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Chapter: 70/70 (Part A)

Pairings: JaeMin, HoSu, JaeSu (past), YooMin bff

Rating: PG

Genre: Romance, Angst, Drama

Summary:
They both gave up on love, one thinking that he doesn’t deserve it and the other unable to let go of a painful past. As Changmin and Jaejoong slowly discover in the other something they weren’t aware they needed, they don’t know yet that their growing feelings will get tangled in a web of secrets. And that it may change everything in a merciless fight between truth and power.



!! Warning: last chapter is meant to be read as one whole big update. The cut A/B has no actual meaning (besides LJ tyranny...)



LXX. A morning is worth nothing. It's up to you to make it the beginning of a dream.


An oblique ray of sunlight is tracing a way in for brightness, challenging the diffuse glow offered by the neon tubes on the ceiling. It’s nearly noon but the lights are all on. And if a cloud passes by in the sky outside, if shadows rise and fill the horizon, if the sun gets wan or all the stars fall down, the room will keep shining in orange and white shades.

Anything but darkness.

From right to left, that clear beam of daylight is smiling as it goes, a welcome intruder. Flowing from the window, reverberating on glass and tiles, coating the smooth surface of a white wall. Lingering longingly on a lonely chair. There’s no one here, but it won’t stay that way. There’s nothing for now, only needs too deep for it to look empty.

Anything but absence.

From right to left, inquiring daylights find a small table. Magazines, boxes, a pen. Some sparks get caught in a glass of water, the rest of them blend with shadows, vanishing as the last ray of light reaches an old TV set. It’s kept working for hours, voices and music reduced to a quiet murmur that no one pays attention to. But like this, there are sounds.

Anything but silence.


Watching, waiting, listening.


All of it isn’t quite adjusted to reality yet, but it doesn’t matter how much time it’ll take. Slow is fine. Step by step, rebuilding sensations, letting them fall in place following their own pace. Changmin recognizes that instinctive pulsation, a tranquil strength he relied on time and time again. It’s familiar, and safe, and he knows he can trust the unhurried rhythm of senses.

He’s only too happy to let everything unravel like this, while things like consciousness and willpower aren’t required from him. In the rare moments when his thoughts brush against something hard and real, when memories overpower senses, when pain soars abruptly in a soundless scream, it’s snippets of pure horror he can make out behind the veil of apathy. He wouldn’t be able to withstand, if they made him deal with that on his own.

He’s thankful for the persistent fog blurring his mind, altering sensations, dulling pain and blunting the sharpness of those flashes from before. The potent hold of medicines is a haven Changmin doesn’t want to leave just yet. When, by chance, pieces of a strange puzzle come together and bring a little coherency to his scattered thoughts, the only idea making sense in his head is that he wants that blissful confusion to last a moment longer.


He closes his eyes.

Falls.

Freezes.


Too late, back to a nightmare too brutal to be a mere dream. It hurts with the violence of truth, shakes the strongest parts of him and ravages comforting illusions. Hitting right where it’s raw, where defenses were brought down. Worn-out threads straining, impossibly tensed and tried, vibrating and crying, pleading notes, overlapping horribly with the sound of his voice. Trapped in the darkness inside, in the silence inside, in feverish heat that consumes what remains of feelings, of beliefs, of who he was, before.

There are lights he can’t see, words he can’t hear, people that don’t know… don’t know anything, who he is, how… burning, head pounding, shattered by every thought that takes shape and cuts deep… something is missing. It keeps tearing inside, repeatedly, obsessively, until he’s convinced he’ll never be whole again… it’s missing; it’s not here, it was erased, it left him naked, unprotected, vulnerable, and the realization submerges him in darkness… would be unbearable, if he could just feel. Blinking… dazed, and blurred, and darkening… darkening, silhouettes fading away, eyes falling shut… exhausted now, fatigue dragging him down, disappearing… lower, darker, silence.


It’s gone the next morning. It was just a bad dream, and Changmin forgot with one ray of sunlight.


Watching, waiting, listening.


It doesn’t matter how much time it’ll take. He’s only too happy to let everything reform like this, while things like bravery and memories aren’t required from him. He’s thankful no one told him to uncover what’s hiding behind a thick curtain of numbness. He’d fall apart, if they made him face it now.

When, by chance, pieces of a strange puzzle come together and bring a little light to his bleary thoughts, the only idea making sense in his head is that he wants oblivion to last a moment longer.

To make the past one shade paler.


~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~


Days passed, but Jaejoong wouldn’t be able to tell how many it has been. Time moves forward haphazardly, as if disoriented, only pausing at times for a meaningful scene. Those moments are the landmarks he can rely on, steady isles floating in a barely outlined reality.

It was night when he opened his eyes in a hospital room, but he doesn’t actually remember it. That’s just what he was told. He can’t remember waking up, and Jaejoong still wonders at times if all of this isn’t another dream.

It was morning when it started taking shape, as they put words on it.

They talked about it like it was easy to understand, explaining that firemen found him unconscious on the first floor of a burning building, and that he was lucky. Very lucky, your shoulder will need, and your hand of course, but with rest, for sure…

They talked about it forgetting the important things, and that’s when dispersed memories all came together at terrifying speed, burying his heart deeper under feelings it simply couldn’t apprehend. Groggy and stunned, with just enough lucidity left to ask about the only thing that really mattered.
Yet ‘Changmin’… ‘Changmin’ felt like such a dangerous word to say, because letting it out meant knowing, and he wasn’t sure he was ready to know. Saying it meant trying it, seeing if it’d withstand the scrutiny of truth, and truth had never looked that hostile before.

