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when you come back

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Predictably, it’s awkward.

Sewoon is a taller than Jaehwan remembers, bonier, as if the years apart have stripped all the softness from his body. He goes in for a handshake while Jaehwan aims for a hug, and Sewoon’s outstretched hand ends up jabbing him in the abdomen before he pulls away guiltily, an apology on his lips. His brows furrow in concern as Jaehwan doubles over in mostly feigned pain, unsure of how to respond. His hesitation feels odd; they used to be on the same page once.

Jaehwan’s teasing words die in his mouth before they can leave it. Instead, he smiles as he straightens up, an easy lift of the lips. “Nice to see you again,” he says.

Sewoon’s face smooths into a polite expression. “You too, hyung.” Not quite a smile, but his eyes are warm as he takes a step forward. “You look well.”

“Thanks. You look—” Different, he wants to say, but Jaehwan isn’t sure if that’s entirely true.

This isn’t the Sewoon he knows, after all. This Jung Sewoon is the two-time award winning composer, dressed for the award show red carpet with the practiced elegance of someone who’s done this before. But Sewoon doesn’t know this Kim Jaehwan either—the award nominated up-and-coming actor, dressed to impress and fresh from his first ever red carpet. He feels sharper than he is, a sheep in wolves’ clothing. No wonder they feel so disconnected from one another.

“Handsome,” he finishes lamely. Jaehwan doesn’t miss the way Sewoon’s eyes widen slightly at the compliment, though he must be used to them by now. He lets out a small chuckle, his calm breaking for the first time in the night.

“Still the flatterer, hyung?” he asks, shifting his weight to the other foot.

“Just honest,” Jaehwan replies, flashing him a bright, white grin, brimming with borrowed confidence. “You know me.”

Sewoon studies him for a long moment, as if mapping every inch of his face with his eyes. “I don’t know if I still do,” he murmurs, more to himself than to Jaehwan. “But I’d like to.”

Jaehwan feels that peculiar hiccup in his heart he used to associate with Sewoon, dormant for the last four years, and now—

Me too, he thinks.

 


 

They exchange contact information through their managers and promise to meet up for coffee sometime later in the week. The rest of the night is a mixed bag; Jaehwan doesn’t win in his category, but Sewoon does. He applauds for Sewoon until his palms turn red.

Jaehwan heads home and tears his clothes off before climbing into bed, tired and disappointed, but—it doesn’t feel like a failure, Jaehwan thinks fiercely. It doesn’t, because for the first time in four years, he got the chance to speak to Sewoon face-to-face. And it felt—like everything.

Small victories.

 


 

Neither of them are famous enough to be forced to go out in disguise. It used to rankle, but Jaehwan is grateful for it now. He doesn’t want to meet Sewoon while looking like a fugitive on the run. He wants to look like Jaehwan, at least the way Sewoon remembers him from college.

He arrives a few minutes after Sewoon, who seems both familiar and alien to him. Jaehwan’s eyes fall on the cup of coffee by his arm (new) and move to the half-eaten slice of strawberry cake beside it (not). Sewoon stands to hug him while Jaehwan opts for a handshake, but the table prevents an injury this time, leaving them both standing there looking sheepish.

“I’m not sure I know how to do this anymore,” Sewoon confesses once Jaehwan is seated. He looks uncharacteristically nervous, but so is Jaehwan. He’d ordinarily reach out and pat Sewoon’s hand comfortingly, but it might not be welcome right now since he doesn’t really know where they stand.

“What, be friends?” With me? The unspoken additions lies between them, and Jaehwan knows Sewoon is thinking it too by the way his mouth tightens.

“It’s been a while since we were… there.”

Four years. More, Jaehwan thinks, if you subtract the time they were dating. “I guess.” He fiddles with the frayed threads of his cuffs. “There’s nothing really to it. Just take a mental leap back?” Jaehwan wonders if he’s talking about going back to before they broke up or back to before they started dating. Back, anyway, to a time they worked together.

Sewoon takes a cautious sip of his coffee. “It’s that easy, huh?” he says, almost teasingly, and some of the latent tension, the awkwardness, bleeds from Jaehwan’s body.

“Muscle memory,” Jaehwan says sagely. “Even if you’ve forgotten, your heart remembers.”

“My heart,” Sewoon repeats incredulously, reaching for his slice of cake.

Jaehwan shrugs. “It’s a muscle, right?”

Sewoon laughs then, not the small, surprised chuckle of the other night or the polite laughter he saves for the cameras, but a true laugh that comes from deep within. “You’re ridiculous,” he says, affectionately, fondly, and warmth spreads from the tips of Jaehwan’s fingers through his entire body.

“Only around you,” he says softly. and even if Jaehwan doesn’t sound sure of himself, he knows Sewoon hears him, and he knows Sewoon knows it’s the truth.

