Title: just overwhelm me
Word count: ~10,000 words
Warnings: mentions of an injury, some tweaks to canon facts, quickly beta-ed.
Summary: There are many myths surrounding SM Entertainment. Jongin is pretty sure this boy who moves like water isn't one of them.
Author's Note: dearest recipient, thank you so much for the wonderful prompts! they were so fun to work with. i hope you enjoy this! many thanks to the mod who has been nothing but understanding and so accommodating ♥
The second, not now, not this early. He pushes himself up, hands on his knees, and tries to wear his best smile.
It's been three days since he's last been to the clinic, three weeks since he won first place in the SM Youth Best Contest. He only started training with SM two weeks ago and yet he's seen the doctor here more times than he's seen his relatives in two years. "Some people don't even last a week," he remembers one of his fellow trainees saying. He was lying flat on his back in the practice room then. "And then there are those who stay here for a really long time."
"Kim Junsu-hyung. Lee Hyukjae-hyung." His fellow trainee took a deep breath, then gulped hard. "Me."
Jongin remembers blinking twice and giving him a slow, curt nod. He hadn't said anything after than and ate with his fellow trainee in silence.
Fast forward two weeks later and here he is, seeking medical advice from Dr. Jung again. "If you don't want to end your career this early then I suggest taking things slowly, Jongin," he says. He lifts the back of Jongin's shirt and places menthol patches on either side of his spine. "Hard work can ruin you sometimes, did you know?"
"It's the only way to get ahead, sonsaengnim," Jongin mumbles. When Dr. Jung doesn't respond and the cool sensation of Dr. Jung's hands on his skin wanes, he looks up. "You can't always play safe in a cut-throat world like this."
Dr. Jung heaves a sigh. He sticks two more menthol patches to Jongin's lower back, then sends him home. Jongin doesn't. Instead, he spends three more hours past the required eight, tries perfecting the pirouette they were taught earlier, and nails it on the last try. He wakes up feeling fine and dandy the following day – no back aches, no sore limbs and napes – and proceeds with his practice schedule as planned. When Joonmyun, one of the trainees he met on his first day, seeks him for guidance on a particular routine, he says 'yes' without a second thought.
Jongin sits out on the monthly showcase and sits on the floor, cross-legged, instead.
He should've seen it coming. The first time he stayed in the practice room for twelve straight hours and did nothing but perfect the routine they'd been taught, he fell sick. Dragged his ass to training the following day and ended up having to leave earlier than expected. The second time wasn't as bad, but he did develop coughs and colds three days after. Two days ago, in preparation for the showcase, he decided to pour twelve hours a day into dancing and nothing else. Took a break only when he needed to pee and to drink more water to tide him through the day. The management almost had to kick him out of the room at three in the morning because trainees aren't supposed to stay behind that late. There's a reason they're trainees – they're just being groomed to be idols at the moment. They're not expected to live the exact same life yet.
On the up side, Jongin thinks, at least he knows his limit now. It will be useful for when he debuts. If he debuts.
"Why are you here?" Joonmyun asks when he arrives. His eyebrows are furrowed and the corners of his lips are turned down in an uncharacteristic frown. "Seriously, why are you–"
"Don't ask, hyung," he mumbles. Instead, he pats the space beside him and motions for Joonmyun to take a seat. He looks to his side, then, and notices that Joonmyun's hairline is laced with sweat. Jongin laughs a little. Looks like he's not the only one who's overextending himself.
In the three weeks that he's been with SM, he's only ever befriended a handful of people. Jonghyun's one of his first friends because who isn't friends with Jonghyun, really? By extension, he became close with Joonmyun who, it turned out, had quite a number of connections. Joonmyun introduced him to Donghae, Hyukjae, and Heechul. Heechul introduced him to everyone in SM Town and his entire family. The day after the (humiliating) introduction with nearly 75% of the artists in SM, all those who have debuted unlike him, Jongin already knew almost everyone by face. The day after, only a few faces retained their names in his mind – Joonmyun, Jonghyun, Heechul. Lee Sooman. Yoo Youngjin.
The names of the trainees in group A of the showcase are called. They fall in line, one on the left side of the stage and the other on the right. "You should know how this goes by now," says the trainer. He turns to glance at the trainees. He does mean everyone, even the new ones. All trainees are given half a day to study normal procedures in SM, after all. "Each of you will be paired off with another person and you'll have a dance battle. At the end of two minutes, the winner of the battle will be announced. The 'points' won't determine whether you'll debut or not, but remember that the judges who will be watching you are key decision-makers in picking talents. In telling the management that these talents – that you, trainees – already fit for debuting."
Beside Jongin, Joonmyun laughs a little. "Sometimes, it's all luck," Joonmyun whispers. "I know someone who's really good but ended up buckling during the showdown. It wasn't because the song wasn't his… genre." Joonmyun takes a deep breath, then hugs his legs close to his chest. "It was because he didn't feel his partner that time. No challenge, whatsoever."
Jongin widens his eyes, leans back. Gulps hard, because no way in this world will he be able to have enough guts to say that his partner in the dance showdown is 'not good enough'. "Is he still with SM?"
"Mhmm. Still here. In this room." Joonmyun looks around, then stops just before turning his He cocks his head to the right, then gestures at where the person is with his lips. "Small guy, the one who has his hair in a pony tail. He moves like water, transitions from one step to another without anyone noticing. There were rumors about him being picked by Boa-noona to be one of her back up dancers in Tokyo, but–"
"He didn't want to," Joonmyun continues. "Said he still has a lot to learn and has to be perfect before he gets on stage with her." Joonmyun cracks his neck. Jongin takes that as a sign to move away, give Joonmyun some space. He's known Joonmyun for two weeks; maybe Joonmyun doesn't like tight spaces. "He promised Boa-noona he'd dance for her someday, though." Joonmyun laughs a little. "Trust Taeminnie to surprise people like that."
Taemin. Jongin nods. Holds onto that name and files it at the back of his mind for future reference.
