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“I can’t really say who will win. To ask me to predict… Of course I obviously wish I will, but everyone here works so hard, and they’re all so talented. We can all only try our best.”

-- JUNG Yunho (33), choreographer, interview segment for Ep 9 Medley challenge. 


“I would have told you myself about five episodes back. But now I think Yunho and Changmin will be tough challenges for me. But I’m prepared to fight to the death against them.”

-- KIM Taeyeon (30), pub singer, interview segment for Ep 10 Pay It Forward challenge.  


 

Previously on Sing! Idol,

Pay It Forward Challenge winner: YUNHO

 

Unsurprisingly, Yunho wins the Pay It Forward challenge. 

He’s not looking towards the audience and the cameras when Hyunmoo announces his win officially at the end of the recording session, to loud cheers from the audience. 

Instead, his gaze is locked on Changmin, who is standing two persons from him. 

Amber and Henry are trying to duck out of the way, and Changmin can feel the left side of his face practically burn from the focus of Yunho’s eyes. 

He smiles blindly forward, to the delight of some schoolgirls (and boys) in the central third row.

The Secret (song) Santas are announced, to much fanfare.

He gets shrieks and a “THANK YOU CHANGMIN-AH!” bellow from an overly enthusiastic Yunho fanboy, when Hyunmoo recites from a cue card that Changmin was the one who nominated Love In The Ice as Yunho’s song for the challenge. 

The burning on the left side of his face increases. Amber sighs, and whispers beneath her breath, “I feel like canon fodder. Why can’t you switch places with me?” at Changmin.

“Shush,” Changmin says, without moving his lips from the frozen grin he’s shaped them in.

Changmin’s not even surprised when Hyunmoo announces that Henry was the one who chose All of Me for him. 

“I knew it,” he exclaims flatly, still grinning, still facing front. Then he turns to try and focus on Henry without meeting the laser gaze that's coming from over Henry’s head. 

His heart is beating very fast.

He doesn't dare to look anywhere but straight ahead, at Henry's mischievous smirk.

From behind the monitors, Soyoung gestures him to go closer. Changmin pretends he doesn’t see that, too. 

“I knew it was one of you three English-speaking people!!” He continues, to much good-natured laughter.

Secret Santas out of the way, Zhou Mi is confirmed to be the one going home, leaving behind seven of them. He gets piled with hugs, and some of his fans start weeping loudly.

The man himself is inscrutable, although Changmin fancies he can see a hint of relief on his face.

He doesn’t say anything, only hugs Zhou Mi hard. 

He leaves his questions to backstage, when they’re shuffled one way for next week’s briefing, which Youngjin has already promised in passing that “it will be a doozy”. 

Zhou Mi is supposed to go the other way, for his exit interview and cleanups, but Changmin halts him with a hand on his arm. “Are you going to…?”

“Ah,” Zhou Mi says. He pauses. “I don’t quite know?”

Changmin narrows his eyes. But before he can say anything, Zhou Mi tacks on, “I’ll still be in Korea for a little while, though. I took unpaid leave from my company for another month.”

Ah, yes. The real world. Changmin thinks of Choidot fleetingly, and then stares at Zhou Mi again. 

He opens his mouth, and closes it.

Zhou Mi laughs at him, though he's not mean about it. “Don’t worry. We’ll see. Whatever will happen, will happen.”

They hug loosely, and Zhou Mi makes him promise to continue to work hard. 

He steps back, and gazes at Changmin meaningfully, "don't hide too long behind denial."

"I'm not hiding," Changmin says automatically, and presses his lips together. 

Zhou Mi just arches an eyebrow at him.

Jooyoung is behind them. “Changmin,” he says, almost scolding. “We’re waiting for you.”

“Oh!” So much for being trained for the camera. Changmin can feel his ears warm. “Sorry, I was just-”

“Go,” Zhou Mi pokes him hard in the back. Changmin goes.

 

--

 

He walks into the conference room where they’ve all gathered and immediately understands why Jooyoung was dispatched to summon him. 

There’s a complicated decision tree of sorts on the whiteboard. “SUDDEN DEATH PK” is written in bold red uppercase letters across the top.

In the corner of the room, Amber’s laughing very hard while Taeyeon is seated ramrod straight with a dangerous grin on her face. Wendy’s got her head in her hands while Kyuhyun’s slouched back in his seat. 

“He’s here!” Henry bounces up. Next to him, Yunho is alert and unsmiling. 

That’s all of them, Changmin realises. There’s only seven of them now.

