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Sing! Idol

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“Growing up, I just loved performing. There was nothing else. I went from Qingdao to Beijing to Seoul for this dream, and I’ll do it again.” 

-- SONG Qian Victoria (32), Chinese ethnic dancer soloist. 


“Coming here is like…. Adult Hyukjae trying to give an answer to teenage Hyukjae. Teenage Hyukjae auditioned with SM and was told he was talented but too ugly. Haha. So now Adult Hyukjae is asking the viewers, ‘now I have experience to pair with the talent. Am I still too ugly? Does it matter?’ That is kind of why I am here.”

-- LEE Hyukjae (33), dance instructor.


 

Previously on Sing! Idol,

Dance Challenge winner: YUNHO

 

Changmin’s less nervous than he thinks. Maybe it’s because he’s accepted reality. The audience did give a middling score for his performance of Sorry, Sorry.  

So he listens to Hyunmoo announcing that Yunho’s won the Dance challenge, and nods calmly. Then it’s time to shed light on the contestant with the lowest score as voted by the audience.

It’s Kyungsoo. He’s the one going home. Changmin nods along for three seconds until he realises: It’s not him.

He’s still here. 

Against all odds, the audience didn’t think he is the worst. They gave him a score that wasn’t too good, but it wasn’t the worst either. He’s still here.

 

--

 

He hugs Kyungsoo for a long time, backstage. I’m sorry, is the curl of his arms around the younger man’s back. Don’t be, is the tight answering clutch in return.  

Jihwan has taken a far shot of the two of them, then nods at Changmin, retreating around the corner to give them a semblance of privacy. 

Drawing back, Kyungsoo gives him a long and unreadable look. “Do you know you were the first person to speak to me that day?”

Changmin thinks, and rears back. “No.”

“Yep.”

That was introductions day. But, “but the crew-” 

“Some of the crew recognised me,” Kyungsoo says, taking off his jacket to pass to a wandering stylist. “Most of them didn’t. But I was so quiet that they ended up talking to each other and then shuffling me around.”

Changmin doesn’t know what to say. “Oh.”

“And you said hello.” Kyungsoo smiles at him. 

“I said hello.”

Kyungsoo loosens and removes his in-ears, and Youngjin, who has been hovering, intercepts them as well as the handheld mic. He reminds Kyungsoo, “don’t remove the mic pack. Ten minutes, then we film your exit interview. Get a touch up.”

Kyungsoo reaches over and pats Changmin on the arm. “Don’t demean your efforts in working to be here by continuously putting yourself down. Good luck. I’ll cheer for you every week.”

 

--

 

Soyoung tells them that the upcoming week’s challenge will be slightly different and more exciting. They’ve been playing it straight these few weeks, and ratings have been steadily climbing, but clearly the production team thinks the show needs a boost. 

“We’ve worked with the judges to craft this,” she announces to the gaggle of them, fourteen strong. “For this week, because of the nature of the challenge, the judges are not allowed to help you or interact with you directly. Because it’s... Triple Elimination week.” 

Cue a chorus of theatrical groans. The cameramen shift behind their Great Wall of Cameras, amused. Chanyeol hisses to Amber, “they’re killing off three of us at once? Are they mad?”

“Our judges have come up with a blind box of song choices each, for your teams. You can either do a random draw, or reveal the song choices amongst yourselves and then assign you and your teammates a song choice each.” Soyoung looks at all of them, then at the camera, “The brief from the judges is, and I quote, ‘surprise us.’” 

Everyone gives murmurs of assent. Soyoung continues, “We’ll feed them selected footage of your progress over the week to your team coaches, but they won’t be able to properly guess who is singing what, until the challenge recording next week.”

She looks around. “I know triple eliminations may sound daunting, but as a bottom line, do remember that two of our Judges still have their Judge’s Chances. However, don’t let that make you complacent. While the judges are also your team coaches, they will need a very good reason to utilise their Chance. They don’t have to use them for the upcoming challenge. They don’t even have to use them for the entire competition, if they don’t wish to. Remember- surprise them.”

Nods all around. 

“Is that clear?”

Crystal. 

