Pairing: Jinki/Kibum (Onew/Key)
Notes: For scylladakylla because I never got around to writing genderswitch AU lol. Though you did it so well that I really didn't need to! I hope you enjoy this. I tried. :(
Summary: College AU! Things always end better than Jinki expects. 4120 words of Jinki being hopeless.
Lee Jinki is touted as a ballad singer and his first single meets with moderate sales. Most of his fans are older, middle-aged women who find his voice soothing and somewhat nostalgic. His second single and full-length album are pretty much commercial disasters, and failed attempts to break into the variety show circuit and drama scene lead critics to believe maybe he debuted too early, maybe he debuted in the wrong decade, maybe he just wasn’t cut out for this. It’s the last one that hurts the most.
It’s hard, but Jinki smiles through it all. “Music is my life,” he says quietly in his first appearance on a talk show. “I couldn’t do anything else.” He then stuns the studio into silence for a glorious five minutes and the host swears up and down years later that just remembering the performance still gives her chills.
Management lets him gently fade into obscurity after the first sixteen excruciating months. “I’m sorry, Jinki-sshi.” The executive who leads him through all the legal proceedings is exactly in the demographic Jinki targets, and when she looks at Jinki, she can’t help but feel sorry. “Boybands are in, and it’s getting to the point that further promotions would be detrimental rather than helpful to the company’s name. The official report is that you’re on hiatus.”
It’s the nicest dropping in their entire history – probably because Jinki did have the talent, did have the voice; he was just unlucky and fame isn’t something that can be bought.
Jinki smiles on the outside. “I understand,” he says in his awkward-honest way, and thinks about how he is 20 with only a high school degree; how he trained for 4 years and how his mother and father had forcefully opposed him every step of the way; how his mother’s face had shone when he came home two weeks after his debut, and the ten copies of his single he saw in his father’s car, like little soldiers keeping guard.
At first he’s a neighborhood celebrity, with his mother’s friends coming over every once in a while to gush about how much they just love him, could he please sign a copy of his CD for them? and even their daughters sneaking over for just a look at the man who is the closest they will ever come to a taste of fame in their life. They are sorely disappointed when they realize Jinki’s polite, gentlemanly, a little clumsy, sunny, shy and bright – nothing like the dashing, princely, idol-like men of their dreams.
“I’d like to go back to school,” he tells his parents quietly one night, and there is both surprise and relief in their eyes – God knows how many nights they’ve stayed up, worrying about their son’s future. “I’ve already signed up for the entrance exam, and I’ve been studying lately.” He hesitates, and then – “Mother, father, I’m sorry for the trouble I’ve caused you.”
“No,” his mother whispers, already across the room and wrapping thin arms around Jinki. “Never. You are our son, Jinki. It is no trouble at all.”
Jinki thinks about his beautiful, thin mother, his stoic, taciturn father and how much of each of them is in him; his mother’s gentleness, his father’s inability to express himself properly. He untangles himself from his mother’s embrace, and kisses her forehead gently. He takes in the age lines around her eyes, the gray shimmering in her hair and he feels sorry, so so sorry.
School comes back in short, stuttering bursts for Jinki, not like singing, which has always come smoothly. He easily clears the entrance exams and wonders idly if perhaps he should’ve aimed a bit higher; then he remembers his mother’s anxious, worried look, and firmly tells himself it’s good enough.
He is easily the oldest in his introduction to advertising class (“Just try everything,” his mother had warned him, and Jinki had signed up for whatever caught his eye) full of bright-eyed, if not fully awake, 18-year-olds and his feeling of self-consciousness are only increased tenfold when he notices one such 18-year-old staring at him intently and often enough for the past four weeks that he can’t help but notice.
Afterwards, he packs his books as quickly as he can, considering his first month a relative success – no one had talked to him more than necessary, and other than one terrifying moment when he was almost mowed over by a young-looking boy who swore he was getting a signature for his mother (the name Jinki had written sounded decidedly male though), the last week had gone rather normally. Until The Starer comes by and leans against his desk casually, examining the nails on his right hand and effectually trapping Jinki’s schedule between hip and wood.
“Er,” Jinki stammers. “Excuse me.” That’s mine, his mind offers helpfully. Please remove your rather graceful body away from my vicinity was another option he quickly cast away.
“You’re excused,” says The Starer cheekily, and Jinki freezes. “Hey, are you – by any chance, are you Lee Jinki?”
Jinki’s shoulders drop in relief. Fans. Okay. Fans, he could handle.
