His aching stomach is convulsing and splintering with a disease worse than anxiety and self-hatred combined and compounded. Guilt. It’s the endless guilt that is devouring him alive as he’s sitting here with his clammy hands on his face, his elbows on his trembling knees. His teeth are clenched, enough to make his jaw sore the next day but he doesn’t care because it’s not him who is truly in pain right now. And he knows that this is entirely his fault. This entire mess—can something so momentous even be packaged safely into such an insignificant word?—is completely his fault.
Here on this plastic chair, he sifts through his memories of the times when he wasn’t quite cooperative enough; when he failed to play his role as a good spouse and it’s slowly and painfully gnawing at his bones, threatening to draw him into the abyss and never let go.
--- --- --- --- --- --- --- --- --- --- --- --- ---
The steamy and rich fragrance of freshly-brewed coffee with a sparkle of sugar is heavy in the small and secluded café where Jongin’s having lunch with his best friends this frigid and chilly afternoon with the rumbling clouds gray and brooding above them, ready to unleash a fresh wave of snow and ice. Jongin’s staring at the half-finished soup in front of him with a slight furrow in his eyebrows as Sehun watches him with bored eyes and Luhan is stirring his hot chocolate with a spoon, the metal clinking occasionally as it hits the walls of the ceramic cup.
“Shouldn’t you be at work,” Sehun says, the implications of different questions lingering underneath the surface. Why would his normally workaholic doctor friend be calling them to gather like this?
Jongin pauses a bit, gathering his scattered thoughts through his wave of anxiety and nervousness as they wait for his answer. “I’m meeting with him today… my spouse,” Jongin replies seriously as his dark eyes drag themselves away from his soup bowl slowly.
Luhan whips his head over at Jongin upon hearing his statement. “‘Him’? Is it because it’s a guy, Jongin? You’re so old-fashioned! Nobody cares about gender anymore when it’s possible to get a reproductive implant to have children too! Look at Sehun and me!” Luhan exclaims, waving his spoon around animatedly.
“Calm down, Lu--”
“You know, some same- couples want kids so badly but they can’t all be blessed with the correct genetics and money for the implant! You should be happy that you have both!” Luhan continues, his spoon making jabbing motions through the air between them. Jongin rolls his eyes and takes another bite of his soup, taking all of the unwarranted verbal abuse that he’s grown used to.
“Are you done now? Well, I couldn’t care less if my fiance was a man or a woman, for your information,” Jongin finally retorts.
“So you’re meeting your spouse today,” Sehun reaffirms as he pats Luhan’s back comfortingly, the older boy huffing and puffing from scolding Jongin.
“What should I do?” Jongin asks seriously, a hint of fear and dread bubbling through his voice.
“What do you mean ‘what should I do?’ You should be nice and try to get along with him, that’s what.” Sehun takes a long sip from Luhan’s cup of hot chocolate as he gauges Jongin’s reaction.
After a long pause, Jongin lets out an exasperated sound as he runs his long fingers through his chocolately-brown hair. “This is ridiculous. I can’t just marry someone I’ve never met before, even if IRIS says so.”
“Are you saying you want to defy IRIS? You’ll get arrested, you know,” Luhan sings, his spoon.
“How can I just let some computer decide my future for me? I’m perfectly fine without a spouse,” Jongin replies as he takes a tentative sip of his ice-water.
“That’s just how things work. IRIS is the backbone behind our whole nation, Jongin. IRIS regulates everything: from the water and electricity grids, to the telephone and security systems in every one of our houses. Everyone’s spouse is decided by IRIS. Your parents were married through IRIS, Luhan and I were married through IRIS, and now it’s your turn to marry through IRIS too.”
Jongin’s quiet for a moment, his expression hard and the furrow in his eyebrows growing deeper as he eats another spoonful of his soup. Sehun sighs, trying to put himself in Jongin’s point of view before asking softly, “Is this because you’re afraid you won’t have a happy marriage?”
Jongin abruptly stops sipping his soup for a long second before continuing again and his friends take this as a confirmation that Sehun’s hit the target so Luhan continues instead, “You don’t have to be like your parents, Jongin. There are a bunch of happy couples out there. They fell in love with whoever IRIS paired them up with and you could too.”
Jongin drops his spoon into the remnants of his soup as a worried expression colors his features. “You guys were lucky; an impeccable of coincidence came and you fell in love with each other even before IRIS paired you up. And what if I don’t? Then I’ll have to subject our child to a life with parents like mine. Then what?”
Everyone’s quiet as they all gaze in different directions, the silence of a cold war of opinions brewing between them. Luhan’s the first to break through the tension and excuse himself to go to the bathroom. Sehun stares holes into Jongin’s fathomless and fearful eyes. They both know that neither of them are willing to budge and the emotions are jumping around here in the warmth of the café before Jongin gets up. He smooths out his suit and tie briskly before grabbing his jacket and scarf from the back of his chair. Just as he’s about to walk away, Sehun responds with,
“I don’t believe in coincidences. There is only fate. People don’t end up with the person they want but, instead, they end up with the one they’re meant to be with.”