 

--

 

Because there are cameras on the way to backstage, Changmin locates one (it’s not Jihwan) and says loudly into it, “I love Lee Hyukjae and he’s my absolute favourite out of everyone.”

There’s a loud whoop from behind him. It’s Hyukjae, who’s done a handstand in glee. 

A weight lands on Changmin’s back. He staggers and turns. It’s Yunho, who’s sporting an exaggerated pout. “What about me, Changminnie,” he wants to know.

“Oh, you,” Changmin doesn’t look at him, just smiles at the camera and wills his ears to not be on fire. “I guess you’re okay too.”

 

--

 

Backstage, they’re asked to split into their different teams and decide how they want to do the challenge; either by random draw, or by group informed consent. They’re technically done with recording, so the mic packs and lines are removed, and everyone gets their phones back from where the floor director had helped kept them together safe in a box.  

Their individual team coach will pop by in a bit to say hello and wish them well, before ceasing contact till they next record in a week. 

Taeyeon taps at the box containing the song choices and goes, “I don’t know about you bitches. But I am not picking my song based on closed eyes and blind faith.” 

“Yeah, picking a song when we know what’s what sounds better,” Henry says, and Tiffany stops Taeyeon before she upends the box, “wait! Let’s do a vote first!” 

“Fuck it, valley girl, it’s South Korea and not the USA here. Not everything needs to be decided via a vote,” Taeyeon is getting snappish, so Wendy pokes Changmin in the side and they both profess no objections to song allocation via informed consent.

Taeyeon rolls her eyes and upends the box. Five pieces of paper, once-folded, flutter out. 

Changmin’s high off of actually surviving the dance challenge and he doesn’t even think. Before the others choose, he’s already leaned over and snatches up the piece of paper saying “Rock With U by MAX”. 

“Sorry, lovely people,” he says, gleeful. “But I know this song. So it’s mine!”  

The others grumble, but they pore over the remaining pieces of paper then laugh at Changmin, because as Tiffany puts it, “ugh, you play in your little rock pool by yourself then, Shy Boy One. These songs are all better and more well-known so thank you for picking the one dud.”

“Hey, watch it, valley girl,” he threatens, laughing when she pokes a finger into his ear. Tiffany doesn’t have to tiptoe to do that tonight, because heels. She headbutts him as much as her styled hair, still stiff with gel and hairspray, allows. “I think I liked it better when you were shy and didn’t want to talk.”

“If you guys are done trying to act like American high schoolers, can we return to the business at hand,” Taeyeon reminds, voice brusque. They stare at the four remaining song titles. 

7 Rings by Ariana Grande. Last Christmas by Wham!. Red Flavour by Red Velvet. Time Spent Walking Through Memories by Nell. 

“Soyoung said the judges’ brief is ‘surprise us’,” Henry murmurs slowly. “Taeyeon, do you want to take Red Flavour? That’ll be plenty surprising.”

“No.” If looks can kill, Taeyeon would have murdered Henry many times over. 

They’re interrupted by a knock on the door. It’s BoA, and everyone straightens, teasing banter ceasing in an instant. She smiles at them, “no need to look so stiff. I just came by to wish you guys good luck! No, don’t tell me what you’ve chosen! I’m not supposed to know. The producers will kill me.”

Changmin has his phone in one hand, nearly forgotten. When BoA drifts to talk to Taeyeon, he lifts his phone to take a surreptitious snap. Texting one handed, he sends it to Sooyeon with the accompanying message, show it to Mother and make Jiyeon film you doing it.

He presses the ‘enter’ button and looks up only to lock eyes with BoA, who’s looking directly at him and grinning. 

Shit.

“Changmin,” she chirps, amusement thick in just her recitation of his name. BoA glides over in too tall heels that don’t work because even with them on, she still has to practically tilt her head all the way back to look at him. “You know you can just ask, right? Phone.” 

“Er.” Changmin says, and hands it to her meekly. BoA closes her fingers around it as his phone screen lights up with an “OMG!!!!!!111111111!!!! She is going to kill you kkkkk” from Sooyeon, whose number is saved as Thing #1 in his phone.