The first pair takes the stage. The stereo plays them a hiphop beat that sounds a lot like a push and pull of slow and fast music. It cripples both dancers, but it takes longer for one of them to crumble completely. The next pair isn't any different, with both dancers struggling to come up with a series of dance moves at first then eventually finding their rhythm once the song hits the chorus. But too late – by then, the judges have already made their decision and are only checking for minor things that might affect their verdict: the fluidity in movement, the way each dancer responds to every beat. How fast the music reaches their ears and then the rest of their body as the song quickens, slows down, then quickens again.
"They won't make it," Jongin whispers. Joonmyun scoffs beside him, nodding. Joonmyun may not be the best dancer, but he knows the science of movement. And it doesn't take a genius to know that the pairs that they've watched so far are struggling to keep up with the music, much more dance to it.
Two minutes turn into five, and five minutes turn into ten. Soon, the crowd thins until only the last five pairs remain. Pony tail guy is still there, waiting for his turn. Taemin, Jongin's brain registers.
"Lee Taemin and Jung Jihoon," the trainer calls out. Both trainees take center stage, then address each other with a curt nod. Jihoon has a grin on his lips, menacing, taunting. Taemin's eyes are bright with whatever energy he still has from all the waiting that he's done. There's a small smile on his lips, just a light upward tug at the corners of his mouth so subtle that Jongin has to move closer to see it. He squints, trying to make out the movement of Taemin's lips, the way he bites his bottom lip then releases it then bites it again to the beat of a song only he can hear.
The trainer steps down from the stage, then looks over his shoulder to cue the music. Three counts, then the song booms in the speakers.
Jongin is no stranger to this – he's seen at least fifteen pairs engage in a dance battle by now. They've held spinoffs of this test in dance class. Both dancers will move closer to the center, feeling around for each other's movements and feeling the music. The first one to move catches the judges' attention first, but that's not to say that the second dancer can't steal all the attention for himself. Then the pressure will be on the other dancer, not on the challenger. Making the first move is just a component of dancing; sustaining interest is everything.
Taemin doesn't give Jihoon time to react, though, starts moving as soon as the music comes in. It's just a simple bob of the head, the light tap of his right foot on the floor. As soon as the heavier beats come in, Taemin's claiming the stage with big movements – he's waving his arms in an orderly fashion, crossing distances with big leaps. He's teasing the judges with stuttered steps and isolated movements of parts of his body. Then he's going all out, moving front and center, as he dances to the beat in the chorus. There aren't any stage lights, no special lighting or make up to make Taemin look like an idol who's been dancing all his life, but Jongin can see fame in the stretch of Taemin's body, in the way he moves across the stage and moves people. And Jongin feels it in his nerves, his bones, every inch of his body – this boy can't just dance. He is dancing. He's not even showing half of his full potential yet.
The song comes to an abrupt halt, but Taemin hasn't stopped spinning on one foot yet. So Jongin keeps his eyes on Taemin, keeps all the air in his lungs trapped in his chest until Taemin slows down, the circles of his movement blurring in Jongin's eyes.
"So," Joonmyun begins, then drums his fingers on the table. "What do you think?"
I think that's a loaded question, Jongin wants to say. He's been trying to recall the routine they'd been taught three days ago so he can brush up on that. He's thinking of the answer to the last question in his math problem set for school. He's thinking of having something big and hefty for dinner, too. He accidentally skipped lunch earlier, so engrossed in catching up with the days of practice he'd missed. His back injury's costing him more than it should and there's nothing he can do to make it better. "The damage has been done. There's nothing to prevent," Jongin remembers telling Joonmyun sometime last week. "So I just have to try to be careful. Try really hard."
"I think I'm hungry," Jongin mumbles.
"So am I. But before that–" Joonmyun wiggles his eyebrows. "Come on, I know you have a lot of things to say about the performance."
You don't even know me that well yet, Jongin almost blurts out. Instead, he replies, "He's something."
"That's it? 'He's something'?"
Jongin shrugs. "He's good," he admits, then gets up from his seat to buy some food.
The past few days following Taemin's performance had been uneventful. Jongin's been alternating between staying in the practice room late and going home early. His best record so far is eight in the evening. Just yesterday, his schedule was changed a bit and he was given new classes, but none of them are as interesting as dancing. 'Personality Development' makes him feel as if he was born an empty shell and SM has made it their mission to paint him with life. A new life that isn't entirely his. He almost slept through the first hour of 'The Subtle Art of Smizing', too.
So late at night, before he left the building and headed to the train station, he'd check on the practice rooms one by one until he found Taemin. He hasn't had luck yet, not in the past few days, but he's not willing to give up just yet. He wants to see more of that movement, the way Taemin lets the song conquer his body and breathes it out through the slightest jerk of his limbs.
He manages to spot Taemin emerging from the doors tonight, a hand towel slung over his shoulder. His hair is a mess, but that's to be expected. Long hours of training makes people stop bothering about their hairstyles or even their clothes, for that matter. Taemin's lucky to still have a semblance of order in the way his bangs remain swept away from his eyes. When Taemin returns from wherever he'd gone to, Jongin tiptoes closer to the practice room and watches Taemin through the small glass opening below. He's brought to that same moment just a few days ago – Taemin on stage, moving his body to a beat he's hearing for the very first time. Dancing his heart out without a care in the world. It's just him and the music and the stage.
Jongin feels a dull ache in his lower back. He presses one palm flat on it but keeps his eyes on Taemin and nothing, no one else.
Taemin surfaces an hour after, the sound booming through the stereos coming to an abrupt halt. When Jongin hears Taemin's steps grow louder, he moves to the side. Gets back to his feet and inches away from the door. He doesn't even look over his shoulder when he hears the creak of the door, when he hears Taemin ask, "Who's there?" Nobody is. Jongin wasn't watching him earlier, hadn't bent his back and crouched low just so he could study the way Taemin moves. So Jongin keeps his eyes fixed on the path ahead, out of the building and into the subway station where he was supposed to be an hour ago.
