“Just a moment,” Soojung murmurs, not looking up.
Jongin winces as he straightens up. It was a heavy landing and he can feel the strain of it in his knees, through the small of his back, though it’s not as bad as it once was now that Soojung's had the mohair rug put over the hardwood, not that she'd ever admit it had anything to do with him.
She caps her pen and sets her files aside, then looks up at him expectantly. He drops himself into the chair opposite her at the desk, fatigue thrumming under his skin. The sunlight slanting through the window blinds him for one crystalline moment-- it's a burnt, languid gold in the late afternoon but still brighter than what he's used to.
He fishes a flash drive from his pocket and sets it on the desk between them. “Can we do this tomorrow?”
Soojung taps at her keyboard. “No. When did you last sleep?”
Jongin scrubs a hand over his eyes as the printer behind Soojung whirs to life. “Don't know. Twenty four hours ago, maybe?”
“I'll make it quick,” she says, reaching over and taking a document from the printer tray. “Let's start from the beginning.”
It begins like this: Jongin is twelve years old and a third of the way up a very tall tree. Beside him, Taemin is gripping onto the branch with both hands, eyes cast fearfully downwards.
“I think we should go back down,” Taemin’s voice is trembling, stolen away into the breeze.
Jongin inches closer to him. “It's okay, we won't fall.” He stands up to grab for the branch above their heads when the wind suddenly swells, rushing through the leaves and rocking the bough beneath them.
Jongin loses his balance and sways precariously, but it is not him that falls. It's Taemin, with both hands reaching out for Jongin, whose foot slips off the branch. Jongin watches from above as he hits the ground, his heart rocketing into his throat as Taemin goes still for a moment, then starts screaming.
His left leg is shattered, fractured in four places, he hears Taemin's mom telling his by the door.
“Did it hurt?” Jongin asks, chin propped on the edge of the mattress.
Taemin pokes at the drip in his arm. “Yeah.” There's a graze stretching the length of his forearm where it'd scraped the trunk as he'd fallen. “The doctors are gonna put a cast on when the swelling goes down. You can sign it first, if you want.”
Jongin doesn't cry until he gets home, into his room with the door closed. Night falls, spilling shadows into every crevice. His mom brings him dinner but Jongin can't swallow past the guilt in his throat and it goes cold.
And when the night is at its darkest, when the shadows grow deep enough to swallow him whole and all Jongin can think about is how he never apologised, an awful rending, pulling, splitting sensation sweeps across every inch of his body, and he lands on his side on a hard, flat surface.
Something stirs above him. “What the hell?” Jongin looks up. Taemin is staring down at him, darkness settling grey across the familiar planes of his face. “Jongin?”
Jongin pulls himself up onto his elbows and looks around. He's lying on the floor of Taemin's hospital room.
“How did you do that?” Taemin asks, eyes huge and reflecting the darkness.
“I… don't know,” Jongin says slowly, pulling himself up into the chair beside the bed. “I was in bed, and then my whole body felt fuzzy and… and now I'm here?” He and Taemin stare at each other for a moment before splitting into simultaneous grins.
“Holy shit. Ho-ly shit,” Taemin enunciates, shaking his head. Jongin just laughs and can't stop, not even when a nurse comes to investigate the noise, her torch beam cutting across both of them like a searchlight.
“How did you get in here?” she demands, and they both laugh harder. “Come with me,” she says to Jongin, “I'm calling your parents.”
Only when he's halfway out the door does he remember-- he dips his head back so he can meet Taemin's eye and whisper-shouts across the room, “I'm sorry I made you fall.”
Taemin has stopped laughing, but there are traces of it left in the corners of his mouth, the creases around his eyes. “It's okay,” he calls back, and then the nurse ushers Jongin out.
Jongin's mother doesn't believe him when he tells her what happened, and grounds him for two weeks for sneaking out. He spends three days practicing; from one side of his room to the other, from his room to the bathroom, to the park across the road and back.
On the fourth day Taemin is released from hospital, and Jongin appears at the foot of his bed at midnight, like in the ghost stories his sisters would tell him by torchlight when he was little. Except Jongin is holding his Nintendo DS in one hand, climbs into the bed with Taemin and watches him play Pokemon until he falls asleep.
“And you copied everything onto here?” Soojung asks, turning the flash drive over between her fingers, burgundy nails clicking against the plastic.
“Yep. Everything that was on the computer in his office.” Jongin eyes the clock on the wall behind her. “Are we done?”
“After you sign off on your debrief, yes.” She slides a sheet of paper and a pen across the desk to him. Jongin grabs the pen and scrawls his signature across the dotted line. “But don't disappear yet, there's something I need to--”
Jongin's so sleep deprived that he misjudges again, his shoulder slamming into the wall as he loses balance.
“Shit,” he mutters, righting himself, hand rubbing over his aching shoulder. He walks the final few feet up the corridor and listens closely at the door. There's only silence, so he taps lightly at it with his knuckles.
“Hey,” he whispers, “it's me.” There's no response still. A door further up the corridor opens abruptly, and Jongin jumps.
“Jongin, you're back,” Yixing says, smiling as he closes the door behind him. He glances down at the clipboard in his hand. “Are you doing your physical with me? Soojung hasn't been in contact.”
“I don't think so,” he says, eyes flicking to the closed door beside him. “I was looking for Taemin, actually. Do you know if he's here?”
“Taemin?” A crease appears between Yixing’s eyebrows. “He's on leave, isn't he? Has been for a few weeks from what I remember.”
“Leave? Are you sure?” Jongin tries the handle of the door next to him. It swings open to reveal an empty consult room. It's bare; the puppy calendar on the wall, the jar of candy on the desk and the photos, of Taemin's parents, he and his brother, of Jongin, pinned up by the computer are all gone.
Yixing nods slowly. “I'm sure. Did you not know?”
“No, I--” Jongin shakes his head slightly. “I'm sure he told me. I must've just forgotten.”
Yixing looks at him carefully. “Are you feeling okay?” He looks down at his clipboard. “I can slip you into my schedule now if you--”
“No, no it's alright.” Jongin says, waving him away. “I'll just go home. Haven't slept for a while.”
“If you're sure,” Yixing says, as Jongin stares into the empty consult room, unease twisting in his gut. He pulls the door shut. “Come see me sometime this week.”
“I'll get Soojung to call you,” Jongin says, and then he's landing on his hands and knees on the living room of his apartment, early evening sunlight painting the walls in shades of bronze.
“Taemin?” he calls out, scrambling to his feet and looking around wildly. “Taemin, are you here?”
His phone starts ringing in his pocket. It's the same one he's had on assignment for the past two weeks, and no one but Soojung has the number. He ignores it.
The kitchen is spotless when he walks through it, and so is the bathroom when he sticks his head in on the way past. He ends up in the bedroom, head pounding and stomach writhing in knots of fear. The bed is made, and when Jongin tears open the closet it's half empty. His phone starts ringing again and he doesn't bother answering, instead twisting himself through space and into the middle of Soojung's office.