“Good, good,” Youngmin bustles over. He presses Changmin down to an empty seat next to Kyuhyun, and goes, “Soyoung, you can start now.”

“All right.” She beams around at all of them, and claps her hands together twice. “Ladies and gentlemen. We’re entering the final phase before the semi-finale,” cue an audible intake of breath from Taeyeon and Kyuhyun, “and also, thanks to all your efforts, we were first in ratings for the Medley episode.”

Everyone claps along obediently. 

Soyoung nods in approval, and continues, “the next challenge is a bit different from what we have been doing. As it says on the whiteboard; Sudden Death PK. We will be bringing in seven competitors who will go head to head with you in a one-versus-one, one-song PK. The songs themselves will not be decided by you. The public will vote for a choice of three top songs that will be shown to you on recording day itself, during taping. On set, the audience will further choose one song for you from the shortlist via popular vote. After that, you will have two hours to prepare for your performance.”

She pauses for dramatic effect. All of them are silent.

The cameramen are a horde at the edges of the room, their lenses focused on their respective contestants. 

“If you score lower than your competitor, you will be instantly eliminated.”

There is a collective intake of breath. No one offers any questions.

Soyoung isn’t finished.

“It will be a Quadruple Elimination week,” she says, gaze boring into each of them in turn. “We will use this across two recording days to derive the top four, or three.”

Henry raises his hand, and thinks better of it. He puts it down again in his lap.

Changmin’s still trying to process it. If it’s quadruple, it means half- more than half of them will be gone in a week. 

He thought he still had weeks left. The timetable’s clearly been moved up. 

Soyoung nods at Henry, and turns to recite into the cameras, “the judges are once again, encouraged to use their Judges’ Chance if they feel it is necessary. Only judge Kim Jongkook has his Judge’s Chance left with him. However, as always, it is not mandatory for the judges to deploy it unless they wish to.” 

Amber leans forward. “Is it the semi-final after this? Or are there other challenges? It’s the semi-final, right, because you’re culling us down to the top three.”

Soyoung’s gaze is impenetrable. “That will be discussed after the Sudden Death recording session.” 

Youngmin and Younjin step forward. The three executive producers gaze at them, habitual smiles gone. “Good luck.”

 

--

 

They’re all back at the Sing! Idol mansion. Because there’s so little of them left, everyone drifts again to congregate in the kitchen out of unspoken accord.

“So what now?” Amber says, straddling a chair backwards. “That means we can’t prepare for our songs, right?”

“Soyoung did say we will only know on set,” Kyuhyun points out. He’s halfway into uncapping a dusty bottle of makgeolli. “And recording day is a week away.” 

“Where did you get that?” Wendy asks, curious. She’s sandwiched between Taeyeon and Yunho, bright gaze on Kyuhyun’s busy hands. “I thought you only bleed wine.”

“You can’t drink that,” Changmin says sharply, from where he’s got his head stuck inside the refrigerator. Someone on the production team has already restocked the fridge. And (perhaps) out of knowledge of the news they were given tonight, the restock is plenty bountiful. 

There’s even a generous cut of Kobe beef, large enough to feed about eight people if portioned into filet sizing. 

“Changmin, for the last time, I’m twenty-five.” Wendy mutters, exasperated. She scowls as Kyuhyun distributes five cups around the table and deliberately leaves the space in front of her empty. “Honestly! I know the two of you are joined at the hip, but you don’t have to be so obedient, Kyu!”

“I’m not the one Changmin wants to be joined at the hip with,” Kyuhyun says cryptically, and snorts as he starts to pour the milky liquor into Yunho’s cup, since Yunho’s sitting to his right. 

Changmin turns from the fridge, kicking the door shut. He’s got his hand full with the kimchi that he marinated on their fortnight off and smuggled in, together with a side of pork loin and tofu. Shooting a glance to the ceiling, he notes with some relief that the ceiling cameras are off. “Do you want jjigae or do you want makgeolli?”

Wendy brightens up so fast that Henry brings his hand up to shield his eyes in an exaggerated show of mock-defence. “Jjigae!”

“Thought so.” Changmin says, and goes to the sink with his bounty.

He isn’t even surprised when Yunho ends up at his shoulder moments later, elbows knocking into each other. He’s got a sixth cup of makgeolli for Changmin.

Outside, it’s snowing, the January chill allowing frost patterns to develop along and outwards from the window sill. 

“How can I help?” Yunho wants to know. 

