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Mise en place

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Min Yoongi was the most hated man in South Korea.


That is, if one believed the current top trending term on Naver and all the fan forums of Chef Challenge that had just exploded in outrage at the result of the last episode of this year's season. Which Jimin did. The Internet had never lied to him before.


Min Yoongi had made the fan favorite contestant cry with his critique, his vote had cost her the title, and he was a monster.


"Booo," Jimin jeered at the television, now rolling the credits, the camera focused on the undeserving chef who’d won and the judges congratulating him.


If he wasn't certain Jungkook would hit him for making a mess of their shared apartment, Jimin would have thrown a handful of potato chips at the TV, too, and especially would have aimed it directly at Min Yoongi's troll face.


He was always so smug and mean; who cared if he'd earned two Michelin stars almost immediately upon opening his first restaurant a few years ago at the ripe old age of 25? Or that he'd won, like, all the cooking competitions ever held in the history of the world? Or that he regularly rubbed shoulders with idols and actors and heads of state at his stupid, expensive, exclusive restaurant where you had to make reservations six months in advance? God, what a dick.


"I keep telling you; he's really not that bad," Jungkook chimed in, barely even looking up from some game he was playing on his tablet at the other end of their sofa. "Most of it's just editing."


Jimin considered throwing the bag of potato chips at his roommate slash best friend since early childhood instead. "Just because you subbed in on production for an episode, like, two seasons ago doesn't mean you know everything," Jimin complained.


"He was kind of nice," said Jungkook with a shrug, like he didn't know that everyone was nice to him regardless because he came across like a fluffy little baby bunny who was impossible not to love, even when he was making outlandish, fully false statements like Min Yoongi is kind of nice. "Anyway, you're going to have to get over it if you make it past auditions for the next season."


Hands thrown up, Jimin did a full-body groan, ending up with his face in the sofa. "Why must you remind me? Kookie, I'm going to die."


Judging by the jaunty music from the tablet suddenly stopping, Jungkook must have paused his game. "This is a lot of drama for something that hasn't happened yet."


Jimin reached out blindly for him, fingers eventually bunching at a seam of Jungkook's sweatpants. "This is exactly the appropriate amount of drama for them not telling me how I did on the interview," he moaned. "It was already two weeks ago, Kook-aaah."


Even though he had something of an in in Jungkook, who'd hopped around on different shows and sets as a production assistant over the past several years, Jungkook couldn't tell him everything about the casting process for Chef Challenge. Jimin had thus far sent in a written application, survived an hour-long telephone interview, and had gone in for an in-person interview with a prepared meal for their tasters to judge.


And… that was it. He hadn't heard from them again since then. Did that mean they were still deciding? Did it mean they hated the cold seafood noodle salad he'd brought in? He'd put too much soy sauce; he'd known it at the time, but had gone with it anyway, and now he was sure it had been his downfall, and that would be fine if only they would tell him one way or another.


Jungkook patted him on the head. "It'll be okay, hyung."


Jimin rolled over onto his back, arms straight above his head and landing in Jungkook's lap. "No, I'm destined to be an office drone forever," he said, descending rapidly into forlornness. At 28, he only had approximately 40 more years of mind-numbing office droning; totally doable. "It's okay, I'll just give up on my dreams. Who needs dreams? Dreams are for people who can make a good cold noodle salad."


Jungkook smacked two fingers against Jimin's forehead.


"Ow," Jimin protested. "Disrespecting elders!"


"Doesn't count if the elder is whining like a baby," said Jungkook.


"I'm not whining," said Jimin. "I am stating my predicament like a calm adult. Can't you tell the difference?"


"Can’t you tell the difference?" Jungkook mimicked in a cartoony approximation of what he apparently thought was Jimin’s voice.


Jimin reached up to slap him in the face but only managed to graze his chin as Jungkook smoothly moved out of reach. "I hate you; you’re the worst best friend I’ve ever had. I’m canceling our friendship," Jimin declared.


"Oh no," Jungkook intoned dully. "What ever will I do."


Exactly what Jungkook could do teetered on the tip of Jimin’s tongue (it involved a sharp stick, Jungkook’s ass, and much shoving), but a startled yelp overtook it instead, as Jimin’s phone buzzed with a text notification. He jumped off the couch.


Jimin’s heart somersaulted in his chest at the sight of the sender ID.


