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“We’re fine,” Taemin says bluntly, a tired sigh on his lips as the seventh or eighth man of the night introduces himself to them. He looks offended as he walks off, like he wasn’t expecting them to blow him off, despite the fact that Kibum has his arm hooked around Taemin's waist and the two of them are flushed and messy from dancing. They clearly look like they're dating, but it's a common practice in clubs like this for guys to come around and just introduce themselves with their full names, like they're expecting to find the person with that name on their wrist out of the blue.

Honestly, it's a bit ridiculous, because if either of them had a name on their wrist, there would be a way bigger chance of them finding their soulmate by searching them on the internet like an intelligent person. But there are those kind of men here anyways, and apparently they've managed to attract them, because there's yet another one sidling up to them with a, “My name's Lee Seungho,” and a casual smirk on his lips like that's going to lure Taemin away from his friend. Or maybe vice versa? It's a little hard to tell because he's leering at them pretty equally.

Kibum smiles politely. “Fuck off.”

This man, too, looks appropriately taken aback, starting to splutter protests, but Kibum only winds his fingers into Taemin's and takes a pointed sip of his drink until the man, obediently, fucks off.

Taemin rips his hand away from Kibum, shaking it out with a laugh and pushing at Kibum's arm. “Wow, hyung, could you have been bitchier?”

Kibum levels him with a look. “I just think it's dumb that they think they're going around introducing themselves like they're going to find their soulmate at a bar,” he says and takes another sip. “If you want to fuck around, sure, but how many decent relationships have started off with a drunk asshole walking up to people like his name is the be all, end all of the universe?”

“Yeah, well,” Taemin says, scratching absently at the underside of his wrist. He sees a few nearby people who have been checking Taemin out lean in closer, trying to get a glimpse of the words etched there. Taemin tugs his bracelet a little firmer across them. “I'd rather have someone's name than this shit.”

Kibum cackles, nudging his shoulder against his best friend's arm. “I don't know. I think they fit you pretty well.”

It's an old conversation, one that's been going on since they were in middle school together and Kibum had first seen the scratch of words etched there, Taemin none-too-careful about the thick leather band they were all given to cover up such markings. He was pretty sure laughing his ass off and quoting the words mockingly at the boy hadn't made a great impression, but Taemin had flushed miserably and lit up at the same time, thinking maybe...

But his first words to Kibum hadn't been the one on the older boy's arm, his flustered, “Stop it!” not matching up to the scribble of kibum please that mars the inside of his left wrist, just over the thrum of his pulse, hidden by his own black leather cuff.

Kibum knows that somewhere out there, there's going to be someone who meets him for the first time, whose mouth forms those two words, somehow, and he's supposed to respond with whatever's on their wrist. It's the way of the world, and the reason he can't even start to respond to these random guys in bars. He's just here to blow off steam after a long first week of classes. And yeah, also to dance with Taemin and get wasted, and maybe to stumble back to their dorm and fool around a bit because fooling around is nice when there are no feelings involved with the two of them.

Taemin scowls at him though, and Kibum knows he's pushing it on the boundaries of how bitchy he can be before even Taemin cuts him off. Wrapping his fingers around Taemin's arm, he throws back the rest of his drink and tugs. “Hey, come on. I like this song.”

Taemin tosses his back as well and follows Kibum into the crowd, pressing close to him and throwing his arms around Kibum's throat, laughing prettily as he teases, “Don't you have a 9:30 class starting tomorrow?”

“Yeah,” Kibum says, half-shouting over the crowd. “It'll be fine!”

--

It should have been fine, Kibum thinks, cursing under his breath as he throws on clothes and tries to fix his hair in the mirror, ignoring the blond head of hair that groans from his bed, Taemin protesting the amount of noise being made. Kibum hisses at the sound of Taemin's groaning, too loud in the small room, and he aims a particularly annoyed kick at the mattress as he passes, reveling in Taemin's moan of, “'such a fuckin' bitch.”

It's Taemin's fault he's running late though, and Kibum doesn't have any sympathy. Fucking asshole had knocked Kibum's phone off the nightstand in his rush to grab a condom and lube, and the vibrate function had kicked in down on the carpeting where it was way too quiet to actually wake Kibum up on time. Later, Taemin's going to owe him so bad for this, but for right now, Kibum's shoving things into his bag and rushing out of the door with a slam that's louder than it probably needs to be. He can imagine Taemin's suffering, but really, he shouldn't have had that last shot if he didn't want to feel like this.

He doesn't bother locking the door behind him, not when Taemin will at least probably wake up if someone tries to break in. If not, well, he'll hold all of his worldly possessions over his friend's head for the next 10 years. As it is, his net worth is about negative 10,000 in student debt, so it's not like he has much to lose.

He's running too late to worry about that now anyway, and it's hard enough to run across campus with his skinny jeans hindering his movements. His messenger bag thuds heavily against his side as he takes stairs two at a time to the entrance of the art building, his textbooks from last week heavy enough that they'll probably bruise later, but he can't be worried about that. Right now he has about three minutes to get to the third floor of this building. Or is it the fourth floor? The second?

Hissing, Kibum reaches down, flipping open his bag and shuffling through it. He knows he stuck a schedule in here yesterday so he didn't get lost, but now, of course, he can’t find it. It's crammed in there between textbooks, journals, and a sketchbook that Kibum carries around more for the excuse of having something to keep the general populace from talking to him, though there are a few good designs etched in here and there.

Knowing his luck, that means the schedule itself has been crumpled and pushed to the bottom of his bag by his run. He shoves his hand down in there, fumbling around as he heads for the stairs; at the very least, he knows he has to go up, he just doesn't know to which floor. His fingertips brush against a piece of paper, and he lets out a noise of triumph as he grabs and tugs. The paper gets stuck, pinned under heavy books.

Cursing, he turns, folding his body toward the bag to shove his other hand in, head coming down to make sure he doesn't accidentally rip the paper in half. He manages to prize it free, lifting the book off of it, tugging at the edge until it slides out with a crinkle of sound, Kibum's finger curling around it and pulling it out of the bag--

Kibum stumbles hard, paper crushed in his hand as it smashes between the floor and his palm. He has just enough grace to keep himself from going head over heels, but his arm just barely catches him against the top step, the impact jarring him violently, and he gasps hard for air, winded by the sudden transition from walking upright to hitting the ground.

From somewhere below him, he hears a thud, and while at first, he pays it no mind, he sees the scatter of books as he starts to stand up, papers fluttering into place on the stairs, all the way from where he is, near the top, to the bottom of the staircase. Oh shit, he thinks and turns all the way to see a lump of a person in a cream-colored sweater crumpled at the bottom of the stairs.

“Fuck me, I'm so sorry!” he blurts, moving down to help him up. He picks him up, hands moving to dust him off, trying to brush away the hurt and babbling all the while. “I'm so sorry. I didn't see you. I'm just trying to get to class, and I--”

He stops abruptly because the boy doesn't look like he just got thrown down the stairs. He's looking at Kibum with a kind of dazed grin – and it's a very pretty grin, really, bunching his cheeks and squinting his eyes a little. But still, pretty or not, it's not the expression of someone who just got knocked bodily down a flight of stairs. Sure, he's got the ruffled look, his brown hair tousled into a kind of disarray that doesn't look intentional, and there's a redness spreading across his cheek from where it hit the floor, but he's still smiling, and Kibum clears his throat and tries, “Are you... um... okay? Do you have a concussion or anything? I mean...”

The boy shakes his head rapidly, still smiling that smile, and then flicks his eyes to the clock behind Kibum. Kibum follows his line of sight and curses loudly. “Oh my god. I'm sorry. I've got to go. Are you sure you're...?”

But he's already rushing towards the stairs again, leaving the boy behind.

In the end, his class is on the third floor, halfway down the hall, and his professor frowns at him and makes this kind of mark on the role that Kibum doesn't have a good feeling about. But he slinks into his seat with his crumpled schedule and spends the rest of class feeling a nagging sense of guilt in his stomach like he should have stayed to help the smiling boy in the hallway.

--

“Dude, you should have stayed to help him,” Taemin says around a mouthful of food, staring incredulously at Kibum. His mouth is hanging a little open, rice sticking to his full lips, and Kibum makes a face at him until he swallows his bite. Kibum is shocked he doesn't choke on it, but then, Taemin's pretty talented at swallowing. “You knocked his ass over, sent him down a flight of stairs, knocked all his shit out of his hands, and then you just said sorry and bolted? That's cold, hyung.”

“It’s not like I meant to do it,” Kibum snaps. “I was trying to get to class, and I didn’t want to be late on my first day. It’s not my fault the professor’s a dumbass who wanted to start a week later than every other class in the goddamn school. And, if you’ll remember, I was having a little bit of a late start.”

He taps his chopsticks against the edge of his bowl like he’s trying to make a point, and then huffs and takes another bite. Taemin is grinning at him unrepentantly, the little shit. “’It’ll be fine, Taemin,’” he recites, tipping his voice just the slightest bit higher in mocking. Kibum is inclined to point out that his own voice is actually lower than Taemin’s, but the younger is clearly having too much fun to pay attention, and Kibum isn’t a heathen that speaks with his mouth full, thank you very much. “’It’s a great idea to go clubbing the night before my morning class.’ ‘You should fuck me up the ass, Taemin, I don’t have class for another six hours.’”

“You little—“ Kibum growls out, nearly choking, eyes watering a little as he swallows quickly so that he can cut Taemin off before he says anything more. “You know I’ve never said any of that shit, and we’re in public. This is why Minho never hangs out with us anymore.”

“Minho never hangs out with us anymore because he’s probably too busy jerking off his teammates in the name of team spirit,” Taemin says, face the picture of solemnity, and then laughs loudly at Kibum’s unimpressed face. “Come on. Minho never hangs out with us during soccer season. He’s a good and diligent student, and he has to keep up his scholarship.”

“And how we ended up with an ingrate like you, I’ll never truly understand,” Kibum says, popping Taemin on the back of the hand when questing chopsticks start sneaking towards Kibum’s bowl. “We should never have left you to your own devices.”

