Summary: [AU] It's election season and Lee Jinki is rapidly overtaking his opponent, Choi Minho, in popularity. But there's more important things going on besides national issues. Minho's group is plotting to destroy Jinki's image with the help of gossip guru Kibum, but they are finding it harder than expected. Meanwhile, both Minho and Jonghyun find their personal relationships are going downhill.
Warnings: Suggested sexual content, language, attempted suicide, drug and alcohol abuse
Part 1; Part 2; Part 3; Part 4
“Did you think about it?”
Somehow, Ihwa’s voice had managed to navigate its way through the sea of noises filling the crowded café to gently nudge at Taemin’s attention. He looked up from his empty mug to his girlfriend. Ihwa, in turn, dropped her gaze and clasped her hands together. She often posed this way, even when they were alone. Taemin usually found it cute and loved the way her arms forced her breasts together, but right then was one of the rare times where her submissiveness was annoying him.
“I need more time to think it over.”
It took her a second to acknowledge that she had heard him. She started to bite her lower lip, but then stopped and quickly covered it up with a nervous smile.
"Oh, okay,” she said. She scanned the table and reached for his mug. “Do…do you want another latte, honey?"
"Sure. Can I get caramel this time?"
She nodded, causing some of her bangs to escape from under her hairpin. She carefully moved them back as she turned to the small table across from Taemin’s. She lifted the tray of dirty dishes she had left there and wiped down the table, then walked away, keeping her head lowered the entire time. He watched her hips sway, but didn’t feel any of the usual enjoyment their motion gave him.
He hadn’t even wanted to come see her, but Taemin had forced himself to go after her reaction to their discussion over the weekend. She seemed to have calmed down since then and it gave him some hope that she would listen to reason and give up on some of her ideas. Specifically, the one about them getting married and raising the baby together.
Taemin put his hand over his eyes and sighed. Why did this have to happen to him?
When he heard the sound of fabric frantically rubbing together, he removed his hand. He didn’t expect it to be Ihwa, but he also didn’t expect to see Kim Kibum rushing towards the table across from him, which was also the only empty on in the café. Kibum set down his bag and dropped into one of the seats. Although he hadn’t noticed Taemin, he knew it wouldn’t be long before he did and so he decided to get it over with.
“Good morning, Mr. Kim.”
Kibum’s head snapped away from the window. Once he recognized Taemin, he gave a quick glance towards the front of the store and scooted closer to the aisle so that Taemin could hear him better.
“Are you stalking me?”
He knew he shouldn’t have expected an ordinary ‘hello, how are things’ from Kibum.
“Yes, that’s exactly what I’m doing.”
Kibum snorted and laughed simultaneously. “Your face is so serious. I almost believed you.”
“Really?” He said dryly. “I’m just having a bad day.”
Kibum nodded and his expression became neutral as he glanced at the crowded front counter again.
“I’m going to be contacting you soon. I think I have something. It’s not major, but it’ll do,” Kibum said without looking at Taemin. At first, the conspiracy in his tone confused Taemin, but then he realized he was talking about Jinki. Kibum sat back in his chair. “In about five seconds, you don’t know me, okay?”
Now Taemin was looking up front to find the person who Kibum was meeting. He didn’t have to wait long for an answer, however. Kibum suddenly shouted “Jonghyun”, catching not only a few stares from their fellow patrons, but also the attention of a man who had just received two mugs from the barista. The man came over to Kibum’s table, set a mug in front of him, and sat down at the opposite to him.
Taemin only knew Kim Jonghyun by name, but he was certain that this Jonghyun was the very same and Kibum’s shifting eyes made sense. Because of this, and the fact that he needed something to do, Taemin decided to listen in on their conversation. He gazed forward and made his expression blank, but doing this only allowed him to see Jonghyun. Still, it was the best he could do.
Just as he perfected it, a group of girls passed by, making him miss the beginning of Jonghyun’s sentence.
“…isn’t answering his phone.”
“Don’t worry about it. He probably forgot it at home,” Kibum answered. There was a pause, followed by a groan. “My back hurts! I’m never sleeping on that couch again.”
“I told you not to get comfortable there,” Jonghyun said after a quick, deep laugh.
“Why should I have listened to you? You didn’t even -” “Here you go.”
The sudden hijacking of Kibum’s words by Ihwa’s broke Taemin’s concentration. It made the café seem louder and brighter and he had to take a second to readjust to it.
Her hands still clasped together, Ihwa gestured towards the empty seat at Taemin’s table.
“Your boss still hasn’t shown up?”
“I’m really early,” Taemin replied, pulling the cup she had put before him closer. He regretted the action when the heat burned into his fingertips.
“Do you have to work today?”
“I’m going to be in school late tonight. I have a test…but after that I’ll be in the library, in my usual spot."
“I might not be able to make it.” Taemin took a cautious sip of his latte, but still burned his tongue. He could feel the fuzzy numbness settling in already.
“Oh. If you’re busy you don’t have to come,” Ihwa said, her chin against her chest, muffling her words. “I should get back to work.”
She didn’t leave. Taemin dared another sip before it hit him that something was wrong. He ignored the way she bit her lower lip, instead removing her hand from its partner’s embrace and gripping it with his own.
“I’ll call you later, okay? We’ll figure this out somehow.”
