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you wouldn't do it, but i just might

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[now]

It goes like this: Yeonjun’s introduction film drops, and then the world explodes.

It feels that way, at least. Imagine you’ve been shut away from the world in a practice room nursing your dream for years—in Yeonjun’s case, half a decade. You work your ass off. You make friends and then lose them, you perfect routines that nobody but your dance teacher watches, you give up your favorite foods, and your free time, and most of your sanity, probably. You spend five years sleeping in the same bottom bunk and looking into the same dirty dorm bathroom mirror, watching yourself lose baby fat and gain muscle, and right when you reach the point of becoming almost unrecognizable to yourself, the company deems you ready to be dolled up and presented to an eagerly waiting audience of millions.

So yeah. Yeonjun is absolutely handling the adjustment well.

The thing about the world exploding is that you don’t feel it until the aftershocks, so the morning after, Yeonjun sits through breakfast with Soobin like usual and pouts at him for using up the last of the milk. He does not check his phone. Hours have passed since the reveal, but the members had agreed that watching reactions roll in in real time would be more overwhelming than they were equipped to handle just yet, so last night they turned all the lights off in the dorm and went to sleep early.

None of them actually slept a wink, of course. At about four in the morning Yeonjun climbed into Soobin’s bunk and just hugged him for a long time, because unlike the others he knew Soobin wouldn’t say anything about the way he was shaking.

“You must be so happy for the fans to finally meet you, hyung,” Soobin says now. He looks thrilled for Yeonjun, leaning on his elbows on the table even though it has a wobbly leg and he really shouldn’t tempt fate like that. The force of Soobin’s smile narrows his eyes into crescents. His face is still puffy from sleep, hair mussed over his forehead.

Yeonjun looks down at his cereal.

(A voice echoes, a wave crashes onto shore.

Hyung, do you think I’m handsome too? )

“Everyone’s been saying that,” Yeonjun replies as he stirs milk around with his spoon. “My mom said it on the phone last night, and the manager-hyungs even said it at the last meeting.”

“Said what?”

“That I should be happy.”

“Hmm.” Soobin pouts in thought, cheeks puffed out with bread. He looks a little bit like a rabbit. It kind of makes Yeonjun want to punch something (himself, in the face, preferably), but he settles for pinching Soobin’s cheek until the latter bats his hand away, grumbling at him to let him chew.

“I guess it’s not so much that people think you should be happy,” Soobin says once he’s swallowed. “Just that they hope you are. I’m sure that’s all your mom ever wants for you, that’s why she calls you every day. It’s all I want for you, you know.”

Yeonjun coughs. “Yah, it’s too early for this.”

Soobin giggles, tapping his foot against Yeonjun’s ankle under the table. “Just doing my duty. Every member has to know they’re loved first thing in the morning and last thing before bed, otherwise I’ve failed.”

The reminder of Soobin’s leaderly obligation stings a bit, but all the same, Yeonjun can’t help his smile. It’s so Soobin, after all, to give his love away like that without a second thought.

“Really, though, are you okay, hyung? You seem a little off.”

“Don’t worry, Soobinnie,” Yeonjun says. “I’m fine.”

Yeonjun’s phone, face-down on the table between them, buzzes with another notification. And another, and another.

 


 

[then]

Here is something they don’t talk about:

When Soobin first arrived at the dorms, still in his school uniform and too shy to make direct eye contact with anybody, the other trainees sat him down on the living room sofa and asked him which one of them he thought was the most handsome.

It was a stupid tradition. It was probably hazing, actually. Yeonjun had never really cared for anyone’s answers before, save for the small ego boost he got when some of the others had picked him.

Soobin scanned the faces of the trainees like they were the predators to his prey, sharks circling his cage. There were many more boys back then, crowded into the dorms so that you couldn’t walk ten steps without running into somebody. They were younger then too, all sweating through their clothes after a grueling practice, skinny teenagers who had something to prove. They were not beautiful, not like idols are. You have to bleed before you can shine.

“Just pick someone already,” one of them whined, others joining in to heckle Soobin. He blushed, but continued to take his time, like the answer to this question would have a greater impact than a few jokes and maybe some lost bets. Restless as ever, the trainees started to break off into side conversations and roughhouse with each other but Yeonjun stayed still, sitting with his knees pulled up to his chest, watching Soobin.

Soobin turned his head just so. Their eyes locked.

Choi Soobin at fifteen had a kind face and slouchy posture, and when he smiled, he had dimples on both of his cheeks. Though it wouldn’t matter to Yeonjun for a good while longer, later he will spend hours picking apart the details of this moment, the very first one, when Yeonjun looked at Soobin and felt it in his stomach, like the moon pulling in the tide. Like the universe saying, This face. Remember it.

But before Yeonjun could make any kind of sense out of this, a voice cut across the chatter: “Him.”

It took everyone a moment to understand that it was Soobin who spoke, and then another to realize that he was looking at Yeonjun. “He’s the most handsome one.” It was all Yeonjun could do not to flush red under a chorus of oooooohs. Someone shoved Yeonjun with a laugh; someone else ruffled his hair. He tried to catch Soobin’s eye again, but the latter was covering his face with both hands as some of the boys teased him. Yeonjun smiled to himself before Taehyun bounded over to show him something on his phone.

The sharks dispersed eventually, satisfied. The ocean returned to something like stillness, but something had changed here, irreversibly.

Later, just before lights out, he ran into Soobin in the bathroom, toothbrush in hand.

“Ah,” Yeonjun said, feeling strangely shy. The boys made do with the limited space all the time. They knocked elbows doing their hair in the morning and banged their against the side of the toilet trying to scoot around each other to the door, but for some reason Yeonjun hesitated now, watching Soobin duck just to fit his whole head in the tiny, dingy mirror. “I was just going to brush my teeth.”

“Oh!” Soobin fidgeted, like he wasn’t sure whether he should move, before starting to shove his toothpaste tube back inside his toiletry bag. “Sorry, I—I’ll get out of your way—”

“No, please!” Yeonjun reached out to grab his arm, but Soobin was moving too fast, so Yeonjun’s hand hovered awkwardly between them before retreating. “You don’t have to—”

“I was almost done anyway, I shouldn’t have been, like, taking up all this space—”

“Soobin-ssi, stop,” Yeonjun said, and only realized afterward that he sounded way more aggressive than he meant to. Soobin placed his toiletry bag back on the little countertop and made an embarrassed face, like a schoolboy who’d been scolded by a teacher. Yeonjun coughed. He was usually really good at making new friends.

He smiled in a desperate attempt to salvage the situation. “We can just share the sink. We’ll have to, anyway, with this many people in the dorm.”

Soobin flashed him a grimace that was maybe supposed to be a smile and Yeonjun slid up to the side of the counter that was free, already resolving to do his business as quickly as possible and get out of there. Yeonjun ran his toothbrush under the tap; Soobin opened a little tub of moisturizer.

Yeonjun’s mouth was full of toothpaste foam when Soobin next spoke. “Um. Yeonjun-ssi?”

He spit into the sink and wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. “Oh, uh, you can just call me hyung. I’m older than you, I think.”

“Right… Yeonjun-hyung?”

“Yeah?”

“I’m sorry if I made you uncomfortable earlier,” Soobin said, not quite meeting Yeonjun’s eyes. There was a streak of moisturizer cream he hadn’t quite rubbed in still on his cheekbone. “When I said you were—um. Anyway, I’m sorry.”

“Don’t be sorry!” Yeonjun rushed to say. “There's no need to be ashamed, everyone thinks I’m handsome. It’s just objective fact.”

He winked, and then felt stupid for it because he and Soobin weren’t really close enough for him to know that Yeonjun was joking, so now he just looked like an asshole. Soobin blinked at him for a moment before jolting a little.

“R-Right! Of course you are. I—I wasn’t trying to say just now that I didn’t think—”

“No, no, I was… I was kidding—”

“You’re obviously very—I mean—”

“Soobin-ah.” Soobin closed his mouth immediately. It occurred to Yeonjun that Soobin was scared of him, or at least very uncomfortable around him. The thought made Yeonjun want to run out of the bathroom and hide underneath his comforter, but instead he just grinned through it and said, “Don’t worry about it. Nobody places any stock in that question, anyway, I don't even know why we still ask it.”

“Oh. Right, of course.”

Soobin didn’t look totally convinced, so Yeonjun added, “Anyway, soon we’ll get some more trainees and I’m sure they’ll be picking you as the most handsome one. How about that? You’ll take my spot.” He clapped a hand on Soobin’s shoulder. Soobin finally relaxed a bit at the friendly gesture, smile coming more naturally this time, before seeming to think about what Yeonjun said more deeply.

“Wait. Hyung, do you think I’m handsome too?”

(Choi Soobin covers his smile with one hand when he’s embarrassed, or laughing, or laughing about being embarrassed. His mouth is pink and pouty in the most distracting way. If they ever stood chest to chest Yeonjun could turn his face and rest his cheek on Soobin’s shoulder, lips right next to his neck. Yeonjun will spend years learning these things, and then all the years after trying—failing—to unlearn them.)

Yeonjun winked again, picking up his toothbrush and heading for the bathroom door. “It’s a secret, Soobinnie. I’ll never tell.”

 


 

[now]

It’s a little comforting to know that, despite the upcoming chaos, some things about Yeonjun’s life will always be the same, and that includes dance practice.

The pressure is on—not that it was ever really off, but debut is so close it’s almost tangible at this point. Yeonjun is getting a little sick of his own voice, between rehearsing his vocals and replaying the recorded tracks from their mini album to the point of unbearability as they work to polish the choreography.

He leaves his phone shoved at the bottom of his bag and it’s easy enough, then, to pretend that nothing outside this room has changed. Dance is one of the few things that has never required active thought for Yeonjun, so he throws all his energy into it, sneakers squeaking against the hardwood floor with every step. Subin, the performance director, has them run through his verse in “Crown” upwards of ten times; he and Soobin have to stand up by leaning on each other back-to-back, and with each runthrough their shirts feel stickier with perspiration. Neither of them shy away from it; the five of them have been taught that a sweat-soaked shirt at the end of practice was the standard to meet.

“Make sure you don’t let your facial expressions drop halfway through,” Subin tells them when she finally pauses the music. “You look exhausted, Yeonjun. Nobody wants to see that.”

“I’m fine,” he says. Automatic reflex. He flicks his eyes toward the mirror—were the bags under his eyes that visible?

“I’m sure you are,” she replies. “But I need to see it. Let’s take five, then we’ll do the whole thing from the top.”

One of the manager-hyungs pulls Subin aside, and Kai leaves to use the bathroom. Beomgyu makes a show of collapsing on the floor, dramatic as ever. Yeonjun looks to Soobin, but he’s sitting up against the mirror and already closing his eyes, so Yeonjun decides to leave him be for once. He plops down beside Beomgyu to ruffle his hair. When it comes away wet with more sweat, he wipes it off on Beomgyu’s arm.