SM's latest gimmick is a dance exhibition every other week. The consensus is that the talent scouts are becoming impatient with the long wait between the monthly showcases. The reality is that they need it – a challenge, a good fight, competition. Something to keep them working harder, striving to do better. Jongin's well enough to join the group this time, and Joonmyun's more than thrilled when he sees Jongin lining up with the rest of the trainees. He holds two thumbs up and cheers, "You can do it!" Jongin's never prayed harder to be swallowed by the ground and to disappear.
"Match ups will be projected on screen," the trainer announces. The display on stage blurs for a moment, then a ruled table flashes on screen. The first name that catches Jongin's attention is 'Lee Taemin'; the second, his own name opposite Taemin's.
Over his shoulder, he hears Joonmyun say, "Good luck." On the other side of the room, he catches Jonghyun's gaze and quickly looks the other way.
Five pairs in and some fifteen minutes after, Taemin finds him. It isn't really difficult – most of the pairs who have already accomplished their tasks have left the room to resume their schedules, and they're all wearing name tags. It's SM's way of reminding them that no one's above the other. They're all nobodies here, and the only way to make a name is through their talent. "We're… having a dance battle," Taemin says as a greeting. Just stands there for a moment, like he's still searching for words when his arm's already reaching out for a handshake. Only five seconds after, once the trainer calls out the name of the next pair, does Taemin say, "Sorry. I mean hi, I'm Lee Taemin."
"I know," Jongin says. Tries not to say, but too late – the words have already gotten ahead of him. He grabs Taemin's hand, then, and gives it a light squeeze. "You made the guy you were up against in last month's showcase look like an absolute loser."
Taemin shrugs, then laughs a little. The shake of his head and the way he keeps his eyes fixed to the ground make him look repentant. The stretch of his spine, the way he carries himself – they don't. "I didn't mean to. I just got carried away."
I know. "I figured." Jongin drops their intertwined hands and pulls away with an easy smile. "I guess I'll see that again later?"
"Will you?" Taemin hums. The smile on his lips is soft, inviting. There's a hint of challenge in there, though, in the way a corner tugs up in a slow, languid motion. Like Taemin doesn't mean to threaten but half of his body is up for the challenge. Is posing a challenge. "I guess we'll just have to find out."
"We will. Later." Jongin glances at his wrist watch. "Ten minutes from now," he continues, and Taemin laughs at him silly.
The crowd thins into the last seven pairs for the day. Joonmyun and Jonghyun had left earlier as soon as they'd finished, saying that they have a 6 to 7 p.m. vocal class. Minho had excused himself ten minutes ago for vending machine coffee but never came back. So it's just the two of them – him and Taemin, two people which have been pit against each other in the name of self-improvement and fun.
"Ready?" Taemin asks when their names are called.
Jongin looks to his side and gives Taemin a long, searching look. He's wearing that unreadable look again where his lips thin to a line and his eyebrows are in a gentle arc. There's no glimmer in his eyes, just determination in the way he tilts his chin up just so.
This isn't body language class, Jongin tells himself. He nods to Taemin and gets up, pushing himself off the floor.
They ascend the stairs and take their place opposite each other. From a corner of Jongin's eye, he can see the trainer reaching for the control buttons, the tiny triangle for 'play'. Jongin takes a deep breath, then, in anticipation of what is to come. He zeroes in on the thin veil of silence in the air, lets it engulf him until he hears the soft click of a button. And then there's the low room noise thrumming in his ears, followed by a series of familiar beats that sound a lot like one of SM's old releases.
Boa, he registers in his mind. A wicked grin surfaces on his lips as he prepares to dance.
Taemin launches his first move at the same time that Jongin does. It looks nothing like the original choreography for the song, but he hasn't gone off-beat yet. If anything, Taemin is creating his own beat for the song. Modifying it, making it his. Not willing to back down, Jongin matches Taemin's steps – a step forward for every inch Taemin moves closer to the front, a step to the side for every slide of Taemin's body to the right. A pop of the chest for the heavy beats, then a twist and a turn somewhere towards the end. Only halfway through the second verse, when he looks to his side, really looks to his side does he realize that they've fallen into step, dancing the same set of movements to the same song.
Taemin points his toe, as if in preparation for a turn, and Jongin goes for a pirouette. They move in the same direction, and when they finish, their heads are held up high. Jongin's heart raps against his ribs in his chest and there's a violent upward tug at the corners of his lips. He feels like laughing, cackling. He feels like doing a few more runs until his body gives up on him and sends him crashing to the floor. He feels like dancing again, this time with Taemin and not against him.
He gulps hard. His throat feels dry and his chest is heaving. When he looks to his side, Taemin is looking at him through the narrow slits of his bangs. His head is hung low and the lights all around them have already dimmed, but the glimmer of Taemin's smile – bright, disarming – shines through.
"Let it go," Jonghyun says. He chucks a water bottle at Jongin, and Jongin catches it with his face. "It's been three days, Jongin. Move on."
'Moving on' is for lovers, he wants to argue. For occasions involving emotions, not a monthly showdown where you duke it out with other trainees in the hope of leaving a lasting impresion on the judges. There are no feelings involved in a dance battle that he lost to Taemin even if they were clearly at par with each other. There's only unfair ruling, favoritism, or whatever power of seniority. Taemin is two years his senior – of course he'd be better than Jongin. They should have just paired Taemin off with someone else, one of those guys in the senior classes. It didn't have to be Jongin.
But no. They pit a rookie and a veteran against each other. They're planning Jongin's demise. He's going to hell.
"If it makes you feel better, they won't make you go against him if they didn't think you're just as good as him," Jonghyun offers. "Been here for a year and I've never been paired off with Taemin. I don't know if I should be glad or affronted."
Jongin looks up from dissecting his slice of kimbap. "Both," he replies, the goes back to ooking his food. "We were doing the same thing, we reacted to the music at the same time–" Jongin lets his face fall forward, forehead thunking against the table. "I don't get it!"
He means, I don't like losing. I wasn't born and raised by my parents to lose. I have to win and I won't take this sitting down.
