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“Gear? Their group name-it’s an inanimate object? A... gear ?”

“Yes,” Felix answered brightly, as if Minho was the one spewing nonsense. “I met the main rapper through a mutual friend years ago. The gear thing is actually cute, just listen.” He clasped his hands together on the long conference desk, occupied this evening by only the main and assistant producer of the idol industry’s most exciting travel variety show. Or, at least, that’s how Minho sold Explore the World to the managers and CEOs of the groups he hoped to cast on his newest season.

A short list of potential groups with perfectly normal idol names sat definitively between them.

“It’s like, the three of them are perfectly aligned,” Felix continued, “and if there’s a problem with even just one of them, the other cogs in the gear don’t turn, and they can’t move forward.”

He raised his hands to rest under his chin and stared forward. Not a single hint of challenge rested between his eyebrows, but unabashed expectation laid bare.

Minho blinked three times in response.

“It’s cute, I promise! I didn’t even tell Jisungie—my friend, the one I know most personally—that I’m talking to you about this. I just genuinely think they’d be great on the show. They’re all funny but with pretty distinct personalities, and they know enough English for the group to work for the U.S. season if Boss approves that location, which I think she will.”

“What about the title, though?” Minho countered. “Are we going to Explore the World on Gear’s Ladder ? That sounds absurd.” Ten seasons over five years, and they’d never once had this problem. The show had “Explored the World” on many group’s ladders, but none of those names were also objects. This, he was convinced, was a bad omen.

“What if we call it Ride Around the World on our Gear Shift ?” Felix asked.

“Are you hearing yourself right now? This is a family friendly show, pervert.”

Felix smiled so widely that, even if Minho was no closer to thinking the season could work with this particular set of idols, his own expression softened. Promoting Lee Felix to assistant producer was indeed a mistake, Minho thought, as he grabbed his pen and wrote “Gear” at the bottom of the list.

Felix heard that silent relenting loud and clear. “Do some research, hyung, you’re going to love them. Woojin is such a good leader, and Jisung really is ridiculous sometimes, but he’s naturally hilarious and adapts really well on camera, and Hyunjin is—“

“Okay, I get it, you like them, you’re in love with them, a quadruple wedding is planned for next summer, you’ve already bought your giant home on the countryside, I will do the research, I promise, and I’ll get back to you.”

“You will not be disappointed, hyung. Text me as soon as you have an opinion, I’m curious to hear what you think.” Felix knocked his knuckles against the desk as he popped up onto his feet. Minho didn’t look up from the list, but he heard the smile plastered across Felix’s voice nonetheless. “And for the record, I would never have a summer wedding. Who wants to sweat on their wedding day?”

“And I never thought I’d have to revise the entire name of my show to accommodate a guest, but here we are, Lee Felix.”

“If you’re already thinking about the new title that means—“

“I will see you tomorrow.” Minho got up to shuffle his assistant out of the room himself, but the ghost of Felix’s laugh lingered long after the door was shut.

Before leaving for the night, Minho placed a star next to five of the most promising groups; before thinking better of it, or maybe because he was hoping for the best of it, he placed a sixth next to “Gear,” shoved the paper unnecessarily deep into his bag, and shut off the light.

____________

Minho always started with the music. It didn’t matter how charismatic a group was; if their music wouldn’t make an appropriate soundtrack to his show, there was no use in pursuing them at all. So he spent the weekend with his too-expensive headphones on his too-sensitive ears.

The litmus test was tried and true by this point: he had to be able to listen to the most recent single more than three times in a row without wanting to somehow reach into his own brain and remove the memory of the melody himself. Only then could the group move on to the personality round.  

Minho often felt like a survival show judge. You just need more time to mature and develop he would mouth to an audience of lounging, fat cats who blinked unimpressed back at him.

When Saturday came to a close, only three potential stars of the newest season had moved on. And only one among those three had him scribbling potential title changes in the margins of his notebook. He had to ‘give it to Gear’ (a phrase he scribbled down, too, because if someone in their company hadn’t thought of that for a future reality show series of their own, they were not worthy of their jobs), the combination of fast and mid tempo rapping with honeyed vocals caused the various scenes of Minho’s show to dance behind his eyelids.

He tipped his head back against his couch, tapped his fingers on the armrest. He could picture it naturally, like it was always meant to be: a perfect dish stolen from the foodie of the group’s plate, an all-or-nothing come-from-behind victory, a night of games and laughter between best friends. Their music could accompany it all with just the melodies alone, but the lyrics were appropriate too. Triumph and heartbreak and loyalty.

He added the title track and his favorite bside to his workout playlist on spotify before pouring himself a glass of wine and opening YouTube.

Normally, he would have started back at the top of the list to conduct the rest of his research, but now that he’d paused the music, Felix’s voice filled the silence between his ears: You’re going to love them .

Minho doubted that. He always had fun working on this show--he wouldn’t put himself through the stress of getting an entire production crew to a new country for a sleepless week of constant care followed by months of mind-melting editing if he didn’t enjoy his job--but he never wanted to sit down and have a beer with his guests. No sooner did one season end than prepping for the next began. He never kept anyone’s number; he never kept up with anyone’s schedules.

It was a win, for most years, if he didn’t accidentally choose a group whose egos were larger than his pay grade required him to babysit. The memory of season three made him shudder, and he clicked on the most recent upload to Gear’s company website with a hope and a prayer that these guys weren’t the same combination of undeniable personality on camera and undeserving complaints and requests off.

He almost sloshed his wine all over his lap when the guy with the fullest cheeks howled in laughter three seconds into the video. “Jesus,” Minho mumbled as he sat the glass safely on the coffee table.

While the rest of the video wasn’t quite as jarring, the focus remained casual, lighthearted. The series, if he had to guess, centered on the behind the scenes of their promotional periods: a way for fans to feel more personally connected to their idols. His show, admittedly, was entertainment purely for the sake of entertainment. If the members could shine here, they could shine on Explore the World easily. Minho knew how to craft the perfect mission, the perfect game. All he needed were the right personalities.

He watched as the members played around in waiting rooms and in the backseats of vans. More laughter littered the fifteen minutes of footage, and more often than not, it was produced at cheek guy’s expense rather than from his own mouth. The members seemed able to tease each other easily, and the leader—Woojin, the captions thankfully provided—stepped in when the other two bickered too loudly.

A voice of reason was a requirement of his show. Not that it ever got out of hand; rather, the most reckless of choices only appeared reckless if the straight man was there to bury his face in his hands.

This pattern continued with each new video Minho watched. He eventually realized Jisung was the one with the cheeks, the one Felix knew, and Hyunjin was the one with that expressive face and voice and body language. Woojin wasn’t just a leader hyung, Minho decided by the time he picked up his phone to text Felix. On some days, he seemed playful, too, and it was Jisung who stood judging behind the other two. Sometimes, it was Hyunjin. The three rotated their roles, just slightly, depending on the mood of the others, and Minho hated that the stupid gear metaphor made stupidly perfect sense.

Lee Minho:
they’re not terrible

Lee Felix:
that is minho hyung speak for ‘i love them’ and i will take it

Lee Minho:
love is a strong word i am merely stating that they would not be bad for this show

Lee Felix:
as your personal translator, i know that to mean you’ve already emailed Boss about them and jisung will be calling me next week really excited that we get to work together

Lee Minho:
chan’s the one who translates for both of us i’m telling him you’re trying to take his job

Lee Felix:
I’ll text him now and tell him to expect you deflecting your defeat by complaining. see you at work on monday, hyung!

Minho scoffed, gulped down the rest of his wine, and exited all three of his open tabs: youtube, vlive, email.

_______________

Dear Mrs. Kang,

Listed below is my ranking after the usual tests. Gear will work especially well for the US season because of their English capabilities (not yet fluent but conversational-Chan can help us with the rest). The only hiccup is the name, since “Gear’s Ladder” sounds like the name of an angsty teen drama. My only suggestion is this: Gear Explores the World on our Ladder. Maybe we could even make it a point to theme the season around upping production involvement with the “our ladder” part. If you have a better idea, veto this one without remorse, please.