Sewoon pauses, then stretches out and covers Jaehwan hand with his own, a little clumsily, but well-meaning. He says nothing, but his mouth quirks. Jaehwan doesn’t quite remember how to read that expression, but he thinks he’ll learn.

 


 

They have a lot to catch up on. The last time Jaehwan saw Sewoon (the last, last time), he was still new to the music industry, but now he speaks of it with the ease of someone who’s been here for a long time, who’s secure. He talks of parties, of award shows, of people he’s met whose names Jaehwan has only heard of. There are parts of Sewoon’s life that feel incompatible with the person Jaehwan remembers, but it might just be the growth people go through when they pull apart.

It makes him a little sad, but then again, their distance was a decision they’d come to for themselves. It wasn’t something they took lightly, being young and in love, but life hit all of a sudden, and they made what they thought was the smart decision for both their careers. But Jaehwan’s learned that a career matters less than being with the people you care about in your life. He just wishes it was something he could’ve realized before.

Sewoon might too, because he looks at Jaehwan over his cup of coffee like he’s also wondering what they would’ve been like had they never broken up, whether things between them would feel as natural as always. And Jaehwan wants to ask, to confirm, but he swallows the question in the end and tears his gaze away. Sewoon leans back and doesn’t bring it up either.

 


 

Jaehwan wouldn’t call them dates, but he and Sewoon meet up a few more times in the following months. For coffee, because it’s safest even though Sewoon confesses he still doesn’t care for the taste, and for drinks once, though Jaehwan was sure he didn’t like the taste of that either. “You have to learn,” Sewoon sighs, cheeks dusted pink in the amber light. “In this industry, you have to learn.” He keeps touching Jaehwan’s arm through the whole night, and his heart responds in a way it’s not supposed to—but muscle memory, right?

Though their schedules are tight, they carve out times to see each other whenever they can. Jaehwan’s not sure how to deal with this new, tentative friendship. It’s not what it once was, despite his suggestions to Sewoon to just jump back. The spaces between them are different, their pauses laden with meanings they can’t translate.

Jaehwan tries to unravel it, but it frustrates him sometimes when he thinks about the sheer number of things he has to relearn about Sewoon. The things he feels like he’s getting wrong, things he doesn’t know how to respond to anymore. He’s not the most patient of people, but Sewoon has patience in spades and—

Some days Jaehwan feels like he’s waiting. They’re waiting. He just isn’t sure for what.

 


 

“What are we doing?” Jaehwan asks in the midst of dinner.

The question is as much to himself as it is to Sewoon. Is it just friendship? Is it something more? Or are they simply chasing memories, hoping for things to return to the way they were four years ago? Jaehwan knows they can’t go back. Things have changed, irrevocably.

But change isn’t bad. He might be awful at relearning how to be with Sewoon, but he wants to. Maybe it’s still muscle memory making his pulse race when he’s around Sewoon, putting thoughts of kissing him in his head, but Jaehwan thinks, wonders, hopes—

Sewoon sets his fork down. “I don’t know,” he says, his eyes remarkably clear. “I—” He glances down at the tablecloth, then looks back up. “The first time we went for coffee, I thought it was closure.” His mouth twists. “I always wondered—what you were doing, if you were happy.”

Jaehwan closes his eyes. “Yeah?” His voice sounds alien to his own ears. “And… now?”

“I wonder if we could be something again,” Sewoon whispers quietly. Jaehwan’s heart lurches in his chest, like it wants to jump plain out and land itself on Sewoon’s plate. “But we’re different now. We’re… puzzle pieces that don’t fit together anymore.” His smile turns rueful. “I guess that question is answered.”

“Is it really?” Jaehwan doesn’t trust his voice to sound as steady as he means it to, but neither does he want this to end. No doors closed but ones he wants to throw open. Four years apart and he still feels the same for Sewoon, the same love and warm affection, the same sensation of coming home. It might be slightly changed, new furnishings and new wallpaper, but it’s his home. “I don’t think so. I mean, I haven’t said anything yet.”

Sewoon blinks at him in wonder, a small, secret smile blossoming on his face, and this one Jaehwan remembers from the first time he told Sewoon he liked him and haltingly asked him out. He returns it a dozen times over. Sewoon holds out a hand over the table. Jaehwan takes it, and—

They’re not entirely in sync, and his hand doesn’t slot in there as perfectly as it once did. Jaehwan senses new calluses, new scars, but he runs his thumb over Sewoon’s knuckles and thinks, in time he’ll rediscover every part of him. “You tell me then, hyung,” Sewoon says.

Jaehwan clears his throat. “I don’t know why we couldn’t make it work again.”

Sewoon doesn’t say anything, but he doesn’t let go either.

 


 

Jaehwan thanks Sewoon in his award acceptance speech. "Four years too late," he says, "But I love you, and I'm grateful you accepted me back." 

(Later, Sewoon presses a laughing kiss to his lips and tells him, "You might be the love of my life and—I’m alright with that.")