Word count: 2,590
Pairing: Onew/Taemin (SHINee)
Summary: Is the past something you can simply erase and rewind? AU.
He caught Taemin at an opportune moment. He must’ve planned it, Taemin thought, planned it to the last detail. He was a plotter, that one. He used to make elaborate plans for a trip over a long weekend, for Taemin’s birthday party, even for a simple night out together.
It was indeed a favorable moment for him, exactly because it was a vulnerable moment for Taemin. It was Sunday, and Taemin had just got out of the dance company’s studio after a brief practice session. Yes, Taemin practiced even on Sundays. Never for too long, just enough to stretch his muscles and reach that sense of harmony, that feeling he needed to feel everyday of being one with the rhythm, with the melody.
He would finish in the afternoon and then head out aimlessly, stopping at a random café or store at a whim, spending a few idle hours before going home. But today Taemin stepped out of the studio only to catch sight of that man, leaning against the side of the building.
The man looked a little thinner than the last time Taemin had seen him, nearly two years ago. His hair was a little shorter, but parted the same way. The man’s gaze shifted to Taemin’s direction, and their eyes met.
The words slipped out of Taemin’s mouth involuntarily. It felt like forever since he’d said them. His friends avoided saying Jinki’s name directly in front of him. The last time Wonshik had accidentally mentioned it, he and Jongin had glanced at a blank-faced Taemin and each other in uncomfortable silence before immediately steering the conversation to safer territory.
There was no safe territory here, not right now. Taemin was faced with a variety of options: should he walk away and ignore Jinki altogether? Talk to him and find out why he was here? Dismiss him whatever that reason was?
But then Jinki did the one thing that always got to Taemin, that singular Jinki-ish thing. He smiled, with his lips and his eyes and his entire face.
“Hi, Taemin.” Jinki approached him, stopping at polite distance. Taemin almost wished the man had come closer if only so he could push him away. “How are you?”
“Fine,” Taemin said, the sort of faux-casual reply people throw out when they were feeling exactly the opposite. “How about you?”
“I’m good. It’s great to see you.”
The smile never left Jinki’s face the whole time he was speaking. That unassumingly brilliant smile which made you believe you were unbelievably lucky to be the reason behind it. Taemin used to feel that way multiple times a day.
“Such a coincidence, meeting you here,” Taemin said. That was a lie and they both knew it. The older man had clearly been waiting for him.
A trace of insecurity slipped through Jinki’s unwavering smile. “I was wondering if we could go somewhere to talk for a bit, if you don’t mind. If you don’t have other plans, that is.”
But of course Taemin didn’t. His vague plan for Sunday afternoons was to stroll around without any specific destination. Now, with the ghost of his past in front of him, he felt particularly aimless. A man with no purpose, no direction.
Besides, what could Jinki possibly want to talk about? Back then they’d spent endless hours talking, arguing, fighting, without being able to reach a meeting point. It felt like they’d exhausted all the words they could say to each other.
In fact, they’d barely spoken the last time they met, except for a few specific words from Jinki that crawled under Taemin’s skin, sank into the marrow of his bones.
Yet he really did have nowhere else to go, the rest of the afternoon stretching out in front of him. Jinki couldn’t have picked a better moment. And Taemin couldn’t deny that Jinki’s sudden appearance kindled a tiny spark of curiosity inside him. A spark that asked, How have you been doing?
Or to be entirely truthful, How have you been doing without me?
He shrugged. “Sure.”
It didn’t seem possible for Jinki’s grin to grow even more radiant, but it did when he heard Taemin’s reply.
Jinki asked Taemin to choose the café, and Taemin picked one he didn’t feel too strongly about one way or the other. His simple reason was for insurance — so that if this meeting ended in a sour note, he wouldn’t be sorry to have to avoid the place in the future.
That said, though, the café was a pretty cozy place. Not too crowded that you couldn’t relax, but not so deserted that you couldn’t people-watch, which was one of Taemin’s favorite Sunday afternoon pastimes.
Instead of Taemin, today Jinki was the one doing the people-watching. No, person-watching. Only one person held his attention: he was only looking at Taemin.
It wasn’t a piercing stare, the kind that made you feel awkward under its spotlight. It was calm, subdued, like the faint scent of a perfume that hung in the air long after the person wearing it had left. Taemin could almost believe the gaze was supposed to mean something.