“Oh, ew,” Beomgyu whines, cringing away from him. “If you’re gonna be gross, do it to Soobin-hyung.”

“What do you mean ew? It’s your sweat. And bold of you to assume I don’t already.”

Beomgyu sticks his tongue out at him. Yeonjun sticks his own out, too.

“Yeonjun-hyung,” Taehyun calls from across the studio where he’s acquired a water bottle. “Is that your phone? Something’s vibrating like crazy over here.”

“Oh yeah." Yeonjun pushes up off the floor. "It’s been like that all day, I’ll just turn it off.”

Except he doesn’t—the first message on the screen is from Wooyoung, and Yeonjun wants to ignore it, but they haven’t caught up in a while, now that Wooyoung’s debuted and Yeonjun’s about to.

ateez wooyoung

ateez wooyoung:
welcome to the club yeonjun-ah!
the film was so cool
yeosangie and i are so excited for you

me:
thanks bro

ateez wooyoung:
it’s all up from here
the people are about to know about the legendary choi yeonjun ㅋㅋㅋ

me:
oh ㅋㅋㅋ i guess so

ateez wooyoung:
you ok for real?

me:
yeah
just stressed about debut like always

ateez wooyoung:
don’t worry yeonjun-ah
people are already talking about how cool you’ll be
you’ve got five years of training under your belt
plus you were the #1 trainee
you easily could’ve been leader
you’ll crush it

me:
ㅋㅋ you’re getting too sappy ㅋㅋ
i have to go practice some more, talk later?

ateez wooyoung:
of course talk later

Yeonjun does not have to practice more just yet; Subin has left the room. He puts his phone away anyway, though, and gets up to face the mirror again. He'll hit the moves better this time, keep an eye on his face. You look exhausted, Yeonjun. Nobody wants to see that. He smiles until his cheeks hurt, until he can force it to look natural.

Wooyoung means well, but something about his texts sticks with Yeonjun in a bad way, taffy in his teeth. It irks him that it was so difficult to just play along. He’s usually so good at it—he’s made basking in his number one glory a personality trait at this point. The legendary Choi Yeonjun. The number one trainee. These titles were trophies before, something to wear on his sleeve. They still should be. Even so, he can’t shake the discomfort.

People are already talking about how cool you’ll be.

Maybe that’s it. The talking, the predicting. As far as Yeonjun can tell, that’s what a lot of the industry looks like right now—talking, and then predicting, and then getting angry when predictions are wrong. People are predicting, before they even have all the facts, that TXT will be the next BTS, and that Yeonjun will be the charismatic, triple-threat legend that will lead them there.

And when those predictions are proven wrong? When Yeonjun doesn’t measure up, in any capacity?

Well.

So he dances, starting “Blue Orangeade” without the music, just counting the beats in his head. Taehyun and Kai decide to join in, even though the break isn’t technically over. Usually, the mastery over his body that dancing allows him is enough to drown out everything else, but Yeonjun’s mind is still racing, and he almost trips over Kai when moving to the center for his verse.

Yeonjun looks toward the mirror again, and his gaze catches on Soobin. He’s fallen asleep on the floor with his head lolling against the mirror, mouth open like a little kid. Yeonjun is hit by a wave of fondness so great it threatens to show on his face, but it fades when he remembers Wooyoung’s words.

You easily could’ve been leader.

Yeonjun thinks of the low and calm voice Soobin used when he guided Beomgyu through the panic attacks he used to get before evaluations. Soobin would crouch next to him on the floor, one grounding palm against the nape of Beomgyu’s neck until he calmed down enough to take a few deep breaths. Yeonjun is all movement, dynamic and seductive and exuberant, but Soobin? Soobin is steady. He has the kind of earnest eyes you always want to be looking after you. His shoulders are made for crying on, his back for leaning against. Yeonjun's never quite gotten the hang of standing still long enough to carry someone else’s weight.

It’s part of what made Soobin so easy to fall for. Without even trying, you could craft a thousand daydreams around his attentive listening face, his indulgent smile, his gentle hands. Yeonjun would know.

When Subin and the manager-hyung come back, Soobin is still sleeping against the mirror. He looks so soft like this, young and pretty. Kai is taking a picture of him with a silly filter for blackmail material, and Yeonjun wants to take one for himself, just him, just to keep. He doesn’t. When Kai shows him the photo, practically vibrating with mischievous glee, Yeonjun laughs.

 


 

[then]

Here is a not-quite funny story:

At first, Soobin was afraid of Yeonjun.

And look, Yeonjun gets it. He knows he comes off a little strong at first, especially given the emotional fragility of the trainee system, and Soobin was already shy enough around strangers to begin with. This perfect storm gave rise to an awkwardness that lingered past their first encounter in the bathroom and through the first few weeks, during which Yeonjun would approach Soobin relentlessly and Soobin would make eye contact maybe once in a five-minute conversation.

Yeonjun tried not to be hurt by this. It didn’t matter if Soobin didn’t want to be best friends. Yeonjun had Taehyun, anyway, who looked like a baby at that point but had a wicked sense of humor and a hell of a voice. If Soobin was content to stick to the outskirts, Yeonjun wasn’t going to mess with him.

The problem was that the other trainees decided they were going to mess with him.

It wasn’t so much that the trainees had cliques—they were all living on top of each other, and when everyone knew everything about everyone else, it was hard to have secrets and inside jokes like that. Still, some of the boys banded together over ideas about who should make the final debut lineup, and their conspiratorial whispering wasn’t very quiet at all.

Their main theory was that everyone—the managers, Bang PD, the general public—was expecting "the next BTS." They may not have said it to the trainees’ faces, but Big Hit was a business, and BTS was one hell of a product. If there was a chance they could strike gold twice, why wouldn’t they try? And while becoming “the next BTS” didn’t necessarily mean taking on the same messages or musical styles, some of the trainees got it in their heads that the evaluators were looking not just for a rapper, or a dancer, or a singer, but for a J-Hope, a Jimin, a V.

Soobin was a great dancer, and had a lovely voice. To Yeonjun, that gave him a pretty good shot at making it. To the others, it wasn’t enough to edge out his biggest problem:

“He’s awkward.”

Yeonjun was eating a meager dinner of chicken breast and sweet potato with Kyungjae—it wasn’t really with him, so much as Kyungjae had decided to join Yeonjun when he saw him eating alone. Kyungjae was part of the middle-tier group of boys on the ranking chart, but he had the braggadocio to make you believe he was in the top three. He also had a penchant for gossip, and apparently his target tonight was Soobin.

“What do you mean?” Yeonjun asked, even though he knew. Even though he’d spent a solid fifteen minutes trying to get Soobin to tell him about his family during their lunch break yesterday. He gave up after it became clear that Soobin's stuttered, two-word responses were not going away any time soon.

Kyungjae gave Yeonjun an unimpressed look across the kitchen table, which Yeonjun did not appreciate. “Come on, hyung. Soobin-hyung’s decent at everything else, but he’s too quiet and he doesn’t know how to talk to people. He’s not an RM, or a Jin. They’re always telling us how charisma is half the equation, and he just doesn’t have it.”

Kyungjae didn’t even try to keep his voice down, shoveling more food into his mouth. Yeonjun supposed it didn’t actually matter all that much; it was a Saturday night, meaning most people had gone out for the smallest taste of freedom, and Soobin himself had left the dorm some time earlier to meet up with a friend. But it wasn’t like you were ever really alone in the dorms—Yeonjun could still hear two other boys talking through the walls right then. Kyungjae must not have thought these opinions of Soobin were unpopular enough to warrant being kept secret.

Yeonjun sighed. “Okay, so what? Charisma doesn’t always have to mean being loud. Taehyun’s pretty quiet, and everyone thinks he’s a charmer.”

“It’s not me,” Kyungjae defended around a mouthful of bland chicken, although he didn’t sound particularly honest. “I’m just going based off the trainers’ comments at evaluations. I’m willing to bet he’s the next one to get cut.”

Kyungjae stabbed another piece with his fork. His cheeks bulged with chicken. He just kept fucking eating. For some reason, this bothered Yeonjun enough to pull Kyungjae’s plate away from him.

“Wh—”

“I think Soobin has a better chance of making the lineup than you do. And you know what, he should make it over you,” he shot back lowly, and Kyungjae stopped chewing to give him a look of betrayal.

“What the fuck, hyung?”

“I’m serious. He’s more than decent, for starters. He’s an incredibly powerful dancer, it’s like you haven’t even been watching him.” Yeonjun hadn’t realized he’d been paying such close attention to Soobin, but suddenly he could call to mind a dozen examples of Soobin’s ability to move without looking gangly or uncomfortable in his own skin, despite being so tall (and getting taller fast enough to complain about growing pains). Yeonjun had seen him out of the corner of his eye as they practiced earlier that day, and Soobin embodied elegance and competence, in control of his body in a way that made even Yeonjun jealous. “He might not be on top just yet, but he’s always been ahead of you in the rankings, so I’m not sure why you’re acting like you’re better than him.”

“Yeonjun-hyung—”

“And another thing!” Yeonjun exclaimed, because apparently he wasn’t done running his mouth. “Who the fuck cares if he isn’t RM or Jin or whoever? He’s Soobin. That’s the best thing he could possibly be for us. He doesn’t have to be at the center of every conversation to deserve your respect. And you know what? He’s done a lot more for any of the trainees than you or even I have. He brought Beomgyu out of his shell when he was too scared out of his mind to even talk to any of us. His tutoring is half the reason Kai is getting such good grades. And he’s never been anything but nice to you. But I’m not as good of a person as he is, so I don’t have to be nice. If you’re gonna act like a dick, don’t do it where I have to listen to you. I’m not gonna tolerate it.”

When Yeonjun finished, slamming his fork down on the table because it felt like an appropriate level of dramatic, he was ticked off to see that Kyungjae wasn’t even looking at him, but over his shoulder. His face was screwed up like he’d just tasted something unpleasant. Yeonjun checked behind him and immediately understood—standing in the doorway, shoes and coat still on with a half-eaten bungeoppang in one hand, was a very sheepish-looking Soobin.

Yeonjun gaped at him. “You’re back early,” he said dumbly.

“Uh, y-yeah,” Soobin said hesitantly, like he wasn’t sure if it was true. He glanced between Kyungjae and Yeonjun a few times before adding, “My friend’s parents needed him to come home sooner than he thought, so.”

Soobin kept his gaze locked on Yeonjun, who cleared his throat.

“Yah,” he said breezily, standing up and taking his plate over to the sink to wash it. He wasn’t done eating, but it gave him an excuse to turn his back to the others so he could look skyward and silently ask why, God, why. “Is that red bean or custard?”

“Wh—what?” Kyungjae asked.