Changmin slides a glance at him, and turns back to setting out the chopping board and knives, before he makes eye contact. “I might be feeding only Wendy, you know. I do owe her for the challenge tonight. We struck a deal and everything. You might even all it a bribe.”

“Oh, how devious of you. You just keep trying this one trick, Chef,” Yunho’s smiling, leaning against the edge with his elbows, his back to the sink.

His head is turned towards Changmin, who lowers his head to focus on the frozen loin he is rinsing. Yunho hasn’t washed off his stage makeup yet. In the warm light of the kitchen, those eyes with their cat-like tilt and outlined in kohl, look dark and mysterious. “That’s a lot of pork loin for one person, though.” 

Changmin fixes his eyes on his hands, trimming the scant fat from the slab of meat with a pair of scissors. His ears feel warm as usual. “Oh, all right. Make yourself useful. Get some enoki mushrooms and scallions from the refrigerator for me.”

“On it,” Yunho says, but pokes a gentle finger at Changmin’s elbow again. Changmin feels the contact like a burn. “Drink that first before you go into your chef mode.” 

‘That’ is the cup of makgeolli that Yunho has placed at the side of the sink. 

Changmin looks at it, and then finally at Yunho. 

Over at the table, Henry starts laughing very hard, his guffaws spilling over each other. Taeyeon says something sharp and Kyuhyun counters, his voice laconic. 

Their words blur. Changmin can’t hear anything. Yunho’s gaze has got his attention. That, and the finger still pressed again Changmin’s bare elbow. 

Yunho nudges him again. He blinks. “The makgeolli?”

Changmin starts, the strange spell broken. “Right. Right! Thanks for bringing it over.” 

He gropes for it and downs it hastily, the sweet burn of the makgeolli sliding down his throat and through his limbs. 

Yunho’s still eyeing him thoughtfully. Taking advantage of the fact that Changmin’s still recovering from the full shot of makgeolli, he goes, “thank you again for choosing Love In The Ice for me. It really is one of my favourite songs.” 

“No thanks warranted,” Changmin manages, and washes his hands before picking up the pork again. Because of the scant alcohol, now his face feels warm too. “Happy- absolutely happy to help. I told you, your voice is beautiful in ballads.”

There’s silence from Yunho, long enough that Changmin looks over properly of his own volition, for the first time since they all trooped back to the mansion.

Yunho hasn’t looked away from him. 

The strange bubble they were earlier is now encapsulating them again. Everything else feels muffled. 

In front of them, beyond the window, snow is coming down hard, whipped into flurries of white by strong winds. Changmin threw on his hoodie almost immediately after they reached the mansion, although he’s got the sleeves rolled up for work. 

The tap water is freezing, in that his hands are already red from frequent contact. There’s cold emitting from the window.

Changmin barely feels it. 

Yunho’s still not looking away. Changmin looks into his eyes and knows once again, like a death knell, that he's in love. 

They would have gone on like this, if not for Henry shouting loudly, “hey lovebirds, are you flirting in front of the sink or has the cold frozen you?” 

There’s a chorus of vicious shushing going on, and what sounds like Taeyeon slamming him with a body tackle, judging from the screeching and laughter going on. Amber and Wendy are practically in hysterics, while Kyuhyun’s got his voice raised, “not the makgeolli! Guys!”

Yunho looks away first. 

There’s a slight flush at the top of his cheeks, Changmin realises. From the cold. It must be.

In any case, Yunho's smiling, “I’ll get the stuff you want.”

“Yes, all right,” Changmin manages. “Thank you.” 

 

--

 

By the time the kimchi jjigae is done, it’s past midnight but they’re all still wide awake. 

Henry being the asshole that he is, is loudly singing Frozen's Let It Go on repeat, English lyrics slurred from too much makgeolli

Taeyeon jeers at him for not having a Korean liver.

"Well I don't know if you remember this, but I'm not exactly Korean," Henry babbles, fingers opening and closing for his already-empty cup. He's got his hand a full five inches to the left of it, grasping at thin air. 

"If you want to work here, you should grow a Korean liver," Kyuhyun advises, and laughs uncontrollably when Taeyeon leans over to fist bump him, straight-faced. 

Changmin brings the entire pot over, to cheers. Kyuhyun’s loudly lamenting that maybe they should have saved the makgeolli till the jjigae is ready, instead.

“No,” Wendy insists, eyes narrowed. “I get to eat first, guys. It’s my jjigae. For me. All of you are just opportunistic shits who got lucky.”

