Rating: NC-17 overall
Warning: Language. Mentions of prostitution.
Wordcount: 4000 (24 000 in total)
Disclaimer: I am not associated with SME in any way. I do not own SHINee. This is just for kicks.
Summary: Still mourning the loss of his muse, photographer Minho is persuaded by his friend Jonghyun to tag along to the local Cabaret in the infamous Red Lights district. The moment the young dancer steps on stage Minho is mesmerised, determined to take his picture. But is he just trading one obsession for another? And can love really be found with someone who's willing to do anything to get famous, including selling their own body?
LEARNING TO LET GO
“You’ve turned into a recluse.”
Jonghyun steps right into Minho’s apartment. He leaves the door wide open as he walks over to the windows and without further ado he pulls the black curtains apart. He doesn’t seem to care how Minho practically throws himself across the bin of undeveloped negatives on the table.
The action is unneeded though, for it’s already darkening outside, and the only light is that of the moon and the streetlights, hardly managing to seep through the grimy windows to illuminate the dark floorboards.
Everywhere around him in the dingy apartment hangs photographs on long threads, crisscrossing the room to form a strange kind of web.
“You need to get out,” says Jonghyun. “And I know just the place.”
Still prostrate over the bin of negatives Minho groans.
Jonghyun doesn’t listen. He looks around him, searching for something, then he starts making his way over to the couch which Minho clearly has been using for a bed these past few weeks, not wanting to leave his lab for the adjoining bedroom.
Jonghyun sees why when he passes: The bedroom is impossibly even fuller of photographs. All of the same motif.
Jonghyun sighs. He’s always thought his friend treads the fine line between genius and madness but he wonders now if he hasn’t tripped that line at last. And ended up on the wrong side of it.
He finds his way over to the couch at last, having to crouch down, almost crawl, for a good portion of the way. He pulls what he’s aimed for off it – Minho’s coat – and throws it at him across the room.
“Get dressed,” he says. “And bring your camera.”
“What for?” says Minho. “Where are you taking me?”
“Someplace that will hopefully make you forget about—” he gestures around the room, at the hundreds of photographs hanging everywhere “—all this.”
Minho grunts in disapproval, but he starts pulling on his jacket and Jonghyun breathes out silently, thinking it might not be too late to save him yet.
“We’re going to the Red Light district?” Minho says. “I don’t want to go to a prostitute.”
“I’m not taking you to one; I’m taking you to see a show.” He gestures up at the highest billboard right in front of them, placed on the biggest, gaudiest building around, just across the street, spelling CABARET in huge red, glowing letters.
“The Cabaret…” says Minho warily. “You’re taking us to the Cabaret? Isn’t that a little… jolly?”
“Yes,” says Jonghyun. “Exactly what you need! Glitz and glamour, dancing and tons of naked flesh to pull you out of this mood!”
“Jong…” Minho tries. “Can’t you see why I—?”
“Yes, yes, but you’ve been shut in your apartment for weeks now. Months! It’s time for a change. Life does go on you know.”
Understanding Jonghyun isn’t going to take ‘no’ for an answer Minho follows him across the street at a running pace – it looks like it’s going to start to rain any second now – and into the brightly lit building.
Stepping inside the Cabaret is an assault on the senses in a multitude of ways: Everywhere is bright colours and bright lights, everywhere is people, milling about, talking, laughing, shouting – the noise is incredibly loud – and the air is thick with the smell of cigar smoke, alcohol and burnt sugar. Over all the din can-can music is playing loudly. Every time the doors to the hall beyond opens the sounds intensifies.
Jonghyun grabs Minho and pulls him with him after he’s paid for their tickets, through the throng and into the main hall. The huge room is packed. Minho wonders if it’s like this every— he can’t even recall what day of the week it is – Tuesday? Perhaps Jonghyun was right in dragging him outside after all…
They get seats at a table somewhere not too far from the stage. Minho isn’t really sure how they manage it, but he suspects Jonghyun might have become something of a regular and has maybe smooth-talked the girl in the ticket booth into giving them good seats. He thinks he can remember him mentioning this place quite a few times now over the last weeks, even though he hasn’t really been listening when he’s come around to check up on him. He vaguely recalls there was something about one of the dancers…
A routine is already in motion up on the stage. Can-Can dancers swinging their legs wildly to the raucous music. The number fades out eventually, and the lights on the stage dims. Actually, the whole hall darkens. A solemn string starts up from somewhere and the two lights left on the stage focuses on the same spot.