“What the fuck?” he says. Soojung takes the phone away from her ear, and the one in Jongin's pocket stops ringing. “Where is he?”
Soojung sighs. “I did tell you to wait.” She nods at the chair opposite her. “Sit down.”
Jongin stays standing. “Yixing says he's on leave but he never even-- all his clothes are gone and his office is empty and…” The look in Soojung's eyes makes him stop. He's materialised in her office broken and barely conscious more than once, and even then she's never looked at him like this. Like she’s apologising. Like he's bleeding out on the floor of her office and there's nothing she can do to help.
“He came to see me the morning you left,” Soojung says, holding Jongin's eye steadily. “He’s gone on a year long contract to do aid work. He wouldn't say where.”
“Aid work? What, I… I don't understand.” Jongin feels like someone is pulling the ground out from underneath his feet, slowly and inevitably. “Why wouldn't he tell me? Why would he just disappear like that?”
Sympathy flickers across Soojung's face. “Because he didn't want you to follow him.” Jongin’s legs give out and he sinks to the floor slowly. “He wanted me to tell you that he's sorry, and he'll be in contact once you're back.”
He hears Soojung stand from her desk, and then her high heels are sinking into the rug next to him. She squats down beside him and rests her elbows on her knees.
“Did he say why?” Jongin studies the swirls in the mahogany of Soojung's desk, tracing the threads of light curling through dark.
“Don't you know?” Soojung murmurs. She glances at him, then follows his line of sight to the wood like she's trying to work out what he's seeing.
Jongin shakes his head then lets it drop. “No,” he says hoarsely. One of Soojung's hands comes to rest lightly between his shoulder blades. “No, I had no fucking idea that anything was even wrong.”
“I think,” Soojung says slowly, her hand rubbing tiny circles against Jongin's spine, “maybe that's why he had to leave.”
Taemin and, to everyone's utmost surprise, Jongin, graduate high school in the spring. One of their classmates holds a giant house party to celebrate, complete with out of town parents and a mountain of alcohol.
Jongin cracks open a can of beer and takes a sip before passing it over to Taemin. “I can't drink, I'm driving us home.” He winks. Taemin rolls his eyes, takes one gulp and then abandons it on a counter, muttering something about cat piss.
By midnight their graduating class is collectively shitfaced. They slip upstairs into an empty bedroom, where Jongin takes Taemin's hand and tugs them both into shadow, falling out in a heap on Jongin's bedroom floor.
Taemin is crushing him into the carpet, and Jongin laughs, trying to shove him off, until he feels Taemin's mouth press wet and warm into the curve of his neck. Jongin trails off into a quiet groan, hands coming up to grip at Taemin's shoulders.
They've already made the progression from jerking off under the covers in separate beds with porn playing on the nightstand between them to jerking each other off in the same bed, laptop closed on the desk across the room. A few months ago Jongin had teleported under the desk while Taemin was studying and, after hitting his head on the underside of the desk, mouthed at the seam of his sweatpants until he groaned, dropped his pen and scooted back to let Jongin suck him off properly. By the following weekend Taemin somehow acquired a bottle of lube, and fingered Jongin agonisingly slowly until he came, pillow clenched between his teeth so he wouldn't scream.
Neither of them had anything more to drink after that first beer, but Jongin's head is spinning and his hands are trembling and wherever Taemin touches him is molten. They have sex for the first time that night, soft light from the street spilling over the sharp lines of Taemin's body as he stares up at Jongin, his hair fanning across the pillow in an obsidian halo, eyes dark and lips parted. His hands tremble where they grip too hard onto Jongin's hips.
As Jongin falls asleep with Taemin warm and solid against his back, he has the faint, inevitable thought that maybe he wouldn't mind staying like this forever.
Soojung makes a brief phone call to her supervisor and then drives them both to her apartment. It's dark out, and as Jongin watches the city blur by in streaks of light all he can think about is that he’s twenty-five and still doesn't have his driver’s license.
Soojung's apartment is neat and modern, with one bedroom and bathroom but a good sized living area and kitchen. She leaves him on the couch watching Running Man reruns as she orders takeout over the phone.
“I don't want to go home,” he says, when she comes back into the room, phone in one hand.
“Okay,” she says, and sits down next to him on the couch without another word.
He does end up going back after Soojung lets him use her shower and he's standing in the bathroom with a towel around his waist, hair dripping onto his shoulders and his only clothes the same ones he's been wearing for at least two days.
The bedroom is completely black when he lands, but he doesn't mind because it means he doesn't have to look at the perfectly made bed in the middle of the room. Taemin’s presence is so thick in this room he can feel it, a feather-light gaze on his back, a phantom warmth between the cold, cold sheets. He feels his way along the wall to the wardrobe, wrenches it open, grasps onto the first two pieces of clothing he touches and falls back through shadow into Soojung's bathroom.
He's holding a ratty pair of sweatpants he used to wear for dance in his left hand, and in his right is a t-shirt covered with a collage of kittens, courtesy of Sehun a few Christmases ago. He's not going back though, so he pulls on the clothes and hopes Soojung won't laugh at him too hard.
She doesn't laugh, but she does grin wordlessly down at the container of orange chicken on her lap as Jongin reaches for the rice in the middle of the coffee table. He shoots her a look. “Sorry,” she mutters, biting the insides of her cheeks.
As they sit there on the couch, Soojung laughing loudly at the television, her feet tucked up under her, Jongin realises that even though she's been his handler for almost eight years, he knows very little about her. Only little things, like that she gets her nails done on Tuesdays because she comes in every Wednesday morning with her nails a different shade, or that she doesn't have a gift like Jongin's or Yixing’s, aside from the superhuman ability to remain calm, or that she's three years older than Jongin and likes champagne.
Soojung stands and collects up the dishes from the coffee table. Jongin takes the half that she can't carry and follows her to the kitchen. He leans back against the counter as she stacks the leftovers in the fridge.
“Are you still seeing Jongdae?” he asks her, and she glances at him over her shoulder.
“We were never seeing each other,” she says, taking a glass from the cabinet and filling it with water from the fridge.
She offers it to Jongin, who takes a gulp to clear the sticky taste of the takeout from his mouth. She fills another for herself. “But weren't you guys…”
She turns to him and leans back against the fridge, glass clutched to her chest. “No, we weren't.” She's staring at him in a way that makes him feel like he's missing something very, very obvious. The hum of the fridge swells to fill the silence between them.
She smiles wryly at him, the yellow light hitting the planes of her face in a way that, for a split second, makes Jongin not recognise her at all.
“There are blankets folded up on the arm of the couch,” she says, walking past him. “Good night, Jongin.” And then he's alone in her kitchen, going on thirty hours awake and not sure of anything at all.