“Uhm, excuse me, you are not my keeper,” Taemin says in mock offense. “And those two years taught me so many helpful things: how to bullshit an essay, how to suck a dick, why it’s a bad idea to take classes before 11 o'clock…”

“One of these things is not like the other,” Kibum scoffs, finally pushing the remnants of his meal toward Taemin’s hovering chopsticks. Taemin crows in delight, getting distracted from his point for the grand total of ten seconds it takes to start devouring the rest of Kibum’s food as well. Kibum helps himself to Taemin’s drink and sips at it, looking at Taemin with the fondness of someone who’s grown up watching these same habits and finds it endearing rather than annoying. “You should have learned to eat properly as well.”

“Eh,” Taemin says with a shrug. “Win some, lose some. At least I watch where I’m going.”

Kibum rolls his eyes. “Still stuck on that?”

“I will be stuck on that until you explain to me exactly how you manage to knock another human being down a flight of stairs and leave him there,” Taemin says, swallowing a bite of food and batting at the air between them until Kibum returns his drink. Taemin takes a long swallow, and then asks, “Honestly, did you even make sure he was okay?”

“He was fine,” Kibum answers at once. “He seemed fine. He was grinning like a loon.”

“Yeah, because grinning after you’ve been shoved down the stairs is a sure sign of not having serious brain trauma,” Taemin says, looking at Kibum like he’s an idiot.

Kibum misses the days when Taemin was a sweet, respectful child. It’s been a long time since then, but he still rather misses it in moments like these.

Taemin sighs at him. “Did he say he was okay?”

“Yeah,” Kibum says, frowning. “Well, I mean, sort of. He, like, shook his head no to having a concussion. Didn’t say much of anything, actually.”

“Yeah, you’ve killed him,” Taemin says decisively. “He’s probably dying in a hospital somewhere because you knocked someone down the stairs and then took the symptoms of ‘not speaking’ and ‘grinning’ and went ‘yeah he’s totally fine and I can just leave him here.’ Awesome job, hyung. I’m very proud of you for murdering your fellow student.”

“Taemin, shut the hell up,” Kibum says with a groan, stealing back Taemin’s drink and downing it in punishment.

Taemin, having just taken a particularly large bite to finish off the last of Kibum’s food, frowns at him as he swallows thickly without the aid of his drink. “I just think,” he says, swallowing again in the middle of his sentence to clear his throat, “you should at least check up on him.”

“I don’t even know who he is,” Kibum says. “How the hell am I supposed to check up on him?”

“I dunno,” Taemin says helpfully. “Go hang out around the art building and see if he shows up?”

“You are so unhelpful. I’m going to go hang out with Minho,” Kibum says, standing up and shaking his head.

“Minho loves soccer more than you!” Taemin calls after him, ignoring the way people pause to stare at them. “He’ll never fuck you like I do!”

Kibum groans. He needs a better roommate. He needs better friends.

--

Kibum ends up hanging out near the art building. There’s not much of a reason for it, but Minho really does have soccer practice for a little while longer, and Taemin’s being a brat and has class besides. (Starting later than Kibum means he has classes well into the evening, and despite what it seems, Taemin is actually quite dedicated to his classes. The ones he cares about, at least.)

Kibum doesn’t have classes until tomorrow though, and while he should probably be using this as a chance to get ahead on his homework or something, Kibum’s still a college student. Procrastination is practically a virtue at this point, and Kibum gives in all too easily. He finds himself sitting in the common area just outside the art building, drawing pad on his lap and headphones in his ears.

He glances up every few minutes, telling himself he's just looking around for inspiration. He’s not keeping an eye out for the guy he bowled over this morning, really he’s not. Or, well, if he's honest with himself, maybe he is. But it’s because he really does feel bad, not because Taemin suggested it.

Kibum sighs, reaching up to straighten his bangs a little before he goes back to drawing, getting the left sleeve of a jacket sketched out before he glances up again, not expecting much and startling when he sees a familiar cream-colored sweater and an even more familiar soccer jersey. He frowns, hooking his phone out of his pocket and checking the time. It’s actually not even time for soccer practice to be over, and Kibum’s confused enough that he doesn’t hesitate to call out a surprised, “Minho?”

The boy in the soccer jersey looks up at him, blinking big eyes at him and then waves before looking back at the boy in the cream-colored sweater and saying something that Kibum can’t hear from where he is. Kibum hurries to tuck his pad into his bag, scooping it up with one hand as he tucks his phone back into his pocket. Minho seems a little startled when Kibum rushes up to them, eyes fixated not on Minho, but on the boy at his side who’s blinking at him, a small smile on his lips.

“Hey, you’re the guy from this morning, right?” Kibum asks, point blank, and when he gets a nod, he adds, “Right, I wanted to say sorry. And, I mean, I totally meant to stay to help. I was just running late, and—“

“Kibum’s the guy who knocked you over this morning, hyung?” Minho says, and his eyebrows shoot up his forehead. The boy nods again, and Minho makes a noncommittal noise. “Well, that explains why he was rude.”

“I’m not rude!” Kibum protests, reaching out instinctively to shove at Minho’s shoulder. Then he looks at the other boy and goes faintly red. “I mean… I really wasn’t trying to be rude. Anyways, I just wanted to be sure you’re okay.”

The boy nods again, more slowly now, his smile still soft on his lips, hands moving in front of him like a nervous tick. His bracelet is a little loose and it slips around his skin a bit, a flash of writing visible though not legible as he moves his hands.

After a moment, it's Minho who speaks. “He’s okay. He’s not hurt or anything.”

Kibum pauses, mildly confused as to why Minho’s talking for him, and then asks, “Are you sure? I’d like to make it up to you.” He has no idea where that had come from. Maybe it’s guilt or something, or maybe it’s just the way the boy is smiling at him. Either way, it’s out now, and he can’t really take it back without seeming like an idiot. He forges ahead. “Could I get you some dinner sometime or something?”

Minho makes a noise in his throat, looking at the boy next to him, and then back at Kibum. Kibum’s still looking at the boy though, blinking at the sudden flush that had spread across his cheeks, the sudden widening of his smile. Kibum hesitates. “I mean… if that’s alright with you? Just to make it up to you?”

“I don’t think…” Minho starts and then winces when the boy raises an eyebrow at him. There’s a moment where Minho flounders, and then he sighs and makes a few broad motions with his hands that Kibum can’t follow. The boy returns a few gestures, halfhearted and weak, and there’s enough gesturing to Kibum that he feels a little awkward about it.

“If you don’t want to, that’s fine,” Kibum says after a moment, and the boy in the sweater shakes his head rapidly, face darkening from pink to red and gesturing rapidly at Minho at the same time.

After a moment, Minho sighs. “He says he’d like to go,” he says, and Kibum hesitates for a moment until he realizes that Minho’s not talking for him, he’s translating. “Kibum, this is Jinki-hyung. He’s… uhm…”

The boy, Jinki, rolls his eyes and gestures emphatically again before digging in his pocket and coming out with a little memo pad and a stub of a pencil. Within seconds he’s holding it out to Kibum, and when Kibum takes it delicately, his eyes rove over a tidy scrawl of, I’m mute. I can hear. I just don’t talk.

“Oh,” Kibum says. It takes him a second, and then he repeats himself, eyes widening a bit. “Oh!”

The boy nods once and then shrugs a little, taking his notepad back gingerly and writing again, Kibum peering at the writing as he does. Maybe it’s rude – he doesn’t know – but Jinki doesn’t say anything at least, and he tilts the paper a little more to let Kibum see as he scrawls out, I’d like to have dinner. I just hope you don’t expect a charming conversationalist.

Kibum lets out a cackle of laughter, throwing his head back and just barely stopping himself from catching onto Jinki for support the way he would Minho or Taemin. Again, it doesn’t occur to him until after he does it that it might be rude, but Jinki’s still smiling, looking anything but offended.

Kibum smiles back. “Yeah, I mean, you can talk using the pad or whatever. I don’t mind. Or I can look up some signs if that’s easier for you? Minho taught me a few back in high school, but I talk too much with my hands for it to be any good for actual, well… talking. Signing. Communicating.”

“Oh my god, Kibum,” Minho groans, sounding almost mortified. Kibum side-eyes him. Minho knew what he was getting into when they became best friends years ago, and he can get over it.

Jinki ducks his head, shoulders moving a little, pushing his hand over his mouth in some approximation of laughter that's too quiet to hear. Kibum’s heart twists a bit, but he doesn’t get time to say anything more before Jinki’s looking back up at him. He nods quickly, pencil scratching again at his pad, and then hands it over with a smile.

Dinner sounds nice, but Minho-yah was walking me to class now, so I can’t. :(

Kibum bites his lip to stop himself from making a noise at the fact that Jinki is still smiling at him while the sad face looks up at him from the paper. When he glances at Jinki, the other boy is quick to school his features, rearranging them into a more reflective pout, but his cheeks are still bunched under his eyes like he can't quite contain his smile. It’s cute, Kibum realizes. Like, really cute.

“We can do it tomorrow. Or whenever you’re free, really,” he says, waving it off. “It’d be kind of a shitty move for me to want to take you out for dinner to make up for it and then demand it be on my schedule, right?”

Jinki’s pout fades into another smile, and he gingerly makes a motion with his hands before reaching for the pad. Kibum hazards a guess before he can start writing, “Tomorrow?”

Jinki’s nod and subsequent grin make Kibum’s chest squeeze a bit. Shit.

“Tomorrow then,” Kibum says. “Like, 6 o'clock? Seven?”

Jinki taps his fingertip against his chin in a thinking gesture and then holds up six fingers, smiling.

Kibum nods. “Six it is.”

There’s a moment where they just stand there, staring, and then Minho gently taps Jinki’s shoulder. “Hyung, class.”

Jinki startles, almost abruptly, and then blushes and waves a tiny goodbye at Kibum before turning on his heel and following Minho. Kibum stares after him for a long moment. He’s cute, he really is. But Kibum knows better. He rubs his thumb over the band at his wrist, over the words etched underneath it. Jinki’s mute. He’s cute, but he’s mute; he’ll never be Kibum’s soulmate. Despite the bracelet on his wrist, the words underneath, will he ever be anyone’s soulmate?

