jongin never thought he would become a soccer dad.
a/n: finishing this was like my own personal crucible, gosh!! but thanks to the kind mods, i had the time to get this done. i’m not sure if it has enough soccer, but i really wanted to write about someone being a soccer dad, so this is what happened…..
thank you, thank yOU, THANK YOU to my writing tlist for putting up with me through this, to l for endless music recs, to m for helping that one scene (among others) not suck so bad, and to k for constantly reassuring me and encouraging me! this would not have happened without any of you, and i know we’re all glad it’s done so please, have a drink on me.
the song for this one is we get on by kate nash.
warnings: past minor character death (not discussed at length, but mentioned several times)
There’s mud on Jongin’s shoes.
It’s not unexpected. This has been the rainiest September Jongin can remember, the layers of fallen leaves becoming soggy on the sidewalks and the grass field of the neighborhood park turning to mud.
Luckily, it’s not raining this afternoon, but the sunshine is hot and Jongin can feel his shoes sinking deeper into the muddy grass every second.
He doesn’t really mind. The shoes are a crappy pair of trainers he’d used for dance practices until the heels had cracked and Jongin had gotten blood on them once (probably from that time Hyoyeon accidentally gave Taemin a bloody nose after he tried to sneak up behind her and scare her), so a little mud isn’t a problem.
The problem is that Jongin feels kind of conspicuous. Here, on the sidelines of the youth league soccer game, Jongin is surrounded by all kinds of soccer moms, from the sporty to the ludicrously well-manicured. There are a few fathers sprinkled into the crowd, cheering the kids on as they chase the soccer ball around the field, but Jongin is by far the youngest person on the sidelines. It makes Jongin feel like everything, from his graphic t-shirt to the mud on his shoes, sticks out like a sore thumb.
“Which one is yours?” one of the women standing near Jongin asks, smiling at him from beneath a baseball cap.
“Um.” He cranes his neck to get a better look at the field and points. “The one with the pink cleats, Sehun.” Jongin shifts awkwardly from foot to foot. “He’s not really mine — I mean, I’m his uncle and his dad had to work today so…”
“Oh, you’re Joonmyun’s brother,” the woman says. “I wondered why he wasn’t here today.”
“You know Joonmyun?”
The woman laughs. “All of us know Joonmyun. He’s one of the most active parents on the team. Top of the phone tree and everything.”
Jongin sucks his lower lip into his mouth, watching the clump of kids chase the ball. Sehun’s pink cleats make him easy to pick out, his face shining with sweat as he jostles the other players for a chance to kick the ball.
It’s good to see nephew smiling and having fun with other kids. Jongin had wondered, after Sehun’s mother had passed away over a year ago, if he would see the giggling, carefree Sehun again.
“He’ll be fine,” Joonmyun had assured him after another night of watching Sehun silently pick at his food, his face a sullen mask. “Kids bounce back.”
Jongin had hoped he was right, but it was hard to believe his brother when Joonmyun’s own face was so gaunt-looking, sleeplessness carving deep bruises under his eyes.
And Sehun had bounced back, slowly at first, and then by leaps and bounds. Joonmyun had tried to keep things as normal as possible, working from home most afternoons after school, driving Sehun around in the minivan instead of his usual sporty sedan, attending every single soccer practice and game.
Eventually, though, something had to give.
Joonmyun’s work had allowed him some flexibility in the wake of his wife’s death, but after a year, his superiors had begun making noises about whether Joonmyun was really committed to his job. Jongin had moved into Joonmyun’s house two weeks ago, before the start of the new semester and after Joonmyun had been put in charge of a new project at work.
“It’s nothing permanent,” Joonmyun had said. “They just want to know that I’ll put in the time. A year heading up this project will make sure I can stay at the company and after it’s finished, I’ll be able to work from home more in the future.”
Jongin moving in kills several birds with one stone. In exchange for not having to pay room or board, Jongin is going to act as a sort of nanny for Sehun.
Today is Jongin's first game with Sehun, and Joonmyun had left out a bag filled with everything from sunscreen to a canvas camping chair and a cooler, along with the minivan keys that morning.
“Oh yeah. These are for halftime,” Jongin says, digging the tupperware of orange slices out of the cooler.
“You can give them to the coach.” The woman cranes her neck, searching. “There he is. You can just give it to Minseok.”
Jongin is already looking where she pointed before her words sink in.
“Minseok?” he repeats, voice hollow.
“The guy in the white shirt and blue shorts. You see him?”
“Yeah,” Jongin’s mouth says, but he barely even notices that he’s still speaking.
That’s definitely Minseok clapping his hands and calling out to the kids from the sidelines, and it’s kind of stupid, because for a moment, Jongin’s world stops. The shouts of the parents around him dim, like he’s in dramatic movie, and everything but Minseok, his eyes, his hands, his smile, blurs.
Jongin blinks. The volume goes up again, as if he’s accidentally stepped on the stereo remote, and Minseok turns away from him, facing downfield.
“Yeah,” he says, not sure how to pretend he hadn’t just frozen in place for half a minute but trying anyway. “I’m good.”