“Kitten’s got claws,” Henry teases, and yelps when Amber cuffs him around his head. She boxes his ears, and then sings snatches of a Mandarin ballad about ears and then models, sniggering. 

Wendy devours the first bowl and would have gone straight to her second, had Changmin not bodily blocked her and made her let everyone else get a bowl, too.

The huge pot is scraped clean, and everyone is patting their bellies, when Amber wonders again, “so… Really, what are we going to do this week?”

“Practice,” Taeyeon says instantly. 

“Play,” Henry says, a beat behind her.

They glare at each other.

Yunho stifles a laugh. “Both? I mean, we can’t know for sure what we will be performing, but if it’s by popular vote from the public, it’s probably either songs to do with genres we’ve done so far, or things so far from what we sing that it’ll probably be quite funny for us to perform it. We can only keep our voices warm by practising some songs in our repertoire everyday, not just slack off for an entire week.”

There’s a beat of silence while everyone digests this, and Kyuhyun goes, “mate, that’s everything then. Also that doesn’t matter for you. The only genre you haven’t done is trot.”

“No?” Yunho asks, but it sounds more like a statement. There’s a peculiar exchange of glances between the two of them. 

Yunho cocks his head. Kyuhyun looks to the side first.

Wendy sighs, and picks up her empty bowl, then Changmin’s and Taeyeon’s. “I don’t know about you all, but I’ll start thinking about that tomorrow. I’m full and beat. We have a whole week, anyway.” 

 

--

 

Kyuhyun wheedles out news from Youngmin that the top three, whoever they are, will have the luxury of heading back to their homes for an intermission of another fortnight, and then the semi-final and finale will happen. He boasts about his brilliant negotiation skills, but Changmin just rolls his eyes and tells him that the executive producers are probably just tired of his nagging. 

“Precisely,” Kyuhyun says, triumphant. “I wore them down.”

It’s an odd week. They’re all suddenly at a loss. There’s only so much you can practise when you don’t know what you’re practising for. 

Changmin makes sure he practices with his guitar two hours a day, but everyone gets so sick of him playing scales over and over again that Taeyeon donates a couple of scores. Actually, she flings them at his head.

“Use these,” she barks when she hunts him down in a practice room. “I’m hearing B major even in my head, so fuck you.” 

Changmin shuffles through them, and brightens. He recognises some of the songs. She’s even got Tears in Heaven, by Eric Clapton. “Oh! I like this one-”

“I don’t care,” Taeyeon says. “Just don’t play only one of them on repeat over and over again, oh god.”

Wendy’s going at the piano with a vengeance too, but she’s got a considerably larger repertoire than Changmin, and entertains them regularly with jazzed-up remixes of popular English songs from decades past. 

Today she’s playing a slow, stripped down version of Michael Jackson’s Beat It, likely at the request of Yunho, who’s twirling to it in something that’s vaguely ballet-like whilst still incorporating the King of Pop’s iconic moonwalk.

He’s singing along to the melody, voice choked in a deliberate rasp, and flourishing the main line with vaguely jazzy ad-libs whenever Wendy switches up the beat.

Changmin lingers in the doorway of the practice room, entranced. 

Wendy segues into a wistful rendition of Kim Jongkook’s Loveable, laughing when Yunho segues into its iconic dance seamlessly, body moving to the beat as he sings, and turns.

He spots Changmin.

“Hi,” Changmin says, suddenly awkward. He thought he got over this, because he’s able to speak to Yunho like a normal human being ninety percent of the time now, but today Yunho’s in a bulky black winter jacket paired disconcertingly with a pair of short dance shorts.

Very short dance shorts.

He’s got trainers with high socks pulled on, and his thighs are very muscled.

Changmin knows he’s got his Taylor clutched in a death grip. 

Over at the piano, there’s a smirk lingering on Wendy’s mouth, but she’s got her face angled in a deliberate downturn towards the piano keys.

“Changminnie,” Yunho greets, smiling. His feet are still moving. “Stop lurking and come in!”

Wendy snorts and misses a note, her fingers landing with a plunk on an adjacent black key. 

The sound is jarring, but only to her because Yunho and Changmin haven't yet looked away from each other. 

“Quiet, child,” Changmin shoots at her belatedly, and goes into the room, standing just after the threshold. 

He smiles at Yunho. “Hi.” 

“Hi.” Yunho returns, cheerful. “Got your practice in?”

“Kind of,” Changmin says. He waves the loose sheaf of scores in his other hand. “Er, Taeyeon gave this. No more scales, she says.”