“Not you, dude. Soobin-ah. The bungeoppang. Red bean or custard?” The faucet turning on mercifully drowned out the dead air in the room, and Yeonjun scrubbed at his plate a little harder than necessary.

“Oh. Uh. Red bean. Why?”

“Can I have one?”

There was a pause, like Soobin thought he was serious, before: “Hyung, I only got three and this is the last one.” He was complaining but Yeonjun could still hear his smile, and he was so glad for it, if only because it let them gloss over the shitshow Soobin walked in on. Not surprisingly, Kyungjae used Soobin’s distraction to slink out of the kitchen wordlessly. Yeonjun watched him go over his shoulder, and didn’t miss how Soobin actually smiled at Kyungjae, and not even in a fake way. Soobin waited until he was around the corner to sit at the table. It was a little too low for him; his knees were right up against the underside of the tabletop. Yeonjun focused back on his dishes and told himself that was a weird thing to find endearing.

“Soobin-ah, you can either have the last bungeoppang or be a good dongsaeng to your favorite hyung,” he said as he turned off the faucet and reached for the dishrag.

“My favorite?”

Yeonjun narrowed his eyes. “I better be. After all I’ve done for you.”

“Mm.” Soobin nodded solemnly, eyes sparkling with mirth. “You’re right. You did passionately defend my honor just now.”

Yeonjun spluttered. “It—it wasn’t that passionate,” he mumbled, and then promptly overanalyzed every single word he’d said to find out if it really had been.

Soobin sighed. “You know, you didn’t have to do that,” he said softly. Yeonjun bit his lip, hesitating for a moment before sinking down into the chair opposite him.

“I know,” he said, and in a moment of bravery, reached out to lay a comforting hand on Soobin’s arm. “I wanted to. It was no problem, I mean it. Don’t worry, I’m not gonna let people treat you like that. I mean, treat anyone. Like that.”

But Soobin was already shaking his head. Yeonjun retracted his hand, confused. “No, I… I meant that you shouldn’t have done that.”

Yeonjun blinked. “What are you saying?”

“I mean, I’m grateful you stood up for me,” Soobin hastened to clarify, “but… it’s—it's not right, hyung, to say that I deserve to get a spot over someone else. This whole thing is supposed to be about teamwork, right? That’s what they’ve been drilling into our heads since we all got here, and I think they’re right. We can’t think of training in terms of... one person being better than someone else, we all have to help each other." He shook his head. "Yeah, I’m upset that Kyungjae thinks this way about me, but I’m not going to be nasty back to him. We have to be kind. Or else it doesn’t matter who makes the team, because we won’t even be a team in the first place. Do you see?”

Yeonjun watched Soobin in awe. His eyes were so earnest and insistent, searching Yeonjun’s face like he desperately wanted him to understand. It was the loudest Yeonjun had ever heard Soobin speak, and he secretly filed away a few thoughts about the experience, such as: He talks with his hands when he really cares about something and He doesn’t ramble, he makes sure everything he says is thoughtful and important.

And, for the first time but not even close to the last: He would make a really good leader.

Aloud, Yeonjun said none of this. He just nodded and replied, “Okay, I see, Soobin-ah. You’re right. You’re just a much better person than I am.”

“That’s not true,” Soobin argued, looking distressed. “Hyung, that’s not true. You’re great.”

Yeonjun grinned. “Great enough to give me your last bungeoppang?”

Soobin playfully smacked him on the arm, startling them both, and Yeonjun cackled.

And this was the real start of it all, if Yeonjun had to pinpoint one moment. That night, Soobin and Yeonjun watched a drama together in Soobin’s bunk and settled on splitting the bungeoppang in half (Soobin did actually offer him the whole pastry, but Yeonjun couldn’t take it in good faith). Tomorrow was their day off, so they could stay up as late as they wanted, even as Taehyun lobbed a pillow at their bunk and told them to stop giggling so he could sleep in peace, and Kyungjae lay in his own bed across the room with his back turned toward them.

Soobin kept cracking up as Yeonjun did little imitations of the main actress, fluttering his eyelashes and repeating her lines in an aegyo voice. He even tried to land a peck on Soobin’s face when the actors on screen had their first kiss, and when Soobin jokingly fought him off, he settled for squishing his cheeks. It only made Soobin laugh harder. He had this way of throwing himself against Yeonjun like he needed him to stay upright. His laugh was contagious, and Yeonjun felt the tide pull in his stomach again, like the first time.

Hyung, do you think I’m handsome too?

By the time they gave into slumber, Yeonjun had changed his mind. He wasn’t going to let Soobin stick to the outskirts at all. No, like Taehyun, and like Kai and Beomgyu would be soon, Soobin was his now.

 


 

[now]

After a solid few hours, Subin lets them break for lunch. Kai immediately starts pestering Yeonjun to treat them all.

“Yah, you can buy your own food, can’t you? Why do I always have to pay?” Yeonjun whines, even as he checks to make sure he has his wallet.

“You’re the hyung, I didn’t choose to be the youngest.” Kai throws an arm around his shoulder and flashes him a grin. “These are just the rules.”

“I’ll pay for your food if you let me drop honorifics for a week,” Beomgyu offers, elbowing him in the side. His smile is just as sly as Kai’s.

“Like I’d ever let you, toddler.”

“Hey! I’m only three months younger than Soobin-hyung!”

Over the sound of their bickering, Yeonjun throws a forlorn glance Soobin’s way, hoping to commiserate with him on how difficult it is to be a hyung to these absolute menaces. Soobin winks at him. When Yeonjun waves him over, though, he shakes his head.

“You guys go ahead. I need to keep rehearsing,” he says with a rueful smile. “I shouldn’t have fallen asleep.”

“Soobinnie,” Yeonjun starts to whine, very aware that enough pouting can probably guilt Soobin into coming with them. It’s something he’s gotten very good at over the years.

But then Taehyun promises Soobin they’ll bring something back for him and the others are already heading toward the door. Yeonjun looks back over his shoulder to see Soobin staring at himself in the mirror with grim determination as Subin rewinds the song to the chorus. He considers claiming he needs to continue working on choreo too, but Taehyun’s gaze on him is just a little too knowing to be comfortable, so Yeonjun shrugs on his coat without a word and leads the way out.

The January chill is unforgiving—even the five-minute walk down the street is close to unbearable. His fingers sting with the cold as he adjusts his hat to make sure it won’t get swept away by the wind. The four of them huddle together, too exhausted to talk for once. Their schedule has been packed more than ever lately, with rehearsals and filming and media training, and not even Beomgyu has much energy left at this point in the week. They sigh at the warm air that hits their faces when they pull open the door to the restaurant, pressing their hands to their pinkened cheeks.

They’ve been frequenting this noodle shop since the debut lineup was finalized. It was their first group outing as a quintet—Yeonjun still remembers how Kai accidentally splashed soup all over his lap and Beomgyu burst into tears halfway through the meal when they started talking about being homesick.

They were all a bit more sensitive back then, but Beomgyu was the farthest from home and it clearly took a toll on him in ways Yeonjun doesn’t totally understand even now. They hadn’t all seen eye-to-eye at first, starting squabbles over small things and needing Soobin’s mediation to settle all debates. It was especially hard because some of them were prone to making jokes and some were prone to taking them too seriously. But they learned each other, in steps, in phases, and each of them came to fill the spaces the others didn’t know they had left.

That night, Soobin had let Beomgyu rest his head on his shoulder until he stopped crying. Yeonjun had given him the rest of his jajangmyeon. By the time they walked out of the restaurant something unsure had been made certain, and it felt like putting down roots. Like family.

There’s a practiced ease, now, to the way the boys shed their winter coats and bow to the ahjumma who owns the place when she rushes out to greet them. They probably shouldn’t come here as often as they do, given the diets they’re technically supposed to stick to, but what Big Hit doesn’t know won’t hurt them. The boys are given the same table as always, the center booth on the right side. They don’t even have to look at the menu to order anymore. The ahjumma already has tea a teapot prepared as they slide into the booth and settle on the worn, cracked upholstery.

“This is the best tea for your throat,” she tells them, just like she does every time. “Singers like you, you’ll need that.” She doesn’t quite know the full story of where they work, but she’s already claimed to hang a picture with them on the wall after they debut. Yeonjun thinks it’s nice to have someone in their corner already who isn’t just there because of their company.

They thank her for the tea, the picture of politeness, and right after she walks away, Kai kicks Yeonjun under the table.

“Aish, you brat,” Yeonjun protests. “It’s hard enough when Soobinnie’s long legs are taking up all the space. I don’t need you kicking me when there’s finally enough room for all of us.”

“My legs are getting long too!”

“Yes, I know, you’re going to outgrow all your hyungs, but don’t think that means you’re not still a baby.”

Kai gives him what can only be classified as a shit-eating grin. “I’m gonna be taller than Soobin-hyung soon.”

“Nobody should be as tall as Soobin. It’s a crime.”

“Are you sure, hyung?” Taehyun says, sly as ever. “I think you like being shorter than him.”

Beomgyu and Kai snicker. Yeonjun’s face feels hot, but it’s definitely just from the tea, that’s it. Taehyun’s always known too much for his own good. “Mind your own business.”

The conversation shifts to some new game that Beomgyu has started playing, and then a new movie they should all go see in the theaters, before they realize they don’t have any time to go catch a movie, anyway. As Kai starts wondering when they’ll even get their next day off, Yeonjun takes a long sip of tea to soothe his throat and looks out at the rest of the restaurant patrons.

It’s a mistake.

It hadn’t occurred to Yeonjun that going out today might be different until he sees the two girls sitting at the corner table. They’ve both got their phones out, but neither girl is occupied with her screen—they’re both staring straight at him. He thinks maybe they just find him cute, not an uncommon occurrence for Yeonjun, but then he spies one of their phone cases: plastered on the back, sleepy and smiling under a BT21 logo, is a picture of Koya.

They’re fans.

Or, potential fans, at least. They’re observers.

It’s only been about twenty minutes since Yeonjun last thought about his reveal, but now it hits him that since it’s out, he’s out, too—his face isn’t a secret anymore. He could just… be recognized by total strangers. On the street. In the noodle shop.

“Hyung?” Beomgyu asks from beside him. “You okay?”

Yeonjun averts his eyes from the girls, but it looks like it’s already too late—they’re whispering to each other, and he’d be shocked if they haven’t already snapped a photo or tweeted about spotting him here. Spotting him with the other members, who haven’t been revealed yet. Fuck. He pulls his hoodie strings down to tighten the hood around his face. He feels cold again, like when he was standing in the chill outside. He feels like he’s itchy but he doesn’t know where to scratch.

What was it Wooyoung had said? The people are about to know about the legendary Choi Yeonjun. Maybe Yeonjun was naive for assuming it wouldn’t happen, like, immediately, much less right in front of him. Those girls are looking at him, but what do they see?

Yeonjun stands up abruptly. The other boys gape at him.