On Jongin's first day at the agency a guy named Kim Jongdae shorts every electrical appliance in the entire building. Lu Han, an ex-agent turned training supervisor, takes his wallet in the cafeteria with a little telekinesis-assisted pickpocketing and then pretends not to have it, and with a sudden snap every lightbulb in the room blows. Jongin jumps, but everyone else barely blinks. The guy showing him around, Jonghyun, just pats his shoulder and tells him to order whatever he wants, that he’ll pay considering it's his first day.
Jongin ends up taking Chinese tutoring from Jongdae the following week along with a girl named Park Sooyoung, who’s fresh out of high school and can control gravity with her mind. Jongdae’s actually a pretty laid-back guy, he'd only lost his cool in the cafeteria because Lu Han had been waging a prank war on him for the preceding two weeks. It's Jongdae that first answers the question that's been pressing at Jongin for almost a decade.
“I'm not sure about the details, really,” he says, taking off his glasses to rub at his eyes. “You'd have to ask someone in research, like Kyungsoo. Except not Kyungsoo, because he’ll rip my balls off for telling you this.”
Sooyoung laughs without looking up from the perfect lines of mandarin on her page. She's much smarter than Jongin is, but she and Jongdae are both too nice to bring any attention to it.
“Ten or so years ago there was this… a celestial event, I think he called it, and a very rare type of radiation hit the earth, concentrated in bursts around Seoul. There were a few outliers, like Lu Han in Beijing, or Yixing all the way south in Changsha.”
Sooyoung makes an interested hum, and the fact that she can follow their conversation while still writing in Chinese makes Jongin feel very inadequate. He clears his throat. “So like, anyone near me at the time would've been affected too?”
Jongdae nods distractedly, his eyes scanning across Sooyoung’s page upside down. “Yeah, I think that's how it works. Only kids though, for some reason. Your mom probably isn't gonna start throwing fireballs anytime soon.”
There's an agent named Chanyeol who can throw fireballs. He demonstrated for them when they went down to the training rooms for a tour and it was terrifying. Jongin really hopes he was joking when he said Lu Han sometimes gets him to help out with training the new recruits.
But Jongdae’s information does provide an answer to a question Jongin had never even asked before. It was just something that happened gradually, over the course of months. Taemin would continue a conversation that Jongin definitely remembered having, but wasn't sure when or where. It wasn't until Jongin, on a mattress on the floor of Taemin's room, woke up from a nightmare and looked over to see Taemin upright and staring back at him with wide, fearful eyes, that they realised exactly what was going on.
And even then they hadn't connected it to what Jongin could do. It was just something that happened to them sometimes; Taemin would appear in his dreams and then they'd both remember it all the next day. But growing up, Taemin and Jongin were rarely more than a few metres away from each other, and now Jongin's realising that maybe it wasn't something that just happened, it was something Taemin was causing.
Jongin had to sign a confidentiality agreement when the agency scouted him straight out of high school and he agreed to work for them. He underwent a two day crash course in I.T. so he could convince all his friends and family that he was working for a tech company in the city. They gave him a polo shirt with ‘Bring I.T. on!’ written across the breast that he had to wear to and from the building everyday and, to Jongin's surprise, no one questioned it.
He puts it to Taemin delicately that night without mentioning Jongdae or anything he'd told him.
Taemin glances sideways at him oddly before turning back to the TV. “Of course it’s me doing it. Who did you think it was?”
Jongin’s controller drops to his lap. Onscreen, Taemin's Pikachu delivers a punishing thunderbolt to poor Link.
“Okay, but listen,” Jongin says, so intensely that Taemin turns away from the screen to look at him. “What if you could use it. Like, as a job.” Taemin is looking at him like he's speaking a foreign language. Jongin takes a deep breath, reminds himself that he signed a confidentiality agreement that could land his ass in prison for a few decades if he isn't careful.
“Okay so. Imagine if you could use your weird dream thing to, like, do stuff. And then people would pay you money, for doing that stuff. Hypothetically speaking, would you want to, I don't know. Do that?”
Taemin looks at him for a few beats. “I haven't seen you this nervous since you asked out Jinri in tenth grade,” he mutters as he turns back to the screen. “But I worked my ass off to get into med. I wouldn't drop out for some,” then, in a terrible, high-pitched imitation of Jongin's voice, “hypothetical dream job.”
It just so happens that, as Taemin goes into his final year of study, one of the senior physicians at the agency retires. Jonghyun had told Jongin on his first day that often the hardest part of hiring new staff was telling them about what goes on at the agency without them running straight back out the door. So Jongin puts a word in to Soojung, who passes it upward, that there's an almost-doctor at a nearby university who's already aware of the existence of gifts.
A week later they pull Taemin in and give him the same talk they gave to Jongin when he was entering the agency. Taemin connects the dots after walking past someone wearing a ‘Bring I.T. on!’ polo in the foyer, and signs the contract.
“I can finally stop sneaking around,” Jongin says across the takeout covering the dining table. Taemin had moved into Jongin's agency subsidised apartment in his second year after deciding he'd rather live with Jongin than another random college student. He'd lasted two nights on the single bed in the spare room before moving his pillow next to Jongin's on the double bed and leaving it there.
Taemin is frowning down at his plate. “All the trips to I.T. conventions?”
Jongin grins. “I was probably running around in Europe somewhere. Getting into car chases and gunfights and other cool stuff.”
Taemin flinches like he's jerking awake. “Shit, I…” he pulls a hand through his hair, “sorry, it's just a lot to take in. I've never thought about you holding a gun before.”
The crease in the centre of Taemin's brow deepens. Jongin frowns. “Sorry. I wanted to tell you, but the--”
“Confidentiality agreement, I know,” Taemin finishes, taking a piece of pork from the containers between them. “I thought you had a mistress.”
Jongin chokes on his rice. Taemin laughs and stands up to get him a glass of water.
Taemin spends his final year of study coming to the agency in the evenings to observe the doctors already working, familiarising himself with the gifts of all the active agents and what it means for their physiology.
At the end of the year Taemin graduates from college and starts working full time at the agency. Jongin becomes used to seeing his best friend in the cafeteria every day, to zipping upstairs to annoy him when he gets breaks in training, to taking an exhausted Taemin's arm at the end of each day and tearing them through the air to land directly on top of their bed.
And then Taemin disappears and Jongin is left without gravity or orbit, a binary star with its partner torn away spinning aimlessly through empty space.
Jongin is in Taemin's bedroom at his parents’ house, cross legged on the floor. He runs a hand across the carpet, back and forth, the texture rough and familiar against his palm. The sky outside, though, is a violent shade of lilac. Jongin looks up.
Taemin is there, watching him from his perch on the bed. Jongin yearns to reach for him, but there's something in Taemin's face, in the tightness around his eyes and at the corners of his mouth, that warns him not to.
Instead, Jongin says, “You never were very good at skies.”
Taemin looks up to gaze out the window. “I guess not,” he says, smiling faintly. “You got back from America okay?”
“Yeah,” Jongin says, swallowing around the roughness in his throat.
Taemin smiles down at him, and Jongin wants to bottle this moment and drown in it forever. “Good. That's good.”