"Oh no, oh no, oh no," said Jimin, dancing on urgent tiptoes. "It’s them. It’s the Chef Challenge people. You read it, Kookie."


Jungkook took the phone and opened the text, his gaze scanning quickly over the words.


"Let me down gently," Jimin pleaded. He clapped his hands over his eyes, like this would help soften the blow of rejection.


"You made it to the next round of auditions," Jungkook said, a grin evident in his voice.


"No, I didn’t!" Jimin gasped. He narrowed suspicious eyes at Jungkook through his fingers, getting the fraction of a view of his ex-best friend's toothy smile. "You better not be pranking me or I will kill you in your sleep."


Jungkook tossed the phone back at him. "Read it yourself, then."


Bobbling the phone with a small cry of panic, Jimin caught it and brought the text message up to his face. Congratulations, you have passed the in-person interview for Chef Challenge. Please call our office to schedule your participation in a group technical skills audition next week, it said.


Jimin read it again. And then twice more for good measure, to make sure he hadn’t hallucinated any of those words.


"Hee," he giggled into his hand, still tucked too deep in disbelief to let out any more than that.


"Next thing you know," Jungkook said, "you’ll be telling Min Yoongi to go fuck himself on national television."


"Don’t sully my moment!" Jimin said, hugging his phone to his chest, the treasured text message right at his heart. "Can’t you let me bask in this glow for one more minute without making me think of his stupid face?"


"Min Yoongi," enunciated Jungkook.


"Drink poison," said Jimin.




There wasn’t any sign telling him not to loiter, so Jimin loitered. Technically, he was hyperventilating outside the building where his audition was taking place, so maybe that counted as a medical emergency more than straight-up lurking.


A tall, broad-shouldered man walked past him and went inside, then stepped back out again.


"Are you okay?" he asked.


Jimin whirled around with a grunt of surprise. On the upside, it made him stop hyperventilating. On the downside, the sight of who was talking to him almost made him start again.


"Oh my god, you’re Kim Seokjin," said Jimin.


"That’s what my ID tells me," said Kim Seokjin cheerfully. He always seemed cheerful. Even being sat next to a toad like Min Yoongi on the judging panel of Chef Challenge appeared to have no dampening effect on his sunny, disarming disposition and bright smile.


"Are you-- Are you judging the technical auditions?" Jimin breathed.


"Oh, is that what you’re here for? Why are you having a mental breakdown outside? In this heat, no less. Come inside, it’s much cooler. There’s air-conditioning," said Seokjin, ushering him inside the building. "And no, I’m just here for a meeting. They don’t involve us until filming actually starts."


"Ah, I see," said Jimin. He was at a loss for what else to say in the presence of such an esteemed TV personality.


Though Kim Seokjin had made his name in interior decorating, his myriad social media posts about food and a first place finish in a celebrity cooking competition several years ago had garnered him a judge’s spot on Chef Challenge to represent the palate and skillset of the everyman. At least, that was the theory, because there was nothing common about Kim Seokjin.


"Good luck," said Seokjin, leading him to the reception desk. "Maybe I’ll see you in the competition."


"Hnnh," said Jimin as Seokjin flashed a smile at him and walked away.


Restraining himself from fishing out his phone to text Jungkook immediately about his celeb encounter with possibly the world's most handsome man, Jimin checked in at the front desk, received a temporary visitor badge, and was bade to go up a few floors to the audition room.


He’d come early to give himself enough time to have a full-on episode outside beforehand, but he wasn’t the first one there. Jimin entered a room that appeared to be a bunch of cubicle walls, each booth set up with a portable gas stove, pots and pans and cooking utensils, and a crate of ingredients. Perhaps he should have also accounted for an extra five minutes to have an episode inside.


"Name," said someone near the entrance holding a clipboard. She was all glasses and ponytail and very little actual interest in who he was.


"Park Jimin," Jimin managed to eke out.


She marked a check in blue ink next to his name. "Booth 22," she said, indicating the row he’d be ensconced in.


As proud as Jimin was of himself for making it this far, it did take away a bit of his feeling of achievement to see at least a few dozen other people here as well. He thought about scoping out the competition, but it seemed pointless at this stage. Unless someone was setting their cubicle on fire, just looking at them wouldn’t tell him anything about their cooking skills.