Just the thought of that makes Kibum’s heart wrench, and he spins on his heels and all but stomps off back to his dorm, suddenly in a terrible mood.

--

The next day rolls around both too quickly and not quickly enough. Taemin squints at him when Kibum professes to going out with the boy from yesterday. “You,” he says, thumbing at the corner of a page in his textbook, “are the only human being alive who can nearly murder a man and get a date out of it.”

“I didn't nearly murder him,” Kibum says with a frown. “He's totally fine. And it's not a date.”

Taemin raises one eyebrow. “Took a little bit to get to that part, didn't it?” he teases. “I mean it, hyung. Maybe it's fate or something. Did you check out his arm?”

“Taemin,” Kibum hisses, frowning at him. His mouth presses together into a firm, white line. “He's not my soulmate.”

“How do you know?” Taemin asks, focusing intently on him, voice suddenly very serious. “What was the first thing he said to you?”

“Nothing,” Kibum says, shrugging tightly. His hand goes to his arm, rubbing at his cuff more out of instinct than anything. “He doesn't speak.”

Taemin looks baffled. “He doesn't speak? Like... how does that work?”

“I don't know. I didn't ask. He wrote out some stuff to me, used some basic signs, used Minho as a translator. He doesn't talk though. He's mute.”

Taemin frowns for a moment, glancing at Kibum's arm and then his own before looking back up. “Right,” he says finally. “Not your soulmate.”

“Not my soulmate,” Kibum confirms again. “It's just dinner. To make it up to him. Maybe we can be friends, if anything. I could use some better than you and Minho.”

“Uhm, no one is better than me,” Taemin says in mock offense. “Minho you could probably stand to lose.”

Kibum cackles. “Well, he makes a decent translator, if nothing else.”

Taemin grins. “Yo, hyung,” he says, leaning forward, eyes bright, “you should bring me home food.”

“Don't be a brat,” Kibum says, shaking his head, but he makes a mental note to bring Taemin home some of his leftovers if there are any.

--

Dinner with Jinki is fun. It's not that he thought it wouldn't be or anything; Jinki had seemed nice from their brief interaction or else Kibum wouldn't have done this in the first place. He's not one to subject himself to horribly uncomfortable situations on a regular basis (friendship with Lee Taemin notwithstanding).

Still, it's easier than he had anticipated at any rate. Kibum talks enough that there's not really time for awkward silences, and Jinki has to emphatically push the notepad at him a few times to get his attention, but every time Jinki is beaming, and he never seems upset. By the end of dinner, they're laughing together, Jinki's shoulders shaking as he muffles little rasps into his palm and Kibum clutching onto the table to keep upright as he laughs.

It's not like it's anything big. They're eating jjajangmyeon, something simple and easy, and Jinki keeps sliding him his notebook with questions and signing slowly and emphatically enough that Kibum can at least pick up a few common sense words and piece together the rest. Kibum learns that Jinki is a year above him in school, working towards a degree in Korean literature, and that he met Minho through a mutual friend named Joonmyun.

Jinki learns probably more about Kibum than he really needs to know, but Kibum has always been extroverted and full of anecdotes, the regular life of the party. It's sometimes a bad thing, but Jinki hardly seems to mind at all, and by the end of dinner, they've become those people, staying in the booth long after the check has been paid just so they can keep... well, talking, for lack of a better word.

By the time the waitstaff has given them enough pointed looks that even Kibum feels bad staying, it's well after dark, and as they walk together out into the night, Kibum realizes that he really, honestly doesn't want this to end.

“Do you want to go somewhere?” he asks, and Jinki gives him such a bewildered look, shaking his hands in front of him, palm up and loose, that he doesn't even have to reach for his notepad before Kibum catches on. “Wherever you want, I guess? If you want. I mean, I'm not trying to pressure you into anything.”

Kibum only catches a flash of the smile that breaks over Jinki's face, but what he sees of it before Jinki ducks his head to write is a little stunning, actually. It's gummy and a little shy, but mostly it is incredibly pleased.

Kibum wonders how often people try and push Jinki into things without trying to ask for the sake of ease. Kibum isn't going to be that type of asshole. “We don't have to,” he reiterates. “I just thought it might be nice to, like--”

Jinki stops him with a hand on his arm that startles Kibum. Jinki doesn't seem to be an incredibly touchy person, but he supposes that it's the easiest way to get someone's attention, and it certainly pulls Kibum's. Jinki presses the notebook into Kibum's palm with his left hand, his right pulling from Kibum's arm to sign absently, like second nature.

I'm having fun. I'd like to get a beer with you or something?

“Yeah,” Kibum agrees, looking up at Jinki's face to answer and handing him back the notepad, just in case. “Yeah, that sounds great. Do you know anywhere good around here? Sorry, I'm not exactly a bar person, but I don't think you're one for the kind of places I frequent.”

Jinki scrawls something down, but he doesn't give it to Kibum. Instead, he taps his finger against his chin for a moment, miming thinking, and then grabs Kibum's hand, pulling him gently until Kibum gets the message and follows in his wake.

(He hands Kibum the notebook halfway through the walk. I don't know if I am or not. You'll have to take me some time! ;)

The thought that Jinki already anticipates a 'some time' makes Kibum laugh a little, mostly because his immediate response to that is to think of what club Jinki might have the most fun at.)

--

Kibum is starting to think they've made a mistake. He can hold his alcohol, mostly through practice and a sincere will to not be a drunken wreck, but Jinki somehow holds his alcohol even better, and Kibum is kind of buzzed out of his mind by the time Jinki hands him his notebook with some question about if Kibum has ever tried a different kind of beer than the one he's drinking.

Jinki's handwriting is perfect.

“What the fuck?” Kibum says, recoiling a little and squinting at the notebook. “Are you even a little drunk?”

It comes out maybe a little nasty. He doesn't mean it to, but it does, and he immediately looks up at Jinki in apology only to see him suppressing a smile.

Kibum pouts. “Hyung,” he whines, trying to look cute so that Jinki will take pity on him and stop laughing.

It doesn't work. Jinki bursts into laughter, soft and raspy and more punched out than anything. It's not a pretty noise, but Jinki's not covering his mouth for once, and the sound is clearer. It's not like anything Kibum's ever heard before, and he cocks his head to one side about the time Jinki seems to realize, slapping a hand over his mouth to suppress the sounds.

Kibum frowns. “Don't,” he protests, and from what he can see of Jinki's face above his hand, he guesses that Jinki's giving him another questioning look. For Jinki not being able to speak, Kibum's getting the feeling Kibum is being the worse communicator here. He takes the last sip of his beer, finishing the glass he's on to clear his throat, and then smiles at Jinki as best he can. “You should laugh more. I mean, really laugh more.”

Jinki hesitates, clearly, time ticking sluggishly by for what seems like too long before he curls his fingers in, all except one, and drags it across his upper lip, curling that down into a hook as he goes. Kibum doesn't know the sign, but from the look on Jinki's face, he can guess well enough. It settles in Kibum's chest like a weight, and if he were more drunk or less drunk or anything but the buzzed in-between that he's at, he might have been more tactful, but he's buzzed as shit and he's not more tactful at all.

“That's bullshit,” he blurts out, eyebrows furrowing.

Jinki looks genuinely taken aback. He reaches out, trying to grab for the notebook that's still very much in Kibum's space, but Kibum pulls it closer to him, shaking his head.

“No, listen,” he insists, fingers accidentally clutching the notebook hard enough to crinkle some of the top few pages. Later he'll feel bad about that, but right now he just keeps going, voice getting probably too loud. “It's not. Whatever you just signed, it's not. Whoever told you that or made you think that is full of shit. You laughing, it means you're happy, so what's wrong with that?”

Jinki's hand falls from where he was still trying to grab the notebook. He pulls it back into himself, furrowing his brow at Kibum, hands making little, aborted gestures like he knows Kibum won't understand what he's saying so he doesn't bother.

Kibum's stomach lurches unpleasantly, alcohol suddenly making its appearance very well known. “Sorry,” he mumbles, shoving the notebook back at Jinki. “Sorry, I didn't mean to make you feel like--”

Jinki isn't looking at him. He's looking at his notebook, fingers carefully smoothing the pages, trying to work out the folds Kibum has accidentally made. Now is about the time Kibum starts feeling bad about it.

“Sorry. I fucked this up,” he says, and rises as gracefully as he can from his chair. He's a little wobbly, but not so much that he can't make a dignified exit, and Kibum knows when he's fucked up and it's time to make a dignified exit before shit hits the fan. He turns on his heel and very carefully does not bolt from the bar.

He makes it outside to the night air before it really hits him, and Kibum has to stop in place and take a few long deep breaths to keep himself from feeling nauseous. He hasn't even had enough to drink to feel like this, and he knows his limits well enough to know that it's not the alcohol that has his stomach churning. It's the fact that he left Jinki sitting there because he's, apparently, exactly that type of asshole.

He should go back in. He should definitely go back in. Fuck, what was he thinking?

He turns on his heel, back towards the doorway, and abruptly collides with a familiar shape. This time, neither of them go sprawling. Instead, Jinki catches himself on Kibum's arm and shoves his notebook into Kibum's chest insistently, pushing emphatically until Kibum finally reads it.

You really meant that? it says.

“Meant...?” Kibum echoes the word out loud, trying to piece together what the hell Jinki's talking about when Kibum's kind of been a wreck for the last couple of minutes. “Meant... what, your--?” Jinki's making frantic signs as Kibum talks and it's way too hard to focus on that much at once. He catches Jinki pointing to himself and then a spinning finger thing with both hands near his face and then that sign that Jinki had made inside, pulled across his lip and strangely awful, and Kibum has no clue what's going on except that last thing.

“Your laugh?” Kibum blurts, and when Jinki nods eagerly in relief that Kibum understands, Kibum latches onto it like a lifeline or something. “Of course I meant it. You shouldn't have to hide you laughing. Whoever the fuck made you think-”

And then Jinki is kissing him.

