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2006

When the sun passes from behind the single cloud in the sky and drenches the world in light, it casts a shadow over Jinki. Well. Not it exactly. The kid who’s standing behind him. By the time Jinki twists around to look at him, he’s already halfway across the roof, reaching for the handle of the door back inside.

“You don’t have to go because of me,” Jinki probably doesn’t have to say.

The kid hesitates. Or is he frozen in place? Seconds pass, each one piled on top of the other, until it feels like Jinki could topple them over just breathing. Then, finally, “You were here first.”

He’s been coming here for longer than Jinki has, though. He can’t remember his first day at all, but on all the days after, he’s seen this kid around. He’s here before Jinki comes in, and on his way out, he always passes by him in the practice room, limbs like water, shirt damp with sweat, bangs yanked back into a little ponytail. The first week Jinki wondered if he should come in and yell over the music to ask if he can get himself home, if he needs someone to put him on his bus, and in all the weeks since, Jinki’s hoped that he doesn’t spend the night sleeping on the floor in there. Everything else fell away and he was left with one thing to say: Taemin-ah, don’t work too hard.

It always felt like the quickest way to get Taemin to hate him.

“The roof is big enough for two people.”

Is that the second quickest? Still…Jinki pats the concrete next to him, as cool as the sun is warm. Taemin hesitates for a few more seconds, just long enough for Jinki to get a crick in his neck, and then crosses the concrete as if in surrender, sinking down next to him. He hugs his knees to his chest, shoulders hunched, darting a look at Jinki that reminds him he should look away. So he does. Up at the sky, bright and blue and endless, the place where he sent his voice.

Taemin’s is so quiet. “Why aren’t you in the practice room?”

Jinki cut himself off mid-line when he noticed Taemin, and now he’s forgotten the song he was singing.

“Too crowded,” he says. “You?”

“Fresh air.”

Oh. Jinki gets that, too.

“It’s hard to breathe down there sometimes.”

Long silence. Then, suddenly, “You’re a really good singer.” Taemin shoots him a look along with his words, eyes narrow, before he wrenches away to stare into the city at their feet, chin resting on his knees. “If you say it back to be nice, I’m never talking to you again.”

In other words, he thinks that would be a lie? Which it would, since Jinki has never heard him sing. He’s barely ever heard Taemin’s voice at all, since he barely ever talks, and never to Jinki. If he says the wrong thing, this will be the last time.

“Do you even know my name?” he goes with.

Taemin flashes him another look, narrow and sidelong, but this one is safe, this one Jinki knows from a million other people in his life: Are you being stupid on purpose? The answer is always no.

“Jonghyunnie hyung told me.” He hesitates. “What year were you born?”

What kind of question is that?

“Are you trying to figure out who’s the hyung here?” Jinki doesn’t realize he’s smiling until Taemin smiles back, tiny and secret, hidden in the crook of his arm. As easy as that, Jinki is telling him, “89.”

“You can’t get mad at him.”

“At Jonghyun hyung?”

Taemin’s expression goes strange, like he’s trying to shove his smile back down inside when it’s growing, splitting his face, white teeth, eyes crinkling into half-moons. That’s laughter in his voice, too, that weird rush to it: “Kibum hyung thought you were younger than him too, and he was born in 91.” Ah. Taemin reads the realization in his face, adding quickly, “Jonghyunnie hyung was in 90, in April. How much older can you be?”

Jinki was born in mid-December, so not much. And a lot. He’s younger than everyone his age, but people always tell him he’s old for it. Like an old man?

“What about you?” he says.

Taemin shakes his head at him. “If you’re the maknae it doesn’t matter.”

“95,” Jinki guesses.

“Do I look twelve to you?”

That’s why he said it, that exact face. One that says he’s not funny. Jinki can do worse. “2006.” This year. “2007.” Next.

“93,” Taemin tells him before he can say 2008.

So…fourteen. The first year of middle school. All Jinki knew back then was manhwa and Internet memes and the things his friends said about girls. He split his time between study rooms and noraebangs, waking up with his cheek stuck to the pages of his textbook and spending all the change in his pocket for just one more song, then one more hour. He had never heard of SM, or thought he’d end up training here.

“And you’re already that good at dancing?” Jinki replies, way too late.

Taemin barely takes a second to reply to that. “I have to be since I can’t sing.”

He says it like it’s so obvious he didn’t have to think, but now Jinki does. “Is it really a question of having to be?”

“For me it is.” Taemin is looking up at him again, eyes narrowing like he’s trying to figure out a way inside Jinki’s head. Probably to check if it’s empty. “Aren’t you here to debut?”

He’s here to train, and he’s training to debut, so yes. If they looked that word up in the dictionary, there would only be one definition, but even then, it might not mean the same thing to him as it does to Taemin. For Jinki, so far it means giving up hagwon and seeing less of his friends, and spending the time he used to sleep catching up on homework, since he spends the time he used to do homework here. When the CSAT passes him by next year, it might mean giving up college, and a year or two after that, maybe it will mean getting a job his father never wanted him to work, telling his mother not to curse SM when it’s his own fault, trying to breathe with the weight of guilt and shame in his chest.

The sky is just as blue as before when Jinki looks up at it. He breathes deep, then deeper, until his lungs fill and his vision blurs and if he let his voice out, the air would carry it all the way up to the sun.

“For me too, then,” Jinki says normally, leaning back on his hands. “You can have dancing, and I’ll have singing.”

“It’s not the same thing, hyung,” Taemin contradicts him again, but he’s not doing it to be a brat. His eyes are shining with meaning. “If you have legs, you can figure it out.”

That’s something Jinki should have told himself. The second part. The first…

“You have a voice, how is that different?”

If it’s been lifetimes since I was your age, what will you be able to do by the time you’re mine?

Taemin opens his mouth as if to retort, then falls silent instead. When Jinki returns to singing, he doesn’t get up, and the next time he comes up onto the roof and Jinki is there, he sits beside him and listens until he reaches the end of the song, then asks him how he controls his breathing. The day after it’s something else, and the day after that, another something else. The look he gives him then is the one Jinki gets used to: I’m going to work even harder, hyung.

 

2010

Christmas in Tokyo is the same as Christmas in Seoul. It’s cold, but not cold enough to snow. The trees are festooned with lights, tiny and twinkly, and there’s nothing on television but cheesy romantic comedies like the one Manager hyung fell back asleep to this morning. As soon as he got up, Jonghyun flicked it off with a loud, “Doesn’t it depress you, hyung? This is the third year in a row you’re spending tonight eating pizza with five men.” It’s a good thing that Minho and Kibum left while he was still in bed and he refused to come along with Jinki and Taemin, because the streets and shops are jammed full with couples. He and Taemin must be the only ones in here not wearing couple shirts.

All that, plus it’s just another day in Jinki’s life.

It wouldn’t be without Taemin in it. Even this version, blowing up his cheeks in boredom, sneaking glances at Jinki as if to see what’s taking him so long, what he could possibly have to look at in this place, like there is anything but the faces he’s making. Finally he tugs at Jinki’s sleeve, leading him towards the door.

“Let’s go, hyung.”

That was the third shop they’ve been to, and Jinki’s hands are still free. If he had gone with Kibum, he would be bristling with bags, pushing through the crowd like a plastic porcupine, but as it is, he should probably be hanging onto Taemin. In all the years he’s known him, the things he’s bought for Taemin begin with food and end with, Jonghyunnie hyung already said he would. Unless you want to pay for us both~?