“I agree,” Wendy grouses. “Jeez. I wake up from nightmares set to the tune of you mangling G sharp minor.”

She goes unheard by both of them.

“That’s nice,” Yunho’s got both hands stuck in his pockets now, and a small soft smile on his face that Changmin maybe hopes is for him. “You wanna come dance? Wendy’s volunteering Jukebox Hour.”

Changmin’s in love, but he's just found out from himself that there are limits to his devotion. 

“Yes, well, no,” Changmin stutters, and immediately feels like an asshole when Yunho’s smile dims and Wendy hunches over the piano keys, laughing. She’s got her left hand splayed on low-D-F-G-B-middle C and it sounds like a dramatic underscore of Changmin’s refutation. 

“You know dance and I are not friends,” Changmin scrambles to explain, and then takes a reflexive step back when Yunho strides towards him. He’s unsmiling now and terrifyingly, there’s a determined cast to his face. 

“Wait wait what- ” Changmin backs into the door, then squawks when Yunho takes his Taylor away from him in a gentle yet inexorably firm grip. The guitar is set down to lean against the wall. 

Wendy’s practically crying into the keys. Yunho taps her lightly on her shoulder, polite as you please, and asks, “One Man, milady pretty please.”

“The Kim Jongkook ballad?” Wendy asks, but doesn’t wait for an answer before launching into the chorus. The notes tinkle out from under her fingertips. 

Somehow Yunho’s got one of Changmin’s hands in his and his other hand is very decorously high up Changmin’s back. 

Now the two of them are waltzing slowly and very correctly, ballroom style. They are two fully grown men circling around the practice room at a sedate pace, to the tune spilling out from the piano, coaxed into form by Wendy’s talented fingers. 

The song’s tempo is lovely and unhurried, but Changmin’s heart is rabbit-fast. 

He doesn’t know if Yunho can feel how fast his pulse is jack-knifing, from where he’s got his fingers curled around Changmin’s hand.

Yunho’s smile is a slow unfurling bloom across his face. “See? Now dance and you are friends.” 

 

-- 

 

When the previous week’s challenge airs, Changmin’s phone doesn’t explode as is its usual wont. 

None of the Choidot folks contact him. The family group chat is silent. Even the secret chat with just his sisters is quiet; Thing #1 and Thing #2 don’t volunteer practical dissection of his performance like they do every week. 

Changmin’s confused, until a text arrives from his mother and then it’s a bit like being dunked into icy cold water.

What is your relationship, it blares in very correct lowercase letters, none of his mother’s usual imperious hysterics, with the Jung boy?

Changmin stares at it and turns his phone off.

He doesn’t quite know himself. 

 

--

 

After another drinking session with Kyuhyun and Henry (who’s taken to joining them in a very visible effort of seeking protection from the ladies), Changmin wanders the mansion and stumbles over Yunho. 

Quite literally. It’s a rare day where their cameramen are not around, probably because the contestants left in the game are all pretty boring people and there’s been complaints from the staff that they have enough footage of the seven of them practising and eating and napping and doing more practising and can they please be more fun? 

Taeyeon just snarls at them to all go away and maybe starts on another one of her pieces from her pub song repertoire. 

The cameramen go away.

In any case, Changmin’s traipsing down the hallway to the practice room by himself with no Jihwan, when he rounds a corner and promptly trips over Yunho, who’s sat on the floor with long legs stretched out and hissing into his phone.

“-nothing between us, really, you’re overthinking this,” Yunho’s insisting into the phone. He’s got his other hand out to stabilise Changmin without even registering who he is, “we’re friends, he’s a dear friend, he’s such a sweet boy, and- oh! Hello! Changminnie!”

“Hi,” Changmin wobbles back upright. His caller must have said something to him over the line, because Yunho’s got an awful grimace fixed to his face that’s unlike his usual sunshine grin. His eyes are wide and too many of his teeth are on display. It’s not a good look, “-no, really, I love you but that’s ridiculous, I’m sure you are seeing things- Changmin, are you all right?” 

Changmin gestures awkwardly at the phone Yunho’s got plastered to his ear. It hurts like a slipped grater over his fingers, to hear Yunho say ‘I love you’ to someone else. Even if it’s over the phone.

He wishes he’d gone towards the living room instead. “Sorry, I’ll leave you to the- to your chat- sorry about that-”

“No, no,” Yunho waves a dismissive hand. 

The awful grimace is gone and he’s got such a look of concern on his face for Changmin, it hurts even more. 