Kibum is too tipsy for this, and he doesn't get what's going on, but Jinki is kissing him, and Kibum kisses back out of instinct for a moment, one hand catching at Jinki's hip to stabilize them. The other hand gets caught awkwardly between their bodies, and when Kibum makes to move it, the motion comes with a ragged crunch of paper.

The sound makes Kibum jerk back. He stares at Jinki for a long moment, wide-eyed, Jinki staring back with some mixture of fear and hope and resignation in his eyes.

“I'm...” Kibum starts, and he's not sure what he's going to say until he does. “I'm too not-sober for this.”

Jinki's face crumples, fear winning out, and Kibum sucks in air because that look makes him feel like he's choking on nothing. He catches for Jinki quickly, paper crinkling again as he crushes the notebook between his own hand and Jinki's arm. He has enough wherewithal to think that he really, really cannot be trusted with this thing, and then the thought is gone, and Kibum is staring at Jinki, holding onto his arm, and Jinki is not moving at all, just staring back at him.

“When I'm sober,” Kibum says. “If you still want to then, we can try that again when I'm sober.”

Jinki stares at him for a moment longer and then slowly, steadily, nods.

--

Kibum wakes up the next morning with a very minor hangover, all told, but it's made worse by the fact that Taemin is very, very close to his face and talking very, very loudly.

“You said you'd bring me back leftovers, hyung,” he whines, and Kibum lets out a truly pathetic groan and rolls over, gathering up his pillow to yank it over his head. If it smacks Taemin in the jaw in the process, all the better.

Taemin's not having it. “Goddamnit, I just wanted actual, non-ramen food,” he says, loud enough to cut through far more layers of pillow-fluff than Kibum has to protect himself.

“Go buy some yourself,” Kibum says, voice muffled into the mattress. “I don't have enough money to be supporting your broke ass.”

Taemin is probably pouting from the sound of his voice. “Minho would buy me food.”

“Go bother Minho then,” Kibum groans, waving a hand weakly. He feels it hit something and smacks at it a few more times to be sure before he realizes that it's Taemin's arm.

Taemin makes a noise of protest. “Maybe I will,” he huffs and makes a great show of stomping towards the door until Kibum doesn't hear it open or shut. Kibum lets his eyes close, enjoys the few seconds of silence before, “Hyung, I'm starving.”

Kibum groans and sits up. “God, you're useless,” he says. “If you shut up, I'll buy you pizza or something tonight.”

Taemin perks up at once. “Deal,” he says and all but flings himself at Kibum's bed, landing on the end of it with the kind of impact that probably would have hurt if Taemin wasn't approximately 90 percent metabolism on the worst of days. “So how'd the date go?”

“It wasn't—” Kibum starts and then remembers the press of Jinki's lips against his own, the little exchange outside of the bar. He stops, too abruptly for Taemin's eyes to not narrow suspiciously.

“Hyung,” Taemin says, “you didn't. Didn't we talk about this like, yesterday? What about...?”

His fingers tap at Kibum's wrist, a dull repeated thump against the leather of Kibum's wristband. He knows – they both know – what's underneath it. Kibum hesitates for a moment. He could so easily brush it off. 'It wasn't like that.' 'We were just buzzed.' He could.

But then his phone chirps from where it's fallen into his bedsheets, and he fishes it out to see a name he had dutifully typed into his phone only last night. I still want to, it says, if you're sober.

It's a bad idea. Taemin just reminded him of why it's a bad idea. But...

yeah, Kibum texts back, not looking at Taemin's judging face. I'm sober. And I'd still like to try that again.

--

It's nothing like Kibum expects. Maybe it's because they're not soulmates. Maybe it's something else entirely. Kibum doesn't know.

He's always kind of just expected the soulmate thing to fall into place. These days, about 85 percent of people find their soulmate by the time they're like 30 or something, and Kibum's always just assumed that he's one of that overwhelming statistic. But when he shows up by the languages building to meet Jinki, Jinki's face lights up and he waves at Kibum and signs something that Kibum doesn't understand but that involves a worried look and something involving a drink and a head.

“No,” Kibum guesses. “I'm not hungover. I'm fine.”

Jinki grins and scribbles something down, some concept that's obviously too complicated to express with miming and Kibum's inexpert sign-language abilities.

I'm glad. I didn't think you'd had that much, but I wanted to be sure. I kind of felt bad this morning when I realized how much we'd had to drink and that I kissed you when we were like that. 

Kibum's glad he gets to watch him write it because he gets to see the pause in the middle, the way his eyes flicker up at Kibum for a moment and a faint, guilty pink spreads across his cheeks.

It's nothing like Kibum expects, but he finds himself looking around anyways before pulling Jinki into a slightly more secluded area and pressing their lips together again. Jinki makes the softest noise, barely more than a gasp, into Kibum's mouth and Kibum's hands tighten, one on Jinki's shoulder, the other floating in the air near Jinki's side.

It's a moment before Jinki catches it mid-float, pulls it in, tucking the flat of Kibum's palm against the soft, slim curve that starts just below his ribs. He breaks away from the kiss, tipping his head so their foreheads bump softly, Jinki resting their heads together for a few seconds, his breath still spilling warm across Kibum's face.

They're too close to really look at each other like this, so Kibum tugs back, just enough to stare at Jinki.

'Wow,' Jinki mouths, and then smiles so sweetly that Kibum can't help but kiss it off his lips again and again until Jinki is pushing him back with breathy, rasping laughter and Kibum is smiling like Jinki's infected him with it.

It's nothing like Kibum expects, but he doesn't care. He wants this.

“Can I take you out to dinner again?” he asks, blurting it out. “Not as an apology this time?”

Jinki signs something, quick, too much for Kibum to catch, but he's nodding furiously and smiling widely, and Kibum has never cared less about the words on his wrist.

--

Minho doesn't exactly approve. He's happy for them, but there's a lot of frowning first. It's more pouting than frowning actually, and he frets like he's not sure whose honor he should be protecting here. He starts out making thinly veiled comments at Kibum until Kibum helpfully reminds Minho that they've known each other for literally years, and then Minho looks concerned for a moment and starts casting suspicious looks at Jinki.

It's actually kind of funny, but after a bit, Minho's smiling at both of them. He pulls Kibum aside though, tugging him away with the excuse of going and buying drinks for the three of them. He corners Kibum near the vending machine, facing him and looking down at him with concern written all over his stupid, handsome face.

Kibum knows what it's going to be before Minho says it because Minho too knows what's under Kibum's wristband. Kibum shakes his head before Minho can say anything.

“I'm not going to worry about it,” he says, voice firm. “I'm not. I'm not going to pass this up for some hypothetical person who I might not even meet, Minho.”

“I just don't want you to do something that's going to end up hurting someone,” Minho says, voice low and kind and brutally honest in that way Minho gets sometimes.

Kibum lays a hand on his shoulder, pushing him back gently. “I'm not going to be afraid of this, Minho. Don't try and make me be.”

Minho lifts his hand to Kibum's, laying his own over the top of it for a moment. It's, just barely, smaller than Kibum's, and it's a familiar weight. He's known Minho so long, and he knows what his friend is doing. He appreciates it. But that doesn't change anything.

“I like him. I don't care if he never says my name,” Kibum says, and it feels a little raw, a little painful coming up out of his throat, but it's an honest kind of rawness. “I want to try this.”

“Good luck, Key,” Minho says, squeezing his hand, the childhood nickname making something nostalgic settle into the moment. They break apart when Jinki comes to find them, curious about what's taking so long, though he probably knows because he looks at Minho knowingly before smiling at Kibum.

“I didn't ask what you wanted to drink?” Kibum says, inflecting it like a question, not letting the subject get brought up with Jinki in the vicinity, and lets Jinki point out drinks, signing each one at Kibum who repeats and memorizes them with care.

He's glad when, after a while, Minho's concern starts melting out of his face.

--

It's not like anyone has ever said relationships are easy. Even with soulmates, there are problems, issues, hard times. The only thing that comes with soulmates is surety, and Kibum is determined to create enough of that on his own.

And the thing with Jinki is that they make damn sure that they communicate. It's kind of mandatory that Kibum stops and pays attention when Jinki is really trying to tell him something, and while Kibum's not the best at that, for Jinki, he makes an effort.

He emails a couple of the professors at the school, asking if he can sit in on their sign language classes as long as he's not expecting course credit or anything, and after he loosely explains the situation, one of them relents. Adding that to his schedule is kind of a pain, but he manages it anyways, peeling out of bed early enough that Taemin makes disgusted noises at his alarm every time it goes off at what even Kibum is pretty sure is an unreasonable hour.

Jinki still uses his notebook sometimes, other times texting what he has to say to Kibum from only feet (or inches) away, but more and more as he signs things, Kibum knows what he's signing. By the time the months have passed and they're signing up for their next round of classes, Kibum actually tests into an upper-level sign language course, and Jinki beams at him and helps him study, rewarding him with kisses after each correct answer.

Taemin walks in during one of these sessions, makes horrified gagging noises and flops on his bed. “You two are so cute it's disgusting. Bad enough I have to hear Kibum talk about you all the time,” Taemin says, and then jerks upright, eyes narrowing. “Wait, this is Jinki, right? You're not, like, making out with a stranger or something?”

Which is how Jinki meets Taemin and Kibum discovers that the two of them might as well be thick as thieves. It's good they get along, but Kibum slightly regrets it when he comes back from classes sometimes to find Jinki cross-legged on his bed, smothering laughter into his palm as Taemin recounts stories from their high-school years that Kibum would rather forget.

Jinki still only laughs openly in front of Kibum, and only when they're alone. In front of everyone else, he pushes his hand over his mouth still, quieting the hoarse noises into practically nothing. It makes Kibum's heart ache, and he makes it a habit to kiss Jinki every time he openly laughs in front of him until Jinki catches on with a grin.

Are you trying to reward me for laughing? he signs, eyes crinkling into crescents. This isn't like studying, you know.