“Hyung?”

“We should go.”

“What?” Taehyun says. “We didn’t even get our food yet.”

“We—we can’t be here right now. Come on, we have to go. We have to go right now.” Yeonjun’s voice rises unsteadily, and he clacks his teeth together to shut himself up. Taehyun eyes him warily before scanning the room. Yeonjun is busy pulling on his coat again, but he knows Taehyun’s noticed them by his sharp intake of breath.

“Those girls in the corner?” Taehyun says. “Is that what you’re talking about?” Yeonjun isn’t even listening to him anymore. He’s sweating, goes to run a hand through his hair before remembering he's got a hat on. He has no clue how to handle this situation. Nobody prepared him for it.

“What about them?” Beomgyu is asking.

“Shh, don’t be too obvious. I think they’re ARMY, look at her phone case.”

“So what?” Kai says.

“So they probably recognized hyung. That’s why they’re staring. He’s right, we should head out and just get delivery or something before they get pictures of the rest of us.”

Kai looks like he wants to argue, but he must see something on Yeonjun’s face that has him shutting up, because he just nods and slides out of the booth. Yeonjun is rarely serious, especially with his dongsaengs, and he can feel Taehyun’s worried eyes on him as they shuffle toward the door, Beomgyu stopping to apologize to the ahjumma that something came up and they can't stay. Yeonjun wants to pace. Jesus. Why did they think going out would be a good idea today, of all days?

It isn’t until Beomgyu’s hand is on his back that Yeonjun realizes they’re already outside, his feet having somehow carried him there without his realization. Taehyun is standing in front of him, head ducked down to try and meet his eyes. They’re in the middle of the street—they have to move, have to get back to the studio and tell someone they were seen. Yeonjun can’t fucking move, why can’t he move?

“Yeonjun-hyung,” Beomgyu says from behind him. “Take a deep breath.”

Yeonjun does. He feels a little better, but not much.

Taehyun bites his lip and exchanges a glance with Kai. They both look unsure of what to say, but to be fair, this is a first. Fans have taken grainy, faraway photos of them before, but they hadn’t known their names, or that they were confirmed members of Big Hit’s new boy group. Yeonjun feels so exposed he thinks for a delirious second that he’s naked, has to rub his hand down over his sleeve to remind himself he isn’t.

This is what his life is going to look like now. He’s just going to have to find a way to stay afloat.

“Come on, hyung,” Kai finally says, clearly attempting to sound upbeat for Yeonjun’s benefit. “I think I had some leftover japchae in the canteen fridge. You can have at it, if you want.”

“Yeah, or we’ll order something for all of us so Soobin-hyung can get food too,” Taehyun agrees.

Yeonjun relaxes the tense set of his shoulders for his dongsaengs' benefit. They’re good kids, better than Yeonjun himself a lot of the time. He always feels a little out of his depth when they come to him for advice, since he didn’t grow up with siblings to bestow advice upon, and he’s pretty sure the three of them are already wiser than he ever could be. He knows he’s so, so lucky to have them, knows that he’d be nothing without them. Soobin, too, even though Yeonjun’s love for him is a slightly different color.

He loves all of them, and he’s still terrified, but here on this street corner in the midday bustle of Seoul is not the time or place to tell them any of this. So he says, “Alright, let’s get back to the studio,” fixes his hat so the brim is lower on his face, and follows his brothers home.

 


 

[then]

Here is another thing they don’t talk about:

For a long time, everyone assumed that Yeonjun was going to be the leader.

It wasn’t a difficult conclusion to draw. He was the longest trainee, going on three years by the time Beomgyu, who had the shortest training period, first arrived. Yeonjun had built a reputation for himself in that time, and he was damn proud of it.

Legendary. That was what they called him.

There is no room for modesty when you’re a trainee—either you’re the best of the best and you know it, or you don’t deserve to be there. Yeonjun learned early on that training was a game of survival, and if he had to showboat a little bit to claim his spot in the final lineup, so be it. Every time a new trainee stepped through the practice room doors, Yeonjun took a moment to make sure they knew whose turf they were on.

For a year, the monthly evaluation ranking boards rarely changed. Underneath each category—rap, dance, and vocal—you would always see Choi Yeonjun sitting pretty at number one.

Trainees came and left, but Yeonjun stayed and dominated, until he was chosen to debut, along with Soobin, Beomgyu, Taehyun, and Kai. When the staff sat the five of them down for a meeting and explained that they would be put through a “leadership test” to determine who would bear the ultimate responsibility, Yeonjun didn’t miss how the others’ eyes flicked toward him.

“I bet it’ll be you, hyung,” Soobin told him as the two of them walked back to the practice room together, arms brushing against each other. “You’re the obvious choice.”

“Am I?” Yeonjun asked. He looked at the ground instead of meeting Soobin’s eyes, and noticed that Soobin’s pants were a little short at the ankles, like he’d gotten too tall for them but didn’t bother to buy new ones. It was strangely endearing, in the way that everything about Soobin was endearing.

Soobin scoffed, like Yeonjun was messing with him. “I don’t know, Big Hit’s it boy, evaluations dominator—”

“Oh, please—”

“Don’t act modest now,” Soobin laughed. “It’s not like you haven’t been reminding us for several years.” Yeonjun made a face. “Anyway, aren’t you?”

“Aren’t I what?”

“The obvious choice.”

Yeonjun considered it. Sure, he was the oldest, and had trained the longest, and the evaluators’ reports didn’t lie. Whatever the it factor was, Yeonjun had it. And being leader did sound thrilling in a way, getting to wear that name like a badge of honor. Yeonjun imagined it sometimes, being able to introduce the group at music shows or accept awards on their behalf. He thought he might really like that.

But as true as that all was, Yeonjun remembered sitting across the kitchen table from a passionate Soobin, who talked about things like teamwork, and kindness, and helping one another, even in the face of Kyungjae’s harsh derision. And it counted for something, didn’t it, that Soobin made the cut while Kyungjae had been shown the door almost a year ago now?

Soobin was still waiting for his answer.

“I don’t think,” Yeonjun said, choosing his words carefully, “that it’s going to be as easy as you think. We’re not even really sure what the actual test is, or what they’re looking for. I think all of us have a fair shot. Except Taehyunie, I guess, since he won't take the test.”

“Sure, but you’ve practically been building toward this point since you joined the company, hyung,” Soobin pointed out. "That counts for something, doesn't it?"

Yeonjun scoffed. “What do you mean building? I didn’t have, like, a ten-step plan to become leader or anything. And who knows? It could be you.”

Soobin floundered for a minute, clearly taken aback. He finally laughed awkwardly. “No it couldn’t.”

"Sure it could! You don't think so?"

Soobin shrugged uncomfortably. They were just around the corner from the practice room now; the others were waiting.

“Soobin-ah.” Yeonjun glared at him, and deep down he was shocked by his own annoyance, the way he sucked in a breath when Soobin brushed off the idea like it was ludicrous. Didn’t he know? He would be incredible. How could he not know?

“Soobin-ah,” he repeated, “you’re an idiot.”

“Wh—”

“You are kind and compassionate and you are the best listener I’ve ever met. You put everyone else first, all the time, even when you shouldn’t and it drives me crazy. On Beomgyu’s first day you made sure he wasn’t sitting alone outside, and I know that Taehyun and Kai really look up to you.”

“They look up to you too—”

“Exactly, and you think that makes me a good option, right? It’s the same for you,” Yeonjun insisted. “You let your members speak before you do, and you mediate arguments, and you give the best hugs after we cry, like you know exactly what we need even though you never cry yourself. You’re like… an anchor.” You’re like the moon.

Soobin was staring at him like he’d never seen him before, pink rosebud mouth grasping for words. Yeonjun could hear the ocean roaring in his ears, high tide, all chaos.

“Just… this is a fair test so let’s treat it like one. Okay?”

There was a pause.

"Whoever gets it, gets it,” Yeonjun added, a little unnecessarily. He flushed under Soobin’s gaze. He needed to get a hold of himself—he felt raw, cut wide open, like he’d just revealed something about himself he hadn’t meant to.

Hyung, do you think I’m handsome too?

Soobin swallowed. “Okay, hyung. Whoever gets it, gets it.” His lips quirked up, and he seemed quietly pleased. Yeonjun nodded firmly, gratefully ending the conversation, and motioned for Soobin to head into the practice room. They were late.

The leader tests went on for a month, and both Soobin and Yeonjun stuck to that philosophy. The tests themselves involved "playing leader" for a little while, and though it was impossible to know what anyone was really expecting of anyone else, the boys gave it their best shot, like they did with everything else. After each of them except Taehyun had filled the role, the manager-hyungs sat them down and told them to write down their vote on a slip of paper.

“If you feel really strongly about it, you’re allowed to vote for yourself,” one of them said. “We’ll make the final call in the end, but your input will be taken into account, so choose wisely.”

As Taehyun, then Soobin, then Beomgyu and Kai turned in their papers, Yeonjun fiddled with his pen, embarrassed to realize they were waiting on him.

"That easy?" he whispered on Taehyun's way back to his seat.

Taehyun replied, "It was a no-brainer."

No-brainer. "The obvious choice," Yeonjun murmured.

He uncapped his pen.

Later that day, Soobin became the leader of Tomorrow x Together.

When the news was delivered, during a short dinner break, the boys jumped on Soobin in a chaotic puppy pile of screeching and whooping and flailing limbs. Yeonjun hung back from the festivities, watching as Taehyun proclaimed he knew this would happen, clinging on to Soobin’s arm as he often did. Soobin looked dumbstruck, almost dizzy. Yeonjun was so fucking happy for him, but he took a moment to stand alone, laying some of his sillier daydreams to rest.

You are not number one anymore.

But as the others called him over into their group hug, Yeonjun reasoned with himself. It wasn’t really about being leader, if he was honest. He didn’t actually want to shoulder the burden that came with it, and Soobin, the kindest and most gentle soul Yeonjun knew, deserved this more than anyone. It was just that Yeonjun had made a habit out of coming in first place, and this time he hadn’t. This was the type of ugly reaction meant to be buried; it would be so gross of him to make a big deal out of this.

So when Soobin was released from Kai’s clutches and turned to Yeonjun like he was worried he would be angry, Yeonjun pulled him into the fiercest hug he had ever given, and whispered in his ear, “I told you you could do it.”

"Yeah," Soobin whispered back. "I guess you did."

 


 

[now]

When they arrive back to the company building, Yeonjun tells one of the manager-hyungs that they’d been spotted at the restaurant and that the fans might have already leaked videos of them. There isn’t much they can really do about it at this point, but Yeonjun has learned that it’s better to tell the company about these things upfront than to have them find out on their own later. By the time Yeonjun is heading off to the canteen to finally eat lunch, stomach empty but still churning with nerves, he finds it deserted except for Soobin, who stands up when he sees Yeonjun peek into the room like he’d been waiting for him.