Jonghyun isn’t here right now, but there’s a takoyaki stand at the end of the street. By the time Jinki catches up, Taemin is already ordering, then ordering Jinki, “If you want some, hurry up.”

It’s not about want. Jinki pays for Taemin’s, and watches as they squiggle sauce and mayonnaise over the top and bury it all in bonito flakes. There’s no point in looking away, not even when Taemin takes the container from the ahjumma behind the counter, sticking a toothpick into the first one and popping it into his mouth. Jinki should have warned him he would burn his tongue, that he won’t be able to taste it as well.

“You’re not hungry?” Taemin says through a mouthful of bread and octopus.

“I feel like I’m gaining weight from the smell alone.”

It’s not that but the look on Taemin’s face as stabs his toothpick into the next one and pushes it in Jinki’s face, that makes him take a bite. It’s Christmas, hyung. Who cares if you get fat. The manager hyung who manages not just Jinki but his diet, the stylist noonas who have to fit him into his stage outfits, the fans who bought tickets to see him at his best, Jinki himself because he cares about all of them…but the flavor bursts on Jinki’s tongue, salty and sweet and chewy and hot. Burning. Fuck. He breathes out not air but steam, turning away as Taemin laughs at him.

“That’s all you’re getting,” Taemin tells him. Next is a question: “Why did you want to go shopping if you don’t have anything to buy?”

That’s not about want, either.

“It’s better than staying in the dorm, isn’t it?”

“I don’t know.” Taemin is not-smiling, sly, secret, nothing Jinki doesn’t know. “We could have erased all Minho hyung’s records in Fifa.”

And then Minho would erase Taemin. Isn’t that how it goes?

“It’s just as well, hyung can save some money.” Jinki barely has to turn to head back when Taemin is grabbing at him, forgetting to hide his smile as he turns him back around, leaving Jinki dizzy. Taemin propels him forward. “Should we bring some things back for them?”

“We see them every day,” Taemin replies, like it’s that simple. Is it? Jinki sees Taemin every day, should he not have bought him food? The thought disappears as Taemin sinks his smile into the next bite. He shoots Jinki another glance, one cheek bulging. “And they have everything they want, besides shit you can’t afford.”

With his first paycheck from SM, Jinki bought his father a car. Then he bought his parents an apartment in Gangnam, far away from their meat shop, since his father could drive instead of taking the subway. When he said he could pay for him to retire, his father told him, Quitting working is like telling me to die, Jinki-yah. Save your money and spend it on yourself. After debuting in Japan, he’s made more this year than all the other years combined, and all he does is work and make more. And all he can think is, is this really living?

“Is there much out there anymore?” Jinki says out loud.

It’s a real question, but Taemin has an answer for him in two seconds flat: “Don’t ask Kibum hyung that.” He shakes his head at Jinki, threading his arm through his and dragging him up the street. “You’re safer with me.”

That’s what he says. After Taemin finishes the takoyaki, there’s another stand selling buns in a hundred different flavors, from meat to red bean to pizza, and reminding Taemin they’ll eat it with the others tonight just gets the response, “You don’t have to have any, hyung.” He really doesn’t, and he really shouldn’t, not now or later, but when Taemin forgets he said it a minute later and tears off a piece to stuff in Jinki’s mouth, Jinki lets himself be stuffed, carried off in an explosion of cheese and tomato and pepperoni. And after that…

The sound of that name.

“Excuse me, aren’t you Onew-kun?”

Jinki turns around to find a girl holding out a pen and paper. Her hands are trembling as badly as her voice.

“Ah, yes.”

He signs everything, then holds the food while Taemin follows suit with a merry Christmas and the same smile Jinki remembers from years and years before. It lingers in his eyes as they walk on.

“How come you didn’t say no?”

“What?”

“I didn’t know I was on Star Date right now, I thought I was with Jinki hyung,” Taemin says.

That’s right. He is Jinki now, not Onew. And if that were a Korean fan, he would have said that, the way he always does. “Wouldn’t it be mean? With the language barrier.”

Taemin gives him yet another look, one of the ones Jinki knows the best and understands the least: You’re too nice, hyung.

That’s only because he doesn’t know the side of Jinki that didn’t want to face her, and would have rather walked away, and even now, wishes he hadn’t heard. That she didn’t know that name to call it, that Lee Sooman hadn’t given it to him, any of that. And that’s because Jinki has never, will never show it to him. Or else he’d drag Taemin down into the exact same place as him – regretting giving Jinki any kind of look, wishing he had let the crowd swallow him up, or better yet, stayed in the dorm with Jonghyun and let him invent new foods for Taemin to try from the five things left in their fridge. That he had forgotten Jinki’s real name as soon as Jonghyun first told him.

“Hyung.”

“You’re not full yet? Not until hyung’s wallet is empty, huh.”

Taemin doesn’t smile or laugh or retort, just takes a moment too long to answer. “Are you nervous?”

About tomorrow, he means. Concert. Start of the tour. Yoyogi National Gymnasium.

“When I think about it.”

“How do you not?”

“You know hyung doesn’t think much in general.” Taemin doesn’t laugh at that either. Instead he sticks his eyes to the side of Jinki’s face. Jinki will meet them in a second. “I have all of you to focus on. The more I think of you, the less I think of myself.” Another second. Another. There’s nothing else to call it, Taemin is staring. So hard his eyes almost cross when Jinki turns to him finally. “Did I say something strange, or something?”

Not strange for me to say, because hyung is strange. But strange.

“I’m trying to fill your head with me,” Taemin says. “You don’t need the other three, I’m enough~”

“I think of you the most.”

That’s the first thing Jinki has said all day without thinking at all, because he didn’t have to. It’s the same as blinking or breathing, his heart beating, all these things his body does without him doing anything.

Taemin’s smile lights his whole face up brighter than the Christmas trees and the shops, same as it does every day of the year. Of Jinki’s life. “Prove it.”

As he heads off for the nearest food stand, before the crowd separates them again, Jinki grabs his hand.

 

2013

The door to the dorm opens and shuts. Click, slam. Footsteps.

“Hyung?” Taemin’s voice. Another click and the kitchen floods with light. When Jinki can see again, he’s right there, standing over him, staring down at him. And the bottles of soju on the table, two full, two empty, and one halfway there already. Somehow. Every one Jinki opens has less inside it, somehow. “Are you drunk?”

That’s what bottle four is for. Bottle five is to kill him. For now, for as long as Jinki still has words left, he might as well use them. “Are you Minho?”

If he were, his eyes would pop and he’d go straight for the soju: If you’re at the stage where you can’t recognize me, then I’m cutting you off. Except if it were Minho and he asked if it was Minho, then…whatever. Taemin’s only answer is to stare some more, before he sighs and scrubs his hand through his hair, edging around the table and dropping down into the seat opposite Jinki.

“Give me some.” Jinki’s hesitation barely lasts a second before it weighs enough to send Taemin slumping down to rest his head against his hand. His cheek scrunches against his palm as he smiles. “Does it still seem illegal to you?”

“Not that.”

“You think something is wrong.” Taemin knows him too well for it to be a question, and Jinki knows him too well by now to expect him to ever answer it. He just sighs, so deeply it must come from the very bottom of his heart. If there is such a thing. “When isn’t it?”

