They don't seem real.
None of it seems real to Hoetaek sometimes.
Has he been holed in his studio for one day? Two weeks? Three months? Four years?
Has it really been four years since they made their debut? It seems like only yesterday that Hoetaek first set foot in the company building, which back then used to be located in Cheongdam District instead of Seongsu; that was already seven years ago. If put that way, so much time has passed, so much space has been taken up. And still, neither seems enough.
Days go by.
A cycle of everything and nothing that Hoetaek deems important. Time. Space. Energy. More time.
Barely a quarter of the year has passed yet he already feels so rushed, like time is running a million miles an hour and he already feels too exhausted to even go a mile. But he can't stop. Not right now. Not when his frustration is almost at its peak, and everyone is blaming themselves for not doing enough when it's him who should take the blame for not leading them to the right direction. No, now isn't the time to stop; not when there's still so much to do but so little time left.
In a few days, follow-up promotions for their first full length album will be over. It all just felt like a blur of music shows and fansigns and interviews, of so many schedules that seem to have all bled into each other to the point that Hoetaek could barely tell which one was which.
Just like that, the months of preparations, of making songs that he wished would be good enough to land them that ever so elusive first win, of lying to each other that things are looking up when the truth is they've been stuck on the same ground for longer than they'd ever want to admit, of holding himself together when he always felt on the brink of falling apart— all of it has come and gone in the blink of an eye.
In a few months from now, too, Jinho will be leaving for mandatory military conscription. He'll be coming back, of course, but the thought of having someone else leave again — after Hyojong's departure that almost cost them everything they've worked so hard for, after Yan An's indefinite hiatus that doesn't even make sense — makes bile rise up Hoetaek's throat. It's an experience he'd really rather not relive. But what choice does he have? So he runs, and runs, and runs, until his legs give out.
He has to run, because in the last quarter of the year, he himself will also be enlisting.
Between the present — him in his studio, already working on songs for their next album that hopefully could make things better for them, even if they're incomplete when it happens — and the future — him finally leaving the kids on their own to take care of the group for some two years, after which he can't entirely be sure there'd even be a group to return to — Hoetaek still has business to finish.
So he has to run, because when he looks behind him, time has already caught up to again, has already gone around while he struggles to pick up his pace.
A complete three-sixty.
That's exactly what it feels like to Hoetaek right now, after having just received the news a few hours ago that, yet again, they're to go on another survival show.
A survival show between boy groups with potential, but are mostly unknown to many. That's how they're branding it. That's the kind of joke they want to sell to people this time.
Hoetaek hasn't fully processed the fact yet; it still hasn't sunk in that they're doing this four years into their career.
A group with potential.
A group unknown to many.
Four years and this is still where they are. Hoetaek's entire youth and this is still where he stands.
If given the choice, he'd rather not do it. It hurts his pride, being considered the same level as a group that hasn't even debuted yet, being forced to compete with others for a chance to compete in yet another survival show. Is it really just an endless cycle?
"Hyung?" a deep voice calls as the door cracks open.
"Oh—" Hoetaek turns around to find Wooseok entering his studio, followed by Yuto, who closes the door behind him. "You're still here?"
"We're heading home," Yuto tells him. "Thought we should drop by for a second."
"I see." Hoetaek knows they're worried about him, but he himself is worried about other things, what with all that's going on and not going on in their collective career as an almost four-year-old group. It pains him, but the truth is that they’re at a point in their interconnected lives where they barely have time to worry about each other as individuals.
“You should head home soon, too, hyung,” Wooseok says. “Another recording in a few hours.”
“Hyung.” Yuto sounds too small for the entire hundred and eighty centimeters of him. “You and Hyunggu…”
Hoetaek winces at the image Hyunggu’s name conjures up in his mind — crying, breaking down, blaming himself for not being good enough. It’s painfully familiar, reflective of Hoetaek’s own heart.
“Have you talked to him?” he asks them, pushing down the guilt that's starting to eat him up.
Yuto shakes his head. “I think it’s best to leave him alone for a while.”
“Yeah,” Wooseok agrees, “even Jinho-hyung went home.”