Let’s talk about this more on Monday. See you then.

All the best,
Lee Minho

_______________

“Wait, let me make sure I understand this correctly.”

“Sure,” Minho replied, not unkindly. His show wasn’t the typical reality setup: he was used to over-explaining. He settled back in the office chair facing away from its home at the conference desk and toward the members of Gear sitting on the couch against the far wall, waiting to clarify as much as he could.

“We’ll have individual or team missions to win stuff,” Woojin confirmed.

Minho watched Jisung nod from the middle seat in between his group mates as if it were his job to do the clarifying.

“Yes, usually for money to buy things in the city we’re visiting or to win a ladder reset pass.”

“And everything else is based on ladder games, where you all—“ he waved at Minho, Felix, and their consulting producer for English speaking locations, Chan, “—hide the outcomes at the bottom. We blindly choose a starting point at the top and then ride that line all the way down to decide our fate.”

“Correct. Usually, the ladder games happen for meals. When you’re not visiting tourist attractions, you’re eating at restaurants the city’s tourism board has agreed on. So, just as an example, we’d let you choose your dishes, order them for you, and then make you play a ladder game to decide who gets to eat their whole dish and who gets to eat only a single bite.”

Woojin looked like Minho just told him he was never allowed to eat again.

“It’s just luck, then? We really have no control over the outcome?” Hyunjin asked.

Felix brushed his hand along Minho’s knee to warn him he would answer this one. “You can appeal to us to request another opportunity at the ladder at anytime. We’ll give it to you, usually at a penalty of granting us a wish. Knowing when to accept your fate and when to continue pushing your luck is strategy in itself.”

“This sounds fun,” Jisung commented for the first time since the meeting started. He put his arms around his members and pulled them close. “I’m ready to kick both your asses.”

Woojin and Hyunjin, so simultaneously Minho wondered if their company hid a camera in his office and this entire interaction was scripted, dug their elbows into Jisung’s sides.

He screamed, an outside-voice kind of scream, and while the room erupted in laughter, Minho took a deep breath.

He’d handled five years of noise so far. Another week wouldn’t kill him.

_____________

“Wow, they’re really going to leech as much content out of this as they can, aren’t they?”

Hyunjin was technically correct: every waking minute for the next five days would be filmed and directed. Out of this much footage, each season of the show reached at least sixty-five episodes. The group was only taken away from their other promotions and obligations for less than a week while their fans got to enjoy videos for entire months.

Minho grabbed for his headphones out of the carry-on bag sitting in between his feet. Yes, the schedule was grueling on all of them, but he didn’t gain anything from listening to his stars complain; the shooting days would not magically get shorter.

He imagined at least two fifteen minute episodes coming from this private airport waiting lounge alone. While he ate the rest of his questionable sushi and quenched his thirst from the poor wine decisions the night before, Felix sat a row behind him, white board in his hands. Behind Felix were five cameras: one for each member, a wide, and a close-up. To keep costs low, they had to travel with as few crew members as possible when the destination was across the globe, but even still, twenty men and women scattered along the back of the lounge prepared for the first moment of filming while Gear chatted amongst themselves. Hyunjin was nervous, if the constant fiddling of his fingers was anything to go by, but Woojin and Jisung seemed relaxed.

“First ladder’s finished, hyung.” Felix leaned forward to hand him the whiteboard, and Minho inspected the outcomes at the bottom of each ladder rung. First class. Business class. “Producer class.”

“You went easy on them with the lines,” Minho noted. To decide how each starting point reached each outcome, the member would guide a small illustrated icon of their likeness down a series of lines drawn by the staff. Sometimes, they were simple and easy to follow; sometimes—usually when Minho allowed the group members to draw the lines themselves—the lines were absolutely convoluted. Sometimes even still, when a segment involved several games in a row, the staff got lazy and drew just a single line from each starting point to each outcome. Why bother with the pretense of the ladder rungs when it’s the prizes that really matter?

At the beginning of the show, though, the suspense was in the journey.

“If you’re ready to get started, I’ll prep the members?”

Minho nodded. As Felix headed to the far side of the room, he turned to his staff to confirm that the cameras were set, that the mics were in place, that there was no nori stuck in his teeth.

When his assistant finished finger-gunning with Jisung, Minho waved him back to the staff’s side of the lounge, and they both took their seats on the floor below the line of cameras. He knew that viewers could occasionally see him when a scene involved a member appealing to production, but the majority of the show involved his voice rather than his face.

“Gear, welcome to your very own season of Explore the World !” Minho began from off-screen.

The members cheered with a seasoned level of excitement.

“Have you watched the show before?”

Hyunjin responded most enthusiastically by explaining the concept of Explore the World to the viewers at home, just like Felix instructed him to do. They had in fact done some homework after the initial meeting where the group, along with their managers, accepted the offer.

“Today, we’re finally flying to Nashville, Tennessee to start your trip, but you won’t be flying together.”

Minho watched as Jisung’s eyes stretched comically wide. Their reactions from this point forward were unscripted, and any doubt Minho had that the members wouldn’t pop on his screen the way they did when they were comfortably in their own element dissipated as Woojin asked if the staff was going to shove them in the overhead compartments of the plane.

“Fortunately not,” he answered. The post-production laughing captions were practically permanent above his head as amusement showed in his voice. “but we will be deciding who gets the best seat on the plane, and who gets the worst seat. One of you will be able to sit in first class, where you can relax in your seat, stretch your feet, and enjoy a luxurious meal. One of you will be able to sit in business class, in the window seat, where you’ll be able to see countries pass by below you. And finally-you all remember that you’re traveling the world on our ladder this season, right?”

Each member tried to piece the riddle together as they nodded.

“The losing member will get a business class middle seat, squished in between two production members,” Minho finally revealed.

The punishment wasn’t actually that severe, and they didn’t yet know that as soon as the cameras were off, they’d spend the fifteen additional hours of the flight in the seat of their choice, but Gear did not hesitate to exaggerate their reactions as if Minho just told them they would all have to walk to the United States.

Felix passed Woojin the white board.

Both producers took a deep breath: their talking was done. It was now up to the members to narrate the rest of the segment.

Imagining what the viewers would see, how their fans would quote and gif and make fan edits of these moments, Minho watched as the members argued nonsensically over who would place their icon where. There were only three choices, and there was absolutely no way to know which line would lead to which outcome, but Gear treated the game like it were a matter of life or death.

As the tension between them grew, the tension clamped between Minho’s shoulder blades loosened.

“I’m the glue that holds this group together, so I will be the one taking the middle spot, naturally,” Jisung argued.

“Yah, don’t speak so highly of yourself,” Hyunjin countered. “You’ll be the middle line because you’ll be taking the middle seat , genius.”

Jisung’s confident smile faltered, like he genuinely hadn’t thought of that, and Woojin laughed, not exactly at his dongsaeng, but enjoying in his absent-mindedness nonetheless. The leader allowed Hyunjin to take the first line, settling his icon in the final spot on the board.

“Can we go?” Hyunjin appealed to the staff, and Minho nodded.

Hyunjin reached forward to ride his icon down the ladder, but no sooner had his fingers touched the board did he jump back with a yell just barely contained by the privacy door of their lounge.

“Why is this so scary? How are we going to do this for the rest of the week? Hyung, I’m scared.”

Woojin patted the now-hiding Hyunjin behind his back and seemed to take pity on him. He bravely moved forward to go first.

Minho almost forgot he had the privilege of knowing where each seat laid on the board; he held his breath as Woojin followed the lines down to the second outcome. He peeled back the sticky note hiding Felix’s handwriting quickly, like a bandaid.

Hyunjin yelled. Again. Jisung groaned. Woojin clarified:

“Business class means the window seat, right? Not the middle seat?”

Minho nodded again, knowing no camera would pan to him for an answer, and Hyunjin raced forward to race his icon down the ladder, knowing no amount of stalling would delay his fate.

In his excitement, he didn’t consider the view of the camera. His body blocked the reveal of the sticky note, but Minho didn’t think it’d much matter when his reaction sent him flopping all the way down to the floor.