Her chin still rested against her chest, cutting her nod short. Before gently pulling her hand away from his, she softly said, “I’ll be waiting.”
With her body out of the way, Taemin got his view of the other table back. Part of that view was Jonghyun clearly checking Ihwa out as she left. Taemin wasted no time in feeling annoyed and, from his tone, Kibum had a similar emotion.
“I think you’ve stared at her long enough.”
“I wasn’t staring at her,” Jonghyun said as he guiltily turned his eyes back towards Kibum away. Taemin shot him an unseen glare before frowning down at his cup. “And before you ask, yes, I was listening to you. You want to grow a beard.”
“I said mustache,” Kibum said.
"You shouldn't do either. You’ll look like my high school art teacher.”
“Is that the one you’ve told me about before?” Kibum asked playfully. Jonghyun crossed his arms.
“No, that was my music teacher.”
“Oh, he had the afro, right? I could top that. I’ve been thinking of shaving only one side of my head.”
While Jonghyun laughed, Kibum explained the details of his new hairstyle. Taemin laid his arms on top of the table and put his head down. The carefree atmosphere at their table made him feel worse, but he was learning a few things from his eavesdropping. The first was that Kibum was odder than he originally thought. The second was much more important, however. Kibum and Jonghyun were closer than Kibum had wanted him to think during their talk at the bar. There was no doubt he was using Jonghyun as his source.
Was Jonghyun doing it willingly?
But that didn’t make much sense to Taemin. He put his forehead against the inside of his elbow and sighed. Whatever the situation was, he needed to solve his own dilemma before anyone else's.
A few minutes of self-pity had passed when a finger tapped against his shoulder and Kibum asked, “Is it really that bad?”
“Yeah,” Taemin said, raising his head. Jonghyun was nowhere in sight. “Where did your friend go?”
“He got a phone call. And here I thought you were listening in on my conversations again.”
“Nope, not today.” Taemin fought back a grin and sat up straight. Kibum fixed the sleeve of his dark red sweater.
“Was that your girlfriend you were talking to earlier?”
“Is she the cause of that bad mood of yours?”
“Yeah,” Taemin sighed. “Why do you care, anyways?”
“I like being right about things. And you’ve already bugged me about my personal life, so I’m returning the favor.” Kibum finished fixing his other sleeve, but his attention to anything other than himself was quickly gone when he saw the small mirror hanging above Taemin’s table. He moved closer so that his thighs touched the table’s edge and pulled down on his bangs. “What’s going on with you and your girlfriend?”
Taemin ran his finger along the top of his mug. “That’s really personal.”
“So was my business. But if you won’t tell me, I’ll just guess and you’ll tell me if I’m right,” Kibum said as he moved on to playing with his earring. He hummed a tune that sounded close to a recent latest girls’ group song before saying, “Either someone died or she’s pregnant.”
“Is it that easy to see?”
“Which one is it?”
Kibum drew back from the table. “There only seems to be a limited number of problems most people can have. All you have to do is use process of elimination to figure out which one it is. It’s not hard to do.” Kibum shrugged and looked him in the eyes. Taemin forced himself to keep the connection. “Are either of you seeing anyone else?”
“Well, at least you don’t have to worry about that,” Kibum said sympathetically as he glanced over his shoulder. “I suppose we’re even for now.”
Taemin went back to racing his finger on the mug’s circular track. He was considering asking Kibum why he would bring up affairs when a man wearing a fedora and closed, black trench coat approached them. He looked almost like a spy from a black-and-white film; all he was missing was a pair of sunglasses. When the man didn’t stop at any of the other tables, Taemin looked at his face again and realized that the spy was Minho.
Minho’s lips were set in a straight line, but his eyes flicked back and forth a few times between Taemin and Kibum. By the time Minho reached the table, they had stopped on Kibum. Because Kibum had never turned back from his last check of the front of the store, Taemin couldn’t see his expression, but his hand was now wrapped around his other arm.
“Good morning, Mr. Kim,” Minho said.
“Good morning, Mr. Choi,” Kibum returned. “Taemin didn’t mention you were coming.” When he said his name, Kibum finally turned around, all his sympathy gone.
“I wouldn’t think that it matters whether or not I’m here,” Minho said.
“It doesn’t because Taemin and I are done.” With that, Kibum took the few steps back to his own seat.
Minho followed suit and sat across from Taemin. He gave Kibum another glance before cocking an eyebrow at Taemin.
“He said he might have something on Lee Jinki,” Taemin explained. “He just happened to be here.”
Minho nodded and took off his hat. “So, why am I here?”
“I was told to show you the latest poll data, but I didn’t want to be in the office this early.”
“Or at all?”
Taemin had been in the middle of getting his laptop when Minho spoke, but he could hear the grin before he saw it. He couldn’t help but return it.
“I don’t blame you,” Minho continued. “That’s my least favorite place.”
Minho laughed. “Does it look like I enjoy it?”
“No, I guess not.”
Taemin opened the document with the numbers and showed it to Minho. Taemin couldn’t even fake the interest Minho was taking in the information, not that he would have any idea whether it was good or bad news even if he read it. And although Minho’s face gave away nothing about the document, it did tell Taemin that Minho was at ease and it justified his idea to meet outside work.