Something like: It’s been a long time.
Or even: I’ve missed you.
Stop being such an idiot, Taemin thought.
At first they discussed recent news about their mutual friends. A harmless topic. Although to think about it, the main reason they could talk about those friends now was because most of them at some point had been forced to choose between Team Taemin or Team Jinki. Taemin hadn’t kept up with how the other team was doing, and vice versa.
“Also, Kibum got a new baby,” Jinki said.
Jinki chuckled. “Don’t be so surprised. I meant a new dog.”
“Oh.” Taemin tilted his head. “Well, that makes more sense.”
Their designer friend Kibum (who, among a few other blessed souls, had for some time tried to remain neutral and stayed friends with both of them, although it was hard to maintain in the end) indeed used baby talk with his tiny dogs. That somehow made Taemin thought of something that was markedly less pleasant than Kibum’s pups.
Maybe Jinki had a baby too. It had been two years, surely it was only natural, right?
It was then that Taemin’s eyes strayed to Jinki’s hand on the table. His fingers were bare. Ringless.
Having poured his attention on Taemin and only occasionally on his cappuccino, Jinki quickly noticed where Taemin was looking. “I sold my wedding ring,” he said.
Taemin lifted his gaze. “You sold it?”
“After I got divorced.” Jinki’s smile was muted, but not regretful. “I needed money to get back on my feet.”
He then told Taemin he’d filed for divorce five months ago, and had been swiftly dismissed from his job. Not surprising since he’d been working at a company jointly owned by his father and (apparently now former) father-in-law.
Two years ago, in order to expand the family business, Jinki’s father had embarked on a joint venture with a partner, wrapped up with the holy union between Jinki and the partner’s daughter. Being the filial son that he was, Jinki had reluctantly agreed to the match after much struggle. A total makjang, Kibum had commented back then.
In every makjang drama, the leading male character would have a lover he had to break up with due to his family’s pressure. That had been Taemin’s role: the jilted lover.
It hadn’t been an easy decision for Jinki, Taemin understood that. Jinki hadn’t done it for the career boost or the money, but because he hadn’t been able to refuse his parents’ wishes. His weren’t the kind of family that would welcome a gay son and his boyfriend with open arms.
Yet Taemin had thought that Jinki would choose him no matter what, that they’d stay together while they worked something out. But Jinki hadn’t chosen him.
“By the way, congratulations,” said Jinki.
“For being promoted to principal dancer at the company.” Jinki beamed. “I knew you’d make it.”
This was true. He remembered how Jinki had been the one who’d cheered him up whenever he’d complained that the dance company had been overlooking him, that he’d be too old by the time they realized he was worth it. Jinki had been there to pick him up after rehearsals, to spoil him with a foot massage before getting him to bed and spoiling the rest of his body.
Jinki had always known where to touch. Wherever Taemin had been sore, Jinki could kiss it better.
Taemin averted his eyes, afraid Jinki would read what he was thinking.
“You were probably nervous the first time you performed as the principal, but I thought you did wonderful,” Jinki went on. “Like you were born to take center stage.”
“You... you saw my first performance?”
Jinki shrugged. “And a few others.”
“Just a few. Maybe four.” He let out an embarrassed laugh, but then his voice grew softer. “Anyway, what I’m trying to say is I’m proud of you, Taemin.”
Unsure how to react to that, Taemin finally decided to do what felt natural: accept it. “Thank you, hyung,” he replied quietly.
For a moment it looked like Jinki was going to reach out to hold Taemin’s hand, but he hesitated and drew back at the last second.
Jinki shared some more tidbits about his new life as they walked through the neighborhood after leaving the café. He’d moved to a small apartment and joined a friend’s fledgling online business, having been practically disowned by his family.
“It’s hard having my parents not talking to me, especially my mother,” he said. “But it feels liberating at the same time.”
They stopped in front of the steps to Taemin’s apartment. Jinki turned to face Taemin, his gentle smile completely gone. “Taemin, I need to apologize to you.”
Taemin didn’t reply. Jinki had offered too many apologies in the past, what was the use of another one?
“With all the changes happening in my life, I feel like I’ve been given a second shot. A do-over.” Jinki took a deep, steadying breath. “I’ve made a terrible mistake. I thought that by making my parents happy I’d be happy too, but I was wrong. I had to live knowing I’d hurt you and you might never forgive me.”
