Onew stands up and walks off the stage. He doesn't go back, he just leaves. It's live television and when he watches the footage on the news later it's obvious that nobody knows what to say, that there is no ready excuse. Onew watches the footage as SHINee struggles to go on without him there. One minute and seventeen seconds after he leaves the studio stage, Taemin gets up and begins to leave.
Minho has quick hands, though, and catches Taemin's belt loops to pull him back to his seat. He says something sharp, but he's also covered his microphone and turned from the camera so nobody knows what he said.
Onew kisses Taemin first. Taemin is too young for it if Onew thinks about it but he doesn't care. Taemin is all smiles and laughter and easy distraction and brilliant dreams. Taemin is hope and joy and wide open arms and sunshine blue skies.
They're laying side by side on the floor in their room, laughing and laughing about something somebody said and Onew props himself up on an elbow and then kisses Taemin in a way that he shouldn't.
When he pulls back, Taemin is looking at him out of half-moon eyes. "Hyung," he says, hushed and tightrope dangerous. "Hyung…is a pervert."
And he laughs like this is hilarious.
Onew does too because he can't help it. He laughs against Taemin's smile as he kisses him again.
Taemin is not even sixteen, Onew only nineteen. But there has never been anything in the world that has been so easy or so right.
"You're too cute," he says when he stops kissing him. "I like you too much."
And maybe he does.
Just as Onew wonders about it, what Minho had said, Key calls him. "He told him 'he doesn't want you'." Key sounds bitter and old, like the taste of coffee set too long on the warmer. Onew hangs up on him.
Onew loves Taemin. He does his best to keep it off screen. He does his best, actually, to keep it hidden. He doesn't need anybody telling him that he shouldn't. He's not sure why Taemin keeps quiet—maybe he understands or maybe he just wants to do what Onew wants him to do—he never asks.
It never occurs to him that he should.
Taemin is silent. He never reaches for Onew first, never let's his smile shine until they're alone and Onew is holding his face and looking at him closely.
"It's like you're made of gold," Onew tells him, carding his fingers through Taemin's hair. The power is out, there are only candles, and it's like the candle glow has wrapped itself up in Taemin's hair and laid itself under his skin. Taemin is beautiful. "How is that possible?"
Without answering, Tamein just smiles until Onew kisses him.
"I don't know, hyung."
Jonghyun calls him and Onew answers only because he wants to see if he's right. He is—he can hear Key in the background. "Hyung," Jonghyun begins.
"Minho isn't wrong," Onew says and hangs up on Jonghyun. He turns off his phone and lies back on his bed. He's in a hotel. He can't go back to the dorm. Lie. He can go back, it's only that he doesn't want to.
He goes out with Minho one night, long after he begins with Taemin. Taemin can't pass for legal but he and Minho can go drinking together. They get drunk and they get friendly. Onew tells him about Taemin, himself and Taemin.
"I don't know, Minho-ah," he says softly in the dark of their dorm. The others are gone. He's not sure where, just that they're not home. Key is with his parents, he thinks, Jonghyun might be working. He doesn't know about Taemin. He doesn't know where Taemin is. "I don't know where he is," he says so, so softly. "I don't know anything from him."
Minho pats his face. He's probably aiming for his cheek but his big hand just slaps over Onew's face, clumsy and smelling of beer. "But hyung loves him. That's enough, right?"
"I don't know." Onew rolls over and is nearly on top of Minho. "I don't know at all. For either of us." He laughs and it's nothing but tears and recrimination. He loves Taemin but he hates him. "What is this, huh?" But he forgets and says it in the Donald voice.
Minho laughs, deep chuffs that turn into almost girlish giggles as Onew throws a leg across his thighs. "What is it ever?"
Twenty minutes later there's a knock on his door. He thinks it's his food delivery and it is, only Minho is holding it. Minho hands him the cartons. "Hiatus," he says, not quiet, just his regular Minho voice. Minho, Onew thinks, is the master of his own universe. Nothing troubles Minho unless Minho decides to let it. "They'll say it's stress and I think …I think they've found a dead relative to use."
Onew shrugs. He doesn't invite Minho in. He doesn't want Minho here but he can deal with Minho outside his door. "All right." He doesn't care.
Whatever he feels for Taemin—all those mixed up, lovely, horrible things that clash in the in-betweens of his heart and his head like car accidents—whatever he feels, he loses his other virginity to Minho.
It's so much like kissing Taemin that it takes Onew's breath away. He doesn't understand how it's possible, that sort of happiness. It breaks his heart as he moves against Minho, it makes him feel better. It messes him up.
He's not in love with Minho, he knows that much as they sprawl together among the sheets. "Is this awkward?" he asks.
Minho pinches him. "It shouldn't have to be."
They're still drunk but they're also still friends.
"Did you find out?" Minho asks.
"Yes," Taemin says, quietly in the doorway like a misplaced ghost.
But maybe Minho cares. "Was it because of that time?"
"No." Onew is tired and is tired of feeling tired.
"Taemin," Onew doesn't know what to say.