“Yes?” He offers, and smiles weakly. “Er, nice to meet you. I’m Lee Jinki – well, you know that already, I guess.”
“Kim Kibum,” says the boy. He smiles and it’s wide and a touch awkward and Jinki sees him for the 18-year-old he really is. “Nice to meet you too. My mom’s a huge fan. Guess I caught on too, after a while. I really liked ‘The Sun Sets on Our Love’ by the way, even though I know your first single was more popular.”
“Really?” Jinki asks, and winces inwardly at the wonder in his voice. “I mean, thank you. I just – I’m not used to male fans. Er. Young fans. And male fans. Young and male fans.” Stop talking, please, the voice inside his head groans. He shuts up.
“Really,” Kibum says, an amused smile spreading across his face. “You’ve got quite an underground following, you know. Hey, what do you have now? Oh, lunch? Do you want to get lunch together?”
“Oh,” Jinki says, momentarily flustered. “Oh, I mean – yes, I would love to. That would be great. Thank you, Kibum-sshi. It’s an honor.”
Kibum laughs, a loud burst of wonder and happiness. “It’s not much of an honor to eat lunch with me,” he says. “Not when you see who I eat with. Anyway, how are your other classes? What did you think about the lecture today?”
Jinki answers in short, polite sentences, marveling inwardly at Kibum’s easy expressiveness. He’s always liked other people, and it’s been so long. Fame, he remembers, offered little in companionship, and his neighbors were always either too old or too young.
“Is this okay?” Kibum asks, weaving his way through the cafeteria to a table near the window. “Do you eat here often?”
“It’s fine,” Jinki replies, tone still polite. “I usually just skip lunch to study.”
Kibum shoots him a horrified look over his shoulder. “How can you skip lunch?” He asks, making a face. “No wonder you’re so skinny. You should eat more.”
Jinki bites back a smile at Kibum’s comfortable, scolding tone. “I’ll try,” he says solemnly.
“Good.” Kibum nods in satisfaction, stopping at a table with two other boys seated across from each other, sharing a CD player and talking amicably. “This is Lee Taemin and Kim Jonghyun. Taemin-ah, Jonghyun-ah, this is Lee Jinki.”
Jinki recognizes Lee Taemin as the same boy who’d asked him for an autograph earlier and he watches, in confused amusement, as Lee Taemin’s mouth drops open. “Nice to meet you,” he says after a moment.
“Whoa, cool!” Taemin says, eyes shining. “Hyung, you didn’t tell me you were friends with Jinki-sshi!”
“Taemin-ah’s a big fan,” Kibum explains, and pats Taemin’s head affectionately. “Calm down, Taemin. Don’t scare him away!”
“He hasn’t stopped talking about you since you gave him the autograph this morning,” Jonghyun, who looks somewhat familiar, confides in Jinki. “It was getting annoying, to be honest. Nice to meet you too, hyung. I think we’re in the same business management class.”
Jinki’s expression clears. “That’s right,” he says, beaming. “You sit two rows ahead of me, don’t you?”
“Next to the tall, serious one?” Jonghyun grins, an easy, warm smile. “Yeah, that’s me.”
Kibum slides into the seat next to Kibum and gestures across the table to an empty spot next to Jonghyun. “Jonghyun-ah’s a year older than me. We work together!” He looks at Jonghyun with exaggerated adoration. “We’re best friends forever, aren’t we, Jonghyun-ah.”
Jonghyun grimaces. “Who wants to be your friend,” he says, sticking out his tongue, but there is easy camaraderie in their half-hearted insults and Jinki smiles.
“Everyone,” Kibum answers airily. He ruffles Taemin’s hair when he snorts. “Taemin-ah’s our local genius. He skipped like two grades or something so he’s in my year and he always, always ranks better than me on exams. It’s disheartening,” he adds cheerfully. “I’ve known him since we were eight. His parents made me promise to keep track of his every movement.”
Taemin rolls his eyes, batting at Kibum’s hand. “They asked you to check up on me occasionally,” he points out. “Not stalk me.” He turns to Jinki. “How come you’re here, hyung?” He asks curiously. “Don’t you need to work on your next album?”
Jinki recoils a little, the words striking up shame that he thought was long dormant. “Um,” he starts quietly, but Kibum notices his discomfort and cuffs Taemin on the head.
“Yah!” He scolds. “What are you bothering Jinki-hyung for? Eat your lunch.” He smiles at Jinki apologetically. “Sorry about Taemin; when he skipped two grades his social growth was permanently retarded. Tragic, but true. He may never catch up.”