“Why not?” Kibum asks and kisses Jinki again until Jinki is smiling and pushing him off far enough that Kibum can see when he signs the little gesture he's assigned Taemin's name, reminding Kibum that it's very likely they won't be alone for long. Kibum sits back with a melodramatic sigh that makes Jinki's lips twitch upwards before he dips in for one last quick kiss against Kibum's lips.

Kibum grins but relents easily enough when Jinki signs, Study.

He also relents later when Jinki rolls over into his side, bumping into him to get his attention, and signs, Coffee? like a question, all raised eyebrows and silent inflection.

--

Kibum had only been gone for a minute. He'd gone to the bathroom, taken an extra twenty seconds to straighten his hair in the mirror, and come back to Jinki all but cowering in his seat, a girl standing over their table. She's not quite yelling, but her voice is shrill and angry and people are looking. Jinki looks like he might be sick.

“Excuse you,” Kibum says, stepping between her and Jinki, looking at them both. The girl has some sort of dark, wet stain in splotches over her shirt, Jinki's got it all down his blue jeans, and there's a puddle on the floor. It's some sort of not-quite-coffee drink, more sugar than caffeine at this point, and the spilled cup has to read 'Jinri' because Jinki had been drinking green tea, and it looks like his is safe on the table. “What's your issue?”

He,” the girl – Jinri? -- says, pointing emphatically at Jinki, “spilled my drink all over the place, and he's too much of a jerk to even apologize!”

She says it with a pout, like she expects Kibum to side with her, but Jinki's hands are shaking and he's got his closed palm circling his chest again and again like it might make her understand. She isn't even paying attention, and Kibum swallows hard when he realizes that Jinki's notepad is still tucked into his pocket from Jinki trying to relay a more complex thought earlier. Kibum's essentially taken away Jinki's easiest way of communication, and he looks frantic, helpless.

Kibum reaches out for him gently, prying his hand away from his chest while his other hand digs out the notepad, laying it on the table in front of Jinki in apology. Jinki's fingers latch so tight to his hand that it actually hurts, but Kibum doesn't pull away or let go.

“Look, normally I'd be sorry it happened and offer to replace it or whatever, but I'm not appreciating you yelling at my boyfriend when he's trying to apologize,” Kibum says, voice tight and cold. He's definitely helping make the scene now, people glancing over suspiciously at how loud he's being, but homophobia has pretty much died out among the younger crowd since soulmates started cropping up as same-sex couples all over the place. Instead, it's the way he and Jinri are glowering at each other that's drawing attention, and Kibum's not about to give a fuck about that.

“He didn't try to apologize! This is a new outfit, and he ruined it and hasn't even said--” she sounds tearful, lower lip wobbling exaggeratedly, and Kibum might even believe her except that her eyes are completely dry and she keeps looking around to see if she's getting support from bystanders.

She might too, a relatively pretty girl with coffee down her front and a pretty decent fake cry, but Kibum doesn't give a shit. She's in the wrong.

Kibum waves his free hand in her face and then curls it to his chest, repeating Jinki's motion slowly and firmly. “Sorry,” he says, sounding it out for her like she's dumb. (She's probably not. It's not fair to expect everyone to speak sign language, but Kibum's pissed, and she was being rude to Jinki who doesn't deserve it.) “He's trying to tell you. He can't say anything.”

The girl opens her mouth, like she means to argue, and then shuts it. She doesn't look like she has any more words either, and Kibum's all but fucking done.

Jinki tugs on him, hard enough to get Kibum's attention and he looks upset and worried and maybe a little angry. Kibum's not entirely sure why, but Jinki manages to sign an approximation of leave with one hand, and Kibum gets the picture.

He tugs out a couple of bills, pushing them at the girl. “This should pay for your shirt,” he says, looking her over. “It doesn't look like it was too expensive in the first place.”

That's definitely out of line, and he feels Jinki tug at his hand more emphatically, so he goes, Jinki pulling him out of the shop amidst stares. Once they're on the street, far enough down that no one will bother them anymore, Jinki pulls Kibum towards a sidestreet devoid of people and stops, turning on him.

I don't need you to defend me about this, Jinki signs, so sharply and jerkily that it takes Kibum another repeat to understand all of it.

Kibum frowns. “She had no right--”

You think I haven't dealt with this since I stopped speaking? Jinki signs, all but ignoring that Kibum's talking. It's the equivalent of cutting him off, so Kibum falls silent, narrowing his eyes. People are rude, but it's because they don't understand. You're not going to make them understand by being mean to them.

“I don't care if they understand!” Kibum says, voice too loud when Jinki's part of the conversation is silence. “I care that they're not being rude to you. You don't deserve people to be mean to you because they don't get something!”

It's not going to change. It's never going to change, Jinki replies, and somehow the juxtaposition of those few signs makes Kibum wince. You can't always be around. I know you love me, but you can't always be around to try to save me.

Kibum doesn't answer. He's busy staring at Jinki, eyebrows furrowed. After a moment, he licks his lips. “You know that I...” he translates out loud, putting Jinki's statement into words.

As if he's just now realized how that sounds (looks), Jinki goes pink around the cheeks and ears, mouth falling open in a silent exclamation, barely more than a hard breath. His hands are shaking a bit when he lifts them, the signs so slow that Kibum remembers that first dinner when Jinki had been trying to hard to help Kibum understand. I, he signs, finger lingering at his chest for a moment before he adds the sign, think with trembling fingers, grammar all out of whack.

Or, no. It's probably not. Jinki hadn't thought Kibum loved him. He thinks that, entirely in present tense, and...

And he's not wrong.

“Yes,” Kibum replies. “Yes, I do. Of course I do. But that doesn't change the fact that-- Jinki, you can't just kiss me to stop arguments!”

But Jinki only grins at his protest and kisses him again and again until he pulls back, grinning. Me too, he signs, in what has to be the least romantic gesture of returned feelings that Kibum's ever seen, and he just lived through his own shit-show of admitting that he loved Jinki. Loves Jinki. Present tense.

You called me your boyfriend, Jinki signs a moment later, eyes squinting a bit like he can't decide if he should go back to being mad or not. When you were defending me. Don't do that again.

“Don't call you my boyfriend again?” Kibum says, heart thudding unpleasantly in his chest even though the placement of the signs is off, just enough that he's pretty sure--

Jinki waves his hands in front of him rapidly, fingers clicking together in a quick, alarmed, No, no, no! Call me 'boyfriend' all you want. Don't defend me again.

“Jinki, I'm not going to promise that,” Kibum says. “I don't want you to be treated shittily.”

I know, and I love you for that, but it causes problems. Promise me? Jinki signs, and Kibum waits to let him finish whatever he's spelling out with his pinky up like that before realizing that Jinki's trying to extract a pinky-promise, like they're five.

Kibum is such a sucker. “I'll try,” he says. “Is that enough?”

Jinki loops his finger with Kibum's for a moment before pulling away so he can sign, Enough.

They've made it back, both of them cuddled in Kibum's tiny bed with their school things piled on the floor and Taemin judging them from the other bed and grumbling about not waking up to sex noises, before Jinki scootches enough to make space and signs, once again, boyfriend.

“I said I love you today and you're all caught up on 'boyfriend,'” Kibum mumbles, pushing back in to huff the words into Jinki's shoulder.

Jinki muffles his laugh because Taemin's in the room, but he does it into Kibum's neck, which isn't so bad.

From the other bed, Taemin groans. “I have the only roommate ever where I'm gonna need to buy earplugs to block out love confessions instead of sex noises.”

Kibum snorts a laugh. “Goodnight, Taemin.”

Jinki sticks one hand up in the air and spells out a goodnight of his own.

Taemin makes a grumpy noise, but it's halfhearted at best. “Goodnight to you too.”

--

“You two seriously need your own space,” Taemin tells Kibum a couple weeks later, pen poised over the papers to fill out for student housing next semester. They're sitting on their beds on opposite sides of the room and it's a little weird that they're talking about this. Some part of Kibum had just assumed that this was going to be how it was now, but Taemin doesn't seem too perturbed. “No offense,” he says, “but you're getting pretty serious, and Jinki-hyung is over all the time, and it's kind of – you just need some space for the two of you.”

“I mean, Jinki's just here because his roommate is kind of...” Kibum pulls a face. He'd met the guy once when he went with Jinki to pick up something he needed for classes, and he'd been exactly the type of person that Jinki doesn't even try talking to. Jinki had already been spending a lot of nights crashing at Kibum and Taemin's place by then, but after that, it was practically every night.

Taemin's never mentioned minding, but Kibum guesses that adding a third roommate wasn't exactly on Taemin's list of things to do.

“It's fine,” Taemin insists, clearly figuring out what Kibum's thinking, “I just think that having me, like, a bed over might be dampening your sex life a little. Just saying.”

Kibum doesn't respond. He doesn't have anything to respond with. He and Jinki haven't had sex yet. They've been together for several months now, but any time it goes further than kissing, Jinki pushes him back with a sweet smile, a distraction ready on his fingertips. Kibum doesn't mind. If Jinki isn't ready, he isn't ready, but Kibum's pretty sure that Taemin's not the cause of that.

“It'll be good, hyung. You and Jinki-hyung can get your own place or something, and I'll go room with Jongin from dance class. He's been looking for a new roommate anyways. Apparently, his just hooked up with their soulmate and isn't quite as concerned about, you know, not fucking near innocent ears.”

Kibum can't help but snort a laugh at that. He's never had to deal with that since most of Taemin's hookups either didn't take place here or were Kibum himself (before Jinki, of course), but he can imagine the horror of hearing Taemin fuck someone in a bed just a couple feet across the room.

“I haven't even talked to Jinki about it,” Kibum says, raking a hand through his hair. “He might not even want to move in with me.”

Taemin raises both eyebrows at him in a you're-shitting-me-right? kind of look. “Dude, he fucking snuggles with you in a twin-sized bed pretty much every night. I'm pretty sure that he'd kill for an upgrade to a whole, actual apartment worth of space.”