Unable to help himself, he risks another glance in Minseok’s direction. Minseok’s shoulders are broader than Jongin remembers, pulling at the seams of his shirt as he gestures at the opposing team’s goal, and that’s…
“I think I’ll just. Wait. You know, until halftime.” He makes a gesture that is supposed to look like waiting and only just misses smacking the hat off his own head.
The woman nods, eyeing Jongin curiously.
In an effort to avoid her eyes, he looks out at the field in time to see Sehun waving wildly at him, as though he’d only just remembered Jongin was there.
“Uncle Jongin!” he shouts, still wiggling his arms over his head. “Watch!”
His dark hair flopping against his forehead, Sehun charges at the pack of kids around the ball and manages to land a good kick, sending the ball rolling off over the grass.
Sehun’s squeal of happiness can easily be heard over the noise of the other kids and parents and Jongin waves his arms right back, running up to the sideline to cheer.
Further down the sideline, Jongin thinks he can feel Minseok looking at him. He probably heard Sehun call his name, and the thought of talking to Minseok again has Jongin’s stomach tying itself in knots. He wants the game to be over, so he can sneak off home and avoid the whole thing entirely.
On the field, there’s another round of screeching as Sehun’s team sends the soccer ball rolling into the other team’s goal. The kids tackle each other in their excitement, smearing mud on their jerseys and faces.
Jongin finds himself laughing in spite of the sickness rolling in his stomach.
It’s worth it, to see Sehun so happy.
The kitchen in Joonmyun’s house looks like something out of a magazine, with gleaming stone counters that reflect the light spilling in through the wall of windows overlooking the backyard and sleek, real wood cabinets reaching from floor to ceiling.
There’s magnets on the fridge, though, the make-your-own-poetry kind, and silly handmade ones holding up Sehun’s report cards and drawings, and the messiness that follows Joonmyun everywhere has enough things out of place that the kitchen feels lived in.
Jongin slips onto one of the bar stools sitting along the edge of the island and watches as Joonmyun prepares Sehun’s lunch for the next day.
After the excitement of the soccer game, Sehun had gone to sleep easily, drifting off in the middle of telling Jongin he wanted to dye his hair pink like the bunny suit on his favorite stuffed animal, Pinku-pinku.
Joonmyun got home from work a half an hour later, his footsteps creeping down the hall to peek into Sehun’s dark room. Jongin knows it must be hard for Joonmyun to miss things like bedtime and soccer games, and watching him pack up Sehun’s lunch so carefully, almost like an apology, makes Jongin’s chest feel two sizes too small.
Probably hearing the dogs wander into the kitchen after him, their nails clicking on the hardwood, Joonmyun glances up from the sandwich he’s making. “How was the game? Did the team win?”
Jongin reaches down to lift Jjangah into his lap, scratching at her ears as she gets comfortable. “Yeah, three to zip.”
Joonmyun portions out a dollop of peanut butter onto one of the slices of bread and begins to spread it. He’s still in his work clothes, the sleeves of his dress shirt haphazardly rolled up to keep them from dipping into the jelly and an apron tied around his waist to protect his slacks. “That’s a good start to the season. I’m sorry I couldn’t be there.”
The kids had all converged on Minseok after the referee blew the final whistle, cheering like they’d just won the World Cup and trying to pour their water bottles over their coaches head like they’d seen people do with those big Gatorade buckets. Fortunately for Minseok, none of them were tall enough to splash further than his shoulders, but unfortunately for Jongin, that meant Minseok had ended up with a very wet shirt plastered to his chest.
That was right about the time when Sehun had dragged Jongin over to meet his awesome coach and Minseok had looked up at Jongin and smiled, and Jongin had basically died.
Well, no. He hadn’t died, but his heart had stopped beating for a second, which kind of counts.
Clearing his throat and his head, Jongin tells Joonmyun, “All the moms asked about you. I didn’t know you were the top of the phone tree.”
Joonmyun shrugs, pressing the two sides of the sandwich together and cutting it in half with the butter knife. “Sunyoung was always really involved with things like that and I wanted to keep it up, if I could.”
Shifting uneasily, Jongin tries to think of the right thing to say. Joonmyun talks about Sunyoung some now, but Jongin can’t help remembering the months when just the mention of her name could drain all the color from Joonmyun’s face. “They all think you’re really great, so, um. I bet you can be top of the phone tree next year too.”
Okay, so Jongin’s not that great with saying the right thing. He hopes Joonmyun knows what he meant.
Looking up from putting the sandwich into a specially shaped tupperware, Joonmyun smiles at him, laughing and grateful all at once. “Good.”
Jongin can hear Monggu and Jjangu wandering around the kitchen, sniffing for crumbs to lick off the baseboards and making their collars jingle. In his lap, Jjangah is watching the peanut butter jar intently and Jongin puts his hand on her collar to make sure she doesn’t make a leap for it.
“So.” He twists one of Jjangah’s curls around his fingertip, building up his courage. “Were you going to tell me that Minseok is Sehun’s soccer coach?”