It's a dream, he knows, just a dream, but Jongin still feels like his heart is going to pound out of his chest with how close Taemin is. “Taem, what's going on?” spills out of him in a soft, desperate murmur.
“I…” Taemin falters, then tries again, “I didn't know what else to do.”
“Where are you? I'll come get you right now, it'll be okay--”
“Don't look for me,” Taemin says, and Jongin feels like someone is punching a hole through the center of his chest. “Don't look for me,” he repeats, like he can't quite believe he said it the first time, “I'll come back.”
“When?” Jongin asks plaintively.
“I don't know,” Taemin says, shaking his head slowly, “a year? Two? I really don't know.”
Two years. Jongin hasn't been without Taemin for more than two days since he was six years old, except for when he's out on assignment. “But why? Did I do something wrong?”
Taemin laughs, dry and humourless. “No, you didn't. You did the opposite.”
“I don't understand,” Jongin says, searching Taemin's face for answers. “What changed? We've always been like this.”
“But that's exactly it, Jongin. We changed. We aren't kids anymore.” Taemin takes a slow, shaky breath. “I just turned twenty-six. When my brother was this age he was already married with one baby, and another on the way.”
Jongin frowns. “You want a baby?”
“No, I just. I want something. And I keep giving and giving in the hope that maybe one day you'll--” Taemin looks like he's about cry. He never cries. Jongin's heart thudding against his ribcage so hard it aches. “And you don't. Even when you are around you've already got one foot out the door, and even then,” Taemin stares at him, and then in a whisper so soft Jongin barely hears it, “even then, it's still you. It's only ever been you.”
There's a realisation looming over Jongin like a dark cloud, just out of sight. The weight of its shadow feels familiar, like maybe it’s been there for a long, long time, waiting for him to look up. But Jongin is afraid, so he looks straight at Taemin instead. “So come home. Come home, please.”
“You don't understand,” Taemin whispers, shaking his head. His eyes are huge and impossibly sad and all Jongin can wonder is how Taemin became like this without him noticing.
“Then tell me,” Jongin says, “tell me what to do and I'll do it.”
“Okay,” Taemin says, “okay, then answer this. Do you love me?”
Jongin's mouth goes dry. “I…”
Taemin’s mouth curves into a tiny, heartbreaking smile. “And that's why I have to leave.” The pale blue of the walls behind Taemin begins to fade.
“Wait,” Jongin says, as outside the violet sky flashes like there's a thunderstorm, and freezes in a blinding shade of white. The furniture around them starts to scatter away in a silent breeze. “Wait!”
The floor falls away into white nothingness as Jongin crawls over to Taemin on his hands and knees. Taemin lets Jongin push into the space between his knees, to bury his face in his chest and breathe for a few, desperate moments.
“Don't go,” Jongin whispers, hands fisting at Taemin's sides in the soft fabric of his t-shirt.
Jongin feels Taemin's hand come up and rest at the back of his neck, his thumb tracing circles around the knobs of his spine, searing the skin. “I'm sorry,” he says, and the pressure of his shirt against Jongin’s cheek begins to fade. Jongin's throat constricts, and he sobs once, painfully, into the dissolving solidity of Taemin's chest. “Bye, Jongin,” Taemin whispers, and then Jongin's arms are closing around nothing.
For one heart-wrenching moment Jongin is suspended in pure white nothingness. And then he's tilting, falling through space faster and faster until he can barely breathe. He squeezes his eyes shut.
“Jongin, hey.” Jongin opens his eyes to an indistinct darkness, shadow on shadow. He closes them again. His eyelashes are damp where they touch his cheek.
“You were crying,” Soojung says softly. Jongin feels cold all over, except for the place where her hip is resting against his shoulder.
He opens his mouth to reply, but nothing comes out. His breath shudders when he draws it back in, and Soojung's fingertip slides damply across his skin when she swipes a thumb beneath his eye, rests her palm against his cheek.
“Come on,” she says, pulling Jongin to his feet by the elbow and leading him through the unfamiliar shadows of her apartment and into her bedroom.
Soojung’s breathing as she falls back asleep is too light to be of any comfort. But Jongin can feel the weight and warmth of another body on the other side of the bed, and that's enough to lull him into a restless sleep.
He does not dream.
The agency Christmas party is held annually at an estate far out of town. Lu Han tells Jongin that they used to do it in the city headquarters but one year a candle was knocked over and set a tablecloth alight, and a very drunk Junmyeon overcompensated by flooding the building with the equivalent of a dozen Olympic swimming pools of water.
Jongin offers his services to those who don't want to drive, and, after taking Taemin and depositing him next to an already flushed Yixing, he goes back to the front of the building in the city to take a dozen or so people across, one by one.
Sooyoung is there waiting for him when he appears in the dark city street for the last time. Her hair is very, very black and curls into ringlets at the ends, and her scarlet dress ripples around her knees in the stiff winter breeze. She's made something of a name for herself in the agency after her quick thinking saved the lives of half a dozen of their best agents during an ambush, throwing up a ring of super intense gravity around them all just as the first shot was fired, forcing the rest of the bullets harmlessly to the ground.
He holds out his arm and she steps toward him and takes it with a wordless smile. They land just outside the doors, and even here the hum of voices and the pounding of music are deafening. If the last few years have been any indication, then alcohol and superpowers are going to result in some serious chaos.
“Do you smell burning?” Jongin asks, and Sooyoung’s laugh cuts through the noise from inside like bells.
Inside it’s already begun. Sooyoung catches sight of her friend, a quiet girl named Joohyun, leans in close to shout thanks for the lift! in Jongin's ear, and then weaves away into the crowd.
Jongin meanders from room to room looking for Taemin, or at least a familiar face. He finds Jongdae, who's wearing reindeer antlers and seeing how much tinsel he can arrange on Lu Han’s head from behind before he notices. He slaps Jongin on the back when he sees him and pushes a cup of something into his hand.
Jongin still doesn't really like to drink, but the alcohol here is way better than the cheap warm beer at his high school graduation party, and so he finishes whatever is in the cup and lets Jongdae refill it.
After Lu Han discovers and dismantles his crown of tinsel, Jongdae drags Jongin toward the dance floor set up across the hall. Jongin catches sight of Taemin on the lower level from the balcony. He has a first aid kit open beside him, and is putting a dressing over a slice in someone's palm, looking heartbreakingly handsome in his tight dress slacks and bow tie, his hair swept up off his face. Jongin wonders why Yixing isn't downstairs fixing the cut, but then remembers the very intoxicated and vaguely Yixing-shaped blur that he'd seen attach itself to Lu Han in the other room a few minutes ago.
Taemin looks straight up at him, as though he can feel the weight Jongin's gaze. You ok? Jongin mouths, tilting his head. Taemin rolls his eyes and nods, and then Jongdae is pulling him away from the balcony and into a room so loud he can't even think.
Some time and more alcohol later he finds Soojung leaning against a wall, a flute of champagne balanced delicately between her fingertips. Her nails are burnt gold.