“Hey,” Soobin says. He flashes Yeonjun a smile, but the concern remains in his eyes and he fidgets awkwardly, gesturing to a bowl and pair of chopsticks on the table. “Uh, the others already finished eating, but Ning left this for you. You should eat something before you start rehearsing again.”

“Oh. Thanks.” Yeonjun pulls out a chair and peers skeptically into the bowl of japchae. He isn’t even sure he has an appetite anymore, but it would be weird not to, right? Nothing so terrible had even happened. There’s no reason for him to still be buzzing about being seen and gossiped over. He has to get used to this.

Soobin sits back down across from him and watches him take a tentative first bite, clearly not planning on leaving. “Aren’t you missing rehearsal right now, too?” Yeonjun asks.

Soobin shrugs. “We always wait for each other to finish eating.”

Yeonjun smiles. “Manners maketh man.” Soobin grins at him, and for a precious second breathing comes easier again.

“Also,” Soobin adds, “I just wanted to check in on you. Taehyun said you were kind of shaken up about the whole thing, like… being recognized and stuff.”

Yeonjun chooses that moment to take in a huge mouthful of noodles and chew slowly. It's a cheap avoidance tactic, but he should have known by now that Soobin’s patience never runs out. Soobin doesn't even prod him.

He swallows in defeat. “That's very leaderly of you,” Yeonjun jokes.

“Not just doing it as leader,” Soobin corrects gently. “I’m doing it because I care about you.” Yeonjun’s not sure what expression is on his face right now but he bets it’s too affected, so he looks away. Soobin clears his throat, but doesn’t say anything more.

With a sigh, Yeonjun sets down his chopsticks. “Yeah, it was weird.” He runs a hand through his hair, thinking back to the girls’ gleeful smiles, their enraptured stares. They’re fans, they were just excited. They’re the ones who love him, already, without even knowing a single thing about him. What is so wrong with that? Why is he like this?

“But, you know,” Yeonjun shrugs, “I was just caught off guard. It’s all fine.”

Soobin looks unsure, but Yeonjun repeats the words in his mind a few more times. It’s fine, he’s okay.

“It’s okay if it isn’t, you know.”

“Well, it is.” Yeonjun picks his chopsticks up again, then puts them down. Then picks them back up. “I don’t know, seeing them just reminded me that we’re not in our own little bubble anymore. Like, people see us now. And they have… expectations.”

“Right, I get it. That’s kind of scary to think about,” Soobin agrees.

Yeonjun starts shaking his leg and has to consciously stop himself before he jostles the table. “Nah, now that it’s happened, I don’t think it’s so bad.”

“No?”

Yes.

“No.”

It’s fine, he’s okay. He shouldn’t worry about the expectations. Hell, he’s been meeting people’s expectations for almost five years, this is nothing. And it’s not like they want to see him fail. People think he’s going to be legendary, according to Wooyoung, and that’s better than the alternative, isn’t it? So that’s what he’ll be.

That’s what he is.

He's number fucking one.

Right?

Yeonjun eats some more noodles, stomach still roiling. “Yeah, I mean, people online are already saying nice things about me, and that feels good, so—so, like, I just think they want something good, which is good, because, you know. That’s what we’re giving them.”

“Sure,” Soobin agrees, but he blinks like he lost the thread of their conversation and is searching for it now. “Um, I’m glad they’re being nice, hyung. What are they saying?”

“Um, well, I’ve mostly just heard it from Wooyoung when he texted me this morning, but he said people already know about my, like, reputation? As a trainee. So they know I’m good at dancing, and singing, and all of that, which is a nice vote of confidence.”

“Yeah, that’s cool,” Soobin says genially. “You were a great trainee.”

Yeonjun nods. Did someone turn the heat up? He’s sweltering, his shirt still feels itchy. He thinks of Beomgyu, Taehyun, and Kai in rehearsal right now, how he’s probably disappointing them by skipping it to get his shit together. He doesn’t feel "great" right now. He feels kind of nauseous, really.

“Legendary,” he mumbles under his breath.

“What was that?”

“It’s funny, actually,” Yeonjun says casually, instead of answering. His leg starts shaking again.

“Hmm? What is?” Soobin’s eyes have gotten wary, Yeonjun hates it. It’s fine, look away, he’s fine.

“They think I’m the leader.”

He doesn’t know why he says it. He doesn’t even know if it's true, hasn’t looked at anything people are saying.

Soobin’s eyes widen. “Oh. Really?”

Yeonjun keeps messing with his japchae, just stirring the noodles around with his chopsticks. The sound is insufferable but he can’t stop. “Yeah.”

“Mm, well, it makes sense,” Soobin says. He doesn’t seem bothered, head cocked like he’s deep in thought. “You’re the first member we revealed, so I guess people just thought the leader would come first.”

“Yeah, yeah, totally.” Yeonjun nods. And then, “Plus, I could’ve been.”

And, well, fuck.

Yeonjun is suddenly so aware of his own body, the warmth on his cheeks, the weight of himself in this stupid rickety chair. He feels so heavy, and that’s not right, is it? Telling the truth is meant to make you feel lighter, but maybe that’s only the happy truths, or maybe this isn’t the truth at all. Maybe Yeonjun never could have been the leader, never could have been anything but lots of hype and lackluster results.

He looks up, and Soobin is staring at him with an unreadable expression. And that’s not right either. Soobin is meant to be easy. Teasing banter, dimpled smiles.

“Well, yeah, hyung,” Soobin says slowly. “Any of us could’ve been. That’s why they had us do the test.”

“Right, I know, I just…” Yeonjun knows he needs to shut up, but it’s all too much. He hears a roar in his ears, the giggles of the girls at the noodle shop, you look exhausted, Yeonjun, nobody wants to see that. Wooyoung’s text: People are already talking about how cool you’ll be. You easily could’ve been leader.

Yeonjun just wants to feel in control for once.

“You what?”

When Yeonjun was young, his father used to scold him for picking at the scabs he got from scraping his knees on the playground. Yeonjun-ah, leave it alone. You’ll make it worse. It feels good now but what about later? You could scar the skin, you don’t want that, do you?

He was never very good at listening.

Yeonjun looks Soobin in the eye, patient, loving Soobin. This wound, here. Apply salt until screaming.

Hyung, do you think—

He doesn’t want to think at all anymore.

“I would’ve been a great leader,” Yeonjun says. “Like, the best one, probably.”

Yeonjun stops stirring the noodles.

Looking at Soobin’s face is the most excruciating thing Yeonjun could do to himself right now, so he forces himself to sit through it. Makes himself take in the way his lips part in shock, the fluttering of his long eyelashes. It’s like watching a bruise bloom and then heal—Soobin’s eyes go tender, angry, but then the darkness fades until there’s just nothing, just blankness. Yeonjun has taken away the one thing that was keeping him sane right now, and he deserves that, but Soobin doesn’t. Soobin never did.

“Wow, uh.” Soobin chuckles, but it’s dark, humorless the way Soobin never is. He drums his fingers on the table, and Yeonjun wants, even now, to take Soobin's hands into his own. He doesn’t. He clenches his fists inside his sweatshirt pocket and waits for Soobin to yell at him. “Is that what you really think?"

No. “I mean, you’re great, Soobinnie, of course I think you’re great.” Shut the fuck up. “I just, I don’t know, what do you see, when you look at me?”

Soobin blinks. Yeonjun doesn’t let him answer.

“Wooyoung was saying it earlier, that I was the best trainee at Big Hit, and that, you know. I could’ve been the leader. Like, easily. And he’s not the only one that thinks that. So. I mean, you always said I was the obvious choice.” He laughs too, but like Soobin’s laughter it comes out all wrong, fed through a distortion machine.

What will he tell his mother, when she calls and asks what he did today? I had an interesting lunch with Soobin. We talked about how crazy the comments were. We laughed. All true, all false.

“Ah.” Soobin raises an eyebrow coolly. Soobin is a lot of things, but cool is rarely one of them. “Why aren’t you the leader, then, hyung? If it was so easy, I mean.”

And there it is: he’s right, he’s so right. Because Yeonjun tried so hard when it was his turn to do the leader test. He helped the maknaes with their dance moves and corrected Beomgyu’s form during practice and read every interview with Kim Namjoon he could find online. He tried so damn hard, and Soobin didn’t have to try at all. And that’s fine, Yeonjun is used to trying. He tries so hard, at everything, all the time. It’s just that usually he sees the payoff for it too. And if he failed at that, what else will he fail at?

Yeonjun scoffs. “I don’t know, I’m not the manager-hyungs. It wasn’t up to me. They probably knew you wanted it more.”

“Oh, and you didn’t want it? Not even a little bit?” Soobin’s goading him, this is a chess match now. Yeonjun has to defend his king, so he takes the bait.

“Nah, being leader’s whatever.” Yeonjun leans back in his chair, folds his arms behind his head. “I didn’t need that to be important to the team. I’m already legendary.”

Soobin says nothing. They stare at each other, and Yeonjun is the first to break, turning his face back down to his japchae. They’re probably cold by now; his stomach lurches at the thought of eating them.

When Soobin stands up, Yeonjun aches to reach out for him, with touch or words, but bites his tongue.

“You sound like Kyungjae right now,” Soobin tells him, firmly and quietly. It’s not even close to yelling, but it burns like it is, and Yeonjun simmers in the shame. “I’d take a good hyung over a legend any day, anyway.”

Soobin walks away. Yeonjun pulls his feet up onto the chair, presses his face into his knees, and does not cry.

 


 

[then]

Here is a memory that Yeonjun still holds onto:

They took a trip to LA the summer before debut. It was mostly to film content for the future and to sharpen their choreography skills, so with all the work they were putting in there was very little free time to explore. Toward the end of their stay, though, Soobin put his foot down and said they were all going to the beach—no cameras allowed.

“Tomorrow night,” he said, and Soobin was such a homebody that nobody fought him on his desire to venture outside. “When I met with RM-sunbaenim, he said it was important for us to do things as a group that weren’t just for work.”

“Ooh, RM-sunbaenim,” Kai said in a funny voice, because he was a little shit and still is to this day. (In fairness, they’d all been making fun of Soobin ever since he met with Kim Namjoon at Bang PD’s request and came home looking like he’d seen the face of God.) “Did you tell him about your crush on his bandmate?”

Soobin flushed spectacularly red. “I do not have a crush on Jin-sunbaenim,” he said with great dignity. “I just think that talent like his should be recognized, that’s all.”

“I never said his name,” Kai snickered. Yeonjun high-fived him.

