Lee Kaeun was never meant to re-debut.
All around her, girls a decade younger were crying their eyes out, hands shaking with uncertainty and desperation and fear and exhaustion in their hearts. Their hands were clasped together so tightly their knuckles were turning white, and the pretty smiles that adorned their faces were wet with sweat and tears.
These girls, they muttered words of prayers and asked, begged, hoped under their breaths to whoever was listening up there in this universe.
“At fourteenth place,”
Kaeun smiled, full of act and feeling stronger and braver than she has ever been in years.
Hundreds of cameras turn to her, deadly and suffocating in their attempt to capture the slightest hint of emotion that Kaeun had refused to show throughout the show. She had kept it under control since day one, only putting on what is necessary according to the narrative, subtly transforming into an actress since the moment she stepped foot into this building.
There was no devastation, only relief that this was ending and excitement for what is to come next.
She had fulfilled what she came here for.
It was time to go back to her sisters, at last.
Kaeun has spent most of her afternoon for the past few months in this spot right here, in the sitting area by the window on the third floor of the new building, where she can peek through the tinted glass over to the street down below while sipping on a hot mug of black coffee, waiting for something extraordinary to happen.
Sometimes, she gets company, a fellow friend with restless mind who need to take a second to breathe, and she welcomes them, never one to turn away someone who would like to have some peace of mind.
They vary, her guest. Most of the time, it’s Yunjin, bringing her Korean schoolwork and a dozen of crazy conversation topics, updating Kaeun on her trivia knowledge with some random facts and new slangs. When that happens, Kaeun usually finds herself bidding goodbye to peace and entertains the younger girl with the kind of adoration that the older After School members used to shower her with. She knows how it feels to crave for their attention and approval—she’s been there before, after all, no matter how short.
Some other time, Nayoung joins her, all polite nods and small, tight smile. Considering the nature of their relationship, Kaeun never tries to make conversation. After she was chosen over Nayoung to be the next member of After School all those years ago, their healthy rivalry transformed into - nothing, and then they fell back as strangers after. When After School went on a hiatus and Nayoung debuted as IOI, and later as Pristin, and received so much more love than Kaeun has ever received in her entire career as an idol, she avoided Nayoung by default, partly because she cannot help but to feel ashamed for her past feelings, back when she was prideful, young, and did not know any better.
She only observes Nayoung from afar these days, and on the days that Nayoung graces her with her presence, Kaeun notices how she seems to stand straighter lately, like as though she is daring anyone to pity her for whatever it is that she thinks she should to be pitied for, and Kaeun can see how unnatural it sits with Nayoung. The confident, no-nonsense air around her is gone, and with every single step, Kaeun reads frustration, quiet anger, and still, patience.
When Nayoung visits, they will sit in silence, finish their respective mugs, and leave without trading a single word.
When Raina-unnie or Nana-unnie has the time, they sit with her and baby her senseless. It’s usually a brief ruffle on the head or pinch on the cheek, and then just like everyone else, they will also leave, perhaps wanting nothing to do with her for long. If she can be honest, she thinks they are more like roommate who only share a living space out of necessity than bandmate who has been through ups and downs together. Kaeun understands, she knows they are always going to be more attached to the ghosts of those who left than the one who still remains.
Eyoung-unnie, she never needed this company to begin with. She barely visits, always chasing for something bigger, never one to sit and wait around. There has never been a reason for her to stay, especially now that she has her own band to practice with.
More than the black coffee that she has been sipping itself, it’s the entire situation that is leaving bad taste in her mouth. To think she is currently a contestant of Produce 48, trying to debut again because the universe was not very kind to her the first time around.
Kaeun snaps out of her thoughts to see one of the objects of her - reverie, shrugging off her coat by the entrance of the sitting area, revealing a simple sweater and denim outfit. Kaeun watches as she hangs the coat somewhere in the room and helps herself to a cup of hot cocoa.
“I’m sorry.” Nayoung says, throwing her a brief glance. “It’s just—you seemed to be deep in thought.”