“My sister,” Changmin stammers, now obligated to explain. BoA’s still looking at him with too much amusement and he feels his ears flushing, “my family are fans.”

“I’m very grateful to hear that,” BoA’s grin widens, and wow, he hasn’t been interested in girls for a very long time, but she’s pretty up close. His phone chirps again. They both look down to see another reply from Sooyeon, U R GONNA BE DISMEMBERED!!1111 HAHA SHES GONNA KILL U.

“Er, our mother is your biggest fan, she loves you a lot, she’s been to all your concerts and fan events and she has all your albums,” he says to her raised eyebrow. It inches up further as BoA murmurs, “enough to commit filicide? I’m flattered.”

She waves his phone at him and he goes “oh,” and unlocks it for her. Swiping to his camera app, she holds up his phone and angles it top-down at the two of them, stepping so close that her hair brushes against his chin. 

The other four are staring at the two of them, dumbstruck. 

Changmin’s dumbstruck. He can smell the hair mousse, as well as what might be her personal perfume. It’s a clean, fresh scent, almost masculine; not that he’s spent time thinking about it, but he would have thought she’d go for a flowery or sweet scent instead. 

Her thumb hovers over the shutter button. Onscreen, she’s grinning, but tilting her head to look at him. He looks like a deer in headlights. “Goodness. Smile, Changmin. You look like I’m holding you at knifepoint.”

“Oh,” he says, and stretches his lips wide in a parody of a grin. His eyes are wide and unblinking. 

“Not like that!” She laughs, but snaps it anyway. Then she slips her other hand sneakily beneath his suit jacket to wriggle at his ribs, and he doubles over in involuntary laughter. Her thumb presses in quick succession. 

“Oh my god, what, no, please, help, guys, guys, come on,” He wheezes but the bunch of ingrates are clearly happy to enjoy his pain, because Henry’s filming them, snickering. Wendy’s holding onto Tiffany as they both nearly fall over with giggles. In the corner, Taeyeon’s ignoring them and back at the table with the song choices.  

BoA’s fingernails are sharp and it feels like she has eight hands instead of two. 

“There,” she says, pleased and finally stopping, when Changmin kind of feels like his soul floated away from all the undignified squealing he did. She yanks him close again, to snap a proper non-blurry picture this time. Her head is now tucked beneath his chin and he’s actually smiling at the camera like he’s enjoying it. 

“Remember to send it to your mum and give her my love,” she instructs, giving him his phone back. Her grin is impish, and Changmin wonders for a split second, if his life would like this if he had a big sister instead of being the oldest child. “Do you want my autograph for her?” 

“Let’s not spoil her,” he tells her gravely, and she lets out a peal of involuntary laughter. 

The laughter extends when Wendy sidles up, pouting and phone in hand, and professes that she has been a fan for the longest time too, unlike Changmin, who only has a relative who is an ardent supporter. 

It does the trick. BoA envelopes her in a full bodied hug, mugging for the camera, even as she chats with Tiffany. 

His phone screen lights up again. It’s Thing #2, aka Jiyeon, who’s sent him a video recording. 

He wanders over to the BoA-Tiffany-Wendy huddle, and plays the video for them. The recording starts with his mother in the middle of marinating kimchi. Sooyeon shoves her phone underneath their mother’s nose and she stares at the picture of BoA onscreen uncomprehendingly for five seconds before shrieking and flinging away the head of cabbage in her hands with unbecoming strength.

It flies far and into the wall with a wet splat. The resulting splatter radius is impressive. 

Sooyeon onscreen laughs so hard that she’s on the floor. The phone screen shakes in the recording and Jiyeon’s laughter is cut off, to black. 

They cackle so hard at it that even Taeyeon wanders over to see what’s going on. 

 

--

 

His mother rings him when he charges his phone, back at the Sing! Idol mansion. 

His phone battery had run out too quickly because everyone keeps wanting to watch the video Jiyeon’s shared, even the production staff, once BoA lets the cat out of the bag. Youngmin had looked at it before asking Changmin, in all seriousness, if he can take comedic timing lessons from his mother, and if they can use the footage for the social behind-the-scenes teasers the production team is still posting weekly on the competition’s Instagram and Youtube pages.

