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Envy of Wishes

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To say it was unexpected news would be an understatement. Because when their manager pulls Wooseok and him aside after dance practice to inform them of their participation in MNet's upcoming survival, Jinhyuk is thrown for a loop. He's absolutely floored. Bewildered. He thinks he might've needed to retrieve his jaw from the floor. Quite unprofessional of him really. Especially when compared to the stoic countenance of Wooseok beside him

"Why?" He blurts out. His abrupt outburst coupled with a nervous chuckle that's a pitch too high.

Their manager shrugs.

"Fuck if I know. If I had to guess, it's probably to garner to group some public recognition. Produce has proven great for generating buzz. Plus you guys are entering your 4th year and..."

He trails off, and Jinhyuk gives a non-committal grunt of acknowledgement.

Neither of them need to guess what was being hinted at. UP10TION wasn't doing bad – they were on lower-middling ground if anything – but they weren't dong great either. Nobody ever talks about it, but everyone knows that this late into the group's lifespan, the fanbase isn't likely to grow much more lest a miracle befell them. Or if not a miracle, a calculated intervention à la Produce.

It's an early diagnosis or sorts by the company executives. And as Jinhyuk mulls over the news, he can sort of see where they're coming from. Though it doesn't stop the uncomfortable knot that has started to form in his stomach.

Jinhyuk finds his head swirling with a million questions. Some of which are barely coherent.

No.

It's not questions that's bogging him down. It's doubt, confusion, anxiety. The last time he remembers feeling this nervous was when UP10TION's debut was first announced. But back then it was a pleasant sort of anxiety. The kind that made him feel 'Oh man, I hope I don't fuck up!' with a excited, giddy exclamation mark. The kind of anxiety he was feeling now was more of a 'Oh man, I hope we don't fuck up.' punctuated with a overburdened full stop.

Public opinion could be brutal. And if the past Produce seasons were anything to go by, said brutality would only be amplified.

Jinhyuk can already imagine all the possible vitriol that could – hell, would – be sent their way. He's pretty sure the nation's producers would have a lot to say about already debuted idols participating in the survival... He's also pretty sure that their entire life history is going to be thrown under a microscope to be scrutinized for even a single flaw that could be used to tear them down. He just knows it.

And what of the fans? It's one thing to have random people swearing at you, but your own fans? Jinhyuk can't imagine Honey10s being pleased with this new development. Hell, he still remembers being asked by a fan at a fansign awhile back about Produce. And they'd say no, they're not going.

They weren't lying then. But it will sure as hell look like they were now.

He casts a glance Wooseok's way, perhaps to find some form reassurance that he's not alone in his inner turmoil.

And it suddenly occurs to him.

Wooseok.

It's been barely a year since he'd returned from his hiatus. And considering the nature of said hiatus, Jinhyuk can't help but wonder how the man feels about all of this.

Beside him, Wooseok is especially quiet. But it's he who breaks the extended silence that had fallen upon them.

"What about the other members?"

"Oh, there's a tour planned. North America I think."

There's another pregnant pause, and Jinhyuk thinks that maybe their manager is trying to show them what he believes to be 'kindness' by giving them time to process the information. Truthfully though, he would probably preferred if he'd just bulldozed them over with the information and details rather that leaving them – actually, mostly him; Wooseok seems to be taking it... decently – drowning in anxiety.

It's Wooseok's muted voice that once again breaks the silence.

"When does it start?"

It's as if the floodgates had been opened.

Seemingly relieved that the duo hadn't gone on to probe more about the reasoning being management's decisions, their manager starts rambling on about all the administrative details.

Audition clips to be sent in next week – don't worry kids, it's more of a PR thing – just do what you'd usually do on a variety. Interviews right after. Photoshoots should be the following week. 1st episode filming in 3 to 4 weeks. You guys need a proper performance for that. It's got to be good.

Jinhyuk's just happy to let his mind slip into 'training' mode. He finds the nauseous churning of his stomach is less noticeable when he forces himself to focus on the present to-be-done tasks laid out before him rather than the pessimistic what-ifs.

Chapter Text

Jinhyuk shifts in his position, bringing one of his leg up so he can prop the crook of his neck against his knee as he scrolls through his mobile phone.

"So," he ventures, stealing a glance Wooseok's way. "Any suggestions?"

He too, had his eyes glues to his phone. His eyebrows furrowed and nose scrunched up in intense focus. Jinhyuk kind of wants to reach out and poke him right between the brows. Maybe throw in a joke or two about that pretty face Wooseok takes such good care of getting wrinkles. Anything to lighten the mood. But he thinks better of it. He isn't sure if Wooseok's in the mood for it. Not that Wooseok's ever in the mood for teasing at his expense.

But there was teasing Wooseok and getting a punch to the shoulder (or if you're lucky, just a stone cold glare), and there was teasing Wooseok and guessing where your body was going to end up the next day. This felt like a 'I might be murdered' scenario and unlike Hwanhee – who gets a pass basically all the time simply cause he's the maknae (unfair!) – he doesn't have the guts to test that theory.

It's like his mum always told him. If you've got nothing good to say, best not say it at all. Better safe than sorry.

Let it not be said that Lee Jinhyuk doesn't know how to read the mood.

"I'm thinking," is the curt reply he gets, and Jinhyuk can help but wince just a little at the sharpness of his tone. He tries not to take it personally. The survival program suddenly being dumped on them most certainly had stress levels running high.

They lapse into silence – something that seems to happen a lot these days, Jinhyuk notes – as they both return their attention to their phones. It occurs to him that it's been awhile since it was just him and Wooseok together.

Maybe that's why it's so awkward.

It's not like they had bad blood between them. They've known each other for so long, and they are friends. But in a group so big, it isn't unusual for both of them to have a member or two they're closer to and said member wasn't either of them. Now that he thinks of it, he can scarcely count the number of times he's hung out with Wooseok alone on one hand. Wooseok had always gravitated more towards Minsoo or Yein, likely preferring their calmer disposition.

Which has him thinking...

Why me?

He gets Wooseok.

Wooseok with his delicate face, big foxy eyes and elegantly chiselled jawline. An absolute visual by idol standards. Charismatic. A born center.

He remembers the first time he laid eyes upon the male, and his first thought being 'pretty'. And that was back when they were teens. Wooseok had grown into his features by now and Jinhyuk thinks 'pretty' has been upgraded to 'beautiful'. The only flaw the man had that Jinhyuk could think of was that well... he was petite. But hey, it played well into the fairy like image he had. Not that he would ever say that to Wooseok's face lest he gets a kick to the shins.

Wooseok had always been a fan favourite and was sure to grab the viewers attention.

Him on the other hand?

It's not like he's got low self esteem or anything, no. He's just being realistic. He doesn't think he bad looking, but he certainly isn't a visual. He likes to think he's pretty charming to make up for that yeah. But he also thinks they've got other members that probably have him beat in those areas.

Management picking either Minsoo or Yein to pair with Wooseok would make a lot more sense, Jinhyuk thinks. Minsoo was an undisputed visual right up there next to Wooseok. While Yein was universally likeable with thst bubbly personality of his. There might have better chemistry too. Wooseok did seem to like them better than him.

Why not Minsoo? Or Yein?

He hadn't realised he'd said that out loud.

"Ha?"

Jinhyuk looks up.

"What?"

Wooseok throws his words back at him. "What?"

He blinks, confused. Wooseok raises an clearly unamused brow.

"What do you mean by that?"

"By what?"

"Minsoo? Yein?"

"Oh... that," he trails off, locking eyes with the man. Searching. Attempting to decipher what sort of answer his friend is looking for, what sort of response he's expecting. His face is firm, expression unreadable. But there's a hint of fire behind his steady gaze that makes him feel uneasy. It feels like he'd said something wrong, and Wooseok might or might not be upset with him right now.

Wooseok is giving him that look.

He searches for the right words he can't seem to find, the start of an explanation dying an early death at the back of his throat.

"Umm..." he drops his gaze, finding it easier on the nerves. It doesn't change the weight of Wooseok's gaze though. "Was just wondering why management decided it was a good idea to send us together instead of you know... You and Minsoo. Yein?"

There's a brief moment of silence that feels like forever and then.

"Why? You don't like working with me?"

"What!?" His head snaps back up, flustered words spilling out in a rush, "Nononono! I like you! I like working with you! You're great to work wi—"

Part way through his piss poor attempt at damage control, he notices the way Wooseok's lips were curled just the slightest. He was finding this amusing. He'd been teasing.

Jinhyuk feels his face heat up.

"Aww, Jinhyuk. That's so sweet of you," he drawls with a kittenish smirk.

"I just thought you'd prefer to work with Minsoo or Yein, that's all," he offers meekly, mildly embarrassed. "You're closer with them after all."

"You say that like we aren't close."

"We're close?"

That response earns him a good kick to the hip, and it hits him a little too close to the funny bone. Eliciting a none too dignified yelp from him. Granted he deserved that.

But Jinhyuk's certain that he didn't deserve the onslaught of attacks from the man that followed. Wooseok practically launches himself at him, knocking him over as his hands stretched out to grab him at his sides. Mercilessly tickling him.

"Wha— Wait!"

He tries to wiggle out of the man's grasps to no avail. That tiny body was a lot more stronger than it looked. And as though in response to his futile escape attempts, Wooseok locks his legs around his hips. Trapping him for good as he begins alternating between jabbing at his sensitive sides and elbowing his thighs.

It's true that smaller people were more vicious huh?

"WOOSEOK!!!"

Jinhyuk thinks he's dying. He feels like he's dying. God, his lungs are on fire.

The pained guffaws turns into full on screeches.

"We're not close huh? But close enough to know all your weak spots it seems."

He's barely clinging onto lucidity by this point, but he's still able to pick out the cackle in his attacker's voice. And even through his blurred vision – he's NOT crying, just tearing; a physiological response to being so viciously attacked – he can just barely make out the absolutely evil grin stretched across the man's face.

The monster doesn't let off until his voices begins to falter as he struggles to breathe while simultaneously dying of laughter (if you could consider that terrible noise laughter). Jinhyuk assumes it's because there's not as much enjoyment to be gained from torturing him if he can't hear the fruits of his labour.

Wooseok was a demon spawn and nobody could convince him otherwise.

"You're mean," he ekes out, face pressed against the floor as he attempts to stabilise his breathing.

"I thought you liked skinship."

"Skinship is supposed to be sweet and loving," he protests, "I almost DIED."

"But you didn't."

"Urgh."

"If we weren't close I would've let you hyperventilate yourself to death."

Groaning, he curls into child's pose turning his face to the side so he can shoot a weak glare Wooseok's way.

"That's what you're hung up about?!"

Wooseok arches and eyebrow in response, as thought it were the most obvious thing in the world.

"Okay, okay. We're close! I'm just saying. You're closer to Yein and Minsoo that's all jeez. You wouldn't treat them like..." he gestures to all of himself, "This. This is bullying!"

Jinhyuk kinda hates how it sounds like he's whining.

The other man simply waves off him complaints, petting his head placatingly.

"Love comes in all forms Jinhyuk-ssi," he pauses for a moment, before cheekily adding, "and you're fun to bully."

"Don't touch me," he grouses, petulantly swatting at the offensive hand to which Wooseok simply lets out an amused puff of air. As he did before, Wooseok completely ignores his grievances as he brazenly continues to play with his hair. His fingers alternating between raking through his crown and tugging lightly at individual strands.

Jinhyuk tilts his face up (as much as he could in his awkward position anyways), opening his mouth to ask 'what the hell' the man was up to now but is cut short by his friend.

"We make a good team," he remarks simply as he falls back into scrolling nonchalantly on his phone.

Eyebrows furrowing, Jinhyuk cranes his neck further up to catch Wooseok's eye. He's met with an steady, unwavering gaze.

"It makes sense why they'd choose us," Wooseok continues unprompted, "I'm a vocalist. You're a rapper. There's balance. We also don't overlap. I've got that princely, visual appeal. You're a doofus—"

"Wow, narcissistic much?"

Wooseok pretends he didn't hear him, steamrolling forward, "—we appeal to different demographics so we won't have to compete for attention. Plus we're not technically essential to the rest of the group in terms of performance. Neither of us are mains. So the rest of the guys can probably handle promos better if it's the two of us gone instead of someone like... Yein. Who's gonna sing then?"

Huh. He'd never thought of it like that. Jinhyuk takes a moment to mull over Wooseok's words.

"Makes sense... I guess..."

Jinhyuk feels the light grazing of nails against his scalp and the sensation is as relaxing as it is weird. Wooseok is treating him like a dog. Or cat. Or whatever animal and he's not sure how he feels about it. Wooseok's being oddly touchy today, but when has he ever denied any opportunity for skinship? (Regardless of how weird said skinship was.)

"How close we are doesn't really matter either," Wooseok adds candidly, gaze turned upwards to the ceiling as thought lost in thought, "We can just fake it for the cams and no one would be the wiser. We're pro idols, fan service is nothing. No one will bother seeing past the superficial anyways. People will see what they want to see, and believe what they want to believe."

There's a hint of bitterness in the man's voice, and Jinhyuk thinks Wooseok might not be talking about Produce anymore but he knows better than to press.

"Ehhh, I thought you said we were close. And now you're saying we should fake being close? I don't know about you but it feels like you're hinting at us not being close Wooseok-ssi. I'm wounded," he playfully swats away the hand tangled up in his hair.

Wooseok's head snaps back down, "Oi! Don't put words in my mouth."

"If you really wanna ham in up, we can do Troublemaker or something for the audition," he snorts, jiggling his eyebrows. "You can be the Hyuna to my Hyunseung. It'll be hot. The fans would love it."

He fakes licking a finger and burning it on his ass, sizzling sound effects included courtesy of his mouth.

"Disgusting. Put that tongue away."

Jinhyuk yelps in surprise as Wooseok pushes his face away.

"And did you forget? You're a rapper. You're totally Hyuna. No way you could be Hyunseung."

"Hmm, you're right. I do have better sex appeal than you. I'd make an amazing Hyuna," he feigns thoughtfulness as he pushes himself up to a sitting position. "But the height difference though. A short male partner is gonna look weird—"

Wooseok lunges, raising his arm feigning an attack and Jinhyuk laughs wildly, instinctively jerking back, arms flying forth to block any potential blows.

"Yah! You wanna die?"

"Just kidding. Just kidding," he grins.

His friend turns away in a huff, and Jinhyuk can make out the slight jutt of the man's lower lip. He was pouting.

Cute.

Wooseok clears his throat, and attempts to steer the conversation back into more professional territory.

"Whatever. A performance like Troublemaker would get us attention for sure but it might not be the best idea."

Jinhyuk straightens up. He can tell Wooseok's being serious now. He's always admired that of the man – his professionalism. Wooseok had always been a thoughtful individual, and as exhibited by his earlier takes, he was also able to see things with clarity, to view the bigger picture. Jinhyuk wonders how much of it was innate, and how much of it was experience.

He realises that there's a lot he doesn't know about Woosoek.

"Troublemaker if done well might be okay for other trainees. But if we already debuted idols do it the viewers might think we're not taking things seriously. It's too risky. We're already going in with prejudice surrounding us. It's best to play things safe."

Jinhyuk silently observes they way his friend repeatedly rubs his middle finger anxiously across his lower lip while silently scrolling through his phone. He senses that the man has more to say.

"Maybe something like TEEN TOP's No More Perfume?"

Wooseok glances towards him with earnest eyes seeking reassurance. Or maybe approval? Jinhyuk realises that he's also not very good at reading the man.

"Yeah, that sounds like a good choice," he grins. "What better performance to give than one of our sunbae's songs?"

He gets on his knees, making towards his bag in a lazy crawl.

"We should start organising the choreo and all then. It's gonna take a bit of work making a 2 man choreo for a 6 man group look good. Lemme grab some pape—"

He stops short we he feels a hand tugging him back by the ankles. Turning back, he spots Wooseok's face angled towards the leftmost wall.

Following his gaze, he realises that the man was looking at the clock.

"It's late," he remarks in that soft and steady voice of his. "We can do it tomorrow. We haven't eaten since this morning either. No point trying to work on an empty stomach."

Now that Wooseok mentions it, Jinhyuk realises that yes. He is actually pretty hungry. Hell, he's famished.

He nods agreeably, and Wooseok releases his ankle. After which he continues crawling towards his bag, except this time it's to pack up.

"Any dinner suggestions?" He asks.

"Fried chicken."

It sounded more like a statement than a suggestion. And knowing Wooseok, it probably was. Not that it mattered to Jinhyuk cause food was food.

"Okay," he chuckles cheerily.

Jinhyuk has no idea what's going on in Wooseok's mind, but it'll be fine. He doesn't mind following the man's lead. He doesn't know Wooseok well, but it's never too late to learn. And they've got time.

"Wooseok-ah, can we get the boneless ones?"

Chapter Text

Jinhyuk scrolls down the slew of messages pinging off his mobile with a smile. Dad sent a simple, 'Good luck.' Capitalised and punctuated. Typical of him really. Quite the contrast compared to his sister's haphazard typing style full of slang and typos. Today though, she's comes bearing stickers and emojis, spamming the family group chat with animated stickers depicting chibi bears shooting hearts. Mum on the other hand, takes her time practically typing out an essay of encouragement and well wishes, and 'oh, don't worry son I dreamt you'd do well so relax and enjoy yourself!'.

They do little to quell the nervous fluttering in his stomach, but he still appreciates the thought nonetheless.

Sending a heart emoji of his own in response, he silences his device and pockets it. He leans back into his seat, letting his head loll across the head rest as he tries to distract himself with frivolous thoughts instead of revising the choreo for their audition in his head for the nth time. Any more and he might jinx it.

So think of something else— ah! I hope the bathrooms at the dorms are nice.

Their van makes a left turn and Jinhyuk lets his head follow the momentum, his neck flopping to the side at an awkward angle which gives him a direct sight-line to the man seated beside him. Aka, Wooseok.

Said man was busy preening himself with the help of his phone's front facing camera.

"If you touch your lips any more you're gonna rub off all the tint, Wooseok-ssi ," he drawls teasingly in a sing-song manner.

"Thank you for your concern Jinhyuk-ssi ," he shoots back, mirroring his mocking sing-song inflection.

He doesn't miss the way Wooseok rolls his eyes. And damn did the man have an eye roll.

Three weeks stuck with the demon spawn has him very familiar with Mr Kim's signature eye rolls. Jinhyuk should probably be more insulted by how often he's been at the receiving end of said eye rolls but frankly speaking, it fascinates him. How the man does it so smoothly, and makes such clean 360s with his pupils boggles him to no end.

He's even tried copying it.

He'd taken to a mirror and tried rolling his eyes the way Wooseok did but he never gets the same effect. It really ain't fair how the guy looks elegant while disdaining others. When he attempts to do the same he just ends up looking cross eyed and silly – as he'd learnt when he tried rolling his eyes back at Wooseok that one time. Only ended up embarrassing himself.

Never again. He'll stick to picking on Wooseok's height, thank you very much.

“Relax, your highness. You’re pretty enough for the both of us.”

Wooseok glances his way, opening his mouth to say something but Jinhyuk cuts him off.

“You’re pretty. You always are Wooseok-ie . Relax,” he reiterates, this time with more sincerity.  

Jinhyuk knows that Wooseok knows he’s pretty. He doesn’t need anyone telling him that. But Jinhyuk has also come to learn from their last three weeks together that the man gets extra handsy with his face when antsy. Maybe it’s just a harmless habit of his; A way to release some restless energy. And maybe his compliments were useless in the face of a man as confident as Wooseok. But he reckons there’s no harm in being genuine and possibly reassuring an anxious friend. 

But Wooseok is giving him that look again. 

He calls it ‘that’ because he still doesn’t actually know what ‘that’ meant. ‘That’ look could mean a lot of things, but it mostly referred to Wooseok going stone faced on him, eyes glazed over and thinking, calculating. Probably. That man’s poker face is really something. Wooseok is harder to read than he should rightfully be, Jinhyuk thinks. 

“I know,” he replies a beat later. He pauses for a moment, then adds a soft, ‘thanks’ belatedly. 

It’s these brief moments of earnest sincerity from Wooseok fills his whole being with a pleasant sort of warmth. Wooseok isn’t one for sentimentality, so in the rare moments that he is, Jinhyuk laps it up. 

“Wish I could say the same for you though.”

Andddd it’s gone. 

Talk about killing the moment. 

“Why? What’s wrong with my look?” 

He makes a grab for Wooseok’s hand, twisting the man’s arm into an awkward angle as he checks himself out on the male’s phone screen.

“Owowoow— you’re gonna dislocate my shoulder you dumbass!” 

Shrugging, he releases the man’s hand. 

“I look good what are you talking about?”

“Your face is fine but you really should be more fussy about your hair. Don’t just let the stylist do whatever they want to it.”

“Awww, come on cut me some slack. There’s only so much that can be done to short hair,” he whines, patting his hairspray hardened fringe.

“Thus reiterating my point. Why did you let them cut it that short in the first place?”

“They said it looked cool?”

The corners of Wooseok’s lips curls in disdain. 

“If I told you you’d look cool with gelled spikes would you do it?”

“What’s wrong with spikes?” he shoots back, genuinely confused.

Wooseok opens and closes his mouth, dumbfounded. 

“Ah right. I forgot. You’re a weeab,” he sighs, shaking his head, “of course you’d think anime hair is cool.”

Jinhyuk squawks in offence, “Excuse you! You say that like you didn’t just cry over Sailor Moon with me like, last weekend. You’re as weeab as I am.”

“What is this revisionist history?!” Wooseok jerks up from his seat, absolutely prepared to throw hands, “I teared. But not a drop was shed. Also one Sailor Moon season doesn’t make me a weeab.”

“Kids, please,” their manager calls out to them from the driver’s seat, “Don’t kill each other before we film the first episode. Management will have my head.”

Wooseok rolls his eyes, “Don’t worry. Management isn’t that competent.” Jinhyuk lightly punches his shoulder, half-teasing half-warning. Wooseok simply shrugs.

“Well, whatever. Still hate the hair, but it’s the face that makes the look so you look fine I guess.”

High praise coming from a visual like Wooseok, so Jinhyuk’s gonna take it.

“Still can’t believe you actually submitted that shitty ID photo in your application though. Your hair was even worse in that one.”

Jinhyuk can’t help but chuckle at how irrationally upset Wooseok is about the matter. This is the 6th (yes, he kept track) time Wooseok brought up the ID pic since he’d taken a peek at his application copy. He’s got no idea why the guy is so hung up about it.

His amusement only seems to irritate him further, “You think it’s funny? The self-sabotage is real. Are you trying to rank out of cut-off? Not cool okay. We’re supposed to be in this together. If you get eliminated in the first round all cause of that horrible photo of yours I will eliminate you from life myself. See if I don’t!”

It’s honestly sweet how much Wooseok cares. 

The whole ‘concern disguised as meanness’ did take a bit getting used to but Jinhyuk has come to find it somewhat endearing. It’s kind of like those acupressure mats. They hurt initially, but are well meaning – and supposedly good for health. And after a while, you get used to the sensation and hey! It feels kinda nice!

Or maybe he’s just a masochist. 

“Now, now. I can win the viewers over via other means— like with my, as you would put it, ‘dumbass energy’. Lots of morosexuals out there, I’m certain,” he jokes with a toothy grin. 

Patting his face, he continues, “Besides, if my photo really was that bad. Then the gap between my real appearance and that would wow them right? Right? Keep expectations low, then smash them! 4D chess!”

Wooseok simply stares blankly at him. Then abruptly flicks his forehead, which elicits a whine from him.

“Amazing what goes on in your head. Truely.” 

The van pulls up to their destination, and that’s their cue to start gathering up their baggage in preparation to disembark. Through the tinted windows, Jinhyuk spots a couple of people with cameras lined up along the path to the building and the butterflies are back in full force.


 

After exiting the van, everything was a blur. 

There was registration, and a mini pre-show interview of sorts but Jinhyuk can scarcely remember what happened within that short period of time. He saw the cameras, the official staff, maybe another contestant or two and his brain just switched to auto-pilot.

Smile. Wave. Bow. Repeat.

The motions are all ingrained into his body by now. For that, he’s grateful for. 

Something else he’s also grateful for is having chosen to forgo breakfast this morning. Because with how vigourous the fluttering in his stomach has gotten, he almost certain he’d throw up a little in his mouth the moment he starts dancing had he taken any food.

He sucks in a breath as he and Wooseok steps into the brightly lit room littered with mini cameras left, right, center. It’s his first time here, but it feels so familiar after having seen it countless times on television. It really drives home the fact that it’s starting. It’s really starting, and there would be no turning back now – not that they ever had a choice in that matter – but finally being here made it seem all the more real. 

Moving a hand up to his neck in an attempt to give his lost limbs something to do, he discreetly massages out the knots gathered on his nape. In doing so, he’s made uncomfortably aware of how erratic his pulse was. He could feel it throbbing aggressively under the base of his palm.

God , he feels horrible. 

He catches sight of himself in one of the cameras and thanks the heavens that what he feels, isn’t what he looks like – the idol mask had slipped on effortlessly. Beside him, Wooseok has his face schooled into one of neutral curiosity as his eyes dart from camera to camera and Jinhyuk wonders how his friend is really feeling. He wonders if he’s feeling just like him. 

Wooseok catches him staring and lightly brushes knuckles with him. 

“You look cool,” he mutters softly – so softly that if Jinhyuk hadn’t seen the man’s mouth move, he would’ve questioned his ears. 

It’s amazing how just three words made the anxiety weighing him down feel so much lighter.

He can’t help the smile that creeps up his lips. 

“And you look pretty,” he grins. Dropping to a whisper, he adds, “We would’ve made an amazing Troublemaker with our looks.”

He gets a light shove for his efforts, but it's all worth it when Wooseok cracks a grin despite himself. Jinhyuk can't help but feel a sense of accomplishment.

Giggling, he steps forward towards the white lit hallway leading to the main stage and turns, holding up a hand. 

“You ready?”

Wooseok stares at the outstretched hand for a moment, and Jinhyuk thinks a catches the slightest hint of amusement in the other man’s eyes. The man lowers his head before he reaches out to grab his open palm. 

“Guess so.”

Jinhyuk wastes no time in pulling his friend into a hug. The warmth of Wooseok’s body calming the fluttering in his stomach. 

We’ll be fine.

Releasing the man from the embrace, he turns all invigorated and ready to take on the world. There’s a bit of resistance though, and he belatedly realises he’d forgotten let go of his friend’s hand. 

Oops. 

He would’ve felt calmer with the hand, but Jinhyuk reckons it’d be a bit weird to walk out on stage holding hands with a label mate like that. 

“Whoops, sorry. Habit," he apologises, dropping the male's hand.

Turning back, he makes to move forth once again, expecting Wooseok to follow behind but he feels long fingers wrapping around his wrist pulling him back.

“Wait.”

He's spun around to face the man, and is momentarily surprised by how close Wooseok was. 

Looking up at him with those doe eyes of his, Wooseok starts fixing his hair, pulling out a strand here, another there. Shaping out a couple of tufts and smoothing down others. He doesn’t stop until he’s completely satisfied with the look.

“There. Better. Just the right amount of messy.”

Jinhyuk can’t help the unrefined bark of laughter that slips past his lips.

“I swear, you’re obsessed with my hair,” he snorts, but then immediately softens. “Thanks. But we really should get going.”

“Yeah, we should.”

Exchanging one last smile, they both step out onto the stage to be greeted by 99 other boys. It’s nerve wracking, but they’ll be fine. 

They’ve got each other’s back after all. 

Chapter Text

"Yo Jinhyuk! Lemme borrow your coffee po— ack!" 

Their unexpected guest bursts into the room without so much of a knock. He should've watched where he was going while he was at it, cause not even 3 steps in he catches the corner of a suitcase to the ankle which sends cup ramen raining and him tumbling face first to the ground.

“Greetings to you too, Seungyeon-hyung,” Byungchan giggles from his bunk. He doesn’t bother getting up from his lying position, not even sparing a glance at his fallen friend. 

His eyes are glued to the iPad in front of him with Jinhyuk right behind, spooning him and head rested on the crook of the man’s neck as they watch an Elsa hair braiding tutorial on Youtube. 

Seungyeon-ie, are you okay? Did you get hurt? No, I’m fine kids. Oh! That’s good! ” 

Seungyeon rolls to his side, shooting a betrayed glare their way, his voice dripping with sarcasm, “Thank you guys for your concern. Truly. I feel sooo loved.”  

Jinhyuk and Byungchan both ignore him, lost in their own world. Jinhyuk lightly tugs at Byungchan’s limbs using the leg already hooked around the man’s thigh, silently requesting him to move down. Byungchan, getting the hint, wordlessly shimmies his body down so that his head would rest against Jinhyuk’s chest, giving Jinhyuk’s hands easier access to his hair. 

They both giggle like idiots as Jinhyuk begins his poor attempt at following the hair tutorial. Byungchan’s hair is obviously too short for any decent looking braids, but that doesn’t stop either of them from getting a kick out of trying anyways.

“Make me pretty Jinhyuk-ie ~ Braid it to the left! That’s the better side of my face.”

Beside them, Seungyeon makes an audible noise of disgust. 

“You two look happy.”

“Hey Seungyeon,” Jinhyuk greets at last, looking down at their visitor.

“Oh, nice of you to finally acknowledge me Jinhyuk-ssi,” Seungyeon grouches while rolling onto his knees, crawling around as he gathers up his scattered goodies. 

“Is that the right kind of tone to use when speaking to someone you want a favour from now? Seungyeon-ssi?” he ribs, arching an eyebrow at the man. 

“Oh no! No! My deepest apologies!” Seungyeon gasps, abruptly dropping into a kowtow, arms held up high above his head as he dramatically holds up a single cup noodle package. “I come bearing tribute Sir Jinhyuk! I beggeth thy mercy and desire you’ll beest generous enow to lendeth me thy coffee pot!”

Typical crackhead Seungyeon. 

Jinhyuk snorts, and almost chokes on his spit. Meanwhile, Byungchan giggles uncontrollably like the pre-teen girl he is.

“Pot’s in my locker,” he ekes out between haggard breathes.

Seungyeon shoots up immediately, making a beeline for said locker. 

“Thank you brother!”

“I’m taking the beef flavoured one,” he announces, rolling over Byungchan and off the bed and onto the floor to sort through the mini assortment of cup noodles Seungyeon had brought. Behind him, Byungchan shifts so he can rest his chin on top of his head and wraps both arms around his neck. 

“I want shrimp!” 

Jinhyuk grabs the shrimp flavoured cup noodles and tosses it towards Byungchan just as Seungyeon pulls out the much desired coffee pot from his locker. Seungyeon is just about to enter the bathroom to fill it up with water when Jinhyuk calls out to him.

“Seungwoo-hyung’s in the shower—”

Byungchan cuts him off half-way, “Nah, just go in. Seungwoo-hyung never locks the door and he won’t care.”

Seungyeon shoots them a thumbs up and disappears into the bathroom, exiting a few moments later with a filled coffee pot. As he makes his way towards them, this time he’s extra careful to step over the hazard of an open luggage.

“So why the hell is there a death trap set out right in the middle of the room?” Seungyeon drops down to the ground with a huff, plug in hand as he gropes along the wall for the outlet. “It’s been days and what? Still haven’t finished unpacking?” 

“I’ve been nagging Wooseok about it but he’s a slippery fellow,” he offers distractedly, head turning to nip playfully at the finger Byungchan had started poking at his cheek.

Seungyeon eyeballs the entire interaction.

“Wooowwwwww are you guys toouuucchhhyyy,” he drawls nasally with a bemused smirk. Jerking a thumb towards the poster hung up by the entrance, he adds, “You two aren’t worried about getting kicked for ‘excessive, unnecessary skinship’?”

"Whatever do you mean?" 

Jinhyuk makes a show of mock innocence, tilting his head to the side – and drawing from his memories of Wooseok's fanservice – bats his eyelashes. 

“Yeah, whatever do you mean hyung? It’s just two bros being bros,” Byungchan supplements with a grin, hands moving up to gently cradle Jinhyuk’s chin. Jinhyuk plays along, tilting his head backwards, coming face to face with the man with a matching grin of his own. They burst into another fit of giggles as they start brushing noses. 

“Oh. My. God.”

Jinhyuk jiggles an eyebrow at Seungyeon, an open palm stretched out beckoning the male teasingly in a come-hither manner. 

“If you’re jealous just say so Seungyeon ~ There’s more than enough love to go round! I’m not opposed to threesome. Are you Byungchan-ie?”

“Nope!”

“Bruh. I was joking about you guys being kicked but keep it up and it might really happen. I’ve seen romcoms less cheesy than you two.”

“Eh, in their defense. Their skinship is pretty necessary.” 

The trio turns simultaneously towards the direction of the new voice; Seungwoo steps out of the bathroom, towel draped over his dripping wet hair.

“Those two are touch addicts. Not meeting their required daily dose of skinship would kill them.”

He’s not wrong. There’s a reason why he and Byungchan got along so swimmingly well from the get-go. 

Jinhyuk loved skinship. He loved touch. Touch was how he connected with others. It reassured him, and was how he reassured others. Obviously though not everyone is fond of it, and Jinhyuk isn’t socially inept enough to not have an understanding of the need for personal space. 

It’s all about compromise and mutual understanding. His group members knew and understood his love language and thus tolerated his occasionally ‘too intimate’ expressions of affections. And Jinhyuk on his part, made a conscious effort to keep his skinship at levels within each member’s threshold. 

Byungchan though, has no concept of personal space and welcomed any and every form of skinship with wide, open arms. He even reciprocated it. They naturally became fast friends, being one and the same.

After all, how could he resist? 

“Anyways, keep it PG-13 kids. Remember. We’ve got cameras here,” he points out as he pads towards the group, pulling the damp towel off his head and throwing it over them, eliciting surprised yelps from the pair.

Seungwoo drops directly into a crossed legged position sending vibrations through the floor.

“So what are the remaining options?”

Jinhyuk pulls the towel off just in time to catch Seungwoo’s hand creeping towards the chicken flavoured cup noodles. He makes a quick grab for it, swiping it up before the man could get a hold of it. 

Seungwoo shoots him a look and Jinhyuk has the decency to look apologetic.

“Sorry hyung. Saving it for Wooseok. He likes chicken.”

The man gives an understanding smile, unbothered. 

“It’s fine. I’m good with seafood too.”

Seungyeon noisily tears open the packaging with his teeth and uses one hand to fill his cup with boiled water, the other gesturing at either one of them to pass him their cups.

“Speaking of Wooseok, where is he?” He asks, helping Seungwoo fill his cup too. “Gah! Looks like we need more water.”

Jinhyuk glances at the clock – 12:03AM – frowning, “Last I saw him he was still at the practice rooms. Said he wanted to polish up some things…”

That was a while ago. Hours in fact. 

“I should go check on him,” he mutters, gently pulling away from Byungchan’s back hug. “Help me cook my ramen will you?”

“It’ll get soggy though,” Byungchan points out, lips curled into a small pout after having lost his skinship partner. 

“I like soggy.”