Jaejoong said it as softly as he could, but ‘Changmin’ was frail enough for the name to break in the bosom of his voice. It wasn’t relief when they told him “he’ll be fine”.

It was evening when two policemen came in. It was night when they left, forgetting to take back with them an invisible threat and the shadows spilling out from it, like one of those boxes no one would ever open if they knew what was concealed inside.


And everything, good and bad, all of it became meaningless as finally, they gave him back what he’d lost. He doesn’t know if it was three days or two weeks he spent wandering in remnants of nightmares. He forgot the way it happened, what his eyes showed him and what his heart answered, but Jaejoong can still feel that moment as if it left traces in his whole being.

It was like opening your eyes for the very first time, and not seeing anything because lights are blinding, and all you can do is cry.


~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~


“It’s useless, I can’t concentrate.”

Jaejoong tears his gaze away from the window, where he was looking absentmindedly at the hospital garden below; a tired lawn where green is conceding, for the most part turning to yellow, a few scrawny bushes and gridded alleys. The view wouldn’t be very comforting if it wasn’t for the sun above, shining generously in a clear blue sky.

He waits until his eyes get used to the relative dimness of the room, finding the person who just talked. Changmin isn’t looking at him, but Jaejoong doesn’t need to see his face to know what expression he must be wearing. Frustration was easy to spot in his voice earlier. He can’t tell however if the young man was speaking to himself, or if it was a roundabout way to ask for attention.

Jaejoong walks away from the wall he was leaning against, going to sit back on his chair next to the bed. The nights excepted, he barely left Changmin’s side during the past three days, ever since the doctor in charge deemed his condition good enough to leave his room and get a semblance of independency back. It’s not like he was seriously injured anyway.

Now the only visible traces of what happened in KangBuk are an impressive bruise on his right shoulder, minor scratches and contusions here and there, and a bandage around his left hand. They said the burn underneath would likely leave a small scar, but that there shouldn’t be any other aftereffect. While Jaejoong still can’t remember clearly what happened, he now understands better the “you’re lucky” that was drummed into him the first days.

He leans forward to see the magazine spread open on the bed in front of Changmin, grimacing when he recognizes a sudoku grid. Not really his thing

“You need help…?”, Jaejoong asks all the same, unconsciously refusing to look up.

“No.”

“Maybe if you-“

“It’s fine.”

This time, the other’s irritation is obvious. He wonders uneasily if Changmin noticed the way he was behaving, and obliges himself to look up. Meeting the other’s eyes for the first time since he left his chair, ten minutes ago. And Jaejoong tries, really tries, but instantly knows his expression betrayed something. That’s why he started avoiding looking directly at him; it hurts, releases negative feelings he doesn’t want Changmin to be aware of, and it’s simpler just not looking.
Somehow, Jaejoong came to fear the sight of that bruised face more than any other trace of the ordeal the younger man went through.

He watches silently as Changmin rubs his eyes with the back of his hand, absentmindedly thinking that in other circumstances, he’d have found it cute.

“I just can’t focus…”

Frustration, now. Jaejoong can easily understand why, with a glance at the half-empty sudoku grid. The kind of thing Changmin normally solves in the blink of an eye.

“You’re tired”, he answers firmly, putting the magazine away, “just rest for a while.”

The young man doesn’t protest, not looking very pleased but too weary to argue. He averts his gaze, eyes turning unfocused and mirroring the way his thoughts are breaking up again. And Jaejoong feels relieved because now, he doesn’t have to look at him anymore. Staring at the floor, the wall, the door… anywhere but at him. He knows it’s horrible.

He knows it’s wrong, but he can’t change how he feels. Vague reproaches from his conscience are nothing compared to the crushing sensation of failure that sweeps over him whenever he looks up. Failure. Jaejoong knows he shouldn’t; he did everything he could, and that very moment, the one they’re living right now… that moment in itself is nothing short of a small miracle. He knows all that.

And yet…

A voice in his mind starts speaking about cowardice and other things Jaejoong refuses to be, and he raises his head on impulse. Right on time to see Changmin’s left hand rise like on its own accord, fingers brushing against his forehead as if to check the presence of something. Eyes hollow. Expression blank.

The left hand of course, always the left hand; the right one doesn’t leave its refuge under the sheets, where it’s hidden and no one can see. They removed the bandages there two days ago, and Jaejoong had to look away the only time he caught a glimpse of it, stomach churning just seeing the purple marks marring the pale skin of the younger man’s wrist. It’s one of those things he isn’t ready to know.

They haven’t talked about what happened. He isn’t sure how to approach it, more scared than impatient about getting answers. He doesn’t think Changmin wants him to know anyway. It’s only an intuition of course, but for now, being as shaken as they are, it seems like a wise compromise.

I know that you know that I know, so let’s not speak about it.


By the time Jaejoong pays full attention again, emptiness has been replaced by a quivering mask on the younger man’s face; emotions flashing rapidly, gone before they could take a definite shape, like Changmin is having trouble retaining them. Unless it’s something else, and he’s trying to escape a foul swarm of memories.
Slowly absorbing the shock of what happened, and bearing with that exhausting burden while waiting for someone to tell him what he’s supposed to do of it.

