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At first Jinyoung thinks it's a trick of light. On any normal day, he wouldn't be awake enough at eight AM to even register anything beyond trudging towards the seat nearest to the door in his required general education subject for the semester -- which, in retrospect, probably explains just why he hasn't noticed this until three weeks into the subject. He could have gone through the rest of the school year coasting along, blissfully ignorant of the other half of the room, but Jinyoung's life is a tragicomedy waiting to happen and, really, this is just the icing on the tip of the metaphorical cake.

He has Yugyeom to blame for waking up earlier than usual, what with how the kid had called him in the midst of a mental breakdown that's been waiting to happen since the beginning of his senior year and the impending doom of college entrance applications and exams. Instead of staying in bed with a pillow suffocating him in his sleep, he'd had to talk Yugyeom out of the panic attack he'd had at four in the morning when no decent college student should be awake, ever.

("I'm going to fail," Yugyeom had wailed. "I'm going to fail and dad will kill me and mom will disown me and Bambam is going to steal all my stuff when I end up homeless and starving in a gutter, hyung."

Jinyoung would have made fun of how wet his voice sounded if he had the presence of mind to do so. "Mmfgrgh," he'd said instead, ever the epitome of an intelligent and respectable human being.

"You're not helpful," said Yugyeom.

"Call me again at this hour," said Jinyoung, "and I'll kill you dead.")

He considers himself to be a good hyung, threats of murder aside; otherwise, he would never have suffered through an extended hour of Yugyeom not-crying into the phone about going into military service and hoping to never come back to Seoul if he didn't get into SKY, as if he hadn't applied to five hundred other schools abroad with the privilege of coming from an AB household. (Jinyoung tries not to be bitter about a lot of things, but without a fortifying cup of tea and food in his stomach, he's a lost cause.) Good hyungs, even the non-blood related ones, are supposed to get rewarded for their suffering and sacrifices, and Jinyoung doesn't claim to be a religious person but he sure as hell believes in karma.

So what, he wonders, is the bane of his existence doing in his – here he has to double check his schedule -- Media and Contemporary Society class?

"Jackson," he says, clinging onto the other boy's shirt sleeve with the vice grip of an anaconda about to swallow its prey. "Jackson, are you seeing what I'm seeing?"

Jackson shoots him an irritated glance, speed reading his way into the required chapter ten minutes before the professor arrives. "What," Jackson says drily, "is it an asshole that won't let me skim this in peace?" He shoves at Jinyoung's arm, but Jinyoung keeps his grasp tight and almost bruising. Mark might have a few things to say about that, but Jinyoung is too distracted by his life falling apart in front of him to think too much about it.

"This is a disaster," says Jinyoung. "Why do I feel like I signed up for Intro to Greek Tragedy? I think I can hear a chorus in the background."

Jackson looks as done with Jinyoung as Jinyoung feels about the world. "Why did I say yes when you said this was going to be an easy A," he mourns, already throwing his book aside. It lands uselessly with a pathetic flop over his bag. "Go back to Hong Kong for registration week and this shit happens. I should have known better than to let you choose my classes for me."

"Jackson," Jinyoung keeps whimpering, "is it too late to change classes?"

"What the hell is wrong with you anyway?" Jackson moves to turn to the direction Jinyoung is looking at, only Jinyoung stops him with a yelp and a hand shoving his face onto his arm chair. "Fucking ow, Jinyoung, that hurts!"

"Don't look," Jinyoung hisses. "He's gonna see us!"

"Is this one of your exes that we always said was imaginary," says Jackson, muffled through the plastic surface. "I'm sorry we never believed you all along. Please stop suffocating me in my seat."

"Oh for the love of," Jinyoung cuts himself off, and pushes Jackson's face further into his seat. Jackson makes an unhappy sound at the back of his throat in response, disgruntled. "This is worse than an angry ex, okay? Why didn't you tell me about him?"

Jackson sits up, glaring at Jinyoung. "You're making as much sense as Mark-hyung does in Korean class," says Jackson, "which, you know, doesn't really help me at all."

"Middle row, farthest column," Jinyoung spits out.

Jackson inclines his head towards the other end of the room (Jinyoung dies a little inside with how obvious he stretches in his seat and yawns), and turns back to Jinyoung with a blank face. He keeps looking at Jinyoung like he's batshit insane, which would be disquieting if it didn't happen on a regular basis. "Please explain to me what I'm supposed to be gawking at with the indignation of a thousand fiery suns," he says.

Jinyoung makes a strangled noise in his throat.

"Given how speechless you are right now, I was almost expecting PSY," says Jackson. "Or Jay Chou, but you can't have it all, can you?"

"It's Im fucking Jaebum," Jinyoung does. Not. Yell.

To his mortification, Jaebum looks up from his phone and turns to look at their direction. He doesn't look too pleased at the noise, but he's not angry, either. He stares at Jinyoung for a long, measured moment, lips quirking upwards only when Jinyoung sinks into his seat and covers his eyes with his arm, pressing deeper until he can see white spots behind his eyelids.

"Please kill me," says Jinyoung, despondently. His insides can't stop churning; Jaebum's small smirk is still seared into his brain. "Oh god, is he still looking?"

"No, he's not staring at your crazy anymore," says Jackson, bored.

Jinyoung peeks from behind his arm and, true enough, Jaebum is back to playing a game on his phone. Jinyoung huffs, except it comes out as a relieved sigh instead.

"Uh," says Jackson, squinting. "Am I supposed to know who that dude is? You say his name like he's a mass murderer or something." He squirms in his seat. "Is he a mass murderer? Does SNU even do background checks on its students?"

"He's worse," Jinyoung despairs. "He's a teen idol."

"Oh," says Jackson. "Huh. So that's why everyone and their mother wanted to switch classes with me."

"Who are these people and when can I trade places with them?"

"You're not bailing out on me, man," says Jackson, still trying to pry Jinyoung's fingers off of his sleeve. "If I didn't give in to Jimin bribing me with 200,000 won, what makes you think I'd let you do it first?" He yanks Jinyoung's hand off, white knuckled and sweating. "Suck it up."

"If I ignore him long enough, do you think he'll go away and cut class forever?" Jinyoung sobs into the cover of his planner. "He looks like an irresponsible student anyway, right?"

Jackson pretends to think about it for a second, then proceeds to ruin the rest of Jinyoung's life. "I think I should ask him to be our study buddy for next time."

It's practically a curse when Jackson gleefully trots over to where Jaebum is sitting and manages to make friends with him within the few minutes before the professor walks in. Forget Jaebum. Jinyoung fucking hates Jackson so much.

 

 

 

It's not that Jinyoung's hatred is irrational and unfounded. Economics has taught him to be a rational decision-maker, but Jackson's claims that Jinyoung should shift into drama like the "over-acting asshat he is" might have some basis.

Because the reality is, in an unspecified point in time that Jinyoung keeps trying to suppress from memory, Jinyoung once harbored big dreams of entering one of the big three entertainment agencies instead of university, hoping against hope that Lee Soo Man, Yang Hyun-suk or even his own namesake would deem him worthy of a life of synchronized dancing, uninformed fashion choices, and perfectly timed lip syncing. He'd been so idealistic in his auditions, then, sitting in the waiting room and chatting nervously to the bored-looking boy beside him, the one with the perpetually furrowed brow and lazy slouch that never said a word to him for the three hours that they were waiting in line.

He didn't even look like he had half the ambition and drive that Jinyoung did, and Jinyoung had almost written him off as a lost cause, not even worthy of being a competitor. Because surely only hard workers wound up winning in the end, right? This kid wasn’t gonna last long, not with how much of a mess he was compared to Jinyoung's semi-formal clothes, his pressed shirt, his leather shoes shining even without the bright lighting of the waiting room.

Then Jinyoung heard him sing, and he was crushed.

"Childhood trauma, how interesting," Yugyeom comments, dryly. "Tell me more." He flips a page, then squints at an equation. "Or not."

"Who the hell even stands a chance when in the same line with that guy anyway?" Jinyoung groans into a throw pillow. He's trying to suffocate himself, or at least mold his body into Yugyeom's couch. Regrettably, even the couch is failing him at the moment. "Anyone would be relegated to second place after that audition."

"Youngjae-hyung does," Yugyeom grumbles, not looking up from his practice sheets. One down, eternity to go. Jinyoung should probably feel sorry for him, but he's too busy wallowing to spare Yugyeom some comforting words. "At least he doesn't sing off-key."

"Youngjae is a vocal major, he's supposed to sing on point all the time."

"Well, now we know why you never went into music, right," says Yugyeom, snidely. For a guy that was an emotional mess not a few days ago, Yugyeom is strangely calm. Jinyoung throws a paperweight at him and misses.

"I hate you so much, you have no idea," says Jinyoung, levelly. "And you missed a negative sign in number 26."

"What are you talking about, I did not – never mind," Yugyeom sighs and picks up his eraser, furiously rubbing and frowning at his mistake. "Look, hyung," he says, "just because your childhood dreams were destroyed—"

"I was robbed."

"—doesn't mean you have to take it out on the entire world," Yugyeom finishes with a raised eyebrow. "Like, if I never become a doctor in the future, that doesn't mean that I'm gonna hate everything and everyone in the medical field."

"Yeah, because your mom would have killed you and hidden your body by then."

Yugyeom pales at the reminder. "That too. But you're more than welcome to conduct your pity party somewhere else, you know."

"I'm hungry and no one's home to feed me," says Jinyoung, sadly.

"This is why your mom doesn't trust you enough to live by yourself," Yugyeom sighs. He puts his pen down and heads into the kitchen for a few minutes as Jinyoung reacquaints himself with counting the number of stains on the rug. When he comes back, he has a tray of drinks and a plate of freshly baked cookies in hand, courtesy of a mother that loves Jinyoung with the affection of a hundred doting sisters. This is the only reason Jinyoung puts up with Yugyeom's shit so much.

"It's not like I just hate him for getting through the auditions and I didn't," says Jinyoung, irritably. He glares at Yugyeom as he pops a cookie into his mouth. The bread crumbs detract his attempt to come off as menacing. He rubs his hand at his cheek.

"Oh really?" Yugyeom says, handing him a mug of hot tea. "Are you finally admitting that you're jealous?"

"No," says Jinyoung. He chews with as much viciousness as he has resentment for Im Jaebum. "I'm angry because he had a chance and he fucked everything up like an idiot in one go."

"He's twenty one, hyung," says Yugyeom, patiently. "I think he's entitled to make some mistakes."

"Not if it's an irresponsible one," Jinyoung spits out. "He's coasted along training with a half-hearted attitude towards practice, and then he screws up his image like he doesn't think about the consequences." He bites his lip. "You know how I feel about people like that."

"Says the guy who takes forever to finish anything," says Yugyeom. "But his image? Since when did he have a bad one?"

"Are you kidding me?" Jinyoung groans. "Seriously?"

"I'm not obsessed, hyung."

Jinyoung ignores the thinly-veiled insult. "Remember when we went to Jeju with Bambam and when we came back my sister was having a heart attack over feeling like a pedophile preying on someone my age? And then I was mentally scarred for life because there are just some things we should never know about our older siblings?"

"Oh, that Jeju trip," says Yugyeom. He strokes his chin. "I think I remember this one, considering how you wouldn't shut up about it more than noona did." He opens his laptop and types Im Jaebum Maxim scandal, and not a few seconds later, HQ pictures of Jaebum's infamous photoshoot pop up in all its sordid glory. The internet never, ever forgets. "Huh. He has a really nice upper body. And are these pecs real?"

Trust Yugyeom to get his priorities screwed up. "Who cares about his muscles?" Jinyoung wails. "If I were his manager, I would never have let him go through with that nude photoshoot, rebellious phase or not. Korea is not ready for underage exposure and indecency!"

"I'm pretty sure he was eighteen here," says Yugyeom, wincing at Jinyoung's loud yell of HE WAS SEVENTEEN AND A HALF, AND IT DOESN'T EVEN MATTER BECAUSE HE'S NOT TWENTY, GOD. He's speaking slowly now, in that patronizing way that makes Jinyoung want to keep him in a headlock if only the damn kid weren't so tall, or if Yugyeom didn't have a tendency to retaliate with his own punches. "Also, if you're telling me you didn't fap to this at some point, I'm calling you out on your filthy lies."

"Not the point," Jinyoung snaps. "We're not dragging my dick into this."

"Well, if we're dragging anything --"

"Augh, you're hopeless. Aren't we supposed to be focusing on my internal angst?"

"Yes, your inner torments and demons, how could we forget," says Yugyeom, already bored. "Here, have another cookie."

Jinyoung opens his mouth and almost tears up at the tang of chocolate in his tongue, not because crumbs are most likely blocking his wind pipe. "It's not fair that he got the chance and shot his career to hell. We're not living in America, so what was he expecting?"

"Isn't that a sign of bravery, though?" Yugyeom asks. "He was taking a risk, even if it didn't end well for him." He shrugs and opens his palms upwards. "I don't think you can say the same for half the kids in the industry."

"That's called being stupid, not brave," Jinyoung mutters. Yugyeom rolls his eyes.

"Wow, what a very positive vote of confidence," says Yugyeom. "You are the future of South Korea. Why do I feel depressed?"

"What's depressing is that I could have lived my entire life forgetting about how he showed me up one time, but then he had to do this and it's the worst." He turns back to sulking in the couch, already feeling queasy from the combined pangs of bloating and frustration. "Idols are supposed to be clean before military service corrupts them, not making their foray into a life of over-sexualization and notoriety."

Yugyeom shakes his head and continues idly going through Jaebum's descent into debauchery. Jinyoung can't see Yugyeom's face with his back against him, but from the laptop screen, he thinks he can see Yugyeom's frown. "I think you have unrealistic expectations of idols, hyung."

"Tell that to the rest of Seoul," Jinyoung scoffs, "then we can talk."

 

 

 

Jackson laughs in his face when Jinyoung shows him the pictures in an effort to show him the light and dissuade him from careening further down into an endless spire of regret and humiliation.

Well, first he laughs. Then he slaps Jinyoung's thigh with the tenacity of a doped up frat boy, which he kind of is. Then he makes it a point to jump up and down the couch in his hysteria. Jinyoung sometimes questions why he ever tells Jackson anything because nothing good ever comes out of it. He hopes that suffocation via extreme bouts of laughter is a thing.

"Oh my god," says Jackson, claiming he's recovered enough despite braying like a hyena in the face of the large DO NOT DISTURB sign hanging by the wall in his dorm's common room. Jinyoung pokes at his salad, imagining he's stabbing Jackson with his chopsticks instead. "This is hilarious, wait until I shove this in JB's face."

Jinyoung tries to hide into his seat, hoping it will swallow him up with how embarrassing Jackson sounds. He's glad that there's barely anyone in the dorms this weekend, at least; most of the residents have lives outside of SNU, preferring to go to out of the campus and into Myeongdong. Jackson's supposed to be at the indoor gym, but apparently an out of town coach and a team captain nursing a hangover is the key combination to cancelled practices, and Jackson had whined and wheedled at Jinyoung to keep him company.

It's only after a few seconds of sulking that he realizes what Jackson's just said. "JB?" Jinyoung repeats, aghast. "You call him by his stage name now?"

"Hell yeah," says Jackson, pulling out his phone. "We're friends, Jinyoung. It helps that I'm a very personable and charismatic person." He pauses. "Also, I'm not a stalker fan or an anti, so there's that."

"I can't believe this," says Jinyoung. "And he's, like, one batch higher than us. He's in Mark-hyung's year."

"So?" Jackson asks. "He's cool with it."

So is Mark-hyung but you're too weird about him to drop it around me, Jinyoung thinks. He opts to scowl at Jackson instead.

"When I'm rolling in dough and preening over all the gifts my celebrity friends give me, will you believe it?" Jackson muses. "You realize social climbing is part of being an athlete, right?"

Jinyoung stares at the ceiling. It doesn't provide him with any answers on why he's friends with Jackson, but the white paint helps him reevaluate his life choices. Jinyoung is of the firm opinion that university is for actual studying. Jackson, on the other hand, thinks of school as one big social club with the downside of having to crack open books periodically. Only one of them is not barely coasting along, and Jinyoung isn't laughing at the irony gods. "I thought it was about sweaty sportswear and overconfidence?"

"Well, that too, but we gotta feed ourselves by kissing our sponsors' asses," says Jackson, shrugging. Sometimes he forgets how ruthless and pragmatic Jackson can be, which is most likely part of the reason he appealed to him to begin with. They're ambitious, backstabbing brats without loyalty. He'd feel more proud except the betrayal just stings.

"You traitor," Jinyoung hisses.

"Oh please." Jackson waves him off, as if his opinion doesn't matter. Rude. "You know, in Hong Kong, we're a bit more liberal than you ahjussis with your panties in a bunch, so this isn't really too bad considering all the shit other idols do."

"Because of course you're the symbol of innocence yourself," Jinyoung snarks back.

Jackson pauses in his texting -- HAHA DIDN'T KNOW YOU KPOP KIDS HAD ACTUAL EXCITING LIVES, I'M SO PROUD, it reads – and raises his eyebrow at him. "Why are you so traumatized about seeing his dick? I thought you would be overjoyed to see anyone's cock hanging out."

"It's not his dick," says Jinyoung, flushing when a passing junior gapes at them. "It's him. I didn't enlist for this class just so I could meet my eternal rival and wish death on him on a daily basis."

"One, he doesn't even know you exist," Jackson ticks off. "Two, you don't even talk to him. Three, are you sure it's not about his dick, because I feel like you have some fucked up and misplaced sexual tension going on."

Jinyoung's sure he's as red as the cherry tomatoes on his plate. Maybe redder. At the rate he's going, he's gonna be purple with anger and rage, hopefully the same shade as Jackson's neck while he's strangling him. "I do not have sexual feelings for Im Jaebum!"

Jackson leans over to pat his arm soothingly, the action belying his words. "You don't have feelings. You're incapable of feelings. What you have is a raging hard-on for Jaebum's huge, thick, bulging –"

"Oh my god."

"Biceps, what the hell did you think I was gonna say?" Jackson smirks. With his free hand, he picks up the magazine that Jinyoung definitely pilfered from his older sister's stash and did not buy from the nearest bookstore selling back issues, thank you very much. Jackson whistles under his breath. "What kind of workout did this guy do to get these muscles anyway?"

"Why don't you ask your friend?" Jinyoung grouses, yanking his arm away from Jackson. "Maybe you could trade secrets on how to be assholes."

"If we're assholes, at least we're sexy," says Jackson, sagely. "I don't mind being lumped with that." Jinyoung covers his face and tries not to sob into his hands. Jackson continues, oblivious to his struggle. "Come on, you have to admit he looks really good in this. You'd have to be blind to not want to jump his jailbait ass."

Jinyoung closes his eyes and thinks of Jaebum reclining on a chaise lounge with a sheet swathed around the tangle of his limbs, thumb swiping across his lower lip and eyes hooded at the camera. The definition of muscle across his back that actually-seventeen-but-vaguely-skirting-the-legal-age year olds didn't deserve to have, not when they're supposed to look like ungainly twigs still uncomfortable in their skin. Then he wishes he hadn't thought of it at all, because it just makes him feel worse. He reaches out to swat at Jackson blindly for the reminder.

"Wow, so manly," Jackson scoffs, neatly ducking away. "If you're attracted to him, you don't have to flagellate yourself. I'm pretty sure you're not in that kind of cult."

"Not a masochist, sorry."

"Could have fooled me, but you're so repressed I'm kinda proud you even know the word," Jackson coos, and goes back to making fun of Jaebum on KKT.

Jinyoung whimpers and rests his head on the table. Jinyoung's been doing a lot of that lately, sighing and glaring at hard surfaces. No one in the world understands him.

"You are a bad, disgusting person," Jinyoung informs him. "I hope that when you die, you remember how much pain you inflicted on me for existing."

"Whatever," says Jackson, rolling his eyes in disdain, "I'm not gonna stop being friends with him just because you have a problem with showing a little skin."

True, but Jackson is also an exhibitionist himself, if his dorm mates' complaints are a barometer for it. "I'm so glad none of my other friends have your taste," Jinyoung shoots back, "because you have the worst in the world."

 

 

 

Apparently, he's also wrong about that.

He's ranting about Jackson and Jaebum's ill-formed friendship to Youngjae while they're sorting out the returned books in the library. Well, Jinyoung is; Youngjae's too distracted with his composition to do anything more than hold things for Jinyoung. It's not really Youngjae's job, but this is the only break he has and Jinyoung's shift as a student assistant at the library is in a perpetual state of flux.

"Oh, JB-hyung?" Youngjae says, fingertips drumming an inaudible beat into the spine of his book. "He's cool."

Jinyoung almost falls off the ladder with how fast he turns to gape at Youngjae.

"What?" Youngjae asks, perplexed. "He was in my music theory class last year. He was pretty good, for an idol."

For an idol. Sometimes Jinyoung remembers exactly how elitist the Music majors are when it comes to news about people in the entertainment industry breaking into the academic circle, tight-fisted and grudging. Jinyoung really likes the Music department's pettiness.

"Did he write cheesy pop lyrics and pass it off as his magnum opus?" Jinyoung asks, genuinely curious. He squints at the label on the hardbound copy Youngjae passes to him, quickly scanning the shelf for the code nearest D256.7. "How many times did he say baby, love, and girl?"

"Uh, zero?" Youngjae says, wrinkling his nose. "We were actually really surprised with how decent he was. I think our professor didn't even think he could read music."

Jinyoung chalks it up as yet another thing Jaebum can do better than he does. Jinyoung can't even stare at a sheet of music without wanting to throw up, too familiar with learning things by ear (thank you, reruns of Korean Idol and X Factor). If I wanted to read, he'd told Youngjae when the younger boy had tried to teach him, I'd pick up Tolstoy, not this.

"He had to learn it at some point," says Jinyoung, still not impressed. "I'd be ashamed of myself if I made millions of won out of pop songs and I couldn't even differentiate a treble clef from a bass."

"You don't even know what those are," Youngjae teases. He steadies the ladder Jinyoung's on when Jinyoung smacks his shoulder. "Hey, quit it, hyung!"

"Not until you see the light," says Jinyoung. He hits him again, for good measure. "I didn't raise you to collude with my enemies and stab me in the back like Jackson."

"My parents raised me, not you," says Youngjae, scoffing. "You're mistaking me for Yugyeom."

"Another traitor," says Jinyoung.

"Give me that," says Youngjae, wrestling the battered paperback of Julius Caesar away. "And Jaebum-hyung is a really nice guy, I don't know why you're so hung up about his life as a teenage wet dream."

Jinyoung splutters and gets down from the ladder. "He is a walking pile of hormones," says Jinyoung, "and he might have improved, but he was in rock bottom before. There's no possible way to go but up."

"What?" Youngjae has the gall to laugh, and he wheezes when he inhales dust instead of air. "Is this about that naked photoshoot thing?"

"No," says Jinyoung, horrified.

"Jackson-hyung warned me about this," says Youngjae. The bastard still sounds amused. "He wasn't even completely naked, you know. At least there were bedsheets."

Jinyoung makes a strangled sound at the back of his throat.

"Hyung, if a can of soup can become a pop icon, why not consider the human body as high art?" Youngjae suggests, touching his shoulder with fake solemnity. Jinyoung has no idea what Youngjae is talking about, but he's not uncultured, fuck you.

"I sat in for your aesthetics class, don't you think I know that," Jinyoung snaps, yanking Youngjae's hand off his shoulder. "Keep shelving."

"Wow, okay, no wonder he also said you were repressed," Youngjae mutters.

"It's not repression if my hatred is utterly justified, Youngjae-ah."

"I feel like I'd believe that you're a logical person with a sound mind more if you didn't spend most of your time dreaming up ways to set Jackson-hyung on fire with your mind."

"He deserves it," says Jinyoung, sulking. "I'll have to deprioritize Jackson, though. Jaebum deserves it more."

"Hypothetically, other than exposing himself to the media, what other complaints do you have about hyung that would even rationalize that?" Youngjae challenges.

Jinyoung mentally goes through the barely-touched and omnipresent shelf called reasons why I fucking hate Im Jaebum. It's admittedly not a very coherent list, and Jinyoung does not do well under pressure. "Well, he was also really hot-tempered in press conferences and lost his shit in public more times than anyone in his age range," Jinyoung tries weakly. "Doesn't that count for something?"

"He debuted at fourteen, hyung," says Youngjae, sounding exasperated. "Can you imagine having to be a public figure at that age and being expected to control your emotions every time someone attacked you about one of your quirks?" He rubs at his sides, shivering. "I'd be scared as fuck in his place. I'm proud he turned up decent considering how many assholes are in the industry."

There's some truth in that, but Jinyoung's loathing is so all-encompassing that it physically pains him to accede. "It's the money," says Jinyoung, grimly. "It's all about the money."

Youngjae gapes at him. "You're really invested in this, huh?"

Jinyoung feels the back of his neck flush and his cheeks turn warm, so hot the air-conditioning does nothing to mask the temperature. Youngjae's mask of confusion cracks and he ends up bent over the trolley of books, trying to keep his hysterical laughter as quiet as he can in the library. Jinyoung doesn't think he has any shame left to feel in his body with how much his pride has been trampled by everyone in the past few days.

"I'm not invested," Jinyoung protests. "I'm not. I just don't think he's a person of good moral character that's fit to represent the school everywhere he goes."

Youngjae's still fanning himself as he tries to recover, but he can't keep the teasing lilt out of his words. "Really? Are you that concerned about the deteriorating standards of the academe? Because that's just bullshit, hyung."

"He's a failed idol," says Jinyoung, sniffing. "You know where idols that wind up as train wrecks go? Back to school, that's where."

Youngjae shoots him a look, eyebrows raised. "As opposed to failed trainees?"

"Oh fuck you," says Jinyoung. He sincerely regrets letting Yugyeom, Bambam and Youngjae ever meet, because Yugyeom is a dirty secret teller and a tattle tale and Jinyoung hopes he bombs all his entrance exams. He wonders how much time he has left before Jackson gets a hold of this information.

Youngjae sniggers behind a copy of Silence of the Lambs. Jinyoung wants to gut him. "So he's living a life of obscurity now, so what? Why does that bother you so much?"

"He's invading my life of obscurity!" Jinyoung groans. He grabs the book and stacks it on top of the rest of the pile, sneezing when the dust motes reach his nose. "How did he even get into SNU anyway? Did they have to dumb it down to add more people to the alumni page?" He glares at the shelf in front of him. "What the hell is his major, even?"

"He's not in the music department, that's for sure," says Youngjae. "Probably in dance, maybe? He used to be a b-boy, right?"

"Dance," Jinyoung repeats skeptically. He honestly has no idea what on earth a b-boy is. "We don't have a dance faculty, Youngjae." He shakes his head and grabs onto the trolley filled with books, and waits for Youngjae to inspect the contents and give him the go signal before they move to the next section.

"Or maybe he's doing some stuff on acting. You know these idols, always picking up drama roles left and right," says Youngjae, fixing his hat as they stroll past the glass windows. "Come to think of it, he'd make a really good-looking lead, with the whole bad boy thing going for him."

"He's definitely no Gu Jun-pyo," Jinyoung snorts. "He's tall, but he's not that tall."