Jisung stood silent, staring disbelieving at Hyunjin’s prize: first class.

“We don’t have to look at it, we don’t have to see it, I don’t want to look at it,” he chanted knowingly, but Woojin ignored him for ripping off the final bandaid.

“Producer class, wahhhhh,” the leader cheered, and Hyunjin sat up to laugh in his friend’s face, and Jisung buried his face in his hands.
_____________

It was Chan and a camera director who accompanied Hyunjin in first class while everyone else filed into the rightmost side of the business cabin.

Mrs. Kang, who left all on-location, improvised decision-making to Minho, demanded that if sitting with the production staff would be the punishment for the first ladder game, Minho and Felix would have to be the ones to frame the unlucky member.

The assistant producer Felix replaced was only fired because they inappropriately hooked up with a group member while on set, and while Minho didn’t expect that would happen again (apparently, the two had been dating for months, but no one in either company knew they were even acquainted before filming), he couldn’t help but to be amused that both companies did know that Felix and Jisung were friends and yet heteronormativity insulated the exact same concern as long as it wasn’t a female staffer who got close to the members.

Regardless of the faulty logic, Minho pulled rank to snag the window seat while Felix sat on the aisle. A small handheld camera was fastened to the seat in front of them, and two rows back, a second camera followed Woojin’s every movement. Although the members would treat the filming like selfie cams for the comfort of the other passengers on the plane who did not sign up for an entire television production on their sixteen hour flight, Minho could not retreat to the sanctity of his headphones if the punishment were to have any kind of consequence. For the next hour,  Minho was as much a part of his show as he was producing it.

Against his instincts, he listened to Jisung and Felix’s take-off talking.

“It’s so weird to see you looking so professional. Aren’t you still the dork I played Mario Kart with in  Seungmin and Changbin hyung’s basement?”

“Really? It’s not at all weird to see you failing miserably at ladder games when I kicked your ass then, too.”

“Yah,” Jisung countered. “This is only luck. Wait until we get an actual mission. I’ll become the star .”

“You’re shameless,” Felix said fondly, and as Minho had to lean closer to the window to avoid the arm Jisung folded behind his head, he thought that yeah, shameless would be the way to describe what he knew of Han Jisung so far.

As they had filed onto the plane, Jisung sang a song—not a hum, not a mumble under his breath—he belted a melody to the beat of the slamming overhead compartments. He sang and he stumbled, over nothing but air, and he smiled at Hyunjin sincerely as they parted for separate areas of the cabin, the competition from just an hour ago disappearing in the space between them.

Minho would have to be shameless, too, if there was to be any useable footage from this punishment.

“Felix, can you pass me a water bottle?” he asked innocently, reaching his arm across Jisung’s face, careful not to cut a knowing eye toward the camera.

“Why are you drinking mine? Don’t you have your own?” Felix asked without looking up.

When Minho didn’t respond, he peeked over, and he laughed at just how much of Jisung was hidden behind Minho’s arm. Felix quickly decided to play along: he held his water bottle up to his cheek and pretended to contemplate his decision in order to prolong Jisung’s suffering.

Minho couldn’t split his mind between producing—thus monitoring what the members were doing and how the show was able to capture those actions in the most entertaining way—and participating, it seemed, as he looked on in amusement at Felix without considering how Jisung might react to the situation.

“Ow—what the f—“ Minho exclaimed, wrenching his arm to his chest. He alternated staring at a set of faint bite marks just above his elbow and Jisung, who looked back at him squarely, a toothy smile that rivaled Felix’s stretched across his lips. In the moments where Minho should have been plotting revenge, for the sake of his arm and for the sake of the cameras, he instead considered that Jisung’s mouth was just as pretty as Felix’s, but less perfect. Large and lopsided, and Minho stared, dumbfounded, all the same, the dull pain in his arm disappearing to nothing at all.

Felix took Minho’s lack of reaction as a potential alarm bell, not that he’d ever given Naver a reason to release articles questioning how strict Explore the World staff was with their talent, but Felix had learned quickly that, behind the scenes, silence from Lee Minho usually meant a line of some kind had been crossed, so he naturally took over admonishing Jisung, just in case. A string of sorry, sorry, sorry, sorry crowded the cabin before Felix encouraged him to do whatever he wanted with the camera for the rest of the hour, rest-assured that his seat-mates would treat the flight normally, with no other overt gags.

Jisung leaning over long after the plane reached cruising altitude to quietly whisper daebak out the window tested Minho sooner than he expected. He knew the captions on the screen would probably refer to Jisung’s excitement at flying to America despite his punishment, so Minho allowed him to lean over his lap as long as he liked rather than pushing his head back with a single pointer finger to the forehead.

He imagined getting Jisung out of his space in such detail that he didn’t realize the torso in his lap was talking to him until Jisung repeated his question for the second time.

“Are you okay, pd-nim?” he asked, staring at Minho’s arm. “The members always tell me I take it too far when I try to be funny. Did I hurt you?”

Even when he sat up, Jisung’s eyes stayed trained on where the bite mark would have still left indentions in Minho’s arm if he’d applied more pressure.

“You didn’t take it too far,” Minho felt the need to clarify, even if he wasn’t sure if that was true. “It’ll be funny in the episode, and no, it didn’t hurt, I was just…surprised, that’s all.”

“Well, I was surprised when I had a tricep in my face. Carnal instinct took over.”

Minho’s eyes narrowed. “Presented with flesh, your instinct is to bite?”

“Actually, it’s to kiss, ask Hyunjin, Felix, or Woojin hyung, but strangers get the teeth.” He tapped his front tooth emphatically.

Some instinct of his own must have taken over because Minho found himself presenting a finger to Jisung’s mouth. He didn’t expect anything less, but the feeling of Jisung’s teeth clamping down on the sides of his pointer had him giggling all the same.

Jisung was shameless and absurd . Perfect for variety shows. Perfect for his show .

“We can turn the cameras off now,” Felix noted from beside them, fingers to himself, unsurprised at Minho’s in between Jisung’s teeth.

“Did I give you enough?” Jisung asked once Minho took his hand back to help his assistant unscrew the camera from the seat back. “I don’t mind keeping it on for longer—it’s not like I have much else to do on a flight this long.”

“There will only be about thirty seconds of footage from the plane total, so no worries,” Felix explained. “We’ll focus more on the pre-show interviews where you guys talked about where you wanted to travel to and why and then the first ladder game itself rather than the punishments.”

“At this point, fans of the show know that the punishments don’t actually mean much of anything,” Minho added. “We still let you all eat what you want or sleep wherever you want or do whatever you want, basically. The fun is in playing the game itself. Speaking of which, though: The staff with Hyunjin up at the front will switch with you and Woojin. You guys can all sit in first class.”

The sound director sitting next to Woojin must have relayed the same message since Jisung called after his leader standing in the aisle, clearly waiting for him so they could both walk up to the front of the plane.

“I’m just going to stay here, hyung.” He cut his eyes to Minho’s arm. “Why don’t you go up and take my place? Payment for the incident .”

“Uh, I’m good to stay here,” Minho replied. He was used to these flights by now. Not even the height bothered him much these days. “Jisung, it’s okay, really, you can go.”

“You sure?”

“We bought the seats for you three, I promise. It’s going to be a long week, take as much rest as you can.” Minho punctuated his point by nodding to the front of the plane.

Jisung still looked hesitant, but he did join his leader eventually, and Felix slid over in the middle seat to give the Chan, the first class-rejectee, as much room as he could amongst the peasants.

Minho finally pulled out his headphones, his neck pillow, too, and tried to take his own advice. It was going to be a long week. He should rest.
_____________

Gear were professionals: as soon as the cameras starting rolling in the parking lot of the Nashville accommodation, the grogginess sagging their eyelids and weighing their limbs vanished. Each member snapped to attention with a smile plastered across their face.

Minho could have worked them through the night with a mission or a barbecue, but he’d found over the years that the first night’s sleep was integral to the energy of the following five days. So, he asked, “You’ve had a hard flight, right?”