It’s normal, the people in the hospital keep saying. After what he went through, it’s normal, don’t worry. Changmin emerged from unconsciousness about a week ago, and everyone around seems to agree that he is doing great.

“He will be fine”, they keep saying, and every time Jaejoong averts his eyes, hiding both anger and helplessness.

“He will be fine”, they said, but to that optimistic statement, they hitched a long cortege of other words. From dehydration to leg fracture, infection and intoxication by fumes… medical terms that Jaejoong kept turning over inside his head; stuck on hope like vermin, leeching all the comfort he should’ve found in their assurances. It’s not the words themselves, but what they imply. The causes. They wanted to make it reassuring, but brought life to images instead – images that Jaejoong can’t bear to picture.

He was too late.

That’s what it says, his heart, whenever he looks at Changmin.

A sigh draws him out of his musing, and Jaejoong turns to look at the other in spite of himself. The younger man doesn’t seem to notice, visibly preoccupied. Nibbling on his lower lip, fiddling with the sheets, gaze troubled and fixed on the opposite wall.

Jaejoong doesn’t need to ask, already knowing what’s coming.

He tries not to look away. It’s not the first time he forces himself to watch closely, as if a clinical study of Changmin’s face would make the sight any less distressful. It isn’t as swollen as before, but there are still too many telltale bruises and scratches standing out, displaying a sick palette of purples, blacks and yellows. Slight head trauma, they said, and Jaejoong had to repress the urge to scream to make them admit that words that plain couldn’t possibly be enough to name something that revolting.

He knows he failed, somewhere, somehow.

Jaejoong looks away, his throat tight, his heart silent and unresponsive. What do they know, doctors and nurses? Saying “he’ll be fine”, when they don’t even understand what “fine” means as far as Changmin is concerned?
The smile that should go with it, the soft warmth filling brown eyes, fears that stopped being almighty because they’d been shared, and sadness that became beautiful the moment it welcomed love. Jaejoong doesn’t know what survived among this. What was damaged and what was lost, irremediably. It won’t be undone, they won’t make sense of it.

It shouldn’t have happened, that’s all.

He forces back inside a sudden wave of despair, swallowing the apologies ready to spill from his mouth. He isn’t allowed to complain; he’ll have to be strong enough to deal with it all and save them both. But he’s still tired, scared, numb, and he doesn’t know what’s wrong with him.

“…Jaejoong?”

“Yeah??”

He turns his head sharply and meets the younger man’s anxious gaze, already knowing what it is about. It was the same one hour ago, after lunch, this morning, yesterday… the same unsure call, the same quiet torment. And on Jaejoong’s part, the same complete incapability to answer and soothe apprehensions.
But there’s hope in Changmin’s eyes, worn-out but here, and he can’t let it disappear.

“Hyung…”

He can’t let it be put out, with words too hard or fears too obvious.

“Yoochun… where is Yoochun?”

“He’s fine.”

Changmin straightened up, eyes fixed on him. He believes it, Jaejoong knows. Changmin believes every single word that comes from him, too tired to doubt, too hurt to inflict more pain to himself by questioning answers that are what he needs to hear.

“I want to see him.”

“You can’t…”, he says as softly as he can, hiding renewed distress when the younger man’s eyes fill with tears.

“I… I-I want to see him.”

Jaejoong stands from his chair and comes closer, looking down at Changmin, heart tightening inside his chest when the other’s left hand flies to grab his wrist.

“Jaejoong…”

He doesn’t know how to make it better… he just doesn’t want to see tears, wants them gone forever. Gone, no matter what it takes.

“You’ll see him soon”, he lies.

“When?”

Jaejoong closes his eyes briefly, struggling to keep control.

He doesn’t know where Yoochun is… how he is now, if he’s gravely injured or if it’s nothing too serious. Every time he asks, he’s told that he doesn’t have to worry but that they can’t say more. Safety reasons. The police apparently took what happened in KangBuk very seriously, though Jaejoong doesn’t know what’s going on outside. There’s always someone watching the corridor in front of Changmin’s room and his, but Yoochun’s protection visibly requires more drastic measures.

“Soon”, he repeats quietly, knowing it’s not enough as he sees the first tear roll down. It nearly… nearly makes him wish it’d be Yoochun now standing in his place, because Jaejoong doesn’t know anymore what to tell Changmin at that point.

“…I need to see him.”

He barley hears it, so low it was. And his heart sinks inside his chest as the young man’s hand lets go of him, falling on the bed limply.

There’s nothing sure, nothing stable for Changmin nowadays.

He believes Jaejoong’s words when Jaejoong says them, trusts the nurse’s when the nurse is here, but goes back to invasive doubts the next moment. It’s not only about Yoochun actually, he acts the same for him. There’s a reason why Jaejoong barely leaves his room.

Changmin relies on senses only, on what he sees and feels. The present moment. Here and now. If it’s what someone said then it could be a lie, if it’s in his own head then he just can’t be sure.
Every night frays whatever comforting certainties he weaved the day before, and there are even times when he seems to doubt the reality of his surroundings. It’s that split second triggered at random, something scared and desperate suddenly unfurling in brown irises until Jaejoong catches it, keeping it steady and safe with a look of his own, and appeases silent fears.

It was getting better but yesterday, the policemen that previously visited him came again, for Changmin this time. Jaejoong had to wait outside, he didn’t hear a word of it, but the look in the other’s eyes afterwards was telling.

