise we wouldn’t be here right now, having found a new place to drink. You guys have a balcony now!”

Jaemin shrugs. “Turns out some architects get paid well.” He nudges Jeno with his foot. “Even when they’re idiots.”

Jeno leans back against his knees and smiles up at him. After all these months, they’re finally back how they used to be or, Jaemin thinks, maybe even better than that. It wasn’t easy to forgive but the past is the past; it’s unchangeable no matter how hard either of them regrets it but it doesn’t have to dictate the path of the future. Jaemin likes to think Jeno learnt from his mistakes, like he did himself. Now, there’s no baggage holding them back. Now there’s only Jaemin, reaching out to brush Jeno’s hair away from his forehead to kiss him there. His endgame – returned to him.

“Gross,” Jisung says from somewhere. Jaemin laughs.