Unfortunately for him and for Changmin’s mother’s ego, Changmin declines. What she doesn’t know won’t hurt her. 

His phone screen flashes, juiced up, when he’s out of the shower. Kyuhyun’s on the other bed, cross-legged and reading a book. He’s got a bottle of red opened.  

“Mate, your phone has been vibrating madly nonstop,” Kyuhyun informs him, eyes glued to the page. “I went over to take a look because it won’t stop buzzing. It’s your mother.”

“Oh, fuck,” Changmin says with feeling, and answers. “Good evening, Mother.” 

“You devil son!” Is the ear-splitting shriek she greets him with. “You sly little coward, have you finally grown balls to answer my call?”

“Mother, that’s a new record for you,” he wanders over to Kyuhyun’s side of the room to pour himself a glass. “You’re talking about my testicles two seconds into our call.”

“I’ll do more than talk,” she snaps, “I’ll rip off your testicles! You don’t want to give me grandchildren anyway.”

Kyuhyun’s clearly heard his mother’s threat to castrate him, because his wineglass is held in a dangerously slack grip and his eyebrows are very high. Changmin puts down his own glass and reaches over to shape Kyuhyun’s fingers more firmly about the stem. 

“Now, Mother,” he chastises, grinning like a loon into his glass even though she can’t see him. “There’s threatening to behave like an uncouth fishwife, and actually being an uncouth fishwife. What will your students say?”

“My students, being the beacons of moral society,” she snarls, “would pity me for having devil children. All three of you! Ten months each, breaking my own body in sacrifice to give you life, leeching off of my youth and this is the thanks I get, terrible little goblins-”

“If you calm down,” he offers generously, as Kyuhyun finishes his glass, “I will send you a picture of BoA. And I. Together.”

There’s absolute silence. “Send it now.” Her voice is very calm. 

“I’m putting you on speaker,” he says, jovial, and does that. “Behave, please. I’m not alone. One second, let me send it to you over the family-”

“No. Those horrid little shrews don’t get to see it the same time as me,” her voice is still modulated. “Send it directly to me.”

Kyuhyun’s eyebrows are very high again.

“As you wish,” and he does.

There’s a beat of silence, then very calmly still, his mother goes, “oh, she looks like she’ll give you beautiful babies. My beautiful, beautiful queen. How lovely she is. Look at that gorgeous hair. Oh, her dimples are so adorable. That smile! Hmmph. You’re all right too, I guess.”

“That might be a bit difficult given how I haven’t the slightest interest in making babies with women, and I know you remember that fact,” Changmin says cheerfully, then realises he might have just came out to Kyuhyun. Who looks unfazed. Well, and slightly shell-shocked, but Changmin thinks that’s more his mother than him. 

His mother doesn’t miss a beat. “Fine. You look like you’ll birth adequate babies for her.” 

Kyuhyun drops his glass. 

“Maybe if you eat more. Are they starving you there? Do you have to sing for your supper? Is it that type of reality TV?” His mother continues. 

Luckily, the glass lands on his foot and then the floor, so instead of shattering, it merely cracks.

“Okay! And on that note, Mother, I believe it’s time to say good night,” Changmin says, reaching down for Kyuhyun’s errant glass. 

His mother isn’t finished. “Wretched boy. Your performances have been passable. When will you sing a Korean song? Are you Japanese, now? Your father and I are proud citizens of South Korea. That rock episode was shameful. You looked like a porn star. Eat. Stop letting people dress you in lingerie.”

She hangs up.  

Changmin lets the silence wash over him, and looks to check if Kyuhyun needs therapy yet. 

Kyuhyun’s blinking at him, mouth open, no words. He looks like a freeze-frame of himself, captured by a zealous netizen. Changmin snaps his fingers in front of his face. Kyuhyun closes his mouth.

He opens it again. Looks at Changmin. “Your mother, mate.” 

“Yep.” Changmin drinks his wine. “I know.” 

 

--

 

“See, then they turn, and I need to wave my hands in fists like that, while I kick my legs,” Wendy demonstrates for Changmin, as he mixes gochujang with raw sugar and soy sauce. On her phone, the same dance moves she’s showing plays, multiplied in the form of five prepubescent girls. The score is electronic and bright; it’s not what he typically listens to, but it’s sweet and happy and makes him think of popsicles and summer.  