His behavior changed from that moment on, and instead of passive and subdued, Changmin now reacts to the slightest changes. In turn agitated and pensive, overly sensitive to every remark, asking repeatedly about Yoochun, going from calm to irritated in the blink of an eye and for no apparent reason. Then falling back into that state of dazed contemplation, when nothing and no one seems to be able to catch his attention.

“It’s normal”, they say, and Jaejoong feels like he’s the only person in the world who actually cares.


~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~


Changmin thinks he’s doing fine. Not perfect, obviously, but he’s convinced that things are getting better. ‘Better’ is all he needs, given the circumstances. And it needs to get better fast, because there’s something chasing him that he can’t let come close.


He hasn’t forgotten. He never forgot that… that thing from the past, years and years ago. The one he’ll never talk about. Just a simple idea; that after, it’d stop hurting.
When he let himself fall too low, when he felt so tired that the mere thought of waking up the next morning was unbearable, when the whole world was ‘too much’ and he was just ‘not enough’, battered and alone. Miserable, but after, surely, it’d be alright.

Changmin remembers hoping he’d die. He remembers thinking that death would save him, since there was nothing about life that didn’t hurt. Since he spent every day struggling against his heart and mind and body. Since the nights were nothing but a reenactment of the previous hours, except it was darker.

Death would put an end to a meaningless fight, and it’d be peaceful, after.


Changmin turns his head, instinctively searching for Jaejoong, his whole heart reaching out for that silent figure near the window. Scattered feelings all coming together, clutching onto something unshakable so that he won’t be dispersed again. A formidable surge of emotions that goes unnoticed, crashing against a single thought, breaking into pieces and dying as quietly as it rose.

There’s no after.

He closes his eyes, suppressing tears.

Changmin touched it, the truth of it… he felt that thing that’s not a bottomless abyss, not a cold embrace, not a dark tunnel, because it’s nothing. It’s not empty, invisible, or blind. It’s nothing; it doesn’t exist. It erases everything it can take, and Changmin came too close. Way too close.

It’s still going after him. He can nearly feel it, and it terrifies him.

And now that memories became clearer, now that he can think right, and with the constant reminder of his own existence, here, beating steadily inside his chest, Changmin is desperate to escape. A headlong rush. Far, fast, put as much distance and time as he can between death and him. Leave nothingness behind, where it’s no longer a part of his life – or rather, a hole in it.
He wants to live, to be alright, to be fine, to have infinite tomorrows blooming ahead and not be held back by an abject web of despair.

Changmin doesn’t care about going too fast.

He needs to forget about the things that hurt. He wants to ignore his body’s warnings that it’s too soon, his thoughts always on the verge of overturning, feelings pouring out uncontrollably in incoherent fragments of anger and fear. He makes them brighter than they are. He pretends not to notice the way Jaejoong looks at him, and bends concern and hesitations into comforting smiles.

But something is missing, something Changmin needs like he’s rarely needed anything before. He feels exposed without it. Uncovered. That hungry void will never stop hunting him down, unless he finds it back. So he keeps asking about Yoochun. Saying his name means increasing the distance, even if it’s just one inch more.


They tell him “you’ll be fine”, and Changmin wants them to say it again and again, like it’d make it come true sooner. They tell him “you’re doing great”, and he clings onto every word, so badly he needs to believe it.


~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~


Changmin startles for the fourth time in less than five minutes, and Jaejoong glares once more in the door’s direction. It sounds like half of Seoul decided to move into their hospital’s corridor this afternoon. He keeps telling himself it’s only some people visiting, just the noisy kind, no big deal, but his patience is wearing thin.

A door slams shut in the distance and Changmin winces, tensing visibly this time. It’s not surprising; just hearing voices rising a little loud is now enough to make him nervous. Jaejoong quits trying to keep calm and stands from his chair, firmly intending to give those people a piece of his mind, whoever they are.

“Where are you going??”, Changmin’s voice stops him.

“I just want to see what’s going on”, he explains, “it’s-“

“Don’t go.”

The plea is barely out that the younger man bites on his lower lip, as if to prevent from adding something else. Probably aware of how that just sounded. Only yesterday, he looked like he couldn’t care less about what others would think, but he’s starting to be self-conscious again. Jaejoong isn’t sure he’s happy about it, though it clearly points to Changmin being a little more himself at last.

“I’m not going far”, he answers reassuringly, “just the hallway…”

Changmin stays silent, making a visible effort not to argue. Jaejoong is still hesitating when he sees the other’s hand doing that thing again; rising swiftly, touching his temple, falling back on the bed. Jaejoong now became familiar with the unconscious gesture. He also knows that it means Changmin isn’t well, be it fear, or worry, or pain. Something is wrong, and he walks back to the bed after a last look at the door.

“Alright, I’m not leaving”, he reaches the other’s side, looking down at him.

It’s easier now. The bruises haven’t disappeared, no, but Jaejoong somehow got used to it. Another idea he doesn’t really like, but he figures it makes it easier for them both.

“I’ll ask the nurse when she comes”, he adds, smiling tentatively.