Kaeun blinks at that, and she lets the line of her face slowly relax. She doesn’t realize that she has been frowning, with fingers clutching onto her cup so tightly that the blood stops flowing for a short while.
Nayoung approaches her. “May I join you?”
Kaeun nods, shifting slightly to allow her more space.
It is not unusual, so Kaeun sips her coffee and does not initiate a conversation.
“Congratulations for making top twelve so far, unnie.”
And Nayoung seems to be oddly social today. That's fine.
“Thank you.” Kaeun smiles to her kindly. "I think I'll have to thank you and everyone else for your support."
Nayoung returns her smile. "You're too kind."
Kaeun nods, and goes back to staring at the street below. She can see a few fans being ushered away by their security for hanging around too long in front of the building. If she has to guess, they are probably hoping to catch a glimpse of either the Seventeen boys or Nu'est W boys. Her eyes flicker to Nayoung, who is also watching the whole fiasco with an unamused expression.
Kaeun doesn’t know what came over her as she asks, “Has that ever happened to you, too?”
Nayoung stills. She turns to Kaeun and seems to be more surprised with the fact that Kaeun addressed her to begin with, rather than with the question itself.
Kaeun almost apologizes and dismisses it entirely, but she is, in all honesty, curious. So she waits.
Nayoung frowns, “I suppose so.”
Well, Kaeun doesn’t really have a follow-up comment prepared. She whispers a soft, ‘ah’, and watches the fans below finally scatter to leave for good.
“It was—after IOI.” Nayoung offers, and Kaeun waits as she pauses to come up with better explanation. “Everyone was excited for Pristin after IOI, so it happened a few times, back in the old building.”
Kaeun nods at the explanation. It must be nice, to be relevant. She wonders if that will happen to her too, after this is all over.
(Probably not, considering everything).
“I’m sorry, unnie, can I ask you something?"
Kaeun lifts her brows, unconsciously trying to guess what it is in her life that could attract the attention of the Im Nayoung. "Sure."
"Did you mean it when you said you wish you hadn’t debuted with After School, or was it just to get sympathy vote?”
Kaeun instantly knows exactly what Nayoung is referring to.
She can’t help but to internally grimace at the coat of disappointment lacing Nayoung’s tone, no matter how neutral the girl may try to sound. Thinking back, Kaeun should have known how much the words she uttered would have cut Nayoung. After all, it has always been her dream to be in Kaeun’s place.
This is how it began:
Kaeun, sipping hot tea and sitting in her CEO’s office, having just made a request for what she wanted to do for the year - to go to Produce 48 by herself.
He granted her the permission without much of a fuss and told her to return the week after to strategize for the interview with their marketing team.
She guessed he probably knew it was his fault she had asked in the first place.
He should know, after these past five years.
Maybe that was why he gave his approval without second guessing himself, but still, she had to ask.
“You do know it isn’t a good image for the company when the only way you can promote your artists is by sending them to survival shows, right?”
Kaeun wasn’t afraid of facing penalty for showing her cheek anymore. There was a steady anger that had been boiling for a while now, and she thought she get to say what was on her mind, no matter the consequences.
She signed a contract with this man long ago, trusting him with her life because it was the only way she could support her mother. When it was clear that he had no plans on delivering his promises, she started caring less and less. Before her contract expired, might as well enjoy her time while it last.
Her CEO didn’t say anything, and he looked more or less resigned, apologetic, even, and perhaps it was a good thing that he stayed quiet. She has had enough of his excuses, she could not be bothered with another lecture on why it is important to be patient, or whatever it was that pushed them into hiatus in the first place. She wasn’t like Raina-unnie, who had been gritting her teeth throughout the minimum effort of promotion the company allowed her to do because she was hopeful and unable to let go of her former glory, and she also wasn’t like Nana-unnie, who thought maybe she could be someone important within this company if she stayed around long enough, like BoA of SM.
She stepped foot into this industry because she desired the spotlight. Could they really blame her for wanting to continue to chase her dream?
“What will you tell them?” her CEO asked, and there was a hint of warning in his voice. Kaeun took that warning for what it actually was - he had always wound up caring for the members who have had been around far longer than she has. He would pull strings for her and listen to her requests because it was his responsibility, but if what she asked had the potential to hurt his original moneymaker, he would choose them over her, anytime.