He squints as he adds chilli flakes. “Are those… fruits?”

“Yeah, yeah, ignore those, they say they’re fruit or something,” Wendy says dismissively, but she jabs at the phone screen. “Look at the dancing, Changmin, don’t look at the background!”

“I can’t help it,” Changmin says, distracted. In a shallow pan of boiling water, he tosses dried anchovies and kelp he thawed from the freezer. “There are oranges. I like oranges.”

Wendy stamps her foot and glares at him, arms akimbo. He relents, leaning a hip against the counter as he swaps the sauce mix for the bowl of softened rice cakes. “Okay, yes, I’m paying attention. Go.”

She does the routine for the bridge and chorus again, singing along this time. “Well?” She asks expectantly.

“I don’t know,” Changmin muses, stirring in the sauce into the boiling stock. “I know you feel it might be boring, but to me this is surprising enough for me. You’ve been doing slow numbers and playing your piano and generally just showing a kind of. I don’t know? A quietly mature concept?”  

He tosses the rice cakes into the boiling sauce, grabbing a knife to slice up a rectangle of fishcakes into bite-size portions. “This one is brighter, and it shows you actually behaving your age.”

“Changmin, I’m twenty-five,” Wendy rolls her eyes in exasperation. 

“Precisely,” he snorts, “a baby. Well, you wanted my opinion. I feel it’s surprising and shows you in a completely different light.”

“You don’t think I should reconstruct that song?” She pleats her fingers and watches as he throws in the fish cakes as well as a pile of sliced onion into the pan.

He eyes her. “That’s Wendy the jazz pianist talking.”

“True…” She murmurs, and goes, “really?” when she sees him adding a dash of mirin and fish sauce.

He tests a bit of the sauce. Not bad. “Secret ingredient. Anyway, it’s a dance song, Wendy. You know dance and I are not friends, right? Have you asked Tiffany or Henry their opinions? Or the dancers?”

“’Fany’s for teenybopper dancing like you,” she sulks, but softens when he holds out a rice cake for her to taste. “Henry told me to strip the song down and do an R&B version. That’s why I came to ask you. Oh, this is amazing.”

“Well, Henry’s a music producer,” Changmin points out, lowering the heat. “Occupational hazard for him. It’s your number, not his. Do you want to do an R&B version of the song? Is the sauce spicy enough for you?”

“Not really,” she admits. “I just feel if I do R&B, it’s not that much different from what I’ve been doing earlier, during Ballad Week. But if I just reproduce this song as is, that’s hardly surprising, either. Can I have more chilli flakes?”

“More chilli flakes coming up,” he says, plating it for her. Both their cameramen aren’t wandering the mansion today; Jihwan’s down with the flu, according to Jooyoung, and Wendy’s cameraman is off-duty because he has to attend his toddler’s Bring Your Parent To School day. “Why can’t you go for a compromise in the middle? Do the teenybopper dancing, but your way and your style? Wendy Flavour.” 

It means Changmin’s cooking for the first time in months without a million lenses aimed at him (he’s learned to ignore the fixed cameras filming from the corners of the room), and he feels the tension that he didn’t even realise he had, leaving his shoulders. It’s only tteok-bokki, but that’s okay.  

He tosses a handful of sesame seeds and chopped spring onions on top of the whole thing. Wendy already has her cheeks bulging full of tteok-bokki and fish cake. “Wendy Flavour,” she repeats, garbled.

“Hey. Don’t choke,” he warns, amused. “No one’s stealing from you. Eat slowly.”

“Nuh uh,” she says, stuffing another piece of fishcake into her mouth. “I’m not taking any chances. The people here are crazy. They can smell you cooking and then they’re all crawling out of the woodwork.”

As if on cue, Chanyeol comes in with his cameraman. He halts in his tracks at the sight of Changmin at the stove, and Wendy hunches protectively over her plate of tteok-bokki. “Changmin’s cooking? Why didn’t you call?”