LA so far had been unfamiliar yet exciting, though maybe not as exciting as advertised in the movies. Soobin spent the first two days taking pictures of every palm tree he encountered just for their sheer novelty, and Taehyun had coerced them into visiting In-N-Out no less than three times. The four others were unabashed tourists, and though Yeonjun acted like he was too cool to pose for their dumb “LA” hand gesture selcas, their giddiness was contagious. Yeonjun couldn’t help imagining traveling on world tours with these boys, months on end of days like these in cities they’d only seen on TV before. High-rise hotels, fine dining… He was probably getting ahead of himself, though. For now, lodging was a cramped Airbnb and food was whatever was on sale at Smart & Final.

This was actually the first trip that the five of them had gone on together as the final group. While they’d packed, tripping over each other’s open suitcases spread out across the floor of the dorm, the others grilled Yeonjun on what California was like.

“Why are you asking me?”

“You lived there for two years!”

“Yeah, in San Jose, dummy! It takes over an hour to get to LA from there. By plane."

“Wait, so… you didn’t grow up near the beach?” Beomgyu had checked. Yeonjun smacked him.

They arrived at the beach just before sunset. It was a weekday, so they were able to claim a spot pretty close to the shoreline. Beomgyu and Kai raced each other down to the water and Taehyun busied himself with taking pictures of the scenery, so Yeonjun kicked off his shoes, turned to Soobin and said, “Want to take a walk with me?”

“Don’t tell me you’re going to try to woo me with a long romantic walk on the beach, hyung.” Soobin grinned at him, cheeks already flushed with sunburn even though they’d barely been outside all day. Yeonjun poked his dimple in retaliation for the joke and started making his way down to the shore, careful not to step on rocks or jagged shells.

Soobin was different in America, a little more childlike, marveling at every new place he visited. Yeonjun hadn’t realized until they landed in LA that he had never even seen Soobin outside of a five-mile radius from their dorm or Big Hit. He looked over at Soobin now, his wide eyes as he took in the expanse of the surf and his windswept hair, and thought to himself that he wanted to see Soobin under a thousand different sunsets in a hundred different countries. He wanted to follow Soobin anywhere he went.

Hyung, do you think I’m handsome too?

When they reached the water, the sun was starting to sink below the horizon, setting the waves alight with gold. The ocean was calm, but Soobin still warned him not to get the hems of his pants wet. The pair walked further away from the others and their stuff until the sun bid its final farewell and the sky was inky-dark. The pale moon winked down at Yeonjun when he craned his neck back to look at it.

“The moon is beautiful tonight,” he sighed.

Soobin nudged him in the arm. “Yah, hyung, you really are trying to romance me. Talking about the beauty of the moon. Don’t tell me you’ve prepared love poetry too.”

“Oh, Soobinnie, my sweet one, for whom my love is a vast ocean,” Yeonjun shouted, and Soobin squealed in embarrassment, shoving him even as he cackled. Sand was caked to the bottom of his foot when he stuck it out to kick Yeonjun playfully.

“How I adore your wondrous smile—”

“Hyung!”

“The stars shine in your eyes—”

“Aish, at least be original, would you? I’ve heard that one before.”

Yeonjun harrumphed. “Do you have a problem with my love confession for you, Choi Soobin?”

“I’m just saying, I’m a hot item on the market these days. I’d like a little more effort, please.” His smirk was positively wicked.

Yeonjun smiled then, a little sad, because everything was a joke until it wasn’t, until it hurt. And if Soobin wanted a love confession, Yeonjun was too much of a coward to give him one, but he could give him something close. “Do you know the story?” he asked, much more softly. “About the moon and the ocean?”

“Mm, no." Soobin threw an arm over Yeonjun’s shoulder. "What about them?”

Yeonjun looked down at the trail of footprints they were leaving in the wet sand. The markers of two people’s journey that, in a moment, would be erased by the water, left smooth for the next stories to be told. Maybe Yeonjun was the only one who would know this particular story, the only one who would care.

“The ocean’s tides are caused by the moon’s gravitational pull,” he told Soobin. “High tide happens when you’re in the part of the planet that’s closest to the moon, or furthest from it. It’s like… the ocean is being pulled toward the moon, or something.”

“Huh.” Soobin turned his face to the sky. “The moon looks so small from here.”

“Powerful, though.”

“You learn that in science class? It’s not much of a story, to be honest, hyung.”

Yeonjun closed his eyes. “I think it is.” He was almost whispering now. “It’s a love story. The waves will always chase the moon, even though they can never reach it. They love it enough to follow it anywhere.” He leaned into Soobin’s side and hoped it wasn’t obvious how his heart was pounding.

You’re the moon, he would’ve said, if he were a braver man. I can never have you, but that’s okay. Anywhere, I’ll let you pull me anywhere.

Soobin smiled. “That’s cool,” he said softly. “Tell me more about the moon?”

And Yeonjun could never deny Soobin anything, so he turned to face the ocean and began to explain how each month the full moon had a different name, and this one was the strawberry moon, wasn’t that nice? And Soobin said yes, it was, and they sat in the sand and came up with their own names for the full moon, pearl moon and rice cake moon and smile moon. Their pinkies brushed and then somehow linked together and they talked about everything but that.

Eventually Yeonjun’s phone pinged with a text from Taehyun that it was time to go, so they walked back along the shore to meet the others. At one point the tide came in farther than normal and both their legs got soaked. Soobin sprinted away with a yell, but Yeonjun didn’t even flinch. He let it wash over him, stain his clothes. He had to spend the rest of the night with wet jeans, but he relished in the feeling, since at least for a little while there was evidence that he had made peace with the tide.

 


 

[now]

Yeonjun does not go back to rehearsal, like he’s supposed to, since he figures that’s where Soobin went and also because he can’t handle the others looking at him when they find out how cruel and messed-up he is. That beneath the skin of his chest, instead of a heart there is just black fog, greedy and ugly, the worst kind of shameful. Instead, he sits alone in the canteen for another two minutes, ignoring the curious eyes of a staff member he doesn’t know who comes in to raid the fridge, until his phone, still somehow not fucking dead yet, starts buzzing again.

And Yeonjun decides he’s had enough. He’s already missing rehearsal, already hurt Soobin when he swore to himself he never would. What’s one more broken rule, just to sate the monster clawing its way up out of him?

He needs to find a place to be alone.

The bathrooms are mercifully unoccupied, but he locks himself in one of the stalls anyway just in case someone walks in. It feels like sinning, somehow, pulling out his phone to open Twitter. Typing his name into the search bar has him squirming with enough embarrassment to double-check that the stall door is locked, not that anybody would just barge in on him when he’s supposedly on the toilet.

The wifi signal is weak in here. The buffering symbol mocks him in its interminable circle. Just enough time passes that he starts to convince himself this was a stupid idea, everyone told him not to do it anyway, and he’s about to shove his phone back in his pocket when the page finally loads.

The first thing he sees is his face.

It’s a screenshot from the introduction film, taken by a fan. Yeonjun stares at it uncomprehendingly for a few seconds, trying to understand what people will make of this polished version of him. No under-eye bags, no underlying angst. He hasn’t learned how to fill the shoes of this Yeonjun yet, not really. It’s like looking at his future self, not who will I be but you must be me. He scrolls down.

Yeonjun’s no stranger to the omniscient nature of fans online—he’d secretly been guilty at how much it enticed him, the idea of being lusted after by millions on the Internet. Still, it’s strange to see his personal information being picked apart. They know his name, his age. They know he’s a dancer. And somehow, through info that must have been leaked by a trainee cut from the lineup, they know this word, too: legendary.

@BT21_OT7 9:57 AM ⋅ 1/10/2019
My friend knows someone who trained with Yeonjun and he said that everyone calls him Big Hit’s legendary trainee! I don’t really know what it means, but it must mean he’s good ^^

@armynation1013 10:21 AM ⋅ 1/10/2019
Oh legendary like Jungkook maybe??

@SHOOTER4BANGTAN 10:25 AM ⋅ 1/10/2019
nobody is as legendary as the golden maknae. u must be an anti if ur willing to switch ults so fast

@armynation1013 10:27 AM ⋅ 1/10/2019
Uhhh I never said I was switching??? Also maybe Yeonjun is more legendary we can’t tell for sure yet right? Bighit only accepts the best anyway

Yeonjun leans against the wall of the stall. His limbs are heavier. His mouth tastes sour, even though he hasn’t eaten anything.

He scrolls for a little while longer, but many of the comments are the same. He’s handsome, but what if his voice isn’t good? I haven’t seen him dance yet, so he’s going to have to impress me before I stan. I don’t mean to compare, but TXT is probably not going to be as good as BTS. They say he’s legendary. But is he, really?

Immediately he regrets seeking this out. He should’ve known it would be the tradeoff: you lose the fear of mystery but you gain the burden of knowing the truth. And the truth was that unless Yeonjun does absolutely everything right, plays into the identity planned for him by whispers and Big Hit’s careful curation, he might as well have not put in any work at all.

The floor is cold underneath him—since when was he sitting down? The stall feels claustrophobic, like the walls are just cardboard; they’ll fall inward and trap him there. He must’ve put his phone down on the floor of the stall. He should be disgusted by the potential for germs, but there’s no room in his brain for that right now, no room for anything but the pulsing, the taunting voices.

Are they real? Are they all in his head?

What happens when you’re not good enough, Yeonjun? Who will want you then?

The voices sound like Soobin. This wound, here.

Yeonjun’s always felt like he was fighting tooth and nail to debut, like climbing a mountain and that the biggest battle of his life would be finding a way to get to the top. But he should’ve known better—the top of the mountain will always be just out of reach, obscured by clouds. You think you deserve it, but only the best do. So try a little harder. Bleed a little more. You’re the stuff of legend, aren’t you? Prove it.

It seems the only thing left to do now is keep climbing.

 


 

[then]

Here is the secret Yeonjun keeps closest to his chest:

Yes, he thinks Soobin’s handsome, too.

God, Soobin is handsome. Tall and fit with the pinkest mouth, the gentlest large hands. Yeonjun has spent so much time just thinking about his eyes, how they darken when he’s serious, the length of his eyelashes, their puffiness when he stumbles sleepily into the kitchen in the mornings. His eyes always narrow into crescents when he’s laughing (God, that laugh) or smiling (God, that smile). Yeonjun spends a lot of time trying to make Soobin smile.

He can’t pin down exactly when it happened, when Soobin shifted over in the drawers of his heart, from the one labeled baby-cute to the one just labeled cute. But Soobin is so cute, when he hides his smile behind one hand, when he’s embarrassed and his ears grow red, when he has to duck his head to fit under the doorway of the dorm bathroom. Cute, cute, cute.

Yeonjun can tell him this much, at least. Does tell him, whispers, “Cute Soobinnie,” in his ear and makes kissy faces at him, clings onto his back and squishes his cheeks. It’s all just skinship, it doesn’t mean anything, the other boys do it too, don’t they? Yeonjun waits and waits for the day Soobin shoves his hands away, tells himself that’s when he’ll stop, when Soobin wants him to. But Soobin always lets him, and so he never stops.