"You're roughly the same height."

"I wasn't the idol, was I?"

"Yes," says Youngjae, deadpan. "Because unlike you, Jaebum-hyung actually has a fallback if the uni thing doesn't work out for him."

Jinyoung tries not to let that comment take another stab at his pride, so he does what he does best: deflecting. "Is he for real?" He sneers. "Is he going to try to break into show business again? He'd have better luck hiring a better PR firm to handle his account the second time around. That or actually getting into a university that offers more performing arts courses."

"You know what, hyung?" Youngjae sighs. "You can't always judge a book by –"

"Finish that sentence and I will ram this copy of Heywood into your face," says Jinyoung, cheerfully brandishing a textbook.

Youngjae, wisely, keeps his mouth shut, and they finish shelving without talking about Im Jaebum in peace, even if Jinyoung has the sneaking suspicion that Youngjae doesn't stop judging him for the rest of the day.

More like, for the rest of his life, but whatever. He has more important things to focus on, like, say: figuring out how to make people spontaneously combust with the power of his mind.

 

 

 

 

"Stop staring at me before I think you're in love with me," says Jackson, disgusted. He lets his bag hit the back of Jinyoung's head, whose face breaks into a scowl as he stops drilling holes into Jackson's side profile.

"I'm not staring at you," Jinyoung says. "I'm just looking at the door. Because, you know. We have class. Soon. I think."

"Sure," Jackson scoffs, and makes sure to take the seat farthest from the door.

Jinyoung doesn't see Jaebum in his next class – not that he spends an entire minute peeking inside the room suspiciously and praying to god no one wonders why he's sneaking around so much. The Communication department is probably used to so many undergrads stalking people left and right, it's not even a novelty to see people like him skulking about.

"You're so creepy," says Jackson, rolling his eyes as Jinyoung cagily checks the back row. "He's not coming today, so you can get that stick out of your ass."

Jinyoung finally sinks into his seat with visible relief. "You couldn't have told me that earlier?"

"It was pretty fun watching you act like an idiot," says Jackson. "It happens a lot but today was the best. A++, you'd fit right in with the Theater majors, drama queens and weirdos and all."

Jinyoung doesn't even have time to flash him a very refined middle finger before the professor arrives and begins his lecture. It's one of the stress-free classes he has considering it's not even his major, and the requirements are easy as hell (or so the unofficial forums claim). The only thing that could shoot his concentration to hell is absent for the day, but Jinyoung figures that he could work it out over the next few weeks. He's gone through how many sessions not noticing Jaebum's existence anyway. How bad could it be, right?

From the way Jackson is snoring softly beside him, definitely not bad at all.

Miraculously, no one notices Jackson's exhibition as a fine and upstanding student, and by the time the professor dismisses them, Jinyoung shoves Jackson's seat so hard he topples over in surprise.

"Wake up, loser," says Jinyoung with as much cheer as he could muster.

Jackson scowls at him from where he's sprawled on the floor. "Fuck, I'm never getting a class with you again," Jackson curses, getting to his feet.

"Good luck with that, Mister IR," says Jinyoung, blithely. "I'm pretty sure you need to take an econ subject at some point, and you'll be whining at me to help you study again."

"Haha," says Jackson, "I hope you end up not graduating on time."

Jinyoung keeps himself busy drafting an email to a group mate while Jackson packs up his stuff and puts his seat back upright. This turns out to be a Bad Idea, because he doesn't notice the suspicious gleam in Jackson's eye and just lets himself be led away from the classroom and into the hallway, Jackson keeping him behind his shoulder against the throng of students.

"Do me a favor," Jackson says, looking at him with wide, not at all innocent eyes once they reach the stairs.

"No," says Jinyoung, automatically, not even looking up from his phone.

Jackson doesn't stomp on his foot, but he looks pretty close to doing it. Jinyoung looks down at him – all the centimeters that even matter, ha -- and returns the frown.

"Come on," Jackson groans. "I forgot that I asked a friend to get something from me, but something came up."

"Just wait for him, then," says Jinyoung, ever the voice of reason. "It probably won't take long anyway."

"I gotta head over to the BA building," says Jackson, distractedly typing into his phone. He wets his lips nervously, squinting at the time. "You know how far it is from here."

"You don't have a business class," Jinyoung observes. He tries to fight the all-knowing grin off his face, he really does, but from Jackson's unimpressed stare, it's a bust. "Lunch date with Mark-hyung?"

"It's not a date," says Jackson, making a face, but he doesn't deny it further. "Don't be weird about this. I know you think you're being cute but that's just super creepy."

Jinyoung's not being weird about anything, because Jackson is a river in Egypt and Mark is just out of it half the time that there's never going to be a day Jinyoung won't be amused about everything. "Is it?" Jinyoung widens his smile.

"Whatever," Jackson grits out, shoving a pile of readings at Jinyoung's chest. Jinyoung's hands automatically scoop up the papers and he curses his reflex to rescue any and all traces of paper, damn it. "Just give this to my friend, okay?"

"You won't even tell me what he looks like," Jinyoung gripes at Jackson's retreating form.

"Don't worry," says Jackson, giving him a one-fingered salute, "you'll know him when you see him!"

The thing about Jackson is that Jinyoung should never let his guard down around him. It's so easy to get fooled into his casual body language or his rapid-quick words that he forgets exactly how devious the asshole is until he's stuck in that situation where he has to stifle the urge to have a panic attack. So when he sees Jaebum round the corner and wade through the hallway with a searching gaze, the sinking feeling in his stomach is the only thing he can register before thinking, faintly, I'm gonna kill Jackson.

"Hey," says Jaebum, the corner of his mouth tilting upward a bit when he catches sight of Jinyoung. Fuck, Jinyoung thinks with increasing panic, he recognizes me enough to associate me with the spawn of Satan at first glance. Definitely gonna kill him. "You're Jackson's friend, right?"

Jinyoung opens his mouth, and promptly closes it. In what universe does "I’ve seen you with your dick hanging out in paparazzi pictures and magazine centerfolds" constitute as polite? Does "I resent you and everything you stand for" sound equally inappropriate?

"Uh," says Jinyoung, displaying his above-average IQ and eloquence rather impressively for a guy that's contemplating murder, "hi?"

"Sorry for making you wait," says Jaebum, even if the bastard doesn't look apologetic at all. "I had to meet my adviser for something, and you know how it goes."

No, I don't know what it is humanities students do in their spare time, Jinyoung almost says. He keeps his mouth shut.

"Right," says Jaebum, awkwardly when he doesn't get a response. "Um, did Jackson give you anything?"

"Oh," says Jinyoung, looking down at the readings Jackson had pushed onto him without much aplomb. This is more than enough interaction with Jaebum than he can stand. At least he's not nake – okay he really has got to stop thinking about this before he digs himself into a deeper hole into hell. "Here you go."

"Thanks," says Jaebum, offering him a small smile. It's different from his "buy this toothpaste or regret never looking like me" commercial smile, or his "I'm an asshole with a heart of gold" smirk in dramas, or even the "don't blame me for looking so appealing and unattainable" grin from his music videos. Fuck. Jinyoung's categorized it all with a burning passion of hatred. "You're the guy with the same name as JYP, right?"

At Jinyoung's slow, dumb nod that hopefully reeks of go away go away oh my god WHY AREN'T YOU LEAVING YET levels of desperation, Jaebum lets out a sharp bark of laughter. His eyes almost disappear from the force of his grin. "That's pretty cool. JYP would have gotten a kick out of that if you auditioned."

The sounds in the hallway fade into his ears like white noise. Jinyoung feels like someone doused him with a liter of ice and let a glacier fall on him on purpose. Jaebum is still fucking smiling. The glacier is now cracking into half and burying him under sleet and ice.

He's about to come up with a witty retort like up yours or so would your mom but his words get trapped in his throat when a girl bumps his side; Jaebum reaches out to steady him with a hand. "Careful," he says, narrowing his eyes at the other student.

KZZZZZZZZZZZT, goes Jinyoung's mind, fizzling out and failing him at rapid speed. His greatest enemy, touching him! Jinyoung would like to die now. There is no merciful god in this world.

"Um," Jinyoung says, eyes wide even as Jaebum releases him with, absently.

He's still struggling to formulate a more rational and intelligent emotional response to the roller coaster of ill feelings he's experiencing, but Jaebum is already shoving the stacks of readings in his bag and giving him a short nod not a few seconds later. Jackass, Jinyoung thinks, sourly. Couldn't even let me get a word in?

It's a bit of an unfair thought, but Jaebum doesn't seem to notice Jinyoung's internal struggle at all – definitely insensitive. "See you in class, Jinyoung-sshi," says Jaebum, waving at him. "Thanks again for this."

It takes a while before Jinyoung realizes he's waving back. The tips of his fingers and the inside of his wrist still tingle from where Jaebum had touched him. It makes something in his stomach flop uncontrollably, restless and dissatisfied.

"Idols," he mutters, pulling his hand back down and shoving it into his pocket to hide his shame.

 

 

 


The business ad building is a fifteen minute grunt-sweat-try-not-to-die cross between a jog and a run, but it's worth it to thunder into the cafeteria and whack Jackson upside the head as hard as he can when he sees him. From the mocking smirk on his face, Jackson doesn't regret it one bit, so Jinyoung raises his hand to give him another smack.

"Ow, stop, I have a match next week, don't hit me," Jackson yelps, shielding himself with Mark's Stiglitz textbook. Mark rolls his eyes and pulls Jinyoung to the seat beside him, if only to save his own valuables.

"Do that again and I'll do more than hit you," Jinyoung threatens, relishing in the way Jackson blanches in his seat.

"You should consider trying out for the wrestling team," Jackson observes, rubbing his arm. "You're, like, really strong even if you look like you're gonna die in a 5k marathon."

"Do we even have a wrestling team?" Mark asks, not really interested in the answer but speaking up anyway so he can go for at least five minutes without Jackson pestering him to socialize.

"Jinyoung can be captain if there isn't," says Jackson, sweetly. "I'm sure he'd be down for pummeling Jaebum into the mattress with his prowess."

For someone in the political department, Jackson is full of crap. "You're gonna start a war someday," Jinyoung informs him. "I just know it."

"You mean a war in your pants," says Jackson, through a mouthful of dumplings. "I think JB's done a pretty good job conquering your territory, all things considered."

"Fuck off," Jinyoung snipes. Only Jackson finds himself hilarious. Maybe Mark, given how he's hiding his face behind his iPad, but Mark is weird sometimes.

"Oh no, we're talking about this," says Jackson. "I don't get why you're so strung up around the pop star. It's not like he's a bad guy."

"If you like him so much, why don't you just go after him," Jinyoung mutters, glaring at all the students walking by. Their lives are so much easier than his, they have no idea.

"True," Jackson concedes, humming under his breath. "He's rich, athletic and hot enough for it. Score."

"Sounds like a total asshole," says Mark, flatly.

"Ten out of ten, would do," Jackson insists. Mark's expression turns even deader. Jinyoung would feel more pity for him if he weren't busy licking his own wounds. "He can't speak Chinese for shit, though," Jackson continues. "My mom will probably cry if I take him home, and then I'd have to translate for them all the time and that's just not my style."

He points his chopsticks at Jinyoung like a rude shit. "Your sisters, on the other hand, will definitely cry if you don't."

"I'll make you cry, preferably in pain," Jinyoung snaps. "And if you say that again about my sisters, I swear--"

"Hey, I'm not the one who had his childhood dreams stolen unjustifiably," says Jackson, raising his hands in surrender.

"Who told you that?" Jinyoung groans. "Was it Youngjae? I'll kill him."

"Stop threatening to kill people, it's so unbecoming," says Jackson.

Mark wrinkles his nose. "Would you rather he did it to you?"

"I used to think I was special, but Jinyoung has enough homicidal tendencies for everyone," says Jackson. A thought comes to him, so sudden and hilarious that he almost doubles over. "Oh my god, if you became an idol, no one would ever know how evil you were, you hypocrite."

Mark joins in on his laughter. Jinyoung steals his iPad in revenge and glowers at it with disdain. "Can you imagine Jinyoung as an idol? He'd hate it."

"I wouldn't," says Jinyoung, menacing tone belying the cheerful chirping of Candy Crush.

"Don't lie!" Jackson half-shouts, toppling over Jinyoung's bag as he grabs at his arm. "You'd have to wake up at the ass crack of dawn and your bandmates will hate you for hogging the bathroom for an hour and you'll never have time to read, ever."

"I don't think idols don't have free time," says Mark, sounding amused even as he scribbles something in the margins of his notebook. "It's not like they're contractually obligated to be tied to the job 24/7."

"Somehow I doubt that," Jackson scoffs. "If they did have lives outside the industry, there'd be more photos of them being smashed at clubs and bars."

"Jinyoung would have a field day with the no dating rule, though," says Mark, the smile on his face barely taking any of the bite out of his teasing. "He'd never have to make up anyone just to get out of hanging out."

"That was one time," Jinyoung sulks.

Jackson boos in response and flicks a balled up tissue at him. Mark shakes his head and pushes Jinyoung back down his seat when he tries to reach for Jackson. "More like all the time."

"Let's be real, though," Jackson accedes, slinging an arm around Jinyoung's hunched shoulders, clearly having the self-preservation instincts of a gnat. "You'd pick being cultured over being sweaty."

"No," Jinyoung snarls, dooming himself to failure when he swipes in the wrong direction. "I'd rather go for being built like a 2PM member than subjecting myself to being friends with you."

"I'm so glad you think I'm refined," is all Jackson takes out of it. Jackson has selective hearing, which is why Jinyoung privately hopes he never enters the Foreign Service, ever. He fears for Hong Kong. "So, like, if Jaebum starts showing up for lunch, does this mean you're gonna hide in the library forever?"

"Yes," says Jinyoung, appalled. "Wait, what? Are you inviting him?" His indignation morphs into terror. "Did you already ask him to hang out?"

"I don't share all my breaks with you guys," says Jackson, defensively. "I'm networking."

Jinyoung eyes Mark. "Who's the business major again?"

"Too much effort," Mark grunts.

"Isn't that what AIESEC is for, though?" Jinyoung points out. "Why don't you just join an org and not actively ruin my life."

"Eh, Mark's already part of it," says Jackson. "That's one less foot in the door I need." He smiles, promising eternal despair to Jinyoung. "Pissing you off is just a bonus."

"I'm so glad we could contribute to your future success and entertainment," says Mark, dryly, looking up just to shoot Jackson an unreadable look. He goes back to thumbing through his notes when Jackson shrugs. Jinyoung's too outraged to bother reading into it.

"It helps to have friends everywhere," says Jackson, waving his chopsticks in the air. It hits one of the passing freshmen, who shoots him a dirty look. Jackson ignores it with as much finesse as he ignores Jinyoung. "Here, you can have my last dumpling. I was saving it for you just in case."

"I'm not taking your pity lunch," Jinyoung sneers. "Not after you've cemented exactly how far your disloyalty extended."

"Okay," says Jackson, not at all remorseful, "just for that, I'm gonna be best friends with your worst nightmare, you jealous bastard."

Jinyoung stands up, half-chucking Mark's iPad at Jackson's chest and grabbing his bag with great feeling. He'd look more indignant if he didn't have Jackson's dumpling unceremoniously shoved to his mouth. As it is, he probably just looks extremely disgruntled and not at all menacing. He chews on the dumpling with as much force as he can.

Unmindful of his frustration, Jackson waves at him cheerfully, managing to keep his voice deceptively light and mockingly supportive. "Text us when you get your head out of your ass!"

"Never," says Jinyoung, and trudges off to his next class.

 

 

 


Jinyoung doesn't text Jackson, not even when, true to form, Jaebum starts sitting with them on their shared breaks. He doesn't always show up, but it's excruciating enough for Jinyoung that Jackson has to make threatening signs at him from across the table to get him to suppress the sour expression on his face.

Jinyoung can't read hand signals, so he's really just dooming himself to failure. Jackson settles for kicking him under the table. Jinyoung kicks back.

"Next time we talk about dogs, stop looking like you're plotting someone's death," is all Mark has to say by way of reprimand. Youngjae raises his hands up and mouths why at the ceiling, having long since given up at reasoning with Jinyoung a long time ago. Youngjae is actually the smartest one of them all.

"I can't help it," says Jinyoung, still smarting from the sharp jab to his side that Jackson delivered when Jaebum had clammed up after Jinyoung had ranted about income inequality and uneven opportunities and what the fuck, where did that come from, weren't they talking about a puppy parade? It hurts like a bitch. "He gets under my skin so easily."

("Haha, aren't social science guys hilarious," Jackson had said, mortified.

"I'm in economics."

"Thank god for that, because you would have sucked in Psychology."

"Right," said Jaebum, and made up a hasty excuse to get to his next class three hours later.)

Jackson's irritated enough to not even make a dirty joke out of that. Instead, he goes back to his game of hangman with Mark, losing on purpose to have the satisfaction of killing off stickman-Jinyoung. "Jinyoung, somewhere under your cold, shriveled heart, I know you still have a soul," says Jackson. "Stop bullying my friend or I swear to god I'll ditch you in the next project and find a way to pair you up with him."

"You wouldn't," says Jinyoung, meekly, but from the decisive set of Jackson's jaw, yes, he totally would.

Jackson, for all his frivolity and jokes, is stubborn and single-minded when he wants to be, which is the absolute worst, in Jinyoung's opinion. Jinyoung tries not to bristle when Jackson pats the back of his hand fondly and says, "This will be harder for you than it is for me," but he does flinch, which makes Jackson smile.

It's not impossible, but it is unbearable for Jinyoung to play nice. Eventually, the pissy retorts and the eye rolling tapers off into sullen poking at his tteokbokk a few days later, giving Mark a run for his money with his silence. Jaebum doesn't visibly recoil, but he at least has enough sense to not push Jinyoung into unwanted conversations. Jackson fills the quiet enough for all of them anyway.

He's ranting about the surprise quiz in class to Jaebum, who's knee-deep in readings that Jinyoung barely recognizes from his own faculty. Jinyoung likes to remind Jackson every now and then that he isn't the center of the universe, and it's the only reason he even butts into the conversation and not at all because Jaebum is most likely too polite to tell Jackson to fuck off and let him study instead. He gives it a few more weeks.

"It was C," Jinyoung interrupts. Jaebum and Jackson trade confused looks, and Jinyoung spears a disposable fork into his food. "The answer to number six, I mean."

Jaebum still looks taken aback at hearing him pipe up, but Jackson's body just collapses against Youngjae, if the annoyed squawk from the younger boy is any indication of it. "Fuck, I got that wrong," Jackson whines. "I need a do over!"

"I don't think Kwon-seonsaengnim will curve your grade, Jackson," says Jinyoung. He turns away from Jaebum, finding his scrutiny way too discomfiting; it makes him feel a little too warm even in his t-shirt. "You're not his favorite."

"He laughs at my jokes," Jackson protests.

"He's too nice to embarrass the foreigner," says Jinyoung. "Also, you sleep in class, don't be delusional."

Jackson kicks up his legs on the table and doesn't budge even when Youngjae pushes his thigh off with a not my damn score, hyung. "Okay, so who's the teacher's pet if not me?"

"Easy," says Jinyoung, pointing at Jaebum. "Him."

The tiny, shell-shocked laugh that escapes Jaebum's mouth makes something in Jinyoung's body clench. He thinks it's his guts groaning in pain and abject misery. "Me?" He says, at the same time that Jackson squawks, "Him? He gets grilled all the time like he's on some up-close and personal interview on that show with the half-naked people in towels!"

"Exactly," says Jinyoung, deadpan.

"I don't even wanna know," says Youngjae, penciling in a note in his homework.

"Hey, he doesn't even talk in class unless he gets called out," says Jackson. "If he and Mark-hyung had classes together, their side of the lecture room would be depressingly quiet."

"I'm right here," Mark pipes up loudly, not even looking cross.

"Irrelevant," Jackson yells. Mark rolls his eyes and shoves a chip into Jackson's mouth. Jackson munches on it without much thought, then decides that Jinyoung's lunch looks even more appetizing, the greedy bastard. Jinyoung glares at him and hunches over to shield his plate.

"I don't think silence is earning me any brownie points," Jaebum points out.

"Huh?" Jinyoung says, distracted by Jackson's hands inching their way towards stealing his food. "Nah, you'll be okay. The professor likes you for more than your face anyway."

He'd meant to add it helps that you have a nice s-line, pop star, but Jackson drops a rice cake into his lap and Jaebum's soft, considering look is lost to Jinyoung's yelling.

 

 

 

He doesn't think much of it for the next few days, which, like all of Jinyoung's thoughtless actions, gets him into even more uncomfortable situations than before. This is what he realizes with sinking horror when he keeps seeing Jaebum at an alarmingly frequent rate, politeness dictating that he should make small talk in front of his other friends. It's like a swirling mass of his ramyeon from lunch, last night's text on Sidel, and the half-finished coffee in his hands when the epiphany strikes at him like an unwanted ghost.

Oh shit, he messages Yugyeom in a bathroom stall that reeks of desperation and the respectable fears of adult men, I think Im Jaebum thinks we're friends now.

??? Yugyeom texts back.

I know, he replies, and buries his face in his hands. I'm too nice for my own good.

Only Yugyeom can make symbols sound so judgmental. ??????????????

At least Jinyoung still has work to console him, which is probably what Bambam has in mind when he messages him a few minutes after his episode in the men's room, because Yugyeom is a talkative little shit and Bambam is a whore for gossip.

Please don't hibernate in the library, Bambam implores, and Jinyoung would feel more touched if he doesn't follow it up with: I still need you to look over my Korean homework every weekend.

Jinyoung rolls his eyes. No wonder you and Jackson get along so well. You're only using me for your own advancement. I'm so hurt.

Don't insult me, hyung, says Bambam, and Jinyoung can't help but crack a smile at that.

 

 

 


It's inevitable that Jaebum will wind up at his workplace at some point. Jinyoung's been preparing for this moment since he's realized that Jackson was serious about establishing himself as the overly outspoken and annoying friend Jaebum will never be able to get rid of (Youngjae's words, not his), but apparently all that time psyching himself up is for naught because the initial revulsion still hits him like a ton of bricks. With great effort, he returns the nod Jaebum gives him with what he thinks is a professional enough smile, and he seems to succeed because no one scurries away to run for the hills in terror. He should be the lead in a drama because Jaebum suspects absolutely nothing.

Or maybe Jaebum's as insensitive as Jackson. That's equally possible.

"I didn't know you were a student assistant here," says Jaebum, glancing around. "Slow day?"

"To be fair, I only started working here because being around Jackson wasn't doing any favors to my emotional well-being," says Jinyoung. He's not sure why he's even explaining himself, but Jaebum seems to think it's funny. He fiddles with his pen and pretends to write something down on a post it. "What are you doing all the way here?"

"Had to get away from my own building," says Jaebum. "It's time for periodic exams so everyone's a bit…" He trails off, then shrugs, impishly. "Unhinged."

"Sounds like law school on LSD," says Jinyoung, rolling his eyes. He doesn't even know what department Jaebum's from, and for all he knows he could be in the humanities, which is a lot closer to the Main Library than other colleges, so he shouldn't be begrudging Jaebum of what should be considered as a common area. Whatever.

"Maybe with a bit more drooling and napping involved," Jaebum jokes. "It's honestly starting to look like death warmed over the place."

"That's what normal college students are supposed to look like," says Jinyoung. The curve of his mouth is starting to twitch. Damn it.

"Like corpses?"

Jinyoung purses his lips. "Sorry we can't all have nice faces like you."

Jinyoung wants to stab himself with how flirtatious it sounds instead of the disdainfully demeaning tone he's going for, and two unmistakable spots of red appear on Jaebum's cheeks. At least Jackson isn't around to watch him humiliate himself. Jinyoung hastily looks down and rips his post it into tiny pieces.

"Thanks, I guess?" Jaebum offers, recovering fairly quickly. Mercifully, he steps away and hefts his bag on his shoulder. "Uh, see you later, then?"

Jinyoung doesn't know how long he stands there, staring at the empty space Jaebum vacated as he replays all of his foot-in-mouth moments with Jaebum starting from day one. It's a spiral of doom, and he's cursed. Surely there should be an end to all of this pain.

He almost knocks over a stapler when someone nudges his shoulder, lost in his distraction. Jimin, the new student assistant, peers at him curiously, then makes a face.

"Why are you scaring the freshmen with your face?" Jimin comments, wrinkling her nose at him. "Did a weird senior hit on you again?"

Jinyoung scowls and pelts her with his shredded post it note. "They'd be blessed to see my face," Jinyoung shoots back. "And stop marking those as overdue, you know they aren't."

"You're no fun, oppa," Jimin says, stepping away and flinging the copy of Statistics for the Social Sciences back into the for-shelving box.

Out of the corner of his eye, he watches Jaebum work at the table farthest from the full-length glass windows, surrounding himself with textbooks and notes. Philosophy major, probably, he revises in his mind. He doesn't remember if Youngjae even surrounded himself with as much readings, preferring the practical approach instead, but Jaebum might be more of a by-the-book kind of guy than he'd thought. Huh, he thinks. It's strangely more normal than he'd expected.

A few girls approach him and only give up chatting with him once he gives them his autograph, ruining the brief illusion. It sends a spark of irritation fizzing through Jinyoung's nerves, but he's not sure if he's more annoyed by Jaebum or by his fans. He bites his lip and heads into the break room instead.

When he comes back, the girls are gone and Jaebum is wearing his earphones this time. His music is turned up so loud Jinyoung can faintly make out the blaring of a funky girl group song, but Jaebum is too far away for him to pointedly cough and make thinly veiled insults about the well-being of his ears. It's not like he cares.

He plucks a book from the general fiction pile and leafs absently through the novel, bent on ignoring Jaebum as he waits for his tea to steep. He's tried reading Kundera in English before, but Jackson had been the worst translator, going on about how he couldn't understand the point of the novel, Jinyoung, you're so weird, try learning Czech instead of making me do your work for you. He'd ended up hunting down Korean translations online instead. (Also with a bit of help from wiki, but like hell he's admitting that out loud.)

It's a bit easier to follow the English version once he's read the Korean one numerous times. At least when he doesn't understand anything, he can rely on stock knowledge to remember the plot. He's so focused on slogging through the text that he jumps when someone's shadow blocks the light.

"Hey," says Jaebum, startling Jinyoung out of the heavier the burden, the closer our lives come to earth. He looks up to find Jaebum leaning against the counter, hardbound book in hand. "Can I renew this?"

"Sure," says Jinyoung, grudgingly putting his own reading aside with a post it to mark the page. "One sec."

Jaebum sets the book down across Jinyoung, the heft of it making him wince. Multivariable Feedback Control, the spine boasts, as daunting as Jinyoung's last science and technology class that he barely scraped by with a passing grade. Jinyoung's not proud to admit that his eyes glaze over just a bit.

"Is this for a friend?" Jinyoung asks, idly scanning the barcode. He plucks the tea bag out of his cup as he waits for Jaebum to hand him his card.

"Oh, nah," says Jaebum, opening his bag and rummaging around it for his ID, "that's actually for one of my majors."