(Or, he would choose staying on Kahi-unnie’s good side over her, though he’s got to be high for thinking Kahi-unnie wasn’t standing in the front line amongst the people who very much would like to slay him dead).
Kaeun knew this, she wasn’t stupid.
“I’d tell them that you sent me in, to bring back the former popularity of After School.”
It’s a load of bullshit because she cared about saving her career so more than her actual team’s - as nonexistent as it was - but he had done it once with Nu’est, it was not going to be a difficult story to sell the second time.
Her CEO sighed, signing the last form needed for her application.
“I never regretted debuting with After School.” Kaeun ends up saying, and it is what feels painfully true in her heart. “As short as it was, it was the best time of my life.”
Nayoung’s scrutinizing gaze - Kaeun wonders if she realizes how judgmental she looks right now - doesn’t waver.
She humors her then, “But yes, it was a good sob story. The CEO himself told me to do it.”
Nayoung's face closes at the mention of their CEO, and Kaeun almost drinks to that.
Then, just when Kaeun thought their mutual hatred towards that one man might ease the tension between them, Kaeun realizes Nayoung is far from ready to let the topic go when she pushes, “He told you to do it, but it was’t scripted, was it? You must have genuinely felt that way to be able to repeatedly cry about it on TV.”
At the very least, Kaeun commends the girl for not beating around the bush.
Kaeun places her mug on the windowsill and faces Nayoung. She applauds how the younger girl tries to come across as collected and treat this conversation as a typical heart to heart between two young women, when in reality, it certainly seems very far from the actual narrative that currently plays at hand. From the way Kaeun looks at it, judging by the curl of distaste in the curves of Nayoung's lips, they are about to have an all-out passive-aggressive conversation in which Nayoung will be very cross with her decision to go to Produce despite her status as an After School member, to which Kaeun will respond back in equal hostility, because what does Nayoung know about her life beyond what glimmers?
(Also, truth to be told, there really is no need for any of this fight, because what can Nayoung gain from whatever explanation Kaeun is willing to offer? Heartache, maybe).
The older dismisses the idea of peace talk anyway, it's too late for one, now, and starts, “If I hadn’t debuted, I would have gone to the first season with you and could have debuted with IOI, or with Pristin.” It’s out there now, no take-backs. “As much as I don’t regret debuting early, doesn’t mean I can’t hate being unemployed for five years long.”
“I don’t understand how you can think that way.” Nayoung shakes her head, tone and expression showing more emotion than Kaeun thinks she is capable of feeling. “How could you just go when Raina-unnie and Nana-unnie—even Eyoung-unnie, are still around?"
Kaeun wants to snort.
Nayoung doesn’t understand, does she really think the implication of leaving her sisters wasn’t consuming Kaeun in an all-encompassing guilt inside out?
“I heard you’re getting sent to Produce 48?”
Raina was flipping through a random magazine on the sofa when she threw the question out there without looking up from the pages. It was nonchalant and straightforward, and Kaeun did not, for the life of her, know how to respond.
There's a long moment of silence as Kaeun's hands stilled in the middle of cutting vegetables for dinner, wondering on how to proceed.
Looking down, she decided that honesty was the only option. She replaced the knife she was holding back on the cutting board and turned to lean on the kitchen counter, facing Raina. “Yes, unnie.”
Raina had that smile on her face that Kaeun hated beyond reason, because it was fake and tired, and Kaeun wished she had the courage to ask her to stop being sad.
“Well, good luck, when’s the audition?”
“In about five weeks."
“Got any performance to do in mind?”
“I’m not sure yet, we’re still discussing our options.”
The smile on Raine’s face tightened, and she looked faintly taken aback. “We?”
“I’m going to audition with a trainee, she’s new and has only trained for six months, so I don’t know if you know her.”
“Ah, I see.” For a brief second, Raina looked closed off and distant, like as though she was deep in thought. When she returned back to reality, there was a certain darkness behind her eyes that Kaeun could not help but to avoid meeting. Raina asked, “When’s the interview?”