Seungyeon gasps dramatically, “Blasmephy!”

Jinhyuk pushes himself up to his feet, making sure to ‘accidentally’ step on Seungyeon’s thigh on his way towards the door. 

“Arg— You bastard!”

“This coming from the guy who says fries dipped in ketchup and coke ‘isn’t bad’. You’ve got no right to talk.”

“Whatever. Don’t take too long or I’m gonna eat your portion!”

“Not gonna happen,” he snorts, waving off the man’s threats. “Byungchan-ie ~ You’ll protect my and Wooseok’s cups right?”

He blows a cheeky kiss the male’s way and throws in finger guns. Byungchan returns the favour.

Once this is all over and he and Wooseok were back in UP10TION, he’s so kidnapping Byungchan. He can be their honorary 11th member.

 

 


 

 

The hallways of the training building were dim – most of the lights having been switched off save a couple of the ones over the main areas – and it made navigation the place a whole lot easier. All he had to do to find Wooseok was follow the lights. 

Approaching the practice room he'd left the man in, he knocks as he pushes open the door.

"Wooseok?"

He squints as he enters the room, the rooms bright lights in comparison to the dim hallway momentarily blinding him. His voice is drowned out by JI-MA blasting on the speakers.

Wooseok was starting another practice run of the theme song it seemed. Jinhyuk wonders which run it is. The man had probably lost count, he thinks, wincing when he hears his friend’s voice crack at the pre-chorus. He’s not so concerned about the voice crack – the song’s key was pretty high  – as he is about Wooseok’s hoarseness overall. 

It all goes downhill from there. A missed beat here, mixed up lyrics there, an off tune note… actually multiple off tune notes. 

That cannot be good for the throat. 

Wooseok ends the run a bundle of frazzled nerves and energy, the barely contained frustration threatening to bubble over from under his stoic mask. 

“Hey,” he greets softly, moving towards the man. Wooseok ignores him, reaching for the music player – presumably to start another run.

Jinhyuk grabs the man’s shoulder, gently tugging him back. 

“You should probably take a break, don't you think?” He ponders pointing out the man’s poor vocal condition, “Your voice… could use it. Have you been drinking enough?”

Wooseok doesn’t take too kindly to his interference, slapping his hand away with more force than was probably necessary. Jinhyuk flinches, drawing his hand back to his chest.

“I’m fine,” he bites out. The unsteady edge in the man’s voice tells him otherwise.

Jinhyuk tries again, lightly grabbing at the man’s wrist. 

“Wooseok-ah, it’s late,” he murmurs soothingly, “Seungyeon brough ramen. They’re having a midnight snack party in our room right now. I saved you chicken. You should rest and unwind a bit, there’s always tomorr—”

Wooseok spins around furiously, throwing off his grasp so fast and hard that it sends a shock of numbness up his arm. 

“How can you say that?!” 

Jinhyuk feels his blood run cold, a tinge of fear blossoming at the pits of his gut. Wooseok is angry. Angry-angry . He’s never dealt with an angry Wooseok before – not this kind of angry – and he doesn’t know how.

“I don’t care what others do but you? How can you be playing around, goofing off with them at a time like this?! This isn’t a fucking game Jinhyuk. We don’t have time to be resting!”

The venom in his voice especially scathing in his accusations. It stings. Just a little.

“Wooseok-ah,” he starts cautiously, attempting to calm the man down. Unfortunately, it only serves to rile the man up further.

Wooseok presses into his personal space, wild eyes ablaze and voice hoarse and ragged. 

“We got put in B. Fucking B. And we’re debuted idols. If you had any sense you know what people are going to say. Do you even care?”

The barrage of words come so hard and fast Jinhyuk can barely process it all. All he can really think of is how Wooseok looks, sounds absolutely horrible. He looked as though he were about to collapse, whether from exhaustion or plain anger, he can’t tell. This wasn’t the Wooseok he was used to. It wasn’t a side he knew existed. 

Kim Wooseok, always so put together. Yet here he was, the perfectly crafted mask cracking, falling apart at the seams. 

He should say something. But he’s scared. What should he say?

“I— I,” he stammers, pupils quaking as he tries with every fiber of his being to read Wooseok’s mind. What does the man want from him? Need from him? If he’d just give him a hint, he’d give it all. 

“I— I’m sorry.”

His voice cracks.

What is he sorry for? For not noticing anything? For not knowing the right thing to do? The right words to say? For not being a good partner? Friend? For not being good enough? Maybe for all of the above.

They were supposed to be each other’s support here. To have each other’s back. Clearly he hadn’t had Wooseok’s back. 

If only Yein were here. He’d know what to do. 

They both fall silent and Wooseok’s ragged breathing is painfully loud in the empty room. Jinhyuk is just as painfully aware of the man’s every movement. Wooseok is so close he could see his reflection in his glistening eyes. He could see the man forcing back the wetness pooling by his waterline with every blink. He sees the way they darken. The way they cloud over, glaze up into that look.  

He can feel panic rising up his throat. 

Is he crying? Is he gonna cry? Ohnonononono. Did I say something wrong? What should I say?  

He doesn't know what to say and he's so, so sorry for that.

“I’m sorry—”

“I’m sorry.” 

Wooseok abruptly cuts through his apology with one of his own and Jinhyuk is thrown for a loop.

“I’m sorry.” 

The man apologises again with more force, rapidly blinking as he locks eyes with Jinhyuk. 

Jinhyuk opens and closes his mouth. He's getting whiplash.

"You shouldn't be the one apologising, I should. I shouldn't have said what I said…" he swallows thickly, lower lip trembling. "I'm sorry."

Jinhyuk releases the breathe he hadn't realise he'd been holding. 

"It's fine, you were just stressed and needed to vent."

It really is fine. He's just glad that Wooseok had calmed down. Crisis had been averted. All's right with the world again. It was all good. 

Wooseok clearly doesn't think so, shooting down his statement immediately.

"No it's not. Even if I was stressed, I shouldn't have taken it out on you. I— you," his eyebrows knit up in frustration as he stumbles over his words, "I didn't mean any of what I said. And I'm sorry for saying such hurtful things without thinking."

Jinhyuk opens his mouth to say something, but Wooseok cuts him off, his words spilling out with a desperate sort of urgency.

"I really didn't mean any of the things I said. I— we, all of us know you're a hardworking person. You're the most hardworking person I know and I know you're not playing around and you know just know how to work hard and play hard and I– I didn't mean to say such hurtful things. I didn't mean to hurt you."

Jinhyuk has to give props to the man's lung capacity.

It's messy, and Wooseok's pretty much rambling. But how could he stay upset – not that he really ever was in the first place – at a man so clearly trying to redeem himself. 

"It's fine, really. Anyone could tell you were stressed. And I wasn't hurt—"

Wooseok shoots him a sceptical, 'really' look.

"— Okay fine. Maybe I was a little hurt. Only a little," he smiles reassuringly, waving it off, "But it's fine Wooseok. You apologised and we talked it out like the mature adults we are right?"

The man eyeballs him for a moment, lips pressed into a tight line. And for once, Jinhyuk feels like the roles have been reversed and that rather than him trying to read Wooseok, Wooseok was the one trying to read him. 

"Okay," Jinhyuk claps his hands together, "This is where we seal things with a hug. And you look like you need a hug anyways so come on!"

He spreads his arms wide open.

"Come to daddy!"

It’s kind of funny how the man instantly recoils.

“Er, no I don’t need a hug Jinhyuk.”

Normally he’s pretty good at respecting his friends’ wishes and their boundaries. But something tells him to ‘go for it’ anyways. And so he does, dragging the reluctant man into a huge bear hug. 

“Hey! What are you doing!”

Despite his protests, Wooseok doesn’t move an inch. In fact it feels like the man was leaning into the hug. 

All bark, no bite huh?

Jinhyuk weaves his fingers through Wooseok’s hair, swaying from side to side as he gently strokes the other’s back. There’s a strange sense of satisfaction in feeling the other relax, melting into his hug. Or maybe it’s the satisfaction of knowing that he had been right – Wooseok had needed a hug. 

He loves being right.

Jinhyuk wonders how it must look to the cameras right. It suddenly occurs to him how immensely grateful he is that they’ve got no mics on in practice rooms past official filming hours. It probably wouldn’t be good if Wooseok’s prior outburst had been caught on tape. Without audio, the film would probably look pretty innocuous.

They stay like this for awhile. Standing in the middle of the practice room in silence, just hugging, until Wooseok finally breaks it.

“So… are you gonna let me go?”

“Nope.”

Suddenly there’s a finger rammed up against his side and Jinhyuk squeals in a pitch he hadn’t known was possible from himself. 

Wooseok had probably intended to shock him into releasing him with the surprise attack. Unfortunately for him, Jinhyuk ends up doing the exact opposite. His body instinctively curling inwards in an attempt to protect itself, crushing Wooseok further in his arms. 

“O–oi!”

Wooseok’s thumb jerks deeper into Jinhyuk’s side in reflex and it takes Jinhyuk out. Literally. He collapses forward with a shrill screech, taking Wooseok down with him.

“You dumbass,” Wooseok groans. Jinhyuk rolls off the other man, laying down beside him. 

“Hey, you’re the one who attacked without warning!”

“Shut up.”

They lie there in comfortable silence, staring up at the ceiling.  

It’s too bright , Jinhyuk thinks as he moves an arm up to shield his eyes. He hears Wooseok shifting beside him.

“Jinhyuk?”

Wooseok’s voice is soft, hesitant.

“Hnh?”

“Am I mean?”

If Wooseok had asked him the exact same question in any other context, he would’ve said yes in a heartbeat. But something about the man’s tone tells him that there was something more to it. This was something deeper. It wasn’t a jumping board into another one of their usual banters. 

“What do you mean?” 

Wooseok reiterates himself.

“Do you think I’m mean?”

Perhaps he took too long searching for a response.

“So I am huh…”

His voice is resigned. Defeated. And Jinhyuk feels his heart clench. 

“No… Wooseok, I never said that,” he desperately wracks his brain for the right thing to say, “Really. What do you mean by the question?”

“I must be a pretty hard person to be friends with.”

Jinhyuk wants to say something, anything really lest his silence be taken for an agreement again. 

“Where is all of this coming from all of a sudden?”

Wooseok ignores his question.

“You guys are too nice to say anything. But you know you can– should tell me if I go too far right?” 

“No really Wooseok, what are you going on abo—” 

And suddenly it just clicks. 

Kim Wooseok is a professional. The man who fearlessly scrutinizes the public as the public did him. The man who collected every single opinion thrown his way, filing it away. Using it to further build and improve his persona. 

“You read that pann post didn’t you?”

“Sometimes I get carried away and get too rough. If it hurts you sh—”

“Why would you read it?!”

He turns aggressively to his side to face Wooseok.

“Jinhyuk.”

“Why the hell would you do that?! You know better than to do that! They’re only ever lies. Besides, you know it happens every Produce season. Netizens create bullshit to pull us contestants down.”

“Jinhyuk,” he sighs, tilting his head just the slightest to level his gaze at him. Jinhyuk hates the way he’s looking at him – all meek and contrite. “We’re idols. We live and die by public opinion. It’s stupid to not monitor it. And besides… this time it is true isn’t it? I am pretty violent around you guys. It’s a fact.”

Jinhyuk opens his mouth to protest but Wooseok presses on, refusing to let him have a word.

“They’re right you know? The netizens,” he chuckles bitterly, “Only a jerk would treat their friends that way. And I didn’t even realise it till it was shoved into my face. Even to me it looking fucking bad.”

Okay, nope. This was not the hill they were going to die on. No way in hell is he letting Wooseok die on this hill. 

“Okay, first of all. There’s this term called ‘rough-housing’. You ever heard of it Wooseok-ssi? That’s what it is. You do it to us, we do it to you. And we don’t care because we’re friends ,” he stress the word, “You seriously think none of us would have said something if we thought you were being an asshole?”

“To keep the peace, yes. You know how group discord can kill careers, Jinhyuk.”

 Urgh. 

Jinhyuk was starting to see the flaws in Wooseok’s professionalism. The man kept viewing things way too objectively, constantly trying to divorce his emotions from everything. 

Being too bloody rational is a thing apparently. 

“That’s what co-workers would do. You’re forgetting we are all also friends who will talk shit out lest we wish to have Jinwook-hyung’s rage befall upon us. You forgetting that?”

“But are we though?”

“Huh?”

“We are co-workers, for sure. But are we all really friends?”

It feels like he’d just received a punch to the gut.

“Do you not think we are friends?”

He swallows thickly, dreading the answer. Wooseok turns away and Jinhyuk feels his mouth go dry.

“I don’t know,” he murmurs softly, “I’ve been gone a long time. Too long.”

Jinhyuk realises he’s talking about his hiatus.

“Distance doesn’t necessarily make the heart grow fond. No matter how friendly we were before, it doesn’t change the fact that my scandal hurt the group and all of your career.”

“Wooseo—”

“Jinhyuk,” Wooseok turns abruptly, staringly steadily right at him, “You’re a nice guy. But do you think you would have made friends with me if we weren’t group mates?”

Honestly? Jinhyuk’s not sure, but he wants to say yes regardless. Yes, of course! How could you suggest otherwise? They still would’ve been friends. But he can’t bring himself to say it. He doesn’t dare, not with Wooseok staring at him like that; As though he were searching his soul. He’s afraid the man would know he’s lying. 

So he deflects.

“Our— UP10TION’s current state… Do you think we blame you for that?”

Wooseok’s lips presses into a tight line, lowering his gaze as he brings up a hand to cover his face under the guise of rubbing his nose. Jinhyuk realises he had hit a nerve and he suddenly regrets deflecting. He should’ve just lied.

“Wooseok-ah,” he starts gently, injecting every ounce of sincerity he could into his voice, “We don’t. Not just me, but all of us. We really don’t blame you.”

“How can you not?” 

Jinhyuk can hear hints of fear woven into the man’s trembling tenor.

“It was simply an unfortunate situation. You didn’t do anything yourself, we all just happened to fall victim to circumstance. How could we have blamed you for something you couldn’t have controlled?”

Jinhyuk can tell the man’s unconvinced from the way he’s rubbing his lip. 

He tries again, “Do you blame Somi for what happened?”

There’s a moment of silence and Jinhyuk awaits Wooseok’s response with bated breath.

“No.”

Thank god that was his reply. If it had been anything Jinhyuk’s not sure how he would’ve navigated the rest of the conversation.

“It’s the same for us isn’t it? We don’t blame you for the same reason you don’t blame Somi. All of it was beyond our control.”

They fall into another bout of silence. A subdued sniff coming from Wooseok eventually breaks it.

Uh oh. Is he crying?

“Are you crying?” 

“No.”

His voice crackles tellingly.

Maybe he’s not. Wooseok has his head curled downwards to his chest, hair falling over his face, so he can’t be sure. But it does sound like he might, possibly be crying. Jinhyuk finds himself rambling off anxiously in response.

“Come on Wooseok-ah, have more faith in us. We may be groupmates, but we all trained together long before UP10TION. We’ve got history. It won’t go poof just cause you needed to take some time off. Also Yein should be the one crying not you. If he’d been here to hear everything you’d just said he’d have slapped you. Then die from the heartbreak. You know how much he adores you. Wait till he hears about this. You need a good nagging from him to knock some sense back into you—"

Wooseok grabs the hem of his shirt, putting a halt to his brain vomit.

"First of all," he starts breathily, volume increasing with each word – as though he were trying to forcibly conceal the shakiness of his voice. "I'm not crying."

And as if to prove his point, he jerks his head up, locking his big, watery eyes with Jinhyuk's. If he was trying to be convincing, the rapid blinking was certainly not helping his case but Jinhyuk decides not to point that out.

"And second of all, if you tell Yein. I'll kill you."

Ah, good old Kim Wooseok. Jinhyuk can't help but laugh. 

"For someone so sensitive, you sure are mean," Wooseok visibly stiffens, and Jinhyuk quickly moves to clarify himself. "Not mean-mean, but you've certainly got a mean sense of humor despite being all soft and mushy on the inside."

"There's a special word for that. You know what you are Kim Wooseok-ssi? You're a tsundere ."

Wooseok freezes, eyes widening as he processes his words. A moment later, he cracks a smile that he attempts to bite away no to avail.

"You're such a weeab."

Jinhyuk boops him on the nose, “Oh lookie, your tsun is showing.”

“Shut up.” 

Grinning, he curls an arm around Wooseok’s neck, pulling the man into a crushing half-headlock, half-cuddle.

“Yah!”

“Let’s make it clear, I let you bully me cause we both know you’d never be able to take on a guy my size anywhere else. I’m just letting you live your power tripping fantasies out since I’m such a nice guy.”

“What is this bullshit!” Wooseok exclaims offendedly, arms flailing about as he tries to untangle himself from Jinhyuk’s limbs. “You’re a damned noodle and I can take you on anytime.”

“Is that so? You’d have to be able to reach me first though.”

Jinhyuk slides his hands up to squish Wooseok’s face, throwing his head back in half-laughter, half-avoidance as Wooseok attempts to retaliate via headbutt. They end up practically mopping the floor with their bodies as they rolled around the room in their fight for dominance. 

In the end, Wooseok had expended pretty much all of his stamina practicing non-stop so it’s Jinhyuk that comes out on top this time – literally. He cackles victoriously from his position, booping Wooseok’s nose again just because he can. And also just because how his face scrunches up in response is really, really funny. Wooseok is so much like a cat.

“You think too much Wooseok-ie,” he says it in jest, but he also means it. The man might not act like it, but it’s become clear to him that Wooseok cares. And maybe he cares too much. 

“And you don’t think at all!” Is the retort he gets, and all Jinhyuk does is laugh… and squish Wooseok’s face in retaliation.

Smiling softly, he pushes the man’s fringe out of the way, gazing right into his eyes. 

“Don’t worry so much. We’ll both get A, be centers, and get past first elims. My gut tells me so.”

Wooseok frowns, “And we should trust your gut… why?”

His smile stretches out further into a grin, “Just because. I’ve got a knack for survival show predictions. All my 1-picks for the last 3 seasons made it in you know?” 

He pulls up his fingers, counting them down, “Sejeong, Daniel, Yena— and you’re my 1-pick this season so you’re totally getting in.”

Jinhyuk half-expects Wooseok to scoff, maybe throw him off or something akin to that. But he doesn’t. Instead, he gets an agreeable smile. 

“Okay then.”

“Oh wow,” Jinhyuk dramatically clutches his heart, “Wasn’t expecting the sudden deredere from our tsundere prince.” 

Wooseok pauses, giving him an ‘are you serious’ look.

He pounces.

( Goddamn, he really was like a cat. )

Chapter Text

Jinhyuk watches Wooseok and Seungyeon from across the room, eyeing them as they hunched over what he presumes must be their sheet music, mouths moving to their vocal runs. He can’t hear them over the babble of groups practicing – mostly just Yuvin, actually – but he’s still somehow able to hear whatever imaginary rendition of Love Shot (feat. Wooseok) play out in his head just by reading their lips. 

Wooseok frowns, neck stretching out at an angle that accentuated his jawline. He can’t see it clearly from here, but Jinhyuk can easily visualise the way Wooseok’s adam apple must be rippling the way it always did as he pushes for that high note. He’s seen it a dozen, a million times, and it always drove the fans crazy. 

Even when straining, he looked beautiful. He’s never really noticed it before, but Wooseok had the ability to make every action, every performance screenshot worthy – be it intentionally or unintentionally. It’s enviable.

He must’ve hit the note successfully, Jinhyuk thinks, catching the way the corners of the man’s lips curls up into a kittenish smirk. Wooseok turns toward Seungyeon, and he notices the secret smile they share. He can’t help the tiny smile that tugs at the corners of his lips either. 

Wooseok got the perfect song for him.

He snapped out of his voyeuristic revere by Seungwoo.

“—right Jinhyuk?”

He swivels his head back to the front, sheepishly clearing his throat under Yohan’s questioning gaze. 

“Ah, yes. What Seongwoo-hyung said,” What did Seungwoo-hyung say? He figures reiterating what Seungwoo said (whatever it might be) wasn’t being very helpful – not to mention Yohan looking at him with those eager, expectant eyes – so he attempts to add onto his brief statement. 

"Also…" he racks his brain for helpful advice, "Your sense of rhythm is great. Don't rush your pronunciation, and if you get it wrong just pretend you didn't. It's less noticeable if you act like it's intentional."

He hopes he didn't accidentally just repeated whatever Seungwoo might've said. That would be embarrassing… Judging from the way Yohan seemed to eagerly jot down every last word of his on his crumpled lyric sheet though, he hadn't and Jinhyuk allows himself a silent sigh of relief.

“Right, thanks hyung!” He nods, vigorously.

The boy opens his mouth, but says nothing, his eyes flickering towards Seungwoo.

“Umm,” he starts hesitantly, chewing on his lower lip, “Anything else?”

Yohan’s still facing him – and the question posed is ‘supposedly’ for him – but Jinhyuk can tell that the boy’s clearly hoping for some parting words from Seungwoo. Jinhyuk finds himself chewing back an amused grin as exchanges a secret glance with Seungwoo.

Seungwoo smiles softly at the boy, “Jinhyuk’s right. Just have confidence and you’re good to go – just like you did during your audition stage. You have that natural charisma Yohan-ie.”

The man gives the boy a light pat on his back. 

“R-right. Thanks hyung… uh, I should probably go practic- uh- record my… rap?” the boy stutters, hurrying away, but not before Jinhyuk manages to catch sight of the guy’s reddening ears. 

Cute.

Jinhyuk arches an eyebrow, moving to sit beside Seungwoo. He playfully knocks knees with the man while he’s at it.

You have that natural charisma Yohan-ie ,” he exaggeratedly softens his voice, mimicking Seungwoo. “And so another one bites the dust. Ever the charmer eh, hyung?”

It’s only been a couple of days and Seungwoo practically had the team worshiping the very ground he walked on. Not that Jinhyuk blamed them. Seungwoo was a very nice guy in general and had that sort of protagonist halo about him that made others look up to him. Some*cough* Yohan *cough*  more than others.

“What do I have to do to get the kids to look at me like that?” He laughs, throwing his head back, “I want to be loved too.”

Seungwoo nudges him, letting out a sort of half-giggle, half-chuckle.

“What are you talking about Jinhyuk, the kids love you too. They’re all over you.”

“All over me,” Jinhyuk can’t help but snort, “Right. The love me as a gagman though. Kinda different you know? I’m after a more… hmm, how would you put it? Doting, revering kind of love. The kind that makes them go, Jinhyuk-hyung ~,” he wiggles his hands as though to mimic the softness of his voice, “and not Jinhyuk-hyung↗ ,” he curls his hands up to a fist, and gives the air a fist bump, to illustrate his point.

Seungwoo slaps his thigh, bursting into a fit a giggles and Jinhyuk swears he heard a muffled, ‘you dork’ somewhere in between them. Jinhyuk joins him in laughter. 

When they finally settle down, Seungwoo slings a casual arm around his shoulder, “No, but really Jinhyuk. The kids love you too. They’re just really comfortable around you that’s all.”

Despite the playfulness of the man’s tone, the hints of earnestness behind them has Jinhyuk wondering if Seungwoo took his words a little too seriously. 

“I know that,” he laughs, shooting a reassuring grin the man’s way.

It’s fine like that. 

Not everyone can be ethereal like Wooseok, and not everyone can be admirable like Seungwoo. He can’t be like them, can’t get people to love him the way they do. But people seemed to like him enough for his easygoing energy and that’s good enough for him. 

Seungwoo gazes silently at him with that ever serene smile of his. Jinhyuk recognises that look – that ‘big brother’ look. He’s seen him pull it on Dongpyo, Yohan, Eung— hell, the rest of the group. Looks like he’s finally getting his turn, and his stomach gives a tiny lurch. He doesn’t like the possible turn the conversation might be taking. 

“But if you need someone to dote on you, Jinhyuk-ie, I can.”

Seungwoo’s voice is soft, soothing and Jinhyuk has to admit… he thinks his heart might’ve skipped a beat at his words. The man really was a natural. 

He can easily see how Yohan was so taken with the man. 

Jinhyuk’s face goes blank, brain short-circuiting as it scrambles to quickly reorganise his thoughts. But he recovers quickly, the corners of his mouth pulling up into a bemused smirk. 

“That’s very nice of you Seungwoo-hyung,” he thanks sweetly, mischievously batting his eyes as he leans into the man’s arm, voice dropping down to scandalously whisper, “but I’m still not going to shower with you tonight.”

Seungwoo’s face falls, and Jinhyuk has to bite down on his lip so as to not laugh right into his face. 

“I’m not an easy man hyung ~” he teases.

“Not easy?” Seungwoo looks at him incredulously, “You drape yourself over anyone who’ll let you at every opportunity.” 

“Eyye,” he wags a finger at the man, “Skinship and showering are two different things. Sorry hyung, but showering with me is still 5 heart event and you haven’t built enough friendship to unlock the special CG yet. Try harder.”

“Pray tell, how many hearts have I achieved so far then?”

“Eh, around three maybe? Give or take half a heart,” he jokes, shooting a finger heart Seungwoo’s direction, “Gotta tell you though hyung, you’ve hit the bottleneck. Getting more hearts gonna be tough from here on cause I’m a push and pull type of guy.”

He makes a show of reeling in an imaginary line. Seungwoo arches an eyebrow.

“Is that a challenge?”

Using his pinky and ring finger, he flashes a lopsided V-sign over his eye. 

“Welcome to ‘Starry☆Sky – PDX Fandisc Version’. Try to capture Jinhyuk-ie if you can, pyong ~ ♡” 

Seungwoo blinks, taken aback, mouth hanging open as though it couldn’t decide if it wanted to smile or cringe. 

“Don’t worry, you’ll probably get a shower partner eventually,” he grins, lightly punching Seungwoo’s shoulder as a guttural laugh bubbles forth. “I’ve a feeling Yohan’s gonna crack soon. I just know it. He’s just shy shy shy and needs time to prepare his heart tis all.”

Seungwoo joins him in his laughter, “Is that so? That’s nice. It’s been getting lonely showering on my own.”

“Who gets lonely in the shower?”

“The best kind of gossip is shower gossip, don’t you know?”

“Oh ho, now I’m curious about what you and Byungchan gossiped about in the shower.”

“Let’s shower together then Jinhyuk-ie,” he pulls him closer by the shoulder, then seamlessly transitions it into a loose headlock, “I’ll tell you everything .”

Jinhyuk lightly jabs Seungwoo in his side and the man jerks in surprise, his grip loosening enough for Jinhyuk to wiggle out off. Or more accurately, shimmy down from. Jinhyuk practically wiggles down onto the ground like a worm. It must’ve been quite the sight. 

“Nice try hyung, but no shortcuts. Gotta earn the remaining 1½ hearts to unlock a shower with moi .”

“Aren’t you persistent,” he chuckles.

Jinhyuk sticks out tongue at him, “Speak for yourself.”

There’s a prickling sensation at the back of his neck. It feels like someone’s watching him. He turns, scanning the room, and ends up locking eyes with Wooseok.

Brightening up, he grins, mouthing a silent ‘yo’. 

But Wooseok doesn’t respond, remaining stoned faced as he continues to stare. Seungyeon glances at the man, and leans in to whisper something to him. The reaction is almost instantaneous, Wooseok spinning round full of flustered energy as he attacks Seungyeon who simply laughs toothily as he effortlessly fends off the smaller male.

Jinhyuk can feel his smile faltering, and he forces out a sheepish chuckle. It’s easier to keep smiling when you laugh, even if you don’t mean it. 

Maybe Wooseok hadn’t been looking at him. 

He cranes his neck back, checking behind him. He spots a cameraman.

That must be it. That’s right. Wooseok wouldn’t just outright ignore him like that. He must’ve been looking at the VJ and hadn’t noticed him. It isn’t weird considering how many people were around. 

Right?

 


 

Jinhyuk eyeballs the two boys snacking on pepero, passing it from mouth to mouth. It seemed like they were making a game out of who was quicker at nibbling down the sugary stick. 

It’s certainly a new height of off-cam, friendly skinship that’s for sure. He only ever though they did these sort of games for the fans. Have things changed? Is mouth-to-mouth pepero now not exceedingly odd between friends? Is it now a decently acceptable form of skinship? Are these the kind of game youngins played in their free time these days? God, he feels old. 

Maybe he’ll ask Byungchan if he wants to play with him next time. 

He wonders who’d lose between the two of them. He hates losing, but he can’t imagine Byungchan backing down either. Maybe he should start with a less threatening opponent…

Like Wooseok?

Yeah, he imagines he’d beat Wooseok easy peasy. His mind wanders back to the imagery of Wooseok all flustered by Seungyeon. He imagines that’s how the man would react if he played the pepero game with him.

He wonders what Seungyeon said that managed to get such a reaction out of him. 

Why am I such a busybody?

He shakes his head, forcing such thoughts out of his head. Returning his attention back to the two youngins happily snacking away before him. A devilish smirk stretching across his face as he struck by a sudden mischievous thought. 

Sliding up behind Dongpyo, he watches as Hyeongjun positions another stick between them. He waits for them to nibble the snack down… down… down, till their faces were just a nose touch away—

He gives Dongpyo’s head a light pat, sending it lurching towards Hyeongjun for a sweet smooch. 

“Yah!”

Dongpyo spins round, face flushed and hand raised ready for attack. In contrast, Hyeongjun is uncannily calm, barely reacting at all and seemingly more interested in finishing off what was left of the biscuit.

He laughs, raising his hands up in apology, “Sorry, sorry.”

“Hyung,” he whines, hitting his shoulder, “That was my first kiss!”

Oh , now he feels a little bad about that. Just a little.

He ruffles Dongpyo’s hair, apologising again with more sincerity, “Sorry, sorry. Hyung’s sorry.” 

Hyeongjun frowns, poking Dongpyo’s cheek as he voices his offence in that childlike lilt of his, “What? Is it that bad that I’m your first? It wasn’t even a real kiss. It’s just a peck.”

Jinhyuk laughs, gently rubbing the back of Dongpyo’s neck, “Hyeongjun-ie’s right. You’re first kiss is when you want it to be. Besides, it’s no big deal. Hyung lost his first kiss to a member. And not even his favourite member!”

Both boys perk up, eyes widening as the crowd around him, clearly intrigued by the new fun fact. 

“What! Really?”

“That’s surprising.”

“Yeah it was dur—”

“Never thought Jinhyukie-hyung would’ve even had a first kiss at all.”

Wait, hold up.

“Excuse me?”

Hyeongjun chimes up with a smile that’s too sweet and innocent, “You got that motae solo energy hyung.”

Is he being dissed? It kinda feels like he’s being dissed. He doesn’t trust that smile. There’s evil hiding behind it he’s sure. 

“I– what? What makes you say that???”

Dongpyo tags himself in to deliver that one-two punch, asking a question that he probably already knows the answer to.

“So you have dated before?” 

Jinhyuk isn’t really bothered by the fact that he’s never dated before. Too much to be done, too many games in his backlog to get to, and mum always told him that there’s a time and place for everything. When it happens, it’ll happen. There’s no shame in having never dated before… 

But it really, really annoys him how the two kids have his history pinned down so accurately just like that. He wants to say yes just to spite them.

“Of course.”

It’s not entirely a lie. 

There’s an impish glint in the boy’s eyes as he retorts without missing a beat, “Eyyye, hyung. Games don’t count.”

Oh. Wow. Fucking eviscertated. Just burn him like that won’t you? Jinhyuk can’t even say anything because Dongpyo’s 100% right and judging from that smug look on the kid’s face, he knows it too. He’ll never recover from this. He hates everyone. 

Hyeongjun decides he doesn’t want to be left out of the burn session.

“You were born in 96 right hyung? Impressive that you managed to stay solo up till now.”

Dongpyo nudges Hyeongjun, all giggly, “Not that surprising. Hyung’s an otaku. He seems more into 2D than 3D.”

“Yah! What’s with all the disrespect!”

“What’s all the hubbub about?” 

Seungwoo walks up to them, Yohan following closely behind, the two of them having just returned from the practice rooms. 

“Nothing!”

It’s uncanny how insync the two of them were. Grinning like cheshires, Dongpyo tugs at Hyeongjun’s arm and the pair bolts out of the room. Peals of laughter echoing down the hallway, mocking him. 

Yohan shoots him a confused look, while Seungwoo’s simply amused by the whole situation.

Jinhyuk waves the matter away, sighing, “It’s nothing.”

There’s no reason for him to share unnecessary fodder against himself for the remaining of his roomies to tease him with. They’ve already got plenty of material without him adding to it.  

“They were bullying you huh?” Yohan guesses – Seungwoo gasping ‘my son would never’ in the background – with a toothy grin, “You’re too easy hyung.”

“Why does everyone keep saying I’m easy?! I’m not!”

Yohan ignores him, pulling off his shirt and tossing it over the railing of his bunk. 

“I’ll shower first,” he announces.

Seungwoo doesn’t miss a beat, the three standard words leaving his mouth instantly in response. 

“Let’s shower together.”

Jinhyuk pays no heed to it. Seungwoo himself goes about his own business, shifting through his belongings. Neither of them expect an ‘okay’. By now Seungwoo’s nightly shower requests are more ritual than actual requests, with it becoming more like a send-off phrase to anyone who intended to clean up.

So neither of them was expecting the ‘sure’ that leaves Yohan’s mouth. They both spin around, the ‘what?’ that leaves their mouth coming out in sync. 

Yohan stares back, wide-eyed and clearly uncomfortable with the sudden attention.

“What?” 

“You want to shower together?”

Yohan shifts uncomfortably in his position, mouth opening and closing like a gasping fish. Jinhyuk is impressed by the speed of the red heat that spreads from the younger’s neck up to his ears. 

“You’re the one who asked,” he mutters accusingly, rushing off to the bathroom. Meanwhile, Seungwoo is all smiles.

“I’ll join you in a bit,” he calls out cheerily. 

Jinhyuk catches his eye and jiggles an eyebrow at him, coupled with a bunch of playful nudges. 

“What did I say?”

“So you’re not only a gagman, you’re also prophetic. Who would’ve thought?”

“What can I say? I’m a man of many talents.”

Seungwoo laughs as he undresses himself, neatly folding up his dirty clothes and stacking them in the little ‘dirty clothes’ corner Jinhyuk had cordoned off because apparently, without someone to nag them, the average male will just chuck their stuff anywhere and everywhere.

“I better get in there before Yohan changes his mind,” he muses out loud, padding towards the bathroom, Jinhyuk following closely behind.

“Yeah, yeah. Don’t gossip too much. If you guys use up all the hot water I’m gonna be pissed.”

“Wouldn’t be a problem if you joined us.”

“Woah there. Chill on your shower fetish for a bit hyung,” he snorts, “Trying to get a 2 for 1? You wanna give Yohan a heart attack? He only prepared his heart for one hot oppa you know.”

Seungwoo chuckles, giving him a little shove, “That’s one brand new sentence I never thought I’d hear.”

“I only speak the truth.”

Jinhyuk shuffles over to the entrance, sliding on a pair of slippers. 

“You going out?”

