The Genius isn't scripted, not in the way You Are My Oppa was, at least. Sunggyu thinks back to the days spent in that tiny house and shudders. They've long surpassed that stage, he tells himself. They're no longer a ragtag group of strangers that he needs to fight tooth and nail to keep together, when the only mantra in his head (as he ignored the glares he could feel on his back and see reflected off the mirrored walls after shouting again, again and again) was that if he could somehow get them all to move as one then maybe eventually they would actually become one too.
This time, he's told, each of the cast is given a role they're supposed to act out for the cameras. But everything else – the alliances, strategies and victors – are as legitimate as reality television can get. The entire show is a game played among a group of thirteen picked from a range of industries, all known for being strong and intelligent and sharp. He's one of the youngest, Hyoan tells him, and the only idol among them.
Sunggyu hadn't quite managed to stop the grin spreading over his face, but now he doesn't quite understand the look the producers exchange as they sit across from him, before handing him his character brief. It's a single white page with the broadcaster's letterhead printed in color at the top and paragraph of black text in the middle, which he receives eagerly with both hands.
He reads it once. There's a brief pause when he looks up and makes eye contact. He has to scan the letter again.
Act dumb, the words don't say. Play the vapid pretty boy idol. Live down to all the viewers' expectations.
He blinks. His fingers are not trembling. And when he opens his eyes again he's laughing, eyes creasing up in the way he's learnt makes his fans squeal. The producers smile back, clasp his shoulder and shake his hand when he stands – thank you for this opportunity, sunbaenim – and bows a deep ninety degrees.
Later when he's in the backseat as Hyoan drives back to the dorm, he pulls the document out from his blazer pocket and stares straight ahead. He folds away his name at the top and refrains from tearing the rest of the sheet to shreds.
It's near the end of June and the night is sweltering. Sangmin's face is lit by his phone.
— sunggyu ya. r u alright?
— im fine hyung. thank u
So polite, he thinks. He thinks Sunggyu isn't fine at all.
— meet hyung for supper?
There's a pause where Sunggyu doesn't reply even after the unread notification fades, until his phone lights up again.
Sangmin picks Sunggyu up from the lobby of his dorm, where Sunggyu had been standing idly by the apartment security booth fiddling with his phone. He's in an oversized t-shirt and sweatpants and it's only when he gets into the car that Sangmin notices his face is bare.
'You look different without the eyeliner,' he offers, and Sunggyu laughs.
They go to a restaurant tucked away in a corner of an old neighbourhood, a place where the average age of the customers is closer to Sangmin's father than his teenage nieces, the girls who would squeal at Infinite's Sunggyu in recognition even if they'd never seen him before in their lives. Sangmin doesn't get that kind of reaction anymore. It has, after all, been quite a while.
'Two bottles of soju,' he tells the old lady who takes their order.
'No, just one,' Sunggyu interrupts.
Sangmin turns to him, surprised. 'You don't want to drink?'
There's a sort of tightness around Sunggyu's eyes. 'I've got vocal practice tomorrow and we're having our comeback soon, so I'd rather not–'
(On set Sunggyu is one of the youngest, and Sangmin suddenly realises just how much the clothes and makeup Sunggyu's stylists give him help to soften the hardness he'd never noticed in his face. Under the florescent restaurant lights Sunggyu's expression is weary, narrowed steel. Logically, Sangmin knows about the kind of conditions idols go through. He'd come from a different era but he'd seen and heard enough to know that this boy with the small eyes soft cheekbones and carefully trimmed hair can't possibly be as easily led on as he'd first been on the show.
Sangmin started to get an idea when he found out it had been Sunggyu's idea to switch bottles with Gura all those weeks ago, and it solidified with each filming as the clueless persona wore thin and a wary intelligence began to bleed through. But it is only now, when he looks at Sunggyu in baggy training clothes and dark circles around his eyes that he fully realises the weight Sunggyu carries. Away from The Genius's set he is the oldest and the leader: there is a whole group of people – six others, but that is beyond Sangmin to remember – who look up to and depend on this man to pull them through.)
'–But thank you, hyung.'
There's that polite tone again, guarded, that Sangmin hasn't heard since the first time they'd met in a tvN conference room. Sangmin had heard about the online vitriol, the subsequent public apology and claiming of full responsibility – but he suddenly feels bitterly responsible for the reversion. Like he'd failed Sunggyu somehow, and that trust was something he'd never get back.
'Of course, you need to take care of your voice.' Sangmin takes a gulp from his glass. 'I hope you win number one.'
Sunggyu is smiling, but his eyes are hard. 'We will.'