But there are things Yeonjun can’t tell Soobin, can’t ever tell him. He can’t tell him that sometimes he gets distracted tracing the veins in Soobin’s hands with his eyes, that sometimes he can’t look away in the practice room when Soobin lifts the edge of his shirt to wipe sweat off his brow and reveals a slice of bare, muscled torso. He can’t tell him that once, he dreamt that he and Soobin swam in the Han River, and it wasn’t cold at all, it was so, so warm. They splashed each other and floated on their backs and there was nobody around for miles, just the two of them and the stars. Everything dream-Yeonjun said made dream-Soobin laugh. Everything dream-Soobin did made real Yeonjun’s head spin. And Yeonjun woke up right as dream-Soobin, hair slicked back with water, started leaning in close, close enough to—

Anyway. He can’t tell Soobin a lot of things. It’s better to just keep them to himself, to splash water on his face from the bathroom sink until the heat in his cheeks goes down. It’s not easy—it’s torture, really—but it’s better than making a mess.

Making messes. That’s love, isn’t it?

As much as Yeonjun tried to keep his feelings tidy and unobtrusive, locked away in a bulletproof safe, he kept finding himself toeing the line.

He and Soobin had a game, one created during those tender first few months of friendship. It went like this:

“Tell me something,” Yeonjun said.

“Something like what?”

"Tell me… tell me something you miss about home.”

Soobin squinted at the sun as he thought. They were spread out on the grass at the park by the dorm today, an escape from the city’s congested structure. It was just the two of them while the other members were out with their Hanlim friends. A breeze brushed Soobin’s hair out of his face, and the whole world seemed honey-yellow. “My dog.”

Yeonjun smiled. “Yeah?”

“Yeah. His name’s Sean. Have I told you about him before?”

“You’ve mentioned him, I think. But tell me more.”

And so it went. Tell me something you’re afraid of, tell me something you wish you could forget, tell me something you think about a lot. They only ever played the game with the two of them, and it was like a loophole around everything they couldn’t ever talk about, the words Yeonjun could never say. It gave him precious knowledge about Soobin, which he cherished like jewels. These are the things he likes and the things he wants and the things he is. I will learn them all.

When Soobin finished recounting the story of the time Sean broke his mother’s favorite vase, he said, “Now it’s your turn, though, hyung. Tell me something you miss.”

Yeonjun puffed out his cheeks. He hadn’t grown up with pets or siblings like Soobin and the other members had, and he felt an acute pang of loneliness for it now, even though his parents were lovely and had always been enough for him. So he thought of other things: the books on the shelves in his room, his friends from school before he became a trainee, his mother’s kimchi jjigae.

“I don’t think I miss anything that I could get back now,” he said. Out of the corner of his eye, he could see Soobin turn his head toward him.

“What do you mean?”

“Like, I miss... being in charge of my own schedule. And sleeping as late as I want to. Or not worrying about ratings, or image, or any of the stuff that I can’t seem to get off my mind now.” Yeonjun rolled onto his side and faced Soobin fully, tilting his chin up to look at him. “I don’t know. I know I’m so lucky to have been chosen for a lineup, and to have held on as long as I did as a trainee, but sometimes I do have to remind myself. You know, that it’s worth it.”

A group of children ran behind them, engaged in a game of tag. Soobin waited for their shrieking laughter to pass before he answered.

“I wouldn’t call it luck, so much as hard work, that you made it this far,” Soobin told him. “And if anything, I think that’s what makes it worth it. It’ll be worth it because it’s your dream, right? If you’ve put in so much time and effort, that proves you loved it enough to give up those things, the ones you can’t get back. And that love… the love makes it worth the struggle.”

“You think so?”

“Love is always worth the struggle,” Soobin said, and Yeonjun hoped to God he was right.

“I don’t know what I’d do without you, Soobinnie,” he said.

“Don’t know what I’d do without you either, hyung.”

Instead of answering, Yeonjun just flopped onto his back again under the afternoon sun, closing his eyes against the light through the tree branches. Soobin shuffled closer, resting his head on Yeonjun’s stomach. Yeonjun stopped breathing for a second, afraid that if he jostled him even slightly Soobin would move.

Yeonjun peeked down at Soobin, no doubt giving himself a double chin in the process, to find that the other was lightly dozing, breaths slow and even. His mouth was open, and Yeonjun prayed he wouldn’t drool on his shirt, though he knew deep down he wouldn’t actually mind as much as he would whine about it. He raked a gentle hand through Soobin’s hair, too comfortable to wake him, and he knew Soobin wasn’t getting much sleep these days, anyway. None of them were.

Still, there was nobody around to check him, so he let himself imagine what would happen if he nudged Soobin awake right now. If he whispered hey Soobinnie, I like you and kissed him right on his parted mouth, there in the daylight, in front of all the people walking by.

Maybe Soobin was right, that love makes anything worth the struggle, worth making messes. He would let Soobin hurt him, maybe, as long as it made him smile.

“Soobin-ah,” he whispered, too soft to be heard, just to say it. Sweetness on his tongue.

Make a mess of me, he didn’t say. I’d let you, I want it, want the privilege of aching for you. You don’t even have to clean it up, but I know you would, and that’s why I love you.

Now Yeonjun had to wonder if his messes left no chance for repair.

 


 

[now]

Yeonjun ends up back in the practice room, because of course he does. He doesn’t know how he managed to scrape himself off the bathroom floor, barely even remembers the walk back here. He was alone for longer than he thought; it’s late now, and official rehearsal is long over. He doesn’t know what the others are up to at this point, though they’re probably eating dinner together back at the dorm. He hadn’t asked; his phone is turned off completely now, like it should have been all day.

Yeonjun makes an attempt at warming up, but there’s something humming in his veins, a need to just get it done, get it perfect. Keep climbing. After a few truly pathetic hamstring stretches he just says fuck it and turns on the speaker again, queuing up “Crown.”

It’s… bad. It’s a disaster. Yeonjun does pretty okay in the first verse, about as well as he had done at practice earlier today, but he doesn’t realize how screwed he is until the pre-chorus hits and he has to figure out how to do the four-member threaded loop with only one of him, and feels stupid when he mimics ducking under Beomgyu and Taehyun’s linked arms. It makes him stumble on the next move, when his feet are supposed to be firmly in place, and his cheeks heat up even though nobody else is watching. Frustrated, he tries to shake it off during the chorus.

Yeonjun does a few more runs (okay, more than a few) to try and get his groove back. He’s sweating more than usual, and he shouldn’t be panting this hard this early in. Fatigue is settling in, and he knows it’s because he skipped dinner and he hasn’t stopped dancing for even a water break in over an hour at this point, but he told himself he wouldn’t stop until he was satisfied. If his head is pounding by the end, it’s what he deserves. This was never supposed to be easy—nothing ever came easy for the legends, right?

What does it even mean, to be a legend?

Yeonjun grits his teeth as he makes his way through the second chorus for the hundredth time, hand empty when it should be holding onto Soobin’s for the wave formation. During the bridge, he hunches over like Soobin is there, sitting proud on his and Kai’s shoulders, and in the mirror Yeonjun just looks small and lonely. This dance is made for five members, like all of their routines are, and he wonders now how the formations appeared to the other members during afternoon rehearsal when he wasn’t there. This is why they rarely practice apart from each other. He let them down today. He let everyone down.

Determined to fix it, Yeonjun doesn’t stop. His arms start getting sloppy, he’s not hitting his poses as sharp as he needs to be. What the fuck is happening to him?

He can barely hear the music anymore. His ears are roaring, head swimming. He tries to think only in eight-counts, but memories keep slipping through the cracks.

You sound like Kyungjae right now.

Second verse. Walk to the front, sit down facing sideways.

Why aren’t you the leader, then, hyung?

Wait for Soobin to stand up.

 If it was so easy and obvious.

Soobin isn’t there. No warm weight against his back. Yeonjun tries to stand up by himself, but he can’t do it—that’s the whole point. He can’t do it without Soobin. He can’t do fucking anything without Soobin, or Beomgyu, or Taehyun, or Kai. The music keeps playing, but Yeonjun isn’t even listening anymore. He just wants to stand up. He uses all his strength to push himself up with his hands, overshoots, leans too far forward.

What does it mean, to be a legend?

Bruised calves, shaking hands. Body a live wire. The need to keep going, just one more time, you’ll stop when you finally get it right. But energy will always give way to exhaustion—eventually, you hit the ground and then stay there.

The world spins out of focus as Yeonjun’s knees give out. This is what it means.

When Yeonjun’s mind manages to recalibrate, sight and sound flooding back, he hears someone struggling for breath. The gasps are a knife’s edge away from becoming full-blown sobs. It takes him longer than it should to realize it’s his own voice. He is on his hands and knees, head bowed in defeat. He can’t even lift his head to look at himself in the mirror. He just curls into child’s pose, and finally, finally cries.

The tears come so fast it surprises him, but it shouldn’t, really, with the way things have gone today. He wants to go back to this morning, sitting in the kitchen in his pajamas with Soobin. He wants to go back to last night, cuddling in Soobin’s bed, in the eye of the storm. Yeonjun holds his face in his hands, shivering with the force of his tears, and just bawls. Who cares? No one can see him now. Everyone only sees the legend. The facade.

And shit, he’s too tired to repeat “I’m fine” again, even to himself. He lets himself think it: I am not okay.

I have not been okay for a long time.

And of course, of course—

A warm hand lands on his back and Yeonjun doesn’t even register that the music has been shut off until he’s being pulled upright, back into a pair of arms that wrap themselves tightly around his shoulders. Two hands (strong but gentle, ones that Yeonjun knows even with his eyes closed) reposition him so Yeonjun’s forehead rests against a broad shoulder. Yeonjun wants to say something, to ask when Soobin got here and how he knew where to find him and why he would even help when he should hate Yeonjun, when Yeonjun said the worst possible things to him. But he still can’t even suck a full breath in, so he just gives into the feeling, heart racing, body trembling. This is more than high tide; this is a riptide.

And Soobin, patient, loving Soobin, holds him through it. He doesn’t let Yeonjun get swept away.

Slowly, slowly, the panic begins to ebb. Yeonjun comes back into his body and realizes Soobin is rocking him back and forth like he’s a baby and that just makes him cry harder. When did Soobin get so much bigger than him that he feels small being curled up in his arms like this? Didn’t Yeonjun used to be the one protecting him? When did they switch roles?

Soobin’s cheek is warm against the crown of Yeonjun’s head. Yeonjun’s nose is pressed into Soobin’s neck, tears dripping down onto Soobin’s shirt, but Soobin doesn’t seem to mind. He doesn’t say anything at all. Yeonjun finally stops crying, but he stays there in the circle of Soobin’s arms a little longer anyway. He’s selfish that way. All he does to this beautiful, generous boy is take, and take, and take.