Given permission to show exhaustion, the members allowed their shoulders to sag once more.

“You’ll be able to sleep soon, and in a bed more comfortable than a plane seat, too.”

Woojin, ever observant, noted, “That’s not saying much, pd-nim. We could be laying on a mat on the floor and that would technically be more comfortable than sleeping on the flight.”

“You won’t be sleeping on the floor,” Felix reassured. “Behind you is a luxury townhouse, with balcony view of downtown Nashville, fully stocked kitchen, king size beds, and a rooftop hot tub.”

Hyunjin and Jisung turned to each other, disbelieving, while Woojin smiled widely but knowingly at the crew.

“What’s the catch?” he asked.

Felix passed over a newly-arranged whiteboard, this time with only two options, both covered with sticky notes.

“Either you will all 3 have to sleep squished in the same bed, or you all 3 get your own king-size bed,” Minho explained.

Jisung didn’t waste any time slinging his arms around his group mates’ necks and proclaiming that he’d be happy to sleep all together since he loved his friends “just that much.”

Hyunjin peeled Jisung’s arm back. “I love you, too, but not enough to want to hear you chatting all night long.”

“I don’t talk that much,” Jisung insisted. “Hyung’s the one who snores.”

Minho tried following the bickering, but Felix leaning over made him lose sight of who had the best argument.

“Jisungie deflects almost as much as you do,” he whispered, and Minho sneered, offended on his own behalf and on behalf of Han Jisung. Felix ignored his expression and added, “He’s actually honest to a fault when he’s not being silly.”

“Okay?” Minho responded, eyes on the group, still in deep discussion.

“Just didn’t want you to think he’s an emotionless robot or something.”

“One, that implies you think I’m an emotionless robot. Two, why would I care about anything pertaining to the artist that’s not related to filming this show? And three, did you forget about that part, that we’re currently in the middle of a shoot?” When Felix rolled his eyes, Minho added a sweet, “My lovely assistant producer?” and pinched his cheek teasingly.

They both turned back to the action to see Hyunjin insist that Jisung would be the one to sleep in the middle because he’s the smallest while Jisung declared that to be utterly unfair since he had to take the middle seat on the plane. None of the members mentioned the fact that they all got to sit first class for the majority of the flight, to which Minho was thankful. They seemed to have caught on quickly.

“We can figure that out if we actually lose this game,” Woojin reasoned, finally.

Luckily, a fight over which of the two lines they’d pick did not break out, and a simple game of rock, paper, scissors decided that they’d choose the left.

Minho let out a breath, knowing they’d made the right choice.

_____________

While the principal crew were wrapping up filming outside, a few staffers were already inside of the townhouse, installing cameras in the bedrooms and the living and kitchen areas. The members would have the control to turn off the cameras at whichever point they wanted to go to sleep, but any preparing for bed/waking up footage would help to transition scenes across filming days and to provide fans with “humanizing” content of their idols—as human as a celebrity could be when they knew they were being filmed.

Felix prepped the members on taking a tour of the entire townhouse first—they were, after all, advertising this building for the city, and the network was being paid kindly for them to do so—choosing their rooms second, and appealing to the in-room cameras while they got ready for bed, whenever and however they chose to do so, third.

After dismissing the staff and crew once filming of the exterior shots of the building was completed, Minho waited in the town house’s kitchen to debrief Woojin on the following morning’s activities.

“I hope everything went well today, pd-nim,” Woojin began as he made his way across the living room to the large, marble-topped island where Minho sat. He was already barefoot and barefaced in t-shirt and shorts.

“You guys did great, don’t worry. We just have to sustain that for the next five days.”

Woojin took a breath and nodded, resolute. “So what’s the plan for tomorrow?”

“We’ll have cameras set up outside by 9am, and Felix will enter the townhouse and turn on the interior cameras at 8am so we can get some footage of you all waking up. We’ll also have fruit and coffee stocked for you to have a light breakfast. You’ll be eating pretty much the whole day after the morning mission in the backyard, so I wouldn’t suggest over-doing it, but we like to have some shots of you all sitting around the island and starting your morning together, if that’s comfortable for you guys.”

“No-can-do, pd-nim, we actually hate each other in real life, you’re going to catch all of our behind the scenes fighting, but you have to promise not to air it,” Woojin joked.

“You’d be surprised at some of the dynamics we’ve seen actually.”

“You’ll have to tell me about it sometime,” Woojin replied, and Minho almost wondered if he was being flirted with, but with each word, Woojin sounded more and more sleepy, what could have been a suggestive-smile growing more and more lopsided, so he let it go as easily as Woojin allowed Minho to usher him off his chair and toward the stairs to the bedrooms.

Just as Minho turned to head to his own hotel accommodation, an equally sleepy “hyung” stopped him with his hand on the doorknob.

He turned, expecting to see that Woojin had wandered back into the main living area, but it was a messy-haired Jisung, cheeks even puffier than usual, looking confused at Minho’s mere existence in the kitchen.

“Hyung?”

“Ah,” Jisung replied sheepishly and sleepily, “Sorry, hyung…nim?”

Minho placed his hands on his hips. “It’s been less than a day and I’ve already lost all authority. Note to future self: don’t let the talent bite you, they start to get lippy.”

The confidence that radiated off of Jisung on camera enveloped him even still. Standing in baggy night shirt and boxers, he beamed a grin at the producer. Shameless , Minho thought once more.

“Sorry,” he eventually did apologize. “Felix has told me enough about you that I lumped you together with him in my head.”

“You should refer to him formally, too, for the record, but I care less about that than what Felix has said about me.” Against the better judgment ached in his lower back, Minho sat back down at the island, this time on the stool closest to the door. “Spill.”

Jisung’s eyes shifted from Minho to the camera blinking above their heads. “Maybe we should turn that off, hyung. Everyone’s gone to sleep.”

“Wow, is it that bad?” Minho half-joked. He feared the nervous chuckle accompanying him to the camera’s power button gave him away.

“Not really,” Jisung confessed simply. “But as soon as we got a chance to talk without the cameras on the plane, I had to move seats.”

“Don’t expect this week to go much differently than that—we film everything while you’re awake, and you should sleep as much as you can when the cameras do finally turn off.”

“Do you really not want to talk to me that bad, hyung? I’m hurt—“

Jisung pouted in a way Minho didn’t think he’d ever seen a grown man pout before.

“No, this is just, not the time or the place, really, for any of that. We try to stay pretty focused.”

“But you’re the one who sat back down,” Jisung noted, eyes flickering from the stool to his eyes.  

Minho felt the control he usually had on these shoots slip from his fingers and pile at his feet. He imagined Jisung making sand castles with the remnants.

“Okay, well, if you didn’t have anything to say about Felix’s impressions of me, then I’m going to go—“

He made to get up, but Jisung’s arms were on him, pushing his shoulders back down.

“Fine, I’ll tell you.” Jisung ran his fingers through his hair. Unwashed and thick with the hairspray their stylists clouded around them this morning, his strands remained where his hands led them.

For Gear’s main rapper’s image, Minho was happy the cameras were off. For his own view of Han Jisung, he was happy he stayed.

“He said it was hard to get close to you at first because he couldn’t read you but that you were really funny once he loosened up.”

“What about you?” Minho couldn’t help but to ask when Jisung said nothing he didn’t already know. “Is this you loosened up?”

“You tell me. You’re not that funny yet.”

Jisung stared at him with a challenge worthy of a ladder board, and Minho wasn’t willing, couldn’t be willing, to take that ride.

“I’ll see you in the morning,” he answered, finally turning the door knob.

“Night, hyung” was all he heard before the nighttime silence surrounded him.

_____________

Explore the World was less of a travel show—even less of a show about ladder games—and more of a show about eating.

“Pick all the dishes you want,” Felix prompted from the producers’ usual spot sitting below the line of cameras. This time, they were on the banquet-room floor of a restaurant hand-chosen by Mrs. Kang from a list of popular tourist eateries sent over by the city.