“Is he?” Joonmyun attempts nonchalance and fails. Sighing, he sets the knife he’d begun slicing carrots with down on the cutting board and says, “Okay, I wanted to, but I thought you might refuse to pick Sehun up and I really needed your help.”
“I wouldn’t have done that!”
Joonmyun raises his eyebrows, because once back in high school Jongin had climbed out of a second story window to avoid seeing Minseok at post-game victory party for their soccer team because Chanyeol had startled him into spilling some spiked blue drink all down the front of his pants and Baekhyun wouldn’t stop calling him “smurf dick”.
Shoulders slumping, Jongin mutters, “It would have been nice to have some warning, that’s all.”
“It’s not like this is the first time you’ve seen him since he graduated. It wasn’t so bad, was it?” Joonmyun asks, and Jongin knows by the earnest look on his face that he wants an honest answer.
Jongin doesn’t really want to give an honest answer to that question because the honest answer is “yes”, so instead he says, “His girlfriend was there.”
Because Minseok had been smiling at Jongin, peeling his wet shirt away from his chest while Sehun dragged Jongin closer (Jongin could see his nipples, god), and Minseok had actually started to say, “Jongin, hey — “
— when a woman, small and blonde, had come up and thrown her arms around Minseok’s neck. “You did so great, sweetie!”
That had stopped Jongin in his tracks, because sweetie???
An older couple had come trailing after the woman, the collapsible lawn chairs they had sat in to watch the game slung over the man’s shoulder.
“You did a great job, son,” the man had said, reaching out to shake Minseok’s hand. “Those kids will be going pro before you know it!”
“I’m just glad they had fun.” Minseok had smiled, tighter, more guarded than the one he had given Jongin earlier, and reached for the chairs. “Let me take those for you, Mr. Kim.”
“You’re such a gentleman, Minseok. And you spend your free time working with these kids!” The woman had clasped her hands together beatifically, looking at Minseok like he was perfection itself. “We might just come watch every game this season.”
Sehun had stumbled on his cleats then, still trying to pull Jongin’s weight forward and not quite managing it. Finally giving up, Sehun had flopped theatrically onto the muddy ground at Jongin’s feet, making them all laugh.
“Alright there, Sehun?” Minseok had said, crouching down by Sehun’s side with an indulgent smile.
Sehun had rubbed at his eyes, smearing mud on his cheeks. “Uncle Jongin is too big to pull. Dad says he eats too much fried chicken,” he had sighed, making Jongin’s cheeks heat. Suddenly, Sehun had sat up, as though remembering why he’d come over in the first place. “Coach Minseok, this is my Uncle Jongin.”
“Hey, Jongin,” Minseok had said, still bent down next to Sehun, and Jongin’s cheeks had gone from warm to surface-of-the-sun hot.
He had swallowed thickly (his mouth was so dry all of a sudden) and managed to croak out, “Hey.”
The woman had cleared her throat almost inaudibly and Minseok had straightened up, wiping invisible dust from his shorts.
“Jongin, this is Taeyeon, my girlfriend.” Taeyeon had smiled at him, pretty eyes crinkling at the corners, and Jongin had thought she seemed nice in spite of himself. “Jongin and I played soccer together back in high school.”
Jongin had waved awkwardly, arm moving jerkily. He had probably looked like a sweaty mess and there had been mud on his shoes and it really hadn’t been the moment Jongin had imagined when he pictured running into Minseok again. “Um. Hi.”
Sehun had saved him, then, tugging on the leg of his sweatpants and looking up at Jongin with his best puppy face. “Uncle Jongin, can we go get ice cream now?”
“Sure,” Jongin had said, grasping desperately at the life preserver Sehun had just unknowingly thrown him.
“With sprinkles? Please?” Sehun had pleaded, widening his eyes.
“Uh, yeah. Sprinkles.” Jongin had risked a glance up at Minseok. Taeyeon had her hand tucked in the crook of his arm and her parents were watching Sehun with the indulgent look of people who desperately wanted to become grandparents. Jongin barely managed to remember his manners. “It was nice to, um, meet you.”
Sehun had lead him off before anything else could be said, and Jongin had spent the whole ice cream trip in a daze, because Minseok had a girlfriend.
Joonmyun blinks in the golden light of the kitchen pendant lights. “What? Minseok’s girlfriend?”
Drooping even further toward the counter, Jongin nods. “Yeah, Taeyeon.”
“But — “ Joonmyun stops mid-sentence, mouth snapping shut on whatever he was going to say.
Jongin sits up, suddenly alert. “What?”
“Nothing. I just forgot they were together.”
Joonmyun is suspiciously busy packing the chopped carrots up and Jongin narrows his eyes. For all his business expertise, his brother has never been a good liar.
“Joonmyun — “
“Do you think Sehun will want a Fruit By The Foot or Oreos?” Joonmyun interrupts, holding one up in either hand. The set of his jaw says Jongin won’t be getting an answer out of him, no matter how hard he tries.
“Fine,” Jongin says, grabbing the Fruit By The Foot and opening it grumpily as Joonmyun packs away the Oreos in Sehun’s lunch box.
Joonmyun would tell him if it was important, anyway.