His hand inches across the tabletop towards the bottles, and somehow with all his fingers stretched out it looks even smaller. Jinki resists the urge to cover it with his own, hide it from his own eyes.

“I’ll get some snacks,” he says.

Jinki hasn’t even pushed his chair back to stand when Taemin makes an upgrade: “Ramyun.”

“Do you like food or hyung?”

Taemin beams. “Both.”

By the time Jinki gets the water boiling, Taemin is there with two bricks of noodles. He probably thinks that Jinki would eat all his food if he doesn’t make enough for him, or maybe it’s too lonely to eat alone at the end of the day he’s had. All Taemin says is, “I haven’t eaten since breakfast.”

“I have.”

“This counts as tomorrow, anyway,” Taemin replies. “You know there’s calories in soju, right?”

There’s also alcohol.

Jinki stands there as Taemin rips both flavor packets open with his teeth and shakes them into the water. It bubbles and seethes, but Jinki doesn’t need to lower the flame or push Taemin to the side, it was never going to boil over. He dumps the noodles in and wishes he’d cut kimchi and green onions up for Taemin, crisp and bright and nothing like the slice of processed cheese Taemin peels open over the pot. Why is it so easy to love things that are bad for you?

Once it’s melted, Jinki takes the pot back to the table and lets Taemin have the lid, which he takes after he grabs the soju bottle and pours some into the glass Jinki didn’t see him fetch. The same way he should tell Taemin he’s not thirsty, he should be telling himself he’s not hungry. Not in the least because chopsticks are hard. Or is it the noodles? But that can’t be it, Jinki left them on until they were softer than soft, because Taemin shouldn’t have to chew.

On his third try, Jinki’s bite reaches his mouth, spicy and salty and hot hot hot. Through the curtain of noodles hanging from it, he gets out, “Practice went well?”

This is when Kibum would make a face at him, not Taemin. He’s too busy eating himself. “It went.”

Jinki swallows finally. It goes down, he’s sure, same as all the soju did. So why does he still feel so empty?

“Hyung should have gone in too.”

“You just sat at home all day, right?” Taemin looks up at him finally, slurping up the last few noodles in his bite and setting the lid down on the table with a clang. “You don’t have to worry about running into her at SM, hyung. And it wasn’t your fault you broke up, anyway, it just happened.”

Those words chased themselves around Jinki’s head all day. Broke up. Her. Jungah. Noona, Jungah noona. Let’s go back to being noona-dongsaeng, Jinki-yah. Or friends, we were anyway. But anything more…it’s just not working. Jinki can’t remember how he replied, what he said when she said that, but what does that matter when there’s nothing he could have, and anyway, he’s ended up here, where he belongs. At the bottom of the pot of ramyun, at the top of bottle four, even if Taemin gets there first, hanging onto the neck instead of twisting the cap off.

“Things like that don’t happen without a reason, Taemin-ah,” Jinki tells him.

So fast Jinki’s head spins, Taemin replies, “I could give you a million of them. Busy. Never see each other. When you’re off she’s not. When she is, you aren’t.” Not just with work, with feelings too. When Jinki wanted to break up, she’d rather die, and now that she’s the one breaking up with him…when Jinki reaches for the bottle, Taemin tightens his grip on it. “I sound like I know what I’m talking about, don’t I?”

Jinki sits back heavily. “More than hyung does.”

“You’re hurting, it hurts like hell, so much you could die from it,” Taemin says. “That part I do know.”

“That’s the part I wish you didn’t.”

Taemin has only dated twice. A girlfriend for two weeks in school, before she told everyone she knew she was dating Shinee Taemin, and they told everyone they knew, and Taemin told her to go tell them all it was a lie. He hated himself after that. The next one was a boyfriend. Taemin told Jinki that he told Taemin not to tell anyone they were together, on a night just like this. Jinki didn’t count, and telling didn’t either, since it was after he got dumped. Jinki wished he’d told him the guy’s name, so Jinki could find him and tell him…what?

Don’t hurt Taeminnie.

Too late, Taemin already said.

“Hyung.”

“Mm.”

“When did you know you liked her?”

“When she told me she liked me,” Jinki says. “I couldn’t say no to her.”

Taemin makes a face and shoves the bottle across the table, towards Jinki. It wobbles before he catches it, or maybe that was Jinki’s hands trembling. Maybe there was more in the other bottles than he’d thought.

“I wish that were me. The person I like has never liked me first.” Taemin throws back his shot, grimacing at the taste. Jinki hopes he never reaches the point where that face disappears. “The only person who’s ever even confessed to me was this girl who left a letter in my desk in kindergarten. She probably forgot all about me by now.”

Jinki smiles to imagine it. “You must have been cute back then.”

Taemin makes another face. “I’m still cute right now.”

“As long as you know it.”

Instead of pouring him another shot, Jinki leans forward to pinch Taemin’s cheek, but his fingertips barely graze it.

“I wish he did.” What? Taemin lasts one second with his own words hanging in the air, before he hides from them, burying his face in his hands. “And cute is the wrong word.”

What’s the right one? Maybe Jinki has been looking at Taemin for so long, from too close up. He knows his face by this look, that smile, happy and sad and angry and all the in-between things that have no name. The crinkles in the corners of his eyes, the eyebrows that disappear after Taemin washes his makeup off, his philtrum that looks just like scotch tape, his small hands covering all that, hair sticking out between his short fingers, brown this time.

He’s really pretty.

“You mean the person you like,” Jinki says.

“I don’t know how I got like this, really. I don’t have time for it right now.”

“Dating?”

“Wrong word again, hyung.”

“Unrequited love.”

Taemin drops his hands to shoot him a reproachful look. “Hearing you say it is even more depressing.”

Then why did he ask him to?

“Taemin-ah.”

“Let’s not talk about it.”

When Taemin grabs for the bottle, Jinki grabs him. And sends the ramyun pot skittering across the table somehow, but he hangs on. Taemin’s wrist is so skinny in his grip it feels like it could snap. Jungah’s would have felt the same if he’d hung onto her, the way they do in the dramas Minho puts on when Jinki is too tired to get up off the couch. Taemin has never been too tired for anything, no matter what it takes out of him.

“You remember when we first met?” he says. “You told me you had to be good at dancing, that you were there to debut.”

Not even too tired to listen to Jinki, even if he says, “Could you pick another time to make no sense?”

“That’s the point – feelings aren’t supposed to. The heart doesn’t work like that, there’s no ‘have to.’ You can’t control how you feel, or how you feel about how you feel. But if you really like them, sincerely, then it’s not a waste. How could it be?”

“You sound like Jonghyunnie hyung.”

Oh.

“You already told him?”

Taemin flashes him that look from back up on the roof: stupid hyung. In the next second he lays his head down on the table, turned to one side, face half-hidden.

“He would ask me who it is. And he never forgets anything.” Not like you. Maybe he’s right, maybe he’s told Jinki all kinds of things he forgot that he’s forgotten. Jinki’s heart hurts just to think of it, all these pieces of Taemin he should have kept safe instead of losing. Like the noise Taemin makes right now, something that could only come from him, something with no word for it. A sigh and groan and a whine. “Should I just confess? People always say that’s the first step to getting over it, and I can’t stay like this forever.”

There’s no such thing.

The table rushes up to meet him as Jinki lays his head down to face Taemin, mirroring him. He wishes it were harder, that it hurt more. Taemin blinks and it doesn’t hurt at all. Not even asking:

“If he doesn’t know you like him, how do you know he doesn’t like you?”