“Hey!” Taemin says reproachfully around a mouthful of rice. “That’s not fair, Kibum-hyung. You’re just jealous I’m smarter.”
As Taemin and Kibum get involved in a heated mock-argument about courtesy and grades, Jonghyun turns to Jinki, who is watching bemusedly, moment of embarrassment over. He rolls his eyes good-naturedly. “They’re always like this,” he says, waving a hand with the air of someone who has given up questioning the insanity he lives in. “But in reality, Kibum dotes on Taemin. It’s disgusting. Sometimes I think he’s his mother, or something.”
Jinki smiles at Jonghyun. “I don’t mind,” he says. “It’s been – it’s been a long time since I’ve had friends my age.”
Jonghyun smiles at him, lopsided and warm – they’re all so friendly, Jinki thinks with a pang. It really has been too long. His smile back is picture-perfect, a result of training and countless comments of not too wide, not so much teeth, Jinki-sshi.
“How was school?” His mother asks over dinner, as she does every night. “Are your classes going well?”
“They are,” Jinki replies. “I – I made some new friends today.”
The smile his mother gives him is tired, much like everything else she does nowadays, and Jinki doesn’t think he will ever be sorry enough to rectify this, but there is a warm glow behind it that is a first. “Really,” she says gently. “I’m so proud of you.”
Jonghyun waves Jinki over the next morning and Jinki sits in the seat on Jonghyun’s left, feeling terribly, terribly pleased that he was remembered. “You should join the chorus,” is the first thing Jonghyun tells Jinki. “This is Choi Minho,” he adds, a second later, and gestures to the boy on his right.
“Hello,” Jinki says, smiling pleasantly, and inclines his head at Choi Minho. Choi Minho nods back and Jinki would’ve thought him unpleasant if it weren’t for the lovely smile that crinkles his eyes. “Er, the chorus?”
“Yes,” Jonghyun says, eyes shining. “You’d be wonderful. You won’t even need to try out! Besides, Kibum and Taemin are going to be on your case to join the dance team and I wanted to get to you first.”
“Oh, they’re on the dance team?” Jinki asks, stepping around Jonghyun’s original question carefully.
“Yeah, they founded it,” Jonghyun answers carelessly, and Jinki’s eyebrows rise in admiration. “Taemin won some big deal competition a few years ago and Kibum won it the year after him. They’re fantastic. Anyway. Will you join chorus?”
Minho leans over from Jonghyun’s other side conspiratorially, as if he’s sharing a secret with Jinki. “Jonghyun asks everyone but he’s especially excited about you. Feel free to say no though. He deserves to be shot down every once in a while.”
Jinki can’t help but laugh at this, and Minho smiles at him. “I’ll come to see how it is,” he says. “No promises though, okay?”
Jonghyun visibly relaxes, though he elbows Minho. “Okay,” he answers, grinning back. “I’m holding you to that. Don’t let Taemin and Kibum get you.”
“Don’t worry,” Jinki promises. “I can’t dance too well anyway. And – “ he hesitates, then plows on. “I like singing more, anyway.”
“Well of course you would,” Jonghyun says as if it were obvious, waving this confession aside. “You’re fantastic.”
Jinki’s been praised before, but the absolute certainty in Jonghyun’s voice brings a pink flush to his cheeks. “Thank you,” he mumbles to his desk. “That means a lot.”
Jonghyun bumps shoulders with him amicably. “Anytime,” he replies cheerfully.
Chorus isn’t so bad. The advisor greets Jinki enthusiastically, shaking his hand in admiration and winking exaggeratedly at Jonghyun. Chorus is fun. It’s not until they run through some basic exercises though, that Jinki comes to the astounding but undeniable conclusion: Jonghyun is an amazing singer.
“Your voice,” he whispers at Jonghyun in between scales, still stunned. “My God, your voice.”
Jonghyun flushes, looking both pleased and embarrassed. “I’ve been singing forever,” he whispers back. “But I’m nothing next to you!”
No, Jinki thinks admiringly. He has years of training under his belt, but Jonghyun has the raw talent and power he’s always wished he had. I’m the one who’s nothing next to you.
Days bleed into weeks and weeks bleed into months and Jinki finds himself constantly surprised to have at least one familiar face in every class, sharing business management with Jonghyun and Minho, advertising with Kibum, philosophy with Taemin, and music history with Minho. It is a constant delight to be able to belong somewhere, to know that years of friendships made for the connections it brought could be so easily swept aside by human kindness. Even the most mundane thing, like exchanging phone numbers and email addresses, is a new thrill for Jinki. He finds it hard not to smile when around them, even when Minho’s stubbornly arguing his views on the influences of baroque music in the modern world and it would be utterly inappropriate to do so.