Even so Changmin doesn’t relax, still glancing nervously at the door every now and then. Jaejoong should be more confident by now, but he still hesitates a long moment before reaching out for him. It should be natural, easy, but his fingers are shaking as they brush against the back of the other’s left hand. The left hand, always.
The right one is still hiding under the sheets. Jaejoong still doesn’t dare to do more than that kind of fleeting caress – no matter how gentle, he’s afraid he’s going too far whenever he ventures to touch him. It still feels like one look would be enough to break Changmin.

“You can go if you want…”

He looks up, surprised.

“I said I’d stay.”

“But you should go outside… sometimes…”

As small as it sounded, it’s enough to make him feel annoyed. That is something Jaejoong has yet to get used to.

“I’m not leaving” he says flatly, bringing his hand back to his lap as he sits down again.

“…but it’s boring here.”

Changmin looks both nervous and apologetic, like he isn’t too sure of his reaction. What Jaejoong sees is that the younger man is once more pretending to feel better than he actually is. He doesn’t know what’s so wrong about taking things slow, but it’s starting to really worry him.

“I want to be here”, he answers categorically, hoping that Changmin will get it and stop insisting.

“You can leave me for a while, you know. It’s fine.”

“Don’t say nonsense…”, Jaejoong mutters, realizing belatedly that it was a mistake. He gets the confirmation immediately after, seeing Changmin’s gaze harden.

“I’m fine”, the younger man repeats stubbornly, “and I can deal with being alone five minutes.”

“Well, I can’t”, he answers curtly, before he can stop himself. Changmin averts his eyes again, but not before Jaejoong sees hurt in them.

It’s beyond him why the other wants him to pretend all is fine too, but Jaejoong can’t. He simply can’t. The young man’s attitude only makes things harder for him, because it’s not just about taking care of him. It’s about guessing what Changmin wants every minute of the day; if he’s intent on acting like nothing happened, or if he’s willing to admit that there’s something wrong.
And Jaejoong now knows how abruptly the younger man can go from one to the other.

Changmin is back to staring fixedly at the opposite wall. There is still noise outside, but he doesn’t seem to notice anymore. It’s a matter of minutes before he asks about Yoochun again, Jaejoong knows, already resigned to giving him nothing more than white lies in answer.

“I’m sorry…”

It catches him off guard, and he can’t quite hide it.

“…It’s fine”, Jaejoong accepts the apology after a short silence, only because he doesn’t want to start a debate about who’s right and who’s wrong, “I’m sorry too.”

“You know I…”

A pause, like Changmin needs time to coax his thoughts into becoming words.

“I don’t know why I’m like this…”

Jaejoong closes his eyes briefly. He recognizes that voice. He’s come to associate it with the moments when Changmin is really Changmin, and not that changeable person being tossed left and right by unstable emotions.

“Don’t worry about it”, he answers, his voice a little rough.

“I… I’m making things difficult for you, right?”

He opens his eyes, immediately finding the younger man’s, heart tightening inside his chest.

It’s also during those moments that he fully realizes how much Changmin was affected by what he went through. When he finds back something from before… stubborn, thoughtful, honest; countless touches that add up when gathered in one person only. It’s during moments like this one that Jaejoong can sense it simmering just below the surface, underneath bruises and haunted looks.

And it makes reality all the more uglier. The contrast between what his eyes show him and what his heart remembers would be unbearable, if he had enough left in him to linger on that kind of feeling.
It won’t last anyway; ephemeral and fragile, it’ll be gone in ten seconds or two minutes, depending on how long Changmin will manage to keep memories at a distance.

“Jaejoong…?”

He blinks, focusing again on the younger man and meeting worried eyes. He tries to remember what Changmin just said, without success.

“It’s fine”, he blurts out for want of a better answer, “I’m here.”

“…I know you’re here.”

It’s said so softly that Jaejoong understands that there’s more to it. The younger man’s eyes on him make him uneasy so he looks down, only to find himself staring at Changmin’s hand. The left one, his mind supplies as always; the one whose wrist is still wrapped in bandages, hiding the wound beneath, but this time it’s not what draws his attention.

Changmin’s hand is lying on the bed, palm turned upwards, fingers naturally rising a little from the mattress… not quite opened and not quite closed. Holding nothing but air, as if yearning for contact. Like one of those hands sculpted in marble for melancholic statues, that seem to be waiting for someone to come and fill the empty space at the tip of their fingers.

I know you’re here, Changmin said, and Jaejoong wants to ask: ‘what about you?’

Are you really here? Is it really you?

He was never good at lying to himself, and while Changmin is far from fine, Jaejoong knows that he’s not doing that great himself. He simply doesn’t dare anymore… doesn’t dare to hope or believe in something too bright, too far, too good. It’s not pessimism nor incredulity. It has to do with the past days, of course, but the past months as well.

Jaejoong feels drained, literally.

For weeks, he convinced himself over and over again that it’d all be over soon, everything would be fine tomorrow, or the day after that… soon, very soon, Changmin and him would finally be alright. And again, after a nightmare, a rush of anxiety, a sudden premonition. And again, as they were brutally propelled into a world of schemes and shadows where neither of them belonged. And again, when his worst fears became reality, and Jaejoong found himself so close to losing everything; it wouldn’t have been the first time, not even the second one.

He knows that what he must do now is nothing compared to what he already faced. It’s just a little more strength, but Jaejoong unreservedly drew from resources he thought inexhaustible, and he’s tired. He can actually understand how Changmin must have felt when he broke down, what seems like years ago.