“No,” Wendy says, face almost buried in the red sauce. She hisses at Chanyeol. “Go away. This is for me. Mine.”

Chanyeol blinks, but obediently gives her a wide berth. His cameraman grins and hovers at the doorway to get a shot with wide enough framing. “Is she going to start hissing about a ring and her precious?” he asks Changmin. 

Changmin has saved some rice cake and fish cake leftover in the pan for himself, but Chanyeol’s got big eyes trained at him, so he skewers them together with a fork and holds them out to Chanyeol instead. 

Ignoring Wendy’s indignant cry, Chanyeol grins and snaps it all up in one go. “Yum! Thanks, Changmin! How do you even make tteok-bokki taste so good?”

“Changmin!” Wendy cries. “But you're feeding me!” 

Changmin just rolls his eyes and points at her mostly full plate. “Quiet, child.”

To Chanyeol, he says, deadpan, “I’ve spent more than half my life in the kitchen. If I can’t even make rice cakes taste decent, I might as well quit the industry.”

 

--

 

Yoonju’s frowning in concentration over his shoulder seams as the show band’s guitarist moves his fingers for the umpteenth time. “No, no, it’s this fret, see? And then you strum the pick against it like this. Yes, that’s it.” 

Changmin copies the movement, anxiety making his fingers tremble slightly. He feels like a bumbling roundsman again, learning about hot parts and cold parts and how to plate things and no, Changmin, the sauce goes over the pasta, not next to it and sous vide means low temperature, not a hundred degrees Celsius, hey, why are you staring at me, take the steak from me and plate it now the customers are waiting.

He grits his teeth, and repeats the movement exactly again. The correct note sounds, but it’s strangled. Jihwan has the camera angled into a close up of his hands. 

The guitarist laughs, and pats at his fingers. “Relax! Relax, music is fun. Anyway, you’re only doing four notes, yeah? We’re just gonna have fun, don’t worry. C’mon, bend your fingers like this.”

“Yes, just four notes,” Changmin echoes weakly. He’s gone mad. He’s never touched an instrument before in his life. His instruments are knives and graters and tweezers and spatulas. 

But the judges said to surprise them. 

Yoonju tweaks the pleat down his back, slipping in another pin. She’s sullen, “are you sure you want to go for this? It just feels too simple. We can try for a leather jacket! I have an idea about giving you super padded shoulders and maybe we can make the neckline plunge down to your abs and of course we go shirtless beneath-”

“Yoonju,” he says patiently, strumming the same note over and over, “I’m already letting you put me in leather trousers and a bike chain. And boots. Isn’t that enough?”

“We can do some artistically placed tears in your top,” she says with a little bit of steel and and a lot of surly hope.

No, Yoonju,” Changmin puts a little steel in his tone, too. “I’m already letting you put me in a sleeveless top again.”

“You’re no fun,” she sulks. “If I give you this, the next time I draw your name to dress, you have to allow me free rein.”

They lock gazes. Yoonju lifts her chin in challenge. Changmin’s barely aware of the guitarist repositioning his fingers slightly - he’s on the wrong fret again.  

He pauses, and, “within reason of the challenge,” he says.  

She lets out a whoop, then leans over to scruff him gently. “You’re not so bad, kid.”

 

--

 

All in all, his practice and prep this week seems to be a success, and Changmin’s feeling a bit more confident at last about his chances in Sing! Idol.  

Of course, that’s when the metaphorical other shoe drops. 

 

--

 

It’s recording day and Changmin has a backing band sourced by the production team although no Jungmo this time. Kyuhyun shares that he’s back in Japan, with his band touring and opening for Luna Sea this month. 

The show’s keyboardist is playing piano for him, as he sings the first stanza. Changmin’s got an electric guitar around him, striking the first chord. The riff blares, and the accompaniment kicks in. 

There’s a little swell of screams from some of the girls in the front row. Changmin can’t see the judges. 

He strums, one note ringing, fingers tense on the fret-board, frozen in the position he’s been taught. Two out of four down. He plays it again. 

They segue into a minor variation, the actual guitarist next to him with fingers sliding down his own guitar to give a trill of semitones. Changmin just shifts his fingers down two tones, strumming with the guitar pick. Three out of four.