It's a testament to Jaebum's comedic timing when Jinyoung almost spits out his tea and drops the book to his lap, spine knocking against his kneecaps painfully. The bastard should really consider doing variety, but hopefully not at Jinyoung's expense. He has to grab a few sheets of tissue to wipe at his chin, heat rising in his cheeks at Jaebum's curious stare.

"Are you okay?" Jaebum asks, sounding sincerely concerned.

"Sorry?" Jinyoung says, faintly. He's sure he's gone deaf somewhere in the middle of Jaebum opening his mouth and scrutinizing him, because there is absolutely no way he's hearing the word engineering coming out of Jaebum’s ridiculously attractive mouth.

"I'm in the engineering department," says Jaebum, tilting his head a bit to peer at him. "Wait, didn't you know that?"

If I did would I be standing here with herbal tea dripping down my neck, he thinks. He shakes his head.

"Well," says Jaebum, woodenly, "now you know."

"Engineering," Jinyoung repeats. "Huh."

Jaebum shrugs. "I like putting things together."

The world is a lie. All this time Jinyoung's been putting Jaebum into his tiny 'can't read anything beyond bad YA picks so he does stuff with his body' box, and then this blows up in his face. He's a living, breathing and aesthetically appealing nerd, Jinyoung despairs. Fuck my life.

Jinyoung really hates being wrong, almost as much as he hates Jackson being right.

"Why aren't you in performing arts?" He blurts out, then quails inside. Jaebum probably thinks he's a fan now, god forbid. Where is a convenient five-second earthquake when you need it? At the rate he's going, he might as well ask for tickets to a fan signing, maybe stalk him at his agency after dark, which, eugh, no way.

Jaebum makes a humming sound under his breath and takes the book back. "I wonder," he says, voice teasing despite how stiff Jinyoung's smile feels. "Wouldn't you like to know?"

"Well, if you don't want to say," Jinyoung mutters.

Jaebum leans forward, conspiratorial even as Jinyoung itches to shuffle away. "I'll tell you if you have breakfast with me tomorrow," says Jaebum.

The day is progressively getting weirder by the hour. Jinyoung's not ready for the heart palpitations he's been having with increasing regularity. He should get himself checked out. "We have class."

"Afterwards, then," says Jaebum, like it's no big deal. "We can make it a date, just the two of us."

This is not my life, he thinks with dawning horror. Normal people do not get propositioned in broad daylight by former celebrities of ill repute. They just don't.

"Perfect," says Jaebum, grinning wider at Jinyoung's slow, dumb nod. "See you tomorrow, then."

Jinyoung's tea is cold by the time Youngjae and Jackson find him making pained noises into the cover of a paperback. "I know you love books, but you're not gonna get anything from trying to suck face with it, hyung," says Youngjae, concerned. "But if you are, I promise I won't judge."

"I'm an idiot," Jinyoung moans.

"Oh my god," says Jackson, gleefully, "you're finally realizing exactly what you are. I hope you realize I'll never let you forget this moment, ever."

For once, Jinyoung can't refute that. He can, however, bury Jackson in debt with an imaginary overdue fine, even if Jimin shakes her head and calls him out on abusing his powers. No one understands his struggle.

 

 

 


Jackson ducks out of the lecture hell in record speed as soon as Kwon-seonsangnim lets them go, which has more to do with the way he'd taken Jinyoung's hand and said, very seriously, "I put a box of condoms in your backpack, you don't have to thank me for anything". Jinyoung had manfully yanked his hand back and stifled the urge to scream.

Jaebum seems to take Jackson's antics with a grain of salt, watching him waggling his fingers at both of them like a filthy pervert on his way out. "So," he says, significantly more composed than Jinyoung, "breakfast?"

"Just so we're clear, breakfast isn't a euphemism for anything, right?" Jinyoung asks suspiciously.

Jaebum just looks confused. "What?"

Jinyoung shakes his head. "Never mind."

The trek towards the nearest source of food is predictably awkward without Jackson as a buffer, but Jaebum eventually coaxes Jinyoung into revealing more than his birthday, his undergraduate degree, and maybe even his tax identification number, if he even has one. Despite his resistance to the idol charisma, Jinyoung is a naturally talkative person, present company aside, and he fills the gaping silence with a list of reasons why Jackson is the worst classmate in the world.

Jaebum just nods and lets him talk, not even defending Jackson from Jinyoung's more impassioned delineations. Forget Jinyoung having aspirations towards romantic comedies – Jaebum takes the cake with how insufferably nice he is despite initial appearances. On any other person, Jinyoung might be in the danger of being ridiculously infatuated, but he has more self-awareness than a female protagonist torn between her harem of unfairly attractive men. At least, he hopes he does. The jury's still out on that one. Jackson thinks otherwise, but Jackson is also an ass, so whatever.

It doesn't help that Jaebum is apparently more intelligent and discreet than the average celebrity. If he weren't, he wouldn't be so tight-lipped about so many things that Jinyoung fishes for with the civility of a newbie reporter (how did your first shot of soju taste, which girl group member is actually a bitch in real life, did you really have plastic surgery or was that just a rumor). He manages to redirect anything and everything back to Jinyoung, though – even the last question, which, wait, what? -- and over a steaming cup of instant coffee and kimbap, Jinyoung finds out only three things about his eternal rival:

• Jaebum hates being called JB to his face, which instills a fierce sense of sadistic pleasure in Jinyoung every time he sees Jaebum cringe at people that insist on shouting his name in the middle of the cafeteria. (He refuses to call him JB in principle because that just legitimizes his entire career and Jinyoung's still bitter about that.)
• He has no idea who the hell Ayn Rand is, but he reads sijo in his spare time. Even when it's not required. There is an app on his phone for it. What the fuck, seriously, who even does that? (Here Jinyoung calls him a freak, and hides his own tattered copy of a translated Milton play in his book bag.)
• SNU wasn't the only university panting after him when the acceptance letters came out, apparently, because everyone and their mother wanted a piece of him when he sent in those applications.

Jinyoung stares at him wordlessly for the last one.

"So you're telling me," says Jinyoung, slowly, tasting the bitterness of the coffee with an aching familiarity, "that after you quit your day job of prostituting your soul to teenage girls in the nation, you got into SNU and Yonsei?"

"Missed the mark on the K, but two out of the big three isn't so bad," says Jaebum, as if he hadn't heard the first part of Jinyoung's sentence. "I got into the business program but I didn't really want to get called out for bad marketing choices that I didn't even make." He cracks his knuckles and props his chin on his palm. "I would have gone into Hanyang or Konkuk for film but they gave me a partial ride here, so that's that."

Jinyoung sets his empty cup on the table and closes his eyes. The dull thunk rings loud and clear, as annoying as the migraine threatening to burst in his mind. "How are you real?"

"What?"

"You're like some dude that stepped out of a movie," Jinyoung observes. "A really upbeat teenybopper film about overachievers with spectacular lives. Do you have a reality show we're supposed to know about?" He looks around, warily. "Are we secretly filming right now?"

"No way," Jaebum protests, laughing at Jinyoung's paranoia. "Even if I did, I'd never be able to show my face here. It's already bad enough people recognize me."

Then why didn't you just take some off-campus course, Jinyoung thinks. Instead, he folds his arms over his chest and squares his shoulders. "I still don't understand one thing though. Like, how is that even possible that you get these things handed to you on a silver platter?"

"I wouldn't say I didn't do much," Jaebum retorts. "Sure, you'd be surprised what a superficially impeccable transcript does for you, but you can't rely on just that."

"How do you even have time to do anything, though? Weren't you always off practicing or following a schedule?" Jinyoung backtracks, and only realizes his mistake when Jaebum loses the pinched expression on his face. The whole point of keeping someone at arm's length is not keeping up the pretense of actively being interested in their lives, and Jinyoung's fucking it up with his curiosity.

"My agency wasn't so bad," says Jaebum, making a thoughtful noise at the back of his throat. "Plus my high school was more lenient with my situation than normal." He stirs his own coffee with a plastic spoon and grimaces. "It was great at first, but then I nearly keeled over from trying to cram everything for the standardized tests."

"I hate you," says Jinyoung, sounding as hollow as the contents of his cup. Jaebum doesn't take him too seriously, though, and gives him a smug albeit hesitant smile. Whatever, Jinyoung thinks, wiping the dumbfounded look on his face and replacing it with calculated calm. Like he'd ever give Jaebum the satisfaction.

He doesn't expect Jaebum to get it. Guys like him don't really realize how hard everything is for everyone else, because by some act of god they managed to win the lottery in life. Jaebum must have saved an entire continent, and meanwhile Jinyoung's past self must have spent the entire time kicking unsuspecting kittens left and right. No amount of hagwon sessions had given Jinyoung a shot at his first choice in Yonsei, never mind KU.

He chalks it up as yet another reason to become the head of his anti-fan club, if it even exists. He wonders if it's too late to sign up.

 

 

 


"Oh no," says Youngjae, putting his hand up like the supportive friend Jinyoung doesn't have. "Unless this is life-threatening, I don't wanna know. You are not having a crisis in front of me again. It was cute and hilarious the first few times, but this is getting ridiculous."

Jackson shoves Youngjae aside gleefully. "To hell with that," says Jackson, eyes lighting up. "This is my only source of entertainment ever since the router at the dorm broke down. What happened to you now?"

Jinyoung ignores Youngjae's plaintive wail of "I HAVE AN EXAM" and recounts his earlier conversation with Jaebum, albeit with more embellishments of Jaebum's supposedly superior tone and his feigned casual air. Youngjae looks like he wants to stuff his notebook down Jackson's mouth every time he cracks up at Jinyoung's (extremely serious!!!) retelling. Jinyoung's just glad he has someone to listen ever since Yugyeom had rudely shouted at him over the phone, stressed and pissed off about linear equations and quadrants.

"It's like the universe is taunting me," Jinyoung finishes into his bowl of tofu soup. "How can I make fun of a guy who apparently has a well-rounded brain to go with his abs?"

"His abs," Jackson repeats, sounding even more thrilled. "How do you even know he has abs?"

Jinyoung stifles his scream and covers Jackson's mouth with his hand. "Shut up!" He hisses, pointedly not thinking of Jaebum's infamous photoshoot when he was seventeen, the equivalent of a fetus in the kpop world, oh god, he's going to hell. He shrieks when Jackson's tongue licks at his palm. Disgusting.

"This is starting to sound like a drama, except super boring and traumatizing to my soul," Youngjae comments, already surrendering to the hysteria. "I can't believe I just participated in this conversation."

They continue to ignore Youngjae's distress. No one should listen to anyone knee-deep in exams. "And he's in engineering," Jackson taunts. "Should I set up more dates?"

"No."

"Come on, he's like your dream guy already," Jackson whines. "This is much better than having a girlfriend from Canada. Because, you know, he's living. He's breathing. He's male."

"Please shut up," Jinyoung is begging by now. "I don't think you understand the gravity of the situation."

"I learned this in Psych, you know," Jackson boasts. He squints and rubs at his forehead. "Or was it a chick flick? Whatever. But the point is, the more you talk about hating a person, the more your subconscious actually wants to, like, bang him."

"What," says Jinyoung, flatly. Youngjae closes his eyes. He's probably thinking that if he closes them long enough, Jackson will go away.

"You are strangely obsessed with pointing out how good-looking he is. Even when it's unsolicited."

ASHDSGHFSDHFKS, Jinyoung's brain says. He sobs into his bowl, wondering when Jackson became reasonable. "Why does everything have to be about dicks with you?"

"Just give in, Jinyoung," says Jackson, seriously. "I don't think I can stand any more questions about you courtesy of JB. There's no accounting for taste even if he has a lot of money in his hands."

"Why would he even be asking about me?" Jinyoung mumbles into his soup, then he sits up, back ramrod straight. Youngjae and Jackson trade long-suffering looks. "Oh god, is he out to exact revenge on me for talking crap about him? I haven't even made a hate club for him yet!"

"I used to think you were the most insensitive person in this table, hyung," Youngjae tells Jackson. "I hate it when I'm wrong."

"Thanks a lot, bastard," says Jackson, but Jinyoung's ignoring them, already shoving his stuff into his bag and making plans.

Yugyeom finds him bent over his desk much, much later, strolling into Jinyoung's house like the second son his parents never had. (He is.) Jinyoung's been running on adrenaline and three refills of tea so he doesn't blame himself if he yelps and almost falls over his seat when Yugyeom breathes down his neck like the horrifying kid from Ju-on. No one has the right to sneak up on people like that, and then judge them immediately with an assessing smirk.

"That's super pathetic," Yugyeom feels the need to inform him when he catches Jinyoung googling any and all variations of how to make an anti-fan club. Did you mean how to join Im Jaebum's fan club, Google asks instead, to which he backspaces faster than he's ever done at six in the morning on a weekend. "Like, I know I make fun of you all the time, but this is a new low even for you."

Jinyoung bats away the condescending pat to the head that Yugyeom gives him, increasingly irate. "No one asked you."

"The first step to fixing your life is admitting you have a problem."

Jinyoung cocks a threatening eyebrow at him. "How about I fix your face instead?" The asshole just laughs.

"We had counseling sessions the other day and my homeroom teacher wouldn't stop bugging me about my answers," says Yugyeom. "If he could see you now, he'd understand why I told him I'd rather be anything but you."

"All the teachers loved me," Jinyoung insists dolefully, rubbing at his eyes. "You're crazy."

"Not as crazy as a guy devoting his weekend to contemplating signing up for a fan club. A paid fan club, by the way."

Jinyoung doesn't bother to dignify that with an answer, too busy checking his bank account and oh god what if they trace IP addresses, what if.

"Thanks for giving me a glimpse into the scary life of a saesang," says Yugyeom, raiding Jinyoung's fridge without batting an eyelash, like the little neighbor brat he is. Not cute. When he can't find anything he likes, he shuffles over to drape himself across Jinyoung's hunched back. "It looks kind of sad from this angle."

"Don't you have exams?" Jinyoung demands, hoping against all hope that Yugyeom doesn't notice the tab labeled OBLIGATORY IM JAEBUM BODY APPRECIATION POST that he's been casually browsing. Since last night. Okay, maybe two nights ago, but who the hell is even counting? Only the girl's hit counter at least.

Yugyeom is irked enough that it works, and he pushes himself off hanging on Jinyoung's shoulder. "It's Sunday, give me a break."

"Seniors don't get breaks until some university feels sorry enough for them. Get out before I tell on you."

"Pathetic, hyung," Yugyeom reminds him, and goes off to bother someone else.

 

 

 


Screw Jinyoung stalking Jaebum. If he's thought last week's fiasco was bad enough, Jaebum is suddenly everywhere.

Jaebum still doesn't sit with them during class, but he does make it a point to make small talk before or after the lecture, knees propped up against the empty armchair in front of Jackson and Jinyoung. Jinyoung doesn't tell him about spending the entire weekend googling his career and arranging his variety show cuts in chronological order when Jaebum asks about his drooping eyelids and incessant yawn, opting instead to shrink into himself and rely on Jackson's mouth running off to distract Jaebum. He really doesn't want to give Jackson more ammunition than he already has.

Outside of class, Jinyoung catches him in the main library more often than not. It's disconcerting and keeps Jinyoung on edge, because he knows for a fact that the engineering department has a more impressive selection for Jaebum's assignments instead of the general references scattered in Jinyoung's floor. Jaebum doesn't talk to him all the time – just. A little bit. Like, 80% of the time.

He learns a bit more about Jaebum, small stuff like his schedule (all the better to avoid him with), his deep and profound struggle in the one business elective he's taking this semester, and, god forbid, the number of books he's checked out from freshman year. He's expecting a juvenile title to come out, sandwiched in between all the calculus and physics references somewhere, but no dice. Jaebum probably checks out Wattpad obsessively instead.

Jaebum is, surprisingly, unfailingly boring and safe. He hasn't joined a frat, if the lack of rampant exhibitionism and delinquency is any indication of it, nor has he gotten in with the serial party crowd yet, even if Jinyoung knows from Jackson's Facebook photos that he goes to some parties when invited by his other friends. It's an entirely different world from what Jinyoung associates with the Jaebum who snores in his sleep when he's too tired to function, slumped over a desk in the library with the hood of his jacket yanked over his head to keep the fluorescent lights out. But seeing Jaebum with an arm around an inebriated senior and a red solo cup in hand through his laptop screen is more reminiscent of the image Jinyoung has of him, raucous and uncaring of consequences and just entirely out of anyone's league.

("Are you stroking your screen?" Jimin asks over his shoulder. Jinyoung pulls his hand back, burned, and shoots her a look of utter loathing.)

He's slowly come to terms with the fact that he can't get rid of Jaebum yet. Jaebum sometimes drops by for lunch, though Jinyoung knows for a fact that his other friends have been shamelessly teasing him for it – Jinyoung tries not to break out into a cold sweat every time Yoo Youngjae stares at him with a shit-eating grin that rivals Jackson's – and it's surprising that Jaebum hasn't let his temper get the best of him outside of indignant yelling laced with laughter and a few well-directed kicks at his friends.

"I blame you for this," Jinyoung whispers furiously to Jackson as Jaebum plops down beside Mark to talk about some FPS game coming out next season. Jackson just looks smug and not even the least bit repentant.

"I'm just doing my part in getting the celebrity reintegrated back into civilian life," Jackson brags. "Think of it as community service. If I get to do that while taking advantage of his attachment to you, then it's practically a win-win situation for me."

"What attachment?" Jinyoung says, scrunching up his nose. "I'm only acting like a decent person because I know you'll do something embarrassing if I don't."

"I don't think you're too hung up about it as much as you claim you are," says Jackson, and Jinyoung would love to do nothing more than wipe the smug expression off of his face with his fist. "And if you haven't noticed anything by now, you're an idiot."

Jinyoung's hackles rise. "What?"

"Forget it," says Jackson, waving him off. "Don't you have a shift in half an hour?" He stands up and catcalls at Jaebum. "Yo, pop star! Weren't you on your way to the library?"

"Yeah?" Jaebum says, looking up. "What's up?"

"Jinyoung's gonna head over to work in a bit," says Jackson, coolly. Jinyoung kicks him under the table. "You should walk with him to ward off the perverts."

Jaebum's expression changes into one of extreme concern and discomfort. "You're being trailed by perverts?"

"More like he's the pervert," Youngjae mutters under his breath. Jinyoung kicks him for that as well. "Save yourself, hyung. Please."

"We're just concerned about Jinyounggie since he's such a space case sometimes," says Jackson, voice dripping with the sincerity he's never had since birth. Jinyoung cracks his knuckles threateningly.

Jaebum still looks worried, and Jinyoung still wants the earth to swallow him up. Both are completely out of his control, unfortunately, because apparently Jaebum has a white knight complex and the earth is not anywhere near apocalyptic levels of seismic shifts and divine intervention. "You should talk to campus security about that."

"It's fine if you don't," Jinyoung insists.

"Nah, it's okay," says Jaebum, crushing Jinyoung's hopes and dreams further. "Give me a sec to pack up my stuff. I'll walk with you."

Jinyoung waits until Jaebum's back is turned before he expresses his gratitude to Jackson via a look of despair. Thank me later, Jackson mouths, but Jinyoung interprets it as see you in hell.

They're getting better at small talk so it isn't as awkward as the first disastrous attempt, but Jinyoung still feels fidgety and out of depth around Jaebum. It's like a chokehold on his spine that just won't quit, and it's foreboding enough without the gritty prickling of his skin every time Jaebum's elbow accidentally knocks against his. The innocuous conversation has its fair share of hiccups and false starts, but they get through the (excruciatingly long) walk without much incident, save for when a bicycle almost runs over Jinyoung and Jaebum yanks him to his side like – and Jinyoung is never gonna quit thinking about this – some godforsaken male drama lead. It honestly makes his spine tingle with mortification.

"So here you are," says Jaebum, releasing him and gesturing towards the steps leading to the library.

"Here I am," Jinyoung echoes. He opens his palms and shakes them, as if to prove a point. "No perverts."

"No perverts," Jaebum agrees, "but you're like an accident waiting to happen. Jackson wasn't kidding about the spacing out, was he?"

If you weren't so damn distracting Jinyoung almost says, but thankfully keeps his mouth firmly shut. "Whatever you say, Jaebum-sshi," he mumbles.

Jinyoung doesn't know what to expect, but it certainly isn't Jaebum taking a few steps closer to him and plucking a leaf out of his hair. Jinyoung almost chokes. Fall is the worst season ever. "Hey," says Jaebum, "call me hyung, okay?"

"Uh," says Jinyoung, taking his cue of idiocy from Jackson, "as long as it isn't oppa, then fine."

Jaebum laughs so hard the skin around his eyes crinkle with glee. "I knew you had a sense of humor in there, somewhere."

That's it. Jinyoung quits. He's filing for a leave of absence tomorrow and joining a cult of ascetic monks, away from mocking celebrities and negative influences in life. He doesn't think his pride can handle any more of this.

To his credit, Jaebum doesn't prolong his agony, but his face does fall a bit when Jinyoung remains silent. He offers a small smile and waves, feet kicking up a few stray leaves on the ground as he turns his back to walk away. Jinyoung watches him take a few steps in confusion, and before he can remind himself that he doesn't care, he blurts out, "Aren't you coming inside?"

It stops Jaebum in his tracks, and the look he gives Jinyoung over his shoulder is gratified, almost, if not a little embarrassed. "Nah, I gotta head over to the engineering building," Jaebum confesses. "See you, then."

Jinyoung doesn't get to ask him why he'd gone all the way to the main library – the engineering department is all the way to the other side, opposite of the direction they'd headed towards. He would have gotten there faster if he hadn't taken the detour past the student center. Hell, he would have gotten there without having to drop Jinyoung off, too out of the way and inconvenient.

Jinyoung shakes his head and keeps his hands tucked in his jean pockets. He really doesn't understand Jaebum at all.

 

 

 


The worst part about letting his guard down around Jaebum is that Jaebum seems to take the smallest sign of Jinyoung surrendering to Jackson's EVERYONE SHOULD BE FRIENDS BECAUSE I SAID SO spiel as genuine interest. Jinyoung doesn't have the heart to tell Jaebum that he's only putting up with him because he'd rather not have Jackson breathing over his neck for taking away his shot at breaking into the Korean entertainment industry the rest of his life. Jinyoung is a realist through and through.

"He honestly thinks we're friends," Jinyoung complains to Yugyeom. "He tells me all the things he does every day and it's so annoying because I could care less about whatever insane project his professors assign him or which unfortunate soul he and his friends are dicking around with now, I really give zero fuck."

"Sounds like your friendship with Jackson-hyung to me," says Yugyeom, blandly. Jinyoung has to gag, even if the loose, casual way Jaebum talks to him now makes his chest feel a little light. It's a stark contrast to Jaebum's tight-fisted attitude towards talking about himself initially, but the speed at which he's actively volunteering information about himself would make Jinyoung concerned about Jaebum's willingness to trust relative strangers with stories of his private life. He could be selling blind items about Jaebum's obsession with his cat, never mind that Jinyoung's heart tends to go into overdrive every time Jaebum shows him pictures of a sleeping Norah curled up against Jaebum's side on his phone.

He blames it on the insane amount of caffeine he's been ingesting. These heart palpitations have got to stop right now.

It's not necessarily bad, though. Jaebum spends more time in the library than ever, but they don't really talk, already falling into that sphere of comfort where they don't need to do more than nod and greet each other, if only Jinyoung's stomach didn't stop churning. This, he blames on indigestion. The feeling of weightlessness he attributes to a skipped meal. (Jinyoung is very good at justifying things for himself.)

If he's being really honest, the utter disdain and loathing has subsided into a low hum of occasional exasperation. Jinyoung still puts in the token effort of displaying his discontent, but Jaebum is – and Jinyoung can't believe he's saying this after all the hours he's spent bitching at Yugyeom – actually a humble person underneath all the pretenses of swagger for the public. It's difficult to continue to rail about injustice when Jinyoung can see that Jaebum deserves it if the hours he puts in his work and the somber hunch of his back can attest to it. He'd expected Jaebum to spend all his time in the library goofing off and flirting with anything and anyone with a pair of legs, and it makes Jinyoung feel antsy all over when he's proven wrong about that.

So the pop star actually has a brain, he thinks, rolling his eyes, and immediately feels guilty after, because he knows that Jaebum is far from stupid. It's just so easy to write him off as a dumb celebrity riding the coat-tails of his agency's success to win at life.

Jaebum's confessed off-hand that he sometimes thinks about going back to the life of an idol full time, especially when he's so frustrated at seemingly unsolvable problem sets and multiple drafts and revisions that don't please his professors. Jinyoung had been shocked when Jaebum had brought it up in the middle of one of their detours to the vending machine, but all he could do was frown at the can of strawberry milk Jaebum had gotten for him.

What do you say to a guy that buys you a drink in the middle of a hot afternoon? He had to choke down the bitter "you're rich enough anyway" because Jinyoung's not an ingrate on purpose. Instead, he'd put his foot in his mouth (way to go, Jinyoung) and stuttered out, "You're too hot to die in a freak accident at a laboratory, you should think about it."

"Okay," Jaebum had said, hiding a smile behind a sip of his own soya milk. "Maybe I'll start with a few commercials in my free time."

Jinyoung's life, it's so surreal. Who even gives out advice to former teen idols anyway? Apparently Jinyoung, that's who. "Yeah, you do that."

More than the initial feelings of shame at his own uncharitable thoughts ("Yes Yugyeom," he spits out, "I have a conscience."), it's not just the coincidental meetings and the frequent time spent around each other that make Jinyoung think that Jaebum's not so bad. A guilt-ridden and shamelessly self-serving part of Jinyoung also finds that Jaebum takes good notes. Really good notes. Much better notes than the illegible scrawl Jackson has, and they're organized by category into separate colors and fuck, Jinyoung would be in love if it didn't kill him to even ask for Jaebum's help, or even his time.

And Jaebum – he gives it without Jinyoung having to ask anyway, in the same way that he feeds him muffins and plies him with coffee, acting like the perfect boyf-- bro that his friends aren't. They get marginally close enough for Jinyoung to grudgingly admit that, yeah, this is nice, they're not just one-sided friends anymore, maybe, and some time in between the fifth time Jaebum ropes him into breakfast and the nth one that they walk to the library together, Jinyoung forgets himself and accidentally calls Jaebum "hyung" in front of Jackson.

Jackson almost looks like he's having a heart attack or passing out while choking on his burger, which is just -- whatever. Jackson is so dramatic.

Hyung? REALLY? Jackson texts. Jinyoung doesn't reply because Jackson doesn't deserve to eat up his phone credits more than he already does, never mind that his data plan has unlimited messaging services.

Ten minutes of his phone going off and Yugyeom kicking him out of his room for being too noisy, Jinyoung gives in.

"When are you going to tell me you're dating my man JB?" Jackson demands.

"He's not your man," Jinyoung sighs, already regretting picking up. He's determined to keep this as long and drawn-out as possible so he could drain Jackson's money in revenge. "And you call him hyung too!"

"Yeah, but I don't catalogue the many hairstyles he's had in the past," Jackson snorts. "Nor do I keep finding excuses to fall into his lap."

"There was a bee flying around--"

"Out of all that bullshit, not once did I hear a denial about you dating him," says Jackson. "So when's your next study date? Can I crash and bring popcorn with me?"