“The same day as the audition, unnie.”
Raina's gaze was perfectly steady and unwavering as she stared across the room at Kaeun. “What are you going to tell them?”
Kaeun felt nauseous, but she made the decision for herself without considering Raina, Nana, and E-young in the picture. It was motivated by pure, selfish reason, and so it was on her to take responsibility for her actions.
Despite feeling like there's something like shreds of glass in her heart, Kaeun said, “The truth.”
The darkness behind Raina’s eyes glisten, and Kaeun turned away to continue preparing for dinner. She had to rush if she wanted to meet Huh Yunjin in time.
“What happens if you win, Kaeun-ah?”
Kaeun paused again, and looked up to blink the sudden burst of tears away. It didn’t hit her how much of an impulsive decision it was, to sign the papers away and hope that she didn’t have to provide an explanation to the people who needed it the most.
"I'll debut with the winning group for two and a half year." Kaeun swallowed the tightness in her throat away.
Kaeun gritted her teeth and stifled a gasp, unable to respond.
"Look at me, Kaeun-ah."
Kaeun did as she was told and slowly turned, meeting Raina's eyes. They were beautiful and wet, and Kaeun was able to see her own fear being reflected right back at her through the glassy, obsidian orbs.
Whatever truths there were hidden in Raina's heart that night, Kaeun never found out, because the elder decided to take a pacifist road and told her in a steady voice, "You do what you have to do, you understand?"
In retrospect, Kaeun thought her encouragement spoke more volume than any words of blatant disappointment or disagreement. More than anything, her attempt in trying to understand and respect why Kaeun did what she did managed to dig up the guilt that she had buried deep down within her somewhere. Overwhelmed by sudden, strong emotion, Kaeun dropped the kitchen utensils in her hands and made way to join Raina on the sofa, desperately craving for comfort as she buried her face onto the crook of Raina's neck, apologizing over and over.
"I have to do this," Kaeun whispered between her sobs, desperate for forgiveness and acceptance.
"I know," Raina responded, hand rubbing Kaeun's head gently in comfort.
They were both grasping for whatever chance the universe was willing to offer to make it out of this suffering, and together, they were breaking apart at the doorstep of reality.
"I'm so, so, sorry, unnie."
"It's okay." With an admirable strength that Kaeun never seemed to possess, Raina took her wet cheek in her shaking hands and pressed their forehead together, eyes closed. "It's okay."
Kaeun shakes the memory and crushes down the tightness in her chest away.
There are many things that Nayoung doesn't know.
“I wouldn’t have gone to Produce if After School still has a glimmer of hope of coming back," she says, and her voice sounds harsh even to her own ears, though she tries to keep it even. "Are you really going to call me out on being selfish when I was only trying to chase after my dream before it's too late? I don't see you calling them names when they themselves do solo schedules, now, do I?"
Kaeun dares Nayoung to hold her gaze, dares her to prove her wrong.
“You were the legacy,” Nayoung replies, curt and almost unforgiving, and Kaeun hates how Nayoung's disapproval manages to irk her bones. “They chose you, and yet you went in front of Kahi-unnie, basically telling her she made the wrong decision, telling her you’re giving up the legacy she entrusted you with.”
Kaeun wants to laugh. Oh, to be looked down on by the great Im Nayoung who can never seem to let the past go when she oh-so-clearly has won at life by far when compared to sad, miserable Kaeun who has only been sticking around in the dungeon for years. “You don’t know anything.”
"Maybe not, but Produce should have not been your first option." Nayoung remains cross, unaware and full of baseless assumption.
Kaeun smiles through gritted teeth, "You don't understand - I went to Produce because it was my last resort."
"Was it?" Nayoung asks. "Or was it because it's just an easy way out for you, unnie? Didn't you say that you decided to go because you saw how well it worked out for me, and for Nu'est too?"
Kaeun lifts her brows, corner of her lips tugged into somewhere between a terrific and exasperated smile. "What else could I have done, Nayoung? What power do I have in this industry?"