An apartment. Kibum had, for some reason, been thinking about just another dorm room, but he and Jinki are both capable of moving off campus, and Kibum's financial aid supports it as long as Jinki's does. He might have to get a part-time job or something to be able to keep affording the kind of lifestyle he's used to, but he could do it, easily.

Taemin grins at him, pushing himself up off the bed. “Talk to Jinki-hyung. I'm sure he'd be ecstatic. I'm gonna go practice with Jongin. I'll talk to you later.”

It's abrupt enough that Kibum is surprised until Taemin opens the door and says, “Hey, Jinki-hyung. I was just leaving. I'll talk to you later.”

Kibum pinches the bridge of his nose. Taemin is such a brat sometimes.

“Hey, Jinki,” he says, eyes still closed for a moment, and then opens them to see Jinki setting his bag down on the floor with one hand, the other flapping absently at him to get his attention, wristband wobbling a little on his wrist.

When Jinki sees him looking, he smiles. Talk to me about what?

“You heard that, huh?” Kibum asks, sighing loudly and turning his head to scowl at the door like Taemin might be able to feel it from where he's gone.

Taemin's not exactly... he pauses for a moment, clearly trying to think of a word and then just shrugs and spells out the one he wants, discreet.

Kibum laughs. “I guess not. I do want to talk to you, though. Nothing bad, of course.”

I'd hope not, Jinki signs. Taemin said 'happy'.

“Yeah,” Kibum confirms. “Well, Taemin's not the best judge of things, but I hope... Okay, can you come sit or something?”

Jinki huffs at him, but he's still smiling when he walks over and plops himself down in Kibum's lap, draping his arms around his shoulders and pressing a kiss to his mouth. He pulls back, arms sliding away a moment later, but it's just to sign, Happy now?

“Yeah,” Kibum says, hands cupped on Jinki's hips, and he kisses him again before pushing Jinki away, moving him until Jinki gets the picture and slips off Kibum's lap and onto the bed beside him instead. Probably a better idea to have this talk without Jinki on his lap. Probably. “What would you think about living with me?”

Jinki lifts one eyebrow questioningly. Kibum, I don't think I have clothes at my own dorm anymore, he signs pointedly, and when Kibum doesn't respond at once, Jinki adds, I practically already live with you.

Kibum rolls his eyes on instinct. “I meant,” he clarifies pointedly, more relaxed despite his nerves, “what would you think about getting a place together? Like, an actual place. Just us.”

Jinki is looking at him, expression unchanging, one eyebrow lifted. It's too quiet. Or, well, okay, no, but it's too still because Jinki's not even signing anything, and Kibum is not exactly the most patient person. “Jinki, say something,” he groans and then gestures at Jinki's hands to signify what he means.

Jinki doesn't. Kibum has to wait for the slow smile to creep onto Jinki's face, for Jinki to get done laughing at Kibum's impatience, and only then does Jinki climb into his lap again, pushing Kibum back onto the bed and kissing him, long and sweet. He feels Jinki groping for his hand a moment later, pushing his fist into Kibum's grip and nodding it up and down. Yes, he's saying, and when he finally pulls back for Kibum to see instead of feel he only gets out, Yes, I want-- before Kibum is laughing, bright and loud and happy, and dragging Jinki down into another kiss, feeling the puffs of laughter against his skin in the moments before their lips meet.

--

Their apartment is small and not far off campus. It's a little one bedroom affair with a small living room and a smaller kitchen, but it's got an okay bathroom and the bedroom is bigger than the dorm room he and Taemin had added Jinki to. Minus a whole person, that means it's actually pretty comfortable, and while both of them are too broke to afford a full bedroom set, between Kibum's talent at thrift shopping and Jinki already owning a few things, they manage to get it set up to their liking.

They have an actual adult-sized bed now at any rate, and while it's not huge, they both fit comfortably. Not like they need a ton of space between them anyway, though Kibum makes sure the bed is crammed against one wall and he sleeps on the outside to keep Jinki from rolling around too much in his sleep as he tends to do. (It's not like Kibum isn't aware of his own annoying sleeping habits, so he's more just glad that Jinki sleeps like the dead once he is asleep and doesn't complain.)

Kibum gets a job at a nearby shop, something simple and kind of brain-destroying. Retail isn't hard, but it certainly isn't fun. He pushes through because it gets him enough money for him and Jinki to live comfortably enough, and he has enough free time that juggling work and school doesn't completely drain him.

Jinki tries to get a job as well, but it's harder for him. Most places won't hire a man who doesn't talk, but he manages to get an online job doing some proofreading. It's spotty at best, but he's trying, and Kibum doesn't mind. It's good. Really, it is.

They have Taemin, Minho, and Minho and Jinki's friend Joonmyun over for a little housewarming thing about two weeks after they move in, and this time a little drunken kissing isn't a problem, though even once everyone leaves, Jinki pushes Kibum off before they go much further than making out. It's not an issue. They've both had a couple of drinks, and Kibum's not about to really initiate anything when they're intoxicated. He's just tipsy and flirty and kind of wants to make out with his boyfriend, which Jinki is totally okay with.

Even when he's sober though, Jinki keeps pushing Kibum away. It seems to falter infrequently, Jinki letting him kiss down his neck, slide his hands around at his thick ass and thighs. Or, no, let him is a bad word. Let him sounds reluctant, and Jinki is anything but, kissing back eagerly and rocking into Kibum's touch, but inevitably he always pushes Kibum away.

It's kind of a shitty feeling, actually. Kibum doesn't mind if Jinki doesn't want to have sex with him, but for them to get into the middle of things and suddenly have Jinki push him off makes Kibum feel like he's doing something wrong that Jinki just won't tell him about.

Eventually, Kibum's tact runs out. “What am I doing wrong?” he asks when Jinki pushes him away yet again, interrupting a heavy make-out session on the couch. “Is it me?”

No, Jinki signs without hesitation, but he doesn't follow it up with anything.

Kibum looks him up and down. Jinki is flushed and half-hard in his pants. His thighs are spread from where Kibum was just between them and he hasn't closed them yet, but he still pushed Kibum away.

Kibum lets out a shuddering sigh. “Okay,” he says. “Okay. Let's just-- can I kiss you again?”

Jinki smiles sweetly, nodding easily, letting Kibum lean back in to kiss him. This time, Kibum doesn't touch him. He keeps his hands easily in place, one cupping Jinki's face, the other braced against the couch. He doesn't touch Jinki until Jinki shivers underneath him and arches into him, his own hands sliding over Kibum's back, fingers pressing down in bruising points that hold Kibum to him, the leather of his wristband scratching over Kibum's back.

Finally, after a minute or two, Kibum asks, “Can I kiss your neck?”

Jinki stops, hands letting go of Kibum, dragging him far enough back to give him a baffled look like he's confused by this request for permission. Kibum presses a fleeting kiss to the corner of his mouth. “Whatever I'm doing is obviously not okay, so I'm just going to check what I'm doing before I do it.”

Jinki pulls back, squirming up the couch to put enough space between him and Kibum to sit up and be able to sign clearly. You're not doing anything wrong, he signs, looking at Kibum. He's got his lip caught between his bottom teeth, just barely, and Kibum sighs and sits back.

“Okay,” he says. “Okay, fine.” He pushes himself up off the couch slowly, making his way towards the kitchen. “What do you want for dinner?”

He looks back at Jinki for the answer, but Jinki is looking at him with an expression that stops Kibum in his tracks. It's not sad, not really. He looks resigned, and that jars Kibum to a halt.

“Jinki,” he says after a minute. “I'm sorry. I'm not mad at you or anything. I just don't get it, and I don't want to fight about it. You'll tell me when you're ready.”

It comes out more of a demand than a request and Jinki nods, but he's not looking at Kibum. He's looking down at his own hands, playing fitfully in his lap, and Kibum watches them too, but they don't seem to be signs. Kibum presses his lips together and walks back over to Jinki, reaching out to get his attention.

Kibum doesn't usually sign a lot because it's not necessary, and he's better at reading the signs than he is using them, but he still knows how. It's halting, but once Jinki's looking at him, Kibum manages to put together some approximation at a sentence, not quite sure his grammar is entirely correct but also not really caring. I love you, he signs, You can talk to me about it when you need to. I'll listen.

Love you too, Jinki signs, taking the time to spell out the whole phrase instead of the easier 'me too' gesture. He looks at Kibum for a moment longer and then wraps his arms around Kibum's neck and buries himself in him. Jinki can't sign like this, not with his hands wound tight around Kibum, but Kibum's pretty sure that they've both said everything they have to say for right now.

--

It all comes together a few weeks later.

They haven't really talked about it since, but Kibum still tries to remember to ask Jinki before he does things. Jinki usually lets him, up to the points where they've been before, kissing, maybe a little groping. It doesn't seem like anything is really that different. Kibum gets home from work or class and usually finds Jinki smiling at him (except on Tuesdays and Thursdays, when Jinki has later classes than he does), standing up to greet him with soft kisses.

(On Tuesdays and Thursdays, Kibum greets him with kisses instead.)

Everything seems normal, back to the way it was before, and Kibum thinks that he might just have to accept it, give Jinki the time and privacy he apparently needs for this. It's driving him absolutely crazy, but he's pretty sure pushing the issue is definitely going to lead to an argument, and that's something Kibum's not about to do on purpose.

Instead, he carries on the way they are, anxiety stirring in his gut every time Jinki pushes him back. And Jinki does, still, even with Kibum asking careful permission, easing Kibum off of him and smiling hesitantly, promising Kibum over and over that I felt good. I like it. You're not doing anything wrong.

“It's okay,” Kibum promises every time. He's starting to get the feeling that's not always the truth.

But it takes a lazy Sunday evening for it to make sense. Kibum had the morning shift, has been home for a few hours, and he has homework due, but not until Tuesday, so he's happy to set it aside when Jinki finishes proofreading a few pages for an instruction manual and comes to find him.

“Hey,” Kibum greets, putting away the book he's been scouring a chapter of.

Jinki smiles, making a quick gesture of hello, and settles down on the bed next to where Kibum had just been working, tucking himself up against Kibum. You can keep working if you need, he signs. I can play my phone game.