Kibum and Jonghyun are best friends, he can see that – they have a certain ease when around each other that no one else can match, and one is always the other’s staunchest supporter on every issue, whether it be what to do that night or politics. Kibum is the impulsive, excited one, Jonghyun the steadier, more sarcastic one, but for all their differences, they complement each other incredibly well. Kibum is the mother of the group, though he’s not the oldest and certainly not the most mature – Minho is quiet, steady, and reliable, if not without a hint of mischievousness. Taemin is the baby of the group, a position he accepts with exasperation. Everyone, Jinki learns, including himself, has a soft spot for Taemin.
What Jinki finds most surprising is this: the comfort and ease at which he settles in between Jonghyun and Minho, their gentle teasing of his ‘Sangtae,’ and the easy way Kibum slips his hand through his as though it is second nature to be so affectionate.
It is this, their acceptance and friendship that means the absolute most to Jinki, as well as what surprises him the most. It is when Taemin starts mooning over a girl in their philosophy class, and it is Jinki to whom he confides in first, and runs hypothetical what-a-surprise-it-is-to-see-you-here-wo
It is when Minho tells Jinki, as quietly as he does everything, about his financial issues and his worries that his scholarship will be taken away, when Jinki is treated not as an idol but as a friend, when there is not cautiousness and carefulness that surrounds him, but care and understanding.
It is when Jonghyun goes into raptures about his new girlfriend and Jinki is the only one who sees the tight line of Kibum’s shoulders, the unhappy lines in his forehead. It is when Kibum storms off and Jonghyun and Taemin both look helpless and Minho lets Jinki go ahead of him, worry getting the best of him.
“Are you okay?” He asks, smoothing a palm between the sharp lines of Kibum’s shoulder blades. “What’s wrong?”
“It’s nothing.” Kibum’s voice is tight, angry, and on the verge of tears. “It’s so stupid.”
Jinki sits in the grass next to him, still rubbing slow circles into his back. “I have time,” he says simply.
A few minutes and angry huffs later, Kibum shrugs off Jinki’s hand and whispers, “It’s just – I’m his best friend. You know? I should be happy for him. Not this. This is so stupid.”
Jinki looks up in the clouds, swallowing the unseemly and strange lump that has appeared in his throat. “And what, exactly, is this?”
“You know,” Kibum says, and swallows. “I’m his best friend. That’s it. Nothing more. And I never will be. I was stupid to hope.” His hand finds his way into Jinki’s, hot and still shaking slightly.
Suddenly, Jinki wants to cry and he has no idea. He feels strangely let down and elated at the same time and he has no idea why. “You’re not stupid.” His voice sounds strangely strangled and he has no idea why. He slides his hand out of Kibum’s. “You’re not. There’s nothing wrong with hoping, Kibum-ah,” and he doesn’t know who he’s talking to anymore.
Kibum looks at him, awkward, boyish, beautiful smile tugging at the sides of his lips. He stands up, brushes off his pants and holds out his hand. “Thanks,” he says softly. “Sorry you had to see this.”
Jinki takes the hand proffered and pulls himself up. “It’s no problem,” he mumbles. “We’re friends, aren’t we?” Aren’t you? asks a small voice in his head, pointing to his hammering heart and clammy hands as possible proof otherwise.
“Sorry,” Kibum says breezily when they’re back into the lunchroom, and the fiercely determined expression on his face is enough to stop anyone from asking. “I had something in my eye.” Taemin actually snorts at this, and Kibum scowls at him.
He holds fast onto Jinki’s hand, only unlinking their fingers when they have to sit down.
“How’s school?” His mother asks softly, reaching across the table to touch her only son’s hand. “How are your friends?”
Jinki swallows, and picks up his cup. “Fine,” he says, hearing the hollowness in his own voice. Can’t help but remember the defeated look on Kibum’s face, the tight line of misery in his shoulders. “Everything’s fine.”
His mother withdraws her hand, watching her son with worried eyes. “Jinki,” she says. “Your father and I – we only want you to be happy.”
Jinki manages a smile, and morbidly wonders if it’s as heartbreaking as Kibum’s forced smile was. “Thank you, mother. Father. There’s nothing to be worried about.”
“I can’t believe he took off points,” Kibum groans, beating his head against the table. “He clearly knew what I meant! I defined it and everything! What does he need the official name for?”
“Er,” Jinki says, nodding towards Kibum, who continues his campaign of killing as many brain cells as possible. “What’s wrong with him?”