He just doesn’t dare to do anything anymore. It could worsen the situation instead of improving it, and he can’t deal with that. Things are far from fine but he’s scared of what a change could bring.

He doesn’t dare, that’s all.

“Jaejoong…”

He doesn’t look up, afraid of how Changmin’s expression could make him feel, eyes still fixed on that open hand. It looks like it needs to be held and strengthened. It could also be offering comfort, but Jaejoong doesn’t dare to ask for courage from someone who needs it so much more than himself.

“…It’ll be fine.”

It strikes a chord. Changmin’s voice rose incredibly gentle, falling directly inside his heart, as if trying to spark confidence there again.

“Of course”, Jaejoong answers without looking at him, “of course it’ll be fine.”

He wants to ask Changmin to forgive him, he just doesn’t dare anymore.


They hear a knock and the door opens, abruptly breaking the tension reigning inside the room. It’s Lee Hee-Young, the evening nurse, her usual smile and busy steps. Jaejoong sees her come in with relief, thankful for that moment of respite.
Without doubt, the middle-aged nurse is the person they both like most in the hospital staff, like a breath of fresh air in a stuffy place. He feels rather than sees Changmin relax next to him, a smile appearing on his own face as she greets them brightly.

“You’re early today”, Jaejoong comments after glancing at the clock on the wall. Not even 5PM.

“I have good news, I wanted to tell you myself”, she explains, coming to Changmin’s other side and asking him the usual series of questions.

She takes some notes, checks a few more things, the whole routine being completed in five minutes. She doesn’t leave at once however, turning to Changmin with a conspiratorial air.

“So, how is our brooding patient today?”, she waves in his direction, effortlessly drawing from Changmin the closest thing to a smile Jaejoong saw on his face in days.

“Still brooding”, the young man answers without missing a beat, looking at him in a way that makes it impossible for Jaejoong to feel vexed.

“Don’t let him get to you”, Lee Hee-Young warns gravely, “or I’ll have to send him back to his room, and he’ll hate me for the rest of his life.”

Changmin shakes his head, the corners of his mouth rising imperceptibly, and Jaejoong’s heart loosens a little. He doesn’t mind the teasing. It’s the most normal they achieve, when Lee-sshi is here to lighten the mood. It just upsets him that they’d need the influence of a third person to get rid of a subtle but continuous pressure, weighing oppressively on both their minds.

“What was it, earlier?”, Jaejoong asks, remembering all of a sudden the bustle in the corridor, “we heard noise.”

“Ah…”, Lee Hee-Young hesitates, like she’d rather have avoided that question, “journalists.”

“You mean…”, Jaejoong frowns, looking quickly in Changmin’s direction, “for us?”

“We don’t have that many celebrities here, besides you”, she answers with a shrug and a smile, “but don’t worry, they are gone.”

“Why now?”, Changmin intervenes, “did something happen?”

“I’m not sure…”, the nurse answers uneasily, “but whatever it is, you shouldn’t worry about it.”

Lee-sshi meets his gaze briefly, her expression eloquent, and Jaejoong racks his brain for something to change the topic.

“You said you had good news”, he finally remembers, “what is it?”

“Ah! It’s for Changmin actually”, she answers at once, her face brightening, “but then, that means it also concerns you.”

She gives him an amused look that Jaejoong feigns not to understand, before turning her attention to the younger man again.

“I have a visit for you”, she adds, obviously pleased with herself, “and you’d better appreciate it because believe me, it wasn’t easy.”

Changmin straightens up on his bed, looking at her expectantly.

“It’s Yoochun?”

Of course. Her expression softens, and Changmin interprets her silence correctly. He lets himself fall back against the pillows, all excitement gone from his eyes.

“I talked to them about it”, the nurse says gently, “just be a little more patient, okay?”

The younger man nods, making an effort to push back his disappointment. Something else she manages to obtain from Changmin, and that Jaejoong can’t seem to get right. He looks down, only to see that hand beckoning him again.

“Who is it then?”, he hears the young man say, too cheerfully for it to be sincere. He wonders what Lee-sshi would think if he took Changmin’s hand now, though he’s sure she guessed what they meant to each other days ago.

“Your family.”

Jaejoong looks up abruptly, heart sinking inside his chest. Apprehension already closing around his throat, making it harder to breathe.

For good reason.

The change is so obvious to him that Jaejoong wonders how on earth the nurse doesn’t seem to notice. Changmin’s hand on the bed moved, gripping the sheets tight, fingers digging into the mattress. He paled, mouth opening slightly in shock, his body tensed as if getting ready to run… except that this time, he isn’t given a choice.

“The police asked that no one would be allowed to see you both”, Lee Hee-Young is still talking, oblivious to the implications of what she just announced, “family members included, but I managed-“

“No…!”

Jaejoong grits his teeth, that single cry sticking like an arrow through his heart; distraught, and foretelling tears. It’s too late already.

Changmin’s eyes widened, dark and frozen. Fear invaded them in a flash, wild and uncontrolled, a stark contrast with the range of broken and hesitant feelings that became the norm the past days. It has nothing to do with a recent trauma. It’s fear that kept growing for years, irrational yet strong beyond words, and Changmin is still too vulnerable to every disturbance – no matter how small – to resist the awakening of something that powerful.

“But…”, the nurse protests weakly, surprised, “they are waiting just-“

“I don’t… I can’t see them!!”, the younger man cuts her again, shaking his head frantically, tears welling in his eyes.