“Having fun?” she asks him, and Jongin nods, the room tilting on its axis.
Soojung laughs at him. She really is beautiful like this, her black dress hugging her waist and the half-light catching on the deep browns in her hair, the gold in her eyes. She leans in close to Jongin. “He's over there,” she says, indicating behind Jongin with a tilt of her head.
He turns to see Taemin by the door. He hasn't noticed Jongin yet. “Thanks,” Jongin slurs more than says, turning back to Soojung.
She rolls her eyes and nudges him in the direction of Taemin. “Go on, go.”
Taemin leans into Jongin immediately when he materialises at his side. “Hi,” he murmurs, turning his head into Jongin's shoulder. He's warm and pliant and a little drunk, and Jongin wraps both arms around him.
“Hi,” he whispers into the nape of Taemin's neck, and smiles when he shivers in his hold.
Taemin, as the only person on the medical team still coherent, gets called away to deal with another minor emergency, leaving Jongin alone.
Things start to get blurry then. He remembers only flashes; playing beer pong for a few rounds and losing all of them, Lu Han and Yixing making out aggressively on the floor in the middle of a room to raucous cheers, taking a gulp of something that tasted like drain cleaner straight from the bottle, a flash of Jongdae's Cheshire grin, and then everything grinds to a standstill and he's in a quiet corner of a dark, empty room and Sooyoung is staring up at him through her eyelashes.
“Jongin?” she says, reaching out to feel his forehead. “Are you alright? Do you need to go home?” He is cold but her hand is very warm.
“Me? Nah, I'm good.” Sooyoung's eyes are a dizzying, molten black. “I'm great.”
“Good,” Sooyoung says softly. Her lips are very, very red. Jongin can't stop staring, and then Sooyoung steps forward, rests her hands on his shoulders and kisses him.
She's smaller and softer and gentler than he's used to, but it all still feels pretty fucking great. He reaches up and finds that her waist fits perfectly between his palms, and she must like that because she presses forward and kisses him harder, her fingers clenching in the shoulders of his shirt.
The light flicks on abruptly. Jongin and Sooyoung break apart. “Oh, sorry,” comes a familiar voice. “I didn't realise there was anyone in here.” Soojung doesn't look very sorry. In fact, she looks furious. “Jongin, someone was just looking for you downstairs. I think it was important.”
“Oh.” He glances back at Sooyoung, who’s leaning against the wall looking disappointed.
“It's alright, go,” she says, waving him away with a smile, “I told Joohyun I'd find her around now anyway.”
Jongin follows Soojung out into the hallway, where she waits for a group of people to pass them before turning to Jongin and gripping his forearm hard.
“What was that about?” she asks in a low voice.
“That?” Jongin says, pointing back toward the room they'd just come from. “I was just… kissing Sooyoung?”
Soojung's eyes blaze. “And what about your boyfriend?”
“I don't have a boyfriend.” Jongin frowns. “Unless someone asked me out tonight and I said yes and then forgot about it, which would be very bad considering I'm not even--”
“What, Taemin's just a friend, is he?”
“A best friend,” Jongin corrects, and the look on Soojung's face shifts slightly, closes off. “We’re not together.”
There's a pause, then Soojung asks, so quietly Jongin almost doesn't hear it, “Does he know that?” Then she abruptly lets go of Jongin's arm and takes a step back before he can reply. “I guess I was wrong, I'm sorry. I think Sooyoung went downstairs if you want to find her.”
Then she's walking away down the corridor, high heels clicking against the wood. Jongin drifts back downstairs, dizzy and very confused by his conversation with Soojung. He can't find Taemin anywhere and his phone is going straight to voicemail, but he does see Sooyoung and Joohyun getting into a cab outside from a top floor window.
He’s starting to sober up and a steady pounding is taking root in his head. As he's crossing the main hall to get a cab of his own, because he doesn't want to misjudge and splice himself through a wall, he sees Soojung again. She's being caged up against a wall by Jongdae, both of her hands pressed up the front of his shirt. Jongin feels vaguely like that means something significant, but he's too tired and his head aches too much to think about it right now.
He gets home half an hour later, loses his balance as he kicks off his shoes in the doorway. He stumbles halfway to the bedroom when Taemin appears in the doorway in nothing but sweatpants.
“Oh,” he says softly, then comes forward to prop Jongin up so he can walk the rest of the way to the bedroom. “I didn't expect you to come home tonight.”
“You left,” Jongin accuses, tilting his head to look at Taemin. “Why'd you leave?”
“Dunno,” Taemin says. He'd probably shrug if Jongin’s weight wasn't slung across his back. “Got kinda tired.”
Later when they're in bed, blanketed in warm grey, Jongin rolls over to face Taemin and says, “I kissed a girl.”
“I know,” Taemin says. He looks very small like this, on his side with the blanket pulled up to his chin.
“Soojung got mad at me.”
Taemin hums. “Did she?”
“Yeah.” He wriggles forward until there's only a few inches between him and Taemin, then leans forward and presses their lips together. He rolls back to his side of the bed, grinning. “I liked that one better.”
Taemin’s heel finds Jongin's shin under the covers. “Go to sleep, you drunkard,” he says, but Jongin can hear the smile in his voice, a gentle source of light in the dark.
Jongin goes to see Yixing for his post-assignment physical a few days later.
“Everything's fine,” Yixing says, “you seem a little worn out, though. Are you sleeping okay?”
Jongin makes a face. “Not great,” he admits. He only stayed one night at Soojung's, but he still doesn't like to be in his own apartment, especially at night. Saying that he's sleeping might be a stretch-- mostly he just passes out for a few hours in a booth at a twenty-four hour diner until a waitress comes and shakes him awake.
“I'll increase your rest period to three weeks,” Yixing says, typing the changes into the computer on his desk. “When was your last psych evaluation?”
“I dunno,” Jongin says, stifling a yawn into his shoulder, “a couple months ago?”
“I won't book you for another one,” Yixing spins in his chair to face him, and eyes him sternly, “but if you don't start sleeping properly soon tell Soojung to book you one, okay?”
“Okay,” Jongin echoes.
Yixing nods, satisfied. “Alright, you can go.”
“Bye, Yixing,” Jongin says, then jumps straight back through to the training rooms because walking past the door to Taemin’s empty consult room makes his chest ache in all sorts of awful ways.
Jongin doesn't sleep but also doesn't tell Soojung, and three weeks later he's sent on an assignment with an agent named Baekhyun. He's half a head shorter than Jongin, almost as good a marksman and can light up his body like a tiny, fallen star at will. He's an agent, though, for his uncanny ability to talk his way into absolutely anything, from a drug lord’s apartment to Buckingham palace.
It's just as well, because they're being sent to negotiate with one of the gangs that rule Seoul’s underworld. Jongin’s only there for extra protection and as an escape plan in case things go pear-shaped.
They don't, not until Jongin zones out for a moment while Baekhyun is working his magic. He hadn't slept well the night before. The waitresses at all his regular haunts are starting to recognise him and kick him out before he gets a chance to sleep.