Something glints behind Nayoung's eyes that makes Kaeun think maybe she should have not asked.
"You could have asked the CEO, could have demanded for your rights."
It is the last thing she expected to hear from Nayoung, who, despite their differences, should have stood in solidarity with her as women working in this industry, under this company.
Kaeun mouth opens slowly, "Are we working for the same person? Are we talking about the same man who kept you and your girls in the dungeon for years?"
"What he did to us made sense." Nayoung says, unwavering. "It's only logical that he debuts one group after another. It wasn't like we were kept for long after Seventeen debuted. You, on the other hand, had the chance to go up to him and say something."
(That - she did. She still does, but Nayoung - she's getting dangerously close to her truth, and she'd like to steer her away from this part of the conversation, for her sake).
"I'm sorry, Nayoung, why don't you name me one person in this building he listens to?"
"Seungcheol." Nayoung says right off the bat. "Jihoon, Jonghyun."
Kaeun fails to bite back her laugh. Men.
"Kahi-unnie too, back then," Nayoung finishes, never once leaving her eyes from Kaeun's. "It's just a matter of having the courage to."'
Kaeun suddenly feels small and all of 18 again, back when she was first burdened with the status of 'legacy' that she had to carry, with having to fill in the wide-gaping spot that Kahi-unnie left for someone small like her to replace.
She can't help but to scoff, so much for being a legacy.
"Did he send you here?" Kahi snapped, not bothering to keep her calm. She sounded positively livid and not at all like she was weeks away from labor.
The filming for the first two episodes had been wrapped and trainees had been sent back to their waiting rooms, to wait for their managers to pick them up for the day. Kaeun, with Yunjin, were sitting in silence on the folded chairs inside Kahi-unnie's much, much nicer waiting room, having been summoned by the pregnant woman herself as soon as she got an all clear from the staff to do so.
Kaeun swallowed, not sure on how to respond to Kahi, who was sitting across from them, seething and seemed to be getting angrier and angrier by the minute.
"Does he really think this would turn out exactly like how it did for Jonghyun and the others?" Kahi cocked her head sideways in annoyance, eyes shifting from Kaeun, to Yunjin, to Kaeun again.
Kaeun felt shiver running down her spine and tried, "I—"
"What happened to them was right down miracle!" Kahi slapped the table next to her, and Kaeun immediately closed her mouth shut. "If he really thought the universe would be so kind as to give another group the same chance, he is sorely mistaken. Does he really think sending his idols here is the solution to every single issues he refuses to take responsibility for? I can't even begin to describe how furious I am right now!"
There's a momentarily pause, allowing Kahi's anger to sink in around the room, with the silence. It was chilling, and it was also paralyzing.
Kahi lifted her brows, demanding for explanation, and Kaeun tried as she might to shake the fear away.
She took a deep breath. "I asked him to send me here." Kaeun admitted, biting her lower lip.
She felt like hiding, she truly did. Back then, when Kahi had one of her outburst, an older member would take her hand and squeeze it in comfort, but this time, none of them were there to take care of her anymore. It was only her, and Yunjin, and by some maternal, protective instinct, she felt the need to take Yunjin's hand and rub soft circles, exactly like how they used to do it to her. She crushed down the pang of useless nostalgia that suddenly appeared.
The frown in Kahi's brows didn't go away. "You asked him," she repeated, slower, enunciating every word.
It took all Kaeun had to not look down in shame and apologize. "There was nothing else we could do, he had too much in his hands—"
"Doesn't excuse him for abandoning you."
"No, but—the others were also busy with their own solo schedules, so I—I thought I should do something, too."
Kahi crossed her arm, gaze unwavering force of nature. "You do realize you coming here by yourself has a very different connotation to Nu'est coming as a team, right? The public sympathy they managed to gather as a team was what brought them to where they are right now."
Kaeun looked down to her lap. "Yes, I understand."
"So, who are you here for then?"
Kaeun wouldn't have had been able to hide her flinch even if she had tried, she was too stung at having Kahi read right through her to find her true intention. It was one thing speaking the truth to Raina, and later Nana, of her personal resentment at her own situation, but it was a complete different matter altogether to admit the reality she'd rather keep in the deepest, darkest place in heart out loud to Kahi.