The next time he sees Taemin is at dance practice. Jongin's at the opposite end of the room, reaching for his toes in a stretch, when Taemin walks in. There are murmurs all around – about being unlucky to be in the same group as Taemin is, about this session being the worst ever, about wanting to get out at the first possible opportunity. Others see Taemin as a threat; Jongin sees him as a ledge he has to leap over to get ahead and get to the top.
"Finally, a familiar face," Taemin whispers as he settles beside Jongin. He flashes a smile at Jongin, then begins to bend over to reach for his ankles. "It was getting lonely in the other room?"
"With the big shots?" Jongin asks. He chokes on the last word. It sounds more bitter than it should be.
Taemin stops, back still bent over, and looks around before whispering, "The oldies. The boring ones."
Jongin snorts. Cackles. He buries his face between his knees in an attempt to drown out the sound.
Taemin isn't the most patient of students. He processes instructions quickly, picks up tiny quirks in movement fast. The small nuances of every step, Taemin doesn't miss them, and it's exaclty what makes him a fast learner. In the span of five minutes, his body has already memorized all the steps for the first verse while the rest of the class struggles with the first eight counts. And it pisses Taemin off. Jongin can see it – in the way Taemin cracks his neck whenever anyone makes a misstep, in the way Taemin presses his lips together and looks at his feet that can't stop moving when someone drags his foot to the beat a bit too late. And he can feel it in Taemin's breathy exhale as Taemin says, "Okay. Back to the top." Catches Taemin whispering, "Again."
They're at the bridge of the song now. Jongin hasn't missed a beat yet. The instructor has pulled out a group of five and is taking them through the second verse's routine separately. "Just to be sure," the instructor says. "The rest are expected to have the routine perfected by the time we return. Fifteen minutes. Start practicing!"
Jongin's halfway through recounting the routine in his mind when Taemin slips beside him. There's a good three inches between them, but he can still feel the heat of Taemin's body. He risks a glance, focusing on the single bead of sweat balanced between Taemin's eyelashes.
"I kinda regret being moved to this class. But the trainers kept telling me that I wasn't supposed to be in advanced dance 3 yet," Taemin tells him in confidence. He leans back against the wall, shoulders slumping forward. "I think you'll enjoy it there."
"And you'd know because?"
Taemin doesn't answer at once. Instead, he pushes himself off the wall, spine snapping straight as he gets back on his feet. This one looks strangely familiar, like a phantom limb Jongin doesn't know he had. He's seen and felt it before, two weeks back when he'd pushed himself too hard during dance practice. Two in the morning here in the SM building. He'd stretched his arms overhead and heard his bones crack a bit too loudly. He was alone, or at least that was what he thought. Taemin's been for two years; for all Jongin knows, Taemin might have been watching him then.
"Well, you seem like the type who'd like a challenge," Taemin reasons. He looks up, eyes peeking through the narrow slits of his bangs, then continues, "Like someone I know."
Jongin cocks his head a little. He opens his mouth, meaning to say something, but the instructor calls their names and calls them to the front. What follows is a demonstration of what they've learned so far – Taemin is to do the routine the way their instructor had taught them, and Jongin's task is to do it in the opposite direction. The rationale: to create a mirror image of each other, as if they're two people in a five-member group and there's someone between them, binding them together and keeping them apart in equal parts. The result: a collision of limbs on the first two tries, Jongin hitting Taemin in the face with his elbow when he prepares to swing his arm back.
"Is this revenge for winning over you?" Taemin asks on his way back to his starting position.
Jongin shrugs. Chuckles, because he can't find the word for this. "Think whatever you want to think," he says, instead, and fixes his eyes on the empty space in front of them.
On the mirror, he sees their reflection, the way their shoulders form a straight line and the way their bodies align. When he catches Taemin's gaze fixed he looks away and looks at his face – pale, lips quivering, cheeks tugging up – instead.
Taemin isn't half as bad as Jongin originally thought he was. He's generous with help whenever he's in a good mood, but don't expect him to maintain his immaculate level of patience 'til the very end. Generous with water, too, if the number of times he's offered Jongin some from his own bottle is anything to go by. "Yunho-hyung says we should always stay hydrated," Taemin had said one time, wheezing as he waited for his bottle to be filled with water. Taemin's lips had already gone dry. The dispenser was acting up again that time. Jongin didn't know which to be more worried about.
It's nearing the end-of-the-week exhibition again. Jongin just got kicked out of one of the practice rooms by some kids who claim they can't not practice as a group. He drags his feet to the practice room next door, then, towel slung over his shoulder and water bottle tucked under his arm.
The first thing he notices when he leaves the room is that there's sound coming from nearby. The neighboring room, probably, because the door is ajar and there's light pouring from the inside. He peeks at the narrow opening, squints hard, until he spots a figure – a person on the floor. For a moment, he thinks of asking for help – people collapsing before the weekly exhibition is normal but still not a good thing – but then he hears a soft chuckle from inside. So he moves closer until he can get a better look at the man sprawled on the floor.
The man's legs are spread wide much like his arms, but there's something pressed close to his cheek. Something the size of a hand. And he's shaking his head while saying, "I know I promised to be there but– Umma, you have to understand: if I miss the exhibition then that's one less opportunity to debut soon. You know that, right?"
Jongin gulps down hard. Inches away from the door, but only succeeds in slipping on his own foot. Soon, he's falling flat on his butt and dropping his water bottle to the side. At least his back didn't take the brunt force of the fall. He'll just have to make sure he doesn't have imprints of tiles on his arms later.
The monologue draws to a sudden halt. Then there are footsteps slowly growing louder. Jongin takes a deep breath, tries to scurry away from the door, but it's too late – the door's being pushed open and there's a man standing right in front of him, looking down at him. Looking at him with a question in his eyes. Assessing.
Jongin closes his eyes tight. Presses his teeth together, too, until he's grinding them. "It's you," he says upon recognition, then looks up the meet the person in the eye. He expects sympathy, but maybe that's too much to ask from Taemin. They're not friends, after all – not yet.
"Yeah. I… practice here often." Taemin crouches low and holds out a hand. "Need help?"