While Minho was still reading, the sound of something hard hitting a table reached Taemin’s ears. The source was Jonghyun, who had returned and had apparently thrown his phone on to the table. Kibum’s eyes widened, but he quickly regained his composure.
“What is it?”
“No one’s been able to get a hold Jinki. He’s not at the office, he’s not at home, and Juri said that he left at the usual time this morning. She’s going to check to see if his car’s gone,” Jonghyun said. He started to push his mug back and forth.
“Stop that." The scraping ceased. "You’re sure he didn’t leave his phone at home?”
“Yeah, Juri didn’t find it.” Jonghyun put a hand to his forehead and leaned against the table. “This wouldn’t bother me so much if it weren’t for that damn letter.”
“There’s other things that could have happened to him besides getting murdered.”
Jonghyun responded simply by sitting up straight and peeking at the black screen of his phone.
It was then that Minho patted Taemin’s hand with his fingers. Taemin blinked rapidly for a second at the unexpected touch.
“Um, were the numbers good?”
“They’ve gone down,” Minho replied glumly. ”What were you looking at?”
Although he had asked the question, Minho didn’t wait for an answer. His gaze lingered on Jonghyun longer than Taemin had expected. As if he sensed he was being watched, Jonghyun raised his head and looked over at them. Taemin quickly found one of the café’s many pictures interesting, but Minho maintained eye contact.
Jonghyun’s mouth opened slightly. Taemin had seen this reaction before when people realized they were face-to-face with Minho, though it was odd coming from Lee Jinki’s top aide. The man should have been used to meeting public figures.
Jonghyun and Minho exchanged greetings, no pleasure to be heard in either ‘hello.’ Their conversation seemed like it would end there until Jonghyun asked, “Is your wife feeling better?”
Do they know each other? Taemin thought. When had that happened?
From his expression, Kibum was mentally asking his own questions.
“Yes,” Minho said.
“That’s good.” In the awkward silence that followed, Jonghyun’s eye darted from Minho to Kibum and came back. The mood was put out of its misery by the ringing of Minho’s cell phone. As Minho opened it, Kibum mumbled something to Jonghyun that caused him to roll his eyes towards the ceiling and exhale in exasperation.
Things came to a standstill for Taemin then: Minho’s caller was more interested in talking than listening, Jonghyun tapped a beat out while sipping his latte, and Kibum was leaning against the window. Taemin joined them in their mundane activities by shutting his laptop down and putting it away.
The stiff manner in which Jonghyun and Minho had acted cleared up his question about Jonghyun being with them – Kibum was plainly just a horrible friend. Now what nagged at Taemin was why Jonghyun would even care about Sunhee. It wasn’t likely that they had met at a political function, but he had no idea where else it could have happened.
Upon his return from his brief absence from reality, Ihwa had reappeared, cleaning off the table behind Jonghyun. Minho was still on the phone, his replies patient, but the rest of him restless. Jonghyun appeared to be feeling the same way.
“I can’t sit here anymore,” he announced as he stood and snatched up his phone.
“Where are you going?” Kibum asked.
“Outside. I’m taking a walk.”
Kibum started to protest, but Jonghyun ignored him, taking a step backwards and turning.
But instead of completing the step, Jonghyun’s body collided with Ihwa’s. She stumbled, but got her balance. The same could not be said for the tray she had been holding. Dishes slid off the tray like children sledding down a hill, though the end to their ride was much different when they hit the tiled floor and broke, shocking some of the volume out of the café.
“I’m so sorry,” Jonghyun said when the last cup had fallen to the floor. He bent down and picked up some pieces of a plate. Ihwa stood still, her head down. Taemin was in the middle of slowly rising from his seat when the sobs began.
“Ihwa,” Taemin said. He was up, but anchored in place.
“I’m sorry,” she choked. She repeated the phrase and each time she said it, it got louder . Jonghyun paused in his cleanup to stare up at her. “I’m sorry! I’ll abort the baby and then….and then you won’t have to worry about either of us anymore!”
The café became totally quiet. Taemin’s legs felt ready to give out and even though everyone’s eyes weren’t on him, their judgment weighed down on Taemin. He wasn’t sure his legs could support it.
Ihwa covered her face and ran past the broken dishes and stares to the back of the store. Taemin was helpless to chase her until he heard Kibum’s voice.
“Go after her, moron!” Kibum shoved him forward. The spell wasn’t quite broken, but Taemin could move his legs and he took off after Ihwa.
When he made it to the door Ihwa had gone through, he hesitated, but ended up pushing it open. He scanned the boxes of coffee beans and cups until he spotted Ihwa hunched down in a corner, her face still covered.
“Go away,” she whined.
Taemin considered it, but forced himself to her side. He kneeled down and embraced her. Ihwa forgot her last command and dug her face into his shoulder. He had always wanted to comfort someone like this – that’s why he dated women like Ihwa – but reality wasn't as fantastic as he had imagined. There was no way this could be resolved with a kiss and a few beautiful sounding words.
“Why won’t you say yes?” Ihwa asked. “I thought you loved me.”
“I-I do. I just don’t want to rush this.”
“My parents don’t know yet. I can’t tell them without you, Taemin.” She breathed in and out deeply in an attempt to calm down. “You have to marry me. I can’t do this by myself. I can’t-”
Taemin rested his chin on top of her head. There was no way he was ready for this and not just emotionally. Everyone assumed he was rich because of his parents, but the truth was they had cut him off financially. His job for Minho was the final time they were going to help him. If that failed, he had no clue what he would do. He couldn’t add a baby to that.