When Yeonjun finally pulls away, Soobin doesn’t let him get far. He cups his face with one hand and pulls his sleeve over the other to wipe at Yeonjun’s tears, his touch light. Yeonjun watches his expression the whole time he does it, drinking in the focused furrow of his eyebrows and his slight determined pout. Soobin’s eyes are a little glassy, too, like he’d almost cried himself.

Yeonjun bats his hands away. “You don’t have to do that,” he says belatedly. “I’m—”

“Don’t say you’re fine,” Soobin says. His voice is shaky, but he doesn’t sound angry, he just sounds kind of sad. “You can be upset, or stressed, or whatever you are right now, and we can work it out, okay, hyung? But don’t lie to me. That’s the one thing I can’t take.”

Yeonjun sucks in a shuddering breath. “Okay. I’m sorry.”

He means for everything—crying, missing rehearsal, implying that Soobin is anything less than the best leader on the planet, the best person. Soobin ignores his apology, though.

“Tell me something,” Soobin says.

Yeonjun’s laugh is half a sob, but he plays along. “Like what?”

“Tell me something you’re thinking right now.”

Yeonjun swallows. There’s no sense in lying anymore, no sense in secrets. He thinks it again: I am not okay. And then he says it:

"If I'm not the best thing they've ever seen, if I'm not number one in everything... then who am I? And who will care?” Before Soobin can interrupt, he adds, “I've spent so long working my ass off to be this, this person, this... 'legendary Big Hit trainee.' And it scares me, having that title.”

“Why does it scare you?”

Yeonjun’s voice comes out small. “Because I don't think anybody exists underneath it. I'm so afraid that this reputation is all I am anymore, and… And it's not even true."

Soobin shifts so he’s sitting closer to Yeonjun than before. He looks at Yeonjun for a long while, and then he says, “So what if it isn’t true? Does it matter?”

Yeonjun sniffles. “What?”

Soobin shrugs. “I mean, I want you to know, first of all, that it is true. You’re so talented, hyung, but more than that, you work so hard. I see it, every day.”

“Soobin—”

“No, hyung, please. Second of all—this is more important than the first thing I said—second of all, okay, what if it isn’t true? What if our debut goes horribly wrong and we don’t live up to the hype and we have no fans?”

Yeonjun squirms. “I don’t know what—”

“I’ll tell you: you would still be fine. You know why?” Soobin clasps Yeonjun’s hand in his own. “Because you deserve all the good things in the world, whether with this group or not. And the people who matter know that, so don’t listen to the ones who don’t.

“Besides,” Soobin adds, “legendary isn’t even one of the first ten things I think when I think about you, hyung.” Then he turns red, like he hadn’t meant to say that.

“What…” Yeonjun’s lips are chapped; he licks them. “What would be in the first ten things?”

Soobin bites his lip. “That actually reminds me. I need to apologize. For earlier.”

Yeonjun lets him take the out, even though the curiosity is killing him. He squeezes Soobin’s hand tighter and says, “No, wait, you don’t, I should—”

“Please,” Soobin interrupts softly, and Yeonjun quiets. “I… I implied that you weren’t a good hyung, and that’s a lie. That’s the biggest lie I’ve ever told, really. Because the first thing I think when I think about you is that you’re the best hyung in the world. I need you to know that. I need you to know that I haven’t forgotten how you stood up to Kyungjae for me. Or that time you told me I had a real shot at leader when I thought I never could. Honest, hyung, you’ve done more for me than you know.”

“Then—then you need to know, too!” Yeonjun cries.

“Know what?”

“That you’re the best leader. Not me, not even close. It’s you, Soobin. You’ve always been the obvious choice. I think I’ve known that all along. I was just too selfish to admit it and I’m sorry that I ever made you think otherwise,” Yeonjun says, and this, this is the kind of truth that makes you feel lighter, the kind he should’ve been telling all along.

“Oh, I—thank you,” Soobin says shyly.

“No, really. You know I voted for you? When we did the leader test?”

Soobin jolts. “You did? But…” He presses his lips together. “You looked… sad, kind of. When they said it was me.”

Yeonjun huffs out a laugh. “Yeah. Guess I wasn’t as good at hiding it as I thought I was. But I knew, even then, that it should’ve been you. And I still think that. I don’t resent you for it, not at all. Not even today, though you might’ve thought I did since I was so rude. You earned it.”

“Thanks for saying that, hyung.” Soobin smiles. “I did earn it, huh? It took me a while to believe that. But I do now, so don’t worry, okay? You never took that away from me."

"Good, Soobin-ah, I'm glad."

"But," Soobin says, "just because I deserved it doesn’t mean you didn’t work your ass off. You don't have to be the best to deserve happiness.”

Yeonjun shrugs. “I think the pressure just got to me. I saw being leader as, like, not even a prize in its own right, but just as another step I had to check off, mostly because everyone told me I could. I didn’t even want it that much. I wouldn’t be able to joke around with the kids as much as I do, and you know how much I hate dealing with conflict. I mean, look how I handled today.” He shakes his head. “The reveal just made me feel weird, and lonely, if that makes sense? Like, I’m the only one that people know so far, so all of their judgment right now is on me alone."

"Well, you're not alone. Ever. Okay?"

"Okay." And Yeonjun exhales.

“We’re a team,” Soobin says, so earnest, when anyone else might’ve meant it jokingly. Yeonjun loves him for it.

Yeonjun loves him.

And here, in this place where they’ve grown together, in the aftermath of the world exploding, Soobin is still right beside him. Yeonjun has lied to him, dismissed him, cried on him, and Soobin has remained steady, like he always was. And in the face of all that, what is so bad about loving him? What is so wrong?

Yeonjun has had critics’ eyes on him for the last five years, and he’s going to have the world’s eyes on him for the rest of his life. But in this moment Soobin is the only person on earth who can see him, and Yeonjun likes that. Likes that right now, for once, he gets to choose who he wants to be known by, who he wants to see all the ugly parts of himself. And he chooses Soobin.

“Soobin,” he says.

“Mhm?”

“There’s something else, actually. That I think about when I think of you.”

Soobin's lips part. He asks, “What is it?”

Hyung, do you think I'm handsome too?

(I do, I do, I do.)

“I think I love you, Soobinnie,” Yeonjun confesses, finally, finally. And the world explodes again, but it’s gentler this time, easier. More of an exhale, a flower’s petals peeling open to the sun in spring.

“Hyung,” Soobin says, and Yeonjun can’t take it, the way he sounds winded like Yeonjun has knocked the breath out of him. “Hyung, hyung.”

“I’m sorry,” he says again. “I know I’m selfish and I’m cocky and I’m too much, I never listen. I know I’m making a mess of everything by telling you this, I’m sorry, I just can’t keep it inside. I needed you to know. I didn’t want to hide anything from you.”

“You are,” Soobin says.

“What? I’m what?”

“Cocky, a bad listener. You are those things sometimes, but you’re never too much.” He looks so serious, his eyes wide and his voice soft but sure. His lips are pursed, so delicate. “And don’t you remember, hyung? We said that love’s worth the struggle. It’s worth it. So don’t be so afraid of the mess. That’s what makes it worth it in the first place.”

Yeonjun shakes his head. “I—”

“And don’t say sorry.”

“What?”

“What makes you think it’s only you?” Soobin’s eyebrows are furrowed, and his stare is so intense Yeonjun wants to look away but he doesn’t, he can’t. “You’re the only one who feels this, is that what you think?”

Yeonjun doesn’t dare to hope. “Soobin-ah…”

“You asked me, what do I see when I look at you. You asked me who will still care if you’re not exactly what they want. You asked me these things but then you took away my chance to answer. Is that fair, hyung? Is that fair?”

“No,” he whispers. “No, it's not.”

“Well, my answer is that I’ll still care. I’ll care because you’re more than your body, more than your voice. You are hard work, and passion, and the best part of my day. And Yeonjun-hyung,” Soobin lets out a breath of laughter, and they’ve both got tear tracks on their cheeks, when did that happen? “The others give me shit for it all the time, and you’ve never noticed. Don’t you know?”

“Know what?”

“When I look at you, I see home.”

Home.

The moon beckons. The tide answers.

It's as easy as nature: The wave rises, and crests, and crashes, and they’re kissing. Mouth against mouth, nose pressed to cheek. Yeonjun remembers his hands and clings onto Soobin’s shoulders. Soobin’s come to rest on his waist.

Soobin’s mouth is plush and soft and his kisses are a little shy, only the slightest hint of tongue before he pulls back. It overwhelms Yeonjun that he gets to have this knowledge, to learn this thing he’s wanted to know for so, so long, and he grabs Soobin’s face with both hands and pulls him in deeper.

I love you, he thinks as Soobin sighs against him. I love you like dancing: with all of me, every bone and muscle, even though it hurts sometimes. I love you like I always knew how to. I love you like it is a joy and a luxury, because it is.

When they break apart, the colors in the room seem brighter. Soobin is flushed and dazed in the prettiest way, mouth slick with spit. Already Yeonjun wants to drag him in again.

“Um, so, like I was saying,” Soobin stammers, and Yeonjun giggles.

“I think you got the point across, Soobinnie,” he teases, and Soobin, gloriously, turns even pinker.

“Be quiet,” he grumbles, but there’s no heat in it, and his eyes have the same sparkle that Yeonjun’s surely do. Yeonjun is giddy with it. His insides are fizzing like champagne, golden and sweet.

“Yes, like you were saying,” he prompts.

Soobin reaches out to brush his hair out of his face. “You don’t have to be legendary, or perfect, or anything. Okay? You can just be Yeonjun.”

“And that’s enough?” Yeonjun whispers.

“Enough? It’s everything.”

 


 

[tomorrow]

They end the night where they started the morning, curled around each other in Soobin’s bed. It’s well past midnight already, and Beomgyu, Taehyun, and Kai are fast asleep. Yeonjun will thank them in the morning, and actually buy them lunch this time.

For now, though, he’s glad they’re not awake, because it means he can hold Soobin a little closer, head pillowed on his chest. This thing between them is tentative and young, still rosy-cheeked, and right now it is theirs and theirs alone.

Hours from now, the world will learn about Choi Soobin, leader of TXT, born in 2000 and raised in Ansan. To them, these are just words, names and places. But Yeonjun knows the story behind each one, the specific way they ache. Hours from now, the world will explode for Soobin. And Yeonjun will be steady for him when it does. He will help him weather the storm.

In the dark, Soobin whispers, “Tell me something.”

“Hmm, like what?”

“Tell me something you’ve never told anyone else.”

“Ah, I have the perfect one.”

“Yeah?”

“Yeah.” Yeonjun leans up, mouth right next to Soobin’s ear. “Yes, Soobinnie.”

“Yes what, hyung?”

“Yes, I think you’re handsome, too.”

Soobin beams, and it’s never been so easy to love him. They are far from the shore, but when Yeonjun kisses him, he imagines he can hear the ocean.