“I just do.”

For one long moment, for as long as Jinki just looks at him, Taemin looks right back.

“You don’t.”

“You’re so stupid, hyung.”

Taemin lifts his head and sits up, leaving Jinki’s world to fall away. The bottle flashes across his vision, the clink of Taemin’s glass, the sound he makes when he drinks, just how his face always looks.

I don’t want you to get hurt, but I don’t know which way will end up hurting more. If you tell him, if you don’t…

You could end up where hyung is.

You don’t belong down here, Taemin-ah. Not like me.

 

Next morning is next afternoon. Jinki’s head isn’t a head, it’s the thing that got screwed onto his neck while he slept, a dirty wrung out sponge, nothing human left except for the blinding pressure and splitting pain. His heart must not be a heart either, since it’s still beating same as ever. When he doesn’t get hungry, he eats anyway. When he feels sick, he takes medicine. When there’s nothing to do, he does nothing. For hours. All day. Even when Jonghyun tells him to sleep it off in his bed instead of the couch, and Minho sits beside him and flips through a million channels until finally he settles on Grandpas Over Flowers, and Kibum says loudly, “Why haven’t they tried to cast Yeonggam for that yet?” Taemin is gone.

The morning after that, still.

“Did Taeminnie sleep at his parents’?” Jinki asks Jonghyun over a breakfast of cereal.

“He didn’t say anything about it. He was gone when I came in.” Jonghyun makes a face, swirling his spoon around in his bowl. “The more I ask him to stay here, the more he goes off.”

“Aren’t you gone all the time too?” Jinki says, at a loss.

“Because it’s lonely without him.”

Not saying anything means nothing when Taemin never says anything at all – he could be at his parents’. Or maybe just this once, he did say something, to that person. And maybe that person said it back. Maybe this one time, they meant it like the others should have. Maybe Taemin is with him now…? Maybe, maybe, maybe. He could spend all day chasing that word around in his head.

You just sat at home all day, right? You don’t have to worry about running into her at SM, hyung. And it wasn’t your fault you broke up, anyway, it just happened.

Hyung should have gone in too.

Jinki does.

And finds Taemin asleep on the floor of the practice room. The relief hits him so hard it blinds him, but when he can see again, Taemin is still right there, curled in on himself with his own arm for a pillow. Jinki’s heart is back to hurting, if it ever stopped.

 

2015

These last few days, the sound of the piano greets Jinki in the morning, has lunch and dinner with him, pats him on the back with each break they take, says good night every night, and even follows him into his dreams. This isn’t one. His body hurts way too much, aches in places he forgot existed in the time it took for him to recover from his surgery, even though Taemin kept telling him to come back to the practice room, that he didn’t have to be able to sing to dance, that he’d know. Jinki doesn’t know how to tell Taemin that he has to have fingers left to play tomorrow, that he has to sleep for it to come, that when the others left the venue for the dorm a half hour ago, Taemin should have gone with them. Taemin would just say, Then why didn’t you, hyung?

It’s his song. And it’s Taemin. When Jinki told him he had chosen to perform “Rainy Blue” at the concert and played it for him, Taemin said, The piano in the background is nice. To the others the next day, he said, I’m blocking hyung’s solo stage~. It’s a duet now.

In all the time since that Taemin has spent practicing with Jinki, then practicing some more without him, until his back ached and his fingers cramped up and he forgot everything else in the world but the next note, the next keys, Jinki has never said the words that should be like breathing by now: Thank you, Taeminnie. Since that day on the roof, hyung has never been alone.

The playing has stopped. Jinki looks up from where he’s sitting on the edge of the stage in time to watch Taemin drop down next to him, stiff and clumsy. He doesn’t say anything, but he doesn’t have to. His shoulder presses into Jinki, warm and solid. Jinki wishes Taemin would put all his weight into it, that he would let Jinki take it. That he would lean on him, the way Jinki has always leaned on him.

“Taemin-ah.”

“Mm.”

Taemin isn’t going to want to hear it, even now. “Should we go back?”

“In a while.”

“Taemin-ah.”

“You can go ahead without me.”

Taemin flops onto his back, staring up into the ring of seats and the great dome overhead. They wheeled Taemin’s piano onto the stage after wrapping up dance practice, since he wanted to know how it would sound, echoing up into space. Tonight it’s silent, dark, empty, but tomorrow a pearl aqua ocean will crash down on them.

“Taemin-ah.”

Taemin scrunches his nose up in annoyance. “Ah, what already?”

Nothing. Just…

“Your playing was nice.”

“Today it was,” Taemin says shortly. “We’ll see tomorrow. Even if I get it perfect in practice, then I’m bound to fuck up during the concert.”

“Then why do you practice so much?” Jinki says, as gently as he can. All that gets him is that look telling him he’s being stupid on purpose. He’s not, not this time. “If getting it perfect now means nothing, then it’s not something you have to do.”

Taemin shakes his head at him, hair sprayed across the floor. Jinki knows it’s blond, but in this light, it looks the same color as the stars that must be shining outside. “It’s worse if I don’t, hyung. Then I’d fuck up even more.”

Your mistakes don’t look like mistakes.

Not to Jinki. To Taemin…even things that aren’t mistakes do.

“I used to worry about you, since you never took any time off, and you always stayed late after we left. I even felt guilty leaving you alone in there every night, but I couldn’t stay, I couldn’t keep up with you.” Jinki kicks his legs uselessly, dangling off the edge of the stage. The ground is only a foot or two below, and the first row of seats a foot or two away, but it might as well be a thousand miles. “I didn’t know how you could live like that. But you know something funny? After my surgery, I missed the practice room to death.”

“What about the stage?” Taemin says, like he’s read his mind. “The last time I bothered asking if you were nervous, you said you thought of me and the others so you didn’t have to think of yourself.”

Before their debut concert at Yoyogi National Gymnasium. So many fans bought tickets they held two shows in the end, but there will be more people in the audience tomorrow than both put together. Jinki has never seen that many people in one place, and that many people have never seen him. He won’t be alone, though. Taemin will draw their eyes.

Instead of any of that, Jinki says, “Did it sound like hyung was lying back then? I wasn’t, though. It’s still true.”

The thing on Jinki’s face doesn’t feel like a smile until Taemin reaches up to poke at the corner of his mouth, drawing his lip over his teeth. Now it probably doesn’t look like one. And it probably shouldn’t be, it’s just…Taemin is Taemin. Jinki pushes Taemin’s bangs back from his face. He keeps saying his hair is dead and broken, that he’s going back to black, but it feels soft.

Taemin lies still under his hand, staring up at him. “The problem is if you were really thinking of me, you would think of yourself.”

Thinking of himself is thinking of Taemin, in other words. But thinking of Taemin is thinking of himself. It’s the only way he knows how that doesn’t involve soju.

“You don’t have to say anything, or do anything, Taemin-ah.”

Taemin’s mouth crooks, but if that’s a smile, it doesn’t reach his eyes. Otherwise they’d crinkle up and shine. “Nothing I say or do helps, anyway.”

“Just being here does.”

It’s something Jinki started out thinking when they first met and grew close and stopped even having to think by the time they debuted together and their lives blurred into one, but this is the first time he’s ever said it out loud, watched those words hit Taemin’s face, wondered if they were inside Taemin too. Maybe not? Taemin puffs up his cheeks with a sigh so endless it’ll probably blow the top off Tokyo Dome when he lets it out. Jinki will have to pay the damages.