And did he really even love Ihwa? He occasionally felt bored of her; would they last through marriage?
But he couldn’t abandon her. Even if he didn’t love her, he did care for her. There was also his faith. True, he had violated the Catholic teachings about sex before marriage numerous times, but he did follow the rest of them.
Taemin swallowed a groan.
“You’re right. Let’s get married.”
Minho had stayed on the phone with Chunghoon through the initial part of Jonghyun's and the barista’s collision, keeping a straight face even when the girl began yelling. It was when Taemin ran off after her that he ended the conversation. There was nothing he could do at that point, but he wasn’t going to pretend he hadn’t seen it, either.
Despite this, Minho didn’t want to be recognized and then subsequently associated with Taemin’s little drama. He waited until most of the people had gone back to their business before slipping off his chair to squat down and pick up one of the broken ceramic pieces. Near him, Jonghyun, Kibum, and an older woman from another table did the same, putting their pieces on the tray.
“What the fuck was that all about?” Jonghyun asked Kibum, who shrugged and placed a chipped mug on to the tray.
Minho stayed silent, observing Kibum and Jonghyun, who was obviously Kibum’s source in Lee Jinki’s party.
Chunghoon’s insistence on coming to a deal with Kibum had bothered Minho from the start. He disliked most reporters, especially those who wrote gossip. Finding out Kibum had a friendly relationship with Jonghyun made matters worse. He could be using Jonghyun, but another possibility was that he was actually sided with Jonghyun and Jinki. Either made him untrustworthy, but it was that second possibility that concerned him most. He still didn’t know what Jonghyun had seen with Sunhee or what he would say about it.
The job of cleaning up was almost finished when one of the employees brought over a broom. They both got up, Kibum brushing off him slacks as he did so.
“You weren’t lying about having reliable sources,” Minho said casually when Kibum was done.
“No, I wasn't.”
“It’s always interesting to see what some people will do to get information.”
“Are you judging me? I’ve heard about how you got where you are, Choi Minho, and I think most people would find that that’s much worse than just taking notes on what slips out of your friend’s mouth.”
Minho hoped his surprise at the reference to a story going around about him and his older brother hadn’t infiltrated his facial expression. He crossed his arms and stood taller to cover for any that did. “That rumor isn’t true.”
“No one’s going to care about that,” Kibum said, waving his hand. He was visibly holding back a smirk. “But don’t worry, I won’t be saying anything about it. We did sign a contract.”
For a second, Minho would have given up everything just to punch Kibum without suffering any consequences. But he willed the thought away and unclenched his fist.
It was then that Jonghyun came back, his cell phone out. He looked at Kibum and smiled.
“She found Jinki.”
Of course his phone had zero, maybe even negative, bars of service.
Of course the elevator’s emergency speaker was broken.
Of course that loud squeal outside the elevator car had meant something.
Jinki had only been standing for a minute or two, pressing buttons and trying to think of a way out, when the elevator moved.
He lost his balance. His stomach tried to disconnect itself from its supportive tissue and climb into his windpipe. He stopped breathing and he didn’t know if he had shut his eyes because everything was already so dark.
And then the fall stopped.
Jinki let a moment pass before he wiggled his fingers, reassuring himself that he was alive. Flat on the floor and unsure of if the elevator was done falling or just taking a break, but alive. He exhaled and cautiously got to his knees. His stomach reattached itself, though its contents didn’t feel as stable. Just in case he got sick or the car started falling again, Jinki sat down and checked his phone. Still no bars. He pushed his bangs up and exhaled deeply again. There was only one thing left to do.
He yelled this over and over. Once he felt braver, he got up and banged on the elevator doors. He knew he looked crazy and the thought reminded of one of his college plays. Back when he had been picked for the role of a violent schizophrenic, no one had expected Onew, not even himself, to portray it so well. If he took on that role again, there was no way he wouldn’t be heard. Jinki nodded to himself, shut his eyes, and imagined he was that man.
Where was he? It was dark and quiet and he was alone. Oh God, he was in hell! His heartbeat quickened. He had to get out! He slammed his fists against the door; he could get back to earth if he just broke through. And he yelled and yelled to the point where it felt like his voice box was rupturing and blood was trickling down to his lungs.
Jinki got so into the character that he actually missed a voice from the other side of the elevator doors asking him if he was okay. He only noticed their existence when they too were screaming at him. The human contact instantly turned him back into Jinki. He coughed and politely asked them to please help him out.
It took a half-hour before the apartment’s maintenance man came and got the elevator doors open. The hallway lights only came through a part of the opening - the car had stopped in between floors - but it was bright.
It was as if he was truly being saved from hell as he gave his arms to the maintenance man and was dragged up and out of the elevator. Standing with him was Juri, wearing sweatpants and her hair in a sloppy ponytail.
She wasted no time in hugging Jinki.
“I was so scared when I saw your car was still here! I thought something bad had happened,” she said. Her words to the maintenance man were much less loving. “Aren’t you supposed to make sure this thing runs right? My husband could have died!”