It was only because Kaeun had known Kahi for a while that she knew there was no underlying accusation behind her question. Hell, Kaeun knew there was no intention to hurt at all. But, at the same time, Kaeun knew whatever her response was, she was going to be a letdown in Kahi's eyes. As much as she wished she could break that brick wall standing tall between them, so she could reach out and have her change her mind, Kaeun knew she was in no position to do anything anymore. She lost that right the moment she decided to sit back in her couch to watch the first season of Produce and thought, if only I hadn't debuted.
Kaeun let go of Yunjin and folded her hands in her lap. It was a gesture of acceptance of her own loss. "There was nothing else I could do," she whispered, and it's tight in her throat. It should be answer enough.
Kahi seemed to consider her for a long moment, and then shook her head. "There's always choices in life, Kaeun-ah." Her voice was softer around the edges, kinder. "You've decided what your next step is, but it's never too late. You still get to decide what your fate is going to be from here on out."
Kaeun met her eyes, curling her hands into fists. There were too many thoughts in her head, an overwhelming rage of emotions in her chest.
Kahi must have found it hard to breathe too, because her voice was thin and strained when she advised Kaeun for one last time. "Choose wisely."
“You know, unnie, If you had been so desperate about making it, you would have tried harder.”
Kaeun stills, dread settling in the pit of her stomach.
There's a long moment of silence, and then Kaeun turns to see Nayoung, caught off guard all of a sudden.
She didn’t expect that.
She feels blood rushing to her face.
Kaeun forgets Nayoung knows her way around, forgets she has power over the whispering walls in this building or the other.
“Jonghyun wanted to save Nu’est at all cost, so he gave it all and it showed through the camera. He offered more than a sob story, he convinced the audience that he’s worth it.”
Nayoung continues, “Compared to that, you threw away that center position that you could have kept because you thought being democratic was a good choice. You played safe throughout the entire show, and what came across on TV was mediocre performances over and over again. You were good enough to keep people interested for another week, but you weren’t selling anything, and the upsetting part is I know you have it in you to do something amazing if you’re truly desperate for it."
Kaeun's breath shudders out of her lungs, Nayoung is not supposed to—
"Unnie, I would know." There is more than just twisted frustration in Nayoung's voice. There is also disappointment, and something like desperate wonder. "We were competing against each other during evaluation all those years ago, I know what you're capable of.”
Kaeun turns away, feeling her heart in her throat. No, it was part of the agreement to keep Nayoung out of the loop, she has given her enough reason to hate her, she couldn't give her more.
"I don't doubt for one second that you went to Produce to get your name out there, but I think something changed your passion along the way—and shifted your motivation, almost."
No, no, no.
“I think you are going to throw the game.”
Kaeun's nails are dug deep in her palm.
"What I don't understand is, why?"
Kaeun takes a firm hold on her emotions and exhales, releasing the tension she has been holding through this entire conversation.
She leans against the glass window and peeks behind her lashes to meet Nayoung's unwavering gaze. An unwelcome, forgotten memory greets her, it is of the time when the table has completely turned and it was her who looked away every time Nayoung walk pass, with the Pristin girls hot on her heels, all gathered around her, adorning their leader with looks of pure respect and admiration.
Has she forgiven her, then?
Will she forgive her, now?
She was making trade after trade, and this was how it started.
"You wish to be eliminated." Han Sung Soo echoed, slow and careful, like he is tasting the words to see how it would resonate around his office.
Kaeun took a deep breath. She supposed it was inevitable for him to be confused, considering her request in the beginning, considering how much she was willing to walk through hell and back just for the chance to go to the program. She nodded, staring into his cool, dark eyes.
"You can do it, can't you?" The request was sour in her throat, but she had thought it night after night.
"It's not about the matter of what I can do," he replied. "You need to give me a good, convincing reason behind this startling absence of professionalism, from you."
It stung, but Kaeun guessed it was all fair. At least he was still willing to hear her out.