He struggles upright. Jinki reaches for him without thinking, his shoulder and his back, so light he can barely feel his weight. Taemin’s hair falls into his face as he stares down at his feet. Would it be strange if Jinki brushed it back? Or is it strange that he had to think about it? Or strange that he thought about thinking about it? Or—

“I don’t need you to say stuff like that, hyung. You don’t know how lame that makes me feel.”

Jinki’s heart is hurting. That.

“Aigoo.” Jinki reaches up to pat his head and ends up with his fingers through Taemin’s hair, as soft and fine as before. Beneath his hand are all Taemin’s bad thoughts, including the ones he put it in there. Somehow. He never meant to. “I don’t say things just to say them, I wouldn’t know how. I’m not good with words like Jonghyunnie.”

“I’m not either.” Taemin shoots him a look. One he’s never seen before, or maybe a million he has, a kaleidoscope of Taemins he can’t piece together. “I just. It might not seem like it, but I’m trying really hard, hyung. I’d be lying if I said it’s all for you, but a lot of it is. Telling me that stuff like I’m Shin Minah in A Bittersweet Life or something…”

It takes a second to clunk into place. One of those movies Minho told him he had to see before he died. When Jinki said he could last until he’s eighty, Minho replied, It’s two hours, hyung. It ended up being four, including all the time Minho spent explaining things Jinki didn’t need to understand until this moment. This is the thing with noir, hyung, it’s not about who she is, it’s about what she represents. The light in the darkness.

It looked to Jinki like Lee Byunghun wanted to fuck her, but if he’d said that Minho would have taken another hour off his life. And what does that have to do with anything, how many minutes of Taemin’s has he wasted, thinking these useless thoughts? Even if Taemin was the one who put them in his head.

“I’ve never known you not to try hard, though?” Maybe that’s useless too. Maybe Jinki is. “You try harder than anyone I know. That’s who you are.”

To me, at least. There’s nothing you can’t do. You’re everything.

For one long moment, Taemin just looks at him. Looks and looks and looks. What he sees, Jinki doesn’t know, but finally, suddenly, Taemin’s shoulders relax, and he smiles. Small and tired and wan, but for real. “You try really hard, too. You think I don’t realize, right?”

“You think I think a lot of things.”

“‘Hyung doesn’t think at all.’ That’s what you’re going to say,” Taemin accuses him, smile out like a lightbulb, leaving everything darker than before. “That is a lie.”

It is. Should Jinki tell him the truth, just this once? The closest thing to it he knows.

“Taemin-ah.”

Taemin sighs again, shaking his head. “Sorry if it seems like I’m mad at you. I’m not.”

“Hyung is nervous.”

“I know,” Taemin starts to say, before he catches up, eyes shooting back up to Jinki’s face. “What?”

“I’m nervous. Really, really. Like I could have a heart attack.” Jinki finds Taemin’s hand on the floor between them, laying his own over it. How can it still be so small and soft, after spending the last nine years holding Jinki together? “There’s nothing you can say to that, so what’s the point in me telling you? I don’t like making you make that face, either.”

The one that says it hurt Taemin to hear it.

Taemin’s hand flips under his, lacing their fingers together and hanging on tight. When he squeezes, Jinki feels it all the way to his heart.

Taemin believes this with all of his: “You’re going to do well, hyung.”

You have to.

Now that he finally knows what to say, it’s like Jinki can’t speak. He clears his throat. Finds the voice he could have lost forever. “So are you.”

Not because he has to. He never did. He never had to volunteer to accompany Jinki, or drink with him so that Jinki wouldn’t drink alone, or let Jinki take him shopping when he had nothing to buy, or stay up on the roof with Jinki after he told him not to leave, or any of the million things he’s done to fill all the days in Jinki’s life that he should have tried harder to remember. He did it because he’s Taemin.

“Hyung.”

“Mm.”

“Hyung.”

For as long as Taemin holds onto him, Jinki won’t let go.

“What?”

“You kept calling my name before, now it’s my turn,” Taemin says. “Hyung. Hyung, hyung, hyung. Hyung~.” He cups his free hand to his mouth and calls out into the empty stadium, “Jinki hyung!”

Taemin-ah.

When the echo dies, Jinki’s name disappears with it. Taemin’s hand slips from his as he stands. Jinki should have been quicker, he should have helped him up. As it is, he follows him to his feet, so much stiffer and clumsier than he has right to be. Tomorrow he’ll have to dance until his legs break. Tomorrow…

Taemin takes one last look around and then turns away, towards backstage. With his back to Jinki, he says, “I missed you.”

In all this time, Jinki never left his side. He’s talking to Onew.

 

2020

Whenever the camera flashes, Jinki blinks. The first few times, Taemin tells him not to, to keep his eyes wide open, smile, pose, pose again. You’re happy to be here, so happy you could die, you came back as a new and improved Onew and you want to show everyone. Show them something at least, hyung. Hyung~. And when he decides that hasn’t gone in anywhere, he reaches for Jinki. Jinki jumps at his touch, gentle and warm and sudden, and in the next flash, the next blink, Taemin has drawn him in to face him.

“Why are you so embarrassed, hyung?”

Whether his smile is for Jinki or the photographer or both, it’s real. His eyes are crinkling into crescents. It’s been a year at least since the last time Jinki saw him from this close up. Before he arrived at the shoot for their Season’s Greetings this morning, it had been a half year more than that since the last time Jinki saw him in makeup too, the same brand the stylists buried Jinki under. Kibum told him that if he drank water and slept at night, that would take care of his skin, but the stylists scolded him for living like a beast. Just because you were a soldier, honestly. If you’d asked me to visit just once, I would have brought you everything you needed.

“I just got used to being Jinki,” Jinki says.

Taemin trails his hand up Jinki’s shoulder, leaning on him. His weight is the second real thing, warm and soft and barely there. The third is his voice, a low steady murmur under the lights and the photographer’s directions and the music thudding in the background.

“Make a cool face. Charisma, but not flaming. Now a cute one. Not that kind, hyung, the kind that’s on purpose. Now…sexy look. I meant at me, look at me.”

“Taemin-ah~”

Taemin grabs his face between his tiny hands, turning Jinki to face him again. He’s smiling. Wider, brighter, crinklier, so real it could blind him.

“It’s just me,” he says. “How am I worse than the camera?”

Good question. The answer doesn’t come to Jinki before it’s time for his solo shoot, and Taemin and the camera are both staring down at him. Jinki should tell him to go take his break, but the longer he stares back, the harder it is to get words to come. Taemin has millions of them for him, telling him he’s cool, that he’s cute, aigoo, hyung looks like a baby~. Jinki must age thirty-two years in the few hours it takes to finish, because as soon as he bows his way to the dressing room and climbs back into his own clothes and his own skin, Taemin is there demanding, “Buy me food, hyung-ah.”

He hasn’t washed his makeup off yet. Did he forget? Or maybe he has special cleaner at home, like the stylists were tutting about as Jinki splashed his face with water. He still looks like Taemin either way.

“What do you want to eat?”

Taemin beams, looping his arm through Jinki’s and dragging him towards the exit. Behind them his manager calls good night, and the staff wave them off, until they reach the hallway. “You can pick.”

“I don’t even know what’s good these days.”