"It's not a date," Jinyoung hedges. "And you know food isn't allowed inside."

"Say that again when you stop smuggling rice crackers inside. Speaking of which, did hyung give you that really nice box of biscuits he got from work?"

"No," Jinyoung lies, nudging the tin container aside. His stomach is acting up again. "I have no idea what you're talking about."

"Liar, I can smell your chocolate-dipped shame from here," Jackson scoffs. "You still haven't answered my first question."

"I don't know," Jinyoung grumbles. "We just keep bumping into each other."

"How are you so stupid?" Jackson fake-sobs into his phone.

Jinyoung hangs up.

 

 

 


Their first big argument happens sooner than he thinks.

He's kind of stopped thinking about any potential crime scenes involving him and Jaebum since they'd settled into their… thing that he's overestimated the extent of Jaebum's patience and his willingness to deal with other people's crap. Jinyoung knows he's a difficult person on occasion, and having Jackson around is like asking an arsonist not to set something on fire. It just doesn't happen.

Really, it's bound to happen one way or another.

Jackson and Jaebum are hanging around near Jinyoung's counter at the library – well, Jackson is, scooting his chair close enough to bother Jinyoung and indulge in gossip with Jimin at the same time. Jaebum is trying to work from the table a few feet away, close enough to hear everything. It's a slow enough shift that Jinyoung is actually entertaining Jackson's attempts at distracting him from his job, so it takes a while before Jinyoung actually notices the girl waiting by the counter.

"Hi," she says, shyly holding up a book. Jinyoung's eye twitches at the cover. "Can I borrow this?"

"Sure," says Jinyoung, beaming even as he dies inside at the student's literary choices. He glances at her ID. Go figure.

Jackson is hiding his head behind his hands, shaking with visible laughter. He manages to hold it in until the girl is distant enough to not hear them at all, and whacks him on the side with a rolled up newspaper.

"Oooh," Jackson breathes, eyes flitting back and forth from Jinyoung to the other student. He laughs at Jinyoung's defiant sniff. "Your judge-y face is on point today."

"What are you talking about?" Jaebum asks. He's come up to them since Jackson had started imitating a dying animal with the way he'd had to hide his sniggering. "Jinyoung's not that bad."

"Are you kidding me?" Jackson breaks out into a peal of laughter, much harder than before. Several students a few feet away glare at him. "Jinyoung's the most judgmental person in the world. Queen bitch material, this dude."

"He looks pretty harmless to me," says Jaebum. He looks a bit uncomfortable, but Jinyoung is too busy trying to suffocate Jackson with his jacket in an effort to shut him up to even notice.

"Harmless?" Jinyoung squawks. "I'm not harmless."

Jackson mutters something like "love is blind" under his breath, but Jinyoung thinks he's probably hearing things again. "Jinyoung has this really weird habit at work," says Jackson, once he's fended off Jinyoung. "Like, all the people that approach him at the counter? He's been judging them based on the books they checked out and filtering their literary tastes by faculty since last semester."

Jackson's laughter tapers off once he realizes that Jaebum isn't joining in. Jaebum's eyes are wide and he's biting his lip, looking askance. Jinyoung's skin prickles with discomfort at his inspection. "Uhhh, are you okay, man?"

"That's very… detailed," says Jaebum, slowly. He sounds a little more than upset. "And kind of mean-spirited, I guess?"

Jinyoung and Jackson gape at him, more out of mortification on Jinyoung's part. Like Jaebum even has any room to talk. Jinyoung's not the one with a string of scandals in tabloids to his name.

"I'm a pretty good judge of character," says Jinyoung defensively. "It's been a reliable yard stick by far."

It's not the smartest comeback in the world, and judging by how Jaebum's cheeks are red, it's also the wrong thing to say.

"Really?" Jaebum snorts, skeptical. From the way his eyes seem to go dull, he looks wrung out and inappeasable. He's toying with a paper clip and picking it apart until it's just one straight line. "By basing it off of their books?"

"Well this is awkward," Jimin mutters, to the side. Jackson pushes his chair back and stares at them with wide eyes.

Jinyoung takes a deep breath. Counts to three in his head, backwards, before he opens his mouth. "Books are a reflection of –"

"Bullshit," says Jaebum, without a hint of a smile. He props his arm against the counter and meets his gaze head on. "That girl that just checked out the Shopaholic series is an aeronautics major on the Dean's list since her freshman year. Tell me you didn't side eye her just for that."

Jinyoung can't speak, too humiliated to do more than glare at Jaebum. Jackson, the coward, holds up his hands in surrender and takes it as his cue to slink away, seeking salvation in Jimin's area. Jinyoung grabs a stapler and busies himself with paperwork that could actually wait until tomorrow, but fuck it, Jaebum doesn't need to know that.

"Did you need anything else?" Jinyoung demands, when Jaebum keeps leaning against the counter and eyeing him with something akin to disappointment. He swallows. "Other than to crush my pride, that is."

"Wow, you really don't take criticism well, do you?" says Jaebum. He keeps his lips pursed and his chin perched on his palm. "You're so hard to read sometimes that you always surprise me."

Jaebum reaches out to take the piece of office equipment in Jinyoung's hands, but all he manages to do is touch the inside of Jinyoung's wrist. Jinyoung yanks the stapler out of his grasp. "More than you did on Star Golden Bell when you just debuted and had a mini-tantrum off air," Jinyoung retorts.

"Huh," says Jaebum, warily. He drops his hand to his side. "I didn't know I had an inquisition in my hands. How do you even remember that?"

Jinyoung sniffs, and looks away.

Jaebum taps the side of the desk, drumming to an imaginary beat to his head. He does this a lot when he's distracted, when he's really thinking about what to say to Jinyoung, but never like this. "I'll admit I didn't exactly have the best reactions when I was younger," says Jaebum. "I won't make excuses for it, but I hope you don't make excuses for yourself either."

"What is that supposed to mean?"

"I think you've been judging people your entire life and it's not really a nice way to look at the world, isn't it?" Jaebum says off-handedly, like he's just commenting on the weather and not decimating Jinyoung's life choices with a single blow. "Jackson told me about that audition thing, by the way. And about how you have, like, ten copies of my sordid past."

"Oh my god," says Jinyoung. The stapler falls from his hands and hits the floor. Someone -- Jackson, most likely, or Jinyoung himself – makes choking noises. Jinyoung wonders if it's too late to hide under the table and pray Jaebum doesn't talk to him ever again.

"I don't know if I should call you immature or a stalker," says Jaebum, but he doesn't sound mad about it. Just amused and defeated, "but I'll make sure to laugh at you about it in the future."

 

 

 


"-- and then he had the gall to walk away, like some person from a bad web drama pretending to be cool," Jinyoung seethes, hitting the volleyball with as much force as he can. Mark's been tossing balls to him since he'd demanded it after his shift, and it had been the combination of physical activity and Jinyoung that had made Mark look more awake and concerned than ever. Jinyoung knows Mark has class right now, so he's grateful that he's skipping it like a good friend. Or an irresponsible student. Jinyoung never knows with Mark. "Who does that in real life anyway?"

"Jackson does," Mark says, not even flinching when the ball flies past him. He picks up another one at his feet and tosses it to himself a few times, like he doesn't trust Jinyoung not to smack it to his face. "He's pretty dramatic that way, in case you forgot."

"Jackson doesn't count," says Jinyoung. "Jackson never counts." He glowers at the ball in Mark's hands. "Which reminds me, if you see Jackson, send him my way so I can kick his ass."

"You're wearing your homicidal face. Please don't contemplate murder," says Mark, deadpan. "You have to think about your future, Jinyoung."

Jinyoung wrestles the ball out of Mark's grip and heads over to the nearest wall, which might be more responsive than his current partner. "I don't trust myself to not hit him if he breathes."

Mark lets him take out his frustrations for a few rounds, going back to the bench to grab a couple of water bottles. He throws one to Jinyoung, who catches it with some difficulty.

"Look," Mark begins, tentatively. "It's not like the guy doesn't have a point. You know this."

"I resent that you've taken his side," Jinyoung says, grumpily taking a swig from his drink. "And he's just a hypocrite attacking other people when he has his own image to worry about."

"I call bullshit."

"Tough, but that's all you're getting out of me."

"You're being irrational. Stop being irrational, how are we supposed to function without a sane person?"

"First of all, we really have to stop letting Jackson talk us into things—"

"Never mind," says Mark. Mark is unhelpful about giving advice, as always, and very prone to being biased. This is why Jackson gets away with so much shit. "Don't deflect. Why don't you just accept that Jaebum is right and give him a chance?" Mark sighs. "I know you're competitive, but that audition thing was years ago, wasn’t it?"

"I've been giving him a chance since I shut up about how infuriating he was," Jinyoung points out.

"You just stopped venting," says Mark. "Doesn't mean that you actually stopped holding a grudge."

Talking to Mark is tiring, because while Mark doesn't really like to involve himself in conversations too much, when he does, he doesn't meander with his words. He's a little like Jaebum that way, too direct, even tactless, and it just stings. Suddenly, Jinyoung doesn't feel so thirsty anymore.

"Whatever," Jinyoung pouts, capping and tossing his water bottle to the side. "He's just a kid."

"That kid might wind up being the future president of South Korea, and then what are you gonna do when he has the secret service hunt you down?"

"Nah, he's gonna be a chaebol," Jinyoung says, crossing his arms. He's panting by now, breathless and out of shape. It's already hot out, and thinking about Jaebum isn't helping. "That's what always happens to these engineering kids."

"It's more likely that he'll be an expat, but whatever," says Mark. "Are you gonna rail at his hypothetical future of making a career in a multinational company that sucks the lifeblood of the environment, or are you gonna exaggerate more of his flaws?"

Jinyoung gapes. "No," he lies. "I would never."

"I don't think you're mad about Jaebum being himself," says Mark honestly. "I think you're angry he called you out, and that he's right." His unsmiling face breaks in a second, impish. "Also, don't think I don't know that you called him hot to his face."

Fuck. Mark's right. Jinyoung is a sad, sad boy nursing a hopeless and superficial crush on a pop star, and now he's moping for getting on his bad side. What is his life.

Jinyoung brings his knees up and bends forward to press his face against his thighs, sweat and grime sticking to his skin. It feels as disgusting as his soul. "He said in the future, what the hell is that supposed to mean?"

Mark's most likely trying to go for consoling, but he's sounding increasingly patronizing in the darkness of Jinyoung's misery. "It's a good thing, see? It's not like he's going to quit talking to you forever just because you showed him a side you don't want other people to know about." He pauses. "Or, at least, a side Jackson exposed, but let's not get into that."

"When did this happen? When did I stop thinking he was irritating as hell?" Jinyoung wails. "When did I even care about what he thinks of me?"

He can't see Mark, not even when he collapses on his side and curls up in a fetal position. He can hear Mark shuffling forward, and he's either hovering or kneeling over him, blocking the sun from his eyes. "You are easy to bribe with food."

Mark seems to take his prone form as a sign of surrender, not as a signal of distress. The future looks grim and bleak. Jinyoung reevaluates the feasibility of his initial plans of monkhood. Surely he still has time.

"This is like Jackson all over again," Jinyoung despairs. "I knew I should have shut him down forever. Nothing Jackson does is beneficial to me."

Mark laughs and ruffles his hair. "Just go with it, Jinyounggie," he says. "I trust your life choices."

"What if I don't trust myself?" Jinyoung asks, sounding small.

"Then don't do anything." Mark shrugs and comes to a stand. Jinyoung peeks at him and watches Mark pick up the nearest ball and tuck it under his arm. "No point in making things so complicated for yourself."

"I'm a hormonal young adult," Jinyoung drones on. "It's part of my job description to be complicated."

"If you say so," says Mark, rubbing his arms. "Just. Please don't kill Jackson yet. I think I might miss him a little bit if you do."

"I'll do my best," says Jinyoung, grimly, "but it might be a good idea to give me a wide berth until I stop feeling the need to punch something or someone."

"I'll make sure to tell Jackson to stay far away," promises Mark.

 

 

 

Not far away enough, because Jackson is back to bothering him not a few days later.

"So the bad news is, hyung's still a little upset with you," Jackson says by way of greeting. He looks at Jinyoung warily before testing the waters by nudging his hip. Jinyoung chokes on his milk tea.

"Leave me alone," Jinyoung intones, once he's recovered from near-death by boba.

"Nope," Jackson pipes up. "You're kinda dangerous when left alone. Yugyeom's ordered a neighborhood watch on you, and you know he has our balls in a vice grip."

Jinyoung shrugs off the arm Jackson's slung around his shoulder, but Jackson is nothing if not stubborn and a whore for skinship. "Yugyeom can mind his own business."

"The good news is, I'm pretty sure he's accepted the fact that you're not as nice as he thinks you are," Jackson continues, ignoring him. "Which, by the way, is a lapse of judgment on his part."

"I'm so glad you're so invested in upholding my image," says Jinyoung, wiping at a sticky trail of cha. Jackson has the gall to wrinkle his nose at that.

"Hey, I'm not the one having a self-inflicted competition over pretending to be indifferent about what a hot guy thinks about me."

"Are you sure you're up for talking about that?" Jinyoung bites out. "Are you, hypocrite?"

Jackson shakes his head and steals his milk tea in revenge. "I'm running interference for you and this is the thanks I get?" He takes an obnoxiously loud slurp out of the straw, to Jinyoung's horror. He hopes a bubble gets stuck in his air pipe. "Mmm, get wintermelon next time."

"You wouldn't even be doing this if you hadn't opened your mouth," he grouses. "And buy your own food, you leech."

"I can't help it if you two are blind in completely different but similarly annoying ways," Jackson grumbles dramatically. "You're just mad you lost your personified wallet. You haven't spent a single won on drinks since hyung started looking at you with disgusting stars in his eyes."

Jackson finishes the rest of the tea with as much noise as he can and tosses the cup into a nearby trash bin. He misses, predictably, and shrugs, leaving Jinyoung to pick it up when a passing professor gives them a dirty look.

"What stars? You're delusional," Jinyoung shouts after him, shaking a fist.

"He's gonna be at Youngjae's frat party tomorrow," says Jackson. "The one from BA, not our Youngjae. You should come."

Jackson knows Jinyoung hates frat parties. They're always packed with sweaty, intolerable people that insist on body shots and beer pong, so Jinyoung's not too sure what the appeal in it is outside of humiliating himself further in front of Im Jaebum.

"Why are you telling me this?"

"For a smart person, you're really dumb," Jackson sighs. Jinyoung shoves at his arm.

"I have a 3.7 average, you're not fooling me, Mr. B+ but nearly failing --"

"Dumb and boring," Jackson sing-songs. "You're never gonna show up."

Jinyoung is a very easy person to goad, and from the smirk on Jackson's face, he knows it. He's also prone to taking any and all opportunities to prove Jackson wrong, and is unfortunately weak to social pressure of the vocal kind. A regrettable tragic flaw, he thinks later, as Yoo Youngjae and Hwang Kwanghee gang up on him and continue to refill his overflowing drink in hand. Judging from the alcohol content of the supposed keg, he's not even sure if he's going to be able to see Jaebum tonight without passing out.

From the way Kwanghee and Youngjae seem to be multiplying exponentially in his eyes, though – yep, he's sure of that.

Jinyoung's not sure who manages to hold him upright when Kwanghee and Youngjae release him from their hold and go off to bother other unsuspecting underclassmen, but whoever it is, they're very loud. Like, louder than the synthetic pop blaring from the speakers in the living room. Jinyoung looks up and sees Jackson glaring down at him. That explains everything.

"I take my eyes away from you for half an hour," says Jackson, through gritted teeth. Jinyoung laughs and tries to make a bubble with his mouth.

"I love you!" Jinyoung half-yells. "I love everyone in this room!!!"

"Oh my god, I forgot you were a clingy drunk," says Jackson, hooking Jinyoung's arm under his shoulders and taking him to the nearest couch. "I'm killing Kwanghee. I told him to lock you in a damn room with JB-hyung, not get you plastered as shit. No one ever listens to my brilliant ideas."

"I love Jaebum more than I love you," Jinyoung feels the need to inform him, eyes unfocused and pondering the streak of beer he'd spilled on his arm. "Jaebum, not JB. Because. You know. I hate JB." He licks a stripe down the trail of beer, much to Jackson's disgust.

"You're not supposed to be this shit-faced," Jackson wails. "What are we gonna do with you now?"

"I was nervous, you know I keep drinking anything when I'm nervous," is what Jinyoung thinks to say, but he dry heaves on Jackson's back instead. Jackson lets out a terrifyingly manly shriek and holds him at arm's length.

"I hope you remember this when I cash in on future favors," says Jackson, shuddering. "Lots of favors."

The sofa in the living room is occupied by a couple of guys starting a makeshift game of Halo, and the nearest loveseat is host to an armful of sleepy drunks. Forget the kitchen – someone is already starting a game of body shots on the counter and strip poker on the table.

Out of the corner of his eye, Jinyoung vaguely registers seeing Bambam and Yugyeom, who promptly squeak and turn to hide in the opposite end of the house at Jackson's shooing motions, but that can't be right. Yugyeom's supposed to be studying and weeping over his future like the responsible brat he is, not cavorting around with inebriated uni students and chatting up noonas in the den. Whatever. He'll talk to him later, if he even remembers this.

"You saw nothing," Jackson hisses, covering his eyes. Jinyoung just grunts and peels his fingers off his eyeballs.

Jackson ends up half-dragging, half-carrying him past the hallway, up the stairs, and into the bathroom, where a disconcerted Jaebum bumps into them. Jinyoung's not proud of his strangled shriek, but it gives him at least five seconds of Jaebum looking like a hunted deer.

"It's hyung," Jinyoung trills, batting Jackson away and clutching at the front of Jaebum's shirt for dear life. "Hey hyuuung, I didn't mean to show everyone your nudes so don't call me a stalker, you just make it so easy --"

"What?" Jaebum says, eyes wide. Really, if he's gonna chew someone out, he shouldn't look like he's the aggressor here. It just makes Jinyoung feel less shitty about himself.

"HAPPY BIRTHDAY," says Jackson, through gritted teeth. "Here's your present, go fix him."

"My birthday's in January, Jackson," says Jaebum, warily. "What the hell is wrong with Jinyoung?"

Jackson mulls over this, because honestly, it's a pretty loaded question. "I'm not sorry he's a chatty drunk, but you'll probably make more progress with him now than when he's back to his old, boring self."

Jaebum, to his credit, manages not to jump when Jinyoung noses along the nape of his neck, snuffling. "I bet," says Jaebum, and Jinyoung wrinkles his nose at how it makes his throat vibrate while Jinyoung's too busy trying to explore the comfiest place to tuck his cheek on. "He's gonna hate me even more tomorrow."

"Trust me," Jackson says, and Jinyoung's too placated to even care about anything beyond curling up against Jaebum and blocking anyone from entering the bathroom like an asshole, "hate isn't the word you're looking for."

Jaebum keeps Jinyoung tucked beside him as he waits for Jinyoung to sober up and for Jackson to come back with a fortifying pitcher of water, even if he looks like he'd rather be elsewhere. It's not an extremely sobering thought, but it's enough to make Jinyoung feel queasier than ever, partly from the drinks, but mostly from the tension. He doesn't make much effort to extract Jinyoung from his side even as Jinyoung starts to jab at his chest, only grunting with thinly-veiled annoyance once Jinyoung's devolved to outright pinching.

"What?" Jaebum huffs, catching him by the wrist.

"You were ignoring me." Jinyoung flexes his fingers and squints at the air. "Stop ignoring me. I don't like it when people do that."

Jaebum rolls his eyes but loosens his grip on Jinyoung's wrist. He lets Jinyoung's hand search for his, and only makes a disappointed sound when Jinyoung starts tracing patterns into his palm. He's shivering, Jinyoung notes, absently. It's probably from the cold. "In case you've forgotten, I'm not really too happy with you right now," Jaebum tells him, lips pursed.

"Invalid," Jinyoung yells. "Idols are supposed to suck it up and pretend to like people even when they're being annoying shits."

"Really? So you're admitting you're being an annoying shit?"

Jinyoung slumps against Jaebum further. "Yes," he says unhappily. Jaebum blinks at the easy answer.

"At least you're more honest when you're drunk."

"Of course I am," Jinyoung brags. He cups a palm around his mouth and leans closer, meaning to aim for Jaebum's ear but touching his cheek instead. "Wanna know a secret?"

"At the rate you're going? Not really."

Jinyoung tells him anyway. "You really sucked when you were still a pop star. Like, I could do so much better than you. Jackson could probably do better than you if he tried. You should have paid more attention to your vocal coaches, you know?" He gasps. "Is that why you didn't go into music?"

"Wow," says Jaebum, sounding faint and not at all impressed. "I have no words. You really don't learn, do you?"

"Not really," Jinyoung admits. "I'm not a fast learner."

It's quiet for a few seconds, and Jinyoung is close to nodding off, cheek resting on Jaebum's jaw, when Jaebum starts to speak again. "Is that what you really think about me?" He asks, face unreadable. "That I didn't deserve being in the spotlight for a bit?"

Polite Jinyoung would have said no. Passive aggressive Jinyoung would have gone for a backhanded compliment. Unfortunately, discretion is not the better part of valor for this Jinyoung, who just tilts his head at Jaebum like a confused cocker spaniel.

"Sometimes," says Jinyoung, bluntly. "But you're not too bad. I can tolerate you now at least."

"For a drunkard, you're way too eloquent," Jaebum mutters. He covers his face with his hands, briefly, and exhales. "I forgive you for being a little shit."

"Yeah, well, I forgive you for being yourself," Jinyoung announces.

"Where the hell is Jackson, seriously –"

"You and your –" Jinyoung hand waves Jaebum's spluttering away, still looking for words. Jinyoung is nothing if not eloquent even in a drunken near-stupor. "Your indiscretions and your undeserved popularity and your – your –" He grabs at Jaebum's shoulders. "Your face."

Jaebum sighs and shuts his eyes. Jinyoung reaches up to force his eyelids open, and Jaebum must have attained zen in between his stint as a celebrity and now, because he doesn't do more than make an unhappy sound. "I'm really getting tired of being judged for the way I look, especially by the people I like the most." He says, tiredly, then attempts a small smile, absent of amusement. "Do you like me, Jinyoung-ah?"

"No," says Jinyoung churlishly, even if he can't quite follow the gravity of Jaebum's question. "I don't know. Maybe."

"It's either a yes or a no, Jinyoung."

"You're not supposed to be nice. And soft. And good at cuddling. I like cuddling," Jinyoung babbles. "Why are you so nice?"

"I don't know either. Or maybe I have to balance you out."

"I take it back," Jinyoung gasps. "You're a jerk. Stop making me confused."

"I'm a simple guy," Jaebum protests. "You're the only one making things more complicated than they are."

Funny. He's heard this same line somewhere. He doesn't remember. It's irritating when he can't. He changes the subject.

"Right now I hate your face even if I want to lick you sometimes," says Jinyoung, apropos of nothing.

Jaebum lets out a shocked spiel of laughter, any residual bit of frustration disappearing at Jinyoung's words and his wide eyes. "You're really cute, even if you're kind of crazy sometimes."

He fusses at Jaebum's bangs, already distracted by a few strands sticking up. Jaebum is quiet again, but the atmosphere this time is even tenser, if not heavy. Jinyoung really hates awkward silences with other people. At least when he's alone, he can curl up into bed and distract himself with reading or sleeping, ignoring anything and everything outside his room. If he can't stop thinking about how Jaebum is mad at him, maybe everything will be okay. Or he could just force his way into his good graces. Anything sounds like a good idea to him right about now.

"Are we good now?" Jinyoung demands. Jaebum grimaces, but he rubs at Jinyoung's cheek, wiping at the sweat.

"Yeah," says Jaebum softly, leaning closer until Jinyoung can feel the ghost of his lips on his jaw, and Jinyoung beams even if Jaebum is a pretty shitty liar. "We're okay."

 

 

 

"Oh shit," Jackson says, nearly coming to his feet in excitement when Jinyoung slinks into his seat five minutes late, snapback pulled down and sunglasses pilfered from Jaebum's dresser perched lopsidedly on his nose. "Did you do the walk of shame?"

"What walk of shame?" Jinyoung groans. Maybe if he tries his best, the armchair would swallow him up to save him from the professor's glare. His migraine is getting increasingly annoying, even without Jackson to facilitate it.

"I know you came from Jaebum-hyung's flat," says Jackson, stabbing his side with a pencil. "Don't even bother denying it, you're still wearing your clothes from yesterday, you lazy shit. Why isn't he in class?"

"He's asleep." Jinyoung cringes at Jackson's simultaneously scandalized and gratified expression. "What."

"Totally a walk of shame," whispers Jackson, voice proud.

"Not a walk of shame if sex never happened," Jinyoung hisses back.

Someone switches off the lights at the front as a few of their classmates set up the projector. Even in the dim lighting, though, Jinyoung can make out Jackson's face. Jinyoung's so glad he can contribute to Jackson's daily dose of entertainment, the little shit. "Did you want it to happen? Was making out not enough for you, you tramp?"

"Augh, shut up, I'm not awake enough for this." Jackson continues to consider him dubiously, and Jinyoung rolls his eyes and elbows him. "Which reminds me, fuck you for dumping me on his lap."

"You were so out of it," says Jackson, chortling. "You were practically spooning the guy when I got back."

"I what?"

"I posted it on Facebook like a good friend," says Jackson solemnly, with a hand over his heart. The innocent look he gives Jinyoung isn't fooling anyone. "Thank me later."

Jinyoung doesn't bother to answer that, too busy checking his phone and simultaneously trying to kick him out of his seat. "Oh my god," says Jinyoung, horrified. "Please tell me those are not pictures of me cuddling with Im Jaebum."

"I should hope not," Kwon-seonsaengnim calls out from the front of the room. "Now if you have something better to do than listen to the reporters for the day, maybe you'd like to share the sordid details of your night out?" The professor smiles at him, flashing teeth and promising embarrassment and mortification. "In great detail please."

Jinyoung stutters out an apology, glaring at his seatmate. Jackson, the traitor, is bent over his desk, pretending to take notes. The mess of doodles all over his pad paper is his only contribution to the course so far, so he's not fooling anyone. Not for the first time, Jinyoung envies Jackson's ability to coast along most of his classes with an easy smile, and it's with unrepentant equanimity that Jackson tugs him into a conspiratorial huddle after class, snapback digging into Jinyoung's forehead when he leans closer.

"It's cute that you guys kissed and made up," Jackson gushes with fake sweetness. "It was so nauseating I wanted to throw some water in your face."

"You abandoned me, you dick," Jinyoung groans. "Oh god, did I say something stupid yesterday? Because I'm pretty sure I did. I didn't, like, proposition anyone or something, right?" He fusses at his bangs nervously. "Right?"

They both take a moment of solidarity to shudder – the first time Jinyoung had gone to a party with Jackson, the two of them had spent a couple of days tiptoeing around each other from an awkward series of body shots that no one, not even Mark, lets them live down. It was the last barrier to a friendship Jinyoung regrets 90% of the time, like, say, now.