“Yeah. Don’t feel like waiting alone for you two to finish showering so I’m gonna fraternize a bit with our competition. Gather some intel,” he gives a little two finger salute, lowering his voice as he imitates the Terminator, “ I’ll be back.

Seungwoo laughs as he disappears into the bathroom, and Jinhyuk exits the room, sauntering aimlessly down the hallway past the other rooms.

He walks past Love Shot’s ajar door. Then three rooms later makes a U-turn back, his pace slowing down significantly enough for passing trainees to shoot him weird looks. As he approaches Love Shot’s room, he slows down even further as though unable to decide whether to drop by or not.  

Jinhyuk stops just shy of the door, shuffling to the side on the pretense of letting other trainees pass him when really? It’s just an excuse for him to shuffle his feet and dawdle.

Should he? Shouldn’t he? 

Would it be too clingy of him to seek out Wooseok when he’d no reason to? They’re agreed between the both of them that they should avoid being clique-y as much as possible. Forming cliques wouldn’t look good to the viewers, especially as already debuted idols.

Whilst he’s in the midst of an intense internal debate with the mini-Jinhyuk’s in his head, the door swings open with enough force to break his nose had he not stopped it with the back of his hand. And even then, it still sends a sour shock up his arm.

“Ah, sorry hyung didn’t know you were there,” Hangyul apologises as he steps out of the room.

Jinhyuk shakes his head reassuringly, massaging his hand.

“It’s fine.”

Hangyul glances at him, his eyes darting back into the room, then back to him again. 

“Wooseok-hyung’s lazing in bed—” 

Jinhyuk interjects, trying to correct the younger male, “Oh I’m not—”

“—then Seungyeon-hyung? He’s in the shower.”

He supposes there’s no point trying to avoid it now that he was here after all and just smiles tentatively at the man. 

“Thanks… umm, yeah. Wooseok,” he trails off uncertainty, shifting on the spot. “I guess I’m here to see him?”

Hangyul gives him a weird look, then realises he’s blocking the entrance – ‘whoops, sorry’ – and quickly moves out of the doorway to give Jinhyuk space to enter. 

“Wooseok-ah,” he crudely announces his arrival, making his way into the room. Wooseok doesn’t look up from the iPad.

“What?” 

Learning from Seungyeon’s past mistakes, he takes care to side-step the mess of belongings strewn along the side of Wooseok’s bed, using his foot to clear a small space for him to sit. Jinhyuk stretches out his neck, trying to look over Wooseok’s shoulder from his seated position.

“Whatcha doing?” 

Wooseok flips the iPad screen down, head snapping to the side and eyes widening in surprise.

“Oh— Jinhyuk. What are you doing here?”

“Yah,” he pokes Wooseok’s side, “didn’t you hear me call you just now?”

The man shrugs, putting the iPad aside as he pushing himself up into a crossed-legged position. 

“So. What are you doing here?”

“What? Am I not allowed to drop by to chat? Have you made so many new friends you don’t need me anymore? I’m wounded Wooseok-ssi. Wounded,” he dabs at a fake tear, right hand dramatically clutching his heart. His stellar acting earns him a Wooseok-certified© eyeroll.

“I see you’re very comfortable though,” he muses aloud, eyeballing the messy pile of dirty clothes and skincare products left lying around haphazardly along Wooseok’s bedside. It makes his hands itch. He gestures to them, “Doesn’t it bother you?”

“Please, I’m not messier than anyone else. They’re just better at hiding it. You should see the kids’ lockers,” Wooseok jerks his neck towards the cupboards behind him.

“And you’re saying your locker isn’t messy?” 

Wooseok meaningfully drags his eyes down to the mess surrounding him. 

“Of course. It’s here, not there isn’t it,” he points out. 

Wooseok shifts on his bed, the vibrations sends a toner bottle rolling towards him. The itch intensifies. Jinhyuk gives into the itch. He starts folding Wooseok’s clothes, stacking them neatly by the side before moving onto lining up the man’s skincare products in a row.

What monster just leaves their toner bottle rolling around on its side? How does it not bother him? 

“At least put your stuff to the side instead of leaving them scattered around,” he chides exasperatedly. 

“Yes mum.”

Wooseok quietly watches him tidy up. After a few moments, he sighs, getting up from his bed. Jinhyuk watches on curiously as the man moves to gather up his skincare products, carrying them over to his locker where he orderly places them.

Once he’s done, he collapses back on his bed with a huff.

Jinhyuk can’t help put coo, patting the man’s head patronisingly, “You’re such a good boy.”

Wooseok shoots him a glare, but doesn’t move from his position.

“So how’s practice going for you guys?”

“Not bad,” he hums distractedly as he starts lightly scratching Wooseok’s scalp. “Yohan’s a fast learner. He’s a pretty good rapper.”

Wooseok frowns, “I still can’t believe you guys made him the rapper. Isn’t he a vocal? And aren’t you a rapper?” 

Wooseok mutters something under his breath and Jinhyuk barely hears it, but he just manages to make out a ‘the self-sabotage really is real’ .

Jinhyuk smiles, shurgging, “Boss is pretty rap heavy so why not share some lines? Besides, I’m already centre.”

Wooseok grabs his wrist, pulling his hand off his head. 

“Mhmm, Jinwoo tells me you’ve been helping their team a lot too,” he remarks in a measured voice, his expression unreadable. “I’ve seen you hanging around with Mingyu quite a bit. You seem to enjoy collecting all the babies huh?”

Jinhyuk tries to pull his hand back, but Wooseok isn’t letting go so he shifts, leaning closer onto the bedside as he tries to find a more comfortable angle for his arm to rest.

 “7th Sense is a hard song,” he states matter-of-factly. How could he just leave them be when they all looked like lost puppies. And the way they went ‘hyung’, ‘hyung’, ‘hyung’ in all their boyishness. Too cute. 

“You say that as though you aren’t picking up kids left and right yourself. Haenami been talking about how buddy-buddy you and Hyeongjun-ie are lately. I think he’s a little jelly. Try not to be too obvious with your favourites will you,” he teases.

Wooseok presses his lips together, leveling a measured gaze at him. He starts slowly, clearly weighing each word of his carefully, “It’s really nice of you, to be so helpful to others.”

“Thank you?”

Why was Wooseok always so hard to read?

Wooseok’s gaze shifts to the space beside him. Curious, he turns to have a look and realises his friend was staring at the camera.

Suddenly, the world is spinning, his head forcibly snapping to the front as a pair of arms pulls him down by the nape. The next thing he knows, his face is half buried in…  Wooseok’s chest? 

Jinhyuk’s taken aback by the unexpected and uncharacteristic intimacy. And he feels a sudden heat rush up the side of his jaw, setting his ears on fire. He almost bites his tongue off stumbling on his words.

“W-wooseok?” 

The man simply strokes his head, cooing patronisingly, “ You’re such a good boy , helping others.”

Jinhyuk feels the heat creeping towards his cheeks. He really doesn’t get Kim Wooseok at all.

Wooseok pulls his head closer to him and Jinhyuk scarcely dares to breathe. His friend’s heartbeat feels almost deafening. The man drops his voice down low. So low it’s barely a whisper.

“You’re really nice Jinhyuk-ah,” Jinhyuk is hyper-aware of the way Wooseok’s moving lips brushes against his hair, “but you should look out for yourself more. Don’t forget, we’re in a competition .”

Oh.

He gets it now. 

But did the man really have to use such unconventional methods to dish out his advice off the record? It isn’t good for his heart. They could’ve just moved their conversation elsewhere where there weren’t mics. 

“Ah, okay,” he whispers back shakily. He swallows, willing his voice to stabilize as he brings it back to a normal volume for the cameras, “Quit teasing me.”

“But you’re fun to tease,” the man muses nonchalantly, still stroking his hair. 

Jinhyuk wonders if Wooseok knows he hasn’t showered yet. Cause if he does, he’s a mighty brave young man to be running his fingers through those nasty, oily locks of his. And if he doesn’t… 

To tell or not to tell, that is the question. He’s not sure if Wooseok is a ‘shoot the messenger’ kind of guy. 

“By the way… you know—”

The bathroom door flies open, and Jinhyuk detaches himself from Wooseok so fast he thinks he might’ve gotten whiplash.

“Oh! Jinhyuk-ie ~!”

Seungyeon announces his entrance with much fanfare, bouncing over towards them with a toothy grin. While he’s at it, he deems it proper to extend a further greeting to Jinhyuk by whipping him with his damp towel. 

“Ack! What was that for?!”

“Whip of love,” he whips him again for good measure and Jinhyuk has never felt such a strong urge to strangle someone with a fucking towel. 

Seungyeon collapses onto Wooseok’s bed and curls his arms around the man in an odd sort of half-hug, half-tackle. Wooseok grunts in protests, but makes no move to throw the male off. 

It has him in awe. Jinhyuk wonders what sort of spell Seungyeon must have over Wooseok that allows him to manhandle the man without consequence. Must be the same spell Dongyeol had over Wooseok. It would be nice if he could learn it.

“Where hasth you been all this time. We hags gotta stick together you know!?”

“I would like to be excluded from this ‘hag’ narrative. You two can be hags on your own,” Wooseok mutters with a roll of his eyes. 

Jinhyuk agrees. 

“I too, would like to be excluded from this narrative. Be a hag on your own Seungyeon. I’m still baby.”

“Please. Between all of us, the most haggiest of the hags are probably you and Seungwoo-hyung—”

“I can’t believe you just called Seungwoo-hyung a hag!”

“—you two have all the kids calling you ‘appa’, ‘appa’ . Try telling me you guys ain’t hag.”

 Jinhyuk attempts to make a grab for Seungyeon but the man simply uses Wooseok as a shield, cackling madly.

 


 

“Hnn, you look good.”

Jinhyuk and Jinwoo look up simultaneously from the iPad as Wooseok walks up towards them. 

“Hyung!”

Jinwoo leaps off his lap – and Jinhyuk almost gets a heart attack drops the iPad – bounding towards the other male excitedly. Wooseok is all smiles, helpfully adjusting the young boy’s beret.

It’s always so disorienting for him to see the two together. Jinhyuk has always known Wooseok was tiny, but seeing him next to the boyish Jinwoo – who was just about as tall as Wooseok – really drove the point home. 

Wooseok looks up from Jinwoo, and Jinhyuk feels somewhat self-conscious when the man drags his eyes up and down his body, clearly judging him.

“You look better than I’d expected,” he remarks simply.

Jinhyuk isn’t sure if he’s flattered or offended and he makes it known.

“Am I supposed to be flattered?”

“Somewhat,” Wooseok shrugs, stepping forward to flick at a tuft of hair-spary hardened fringe, smirking when he flinches. “Your hair actually looks good. Praise the stylist.”

Ah. The hair. 

Jinhyuk is absolutely certain about Wooseok’s obsession with his hair now.

“Though I do question the decision to have you go shirtless under that jacket,” Wooseok’s eyes drops down to his chest.

He looks down at his outfit, frowning, “Huh? Why?”

Everyone had said he looked cool though, even the trainers. 

The corner of Wooseok’s lips curl up impishly, “Oh come on Jinhyuk, you know what I mean. I’ve seen you naked before.”

This shady bi— 

“Excuse me? What are you implying?” He squawks in protest.

Jinwoo butts in, “Ah, hyung. Don’t be like that. Jinhyuk-hyung looks cool!”

That’s right Haenami! Protect your appa’s honour!

“Sure, we all know he’s a noodle underneath all of that. But from afar it looks good—”

No, not like that Jinwoo-ah…

Jinhyuk pinches the bridge of his nose, feeling the onset of a headache, “Jinwoo-ah, you’re not helping…”

Meanwhile, the smirk on Wooseok’s face had only grown wider. 

“Well, I guess it’s true that you do look good,” Wooseok makes a show of examining him, bobbing his head up and down, “I am certainly impressed by how broad and manly you look despite us both knowing what your real physique is like. But that’s also a testament to how good your proportions are right?”

Jinhyuk narrows his eyes, uncertain where Wooseok was going with this. The man’s not insulting him, but it doesn’t feel like he’s being complimented either. He’s being toyed with and no way in hell does he trust that smirk. 

Wooseok takes another step forward, “Right now it’s just the right amount of skin. But who knows how much you might accidentally flash while dancing?”

A finger shoots out to poke at his bare chest. Grinning evilly, the man drags his finger down teasingly. It sends chills down his spine and Jinhyuk instantly recoils, hands flying up to form a protective cross over his chest. 

“OI!”

“I’m just worried for you Jinhyuk-ie,” he coos sweetly. However the bemused cackle tells him otherwise. “Don’t want you to accidentally embarrass yourself.”

“Why you gotta diss me like that before our stages,” he groans.

“It’s for good luck Jinhyuk-ie ~ Don’t want to jinx your stage. I’m doing you a favour!”

Wooseok side-steps his protective cross to poke him again on his chest – “Yah! You pervert!” – the more Jinhyuk tries to block him, the more aggressive he gets. Next thing they know, it’s a full on brawl. By then Jinwoo decides that now’s a good time to tattle on them.

“Seungwoo-hyunnnggg!!!! Jinhyuk-hyung and Wooseok-hyung are fighting!”

Not that he’d really needed to. The commotion alone had already drawn a mini-crowd – mostly just their group mates, really – who’d started making bets on who would win. All led by Seungyeon, of course, who’d eagerly taken up the role as bookie. 

Even whilst preoccupied by the brawl with his labelmate, he doesn’t miss the chorus of bets being made on Wooseok and against him. 

These brats. 

Only Junho – sweet, summer child – loyally chose to stand by him. He would repay that loyalty. 

“Aha!”

He manages to break the man’s defences, palms enclosing around the man’s cheeks. Victory was within his grasp and he wasn’t going to show mercy! He goes for the squish.

“Yah! Watch the face! Watch the face!”

“Oujuju ~ Does our Wooseok-ie have something to say ~?” he coos in a babyish lilt, making kissy faces at the man. 

“Lee Jinhyuk! Careful or make-up noona will kill us!”

“Would be worth it—”

Somebody pushes his head and he loses his balance. His face flies forwards, knocking foreheads with Wooseok. That’s not the only thing he knocks. He feels something that he’s pretty sure isn’t ‘face’ press against his lips. It only lasts for a split-second, and then he feels the distinct sensation of teeth knocking, sending a sharp sting radiating from his upper lip. Jinhyuk almost swears out loud. 

The room goes silent. 

He jerks away, massaging his sore cupid’s bow with the base of his palm as he swivels around to find the culprit. And lo and behold, he locks eyes with none other than Dongpyo. The boy doesn’t even try to feign innocence, proudly flaunting his guilt in that smug smirk of his. All the boy does is wink, shooting finger guns at him.

“Payback hyung ~”

Jinhyuk is too dumbfounded to even say anything. His brain was still playing catch-up.

“So how was your second kiss?”

The room explodes into a mass of noise.

“Yah! Song Dongpyo!”

Chapter Text

Having spent every waking hour being watched by cameras –  having to second guess every action, every word – the past week or so has him craving some alone time. He thought it’d be nice to get away from it all – friends, family, people – for just a bit. 

So he lies to his parents and tells them the company wants him back in the dorms, and he lies to his friends, telling them that his parents wanted to spend time with him. Jinhyuk supposes he’s too much of a people pleaser – wanting to be selfish, but too much of a coward to be upfront about it – to tell them the truth. If mum knew, she’d be disappointed in him. But a little white lie wouldn’t hurt anyone, and everybody deserves a few secrets to themselves. Let this one selfish white lie be his little secret.

He wanted , needed it.

Still, it’s a little depressing returning back to a darkened, empty dorm when he’s so used to it being a congested, bustling hub of activity. 

He takes a deep breath as he steps past the threshold, drinking in the musty scent of stale, stagnant air that permeated the entire apartment. The smell is oddly pleasing to the olfactory senses, comforting in a manner he can’t quite explain in words. 

Clearly the members have been gone awhile now and Jinhyuk feels a little guilty for not remembering exactly when they departed. He feels even worse when he remembers he hadn’t been able to even text them a ‘safe travels’ while stuck in Produce and makes a mental note to check in on the group chat later and ask them how’s America. For now though, he’s exhausted – more so mentally than physically – and just wants to shower, maybe binge on microwavables and sleep (and maybe never wake up). 

It all feels so depressing. He feels so gloomy. Why does he feel so gloomy? 

The upcoming elimination episode has him more on edge than he’d realised. It has him wanting to shut the world out and shut down. He sluggishly presses his forehead against the wall as he slides off his shoes. 

Why is he being like this? 

Jinhyuk realises belatedly that maybe having some alone time might not be that great of an idea after all. There’s nobody. Nobody to distract him from his thoughts. Nobody for to be all bright, stupid and funny for. The mask is slipping.

No really, why is he being like this? 

Since when did his personality start becoming a performance? Had the always brightly smiling Jinhyuk he showed the cameras been fake? Just the very thought of that being a possibility has him feeling sick. The show was fucking with his head. They’re not even half-way through the survival and he’s already feeling like this. If he’s this mentally weak how the hell is he going to make it through the rest of the show?

( What makes you think you’ll even make it all the way to the end? )

This isn’t like him at all.  

Stop it! He gives himself a light slap. 

He’s just stressed. That’s it. People judging you 24/7 will do that. But he’s a seasoned idol, it’s nothing he hasn’t dealt with before. It’s just the same old, same old. He’s just experiencing social fatigue and running on minimal sleep and it’s making the mini-Jinhyuk inside him hormonal and cranky. Nothing some good old pampering won’t fix.

( But you’ve never been judged by this many people before, have you? )

Think happy thoughts Jinhyuk! 

Yes, he’ll take a nice, long, hot shower. Then sleep. He’ll sleep nice and good alright, surrounded by all his fluffy babies. 

It’s high noon but who the fuck cares, there’s no one around and no one he has to answer to but himself. He’ll sleep for 24 hours if he wants to. Just the thought of it is enough to add a tiny bounce to his step as he makes a beeline for the closet, picking out a fresh t-shirt and a pair of slacks. It’s all about the little things in life.

~ ~

There’s something comforting about showering in a familiar space, about using your favourite Neutrogena ® Rainbath shower gel that made you smell like a fresh waterfall instead of the cheap, travel sized toiletries swiped from Olive Young’s box bargains that smelt too strongly of artificial cotton. 

He takes him time. At one point he even sits down, resting his back and arms against the wall when they got tired just so he could continue his scalp massage.

Jinhyuk would’ve been contended to let himself drown in the shower, the hot water running down him encasing him in a pleasant warmth that he had no desire to escape, but then he remembers that he’s alone in the dorms with no possible scapegoats around. The company would certainly trace next month’s water bill back to him. So with much reluctance, he drags himself out of the shower and towels down before slipping into his change of clothes.

His bed is exactly how he left it – made and untouched – though he finds his shiba plushie on the bunk above. One of the members must’ve ‘borrowed’ it. He hopes they hadn’t drooled on it or something.

Jinhyuk grabs the plushie, crushing it into his chest as he lets himself topple face down onto his bed. An act he regrets a split-second later when he realises that the frame might or might not be able to take the falling dead weight of an adult male. He squeezes his eyes shut, wincing when he hits the mattress and the bed creaks far too loudly for comfort. The whole bunk shivers for a bit, but nothing collapses and Jinhyuk allows himself a sigh of relief. 

“I’m hungry,” he murmurs to no one in particular. 

Not really, you just had lunch . His mouth is just itchy. He wants to munch on something, maybe something salty and spicy and hot. Maybe gyoza. But he doesn’t want to get up right now… not when he just laid down. 

Whining, Jinhyuk presses his face into the sheets and inhales deeply as though drinking in the scent of his bed would somehow fill his grumbling stomach. The musty smell of the apartment is even stronger in his sheets. His bare feet are starting to feel cold, so he kicks up the folded blanket by the foot of his bed – too lazy to sit up to adjust it by hand – and crudely uses his feet to manipulate it over his legs.

It’s so quiet , he thinks.

Hints of the afternoon sun filter through the drawn curtains giving the dark room a muted golden glow that only serves to amplify his feelings of wistfulness.

Jinhyuk is sure he has wished to have the room all to himself dozens of times throughout all his years of dorm life. But now that he’s got that, it doesn’t feel quite right. He supposes he’s gotten too used to sleeping with people. 

He shuts his eyes and tries not to think too much about the upcoming eliminations. Wooseok will make it for sure. And he’ll make it too. There’s nothing to worry about.

Eventually he drifts off, feeling all to cold despite the warm blanket wrapped around him.

~ ~

In his dreams, he sees his face of the split screen. 60th to 63rd, which one? He can’t feel his face, but he’s sure he’s smiling – through the confusion, through the disappointment – as he always would. The way idol life trained him to. 

He’s smiling, but the panic is blossoming inside him swells in a way that makes him want to throw up. This can’t be right. He was hovering around the thirties. He knows he isn’t that visible, knows that it’s unrealistic to expect to rank like Wooseok would, but to drop that much? 

( Since when did you get so cocky, Lee Jinhyuk. )

It’s a dream. Jinhyuk knows he’s dreaming because it doesn’t make any sense. The math doesn’t add up. But even though he knows it, it still feels so very real – he can’t shake it.

I want to wake up.

But he doesn’t. Instead he returns, defeated. Alone. Back to his room, back to the empty dorm before the rest of his group had even finished their tour. He wants to wake up, but he also wants to sleep and never open his eyes again. 

I’m so tired.

So he falls onto his bed once again. 

Deja vu.  

And once again, he drifts off into the darkness, lulled by the cold that just won’t seem to leave his body. He drifts, seeking a better dream; A dream within a dream. 

~ ~

Jinhyuk’s woken into a new dream by fingers tugging lightly at his hair. He’s awake, but also not – barely lucid. His body feels heavy like lead, his lids fluttering as they struggle to stay shut against his brain’s will.

Even without looking though, his brain immediately knows it’s Gyujin. Because that’s just how real life Gyujin is – cursed early bird – going around disturbing their sleep. Dream Gyujin wouldn’t be any different. 

“Mhm, stop it Gyujin… wake, don’t wanna…”

The tugging stops, the fingers pressing down on his scalp as they massage light circles into them. 

Oh , that feels nice. And so does the warmth radiating off the younger’s body. This is a much nicer, warmer dream. He likes it. He wants to stay in this one a little bit longer, he thinks as he curls into the warm body beside him, eyelids fluttering as his consciousness tethers between half-slumber, half-wakefulness. 

He doesn’t want to fall asleep into another dream within a dream just yet.

“You’re clingier when asleep huh?”

Huh? The voice doesn’t match up. It doesn’t sound like Gyujin’s. With much effort, he pries one eye open.

The sunlight filtering in from the drawn curtains bathes the room a deep orange hue, painting a surreal picture. Jinhyuk blinks, bringing up a stiff hand to blearily rub the sleep out of his eyes as he tries to focus them on the blurred face staring down at him.

( Why the hell is his eyesight as bad in his dreams as it is in reality? )

He blinks once, then twice. Then once again for good measure. Even with his dream induced myopia, he recognises that face. And it’s certainly not Gyujin. 

This was still a nice, fuzzy dream. But it was veering towards a little weird. 

“Wooseok?”

What was he doing here? 

He must have really spent a lot of time with Wooseok to have him appear in his dreams like that. 

“This is new,” his tongue is heavy, and his words come out a sluggish slur.

“Hmm? What is?”

“You,” he mumbles dreamily, dropping his head back down. 

“Me?”

“Mmhmm,” he breathes, pulling closer to the other’s body and relishing in the warmth radiating off him. “You don’t usually show up in my dreams.”

He vaguely hears a breathy chuckle above him, “Why’s that? You don’t like me enough to dream of me?”

There’s a playful sharpness to the man’s voice, so much like the real Kim Wooseok. Even in his dreams Wooseok was so… Wooseok. 

“Hnnh,” he grins into the man’s shirt, his voice cracking from disuse, “No. I like you. It’s more like… the great Kim Wooseok wouldn’t grace my dreams unless he felt like it.”

“Is that so?”

“Mmhmm,” Wooseok is still rubbing circles on his scalp. It’s so very pleasant and it has Jinhyuk curling in tighter into his friend, his fingers wrapping around the man’s shirt as he pulls him closer, clinging onto him like a bolster. “I like you more than the real Wooseok.”

“Yeah, you really are a lot more clingy when sleeping… and a lot braver to be able to say that to my face.”

A fragile chuckle slips past his lips, “I wouldn’t say it to the real you. It would hurt your feelings.” 

Wooseok goes silent for a bit, then speaks up, “How do you know I’m not the real Kim Wooseok?”

Jinhyuk grins, “The real Kim Wooseok wouldn’t let me cuddle like this. He isn’t this sweet… which is why,” he snuggles closer, “I’m gonna take advantage of it while I can.”

“And you’re absolutely certain about that.”

“Of course.”

Dream Wooseok was just as passive aggressive as the real Wooseok. Jinhyuk really has to give props to his brain’s memory center for such an accurate reproduction (plus the extra sweetness for personal flavouring). 

“You only accept skinship from cute dongsaengs and I’m neither cute, nor a dongsaeng so there’s that.”

“Wow, nice self-diss.”

“I just think you only like people smaller than you.”

He feels the man applying a bit more pressure onto his scalp, “Hmm, definitely braver. I don’t appreciate the shade Jinhyukie. You’re not slick at all.”

Jinhyuk just laughs. A comfortable silence settling between them.

“You know,” Wooseok starts slowly, deliberately. “They say that dreams are a reflection of our desires and fears.”

“Hmm?”

Wooseok pulls his fingers away from his scalp, and Jinhyuk frowns at the loss of the pleasant sensation. “You dreaming such a sweet, loving me. I wonder what that means.”

“Huh?”

Jinhyuk still not lucid enough to grasp what Wooseok was saying. He feels a finger being traced down his jawline, down under his chin, tipping his head up to face the owner of said finger. 

What?

Wooseok looks down on him with dark, glistening eyes. It’s somewhat unnerving. The corners of his lips curls up in an unsettling manner. There’s something predatory about it and Jinhyuk feels his heart rate pick up, and not in a good way – he’s getting heart palpitations. Brain! Give me back the sweet Wooseok!

“Is there something you desire, Jinhyukie?” 

There’s a small, tiny voice in his head that echoes Wooseok’s question. It’s the same entity that also understands what is being implied, but another voices argues back – this can’t be right . What’s with the random question? Jinhyuk can feel his heartbeat hammering up his throat. 

His head is a muddled pool of confusion. He sleeps to escape his thoughts, not to get bombarded by them. This was way too stressful of a dream, and Wooseok drawing closer – why are you coming closer; don’t come – wasn’t helping. He instinctively tries to pull back, but Wooseok wraps his fingers around his head, holding it in place as he presses his forehead against his.

“Where are you going?” 

The man sounds almost amused.

Jinhyuk feels more awake than ever, save well, actually being awake. God, please. Save him from himself. Wake up . There are some questions you just don’t ever try to ask or answer yourself and this was one of them. He tries to will the dream away, or shift scenes, or rewind.

Why isn’t it working? It usually works.

“Do you like me?”

Wake up.

Wooseok draws even closer, their noses touching and his voice saccharine sweet, sinfully seductive. This isn’t fucking right. These are things he doesn’t even dare dream about. Wooseok would kill him if he knew he dreamt of him like that.

Wake up!

“Did you like our first kiss?”

Fuck , Jinhyuk thinks his brain might’ve short circuited. Wooseok is so close he can practically feel him breathing into his slack jawed mouth. 

Please don’t come any closer.

But of course no one ever listens to him. Not even himself. 

“Why? Not gonna take advantage of this opportunity Jinhyukie ?”

Wooseok pulls dangerously close and Jinhyuk can feel the ghost of his breath over his lips. The panic within surges forth like a tidal wave.

“Wait—”

WAKE UP!

He jerks back violently, cracking his skull against the wall. 

“Ah!”

His hands fly up to clutch his head. A searing hot pain blossoms from the back of his skull, the sudden rush of blood to his head further disorienting him as he reels from the pain. His ears are ringing, but he swears he hears laughter.

He looks up and freezes. Wooseok is still there. But he’s awake. He can’t be dreaming because dreams can’t hurt this much. 

“Wooseok?” 

His voice cracks, and his confusion is evident.

Wooseok is grinning – the biggest grin he’s ever seen on the man, he thinks – and lightly hiccuping as though trying not to laugh too hard, “Don’t tell me you still think you’re dreaming Jinhyuk ~” 

“You’re real,” he breathes, half-disbelieving. He slaps himself – yup, real – and Wooseok’s eyes bulge out as he doubles over gwaffing. 

“You should’ve seen your face!”

Jinhyuk can’t even find it in himself to be upset at Wooseok’s little prank. He’s just relieved it wasn’t his ‘deepest, darkest desires’ speaking to him. Some things are better left buried in one’s subconsciousness, only to appear in half-baked dreams that he’ll never remember once he wakes. 

Wooseok slides closer to him and Jinhyuk unconsciously shrinks back, causing the man to start up in another fit of giggles. 

“I thought you said you liked ‘sweet’ Wooseok. I’m being sweet now, why are you running away?” 

“… you just played that trick on me and you’re saying you’re sweet?”

Wooseok grins, slapping his thigh, rubbing it placatingly, “Eyye, don’t be upset. Our sleepy Jinhyukie was just too cute ~ you looked so out of it and vulnerable. Can you blame me for wanting to tease you just a little?”

Yes. Yes I can.

Still smirking, the man lays down on the bed and pats the space beside him as he jiggles his eyebrows in a come-hither manner to which Jinhyuk visibly cringes at. Wooseok was definitely enjoying this way too much. 

“Come, come Jinhyukie ~ you can be cute and my dongsaeng today. Let Wooseokie-hyung pamper you.” 

He hesitates for a moment and Wooseok takes it as an invitation to drag him down forcibly via headlock. Jinhyuk doesn’t have the strength to fight back so he lets himself be pulled down beside him. Despite the male’s aggressiveness, Wooseok is surprisingly gentle with his touch, loosening the headlock once he’d pulled him down and adjusting his arms in a more comfortable position for him. 

Jinhyuk doesn’t think it’s a coincidence that Wooseok adjusted their position in such a manner than had his head pressed against his chest and Wooseok looking down on him. 

Guy probably wants to feel bigger while playing loving group mate. Tsk , small people. 

Well, he supposes he can humour the man.

“You can go back to sleep if you want,” Wooseok remarks casually as he stretches his free arm down the bedside to grab his phone. He fiddles a bit with the already plugged in earphones and pops one into his ear. Jinhyuk realises that Wooseok must’ve been passing time on his mobile whilst he’d been asleep. Wooseok’s other hand moves up to his head, running his fingers through his hair and tugging lightly at it, cooing teasingly, “I’ll even give you those scritches you seem to like so much.”

Wooseok fingers slide down slightly, playfully scritching the nape of his neck. Jinhyuk can feel his ears burning, but he doesn’t try to pull away.

His head clearer now, it suddenly occurs to him to ask, “Wait. What are you doing here though?”

“I live here? Just like you do?”

“No but. I thought you went back to your parents place?”

“I did, but I’m still staying at the dorms.”

“Oh.”

Jinhyuk fiddles awkwardly with the hem of Wooseok’s shirt as they fall into a bout of silence. He hears a muted sigh above him, “You know how my mum is. She’s protective and her concern can be a little… suffocating if not in small doses. I’ll drop by again tomorrow, but I’d much rather sleep over here.” The male scratches light circles into his scalp and Jinhyuk shifts, trying to find a more comfortable position.

“Besides,” he mumbles distractedly, “Manager-hyung told me you’d be staying back at the dorm too and I thought you’d be lonely on your own.”

Oh , that’s… nice of him. But that aside.

“But what were you doing here though?” 

He shifts again so he can crane his neck up to face Wooseok. The other male blinks, not getting it. 

“Here? In my bed? Why were you lying in my bed while I was asleep?”

Jinhyuk wonders if he imagined the way Wooseok stiffens up, eyes glazing over. It’s gone in a split second, the male’s sharp eyes narrowed into that sort of languid, luxurious nonchalance only he would be capable of. 

“I was bored,” he remarks simply. When he catches the look Jinhyuk’s giving, he adds, “The dorm is way too quiet. Gives me the heeby jeebies. Makes me itchy. Your snoring has protective abilities – it keeps the monsters under our beds away.”

Jinhyuk protests, “I do not snore!”

Wooseok looks up from his phone, casting a brief glance his way before flicking them back to his screen, a secret smile creeping up the corners of his lips. “Maybe,” he mutters cryptically.

Kim Wooseok just wouldn’t let him live.

Feeling somewhat ignored, he shimmies himself up, propping his body up with his elbows as he shifts into a half-sitting position. He leans over towards Wooseok, attempting to peek at the male’s phone screen but Wooseok, who’d been shooting furtive side glances at him throughout his movements, (not so) subtly tilts the screen away.

Jinhyuk narrows his eyes. Now he’s curious. 

Wooseok acts like nothing happened, but then during one of his stray side glances, he accidentally locks eyes with Jinhyuk. They stay like that for a moment, sharing a silent conversation, their stares buzzing with tension thick enough to cut with a knife. And then there’s a spark and it explodes, all hell breaking loose. 

The room explodes into a mess of yells and noisy protests. Jinhyuk shoots an arm out, attempting to make a grab for the mobile device but Wooseok is quicker, blocking him with one arm and extending out the other in the opposite direction, keeping the device as far out of Jinhyuk’s reach as possible.

“You watching porn on your phone or something?”

“None of your business you busybody!”

Wooseok struggles against his long reach, his defensive arm grappling blindly at whatever it could. At one point, the man gets in a palm slap to the throat and Jinhyuk swears he almost got K/O-ed then. Dude does not know his own strength. 

Sometime in between their roughhousing though, Wooseok ends up with half of his body hanging off the bed. 

“You— Watch out!”

The man attempts to regain his balance, but his hand misses the edge of the bed frame and he topples down head first. Jinhyuk lunges forward to catch him and manages to pull him back up, only for him to lose his own balance and tumble sideways down onto the ground. He forgets to release Wooseok and end up dragging his friend down with him too.

“You okay,” he asks breathlessly.

Wooseok merely groans in response as he attempts to untangle himself from Jinhyuk’s limbs. Jinhyuk spies Wooseok’s phone lying to the side where it had slipped from the man’s grasp during the tumble and moves to pick it up. Wooseok notices it a bit too late, but doesn’t seem too bothered by it, barely reacting at all.

Bringing up the phone, Jinhyuk sees why. It’s locked. The man gives him a smug smirk, silently gloating. 

“Yah,” he raises an eyebrow at the man as he insidiously slides a leg over his friend, straddling him and pinning him down, “Why are you acting like you already won you cocky bastard.”

Wooseok snorts defiantly, smirk still firmly in place, “Because I have.” He doesn’t even struggle when Jinhyuk grabs his wrist and pressed it down threateningly on his chest. “You can try all you like Jinhyukie ~ but you’ll never get the password out of me,” he taunts mockingly. 

Ahhh.  

There is Wooseok in all of his confident glory. A smirk of his own pulls at the corner of his lips. He’s going to love decimating him.  