When Jongin goes to pick Sehun up from soccer practice that week, he’s more prepared.
He tries not to look it, wearing a worn t-shirt over the nice fitted jeans he’d pulled on in place of sweat pants, but it’s pretty hard to hide that he’s freshly showered with his hair combed.
With the choreography work for his final project in full swing, Jongin honestly can’t remember the last time he made an effort not to look like a slob. It’s worth it, though, because Jongin swears Minseok’s eyes linger a few seconds too long on his thighs when he bends down to help Sehun with his bag.
“Jongin!” Minseok calls, waving him over. Jongin tries to walk casually, like he couldn’t care less where he’s walking, but he still seems to get there too quickly.
Minseok pushes his hair back with one hand, a soccer ball tucked under his other arm, and Jongin forces himself to take a deep breath.
“What’s up?” Jongin mentally pats himself on the back for how steady his voice sounds.
“How was your week?”
Luckily, Jongin had tried to think of what they might talk about and had prepared an answer to this question while driving here. “Fine,” he says off-handedly. “Busy working on my final project for the end of the semester.”
“Dance, right?” Minseok asks, and Jongin is surprised that he remembers that, but it’s still on his mental script, so that’s okay.
“Yeah, just one more year left until I graduate.”
“That’s awesome.” Minseok flashes him a smile, wide and genuine, and Jongin shoves his hands into his pockets to keep himself from staring. “Do you play soccer at all anymore?”
“Um.” Jongin hadn’t thought of an answer to this question, but he can totally do this. He can be cool. “Not really?”
Minseok drops the ball under his arm onto his knee to juggle for a few bounces before catching it again. “That’s too bad. You were pretty good back in school.”
That’s… Jongin didn’t think Minseok ever really even noticed him in high school, aside from him being Joonmyun’s little brother. Jongin is not prepared for this.
“We should get together sometime, play some ball again.”
“Like, with a team?” Maybe Minseok was inviting him to join some kind of casual weekly game that needed more players?
The corner of Minseok’s mouth quirks. “I was thinking more one-on-one, actually.”
“Uh.” Jongin is really not ready for this conversation. Instead, Jongin is probably going to have a heart attack. “Sure?” he tries, and Minseok graces him with another incandescent smile.
“Why don’t you give me your number so we can set up a time later?” Unable to think of anything to say, Jongin just stares at Minseok until his smile falters slightly. “Or I can give you my number instead?”
Jongin’s hands give Minseok his phone without his permission and he watches, some kind of out-of-body experience as Minseok keys in his phone number. A few seconds later, he pulls his own ringing phone out of his pocket and silences it.
“Now we have each other’s numbers,” he says, handing Jongin back his phone. One of the kids on the team, a little girl with pink bows around each of her pigtails, is calling for Minseok, and Sehun is standing impatiently between them and the car. Jongin can almost smell freedom.
“I’ll call you,” Minseok shouts over his shoulder as he makes his way over to the little girl, and Jongin is left standing there, mouth opening and closing like a fish’s.
It’s… it’s nothing. Minseok has a girlfriend. He asked Jongin to play soccer, not to go out on a date.
“Uncle Jongin, are you okay?”
“What?” He looks down at Sehun’s concerned face, and manages what might be a reassuring smile. “I’m fine. Ready to go home? We’re having pizza for dinner.”
“Pizza!” Sehun crows, taking off toward the car. Jongin follows more slowly, trying to ignore the way it feels like his phone (the one with Minseok’s phone number in it) is burning a hole in his pocket.
“Joonmyun is at the top of the soccer team phone tree?” Chanyeol asks curiously. Somehow, Chanyeol is the one with his arms full of snacks while Taemin and Jongin browse the shelves, even though Chanyeol carrying a lot of things almost always ends in disaster.
Chanyeol is always offering to carry things, though, and sometimes Jongin just lets him. He’s had a long week of rehearsals, and his old back injury has been flaring up, and tonight is his night off of Sehun duty, so he’s trying his best to enjoy a night of gaming with his friends.
“Yeah, he’s really involved with the team and stuff, so that’s like half of what I do right now with Sehun.” Jongin adds a bag of cheese puffs to the pile in Chanyeol’s arms, the wrapper crinkling as Chanyeol tries to balance everything.
“So,” Taemin says, a liter of soda cradled in his arms like a baby as he leans down to look at something on the bottom shelf. “What you’re saying is: Joonmyun is a soccer dad.”
Jongin shrugs, inexplicably filled with a sense of foreboding. “Yeah, so?”
Taemin turns to look at him, his smile widening, which is never a good sign. “Only you’re doing everything he used to do so now — “
“Don’t —“ Jongin tries to interrupt, catching on a moment too late.
“— you’re a soccer dad.”
Jongin cringes as Taemin cackles, clutching the liter of soda to his stomach like this is the funniest thing he’s ever heard. “Oh my god, you even drive a minivan!”