Maybe Explore the World was most honestly an advertisement. While Minho and his team had control over the missions, the games, the punishments, and the narrative arc, the reason they could continue to produce this show year after year was because of the monetary and tourism relationship their company had with the cities they traveled to.

So, while Minho didn’t pick the restaurants himself, in all of his years of working on the show, he’d never seen a group walk away unsatisfied, especially when they ate for free for an entire week.

Even still, the members of Gear were especially instructed by Felix in this afternoon’s debriefing to talk through the menu’s various options in order to properly advertise the establishment.

Once the final dishes were chosen and Chan helped to relay them to the kitchen, Minho appealed to the group.

“You’re hungry, right?”

The members nodded quickly, and Minho knew from the sound of his own stomach grumbling that they weren’t lying. The morning was busy: a ladder re-set game in the backyard when the sun wasn’t yet highest in the sky but the humidity was still fierce, and a warmer, early afternoon mission running downtown, chasing after murals and some extra cash for spending in Nashville. In the spirit of the re-name, Minho, Felix, and Chan all competed against Gear in the mural-hunt, and as he chased the sound of Hyunjin and Jisung screaming block after block, Minho felt not for the first time this trip that he could never actually survive starring on his own show.

He was sweaty; he was annoyed at Chan for being annoyed at him; he was tired, already, and it was only 2pm.

Led by Woojin’s speed and Jisung’s attention to detail, Gear had beaten the production staff easily. Minho didn’t necessarily care to win, but he also didn’t care to have Hyunjin rub the loss in his face, either, which he did, happily, for the cameras and maybe for Minho’s overly cocky taunting at the start.

That was probably why when Felix ceremoniously passed the white board over to Woojin, Minho secretly hoped Hyunjin would lose disastrously for the first time since filming started.

The odds were stacked against all of them, actually.

“Did we grow seven members?” Jisung joked as they all gazed at the widest expanse of ladder rungs yet.

“For this game, there isn’t just a best, middle, and worst outcome like you’ve played in the past,” Minho explained. “There are ten starting points, leading you to ten potential numbers of dishes. Five of these options say zero.”

He paused while Jisung’s eyes widened, and Hyunjin’s forehead slammed into the table in despair. Woojin began calculating his choice immediately.

“Of the six remaining options, half will say two and half will say three,” he finished.

“So we could all get nothing or, theoretically, we could all get everything we ordered?”

Minho confirmed, and then he allowed the chaos to ensue before him unmediated.

“There’s no way they’d put all the zeros together at the front,” Jisung reasoned seriously. The members huddled together like they were deciding the game-winning play. “There has to be a high number in the first five spots. I’m going for line number three.”

“Wait, wait, wait,” Hyunjin pleaded. “How are you deciding that fast?”

“I’m going with nine,” Woojin declared suddenly, and Hyunjin’s expression grew even more fretful. “Nine is a multiple of three, so subconsciously, they’d place it there.”

“Oh, that’s good logic, hyung,” Hyunjin noted with sincere amazement at his leader.

He wasn’t as apt to talk out his process like his fellow members, though. Instead, Hyunjin grabbed his icon magnet and hovered it over the fifth starting line. As he did so, he cut his eyes quickly over to the producers, gauging their reactions.

It was a smart strategy, one Minho was surprised to realize he hadn’t seen a member use before. Maybe that was because it was unlikely to work; Minho thought himself an expert in keeping his expression neutral: while filming, while fielding suggestions from his staff, while enduring terrible jokes from his friend Jeongin.  

Felix, however, by the nature of his tenure and the nature of his temperament, was not as experienced.

“Oh, oh, oh,” Hyunjin yelled, as Felix’s face must have shown a grimace. He shifted his icon further down a line. “Okay, I’m going with six, maybe they spaced them out evenly.”

“Da-da da da da-da, Da-da da da da-da,” they all chanted as Woojin, consistently bravest, started from the farthest side of the board.

He reached the bottom of the third rung, and as soon as he revealed a bold “three” behind his sticky note, Jisung and Hyunjin grabbed onto each other for comfort, not sparing even a moment to celebrate their leader’s victory.

Nonetheless, Woojin still did a small dance that somehow didn’t look as dorky as it actually was.

For a gag and for graciousness toward his friend, Minho suspected, Jisung covered Hyunjin’s eyes and guided his arm down the ladder rungs for him so he wouldn’t have to face the stress of the ride himself.

When Jisung was the one to reveal the “two” at the end of Hyunjin’s line, he slapped the back of his friend’s head and arm, upset just as quickly as he was kind.

“You could still get a two or three, too,” Woojin reminded him, but Jisung wasn’t listening.

“I have a higher chance of getting a zero,” he complained as he rode his icon quickly down the ladder.

The “zero” behind his sticky note was a foregone conclusion.

Jisung stared at the board in dismay for just a few seconds before he turned his attention to Minho, even taking a few steps in front of the table facing the cameras.

“Pd-nim.” He was clearly speaking only to Minho, even if the hyung he’d thrown at him off-camera throughout the day was just as clearly replaced. “I’ll do whatever you want me to do. I’ll give you five wishes, I’ll give you back the money I won this morning, I will sing you a song.”

Before Minho could answer, Jisung was holding a pretend microphone up to his mouth and moving even farther forward, leaning down to cup Minho’s cheek as he serenaded a love song it took Minho a second too long to recognize when all his mind registered was the fact that Jisung could not just rap, he could also sing.

Minho leaned back far enough that Jisung understood to take his hand away and somewhere between not wanting the staff or the group to think the assistant was being ignored and not trusting what might come out of his own mouth, Minho nodded at Felix to make the decision of how to handle Jisung’s appeal.

“Woojin rightfully won a ladder re-set pass this morning. If you can get him to agree to allow you to choose again, we’ll support that decision.”

So close to getting his way, Jisung spun on his heels and aegyo’d his way over to his hyung so fiercely that Hyunjin covered his eyes, just as terrified of his friend’s shamelessness as he was of the game itself.

“Add on a TMI to the camera, and you can choose again,” Woojin answered, even though Minho was sure he’d let Jisung pass with no questions asked.

“Hmmm.” Jisung gathered his thoughts amongst the ceiling tiles and then settled his gaze on Minho rather than Woojin or the camera labeled ‘Han Jisung’ above Minho’s head.

“I like to be the little spoon,” he said.

The fans will love that, the producer in Minho couldn’t help but to think.

The rest of him blushed.

He was a grown man, not a teenager; he was at work; more than twenty people surrounded them.

Yet he couldn’t fight the flittering images of sheets and hands and skin.

It took Woojin pushing Jisung toward the white board for him to finally look away from Minho and take the re-set he so diligently worked to receive.

It took Woojin and Hyunjin chanting the ladder game jingle for Minho to blink away his unwanted thoughts and return to the present.

In the end, the charade didn’t matter; Jisung’s bad luck continued with yet another zero at the end of his ladder ride.

Not even that mattered, though, when after fifteen minutes of filming Hyunjin and Woojin happily eating their dishes while Jisung pouted, Woojin passed one of his dishes on to him, and Hyunjin shared half of his sides.

“It’s a good thing you couldn’t get anything, Jisungie” Woojin noted some time later, when all three members sat slumped back in their chairs, hands on their stomachs. “This was still way too much food.”

Even without the huge American portions, and even with deprivation being an inevitability, abundance was a part of the fabric of the show, and Minho was used to passing the leftover food to his staff at the end of an eating segment.

What Minho wasn’t used to was food being held up to his lips and a quiet “eat, hyung” urging him forward.  

Minho stared at the perfectly arranged bite—pasta, twirled; a piece of steak, bite-sized; sauce, coated but not drowned—before looking up at Jisung, who kneeled before him with persistent eyes and an encouraging grin.

He took the bite into his mouth, careful not to touch his lips to the fork, and when Jisung settled his thighs back on his heels to watch Minho chew, he nodded: a confirmation that the food was indeed delicious and a thank you for the generosity.

Ten seasons, and five years, and two assistants, and four countries, and today, of all days, was full of firsts.