“But I don’t need your password do I?” Jinhyuk drawls out slowly, deliberately. He wants to see the man crumble before his very eyes, “I just need your finger .”  

It’s so, so funny the way Wooseok’s smirk drops off almost instantly – you could practically see the cogs turning in his head as he processed his words – and morphs from stoic, to confused, to realisation and finally, to pure horror. 

Oh how the turn tables. Jinhyuk relishes in his victory, smiling gloatingly down at the man as he forcibly presses the man’s index finger against the sensor, the phone unlocking with a satisfying click. 

“No— Argh!”

Wooseok’s realisation had come too late.

“Urgh. I hate you. I hate the world,” he exclaims, twisting to the side so he could throw his face down into his arms dramatically. 

Jinhyuk simply laughs, “Who told you to get so cocky.”

Returning his attention to the phone in his hands, he’s surprised to see his individual fancam paused midway in. 

“You were watching my fancam? Why so sneaky then—”

Oh. Ohh.  

He forgot what a tsundere Wooseok was. He probably shouldn’t tease the guy too much but… ah! Who was he kidding? How could he resist this perfectly presented opportunity. 

“Who likes who now,” he teases, playfully poking the man’s cheek. 

Wooseok swats at his hand irritably. 

“What do you mean who likes who! I’m just monitoring your performance and the netizen’s response,” he retorts defensively. 

“So how was it?”

Wooseok looks at him all shifty-eyed, as if trying to figure out if he was still teasing. 

“It was,” the other man eyes his cautiously, carefully picking his words, “Good. The responses seems very good. You left quite an impression. You… danced good.” 

“That’s surprising,” he muses aloud, and Wooseok’s head snaps up as though daring him to challenge his opinion. “My lack of a shirt didn’t bother you? You had soo much to say about me flashing myself before the stage,” he grins, ribbing the man. Wooseok remains stoic, refusing to give a reaction to his teasing. Or at least he tries. Jinhyuk doesn’t miss the splotches of red colouring the tips of the man’s ears. 

“There was just the right about of skin,” Wooseok response evenly, trying to sound unaffected as he anxiously rambles off. “The fans love it. Very sexy they say. I guess because I know you in real life, I don’t see it but in any case if the online response is anything to go by I think you have a good chance of rising in rank.”

It’s mildly amusing how hard of a time Wooseok seemed to be having when complimenting him.

“Is that so? That’s nice,” he replied gently, taking pity on his friend. He decides to return the favour, grinning as he folds his fingers into a gun and playfully slides it down his chest, mimicking the point dance of Love Shot, “You also got pretty hot responses yourself Mr Love Shot. If only you hadn’t worn a shirt under your jacket. We should’ve switched eh? Pann would’ve exploded. You’d be a lock for center!”

He says it half in jest, but he also means it. 

After having watched three seasons of Produce, Jinhyuk is pretty confident in Wooseok’s trajectory. Wooseok is doing well. Very well. If he can just avoid evil edits, he’d probably make it. It’s enviable, but some people were just born to be stars. 

“You’d make a good center too,” the male remarks softly as he leans his back against the bed frame, suddenly very interested in inspecting his nails. “You’re more versatile than me.”

Jinhyuk smiles. Despite the male’s apparent inability to look him in the eyes while complimenting him, he was very generous with said compliments regardless. It’s a frankness that isn’t unsurprising coming from Wooseok, but Jinhyuk finds himself surprised by his friend’s honesty anyways. It was very sweet.

“I’m honoured you feel that way, but we both know that’s impossible,” he chuckles, “I’m not Produce center material. I’d be happy just to make it past 2nd elims.”

Wooseok slaps his knee a bit too hard, a sharp hiss of disapproval leaving his lips. 

“Don’t say that you dumbass. You wanna jinx it?! And no way you’re not making it past 2nd elims. You’re on an upward trajectory and if you keep it up, you’ll definitely be above cut off. I’ll fucking drag you along with me for 2-pick if I have to.”

So sweet, but such sharp words. 

Cute.

If only the fans could hear the man now. He wonders if they’d get a kick out of how crude the princely Wooseok could sound when he was all but known for his pretty words.

“Thanks Wooseokie,” he laughs, shifting to sit beside his friend. “Do share your votes with me. Carry me up to the finals please.”

He leans into the man’s side, resting his head against the man’s shoulder. He’s a bit too tall, and has to shift to find an angle that wouldn’t leave his neck permanently cricked. When he finally finds a comfortable position, he hands over Wooseok’s phone to him.

“Let’s watch your fancam next. I wanna see you seduce me through the camera.”

 


 

Time always seems to fly by so fast these days. It only feels like it was just yesterday when they filmed the first episode.

Jinhyuk still remembers the feeling, how he’d been a frazzled bundle of nerves, and how the only reason he didn’t choke during the auditions was all thanks to four years of muscle memory. He also remembers how hard the disappointment hit when they got assigned B. He remembers Wooseok – how stoic he’d been, graciously receiving their grade – a picture of perfect calm to everyone but him, the hollowness of his friend’s eyes betraying his true feelings. 

How far they’ve come since then. 

And how unfortunate that nothing has changed. He thought he’d be less nervous this time round now that they’d somewhat settled down, made friends. The trainees no longer looked upon them with barely concealed fear and apprehension (quite the opposite actually), the atmosphere was a whole lot better now. And yet, he’s just as a frazzled bundle of nerves as he was back then.

They’ve hit the thirties, but he still hasn’t been called yet and he feels absolutely horrible. 

He keeps telling himself, don’t get your hopes up. Don’t get your hopes up. Always expect the least so you won’t be disappointed. But it’s always so hard not to hope and the anticipation is killing him. 

Please let me be 30th.

He isn’t. Seungwoo is. And by God, he is happy for him. That man deserved the world and he stands in applause, trying to catch his eye and give him some form of silent congratulations. 

Next is 29th. It still isn’t him. It’s Yuri. 

Then 28th. It’s Seungyeon. 

Jinhyuk smiles and applauds, the happiness for his friends in conflict with the anxious energy brewing inside him. The smile stretches tighter as he struggles to control his expression. He glances sideways and accidentally locks eyes with Wooseok – he hadn’t known the man had been watching him – and smiles wider, pulling his lips back far enough to show teeth as though the harder he smiled, the less stressed he’d feel. 

Wooseok gazes meaningfully at him, then silently takes his hand, locking fingers with him as he leans in to whisper, squeezing his hand as he did so, “You’ll be called up soon. For sure.” 

He doesn’t know what it is about his words that affect him so, but it hits him like a truck and Jinhyuk feels his expression faltering, his smile dropping off as he struggles to keep it up despite himself. It only results in a half, somewhat lopsided grimace. 

“Thanks,” he chuckles weakly.

Beside him, Jinwoo had also picked up on the anxious energy that was practically rolling off him in waves and follows Wooseok’s example, eagerly grabbing his other hand and squeezing it in pulses. 

“You definitely rose in rank hyung. Definitely!” 

The boy is so earnest in his words, Jinhyuk wants to believe.

25th place.

Trainee Lee Jinhyuk from TOP Media

His mind blanks out for a moment. When his brain catches up though, he’s smiling – really smiling – and it feels as though a burden had been lifted off him. Beside him, Wooseok shoots him a secret smile, moving towards him for a hug and Jinhyuk pulls him in, arms naturally finding their way around the smaller male.

“I told you so,” he whispers.

Jinhyuk squeezes Wooseok, his head falling easily into the crook of the man’s neck. He very nearly buries his face into the male’s neck out of habit, stopping short of doing so when he remembers there are cameras all around. Instead he settles for one more squeeze.

“I’ll see you at the top Wooseok,” he whispers back.

And he does. 

Wooseok even appears on the split screen, a serious contender for 1st place and Jinhyuk can barely bite down the smile that creeps up his face. He catches the other’s eye, and sends a silent message.

I told you so.

Chapter Text

Tapping in the passcode, the door unlocks itself with a beep. Jinhyuk struggles to open the door with his left hand – his right hand balancing a bunch of tupperwares – his arm twisting at an awkward angle as he pulls at the handle. 

Stepping into the dorm, he notices the pair of carelessly kicked off shoes – no doubt Wooseok – lying smack dab in the middle of the entrance area. Jinhyuk closes his eyes, tilting his head up as he lets out a labored sigh. Wooseok was about as organised as your average young adult male (aka, not very) but now that the guy essentially had the whole dorm to himself, he seemed to care even less. Without Yein around to nag the guy, he seemed to have really let himself loose.

His hands are a little full now, so he settles for pushing Wooseok’s shoes to the side with his foot, nudging them into place before leaning against the wall to slide off his own pair of shoes, making sure to line them up nicely against the threshold. 

Jinhyuk shuffles into the living room and spies Wooseok in the kitchen looming over a takeout box of fried chicken, right in the middle of inhaling a piece. 

“Yah, Wooseok,” he calls out as makes his way towards the kitchen. 

Wooseok looks up, cheeks stuffed and wide-eyed, and freezes for a moment – as thought he’d been caught in some dreadful act – but recovers quickly, swallowing his food and licking the sauce off his fingers as though nothing of consequence had occurred.  

“What.”

Jinhyuk finds himself rolling his eyes and clicking his tongue in disapproval. Rude brusque as always, Wooseok was.

“That hard for you to put your shoes, oh– I don’t know? To the side instead of just leaving them smack dab in the middle of the entrance, huh?” 

“I was going to put them away later—” Jinhyuk gives him an ‘oh really’ look, to which Wooseok throws his arms up in half-exasperation, half-surrender, “—Okay! Fine I wasn’t going to. But I absolutely would’ve if you told me to jeez.”

“How nice of you Wooseok-ssi,” he snorts as he shakily lowers himself down, carefully shifting the stack of tupperwares he was balancing on his right arm onto the kitchen counter top. Wooseok eyes the stack, curiously tapping the top container with a fingernail.

“What’s all these?”

“My grandma’s cooking—” he begins unstacking them, laying them out one by one as he briefly notes out each container’s contents, “Couple of her side dishes, yesterday’s dinner leftovers, bunch of her homemade snacks… and her peanut root soup.” He grimaces when he mentions the soup – nasty, bitter stuff – and pushes the thermos towards Wooseok. “You should have it.” 

Wooseok raises an amused eyebrow, “Are you trying to pawn off the food you don’t like to me? The food your grandma lovingly cooked for you? How cold.”

What a blow to his honour. He’s very appreciative of his grandma’s extraordinary cooking thank you very much. He’s just being generous; Like how his mother taught him to be. 

“What? Noooo…” he looks down at the paper bag in his other hand, suddenly very interested in examining its contents, “I just think that it’d probably do you more good than me.”

Totally not because even a sip of that loving concoction makes him want to purge out his innards… yeah. 

God, no. 

He’s got terrible memories of grandma’s health tonics. She’s always so sweet and loving though, and it’s wonderful being loved, so be smiles, holds his breath and chugs it all down like the good grandson he is. He’s done it for over twenty years now, and he did it again yesterday. 

Maybe it’s because it’s been so long since he’d last had it, but he had a hell of a time choking it down yesterday – it was so much more horrible than he last remembered. It took him all of his willpower to tamp down the gag reflex. Too bad he couldn’t stop the tears from leaking… that was embarrassing. Though thankfully, he managed to play it off as a ‘I missed you and your cooking so much grandma’ instead of a ‘I hate this soup so much grandma’ . Then she brought out more and the tears really started flowing.

Jinhyuk shudders at the memory.

Wooseok obviously isn’t buying whatever he’s selling though, “Uh huh, better for me huh?”

“Peanut root soup is supposed to help you grow tall, and clearly I don’t really need it, but you…” 

Jinhyuk doesn’t know where he’s going with this. He swears he was just trying to bring the conversation away from his supposed dislike for his lovely grandma’s soup, but somehow ended up dissing Wooseok. Not that he’s entirely against that either. It’s always fun to bring Wooseok down a peg or two, even at the risk of his own life. 

It’s not like he can take back his words now, so he goes with the flow, not holding back, “Well, not sure if it’d help now though. I mean, you’re kinda past puberty already.”

The corner of the man’s lip twitches. 

“Very bold of you to provoke me while we’re in the kitchen,” he bites out evenly, holding him down with a heavy stare, “Where there are so many terribly sharp objects I could poke you with.” 

“Uhhh…” 

Jinhyuk chuckles nervously, and suddenly remembers the paper bag in his hands, swings it up, holding it out towards his friend as a peace offering. 

“Oh yeah, I also brought back a ton of chicken essence. Apparently there had been a buy 2 get 1 free offer… by the box and uh well. You know mums and their inability to let such ‘deals’ go. You like chicken right?”

“Chicken. I like chicken. Chicken essence is something else entirely different Jinhyuk,” he snorts, waving away the paper bag – seemingly having forgiven his little jab – and Jinhyuk sets it down beside the tupperwares. Wooseok dusts his hands over his box of takeout fried chicken, then moves to pick up the box with the base of his palms. “Anyways, you’re back just on time,” he clicks his tongue, “Come, come Jinhyukie. Bring your food. Time for a food party.”

“I just ate a few hours ago though,” he points out. 

“So? When has that ever stopped you from eating? You’re a bottomless pit.”

Well, Wooseok’s got that one right. 

“Help me grab some chopsticks too while you’re at it,” he adds as he makes in the direction of the bedrooms. Jinhyuk’s eyes widen as he lurches forward to grab Wooseok, tugging him back by the back of the male’s collar. Wooseok almost slips but Jinhyuk presses a hand to the other’s back, stabilizing him.

“Woah there, we are not eating in the bedroom you absolute barbarian. We sleep there.”

 “Okay! Okay! Jeez,” Wooseok huffs, shrugging off his grip as he turns heel towards the living room instead. “Could’ve just said so. You almost gave whiplash."

They settle in the living room in no time at all, sitting crossed-legged on the floor across each other, the box of fried chicken right in the middle, surrounded by an assortment of Grandma’s Cooking™. 

Jinhyuk wastes no time in tearing into a wing, all while he watches anxiously as Wooseok attempts (and succeeds) at grabbing the MacBook resting on the couch with his elbows and droppings it down on his lap. Guy was really living life on the edge treating his laptop like that. 

“Wanna go on a Produce binge?” Wooseok asks as he opens his laptop with the base of his palms, tapping stiffly at the keyboard with his ‘clean’ pinky and ring fingers. 

Jinhyuk can’t help but raise an eyebrow at that, “Are you some sort of masochist?”

There’s something inherently disconcerting about watching oneself on television – especially if said program is a survival – and he’s almost certain he’d end up deconstructing and over analyzing his screen time and persona, trying to interpret it as he attempts to put himself in the audiences’ shoes. Everyone’s biggest critic is themselves and Jinhyuk is fairly certain he’s going to tear himself down. 

He’s been struggling a lot with that lately – the negativity. 

Jinhyuk knows he told Wooseok not to read the netizens’ comments and that one should always practice what they preach, but honestly, how often do advisees follow their own advice? And besides, it’s different with Wooseok. Wooseok was, and constantly still is a victim of multiple attempted witch hunts. He’s got no such history. All the biting comments about him leaned more towards criticism than blatant hate. Granted, it was harsh criticism about his ability and charisma, but nothing compared to the attempted character assassinations on Wooseok. Apples and oranges.

    Looks like he’s trying too hard.

    Didn’t even feel like the center.

    His relationship with ‘Haenami’ is so obviously fake.

    What is with his hair?

He tells himself that it's not all that bad. He knows that there's more positive comments than bad. That he's hyper fixating on all the negativity. He absolutely knows he is. And he shouldn't. It's a slippery slope he shouldn't fall down. But damn it if wasn't slippery as hell; He's barely clinging onto the edge. After all, there's no smoke without fire, and there probably is a little bit of truth in every criticism bring throw his way.

God , Wooseok had been right about the hair. Thank goodness his hair grows fast.

In any case, he’s just knows the present him is going to end up agreeing with all of them once he watches himself. He can't have that happen.

Between the two of them, he's supposed to be the relaxed one, plus one of them has to be the optimist anyways, and it certainly isn’t going to be Wooseok so he’s trying to pace himself here. They’d just filmed the eliminations two days ago and he’d burnt out a hefty chunk of happy!Jinhyuk with his family yesterday. He needs a day or two to recharge all the good vibes. They can watch Produce in maybe two days once he hits the ‘Life’s Great!’ mood of his stress cycle. 

Man. His hormones are probably all whack thanks to his messed up sleep cycle and now his mood swings are as bad as they were back in middle school. On the bright side though, he’s a more experienced, mature individual now and he knows how to internalise all that nonsense. He ain’t gonna let any of that affect his daily life. 

No siree. 

Fake it till you make it, Lee Jinhyuk.

Wooseok eyes him curiously, “What do you mean? The last few episodes haven’t been that bad.”

Jinhyuk doesn’t really want to answer that question and dive into a ‘it’s not them, it’s me’ conversation so he diverts, grabbing the chopsticks and helping himself to some of the bulgogi. While he’s at it, he picks up a slice and holds it out towards Wooseok, who easily accepts, teeth clamping down on the metal chopsticks with a soft clink.

“By the way, when did you get back.”

Wooseok holds out a ‘gimmie-a-moment’ finger as he chews, “UHm, yesturday.”

“Yesterday?”

That’s surprising.

“Yeah… yeah!” Wooseok mock-throws his chicken down, playing offended, “I came back yesterday night after the celebration dinner with my parents because I thought ‘Hey, Jinhyuk might be staying alone over at the dorms again. Poor guy. I should keep him company.’. But you don’t come back till today? The fuck? Wasted concern on my part.”

“Oh— I… oh, sorry? Wanted to spend more time with my parents,” a grin tugs at the corner of his lips. “Why didn't you just message me though? I would’ve come back. My mum would’ve understood.”

Wooseok rolls his eyes, scoffing, “You were obviously with your family. Why would I try to call you away from them? I’m not some socially inept degenerate.”

Jinhyuk laughs.

“Give me a heads up next time so I don’t accidentally stand you up.”

Wooseok snorts, “Next time I just won’t come back.”

Jinhyuk watches as the male licks his fingers clean and rises to his feet muttering an ‘ah, I’m thirsty’ . The man turns towards the kitchen making a beeline for the sink and Jinhyuk for some reason feels inclined to follow. 

They both wash their hands and Jinhyuk couldn’t resist the childish urge to flick water at Wooseok while they were at it. It, however, earns him a sharp glare and a wet shirt because Wooseok decides the appropriate responses to being pelted by miniscule droplets of water is to aggressively shove his dripping wet hands up his shirt to ‘dry’ them. 

Wooseok makes for the refrigerator and Jinhyuk trails behind him from a safe distance, peeking over his shoulder. 

“Great! We still got some soju and beer,” he hums happily, pulling out a six pack and two bottles of soju. Jinhyuk moves to help Wooseok, taking the glass bottles from the man and eyes them warily.

“Uh… you know I can’t drink right?”

“Yeah I know. It’s for me,” he quips without missing a beat, reaching in to grab a carton of apple juice that he hands off to him. Wooseok catches the way he’s looking at him and pats his shoulder as he brushes past him to grab a pair of cups from the cabinets, “Relax, I’m not gonna drink it all .” 

He really hopes Wooseok’s telling the truth, but figures there’s no point trying to argue about it.

They settle back down in the living room, backs pressed against the couch and knees knocking. While Wooseok cracks open a cold one, Jinhyuk quietly sips on the apple juice that’s way too sweet for his liking (ew, Minute Maid) as he watches the man play bartender, blinking when he slams a single chopstick down the middle of the glass to mix his little concoction of beer and soju. 

Wooseok audibly gulps down his drink, adam’s apple moving up and down almost rhythmically. Jinhyuk licks his lips. The satisfied sigh that followed almost has him tempted to ask for a sip too. 

How does the guy manage to look like he’s filming a CF while drinking?

Wooseok catches him staring and raises an inquisitive eyebrow. 

“Shouldn’t you uh, pace yourself,” he mutters dumbly, looking away as he feels an inexplicable wave of embarrassment wash over him after having been caught staring.

“Oh I will,” he chuckles, “I was just really thirsty. But don’t worry, I can handle my liquor.”

He knows. 

“I know.”

Wooseok slaps his thigh, rubbing it as though trying to reassure him.

“I’m a gentleman, Jinhyukie. Don’t worry I won’t black out on you or anything. No drunken shenanigans from me.”

“I know,” he replies simply. 

They fall into a bout of silence, each of them quietly sipping at their drinks. Each of them with nothing to say, Jinhyuk in particular finding himself uncharastically at a loss for words. Small talk comes easy to him. But for some reason, he can’t seem to think of anything interesting in particular to say at the moment.

It is Wooseok who speaks up first.

“So. What are you planning to do for position evals?”

Jinhyuk blinks, snapped out of his reverie, turning to face his friend. 

“I want to do rap,” he starts slowly. Wooseok shifts, bringing his legs up and curling an arm around them as he presses his cheek onto his kneecaps, eyelids fluttering as he looked up at him. The movement rumples the man’s loose shirt and Jinhyuk finds himself momentarily distracted by his friend’s exposed collarbone. 

He shifts his gaze forward, “But my mum says I should do dance. So I guess dance it is.”

Wooseok’s laughter is light and airy.

“Aren’t you a mama’s boy?”

“Even without her saying so, I probably would’ve gone for dance in the end,” he shrugs. “It’s a safer choice.”

From his research (aka the last 3 seasons of Produce), he doesn’t remember any of the rap performances ever gaining much traction or attention. What he wants, and what he needs are two very different things and ought to stay practical here. He’s not an amazing dancer, but neither is he an amazing rapper either. All he has is hard work and passion. At least with dance, he can sort of fake it till he makes it. He’s not so sure he can do that with rap. Some things are just innate.

Ah, there he goes again with the negativity. He’s sorely in need of a Disney marathon to drill those positive vibes back into him. He pushes those thoughts to the back of his mind, turning the question back onto Wooseok.

“How about you? I guess you’re probably going for vocals?”

“Yeah, you should dance,” Wooseok murmurs, ignoring his question. His grip around his cup tightens. 

It stings.

Wooseok is right. His rap is nothing impressive so practically speaking, he should dance. Wooseok was being frank, honest. And he should appreciate it. No, he does appreciate it. There’s no point listening to empty words and pretty lies if he wants to do better. But somehow, a part of him wishes he had said ‘do what you want; you can do it’. 

He’s being stupid. 

“Yeah. My rap isn’t that great. Well… my dance is so-so but it’s safer than rap,” he agrees, clenching his teeth and forcing out a breathy chuckle as a smile stretches tight across his face. 

“No,” Wooseok leans against him and Jinhyuk has to consciously will his body not to stiffen up. “Have you seen yourself dance?”

Jinhyuk looks down to find the male looking up at him languidly, an alcoholic glitter in his eyes.

“It’s captivating.”

He should say thanks, but instead he blurts out, “You are too.”

Why the fuck did I say that?!

Wooseok lets out a sharp ‘hah’, taking a long sip at his drink. 

“Yeah. That’s good. All I have is my face after all.”

“Why would you say that,” he breathes, objection clear as day in his voice.

The man lolls his head against his shoulder gazing cryptically at the ceiling, “It’s obvious that I’ve been ranking so high purely based on my visual. It’s wonderful isn’t it? Being good looking.” Wooseok sighs, closing his eyes, “I am handsome.”

He says it so firmly, without hesitation that it would’ve come across as narcissistic if it weren’t for the hollowness of the man’s voice. There was a dispirited weight to his words.

“But how long can that last,” his words come out barely a whisper. 

“You are handsome…” Jinhyuk bites down anxiously on his bottom lip. “And you are also captivating.”

“Isn’t it the same thing?”

 “You have your face. But that isn’t all there is to you, you know? You have a presence that draws people in. A beautiful voice. Big personality. It’s a combination of things that makes you captivating?” His voice lilts up in uncertainty. Where was he going with this again? 

Wooseok chuckles, jerking up slightly to bump the back of his head playfully against his cheek. 

“I’m glad you think so Jinhyuk. But the viewers only know my face. And in our industry, there's always someone prettier and handsomer for them to move onto. Fans, they’re fickle.”

“Then you just have to show them you’re more than your face.”

“Am I though?”

“Then what were all those years you spent on vocal training for?”

There’s a moment of silence, and Jinhyuk wonders if he said the wrong thing. But then Wooseok slaps his thigh and he nearly jumps out of his skin.

“Ah, you always know the right thing to say.”

Do I?

“Do I?”

“Mmhmm,” Wooseok smiles, refilling his glass, “You’re easy to talk to. I could never talk to Yein or Minsoo about stuff like that.”

He frowns, “Why not?”

The man sips at his drink thoughtfully, “I don’t know. It’s not that I don’t trust them or anything. I just– I guess I don’t want them to be disappointed in me? I don’t want to worry them. I’m too close to them.”

Oh.  

“You’re a nice guy Jinhyukie. A good listener. Non-judgemental. I wish I could be as nice of a person as you.”

Is he? Or is it something else.

It’s always easier pouring your heart out to someone you have some emotional distance with. There’s less of a consequence because you don’t care how they think or feel about you. He’s always been that kind of friend. Close, but never close enough. 

Know your place.

He clenches and unclenches his fist, smiling as he sips his juice. 

“Nah. If you turned nice, it’d be a disaster. Your tsundere personality is your charm,” he laughs cheerily. When did acting happy become so natural to him? 

He hears the male mutter a ‘weeab’ under his breath. 

“You say that but uh. Kinda sounds like an evil edit waiting to happen though.”

“Okay then. Hide the tsun. Show more dere. And serenade them with your voice. Simple.”

“Simple.”

“Yup,”

“Okay.”

“Okay.”

A bout of silence falls upon them. Jinhyuk realises that aside from Produce, they don’t really have much to talk about… 

Wooseok straightens up, “Then we should change that shouldn’t we?”

He blinks, staring blankly at Wooseok. He hadn’t realised he’d said that out loud.

“Uh…”

“What do you usually like talking about? Disney? Anime? Your games?”

Wooseok shoots suggestion after suggestion, and Jinhyuk wonders if the alcohol is making the male a tad bit hyper.

“I mean, I can talk about Fire Emblem and how the new game is coming to switch soon but uh. Wouldn’t it bore you? We should talk about stuff that mutually interests both of uh right?”

There’s a glint in the man’s eyes that Jinhyuk can’t quite pin down.

“Let’s talk about you then. I’m interested in talking about you. And who doesn’t like talking about themselves?”

Jinhyuk arches an eyebrow, “Not everyone is narcissistic like you Wooseok.” 

He bends down to take a sip of his juice.

“Yeah. But I still want to talk about you anyways.”

Jinhyuk can practically hear the smirk in Wooseok’s voice. His Jinhyuk-senses are tingling. Something’s coming – a diss, mockery, teasing. Maybe all of the above. 

“What Dongpyo said about me being your ‘second kiss’. That true?”

He accidentally snorts up some juice, a searing heat burning up his airways as he doubles forward coughing and wheezing. The damned demon has the audacity to just laugh as though he wasn’t the reason he was practically hacking his lungs out. 

“First of all, none of your business? Second of all, it wasn’t even a kiss. We slammed faces. Teeth. I almost busted my lip. I refuse to acknowledge that as a kiss.”

“Oh, so it’s true.”

“I never said that?”

“It’s written all over your face.”

A hand unconsciously moves up to touch his face as though to check if he really were as easy to read as Wooseok claims. 

“Surprising though. Didn’t get any action while I was on hiatus?”

He groans, suddenly feeling very tired, “Not everyone’s a Don Juan like you Wooseok.”

“No really though. You’ve only ever kissed Sooil-hyung and me?”

“Like I said, wasn’t even a kiss—”

“— that’s kinda sad.”

He rubs his face in his palms, “Appreciate your concern about my dating life Wooseok, but I assure you I’m plenty happy with my current romantic situation.”

Wooseok opens his mouth, but Jinhyuk cuts in before he can get a word in.

“And before you start dissing me and my dating sims. Lemme just diss myself preemptively and say ‘I don’t give a fuck’. My VNs give me a very satisfying romantic experience. And you know what? VNs are the peak dating experience. My 2D lovers never disappoint me. That’s my take on shit. There. Done. I’ve nothing more to say about it. The end.”

Wooseok chews aggressively on his bottom lip and looks like he’s about to burst of laughter anytime. The man takes a few deep, shaky breaths in an attempt to calm himself down.

“Only you Jinhyuk. Only you,” he grins, his voice trembling. “You’re one of a kind.”

Jinhyuk pretend not to have heard him, suddenly very interested in his (nasty) room temperature apple juice. He can feel Wooseok’s gaze on him and it makes the hairs on the back of his neck prickles.

“Are you not curious at all though?”

“About what,” he mutters meekly into his glass, distractedly tapping the rim of it against his teeth.

“Kissing.”

Of course he is. But he’ll be damned before he tells that to anyone. Let alone Woosoek.

He looks up and instantly regrets it. Wooseok is watching him with those eyes – mysterious, unreadable and within them there a glint of something he can’t quite put his finger on. Whatever it is though it’s unsettling. It reminds him of the same look the male had given him back when he’d thought he’d been ‘dreaming’. He had wanted to say something, but whatever that something was had long died an early death at the back of his throat. 

“Do you want to know?”

Wooseok slides up to him all coy, voice as smooth as silk and touch featherlight. It feels like he’s dreaming all over again. It’s all too surreal. 

“You said that our kiss wasn’t even real,” he drawls, hands coming up to cup his face, “Want me to show you how it’s properly done?”

Wooseok draws closer (deja vu) and Jinhyuk doesn’t even know how to react. Or rather, he can’t react because his brain is fried. Done. Gone. It imploded. Short circuited. But then  he spots the corners of Wooseok’s lips curling upwards in his peripheral vision and abruptly snaps out of it.

A sudden surge of annoyance swells up within him. 

Why does he keep fucking with me like that?

Jinhyuk doesn't know what overcomes him – Defiance? Spite maybe? – but he abruptly grabs Wooseok’s face, dragging the other male down to his level. He keeps his eyes wide open, staring defiantly at into the other male’s eyes as he plants a sloppy smooch on the other’s lips. 

He lets go, but Wooseok remains still, staring right back in wide-eyed shock, clearly not having expected that of him. 

“There. Now we’ve done it properly. Any complaints, Wooseok-ssi?”

It’s sinfully gratifying, and Jinhyuk feels a devilish sort of satisfaction swirl within him at having turned the joke right back on the man, one up-ing him.

Too bad it doesn’t last long.

Wooseok blinks once, twice, the cogs in his brain slowly turning. A fiendish smirk blossom across his delicate features, his eyes narrowing dangerously as he aggressively pushes him against the couch, sliding his leg over his lap as he clasps his hands around his head in an iron-clad grip that’s almost painful. 

“As a matter of fact, yes. I do.”

And suddenly Jinhyuk regrets everything.

“If you wanna smooch, you should do it right Jinhyuk-ssi,” Wooseok leans in tauntingly, teasingly breathing into his ear. His hair prickles and Jinhyuk feels like his heart might beat out of his chest. He can smell the alcohol in the other man’s breath.“Let hyung-nim show you how it’s really done.”

Dread and anticipation swirls within him, giving rise to a painfully nauseating concoction.  

Wooseok’s drunk. He has to be. He should stop him. 

“Wait,” he chuckles nervously, weakly pushing against Wooseok’s chest. 

He doesn’t wait. 

Wooseok is bitter, the taste of beer mixed with soju still clinging tightly onto his lips. He feels soft lips brushing across his, the sensation reminding him of his favourite bolster – except warmer (and alive) – and Jinhyuk has to resist the urge to kiss back. 

It feels like an eternity later when Wooseok finally pulls away and Jinhyuk hates how he misses the sensation.

The other male smirks, “That’s how it’s really done.”

He’s being teased. He knows it. It’s a joke. It’s a joke. It’s a joke. He shouldn’t be feeling the way he does. 

This is wrong. Wrong. Wrong.

It’s a joke and Wooseok was playing with him. Just like how he played him. How everyone else in the group plays with each other. 

It’s a joke. 

( Play fucking along, Lee Jinhyuk )

“That’s it? I expected more,” he retorts dismissively. He’s surprised at how even his voice is, free from any traitorous emotions. “My VNs are still better.”

Wooseok stares silently at him for a moment, and Jinhyuk fears he might’ve seen right through him. But then a chuckle slips past his lips and Jinhyuk relaxes. 

“Really… one of a kind,” he murmurs, sliding off him and padding off towards the kitchen. “Ah. I’m thirsty. Lemme grab some water.” 

Jinhyuk stares blankly at Wooseok’s retreating figure. 

His eyes drop down to Wooseok’s half-finished glass of somaek. His head’s a mess and he’s way too sober for any of this. He picks up the glass, and chugs the rest of its contents down, blinking back the tears – a consequence of the bitter alcohol or Wooseok, he doesn’t know. It’s disgustingly bitter. And it burns. But that sensation is better than whatever he’s feeling right now.

Let it burn.

Jinhyuk hopes it burns hot enough to kill off whatever he’s feeling, and maybe when tomorrow comes, it’ll all be forgotten.  

Chapter Text

Jinhyuk had his earphones plugged in, seemingly immersed with whomever he was texting – Byungchan probably, or maybe one of the kids. Wooseok’s phone vibrates, a pop-up notifying him of a text in the group chat. And it vibrates again. And again. And again. The pings going on without rest. 

Byungchan it is then. The two of them treated the group chat like it was their own personal chat. 

Wooseok skims the pop-up texts, the notifications moving too fast for him to actually read everything, but he gets the gist. Something along the lines of ‘we’re on the way, what about you!’ and ‘I packed loads of food!!’ and whatnot. The pair texted exactly how everyone probably imagined they did. Full of intentional text-lisps, stickers, emojis and dripping with aegyo so sweet you could die of diabetes. The way they texted you’d think they’re some newly formed campus couple.

He always knew Jinhyuk was a man full of cuteness but this was on a fucking whole nother level. Jinhyuk was never this extra in UP10TION’s group chat. This is Choi Byungchan’s doing he’s sure. That man was an enabler.

He sinks into his seat, scrolling distractedly on his phone through the feed of texts he was barely reading, his attention more preoccupied with observing the labelmate beside him via his peripheral vision. 

Jinhyuk never bothered saying anything about whatever happened that night. He didn’t ask questions. Didn’t look at him differently. Didn’t act different. Hell, it’s as though nothing ever happened. 

He still went ‘Wooseok-ah’, ‘Wooseokie’, ‘Yah Wooseok’. Still came up to him when storm clouds loomed over his head for reasons other than the ones the male probably assumed to knead out the tense knots around his neck, to comfort him, reassure him – ‘You’re doing fine Wooseokie, they love you. It won’t be like the last time.’. He still let him sneak into his bed. Tolerated his intimate sleeping ‘habits’. Tolerating him in general.

What goes on in Lee Jinhyuk’s head, he wonders. Life went on as per usual for the man. He’s too nice. Why was he so nice? 

Even if he’d played it off as a joke, Woosoek had assumed that the other male would have still been a little bit angry at him. He’d seen the brief panic in the male’s eye, it barely registered then in his buzzed haze, his mind on a one-track road. W ouldn’t it be fun to be Jinhyuk’s first real kiss? He could’ve stopped there, but he didn’t, impulse taking over and when he pulled back he regrets it instantly, Jinhyuk’s stunned expression like a sobering splash of cold water. 