“Only because Clifford the Big Red Car died!” Jongin’s red SUV, a hand-me-down from his parents, had bit the dust last Spring in a dramatic billow of fumes, and Jongin had mourned its loss all summer. After he’d moved in, Joonmyun had generously given Jongin the keys to the (expensive, state-of-the-art, supermom-worthy) minivan and told him it was his for the year.
It runs, Jongin tells himself, and that’s what’s important.
“Jongin Kim, soccer dad,” Taemin wheezes, still laughing, and Chanyeol looks out from around a bag of pretzels, frowning.
“I think it’s nice,” Chanyeol starts to say, but he’s cut off by loud, nasal laughter one aisle over. “That sounds like Baekhyun. I thought he said he wasn’t free tonight?”
“We should ambush him,” Taemin says, finally distracted from laughing at Jongin by the prospect of a new target. “I bet he’ll scream like a little girl.”
Jongin shrugs, not really caring either way. Baekhyun exists to make everyone else’s lives miserable, but he also isn’t afraid to make himself the butt of a joke, so Jongin tries not to take the things he does too personally.
Except then he hears Baekhyun say, “Taeyeon, wait!” and the sounds of giggling and footsteps heading towards their aisle.
“Quick, hide!” Jongin hisses, dragging Taemin and Chanyeol down behind a display of Halloween candy. The packages in Chanyeol’s arms squish loudly as he tries to get out of sight and Taemin swears when Jongin accidentally steps on his foot.
“Why the fuck — “ Taemin starts, not even bothering to keep his voice down, and Jongin slaps a hand over his mouth.
Through the stacks of candy bars, Jongin can just barely see Baekhyun at the other end of the aisle. He’s got something in his hand — a bag of candy? — and there’s a woman with him, tiny and blonde. Taeyeon.
“Baekhyun!” she says, obviously trying to sound stern, but her voice is bubbling with laughter. “Give it back!”
“I’ll give it back,” Baekhyun says, smooth and flirtatious, “but it’s gonna cost you.”
Beside Jongin, Taemin is struggling to get free, but Jongin has had a lifetime of friendship to get used to things like Taemin licking his palm and learned a long time ago how to use his slight weight advantage.
He’s distracted enough that he doesn’t hear what else Baekhyun says, though, and the next thing he sees is Taeyeon with her hand on the back of Baekhyun’s neck, pulling him down for a kiss.
In his surprise, Jongin over-balances slightly, knocking Taemin over onto the floor. The liter of soda rolls out of his hands, skittering over the linoleum tile, only to get tangled in Chanyeol’s feet. All of the treats Chanyeol had been holding spill out across the floor in an avalanche of junk food and Jongin barely manages to keep from knocking the whole candy display down with him as he falls on his ass.
Luckily, somewhere in the middle of all that, Taeyeon and Baekhyun must have disappeared down another aisle, the sound of their flirtatious laughter fading as they move further away.
“God damn it, Chanyeol,” Taemin says, beginning to push himself up off the tile.
“Hey! That wasn’t even my fault!” Chanyeol pauses in the middle of getting up to fix his hair in of the reflective surfaces of the shelving and Taemin sighs noisily.
“You’re opening the soda,” Jongin tells Taemin as they pick everything up. “You’re the one that dropped it.”
Taemin chucks a package of Teddy Grahams at Jongin’s face, but Jongin ducks just in time. “Only because you pushed me!”
“Jongin,” Chanyeol asks while carefully stacking Pringles tubes in his arms, “why did we just avoid Baekhyun?”
Jongin looks at the floor to hide his guilty face. “I just… didn’t want to interrupt his date.”
“Are you kidding me?” Taemin says. He’s opened the bag of cheese puffs and is eating them thoughtfully. “That was the perfect opportunity to get back at him for that time last year when he stole your phone and changed all your contact names to ‘Bitch, I’m Madonna’.”
“That wasn’t that annoying.” It had only taken Jongin ten embarrassing conversations and six months to get all the names back to normal. No big deal. “Come on, let’s just go buy this stuff so we can get home and start gaming.”
Taemin and Chanyeol follow him to the register, Taemin still grumbling and Chanyeol trying to watch his step, but Jongin isn’t really paying attention.
He just saw Minseok’s girlfriend kiss someone else.
No, that doesn’t really compute in Jongin’s brain. He tries it a different way:
Minseok’s girlfriend cheated on him. And it’s Jongin’s job as his friend to tell him.
When Minseok actually calls Jongin that weekend, Jongin almost doesn’t pick up. He’d managed to get away with brief hello-goodbyes at soccer practices but he’s not sure what he’ll do in an actual conversation with Minseok.
He wants to tell Minseok. He feels like he should, but at the same time, Jongin never wants to have that conversation ever.
Still, he can’t bring himself to ignore Minseok’s call.
“Jongin? Hi, it’s Minseok.” Somehow, Minseok’s voice even sounds good over the phone, like Jongin can hear his hotness through the soundwaves. “What are you up to tonight?”
“Would you want to play some soccer?”
Alone time with Minseok! pleads one half of Jongin, while the other half insists Tell him! You have to tell him what you saw!
“Actually,” Jongin says, thinking quickly, “my back has kind of been hurting me lately. You know, from all my dancing? So. I probably shouldn’t. Play soccer, I mean.”