_____________

The following couple of days followed suit: a race against the summer heat in the morning, more food than any of them could eat in the afternoon and the evening, and as many missions, games, and tourist attractions as possible in between.

No matter how many times the producers tried to save him with a game ridiculous enough only he could win, Jisung’s bad luck continued. In the notes scribbled in the journal Felix always kept in his back pocket was a running tally of wishes the members would have to cash in at the final feast the following evening. Felix let Jisung off the hook the first day by allowing Woojin to make the call, but since then, every time any of three of them appealed to production, a re-set was graciously granted, but at a cost.

So far, Hyunjin owed them one wish. Jisung owed them three. Woojin, who rightfully won the most re-sets fairly, owed them none.

Only one game in three days did Woojin have the worst luck amongst them, and he took his punishment on the chin. He had to travel alone, by foot, to the bar where Gear was to burn the midnight oil while Hyunjin and Jisung were driven by Chan in an air conditioned, rented car.

In an effort to not totally inebriate him by the end of the night, Minho required Woojin to rehydrate plentifully before filming officially began--a decision not-so frequent in his playbook.

Even though all of the groups Explore the World worked with were of-age as a requirement of the contract all parties signed before filming ever began, and even though many dinners included beer as drinks of choice, Minho couldn’t think of a time when a bar was so visible in a season.  It was impossible to sell this city without showcasing its nightlife, though, so they’d filmed b-roll of a bartender mixing drinks, of locals—whose faces would be blurred in post-production—holding beer necks while they line-danced, and of rows of liquor bottles lining the entirety of the interior.

The most important to change to the usual agenda was this: instead of playing ladder games, the members were instructed to play drinking games.

Representative of the clash of hip hop and r&b Gear infused in their music and a seemingly opposite tradition of American country and folk music for which this season was themed—sometimes explicitly, like exploring the museums on yesterday’s agenda and sometimes implicitly, like in the editing choices that would be made months from now—Chan facilitated a cultural exchange: a patron who agreed to sign the appropriate release form to be shown on camera taught the members an American drinking game after which the man joined in on a game of bunny, bunny.

So by the time they had finished the night of drinking, listening to live music, and dancing, even with Woojin’s carefully-moderated water intake, Minho and his staff found themselves babysitting more than they ever had to in the past.

Hoping the cooling nighttime air would sober them up enough to play the object-identification game planned back in the living room of their accommodation, Chan suggested that the producers walk the members back to the townhouse rather than piling in the warm, crowded, possibly nausea-inducing cars the rest of the staff would take.

They walked, two-by-two, back down the same route Woojin traversed hours ago. This time, it was more of a punishment for the staff than the members.

With alcohol in him, Hyunjin became impossibly giggly. Any time anyone spoke, no matter if it was the staff, his group mates, or even himself, he collapsed all of his weight into Felix, who was tasked with guiding him down the sidewalk one block over from the busy downtown strip.

Woojin’s composure was, for once, a facade, as he insisted he was fine to walk alone without Chan’s hand on his elbow, but no sooner did Chan pull away did Woojin stop dead in his tracks, silently staring ahead before laughing breathily to himself and wordlessly accepting the steadying arm on his next step.

Maybe it was because Minho had already decided to classify sober Jisung as unpredictable, but when he was, by default, left to walk by Jisung’s side, he didn’t feel that much of a difference from any of the other times they’d interacted.

Jisung looked over at him, eyebrows raised, eyes expectant, as their bare arms brushed with each wobbly step.

“I wonder what you’d be like drunk.”

“Why would you think about that at all?” was Minho’s response.

He didn’t expect an actual answer, but Jisung kept talking. Jisung was always talking.

“I remember when Felix first told me about you. You forced the CEO to hire on a translator even though Lix spoke English so he could focus on producing without having to code switch when he’d already worked so hard at adapting to Korea. I don’t know if you know how much that meant to him—he was so grateful, and he was sure you didn’t hate him because of that, but he still couldn’t really read you at all. But I don’t know. You don’t seem that complicated to me. You just look so serious all the time while we’re filming—“ He went to poke Minho’s cheek, but Minho moved with faster reflexes tonight and dodged the touch. “I think you’d give even more away if you were having fun. Not even drunk, I’m not even that drunk, really, just—relaxed. I wonder what you’d look like relaxed.”

“Too bad you’ll never know,” Minho replied, eyes ahead, voice even.  

Not reading Minho’s tone or simply choosing to ignore it, Jisung leaned into him as they walked step-in-step, and Minho was grateful for Chan’s suggestion, grateful that they weren’t pressed shoulder to elbow in the back of a car, grateful that he could move toward the edge of the sidewalk and breathe, that there was no one behind them, watching as Jisung continued to push against every boundary Minho so carefully constructed, not just in his professional life, not just because he could be the second producer fired in two years if he thought for even a second just how easy it could be to flirt back, but fences erected in the cracks of those uneasy moments where he wondered if he was being seen more than he ever wanted to be.

He sat below the cameras; he hid behind the walls.

Tonight, he made the mistake of looking to his right.

Jisung was waiting for him with a look of his own.

“I want to know.” Jisung said to the sky, feeling what little breeze the southern night offered them across his face. “Just so we’re clear. I want to know what you’re like when there’s no cameras.”

“Isn’t that my line?” Minho asked honestly. “You’re supposed to be the idol who puts on a persona on stage and a fan wish-fulfillment mask when you have to film all this bullshit outside of promotions, not me.”

Jisung shrugged. “How is what I have to do any different from what any of us do? You don’t have to be a performer to perform. Honestly, I’d be just as conscious of my image if I passed you on the street as I am standing in front of your camera.”

Minho led them across the intersection that sat in front of the townhouse wordlessly. Jisung didn’t push any further, not ignoring the tone this time, and he didn’t pull him closer, either. He walked by his side, blabbering on about nothing that much mattered, and Minho allowed himself to believe that he too could oscillate between the significant and the mundane just as seamlessly, that, for the final twenty feet before they arrived at the door, they were just two friends arguing over what the hell a honky tonk even meant and who had the perfect pun in Korean.

Although they’d made it back without incident, Minho still trusted his own dexterity over the smell of liquor still coming off of Jisung in waves, so he reached across his body to open the back door for the both of them, not for even a second considering that his arm was once again over Jisung’s face.

Four days and four sixteen hour shoots and almost seven thousand miles, and Minho was naive enough to think Han Jisung, with his unnervingly-immediate kindness and familiarity, still considered him a stranger.

No one was out on the dark porch to see Jisung’s lips brush over Minho’s bare skin, and maybe Minho wouldn’t even have felt the touch, light and leaving just as swiftly as it arrived, if Jisung didn’t whisper a quick and quiet “I won’t do that again, I promise” before pushing past him to go inside.

_____________

“Thirty minute break before we set up for the game?” Felix asked as soon as Minho entered the kitchen.

“You okay?” he asked when Minho didn’t reply.

“Yeah. I’m going to start setting up now—I don’t need a break, but you all rest. Brief the guys and ask Chan hyung if he needs anything, it couldn’t have been easy to translate with that much commotion going on inside the bar. I’ll be out on the back porch if you need me.”

It was one in the morning; the stars were bright and their stars were half-drunk and fully exhausted, but their work was not over. Tonight, Minho was thankful for that.

As much as he knew standing outside would amplify every thought still lingering in his head from five minutes ago, he also couldn’t imagine sitting on the couch in the living room as Jisung walked past him, the pair of them secret keepers to the sensation that refused to leave Minho’s forearm as easily as the bite had. So he set to work gathering the common household items scattered in the trunk of the rental car, laying down a blanket to cover the rough exterior of the porch, and dragging the tripods to their approximate location, knowing the sound and camera directors would move them once the shoot began.

The segment was one featured every season since the first, albeit usually more sober: while the group members would huddle on the other side of a glass screen door covered almost completely on either wise with curtains, Minho would toss items across the length, leaving just a split second of visibility.. First member to correctly identify what had been thrown received a point and whoever amassed the most points by the end of the game was granted a wish-less ladder re-set for the final day of filming.