Would Jinhyuk have kissed back? Of course not. What was he thinking?

Some jokes are a bit meaner than others, and what he did… probably crossed one too many boundaries. But then Jinhyuk takes it in stride, plays along with his ‘joke’. Wooseok thought he’d die from the relief. Or maybe it’s because Jinhyuk never really did have a good sense for boundaries, simply adjusting his own boundaries to fit others because it never mattered to him in the first place. 

Touching. Skinship. Kissing. It was probably all the same to him. 

“We’re here kids.”

Their manager’s voice snaps him out of his thoughts. Beside him, Jinhyuk unplugs his earphones and switches off his mobile phone before half-climbing over to the driver’s seat to hand the device over to their manager. Wooseok switches his off and taps Jinhyuk’s hip with it, the other male not even turning as he makes a blind grab for the device before handing it too over to their manager.

Even on their way to the main gathering area, Jinhyuk’s talkative as per usual, jabbering away. Nothing has changed. And he should be happy about that. So why does he feel so irritated?

“Byungchan says he’s gonna go for vocal. Seungwoo-hyung probably is too. You guys might get to be on the same team. I’m jelly.”

Of them? Or of me?

“Seungyeonie’s just gonna do whatever song he likes best probably hah! He can do anything he wants. I wonder what Jinwoo is gonna pick. Vocal maybe? I—”

“Heyyy!!!”

Jinhyuk gets cut off halfway as Byungchan flies in out of nowhere, slamming into him, the two males seamlessly transitioning from the impact into mock bodycheck-ing that looked like some weird mating dance. How were they the same age again? 

Seungwoo walks up from behind them, a dainty hand brought up to his face as he laughs at the display. Meanwhile, Seungyeon slinks up beside him, casually slinging an arm around his shoulder with that ever toothy grin of his. 

“What’s up Wooseok-ssi ~ ready for another week of Produce hell?”

“Hngn,” he mutters distractedly as he watches as Jinhyuk goes around greeting the other trainees, collecting the younger ones along the way to form a little crowd of babies for him to fawn over all at once. 

Seungyeon notices the lack of attention he’s receiving and blows into Wooseok’s ear in an attempt to capture it. Wooseok flinches, and slaps a palm to the man’s face, dragging his hand down as he wedges Seungyeon’s nose between his middle and index finger before giving a sharp tug that sends the male squeaking. 

“Ack!” 

“Don’t blow into my ear,” he snips curtly, eyes still glued on Jinhyuk.

Beside him, Seungyeon gives a whine that he pays little attention to. 

“Jinhyuk seems to really like playing with the kids,” Seungyeon remarks casually, and he hums absent-mindedly in agreement. The other male lowers his voice, fake whispering in mock scandal, “If you ask me, I think he’s got a daddy kink – as the daddy though.”

Wooseok half-snorts, half-laughs (if you could call that a laugh) almost choking on his spit. 

It’s a funny thought – Jinhyuk with a daddy kink – because Jinhyuk with his love for anime, games and his boyish, easygoing nature seemed so at odds with the entire concept. And yet, he can see it. Jinhyuk really did seem to have a thing for playing the big brother. 

Wooseok watches from a distance as said male’s hand absent-mindedly goes up to caresses Jinwoo’s nape as he’s talking to Mingyu, head slightly tilted to the side so he can look up at the other as he speaks to the boy with honey dripping from his eyes. He brings up a hand to his nape, suddenly reminded of the sensation – of Jinhyuk’s casual touches that everyone shared – the corner of his lip twitching. 

“You know,” Seungyeon starts, but he’s barely listening. Nothing unusual really, Seungyeon talks a lot of nonsense. “If you want his attention so much you should just say so. Pretty sure he’d give it to you.”

“What?”

His head snaps right, coming face to face with an obnoxiously bemused Seungyeon.

“Jinhyuk. If you want Jinhyukie’s attention just ask him for it.”

Seungyeon’s eyes bore into his in a manner that normally wouldn’t have fazed him, except there was this mischievous glint in them that for some reason, infuriated him to no end. He can feel himself prickling up irritatedly.

“What the hell are you talking about?”

“Oh come on, you have that look right now. You know? The same look you had when you wanted to be center for Love Shot? Except this time it’s screaming ‘I wanna be Mingyu’ instead of ‘I wanna be center’.”  

Fuck , there’s that glint in Seungyeon’s eyes again. He’s figured it out, and now he knows why it’s pissing him off so much. It’s a: “I’m right, and I know it” look. It’s a look that wouldn’t have bothered him if Seungyeon hadn’t basically hit the nail right on its head, and it doesn’t help that on Seungyeon, the look gets buffed up to become ×100 more annoying because Seungyeon just has that kind of face.  

His irritation must’ve been showing – not that he was trying to hide it; the man should fear his wrath – because Seungyeon slides his (increasingly breakable looking) arm off his shoulder and moves to half-pat, half-rub both of his shoulders with his hands as though trying to pacify him. If the man really wanted to pacify him though, he should wipe that annoying smirk off his face.

“Ay, don’t look at me like that Wooseokie,” he chuckles, rambling on, “Nothing wrong with wanting some attention. I mean it’s Jinhyuk. Who doesn’t want to be babied by Jinhyuk? Man. I imagine if I were smaller and cuter, the things I could make him do for me. He’s got a baby bro-con thing going on and I’ve always wondered what it’d be like on the receiving end.”

He frowns. God , he’s surrounded by idiots. 

“If you want Jinhyuk to baby you so much go ask him yourself. Stop projecting that weird stuff onto me and don’t try to loop me into your weird fantasies.”

Seungyeon arches an eyebrow, “So you won’t team up with me to demand our lord and saviour, daddy Jinhyuk’s attention?”

Wooseok makes a face of disgust. How are these weeabs able to say such nonsense with a straight face? 

“What is wrong with you?!”

“Oh well, your loss,” Seungyeon shrugs, and makes a show of stepping towards Jinhyuk’s direction, “Asketh and he shalth giveth. Don’t come complaining when you’re the only one left out.”

Hold up.

Wooseok makes a frantic grab for Seungyeon’s wrist, yanking the larger male back with a strength he didn’t know he possessed. Seungyeon stumbles back, momentarily stunned from the momentum, but once he regains his bearings that infuriating grin is back on his face. 

“Are you f—” he suddenly remembers they’re in public and swallows down the expletive, coughing.  “—what the hell are you up to?”

“Just gonna demand Jinhyuk to love me too? Why? What’s with the extreme reaction?” 

There’s a teasing lilt to the male’s voice that sounds like nails on a chalkboard to his ears. 

“Stop teasing him.”

Seungyeon shoots him an ‘oh really’ look that seemed to say ‘I’m teasing you, not him’ and laughs, slapping his back, “But you love teasing him. Why the sudden change of heart?”

“Only I’m allowed to bully him,” he blurts out without thinking. 

Why did I say that?!

Seungyeon breathes out an amused whistle, “Possessive type huh?”

It’s at times like these you own what you say. Attempts at denial only serves to fuel the teasing. So he presses on, wearing his perfectly crafted mask of stoicism as he goes with the flow, “And what about it?”

Can’t be the butt of a joke if you’re in on it.

Seungyeon giggles, slinging his arm back around his shoulder again. Wooseok tries to shrug off the male’s arm, but it’s heavy and Seungyeon clearly doesn’t want to move from his position. 

“You’ve got it tough then. Jinhyuk happens to be a shared commodity.”

“The way you say it sounds so… crude.”

“Eh, Jinhyuk loves everyone, everyone loves him I guess? Sound better?”

Wooseok sighs, “That’s cause he so nice.”

Seungyeon hums in agreement, “Isn’t that a good thing?”

“He’s too nice,” he frowns, “I sometimes wonder if he realises he’s in a competition. It wouldn’t kill him to be a bit more… I don’t know? Selfish?”

The other male clicks his tongue, “Ouf. Don’t let the PDs catch you saying that. That’s an evil edit waiting to happen.”

He waves off the other man’s concerns.

“We haven’t put on our mics yet.’

“Maybe. But still. Careful of what you say man. What if I decided to snitch on you huh?”

He smirks, hooking an arm around Seungyeon’s waist and aggressively pulls the man closer to his side. Looking up at him, he smiles, thumb digging threateningly into the other male’s side, “But I know you won’t.”

Seungyeon lets out a nervous chuckle.

“I trust you after all,” he smiles sweetly, digging his thumb deeper and Seungyeon yelps, his chuckle turning into a shaky off-pitch laugh.

“Y-yeah. Of course.”

Up ahead, the staff had begun herding the trainees away to get changed into their uniformed tees and sweats. 

“Come on then, lets go.”

“R-right.”

 

Chapter Text

Sometimes Jinhyuk wonders if he’s forgotten how actual, normal boys , no men, his age were supposed to interact with each other. Of what was normal, and what wasn’t. Or perhaps he never really learned how, having thrown himself into the entertainment industry at such an early age. He’s learnt much from his time as a trainee, an idol. For one, it taught him what people liked, and how to give it to them. 

People like perfection. They liked wholesomeness. They liked it when an idol could reach that high note, or hit that choreograph right on beat. But more than that, they loved it when played around ‘like boys should’, emanating happiness and presenting to the world what ‘true’ friendship was. 

Loyalty. Teamwork. Camaraderie.

Group mates that suffered and succeeded together. Always supporting each other, glued to the hip. Not just co-workers, but really true friends. An image, an ideal. Just like out of those shounen and shoujo mangas. 

It’s not that their relationships aren’t real; He’s been with them long enough to trust their relationship. But they understand on a basal level they ham it up for the cameras, the fans, the world. It’s a trick of the trade. Actually, not even a trick – a staple. And it’s something he learnt early on in his trainee years. He was probably already an affectionate individual to begin with, but idol training likely exacerbated it. A little ‘meaningful’ touch here, the occasional hug there, some playful molestation because they were just that close that it isn’t inappropriate or uncomfortable for either party and not because they both mutually understood the rules of the game.

He is, was an idol. He was selling an image to his fans, the world. Living life like a shounen or shoujo protagonist in the mangas that everyone loved. 

Always the dreamer , his grandma had once chuckled in that warm, loving timber of hers. And maybe he was too much of a dreamer. Because he too, read those mangas. And he too, like his fans, wanted to believe in the ideal world drawn across the panels of the likes of One Piece or Orange Days. Childish, he knows. And maybe, just maybe, he himself started to believe in the image he was supposed to be selling. At some point, the act – if it ever was – stopped being an act.

He treasured his friends with a passion of a shounen protagonist, and expressed it with the sweetness of a shoujo male lead. 

It’s not normal. It's silly. And something he should've left behind in middle, hell, elementary school. 

Ordinary boys didn’t cuddle with their friends, randomly hook arms when walking down the street, or rub each others thigh. That much he discovered when his classmates teased him about it – about how touchy he was, and how weird it was. Maybe it wasn’t malicious, maybe it was, but he got the hint and started watching himself – his boundaries and everyone else's – adjusting to their needs. 

His non-celebrity friends were easier to read. They’ve come to accept his touchiness, writing it off as a personality trait and perhaps a consequence of his occupation. But his fellow idol peers though, were a much tougher read.

What were their boundaries? When were they selling, and when were they being genuine? Who truly knows. He tries not to think about it too much. He doesn’t want to. It’s easier to just take things at face value. On-cam, anything goes. Off-cam, he keeps physical affection to levels of ‘above average, but generally tolerable’ (beta tested by his lovely muggle friends) and any further affections are introduced in little increments – testing the waters – and if they ask him to stop, he stops. 

It works for the most part. But then you always have a couple of outliers. People like Byungchan who elude the exact same sort of energy as he did – maybe they started believing in the product they sold, just like he did – to which he mirrors, accepting them for what they were as he so desperately wants to be himself. And then there were people like Wooseok who said one thing with their mouths, but acted entirely contrary to their words. 

I don’t like skinship, he would say. So Jinhyuk watches himself, respects Wooseok’s boundaries. But then that night you’d find him sliding up next to Yein, shoulders touching and fingers absentmindedly playing with his hair as they watched their drama together on their phone in bed. Maybe he just had a soft spot for the younger members of the group then. Maybe he’s comfortable being touchy with them because he saw them as younger brothers. It’s different with same-aged friends like him. Maybe he just didn’t like him.

Don’t touch me like that, it gives me goosebumps, he would grumble. But then when he occasionally slips, accidentally forgets that Wooseok doesn’t like being touched the way he touches; when he accidentally hooks an arm around his waist, or slides a hand down his thigh, he doesn’t react, taking it in stride. Sometimes Wooseok even initiates – usually on camera – but sometimes in the most random of moments off camera, perhaps still stuck in fanservice mode. Jinhyuk can’t really tell.

I want to do it with my girlfriend not with you guys, he’d lament playfully when they joked around with their fanservice. 

Then why did you kiss me?

Jinhyuk knows he should stop trying to read too much into it; That's just how Wooseok is, marching through life to the beat of his own drum. There's nothing to it. 

From the corners of his eyes, he watches as Wooseok does it again – pushing Seungyeon away, disgust written clearly on his face, then dragging him close with all-smiles not 10 seconds later. His heart clenches.

There's nothing to it.

A little kindness, a hint of vulnerability, a secret smile, a couple of soft touches is all it takes to get his heart fluttering and his whole world thrown for a loop? Just because they’ve spent a little more time together, just because he felt that maybe Wooseok had grown to trust him – maybe more than anybody else? Because Wooseok made him feel a little more different? A little more special

How childish. He isn't a kid anymore and he should know his place. Besides, there’s no time for him to be dwelling on such useless thought.

“What’s wrong hyung,” Mingyu asks, his penetrating gaze seeking and searching, as though trying to reel him back from the sea of thoughts he’d found himself lost in.

“Nothing,” he smiles.

Jinwoo presses closer to his side, and he can feel the boy’s gaze upon him. His hand naturally finds itself stroking the kid’s nape again, the warmth radiating from him familiar and comforting.

It’s nothing. Nothing special. Nothing unusual. He’s kissed Sooil, he’s kissed Wooseok. It’s just a kiss; Just a touching of lips. If he’d kissed Jinwoo, Mingyu – cute babies – and it’d mean nothing. They were just cute, and he would be being affectionate. Just a kiss. How many times had he’d gotten close to kissing Byunchan? Dozens. It would’ve been funny. Just a kiss. He’s just not used to Wooseok playing along.

“Just thinking about what you’re going to choose for evals. Whatever you do, don’t pick dance,” he chuckles as the boy before him flushes.

“Ah, hyung!”

 

~ ~

 

One. Two. Three. Four. Four panels – Vocals, rap, dance… and? Something to do with this season’s X motif maybe? Jinhyuk wonders what sort of gimmick the producers are planning to pull for this arc of the show. Regardless of that though, he shouldn’t get too hung up about it. They had a formula and he reckons they’re still going to stick somewhat close to it. It wouldn’t be Produce otherwise. He should just focus on the groupings.

Rap isn’t that popular of a position so there’s probably going to be maybe 2 ~ 3 groups. And maybe 3 ~ 4 people max per group, but that shouldn’t matter to him – away with your wishful thinking Jinhyuk! – he’s gotta going for dance. There ought to be more Dance and Vocal groups. Maybe 4 groups each. For dance, each group will likely have 5 ~ 7 members. 

Jinhyuk does some quick maths in his head:

So 5 ~ 7 members per group is likely. Let's say they choose to go with 6 members per group, and assuming there are 4 dance groups that’s 24 spots open for dance. He’s ranked 25th, but not everyone ranked above him will choose dance – Wooseok is going for vocals for sure; they’ve talked about it – so he’s in a relatively good spot to have his choice of position and perhaps even song. Good good.

“… 31st to 60th will be eliminated.”

Annndddd not so good. 25th isn’t that far off from 31st. 

He feels his facial muscles twisting up into a cringe. Judging from the resounding groans and gasps around him though, he’s reaction isn’t out of place so he doesn’t bother attempting to smooth it out – let the PDs get some nice reaction shots out him, why not? 

Lee Dongwook goes through the usual commentary, inserting dramatic build-ups and pauses and all that jazzy stuff as per the PD’s cue by the sidelines. Jinhyuk’s barely listening by now, mostly just taking cues from his fellow peers and reacting with Jinhyuk’s stock reaction #27 when they reacted. He really wishes they could just get on with it, and he thinks maybe Representative Dongwook feels the exact same way; Did he imagine the slightest glint of annoyance in the man’s eyes when the PD does a rolling motion with his fingers to signal to him to slow down? It’s hard to tell, Dongwook had a bit off a dead eye look to him at times.

It’s only when the song reveals begin that his last brain cell finally boots up again. The first thing he notices is that there are only 3 dance songs and a total of 19 spots. Okay. Calculations are a bit off, but he should still be able to make a dance group. He’ll just have to choose a song that will choreograph well. He barely has time to process the new information though, the room suddenly abuzz with anticipation at the mention of the ‘New X Position’.

The curtain drops.

Vocal ✕ Dance. Rap ✕ Dance.

Of course. Of course that would be X. Why didn’t he think of it? 

“High-risk, high rewards… Twice the vote benefits.” 

The cogs in his brain are starting to turn. Would it be worth it? Maybe. It’s new, it’s shiny and it’s bound to have a decent amount of screen time allocated to it just for that alone he’s sure; It’s all about the X storyline this season after all. The only problem is whether it’ll be a likeable storyline or a dislikable one. 

When Wooseok gets called up, he notices the way his eyes flicker between the panels – no doubt thinking the same thing – his eyes lingering just a second longer on the X panel. 

Before he knows it, it’s his turn. 

In his heart, he’s already made his decision – Of course he’s going for Rap ✕ Dance; What he wants, and what is practical. The best of both worlds – but he knows better than to make that known; Better to play overly humble and uncertain than risk any confidence being possibly portrayed as cockiness. So he plays up his agony over the decision making for the camera. 

God, I’m so fake.

The act wouldn’t have felt so embarrassing if Dongwook weren’t there.

“Follow your heart,” he says with a gentle smile, the man’s eternally half-lidded eyes boring into him with an inexplicable sort of intensity, as though he saw right through him and his act. 

“Yes,” he chuckles nervously, picking up the pink card. He can only hope he’s made the right choice because there are no take-backsies in real life. Unfortunately for him, it takes less than five minutes into his decision before he gets second thoughts about his choice. 

All he does is walk past the panels to the other side and… 

The first thing Jinhyuk notices is the non-existent line for Turtleship – oh fuck me – he’d thought a dance position would be more popular than that. He scans the room and finds Wooseok standing behind Mingyu (so he’d chosen not to risk it huh?) staring him down with an intensity as though threatening him – you better have chosen dance. The nervous laughter that leaves his lips only seemed to agitate the man more. Maybe Wooseok thought it was a guilty laugh. Ohhh boy was Wooseok wrong about that.

He flips the card and the rooms bursts into a mass of surprised cries and exclamations. The shock on Wooseok’s face would’ve been absolutely delectable if it weren’t for the butterflies in his stomach.

Yeah, me too.

“I was actually expecting a lot more trainees,” he remarks as he takes his place beside Jungmo, the toothy grin on his face not at all matching the troubled tremor in his voice. Jungmo nods, “Mhm, me too,” and Jinhyuk finds solace in the fact that he’s not the only one possibly second guessing himself. 

Positive! Think positive!

They’re only 25 people in and there are still a bunch of rapper and dancer trainees to go. There’s no need to stress over it all. It’s too early to get stressed, he reminds himself as he fiddles with his pink card, watching on with a smile as Sihun moves towards the dance groups like everyone knew he would.

Eugene walks in next, the mood shifting abruptly from carefree to anxious trepidation in seconds and Jinhyuk feels bad on the boy’s behalf. No one says it, but it’s pretty much an open secret that no one really wants the boy who’d barely even got the basic skills down to be in their group. Eugene might be young, but he doubts the kid is ignorant towards the sentiment surrounding him and Jinhyuk really has to admire the brave face he puts on despite it all. He wonder what position the boy chose. If he’s got any self-awareness, he probably didn’t pick dance, maybe vocals? Even without training and experience, so long as he had a pleasant sounding timbre, he could work it to his benefit. 

Eugene flips his card, and sends the room into uproar – Rap ✕ Dance.

Jinhyuk’s first thought is why? Just why? 

It feels like he’s having an out-of-body experience as he feels himself throw his body back in shock masked by violent laughter. Why this group? The guilt that hits as soon as that thought registers is instantaneous. The boy probably knows nobody wants him in their group; It’s a thought that has to hurt, and here he was thinking the same thing. Eugene was just a kid trying his best. He didn’t deserve this. Everybody had to start somewhere and so long as he worked hard, what was the problem? He laughs harder as though trying to shake off the surge of guilt and shame that washes over him. 

Eugene runs to him and Jinhyuk smiles wider, praying that the boy doesn’t see right through him and opens his arms up invitingly for a hug. He can’t stop laughing, fearing that anything but a laugh would betray his true emotions.

“What? Why? Why are you so happy?” 

Jinhyuk hugs Eugene tighter – his own secret apology to the boy.

Netizens have already given out enough hurt feelings to last an eternity. The 14 year old boy doesn’t need more things to keep him up at night. He doesn’t start talking until he’s certain he’s got the unsuspecting, un-accusing tone down, speaking as gently as he could while lightly stroking the boy’s neck, making sure he smiling the whole way through. 

“Why did you choose this position anyway?”

“I just wanted to try rapping,” he replies innocently, looking down. 

He was once that trainee – inexperienced and unskilled – it’s hypocritical of him to disdain Eugene for something like that. How could he have thought such mean things of a young boy just trying his best? Everyone has to start from somewhere. It’s good that the boy is willing to learn new things, it shouldn’t be discouraged. Smiling, he strokes the boy’s hair reassuringly. 

“You want to try rapping? Okay, good job.”

He looks up and sees the pitying gazes some of the trainees are shooting him – he hopes Eugene didn’t notice them – and smiles wider. No don’t pity me. I’m good. He surveys the room, his eyes falling on Wooseok who had a conflicted expression on his face. The man locks eyes with him and opens his mouth, as though wanting to say something but then shuts it and turns away from him. No words had been exchanged, but Jinhyuk can visualise the storm clouds gathering over his friend’s head just from the male’s stifled body language. 

He’ll need to talk to him later, reassure him. They’ll be fine. There’s nothing to worry about. After all, there are still 43 trainees left to go. One slightly weaker group mate isn’t going to kill anyone. It’ll work out somehow.

 

~ ~

 

No. It doesn’t work out, and no he’s not fine.

There’s something to be said about jinxing shit, and Jinhyuk is starting to wonder if this whole ‘think positive’ mindset he’s trying to go for is indirectly giving permission to the Fates or something to somewhat screw them over like this. No, he’s not disdaining his groupmates. But fuck, with how things have turned out he’s got to have some right to express his disbelief at the situation. It’s plain as day to anyone with half a brain that this has got to be one of the most haphazard and ridiculous combination of trainees for this song (and position). They had a bunch of trainees who would probably be better off in vocals, not to mention a foreigner who’s still trying to get a grasp of the language.

It would be a lie to say he hadn’t been a tad bit concerned. And it looks like he was right to have been concerned.

“Too short,” they say. “Nothing to comment on,” they say. But Jinhyuk is almost certain that that was just them being nice because deep down, he knows the choreo – besides being incomplete – was probably way too simple in itself. He’d rushed it, stitching together whatever basic moves that fit the beat hoping to get something down for today’s class. Or maybe they weren’t being kind. Maybe it really was just too short, too simple, and too horrible to even comment on.

“This is the worst I’ve seen in Produce 101.”

Bae Yoonjung doesn’t even raise her voice, but her words cut deep and Jinhyuk can feel the blood rushing to his head as pressure starts to build up behind his eyeballs. 

Don’t cry, don’t cry, don’t cry.

He can’t cry. Not here, in front of the trainers – he doesn’t have to right to after that disaster of a performance. Not here, in front of his group mates – he has to be their pillar. Not here, for himself – he’s not that weak. So he chews the inside of his cheek till he tastes blood, relishing in the metallic taste as he forces back the tears. 

“Thank you,” he mutters stiffly, staring blankly at the space between the trainers and using all of his willpower to erase any trace of emotion from his voice. A chorus of muted ‘thank yous’ echoes from beside him and the trainers dismiss them, getting up to leave. The tension in the room is thick enough to cut with a knife and Jinhyuk can feel the furtive side-glances the Attention team were throwing their way. Eventually, Sunghyun gathers up his groupmates and the team quietly slinks out of the room, leaving them alone to pick up the pieces.

Wonjun and Heejun were pressed together, faces frozen in a permanently stunned expression as they shuffled their feet and fiddled anxiously with their fingers. Peak was staring intensely at his feet. Meanwhile, Eugene and Jewon – the most composed of them all – kept glancing warily at him, as though hyper aware of his mood; Those two were a lot more perceptive than most people gave them credit for. 

Nobody wanted to speak up, but someone has to.

“It’s okay,” he smiles crookedly, unable to find the energy within himself to pull a more reassuring one. “It’s okay,” he says again – whether to convince himself, or to convince his groupmates, he’s not so sure – voice lighter, less stiff as he pats Eugene’s head. 

“We’ll just have to work a little bit harder to make up for our weaknesses that’s all. We can still do it.”

“There’s still time,” he moves past each and every trainee, a soft pat to the back, a gentle tap on the shoulder, a light pull towards the centre of the room. The atmosphere lightens, and Jinhyuk notices Eugene and Jewon breathe what seems to be a sigh of relief. Looks like he’ll have to work harder at controlling his expression. 

“Let’s go find a spot for you guys to practice your rap — Wonjun, Heejun, you guys seem to have most of it down. You two just need to practice more to get familiar with the flow when rapping together since you’re pairing off. You too Jewon,” he rubs the boy’s back encouragingly, “You say you’re a vocal, but you’re a pretty good rapper! Peak, for now just focus on your pronunciation, you’ll eventually get the beat after all the practising so don’t worry about that, but if you aren’t understood in the first place, then everything will fall apart.”

“Eugene,” the boy blinks, looking up innocently at him and Jinhyuk can’t help the way his smile softens. 

Despite all the kid’s shortcomings, he can’t help but have a soft spot for the boy. Eugene was stoic in a manner that reminded him of Wooseok, putting on a strong face and refusing stubbornly to show weakness – perhaps fearful of being disliked more than they already were. It was surprising considering how the kid was an actor; You’d think he’d show more emotion. Or maybe it’s because he was an actor that he was so unshakable in his stoicism. He ought to talk to him about it eventually. Everyone needs an outlet and if he keeps bottling it up, he might end up exploding like Wooseok eventually did. Besides, him being more expressive would only benefit his performance; Boy was mighty stiff during practice, and Jinhyuk doesn’t think it’s only because of his lack of skill.

“Have more confidence in yourself, spit the words out like they’re absolutely disgusting,” he chuckles, rubbing the boy’s neck, “Also just keep practicing, you’ll get the flow eventually. Practice makes perfect.”

He claps his hands together, injecting as much enthusiasm into his voice as he can as he ushers them out of the room, “Come, come! Let’s get it! You guys can practice your raps, and I’ll try to finish up our choreo by tonight.”

The boys start to disperse, moving to find their own little private space to practice and Jinhyuk moves to do the same, however a light tap to his shoulder stops him in his tracks. He turns around to find one of the female writers looking up at him with a handheld camera on hand. 

“Sorry Jinhyuk-ssi,” she starts politely, holding out said camera towards him, “You guys have free time now right? Do you think you could go around doing some candid cameras with the other trainees for us?”

He feels his stomach sink. He really doesn’t have the time for this right now, but he knows he can’t refuse the request either so he smiles, and laughs to force down the anxiety bubbling up from within, as he receives the camera, “Sure. What sort of footage would you like?”

“Oh, anything really! Just do what you did the last time for these self-cams,” she grins, waving as she retreats to whatever shadowy, secret realm the staff were all hiding at during practice hours. 

The smile drops off as soon as she disappears, though he’s careful to keep his expression neutral – you never know who’s watching – as he turns on the camera, flipping open the screen. He really, really, really doesn’t have time for this… but he’s also really, really, really obligated to do this. Looks like he won’t be sleeping tonight.

He stares silently at his reflection in the black screen as he waits for the camera to power up. God, he hates how pitiful he looks right now – smile Jinhyuk! He smiles. Better. 

Exhaling deeply, he embarks on his hunt for trainee subjects. 

At least as an appointed trainee cameraman, he’s got the authority and choice to choose who he harasses (certainly not going to be his teammates; they need their practice time) and that means he’s got an excuse to harass the competition. He snorts, chuckling at his secret little inside joke. Despite thinking that though, in the end Jinhyuk can’t really find it in himself to interrupt any of the trainee’s practice session and he finds himself wandering aimlessly across the compound past scattered groups of trainees. 

He seems doomed to waste the next hour or so wandering around aimlessly like that until through some random stroke of luck he spots Wooseok entering one of those tiny practice rooms, rumpled sheet music in hand – no doubt to practice – but aha! He wasn’t practicing yet!  

Loophole!

Plus, guy was his label mate and he’d feel less guilty bothering him over say… pretty much anybody else. Nothing screams friendship better than randomly shoving a camera in said friend's face. He practically screams out Wooseok's name, laughing maniacally as he runs towards his lord and savior with his camera pointed at him, “Oh! It’s Wooseokie!!”

Wooseok looks up, stunned for a moment, but then immediately recovers and stumbles into the room, rushing to slam the door in his face. Unfortunately for him, he’s got long legs and he reaches the room just in time to jam his foot between the door.

“Yah! What do you want!?”

Jinhyuk’s laughter turns into a whine as he feels the pressure on his foot increasing, “Ah, don’t be like that Wooseok-ah, my foot hurts.”

“What do you want,” he reiterates gruffly, pulling away from the door despite himself, giving Jinhyuk enough space to wiggle into the room to join his friend.

“Say hello to Jinhyuk-cam ~ Annyeong ~” 

His voice drips with aegyo as he stretches out a hand to give a little wave for the camera pointed at Wooseok’s face. Wooseok's face scrunches up, cringing at his cutesy act but waves to the camera nonetheless. 

“Stop talking like that, you’ll get hit.”

He grins, ignoring the man’s complaints as he doubles down on the aegyo, “What is Wooseokie doing right now?”

Wooseok stares at him, then at the camera, then back at him, his eyes flicking between them as though silently saying to the viewers, ‘you seeing this shit?’. Eventually, the man drops down to the ground, crossing his legs as he spreads out the sheet music he’d been holding onto before him.

“Hmm, I was going to work on our group’s song arrangement and practice a bit. But then someone had to come disturb me,” Wooseok tilts his head up, arching an eyebrow as he shoots him a dirty look.

Jinhyuk grins sheepishly, squatting down as he levels the camera in front of the man, “Sorry, sorry,” he apologises, “Just go ahead and practice though, don’t mind me! I’ll just film you!”

“Ehhhh,” Wooseok bends over the mess of papers, the sheets crackling loudly as he scribbles something unintelligible on it. “You’d get very boring footage though.”

“Hm? How is our beloved Trainee Wooseokie being hard at work boring footage?”

He feels his thigh muscles starting to burn so he drops down into a seated position, the momentum sending him tilting back enough that he ends up accidentally bumping his head against the wall – ack! – eliciting a snort from the male before him.

Rubbing his head, he presses on, sticking dedicatedly to his videographer role as he zooms in on the mess of papers under Wooseok, “Mind narrating a bit of what you’re working on Wooseok-ssi?”

Wooseok heaves a heavy sigh, sliding a palm under his glasses to rub at his eyes. Jinhyuk looks up from the camera’s screen and realises the Wooseok actually looks a lot more tired than he’d realised. 

“Um, right now I’m just trying to see if we can work out a better arrangement,” he mumbles as he shuffles the papers around, subtly avoiding eye contact with the camera, “because Jinwoo is—” Wooseok hesitates for a moment, his words seemingly stuck in his throat, and gives a light cough, “—he’s struggling a bit with some of the harder parts and…” 

The man trails off, as though unable to find the right words.     

He tries to be helpful, “You’re trying to work out something that might suit him better?”  

“Yeah. That.”

Wooseok goes silent, fiddling with his pen and Jinhyuk can sense the restless energy the man was obviously trying to tamp down on rolling off him. Frowning, he thumbs the power button, the device’s brand logo flashing across the screen and it’s red light fading as it powers itself off. Folding up the screen, he drops the device onto his lap, then pinches his fingers together and holds out an imaginary coin towards the male before him.

“Penny for your thoughts?”

The man looks up blearily at him, “What?”

He shrugs his shoulders, remarking in the most matter-of-factly manner, “You look like shit.”

“Jinhyuk,” there’s a sharpened edge to the man’s voice, as though sending a warning, but Jinhyuk ignores it pressing in harder. 

“If you need to vent, then vent. Better you blow up at me than the other trainees or in front of the cameras,” he murmurs. He hasn’t forgotten Wooseok’s last blow up, and he’s learnt from that, keeping an eye out for the early signs. 

The other male stiffens, lips pressing together into a hard line and eyes darkening dangerously and threateningly, and Jinhyuk’s stomach does a little flip. He wants to look away, but it feels like he’d be swallowed whole if he did so he resists the urge, staring back in defiance, refusing to back down. 

Wooseok’s mouth twitches, and Jinhyuk braces himself for the outburst he’s certain is coming. But it never does. The male holds his gaze, grinding his teeth then abruptly snaps his head to the side, the intense atmosphere suddenly dropping off as the man deflates, head lowered and shoulders drooping. Amidst it all, Jinhyuk releases the breath he hadn’t known he’d been holding. 

The other male sighs – Wooseok’s been sighing a lot, he notes absent-mindedly – pulling off his glasses as he begins massaging his temples with his knuckles, “Sorry.”

His face scrunches up in confusion, “Huh? Why are you apologising?”

Wooseok looks up from under his fringe, shooting him an ‘are you serious’ look, “I almost blew up at you,” he pauses for a bit before adding, “Again.”

“Uh, that was kinda the point,” he remarks, “You were supposed to blow up at me? You know? So you don’t blow up at someone else? That was the containment plan?”

“Who’s plan?”

“Ours.”

“I don’t remember co-signing that shitty plan.”

“Eh, I did. And like, you’re my party member and if party leader says yes. Everybody says yes. So technically, you said yes.”

“What sort of twisted logic is that— also who made you party leader?”

“Jinhyuk logic, and since we're the same age, it’s only natural the bigger one gets to be the leader,” he grins, shooting finger guns at the man, which has Wooseok simply rolling his eyes insufferably at him.

"So not only are you a masochist, you're also a dumbass."

"How rude," he sniffs in mock offense, sliding up beside the smaller male and poking at his cheek, "I'm just being a good friend."

"Now, what has gotten our resident tsundere all burnt out?"

Wooseok leans on him, resting his head on his shoulder as though it were the most natural thing for him to do. You’d think it’d be endearing having someone so small and delicate cuddle up to you, but Wooseok somehow manages to elude an commandeering air of arrogance – the slight crook of his lips; the half-lidded upturn of his cat-like eyes – despite it all. 