“I think so.”
Hoetaek sighs. “You two should go,” he tells Wooseok and Yuto. “I’ll talk to him when I see him.”
“Hui-hyung,” Wooseok starts. “What do you think about joining Road to Kingdom?”
“I don’t like it,” Hoetaek answers right away, honesty flowing even more freely out of exhaustion. “But we don’t have a choice.”
Choices, he thinks with bitterness in his mouth. They're for people who aren't desperate.
“It would’ve been nice, huh?” Yuto says with a humorless chuckle. "If we did have a choice."
Choices are for people who aren't them.
It’s like a slap to Hoetaek’s face. Reality is harsh. The world can be so unkind to them who have been working so hard. Time is both fleeting and all-encompassing. Space can be both immeasurably vast and suffocatingly cramped.
“Yeah,” he mumbles in agreement.
It's just like receiving the news some four, five years ago, that in order to debut the ten of them would first have to go through some made up, pointless survival show, where they'd still have to prove themselves despite having already trained so long and so hard for the chance to stand together on stage as the main stars instead of dancing in the background.
Back then, their dreams were so fresh, shining so brightly in front of them, an arm's length away just barely out of reach— yet, ultimately, out of reach.
Four years later and everything still slips from their hands.
They've been doing this for so long. They've been trying to prove themselves to people for forever, and still it's not enough. Nothing seems enough. It's like they still haven't proven anything despite all the songs and compositions, all the hard work and dedication.
It's like they're not going any further, despite how many steps they take forward.
The desperate need for acknowledgement and recognition isn’t unfounded, the burning desire to tell everyone proudly, ‘This is Pentagon. This is who we are. This is what we can do. This is what we’ve achieved.’ Everything has a reason behind it. Every shout loud with frustration; every tear salty with bitterness; every bead of sweat trickling from their temples and drying on the skin of their overworked bodies. All of it is because of a target they still can’t seem to pin down no matter how hard they’ve been trying.
Everything he’s doing now, Hoetaek reminds himself, he does for a goal they all share, for a dream they all believe in.
He can’t let them down.
“Hyung, we’re going now,” Wooseok announces, rising up from the chair he sank in just a few minutes ago.
“Okay.” Hoetaek tries a smile. He hopes it looks sincere. He loves them, the kids — Hongseok who’s always improving himself day by day, Shinwon who does everything he can to help everyone, Changgu whom Hoetaek has known for as long as he’s been in Cube, Yan An whom he misses dearly and wishes can join them soon, the three youngest kids who work just as hard as Hoetaek does. And Jinho, whom Hoetaek has come to rely on heavily in the past two years. Even Hyojong, who he used to rely on a lot but has close to nothing to do with them now. He hopes they know it. He hopes they feel it with every piece of him he pours into the songs he makes for them.
“See you later, hyung.” Yuto claps him on the back.
A bout of silence follows in their wake. It drives Hoetaek a little insane: pauses, breaks, catching his breath. It’s always like he’s not supposed to have time for that.
Alone in the studio again, Hoetaek feels the toll of the day’s work. Promoting songs is always tiring— in all aspects of the word. Mentally, it's draining; the more days pass and nothing happens, the harder it becomes to accept the reality that they seem to be heading nowhere.
He guesses he should be thankful they still get to promote at all. Other idols who haven’t peaked this late in their career, their agencies would have already given up on. Granted, their agency doesn’t do all that much for them, either way; if none of them produced their own songs, they’d probably be stuck in the basement, too, floating in space and waiting for time to pass by. They’ve been at this for so long, long enough for it to stick in their heads that if they themselves don't work for what they want, then who will?
At the very least, promoting songs means eight of them get to be together more often. They probably need it, Hoetaek thinks, what with Jinho leaving for the military soon, and he himself joining not long after.
And still, Hoetaek can’t convince himself to stop and rest for a while, to just spend time with his group. Not now, when he’s sure that everyone else is just as frustrated as he is.
Not until time stops and waits for them to catch up.
Not until space narrows down enough for them to cross from one point to another.
They still don't seem real.
None of it seems real to Hoetaek sometimes.