"I can't really say," says Jackson, seriously, "but given how you plastered yourself to hyung, I bet you did."

Jinyoung just feels drained, and the slump in his shoulders doesn't disappear even as they make their way to lunch. "I don't know why I was expecting comfort from you, ever."

"It's okay," Jackson coos, "if hyung still hated you after all that, he wouldn't have dragged your scrawny ass all the way to his flat, right?"

"He was being considerate."

"First you never wanted to hear anything good about the guy, and now you're defending him after you realized how badly you wanted to get into his pants?" Jackson scoffs. "Let me tell you, that guy is nice as far as celebrities go, but he would have ditched you without a second thought if he didn't like you so much."

Jackson pauses, scrunching his face up as he eyes Jinyoung up and down, from his unkempt hair to his creased shirt. Jinyoung scowls and punches him on the shoulder for good measure, Jackson's assessing look rousing his self-consciousness. Jackson groans in pain. "Though, okay, knowing how much of a mess you are in the morning, it might be better that you ran out when you did."

"Thanks for the vote of confidence," Jinyoung mutters, shaking the pain off his knuckles. Jackson's shoulders are a menace, it's almost at par with his thick skull.

"I'm not here to call you pretty all the time," says Jackson. "I'm not a good enough liar for that."

Jinyoung winces at the first sign of sunlight even with sunglasses on. Mostly it's Jackson that's giving him a headache. "I'm not awake enough for this."

"The sooner that you accept this and go off to make your grand confession, the easier we'll be able to breathe," Jackson tells him, hitting his arm back like the sneaky, underhanded bastard he is. Jinyoung almost trips on the stairs, too wobbly and tired to deal with Jackson. "Or not, considering how you basically ran for your life after hyung took care of you the entire night."

"Who even schedules parties in the middle of the week?"

"Who even goes to them?" Jackson pauses mid-step, realizing his mistake. "Never mind. Stop changing the subject, don't think I don't notice your useless attempts at not talking about your feelings."

They're still squabbling by the time they make it to the Music building's café, and Youngjae stops mid-conversation with Mark when Jinyoung puts his bag down to glower dolefully at them.

"Please tell me we're not discussing Jinyoung-hyung's love life," Youngjae implores. "I'll never be able to look at Jaebum-hyung the same way again if we continue doing this."

"Who said anything about him?" Jinyoung protests, face heating up quickly at Mark's bent form, shaking from laughter.

"No one has to, hyung," Youngjae sighs, looking into his coffee like it has answers to deep and profound questions about life that no one in the room can give him. Forget Jaebum being an actor-dol, Youngjae should look into it instead. "In case you haven't noticed, majority of our conversations always goes back to Jaebum-hyung one way or another.

"I hate his guts," Jackson mimics. He's not a very good actor in contrast. "He gives me complicated feelings."

Mark, to Jinyoung's immense gratitude, shoves Jackson roughly. "Nice pictures, by the way," he comments, flashing the screen of his phone. "Didn't think you'd get so up close and personal so fast, but I always had faith in you, man."

He takes it back. All of them are assholes.

"Did you sleep in the same bed?" Jackson demands. "Is that why you're so shifty? Were you both naked?"

"No one is doing anything without anyone's consent," Jinyoung says, very loudly, if only to stall Jackson's further hysteria. "Especially me."

Jackson crosses his arms over his chest. "You're so defensive, it only makes us wonder even more."

Jinyoung's been spending far too much time with his face mushed against solid objects. Youngjae keeps staring into his coffee. It's not helping him at all. Mark is just treating them as background noise, content on polishing off his bowl of noodles. "I wouldn't give you the satisfaction."

"But you give us the best reactions, Jinyounggie, what are we supposed to do in our spare time?"

"I can think of a lot of things, like, not harassing me about my non-existent sex life with Im Jaebum."

"First of all, stop calling him by his full name. It's gonna be so weird when Jaebum-hyung has a hand on your cock and I'm really invested in you not embarrassing yourself in bed."

"Oh god," Youngjae shrinks into himself further. Jinyoung understands his pain all too well.

"And anyway, fantasies are healthy for growing boys," says Jackson, almost sounding bored. "Like, I'm sexually attracted to you sometimes but that doesn't mean I have to act on it." Everyone stares at Jackson for that. "What, it was just an example!"

"You what," Jinyoung chokes out, still caught somewhere in between the words Jaebum and cock and really, Jackson??? He's in some kind of fucked up alternate dimension. He's sure of it.

"Not helpful, hyung," says Youngjae, vaguely looking traumatized. All that's left of his coffee is sludge, the dredges as murky as Jackson's heart, no doubt. "No one wants to hear about these things. Like, I know Mark-hyung indulges you and Jinyoung-hyung's merry band of brats think everything is hilarious, but I, for one, would really like to go through this without dry heaving into my food."

"Oh my god," Jinyoung whimpers.

"Focus, Jinyoung," says Jackson, snapping his fingers. "Stop thinking with your dick."

"I can't," says Jinyoung, dismayed. "I can't stop thinking about your dick now that you've brought it up. You disgust me. Who's going to pay for my therapy now?"

"That's not really the issue, though, isn't it?" Jackson says loudly over Youngjae and Jinyoung's combined despair. "You wouldn't feel this uncomfortable thinking about Jaebum-hyung's dick, would you?"

Jinyoung opens his mouth. Closes it. Then he closes his eyes instead.

"I hope you realize that I can never show my face to Im Jaebum again," says Jinyoung, sounding as dead as he feels.

"Me too, hyung," Youngjae chimes in, matching his unhappy slouch as Jackson cackles. "Me too."

 

 

 

It turns out, he doesn't really need to worry about that part too much. The next few weeks are a flurry of midterms that have Jackson and Mark complaining about the relevance of academic and literary English in their daily lives ("Who the hell needs to know what an Achilles' heel is in real life? Not the guy lost at the airport, that's who.") and Youngjae sinking further into his self-pitying nightmares of his bleak future as a starving busker that can't even tell the difference between a G sharp and A. The most Jinyoung sees of Jaebum is during class, and even then he's usually buried in practice exams and problem sets to do more than make small talk for a few minutes.

To Jaebum's credit as a decent human being, he doesn't bring up Jinyoung's less than stellar behavior before, nor does he seem to still be holding a grudge. If anything, he looks a little careful around Jinyoung, as if Jinyoung's the one who's gonna set off into the sunset at the first sign of gunfire. Jinyoung doesn't have the heart to admit he might be right about that.

At least he doesn't say anything about Jinyoung having a breakdown in the middle of Jaebum's studio apartment (not that he'd even witnessed it -- Jinyoung made sure to check for signs of life and Jaebum had been out cold), or whatever Jinyoung may or may not have said during the party. Jaebum is just so insufferably civil, losing some of the cockiness he'd displayed beforehand. It rankles at Jinyoung because it's like Jaebum is giving him the next move, like life is some god damned baduk game with the stakes as elusive as the potential rewards. Basically, he's back to square one minus the internal loathing and wallowing about Jaebum's existence, cup still full of stones and no strategic formation in sight.

"Are you sure about that, because I know I could be doing better things with my time than countering what's currently happening," says Yugyeom, checking his nails. Jinyoung needs a better agony aunt, one that actually offers useful advice and none of the sarcasm that Yugyeom as a rebellious teenager wears like a shield.

"I am," Jinyoung insists.

"You don't even play go," Yugyeom points out.

"You're Korean, stop calling it go."

"Semantics," Yugyeom scoffs. "The only thing I got out of the noon time drama that is your life is that you didn't really make up with him, you just swept it under a rug and prayed that ignoring the issue would give you peace of mind."

"I'm trying," Jinyoung protests. "That's got to count for something, right?"

Yugyeom doesn't really look like Jinyoung's words have instilled some faith in him, but Jinyoung's used to it by now. "I'd tell you to look him up on Naver, but what are the odds you'd find his contact details in there?" He taps the side of the table with restless fingers. "Jackson-hyung might give it to you, but more importantly, what would you even say?"

Yugyeom's right. Those stickers are pretty violent, if not nauseatingly romantic. Only two things are applicable to Jinyoung's present feelings, and he's not even sure which one is tipping the scales further.

"You're not being very helpful with plotting ways for me to befriend him," Jinyoung grumbles.

"I'm an innocent bystander that only listens to you for my own entertainment, not your life coach and personal adviser in one, hyung."

Jinyoung scowls at him.

"I've never seen you this tense since you pretended you were a clean and put-together person in front of that classmate you liked in high school," says Yugyeom. He's already gone through three boxes of Jinyoung's banana milk, but he reaches for another one, giving Jinyoung's mom a dimpled smile and a smug sneer to the actual owner of said milk. Brat. "I wish I could say that this is funny, but now it's just sad."

Jinyoung wrinkles his nose, and not just because Yugyeom makes it a point to take a loud slurp out of the milk box. "You make me sound like a socially inept person."

"Talk to me when he starts buying you brunch again," Yugyeom counters. "Then that will prove me wrong."

"Fine," Jinyoung grits out, like the pushover he is. Yugyeom just gives him an all-knowing look.

This is how Jinyoung finds himself shivering outside the Engineering building, too far away from his own department to feign an excuse about being in the area, bunched up in a cardigan and the scarf he'd stolen from a pissed off Jackson and keeping his hands cupped around a drastically cooling tumbler of coffee. In late October.

"This better be worth it," Jinyoung grumbles, kicking at a pile of leaves in irritation. It's not exactly bribery, per se, just an incentive for Jaebum – Jinyoung didn't stalk his old interviews regarding his coffee preferences for nothing, even if Yugyeom had laughed at him for a good portion of the two hours he'd spent jeering at his hyung.

It's barely fifteen minutes later when someone touches the small of his back, and Jinyoung barely has the time to even think oh god there really are perverts on campus god DAMN IT JACKSON when Jaebum waves his other hand in front of Jinyoung's face, unaware of the heart palpitations he's given him.

"Jinyoung-ah," says Jaebum. Jinyoung almost -- almost! -- drops his tumbler. "What are you doing here?"

Jaebum is considerably better dressed for the weather, bundled up in a thick pea coat that probably costs more than Jinyoung's tuition per semester. It's his hair that distracts Jinyoung the most, dyed a soft brown and definitely styled more than it has in recent years. Jinyoung tucks the thought away for future reference and attempts not to look as distracted as he feels.

"Here," Jinyoung says, shoving the bottle at him. Jaebum looks at it, as lost as ever, and Jinyoung sighs. "It's not poisoned, god, you don't have to worry about it."

Jaebum doesn't smile, but the hint of amusement in his voice is enough to make Jinyoung exhale, releasing the anxious breath he hadn't realized he'd been holding. "Now that you mention it, you're making me even more suspicious."

"I wouldn't," Jinyoung argues, flushing. He's glad the scarf covers up the redness he's sure he's sporting around his throat. "It's. Apology coffee." He can't stop fidgeting. "Since, you know. You took care of me before."

"Thank you." Jaebum uncaps the tumbler and inhales the aroma of peaberry and hazelnut. "You didn't have to."

"I wanted to."

Jaebum's face is inscrutable, but mostly it's because Jinyoung can't look him in the eye for too long without wanting to beg the earth to swallow him up whole, pilfered scarf and all. "Ah," Jaebum breathes out. Like he's found some kind of answer, and Jinyoung can't tell if he's satisfied or not. Slow clap for Im Jaebum, man of few words, Jinyoung despairs. He'll take what he can get.

"Walk with me," Jinyoung says, tersely. Then adds, with a wince, "hyung", just so no one can get on his case about acting too much like Yugyeom.

He doesn't offer his arm because he's not – augh. He isn't going to reenact yet another one of his sisters' romantic comedy fantasies, even if Jaebum looks like the kind who'd be doing the offering instead. Whatever. Jinyoung's as tall as he is anyway, maybe taller if Jaebum actually wears insoles, and even then –

Jinyoung grimaces. He really has to stop thinking sometimes, because he can't seem to stop insulting him at every turn despite accepting the mess of other emotions Jaebum manages to bring out of him. At least Jaebum doesn't seem to sense this ugly part about him, not yet, because he wordlessly falls into step beside Jinyoung and lets Jinyoung carry most of the conversation to the library instead.

It's so worth it when Jinyoung gets a chicken saran wrap in the end. Take that, Yugyeom.

 

 

 

"I'm questioning a lot of your ideas of courtship," says Jackson, very judgmentally. "You do realize I'm never gonna stop making fun of your moves, don't you?"

Jinyoung swats at him. "I'm being friendly."

Jackson eyebrows don't seem to be going down any time soon. "Oh, so you're friends now?" He drawls, tapping out a message on his phone, no doubt to Bambam giving him a play by play narrative of how he's ruining Jinyoung's life and more. "Is getting you to admit that you're actively trying to sweep him off his feet gonna take longer than bullying you into being nice to hyung, or are we talking 'never' here?"

"I don’t know what you're talking about," Jinyoung sniffs.

"Oh, sorry about that, I meant stalking him, not wooing," Jackson mutters. They're both crouched behind a bench a little off the side of the pathway, close enough to the Engineering building to see anyone coming out of it but sufficiently far away to duck and run for cover if anyone manages to notice two idiots on the prowl. "As if the magazine clips and your browsing history weren't bad enough."

"That was private," Jinyoung protests, scandalized.

"You're neighbors with Yugyeom, everything you own is fair game!"

"Oh my god, please be quiet." Jinyoung shoves him to the ground, and Jackson falls, sprawled on his back like an upended turtle. The pile of dried leaves does not do him any favors. "You're giving us away!"

"One, rude. Two, your paranoia is seriously screaming code red levels, we're sending you to counseling from now on." Jackson squints and points at the direction of the entrance. "Three, pop star at ten o'clock, alert! Alert!"

"Where?"

Jackson covers his face with one hand and points with the other. "My ten o'clock, god. Why don't you just kiss him in broad daylight so we could get this over and done with?" Jinyoung leaves his prone body still on the grass, but not without a well-timed kick to his hip.

It's a simple enough plan, when it comes down to it. He isn't stalking -- just. Conveniently appearing wherever Jaebum is. If he has food or drink in hand, it's called sharing. Jaebum is going to be so fucking grateful to have Jinyoung in his life, and Jinyoung is going to make damn sure of it. Let it not be said that Jinyoung does not take all his plans seriously.

("It's foolproof," he gushes. "He won't even expect it."

Youngjae almost chokes on his pretzel. Mark contemplates a potato chip and thinks about the meaning of life.

"I'm sure he won't, Jinyoung-ah," says Mark, though he doesn't sound reassuring at all.

"On a scale of academic dishonesty, this is honestly the most stellar performance of plagiarism I've had the honor of witnessing," is Youngjae's only input, though Jinyoung could do without the sarcasm.

"I have no idea what you're talking about," says Jinyoung, truthfully.

"So handsome, but so dumb," says Jackson, shaking his head despite being up for anything potentially damaging to Jinyoung's reputation or self-esteem. "Let's do it.")

In retrospect, this is probably a huge chunk of why he's friends with Jackson, both of them overboard and reckless in the most inappropriate of times. By the time Jinyoung's flagged Jaebum down, Jaebum looks torn between looking resigned, hunted, and maybe a little pleased. Jaebum has complicated facial expressions sometimes.

"This is, what, the fifth time this week?" Jaebum asks, warily. On one hand, it offends Jinyoung that his smiling face is being met with suspicion. On the other hand, Jinyoung really enjoys being intimidating for all the wrong reasons.

"Are you counting?" Jinyoung dimples at him. Be cool, Jinyoung reminds himself. Be absolutely cool even in the face of mortification.

Jaebum still looks skeptical. "Why is Jackson crawling away from us?"

"Dunno, he's weird like that," says Jinyoung, touching his arm. Jaebum makes a soft, surprised noise that Jinyoung almost misses from attempting to bore holes into Jackson's retreating back. "Must be all the testosterone in the air. Let's go, hyung, or we might not catch a table at the café."

He ignores Jaebum's splutter of "It's not even noon!" and tugs him away.

 

 

 

 

Jaebum keeps thrumming his fingers on the table when Jinyoung returns with their mugs of coffee. He's been doing it since Jinyoung forced him to sit down and stay there, so help me god, and this is not boding well for Jinyoung.

"So," says Jinyoung, pleasantly, "how did midterms go?"

"Horribly," says Jaebum, ever the optimist. He crosses his arms and furrows his brow. "What are we doing here, Jinyoung?"

Prickly and determined not to please. This is steadily rising in rank as one of Jinyoung's least favorite of Jaebum's personas. At least he's graduated from anxious foot tapping and onto abrasive confrontation via his eyebrows game. Jinyoung is already an inherently anxious person that feeds off of other people's energy, so this isn't turning out to be a Disastrous Train Wreck. Not yet.

So, swallowing down his pride, he decides to go for honesty, counting on Jaebum's bleeding heart for lost causes and all that.

"Look," says Jinyoung, tracing the rim of his mug with a finger. Jaebum's eyes follow the motion unconsciously before he narrows his eyes and looks away, flustered. "I know we got off to a horrible start, and we've been having a lot of hiccups along the way."

"That's an understatement," says Jaebum, mulishly. Jinyoung ignores him, already figuring that the only way to deal with a stubborn Jaebum is much like how he would deal with a toddler. Or Jackson. Same difference.

"But," Jinyoung goes on, raising his hand to cover Jaebum's mouth. Jaebum immediately purses his lips, more out of surprise than irritation, "for some unknown reason and against my better judgment –"

"Always a great opener," Jaebum tries to say, except it comes out as a confused "mffffghrhg".

"-- I like you way more than I should," okay, Jaebum's ears are starting to turn a worrying shade of red, they should probably wrap up before the coffee gets cold and winter decides to go batshit insane on Jaebum's complexion, "and I would really like to have you in my life at a more permanent basis."

Jinyoung is almost proud at how bereft of words Jaebum seems to be, like Jinyoung's hit him with a bat from nowhere and is running around the entire campus in a state of undress. Which, augh. He's not functioning right now. He should probably do this more often. Shock is a good look on Jaebum.

He takes a celebratory sip of his coffee to hide his smug smile, only to nearly spit it out once Jaebum recovers enough to say, dryly, "Are you practicing for a role in a drama or are you proposing marriage?"

Jinyoung dabs at his chin with some tissue, his eyes swimming with unshed tears from trying not to die. When he lifts his eyes to meet Jaebum's, the jerk is grinning, like he's made some joke Jinyoung's not a part of, too pleased for no rational reason.

But whatever. If it's gotten Jaebum relaxed enough around him, he'd take whatever snipe Jaebum has at his expense. And Jinyoung realizes, with a start, that he doesn't really mind it anymore when Jaebum acts like they're closer than they really are. Because when it comes down to it, for all the years he's grown up with Jaebum at the other side of a TV screen or in the glossy pages of a magazine, the soft smile on Jaebum's face is something he's never really known until now, and it makes him feel that maybe Jaebum's not some unreachable star, like they're both just circling around in the same constellation after all.

"Hyung," he says, very seriously, "if I were, I'd prefer not to be drowning in my own espresso."

"It's okay, Jinyounggie," Jaebum says, reaching out to hold his hand from across the table. "I don't let people I like back die so easily after that kind of speech."

Jinyoung finally releases the breath he doesn't realize he's been holding for a while now, and squeezes back, relishing in the piece of melon bread Jaebum breaks off to feed him. He can probably get used to this, even if he does feel a little bit off-kilter, like something in Jaebum's gaze that he hasn't completely grasped just yet

He'll think about it next time. Jaebum's hand is too comfortable, after all.

 

 

 

Now that he's slowly but surely reinserted himself into Jaebum's life and endeared himself into Jaebum's good graces (he thinks), the logical way forward is to take up a significant portion of Jaebum's attention span. No, Jinyoung does not get this advice from a magazine that targets fifteen year old girls (shut up, Yugyeom), nor does he obtain this information from a disreputable variety show of questionable appeal ("I swear to god, Jackson, if you don't stop making fun of me –"). It's just. Natural. Force of habit.

As the youngest child and only son of a middle class family, Jinyoung is used to having to employ any and all kinds of strategies to ensure that his family focuses their attention and energy on him. He's had to fight for it as a grade school kid trapped in a household with an overly dramatic sister in high school, a frequently absent father devoted to work, a mother that finds Yugyeom infallibly more adorable than her own children, and an older sister in university that almost never wanted to go home. He's learned long ago that throwing tantrums and pity parties does nothing but earn a raised eyebrow or two, and his aegyo could only take him so far before his voice changed and he shot up beyond 150 centimeters. (No twenty year old should ever be caught dead doing baby talk. Just. No.)

He doesn't think that Jaebum is the type to be carried away by sudden fits of articulacy, though, and he hasn't managed to test out the theory if Jaebum prefers sexy librarian types over actual ones. From the way he still looks intensely uncomfortable whenever he catches sight of Jinyoung at the front desk, Jinyoung's scratched out study bro-dates as a viable option. His wallet is equally relieved at the resurgence of food and beverages courtesy of Jaebum's pockets, but he makes an effort to actually pay this time, lest Jaebum considers him as a hanger-on rather than as a new and improved version of himself, non-bitchy Jinyoung 2.0 and all that.

In his desperation, Jinyoung turns to advice columns on the web and self-help books. Yugyeom makes a face and shoves the package containing 5 Love Languages, translated by Jang Dong-sook to his chest on his way out, never mind that he's not in love, god, shut up Yugyeom. He manages to manhandle Yugyeom to his room and puts Bambam on speaker phone because this is exactly the kind of crisis that Bambam takes an inordinate amount of interest in. Sometimes Jinyoung wonders if this is Bambam's way of compensating for all the adorable things he'd done when he was younger. He has the mouth for it, at least.

"So you've got the bribery down, and I'm ticking out acts of modern-day slavery even if Jackson-hyung tells me it's really just your path towards getting a restraining order." Bambam's voice, grainy through the line, is still as obnoxious as ever. "So we have, what, kissing ass and feeling him up left?"

"That's not what it says in the book, Bambam-ah," says Jinyoung, pained. He's almost about to ask who on earth Bambam's been learning Korean from, but thinks better of it as he watches Yugyeom idly crossing out affirmation and service and penciling in something that looks far too vulgar to be in a self-help book. No wonder.

"Isn't that the same thing?" Bambam asks, confused. Jinyoung stifles the urge to punch something.

"Can you even shower anyone with compliments that don't come out as back-handed, though?" Yugyeom snorts, looking far too pleased with himself. "I think if you started praising him, he'd think you were plotting his death."

"Molestation is the answer, then," Bambam affirms, satisfied. "Go forth and harass him, hyung."

"You two, I swear," Jinyoung despairs. Jinyoung is a tactile person with or without prompting, prone to showing affection mostly through touch. It shouldn't be any worse than what Jaebum's gotten from him yet, but Bambam's phrasing makes him leery about the idea. He's not a fucking saesang, so why does it feel like he is? "I'm not going to get myself arrested just to entertain you guys."

"But hyuuung," says Bambam, "we're only invested in your emotional well-being. Remember the last time you broke up with someone and we had to hold your hand the entire time? Do you?"

Jinyoung sighs and hides his face behind his hands. Freshman year was not a good look on him, and from the hunted expression on Yugyeom's face, he agrees. There may or may not have been a screaming match with Jackson involved. He shudders.

As if sensing his hesitation, Bambam plows on. "Come on, Yugyeom, back me up," Bambam whines, as relentless as a predator sinking its claws into poor, unsuspecting herbivores. "Tell hyung what a wuss he's being right now."

"Step up your game, hyung," says Yugyeom, looking like he deeply regrets it despite the comforting pat he gives Jinyoung. It comes out more like a smack on his shoulder than one filled with care and tenderness. Jinyoung scowls.

"I don't even have game." He pauses, and scrambles for reason. "I don't want any game at all!"

"Trust me," says Bambam, even though Yugyeom's complaining about how I don't wanna know, why do you tell me these things, hyung, "by the time the semester ends, you will."

 

 

 

Jinyoung is never trusting Bambam again. Ever.

He's sure he's done enough reassessing of his life choices for the past few weeks. He could be at home, buried under a comforter and speed-reading his way through next week's readings and a blog post or two, but instead he's pasting a wavering smile on his face and lying through his teeth that, yes, of course, he loves football so much he'd be so on for a quick game, isn't that right, Youngjae-ah?

Youngjae mimes projectile vomiting from somewhere behind Jaebum's shoulder. This just reeks of desperation all over, he mouths, but Jinyoung is a bit too distracted by the way relief seems to blossom across Jaebum's entire form, shoulders loosening from some imaginary weight.

"I wasn't sure you'd agree," Jaebum admits. "I mean, sometimes you're barely awake enough to notice a bicycle nearly barreling into you."

It takes a while for Jinyoung to realize that Jaebum is teasing him, and Youngjae doesn't even bother to hold back his laughter. "You are a horrible person," Jinyoung informs him, except, fuck, this is not scoring points for him at all if Jaebum is insanely dependent on compliments as a love language, is it?

Jaebum doesn't seem to mind, only reaching over to ruffle his hair from across the counter separating Jinyoung from the rest of the plebeians strolling into the library with their overdue fines and their middling grasp of the Dewey Decimal System. It's weird seeing Jaebum in the library after their not-fight, shared space and violations of privacy and all. "Just for that, I'm putting you on the other team."

"Better take your shirt off if you wanna win, oppa," Jimin butts in, not looking up from her tablet. "I'm sure some people would love that."

"Ignore her," says Jinyoung. "We haven't reined her in yet."

"That's okay," says Jaebum. "I'm sure Jackson's gonna do enough stripping for all of us."

Jimin and Youngjae chime in with noises of disgust and pain, why would you say those things, we don't wanna know, ever. Jinyoung is already simulating in his mind's eye how he'll trip on a clump of weeds, set the detonator to a hidden landmine off, and successfully eliminate half the field with his ineptitude. Rocks fall, everybody dies, the whole shebang and all.

"Seriously, though," Jaebum says, pushing a smuggled tumbler of coffee into Jinyoung's hands – clearly a bribe but still raising all sorts of alarm bells in Jinyoung's head, "thanks for saying yes."

Fuck, Jinyoung thinks, smile still plastered to his face. He's gonna die.

Jinyoung's not an extremely athletic person by nature – sure, he can kick around a few balls here and there, enough to screw around with Jackson when they're both high-strung and beating each other down with Super Smash Brothers isn't an option, but Jinyoung would rather curl up in the corner of his room with a trashy magazine pilfered from his sister and a tall glass of honey lemon tea in hand than willingly suffer through a few rounds of football at ass o'clock in the morning.

The only consolation, he thinks, bent over and dry-heaving into the grass come Saturday morning, is that no one is crowding around Jaebum for not having a shirt on, already discarding it an hour into the makeshift game with his engineering friends and Jinyoung's relatively smaller circle. It may have been the reason for half of Jinyoung's distraction the entire time, mostly because he's still stuck on having hot flashes of Jaebum's biggest mistake of his underage career. Really. That's it. No one is comparing his pectorals from now and then, okay?

"Are you having heart palpitations now or is this something else?" Jackson asks, warily watching him as Youngjae runs back to the game, abandoning Jinyoung to the mercy of the cool ground. "I have to remind you that if you throw up on me, I'm contractually obligated to punch you for vomiting on an injured person."