“I’m not burnt out. It’s too early into the show for that,” he snorts. 

Ah, handling Tsunderes 101 – they never relent in the first round. Doesn’t mean they won’t though, he just needs to press in a little more.

“You just apologised for almost blowing up at me. You know what I’m talking about.”

“I’m not burnt out,” he reiterates stubbornly, fingernails picking agitatedly at the fraying carpeted floor, “It’s just…”

Jinhyuk doesn’t say anything, letting the man stew in his thoughts.

“Just. Being a leader is tough,” he mumbles softly, a noticeable downward lilt in his voice and Jinhyuk finds his hand moving naturally to rub the man’s thigh comfortingly.

“Not used to welding so much power and authority eh,” he jokes lightheartedly with a soft chuckle, “Having a rough time wrangling your teammates— speaking of which how’s Byungchan?” 

He’s been so caught up with his own group’s responsibilities the past few days – constantly holed up in some room either cleaning up their raps or stitching together a choreograph – that he barely remembers interacting with anyone outside of his teammates. 

“Byungchan is fine, he really suits the song,” Wooseok’s voice is tight, almost bitter, “It’s mostly… the younger ones.”

Ah… so Jinwoo and Mingyu. Even without Wooseok elaborating, he understands what the man is getting at. He can’t imagine either of the two boys being particularly rebellious or rowdy, so he reckons it’s got more to do with their skills and abilities if anything.

“Jinwoo and Mingyu? I guess it must be hard, with their skill level, but they do work very hard so I’m sure it’ll work out in the end,” he offers encouragingly. 

“It’s not even that! It’s fine if they work hard! Mingyu is unpolished, but he works hard. Jinwoo— Jinwoo he—” 

It’s like the floodgates were opened and everything just spilled out.

“— he’s too scared to sing. I can’t help him if he doesn’t want to sing in the first place. But then why did he choose Vocals in the first place if he doesn’t want to sing? Does that make sense? It doesn’t.”

“Wooseok—”

Wooseok’s head abruptly snaps up, hand shooting out to grab at his wrist in a manner that seemed almost fearful, suddenly aggressively going on the defensive, “And I know. I know it’s not his fault. He’s going through puberty. His voice is probably unstable and it’s mean of me to get all riled up about it. It’s probably harder on him than me, I. I.”

“Wooseok—” 

The male squeezes his wrist, glaring at him with such a frazzled, desperate intensity that shuts him up.

“I know. I’m just a horrible leader. A better person would be able to encourage, coax him into doing better but instead here I am getting angry for no reason. I know.

It was as though Wooseok felt the need to trivialise his frustrations, felt the need to redeem himself – for whatever reason – to him, to make it clear that everything he’d said was a ‘me problem’ and not a ‘Jinwoo problem’. Did he think that he’d think badly of him and his grievances?

He smiles softly at the man, “Why do you make it sound like you have no reason to be frustrated? Regardless of Jinwoo’s situation, he still is holding back the group and it’s reasonable to feel upset by it – we’re all human after all. Not to mention, in a competition.”

The look of surprise on the other male’s face tells him that this was not the response he was expecting from him at all.

“From what you’ve told me, you sound like a pretty good leader. Jinwoo is having some trouble, and you’re clearly trying to accommodate him and help him. You’ve also chosen not to take out your frustrations at him when you could’ve. And not to mention you feel guilty about being frustrated in the first place. Sounds like pretty good leader stuff if you ask me. I’m sure Jinwoo really appreciate it, and he’ll come around eventually.”

Wooseok blinks, stuttering uncharacteristically, “I–I thought.”

He grins teasingly, “You thought?”

Wooseok opens and closes his mouth like a gasping fish, though rather that looking silly, it was just adorable. Cute. It only lasts for a moment though, and Wooseok quickly regains his composure, aggressively throwing his hand – still locked in the man’s vice like grip – back at him. 

“... Nothing.”

 Jinhyuk can’t help the laughter that bubbles forth, throwing his head back hard enough to slam it against the wall (again). He really has got to be more mindful of his surroundings; How many brain cells has he lost by now? 

“Head sufficiently cooled down, Wooseokie ~ ?” He grins, patting the man’s head patronisingly with one hand while massaging the bump on his own head with the other. 

Wooseok slaps his hand away, “Shut up.” 

Jinhyuk wonders if he’s imagining the pinkish flush dusting the man’s cheeks.

“Enough about me, what about you? Your group mates… don’t seem easy to work with.”

Ah. Being suddenly reminded of his own situation felt being splashed with cold water as he’s yanked back to reality. The doom and gloom weighs down on him – there’s so fucking much for him to do – and yet somehow, his face is permamently frozen in that stupid grin of his. 

“This is the worst I’ve seen in Produce 101.”

He smiles because if he cracks here, it’s all over for their group; It’s too early for him to have a break down. Not here, not now. There’s still time, they’ve still got time. He’s still got time. He can work something out.

“Oh same thing as you I guess. Some of the kids are a little slow, but with enough practice I’m sure we’ll be fine,” he chuckles, lying through his teeth.

“Anyways, while we’re still in heart-to-heart mode,” he claps his hands together, deciding that now was a good time to deflect, “Do you need a hug? You know. Like the last time? I’m thinking we’re going to have to make this a tradition for every evaluation mission – you blowing up at me, then us hugging it out like the wonderful bros we are. Wholesome stuff.”

He’d assume Wooseok would’ve reacted in that playful-aggressive manner of his typical to their usual banter, but the male simply stares at him, his usual stoic mask back in play once again. Sizing him up? Maybe. Maybe not. He hopes not; It always feels like he’s too easy to read

“Just hugging? You’re so stingy with your skinship with me.”

Jinhyuk throws his head back in laughter – mostly out of reflex – before Wooseok’s words even properly register in his head. When it does though, it feels like his heart might jump right out of his throat.

“What? Are you jealous?”

It’s so easy to just play along, to pretend everything’s a joke to him. Because that’s what it is. ( Keep telling yourself that Jinhyuk ) Playful banter between friends. ( But not to you ) Wooseok tilts his head mysteriously, resting a hand over his, and Jinhyuk is so, so afraid that if it goes any higher, he might feel the frantic thumping of his pulse. He grins despite himself – your smiles are so cheap these days, Jinhyuk – abruptly surging forward and pressing his cheek to Wooseok’s, rubbing them as he coos teasingly and Wooseok yelps in surprise.

This is their game. Who’s going to get to who?

Wooseok protests – ew, that’s unhygienic – hands unconvincingly pushing at his shoulders, and Jinhyuk responds by turning to give the male an exaggerated smooch to the cheek. 

It’s the game they play. Who’s gonna pull the rug out from the other’s feet this time?

“If you wanted smooches like Haenami and Byungchanie then you should’ve just said so Wooseokie ~”

But games are supposed to be fun. And Jinhyuk wishes they never started this game.

Chapter Text

“Look for it… look for it…” he taps the pencil to the beat, hoping for the right words to magically pop up in his head, but nothing comes and he’s long pass his section of the song now. 

Growling almost animalistically, he furiously taps at the iPad’s screen in an attempt to pause the song. When the first few taps don’t register, he taps even harder, so hard he twists his finger, a sour twinge shooting up the digit that has him almost snapping the pencil he had in his other hand in half. He very nearly brings a fist, with all his misdirected anger, down on the iPad in retaliation – as though it were the unfortunate device’s fault that his finger was in pain – but catches himself in time. Destroying MNet property on an MNet show is just asking for trouble.

Breathe, Jinhyuk. Breathe.

Even with the song paused he can still hear – feel – the beat of it pounding incessantly at his temples. Half of the reason is probably because he’s heard it a million times by now, the other half is probably a more physiological that psychological; He hasn’t slept properly in days. And that’s probably why he can’t seem to churn out a decent set of bars for himself, aside from also probably having squeezed out all of his creative juices cleaning up and rewriting the other’s raps. He really should’ve saved some of that for himself but it’s too late for take backsies now. 

Again. One more time, he thinks, rewinding and unpausing the song, as if this wasn’t the billionth time replaying it as he tries to torture his brain in to giving him something worthwhile at long last. He’s definitely going to hate Turtleship once this is all over. Maybe this time his brain relent and give him what he wants just to stop the cursed song. 

He drags his palms across his face, massaging his tired eyes with his fingers as he bobs his head to the beat, sluggishly feeling the rhythm. Just one more line. He just needs one more good line. An impactful one. That’s all. 

But just like the million replays before, the lines don’t come and Jinhyuk feels the pressure behind his fatigued eyes growing as the beat continues to pound at his temples like a hammer, taunting him. At this point, the urge to curl his fingers in and gorge out his eyeballs is absolutely palatable. Maybe it’ll hurt less than the headaches that seemed to be increasing in frequency and intensity these days. 

The song finishes its run, but the pounding in his head doesn’t stop. 

Deep down he knows it’s futile to keep pushing himself like this, that no matter how many more times he tries tonight (Night? Day? Twilight?) he’s not going to get anymore productive – if he ever was – than he was now. He’s too tired, physically, mentally and there’s just no way short of a miracle he’s going to dreg out a satisfactory result out of this session. Not that he’s had much satisfactory results as of late, if any. Rap aside, the kids aren’t picking up the choreography fast enough; And the mistakes – so, so, so many mistakes, again and again and again.

You should sleep, that’s what the last, rational brain cell of his keeps telling him. You need sleep, it screams at him. And he knows it’s right if the frequent headaches were anything to go by, let alone the occasional heart palpitations he’s been randomly experiencing in the middle of dance practices these past few days. If his mum knew, she would kill him; He can practically hear her voice in his head right now – “You know your heart is weak!”. 

But is not like I can sleep, the other, semi-delirious brain cells argue back. And they're right too, because he's tried, he really did. But there's just so much going on in his head, it's like a noisy conference up there, a meeting of multiple mini-Jinhyuk executives around a meeting table – one raps his unfinished lyrics to the air, struggling to round it off; another has a whiteboard pulled out, planning next morning's practice schedule, another mini-Jinhyuk beside him pointing out various ‘what if’ situations and creating contingency plans B to Z; the rest are a garbled mess of voices reporting his group member's progress that day; then there's that one stray straggler that is mumbling doomsday prophecies and how they're royally screwed – and he can't for the life of him, tune them out.

It keeps him up perpetually. 

When he does eventually doze off, it never feels like he’s really sleeping. Even in his dreams he’s practising, planning, failing, and doing it all over again, trying to get it right the next time round. And occasionally the script gets shaken up, and it abruptly shifts to the stage and oh no. They stop performing half way during the evaluations – “Sorry National Producer-nim, we couldn’t finish our stage on time,” he breathes shakily into the mic – and then he wakes up in a cold sweat, just before the boo-ing starts and it feels like he never really slept at all. And then the cycle repeats itself.

Can’t sleep. Doze off. Not really sleeping. Wake up. Can’t sleep. Rinse, repeat.

What sort of personal hell is this? He’s come to a point where he’s secretly hoping that maybe the next day is the day his brain and body decides that they can’t take it anymore and shuts down. Extreme, yes. But hell, it’d give him an excuse to escape all of this – the stage, Produce, his responsibilities. Can’t stress if you’re knocked out.

He regrets it so, so, so much – picking Turtleship.

“High risk, high reward.”

Yeah, no shit. He gambled, and he’s lost. He’s got no one to blame but himself. The stage is in a couple of days and they’re going to give a shit performance and he’s going to walk away with not only a bruised ego, shit health and a couple decades off his lifespan but also the eternal ridicule of netizens. He just knows it. They’re all going to get figuratively stoned to death. 

He would cry, but he feels so dead on the inside he can’t even do that, and the throbbing in his head is not helping – actually, it’s getting worse. 

“Jinhyuk?”

He snaps his head up, the abrupt motion disorientating him for a moment as the blood rushes back to his head, his vision going spotty. 

“Ah,” he breathes airily, blinking, eyes unfocused as his fatigued brain tries to keep up with his vision. He registers the face before him, recognises it even, but it takes him a beat longer than usual for him to link it to a name, “Seungwoo-hyung. What are you doing here?”

The elder male tilts his head, his long fringe falling sideways, “Right back at you. You know it’s almost 3AM right? Probably a good idea to get to bed soon don’t you think?”

“I could say the same to you hyung,” he chuckles nervously, glancing back down. “Shouldn’t you be in bed?”

Jinhyuk hears the man settle down beside him but doesn’t tear his eyes off his rumpled sheets of paper, pretending to be engrossed in his messily scribbled bars, though probably not very convincingly. 

“Maybe. But a little birdie came to Byungchan searching for their hyung-nim who had been missing since midnight… now what are you doing making the baby of your group worry like that eh?”

Seongwoo’s tone is light and teasing, but he can sense the chiding behind the man’s words.

“Eh?”

“Eugene. Eugene is worried about you, you know?”

The name invokes a sudden surge of visceral rage within him, red spilling over into his vision as his blood pusles burning hot against his temples, a disembodied voice that both did and didn’t sound like his own echoing within his skull – if you’ve got time to worry, why don’t you spend it memorising the dance. But then rational thought kicks in, as does empathy, and then the guilt; A kid, they were just kids, and he is an adult. He closes his eyes, pressing the back end of his pencil against his temple as though trying to physically force back all those unseemly thoughts. He’s changing, his insides turning ugly. Disgusting.

“Is that so? There’s no need for it. I hope you forced him back to bed like the responsible adult you are,” he murmurs, his voice sounding hollow and insincere even to himself despite the mild chuckle he throws in in hopes of softening the delivery. 

He thinks he might be beginning to hate himself.

“I’ll head back soon. Almost finished here, just polishing up my rap.”

He knows it’s futile to hope that that simple excuse would be enough for Seungwoo, and that the man would go on his merry way and bid him good night just like that. Not when he’d clearly went out of his way to hunt him down at this ungodly hour.

Leave me alone, he wants to say. Let me wallow guiltlessly in my misery this once, out of sight, out of mind. But of course, he can’t and won’t ever say it out loud. But he hopes, even if he knows it’s futile.

“Mmhmm,” Seungwoo hums in response, and he feels the slight vibration of the walls behind him as the man leans back against it, clearly not intending to leave anytime soon.

They fall into a bout of silence that isn’t exactly uncomfortable, but isn’t exactly comfortable either. There is this uneasy pressure that lingers around him, and Jinhyuk can feel the figurative burden weight down on him, tension building up in his neck. He’s supposed to work on his rap, but Seungwoo’s presence is a distraction and Jinhyuk finds himself staring blankly at the paper – his mind everywhere and nowhere at the same time. 

“Hm, hey Jinhyukie,” Seungwoo breaks the silence, and Jinhyuk feels a light touch on his shoulder as the man leans over his shoulder to point out a spelling error, “You made a typo here.” 

It happens again – the sudden surge of anger and  frustration so palpable he can taste the bitterness on his tongue – except this time, it rushes forth too hard, too fast for him to regin it in, the guttural ‘fuck’ rumbling up his throat before he can stop it. His hand stings, and looking down, he realises he’d snapped his pencil for real this time, the wooden splinters where it’d been snapped in half pricking his palms. 

“Fuck,” another one rolls out before he can stop himself, his brain scrambling within the red haze as it tries too pull itself together. He’s vaguely aware of Seungwoo’s presence – of how the man had recoiled, pulling back – and that one last functional brain cell of his has gone into panic mode.

“Wait, hyung. No. That—” he turns panickedly towards the older male, sounding like a scratched record, “Sorry. Sorry. That wasn’t aimed at you. I mean, meant— sorry. I don’t know what got into me.”  

“Woah, woah, woah relax Jinhyuk-ah,” Seungwoo moves to steady him by the shoulders, “There are no mics and all the cameras are off at this time. You don’t have to worry.”

“No that’s not what I— Sorry.”

“What for?”

He shakes his head, burying his face in his palms. He doesn’t know what he thinks anymore, he’s just tired and he doesn’t have quite enough energy to fake his till he makes it at this godforsaken hour. 

Seungwoo pats his head, chuckling softly as his hand naturally moves down to massage his nape, “It’s just cursing Jinhyuk. Why are you acting like it’s the end of the world?”

That’s because it’s pretty much the end of his world in a couple of days to come. Seungwoo just doesn’t know that yet. 

“Though I’ve got to admit, never thought I’d hear you of all people cursing. You got that goodie-two-shoes energy about you.”

He snorts into his hands. Is that what everyone thought of him? He’s not so much of a goodie-two-shoes as he is afraid of being hated. Or alternatively, somehow being heard cursing by his mum – swearing was a big no, no – even though he doesn’t exactly live with her anymore, but well, old habits die hard. She’d drilled in a healthy amount of fear respect in him. 

Oh wait, does that make him a goodie-two-shoes? 

“What are you talking about, I curse all the time.”

“You do?”

“In my head.”

Seungwoo laughs, pressing down harder on the tight knots in his neck, his fingers skillfully kneading them out as they slowly move down to his shoulders. It feels so very good. He’s hitting all the right spots, and Jinhyuk melts under his touch, all the wound-up tension – both physical and mental – ebbing away.

“Ohhh look at what a bad boy we’ve got here!”

Jinhyuk feels a smile tugging at his corners despite himself, “If only you knew what went on in my head. Baddest boy in town, right here.”

“Whatever makes you sleep better at night,” he snickers. 

If only. God, he wishes sleep were that easy to come by. 

“But you know,” Seungwoo starts slowly in that almost parental tone of his, and Jinhyuk feels himself tensing up again. No doubt Seungwoo can feel it too, though he doesn’t say anything about it as he continues kneading his neck and shoulders. “Whatever’s in you head is just that – in your head. You won’t convey anything by merely thinking in your head. If there’s something you want, or something you need, you have to say something. Nobody will know anything if you don’t open your mouth in the first place.”

He stays silent, blinking rapidly as he feels a creeping heat around his eyes, his temples throbbing to the beat of his disquieted heart. He gnashes his teeth.

I know.

He knows. He knows nobody will know if he doesn’t open his mouth. He’s not an idiot.  

“You keep a lot of things to yourself, don’t you Jinhyuk?”

He’d always pinned Seungwoo as an astute observer – that’s what made him such a good leader – but it’s one thing watching that trait in play as an observer himself, and an entirely other matter being the receiving end. He doesn’t like the feeling of being seen through.

“Is it just because?”

No.

“Or is it because you’re scared?”

Maybe. Doesn’t everyone not want to be hated? 

As long as everyone was happy, he would be happy. Not because he was a good person who, out of the goodness of his heart, just wanted everyone to be well because it was wholesome. But because if everyone was happy, then they wouldn’t have a reason to dislike him. It’s as simple as that – he just wants to be liked. 

It’s scary, being disliked, let alone being hated.   

“I don’t keep things to myself,” he chuckles dryly, “It’s just that nobody really asks. So what is there to say?”

Lies.

( Wooseok asked, didn’t he? )

But there’s being asked out of politeness, and there’s actually being asked. ‘How are you doing?’ isn’t an invitation to have a breakdown in front of somebody, no matter how good of a friend said person was. Especially so when the other party was going through some rough patches themselves.

He doesn’t want to be hated by Wooseok.

“Is that so? Then, if I ask, would you tell me?”

There a long, pregnant pause before Jinhyuk manages to grit out a response with an unconvincing chuckle, “What would you like to know?”

Seungwoo rubs a hand soothingly up and down his back, “Nothing. Unless you want me to,” he murmurs softly. 

“Enduring is fine Jinhyuk-ah, but you should also know nothing will change if you don’t say anything.”

He feels the wetness lining his waterline spill over and is infinitely grateful he has his back to Seungwoo, but then his traitorous nose starts running too. He tries to sniff as quietly as he can, and he actually thinks he would’ve done a pretty good job concealing it, had the witness not been Seungwoo. Seungwoo doesn’t say anything, but he must’ve noticed because the next thing he knows, he’s being pulled into a hug. 

It’s an odd feeling. He’s given and received hugs a hundred times over, but this one felt different. Seungwoo pulls him in tighter, caressing his head as he gently guides it to rest against his shoulder and rubbing his back, and Jinhyuk finds himself involuntarily sobbing harder. 

“We’re doomed. We’re so doomed. I can’t do everything by myself,” he sobs into the elder’s shirt.

“Have you spoken to your members about it?”

He shakes his head.

“Why not?”

“I don’t know how.”

Seungwoo gives his scalp a light squeeze, as though chiding, “You’re always considerate of everyone else’s feelings Jinhyuk, especially the younger ones, and that’s not a bad thing, but I think you ought to give the kids a bit more credit. You don’t have to treat them like glass dolls. They chose to be here, they’re not as fragile as you think they are. Just communicate with them – you said it yourself, you can’t do everything on your own – so tell them, and get them in on the agenda. Maybe what they need is a little reminder. Nothing will change if keep it all to yourself.”

 “Maybe,” he chuckles waterily, chewing on the insides of his cheeks as he tries to rein in his emotions. There’s no maybe about it. Seungwoo’s right, and he knows it. “I wish you’d joined our group. You would’ve been a great leader.”

He’d taken for granted what a reliable guiding presence Seungwoo had been; He had been such a sturdy pillar of support for them all. If he could even be half of the man Seungwoo was, maybe it wouldn’t have come this to. 

“Don’t shortchange yourself just yet. You’re doing fine as a leader—”

“I’m actually not the leader…”

“— as a hyung,” Seungwoo doesn’t even miss a beat, continuing on as though he hadn’t heard anything, “Just talk it out with your group. Communication is key.”

“Whatever you say hyung,” he mumbles, squeezing the arms he had snaked around Seungwoo’s back a little tighter, “Would’ve still been nice if you were in our group anyways. Yohan can live a couple of weeks without you.”

He can feel the other male laughing into his hair, “What is this? Are you jealous of him?”

“Very.”

Seungwoo laughs again, “Interesting… would now be an appropriate time for me to inquire how many hearts I’ve earned so far?”

Jinhyuk  pulls back to look up at the older male, confusion evident on his face, “What?”

“You said that I was at 3½ hearts the last time,” he prompts with a playful smile, “1½ hearts away from a shower event, you said? So how far along have I come since?”

Oh, now he remembers. 

“Yah,” he lightly shoves at the man in mock anger – though the smile on his face gives him away – but Seungwoo refuses to release him from his embrace, his grip around him steadfast as he throws his head back in amused laughter. “Was all of this some elaborate ploy to get me to shower with you? You sly bastard.”

“Did it work?”

“Maybe,” he grins hoarsely as he rubs at his grimy eyes. “You’ve hit 5 hearts hyung, congrats. Next time we enter the designated area, it’ll trigger the shower scene so look forward to it.”

“You speak in such weird ways,” he snickers, releasing him. “So basically you’re saying you’ll shower with me?”

“Yeah, next time you wanna shower just call me I guess,” he shrugs.

“Okay! Then come on, let’s go shower now,” Seungwoo exclaims cheerily, jumping up to his feet and looking down expectantly at him.

“What,” he glances up, bewildered, “Now!? At this hour?”

Seungwoo merely arches a judgemental eyebrow at him, “Don’t tell me you’re planning to go to bed without showering. That’s disgusting Jinhyuk.”

“Of course not!” he protests, wholly offended that Seungwoo would even entertain the idea that the Lee Jinhyuk doesn’t clean up before bed. Nasty. “But why would you need to shower?”

“I just got all touchy and huggy with you – you’re really greasy by the way,” Jinhyuk flushes in embarrassment, “And besides, MNet’s paying for the hot water. Might as well exploit it while we can. You can never get enough hot showers. I’d sleep better fresh out of another one anyways… so are you going to shower with me or not?”

Jinhyuk throws his hands up in surrender, “Fine, fine!”

Seungwoo grins, slapping his hand into his, grasping it and pulls him up to his feet. The sudden movement sends his head spinning and he staggers forward unsteadily, feeling lightheaded. 

“Woah, you okay?”

He nods, and grimaces as his temples seem to scream in protest of the movement – thumping violently – as though to remind him that it was still there. He’d gotten so used to the dull throbbing that he barely notices it when it’s not acting up. He shakes his head again as he massages his temples with his thumbs, checking, and winces. It feels as though his brain is rattling inside his skull. 

“I’m fine. Just got a killer headache, probably because it’s so late and I’m not sleeping.”

“I’ve got Tylenol, do you want some?”

“Yeah, that’d be great actually,” he doesn't know why he didn’t think to pack some generic medicine with him. He’ll remember to do that next time, if he makes it past the eliminations.   

“Mmhm, I’ll go get it— let’s shower in my room. Why don’t you grab your clothes first and meet me there?”

“Sure.”

 

~ ~

 

“— it’s should be somewhere here…”

Wooseok wakes to a muffled ‘ouf’ as someone bumps into his bedpost, rattling it. Lifting his heavy head from his pillow, he blearily makes out two shadowy figures hunched over something – a suitcase? – on the ground. 

“What?”

His voice crackles with sleep, and one of the figures turns towards him.

“Ah Wooseokie, sorry,” he whispers – he recognises the voice, Seungwoo? – bobbing his head in apology, “didn’t mean to wake you. I just needed to get some medicine from Byungchan. I forgot I packed it in his suitcase instead of mine.”

“En,” he perks up slightly, rubbing the grit from his eyes, “You okay? Are you sick?”

“No, no,” Seungwoo shakes his head, hands gesticulating around him as though trying to air push him back onto the bed and usher him back to sleep, “I’m fine. It’s for Jinhyuk. He’s been nursing a headache.”

He shoots right up.

“Jinhyuk?”

Seungwoo looks like he’s about to say something, but they’re distracted by a barely audible knock and a soft, ‘hyung’ Jinhyuk , he realises – from the doorway. Seungwoo turns towards the intruder and gestures at him to wait. Beside him, Byungchan finally digs out the ziplock of assorted pills and hands it over to Seungwoo, after which he gives a little groggy wave towards the doorway, muttering a ‘get well soon’ that he’s not too sure Jinhyuk hears before practically collapsing back onto his bed. Seungwoo pats the younger males head affectionately, and shoot another apologetic look his way as he mouths another ‘sorry’ at him before exiting the room. 

Without thinking, Wooseok drags himself up, forcing his groggy body to move as he follows the older male out of the room.

“— here, one should be enough– you don’t have a fever right?”

“No, no.”

He hears the crinkling of plastic as he pushes the door open, the flood of light he’s greeted with momentarily blinding him and it takes a couple of blinks for his vision to adjust.

“Wooseok? You’re awake?”

He ignores the man’s greeting, shooting forward to press a palm to the taller male’s forehead.

 “You’re sick?”

 Jinhyuk chuckles nervously, gently wrapping a hand around his wrist as he attempts to (unsuccessfully) pull it away from his forehead, “No, just a little headache. Also you don’t want to touch me Wooseok-ah, I’m sweaty and oily.”

So he says, but he can feel the heat radiating from Jinhyuk’s erratic, violently throbbing temples. And it’s not just that. Under closer inspection, he notices the reddish nose and the slight puffiness of the male’s eyes. Liar, he wants to say, but then Jinhyuk reaches out a gentle hand, lightly brushing the back of his nape and he finds whatever words and thoughts he might’ve had vanishing into thin air. 

“I’m fine, really. Sorry for waking you,” he smiles, so bright and beautiful despite the dark circles under his eyes that seem to have been getting deeper, and darker the past few days.

“Yeah, sorry for waking you Wooseok-ah. You should go back to sleep,” Seungwoo mirrors Jinhyuk’s apology, apologising to him once again as well with a sheepish smile as he slips a hand around Jinhyuk’s wrist, “We’ll head off first, goodnight.”

“Wait,” he blurts out without thinking, making a grab for Jinhyuk’s other arm. “Don’t tell me you’re going back to practice or something?”

“What? No! I’m going to bed! Promise! I’m just going to shower first.”

He eyes the other male suspiciously, “Your room is that,” he jerks his head in the opposite direction, “way though.”

“Err, yeah. That’s cause I’m—”

“I finally got Jinhyukie to agree to showering with me,” Seungwoo butts in cheerily, slinging an arm around the male’s shoulder, and Wooseok feels something knot up in his stomach. 

“Yeash, hyung. Getting so excited over a shower, how unseemly.”

Is he imagining the flush on Jinhyuk’s face?

“What? I worked hard for those 5 hearts okay. Let me be excited— by the way, is 5 the cap? Are there more hearts to earn?”

“Why? 5 hearts not enough for you?”

Jinhyuk is smiling so brightly, so happily – it’s the brightest he’s seen in days – but it’s not at him. 

“I dunno, are there more interesting events and scenes for me to unlock?”

Jinhyuk throws his head back in laughter, and Wooseok can barely hear it; Everything around him sounds like it’s drowned out by water. When did they get so close?

“Hmmm, maybe. Try going for 7. You’ll unlock my tragic backstory at 7 hearts.”

Byungchan was one thing – the pair were two peas in a pod – but Seongwoo… he sees the way Jinhyuk’s smile mellows when he catches the elder’s eyes, sees the way Seongwoo strokes Jinhyuk’s nape – the same way Jinhyuk did his – and the way Jinhyuk almost seems to lean into it. It was different, they shared something; Something the two of them didn’t, and somehow the thought of it feels like a punch to the gut.

“Weirdo,” he mutters under his breath. 

“Oh,” Jinhyuk must’ve heard him, and if he wasn’t flushing before, he certainly was now. “Um, thi– that.”

“Don’t sleep too late,” he remarks curtly, turning stiffly as he retreats back into the room, shutting the door behind him. Clenching his fist, he stumbles back into bed, stuff his face into his pillow as he wills sleep to take him.

 

 


 

 

“TOP Media, Lee Jinhyuk.”

It’s all applauses, smiles, resounding murmurs of awe and amazement, the trainees nearby clamoring to offer their congratulations and hugs that everyone knew Jinhyuk would never reject. Once all the announcements were done and the cameras switched off, Jinhyuk would be lost to the swarm, he’s certain.

 "Jinhyuk happens to be a shared commodity.”

It’s true, Seungyeon was right. For some odd reason, all he can see is Seungyeon’s smug know-it-all look in his head and it’s pissing him off. He clenches his fist. 

So what?

He weaves through the crowd, pass the dance teams and throws his arms around Jinhyuk, squeezing him tight as he smiles brightly – for the cameras, for the world (mine) – for Jinhyuk. Especially for Jinhyuk. 

“I can’t believe it,” he hears him whisper into his ears as he leans heavily into him, exhaustion and elation mixed in equal parts in his voice.

“Believe it. We’ll go straight to the top.”

Together.

"Chicken party, at the dorms. Tonight."

Shared commodity, so what? It just means first come, first served. He'll just be sure to be first in line every time.

 

Chapter Text

The auto-light over him flickers on, casting his shadow ominously behind him as he shuffles in, two large lumps of stacked and tied blankets and flat pillows stuffed under each arm. The entranceway is narrow and he accidentally teethers a bit too far left, bumping into the wall. The lump of fabric he’s clutching onto however, cushions him and he finds himself naturally swaying back to the center like a bop bag.

“Mum?” He calls out as he slides off his shoes, squinting into the void that was the darkened apartment.

Where did she go? He was only gone for maybe half an hour, or an hour max. Jinhyuk knows that she must be out – all the lights are off – no doubt about it, but he still calls out again, just to be sure.

“Mum?”

No answer. 

He feels a little pinch of annoyance. She sent him out on this errand and told him to, ‘don’t take too long’. He’d assumed they’d be having family bonding time or sometime so he’d been the good boy he was and set out to complete his errand with as little distraction as possible. If he’d known she was just going to disappear like that he’d have taken his time picking out the quilts; There had been the double sided, all-season blankets – one side fluffy warm for winter, one side silky cool for summer – and the extra light, stuff quilts, and oh OH! The colours! There were also so many palettes to choose from damn it! A gradient sunset versus sunrise were two very different colour schemes okay. 

Grumbling incoherently to himself, he hobbles towards his parents’ room and dumps the purchased goodies in front of their door with a huff. He fishes out his mobile and taps out a quick message to mum – ‘Back. Where are you?’

The auto-light by the entrance switches off, abruptly plunging the apartment back into darkness and Jinhyuk startles a little more violently than he’d like to admit, accidentally bumping his elbow against the wall when he spins around, instinctively keeping his back to the wall (so the demons can’t sneak up on him). Blinking rapidly to adjust to the darkness, he scuttles towards his room, palming the wall as he uses it to guide him down the hallway to his destination. Once he reaches his room, he swings the door open and blindly gropes the wall beside it for the switch, heaving a silent sigh or relief when light floods the room. 

So very pleasant, having his retinas (and every other thing that goes bump in the night) burnt by light.

No, he’s not afraid of the dark; Just a teeny weeny bit jumpy when in the dark, alone. Keyword, alone. He does fine in the dark when there’s people around, you know, when there are potential sacrifices that can be made to the monsters. At least with people around, there’s a chance he’ll wind up the final girl guy. 

He’d turn on the lights in all the rooms – and frankly speaking, he does that in the dorms; management pays all the bills after all – but mum would kill him. But no matter, he’s a big boy and he’ll live. He’d just wait for her and everyone else to get back while he camps out in the room, no biggie. He stretches himself out, arms waving about aimlessly in the air as he twists from side to side. Now seems like a great time to re-read his Doraemon collection. God, just thinking about the series hits him with a wave of nostalgia and he makes for his bookshelf when a muffled thump coming from outside his room startles him. 

“Mum?” He calls out tentatively, but there’s no answer.

Frowning, he scoots up against his door, pressing an ear against it as he listens hard. Are those shuffling sounds or is it just all in his head???

Nah, can’t be…

He presses in harder into the door, straining his ears. He thinks he hears whispering voices…

Not possible. No such things as ghosts. Maybe a break in? No. Can’t be. This was a safe neighbourhood and he’s pretty sure he locked the door. He would’ve heard someone breaking in, surely. (The ghosts?)

“I don’t believe in ghosts,” he whispers almost indignantly to himself, but then another muffled thump from behind the door sends a chill up his spine and he finds himself muttering a prayer under his breath.

“In the name of the Holy Spirit, I banish thee.”

It’s something his grandma taught him. Your two guardian angels and the Holy Spirit would protect you, she’d say. But he’s pretty sure there was a cross hanging on the wall out there somewhere in the living room and if that didn’t keep the evil spirits away, he’s not sure how much his little prayer would work. The noises outside seemed to have stopped though… 

He reaches a hand down to the doorknob, and creaks open his door an inch, peeking on eye out. The light from his room spills out in a straight line, its lonely glow amidst the darkness more ominous than comforting.  

“Hello…” he starts hesitantly, and calls out to his mum for the nth time tonight, as though speaking her name would will her into existence, “Mum?”  

Once again, nothing. 

You know what? He’d feel a lot better if there were some more lights on. Screw it. He’s gonna do it. If mum gets on his case for wasting electricity, he’ll just pull his Sad Boi™ face and guilt her into letting it go this once. It’s been a sufficient amount of time since its last usage, he can use it as a back-up plan.