It seems the audience knows what’s coming for they start to applaud expectantly.
And then something starts to rise slowly out of the stage, appearing in the middle of the ring of light.
A person, dressed completely in white.
Minho isn’t sure if it’s a man or a woman at first – the long robe and the large, glittery headdress helps to remove any tell-tale signs, and the person’s face is all too androgynous – the sexlessness only enhanced by the make-up.
He can see the face quite well from where he sits, so close to the stage: The impossibly high cheekbones and the small plump mouth. The almond shaped eyes, lined thick in black. The person keeps them closed until they’re fully up on the stage.
The whole hall is so silent now one could hear a pin drop. Minho realizes he’s holding his breath.
The light flares brighter and the person on the stage tilts their head back and stretches their arms out to the sides, the long white sleeves trailing to the stage floor, almost like the arms of a strait jacket.
Two dancers appear on stage, seemingly from nowhere, dressed in black, and they sneak gracefully, dancingly, up on the person in white that is standing there so still you hardly think they're alive. They each grab one of the long sleeves, and start to dance with them, twirling them around tauntingly. It’s as if they’re playing with the audience, because the audience knows what’s going to happen and they want to drag out the moment for as long as possible.
They start to slowly twist the long rope-like sleeves around their own bodies, until they’re completely wrapped up in them. Then, suddenly, as the music builds, they take a step to the side and pull – the white garment of the person in the middle rips apart down the middle – and the stage goes black. The music stops playing. Minho hears everyone in the audience gasp. There’s even some scattered applause.
A single light turns on and this time it’s blood red. The person standing in the light is now almost completely naked. Minho can now tell it’s a man. He’s holding a microphone in his slender, painted hand, and his eyes are now open. With an elegant flourish he brings it slowly to his lips, the music starts up again, and he starts to sing.
During the whole rest of the performance Minho sits as if mesmerized. He can’t take his eyes off the beautiful man moving around the stage, like he was born on it. What his voice lacks – even if it’s a fairly good one – he makes up for in passion, and in movement.
Minho has never seen anyone dance like that before, didn’t know you could dance like that. It’s wild and passionate, graceful, sinuous, and… incredibly, indescribably erotic. Some of the stuff he does with the other dancers is bordering on pornographic. Sometimes Minho feels like he’s watching an orgy happening on stage, but he can’t tear his eyes away for one second.
Never in his life before has he been so enthralled, and by a man no less.
When it’s all over there is a couple of seconds of silence before the crowd practically explodes in applause. People stand up and cheer, stomping their feet and clapping madly. Catcalls and calls for encores can be heard from all over the place, but the beautiful, half-naked man on the stage just bows low, his headdress almost touching the floor, and disappears before the overwhelming applause have even begun to fade.
“I told you you’d want to see this!” Jonghyun says elbowing Minho in the side. He’s standing up and clapping frenetically too, with the rest of the audience. It seems Minho is the only one that has remained seated.
Minho realizes his mouth is hanging open – he doesn’t know for how long he’s had it open like that – and scrambles to close it.
“Who was that?” he says.
“That,” says Jonghyun, making a pause for more drama, “was the Cabaret’s star. Their premiere diva. The number one courtesan. What most everyone in here has come to see. That,” he says, pausing again, “was Key.”
“Key?” says Minho. “What kind of name is that?” Somehow he had wanted the mesmerizing young man to be called something more remarkable than that, to fit his spectacular performance.
“I dunno,” says Jonghyun. “I heard they used to introduce him with the line ‘The Key to our Hearts’ and somehow that just stuck with the audience, more than the initial stage name they had thought out.”
“So it’s not his real name?” says Minho.
“Of course not!” Jonghyun scoffs. “You think anyone around here uses their real name? It’s all Velvet, Velour, Sapphire, Crystalline and Sparkle!”
“Sparkle?” says Minho, turning to his friend with a sceptical look.
“I happen to know a very fine young lady in this establishment who calls herself ‘Sparkle’,” Jonghyun retorts. “She’s on next, if I’m not mistaken.”
But Minho has no intention to wait around for Sparkle. He rises out of his chair, picking his leather bag with his camera equipment up off the floor.
“Where are you going?” says Jonghyun. “The show’s not over yet. I just told you—”
“I have to go talk to him.”
Jonghyun looks confused. “Talk to who?”