"Nah, I can–"
"Stay there as long as you want, because the floor seems really warm and cozy," Taemin continues, then moves even closer. There's a small smile on his lips, an invisible force teasing the corners of his mouth. "But the exhibition's tomorrow and I don't think you're the type to waste time." He waves his hand in front of Jongin, then, until Jongin's taking it, grabbing Taemin's offered hand and letting Taemin pull him up. "Don't you have your usual room or something? 3A, the one near the stairs?"
"That's 3D. Your room is 3A," Jongin mumbles. He can't believe Taemin remembers. He mentioned it in passing a few days ago, when the subject of staying in the building late for practice came up. "Kids kicked me out. Said there was no way they weren't practicing as a group and I wasn't cool enough to be part of their clique, so–"
"You can share the room with me," Taemin says. He scratches his cheek until the right corner of his lips is quirking up in a smile. "That is, if you don't mind sharing."
"I don't." He does. And he minds sharing his routine with a potential contender, as well. "I mean, I don't really have a choice now, do I?"
Taemin takes a deep breath and presses his lips together in a thin line, like he wants to say something. He doesn't. Instead, he opens the door for Jongin and leads him inside, in a practice room that smells of Taemin sweat and determination.
It's close to one in the morning when they finish. Most of the food carts in the area are already closed at this time, so they settle for SM's vendo snacks. Tonight's haul is potato chips, a couple of crackers, plus Pocari Sweat. "Then there's banana uyuu and orange juice somewhere in there," Taemin adds as he lays the plastic bag down on the floor. He rummages through the contents of the bag, then says, "Hey, can I call dibs on the banana uyuu?"
"Suit yourself," Jongin mumbles. He digs his hand in the plastic and reaches for the orange juice, uncaps it without much fuss.
They're out in the rooftop tonight. It's Joonmyun who'd told him about the place, during one of their conversations over lunch. "I go there when I need to think," Joonmyun had said then. "Or even when I don't. It just makes me feel safe." Joonmyun is right. There's a nice view of Gangnam from where they are. He can see the Han on the opposite side that they're facing. And it's silent here. It's quiet enough that he can hear his own thoughts – each and every single one of them – but not enough that he feels the shiver of the white noise crawl down his spine. A companionable kind of white noise. He finds himself bobbing his head to a tune even he himself, can't hear, and closes his eyes. It's been a while since he's felt both disconnected from the chaos and connected with himself again.
"How are you liking it so far?" comes Taemin's voice. He pops an eye open as Taemin continues, "I mean, how's SM treating you? Good so far?"
'Good' is an understatement for the type of training he's been receiving from SM these past few months. It's been tough, but he can't say he hasn't learned a whole lot of things in the two, three months that he's been here. His roster of dances has expanded now. He's a better performer, a better artist. A better team-player, too, if all those activities on co-choreographing are anything to go by. So the entire experience isn't just good. It's great.
There's just one thing.
"I'm okay," Jongin answers. "But that's it. I'm not… feeling it." He scratches his nape, the back of his ear. Scrunches his nose in the hope that he'll find the right words. Outside of that one dance class with Taemin– "Nothing challenges me anymore. It's as if this life has taken more away from me than it's given."
Taemin snorts. He punctures the tiny circle on the banana uyuu carton and takes a long sip of his milk. "Every single day," he whispers. "That's me every single day."
Jongin leans back a little, taking in the details of Taemin's face. There's a small, upward tug on the corners of his lips. His eyes are sullen, but they don't look and feel like a dismissal. And Taemin's still facing him, shoulders pulled back and chin tilted upward like he's saying, not with his lips but with the rest of his body, if there's anything that you want to say, then do it. It's just you and me here. So he tries to summon the words – why are you still here, why do you keep trying, what gives? – and takes a deep breath before settling on just one thought.
"You stay here in Seoul?" He bites on the rim of the orange juice bottle, then continues, "I mean, you don't stay with your parents anymore?
Taemin slouches back, leaning against the railing this time. He nibbles on his straw. Jongin bites the inside of his cheek in response; he doesn't even know why. "Haven't seen them in a while. Months? It's… sort of a way to keep myself on track. Keep myself from looking the other way." He laughs a little, then takes a long sip. "We all have to give up something for our dreams. I mean– I'm not saying I'm giving up my family. It's just–"
He shakes his head and crushes the carton of milk in his hand. Some milk spurts out from the straw, and Jongin backs off a little. Inches away when Taemin shuts his eyes for a moment. "My time with them, I had to give that up. That's what chasing your dreams does to you – it pushes you away from the people you love the most."
Jongin gulps hard. There's a family waiting for him back home, older sisters who have probably prepared the most sumptuous dinner ever for him. They'd probably wait up for him or at least try to, even engage in conversation with him on whatever he feels like talking about at the moment. Ask him how his day went and laugh at his silly jokes.
And he's having potato chips for dinner up here in the rooftop, with a person who he'd once despised, literally rubbing elbows with him with the way their arms are pressed together. And Taemin smells – like sweat and hard work. Like a promising career, a bright future. He smells like Jongin's defeat and ultimate demise. He smells like Jongin's downfall. So Jongin inches away just a little, enough to put some breathing space between them.
"It'll be worth it," Jongin offers. He clears his throat, then repeats, "I'm pretty sure it will all be worth it."
"We'll see," is the only thing Taemin says in reply. They spend the next few minutes in silence, the only dissonance to the white noise the sound of their teeth gnashing the potato chips they're eating for dinner. Their first semi-solid meal of the day.
It's funny how things take a wild turn sometimes. One minute, Jongin's taking advanced ballet classes alone. The next minute, Taemin's barging into the room, ballet shoes dangling from his shoulders. Asking Jongin for advice on how to do a plié properly and asking Jongin to teach him. The encounters happen more than once – in the ice cream parlor where Joonmyun gets Jongin ice cream after a lot of pleading and Taemin makes Joonmyun buy all three of them a banana split without breaking a sweat. In the convenience store where Taemin magically pops up behind Jongin with a pack of band aids because he'd fallen on his forearms again. For the third time that week.