There were ahjummas and ahjussis, a few people who looked his age, at least one girl who he didn’t think should be here without parental supervision, and dressed from every walk of life. Jimin heard the dissonance of different regional dialects from all over the room, too. He was lucky he’d only had to take a city bus here.


Jimin found his booth and said a shy hello to the petite, wavy-haired girl who was in the one next to his.


"Kim Sejeong," she said brightly. She had an immediately likeable, impish air about her. "Can you believe we’re here?"


"No," Jimin admitted. "It’s crazy. I even met Kim Seokjin outside."


Her eyes went entirely round. "No way! He’s my favorite judge! I’m so jealous. What is he like? Is he coming?"


Jimin shook his head no and explained what Seokjin had told him. "But he’s seriously so nice; he’s just like he seems on TV!"


Sejeong squealed. "I would have completely melted at his feet. Wah, you must be made of steel to withstand holding a whole conversation with him. He’s so handsome." 


Feeling a blush overtake him, Jimin said, "I don’t think what I said qualifies as conversation. I think I kind of just made sounds at him. Like… farm animal sounds."


Sejeong threw her head back in laughter. "Wow, okay, I take it back, then."


Their chat was cut short by an announcement coming over the intercom in the room, telling the attendees that their technical challenge was about to start. The voice explained what was in front of them and that each row had its own tasting judge or producer who would be walking by to ask them questions and converse with them as they cooked.


Jimin hadn’t really considered that aspect of it, but he supposed when he watched Chef Challenge on TV, all the contestants did always have to explain what they were doing and why while doing it, and some would tell stories or make jokes. It wasn’t enough just to be a good cook; you had to have a TV-ready personality as well.


He was already sweaty.


"Fighting!" Sejeong whispered to him, with a fist pump.


Jimin returned the gesture as the voice gave them their brief. No recipe was provided, and the amateur chefs were to use any amount and combination of the ingredients in the crate to make their own version of kimchi fried rice within 45 minutes.


Easy, thought Jimin with relief.


The auditionees were given the go-ahead to start. Pots and pans clanged against each other and assorted muttering rose into the air; somewhere at the other end of the room Jimin heard someone drop something and swear in frustration.


Feeling sorry for whoever it was but at the same time glad that it wasn’t him, Jimin tried to put everything else out of his mind while he prepared his dish. He’d made it dozens of times before, and had, in fact, learned how to do it from his halmeoni, who made the best kimchi fried rice -- actually, the best everything -- ever. Despite this, Jimin couldn’t help the clammy feeling in his hands.


She’d always told him, teasingly, that her secret ingredient was love. Right now, the best secret ingredient Jimin could come up with was anxiety, but it would have to do.


He spied a producer stopping at the next stall to talk to one of the auditionees, holding up a handheld camera, and redoubled his efforts. Surreptitiously, he smoothed down his hair, hoping the bleach job he'd recently done on it didn't look terrible on camera.


Soon, the producer ambled over to Jimin’s station.


"Hello," he said amiably. He was tall and thin, with hair the color of straw and a guileless, dimpled smile. "I’m Kim Namjoon. I’m one of the producers for Chef Challenge."


"Nice to meet you," Jimin said, flashing the most telegenic smile he could muster. It may have come across deranged; he’d never know. "I’m Park Jimin."


"Don’t mind the camera. Tell me a little bit about yourself," Namjoon prompted. "What’s your interest in cooking, how you feel about the challenge today, things like that."


"Oh, sure," said Jimin as breezily as he could while simultaneously eyeballing a tablespoon of sesame oil. He told Namjoon about his halmeoni, how she’d taken care of him while his parents were off at work and involved him in all her errands and chores, so he’d learned from an early age how to keep house and take care of himself, and the importance of a warm, home-cooked meal. Jimin paused. "Oh, sorry, is that too much information?"


Namjoon smiled. "No, no, don’t worry about it," he said, then moved on to Sejeong’s booth.


Jimin frowned at his rice. They were always so tight-lipped, these Chef Challenge people, never giving anything away. At his telephone and in-person interviews, too, they’d been like that, nice and polite but distant, dropping absolutely no hints about what they thought. Was there, like, a training they all went to? Did they all get certificates in being poker-faced?


The judges on the show weren’t like that, though. They told you exactly what they thought. Jimin would prefer that to ambiguity, even if it meant being told he was terrible to his face. With any luck, he’d make it there. Though preferably with praise rather than Min Yoongi telling him his food tasted like it’d been scraped off the bottom of a shoe (which, how would he even know).