It was serendipitous that Minho usually took on the role of throwing the items while Felix stayed inside to field the members’ guesses. For the next hour, he didn’t even have to work to re-build his walls: the glass screen door was conveniently in between him and everything he didn’t want to have to deal with right now.

He wasn’t so lucky, however, when he got back to his hotel room long after Hyunjin scored another victory and Jisung recorded another loss.

With a bed and a ceiling that were not his own, and a memory that made his chest ache in longing that did not feel like it could be his own, the 6am call time getting nearer and nearer by the second felt less looming and more welcomed.

This routine, at least, was his.

______________

Two months ago, this five-day itinerary made perfect sense. Front-load the light-hearted attractions and easy games at the beginning, allow the missions to get more complicated toward the middle, and back-load the social and cultural significance to add narrative weight to the group’s departure and final thoughts. A formula tried and true throughout the years. Yesterday’s alcohol was technically an added curveball, but Minho reasoned that the penultimate night was best: a sixteen hour flight with a hangover sounded like a nightmare.

While all of those individual decisions were sound in theory, taken together in practice, they meant Minho watched the crew trudge their bodies—three probably still processing alcohol, the rest still over-stimulated from filming inside of a noisy and dark venue for the first time—through a long, walking tour of the original Grande Ole Opry theater.

Thanks to Chan’s help in translating museum placards and answers to questions asked to the Theater’s staff, the tour was interesting enough to keep them all upright, despite the circumstances, and judging by the reactions of the members, understanding the history contained within this city was even more meaningful for artists, regardless of genre, country, or language.

Despite his best efforts to evaluate the tour happening in front of him holistically, from positioning to lighting to which facts Chan chose to read out and which ones he didn’t, Minho couldn’t help but to find his attention falling to Han Jisung—his honest astonishment, his persistent playfulness even in a place as historic as this one, his arms wrapped around Hyunjin’s waist.

Only once did Jisung catch his wandering gaze, and Minho expected him to make more of a show of it, but he only smiled down at the carpet of the hallway, corners of his mouth lifted up in a grin, not accusatory or boastful but maybe the most shy Minho had seen of him yet. He wondered, as briefly as he’d allow, if this is what Jisung looked like off-camera. Was he less confidence, less show?  Slower and softer but just as sanguine?

There was no time to contemplate further: the quieter moments of the morning were left behind once, at the end of the tour, the members found out they would be able to record a song inside of the theater’s very own recording booth.

“Your manager assured us you could play an acoustic version of your title,” Felix explained when the in-house sound engineer reiterated that no electric instruments were permitted inside of the booth.

“Yeah, I can do it,” Jisung replied, breathless.

And he did.

In all the videos Minho watched in preparation for Gear’s season of Explore the World , not a single live performance was among them. He now realized his error.

Their music was good; he knew that. And he knew their personalities were even more engaging than he could have ever anticipated when making his final choice, but Minho didn’t yet know what happened when charisma met microphone.

It was mesmerizing.

Gear huddled around a single mic stand, sat on wooden chairs and with the guitar in Jisung’s lap, and as soon as the first note sounded, Minho almost felt like he was intruding on too private of a moment.

Each member gave their full attention to who was singing, encouraging them, loving them, with eyes and smiles usually turned towards cameras and crowds. He wondered just how much these three had been through together, wondered just how much courage it’d take for him to ask.

This was even more powerful of a moment than standing with tens of thousands of people, Minho was certain of it, when Jisung’s eyes fluttered shut and he leaned forward in his chair, seeming to feel the strum of the guitar through every nerve in his body. He sang often, more often than Minho would have guessed, given the album version of the song. At the ends of most of Hyunjin’s verses, Jisung was rapping along, too. Even underneath Woojin’s powerful chorus laid Jisung’s soft but supportive sound, more rough than the leader’s clear training, but Minho thought he liked Jisung’s voice the best even still. Raw but always emphatic.

When the song ended, no one on the engineer’s side of the glass seemed to breathe. For a moment, Gear simply smiled at each other, and Minho once again felt like he should look away.

“This was a perfect idea,” he decided to whisper over at Felix as the trio embraced each other in a tight hug. The trip was almost done, and he was only just now giving his assistant the praise he deserved.  “We should involve the guests’ musical experiences more often, not just for cities with such a strong music history, your instincts were right on, pd-nim.”

He ruffled Felix’s hair and squeezed the back of his neck, hopefully relaying thanks for far more than just organizing the recording session.

______________

The actual Grand Ole Opry show would be the final event of the evening. The company was not given permission to film any of the performance for their broadcast, so they’d decided to only buy three tickets for the artists and to give them a few hand-held cameras to document the inside of the venue and their excitement leading up to and after the show.

But that wasn’t until 9pm, and there was still one more early evening segment to film: the final feast.

After the tour, Minho and his team spent the afternoon setting up what amounted to a cookout at a nearby park. Mini grills, expensive meat, a variety of vegetables, and a combination of pre-packaged southern American and Korean side dishes were gathered around foldable camping chairs, As was customary in each Explore the World season, the members would sit and reminisce on their vacation while cooking, eating, and fulfilling their final wishes.

Luckily, the summer storms Minho was worried would sully the parts of the show that were most traditionally filmed outdoors were nowhere to be found, and as the sun was no longer highest in the sky, the members, laughing as they greeted a wandering dog, were bathed in warm, warming light.

The weather could have been a rhetorical suggestion to the viewers that their favorite group had fun on their trip, but in listening to the ways Woojin, Hyunjin, and Jisung recounted the week’s affairs with additional anecdotes and jokes, Minho knew that all of the hard work his team had put into researching, planning, and executing yet another season of the show was well worth it.

“Honestly, we don’t get to hang out outside of the dorm together that often these days,” Woojin confessed once the grills were turned off and the majority of the meat had been eaten.

“Yeah, we’re always together at home and when we’re working, but if we ever truly have any free time, we’re usually just doing our own thing,” Hyunjin added. “And even then it’s like, going shopping or to the gym. Not nearly as fun as how we spent the week, and we learned so much about American music that we didn’t know before.”

“It was still a really busy week.” Minho wasn’t surprised to hear Jisung be the most honest and the least salesman among them. “But busy in a different way from what we’re used to. I really liked it.”

Jisung stood, unscripted, and bowed.

“Thank you to the production staff,” he spoke to the ground, and Hyunjin and Woojin stood up to join him.

“Don’t thank us too much yet,” Minho interrupted when the solemnity of the moment pass as quickly as he wanted. “We have some last-minute business to attend to.”

Jisung popped back up and rolled his eyes. “You really couldn’t let us have this heartfelt moment, pd-nim? I was about to give you the perfect shot of a tear running dramatically down my face.”

Feeling the weight of the week lifting off of him with each half hour they got closer to the sun setting, Minho laughed, as he often wanted to do at the ridiculous things that came out of Jisung’s mouth.

“This is technically your fault,” Felix reminded after encouraging them all to re-take their seats. “What are your final wish totals?”

Woojin was instantly smug. “Zero.”

Hyunjin, for maybe the first time this week, did not look nervous. “Only one.”

Jisung spoke quickly. “Me, too. Just one.”

That’s what I would have done, too , Minho thought, and he probably would have gotten away with it just as well as Jisung did. Woojin and Hyunjin immediately began yelling.

“Okay, okay, okay,” he conceded. “There was one more at breakfast today, so four in total.”

While Felix sorted out the order of the wishes in how they would be most effectively filmed, the members, now experts at narrating the show themselves, kept talking.

“I honestly thought Hyunjin would end up being the worst before we started this trip,” Woojin confessed.

“Jisung has been cursed since the moment he claimed he’d beat both of us. Do you remember that, pd-nim? It was when we met before we started filming. He jinxed himself.” At this point, Minho could set his watch to the laugh that punctuated Hyunjin’s teasing.

“I don’t know,” Jisung replied on his way to pick up the folded pieces of paper containing their final obligations to the show. “I think I’ve had pretty good luck so far.”

He was reaching toward Felix, but his eyes were on Minho. Jisung was always finding Minho.