"I would like for you to start thinking about After School again," Kaeun says, something brave in the frown of her brows and the sharpness of her tongue. "It's been long overdue, and I would like for you to take responsibility."
Han Sung Soo fixed his glasses, looking thoroughly irked. "Is that not what we are trying to do, by you going to this program? You are a guaranteed finalist, Kaeun, with or without my interference."
She knew that. But, winning would only come at much too high a cost, as it meant she would have to leave her identity as After School behind. Moreover, she would have to leave her sisters for good, and leave Huh Yunjin to return back to the dungeon as a trainee. She understood now what Kahi-unnie told her then, and though the fear of letting go the chance to be much bigger than After School was consuming her, the notion of being responsible for After School's ultimate demise was something she could never shoulder, in this world and the next.
Winning - it was a trade she was not willing to make, especially at the expense of the legacy she was entrusted with.
She straightened her back and cleared her throat, prepared and unafraid. "It's a two and a half contract, sir. By then, I don't think any of us will be left, and I can't let them leave like that." This was the battle she should have picked up since the very beginning, instead of running away to make comfortable life for herself through the likes of some fixed, unfair survival show.
He sat there across from her, and the face that was previously blank with passive distress showed a glimmer hint of understanding.
"You wanted me to bring attention to After School, I have. I don't need to win—frankly, I don't want to. I have always been an After School member first, and I would like to remain that way."
Her CEO may claim the domain of this entire building and every single person in it, and everything might go as he says, but After School was hers first before it was his. It may have had taken a long time for her to wrap her fingers around such mindset, but eventually, she got there, and she would not let it go.
There was a long silence, before he leaned back to his chair, staring at her. "If this is what you wish, I'm afraid you will have to wait."
Kaeun was not disappointed, she had expected this. She had, and yet when she met his eyes, the statement angered her all the same.
Her throat was tight and filled with questions she had been dying to ask—
"What does it take for you to look at us, ever?"
"Have we not been waiting, this whole time?"
"What did we ever do, to deserve this kind of treatment?"
—yet she swallowed them all with patience and said instead, loud and clear. "This is what I wish, and with all due respect I'd like for you to shift your priorities, sir."
It was up to her now.
"We have our schedule set until the end of the year, what you're requesting for needs to wait," he said, waving his hand in dismissal.
"And you had our schedule set, too, back then." What she was going to propose was going to haunt her forever, no doubt. "Yet, you shuffled them around for Nu'est and Seventeen. You've done it before and you can do it again."
Han Sung Soo paused, hearing her underlying request. "Do you hear yourself?"
His question carried an unimaginable weight that Kaeun was prepared for.
It sounded spectacularly selfish and vile, and Kaeun never once thought she was going to be placed in this position, in her entire life. For someone who knew the workings of this industry, it was right down uncalled for, and it was supposed to make her stomach curl in guilt and blanch in disgust, and yet—
"I will not touch Seventeen or Nu'est."
She hadn't expected him to.
"I know." Kaeun's voice carry a degree of coldness that was never present before. "But they're not all that you have."
The tension intensifies.
"This conversation stays in this room." His voice was low and careful, and it reminded Kaeun of why he was in power in the first place.
By that point, Kaeun was too numb to feel the heavy implication behind her actions. "This conversation stays in this room," she repeated.
This was the next step she had decided to take, and rather than a step forward to the guaranteed spotlight, this was her turning back around to return to her sisters, back to the unknown.
This was her decision, and as much as she tried to convince herself that it was necessary, she left the office felling utterly unaccomplished.
(Later, Kaeun learned that this kind of victory felt a lot like the bitter taste of ash).
Lee Kaeun has decided she doesn't want to re-debut, and so she won't.
All around her, girls a decade younger are crying their eyes out, hands shaking with uncertainty and desperation and fear and exhaustion in their hearts. Their hands are clasped together so tightly their knuckles are turning white, and the pretty smiles that adorned their faces are wet with sweat and tears.
These girls, they mutter words of prayers and ask, beg, hope under their breaths to whoever is listening up there in this universe.