The voice over the intercom informed them of their remaining time. Jimin shoved Min Yoongi out of his mind and finished up his fried rice, plating it carefully with a sprinkle of seaweed and sesame seeds and topped with a crispy fried egg. All in all, it didn’t look too bad, if Jimin were to say so himself.


Not long after, a tasting judge came by to try Jimin’s dish. The taster chewed thoughtfully, nodded, then marked something on his clipboard, and moved along.


Jimin waited until the taster had passed Sejeong’s station, then leaned over to whisper heatedly, "Why won’t they say anything?"


"I know, right?" she whispered back. "It’s killing me! I need immediate validation!" Sejeong shoveled a heap of her fried rice onto a spoon and offered it to Jimin. "Tell me the truth. I swear I can handle it."


While she steeled herself for his judgment, Jimin pointed to his own dish, indicating that she should try his as well.


"Mmm," said Jimin around his mouthful. He shook a thumbs-up at Sejeong. "You did very well. Good job."


Sejeong grinned. "You too."





This time, it took the producers two entire months to make their decisions. Even though Jimin received an email every now and then assuring him that they were still waiting on some final decisions or submissions or whatever, having that time drag on led to Jimin already convincing himself that they’d wanted nothing to do with him and he could kiss his dreams of attending culinary school goodbye.


His boss was not helpful, either, badgering him constantly for updates on whether he’d been accepted or not. The nice thing was that Manager Choi was a huge fan of Chef Challenge, too, and therefore had signed off on all the time Jimin had needed to partake in the interviewing and auditioning process, as well as promising future time off if he actually got on the show.


On the other hand, once they’d gone over all the net profit and domestic inventory and client retention reports, all Manager Choi wanted to talk about was Jimin’s audition experience and whether he had heard back yet.


"No," said Jimin.


Manager Choi, forty going on sixty-five and perpetually unable to tie his tie right, groaned in frustration, fists curling with disappointment in his thinning hair. "Don’t they realize our department pride is at stake here? If we could say that Hansung Imports produced Park Jimin, top Chef Challenge star, customers would come flocking to us!"


Though Jimin personally didn’t see what connection could be made between his cooking and the company’s imported machinery, he agreed with a firm nod, "That’s right."


It’d be especially upsetting to have to tell Manager Choi that he hadn’t made it. Jimin suspected he might cry.


Which made his relief all the sweeter a week later when Jimin finally received a text from the Chef Challenge producers to congratulate him on his casting, along with instructions to keep a lookout for an email they would send out soon with his contract.


Almost immediately after that, he got a Katalk message from Sejeong, who he’d exchanged contact information with after the technical challenge. Did you hear from them???


Yes, Jimin typed, though he felt like he might be in a dream and would wake up at any moment, everything just a little hazy and unreal, I got in.


Me too!!! Sejeong replied, along with a dancing chipmunk emoji.


Jimin excused himself from his desk and scurried out into the hallway, then pulled up Sejeong’s number from his contacts list and dialed it, his thumbs vibrating with excitement. She shrieked into the phone by way of greeting and Jimin laughed, relieved and glad and over the moon, not only that he was actually going to be on Chef Challenge, but that his new friend had made it, too.


After they had gotten all their squeals out and hung up, Jimin texted Jungkook.








He realized that getting impatient about Jungkook not reading his texts right away within the span of fifteen seconds was a little on the side of unreasonable, but Jungkook seriously had nothing else important in his life besides Jimin and should definitely be putting down whatever he was doing to respond to Jimin.


I’M WORKIIIING, came Jungkook’s equally loud reply, finally.




Holy shit for real?


Jimin grinned at his phone. A laugh bubbled up his throat and he clamped his hand over his mouth to keep it from spilling over. It actually was for real. He was going to be on Chef Challenge and he was going to meet Kim Seokjin (again!) and Ahn Hani and that other judge he didn’t care about and he was going to learn so many things and make all kinds of connections and get one step closer to affording culinary school.


He felt his knees go wobbly, and Jimin dropped into an unsteady crouch, using the corridor wall for support as the shock sank in and settled into his bones.


It’s real, he typed.


Dinner’s on you, hyung!!