Jackson is benched by virtue of a sprained ankle from a match last week (or so he claims – Jinyoung's pretty sure it's because he tried skateboarding down the stairs while drunk), and from the way he keeps shooting baleful glares at everyone on the field, Mark included, Jinyoung has half the mind to kick at him and send him away. Instead, Jinyoung groans and tucks his face into Jackson's hip, shielding himself from seeing the sweat roll off Jaebum's s-line. It should be disgusting but it just makes Jinyoung's insides churn some more. He wrinkles his nose at the itchy fabric of Jackson's jeans.

"Don't talk," Jinyoung begs. "Just let me die."

It's too hot to feel anything like November, but it's likely the last of their days to run around in track shorts without having to tug on leg warmers in the process. Today feels like a really bad case of July, and Jackson isn't helping at all.

"Whatever, drama queen," Jackson scoffs, pressing his tumbler to Jinyoung's forehead. "You can't die yet, you haven't even scored with JB."

Jinyoung lifts his head long enough to scowl at him. "Stop talking to Bambam, you two are the absolute worst."

"You shouldn't talk to me like that," Jackson complains. "Who knows what kind of damage you can do to my already fragile state?"

"Fragile?" Jinyoung scoffs. "You just wanted to sit in the sidelines and make fun of me."

"Why, yes, I willingly let myself almost get stabbed by a very pointy sword, thanks for asking," says Jackson, scathingly. "You're just jealous you didn't think of it."

"The bandage is a lie," Jinyoung says, picking at the cloth wrapped around Jackson's foot. Jackson squawks and shoves him away without mercy. "Oof."

From the way Mark is narrowing his eyes at him, Jinyoung isn't even gonna try anything else, but it's much more entertaining to let Jackson believe what he wants. Jinyoung holds up his hands, waggling his fingers threateningly, and Jackson lets out a sound of frustration.

"Fuck off," Jackson shrieks, bending to shield his ankle from Jinyoung's touch. "I swear, you're the most immature person ever."

"Uh huh," says Jinyoung, loftily. "Keep watching your back, tough guy."

"Whatever," Jackson grumbles, but he's not really pissed, if the way he paws at Jinyoung and impatiently pats his thigh is a sign. Jinyoung would barely give in on a normal day, but right now he's too worn out to resist the opportunity of resting his head on Jackson's lap. Jackson doesn't boast about his lower body for nothing, but Jinyoung would rather choke on something than admit that.

Jackson goes back to trash talking everyone on the field, devoting most of his zingers to Youngjae, self-proclaimed VIP from Mokpo. The shouting and the muggy heat should be anything but comforting, but the sound of Jaebum's incoherent instructions to his ragtag band of players seems to placate something inside Jinyoung. As empty as his gut feels, there's so much that coalesces in his mind: the smell of fabric softener from Jackson's shorts, the trill of a whistle, jarring and sharp, the earthy taste of sweat from the back of Youngjae's arm. And then, in the distance, Jinyoung can make out, with startlingly clarity, Jaebum's voice.

It's deep and lingering, not at all lilted like the tail end of Jinyoung's sentences and as smooth and sure as a well-aimed kick at the goal; there's a buzzing echo in Jinyoung's ears, ringing of Jaebum's full-bodied laughter. He closes his eyes.

He's not sure how long he dozes off after that, but he's jolted out of sleep by Jackson's fidgeting. And possibly the pinching at his side. He rolls off of Jackson and onto the grass, batting Jackson's hands away.

"Great, you're awake. Your head is super heavy, you know that?" Jackson grumbles, but the back of his hand is plucking at Jinyoung's bangs, clearing his hair away from his eyes. "Are you gonna be fine on your own or do we have to send you to the student clinic just in case?"

"Mfrghsh," Jinyoung retorts, very intelligently.

"Perfect, you're useless," Jackson concludes. It takes a moment for him to come to a stand, and he winces the entire time. "Hey, Jaebum-hyung," Jackson calls out, cupping his hand around his mouth, "can you watch over this weakling while I hobble off to class?"

"You don't even go to class, Jackson-ah," Jaebum yells back, amused, but jogs over to them anyway.

Jackson peels off Jinyoung's fingers from where Jinyoung is trying to claw at his hipbone, sending signals of distress and loathing because god, as if he needed another reason to add to his list of lame moments in front of Im Jaebum. "Chill out," Jackson hisses, eyeing him, "I'm just psyching him up for how disgusting you'd look like in bed, all gross and sweaty."

"I'm gonna kill you."

"You've been threatening to kill me since we met," says Jackson. "You do realize I've stopped listening to you after the first five seconds, right?"

Jinyoung groans and press the back of his fisted hands against his face. If he waits long enough, maybe Jackson will go away. A shadow covers him from the sunlight, and Jinyoung has 3.5 seconds to contemplate how far away the person is before he can kick out and make them regret getting in between his plans of burying Jackson into the ground.

"Wow," Jaebum snorts, not at all impressed, "you look more like roadkill than a sick bay."

Jinyoung attempts to sit up, but the ground is suddenly a lot closer to his face than he'd realized; it's only after he registers the hand bracing him from behind that he realizes just how dizzying the heat is, and Jaebum's fingers splayed across his elbow is doing nothing to stifle the motion sickness in his stomach from going on overdrive.

"Hey," says Jaebum, "slow down. Remind me to keep you hydrated every ten minutes next time."

Jinyoung's still stuck at next time to process the way Jackson leers at the two of them, taking the water bottle from Jaebum and nodding dumbly in thanks. He's so distracted by guzzling its contents that he misses the first few words out of Jackson's mouth – no doubt useless, incriminating, or a mixture of both, and catches only "— in broad daylight, hyung, no one wants to know."

Jaebum's skin flushes red from his ears to his nape, but that could just be his body coming down from the adrenaline. Jinyoung doesn't know. He's not a biology major, but there's just no way Jaebum would be easily fazed by Jackson's innuendos. Absolutely none. Jinyoung's life doesn't work out smoothly enough for that to happen.

He tightens his grip on the bottle and looks away.

"Go to class, Jackson," Jaebum commands tersely, snapping a towel at Jackson's side.

Their group breaks off bit by bit after that, a trickle of goodbyes and consoling sounds directed at Jinyoung as he uses Jaebum as his substitute bolster. When the sun creeps up to their side of the field, Jaebum gently prods him to make sure he's still alive and functioning enough to move.

"We can go to a café, if you want," Jaebum offers, knowing the power of the promise of coffee. He even carries Jinyoung's bag for him, which is always a plus when you're about to keel over and die in the middle of campus grounds. Looking at Jaebum with a gym bag on each shoulder, Jinyoung wonders how effortless he makes it seem. "Or hit the showers first, if you really need to cool off."

"We have showers?" Jinyoung says, aghast. "I've been a student here for two years and I've never seen it."

"What physical education classes have you been taking?" Jaebum asks, laughing.

"Clearly not ones that require breaking a sweat enough to warrant having to bathe at school," Jinyoung grumbles. "How are you not a varsity player?"

Jaebum looks embarrassed but pleased all the same, ducking his head and switching the football tucked against his side to his other hand. Jinyoung sometimes wonders about that, how Jaebum's less cocky and shyer than he looks, unable to handle praise with grace, like he doesn't get enough compliments as it is. Maybe he doesn't. Maybe he's had more closed doors than Jinyoung thinks he does. "I'm not that good."

"You should have been a football player instead," Jinyoung mutters, stifling the irrational urge to kick something, anything. He doesn't get it. "National team and all that."

"Don't you hate jocks?"

"I hate Jackson."

Jaebum laughs again and takes a small step towards him. He must have lost his footing because he's bent slightly, angled towards his face, and Jinyoung has to remind himself that Jaebum is only regaining his balance, god, don't be so weird about this, Jinyoung. Jinyoung jolts back at Jaebum's palm touching his jaw, and Jaebum drops his searching look as quickly as he drops his arm to rest on Jinyoung's shoulder.

"Sorry," says Jaebum. He pulls away.

"It's okay," Jinyoung mutters, awkwardly, stamping down the feeling of disappointment. Jaebum's touch still burns at his skin.

Chill out, he berates himself. It might just be the post-game adrenaline and jitters talking, simmering under his skin. What could have been -- what a tiny part of Jinyoung wants it to be -- could wait for later. Right now, he has to focus on making that stiff line across Jaebum's back disappear.

He is well and truly fucked.

 

 

 

The thing is – Jinyoung's never been one for humor. His jokes fall a little too flat and icy at the edges, sarcasm the only thing he can fall back on with confidence. He's always been more comfortable being the straight man to Jackson's antics, but when he's the one looking like an ass, Jinyoung just clams up.

Foregoing the showers in the face of quelling tension, they take a seat outside the nearest coffee shop; Jinyoung makes a face at the look of disgust a freshman throws at them, tipping her seat away, and misses the rest of Jaebum's words completely.

"Sorry, I was too busy defending our manliness in the face of judgment," says Jinyoung, the words sticking like acid to his tongue. "What did you say?"

"I said," Jaebum repeats, voice tight but even, "you've been acting really strange since we left the field."

"You're imagining things," says Jinyoung. "This is me, like, all the time."

"With everyone?" Jaebum asks, still with that careful tone. He's staring at something on Jinyoung's face, probably a smudge of dirt on his jaw, and Jinyoung licks his lower lip, nervously.

"No, just with you."

Jaebum's eyes snap away from his jaw and back up to meet his eyes. "What do you mean?"

"Well, we're friends now, right?" Jinyoung says, trying not to bristle from the embarrassment. "Like, this is how I am with friends."

"Friends," Jaebum intones.

"Yes," Jinyoung insists. "Friendly. Because we're friends."

Jinyoung doesn't notice that Jaebum's not keeping up with his pace anymore until Jaebum's voice brings him back.

"Jinyoung," Jaebum calls out. His eyes are hooded. "I just…"

"What?" Jinyoung asks. Something is thudding in his ears, and it's the same feeling he had when he was younger and crying to be sent back to land after five minutes on a cruise ship. He's never seen Jaebum look so hesitant, and Jinyoung is regretting whatever he's said to rock the unsteady raft they're on right now.

"Are you making fun of me?"

Forget the boat, they've completely capsized and drifted apart, a circle of piranhas surrounding Jinyoung. "What?"

"Why are you doing this?"

"What do you mean?" Jinyoung cocks his head to the side. He's been told it's a good look on him, feigning innocence, but from Jaebum's frown, he's failing. Crap. He should probably text Jackson for backup.

"The whole walking me to classes, and buying me stuff, and doing stuff I like even if you clearly hate it, and –" Jaebum runs a hand over his bangs, and it's only now that Jinyoung notices he's trembling. "You know."

And Jinyoung realizes that, fuck, he's been ripping off Im Jaebum's moves all along.

Plagiarist, Youngjae's voice comes, unbidden. "Oh," says Jinyoung, voice small.

"If you hated me this much," Jaebum says, "you didn't really have to go out of your way to do this."

"I'm an idiot," he confesses, "but I don’t hate you, I swear. I just – I meant what I said. About being friends." He spreads out his palms, akin to surrender. "I'm sorry if you thought I was making fun of you."

Jaebum finally sighs. "You're so complicated, Jinyoung-ah," says Jaebum, with a small, sad smile.

I'm not, he thinks, balling his hands into fists on his lap.

He and Jaebum keep missing each other at branches of their lives, like two trains never meeting lest they collide into a freak accident. Or something. Jinyoung keeps mixing his metaphors up when it comes to Jaebum. He hasn't been doing so well since day one.

"I should go," Jaebum finally says, pushing himself off of the chair.

"Off to your adoring fans?" Jinyoung ask, a last-minute attempt to try to settle the mood back to when it was comfortable and none of them were talking about feelings and things like that. Jinyoung does not do well on an emotional quotient.

"Something like that," Jaebum hums, and hefts his bag over his shoulder. He doesn't look at Jinyoung. "See you in class, I guess."

Jinyoung rests his head against the table and sighs.

 

 

 

Jaebum barely notices him for the next few days. When Jinyoung talks, he's distracted, not even listening unlike before, but he keeps looking at Jinyoung like he's an equation he can't work out, like he's waiting for Jinyoung to say or do something.

Jinyoung has no idea what the hell on earth he wants, and soon the expectant stares he gives Jinyoung eventually dull into vacancy, expressionless.

He should consider auditioning for the role of a cold-hearted bastard, Jinyoung thinks, uncharitably, on one of the better days. If he's getting anything out of this, it's that his self-censorship is being put to a test, and it's so hard to practice restraint.

"It's not working," Jinyoung complains, stabbing forcefully into his omelet. The prongs of his fork scrape against the plate in a satisfying hiss. Youngjae blanches. "I think I pissed him off again."

"You're as personable as a cactus around your peers," Mark sighs. "Prickly and all that."

"I was gonna make a joke about Jinyoung's thirst, but now I just feel bad," says Jackson, apparently capable of pity. "Jaebum-hyung sounds super temperamental when you talk about him, but I'm gonna guess this one is all on you."

"I didn't do anything," says Jinyoung, unhappily.

"That's the problem," Jinyoung thinks he hears Youngjae mutter under his breath. He scratches at his plate some more.

"You could always try sucking him off in the gym's locker room," Jackson supplies helpfully. Jinyoung closes his eyes and counts to ten backwards, if only to keep himself from going at Jackson's throat. It's right there. "I have the key."

"Please stop abusing your privileges," Youngjae begs, pained. Mark gives the ring of keys Jackson is dangling a perusing stare. Jinyoung could have gone his whole life without seeing that. "Hyung, have you ever stopped to consider that maybe -- just maybe -- you go overboard about a lot of things and this isn't healthy at all for any of your relationships?"

"I don't go overboard--"

"I think," Mark pipes up, "you should just call him and get this over and done with so we can go back to thinking you're more respectable than you really are."

"Yeah," Jackson scoffs, "the way our phones keep going off every time Jinyoung has a crisis, you'd think he'd get cut off for going over his limit."

Jinyoung makes an unintelligible string of syllables under his breath, and Mark wrinkles his nose at him.

"Are you speaking in Korean, or is that just really bad English?"

"I said," Jinyoung repeats, "I don't have his number." He fixes Jackson with a steely glare. "Please don't make me say it again and beg it off of you."

"As satisfying as that would be, I'm gonna have to let you down, bro."

"What?" Jinyoung can't believe it. Jackson's had to replace his phone with one that had more space for contacts. He's never not had anyone's number and failed to wave it in Jinyoung's face with a taunt and an appeal for bribery.

"I don't have his number either," says Jackson, talking to Jinyoung like he's slow on the uptake. He might kind of be. "He keeps changing it a lot nowadays so I figured it was too much of a hassle."

Jinyoung releases a breath of relief he hadn't known he'd held in. It's not too bad, because at least he wouldn't have the weight of a string of numbers loading him down, taunting his every swipe of his address book. Jackson looks sincerely put out at his reprieve.

"Confrontations are actually healthy in some cases, hyung," Youngjae remarks, clearly unimpressed. "If you just talk for once without making up excuses, then you'd be better off—"

"—and sucking face and di—"

"—than you are right now," Youngjae continues, frowning at Jackson. "Seriously. I don't need more people avoiding certain subjects shoved into their faces."

Mark rolls his eyes and makes a V with his fingers, from his eyes to Youngjae once Jackson's back is turned. Jinyoung, aghast, turns to Youngjae and says, "I can't believe you're comparing me to that."

"Don't say I didn't warn you," Youngjae says, unhappily poking at his fried rice.

"Shut up, Youngjae," Mark says with as much fake enthusiasm as he could muster.

Needless to say, no one winds up happy that day.

 

 

 

Jaebum skips class for two sessions, and Jinyoung is mentally preparing himself for Kwon-seonsaengnim going batshit insane at Jaebum, favored pupil or not. The last time anyone was cocky and stupid enough to go past the allowable absences, Kwon-seonsaengnim had staged a running campaign of humiliation and degradation against the poor senior. It's kept Jinyoung on his toes more than his innate desire to excel academically does.

It doesn't happen, though. Whatever Jaebum says to their professor on the side, it endears him even more to Kwon-seonsaengnim.

"How did you do it?" Jackson says in wonder. He's gotten chewed out for skipping, official matches or not.

"I'm working on a side project," Jaebum says, breaking out into a yawn. He doesn't look at Jinyoung, seeming to find something more interesting on the ground. "I'd have to give a write-up by the end of it, but it's not so bad."

When it's apparent that they're getting nothing else out of him, Jackson abandons them to find his teammates, no doubt to wreak havoc on poor, unsuspecting freshmen signing up for varsity fencing. Jinyoung and Jaebum are left to stare at each other, a comical pair in the middle of a throng of students rushing to the next class.

From the way Jaebum is attempting to suppress another incoming yawn and failing, Jinyoung takes pity on him. "You look like you're about to collapse if I breathe in your direction," Jinyoung remarks, gesturing at Jaebum's eyes, lids swollen and puffy from lack of sleep. "Rough night?"

"More like, rough week," says Jaebum, shortly. He seems to regret the snappish tone as soon as he says it, and the shame merging with his grimace makes something in Jinyoung ache. "Sorry, I just have a lot on my plate right now."

"Do you wanna crash at the library?" Jinyoung blurts out. "No one really uses the staff room for anything other than napping anyway, and I think I can buy you some time."

"That's nice," says Jaebum, "but I don't want you to get fired for being a bother."

"You're not," Jinyoung insists awkwardly. "Besides, I don't want you to get mobbed in the study rooms for letting your guard down."

He means to tease, but it makes Jaebum's expression shutter into himself, and just like that, they're tense again. Shit. "Thanks for the offer, but I really have to be somewhere else."

Jaebum picks up his bag from the floor and hefts it over his shoulder. Dramas make everything look so easy, Jinyoung thinks, but without a script in hand, he's fumbling and coasting along. "Are we okay?" Jinyoung asks, voice small but honest, the only thing he's got going for him right now.

Jaebum is quiet, for a moment, like he's considering it. Like he can't believe Jinyoung is even asking – or has the gall to even ask? Jinyoung's not too great at reading other people, and Jaebum's more closed-off than ever before.

"Yeah," says Jaebum, finally. He's finally looking at Jinyoung, meeting his eyes head-on. "We're okay."

Great, Jinyoung thinks. His hypothetical boat has finally hit an iceberg and sunk into the fiery pits of hell. Jaebum is never going to talk, and fuck him for looking cool and having the last word as he walks off to wherever it is he goes to these days. Hell if Jinyoung knows what he does now. He kind of misses knowing everything about Jaebum even when he didn't care at all.

He's been doing a lot of that lately. Watching Jaebum walk away, he means. He hates it.

 

 

 

November comes and goes in a haze of false alarms of snow and biting cold. The end of the fall semester is fast approaching, but none of them have yet to discover exactly what Jaebum's being secretive about. Jinyoung has also not seen Jaebum outside of the few classes he shows up for, but that's neither here nor there.

He gets it. He's moping as badly as a puppy being crate trained, except this time Jinyoung's even more antsy without the release.

"Did he get someone pregnant?" Yugyeom muses aloud, interrupting him from his floundering. "Is he even straight?"

Yugyeom has plenty of time in his hands now, more than he knows what to do with after the weight of Sooneung passing in November. I'm giving up and not thinking about it until the results come in, he'd grumbled to Jinyoung when he'd picked him up afterwards, and promptly crashed in Jinyoung's room for the rest of his waking moment. Now he's developed a strange obsession with trawling weibo, ostensibly to practice his Chinese but really just hungry for mindless gossip; at least he's more focused than he's ever been outside of cramming for exams. Jinyoung regrets ever letting him near his laptop.

"No," Jinyoung growls out, rougher than he intends to. He quickly loosens his hold on the juice box he's holding onto, banana milk seeping out of the straw and ruining his shirt. "Shit!"

"Oh!" Yugyeom looks up, realization dawning on his face as quickly as the dread seeping into Jinyoung's stomach and the milk staining his clothes. "Maybe his agency is running a secret escort service and is selling him off to the highest bidder, hyung, what if."

"Where do you even get these ideas?" Jinyoung asks, genuinely baffled. He wrinkles his nose at the wasted milk and laps at a trail down his arm. "You're worse than a teenage girl that's just discovered the internet."

Yugyeom doesn't even bother to conceal his disgust, preferring to turn back to the more appealing tabloids than watching Jinyoung rummage through his closet for a fresh and equally ratty t-shirt. "Yeah, yeah, we know he only has eyes for yo -- ow!"

"Don't be an idiot," Jinyoung scolds. For all his lack of athleticism in general, Jinyoung has pretty good aim. The belt he's thrown at Yugyeom's direction weighs nothing, but Yugyeom's always been more keen on appealing to pity than shrugging things off.

"I'm just telling it like it is," Yugyeom says, pouting as he loops the belt around his wrist to keep it away from Jinyoung's hands. "You should listen to me more."

Jinyoung finishes tugging on a new shirt and leaves the stained one on the ground, along with the rest of his clothes. He'll pick it up later. Much later. "If I listened to you, I would have been in jail a long time ago, so no thanks."

He climbs back onto his bed and sidles up beside Yugyeom; Yugyeom makes a token effort to push him off, but Jinyoung is a stubborn person determined to get his daily dose of affection, with or without Im Jaebum. He makes a happy sound at the back of his throat when Yugyeom gives in and lets him tuck his head into the crook between Yugyeom's neck and shoulder.

"You're, like, the most boring person on earth, and yet you have so many interesting things happening because you keep screwing up," Yugyeom complains, opening an article with a new tab and scrolling past the blind items too quickly for Jinyoung to follow. "Where's the justice in that?"

"Who's the hyung again?" Jinyoung growls out, batting at him in irritation. "And go back up, what was that about Kang Sora?"

"If I were, there would be so many things I could teach you," Yugyeom says, shaking his head. "Also, I refuse to indulge in your petty quest to stalk JB through his colleagues and celebrity friends, so nope. I'm drawing the line at acting as your enabler, hyung."

"I hope you fail your exams," says Jinyoung, sincerely and with all the sweetness he could muster.

"Not until you fix your life," says Yugyeom, unfazed.

 

 

 

Contrary to Jinyoung's initial desire, Yugyeom doesn't fail Sooneung when the results are released in December.

Jinyoung pretends to groan at the screenshot of his scores, but arguably he's prouder than Yugyeom's own mother. Even the neighborhood ahjummas and ahjusshis know about it before Yugyeom's parents do. Jinyoung likes to talk, alright?

It's enough to get him through an entire day of fiscal policy and stamping books for checkout, and he's glad Yugyeom isn't around to make fun of him in his rare moments of positivity. He wonders what that says about him in general. Whatever. He's too insanely stoked to care about appearances.

"You're like a really embarrassing mother hen," Jimin teases when she catches him beaming at his phone for the nth time at work. "If this is how you are with childhood friends, I feel sorry for your future kids."

"I'm a miracle worker," Jinyoung brags. "A few months ago he wouldn't even pick up his homework. I should be a teacher."

"So you can teach Jaebum-oppa how to make miracles with you?" Jimin suggests, leering from the other end of the counter.

"Please stop making me reevaluate my stance on hitting girls," Jinyoung says, smiling with teeth.

"Sheesh," says Jimin, holding her hands up. "Sorry I even said anything."

On the other end of the weighing scale called his life, fate seems to shove precarious incidents to balance out his happiness. Or maybe it's the other way around. Maybe it's filling him up too fast that he can't quite stop the instinctive fluttering in his throat when he meets Jaebum in the lobby that afternoon, about to punch out of his shift. He almost yells in surprise.

Jaebum is dressed in an overly formal-looking trench coat, a far cry from the letterman jackets or bubble coats Jinyoung's pictured him in over the past few weeks, when winter had crept in as silently as the way Jaebum had seemed to slip out, elusive and inscrutable in the way friends regressing to acquaintances do. Jinyoung doesn't mean to gape, but he does, biting his lip and trying not to scuff his shoe against the tiled floor, feeling too casual and ungainly in Jaebum's presence. The coiffed and freshly-dyed hairstyle – didn't he just change it weeks ago? -- isn't doing anything to Jinyoung's articulation at all.

"Hey stranger," he says, finally, with a wave.

Jaebum huffs and rolls his eyes, but he doesn't move away. "Are you on your way home?" Jaebum politely asks.

"Uh, yeah," says Jinyoung, his tongue suddenly heavy in his mouth. Then, because he is an expert at putting himself in awkward situations, he offers, "Do you wanna go part of the way together?"

This is the part when Jinyoung braces himself for rejection; in the course of a few weeks, he's understood how much it must have sucked for Jaebum to catch his attention the first few times, and it's not like Jaebum owes him anything when they're barely passing off as friends. It's why it's such a surprise when Jaebum fixes him with a long, considering look, and seems to falter at Jinyoung's uncertainty.

"Sure," says Jaebum, a small smile on his face, "I think I'd like that."

He waits for Jinyoung to gather the rest of his things from the staff room (read: erupt in a panic attack while hovering over the coffee machine), Jimin making a face at him and cooing about how cute you're being, oppa, you're never this adorable around anyone else! Jinyoung bats her away with a library fine and a hidden stash of caramel candies and prays that Jaebum doesn't have excessively good hearing.

From the strange look Jaebum is giving him, he's sure the acoustics are doing nothing to save face for Jinyoung. Jaebum doesn't bring it up, but he does look more at ease than Jinyoung's seen him since that failure of a football game.

They're arguing over the merits of taking the train versus a cab ("Not all of us have bank accounts that aren't dying, hyung.") as they cross the hall and come closer to the main entrance. Jinyoung is about to take a step out of the door and down the stairs when Jaebum suddenly grabs at his arm, keeping him in place. Ajdhafkh, Jinyoung's brain fizzles at the touch; it takes all of his effort to focus on the apprehension at war with confusion on Jaebum's face.

"Fuck," Jaebum curses, loud enough for Jinyoung to hear as he narrows his eyes outside. "What are the paparazzi doing here?"

"Why would reporters be here?" Jinyoung asks, craning his head forward absently. "Is there another idol here or something?"

Jaebum reaches out to yank him back, trapping him behind the pillar. Jinyoung can smell his cologne from this close. He can't breathe. "Not that I know of," Jaebum mutters, conflicted and completely oblivious to Jinyoung's internal struggle.

"Relax," says Jinyoung, choked. "They probably won't crowd around you too much. What are they gonna do with a former teen star turned student, right?"

Jaebum flinches, and it's this that makes Jinyoung stand up a bit straighter, alert now. He forgets about Jaebum's scent, the way it traps him still. Forgets about the slack grip on his arm, the warmth of his touch. How close he is now, and still far off.

Because Jinyoung may be a bit slow on the uptake for some things, and he might pay attention selectively, but it's fragments like this that make him stutter and stop, the sinking feeling as familiar as a shaky anchor dropped into sea, breaking the stillness and disturbing everything beneath the surface, as quick as a ripple slicing through water. But that's not right, he thinks. It can't be.

It can't.

"Jinyoung-ah," says Jaebum. He doesn't look particularly happy. Just resigned. "I think they're here for me."

"Why? Are you gonna release a new music video or something?" Jinyoung scoffs to hide his hysteria, then backtracks. "Wait, are you gonna come out with an album in the middle of finals week?"