“But,” he added, his tone hopeful, “if there’s even the slightest bit of possibility... if you’d allow me another chance—”
At some point Taemin had sensed that this was what the whole afternoon had been leading to. Jinki had emerged out of nowhere and announced he’d had a divorce. He was a free agent now, what else could he want? Yet what Taemin felt bubbling inside him wasn’t hope or joy but rage, spilling out and overtaking him.
“You think it’s that simple?” His words were quiet at first, solemn but sharp-edged. “Like you can just begin again as if nothing ever happened?”
Taken aback, Jinki shook his head. “That’s not what I...”
“You said you were unhappy? Then how do you think I was doing after you ditched me?” Jinki couldn’t possibly know how miserable he felt for months, how the only thing that could make him pick himself up was work, dancing until his feet were numb and he couldn’t move.
Jinki’s face was turning pale. He edged closer, a hand outstretched. “Tae, I know—”
Taemin took a step back. “Don’t call me that,” he spat out.
Jinki looked as though Taemin had full-on slapped him.
“If you think the past is something you can simply erase and rewind, you’re wrong.” Taemin spun and sprinted up the steps to his building, unable to face Jinki anymore.
He entered the double glass doors and rushed into the elevator, feeling short of breath. His face burned and his chest was pounding. As he reached the door to his place, he suddenly felt weak and his legs almost gave way under him. He grabbed the handle to steady himself, hot forehead leaning against the door.
Tae, he heard the nickname echoing in his mind, spoken by the only person who’d ever used it.
What would I do without you, Tae? Jinki had whispered to him, their hands inside each other’s coat pockets, their breaths clouds of white on that winter evening.
And then their last night together, inside this very apartment. First on the floor with their clothes still half on, before moving to the bed. They’d focused on leaving invisible, indelible marks on each other’s skin. Communicating through caresses, no spot left untouched, unexplored, unkissed. Few words had been exchanged between them; there hadn’t been much left to say.
Except near the end, Jinki burying his face in Taemin’s neck and croaking out, I love you so much, Tae. No one but you.
All this time Taemin had kept the words inside him, even after trying to convince himself he’d put the past behind. But the past was past. The future, on the other hand, was wide open. Now it was his choice whether to take another shot at happiness, or hold on to resentment and pride.
And if the latter, for what? To settle some scores? To make sure Jinki was hurt as much as he had been? Hadn’t they both had enough pain?
Don’t they both deserve a second try?
The strength that had nearly left Taemin came back in a rush, and he turned around on his heels to go back downstairs.
Down at the lobby, he couldn’t see anyone outside through the glass doors. But as he descended the steps in front of the building, he let out a sharp breath of relief. Jinki was still there. Sitting at the bottom of the steps, head in his hands.
Jinki lifted his head and stood up when he heard Taemin approaching. Anyone else probably wouldn’t have noticed that his eyelashes were wet, but Taemin did.
“I’m sorry, Taemin.” Jinki’s lips were trembling slightly. “I know I don’t have much else to offer. I’m just really sorry.”
“It’s not that easy to start over, hyung.”
Crestfallen, Jinki nodded, hanging his head. His Adam’s apple bobbed as he swallowed. Watching him now, Taemin thought he could picture it in his mind: the events of the past few months.
Jinki abandoning the security of his family, his house, his job. Starting anew with no certainty that any of it would work. Going through old pictures of himself with Taemin, mementos of their time together, little trinkets that he hadn’t had the heart to throw away.
Looking up news about the dance company, checking out its website for performance schedules. Watching Taemin shine up there on stage, Jinki himself hidden among the crowd, not daring to come up to Taemin after the shows or send him congratulatory flowers.
Finally mustering up the courage to go and meet Taemin, vacillating on what to say, how to say it. Cradling a small, feeble hope that Taemin might accept his apology, give them both another chance.
“One chance,” Taemin said.
Jinki glanced up at those words, a blend of expressions on his face.
Taemin’s voice was a bit shaky despite his best efforts. “But if you ever mess it up again...”
Jinki went over and put his fingers against Taemin’s lips. He let them linger there for a moment before replacing it with his own tender lips. They moved closer together instinctively, chest to chest as Jinki’s whisper against Taemin’s mouth sealed his promise.