Jaejoong stands up just as Lee-sshi looks at him for help, completely taken aback by Changmin’s reaction. He doesn’t get to say a word. The younger man suddenly grabs his arm, gripping it tightly with a strength he didn’t think he had.

“Jaejoong…!”

He tries not to let it shake him, but he isn’t ready for that. That pleading look, fears bare and raw, his own name hitting him shaped as a cry of pain. Again.

“Tell her I can’t…! That it’s n-not…”

Changmin’s voice falters as he represses a sob, looking terrified, staring at him in spite of the tears threatening to fall. Again, and again, and again. Jaejoong isn’t ready for that.

“Please I c-can’t… not… not now…”

The right hand, that right hand now comes out of its hiding place and joins the left one, gripping Jaejoong’s wrist tight as Changmin buries his face against his arm. He’s shaking violently, crying out of sheer panic, only too aware of his complete helplessness in his current state. Releasing it all in the only way he has left, through tears and tremors. Trapped now, confined by his own beaten body, and unable to do anything but beg and cry.

It takes one second more for Jaejoong to react, taking a step forward and bringing the younger man’s head close, pressed against his chest. Keeping him here with a hand on his cheek. Changmin doesn’t let go of his other arm but instinctively leans into the comforting touch, and just like this, Jaejoong’s heart starts racing. He represses a shiver, glancing at Lee Hee-Young. She looks like she’s trying hard to understand what’s going on.

“I’ll take care of it”, he manages to say at last, “can you go and tell them to wait?”

He winces as Changmin’s fingers suddenly dig deeper into his arm.

“Tell them to leave”, the younger man begs, struggling to breathe in between sobs, “please…”

The nurse has the sense not to say anything more, and leaves after a last worried look in Changmin’s direction.

She barely left that Jaejoong moved. He sits on the bed and takes the younger man in his arms, mindful of the other’s broken leg, trying to bring him to a more comfortable position. Changmin lets him, only moving his head higher on his shoulder, still gripping at his arm. Still shaking, still crying, words forgotten and erased as sobs take over. It’s useless trying to stop that sudden outpouring of feelings, so Jaejoong lets him cry, instinctively knowing what to do.

Don’t let him feel alone. Make sure he knows you’re here, and just give it some time.

Jaejoong needs that time as well.

It has been days since he last held Changmin that way, days as long as weeks, and already, he’s surrendering to the onslaught of sensations found back.

The closeness, not only physical because something that was out of tune a moment before suddenly feels just right. Remembering what’s so special about it, and how much… how much he needs this, how much they both need it.

The way the younger man’s body fit against his, the feel of his hair under his fingers, the warmth, and scent, and need. Jaejoong suddenly feels dizzy, as if intoxicated, swaying under the sheer power of lost emotions rushing back inside. More overwhelmed by the second, he moves his hand lower, cradling the back of Changmin’s head, fingers tangled with the other’s hair. It makes his heart pound harder. Makes him want to feel more, abruptly conscious of the actual depth of a hole in him, something that needs to be illuminated and that knows only one light.

You shouldn’t… a small voice is trying to make itself heard inside his head; it’s too soon, don’t you see? He’s tired. Don’t be selfish, don’t be greedy… just don’t use him…

He closes his eyes, inhaling sharply as Changmin’s hands let go of his arm to clutch onto his back. Bodies pressed closed. His heart is throbbing. His hands are trembling as Jaejoong brings his now free arm around the younger man.

Don’t hurt him, don’t force him, don’t use him

He doesn’t dare… not so tight, not so hard… the weariness and pain, what was stripped of defenses inside, and Jaejoong can’t thrust his own needs into it. He feels as if he’ll choke if he lets go of Changmin now. It’s all he can do to open his eyes, struggling to gather remnants of willpower.

He finds back a semblance of control as he becomes aware of his surroundings again, still disoriented by the unexpected surge of sensations that just hit him. The lights look blinding in the white room. The only noises he hears are the younger man’s soft gasps, already emptied from the violence that struck without warning just minutes ago.

Right. The hospital.

Changmin’s family.

Jaejoong breathes in shakily. It takes a huge effort but he pulls away, bringing his hand to the side of Changmin’s head to see his face better. The younger man doesn’t look as panicked as before, but apprehension is still clearly written on his features. Tears stopped flowing though, and Jaejoong wipes the last ones away. Trying not to think about the bruises under his fingers, ugly stains that won’t be erased as easily.

“Changmin-ah…”, he whispers to get his attention, looking straight into his eyes.

“I’m not ready…”, the younger man says brokenly, “I d-don’t want… n-not like that…”

“They just want to see you”, Jaejoong reasons, half-wondering why he even bothers. It’s not like he cares about the other’s family. It’s not like they’ll know how to fix that whole mess either.

“I don’t want to see them…”, Changmin shakes his head, looking down as his face reddens faintly, without doubt reproaching himself what he thinks is selfish.

“They must be worried”, Jaejoong insists softly, realizing as he says it just how that must be true.

“They don’t know…”, Changmin keeps talking as if he didn’t hear him, “about…”

The younger man looks up, once more on the verge of tears.

“You and me…”, he adds, his voice shaking slightly, “I couldn’t tell them about y-you and me…”

“Changmin-“

“No one… they d-don’t-“

Changmin…”, Jaejoong cuts him, feeling slightly bitter as he realizes that he isn’t even that surprised.