“What are you talking about, I saw your dalgona coffee video.” Taemin shoulders the door open instead of letting Jinki go, and then the summer night rushes in on them both. The one thing that never ran out at Jinki’s base was fresh air, that and stars in the sky. They’re in Taemin’s eyes. “I’ve been free this whole time and I’ve never even tried it.”

When would he have time? His album comes out in another week, and SuperM’s soon after that, and it takes almost that long to whisk it up. And somehow it only takes a blink of Taemin’s eyes, and there’s Jinki’s car already. When did they cross the parking lot? It felt so much further when he came this morning. Taemin’s arm slips from his as he crosses over to the passenger’s side, leaving Jinki to go to the driver’s side. Driving. Keys. Right.

Jinki hesitates, peering at Taemin over the roof his car. “You want to go to a café?”

“No, I was just saying,” Taemin says. “Let’s get real food.”

“Taemin-ah—”

“Hurry up, hyung, I’m hungry.”

The thought follows Jinki behind the wheel and out into the street. Finally he just says it: “Do you have a whisk at home?”

Taemin gives him one of his looks: You’re so weird, hyung. Good thing Taemin is, too. In the next second he breaks into a smile and says, “We can just buy one.”

And instant coffee, and sugar, and milk. Every kind they have, until Taemin tells him it’ll go bad, he won’t have time to drink it all, and Jinki just sticks with plain. Taemin reminds him they just ate at the restaurant when he points out the tuna mayo kimbap he and Jonghyun used to buy for him after training, and he doesn’t want the sausages on a stick he used to let Jinki have every other bite of, or any of the bags of chips that he used to stash under his bed to hide from Jinki in their first dorm, in flavors that probably didn’t exist back then, or before Jinki enlisted even. Jinki can’t find any of the ones Taemin used to like. When they go to check out, their basket is still as light as it started, but driving Taemin home, testing himself to see if he knows the way yet, listening to Taemin sink into silence, following him up to the place Taemin says he wants to move out of soon, Jinki’s heart grows heavier and heavier. There’s nothing to trip over on the floor, no furniture to bump into, no signs of Taemin anywhere, and when he opens Taemin’s fridge to put the milk away, emptiness stares back at him.

“Do you eat with Manager hyung a lot?” Jinki says, shutting it and turning back to Taemin, who’s sitting at his table expectantly, across from the whisk laid next to the bowl of coffee water like fate. Jinki has no choice but to accept it, but not until he’s said, “I mean dinner, after you’re off work.”

“I’m on one meal a day and lunch is better. By the time I get back here it’s too late, I’d just gain weight.” Taemin draws one leg up to his chest, resting his chin on his knee and shooting Jinki a smile. “I cheated on my diet with you.”

“It’s only fair. You never let me stay on mine.”

Jinki should have taken a different way back, one that took them through streets filled with food stands, dumplings and fishcakes and tteokbokki, but it’s too late for that now, or to say anything else. Once he starts up his existence narrows to the whisk in his hand, the scrape of the bowl, the pain in his wrist, the foam and the slightest sign of thickening, and Taemin’s commentary. You should see the face you’re making, hyung. It hasn’t changed at all. How long has it been, should I start timing you now? This is what you worked out for, for this moment. Jonghyunnie hyung told me to check for your army abs, for proof. Jinki glances up to see Taemin rising up onto his knees in his chair, ass sticking up as he stretches his body across the table, all that just to feel Jinki’s bicep instead. Jinki’s muscles jump at his touch, soft and warm, and next thing he knows Taemin is back on his side of the table, face spattered with dalgona and split into a gummy smile. Is that what’s making Jinki dizzy?

By the time Jinki catches up with his hand, he’s reaching for Taemin, but it’s too late to catch up with Taemin, who’s already across the room, bent over the sink. He emerges with his cheeks pink and his bangs dripping, onto Jinki’s shirt as he stands over him. Jinki’s been around this bowl so many times he can’t see straight, but somehow it’s too much to look up at him.

“Is this really enough for two people?” Taemin asks.

“Should hyung whisk some more?”

Taemin hesitates, then takes the bowl from him. Mercy at last. “You can’t talk and do it.”

“Isn’t it better that way?”

Taemin is supposed to say something back, but Jinki can’t think of what, with Taemin’s laughter pouring over him like the milk tinkling onto the ice cubes that Taemin boasted his refrigerator could make. Jinki should have told him to take care of it and fill it with food, that it’s easier for it to keep its temperature that way, the same way Taemin should take care of himself, but he only thinks of that now that it’s useless. Everything in his head is. Taemin has already spooned in coffee for both of them by the time Jinki remembers himself, and then he raises it to his lips to taste.

“You’re supposed to stir it,” Jinki starts to say, before Taemin emerges with foam on his upper lip. That’s laughter tingling under Jinki’s skin, bubbling up inside him, right? But not drawing his hand across the table. Maybe he should have sat on it, instead of dragging his thumb over Taemin’s lips, soft and plush under his fingertip. Like all the lips he’s kissed, but how else would they feel? Taemin’s lips are lips too. He drops his hand down to take Taemin’s glass from him and their fingers brush, the same way they have a million times before, the same ones Taemin has laced between his and hung onto him, but tonight it electrocutes him. “Here, let hyung.”

That word still sounds the same as it would any other night. Jinki has to hold onto it. The spoon spins faster than the whisk even, or maybe that’s Jinki’s head. Hyung, hyung, hyung.

“Then what’s the point of whipping it up?” Taemin says. “It just disappeared.”

The milk is brown now. A few seconds ago it was white. Is that disappearing?

Jinki doesn’t know much right now. “Is there supposed to be a point to things like this?”

“You’re the best hyung for doing pointless things for me.”

Taemin takes his glass back from Jinki with a smile that Jinki should return. When he takes another sip, Jinki should sip his. Or mix it up too. That’s the only thing left.

“Did you miss me?” Jinki says.

Taemin doesn’t even have to think about it, hiding his smile behind the rim of his glass. “Mm. Lots.”

“But you didn’t need me.” Jinki barely says it before Taemin’s glass clinks down onto the table and he opens his mouth to say what’s written across his face, why do you always say such stupid things, but no matter how much Jinki wants to hear it, Taemin needs to hear this more. “I didn’t say that to be contradicted, I meant it. Really. You’ve done so well, Taemin-ah. You’ve worked really hard. The reason hyung was able to come back is you. Even now, still.”

He would have been hopeless today without him. Maybe he always has been. Onew has spent his entire existence with Taemin by his side. Without him…maybe Jinki would have stayed Jinki. Or maybe Jinki would have become someone worse, the type of person who wouldn’t think twice when Taemin tells him, “I just did my job and lived my life, hyung. And that’s all I’m doing now.”

Their name weighs so much that even with five people, it could crush them, and Taemin held it up on his own for eighteen months, all while the world fell apart around him. And that whole time, he never stopped smiling, the way he is right now. The way he has this whole life they’ve shared.

“You don’t have to pretend it was easy. Not with me.”

Taemin’s expression flickers, and Jinki’s heart with it. “Hyung…”

“You don’t have to talk about it, either,” Jinki says, as gently as he knows how. “I just wanted you to know that I know. You probably already knew that, though.”

It’s not sudden when Taemin’s hand finds his. Jinki watches him slip it from his glass and across the tabletop, and he doesn’t feel the cold when Taemin’s fingertips press ice into his skin. Just his warmth. He turns his hand in Taemin’s grasp, threading his fingers through Taemin’s and holding onto him. His heart skips a beat. Several beats.