A guy in the corner of the room shifts his weight, and at the edge of his vision, to Jongin's sleep deprived eyes, it looks like he's reaching for the pistol at his waist. Jongin snaps out of his trance, seizes Baekhyun by the arm, and then they're falling in a heap onto the rug in the middle of Soojung's office.
“What the hell, man?” Baekhyun says, shooting to his feet. “I almost had them, they weren't gonna try anything!”
Soojung picks up her phone, murmurs into it, “Joohyun? Damage control, my office.”
Jongin does get that psych evaluation after all, and comes out with a bottle of sleeping pills and an order confining him to the training rooms until further notice.
In his first few years as an agent Jongin works mostly domestically, sometimes in China, and he gains himself something of a reputation in the criminal underworld. The Shadow, they call him, and stories of him materialising to pass judgement on criminals and dodging bullets spread across the continent. Jongin thinks it's all kind of cool because it makes him sound like a superhero, when his bullet-dodging abilities are really from spending countless hours in the training rooms with Lu Han pelting ping pong balls at him.
Until suddenly having a reputation backfires on him. Jongin is in Shanghai, running from some very angry triad members. He hasn't been shot yet, but he has a deep cut across one of his thighs from a run in with some broken glass.
Unfortunately for him, this particular facility is mostly underground. Early in his training the research department had pulled him in to test the limitations of his ability. They'd reported back that, in high amounts, certain substances would block his attempts at teleportation. Some countries are better than others; something to do with the composition of minerals in the earth, Kyungsoo had explained. Jongin hadn't really understood anything beyond you can't teleport underground in China, the Middle East and most of Russia.
So Jongin is left to find an escape route the old fashioned way, with a pistol in one hand and the other clutching the gash in his thigh. Jongin fights his way to the ground level of the building. He'd appeared in this room first, on his way down to the lower levels. A guard had spotted him as he'd slipped into the stairwell and, instead of firing at him, used the butt of his gun to break the safety glass and pull the lever that triggered the fire sprinklers. Jongin thought it was odd, but then he was descending down the stairs into more immediate danger, and he didn't spare it any more thought.
Somewhere other than the agency must have a gift research facility though, because it turns out that the same minerals that block Jongin's ability underground can be used to make a non-volatile, non-corrosive solution. Jongin doesn't know this, though, as he stumbles up the stairs, his throbbing leg making him trip up the final step, one hand landing in a puddle left from the fire sprinklers.
He hears a shot fire, and twists away into space. The mineral solution, if given a few moments, is absorbed through the first few layers of skin, making them unable to teleport.
Jongin lands in the middle of Soojung's office, and then screams, clutching his right wrist. The hand above it is crimson and dripping. Soojung loses her composure for the first time in the all the years Jongin's known her, gasping and shooting to her feet, the chair falling over behind her. Jongin, delirious with pain, rips himself away again.
One afternoon, few months into Jongin’s training, Lu Han had drawn a big X on the floor in chalk on one side of the room, and told Jongin, on the opposite side, to teleport directly onto it.
He was unbuckling the strap of his watch and sliding it off his wrist as he'd said it, but it didn't seem like the two things could possibly be related, so Jongin did as he'd said. In the split second before he landed, he had this inexplicable sense of wrongness, of all-consuming dread. He reflexively jolted himself backward a few inches. He materialised standing half a step behind the X, Lu Han’s watch hovering in the air between his eyes.
“What the fuck?” he spluttered, as the watch floated through the air back to Lu Han. “Are you kidding me? I could've died!”
“I knew you wouldn't,” Lu Han said calmly, buckling his watch back onto his wrist. He held it up with a grin. “If I thought you couldn't do it then I wouldn't have used my Rolex.”
Jongin crouched down, burying his head in his hands. “Okay,” he said, his heart thundering, “okay, was there a point to this other than you indulging your need to attempt homicide without actually getting arrested?”
“I'm glad you asked!” Lu Han said cheerfully. “You just learned a very valuable lesson.”
Jongin looked up. “Is it to never do anything you tell me to ever again?”
Lu Han frowned. “No,” he said, walking over to sit opposite Jongin, “it's that you have instincts, and they're trying to protect you.” He nudged Jongin with his foot. “Trust them.”
And it's instinct that makes Jongin, bleeding out through his hand, tear himself out of Soojung's office and directly into Taemin's consult room. In his right mind he would've gone next door to Yixing, but Jongin is terrified and confused and incoherent with pain, and the same instincts that saved him from having Lu Han's watch embedded in his skull draw him to Taemin instead, tell him that something is very wrong and Taemin will be able to make it okay.
Yixing comes in a few seconds later anyway to investigate the sound of screaming. He's able to stem the bleeding, but Jongin's hand is still missing a lot of skin, and Yixing can only do so much.
After a raw, painful, frustrating few months of protective casts and bandages and learning to shoot with his left hand, the skin is heals. Jongin will bear the scars forever though, the surface of his hand red and angry and mottled. He takes to wearing a glove at work and around the house, only taking it off to shower.
Only after several months of Taemin pulling it off every time they have sex to press a reverent kiss to each one of his scarred fingertips, to the center of his palm, does he stop wearing it.
The first time it happens is an accident. Jongin is beyond exhausted, and by his reckoning he has one good teleport left in him. He uses it to jump through to the safest place he can think of, Soojung's lounge room, and collapses onto the sofa. He's sitting there, working up the courage to go and ask her if he can stay overnight, when suddenly there's sunlight on his eyelids and traffic sounds drifting up from the street below. It's the best Jongin's slept in months.
Even after that he only does it a last resort, when he has no place else to go and he feels like he's going to collapse from fatigue. He could stop being a creep, come clean and ask Soojung to disable the alarms in her office at night so he can sleep on the couch in there, but Jongin thinks it's probably her steady presence in the next room over that lulls him to sleep as much as it is the couch beneath him.
One night, as he sits with his back against the foot of the sofa, Soojung appears, silent and wraith-like, at the threshold of the room. Jongin waits for her to ask him what the hell he’s doing, to tell him to go back to his own apartment and sleep in his own bedroom like an adult. Instead, she pads over silently and sits down next to him.
He glances at her out of the corner of his eye. She's wearing a t-shirt about four sizes too big and her hair is pulled up into a lopsided ponytail. Her half-lit profile looks like something out of an art exhibition.
When a younger Jongin imagined himself at age twenty-five, he probably imagined it just like this; living in a nice apartment in the city, with an awesome job, and in love with a smart, kind, beautiful woman like Soojung.
A car drives by on the street below and the headlights ricochet white light into the room, shattering the illusion. Soojung is his handler of eight years and not his girlfriend, and he's on probation at his job, and this isn't his apartment, and he's still in love with--
“Why are you doing all this for me?” Jongin asks her, the deep blue light streaming in from the window swallowing his words whole. “Why do you care so much?”