“Ugh, no,” Kibum says. “I need a break from work, and you need a break from your obsession.”

I'm not obsessed! Jinki protests with an over-exaggerated pout that curves up too much at the corners.

“What's your score?” Kibum asks and watches Jinki play-count on his fingers before rasping a laugh. Kibum huffs. “See. Someone needs to save you.”

Save me then, Jinki signs, flopping melodramatically against Kibum's side, and Kibum grins and grabs his waist, tickling him. Jinki squirms, voice rough and harsh as he chokes out laugh after laugh and Kibum cackles gleefully until Jinki manages to flail out the sign for Mercy!

Jinki gasps for air, smiling so widely that Kibum remembers why he fell in love in the first place, and he leans in, kissing the last of the laughter off of Jinki's lips. Jinki buckles a little, weak from laughter, having to pull back a little for gasps of air between kisses, and they end up with Jinki on his back, Kibum boxed over him, kissing him over and over, fingers fluttering down Jinki's sides, sliding under the hem of his shirt to brush bare skin in places he was just openly tickling.

Jinki sighs into the next kiss, head tilting just a little in permission, but Kibum still asks before he kisses his way down Jinki's neck to his collarbones, mouthing at them, feeling Jinki's uneven breathing. Jinki curls one hand in his hair, more cradling him than anything, so gentle in that way he gets, but his other hand is pressing hard into the small of Kibum's back at a weird angle and the strap of his wristband digs a hard, uncomfortable line into Kibum's skin.

Kibum shifts a little, moving his legs so that he can ease down from the hard touch, and his thigh slips between Jinki's leg. Jinki rocks up at the same time, clearly not expecting Kibum to move, and his slowly-hardening cock presses up against Kibum's leg, the feeling of it making Kibum shift to help without thinking, and Jinki lets out a harsh noise, strangled and tight.

Kibum freezes. It's louder than Jinki's usual sounds, the laughter or the rare huffs of annoyance or amusement or displeasure. It's hard and grating, more like choking than anything else, and Kibum doesn't know what to do with it until Jinki is shoving him roughly away. Jinki curls back into himself, into the corner of the bed, as far as he can get from Kibum, and Kibum feels that same anxiety magnified a hundred times over.

“Jinki,” he says, voice coming out shaky. “Jinki, it's okay. What--”

Jinki shakes his head roughly, not looking at Kibum, and his hands curl tight into the bed sheets beneath him. He's heaving for air, chest rising and falling in a way that's too fast, more like panic than anything else. Kibum wants to reach out and touch him, to draw him into a hug, but he was just pushed away. He doesn't think that grabbing him again is going to get him a good reaction.

“What was that?” he asks finally, trying for soothing and wincing when it comes out a little disbelieving, way more insensitive than he means it to.

Jinki goes pink, blood climbing into his cheeks, eyes widening even as he continues staring at anything that's not Kibum. He shakes his head again, slower now, though no less emphatic.

Kibum exhales a sigh. “Jinki,” he says, almost exasperated. “Jinki, come on. Talk to me. Say something.”

Jinki's hands come free of the mattress, but only so he can jerkily sign, I never say anything.

Kibum swallows. “You know what I mean,” he says, very, very careful not to snap it. “Tell me what's wrong.”

Nothing, Jinki signs after a minute. The sound was nothing. It won't happen again.

“Jinki, I don't care if it happens again, I just want to make sure you're okay,” Kibum says, voice tipping towards anger now. The words are caring, but Kibum is getting more and more frantic now as Jinki blows him off, and it's not coming out kindly. Jinki's wince is a testament to that.

Felt good, Jinki signs, his constant response when he pushes Kibum away, and Kibum feels it drop into his gut like lead, dismissal making him feel like shit, and he grits his teeth, about to just give up and leave the room to avoid yelling at Jinki when Jinki repeats himself. It won't happen again.

Kibum stops. The tightness in his jaw disappears, but only because it's dropped open a little, gaping at Jinki. Those sentences go together, somehow, and Kibum's actually kind of pissed at himself that it took this long to figure out. Wow, he's an idiot. “That was you moaning? Or-- or whatever sound you were trying to make? Because it felt good?”

I wasn't trying to make sound, Jinki signs, rough and quick, before Kibum's even done talking, and Kibum almost misses the beginning of the sentence because he's not great at talking and reading signs at the same time. I'm sorry.

Kibum's heart breaks. “No,” he says. “No, don't be sorry. Why should you be sorry?”

Jinki's expression folds into something familiar. It's that look he had worn on the couch those weeks ago, the one that had stopped Kibum then. He looks so resigned, and his expression doesn't even change except for the bare minimum needed to fit the sign when he raises his hand and sets one finger across his upper lip, pulling it back and curling it down into a hook as it goes.

Kibum knows what that sign means now. Ugly, Jinki is signing about his moan, the way he had once signed about his laughter, and Kibum hates whoever made Jinki feel this way. Whoever taught Jinki that whatever sounds he dares to make are wrong and ugly, Kibum hates them with a kind of passion above and beyond his usual level of emotion, and Kibum has never been an unemotional person to begin with.

“Oh, babe,” he breathes, and moves in, bad idea or not, tossing his arms around Jinki, pulling him against him tightly. It can't last for long – Jinki needs space to sign and Jinki's not one for physical comfort anyways, but Kibum needs this right now, needs to hold Jinki against him and pretend that they're in a world where Jinki has never, ever had cause to think that about himself.

Jinki squirms away fretfully, looking up at him with bewildered eyes, unsure. Of himself, maybe, of what Kibum's thinking, most likely. Kibum can rectify at least one of those things right now.

“It's not ugly. Nothing about you is ugly. Not your laugh. Not your moan. I've told you before, and I'll tell you again for the rest of our lives if you want me too: any sound you make because you're happy or because you feel good, that's fucking beautiful. I don't care what it actually sounds like. It sounds like you being happy, and that's all I give a shit about. Jinki, Jinki--”

Jinki's crying. Jinki's crying because of Kibum and Kibum's chest clenches something awful at the sight of it, but he's smiling, tears dripping over cheeks that are bunched up under his eyes, full and pretty, and Kibum leans in, kissing them away, over and over again.

“You're beautiful,” he tells Jinki, over and over again, as he kisses him, touches him gently and kindly and lovingly.

They don't do anything sexual that night. They don't need to.

(But days later Jinki doesn't push him away when Kibum kisses further, touches more. He just trembles under him, bites his lip hard until Kibum draws out another of those wrecked, harsh noises and kisses it off Jinki's lips with reminders of, “You're beautiful. I love you so much,” until Jinki shakes completely apart under his hands, letting out a series of those broken noises that Kibum commits to memory, cherishing each one as Jinki clings to him.)

--

The months slip by too quickly with Jinki, happiness making days rush past them both. There are bad weeks of course: the ones near the end of the semester when Kibum is drowning in projects and spending hours and hours holed up at school or bent over his laptop trying to fumble together some sort of sense, or the ones where Jinki has his nose so far into a book for class that he doesn't really have the time to set the book down and sign anything more than a hello to Kibum. But even those slip past in a rush of chaos until the start of a new semester finds Jinki scrambling to put together his last remaining credits for graduation and finds Kibum rushing between work and school with only a couple hours a week to devote to anything but.

Kibum picks up a couple of extra shifts at the shop on the weekends in exchange for dropping some during the week to fit all of his own classes in, but they also manage to rearrange it so that he and Jinki both have Thursday nights off and can collapse into each other at the (almost) end of a busy week.

It's domestic and silly, especially because Jinki refuses to call it anything but date night with a waggle of his eyebrows that somehow makes Jinki burst into laughter more often than it gets Kibum. It's a simple tradition, but one that makes Kibum feel like shit when he as to break it.

“Sooyoung started throwing up,” Kibum says, wrinkling his nose distastefully, “and I'm the only one that can pick up her shift.”

It's Thursday, and Kibum would give anything to stay home and take a fucking break with Jinki, but, apparently, he's the only person who's not either dying of food poisoning or else dropped off the face of the earth.

Go, Jinki signs, smiling understandingly. One week of missing date night isn't going to destroy our relationship.

Kibum snorts. “Jinki, we've been together for the better part of two years,” he says, and it sounds so long said aloud, but it feels perfect. “If me going into work on a Thursday is what ruins our relationship, then it wasn't meant to be.”

It wasn’t, Jinki signs, grinning cheekily enough that Kibum’s heart barely stutters at the implication. Haven't I told you? I've been cheating on you with Taemin.

“Ugh, don't joke about that,” Kibum says wholeheartedly, and Jinki bursts into laughter, Kibum waiting for the soft sound to subside before he goes on, “You have way better taste than that.”

Apparently, you don't, Jinki signs back, and Kibum groans.

“I'm leaving!” he says, raising his voice in the traditional talking-over-someone way, though it's clearly completely unnecessary and ineffective here. “I love you!”

Me too, Jinki signs quickly and then waves Kibum out the door.

It's still chilly outside, and Kibum wishes he'd brought a warmer coat, but it doesn't matter. The walk to work isn't too long, and he makes it to work quickly enough. There's barely a need. The shop is empty when he gets there and Sooyoung, hiding in the back, gratefully slips out to go home. She probably hadn't even had to deal with customers. No one actually goes clothes shopping on a Thursday night. Why would they?

Kibum lysols the hell out of everything anyway, just in case. Sooyoung seemed pretty sure it was food poisoning, but he really doesn't need a stomach bug, and if it's something going around, he doesn't want to give it to Jinki especially. Jinki's throat is fucked up enough, and Kibum's pretty sure adding vomiting and stomach acid to that whole situation probably isn't a great idea.

Still, the fact that he has time to gratuitously sanitize every square inch of the shop that he can is probably not the best sign from a business standpoint, and Kibum quickly ends up leaning on the counter, bored out of his mind. It seems like hours before the shop closes and he can finally lock up for the night, and Kibum is so eager to get out of there, that he almost misses the knock on the back door of the shop.