Taemin drinks. Jinki does too. His first sip. The first jolt of the caffeine he could have blamed, if he’d remembered his glass existed a minute earlier.

“This just tastes like normal coffee,” he says. “Right?”

Taemin gives him yet another smile, a secret between the two of them. “Coffee that hyung made for me.”

They drink more.

Time passes. Or doesn’t. Jinki breathes Taemin’s air.

“I have to get up tomorrow,” Taemin says after his glass of caffeine is empty. Jinki should have made it for him to drink in the morning or something. Something. Taemin traces his thumb over Jinki’s skin. Like he’s read his mind, back when Jinki still had one, he glances up at him to ask, “Do you want to stay over?”

Jinki can’t say no to him. There are other things he still should. Like… “Do you have an extra blanket?”

That, or It’s so hot in here—No. It was hot today, hyung doesn’t need one.

Too late.

“You don’t have to sleep on the couch, we can just share my bed,” Taemin says, so casually it’s not at all. “We basically did in our first dorm, anyway.”

“Jonghyunnie said you would rather die than sleep with me again.”

That doesn’t sound how it did in Jinki’s head. Taemin won’t know that because he’s not in here. He’s over there, tucking his hair behind his ear, as though he’s forgotten he cut it too short. It falls into his face again the minute he hides his hand in his lap. If it’s rubbing over his thigh, twisting in the fabric of his pants, any of the nervous tics he’s spent years taking out on Jinki’s body instead of his own, Jinki can’t tell. His other hand says everything anyway, clinging to Jinki so tightly it almost hurts.

“Because you used to roll on top of me.” Taemin bites his lip. Then, “If you did it now I wouldn’t hate it.”

Jinki stands.

Instead of letting go, Taemin lets himself be pulled up, almost knocking his glass over with his arm as he crosses over to Jinki, until he’s as close as he was this morning. His eyelids are still sparkling, same as before. Cheeks pink. Lips pinker. And Jinki doesn’t know what he’ll do if Taemin takes a single step closer.

He should let go himself. Tell Taemin the caffeine will keep him up for hours, that there’s no point staying when he’ll just keep him up. Any of the things that make sense, when Jinki is making less than ever. None at all. His heart is like a slingshot. His whole body is burning up. His voice scrapes up his throat like gravel. “Taeminnie—”

Taemin takes that step. And somehow the answer is just standing there and letting him. That’s all. All lies. Taemin drags Jinki’s hand to his hip, then down over his ass. His hand is too small and weak, it would be so easy to break his grip, and as insistently as it presses down on Jinki’s, Jinki is the one pressing his fingers into Taemin’s flesh, sinking into the heat of his skin, even through his pants. He could bruise him. Taemin’s breath catches in his throat and puffs against Jinki’s mouth. Any closer and this would be a kiss. A what.

Taeminnie.

“You used to throw me on my bed too, remember?” Taemin murmurs, nudging his nose against Jinki’s. “My mattress here is really bouncy, and I felt your muscles before. You could break the bed if you’re not careful.”

Jinki could break more than that. Starting with his own heart.

He slides his hand down to the backs of Taemin’s knees and lifts him up. Taemin squawks in surprise, arms flying up to lock around Jinki’s neck. He weighs nothing, and his bed is only a few steps further, down the hall, into the dark. He tenses up as Jinki’s knees hit the mattress, and when Jinki lays him down as gently as he can, he hangs onto him, leaving Jinki to brace himself over him. He goes perfectly still beneath him, spread out on the bed, staring up at him with the same dark eyes as before, hair spilled out over the pillow, lips parted. As Jinki’s eyes drop to them, Taemin’s squeeze shut, tight enough that they scrunch up.

Another one of his faces. A cute one.

Jinki kisses his forehead and closes Taemin’s door behind him. Then lies on the couch and waits to remember how to breathe. The knowledge slams into him so hard it shatters into fragments, sharp enough they could stab Jinki if he turns them the wrong way. What he would have done. What he still wants to do. What Taemin might be lying in there needing, what he might have lain in there needing all the time Jinki was gone. For someone to fill his emptiness.

Did I make you lonely, Taemin-ah? If I gave you what you wanted—what we both want—

If I fucked you, that would have taken Jinki hyung away from you. Then you could be even lonelier.

Or is it just that Jinki can’t survive even the thought of losing Taemin?

Out of all the thoughts in his head right now, that’s the only one he can think about. He thinks and thinks and thinks, and in the morning, Taemin is gone and he’s alone.

 

2021

Taemin’s eyes are closed, head tipped back against the couch cushions, but when the door to the dressing room snicks shut behind Jinki, he says, “I’m awake, hyung.”

Which one?

“Then go to sleep.”

Not Jinki. Taemin’s eyes fly open at the sound of his voice. In the next second he covers, rubbing his hand over them, scrunching his face up, before he remembers his mascara and swears. Should Jinki tell him it didn’t smear? Before he can, Taemin skips to the next question.

“It’s not my turn?”

For filming his solo shots in the MV. Superstar is still ringing in Jinki’s head, and whenever he blinks, his eyelids are red as the recording light. Whenever he doesn’t, Taemin is all he can see.

“Jonghyunnie said he’d go ahead of you.”

Jinki crosses the room to sink down next to him. Since the night they spent not together, he’s been exactly this close to Taemin so many times, but it’s never started feeling normal again. His heart is the problem, quickening his blood, hammering against his ribs and knocking the breath out of him, beating so loud Taemin should be able to hear it. If Jinki pulled him in against his chest, he would be able to, but then maybe it’d stop. It flips over the second Taemin’s eyes meet his, and if he looks away it’ll probably splat. Jinki is done trying to tell it what to do.

“Do I look tired?” Taemin asks.

The makeup hid the dark circles under his eyes, but not the expression in them.

“Mm.”

Even more so when Taemin slumps back into the cushions, combing the fingers of both hands through his hair. “Shit.”

“Is that bad?”

“Is it good?” Taemin retorts, throwing him a stupid hyung look. Only half his heart is in it, but all of Jinki’s squeezes in on itself.

What’s not is Taemin’s schedule. He’s torn in two between his solo and Shinee, Advice and Superstar, fan calls and recording sessions and music shows and video shoots, all these things he has to do, giving his all until his all is nothing. I just want to focus, hyung, he mumbled into Jinki’s shoulder in the car on the way here. I just want to do well. His day began yesterday morning, and it won’t end until this shoot does. Unless there’s something else? Jink will have to ask Manager hyung later. For now…

“Shouldn’t it be okay to look how you feel?” Jinki says.

Taemin shakes his head, hair tumbling into his face. Jinki spends his life looking at Taemin, but somehow he keeps forgetting how long it is now. “Idols aren’t supposed to have feelings, hyung. Did you forget?”

“I’m trying to.” No matter how hard it is. How much he hates himself. That’s better than watching his life go by from the outside like it’s one of Minho’s movies, sad and perfect and a waste of time. When he reaches up to tuck Taemin’s hair behind his ear, Taemin’s eyes snap back up to his face, nowhere left to hide. “You should too now.”

“I only have to last until the end of the month.”

Six years ago that would have been a statement of fact, accompanied with another look telling Jinki he’s being even stupider. On the other side, at the end of the last two months, just days to go before his enlistment, it sounds like a plea.