Soojung looks at her lap for a long time before answering. Her nails are sky blue. Finally, she looks back up at Jongin and, in the softest voice, says, “Don't you know?”
And maybe, Jongin thinks, he does. Maybe he always has. Maybe, as she looks up at him, raw emotion in her dark eyes, he almost falls in love with her too, right there on the floor of her lounge room. Maybe not for the first time.
“Just once, can I…” She pushes up onto her knees and stares at him, lower lip caught between her teeth. Jongin knows what she's going to do before she does it, and he doesn't stop her.
She leans forward and kisses him. A strand of her hair whispers across his cheek and her lips are so, so soft, and a part of Jongin aches to pull her closer, to kiss her back. He doesn't, though, and after a moment she pulls away, the smallest, saddest smile on her face.
“I'm sorry,” Jongin says, and he means it. She's his closest friend in the world aside from Taemin, and he'd do anything in his power to make her happy. But he couldn't lie to her.
Soojung shakes her head gently. “It's okay. I didn't expect…” Her shoulders heave up and down, but when she looks up at Jongin her eyes are dry, and there's a brave little smile on her face. She gets to her feet. “Sleep here whenever you like,” she says as she turns away. Her voice is trembling and Jongin wants to go after her, but has the distinct feeling that if he does she might never speak to him again, so he watches in silence as she goes back to her bedroom and closes the door.
The last time Jongin comes back from a mission before Taemin disappears, he's not hurt, but he's not okay.
“Can we not--” he begs, and Soojung looks up at him sharply. “I can't right now, I need to-- I just, I need.”
Soojung takes in his wild eyes and tense muscles, taps at her keyboard for a few moments and says, “He's in between patients right now. Go.”
He’s upstairs and in Taemin's arms in the next instant. Taemin laughs in surprise, and Jongin shudders, melts into his body, relaxes for the first time in months.
“That bad?” Taemin asks, and Jongin nods minutely. Taemin pulls back to look at him, swipes a thumb over the dark circles beneath his eyes. “Look at you,” he murmurs, “you're exhausted.” Jongin burrows back into Taemin's warmth and Taemin lets him, swaying them gently from side to side. “Go home and rest,” he says, “I'll be back tonight.”
Jongin stays awake long enough to shower before he collapses into bed, unconscious in seconds. When he wakes up it’s evening and Taemin is leaning over him.
He brushes Jongin's hair back from his face, the most tender look in his eyes. Jongin wrenches himself upright and drags their mouths together. Taemin laughs into the kiss but doesn't pull away, only follows Jongin when he relaxes back into the pillows.
“More,” Jongin gasps into the kiss, and Taemin swings one leg across Jongin's hips to so that his weight is balanced across his thighs. Jongin clutches onto Taemin's belt loops. “More,” he begs, and Taemin gets it, pulls away with a soft oh to look Jongin in the eye.
“So soon?” Taemin asks, cupping Jongin's cheek to make him focus, his thumb skimming along the jut of his cheekbone.
“Please,” Jongin whispers, body almost vibrating with need.
“It's okay, you're okay,” Taemin says, climbing off him, “I've got you.”
On assignments that are particularly long or particularly dangerous, Jongin falls into an odd state of hyperawareness, sometimes for months at a time. It's a defence mechanism, and it's saved his life on more than one occasion, but even once he's home and safe he often can't fall out of it for weeks, constantly on edge.
One of the quickest, easiest, and frankly most enjoyable ways to fix it is to let Taemin order him around for a bit, tie him up, and then fuck him. Something about the steadiness of his voice and the feel of his hands feel smoothing over Jongin's skin convinces him that he's truly, completely safe in a way that he can never quite convince himself of.
Jongin lies boneless against Taemin's bare chest when it's done, Taemin's fingertips tracing patterns over his back, keeping him grounded.
“You alright?” Taemin asks, his voice reverberating through his chest and enveloping Jongin completely. His eyes flutter closed.
“Mmm. Yeah,” he says, and Taemin squeezes him gently around the shoulders for a moment.
“Are you sure it's worth it?” Taemin asks. His fingers are combing through Jongin's hair now, and it's making it very hard to concentrate. “Getting yourself all worked up like that.”
“I like it,” he says, pushing his head up into Taemin's hand like an oversized house cat. “Not feeling like that, but.” He yawns loudly. “I like going out on assignment. Feeling useful. Doing things that nobody else can.”
Taemin's hand falters for a moment, then resumes its steady drag through the strands of Jongin’s hair. “You're good at a lot of things,” he says, and Jongin can hear the frown in his voice.
Jongin huffs a laugh into the skin of his chest. “Name one. And don't say dancing. We both know you've always been the better dancer.”
Taemin goes silent for a long time. “You're probably the best person I've ever met,” he says finally, but Jongin, curled into his side, is already fast asleep.
In the beginning, when Jongin is twelve and first learning to tear his body apart and put it back together somewhere else, he gets awful, searing pains running like live wires through his entire body.
“They're just growing pains,” Taemin tells him, when Jongin appears and slides into the bed next to him, fists clenched tight enough to draw blood so that he won't cry out. “Like, you know when you have a growth spurt or use a new muscle? And for a few days it hurts. It hurts so bad you wanna die, but then it goes away and you're even stronger than before.”
And Taemin's right. By the end of the week the pain is gone.
Jongin still doesn't have his license, but he does have a bus card for the first time in his life. He uses it to travel the three stops to the dance school he and Taemin went to all throughout their school years. Jongin stopped when he started heading out on assignment too often to commit to a weekly class, but Taemin was still going right up until he left in the summer.
Oh Sehun, a former classmate of theirs turned instructor, is at reception when Jongin pushes through the double doors, the bitter winter following him in.
“Hey stranger,” Sehun says, his face splitting into a grin when he sees Jongin, “what brings you here?”
Jongin shrugs, stuffs his hands into his coat. “Nothing in particular. I was in the area.”
“How's Taemin doing?” Sehun asks, and that stings a little, but not enough to keep him up at night.
“He's doing good,” Jongin says. The heating in here is turned up high, and he unwraps his scarf and lets it hang from his shoulders.
“Can I interest you in some classes?” Sehun asks, raising an eyebrow. “We’re taking sign-ups for next year at the moment.”
“Maybe,” Jongin says, leaning over the counter to look at the schedule in front of Sehun, “what've you got?”
“Advanced hip hop?” Sehun suggests, and Jongin hums in contemplation. “Come on, do it. It'll be really fun, I promise. It starts in,” he peers around Jongin to look at the clock on the wall, “an hour and a half. I'll lend you clothes, and we can get dinner together first. I haven't seen you in forever.”
Sehun is looking at him with enormous, pleading eyes, and Jongin laughs and relents, filling out the sign-up sheet Sehun slides across the counter to him accompanied by a subtle fist-pump.
The next morning, he goes up to see Soojung before heading down to the training rooms. He knocks on the doorframe with his knuckles, and she pales like she's seen a ghost when she looks up to see him standing there.
“What happened to just,” she gestures wildly with her hands, “appearing, like you have been for the past, you know, decade.”