The next step, after signing his life and rights away, was for Jimin and the other fourteen chosen ones to show up back at the Chef Challenge offices to attend an initial meeting where the filming process would be explained to them. They’d then head to the set for a rehearsal of sorts, get shown where everything was, and be given briefs on how they were expected to respond to the cameras and producers. And after that, there’d be photoshoots and on-camera interviews.


It was all a bit much, but at least Jimin and Sejeong had each other. He wasn’t sure about the rest of the contestants.


To begin with, there were only so many names he could remember at a time, especially when they all just went around in a big circle to introduce themselves -- plus all the producers and wranglers and what seemed like sixty thousand other people on set.


There was the producer Kim Namjoon, whom Jimin remembered from the technical audition. He seemed to be the one who interacted with the contestants the most. He also seemed the nicest of the producers, so Jimin made a mental note to stick by him as much as possible.


As for the contestants… Jimin squinted slightly as he looked around the conference table. Easily picked out was Yook Sungjae, who was tall and quirky and polite, and seemed to have already carved out a position for himself in the room as everyone’s favorite little brother. Next to him, a couple of young, lanky guys whose names might have been Go Shinwon and Something Sanghyuk? Jimin wasn’t entirely sure.


Next to them, Lee Ilhwa, a chatty, fluttery mom-type eager to shelter everyone under her wing, which endeared her to Jimin immediately, plus the fact that she had already claimed adoption rights to Sejeong and fussed over Jimin’s crooked collar. She seemed entirely untroubled by the male contestant standing across from her, Taeyang, whose intense, circumspect expression hadn't let up since walking in.


The others’ names Jimin had already forgotten as soon as they’d been said. There was a taciturn, intimidating older man who looked to be in his forties; a pair of tiny, button-cute young ladies seemingly cut from the same adorable cloth and destined to be best friends; another pair of slender, well-dressed women who radiated confidence; an older ahjumma who looked as if she not only suffered no fools but could easily arm-wrestle them into submission as well; and then two handsome drama hero-looking types who somehow hadn’t been scouted yet by any entertainment agencies.


Once introductions were done, the producers explained what the contestants could expect from their experience.


"Filming is a long process," said Namjoon. "The hour-long program you see on TV sometimes takes maybe twelve, fourteen hours to film."


A few surprised gasps and murmurs rose among the contestants.


"There can be a lot of downtime as well," he went on, "while we prep the sets for the different challenges. And of course, you’ve all seen the talking heads and exit interviews that we do, too, and that takes extra time. You’re not allowed to leave the studio either, unless with prior permission and a wrangler, so be prepared for some potentially very long and boring days. Bring music or games or whatever if you need to for when you’re in the waiting rooms."


Jimin exchanged a wide-eyed glance with Sejeong. Filming was to take place on Saturdays, but Jimin still felt a surge of relief that Manager Choi was so understanding about the time needed to commit to the show.


Another producer passed out a sheet of paper outlining things they should keep in mind, like not wearing thin stripes or clothing with visible logos, covering tattoos, and keeping distracting accessories, makeup, or hair to a minimum, with the producers having final say on whether a contestant’s appearance was acceptable or not.


It was honestly exhausting just hearing about it. Though Jimin wasn’t exactly having second thoughts about signing up for the program, he hadn't fully considered all the other aspects of being on the program and how much thought he'd need to put into them.


"Don't worry about meals or snacks, we'll take care of that. Okay," said Namjoon, looking around and seeing no immediate questions. He pushed himself up from his chair. "Let’s go see the set."


Like scared ducklings, the contestants followed behind him in a slightly befuddled, disorganized group.


The first impression Jimin got of the set was that it was huge. He supposed the cameras needed adequate space to get in and around each contestant’s station, and with fifteen people to accommodate at the start, plus the judges panel, that meant the set had to be pretty roomy.


There were a few crew members already milling around, though the actual first day of competition wouldn’t begin until the following day.


Jimin overheard someone complain about a PA being late and was liable to get fired if he didn’t show up in the next two minutes.


Sejeong tugged urgently on his arm. "It’s Kim Seokjin!" she hissed, gesturing to the judge leaning casually against the long table that served as the judges panel.


There were a few more excited murmurs of recognition coming from the rest of the group as well.


Jimin perked up, craning his neck from behind one of the too-tall drama leading men to catch a glimpse of Seokjin. Seokjin was, as usual, dressed impeccably and looked ready to start being on camera that very instant. Next to him was a shorter man Jimin didn’t recognize, clad in all black sweats and a baseball cap and with a posture entirely too relaxed for being stood next to Kim Seokjin.