“You’re delusional.” Hyunjin snatched the paper with his name on the front. “And I’m getting this out of the way first.”

“Read out the wish you’ll grant for us,” Felix instructed.

Minho could see the graphic that would be overlaid on Hyunjin’s reaction as he promptly ignored the producer and first read the paper to himself. A translucent ghost would leave his body and a “Hyunjin.exe has stopped working” would narrate the scene.

“Rap a verse with aegyo,” he finally said to the camera.

Although his embarrassment would be entertaining to viewers, the full-body cringes interlacing Hyunjin’s fulfillment of the wish seemed unnecessary when so much of what he did or said was steeped in cute.

“What are yours going to be like if I had to do that ?” he wondered aloud as Jisung took his spot in the center of the grass.

Jisung’s wishes were just as mildly annoying but ultimately harmless as Hyunjin’s. He had to promote the show after inhaling helium, re-enact a drama scene with Woojin, make Chan laugh, and convince at least one person in the park to listen to Gear’s latest single.

He granted each one with complete charm and little shame, and Minho thought, not for the first time this week, that Explore the World was meant for Han Jisung.

______________

Individual post-travel interviews were the feast’s finale, and because the staff raced against the sun, they were quick and painless.

“We don’t need a lead-in for the bridge,” Felix explained to the members as Minho helped to pack up the cookout gear back into the rental cars. They had just thirty minutes left before the sun would dip below the Nashville skyline, and everyone had to be transported over to Pedestrian Bridge for the last shoot of Explore the World season eleven.

The plan was to film the members from behind as they watched the sun set, and the shots, in addition to the footage from the Opry show later tonight, would become the final clips in a montage to end the final episode.

Any concern that they didn’t all get over to the location in time was extinguished when the camera director declared that the twenty minutes of footage featuring the river, the downtown Nashville skyline, the journey of the sun toward the tips of spires, and hands on shoulders and on waists, they’d captured was enough for what they nedeed.

“You’ve worked hard, hyung. You stay and watch the rest of the sunset. I’ll help everyone pack back up the cars,” Felix leaned over to whisper when Minho made to get up with the rest of the staff.

“But—“

“It’s okay, really. Take a breather, we’re done.” Felix’s smile showed relief and gratitude, and Minho squeezed his arm when no amount of words would do.

So he pushed off from where he had been leaning against the back-most railing of the bridge to move over to the front, where, after Woojin and Hyunjin went hunting for the perfect selfie spot, only Jisung still stood.

“Pretty,” Jisung greeted with an unabashed stare close to Minho’s face rather than at the sunset.

Minho shoved Jisung back, full hand spread over the features he’d memorized over the past week.

“Don’t be gross, we haven’t been filming a drama .”

Unperturbed, Jisung continued on. “If this was a drama, what would you say back to me?

“Hmm.” Minho turned out to the orange glow swathing the evening sky. Thankful they were no longer filming any kind of show at all, no serious answer occurred to him, so he pretended to faint, bringing the back of one palm to his forehead while with his other arm, he hung as far off the railing as he could without actually falling. “ The Han Jisung has complimented me, I’m going to die.”

Jisung rolled his eyes, but he helped Minho back up anyway. The hand supporting his lower back didn’t lift even once Minho was righted, and maybe because he was only asked to feel that comforting warmth rather than to see it and thus to know it did he not pull away.

“So how would you rate your experience on Explore the World now that the cameras are gone? Scale of teeth-pulling to fingernail-tapping-ASMR.”

Jisung’s face scrunched so severely Minho thought this might be the closest he’d ever looked to unattractive. And even then, it wasn’t actually that close.

“I reject your scale and will rate this week twelve cuddling cats out of ten.”

“I routinely sleep with two cuddling cats, and I can’t imagine the exhaustion and constant filming were worth even that much.”

Jisung scratched at his lower back playfully, making it clear he wasn’t actually about to pick a fight. “You’re weird, you know that? You baited me into complimenting your show and then got offended when I was too nice. What do you want , Lee Minho?”

A question about more than cuddly cat ratings, they both knew.

“I don’t know,” Minho answered honestly. “I wasn’t really asking about the show, I just, I don’t know, wanted to make sure you were okay, with how overwhelming all of this can be.”

“You must be used to it by now, huh?”

“Not really,” he confessed. “I still spend an entire two weeks away from the office once we wrap up filming a new season. No one is allowed to call or text me, and I just sleep a shit ton. All that’s changed over the years is that I feel comfortable asking for that rest now instead of forcing myself to get back to work and draining myself so much I almost drown in the bathtub.

“Damn--I’m guessing that actually happened?”

“After the first season I was main producer, yeah.” Minho could laugh about it now, but the wakeup call his at-the-time roommate banged on the bathroom door didn’t only save him that particular night but also for years to come. “You won’t be able to take a rest after this, though, you have to go straight back into promoting the group, so, yeah, I don’t know. I just wanted to—“

“We’ll be okay,” Jisung reassured, but Minho wanted to correct him. He wasn’t worried about Woojin or Hyunjin, but he couldn’t admit that out loud, so he let Jisung keep talking. “I’m guessing none of your idol friends have told you about our training periods, but we’re basically put through much worse than this, for years, without even knowing if we’ll ever debut, so that when we finally do, we’re prepared for just how much constant work it is.”

“I don’t have idol friends,” he did correct this time.

The evening was making way to night, and if they stood out here much longer, Minho wouldn’t be able to see the next time Jisung turned to him with wonder in his eyes. “How is that possible when you spend this much of the year working with idols and their companies? Felix has a bunch of friends in the industry?”

“This is my job, I don’t know. I’m too busy worrying about eight million other things on shooting days than whether or not I want to have a beer with some celebrity who I’ll never see again.”

“Wait.” The hand on Minho’s back finally fell. “You didn’t plan to see me anymore after this?”

Ten minutes ago, Jisung would have pretended to faint here, too. They would have joked about Minho hating him, and Minho would have made a list of all of his annoying habits he didn’t even know existed yet.

But as the sun disappeared so did their pretense.

“That wasn’t ever in the plan, no.” Minho turned so his back rested against the railing. “But I don’t have as much control over my life as I do over this show. I learned that this week--You made me realize that this week, I think.”

When Jisung didn’t reply, Minho hazarded a peek to his left, and Jisung looked as if he’d finally won a ladder game.

“Show’s technically over, right?”

“Technically, no. You have to be at the theater in an hour.”

“When/s the show officially over?”

“Tomorrow morning? When we board the plane?” Minho answered, fairly confident they wouldn’t take any footage of the departing flight.

Jisung kicked his way off of the railing and threw a smile that could have turned nighttime back into day back once more over his shoulder.

“I’ll see you then.”

“You’ll see me before that,” Minho replied, having to raise his voice as Jisung walked happily away from him.

“I’ll talk to you then,” he corrected, and then he was out of earshot.

______________

“You’re in first class on the way back, too,” Minho reiterated when, once he fought every dad shoving bags into overheads on this plane, he found Han Jisung sitting in his row. He would have sworn he saw Jisung join Woojin and Hyunjin when first class was called to board.

“I thought your hard working assistant producer deserved a relaxing flight.”

“Oh, really?” Minho replied, not believing him for a second.

“Yeah, really.”

Minho shoved his carry-on under the seat in front of him and turned to Jisung expectantly.

“What?”

“What do you mean ‘what’? You’re kidding, right?”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about, hyung.”

Minho stared at him, dumbfounded, and when Jisung’s lips didn’t move from their crooked grin, he dug his headphones out of his bag.

His hands were halfway to his ears when he froze, paralyzed by a mobilizing realization:

For the first time in five years, he wanted to know more--barefoot Jisung curled up on his couch, stories of trainee Jisung growing up in the industry. He wanted to know Jisung’s fears and worries and what made him tick.

And he wasn’t scared for Jisung to know him, too.

And he’d have to change the plan himself.

He turned as much as the cramped seat would allow and took a breath.

“Can I have your number?”

“Hyung, I thought you’d never ask.”

______________