Jongin smiles as he goes and sits down in the chair opposite her. “I don't know. Just thought I might try something different.”
Soojung looks at him contemplatively, head tilted to one, like he's said something surprising. “Huh. Good for you.”
“Yeah,” he says, “I think it will be.”
She clicks her pen and sets it aside. “What can I do for you?”
“I’ve been thinking,” he begins, “that maybe you should stop giving me assignments.”
Soojung's mouth drops open. “Well, you're full of surprises this morning, aren't you? What do you want to do instead?”
“I have a few ideas,” Jongin says, and Soojung laughs.
“Mysterious,” she says, turning to her keyboard, “I'll set us up a meeting with one of the strategists.”
“That would be great,” he says, “and Soojung?”
“I'm sorry.” Her hands still over the keyboard, and she turns her full attention to him. “I was selfish and I let myself hurt you, and I'm really, really sorry.”
“You know what?” she says, turning back to the computer with a faint smile on her face. “You're forgiven. I think it worked out better for the both of us.”
Jongin thinks she's probably right. Jongdae's been whistling an awful lot in the practice rooms lately, but he's not going to try his luck by bringing that up with Soojung just yet.
A few days into the new year, Jongin meets a guy named Myungsoo at the dance studio, where he's picking up a friend. Jongin is rediscovering the joy of dancing, of moving his limbs using his muscles instead of his mind. He's always in a good mood after class, and he often ends up chatting to Myungsoo in the foyer while he's waiting for Sehun to lock up. They find that they’re into all the same things, and Jongin likes the soft murmur of Myungsoo’s voice, the way his entire face lights up when he smiles. They exchange numbers, and Myungsoo texts him to invite him to a movie that weekend.
As they're heading into the cinema, Jongin clutching a bucket of popcorn twice the size of his head against his chest, Myungsoo looks up at him and says “Sorry to be kind of blunt, but I've gotta know if I'm reading this right or not. You're into guys, right?”
Jongin doesn't freeze, like he might've a few months ago. Instead, he just nods slowly. “Something like that.”
Myungsoo tilts his head and squints at him. “But you're already in love with somebody, aren't you?”
Jongin looks down, and unbidden smile tilting the corners of his mouth. “Yeah, I am.”
“Dude, good for you.” Myungsoo pats him on the back, grinning. “Friends, right?”
“Yeah,” Jongin says, as they take their seats. He places the popcorn on the armrest, midway between them. “Definitely.”
A few weeks later Jongin goes home to his parents’ house for Seollal. They ask about his job and he dredges up some nonsensical I.T. jargon from the recesses of his mind, disguising a laugh as a cough when everyone at the table buys it without the slightest suspicion.
“How's Taemin doing?” his mom asks as he helps her clear the table. “Any word on when he’ll be back yet?”
“Not yet,” Jongin says, “but he's doing good. Really, really good.”
“You should invite him over for dinner, when he’s back. He used to be here every day when you were kids, but it's been years since I've seen him.”
The photos of his sister and her husband on their wedding day are smiling down at them from the mantelpiece, but they don’t fill Jongin with the same kind of slow-burning dread as they used to.
“Maybe I'll ask him,” he says vaguely, and she reaches up and ruffles his hair with a fond smile.
Just like Taemin had told him it would all those years ago, the pain goes away. He sleeps in his own bed and walks to work in the mornings and goes to dance with Sehun and it doesn't hurt. He trains in the practice rooms and goes into Yixing’s consult room using the door and meets up with Myungsoo or Jongdae or Lu Han after work, and it doesn't hurt.
Pain dims into nothing eventually, but there are some things that don't fade quite so easily.
Which is why when Taemin turns up on his doorstep one evening, fifteen months after he left, looking cold and uncertain, Jongin’s face splits into a wide, wide smile before he can stop it.
“Hi,” Jongin says, and Taemin smiles back tentatively, but there's warmth hidden a little below the surface, just like in the Autumn at his back.
“Hey,” he says, and Jongin's smile grows at the sound of his voice.
“Do you want to come in?”
Taemin shivers where he's standing. “Yes, please.”
A little later, sitting on the sofa with a mug of tea clutched between his hands, Taemin says, “It was really rewarding. A once in a lifetime experience, but…”
“It wasn't home?”
Taemin looks up. “Yeah,” he says, “exactly.” They stare at each other for one suspended moment, steam fogging in the space between them. Taemin looks away first, taking a sip of his tea. “I resigned from the agency.”
Jongin sits down opposite him on the couch. “Really?”
“Yeah,” Taemin echoes, “it was too much action for me. I got a job at a clinic a few stops away, starting next week.”
“That's really great.” Jongin can't seem to stop smiling.
Taemin's no longer shivering. “How are things going at the agency for you?”
“It's good. I'm not going on assignments anymore.”
Taemin looks up at him curiously. “Really?”
“Mmm, I mostly do assistance stuff now. Getting equipment to agents in remote locations, communications, emergency extractions. That kind of thing.”
“That sounds… like something you'd be really good at.”
“I am. I'm around a lot more often, too.” Jongin's cheekbones are starting to ache. “It's nice.”
Taemin stares at him for a few seconds, a contemplative smile on his face. “You've changed a lot since I left.”
“A lot of people have been telling me that,” Jongin says, “but honestly? I think I just grew up.” Taemin is nodding slowly, like he's thinking it over. “I'm sorry, for what it's worth. I was cruel to you for a really long time, and too selfish to realise what I was doing until it was too late. You didn't deserve it.”
Taemin is looking at Jongin with something that might be pride written across his face. “You really have grown up, haven't you?”
“I think so,” he says. Taemin's skin is a lot more golden than it was when he left. Something about the way he looks sitting on the couch in a worn college sweatshirt, black hair wind-tossed and stubble dotting his jaw, with the cold autumn skyline stretching out behind him, is enough to take Jongin's breath away. If he had to put it in words, he'd say that Taemin looks a lot like forever. “Where are you staying?”
Taemin sets his mug aside. “At a hostel down the road. I wasn't sure if you'd want me to--”
“I do,” Jongin says, “I really, really do.”
Taemin's breath catches. “Are you sure?”
“Yes,” Jongin says, leaning forward, “anything. Roommates, friends,” Taemin's eyes widen, “more than friends. Whatever you want.”
It's Taemin who reaches across the gap for Jongin's hand first. Taemin's palm slides across his, warm and dry, and then their fingers interlock, holding them both firmly in place.
As Jongin looks down at their joined hands, he thinks faintly that twelve-year-old Taemin was right about this part too. When the pain stops and he finishes growing, he comes out stronger than he was before.
“How about,” Taemin starts, looking at Jongin with the smallest, warmest smile on his face, “we start here,” he squeezes Jongin’s hand in his own, “and see where it goes?”
Jongin's heart feels so full it might burst. “That sounds perfect,” he says. And even though he could be anywhere in the world right now, there's nowhere Jongin wants to be more than right here, next to Taemin.