“Oh really?” Minseok says, sounding genuinely sorry. “I hope you feel better soon.”
“Thanks.” Jongin mentally pats himself on the back for averting that crisis.
“What about dinner?”
Jongin blinks, his inner celebration stopping dead in its tracks. “What?”
“If you can’t kick the ball around at all, you should at least get out of the house. Let me buy you dinner.”
There’s a strange buzzing in Jongin’s ears, like a live electrical wire mixed with a cricket. “You, buy me dinner?”
“Yeah, does that sound okay? I’ll even come pick you up.” Minseok’s voice is coaxing, as if Jongin needs convincing, when in reality, Jongin has been dreaming of going to dinner with Minseok since he was fourteen.
“Okay,” Jongin hears his mouth say, even as his brain buzzes.
“Great, I’ll see you in a hour!”
The call ends, but Jongin doesn’t move, the phone still pressed to his ear.
“What just happened,” he asks his bedroom. From his place on the plush dog bed on the floor, Monggu looks up at Jongin with soulful brown eyes before flopping back down with a sigh, as though he finds Jongin hopeless.
“Yeah,” Jongin says, finally letting his cell phone slide down into his lap. “I know.”
It’s not a date.
Minseok comes to the front door and knocks when he comes to pick Jongin instead of waiting for him to come outside. He’s got a nice, sit-down type restaurant all picked out for them to go to. He even has a reservation, which Jongin realizes was really good planning because it’s Friday night and the place is packed.
But it’s not a date. Because Minseok has a girlfriend to take on dates.
Honestly, it probably would have been better to have just played soccer like Minseok had suggested in the first place. At least they would have had less time to talk while running around the field.
Jongin likes talking to Minseok. Once he’s had a chance to get the crickets out of his brain and starts holding up his side of the conversation, it’s easy. The restaurant isn’t too fancy, but the tables are spaced far enough apart that he and Minseok can talk to each other without having to strain to be heard.
“How’s your final project coming?” Minseok asks, after they’ve gotten their drinks and ordered. “Are you choreographing something?”
Minseok’s got a button-up on, a gray one with the collar undone and the sleeves rolled up to his elbows, and it’s… distracting. Jongin desperately tries to focus.
Thankfully, dancing is like, the one thing he knows how to talk about.
“Yeah, Taemin — you remember Taemin, right? He and I are choreographing a set together. People are always saying we look alike? So we’re doing a mirror image kind of thing, playing with copies and opposites.” Minseok’s expression has gone from interested to something else, his smile warm enough to light his eyes. Jongin feels himself flush and looks down at his lap. “So. Um, it’s going good.”
“And after you graduate? What’s next?”
“I guess I could join a crew? I mean, that’s kind of what I imagined doing when I picked dance as my major, but that was before Sunyoung, um,” Jongin swallows, because it’s been over a year, and it’s still difficult to talk about. He’s not sure things like that ever get easier. “I don’t think I want that anymore.”
Minseok had met Sunyoung, had been at Joonmyun’s wedding, and then at the funeral five years later. Jongin hadn’t talked to him much then, a little too young and below the legal drinking age to hang out with Joonmyun’s friends at the wedding, even though he’d been a groomsman, and too shell-shocked to speak to pretty much anyone at the funeral.
But he had watched Minseok dance with Sunyoung and make her laugh so hard her cheeks turned pink, before bringing her back to her new husband and pressing their hands together as he congratulated them, and after the funeral, back at Sunyoung’s parent’s house, Minseok had found Jongin sitting alone on the stairs and pressed a glass into his hand. Jongin had drank it without asking what it was, fingers numb even as the alcohol burned his throat, because Joonmyun and Sunyoung were going to grow old together. Jongin was going to spend Thanksgivings over at their house, watching their little family grow up until Sehun was taller than both of his parents, and Joonmyun and Sehun were supposed to be happy. They didn’t deserve this —
“You’re all going to be okay,” Minseok had said, refilling Jongin’s glass once and only once. “You know that, right?”
Jongin hadn’t known that at the time, hadn’t believed it, but Minseok had been so earnest, his hands so steady as he reached out to hold the wrist of Jongin’s free hand, that Jongin had nodded. And the crush that Jongin had had back in high school on star soccer player Minseok Kim had dug a little deeper, sprouted roots and burrowed inside him without his permission.
“Being on a team would mean a lot of travel, wouldn’t it?” Minseok says, giving Jongin a look from across the table that says he understands, that Jongin doesn’t doesn’t need to explain, and the tension Jongin didn’t even realize he’d been holding in his jaw drains away.
“Yeah, I’d probably be away a lot, and… I don’t know.” Jongin waves with his straw, trying to think of how to say that he doesn’t want to be gone and miss things. Things like the occasional nights Joonmyun gets off work early enough to watch So You Think You Can Dance with Jongin after Sehun has gone to bed, or the snacks with Sehun after school each afternoon that always turn into a mini tea parties with Sehun’s stuffed animals.