"Omo, omo," said Ilhwa, coming to join their little starstruck group. "Is that Min Yoongi? Ahh, I love him."


"Huh?" said Jimin.


Now that he’d actually been identified, Jimin could see that it was indeed Min Yoongi standing at Seokjin’s side. He looked completely different from how he appeared on television, smaller and softer and far less intimidating somehow, whereas on the show just one Medusa stare from him could reduce grown men to blubbering messes.


"Ah, it seems we’ve been graced with a few judges’ presences today," Namjoon said, possibly overhearing them. He paused the set tour and called out. "Seokjin hyung, Yoongi hyung, what are you doing here?"


Seokjin grinned. "Just wanted to check out our new batch of sacrificial lambs today. Nice to meet you, everyone! Let’s work together well!" he said brightly, waving with both hands. His glance landed on Jimin. "Oh! Manggaeddeok! You made it!"


"Who-- what?" said Jimin, looking around, not sure Seokjin had actually spoken to him.


"Manggaeddeok?" said Min Yoongi, raising a wry eyebrow and pinning his gaze on Jimin.


It wasn’t quite the piercing glare Jimin was used to seeing on the show, but it was close. It felt as if he was being sized up and also possibly chewed up and spat out, like when sharks took test bites of surfers in the hopes that they were food.


"Look at those pinchable cheeks!" Seokjin said with a laugh. "Sorry, I didn’t know your name so that’s what I decided to call you."


Jimin bowed, flustered, well aware of all the other contestants' envious eyes on him. "It’s okay! I’m Park Jimin!"


"I like your hair!" Seokjin said with a thumbs-up.


Jimin felt himself blush, probably going red all the way up to the roots of his newly honey-blond dyed hair. If Kim Seokjin approved of it, Jimin had a mind to never change his hair color again.


"You’ve… met before?" Namjoon asked.


"Ran into him outside the building the day we had our planning meeting a few weeks ago," Seokjin explained. "Don’t worry, Joonie, there’s no conflict of interest. Honestly, you get so het up about such silly things."


"It’s my job," Namjoon sniffed.


Jimin sort of heard Sejeong squealing next to him, a high-frequency bleating that was perhaps more suited to company of the canine variety.


"Oh my god, he even remembers you from all that time ago," one of the other girls said with a dreamy sigh. "You're so lucky."


Jimin shook his head and waved his hands to dispel any wild assumptions, whatever they might be, though he couldn't exactly disagree that having Kim Seokjin recognize him was possibly the most thrilling thing that had ever happened in his adult life.


A young man with a thick mop of black hair and thin, metal-rimmed glasses approached Yoongi then, calling him hyung, effectively ending the impromptu meet-the-judges session. Jimin marveled at the fact that not one, but two entire people had no problem publicly claiming Min Yoongi as their hyung. Jimin would rather be tarred and feathered first.


The contestants were then shown a large, well-organized and painstakingly labeled pantry area where they could access their everyday, commonly used ingredients like salt, vegetable oil, and soy sauce, as well as a row of fridges and freezers for whatever perishables might be on the docket for the day.


They were then assigned at random to the cooking stations in the middle of the set, and a cameraman demonstrated the angles at which they’d usually be filmed, what "beauty shots" were, and ways to signal producers or camera directors without ruining someone else’s take.


The crash course in being a reality competition contestant left Jimin’s head reeling, but there wasn’t time for him to panic about it, as they were whisked off to make-up chairs next to prepare for a photoshoot. For a sense of cohesion, they were all also given plain white button-up shirts to wear for the photos.


After changing, Jimin underwent a series of dabbing and powdering and concealing, plus other things he didn’t know how to name under the quick, expert hands of a make-up artist, with the result that his face seemed airbrushed to perfection.


Sejeong came over to his chair when she was done getting made up -- though truthfully not much had to be done with her, in Jimin’s estimation -- and said, "Oh, hyung! You look like you could be on the cover of GQ!"


His lips quirking up at being called hyung instead of oppa, Jimin said, "Speak for yourself. Your make-up person was done with you in, like, two seconds."


"We should form an idol group," Shinwon piped up from the next chair. "We can all be the visuals."


Sejeong gave him a high five.