The Jinki from back then would never have been selfish enough to confess, “Hearing you talk like that scares me more than anything.”

“There’s nothing you can do, hyung.” Taemin’s hand finds his thigh, small and warm and there. “Just stay with me, okay?”

Jinki covers it with his own.

“Until the end.” The promise should weigh more than words can, with how much it means and how much he means it, but it’s as light as the air between them. “I don’t mean next month, I mean—” forever.

“I know,” Taemin says too quickly. Was it too heavy for him, did it feel like Jinki dropped something on him that could kill him? And then Taemin squeezes his hand, and Jinki can breathe again. “It’s the same for me as it is for you. You just being here is enough.”

That night at the Tokyo Dome…is that when things started to change for Jinki? Or was it before? Taemin made himself comfortable in Jinki’s head and heart the moment they first met, and all these thoughts and feelings must have grown up around him, so slow and silent he never noticed until they’d already taken over. He must be as stupid as Taemin has never really thought.

“Then I guess it’s the same for me as it was for you back then, too,” Jinki says. “I don’t want to be Shin Minah, either. I wish I could do more for you. Things with points.”

Taemin makes that face again: stupid hyung. “You do everything.”

“We both know I don’t.” Jinki hesitates. Breathes. Tries to figure out the right words. Then tries to figure out what words are. The longer he takes, the longer he keeps Taemin waiting, eyes wavering, hand hanging on too tight the way it did that night, right up until the moment Jonghyun comes in and it slips from Jinki’s again. Before then, Jinki has to say it. “I want to.”

All of it. Any of it. Whatever Taemin needs him to do or be or say. Whoever he sees when he looks at Jinki, Jinki wants to be that person. Taemin stares at him for a moment longer, an eternity lost in his eyes, before he turns away. He lasts half a second before shooting Jinki a sideways glance, half sly half reproachful.

“You missed your timing again,” Taemin accuses him. “There won’t be another moment like this until I get out.”

Did Jinki use too many words? Should he have used none at all, said it with his body? The way Taemin wanted him to that night.

“I like you.”

Taemin’s mouth is curling, the half Jinki can see. “Too late.”

Jinki reaches up and turns Taemin to face him again, fitting his palm to his cheek. His thumb presses into the corner of Taemin’s mouth, so soft his brain short circuits. It crimps up under his touch, shy, painful, like a secret even Jinki shouldn’t know.

“Hyung isn’t playing around, Taemin-ah. Just this once, don’t play around with me either.”

“What kind of confession is that?”

“One that came from me first,” Jinki says. He reaches up with his other hand, cupping Taemin’s face. Taemin always says his cheeks are fat, and Jinki should always have told him the other side of things: that’s why they’re so cute. How else would they fill Jinki’s palms like this? “I love you.”

Taemin breaks into a smile, and he doesn’t have to say it for Jinki to know – that’s his I love you too, hyung face.

“We should kiss, but I’m too embarrassed now,” he says.

He was asking to get fucked before, how is this too much? And yet, it is. Way too much. For Jinki too. Taemin’s eyes flick over his face as he presses closer, hesitant, shy, almost like he’s trying to figure out where they fit together. His nose brushes up against Jinki’s and his hands find his shoulders, exactly as small and soft and warm as Jinki has always known them to be, so why is it that they’re setting him on fire only now? Jinki barely has to lean in for them to fist in his shirt, hanging on for dear life, but in the next second Taemin figures out the final piece, pressing their mouths together.

At the first touch of his lips, Jinki’s heart stops, then starts again. They kiss and kiss and kiss, shy and clumsy, then slower, softer, deeper, lips sliding together, Taemin’s teeth nipping at Jinki, their tongues touching, flirting, until somehow Jinki’s is as deep inside Taemin’s mouth as it can go, and Jinki is stuck between dying from lack of air or dying from breaking away, and he’s never been surer of anything in his whole life than he is of Taemin. He’s warm and soft everywhere Jinki touches him, his hair and the nape of his neck, the curve of his spine and the small of his back. Taemin arches back into his palms, eager, impatient, and Jinki barely has to slide his hand down past his waist before he’s half in Jinki’s lap. The weight and feel of him—that’s it. Air. As Jinki draws away Taemin presses closer, pulling at Jinki’s hair, crushing his lips to his, suckling on his tongue, wet and sloppy, making these noises Jinki could only answer with his body. It would be so easy to tip Taemin back onto the couch and push himself between his legs, and Taemin would make it even easier, pressing himself up against Jinki, gasping when his hands find his ass, moaning when he squeezes, demanding another kiss that becomes another and another and another, soft and clinging and teasing and frantic and deep and wet and so many other things that make no sense together, all at once. When Jinki slides his hand up to close his fingers over the back of Taemin’s neck, he goes boneless, drawing away with one last nip, one last flick of his tongue over Jinki’s mouth.

“I didn’t know you could kiss like that,” Taemin says breathlessly.

“How else is there?”

Taemin laughs. Jinki hears it and feels it at the same time. “I don’t know how I ever fell for you.”

“I don’t either.”

It’s the truth, but Taemin makes another face at him, before leaning in to press another kiss to his mouth, there and gone. “It’s your fault.”

Jinki has blamed himself for so many things in life. Why not this too?

“I’ll just have to take responsibility, then.” Jinki only gives himself a second to hesitate. “You know that was serious, right? I’ll wait for you.”

When he enlists. The thing Taemin would rather die than think about, the end that’s not an end. Should Jinki have waited to say it until he could visit, and Taemin needed to hear it most? Or is it one of those things he shouldn’t have said at all, and never would have before. The more selfish he gets, the less he can sort out the things he does for himself because he loves Taemin, the things he does for Taemin because he loves him, and the things—

“I waited eight years, so you better,” Taemin says.

What?

“You mean—?”

If he doesn’t know you like him, how do you know he doesn’t like you?

I just do.

“That’s why I said you were stupid, because you were,” Taemin says now. His cheeks are pink. “I’m even stupider. I dated so many guys to get over you, but that just made me like you more.”

In all this time, as far as Jinki knows, he’s dated three. Three point one maybe, counting the guy who dumped him before their first date was over and sent Taemin home to drink with Jinki again instead. Is that really stupidly many? And how is that important, when the other half of that sentence is staring him in the face.

The person Taemin sees when he looks at Jinki is the same person he’s always seen, singing on the roof, dragging him through the Tokyo streets, sitting under the dome with him, staring across the table at him the nights they drank soju and coffee together, standing over him when he woke up in the practice room or laid out on his couch instead of in his bed, giving him his lap to sit on and his mouth to kiss. The person Jinki has spent all this time hiding from, the person Taemin loves more than Jinki ever has.

Himself.

Out of all that, what is there to say?

“They were all cooler and better-looking than me, though?”

Taemin is supposed to crinkle at him and say something like, Tell me about it~, but the face he makes is the opposite, and then he goes off script: “Don’t talk about my boyfriend like that. He’s the coolest and the handsomest.”

Is that how it works?

“Taemin-ah.”

“Less talking,” Taemin says, leaning in, but Jinki takes his face in his hands, holding him back. Holding his eyes.

“Do you like Onew hyung or Jinki hyung better?”

Taemin doesn’t need to think about it.

“Both the same,” he says. “They’re both you.”

When Taemin leans in to kiss him, he’s smiling too hard to kiss him back.