The man shrugged, but straightened his posture a little when he looked at Jinki, undoubtedly recognizing him.
“You all should be sued for this!”
“You’ll have to take that up with the building manager,” the man said.
Before Juri could yell anything else at the man, Jinki bowed, thanked him, and directed her down the hall. The sign next to the door to the stairs said he was on the second floor, five down from where he lived. They walked past it and into the room with the stairs. Juri started to go up, but Jinki remained where he was, causing Juri to give him a questioning look.
“I’m late for work,” he said.
“Are you going to be fine?”
“Hopefully. I just won't be taking anymore elevators today.”
“I’m screwed,” Taemin said, concluding his explanation of what had happened in the café.
Minho glanced over at him as he turned the car’s wheel. He had decided not to say anything about how Taemin could have embarrassed him. It was clear that Taemin had been punished enough.
“I don’t know how this happened.”
He couldn’t help laughing. “You don’t know where that baby came from? I guess you are screwed.”
Taemin blinked, then grinned sadly.
“I really don’t, though. She was using birth control.”
“It can fail sometimes.”
“Or she stopped using it…”
Minho didn’t want to bring Taemin down further by saying ‘possibly.’
“You can always ask her," he said, pulling into the office building's parking garage and slowing down to look for a spot. Taemin shook his head and groaned.
“It’s not going to be as bad as you think, Taemin.” He could have left it at that, but he really did want to make Taemin feel better. “We didn’t plan either of our kids. I was so freaked out when Sunhee told me she was pregnant with Minki.”
“Oh.” Taemin raised his head a little.
Minho pulled into a spot and shut off the engine.
“I’d always wanted kids, but it was still hard for me.”
Taemin nodded and unbuckled.
As Taemin left the car Minho’s phone rang. The screen showed ‘Sunhee’ and so Minho was thrown off when a child’s voice answered.
“Hey Junsu. Aren’t you supposed to be in school right now?”
“I threw up, so I get to stay home,” Junsu said proudly. “You missed it, it was so cool looking…But now I’m bored because someone’s over and mommy said I have to stay in my room unless I have to throw up again, and then I can go.”
The ‘someone’ was Sunhee’s therapist. She was officially retired, but had promised to see former clients if needed. She hadn’t sounded surprised to hear Sunhee wanted to talk to her again.
“It’s important that you listen to her, okay?”
“Okay. Wanna hear a story?”
Junsu’s stories were normally long, but if he walked slow enough, he could probably hear it all before he got to the office.
Jonghyun had backed up against his desk, his palms facing Jinki in surrender.
“Woah, man, I just asked how you got out of the elevator. I didn’t need you to reenact it.”
Jinki wanted to grin, but instead grimaced as he cleared his throat. Now that he was safe, what he had experienced in the elevator was exciting. He couldn’t resist yelling at Jonghyun, no matter how stupid it was.
“I just wanted to show you that I’ve still got the acting ability,” Jinki said.
“Please don’t ever show me that again,” Jonghyun said, chuckling. “Besides, it’s not like it was ever gone. You’re acting every time you talk publicly.”
“You make it sound like I’m lying during those times.”
“Oh, Onew, you know I’d never say something like that.”
Jonghyun sat down and poked a few keys on his laptop. “I shouldn't have left this stuff till today.”
“Why...Oh, yeah, I forgot you had Kwangho this weekend. How'd it go?”
“Great. He doesn't hate me yet.”
Jonghyun flashed him a smile before going back to typing. Jinki went around the desk. Once he was beside Jonghyun, he grabbed his shoulder and squeezed hard. Jonghyun grunted, but the only other reaction he had was to look up at Jinki. Jinki loosened his grip, but let his hand linger on Jonghyun's shoulder.
“What was that for?”Jonghyun's tone was somewhere between annoyance and laughter.
“No one hates you, Jonghyun. When someone starts sending you death threats, you can say that.”
“I don't know, I think it's kind of touching that someone would care enough to tell you they want to kill you.”
“I'll be sure to send a few your way, then,” Jinki said.
“No, thanks. I'll get my dark, twisted love somewhere else.”
As Jinki laughed, Jonghyun wiggled in his seat a little. The motion reminded Jinki that his hand was still on his shoulder and he removed it.
“I need to head off to that meeting now. Are you going to the speech with us later?”
“I don't know. I have a lot to catch up on.”
“Oh, okay. See you later.”
Jinki wanted to say that he had missed Jonghyun's presence at Saturday's event, but felt it was a little too awkward. Instead, he left the room wordlessly and made his way down the hall to the meeting room.
Several of his advisors were already waiting inside, eager to be the first to grab his attention. He never had to choose who to go to first; it was almost like a race to reach him. The winner this time was Shindong, who, though sometimes lacking tact, Jinki liked.
“Heard you ran into some trouble with the elevator this morning.”
“Yeah, I'm hoping not to repeat that any time soon.”
“Someone wasn't trying to kill you, right?” Shindong asked. Although Jinki had considered this theory, he believed his unique ride in the elevator was most likely due to a mechanical malfunction. He told this to Shindong and received a slow nod.
“I'll definitely make sure of it with the maintenance man,” Jinki added. Shindong seemed pleased with this promise and went back to his computer. His place was taken by another advisor and the conversation changed from murder conspiracies to excited talk of Roh Jungwook dropping out of the race.