In the end and even after everything he went through, it’s still the same anguish reigning over the younger man’s fears. The rejection. The guilt. The shame. He doesn’t know Changmin’s family, but it’s hard for him to grasp why they’d be worth so much silent torture.

“They don’t care”, Jaejoong says after a small pause, shaking his head slightly, “they don’t care about me…”

Changmin doesn’t get it. He doesn’t understand, looking at him confusedly, earlier tears still shining on his face.

“It’s you they want to see”, he tries again, hoping fervently that the other’s family will know better than mess with him further. Promising himself that if he finds the slightest sign that Changmin was hurt in any way during their visit, he’ll make sure it was the last one.

“I d-don’t know how to tell them-“

“They don’t care.”

It came out louder than he intended. Jaejoong closes his eyes, now seeing a few words looming ahead, words he fought so hard not to acknowledge.
When he looks at him again, Jaejoong sees unchanged confusion on Changmin’s face. He won’t have a choice. He doesn’t want to say it. He doesn’t. He stubbornly refused to even think about it since he read that dreadful note in Changmin’s apartment, coming back from Japan and finding his fate in the hands of Death.

Death.

He’s the one shaking now.

He doesn’t want to say it. He ran away from it for as long as he could but suddenly… just like this, just when he thought it gone, it’s here. Too clear, too obvious, standing at the center of him and sucking every other thought.

“You…”

He doesn’t want to say it.

“You could’ve died…”

His own words shock him incomparably more than Changmin, whose only reaction is a slight shift in his expression.

“They don’t care about me”, Jaejoong repeats without grasping the meaning of it, not even hearing the sound of his own voice.

‘You could’ve died’ is thundering inside, drumming within his head, following the pounding of blood against his temples, rushing through his veins like poison before reaching his heart. Seizing feelings, thoughts, fears, hopes and beliefs, and reducing them all to ashes. Grey bits of nothings, facing the consuming strength of a single idea. He knew it’d happen.
Jaejoong knew how destructive those simple words would be if he only gave them a chance to show, and he put up all of his willpower against them.

Changmin is talking but he can’t make sense of it, suddenly aware that the younger man’s hands aren’t on his back anymore. He blinks, and sees a shy resolve on the other’s face. Changmin doesn’t seem to notice his trouble, too overwhelmed himself. Jaejoong’s mind is completely blank. He only knows he’s saying the things he’s supposed to say, doing the things he’s supposed to do.
He’s leaning forward to kiss Changmin’s forehead, and the warm contact of skin on his lips seems to leave a burn on his very soul.

Jaejoong walks out of the room like a drunken man, and hears himself say “it’s okay” to the nurse, his legs carrying him away. Before he can understand what happened, he’s sitting on a bench in the corridor, eyes fixed on a pale yellow door without seeing anything.

‘You could’ve died’ hasn’t stopped unfolding.

Jaejoong can’t wrap his mind around it. Stunned, the words plunging into his thoughts like burning metal into icy waters.

A group of four people arrived in front of the yellow door, three women and a man, and he watches them blearily, wondering why it feels like he’s supposed to care. They open the door and go inside the room, and Jaejoong closes his eyes.

His head hurts. His heart too. He brings his knees together, elbows digging into his lap and face buried against his palms.

He can’t see. He can’t hear either. He can feel nothing but his own body, and the coldness outside besieging his own warmth. His mouth is dry, his eyes burn, heartbeats clang, and it becomes all about smells. Hospitals. White, busy, alone, be silent, be quiet, and even as Jaejoong makes a desperate effort to push the sensation away, it lashes back at him with renewed violence.

You could’ve died.

He doesn’t realize at once that the small moan he just heard was his own, pained and broken.

It’s that smell. The loneliness. The white and tiles, and wait. Waiting. Just how much time did he spend waiting in a hospital corridor, waiting for someone who’d care and tell him how much longer? He doesn’t know. He remembers interminable hours. He remembers long lost afternoons spent trapped in whiteness and hospital smells while thinking longingly about the sun outside.

We’ll go together, Jaejoong-ah. You’ll like it, you’ll see…

How many days spent turning promises over?

Counting tiles, studying the opposite wall, hopefully following people with his eyes, praying that they’d talk to him… how many hours? Imagining what could be happening in that festival they were supposed to go to, how the river would shine under the sun… the joyful clamor of people, a soft breeze… eyes closed, just to feel it better, just making it come true by thinking it so hard.

It was always that smell, ruining picture perfect images.

Stay here, be quiet, your father will come soon.

Jaejoong shudders, eyes shut tightly, another quiet whimper escaping his lips.

Dad will be here soon. Thirty minutes maybe, following the hands on his watch, adding ten minutes more, then three, then one. And thirty again, because he was just too impatient.

Dad will be here in twenty five… fifteen… five now. The last seconds, watching the door… three… two… one. And nothing. No one. Twenty minutes more then, he should be more patient. Endless, it was endless, but it was okay to wait. He didn’t mind. He was used to it, used to hospitals, and even the smell had become familiar.

Rushed steps coming close, looking up expectantly. It was over, at last. It wasn’t as long as the other times. If they hurry… if dad isn’t too tired, then maybe…

“Jaejoong…”

“Where is he? We can go now?”

“Jaejoong-ah…”

A hand on his shoulder.

“…Do you want to see him one last time?”




Part B.


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