"Do you love him?" Taemin asks. He is still so quiet, sitting wrapped around himself in the hall outside their room. "More than me?"
Onew kneels down and puts his hands on Taemin's knees. What he didn't know with Minho he knows now, with Taemin. "There's only you."
Taemin smiles at him. It isn't blue skies and sunshine, it's older than that, sadder than that. It's an idol smile that's been worn too long and often too tight, so that it is stretched out of shape and no longer fits. "There's me," he says.
He can't promise him that it's love and he knows it. But Taemin deserves that. "Only you. You're the one that I love. As much as I can."
And he wonders what he's done when Taemin uncurls and reaches for him, leans into him. He wonders, but he can't regret it. Taemin smells like thunder and dark forests, feels like mists and orchids and steel. He can't regret it but he wonders if he will.
Minho nods and then steps back, forward again as though he is helpless to his own questions. "Was it that time?"
"That was over a long time ago." Questions and sweet, drunken fumblings and the way Minho giggled without meaning to. "I was forgiven." So was Minho, not that Taemin ever blamed him. Taemin is a better person than Onew, sometimes. They were still friends, all of them, in the aftermath of promises unspoken, broken and made. They're friends now, mostly. Somehow. Onew kisses Minho on the cheek and smells only the smoothness of water on his skin. "I'm tired, Minho-ah. Go away."
Onew feels like he and Taemin can only swing between the love and the hate, the hurt and the forgiveness. He can't hold on but he can't let go. He wants to but he's not sure which one it is that he wants to.
"Taemin," he says softly. He doesn't want to say anything, he just wants to feel his name in his mouth. He scratches his nails gently over Taemin's back, hearing the way his skin sounds under his hands. "Taemin."
Breathing softly, Taemin turns to him, turns his face up to him. "I don't think I love you, hyung," he says quietly.
Onew wishes his heart could break, but it doesn't. "You never did." He's not sure he ever did either, but he doesn't say so. He thinks that Taemin already knows. He thinks it's why Taemin just might be lying.
For that, he might love him. For that, his heart might break. For Taemin.
Onew goes home. To Gwangmyeong, to his childhood home. He doesn't say goodbye to Jonghyun or Key or Minho or Taemin. He doesn't say goodbye to his manager or his friends in the company. He just goes home like he just walked off the stage.
At home he rediscovers basketball in the park and soccer in the narrow alleys. He plays the piano for hours. He plays songs from sheet music that he buys in little music shops—nothing he knows, nothing that SHINee would ever sing. At home, he stops being Onew and remembers how to be Jinki. He remembers how to breathe without having to use that breath to sing. He remembers to move without remembering how to not block the cameras. He remembers to smile for real and he realizes just how fake he's been.
Hiatus stretches and he thinks he's going to end up doing his military service if it doesn't end. He doesn't do anything to end it.
"You have to do something," his father tells him one night. "What are you doing here? You'd give up everything just for feeling confused? Between us and that company, did we raise an idiot?"
"I couldn't breathe," he tells his father.
They don't speak of it more.
Taemin has a solo mini-album. It drops nearly four months into their hiatus. Onew doesn't buy it but his mother does so he looks at the liner notes. He sees Taemin's name listed as a contributor of lyrics on all the songs.
But he doesn't listen to it.
Instead, he buys a ticket to the solo-con and sits in the audience. He doesn't look like Onew anymore, not really, so nobody notices. If they do, he doesn't notice them noticing. He's watching Taemin sing and dance—not as much dancing, it's too hard to dance and sing when you're all alone. He sits in the dark of the audience and watches Taemin shine on and on. He's not sure if he's jealous or hurt or proud. He's not sure if he's happy or if he's not.
Because he's Onew, he goes backstage when the concert is over. Taemin is ruffling his hair with both hands, his steps still precise, like he can still feel the music in his veins. It's so familiar that Onew's throat aches. "I'm proud of you," he says.
Taemin startles. "Hyung?"
Onew steps into the room and it feels so confusing, it feels like the first time he kissed Taemin and like the last. "I'm proud of you for this and I hate it."
"Stop it," Taemin says, lifting his chin. "I can't do this again." How did he grow up this much? How has Onew not?
"I'm not asking for it," Onew tells him. He shoves his hands in his pockets. "I love you."
He turns and leaves.
He's good at that, he thinks.
SHINee comes back from hiatus. They go back to being who they were, the people the fans expect. Onew doesn't get how the fans don't see that Taemin is not the baby who loves puppies more than girls anymore.
They sing, they dance, they laugh and do ridiculous things on television. They take jobs, they release an album, Key picks up a radio show, Jonghyun writes another song. Onew and Taemin live together with only a few bumps until eventually they start laughing together again and meaning it. This is when Minho moves out to his own room.
Onew doesn't panic. He doesn't do anything. He reads, he studies his English and tries to improve his Japanese when another tour is announced. "Taemin, come practice with me," he invites one night, folded up like a lotus on his bed.
Taemin comes and sits on his bed, mirrors his position. "Dai suki," he says in Japanese.
He knows what that means, those words. "You always have," he says.