They hit the chorus, and he belts out “rock with you!” His fingers form the position of the last note, other hand clutching the pick tightly. The strings vibrate. Four out of four. 

He swings the guitar around, strap digging into his chest, pick shoved into his pocket, and grasps the mic. 

Changmin pushes the stand away with the other hand, and advances towards the audience. 

 

--

 

“I’ll apologise in advance, but I am going to be blunt,” BoA says, velvet encasing unyielding steel. She looks at him like he’s teetering on eggshells. Her expression is a world away from the soft one she had shown to them, to her team, last week backstage. “I’m disappointed.”

The audience sucks in a collective breath. Changmin feels his ears grow warm. It’s even harder because it’s her. 

A tiny part of him remembers that his mother will watch this on national television in less than a week. The rest of him is blank.

“Well, I wouldn’t use the word ‘disappointed’,” Jongkook picks up his microphone, but he’s also wary. This has the potential to either have hello, ratings or netizen backlash written all over it. “But we certainly were expecting more--”

“I’m disappointed,” BoA cuts him off. Changmin meets her gaze unflinchingly.

Here is the other shoe he has been expecting for months.

“You have a great voice,” she says. He can’t do anything other than blink. He thought she would have eviscerated him into pieces by now, but okay.

“You have a great voice, but that’s it. That’s what makes me angry, and disappointed,” she is holding her mic and speaking to him calmly and there must be about three hundred people here including contestants and crew and audience, but Changmin feels like they are the only two people in the room. “Because you shoehorn yourself. You have a great voice, and you can use it for so much more than just belting out angry rock tunes and screaming at high octaves.” 

Everything fades in the distance. He swallows. He respects her. That’s what makes it hurt more. Smile, she had told him, and then made it so he was smiling for real. “Thank you, teacher.” 

“No, don’t thank me, I’m not finished,” she insists. “I’m not saying rock is bad. I love rock ‘n’ roll, too. I think we all respect the fact that you tried to push yourself and picked up an instrument to add on to your song choice. But this is a singing competition. We’re assessing all of you as all-rounder performers. That means more than just one genre.” 

She pauses, enough time for the producers to gesture for a close up to both her and Changmin’s faces. Her dimples are showing, but her stare is direct and her voice is firm. 

“That means we want to see, to help all of you excel, and push you to explore beyond your boundaries as a performer. That’s where the magic happens. Everyone needs to get out of their comfort zone every now and then. Do you understand what I am saying?” 

One of the cameramen kneels down to get an upward mid, then close up of his face. Changmin’s ears are burning. This moment will probably go down as another Internet meme, he thinks semi-hysterically. He can see the giant blankness that is his face on the studio screen to his ten o’clock.  

Jesus fucking Christ man, he shouts in his head, get a grip. You look like teenage you when Hyunseok said your mussels were overdone. Are your eyes red? You’re thirty-one years old! Fucking take constructive criticism like a civilised adult.  

“You have a great voice, but you keep it too safe, Changmin,” BoA’s fingers shift on the mic, and Changmin knows she needs to wrap up. They can’t linger too long on any one contestant. Not this early in the game, and not on one of the not-fan-favourites. He doesn’t deserve this attention. Not boring, play-it-safe Changmin. “That was yet another well-done rock ballad. But you owe it to yourself and your voice to try way harder.”

Ouch. Changmin makes another reflexive swallow, and bows deeply, his back straight. He straightens. 

His exit is written all over the three judges’ faces. Jaewon looks sympathetic. Jongkook has his head angled towards BoA, both their mics on the table. His face is turned away from the audience and from Changmin, so he hasn’t the faintest what the older man is saying so intently to BoA. 

Somehow, after wishing for it for the better part of three months, at this very moment, Changmin doesn’t want it to happen.

How many times had he looked in the eye of a camera and thought, I want to go back to my very mundane life? 

He looks at the cameras filming him now, and the audience, and thinks, but I can be more.  

 

--

 

The audience vote, and perhaps some of them were swayed by BoA’s words, or a lot of them felt his performance is middling. In any case, that’s what his score is - middling and teetering on the brink of “low”.  