He inhales deeply, pushing open his door with false bravado – this is how all the character dies in the horror flick’s opening, he thinks – and fast-walks (cause running would be embarrassing, even if there was no one to witness it) to the nearest light switch by the kitchen. At the back of his mind, he keeps thinking about how if he were the audience to this imagined horror flick of his, he’d be tearing his head out in fustration cause rule number one in horror – don’t do anything stupid, aka, don’t leave safety, aka, should’ve stayed in your room dumbass.

Jinhyuk can't help the mildly hysterical giggle that slips past his lips. Fuck, he really hates being home alone at night. He feels a light breeze of air against his nape, sending chills down his spine; He’s not sure if it’s real or all in his head. 

“Jinhyuk,” a voice, low and raspy comes from beside him, and he feels a heavy hand press down on his shoulder. There’s an explosion of noise – yelling and thumping – someone is screaming, and Jinhyuk thinks it might be him.

Everything that happens next is sort of a blur.

All the lights in the apartment suddenly flicker on, blinding him. His ears are ringing, and someone is still screaming. It’s not him, he realises, bringing a shaky hand up to his throat – his scream had died like 3 seconds in. 

“Oi! Shut him up already or the neighbours are gonna call the police on us!” Someone yells out.

What?

Jinhyuk’s vision returns in haloed spots, recovering just in time for him to see Kookheon slinging a heavy arm (viciously so) around Yuvin, grappling him into a chokehold as he gags him with his other hand. The high pitched screeching stops. 

He is so fucking confused right now.

“Yo, dude,” the person in front of him groans painfully and Jinhyuk’s attention snaps back to the individual who had presumably snuck up on him – Seungyeon. Of fucking course. “I never took you to be the violent type.”

“Huh,” he replies dumbly, confused, staring blankly at the man before him. He belatedly notices the male rubbing his forearm and looks down at his own hands – which he’s only now realised, feels really heavy – to find a frying pan clutched in his right hand. 

Oh. The pieces are starting to fall into place. 

“Uh… Did I hi— No, nevermind. Are you okay?” 

He doesn’t get to hear the man’s response. Instead, he hears an explosive ‘pop’ right behind him that sends him crashing into Seungyeon as he instinctively recoils from it, the two of them yelping in sync.

“Happy Birthday Hyung ~”

“What—” he spins round, coming face to face with Byungchan, who was now winding up a second party popper. He tugs at the string, and Jinhyuk unintentionally winces at the loud ‘pop’ as confetti showers down on him for a second time. 

He glances around – Seungwoo and Wooseok are here too, he notes – bewilderedly, “It’s… not my birthday though?” 

Seungwoo walks up to him, sheepish grin in place as he rests an apologetic hand on his shoulder, “Early birthday. Happy early birthday Jinhyukie.” 

Seungyeon and Yuvin nod as they exclaim together hesitantly, “Surprise?” 

Dumb and dumber recoil with almost perfect synchronity, pointing at each other as they start gesticulating wildly. Jinhyuk doesn’t even want to know what the hell is going on in their heads.

“You know, when I got roped into this surprise party I was expecting something different,” Kookheon remarks off-handedly as he slaps Yuvin’s head. “Didn’t think it’d be so anti-climatic. I’m kind of disappointed.”

“That’s Jinhyuk’s fault,” Wooseok points out walking right past him, towards the refrigerator. Jinhyuk sputters in protests to no avail, “He was supposed to walk into the living room but this antisocial nerd went straight for his room.” 

“Excuse you! There was no one home! Why would I not go to my room—” Wooseok pulls out two packs of beer from the fridge and Jinhyuk does a double take, “—Where did that come from?”

Wooseok spares him a fleeting glance, and it seems like his question is destined to be ignored but then the male shrugs and mumbles, ‘Your mum’ – an answer that leaves him with even more questions. He is so fucking confused right now, and frankly speaking, he doesn’t think his brain has quite caught up to everything just yet. And the rest of the guys are not letting his feeble brian catch up either, Byunchan sliding up to him out of nowhere with a blue frosted cake (where did that come from?!?) topped with a couple of candles in hand.

The uninvited guest gather around him, surrounding him in a circle as they start singing and clapping along to ‘Happy Birthday’ off-tune and Jinhyuk can help but liken the whole situation to some sort of weird cultish ritual. Looks like a part of his mind was still trapped in horror mode.

Jinhyuk.exe has stopped. Wait, or close?

The song comes to an end, and Byungchan grins up at him, “Make a wish hyung ~!”

“I, uh…”

Ah, what the fuck.

He blows the candles without actually making a wish, not that any of them would be any wiser, and whoops and cheers fills the room. 

“Okay,” Yuvin claps his hands together eagerly, a dubious grin pulled across his face – up to no good, he’s certain – as he snatches the cake from Byungchan’s hands, “Time to cake the birthday boy!”

“Wait, what—”

“Hell yeah!”

A pair of arms snake under his armpits, trapping him in place and Jinhyuk doesn’t even have to look to know who it is. He instinctively knows it’s Seungyeon – that bastard – he should’ve whacked him harder. Jinhyuk swings his head back, hoping to headbutt the man into releasing him but Seungyeon seemed to be a step ahead, wisely resting his head between the crook of his neck so his head ends up uselessly flopping backwards. Meanwhile, Yuvin advances with an increasingly unnerving grin.

“Oi! OI!” He raises up a threatening leg, “Don’t come near me. I will kick you.”

“Awww, hyyuunnnggg,” he drawls impishly, not at all cowed by his (empty) threat, “You wouldn’t.” 

“I would,” he snaps back, sticking out his leg further as though attempting to show his conviction, not that it bothers Yuvin at all. It fucking sucks how everyone just knows he’s all bark and no bite. One day. One day, he swears he’s going to bite back and assert his alpha dominance and no one will know what hit them. Today though, isn’t that day.

“Yah… yah!” His foot presses unconvincingly against Yuvin’s abdomen as the male advances with an infuriating smirk as though silently taunting him – kick me if you dare – and Jinhyuk finds his voice increasing in pitch with each syllable. “Yah! Don’t come closer! Song Yuvin!”

Gg. Game over. Life fucking sucks.

“Ookkkaaayy,” Seungwoo steps in between the both of them. “Come on now, no need to bully the birthday boy.”

OMG. Hyung, Seungwoo-hyung. 

“Yeah, that’s right,” he squeaks, eyes sparkling with immense adulteration and gratitude as he immediately aligns himself with Seungwoo – aka, Lord and Savior. “It’s my birthday.”

“Not technically though,” Kookheon chirps up unhelpfully, and Jinhyuk throws him the dirtiest glare he can manage. The guy simply shrugs, grinning impishly, “You said so yourself.” 

Traitor!

“Yes, yes kids. Not technically his birthday but remember? This surprise was supposed to be the nice sort of surprise,” Seungwoo remarks pacifyingly, nodding towards Byungchan who moves to swipe the cake back from Yuvin – ‘Awww’ – as he lightly pats Seungyeon’s arm as though silently requesting the male to release him. 

“Really? I thought the surprise was just an excuse for us to crash at Jinhyuk’s place?”

His squawks of protest is immediately met with boisterous laughter from behind. Seungyeon finally releases him, unhooking him arms – and his arms fall to his sides all numb and prickly – only to encircle them around him for a crushing back hug as he plants a big smooch on his cheek. 

“Kidding, just kidding Jinhyukie,” he coos placatingly, “Don’t be mad ~”

“Oh break it up already people,” Wooseok grumbles, and Jinhyuk spots the male sliding right up next to Seungyeon from the corners of his eyes. Seungyeon playfully cooing abruptly turns into a deafening screech. The arms around him disappear and Jinhyuk throws himself forward on reflex as his hands automatically going up to his ears in an attempt to escape the ear-splitting shriek. Glancing back, he catches sight of Wooseok repeatedly jabbing Seungyeon at his side as he hauls him towards the living room and flings him onto the couch. 

Honestly, Jinhyuk still isn’t very sure what to make of the entire situation.

Seungwoo chuckles mildly as he brings his fingers up to brush his nape and somehow all the nervous energy brewing inside him dissipates. 

“Happy early birthday Jinhyukie, and sorry for scaring you.”

“Yeah, sorry hyung. Don’t be mad,” Yuvin having reinterpreted the mood in whatever weird way in his brain decided, dramatically throws himself at him. His eyes bulges out as the fully grown male practically flops onto him – dead weight and all – and his arms shoot out on reflex to catch the younger male in an awkward sort of half-kneel, half-embrace. “You know I love you right?”

He’s not the one acting absolutely ridiculous, but the embrasement is immense. 

“Okay, okay I get it. Please get up already,” he begs exasperatedly. 

“Not until you tell me you love me too,” is the stubborn whine he recieves to which he hurriedly obliges – “Yes, Yes. Love you too.” –  lest Yuvin accidentally (or not) pulls his pants down with all that excessively grappling and grovelling. 

Yuvin finally releases him, only for him to be passed off to Byungchan, though he’s not particularly bothered by it – at least Byungchan didn’t manhandle him – lightly squeezing the arms that had wrapped itself around his waist. Skinship with Byungchan always felt the easiest. There was no premise behind it – not touching to or for comfort, not touching out of playfulness – it simply was what it was. Meaningless, thoughtless touches; Touching simply because they’re so used to it that it became second nature. No need to read into, no emotional burden laden within each connection. So simple, like breathing.

“Don’t be upset hyung, this party is for you. It’ll be fun! We promise we’ll behave,” Byungchan murmurs soothingly from behind as he and Seungwoo lead him towards the living room where Kookheon, Seungyeon, Wooseok and Yuvin were presently setting up the coffee table. The cake was set in the middle, beer bottles flanking it to the side and an array of chilled soda bottles – condensation dripping off their surfaces – arranged in a semi-circle around the cake with one big Sprite bottle in the center. Around the assortment of beverages, was a smattering of all kinds of take-out and snacks. 

It has him wondering… 

“Not that I don’t appreciate the thought, but how the heck did you guys get my parents to agree to this?”

“Oh, that was all Wooseok and Seungwoo-hyung’s doing,” Seungyeon chirps up, grinning toothily. “They did all the talking—”

“Naturally,” Kookheon butts in, “I don’t wanna even imagine how the negotiations might’ve went if it were you or Yuvin doing the talking.”

Seungyeon ignores the younger male, waving him off nonchalantly as he goes on, “Wooseokie got in contact with your mum and we sent Seungwoo to do all the negotiations— he’s got that bodhisattva energy about him, very reassuring. It was quite funny, your mum seemed ready to marry your sister off to him—”

“Yes, and I’ve done a lot to reassure Jinhyuk’s mum that we’re not bad influences and that we’d look after him so you guys better watch your liquor, or I’ll watch it for you,” Seungwoo remarks calmly as he takes the beer bottle Seungyeon had grabbed from him and pops it open with a spoon, smiling threateningly as he hands it back to the male. “Stay sober enough to clean up after yeah?”

“Uh. Of course, hyung.”

“What are you doing?” Jinhyuk looks down to find Wooseok staring up at him with a glitter in his eyes – he wonders if the male had already had a couple of drinks. The male tilts his head and snakes his slender fingers around his wrist, pulling him down. “Sit. And have some cake before it melt.”

The other male dips a finger in the frosting and brings it up to his lips, offering him a taste – he can’t be serious right? – and Jinhyuk frantically rifles through his mental book of ‘Skinship with Boys 101’, trying to remember if licking food off a friend’s fingers was normal. Fuck if he knows. Wooseok’s never been so brazen when it came to intimacy with him. Perhaps his touchy tendencies have started rubbing off the male. 

Wooseok frowns, and Jinhyuk laughs, swallowing the lump in his throat – he’s the only one making things weird. 

He licks the frosting off, grinning, “Tasty.”

Wooseok stares at him for a moment, and licks off the residual glaze coating his finger tips, “It better be. We went out of the way to get you mint choco. Still can’t believe you like the taste of toothpaste.”

“Come on,” he nudges the other male with his shoulder, “it isn’t that bad.”

Wooseok shrugs, “I have a lot to say, but it’s your birthday so I’ll keep my opinion to myself for now.”

He laughs, ribbing the other male harder, “One, technically not my birthday yet. And two, when has my feelings ever stopped you from speaking your mind?”

“What are you talking about? I care deeply about your feelings Jinhyukie,” he drawls, leaning languidly on him and stretching himself out like a cat and Jinhyuk is overcome by a strong urge to pet the male. Pursing his lips, he subtly shifts to sit on his fingers. “Otherwise why I bother going through all that trouble setting this up? You know I hate dealing with adults.”

“You say that like you aren’t an adult,” he teases, but doesn’t press further. Ever since his scandal, Wooseok had undeniably become more withdrawn – even moreso when amongst authority figures – ‘they’re more judgemental’, he’d told him. “But thanks for going through all that trouble, Wooseok-ssi.”

Wooseok looks up at him with those glittery eyes of his again, “Are you happy?”

Am I?

“Yes.”

“Hoi, hoi enough with the flirting! Cut the cake already hyung— where’s the knife?”

 

~ ~

 

Wooseok sips at his sweet concoction of coke and beer, relishing the warm sizzle that travels down his throat with each gulp as he observes the Three Stooges – Byungchan, Kookheon and Yuvin – huddled over Jinhyuk’s Vita, eyes darting between the threesome and the owner of said Vita who was presently fielding the random commentary being made by said trio over his collection of dating sims. 

“Woah, hyung you’re such a casanova! You’ve got so many dating games! You really are lonely and repressed huh?”

“For the last time, not all of them are mine. Some are my sister’s and also not all of them are dating games for heaven’s sake! Some of them are visual novels. VISUAL NOVELS. Not dating games. Know the difference you plebeians.”

“Aye, there’s no shame in playing those games hyung— by the way, which one is the right choice? I wanna get Yumiko’s route.”

“I— oh her? Uh, if I remember correctly it should be the second one.”

“You know, fantasy dating is cool and all but it ain’t the same as real life dating. You ought to try it sometime.”

“Psh, I’ve had this discussion before,” Jinhyuk sniffs, and Wooseok flashes back to that night, “Real life is often disappointing. My fantasy lovers will never let me down.”

There it is, word for word. 

Wooseok wonders how true the statement rings for Jinhyuk. Does he truly not believe in real life romances? Jinhyuk was such a man of contradictions – chasing after fairy tales, but not believing in them – the more he got to know him, the less he understood. He spoke with such bright, idealistic energy and yet at the most unsuspecting of times, there were hints of cynicism the words he spoke. Everyone speaks of Jinhyuk, about how transparent, how genuine he was, how easy he was to read but Wooseok wonders if that’s really true.

It was hard to spot because he was always so bright and cheery, but the more he listened, the more he realised how little the man really spoke about himself. He realises that Jinhyuk never really talked about his feelings, his thoughts – always evasive, always dismissive; I’m happy, It’s nothing, How about you? – he wonders if he does it on purpose, if he’s knowingly doing it. It’s like he’d built an invisible wall around himself, and he’d done it so well that nobody ever noticed.

He wonders what the wall was meant to keep out.

“Hmmm, that’s hurtful Jinhyuk-ah,” Seungwoo remarks playfully, snaking his arms around Jinhyuk’s waist, “Do I let you down? I’m working hard for the seven hearts you know?”

Definitely not Seungwoo.

Jinhyuk flushes, and Wooseok can feel his plastic cup crumpling in his grasp. 

“Ah hyung, you’re so nice to Jinhyuk-hyung, why aren’t you like that to me,” Byungchan whines.

Seungwoo simply grins cheekily, sticking out his tongue at his younger groupmate, “Jinhyukie’s cuter than you.”

Byungchan gasps in offence and starts rambling on about how biased Seungwoo is and how unfair it is that this traitorous – “No loyalty to the Viction at all” –  hyung of his keeps ‘getting around’ everywhere and showering affection on everyone else but him – “I’m your groupmate!” and “I’m— sorry Jinhyuk-hyung, cuter!”  

Yuvin on the other hand, has his interests laying elsewhere, “Seven hearts? Huh? What hearts?”

“Hearts to capture Jinhyukie,” Seungwoo winks as he explains helpfully, ignoring Byungchan’s whining. “I unlocked showering together at five hearts. Next event is at seven hearts according to Jinhyuk.”

“Ouh, ouh! Events? So like your dating sims hyung? Man, you’re such an otaku,” Yuvin gapes, his expression shifts through awe-filled curiosity to overzealous excitement, “I’m interested. Do I get something too if I hit five hearts? Hey! How many hearts have I got so far hyung?”

“You? Hah! Negative five,” Jinhyuk snaps back huffily. Beside him Kookheon shoots up a hand – ‘How about me?’. Jinhyuk gives pause for a moment, before muttering, “Maybe two and a half,” and the trio explodes into a mass of chattering – Ah, come on hyung; Haha! Suck it Yuvin, I’m better than you— hey hyung, when do I get events?; How about me hyung? How many hearts have I got?

It’s a sight to behold. Jinhyuk was that sort of person, the kind that naturally drew everyone in with his down-to-earth nature, he was meant to be surrounded by people, meant to be loved. He’s envious.

“Looks like you guys gotta step up your game,” Seungwoo laughs, pulling Jinhyuk closer to him possessively as he plans a light kiss on Jinhyuk’s cheek with a cheeky grin. Turn to face the male, he addresses him playfully, “Let’s shower together later honey ~”

There’s a surge of uproarious protests as the group huddled around the exasperated Jinhyuk get competitive for absolutely no reason at all, bickering over who gets to sleep with Jinhyuk tonight – “You guys just wanna sleep on my bed!” . Yuvin doesn’t deny it, though Byungchan and Seungwoo protests the assertion. Kookheon remarks he’s cool with sleeping on the floor, but hey, I don’t want to lose out to Yuvin so yeah, I want to sleep with you too hyung. 

“Weirdos,” he mutters under his breath, grimacing into his drink. 

“Now that’s not a very nice thing to say Wooseokie,” a voice breathes into his ear – Seungyeon, of course – and Wooseok irritably crushes the plastic cup in his hands. 

“What,” he snaps back heatedly. 

“Don’t you want to know how many hearts you’ve got?”

“I’m not that childish.”

Seungyeon gives him a look – the infuriating one – and slides the crushed cup out of his hands, earning a dirty glare from him, to which the male simply rolls his eyes, replacing the almost emptied (and destroyed) cup with a fresh one filled with soda instead of alcohol. He feels like snapping at the other male, but knows he has absolutely no reason to at all so he holds his tongue and stews silently in his thoughts. At least Seungyeon has enough sense to leave him be for the time being.

“You know,” Seungyeon starts thoughtfully, “I would’ve honestly never pinned Jinhyuk to be your type—”

“I don’t—”

Seungyeon forcibly cuts him off, refusing to let him interrupt him, “Nothing wrong with liking guys by the way.”   

Had Seungyeon always been this blunt? Is blunt the word for it? Or would tactless be a better description? 

“I don’t—” he frowns, confused at the sudden turn of the conversation and frustrated at his stuttering, “I never said that?”

Seungyeon grins toothily at him, clinking the plastic cup in his hands against his, “You gave me straight man vibes— I mean, also bit wild child vibes,” he chuckles with an alcoholic glitter in his eyes, “Totally could see you experimenting around a bit. But definitely felt like your preferences leaned more towards women.” 

He is somehow simultaneously surprised and not surprised at how candidly Seungyeon speaks about the topic matter. Not surprised because it’s Seungyeon, who despite his playful nature was possibly one of the most non-judgemental individuals he’s ever met, and surprised because regardless, it’s still not a topic one simply speaks about. Matters like these are open secrets in the industry, but it was mutually understood that nobody talks about it. Not openly at least.

“I wonder about Jinhyuk though… if there ever was a person who gave off mixed vibes, he’s one,” Seungyeon muses thoughtfully, swirling his cup as though it were a glass of wine. 

He’s honestly got no idea where Seungyeon is going with this, but he lets the male ramble on, absent-mindedly blowing bubbles into his long fizzed-out coke. 

Now that Seungyeon’s talking about it though, he realises that in the 5 years he’s known the man, he’s never ever heard Jinhyuk ever speaking about his preferences, be it with him or the other UP10TION members. He knew every member's type, and he sort of knows Jinhyuk's too but he realises it would somehow always make a whole round back to his love for animations, games and general fairytales and fantasies. Jinhyuk never references real life people, and it gives the impression of childishness – always chasing fantasies and fairytales – and maybe he was. Maybe he really didn't care. Or maybe that was just another invisible wall Jinhyuk had built around himself.

“Yeah… he’s a tough read,” he murmurs distractedly. 

“Mmhmm,” Seungyeon rests his head on his knees, tilting his head towards him as he fixes a steady gaze at him, “Kind of a vague guy when you think about it, isn’t he?”

He stares back, silently demanding the other male to get on with it.

Seungyeon arches an eyebrow at him and Wooseok has just about had it with the male’s cryptic talk, “We all grown men here. I reckon you should know that communication is key. If you really like him, speak to him honestly about it like an adult would. No point giving mixed signals that the dude might not even be noticing in the first place. You know Jinhyuk, he’s a nice guy. Pretty sure it’s safe to confess to him.”

“It’s exactly because he’s a nice guy,” he hisses back. 

How could Seungyeon not see the obvious? Lee Jinhyuk was absolutely that sort of nice guy to try to please everyone but himself. Best case scenario, he gets gently let down but the guy would constantly feel guilty and walk on eggshells around him. Worst case? He goes with the flow despite what he truly feels. He’s not so cold-hearted as to take advantage of the man that way. He’d already done it once with that kiss and it felt like shit.

“Wooseok-ah, I’m sure you know yourself,” Seungyeon chuckles softly, lightly flicking his forehead, “Jinhyuk’s already half-way there. You can tell he’s a man with a lot of love. He loves easily. Part of that overinflated ego of yours might be for entertainment, but we both know if you really wanted to, you could seduce him, easy peasy.”

He glares at the man, “You make me sound like some fucking succubus.” 

Seungyeon smiles softly at him, “If Jinhyuk really hasn’t ever dated before, that inexperience would make him an easier target.”

Wooseok doesn’t like how Seungyeon’s talking about Jinhyuk like he’s some objective to be completed, some achievement to score.  

“First loves are always the most passionate,” he continues with a sigh, “So think about it a bit yeah? If you’re serious, go seduce him like the male succubus you are. But if it’s just a passing curiosity or infatuation… it’d be nice if you could experiment with someone else. Maybe not someone like Jinhyuk, you know?”

Is that what Seungyeon thought of him?

“What sort of cold-hearted bitch do you take me for?” He growls, elbowing the man none too gently, “I’m not a pump and dump sort of guy. Seriously what sort of fucked up image of me do you have in your head?”

Seungyeon laughs, half-prying, half-rubbing his arm placatingly, “I know you’re not that sort of person Wooseok-ah, but can you blame me for trying to look out for our precious Jinhyukie? It’d be nice if his first love is that sort of sweet, ‘kiss kiss, fall in love’ cliche don’t you think? A fairytale love for a fairytale lover.” 

He presses his lips together, mildly annoyed by the male’s obnoxious antics, but at the same time not disagreeing with him at all. Jinhyuk deserved a fairytale-like first love, though he can’t help but wonder if, Jinhyuk really did swing that way… would could give him the better happily ever after? Him, or Seungwoo. 

What way did Seungwoo even swing?

“Anyways, moral of today’s conversation, if you wanna experiment just experiment with me man,” Seungyeon grins stupidly, jiggling his eyebrow as he smooches him playfully on the cheek, “Don’t be breaking our sweet baby’s heart. If you’re serious though, stop being so tsun and go drown him in dere . If you wanna smooch your boy so bad just do it like I did aye? No need to get all pissy and try to kill me via ruptured appendix. Jealousy ain’t pretty you know?”

Fucking smart-ass.

He stabs a threatening finger to the man’s chest, “Keep talking Seungyeon-ssi, and you’ll be a dead man walking.”

 

 


 

 

“I can’t believe it, I can’t believe it.”

Wooseok squeeze Jinhyuk’s hand. It’s big, all angled and masculinely bony, and yet it feels so fragile right now – he can feel its minute trembling, its the little pulses – Jinhyuk feels so fragile now. The man’s body droops down heavily on him as he hugs him, the other male’s hand naturally moving to guide his head to rest against his shoulder, and Wooseok has never so greatly wished he were bigger. If he were bigger, he could hold Jinhyuk, brush his nape soothingly like he did, let him rest his pretty little head on his shoulder; He could comfort Jinhyuk the way he always did him – it was always Jinhyuk doing the comforting, never being comforted.

“Second place,” Jinhyuk breathes breathlessly into his ear, sending chills down his spine, “I can’t believe it.”

“Those benefit votes really dragged you up huh? Next goal, number one,” he teases with a smirk.

Jinhyuk pulls back with a grin, “First place? Never. You’ll always be my number one.”

His heart skips a beat.

“Thanks for holding my hand there… 2nd place, I still can’t believe it. I really thought I was going to faint from the stress.”

Ain’t that the truth. Jinhyuk had actually squeezed his hand so hard he can feel it throbbing right now, but nobody really needs to know that… 

“Happy to be your stress ball,” he grins, arching a brow playfully, teasing the male, “Have to dole out some fanservice every now and then too. Some netizens have been speculating that we aren’t really close. Gotta shut them down. How else will I carry you to the top?”

Jinhyuk’s eyebrows flies up, eyes widening. The other male is still smiling, lips still stretch bright and easy across his face, but there’s a mysterious glint in the man’s eyes that has Wooseok feeling like he’d said something wrong.

“My, aren’t you quite something,” Jinhyuk presses his lips together, a soft chuckle slipping past them as he shakes his head, and Wooseok feels his stomach curl uneasily, “You’re a monster created by capitalism.”

His heart clenches, and he wants to ask what Jinhyuk means but Jinhyuk’s laughing, petting his shoulder placatingly. 

“Me too,” he smiles, almost wistfully and Wooseok wonders if he’s imagining the melancholy in the male’s eyes as he gazes into the distance, “Capitalism has ruined me too.”

What do you mean?

Jinhyuk laughs again – a joke, a joke, the laugh is trying to tell him – his hands slipping away from his, and he can only watch as he walks away into the crowd of other trainees, as he walks away from him. 

Chapter Text

Emotions are a fickle thing. 

He’s been thinking a lot lately – though that’s hardly surprising – there’s a lot to think about. His deepening dark circles, hollowing cheeks, his future career prospects. Life in general really. He’s too young for a mid-life crisis – he only just turned 23 – but he supposes there must be some sort of in between halfway point that wasn’t teenage angst or a mid-life crisis and whatever that was, whatever it was called, maybe it was that. In particular though, he keeps thinking about Wooseok, or more specifically, a feeling – a peculiar feeling specifically attributed to his long-time friend – that he can’t name. Or perhaps it less him being unable to name it, and more him being unwilling to, fearful of speaking it into existence. 

Because in the end, real life isn’t rainbows and sunshine and unicorns; Real life beats you down, swallows you whole, and spits you back out. He’s twenty three now and he’s long learnt that chasing your dreams aren’t all that – life isn’t a fairytale – hardwork and hardship isn’t always rewarded, persistence means nothing in the face of reality, but he still keeps trying, keeps pushing anyways because he’s come this far, and maybe it’s too late to give up. 

He has seen his childhood dreams, the beautiful stronghold of hopes and ambitious aspirations he’d constructed crumble over the years, slowly falling into disrepair. Slow enough for him to prepare himself, accept that what must come, will come; His mind and soul long prepared for the next step in life he would likely be forced to taken sooner rather than later, leaving behind the ruins of a fairytale dream. He’s twenty three. Not old, but not young anymore. No matter how much his dreams of dreams being reality, he knows that’s not how it works. And it’s okay, he’s okay with that. He likes to think he’ll be sad for a bit, but look back and still be happy, glad for trying his best, and then he’ll move on. 

That is one thing, this is another, and he supposes he’s still a child hidden in a man’s body after all because even after coming to terms with the realities of life, a part of him still clings on to the romance of fairytales. It’s fine if not all his dreams can take flight, but he still wants to believe in romance. And maybe it’s because he’s aware of that, that he’s even more afraid of putting a name to this new, foregin feeling stirring within him. 

Because what if he’s only in love with the idea of it – this feeling, this ‘what if’ – and what if he doesn’t really want it. After all, it has been almost half a decade – half a decade knowing Wooseok – and that’s a long time, so why now? What changed?

You didn’t really get to know him before.

Yes, he knew Wooseok. But not as intimately as they did now, and he supposes he’s got Produce to thank that for. There was something about the show that just compelled one with the urge to spill their guts out to the closest person. 

But what if you still don’t really know him?

Maybe if it was the ten of them together, he wouldn’t have been Wooseok’s first choice of listening ear, but presently it’s just the two of them. Can’t be 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 9th place if you’re the only choice.

Or maybe it isn’t even that he’s doubtful of the sincerity of his feelings, because who is he kidding? He feels too strongly, cares too much. Or not even the silly notion of maintaining his romanticised image of friendship and love, because he’s just as cynical, as he is fantastically idealistic (despite how contradictory it might seem). He just wants an excuse, because the truth is probably something that simply just hits too close to home.

Lee Jinhyuk is never #1.

He had been an emotional child, perhaps difficult to like because he was honest in a manner different from the way he was now – too honest, in a way only a bazen child could be – and so lonely. His lovely baby sister – sweet, tranquil and composed – the yin to his yang. Parents shouldn’t play favourites, and his didn’t. They were and still are the most supportive family he could ever ask for, but even without that, he intuitively knew his sweet, sweet sister was a #1, and he a #2. Time even proved that, but he was okay with that – being the dopey older brother – he’d just strive harder to do better. 

It was the same everywhere else. Lee Jinhyuk, amicable class clown and resident otaku, everybody’s friend, but no one’s best friend. Everyone’s dorky hyung, nobody’s favourite hyung. 

Lee Jinhyuk is never #1.

That’s right. Decent rapper, decent dancer, not the best. Reliable leader, but not the best leader. An agreeable 11-pick, 2-pick, but not your typical 1-pick. And it was fine, because being best, being number #1 isn’t all that. Being good, was still fine by him. What’s wrong with just being good?

Lee Jinhyuk is never #1.

And just like that, he won’t be Wooseok’s #1 either. He wasn’t back in UP10TION, he isn’t now either – that went to Seungyeon.

“So who did you choose as your 1-pick?”

“Seungyeon-ie.”

“Wah, you traitor. What happened to TOPs?”

“Yah, as if you’re one to talk. The writer noona told me you picked Mingyu. I heard I wasn’t even in the line-up. The fuck happened to me being your 1-pick?”

“Can’t be too obvious about my crush on you on cam. Duh.”

“Excuses.”

Except maybe they weren’t excuses. Or maybe they were. Or not. He doesn’t know anymore. All he knows is that he hates how much he cares. 

You’re going to end up hurting yourself, Jinhyuk-ah. ( Too late )

Be optimistic, but always set your expectations low so you’ll never be disappointed and happiness will always be within grasp – his eternal motto. Be grateful, content. Dream wildly, but never wish for too much. Wooseok made something within him stir, and for a while, he was content just relishing in that swelling foregin, sweet sentiment. But then without realising he’s started craving for more, and more, and more. And he needs to get off this high before it kills him, because the higher he tries to climb, the harder the fall will be. 

Remember that, Jinhyuk.

“Earth to Jinhyuk, earth to Jinhyuk!”

A hand waves back and forth before his eyes, and he blinks dazedly as his vision refocuses on the dimpled face gazing up at him.

“Hnn? What’s up?” He pats the younger male’s nape, lightly guiding it back upright from it’s side-tilt position, “You’re gonna twist your neck doing that Byungchanie.”

Instead of righting his posture, Byungchan instead leans into his touch, and Jinhyuk lets him naturally fall into place against his shoulder as per usual, using his hand to guide the male’s lolling head into its familiar position. 

“You looked pretty out of it hyung,” Byungchan chirps sweetly as he absentmindedly rubs at his thigh, and Jinhyuk returns the favour by gently caressing the younger male’s head, “Didn’t sleep well? What’s on your mind?”

How astute. He definitely hasn’t been sleeping well lately, but frankly speaking, who has been? Insufficient sleep is pretty low on his list of concerns these days anyways. 

“Hmm, nothing much. Just thinking,” he deflects, his hands finding their way down the younger male’s body and onto their ankle, fingers lightly brushing the little jut of bone under the brace’s tight wrappings. “How’s your foot doing?”

Byungchan pouts, lower lip jutting out petulantly as he makes his displeasure at Jinhyuk’s avoidance known.

“Hey! No fair, I asked first!”

“And I answered,” he responds without missing a beat, lips pulling at the corners for a toothy grin as he reiterates his question, “Can’t your lovely hyung be worried about his dongsaeng’s health? How is your foot?”

Byungchan frowns, the corners of his mouth doing a little downturn, giving him the appearance of a beaten puppy. The younger male flickers a fleeting side-glance his way, whether out of doubt of the legitimacy of his answer, or of displeasure from the concern and sympathy, Jinhyuk isn’t too sure. 

“It’s fine,” Byungchan murmurs softly. “We should probably get back to practice soon…”

So displeasure it is then. Jinhyuk supposes the male loathed to show any sign of weakness. He gets it, sort of. Nobody wants to be the weak link, especially not now, not this late into the show at such a crucial time. Though there’s little need for Byungchan to worry about being the weak link. They’re a team after all, and all of them are ride and die; They’ll succeed together, and apparently, also break down together. Byungchan isn’t the only one dealing with practice obstructing circumstances. Each and everyone else on the team seems to have somehow managed to screw up their body in one way or another – except baby Hyunbin. Boy’s still got that youthful spunk in him unlike the rest of them hags. 

Truly team spirit, he thinks, finding a twisted sort of humour that he really shouldn’t from their entire situation. 

Jinhyuk’s eyes drop down to Byungchan’s ankle, lightly applying pressure to the joint as his gaze flickers back up to observe the male’s face – he winces – and raises a brow at the telling reaction. 

We, ” he stresses the word, tugging the man closer by the waist, “Can rest some more. We’ve been dancing for hours now.”

The man squeaks in protest, “But—”

Jinhyuk cuts him off, turning to address Seungyeon who was sitting beside him and idly reviewing their recorded dance practice footage on the iPad, “Isn’t that right Seungyeon-nim.”

The male’s head snaps up, “Hm? Yeah. No need to push yourself Byungchan-ah.”

“You heard the leader. Break time still isn’t over.”

“No point overexerting yourself, Byungchan-ah,” Seungyeon grins reassuringly, flipping the iPad’s case flap close as he slides it aside, “Don’t want to bust your leg before the actual performance.”

The door flies open.

“We have returned!”

Hangyul marches in, loudly announcing their arrival as Hyunbin follows behind meekly with a mortified grimace, their hands full of an assortment of soda cans they (or Hangyul at least) proudly lay out on the ground as they join them, forming a little circle. 

Hyunbin swivels his head around, looking for someone, “Where’s Kookheon-hyung?”

“He’s in the toilet,” Jinhyuk pauses for a moment, considering how to phrase the rest of his words, “Yesterdays… ramen binge session had a disagreement with his stomach.”

“Ehh, no Mountain Dew? I wanted Mountain Dew,” Seungyeon whines playfully as he picks through the cans.