“I didn’t think I would regret not being able to see my little sister go through high school as much as I did. Being away from family is hard.” Minseok says, like he can read Jongin’s mind, and Jongin nods. “It’s definitely good to be home after being away at school.”
Their food comes then, and Minseok thanks their waitress and smiles, and Jongin tries not to notice that it’s not as nice as the smile Minseok had given him earlier.
Picking up his fork, Jongin asks, “How’d you end up back here? I remember you had that soccer scholarship when you left, but…”
Minseok pauses thoughtfully for a moment, swirling the liquid in his glass a few times before answering. “I love soccer. I always have, and probably always will. Playing in college was a great opportunity for me, but after a couple of years I realized I didn’t really want to play professionally. Making it my job, all the work and travel and politics, it would have taken the fun out of it.” Grinning up at Jongin, he adds, “Besides, I was a good midfielder, but I’m a better teacher. I know people hear seventh grade social studies and cringe, but I like to think my students have fun.”
Jongin’s seventh grade social studies teacher had been an old woman that wore dresses with puffy sleeves and smelled overwhelmingly of cats. He tries not to be too jealous of Minseok’s students.
“When a teaching position opened up here near my family, it seemed like a great opportunity to move back,“ Minseok says. The light hanging above their table casts a warm glow on the skin of Minseok’s bare forearms as he sets down his drink and starts in on his meal. “I miss playing soccer and being on a team myself sometimes, but coaching Sehun’s team is really great.”
Jongin has stayed to watch some of Sehun’s practices and all of his games this season, and it’s pretty obvious that Minseok is a good coach, too. It’s rare to see one of the kids without a smile on their face when Coach Minseok is around, and when that does happen, Minseok is always there to find out what’s wrong.
There’s a wet spot on the tablecloth above Jongin’s plate, probably from the last time Jongin had picked up his glass to take a drink, and he reaches out to trace it with a finger. “The studio down near school offered me a job as a dance instructor. I was thinking something more like being a choreographer, but…”
“Isn’t that how most choreographers get started? And there’s nothing that says you can’t do both,” Minseok says, like it’s really that simple, but Jongin isn’t so sure.
He’s never been great at talking to strangers or in front of big groups, and that’s a lot of what being a dance teacher would be. Still, if it meant he could keep dancing every day…
He looks up, finger still tracing circles around the spot on the tablecloth. “Teaching, though? Me?”
“I’ve never seen you dance, but your soccer footwork was pretty amazing. And you never know until you try.” Minseok’s voice is playful, but his eyes are bright and perceptive, like he’s seeing more of Jongin than Jongin would normally put on display. “You might be a good teacher.”
Minseok’s eyes are the exact same shade of brown that goes gold in the light as the root beer barrel candies Taemin had gotten a five pound bag of one birthday, and he and Jongin had ate so many in one sitting that Jongin had been sick.
He feels kind of sick now too, with Minseok looking at him like that. He’s hardly had more than a few bites of his dinner, but his stomach swoops queasily, and Jongin’s shirt is suddenly too small, unbearably tight on his ribcage.
After what seems like a lifetime, Minseok glances down at his plate, not seeming to notice Jongin frozen in his seat on the other side of the table.
Jongin chews on his lip, torn. Under his fingertip, the wet spot on the tablecloth has almost dried, and Jongin scratches at it with a fingernail, screwing up his courage. The words almost stumble out of his mouth as he says, “You could, you know.”
Minseok’s head tilts questioningly, his fork halfway to his mouth. “What?”
“There’s a big program performance in November, and my final project will be on it. You could see me dance then. I mean, if you wanted.” Jongin is staring so hard at the tablecloth that he’s almost surprised it hasn’t caught on fire. He’s so intent on not meeting Minseok’s eyes that he doesn’t hear Minseok put his fork down and reach across the table.
“That sounds great,” he says, and suddenly, his fingers are on Jongin’s wrist. “I’d love to see what’s been keeping you so busy.”
The touch, Minseok’s hand still steady like Jongin remembered, but his own hand no longer numb with grief, practically burns. Jongin can feel his pulse throbbing in his throat.
But, while it’s true that Jongin has been busy with school, he’s also been avoiding Minseok because of what he has to (doesn’t want to) tell him. Jongin has liked Minseok since he was fifteen, likes Minseok more now than ever, but he can’t take this.
In a movement just shy of a flinch, Jongin pulls his hand back until it falls into his lap, fingers twisting together clammily.
“You don’t have to,” Jongin says, almost wishing he hadn’t asked in the first place because of the sinkhole widening in his belly. “It’s not ‘till the end of November.”
“I’ll be there, Jongin,” Minseok says, and Jongin finally meets his eyes. There’s something in his expression that Jongin can’t read, but for the first time, Jongin isn’t sure he wants to. “I wouldn’t miss it.”
The next time Jongin sees Minseok after Minseok took him out to dinner (there’s really no other way to describe it after Minseok insisted on paying the bill, Jongin has tried) is Sehun’s soccer game that weekend.
Taeyeon and her parents are there again, and Jongin tries to concentrate all his attention on watching Sehun sprint around the field with the kind of exuberance only a child can manage so he doesn’t have to see her with Minseok.