“At fourteenth place,”
Kaeun smiles, trust Pledis to be a number freak and give her the same rank Jonghyun got a year ago.
Hundreds of cameras turn to her, deadly and suffocating in their attempt to capture the slightest hint of emotion that Kaeun has refused to show throughout the show. She has kept it under control since day one, only putting on what is necessary according to the narrative, subtly transforming into an actress since the moment she stepped foot into this building.
There is no devastation, only relief that this is ending, once and for all.
And when the cameras are away from her face and filming has wrapped, Nayoung greets her with a smile that is somewhere between polite, vicious, and camera ready. "I hope it's going to be worth it," she says, cold and full of silent rage despite the sweet, sweet smile.
Kaeun takes her in a hug, and it is not an apology because she doesn't deserve forgiveness to begin with. Rather, it's a silent request for truce, and it's also hope that Nayoung will someday come to understand why she did what she did.
"What I don't understand is, why?"
At least if the conversation has to leave the room, it leaves from Kaeun's own mouth.
"He's giving After School a second chance, starting with warming up the audience with the idea of Yunjin becoming the new legacy."
Nayoung doesn't offer any congratulatory wishes. She is quick and smart, and Kaeun sees how the gears in her brains are working fast, piecing all the puzzle pieces together. At last, she stills. Her eyes are hard and the curves of her lips are tense.
"At what cost?"
Kaeun smiles ruefully, and Nayoung gets up, hands curled into fists in unimaginable anger.
"Wouldn't you have done the same?"
Kaeun shrugs off her uniform and folds it neatly, quietly saying thank you just to show her gratitude to the pair of cloth that has been in this journey with her for four months.
Nayoung leans against the locker next to her. "Never like this."
Kaeun takes the jibe. Again, she deserves it.
"But," Nayoung turns to her, arms crossed and expression unreadable. There is no hint of smile, but there is no explicit antagonism, so Kaeun will take her civil insights for what they are, from one idol to another. "I think it would have been more unforgivable if you had ended up as finalist today."
Kaeun pauses, finally registering the way her eyes are prickling with tears until her vision turns slightly blurry. This was what she was ignoring earlier, when the cameras were all over her. She tries to crush them down, but she lets a sob escape instead, because she thinks she gets to be vulnerable now, at last.
"It's not my dream anymore." Nayoung looks up, and she, too, seems to be blinking her tears away. "But it was yours, and it was the dream of those that I have admired from long ago. I would have hated you so much if you had let it collapse under your watch, so - thank you."
The world seem to suddenly revolve between the two, and nothing else.
The legacy and the wanna be.
The forgotten superstar and the nation's it girl.
Funny how when they are stripped away from all of these labels, they are back to the old Pledis building, two girls competing neck-to-neck, both dancing to the same choreography and aiming to hit the same vocal range, both climbing, running, and flying to shine among the stars.
Except the sky is vast and limitless, and it will perhaps take another eternity for them to reach the top of the pyramid.
"Unnie, why are you changing already, remember you promised me a sel - oh."
They both turn to see Huh Yunjin freezing by the door, eyes shifting nervously at the presence of Nayoung standing beside Kaeun. "I'm sorry," she stammers. "I should have knocked—I'm going to go."
Kaeun wipes the back of her hand over her eyes. "Yunjin, it's okay."
Nayoung pushes herself off the lockers and smiles to the younger. She straightens her dress and picks up her coat, getting ready to leave, probably to spend time with the other IOI members. Before she leaves the room, she pauses by the exit and says, "Well done, Yunjin-ah. You did great."
"Thank you, sunbaenim," Yunjin bows, earnest and full of respect.
One last time, Nayoung gives them both a long, wistful look, and smiles to herself, before closing the door behind her.
Perhaps this time, Nayoung can finally move on the same way Kaeun will.
"Let's go," Kaeun grins, and reaches out for Yunjin's hand, gripping it tightly in hers.
It is up to her now, to live up to her sisters' wishes.
She has fulfilled what she came here for.
Hand in hand with Yunjin, Kaeun leaves the room.
It is time to go back to her sisters, at last.