“He got two points lower than me on the economics final,” Taemin says smugly. “He swears he should’ve gotten full credit for the last question but it’s his own fault he’s incompetent.”
“Ahh,” Jinki says sympathetically, while Jonghyun snickers.
“Just give it up,” Jonghyun says. “You’ll never beat Taemin-ah.”
Kibum whips his head up, glaring at Jonghyun beadily. “Shut up,” he commands dramatically. “Who’s your best friend here, me or Taemin?”
Jonghyun grins at Kibum. “You, of course, but that doesn’t change the fact that Taemin’s smarter.”
Minho nods. “Sorry, Kibum-ah.”
Kibum throws up his hands. “Traitors! All of you! I don’t need you. Jinki-hyung believes in me, doesn’t he?”
Jinki shies away when four faces turn to him expectantly for a final verdict. “What,” he protests. “This isn’t fair!” A few moments of unwavering staring and Jinki dithers, trying to find a safe middle ground. “If Kibum-ah says he can,” he finally says, looking away.
Kibum looks around at everyone impressively. “Take that, Jonghyun-ah,” he says triumphantly. “What kind of best friend are you, honestly.”
“An honest one,” Jonghyun retorts, grinning. “Jinki-hyung’s just being nice.”
Nice, Jinki thinks, admiring the way indignation makes Kibum’s cheeks flush.
Taemin and Kibum’s roommate moves out and the logical person to ask first is Jinki. Jinki is surprised by just how much he wants to, and how little of it actually has to do with Kibum.
“I can’t live here forever,” he tells his parents. “I’m going to get a job. Provide for myself. Grow up.”
“We know,” his father says gruffly. “We can’t keep you at home forever. Jinki, I know you can do it.” His father claps him on the shoulder and doesn’t meet his eye, but it’s his mother who embraces him, sets her son’s bowed head on her shoulder.
“I’m sorry,” he mutters into her shoulder. “I know I’ve been nothing but a disappointment. If this could make it easier for you, even just a little…”
His mother laughs, the sound saturated with tears. “Silly, silly boy,” she whispers, and runs a hand through his hair. “We could never be disappointed in you. If I had my way, Jinki, I would have you with me forever. But if this makes you happy, who would I be to stop you?”
Jinki is hired as a vocal coach by the same company that dropped him. Some things, he decides, just come full circle.
It is, unsurprisingly, Minho who sees it first. Jinki’s head turns in the direction of Kibum’s laugh like a sunflower turns to the sun, and Minho has two years’ worth of second glances as proof when he finally asks Jinki about it.
“Kibum?” Minho asks, simply and bluntly, and Jinki doesn’t need to ask what he means to know. He sucks in a shaky breath and shrugs.
“I couldn’t help it,” he says, quiet and helpless. He searches Minho’s face for some semblance of – of anything: hope, disappointment, disgust, anything but the curious blankness in Minho’s tone. He raises his chin defiantly and he’s not sure who he’s doing this for. “I’m not sorry.”
When Minho smiles, Jinki lets out the shaky breath he didn’t even know he’d been holding and feels like he might really, actually cry. “You shouldn’t be,” Minho says, and shrugs. “Will you ever tell him?”
Jinki looks at his feet and says to them, quite clearly, “No.”
Jonghyun’s graduation is a strange affair – watching a boy a year younger than he graduate a year earlier is rather disconcerting, but Jinki remembers that when he walks across the stage, he will be walking across it with a group of boys at least two or, in Taemin’s case, four years younger.
The highlight of Jonghyun’s graduation, for Jinki anyway, is not Jonghyun’s eyes filling with tears and almost tripping onstage, nor is it his painfully beautiful thirty second rendition of the school song.
It is Kibum, offering nothing more than a hand and a hearty hug, no lingering feelings. Nothing but “Good job, but you were a little pitchy there,” and “I’m just kidding, you were great.” Nothing but “Congratulations. When you’re famous, remember the little people,” and “I will only ever say this once so I hope you’re listening – I love you, you asshole.”
It is Kibum, turning around to press his palm, hot and a little clammy, into Jinki’s hand. It is Kibum, looking at him impatiently, face slightly flushed. It is Kibum, leaning in to ask, do I really have to say it? It is Kibum, fingers linked in Jinki’s like they have always been, like they always will be, like this is how things are meant to be. It is Kibum, leading him out, turning around to flash the same too-wide, too-childish smile that he graced Jinki with the first time they ever met. It started with Kibum. It is still Kibum. Some things, Jinki thinks, just come full circle.