Though Jimin had made friends with Sejeong the fastest, the others seemed pretty nice as well. There wasn’t anyone who was ringing alarm bells in his head or waving red flags of any sort; previous seasons of Chef Challenge had sometimes devolved a little into backbiting or jealous rivalries, which were Jimin’s least favorite parts of watching the show. He hoped his cohort would keep drama to a minimum. He just wanted to cook his best.


A wrangler pulled Sejeong away to stand in front of a plain, white backdrop. Jimin stood behind the photographer to watch as she was given an apron to put on and a wooden spoon to hold up in her individual shots. The photographer made encouraging comments as he snapped away, and Sejeong was done in a matter of minutes.


Jimin came next. After having watched Sejeong go through it, he knew there was nothing to really worry about, but as soon as the wrangler stepped away and Jimin stood on his own with a tomato clutched in one hand, his brain screeched to a halt. What was smiling? Had he ever learned smiling?


"Uh," said the photographer, lowering his camera for a second, "maybe a little more… cheerful?"


Jimin heard Sejeong laughing off to the side. "You can do it, hyung!"


Behind the photographer, the bespectacled young man from before emerged, the one who’d called Min Yoongi hyung, and therefore possibly a mentally unstable person. The conjecture continued to hold water, as the young man began posing behind the photographer as if he were the one holding a ridiculous, lone tomato in his hands.


It took Jimin a bewildered moment, but, following some gesturing and encouraging looks from the young man, Jimin gathered that he was supposed to copy his movements. He offered the tomato to the camera with a coy glance, contemplated it as if it were a fascinating study subject, held it up next to his cheek with affection.


Soon, the photographer got what he wanted out of Jimin and sent him off, a hint of relief in his face.


Jimin blinked at the dismissal and quickly got out of the way as Sungjae took his place and began doing high-fashion model poses with a head of broccoli.


"Nice job," the young man said with a grin. His smile was almost rectangular, the way manga characters got drawn when they were excited. "I’m Kim Taehyung, by the way."


Jimin shook his hand with a little bow and introduced himself. "Thanks for the help," he said with an embarrassed laugh. "I don’t know why I just froze like that. I thought the photographer was going to punch me."


"No worries," said Taehyung. "I have a lot of experience with that. I’m Min Yoongi’s manager, and he hates getting his photo taken, so I’ve had to do that for him before at a lot of his photoshoots."


"Ahh… I see. That must be an interesting job," said Jimin at his diplomatic best. It was probably not the right forum to share his grievances about Min Yoongi making his favorite contestant from the last season cry, so Jimin kept it to himself.


Taehyung snickered. "I know what you’re thinking. Min Yoongi, that smart-ass bastard? Not untrue," he said good-naturedly. "But I’ve worked for him for three years, and I love my job. I would jump into traffic for him, so there must be something in that."


"Stockholm Syndrome?" Jimin blurted out.


Taehyung burst into laughter. "You’re hilarious. You’re going to be great on the show."


Though Jimin hadn’t really been joking, he gave Taehyung a weak smile and considered telling him to blink twice if he needed help getting out of Min Yoongi’s evil clutches, but was interrupted by a noise from Taehyung’s phone.


"Duty calls!" Taehyung said, and swanned away.


There was a little bit of waiting around while each contestant went through their individual photoshoots, then the wranglers corralled everyone in front of the backdrop to let the photographer take a few group shots. This time, at least, Jimin didn’t have to pretend a tomato was the love of his life, as they stood in two rows, like for a class picture.


Jimin could see that his fellow contestants were already flagging a little, and so was he, but they still had individual interviews to sit through. He could see copious amounts of coffee in his future and probably a lot of late-night crying to Jungkook.


Two areas were set up for interviews, and Namjoon called Jimin over. Jimin was directed to a seat and had to wait for lights to be adjusted before Namjoon started the interview.


"Can you tell me that story again? About you and your grandmother?" Namjoon said. "But, uh, speak to me, not into the camera."


So, once again, Jimin relayed his experiences at his halmeoni’s knee, the way he’d learned how to measure the amount of water needed to cook rice to fluffy perfection on the stove top; how his halmeoni experimented with pickling and fermenting everything remotely edible, to tiny guinea pig Jimin’s consternation; the bittersweet feeling he got every time he cooked something they had once cooked side by side, now that she was gone.