Yunho is in love with someone else.

Changmin had expected it, but to hear it said out loud like that.

Is just.

Is. Well. 

His ears are ringing. He takes a deep breath and marshals what’s left of his composure.

Yunho’s still got his face tilted upwards, tilted towards Changmin. 

“Yes, no,” Changmin murmurs, backpedaling both metaphorically and literally. “Sorry, I was clumsy, I’ll leave you to your girlfriend and stop intruding-” 

“-no wait, I need to put you on hold,” Yunho says into the phone, and takes it down really fast from his ear while smashing blindly at the bright screen. He’s all wide-eyed and upturned face at Changmin, mouth slightly open. “No, Changminnie, be careful -”

Chamgmin stumbles on air, arms windmilling.

For a split second, he thinks he’s going to go arse over elbow, but Yunho shoots upright and he reels Changmin back in with a hard arm around his waist. 

They freeze.

Changmin’s somewhat bent over backwards at an impossibly awkward angle, and that, by some odd twist of- whatever, puts his gaze level with Yunho’s mouth. 

His beauty mark is vivid against his skin. 

Yunho lets go of him, stepping backward with a murmur. 

Changmin knows his face is probably very red. 

“Sorry,” he stammers again, “fuck, I’m too clumsy-”

“It’s not my girlfriend,” Yunho who’s normally so polite and affable, interrupts. His gaze is unreadable. “It’s my mother.”

“Oh.” Changmin feels like an idiot. “Oh!” 

Yunho stares at him a little more, then smiles. There’s something crooked and off-angled about it. “She was calling because she watched the Pay It Forward challenge.”

Oh,” Changmin says a third time, but without the awkwardness. “I bet she really loved it! How does she feel about her son winning yet another challenge?”

“It’s only the second one,” Yunho protests mildly, but he’s got another smile on his face, one that looks more real. “She’s just talking about the very nice rival in the competition who thought to select such a lovely song for me.”

“Oh, I-” Changmin is such an idiot who does not seem to be able to stop stammering. He thought he was over this. He can speak to Yunho normally, damn it! “It was nothing, I told you-”

There’s a bit of a squawking going on, and then they both realise that maybe, definitely, Yunho’s mother wasn’t put on hold after all and probably heard their entire exchange, because Yunho’s got his phone clutched to his chest.

“Sorry, let me just,” Yunho jams his phone back to his ear. He’s got his teeth bared in another fixed-looking grin again. “Hi Mum sorry Mum I’ll call you back love you Mum!”

He hangs up.

An awkward silent blooms. 

Changmin’s casting about for a topic to chat about- things have been a little strange after that impromptu waltz they had; when Yunho suddenly goes in the quiet, “I don’t like girls.”

Changmin thinks he’s hearing things. “What?”

“I don’t,” Yunho’s staring at him now, gaze open and defiant, two faint strokes of pink on the top of his cheeks that definitely don’t have anything to do with the January chill creeping into the mansion. His tone, however, is matter-of-fact. Dispassionate. “Like girls. I prefer men. Sexually. Romantically.”

What.

What the fuck how the fuck why even is what.

Fuck what.

Fuck. Changmin doesn’t know what to do with this… tidbit his friend has apparently decided to entrust him with.

Has just came out with.

Has just came out.

Say something, he shouts at himself inside his head. He settles for a weak, “okay? That’s… good.”

Yunho’s got a frown on his face now, so Changmin hurries to say, “you don’t have to explain- you should like whomever you like! Love is love.”

“Okay,” Yunho says. Strangely, he looks disappointed.

Changmin doesn’t know what he said wrong.

There's no mirth in Yunho's smile. For once, it doesn't feel like sunshine. “Thank you, Changmin.”

 

--

 

Recording day comes by too fast, and because of this new format, their nerves are all shot to hell.

Amber’s humming snatches of different songs beneath her breath and barely aware she’s doing it, and the sniping between Taeyeon and Henry is driving all of them up the walls. 

Kyuhyun just drinks, and then belts out random musicals at the top of his voice. There was one time he did that right next to Changmin's ear, and he jumped in surprise and elbowed Kyuhyun in the throat out of pure reflex.

They arrive backstage and are promptly ushered to the stylists. 

Yoonju’s got Changmin this week, but she takes a look at his face, which probably says a lot of tragic things, and goes, “don’t worry, kid. I’ll have you looking boringly gorgeous and safe in dull conservative menswear this week.”

Changmin gives her a distracted murmur in reply. He’s too busy searching out Yunho with his gaze. 