Kibum swirled the brandy slowly, becoming entranced by its dark amber color and its laps around the inside of the glass. He indulged in this for a minute or two, then raised the glass to his nose, inhaled the scent of fruit and vanilla, and took a sip. As he swallowed, he pulled back the sides of the large box on his desk.
Inside the box and underneath a letter from his mother were two stacks of smaller boxes. All of them contained pictures he had taken from age ten until his senior year in college. Due to several major organizing projects, each box held pictures from a shared, general time period.
He read the letter (“Hope I got everything you needed.”) and pulled out a box. The first picture he saw upon opening it was of Jonghyun and Buja on their wedding day. Kibum slammed the lid back on to the box and pushed it away. Even if there was a picture in there that fit what he was looking for, he wasn't going to touch them. Just the knowledge that he had held on to those pictures made him angry.
He had never quite gotten over being dumped for Buja, who had been his friend originally. Kibum had had no reason to suspect Jonghyun would take his advice to see other people seriously; he had never done it before. Yet, towards the end of a two month trip to Japan during his third year of college, Jonghyun had called to break up with him. In his last three days there, Kibum had seen more of the Japanese night club scene than the past weeks of the trip. The only thing that had gotten him on to the plane for Korea was his determination to get Jonghyun back.
But when that hadn't worked, Kibum had to maintain that determination. He had remained friends with Jonghyun, trying to remind him of what they once had. It had taken three years, but Jonghyun had finally given in. Kibum didn't need photographs to remember that reunion and probably wouldn't experience another feeling of complete satisfaction like that again.
He poured more brandy into the empty glass and pulled out another box. This one was much more useful to him. He passed by pictures of himself and friends at various social functions, of Jonghyun performing, of scenery from the college and the city. Whenever he found a picture containing Jinki, he pulled it out and placed it on the desk. They were all innocuous, but he knew he had to have something worse.
A few shuffles later and he did find something. Unfortunately, it wasn't of Jinki at all, but a self-taken photo of himself and Jonghyun making out. There were a few more of the same scene behind it.
Kibum pondered on what he should do with them. In the end, he decided to keep them in the box. So far, they had been safe there.
He was still working his way through that box when his cell phone buzzed with a text from Jonghyun.
Kibum shook his head and texted back: <And?>
<Wat r u wearin>
<Good God Jonghyun. No>
<Wat? i was joking. wat r u doing>
<Working, unlike you. My back still hurts>
<Ill take car of it l8r>
<It sounds sooo sexy when you type it like that.>
<I have to work. I'll call you later>
Kibum was glad that he hadn't first met Jonghyun online or they would have never met in real life.
It was towards the end of the line that Kibum was finally rewarded. He was actually surprised that he had so few pictures like it.
Although Jinki hadn't gone to many parties, his ability to down large amounts of alcohol and stay normal had been revered around the campus. The picture Kibum was looking at had came from one of these nights, showing the future presidential candidate smiling and waving at the camera while his other hand clutched the side of the beer keg and two men kept his legs suspended in the air. Judging by the crowd's drunken grins, Jinki had just finished his keg stand successfully.
Kibum texted Taemin to set up a meeting time.
Two giant thuds greeted Minho when he opened the door. He rushed into the living room and found Minki and Junsu staring at him from the couch. If he couldn't figure it out before, the boys' quick breathing and nervous smiles were definite proof that they had been breaking some rule.
“What were you two doing?”
“Yeah, we were just watching TV,” Junsu said, holding up the remote.
“Uh-huh.” Minho dropped himself on to the space between the boys and pulled them both close. Junsu hugged him back while Minki was content to lean against him. It felt like it had been years since he had been able to do this. “I see you're well enough to jump on the couch, Junsu.”
“Minki was doing it, too!”
Before the argument could go on, Minho said, “Neither of you are in trouble, but I'd better not find you doing it again.”
“It's fun, though.”
“Shut up, Junsu.”
“Where's your mother?” Minho asked.
Minki turned his face away from Minho and began biting a nail, “She went to get food.”
“We're getting McDonald's because mommy doesn't feel like cooking,” Junsu said. “I hope she gets me a toy.”
Junsu then left the couch and opened a drawer full of DVDs. Minki stayed by Minho's side and stared blankly at the floor.
“How's school going?”
“Fine,” Minki said.
“Did you guys know we're going to Incheon this weekend? I'll take you where I went to high school. The football field is really big.”
“Will we get to play?” Junsu asked.
“I don't know. We should bring a ball, just in case.”
Junsu chose a DVD. They were about twenty minutes into the movie when the front door was slammed shut. Minho let go of Minki and went into the hallway.
“You're home early,” Sunhee said.
“Do want help with the bags?”
“No.” Sunhee walked into the kitchen and put the bags on the floor. She took two small fast food bags out and placed them on the counter. “Minki! Come get the food, please.”
“How did it go today?”
Sunhee started to put away the few groceries she had bought. Minho was about to ask her again when she said, “I'm not ready to tell you anything yet.”
“Why is it so hard for you to do that?”
“It just is, okay?”
“I don't want this being a repeat of last time,” Minho said.
“It won't. Just leave me alone.” Sunhee looked like she was going to say more, but stayed silent as Minki entered the kitchen. The boy avoided both of their gazes as he got the food, and once he had done that, he ran out. Minho fell back against the wall and shut his eyes. There was no way Minki was oblivious to the strain between them.