At one point, he contemplated on calling Taemin out on it and asking, "Are you my stalker or what?" But the repeated occurrences have made the nagging suspicion of being stalked dwindle after a while. Besides, Taemin can become quiet company if he needs to be. He can also be that much needed shot of energy after a long and tiring day.
The next thing he knows, Taemin's circle of friends is spilling into his own, tinier circle, and they're pressed close together in a cramped noraebang room at ten in the evening.
It's one of the last cool Friday nights. Summer is usually unrelenting, but the cusp of spring and summer brings about the best push and pull of cold and warmth. So the lack of breathing space between them is pretty bearable. Taemin's face smushed against his own, not quite.
"Why are we even here?" Jongin mumbles.
Taemin chuckles. He reaches for two microphones and hands Jongin one of them. The smile on his lips is so damn infections. It helps wean off some of the stress from this morning's session. "To have fun!"
Even before Jongin can sing a verse, Joonmyun snatches the mic from him. Over at Taemin's side of the room, Jonghyun has claimed ownership over the mic. There are a few more familiar faces here – Minho, Kibum, Jinki, Moonkyu, Sunyoung and Soojung. Two more faces who probably don't seem too foreign to Heechul but whose names escape him, anyway. Jonghyun goes first, singing the first two lines of the song, then Joonmyun's voice comes in, a much more mellow tone compares to Jonghyun's shriller, more heart-wrenching one.
Beside him, he feels someone bump into his hip. He hasn't had any alcohol, but he has gone through eight long hours of dance practice. The effect is almost the same. "Hey," Taemin asks, voice louder than before. Jongin can feel the vibrations of Taemin's words on his skin, and only then does he realize how close Taemin is – a turn of the head or a light nudge, a breath away. Then Taemin shifts, hovering Jongin now, leaning closer until there's nothing but a good two or three inches between them. Jongin gulps hard. Tries to breathe, but the tight press of the people around them makes it a chore. In the heat of the room, the air humid and thick with the scent of sweat of people who have just come from practice and headed straight to a noraebang for release, there's nothing else to do but to face forward, look into Taemin's eyes, stare. So he keeps his eyes fixed on Taemin's as Taemin asks, "You okay?"
A nudge to the side, then shaking of the shoulders. Taemin smells as if he's had a beer or something. He's not even legal yet. This should be made illegal, too – the way Taemin fastens him with a gaze and the way he holds Jongin with his hands on his shoulders. The sting of the press of his warm hands that has made Jongin's skin feel like it could burn anytime.
"I'm good," Jongin whispers for a while. He steals the microphone from Joonmyun's and drops his gaze to his feet. Leans closer to the mic even if he has no idea what he's supposed to be singing. From a corner of his eye, he sees Taemin's gaze linger. I'm good when I'm with you.
The first thing that Jongin hears when he gets to the SM building is this: "They finally announced the new group that's going to debut next year!" An exchange of excited, meaningful gazes, and then, "Taemin made it. I always knew he'd debut someday, and soon!"
Jongin shuffles to the practice room, keeping his eyes on the floor. He can feel sweat beading along his hairline, framing his face. It's gross and unsettling, but he presses on and maintains a steady pace until he reaches the dance room. Practice doesn't start until an hour after, but he locks himself up there, anyway. Turns up the stereo loud enough that he can almost hear the beats through the floor. He slumps against the cool glass of the mirror and throws his head back, closing his eyes when he feels some of his sweat trickle down to his eyes. Staring at the wallpaper of the sky on the opposite the glass always calms him down, but right now he wants to see nothing but a thick sheet of darkness.
He counts to ten, trying to still the racing heartbeat in his chest.
Three loud knocks on the door come in just as soon as the music hits the bridge. The music thins, and Jongin bolts at attention when he hears the door creak open. "Thought you'd be here," comes a familiar voice, then music is filling the room again, leaving no room for any other sound to settle.
"You're gonna go deaf here if you keep this up!" Taemin screams. Jongin doesn't budge. He cracks his knuckles, instead. "Hey, I said–"
"I heard you," Taemin replies. He takes a deep breath, then repeats, "I heard you, big shot."
He pokes one eye open just in time for him to catch Taemin looking at him. Taemin's eyebrows are furrowed; his lips, pursed. There's a ghost of a smile there, somewhere, but the wide-eyed look on Taemin's face steals Jongin's attention, draws it away from the wicked contours of Taemin's mouth.
Taemin gets up and turns the volume down. Dammit, Jongin thinks. Now there's nothing but just a thin sheet of music keeping them apart.
"So you've heard about the news," Taemin says, then. A corner of his mouth tugs up. He makes his way to Jongin, plopping down on the empty space beside him then stretching out his legs. He's wearing one of his worn-out rubber shoes again. He'd come to practice yesterday in slippers but lost them just before he went home. He had to buy the cheapest pair he could find in Gangnam. And there are no cheap things in Gangnam. "I didn't see it coming, honestly. I mean, I've been training for two years already, but–"
Jongin snorts. "Everyone's rooting for you," he whispers. He locks his arms in front of him and winces when he feels a dull pain in his waist. "Everyone's been waiting for you to make it and now… Now you're there." He chuckles. It tastes like acid and metal and blood in his mouth. "You're on your way to the promised land."
Taemin sits up and shifts in his position. He crossed his legs and inches closer. Jongin matches that – he moves a centimeter away for every forward motion Taemin makes. Leans back to get a better look at Taemin and ask, "What the hell are you doing?" Props himself against his arms when Taemin leans a bit too close, too close that he can see the spots of red on his cheek and the pimple on his nose. Close enough that he can make out how long Taemin's eyelashes actually are and the way he smells – like takoyaki and the early morning commute. A promise of a great performance at the end of their class.
"You're worried about me, aren't you?" Taemin singsongs.
Jongin cocks an eyebrow. "What?"