Backstage, the cameramen are spread out with only a few of them filming, in lieu of the narrow backstage hallway. 

Henry hugs him, and Tiffany has a hand slipped into his. Wendy’s clinging to his side. Even Taeyeon looks at him and goes unexpectedly, “I can give you guitar lessons. If you want. If you’re still here after tonight.” 

“Okay,” Changmin smiles at her. His anxiety is a pit in his stomach but somehow, it’s not as bad as he thinks it will be. He’ll be fine going home. If he goes now, there’s time to muck around the kitchen with Garam on their afternoon breaks and see if they can invent a new antipasto for winter. 

It’s just.  

It’s just that he’ll miss them. He’ll miss people who look at him beyond his funny-looking exterior and his bad conversational skills and have been nothing but encouraging and fun and honest. It’s not something he expects from being in reality TV. All the trashy tabloid stories he heard as a viewer tell of nothing but cat fights and scheming and politics.

It’s bittersweet. He honestly did not expect to make friends. He had thought Hyunseok finally went soft in the head, when he forced Changmin to sign up for this. 

Now, he understands. Out of the comfort zone, indeed. Where the magic happens. 

The other two teams are not faring so well, too. Team Jaewon had went the same route as Changmin’s team, and did their song choices via informed consent. Yunho’s got both arms around Hyukjae and Victoria, and he’s taking turns whispering into both their ears.

Changmin had watched all three of their performances earlier. Yunho has been consistently among the handful of contestants with high scores, and it’s no different tonight as he went with a mid-tempo song called Before U Go, which is part R&B track and part power ballad and capped it off with a plot-heavy dance extravaganza that ends with him drenched in fake rain, wet shirt clinging to his chest to shrieks from the audience. Hyukjae and Victoria however, both did numbers that were dance-focused.

Irene has both her arms around Victoria’s waist, and her eyes are reddened. Chanyeol’s awkwardly slouched in one corner.   

Team Jongkook had made their song choices the blind box way; so there was definitely more surprises on their end. Even Kyuhyun did an upbeat pop song. Changmin doesn’t think any of the eliminated contestants will come from their end tonight. Still, they’re sombre.

Kyuhyun himself is hanging off of Changmin’s back. All four of them are talking loudly and determinedly into his ears, and Changmin can’t hear a single thing they say. He’s just patting people back on their arms and sides, and repeating a litany of reassuring  “don’t worry about me, I’m okay, are you okay, don’t cry, it’s okay”s.  

Youngjin appears in the mouth of the hallway. 

They all quieten. He looks at them, face unreadable, “please head to the makeup artists if you need a touch up. Otherwise, standby. Back on stage in two minutes.” 

They chorus a scattered “okay” and “yes”.  

Tiffany is one of the first that makes a beeline for the makeup artists, because her eyeliner and mascara have run grey tracks down her face from crying too hard. She’s the one with the highest score so far, having performed a stunning rendition of Last Christmas by Wham!, at times perky and at times heartbreaking. She presses Changmin’s hand one more time and runs off as fast as her heels allow her.  

Yunho’s the last in line, heading back. He doesn’t speak to Changmin, but he cups a hand around Changmin’s elbow, and gives a firm squeeze. 

 

--

 

They file back onstage. Changmin hears the information in filtered, brief snatches.

Tiffany’s won. The lowest three are Hyukjae, Victoria, himself. 

The audience is silent with anticipation. Now that the studio lights are softer than they were during the performances, Changmin can see. There are two girls holding a giant “HYUKJAE WE LOVE YOU” placard and sobbing in the third row. 

The judges are shooting glances at each other, and leaning close to confer. Hyunmoo is saying something.

BoA looks at Changmin. Changmin looks back, and there’s a burst of gratitude in him. He inclines his head and mouths “thank you for believing I am more” at her. He doesn’t know if she understands what he’s trying to say. 

Her eyes are still on him. She’s got a mic in her hand. She raises it.  

“I’ll like to use my Judge’s Chance on Shim Changmin.” 

 

--

 

Rock with U

君を知りたがる純情

Rock with U

奇跡でもがく欲情

Just with U U U U

-- ROCK WITH U.