The other’s on the far side of the waiting room, nearer to the dressing room. Eun-ah’s already got him stripping his jumper off and is holding up two leather jackets with marginal differences in turn to his body. 

Yunho’s beautiful in just a plain white tee and grey tracksuit bottoms. He’s gazing at the two jackets that Eun-ah now has up against herself, frowning in concentration. He’s also not spoken a direct word to Changmin ever since Changmin tripped over him more than a few days ago. 

“Oh boy, you’ve got it bad,” Yoonju says.

Changmin turns back to her, blinking. “Sorry, Yoonju, did you say something to me? I wasn’t paying attention.”

“I was talking to myself,” Yoonju snorts, and throws yet another pair of blue jeans at his head. This pair is navy dark, nearly black. She’s got artful holes dug out at the knees and long seams ripped out at his thighs. “Go put on this and the white shirt and jacket you see over there. I saw what wonders Eun-ah did for your bum in jeans the other time. We’re going for casual chic today.”

“Yoonju!” Changmin maybe screeches, but he goes anyway when she shoves at him. 

 

--

 

The set’s screens are flashing a little introductory bit, before they segue into the three songs registered voters from the public had selected for him via a popularity poll, in a closed-system online voting. 

Amber says their competitors are all waiting in another room backstage, the producers having made a deliberate decision to segregate them. She's tried digging, but apparently Youngmin refuses to tell her if the seven of them are going up against street-casted talented folk or actual singers, like Taeyeon had hypothesized a few days earlier. 

Till now Changmin’s not quite sure how the process goes. But it doesn’t matter, because it's his turn to have his song picked, and the three songs are showing up on the three giant Samsung screens and.

Changmin gapes. 

There’s a thread of laughter from the audience. At the judges’ table, Jongkook is going “wow!” while BoA has her head in her hands, laughing. Jaewon is reclined in his seat and exclaiming, “are you guys planning on turning this set into Seoul Comic Con?”

Another ripple of laughter from the audience sounds.

“Well,” Hyunmoo clucks. “I guess it’s very clear what direction of song choices the public will like to see Changmin sound, huh.”

There’s a swell of corresponding catcalls, and some girl bellows, “Bambi is our favourite kkotminam! Bishounen! Most handsome chef singer ever!” 

“Yes, you certainly sound very enthusiastic in declaring it,” Hyunmoo allows, to much laughter and applause. 

Changmin’s still looking at the screens. 

He can’t believe his luck. There’s three songs on screen and none of them are in Korean. Faintly, he wonders what his mother will make of that. More importantly they are all songs he knows well, because in addition to growing up to Japanese rock, Japanese anime was something else teenage Changmin had consumed with absolute fervour. 

 

自由の翼– 進撃の巨人

希望の唄 - 食戟のソーマ

We Are! - One Piece

 

There are different factions calling for different songs, with a group of ladies in their twenties chanting their support for the theme song to 食戟のソーマ , better known as Food Wars! in South Korea. 

Changmin feels like he’s struck the lottery. 

Hyunmoo asks Changmin something, and he says absentmindedly, thinking of his misspent youth, “I mean, I’ve dressed up as all of them before...”

He blames his distraction on how a part of his brain is still thinking about his blunder with Yunho. It's been a creeping realisation, but Changmin must have done something wrong during that conversation, because Yunho hasn't made eye contact with him for days.

He only realises what he’s said, when the girls in the front row start shrieking their heads off, and Hyunmoo gets an unholy gleam in his eye. 

“I mean,” Changmin adds on hastily, “I get to choose now, right?” 

"No," Hyunmoo says gleefully. "Now the live audience gets to choose one song -just one!- for you. Everyone, please get ready to vote."

"I-" Changmin starts, but Hyunmoo's already got the audience voting via their individual handheld remotes.

Barely a minute later, the song choice the audience has picked for him blared out in giant letters on all of the screens with a cheesy drum roll and trumpets.

"The results are so close!" Hyunmoo is saying, over loud cheering. Changmin's staring at the screens again. "Just a margin of three votes! I would have thought everyone wanted to hear Changmin sing the song of his profession, but well!"

Changmin hasn't felt like laughing these few days, too off-balanced from the strange not-row he had with Yunho.

He looks back at the screens and feels like laughing now. So he does, because the last time he sang this song, it was half a year back, and the whole Choidot team was at the noraebang celebrating Hyunseok's birthday and Garam had twisted Changmin's arm into singing this particular anime anthem "for our beloved captain's birthday!" 