"Rather!" Taemin begins as he leans closer, then pulls away when Taemin starts jabbing him in his gut with two fingers. "You're worried about us. I mean, I'm probably the only one you've formed a real connection with here in SM and now they're taking me away from you–"
That's not true. Joonmyun and Jonghyun are nice friends. Minho's okay if he's not rooting for the soccer team Jongin doesn't like. And Jinki's not half bad, either. The silence he brings is comfortable enough to lull Jongin to sleep smack in the middle of dinner. So Jongin's not worried about not having any friends. He's not worried about anything.
You're worried about us. He goes back to that part, loops it in his head. His chest constricts a little and shit, maybe Taemin's right.
"–Nothing has to change," Taemin continues. He tilts his head a little, then brushes his knuckles along Jongin's cheek. "We'll still be in the same company so we'll see each other. You'll just have to… bear with Joonmyun-hyung's horrible dancing–"
Jongin laughs at that. He pokes Taemin some more until Taemin leans back against the glass again.
The conversation dissolves into some talk on the upcoming showcase. Taemin's group – SHINee, that's what they'll be called – is set to be introduced there. The producers already handpicked a couple of songs for them, a nice mix of ballads and dance music. It must be exciting, Jongin muses, to be part of such a big thing, but then the other trainees have their monthly exhibition to focus on. They won't get to watch, and Jongin won't get to see Taemin's first attempt at dancing alongside four other bodies in the hope of finding a semblance of home in their company.
"So you won't be competing against us commoners, huh?" Taemin slaps him on the arm, but Jongin presses on. "Too cool for us now, SM's golden child?"
"Don't be silly," Taemin mumbles, then turns up the stereo. He extends his hand in Jongin's direction, eyes gleaming. Jongin doesn't have to think about this one too hard – all he has to do is to let his body take control of him, to let his body speak for him. So he takes Taemin's hand, lets Taemin show him his moves and follows the movement of Taemin's arms, legs, the whip of his hair, like a shadow. A phantom limb. An extension of Taemin that he never knew he could be.
Jongin knocks thrice on the door of practice room 3A, then twists the knob. When he swings the door open, he finds nothing but emptiness inside and the clear blue wallpaper reflected on the mirror.
It's been close to three months since Taemin has been pulled out of his trainee classes. He's advanced to the pre-debut program now, shuffling from one class to another with Jonghyun, Jinki, Minho, and Kibum. "You two are next," the management had told him and Joonmyun one time, and Joonmyun just shrugged in response. Cut to ten minutes later in the practice room and Joonmyun was doing messy pirouettes and chanting, "We're gonna make it, we're gonna make it– Jongin, we'll debut. He promised us that we will!" Jongin couldn't find the right words to say then, so he grinned in response. At the back of his mind, a voice was saying, Dance your heart out. Taemin will know what it means. He'll know what you want to say through dance–
Jongin snorts. He flicks all the lights open and turns on the exhaust fan. The last time he heard from Taemin was through a text, sent at 3 a.m. just this morning. super poofed u g h but hey i never knew they gave trainees free ice cream after practice!
That's just for trainees who are debuting. Like you, he wanted to say. He had half of the message typed. He's had a couple of replies to Taemin's messages drafted but never sent. If Taemin needed to distance himself from his family to focus on his training when he was still one of those aspirants hoping to make it big, then he probably needs one less distraction in the form of Kim Jongin now that he's debuting. It's a tougher life he's living now. More cut-throat. More challenging and exhilarating. So Jongin's just helping out a friend. This has nothing to do with the hollow cavity in his chest that dancing with Taemin once filled. It has nothing to do with ice cream Thursdays turning into late night practices and dance tutoring sessions with Joonmyun. If only one of them can fulfill the dream right now then he'll do everything to help Taemin out.
He turns up the stereo and closes his eye. The image of Taemin dancing opposite him, with him, burns at the back of his eyelids.
The next time he sees Taemin, really sees him again in the flesh, is a month before they debut. In the clinic, with four bodies hovering him and a silly smile on Taemin's lips.
"Hey," Taemin says as a greeting, and gives him a weak wave. Jongin walks over, inching closer to the bed, and takes a deep breath when he gets a better look at Taemin. Taemin's cheeks have sort of hollowed out and his eyebags are the size of craters. There are too many pimples on his forehead. He really should wear a headband now whenever he practices so he won't get his bangs on his forehead. And his eyes are sullen. There's still a speck of light there, somewhere, where the crinkles at the corners of his eyes meet the upward tug of his lips. And he's laughing at Jongin, like meeting each other again after a while in a clinic is the best way to be reunited with a friend. "You look as if you've seen a ghost."
"Well, kinda," Jongin teases. Taemin shakes his head but stops halfway through. He massages his temples, his nape, the underside of his jaw. "You look like an old man now," Jongin continues. "Almost thought you were someone else."
"I'm the great Lee Taemin." Taemin wiggles his eyebrows. At least he succeeds at that. It makes Jongin's insides turn. "Bow down to me and show some respect!"
Jongin asks about the training program, and it's Minho who answers with enthusiasm. 12 hours a day, 6 days a week. A promise of ice cream during lunch and at the end of the week. Free use of the sauna for recreational purposes, and a free pass to seeing SNSD practice in the practice room nearby. "It's a pretty nice deal, if you ask me," Jonghyun even adds. "They're helping Jinki-hyung and I compose something for the first album. Or the next. I just want everyone to hear our music."
"May 22," Jongin whispers. Taemin looks up from playing thumb wrestling with himself. "That's the day you tape your debut stage, right?"
The tight corners of Taemin's lips relax. "Mhmm, the 22nd," he says. A heartbeat, and then, "You'll be there, right?"
Jongin gulps down hard. He's pretty sure he doesn't have anything planned on the 22nd. If anything, he can ask the management for temporary pardon or something, "I need to see my friend fuck up on stage," et cetera, et cetera. What he isn't sure of is whether or not he can watch Taemin on stage without wanting to jump onto the platform and dance with him at the first opportunity. If he'll be able to breathe once Taemin starts moving his arms, legs, his entire body to the beat of a song that has become too familiar already. SM released the song to the trainees two months ago; Jongin fought to get dibs on downloading it off of SM's internal server. He's had it on loop ever since.