“Key? Why? He won’t likely talk to you. He’s the star of the show, the most sought after courtesan around here – you’ll need lots of money if you want to get within even an inch of him. And last time I looked you had none.”
“Well I have to try,” says Minho and slings his bag onto his shoulder. “He’s an artist too, isn’t he?”
Jonghyun looks at him like he’s out of his mind.
“Are you out of your goddamned mind?”
“Don’t wait for me,” says Minho and starts walking away, towards the stage’s left-hand exit.
“Yeah, I’ll be looking for your corpse in a back-alley dumpster come morning!” Jonghyun calls after him.
There’s a bulky-looking guard guarding the stage exit, but as he is momentarily distracted by an elderly gentleman on unsteady legs spilling his drink all over him Minho slips past and through the door behind him.
Key isn’t that hard to find. Minho spots him as soon as he opens the door. He’s easy to single out among all the people populating the corridor leading up to the stage, because of his large, glittery headdress.
Minho presses through the throng of people moving back and forth, carrying stage props and clothes, moves up as close to him as he can and calls out his name. Everyone seems too busy to pay him any mind.
“Key! Key! Can I have a moment of your time? Key! Please?”
Key turns and easily zeroes in on him as the odd one out in the crowded corridor. He gives him one coldly appraising look, taking in the manner of his clothes and the battered old camera bag slung over his shoulder.
“You can’t afford me,” he surmises and keeps walking. He cranes his neck and looks around, possibly searching for a guard. “Who let you in anyway? You shouldn’t be back here.”
Minho adjusts the shoulder strap of his big, heavy bag and follows, crisscrossing between stage hands and cabaret artists in various stages of undress. There’s no guard in sight and he’s not ready to give up just yet.
“I’m not here to— I don’t want to…” He lowers his voice and almost whispers the words “…sleep with you. I just want to take your picture.”
Key stops and whirls around on the spot. His coaled-up, almond-shaped eyes seem to take Minho in from head to foot more thoroughly this time, scrutinizing him in a way Minho has never been scrutinized before. He feels almost as if he’s the one dressed in nothing but a pair of tiny, sequined silver shorts, and not Key.
“I haven’t met anyone who doesn’t want to sleep with me yet.” He makes it sound like it’s a personal affront. He cocks his hip seductively and places his hand on it in a clear challenge. “Don’t you find me attractive?”
For some reason Minho finds it hard to look at him when answering, like the glitter dusted all over his naked upper body is blinding him, when before he couldn’t seem to take his eyes off him.
“I find you… very beautiful,” he says. “That’s why I want to take your picture.”
“But you don’t want to sleep with me.” Key scoffs and turns to begin walking again. “What’s wrong with you? You a eunuch?”
“I have a fiancée,” Minho blurts out.
Key laughs, loudly, making a few heads turn as they pass. Otherwise the people in the backstage corridor seem very preoccupied, like the amount of half-naked or naked people running around is perfectly normal and not distracting at all.
“Like that has ever stopped anyone before,” says Key. “You think half the men in there don’t have wives, or fiancées waiting for them at home? It’s why they’re here, because we give them something they can’t get at home.”
“Twenty-four-hour entertainment?” Minho tries. They’ve stopped in front of a white door, the paint peeling off it in places, with a golden star on it, bearing Key’s name. Key’s hand is on the worn handle.
“Cock,” Key says bluntly. For a moment Minho is shocked to see that word pass those pretty lips and Key smirks, like he knows it.
“Well, that’s not what I’m here for,” says Minho.
“You just want to take pictures?” Key’s eyes wander over him once more, this time like he’s trying to spot some terminal but easy-to-miss disease.
“Nude pictures?” he asks, raising a well-groomed, dark eyebrow.
“What?” says Minho. “No! You can wear whatever you like. I’m mostly interested in your face. Close-ups. A few portraits. And…” he hesitates “…and your hands.”
“My hands?” Key looks down at his hands like he’s never seen them before, the shiny red nail polish reflecting the lights around them. “Oh, I see…” When he looks up at Minho he’s smirking again. “So not so wholesome and innocent after all, eh?” he says.
“Huh?” says Minho and blinks.
“I think we’ve found your fetish.”
“Er, my what?”
Key’s smirk only grows wider, but he doesn’t answer.
“Look,” says Minho. “All I want is to take a few pictures. It won’t even take up much of your time.
“What will you even do with these pictures?”
“Exhibit them. Sell them.”
“So you’re an artist?”
The way Key asks the question makes Minho hesitate. “…sort of. Yes.”