At that point in time Changmin perhaps maybe had a giant pink Chopper stuffed crooked over his head, squashing his ears and bestowed by a laughing Seonyeob, who was dressed disconcertingly as a very voluptuous Nami. 

They were, also perhaps maybe, extremely drunk by then.

He gives in and laughs, slapping a hand over his mouth because he knows his mouth is too wide and his teeth are all on rampant display and his face is likely a mess. 

Over at the monitors, Soyoung and Jaeni straighten, and start whispering frantically to each other. 

"What is it? What is it!" Hyunmoo wants to know. "What's the joke? Share with the class! Don't think I've forgotten your admission of cosplay!"

"Ah, sorry-" Changmin manages, trying valiantly to calm himself down. He semi-succeeds, snorting away from his mic, and bringing it back to his lips. "Sorry, sorry sorry. We Are! is very dear to my heart, because of my team at Choidot. So I'm glad everyone has chosen this song for me! I'll sing it for my team, then."

"Is it!" Hyunmoo says, to more cheering from the audience.

Hyejin and Jaeni have got their heads bent together behind the cameras, huddled with the three executive producers. "Are you very familiar with it?"

"Ah," Changmin says, "I won't say extremely familiar because I still need to practise? But I know the lyrics! That is a start."

"Excellent, excellent." In the wings, Youngmin is gesturing frantically at Hyunmoo, and does the universal motion for "slow down" whilst Jaeni hovers beside him. With the audience's caterwauling, it's a bit more chaotic on set than usual. 'Before you head off to prepare, do you think you can sing a little bit of the Song of Hope, for the folks who voted for it? Do you know it too?"

There's another groundswell of approving noises.

"Oh, yes- I mean, it's practically the anthem for otakus in my profession," Changmin hums, and sings the opening four lines to Kibou no Uta, to loud applause.

Then Youngmin gives Hyunmoo the "okay" sign, and Changmin's ushered off stage to prepare. He's given a waiting room by himself, different from prior weeks, and allowed to rehearse We Are! to his heart's content.

 

--

 

Two hours and then some fly past just like that, and an assistant producer he isn't quite familiar with -Jooyoung is needed elsewhere- and Jihwan are back to escort him to the set. 

He's one of the last to compete, this round.

Jihwan's coaxing him to sing a few lines to the camera while he's walking, but Changmin breaks off when he sees Wendy walking towards him. 

She's coming from the direction of the live set. Her eyes are huge and her face is pale. The staff are chaperoning Changmin on, quick nudges against his side, so he can't do much except stretch out a hand to her in hasty concern. 

Their hands touch. He squeezes her fingers. They're cold and clammy. "What's wrong? What is it? What's wrong?"

"Changmin fighting!" Wendy says, eyes too big and glittering. Tears, Changmin realises with a jolt. "Work hard- sing hard- sing your heart out- They've got real singers PKing us-" 

Changmin's been prodded, so he walks on. He has to let go of her hand. He lets go.

Trudging on a step, then another. He did suspect it might be real entertainers, people who have singing as their proper jobs. It will make for better TV this way.

But Wendy. Wendy!

He twists his body, looking back. The unfamiliar assistant producer's got a hand hovering at his back, to make sure he doesn't miss a step or stumble. "Wendy? What is it? Why are you-"

"I'm out," she says, and her face crumples.

Her assistant producer is next to her; guiding her to her exit interview, Changmin realises with another pulse of shock. Her cameraman has already walked ahead so he can turn and capture her walking to her end in this game, in a wide shot. "Fighting, Changmin! Do your best! Fighting!

The assistant producer is pulling on Changmin's elbow.

"Watch your step," he says, solicitous. 

Changmin turns back to face front, gaping at Jihwan, then him. He never makes demands. He speaks as politely as he can, to the staff. He listens to them as much as possible. 

"Did you know this? She can't be PKed out. She's so talented- she deserves to be in the final!" He demands shrilly now of the two of them.

He darts a look at Jihwan, who's got the camera up on his shoulder and focused on Changmin's face.

The new bloke isn't Jooyoung; witty warm reassuring Jooyoung, who knows when to guide and when to back off. He just looks at Changmin, face closed and bland smile affixed on his lips. 

"Watch your step," he advises again. "It's your turn now. You're seventh in line. We can't be late."

 

--

 

生まれ変わる 今ここで

仰いでいた 空越えていく

握り締めた掌のその中に希望があったんだ 

--希望の唄.