He pushes it open curiously and sighs in realization. Right. Thursdays are the days they get their shipment of new merchandise for the weekend. He doesn't have to put it up, but he does have to at least sign for it and move it in, and he really, really just wants to go home.

Kibum looks over the boxes and then at the man standing there. He's obviously new, fidgeting with the clipboard and looking nervous and, wow, honestly probably too small to be doing a job involving manual labor. He's in a plain grey-blue uniform with the name Jonghyun pinned to it on a little bronze tag, and his hair is blond in a dyed-too-often way that kind of suits him. Kibum might think he was cute if he wasn't standing at the back door of the shop and not letting Kibum go home and pass out next to his boyfriend.

“Can I help you?” Kibum asks, gesturing to the clipboard and Jonghyun startles so suddenly, looking down at his hand with the clipboard in it, that Kibum is legitimately worried about him for a second.

“Oh, uh,” he says, fumbling through non-words as he tried to find his voice, and then looks down at his clipboard again and asks, “Uh... Kibum, please?”

Kibum's blood runs cold. “No,” he says, panic slicing through him like a knife, one hand going to his wrist on instinct, squeezing tight around the leather band that he hasn't thought about in months, in the better part of two years.

Jonghyun's eyes go down to it and they go wide for a moment, flickering back up to Kibum's face. “Hey,” he says. “Is... are you...?”

“I... I can't--” Kibum says, shaking his head, and he snatches the clipboard from him, scratching a line across the signature box that looks nothing like his name and all but flinging it back into Jonghyun's arms. “Thanks, I'll get this in myself.”

“Hey, wait a second,” Jonghyun says.

Kibum ignores him, slamming the door shut on him and turning on his heel. He doesn't feel like he can breathe. He feels numb, shaken, his brain whirring as he grabs the trolley to bring the boxes in, and he forces it to shut down. He doesn't want to think about it. He wants Jonghyun to be gone when he gets back to the door.

He is, but there's a business card on top of the boxes and scrawled on the back are a phone number and the words, Call me when you can? I think we should talk. :)

Kibum's hands are shaking, and he rips the card in half, shoving the halves in his pocket to throw away. No. No, he can't. This isn't right. It's just coincidence. Jonghyun's arm says something like, hi or nice to meet you or excuse me like a significant chunk of the population's and Kibum is freaking out for no reason.

He moves the boxes in mechanically, leaving them sitting on the stockroom floor. He barely remembers to clock out, to lock up, to do anything at all.

--

The night is still cold on the way back to the apartment, but Kibum doesn't really feel it. He doesn't really feel anything. He feels numb down to his bones. He feels like there's a far-off roaring, some giant emotional storm on its way, and he doesn't know how to deal with it. He keeps hearing Jonghyun's voice in his ears asking, ‘Kibum, please?’

He doesn't know how far he walks, but it's not a straight path back to the apartment. He feels almost like he's lost, wandering randomly. It's long after dark, long after the time he was supposed to be home to Jinki already, making up for the tail end of their date night. Their scheduled date night. The one they have because they've been together for the better part of two years and are disgustingly domestic and in love.

His phone buzzes in his pocket, and he glances at it before wincing and cramming it back in his pocket. His knuckles brush ripped cardstock, the business card that Jonghyun had left, and it feels like it burns him as much as the text he'd just received, the first words a worried, Where are y... that fades into invisibility under Jinki's name because Kibum can't bring himself to open it.

Kibum's numbness is slowly turning into pain and he's feeling the cold now, seeping into his skin and making him turn pathetically towards home to get out of the cold.

It's cold, but it’s not that cold, even in the night air, and it certainly doesn't fully explain the way his hands are shaking when he tries to unlock the door to the apartment. He fails a couple of times, having to take a deep breath before he gets it right and manages to push the door open, the warmth of his home – his home with Jinki -- floating out over the doorstep and making Kibum's breath catch.

He steps inside, takes off his shoes with trembling fingers. Jinki's not sitting on the couch, probably in bed already, and Kibum takes one look at the bedroom door before he loses it. The next thing he knows, he's sitting on the floor in the middle of the doorway, halfway to hyperventilating, and Jinki is rushing towards him, face marred with worry.

Kibum, he signs, and Kibum isn't focusing, can hardly read the words Jinki's signing, much less translate, but he gets the vague gist of, what’s wrong? and need help?

It's not fair. It's not fair to him and it's not fair to Jinki. Kibum shoves him away. “Stop it!” he snaps. “Stop signing at me!”

Jinki's eyes go wide and he flinches away hard. He doesn't move for a moment, but his face says everything, and Kibum lets out a rough, choked sob of sound. “It's not fucking – you think it's blank under here?” he snarls, gesturing broadly with his arm, the heavy leather band that Kibum has never taken off around Jinki because he doesn't want him to see, doesn't want him to know.

Kibum, Jinki signs, and then tries to reach out for him placatingly, but Kibum stiffens and jerks back, face flushed with cold and eyes hard and damp all at once.

“Don't,” he says. “Don't. I can't-- I can't do this. I don't want to do this.”

Jinki's face crumples, and he reaches down, trying to paw at his own wristband with shaking fingers, having about as much luck as Kibum had had with the door. It makes Kibum's heart lurch. “I know it's not blank under yours,” he says, almost icily. “Why are you fooling yourself like this? Why are either of us pretending--”

Jinki makes a strangled sound, rough and pained and horrible, worse than any sound Kibum has ever heard him make. It's not any kind of happy sound, and it feels like it knifes its way into Kibum's chest, a physical pain that Kibum cannot bare. He inhales, sharp and hard and fast.

“He said my fucking words, Jinki,” he says, words burning like acid in his throat, on his tongue and lips. “I didn't fucking know him. I certainly don't fucking love him. But he said my goddamn words, and what the hell am I supposed to--”

Kibum breaks down mid-sentence, choking on a sob that makes him feel like he might throw up bile at any moment.

Jinki's hands touch him and they are so soft and gentle, so sweet, and Kibum loves him, but the pang of what-if ricochets in his chest like a misfired bullet and Kibum remembers the statistic. 85 percent. How had he ever assumed he was special enough to not?

“Jinki, I--” he starts, and Jinki kisses him hard and fast, not letting him talk. It doesn't help. It just makes Kibum feel more miserable and less like he can breathe and he feels like shit. This is Jinki. He shouldn't doubt this. He shouldn't. But he can't help it, can't help but remember Jonghyun in the doorway saying 'Kibum, please?’ and tearing Kibum's world apart.

“Jinki,” Kibum says and pushes him back, away. “Jinki, stop. Jinki, I--”

Jinki makes a jagged noise, harsh, uncomfortable, and Kibum wishes he would stop. He needs him to stop.

“It's fine,” he says. (It's not.) “I love you.” (He does.) “I just... I just need some time, or--” (He doesn't know what he needs.)

Jinki flings himself into Kibum's arms, holding tight, fast, the edge of his wristband digging into Kibum's shoulder. Jink's gotten it loose but not off, and it grinds uncomfortably against his skin like a reminder, Kibum's hands balling into fists.

“Jinki,” he moans, almost in physical pain, teeth grinding tight as everything in him aches, at war with himself over whether to hold Jinki or not. Two years of love say 'yes,’ but the panic raging in Kibum's chest is making a strong enough argument for 'no' that it hurts.

Jinki pets his back, wristband thudding uncomfortably against it with each movement, and Kibum sobs with each one like it's a physical blow, knocking all the air and the strength out of his body. “Stop,” he chokes out. “Stop. Let me go. Jinki, just stop, I--”

“'b'm, p'ees,” Kibum hears.

It's such a broken, choked-out pain of a noise that it barely sounds human, much less like words, and Jinki immediately chokes on a cough, rasping uncomfortably into Kibum's shoulder, clinging all the more tightly.

Kibum doesn't move. He doesn't-- he can't. He's hearing things, wishful thinking, wanting so much.

Jinki pulls back finally, touching his throat, shaking his head hard. Please, he signs, looking at Kibum in terror. I can't talk again. It hurts to talk. Please, listen.

“What did you say?” Kibum asks, and he can't stop the desperation in his voice, the terrifyingly strong spike of hope that he knows would destroy him if he's wrong. “Please, Jinki, what did you just say?”

Jinki stares at him for a moment, lower lip trembling. Kibum, he signs after a second, please.

He doesn't try to repeat himself. Even his breathing sounds harsher for a bit after, like even that small attempt to speak has cost him dearly, but Kibum's heart is racing.

Kibum peels off his wristband the moment Jinki signs it, the etch of lettering standing out dark and firm. He doesn't know if they're real. He doesn't know if Jinki saw once and simply knew what to say, but he wants to believe. He wants to so badly, and he loves Jinki so much, and when Jinki finally pries his own wristband all the way off, the words are bold and firm and Kibum isn't sure what to make of the words that so blatantly read, fuck me im so sorry.

Jinki looks up at him with terrified eyes. You said it, he signs desperately, and Kibum is focused enough on the words that he almost misses the signs. When we first met, you said it. I know. I've always known.

“Jinki,” Kibum says, breathing his name like a prayer, words still shaking with fear. “You never said--”

Jinki smiles tightly, wryly. I never say anything, he signs.

Kibum reaches out, wrapping his arms around Jinki, pulling him in and holding him tight, terrified to let go. “That's-- that's not true,” he says finally, firmly despite the shaking in his voice. “You said my name.”

--

(He calls Jonghyun eventually, tells him the truth, the whole story. Jonghyun seems okay with it. “You wouldn't believe how common 'can I help you' is,” he says, half laughing. “Sorry I scared you like that.”

And he's a nice guy. Kibum's pretty sure they can be friends. Once they talk a little more, Kibum even introduces him to Jinki and the others. Jinki likes him and he and Minho get along well.

He meets Taemin last, and he stares for so long that even Taemin squirms and asks, “Can I help you?”

“You could let me blow you,” Jonghyun blurts out all at once.

Taemin jerks upright, eyes going wide, hand going to his wrist. “You have got,” he says, looking Jonghyun up and down in horrified fascination, “to be fucking kidding me.”)