“Thank you.” Sunhee shut the cupboard. “I'm so tired...Can you make sure they get some milk.”
Minho opened his eyes, but did nothing to stop her exit.
He had several calls he needed to make that evening and he started the first as he poured milk into three glasses.
“'Can we meet at seven instead?'” Jonghyun read from the text, then looked down at the side of Kibum's head. “Who's Taemin?”
Kibum tried to move his arms, but they only hit the sides of Jonghyun's legs. “Get off me.” Jonghyun responded by moving his legs closer to Kibum's body and sitting back down on top of him, finding it amusing to watch Kibum struggle.
“I'm not done massaging your back,” he said.
“Whatever. You can win this time,” he said, relaxing. “Taemin works for a client of mine.”
“Does he realize how late it is?”
“Probably not. He's an idiot.”
Jonghyun pressed the reply button. “Is meeting at seven okay with you?”
Jonghyun typed out the reply, sent it, and threw the phone back on to the nightstand.
“Do my upper back now,” Kibum said.
Jonghyun's hands traveled up Kibum's back and gently caressed Kibum's shoulders. He rubbed his thumbs back and forth, starting with the skin near Kibum's spine and moving out. When he reached the edge of his shoulders, he swore he felt a burning in his own where Jinki had squeezed him. Needing to distract himself from that, Jonghyun said the first thing that came to mind.
“I'm glad you started getting your back waxed again.”
“Jonghyun, shut up or I won't touch you for a week.”
He stopped working his hands over Kibum and made them tunnel a space between Kibum's body and the bed. Kibum laughed as Jonghyun pulled his body forward and let his legs slide back so that he was lying on top of Kibum. His shirt blocked the warmth of Kibum's skin from his own, but he still got a nice sensation out of the contact.
Kibum snorted when Jonghyun kissed his neck. He shouted and kicked the bed when Jonghyun lightly bit him in the same spot.
“I'm not hurting you, right?”
“No, it just tickles.” Kibum was breathing heavily, but smiling.
“All right, we'll try something different.”
Kibum buried his face into the pillow and yelled as Jonghyun moved his hands once more.
It was 7:10 the next evening when Taemin entered the bar. Kibum had chosen the same one they had had their last conversation not only because Taemin knew where it was, but because he loved the atmosphere – the music, the funky table setups, the bartender's carefree attitude, all of it. And Taemin didn't seem to be offended by meeting in a bar, which was refreshing compared to what he had been dealing with lately.
“You're late,” Kibum stated as he patted the stool next to him. “Do you want anything?”
Taemin sat down and nodded. “Yeah.”
Kibum waved the bartender over and pointed to the drink in front of him.
“I need another one of these. You'll like it, Taemin, it's really good.”
“You said you found some pictures of Lee Jinki?” Taemin asked.
Kibum pushed a small manila envelope towards him. Taemin opened it and pulled out two pictures. One was the keg stand and the other was Jinki and a few Jonghyun's then band mates flipping off the camera. Taemin smiled over at Kibum while holding up the keg stand picture.
“I can't believe he's smiling after that. Things always went bad when me and my friends did those.”
“You did one?”
“Yeah. My friends ended up dropping me,” Taemin said. The bartender placed a glass before him and walked off. Taemin pulled it closer.
“Those were the only two pictures I could find. I've known Jinki since college, but we've never been really close, so there's not much else I can provide you.” Taemin nodded and sipped at the drink. He brought his hand up immediately and coughed sporadically. Kibum waited until he was done before continuing. “We were talking about having an article about the partying that goes on in the colleges around Seoul. I figure I can sneak in one of those as an example from the past and wait for someone to recognize Jinki in it. That way I don't have to write an article on him, but it'll still hurt his reputation.
“Taemin, if you don't like that, you can get something else,” Kibum finished, noticing the way Taemin was forcing himself to take another sip. Taemin shook his head and swallowed.
“This is fine. I need something strong.”
“Are you going to need those pictures?”
Taemin lifted the envelope up and down several times as he thought.
“I don't think so. I'll just tell them your plan.”
“It's the best one, but if they don't like it, I want to know soon.”
Business over, Kibum downed the rest of his drink. Just like with that one, he didn't have to wait long for his third drink of the night to appear before him. He expected Taemin to vanish as fast as the alcohol appeared, but when he turned, the other man was still there.
"Do you want to drink with me?"
“Yeah. I don't really want to go home...my girlfriend's been texting me all day,” Taemin said to his glass.
“How did that mess at the cafe go for you?”
“I agreed to marry her.”
“Seriously? Why would she want to marry you?”
Taemin stared at him in disbelief, which confused Kibum. It was a legitimate question.
“Because she likes me.”
“Oh. I guess she wouldn't want to marry you for money or something like that.”
“That's the problem. I think she thinks I'm rich because my parents are, but I'm not. I don't know how to break that news to her.” Taemin chugged down the rest of his drink. The cough came back and Taemin momentarily placed his head on the counter. “I don't know how to get out of this.”
Kibum got the bartender to come back and asked him to get Taemin something fruitier before talking.
“Just abort it.”
“Oh. Then the only other advice I can offer you is that you should have knocked up a married woman. Then you wouldn't have to worry about it.”