“Sorry hyung, there wasn’t any—”

“Ay, shut up hyung. I paid for it with my own money. No complaints,” Hangyul fires back, “Yah. How can you make the maknae pay? Seriously. Shouldn’t the hyungs be the ones to pay? Isn’t this bullying?”

“Sorry Hangyul, you’re the only one who brought coins— Hyung will pay you back when we get out,” Jinhyuk grins sheepishly. 

Meanwhile, Seungyeon’s lips curl up coquettishly, a mischievous glimmer in his eyes as he shoots back without missing a beat, “Maknae? Our maknae is Hyunbinnie, come here baby—” the male curls his arms around Hyunbin, pulling the young boy into a hug as he sweetly pats his head while cooing, “ Oguu oguu, our precious Hyunbinnie. You know your hyungs love you right?”  

Hyunbin looked as though he would explode, his face coloured such a brightly coloured red Jinhyuk wouldn’t have thought humanly possible.

“Favouritism!!!” Hangyul’s screech sounding more like a growl thanks to his deep timber, “Yah, why don’t I get the same treatment?”

“Cause you’re not as cute.”

“Dude! It’s not my fault I look like that.”

“I think you’re handsome hyung,” Hyunbin offers up kindly, attempting to placate the aggravated male.

“You,” Hangyul points his fingers at Hyunbin, “I appreciate you Hyunbinnie, but you’re not the one I want to hear it from.” He turns the accusatory finger towards Seungyeon and aggressively jabs it in the air, “I want to hear that from him.” 

“Aigoo, is someone jealous? Do you need validation?” Seungyeon cooes mockingly, jiggling an eyebrow. Pulling away from Hyunbin, the male makes a show of sighing dramatically, chest heaving as he theatrically flips his fringe, “Okay then. Hyung is a responsible leader and will do whatever it takes to keep the team together.”

Bringing a palm up to his chest, Seungyeon’s eyes soften, smiling gently as he emphatically professes his affections for the younger male in an almost disgustingly saccharine tone, “Hangyul-ah, you’re soooo cute. Hyung absolutely, unconditionally loves you. Don’t be upset.”

It would’ve been terribly sweet if it weren’t so obviously a mockery. 

Hangyul seemed to think so too, absolutely read to throw hands, “Yah, you’re horrible!”

The pair devolves into their usual fervent banterings with Hyunbin wedged between them, the young kid’s wide eyes darting between the two older males as they traded words back and forth at a rapid fire pace while him and Byungchan merely watch from the sidelines in amusement.

It’s just so easy to throw around words like ‘love’ isn’t it? Because between boys – between idols – it means nothing special, just playful bantering, a game they’ve all gotten so used to. 

What is love? 

He wouldn’t know. Only now, with all these new, foregin feelings swirling nauseatingly within him does it really occur to him how much of a normal life he’s missed out chasing this dream of his. 

What is love?

“Byungchan,” he hums distractedly, turning to look down at the man leaning against his shoulder.

The younger male tilts his head up, locking his big, doe-like eyes with his, “Hn, hyung?”

“I love you.”

He speaks with a quaint sort of clarity, voice crisps and frank, his words somehow both brimming with and void of emotional weight at the same time. 

Byungchan’s eyes widen, his surprise and confusion at the unexpected and much too sincere sounding confession painted transparently on his face. Beside him, Seungyeon and Hangyul get distracted from their verbal sparring – having heard him – Seungyeon stumbling on his words as his head snaps to the left to face him in full attention.

“Uh—I, huh? What?” Byungchan half-stutters, half-chuckles as he brings a nervous hand up to his mouth, caught off guard and uncertain on how to respond. “What’s with the sudden confession, Jinhyuk-hyung?”

What is love?

Jinhyuk blinks once, twice, then breaks out into a toothy grin, an airy chuckle leaving his lips as he gently strokes the male’s nape, “What Byungchanie? You don’t love me back? I’m wounded.”

( Smile, smile. Trick of the trade. 

        A joke, a joke. Everything’s for the camera, everything for show.

                Did you really believe me? We’re idols after all. )

 

Boys don’t love boys. Not ‘that’ way. 

 

Everyone’s reaction tells him what he needs to know. It’s all clear to him now. Even Byungchan – a man so brazenly and overly affectionate – gave pause to a not-serious-serious profession, what more for anyone else? Like a cold splash of water, chilling – it sends a refreshing shiver down his spine – sobering him right up. 

What is love?

Real or fake? Do you like boys or girls? Friendship or romance? What is what? 

It doesn’t really matter. It shouldn’t matter. Not to people like them, not in their world, not in their reality. Even more so because it’s them. They’re all here – in Produce – for a reason, all here because they are desperate. There’s no place for such things. Idols are married to their job after all. Why else would they beat their bodies down the way they do so eagerly, chasing approval from anyone who’d throw even a scrap of attention their way. 

There is his answer.

Just like he beats down his body chasing perfection, chasing their dreams, he’ll beat down his heart too. He’ll wear it down, whittle away bit by bit the unnecessary weakness and it’ll be nothing but a fond memory to joke about in the future. That’s the price for their his present happiness, and it’s fine. It’s fine. He’s willing to pay whatever he can for it, because losing what he has now is much, much worse. He’s never been the gambling type, and he won’t gamble it. Never.

( Don’t be greedy. )

“Aigoo, don’t leave me hanging Byungchanie,” he cooes, “I thought the feelings were mutual.”

Byungchan cocks his head, blinking, and then breaks out into a dimpled grin, throwing his body across Jinhyuk, leaning his head back diagonally on his opposite shoulder, “Of course I love too hyung ~”

“Yah, look at those two being all disgustingly sappy again,” Hangyul gapes, jaw lopsided as he turns to shoot Hyunbin a ‘can you believe this’ look, “Get a room man.”

Jinhyuk throws his head back for his signature laughter, feeling the vibrations rattling hollowly down his rib cage. 

“You say that as if you and Seungyeon-ie haven’t been acting like some old married couple these days.”

Beside him, Seungyeon shoots him an uncharacteristically pensive look to which he returns with a roguish grin.

He is, first and foremost, an idol after all.

 

 

Seungyeon’s body gives a little jolt – as though having being struck by a short burst of electricity – his eyes flying wide open, the room’s shadowy outlines filling his vision. Did he forget something? His body feels heavy, his brain telling him he should be sleepy, but his mind is taken by an inexplicable sort of clarity. Aside from the sound of rustling sheets and the heavy breathing of the slumbering boys, the room is quiet. 

Exhaling deeply, he twists his body, flipping over to the opposite side so his back faced the wall, a low, barely audible purr rumbling up from the depths of his throat as his hears and feels his stiff bones and muscles crackle with his movement. Even in the darkness, he’s easily able to make out the striking absence of a body in the bunk across his. Frowning, he half-props himself up with his elbows to get a better look.

Again?

He gropes around his sheets for his MP3 player, jabbing the on button and squinting at the screen as its blue light burns his retinas. 

3:42AM

He rubs at his eyes, groaning under his breath, “Are you for real?”

Okay, this was a problem. This is the 5th night in a row Jinhyuk was anywhere else but in his bed at an absolutely cursed hour when frankly speaking, not a single one of them should be lucid. He’d initially told himself that hey, maybe it’s just him sleepwalking – it didn’t look like he was out practicing – maybe it was the stress? And besides, the man was always somehow back in bed by the time 7 o’clock hit, as though he never left, sun filtering through the windows and everyone else in the group just barely returning from dreamland. And Jinhyuk would stagger awake just like the rest of them, everyone dunking on how difficult he was to wake – you’re such an old man – that certainly wasn’t thanks to his secret late night disappearances. 

He should’ve said something. Why didn’t he?

Something’s been off with the man for a while now. If you asked what? He wouldn’t be able to say because he just can’t quite put his finger about it. Maybe it was the way his eyes seem to unfocus during conversations, or how he would stare at any one of them for a beat too long, gaze uncharacteristically severe for just a fraction of a second before being glazed over with an unreadable sparkle, dopey grin stretched out bright and wide. Jinhyuk was still Jinhyuk – a goofy noodle of a man – but something felt off-pace. 

Or maybe, maybe it was the way he looked at him. It feels like Jinhyuk doesn’t look at him the same way he used to. There was a certain sort of guardedness in the male’s words and gaze lately – barely there, but noticeable – and something else… guilt maybe? Was it because he was the leader? Was he too scared to trouble him with his issues? Did he think he had too much on his plate already? What the fuck even goes on in Jinhyuk’s head?  

God damn it, Wooseok had been right. Jinhyuk was way too fucking nice and stubborn for his own good, doing useless shit like that. 

Frowning, he kicks off his sheets, sitting up abruptly as he limply crawls to the step ladder, gingerly climbing down the bunk with his barely awake limbs. Careful not to wake the rest of his roommates, he tiptoes out of the room and into the dimly lit hallway. 

Where does he even start looking for a man by the name of Lee Jinhyuk?

Sighing, he turns, deciding to try the practice rooms first, only to come face-to-face with another (supposed) human being that has no right to be standing there in the middle of the creepily lit hallways like some grudge holding Japanese ghost. 

“Boo,” is the barely audible whisper he hears.

His heart practically leaps right up his throat, but it takes a second longer than he’d like for his brain to catch up and another second before the beings of a ‘God, save me’ screech crackles up his throat. If this were a slasher flick, this slow reaction of his would be the end of him. Good thing it wasn’t though, and good thing the man in front of him had the foresight to slap his mouth shut before he woke the whole corridor. 

“It’s me! It’s me! Chill!”

His brain finally catches up, registering the familiar face before him as Seungwoo’s. 

“What are you doing here?!” He hisses weakly, clutching his still aggressively palpitating heart, “What sort of shady business you up to at this hour?”

Seungwoo rolls his eyes, releasing him, “Nothing. I accidentally fell asleep in Dongpyo’s bed. He kicked me off in his sleep,” frowning as he rubbed his hip, he continues, “and I decided I might as well go back to my own bed. What’s your excuse for haunting the corridors?”

Huh? Dongpyo? A sleep kicker? Quite a fitting trait for the little baby imp.

“First of all, you take the appa schtick way too seriously—” Hey! He’s cute okay! “—and I’m presently on the hunt for our resident weeab. Jinhyuk isn’t in bed.”  

“Again?”

Seungyeon frowns, cocking his head inquisitively, “What do you mean again?”

Seungwoo waves him off concernedly, “Caught Jinhyukie doing something like that too during position evals… had to drag him back to bed myself.”

“He… did?” 

“Hmm, he gets caught up too easily in his own head but won’t tell anyone,” the man sighs, ruffling his hair in frustration, “I keep telling him to talk it out but he never— I’ll help you find him.”

“I— sure, of course… should we, we should split up?”

“Sounds like a plan. I’ll go check the lower floors first,” Seungwoo pats his shoulder as he brushes past him. 

For a long moment, he’s stunned. And then it suddenly occurs to him why the secret jealousy towards Seungwoo that Wooseok had been nursing as of late was particularly scathing. 

 

 

“Pst! Pst! Wooseokie! Wooseok-ah.”

Wooseok grimaces, squeezing his closed eyes tighter as he swats at the low, gnat-like voice hissing into his ear. 

“Kim Wooseok! Wake the fuck up!” 

The voice whisper-hisses aggressively, and Wooseok swears he felt a little bit of spittle fly into his ear canal. Growling irritatedly, he shoots at hand out, blindly grabbing at someone (Seungyeon’s, he fucking knows it’s Seungyeon’s) neck.

“The fuck you want Seungyeon,” he hisses back aggressively, his voice muffled by the pillow half of his face was pressed against. 

“Tell me,” Seungyeon lowers his voice, his words barely audible as he whispers into his ear, “You like Jinhyuk right? Like really, seriously, like-like him right? Tell me, you’re serious right?”

“I— what? Are you seriously asking me this question at this god forsaken hour?! Do you hav—”

“Just answer the question Wooseok.”

The odd sense of urgency in the male’s voice shuts him up for a moment as he rolls the answer (he didn’t even have to think about it) to Seungyeon’s question on the tip of his tongue, considering it. To say, or not to say.

“Yes, I like him a lot,” his words spill out faster than his heavy tongue can handle, and it comes out a half-slur, “Now spit it out bastard. Why the sudden death wish?”

Seungyeon exhales deeply, abruptly yanking his upper torso off the bed and a soft squeak slips past his lips at the unexpected movement. The taller male practically half-drags, half-carries him out of the room, and Wooseok swears he almost twisted his ankle on the way out. He’s just a second away from strangling the male within the edge of his life – I’m going to fucking end you – but then Seungyeon verbally cuts him off.

“Jinhyuk’s not in bed.”

“…what?”

“You heard me. He’s been a bit out of it these days, disappearing in the middle of the night and all and well, it’s concerning and—”

Wooseok’s head jerks up at the new information.

“And you never tried talking to him?”

 “Yes, I know I’m an idiot,” Seungyeon catches the incredulous look he’s shooting him and throws his hands up in half-surrender, half-defence, “Oi, you said it yourself, he’s not exactly the open type. Keeps saying he’s okay, he’s okay. And he looks at me weird sometimes too okay! I don’t know how to broach the subject with him. I can’t just go up and bulldoze him with intrusive questions, please Wooseok I’m not that socially inept—”

“You do that with me all the time.”

“—you’re not Jinhyuk, dumbass.”

“Wow, I feel so loved.”

“Okay, shut up and let me talk already. Point is. Obviously, Jinhyuk’s stressed, and his coping mechanisms – if they are what I’m thinking they are – are probably not very healthy and guy needs someone to talk to, and you!” Seungyeon grabs him by the shoulders, “You keep talking about how he never talks to you and how secretive he is— ”

He stunned, barely lucid brain trying to keep up with the rapid fire conversation, “I— what?”

“Did you ever try talking to him?”

“I,” Wooseok suddenly feels a surge of righteous irritation. It feels like he’s being accused of something – of not caring – because it’s not true at all, and it infuriates him, “Of course I have,” he hisses venomously, “I’ve talked to him, asked him how things are, if he’s doing well— It’s not like I can do anything if he doesn’t want to talk to me.”

“Well, how did you talk to him?”

“What are you implying?”

“I mean, how did you ask him how he’s doing? How did you approach him? Casually? Off-handedly? Oh, I don’t know, like…” Seungyeon gestures towards the whole of him, “In your usual, ice cool Kim Wooseok manner?”

“…”

“Tone matters, Wooseok-ah.”

Seungyeon isn’t articulating himself very well at the moment, but Wooseok has an inkling of what the man was hinting at, and the realisation that washes over him is sobering in a most unpleasant manner.

“Ah… don’t give me that look,” Seungyeon grimaces, shifting uncomfortably in his position as he gives him an awkward slap on the arm, “I’m not trying to rain on your parade on anything dude, I— where was I again? Fuck, I got derailed. What was I planning to do again? Yeah!” 

The man snaps his fingers, managing to figuratively grab the tail end of this train-of-thoughts before it entirely left the station.

“Anyways, the past is in the past. We live in the present and the present is now, and now I’m being an amazing friend and pro wing-man and telling you now’s the best time to go talk to Jinhyuk. Hell, he probably needs it too. Win-win.”

“You’re just trying to dump your responsibilities on me,” he stutters out, his word sharp, but his unsteady voice and the restless picking of his lips betraying how he really feels. 

Seungyeon snorts, “Maybe. But I get the feeling that being his groupmate and leader, I’m probably the last person he wants to talk to. I’ll probably just make him hate himself more or something. This is Jinhyuk we’re talking about. He’s got big noble idiot energy.”

Holding his hands up in surrender, he backs off, “Look, I’m just offering up a suggestion – that I strongly recommend, if you haven’t caught wind yet – if you don’t want to help me look for Jinhyuk, that’s cool. It’s 3AM. Anyways, I better get back to tracking down slenderman— Seungwoo-hyung can’t cover all the ground himself.”

The man turns to leave, but Wooseok’s arm shoots out at lightning speed, grabbing the retreating male by the wrist, “Seungwoo-hyu—” he catches himself, and rectifies his statement, “Who said I wasn’t helping.”

Grinning, the taller male slaps his heartily on the back, whistling a muted, “Atta boy!”

 

 

The auto-lights flicker off, and Jinhyuk feels his body automatically jerk itself back into barely-there lucidity from his state of half-wakefulness as the bathroom plunges back into darkness. His eyes does half-squints, lids feeling too heavy to blink properly as he reaches out an lerthagic arm to grab at the toilet stall’s knob, sluggishly swinging the door back and forth to trigger the overhead light’s motion sensors. The light flickers back on, it's unnatural yellow glow flooding the room once more.

Sighing, he shifts in his position, making space on the lowered toilet seat to bring his knees to his chest so he can bury his face between them, his forehead resting on his crossed forearms. His nose starts running again, he can feel the watery fluid trickling down his nasal passages, and sniffs, hastily throwing his head backwards. He’s gone through enough toilet paper as is, plus if he blows his nose anymore, he thinks it might just drop off – it feels so sore – he’ll have to remember to slather moisturiser around it tomorrow. His eyes aren’t feeling much better either – he’s cried so much tonight he can actually feel them starting to swell – he’ll probably have to soak them in cold, wet toilet paper longer tonight if he wants to prevent the swelling from carrying over to tomorrow? Today? Later in the morning. Idol’s have to look camera ready after all. 

Fuck.

Somewhere in the bathroom, the auto air-freshener goes off, sounding a piercing ‘spritz’ as it squirts out hourly deodorizer responsibilities, the saccharine sweet scent of artificial lavender filling the air. 

Well, he supposes he appreciates the perks of pleasant smelling toilet air. He wonders if the toilets are this clean because somehow, the couple dozen boys patronizing the training centre are actually all responsible, considerate users of public property, or if because the cleaners are insanely good at their jobs. Not that it matters much in the grand scheme of things. In any case, if he’s going to be a pathetic, slobbering fool, might as well do it in the comfort of a pleasant smelling, clean toilet.

God, he feels so home sick right now. 

Years of intense training and harsh idol life away from home never fazed him, but somehow this is what has him cracking? This being either Produce or Wooseok or both, he’s not sure anymore. But that’s it? That’s all it takes to shake up his confidence? 

You’re number 2! 

        ( Yeah, but what if it’s a fluke? Benefit votes. 2-pick, 11-pick votes? )

You like Wooseok. Really like him.

        ( But is that even allowed? )

He’s supposed to have thicker skin than that. He’d always thought he had thicker skin than that. But he supposes he thought wrong. 

Jinhyuk feels a damp heat stinging at his eyes again, and rolls them as he readies himself for another wave – the nth one tonight – he’s lost count. He misses home so much – his warm, plushie filled bed that mum always kept just the way it was for him to come home to whenever. There would be his worn bolster, stuffing softened from years of usage he could squeeze as he breathed in the familiar, nostalgic scent of his tiny, blue cotton quilt from his childhood. There he would be protected by the charm that was familiarity, where he could cry his heart out privately with none the wiser and wake refreshed and lighter the next day. He couldn’t do that in the dorms – not that he ever needed to – and he most certainly couldn’t do it here – not with all the watchful eyes, be it cameras or trainees. So in the end, he’ll have to settle for the toilets, the only place that isn’t rigged with some watchful device (if only because it would be unethical). 

Exhaling through his mouth, he leans back as he inhales deeply, a watery noise coming from his nose that has him grimacing. 

“Hello, anyone here?”

Jinhyuk’s head shoots up at the intruder’s voice, eyes widening as his hands move quick to (quietly) push close his stall’s door, teeth clenched as he slowly but surely inches the lock into place as silently as possible. 

Go away, go away, go away. Please, please, please.

Who it is though, they don’t go away, and Jinhyuk watches the ground intently with bated breath, eyes following the moving shadows from under the stalls’ door gaps. He watches as it moves slowly – also painfully slow – down from stall to stall, pausing for a little between each – perhaps checking – before moving onto the next. And finally, the shadow stops in front of his stall, and Jinhyuk thinks he might’ve forgotten how to breathe. 

“Hello?”

He sees the door move just the slightest – whoever’s behind it obviously pressing in testingly on it – it’s opening halted millimeters in by the basic door lock, and then a light rapt on the door follows.

“Anyone inside?”

Jinhyuk doesn’t answer. Usually people get the hint and leave right? His heart pounds rapidly against his chest, the pits of his stomach swirling nauseatingly. Somehow the fear of being caught out in the open all consuming, almost suffocating.

Go away, go away, go away. There’s no one here, no one here, no one here. \

“Jinhyuk?” 

Fuck, it’s someone who knows him. That’s a billion times worse.

He slowly brings a hand up to cover his mouth, as though believing that breathing into it would be quieter. The shadow still lingers before his door, and Jinhyuk scarcely dares to breathe. There’s a long pause, and whoever was in front of his door finally moves away, taking their shadow with them and Jinhyuk finally allows himself a barely audible sigh of relief.

Well, looks like he celebrated too soon (how stupid of him). The door from the stall beside his creeks ominously, followed by a muted ‘thump’ that sounded suspiciously like skin slapping against the partitions and sends him recoiling in the opposite direction. He very nearly slides right off the toilet seat. The thin partition between his stall and the adjacent stall rattles threateningly, just like his ribcage – every breath feeling more laboured than the last – and Jinhyuk feels like he’s just that much closer to full on hyperventilating.

Seungwoo’s head pops up over the top of the stall, and Jinhyuk can only stare up dumbly at the man like the cornered animal he is. 

“Jinhyuk-ah, will you open the door?” The male asks gently, eyes boring so intensely into his that he dared not blink.

“No.”

His brain is barely functional by now, but the answer he has for the man is resolute, even if the crackling of his voice says otherwise.

“Please?”

“No,” he says again, chewing down on his knuckles, wavering voice sounding like a broken record as the hot wetness pooling by his lower lids finally spills over, a trail of liquid leaking from the corners of his eyes, and Jinhyuk has never hated himself more than he does now for letting his weaknesses bare itself without his permission. 

“Jinhyuk-ah—”

“I’m fine.”

“Jinhyuk,” Seungwoo starts slowly, his brows slating down – not enough to be called a frown, but enough to be noticeable – just the slightest, his voice mellow, but hints of a threat behind them, “Please unlock the door.”

“I don’t want to.”

“Okay,” he murmurs softly, “Okay then.”

There some shuffling, the hollow popping sounds of a toilet seat cover being relieved and depressed multiple times by a heavy weight and the partition rattles violently. And it takes Jinhyuk an embarrassingly longer time than it should’ve to realise what Seungwoo was doing.

“Hyung,” he half-chokes on his saliva, nearly biting his tongue as his words roll out in a panic, “What are you—”

Jinhyuk looks on in horror as the older male scales the toilet stall like he’s Spider-man, swinging the lower half of his body up as his attempts to shimmy his way into his locked stall from the gap in the top. 

“You won’t come out, so I’m coming to you.”

As soon as the words click in his head, he launches himself off the toilet seat, making haste for the locked door. He wants to be ‘out’ before Seungwoo gets ‘in’. Unfortunately for him, Seungwoo’s faster. He doesn’t see the man land, but he hears the grunts of discomfort and the muffled thump of feet on linoleum as he lands safely behind him. The older male makes a blind grab for his arm, reaching it just as he’d unlatched the lock and swung the door open a fraction of an inch, and tugs it backwards, swinging the door back shut.

“You said you didn’t want to open the door.”

“Well, I’m opening it now,” he snaps back aggressively, pushing harder against the door. But Seungwoo’s stronger, and determined to not let things slide. Seungwoo tightens his grip around Jinhyuk’s wrist, and pulls, swiveling them around and switching their position so that he’s got himself blocking the stall’s entrance with Jinhyuk stuck inside. The unlatched door slowly swings open, as if mocking him, the only thing between him and sweet escape being Han fucking Seungwoo.

Seungwoo slides his hand down from his wrist, moving it to tenderly grasps at his trembling hands, “What have you been doing here, Jinhyuk-ah?” 

The gentleness of the male’s voice doing nothing to soothe his fraying, no, already frayed nerves. 

“Move,” he breathes out combatively, breathing ragged, his heart rate picking up. He refuses to blink – as though believing doing so would somehow ‘magically’ suction the tears back to wherever they came from – and his eyes sting as he stares down the older male with a sort of ferralness he never knew he possessed. 

“If I do, you’ll run.”

“Move,” he snarls, shoving the man’s chest, but he doesn’t budge.

“Jinhyuk-ah, Seungyeon’s worried about you— I’m worried about you.”

No, no, no. He can’t do this. The hot wet liquid just won’t stop flowing, pouring down his cheeks and leaving salty trails in their wake and he hates it. He hates himself. He hates how he can’t stop angry-crying. He wants to run away, hide away but Seungwoo won’t let him.

“Move,” he growls again, but it’s less aggressive this time, the desperation in his voice overwhelming and Jinhyuk feels like he wants to puke. 

He weakly punches Seungwoo’s chest, “I said, move!” 

“Talk to us Jinhyuk-ah, talk to me, please. This isn’t health—”

Seungwoo’s looking at him with those eyes. Those gentle eyes filled with concern, empathy, pity – let me help you – and he hates it. He hates him, he hates himself. 

So what? Eyes, eyes, eyes – it’s so easy for them to change at a moments notice. One day loving, next day cold and aloof. They care now, but how long? They care now, only because it’s easy. They care, because it won’t hurt them. They care, because it’s nice to feel needed. But if they knew, knew, knew just how weak, weak, weak he was, how long? How long would they still care? It’s all fun and games until they realise it’s not worth it. 

He doesn’t fucking need it. 

“I don’t fucking need it,” he whispers, inhaling waterily, detesting how he can’t stop sniffing. 

“Jinhyuk—”

“Move!”

Seungwoo’s gazes sadly at him, bring up a hand to his face as he gently thumbs away his tears. He reacts instantaneously, recoiling at the touch as he aggressively slaps the hand away.

“You’re angry,” he murmurs thoughtfully. 

The words trigger something inside him, and suddenly, a wave of fury overcomes him, his ears ringing incessantly as his vision bleeds red around the edges as he lunges for Seungwoo, aggressively clawing at the man’s collar.

“That’s right!” He snaps, half-pushing, half-grabbing at the man as he bites out his words over teary hiccups, “I’m angry so move! Leave! Get lost!”

Somewhere in the back of his mind, he screams at himself to stop – stop before he does or says something he regrets – but he can’t hear himself over the inexplicable sadness and anger that’s eating him whole from the inside. 

Seungwoo doesn’t budge, his fingers gently encircling his clenched fists, lightly holding them – not even trying to pull them away – as though they were fragile, and it only serves to further enrage him. He aims a kick at the male’s shin, and the man winces, but remains immobile.

Why the fuck does Seungwoo have to be so unnecessarily enduring?

“You can’t fucking help me,” he snarls. 

“Try me,” the man whispers back.

“Try you?” Jinhyuk grins madly, throwing his head back as he laughs almost hysterically, “Try you? Fine. I like someone. I like a boy. A man.”

“What’s wrong with that?”

Seungwoo blinks, and to the man’s credit, he reigns in his surprise well, but that brief glimmer of shock is enough for Jinhyuk to go by and the mad grin on his face widens.

“You can drop the saint act, hyung,” he drawls, almost mocking, “I don’t need it.”

( Stop, Jinhyuk. Stop. Stop before it’s too late. )

“I’m not pretending Jinhyuk.”

( Don’t, Jinhyuk. You’ll regret it. )

Stop, the voice in his head screams. But he doesn’t, the almost delirious laughter rattling up his rib cage sounding nothing like him at all as he tugs at Seungwoo’s collar. Don’t do it, it begs him. And Jinhyuk knows, he knows he’ll regret it. That things will be irreparable – if it isn’t already – that nothing will ever be the same. That he’ll lose it, lose it all. Everything. He’s going to ruin himself. It’s still not too late Jinhyuk, it pleads, but Jinhyuk is too lost in his hysterics; He knows he’s self-destructing – because he is nothing but self-aware – but he can’t bring himself to care. He just wants it all to burn, burn, burn. Burn down to the ground.

“Not pretending,” he scoffs, giggling unnervingly, eyeing the stoic man, tears still dripping down his face – why won’t you stop crying – as he pulls him in closer by the collar, “Not pretending you say? Then kiss me. Now.”

Seungwoo blinks, this time he doesn’t try to hide it, his shock clearly etched on his sharp features as his mouth opens and closes, as though trying to find the right words. 

“Jinhyuk-ah,” he murmurs hesitantly.

Gotcha! But it’s not really a ‘gotcha!’ is it? He’s not ruining anyone but himself. His stomach churns nauseatingly – his world is falling apart before his very eyes – but his head feels light, airy – because it doesn’t matter anymore – let it all burn. Smile, Jinhyukie, it’s all over. Smile, because it doesn’t matter anymore. Smile, smile, smile.

“That’s what I thought. Can’t do it right? Disgusting right?”

Jinhyuk can’t help the way his lips quirk up inappropriately for a bitter smirk.

“No, Jinhyuk, listen to me—”

He releases (or rather, ‘throws’) Seungwoo’s collar and shoves him once more, scoffing icily, “Move.”

“Jinhyuk—”

He attempts to squeeze past the man, but Seungwoo grabs him desperately by the shoulder, swivelling him around and bringing his hands to his cheeks, resting his forehead against his as he breathes softly to him. 

“I said listen to me.”

Seungwoo leans in closer, gently cradling his head, and without even a hint of hesitation, presses his lips against his. If his kiss with Wooseok had been searing hot, bubbling over with a passion and desire he’d so desperately tried to keep a lid on, then kissing Seungwoo was the exact opposite. It was mild, cool, sweet. It was apologetic, sympathetic, yet comforting, and he feels himself melting into it. The saltiness of his tears blends together with the sweetness of gesture, leaving an inexplicable bitter aftertaste in his mouth.

“It’s not disgusting,” Seungwoo murmurs softly, delicately thumbing at the stray teardrops trickling down his cheek as he pulls away from him. And just like that he finds himself thrown back into reality, finally snapping out of whatever had overcome him as the clarity of what he’s done hits him like a truck. 

( You’d regret it, I told you. )

And he does regret it. What have I done?

His face falls as he’s overcome with guilt, “I’m sorry.”

“Jinhyuk—”

“I’m sorry”

“Jinhyuk—”

“I don’t know what I was thinking. No, I wasn’t thinking. I didn’t mean to hurt you. Or force you into a corner.”

“Jinhyuk, listen to me.”

“I’m sorry—”

Seungwoo pulls him closer, face hovering dangerously close, which is enough to momentarily shut him up, “I said listen to me. It’s not disgusting. And I kissed you out of my own volition. There’s nothing to feel guilty about.”

Finally, the floodgates really do open, and all Jinhyuk can do is weep bitterly into Seungwoo’s chest as the older male comfortingly strokes his hair. He doesn’t even know how he still has any tears left to give, but it won’t stop. It feels like what must be an eternity later before he calms down, and his hiccuping settles, and by then the front of Seungwoo’s shirt was practically soaked through and through. 

By then, him and Seungwoo have basically slided down to the washroom floor, sitting – however unhygienically it might be – Seungwoo’s arm around his waist and bodies pressed together, leaning against the wall. Both spent.

“You know,” Seungwoo slickly slides the hand around his waist down his thigh, taking the palm resting on it into his hands. He slides a comforting thumb across the back of his hand as he continues, “There’s nothing wrong with liking boys.”

“Hnnh? Is that so,” he murmurs cynically, looking down blankly at his hands. 

Seungwoo cocks his head, fixing upon him an unwavering stare, “What would you say if I told you I’ve kissed boys before. Unironically.”

Jinhyuk glance up at him, blinking, uncertain of what to do with the new information.

“Do you think any differently of me knowing that?”

He dips his head down meekly, “No…”

“Well, same goes for me. You’re still you. So maybe kissing boys does it for you, nothing wrong with that.”

“Hnnh.”

“It happens, Jinhyuk-ah. I mean, dating girls can be hard because of our job, but we’re surrounded by men, and being affectionate with each other is encouraged. It isn’t surprising that some of us get curious about something more .”

He glances furtively between the older male and his fingers as he twists them tangles them together anxiously, not having anything intelligent to add to the conversation. 

“By the way, who is it that you like,” Seungwoo asks light-heartly, gently picking and prying at his tangled fingers as though playing a game, “It’s not me right?”

Jinhyuk flushes, refusing to look up, “No…”

Seungwoo laughs, lightly knocking heads with him as he leans against his shoulder, “Ah, that effort I put into earning hearts, and yet it’s someone else who wiggled their way into your heart.”

“Sorry…” he apologises guilty. 

“Why the sorry?” Seungwoo chuckles, ruffling his hair, “I’m just pulling your leg Jinhyukie ~ Nothing to feel guilty about.”

The man eyes him thoughtfully before adding, “It’s Wooseok isn’t it?”

His head snaps up almost immediately, much to the other male’s amusement, “W–what? Am I that easy to read?”

“On the contrary, you’re super hard to read,” he muses, “Let’s call it an educated guess shall we? You’re touchy with everyone, but you’re particularly careful around Wooseok— I thought it was just you being considerate of him or something, but guess not. Also, you’re groupmates. My first was also with a groupmate.”

“A… groupmate?”

“Want to try guessing who?” He asks cheekily, shooting him a wink.

“I–uh, it worked out?”

Seungwoo shrugs, “I know what you’re thinking. Getting involved with people who are also your colleagues can be risky business. But you’ll never know how things work out. And besides, we’re young— gotta live life right? It also helps that Seungsik’s a nice guy in general. And Wooseok’s also a nice guy so hey! Who knows right?”

“Maybe,” he mumbles hesitantly, picking at his knuckles, “But things like that have to be mutual. And… now’s not the best time to bother with such things.”

Seungwoo sighs, shifting into a squat before pushing himself upright, “Maybe. But think about it okay, and let's think about it in bed – where you should rightfully be,” he reaches out a hand towards him, “Seungyeonie was so terribly worried about you, you know? Let’s not keep him waiting.”

For the first time that night, he allows himself a tiny, genuine smile, reaching out to grab out Seungwoo’s waiting hand, “Okay.”  

 

 

 

 

It feels as though time had stopped, his world shattering, along with his heart. 

Wooseok sucks in a breath, recoiling violently as he slams his back against the wall, his heart somehow still thumping painfully away despite how broken it is. The scene carved itself deeply into his mind, and it keeps replaying itself again, and again, and again. And each replay, he finds it harder and harder to breathe. 

It had been so soft, so gentle, the way Seungwoo caresses Jinhyuk’s head, their heights perfect for each other. The way Seungwoo had leaned in, pressed his lips delicately against Jinhyuk’s— and Jinhyuk, his cheeks glistening with tears – so tragically beautiful, he couldn’t help but think – as he accepted it wholeheartedly. 

He clutches his heart. 

Strange, he doesn’t remember heartbreak feeling this painful. 

“I’m sorry,” he hears, Jinhyuk’s voice so delicate and fragile.

“Jinhyuk,” 

Seungwoo’s voice is so tender and sweet. No wonder. How could he match up to that?

He doesn’t, can’t stay. He doesn’t want to hear the rest, whatever it might be. So he turns heel, and runs.