"Great, that’s great," said Namjoon. "If she were here now, what would you say to her?"


"Oh," said Jimin, caught slightly off-guard. "Uh, I guess, I miss her a lot?"


"You can speak to the camera for this one," said Namjoon. "Like you’re doing a video message."


"Okay…" said Jimin. He shifted his gaze to look into the camera lens. "Halmeoni, I miss you and love you lots!"


"Anything else?" Namjoon prompted.


"... No?" Jimin said, unsure what else to say. Anything he did want to say to his grandmother was between him and her, really.


Namjoon looked as if he wanted to ask Jimin to say something else but left it. "Okay," he said with a smile. "I think we have enough. Check out with your wrangler and go home and get some rest. We start early tomorrow."


"Thank you," said Jimin politely. He did as he was told, then made his way out of the building after texting Sejeong that he was leaving and that he’d see her the next day.


On his way out, he passed Taehyung and Min Yoongi having a chat in the middle of the hallway.


"Bye!" Taehyung called out. "Get lots of sleep! Tomorrow will be crazy!"


"Bye, Taehyung-ssi," Jimin said.


He flicked his glance towards Yoongi, wondering if he was supposed to say anything, but Yoongi, though looking in his direction, didn’t seem inclined to speak either, so Jimin sort of bowed at him and left. 


Jimin caught his bus just in time and fell asleep almost as soon as he sat down, even with the constant jostling and stop announcements. By some miracle, he awoke two stops before his, brain fuzzy with fading details of a dream; Min Yoongi had been in it, saying something about Jimin’s hair. Jimin had already lost the words to the dream ether, but he knew he’d woken up indignant about it.


He huffed to himself, then pressed the button to alert the driver he wanted to alight. The competition hadn’t even started yet and he was already having stress dreams about the meanest judge. It didn’t bode well for his sanity. Anyway, who was Min Yoongi to tell him anything about his hair; the surly judge's hair was always the same, simple and black and boring.


The bus rolled into Jimin’s stop and Jimin hopped off, pushing the dream out of his mind. He didn’t need that kind of useless negativity in his life.


Jimin rode the elevator up to the apartment, and as soon as he punched in the passcode and entered, Jungkook scared him with a surprise, popping up from the couch on his knees, like a giant Whac-a-Mole mole.


Jimin leapt into a fighting stance with a startled cry. "Oh, god, it’s only you," he breathed in relief. Once the adrenaline passed, he went over to shove Jungkook in the shoulder.


"It’s not my fault you’re easily scared," said Jungkook, leaning over the back of the sofa.


"I am cautious, not scared," said Jimin.


"Whatever you say, hyung," said Jungkook, a corner of his lips tipping up into mockery.  "Anyway, if you’re done being frightened, I have news."




"I just got booked last-minute for a PA job on Chef Challenge," Jungkook announced, arms raised in the air like a prize fighter. "My last director recommended me. Because I am, as you know, awesome."


"No way!" Jimin said, excitement subduing whatever residual pique he harbored from being startled. "That means I’ll get to see you on set all the time?"


Jungkook nodded. "I may even have to get coffee for you," he said. "It’s your dream come true."


"Ah yes, peon Jungkook serving me coffee on a golden tray while I look benevolently upon my adoring subjects," Jimin said, enacting his royal wave at the otherwise empty living room. "This pleases us."


"But I can also get the camera director to shoot really unflattering angles of you, so…"


Jimin clicked his tongue, in as dignified a manner as he could. "We are beautiful from every angle, peasant."


"Wow, you haven’t even gotten on actual television and it’s already gone to your head. If you start relaying this TV appearance into a career as an Instagram influencer, I’m breaking up with you," said Jungkook.


Jimin reached out an aristocratic hand and touched his fingers to the underside of Jungkook’s chin. "Never, my love."


Apparently seeing -- with one hundred percent accuracy -- that Jimin was rapidly descending into a let’s-reenact-all-the-drama-tropes mood, Jungkook backed away from Jimin’s Joseon dynasty forbidden love story. "Stop being so weird, hyung. God, you’re the worst," he said, and ran towards his room.


"Just let me love you," Jimin called after him.


"No, get away from me!" Jungkook yelled over his shoulder.


"Don’t fight it, baby!"


Jungkook slammed his bedroom door. "Choke on a dick!"


"That requires me actually finding one first," said Jimin to himself.