"We'll see," he says in reply. Taemin groans, then jabs him on the warm. Winces then laughs when he feels the consequences of his actions numb his knuckles. "I said, we'll see! I didn't shoot you down! Geez–"
Taemin stops hitting him, but soon soft giggles begin to bubble on his lips. Maybe he'd sound great singing live, Jongin muses. Or maybe he doesn't, but Taemin can sing better than a handful of trainees in SM. Taemin may not have the best voice, but he has a voice soothing enough to set Jongin's heart at ease. So the thumping in his chest stills for a while, a few quick seconds, and then Taemin's erupting into a peal of laughter.
I did that, a voice at the back of his mind says. I did that to him. His heart gives a quick thump-thadump, then resumes its race like that's what does it for him – Taemin's bright laughter, loud and clear, ringing in his ears. Just for him.
The music video goes out on the 19th. Jongin texts Taemin, for the first time in months, saying, lol u look so nervous and so awkward!!
u'll know how it feels someday soon ;), Taemin replies. Jongin stares at it for a while and wonders if he'd ever gotten the chance to tell Taemin about the management's promise. His mind goes vacant for a while, until Replay loops on his player and fills his ears with heavy beats. So he closes his eyes, lets the music take over him, and holds onto the promise of making it big someday – getting to the promised land – holds onto the silver of hope through Taemin's text.
When they said 'the venue will be packed', Jongin didn't expect this – hundreds of fans wailing just beyond the curtains, two, three sound engineers on stage, making sure that everything's working fine. A team of production team of fifteen people, and a team of ten stylists hovering SHINee, making sure they're all glammed up and fit to go on stage in their performance clothes. Jongin's no stranger to how a production works, but seeing it live is an entirely different experience altogether.
Jongin balls his hands into fists. His fingers are getting numb. He isn't even the one going on stage and performing in front of this crowd today. It all feels so silly.
"Hey," comes Taemin's shaky voice from beside him. He feels cool fingers wrap around his wrist. He shivers for a moment, then looks up to meet Taemin in the eye. Taemin's make up is thick – Jongin can smell it from a mile away, or even from the not-so-short distance between them – but Taemin hasn't changed much. There's still the same kid he met last year, in a dance showdown, with determination in the tight knit of his eyebrows, a love for dance and performing in the sly upward tug at the corners of Taemin's lips. Taemin still sounds as if he's going through puberty and maybe it will show later, when they sing live in front of everyone. There will be a backing track with their voices but there's nothing to mask the look of surprise in their features if one of them screws up. If Taemin's voice cracks and the crowd hears, bright and clear and live.
"I can't believe it. You're nervous for me." Taemin chuckles. "It's just like our showcases! You go up on stage and perform–"
"–in front of hundreds of people you don't know, with your career at stake," Jongin interrupts. He presses his palm to the back of Taemin's hand. "You're nervous. You just don't want to admit it."
Taemin blinks a few times, then shrugs. "It was worth a shot," he whispers.
Taemin takes a deep breath. His forehead creases for a while, make up caking a little, then he's leaning against Jongin's side. "Everything."
They don't talk for the next few minutes, simply stand there with their heads tilted up as they watch the performers on stage. At one point, Jongin finds his nose buried in Taemin's hairspray-stained hair, and he jerks back when the scent overwhelms him. Then the floor director's calling their attention, saying, "Okay, SHINee, you're up next! Everyone's ready, right? Hey you, why aren't you in your–"
Jongin blinks a few times, then stares at the director's finger pointed at him. "SHINee is a five-member group," Taemin answers for him. "But we could use a back up sometime."
Jongin shakes his head and jabs Taemin on the arm. Then it hits him – he's ruining Taemin's stage clothes, his make up, his persona because SHINee's Taemin isn't supposed to be this little kid who's goofing around with his friend backstage, ten seconds before the start of the performance. SHINee's Taemin isn't supposed to be cupping his cheeks with his hands and kneading them with his thumbs. SHINee's Taemin isn't supposed to be whispering, "Gimme a hug? For good luck?", isn't supposed to be tugging at Jongin's shirtsleeve in a plea and saying, "Please?"
"You're debuting. Right now." Jongin leans into the touch, just a light tilt of the head to the side. "And you're asking me for a hug."
"For good luck," Taemin adds. "C'mon, grant a nervous kid his request. It shouldn't be that hard." He finishes with a wink, then opens his arms wide, just enough for Jongin to fit in.
Taemin's right – it shouldn't be hard. They've horsed around after practice, limbs slick with sweat. A hug should be a piece of cake. So Jongin takes a step forward. One tiny step, then another, and another, until his arms find a nice fit around Taemin's waist. Taemin feels so small, fit in Jongin's body like this, chin tucked on the Jongin's shoulder. It almost feels like Taemin's crumbling, shrinking back to this tiny person he'd seen ascending the stage one year ago, the look on his face spelling nothing but uncertainty but the stretch of his body saying otherwise.
"They're waiting for you," Jongin whispers in Taemin's ear. With a curt nod, Taemin pulls away, but gives Jongin's hands a brief squeeze.
Soon, Taemin's being pulled to the other side of the backstage, ready to ascend the stairs. Jongin watches with baited breath as Jinki disappears into the door, followed by Jonghyun, and then half of Taemin's body, and that's when he calls out, "Hey, Taemin!" Taemin's response is quick – a sharp turn of the head, followed by the rest of his body. Lips falling open in a small 'o', and eyes wide in acknowledgement.
"Don't screw up!" Jongin calls out.
The corners of Taemin's mouth soften, then stretch wide into a grin. "I won't, I promise!"
Then he's pushed up on stage, along with four other bodies he's been groomed to meld with it. Soon, the opening beats for Replay blare in the speakers and the cheers soar above the track. Jongin can still hear it clearly in his ears, though – Jonghyun's voice, then Jinki's, then Taemin's – humming to the thumping in his chest, the prickling sensation at the tips of his fingers, the pulse in his palms.
He parts his lips and sings along when SHINee's performance comes on on the TV backstage. He watches them with all of his attention.
He keeps his eyes on Taemin.