“Is that what you did?”
Taemin almost spit out his new drink. “I was joking.”
Kibum threw back his head as he laughed and barely got back his balance.
Another drink later, they were both laughing and talking about themselves. When Taemin mentioned he had studied dancing in school and therefore had no idea why he was in politics, Kibum perked up.
“There's a club a block away. It's great. We should go!” Kibum exclaimed. He grabbed on to Taemin's thigh for support as he got off the stool. Taemin followed with the manila envelope, and after paying for their drinks (along with a generous tip), they headed outside.
Jonghyun hopped on to the train, something he normally didn't do after a late night of completing a boring project. But what had happened during that night wasn't normal, at all.
He lost count of how many times he had touched the paper in his pocket. On it was one line of lyrics and a crude melody for them. It wouldn't seem like much to anyone else, but it was the first musical thing he had written in six years and it gave him hope for getting past the block on his music.
He couldn't sit down and he couldn't wait to show it to Kibum.
Taemin wasn't sure if it was alcohol or the dancing or a mixture of both, but everything at that moment was awesome. Even Kibum leaning heavily against him as they stumbled out of the club wasn't bad.
“Wanna go home with me? I'm not far from here.” Kibum asked loudly. Taemin swayed a little, which helped him make his choice.
Kibum pointed the way and proceeded to babble, slipping his arm across Taemin's back. “You were great in there, Taemin. I haven't seen anyone dance like that in a long time, not even me and I'm good. We should do this again, like in a few a days. You ever hear what they say about dancers...”
Taemin nodded at Kibum's compliments. As they walked, Taemin felt a little sick, but he ignored it. Nothing was going to ruin his good mood.
A few blocks and they finally made it to Kibum's apartment building. It took Kibum a few tries, but he got the correct code punched in and they entered the building. Taemin tripped on the way to the elevators and both he and Kibum laughed at his clumsiness while Kibum helped him up.
Kibum stayed close to him in the elevator. Taemin didn't think anything of it until Kibum stroked his arm. He laughed and looked at Kibum, who stared right back.
“You're cute, you know,” Kibum said. Taemin shrugged.
“I get that a lot.”
“Because it's true.”
When the elevator stopped on Kibum's floor, they both wobbled. Kibum had to hold on to the wooden rail in the elevator car in order to leave it. He was back on Taemin's shoulder in the hallway, his pace slowing down as he fumbled in his pocket for his key. Just like with the door downstairs, Kibum had difficulty with the one to his apartment.
Taemin had no idea how it happened.
Once they were inside, Kibum had him pinned against the wall near the living room. He was still trying to figure the position out when Kibum kissed him, his body pressing up against his.
In his mental haze, Taemin's thoughts divided into two factions. One was disgusted and shocked -a guy was grinding against him! The other, however, had his hard on to back it up. Give in, it said. Action was action, who cared whether it came from another guy.
Taemin was still torn when Kibum's body abruptly pulled away. He breathed, then followed Kibum's gaze to the front door. It froze on the man in the doorway, who appeared to be stuck in the same state.
“Jonghyun...” Kibum started. The name brought the man back to motion. His voice was shaking as he spoke.
“Are you bored of me again, Kibum? Is that what this is?”
“No, listen, I -”
Jonghyun's wide eyes switched from Kibum to Taemin.
“Is that the guy who was with Choi Minho yesterday?”
Kibum's lips moved, but no words came out. Jonghyun backed out into the hallway.
“Jonghyun, you have to let me explain,” Kibum finally said.
“Explain what? I think it's pretty clear what was going on here! I...We're done, Kibum!” With that Jonghyun ran from the door. Kibum whimpered and did his best to chase after him, almost falling on his way out.
The conflict was gone, but Taemin still moved away from the door, knocking into a table in the process. A box fell from the table and landed on the floor, spilling out a bunch of pictures. Taemin checked the doorway, then dropped to his knees and started putting the pictures back. Now he really felt like throwing up.
Though he was more interested in stuffing the pictures back into the box rather than looking at them, some caught his eye. The first few ended up containing something ordinary that his mind had mistaken for odd. The one that showed two men who looked like Jonghyun and Kibum kissing was not a trick of the mind.
...oh, that's weird, his drunken mind eventually concluded while his hands unconsciously put more pictures away.
Taemin was back to gawking at the pictures when Kibum came back into the apartment. Taemin hurriedly hid them behind his back. Kibum didn't notice and looked like he was on the verge of crying.
“You're still here?”
“I won't make it home.”
Kibum wiped at his eye and headed towards another room. “Stay then. I don't care.”
Taemin slipped the photographs into his coat pocket and laid down on the couch. If he gave into sleep, maybe he would stop feeling sick.
Next Chapter Coming Soon
A/N: Major thanks to queen_anything for proofreading this.
Ah, winter break is finally here! I should be updating sooner than I usually do because of it (so, please wait a few weeks ^^;;) Thanks for sticking with me and my slow writing!
And two random notes on this story:
- I keep finding the weirdest mistakes when I have to go back and read a past scene. I had "fragmented" in place of "fragrant!"
- Taemin and his scene are the hardest to write; I reworked the first scene for this chapter more times than needed. But I hope that I'm getting him, and the others, across well in their points of view (I like writing Key's the most).