The other soccer parents know him now. They were predisposed to like him because of his relationship to Joonmyun, but Jongin thinks he might have won some of them over in his own right, if only out of pity. After they’d learned about his dance training, he’d been able to recommend several of the mothers a good studio for their kids to begin ballet classes, something which had apparently endeared him to them forever.
They surround him with conversations about things Jongin never thought he would learn about, like how to plan a week’s worth of food for a family of seven and how to stretch out slightly-too-small shoes in the freezer, and Jongin feels himself relaxing the more they talk.
After the game is over, though, Jongin can’t really avoid Minseok any longer.
“Jongin, over here!” he shouts, waving Jongin over to where he’s standing. When he’s only a few steps away, Jongin notices Sehun and a few of the other kids on his team crouched over Minseok’s feet.
“Uncle Jongin, look!” Sehun clamors, tugging on Jongin’s pant leg but not taking his eyes off Minseok’s feet. “Coach Minseok’s cleats have a tiger on them!”
Craning his neck, Jongin can see that Minseok’s cleats are actually patterned with tiger stripes. Submitting to the kid’s examination of his shoes, Minseok gives Jongin a rueful look. “My sister,” he explains. “She got them as a joke, but it seemed a waste not to wear them.”
Jongin knows it’s funny, that trying to be normal means he should laugh and maybe tease Minseok a little about his cleats. Minseok looks so good, though, with his cheeks and eyes bright with laughter and his hair ruffled from his hands and the wind. Jongin’s heart twists, like an ankle turned just the wrong way, and all he can manage is a weak smile.
Minseok frowns slightly when Jongin doesn’t say anything, and he asks, “How was your week?”
“Fine,” Jongin says. “You know, busy.” Out of the corner of his eye, he can see Taeyeon and her parents watching avidly as Minseok is surrounded by his team. He reaches over and taps Sehun on the head. “Time to go.”
Sehun pouts on their walk back to the car, but he’s never been the type to throw fits, and soon enough, he’s buckled safely into his booster seat. Over the past couple months, Jongin has gotten used to driving the minivan, using the button on the key fob to close the sliding door as he gets into the driver’s seat and starts the ignition.
“Uncle Jongin?” Sehun asks, only a few minutes into their ride, and Jongin glances up at his reflection in the rearview mirror before looking back out through the windshield.
“Are you and Coach Minseok friends?” His voice is thoughtful, like he’s been pondering this question for awhile.
“Yeah, we used to play soccer together.” It’s not an untrue answer. In fact, at this point, it’s the truest answer Jongin thinks he can give anyone about his relationship with Minseok right now. “Why?”
Sehun kicks his feet, still in their pink cleats, up from where they dangle into the back of the empty passenger seat in front of him. “You seemed sad when you saw him earlier and dad says friends aren’t supposed to make you sad.”
Jongin thinks about Minseok’s hand on his wrist at the funeral, and again at the restaurant last week. About the impossible gold-brown of Minseok’s eyes, and the way Taeyeon’s fingers had slipped into the hair at the nape of Baekhyun’s neck when she kissed him. “Sometimes being sad isn’t someone’s fault,” he says eventually. “It just happens.”
Sehun is quiet the whole rest of the way home, his face solemn in the rearview mirror.
Later, when Jongin is tucking him in, Sehun looks up at him with the same serious expression.
“I want you to have Pinku-pinku tonight,” he says, holding out the stuffed animal. “He always helps me when I’m sad, so maybe he’ll help you not be sad.”
Jongin takes Pinku-pinku in his hands reverently. “You sure you’ll be okay without him for tonight?”
Sehun rolls his eyes, the seriousness from before wiped away in an instant. “I’m not five, Uncle Jongin.”
Looking down at his six-year-old nephew, Jongin suppresses a smile. “Thank you, Sehun. Now, it’s time to go to sleep.”
“‘Kay,” Sehun says, snuggling under his covers. “Will dad come tuck me in later?”
“Of course. He always does.”
Sehun yawns, eyelids already drooping. “Goodnight kiss?
Leaning down, Jongin presses a kiss to Sehun’s forehead. “Sleep well.”
Back in his own bedroom, Jongin stares down at Pinku-pinku. Pinku-pinku’s little bear face stares back up at him, the pink of his bunny ears soft under Jongin’s fingers.
After Sunyoung’s death, Pinku-pinku had gone with Sehun everywhere. The stuffed bear had even sat on the edge of the tub during bath time, but even after all that, he’s in pretty good condition.
More than most children his age, Jongin knows that Sehun understands sadness. What Jongin is experiencing can’t even begin to hold a candle to the grief Sehun has had in his life, and what he sees when he looks down into Pinku-pinku’s round, black eyes, is a reality check.
Jongin can fix this, unlike most of the hurts in the world. He’s just hasn’t been able to find the courage until now.
“Stop being sad,” Jongin repeats Sehun’s words to himself, lying back on his bed. The sinkhole is still there, gaping in his stomach, but Sehun is right:
When Jongin folds his arms around Pinku-pinku to hug the bear to his chest, it kind of helps.