“Well, you’ve come to the right place then. This place is teeming with starving artists. Usually I don’t give them the time of day. So why should I make an exception for you?”
“I could make you famous.”
Key laughs again. He throws his head back elegantly to expose the smooth, pale column of his throat. “Honey, I’m already famous.”
“Outside of the Red Light district,” says Minho.
Something changes in Key’s eyes as he looks him over for a fourth time. A glimmer of greed has entered them, unseen until now.
“Maybe we can arrange something…” he says.
He holds open the door and Minho steps inside the dressing room. It’s not large by any means but still probably the largest one on the premises. As Minho stops in the middle of the room Key walks past him, up to an ostentatious boudoir, absolutely packed with bottles and jars, of skin cream, make-up and perfume. He grabs a towel hanging over the back of the chair in front of it and starts wiping the glitter off from his chests and shoulders.
Trying his best not to stare Minho looks around at the room instead. There’s not a lot of furniture in there, but still the place seems crammed. There’s a daybed along one of the walls, but it’s almost completely covered in clothes, just like every other object in the room.
“Sit down,” Key urges with a wave in the direction of it. He then takes his towel and disappears behind a painted dressing screen in a corner.
Minho moves over to the daybed and shifts what appears to be a huge mink coat and a pink feather boa to the side and sits down, putting his bag on the floor between his feet.
“So what made you decide to grace our little cabaret this evening?” Key asks from behind the screen. A pair of sequined silver shorts appear over the edge as Key has now removed them. “I haven’t seen you around here before.”
“No, I—” Minho stops himself. “How do you know if I’ve been here before or not? There were hundreds of people in there – there must be thousands passing through each week, you couldn’t possibly memorize every face.”
Key’s head appears around the edge of the screen. He has now removed his gaudy headdress and Minho can see his hair is short and bleached a very pale, nearly white, blond underneath.
“Trust me – I would remember a face like yours.”
His head disappears again before Minho has a chance to catch his expression. And he’s too busy pulling a red garter and a riding crop that he accidentally sat on out from under him anyway. When he’s successfully freed the items he places them gingerly on top of the coat.
“I came here with a friend,” Minho says.
“Is he an artist too?”
“Yes, a poet. His name is Kim Jonghyun.”
“Oh, he’s that man that hangs after one of the showgirls? Yes, I think I know him. What’s your name, by the way?”
Key comes around the screen again, this time dressed in a long turquoise kimono-like bathrobe that trails after him as he walks. He’s wearing a pair of oriental slippers on his feet.
“Minho,” Minho says. “Choi Minho.”
“I’ve never heard of you,” says Key, walking up to the boudoir again. He sits down and pushes a hand through his hair, loosening up the strands that have been combed back flat to fit snugly under the headdress. “Are you sure you have what it takes to make me famous?”
“If you give me a chance I know I will.”
Key turns his head and smiles at him across his shoulder. “Confident. I like that.”
Minho bends down and starts rummaging through his bag. “I have some pictures with me, I could show you.” He pulls out an album and rifles through it, stops somewhere in the middle and hands it to Key.
Key takes the album in his hands. He looks at the picture for a long time, then turns the leaf and looks at the next, and the next, and the next. When he finally hands the album back to Minho he still hasn’t said a word.
This is a first for Minho: People usually hum and haw over the pictures a lot, and it always ends in them either telling him flat out they’re not interested, or calling him a young genius. But he’s never gotten complete silence as a reaction before.
He takes the album back and slips it back into his bag.
“You’re very talented…” Key says quietly, when Minho’s nearly done closing the bag up again. “I’ve never seen pictures like these before…”
“But…?” says Minho, straightening, sensing one is hanging in the air.
“Those people…” Key shifts a bit on his chair, looking uncomfortable for the first time since Minho’s met him. Minho hasn’t known him long but he’s pretty sure this doesn’t happen very often. “It’s as if you captured their very souls…”
“Ah,” says Minho. He sees the thought of having the same done to him puts Key ill at ease and this is also the first time he senses there’s another person behind that cocky, flamboyant, larger-than-life stage persona. “Well, if you don’t like the pictures I will destroy the negatives so no one can ever see them.”
He knows it’s a dangerous thing to promise, because he already knows that if Key lets him photograph him the pictures will be stunning – probably his best works yet – and if he gives Key that much control over them it could end in disaster. But it’s basic photographer etiquette: Don’t display an unwilling subject.