"I didn't wanna tell you this," says Jaebum – and here is the part that Jinyoung really should just shut his eyes and mute out his words because nothing good ever comes out of those words, but -- "I'm gonna quit school for a while."

"What?" Jinyoung asks, weakly.

Jaebum swallows, and his smile is grim. "I'm thinking of going back to show business."

It's nothing big, Jaebum assures him, just a supporting role where he breaks up with the female lead and continues to ruin the blossoming relationship of the main couple, yadda yadda yadda. Jinyoung tunes him out, the minute he's mentioned his not-girlfriend for the film, because as far as he knows, there are few girls consistently linked to Im Jaebum's list of maybe-possibly-could-be behind the scenes girlfriends, and one of them is Kang Sora, who is going to be his on and off girlfriend in a movie. This is exactly the kind of shit scandals are made of, easy prey for tabloids to scoop up.

And Jinyoung realizes, with sinking dread – the styled hair, the increasing frequency of his absences, the new contact details he's never given anyone, not even Jackson – it's then that he remembers exactly what Jaebum is, and what Jinyoung isn't, and who Jaebum is supposed to end up on the cover of a magazine with, good publicity or not.

It's not Jinyoung.

"Jinyoung," Jaebum says, hesitantly touching his shoulder. "We should go."

"They're still there," Jinyoung points out, dumbly.

"Do you want a ride?" Jaebum asks, fiddling with his phone. "I texted my manager to pick us up."

Jinyoung doesn't say anything. There's about a foot of space between the two of them, but the SLRs and the photographers make him feel antsy and nauseous. Is the distance safe enough for them not to end up on the front page of a nationwide scandal about JB's non-existent relationship with a male student? Jinyoung doesn't know the proper protocol for this, and it's now that he remembers all the initial fears and reservations that may have plagued his mind the first few times Jaebum had pressed a can of coffee into his hands with an unsure smile, the beginning of a tentative friendship.

Jinyoung – he's not prepared at all.

Jaebum seems to be itching to say something, but he keeps his words to himself. Is he ashamed to be seen with Jinyoung? Of all the people he had to get stuck with in the face of professional cameras, it had to be a rejected hopeful without the social skills of his other, cooler friends. The thought of it makes Jinyoung's frown deepen, because fuck that. Maybe Jaebum should just go back to his celebrity peers that throw cool parties and not keel over from an hour of physical exercise, people that can actually hold their drinks and manage to look perfectly calm and collected in the middle of winter. The only thing Jinyoung manages to do is shiver and sneeze.

"Here," is all Jaebum says before holding out his scarf. Jinyoung looks at him with wide eyes, shaking his head, but Jaebum groans and pulls him away from the doorway, keeping them hidden behind a column inside as he loops the blue and black fabric around Jinyoung's bare neck.

"I'm fine," Jinyoung insists, flushing. "You're the one who's gonna freeze to death!"

"I'll live," Jaebum snorts, waving off his protests.

"They could have seen you wearing it earlier," Jinyoung retorts. "Do you wanna give them more fodder when they see me walking out with it?"

"Keep it," Jaebum insists, tersely.

Ten minutes later, Seunghoon, Jaebum's manager, arrives. Jaebum turns to him, expectant, and it's only then that he remembers that he never answered Jaebum earlier. He squares his shoulders and pushes at Jaebum to make a move on, but it's false courage. With the way the photographers snap to attention and immediately aim their cameras at Jaebum, Jinyoung regrets ever wanting to be in the spotlight.

JB is nothing like Jaebum, who'd scrunch up his face at the first sign of attention and shove at his friends for being jerks in public. JB is practiced indifference and patient smiles aimed at hecklers trying to get a rise off him, hard-learned lessons ingrained in a deeply feeling adolescent. The transition from Jaebum to JB makes Jinyoung cringe and feel off in his own skin, like he's wearing ill-fitting clothes in the face of vultures. It's even worse when they turn on him after realizing they'd get nothing from JB.

"One of your uni friends, JB?" One of them goads. "Looks a bit too baby-faced to be partying it up with booze and drugs with you, don't you think?"

"I think I'll take the train instead," Jinyoung says, hurriedly. "I don't wanna inconvenience you guys."

"It's not a problem, Jinyoung-ah," Jaebum sighs. "Besides, you'll freeze to death if you commute at this hour."

"That's okay," says Jinyoung, quelling the anxiety under his skin and failing. "No one's gonna follow me around if I do."

"Don't mind them," Jaebum whispers under his breath, reaching out to touch him. "They're just all talk and no—"

Jinyoung doesn't mean to, but he flinches and takes a step back. Jaebum looks at him in surprise, his hand raised mid-air, grasping at nothing now. Not at the bony ridge of Jinyoung's shoulder, nor the frayed edges of his scarf from when he'd been trying to fix it. A foot of space should be enough, Jinyoung thinks, stonily, barely lifting his eyes at Jaebum's sharp intake of breath, the atmosphere turning colder with each second.

Jaebum -- JB -- says nothing, but from the way he clenches his fingers into a fist, Jinyoung feels more nervous than before. It doesn't seem to deter any of the people around them, because a middle-aged man calls out to Jinyoung with barely-veiled amusement, no doubt already seeing the headlines above Jinyoung's scruffy hair.

"Hey kid, do you know what this guy used to do as an idol? Bet you're not as innocent as you like, if you're hanging out with him."

"Jinyoung-sshi," Jaebum says, finally, face blank and voice cool, "I think you should go home."

He doesn't mean to, but it rankles at Jinyoung enough for him to scrunch up his face to stop it from morphing into something resembling distress. Something more real. He can't give Jaebum that. He can't.

"Fine," Jinyoung spits out, and turns on his heel.

He doesn't look back.

 

 

 

Going home is an exercise in self-loathing.

He's never realized how ingrained the commute home is into his system. Catch the bus to the train station, get off, walk to the turnstiles and slot in the consumable ticket, take the escalator, stay behind the yellow line, board the train, get off at his station, go past the turnstiles, take the long walk home, open the door with his keys, and finally collapse into his bed -- going on autopilot is easy, he thinks, and it's routine, planned, but the wetness of his pillow, the uncomfortable clogging of his nose, the slow, ragged exhalation -- those things are unexpected tonight.

He's not pissed off at Jaebum for not telling anyone about the resumption of his idol activities. He's pissed off that Jaebum never told him, because it only means Jaebum still doesn't trust that Jinyoung's looked past all of the bullshit he's put up as a defense mechanism and considers Jinyoung as unchanging, immovable in his firm dislike for his line of work.

I didn't wanna tell you this my ass, Jinyoung thinks. Would he ever confess, if he'd never gotten caught? Would Jinyoung react more rationally, or would one of them be on the evening news of unresolved issues and false starts?

Jaebum might be right all along, with how Jinyoung had clammed up in the face of cameras. How a small part of himself had felt fear coiling in his stomach. How that fear had frozen into hurt when Jaebum had sent him away.

It's a talent, turning his life into a walking drama. Before this, grappling with confusing feelings about Im Jaebum is nothing – any professions of fondness for him are pale in comparison to the dull throb and tangle at his gut, wisps of immaturity and misunderstanding coming to him with startling clarity. Friends don't feel pangs of irritation at the slightest hint of closeness to other people; there's no possessiveness in the way Jinyoung curls a hand around Jackson's elbow, or Mark's knee, or Youngjae's nape. No ill-feelings when Bambam talks back at him, no maddening disappointment when Yugyeom shoves at his arm. When he pulls away from Jaebum, he shouldn't feel his absence like a lingering touch.

Maybe everyone was right all along. Maybe he's the blindest one of them all.

"Fuck," he says, thinking about Jaebum's soft, hesitant frown, "I can't believe I'm in love with him."

Yugyeom finds him still face-down and wallowing in his misery much later, and Jinyoung doesn't even have to do more than croak out his name before Yugyeom jogs downstairs and comes back with an armful of snacks and a large mug of tea. He doesn't do anything beyond stroking the back of his head and humming a slow, sad tune, hand even and steady amidst the shudder of Jinyoung's spine, the tension across his back. Yugyeom is a patient, thoughtful kid, for all his other flaws. Jinyoung cries harder at the kindness, guilt running deeper at the thought of ruining Yugyeom's initial celebratory mood. He keeps screwing everything up.

No wonder Jaebum doesn't like him anymore. Jinyoung is so hard to love, he can't even stand himself. There's a hundred grains of truth in that saying about reaching too far for things beyond your grasp, and Jinyoung is just. He's just.

He's just tired, that's all. Loving Jaebum is so exhausting, and it's even worse when the feelings are too real he can't even find the courage to do anything about it.

Once he's run out of tears and is left with only an aching feeling in his stomach, coiling, his mind is strangely clear. When he speaks, he still can't raise his head long enough beyond taking large gulps of air.

"Feelings are complicated," says Jinyoung, voice muffled by his pillow. "I hate feelings."

Yugyeom tuts at him, smile sad. "It's okay," says Yugyeom. "You're finally realizing you're human."

"Maybe Jackson is right," Jinyoung muses. "Maybe I don't have feelings. Maybe I should just join a robot colony and hide from people forever."

Yugyeom is quiet, for a moment. He tugs at the back of Jinyoung's shirt and rolls him over on his back, but Jinyoung doesn't let go of the pillow, clutching tightly like he doesn't want to let go. "Do you feel like a sack of shit now?"

"Yes."

"Are those tear tracks on your pillow or drool?"

"Drool," Jinyoung lies, rubbing at his cheek. At Yugyeom's widened eyes, he cracks. "Okay, fine, I cried like a man and it felt good. Shut up."

"Congrats," says Yugyeom, slowly clapping, "we just confirmed that you aren't a sociopath."

"Jeeze," says Jinyoung, sounding wet and clogged up. "Thank god for that."

Yugyeom keeps petting his back for the rest of the afternoon, and when it's time for him to go back home at his mother's behest, he presses a soft kiss to the top of Jinyoung's head, the same kind Jinyoung used to give him and Bambam when they were much smaller and starry-eyed, in awe of their indomitable hyung. It seems like an eternity ago, when they were younger and didn't think much of anything outside their tiny bubble, no interfering foreigner friends or pop stars with too-bright sparks with a fear of fizzling out. Jinyoung wonders when the little kid he'd doted on grew up.

Yugyeom tugs a comforter over him and joins him, swallowed by its weight. He reaches out and holds his hand up, not quite touching Jinyoung. Jinyoung brings a shaky hand up and touches their palms together, like they used to when they were kids.

"I'm glad you're not joining a robot colony, hyung," says Yugyeom, honestly. "I think I'd miss you a little if you did."

 

 

 

It's easy to be angry at someone who's avoiding you with equal fervor – far easier than the creeping sadness and antipathy that Jinyoung stamps out with snacks and pastries the entire weekend, to Yugyeom's increasing anxiety. Eating feelings is healthy, says the internet. At least a slice of cake won't betray him.

"Did you gain weight?" Jackson asks, squinting when he plops down on the seat beside Jinyoung. Jinyoung tears at a fresh piece of carp bread and stuffs it into Jackson's lying mouth in response.

A week before winter break, Jaebum finally shows up for class, but Jinyoung is too busy drilling a hole into the whiteboard with the force of his glare. Jackson takes one look at both of them – the only ones studiously ignoring each other in the face of scattering into impromptu group work sessions and scaring their classmates off – and elbows Jinyoung.

"You're the walking definition of a Katy Perry song," Jackson complains. "You know, the one with the trashy wedding and equally trashy stalking?"

"Leave it," Jinyoung warns.

Jackson bites his tongue, but keeps sending him curious looks the entire time. The minute Kwon-seonsaengnim dismisses them, Jinyoung bolts out of the room, as far away from the reminder of his misery and teenage angst all rolled in one. Fuck. He could really use an apple crumble right now.

Jackson drops off homework at lunch, clearly pissed at having to work his ass off without Jinyoung, for once. "You do realize it's called group work for a reason?"

Jinyoung rolls his eyes and glosses over the Word document. "You could have gotten wonder boy to do it," he says, scathingly. "I bet he'd bag us the best grade if he just breathed in the professor's direction."

"Okay, you're back to being a petty douchebag and I don't like it," says Jackson, sounding more upset than he's let on so far. "What did you guys fight about now?"

"It's not important," says Jinyoung, itching for a fight, but the moment his words escape his mouth, he realizes: it's never really important enough for Jaebum, is it?

Just like that, something falls into place. The anger, the confusion, all of it is extinguished until the only thing he can fall back on is the swirl of gloom that's settled around his shoulders since Jaebum had looked at him like he hadn't recognized him at all.

"It's nothing," he repeats, tonelessly. From across him, Jackson is tense, like he's latched on to the shift in Jinyoung's mood and he doesn't know how to react without coming off as callous. "It doesn't matter, Jackson-ah."

Jackson doesn't buy it, but he gets a message shortly after on SNS. From the pinched expression on his face, Jinyoung almost regrets asking. He keeps his mouth shut.

"It's hyung," says Jackson, eyes flicking from his phone to Jinyoung, as if asking permission. "He's asking where we are so we could do the assignment together."

"I hope you remember I know where you sleep at night," says Jinyoung, letting the threat hang in the air.

For the most part, Jackson distracts him with the prospect of work instead, clearly as uncomfortable as Jinyoung feels. On a good day, Jinyoung could use Jackson's enthusiasm, but right now, none of them are up for anything beyond going through the motions.

Jackson is anything but patient, though, and it takes him a record of half an hour before he cracks and sets his energy drink down with more force than he intends to.

"Are we doing that thing where I pretend I don't know where you are all the time and you let me copy your notes?" Jackson asks, pointedly.

"Yes," Jinyoung grunts.

"I thought he was avoiding you," says Jackson, rubbing at his arm. When it doesn't soothe him as much, he moves on to picking at a stray thread on his sleeve.

"He was."

"And now you're avoiding him?"

"I am."

Jackson looks at him, askance, but from the slump in Jinyoung's shoulder, he backs off. "Huh," says Jackson, voice small, "does this mean I have to stop being friends with Jaebum-hyung now?"

"Do whatever you want."

Jackson cracks his knuckles, feigning disinterest even when he really looks like he can't wait to get the hell out of here and hit something. "What do you want me to do?" He asks, and there's a challenge in there, somewhere.

Or maybe it's him asking for permission for all the potentially idiotic and aggravating and irrational but really fucking loyal things he may or may not do. Not for the first time, Jinyoung realizes why Jackson is his friend.

Jinyoung shuts his eyes and lets his head rest on his arms, folded on the table, exhausted. "I want you to stop talking about him."

"Oh," Jackson breathes out, seeming to come to a decision. He leans over to pat Jinyoung's head, and if Jinyoung lets out a small sniffle, he doesn't comment on it. "Okay. I can do that."

 

 

 

While Jackson is content to let sleeping dogs die in a fire for now, others aren't as forgiving. Youngjae is as happy about the arrangement as can be expected, constantly judging and scowling at Jinyoung like a disrespectful twerp, but he covers for Jinyoung when he needs it, skipping his block's Christmas party when Jinyoung sends him a panicked SOS.

"He's gonna notice at some point," says Youngjae, ever the observant one. "I mean you keep ducking behind all the stone pillars in the hallways, and this one is an all-time low, even for you."

"I don't care," Jinyoung grouses, keeping his knees bent and his head hidden under the table. It's amazing how Jaebum is capable of rendering the library as hell, purgatory, and heaven in the space of a few months. "We're not friends anymore."

"Oh, so mature, Jinyoung," Youngjae scoffs, rolling his eyes.

Jinyoung jabs an elbow to his knee, the only part of Youngjae he can reach while attempting to become one with his desk, and Youngjae rubs at it with fleeting irritation.

"Why does no one ever listen to me," Youngjae despairs, and goes back to checking out books for Jinyoung.

 

 

 

Mark doesn't say I told you so, but he turns out to be the most supportive and sadistic one of them all.

"Here," he says, sliding his tablet over to Jinyoung. "Break it and I'll break your face."

"I know you're obsessed, but I don't think Clash of Clans is going to make me feel better, hyung."

"I downloaded all of JB's dramas for you," says Mark, rolling his eyes. Jinyoung drops the tablet onto his lap, as if burned. "You can thank me later."

Jinyoung winds up watching the entirety of Jaebum's acting stints (illegally, of course, like hell he's funding someone he's sworn to forget about, ill-advised infatuation or not) over the weekend, moping and sighing like a spurned school girl at Jaebum's strained acting and his awkward, stilted speech every time his love interest of the day so much as throws him a look. It should be hilarious and therapeutic, but it's with increasing panic that he realizes it's anything but that.

Jackson sits with him to make fun of Jaebum, heads bent together over Mark's iPad and erupting into peals of hysterical laughter at the personality type he's carved himself into at an early age. Unfortunately, his ability to handle Jinyoung's less enthusiastic and infinitely discouraging responses has its limits. His dorm room hasn't reeked of misery and wallowing since consecutive losses in freshman year, and not even the calming yellow paint is doing anything to improve the atmosphere.

"If you play that video one more time, I swear to god, Jinyoung—"

Jinyoung pokes the screen on autopilot, biting his lip at Jaebum's scrunched up expression at fifteen. He's really ugly when he cries, Jinyoung thinks. It's a wonder people even fall for it. Kang Sora would never.

Jackson lets out a frustrated yell that comes out more like a quailing shriek. He's more fed up with Jaebum's face than Jinyoung is, which… doesn't really mean a lot. Sure, Im Jaebum broke his heart without using actual words, but Jinyoung has previously untapped masochistic tendencies, apparently; the veil of a media player isn't enough to soothe it, but it's a work in progress.

"Oh god," says Jackson, at a loss and panicking when tears begin to well up in Jinyoung's eyes, incriminating and unstoppable. "Where the hell is a roll of Kleenex when you need it, fuck."

"I'm okay," Jinyoung warbles, rubbing his eyes with the back of his hand. Never has he hated his tear ducts until now. "I think."

"You don't think, that's the problem," Jackson sighs, picking up a wayward quilt and pinching Jinyoung's nose with it before instructing him to blow. It should be disgusting, but Jinyoung is strangely touched. "We really have to work on your self-destructive habits."

"I'm fine staying here," Jinyoung mutters, crawling under Jackson's covers and tugging the tablet closer, HD quality showing him the map of beauty marks across Jaebum's skin. Jaebum-as-JB is saying something cheesy about regrets, lost dreams and missed chances, the perennial soundtrack of Jinyoung's life. It's exactly the kind of shit Jinyoung eats up.

"You know you can always talk to him," Jackson says, hand hovering somewhere above Jinyoung's head.

"Talking is the worst," Jinyoung says. "Talking should be banned forever. Then no one would fight and we would all be perfectly fine. Alone."

"Okay, we should seriously send you to the guidance counselor soon," Jackson concludes. "You're even more depressing than you usually are. You're, like, the antithesis of a normal jealous person. I'm really, really creeped out now."

"I'll never be happy," Jinyoung intones.

Jackson sighs, and wrestles the tablet away from Jinyoung's hands. Jinyoung makes a dejected noise like he's been punched, and glowers at then-jailbait Jaebum sucking face with an equally young actress, using too little tongue and not enough teeth. The battery fizzles out, finally, leaving the screen blank.

"Fix yourself before I make someone fix you," Jackson demands.

"Can I do it after New Year's?" Jackson doesn't have to know if he means lunar new year or otherwise. Jinyoung can hold a petty grudge for a pretty long time.

"Fine," Jackson says, eyeing him dubiously. "I'm still hooking you up for therapy, just so you know."

Jinyoung groans and buries himself further under Jackson's sheets, whimpering.

 

 

 

Jinyoung should have known better than to trust Jackson, because an infuriated Jaebum drags him away from a boring lecture on inflationary pressure and monetary stocks two days before winter break, sporting a bruise to his jaw and a seemingly permanent frown. This is more familiar, seeing Jaebum lose his cool, as hot-headed and irrational as his last web series before he went on hiatus. Trust him, he's replayed it five times.

"I'm only doing this to get Jackson off my back," Jaebum mutters, looking at a spot somewhere behind Jinyoung's shoulder as he drags him off to an empty classroom. Great, Jinyoung thinks. They're doing the whole 'avoid eye contact with the gorgon' thing again, except Jinyoung hates being treated like a rampaging Medusa. Jinyoung almost forgets that he's in a slump and feels a familiar itch that rankles at his skin.

"What the hell does Jackson have to do with this?"

"I'm not the one whose friends keep jumping at me in the hallway and threatening to punch me for making their best friends cry," Jaebum retorts, annoyed. "Which, by the way, is just rich, considering that you can't stand being in the same room as me."

Jinyoung makes a face, trying to go for intimidating but only successfully veering into wounded animal territory. Jaebum rubs a frustrated hand over his forehead, ruefully. "Jeeze, Jinyoung, stop looking at me like that," he says.

"I have no idea what you're talking about," Jinyoung says.

"You know, you have this really nervous tic on the corner of your mouth when you lie," Jaebum points out. "I used to think you were pretty easy to read, but I can't be sure half the time."

Jinyoung tamps down the urge to tell him that his dimple shows every time he opens his mouth wide enough, because a) he's not that desperate, and b) Jaebum should never know. Sullenly, he shoves his hands into his pockets. "I'll ask Jackson to stay away from you if that's what you want."

"You don't have to," Jaebum sighs. "Just. Tell him to put some ice on his cheek, okay?"

"Is that it?" Jinyoung bites out. He steals a glance at the clock on the wall, perched above the white board. Every second of talking about Jackson with Jaebum is excruciating as hell.

Jaebum seems to take his anxiety for impatience, if the way his frown deepens is any indication of it. "You're kind of a dick sometimes," Jaebum tells him, not at all apologetic.

"What?" Jinyoung croaks out. "I'm the dick?"

"Yeah, you are," Jaebum asserts, seeming to find renewed confidence in Jinyoung's bemusement. "I thought we were over this, Jinyoung-ah. I didn’t – I thought it was okay, to be your friend if not anything else, and you were so confusing half the time that I didn't know what to think, but you were just so persistent and stubborn to realize exactly what you were doing to me.

"And when you looked like you were having a panic attack in the middle of all those photographers, I didn't realize how much you resented me for it. Because the truth is, you've never really changed how you looked at me, haven't you?"

"That's not true," Jinyoung mumbles. Jaebum doesn't seem to hear him, too wrapped up in his frustrated, one-sided conversation, a really shitty monologue that makes Jinyoung's insides clench from the honesty of it. They're just two trains on a collision course without direction. Boats capsizing, drowning, gone. Metaphors unresolved just like that.

"Every time I even breathe a word about work, you tense up and get this really upset look on your face, like you have to remind yourself that I'm the enemy and not your friend. I'm not some aloof jerk in a drama, so stop turning yourself into a tragically misunderstood rival, Jinyoung," Jaebum forges on, increasingly upset. "If you can't accept that part of me – if you can't accept anything outside of what you expect from me…" Jaebum falters, but something in his eyes flash when he sees the way Jinyoung's cheeks seem to drain of color. "I'm not ashamed of who I am, and I don't want to start now."

"That's not true," Jinyoung repeats, louder this time. He tries to meet Jaebum's eyes, but can't hold it long enough, suddenly ashamed at the intensity of Jaebum's accusation. His candor. Nails to the coffin, his words.

He looks at Jaebum, really looks at him, this time. He looks exhausted, worn out, the fatigue bone-deep and not just from work. It's like Jinyoung is the only reason he's wrung out left to dry, and he wonders exactly how much of Jaebum's tirade is planned. If it's a speech he's flipped over and over in his head over time, like: when Jinyoung had said he'd wanted to be friends. Like: when Jaebum had accused him of making fun of him. Like: when it was Jinyoung who'd left Jaebum to watch his back disappear into the distance, even with all those strangers around them.

It's a pretty shitty speech, even if it does make Jinyoung want to cry.

"Look, Jinyoung," Jaebum says, softly now. As if he's afraid Jinyoung will run. "You really tire me out when you send me all these mixed signals, like you can't make up your mind." Jaebum looks up at him, eyes dark from behind his lashes, almost imploring despite the steel in his voice. Jinyoung holds his breath. One. Two. Three.

"So I'll ask you again, Jinyoung-ah," Jaebum continues, fearlessly. "Do you hate me?"

Ah, Jinyoung thinks. There it is.

He can't speak. His words keep dying in his throat, and he can't get anything out. On one hand, he's already in Jaebum's hit list, so what harm would saying, I'm so obsessed with you, you have no idea do to his presumably very low ranking in Jaebum's ranking of people? On the other hand, he's really not in the right mental and emotional capacity to deal with this, too ill-prepared for dramatic confrontations in real life and outside the comfort of a TV screen, alienated and detached from him. Im Jaebum concludes his lines and waits for Park Jinyoung to speak, but there's no prompter, no cue cards, no director to yell at them for a second take. A tenth one. A hundred retakes for every god damn mistake.

Most of all, he's afraid the corner of his mouth will spasm in an inopportune moment, and that's it, good fucking bye, Im Jaebum. So he keeps quiet.

"I thought as much," Jaebum says, the smile on his face not quite matching his eyes.

Jinyoung's never been a brave man.

 

 

 

"—and that's how my winter break started and I wound up marathon-ing train wrecks with Yugyeom the entire time," Jinyoung says, finishing his narrative with as much life as he could muster, which isn't a lot to begin with. He'd been doped up on cold medicine and unsatisfying alcohol ringing in the New Year, a lump of blankets and dejection in front of the TV. Jaebum had been in a variety show, then, smiling and looking as if he hadn't ripped anyone's heart out. Either he's a better actor than Jinyoung gives him credit for, or he's had too much practice toying with people's feelings. Could be both. Could be none at all. He'll never get an answer anyway, not when Jaebum hates his guts.

An uneasy silence settles around their table, Jackson the most devastated of them all at the news, half because I can't believe you watched sitcoms without me, you traitor, and half out of genuine pity and frustration at the self-induced roller coaster of fuck ups in Jinyoung's life. Clearly, Jackson has his priorities straight.

"I feel like I'm the kid in the messy divorce except my parents never even made it to bed," Youngjae notes, sadly. Even the potted plant a few feet away is drooping from the force of the dejection surrounding their table. "I kind of miss the old days."

Jinyoung glowers at him from behind his fingers. "Shut up, Youngjae."

Mark pounds his fist against his palm solemnly, and then turns to Youngjae. For a moment, Jinyoung is fooled into thinking that maybe – just maybe – Mark is about to say something deep and meaningful and enlightening enough for Jinyoung to ponder for the next few weeks, except that's hoping for a bit too much, apparently.

"There goes that bet," says Mark, decisively. "Now pay up, you guys."

"You bet on me?" Jinyoung squawks, watching Youngjae slide over a few thousand won across the table.

Jackson, unimpressed, lets out a loud, exasperated exhale, redirecting his efforts into Jinyoung if only to save his dying wallet. "Jinyoung, you are the shittiest person ever. Are you really still mad at him or are you just milking his guilt -- which he shouldn't even have, by the way, so fuck you in advance."

"What the hell are you talking about?"

Jackson jabs his fork at Jinyoung's chest, despite Jinyoung's attempts to backpedal and avoid the strand of pasta dangling from the fork. "I'm talking about how you still won't forgive him for that fight you had last time!"