He waits for Key to answer but right then there’s a knock on the door.
Without waiting for an answer the knocker opens the door and pops their head in. It’s a young, skinny boy with a very bright smile.
Minho can’t help but notice that Key’s face brightens too when he looks at the boy and momentarily returns it. Another crack in the diva’s mask – it’s obvious he cares about the kid.
“Hello Taemin,” he says.
“Mr. Lee sent me to tell you you’re back on in ten minutes and to, er,” Taemin glances quickly in Minho’s direction, “to remind you not to be distracted by pretty young admirers who can’t pay for themselves…”
“I’m back on?” says Key, ignoring the reminder. “I thought he said I could have the night off?”
“Well, apparently some Lord-what’s-his-name just appeared with a group of friends and they missed your performance. They’re calling for an encore.”
“People can do that?” says Minho from the daybed.
“If they’ve got enough money, yes,” says Key.
“The Lord also, er,” Taemin glances once more towards Minho, “he’s also requested a private, er, audience with you, after your performance.”
Key sighs and rises from his chair. “Oh well, so much for my beauty sleep tonight…”
“Mr. Lee says he’s sorry and that he’ll let you have tomorrow night off instead.”
“Yeah, yeah,” says Key. “That’s what he promised me the night before, and the night before that…”
Minho has a moment where he wonders if he’s still there in the room, if he’s suddenly gone invisible, as much as Key’s uncaring, glamorous façade has crumbled in the last couple of minutes. Minho hasn’t noticed it before but he can see now that he looks tired underneath all the make-up – and thinks that a great deal of it is probably there to cover that up.
“He really is sorry,” says Taemin.
“I know he is,” Key says with another sigh. He walks behind the screen to get dressed again. “He’s always sorry.”
“But he also says to remind you that we need the money,” Taemin continues. “Desperately.”
“We always do,” says Key. He kicks the slippers off, and pulls the sequined shorts down from the dressing screen again.
Minho rises from the daybed. “I should probably go…”
“Taemin – will you see Mr. Choi out?” Key asks.
Minho walks slowly over to the door where Taemin is waiting, very aware that he still hasn’t received an answer from the diva.
As he reaches it he hears from behind the screen:
“I’ll talk to Mr. Lee about the pictures after the performance. Come back tomorrow and I’ll let you know what he said.”
As the dressing room door closes behind them Minho turns to Taemin. “Can’t he decide who to see for himself?”
“Mr. Lee is his employer. He is bound to him by contract; he owns all his time. If anyone wants to spend time with Key they must go through him first.”
“So Key’s basically his slave?” says Minho.
“He can break free of the contract at any time,” Taemin says. “But then he won’t be performing in the cabaret anymore, of course. And he won’t be a star. So far it’s been a mutually beneficial agreement for the both of them.”
“And this Mr. Lee is forcing him to whore himself out to all the wealthier guests?”
“Mr. Lee isn’t forcing him to do anything. Key knew what he signed up for and he did it willingly. He can always refuse a client, but—”
“Then he’ll be out of a job,” says Minho through his teeth. “I understand.”
“I don’t think you do,” says Taemin. “Most of those who come here come from nothing at all. This is better than the life they had before. Much, much better. Here you actually have a chance to be someone.”
“Was it like that for you as well?”
“They don’t force you to whore yourself out too, do they?”
“No,” says Taemin with a small smile. “I’m no performer. But I’d like to be, one day. Key says I’ve got what it takes to become a dancer, but so far he hasn’t let me try out for one. I’m just his assistant.”
“Well, that might be better for you,” Minho mumbles, so low Taemin doesn’t hear. He hates the idea of the cute, innocent-looking Taemin doing what Key does.
Minho thinks he should be smiling when he leaves the warmth and dazzling lights of the cabaret for the dark, rainy streets outside, but all he can think of is how he hates the idea of Key doing what Key does even more.
A/N: This fic started of as a drabble, which I wrote mostly because I wanted MinKey in a Moulin Rouge type setting and Key in skimpy, glittery costumes, but it quickly grew out of proportion and turned into a full blown fic. It was kind of an uphill struggle to finish it in the end but somehow I managed. A lot of it is thanks to elirian_19 and fonulyn who kept encouraging me and listening patiently to all my whining. I love you guys, so, so much <3
ATTENTION READERS: Part 2 & 3 are now member locked, since they contain smut, which means you need to join this comm to read them. Sorry for the inconvenience.