"What?" Jinyoung's too surprised to let out more than that, the words dying in his throat. Jackson keeps going on, too wrapped up in his ranting to even snap to attention at Mark's warning hiss of his name.

"You're so shitty, why did you even get his hopes up after he's been basically courting you for months--"

"I'm not mad at him for that!"

Jackson exhales loudly and waves his fork in the air. "Then why are you mad?"

"I'm not mad! This is not mad! This is supposed to be the picture of a bitter, rejected person, not an angry one, and right now I'm getting pissed off with how everyone is accusing me of something that I don't even understand!" Jinyoung finally stops, breathing harshly with the force of his words. "And what do you mean courting?"

There's a very long silence punctuated only by Jackson dropping his fork to the ground. No one makes a move to pick it up. Jinyoung is looking at Jackson who is looking at Mark who is looking at his iPad and Youngjae is just widening his eyes at everyone and attempting to inch away. The people around their table are giving them a wide berth now. If Jinyoung looks as close to murdering someone or something as he feels, then no wonder.

Jackson snaps back to stare at Jinyoung, gob smacked. "Holy shit, you really didn't know?"

Blood is rushing through Jinyoung's ears at an alarming sound, nearly muting out the noise around them. "I told you guys we should have taken the direct way," Mark mutters, adamantly refusing to meet anyone's gaze. "This is why I hate the scenic route."

"What am I supposed to know?" Jinyoung asks, already dreading the answer.

"Uh," Jackson starts, cautiously, but forges on with reckless abandon, "the fact that Jaebum-hyung's been tripping over himself pleasing you even when you haven't reciprocated or even given him the time of day?"

"What."

Jackson rolls his eyes and begins to count down with his both hands. Jinyoung tries not to lean over and grab at them one by one. "He takes you out for brunch."

"He's rich, he probably considers it his moral obligation."

Jackson puts a finger down. "He escorts you to the library."

Jinyoung scowls. He's pretty sure that one doesn’t really count as conclusive evidence. "He thinks I'm some kind of twig that needs protecting, which reminds me, fuck you for that. No one needed to trigger his savior complex."

Another one. "He keeps touching you."

"You keep touching me."

And another. "He listens to you bitch about everyone, even himself."

"I bitch to everyone," Jinyoung reminds him, "excuse you."

Jackson, either because he somehow does not know how to count or because he feels that this one merits more fingers than it should, is now left with all his fingers closed into a fist. When he speaks, it's a string of rushed words that Jinyoung is sure he might not have gotten if he's not listening too closely, but. Sucks for Jackson. "He took care of you when you were drunk and kissed you even when your mouth probably felt like something died in it, tell me that's not love."

Jinyoung stands up from his seat, knocking his bag and Youngjae's backpack to the floor. "He what?"

"You were pretty out of it when I saw you trying to devour his face," Jackson admits, tapping his knuckles against his lower lip, exhibiting no signs of having self-preservation instincts. "Wow, you really don't remember this shit, do you? No wonder he kept thinking you didn't like him back."

"You couldn't have told me about this weeks ago?"

"Why do you think I kept making fun of you all the time?" Jackson protests, holding his hands up and scooting closer to Mark, who instinctively shuffles away. "It's not my fault you have the self-control of a five year old."

"A hint would have been nice. Great. Absolutely awesome." Jinyoung starts beating him with his econ book even as Jackson makes pitiful noises. Mark and Youngjae don't stop him, in mutual agreement of non-interference. No one wants to be a casualty caught in the crossfire ever.

"I said kiss and make up, it wasn't supposed to be figurati -- not my fucking sword hand, asshole!"

"NO ONE SAYS THINGS LIKE THAT WITHOUT CONTEXT," Jinyoung howls, betrayed. "I can't believe you made me go through all that shit!"

Jackson hunches over, tucking his hands under his chest protectively. "Fuck, shouldn't you be running to get your man right now instead of trying to kill me?" Jackson wheezes in a last-ditch attempt. "You're never gonna make it as a rom com lead, ow."

"Oh my god," Jinyoung breathes out, book still poised over Jackson's arm but frozen. Jackson should be grateful Jinyoung is easily distracted by the prospect of love – love!!! – and sentimentality. Creepiness aside, it's still a pretty damning piece of evidence. "He's in love with me."

"We knew this, like, months ago, hyung," Youngjae groans, turning away from apologizing to all the other students and trying to convince campus security that no one is in danger of killing anyone today, it's just stress, ma'm. "You never listen to my advice, ever."

"Jinyoung's an idiot," Jackson informs him fondly, inching away and hiding under the table. "Now go get him and leave me the fuck alone."

 

 

 

Jaebum doesn't show up to any of his classes for the first week day after the break. Or the next one. Or even the next.

Jinyoung is almost going insane with waiting when Mark, exasperated at an extremely fidgety Jinyoung, finally googles the address to Jaebum's agency and forwards him the link to get him to stop whining at me over the phone, Jinyoung, you're worse than Jackson.

He's tying his shoes haphazardly and looking for his keys when Yugyeom steps out of the living room, carrying an empty mug in one hand and a plateful of crumbs in the other. Jinyoung is too distracted to even chew him out for eating all the leftover cookies.

"Where are you going?" Yugyeom asks, eyeing him suspiciously. The clock in the hallway and Jinyoung's heavy coat tell him that wherever Jinyoung is going, it's definitely not to grab a quick snack from the nearest convenience store.

He hasn't really told Yugyeom anything definitive yet, just mentioned that maybe – just maybe – he's been a dumbass the entire time and Yugyeom's theories were not entirely unfounded. He hasn't managed to scope out how Yugyeom feels about everything, considering that he's had to deal with Jinyoung's temperament for the past few months. Yugyeom wasn't exactly disposed towards Jaebum during the winter break, if the incessant cussing every time the TV airs a fairly new CF featuring him comes on.

"Being an idiot," Jinyoung informs him, smile wavering only slightly.

Yugyeom crosses his arms over his chest, and for a moment, Jinyoung wonders if he has to fight Yugyeom and force him into submission by virtue of his age, but the tension across his shoulders breaks once he seems to find something in Jinyoung's defiant gaze, his upturned chin. He leans against the wall and sighs.

"The self-destructive kind, or the love-struck one?" He asks, cocking an eyebrow at him.

"Is there a difference?" Jinyoung asks, weakly.

Yugyeom shakes his head, but he smiles at him, fondly. "Don't worry, hyung," says Yugyeom, pushing him out of the doorway even as he squawks at the forceful ejection. "I'm sure your sisters will kill you if you never bring JB home for dinner."

That's the closest thing to a blessing that he's going to get, and it keeps him warm for a while.

 

 

 

It's ten in the evening and Jinyoung is freezing in the cold waiting for Jaebum to exit his agency's building. Wrapped in Jaebum's old scarf and nursing a cup of coffee against his chest, he's the only guy in the swarm of teenage girls and working women waiting to catch a glimpse of their favored idol.

Screw it, he thinks. Might as well sit this out, if he's bent on sacrificing the rest of his pride. It's not like it got him anywhere else to begin with.

Did hyung murder you in cold blood yet, is the encouraging text he receives from Jackson at half-past ten.

How long do these idols even practice anyway??? Jinyoung despairs, adding a depressed emoji at the tail end of his message.

Suck it up, idol reject.

Jinyoung is composing a very scathing and long-winded message when one of the junior high students near him makes a dying noise, pointing at the entrance. There's a boyband making their way out of the building, and Jinyoung nearly rolls his eyes and goes back to moaning about his life at KKT when he catches the eye of one of the taller boys in the group, as surprised and uncomfortable as Jinyoung feels, freezing his ass off in the middle of winter. Fuck that, Jinyoung thinks, and pulls himself up on a bench.

"Im Jaebum," Jinyoung calls out. Tall guy in shades and a beanie cringes and shakes his head. "Yah! Im Jaebum!"

"What is he doing," one of the older fans whispers to her friend, clearly annoyed at Jinyoung's nugu behavior. Jinyoung ignores her, hopping off the bench and jogging up to Jaebum's group, majority of which are either looking at him suspiciously or trying to hide their laughter behind their hands.

Jaebum's manager seems to remember him, at least, unlike his charge who's attempting to bury his face further into his jacket. "Jinyoung-sshi," Seunghoon says, the darkness doing nothing to hide the grimace on his face, "isn't it a school day tomorrow?"

"I don't have class, and that one," says Jinyoung, pointing at Jaebum with his thumb, "is pretty hard to corner at school. Can I talk to him for a minute?"

"I don't think that's a good idea," Seunghoon says, casting a wary look at the girls inching closer. One of the other managers hustle the rest of the group into a waiting van, but Jaebum is stock-still, eyes downcast.

"It'll only take a minute," Jinyoung pleads, already abandoning any pretense of having shame. "Look, I'll even pretend I'm only here to get an autograph to get those people off my case."

"Better fork over some cash to make it look more convincing," Seunghoon teases, but waves him away with a vaguely threatening hand motion. "Do you have a pad or something?"

"Uh, sure," says Jinyoung, digging for paper in his sling bag. There's a pack of gum, a pencil, his wallet, keys, and an overdue Kim Youngha novel innocuously stuffed inside his bag. Of all the days he's forgotten his planner at home, it has to be now. He braces himself as he yanks out the barely dog-eared copy and forks it over, internal despair conflicting with the lightest brush of Jaebum's hand against his knuckles. Something like all pieces of scenery he thought he had long ago forgotten rushes into his lungs, the words coming back to him like a song.

"That's a library book," Jaebum says, quietly as he fumbles for a pen in his pocket, without much heat. Like he's exhausted just from seeing Jinyoung. Too damn nice for a celebrity, Jinyoung thinks, with a bit of sadness. If he were Jaebum, he'd throw a punch first and never ask questions at all. Maybe stab him with the pen in his hand. This is why Jinyoung isn't an idol, probably.

"I know," says Jinyoung, "but I don't have anything else and I would really like it if I could escape with my balls in tact even if my dignity is in pieces."

"You're not even a fan." Jaebum's signature is a long, slanted scrawl, arching and illegible across the blank page. Jinyoung stifles the urge to tell him to get calligraphy classes right now. "Are you sure you're in the right place, Jinyoung-sshi?"

"Don't call me that," Jinyoung snaps before he can stop himself.

Jaebum unclicks the ballpoint pen and tucks it inside his pocket. He hands the book back to Jinyoung, but doesn't let go just yet. "I wasn't sure you'd let me call you anything else."

"Yes," Jinyoung asserts, embarrassed, "this is me. I am the only dude in your legion of fan girls and I accept you. And I hope I don't get out of here with nothing more than your signature because I would really, really like to stay friends with you, Im Jaebum."

"Friends?" Jaebum repeats softly, something like hurt crossing his face. It's an echo of that time when Jinyoung's head was still in his ass, hell bent on catching Jaebum's attention when he hadn't known he'd had it, all of it even when he hadn't wanted it. Not for the first time, Jinyoung feels ashamed of himself.

"Okay, maybe not just friends," Jinyoung amends, mortified. "Are you really gonna make me say this out loud when that girl has been side eyeing me like crazy? Do you really hate my guts so much you want me to die?"

Jaebum opens his mouth, but a commotion a few feet away makes him falter. Seunghoon walks over to them, barking orders at security as he rests his hand against Jaebum's shoulder.

"Time's up, Jinyoung-sshi," Seunghoon says, apologetic.

"Later," Jaebum mouths as Seunghoon ushers him away. Jinyoung runs a shaky hand over his face and nods.

When he looks down at the book in his hand, it's only then that he notices the series of numbers at the cusp of Jaebum's name, the strokes almost unintelligible and as restless as the sudden, restless thrumming in Jinyoung's ears, to his throat, and all the way to his heart.

Half a year ago he wouldn't have hesitated to auction off Im Jaebum's contact details to the highest bidder, would have considered it justifiable in the face of petty grudges and the weightlessness of unfamiliarity. He's held resentment in his chest for so long that it's made his mind muddled and prone to second-guessing Jaebum's motivations, his words, his actions, despite professing to be indifferent.

Now, there's nothing tame about the wild fluttering of his heart, no false façade when he feels too much, too intensely; it takes him at least three tries before he can save the number on his phone without his hands shaking, and not from the cold.

It feels a little like forgiveness, a little like mercy. Or maybe, just maybe –

It might even be hope.

 

 

 

Jaebum slides into the booth number of the noraebang that Jinyoung had texted him fifteen minutes earlier, hands sweating and clammy despite the cheerful pop music he'd set on loop. I got a boy is taunting him from the screen, and it takes all of Jinyoung's willpower not to throw an ashtray at the TV and dump one of the microphones into his pitcher of tea, because if he ends up with no boy at all he's going to sue someone for emotional trauma.

"Hi," Jinyoung squeaks out, dropping the mic. It falls to the couch with a soft whump.

"Hi," Jaebum echoes, but he doesn't take a seat yet. They both stand awkwardly, only a table separating them, and for all the claustrophobia-inducing size of the room, it seems to expand with the distance between them.

"You look nice," Jinyoung says, and Jaebum smiles, ruefully.

"I'm in a pair of sweats and a jacket," says Jaebum, "you don't have to lie."

"I'm not," Jinyoung retorts, sullenly. "You look nice even without clothes anyway." He nearly bites his tongue and wills himself to not choke on air. "I mean –"

Jaebum sighs and plops down on the couch, near the exit and as far away from Jinyoung. Wrong-footed and uneasy, it's a shaky start, but Jinyoung's a little more confident at this point. More sure.

If he turns out wrong, he's gonna murder Jackson, he swears.

"I was thinking of showing up naked but then I figured security would catch me anyway," Jinyoung babbles, going for teasing but ending up failing, as awkward as the fictional elephant in the room vacuuming all the air out of his lungs. "You know, to make it fair since I've seen you naked and all."

Jaebum's eyes seem to darken at the suggestion, and Jinyoung feels his skin flush, thrown. The joke dries up in Jinyoung's mouth, arid and suddenly stale. He presses his lips together and tries not to fidget some more.

"I'm sure the arrest record isn't gonna do you favors in the long run, but it wouldn't have been so bad," Jaebum confesses. He flips his phone back and forth in his hands, clearly discomfited. Jaebum hates small talk that leads to nothing but pointless incriminations, which is as good as any preparation that Jinyoung is going to get. "What are you really doing here?"

I got your signature like one of your crazy fans falls flat on the tip of his tongue. It's strange how quickly the defense mechanism dies with the bare hint of uncertainty lining Jaebum's shoulders, and the familiar surge of guilt and unhappiness flares up in Jinyoung's stomach. It makes him wonder if he's really loved Jaebum in the times that he'd been evading him out of self-pity and bitterness, because isn't that what love isn't supposed to be?

Jaebum's shitty web dramas and his stints in the soap operas have always told him that love is about putting other people first, being happy when they're happy, wanting to kill everyone and everything when they're hurt, beating up thugs that gang up and bully your beloved, setting the world on fire when one of them dies and – okay, maybe fictional dramas aren't a good example, but the point is -- the point is --

"I like you," Jinyoung blurts out, panicking when Jaebum opens his mouth to speak. Jinyoung returns the wide eyed stare Jaebum is giving him, potentially 1000 times more unattractive than what Jaebum is currently sporting. He really does not do well under pressure. "Um. I mean."

Jaebum takes a moment to digest it, but it's too fleeting before something in him seems to harden; for a second, Jinyoung almost believes that they're going back to willfully misunderstanding each other, except Jaebum seems to deflate at Jinyoung's lower lip, bruised from being bitten too hard and too desperately to steel himself for –

Rejection. Fear. Anything. Fuck. He doesn't know.

"Yeah, we've already established that when you said you wanted to be friends again, right?" Jaebum sighs. "Is this gonna be a repeat of that?"

"I lied," says Jinyoung. "Shit. Wait, no. I didn't lie about liking you. But. Everything else. When I said I wanted to be friends."

Jinyoung cringes at the way he can't seem to formulate complete sentences. Fucking Im Jaebum robbing him of speech and articulation every damn time. Why is it so hard to express things when the feelings are more real?

"I wasn't avoiding you because I didn't like that you were going back to being an idol," Jinyoung raises a hand, covering Jaebum's mouth imperiously. "Lemme finish before one of us starts yelling and throwing things at the wall because I do not want to have to kick myself over and over again for being too chicken shit to do what I came here for.

"Remember when you said you were going to be in some rom com for teenagers and I got so mad I started avoiding you?" Jinyoung runs his tongue along his lower lip, steeling himself against the incoming blush across his cheeks. "I didn't get pissed off because I didn't want you to take the job."

Jaebum gives him a flat, dull stare, and it should be enough to make a lesser man back off, would have been enough for Jinyoung a few weeks ago, but it's that small glimmer of something in his eye that gives Jinyoung courage. He doesn't know if it's hope.

"I can't believe I'm saying this," Jinyoung takes a deep breath, "but I got pissed because I was afraid you'd go back to your old life and forget about me in the process. Because that's what happens when people move on to better and brighter things, right? They forget about other people, like how you forgot me once and I couldn't forget you."

Jinyoung removes his palm from Jaebum's face. He can still feel the cracks and lines from Jaebum's lips, bitten from the cold. It sticks to his skin like a ghost, even if Jaebum's still here, looking at him like he can't decide what to say to that.

"You're not an easy person to forget, Jinyoung," says Jaebum, hushed and wrecked, like Jinyoung's hand never left his mouth.

Jinyoung smiles crookedly. He doesn't believe him, but if he's being honest, today seems like a good day as any for it. "And, okay, maybe Jackson was right all along. Maybe I was way too jealous as hell."

This is the part when Jaebum is supposed to string together everything and let the pieces of the puzzle fall into place so they could have their explosive moment of realization, except Jaebum is not making it easy for Jinyoung at all, if the way he's absent-mindedly flipping through the song book is any indication. He looks more absorbed in song choices than Jinyoung, but from his clenched jaw, he is anything but focused on singing. "About me being in a movie?" Jaebum's voice is equally stony.

Jinyoung lets out a frustrated groan. "No, you idiot, I was jealous about whoever was going to be your love interest because I really, really like you, dipshit."

Jaebum says nothing for a long, measured moment. He traces a long line of songs with a finger, and flips back a page. Oh, Jinyoung thinks, deflating. That went as badly as I should have expected. He's trying to formulate a non-pathetic way to weasel out of his failed confession when Jaebum takes pity on him and looks up.

"You know," says Jaebum, finally, "you really suck at confessing your feelings."

"Well, excuse me for not watching enough dramas," Jinyoung says, flustered. He sits down, feeling foolish and not a little sore.

"Whatever, mister mixed signals," says Jaebum, letting out a chuffed laugh. Jinyoung hides his face behind his hands, and it isn't because he has to hide the way his eyes are starting to shine wet with tears, no. It's because, for all of his rejection, Jinyoung still can't find it in himself to hate Jaebum, and just hearing him like this, casual and a little more confident, seems like it could be enough.

It's not. But it can be.

"I get it," Jinyoung groans, even as his lips tremble. "You can stop stomping all over my ego now. I can show myself out."

He hears Jaebum shift in his seat, and he almost jumps when Jaebum touches his shoulder. He doesn't look up. He can't look up.

"Hey," says Jaebum, breath hot at his ear. "I never said I didn't like you either, you know."

"Fuck," Jinyoung gasps out, prying his fingers off of his face and shoving Jaebum off of the couch. "You're the absolute worst. I'm seriously regretting falling for you now."

"No take-backs!" Jaebum squawks, latching onto him from behind when Jinyoung turns away in mock-anger. Jinyoung can't quite hide the laughter threatening to burst from his mouth, but it's alright – Jaebum's doing enough of it for both of them. I like this, he thinks. He likes making Jaebum happy. "Ahhh, you're worse than any of my fake girlfriends on screen. None of them ever made me feel like crap every time you wouldn't look at me."

"If you keep going on about that, Im Jaebum --"

Jaebum doesn't let him live it down. "I think everything would have sped up if we'd gotten you drunk again. You were pretty cute, do you know that?"

Jinyoung closes his eyes. "I swear to god--"

"Does this mean I can kiss you now without worrying about brushing my teeth after?" Jaebum pipes up, meaning to tease except – except –

His gaze drops to Jinyoung's mouth, agape and no doubt unattractive, Jinyoung knows – he's seen himself like it too many times in the face of Bambam and Yugyeom's combined delinquency. But Jaebum keeps looking at him like he thinks otherwise, if the way his eyes keep refusing to meet his is a sign. Or maybe he's just realized how embarrassing his line was; it's legitimately unfair that Jaebum looks so endearing even when he's so awkward.

Jinyoung opts to hold his hand instead.

"Yeah," Jinyoung says, swallowing the happy, bubbling lump in his throat. "Yeah, you can."

The first kiss – the one Jinyoung remembers anyway – is awkward, not at all ideal and living up to the mountain of expectations that a lesser man would have set on a celebrity, but when Jaebum bends to press his mouth against Jinyoung's, his lips taste of lip balm and mint candy; crooked and cupping Jinyoung's cheek, his fingers tremble against Jinyoung's jaw. It's not worthy of an award from MTV, but it feels like a punch to the gut for all its innocence. Who knew an idol with an indecent nude shoot to his name would be this inexperienced?

Jinyoung doesn't mind, though. It just means they can learn together.

Jaebum's mouth ghosts over the shell of his ear, and it should be insanely intrusive but it doesn't make Jinyoung's skin itch with irritation at all. "I like you better when you don't think too much."

"Are you saying you like me better when I'm dumb?"

"God, no, you're –" Jaebum squints at the smile on Jinyoung's face. He can't help it. He can't stop smiling. "Wow. You're such a little shit."

"I know," says Jinyoung. "But you love me anyway, pop star."

"Jinyoung," Jaebum huffs. "Please stop talking and let me kiss you again."

He does.

 

 

 

It's raining by the time Jinyoung comes out of his last class, but Jaebum is waiting for him by the entrance, umbrella tucked under his arm and smiling at him with such force that Jinyoung can see a dimple peek out even from a distance. He covers up the fluttering feeling in his stomach by tucking his arm into the space between Jaebum's elbow and his bag, chattering nervously all the way to dinner.

"You already know Youngjae," says Jinyoung, two blocks away from the café they're meeting the others at. He has to press close to Jaebum to keep his knapsack from getting wet, but Jaebum doesn't look like he minds at all "Then there's Jackson, which, augh, still judging you for being friends and not blowing him off to begin with."

"You're his best friend," Jaebum protests, laughing. He hooks an arm around Jinyoung's shoulder, and it should be awkward with their height difference being almost non-existent, but it isn't. "Aren't you supposed to say good things about him?"

"Not by choice," says Jinyoung, darkly. He tucks his hands into his coat pockets, fingers heavy and antsy as they scrabble at the lining. "My life would be so much more uncomplicated without him. He's gotten me into trouble more times than I can count."

"Yeah, but without Jackson, I wouldn't have gotten closer to you, now would I?" Jaebum teases.

Jinyoung ignores him and refuses to take the bait. It feels a little strange that he's giving Jaebum a run-down of his circle of friends when Jaebum already knows half of them, but it's more for Jinyoung's own benefit than Jaebum's, if the way Jaebum is stepping closer to rub at his nape is any indication of it. He bites his lip and valiantly doesn't shiver.

"You also know Mark-hyung, so that's one less person to worry about," Jinyoung forges on. "Mark-hyung's pretty cool, just, uh, don't do that weird fake flirting thing you do with Jackson to his face."

"What flirting thing?" Jaebum asks, "I only flirt with you."

Jinyoung tries not to look too pleased about that, but from the knowing look on Jaebum's face, he's failed. "Don't change the subject," Jinyoung reprimands. He glances up at the sky, dark but less from the rain. "I'm serious, you better not say anything strange!"

"I'll be on my best behavior," Jaebum dolefully promises, miming a zipping motion with his hands.

Jinyoung rolls his eyes, but grins anyway. Over the time they've settled into an initially uneasy peace, he's found that Jaebum is super weird when he doesn't mean to be, prone to saying one thing and doing the complete opposite the next, a contrast to the more tactless, honest gravity Jinyoung's come to expect from him. It's cute.

"Um. Anyway," Jinyoung says, clearing his throat before he does something embarrassing and potentially dangerous like kiss the smirk off Jaebum's face in the middle of the street. It's been known to happen before. He can't help himself, sometimes. "There's Bambam and Yugyeom, who are pretty much the little brothers I wish I never had." He rubs at his arm, embarrassed. "But they're nice kids. I'm sure you'll love them."

Jaebum hums, giving him a considering look, like he knows exactly what's been going on inside Jinyoung's head but he's giving him a free pass anyway. He lets it slide. "They sound great."

"They can be useful sometimes," Jinyoung hums. "But don't say I didn't warn you."

They cross the intersection, Jaebum keeping the scarf covering half his face up and his eyes down even as a pair of schoolgirls peer at them curiously. From across the street, they can see the café's logo, and Jinyoung spies Youngjae and Jackson animatedly arguing over a pastry, Mark keeping a hand on Jackson's knee to stop him from standing up. Jinyoung groans and checks his phone.

"Do you think it's too late to back out?"

"They do know where you live," Jaebum offers. "And I'm pretty sure Mark-hyung's already seen us."

The rain's dwindled down to a small downpour by the time they reach the café, and Jinyoung almost misses the heat of Jaebum's side when they separate. "Doesn’t hurt to hope," Jinyoung grumbles, watching Jaebum fold the umbrella neatly. "The kids are gonna meet us later after cram school, but don't let them eat you alive."

"Sounds scary," says Jaebum, seriously. "Do you think I can fend them off with my army of fans?"

Jinyoung huffs, swiping at Jaebum, who breaks out into a laugh. His scarf falls to his neck, and Jinyoung is so glad it's dark out enough for barely anyone to recognize him from far away. Yes, he reminds himself, this is your life now, suck it up.

"Nah, Bambam will want to get girl group members' numbers from you and Yugyeom will just laugh at you like a disrespectful twerp." Jinyoung pauses. "By the way, don't listen to anything any of them says about me. Anything." Jaebum keeps laughing, and it gets so bad he has to lean against Jinyoung, umbrella knocking against Jinyoung's knee. "I mean it!"

Jaebum presses a quick kiss to the side of Jinyoung's mouth, fond and affectionate despite Jinyoung's protests. Jinyoung relaxes at that, even though Jackson is already waving and widening his eyes at them from inside the near-empty café, already miming at a few patrons whipping out their camera phones and snapping pictures of Jaebum even in the grainy light. Jaebum is all the recklessness and liquid courage Jinyoung's never realized he needed, and it doesn't help that he's so unbearably cheesy despite looking so cold to the touch. "But what if I want to hear everything about you?" Jaebum asks, chasing after Jinyoung's mouth with his thumb.

"I'm really boring, though. Are you sure about that?"

Jaebum strokes his cheek, the bow of his lip, an imaginary dimple, everything. "Positive," he says, voice soft. Behind the glass, Jackson is miming vomiting into a house plant, but Jinyoung is too distracted by the impossible fluttering at his stomach to care.

"Then I'll tell you afterwards," says Jinyoung, smiling with no hesitation, "but first you have to survive this date."

"I can't wait," says Jaebum, and tangles his fingers with Jinyoung's as they open the café door and step inside.